Novel: First Chapter

Aquarius. That’s what I tell people anyway.

Aquarius, the sign that’s airier than a cloud on a breezy day. Aquarius, the sign who flows so freely that if you catch her you should never let her go. Because if you do, she’ll probably go on to paint a naked mural of you on Downtown’s most prominent billboard. Or if you break up with her, the sign that will most creatively grind your car down into a pile of woodchips and figure out a way to make you eat them in your unsuspecting morning milkshake. Those gypsy wanderers, those outside the box dreamers, those restless souls who should be pole dancers and philosophers for a living.

That’s my sign. Or at least half of it. But really, no one should ever know that.

 

12:00 on the dot. That’s when I slid out of my mother’s womb. Sorry, if that imagery’s too much for you. That’s when I was born. An 8.5 pound Cordelia A. Rogers.

What does the A stand for?

Aquarius.

Just like the C in Altair C. Rogers, my younger brother, stands for Cancer. Aurora T. Rogers, my mom? Taurus.

How do they know? It’s all very simple really. They give you your sign the second you’re born, slap you into a Gemini or Leo onesie and ship you outta there like their mood rings are stuck on rushed.

My onesie had little wings on it belonging to some unidentified type of bird. I came with a convenient star sign card, saying my disposition would be artistic, whimsical, sometimes unpredictable.

They were right about sometimes unpredictable. Just not in the way they predicted. Hair in curly ringlets – typical Aquarius, my ‘do matching a windy day. It’s got a sheen of purple in it. That’s pretty normal, too. The one bronze and one grey is where things come into question. Things really, really come into question when you brush back my bangs, the sleeves of my t-shirt, the hem of my pant leg, and see the tiny blue fish scales.

Fish scales? Like a Pisces?

Yeah, like a Pisces. Let’s just say I prefer long sleeves.

“Hello, Sharkfish,” I greeted the painted mural on the wall.

Surrounded by octopii looking so ecstatic that I always imagine them as having sniffed one too many sea-shrooms, there was sharkfish. He was supposed to be a big ferocious shark, but he was not ferocious.

It looked like halfway through their job the painters realized that they shouldn’t create a scary sea creature on the walls of a children’s classroom. So the result was a part-smiling, part frowning creature with the body of a shark and a mouth semi-full of shark teeth, and the awkward bubbly head of a fish. I love him with all my heart.

I straighten up the sandbox and feed the class plecostomus, savoring the morning breeze coming in through the window. Mrs. Tolson was always late, typical Leo, and I enjoyed these moments to myself. Before all the students came in and asked me to catch grapes in my mouth or read them The Little Mermaid for the eight thousandth time.

My indicator lights up. Virgo. What? Mrs. Tolson is a Leo.

I double check the face of the smooth blue bracelet. Sure enough, Virgo’s swooping letters light up in green.

That doesn’t make any sense. Astrid is our only Virgo and anyone under eighteen doesn’t have to wear an indicator. I look up as the door swings open.

Sapphire colored eyes are the first thing I notice, because they’re impossible not to notice. Then the rest, a bleach blonde twenty-something who looks like he should be holding a surfboard, not a clipboard. Which coincidentally is what he was holding.

“You Mrs. Tolson?” he says, barely looking up from something he was scribbling in orange ink. Wrong color, I think automatically.

“Um, no, I am not,” I say. If he bothered to notice, I most definitely was not an eligible age by any means to be a Mrs. anything.

He looked up finally. “Oh, who are you?” His teeth flashed white against tan skin.

“Cord,” I say sticking out my hand.

He looks at it and doesn’t move, raising an eyebrow decorated with a silver eyebrow piercing. “Like a rope?”

I roll my eyes. “Why are you here?”

“Touchy. Routine blood tests.” He points through window, the official government wellness van is outside.

This doesn’t make any sense. The students’ next blood test wasn’t set for another three months at least. I remember because there is probably a section in hell reserved for the worst sinners, where they have to be the teacher’s assistant and try to to convince thirty five year olds that getting blood sucked out of their arms with a tiny needle is not an adequate reason to produce ear-splitting temper tantrums.

Another thing that didn’t make any sense was that the guy was a Virgo. Neat, orderly, sensible – everything that he was not. His entire appearance was like someone sucked him through the world’s largest vacuum, from wrinkled collared shirt to slightly askew nametag that read Galen.

