She sat at the long table, twirling her fork across her plate. Her mother’s forced laughter came from the head of the table and Aadhiya rolled her eyes. Her parents were throwing yet another dinner party and the swarm of the elite was almost nauseating. How could they act like everything was normal, everything was ok? Just before sunrise, her service girl Adeline, her best friend, had shook her awake, tears streaming down her face. Her brother was sick.
Aadhiya watched Mrs. Hanson in her padded pant suit to make her look more ample than her hollowed cheeks belied. Dr. Nguyen wore the silk suit that he always swore was brand new, although Adeline had admitted to seeing him dye it over and over in a vat on the roof, and worst of all, the children. Dressed in an obscene rainbow of velvets, cottons, and cashmere, the children sat scattered around the floor, their pudgy cheeks and fingers breeding resentment in anyone who looked at them, even their parents.
Aadhiya, watched a little girl with tight curls roll a mango end over end, back and forth, in front of the fireplace, rejoicing in its asymmetrical progression. Her cinnamon skin looked dark against the greens, yellows and reds of the mango. A smile twitched at the corners of Aadhiya’s mouth, remembering the simplicity of the time before, before she ever knew what lay below their life on the 56th floor.
Fifteen years ago the Ambani family had moved into Echo Towers after the business district had been hastily converted to living space, but Aadhiya, only two at the time, remembered nothing of where they’d lived before. Their move had coincided with The Rise, the 2047 rush upwards, away from the filth—the poverty epidemic spreading coast to coast across the ground.
The mango stopped, balanced impossibly on its end and Aadhiya almost laughed at the girl’s bewilderment, but her giggle was stifled before it was born as the girl, out of curiosity or frustration, began to squeeze the fruit with both hands. It must have been perfectly ripe for the skin to give way so easily around its swollen middle. Saffron colored flesh burst between her little fingers, syrupy juice oozing over her knuckles and onto the porcelain tile around her knees. A disgusted look passed over the girl’s face as a glob dripped onto her lap. She dropped the mango and flicked the remnant from her lilac dress, then ran sobbing to her mother about the sticky mess, holding her hands up, fingers splayed, as evidence. With a slight shake of her head, her mother patiently led her daughter to the washing bin by the door and dunked her hands till they came out clean.
Aadhiya stared at the ruined fruit, lying in a pool of its own juice in the firelight. The flickering flames made it look as though the mango were wriggling in pain, its body ruined, she had to look away. Along the table were blooms of cruciferous vegetables, their leaves creating fans of lush greens and purples, tomatoes ranged from terra cotta to brilliant red, carrots peeled and chopped stained the bamboo serving tray orange, and slivers of bright yellow, green, orange, and red bell peppers lied scattered across the mahogany. So much of the food was grown hydroponically now, dependent on synthetic nutrients to nourish and grow the food. She was probably supposed to feel lucky that her family was privileged enough to still have access to the rarities from around the world.
Out of the corner of her eye, Aadhiya saw Adeline sidle up beside her chair and whisper out of the side of her mouth,
“You look ready to leave this circus.”
“Is it that obvious?” Aadhiya asked, straightening her shoulders.
“I could always ready your bed for the night, milady” Adeline suggested with a crooked smile and a deep curtsey.
“I wish,” she said, looking down the table at her mother who had once again begun glancing at her from beneath her long black lashes. “She has been watching me all night.”
“Well, whenever you’re ready, I’ll be waiting. We need to talk” Adeline slipped away like she’d never been there at all.
Aadhiya rebelliously stacked her own plates, and turned toward the kitchen, but her father caught her by the shoulder, spun her around, and flopped into the chair beside hers.
“Mērī pyārī bēṭī, come, sit with me” he pulled her around to face him. Mr. Ambani never seemed to consider that there was an alternative to his desires, so Aadhiya sat.
“How is my favorite daughter?”
“Papa, you really shouldn’t say that” she said, glancing down the table where her older sister sat, pushing limp asparagus around her plate.
“I can’t help it if it’s true” he whispered conspiratorially, poking her in her side with a fat finger and hearty chuckle. His walrus mustache twitched jovially under his nose. She loved the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed.
“Would you cover for me if I went up to my room? This is…”
“Exhausting, I know, but it is important to maintain connections you know, especially with the state of the country.”
“I was going to say flagrant”
“Flagrant? How? We have earned our place here. Low-lyers have chosen to live in that squalor. We must be an example of what upstanding citizens look like, don’t you agree?”
