Chapter One: Marked
I’m a big fat coward.
I’ve known this about myself definitively since one month before my sixth birthday. The night I lost my dad.
Case in point: I’m just shy of seventeen. I’ve been in love with the same guy for almost three years. Even though I see Wesley a few times a week, I haven’t said a word. But tonight I have the perfect opportunity to do what I’ve always feared to try. Tonight, to celebrate our upcoming Path selections, all the teens in Port Gibson play a stupid, risky game.
Spin the Bottle.
I glance around as I walk toward the campfire in front of me. Only thirty-five kids turned seventeen in the past year, so of course I know them all. My best girl friend, Gemette, waves me over. I try to squash my disappointment at not seeing Wesley. When I played this scene in my brain earlier, I was sitting by him.
“You gonna scowl at the fire all night, Ruby?” Gemette pats a gloved hand on the slab of granite underneath her.
“You couldn’t have saved us one of those seats?” I point at the smooth, flat stumps on the other side of the fire. I sit down and shift around, trying to find a flat spot.
“I think what you meant to say was, ‘Thanks, Gemette. You’re the best.’”
Her straight black hair reflects the campfire flames when she tosses it back over her shoulder. It’s against the Council’s rules for hair to cover your forehead. Gotta make it easy to see anyone who might be Marked. Except tonight, no one’s following the rules. Everyone’s wearing their hair down, and Gemette’s silky locks frame her face beautifully. I envy her sleek hair almost as much as I covet her curves.
“My bum’s already hurting on this,” I mutter.
“If you weighed more than eighty-five pounds soaking wet, it wouldn’t bother you so much.”
Instead of curves, I’ve got twig arms and a non-existent backside. I shift on the huge slab, trying to find a position that doesn’t hurt. I arch one eyebrow, not that she can see it in the dark. “I weigh ninety-two pounds, thank you very much.”
Gemette snorts. “That proves my point, you bony butt.”
She leans toward the fire and picks up the glass bottle lying on its side. She tosses it a few inches up into the air before catching it again.
“Be careful with that.” That bottle’s the only reason I’m sitting here, sour-faced, stomach churning.
Slowly the remaining seats around the fire fill up. Wesley shows up last. There aren’t any seats left, but before I can convince Gemette to squish over, he grabs a bucket. He turns it upside down and takes a seat a few feet away from everyone else. I guess that’s fitting. His dad’s the Mayor of Port Gibson and a Counsellor on the CentiCouncil, so Wesley’s in charge by default tonight. He’ll probably take over for his dad one day, which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds since less than two thousand people live here.
He looks around the fire, and his gaze stops on me. He bobs his head in my direction, and I shoot him a smile. I’m glad he can’t hear the thundering of my heart.
Although we’re all huddled around a campfire, and I’ve known most of the kids here for years, we maintain carefully measured space between us. Tercera dictates our habits even when we’re rebelling. Which we’re only doing because it’s a tradition.
Maybe Tercera’s made cowards of us all.
“Are we starting?” Tom’s sitting to my left. His parents are both in Agriculture and he’s Pathing there, too. He has broad shoulders and tan skin from working outside most of the day. Gemette likes him, and it’s easy to see why. Of course, he’s nothing to Wesley.
I glance across the fire in time to see Wesley stand up. He straightens the collar of his coat slowly and methodically, like his dad always does before a town hall meeting. Wesley loves doing impressions, and he’s usually convincingly good at them.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome you all to the Last Supper.” His voice mimics his father’s, and he touches his chin with his right hand in the same way his dad always rubs his beard. Wesley himself is tall and lean with long black hair that he’s wearing down, for once. It falls in his eyes in a way I’ve never seen before, and I feel a little rush. I want to touch it.
Wesley smirks. “I know you may be less than impressed with the culinary offerings for our gathering, but as I always say, Tradition has Value.” He cracks a grin then, and everyone laughs. “Seriously though.” He drops the impression and returns to his normal voice, which I like way better anyway. “I know the food sucks, but this whole thing started with a bunch of teenagers who were sick of rules and ready to throw caution to the wind for a night.”
