There were a thousand fireflies all around us, but I wasn't looking for the fireflies.
Standing in the park, at the edge of Upper Lake, the grass was dewy under my Reeboks. I watched fish skim across under the water, their fins sweeping up lines of water as they leapt up and snatched flies out of the air. The lights of the city, too, were reflected in the lake, dull gold closest to the ground and further up, the purest of blues—like the sky we used to see.
My old father sat on the park bench to my side as I threw stones into the water. A woolen blanket covered his lap and his hands rested on his black cane as his watery eyes stared at the light pollution. He hadn't said a word all night, so when he finally spoke up, I listened.
"I used to look up and see stars," he said, his voice like the groaning of a tree bent by the wind. "There were so many and they were beautiful."
I didn't turn to him, but I asked, "Where?"
My father laughed. "Here, in Stratisphyria."
"That's impossible," I said, throwing the last of my stones into the water. "Not even the gods see stars now."
"But in the old city, everyone could see the stars, even the below-grounders."
Raising an eyebrow, I said, "You can't see stars if you're underground."
My father nodded. "Right, but before… they were aboveground."
I stared at the water, rippling away the light of the city. I looked up at the sky and saw nothing. Only in the distance could I see the faint blue lights of the gods, flickering in the night sky. "They used to be up here, with us?" I asked.
"Stratisphyria has not always been so striated. When I was young, the gods were not as powerful. There was a—" He coughed, and continued to for more than a minute. When he finished, he breathed in a tired way. "Hmm, a secret alliance," he said, starting right where he'd left off. "Something like that, in the underclass. They had these… powers that the gods never had. Powers that they could have used to overthrow the above class entirely."
I stared at my Reeboks, my expression unreadable. "You shouldn't say that kind of thing," I said. "Not in the park where someone could hear. It's dangerous."
My father raised a frayed, wrinkled hand and waved the notion away. "Nonsense," he said. "They can't do anything to me. I'm one of the gods."
I looked to him and saw the impish grin on his face, something that wrinkled his face into something that reminded me of a tree stump. I wondered if I could count the rings.
I smiled with him, just the smallest smile, before I frowned and looked away. "A god could attack another god," I said, my eyes glowing in the light of the faraway city.
My father nodded. "True," he said. "Of course, always true, but I am old. I have nothing to lose that I haven't already lost or thought of losing."
He paused in silence for a long time with his eyes closed. His quiet lasted so long; I began to think he had fallen asleep. My eyes went to his ribcage, which rose and fell in a steady way. I bent down to pick up another stone.
"Your mother was the most beautiful woman I've ever met," he said, startling me. I turned to him. He continued. "We of the aboveclass pretend to be the gods, but we are not the gods. Your mother's face was so beautiful; she made me realize that there was another kind of god out there. One capable of creating something so beautiful, nothing I could ever do would ever compare."
I half-smiled. "What, was she lacking in personality?
"Of course she wasn't, Boy," my father growled. "Don't ever think otherwise. She was the kindest person I had ever met, and after that, I met no one kinder."
I cracked my knuckles, pondering this. "That sucks," I said, "to have met the best person you'd ever meet so early on in life. Everyone else by comparison must've seemed… lesser."
My father nodded his head in a more or less sort of way. "Now would you let me finish the story I'm trying to tell you?"
I threw the stone from my hand into the lake, where it plunked down into the water, not skipping even once. "Yeah, alright, go on," I said.
"That secret alliance I mentioned—it was called Valencia, and your mother was one of the members."
My eyes widened as I turned to my father. He didn't share my glance—he might not have even noticed. His eyes stared straight ahead, across the lake towards the city. The faraway lights sparkled in his expressionless eyes. He sat so still, I almost believed the confession hadn't come from him, but instead had been whispered to me over the wind.
"Mom was in Valencia?" I asked.
My father nodded. It was a grave nod, with tired eyes filled with sadness. "Of course," he said. "She couldn't refrain from what she thought was right. She had to join the alliance once she knew she could. Anything else would have felt wrong to her." He sighed, and then broke into a coughing fit that lasted a good two minutes. By the end of it, even the coughs were tired, soft little wheezes. "That's why they killed her," he said. "She was in the alliance and they found out."
I looked at my father with questions in my eyes. He never talked about my mother's death, and when he did, it was never about the murderers. I stepped closer to him. "Who found out?" I asked.
My father's breathing became softer and his eyes slowly closed. This time he really had fallen asleep. I frowned, but didn't wake him.
Nonetheless, this was something I would have to bring up at the next meeting of the alliance.
I didn't know it at the time, but across the lake, up at the very lights my father and I had been looking at, a young woman stood on the ledge of one of the highest floors of the Spade tower. She shivered, up so high—the building, itself, almost a mile tall—and only wearing a white sundress. Her bare feet tensed on the cold steel underfoot.
If anyone had seen her, they would have noticed first that she was trembling. Her knees knocked together as she inched herself forward. Tears streamed down her face and began the long, silent fall from three hundred stories up. Her knuckles whitened, clinging to the side of the building—the only thing keeping the strong winds from blowing her off the side of the tower.
