At half past midnight, when her mother staggered home from her studio half drunk with a corner store beer, Hestia unearthed her sleeping bag from the closet and took the elevator from her fifth floor apartment to the roof on the thirty-second floor. The narrow vestibule had no lighting, but the outside was bright enough with a harsh rainbow glare.
Hestia stepped over the tangled cords and found a spot in the shadow of a giant yellow sign that read LUMINA STREET ARMS. She sat on the edge of the rooftop, her feet dangling through the rusty railing bars and out over nothing. The sky was bruised orange, too choked for stars at the moment, but the stars existed elsewhere.
She gazed out at the view of her city and watched its sleepless pulse. A myriad of neon lights blinked and flashed and spun. Alexandria Hotel and Vanguard Electronics Department Store had angry red-orange signs, Portofino Furniture Mall had a cool blue sign, and further away she saw pink and green signs. She spotted a few more apartment signs situated on rooftops, some warm yellow and others harsh white, some with whole names shining and others with missing letters. And then there were the windows, each living space glowing as brilliant as any star. Each high rise towered like a pillar of jewels.
Altostrati, the city of light. Hestia snuggled under the folds of her sleeping bag and listened the snapping electric hum of the rooftop sign and the perpetual roar of traffic on the streets thirty-two floors below. She pretended to be asleep when somebody else came over and dropped a sleeping bag beside her. Hestia opened her eyes a small crack and saw her sister Rosalie sitting up, warm yellow on her freckled face, the rest of her in shadow.
Hestia left for school without bothering to see if her mother was okay. Rhea Soleil had locked herself in her bedroom, and certain doom awaited anybody who tried to enter. That didn’t stop Rosalie, though. Rosalie often waited for Rhea to return late at night and helped her get ready for bed. Two mugs of chamomile tea sat on the dining room table.
“Pets Your Grunge,” said Rosalie. She played with Hestia’s rose flower crown. “Wow, it’s so soft.”
“Can you not?” said Hestia.
“I need you to unlock Mom’s door for me before you go,” said Rosalie.
One deep sigh. “All work and no play makes Rosalie a dumbass. She’ll just yell at you and wave incense sticks in your face. Why can’t you let her sleep it off?”
“Commission deadline’s in two days and no gallery means no rent.” Rosalie hammered on Rhea’s door. “Mom? Can you get up?”
Hestia grabbed the doorknob. A magenta circle appeared around it with a keyhole in the center. Runic letters spun around once, the keyhole shattered, and the lock clicked.
Rosalie threw open the door and turned on the light. “Mom, get up, please? There’s vanilla soy milk and, uh, blueberry waffles. Come on, up you get.”
Hestia stuffed her feet into black Doc Martens and hurried off without any goodbyes. The elevator would be jam-packed at seven-thirty in the morning with twenty-seven floors’ worth of commuters. She took the stairs instead. The stairwell was dimly lit and smelled faintly of urine, but such was the fate of living on the fifth floor. Also, she could move faster than the ancient elevator.
Lumina Street was Altostrati’s electronics market. The stores here retailed Apple products and HD televisions and stainless steel refrigerators and air conditioners. Wide alleyways held cloth covered stalls selling computer parts, a farmer’s market of hard drives and circuit boards. The bus stop was in front of a cell phone store, and Hestia was already too late. It was swamped with people, and she fought onto the 27 to get to school.
Altostrati was less brilliant in the prosaic daylight. Things were grayish from smog and the sky was hazy. Hestia liked the city better at night, when the grime and dust was shunted into darkness and neon signs glowed like rainbows. At night, nobody could see the drab, characterless buildings or rush about in stifling heat.
The dinosaur bus rumbled onto the Helix Bridge over the wide, muddy expanse of the River Cobalt. The ugly buildings fell away as Hestia traveled into the heart of the city. Here was downtown Altostrati, where skyscrapers shone like chrome with tinted windows and ultramodern steel facades and great glass buildings gave the world a sort of sweeping grandeur. The people on these streets weren’t wayward tech types or software scavengers or near-broke salesmen waiting to jailbreak somebody’s iPhone. These people wore suits and walked with purpose. They belonged in the upper crust of society, worked for mega-corporations, or played the stock market.
The 27 rolled onto Shutter Street and passed George Vega and Associates Law Firm.
“I’m sure you know why I’ve called you here today.”
The dean’s office again. Hestia refused to meet the wrinkled, horribly eye-shadowed eyes of Ms. Goshawk. What a great name. The old crone was a goshawk in every sense of the word. She enjoyed shrieking at students, for one. But Hestia was a junior now, and Goshawk had spent the better of the past two years yelling at Hestia. By now, she’d given up for the most part.
