1: The Boy Who Could (Sometimes) Fly
I look up. And that’s when I realise that I don’t know where I am. There are tall buildings all around and hardly any sky: a city. And someone is falling out of that little cloudy patch, straight down towards me, dropping like a stone, and shouting.
It shouldn’t take such a long time for someone to fall, but it seems to. The person falling is a boy. He doesn’t fall easily, he flails, and even though I seem to have plenty of time to notice, and to consider whether I might be able to use my skill somehow to stop him, he only has time to shout that one word.
All that wondering, but no moving out of the way, like I’m rooted to the spot. He lands right on top of me, heavy, hard and awkward, laying me flat and crushing out all my breath, lumping me with his limbs and his monster skull to make bruises.
“You’re not Cushion,” he says, and he falls asleep. Or something.
Then I am annoyed. I edge and scramble out from under so that he falls more, on to the hardwalk. He is one of those gangly-ugly boys who always smell sweaty-sour. He has red hair and pale-pale skin and his bones poke out of his freckled face. I poke him, but nothing happens.
The street we are in is empty. It’s wide. The sun comes out from behind a cloud, way up there where there is sky, and I suddenly feel hope. I don’t know how I got to this place, this city, but maybe that doesn’t matter. I know who I’m looking for. Perhaps this is the place I’ll find them.
Time to get up and get looking, except there is still this boy. But he’s as big as me, as old as me. And he isn’t dead. I stand up.
“Who are you?” He is awake. He grabs my leg. He’s fast.
And I’m scared all of a sudden. And then I’m angry. “Get off me!” I try to pull away, but the falling boy is surprisingly strong, and he holds on.
He laughs, and his smile dazzles me, honestly. Then he squints. “I don’t eyesight much,” he says. “I thought you were Cushion. I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” He lets go of my leg.
“No.” I back off in a direction, look around, see a way, make for it.
“Hey!” the boy calls. “Where are you going?” He’s up and after me, fast again. Then he groans and sags against a wall, and his face is all pain and sad. I can feel my skill wanting to work on him. I never saw a face for showing its feelings like that, and making you feel them right along. Damn him. He’s hurt himself falling, but it’s not just that.
I come back, hesitantly. “Are you all right?”
“No, but…” He has tears in his eyes. He’s cradling one of his arms and I can see now that it’s broken. He’s a street kid. You can tell easily by looking.
“Is there a spital near here?” I ask.
He laughs, and wipes his face with the arm that still works. “Not much use to me if there was,” he says. “You don’t know anything.” He doesn’t say it angry; it’s like he’s telling me. “What are you doing here? This isn’t a place to be if you don’t know anything.”
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Looking?” He’s interested. “Do you have any money?”
I don’t know if I have any money, but I don’t want to search my pockets and show him that. “Do I look like I have any money?” I don’t know what I look like, to him.
He laughs. “I suppose not,” he says. “But you’re not from Starbon are you? You don’t sound like you are. Have you got a place to stay?”
Starbon? Starbon is the big city. I know that much. “I don’t…” I don’t know. Does it matter? If he’s a street kid, perhaps I am one too. There are plenty enough street kids in cities these days. I can sleep in the street, like the others, there’s nothing special about me, is there?
“What’s your skill?”
“I don’t have any.” I say it too fast, and he looks at me like he knows it’s a lie, but I brazen it out, staring right at him. I can do that; I’m good at it. I’m not about to give away the little I know to just anyone.
“Pity,” he says. “If you were skilled you could...” He stops for a moment, then starts again. “Still, come with me anyway. I might be able to help you.”
This is not what I want. “Go with you where?” I ask. I don’t want to be beholden to strangers. And anyway, it was my aim to help him, not the other way around. The one doing the helping is the one making the choices.
But he doesn’t seem to need help any more. He’s all wide awake with energy and more of those broad smiles. “You don’t know the city, else you wouldn’t be in this part of it. I’ll show you.”
