Chapter 1: Motley Crew
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Inside a small suburban home in upstate New York...
“You’re crazy! Get away from me,” the terrorized 18-year-old Tina shrieked with widened brown eyes. The slender 5′6″ woman shook her head in denial, her black curls dusting her shoulders in the process. As she hid behind her living room’s big, cozy couch, fear swam through her veins, flushed her healthy, pecan brown skin of its color.
“Idiot Woman, it’s only a worm.” In his outstretched white hand, the amber-eyed Brandon, Tina’s cause of distress, dangled a slimy arthropod wiggling for dear life. From behind his dark brown bed hair, the ghostly 20-year-old flashed his signature look, a shiny toothed smirk revealing a single pointed canine tooth and deep twin dimples.
“Brandon, I’m not joking! Stop!” Tina howled in disgust as she tried to force her body to meld with the blessing of smooth leather.
The creeping male ignored his target’s pleas. With writhing creature in tow, he continued his trek.
“I said STOP!”
With the teen’s command, her tormentor immediately halted his actions. Brandon stood completely still as if placed on pause, stuck in an awkward position that couldn’t have been comfortable. The irritated Tina eyed the treacherous hand.
“Jesus! You’re fucking ridiculous,” Tina grumbled with puffed cheeks. “Now walk away, toss that disgusting thing outside, and remain silent,” she ordered.
With a look of agitation, the older in the pair unwillingly, and almost mechanically, did as he was told. He opened the sliding glass door that connected the living room and back patio.
When Tina saw the 6′2″ male toss the wriggling animal a good way off with those lengthy appendages he calls fingers, she found that she could breathe again. Her arms crossed in annoyance and her eyes drifted to her new home’s favorite spot of plush carpeting.
As she got up, Tina took notice of her friend, Roscoe, and his poor attempt at stifling an amused, gravelly-voiced chuckle. As she took up a half prone position, supported her upper body with her forearms atop a decorative pillow, she glared. “Don’t you dare start. Everyone knows how I feel about bugs.”
From his spot on the couch’s matching recliner, Roscoe sat snuggled with his lover, his Ashley.
The couple’s constant hanging over each other is nearly insufferable. Even at a time like this, with plenty of places to sit, Ashley curled in her beloved’s lap like a common house cat.
With a playful pout and squint of his storm-like gray eyes, Roscoe just couldn’t help himself, “T, you just met the man two weeks ago and have barely spoken to him since. How would he know that you despise bugs? Not to mention, worms are not bugs.”
Tina glared at her friend.
“What?” he inquired in his rough Brooklyn accent. “I find it difficult to hide the fact that you amuse me by using your power in such a trivial way, getting Brandon to cease the action of grasping an annelid... I say the following because I care, that is quite pitiful.”
The well-meaning but overly analytical man strained against another chuckle when he saw his friend turn quite red. Unsure whether the change was triggered by anger or embarrassment, Roscoe decided to play it safe. He swiftly composed himself, clearing his throat and rubbing the straight, sandy brown hairs at his nape.
Upon hearing him speak most people quickly identify Roscoe as a know-it-all and in reality, he is such. For example, by the tender age of 10, the modern-day genius gained fluency in Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese. By his twelfth year of life, he had become proficient in both Italian and German, and by his thirteenth, he had begun grasping Russian.
Having obtained five college degrees by the age of 16 is what put the now 20-year-old literature nut on the map. He’s been identified as someone of great merit, has drawn attention from a variety of scholars and notable organizations who’ve gifted him a smorgasbord of academic achievement awards. At 17, due to his literary contributions, Roscoe was even approached as a potential laureate for a Nobel Prize.
Rubbing her temples in frustration, Tina huffed. “Firstly, don’t be a traitor. You’re my bestie, remember? I’m the one that’s known you for years, not him. Second, you-”
“Secondly,” the high IQ man corrected as he habitually cracked his neck, made the blue-tinted veins beneath his fair ivory skin visible.
