"We've selected the date, Lawrence: September 7th. You have dinner with her tomorrow..." The rest of his father's words sped by like the body of a HyperTube, zipping away in little more than an unfocused blur. Lawrence blinked, gaze wandering back to the party, past his father's curled lips and pointed glare. "Tomorrow, I expect you to be there," he repeated, snapping before Lawrence's unfocused eyes. "And clean yourself up while you're at it. Don't embarrass yourself like last time. You need to shape up, boy. A lot is depending on this — the family's future is depending on this."
Asshole. Lawrence scowled, but remained silent, lest the lecturing go on.
"Do you understand? No more alcohol or drugs tonight, goddamnit. Overdose after you marry the bitch." His father squeezed the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Now get out of my sight."
"Happily," Lawrence muttered, turning and slamming the hall door behind him before his father could retaliate. Storming back into his penthouse, he ripped a bottle of imported vodka from the hands of a faded guest and took a heavy pull. Dammit! He always finds a way to fuck everything up! The alcohol felt weak, so he lifted the bottle again. No more drinking, my ass.
But before he could tilt it high enough for the liquid escape to reach his lips, a hand snatched the bottle away. "What'd the old man want? You look pissed, buddy," someone said, straining to be heard over the thumping music.
He scowled at the thief, but after seeing it was just Jonathan — now with another spilled drink on his ostentatious sparkling shirt — Lawrence slumped into one of his leather couches, conceding the alcohol. "I'm getting married," he said with a groan, running a hand through his slicked-back hair.
"So, he set a date, huh?" Jonathan asked, shaking his head. "Thought it'd just die off like all the rest. He really wants that Astor pull, doesn't he? Everyone's so obsessed with money and prestige, like — "
"Yeah, yeah. Spare me the lecture; I just escaped one," Lawrence said, then froze, catching a flash of curls and glitter out the corner of his eye. "Shit, cover for me." He stood and, with more of a wobble than he expected, retreated to the balcony through the dancers and the gossipers and the awkward few who stuck to the edges, alone. It was his private space — his escape, especially during times like these.
Lawrence looked out the balcony to the city beyond. Skyscrapers of glass and shining metal twisted up, looming like a giant's fingers prepared to crush them all in the palm of his hand. Lawrence waited every day for the moment they came down upon him, squeezing the life from his lungs, making it all, finally, fade away. But for all his hopes and dreams, he only had the discontent poor to threaten life in the city.
If only I could just leave. He laughed at the thought. It was cute to imagine, to pretend. Then again, what would I even do? I'd just be like all the rest: hopeless and poor.
He shut the glass door, smothering the cacophony of hoots and laughs. A cold breeze pulled through him, snatching his suit jacket and whipping it about. He grimaced and buttoned it up over his silver shirt, the lights of the city refracting the light, blinding him for a moment with rainbow rays. Everything seemed to freeze as he looked at the dreary sight before him. The quiet humming of the cars zipping past hundreds of feet below; the distant fans of churning factories, shoved near the slums; even the shuffling of hopeless people faded away, leaving him with little more than his breath and the whisps of wind. Just the other day, a riot nearly reached the base of his tower, lighting cars on fire, smashing windows, battling cops, but, after half a day of repairs and cleaning, it was near impossible to tell.
Love or hate the rich, they were damn effective at hiding their flaws.
Well, some of them, at least. The glass door slid open.
"Lawrence, you lying, cheating, PRICK!" The brunette marched out onto the balcony, heels in one hand with her phone in the other. Behind her, Jonathan shrugged. Lawrence had given him an impossible task, so he could hardly blame the man for failing. "Who. Is. She?" The brunette shoved her phone in Lawrence's face.
It was a photo he — or rather, his image consultant — posted a few days ago. He sat in shorts and a polo, smiling his most convincing smile, relaxed back on a blanket in some manicured park as the woman next to him laughed. Hell, he didn't even remember going to a park. Maybe it was one of the collections of rendered scenes from their photoshoot. Just by looking at the picture, someone might think he was in a fantastic relationship with his fiancé, and they often took strolls around parks, laughing at cameras and throwing frisbees or whatever the fuck regular people do.
"Victoria? Just Victoria?" She rubbed tears from her eyes, smearing mascara, making her look like some third-world coal miner or even one of the slum dwellers. The thought almost made him laugh. "Victoria Astor is your fiancé! You were engaged? And you didn't tell me?"
"To be honest, you should have known. It's hardly a secret."
"But you didn't tell me!" she shouted, waving her phone as proof.
"You're such an asshole!"
"You've made that point clear, uh," he struggled for a moment, working through the vodka-induced fog, "Amanda."
