THE SOUNDS OF laughter and music were dying down on the thousandth floor, the party breaking up by bits and pieces as even the rowdiest guests finally stumbled into the elevators and down to their homes. The floor-to-ceiling windows were squares of velvety darkness, though in the distance the sun was quietly rising, the skyline turning ocher and pale pink and a soft, shimmering gold.
And then a scream cut abruptly through the silence as a girl fell toward the ground, her body falling ever faster through the cool predawn air.
In just three minutes, the girl would collide with the unforgiving cement of East Avenue. But now—her hair whipped up like a banner, the silk dress snapping around the curves of her body, her bright red mouth frozen in a perfect O of shock—now, in this instant, she was more beautiful than she had ever been.
They say that before death, people's lives flash before their eyes. But as the ground rushed ever faster toward her, the girl could think only of the past few hours, the path she'd taken that ended here. If only she hadn't talked to him. If only she hadn't been so foolish. If only she hadn't gone up there in the first place.
When the dock monitor found what remained of her body and shakily pinged in a report of the incident, all he knew was that the girl was the first person to fall from the Tower in its twenty-five years. He didn't know who she was, or how she'd gotten outside.
He didn't know whether she'd fallen, or been pushed, or whether—crushed by the weight of unspoken secrets—she'd decided to jump.
Two months earlier
"I HAD A great time tonight," Zay Wagner said as he walked Avery Fuller to the door of her family's penthouse. They'd been down at the New York Aquarium on the 830th floor, dancing in the soft glow of the fish tanks and familiar faces. Not that Avery cared much about the aquarium. But as her friend Eris always said, a party was a party, right?
"Me too." Avery tilted her bright blond head toward the retinal scanner, and the door unlocked. She offered Zay a smile. "Night."
He reached for her hand. "I was thinking maybe I could come in? Since your parents are away and everything . . ."
"I'm sorry," Avery mumbled, hiding her annoyance with a fake yawn. He'd been finding excuses to touch her all night; she should have seen this coming. "I'm exhausted."
"Avery." Zay dropped her hand and took a step back, running his fingers through his hair. "We've been doing this for weeks now. Do you even like me?"
Avery opened her mouth, then fell silent. She had no idea what to say.
Something flickered over Zay's expression—irritation? confusion? "Got it. I'll see you later." He retreated to the elevator, then turned back, his eyes traveling over her once more. "You looked really beautiful tonight," he added. The elevator doors closed behind him with a click.
Avery sighed and stepped into the grand entryway of her apartment. Back before she was born, when the Tower was under construction, her parents had bid aggressively to get this place—the entire top floor, with the only two-story foyer in the entire structure. They were so proud of this entryway, but Avery hated it: the hollow way it made her footsteps echo, the glinting mirrors on every surface. She couldn't look anywhere without seeing her reflection.
She kicked off her heels and walked barefoot toward her room, leaving the shoes in the middle of the hallway. Someone would pick them up tomorrow, one of the bots, or Sarah, if she actually showed up on time.
Poor Zay. Avery did like him: he was funny in a loud, fizzy way that made her laugh. But she just didn't feel anything when they kissed.
But the only boy Avery did want to kiss was the one she never, ever could.
She stepped into her room and heard the soft hum as the room comp whizzed to life, scanning her vitals and adjusting the temperature accordingly. An ice water appeared on the table next to her antique four-poster bed—probably because of the champagne still turning in her empty stomach, though Avery didn't bother asking. After Atlas skipped town, she'd disabled the voice function on the comp. He'd been the one to set it on the British accent and name it Jenkins. Talking to Jenkins without him was too depressing.
Zay's words echoed in her head. You looked really beautiful tonight. He was just trying to give her a compliment, of course; he couldn't have known how much Avery hated that word. All her life she'd been hearing how beautiful she was—from teachers, boys, her parents. By now the phrase had lost all meaning. Atlas, her adopted brother, was the only one who knew better than to compliment her.
The Fullers had spent years and a great deal of money conceiving Avery. She wasn't sure how expensive she'd actually been to make, though she guessed her value at slightly below that of their apartment. Her parents, who were both of middling height with ordinary looks and thinning brown hair, had flown in the world's leading researcher from Switzerland to help mine their genetic material. Somewhere in the million combinations of their very average DNA, they found the single possibility that led to Avery.
