By Colleen Britton
I lie on my side, losing the feeling in my right arm. I can’t see Dad, but I feel the pressure as he squeezes my hand. I didn’t ask him to come, but I’m glad he did. I try to squeeze back with deadened fingers that don’t move.
It’s the tenth day in October, I am sixteen years old, and I am getting my first tattoo.
The parlor is in our neighborhood. It’s the sort of place that crops up in every city, in old buildings and unused rooms. I didn’t know what I wanted when I followed Dad inside. The artist gave me a book to look through, and went out on the stoop to smoke. I had a cigarette’s length to decide.
When he came back, pushing his sleeves up to reveal arms covered with tattooed eyes like scales, I pointed to a picture. “This one,” I said, and tapped my neck. “Here.”
I’ve been under the needle for exactly fifty two minutes. I know because I’ve been watching the hands of a clock on the wall creep from six toward seven. The needle hurts. It hurts worse than anything I know, like being bitten by sharp, tiny teeth. Stars flash in front of my eyes until I jam them shut. I sweat through my shirt. I think I am going to pass out.
I try to focus on something else.
Kate. I have always liked the name Kate. I like how abrupt it is, and how it sounds red-violet. I like the H that isn’t there, not a sigh, but a single, ragged breath. It’s the name I’ve been thinking about, the one I’m going to choose. I’ve had longer than a cigarette break to decide. I think Mom would’ve liked it, too. Not that I could’ve told her, not yet, not ever.
The artist dabs at my skin, wiping away ink and blood. The bearings in his swivel stool squeak as he leans back. “All done,” he says. “You wanna see?”
I exhale a trembling breath. When I’m sure I’m not going to pass out, I nod. Dad helps me sit up, and the artist hands me a plastic mirror. I tilt my head carefully as if my skin might split. A black hand wraps around my neck, fingers on my pulse. An unblinking eye stares at me from the middle of its palm.
Dad grins. “Looks great, Little One.” I can see his reflection in the mirror. The first two buttons of his shirt are undone, and a small, black eye peers at me from the folds of his wilted collar.
The artist smears oil over my neck and smoothes clear wrap over the design. “Take care of it,” he warns, “and it’ll take care of you.”
Knotting my scarf, I promise I will. Dad holds up my coat for me to slide my hands into the sleeves. I shrug on the cool leather, and we leave without paying. We don’t have to. There’s no need.
Outside, the sun has nearly set, dragging the warm air and light into darkening treetops. I blow into my hands, stomping my feet to keep warm. Dad starts to ask me if I want spaghetti for dinner when someone calls to me.
I turn. A gangly boy and a white-blonde girl wave to me from the street. Like me, they’re both dressed in black. I wave back, and wait for them to catch up.
The boy is wearing a baggy trench coat. It flutters behind him in the wind. He bobs his head and salutes Dad with loose fingers. “Sup, Big Daddy?”
Dad grimaces and nods hello. He hates it when Tall calls him that, and that’s why he does it. That, and because I’m called Little One.
Tall looks at me, and jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “We’re going to the park. Wanna come?”
I look up at Dad. “Do you mind?”
His mouth pulls to one side under his moustache. I can tell he wants to say no, but that’s the one word he can never say. Not to me, anyway. Instead, he sags into a shrug.
“Be back before eleven,” he says. He cups my upper arm. “And be careful, okay? You’re all I’ve got.”
“Yeah, yeah.” My cheeks burn despite the cold.
I stand on tiptoe to peck him on the cheek, then turn and collapse into my friends. They snicker, push and shove me, and together we trip up the street. At the corner, I glance over my shoulder. Dad is still standing there, hands in his pockets, watching.
“So, you finally got it, huh?” says Tall. He sweeps my hair away from my neck, and checks out my tattoo. He smoothes the clear wrap, tilting my chin away. I shiver.