“It hasn’t even been three weeks since school started and already you have fourteen suit cuts,” said Ms. Goshawk. “Your flagrant violation of the school dress code is already getting you an unsatisfactory for citizenship. Does this not concern you?”
The uniform was Parnassus High was this: white dress shirt, black blazer, gray and red striped tie, black pants for boys, black skirt for girls. Monochrome people poured in and out of the school gates everyday. Monochrome people swept up and down the stairs and in and out of classrooms. Hestia grew dizzy and nauseous at the sea of black and white, and decided to add some color to the crowd by wearing lurid clothes. Today was so-called Soft Grunge Day, and she wore the same outfit as the first girl who turned up in a Google image search: oversized band t-shirt, knock-off Doc Martens, a pink rose flower crown, fraying black jacket with decorative spikes, and inverted cross earrings. Yesterday she wore her yoga studio garb and stole Rhea’s neon sweat pants and tank tops while blasting awful eighties aerobics workout music throughout the school halls.
“I guess it concerns me, yeah,” said Hestia. She searched her hair for split ends.
Goshawk gave Hestia’s magenta hair a withering glance and sighed. “I need to schedule a conference with your parents or guardians. Give them this note and tell them to call.”
A parent-teacher conference. Wasn’t that novel? Rhea barely came home on most days. What made the staff here think she would care enough to come to Parnassus?
After school, Hestia’s Magical Arts Club took place in the ceramics classroom. It had a grand total of five members, including herself, and nobody else other than her and the vice president knew any magic. She made her way there after the confrontation with the dean and found the room empty except for Altair Lennox. Altair was a quiet sort and mostly went along with whatever Hestia decided, but at the end of the day, he was still her friend, sort of.
Today Altair had a runic script manual open and was practicing Levitation. His backpack and various chairs hovered around him as he drew runes around a large circle on a work table. Then he stopped and waited for effects. Nothing happened
“Your syntax is wrong here,” said Hestia. She wiped away a line of silver runes and rewrote them in magenta ones. The table creaked and lifted off the floor.
“Thanks, Hestia,” said Altair. “You’ve always been so good at this sort of thing.”
“Well, of course I am,” said Hestia, lazily casting Levitation on a set of clay plates. Yellow and turquoise sunbursts orbited her head. “I intend to make Runic Synergy my area of expertise. I might just leave this sorry-ass place first chance I get.”
“Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Altair. “If you decide to drop out and do an apprenticeship somewhere, I mean, what about college?”
“What about it?”
“Well…you know, if you don’t go somewhere good, employers won’t even consider you. What if your apprenticeship doesn’t work out and you can’t even get a job as a magical researcher? You need like a masters degree for that, right?”
“It will work out, I’m sure of it,” said Hestia. She felt her focus strain and quickly sent the plates back to their places on the shelves. “Besides, I’ll be a Technician. There’s always a demand for them. It’s not like I’m gonna be a Summoner or something and spend all day communing with spirits.”
“It’s just, I don’t know,” said Altair. “It’s really unusual, you know?”
Hestia set the table down. Her brain was starting to haze over, and she felt very tired.
“It’s not something people would normally do,” said Altair, “it’s kind of uncertain.”
“Just be quiet,” Hestia snapped back.
“There’s nothing wrong with following the system, you know? At least you know what’s ahead.”
“You know what? Fuck the fucking system,” said Hestia calmly. She got to her feet and stretched. “Nobody came today either, huh? You wanna come with me and get bubble tea?”
That night she found herself on the roof again, stepping over cables in her bare feet. Hestia had burned away the dean’s note with a magenta flame between her fingers.
“Did Mom work on that commission?” asked Hestia.
“I visited her at the workshop earlier and asked if she wanted pad thai for dinner,” said Rosalie. “She said no.”
And Rosalie spoke of Rhea’s blown glass art, and how she marvered the luminous red-purple glass into the shape of roses and seashells on the end of her blowpipe. Hestia used to visit Rhea in her workshop often when she was younger. She remembered the glowing furnace, burning bright as the sun, and she remembered watching Rhea twirl the molten glass into different shapes: a sunflower, a butterfly, a seashell. Once she watched Rhea work on a commission for a chandelier. She shaped the glass into tendrils and curlicues, red-orange, purple, turquoise, and the most vivid green imaginable. When it was hung in the atrium of her commissioner’s estate with the light bulbs inserted and turned on, the chandelier was more radiant than any neon sign flickering at night.
