32. Families

I can’t keep going. It’s too hard. One more memory then, before I close out my story of what happened in Blush that day at the investiture. The climax can wait. Something happier is needed now.

When Candle and I got back to the investiture after our bike ride, there was a message waiting for me from airbird sevens.

Heard news of what happened in Blush, it said. Are you okay?

Then, just below it, another message, sent a few minutes later.

Nova, you can’t imagine where this goes from here. I told you not to get the Shift Patrol involved.

Then, a few minutes after that:

You never know what you’ve never known.

Candle peered over my shoulder as I read through the messages.

“Sounds very mysterious,” she said. I nodded absently and stood, bent over my desk, staring at the messages for a long time, until Candle finally said, “Aren’t you going to respond?”

I looked about at her, blinking.

“I think… ” I said. “I think I will.” I turned back to the lightscreen, held a finger to the thaumascope, and turned it off. “Eventually.”

Candle gave me a puzzled look, her eyebrows pressed together, her nose slightly scrunched.

“Nova, what are you doing? That might be your dad.”

“And it might not be. You were right about him. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t think he’s going to tell me. But I do know that, right now, I have something I want to show you.”

I passed by her and went to the window, shoving open the smaller panel set into the whole. It swung out and rested on its hinges, letting in the cool air. The sky was heavy, swollen with stars. The sounds of the nighttime streets rose up from ten stories below.

Candle gave me a dumbfounded expression. “You’re taking me up there? After all this time? The one place I’m not supposed to follow?”

I hesitated, wrapping my arms tightly around my chest. “I guess so.”

Candle grinned and flew to the window. “Let’s go, then. No time to lose!”

She swung out onto the iron rungs set into the slanted roof. I peered out the window after her. “Um, right. I guess just go straight up, then. I’ll follow.”

Once she was halfway up the ladder, I clambered out after her. My legs were still aching from the bike ride as I pushed myself up.

At the top, where the slanted roof met the opposite wall, was a flat, narrow section, bordered by an iron railing and dotted with vents and pipes. As I swung a leg up onto the flat part of the roof, steam escaped from one of the pipes and sent an enormous plume up into the air. I stood, wiping my hands, and searched for Candle through the smoke.

Her silhouette emerged gradually, faded and white in the haze. She was standing at the edge with her back to me, holding the railing and looking out into the city, into the rising buildings and long corridors that marked the streets. Into the shadows of the cebelis trees and the squares of light that marked each window, stacked in a grid to the sky.

I came up beside her, but when I saw her face, I flinched.

“Are you mad?”

She gave me a look of intense anger. “I can’t believe you never let me come up here,” she said. Then, turning away again, “I see why you like it.”

“No you don’t,” I replied. “Not yet.”

I went along the roofline a ways, then sat down with my legs dangling off the edge and my arms resting on the lower bar. Candle followed suit. The building directly across the street loomed up before us, tall and wide. It was an apartment building, and I pointed to one of the lighted windows.

“An old man lives there,” I said. And, indeed, there he was. We could see him through his window as he sat in a chair in his living room. “He has an old basset hound.” As we watched, an ancient-looking dog, all droops and wrinkles, came padding into the room. He sat down next to the old man’s chair and the man scratched him behind his ears. “He only leaves the apartment twice a day. Once in the morning, to walk down all those stairs and get the paper from the corner newsstand. And once in the afternoon, to go to that restaurant over there. He orders a bowl of soup, every time. I call him Soup and his dog, Puddle.”

I pointed to another window, speaking more quickly.

“There used to be a married couple there. I called them Cowlick and Pearls, because he had a terrible cowlick that made his hair stick straight up, and she always wore a pearl necklace. I think they were probably fake. Anyway, Cowlick disappeared about two years ago, so I think they must have divorced. They have a kid, Scamper, and every weekend I see Cowlick down on the corner there, waiting for Scamper to come downstairs.”

A middle-aged woman, plump, with dark hair, crossed in front of the window, and we watched as she blew her nose into a tissue.

“She doesn’t wear the pearls anymore,” I said, and pointed to another window, where two old women sat in rockers, talking and laughing.

“That’s where Cloud One and Cloud Two live. They’re twin sisters and they’ve been there forever. You can see how their hair is white and sort of puffy, like a cloud. Every morning they go down three floors to Soup and chat with him at his door. Sometimes they bring him books, and he gives them things he’s baked. Puddle always barks at them. Anyway, I think Cloud Two has a thing for Soup.”

“Nova… ” Candle said, but I cut her off. My cheeks were warm and buzzing, and I knew I was talking too fast.

“No, no, wait. Look at this.” I got to my feet and hurried to the other side of the roof, pointing to an intersection where another apartment building lit up the night. “Ten years ago a young couple moved in there. Hotshot and Zipper. I didn’t like them much at first, but now look! They’ve got three kids!” We could see them through the window, sitting around their dining room table, eating dinner. “They got a cat last month. See her curled up there? I call her Sticks.”

