[Fiction] Wind City Ch2


The opening is here.


“What are you doing up here, then?”

Taylor replied without turning her head, hands folded calmly behind her back, feeling the wind tug at her brown hair, threatening to unravel its loose braid.

“Just looking. Thinking. You know. Pondering.”

“Right,” came the other voice, moving closer. “And I suppose this sudden burst of thoughtfulness has absolutely nothing to do with Kat crying back down in the apartment.”

Taylor grinned.

“Nothing at all.”

She felt a light punch on her shoulder as Jaz came up beside her.

“Taff, she was really upset,” her friend said, slowly, a note of reproach creeping in.

“She’ll get over it. She’s just being a baby.” Taylor spoke without pulling her eyes off the ribbon of street far below, studying pedestrians rendered tiny moving dots by the distance. Some, she knew, would be struggling forward against their own personal gale-force wind while others streamed by around them, unhindered.

“It’s the third time this month. When are you going to talk to her?” Taylor’s grin hardened into a petulant scowl.

“When she stops being a baby.”

“Taff, she’s thirteen,” Jaz said, exasperated. “Cut her some slack. She’s your sister. Just talk to her!” Taylor grunted, unmoved.

“Taff, look at me.” Jaz placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder, attempting to swivel her around to face her, but Taylor resisted, shrugging off the hand.

“Lay off it, Jaz,” she said, warningly.

“No, Taff, you’re being ridiculous. Look at me.” She repeated her earlier maneuver, but Taylor recoiled and batted the hand away, whirling furiously to face her friend.

“Lay off it, alright? What do you want?” Jaz didn’t respond, choosing instead to fold her arms and wait. Taylor’s anger sputtered out in an instant and she deflated, breathing out heavily.

“I know, okay? I know I need to talk to her. But every time I try she’s just so… so…” She trailed off, hands trying to grasp at an insubstantial something in the air. “Difficult. Like she’s incapable of understanding anything I’m telling her, and it’s just so frustrating, you know?”

Jaz walked over to the rusty ventilation shaft that protruded from the rooftop like the corpse of some ancient metal animal, and slid down to sit at its base. She beckoned to Taylor, entreating her friend to join her. The ventilation shaft was quiet, of course, having been blocked off years and years ago. Only a fool would willingly invite the wind inside their home these days.

“Taff.”

Taylor shot one last look at the streets far below before wandering over and slumping down next to Jaz. She stared moodily out over the deserted rooftops of the city, hands clasped around raised knees.

“C’mere,” Jaz said, crooking her arm around Taylor’s neck and gently tugging her closer. Taylor gave in and allowed herself to be pulled, tilting her head to rest it on Jaz’s bony shoulder, and Jaz shifted her grip until she was holding her in a loose hug. They sat there for a long time in silence, the sun dipping slowly down towards the irregular rooftop horizon. Taylor’s eyes slid closed and her breathing gradually became more regular, a steady in and out that was almost in time with the small puffs of wind ruffling Jaz’s short, spiky hair.

It was still up here on the rooftop, and sitting there against the smooth metal of the long-dead ventilation shaft Jaz could almost believe that she and Taylor were the only two people in the world. A lot of people would call them crazy, venturing out onto the rooftops where little more than a foot-high wall stood between them and a nasty, fatal fall. She could imagine the scene in her head: a sudden gust from behind, arms pinwheeling desperately for balance, the inevitable stagger and then she’s falling and falling, faster and faster with the ground rushing up towards her, and then…

Only, the thought didn’t scare her. It wasn’t that Jaz was brave or fearless or foolhardy, as so many people seemed to think, her parents included. There were a lot of things that scared her: spiders, cockroaches, her father’s special taco filling with those mysterious unidentifiable green lumps that her father claimed were guacamole chunks but tasted like recycled sewage… the list went on and on. But for whatever reason, she had never been afraid of the wind; at least, not like everyone else in this whole damn city seemed to be, everyone except for Taylor and a few others she’d met.

And oh, how afraid the people were. Most people didn’t even leave their houses if they could help it, preferring to stay inside with their canned recycled air and thick glass windows. People only walked around in the open air if they couldn’t afford to drive, and soon they were to be spared even that. The news had been abuzz for months now with the council’s massive WindFree Environment project, a vast subterranean tunnel network accessible from the surface only by special access portals that functioned as airlocks, sealing out the wind. It was to have shops and housing and public transport, everything necessary for ‘living life the WindFree way’, as the advertisements put it.

