If he were Nikki or Derek, or if they’d been with him, he would’ve acted differently. After the Líders told him he’d be living in the Asilo forever, he should’ve asked why. Why wasn’t he being executed? Why couldn’t he phone his family? Why was he being kept a prisoner?
But he was alone, just a cowardly boy who tried his best and usually failed everyone. While Nikki would’ve fought back and Derek would’ve charmed his way out of trouble, Kevin, the technical oldest in the family, was a baby.
Kevin wiped away his remaining tears with his newly freed hands. He couldn’t even defend his story anymore—the Líders were already gone. They were still in a tizzy from his confession.
Standing just outside the door was a boy waiting to escort him to his room. He looked about Kevin’s age, though Kevin knew from rumors that he was decades old.
He was known as the Marcos Unit, a servant that followed the Líders and Zantl everywhere they went. He was something called a robot, termed by the Líders to describe a machine built to resemble a crossbreed, and a bad omen to announce a Líder’s presence. Such technology seemed too advanced to be real—aside from the lack of any animal characteristics, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t a real person. He stood statue-still, not breathing, his blue eyes focusing and unfocusing underneath a sweep of blond hair.
“I-I’ll be right there,” Kevin said, and went to fix his skirt. Most clothing in Raeleen had zippers or buttons in the back for tails. His had been torn from being handled too roughly.
“Normally, people confined within the Asilo are given Asilo-assigned clothing,” the Marcos Unit said. “Your case is…different, so I’ll see to it that you are given appropriate clothes within the week.”
That seemed extreme, to cast aside his entire wardrobe from home, but that’s what it’d come down to, at least for the time being. Perhaps he could have another hearing with the Líders when he wasn’t too skittish and they weren’t too mortified.
It’d sounded like they hadn’t believed his story until he mentioned the voice in his head: Maïmoú, a girl who’d dragged Derek through the Barreira and off the Muralha before disappearing. It should’ve labeled him as a psycho, but the Líders had taken it at face value. Were they as crazy as the story? He knew his family thought very little of the government, but he expected them to be smarter than this.
As Kevin went to leave, Marcos blocked his path with his body. He looked down at Kevin’s shoes. “We ask that inmates refrain from wearing shoes within the complex,” he said.
“Really?” That just sounded dirty, too harsh.
“It tracks in dirt.”
He did as told. He should’ve expected weirder by now.
His walking sounded so off compared to the weight of an entire robot. The Marcos Unit walked precisely and must’ve had a map installed in his brain, or he’d memorized the layout since he rarely left. He turned the same way every time. His arms didn’t move. Lifelike and not, this thing. Or person.
Every now and then there was a door, but without signs or numbers above them, Kevin couldn’t have guessed where he was being led to. That smell of hospital never left the corridors.
They turned to a set of elevators. Marcos pushed to go up. They waited in silence as the walls slowly creaked and lifted the metal box up several flights.
Kevin dug his nails deep into his finger beds. This abrupt silence after ceaseless trauma made his head pang with a headache. He felt awkward and ashamed, like he’d been caught in a lie he hadn’t created and was awaiting punishment. Why wasn’t he saying anything?
They entered, and the flashing lights ticked as they descended down past the foyer into unnamed levels. They must’ve had basement levels, too, just like at Morgan’s place.
Kevin watched for the Marcos Unit to breathe. He looked so authoritative, like he could massacre an entire room of people without breaking a sweat. He probably didn’t have to, sweat.
He gulped and took his shot. “You’re younger than—”
Marcos flinched into the wall and raised his hand to defend himself. Inside his wrist unsheathed a thin yet deadly knife the length of a ruler. He pointed it directly at Kevin’s face.
Kevin stepped back. “I’m sorry! I—sorry. I’ll shut up.”
Marcos, evaluating that there was no threat in this elevator, sheathed his weapon and returned to facing the front wall.
Kevin peeled off a crescent of dead skin from his thumb. Was he that much of a threat to these people? He’d be sure not to make such a mistake again. No talking. He could do that.
“I apologize for startling you,” the Marcos Unit said, not looking at Kevin. “I’ve been informed that you’re a high-risk inmate.”
“I shouldn’t have been so startling,” Kevin said.
The small room lurched and the doors opened. They continued down the new hall. Kevin made sure to stay a far way from the robot.
The lights down this hall were exceptionally dimmer than the ones a few stories up. The locked rooms looked more sinister, somehow, and down four-way intersections, he saw abandoned gurneys and IV stands beside locked doors. The whole floor felt too sterile and too dirty at once.
He’d heard rumors pertaining to the Asilo. From backdoor broker deals to unethical practices done on crossbreeds. Some went as far as to say that the Líders were creating new breeds in secrecy, like insect crossbreeds, something that didn’t exist, or new breeds entirely, ones that didn’t have animal equivalents.
