The Young City - Excerpt

The Young City

(See also the synopsis)

Chapter One - Undercurrents

Peter McAllister kicked open the door and tottered down the basement steps, looking like a box with legs. “Box of books,” he puffed. “Again. Where do these go?”

Rosemary Watson dropped the roll of carpet and rubbed her hands against her jeans. Her halter-top was smudged with dirt. She peered around at the whitewashed brick and the concrete floor and pushed her glasses further up on her nose. “Theo, you’re paying how much to rent this place?”

Her brother, Theo, smiled ruefully. “Seven hundred dollars a month. Plus utilities.”

“For this dungeon?!”

Peter swayed. “Box. Books. Where do they go?”

“Location, location, location,” said Theo, “For seven hundred dollars I could get a wonderful place… an hour away. I don’t need anything fancy. With my doctoral work, I’ll probably just be here to sleep.”

“Books!” yelled Peter.

“Well, the outside is nice,” said Rosemary, “Gingerbread, pocket garden, nice old Victorian. I can’t believe we’re in downtown Toronto. But I’m sure the original builders didn’t intend to have you living in the basement.”

“Right, that’s it!” said Peter. “I’m dropping these!”

Theo and Rosemary grabbed the box from Peter’s hands. He sagged into a chair, fanning himself with a discarded scrap of cardboard. “Why does it always have to be a hot day when people move?”

“Poor Peter!” Rosemary stepped behind him and wrapped him in a hug. “And we’re only just starting out. Then it’s up to Waterloo to move me into my dorm, and then over to London to move you into your apartment.”

“Don’t remind me,” Peter huffed. He clasped and kissed her hands.

“Looking forward to university, you two?” asked Theo.

“Yeah!” said Peter. “Welcome to adulthood!”

Rosemary took a deep breath. “Welcome to rent.”

“Welcome to no curfew,” said Peter.

“Grocery bills.”

“Privacy!”

“Roommates.”

Peter chuckled. “Don’t be a killjoy.”

She slapped his hair. “I am not a killjoy!”

“A worry wart, then.” He caught her wrist and kissed it.

She giggled. “I’m practical!” She bent toward him and they shared a kiss.

Theo rolled his eyes. “You two are shameless.”

Rosemary pulled away briefly and gave her brother a sly grin. “Us? Shameless?”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” added Peter when he was able.

Theo sighed. “Here!” He thrust one box at Peter and another at Rosemary. “Take these into the bedroom and straighten up in there. I’ll make some lemonade.”

Peter and Rosemary dutifully carried their boxes into the back room. Other boxes were already stacked up in all corners, and bits of a futon were piled by one wall.

Peter set about rearranging some piles. Then he turned and walked straight into Rosemary, who put her arms around him and gave him a kiss that left him short of breath.

“Rosemary,” he whispered. He cleared his throat. “We’re in Theo’s apartment.”

“Yes,” she said, with a wild tinge to her smile. “His nice, quiet, private apartment.”

He coughed. “Yes,” he said. “Theo’s apartment. Which you called a dungeon.”

“It’s a private dungeon.”

“Rosemary, he’s in the next room.”

“We could send Theo out to pick up pizzas or something. Tell him we’ll put together some furniture and, when he’s gone, kiss and… stuff.”

Peter’s eyebrows went up. “Won’t Theo be suspicious if nothing gets put together?”

“We could put his futon together and… make use of it…”

He blanched and swallowed. “What’s gotten into you?”

She giggled and pressed close. “Just teasing Theo, a little,” she whispered. “Showing him his little sister isn’t so little anymore.”

Peter scowled. “Just teasing?”

“Not just, silly!”

Peter grinned. Their lips met.

At the door, Theo cleared his throat. He stood, frowning at them, holding a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses. Peter jumped back so fast, Rosemary staggered. She shot Peter a glare, then took the tray and poured out the lemonade. The three of them stood in the middle of Theo’s bedroom, drinking silently.

Finally, Theo set his drink aside. “Rosemary, could I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” she said as Peter took another swig of his lemonade.

“Are you and Peter having sex?” asked Theo.

Peter choked on his lemonade.

“Theo!” Rosemary stared at her brother in open-mouthed shock. “How dare you?”

“You have your hands on Peter right in front of me, and you ask how dare me?”

Gagging, coughing, Peter barely managed to set his glass down on top of a stack of boxes. He leaned against the wall, clutching his chest.

Rosemary spluttered. “It’s none of your business.”

“Rosemary, you’re my little sister,” said Theo. “I need to know you’re being careful.”