I look down at the three or four-dozen nondescript metal cans with the tops peeled back, resting on coals. Another few dozen are open but sitting away from the fire. Presumably they contain fruit or something else we won’t want to eat hot.
Wesley leans over and snags the first can, his gloves keeping him safe from the heat. “I hope you’ll all forgive me, but this was what we could find.”
“This is a pretty crummy tradition.” Lina reaches down and grabs a can with mittened hands. Her dark brown hair falls in a long, thick braid down her back, like it has every single time I’ve seen her.
“Traditions matter, even the silly ones. They help pull us together as a community, which is valuable when fear of Tercera yanks communities apart. We’re stronger when we aren’t alone. Thinking every man should look out for himself hurts all of us.” Wesley takes his first bite right before Lina. I grab a can of baked beans.
The food really is as bad as it looks, but at least it’s not spoiled.
Wesley talks while we eat.
“As you already know, we come from a variety of backgrounds. Before the Marking, Port Gibson housed approximately the same number of people, but not a single person who lived here before the Marking survived. We cleaned out the homes, burned some to the ground and rebuilt, circled the city with a wall, and made it our own. The Unmarked who live here are Christian, Muslim, atheist, black, white, Hispanic, Russian, German and Japanese. I could keep going, but I don’t need to. Before the Marking, these differences divided humanity. Now, we know that what truly matters is what we all share. We embrace the traditions that bring us all together, because we’re more alike than we are unalike.”
I swallow the last spoonful of baked beans from my can and set it down on the ground by my feet. I’m almost the last one to finish eating, but several half-full cans are scattered around the campfire. A few people grab a can of fruit. I prefer the stuff my Aunt and I process and can ourselves, so I don’t bother.
I rub my hands together briskly. Even in mittens, my fingers feel stiff. It’s usually not too cold in Mississippi, even in January, but a late freeze has everyone bundled up. The Last Supper’s supposed to be a chance to rebel, but I’m grateful that everyone’s as covered as possible. It means I won’t look as cowardly for keeping my mittens on. My aunt is Port Gibson’s head of the Science Path, so I know all about how Tercera congregates first in the skin cells, even before the Mark has shown up on the forehead in some cases.
The wind moans as it blows through the trees, and we all huddle around the meager fire. Even though the flames have died down to coals in most places, it burns hot. My face roasts while my back freezes. The bottle lies stationary on the weathered flagstones by the fire where Gemette set it, light glinting off of the dingy glass at strange angles.
The quiet conversations die off and the nervous laughter ends. Eyes dart to and fro among the thirty something teenagers gathered.
“So.” Evan’s voice cracks, and he clears his throat. “Who goes first?”
“Thanks for volunteering,” Wesley says.
I suspect no one else asked for just this reason. All eyes turn toward poor, gangly, redheaded Evan.
Evan gawks momentarily. Even though he and I work in Sanitation together, I don’t know him well. I haven’t been there long enough to guess whether he feels lucky or put upon. He sighs, and then leans forward and tweaks the bottle. It twists sharp and fast and skitters to the right, spinning furiously.
I really hope the bottle doesn’t stop on me, and I doubt I’m alone in that thought. Evan’s funny in a self-deprecating way, but he isn’t smart, and he definitely isn’t hot. I bite my lip, worried about what I’ll do if it does stop on me.
It slows quickly and finally stops pointing to my left. I sigh in relief, which I belatedly hope no one heard.
Tom gasps, and then in a raspy voice says, “No way. I mean, you’re nice and all Evan, but I’m not . . . I don’t . . .”
“Yeah, me either. Chill, man.” Evan laughs. “So, does it pass to the next person over?” Evan raises his eyebrows and glances at me.
I want to protest, but my throat closes off and I look down at my feet instead.
Evan stands up. “So Ruby . . .”
He may not have saved me a seat, but Wesley jumps in to save me now, thank goodness. “That’s not how it works. If you get someone of the same gender, and neither of you . . . well, then your turn passes to him or her. Which means you sit down Evan, and you spin next, Tom.”