Another sound of exasperation. “You’re so lucky I like you,” Tina grumbled and stared the big man down. “Listen, I had to use it. You saw. He doesn’t listen. You swore I was joking. ‘T, stop making your consociation with Brandon more negative than it is in reality. A Guardian refusing their Protected’s direct wishes is unheard of.’ blah, blah, blah. I had to do a goddamn internet search for what a consociation even was.”
Ashley chuckled. “A plus impression, babe.” The long-limbed female appeared at total peace with her legs fluttering freely, her bottom half spilling over the side of her bulky, boyfriend-shaped perch.
“Disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus,” the 6′4″ gentle giant smiled more with his eyes than his mouth. As smart silver met puzzled chocolate Roscoe explained, “It’s Latin. It means-”
“Pause, as in the dead language?” Tina interjected. Roscoe clarified with a simple head nod. “Why am I not surprised?” She rolled her eyes.
“I have become quite engrossed in the popular classical language. It is the newest of my linguistic intrigues. Anyway, what I said translates to learn as if you’re always going to live; live as if tomorrow you’re going to die."
“Sleep with books under your pillow every night as Ross does and you’ll learn things you never could’ve imagined.” Ashley chuckled.
“Promise?” Tina jested, batting her eyelashes and lacing her fingers together in a praying stance.
“I wish I were joking. He really does that,” Ashley sighed and thumbed the wiry beard before her. “Sometimes I ask myself why I love this nerd.”
Roscoe dipped his head, kissed his girlfriend’s probing fingers before he stared, what Tina had once expressed as googly-eyed, at her pools of lime green. Ashley, Roscoe’s goddess in humanoid form, had bewitching eyes. Her naturally red lashes were a constant tease, especially when they brushed against her seductive bangs. Placing another gentle kiss on the back of his girlfriend’s hand, the man mumbled, “Love often doesn’t make sense.”
Ashley is Roscoe’s Guardian.
She’s a tall 21-year-old with a carefully sculpted athletic frame developed over her many years in competitive gymnastics. As a toned beauty with tanned olive skin, all-encompassing freckles, and waist-length hair the color of fire, it is no wonder why Roscoe was instantly love-struck.
“Bleh, get a room! Jeez!” a male voice echoed off the walls, originating from somewhere near the kitchen.
With a soft snort, Ashley continued playing with her Protected. “Going back to the command thing, babe,”—she looked toward Tina—“I know that you know that Ross is right. Doling out commands isn’t cool. Think about it. He hasn’t ever used that skill on me”—she flicked her lover on the button nose that she found adorable—“and we’ve been partners for going on three years now.”
Tina inwardly groused to herself, No duh. If he did, I’m pretty sure that would constitute abuse.
Half strangled words struggled to make their way through an absent-minded yawn, “I hate to admit, but I gotta say it’s the same with me and the derp.” A half-listening and lackadaisical Dee, Guardian to “the derp”, better known as Denzel, informed from her position on the aforementioned brown couch. Staring at the drywall ceiling above her with her hands in a crossed position behind her head and one of her socked feet crossed over its opposite knee, she looked immensely comfortable.
“See, T? Dee, how long have you been paired with Denzel?” the redhead asked.
“Dunno. Just know that he hasn’t used his power over me in years. Pain’s one hell of a teacher.” The Guardian cracked her knuckles and licked her lips at the pleasurable memory.
Dee is 19 and of average height for a woman her age. Her skin mirrors toffee, and her round-framed tortoiseshell glasses dull her otherworldly blue eyes with their distinct limbal rings of yellows and greens.
“So, d’you all go back and forth like this on a regular?” the stout Guardian rolled her body to face the group, tucked some of the wavy, flaxen hair that had come loose from her braid behind an ear.
Having the good sense to look a little embarrassed, Tina lifted her shoulders in a gentle shrug. She had nearly forgotten that she’d only met Dee and her Protected, the pair so flawlessly blending into the chaos, two weeks ago via a video group chat.