She stormed away, then turned and glared at him, then looked down to her shoe in hand, then back at him. Don't do it, Lawrence thought, but it was too late. The high heel left her hand in a violent arc, barely missing his head as it flew over the balcony into the streets below. If it landed intact, perhaps one of the homeless could resell it for a few month's rent.
"I loved you," she said through sobs, then turned and ran away with the drunken coordination of an infant's first steps.
There was no getting rid of her softly — women were like that sometimes. Hell, all the time. But then again, maybe that was just the effect he had on them. They'd chase him around after a few fun nights, then finally disappear into the crowds of fake eyelashes and lies. Or materialism and greed, as Jonathan would say.
"Sorry, I couldn't hold her; she's stronger than she looks." Jonathan joined him outside as if summoned by the thought. After a moment of silence, he added, "Ya gotta stop doing that, man."
"Leaving them messed up like that. It's sad. Sad and cruel."
Lawrence looked over, eyebrow raised, but Jonathan wasn't grinning. "It's their fault," Lawrence said with a shrug. "Who sleeps with a guy because of his last name and expects devotion? What they see is what they get."
"A depressed junkie that gets high off girls' tears and money?"
"Fuck you. You're just jealous because no one's interested in a family of politicians," Lawrence shot back. He returned his gaze to the towers of glass. They stretched out in every direction, absorbing the sky with their indifference. "It's not like I enjoy it, you know."
"Damn, this is supposed to be a party. We're getting messed up by your shitty vibes."
"Says the man who bitched for an hour straight earlier about losing his book deal and how he should have stayed in uni."
"At least I dropped out for a reason," Jonathan said, smirking.
"I did too."
"To piss off your parents isn't a reason, buddy."
Lawrence laughed and turned away from the grim view of the city. Through the floor-to-ceiling panes of thin glass, he watched as strangers he called friends danced, losing themselves in whatever substance was popular again.
"Enough moping around, come back inside," Jonathan said with a grin. "Philosophize about the nihilistic nature of it all later. Tonight, we have some fun."
"Fun," Lawrence repeated as if trying the word on for size. I've got dinner with her tomorrow, he thought, groaning. "A few more drinks can't hurt."
He waited in a steel grey suit, rubbing his temples from the hangover, and while taking more than enough time to pour a drink, his waiter refused to shut up. In the background, his guards blended in, waiting in corners and by exits. Fake conversation and the notes of a quiet piano fluttered around him like carbonated bubbles escaping a glass of champagne. Le Taillevent was a high-rise restaurant of posh sensibilities, stylish patrons, and pure vanity. Managing a reservation was nearly impossible — you'd have better luck walking through the slums at night and escaping with all your belongings than finding a seat a week in advance. And yet, Lawrence lounged back, sipping strong scotch after sauntering through the door, not ten minutes prior.
For once in his life, he was early, and his date was late.
And then, as he stood to leave, the front doors parted, and she stepped in. If his world were little more than steel, glass, and concrete, she was the flash of red neon as the skyscrapers lit up, and the city rejoiced, having made it another day. Victoria Astor. She was everything every awful woman in this shitty city wanted to be, and yet, entirely different, or so her admirers said. Directed by the same annoying waiter, she approached his table, and maybe it was the scotch, but he stood, following etiquette, and pulling out her seat. Victoria smiled, smoky eyes crinkling — she'd always been good, far too good. Anyone could force a smile, but few could bring their eyes into it. She crossed her legs as she sat, thigh slit on her crimson dress stylishly revealing. Lawrence rounded the table, forcing himself to sit up straight. If I have to marry her, might as well try. God knows what Father would do should I refuse.
"Sorry for being late," she said, voice like the warm glow of a fire. "We had to avoid the riots, poor people."
"Yeah." He nodded, swirling his drink, setting it down, then picking it up again for another sip. Victoria watched him; a perfect eyebrow perched. "It came as a surprise," Lawrence found himself saying, looking up with a grin. "I was still holding out hope it'd fall through."
She smiled when the waiter poured her a glass of wine, then turned the expression to Lawrence, eyes no longer crinkling. "And yet, here we are."
"Here we are."
For once, they didn't force conversation, just sitting in silence until the course was selected. Lawrence coaxing his drink, Victoria staring off through the window overlooking the city, sipping wine as rain drizzled. The mood was different — maybe it was the date finally being set, and their hope crushed in all its inevitability, that awoke such candor otherwise nonexistent. Perhaps it was fleeting, as all tolerable things were. And then, she set her glass down with the kind of finality belonging at the end of an argument.
"Do you hate me?" she asked. Victoria didn't give him one of her innocent looks, and not a bright-eyed smile either, but a frown.
