Chapter 2: Nikki

Nikki stared at the newly made hole in the wall, eyes half-lidded, wondering what was going to break next.

Blood rounded off of her knuckles. Scars from her past marked her skin, scars she thought she’d put an end to when she’d been adopted. But life hadn’t gotten better. It’d only gotten more painful.

Her ears flicked. Wet, heavy footsteps plodded up the stairs towards their apartment. Her parents were home.

Nikki surveyed her wrecked bedroom. She’d promised her parents that she’d finally clean up. Ever since the incident, she’d let her room fester with her heart. She was ignoring the mold in her old drinking cups and the rain leaking from her window. It hadn’t stopped, the rain.

Nikki nudged the dirty laundry behind her mattress. It looked better, she thought, to see parts of her floor. She was still in the same baggy sweats and hoodie she’d worn to school, and she hadn’t done anything with her hair.  Kevin used to style it for her.

The front door opened. Keys hit the counter and shoes were kicked off. Her parents started a muted conversation.

Nobody came upstairs. Nobody told her they were home even though it was obvious that they were. Nobody acknowledged anything.

She dug her nails into her palms. She had her fists and her bat was somewhere underneath the trash. She had so many options to mar the world and show that she was still here despite everything being taken away from her. But her fists couldn’t do it for her anymore; they only left behind scars that hurt others more than they hurt herself.

She flung open her bedroom door. One of its hinges was loose and slammed the door against her sandbag propped in the corner. Whatever her family had been talking about, they’d stopped and listened from downstairs, waiting for Nikki to act out like a child. She was a child, damn it, yet she was taking this far better than any of them were.

Refusing to look at Derek’s and Kevin’s bedroom across the hall, Nikki went downstairs to face her family.

Her father was taking off his apron in the kitchen while her mother was in the living room getting the milk delivery. She was with Vanna, holding his fifth or sixth coffee of the day. She hadn’t heard him come in. Damn him and his soft footfall.

Her mother and father were Derek’s and Kevin’s birth parents, so they, too, were hawks of brown and grey. They were both beautiful in Nikki’s eyes, but their freckled faces now reminded her too much of her siblings.

“Hey,” her mother said, looking vaguely in Nikki’s direction. “You should’ve seen the lines at Morgan’s today. Some boar threw a cheesecake in her face and Del had to haul them out. It was a mess.”

“Vanna handled himself well,” her father said. “Didn’t you, Vanna? He’s starting to get better at handling customers.”

Vanna looked away, pretending to unacknowledge Nikki right when he had, in fact, acknowledged her. The bastard of a boy was Nikki’s cousin. He often came over unannounced to eat, clean, hang out. He was a lynx, tall and lanky and rarely able to make a strong impression, yet he had a way of pushing Nikki’s buttons.

Unlucky for him: All of her buttons had been pressed for days.

“Are you hungry?” her mother asked. “We took some leftovers from Morgan’s. We got cake and your favorite buttered pasta.”

Nikki’s small body seized, a spring ready to jump. She wasn’t hungry. She hadn’t eaten a full meal since Derek disappeared.

“Disappeared,” because there was no way those murder reports were true.

“We should finish up the leftovers still in the fridge,” her father recommended.

“And you got an extra bottle of milk,” Vanna said, counting the glasses of milk. Nikki had heard them deliver it but couldn’t leave her room.

“Wait, so how many bottles did we get today?”

“Seven.”

“How did they even fit an extra bottle in the holder?”

Nikki’s chest shivered in anger. She couldn’t explode, but—

“Oh, Nikki,” her mother said, “did you hear another piece of the Muralha fell—”

Nikki slammed her fist against the wall. “Why’re you all acting like this? Why’re you acting so weird? What’s going on?”

Everyone other than her lowered their heads.

“Why’re you ignoring what happened? For All That’s Above, one of your kids is missing and you’re acting like you lost a pair of socks at the laundromat!”

