The fire escape saved Nikki’s life. Right before falling off of the roof, she grabbed hold of the railing and righted herself only to take in a mouthful of smoke.
Black smoke rolled out the doors and windows of the coffeehouse. The initial blast had left the place intact, but it’d been strong enough to bounce Nikki into midair. Who knew if more were on the way, or what’d caused it in the first place.
Nikki coughed as she heaved herself back through the hallway window. The smoke didn’t smell like a wood fire, it was more mechanical. She rubbed her watering eyes. “Vanna!” she called out.
She bumped into a body. Vanna was halfway out of his bed, clutching his heart and breathing like he’d run the mile at school.
“Vanna.” She held him. “Come on, we need to get to the ground floor.”
“I-I—I—” He held his head and rocked. His fingernails dug into his orange striped hair so hard, he almost drew blood.
“Vanna.” She looked around to find any fire in his room. She took a knee. “Hey—”
She pulled back, blinked. Her hand, reaching out to him, it was different. Lighter, with thick hair on her forearms she wasn’t used to.
She reeled away and rubbed her hands clean. Lí. Her dream. That boy she’d become and the boy she’d met. That blond-haired girl.
She must’ve still been tired. Her dream hadn’t permeated reality. This was just.
Another, different explosion.
Vanna looked up at her with bloodshot eyes.
She grounded herself by breathing in the heavy air. “You’re okay. You’re not hurt, yeah?”
“They’re gonna—Mom and Momma, they’re gonna get found out—they—” He gulped for the air that he couldn’t keep in. “I can’t do this.”
She had no idea what he was talking about. She shook him harsher. “Yes, you can. Look at me. You’re not hurt. You can walk. You wanna find them, yeah?”
“But we’re gonna get in trouble. That explosion was the loudest they’ve had.”
She wrapped a supportive arm around him, and through determined optimism she herself didn’t believe in, she got Vanna into the hall and down the stairs.
She couldn’t breathe. Black smoke was everywhere. Trailing around the tables and into the living room, ballooning on the ceiling and around the lights. It originated from the kitchen.
Del stood in the middle of the room. Thick soot clung to her face and wings. Her face was emotionless given the destruction of her own home.
“Del, what’s going on?” Nikki said.
“The stove? But the entire house shook. It was like—” ‘Maïmoú had attacked the house,’ she thought but stopped herself so she didn’t sound crazy. What kind of name was Maïmoú?
Del started opening windows for the smoke to escape. “Outside. Vanna, go.”
Trained to abide by his mother’s word, Vanna did as told and ran.
“Del, what’s going on?” Nikki asked. “Let me help.”
“We have it under control.” She shoved her out like some stray cat.
But she ran back into the coffeehouse with a fire extinguisher.
The Guard arrived thirty minutes later and tried their hardest to find the source of the smoke. They walked the perimeter, flipped over the basement, and checked the alleys, but they ended up scratching their heads and searching other houses for the cause.
Nikki and Vanna waited on the other side of the street, underneath a flickering light near a tram stop. Vanna was rocking back and forth with his fingers digging into his scalp. He hadn’t blinked in several minutes.
He got like this sometimes when life became too much. When they’d lost Kevin or an altercation at the coffee house sent in the Guard. Uncontrolled variables that could’ve turned deadly made him mute and catatonic, and Nikki understood. People handled stress differently, and all she could do was be there for him when he was ready.
Though right now, she didn’t know if she was in the right mindset to help anyone.
She always knew when she dreamed. Always. Sleeping without locks made her more aware. She had to be ready to flee or fight at a moment’s notice.
But she’d felt Shào’s touch. His tiny hand and birthmark under the eye, she knew it all, and she knew the boy she had turned into, too. She didn’t know him well due to how quick she was in and out of his mind, but she had the basics memorized: His name was Lí, with an accent over the “i.” He liked spending his free time watching wrestling and cooking something called tsuivan. He hated public speaking. He loved a man named Tai. The dream which had taken seconds to create expanded into a blurry life of some “human” who spent his time with…
She didn’t know. Shào didn’t look like any crossbreed she knew, more like a distant cousin of something that once was, a dream-like version.