“Chanti is doing her job well, do you really need two daughters here to make that point?”
“Aadhiya, mēri bachchi, you remind me too much of myself. Always with the rationalizations” he chuckled again.
“Is that a yes, I can go?”
“Go, go! Quickly, before your mother catches us” he whispered, laughing as he shooed her toward the kitchen exit. He stood, smoothing the wrinkles from his slacks and the mischievous smile from his face and cleared his throat, his cheeks still rosy from merriment.
Aadhiya slipped through the door to the kitchen and was immediately able to breathe easier in the cacophony of the banging pots and clanging pans. The beading of her sari was digging into her hip, so she looped her thumb between the fabric and her waist, fantasizing about stripping it off the moment she got into her bedroom. She ran up the stairs to her room, leaning against the door as it closed and was startled by movement behind her. She spun around to see Adeline slumped on her vanity bench. Her dishwater blond hair hung limply over her face, the pin having slipped down toward her ear.
“Addi, what are you doing here? What’s wrong?”
“I was washing dishes and when I saw my reflection in the water, I saw his eyes.”
“Oh…” Aadhiya wasn’t sure what to say. The fact that the news had made its way up to the 56th floor wasn’t good.
“Delaney is sick,” Adeline said, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Aadhiya shuffled over to her friend, almost tripping over the golden hem of her sari. Adeline stood automatically and came to her, like she did every night before bed. They stood for a moment, holding hands before Aadhiya started fidgeting with the beads at her hip again.
“Here, let me.” Adeline said. Aadhiya stood still as Adeline pulled the pin from the sash over her shoulder, then reached around behind her and began tugging on folds and untucking the carefully pleated cotton. Aadhiya breathed a sigh of relief as the magenta fabric pooled around her feet. She stepped out and sat on the vanity bench as Adeline gathered the sari in her arms, set them in the basket by the door and held out her hand out for the heavy gold medallion draped around her neck.
Adeline moved behind her and expertly pulled out the pins holding up the bun at the back of her head and she immediately felt the tension release on her scalp and shook her head, combing the tangles out with her fingers. Aadhiya tried to think of comforting words for her friend as Adeline picked up the ivory handled brush from the vanity and began brushing her long thick hair.
Aadhiya’s shoulders slumped, finally able to relax for the first time all evening. She watched Adeline in the mirror, pulling the brush through her hair, the thick black tufts floating lazily back to her shoulder. She was startled to see tears streaking down her friend’s cheeks in the reflection. She had never seen her cry in the ten years she’d been employed with the Ambani family. She spun around and took her friends’ hands in hers.
“What can I do? Tell me what to do and I’ll do it” Aadhiya said. Adeline just shook her head, crying silently. Aadhiya stood and wiped the tears from her friends cheeks.
“There’s nothing you could do. We’re not even sure what’s wrong with him. His body seems weighed down by lead. He’s had high fevers for days and nothing my mother does makes any difference. He can barely eat. His gums bleed. No doctors will come down to see him there.”
“What if we found another doctor? One that is willing to go down to the ground and see Delaney?”
“Where Aadhiya? No one cares about us down there” She jabbed her finger at the floor.
“I care about you. Listen, Dr. Nguyen only lives two floors up from me. Make me a list of Delaney’s symptoms and I’ll see if he knows what it could be. He would never tend to low-lyers, but maybe he would help if he thought it was one of us.” Adeline wiped her nose, her eyes suddenly clear and fiercely green. “I’m sorry my friend. It isn’t fair, but it is the way it is.”
“Do you think he might know…he might know a way to heal my Delaney?”
“We can’t know unless we try, I have a plan.” Aadhiya said resolutely.
The next morning Aadhiya and Adeline hoisted a 40 pound sack of laundry up the stairs to the roof, situating themselves next to Dr. Nguyen, busy at work over his vat of dye. Aadhiya was forbidden to touch the dirty clothing, and Adeline was forbidden to speak to other uplanders, so they set about implementing the performance they’d arranged the night before.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your friend,” Adeline said theatrically, projecting her voice across the roof. “Bleeding gums and vomiting, it sounds simply awful.”
“The poor thing has been listless for days…”
“Louder Aadhiya. He can’t hear you.” Adeline whispered.
“Poor thing has been listless for days,” Aadhiya said, raising her voice, “no doctor has been able to pinpoint what’s wrong.” Aadhiya watched Dr. Nguyen perk up at that. He wiped at the sweat glistening from his forehead with his thin, bare arms. “Her mother says her joints ache so badly she reminds her of an arthritic grandmother, but she’s only 11.”
