As Soon as she opened her eyes that morning, Chloe decided that she would go to Coit Tower instead of Parker S. Shannon High, her usual destination on a Tuesday.
She was turning sixteen in less than twenty-four hours, with no real celebration in sight: Paul spent Wednesdays at his dad’s house in Oakland, and—far worse—her mom had said something about “maybe going to a nice restaurant.” What was a “nice” restaurant, anyway? A place where they served blowfish and foie gras? Where the wine list was thicker than her American civilization textbook? No, thank you.
If Mom found out about the Coit Tower expedition, Chloe would be grounded, completely eliminating any possibility of dinner out. Then Chloe would have a right to feel miserable on her sixteenth birthday, at home, alone, punished. The idea was strangely alluring.
She called Amy.
“Hey, want to go to the tower today instead of physics?”
“Absolutely.” There was no hesitation, no pause—no grogginess, in fact. For all of Amy’s rebel post-punk posturing, Chloe’s best friend was a morning person. How did she deal with the 2 A.M. poetry readings? “I’ll see you there at ten. I’ll bring bagels if you bring the crack.”
By “crack” Amy meant Café Eland’s distinctive twenty-ounce coffee, which was brewed with caffeinated water.
“You want me to call Paul?”
That was strange. Amy never volunteered to do anything, much less help with group planning.
“Nah, let me guilt him into it.”
“Your funeral. See ya.”
She dragged herself out of bed, wrapping the comforter around her. Like almost everything in the room, it was from Ikea. Her mom’s taste ran toward orange, turquoise, abstract kokopelli statuettes, and blocks of sandstone—none of which fit in a crappy middle-class San Francisco ranch. And since Pateena Vintage Clothing paid a whopping $5.50 an hour, Chloe’s design budget was limited. Scandinavian blocks of color and furniture with unpronounceable names would have to do for now. Anything beat New Southwest.
She stood in front of the closet, wearing a short pair of boxers and a tank. Even if she still hadn’t gotten her period, Chloe was finally developing a waist, as if her belly had been squeezed up to her breasts and down to her butt. Hot or not, it wasn’t as though any of it really mattered: her mom grounded her if she so much as even mentioned a boy other than Paul.
She threw herself in front of the computer with a wide yawn and jiggled the mouse. Unless Paul was asleep or dead,
he could pretty much be located at his computer 24/7. Bingo—his name popped up in bold on her buddy list.
Chloe: Ame and me are going to Coit Tower today. Wanna come?
Paul: [long pause]
Paul: You’re not gonna guilt me into it ‘cause I’m not gonna be around for your birthday, right?
Paul: *groan* ok I’I tell Wiggins I got a National Honor Society field trip or something.
Chloe: ILU, PAUL!!!
Paul: Yeahyeah. Cul8r.
Chloe grinned. Maybe her birthday wasn’t going to suck after all.
She looked out the window—yup, fog. In a city of fog, Inner Sunset was the foggiest part of San Francisco. Amy loved it because it was all spooky and mysterious and reminded her of England (although she had never been there). But Chloe was depressed by the damp and cheerless mornings, evenings, and afternoons and liked to flee to higher, sunnier ground—like Coit Tower—at every opportunity.
She decided to play it safe and dressed as if for school, in jeans and a tee and a jean jacket from Pateena’s that was authentic eighties. It even had a verse of a Styx song penned carefully in ballpoint on one of the sleeves. She emptied her messenger bag of her textbooks and hid them under her bed. Then she stumbled downstairs, trying to emulate her usual tired-grumpy-morning-Chloe routine.
“You’re down early,” her mother said suspiciously.
Uneager to pick a fight this morning, Chloe swallowed her sigh. Everything she did out of the ordinary since she’d turned twelve was greeted with suspicion. The first time she’d gotten a short haircut—paid for with her own money, thank you very much—her mother had demanded to know if she was a lesbian.