“I don’t need to tell you about my love life,” Rosemary snapped.

“So you have been having sex,” said Theo.

“I didn’t say that!” shouted Rosemary.

Peter took deep breaths of air. He doubled over and began coughing again.

“Look, it’s a simple question,” Theo began.

“It’s a huge question!” yelled Rosemary. “You’re not my Dad—”

“I’m your brother.”

“That’s not the same thing!”

“Look, you’ve been getting pretty serious”, said Theo. “I mean, you two have been serious for years, but there’s serious, and then there’s serious. Where did you two go after the prom?”

Rosemary reddened. “Nowhere— I mean, around.”

“Rosemary…”

“Look, Mom and Dad didn’t complain,” said Rosemary. “So, we were a couple of hours late. No big! I called them and told them, and they said we could stay out a bit later. If they had a problem with what we were doing, they would have told me.”

“Your parents think the world of you and trust you to make your own decisions,” said Theo. “But they’re in their fifties, and I’m twenty-four. I have a better memory of what kids your age get up to.”

“So, why were you two hours late back after your prom?” asked Rosemary.

“None of your business—”

“Aha!”

“Aha!” Theo shot back.

Rosemary reddened and clenched her fists.

Wheezing, thumping his chest, Peter got his breath back. “Theo,” he gasped. “Rosemary and I, we—”

“Don’t answer him,” snapped Rosemary. “It doesn’t matter if we do nor not. We’re mature enough to decide—”

“You’re not mature,” said Theo. “Not really, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, either. You’re both barely out of high school, and yet I hear you two talking about marriage.”

Peter goggled. Rosemary blanched. “You’ve been eavesdropping?”

“Look, just don’t rush into things,” said Theo, raising his hands. “Take it from somebody who knows. University is not high school, and undergraduate university is not like graduate studies. You think you know where you stand? Well your world is going to change. Be careful.”

Rosemary looked at him, hurt. “You don’t think we’d be careful?”

Theo sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just that… Just humour your older brother, okay? I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

Rosemary rolled her eyes. “Okay,” she said at last. “I promise. We’ll be careful.”

“That’s my Sage,” said Theo. He opened his arms.

She made a face at his use of her long abandoned nickname, but she came forward and hugged him.

“And you didn’t answer my question,” said Theo.

“And I’m not going to,” said Rosemary, her voice muffled by his chest.

Theo shrugged. “All right. Well, how about I go and get us a pizza—” He flashed them a smile and added, “—by calling and having it delivered. The phone’s set up, so I don’t have to leave you two alone for long.” He grinned at their reddened cheeks, and left the room.

When Theo was gone, Peter rounded on Rosemary. “Why didn’t you just tell him ‘no’? It would have been so much easier.”

She glared. “It’s not his business.”

Peter huffed and turned away. They went back to cleaning up the room in silence. Then, as Peter picked up a tossed-aside throw rug, something caught his attention and he knelt on the bare concrete. When Theo entered the room, Peter asked, “Theo, did you know you have a hole in your floor?”

Theo and Rosemary turned. The three of them crouched by an opening in the concrete the size of a quarter. Rosemary crouched, pulled a penny from her pocket and dropped it in the hole. It vanished without a sound. She tapped the floor. “It sounds hollow.”

Peter slid back to the wall. “Seven hundred dollars a month?”

Theo nodded. “Plus utilities.”

Rosemary peered into the hole. “Where do you think it goes?”

Theo stood and tapped the floor one foot from the hole, then three feet, then five. It rang hollow each time. He shrugged. “A cavern, maybe?”

Rosemary shot up. “Cavern?!”

“Sure, there are supposed to be a few in the area. Taddle Creek used to flow through here until the city turned it into a storm sewer. I heard the river ran through these caves. Maybe this is one of them?”

Rosemary slid away from the hole.

Theo chuckled. “Oh, don’t be a baby, Rosie. If it were really so unsafe, could I do this?” He began to jump around the hole in a violent dance.

Rosemary pressed her back to the wall. “Theo!”

Theo laughed. “Sorry, Rosie. Now, if we’re done teasing each other…”

In the kitchen, the phone ringed.

Theo turned. “That’s probably the pizza place. They said they’d call to confirm the address, because I’m a new customer. Wait here, you two.” He left, leaving the two pressed against opposite walls.

Rosemary and Peter watched him go. Then, gingerly, they stepped forward and approached the hole. Peter tapped the concrete again, marvelling at the hollow sound it made.

“You ever hear of this Taddle Creek?” asked Rosemary.

Peter shook his head. “I only lived in downtown Toronto until I was ten. Wasn’t exactly interested in urban archaeology.”