“Poor thing.” Adeline said, “If only someone knew what type of illness she might have.” Now Dr. Nguyen was glancing over his shoulder every 30 seconds, struggling to maintain the air of disinterest, but failing horribly.
“I hope she doesn’t die!” Aadhiya finished, sitting down hard on the ledge next to heavy sack of laundry.
“Scurvy!” Dr. Nguyen’s voice cracked in his thick Vietnamese accent, echoing across the concrete roof, “She has scurvy.” His slender form wound around the vents. “What is her diet like, your friend?” he asked, stopping in front of them, wiping his sweaty hands on his white ribbed tank top, leaving blue streaks across his chest. Aadhiya looked at Adeline, they hadn’t anticipated this line of questioning. She nodded at Adeline to take the lead.
“She…eats mostly millet, or ground wheat kernels. Sometimes her family can find potatoes, but mostly it’s gruel, and maybe rice.” Dr. Nguyen continued to stare at Aadhiya, waiting for a response, like Adeline hadn’t just spoken.
“She doesn’t eat like us.” Adeline said plainly. “If she gets food, it’s millet or wheat. If they’re lucky they get rice or potatoes on trade, but they have trouble making those connections.”
“That’s it,” said Dr. Nguyen, “she is completely devoid of vitamin C. By the sounds of it, she doesn’t have long left.”
“No!” Adeline cried, her knees buckling under her.
“What do you mean? A vitamin deficiency can’t kill someone! Can it?” Aadhiya asked.
“My dear, if your ‘friend’ has been at this diet for more than a few months, which it sounds like she has, it is not merely possible, it is likely that she will die.” Adeline moaned from her place on the ground.
“Can I fix it, can it be fixed?” Aadhiya asked desperately.
“If you can find supplements it can be cleared up in a week or two, but I have not been able to locate any for years. I personally make it a point to eat a balanced, nutritious diet, which supplies me with all the necessary vitamins and minerals.” Adeline’s head snapped up and Aadhiya could tell that she was ready to tell Dr. Nguyen off for his simplistic view of the world from the top, so she leapt in before Adeline could get herself into trouble.
“Like what? What foods have vitamin C?”
“You know, oranges, lemons, limes…most citrus fruits. Strawberries too. Pity they have stopped educating you children about nutrition. I suppose they do not want to tease you, dangling the carrot so to speak” He laughed softly to himself. Having purged his diagnosis and subsequent medical information, Dr. Nguyen seemed to have either become skeptical or lost interest and thrust his hands awkwardly into his pockets.
“I ought to get back to…uh…my washing” he said, the splatters of blue across his chest spoke the truth, but neither of the girls felt like pushing their luck. The minute Dr. Nguyen turned his back, Aadhiya and Adeline ducked between the laundry lines, leaving the sack of laundry spilling onto the roof, and the hastily pinned sheets fluttering in the mid-morning breeze.
Aadhiya sent Adeline down to her room to fetch some plain clothes while she snuck around the house to pilfer as many vitamin rich foods she could find. Aadhiya tossed asparagus into the large laundry bag from her room. Moving down the counter, she dumped in the bin of sweet potatoes and yams, and emptied the vegetable drawer from the fridge for good measure.
Once the bag was full, she tied it tight, pulled the straps over her arms, and headed back to her room. Adeline was there, laying out a pair of linen trousers, a long sleeve shirt, and a canvas jacket. All three were the color of sand.
“Keep the jacket zipped and buttoned, don’t make eye contact and try not to stop too near anyone, they might smell the food.” Adeline said, lining up a pair of brown canvas shoes at the edge of the bed. “I’ve drawn you a detailed map leading you from here to my mom’s house. Follow it exactly. Don’t look around, don’t leave the main road except where I indicate on the map.” She had a military air about her, as if readying Aadhiya for battle. Aadhiya nodded silently, willing the knot in her stomach to subside. Throwing up wouldn’t help anything.
“Eyes on the ground,” Aadhiya parroted back.
“Aadhiya, you don’t have to do this” Adeline said, taking her hand, “you have no idea the kind of desperation you will see down there. They are starving. Kind, compassionate people will rip you limb from limb if they know what you have in that bag.”
Before she could respond to her friend, the head housekeeper called for Adeline from the floor below, echoing through the floor.
“Hide those” Adeline said before she went out into the hall, shutting the door behind her.