“Who made these rules?” Evan grumbles as he sits.
Gemette smiles. “They make sense, Evan. I mean, it’s not spin the bottle and pick best out of three. Your way, you’d basically pick someone in the circle who’s close and kiss whoever you want.”
Evan shrugs and glances at me again with a smile. “Sounds pretty okay, actually.”
Tom snorts. “I don’t hear Ruby complaining about Wesley’s rules. I’d say that’s your answer, man.”
I look back down at my shoes, but not before I see Tom’s wink. Jerk. Evan must feel idiotic, and I definitely want to sink into the ground.
I bite my lip again, this time a little harder. Tom’s an obviously good-looking guy, but I have no interest in kissing him. I hope his wink was a joke about Evan and not some kind of message.
Cold air blows past me as Tom leans forward to spin the bottle, his body no longer blocking the wind. One thing jumps out at me as he reaches for the glass bottle. In spite of the cold, Tom isn’t wearing gloves. He must’ve taken them off at some point. He’s either a daredevil or an idiot. I’m not sure which.
Tom spins the bottle less forcefully than Evan and rocks back and forth as the bottle circles round and round. His eyes focus intently on the spinning glass as if he can somehow control where it stops. I wonder who he’s hoping for and look around the circle for clues. Andrea seems particularly bright-eyed. My eyes continue to wander. One gorgeous, deep blue pair of eyes in the circle stares right back at me. Wesley. I’ve looked at him a lot over the past few years, but this feels different somehow. A spark zooms through me, and I quickly stare at my feet.
No luck for Andrea tonight, or Gemette. The bottle comes to rest on Andrea’s best friend, Annelise, instead. She and I were in Science together a long time ago. Her dark brown hair hangs loose, framing high cheekbones and expressive chocolate eyes. She frowns. Tonight doesn’t seem to be going right for anyone so far.
“Now what?” Annelise’s voice shakes. “We just kiss, right here in front of everyone?”
“No, of course not,” Gemette snaps.
“Who made you the boss?” Evan frowns. Judging by his sulky tone, he’s still mad about losing his turn earlier.
“Unfortunately, I’m the boss,” Wesley says, “and she’s right.” He points to a dilapidated shed at the top of the hill. “You two go up there.”
“Romantic.” Tom rolls his eyes as he stands up. He rubs his bare palms on his pants. Gross. At least I know I’m not the only nervous one here. Tom and Annelise trudge a path through clumps of frozen brown grass toward the rundown tool shed.
What a special memory for their first kiss.
Gemette sighs and I pat her gloved hand with my own. I’d feel worse for her, but Gemette likes every decent looking guy in town, including a few boys a year younger than us. She’ll recover from missing out on a special moment with Tom.
I glance again toward Andrea, an acquaintance from my time in Agriculture. She and Tom trained together for years. She may have liked him as long as I’ve liked Wesley. She looks into the fire while her foot digs a messy hole in the soil. I wonder how I’ll feel if Wesley spins and gets Andrea. Or worse, Gemette. I’ll have to sit here and twiddle my thumbs while I know he’s in there kissing a friend. My stomach lurches. Coming tonight was a stupid idea. I clearly didn’t think this through.
No one speaks to distract me from my anxiety. The shed isn’t far. We could easily eavesdrop on them if the wind would shriek a little less.
“How long does this take?” Evan asks.
“Who the heck knows?” Gemette points at the bottle. “Impatient for another crack at it?”
Kids around us chuckle.
After another few awkward moments, Gemette grabs the bottle and gives it a twist. “No reason we have to wait on them.”
“Sure,” Wesley says. “Whoever it lands on can go next.”
“Wait,” Evan asks, “whoever it lands on goes next as in it’s their turn to spin? Or goes next as in Gemette’s going to kiss them?”
The bottle stops before anyone can respond, pointing directly at Wesley. His perfectly shaped brows draw together under disheveled black hair. Gorgeous hair. His lips form a perfect “o”. His bright blue eyes meet mine again.