Just as she was about to say something, Tina experienced a sudden chill, her body seemingly remembering what her mind did not. In a flash, she realized that she was unguarded and unsure of Brandon’s whereabouts. Tina twisted with purpose until she pinned the man with her eyes, found him stood with his shoulder leaning against the sliding glass door from earlier. As he stared into the backyard, the young woman caught a glimpse of the man’s reflection. If looks could kill, she was pretty sure she’d be dead.
In an attempt to lessen her senior’s anger, the brunette sighed against her better judgment, “You can talk now.”
Brandon crossed his strong arms in displeasure. The muscles in them twitched.
“Suit yourself.” The teen looked at the ashen, ironclad grasp he had on a forearm before she was interrupted by thunderous shuffles and stomps.
Monáe and Hailey made their exit from the hallway bathroom sound like a damn parade. The pair took nearly twenty minutes to change out of their club uniforms. How the two ever showed up to anything on time still baffled Tina.
Tina sighed loudly, knowing the duo rounding the corner would successfully dampen any self-defense she created.
As if on cue and a mind reader, Monáe verbally charged her friend. As she all but bounced over to Tina, almost landing on top of her, the smaller being squealed in a sugar-sweet voice that gave way to her native French accent, “Ma Chérie, you finally mastered your ability of command. Congrats!” The tiny girl wrapped her arms around Tina and performed la bise on her.
“Took you long enough,” Hailey friskily added. Her pierced eyebrow raised in a mocking gesture, made her violet, Elizabeth Taylor likened eyes appear even larger than the dinner saucers they already resembled. The metal lobe piercings in each of her ears and the industrial one at her top right sparkled in the room’s light.
“Hush,” Tina playfully barked at the two she knew a bit better than Dee and Denzel.
She shifted, maneuvering herself to sitting cross-legged as she remembered how she met the best friends. Unsurprisingly, she had hit it off with Monáe immediately. Who couldn’t get along with the overly friendly, constantly affectionate, must have been a Golden Retriever in a past life girl? And to her surprise, the Wiccan was just as much fun as her new friend said she would be. Texting Hailey once a week for the past two months was sometimes the highlight of Tina’s day. Between her study abroad program’s shitty service in Amsterdam, constantly dropping her calls at the worst possible moments to leave her in compromising positions, and her brutally honest way of telling people how she feels and what she thinks, Hailey kept Tina in stitches during their first group chat.
Monáe Rose, who interchangeably goes by both Monáe and Rosie, is the Protected of Hailey.
The vertically challenged woman has smooth skin the same color as her favorite drink’s origin, dark unbrewed coffee beans. She possesses some of the blackest hair her friends have ever seen and her sockets house light brown eyes the color of whiskey.
With a minuscule stature of 4′11″ Monáe, who looks like she couldn’t break 90 pounds soaking wet, often takes people by surprise when she states that she is 17 going on 18 years of age. A while back someone even called Child Protective Services on her parents after seeing her tattoos, the black, professionally done geometric pattern on the right side of her ribcage, the small red heart located on the inside of her left wrist, and the three simple birds composed of black lines on her left ankle.
The good samaritan thought that Monáe couldn’t have been more than 12.
With events like Tattoo-Gate constantly occurring, the fun-sized teen is always looking for the next great thing to prove her age. A few months ago, she got her earlobes and daith pierced, and her latest endeavor, courtesy of flipping through a few popular magazines, was her getting her already short hair cropped into a textured pixie. However, unbeknownst to Monáe the cut actually regressed her features.
Hailey is Monáe’s Guardian.
Taller than her Protected, standing at 6′0″ with a curvaceous body type, Hailey more often than not finds herself in the precarious situation of being hit on by men... and women much older than her 19-year-old self should attract. Her skin is a glowing champagne rich in expressive color and her coily, bra strap-length, oil-colored afro usually gets done up in some intricate braided style.
This month’s winner: individual gray box braid extensions that reach her backside.
