Unmarked

speculative short fiction by Bethany Nolan

 
 Illustration by Luke Ramsey

Illustration by Luke Ramsey

 

I’ve never bothered to wait for my soulmate.

It’s not like I was ever given one.

When I was born, my parents, crying and laughing at the little life in their arms, asked where my mark was — the mark of my soulmate’s first words; the ones they would without-a-doubt say to me when we met. Their joy began to fade, however, when they couldn’t find the words on the inside of my left arm, staring at the blank space as if it had slapped them.

Some people just aren’t given soulmates, and a portion of those few are okay with it. They don’t mind not having one; they never wanted one to begin with. Some people just don’t want to spend the rest of their life with someone, and that’s fine—

But I actually do. I want that; the eternal, never-ending, until-death-do-us-part sort of love that’s all-consuming, fire in my veins and shaking legs in their presence. I want that.

However, my arm’s bare, with bronze skin unmarred and unblemished. Just, tan and clean where the words would be if I had a soulmate.

According to the universe, there is not a single person on this planet of seven billion people who would be perfect for me. And that stings more than a little.

***

It affects me for the first time when I’m seven, and at a sleepover. Jenny Blunden places her flashlight down, facing the light up at the ceiling in the darkened room, and claps her hands.

“Let’s show our soulmate marks!” she announces, voice giddy and high-pitched. I crawl further into my sleeping bag and pretend to be asleep.

“Someone get Holly,” one of the girls whispers, and I feel Martha Green’s hands pushing at my side. I clamp my eyes shut harder, but she can tell I’m awake.

“Come on,” she hurries. “We’re sharing soulmate marks.” Opening one eye to peep up at her, I see Martha’s stern face — the one where she tries to glare but look approachable at the same time. She looks a little like she’s constipated.

I huff as I sit up, turning to face the circle that’s ready and waiting, hands covering their marks so no one can see them until they read them out.

“Alright, alright. I’ll start,” Jenny says, grinning wildly. She unveils her arm, a little scrawl of text on the side of it. “Mine says 'Do you have the time?'” The girls appropriately ooh and ahh, as the next person removes their hand from their arm. Lucy Hart.

“Okay, my arm says 'Are they bothering you?'”

Thalia Blake’s says “Can you spend a minute to save the whales?” And Addison Nicholls’ arm has the words “Oh, yeah? Best two out of three.”

They reach me and the girls wait expectantly. I don’t bother covering up my arm when I’m already wearing long sleeves — I cover my blank skin daily, already feeling like a social pariah.

“Holly, what’s your arm say?” Jenny asks, an edge to her voice. I shrug.

“I don’t want to play,” I reply.

“It’s not really a game,” Martha points out. “We’re just showing each other our soulmate marks.”

“I don’t want to show mine.”

One of the girls laughs. “I bet it’s got a rude word on it!”

“Yeah!” another agrees. “Or it’s really bad — like, imagine if it was 'you’re so ugly' or something!”

“I bet it’s like my uncle’s!” Thalia laughs. “His had the words 'put your hands up' and he met his soulmate when he was getting arrested!”

“What is it, Holly? What does yours say?” Jenny questions again, as if these scenarios make my lack of words any better.

I grit my teeth before answering in a small voice. “I don’t have one.”

“What?”

“I don’t have any words.”

Prove it.”

When I roll up my sleeve, the girls break up into laughter. As I crawl back down into my sleeping bag, covering my ears, I hear words flying around of “alone forever” and “that’s so much worse than being called ugly!”

***

At thirteen I ask my mother, words proudly shown on her arm at all times — “Would you ever marry a guy like me?” — if I can tattoo fake words onto my arm. She rolls her eyes and tells me that it’s not so bad, not having a soulmate.

“Like you would know,” I spit back.

***

When I’m sixteen, my father — “Only if you buy me a drink first,” — comes home from work with a smile.

“You know George?” he asks. I shake my head. “He works in my office — mid-fifties, glasses, collects model trains?” I nod now and his smile somehow grows wider. “Well he was telling me about his daughter, today! She doesn’t have any words on her arm either, and was so depressed about it her entire life! Then, she met a lovely girl at university, who — get this — was mute! The mute girl had Jessica’s — George’s daughter is called Jessica, by the way — words on her arm, and they were soulmates!”

“What’s your point?” I ask, looking away from my homework on the table in front of me. Dad huffs, shaking his head, the smile not yet gone.

“It means that there’s still hope for you, yet!”