"I-" he tried, but his words didn't work. His usual arsenal of sharp jabs out of reach, impossible to find. "No. I don't hate you."
"It feels like you do. It feels like you despise me. Is it because of my name? My family? I wouldn't blame you; they deserve it, to be frank." She stared at him, her eyes challenging his. "But that's not quite it. You hate me because of who you think I am, don't you?"
"And how can I possibly know who you are?" Lawrence shot back, leaning forward on his elbows. "Everyone's so damn fake and you're no different."
"Is that so? And what if you're wrong? I may not be like you, but I'm honest too, and maybe you just can't see it."
He laughed. "Honest, huh? Then tell me, honestly, what do you think of me?"
"I think you're an asshole."
His smirk widened. "Oh, but everyone says that."
"And I think there's a lot more to you than what you want people to see. I think you're terrified of letting people catch a glimpse, so you hide behind a mask of your own — one of you being an asshole."
Lawrence laughed, looking away. Honest? More like delusional. He reached for his glass, but Victoria snatched at it. His hand wrapped around hers.
Something was wrong. Most nights, he lost himself in others, forgetting the passing moments in misplaced passion and pleasure. It was always meaningless, forgetful. Various substances and booze helped wash it all down, flushing away the wasted affection. But this time, Lawrence didn't feel the cold embrace of ambivalence, but something that almost made him wish he had. He pulled his hand back as if he'd nearly been bit by a viper, and Victoria grinned, victorious. Damn her. She doesn't get to fuck with me like that.
And then, she looked past him, ceding the glass, eyes lighting up. "They have a Steinway!"
She stood, leaving him alone at the table, speechless, staring after her as she smiled at the pianist. Lawrence looked at his hand, still feeling the warmth of her touch. She doesn't get to do that. And then, the room took a breath, and the world went silent. He turned, staring. The piano went quiet, and Victoria slid into the seat. Idiot. She's just going to make a fool of herself. Lawrence sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose, preparing himself. But the uncoordinated slamming of keys never came, for when he looked up, the ditzy girl vanished, and someone else entirely sat in her place.
It started delicately, notes drifting and caressing the air — a whisper for more. But as her lips grew tight and her brow furrowed in focus, her fingers danced over the keys with a newfound urgency. The song rose into a passionate battle between two unseen forces, each vying for attention and sympathy. It was death. It was life. It was heartbreak and sorrow and the warmth that came after. In a few brief minutes, the music became everything, and he lost himself. Wandering, drifting, comfortably swirling in an abyss of her creation. But before he knew it, Victoria rose, bowing sheepishly to patrons' soft claps. Lawrence blinked; a plate of Roasted Duck Colvert sat before him, steaming and untouched. How long has that been there?
"Only a little sloppy," she said with a sigh, pulling a strand of blonde hair back as she glanced at him. "I expect a sufficiently sharp barb. But you can keep staring at me like that instead if you wish."
He snapped his jaw shut and snorted. "Well, I can say that I hate you a little less now."
"Oh? Perhaps he has a heart, after all."
"Don't push your luck. It was one song."
"One song you gawked at me for."
He laughed, leaning back and looking off. "I expected Chopsticks. Still, one song. God knows how terrible your others are."
Victoria smiled, leaning forward, burning him with her smoldering eyes. "But one song is all I need."
"To do what?"
"To leave this place." Lawrence felt the air itself shudder underneath her proclamation. She said it casually as if it was little more than a joke, but the way she watched him, searching for his reaction, said otherwise.
"But then we can't be married. I need to stay and take over the old family business," he said, his fallback grin faltering.
"Perhaps. But Austria's National Conservatorium waits for no man, no matter how large his wallet."
He dropped the smile. "You're serious? Your parents would disown you, strip you of your name, even…" He couldn't say it. Rumors were often inflated, often untrustworthy — that's why he despised anyone who spread them — but if they were to be believed, her punishment for running away would be far worse than any arranged marriage. The Astors were a heartless bunch. Somehow, even worse than his own father, though, the notion was hard to imagine.
Victoria pursed her lips, looking at her glass of wine, but gave a small nod. "If they catch me. That's why I need to leave while everything is still stable, normal."
He waited for more, but she sat quietly. Lawrence sighed and went to poking at his meal. The night floated on, conversation flowing more naturally, safely pleasant, and meaningless, and the topic of her leaving was never brought up again. As they talked, he found himself having to force a smile a little less. He gazed at his glass, meal nearly untouched before him. What's wrong with me? She's one of them. I can't just ignore that and pretend she's someone she isn't. A brief streak of honesty doesn't make up for a lifetime of being a fake. His knuckles turned white as he clenched his fists in his lap, anger mounting. Anger for his father forcing him into this, at Victoria for her counterfeit smiles, at himself for going along with it. And as the thoughts bubbled over and his lips tightened, he stood, pushing his seat out with more urgency than intended, glancing at his watch.