“I mean, Hails ain’t wrong,” Denzel, the male voice from earlier, pointed out, his head so lost in the kitchen’s refrigerator that his close-shaven, strawberry blond hair was unobservable.
At the ripe age of 22, the pierced-eared Denzel, a lithe male with almost no visible muscle definition, barely breaks the height of 5′5″. Although praises for his physical attributes are few and far between the man’s one saving grace, the thing that makes him conventionally attractive, would be his blessing of beautiful orbs. His eyes are like ever-changing hazel balls.
Feeling victorious with a cold hot dog and leftover macaroni and cheese in hand, the acne-scarred man put the two together and perched himself on one of the granite countertop’s barstools. From his new vantage point, the mahogany skinned male could see inside the living space’s open floor plan. An Asiatic descendent, Denzel scanned the room with angled eyes, eventually making contact with a displeased-looking Tina.
In between bouts of chewing, the unperturbed Denzel choked out and around metal braces, “Stop that. Ain’t ya heard? Ya don’t kill the messenger.”
“Tsk.” Tina sucked her teeth. She looked away just in time to miss crushed nachos topping off the science experiment in her kitchen.
With vexation behind his words and a squint to his peepers, Brandon cruelly thought to the woman that had essentially sentenced him to a timeout, “I’m gonna get you.”
“I highly doubt that,” Tina said. She scooted around, unwavering confidence in her expression as she faced the man with whom she shared a telepathic link.
Shifting her line of vision to the reflective window, Tina was able to make out that Brandon was watching her, studying her as much as she was doing him. At the sight of the older man’s intense stare, Tina’s throat went dry. She forced her body to swallow around a nervous lump. Albeit he no longer wore the purely menacing look of earlier, Brandon still likened a pack of hungry wolves in the middle of winter ready to devour the first meaty thing to cross their path.
With her nearly short-circuited senses, the Long Island native nearly missed Monáe’s latest utterance.
In the lilt she normally took on when switching from English to French and vice versa, the small being spoke, “Ma Chérie, you and Brandon are sharing a precieuse moment, yes?”
“Really, precious? Precieuse?” Tina tried imitating her friend’s accent with far less accuracy than her Roscoe impression.
The polyglot chimed in, “I think what she meant to say was private, as in Brandon and you were engaging in personal dialogue before the group-”
“Rather rude if ya ask me,” Denzel spat around the food stuffed in his oral cavity.
“That’s why nobody asked you,” Dee bit back, throwing one of the couch’s heavy decorative pillows at her Protected. She hoped that it would clock him in the forehead.
“And you asked about me with Ross and Ash?” Tina turned to Dee. “Those are some serious tantrums you throw.”
Ignoring the commotion of the two he wasn’t concerned with at the moment, Roscoe continued, “T, please tell me you two are not quarreling once more.”
Eyeing Brandon carefully, she answered, “Something like that.”
Brandon miraculously leveled with her, grumbling around clenched teeth, “Aye, something like that.”
The muscled man couldn’t help but be amused.
As she picked at her chipping black nail polish, elbows balanced on the back of the former roadblock, Hailey stated, “Rightttt... Well, while y’all fight everything out, Mo and I are gonna leave for a date night. Anyone wanna tell me why we’re meeting again? Not that I don’t just love hanging wit’ y’all, but class doesn’t start ’til tomorrow and I’ve got shit to finish unpacking. I did just get back like a day ago if anyone cares to show me mercy.” She shot Roscoe a smile, silently asking his permission to leave.
“Don’t complain, Hailey, we needed an excuse to get out the house,” Monáe teased before adding in a confused manner, “Also, we’re not dating.” Her high-pitched voice abandoned its French beauty in favor of a northern New Yorker accent, a result of the teenager having lived in the state for over half her life.
Placing her hands on her hips, forcing the colorful tattoo of the four corners often used in Wicca at her right tricep to momentarily flex, Hailey mumbled something under her breath.
“Our motley crew assembled like a goddamn robot because our professor decided to put the overachiever in charge.” Tina cut her eyes at Roscoe. “What I want to know is why we’re using my place.”