He wasn’t a huge conspiracy theorist like the rest of his family was. The simplest forms of corruption frightened him, and he liked being a model citizen to balance out his family. But knowing that the Líders knew a girl Kevin only heard in his head, it made his mind wander into darker woods.
How scary it was, to want to open one of these doors and unlock the truth.
“What was it,” the Marcos Unit said, “that you were going to say?”
Kevin manually calmed down his breathing. “Just that you look younger than you look in the paper. I’ve never been so close to any of you before. You really look alive, like you could’ve gone to school with me and my siblings. And cousin. They’re younger than me, but we were all in the same school for a few years.”
The Marcos Unit continued on his path.
Kevin clamped his mouth shut. He’d just promised himself to keep quiet, too. He couldn’t help but overshare when it came to his family. He had to be careful with that, too, his family. Purposively turning the radio off during broadcasts and talking badly about the Guard in the privacy of their home. Kevin tried to talk big and then had nightmares about the Guard busting down their door and jailing them for inappropriacy. He kept most of his opinions to himself because of them.
The Marcos Unit stopped at a door that looked as plain as any other door they passed. He lifted his palm above the handle. The mechanisms inside the wall clicked and slid open. The doors here didn’t even have hinges. What a feat.
The room was about the size of Nikki’s bedroom back home, but he wouldn’t call this room a bedroom. A twin-sized cot in the corner. A wall-to-ceiling mirror on the right. White walls. Barren floors. That was all that was given to him.
“You will be kept here for the foreseeable future,” the Marcos Unit said, leading Kevin in. “Your dinner will be brought up to you in two hours. I read that you have no allergens to speak of, so you will be given the standard meal that is appropriate to your breed’s diet. Your meals will be delivered to you at six, noon, and six in the evening, with bathroom breaks allotted five times a day between your meals. We expect you to keep your room clean at all times and that you obey every rule given to you by a guard or Asilo official. We will also ask that you give us blood and urine samples that will be taken in the next hour. Do you have any questions about these rules so far?”
“I…don’t think so,” Kevin said, even though he had thousands. “Can you tell me why I’m being held here?”
“I cannot,” he said sternly, “however, if you have any more information to the disappearance of Derek Harrow, you are allowed to vocalize them to me, as my memories will be replayed to the Líders so they can better understand the situation.”
“So they’re not ruling it as a murder anymore?”
“We have not recovered a body, so this is still a technical missing person case. Until the Líders tell me otherwise,” he added. “This is a missing person case.”
Kevin watched the robot’s movements more closely. The way he spoke was mechanical in nature, and his diction sounded like Raeleenian was his second language, even though Raeleen only had one language.
But something about the way he was staring at Kevin was different, like he was waiting for Kevin to say something more not so that he could relay it back to the Líders, but for his own learning. Maybe that’s how robots worked. He could imagine cars acting the same way if they had intelligence.
Kevin read the worry creased in Marcos’ face, then nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
“So you have nothing left to tell me?”
“I’m sorry. It’s difficult to think clearly right now, so I don’t want to give you any wrong information. Is that okay?”
Marcos’ head twitched to the right several times, trying to come to terms with Kevin’s shift in attitude. “That is fine,” he said, almost forced. “Is that all?”
“Well. I’ll. Get your food ready. Then.” He lowered his head, almost showing his neck like Kevin was someone beneath him, and left.
Kevin waited to hear his footsteps fade, but the room was vacuum-sealed. After the door shut, he was barred from the rest of the world.
He collapsed. His knees slammed into the tiles. He gripped the sheets as if he’d slip through the floor and let himself cry. For Derek’s alleged death, for the very real idea that he might never see him or his family again, to the thought of being experimented on as punishment.
He breathed in the harsh scent of mildew from the sheets. He bundled them up and breathed. In, out. In, out. Normally, he faked being emotionally strong for his family. He could control himself in front of them only to lock himself in the bathroom and cry so hard, he’d puke. Everything terrified him, everything could and would end terribly.
He was now in a den of wolves who only saw him as a murderous threat. They didn’t care that he was weak, and they were upset that he didn’t know everything going on. If he was to survive, he had to be stronger than this.
He just didn’t know how, and he had no one to lean on and learn from here. What was the appropriate amount of time to grieve for someone that might not be dead at all, but that you have an immense connection to? A week? Forever? Neither felt like enough time. Did he have enough tears for a year’s worth of grieving?