"I should go," he said, then turned and left as she stared after him.
Late evening becoming early morning, the city burning like a neon sun, hiding all else in the sky but the moon, Lawrence wasted the hours away staring out from his patio. But no matter how many drinks he swallowed, the thoughts of her still came. Why now? he thought, looking up as if the night might answer. She was like the rest, and yet she still managed to make him feel as if she wasn't. Lawrence shook his head, pushing it all aside. But if she gets into that conservatorium and leaves the city, then we wouldn't have to marry. Then I'll be free. A small voice in the back of his mind whispered, and then she'll be gone.
Lawrence laughed, downing another glass. "Good."
The weeks passed in their typical slow, shambling fashion, but with each Saturday dedicated to one of their arranged dates, Lawrence felt himself actually looking forward to the weekends. Part of him relished her company while the other still resented her, so each time the day came around, the internal battle began, until the side that hated her won, and he left. And yet, she kept coming, never dissuaded by his sudden disappearances. To get to Austria, she needed to keep up appearances, he supposed, and if that meant tolerating his presence and abrupt withdrawals, then so be it. But soon, their one date a week turned into two, then three, and eventually, he stopped leaving early. It was comfortable, easy, nice even. Until one Saturday morning, when his phone lit up, and she was on the other end.
Who calls anymore? He lifted it to his ear with a dubious frown, half expecting a prank.
"How easily can you lose your guards?" she asked as soon as he answered.
Lawrence laughed. "I do it all the time. Why?"
"Take out one of your fancy cars and pick me up; there's a place I want to show you." And with that, she hung up, leaving him speechless and confused — as usual.
"That Victoria?" Jonathan asked, bong inches from his lips.
"Yeah," he sighed, reaching for a jacket in anticipation of the chilly sun-choked air.
"I swear, these days, you see her more than the bottle." He cocked an eyebrow, grinning. "Your marriage is gonna be so cute."
"I can't wait for the ceremony. Hey! After, do I get to be called Uncle Jon?"
"Shut u-" He turned, squinting. "What?"
"By the product of your passionate lovemaking to a smooth jazz record in some mountain cabin… your kids, dude. Little Lawrence and Victoria Jr."
Lawrence couldn't help but laugh as he punched his friend on the shoulder. "I swear man, one of these days, you're gonna get your ass beat for the shit you say." He threw on his grey jacket and stood. "I think I have to go."
"But I can't smoke alone, dude." Lawrence shot him a raised eyebrow, but Jonathan just laughed, waving him away. "Go enjoy your date, lover boy. If any jazz comes on the radio, I'll be rooting for you!"
Lawrence rolled his eyes and left, taking his usual route to lose the guards in his labyrinths of rooms, sprinting down a few flights of stairs and taking the elevator the rest of the floors. He reached the garage and keyed in one of his un-chipped cars' plate number, waiting a few anxious moments before the rotator twisted his sleek red Aston Martin into place. He hopped in, speeding down into the rush lane with the AI taking him straight to her tower. If the guards had followed, he'd have surely lost them now. Lawrence arrived in a matter of seconds, and the private drive a few more.
She ran towards him, grinning and laughing as she clutched a long orange coat close to her chest, then flung open the door and threw herself inside. "Go! Go! Go!"
He flipped off the autopilot and zoomed out and through the streets, becoming a blur to any onlookers. The rush lane was empty, with all those who could afford it staying in their towers, content in their billion-dollar prisons. They went east, flying by skyscrapers, then packed condos and businesses, until the city dwindled, and the fields of suburbs began. The streets were clear, for the riots had waned the last few weeks, weakening with every passing day. He wondered if it was finally time for them to end, but the thought was too laughable to believe.
Lawrence sneaked a look at Victoria as he drove. Few wore colors like hers anymore — hell, it was rare to even see such colors — so he almost had to squint as she unbuttoned her coat shaded like dawn and stretched back in a sky blue sundress printed with white flowers. She smiled at him, catching his glances, making him blush and stare forward.
"Where are you taking me?" Lawrence asked.
"Somewhere that isn't so ugly. Somewhere special."
"More special than the show last week? Good luck," he said with a snort.
She laughed and shook her head, curling her legs to her chest with a long sigh. "Easily."
He eyed her curiously, still half-smirking. "If it's so special, why are you showing me?"
