She left because she needed to go to class that evening, and she left early because she hadn’t done her reading yet. I walked her to the train station, bought her ticket, and went with her to the platform. As the beast rolled in, I helped her jostle past the crowds of ladies so that she could press into the women’s car. The rain had stopped, but the train windows were still closed, fogged up because of the crowded compartment. She disappeared through the doorway, pushed in by a woman in a waitressing uniform, and then the train hooted.
I turned away, almost running right into this woman in a suit. The sound of the horn had spooked her into running, and she jumped for the compartment door. The other women pulled her in, and by then the train had picked up too fast to run along side it.
Whenever I went down the back stairs at the Cornerstand station, I made an effort to land as hard as possible on the metal grate, so that my shoes made the worst possible clang I could make. Nobody ever used them, because they were dark and opened into a crooked alleyway instead of the main street. That little muddy, slippery road winds in between the buildings that lean over it, keeping the light out and the eyes away. All those buildings always have their shutters closed, lights on, and fans blowing outward.
Even though it was in the middle of the afternoon, there was a burning bulb in the keeper’s box at Aleksandr’s store. Aleksandr always had a lamp on. One of the kids, thirteen maybe, sat in the store with his feet propped up on a plastic stool. He had the most giant book in the universe propped up in front of his face, and his whole head was buried in it. He looked ridiculous, face in book while he sat surrounded by all the spice packets and loaves of bread that hung in the little window. He was leaning back on a sack of potatoes.
“Zachary,” I set my elbows on the counter, “What is that?”
“Crime and Punishment,” the kid replied without even looking up.
“You liar.” I grabbed the book and pulled it forward, and there was absolutely a comic in between the pages.
“Come on man!”
“So you’re hiding your comic books inside big classics. Alek must be here.”
“Yeah. He’s in back cleaning up.”
“Is the main door locked?”
I gave him a salute and slipped under the plywood counter. Behind the hanging spark plugs, canned sauces, and swinging shelves of noodles, a raggedy curtain separated the keeper’s box from the rest of the building. I breezed through and into the cooler darkness of Aleksandr’s now quiet bar.
“Alek!” I called, skirting by a table that had been shoved in front of the door. The floor was bare, except for a mop bucket. “Alek!”
Jacques showed up first. He had been kneeling behind the bar. “There’s the college student,” he smiled. “Where’s your girl?”
“She had class. Put her on a train.”
“Woman’s not stupid, Jacques,” I shrugged. “She got here on her own. She can get back.”
“Girl seemed smart. You’re probably right.”
Aleksandr came out from behind a cloth-covered door, a pair of bottles in his hand. He was grinning at me, but he was still pissed. He was about to lay into me, and I’m sure I winced visibly, because the first thing he said was, “Is seeing me so frightening, Michael, that you have to bring a woman to back you up?”
“I should’a come sooner.”
“How is school?”
“And I imagine you’re being very successful.”
“It’s hard to be successful, Alek—they built this thing for climbers. You know it.”
“If anyone was going to rise to the occasion, it’s you.”
“Thanks—but you know somehow I doubt that.”
“You’ve gotten a job on campus, then?”
“But they’re going to help you get one, right?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yes, Alek—yes, I know I owe Aaron some money.”
“Not just some money, Michael. You owe Aaron a lot of money. You owe him your tuition. What’s going on up there that’s making it impossible for you to pay? I’m hoping it’s not only women.”
“First—woman. I’m only into Arie—the rest are just dips.”
“Coming from you, that’s a feat,” Jacques chuckled.
“Shut up, man. You know I am particular.”
“We can see that you’re particular now,” Jacques smirked.
“I’m gonna ignore that because, second—Alek, it’s hard. This is hard. I’m doing the best I can, but you don’t understand what it’s like up there… People only have one mind, and it’s to get where the skytons are. They believe all these lies—and they got no souls. It’s impossible to be successful unless you conform to this madness.”
“Does Arie believe the lies?”
“Is she a successful student?”
I scowled at him. “Yes.”
“Well then what is she doing?”
“She was raised this way, Alek. She’s not exactly like all the rest in her mind, but she still understands how it all works. Her parents went to school, and all her friends go to school. And she’s been in climber schools her whole life. She is a climber–but her mind’s just not poisoned. That’s how she can do it. Somebody like me, from down here–it’s just too damn hard to act like them and eat up their shit.”
“Listen,” Aleksandr said, turning around from his arrangement of bottles. “When I first met you, you were sitting in a ditch. Do you remember where?”
“Behind my school.”
“Was it a climber school?”
“No. It was right here. Near Cornerstand, above the construction lot.”
“That’s right. And what were you doing?”
“Exactly, Michael. You’re a reader. You’re always reading. You have a remarkable talent, and it is a talent that everybody doesn’t get. In the towers, people go to good schools, where they are helped every step of the way. You have a passion for learning already. No one helped you discover that you like to read. No one helped you read, or helped you even find books.”
“Not until you.”
“Now you just have to take your love of reading and turn it into school.”
“But they’re totally different things.”
“I know that,” Aleksandr nodded. “But you can adapt. No one expects a kid from the Free Quarters to succeed in college. They call us shadow barons and train refuse and sewer rats. You know as well as I do, until we can prove them wrong, that is all we will be. We all chipped in and put you in that school so that’s what you would do. Aaron can’t do that. Angel can’t do that. Jacques and I couldn’t do that. I picked you, a long time ago, because of this—“ he thunked his fingers on my head. “Because you had enough smarts in you to do this, and because you had enough with this bullshit to want to stand up and speak out. Now, you’ve just got to get your shit together and start doing what’s asked of you.”
“They don’t want me in that school.”
“Of course they don’t. You’re poor and gifted. That threatens them. But you know what else scares them?”
“Climbers live in the towers by the sea, and they live simple, comfortable lives. They go to school, they go to work, they fuck and make children, they buy things that skyton corporations tell them they need. Their whole lives are centered around toys and relationships that have no fire. They don’t know what it means to be passionate about something, because they’ve been numbed by their cushy, powerless lives. Then—Extension Day, and suddenly all these poor people are their peers in this humiliating slavery that we’ve found ourselves in. And they say, sure, send your kids up to our schools—get them educated on special money. And who are these kids? They’re kids like you—dirt poor, and damn passionate. You take this seriously, you say things that they haven’t been able to think in years. You’re angry about the way that the Sky Cities rule over us. You’re angry that we have no voice and live under their shadows. What they’re really scared of is how you wake up questions in them. They never think about what it means—them living in the ‘Oswald Commercial Urban District’—or what it means that they have learned their whole lives how to submit to floating spiders in the sky. But you, Michael, you do know what it means.”
“So what—Alek? What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m trying to tell you that you have got more than what it takes, but they’re scared of you, so they’ll try and break you. You’ve just got to play their game, so that they can’t force you out. And you’ve got to get yourself a job so you can solve this business with Aaron. He’s waiting on you, and the longer this goes, the more you know he’s going to ask in return.”
“Yah..” I sighed. “Yah I know. But I just don’t got the money.”
“Well then the funding could dry up, Michael. And more importantly, you do not want to be in debt to Aaron. I can only fish you out so much with him.”
I pushed myself away from the bar. “Alright, Alek. I hear you. I hear you. I’m going to do my best.”
“It’s not that I’m not glad to see you.”
“Yah. I hear you.”
“I’m just lookin out for you, Michael. We care about whether or not you sink or swim. We don’t want you to fuck up. Now, come on. Jacques here will pour you a drink and we can talk about better things.”