“I wonder what’s down there.” Rosemary gave the floor her own experimental tap.

Cracks fissured from the hole and passed beneath their feet.

Peter and Rosemary flashed each other looks of horror.

The floor gave way. They fell into darkness.

Rosemary hit stone hard. It winded her and kept her from catching herself before she rolled. There was another heart-stopping moment of freefall, and then she hit bottom with a splash.

She clawed for the surface, choking on gritty, brackish water. She burst into air alive with the roar of a rushing stream.

“Peter!” she screamed. “Pete—” She slipped beneath the surface.

Hands clutched at her and hauled her up.

“Rosemary!” Peter shouted in her ear. “Are you all right?”

“Where are we?” She kicked against the current, catching his legs twice.

“Water! Stream! Grab something!”

“I’m trying!” She glubbed water again.

Then her shoulder smacked something sharp. Her hands clawed brick. Soon they were clinging to a wall, heads barely above water, bracing each other against the rushing stream.

“What now?” shouted Rosemary.

“We’ve got to get out of this water!”

“It’s too dark!”

“Feel for a ledge! Anything! I’m slipping!”

Rosemary ran her hands over the wall. Above her head, she felt a shelf extending away, deep enough to lie on. She hauled herself up and rolled onto dry soil.

Turning on her stomach, she reached blindly for Peter, slapping him across the face before catching his wrist. He clutched her arm and, after a brief struggle, lay gasping beside her.

“Thank you,” he wheezed.

She clasped him close. “Where are we?” she shouted in his ear.

He coughed. “I don’t know. But this place stinks.”

Now that they were out of danger, she could register what her other senses told her. The water drowned out all sound. The air was cool, damp and foul. “Oh, God, I hope we didn’t fall into the sewer.”

Peter sniffed his sodden sleeve. “No. We smell pretty bad, but not that bad.”

“Storm sewer, then.” Rosemary let out a hollow laugh. “Lucky us.”

“How do we get out of here?” he gasped.

“Theo will help us.”

“The stream pulled us quite a way,” yelled Peter.

“We head back,” said Rosemary. “We follow this ledge upstream.”

They stood up, clutching each other, expecting to hit their heads on the ceiling. They found they could stand without stooping. There was no wall within arm’s reach.

The storm sewer was a presence of sound and wind on their left. Save for the sandy ground beneath their feet, or the brick lip of the sewer if they ventured too far, they might as well have been wandering in a void. After what seemed like hours, Rosemary brushed stone on her right. “No!” she moaned. “It’s closing in on us.”

“Rosemary, wait! I can see you!”

She looked at him, and realized that she could look at him. He was a silhouette against shadow. “The hole must be nearby! We must be getting light from Theo’s apartment!”

Peter shouted to the ceiling. “Theo! We’re down here!”

Rosemary joined in. “Theo! Help! Get us out!”

Their words rang back at them. All they heard was the roar of rushing water.

“Theo!” Rosemary screamed.

“Maybe he’s gone for help?” said Peter.

“Maybe…”

“Where else could he be?” he said. “If he wasn’t calling the fire department, he’d be sticking his head in the hole and shouting.”

“You’re right.” She took a deep breath. “We should wait. That’s sensible. Let’s sit down.” She slumped onto the sandy ground.

He knelt beside her. “You all right? You’re shivering.”

“So are you!”

“Not as bad as you. Here, let me hold you.”

“I’m okay.” But she leaned into his embrace.

They waited, breathing the damp, reeking air. Nobody called. Their clothes started to dry. Rosemary pulled away from Peter and stood up. She couldn’t pace, so she shifted on her feet, muttering, “Where is he? He should be back by now?” She kicked the sand. “Theo!”

Peter grabbed her. “Rosemary, don’t panic.”

She slapped his hands away. “Don’t you tell me not to panic! We’re stuck here! I hate places like this!”

He shook her by the shoulders. “Rosemary!”

She stared at him, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I’m feeling a little claustrophobic. We have to get out of here.”

“And go where?”

“Upstream. This water has to come from somewhere.”

“Shouldn’t we just—”

“Peter, do you really want to sit in the dark with Miss Claustrophobia for who knows how long?”

He took her hand. “Let’s go.”

Feeling along the sloping cavern wall beside them, they made their way upstream faster than before. Then, instead of touching sand, their feet met brick and open air. Rosemary stumbled, slipped from Peter’s grip, and fell with a splash.

“Rosemary!”

She picked herself up, rubbing her barked palms. “I’m okay,” she shouted, stopping Peter from jumping in after her. “Just a little winded, that’s all. And standing in this stupid sewer again.”

