The summer Emerson Moore turned 16, her words still hadn't come in. It was a testament to her life that nothing she had ever lived or done or seen had been of any consequence, a reflection of the uneventful bore that she must have been. This was her theory. Her family ascribed to other views.
“You just haven’t found the right moment,” her mother said. “They just need a little push, that’s all. They’ll come in soon.”
“I think she’s a psychopath,” her sister said, sporting a smile that wasn't entirely a joke. Charlie was 13, and already sprouting words like leaves on trees.
Her father preached that she was special. He had a friend up near Boston, a famous concert cellist, whose words hadn’t blossomed until his late teens. In her father’s mind, Emerson was a prodigious talent just waiting for the right moment to flourish.
She did not feel special. She felt wrong. She felt it every time she caught a glimpse of her creamy white skin with no hints of traces or marks—no words at all. She craved the lived-in black of her father's skin, or the sparse, meaningful words on her mother's. She remembered tracing them with the pad of her finger when she was younger. She knew them all, and all the stories that came with them.
Her mother’s first word, the scrawled swing underneath her ribcage, had blossomed at only seven when Grandfather had brought home the swing set she would later have her very first kiss on. The words did that sometimes. Predicted the future.
Maybe, she thought while her family argued for or against the state of her sanity, I don't have a future. Maybe that’s what the words had been trying to tell her. It turned out, as she went on to discover later that summer, that she did have a future.
It just wasn’t a very bright one.
Over the years, the first day of school had ignited certain reservations within her. The first and foremost being busses, which no matter how new, clean or empty, always managed to reek of sweat. It was pleasant in the way that manhandling a 200-pound python might be pleasant.
Juniper Boyd—who Emerson knew intimately thanks to her insistence on showing her every word that appeared on her skin—was her bus redeemer. June was already on the bus when she got on. Like every one else, June donned a tank top and shorts, her new words joining old ones like constellations on her skin. She had spent the summer volunteering at a camp for disadvantaged youths, and it was clear from the fresh blood-ink on her skin, that it had gone well.
“Who’s Robby?” Emerson asked, sitting on the musty bus seat beside her. The name was scrawled along her left shoulder, kept company by the monologue of words that surrounded it.
June blushed, the white dove on her cheek lighting up in flames. She’d gotten that one at a wedding, she’d told her, when after being defecated on, she had made the executive, unwavering decision to not have birds at her own future nuptials. “I met him at camp,” she said. “He worked in archery. We dated.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“You didn’t ask.” June shrugged. “You ghosted me all summer.”
“I resent that,” she said. “I texted you.”
“Once, Em. To ask me about a song.”
It wasn’t just a song.
The bus pitched forward, and Emerson watched over the declaration on June’s shoulder as the houses began to blur into one. June shot her a curious glance, expecting some sort of response, and sighed when she got none.
She thumbed at the blue cotton that coated Emerson’s arms. “You know, no one’s judging you for not having your words yet. You don’t have to cover up in this weather.”
Emerson stared at her friend’s fingers picking apart the lint from her turtleneck. “I want to blend.”
“In this?” June pulled at the thick, folded material around her neck. “Good luck.”
She was right, of course, about everything.
Not that it mattered.
Emerson had been fortunate enough to spend the first two weeks of summer curled up in bed with a tower of books, suffering no grievances from either of her parents. It was only at the end of those two weeks, when Charlie came home from the community pool with a terrible sunburn and the traumatic complaint that her favorite lifeguard had been relocated to the new aquatic center across town, that her parents suggested Emerson acquire a job.
“You like swimming, Emmy,” her father said.
“And you’re not a pervert,” added her mother.
These, apparently, were the only necessary attributes of a lifeguard. Since she fit both these categories, she was a shoe-in.
With the exception of the week-long training course, the job wasn’t terrible. The pool was understaffed—Charlie’s lifeguard hadn’t been the only one to migrate to the new aquatic center—and so her hours were slightly longer than what she had expected. Emerson figured out early on that many of the pool’s visitors had also traded up, and so, with a lack of eventful happenings, she was free to spend her shifts in the high chair swimming peacefully through the world of fiction.