“I’m meeting Ame at the Beanery first,” Chloe responded as politely as she could, grabbing an orange out of the fridge.
“I don’t want to sound old-fashioned, but—”
“It’s gonna stunt my growth?”
“It’s a gateway drug.” Mrs. King put her hands on her hips. In black Donna Karan capris with a silk-and-wool scoop neck and her pixie haircut, Chloe’s mom didn’t look like a mom. She looked like someone out of a Chardonnay ad.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Chloe couldn’t keep herself from saying.
“There’s an article in the Week.” Her mother’s gray eyes narrowed, her expertly lined lips pursed. “Coffee leads to cigarettes leads to cocaine and crystal methampheta-mines.”
“Crystal meth, Mom. It’s crystal meth” Chloe kissed her on the cheek as she walked past her to the door.
“I’m talking to you about not smoking, just like the ads say to!”
“Message received!” Chloe called back, waving without turning around.
She walked down to Irving Street, then continued walking north to the southern side of Golden Gate Park, stopping at Café Eland for the two promised coffees. Paul didn’t partake; she got him a diet Coke instead. Amy was already at the bus stop, juggling a bag of bagels, her army pack, and a cell phone.
“You know, real punks don’t—” Chloe put her hand to her ear and shook it, mimicking a phone.
“Bite me.” Amy put down her bag and threw her phone in, pretending not to care about it. Today she wore a short plaid kiltlike skirt, a black turtleneck, fishnets, and cat-eye glasses; the overall effect was somewhere between rebellious librarian and geek-punk.
The two of them were comfortably silent on the bus, just drinking coffee and glad to have a seat. Amy might be a morning person, but Chloe needed at least another hour before she would be truly sociable. Her best friend had learned that years ago and politely accommodated her.
There wasn’t much to look at out the bus window; justanother black-and-white-and-gray early morning in San Francisco, full of grumpy-faced people going to work and bums finding their street corners, Chloe’s reflection in the dusty window was almost monochromatic except for her light hazel eyes. They glowed almost orange in the light when the bus got to Kearny Street and the sun broke through.
Chloe felt her spirits rise: this was the San Francisco of postcards and dreams, a city of ocean and sky and sun. It really was glorious.
Paul was already there, sitting on the steps of the tower, reading a comic book.
“Happy pre-birthday, Chlo,” he said, getting up and lightly kissing her on the cheek, a surprisingly mature, touchy-feely act. He held out a brown bag.
Chloe smiled curiously and then opened it—a plastic bottle of Popov vodka was nestled within.
“Hey, I figure if we’re going to be truants, why not go all the way?” He grinned, his eyes squeezing into slits zipped shut by his lashes. There was a slight indentation in his short, black, and overgelled hair where his ear phones had rested.
“Thanks, Paul.” She pointed up. “Shall we?”
• • •
“What if you had to choose just one of these views to look at for the rest of your life,” Chloe said. “Which one would it be?”
Amy and Paul looked up from each other, almost intrigued. The three of them had been sitting around for the past hour, not really doing much, with Chloe’s two best friends occasionally exchanging giggly glances. That had grown old real fast.
Half of Coit Tower’s windows showed spectacular, sun-drenched San Francisco scenery, the other nine looked out into a formless, gray-white abyss.
“I’d wait until the sun cleared before making my choice,” Amy said, pragmatic as ever. She swirled her cup of coffee for emphasis, mixing its contents. Chloe sighed; she should have expected that answer.
Paul walked from window to window, game. “Well, the bridge is beautiful, with all the fog and clouds and sunset and dawn—”
“Boring,” Amy cut in. “The Transamerica Pyramid is too sharp and weird—”
“I guess I would choose the harbor,” Paul decided. Looking over his shoulder, Chloe could see colorful little sailboats coming and going with the wind, dreamy, hazy islands in the distance. She smiled. It was a very Paul choice.
