“She was the one, with that same *** smirk, to slip it onto her own neck, declaring herself king. The new ruler. The guardian angel. And she didn’t cry once.”
No one ever asked where he got them. No one ever questioned why Aiken Ross wore a pair of dog tags on a chain around his neck. They were perfectly normal, as far as tags go. Silver-finished, slightly scuffed, tarnished around the edges. Normal… but not quite, since the tags were perfectly smooth, bearing no name or address, no hints of his past. It was as if he’d dreamed them into existence.
Laken used to stare at those tags for hours. Well, not hours, but to her hyperactive mind, each minute was a century. She was always bugging Aiken for answers, pacing alongside him with that tantalizing smirk, pulling his hair, poking his cheeks. At age nine, she already knew where she was going, yet Aiken refused to address what little authority she possessed. This just made her try harder.
“So where’d you get those tags from?”
“Not important, Lakes.”
“Aw, c’mon…tell me.”
“Rosseau. You never give up, do you?”
“Ha, you wish.”
“You really wanna know?”
“With every bone in my body, Ross.”
“Fine.” And he’d throw her over his shoulder while she cackled madly, cursing him out while trying to kick him in the stomach.
True love, right?
Laken rubbed the tags between her fingers, remembering. After being pressed against Aiken’s chest for hours, the metal was still warm, as if it had its own heartbeat. “Hey, Aik?”
She sat on his chest, legs folded like the well-mannered girl she most certainly was not. Aiken pretended to ignore the eighty pounds of insanity leaving a child-size dent in his ribcage. “What’s up?”
Upon hearing his voice, Laken glanced down at him with a peculiar little smile. “Am I hurting you? Good,” she said without giving him time to answer. “When am I gonna get your tags?”
“How about… never.”
Laken rolled her eyes. “Dude, I’m serious.” She reached for the necklace again. “Are you gonna–”
“Stop,” he said sternly, swatting her hand away. Actually, it was more of a smack than a swat. But that validation only encouraged Laken more; she stuck out her tongue and continued to grab for them.
“Let me have them!”
“Not gonna happen!” Aiken shouted, rolling onto his stomach. Laken squealed and tried to squirm away. “Give up now?”
It almost seemed cruel to treat a kid like that. But Laken was tough. Aiken always said she’d grow up to be fearless, just as he’d intended. Then nothing in the world could hurt her.
In the end, Aiken got what she wanted. And Laken did too.
She was the one to slide the necklace over Aiken’s head, then hold it in the air like a prize. She was the one, with that same *** smirk, to slip it onto her own neck, declaring herself king. The new ruler. The guardian angel. And she didn’t cry once.
Now, Laken fingers the tags as they knock against her collarbone, wishing she were as numb as she used to be. She’ll never admit it, but at the moment, crying doesn’t seem so bad.