Wiping his cheek on his cold sheets, Kevin checked how awful he looked in the mirror.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
There was someone watching him, in the mirror. A little girl, maybe thirteen. No tail or ears, no markings or fangs discerning her of any breed. She had fair skin and long, blonde hair, long enough to reach the floor, dead ends flying about every which way. Her white dress, beautiful and youthful, was stained in a concerning amount of black sludge. It came from her mouth and nose like vomit and puddled the ground, a leak of contamination.
She pressed her stained hands against the glass, her forehead cracking the pane. She was talking to herself, but Kevin couldn’t hear her. He could only see her through the mirror and nowhere else.
Kevin fixed his skirt over his knees. “Hello?”
The little girl looked up. She exhaled slowly like an injured animal. Strung around her neck was a long, hidden necklace with a crescent moon dangling at the end. It, too, was stained by darkness.
“Are you alright?” he asked, “and, also, not as important as the first question, are you real?”
The girl drooped her shoulders, stunned at being perceived.
“Because you look like you’re hurt, but if you’re not real and I’m just imagining you…”
The girl took a step forward through the glass. Then another. All of her weight fell onto her steps.
“I wouldn’t know…what to do…”
The girl fell to her knees. Kevin kept looking between the mirror version of herself and the blank version and wondering if he’d finally gone insane.
Then she reached for him, wrapped her arms around his head, and hugged him so fiercely, his shoulders almost popped out of place.
He took in her scent of gunpowder and cooked meat. Her body was warm and felt nice and right in his arms, like he’d never let go of her unless he knew she was okay, this ethereal girl.
He did what felt right and patted her back. He felt every bone poking out on her spine. “Are you okay?”
She choked on the darkness inside of her and pulled back to cough. A dollop of that sludge splattered to the floor like gelatin.
Kevin turned to his room’s locked door. “Excuse me—”
The girl slammed her hand against Kevin’s mouth. A feral look came into her eyes but vanished just as quickly. Slowly, she shook her head, looking between him and the door.
He did the same. “Sorry,” he muffled into her hand.
She took her hand away and asked him a question. Her lips were moving, but he didn’t hear her speak.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” he told her.
She said something under her breath, likely a curse, then wiped her lips of darkness and sat up.
“Wait,” he said, “do you need help? Are you trapped here, too? You’re not wearing shoes.”
She pulled a face, then looked at her bare feet. They were calloused from living her life shoeless.
“Are you real?” he then asked. “I don’t know if I’m seeing you because I’m freaking out from today or what, but if you’re hurt, I can try to help you.”
The girl gave him a pitiful glance. She was trembling the way older people did, a leaf about to fall from a dead tree. He wanted to make sure she was okay. He needed to.
His fingers curled back. His mind, it’d been warped from anxiety and the threat of being killed multiple times. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly.
But now, the jagged pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place, and he was a fool for not picking up on the clues sooner.
Kevin scooted back. “You—” He swallowed. “You’re the girl, aren’t you?”
She didn’t say anything.
“You brought us up to the Muralha. You sent Derek through the Barreira.” He kept scooting back. The power this little girl had bested the Guard and the Líders. She’d pushed someone through the Barreira.
He gripped his heart. “Maïmoú,” he said clearly. “That’s your name, right? Where’s Derek? He’s okay, right? You didn’t do anything bad to him, right? He’s okay?”
Maïmoú didn’t answer, her eyes unmoving, face cold as stone.
Then she nodded once. Twice. And mouthed a sentence that took Kevin a moment to decipher.
“I would never hurt either of you.”
And just from that, Kevin believed her. A cooling energy pooled through his body and manually calmed him down. Through whatever magical powers she possessed in her withering body, Kevin would always believe this girl would be on their side.
It scared him how easily his brain pressured him to believe that, and that he didn’t have a choice to contradict the thought. She was just a little kid, how could he blame her for anything she may or may not have done?
“Who are you?” he asked. “What are you?”
She coughed again. She balled up her shirt as she got everything out of her. Her hair jumped as a liter of darkness emptied from her stomach. Then she pointed at the ceiling and mouthed a single word: “Deity.”
“Deity?” he asked. “Is that what you said? What does that mean?”
She laughed at his naivety at a concept his world didn’t know, then lost her footing and fell into the mirror.
It shattered to a million pieces. From her body, fragments of glass spiderwebbed out and reached every corner until a giant piece fell out of its placement. It phased through Maïmoú’s body and disappeared her like a magic act. She gave Kevin one last look, saying something only she knew, before the piece snatched her away and fractured on the floor.
The Marcos Unit ran into his room, wrist blade unsheathed. He identified the closest pieces of glass near his feet and scanned the room for what could’ve caused so much damage in so little time.
Kevin tightened around amidst the shards of glass. He waited for Maïmoú to return and explain herself.
She didn’t return.
Several days passed during his confinement, and she, this “deity,” never returned.