Against the canvas of the night sky, people turn into stars.
The city below is dim. Its citizens are hushed. Streaking above us and through the air are stars shaped like people, tearing past like fighters, hurling away like a scream. Their skin is living liquid light, and stardust trails in their wake. The dust settles gold over my skin, and itches.
Someone’s hand is on my ankle, and the hand is warm. I am sitting on their shoulders. I am small enough for it.
Look, they say. Look, Sozo.
I look, but the people are gone. They’ve dipped away into the dense geometry of the cityscape, and all is dark again.
Sozo, they say again. The Decade-Races are the race of dreams. Fly fast enough, and strong enough, and better than everyone else, and you win a wish, any wish.
You win the right to anything you desire.
Do you understand, Sozo?
“Yes,” I lie, because I know saying no is the wrong answer. And why would I understand? I’m only four during this race, and though my memory is blurred, I know I’m perched on my father’s shoulders. I know the warmth of my mother’s hand on my back.
Why would I understand races and wishes when I already have everything I need?
Against the canvas of a white white wall, I am told to take off my clothes.
I do. So do all the others lined up on either side of me. There are all sorts here, all of us homeless: flabby old men and women, quivering teens, other kids like me, maybe six or seven years old. Another girl about my age is standing next to me, and we look at each other. We are standing too far apart to hold hands, so all we can do is look at each other.
Clumped before us are men and women in blue police gear, and they go down our line one by one, to turn us and to check us, to look at us all over.
Listen up, they say. There’s been reports of an Omen girl here.
She’s charged with burglary, assault, vandalism, theft. She’s young. Seven or so. Black hair, black eyes, pale skin. There’s an omen stain somewhere on her body, most likely her back.
They are talking about me. I know. I have broken into many places. I have stolen many things. You have to when you’re my age, when no one in the world is looking out for you.
The police are standing before me. They look me all over. And then I do what I always do – I hide my omen stain.
Hiding it is not something the others can do. I don’t know why. All I know is that it is a simple thing, like holding my breath, where the black spill of my omen sinks back underneath my skin. But like holding my breath, I can’t hide it for long, just long enough to get away with things like this.
They turn me around and look over my skin, and I know they see nothing but the bumps of my spine, the bumps of my ribcage, the pinprick bumps over my white skin from the cold. They find no omen stain there, though it’s there.
It will always be there.
The police move on. I put on my clothes. They look over the girl next to me and find a stain on the bottom of her left foot, dark like a scab from heel to toes. They cuff her, and arrest her, even though her eyes are blue, not black.
I should tell them the truth, that it’s me, not her. You have the wrong girl.
But I’m scared. I’m scared.
The girl rails. She pushes off the ground and kicks and kicks, and the more she does, the larger her stain spills. It thickens leathery like a hide. It crawls up her foot and leg and hip until her skin is no longer skin, but rough like earth, and just as dark. Her teeth are lengthening. Her nails are sharpening. She growls, and slobbers, and becomes something like a beast.
I’ve never seen anything like this before.
I did not know we could turn into monsters.
The police have bolt pistols in their hands. They take aim against the no-longer-girl’s head, and fire. There is no blood. The monster collapses against the ground, and does not move. It’s dead, I think. I don’t know. I’m trying not to hyperventilate. I’m trying to hold my expression smooth, like the wall behind me.
It’s my fault she’s dead, but I can’t cry.
Crying never got me anything.
Before the police leave, they turn to us – us stupefied and petrified by the white white wall. They say, “Stay away from Omens.” They say, “At best they’re criminals. At worst, monsters.”
One of them looks at me and asks me if I understand, and I can only nod. My throat is too tight to speak. If I open my mouth, I might hurl. But I understand. I do not want to understand, but I do.
Against a dead end in the night full of smoke, a woman named Esp finds me.
Three years have passed, but nothing has changed. I am huddled underneath a dripping red tarp, and a pipe beside me trembles with hot water, and hisses, and hisses. My reflection in the laundry-grey puddles is like the reflection of a stray – small, dark, dirty.
A shadow casts over me. I look up, and see Esp.
It’s like looking up at a vulture, a black vulture. Her jacket is puffy and dark, with fur fat around the collar to guard her against the nighttime chill. Her legs are slender, long, slick with the reflected reds of neon lights. She’s chewing gum, and blowing a bubble. Her hair is electric green.
“You lost?” She asks.
“Are you?” I reply.
She pops her gum, and stares. I stare back. This is my dead end, and I got here first. She’ll have to use her fists to get me to leave.
I notice her omen stain then, her stain like a loud afterthought, curved like a sickle from the corner of her lip and over her cheek and ear, and up into her hairline. I don’t know how I missed it.
She snorts at my glare. “Put your gun away, kid. You got a name?”
“I’m not a kid.”
“No? You look like one, talk like one, act like one.”
I bare my teeth. “Zap off.”
“A kid,” she repeats. “But a kid I could use,” and it startles. It startles me into silence. I’ve never been of use to anybody.
She says, “I hear talk you’re special.”
My stain, and how I can hide it.
“You tired yet,” she asks, “of being lesser-than?”
We live on the streets. We’re barred from work. We can’t buy and sell and own things. Our bodies and shadows are only for spitting on.
“You got a wish, kid?”
I’m startled again, stunned. No one cares for the wishes of an Omen. I recall my memory of the races, and of stars, and of the things I felt then. Still, I say nothing. I say nothing because I don’t have a wish.
I have many.
I wish I didn’t have the stain. I wish I had a bed. I wish people didn’t toss salt on their thresholds when I passed by, and I wish mothers didn’t pull their children closer to them, to point and say look, look, that one there is evil. I wish I could go back to that warmth underneath the stardust, to the days when I didn’t need wishes.
Maybe the woman sees something in my expression, because she nods. She says, “I have a wish. People like us all do. Omens, they say. Monsters, they say. We’re the unlucky byproduct of some genetic lottery. That’s all we are. Ten people could commit the same crime, and only one of them would be stained. A city and a world where the unlucky are punished. What a joke. What an absolute joke.”
It’s unjust, she says, and I agree. With a force like thruster fire, I agree.
It needs to be rectified, she says, and I tilt up at her, wait for her to tell me the answer. How will this be rectified? How will us monsters be given justice?
Instead she looks at me and asks, “Do you understand?”
I don’t. I told her I’m not a kid, but I am. Justice and wishes are beyond me, have always been beyond me. She turns from me then, and steps away. My heart drops – I’ve failed her, somehow. I’m no use after all.
So I say, lie, the way I’ve always done, “Yes.”
I tell her, “I understand.”
And she stops. She twists back at the mouth of the dead end. Her voice echoes off the edges of the alleyway when she says, “Good.”
She tells me to come, and to follow her, and so I do.
She does not need to know I have lied. And maybe one day, when I am grown, when I am stronger, I will no longer need to lie.