There was a time before Nika's stack of memories was scattered and stained. There must've been a time before; things had been different prior to that year when Sila was away more often than she was home and when the courthouse ceiling came crashing down.
The first Nika heard of it was on a Thursday. She remembered that: it was a Thursday. She was eight and three quarters. Her eyes darted around the room though they should have been shut. Thursday was on the brink of Friday, and the sky was teetering on the edge of black.
She recognized the sound of her mother's footsteps like the sound of her own breath on silence. She jumped from her bed, shivering madly but not minding. The old floorboards of the house groaned in complaint under her tiny feet. She ran through the halls, dragging her blanket behind her. Finally, in front of her, just a few steps away, hunched over herself, her hair falling from where it had been this morning—
"Mom—Momma—" Nika yelled and flung herself at the backs of her mother's legs.
Sila turned and bent down to greet her daughter. A frown tinged her lips. "You shouldn't be up, sweetheart."
"I was waiting for you to get back," Nika explained, playing with one of Sila's diamond earrings with fascination. It was so clear, like how Nika sometimes imagined water would look.
Sila shook her head in frustration and pulled Nika's hand away from her ear. "You know I was meeting with your father. You know sometimes these things will run late. I want you in bed before I get back next time, Niki."
Nika disregarded this. "What were you talking about? You and Father?"
"The same as we always do," Sila said, forcing a smile. "There's a lot to be discussed when people rely on you."
This was a lie. Sila was back even later than usual. She had bags under her eyes and her hair was messy. Her hair was never messy. Nika may have been young, but she still noticed.
A small buzz announced itself from somewhere near, maybe from Sila's left side. Sila jumped a bit and began frantically rummaging through her briefcase to find her phone. Nika stayed clutched onto her mother's chest, hoping against hope for the call to be unimportant enough for Sila not to take it. It was never unimportant, though.
Sila finally found her phone and tapped to answer. As she listened through the small chips imbedded in her inner ears, Sila's eyes unfocused. She stood and turned, giving Nika an absentminded pat on the head before disappearing down the hallway.
Nika went back to her room, her blanket wrapped tightly around her. When she got back to her bed, she tried to sleep, but couldn't. How could she, with her mother's whisper shattering the walls? Sila was angry again, angry with her father. Nika felt it echoing off the high ceilings, off the halls, off the mirrors on the walls.
That night was the first night Nika heard about the trial. She didn't really know what it was yet—of course she didn't—but she knew it was something.
Over the next few weeks, something grew into everything.
They were in trouble, Nika's family. People were mad at them for something they had done. Nika didn't know what, though it seemed to worry Sila deeply. One night, when Sila was home, Nika heard her crying for the first time. She went to see her mother—some silly instinct made her do it—but was told to go and mind her own business. Nika didn't have much business of her own, of course, but she learned a lesson that day. S he learned that day that emotion was a personal matter and should not be disturbed. Emotion was a lesser function of their genetics, a rather shameful business.
The months passed. Nika learned more about the trouble, or at least, what it necessitated. The trouble was of a very specific sort. To resolve it, her parents had to partake in formal argument in a formal setting. The date of this argument grew closer.
Nika learned how to cook for herself. It was a very simple process, really, by which the inedible was transformed into the edible. Something about this metamorphosis (and her personal ability to elicit it) was fascinating to Nika. She began cooking for herself nearly nonstop. It became her occupation. And it wasn't like Sila would cook for her anymore, not now with the trouble. Nika had to be self sufficient.
The day of the argument came. Nika waited at home.
She was in the kitchen making a pie, rushing around with her bowls and boxes of things, standing on her tippy toes to reach the cabinets, the tie on her too-big apron coming loose. The pie would be to celebrate her mother's victory in the argument, she had decided.
She was still in the kitchen when the ambulance came.
Nika dropped her whisk and ran to the door. The blaring sound of the ambulance sirens made it hard to think. She stumbled out into the daylight. A slew of men in white escorted a stretcher through the gates and the yard. They pushed over Nika without barely noticing her. After all, what adult would notice a little girl in a white apron, just another little statue in the yard? She did not matter.
The men in white stayed for an hour. Nika fled to her room and remained there, shaking on her bed. What had happened in the argument? Had her family won? Then why were there still ambulances screaming outside her window? None of that was important, though. There was only one real question, pulsing with her heartbeat, begging the men in white to leave so she could get up from her bed and go to see... Was her mother alright?
At last the sound of urgent voices outside died down and she poked her nose into the halls. No one. She ventured to the kitchen. It was exactly the same as she'd left it.