Casting off their encounter as a dream felt foolish. Even though Nikki couldn’t presently visit them, Lí and Shào had either existed once before or were currently somewhere over the Muralha.
Same with Maïmoú. She rubbed her neck, remembering how that little girl had tried to end her life for just being near Shào.
Forty-five minutes after the explosion, Morgan waved off the Guard with a grinning face charred in black. Her hair was sticking out unevenly around her white ears. She smelled like an evening barbecue.
Upon seeing her, Vanna sighed in relief and ran across the street to hug her. She returned the affection with a fake smile.
“So, what do you say?” one guard asked Morgan. “What happened here?”
“Well, this’s a shop, yeah? Shops burn down all the time.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“And we start brewing early. We’re known for that, you know, not for fires and deadly explosions. We were trying out a new batch of cupcakes, so it shocked us greatly when it exploded right in our faces. Anyway, I think we should get everyone inside now. Del, dear, help bring the little ones inside.”
Nikki carefully, cautiously walked towards Morgan and Del.
The guards took to their earpieces for guidance, but most of them departed the crazed city block, too tired to deal with it. Some loitered behind, keeping watch on the coffeehouse. Morgan grinned at them as she hustled her family inside.
When the door shut, she pointed Del and Vanna to the windows, and the three of them began detangling the shutters.
Nikki hid her hands in her hoodie. “This wasn’t from a stove fire.”
Morgan and Del kept quiet. Vanna refused to look her in the eyes. He moved around the tables and his frozen parents, then disappeared upstairs, his scarf covering his mouth.
“So, what was it from?” Nikki asked.
Morgan gave her a fake smile and wiped away the bad air. “I think it’s time everyone went to bed. We’ve had a long day and it’s time for—”
Nikki started for the kitchen. Morgan placed a hand on her. “Time for bed,” she told Nikki.
Nikki shoved her off and eyed the aunts she thought she knew well enough to trust. She’d been trying so hard with these people. It’d been easy with Shào. For an anxiety-ridden moment, she wished Shào was here instead of her family.
“Upstairs. Now,” Morgan said, and barred Nikki from continuing her investigations.
Glaring them down, Nikki forwent fighting these two women and stormed into the living room. She skipped working through whatever Vanna wasn’t telling her, and she didn’t want to actually push him away because of Morgan’s and Del’s quiet demeanors. She’d deal with all of that later. Ignoring all of them, Nikki left them to their own devices and slept on the sofa for the night.
Back before her world imploded, back when her family was still together, she, Derek, Kevin, and Vanna would all sleep in the same bedroom. Tangled up in each other’s arms and legs and wings and tails, falling off the bed and finding comfort on the floor. Drinks would be involved, usually supplied by Derek, and everyone but Nikki would wake up drunk and groggy, eager for a free breakfast at Morgan’s.
When Nikki awoke that morning, she was alone, and those memories flooded her mind. She smelled the bubbling scent of cooked bacon and coffee brewing. She must’ve been totally out of it. The coffeehouse had just opened for business.
She checked the clock ticking above the radio, then arched her neck around the sofa. Mornings were always busy at Morgan’s. She needed every family member in attendance. The little bell above the front door jingled nonstop.
Caving with a growling stomach, Nikki fixed her bedhead the best she could and faced the world.
Morgan’s Delicate Sweets and Drinks was filled to burst with hungry patrons. Older couples shared baskets of cookies with one another. Students chatted with their friends over coffee. Two cats made jokes as they waited for their orders to be placed, sipping on a shared milkshake. Morgan was working the cash register and Del served tables while someone—Vanna, maybe, or her parents—worked in the kitchen that’d been mysteriously fixed.
Nikki inched out slowly, watching her family act like nothing was wrong. Not only pretending like Derek and Kevin weren’t gone, but like she hadn’t fallen off the roof. Like their workplace and family store hadn’t almost exploded. It had exploded, just with no fire that she could see.