The young woman inched forward, the wind blowing her hair every which way. A sudden break in the wind allowed it to settle around her face. The young woman took a deep breath and observed the ground below. There was so much darkness between herself and the ground, the lights from the traffic seemed like stars to her.
Then, without any further hesitation, the girl stepped off the side of the building as if she were doing no more than descending a flight of stairs, but her foot never touched the next step down.
The stars rose up to meet her.
Alissa awoke in a dumpster. She sat up and craned her neck, feeling incredibly stiff and tired. She almost wanted to go back to sleeping—but there was something wrong. Why had she woken up in a dumpster? She wasn't supposed to have woken up at all.
With a groan, Alissa crawled to the rim of the metal box and pitched herself over the edge of it. She fell against the dusty ground below, but it felt good to her to fall like that—to actually hit something on the way down. The way things had been going recently, it didn't seem likely that she was even capable of hitting the ground.
Lying there, motionless, Alissa looked up at the great eyesore that was the Spade Tower. She had jumped from it the night before, and now… well, now she was on the ground beside a dumpster, looking up at it and wondering how it was possible that she was still alive.
What was this, some sort of sign? Since when had it been possible for someone to fall from so many stories up and survive the impact?
Well, since last week, she guessed, since that had been the first time she'd actually tried to jump.
She'd been on the Stratisphyrian over-pass—a brilliant arc of steel that curved and wound around the upper levels of the city like a road of silver ribbon. It was—by her extent of knowledge—at least a hundred feet above ground. She hadn't thought it was possible for someone to fall that far and still come out of the venture perfectly fine, but apparently it was, because that's what she had done.
Standing on the over-pass, she had found a more secluded bend in the road, one where she thought she would be able to jump without anyone being able to stop her. After climbing the rail that supposedly stopped people from killing themselves, she'd thought that the actual jump would be a breeze. Pulling her elastic out of her hair, she'd tossed it to the wind and leapt over the side.
The only problem was, she hadn't managed to die.
Just like what had happened last night, with her somehow managing to fall more than three hundred stories without a scratch, when she'd jumped off the over-pass she'd landed without even a fracture. She'd found herself caught in the awning of a tattoo parlor—some rundown, shady place—but all the same, she'd been perfectly fine. Just as she got out of the dumpster, she got out of the awning, sliding over the side and onto the street—though, that time she'd actually landed on her feet. She'd given the parlor a once-over and then looked at the overpass high above her, glimmering in the sky like the string of a kite.
"How is this possible?" she had asked herself, and that was the same question she was asking herself now.
How was this possible?
The morning after my little detour in the park with my father, I got up early to make a business trip. The sun hadn't even risen as I strode down Central—the widest street on ground level. An occasional working-class would hurry by, their jackets pulled across them so they looked faceless in the morning dawn. The sun cracked across hundreds of thousands of windows just as I turned down a side street. If I'd waited and observed, I would have seen that the sunlight I'd seen wasn't actually the from the sun, but the reflection off of the god-buildings.
I pulled my own coat around myself as I hurried around a corner—though I wasn't cold. The temperature here was hardly below forty in the mornings, but I honestly wouldn't have noticed. The coat I wore was just cover.
Just when I could actually feel the sunlight prickling on the back of my head, I ducked down into a side alley that anyone who wasn't looking closely would just assume was a dead end.
A narrow, wooden staircase built from stolen planks descended into darkness. With a quick look about me to make sure no one was watching me, I stepped down into the hole, making short work of the staircase.
The sun disappeared over my head. Behind me, it became a narrow slat of light. I paused, letting my eyes adjust to the new darkness enough for me to thrust my hand into the pocket of my coat and pull out a metal flashlight. Switching it on, I let my eyes adjust to the light again. The passage I was in was made of stone, brick, and even just earth in places, as if burrowed out by a giant mole. It was large enough to stand in, but still narrow. I listened to the quiet that echoed back to me through the system. Hearing nothing but the occasional drip of water, I raced forward.
For a while, I would see a shaft of light every few feet—a quarter-sized beacon reflected off a pool of water. There used to be thousands of them, I remembered. When I was younger, I would look around me and see the lights reflected like a thousand crystals. Nowadays the lights were much fewer. My original guess was that the pressure of holding two cities up had crushed the mirror pipes that allowed the light in, but I was wrong. About a year ago, I'd been heading north over Black Street, heading towards the entrance there, when I saw some kids playing in the alleyway that was my destination. They were laughing, tossing tiny stones down the mirror pipes like it was a game. Their palms were dirty like they'd been shoveling dirt down there, too. I didn't stop or tell them to cut it out. At the time, I hadn't been able to think of a good excuse for them not to. What was I supposed to say? If I'd told them that that was the only way the undergrounds could see, they'd probably just throw more dirt in. All I could do was turn away, wanting nothing more than to stuff a rock down their mirror pipe.
