Somewhere in the world the sun is shining magnificently amid blue, cloudless skies as birds chirp morning lullabies and downstairs a loving mother is preparing her daughter’s breakfast.
But not here.
Here the the sun is bleak, the sky is gray, and the birds are dead. For motherless Saff, who is still desperately clinging to her last shards of sleep, it would be a typical morning if she wasn’t being prematurely roused from her slumber by the glorious racket of frantic yelling and slamming doors.
“Where the hell is she?”
“What’s going on?”
“Rose is missing!”
“Missing? What do you mean she’s missing? Shit!”
“Where’s Saff? Somebody find Saff…”
I’m dead, she mutters to herself, pulling the bed sheets over her face in hopes that they’ll pass as an invisibility cloak. She flips over to her other shoulder to face the wall and groans. The bed isn’t comfortable at all. She hasn’t had a full night’s rest all week and this, this isn’t help—
The door opens and the room is suddenly flooded with light. Great.
“If you touch me,” Saff warns icily, “I will punch you in the face and then step over you to take my morning piss. Don’t test me. I am not getting out of this bed until my alarm goes off and I’ve hit the snooze button at least three times. So do me a favor, and get out.”
“Saff, we’ve got a problem.” It’s Luvine. “Rose is missing.”
“Yeah. I heard. Are you sure she’s actually missing, though? Not just playing hide and seek? Or taking a Dungeon break downstairs?” After all, the Dungeon, the unofficial name for the ‘quiet room’ of the building, is the best place to be if you’re not trying to be found.
“We checked everything already. She’s not in the building. Besides, her room is completely clear. All her stuff is gone.”
“Wow, seriously?” Saff can’t help but be impressed. “Huh. I didn’t think she’d ever have the guts. I can’t believe you guys are actually surprised, though. I thought it was obvious that she wasn’t cut out for this.”
“Well, we still have to find her!” Luvine snaps, annoyed. She’s not very fond of being disrespected.
Saff rolls her eyes and sighs dramatically. “It can wait, Luv. I promise, it’ll be fine. But please, just let me—”
The alarm clock sirens.
“NO! I am not ready to start my day!” she screams, throwing the pillow over her head.
“Saff?”It’s a new voice now, from the doorway, masculine but gentle, and almost fearful. She recognizes it immediately, and the rage melts. “Scarlet just called together an emergency meeting. We’re all waiting for you in the Commons.”
Of course they are. In a situation like this, nothing is going to get settled without every member present. “Fine!” she says, exasperated. She’s out of time to stall the commencement of her day. “I’m up, Terrence. I’m up. I’ll be down in eight minutes, okay? Are you people happy now?”
“Thanks,” Terrence says. She can hear his footsteps retreating down the hall. She almost feels bad for being short with him, but she’s sure he won’t take it personally. By now, nearly everyone has adapted to the fact that she’s a bitch in the morning.
And the afternoon. And the evening.
“For the record, Luvine, I can feel you glaring at me. Seriously, your eyes are like lasers and I’m breaking a sweat right now.”
“If I leave you’ll just go back to sleep,” she says.
“Maybe. But if you stay, that means when I roll over, your face will be the first thing I see for the day. Now, I’m not superstitious, but waking up to an angry black woman? I’m pretty sure that’s bad luck and a telltale sign of a shitty day in the making. I’d like to avoid that. Also, I’m kind of…well, naked.”
“You sleep nude?” There it is; she can hear the smirk in Luvine’s voice. No one can ever keep up the Big Bad Wolf front around her for long.
“Very,” she says, laughing. “Now please, a little privacy? If I’m not out in six minutes you have permission to grab me by the hair and drag me to Commons. Fair enough?”
“Fine.” Luvine gets up and walks to the door. “Five minutes or six?”
“Six. I don’t like odd numbers.”
“Alright. I’m up way before my prime, and Rosalina supposedly is ‘missing’. Would anyone care to explain to me why I should care about this at all?”
The Commons, in which they are presently gathered, is a wide room with walls the color of green tea (with no milk or sugar added). On the left wall is a trio of windows that offer the onlooker a crystal view of city traffic and buildings yet to be struck by the riots that began after the initial outbreaks. Saff remembers the mania that consumed the public when wind of The Fever first hit major news outlets. It was all anyone could talk about. The medication was meant to ease the hysteria so that people would no longer feel compelled to wear masks on the train or withhold their kids from school. Unfortunately, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Suddenly people were withdrawing from society even more, slinking into dark corners of their unhygienic apartments and refusing meals as their bodies wasted away. Others, judging from the rampant vandalism and belligerent gunshots that ring out on the hour like a grandfather clock, have gone absolutely ballistic.
