Before the war with Apsides, I wanted to be like my Aunt Martha, who at the age of forty five stepped into an abandoned lot near Aurora’s city center, buried her toes in dirt, stretched up her arms, and became a skyscraper. Her legs were steel girders, earthquake-strong, her fingers long iron spires that caught pigeons and kites. Aunt Martha, 101 floors tall, sides aglitter with splendid floor-to-ceiling windows, family’s pride, city’s pride. When I was sixteen, I’d race up her stairwells whenever we visited, trailing fingers along her textured oak banisters up through offices and ballrooms and apartments of Martha’s design that hummed like beehives and smelled of Sumatran coffee. Martha would creak and shift and whisper back, and I knew she remembered me.
Martha was the first in my family to become a skyscraper. Mostly we became ordinary buildings. Service ran in my family. When our time came to take root, we usually carried on our lifelong vocations. My surgeon great-grandmother became the new cancer wing at the Aurora hospital, and Uncle Bert, who loved pickup basketball on the street at summer, transformed into the elementary school gymnasium when the old one grew too old to repair herself any longer.
My grandfather seized upon my pride in Aunt Martha and reflected it back as resentment. He kicked steel-toed factory boots against her red brick foundation, thumped on her drywall, grey eyes scanning and probing her structure for flaws. But he turned up nothing worth criticizing. Martha was perfection, an architectural marvel, a monument to define the horizon’s boundaries for future generations. So he made up his own reasons to hate her. “Forty-five is too young to take root. Cat and Graham aren’t even eighteen yet.”
My father cupped an arm around five-year-old Graham’s shoulder and steered him down one of Martha’s grand cobblestone courtyards to muffle out the adult talk. “I think I saw a lizard crawl beneath the picnic table,” he said. Graham’s tears ran to hiccups. The little boy squatted down, lost to his search.
Cat, though, glowered at Grandfather, her hands twined like ivy through the fantastic brass scrollwork of her mother’s fire escapes. She had caught them saying her name, and hadn’t overlooked the slur against her mother. “That’s ridiculous,” she called after them. “Uncle Bert took root even younger.”
“Bert was sick,” Grandfather said. He returned Cat’s pointed look. He didn’t like us to bring up Uncle Bert. It was still a sensitive topic, a tooth that ached when storms blew in from the far-off ocean. When he got his diagnosis, Bert marched down to City Planning and volunteered his body to take root where needed. “Martha could have waited a few more years at least. She’s all those kids had left. Selfish woman.”
Cat pulled her stocking cap over her eyebrows to shield her from Grandfather’s angry eyes. The adults moved on to dividing up Aunt Martha’s estate.
“Those kids can’t live in the house alone,” said Grandfather. “I suppose we can keep her in trust for when Cat’s old enough for independence.” By her, Grandfather meant Aunt Martha’s house, his older sister Angela. “She only just took root.”
There was no talk of selling the house. In Aurora, nobody ever sold houses. You might sell land, but you had to wait for the building to die, or else petition City Planning.
“Cat and Graham better stay with us in that case,” said Dad. “We’re only a block away.”
Grandfather squatted down beneath the picnic table. “How about that? You want to live with your cousins?”
“Okay,” said Graham.
Grandfather pointed his chin at Cat, who was still pretending not to listen. “And you?”
Cat glanced at me, a look of anger and sadness and overwhelming pride. A soldier’s eyes, where pride and loss were housemates. Those who fought in the wars with Apsides often wore that look. She nodded sharply. So it was decided like it often was in Aurora when relatives took root too young.
From that day, I worshipped Martha in the way of teenaged girls. She became my god and my morality, the name I prayed in the dark as I fell asleep. I wanted to be like her. She chose her own immortality, and didn’t ask for our opinions. It took great strength of mind to stretch your body so far when you took root, and Martha brushed the sky.
