Mornings lost their sweet charm without Derek and Kevin around. No more Kevin running up and down the hall to complete his outfit. No more Derek waking up late and hogging the bathroom to get ready. Nikki always helped get their acts together while their mother and father made breakfast for their busy family of five, sometimes six or more if Vanna’s family was visiting.
Waking up to silence felt wrong.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to subdue the headache waking with her, and turned on her shoulder.
She was met with Vanna’s coffee-stained breath. He slept at the edge of her bed, knees tucked, his wristbands nudging his cheeks. His nose twitched from dreams he never told her about.
Even though he frustrated her to no end, Nikki didn’t hate Vanna. He was her closest friend and pushed her to what he knew she could achieve.
In the past, Little Nikki survived on primal instincts. She taught herself how to make food last a week and which abandoned buildings were safest to sleep in. Attending school was idiotic in theory, until she saw Vanna’s and Kevin’s aptitudes for it. The two used to study at each other’s houses for hours. Their parents beamed whenever a 50/50 came home.
The red that streaked Nikki’s face when she barely scrounged up a 19/50 almost made her drop out day one. She was already delayed in education, and being taught with literal toddlers didn’t excite her about finishing grade school. But Vanna had persisted. He’d sit her down and wouldn’t fall asleep until she understood every branch of arithmetic. They’d overtake Nikki’s dining room, textbooks bookmarked with colorful tabs courtesy of Vanna, and study until he was satisfied with her results.
Her 35/50s never made her feel better about her intelligence, but Vanna, almost in tears, would flatten each exam and place them in a special folder he kept at his desk. Her parents’ smiles forever burned in her brain, reminding her of what she left behind. If the school board decided to take in a rat like her at that age, she knew she couldn’t disappoint anyone else.
Then Derek and Kevin left.
Stretching her back, Nikki leaned over and flicked Vanna’s ear.
It twitched like how a real kitten’s would, and he awoke with a sharp inhale. “Way to wake a person up.”
“Way to break into someone’s room without permission.”
“Your door was unlocked, and don’t give me that look,” he said, interrupting her formatting a response. “You only do that when you want someone to talk to you. I know you, Nikki. Don’t start.” He checked the time on his watch. “It’s time for school.”
“I don’t think so.”
He stood up, still dressed in his school uniform from the previous night. “Get dressed.”
“I’ll go back eventually.”
“I’ve worked too hard for you to quit now.”
“You say that like I wasn’t involved.” She referred to her writing desk. Her stack of late assignments were piling up.
Vanna picked up her hand to play with her fingers. Bandages were taped over her scarred knuckles. Another courtesy from Vanna and his personal medical kit.
Her chin fell to her collarbone. Someone had laid out her uniform at the foot of her bed, ready to wear for the day.
“Please,” Vanna begged. “I want you to get better.”
“No, you’re not. Look, I don’t—I can’t—talk about what happened yet. I know you want answers for their disappearance. I know you want justice. But we don’t get those in the world. The more you ask of the government, the more you’ll get hurt, and I won’t lose you, too, Nikki. I can’t.”
“But what’re we gonna do? Do you really believe the reports?”
“Of course I don’t, but if I learned anything from my moms, it’s that you shouldn’t put all your cards on the table thinking you know how the game will end when there’re seven other players who’ve played the game longer than you have.”
“I’ve never played cards before.”
“You get what I mean. We shouldn’t…” He struggled for a better metaphor. “We should wait for a better time to act. When we’re this broken and emotional, we become rash. Your parents are emotionally distant. Mine are, too. We’re the only two who wear our hearts on our sleeves.”
“You cover yours up,” Nikki noted, watching him fiddle with them.
He dropped his hands. “I’m on your side,” he finished with. “I believe everything you do. Just keep your head down, alright? There’ve been more guards driving around your neighborhood. They’re suspicious.”
Nikki gazed out the window. A lazy fog slept in the alley, perfect weather for unwinding with her bat.
She slowly lifted herself up from her bed imprint. This week had been the worst week of her life, but the weather was still perfect.
She poked Vanna in the chest. “I will go back to school, for you, so don’t crap your pants worrying about someone you don’t have to worry about.”
“Thank you, but—”
“But I’m not going to school today, and you’re dumb for thinking you can get me to go back on a Friday when the weekend is right there. I’ll go back when I’m ready. I won’t leave you alone.”
Vanna placed a hand on his hip and glared at her.
“Vanna, I swear to the Above, if you give me any more sass.”
He threw up his hands. “Okay. I’ll take it. Thank you.”
“Good. So. You’re playing hooky with me.”
“Yes, because I don’t trust myself being alone right now, and Mom and Dad are already gone. I heard them leave.”
“Probably an early day at my moms’ place.”