"Momma?" Nika called. Her voice echoed in the silence. After a moment, it was met by soft footsteps and a reply.
"I'm coming, Nika."
Sila came into the kitchen and Nika let out a breath she didn't know she was holding in. Sila looked fine. There was a bandage on her left arm but she looked fine. The attention from the men in white must have been a trivial matter.
"Did you make pie?" Sila asked, noticing the mess on the counters.
Nika nodded. Sila smiled and hoisted her daughter up to hold her on her hip. Nika was still small enough for that, if only barely. She liked it.
"Why was there an ambulance, Momma?" Nika asked.
Sila stuck a fork in the pie and pulled out a bite. It was a pumpkin pie, Sila's favorite. "There was a bit of a... problem at the courthouse. That's where your father and I went to make our argument." Sila popped the bite in her mouth and chewed. She closed her eyes and swallowed. "It was the ceiling," she concluded.
"What do you mean, it was the ceiling?"
"There was... an accident. People were hurt," Sila said, her voice a little rough.
"Is that why the ambulance was here?"
Nika examined her mother's bandage. "Because you were hurt?"
"Only a little."
"How many other people were hurt?"
Sila shook her head and repositioned Nika on her hip. "You ask so many questions."
"Did the other people get ambulances?"
Sila dug the fork back into Nika's pie and cleared her throat. She chewed again and swallowed again. "Your pie is very good," Sila noted. "You've gotten better."
Nika nodded. She still had one more question. "Did you win your argument?"
Sila paused. "Yes, sweetheart. We did."
* * *
It was the ceiling.
It was the ceiling. The courthouse ceiling. It came crashing down.
They were screaming—Nika was screaming. Nika was there this time. And the ambulance sirens were growing closer, but not fast enough. And the ambulance sirens were growing closer, but they weren't for her.
The King and the Queen escaped, just as they always did. They left blood in their tracks.
The courthouse was rubble. Nika was standing in front of it. She inhaled some of the dust and began coughing. The ground opened up beneath her. She fell.
Nika was in her kitchen. She was baking a pie except she didn't have any water. Whenever she stood on her tiptoes to turn the tap on, it spit dust in her face and she began coughing again. Whenever she coughed, the floor cracked and folded a little under her feet, until finally it gave way again.
This time, she fell into reality. She fell with the rubble. The rubble.
They were screaming—Nika was screaming.
Nika screamed until the air... it flowed back into her lungs and her eyes opened to the daylight in her bedroom. It seemed as if she could never sleep in peace anymore.
* * *
A lot of people must have died in that courtroom because a lot of memorials were held at the palace over the next few months.
The memorials were a matter of some dispute between Nika's parents. Nika deducted this through various snippets of argument, making it a hazy thesis. Her father was against wasting money on "decorated despair of the inevitable," while her mother seemed to think it was "only humane to do so." After hearing this particular phrase of her mother's, Nika had to pull out her tablet to look up what "humane" meant. The definition was puzzling.
"Having or showing compassion," it said, at which point Nika was forced to look up "compassion." That definition included yet more unknowns, such as "sympathy" and "pity." Eventually, Nika gave up on the whole thing.
Days dragged into weeks until the memorials were nearly over.
"This is the last one, the last one," Sila muttered. She was drifting around the kitchen her black memorial pantsuit, looking for something but nothing in particular.
"Want a muffin, Momma?" Nika asked from where she sat at the kitchen bar, observing her mother.
Sila's response was delayed. "Oh, sure, sure."
Nika reached over the bar to hand Sila the muffin. Sila took it and chewed slowly. "This is the last one," she whispered through the muffin in her mouth.
Nika stared at the cup of tea in her hands. She liked tea. It made the opaqueness of the water in her drink feel a little more natural. It also made her hands warm. Nika seemed to be the only one with these opinions, though. Sila prefered coffee.
"When are you going to be back?" Nika asked, still clutching her tea.
"I'm not sure. Late, probably. But don't you worry, this is the last one," Sila noted, more to herself then Nika. Then she said, out of nowhere, "I knew her. Did you know that, Nika?"
"The girl whose memorial is today. I knew her a little. Outside of just the trial, I mean."
Nika looked up, her attention sharpened. It was the first time Sila had referenced the argument as what it really was: a trial. But it wasn't just that. There was also a hint of something in her voice, something that Nika didn't have a name for. Like maybe Sila really wished this girl's life hadn't been lost.
"Can I come with you?"
"Because you knew her, the girl. I want to come," Nika decided.
Sila took her time chewing her muffin. When she was done, she nodded. "Alright. Go put on something black."
