When Ripple arrives home, he finds his mother anxiously waiting for him on the roof in her feathered lingerie with two butlers, a maid, a first-aid kit, and his apehound Hooligan straining on a leash. Ripple hesitates on the ramp, wishing he were dressed, wishing he were showered, wishing he didn’t have quite so many of Abby’s claw marks on his back. Beneath them, the city’s whole skyline darkly slumbers—above it, the dragons blot out the stars. Beside him, his uncle Osmond chortles.
“How good to be home.” Osmond raises his arms in a two-handed victory salute. Duncan brushes some coffee grounds off his knee and clears his throat.
There is an art to disappointing one’s parents. It helps if one does not disappoint already low expectations. It helps if one does something for which there is a name, because no one likes to be both disappointed and confused. It helps, most of all, if one can explain what one has done, preferably without profanity and while fully clothed. Ripple realizes that he’s screwed. Fortunately for him, his father stays downstairs.
Katya doesn’t speak as she cleans the gash on his arm with stinging disinfectant, seals it shut with liquid stitches, and rewraps it in a roll of gauze. She puts pressure on the bone and frowns when he winces, then takes his hand and looks closely at his fingers.
“Your nails,” she says sadly.
She’s right: they’re ragged and disgusting, gray-black underneath. For just a moment, Ripple wishes he could transform into another sort of animal, preferably one without hands. Hooligan licks his face.
It takes two hours to coax Abby off the HowLux. It’s a Sin Bun, stuffed with Insomnisnacks from the first-aid kit, that finally does it. Ripple feeds it to her, crumb by gelatinous crumb, until her wild blue eyes turn heavy-lidded and drooping and her whimpers grow infrequent and she loosens her grip on the corpse of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which she’s clutching to her bosom like something precious. Then he picks her up, and to his surprise she clings to him, a drugged and flea-bitten marsupial, her sharp chin digging into his shoulder. With his one good arm he carries her back out onto the roof, where his mother and the servants are sitting on deck chairs, casting long shadows in the landing lights.
“There is an art to disappointing one’s parents. It helps if one does not disappoint already low expectations.“
“Oh my.” Katya unplugs the meditation aids from her ears. She smiles the way she used to on the bare nightspot stages: like her entire family has just been killed. “Oh my!” Now she’s looking up. The servants follow her gaze; Ripple does too. A piece of the night sky is slowly dropping toward them. With a final fluttering plunge, it perches on one of the battlements. Ripple never thought a bird could glare, but there it is: Cuyahoga.
Under normal circumstances, Abby might resist a bath. But fuzzy-brained and limp-bodied, she sinks compliantly into the Swirlpool with hardly a mew of protest. Later, she will barely remember the numerous pulsing jets, the scented froth, the slick, pearly porcelain that encircles her like the shimmering mouth of a nautilus. What she will remember are Katya’s fingers, patient and deft, scrubbing her hair, working out the tangles, trimming the split ends, and finally plaiting it into a single braid that lies as heavy and reassuring as a hand on Abby’s back as she falls facefirst into her dreams.
Though they’ve been married for 19 years, Katya Ripple has only on rare occasions had cause to visit her husband’s office. The room is wood-paneled, windowless, deep in the fortress of the house. She cannot talk to Humphrey here without feeling outnumbered. Mannequin heads line the shelves behind his desk, each one sporting a different toupee.
“So she’s a prostitute?” Humphrey hasn’t had his morning coffee yet. He wears a puce velour tracksuit today with a “Ripple Bros” logo embroidered on the sleeve, and is squirting wig glue between the sparse strands on his scalp.
“Hummer, you do not understand. You need to talk to your son.”
When Humphrey is annoyed, he looks even more like his brother than usual. Who are you to tell me what I understand? “Give me the broad strokes.”
“He fell onto Hoover Island. This girl found him and nursed him back to health.”
Humphrey squishes today’s toupee—a salt-and-pepper thatch with bushy sideburns—down onto his head and combs it in place with his fingers. “Found him? What was she doing out there?”
“It was her home.”
He’s dubious. “What does she want? Money?”
“You didn’t see them together. She was so trusting in his arms. And he—he looked so brave and strong, holding her up. They care for each other.”
“For crying out loud, Kitty. Not this again.”
“Listen, I know you have your doubts about the Dahlberg match. . .”