“Um, sorry, that’s not on the schedule for today, Galen,” I emphasize his name.

The kids are starting to arrive. The twins, Cally and Maia, give their mom a hug and sit down at their desks.

Mrs. Tolson finally swoops in on the heels of two more students, carrying an orange coffee mug and two tote bags full of papers and workbooks.

“I’m afraid it is, Cord,” he says, and flips his clipboard around to show me the authorized paperwork with today’s date on it.

“Yo, Sa – ” I cut myself off because I kept forgetting it bothered Mrs. Tolson when I called her Sally because it was so old fashioned, and probably because of the whole she’s twice my age thing. “Mrs. T, do you know about all of this?” I gesture in Galen’s general vicinity. His metal eyebrow piercing rises again.

Mrs. Tolson drops her bookbags onto the tables and glances at the clock. Class starts in one minute.

“Oh drat,” she says when she sees Galen.

“Just how I love to be greeted,” he mutters.

“Yes, yes, I remember. The reminder is right here -” She pulls the e-mail printout from under an overflowing mason jar of paperclips. It’s a notice that the wellness van will be doing some routine bloodwork. The date is from two weeks ago. Awesome. I had already worked on a lesson plan for the day.

“Great,” says Galen, writing something on his clipboard. “If we start on time, shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half, max.”

I think he was making a point of staring at the clock while he said this, because it was already ten past eight.

I was pretty sure I knew this from the start, but now I had decided for certain: I didn’t like this guy, with his dumb clipboard and his dumb flippy hair and dumb cool guy attitude.

“Okay, class!” Mrs. Tolson said, even more sing-songy than usual. “Who can tell me why we get routine check-ups from the doctors’?”

The kids all looked a little confused. Ivor, Sagittarius, even furrowed both brows at her, skeptical.

Bran, Capricorn, raises his hand. As he usually does.

“To make sure we’re healthy. And to figure stuff out about our star signs. And to give us lollipops.” He smiled. I always thought he was one of the cutest little kids I’d ever seen, tiny goat horns peeking out from under brown curls.

He wasn’t wrong. After getting checked up and blood taken, there was an assortment of twelve different lollipops for each zodiac sign, all specially formulated to fit what their specific star sign make-up designates to be the most nutritious.

Something was wrong, though. I could feel it in my gut, something I was going to figure out, something shifted out of alignment. I eyed Galen suspiciously but he was too busy trying not to panic at the room of five-year olds that had now exploded into a frenzy because Mrs. Tolson told them it was time for a blood test. Some of the more analytical kids ask why, they just had one, it hasn’t been a year. Alondra threw her pear at a wall. Aries.

Yeah, it hadn’t been a year, hadn’t been a year since their DNA had been monitored, come back with detailed results to map out their personalities according to the dates and times they were born. Sure, you can be an Aquarius but you can be born on a Tuesday at 9:31 so you’re a different kind of Aquarius.

 

I’m a different kind of Aquarius. Used to happen every year, not that I could remember. Then every two, because tests are required less frequently the older you get. Instead of a report coming back of how I would act that year according to my birth, situations to look out for, how to best prepare for the future, funny little blurbs about who I should be friends with, scientific percentages of my leaning toward Sirius or Denebola or Regor, I’d always get the same thing.

Error.

I mean, I know I’m outside the box. But I literally broke their system. Every single time.

My mom tells the story better than anyone.

“You were barely even a blip on the planet yet before they whisked you away. Then they come back with eyes round as saucers. One of ‘em was so frantic he looked like a bush baby got mixed up with an angry Aries. ‘Something’s wrong’ he said. My heart stopped, of course. ‘We don’t know her sign.’ And then they thought something was wrong with me, too, the way I started laughing in their faces. Your star sign. I couldn’t care less. I had a happy, healthy girl.”

Apparently the people in the signs ward pulled out all their hair before declaring me an aquarius. They gave me all my information, the old fashioned way, then. In pamphlets and thumb drives, frowning and confused.

Sometimes people get close to being born at midnight. They’d always fall somewhere in the lines, lean one way or another. But no one ever got as close as me. Cusp babies, we’re called, and not usually endearingly so.

“But then what am I, mom?” I asked as soon as I began to realize Aquarius was a wind sign, not water. Fish scales made no sense. Signs manifested in all different ways, of course, but only when it was actually your sign. “Aquarius, or Pisces?”