Yet from where Saff sits perched, cozy in the Squad headquarters with the rest of her suite-mates, the world that was once so urgently hers seems desolate and distant. Architects have been known to brag that the expensive glass of the window she is pressing her face against is so fancy that everything beyond it looks HD, so that even the city trash clogging the gutters and gathering at the curbs seems elegant, like a boutonniere on the lapel of public pandemonium. In a room like this, a conglomerate of pretentious little snobs, each with their own gripes and melodramatic histories, can sit around a furbished mahogany table and talk strategy. So eager, so naively deluded that their actions will “save” a world frankly too far gone for help, they’ve gathered to make plans and cast shame. One of the team had the gall to call it quits? Oh, she snuck off without anyone catching her? What a crime! Saff rolls her eyes as she takes a seat.
We weren’t assembled to fight crime and make the world a better place, Saff thinks bitterly. In fact, if the riots are any indication, the city of Cherrin, now closed off from the rest of the world, is on the brink of a radical Revolution. Looking around the room at the nine gritty faces of her fellow Squad members from her place at the head of the table, Saff feels itchy thinking about the power they’ve been entrusted with. Deep down, part of her envies Rosalina, not for leaving, but for having the luxury to even fathom abandoning the security of their HeadQuarters and returning to a world so hostile even the streets seem insatiable with bloodlust.
Saff hasn’t stepped out to the city in weeks. She knows many people would take a look at her—her warm, sun-kissed skin, her obsidian curls flying from her face like Medusa’s snakes, the olive colored eyes and rebellious body-art—and find a lot of pleasure in yanking out her piercings and cutting each tattoo right off her skin. It’s that sort of world now, and if anyone is desperate or dumb enough to risk it, why condemn that prerogative?
“Rosalina didn’t contribute anything to the group,” declares Ren, who is equally unimpressed with this whole fiasco. Shoving her silky raven hair into a sloppy bun, she adds, “Her leave hasn’t really changed anything.” Saff notices that though the sun isn’t out yet, Ren’s somehow found time to cake on the eyeliner in time for the meeting. She wonders if Ren is really just a raccoon with a human’s body.
“But we needed her powers,” Terrence counters. His velvety voice is as smooth and reasonable as ever. “She was the only one who would’ve been able to figure out exactly when The Clinic would strike!” This is true. For the last two weeks or so, Biv—the man to whom they all more or less owed their souls—had been taking Rosalina a`side to learn how to control her visions and hone in on specific cues in order to gain information vital to the “mission”.
Of course, if you asked Saff, the “mission” is a load of crap.
“Oh please,” Wyatt, who clearly agrees, sneers, his stony face eclipsed by his oversized black hoodie. “That bitch was too busy wiping snot from her nose to figure out anything.” It’s old news that Wyatt’s tolerance for Rosalina is low, what with him constantly using his power to invade her mind and use her own thoughts against her. But for some, this is a sensitive subject, and such talk is blasphemy.
“Guys, please,” Scarlet says warily, flashing Wyatt a chagrined pout. “Don’t talk about her like that. Rosalina was going through a lot.”
“No, she wasn’t,” Saff says, sitting up now. “She wasn’t going through anything different than what the rest of us are going through. She was kinda unstable and pretty damn emotional, but that doesn’t mean she gets a free pass to bail on us.” As much as Saff respects Scarlet, the girl has a tendency to understate the truth. There should be no euphemisms for inadequacy.
Rosalina had undoubtedly been their weakest link. With glass eyes and black hair that hung from her scalp as limply as dead fish, her presence was ghostly. At first they’d tried to sympathize with her; unsolicited visions of a bleak and dismal future were bound to exhaust anybody. But Rosalina’s issues seemed beyond adjusting to her powers, a rite they’d all suffered as well. In those first few weeks, some of them had bonded over hating the after-effects of Biv’s back alley “operation,” a procedure he’d insisted was necessary for reasons he never disclosed. A little discomfort was common, but it was different with Rosalina. She’d been twitchy, standoffish…and unprecedentedly miserable.
Pushing his thick, rectangular glasses further up the bridge of his nose, Ariel, who is seated to Saff’s left, nods in agreement. The plaid button-up he’s wearing seems more like a picnic blanket than a shirt the way it engulfs his scrawny frame. “I couldn’t be in a room alone with her too long,” he confesses, a little sheepishly. “Rose was a little…too sad. Like, she never responded well to my mood alterations and I always felt suicidal after looking into her eyes.” He shudders.
Saff takes Ariel’s testimony as proof of her point. “See?” she says, holding out her palm in the direction of the scrawny little hipster. “Even our little empath couldn’t cheer her up.”
Lloyd, nonchalant as ever, runs a hand through his floppy black hair and shrugs. “Rose is gone. Okay. Now what? We go looking for her?”
“No. We don’t have time to waste looking for a traitor.” The words are even, sharp. Saff can’t help herself grinning at the small but fierce Japenese girl. She loves it when Azul takes the floor.
Scarlet frowns. “How is she a traitor?”
Azul stares at Scarlet like she’s stupid. It never fails; Scarlet really does have a knack for undeservingly giving people the benefit of the doubt. “She made a commitment,” Azul says, blowing her blonde bangs out of her eyes. Each word is deliberate, cold. “Then, she turned her back on that commitment. That girl is a spineless traitor with no sense of honor whatsoever. Was that not obvious? Is the situation unclear?”