She looked into the back. Maybe she should’ve helped with the morning rush. Don on an apron and aid in the family business. Kevin sometimes picked up shifts during the busy season. Even Derek had closed once or twice. They were good at it, they were people-pleasers. Nikki wasn’t. Nikki hadn’t been born with the innate understanding of people, though she tried so hard.
They all had trouble expressing love, but Nikki should’ve known better when she’d lashed out at Vanna. She should’ve been better, acting as the sister who kept the family together.
She ducked into a booth close to the windows and people-watched. Her parents weren’t working. Del was the only waiter, tucking in her wings between the tables. She saw the orange head of Vanna run about through the kitchen window, but not her parents. It didn’t feel right, knowing how busy they were.
The door bell chimed. A guard came in. She was a poodle, with curly, strawberry blond hair that made her look young. She looked new—right out of the Academy—but proudly walked into an establishment that would discriminate against her. There was no law forbidding her from doing so, but everyone knew Morgan’s hatred of the Guard.
Nikki doubletook her. Her nose, freckled and small, had been recently broken.
She gasped. She was the one Derek had kicked a rock at, the day they’d disappeared.
Vanna, who was coming out to deliver an order, caught sight of her from across the coffeehouse. His mouth dropped open as he went to say something to her.
The girl beamed and waved at him.
Blushing a deep, noticeable red, Vanna shuffled his menus in order and dropped one on his shoe. Embarrassed, he took off into the kitchen. This caused the girl to lower her hand, ears and tail down.
Nikki gawked at her cousin. Since when did he get embarrassed by kids their age? Did he know her? It seemed that way. If a normal girl or boy ever looked at him that way, he would’ve scoffed at them. It helped keep down his true feelings about being alone, which Nikki knew upset him.
She kept her eyes on the girl. He was so out of her league, it was embarrassing.
Morgan, after finishing taking an order, double-took the guard standing daftly in her bakery and stormed over to her. Nikki tensed, ready to break up a fight.
Taking her by the tie, Morgan dragged the girl down to eye level and whispered something into her ear. Nikki strained to read their lips.
The girl shot up and shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “Well, uh, not really. It’s kinda all fallen to shit.”
“I have a limited time for vagueness, Pippa,” Morgan said. “Do we need to go outside?”
“No. I’m just saying that everything’s okay. He got put down to W4 for the time being. Did you hear about the Líder?”
“Of course I did, I heard about it the hour it happened. So he’s good?”
Catching the attention of a nosy table, Morgan dragged the guard back to the door. “Can’t you read the atmosphere of my dear bakery?” she said for all to hear. “I’ll have to ask you to take your business elsewhere!”
“And stay out!” She pushed her out of the door and let it close with the softest of bell jingles.
Nikki watched Morgan stare the girl down until she crossed the road, then sighed and ran back into the kitchens to continue on with the day.
Something in Nikki’s stomach churned. Dubious talk. Secrets and hiding. She hated when they acted this way, and when their hatred for a breed permeated through their kindness. It was difficult, calling out a family member for actions that hurt you. If she did say something, she imagined the entire family coming apart or worse, her being thrown out. It was a stretch, but it was something that always lingered in her mind, her being unwanted.
Vanna crossed the serving hatch again. His ears were pulled back as he looked between the back door near the fridges and Morgan still at the register. Deciding something in his head, he slyly took off his apron, hung it up, and disappeared outside by the dumpsters.
Nikki, giving it a beat of thought, slipped out the front door just as quickly and rounded the coffeehouse on tiptoes.
It was drizzling, enhancing that putrid smell of the dumpsters. Puddles became land mines as she avoided stepping in them. For what, and whom, she didn’t know. With all this secret-keeping, she didn’t know what to expect.
“You could’ve called.”
Nikki stopped creeping, breathing. She hid behind the dumpster right outside the back steps. The kitchen door slowly closed so it wouldn’t make a sound.
