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 has 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 haunt me. Stories about monsters that hide in plain sight. The monsters my parents protect the humans from. They’re the reason I carry a firearm like others carry a cell phone. It's my lifeline and a constant reminder of the danger--and 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 can hold my own.
Well, that’s what the Virtual Trials would have me believe.
“So why, exactly, don’t you want this party?” Lucy says from where she twirls in my desk chair.
“Because I like my loner status. I’ve got you two, I don’t need anyone else. And it’s going to be full of old people.” The half truth comes easier than it should. Lucy 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 rabid dogs, some secrets are better left kept.
“I am pretty awesome,” she says, pretending to polish her fingernails on the sleeve of her vintage T-shirt.
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.
“Dang, Luce. How is it that so much arrogance can fit into such a tiny person?” 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. No way am I ready for a fiancé.
The uncertainty that settles in my gut must show on my face, because he gives me an odd look and says, “Smile, Grey. It won’t be so bad. There’ll be food.” His brow furrows and he looks at me hard. “There will be food, right?”
“Sure, Tuck.” Despite my apprehension, I smile. This is more of the Tuck I know--the easygoing boy with the cheerful grin. I much prefer him over the sullen, irritable version of yesterday. His emotions are more out of control than mine lately.
But it's not the Promising that has Tuck on edge. Tomorrow we’ll start our training as dragon hunters, 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. I feel like a six-year-old on the verge of a tantrum as I flop back on my bed and stare at the ceiling. “Ugh, I don’t want to do this.”
“Well, neither do I, but you dragged us into it, so let’s go.” Lucy stands over me, hands on her hips, long red hair falling over one shoulder.
“Fine, but I’m not going to have any fun.”
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’s already out the door, where Tuck stands by the opening, arms crossed over his broad chest, leaning one shoulder against the wall. As I catch him watching me, the air in the room changes, thickening into something that 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.
“Glad to see you smiling today.”
"Yeah,” he says, shaking his head. "Sorry about yesterday. This morning I had a VT 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 trials 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 to the door, Tuck doesn’t move to let me through. 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’s an odd light in his eyes that I can’t place. It changes, darkening as his gaze roams over my face. He pauses at my lips, then works his way up to my eyes. When he smiles, it’s wide and genuine and I can't help but echo it with my own.
He taps the bottom of my chin with a finger and says, “Happy Birthday.”
The flutter changes then. No longer is it one butterfly or even two, but an entire swarm beating their wings against 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," I say, but before I can pull back, he has my hand, threading his fingers through mine. I always forget how quick he is.
"Loser?" he says, taking a step forward. "Well, that's not very nice."
"I never said I was nice." My lips form into a wry smile and I step around him, out the door. His carefree laughter follows me down the stairs.