The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(16)


by Katharine McGee

“Remember when we were kids?” she said suddenly. “When you dared me to climb into the trash chute, and I got stuck inside? You waited with me the whole time until the safety bots came so I wouldn’t be in there alone.”

The lights in the liquor closet flickered off. They must have been standing very still to turn off the motion sensors. Cord was nothing but a shadow.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “So?”

“We’re all very different now, aren’t we?” Shaking her head, Avery pushed out the door and into the hallway.

She looped idly around the party for a while, saying hi to everyone she hadn’t seen since the end of last spring, drinking steadily from her two different cups. She couldn’t stop thinking about Atlas—or Leda. Where had Leda been all summer, that she refused to tell Avery about it? Whatever was going on, Avery felt terrible for the way she’d pressed the issue and clearly upset Leda. It wasn’t like her to leave a party early. Avery knew she should go to the Coles’ and check on her, yet she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving while Atlas was still here. After all those months apart, she just wanted to stay close to him.

I’m sorry about earlier. See you tomorrow? she sent to Leda, pushing aside her guilt.

Eventually she found Atlas in the downstairs library, playing a game of Spinners, and paused near the doorway to watch. He was leaning over the table as he Spun, his lashes casting subtle shadows on his cheekbones. Avery hadn’t played Spinners in years, since that time when she was fourteen—at another of Cord’s parties, in this very room. If she closed her eyes, it almost felt like it had happened yesterday, not three years ago.

She’d been so nervous to play. It was her first time drinking, and though she hadn’t told anyone, it was her first time at Spinners. She’d never even been kissed. What if they could all tell?

“Hurry up, Fuller!” Marc Rojas, a senior, had groaned at her hesitation. “Spin!”

“Spin! Spin!” the rest of the room took up the chant. Biting her lip, Avery reached up to swipe the holographic dial projected in the middle of the table.

The arrow whipped around the room in a blur. Everyone leaned forward to watch its progress. Finally it began to slow, and paused in front of Breccan Doyle. Avery braced herself, on the edge of her seat.

With its very last bit of momentum, the arrow shifted onto Atlas.

The game console immediately cast a privacy cone where they sat, refracting the light to hide them from the rest of the room, and deflecting all sound waves. Beyond the shimmering wall of photons—which rippled and bent like the surface of water in a pond—Avery could see the others, though they couldn’t see her. They were shouting and waving at the gaming console, probably trying to reset the game and make her spin again. Nothing fun about having siblings together in the cone, right?

“You okay?” Atlas asked quietly. He had a half-full bottle of atomic in his hand, and tried to pass it to her, but she shook her head. She was already confused, and the alcohol was stirring up her feelings for Atlas in a dangerous way.

“I’ve never kissed anyone before. I’m going to be terrible at it,” she blurted out, and cringed. What had made her say that?

Atlas took a long pull of the atomic, then set it down carefully. To his credit, he didn’t laugh. “Don’t worry,” he finally said. “I’m sure you’ll be a great kisser.”

“I don’t even know what to do!” Outside the cone, Avery saw Tracy Ellison, who had a huge crush on Atlas, gesturing angrily.

“You just need practice.” Atlas smiled and shrugged. “Sorry it’s me in here instead of Breccan.”

“Are you kidding? I’d rather—” Avery halted. She couldn’t let herself finish that sentence.

Atlas looked at her curiously. His brow furrowed in an expression she couldn’t quite read. “Aves,” he said, but it came out more like a question. He leaned closer. Avery held her breath …

The invisibility cone dissolved, letting reality back in.

Avery had never been sure whether that almost kiss was real, or whether she’d just imagined it. As the memory washed over her now, she looked at Atlas, who glanced up, seeming to feel her gaze. But if he was thinking of that night too, he didn’t give any indication. He just studied her for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “I’m out this round,” he said, disengaging from the game and walking over to where she stood.

“Hey.” He gently pulled the drinks from her hands and set them on a table. Avery had forgotten she was holding them. She tripped forward a little.

“Want me to take you home?” Atlas reached out to steady her. It was just like always; Atlas knowing what she wanted without her even having to say it. Except, of course, for the one thing he could never know.

“Yes,” Avery said, a little too quickly.

He nodded. “Let’s go, then.”

They walked out onto Cord’s doorstep and took the hover that Atlas had called. Avery leaned back on the seat and closed her eyes, letting the familiar hum of the magnetic propulsion system wash over her. She listened for the rise and fall of Atlas’s breathing. He really was here, she kept telling herself. It wasn’t just another one of her dreams.

When they reached the thousandth-floor penthouse Avery fell backward onto her bed, still in her dress. Everything was a little dizzy. “You okay?” Atlas asked, settling onto the corner of her enormous cream-colored comforter.

“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured. She was better than she’d been in months, here, alone, with Atlas, in the semidarkness. He scooted over a little. She closed her eyes. Right now, with him sitting on her bed, Avery could almost pretend he was just a boy she’d met and brought home. Not someone her parents adopted when she was five years old, because she was lonely and they didn’t have time for her.

“Remember when you first came here?” she asked. She’d been sitting on the playroom floor brushing her doll’s hair, and the front door had opened to reveal her mom, holding the hand of a hopeful, lost-looking boy. “This is Atlas,” her mom had said, and the boy had given a tentative smile. From that moment on Avery adored him.

“Of course I remember,” Atlas teased. “You demanded that I go straight to the park with you, and drag you along on your hoverboard so you could pretend it was a pirate ship.”