Aadhiya sat on her bed, breathing deeply, trying to study her racing heart. She had never left the tower before. Adeline had told her stories about the ground, what life was like at the bottom. She had been hired by the Ambani family when she was 7, probably because she was Aadhiya’s age and offered as much of a playmate as a service girl. She’d told Aadhiya about going to bed hungry every night, her mother withering away in front of her eyes as she gave her rations over to her children day after day. Adeline had tried to describe the blanched world, but Aadhiya never could wash the colors from behind her eyelids when she tried to imagine the world her friend had known, the one in which her family was confined. This was the first time she had thought about the feral nature of desperation. She resolved to leave that night.
She thought of Mama and Papa, even Chanti. What would they think? What would they say when they discovered her gone? She tried to think of how to reason with them upon her return, if she returned, but could they understand her drive, the need to make things right for Delaney, for Adeline. Hearing her emotions filtered through her memories, watching the stories play out in her eyes, seeing the fear flit across her face while recalling the savagery, the depravity that was a daily occurrence down below, drew her heart into action.
Aadhiya’s throat tightened as she watched the moon crest the roof of the building to the east. It was time. She undressed methodically, folding her blouse and laying it neatly atop her pleated chinos. She stood trembling in her bra and panties, almost more afraid of donning the clothes Adeline had provided for her than being discovered in her undergarments. She noticed a warm light from a window in the building across the street, a mother stood by a child’s bed, rocking her little one back and forth.
She suddenly missed her family, asleep under the same roof, just down the hall. She realized she’d missed them long before now. She missed the family she’d had before the food was so dangerously scarce. She missed the family that played and laughed and thought about more than how much of what they could secure from their connections.
Sneaking down the hall to the front entry, Aadhiya crept through the kitchen to get to the elevator. She had just passed the prep-table when she heard footsteps on the stairs. She ducked under the table, barely daring to breathe. She could see Chanti’s fuzzy pink slippers pad toward the refrigerator and heard her yawn as she tugged the door open. Aadhiya pressed her back against the wall, further away from the triangle of light that hit the floor. She couldn’t believe her sister was filching food! She was about to crawl around the corner and through the dining room when the refrigerator slammed shut. She jumped, looking back toward the slipper-clad feet of her sister. There were two pairs of slippers now. Aadhiya covered her mouth as she recognized her mother’s crimson slippers. A slap cracked across the kitchen.
“You filthy little thief!” her mother said. “You would take food your own family’s mouth?”
“I will not listen to a girl who thinks like a low-lier” her mother said. “If you want to act like them, you can live like them. Go ahead, bēṭī, walk out those doors downstairs. They will not open from the outside.”
“I’m sorry mama,” Chanti cried, sinking to her knees at her mother’s feet. Aadhiya was afraid she would see her crouched under the table.
“Stand up, little girl” her mother said, pulling her up by her arm. “Go to bed, but remember, next time you will not be forgiven so easily. Adeline held her breath until she heard both women reach the top of the stairs.
She pressed the down button on the elevator. It pinged loudly and she looked guiltily over her shoulder, sure that at any moment her father would come thundering down the stairs to stop her. The house remained silent. She stepped inside, held her breath, and pressed the button for the first floor. An inch from closing, a hand jut between the metal doors and Aadhiya almost screamed. As the door opened again, Adeline was revealed, panting.
“Adeline! You should be in bed! If they even suspect you you will be back on the streets!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Adeline said, slipping inside and pressing button to close the doors. “How did you plan on getting past the guards?” Aadhiya stared at her friend. She hadn’t even thought about the guards. “Exactly,” Adeline laughed, rolling her eyes.
Aadhiya’s anxiety grew as the numbers counted down on the digital face above the doors.When the elevator opened, both girls peeked through into the lobby, looking around to see who, if anyone was watching. Two guards sat at a crescent shaped desk, dimly lit by the glow of screens on the wall. With one last look at Aadhiya, Adeline left the lift, her confident gait turning into a weak-kneed hobble as she neared the desk.
Aadhiya watched both guards turn to look at her and one began to ask what she needed. Adeline turned sharply moved to the back wall, farthest from the elevators. Hidden by the desk, Aadhiya saw her stick her fingers down her throat, vomiting the night’s dinner all over the polished tile floor. Both guards leapt to their feet. Anger, then sympathy flashed across their faces as they rounded the desk to help the sick girl. Taking advantage of Adeline’s most dedicated distraction, Aadhiya quickly crossed the lobby and into the night.
