Author’s Note: BRIGHT DECAY is a superhero sci-fi about a girl who can stop time. As of June 2019, the 90k-word novel is available on Amazon. Right now, you can read the first three chapters for free, here on my website.
Chapter 2 Needle
Skylar left the ice cream parlor with a cone in each hand. The receipt was crumpled inside her palm. West Coast summer in the Pacific Northwest was usually more pleasant than this, but this lukewarm summer day was perfect for ice cream. She didn’t have to worry about them melting onto her hands.
Alysia gladly accepted hers and took a generous lick. The two of them curled up on the car seats. The engine was off. The windows were down. They parked in the plaza, in front of the ice cream parlor. The lot was mostly empty.
Skylar raised her legs to rest them on the dashboard.
“What do you think of the Golden Boy?” Alysia asked casually.
“Palmer?” Skylar was caught off guard. “What about him?”
“Do you think he’s gonna join the Academy? I heard he had been planning to join the military. That’s basically the same thing, but more…uncommon.” Alysia giggled at her own genius. “Or, he could start a jewelry store, turning junk into gold.”
“He could learn more about his power,” Skylar pointed out. “Academy could be good for him.”
“There’s really not much to learn. I mean, he touches something, it turns to gold.”
“He could learn to…not turn everything to gold.”
“Is that even possible?”
Skylar took small bites of her Rocky Road. It chilled her teeth.
“Did you see him turning back?” she asked. “Or is he going to be stuck like that for the rest of his life?”
“There are worse-looking uncommons out there. He’s fine.”
“It’s still…kind of weird,” Skylar decided. “Some look completely normal, some could never blend in.”
Alysia thought about it. “Do you think that woman is uncommon? She looked normal, but she does work for D.U.R.M.A.”
“Not all D.U.R.M.A. employees are uncommons, I don’t think.” Skylar guessed. “Otherwise they would be a very small organization.”
Their scoops were diminishing. Alysia twisted the key and turned on the air conditioner. Music blasted from the radio. Alysia turned it down.
“What’s the thing you want to show me?” Skylar asked, remembering the topic.
“We can go back to my house, if you want.” Alysia looked around their surroundings. “It’s not exactly convenient to show you here.”
“Okay.” Skylar knew not to ask what it was. Alysia liked her surprises.
They pulled away from the lot and onto the road. Ravenmont had mild summers, though it got hotter into July and August. It was mid-June, the best days in Skylar’s opinion. The old sedan raced down the open road. Alysia drove it as if it was a sports car.
“It must be kind of fun to have powers,” Skylar mused, rolling down the window.
Alysia glanced at her briefly, then fixed her eyes on the road.
“It must be.”
They arrived at a small one-story house on the edge of a neighborhood. Their town was calm and clean, located on the outskirt of the city. Their neighbors had well-trimmed lawns and American flags near the front door. It was almost July, after all.
Alysia’s family had lived in Washington state until the 5/25 incident that had rendered Seattle uninhabitable. That was four years ago. A terrorist group had attacked a family of uncommons, who defended themselves somewhat successfully. The collateral damage, however, laid waste to the city.
Alysia and her parents had evacuated in time, and they left the state altogether. Ravenmont was located under Washington and above Oregon, so the state became their next choice of a home. They had been living in Wilkindale since.
“Come in.” Alysia parked the car on the slope in front of the garage. She took the duffel bag and swung it over her shoulder. “My parents are at the studio.”
Each house that was not Skylar’s own had a distinctive smell. Alysia’s home smelled like a bird’s nest. Her parents’ artworks and supplies stuffed the place. Large canvases leaned against the walls.
Skylar navigated the walkway, following Alysia to her room. Alysia kept her room dark with thick maroon curtains. There were no ceiling lights. She walked over to her desk and turned on the lamp, next to her collection of alien plants. Three pots in different sizes, but none larger than a palm. Two were obviously dead, at least to an earthling’s eyes. The other one was a blight sight, but flowering. Blue shimmering bulbs hung low.
“The greenhouse said they should all bloom,” Alysia explained upon seeing Skylar’s glance. “I don’t actually mind though. You get what you pay for.”
“How much are they?”
“A hundred bucks for all three. It’s a bargain.”
Skylar nodded as if she thought it was indeed a bargain. “Where did you get those?”
“A greenhouse. I already said it.”
Normal greenhouses didn’t stock alien flora. Skylar glanced at the plants again. They must’ve been from a questionable source, but she didn’t point it out.
Skylar sat down in her usual place near the window.
Setting the bag on the carpeted floor, Alysia plopped down in front of Skylar and reached over to open the zipper.