And I figure it can’t hurt.
The more I see, the further we go, the more I know this is the right place. I skip after the twitchy boy, staring all around like some fool. There’s huge in this city, but there’s tiny as well. Massive endless blocks of flats all cluttered up with noisy folk, vast arching bridges covered in black filth, a river washing in and out, brown and thick. People live in these places, outside; it’s warm enough. That’s the tiny, the people sleeping in piles of rubbish, in nooks and crannies, or just sitting on the hardwalk, begging. Plenty of them are children, with their little teeth, and gaps between them. Children shouldn’t have to live on the street, that’s what my dad used to say. No-one should, but children less than any. We should all be ashamed. I remember him saying it, but I never understood. Where else can they live, if there aren’t enough houses? Birds don’t live in houses.
I’ve lived in houses. I remember suddenly, and startlingly; I remember a house near the sea that was always full of light. A long time ago.
But this city isn’t all the same. It’s different around every corner enough to make you catch your breath. We are going through softer streets now, where the walls are cleaner and the buildings look serious and important with green gardens around them, flowers. There are fewer people out and about, and those there are all rapt in their devices.
The falling boy thrusts himself into a fat hedge. “Come on,” he says. He’s run out of steam.
Inside the hedge is a strange passage, a path to somewhere, worn and used, and I go after him because I’m intrigued. The falling boy is nobody much, I decide. But where we are now is like a secret room. It’s magical, almost. And this part of the city is so quiet compared to where we were before, the filth and the noise and the street people all cleared away. I can see out through the leaves, as we walk along. There’s a beautiful garden and a tall house, an old house.
“We might have to wait here a while,” the boy says. “She might not be here.”
He steps out into the sunshine without saying, stumbling like he might fall, stoops to pick up a handful of gravel, and rains the little stones up at a window two levels above.
I just stand and watch; that’s all I do.
And the window opens, and a head sticks out of it. “Rellian! I knew it was going to be you,” the head says in a sharp whisper. It’s a girl’s head, a small and pretty one. “What are you doing down there? It’s not nearly dark yet, and I told you to fly up if you want to see me. I’ll get in trouble if they hear.”
“Can’t. I’m busted.”
The girl sighs. “So you just want my skill then, and not me at all.”
“Let us in, Ilse. I’ve broken my arm and it bloody hurts.” He throws her one of those smiles and she’s gone.
“Can you fly?” I ask him, in proper awe.
“Usually,” he says.
“Who is that?” The girl called Ilse has colourless hair and a wide forehead. She looks like a doll.
“I don’t know. She was on Lon Lee. I fell on her.”
“Of course you did,” the girl says.
“My name is Pride,” I tell her, to show her I’m not nobody.
“Come in quickly,” she hisses. “And for heaven’s sake be quiet. Eric is out, thank God, but the docs are both here, and the sirs. They’ll smell you!”
I don’t care what happens to these people, I realise. Whatever they’re afraid of is nothing to do with me. But all the same, I’m interested. I might not know much, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never met anyone before who could fly.
The downstairs is not much like a house. It’s more like some kind of office building all white-painted and prohibitively clean. There’s even a reception desk or something like it, I think, without being given any time to think, whisked up elegant stairs to the next level, and up more stairs again, no stopping.
“Made it.” Ilse closes the door and heaves a huge sigh. “Don’t get too comfortable. You’re not sleeping here.”
We’re in her bedroom, or so I suppose. It’s what you might call opulent. Everything in it is pale-coloured and expensive, wide apart. There are four windows and two device-screens. And even though I recognise it as a place that would never be my bedroom, I realise I am not ignorant of such rooms and that tells me something about my forgotten self.
The falling boy has fallen once more, onto a neatly-made bed. He grins, weakly. “Why don’t you come back Ilse?” he asks. “It doesn’t look like you’re having much fun hanging around here.”
“Fun?” she raises her eyebrows. “Where’s Cushion, Rellian?”