It was after one of these daily dives that she met him. She’d heard of him before, his name mentioned in whispered passing from female coworkers, their voices languid and dripping in lust. She assumed, from their descriptions, that he was of an attractive sort. A dangerous sort. She decided, before she even met him, that she wanted nothing to do with him.
But Noah Caine had a way of changing her mind.
As June had predicted, Emerson did not blend. Rumors blossomed as she passed, but the first day of school meant that everyone was too caught up in their own narcissism to pay her any attention. She passed through their lips like she passed through the hallways, quickly and inconspicuously.
Emerson walked in the shadows, head down, arms crossed, thumbs twiddling, all the way to first period English. It was a blessing of sorts. She’d done all the summer reading those first two weeks, before her life took a tumble from which it would never recover. The rest of her summer work had taken a backseat in the face of the adventures she swore would earn her her very first word.
She took a seat near the back of the class, furthest from the daylight creeping in through the windows. This earned her a pitiful look from Mae Wheatley and two of her companions, whose faces she had seen but names she could not remember.
“She still doesn’t have any words.”
“She has to be crazy. You don’t get to sixteen and not have words. Not unless you don’t have feelings.”
“Can you guys not suck for once?” Mae chided them, throwing her an apologetic glance.
Emerson looked away.
“Can you not be the worst, Noah? If you want to break up with me, just break up with me. I’m not a toy to play with whenever you’re too lazy to screw around.”
“Do not put this on me, Mae. Gus told me you’ve been texting him. I talk to girls because I work with girls. Are you really going to look at me right now and tell me you don’t have feelings for him?”
“That is absurd. You’re infuriating.”
“Only when I’m right.”
Book in hand and mind adrift, Emerson turned the corner into the lifeguard locker room, only to stumble headfirst into the middle of an argument. She recognized Mae Wheatley from school, and knew from gossip that she had been one of the lifeguards that had transferred over to the new aquatic center earlier that summer. The boy she did not know, and it took her a second to connect him with the wanton depictions from her coworkers that she had been so far privy to.
She set her book down. “I, uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I can go.”
“You’re Emerson,” Noah said, his crystal gaze trailing down the length of her body. “When they called you Zero Word Emerson, I didn’t think they were being literal.”
One week into the job, and she had already earned a nickname. “Yeah, I’m Em.” She held out a hand, then immediately regretted it. “Sorry, I just had to —“ She reached for the red duffel bag she had left on the bench. “I’ll get dressed outside…”
“No, Em. It’s fine,” Mae said. “We’re done here.”
“We’re done?” Noah asked, finally averting his gaze from her.
“Yeah, Noah, we’re done.” She shook her head, her blonde hair cascading down her back, hiding the phrase she had inscribed on the nape of her neck. “Have a nice life.”
“Mae,” Emerson gasped, pointing two inches below her left knee, where nice life had just appeared, the blood-ink blacker than black. She had seen it before, the process through which one earned a word, but it never ceased to amaze her.
“You meant it,” Noah said, gaping at her fresh words. “You really meant it.”
“I told you I was sick of your shit, Noah.” Mae heaved her purse over her shoulder. “See you around, Em.”
Mae walked through the glass door behind her, and just like that Mae Wheatley had another word to show, another story to tell, another life to live.
Emerson still had nothing.
“Sorry you had to see that,” Noah said.
“Sorry I walked in.” But she wasn’t, really. She’d gotten to see blood-ink at work. She would’ve stood witness to a thousand arguments just to see that.
“Not your fault. We shouldn’t have been in here anyways. Mark asked me to come by and look over the records, and she showed up—” He shook his head. “It was good you walked in, really. Shouldn’t prolong a relationship that was doomed from the start, you know what I mean?”
He sighed and she nodded. She didn’t know what he meant, but she let him wallow in self-pity as she pulled her jeans over her bathing suit. “I should probably get going,” she said. “It’s getting dark.”
“Yeah, right. Of course. Nice to meet you, Em.”
You too, Noah Caine, she thought, but offered him only a smile as she followed his ex out the door.
The year prior, Emerson had held the record for quickest lap in the annual endurance test. One mile in five minutes and thirty two seconds. She was thin with long legs and the uncanny ability to breathe normally under extended periods of stress. Most importantly, however, she was one of the only few who tried.
