The husky smell of liquor trails down from above as I stare into the eyes of my worst enemies – my two older brothers.
“All you have to do is go up there and get one bottle of beer, bring it down and you’re done,” the oldest, Lucas, is saying.
He points to the bubbles disappearing from view above us, stepping stones to other tiers. Foundations built on the platforms over our heads require seekers of those hard-to-reach places to take a leap of faith and work their way from higher bubble to higher bubble, a twisted game of leap frog or hopscotch that could easily result in death. Trips of this nature are restricted to anyone under the age of eighteen to prevent accidents so, as you can imagine, schools and libraries aren’t among the high-ground foundations, just night clubs and bars and some other places that I feel fortunate not to have to lay my eyes on.
“Yeah, don’t be such a chicken, Tabby,” Ricky says. If he isn’t agreeing with Luke, he’s being a little parrot, repeating every senseless word our older brother says as if it were jotted under the heading RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE. Despite him not coming up with the stupidity, I think I hate him worse for taking it all to heart.
“It’s Tabitha,” I snap bitterly. “If you’re going to insult me, don’t bother using my nickname.
“Tabby’s a fitting name for you, though,” Luke says. “After all, you climb trees like a cat.”
“And she’s catty,” Ricky whispers in Luke’s ear in what he believes is a volume to low for me to hear. We stand in the shadow of the side of the largest convenience store in town, customers ramble past, chattering like birds, but other than their droning, the silence of mid-evening is upon us. These two are just idiots, believing that I’ll pretend to be blind and deaf to their jives and then do whatever outlandish thing they say.
“What would I get out of it?” I ask, arms crossed, wind teasing the strong hairs of my bob-cut. Short hair is common here, for boys and girls. No needle pricks of pain in the eye from a stray strand of hair during air travel. Well, unless you’re got wayward eyelashes.
“What would you get?” Luke asks my question back at me. “You’d get to be a legend. All for braving heights when you aren’t even afraid of them.”
“I’d become a legend for breaking the rules?” I ask. “I’m sixteen. I don’t belong up there. The bubbles to the pubs go on for miles and miles. I couldn’t even see my jump for all the cloud coverage. Your little dare isn’t worth risking my life.”
“But I know something that is.” Luke smirks. “That little android that you always carry around, notice that it wasn’t anywhere in sight today.”
I have to stifle a gasp. Softly, voice composed, I ask, “What did you do to Gidget?” Visions of my first android flicker through my mind, images playing before my eyes like scenes from an old film – unwrapping her from paper and silk ribbons at five years of age, holding her up to show my mother, the last clear memory I have of my mother smiling. Mother has a rare disease now, one that prevents her from exiting her nightmares. She screams bloody murder continuously from sun high to set, beats herself in the head, all but dies in the care of my father, him ever devoted to her from the day they met at ten years old.
A non-functioning android – what would be seen as scrap metal to most – is my greatest treasure.
“How did we do it?” Luke interrupts. “Wasn’t hard. After you went to bed, Ricky smuggled your android from your nightstand. Then I tied the useless thing to one of the night sentry birds that I lured to the house with bread crumbs. When it returned to its post in the morning, your robot went with it, right into the far reaches of the sky. Now you’ll have to go up if you want—”
“No!” I shout loud enough but there’s no real powerful behind the word. I have no choice, can’t say no. I just can’t stand to listen to Luke babble on and on anymore. Tears sting my eyes but I’m too upset to let them fall. “How could you?”
Luke’s smile grows impossibly wide. I wonder if my brother is a masochist because it has to hurt for a person so used to walking about straight-faced to carry a smile so big, and all for his own sake since it’s not fooling anyone. “How could I not,” he says.
I’m kicking myself for doing it, but I have to make Luke’s sick-imagination-induced journey to the heights of the sky.
I’m in a blue tank top and white khaki shorts, ready to play chameleon with the sky. I place a white cap atop my head to camouflage my charcoal-black bed of hair and to shield my eyes from the sun’s angry glare. I then strap on my messenger bag, making sure that it is equipped with my secret weapon. I feel the bulge of my new android against my hip. Luke and Ricky don’t know that I made this handy robot all on my own. They like to think me gullible, easy, but I have a brain like those two wouldn’t believe. I’m guessing all the brightness of my father and mother went to me, making those two brothers of mine dim light bulbs whipped by the presence of the sun.
