An excerpt from "Daredevils"
As the team travelled to Horseshoe Falls, Lizzie’s thoughts drifted to her first time there, with her classmates last June. The kids had explored long winding tunnels, which led to lookouts over the river and to a platform near the brink of the falls. Before going underground, they’d put on shiny yellow slickers and black boots, with hopes of protecting themselves from the spray, but they’d got soaked anyway. Lizzie remembered looking through an opening in the rock face, awe-struck: The falls pounded the river, creating a billowy mist that rose over rocks and water and almost hid the tour boat, The Maid of the Mist, as it chugged along the river.
Night had fallen and clusters of twinkling lights illuminated an icy wonderland. Winter had frozen the trees into various poses. The river was partially frozen. Huge chunks of ice moved slowly along with the force of the falls.
“Wow!” Alex jumped off the bus and ran through throngs of tourists towards the Niagara Gorge. Lizzie and her mother followed close behind him and joined him at the railing.
Lights lit up walls of ice and jagged rock in the deep and wide gorge. As water churned the river, a mist rose, like clouds.
Gazing at the powerful falls, Lizzie’s mother sighed softly. “It never ceases to take my breath away. And I’ve been here at least a dozen times.”
Lizzie clutched the metal railing and gaped downward to the bottom of the gorge – and her stomach dropped.
Along the railing, the Tigers, wearing bright orange hockey jackets, were hard to miss. Sean pitched something over the edge and the boys leaned over the railing to watch it fall. Legs wobbling, Lizzie stepped back.
The horizontal bars of the railing were anchored in a cement base. Alex grabbed hold of the top bar and swung his body up, then sat on the base, dangling his legs into the gorge. Mesmerized by the rising mist, he seemed lost in his own world.
“Alex, get down.” Just watching him, Lizzie felt queasy. “You’re gonna fall.”
“No, I’m okay,” Alex said, gripping the railing tightly. “Don’t worry.”
Nearby, Trevor, Willy and Sean were fooling around. Sean was standing on the cement base, with the top bar of the railing barely reaching his thighs. With his arms outstretched for balance, he took a few steps and then jumped down and landed on the sidewalk.
“Who’s next?” He eyeballed Willy. “How about you?”
Backing away from the railing, Willy shook his head. “No way. Think I’m nuts?” “Where’s the next daredevil?” Trevor looked around and spied Alex. “Got any guts?” Lizzie looked for help. Her mother was deep in conversation with Coach Powers and his wife, too far along the sidewalk to be of much help, so Lizzie took matters into her own hands. Moving closer to Alex, she pleaded, “Ignore him. He’ll go away, you’ll see.”
Alex squinted at her briefly and turned back to the gorge. “It won’t make any difference. You know Trevor.”
“Don’t be crazy!” Lizzie swallowed hard, her heart thumping so loudly she was certain all the kids along the railing could hear it. The cement was icy and too narrow to walk on safely. “Don’t do it.” She tugged the sleeve of his jacket. “You’ll fall.”
With his eyes fixed on the churning water below, Alex was silent. Trevor began to chant:
Show us that you
Have no care.
Alex pulled himself up on the cement base. Grasping the top bar to steady himself, he turned sideways, and then he let go, with the railing not quite as high as his waist. Like Blondin perching on a high wire, Alex spread his arms for balance and took a few tentative steps. Lizzie forced herself to breathe, telling herself that Alex was a sure-footed cat, picking its way across a high, narrow ledge.
But Alex lost his balance. It happened so fast. Slipping on a patch of ice, he swung his arms frantically through sky and mist, in hopes of grabbing the railing, but it was too low – and so there was nothing to break his fall.
Lizzie gasped, her mouth frozen open in terror as Alex toppled over the railing headfirst, his bright orange hockey jacket a neon ball plunging through the sky. The ball smashed into jagged rock and continued its descent, then was swallowed by the mist. Breaking the eerie silence, Lizzie let out a bone-chilling cry.
When her mother, the coach and his wife, along with what seemed like a hundred other people rushed to her side, Lizzie couldn’t speak. She hung on the railing so desperately that her knuckles turned white, and she peered into the gorge, her head spinning and her stomach threatening to bring up her dinner. Pointing down to where her friend had disappeared in the darkness, she shrieked, “Alex!”
Her chest tight, she couldn’t breathe. Tears spilled down her cheeks. It seemed like everyone was crying. Coach Powers began barking orders for someone to call rescue workers and for his team to back away from the railing and stay together.
It seemed like hours before Lizzie heard the wail of sirens and watched as a frenzy of police cars and other emergency vehicles screeched to a halt in front of her, but it was only minutes. She told her story to the many rescue workers, how Alex had fallen, where he had fallen and what she’d seen from beginning to end, and after she’d finished, limp and still crying, her mother attempted to steer her away from the crowds. But Lizzie refused to budge. Pulling herself together, she wiped her tears, determined to help.
