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"Bloody hell. Now what's happening?"
Gloria Trevisi listened to the sound of a loud, clanging bell from her cubicle in the women's washroom of the new Plattsford Arena. It was definitely not the usual bell that signaled the end of a hockey game, or even the finish of a period of play; that bell usually stopped after a few seconds. And certainly, it was not signaling the conclusion of the annual March Winds Silver Blade Peewee Hockey Tournament; that was hours away. Or was it? Judging by the sounds in the hallway, a crowd of fans, friends and hockey moms and dads were exiting en mass, and in a hurry. A fire?
She maneuvered awkwardly to open the door of the cubicle, and found to her dismay that it was jammed... against eight and a half months of pregnant belly. "Bloody hell! I'm stuck. Can you believe this?" she wailed to the occupant of the next stall.
The spacious wheelchair cubicle next to her narrow one afforded plenty of room for a soon-to-be mother to ease comfortably through the door and turn around; but she'd noted when she hurried in that, unfortunately, it was occupied. Hardly surprising, considering the small size of these stalls. Like a large, round peg forcing itself into a square hole, anyone with some bulk could get herself wedged... between... "Oh, shit!" She grunted loudly as she strained to dislodge the door. "Excuse me," she gasped, "do you think you could help me? I'm not kidding. I'm really stuck!"
No answer. Unwilling to place a call for help on her cell phone to the manager's office upstairs, she tapped against the cool metal partition. "Hello? Are you still there?"
Empty, after all? She could have sworn she had seen the toe of a boot under the door as she came in. In her condition, she couldn't even bend over and peak under the wall to check. And the bell was still ringing. She squirmed sideways, her tummy nearly squashing the large tissue dispenser that was taking up more than its share of space, until she was facing the toilet. Then she reached behind her and wrenched the door past the hem of her cape, and shuffled backward through the narrow opening... like the stuffing popping out of an olive, she thought in exasperation.
Once free, she checked to make certain her clothing was intact, then turned to the adjacent stall. "We'd better get out of here," she said loudly, hoping to be heard above the cacophony outside. "I think they're evacuating the building."
The only reply, besides the loud, persistent ringing of the alarm, was the clacking sound of skate-clad youngsters heading quickly past the washroom door, and shouts in the hallway as parents, coaches, managers and children hurried toward the exits.
Is this person sick? she wondered. Injured? Faint?
Gloria wasted no more time. She tried the stall door; locked from the inside. Planting her feet solidly on the floor to avoid overbalancing, she turned sideways and bumped it hard with her hip. The door burst open, banging against the metal sidewall, to reveal its occupant, in a bright blue jacket and brown slacks, slumped on the toilet.
"I'm so sorry. Can I..." she stepped through the opening, kicking aside the flimsy lock, and stopped in her tracks. This was not a hockey fan taken ill from overexertion; the woman was propped against the back of the toilet, head with short, brown curly hair, hanging back at a very awkward angle. A fall? A heart attack? Gloria entered the stall, avoiding the leg that stuck out stiffly in front, reached for a hand and felt the wrist. Not quite believing, she leaned over as far as her maxxed out middle would allow, and searched for some sign of breathing. Then she placed her fingers carefully on the side of the pale throat and felt for a carotid pulse; nothing. The eyes, half open, were completely glazed over. The woman was dead, and had been dead for some time.
A wave of stifling warmth from the baseboard radiator caught in Gloria's throat. "Oh, God!" she muttered. Fighting the creeping dizziness that comes after holding her breath for a few seconds too long, she backed out quickly, grabbed her handbag and camera, and flung open the washroom door. In the hallway, she leaned against the solid concrete wall and drew in a lungful of stuffy air as she gazed at the parade of excited children, wild-eyed parents and coaches vaulting for the main doors. No smoke, but... Behind them, a noise like a pistol-shot followed by a faint rumble spurred the crowd to shuffle faster. Near the main door, someone screamed. The bell continued, much louder in the open hallway. Feeling a strong wave of nausea, she turned her head and pressed her cheek to the cool block wall. After a few deep breaths, her heart began pumping once again.
"Emergency!" an authoritative female voice called above the noise. "Everybody out of the building! Walk quickly! Don't run!" Gloria looked up to see Doris Mackie, arena assistant manager, striding up the hall, riding herd on stragglers and checking snack bar, kitchen and washrooms for strays. "Gloria, do you need help?"
"There's a woman in there--"
"Well, tell her to hustle! We're clearing the building. Keep walking, people!" she bellowed down the hallway as part of the group stopped just outside the door to look back.
"She can't hustle... she's dead."
"What?" Doris stared at her. "Gloria, get out of here, please? Outside, and away from the building. I'll check on your friend." She pushed past Gloria and flung open the door.
Gloria was about to follow. "Doris, what's happening?"
"Out!" Doris repeated. The door swung shut.
As Gloria turned away and began walking heavily toward the main door, a huge rumble erupted behind her. Startled, she nearly overbalanced as she dodged a piece of plaster that landed at her feet. "Oh my God, what on earth..." The people standing outside the large glass doors gazed upward and stumbled backward. She stopped and turned as the fluorescent lights blinked out. "Doris, hurry!" she shouted over the noise. "The ceiling is collapsing!" At the far end of the hall, a large mural of a smiling figure skater suddenly disappeared in a dark cloud of dust. "Doris!"
Through the murk, she saw the washroom door flung open, and Doris bounded toward her. Gloria turned and scrambled through the main exit as fast as her awkward, oversized body could move. The eyes of the crowd outside were riveted behind her. She looked back to see Doris dodge a dangling light fixture as she dived toward the double door. Several people cried out as the ceiling behind went to pieces and a large joist sagged, then snapped. The beam was still holding as Doris sprinted, and she would have made it easily, with seconds to spare, if she hadn't stumbled over a broken ceiling tile. "Oh, no!" Gloria was well beyond the door by then, but as she heard Doris' yell she started back toward the entrance.
"Everybody, get back!" a familiar male voice roared. Police Sergeant Dave O'Toole pushed her firmly aside. "Stay!" he growled. As Doris struggled off the floor, the off-duty officer and one of the team coaches plunged into the billowing dust. Gloria stumbled against the curb, arms waving for balance.
"I've got you, Gloria; easy," a voice murmured from behind as she felt the pressure of a hand under her elbow. "Jeez, I didn't know you were still here."
She turned and looked into the scared, anxious face of Rob Dixon, reporter and sportswriter for the Plattsford Sun, still clutching her arm. "Thanks, Rob; I'm okay. Go and get us some photos... Hurry!" Thirty-three and very pregnant, Gloria Trevisi was still the newspaper's editor and still, for the moment, Rob's boss. She watched as he turned and ran across the parking lot, then hoisted her own camera and focused on the door.