“I prefer to think of us as superheroes.” The overachiever chuckled.
“He just wanted to see our beautiful mugs.” Denzel picked a piece of hot dog skin from between his teeth before ducking, avoiding another pillow doing an aerial act. When he popped back up, he slyly added, “But, dude, for future reference, text, call, hell, carrier pigeons.”
Further ignoring the foolery surrounding him, Roscoe answered Tina seriously this time, “I thought the reason for my choice was obvious. You have the largest abode, a whole rental home with three bedrooms and two baths to yourself and Brandon. You better thank your folks before they go back on their word, leaving you high and dry to pay for all this yourself.”
“Nah, I think they’d raise Ashley’s half of the rent first, meaning she’d be “paying” almost double what she’s “paying” now." Tina smiled slyly. “Tell me, how much interest is on a loan from Roscoe’s Piggybank Incorporated?”
Ashley interjected, “Tina, don’t tease him. Remember, it’s you who came up with that convenient lie in the first place.”
The brunette took a moment to reflect on the truth in her crimson friend’s comment. Tina remembered how both her parents and grandparents pitched in to help her rent her current home, a congratulations-on-graduating-and-getting-into-a-prestigious-university-now-make-us-proud present if you will. However, there was a catch, the elders didn’t want their baby staying by herself.
As she remembered not wanting to admit to her family that she wouldn’t be living on her own, Brandon being required to stay with her, but her refusing to have that conversation with her male relatives, a shiver ran down her spine. The brown-eyed youth still remembered how brilliant she’d felt when she came up with a believable solution to her problem. Her parents already knew that both Ashley and Roscoe planned on attending the same university as she, so when Tina brought up the idea of having Ashley live with her and, in turn, go half on the rent, the older Franklins couldn’t find any reason to argue. Having their daughter live with someone both they and she knew seemed like the perfect idea, especially since she would be moving hours away.
Little does Tina’s family know, Ashley isn’t paying her half of the rent, hell neither is Tina since the home she’s occupying was bought by her university before the Franklins invested in it, meaning the youngest Franklin gets free housing until she graduates.
Eh, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, Tina thought about the savings account she opened to store all the rent money she’s received thus far in. After all, it’s not like I can just give it back without anyone asking questions, she thought similarly to how she did before.
Leaving her memories for the present, the teen overheard Hailey explaining her previous statement to her bestie. “Whatever, sis. Dating, girl’s night out, they’re the same to me. Either way, we gotta get outta here now if we wanna make the movie on time and not get our asses kicked by your helicopter parents.”
“Shoot!” Monáe checked her watch for the time. “Ugh, I hate staying home for university. I swear, my parents still think they own me. For God’s sake, I’m almost 18 and I graduated from high school early, yet they still don’t think I’m responsible enough to take care of myself-”
“Probably because you put tin foil in the microwave a month ago,” a smug Hailey interrupted.
“Once is enough!” a cacophony echoed through the room.
With an exhale of defeat, the pixie-like creature removed her rear from the room’s centered coffee table. “We’ve got to be going, so we’ll see you beautiful people at next week’s meeting. Whose place again?”
“Ours,” Roscoe smiled before kissing the top of his girlfriend’s head.
As Hailey gently rushed Monáe in the direction of the exit, backpacks in tow, she shouted before slamming the downstairs door, “Alrighty. Copy that. See y’all.”
“Heh, funny. I thought Hails and Lil’ Bit weren’t hittin’ up their movie ’til 8:00 tonight,” Denzel spoke in that lazy but velvety smooth voice he usually reserved for flirting with females he was interested in, like Monáe. He had purposely waited for her to be out of earshot before using the endearing nickname he finds adorable, but she hates since it directly references her height.
Lifting his gaze, the rainbow-eyed youth met the kitchen’s hanging wall clock and nearly choked on his third hot dog. “Crap it’s 7:30! Dee, we hafta get home! It’s time for din din!”