The walls around me turned from earth and stone to cement and steel. I paused, shining my flashlight around. I was surrounded by buildings, empty, but nonetheless just as good in my opinion as the ones that they'd built over them. Standing in the middle of a narrow street, I found my bearings by closing my eyes and concentrating, seeing my route like a map in my head, before going north, to the right. I disappeared between the buildings.
My flashlight shook in my hand as I ran. The only noise in the abandoned city was my footsteps—and occasionally the hiss of a startled rat as I rushed by. The rats down here were huge—the size of small dogs—and sometimes more dangerous. I tended to avoid them when I could. I'd seen more than one instance where they had attacked someone—the vicious little bastards.
I came around a corner and almost ran into someone.
"Watch where you're going," he said, but stopped, flicking his flashlight to my face.
I looked away, closing my eyes. "Drop the light, Brandon, you're blinding me."
"Knew it was you," Brandon said, smiling as he dropped his light to the ground. "Sensed it, I think."
"If you'd sensed it, wouldn't you have been able to stop before we practically collided?"
"No way, man. You're too fast when you run. Can't dodge that sort of thing."
I nodded, turning north again. "Selena waiting for us, you think?"
"I do," said Brandon. "She always is. Must have no life."
"Come on, then," I said. "No reason to make her wait any longer."
When we found Selena, she was waiting for us, just as we'd guessed. Her patchwork self was tossed over the side of a fountain, her face towards the water and her feet on the cobblestone beneath her. I assumed she was stirring the surface. That was the kind of thing Selena liked to do.
"You both took so long." She dragged out the phrase like she was trying to sing. "I've been waiting for an eternity." She flipped herself over, then, on the edge of the fountain, her arms thrust up in the air and her beaded hair skimming the edge of the water. She must have felt it, because she flinched and pulled the ends of her hair around so she could see them. They were dripping wet. "Shit, now I'll smell like rat. Oh well." She tossed her hair over her shoulders. Brandon and I aimed our flashlights toward her feet as we approached.
"Missed you," Brandon said to her, nudging her shoulder with his fist.
Her round, light-eyed face broke into a smile. "Brandon," she said, again singing her words. "You're adorable!" She threw her arms around him, nuzzling her face into his chest.
I couldn't decide whether to laugh or gag. Brandon was turning red. I opted to give them a minute and soon enough Selena pulled away from him.
"Now let's get down to business, hmm?"
Brandon nodded. "We gonna sit at the fountain?"
I tossed up my hands. "Does it matter?"
"I like the fountain," Selena said. She cocked her head. "It helps me think clearer."
"Alright then. The fountain it is."
I turned. "Watch it," I said.
Brandon held his hands up. "Sorry, man. No need to go viral. It's hard to get used to calling you a different name," he said.
I rolled my shoulders. "It's fine," I said. "Anyway, you were saying?"
"Someone was following me," Brandon said. "All the way from North Madison."
My eyes narrowed. "You didn't let them follow you here, did you?"
Brandon shook his head. "No way, man, damn. Do I seem like an idiot to you?"
I sighed. "Okay, so how far did they follow you?"
"I'm pretty sure I lost them around—"
"Don't. Go viral," Brandon said, his mouth tilting into a frown. "Can't even attract a lady without freaking a man out these days."
My brow furrowed. "It was a woman? Did you get a good look at her?"
"Chill, yo. I didn't get a decent look at her. Dark hair down her back, that's all I know. I stopped for like half a second 'cause I thought it was Selena following after me, but it wasn't, so I panicked. Ran faster than I've ever run, I think. Didn't even know immediately what street I was on when I stopped, I'd run so fast."
"Shit," said Selena, "and you're the best out of all of us with mapping. I didn't even know that was possible."
Brandon nodded, smiling. "Yeah, well… Anyway, so the girl who was chasing me had made herself scarce. I'd just about run myself dead, but I made sure I wasn't being followed before I snuck down into an entrance."
I felt the back of my neck shiver, thinking of something my father had said last night. "If she's not one of us," I said, "what if she's hunting us?"
Selena's dollish face gave me a wide-eyed gaze. "What do you mean, hunting?"
I cracked my knuckles, standing at the edge of the fountain. "I spoke with my father yesterday," I said. "He's old, you both know, but… anyway, he knows things. He's lived in Stratisphyria for a long time. He started talking about Valencia without me even bringing it up. He just dove right in, like it wasn't even important and started talking about, well… Apparently my mother was a member of Valencia… but she was murdered for it. I hadn't known."
"Shit," said Selena.
Brandon nodded. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too."
"My father said that they killed her. Dunno who they would be."
Brandon pointed a finger skyward. "The gods?" He lowered his voice as if he didn't want them hearing.
I shook my head. "I don't think so," I said. "I mean, maybe, but… I thought the only people who could vapor were people who lived on ground level or below. I always assumed that was something only we could do. I didn't think a god was capable."
I was heading home when I saw her, standing at the edge of the Capsule Park Bridge in broad daylight. The white dress she wore was spotted and stained, her hair was tangled and matted to her head, and she swayed like she might be high, but even for all those reasons I couldn't turn and walk away once I'd seen her, because I knew what she was about to do.