“Did it hurt?” asks the girl. “Did you cry?” Her eyes gleam, bright and colorless. No one knows what to call her. Nothing seems to fit.
“No,” I snap and push Tall off of me. He laughs and lets go, ambling with long, easy strides.
We pass through the park gate. It arches over the sidewalk, dripping flakes of paint and rust. It used to say the name of the park, but most of the letters have fallen down. Now, it just reads B LE S. Tall jumps up, and smacks the S. The girl shakes her head.
The sidewalk leans left, and we follow it to a bench huddled under a leafless oak tree. It faces a vast concrete space. In the middle of the space, a copper cauldron glows from within with the light of a small, orange flame. Tall sits on the back of the bench, his feet on the seat. The girl and I pile in on either side, all touching, arms and legs overlapping.
The wind picks up again, tugging at our hair and clothes. Tall bends over and pulls an amber liquor bottle out of his trench coat. He takes a pull, and offers it to me, the eye tattoo on the back of his hand gazing at me as if it’s waiting to see what I’ll do.
I shake my head.
Tall grins. “Sissy.”
The girl takes a cigarette out of the breast pocket of her jean jacket. Her lighter goes fthpt, and gutters in the wind. She shields the cigarette with her hand. The tip catches and flares. She drags on it, and passes it to me. I lift it to my lips, letting it ash without inhaling.
“So, have you gotten yours yet?” I ask her. “Your tattoo?”
“Of course,” she snorts, taking the cigarette away from me. “Forever ago.”
“Then, let’s see it.” Tall bumps her shoulder with the liquor bottle. “Or did you get it somewhere the light don’t shine?”
My cheeks would have been on fire, but the girl’s face is as pale and cool as stone. She puts the cigarette in her mouth, and shrugs out of her jacket, wadding it into my hands. Grabbing the hem of her shirt, she pulls it halfway up her brassiere, exposing skin that glows ghostly white in the darkness.
The bottom of the tattoo is hidden, tucked into her jeans. The rest stretches over her skinny ribs, covering her entire side. It’s a hand, like mine, but huge. The fingers are relaxed, the ring finger drooping toward the thumb. An eye looks out from the palm, bleary and half-lidded.
“Holy–” Tall whistles in place of the cuss. He jumps down off the bench and examines the tattoo, hands on his thighs. He glances up at the girl, reaching to brush her side. “How long did that take?”
“Awhile,” she says, yanking her shirt down. She looks down at me, and grabs her jacket. “And, yeah, it hurt.”
I can’t tell if she’s proud of it or if she’s taunting me so I change the subject. “Have you guys picked your names yet?”
Tall collapses back onto the bench, knocking me with his knees. He takes a swig from his bottle, and dangles it around my neck.
“Maybe,” he says. “Have you?”
His breath reeks of alcohol. I want to like being this close to a boy, but I don’t. Not him, not while he’s like this. “I think so,” I answer.
The girl drapes her jacket around her shoulders, and flicks her cigarette. “You know what happens if you tell someone your name, right? Before the ceremony?”
Tall lolls his head on the back of the bench. “The Nameless hears, and devours your soul. Blah, blah, blah.” He flaps his fingers together like a hand puppet. “Everybody knows that.”
I rub my arms. I don’t like to think about the Nameless, its formless shadow. They should have given it a name. Names make things easier to deal with – like how when I was old enough, Dad told me Mom hemorrhaged. It was easier than saying what it really meant.
The girl persists, “But do you believe it?”
“Yes,” I blurt. Tall laughs and gives me a shove. I grab the bottle and take a swig. It burns all the way down.
She takes a step toward Tall. “Do you?”
“No,” he says. He stands up and shouts into the cauldron, “No!” He turns back to her, his voice still echoing. “I don’t believe it.”
The girl laughs, cigarette smoke pouring out of her mouth. “It killed all those kids, and you still don’t believe?” She leans toward Tall, but she is looking at me. “You know, I heard a boy in the town over didn’t believe.”