Rhea didn’t let anybody visit her while she was working now. Rosalie must have ignored Rhea’s protests.
Shortly before Rhea came home, Hestia hunched over her newest textbook borrowed from the public library. It was called Synergy Structures with NeueScript 5. When Hestia was ten and still believed magic worked with an incantation and fancy wand movements, she thought she could be reversing gravity or researching time travel like the people did in Cirrus Village within a year. But even with mastering rune languages, she still needed a certain type of talent to truly master magic: the audacity and capacity to destroy rules that had already been broken. Scripts were just a way to help wrap her mind around what exactly was going on. In the words of her teacher, a fat old brilliant witch she saw on Thursdays, “These runes, those instruments, everything is just a device. A true Technician doesn’t need any of that to work her spells.”
“And can I do that someday?”
“Not right now you can’t. Even I can’t do that yet. Now, how about a cup of Earl Grey?”
“This sucks,” Hestia mumbled into the pages of her textbook.
“What sucks?” asked Rosalie.
“I don’t know if it makes sense but…” Hestia chewed on her bottom lip, “doesn’t it seem that nothing is magical anymore? Like, do you get what I mean?”
“No. You’re a mage. What are you talking about?”
“The whole concept of it, you know? When you’re little, you look at everything and go, wow! That’s so cool! And then you read books and play video games and watch TV and see fictional people casting magic, and you want to do that too, right? Or you see someone figure skating or playing piano, and you think that’s amazing too.
“And then you really learn it, all the mechanics of it, and doesn’t it seem like whatever you thought was cool before suddenly isn’t? Whatever was magic becomes a bunch of gimmicks strung together.”
Rosalie gave Hestia a suspicious glare. “Are you complaining about your runes again?”
“Hestia, do you even like being a Technician?” asked Rosalie. “You always find some way to complain about it.”
“What? Hell no, I love being a Technician!” Hestia said indignantly. “It just gets a bit confusing at times, learning syntax and applying theory, that’s all.”
“I remember you once saying you wanted to be a Summoner,” said Rosalie.
“Yeah, when I was like, eleven. What do Summoners do all day, anyway? Talk to nature spirits?” Hestia scoffed at the idea. “There’s no money in being a Summoner.”
“I just want you to do what makes you happy,” said Rosalie.
“Easy for you to say,” said Hestia. She pointed at Rosalie’s computer and said, “You make thirty an hour without even trying because you’re a freelance programmer. You love that sort of thing. But then you have–you have Mom, and she makes a hundred glass sculptures and barely gets forty bucks.”
Just then the two sisters heard the sound of a key turning in a lock, and Rosalie put her computer to sleep to answer the door with Hestia trailing behind. Rhea was back, looking grouchy and disheveled as ever. She still wore her elbow length work gloves and had returned home in her black tank top, having left her jacket at the workshop.
“Welcome home, Mom,” said Rosalie. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
Hestia took this as her cue. She turned on the light and saw a dozen little black cockroaches scurry into the cracks and corners of their poky kitchen. She took out a box of chamomile from the cupboard and plugged in the electric kettle.
Rosalie shoved aside the mountains of newspapers and magazines and books. She wished the apartment had space for a bookshelf that could hold more than eight books, and she wished they had drawers or file cabinets to stash away things nobody could either keep or throw away. The walls were hung with odd tapestries and every surface held a glimmering glass creation.
When Hestia returned with three mugs of tea, Rhea had lit a cigarette and began to smoke. Hestia gave a hacking, spluttering cough.
“Shut the hell up, Hestia,” said Rhea. “Smokers are an endangered species.”
“At least open the window.”
Rhea made a face. “No. The college kids are throwing another party and I don’t want to have to listen to that shit.”
Rosalie opened the window anyways. Howling, thumping music drifted down.
“So,” said Hestia. “Are you done with the commission?”
Rhea blew out a cloud of smoke. “Commission? What commission?”
“It’s almost eleven-thirty and I’m too tired for jokes, Mom.”
Smoke tendrils twined in the dim light.
“I haven’t been working on a commission. Commission’s been canceled a long time ago. Didn’t I tell you guys that already?”
Then what have you been doing, Hestia wanted to ask. What the hell have you been doing? But she didn’t say a word and simply sat there, hands clasped together and sweating on the Formica table. She turned to look at Rosalie. Her older sister was stolid as ever.
“I must’ve forgotten that you told us that,” said Rosalie, smiling. “Do you want honey in your tea?”
First photo: source
Second photo: source
Words by Serina Fang