by Alexander Zelenyj
They waited, fidgeting in their seats, feeling left out, deprived, as they watched the people gathered on the dirty concrete platform outside; hands clutching the steel railing separating them from the train, eying the tinted windows of the cars with expectant eyes, yearning to discern the silhouettes of their loved ones passing from one window to another as they hurried giddily for the train’s exit. They watched the train personnel disembark and convene on the waiting platform too, navy uniforms prim and fitted, looking noble and distinguished among the great clamour and oil and smoke of their trade. Only when all the other passengers were gone did they gather their meagre belongings – his travel-worn backpack and her small scuffed powder blue suitcase – from the narrow space between their seats and the seats before them, and shuffle down the quiet aisle.
A moment later they stood outside, squinting in the morning. Muted, sickly daylight shone from the steel carriages, the smell of metal heavy in the air. A pigeon fluttered into the milky sky from where it had been pecking on the cement, as if signalling their arrival into the city. He looked to his sister beside him, unloaded gracefully by the car, her old pea-coat and the floral-patterned dress underneath, looking regal beneath the stifling ugly daylight; her dark hair tied back and accentuating her smooth round cheeks, her dark eyes overseen by her thick dark eyebrows that imbued her with what adults often remarked was a distinctly French appearance – Like a Parisian princess exiting her royal carriage to grace her subjects with a visit, an elderly gentleman had marvelled, several cities and several weeks behind them. Like a treasure known most closely by him and him alone, secretly different in the most epic of ways from everyone else convened among the cars, except for himself.
He saw her sad eyes taking in this new place. He took her hand in his, squeezing her tightly while strangers milled around them, oblivious to their rareness in the city, in the world.
As often happened they noticed several pairs of eyes watching them quizzically: an elderly woman there, waiting patiently for family members or friends to materialize from the crowd; and a young man in his mid-thirties there, cap pulled low, hands stuffed in coat pockets against the nip in the air; and nearby a middle-aged mother holding her toddler’s mittened hand while clutching the wool scarf to her neck; each wondering where the parents of the two children might be: two lone children disembarking from a train with no parent or guardian waiting for them was an anomalous sight, after all.
It was the old woman who spoke to them, a smile creasing her face of a million wrinkles into a mask like rubber as she sidled to them. “Why, are you two angels waiting for your momma or poppa?”
They smiled for her. It worked: the worry in the woman’s eyes relaxed. “Good, good. Just checking, little ones. Just checking.” Seemingly content, she smiled warmly again and shuffled closer to the gate to meet her loved ones struggling with their overstuffed luggage further down the platform, raising a bone-white skeletal hand in greeting.
They watched her go. Then, together, arm in arm, they crossed the gated threshold separating platform from track and walked along its winding course curving into the city waiting for them in the smoggy distance, bringing there all the goodness they made between them.
The newspaper fluttered violently in his dirty hands, its papers becoming more and more wrecked by the wild wind. Still, they managed to read together:
WAVE OF PROVINCIAL MYSTERY AND TRAGEDY CONTINUES
The year behind us has been rife with notable news stories, and none more dark and inexplicable than the unprecedented wave of terrorism that has risen throughout Ontario. This groundswell has now reached Windsor, as seen in the explosion that erupted in the city’s downtown core during the early hours of December 21, in which several local businesses were demolished. The most prominent loss in the blast was the Canada Bank – the entire building was levelled, strongly suggesting the origin of the blast to have been within the bank itself or directly upon its grounds. No one was injured during the explosion.
More recently, a fire erupted in the wee hours of the 23rd of December. The fire destroyed a high rise building that housed two businesses, Shuyler Industries, a distribution company for machine parts, and Compuware, a major computer software company with divisions throughout North America and Europe. The fire resulted in one fatality: a custodian was found among the building’s ruins. Authorities speculate that the man may have fallen asleep during his work shift and was unable to escape in time.
Police are investigating the tragic incidents, and feel confident that a connection will be found among them, and to the greater upsurge of terrorist violence throughout the province.
The photograph accompanying the article showed the remnants of the bank building, its roof sunken and ablaze against a smoke-blackened sky.
He let the paper fall from his fingers. They watched it drift downwards, then get plucked by the wind and lifted up and away from them towards the opposite side of the street.
The snow was falling in a long and wide sheet across the sky. It had whitened the black streets of earlier that afternoon far below where they sat upon the concrete lip of the parking garage’s roof. It was Christmas Eve, and the sidewalks were nearly empty, but for a prostitute owning an intersection in the east, restlessly walking a tight circle on the corner; and a street vendor stationed at his lonely stall directly beneath them, looking listless with no late night customers about to purchase the sausages or hot dogs or other questionable street meat cooking on his grill while he stood huddled inside of his oversized parka.