“I thought we were all free to leave if we wanted,” Lloyd says calmly. His arms are folded and his squinty black eyes are already glazed with boredom.
“No.” Azul gives him a stern look. “No,” she says. “You are not.”
“We need to find her,” Garman suddenly declares. Saff smiles at him sweetly. This is classic Garman—always overstepping the mark, under the impression that he holds more authority than he actually does. She’s surprised that he’s managed to remain quiet for so long. “We’ll send a lookout team to figure out where she is. We’ll make her tell us what she knows, and then we’ll leave her alone. She’s made her choice to leave, and we should respect that. But we can’t let her selfishness sabotage everything we’ve worked for.”
“Everything we’ve worked for,” Wyatt mocks nastily. “How do you not all realize how full of shit you are?” Eyeing him wearily, Saff can’t help but question how Wyatt ever passed kindergarten.
“Get out.” Azul doesn’t even turn her head to look at him as she gives the order. She isn’t one to tolerate blatant disrespect, and Azul certainly isn’t about to give Wyatt the satisfaction of having his presence acknowledged or his behavior condoned.
“Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” Wyatt slams his fist on the table indignantly. Saff imagines if, growing up, he ever brought report cards home to Mommy plastered with comments like, Doesn’t get along with others and Doesn’t work well in teams.
“Guys, please, watch the language—”
Maybe he was a glue sniffer.
Ren rolls her eyes at Scarlet’s attempts to restore the peace. “Shut up, Scar. Little Miss Blue can handle herself, can’t she?”
Azul flashes a smile at Ren and then turns to Wyatt, her face now expressionless. “I know how to kill a man with my bare hands,” she says simply, each word carrying equal weight. “I learned a thing or two on the street; I can gladly demonstrate. You don’t take us seriously, fine. Leave. Get out. You won’t be missed.”
Everyone watches silently as Wyatt rises, and stalks towards the door. Ariel in particular looks downright scared shitless. Saff is sure the tension is like a knife in his chest, the emotions of everyone in the room bouncing off of him violently. Poor little hipster. And then suddenly, a wave of tranquility sweeps through like a breeze. She shoots Ariel a quick look of approval, and then turns her attention back to Wyatt. His baggy jeans appear ready to slide off his hips, the hoodie barely covering his boxers. He seems to be staring at her as he makes his exit, his face no longer shadowed so that Saff is able to make out the angular lining of his jaw and his sunken blue irises, abysmal and menacing in a way that’s almost…sexy? No. Saff mentally chides herself for even having the thought.
Wyatt’s glare is different from Luvine’s, she notes. His eyes generate lasers as cold as ice. He doesn’t close the door behind him, either. Of course not; he isn’t dramatic enough to bother with something as childish as slamming a door to make a point. Wyatt’s obnoxious, but in little ways he’s not as juvenile as he makes himself out to be.
There is silence for a while.
Finally, Luvine clears her throat and narrows her eyes at everybody now, immediately back to business. “So what’s the verdict? Look for Rose, yes or no?”
“We should look for her,” Garman reiterates, trying to make his opinion sound more official the second time around.
“Where would we start?” says Luvine, deciding to humor his suggestion.
Garman blinks in surprise. He was expecting more opposition, so he isn’t ready with an answer. He looks unsure.
“We should tell Biv,” Terrence blurts out suddenly. Saff rolls her eyes. Terrence is a sweetheart, but he doesn’t have a rebellious bone in his body. He justs wants Biv to take direction of the situation, smack a couple people around and disappear again. She studies his mocha skin, his chiseled arms. At six feet, he towers over nearly everyone in the room, even sitting down, and yet he’s so…submissive. It’s a little sickening.
Ren leans forward, her chin resting in her hands. “Why would we involve him?” she says. It’s more of a challenge than a question.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” says Terrence, ever-so-ethical.
“Wow. Wyatt would have a ball with that one,” Ren scoffs. End of discussion. She is equally sickened by this response.
“Look. We’re not telling Biv anything,” Scarlet finally pipes up, taking charge. “We’re just going to go about things as usual. Okay? And we’ll go looking for Rose if we come up with any leads on where to find her. It doesn’t make any sense to go wandering aimlessly. The streets are getting more and more dangerous every day.” She turns towards the windows with an expression of malaise.
“Sounds good,” Luvine says, scribbling away on her yellow notepad. She deserves a merit badge for being the Anti-Squad Unofficial Secretary.
There are no objections, although Terrence’s ego looks crushed. Garman’s ego...well, his ego is on life support and he doesn’t know how to let a lost cause go.
“Meeting adjourned then.” Saff stands up. “Anybody else hungry? I’m in the mood for breakfast but I sure as hell won’t be the one making it.”
Terrence sighs. “Pancakes?”
Saff nods. Honestly, she wouldn’t trust anyone else on the Squad but him to prepare her meals.