“So? And really, din din? How old are ya?” The female mocked her Protected with another absentminded yawn and a dismissive wave of her hands.
With a knowing look, Denzel’s features suddenly shifted to mischievous. In a sing-song voice, he hummed, “Ma said she’s makin’ her special spaghetti sauce tonight.”
Upon hearing the words “special spaghetti sauce” Dee, like a bolt of lightning, was already waiting at the bottom of the steps that led from the living room on the second floor to the front door.
“Why didn’t you say she was cooking that tonight?! I would’ve been dragged your sorry ass out of ’ere if I knew. Come on, fatty, move it!” She rolled her rounded shoulders, ready to apply force if necessary. “So help me God if all the sauce is gone...”
“Rude.” The skin and bones man frowned, looking utterly ridiculous as he hopped about the living room, his attention and efforts split between putting on his shoes and chewing the last of his yellow coated dog. “Which one of us practically just flew to the door at the mention of food?” he questioned under his breath.
“I guess this meeting is over since everyone is leaving,” Roscoe said, a smidge of annoyance in his voice.
“Calm.” Ashley tucked herself into her love’s wide chest, forcing him to release a contented sigh and snuggle his chin in her hair.
Tina spun, took in the lovey-dovey gazes of her confidants, and couldn’t help but begin her theatrics, reminding them that they weren’t alone. “Uh, the love! It burns!”
In playful retaliation, Ashley threw one of the nearby couch cushions at Tina’s head. The object landed with a resounding thump, a sound that the light material shouldn’t have been able to produce.
“Human, remember?!” a wide-eyed Tina playfully glared the ginger’s way, scooching from the line of fire when she saw Ashley pick up another cushion.
“You’ll be fine. Ross survives everything I throw at him.”
Gaping, Tina retorted, “Look at how the linebacker’s built and then look at me! Lord! Anyway, you cuties staying for dinner?”
“Regrettably,” Roscoe started to say something when he felt the gentle connection of an elbow to his ribs, “I meant, fortunately-”
“That’s better.” A lively Ashley smiled.
“We have plans to attend the gym tonight.” The man huffed. He sounded less than enthusiastic.
“Yeah, and I’m not letting a certain someone talk his way out of going for the third week in a row.”
A clear eye roll could be seen behind Roscoe’s closed lids. “Ash, you know I was suffering, bilious all that time.”
“What the hell is-”
“It means sick,” the spindly female translated for the other as she climbed from her boyfriend’s lap, a disappointed frown on her face.
“Vomiting, whatever. Ross, you can’t really expect me to buy that crap. Last month you blamed your research.”
Dee and Denzel’s departure was made clear by the slamming of the front door and Dee’s peeved off shouts from the front lawn.
“I swear, your mother’s meals are the only upside to you being grown as hell and still living at home!”
“Ya bein’ a grouch ’cause ya hungry, right? Here. Ya can have some of my trail mix.”
God, they’re loud, Tina thought when Denzel’s pained screech reached her ears.
“God, they are loud,” Roscoe echoed his friend’s sentiments while massaging his temples. “T, I will tell you how bad this one”—he pointed in Ashley’s direction—“made the workout for me tomorrow.”
He winked in Tina’s direction before leaving hand in hand with Ashley.
Hearing the gentle click of the large oak door in her now silent home, Tina exhaled. She massaged her scalp, tried to ease a sudden headache. “And... They’re all gone.” Then, the hair at the back of her neck stood in warning. Tina froze. The sound of a slow exhale from behind terrified her.
“Now then, it’s just you and me, together and all... alone.” Brandon sounded evil from his place behind the frightened woman.
As he took deliberate steps in Tina’s direction, she audibly gulped, not knowing what to expect. With no one to act as a buffer, her normal cockiness was nowhere to be found.
Stopping with his feet at Tina’s rotund rear, Brandon’s leaned down. In his deep, masculine voice he whispered in her ear, “Be very worried.”
Where’s help when you need it, a guardian of sorts?
Unfortunately for Tina, her Guardian is Brandon.