In the distance, a great inferno blazed: long billowing flames and smoke consumed a high-rise office building. The quiet of distance, with the wind-muted commotion of fire trucks’ and police vehicles’ convened in the street surrounding the building, and the river shining icy and cold-looking beyond, gave the scene a detached unreality. On the opposite side of the river, hazy and ethereal in the torrential snowfall, Detroit watched sympathetically as the apocalypse consumed its Canadian neighbour.
“It’s supposed to be nice at Christmas. This is awful. We’re like slaves.” Her voice was nearly lost in the buffeting wind, but he heard. He cringed at the dark edge in the word: slave. He’d taught her the word their last time together while they’d watched another immense fire devour a building much like the one towering in the distance, and she’d been using it regularly ever since (that had been in London: the computer manufacturing plant had shaken the surrounding streets as it roared with repeated explosions, while they’d watched from among the safety of an adjacent wooded lot). His sister copied him in many ways, and he could tell she felt tough using the word now. Still, though, he felt relief in their being able to talk freely: when they were alone they didn’t have to act the way they saw other children behave.
“We’re together, right now,” he said, trying to sound strong. “That’s a good enough Christmas to me, for now. For now. It won’t always be like this.” He was riveted by the great fire too, unable to look away like he could never, mesmerized by the unreal sight of the huge chunks of brick and mortar falling away like breadcrumbs as the building burned and shuddered violently. He murmured, “Soon, we’ll be done here, and we’ll go on to the next place.” But he heard it in his own voice, and knew she did too: the great uncertainty and sadness that had been growing in both of them over the months and months.
She said, “I hate...It’s so hard. The work they make us do...I don’t know if I can stand the... the fires. It’s so...awful. If only we could run away together. But mom and dad...they’re always watching.”
“I know. I know. But it’s not going to last forever. There’s an end to all this bad stuff.” He turned to her, drawing her eyes, and then he repeated, “There’s an end to this stuff. And then...then we’re going to get away. And be together in a nice place, forever.”
They looked again to the towering conflagration in the distance. A faint hissing came to their ears, as if an immense serpent lived within the flames. And then, languidly, as if in slow motion, the building collapsed in upon itself. The roar was colossal: dragon-huge and echoing into the furthest corners of the city, sound-waves rippling through the streets for miles and across the river into the neighbouring city beyond. They felt its tremor in the concrete upon which they were precariously perched. It swayed the buildings around them, shook cars like toys in their parking slots. Even the stars seemed to quiver above them, the moon to reel and drop a little lower, like a giant pale balloon bullied by the violence of cosmic winds. Below them, the meat-man and prostitute scurried away down the sidewalk.
“What did they do?” she asked, staring with wide eyes at the rubble and flames, voice nearly lost in the great noise. “Do we even know what they did? I don’t know.”
He said, “Something...bad? Something bad.”
They were thinking of the brave men and women who had surrounded the building, the firefighters seeking to douse its flaming heart while searching for those possibly trapped within, entombed now beneath a billion tons of rubble. They thought this as the great smoke cloud rolled outwards from the site of the blast, filling the streets and alleys, blackening the whiteness of the snow.
The city roared, and roared.
After a time, it only murmured fitfully. And then a stunned and gigantic stillness fell over the scene, amid the gargantuan cloud like a pall of death over everything.
Into this unsettling quiet, he said to his sister shuddering at his side, “Imagine: the deepest forest ever. A green place far away. It could be one of the places we heard about, like Alberta, or it could be B.C., it could be the Northwest Territories, it could be another planet, but it’s the greenest and deepest place of all. Imagine that deep deep forest, like one of your dreams you always dream. Imagine: there’s a meadow in that forest. The only light is the sun in the daytime and the moon and the stars at night. And there’s a cabin in the meadow, made of logs. And imagine us living there in the middle of it all, like two people in a fairy tale that’s secretly for real. Like a dream come to life!” He faltered, emotions seizing him. But he’d said enough, he saw.
She was nodding fervently, tears freezing down her cheeks in the cold. She said, “One day. One day. One day we’ll have a real home like that.”
“We already have that. I have you, and you have me. But we’re going to find our green place some day too. Promise. Okay?”
She leaned into his embrace. They held each other tightly. The wind quieted, and the deceptive stillness fallen over the snowy smoking city spread far below them like a virgin filthy map continued, as if there were nothing wrong with the world at large.