Inside, there was nothing too strange. Sports clothes, like Skylar had guessed. Alysia took them out and threw them to the pile near her bed.
A paperback book lay at the bottom. Alysia removed it without giving it a second glance. Skylar saw it was a science fiction.
“Wait a minute.” Alysia stared at the empty bag, thinking. She then went back to the clothes pile and dug out a sweater. She unwrapped the bundle, revealing a bottle of ink. She set it aside and raised the sweater with both hands. It was in navy blue, the school color, with “WHHS” on the front. Wilkin Hills High School.
“Can you believe it? I’m never wearing this shit again.” She let out an exaggerated sigh, then lowered her voice to a mutter. “Great.”
“That’s a bottle of ink.” Skylar glanced at the object. “That’s what you are showing me?”
“There’s more.” Alysia ignored her mocking tone. She reached into the pocket of the sweater and took out a pencil pouch. “Promise you won’t laugh, or get scared, or call the cops?”
“Sure.” Skylar let suspicion drip from her voice. “I promise.”
Alysia crossed her legs, one hand holding the ink bottle, the other holding the pencil pouch. She took a deep breath.
“I have uncommon power,” Alysia said.
Skylar blinked. “Okay…” She slowly processed the information. “What’s your power?”
“I can—” Alysia began to speak. “Uh, let me show you.”
She set the objects down and lifted the hem of her t-shirt. Skylar’s eyes widened as she saw the flower there. It was a rose on a thin stem, inked on her rib cage.
“You got a tattoo?” Skylar asked. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.” Alysia huffed. “Now shut up and look.”
She touched the rose tattoo, with her thumb and index finger closed upon the stem. Nails quietly scratched the skin.
Her hand pulled away, holding a real rose.
“You…”Skylar gasped. “Wow!”
The tattoo was made of dots and lines, but then it became the real thing. Three-dimensional, organic, real. Rose petals fluttered as Alysia lightly shook the flower. Instead of being red or white, or any natural color, it was tan like the color of Alysia’s skin. Other than that, it was every bit as real as something that grew from dirt.
Skylar inhaled the air. A fresh fume, a pleasant scent.
The tattoo was gone, turned into the real thing. Alysia let her shirt down, grinning cheekily.
“What do you think?”
“This is magic.” Skylar decided.
Alysia threw her head back and laughed heartily, the weight lifted from her chest.
“I thought you’d think it’s creepy,” she admitted.
“It is. Kind of. It’s way too cool.” Skylar was grinning. “So this is your power. Turning tattoos into real things?”
Alysia nodded. “I’m learning to do tattoos, look.” She grabbed an orange from her table.
Alysia turned it around and showed Skylar the sketch of an origami crane on the skin of the orange. At first look, Skylar thought Alysia had drew it on there. Upon closer inspection, the dark lines were made of multiple dots.
“I was practicing. They not only work on me, but other things as well.” She touched the crane, and the origami came alive and fell into her palm. The fruit became ink-less. Alysia pressed the origami to the orange, and the tattoo reappeared.
“You try it.” Alysia shoved the orange into Skylar’s hands. “It should work. I have a feeling.”
Skylar touched the orange and nothing happened.
“It’s not working,” Skylar said. “Should I press harder?”
“No need.” Alysia stared at the orange. “Just think of it becoming real. It should work.”
It was peculiar how the orange paper crane just fell out of the curved surface and into her hand. Skylar stared at it with her mouth slightly open. She turned it around in her hand.
“Do your parents know?”
“My power? No.” Alysia scoffed. “They’d freak. And they’d tell me to get registered.”
“You don’t want to?”
“Of course I don’t. I did look up the registration process. There was fine print, saying technically D.U.R.M.A. could conscript you.” Alysia gestured as she spoke. “You saw what Carver was doing, right? His power is so convenient. His boss is probably laughing in his sleep, getting his hands on an uncommon like that. I bet he works all day, opening doors. He’s basically the D.U.R.M.A. Express.”
“There are other options,” Skylar told her. “Imagine what you can do. You can open a tattoo parlor.”
“Mm, that would be nice,” Alysia hummed. “People from around the world would come and visit my little shop. I would charge outrageous prices…”
“Do you want one?” Alysia abruptly asked. “I have my tools here.”
Skylar hesitated. She never thought of getting a tattoo, but she didn’t hate the idea of getting her skin inked, either.
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Alysia quickly said. “I understand. It’s a bit weird, and not everyone likes tattoos.”
“Have you tried it on someone else?”