“I might have doubts, I might not. How can I know, when I was not CC’d? So many letters, back and forth, back and forth, and you never shared a single one!”
Humphrey digs through a desk drawer, withdraws a large black trash bag. “Kitty, I told you, Pippi and I go a long way back. McGuffin-Stork helped us out of some real scrapes when I was working
“Anything you say to her, you should say to me.”
“There’s no reason to have you confusing things you don’t know anything about.”
“I know my son!”
“You don’t know about contracts, or trusts, or the larger holdings of this family. Nor can you possibly, possibly understand the responsibility that comes with carrying on a legacy like ours.”
“And Pippi Dahlberg can?”
Humphrey heaves himself up from his wingback swivel chair and opens the secret compartment behind the built-in shelving and watchful heads. The door to the family vault is an enormous steel porthole. He twists the hand wheel several times, and as the walk-in safe unseals, the office smells suddenly of gunpowder and currency, the nasty watermarked sweaty greenbacks you use to pay off a ransom or hush someone up, the kind you give to people you never want to see again, whose names you don’t want to know, the kind that doesn’t leave anything behind when it burns.
“We could have lost him, Hummer,” Katya goes on, lowering her voice. “This girl brought him back to us. This is a second chance for him—for our family. This is a sign. How can you not see?”
Humphrey fills the garbage bag with stacks of rubber-banded currency. “I’ll see if she’ll go willingly. If she won’t, there’s a Quiet Place in North Statesville that always has an extra bed or two.”
Katya’s heard of Quiet Places: state-run institutions for citizens afflicted with Too Much. So overcrowded lately, they cram two patients to a sensory deprivation tank and electroshock whole rooms at once. “No. No, no, no. This Abby is just learning to live with people. She grew up all alone. If you send her to a Quiet Place, she will go crazy.”
“That’s their specialty. Bottom line, I’m not going to let this young woman ruin our son’s life.”
“Hummer, Dunk and Abby are just like us. Their bodies have told them what to do. And that thing is love. What does all the rest of this matter—contracts, fortunes, names—in the face of love? We are animals, and the only happiness we can know is sweet animal happiness, the pleasure given without thinking that demands nothing in return. Tell him to follow his heart.”
“I’m not going to say that, Katya.”
“But why? Why would you deny him what you wanted so badly for yourself?”
The words are out before he can hesitate. “Because I don’t want him to make the same mistake I did.”
He says more words after that—quick, apologetic ones—but though Katya hears the syllables, sees his lips form shapes she knows she’s seen before, she can no longer understand his language. She understands even less than she did on her first day in this country. Back then, she did not believe she would always be a stranger here.
She leaves the room and knocks into Duncan on her way out; his ear was pressed against the door, eavesdropping.
Sometimes, when Katya looks back at pictures from her short-lived modeling career, she suspects an eerie thing. . . that somehow, she was not in her body at the moment when the image was snapped. . . that even before the airbrushing and the digital tweaks, the pixels lighting her from within, she had become, for a single instant, that elusive sublime being, an object of pure surface, an uninhabited woman. Now, for one moment, it happens again. All tenderizing humanity drains from her; she is impassive and empty and beautiful. Her hand could be plastic when it strikes her son’s face.
“Hey! That’s, like, child abuse!”
“Your father will see you now.”
Abby wakes to the odd sensation that she is still floating in the enormous tub. She rolls over; the surface beneath her ripples alarmingly. She sits up. She’s on a gigantic bed, strewn with pillows and a mammal-warm blanket which, she notices to her horror, appears to be attached to the wall via electrical cord. She hits the blanket with her fist. The mattress jiggles irritably. Abby jumps up and scampers across the dim room. She trips over an amorphous obstacle and hits the carpeted floor, panting. All of her calm from last night’s drugs and bath has disappeared. She is surrounded.
She raises herself up onto all fours and scuttles to the nearest wall, which is draped in what looks like a billowing sail. She grabs onto it to pull herself up. With a terrible jangling sound, the sail wrenches loose and envelops her like a net. Abby shrieks and flails and kicks, then, once freed, grabs a metal rod—which has suddenly appeared, lying useless on the floor—and whomps the pile of crumpled fabric several times for good measure.