"Hm, good question." She laughed, stretching back. "I think you might enjoy seeing something other than that sad city." And so, they drove, leaving even the suburbs behind, vanishing into sparse woods and rolling fields, like years of a missing childhood, floating by, until she told him to turn off onto a long and winding gravel road, into a cluster of forested hills. As she leaned forward, asking him to slow down, the world speeding by came into focus.
"See?" she whispered. "This is what we've been missing."
It was spring. The flowers bloomed, and countless small green buds inched from scraggly trees, bringing hope of a brighter tomorrow. They parked at a trailhead and walked down a lightly worn path, brushing aside reaching ferns, staring at the alien world around them. Lawrence had left the city, once, to an island in the south, but instead of forests and wildlife, all he saw were resorts and beaches, and, well, mostly just a lot of clubs. As they walked, he felt a mounting desire to reach out and take her hand in his, and it took all he had to keep his hands stuffed in his pockets. I hardly feel like myself anymore. Lawrence frowned, studying the ground as he walked. And then, she stopped, and he looked up.
A meadow of vivid reds and pinks and blues stretched out before them, endless and eternal. For a moment, it swallowed all other senses, like Victoria's playing all those weeks ago. He felt the insects humming and the birds chirping; the colors sank into him, like a powerful painting taking hold of one's emotions. As his skin warmed, he gawked at the sky. He could see it, truly see it. The sun, powerful and hot, shined as old books described, without the cover of smog and clouds to choke it. Even on the islands, he didn't remember it being this vivid, this strong. Could the forest just be that pure? That untouched by civilization? Maybe it's more than that.
He looked at Victoria. She watched him, eyes smiling. "It's a sight you don't get to see in the city," she said. Lawrence nodded, searching her expression. The smile she wore never flickered or waned; it was too genuine. Maybe… maybe I was wrong. His stomach lurched as Victoria stepped closer, tilting her head, meeting his eyes. She smelled like flowers. "The world is full of places just like this, Lawrence," she said, then took a deep breath. Her gaze grew serious, powerful, and he felt held by it. "Please, I will only ever ask one thing of you: when I go to Austria, leave the city. Leave it all behind."
The field of colors spun. Leave? Out of all people, why him?
"I can see what the city has done to you, what it will do to you," she continued. "That coldness you hide behind, it'll eat away at you until there's nothing left."
The world came into focus as he stepped back. "I don't know what you mean. If I leave… I'll lose everything. My father, he'll…"
"There's nothing important about you your father could take away, Lawrence." She stepped closer, grabbing his hand. "Call me naïve, call me an idiot, but I've had fun with you these last few weeks — more fun than I've had in years, and with my terrible fiancé, no less! I'd like to think I've caught something of a glimpse of the man under the mask, so to speak," she said with a small laugh. "Just please, promise me you'll leave this city. Leave it all behind."
"I-" he tried as a cool breeze washed over them, pulling at strands of her hair, his unbuttoned jacket, waving the leaves. Who was he? A failed son to an abusive father. A shitty friend who does nothing but drink and hurt others. A man, no, a boy with no future, no hope. But with the city, he could at least pretend, right? His eyes fell, and he pulled his hand away. "I can't. You can go far; I know you can. But I… I just can't."
He turned, leaving behind the meadow and the breeze and the sunshine.
A week passed with no word from Victoria. As if sensing their troubles, the riots resumed, as heated as ever. Calls for the rich and powerful to make a change or turn themselves in for theft and corruption began ringing out as rallying cries during the nighttime protests. But no one listened. As the anger mounted in the streets, everyone hid in their towers, waiting for the police to finally beat the protestors into submission. Lawrence spent many nights outside, staring from his balcony as the world below descended into chaos. With the mounting pressure, the politicians were first to flee. Jonathan, however, decided to stay, despite his family's threats, God knows why. But, for some reason, Lawrence just couldn't bring himself to call his old friend and ask.
He looked up, pulling his gaze from the shouts, sign-waving, and destruction to the sky above. The moon was a waning sliver, barely visible behind the choked air, and even the north star was nowhere to be seen. He reached up, fingers extended towards space, reaching, reaching.
"What am I doing?" he muttered, dropping his hand to the railing. He was bound to this place, bound to the fortune his father hung over his head, bound to stay forever and be the kind of man everyone expected of him. Everyone but her.
"Screw the riots, Sandra. We do this now!... I don't care if the people don't like it! We are losing hours and incurring costs by the millions... And no, I don't give a shit what Adams says, fuck the unions. We need to protect our bottom line, dammit!" His father hurled the phone across the room, smashing it against the wall, sending a spray of glass dangerously close to where Lawrence sat. Even his secretary jumped in fright. She looked up from her computer, eyes wide, then shrunk back in her seat, stare glued to her screen. Normally, the guards would snicker or shake their heads, but today, besides the secretary and his father, the halls were largely empty. Everyone's leaving the city... soon, no one will be left except for the dead and dying in the slums.