I clutch my scarf. I can’t resist. “What happened?”
“He died,” she says, the words dropping like a stone. “His name was Marcus. Or so I’m told.”
Tall sneers, “Bull.”
“Then tell me your name.”
Something in her tone freezes my blood. Her silhouette is picked out by the firelight, and her shadow stretches and grows. Tall’s smile fades, but only for a moment. He leers at her.
“Tell me yours.”
He grabs the bottle back from me and takes two gulps, liquor streaming down his chin. Gripping the bottle in his tattooed hand, he cocks his wrist and hurls it into the fire. The glass shatters and the liquor explodes, whoosh, shooting a fireball up into the darkness. For a moment, everything is illuminated. I see Tall’s glittering eyes, but the girl’s are hidden, hollowed out black holes. A car alarm goes off. A dog starts barking. Tall wipes his mouth with his sleeve and stumbles, drunk.
I jump to my feet. “I have to go home,” I say. It’s not even nine. I don’t care.
The girl drops her cigarette, and snubs it underfoot. She lights another. “Okay.”
She wraps her arm around Tall’s waist, steering him down the sidewalk. They zigzag across the pavement in a kind of waltz. I follow after them in a straight line.
The girl pauses at the gate. “Want us to walk you home?” She sounds completely normal again, speaking around the cigarette clamped between her teeth.
I tip my head at Tall. “I don’t think Dad would be too happy,” I say, but it’s just my excuse.
“Yeah, this guy’s blitzed,” she agrees. “Well, see ya.”
“S’ya,” Tall slurs.
I press my lips into what feels like a smile. “Bye.”
They go left, I go right. Balling my fists into my pockets, I hurry down the street. The thick soles of my boots ring out against the pavement, ricocheting off the brownstones like dozens of footsteps following just behind. My breath comes out in quick, white puffs. I try to slow down, but the footsteps keep coming faster and faster. By the time I realize I’m running, I’m already halfway home.
I force myself to stop, and lean against a building to catch my breath. My neck feels like it’s on fire. I tear off my scarf, but it doesn’t help. I peel off the cling wrap and wad it into a ball, jamming it into my pocket. The breeze slides its cool fingers over my skin, and I start to feel better.
As my breathing slows, I think about what Tall said, about the Nameless. I remember when Dad first told me the story. It was different from other stories, he insisted, because it was true.
There was only before and after. That’s what Dad said, what his mother had told him. It wasn’t until later they discovered it was the Nameless, cherry-picking names and little lives one by one. By the time they figured how to stop it, the ground was already filled with tiny graves.
Pushing myself off the ragged brick, I step back into the street. Except for a few cars, parallel-parked, the neighborhood is empty. All the windows are dark, and the streetlamps give off only a milky glow. I skim my tongue over my lips and listen. I am alone.
The word balances on the tip of my tongue. It’s like standing on the edge, and wondering what it would be like to jump. Maybe Mom is waiting on the other side. The word reels forward, and I have to hold my breath to keep it in. Dad needs me. I can’t tell anyone, not yet.
My chest tightens. I inhale slowly and whisper to no one and to myself, “Kate.”
Silence. I suddenly feel lightheaded. A giggle bubbles up from my throat. It sounds exactly the way I imagined it – red-violet Khate.
I say it again, louder so that it bounces off the street. “Kate!”
An explosion of sound erupts from the alley. I hurl myself back, mouth gaping in a silent scream. I clutch my hands to my chest as if they could somehow keep the Nameless from snatching out my soul.
But it’s only a cat, sleek and brindle, perching on top of the trash can he’s just pushed over. He hops down lightly, slinking toward me, and winds himself through my legs. He blinks up at me, and his glowing green eyes seem to say, I heard you. I know.
I tear down the street, and I don’t stop running till I’m home.