“Wouldn’t have hurt to say goodbye,” she muttered.
“They wouldn’t have wanted to wake you up. They know you’re taking this as hard as all of us, Nikki. They’re not against you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She got up like she had an extra hundred pounds weighing her down and got dressed in clean clothes. Not in her school uniform—the shit-brown plaid made her want to shoot herself. Just her sweats, tank top, and hoodie she liked leaving unzippered, otherwise she looked like a kid wearing their mother’s clothes.
“Where’re we going?” Vanna asked.
She picked up her metal bat from off the floor. “The park.”
Giving in too easily, he unzipped his bag and took out his mitt.
Nikki smirked. “‘Oh, I want you to go back to school with me’,” she mocked in Vanna’s nasally tone. “Liar.”
“My voice isn’t that high.”
“Sure, and it doesn’t crack when you’re nervous. Change out of that stupid uniform so you don’t get busted by the Guard. There’s some of your clothes on my closet floor.”
As Vanna got changed, Nikki stared at her door, prepping for the hallway. She’d been avoiding it all week, the other side, though she wanted nothing more than to cuddle into either of their beds and relax in their down feathers.
She stepped out of her room and came face to face with Derek’s and Kevin’s shared bedroom. She read the crudely drawn sign the two siblings had drawn when they were younger.
She entered their room as if she was nervous about waking someone up.
Two matching closets, two desks, two twin beds with matching end tables, and two lamps. The morning they’d disappeared, Kevin had made his bed while Derek’s looked as unkempt as Nikki’s. Kevin’s guitar sat up against the window. Derek’s radio still had his favorite album in it.
Never before had she heard this side of the house so quiet.
Vanna tugged on her hood. He’d changed to his regular clothes of tight black and studded jewelry. “Come on.”
Nikki took another minute for herself.
Unfazed by the darkening weather, the world continued on. Unschooled kids kicked rocks into gutters. Street vendors sold mangos and bananas they’d picked the day before. Behind Nikki’s house was a dried stream, tangled telephone wires, and apartment complexes more broken than hers. Over the decades, kids with too much free time had graffitied the boarded windows with paint. Nikki thought it artistic. The Guard thought it vandalism. Neither, in Nikki’s opinion, were wrong.
They left her neighborhood, Nikki on foot, Vanna on his bike, and headed north, parallel to the Muralha. Depending on where you stood, sometimes it was string-thin, almost invisible, and sometimes, it stood tall enough to block out the Sun. As a vagabond, Nikki had once bet old friends that she could climb it. She’d pound her chest and point at the wall, promising them a better life beyond the Líder’s eyes.
Vanna followed Nikki’s line of sight. “My mom said another piece of the Muralha broke off. Somewhere in the south.”
“I saw, back when…I lashed out yesterday.”
The memory of that boy’s voice came to her. She’d checked her surroundings—there’d been no one around. And she’d heard that voice, as if she’d had an earpiece in.
She stuffed the thought back into her subconscious. That was just from grief. She knew people heard voices from trauma. Maybe the voices were always that clear.
“Yeah, she said she saw guards running up and down the street all night,” Vanna continued. “She said to anticipate an assembly.”
“An assembly? The Líders didn’t even do that for, you know.” She didn’t say their names for Vanna’s sake. “They only do that for serious stuff, and the Muralha has been crumbling for years.”
“I’m just saying, we should take her word and plan ahead. They take up the whole day, I swear.”
Kids were taught about the Muralha in school. Nikki had missed those formative years, but it didn’t take a genius to understand the concept. It contained Raeleen, and everything beyond it was the sky. You couldn’t leave because of the Barreira, all of it was built before their time by unknown hands, and sometimes the wall crumbled, but it’d never fall. That’s what the Líders said, that’s what they needed to accept.
Nikki was generally defiant, especially when it came to her family, but she didn’t know enough about the world to refute the logic. She, like everyone, accepted it at face value.
Everyone, but Vanna’s mom. He had two moms, one soft-spoken—Nikki’s mom’s sister—the other a wild, chaotic mess that was Morgan Owens. She was the owner of Morgan’s Delicate Sweets and Drinks, the coffee house most of her family worked at. She knew all the dirt the Asilo swept under the rug and sniffed out the deeper rumors with skills akin to a guarddog. Nikki didn’t know the depth of what her aunt knew, but she wouldn’t put it past her knowing the true builders of the Muralha and Barreira.
As they reached Main Street, two guards slipped out from a dark alleyway, touching their earpieces and whispering their concerns about the youth thinking too hard about their world.
Nikki flipped up her hood and walked Vanna onto the sidewalk. “C’mon.”
Vanna, ears folded, turned his back on them.