Outside, as the sun dipped below the tallest of towers, the riots restarted, renewed, and refreshed from a day's rest. Something was different today, though — he could feel it. Fury was in the air.
It had been ten days since he'd heard from Victoria. Her performance was tonight, held in secret, away from her parents. Lawrence wondered if he ought to go — she'd given him the address, after all. He shifted in his seat, adjusting his black suit over the dark sweater and stark white dress shirt it hid — the thought of her enough to make him cringe.
His father looked up from his stainless-steel desk, all angles and edges, rubbing at the wrinkles dug into his brow like trenches in an ancient battlefield. "I forgot I called you here. Good news, boy, looks like you're getting your way after all." Lawrence frowned but didn't say anything. "Didn't you hear? Astor Sr. fled town this afternoon, leaving the family behind. Looks like the old bastard took most of the money with him too. Those fucking rioters are gonna be pissed now! Hah!" He leaned back, slapping the desk with a grin. "After everything, the Astors ruined? Never thought I'd see the day! Too bad it has to happen at a time like this."
Lawrence jumped to his feet; eyes wide. Will she even be able to leave? Oh God, what if she can't escape? What if they come for her?
"Almost thought you were braindead." His father shook his head, still chuckling. "So congrats, you're staying single, worthless, just how you wanted it."
Lawrence just stared; words stuck in his throat. Not marrying her... He shook his head; everything was happening too fast. It was too much.
"What? You didn't want to marry the bitch, did you?"
"Don't call her that." He jumped to his feet, fists to his side.
His father paused, staring at him. "After all this time, wasting away your potential, ignoring your duty, you finally stand up for something other than yourself. Too bad it has to be for a girl." After a long silence, when Lawrence didn't back down, he shook his head. "So, you've grown some balls after all? Good. Maybe there is hope for us."
Lawrence frowned. "What?"
"Forget about her. Forget about the marriage." He gestured to the window, looking at the streets below. "This may be it for me, but you… you can still save the family name."
"What are you saying?"
His father sighed, sitting down and rubbing his forehead. For some reason, he looked old. Far older than Lawrence remembered. "You lacked a spine, son. You could never succeed me. But there's no time for that now." He turned to Lawrence with worn eyes, desperate eyes. "They'll come for me, and when they do, you need to protect our interests, flee the city for some time, if you must. But the company is yours — everything will be, soon enough. The board will accept you, they're ordered to, should I give the okay, I just need to — "
"No." There was no time for considering, for grasping at what could be. There was only Victoria, and she was in danger. "I can't." His father stared at him, mouth ajar. "I don't… I don't belong here." He turned towards the door. "I can't help you."
"After I give you everything, you abandon the family?" Pounding footsteps. Lawrence clenched his jaw, preparing a retort, but his father was already in his face, fingers locked around the lapels of his suit, eyes aflame. "Every chance I give you, you throw away! Think of our name, our heritage! Think of the family!"
Every minute that passed, the riots drew closer to her. "Let go of me!" Lawrence struggled against his grip.
"I'm not going to let you abandon this family!" His father shook him, drawing him close. "You're not going to run. I won't let you!"
"I said, let go!" Lawrence pushed.
His father stumbled in a slow arc, caught over his own feet as he fell. His head bounced off the corner of his desk, and he slammed to the floor with one sick thump.
Blood. There was so much blood.
Lawrence gagged, stumbling back, falling over his own feet, then scrambling up. He stared, willing his father to rise and laugh and spew the same spiteful shit he always did, but he lay still, chest motionless. What have I done? Lawrence caught a glance at the city below, trying to look anywhere but the motionless body of his father. The crowds were growing, swelling with anger and frustration. He'd never seen a riot so big. It split, part of it coming towards his building. And if they heard of his father's call — which they certainly would, with how quick news was leaked and spread — they'd be in no mood for a peaceful conversation. Lawrence stumbled back, then froze. The rest of the rioters went south, towards the high-rise residential towers. Towards Victoria. His blood ran cold. They're coming for her. Lawrence staggered out of the room, mind reeling, running past the staring secretary, barely noticing her phone held towards him, dark lens watching.
Lawrence reached the car garage and retrieved the Aston Martin, tapping his foot anxiously, looking over his shoulder, waiting for someone in uniform to stop him or the protesters to break in. But no one came. Not yet, at least. He turned off the autopilot and sped down to the city streets. The crowds stared at him, shouting and hurling random things. They tried surrounding him, but he flew through gaps and down side streets until he was free of the hordes. He imagined the great towers of glass shattering, raining death as the world broke apart. How close had they been to collapse? Was it inevitable? Lawrence grit his teeth, pushed down on the gas, and in a few moments, he was at her tower.