"Wait," I called out to her, running to the edge of the bridge. I stopped there, staring up at her. Even for all the dirt that covered her—she looked like she'd slept in a dumpster, for crying out loud—I could still tell she was beautiful.
"What is it?" she asked. Her blue eyes shone like the light off a snowy mountain range.
"You—" I paused, not sure how to address the situation. "Come down from there. Can't we talk about this?" I asked.
"Why?" she asked. "You don't know me."
"Right," I said, nodding, "but I'd like to, yeah?"
"Was that a question?"
"No," I said. "I would like to. No questions involved."
"You don't want to know me," she said. "I look gross at the moment." She looked away from me, toward the water below her. Honestly, I didn't know if the fall would be enough to kill her, but I didn't want her to chance it.
"I do," I said. "I really do. Please come down. Tell me your name."
She sighed. "Give me a minute, I was in the middle of psyching myself up."
"You can't jump," I said.
"I was planning on it before you showed up."
"But you can't!"
"Look, just give me a minute," she said. "I'll talk to you after I do this."
"What do you mean, after?" I asked, moving closer to her side. "I don't think there'll be an after if you jump."
She shook her head. "There will. This is the third bridge I've jumped off of in the last three days."
I looked her up and down. She looked fine. "Small bridges?" I guessed.
"No," she said. "I jumped off one of the highest points of the over-pass, and after that, the Spade tower." She cringed as she said it.
I turned, looking over my shoulder as if to remind myself of how high the Spade Tower stood. Even in a city of skyscrapers that literally scraped the sky, it stood out in its height. I could spot it easily from where we stood, like a mountain in the distance. Nonetheless, there was no way in hell she'd jumped off it.
"Are you on drugs?" I asked.
Her nose wrinkled. "No. What do I look like, some sort of…? Never mind, I guess I do. I slept in a dumpster last night."
My suspicion was confirmed. "Look, just… don't jump this time. Come down and talk with me." I looked around. How was it possible that she'd been standing up there on that ledge for so long and no one else had noticed? Maybe she wasn't kidding about the overpass and the Spade Tower. Maybe she was a ghost, and I was the only one who could see her. "You ever wonder if you're a ghost?" I asked her.
She gave me a funny look. "All the time," she said.
I refrained from rolling my eyes and held my hand out toward her.
Rejecting it, she leapt off the ledge—albeit, toward me, not towards the water below. She landed on her feet, her knees bent. Her hair whipped around her face. As she erected herself, I realized that she was taller than I thought—maybe only half an inch shorter than me.
She turned and eyed me with her lightning-blue eyes. "So what do you want to talk about?" she asked.
"Do you want to get coffee or something?" I asked. I swept my eyes around, honestly not a fan of staying out in the open for so long. I mean, shit, we were in the middle of a bridge.
"I need to shower first," she said. "I can't be seen in public like this."
"You're already in public," I said. "We're in the middle of a bridge." I looked around again. "I honestly can't believe that no one noticed you up there besides me."
She cocked her head. "What, did you have something better to do?"
"No, I just…" I sighed. "Don't pull that card on me. I just don't think you need a shower to get coffee."
"I do," she said.
"Fine, then. How do I know you won't throw yourself off a bridge when you go off to 'take a shower'?"
She shrugged. "You'll just have to trust that I won't."
I looked at her, frustrated and at a loss of what to say. "What's your name?" I asked her.
"Alissa. And yours?"
"Magnus," I said. "It's Magnus."
Her eyes narrowed. "What stratum are you?" she asked.
I frowned in response. "Don't you have a shower to take?"
I arrived at the coffee shop at quarter past four, hoping that Alissa hadn't gone and thrown herself off a bridge in my absence. The café was ground level—a black and white modern place called Higher Grounds. Even from the outside, I could tell that it was trying to be one of the sky-level cafés.
I stepped through the door, sweeping my eyes around the place. Everything was sterilized chrome; it was kind of disgusting. It had the feeling of being inside a giant, galvanized tub. The accessories—high-top café tables, stools—all were in a black and white motif. Pop art and art deco assaulted me from the walls and floor tiles. I hadn't realized that people were still into the whole retro-futurist thing, but it was enough to make me gag. I wondered who could actually go to a place like this and not want to jump off a bridge. Actually, Alissa had been the one to pick the café, so maybe that explained her suicidal tendencies.
Then I spotted her waving to me from across the room, not even looking up from her drink, and I forgot all about art.
"You're early," she said as I pulled up a stool.
"Always am," I said. "I'm running three minutes ahead of satellite time."
I nodded. "You look great," I said. "A million times better than you did earlier today." It wasn't just that she'd cleaned up—she now wore a silver blouse and jeans—but she'd also acquired more color to her face, if I wasn't mistaken.
"Thanks," she said, "but it wouldn't be that hard for me to look a million times better than I did this morning. I was a mess."
"You said you slept in a dumpster?"
"Yeah. I've got a terrible crick in my neck to prove it."