“Definitely not Russian Hill,” Amy added, trying to regain control of the conversation. “Fugly sprawl with a capital Fug.”
“Made your decision just in time, Paul…”
As they watched, low clouds came rolling down from the hills, replacing each of the nine windows, enclosing the views in a white, total darkness. What should have been a beautiful blue day with puffy white clouds, now that they were out of Inner Sunset, had rapidly given way to the same old stupid weather.
This wasn’t exactly what Chloe had expected for her sixteenth-birthday-school-blow-oflf day.
To be fair, she always expected more than life was likely to give: in this case, a golden sunny Stand by Me/Ferris Bueiler these-are-the-best-days-of-our-lives sort of experience.
“So dude” Amy said, changing the subject. “What’s up with you and Comrade Ilychovich?”
Chloe sighed and sank down against the wall, taking a last swallow from her own cup. Like Amy’s, it was spiked with Paul’s birthday present to her. Paul had already drunk his diet Coke and was now sipping directly from the amazingly cheesy plastic vodka flask. Chloe looked dreamily at the black-and-red onion domes on the label.
“He’s… just… so… hot.”
“And so out of your league,” Amy pointed out.
“Alyec is steely-eyed, chisel-faced young Russian,” Paul said with a thick cold war accent. “Possibly with modeling contract. Sources say Agent Keira Hendelson getting close to his… cover.”
“Screw her.” Chloe threw her empty cup at the wall, picturing it smashing into the student council’s blond little president.
“You could be related, you know,” Amy pointed out. “That could be a problem. He could be a cousin or nephew or something of your biological parents.”
“The old Soviet Union’s a big place. Genetically, I think we’re okay. It’s the getting to actually date him that’s the problem.”
“You could just, I don’t know, go up to him and like, talk to him or something,” Paul suggested.
“He’s always surrounded by the Blond One and her Gang of Four,” Chloe reminded him.
“Nothing gained, nothing lost.”
Yeah, right. Like he had ever asked anyone out.
Amy swigged the last of her coffee and belched. “Oh, crap, I’ve got to pee.”
Paul blushed. He always got nervous when either Amy or Chloe discussed anything like bodily functions in front of him—so usually Chloe didn’t talk about that stuff when he was around.
But today she felt … well, odd. Jumpy, impatient. Not to mention a little annoyed with both him and Amy. This was supposed to be her birthday thing. So far it sucked.
“Too bad you can’t do it standing up, like Paul,” she said, watching him blush out of the corner of her eye. “You could go over the edge.”
Now, what had made her say that?
She stood up. Leaning against the stone wall, Chloe peered down. All she could see was swirling whiteness and, off to her left, one water-stained red pylon of the Golden Gate Bridge.
What would happen if I dropped a penny from up here? Chloe wondered. Would it make a tunnel through the fog? That would be cool A tunnel two hundred feet long and half an inch across.
She climbed up into a window and dug into her jeans pocket, hunting for spare change, not bothering to put her other hand on the wall for balance.
The tower suddenly seemed to tilt forward.
“What—,” she began to say.
Chloe tried to resteady herself by leaning back into the window frame, grasping for the wall, but the fog had left it clammy and slick. She pitched forward, her left foot slipping out from beneath her.
She threw her arms back, desperately trying to rebalance herself. For a brief second she felt Paul’s warm fingers against her own. She looked into his face—a smile of relief broke across it, pink flushed across the tops of his high cheekbones. But then the moment was over: Amy was shrieking and Chloe felt nothing catch her as she slipped out of Paul’s grasp. Shewas falling—falling—out of the window and off the tower.
This is not happening, Chloe thought. This is not the way I end.
She heard the already-muffled screams of her friends getting fainter, farther and farther away. Something would save her, right?
Her head hit last. The pain was unbearable, bone crushing and nauseating—the sharp shards of a hundred needles being forced through her as her body compacted itself on the ground.
Everything went black, and Chloe waited to die.