I put on my best clothes, a plain black dress that falls to the knee, and don’t feel any different. I don’t know what the Nameless looks like – no one does – but I am sure it’s not a cat. Nobody heard me. I’m still safe. And, in just a few hours, I can tell anybody I want. “Hi, my name’s Kate. What’s yours?”
I walk down the stairs from my room, and meet Dad in the foyer. He’s wearing nice clothes, too, but they’re threadbare and years out of date. We step outside and he locks the door behind us, turning the knob to make sure it’s shut. I wait for him on the sidewalk. When he turns, his face is flushed and his eyes are watering.
I hesitate, then ask, “You okay?”
He waves his hand, but grasps mine with the other. “I’m just,” he swallows against the thickness in his throat, “happy for you.”
“It’s been tough sometimes, and you’ve grown up so much.” He looks straight ahead, holding my hand tight. “I’m proud of you, Little One.”
“Dad.” I say it like I’m fed up, but it’s all I can really manage.
“And, I’m not saying you have to,” he adds, “but I’ve always hoped you’d pick your mother’s name.”
We walk slowly, the wind pushing at our backs. Dad’s hand is warm and alive in mine, and I try to imagine what my mother’s might have been like. At the end, it was probably something like at the tattoo parlor, living fingers clasping a deadening limb. Even now, I can only think of it as cold.
Turning the corner, we enter the park. I don’t slap the S like Tall did, but my fingers loosen and I drop Dad’s hand. I instantly regret it. For some stupid reason, I just don’t want anyone to see.
The flame in the cauldron is now a bonfire, slashing at the darkening sky. I spot Tall and his family and the pale girl with hers. There are other kids, too, dozens – all dressed in black, all tattooed, their tattooed parents hovering over them. I know them all, but I don’t wave or say hello. I’ll introduce myself to them later, after.
A woman stands near the cauldron alone, her hands folded into black robes that billow in the wind. Her head is shaved, and a staring eye is tattooed on the back of her skull. No matter which way she turns, she is always watching.
We wait as a few more kids show up, their families in tow. The last is a mother and her son. She tries to comb his hair with her fingers. He brushes her off, scowling.
Once everyone is gathered around the cauldron, the woman begins to speak.
“Welcome,” she says, her voice deep, melodious. “Welcome, all. We are gathered here to celebrate the coming of age, when our young ones have survived their youth, and when they will at last choose their names.”
A murmur ripples through the crowd. The woman waits for silence and continues.
“We have upheld this tradition since we first learned how to thwart the Nameless. We have protected our children’s identities, as they have protected themselves. We have made them as one, nondescript, Unnamed.”
“But, today,” she smiles, “they will be Named.”
Dad nudges me, our arms bumping together. The woman unfolds her hands from her sleeves, and produces a roll of parchment. The wind snatches at it, trying to pry it from her fingers
“You Unnamed will record your names, and submit them to the fire. In so doing, the sacred flame will transmute your identity and cleave it to your being. Only then will you be safe from the Nameless and all its wiles.”
With quick strides, the woman approaches the first kid, a boy. She unrolls the parchment and tears off a strip, pressing it into his hands. She moves on to the next kid, and the next. When she reaches me, I see that she is blind, her eyelids sealed shut with ropy white scar tissue. She tears off a strip of parchment, and presses it into my hand. I close my fingers around it, and then she is gone, moving on around the circle. The last piece goes to a girl who can’t take her eyes off the scar tissue.
“Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers,” says the woman, returning to her place near the cauldron, “I ask you now to turn your backs on these children. When next you see them, you will know them for the first time.”
Dad turns. The other families do the same, their feet shuffling against the pavement. The woman addresses us, the Unnamed.
“I invite you to draw your blood. Write your names on the parchment, and cast them into the fire.”