The satin’s fall uncovers a bank of windows that span nearly the entire wall. Now nothing but glass separates Abby from the smoggy panorama of the morning city. She uneasily peers out.
Even in better times, our city was never meant to be seen in daylight. In those half-forgotten glory days, the lights of our skyscrapers and building complexes and bridges thrust upward, gorgeously, into the endless night like frozen fireworks. Dreamlike, fleeting, they were a spectacle that existed for us and us alone, that promised to vanish by the break of day. They blazed, but without substance, without origin, without threat. They were the fire without a dragon’s mouth around it.
Now, by night, our city glows with the heat of what consumes it, spells out in neon orange nothing but a last request. But by day, our true city has no choice but to reveal itself: a heavy thing, the steel anchor that tethers our dreams to the earth. The buildings, those pillars of glass and concrete, cast their monstrous shadows over the land, and the movement of those shadows marks the passage of our time.
Abby stares out the window as the reflections of clouds sweep across the blank faces of towers. What does she see? Before her are all the landmarks we know so well: the Windsor Building, its spire twisting heavenward in a child’s dream of infinity; the Gemini, the world’s tallest illusion, its two identical ’scrapers each impossibly dwarfing the other; the charred remains of the Lipgloss Building, that once-unassailable temple to global finance, its top ten floors windowless and gutted, tarps blowing from them like flags. She sees the Twolands Bridge, its damaged cables hanging unstrung as broken jewelry, and the barricade walls containing Torchtown bristling with their sniper posts and searchlights and alarms. Yet she sees all of this without words, without history or expectation. She sees a pure play of form, unafflicted by human striving or suffering or triumph. To her, it’s not something made or damaged; glorified, gentrified, vilified; corrupted, hallowed, or hollowed out. It simply is.
Abby sees the City itself: something few of us know how to see anymore, in the midst of this destruction, if we ever did.
And then she sees the dragons.
She’s been seeing them all her life, but never so close—never from these Heights. Now she wonders if she’s ever really seen them at all. The dragons swim the air over Torchtown, majestic, gluttonous, expansive in their skins. The green one, she sees at once, is the frailer. Its scales are dull, almost mossy, the joints arthritic, swollen, barnacled. It resembles a grandpa lobster she caught once by mistake, a creature grown large beyond its nature by time. Its face has turned melancholy with age, bearded with useless frills, the eyes rheumy and half-seeing. Its wings flap the air in tatters.
The yellow dragon is the stronger, but only just. Puffed up, it’s a bully past its prime, a hunk of muscle with the precision gone. It circles through the air in uneven, oval-shaped loops, unable to corner properly. Its square-jawed face bears a look of willful stupidity, its eyes slits, half-hidden beneath a heavy brow. Its brawny tail whips the air, all bulging tendons, but its limbs are as little and vestigial as the arms of the T. rexes who decorate Duncan’s underpants.
As they dip and somersault amid the morning haze, they blow their first fire-breaths of the day: the yellow in a steady, unendurable stream, the green one in staccato bursts. Abby backs away from the window. She backs into the footstool—it was a footstool she tripped over; the long-forgotten word returns to her now with ease in the face of this wordless terror—and sinks down onto it, still staring. No cords, no wires. The Lady was wrong. These are no tools of the People Machines, no simple weapons to be disarmed. These dragons are alive. The world is so big, even God will never find her here.
The Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg is practicing her new signature. Her handwriting ranks among her finest accomplishments. The line is strong, each stroke adorned with minute tassels and curls; her ascenders soar, slender but never pinched, and her descenders hang in orderly bunches, like the fruit of well-tended vines. The space beneath she saves for the flourish, a textless undulation of pure calligraphy, more resplendent than even her title.
The Baroness Swan Lenore Ripple, née Dahlberg
How strange that the name will be hers in a mere matter of hours: after years of waiting, months of negotiations, only a single night lies between her and marriage. But now, as she signs, the hired car jolts and shudders, upsetting the ink, and darkness engulfs the name before she can complete it.