Nikki had known Vanna for years and figured him a good kid, but his mothers held a deep-seated hatred for dog breeds. Generational ignorance poisoned kids’ brains into hating people they didn’t even know. She didn’t think it’d affected Vanna because he was smart, but she still had her doubts. He didn’t look guards in the eyes.
But some people chose to have birth children, twisting their hands into courting certain lovers. Dogs with dogs, cats with cats. Some families had expectations to continue the family tree. Her family, while having birth children, had also adopted her, and Vanna’s moms had adopted him for obvious reasons.
Derek, he had no preference. Since Nikki had entered the scene, he’d been with a bear, a ram, a fox, and a few dog flings that lasted as long as a special at Morgan’s. He did his best, but the people he slept with treated him like dirt. Cheated on him, mentally and emotionally abused him. Nikki had consoled him break up after break up.
She walked over a short bridge that crossed over a hidden canal. Most streets had deep canals cut near the sidewalks that you needed to watch out for. Being as wide as a car and just as deep, falling in would’ve sent you to the hospital. Nikki didn’t know what they were meant for. They controlled the flow of rainwater before leaking through the moldy cracks. Storefronts were built down there, but most people avoided them. A lot of the homeless stayed in these parts, and since no breed could breathe underwater, one bad storm could wash you away.
“Wanna take the trolley?” Vanna asked her.
“You have a bike,” she said.
“Yeah, but you don’t. C’mon, my treat.”
Before she could argue that he was wasting his money, a trolley pulled up to the nearby trolley stop. A stern-looking Guard eyed them from the entrance.
“I don’t have any money,” Nikki reminded him. “My bank card’s still frozen.”
“That’s why I said it’s my treat.” He hovered his red card over the slot.
Not a lot of teens were on this ride, freeing up their favorite spot: the back. When Nikki was homeless, she’d hop on to the back of these things and hold her breath that nobody narked on her. She had no place to go, it was just to feel the wind in her hair, to free herself from rainfall.
Vanna parked his bike in the bike rack and enjoyed their ride through town. The city awoke with them: Shops opened for the day, families biked or drove to school and work. Bird crossbreeds flew above the rooftops as herds of deer mingled on the city lawns, allowing their children to let out energy before nap time.
They had to pass the purebred districts to get to school—districts known to only house dog breeds—and the guard academies. Little purebreds jogging in packs of ten practiced firing guns at wooden targets. Nikki looked away as they hit their marks. She never liked guns, even as a means of self-defense.
Vanna took peeks at the trainees before pretending he wasn’t interested in their lives.
Nikki waited until he noticed her staring at him. “You’re not getting like your moms, are you?” she asked.
His thin brows furrowed. “Why would you say something like that?”
“I’m just making sure.”
“You know me, Nikki. When have I ever been like that? The Guard frightens me, that’s it, but it’s not because they’re dogs.”
“You’ve just been…” She let it go. There was no use starting up another argument with him.
“I’ve been what?” he asked, irked.
“Different, but I don’t know what that difference is yet. It’s like you’re not telling me something.”
“Don’t be crazy,” was all he said, and kept his eyes on everything but the academy.
Nikki kept hers on her cousin. They’d made up, but that rift between them was shifting. Not increasing, but the edges were crumbling, and soon, one of them was going to have to jump across the ledge to save the other.
Five minutes later, they arrived at Nikki’s favorite park. Adults were battling around the basketball hoop near the jungle gym and old folk were strolling the gated area. She spotted all kinds of beings here, from horses to panthers to a few birds perched in the trees. There were makeshift benches for them across the sturdier trunks.
She always envied the bird breeds gifted with the ability to fly. They were the only breeds with wings. Derek said it was just the same as running, but Kevin had told her that it was like running uphill on the hottest, most humid day. It was why he stayed grounded more so than Derek. It took everything in you to fly for five minutes, and their bones were more brittle than other species. One wrong landing and you’d break your leg. Derek had rolled his ankle the second or third month Nikki had been adopted and she was stuck caring for him. She’d learned a lot about bird species that month, and how Derek liked to joke around even when bed-ridden.
But she always wondered what it felt like to detach yourself from Earth. Existing in weightlessness sounded nice regardless of how depressed you were.
Nikki took practice swings at nothing as Vanna walked up to the pitcher’s mound. Her father had gifted her the bat a few years ago when they’d discovered Nikki’s love of the sport. It felt right, hitting something not to break it but to have it soar across the sky as an achievement.
She squeezed the tape around the grip. “Ready.”
The first ball bounced into the gate and startled the bird crossbreeds. Vanna jogged for it and threw an even faster ball.
Nikki shouted as it made contact with her bat. A loud click took it into the sky. Vanna walked in circles, nose up, and caught it.
He stumbled from the catch, then threw an even harder ball her way.
She swung with enough force to break a femur. She spat into the dirt when she missed and threw it back, almost losing her footing. “Again!”