***

At eighteen, the summer is long and warm, and I feel perpetually buzzed on the sunsets and late night music, blaring from bars along the seafront. My friends don’t care about the words on their arms; just the night and the feeling, the lights and the dancing.

During the days, I stare at my bare arm, wondering if it would look worse with words tattooed across it. At night, I sing to the heavens and forget that soulmates even exist.

***

I’m nineteen when I realize that I don’t need hope to find love, that it’s all around me and has been there the entire time. Sometimes, of course, I feel jealousy bubbling up in my stomach as my friends meet their soulmates and fall in love, one after the other. I look at the people on the bus, telling the story of how they met and reading straight from their arms for the script, and I know I won’t be one of them.

But, a lot of the time, it doesn’t hurt.

Not when I watch mothers and children, brothers and sisters, friends that love friends undeniably and irreversibly.

I don’t need hope that I’ll fall in love, I find. I need hope that I’ll be better than okay without it.

***

At twenty-four, I get a dog.

“He’s my soulmate,” I explain, pointing to Teddy as he pants, wagging his tail and oblivious to the tension in the room. My parents glance at each other uneasily, before trying to silence me with their expressions.

“You know, there’s always a chance—”

“Your soulmate could be out there—”

“They may not speak—”

“They might talk in sign language—”

“Those are still words, Marvin—”

“I know, Ana, but I’m trying to help—”

Teddy barks and I smile, running my hands through his fur. Only my soulmate would truly know how to shut them up.

***

At twenty-six I find a posting online for a meet up in my city. For those without soulmate marks, we’re here to create a community and share in our experiences!

My roommate, Laura, looks at my laptop screen over my shoulder and nods.

“It could be good for you.”

“I don’t need a support group,” I reply.

“It’s not a support group, it’s a meet-up — a gathering, see, right there? Gathering.” Rolling my eyes, I turn to face her.

“I don’t need one. I’m fine.”

“I know you’re fine, but other people might not be,” she says, pulling on a jacket and slipping her feet into her shoes at the same time. “You’ve made your peace. You’re okay. You have a dog and a fantastic roommate. Other people don’t — they might still be waiting for their mute soulmates, and they need people to tell them that waiting for love and not getting on with their life is not the right call.”

She takes Teddy’s leash as she goes and I watch her step out of the apartment and shut the door behind her. Turning back to the screen I find the time and date of when the event is happening, before grumbling how Laura always gets what she wants.

The gathering is in a coffee shop, rented out for bi-monthly meetings.

“Definitely a support group,” I mutter under my breath, taking a look around. There are about twenty others in the café, talking with each other and drinking their half price coffees. There’s a low murmur that sweeps across the store as I order my drink, glancing skeptically around the room before turning back to the barista. He smiles knowingly when he sees my expression and leans over the counter, as if he’s going to tell me a secret.

“Weird, right?” he asks. “I’m going to warn you, because you seem like a first-timer. After the first half hour, where you get pulled in by talking to the lovely people who are just waiting for their true love, that guy over there, glasses, Hawaiian shirt — don’t look! You’re being so obvious!” I scoff before he continues. “He’ll get up on the stage in the corner and start preaching about how the lack of mark is part of God’s divine plan — it’s about how non-markers, as a whole, are meant to stay celibate and they’ll be granted a special place in heaven.”

I send him a pointed look.

“That’s a little far-fetched.”

“Fine, don’t believe me,” he says, shaking his head and passing over my drink. “But you’re about to be subjected to some serious extremist shit.” I glance back over to him.

“Do you have a soulmate?” He lifts up his arm, a long line of text written across it.

“Decaf soy latte with an extra shot and cream,” he replies. I laugh as I find my seat.

The barista turns out to be, well, right. At first, the gathering is fine, and a few others sit with me and discuss how they’re not interested in relationships as it is, so the lack of soulmate has never had an effect on them. Another tells me about how they’re still holding out hope that there was just a mix up. I tell them how I stopped minding, how I moved on.

It almost feels like a community; feels like I’m not alone as the only soulmate-less person in the city — in the world. For a moment, it’s good and it’s comfortable, then a man in a Hawaiian shirt stands on the stage, just as the barista promised, and holds up his hands.

“Non-markers!” he cries, and the warmth of the room almost shatters around me. “We are here to commune with our common trait — the lack of a soulmate. And for all those who are new, who are worried about what life has in store for you: I give you a ray of light in the darkness!” I glance over to the barista, who’s already staring back at me with a smirk. “We are on a divine path from God! He has called upon each and every one of us to be the saviors of mankind! He has given unto us the power to be saved, so long as we remain celibate and godly!”

