Young Adult Fantasy
The Infinite Betrayal of June Grey
My sixteenth birthday was less about candles and more about death. Not my death, of course, that would have been much too macabre for my seemingly delicate mother; no, this birthday was about the death I would be responsible for. The death that had clouded my mind since I was nine and walked into the mudroom, looking for my polka dot boots. Instead, I found my parents spraying their hands and forearms clean, spattering the porcelain wash bin a diluted crimson.
Once the initial panic had passed, they sat me down, dried my tears, and showed me how to use a gun.
Seven years later, the stories from that day still give me nightmares. They’re the reason I take comfort in the firearm tucked into the waistband of my jeans, the cool steel a constant reminder of my purpose in this world. I may not technically be a member of the Guard yet, but I still carry. And I certainly don't have the training to kill a full grown dragon, but I’d like to think I could bust a cap if I needed to.
Bust a cap? I can't help but snort. I am such a moron.
“What are you snorting at?” Lucy says from my desk chair, her eyebrows raised, ready to throw the sarcasm that’s sure to spout from my mouth right back in my face.
“Just my incredible hilarity.” The half-truth comes easier than it should. Lucy might be my best friend, but she can’t know what I am.
“Laughing at your own jokes again, June?”
I give a solemn nod. “I am.”
We bust into laughter, drowning out the music we weren’t listening to anyway. The older we get, the less moments we have like this, so I’m grateful for it. After tomorrow night, there may not be many more.
“How in the world did I get stuck with you two?” Tuck’s comment makes us laugh harder, just as he meant it to. He winks his right eye, the one people always notice because of the scar that runs from his eyebrow to his jaw, and I catch myself watching him. My awe, both at the creature who did the damage, as well as the boy who fought for his life, grows each time I see him. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Tuck survived.
His deep chuckle joins with our high-pitched laughter and something twists in my stomach. After hounding me to be more than friends for too long, he finally got his wish. I'm not sure he realizes I didn't enter the Promising willingly.
The uncertainty that settles in my gut must show on my face, because he gives me an odd look and says, “I’m just kidding, Grey. I wouldn’t be mean to you on your birthday. Now, tomorrow--that might be a different story--but today, you’re safe.”
Despite my apprehension, I smile. This is more of the Tuck I know--the easy-going boy with the cheerful grin. I much prefer him over the sullen, irritable version I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday.
But it's not the Promising that has Tuck on edge. Tomorrow we'll go through the Induction, provided the Council decides to keep us.
Two sharp knocks and my door creaks open.
Mom is smiling in a red apron, looking more like an average housewife than the warrior I know her to be. “June, guests are starting to arrive. Why don’t you guys come down?”
I dare to groan only after I'm sure she’s down the stairs. “Ugh, I don’t want to do this.” I feel a little like a six-year-old throwing a tantrum as I flop back on my bed and stare at the ceiling.
“So you dragged us into it?” Lucy stands over me, hands on her hips, long red hair framing her face in waves that I have tried duplicating--without success--countless times.
I smile and shrug. “Misery and company and all that.”
It’s her turn to scoff, but I catch the small tug of her lips before she turns. Lucy's a much better friend than I am. She tells me everything. I tell her lies.
The gnarled hands of guilt squeeze my heart, but I push it to the side. When you live in a world where dragons become humans with the self-control of a rabid dog, some secrets are better left kept.
“Well, let’s get this borefest over with, then,” I say through a sigh, heaving myself off the bed.
Lucy’s already out the door, but Tuck stands by the opening, arms crossed over his broad chest, leaning one shoulder against the wall. The air in the room changes as I catch him watching me, thickening into something I struggle to swallow. So many things I want to say, need to say, but I don’t have the words. Either because they won’t come to me or I can’t say them, I really don’t know, but the longer we stand here, the worse it gets, so I shoot for something neutral.
“Nice to see you’re no longer PMSing.” The words tumble from my mouth of their own accord, ignoring my pleas for them to come back. Brilliant, June. Just brilliant. Saying something like that would have been fine before, but is that how you're supposed to talk to a fiancee?
Throwing his head back, Tuck laughs before I can overreact to the F-word. “PMSing,” he says, shaking his head. Then he sobers and his brow creases. "Sorry about yesterday, but this morning I had a simulation and, well, you know how it is. Take down a few lizards, some hand-to-hand, release some aggression.”
He shrugs his shoulders, a gesture that speaks volumes, and he’s right. I get it. The simulations clear my head like a run or an hour of yoga does for others. It’s less about the exercise, though, and more about the tunnel my mind creates when I’m there, like nothing else exists.
“Yes, well,” I say, making my way toward the door, “there is something cathartic about pulling that trigger.” The thought has me pulling at the ends of my shirt. It wouldn’t do to walk into a birthday party filled with old folks and have the butt of a glock sticking out of my jeans.
When I'm almost out the door, Tuck doesn’t move to leave. Instead, he puts his arm across the opening, blocking my way. My breath catches in my throat.
My name is a rumble that I feel deep in my chest. It flutters around in there, pattering over my heart and thudding against my ribs.
Somehow I manage to swallow past the mountain lodged in my throat and look up. There is an odd light in his eyes that I can’t place. It changes, darkening each time his gaze roams over my face. He pauses at my lips, then works his way up. When his eyes meet mine again, he smiles. It’s wide and genuine and I can't help but echo with my own.
He taps the bottom of my chin with a knuckle and says, “Happy Birthday.”
The flutter changes then. No longer is it one butterfly or even two, but an entire swarm beating their wings on the inside of my chest, drowning out the noise of the arriving guests below.
I can't do this. Can't feel this way.
Desperate to break up the tension, I punch his arm. "Thanks, loser."