The endurance test happened every first day of school, and everyone knew that you set your own standards in those few minutes you spent on that red paved track. When you were fast, people expected more of you. You got picked for more teams, blamed for more losses, shouldered with more responsibility. But, if you established early on that you could not be bothered to exert yourself for the simplest of tasks, you were free to do whatever you so pleased for the rest of the year.
Emerson knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this would be the year her record’s reign came to an end.
The Arizona sun beat down on her as she stepped out of the locker room, PE uniform pulled over her turtleneck. Her classmates gave her a quick glance before immediately turning away. They were all appropriately dressed, words peeking out under the short sleeves of their grey t-shirts. The overachievers stood by the track, stretching their bodies in preparation. The slackers wore Converse.
Emerson watched Coach’s eyes darken as she took in her outfit. She averted her gaze, but not before she saw Coach take a step towards her, her hefty figure swaying slightly, beads of sweat trailing down her face.
“Moore, what are you wearing?”
“PE uniform, Coach.”
“You realize it’s August, doncha’?”
“And that it’s hot?”
“So why in God’s name are you wearing that?”
“She doesn’t have her words yet,” June said from behind her.
Coach narrowed her eyes at her. “Is this true, Moore?”
“I would just feel more comfortable wearing this, if that’s ok.”
She grunted. “Do as you please, Moore. But don’t think I’ll be giving you any leniency on your time for this.”
Emerson nodded, and, humphing, Coach turned away. Emerson moved to stand under the tree by the track, letting the shade wash over her, keeping the ponds of sweat from forming rivers down her body. She was not prepared to run. When Coach blew the whistle, she had half a mind to collapse where she stood and never rise again. The other half of her mind, the half she kept listening to despite all good reason, told her to go. To try. To push past the heat bearing down on all her senses and keep going.
She was half-way through the mile when she passed out.
As a lifeguard, Emerson was at the bottom of the metaphorical totem pole. Mark Kilner was the area supervisor, and so, in community pool world, he was the eagle at the very top. He was a high school dropout in his late 50s with a pedo-stache and the worn-out illusion that he would be the next Scorsese. Directing, he said, was in his blood. He hadn’t yet found his calling in Hollywood, but he’d gotten pretty damn close in Scottsdale.
“Hey, Moore!” he called out. Emerson looked up at his gangly figure shouting at her from across the pool. “Whatcha doin’ up there with that book? You oughta be payin’ more attention to the kids, Moore. Don’t make me havta fire you. You know I don’t wanna havta fire you.”
“Mr. Kilner,” she said, gesturing to the empty pool beneath her. “There’s no one here.”
“A’course there’s no one here. Who’s gonna come to a pool where the lifeguard don’t pay them no attention? Now you put that dumb ole book down before you force me to do something’ I don’t wanna havta do.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, dog-earing the page she was on.
“Don’t worry,” came a voice from behind her. “He’ll be gone soon.” She swiveled around to find Noah standing by her chair, his head reaching her waist, his hands grasping the pole by her feet. He looked up at her, offering a sympathetic smile. “He does this every week. Makes him feel empowered. He stays ten minutes then goes home and tells himself he’s one day closer to making it big.”
“Figures,” she said. “Thanks.”
“You’re doing great for a first-timer, Zero. Don’t let him get to you.” He patted the chair twice — a goodbye? An act of solidarity? — before making his way to Mark.
She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she assumed Noah was making a case for her when Mark looked over, one bushy black eyebrow raised, and nodded. Noah smiled, patted him on the back, and winked at her before leading Mark to his car. Emerson took that as an opportunity to return to her book.
“You really like that don’t you? Reading?”
She looked up into Noah’s bright blue eyes, sparkling with amusement as he caught sight of the shirtless man on the cover. “Yeah. I do actually.” She shrugged. “It’s a lot more exciting than my life.”
“How to Save a Lord,” he read, “is more exciting than your life?”
“No wonder you have no words.” He chuckled. “Come on,” he said, reaching out a hand to her. “Let’s see what we can do to change that.”
