The Bar Code Tattoo, p.1Suzanne Weyn
— With love to
Diana, Rae, and Bill Gonzalez
And with deepest thanks to Tisha Hamilton,
David Levithan, and David Young for being
so generous with their brilliance
in helping me create this story
— Suzanne Weyn
Also by Suzanne Weyn
“… everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning
Outside, rain drummed against the window. Across the metal desk, the guidance counselor talked. Talked and talked. The light in his office was way too bright.
She’d absorbed his bad news fifteen minutes ago. Time for you to shut up now, she thought. But he kept on talking.
He shook his head, full of sympathy manufactured for the moment. She didn’t buy it as genuine. He barely knew her. How bad could he really feel?
“Sorry, Kayla,” he said. “I haven’t seen an art scholarship issued to a student weak in computer skills for the last five years, definitely not since 2020. You shouldn’t expect to get one, or even to be accepted at the art schools you’ve applied to. That’s just how it is.”
Mr. Kerr tugged on his sleeve and her eyes locked onto the inch-long rectangular patch of straight black lines on the underside of his left wrist.
A bar code tattoo.
This wasn’t the first time she’d seen one, of course. This year all the kids in her grade turned seventeen, the age when a person qualified for a bar code. As soon as their birthdays came, the first thing they did was run out and get tattooed. Everyone — even adults — was getting one. Both of Kayla’s parents had been tattooed for seven months now.
Even though she saw tattoos everywhere, they continued to fascinate her. How bizarre to be branded like a box of cereal. Didn’t people mind being counted as just one more product on a shelf? There had to be more to a person than that.
Unaware of Kayla’s gaze on his wrist, the guidance counselor kept talking.
Outside, the rain kept pounding. She twisted in her chair to see it better. Rivers of water raced across the glass.
And then Kayla …
A jet streaks by. It’s low and she’s never seen one that looks exactly like it. She’s in the woods outside a great city. Tall white buildings spire to the sky. A thick shining wall surrounds the city, about fifteen feet high. Someone else is with her. She senses him standing behind, but doesn’t turn to see.
Near the wall, people walk toward the city. Many people. Her heartbeat quickens. A low rumble, like many voices speaking at once, fills her mind. She smiles.
She blinked hard. Mr. Kerr was no longer talking. The only sound was rain. The guidance counselor stared at her from across his desk.
“Sorry,” she apologized to him, with a quick, stressed, half smile. What was that about? she wondered.
“So you understand what I’ve been saying?” he asked.
She nodded. She’d understood it a billion minutes ago when he first began — the art world had no place for a talented artist with bad computer-skill grades.
That’s what it amounted to, though of course he felt compelled to subject her to the entire explanation. Although she was only half listening, she understood.
The explanation went more or less like this: Only a few of the most experienced artists were required to input drawings into computer art data banks. These computer-generated images were used to create all other artwork. No art school would award a scholarship to a student weak in data imaging — a student like her.
When she’d first realized what he was telling her, she’d felt like a figure in a video game.
Smash! A direct hit!
Kayla Reed — blown to smithereens.
Game Over! Game Over! Game Over!
Maybe she wasn’t completely out, though. It deserved at least a fight on her part. Here goes, what the hell. Leaning forward, she reached across his desk and tapped on the computer screen that displayed her grades. “My art marks are all Achievement Plus. Holographic Web Design — AP. MTML Advanced — AP. I even took an extra credit in Acid Full Loop Advanced on my own time so I could add my own soundtracks to my art. That counts, doesn’t it?”
“I understand that, but look at these computer grades,” he countered. “Computer Concepts — Insufficient Mastery Achieved. Computer Methods — IMA. Data Collecting — IMA. All these IMAs in computer just don’t impress schools. In fact, if you get one more IMA, you might not even graduate next year.”
“But that stuff has nothing to do with art. I suppose I should have attended more regularly. But it’s so boring. They can test me — I already know most of it,” she fought back.
“Not an option, I’m afraid.”
“What if I got recommendations from my design teachers? They all say I’ve got lots of talent. I’ve been art-tracked since ninth grade. I would go outside and draw during computer class. No one cares if you can draw, I know. But still … it has more to do with art than computers do.”
“Kayla, it’s my job to make you aware of how the schools will view the situation,” he said, and she noticed something in his eyes that seemed to shut down. He wasn’t going to do anything for her.
She stood. “Thank you for letting me know … all this.” She really had to get out of his office. She needed a place to scream, cry, and maybe kick something.