Unlike some kids, I never possessed the wish to fly, didn’t have to. I fly every day in my hometown, on the back of bulbous bubbles that cannot burst. The power used to create the levitation devices is ancient, all but forgotten by anyone not buried underground, so luckily there has never been a need to repair the bubbles, translucent orbs on invisible wings that go from building to building, border to border. Once the bubbles meet the outskirts of town, they descend and one must continue his or her journey on foot.
I’m feeling weightless, adrift on a bubble. People float past me with their own agendas. It’s a non-school day so kids are going to popular kid hangouts, chatting on with their telechips, a hand-free talking device to make air travel safer. To drift in a certain direction a bubble-user must have both hands handy to point. Jab the air left or right with your index finger and the bubbles heed your command, going just where you want them, possible through the use of radius sensors. I wait for a twelve-year-old boy singing to his self to leave my sights then an elderly woman yawning due to the gentle speed of her ride.
When I’m all alone, not a soul in sight, only the sound of the wind whistling in my ears, I point up.
I ascend until I’m on a level with an entirely different set of bubbles, ones I’ve never seen before though they look like every other. I glance down below and note that the distance I’m at isn’t much greater than when I’m at the summit of the park’s tallest tree, a height I’m still entirely comfortable with. Still no one is in sight to spy me and I begin to wonder if I was worrying over nothing. Perhaps even climbing the ladder of bubbles into the sky isn’t such a horrible offense.
The jump to the next bubble isn’t too much of a challenge, but my landing makes an impact on my ankles. I flounder a moment before righting myself, balance achieved. I point up again and this new bubble takes me higher still. The next jump is more difficult because the bubbles’ translucency gets lost in the cloud coverage that is putting a thin mist on my skin. I take the risk and jump, my right foot stretched beyond the left. My outstretched foot just barely finds purchase and I find myself not only wishing that I had a curvier figure, but that I had a spider’s luck with winning nature’s long leg lottery.
When I begin to wonder if I’m expected to grow wings and fly for the next jump, I see the lip of a platform. While the bubbles blend with the sky, the platform was obviously built to be a bookmark, an apparent milestone for journeyers to find their place; it’s a big black bar of soap on a million straw-thin stilts that wear the see-through skin of the bubbles. I’ve of course seen these pole-like structures from the ground, seen bubbles turn against a user’s instructions to advert crashing into them, been one of those users being disobeyed by an inanimate object. As a groundling, the stilts have been nothing but a nuisance, a means to keep me from taking shortcuts to school, but now that I see their purpose, I find them enchanting.
I glide to the platform, jump off and thunk down hard enough to scatter a flock of starlings gathered to rest their wings. Their wings beat the melody of my heart right now, rapid and fluttery. Through the storm of brown bird wings a pub sits like a squatter, out of place against the setting of the sky but so homey looking that you’d hate to be the one to tell it to leave. Its windows are black eyes on its face, so sooty that I can’t see inside but am at once aware that it could be a sort of illusion, patrons able to see out and onlookers unable to see in.
I get to the door and move to open it, but it opens on its own. The blackness isn’t restricted to the windows apparently, as I can’t see a thing through the open door, not even the person who must have opened it. My bones tell me to turn back and hop on down to the ground, but I resist my very core and keep the pace forward.
As soon as I’m in the doorway, I question my sanity. The air is stifling, clogged with heat and the stench of man sweat and liquor. If not for the smell of sweat I’d suspect I’d just strolled into a giant’s open mouth and I’m being meet by his rancid warm breath.
“Welcome to the Skinny,” I hear someone say in a husky and very male voice. It’s so dark. Either this place’s lights aren’t working or my eyes are out of commission. “I can see you aren’t a regular.”
“I don’t know how you can see anything,” I answer, my voice sounding cross with my unease.
“That’s how I know you aren’t a regular. Keep walking. Once you get to the bar you’ll trigger the light sensor.”
With no comment, I do as he says. Holding my hands out to avoid running into a stool or a drooling drunkard, I shuffle further through the dark.