People talk about what starts wars, as if by knowing we could stop it from happening again. As if all events are selected from an infinite menu. Like choice is an ocean instead of a closed set picked and guided and hedged by circumstance and history and competing wants and needs.
The truth is the people of Apsides never understood us. Not when they drove on our roads or climbed our stairs or walked our sidewalks. They never understood our city was built on service offered up by the generations before, and that we were their stewards and caretakers.
None of us could stand a tourist. They graffitied our heroes. They gouged potholes in our beloved weathermen and tread gum into our musicians, and through all of this, we forgave. We tended our broken buildings, cleaned off the insult, and we forgave, because we knew they didn’t understand. Their cities were dead, and their homes did not love them. Nowhere else in the world did people take root like we did, and we did not invite outsiders in. Only Apsides, which lived on the edge of our nimbus.
But even our forgiveness had our limits. For me, it was what they did to Graham.
The seeds of collapse were sown in the years after Aunt Martha took root, when three teens on a field trip to Apsides disappeared overnight. When they were found, it was a horror of fresh asphalt for their parents. Barely old enough to take root, they couldn’t become more than some access roads to line a strip mall.
The Apsides police insisted the kids must’ve done it on their own. Who could prove otherwise? The criminals were never caught and punished.
That marked the start of a new era. You had to be careful when you traveled abroad, because if they found out you were Aurora-born, the wrong people might force you to take root, your body used for a stranger’s gain, and you helpless to stop it. And if your family somehow found out, what could they do? At that point, it was only the priest and the bulldozer, or else leave you forever in a strange city, alone among silent buildings that had no memory of birthday cake, or french kissing, or the taste of strawberry wine.
From people like that, what can you do but withdraw, hide away, deepen your reservoirs and store up flour and rice and canned black beans? What trust can there be? What commerce or cultural exchange? We shared a language, but we did not understand one another.
Our buildings whispered and creaked and groaned. Our sidewalks bent crooked in the night. The jail counseled war. Two old women on the westside became gun factories. Their grandchildren sold bullets.
Through all of it, Martha whispered to those of us who listened. If they only understood, she said. If they truly understood, they would let us be. Make them understand.
Graham, eighteen and idealistic, cut straight from his mother’s brick, struck off on a road trip the day he graduated high school. The last time I saw him, his arms sunburnt and peeling where his t-shirt sleeves ended, he gave me his second-favorite baseball cap and told me to get outside more.
“You’re getting paranoid in your old age,” he said. I had had my daughter Cleo by then, and a son on the way, and Graham took this as proof positive I was now certified old, risk-averse from some parental infection he swore he would never contract.
“Not old. Just less stupid.” But I cracked a sideways grin when I said it, so he hugged me. A real, tight hug, hard enough to make my shoulders ache, doled out like favors to those Graham loved enough to outstrip his machismo.
I was grateful for that hug later, when he fell out of touch entirely. He was a day or two late coming home, and we thought nothing of it. After a week, we made jokes he’d fallen in love with an Apsides girl on a beach somewhere. After a month, Cat showed up on my doorstep with a road map and a packed bag and one of the guns from the new factory.
Cat and I traced his route together, alternating the driving and sleeping so we just stopped for gas. We kept the brights on at night for signs of new construction: dirt piles, fresh asphalt, anything that could be him. We spoke to no one, lest our accents give us away. Every foreigner became a kidnapper on that trip. I touched my belly, slightly rounded, and finally understood the fear that could make a woman into a gun factory.
We found him behind a chain-link fence around a new supermarket.
He was a parking lot. Not a smooth, flat one — he’d arched up in the middle, epileptic, his painted lines radiating downhill like an infected wound. Flat as his mother was tall. It had been a violent rooting for him. I pressed my face against the sun-warmed tar and sobbed. We’d found him too late. Oh, much too late.
“Oh, Martha.” A prayer, an oath, a vow. I wasn’t sure which. “I am so sorry, Cat.”