“Nova.”

I couldn’t stop now. It all came pouring out, everything I had ever seen up here, every story I had ever told myself.

“And there, in the floor just above theirs, see that window? I call that the rotary. It used to belong to an old couple, back before I was naming people. I used to watch them dance in their living room, close together and spinning slowly. Then one day she was gone, and he disappeared not long after that. Now there are different people in and out every year, groups of kids who I think must go to school nearby. I watch them throw parties in that same living room where the old couple danced.”

I led her to the far end of the roof, through the steam, and pointed to another window, across another street.

“And there, there’s a woman who lives there, see her? At the counter? I call her Clover. She teaches piano lessons, so there are always these kids coming through all day, and I can’t hear what they’re playing but I like to imagine it in my head. I always know which students are actually good because—see that other room? The office? Clover’s girlfriend, Hazel, works there during the day, and when the students are good, Hazel stops what she’s doing and listens. She just sits there at her desk, staring out the window, and it almost doesn’t matter that I can’t hear the music, because I can see it in her face.”

I turned to Candle, breathless, but came up short when I saw the look she was giving me.

“Nova,” Candle said, “how many of these windows do you keep track of?”

As I stared into her guarded expression, I fought to regain control of myself. “All of them.” My gaze darted back and forth between Candle’s two eyes. My breath slowly returned, and with it, doubt. “All of them.”

Candle crossed her arms.

“Is it weird?” I said.

“Of course it’s weird.”

I smiled. And then Candle smiled back. “Good,” I said.

Candle laughed, and shook her head. “Who would have thought, in all the Ferren, that you like collecting people?”

“What do you mean?”

“Nova, you don’t like people.”

“I do from a distance. I like them in theory. And besides, people isn’t the right word for it. I like collecting families.”

Candle gave me a long, curious look. The kind of look she gave to her devices when she was trying to riddle out a circuit or fix a broken gear. Then she looked past me and nodded across the street. “Who’s that?”

“Where?”

She pointed to a window on the third floor of the building across from us.

“That? That’s Persimmon. He… ”

I explained it all, or as much of it as I could. She kept pointing to new windows, asking about the people in them. Each window was a tiny, glowing world, all orbiting us, up and down and across and deep, deep, deep into the city. They folded in on each other, ran behind each other, filled with miniature people doing their own weird, ordinary things in a thousand cut-light tableaus. I knew them all. Every story in this pocket of the city, every light I could see from my darkened rooftop. I had spent a lot of time up here, surrounded by families.

Eventually, Candle went silent. She stood against the railing and looked down at the street far below, and the people passing by. Then she looked up, craning her neck to the sky.

“It’s easy to like people from afar,” she said. I frowned, and waited for her to go on. “All these windows. Airbird sevens. Your Hero Trotter account. You like families when you can switch them off.”

“That’s not fair.”

“No. I know it isn’t.” She turned to look at me, and she seemed uncomfortable. “My sister is eleven years older than me. Eleven years. Do you know what that means?”

I grimaced.

“Everyone has their ideal family,” she continued. “I think my parents imagined an only child. If I hadn’t been born, they’d be off exploring the world right now. Investigating ruins. Getting way too excited about nature. But I’m here, so they’re here. I tied them down.” She frowned, and took a shuddering breath. “Ideal families don’t exist, Nova.”

“That doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” I said.

“Obviously not. And I know they’re happy I’m here. But like I said… maybe not what they planned.” She sighed and leaned against the railing, hanging her head. “Why are you showing me this now?”

“Because Plum told me there was nothing special about me.” I gestured to the windows. “And how would he know? How would anyone know if I keep to myself all the time? I’m not terribly powerful, but there are other things to be. And if I am the Answer, maybe I’m not ideal, but there are things about me that are unique and weird and kind of uncomfortable, and if I don’t share that with even my closest friend, then Plum’s kind of right, isn’t he?”

Candle sucked in through her nose and rocked back on her heels, then straightened. “Okay… ” she said. “Okay. Question for you. If you could pick anyone in any of these windows to be your parents, who would you pick?”

“That’s hard. That’s really hard. Just two people?”

Candle raised an eyebrow. “Generally, yes, there are only two. Generally.”

“Fine. I guess for my dad I would pick… Digit.”

“Digit? Wasn’t he white?”

“I think one of my parents was probably white.”

“Only if the other was dark as elg.”

I laughed. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to choose my parents. That’s kind of the point.”

“Fine. Fine.” She gave me a long look, an echo of a smile on her face, but slowly, as an echo does, it faded. Eventually, she looked away. “I should be getting home. I have school in the morning.”

“I’m going to stay a little longer.”

She nodded and pushed herself away from the railing. When she reached the ladder, she stopped. “Thanks for taking me up here, Nova.”

I turned and smiled at her, waving.

She crawled down onto the slanted roof, paused to smile back, then her head disappeared below the roofline, and that was the last time I saw Emma Lyn Candle.

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