“Do you need any help?” asked Oliver Pastorius, lying on the couch, tossing a pillow up and down.
“No, sweets. Relax. Birthday boys can’t help.” Grandma Pamp smiled and pinched his elbow as she passed by. He caught sight of the mark on her palm and in doing so received a face-full of pillow. As he shoved the squishy square onto the floor, the clock chimed seven thirty. He sat up. A grin stretched across his face.
It was nearly time for them to catch the morning bus. He tried ignoring the pit in his stomach he felt for guilting his grandma into taking him into town for his ninth birthday. After all, they rarely left the house anymore.
“Besides,” she added, stooping to pick up the pillow before Oliver could and dropping it on his stomach, “You’ll need your strength for tomorrow.”
Oliver stiffened. “We’re moving?”
“Get your coat. We’ll talk as we walk.”
Outside was dewy and overcast; a chilly fifty degrees. Even on July thirteenth it was cold. Unfortunately, the Marked city didn’t understand birthdays. Oliver hadn’t expected it to be much different–sun, though he loved it, was as rare as snow at the beach.
“So,” she said, as they stood in the frigid morning air, hands deep inside their pockets and scarves tightly wrung around their necks. “Moving. I thought it was time we finally got out of that house.”
“Oh.” Oliver smiled but couldn’t help feel crestfallen. He loved that house. He grew up there.
“And we could find a place a bit further from the city,” she continued, puffs of white mist floating from her mouth.
He stared at his feet. “Further from the city–you would want that?”
“Well, I know you would. And it might be safer, what with, well, things.”
Just then the bus pulled up. They were forced to board and with so many passengers squished in the aisles, stand in separate places. Oliver’s questions had to wait.
Safer? From what? he couldn’t help wondering. Suddenly, the bus lurched forward. He flung his hand out to grip the handle and steady himself, when he caught sight of his grandma. She motioned for him to hide his hand, and begrudgingly, he jammed it back in his pocket.
Was that what they needed safety from? What was the big deal anyway? No one ever felt the need to tell him. Even at nine, he was treated like a toddler.
Since birth, Oliver bore a mark on his left palm like every other Marked. But unlike the rest, he had to keep his mark hidden. He had been given no explanation except he’d find out one day. For months, years even, he bugged his grandma for answers. But each time, her response was the same: “You’ll find out when it’s time.”
“But when?” Oliver would counter.
Her eyes twinkled as they surveyed his face, shooting him the tiniest bit of hope; however, as predictable as snow in winter, she’d say with a sigh, “When it’s time.”
Finally, Oliver gave in and stopped asking. He cooperated. He stayed home for school. He succumbed to the fact that eventually he would find out what his mark meant. But that didn’t help ease the jolt of jealousy he felt every time he’d see a kid use his mark.
A man, sitting across the aisle from Oliver, shifted ever so slightly behind his newspaper. He had a sharp face and short black hair and wore a suit that looked straight out of one of his grandma’s fashion magazines. Oliver’s eyes flitted over the man’s palm. B. “Birth Tree”; the Healer’s Mark.
Oliver slipped his hand back out to look. His mark held the shape of a downward facing F. The only shape that remained a mystery to him. Never once had he found any pictures of it in the books he had at home. And without a computer, his searching ended there. Maybe it was fake. Maybe he wasn’t a Marked. It hadn’t happened before, a kid born into a Marked family with a dull mark. But there was always a first for everything.
The bus lurched again and this time, sent Oliver directly into the lap of the man reading. He shot Oliver a disapproving look while trying to yank the paper out from under Oliver’s elbows.
“I’m so sorry,” said Oliver, embarrassed. He held his hands up in surrender but quickly dropped them, scooting backwards into an older woman, clinging to the pole of the bus. He gripped the pole just beneath her, shooting her an apologetic smile, and hoped no one had seen anything.
The next stop came.
“Get off the bus,” said Grandma Pamp and dragged Oliver by the elbow onto the street. As the bus pulled away, the man with the newspaper locked eyes with him through the window. A rumbling started in Oliver’s stomach as he watched him go. He had seen his mark.
She moved more quickly than Oliver had witnessed before, her eyes wide and focused, her fingers tightly clenched around his jacket. Not a word she said until they were hidden in what looked like a deserted church courtyard. When Grandma Pamp finally released him, he braced himself for a disappointed lecture.
Instead, she shook her head and mumbled to herself as she tried to catch her breath. Her tiny face had gone as white as ivory and her usually perfectly tied hair was slowly falling down around her face. Then, “I was being careless. We shouldn’t have come.”
“Grandma,” he said, touching her arm, which caused her to jump. “He barely saw anything. I’m sure he was just upset that I fell like an idiot into his lap.” But his palm seemed to burn inside his jacket. Even he wasn’t sure he believed himself. He continued. “Besides, what difference does it make? I haven’t been able to make my mark work. It’s defective or something. I don’t know what the big deal is.”
There. He finally confessed. It wasn’t working like it should. No skill. No talent. Nothing. And yet, all his grandma ever talked about was how he had to keep it hidden. Deep down, he worried this was the truth behind it. His family was simply embarrassed by his ineffective mark. Hiding it was their brave solution.
“Oliver, it does work. Just not in the way you know yet. And in many ways I hope you will never learn. I–” The sound of a branch cracking in the distance forced her to freeze. Seconds later, when nothing appeared, she continued, her brown eyes surveying Oliver’s. “I should have told you long ago. I’m just not comfortable telling you here. Later. After your outing. It’s your birthday, let’s not forget.”
“But what about the man on the bus? What if he did see? Would that be so bad?” Oliver asked, suddenly feeling a sense of urgency to know.
“Yes. I know exactly who that was. He’ll want explanations. And I for one am not ready to give them.”
“Later,” she said firmly, though flashed him a small smile. “But to be safe, let’s be quick in town. The faster we get home, the faster we can have cake, hmm?”
Before Oliver could press her any further, she had turned toward the main street, heading back into town. He sighed. No amount of pestering would change her mind–she was nothing if not stubborn. But as they dipped in and out of stores that morning, she seemed lost in thought. Several times Oliver caught her peering nervously around them and when a loud noise sounded on the street, he felt her arm tense up so tightly it shot fear through his own body.
Back at the bus, Grandma Pamp insisted he wait for her to board first. She hobbled up the stairs, paid their fee, then motioned for him to follow once she was seated. The bus rattled off down the road. Raindrops zipped up the windows as the bus picked up speed and only the noise of a saxophone trilling on theradio could be heard over the engine.
Oliver sat quietly beside Grandma Pamp, whose thin-lipped stare deterred him twice from questioning her.He tried focusing instead on the bag full of things he’d waited for all year; however,the man on the bus kept interrupting his thoughts. What did his grandma need to tell him? And how much of a threat was he? He peeked a glance at Grandma Pamp and saw her eyes flitting from passenger to passenger. Suddenly, it took every bit of concentration for Oliver not to feel scared; all he wanted to be was safely home.