She wondered, sometimes, how she would've turned out if her parents had made her naturally, or just screened for diseases like most people on the upper floors. Would she have inherited her mom's skinny shoulders, or her father's big teeth? Not that it mattered. Pierson and Elizabeth Fuller had paid for this daughter, with honey-colored hair and long legs and deep blue eyes, her dad's intelligence, and her mom's quick wit. Atlas always joked that stubbornness was her one imperfection.
Avery wished that was the only thing wrong with her.
She shook out her hair, yanked it into a loose bun, and walked purposefully from her room. In the kitchen she swung open the pantry door, already reaching for the hidden handle to the mech panel. She'd found it years ago during a game of hide-and-seek with Atlas. She wasn't even sure whether her parents knew about it; it wasn't as if they ever set foot in here.
Avery pushed the metal panel inward, and a ladder swung down into the narrow pantry space. Clutching the skirts of her ivory silk gown with both hands, she folded herself into the crawl space and started up, counting the rungs instinctively in Italian as she did, uno, due, tre. She wondered if Atlas had spent any time in Italy this year, if he'd even gone to Europe at all.
Balancing on the top rung, she reached to release the trapdoor and stepped eagerly into the wind-whipped darkness.
Beneath the deafening roar of the wind, Avery heard the rumbling of various machines on the roof around her, huddled under their weatherproof boxes or photovoltaic panels. Her bare feet were cold on the metal slabs of the platform. Steel supports arced from each corner, joining overhead to form the Tower's iconic spire.
It was a clear night, no clouds in the air to dampen her eyelashes or bead into moisture on her skin. The stars glittered like crushed glass against the dark vastness of the night sky. If anyone knew she was up here, she'd be grounded for life. Exterior access over the 150th floor was forbidden; all the terraces above that level were protected from the high-speed winds by heavy panes of polyethylene glass.
Avery wondered if anyone had ever set foot up here besides her. There were safety railings along one side of the roof, presumably in case maintenance workers came up, but to her knowledge, no one ever had.
She'd never told Atlas. It was one of only two secrets she had kept from him. If he found out, he would make sure she didn't come back, and Avery couldn't bear the thought of giving this up. She loved it here—loved the wind battering her face and tangling her hair, bringing tears to her eyes, howling so loud that it drowned out her own wild thoughts.
She stepped closer to the edge, relishing the twist of vertigo in her stomach as she gazed out over the city, the monorails curving through the air below like fluorescent snakes. The horizon seemed impossibly far. She could see from the lights of New Jersey in the west to the streets of the Sprawl in the south, to Brooklyn in the east, and farther, the pewter gleam of the Atlantic.
And beneath her bare feet lay the biggest structure on earth, a whole world unto itself. How strange that there were millions of people below her at this very moment, eating, sleeping, dreaming, touching. Avery blinked, feeling suddenly and acutely alone. They were strangers, all of them, even the ones she knew. What did she care about them, or about herself, or about anything, really?
She leaned her elbows on the railing and shivered. One wrong move could send her over. Not for the first time, she wondered how it would feel, falling two and a half miles. She imagined it would be strangely peaceful, the feeling of weightlessness as she reached terminal velocity. And she'd be dead of a heart attack long before she hit the ground. Closing her eyes, she tilted forward, curling her silver-painted toes over the edge—just as the back of her eyelids lit up, her contacts registering an incoming ping.
She hesitated, a wave of guilty excitement crashing over her at the sight of his name. She'd done so well avoiding this all summer, distracting herself with the study abroad program in Florence, and more recently with Zay. But after a moment, Avery turned and clattered quickly back down the ladder.
"Hey," she said breathlessly when she was back in the pantry, whispering even though there was no one around to hear. "You haven't called for a while. Where are you?"
"Somewhere new. You'd love it here." His voice in her ear sounded the same, warm and rich as always. "How're things, Aves?" And there it was: the reason Avery had to climb into a windstorm to escape her thoughts, the part of her engineering that had gone horribly wrong.
On the other end of the call was Atlas, her brother—and the reason she never wanted to kiss anyone else.