Cat had curled around one of the violent asphalt swells in the frozen black ocean. She whispered to her brother. Maybe he whispered back, but I didn’t hear.
I gave them their privacy.
We spent the night in Graham’s parking lot, the cheap streetlights flickering on whenever a squirrel climbed the fence. In the morning, new cracks spiderwebbed Graham’s asphalt like shattered glass. He’d grayed like he’d aged twenty years overnight. He’d gone on.
Buildings could do this too, when they chose.
Martha collapsed the first day of the war, smashed in her knees by the missile that sent her weighted majesty crashing down into white dust, all her residents buried inside. The other skyscrapers fell, too: old Ty Markum and Joy Delgado, the soaring spires of Caroline Watts and the flat-topped garden of Delbert Hunt, giants who sheltered us, gone forever.
I was home with Cleo and Chachi, staking tomatoes in the garden while morning shaded me from the worst of the sun. I swear the world shifted deep in my bones before I heard anything. Sudden thunder shook my knees, though the sky was bright and cloudless. Black smoke rose in dark, thick braids, cutting off the skyline. Asphalt odor blew on the wind. Whenever I breathed, I gagged.
My phone rang, and I answered automatically.
“She’s gone,” said Cat, before I even got in hello.
“Oh, Cat. I’m sorry.” Conversational, like we were discussing groceries. When your world goes to dust in a moment, your brain doesn’t always believe it. “Where are you?”
“At work. Everyone else left. They all went home. I was supposed to go see Mom this afternoon. Meet a client in her rooftop restaurant.”
“Come to my house. It’s safe here. So far.”
On the westside, those who survived the initial volley rooted themselves on the spot, throwing up wall after rigid wall, wrapping themselves around Aurora as far as their strength permitted. They made a half-nautilus maze just beyond the gleaming steel war machines of Apsides digging down, angling their guns up, preparing the next volley.
On the eastside, we waited and watched.
We took shelter inside Grandfather’s walls, my children and Cat and Jake and me. The former mayor Ami Nguyen had fallen. She loved Aurora so much that when her time to take root came, she stretched her arms wider and wider until they became a wooden roller coaster, our outermost border. Which meant she was the first to go when the invasion began.
“What do they want?” Jake peeled red potatoes over a wooden mixing bowl. He cooked when he got nervous. The sour smell of bread yeast suffused the whole room. He came from a family of restaurants, and intended to become one himself when the time came, part of our plan from the days when we dated. I would be a skyscraper, like Martha, and he would be the restaurant crowning my summit. I would house the city, and he would feed it.
“It’s finally happened. They’re moving in.” I pitched my voice low, so I wouldn’t scare Cleo, who at four was old enough to detect fear. “They think we’ll make their lives more convenient.” Living buildings repaired themselves, lived for decades and centuries longer than the ones other cities built by hand. Our buildings responded to our needs. No collapsed roofs, or broken stairs, or subway cars stalled on overworn tracks. Rooted structures died eventually, but there was always someone to take their place, to serve in turn.
“It won’t work, you know,” said Jake. “They think it’ll be easy, but we won’t be used.”
I didn’t like that sharp edge in his eyes. I didn’t want guns or war. I just wanted our home back. I wanted to sink my toes deep into bedrock and stand beside Aunt Martha, proud and strong, showing just how far the horizon reached by cracking it like a blue-shelled robin’s egg against my peak.
I excused myself to the kitchen. Bread dough rose in a pan next to a bowl of mixed berries. I picked a couple of blackberries off the top and crushed them against the roof of my mouth. The sweet-tart taste didn’t quite wash away the acrid asphalt smell clinging to my hair.
I leaned against the antique oak pantry door. “Grandfather,” I whispered, “I don’t know what to do.” I never knew I’d miss him so much until he was gone. I even missed his anger.
