My Brother, the Skyscraper

by Jo Gatford

My brother was a skyscraper—one of those big glass-fronted towers that turn into a mirror when the light hits it just so. The kind with security guards and a white marble-floored lobby covered in tiny glittering speckles, like an inverse starscape. You needed a keycard to get through his barriers; to go through his metal detector; to pass his receptionist who checked your name on the computer and judged you up and down.

I stopped trying to visit him after someone mistook me for cleaning staff and brusquely directed me to the service elevators. I could have snuck up that way, but even the freight lifts didn’t reach as high as the penthouse—that great expanse that filled his head. I’d only ever seen what’s up there in photos: an infinity pool and a private gym, a roof garden strung with lights, a helipad.

A helipad? I messaged him. Really? But our parents were proud of his towering height, as if that was a measure of anything: Hasn’t he grown? they’d say. But from down below I guess everything looks mighty.

Our parents didn’t understand—our father was a suburban semi and our mother was a townhouse terrace with rats in the attic—little islands in their own way, surrounded by public parks and pedestrianised shopping centres. They never knew the musty stink of black mould or the muted weight of a bedsit, folded in on all sides; the key-scraping horror of your landlord letting himself inside to show round potential buyers, unannounced.

It wasn’t jealousy. I’d never liked heights anyway. I wanted to be a temple. A bandstand. A bungalow. An RV with solar panels and a chemical toilet. I could never decide what I wanted to be, which, my brother said, was part of my problem.

It’s about securing your place in the world, he said. Something concrete. But he might as well have become a castle with a moat.


There came a time my mother decided she was too full of stairs and became a beach condo, slowly letting herself sink into the sand, foundations eroding beneath her. My father turned communal, shrinking from four bedrooms into a single unit in an assisted living complex, each one the same bland flavour.

My brother didn’t want to hear about it. He was too busy elongating himself into a portfolio. Don’t talk to me about maintenance costs, he said. Do you know how much it takes to manage this much square footage?

But by then I didn’t even have walls anymore. I was a borrowed doorway. An alleyway. A satellite-pocked sky, smudged with light pollution, newspaper-stuffed to stave off the concrete chill.


Turned out I didn’t even need a keycard. Without structure, I was incorporeal. I slipped right through the metal detectors and took the stairs. I lost count after thirty floors but it didn’t matter. I could feel his anger tracking me on the security cameras. I flipped each one the bird as I passed, the way we’d flash Morse code swear words at one another through winking windows while our parents weren’t looking.

Do you remember, I asked him, when you were a pillow fort? When I was a tree house? When all four of us fit inside a tent? We lay there, he and I, long after our parents were asleep, filling it with our whispered breath, imagining it was a hot air balloon.

He didn’t answer. He was a security alarm, a red flashing light, the screech of walkie talkie static, boots on the stairs behind me. His penthouse was empty, cleaner than anything I’ve ever touched, large enough to fit every single version of myself—all my square footage combined.

Remember when we climbed up onto the garage roof? I asked him as the automatic doors retracted and the altitude hit like a slap. Remember? We could see the whole street. We’d scratched our names into the tar with a penknife. Maybe they’re still there now—someone else’s leaky roof, someone else’s nutshell home.

From his forty-storey shoulders I could see right across the city, where the river smiled into the sea, far enough that the horizon curved downward at the edges. I could feel him in the whirling gulls, in the mist cloud, in the zip-snap of the cables stretching up to the lightning rod. Or maybe it was a flagpole. A ship’s mast. His stubborn cowlick.

I heard him muttering to himself of steel cores and earthquake-proofing and insulated glass. I felt him sway—something a building so tall should not be capable of doing—rocking himself for comfort. Felt how many of his rooms sat empty, energy-saving bulbs dark in their sockets.

Remember when, I said, you blew up a whole pack of balloons? Thought if you tied them all together you could fly away. He’d wanted to jump off the roof but I was the sensible one, then. Talked him down. Promised him helium next time. Next time, I’d said, we just need more balloons. He’d known it was a lie. He’d cried himself into a cupboard but there was still room for two.


I’ve never liked heights but he’s my brother and I have to love him, even if he’s a skyscraper.


It’s just us now, I said. Our father is a wooden box. Our mother is a metal urn. I’ve been trying to tell you, I said, but I couldn’t shout high enough.

The wind wrapped around me, nudging just hard enough to imagine how long it would take to fall. If it would even hurt.

He took my hand, then. Took me to his helipad, right at the crown of his head. He was starting to bald there, at the topmost part of him, just like Dad.

And when we looked down together, the whole city wavered.

He turned and said, How many balloons do you think we’ll need?

Jo Gatford writes flash disguised as poetry, poetry disguised as flash, and sometimes things longer than a page. She is the co-founder of @writers_hq and occasionally tweets about weird 17th-century mermaid tiles at @jmgatford. Her real brother is not in fact a skyscraper but a community centre library.
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