My heart races and the baked beans sit like a lump in my belly. I shouldn’t have come. Of course Wesley will want to kiss her. Gemette’s gorgeous, curvy, and smart. Ugh. Am I going to have to sit here while my best friend kisses the guy I like twenty feet away? This is all my fault. If I’d only told Gemette, she’d beg off.
I bite down a little harder on my lip and taste blood this time. I really need to kick this particular habit, especially with kissing in my future. Maybe. Hopefully. I’m such an idiot.
Wesley clears his throat. “I think I’m going to sit this game out. I’m more of a moderator than a participant.”
“No,” I blurt out. “You can’t. You’re here, you’re seventeen, you have to participate.” What am I doing? Why am I shoving him at my friend? But if I don’t make him play, I’m flushing my chance to kiss him down the toilet. I want to cry.
“Well, then I guess it’s my turn to spin.” His deep voice sounds completely different than any of the other kids here tonight. My stomach ties in knots when I hear him speak, which is ridiculous because I’ve heard his voice a million times.
I glance at Gemette. She looks disappointed and I want to cry with relief, but I don’t blame her. He could’ve kissed her but didn’t pursue it. I imagine most any girl here would be disappointed. He glances up and his eyes lock with mine again. Caught. I start to shiver and try to stop it. This look is different somehow from any before, like something shifted. Wesley clears his throat, looks down at the bottle, gracefully reaches over, and snaps it between his fingers.
It spins evenly, not moving to the right or the left. It spins on and on, and I wonder if it’ll ever stop. It slows, whirling a little less with each rotation, the butterflies in my stomach swooping and swirling with each pass.
Until it finally stops. On me.
My eyes snap up reflexively, wide with shock. Wesley doesn’t even seem surprised. He simply stands and inclines his head toward the shed.
“Isn’t it still…” I clear my throat. “Umm, occupied?”
“We can wait over there.” He gestures at the hill to the right of the shed. One side of his mouth lifts in a smile and I feel an answering grin form on my lips. Which makes me think about what we’re about to do with our lips.
Swarms and swarms of butterflies flutter in my chest.
“Sure,” I say.
I stand up and without even thinking, I wipe my palms on my jeans. They aren’t even sweaty and what’s more, I’m wearing mittens! I really hope no one noticed. Okay, more specifically, I hope Wesley didn’t notice. Gemette holds something out to me when I stand. I can’t tell what it is from feel alone thanks to my thick mittens, and in the dark I have to squint to make it out at all. A tube of something. “What—”
“Lip gloss,” she whispers. “A gift from my mom. I was going to use it, but looks like you need it more, you lucky, lip-biting brat.” She winks.
I’m glad Wesley’s still across the fire from me and that it’s dark. Maybe he somehow miraculously missed both the palm wipe and her wink.
I walk as slowly as I can toward the old shed, partially to avoid tripping, but also so I won’t look overeager. I try to hide my face while I apply the fruit-scented lip-gloss so that Wesley won’t notice. It’s dark, but I don’t want him to be put off by dry, scratchy lips, or worse, dried blood. Gemette’s a good friend. I feel guilty for overreacting earlier when I thought she might kiss Wesley. Not super guilty, but you know, a little.
Neither of us speaks a word, but I feel the eyes of the other teens follow us toward the shed. We’re only a few crunching steps away when the swinging door flies open and Tom and Annelise barrel out. I jump when it bangs shut behind them.
Tom looks as ruffled as I feel, his eyes darting back and forth. He ducks his head and reaches down to take Annelise’s hand. They walk out and away from the fire and the rest of Port Gibson’s teens. I can’t tell where they’re headed, but somewhere far away from here.
“Did you know almost a third of the couples in town trace their start to the Last Supper?” Wesley asks.
He shrugs. “We’ve only been an Unmarked town for seven years, so it’s even more impressive. Not all of them are matched up from a bottle spin, but I think the game helps people realize how they feel.”
A thrill rushes through me. Does Wesley feel the same as me?