He didn’t reply. Grandfather had been rooted for nine years now, and didn’t speak much. But that night I woke to creaking and groaning deep in the walls. Grandfather trembled, knocking pictures and mirrors askew. It began to rain outside, drumming down so hard it drowned out the distant sounds of war. The roof sprung a leak, right over our bed in the master bedroom. Suitcases clattered down out of the attic and skittered down the newly warped hallway floor until they hit our bedroom door.
We had our answer. We got up and began to pack. Chachi cried at being woken so early, but Cat rocked and hushed him asleep again. I gave Cleo a backpack to fill with her favorite things: a stuffed beaver, a plastic sword, some boardbooks pressed from the last beams of her great-grandmother.
It was much the same with our neighbors. Boards warped, door knobs rusted, stairs bowed downward. The structures of Aurora had taken counsel overnight, and we had their verdict. Our rooted families nudged us out the only way they could.
In the distance, bombs exploded against tall walls that hadn’t been there the night before, human bodies holding back the invaders so we might escape. The nautilus maze had thickened inside. There wasn’t much time left.
We only had so many bodies, after all.
We fled weeping. We fled into the eastern wilderness, an undeveloped, empty country of steep hills and evergreens and thick, prickly bramble. Jake and I packed the children into our car, and Cat squeezed into the backseat. We joined the slow-moving traffic wending from the city’s wreckage. Eventually the jam got so bad, we parked and shut off the engine. Jake and I left Cat with the kids and approached a knot of refugees having words with a tired police officer by the roadside.
“What’s the problem?”
The police officer cocked her chin eastward. “Roads aren’t wide enough to handle this much traffic. It gets even worse ahead. This highway narrows to a single lane, cutting into hills and forests. People don’t take that road often, unless they’re visiting the ocean. It isn’t very tidy out there. All granite boulders and switchbacks around rivers and lakes. Wild country.”
“So what are you saying?” said Jake. He fanned himself with a baseball cap, the hot asphalt intensifying the growing heat.
The police officer sketched a phantom map in the gravel with her boot. “I don’t know. But we can’t get out of the city to the west, not with Apsides coming in that way. We should consolidate into fewer vehicles. Leave behind as much as we can. Save our bodies, at least.”
The whole group turned as one to watch the black smoke rise in the west, a nonstop line since the first attack. It struck us all as a bad idea, but nobody had a better one.
We were halfway through the disordered and chaotic consolidation when I realized I couldn’t find Jake.
“Have you seen my husband?” I asked the police officer, the other travelers, sprinted from car to car along the shoulder as the traffic began to creep along. I checked with Cat, but he wasn’t in the car, either.
Then I spotted him far up the road, unlacing his shoes, stripping off his socks, and stepping barefoot onto the asphalt at the road’s shoulder.
I was too late. He’d already buried his toes and reached eastward. For a moment he bowed to the sun. Then he lengthened, broadened, his white t-shirt running pebbly black as he flowed down the road, faster than my eye could follow.
He transformed. He disappeared forever.
Numb, I climbed behind the wheel and began to drive. I caught Cat’s eye and cut off her comment with a tiny head shake. Now wasn’t the time. I gripped the steering wheel hard, dodging Cleo’s questions as I nosed us into traffic. “He’s in another car,” I told her. It was a horrible fate for a man destined to play restaurant to my skyscraper when we took root.
Jake ran smooth and true for mile upon mile, without bump or fault. I did not change lanes.
That night, when we stopped to sleep, I lay down on the sun-warmed tar and whispered, This wasn’t our plan. You changed our plan. True things. Bitter things. Words of blame. What I really meant was, I love you.
I don’t know how many survived the flight from the city. Our numbers thinned as we went, lost to the necessities of survival. More roads, when the older ones ended. I said goodbye to Jake. I wanted him to speak to me, but he was a road, and roads cannot even creak and sigh like houses can. When another woman lay down and joined ends with Jake, his brand-new asphalt was already pitted and potholed, graying like he had been rooted for many decades, weeds hurrying to bury him. He’d closed the way behind us to slow any pursuit.