“Both, baby girl. You’re both.”

 

I really, really hate waking up. I’d rather lock myself in a 5×5 room all day and do math problems or lick a poison dart frog.

But not today. Today is my birthday.

I’m usually inclined to dislike my birthday because I have a “I want to be young forever” complex. This year’s different. Twenty-one packs quite a punch.

I slam on my alarm clock that’s been emanating bubbly soothing wake-up noises, and toss my sheets off onto the ground.

I scroll through the various “Happy birthday, Cord!” wishes in the messages section of my indicator, all from friends, classmates, family. Domo included a winky face after his “what up woman” text. I’d get to him later. I’d also be waiting for a few paragraphs of mushiness from Iris as the day goes on.

On my eighteenth birthday, I got my indicator. It lets everyone know you’re officially eligible to enter into relationships, and its lets everyone know your sign. A green light will flash when particularly compatible with someone (usually another Aquarius) or a red one when the stars sign that I’m literally not allowed to date them at all (typically Virgos. Incompatible DNA.)

Nineteen’s not that big. Voting, access to star-sign exclusive clubs, and yeah, alcoholic beverages.

Twenty you get assigned your first job, which you spend a whole lotta time at nineteen getting tested for and I did not get the job I wanted. More on that later, because twenty one.

Twenty one is important. As my nearly barren, cardboard box-filled room declares – twenty one is when you move out. Twenty one, basically, is when life begins.

I wasn’t sure I was entirely ready for life to being, but I was excited and nervous and it was beginning regardless of how I felt. So for the last moments of life not beginning, I wanted to do what I know.

I stride over to one of the few things besides my bed left unpacked: my easel. The painting’s almost done – the moon rising high through a view from my window. Really the view from my window is a cityscape and the backyard of the Palada family. In my painting, the moon’s rising over the ocean stars mirrored in the waves, liquid fire waving at the lights in the sky. I relax into the painting and my mind goes blank while I etch the final touches in blues and yellows onto the canvas.

I’m signing my name at the bottom when my mom knocks on the door.

“Cord? It’s time to go.”

 

 

Everything in the apartment complex is turquoise and bronze. The entrance to the cluster of homes is carved in garnet, sandwiched in by the Pisces and Capricorn entrance. Two ocean waves float horizontally on each other at the top.

“Bye, mom,” I say as I get out of the car. We’re not going to drag this out, because if we do I know she’ll devolve into a teary mess for sure and I hate seeing people cry. Besides, the apartment is just down the street from my old home.

“Bye, sweetheart,” mom says from the driver seat. I think I hear a catch in her voice. I want to run away.

“Bye Dad. Bye, Alt,” I wave at them. Alt is playing video games in the backseat that he illegally downloaded onto his indicator, barely looking up to wave. Ah, to be freshly eighteen again.

Dad’s window is rolled down. “Go get ‘em, Cord.”

“I will,” I say, and give him a salute. He salutes back.

They stay in the car as I grab my suitcases and begin to walk up the sidewalk to my new home for the next four years. All my stuff has either been sent ahead to my room or is coming the next few days.

I reach the archway and turn to wave back at our mini-van one last time. Suddenly I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia and a realization that things will never be the same.

Mom, Dad, and Alt all wave back at me one last time.

And then the sky goes dark.

 

You know when you’re wearing some particularly tinted glasses, or you walk out of a theater and didn’t realize that it got dark?

Yeah, it was like that, but times ten and plus a lot of terror and confusion.

One second I’m staring at our rusty white van and the next second God turned out the big lamp in the sky. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Then it wasn’t. It was midnight. But not the comforting, I’m just getting home and ready to curl up in bed midnight.

It was a no stars midnight, no lights in the sky, no sun no moon midnight. The streetlamps and storefronts the only light in the sudden night. The running lights from our van pooled up on the edge of the sidewalk. The lights from Alt’s indicator illuminate the inside of our car, but he’s not looking at them. My family’s all leaning their heads out of the car, looking up in awe. The sky leaned in, black and suffocating.

This was not normal.

For the first few moments, complete silence. Then a dog started to bark somewhere in the distance. Cars come screeching to a halt. Screen windows bang open, front doors swing wide, and far away I hear a siren kick into gear. – baby cries, people think they’re going to die

Then the sky lit up again like nothing ever happened.