“I don’t want one of your moms to pick up,” said that guard, Pippa. “They don’t want me calling, anyway. They don’t want my calls traced.”
She could hear Vanna roll his eyes at that, and he walked down the steps to meet in this secret rendezvous.
Nikki dared a peek.
Pippa was standing on the ground, Vanna on the steps. From her lower height, she smiled and booped his nose. “Your family’s so serious. It’s cute.”
Vanna turned away but didn’t push her back.
“Hey.” She waited until he looked back at her. “You okay? You didn’t sound good on the phone last night.”
Vanna held himself. “I still can’t believe what Nikki said to me. She said I didn’t love Derek and Kev as much as she did.”
Nikki grimaced. Had she really been so direct on something she knew wasn’t true?
“I’m sorry,” Pippa said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it. She must be dealing with a lot right now. I can’t imagine her not knowing what happened.”
“He’s okay, right?” Vanna asked.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s all good. They put him on sedatives and he’s been asleep for a few days, but he’s good.” Pippa got up closer to him. She touched the top of his hand, his wrist. She caressed his hurt skin fondly. “You good?”
He shook his head. “I did it again last night. I couldn’t stop myself.” His hand met hers. “I wish you could’ve been there. You always make it easier to sleep.”
“I wish I was always there.” Smiling affectionately at him, Pippa walked up to Vanna still on the steps and wrapped her arms around him for a warm embrace.
And Vanna, shyly, reciprocated it, sighing into her warmth and melting into her touch.
Nikki’s face went hot with second-hand embarrassment. This was not what she’d been expecting. She shouldn’t have been peeping on this conversation, this moment hidden from Vanna’s parents. What kind of relationship was this, and what were they alluding to? Him? Sedatives? The Líders? Her mind wandered down dark paths.
“You’re doing so well,” Pippa whispered, petting him between his ears. “You’re dealing with so much, and I’m so proud of you for sticking through it, no matter what.”
Vanna’s tint tuft of tail began wagging.
Pippa caught this and giggled. “Aw, are you excited?”
“I’m not,” Vanna so clearly lied.
“Oh, you’re not?” Pippa pulled back and leaned her face towards his. It took a second for Nikki to realize that Pippa had her lips on Vanna’s cheek. She was kissing him.
Since when on Earth did Vanna make the time to kiss someone, and how had Nikki been so oblivious that this’d all gone under her radar? How long did someone have to know somebody in order to kiss them so brazenly, and in public? That was only for serious relationships, right?
Vanna closed his eyes, only opening them when Pippa pulled back. Their hands were on each other’s petting one another to make the moment last.
Pippa booped her nose with his. “I love you,” she said, quiet as night.
His response, just as quiet, washed away with the rain.
Nikki wasn’t unfamiliar with hiding in a dumpster.
Her foot sunk into something moldy. Around her, rotten eggs and warm milk mixed with the rain tapping against the top of the dumpster. The coffeehouse had closed ten minutes ago, and she’d been waiting around this smelling garbage can for hours.
She’d spied on Vanna’s and Pippa’s conversation until they separated with a kiss and went back to their separate lives, Vanna back to work, Pippa off doing whatever Guard task she was neglecting in favor of this date.
Nikki still couldn’t wrap her head around it. Vanna was her best friend and cousin, how could he not tell her that he had a secret lover? Surely he couldn’t have told his parents, otherwise they would’ve forbidden him from speaking with her. But they seemed so close.
And their conversations had been so cryptic. Who had they been talking about, and what was so important about the Líder that Morgan would’ve known the hour it happened?
She racked her brain for clues as she hid in the smelliest place imaginable. Derek and Kevin? No, that would’ve been too cruel. The person they’d been talking about was in present tense.
Someone opened the kitchen door.
“I just don’t understand why she isn’t picking up,” her mother said.
Nikki sucked in her lips, turning off her brain.
Her mother opened the other dumpster in the alleyway and took out the trash. “Do you think she’s mad at us?”