"Better than being dead," I said, trying to flag down a waitress. The place wasn't packed by any means, but they looked like they were having a good haul-in for the hour. The two waitresses on duty were working their money's worth.
"You know, I'd actually like to be dead, though," said Alissa. The only emotion on her face was frustration.
"Now, why is that?"
She stirred her latte in front of her. "You said your name was Magnus, right?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yes."
"Well, Magnus, can you keep a secret?"
"Alissa," I said with a sigh. "Who would I tell?"
"I don't know. Can you keep this a secret, though?"
"Yes, sure. Just between us. Now, what is it?"
"Well," she said, leaning closer to me so she wouldn't be overheard, "I'm a god."
I watched her face, waiting for an elaboration, but she just stared back at me with her sterilized chrome eyes.
"You don't believe me," she said.
"No. I mean—" I looked at her, gesturing with my hand. I was currently reevaluating her entire being. "You said you slept in a dumpster last night."
Again, all I got was a chrome-eyed stare. "I'm a god," she said. "I can do whatever I want."
"Except die, apparently."
She frowned and turned away, sipping her latte.
"Sleeping in a dumpster doesn't seem like the kind of thing a god would want to do," I said.
"I fell off the goddamned Spade Tower," she said, her voice rising.
"Alright," I said, holding up a hand. "So you're a god. What house are you from?"
She clutched her latte and frowned as if she were hesitant to answer this specific question. "Before I tell you, I want to know what stratum you're from."
"None," I said. "I don't have a stratum."
Alissa laughed, and it was the first time I'd heard her laugh. I thought it sounded coarse, as if sleeping in the dumpster had given her a cold or something. "You have a stratum," she said. "Everyone does. Good joke, though. Now, really, what's your stratum?"
"I don't have one," I said again. "I renounced mine."
"But you still have one," she said, "even if you renounced it."
I looked at her and her coffee and her starched blouse and her beautiful, wavy-blonde hair. She was, in every way, a god, yet nonetheless, I found myself thinking she was an idiot.
"Let's say I do have a stratum," I said. "What would it matter?"
She looked at me like I'd just asked her why the earth was round. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Why do you want to know what stratum I'm from?" I asked her.
She looked at me again like I was asking a stupid question. "To get to know you better," she said. "You learn a lot of things about people based on their stratum."
"No," I said. "You make a lot of assumptions about people based on their stratum. You don't actually learn anything."
"You aren't going to tell me what stratum you're from?" she asked.
"No, I'm not," I said. "Not even my best friends know what stratum I'm from."
She frowned. "Well why not?"
"Because," I said, "it's not important. It's not something they need to know. All the stratums do is cause tension." I waved my hand in the air to better explain.
"But we need the stratums," she said.
I rolled my eyes. "I think you are the most clichéd example of a god I've ever met. We need the stratums. Shit, what for?"
Alissa opened her mouth to argue, but then paused, not sure what to say.
I waved it off. "Don't try yet," I said. "Think about it for a while. Let's get back to you. So you're a god?"
"How's that?" I asked.
She sighed, and her eyes got this really far-away look to them. "It's depressing, being so high up," she said. "I just don't feel like…"
"Like it means anything?"
She stared at the counter, her hair falling around her face as she traced the art deco pattern in the Formica. "Yeah," she said. "I don't know…"
I nodded. "So you've been jumping off bridges."
"And every time you… end up in a dumpster?"
"No." She crinkled her nose. "I mean, that one time, yes. When I jumped off the Spade Tower. I don't know how I got there, really. I was falling and then I think I blacked out. I woke up in the dumpster."
"Sounds like a trip."
"It really was."
"So you keep trying to off yourself and it doesn't work?"
"Even when you jumped from the Spade Tower?"
She gestured at herself. "I'm still alive, aren't I?"
The waitress finally appeared and cut off our conversation, asking me what I wanted.
"Just water," I said, "no ice, no lemon, no straw."
The waitress nodded and strode off to her next table.
Turning back to Alissa, I said, "I think they're putting lithium in the water, I honestly do."
"Lithium?" Alissa looked horrified.
I nodded. "You can put a small amount of lithium in the water and no one will really notice. Everyone just feels better."
"That's terrible," she said. "And who's they?"
I looked at her with my own eyes, which were green, but I hoped they looked like chrome. "The gods, of course," I said.
After my water came, I downed half the glass in three seconds and took a peek at my watch, wondering how long it took lithium to kick in. I turned to Alissa and asked her, "Did you ever think that maybe the reason you just can't seem to kill yourself is because your heart's not really in it?"
Her mouth fell open. "Excuse me?"
"You don't really want to die," I said.
"Yes, I do," she said, her eyes wide and pleading with me, crystal-blue. "I don't want anything else."
"Then maybe you're scared. I mean, hell, even I'd probably be scared standing at the top of the Spade Tower, and I love heights."
Alissa's face broke into a smile and I knew I'd screwed up. "So you love heights, hmm?" She looked me up and down, as if she could find a clue to my stratum on my person. "You didn't strike me as a god—your clothes are too dark—but now that I think of it…"
I knew the look she was giving me right off. It was one of those "I'm penciling you in as an option," looks.
