By the time I reach Toronto, I’m exhausted. The towers rise blindly into the grey sky, everywhere glass and steel and CBD and suits, but in my head I can still see the reflection of light off the lake—the glare that mesmerised me for the last hour of the train trip.
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There’s something pristine, something cold about those streets; from my vantage outside the station, the city swells dizzily before me, overwhelming. I spot a hotdog man, go over and ask for a Kransky: pickles, no slaw.
Fed, I feel better. I find the hotel; I shower; I look out at the traffic in the street below. Dusk is falling fast, blurring the lines of distant skyscrapers, pooling shadows across blind glass facades. Slowly, Toronto begins to melt into blackness, a rippling mass of ice-cold night.
I flick on the television, leafing through the room service menu as I scan the channels. There’s nothing on. I decide to see a movie.
Out in the street, though, I meet a guy.
‘Excuse me, do you have the time?’ he asks.
I’m surprised by the way he emerges from the dark, solidifying so suddenly, a wraith in the gloom (short hair, young-looking). After a moment, I check my watch.
He smiles. There is something unusual in the way he stands, I realise, hips forward, jaw set, skinny shoulders pushed back self-consciously. Suddenly, I feel uncomfortable under his gaze, and this seems to register with him, because he speaks.
‘You from …New Zealand?’
‘Wow. You’ve travelled a long way,’ he grins.
I shrug, try to smile.
‘Are you going uptown?’
‘Mind if I walk with you?’
He holds out his hand as we walk.
‘Will,’ he introduces himself.
His grasp is cold, bony but gentle.
‘How long have you been in town? Not long, eh?’
‘No. Just arrived.’
‘Where’d you come from?’
‘Didya like it there?’
‘It was ok,’ I smile.
He grins back eagerly.
The night grows. Streetlights glare in stern regiments along chill black footpaths. The city is deserted, even of cars.
‘So, what are your plans tonight?’ he asks.
‘I’m going to a movie.’
‘Yeah? Which one?’
I name the film.
‘Ah, it’s crap,’ he sighs. ‘Saw it yesterday…’ A pause, then: ‘Hey, you should come to this party with me, Troy. My friend’s leaving town, and we’re giving him a big send-off tonight. You should come.’
I barely know this guy, have been less than forthcoming in terms of conversation. What would make him want to take me to a party, I wonder.
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘Cause it’ll be fun.’
We’ve reached the street that the cinema is on. I stop on the corner, looking at him.
‘I don’t know…’ I try to think of something polite to say, endless clichés about Canadian Friendliness ringing in my ears.
‘No, really,’ he urges quietly, moving slightly closer. There’s still that warmish glimmer in his eye, but something else, too, something needy. My pulse quickens.
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘It’ll be great. You can meet some locals, have a few drinks…’
‘I’m kind of keen to see this film.’
He shakes his head, mechanically reinforcing the smile, tension building in his eyes.
‘It’s crap. I told you.’
‘But I want to see it.’
Suddenly, his hand is on my wrist. He’s centimetres from me, looking straight into my eyes.
‘Come to the party with me, Troy.’
The expression in his gaze is unmistakable: lusty, lascivious. I freeze. He moves even closer, his eyes on my mouth; I move away but his grip tightens.
‘You won’t regret it. I promise.’
Even before the word fully registers, I’m running. The Canadian guy is beside me, thundering along the pavement in the dark. The yelling behind us grows louder; I don’t dare glance back.
‘This way,’ he says, ducking down an alley. For a second, I can’t see the end and think, heart in mouth, that he’s lead us up a dead end. But there’s another turn, and another, up some stairs and along a wooden walkway. We emerge, finally, onto the street, but the close clamouring of boots and bodies forces us on.
We criss-cross the main streets, hide in alleys, back track. But they’re still with us; I can hear their yells over the roar of my breathing.
The Canadian guy is slowing.
‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Come on.’
He gets a second wind; we speed up, but just when I think we’re putting some distance behind us, he slows again. We round a corner and he stops momentarily, hands on knees, breathing hard.
‘Come on,’ I say, grabbing his arm.
He shakes his head, gulping, unable to speak. I can hear enraged voices; they’re gaining ground.
‘They’re coming,’ I urge him.
‘I— can’t… can’t—‘ He gasps laboriously, his lungs wheezing. ‘—run anymore.’
‘You have to.’
Suddenly, they see us across the street. A chill wash of adrenalin floods my veins. I grab the guy and we run, but he can’t keep up.
‘Split up,’ he cries after a couple more corners, after we’ve lost more ground, dropping instantly down a side-street. I put on speed, and even as I hear them yelling ‘Split up! Split up!’ I know they’re tiring.
I’m disoriented—I have no landmarks—but eventually, a few minutes after I realise the pursuit is over, I stop and try to get my bearings. Sirens scream and, as I lean against the shadowed wall of a building, trying to catch my breath, two police cars roar past in the direction from which I’ve come. An ambulance follows. I wait a few minutes in the dark, gasping, spitting, swallowing. Suddenly, I spot a taxi. I race into the empty road; flag it frantically; climb in. The heater is on in the car. The radio splutters the chorus of “Johnny Be Good” among waves of interference, spitting out notes like broken teeth.
‘Where to, chief?’ The driver asks. I give him the name of my hotel. He snorts, but starts the meter and drives me the three blocks.
The next day, the story is in the news. In the hotel dining room, I put down my knife and fork, my stomach turning, as I see the opening paragraph. But I can’t read any further; the words “brutally beaten” and “intensive care” have brought me out in a sweat. I close the paper, trying to stay calm, and leave the dining room without meeting anyone’s gaze.
Back in my room, I zip up my bags, then leave for the station. From there, I take the next train out of Toronto.
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