My hand reaches for the door handle and collides en route with his. I’m wearing mittens, of course, and he’s wearing shiny, brown gloves, but a thrill runs through me when we touch, even through layers. He doesn’t move his hand away, but instead draws my hand in his and pushes the door handle back in one fluid movement. My heart skips a beat and time stops. When the door’s completely open, he slowly releases my hand. I lower my eyes and step over the threshold into the rundown little building.
Although there’s clearly no power, and consequently neither heat nor an overhead light, the walls at least cut the wind. It’s at once both warmer and quieter. Two tall candles burn softly on a pile of rusted metal boxes in the corner. Someone prepared this dump, I realize. I wonder whether it was Wesley. The flames provide enough light that I can see his face. His dark brows are an even more startling contrast to his dark blue eyes than usual, accentuated by his hair falling in his face.
“So,” I say. “Here we are.”
Wesley looks at me from less than a foot away. The shed’s small and crammed full of moldering farm implements. The air around us practically hums, but that isn’t new. It’s always like the moments right before a lightning storm when he’s near. Supercharged almost, like the electrons around my body might fly off at his slightest touch. The difference is that here, away from the town’s work projects, away from my family and his, it feels like anything really could happen.
Wesley’s so close I can smell him, the same citrusy, woodsy smell I’ve secretly savored for years. It’s even stronger tonight, like he put on more of whatever it is he usually wears. I breathe deep, and all the memories of him re-imprint on my brain. Scrubbing, sanding, painting, digging, cleaning, hammering. Projects his dad made him attend, but I suffered through to be near him. When I’m with him, I belong somewhere for the first time in a decade.
When we become adults next week, Wesley’s mandatory attendance at work projects ends. Wesley steps into his role as an administrator, and I’ll become part of Port Gibson’s janitorial crew. It’s now or never if I want to make any kind of permanent place with Wesley.
I never thought I’d be close to him like this, and I know I may never be again. I lean toward him and tilt my face upward, eyes closed, ready for what comes next. Maybe I’m even a touch impatient. I have waited for this for years.
Except I keep waiting, and then I wait some more.
Not a single thing happens. The trouble with being ridiculously small is that Wesley, who’s on the tall side anyway, towers over me. Even with my face angled up, his lips are pretty far away. I can barely make out his expression, but it looks guarded.
Maybe he doesn’t know how to do it?
No way. Wesley must know. I mean, it’s not hard, right? You just push your lips onto the other person’s mouth. Why isn’t he doing anything? This is the moment. THE moment!
Until it passes. And then another moment falls on top of it, and another. All passing. Even the butterflies in my stomach get bored and go look for flowers elsewhere.
I’m not sure exactly how much time has elapsed, but the seconds drag, heavy with my growing frustration. Soon, someone will bang on the door. “You’ve been in there forever,” they’ll say. “Make room for the next couple.”
I want to smack them in their eager faces.
I know I don’t have much time, and I want to say something, anything. I need to tell him how I feel, say the words, take a gamble. But like it always does, my tongue shuts down. My throat closes off. The words stick inside my throat. Why am I such a coward? Our perfect moment withers and dies. Tears well up in my eyes, and I can’t breathe.
Wesley isn’t similarly affected. He steps back and says, “We don’t have to do this, Ruby. It’s not safe at all. I don’t know why my dad even lets these dinners happen.”
“Why’d you spin the bottle in the first place?” I hear the desperation in my voice, but the words pour out in spite of myself. “I know you, and you know me. How’s it dangerous for us?”
He takes another step back, his expression registering surprise. “People get Marked, Ruby. It still happens. Every few weeks, in fact. Maybe I’m Marked. You don’t know. It happens, even here, even with all our rules. It may take years to die once you’re Marked, but it’s inevitable.”
I roll my eyes. “Well I’m not Marked, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I point at my forehead. “See? Clear.”
“We shouldn’t be taking these risks.” Wesley scowls. “Not now, not right before our real lives begin. This whole thing’s supposed to be a time to say goodbye to being a kid, not act like an idiotic five-year-old, breaking rules for no reason.”