“Let me help you out!” He scrambled for the edge.

“Wait, something’s different.” She peered around in the gloom. “I’m standing in this water. It’s barely knee deep!” She stood in the centre of the stream and held out both arms. A step to her left and to her right allowed her to touch slimy bricks on either side. “It’s narrower. Round, too, like a pipe.”

“Where did all that extra water come from?”

“I’ll check.” Holding onto the side, she crept forward. The roar was as loud as ever but, as she listened, it seemed to intensify in front of her. Then the wall turned sharply away and the floor deepened. The current tugged her sideways.

“It’s a junction!” She struggled back. “The river branches! I’m standing in a smaller stream!”

“Can you come out, now?”

“No, come in with me!”

“Are you nuts?”

“Look, a smaller stream means we’re closer to the source, closer to an exit!” She glared at his silhouette. “We have to try! Take my hands.”

Catching her hands, he jumped in. “I hope you’re right.”

“So do I.”

Hand in hand, they sloshed upstream. The walls of the cavern converged above them. The pipe walls wrapped over them. Their splashes echoed. Peter reached for a ceiling and found it by standing on tiptoe.

“How’s the claustrophobia?” he asked.

“Chugging merrily along.”

They sloshed forward, stopping occasionally for Peter to reach up and check for manhole shafts and other ways out. Then, as they felt the pipe curving before them, Rosemary whirled around. “What was that?”

“What?”

“That splashing sound.”

“Probably water.”

She smacked his shoulder. “Quiet! There it is again.”

“Rosemary, don’t spook yourself.”

“I swear something’s following us!”

“Like what,” he snorted, “crocodiles?” Then he heard it to: a squeal, amplified by the pipe, then a sound like a stone thrown into a lake. “Okay… Maybe a rat, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about—”

There were more echoing squeals. Then came a sound like a river reversing its flow. They became aware of a phosphor glow. Had it always been there, or was it creeping up the tunnel after them? Waves lapped at their knees.

In the growing light, Peter and Rosemary glanced at each other, turned, and struggled upstream.

As they stumbled and splashed, they saw a new light grow ahead of them, warm and yellow. They rushed forward, rounded a turn, and were suddenly outside. Sunlight sent them staggering to the edge of the culvert, hands over their eyes. They leaned on the brick wall, the supernatural glow all but forgotten, taking deep gulps of the sweet air.

“I never knew Toronto air could smell this good,” wheezed Rosemary.

Peter climbed over the wall and helped her onto a muddy slope. They flopped onto their backs and stared at the sky.

They had emerged from a round brick culvert, tall as a door. Its metal gate lay on the opposite embankment. The ditch snaked away, built of newer bricks, and square. The sky above them was blue and grey, with black clouds rolling away. The air smelled of rain. “No wonder the water was so rough,” said Rosemary. “We had a summer thunderstorm.”

“Hmm?” He looked up. “Rosemary, after all that, how can you still have your glasses?”

“Sports strap.” She fingered a black elastic band stretching behind her ear and beneath her hair. “Perfect for my active lifestyle.” Then she looked down. “Oh, my! Look at us.”

They were grey with mud, their clothes matted and clinging, their hair a disaster. Both carried the distinctive odour of the sewer.

Peter chuckled. “Theo’s shower is going to get quite a workout.”

“Shower? This dirt needs at least an hour’s soak in the tub!”

“Oh, no!” said Peter. “You’re not hogging the tub while I stink up Theo’s apartment! I’ll wrestle you for it!”

Rosemary giggled. “Maybe we can share.”

“You sure like teasing your brother.”

“First time I’ve had ammunition.”

He laughed and squeezed her hand. “I love you, Rosemary.”

She squeezed back, and then they stared at each other, true relief sinking in. They embraced, and held on tight.

“I love you too,” said Rosemary. She kissed his matted hair, then wrinkled her nose at the smell. She patted his shoulder. “Let’s find out where we are.”

They got to their feet. Peter peered over the rim of the embankment. “It’s probably the university. Theo’s apartment was just south of it.”

“It’s awfully quiet.” Rosemary trudged up the slope.

Peter nodded to a stone building, all turrets and pointed windows, facing onto a large green. “It’s the University, all right. I think that’s King’s College.”

But Rosemary was looking back across the culvert. She’d turned pale. “Peter?”

“What’s wrong?”

She pointed. “The city’s gone.”

He whirled around. “What?!”

“The buildings have disappeared! It’s all gone! Peter, what happened to Toronto!”