A few minutes later they climbed down from the edge of the garage. They made a trail across the pristine snow-blanketed rooftop and entered the small vestibule at the top of the staircase. There, in the sterile sodium light of the flickering overheads and with the potent smell of urine making the space that much more claustrophobic, they huddled close, and shut down their weary and distraught thoughts, and slept fitfully.
Into their blessed green dreams filtered an intrusive electric buzzing, followed by a communication. Their mother’s and father’s voice, speaking in perfectly synchronized harmony:
You’ve done a very good job once again. We’re very proud of you. Sleep well, darlings.
They awoke to the noise of a new and altogether different electric voice, and an accompanying blinding light shining into their eyes: they recoiled, shrinking from the police officer standing over them, flashlight beam covering them, shoulder chattering where his walkie-talkie was affixed to his jacket. The expression he wore was stunned, as if he’d seen nothing more bizarre in his career than a pair of street urchins making their nest in a dirty nook of the parking garage.
“Hey there, hold on,” said the officer, raising a hand on the air to halt and calm the startled children as they scrambled to their feet. “We need to get you two out of the cold, okay?” And he turned to the walkie-talkie at his shoulder and began communicating word of his discovery.
The children, backs pressed against the concrete wall, watched him, wide-eyed. Then, the boy turned to his sister and said, “Don’t look,” and raised his hands on the air. She turned quickly away, burying her face in her mittened hands. Though she kept her eyes closed tightly the violent light flashed bright enough that she saw it besides, and the accompanying electrical sizzling echoed loudly in the concrete stairwell. A thick smell of burned meat wafted on the air in the seconds afterward too.
She clung to her brother. Into his ear she whispered, “Every time we leave a place, I listen to the train’s voice, and it always tells me that this time we’re leaving bad things for good. And I feel a little better every time. I want to hear the train-voice so bad right now.”
“Me too,” he said, holding her tightly a moment before gently urging her to follow him down the stairs and out of the atmosphere of charred meat and cement. They wound their way down what felt like an eternity of echoing concrete stairwells to the sidewalk; once there they peered cautiously in all directions before scurrying across the street into the labyrinth of alleys running among the high-rises and smaller businesses.
They climbed onto the second level of a rusted fire escape, creaking its aging skeleton and drawing up its rattling ladder after themselves. There, they settled down and huddled together once more. He saw her shuddering, saw the crystals of her frozen tears shining on her cheeks.
He whispered, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Remember: the green place. The green place. The green place. The green place.” He spoke it like a prayer.
She said, “That man...He wasn’t bad...He wasn’t part of the bad things mom and dad make us stop...” And looking into his eyes, she dared, “None of the things we do are good things, are they?”
His eyes remained brave for her, and without tears. He said: “The green place.”
She nodded, looking frightened but determined, distressed but angry, tears in her eyes still.
They held each other while the wind lashed them. It was some time before they slept: their thoughts were buzzing like electricity.
Through the humming agitated darkness of their sleep came the dual voice of their mother-father:
It is almost time for you to move on, darlings. Tomorrow morning you have one more task to complete, and then you will move on to the next place. Sleep well, darlings...
But beneath this urgent, unsettling communication, a different voice, the new voice that had been growing stronger inside them, louder and more insistent in recent days, drifting up from some deep, deep space inside them both; and it quieted their electric thoughts, and made good their electric dreams as it whispered to them:
The green place.
The green place.
The green place...
DARKER HAPPENINGS SULLY HOLIDAYS, EPIDEMIC OF TERRORISM REACHES CRISIS PROPORTIONS
Yet another pair of unexplained explosions erupted in the early morning hours of December 25. The site of the first blast was Tech-Kom Ltd., another computer software company based in the downtown core. The entire high-rise building collapsed as a result of the blast, killing a reported thirty firefighters working at the scene. A smaller blaze, reported earlier that night, destroyed a building in the central part of Wyandotte Street which housed two businesses – Thai Noodle and Blue Maria Massage. The most shocking aspect of this latter incident is the discovery that a third business space located within the same building complex, long vacant, had been the site of an active youth prostitution ring. Investigations into the arson unearthed remnants of detailed records listing clients’ names and services rendered, with corresponding dates and fees paid. The identities of the individuals implicated have not been made public.
A possibly related incident took place in the early hours of the same morning. Police officer William Brookes was found dead in the city’s downtown Palace Parking garage. The officer was the victim of what appears to be a fire-related fatality, having suffered third degree burns across his entire body. The area of the garage in which the body was found was likewise scorched, although the specific cause of the fire remains undetermined at this time.