* * *
The service was nice. A few people stood and talked, their echoey voices amplified by speakers around the hall. Nika got bored towards the middle and started taking a greater interest in the carvings on the walls than the people talking.
It was a fantastic hall. She judged that it could have held three or four times as many people in its pews than it did now. As it was, everyone was scattered. You would've thought the whole arrangement was planned out, the way each person had a seven foot radius around them before their closest neighbors. Nika and Sila were the only ones sitting close, with Nika's father one pew in front of them and her brother two pews back. To their right was an elderly woman with glass panels perched on either side of her nose. They were glasses, Nika decided, the things they used to have before contacts and before the surgery.
Nika scanned the rest of the room. There was a boy only a bit older than her sitting behind them. She only got a quick glimpse of him because it felt rude to stay turned around backwards like that for too long, but Nika could tell from only the one glimpse how sad he looked, like his tears had run out. She may have been imagining it, but his blonde hair and big eyes reminded her a little of the image of the woman projected on the front of the hall. Maybe, she thought, he was her son.
Her father stood up from his seat near the end of the service. Nika thought this was odd, but maybe it was the kind of thing that happened at memorials.
Once all the speeches were done, everyone stood and shuffled out of the hall into a smaller room that smelled like must and old cheese. There were little refreshment tables at the corners of the room with crackers and olives and breads. There was no drink. Drink was an unsightly thing. It didn't have a place in a formal setting like this. Still, Nika was thirsty. She pushed her way through the crowd of wandering, black-clad figures and came out in a tight-ceilinged hallway. Portraits of her father posed next to fruit and flowers watched her from the walls. She ventured down the hall and around a few corners. If only she could find the kitchen. There would be something to drink there. Nika turned another left.
A small cry came from down the hall. Then another. It was coming from a small alcove in the wall to the right, about twenty feet away, the kind of place where a cleaning cart would be kept.
"Hello?" Nika whispered. The crying stopped. "Is anyone there?" She took a step forward.
It was the boy who had sat behind her at the memorial. He was leaning against the wall, his head tilted back, looking up at the ceiling. "Please don't tell anyone you found me here." His voice was light and shaky.
"I won't," Nika promised. She stood there for a moment, staring at her feet. "I was just out here looking for some drink. They don't have any in the reception."
"Of course they don't." He laughed.
He tilted his head down to look at her. "You look really thirsty. We should go get a drink. I know where some good water is."
"Okay." Nika took his lead and followed him through the corridors. Eventually they found their way out of the palace, into the gardens, and out the gates into the gray light of the city.
The fumes of life hung in the air, blurring Nika's vision. She inhaled and coughed. When she looked back up, the boy had a strange look on his face. He was staring across the street. It took Nika a moment to find what he was looking at. They were down an alley, cuffing a woman in tattered clothes. She was probably twenty or twenty five. She was screaming at them. A lump was coming up in Nika's throat and she didn't know why.
"Come on," he said and they hurried up the street.
The city made Nika feel small. The looming skyscrapers, their windows tinted dark, dwarfed her. The buzz of people rushing from one place to another, colliding and yelling at one another, reminded her of the truth: she was young, she was insignificant, and she was alone. Or nearly alone.
They began to ascend a hill and gradually the people thinned out. They walked up and up in silence.
The buildings grew shorter and more sparse. The top of the hill plateaued out into a small square surrounded by colorful craft shops. This kind of store was rare, but Nika had still seen them once or twice. She liked them. They felt like a time when screaming women weren't pulled off the streets and when courthouse ceilings were more stable.
In the very center of the square was a fountain, rushing, flowing with as nice a light grey water as Nika had ever seen. She smiled and ran over to sit by it. She had to jump a little to get herself up on the rim, and even then her feet didn't quite touch the ground. She picked up some water with her hands and drank it. It tasted bland, but at least it wasn't rotten.
The boy came and sat by her while she drank. After she was full, she looked up to him. He was staring out over the city—there was a beautiful view from up here. His eyes were red and watery like they had been earlier.
"Was it your mom? The girl who they were holding the memorial for?"
"My momma knew her," Nika noted. She hadn't meant to say it. It came out on an instinct. She added, "I'm sorry."
The city was moving in front of them, bustling and carrying about its life. It didn't know that they were sitting up here, watching it.
"It's alright," the boy said. "It helps to come up here I think. My mom always used to say that being outside was good for you."
Nika swished her finger through the fountain, watching the ebbs and flows of the water as its current collided into hers. "Look, I made a little whirlpool," she said, giggling.
He looked and smiled. He stuck his finger in too and they made whirlpools together while the sun got lower on the horizon.