I crouch down, and pull a small knife from my boot. Around me, the other kids do the same, retrieving knives from sleeves, shoes, and waistbands, little flashes of silver in the waning light. It wasn’t always like this – blood, fire, and secrets in the dark. Dad said kids used to be named when they were just babies. Parents talked about whether to call them Jane or John before they were even born. Not anymore, not for a long time. A lot of Janes and a lot of Johns were snuffed out like candles before they figured out that this was the only way.
With a trembling hand, I press the tip of the blade into my finger. A bead of blood wells against my skin as shiny and dark as a beetle. I tuck the knife back into my boot, and smear my fingertip over the parchment. I already know what I will write. I’ve always known. I draw the letters slowly, letting my blood soak the paper. K-A-T-E, the name of my mother.
I fold the parchment in half, making a Rorschach with my blood. Clutching it to my chest, I look up. Most of us have already written our names. A few chew their lips, shifting their weight, trying to decide. We wait as the last girl writes her name. She scribbles furiously, pausing to squeeze her finger like a tube of toothpaste before slashing it across the parchment. I have to wonder – is she crossing a T or dotting an I?
When the rustling stops, the woman spreads her arms wide. “Come,” she says, “and be known.”
We hesitate, rocking on the balls of our feet. Finally, a boy marches toward the cauldron. A girl follows him, then a boy, another and another until we’ve all fallen into line. Our parents have turned around again, their expressions flickering in the soaring, orange light.
The first boy steps up to the cauldron. He crumples his parchment in his hand, and throws it into the fire. He faces us, drawing himself up.
“I am William,” he says. A smile spreads over his face, and he crosses the pavement to his family. They catch him up, and I hear them murmuring, William, William.
It’s a girl’s turn now. She steps up to the cauldron, and flings her parchment into the fire, snatching her hand back as if the flames might consume her, too.
She turns, eyes searching for her family. “I am Sarah.” Her voice catches, and, for a moment, I think she might cry. She runs to her parents, burying herself in her mother’s breasts.
Another boy goes up, Caleb. Then twin girls, Stella and Ella. I think they must have told each other, that they didn’t really believe. The next is Tall. He jogs up to the cauldron, and lets his name float into the fire.
He spins on his heel, and pumps his fists over his head. “I am Max!”
His family whoops. The boy I knew as Tall swaggers past me. He winks, and I realize I’m grinning. I whisper, “Hi, Max.”
He leans in close. “Goodbye, L.O.” Warmth floods through me. It’s almost my turn.
The line inches forward, kids peeling off one by one, telling the world the only secret they’ve ever had to keep – Lillie, Steven, Michael, and Cora. Overhead, the sky is a deep cobalt, the only trace of light is a sliver of blue-white on the horizon. The wind picks up. I am first in line.
The woman gazes at me with blinded eyes. Her smile beckons. I step forward, holding the parchment against my chest. The heat from the fire burns my cheeks, but my back is cold in my shadow. Suddenly, I am transfixed, mesmerized by the dancing flames. They curl molten fingers to me. Come, they seem to say. Come.
I lift my hand. My name is on the tip of my tongue. I can taste it, red-violet and sweet like berries in a pie. I hold the parchment over the fire, close my eyes, and let go.
The wind takes my name. It snatches the parchment from the flames, brushing it backward over my skin like a dead, dry leaf. I grab at it, my hands closing around thin air. The parchment sails over my shoulder. I whirl, darting after it. It drops, batted down, and plasters itself against an ankle in black tights.
I look up, and see the ankle is the girl’s, my friend’s. I had no idea she was behind me, and I smile at her, heady with relief. She bends over, her pale bangs falling into her face. She plucks the parchment from her leg and straightens, slipping her hair behind her ear. I hold out my hand.
The girl does not give it back. I stare, numb, as she unfolds the paper. Her ultra light eyes flick over the word once, twice, hungry. She licks her lips with a bloodless pink tongue, and reads my name aloud.
Now I know what the Nameless looks like. It’s a gust of wind and shrinking flames, it’s a girl for whom names don’t seem to fit, and it hurts worse than anything I know.