When none of them said anything, she continued, stoking the flames. “Are we accepting it, then? Are we seriously gonna believe the Líders, that Kevin pushed Derek off the Muralha? That doesn’t make any sense, and it’s unfair of you to pretend like you aren’t upset by this.”

She’d  turned that day over and over in her mind. She’d gotten out of school with Vanna late. Vanna left to study in the library, as if he wasn’t the top student in their class. Kevin and Derek had picked her up to go to Morgan’s. She told them they didn’t have to, but they always did. Derek, after spotting a group of guards, had kicked a rock at them. Derek was stupid, but since Nikki had been adopted, she hadn’t known him to act that recklessly.

The guards had cornered them. The one he’d hit, a poodle barely out of the academy, was crying, but only in the way when you popped an eyebrow pimple—he’d hit her between the eyes, it’d barely leave a scar. She’d insisted that it wasn’t a big deal, but her companions hadn’t been so kind. Nobody could hurt the guard and get away with it. Someone had to be punished.

Instead of apologizing, Derek had taken Kevin’s hand and fled, leaving her to defend herself from three angry guards.

One had gone after them. One had escorted her home. The hurt poodle went between them both, trying to keep everyone at peace.

An hour or so later, Kevin returned home soaking wet and covered in scratch marks, crying about the Muralha crumbling and a girl’s voice and Derek, Derek, Derek. Derek went through the Barreira and he didn’t know how but they needed to help him now. Nikki had never seen her brother so petrified.

She always stood up for Kevin. She saved him from bullies and helped him gain a confidence she’d fortified when she’d been homeless. He was an innocence she needed to protect.

When she’d seen him in the living room, she hesitated, not because she thought him guilty of any crimes. She’d been thinking over the possible ways she could’ve prevented this outcome.

They’d taken her brother away that night. They said he’d killed a guard whilst running away and that he’d thrown Derek off the Muralha, somehow. From that and from evading the Guard, they said he’d be executed for his felonies.

Nikki had argued it. Without knowing the truth, she’d fought, bitten, and clawed at the officers for his honor, but it’d been no use. He was taken from her, and hours later, they’d received a phone call saying that Kevin had been tried and committed to death for unnatural acts against Raeleen.

And Nikki. Did not. Take that. There was no way on this cruel earth that her brother would’ve ever done anything to hurt Derek. The boy didn’t even kill bugs in their room, Nikki had to do it for him.

She needed answers for what really happened that day. She wanted action. She wanted her best friends back.

And her parents. Just looked away. And acted like this was all a bad dream.

“There’s no use stirring things up,” her father had said.

“Please, Nikki, we don’t want to lose you, too,” her mother had said.

“Nikki, stop fighting,” Vanna had said, “and let it go.”

She glared at all three of them, teeth bared, her wiry rat tail flicking. She was going to die on Kevin’s innocence, even if she died in the process. Even if she lost the respect of her family for acting out, she’d find a way to bring Derek home.

Her father set down his bag. He always had on this stern expression even when making jokes, but after this week, he’d become more jagged. The bags under his eyes were more present. “Nikki, please. We can’t do this right now. We need to let it go. I know you’re upset.”

“I’m upset?” She gagged. “And you’re not? You’re not?” she asked her mother. “Kevin’s dead, Mom. He’s never coming back!”

Her mother covered her eyes from the truth.

Why wouldn’t they let themselves mourn? Why were they acting like she was the one being emotional about this?

Nikki, out of options, turned to Vanna for support.

Vanna took a sip from his coffee mug and avoided her.

Nikki stormed over to him. At least she could justify her parents being so emotionally distant from shock, but Vanna wasn’t like that. He cried when he got too upset or happy, he laughed so hard, he’d make milk dribble from his nose. He couldn’t hide from her.

She slammed him up against the wall, knocking the coffee out of his hand. He was tall and she was extremely short, but she easily pinned him with his stupid scarf. He always wore it, this checkered, tattered piece of fabric, even before they’d met as little fourteen-year-olds. It smelled like him: coffee stains and bookmarks.

