Story Excerpt

Toppers

by Jason Sanford

We be toppers. Toppers we be. Hanging off Empire State as cement and limestone crumble and fall. Looking down the lines and pulleys strung between nearby buildings. Eyeing the green-growing plants and gardens on the tall tall roofs.

And below, the mists. The ever-flowing mists. They wait, patiently. As if time is theirs alone to worship.

I was born in a slug, an insulated bag of canvas strung to our highrise’s limestone façade by people without the power to live inside. Momma always said life in a slug was the closest we toppers came to being free, and I believe that. But too much freedom is also bad, so Momma stitched our slug with care, making it last when others fell during winds or storms.

Momma was good. Even though she’d opened herself to the mists while pregnant with me, she resisted their siren call. Kept me safe and near-fed until I was old enough to climb.

One day, like a true topper, she announced her time had come.

We climbed the stairs to Empire’s old observation deck and stood there among the vegetable gardens and potato bins. As the gardeners eyed us to ensure we didn’t steal their precious food, I begged Momma not to go.

Momma hugged me tight. She whispered how her father had visited Empire State when he was a child, back before the city left the Days-We-Knew. He’d climbed to this very spot and saw the cities and oceans and lands of that now-gone time.

“He claimed it was the most beautiful sight he’d ever witnessed,” Momma said.

I leaned over the railing and watched the mists rolling into the city from the flat, endless horizons. No matter what my grandfather believed, nothing could look prettier than the mists on a sunny day. I told Momma this.

Momma kissed me on the cheek before jumping over the railing and disappearing into the mists below.

Instead of the thump of her body hitting ground I heard a contented sigh rising on the wind.

As comfort, the gardeners gifted me with a tiny potato and a sickly carrot.

Blessed be the mists.

Curse their ever-waiting grasp.

 

That was then. This is me in the morning of now, the sun warming the slug’s canvas and waking me to dreamer-happy thoughts.

“Hellos,” I say, leaning over the slug’s canvas siding and facing the mists far below.

Hellos to you, Hanger-girl, the mists whisper back. Will you join us today?

“Might . . . if the Super sticks me on another shit detail.”

The mists circling Empire giggle at my joke—they know I’ll never willingly join them. For a moment my momma’s voice rises above the others, whispering her love for me. I smile, glad a piece of her is still around.

“Who’s she babbling to now?” Old Man Douger mutters from the slug next to mine. I hush, angry that he heard me. No one else in Empire hears the mists’ words or knows they talk. If the oldies like Douger suspected I talked with the mists, they’d toss me over the edge. Oldies hate the mists. They remember what it was like to live on the ground with trees and grass and cows that mooed as you cut them into hamburger.

Not that we don’t have burgers. But oldies always moan for cows, saying squirrel and rat don’t taste the same.

I listen as Old Man Douger begins his morning prayers, asking the Days-We-Knew to save us. “We’re still here,” he prays. “We’re still waiting for you to find us.”

I snort. Only fools believe the Days-We-Knew will save us before Empire State dies. Like all highrises in the city, Empire is aging badly with chunks of cement and limestone cracking off each day. Toppers whisper that the mists are slowly eroding the buildings, with two nearby highrises collapsing in the last year alone. Even strong buildings like Empire and the distant Chrysler—which beams its point-metal roof to the skies like the rocket it is—are weakening.

But all that’s mist talk. If I want eats and water I must climb down and work.

Wiggling like a cement worm, I squirm through a broken window into Empire, passing the better ups and well-we-dos eating breakfast. Warm food scents slap me as I go but I don’t beg a share. It’s too easy for people inside to cut a slug loose as you sleep.

When I reach the building’s core, I climb down the ancient elevator shafts to the fourteenth floor. This is as close to the mists as anyone goes unless sealed in a breathing suit.

Bugdon waits for me, his yellow hardhat cracked down the middle, the names of the five previous Supers who wore the hat scratched on the sides. He’s a decade older than me and a true topper. When Bugdon was a teenager he forged a path through the mists to Chrysler, opening new trade for food. He likes me because I brave the mists like no one else.

But today Bugdon’s mood is foul, his thin face tight to anger. “Lateness, Hanger,” he says. “No more lateness or you’re gone.”

I start to smart back but stop when I see the deader at his feet. That’s why Bugdon’s angry. I also recognize the body. Jodi. One of our best mist scouts.

“Crank jammed,” Bugdon says softly. “By the time we raised Jodi above the mists, his air was gone.”

Jodi lays on the bare cement floor, the helmet off his airtight suit, his once-lively face frozen in a twist of pain. Bugdon leans over Jodi and taps him gently in the chest—they were friends, and sometime lovers—before he kicks Jodi and calls him a fool.

“Why didn’t you open your damn helmet?” Bugdon asks Jodi’s body. “Let the mists take you?”

I glance around, making sure no one else heard him. Bugdon could lose his superintendent position for talk like this. When the mists take you, they absorb your mind and body into their strange matrix. How much they absorbed is open to debate—or would be if the subject wasn’t dangerously taboo—but I figured the mists took a little of you. Otherwise why could I still hear Momma’s voice rising from the mists each morning?

“He’d still be dead,” I whisper.

“He wouldn’t be deader dead,” Bugdon says with a burst of sads. “Part of him might still live.”

I remember the times the air ran low in my suit. How I’d burned and gasped. I’m impressed Jodi went through that and worse without removing his helmet.

Several couriers walk up so we stop the mist talk. Bugdon orders the couriers to salvage Jodi’s suit and carry his body to the compost rooms. For a moment I consider racing for Jodi’s slug. Maybe he stored extra food or water. But gossip’s fire to Empire and I’d never reach the slug in time.

Besides, Bugdon has a job for me. “Hot work,” he says, handing me an air bottle. “The Plaza. Trade for two bags of seeds. You willing to chance it?”

I glance at the ancient transit map on the wall. The route to the Plaza Hotel was cleared and measured long ago—straight down Fifth Avenue, turn left on Fifty-Ninth. I make a good mist scout because my stride’s a perfect two feet. Makes for easy math. From Empire to Fifty-Ninth Street is 6,864 feet. Since I can’t see in the mists, I’ll walk 3,432 steps to reach the street. Then turn left and a few hundred more strides will take me to the Plaza.

I’ve often gazed across the city at the old Plaza Hotel and wondered what it was like when Central Park was more than a green spot on age-brown paper. But the upper stories of the Plaza barely rise above the mists on good days. If today turns bad, their crank system might shut down, with only their roof safe from the mists. Worse, I wouldn’t have enough air to return to Empire.

That’s why most mists scouts refuse to walk this route.

Bugdon smiles. He took a similar risk when he opened the passage to Chrysler. Risks like this could make me first in line for food and work.

“I’ll do it,” I say, picking up Jodi’s old helmet. I lean close to Bugdon. “But if my air runs out, I’m not gasping to death. I’ll crack my damn helmet to the mists.”

Bugdon nods, approving of such talk.

 

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Copyright © 2016. Toppers by Jason Sanford

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