Emerson was stirred awake by the gentle whirring of a fan. She looked up into the fluorescent lights of the nurse’s office, a damp cloth finding residence on her forehead. She hated how it felt, heavy and moist and mocking. She reached up to pull it off and stopped halfway when she caught a glimpse of her naked arm. Her hand shot immediately towards her neck, her heart sinking at the touch of her bare, clammy skin.
Her turtleneck was gone.
A thin white sheet covered her torso, doing a pathetic job of hiding what needed to be hidden. She crossed her arms over her chest, a low guttural sound emitting from her throat. Panicked. That’s what she was. Panicked.
“Oh, good. You’re awake.” She heard her voice before she saw her. The nurse stood at the doorway, her face tinged with concern as she watched Emerson scrunch the sheet against her chest.
“You—did you—I want my shirt back. Please.”
The nurse opened her mouth to say something, then, deciding against it, shook her head. “Ok, hun. I’ll go get it for you." She returned a second later with her turtleneck, still intertwined with her gym shirt, soaking wet with sweat. “You sure you don’t want me to get you something else to wear?”
“No, just that. That’s fine. Thank you.” Emerson reached one arm out to grab it, the other one still holding the sheet against her chest like a lifeline she could not forgo. She snatched it from her hand, impatient, and waited for the nurse to leave. She didn’t. All she did was stand there, looking at her like she’d arrived at her office in a spaceship.
“If you don’t mind…?”
The nurse blinked. “Oh, hun, of course. Of course. I’m sorry. I’ll give you your privacy.” She hesitated at the doorway, turning to her at last. “I know it’s not my place, but if you want to talk about it, my door is always open.”
Emerson did not respond.
There were tiny canyons and hiking trails all around Scottsdale, a few she’d been too, most that she had not. There was one, a few minutes outside the suburbs, that was shaped like a bowl, a sparse meadow taking up its center. Emerson had heard, from gossip at school, that going there was a right of passage. Few people knew it existed, and those who did were young and worthy of the knowledge. It was the perfect place for a college hazing ritual, a secluded romantic night, or anything, really, that involved being miles away from civilization.
That was where Noah took her that day.
She was wary at first, because what did she know about this beautiful boy with the lively blue eyes? She stayed one step behind him at all times, giving herself just enough space to run if something happened. She was fast. She could do it.
He kept smiling at her as they walked down the bowl, his eyes sparkling with glee. She threw a few grins his way, so that he wouldn’t think she found him suspicious. That, she knew, could really ruin a man’s ego. Eventually, he stopped, and Emerson caught a glimpse of the knife in his hand.
She tensed, taking a step backwards, telling herself she was dumb, so dumb, for coming all the way here. He noticed this, took one look at the knife, and dropped it.
“Oh. Oh God. No.” He laughed. “I didn’t bring you out here to murder you, I swear.”
“Why do you have a knife?”
“Because,” he scoured through the bag he had brought and took out two beers, “I thought you might want a drink.”
“Why do you have a knife?”
“Oh, ‘cause I lost my bottle opener a century ago, and I’m too lazy to get a new one when a knife works just as well.” He took a breath. “If it makes you feel uncomfortable, we don’t have to drink. I’ll just set it down here, and we can go sit over there.”
She glanced towards the patch of grass he was pointing at, still wary, but nodded. “Ok.”
He sighed. “Ok.” He put down his backpack, and with a tentative smile, led her to the small patch. She sat cross-legged beside him, their jeans touching, and waited for him to offer up an explanation to their whereabouts.
“You’ve heard of the Basin, right?” he asked eventually.
“You mean… here?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, here. You know why people come here?”
“That’s not why I come here. I mean, I did, once. I came with an old girlfriend when I was 17. She’s the one that told me about it. But, when I got here, it was different, you know, than what I thought it would be.” He pointed to the blood-ink on his forehead, the one that cut across his eyebrow like a scar. It was too small to see from afar, but now that his face was only inches away, it was all too clear. Darling, the stars. Unconsciously, she looked up.
Unobscured by city lights and pollution, the stars littered the night sky like pinpricks made of dreams. Emerson knew nothing of stars, constellations, astronomy, but sitting there, staring up at that vast conglomeration of nothing and everything, made her wish she did. “They’re beautiful.”