"I hate to break it to you," I said, "but I'm no god. It's possible to like heights and not be a sky-dweller just like it's possible to enjoy the underground without being a tunnel-dweller."
"So you like the tunnels, too?" she asked, a note of fear entering her voice. "I haven't… I've only heard the stories. I wouldn't go down there… It's not safe."
I nodded. "I figured you hadn't been. The gods don't usually let their kids descend, do they?"
Alissa shook her head. "But I have been down there… once. When I was younger."
My eyes flashed. "With who?" I asked.
"My mother," she said. "I don't remember why we went, but we took the Underground."
I stared at my water, not feeling particularly happy. Maybe there wasn't any lithium in it, after all. "What house did you say you were from?" I asked.
"I didn't," Alissa said. "I'm not sure if I want to tell you." With that comment, she finished the last of her latte and, frowning, stared at the deco art in the table Formica.
"Why not?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I feel like… telling you I am a god was one thing, but telling you what house I'm from would bring it to an entirely different level. You'd know my family history, the values I was raised with… not to mention that it might make it all too real for you. You already think I'm some stuck-up, ignorant princess. If you knew my family…" She tried to smile and failed miserably. "I don't want to tell you my house for the same reason you don't want to tell me your stratum."
"Fair enough," I said. I turned away, clearing my throat and realizing once again that I was surrounded by deco art. "We should meet again sometime," I said. "I know a place, Brew of a Kind. It's… well, anyway, it's a lot more comfortable than this place."
"What do you mean, comfortable?" Alissa asked.
I shook my head. "The patterns are too busy. It's irritating. I don't think my eyes have adjusted properly to the fluorescent lighting, yet, either. I was underground this morning."
Alissa's eyebrows disappeared into her long, waving hair. "You were down there today? How was it?"
"Same way it always is," I said. "Damp. Dark. Maybe a little bit darker than usual, actually. I don't know. It's hard to tell."
"What were you down there for?" she asked, leaning closer.
"I was meeting some friends. One of them is an underclass. She isn't allowed to come aboveground, so I had to go down to see her."
"Must be an important girl," Alissa said, sitting up, "for you to go down there to see her."
I shrugged. "I go down there a lot."
Alissa raised an eyebrow. "You do?"
"What are you going to do?" I asked, changing the subject. "You know, about your situation. Not being able to die."
Alissa rested her face on her hands and sighed. "Well I guess I'll go back to—" Her eyes widened. "Shit!" She looked at her watch. "Oh shit. Shit."
"What is it?"
"I'm late," she said. "Shit, I didn't think I'd have to deal with this shit anymore." She sighed, stepping off her stool. "Sorry, I have to run. I'd totally forgotten about the photo shoot I had today. I thought I was going to die, you know."
"Don't worry about it," I said. "Just meet me at Brew of a Kind. Does tomorrow work for you?"
"Sure, yeah. I'll be there," she said. Then she ran out the door.
I watched her go, seeing her wavy blonde hair and sculpted features in a new light. She was a model… or maybe a photographer? I found myself wondering what else she was.
Alissa ran out to the street, grabbed a taxi, and was back at her family's complex before a quarter of an hour had passed. Nonetheless, when she got to one of the highest floors, she looked almost as bad as she had when she'd climbed out of the dumpster. Her hair was a mess, her skin was clammy with sweat, and her brow was lined with worry.
She walked into the atrium, trying to calm her taught nerves. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the room where they held the shoots. Bright lights shone down onto a wintry backdrop. A young woman with apple cheeks and straightened, chestnut hair stood under the lights, swinging a brown velour baby bag as she twirled, striking a fierce pose. She wrinkled her nose, noticing Alissa as she entered.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in," she said, narrowing her eyes. She straightened her fur-lined pea coat and tilted the beret she wore a little more to the left. "You look heinous, Alissa. What, did you sleep in a dumpster?"
Alissa frowned. "You'd be surprised," she said.
The photographer, who had stayed behind the camera up to this point, turned to look at her. His eyes swept over Alissa's wrinkled blouse, her windswept hair, and her pale complexion, reddened only by the cold outside. "I like it," he said, snapping his fingers. "Alissa, get in front of the camera. Gretta, move off to the side. Try to look more fierce."
Gretta's mouth opened in revulsion. "Excuse me?"
Alissa looked from Gretta, who now fumed from the sidelines, to the photographer. He motioned for her to get in front of the camera,
Obliging, Alissa moved under the gold and silver lights, shielding her eyes. "I actually thought I would change when I got here," she said, her voice lilting up as she said it, turning it into a question.
"Nonsense," said the photographer. "I like what you have. It's completely traumatic. The grounders will love it. A god who feels?" He sighed as if in ecstasy. "It's brilliant. Refreshing. Ah, wait. Don't move a muscle. The look you're giving me is perfect." The shutter went off on his camera several times as he tried to capture Alissa's look.
Alissa flicked her eyes to Gretta only to receive a murderous look in response. Alissa's eyes widened.