Jaz thought the whole idea was madness. Sure, the wind was dangerous, she knew that, but moving underground, hiding in a glorified hole like a frightened bloody rabbit? That was no way to live, with the air dead and still and petrified around you. Where was the joy of running as fast as you can with the cold morning breeze stinging your face and bringing tears to your eyes? Where was the sunlight? But in some districts the initial excavations had already been completed and people were moving underground, lured by the promise of a WindFree existence. Heck, construction had already been going on for a month here in the Blocks, Jaz and Taylor’s home, and the thoroughfare was open, though it didn’t really go much of anywhere, yet. Hence the people down on the street, struggling against the wind.

Taylor stirred, sitting up and stretching, breaking Jaz out of her reverie.

“Welcome back to land of the living.” Taylor rubbed her eyes, squinting at the sun.

“Wow. Arguing with Kat must have worn me out more than I thought. How long was I out of it?”

“A while,” Jaz said, glancing at her watch. “Half an hour, maybe forty minutes?” The watch, a birthday present from Taylor a few years back, was wooden, fashioned out of mahogany bars joined by tiny metal screws. Jaz was proud of the watch and took good care of it, though it had acquired a few dents and scratches along the way. She knew Taylor was happy that she wore it, too, even if she wouldn’t admit it, preferring not to appear overly sentimental.

“Damn. Good thing I’ve got nowhere to be.” Jaz nodded slowly, then took a deep breath and voiced the other matter she’d been considering during Taylor’s nap.

“You can’t protect her forever, you know. Kat, I mean.” Taylor groaned softly in the back of her throat and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the ventilation duct. Taking this as permission to continue, Jaz plowed on.

“She spends enough time cooped up in the apartment as it is. Maybe it would be good for her to get a taste of the city. I mean, she barely leaves to go anywhere but school.”

“So what? It’s not my responsibility, it’s Oscar’s. Go bother him about it, okay?” Oscar was Taylor’s older brother by three years, and the one who actually provided for the Graf family. Jaz didn’t know what had happened to their parents, because the Graf children never spoke about them, even in passing. As far as Jaz knew, their parents might as well have never existed.

“Oscar is… busy.” Jaz said, picking nervously at one of the carefully-maintained spikes of hair jutting from her head. “He has enough to do trying to take care of you both without worrying about Kat all the time too, you know.” She kept her voice neutral, holding back the accusatory note that threatened to creep in. Taylor turned her head, staring at Jaz with piercing blue eyes.

“I told you, it’s nothing to do with me. I’m not her damn windtouched babysitter.” That was the thing about Taylor. Responsibility slid off her like water off a tarpaulin, and somehow it was never up to her. It certainly didn’t endear her to the general public, but then, Taylor could care less about the general public.

Still, it was extremely frustrating, all the more so because this wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. Fortunately, Jaz had several years of experience on how to deal with Taylor when she got into one of these moods, and chose to not respond, meeting her friend’s fierce gaze with a well-rehearsed look of reproach. This particular expression had served her well on numerous occasions, and was one of a handful that she cultivated privately in front of her mirror at home. The trick to reproach was to furrow your brow just so. Too little and you were merely squinting, too much and you looked puzzled, or constipated.

Their silent staring competition lasted all of five seconds before Taylor relented, breaking eye contact and drawing her knees up to her chest to resume her previous position.

“Look, you don’t need to lecture me, alright? I just… don’t want Kat to get hurt, right, so she can’t come with us. She’s got to stay home, yeah? Stay safe. At least till she’s older. What kind of sister would I be, exposing her to all of this?” She flung her arms out in a violent jerking motion, nearly smacking Jaz in the process. She wriggled her arms about as if trying to encapsulate the city’s endless roofscape with one expansive gesture, until Jaz gently but firmly levered the flailing limb away from her face.

“Oops, sorry,” Taylor said, tucking her hands in between her knees. “My point is,” she paused, collecting her thoughts. “My point is that it isn’t safe out here for her. I know the wind, Jaz, and he’s a devious, vicious old bugger. You’ve got to respect him, right? That old blowhard feels you’re dissing him, and the next minute you’re screaming all the way down while he’s laughing his bleeding head off.” She scratched absently at her leg as she spoke, ragged, tooth-bitten nails carving red lines into her fair skin.