He rose, too. “You could still be accepted into an art college without a scholarship. Is that a possibility for you?”
“Not likely,” she replied.
“Too bad you didn’t apply for a Global-1 Federal Grant at the beginning of the year,” he said.
“Things were a lot different for me then,” she told him. Warnings flashed in her mind. I don’t want to go in this direction. Change the subject. Talking about the situation at home was too upsetting. Besides, it was none of his business.
“Oh?” he asked. “Are there problems at home? Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” His eyes became warm with more of that instant sympathy.
He extended his arms in a gesture meant to be helpful, embracing. It hiked up his sleeve and Kayla glanced again at the row of straight lines tattooed on the underside of his wrist.
Since he had the bar code, could he tell her why it had driven her father into a depression so deep that he didn’t even bother to go to work anymore?
“The tattoo,” she began. “How do you like it?”
He appeared puzzled. It wasn’t what he’d expected her to say. Then his face relaxed into a smile. “It’s convenient, I suppose. All my banking and identification numbers are encoded right here. If I were rushed to the hospital, billing and medical information would
She smiled back politely. “But don’t they get all that information from an eye scan now?” she asked. These days eye scans did everything. They unlocked doors, identified you to your computer, and even proved your identity at airports.
“An eye scan only proves that you’re you,” Mr. Kerr pointed out. “It doesn’t contain all your other information.”
He clearly approved of his tattoo and was clueless as to why it had blown away her father — just as clueless as Kayla herself. Sure, the tattoo was impersonal and, she thought, demeaning. But her father had known all that before he’d gotten it. What had happened afterward? — this is what she wanted to know. What had left him so freaked?
“Is there more you’d like to talk about?” Mr. Kerr asked. “Anything else you’d like to know?”
Nothing you can tell me, she thought. “No. Thank you.” With a parting nod, she headed into the empty hallway, not sure what to do next.
No art school.
There it was — the simple reality.
All her life she’d assumed she’d go to an art college or a design school. She had a box full of ribbons, certificates, and other prizes for her art. She’d spent every summer at the Art Institute at Garrison drawing and painting as well as learning all the new technologies. But this was the last summer of high school, the last summer that she’d be eligible for the program. She’d always figured she’d go to art school and then get a job with the government in the Public Murals Program. But they only took students from the top twenty art schools. What was she supposed to do now?
The hallway was empty. In a few minutes, though, class change tones would sound, releasing a flood of students into the halls. This meeting with Mr. Kerr had run into her lunch period, but she had zero appetite and didn’t want to see anyone. Instead, she walked to the nearest stairwell, a quiet place to hide from everything.
She sat and the stairs felt cold through her neon-blue pants. Her straight brown, cobalt-blue-streaked hair swung forward as she rested her chin on her hands.
Sitting there, with the rain still pounding on the windows, she fell into a world of private pictures. They floated before her in no particular order. Snaps of conversation. Images of figures against sunlight. Individual movie screens hurtling through the inner space of her mind. That was how she usually thought things through — in pictures, not words.
She saw her father staring at the bar code on his wrist. His dark eyes staring emptily.
Another image floated by — her mother’s mouth forming words. “Joe, why aren’t you at work? They’ll fire you if you don’t go in.”
Then an earlier picture, a better one — an image of him sitting at the side of Kayla’s bed at night. He was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and had come to the part where Voldemort’s evil helper was revealed to Harry. “It’s true,” her father had said thoughtfully, putting down his e-reader for a moment. “It isn’t always easy to recognize your true enemy.”
She turned at the sound of footsteps. A tall, slim guy carried a stack of books down the stairs above her. He had black, close-cut hair and brown skin. The top book tumbled and bounced down the stairs. She jumped out of its way.
“Whoa. Sorry! You okay?” he asked, hurrying down to her.
“Yeah. Okay.” She looked into his eyes — hazel marbled with vivid green. She knew who he was — everyone at Winfrey High did. Mfumbe Taylor had represented their school in the first Virtual Global Teen Jeopardy. He’d won, too.
As he picked up his book, he looked up at her. “Hey, you’re not okay.”
She realized for the first time that her eyes and cheeks were wet. She’d been crying and hadn’t even known it.
“Did the book hit you?” he asked.
“No.” She used her thumb to wipe smeared mascara from her face.
He fished a stick of gum from his pocket and offered it to her. “Want some? It always makes me feel better.”
Kayla took the piece and popped it into her mouth. Peppermint. It did make her feel better, but maybe it was his concern that worked the trick.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he checked.