He parked and took the elevator up; it dinged by each floor with the agonizing pace of a metronome. In the temporary peace, images of his father lying still gripped his mind, and he doubled over, gasping. The doors opened, and he stumbled into the hall before her door.
He knocked. No answer.
He knocked again. Please, let her be okay.
Still no answer. He opened the unlocked door and stepped in. The entrance stretched out into the living room, kitchen, and dining area — it was one long, open space tucked between the interior wall and the tower's sharply angled windows. Everything looked in place, calm. Empty.
"Shit," Lawrence spun and ran out to the hall. She wouldn't be at home, not now. She'd be at the auditorium, getting ready for her performance. Damn, why of all nights! Lawrence ran to the elevator, pulling out his phone and finding the concert hall. It wasn't close. "Fuck! Why tonight?!"
When the elevator dinged open, and he stepped out, his heart sank. Through the windows to the parking garage, he could see the rioters, and they were destroying everything. His car was trashed, lost in the fires, along with any hope of escape. Faltering there, separated by an inch of glass from death, he called Jonathan.
"Lawrence? Jesus man, are you okay? I saw th — "
"I need help," he said, voice shaking, backing into the stairwell. Soon, the city would be lost. They would find her, no matter where she was, he was sure of it. "It's Victoria… she's in danger."
"Shit. Where are you?"
He took two steps at a time down the stairs until he reached the bottom floor. "Her tower. My car's lost, man. You need to pick her up, take her out of here."
"What, and leave you? Shut the fuck up. I'm coming to get you."
Lawrence waited near the exit, peering through the windows, expecting the rest of the horde to fall upon them, tearing him apart. But the crowds didn't come. Instead, it was Jonathan's car that he spotted through the windows, its headlights pouring into the glass walls of the spire. He shoved open the doors and ran, meeting his friend and hopping in before their luck ran out.
"Take me here." The phone's map synced immediately with the console. Jonathan nodded, speeding off. For a minute, they didn't speak, just stared silently at the passing towers and the distant hues of fires. "Why did you stay?" Lawrence finally asked, glancing over.
Jonathan looked haggard. His eyes were red and lined with dark bags, his lips drawn tight. "I don't know. I guess I just didn't want to follow them anymore, you know? This was my last chance to truly get out of their shadow or something." He gave a strained laugh. "And you, going after a girl. Now that's something. I guess we're both turning a new leaf, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess." He stared at the bright lights of the concert hall's entrance as they drew close. It curved up, with walls like wings, organic and twisting, reaching for the heavens, alone in a concrete park. "Thank you," Lawrence said, as they pulled to a stop beside it, then looked to the distance. Fires dancing across the windows of towers like signal mirrors, riots churned, far too close for comfort. It would only be a matter of time until they reached them — time they didn't have. "I want you to go."
"What?" Jonathan frowned at him, hands already moving to turn off the car. "I'm not leaving."
"The protests will come, and you won't be able to escape in time, not in that." He nodded to the car.
"Then I'll leave it — "
"No." Lawrence sighed, rubbing his forehead. "No, you should go. I can slip out with her; three makes it harder. But you are guaranteed to get out now, so I want you to take it."
Jonathan paused, then lowered his hand from the door handle, laughing to himself. "You always get what you want, don't you?"
"And don't forget it." Lawrence gave a weak smile and slid out of the car, shivering to the cold evening's air. "Now get going. I don't want to see your face until this is all over, okay?"
With one last forced laugh, his friend nodded, then took off, slipping from the clutches of the city and, hopefully, driving somewhere far, far away. I'll have to call him when this is all over, when we're finally free. He shook himself and hustled inside, tossing open the tall glass doors, finding the interior silent, empty. Stalking forward, hands curled into fists, he turned corners and halls but found nothing, no one. Damn it. If I've missed her again… He didn't need to finish the thought to grimace, swallowing as he pushed in deeper. I need to find her.
And then, he heard it. It was the same song from their dinner that night. That night so long ago, where her playing danced in the air and captured him, swallowing him whole in its beauty. And now, as the faint traces of it echoed through alabaster walls ribbed like the chest cavity of some great beast, he stumbled forward, pulled towards it. A long hall and a double set of doors. Lights dimmed, shadowy, tempting, outlining a vast hall, empty except for a handful of people seated in the front row. And the stage, lit up and shining with a piano magnificent and rich — she was there, gleaming in a crimson slip dress. The doors shut behind him with little more than a whisper as he stepped forward. And, as the final notes softened, her hands slowed till they pulled back from the keys. An expression of focus eased into satisfaction, then she looked up and caught his stare, and smiled.