On the other side of the double doors, the moon cast an eerie light upon the town. Dust swirled in the street, sending scraps of paper and unidentifiable plastic twirling in the breeze. A lone child leapt at a plastic bag that danced just out of reach, crumpling back onto the curb as it blew away. She resisted the impulse to turn around and push her way back into the warmly lit building with the armed security guards. Through the glass, Aadhiya saw the guards leading Adeline to a chair. She watched her friend brush her hair away from her face, wipe her mouth, and smile.There was no turning back now.
Rushing away from her home, Aadhiya saw a boy with impossibly bowed legs, his long thighs curved like a wishbone she had seen two children snap the night before. She pushed past the boarded up windows and doorways of vacant houses that gaped at her like old men with missing teeth. She kept her eyes on the ground and a tight grip on the heavy bag on her back. The town reminded her of a water color painting that had been left out in the rain, the rough outline of the buildings and structures, but the color seemed to have been drained away and washed down the gutters with the wastewater.
Hours later, her legs ached as she finally came across a house at the end of her directions that fit Adeline’s description, if you could call it a house. Half of the roof had fallen in and a giant, army green tarp was fixed over the gaping hole. The windows had been boarded up, but sweet white shutters still framed them. She could imagine the begonias that might have once lined the walkway to the front door. The stepping stones that must have once shared happy memories of families past, now just made her sad as she walked across tiny handprints and kindergarten mosaics. The door frame was splintered from a forced entry sometime in the house’s history, so Aadhiya only knocked as a pretense before she pushed her way inside.
There was no electricity here, so she was greeted only with midnight gloom. The planks over the windows suffocated the moonlight, but somewhere near the back of the long front hallway candlelight flickered. She instinctually made her way toward the light, occasionally glancing left and right as she passed blackened openings to rooms unseen.
As she turned the corner, she was shocked by the sight of what she could only assume was Adeline’s brother. His withered form was propped on a mattress in the corner of the bedroom. If she hadn’t seen his chest rise and fall, she would have taken him for dead. She stood outside the room, staring into the poverty that she had only ever heard of from Adeline. How could this world lie just beneath her own?
If she had only looked down from her own bedroom window she knew she would have seen the bow-legged boy who pleaded with his eyes, the old man squatting on the sidewalk spear-hunting rats, the mother holding the infant with the swollen belly and bulging eyes. But she never had.
Adeline’s mother appeared at the boy’s shoulder and Aadhiya woke out of her reverie. She slowly tipped muddy looking water between the boys cracked lips. His spluttering choke made Aadhiya’s throat tighten and she coughed too. The mother looked up, startled by the unexpected sound behind her.
“Adeline sent me,” Aadhiya said immediately. “She couldn’t risk her job coming herself. She knows you need all the money she can send.” Though it didn’t look like it did much good.
“Thank you, but I’m afraid it’s too late.” Tears shimmered in her eyes as she looked down at her child, one drop falling to his pale arm as she dropped her chin to his chest. “I sent that letter to Addi weeks ago. It just takes time to get it to the top.”
The boy’s breath rattled in his throat and as he gasped again, Aadhiya noticed the angry spots on his tongue and the blood at the corners of his mouth. She looked away, and was almost immediately ashamed. This happened because too many people had looked away. The mother groaned in agony and laid her head on her son’s chest, her tears leaving tracks on his dusty skin. Aadhiya saw that the boy had stopped breathing.
She slowly lowered the sack to the ground, the oranges, limes, and grapefruits rolling out embarrassed her now. She wrenched open an orange and plucked the seeds from the tender flesh with shaking fingers. She laid them on a square of cloth she’d found wedged in her pocket and folded the corners together. She stepped past the grieving mother and the lifeless boy on the floor and flung the back door open.
The night suddenly seemed brighter to her. Falling to her knees in the small patch of earth behind the house, she started to dig. She pulled the sand and gravel away until a deeper brown dirt was revealed. She clawed at the earth until her nails broke and the dirt flying behind her was laced with the blood of her skinned fingertips. She felt nothing. A rough row of bare soil lie before her and she delicately placed the seeds in a neat line. She scooped the piles of dirt on top of the seeds, her tears soaking into the layers as she patted it firm. Please, just one; just let one of them grow.
*Chelsea Vitone is a Senior at the University of Washington Tacoma, double majoring in Writing Studies and Communication with a minor in Environmental Studies. She is an avid environmentalist who loves writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. With two sons, 7 and 4, she is endlessly inspired.