“I’m not afraid of him for the same reason you or Ness or Chavs aren’t. I understand the wind, and I know how he works, and I just go with it. But other people? They’re clueless. They go about their daily lives struggling against the wind, fighting against it, sure, but they never stop to think about it.  And you know what? Somewhere else, maybe in London or New York or Tokyo, that’d be fine. But here, in Wind City?” Her next words were surprisingly bitter, tinged with something that Jaz couldn’t identify. “Here in Wind City, that kind of carelessness will get you killed.” At that moment, a cold breeze rippled past in gleeful agreement. Goosebumps rose on Jaz’s bare forearms, but whether they were in response to the chill breeze or her friend’s disturbing words, she couldn’t tell.

“Hey, Taff…” Jaz began, feeling like she needed to say something reassuring to snap Taylor out of it, but her friend’s moroseness evaporated as swiftly as it had precipitated. Taylor sprang up, braid swinging wildly, and grinned down at Jaz, who stared up, startled by the sudden flurry of motion.

“Enough of this! Let’s fly.” Jaz was bewildered by this abrupt change in mood, but found Taylor’s enthusiasm infectious and grinned back, resolving to continue the subject at a later date. She rose with somewhat less alacrity than her friend, and dusted the rooftop grime off the seat of her pants as Taylor practically skipped across to a white plastic sheet spread over a large portion of the roof. Loosening one of the ropes anchoring the rather unprepossessing sheet to the ground, she lifted one edge and pulled out what appeared to be two long, thin wooden sticks wrapped in cling film.

When Taylor dashed back, sheet securely re-fastened, Jaz was twisting and stretching her tall narrow frame, trying to work out the kinks she’d developed from leaning against an unyielding metal air duct for nearly an hour.

“Ouch,” she said, grimacing as she worked her stiff shoulder, feeling the joint scream in protest.

Taylor was bobbing with thinly-disguised impatience as she thrust a black plastic-wrapped bundle at Jaz.

“Here, c’mon, shake it out and let’s go already!” Jaz took the proffered object, then backed up a few steps. This was going to take a bit of space, and Taylor had already nearly whacked her in the face once today.

Running her hand down the length of the smooth plastic, she expertly flicked a few hard-to-see catches and shook the stick, angling it away from herself as the black plastic unfurled, springing apart into two halves. With every shake of her wrist, the wings grew, flexible spines forcing the thin plastic membrane into shape, until she was left with a small, compact glider. Swiveling out the metal cross-bar firmly riveted to the main wooden shaft, Jaz pulled out the adjustable straps, fastening them across her shoulders and to the loops on her shorts with stout carabiners. As she struggled to attach the second one (no matter how many times she did this, the damn things always seemed to jam), she looked up to find Taylor at the roof’s edge, peering out over the rooftops into the sinking sun, purple wingkite already unpacked and strapped on.

As Jaz wandered over to join her friend, still fumbling with the misbehaving clip, a breeze stirred up. It was a curious breeze, nearly taunting; it nudged the outstretched arms of the wingkite she held loosely by her side, propelling her forward a few involuntary stumbling steps. Jaz was unperturbed, for the wind was like that, she knew, ceaselessly pushing and probing for signs of weakness. Even so, she stepped haltingly as she neared the edge, placing each step with care. Taylor, as usual, was dancing with heedless excitement a foot from the precipice, fearless and eager.

“Where we off to?” Jaz asked, clip secured at last.

“The Tower. Ness said she’s got something to show us.” Jaz grunted appreciatively.

“What’s that, then?”

“Wouldn’t say. C’mon, she’s probably already there.” Taylor squinted once more at the sun, then licked one finger with exaggerated pomp and stuck it up in the air like a tiny antenna.

“Conditions…” A ferocious gust ripped past, sending Jaz staggering and sending bits of rubbish (how did they even get up there?) skittering off across neighboring rooftops. Taylor, unaffected, tilted her head towards the street below and was rewarded a moment later with a faint cry of dismay from some poor citizen.

“…are favorable,” she nodded in satisfaction. Without even waiting for Jaz to respond, she hoisted her wingkite up above her head and launched herself off the roof with a casual hop, throwing caution to the wind. The wind, contemptuous of the demands of gravity and momentum that gliders didn’t really work like that, and that she should plummet to her death, carried her across the gap with a cheerful thermal.

“Show-off,” Jaz muttered without rancor, taking a few steps back and following Taylor’s lead with a bit of a run-up. There was the interminable moment of weightlessness as the building dropped out from under her, the familiar giddy mix of elation and roiling nausea, the fear that the wind would punish her leap of faithlessness with a terminal stillness; and then the wind caught, as it always did, and she was flying, and soaring, as tiny people-dots scurried by far below, trapped in two-dimensional ignorance.

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