I stand up from my chair, pulling on my jacket as I go. The preacher turns to me as he goes, calling: “You there! Do you wish to defy God? You are in a position of righteousness, my child!”

I only glance back to the cackling barista as I leave the store.

***

I’m twenty-seven when Laura curls up on the sofa next to me, resting her head on my shoulder. Teddy jumps up across our laps and we’re silent for a while, breathing in the breeze from the windows and letting the distant buzz of the television soak us.

“I wish I didn’t have a soulmate,” she whispers in my ear, and Teddy noses her hand until she strokes him.

“Don’t say that.”

“I do, though,” Laura replies.

“You have the ever-lasting love,” I tell her. “The type that never goes away.”

“I wish it would.” At last, I look over to her. “He cheated on his soulmate, Holly. He doesn’t care about fate and destiny.” For a moment, I watch the tears well in her eyes, before pulling my best friend in closer.

“Not having a soulmate’s not so bad,” I reply at last. “It means I get to have a lot more platonic love than anyone else.”

“Yeah?” she asks as I nod.

“And that’s the best kind, anyway.”

***

“I think we’re gonna have to break up,” Jacob tells me, leaning on the frame of my front door. I’m twenty-nine and Teddy barks in the house behind me. “Actually, it’s not a think — it’s a know.”

“Met your soulmate?” He nods. “She better be good to you.” His smile is wide and relieved.

“She will be.”

***

Thirty, my girlfriend meets her soulmate; a pretty girl who says “I’m sorry, but I love your outfit” as her first words, and I’m broken up with over the phone.

***

Thirty-one, my boyfriend finds his soulmate in a darkened bar, and it still doesn’t sting to be let go. Not when I don’t mind; when the end is inevitable — when I won’t be the person who falls in love and gets married, only to have my partner meet their soulmate and tear down my life just so they can leave.

I get a second dog, called Juniper, and she’s blind in one eye.

“I guess we’re both a little broken, huh girl?”

***

Thirty-two, my parents suggest a soulmate identification surgery.

“Scientists found that sometimes the skin just grows over the words — or the words aren’t formed enough when you’re born,” my father insists, turning the laptop to face me. “You just go in for a surgery, and they use their tools to discover whether your mark has just been hiding this entire time!”

I send him a dry look, not bothering to look at the screen.

“And if there still isn’t a mark?” I ask. “Think how much money I’d be losing.”

“Your mother and I were talking about this — we thought we could pay for it.” For a moment, I judge the hope in their eyes. Then I shake my head.

“I’m happy without a soulmate. Really.”

“Are you sure?” my mother asks, peering at me over the rims of her glasses. I nod, the edges of my lips tilting upwards.

“I am.” She nods, opening her arms for me. I step around the kitchen table, letting myself be enveloped in her warmth.

“We just want what’s best for you,” she whispers. “If you don’t need a soulmate, if you don’t want one, then that’s okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Honey, it’s always okay to choose yourself before anyone else.”

***

At thirty-three, my boyfriend of six months and I break up. Neither of us have a soulmate, and we just stare as the ending swirls around us.

“We were supposed to work,” he says. “Neither of us have anyone else to go to.”

“Just because we don’t have a contingency plan, doesn’t mean we’ll be good together,” I sigh in return. “We weren’t meant to be.”

We laugh at my choice of words, before the smiles awkwardly drift away and he leaves my apartment. I wasn’t meant to be with anyone, and yet we broke up because he chews too loudly, I snore obnoxiously, and neither of us can choose an activity to do together that we both enjoy.

***

Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, and Laura pulls the blanket over our laps as she turns on the TV. There’s a bowl of popcorn balanced on my legs, and the dogs are trotting about the room in the darkness. For a moment, the world is quiet and safe; we can just sit and be, loved or unloved, and not mind. Juniper barks and settles in by our feet.

I find a home in myself.

***

In the end, it still aches, just a little, not to be loved by another person in the death-defying, forever-and-ever, engulfing and burning sort of desire that I see all around me. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not loved.

Because I am. One hundred percent, wholly and wonderfully loved.

And, really, isn’t that all we can ask for?


 

You can find more of Bethany's work on her Instagram or on her website.

 

CONTRIBUTOR

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Bethany Nolan

Bethany Nolan is currently studying for her bachelor's degree in Creative and Professional Writing at Canterbury Christ Church University. She has also published a poetry chapbook called LEGENDS. More work by Bethany can be found on her website.

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