The whole city was art. It was bold lines, straight and curving. The buildings, disappearing behind hazes of clouds, were smudged ink. The bustling people, all jostling shoulders and coats pulled closed and arrhythmic footsteps, were all pencils drawn against paper, paint against canvas. On the surface, maybe it didn’t look like it, but the Cube was a masterpiece.
I had always thought so, ever since I’d managed to get my fingers around a pencil the right way. Mom always said that as soon as I’d been able to, I was drawing, turning my eyes to the outside and sketching anything I could see. Eventually those scribbly, erratic lines evolved into what my art teachers called sophisticated and unique, something people looked at and could tell right off the bat that it meant something.
My sketchbook, buried somewhere beneath the plethora of pencils, pens, and cosmetics I kept in my purse, nudged my leg as I walked. Where I was—the outer part of the Cube, near its border with the less-fortunate Skirts—the crowds were thinner, as opposed to the Cube’s center, where everyone lucky enough to be there seemed to all cram into one place. A few people passed by: a happy couple taking a leisurely stroll, two parents with their young children in tow, a few black-clad government officials who gave me respectful nods as I passed. Here was the thing about all of them: all of their eyes trailed me for a while, glowed with recognition, then slid to the ground again. A smaller amount even glanced back after passing; I could tell.
I wasn’t what you called famous, really, it was just that I certainly wasn’t just another face in the crowd. I was a member of the Nagai family, after all, and anyone who was anyone knew the name.
Sometimes I was okay with that, and other times it made me want to melt.
I wiped a few beads of sweat from my forehead, checked my phone, and sped up my pace. My brother hated it when I was late. I didn’t want to begin my morning with another one of his lectures on the importance of punctuality.
While the Cube was practically littered with tiny, buzzing cafes who all thought they were the best around, Newman’s was the best and had been for as long as I could remember. There was no replicating the smell of greasy, spicy home cooking that hit you as soon as the bell dinged above your head, or the smiles the chefs gave you as you entered. Not to mention, their coffee was the strongest I’d ever had.
When I got there, my brother had already claimed our booth—far left against the windows, two tables away from the cafe’s back. Both he and the chefs looked up as the door banged shut behind me, forcing out the foggy, dim late fall morning.
“Now, Mila!” called one of the chefs from behind the counter, waving her spatula at me. “How long were you planning to keep your brother waiting?”
I gave a sheepish grin. “Sorry, Ms. Hattie. I didn’t take my bike this time.”
Ms. Hattie raised her eyebrows at me, but I just laughed and slid into the booth seat across from Seth. As I did, he grunted and checked his watch. Not meeting my eyes, he said, “Four minutes.”
“Four minutes?” I repeated. “That’s not as late as I thought.”
“It’s too close to five minutes.”
I paused, wondering if he was serious. Then I remembered that he was Seth, and he was always serious. “Are you going to lecture me again?”
“No point,” Seth said, drumming his fingers across the table. His eyes, the pensive dark brown we both shared, examined the view beyond the window. It wasn’t much of a view at all, really, just some crowded yet luxury townhouses, a dog park, and the Members Building in the distance, a black and menacing spire that could be seen from anywhere in the Society. “You never listen,” he added.
I glanced at the menu, acted like I was honestly considering it, then set it down again. “I do. Sometimes. When you say stuff worth listening to.”
He gave me a look like he was about to give a retort, probably something sarcastic and slightly offensive, if I knew my older brother at all. Yet, he didn’t, just sighed and said, “I didn’t think you’d come. Didn’t you and Tessa have plans for today?”
“Tess is working,” I told him. The waitress swung by, our usuals already in hand. Seth always got a ham, egg and cheese biscuit with a caramel latte to drink, while my sweet tooth had me craving for the pancakes and a cup of steaming black coffee. “The Shifts are especially busy at the moment, so.”
Seth took a tentative bite of his sandwich, complaining that it was hotter than he remembered. He chewed painfully slow, swallowed, then wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Yeah, about that.”
“About what? Her internship?”
“No, not that. The Shifts,” Seth said, and when I raised an eyebrow at him, he tugged his phone from his pocket. After squinting at the screen for a moment, he moved a strand of his golden brown hair out of his eyes and pushed the device across the table. “Have you seen this yet? It’s everywhere.”
He’d pulled up an online article with today’s date on it: November 20th, 2103. The headline was rather underwhelming, too normal for the amount of concern on Seth’s face. It read that the Shifts had taken down the infamous Caleb Hill, a criminal and fraud that had been responsible for several serial robberies and murders over the past year. Sure, the guy had been stirring trouble in the Society for a while, but it was the Shifts’ job to get rid of people like him.
“What’s the big deal?” I asked, returning his phone to him. “So they caught another one. This”—I gestured wildly towards the article again— “happens, like, every day.”
“Except they didn’t catch him, Mila,” Seth elaborated. Something in his gaze hardened, like flaming iron cooled solid, as shadowed and dreary as the ominous fog pressing against the windows. “They killed him. Brutally. People are saying the wolves are getting more and more violent, and they aren’t happy about it.”
“So? He’s a criminal. After all he’d committed, what did they expect the Members to do with him?”
Seth hesitated, letting out a sigh. “I don’t know, but something’s wrong. There’s not a good…energy around here right now.”
“Energy?” I taunted, letting out a dry laugh, which Seth glared at me for. “What are you, psychic?”
“I wouldn’t have called you if I’d known you were going to make fun of me.”
“Well, you should’ve known. You’re a dork, Seth. Of course I’m going to make fun of you.”
He frowned, rolling back his shoulders and taking a theatrically assertive sip from his coffee mug. “I’m feeling attacked at the moment.”
“That’s because I’m attacking you.”
“Shut up and eat your pancakes, woman,” he ordered, and I did as he said, not because he told me to, but because I liked pancakes. As we focused on the meal, conversation ebbed, replaced by the tinny voice of the reporter on the television screen, and the radio singing in the corner. The check for our breakfast had arrived when my best friend, Tessa, called me, my phone buzzing turbulently within my pocket.
I picked up as soon as I saw her name. “Hey, Tessa.”
“You heard, right? You must have heard. I bet Seth told you,” she said, and if it were any other person, the accuracy would have been surprising. But this was Tessa, and for her, analyzing anything, everything, and everyone was an art form.
“Yeah, he just told me, actually,” I answered. Seth was signing the check, yet managing to eye me strangely at the same time. “About Hill…or whatever. Why, you’re worried, too?”
“Worried isn’t the word I’d use. I don’t really worry. It’s just interesting, that’s all—that his death has caused such an upset.”
“What happened, then? You’re the one who works there.”
Tessa made an exasperated noise, a severely hyperbolized sigh. “For the last time, Mila, I work in the lab. I’m not in mission control; I don’t get to see all the action your mom does. You should ask her.”
“She’s not going to tell me anything,” I replied, because she wasn’t. Mom’s job as the head of the Shift Division wasn’t confidential, but she kept it that way anyhow. Whenever Seth or I asked, she’d always say something about it “being too intense,” or, on the flip side, “not important.” In other words, my mother was a walking contradiction of herself. “It’s not a big deal, anyway. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and it won’t be the last.”
“Sure,” Tessa said into the other line, her voice maintaining her usual enthusiasm, “but this time, people have reacted.
“It’s like they’ve all woken up.”