He stuffed the newspaper into the stinking mouth of a trash receptacle, and they hurried on their way, stepping out from beneath the shadow of the great Ambassador Bridge arcing over their heads like a petrified skeleton of some gargantuan prehistoric creature.
They wound eastwards through the secret arteries of the city, its little-frequented alleys and backstreets away from roving police squad cars, its car-less wee A.M. lots and wild fields fringing the monolithic citadels of corporate industry, the downtown automotive centre, the ruins of the main bank building, the casino with its pompous and deceptive spotlights roving across the bellies of the clouds as if proclaiming the significance and grandeur of a place of welcome, acceptance, haven.
They drifted like apparitions through one such garbage-teeming alley abutting a long row of bars that faced onto the downtown’s central drag. The stink of refuse was potent. Rats scratched and scrabbled invisibly among the black plastic bags heaped alongside the overflowing plastic trash receptacles lined up like filthy sentries all along the wall. A homeless man or woman, swathed in ragged tattered clothing, face hidden beneath an immense ratty toque pulled low over their eyes, shifted in their nest of filth. The crisscrossing bundles of electrical wires overhead were weighted down with thick ice stalactites, and an uneasy buzzing sounded from them, as if communicating their strain and imminent collapse.
Then, unexpected vivid colour drew their eyes: the spray-painted message, in immense, vivid red characters on the rough brick face of the building, brightening the alley’s thick darkness and stench of squalor:
There are angels
We see them in the fiery streets
Something in the words – their certainty; their sound of appeal, as if they sought to convince rare passers-by of their truth; and something in them a little like gratitude – gave them reason to stay a while in that murky alley space, bewitched, and admire the unexpected beauty of the anonymous message, to revel in the fleeting but magnificent emotions it conveyed, difficult to articulate but felt in some deep place inside them: empathy; validation; thanks.
Her voice haunted the quiet alley. “But it hurts – even if what we do is good. It hurts so much.”
He took her hand, and they continued on their way, leaving the alley its stink- and shadow-plagued peace.
They’d found their seats and settled themselves. The car was nearly empty, only a few heads showing in the rows ahead of them. They watched the sleepy A.M. world outside the window, the few people waiting to wave their goodbyes to those on the train, the reliable pigeons wandering the waiting platform in the murky dawning light, a pretty female rail station employee speaking with one of the train personnel.
He pulled a local tourism magazine from the mesh holder on the back of the seat before him. He flipped through it distractedly, wishing they’d had the chance to see some of the sights depicted in the photographs he saw: a sculpture garden, an art gallery, a large ornate fountain shown at night, its underside lit up with colourful lights. He came to a page showing a picture of the Ambassador Bridge curving high into a bright blue afternoon sky, and shuddered; for he saw only the severed smoking ruin of that bridge, and the car-drowning river beneath: another good deed completed.
“There you are,” she sighed, closing her eyes as the train’s engine awoke, sending its thrumming growl through the car, rumbling in their seats. “I love that voice. We’re leaving this place. We’re going to a new place.”
He turned and watched his sister, glad she was relishing the moment; aching because he knew it couldn’t last forever the way she wished it would.
They were running.
He was leading, holding her hand and guiding their path through the tangled woods. It was difficult to navigate the maze of Black oaks at night, for the zig-zagged mesh of branches over their heads blotted out the feeble moonlight trying to pierce the cloudy sky. The woods were silent but for their quick footsteps crunching through the thick sheet of snow blanketing the earth.
They ran and ran, and didn’t stop even to admire the silent red fox held motionless by their flight through its home, eyeing them curiously, warily, as if trying to decide whether they were friend or foe, harmless or a threat.
They didn’t turn at the colossal explosion erupting behind them.
They didn’t stop and watch the molten glow of fire licking through the labyrinth of trees.
As they ran through the shattered quiet they couldn’t help but remember the people they’d seen as they’d crept away from the factory only minutes earlier; the many employees stationed at their various duties along the conveyor line, identically clad in navy overalls and orange boots, oblivious to the small furtive figures creeping through their place of work; oblivious of the supposed true nature of their work; oblivious of the great fire waiting for them all.
Well done, darlings. We’re very proud of you, brave darlings. You’ve done a great thing. The sun shines brighter today than yesterday for the good you’ve done. In the morning, you leave for a new place...