“Likely,” her father said from the kitchen. “I would be. She’s smarter than us, Isyra. She’s smart enough to pick up hints we’ve been hiding from her.”
Nikki’s ears were flicking every which way. Had her parents picked up a late-night shift? She hadn’t heard them come in.
“Vanna said that the explosion nearly knocked her off the roof. I wanted to make sure she was okay, but I haven’t heard from her in hours. Morg said she was in the living room for a minute.”
“She must’ve darted off.”
Her mother sighed. “That explosion really got ahead of Morg. She’s all frazzled. You don’t see that happen. Back in school, maybe.”
“When she didn’t know what the fuck she was doing.”
Nikki’s ear flicked. She didn’t often hear her father swear.
“You think she’s okay?” her mother asked.
Her father went back inside. “Are any of us?”
Nikki’s heart was pounding so hard, she wondered if her parents had heard it. After ten minutes of silence, Nikki, steadying her breathing, crawled out of hiding, snuck up the concrete steps, and pressed her ear against the kitchen door. Machinery whirled into the night: a dishwasher, a coffee machine, but no voices.
She unlocked the door with her spare key and slipped inside.
In the kitchen, she found stoves, refrigerators, storage cabinets above and below her, and large sinks. Nothing about faulty appliances, and no fire damage other than the ceiling being charred a crispy black. Being that an explosion had almost knocked her off the roof, the kitchen looked too spotless. It had a certain non-biological smell to it, something less conventional than coffee beans and sugar. With her sensitive nose, she found salt shakers, flour, rusted pans, but nothing to raise suspicion.
She closed the fridge and backed into a kitchen rug.
The floor feeling changed from tile to cement. Particularly snoopy, Nikki flipped up the padding to reveal a block of concrete recessed into the floor. Someone had carved a handle into the block and drilled two hinges on the opposite side: a secret basement door.
Unsettled, Nikki bent down and lifted the hatch. The door weighed more than her punching bag at home, but she followed through with the motion. It jumped her tail when it crashed down on the other side.
Cold air huffed at her like an opened freezer. A metal ladder extended into darkness. Even with her enhanced eyesight, she couldn’t see the bottom.
Her aunts, she wouldn’t have put it past them to keep secrets from her.
Vanna, it made sense, given their tumultuous relationship.
Her parents, the ones who’d stolen her from the streets and provided for her, that stung more than any wound she could give herself.
“Fuck all of you for whatever I find down here,” she whispered to herself, and started her descent into the earth.
A whole half-minute passed. Her ears popped. The moonlight from above died out like a flame. The ladder turned cold in her hands.
When she hit the floor, she flipped on a dusty light switch and discovered her family’s secret.
Their secret of storage shelves, dusty brooms, and expired bagels. It was a ten-by-ten storage basement of harmless food supplies and utensils—they didn’t even have butter knives down here.
Nikki opened cardboard boxes to folded napkins and cans of coffee. She heaved shelves around and found nothing but rat droppings and cracks in the cement walls from water damage. And dirt. Thick, dark dirt that looked recently scrubbed.
Nikki knelt down and wiped a line of the dirt someone hadn’t cleaned properly. She brought it back and sniffed it, and choked. It was the soot that colored the upstairs kitchen. Someone had missed cleaning it.
She yelped. A sharp, intense pain buried into the back of Nikki’s knee. She immediately swatted it, fearing it to be a spider, but her leg buckled as if someone had bitten her from behind.
A small dart clattered to the floor. Mysterious, clear liquid dripped from the tip.
Her legs gave out, numbing from a quick-working sedative. She fought against it, but it worked into her brain like a scurrying bug in need to lay eggs. Her mouth felt stuffed with cotton balls. She couldn’t keep her eyes open.
She caught sight of a thin line in the wall she’d mistaken for a tension crack. It parted, opening like two sliding doors to the Asilo buildings.
Using her remaining strength, Nikki grasped for the ladder rung.
Her drugged hand slipped away along with her consciousness.