The Thousandth Floor

Page 24

Something about that look made Rylin shake with anger. She was furious with Cord for laughing at the situation, with herself for letting it unfold—and deep down, for enjoying it, for a single bewildered instant.

Without stopping to think, she raised her arm and slapped him. The noise cracked through the air like a whip.

“I’m sorry,” Cord finally said, into the painful stillness. “I obviously misread the situation.”

Rylin watched the red mark of her hand blossoming on his face. She’d gone too far. He wouldn’t pay her for tonight, and all that hard work would have been for nothing. “I—um, I should get going.”

She was halfway out the front door when she heard footsteps in the entryway. “Hey, Myers,” Cord called out from behind her. “Catch.”

She turned and caught the bag of Gummy Buddies in midair.

“Thanks,” she said, confused, but the door was already closing behind him.

Rylin leaned against the door of Cord’s apartment and closed her eyes, trying to gather the frayed and tangled strands of her thoughts. Her mouth felt bruised, almost seared. She could still feel where Cord had held her tight around the waist.

With an angry sigh, she hurried down the three brick stairs that led to his entrance and started down the carbon-paved streets.

The entire two and a half miles home, Rylin pulled the heads off the Gummy Buddies one by one, letting their small screams fill the empty elevator car.


“WATT!” A TINY pink form barreled down the hallway as he walked inside the next day.

“Hey, Zahra.” Watt laughed, scooping his five-year-old sister into his arms. Her dark curls had something sticky in them, and a costume tiara was perched precariously atop her head. Watt noticed that her pajama pants, which used to drag along the ground, now barely hit mid-calf. He made a mental note to buy her a new set the next time he was paid. Zahra giggled, then wriggled impatiently out of his arms to run back into the living room, where her twin brother, Amir, was building something out of plastifoam blocks.

“Watzahn, is that you?” Watt’s mom called from the kitchen.

“Yeah, Mom?” It was never a good sign when she used his full name.

You might want to change first, Nadia suggested, but Watt was already at the doorway. Shirin hovered over the cook surface, pouring water into an instant noodle dinner. Watt remembered back before the twins were born, when she used to cook elaborate Persian meals from scratch: rich lamb stews and golden flatbreads and rice sprinkled with sumac. Then she’d unexpectedly gotten pregnant and stopped cooking altogether, claiming the smell of spices made her nauseous. But even after the twins were born, the home-cooked Persian meals never came back. There wasn’t enough time anymore.

Shirin pushed the cook-dial to high heat and turned to Watt. “You were at Derrick’s all day?” she asked, with a glance at his rumpled clothes from last night. Watt reddened. Nadia said nothing, but he could practically feel her thinking I told you so.

“Yeah. I stayed at Derrick’s last night,” Watt said to his mom, but she just stared at him blankly. “Today was our last day of summer, and we wanted to try finishing this game …” He trailed off.

It was true, though. He’d barely spent any time at Squid Ink Martini Girl’s last night—Nadia was right, she didn’t have much to say, and he felt somehow foolish for having left the bar with her. He’d ducked out almost immediately to head for Derrick’s. He’d spent the night there, and this morning they’d eaten enormous sandwiches from the bagel shop and watched soccer on the tiny screen in Derrick’s living room. It wasn’t that Watt had been avoiding home, exactly. But Derrick didn’t have two younger siblings who needed constant attention. His parents basically let him do what he wanted, as long as he kept up his grades.

“I could have used your help today,” Shirin went on, sounding more defeated than angry. “The twins had a checkup this afternoon. I had to get Tasha to fill in for me at the center so that I could take them, since I couldn’t find you. I’ll have to work double shifts the rest of the week just to make up the time.”

Watt felt like utter crap. “You could have pinged me,” he said lamely, pretty sure he’d ignored a call at some point last night.

“You were too busy playing that holo game,” his mom snapped, then let out a sigh. “It’s fine. Just get your brother and sister.” She set bowls and spoons on the table as the door opened again, eliciting more excited squeals from Zahra. Moments later Watt’s dad was in the kitchen, a twin on each hip. He usually had to work much later than this—having him home for dinner was practically a special occasion.

“Dinner’s ready, Rashid.” Watt’s mom greeted him with a tired kiss on the cheek.

They all crammed around the small table. Watt shoved the instant noodles and canned vegetables into his mouth without tasting them, not that they had much taste to begin with. He was angry with his mom for making him feel guilty. What was wrong with him occasionally blowing off steam at a midTower bar? Or spending the last day of summer hanging out with his friend?

The moment Zahra yawned, her hands making small fists over her head, Watt stood up as if on cue. “The bedtime monorail is about to leave! All aboard!” he announced, in a too-deep voice.

“Choo choo!” Zahra and Amir attempted a train noise and trotted alongside Watt. The actual monorail was silent, of course, but the twins watched tons of animated train holos and loved making that sound. Watt’s dad smiled, watching them. Shirin pursed her lips and said nothing.

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