“You don’t have to do this, Jules.” Troy cocks his head to the side a little, the way he does when he’s worried about me.
The warm expression in his eyes melts my heart. What would I do without him?
He’s always looking out for me. I used to get into fights, but even when they were my fault, he’d always stand up for me. Now I need him more then ever. The fate of the world is at stake, and he’s still here beside me, standing up for me. He’ll die to protect me if he has to, but I don’t need him to protect me anymore. I need him close, to wrap his friendship around me like a blanket, to connect, to feel human.
Lately I’ve had a hard time feeling human without him.
“When was the last time I did something I didn’t want?” I smirk, but my words ring hollow, untrue—at least for me. I’m always stuck doing chores for other people, and now there’s an entire destiny to fulfill that’s been thrust upon me. I’d rather be normal and have nothing to do with this future, but we don’t get a chance to pick our destiny. At least I didn’t.
“What’s your mom going to say when she finds out?”
“Since when are you worried about my mom? You’ve been getting me in trouble since we were in kindergarten. Your name has been etched at the top of her Undesirable List since we were six. I’ve seen it. She keeps it posted on the refrigerator.”
Troy arches his eyebrows. “Hey, your mom loves me! I’m the other child she’s never had.”
“Are you serious?” I shoot him a half smile so he knows I’m joking.
Everybody loves Troy. Still, he’s not on the college track, and Mom wants me to go to one of the best colleges so I can make tons of money and become a big shot lawyer, like her or some other Master of the Universe that has no fun and works way too hard.
“Mom’s back home and we’re here. She doesn’t get a vote.”
He frowns. “It’s just that... once you do this, you can’t undo it. It’s forever.”
“Really. That’s the point.” I shove him lightly in the chest. I’m old enough to make up my own mind, but he’s just trying to protect me, so I can’t get too angry with him.
“What are your classmates at that fancy private school going to think when they find out?”
I pause for a second and look at him. I mean, really look at him, and peer past the handsome exterior: the almond-colored eyes, the chiseled chin, and the long raven hair that falls past his broad shoulders in a tight braid.
Beyond his confident shell, deep in his soul, he harbors doubts that trouble him—doubts he’ll never share with me. He’s making believe life will go back to normal once I fulfill this destiny—if I fulfill this destiny—but that’s not possible. Normal has become a bad joke, but I won’t shatter the illusion for him. He needs to sort events into a pattern he understands and imagine a time when life returns to what it was for us. It’s how he’s coping with the situation. I need to be strong for him. I can’t weaken his defenses, even if fears riddle my mind at every turn.
I straighten my back. “You know I don’t care about what they think at Bartens. I want to do this. I need to do it.” The wind kicks up, and the cool night air sweeps against my skin, leaving an army of goose bumps in its wake.
The almost full moon lights the cloudless sky. We inch toward the store and hesitate at the door. A red neon sign reads Lost Souls Tattoos in the front window. I take a deep breath and shove the door open, and a bell jingles above us.
No one’s in sight. Pictures of various tattoos line the walls of the small rectangular shop.
Toward the front left is a glass case with a cash register on top, and farther in the back are a massage table, some bright lights, and a chair with wheels on the legs.
A woman strolls from a back room. She’s in her twenties, gaunt with sharp features, smoky gray eyes, short hair, one nose ring, and small hoops that circle the edges of her ears. She holds a half-eaten wrap as she ambles toward us. “What do you guys want?”
She wears a loose gray T-shirt and tight jeans. Brightly colored tats cover her left arm, mostly eagles and hawks, and on the left side of her neck is a teardrop the size of my palm.
“I want a tattoo,” I say casually, as if ordering a cheeseburger at McDonalds.
She points to a sign taped on the cash register. “You’ve got to be eighteen for me to give you a tattoo, and there’s no way you’re eighteen.”
I’m almost sixteen. In the right light I could pass for eighteen, but she probably has a lot of experience with underage teenagers asking for tattoos. Still, I feel a lot older than eighteen and that should count for something.
“No one else is here. It’s late and this tattoo is really important to me.” My voice whines slightly at the end. I wish it hadn’t.
“Why?” She crosses her arms against her chest and arches her eyebrows upward. Two gold rings, one in each eyebrow, bob up and down.
An invisible door creaks open. I’ll only get one chance to persuade her to give me the ink. Her teardrop tattoo stands out and must be important. Grief dulls the sparkle in her eyes and shows in the muscles that tighten her jaw. She’ll relate to my story, if it’s truthful.
