By Ekta R. Garg
Dialogue prompt: “Mom, when did you get that tattoo?”
“It’s not a tattoo.”
“Then what is it?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Zoe sank deeper into the tub. She’d already sat in it for 30 minutes, and the water had turned a degree or two above tepid. Yet she couldn’t get out yet. She hadn’t stopped shaking.
Damn horse, she thought for the fourth time since running the bath. What’s it going to take for that stupid animal to understand what I want it to do?
She sighed, as she had every time the thought crossed her mind, because she knew that the fact that Sebastian threw her was completely her fault. She should have checked the tack and then checked it again. She should have made sure no burrs or ticks had found their way into the blanket under the saddle.
You should have taken better care of your horse.
The realization made her flinch, but she knew she couldn’t blame anyone else. Sebastian’s care and exercise were her responsibility. What would have happened if a soldier were riding him in battle? Would she have been able to live with the possibility of a human life lost because of her carelessness?
A knock sounded at the bathroom door. “Mother?”
She ran her wet hands over her face. “Yes?”
“You have a missed call on your device from the stablemaster.”
Zoe pulled the plug, and the water began to descend with an eagerness that surprised her. As she stood, she reached for her towel and began to dry off. The last of her bath slurped its way down the drain, and she stepped with care onto the cold tile floor.
“I’m coming,” she called to her daughter. “Thank you, Sadie.”
She flipped the towel flat against her back and ran it with vigor across her shoulder blades then pulled her bathrobe off the hook next to the shower and put it on. As she toweled her legs dry, another knock came. This time the door opened two inches.
“He’s calling again, Mother.”
Zoe muttered under her breath about the man’s impatience, wishing her hands would stop fluttering.
You were the one thrown, not a soldier. The most he can do is reprimand you, tell you to be more careful in the future.
“Mother, is that a tattoo?”
Her hands stopped. “What?”
“Is that a tattoo?” Sadie asked, ducking her head a little into the bathroom but keeping her eyes trained downward.
Zoe’s fingers brushed against the insignia on her calf. “No.”
“It looks like a tattoo. When did you get it?”
“It’s not a tattoo.”
“Then what is it?”
Zoe’s ears filled with the memory of her screams when the councilor imprinted her with the insignia of this dimension. It should have been a mark of triumph. It was supposed to be the last painful thing she endured before going home to her parents.
Instead, it became a mark of failure. Of rejection. Of an aborted trip, one in which she received no explanations. Just a command. She would not be allowed to go home.
“It’s nothing,” she said, as the pain and the shrieks in her mind faded. “You don’t need to worry about it. Just go put my device on the dining table on its stand. I’m coming.”
She could feel the suspicion emanating from her daughter, the air charged with other questions asked that Zoe would never answer no matter what. Sadie was old enough to start wondering about her origins and her parents’ origins. She had reached the age when children realized that their parents did not, in fact, know anything, that their worlds were much bigger than the playing space behind their homes.
That talk of the other dimension didn’t just mean fulfillment of a destination; it meant the beginning of something too.
Zoe’s heart lurched then as she thought of her parents. Luna and Kion. They’d sent letters and gifts faithfully. All of the letters reached Zoe, and the most important gifts did. Zoe had learned from an early age to discern information about the items that didn’t reach her, to lie to these two kind-looking people in the photographs on her screen about the things they obviously chose with love and care. She desperately wanted to know them, to tell them she loved them, to say that staying in this dimension hadn’t been her choice, that the council had deceived them in saying so.
Instead, all she had was this mark on her leg. The brand, created by lasers and settled below the top third layer of her skin. Tattoos sat on the top of the epidermis, were chosen for fun or on impulse or because of sentimentality. This brand had none of those qualities. It was meant as a marker so that anyone who saw it and witnessed any attempts by her to escape the dimension would know they had the right to stop her, arrest her. Kill her even, should the circumstances favor it.
The corners of her eyes burned, but she blinked away the unshed tears. She needed to focus on her horse and why it threw her. On the aches and pains all over her body from landing on the hard-packed earth. On the fact that she was still alive and grateful for it.
She dressed with speed and went to speak to the stablemaster.