“They’re monsters,” he said. “Beautiful monsters. I love them because they make me think, you know? About the world, and how it’s not always what it seems. I come out here a lot, to think. I thought maybe you could use that too. A place to think.”
He shrugged. “My words came late too. I got my first when I was fourteen. My mind was so messed up back then that my body couldn’t tell what meant something and what didn’t. I left home a little after my fourteenth birthday. Got some fresh air. A fresh mind. That’s when my first word came in.”
“What was it?”
He smiled and rolled up his sleeve. “Cake.”
“Cake,” she repeated, eyebrow raised in question.
“My mom begged me to come home when I ran. I told her if they couldn’t even remember to buy me cake for my birthday, they had no business being parents.”
“Not your fault. Moral of the story is I got through it. You will too.”
“Thanks for the words of wisdom, but I’m beginning to accept my status as hopeless mutant.”
“Ah, Zero. Don’t worry. That’s a word in you yet.” He gave her a small, arrogant smile. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Emerson was late to lunch, thanks to her mild bout of heatstroke. She had been excused from school for the rest of the day, but the nurse recommended she eat something before heading home. She was still feeling faint as she walked into the cafeteria.
Charlie stood behind her, a sad smile on her mousy face. It was her first day of freshman year, and if the overflowing table she had just left was any indication, she was flourishing.
“Hi, Charles.” Emerson grabbed a tray from the line. “How’s high school?”
“Are you ok?”
“PE. I heard what happened. Couldn’t you have gotten excused or something?”
“It’s not like that, Char.”
“They shouldn’t force you. Couldn’t you just explain, you know, to Coach?”
“No, Charlie. I couldn’t. I can’t.”
“But I’m sure they’d understand.”
“They wouldn’t. I’m fine, ok? Mom’s picking me up soon. Just… go enjoy your first day. Don’t worry about me.”
“Em, I don’t want you to—“
“I’m ok, I promise.”
She relented with a sigh and returned to her table of curious freshmen. As Emerson paid for her lunch, she watched her sister shake her head.
June was waiting for her at their table, face plastered with boredom at whatever story Willa Rae was telling. She sat silently down beside June, who reached out and squeezed her hand. Glancing up at her, Emerson saw she still had her eyes glued to Willa. June couldn’t look at her.
Emerson squeezed back.
“One sec, Em.”
She sighed. “What?”
“I took you to the nurse.”
“So you did.”
“You should’ve told me.”
“With the song? Sheesh, Em, how was I supposed to know?”
“I didn’t know how else to tell you.”
“What’s going on—oh, hey Emmy, you feeling better? I was just telling them about that boat trip this summer. Your boyfriend was there, wasn’t he? I remember he said you were sick or something. We would’ve loved to have you there. What’d you have? The flu?”
“Yeah,” she said. “The flu.”
“Sucks, it was a great time. You would’ve loved it. Tom did this flip off the roof and…”
“Boyfriend?” June whispered to her, staring down at her chest.
“Ex,” she repeated. “Because…”
After that first night, Emerson began to make regular visits to the Basin. Sometimes, she went alone. Most nights, Noah joined her. That was how their relationship flourished, under the star speckled sky of the Arizona Basin. They made time for other adventures too—Noah had taken a personal investment in her quest to obtain a word—mini golf, the zoo, indoor skydiving, but nothing had produced even a trace of blood ink. At night, they went to the Basin and talked. About life, about family, about love.
It was on one of these nights, after a particularly long shift at the pool, that they stumbled upon an ASU party. Beer bottles and Tito’s handles were littered across their meadow, and the sight, to her, was devastating. Noah did not suffer from the same reservation.
He had gone to school with some of the freshman, and as they made their way into the Basin, they called out to him, his name sloppy on their drunken lips. He regarded everyone with a smile, even those he did not know. Noah was charming, overwhelmingly so, and he fell in everywhere with an ease Emerson could not muster.
“Noah, I think I’m gonna go.”
He looked stricken. “Go? But Em, it’s a party! I’ll be damned if you don’t get a word here. Come on, stay. Just for a little bit, ok?”