The rail personnel stood diligently at their stations, each to a boxcar’s mouth, looking regal, staring expectantly down the line towards the stragglers hurrying along the platform, laden with suitcases and bags and pulling cumbersome luggage racks behind them. The morning sun was bright, though the west glowered with forbidding grey: storm clouds looking as if they would soon bear down on the city and decimate it beneath a mighty cleansing deluge.
They loitered on the platform, a ways beyond the rearmost car, leaning against the rusted, peeling railing.
“We’re going to Montreal. I hear it’s real pretty there. That’s what they said. Maybe we’ll have time to see some of the pretty things there.”
He watched his sister with strained eyes, hearing the frail hopefulness in her voice. It made him sad. All he said was, “We were made to be together.” It felt right to tell her this then, in the blood-red morning before they left the ruins of this city for a new and beautiful city far away.
“These engines will never go to sleep,” he said, placing his hand over her heart and pressing her hand over his.
From inside them, a heartbeat like mechanical clockwork, steam-whistling and strident.
Their shared moment gave her the courage to speak her troubled mind. “Is what we do...good? It’s supposed to be, but is there really anything good about it? Because it hurts. It hurts more every time...” She drifted off, wounded and small.
Images of fire and death came to them then, buildings and bridges and people burning into dust: they’d sacrificed so much for their mother and father. This was okay, they’d been told time and time again; this was right; this was as it should be; these deeds were good and brave deeds.
He said, “We’re going to have peace and quiet. They promised us. We’ll have it one day, once all the bad things are finished.”
She nodded, but her lips trembled at the inherent pain in what he said, in the unspoken knowledge that maybe the things they had to do would never end. He saw her great confusion and dismay, and did what he could.
She watched as he unzipped his parka, and unbuttoned his shirt beneath, and opened his chest and removed his heart: it whirred and hummed and glowed, and little whistles of steam came off it beneath the amber glow of the waiting platform’s lights. Turning close to him, so that no one else might see, she did the same. As was their ritual of solace when times became too dark and too difficult and too frightening, they quickly placed their hearts into each other’s chests, eased closed the doors of skin and bone and plastic and rubber and metal. Their blood drops speckled the snow on the platform about their feet, bright as jewels in the whiteness. If the gargantuan machine humming on its track alongside them was the conduit that always took them to new places, then the machineries beating inside them would keep them united, no matter the fire and smoke and death they left in their wake.
A soft bell sounded, followed immediately by a stern voice declaring over the loudspeaker, “Attention: Last call for passengers now boarding train 2437, with stops in Chatham, Aldershot, Peterborough, Blenheim, London, Toronto, and Montreal.”
They became enveloped by the voice of the awakening train waiting before them, and suddenly, for the first time, they both heard it: that voice was the most heart-breaking and melancholy and hopeless voice in the whole city.
She began to drift towards the train door, at the behest of the loudspeaker voice. His hand on her shoulder stayed her footsteps. They looked at one another. His whisper was soft but immense: “Or maybe one day we forget about the danger, and maybe we forget about the good in what they make us do, because maybe they’re not like a real mom and dad anyways. And maybe we run, maybe we run like never before, and we find the Green Place. That’s the place we’re supposed to be, right?”
The place we’re supposed to be.
Her voice was tiny but brimming with excitement. “But we’ll...won’t we... Won’t they...Won’t they hurt us if we try to get away?”
He only continued to stare into her eyes.
Something was then fully awakened in her: through the noise of an alarum sounding, beyond a clarion like a warning, an electric voice like the voice of a god feuding with the cold voice of reason no longer as reasonable as it had once been. The new voice speaking louder than the old. Its shout swallowing the wicked whimper of the old.
She looked at her brother. The love and courage in his gaze matched her own. They trembled in each other’s arms, though the wind had quieted. In their chests, their hearts pounded mightily.
WHEN WILL IT END?
An inexplicable incident at the city train station occurred on the morning of January 2. All power throughout the station – and all communications with that morning’s first outbound train – was temporarily lost upon the departure of that train, following a small explosion that destroyed the building’s generator. The train itself – number 2437, en route to final destination, Montreal – likewise fell victim to a similar inexplicable power outage, which caused it to stop several miles outside of the limits of Toronto, in the middle of rural county farmland. Several hours of confusion resulted both at the station as well as on the train, during which two passengers seemingly disappeared from the latter, or else never boarded the train at its point of departure, as verified by the absence of their numbered tickets from the train’s passenger manifest. The identities and whereabouts of the two passengers remains unknown.
Power was returned to the station and train after approximately five hours, and though investigations into the cause of the anomalous disturbance were immediately initiated no clear cause has yet been determined.
No one was injured during the inexplicable incident.