Sweat dripped down their backs as they played into the day. Nikki bit her tongue whenever the hit connected and cursed whenever she missed. Keeping in her room for days had been reverting her back into her old self. Cooped up in a wet canal, wasting away while growing hungry and sick. Taking those feelings to her bat was the best remedy, though she preferred if it was the skulls of those who took Derek and Kevin away.
She swung her bat and sent the ball into the darkening sky. It landed in a palm tree, shaking its branches without falling. The two birds didn’t make an effort to help them.
Nikki immediately touched her pointer finger to her nose. Vanna waited for the ball to fall, then flicked his ears and looked at Nikki, his finger quickly raising to his nose.
“You,” she said.
He flattened his pointed ears. “Nikki, I’m not as agile as you.”
“And I’m not as tall as you. Scoot.”
He sighed and jogged for the tree.
Nikki, feeling lonely, followed him to the tree and slouched against the scratchy bark.
“Hey, just so you know,” Vanna said as he climbed, “your parents aren’t out to get you. You really hurt their feelings last night. Your mom was upset. I had to calm her down.”
Nikki dug her shoe into the dirt.
“You can’t hold this against them. Everyone deals with loss differently. You know they love you. And Morgan loves you, and Del loves you. They all care about you. And yes.” He reached for the ball. “I love you, even if you make my life a thousand times harder, so don’t go quiet on me. Don’t leave.” He kept reaching. “I can’t have you leave, too, okay? Promise me.”
She looked up at the wrong moment. The second she gave in to this side of Vanna she didn’t often see, the ball dropped right on her nose, blinding her senses and making her brain think she was being attacked. She swatted at it like a bug. “Ow, Vanna. Warn me next time.”
Vanna was clinging to the tree, pupils slit like a true cat. He was staring over the fence into town.
Nikki, curious, stood on her tiptoes to see what he saw. A couple guards near the embankment, a family of capybaras. “What?”
He squinted. “It’s the robot.”
The robot. That word, or idea, that seemed impossible by every metric. The public knew very little about him. The Líders kept him in arm’s reach as their personal assistant. Those who saw him looked away: They feared being recorded by him.
She spotted the tuft of unnaturally blond hair hiding between two buildings a block away. He was wearing all black, trying to look inconspicuous as an undead boy wearing clothes not meant for warmth.
And he was staring right at them.
He touched his ear, said something Nikki couldn’t pick up, and ran.
“Oh, shoot,” Nikki said, because before she could check in with Vanna or her brain, before she could process how dangerous this was, she took off over the fence.
“Nikki, no!” Vanna called out. “Don’t chase it!”
“He’s connected to the Líders!” she explained. “He might have information about Derek and Kevin!”
She already lost him, but his heavy footfall kept her on the chase. She ducked underneath walkways and bridges, cut through backyards and abandoned plots of land. She ran onto a main road and almost got hit by a trolley. They didn’t go fast, but it took them longer to hit the brakes. Nikki skidded over the hood and got honked at.
“Wait!” she called out to the Marcos Unit. If she had one chance to get answers to her questions, she’d leave it be. She’d go back to school and act like everything about their world was normal. She just needed to know one thing:
Had Kevin confessed to murdering Derek?
If he gave her that answer, even if it was fake or cleverly bypassed to not actually contain the truth, she’d stop fighting, because her family had been through enough. She just needed to hear it from this robot’s mouth, because despite being a terrible liar herself, she could rat out someone’s lie like it was nothing.
She turned the corner too sharply. He’d taken her down a tight alley and over a short bridge.
Nikki’s foot slipped in a puddle. She went to grab a railing or jutting brick, but nothing was available. Her back grated against the brick and she fell a shocking second that lasted too long.
She hadn’t been born a cat or an animal crossbreed with exceptional landing. She was fast and quick on her feet and mind, yet lacked any sort of awareness when it came to consequences. Thinking she could cushion her fall, she landed on her back and saw sky dots.
She rolled to her side. She was spinning, dizzy. Her hands were vibrating. Her knees were burning.
The Marcos Unit jumped onto the bridge railing. He had one boot on the ground as he surveyed the situation like a hawk.
“I’m fine,” Nikki said. She hated when people looked down on her, literally. “Go away, I’m fine.”
The Marcos Unit opened his mouth to speak, then examined her injuries with a keener eye.
He turned something off in his ear and reached out to her. His fingers clicked into place as he held on to a light post to get to her. If Nikki stood up, she would’ve been able to touch him.
His free hand slammed down on his offering one. It appeared like two programs were fighting to gain control of his motor functions. His legs forced himself back. His deviating hand still made an attempt to help her.
“I’m…sorry,” he said, and disappeared, his unsure steps echoing into the city.