At the railing, a police officer surveyed the gorge and then walked over to a firefighter nearby. “It’s next to impossible. The gorge is too wide, too deep. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
The firefighter sighed heavily. “And the darkness doesn’t help.”
“There’s too much mist,” said the police officer, leaning closer to the firefighter.
“Let’s face it. Even if we do spot the boy, he probably didn’t make it. In that case, is it worth risking our men to retrieve the body? We’d probably have more deaths on our hands.”
Lizzie couldn’t believe her ears. The men were giving up on Alex, and he was still alive! He had to be. Moving closer to the men, she strained to hear more.
The police officer was deep in thought, his hands on his hips and his head down, silent for a long time. Finally, turning to the firefighter, he said, “I have a young boy, and I’d want everything possible done if he were my son in that gorge. Maybe the boy’s alive. Chances are slim, I know, but we have to try.”
“We’ll work our way up from the bottom,” said the firefighter. “There are tunnels and . . . We may spot him from an opening . . . We can lower a stretcher from the top and bring him up. If we can spot him, and that’s a big if.”
Lizzie had explored the tunnels on her last school trip. They led to lookouts in the rock face and to a platform jutting into the gorge. She could help. She knew the spot where Alex had fallen, and it wasn’t far from the falls. Knowing that her mother would never let her join a dangerous rescue, Lizzie kept her plans secret. While Laura was talking to Coach Powers, Lizzie slipped quietly away.
The main entrance to the tunnels was blocked by a wooden barrier, closing it to visitors at this time of the year. The gap underneath was just large enough for Lizzie to crawl under and start her descent. Terrified of the unknown in the cold, dark passage, she forced herself to move onward, knowing she had to reach Alex as soon as possible. The faster she got to him, the faster he’d be rescued and the faster he’d get the medical help he needed.
All she could think about was helping Alex. A true friend, he’d helped her many times before.
Sliding her hands along the icy rock wall, she crept along the tunnel blindly, the blackness as thick as fog. There was little air in the tunnel, and Lizzie couldn’t tell how long or wide it was. She picked her feet over ice and rock until the ground suddenly disappeared. Tumbling down an incline, she bashed her legs, arms and back, and then at a bend in the tunnel, her fall was broken by a barrier of jagged rock. The sound from her fall was deafening as it echoed off the walls of the tunnel. Her arm hurt and she rubbed it gently. Her back ached. Since she seemed to be able to move everything, she assumed that nothing was broken.
She limped forward along the tunnel, drawn towards a light that was sweeping in front of an opening in the rock face; searchlights were illuminating rocks and mist and ice. Lizzie crawled up in the opening and then beyond, deeper into the gorge, until she found a ledge to sit on. Her legs dangling in midair, her hair and clothing soaked from spray, she held on to the rock ledge for dear life while she searched the black hole for her friend.
The swirling mist hypnotized her. Along the side where Alex had fallen, the mist seemed to take on a life of its own, puffy and white and shaped, curiously, like angel wings. The angel on the shelf at home sprang to mind, its white lace tattered, its halo askew from much handling; it seemed to watch over Lizzie and Laura all year long. Thoughts of the angel brought comfort to Lizzie now, helping her feel somewhat safe despite the danger all around.
She heard a sound, a soft moan. Was it the wind?
“Alex!” Lizzie shouted into the blackness and mist. “Where are you?”
There was no sound but that of the pounding falls.
The angel wings lifted just as the searchlight swept the gorge - and Lizzie saw a spot of orange on a ledge in the rock face. Was it a Tigers jacket?
Mist moved in again and the spot of orange disappeared. Lizzie was certain that she could see the ledge where Alex had fallen, but she knew she couldn’t reach it safely. It was too dark, and the rock face was too slippery.
“He’s here, he’s here,” she cried out, hoping beyond reason to be heard. She didn’t expect an answer. She wondered where the rescue workers were, if they’d gone another way in the tunnels, if they were still on their way. The roaring falls deadened any sounds of life. As the searchlights continued to move across the area, an idea took shape in Lizzie’s mind. Clinging to the rock face, she carefully climbed down to another ledge; then she unzipped her Tigers jacket and took it off. Bright orange, it would catch the light that was sweeping the gorge and draw attention like a beacon. As the light fell in her direction, she waved the jacket over her head. But she wasn’t sure that it could be seen. She must throw it high and farther into the gorge; she must get it as close as possible to the ledge that held Alex - just as the light was descending. With her heart pounding, she waited for the light. Bending forward, just short of the swirling mist below, she whipped her jacket in the air and . . . .