The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(3)

by Katharine McGee

Now they were only a few minutes from the Tower. Sudden anxiety twisted in Leda’s stomach. Was she ready for this—ready to come back here and face everything that had sent her into a tailspin in the first place?

Not everything. Atlas was still gone.

Closing her eyes, Leda muttered a few words signaling her contacts to open her inbox, which she’d been checking nonstop since she left rehab this morning and got service again. Three thousand accumulated messages instantly pinged in her ears, invitations and vid-alerts cascading over one another like musical notes. The rumble of attention was oddly soothing.

At the top of the queue was a new message from Avery. When are you back?

Every summer, Leda’s family forced her to come on their annual visit “home” to Podunk, middle-of-nowhere Illinois. “Home is New York,” Leda would always protest, but her parents ignored her. Leda honestly didn’t even understand why her parents wanted to keep visiting year after year. If she’d done what they did—moved from Danville to New York as newlyweds, right when the Tower was built, and slowly worked their way up until they could afford to live in the coveted upper floors—she wouldn’t have looked back.

Yet her parents were determined to return to their hometown every year and stay with Leda and Jamie’s grandparents, in a tech-dark house stocked with nothing but soy butter and frozen meal packets. Leda had actually enjoyed it back when she was a kid and it felt like an adventure. As she got older, though, she started begging to stay behind. She dreaded being around her cousins, with their tacky mass-produced clothing and eerie contactless pupils. But no matter how much she protested, she never could worm her way out of going. Until this year.

I’m back now! Leda replied, saying the message aloud and nodding to send it. Part of her knew she should tell Avery about Silver Cove: they’d talked a lot in rehab about accountability, and asking friends for help. But the thought of telling Avery made Leda clutch at the seat beneath her until her knuckles were white. She couldn’t do it; couldn’t reveal that kind of weakness to her perfect best friend. Avery would be polite about it, of course, but Leda knew that on some level she would judge her, would always look at Leda differently. And Leda couldn’t handle that.

Avery knew a little of the truth: that Leda had started taking xenperheidren occasionally, before exams, to sharpen her thinking … and that a few times she’d taken some stronger stuff, with Cord and Rick and the rest of that crowd. But Avery had no idea how bad it had gotten toward the end of last year, after the Andes—and she definitely didn’t know the truth about this summer.

They pulled up to the Tower. The copter swayed drunkenly for a moment at the entrance to the seven-hundredth-floor helipad; even with stabilizers, it still faltered in the gale-force winds that whipped around the Tower. Then it made a final push and came to a rest inside the hangar. Leda unfolded herself from her seat and clattered down the staircase after her parents. Her mom was already on a call, probably muttering about a deal gone bad.

“Leda!” A blond whirlwind hurtled forward to engulf her in a hug.

“Avery.” Leda smiled into her friend’s hair, gently disentangling herself. She took a step back and looked up—and faltered momentarily, her old insecurities rushing back. Seeing Avery again was always a shock to the system. Leda tried not to let it bother her, but sometimes she couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was. Avery already had the perfect life, up in the thousandth-floor penthouse. Did she really have to be perfect too? Seeing Avery next to the Fullers, Leda could never quite believe that she’d been created from their DNA.

It sucked sometimes, being best friends with the girl too flawless to come from nature. Leda, on the other hand, probably came from a night of tequila shots on her parents’ anniversary.

“Want to get out of here?” Avery asked, pleading.

“Yes,” Leda said. She would do anything for Avery, although this time she didn’t really need to be coaxed.

Avery turned to embrace Leda’s parents. “Mr. Cole! Mrs. Cole! Welcome home.” Leda watched as they laughed and hugged her back, opening up like flowers in sunlight. No one was immune to Avery’s spell.

“Can I steal your daughter?” Avery asked, and they nodded. “Thanks. I’ll have her home by dinner!” Avery called out, her arm already in Leda’s, tugging her insistently toward the seven-hundredth-floor thoroughfare.

“Wait a sec.” Next to Avery’s crisp red skirt and cropped shirt, Leda’s end-of-rehab outfit—a plain gray T-shirt and jeans—looked positively drab. “I want to change if we’re going out.”

“I was thinking we’d just go to the park?” Avery blinked rapidly, her pupils darting back and forth as she summoned a hover. “A bunch of the girls are hanging out there, and everyone wants to see you. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Leda said automatically, shoving aside the prickle of annoyance she felt that they weren’t hanging out one-on-one.

They walked out the helipad’s double doors and into the thoroughfare, a massive transportation hub that spanned several city blocks. The ceilings overhead glowed a bright cerulean. To Leda, they seemed just as beautiful as anything she’d seen on her afternoon hikes at Silver Cove. But Leda wasn’t the type to look for beauty in nature. Beauty was a word she reserved for expensive jewelry, and dresses, and Avery’s face.

“So tell me about it,” Avery said in that direct way of hers, as they stepped onto the carbon-composite sidewalks that lined the silver hover paths. Cylindrical snackbots hummed past on enormous wheels, selling dehydrated fruit and coffee pods.

“What?” Leda tried to snap to attention. Hovers streamed down the street to her left, their movements darting and coordinated like a school of fish, colored green or red depending on whether they were free. She instinctively moved a little closer to Avery.

“Illinois. Was it as bad as usual?” Avery’s eyes went distant. “Hover call,” she said under her breath, and one of the vehicles darted out of the pack.

“You want to hover all the way to the park?” Leda asked, dodging the question, trying to sound normal. She’d forgotten the sheer volume of people here—parents dragging their children, businesspeople talking loudly into their contacts, couples holding hands. It felt overwhelming after the curated calm of rehab.