As soon as the elevator doors opened, Jenny knew something was wrong with the girl. The man who was carrying her on his back nodded in polite greeting, face hidden under a baseball cap. Jenny moved closer to the wall, hugging herself in reflex. Her nose scrunched up at the reek of alcohol, the man's protruding belly on an otherwise lean, almost emaciated frame the sign of an unhealthy addiction.
As the doors closed, she stole a glance at the pair. Father and daughter, perhaps? The girl couldn't have been older than ten. Jenny couldn't see her face, buried in the nape of the man's neck, but a tiny, frail-looking hand was holding onto his shoulder, peeking out of the overhanging sleeves of a sweater four times her size. The man's arms were crossed behind his back, holding the girl up, baggy trousers hugging his sides and hanging limply, no shoes or feet in sight. Jenny's eyes widened as she realised what had spooked her: the girl's trousers didn't bend at the knees.
She raised her face and gasped, hand flat on her chest as she backed against the wall in fright, pinned by two deep-blue, vaguely amused eyes. Jenny slid down to the floor, catching her breath, and the man snickered.
"Sorry 'bout that, didn't mean to scare ya."
Jenny waved away the apology and threw her head back, gulping in air.
"It's my fault. I was staring."
"That you were, aye." He craned his neck to glance behind his shoulder, revealing two red-rimmed, equally blue eyes. "Wanna say hello to the lady?"
The weak twitching of a little finger was all the acknowledgment the girl gave, likely all she could muster.
"She's tired," explained the man. "Been a rough few days."
Jenny nodded and stood up, dusting off her skirt and tugging it back down to just above her knees. When she looked up, there were tears in the girl's eyes, and a look of pure longing on her face.
"How did it ha--? No, forgive me, it's none of my--"
"You're right, it ain't." But he was smiling.
"I just--" Jenny covered her eyes, unsure of what to say.
"Don't sweat it, darling. You'll be running around in your head forever looking for the right words."
The bell rang and the doors opened. The man threw Jenny a glance before exiting and winked.
"There ain't any."
Matt's throat tightened when those baby blue eyes peeked above the man's shoulder and pierced right through his heart.
"How old is she?" he asked, his voice cracking.
"Eight." A pause. "Yours?"
"Fourteen months," was Matt's slow reply, surprise all over his face. "How did you know?"
"Did some work here a year ago. Never seen a chap more excited to be a dad."
Recognition kicked in and Matt snapped his fingers in rapid succession, trying to match a name to a face and failing.
"Electrician guy... you recommended that song... works like magic, Penny sleeps like a log."
"Glad to hear." The man smiled. "We won't be long, I promise."
"It's been closed for days, there's stuff laying around and exposed wires, it's not safe!"
"I'm a handyman, I know how to be careful."
"Even so..." But another look of those eyes and he couldn't think of any good reasons to refuse. "Alright, but only a few minutes."
Matt lead the pair down the corridor to a taped-off area, an opaque curtain hiding the room behind. He held the plastic sheet up with his hand and the man ducked past it, Matt following suit. The three came to a halt in the sudden darkness.
"Follow me," said Matt, powering up his torch. Plastic and wood cracked under their shoes as they entered a vast salon, bright city lights whitening the space through a wall of ceiling-high windows, making Matt's torch redundant.
"It is a spectacular view, I'll admit. Can't get too close I'm afraid, we're on the 92nd floor and they haven't put the glass in yet, but--"
A loud bang had him turn so fast he lost his balance, his eyes scanning the room as he stumbled. He was alone.
With a gentle hand buried in her short blond hair, the man laid his daughter on the ground and removed his jumper to reveal a backpack strapped back to front. He crumpled the cloth up and placed it under the girl's head to cushion her against the hard stone of the roof. He opened the rucksack in haste and grabbed a thick wire, using it to clamp the lock of the door so nobody could reach them. He scrambled back to his daughter's side, horrified by the white puffs of air coming from her mouth and the rattling of her teeth. He rushed to take three blankets out and wrapped her tightly, holding her against his chest until she stopped shivering. He glanced at his watch--ten minutes to midnight.
The chocolate cupcake he had bought that morning was squashed to the side of the paper bag, courtesy of the weight of the blankets he had thoughtlessly piled on it. The girl breathed out a chuckle as her father peeled the brown layer off and tried to get the flattened cake to stand. It wobbled for a few seconds and toppled down onto the paper just as the man was about to stick a small candle on top. He hovered it for a second, taken aback by the sudden death of his plan, and then lifted the candle high, stabbing it--with one vicious motion and a war cry--to the side of the fallen cake, face to the sky and fist to his chest like a knight in shining armour, and the girl was sobbing in painful mirth as he rocked her gently.
"Woulda got a big one, but was pricey." The faint echo of footsteps reached them and he took his phone out. "I bet your mum will have a much nicer one for you tomorrow."
A delicate hand brushed his chin in reassurance as he lit the candle.
"I know you're too sick from the drugs so I'll wrap it back up later and you'll have it when you feel better. I just figured you woulda liked a wish."
He gazed up at the moonless night sky, the few stars drowned by the polluting light of the city sprawling far and wide below them. As the noise behind the bolted door intensified, the man opened a rudimental-looking app on his phone and ticked a few boxes to activate a button. He laid the phone next to him on the floor and started humming a song.
He knew the real world was waiting for him at the end of the night. The one where his little girl was fighting for her life against the disease that had already claimed her legs. Where he could only see her one weekend a month, on visits that were probably not going to be unsupervised anymore after this stunt, unless he could convince his ex-wife to have mercy. Where he'd lost his job and all the money he hadn't wasted on lawyers he had wasted on booze, and now he couldn't even afford to get his girl a cake. Where he was likely to go to jail if they discovered his responsibility in what was about to happen. But as he finished his tune and gazed into his daughter's teary eyes, tonight's fairy tale was all that mattered. His phone vibrated against the stone, the alarm he had set announcing midnight.
Nothing happened when he pressed the button and he held his girl tight in waiting, ignoring the pounding and the voices behind the door.
And then all was black, the city an ocean of darkness stretching in the distance. Fire alarms, honks and shouting rose from below and the pounding stopped as people's attention was diverted to other matters. The man sat on the floor, his daughter curled up beside him, and they looked at the sky where the stars had multiplied, now brighter than ever.
"Make a wish," the man said, holding the toppled cake up to his chest, the girl's mouth inches away. It took a few seconds for her to let out a strong enough blow to extinguish the flame, the sudden wind lending a helping hand.
He took the candle out and dropped the cake back in its paper bag as the pounding resumed, then laid down with his daughter in the star lit darkness. He clasped a tiny hand in his and held it over his heart, tears streaming down his face.
"Happy birthday, little one."