Our real lives? Maybe he never thought it felt right, the time we spent, the way we are together. Maybe I never belonged with him at all. “Why’d you even come, then? Why follow me in here if you’re not going to kiss me?”
Was he hoping for someone else? Was he stuck with me and looking for any excuse to bolt? Am I Evan in this scenario?
I look up, but I’m too close. The hair cascading over his face obscures my view. I want to touch his hair; I want to kiss him; I want to tell him I love him, and that I always have. My fingers and toes and everything connecting them zings in spite of the bitter cold, in spite of the indifference of his words. Energy spins round and round in my body, a closed circuit with nowhere to go.
“Look, Ruby, I don’t know what to say . . . but the thing is . . .” He sounds torn, confused.
Suddenly, I don’t want to hear “the thing,” whatever it is. I’ve been talking to Wesley for years, talking and talking, and working alongside him, but I don’t want to talk to him anymore. I know what I want and I’ll never have a better chance to play things off as part of a game, if he feels like I now suspect he does. The notion of an excuse appeals to my cowardly heart. I can’t speak the words, but I won’t stand here and do nothing, not anymore, because he’s the real life I’ve longed for.
I stop thinking and step toward him instead. He tries to step back and slams up against the back wall. I quickly take one more step and use my gloved hand to pull his head down to mine. I push my lips against his. In my haste, I push too hard and pull a little too fast. Our teeth smack into each other and my tooth knocks against my own lip, splitting it wide open again.
It’s the opposite of magical.
I look up at Wesley instinctively. He has blood on his mouth, but whether it’s his, or mine, I can’t tell. And if it’s not awful enough already, Wesley stiffens from head to toe like I mauled him, like I forced him into something torturous.
A tear rolls down my cheek and I inhale deeply. I won’t cry over this. I can’t, because there‘s no way I can play it all off as a game if I bawl my eyes out. I turn away from him. If I can’t stop the tears, at least he doesn’t need to see them. When did this go so wrong? I should be calm, cool, in control. I need to laugh it all off and tell him friends can’t be expected to kiss well. Whoops.
Except my heart won‘t listen to the screaming from my head. I’m not calm. I’m the opposite of cool. I’ve lost all control.
He grabs my shoulder and tugs me around. I turn, but my eyes stay glued to the ground, too ashamed to meet his gaze.
“Ruby, look at me.”
He puts two gloved fingers under my chin and lifts. His head comes down then, but slowly, too slowly. My heart stops pumping and I worry it might never beat again. His lips brush mine gently, then with more pressure. I ignore the discomfort of my torn lip and lean into him, connected to him in a way I can’t explain. I need more air, but I want less, because that means more space between us. If this never ends, maybe it’ll erase the moments that preceded it.
Suddenly, he lets me go and steps back. Emptiness fills the space where he stood. I reel again, sucking air in and blowing my breath back out to steady myself.
When I raise my eyes, our gazes lock. All my sorrow from before is gone, replaced with a feeling like I’m flying, soaring, floating on top of the world. His sapphire blue eyes reflect candlelight back at me. He’s breathing as deeply as I am; he’s as affected as me. I can’t look away from his strong, almost hawkish nose, his square jaw, his flashing eyes and thick black lashes. I continue to stare as Wesley reaches up and brushes his unkempt hair away from his eyes.
I almost faint.
Such a simple movement. Small in the grand scheme of things, but also vast, earth shattering, all encompassing. My dreams crumble. My world spins out of control. He moves his hair off his forehead, and suddenly things make sense. His reticence to touch me, his skittishness, but also his quick recovery. Once he knew it was too late, he didn’t hesitate to kiss me.
Because we’d already touched.
A tiny rash mars his otherwise perfect forehead. Before the world died, it wouldn’t have mattered. Before the Marking, no one would have cared about a few bumps. It would be harmless: acne, a bug bite, or a reaction to hair product. It shouldn’t matter that his forehead has a blemish. It shouldn’t terrify me, but it does. Because that small rash means Wesley is Marked, and in under three years, he’s going to die terribly.
And now, so am I.