A neon blue light clicks on and stuns me to a stop. Before me is the open bar, long table and stools gleaming as if they are made of ice. In fact, I believe they are. The air cools around them.
Despite the magnificence of the hidden blue skylight bouncing off the furniture, it’s the eyes of the man leaning his elbow on the table that dazzle the most.
They aren’t normal is my first thought. I’m gazing into the eyes of an animal, they are just too bright. The oddest thing is that at first glance the man’s eyes are ice blue, matching his surroundings then they look green, no, violet . . . it’s as if they are shifting shades with each of his blinks. The closer I step to him, the more his color-morphing eyes widen.
Then comes a frown. “You — you’re not a regular for a reason,” he growls. “You’re sixteen, six months, and seven days old.”
“Barkeeps aren’t given our positions because we know how to mix a drink, though it’s part of the reason. We’re fitted with a time-reading device, in our eyes, helps us to keep Illegals like you from causing us trouble.”
I open my mouth to try and retort, but instead of my voice, I hear a blast.
The man leaves the counter and runs for the door. Light follows him, dotting the ground step for step, changing from the color blue to red with his urgency. I pursue him more for the fear of finding myself lost in oblivion than to face whatever made that horrid sound. I follow his streaming red light and the smell of smoke, growing stronger and stronger.
On the landing, the man – no, boy might be more appropriate as, in natural light, he looks young enough to have one foot still in boyhood, perhaps enjoying his early twenties – is gazing up into the clouds. Beyond him smoke is coming from a new chunk that has appeared in his pub, like something took a great big bite out of it. I ignore the new construction design and follow the barkeep’s gaze. At first I don’t see what he’s gawking at then a see a little bit of a thing buzzing about. A bird? An airplane? A—
An android. My android.
The present from my mother is zooming above, her silver shell glowing amber, the one lens in her face that functioned as an eye blood-red. I’ve never seen her so furious, she’s heated enough to sizzle.
“Rampaging robot,” the barkeep says, almost to his self. “If we let this go on, it could destroy every platform in the sky then go to ground level to finish everything else.”
Although I’m not sure if he’s talking to me, I ask, “So what do you suggest, u-umm . . .?”
“Rider,” he answers.
“Got a last name, Rider?”
“Do you have a first?”
I feel a heat take to my face that has nothing to do with the sun or the fiery android making air waves. It wasn’t like me to forget my manners. “Tabby,” I say. If he wasn’t offering his last name, I wasn’t dishing out mine.
The barkeep, Rider, smirks as if I have made a joke. “Well how about this, Tabby, no last names if I ignore the fact that you’re up here illegally. Deal?”
I feel more flushed than ever as I nod. His eyes are still bizarre, shifting in tint for no apparent reason, and with them on me I wonder if I can stay as solid as the ice fixtures the pub held inside or if I’m prone to melt.
Sunlight saves me from focusing on his eyes too long though, having brought to life his other features. Now I can discover the wonder of his navy blue spiky hair, matching the shade of his business suit with oddly hypnotizing polka-dot tie. It was so rare to see someone close to my age looking so dapper, or anyone a generation older for that matter. It was no wonder he’d seemed older when I first set my sights on him.
“Like I said,” Rider is saying. “We’ve got to disable that thing before it causes anymore trouble.”
“I think you’ve got your pronouns confused because I don’t remember ‘us’ becoming ‘we.’ Also you can’t just destroy that android. She’s mine, the last reminder I have of my mother before she—” I stop, afraid of getting too personal, unsure why I’m getting personal.
“Died,” Rider tries to finish for me. I hear something in his voice, but I’m unsure if what I’m hearing is sorrow or regret.”
“No,” I correct him. “Before she got ill, mentally. Before she forgot my name.”
Rider says nothing and neither do I. Until I feel that tension is growing too big around us; it’s taking up all the space on this little black bar of soap, threatening to send us overboard.
“Before I help you obliterate my haywire memento, answer me one thing.”
Rider perks up a bit in curiosity, shoulders straightening. “Yes?”
“What is with your pub? Magic, illusions, or both?”
He laughs. “Neither. Technology.”