That was when I knew for sure our city was dead. Our beloved ghosts had fled their haunts. Without them, we had only dry rot and snapped beams and crumbling cement to return to.
Aurora had fallen.
We reached no end to sacrifice.
When the snow fell, some of us became cabins, or if we were able, hotels. The oldest and most powerful among us disappeared first. Our structures grew smaller as we traveled. Always behind us we left new walls to block the way. In the west, a black oily plume snaked upwards against the sunset.
We finally reached the ocean. Nowhere else to run except into the water, and the black smoke still persisted. No city center for me. No long, languid dance of generations racing down my stairwells. There would never be a city without these children, too young to take root, and we adults too few to hold off our pursuers.
We left the cars behind and let the children on the beach. Cat found me. We buried our feet in the sand together like we were girls again, on a holiday. The sun sank trembling at our backs and turned the ocean into tossing, broken light. It hurt my eyes to look at it.
“I tried to become a bridge,” Cat said. “I tried. I did just what Mom did, but nothing happened.” Her voice strangled with suppressed sobs. “I should be old enough. I’m not much younger than you.”
I took her cold hand and squeezed it. “Shh, it’s okay.” She leaned against my shoulder, and her whole body shook. “It’s too early for you, Cat. You wouldn’t be able to get far, anyway. Not all the way across, not at your age.”
“Do you think there’s another shore at all?” She wiped ocean spray mixed with tears from her cheeks.
“I don’t know. It’s not on the maps.”
I dug my toes a little deeper, squeezing the grit and broken shell fragments between them, and thought bridge.
But if I bridged the sea, I would only lead the enemy to the other side. We would never be safe so long as our own roads betrayed us.
What then? A gun factory? A house of death to wreak some last revenge? I could become a lighthouse, and wait for the enemy. I could gather them up inside me, welcome the soldiers of Apsides with warmth and shelter to drive back the ocean’s storms. When they slept, I could collapse roof to floor, and take them down to the sea. Our bones could mingle and house the fish, and no one would speak the name Aurora ever again.
I skipped shells into the ocean. Children splashed in the shallows, chasing the tide in and out. Cleo had taken a wooden plank (a memento, perhaps, of Grandfather?) and paddled around on her belly in the shallows, her bare toes kicking and digging into the waves. I longed to gather her back into myself, a tiny thing to shelter in my belly from awful things like asphalt and smoke, that same impulse that drove every person to throw up girders and drywall when they reached maturity.
Martha a skyscraper, Graham a parking lot, and Jake an asphalt road. Three generations stepping down and down from dignity and use. We stood at the end of the Age of Cities.
My toes curled into the water, soft and yielding as silk bed sheets, but it had a weight to it, a gravity. Maybe there was more than one way. Maybe the ocean could be a home, too.
Martha, help me, I prayed. I stepped into the water. The waves licked waist-deep, chest-deep, then lapped my chin.
I reached out toward the ocean, my back lengthening, ribs bending out, vertebrae fusing and bowing at both ends. My arms lifted into masts, and my black hair snapped and spread into sails caught between my fingers. Come with me. I spoke as a hundred planks and a hundred iron spikes rocking in the wind. Rope ladders unspooled down my sides. I filled my belly with chocolate and oranges and Sumatran coffee, and my cabins with beds of soft down. At my bow, I shaped a figurehead in the image of Graham the day he hugged me goodbye, a road no more, carved in Martha’s brick-red stone, wrapped in iron scrollwork.
It would be enough. I could carry them. I would carry them far away.
I whispered my love in swishing nets and flapping sails. Their feet trembled against my belly and my decks. Their voices reverberated in my planks. Their hands tangled in my ropes. We sailed on together.
The black smoke receded and disappeared in the night. The water went on and on for days and months. Still I reached for another shore, and longed for the comfort of skyscrapers.