Emerson wanted to go home. She wanted to cuddle in her bed and never again be surrounded by the reek of sex and vodka. “Ok.”
His face lit up. “Do you wanna get something to drink?” She didn’t. “Just one. It’s nothing, I promise. Just for the experience.”
“Ok. One.” She could do one. One was ok.
He led her to a folding table that had been set up in the corner, fishing for a clean Solo cup and a drink mix. Vodka was plentiful. He didn’t need to search for vodka.
With two vodka cranberries in hand—one for her, one for him—they made their way through the party, and soon, despite the stench of cigarettes and vomit, Emerson was enjoying it. Noah stayed with her the whole night, playing every role she needed him to — friend, dance instructor, bartender, and, eventually, lover.
It was three in the morning by the time everyone else had left. She was tipsy, having indulged in far more than just one drink, and Noah was laying beside her on their small patch of grass. He ran his fingers through her hair, and she traced the words on his skin, up his arms, across his face.
Darling, the stars.
He glanced at her curiously as she touched the blood-ink above his eye. He was waiting, she assumed, for something. She parted her lips, gave him the opening, and then he was kissing her.
She wanted it then. She did. She’d become enamored by Noah Caine and all his quirks and his troubled past, and in that moment, as the alcohol coursed through her veins, she wanted nothing more than his lips on hers.
But that was it.
That was all she wanted.
It wasn’t all she got.
The nurse said Emerson could have stayed at school as long as she kept herself properly cooled off, but the thought of another 15 minutes on that bus, June or not, had her calling her mother the second the nurse told her she could be excused.
Her mother picked her up after lunch, words of concern flowing from her lips like honey, before Emerson lied and assured her that her heatstroke had been nothing but a fluke. On the way home, they passed the pool. He was there, laughing with the new recruit they had hired to replace her. His skin was still the same as the last time she had seen him, completely exonerating. Emerson watched him look up as her car passed, a flash of recognition crossing his face as he raised his hand in an acknowledging wave.
She did not return it.
He did not care.
Her mother left her at home without a word. This was fine by her. She didn’t need her asking her if she was ok, hovering over her like a drone.
She turned on the cool water of her shower, slowly peeled off her turtleneck, and faced the mirror.
There it was.
Her first word.
“Noah, please.” She tried pushing his body off of her. That massive boulder of muscle and vodka. “I don’t want this.”
“You like me,” he slurred into her ear, kissing her neck. “I know you like me.”
“I do, I do,” she said. “But I don’t want this. Not now.”
“Yes, you do. Just a little bit. It feels good, I promise.”
“Noah.” She grunted, but he had her pinned to the ground. She couldn’t run. She was fast, so fast, and she couldn’t run.
“Stop,” she pleaded against his lips. “Please stop.”
“Just a little bit,” he whispered. “Just a little bit.”
“Noah, get off of me.” She had resorted to whimpering while she still could. While she still had a voice. While he still had his pants.
“I like you, Em. You’re so pretty. So pretty.” His hands had snaked down her body, touching curves and crevices unmarred until now.
“Please. Please don’t.”
“Shhh.” Hands holding her down. Lips to hers. Pants off.
Her skin was scarred. Scarred around the word, throughout it, bordering every letter. Scars of all shapes and sizes, scars through blood ink, scars on pale skin. She’d done everything she could to remove the letters, the memory, the pain. It was dirty. She was dirty. Her first word, written in blood-ink across the length of her chest, beautiful cursive letters extending up towards her neck, down beneath her breasts was a monster.
A beautiful monster.
She tried washing it off. She had spent days in the shower, her skin rubbed raw from exfoliating, but it had done nothing. The blood-ink was inside of her. There was no amount of cleaning she could do to change that.
So she cut.
She did what she could to make it better. She tried to cut apart her skin, mutate it, remove the letters, the blood-ink, because the scars didn’t hurt as much as the memory, but it didn’t work. The blood-ink was deeper than that.
It was a part of her. She’d hide forever behind the pretty mask of a colorful turtleneck, but at the end of the day, when she took it off, it would still be there.
With one last look, she stepped into the shower.