"Yes!" cried the photographer. "That is exactly the look I want. Yes, look more this way, Darling." The shutter snapped a dozen more times on the camera.
"How is that what you want?" Gretta said, stomping a leather boot as she said so. "You told me you wanted fierce."
The photographer sighed and turned to look at her. "I do want fierce," he said. "I want fierce from you. But from your sister I want something completely different. I want vulnerability."
Alissa raised her eyebrows, her glance darting from the photographer to her sister, who was so angry her face had flushed lipstick red. Turning back to the camera, Alissa tried her best not to fidget.
"I see you have your favorite model on parade again, Lawrence," said a voice from the door. "It's so nice to see you help my daughters do what they love."
Everyone in the room turned toward the man who spoke. His face was charming—kind, but sharp-featured—and his dark hair was sprinkled with grey. He looked like the kind of man who would model L. L. Bean sweaters and read classical literature in his spare time.
"Good afternoon, Father," said Gretta. "You just missed the finish of my photo shoot." She sent a glare in Alissa's direction.
"I'm sure it was wonderful," he said, not appearing particularly interested in whether or not the shoot went well. He strode forward toward Lawrence. "May I see the photos?" he asked.
Lawrence backed off immediately. "Go ahead, sir, of course. You're paying for them, after all."
Alissa and Gretta's father bent down to examine the camera and flipped through the last couple of photographs. The room seemed to be holding its breath as he did. He spent an extremely long time looking at a specific picture, taking in every little detail from the lighting to the clothes to Alissa's expression.
For just a moment, Alissa looked toward Gretta, who smiled sweetly and pulled a finger across her throat like a blade. Alissa frowned and looked toward her father.
"I like them," he said, stepping away from the camera. "I like the new look. I like the expressiveness." He looked from Lawrence to Alissa. "I like everything about these photographs, actually. Who did her hair?"
"Ah, I don't know," said Lawrence. "Did we have a stylist on duty today?"
"I did the hair myself," Alissa said, raising her hand slightly.
Her father nodded. "You put this outfit together, too?"
Alissa nodded. "Yes."
"I approve," he said with a smile. "More photo shoots like this and we'll have the grounders buying everything we can throw at them."
Alissa tried to smile with her father, but she was distracted by the scowl Gretta was aiming in her direction.
If only looks could kill.
As Alissa went to leave the photo shoot, her father pulled her aside. "Alissa, could I speak to you for a second?"
Alissa hesitated. "Um, of course," she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gretta sneer at her before exiting the door. "What did you want to talk about?"
Taking a deep breath, her father brought his fingers together in a pyramid and rested his chin upon them. "Alissa, I think you're old enough for me to let you in on some of the finer details of our industry, but only if you don't tell Gretta or Christopher."
Alissa's eyes widened. "You haven't told them, but you're telling me?"
Her father sighed, looking down at her. "Yes, well… I felt you deserved to know more so than they."
Alissa's hands fidgeted at her sides. "Why? What is it?"
"Our stocks haven't been doing very well this period. I've had to make some cut backs and even then I still don't know if we're going to come out of this on top of things."
"W—what do you mean? The stocks have gone down?" Alissa looked at her father, her hands raised to her mouth. "Has this ever happened before?"
Her father held his hands like a scale. "Yes and no," he said. "We've gone through the occasional decline for a month, maybe two, but never as long or as bad as this one."
Alissa was paler than she'd been on top of the Spade Tower. "What are we going to do?" she asked.
Her father smiled as if he had the perfect answer. "That's where you come in," he said. "Your birthday is coming up in the next few weeks, and I was thinking maybe we could turn it into an engagement party."
"Excuse me?" Alissa's hands dropped to her sides.
"You'll be turning eighteen," her father said. "At one point, they used to marry at an even younger age—"
"But they don't anymore!" Alissa said, her voice frantic. "Father, what are you saying? You're going to just marry me off?"
Her father clicked his tongue. "Don't make it sound so terrible. This is what's best for all of us. By marrying you off to the heir of a wealthy company, we'll be providing you with a future and stabilizing our industry. It's two birds with one stone, Alissa. I would expect even you to understand that."
With that, he turned and strode out of the room, not even expressing a word of goodbye. Alissa was left in the empty, white room, with not even the warm spotlights of the shoot to reassure her.
Her father had said they would be killing two birds with one stone. Now she was wondering: Was she the stone, or one of the birds?
The next morning, I was up early, throwing more stones into Upper Lake. At first I wasn't thinking about anything—only throwing stones into the bright water as dawn crossed over the bridge to meet me. Then, the sun caught my eye in such a way that I looked up toward the skyscrapers of Stratisphyria—the palaces of the gods.
I thought of Alissa and how she'd said she'd tried to throw herself off the Spade Tower. My gaze flickered to the steel obelisk, glimmering with glass in the morning sun. It didn't look frightening from where I stood, but just imagining standing at the top, looking down on the specks of color below, was enough to make me want to stay on the ground forever.