“Damn,” Swanny mutters, peeling off a kid glove now spattered black. She places a sheet of blotting paper over the offending page and presses her diary closed, then sets the cedar lap desk on the floor. The inside of the limousine is red plush, upholstered like a coffin, and it hasn’t been recently vacuumed. Motes of dust swim in the late-afternoon light. Swanny settles herself back into the cocoonlike folds of her chinchilla fur coat. She’s an ample girl, with chocolate-brunette hair; pendant, sensual lips painted the color of wine—and arms like beluga whale flippers. Her arms do not rank among her finest accomplishments. They are flabby and pale, and have been on her mind since she looked into the mirror this morning. She adjusts the coat around her shoulders and consoles herself thinking of the elegant puffed sleeves of her wedding gown.
“Mother, I don’t know why you wouldn’t ask my intended to retrieve us in a flying machine.”
Beside her, Pippi is bent over a stack of documents; in addition to her reading glasses, she holds a pearl-handled magnifier over the lines of tiny type. In her other hand, she grasps a martini glass, empty except for an olive pit. She grunts noncommittally.
“I would have preferred to ride in a flying machine. To be flung loose from the bonds of Earth, to share the sky with dragons—well. Every tragedian knows that the fear of death gives love its meaning and its import.” Swanny gazes sorrowfully out the window, fingering her ringlets as they pass the last of the Lionel Roswell Expressway’s famous shantytowns. Years ago, when the dragons first came, the highway used to host a thriving subculture of enterprising beggars and thieves, sustaining themselves upon the never-ending caravan of moving vans headed somewhere, anywhere, else. Now, the few remaining squatters dwell in scattered, haphazard assemblages of tarp and plastic resembling broken kites. “My intended would have looked so masculine, piloting our craft with unerring skill, delivering us from all harm, as the city fell away beneath us. I can’t imagine a more illuminating first encounter. And the HowFly has a quite romantic reputation, you know. It’s said that, at a certain altitude, simply breathing in the air is like sipping Champagne. People become quite giddy. Of course, it would be difficult to speak intimately with one’s mother along. But in a flying machine—”
“The least you could do is engage me in conversation. You’ve reviewed those documents a dozen times, I can’t see the urgency in your going over them again.”
Pippi looks up sharply. “You are about to enter into a binding legal contract. That is the urgency.” She rattles the olive pit in her glass. “And as for the flying machine, the last thing I want is a Ripple vehicle touching down on our estate. Suppose they brought their own appraisers.”
“You make it sound like a corporate takeover. If it were up to you, I’d be married via conference call.”
“Swanny, I’ll remind you that the contracts I’ve negotiated are not some unimportant side note to marriage. They are the marriage. You may have all the expectations in the world, but when it comes to ink on paper, it’s either there or it’s not. What are you worrying on your gum?”
Swanny removes a finger from her mouth and peers at it fretfully. “I think I need another extraction.”
“Darling, I asked you before we left.”
“And I said I didn’t know but we should bring the dentist just in case.”
“And how would that look? Bringing your own dentist to the wedding?”
“Like—well, like rather severe inbreeding, dear. Here, let me shake you another martini.”
“Just a small one. All this jostling makes me queasy.”
“You have a point.” Pippi rolls down the window and leans out. “Driver, would you please avoid these potholes? My daughter, and our martinis, are very sensitive to motion!”
The limousine driver rides on the hood in a seat of his own devising, fashioned from a barber chair with massage beads slung over the back. It’s bolted down with rusty screws the size of doorknobs. He absently grips the reins of the two lumbering oxen who pull the vehicle; one glances over its shoulder, snorting through its nose ring at the stridence of Pippi’s voice.
“Driver? Did you hear me?”
“Wanna go off-road?”
“Want me to drive on the shoulder? Maybe in the ditch?”
“No! I simply asked that you cease and desist this constant bumping!”
“Only way to avoid potholes here is to go off-road.”
Pippi sighs. She rolls up the window and fans herself with the heavy cuff of her fox fur coat. “That man is impossible. I’m going to report him to the service.”
“Mmm.” Swanny relishes having her mother cater to her for a change: “I’ll have that martini with two olives.”
“Yes, of course. Pass me the ice tray.”
The Ripple mansion shimmers at the end of this road, large and bone-colored and terrible, a dreamed thing, abuzz inside with nearly imperceptible tremors of doom. It is an enormous tooth being drilled. It is an enormous tooth in a mouth full of teeth, and that mouth is the city, and as they lurch forward, yard by yard, mile by jarring mile, the Dahlbergs are swallowed whole.
From The Sky Is Yours. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2018 by Chandler Klang Smith.