“A teammate,” Alysia admitted. “Brea Harada. She always wanted a tattoo but she’s scared of the parlors. She read somewhere that a hand poked tattoo hurts less. I’m not sure.” Alysia played with the ink bottle. “She doesn’t know about my power, though. You’re the first one I told.”
Skylar nodded in appreciation. “But isn’t it kind of risky? What if one day her tattoo…falls off?”
“I gave her a star. A tiny, simple one. Here.” She pointed at her ankle. “Plus, it won’t come off unless she wants it to. Even though it does, I doubt it’d be much of a difference.”
Alysia let Skylar think for a moment.
“Alright.” Skylar agreed. “I’ll do it.”
“Great! What do you want? I can… I have to do it life-like. But nothing too difficult.”
Alysia emptied her pouch. There were needles and threads, even a ruler. She pulled her notebook to her lap, a pen in hand. She was looking at Skylar with expectation.
Skylar wasn’t going to back down. She scanned the room, looking for inspiration. Alysia’s belongings were quite ordinary, and she didn’t want the quirky ones forever on her skin.
“A needle,” Skylar said.
“A needle?” Alysia arched her eyebrows.
“Like one of those.” Skylar pointed at the tattoo kit. “But shorter and smaller. Like a sewing needle.”
“Ah.” Alysia sketched. A thin stick with a hole at one end. It should be easy to do. “Why a needle?”
“Why not?” Skylar knew why. They had met on the first day of an elective art class. The teacher was quite…experimental, and had the bunch of students take up sewing. Skylar had been sitting alone and couldn’t get the string through the hole. Alysia had taken up Skylar as a charity case since then.
Skylar would never tell her that was the reason. She would laugh.
After Skylar decided to put it on her inner left wrist, Alysia prepared the tools and got started.
Skylar was trying to live recklessly, so she propped her arm out and waited. It was a moment so intense that she knew she would replay it in her head. She stored it in her head nicely, in case of future viewing.
It didn’t hurt too much. Alysia cursed about her low-quality tools as she had to switch to new ones during the process.
When it was done, Skylar examined the tattoo under the light. It was two inches long. A thin black line. Alysia was packing things away. Skylar attempted to help by cleaning the trash, though there wasn’t much.
“I wish I could just do this forever,” Alysia said wishfully, out of nowhere.
“That’s nice. I bet people out there would like this. You can really make a living out of it.”
She stopped packing and just stared at the equipment by her hands.
“I don’t know, everything is so…strange. I’ve been hoping for this all my life, and now I have a superpower. But everything isn’t suddenly better. I don’t know what I was expecting, sunshine and rainbows?”
“There’s a group. They’re after me.”
“They want me to arm their people. They have a militia or something. I don’t know how it happened. I’ve been careful. But they’ve been calling me and wanting to meet, and I don’t know how they got my numbers…”
“You should call D.U.R.M.A. They will protect you.”
“And be registered? And be used the same way?” Alysia growled. “You don’t understand. This group is dangerous. I know their kind. I’ve…I’ve seen them in Seattle.”
“But the Brigade is gone.” It was true. The Brigade had five uncommons and they all died during the Battle of Seattle. The common members were either dead or in prison.
“Now they’re recruiting. Uncommons like me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to run,” Alysia said. “Get out of state. Maybe to the East Coast. They’d have less influence there. I got a train ticket, and I’m leaving tonight.”
“You don’t understand,” she said gravely. “They showed up at my parents’ studio yesterday.”
Nothing good could last. Skylar knew Alysia would cut ties sooner or later. After all, high school was over and they both had to move on to the next stage of life. She expected Alysia to use an excuse because Skylar wasn’t as cool as her. She never anticipated this.
“You won’t tell anyone, right?” Alysia asked, somewhat insecurely.
“Of course not.” Skylar saw her visibly relax. “Unless someone’s torturing me for information. Then I would save my own life.”
Laughing, Alysia proceeded to swat her arm.
“But seriously. Promise me you’ll keep this a secret. I’d rather not deal with the D.U.R.M.A. bullshits now.”
The sun was setting. Alysia offered to drive her home. They quietly listened to the bad music on the radio.
“Thank you,” Skylar told her when exiting the car. She was being unnecessarily formal. “For telling me about…you. And for the tattoo.”
“Thanks for being my test orange.” Alysia grinned, though she looked exhausted. “Now you have something to remember me by.”
Skylar was nodding slowly. Somehow this felt different. She imagined getting a tattoo from Alysia would be different than getting one from a parlor, and not because Alysia is an uncommon human.
“I’ll find a way to call you,” Alysia said. “Or write a letter.”
The day of their graduation had become much more significant. Skylar watched Alysia drive away and disappear.
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