He scowls. “Why do you have to ask that? You know…”
That was the word he shouted when he fell, I remember. Cushion. Is Cushion a person then? I wish they would get on with it. She’s going to fix his arm with her skill, and I want to see.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “But this is going to happen more and more isn’t it, if she’s not there to catch you? My skill doesn’t work as well as it used to either. Let me have a look. God you stink!”
I let out a snort of laughter and they look at me for a moment, both with equal disdain.
“I can’t fix this,” she says.
“Yes you can,” says Rellian.
“I can’t! It isn’t straight. I’d have to pull it first and then you’ll yell, and they’ll hear.”
“What can they possibly do though, really? It’s only your family. Anyway, I won’t yell.”
“You don’t understand.” She speaks quiet, through gritted teeth, and she means it. Then she pulls the busted arm and of course he does yell, booming loud, and he falls over into a slump besides. She turns to me and I’m surprised. “You’ll have to get him back to the Cliffhangers,” she says. “I’m hoping you know where that is.”
There’s noise then, voices and feet on stairs, and I’m caught between that to focus on, and her. What is she doing? I want to know. She’s got hold of the falling boy’s busted arm in both hands.
“I knew it!” It’s a great big man-boy who bursts in. I have to stare at his eyebrows because they’re so furious and pointed.
“I thought you were out,” she says. She was scared before, but now she’s standing up and ferocious. I’m beginning to admire her.
“Lucia, come quick,” the man-boy says. “She’s at it again!”
“I’m not at anything,” Ilse says.
A woman comes in, young and tall. She looks just like Ilse, only she’s so tall, like a willow tree. “Oh, Ilse, you can’t,” this woman says. “Skilling stops your brain learning. You know that!”
“I wasn’t skilling!”
The man-boy shakes his head. “I saw you. You know what will happen to our family if you don’t make doc. What’s wrong with you?”
I can’t believe all these tall people are standing and shouting at this one small girl, their own sister. There’s another sister now crowding in, just as tall and all frowns.
“She was helping us,” I say, loud and fair enough to make them stop, only it doesn’t. I clock Rellian bewildering up from that bed. His arm is fixed, and I didn’t even see her do it.
“You don’t get to speak in our house,” the man-boy says.
I feel sick. Who is he to say that to me, anywhere, ever? He’s made himself into my enemy and he might not know it, but he doesn’t want to be that. I feel the world spin under me as I wrestle with the urge to use my skill and make him sorry. My skill isn’t meant to hurt people, but it can. I know that much. I glare.
He doesn’t take any notice.
It doesn’t matter, says the voice in my head. He’s not important enough for that. He’s not worth it. I get hold of myself and stand still.
“The docs will send you to Port Helen now,” he says, kind of gleeful. “They said they would.”
“They can’t!” Ilse says. That’s what she’s afraid of, you can tell. “I was only helping Rellian. He broke his arm!” She’s crying. She looks like a little kid in her blue-and-white dress. She even has a ribbon in her hair.
“Then you’re stupid,” the man-boy says. “You’re not to go near these people. You’ve been told and told.”
“There are places they can go if they need help, you know that,” the tall woman, the first one says.
The other one nods like she’s a shadow. “You know it very well,” she says severely.
I pull myself together. There’s nothing going to happen here that’s good. Rellian’s eyes are rolling, like he’s about to fall asleep. I take hold and shake him. “Let’s get out of here,” I say.
He nods. And they don’t try to stop us. They step aside like we’re some kind of noxious chemical as we seep by, down the elegant stairs, out the door, through the hedge into the street.
The fresh air seems to wake the falling boy up a little at least. He sniffs it experimentally and looks around as if he’s just arrived in a brand new city. I was like that, when was it? Now I feel as if I might have been here all my life.
“Where’s the Cliffhangers?” I ask him.
“You want the Cliffhangers?” He smiles his crazy, broad smile. “I can take you there.”