She glared up into his lime green eyes. Pointy nose, white skin, and orange hair that was striped brown. Everything about him was the opposite of her. In any other life, they would’ve been strangers, perhaps enemies.

He met her gaze, grimacing in pain or something else. He sucked in his thin lips with something to say.

“What?” she demanded. How she hated him like this. Let him say something hate-filled and callous. Let them argue for hours until their voices went. She just needed to hear him speak. This distance. It made her feel so lonely.

He shot a look at both of her parents. “Let it go.”

 She pulled harder.

“Nikki, that hurts.”

“Then talk to me! Tell me what’s going on with you! It’s like none of you even care that they’re gone!”

“Because we can’t,” her father stressed. “If the Líders saw us acting up over this, we’d be watched. The Guard would always be at our door, our bank cards would be limited—”

“Is that all you care about?” she exploded. “Your bank cards? Derek and Kevin are gone, Aldrich! Kevin’s been—” She couldn’t say it. “You’re never gonna see your kids again if you keep acting like this makes sense, or if it truly happened in the first place!” she added, because something deep inside her told her that through these convolutions, her siblings could very well be alive. Why weren’t the Líders looking into this “break” in the Barreira? Why hadn’t they executed Kevin in the streets?

She knew denial was part of the grieving process, but all this secret-keeping made her secretly hopeful for a happy ending.

“Nikki, that’s enough,” her mother finally said.

“Oh, shut it,” Nikki spat, and threw Vanna away before heading outside.

“Nicole!” her father shouted. “Nicole Lenore, how dare you—”

She slammed the front door shut. They lived on the second and third floor above a tailor shop, so to keep away from everyone, to keep from her flighted parents and cousin with a keen scent of smell, Nikki climbed up to the roof.

Her sneakers gripped the shingles as she made her way up. She wasn’t high enough to see the Asilo, but from here, she saw most of Raeleen. This rainy city of derelict buildings that morphed into industrial complexes the closer they got to the Asilo. Palm trees grew from the sidewalks. Children played with nicked balls in the alleys. This was her home, safe from the violence she’d come to know.

After this week, nothing felt like a home. She had no family. She’d lost her heart.

Her parents began whispering again, not even trying to make an effort to come up and check on her. Not that she expected them to. She was eighteen, it wasn’t like she was a baby who needed to be coddled. She once taught herself to never rely on anyone for anything, especially for love. They’d find a way to hurt you in a way that was emotionally devastating. She’d buried away that part of herself.

Then this family decided to give her a home from the rain, and for a few years, things got better.

And now she was broken because of it. Stupid. So stupid.

A low roar echoed across Raeleen, like a multi-car car crash or avalanche in a nearby mountain.

It was the Muralha again. She didn’t live too far from it, but at this height, she could make out its horizon line through coconuts and telephone wire.

A dust cloud poofed off of it. She saw no damage—her eyes weren’t that good—but she knew what’d just happened: Another piece of the wall had broken off.

It happened, just like the rain and every hardship she needed to face in life. Ever since her parents’ parents’ time, the Muralha had been breaking. Sometimes, it was a few crumbs. Other times, it was as big as her apartment. Those ones sent the Guards up to patch it up the best they could, and on it went, them ignoring the inevitable.

Whatever the “inevitable” was. What would happen if it fully cracked in two? Would they fall into the sky? Would the world collapse in on itself? Nobody knew. The Líders said not to worry about it, so they, in theory, didn’t.

Unable to deal with any more conspiracy theories, Nikki lay on her back, watching the rain clouds go by. The rain slowly let up until patches of yellow broke through the storm.

She closed her eyes and timed her breathing. In, out. In, out—a technique Kevin had taught her to calm down.

“…lo?”

Her eyes snapped open.

“Hello?”

It was farther off that time, the voice, but that word, or question, was clear.

She sat up to listen better. It was a masculine voice but childish, like a little boy asking for directions. It reminded her of Kevin, but this wasn’t a voice she’d ever heard before. “Hello?” she asked no one. “Who’s there?”

Only the wind replied.

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