Victoria stood, bowing to who Lawrence assumed to be judges. He didn't want to shatter this moment; however urgent the dangers were, for there, lit in the glow of the stage lights, beaming to the soft claps and nods of the judges, she was perfect. "We need to go," he said to her, then turned to the rest. "The riots — they've gotten worse. The city isn't safe anymore."
The judges frowned at him as if he were a homeless man demanding their wallets.
"Damnit, she passed, didn't she? Now get moving unless you want them to fucking kill you!" Lawrence ran forward and took her hand as the judges stared in shock, pulling her from the stage, down the aisle, and through the double doors until she slowed him. "What?" he asked, frowning. "I'm sorry I interrupted your performance or whatever — but they'd be idiots not to let you in."
"I'm surprised you came, after all."
He glanced away to the next bend in the hall. "I had to see it. And from the sounds of it, you did great. Now, we need to go. Come on." She didn't move. "What is it?"
"Thank you, Lawrence." She smiled up at him, eyes glassy, then laughed. "Sorry for that, after everything, I…well… let's just get out of here." That he could get behind.
They turned the corner and passed through another set of doors, another hall, more doors, until they were back in the lobby. As they ran forward, the city's dark spires lit up, casting the interior in unnatural hues of red and silver and gold through the glass walls, and the world was rescued from shadow, plunged into the artificial safety of modernity. Artificial and temporary. Just outside the concert hall stood hundreds, maybe thousands, signs and makeshift weapons in hand, faces masked, expressions dark, dressed in tattered hoodies and stitched-up shirts and rags of whatever they could afford. Lawrence glanced around but didn't see Jonathan or his car. At least he made it out. They'd circled the building, their ranks deep and endless. His heart dropped, and he pulled Victoria close, feeling the moments running out. There's no getting out of this. I was too slow. But for some reason, it all felt inevitable, like he was simply playing a part in some great play.
"I'm sorry. We should have left so long ago," he said, holding her. "You're the best person to ever come out of this shithole."
She looked up at him, smiling. "You're such a womanizer. That's why our marriage could never work."
The crowd inched closer.
"Maybe, but I'd like to think it had a shot."
Victoria laughed, putting her arms over his shoulders, pulling his face to hers. "You're hopeless." She kissed him. It lasted for a mere few seconds, but those seconds felt like an eternity as he sank into her, relishing in the moment. When he opened his eyes, a man stood a short distance away, before the front doors. Lawrence frowned. Why aren't they coming for us? He looked around and sighed, then opened the doors.
"Victoria Astor?" the man asked, voice muffled by a torn black bandana. He turned to Lawrence after she nodded. "And you're Lawrence Landon?" He stared at the man, holding Victoria tight, but nodded. The man looked over his shoulder to the mob, who stood silently, just watching. "I've seen the video — we all have."
"What video?" Victoria asked.
The man stared at Lawrence, ignoring her question. "Is he really dead?"
The secretary — she was recording. Lawrence shuddered, the memory coming back to him, but nodded. "I... I don't know."
The man looked between them, eyes narrowed, searching.
Lawrence held Victoria tighter if it was possible. "She has nothing to do with her parents, with her father. Let her be. We'll leave, both of us, you won't have to see us again, I swear it."
There was another long pause before the man spoke again, his squinting gaze looking over them, weighing unseen choices. They weren't the eyes of a dullard, nor a psycho bent on destruction. How long have we had this coming? Lawrence swallowed his fear and stood tall, meeting the leader's eyes. "Leave the city," he said finally. "Don't come back." With the wave of his hand, the crowd parted; some hollered, some jeered, but most stayed silent. Sad eyes watching. Huddling close, praying no one would stop them, Lawrence and Victoria ran.
As they left the riots behind, sprinting through the streets, the skyscrapers flickered. All around, the countless screens and signs of neon blinked and sputtered. And then, in one great, sweeping crash, the city died. All power, all light, vanished, leaving the towers dark, silent. Not even the factories churned in the distance. After coming to a stop against the wall of some looming high-rise, Lawrence looked up, and his ragged breath caught in his throat.
The sky of swampy shadow, lit by a bustling city, was gone. Left behind like some remnant of a forgotten time was a sky that stretched, open, vast. And in it, an endless expanse of stars. Countless thousands filled the darkness of space, and for once, he thought the city didn't look so ugly. Lawrence reached a hand toward the sky, grasping at the stars, feeling their future at his fingertips, bright and hopeful.
Victoria squeezed his hand. "Let's go."
He nodded, and so, they ran.