The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(5)

by Katharine McGee

That was when Avery had screamed.

Everything afterward was a blur. Leda fumbled in her glove to push the red emergency button that would summon her ski-drone, but Avery was already being scooped up a few meters away. Her leg jutted out at a garish angle.

By the time they got back to the hotel’s penthouse suite, Avery was already on a jet home. She would be fine, Mr. Fuller assured them; she just needed her knee re-fused, and he wanted her to see experts in New York. Leda knew what that meant. Avery would visit Everett Radson afterward to have the surgery microlasered. God forbid there be the slightest trace of a scar on her perfect body.

Later that night the kids were all in the hot tub on the deck, passing around frosted bottles of whiskeycream, toasting to Avery, the Andes, the snow that had started falling. As it started to come down ever faster, the others eventually grumbled in protest and retreated to bed. But Leda, who was sitting next to Atlas, stayed behind. He hadn’t moved yet either.

She’d wanted Atlas for years, ever since she and Avery became friends, since the moment she first met him at Avery’s apartment, when he walked in on them singing Disney songs and she turned bright red with embarrassment. But Leda had never really thought she had a chance with him. He was two years older, and besides, he was Avery’s brother. Until now, as everyone was clambering out of the hot tub and she hesitated, wondering if maybe, possibly … She felt hyperaware of where her knee brushed Atlas’s under the water, sending tingles up her entire left side.

“Want some?” he murmured, passing her the bottle.

“Thanks.” Leda forced herself to look away from his eyelashes, where snowflakes were clumping like tiny liquid stars. She took a long sip of the whiskeycream. It was smooth, sweet like a dessert, with an aftertaste that burned in her throat. She felt light-headed, dizzy from the heat of the hot tub, of Atlas so close to her. Maybe the adrenaline drop hadn’t worn off yet, or maybe it was just her own raw excitement that made her feel strangely reckless.

“Atlas,” she said softly. When he turned to her, an eyebrow raised, she leaned forward and kissed him.

After a moment’s hesitation he kissed her back, his hands reaching up into the heavy curls of her hair, dusted with snow. Leda lost all sense of time. At some point her bikini top came off, and her bottoms too—well, it wasn’t like she was wearing much clothing to begin with—and Atlas was whispering “Are you sure?” Leda nodded, her heart hammering. Of course she was sure. She’d never been so sure of anything.

The next morning she nearly skipped into the kitchen, her hair still damp from the hot tub’s steam, the memory of Atlas’s touch carved indelibly on her skin, like an inktat. But he was gone.

He’d taken the first jet back to New York. To check on Avery, his dad said. Leda nodded coolly, but inside she felt sick. She knew the truth, why Atlas had really left. He was avoiding her. Fine, she thought, anger swirling in to cover the pang of loss; she would show him. She wouldn’t care either.

Except that Leda never got a chance to confront Atlas. He went missing later that week, before classes resumed, even though it should have been the spring semester of his senior year. There was a brief and frantic search for him, limited only to Avery’s family. It ended within hours, when his parents learned he was okay.

Now, almost a year later, Atlas’s disappearance was old news. His parents publicly laughed it off as a youthful indulgence: Leda had heard them at countless cocktail parties, claiming that he was traveling the world on a gap year, that it had been their idea all along. That was their story and they were sticking to it, but Avery had told Leda the truth. The Fullers had no idea where Atlas was, and when—or if—he would ever come back. He called Avery periodically to check in, but always with the location heavily encrypted, and by then he was about to move on anyway.

Leda never told Avery about that night in the Andes. She didn’t know how to bring it up in the wake of Atlas’s disappearance, and the longer she kept it to herself, the more of a secret it became. It ached like a bruise, the realization that the only boy she’d ever cared about had literally run away after sleeping with her. Leda tried to stay angry; feeling angry seemed safer than letting herself feel hurt. But even the anger wasn’t enough to quiet the pain that pounded dully through her at the thought of him.

Which was how she’d ended up in rehab.

“Leda, will you come with me?” Avery’s voice broke into her thoughts. Leda blinked. “To my dad’s office, to pick something up,” Avery repeated. Her eyes were wide with meaning; Avery’s dad’s office was the excuse they’d been using for years, when one of them wanted to ditch whoever they were with.

“Doesn’t your dad have messenger bots for that?” Ming asked.

Leda ignored her. “Of course,” she said to Avery, standing up and brushing bits of grass off her jeans. “Let’s go.”

They waved good-bye and started on the path toward the nearest transport station, where the clear vertical column of the express C line shot upward. The sides were startlingly transparent; Leda could see inside to a group of elderly women whose heads were tipped together in conversation, and a toddler picking his nose.

“Atlas pinged me last night,” Avery whispered as they moved to stand on the upTower platform.

Leda stiffened. She knew that Avery had stopped telling her parents about Atlas’s calls. She said it only upset them. But there was something weird about the fact that Avery didn’t share this with anyone except Leda.

Then again, Avery had always been oddly protective of Atlas. Whenever he dated anyone, she invariably acted polite, but a little aloof—as if she didn’t quite approve, or thought that Atlas had made a mistake. Leda wondered if it had to do with Atlas being adopted, if Avery worried he was somehow more vulnerable, because of the life he’d come from, and felt an impulse to protect him as a result.

“Really?” she asked, keeping her voice steady. “Could you tell where he was?”

“I heard a lot of loud voices in the background. Probably a bar somewhere.” Avery shrugged. “You know how Atlas is.”

No, I really don’t. Maybe if she understood Atlas, Leda would be able to make sense of her own confused feelings. She gave her friend’s arm a squeeze.

“Anyway,” Avery said with forced brightness, “he’ll come home soon, when he’s ready. Right?”