“I need to remember someone who died recently. He was really important to me.”
“My grandfather. I called him Sicheii, and he raised me like a father. He died to protect me.” Tears moisten my eyes. The tears are real, as Sicheii’s death is a fresh wound. People tell me the pain will get better with time, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. They mean well, but this hurt will always be fresh. He’ll always be gone, and it’s my fault. The woman’s face softens. “Just for the sake of discussion, what’re you looking for?”
Troy drops the satchel looped over his shoulder, smiles, lifts his T-shirt, and reveals his well-muscled chest and copper skin. Across his heart is a blue tat of two twisted arrows in a circle. Each arrow features different feathers and arrowheads.
The woman glides toward him and examines the ink on his chest. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and symmetry. She clearly admires it and perhaps wouldn’t mind trying to copy it.
Her eyes widen as she lingers over the details. “What does it mean?”
I hesitate. What am I going to tell her, the truth? That the symbol represents the ancient Order of the Twisted Arrows? Or that my grandfather unwittingly injected me at birth with alien DNA, which has changed me forever? Or that I’m one of four Chosen thrust into a battle for our world against a powerful enemy called from a different planet?
None of those explanations will get me a tattoo. She’d probably chase us from the store. I settle for something bland. “It represents an old society he belonged to. It meant everything to him. It was kind of a... club.”
At least it’s not a lie. She’s probably used to people lying to her and would catch a whiff of one right away.
She traces the circle with her finger. “Is it some weird Native American thing?”
“You could say that.” Native Americans use tattoos generally to identify with certain tribes or to honor their animal spirit guide. I’m half Native American on my mom’s side, and Sicheii was her father. I have long black hair, an oval face, coffee-colored eyes that are round but not quite round enough to be beautiful, and a long, pointy nose I inherited from my Irish father. I look Native American except for the ghastly nose.
The tattoo artist leaves Troy and slides in front of me. She stands close, no more than a foot away, and traces of vegetable wrap linger on her breath. I’m taller than the average person and stand at least three inches higher than she does.
She studies my face for a long moment; perhaps she’s trying to see if I’m serious. “What’s your name?”
“Juliet Wildfire Stone.” I never used to tell people my middle name. It embarrassed me. Now I realize it’s who I am, part of my identity.
“Wildfire, huh? I can see that. Where do you want the tattoo?”
I roll up the right sleeve of my T-shirt. “My shoulder would be great.”
She nods. “It’ll cost you two hundred cash, and you can’t tell anyone you got it here.”
“Done.” I hand her four fifty-dollar bills.
She locks the door to the shop, guides me to the table in the back, and places a pillow on one end. “You want it the same color?”
I jump on the table. “Yep.”
She gestures for Troy to come close. “Keep your shirt up. I want to get it just right.”
Two hours later, she wipes my arm with a towel. “That’s so weird.”
“What’s wrong?” My heart jumps. Did she just totally mess up my arm and leave me with some ugly circle thing?
Troy’s smiling, so how bad of a job could she have done?
“Usually it takes a couple weeks for the tat to heal. It always bleeds a little or gets puffy, but your arm already looks perfect, as if the ink had been on it forever.”
She hands me a mirror, and I smile. My tattoo is exactly the same as Troy’s. Exactly the same as Sicheii’s had been.
I shrug and hop from the table. “I’ve always been a fast healer.”
My DNA’s been changed, so my body can regenerate itself almost instantly. I didn’t know that before. It’s just another one of my abilities, as Sicheii would say. I’ve started to think of them as aberrations.
I have five so far: I can hear other people’s thoughts and read their emotions; I can possess animals for a short period of time; I have increased strength and speed; can move things with my mind; and heal instantly. There will probably be more, but they scare me. With each new one, I become less human.
“We’d better head out.”
I step toward the door, and she grabs my wrist. “Wait. I want to take a picture of the ink for the wall.”
“You can’t.” I yank my arm away from her.
“I won’t take your face. Just the ink.”
“Tough.” She scowls at me, but I ignore her and march outside.
When we leave the store a sharp pain stabs through my head, as though someone has taken an axe to my skull and cleaved it in two. A wild rage burns through me, and all of a sudden I’m inside a villa next to a piano.
Breath catches in my throat, all the strength saps from my body, and I plummet to the ground.