At first I didn't believe Alissa, when she'd said she had jumped from the Spade Tower and lived—It was, by all accounts, impossible. You couldn't jump from the overpass and live, much less the Spade Tower—but then I started thinking that maybe I had overlooked something. Something so obvious that it should have struck me first rather than now, where I stood now throwing stones into a polluted lake.
Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I decided I would test my theory immediately, when I met Alissa at the café.
Brew of a Kind, though it was, nonetheless, still a café by all means of the word, was a much more appealing place in my eyes than that shoddy place Alissa had picked out, Higher Grounds. Brew of a Kind wasn't trying to be anything more than it was. It stood on ground level, first floor, with brick walls that only went up two or three stories, give or take. I stepped inside and heard the tinkling of a bell above my head. Dark hardwood lined the floors and faded wallpaper lined the walls, peeling in more than one place. The lighting was dim, but came from gold tinted lamps that made the plush seating appear quite comfortable.
I didn't see Alissa around, but I knew there was a second floor, and I thought I ought to check there before I gave her up for lost. As I ascended the wine carpeted stairs, I heard a sigh from above and knew that I had guessed right.
Alissa had stretched herself out on a burgundy loveseat, faced upward like she were about to share all her problems with a psychiatrist. I half-smiled, wondering if that was what I was to her, but when she didn't notice me standing there, her eyes cast toward the frail light of the windows on the far wall, I dropped the smile.
"You look unhappy," I said, taking a seat across from her on another loveseat. "Is it the decorating?"
She shook her head and stared down so all I saw of her eyes were eyelashes.
"What's wrong?" I asked, leaning closer.
Alissa said nothing. Her breathing was so light; I would have thought she was sleeping if she hadn't finally looked at me from under her dark eyelashes. "I don't want to talk about it," she said, suddenly finding her nail beds as her main point of interest.
I bit the inside of my cheek, thinking. "Well, I can't make you tell me," I said, "but I think you would feel better if you did."
Alissa rested her palms against her eyes. "I don't want to," she said. "You wouldn't understand."
My hands twitched on my kneecaps. "You don't think so? That's a shame, because I thought from the downtrodden expression on your face that you wanted me to ask you what was wrong."
"Well, I don't," she said out from under her hands. "It's your own goddamned fault if you thought otherwise."
My faced twitched into a bitter smile. "Fine then. If we're not going to talk about what's wrong today, how about we talk about your problem from yesterday. I have a theory that would explain why you don't die when you jump off of buildings."
Alissa's eyes appeared out from under her hands, looking positively hungry for this piece of information. "What's your theory?" she asked.
"It's not the kind of thing I could just tell you," I said. "I have to show you."
"What are you going to show me?"
"Something about the Spade Tower. We'll have to go up to the roof to see it."
Alissa's face paled. "What about the Spade Tower?" she asked.
I waved my hand at her. "Don't ask. You'll see, soon enough."
When we stepped out onto the roof, we were assaulted by a draft of wind that almost pushed us back inside the building.
"Come over this way," I said, striding over the cement. The owners of the café had obliged to let me out onto their roof, seeing as I was a frequent customer, but I had never been up here before. Earthenware pots spread out across the roof, throwing leafy fronds over the sides. It was too cold for their flowers to be in bloom. They had probably just gone by.
Nonetheless, in the spring and summer the roof would probably be an attractive place. It was only now, in the fall, approaching the cold grip of winter where the place had only cement to greet us.
Alissa rubbed her hands together as she followed me to the edge of the roof, but I questioned whether she was actually cold. She didn't shiver even though she wasn't wearing a coat. That was a good sign.
"What did you want to show me?" she said, her eyes flicking back toward the door as if she wanted to get back inside the building.
"You see the Spade Tower?" I asked, standing close to her. The edge of the roof was only a bump in front of us—barely to our knees.
She nodded, her cheeks red from the cold. "Yeah, I see it," she said. The Spade Tower was right in front of us, probably six miles away, but nonetheless perfectly visible from where we stood.
"Good," I said, looking over the side of the building. We were three floors up. Below us, a couple meters off to the right, a silver truck had stood parked, its truck bed filled with sand, but there was nothing on the ground below us except solid concrete. I turned to Alissa. "You see how the sunlight kind of glimmers off the right side?"
She shook her head. "Yeah, I do, but what are you—?"
Her voice abruptly cut off because I had shoved her over the edge of the roof, plunging toward the street below.
Alissa didn't have time to scream, which was good because any noise might have distracted me from what I was looking for—the whole purpose of this exercise.
Only a couple feet before she hit the ground, the air around her crackled with energy and blurred her surroundings as if with intense heat. Alissa disappeared, but appeared not a moment later above the truck, where she fell into sand.
I bit the edge of my thumb, walking to the corner of the café roof and staring down at her. She sat up, gasping as if she'd just been thrown into an icy lake and stared up at me with wide eyes.
"What the hell was that for?" she asked. "You could have killed me!"
"Isn't that what you wanted?" I called down to her.
My question was met with only silence. Alissa fell back into the sand and stared up to the sky, lifeless except for her eyes.