She looked up at him without answering. For some reason she felt a strong, nearly overwhelming urge to tell him everything that was wrong — about her parents, the lost chance at art school, everything. But that would have been too strange — she didn’t even know him.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.
“Okay, well, I’ve got to get these books to the library,” he said, backing away. “You know if they’re late, they’ll send the library squad.”
She smiled. “I know. Thanks for the gum.”
“Sure.” He waved and entered the flow of kids who were returning from lunch. All she really wanted now was to cut her last classes and go home. Moving quickly, her head down so she’d make no eye contact with anyone, she headed to her locker.
It was in sight when a voice shouted from behind her.
“Kayla, I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Her shoulders hunched. Caught!
“You’ve got to come with me right now!” Her friend Amber Thorn wrapped her fingers around Kayla’s wrist and began to pull her toward the girls’ room across the hall. “I have something amazing to show you.”
“Can it wait?” Kayla asked.
“Hey! What’s wrong?” Amber didn’t miss a thing. “You’ve been crying. Come on.” Kayla stared into Amber’s vivid blue black-rimmed eyes and let a resigned sigh escape. Nothing would stop her, so there was no sense in trying.
Inside the girls’ room, they sat on the metal bench against the tiled wall and Kayla told Amber her bad news. “It would have been nice if someone had let me know all these computer requirements would be important,” she complained. “I could have worked a little harder on my computer grades. I mean, you’d think one of my art teachers or a guidance counselor would have mentioned it.”
“This is not fair!” Amber cried, tossing back her metallic-silver curls indignantly. “You’re the most talented artist I know. You can actually draw. How many other kids can do that? With them it’s all computer imagery.”
Amber was the most loyal friend imaginable and Kayla loved her for it. She knew that even if she could draw only a stick figure, Amber would say that stick-figure drawing was the truest kind of art and that Kayla was an artistic genius who drew the best stick figures.
“Thanks, Amber,” she said. “But nobody cares anymore if you can draw or paint. And anyway, it doesn’t matter because without a scholarship I’m blown up. Dad hasn’t worked in over a month and I don’t know when he’s going back. My mother thinks he might already have been fired and doesn’t want to tell us. If that’s true, I don’t know what kind of money they can give me for college. Tuitions are astronomical. God, you have to be a zillionaire’s kid just to go to college.”
“Really,” Amber seconded. “My dad keeps yelling about scholarships but I’m never getting one. You have to be a brain or at least talented for that.”
“You’re talented,” Kayla insisted.
“At what?” Amber demanded to know.
“Well … you’re a great friend. And you’re pretty.”
“I don’t think they give scholarships for those things,” Amber reminded her. “The Beauty Scholarship has been discontinued for decades.”
“Then there’s two of us without a scholarship,” Kayla said.
“But speaking of the bar code,” Amber began.
“We weren’t,” Kayla pointed out.
“Oh, then say we were,” she replied. She lifted her stretchy pink sleeve, pushing it above her elbow to reveal a curved reddish-brown line snaking up her arm. It coiled off in winding branches festooned with exotic flower designs. Every few inches, the garlands split, curling off in ever more winding, complex designs, continuing up her forearm.
Elaborately beautiful as it was, Kayla could only stare at one particular part of A
“When did you get it?” she asked, stunned.
“You mean the ’too?”
“This morning, first thing. I went straight to the post office before the line got too long.”
“Did it hurt?” Kayla asked.
“The bar code? No, they do it with laser beams. It only hurts when they jab your finger to draw blood.” She examined her left thumb. “The needle didn’t even leave a mark, though.”
“Why do they need your blood?” Kayla couldn’t see what blood had to do with a tattoo.
Amber shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe they do it so they can list your blood type on your medical records. Afterward, I went right across the street to the body-art guy and had this done. Everyone’s doing it. Look how he worked the bar code into the design. The scanner only picks up the code, so it doesn’t matter if something is drawn over it. The design lasts at least three months. Isn’t it final level?”
“It is,” Kayla had to agree. “The art is really final level. He’s a guy who’s found a way to make money by drawing.”
“You could do something like that,” Amber suggested. “Be a body artist.”
“I had something better in mind than living in the back of a crummy little store or in a tent going from fair to fair,” Kayla said.
The tone for next class sounded and took their attention from Amber’s mesmerizing arm. “Happy birthday, by the way,” Kayla said as they stood up from the bench. “I’ll give you your gift tonight at your party.”
“Tell me. What is it?”
Kayla grinned. “You’ll see. Don’t worry. You’ll love it.”
The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes