Dre finds Ivana protected by a sis-bro on each flank. Ivana’s an ice queen with platinum hair, perfect skin, and, today, Apple logos on each cheek.
Wet Ink ™. All the cool kids have it. Heck, most people do. But cool kids get Prada and Aston Martin; kids from Dre’s barrio get Walmart and KFC ads.
That’s for sellouts. People with no pride.
The teardrop on the edge of his left eye is just a normal tattoo. It always means the same thing: Don’t fuck with me.
Every time Dre sees Ivana, the cord connecting them pulls a little harder. Does she feel it, he wonders? The usual play is a message in Wet Ink ™, maybe on the palm of the hand, maybe on the cheek: get a cup after school?
He knows trying for Ivana by talking to her is an outside chance at best.
Dre tries anyway, asks her what she thought about the biology quiz. He watches the side of her beautiful face as she pretends she didn’t hear him. An “B” scrolls across the forehead of a girlfriend: “Boots!”
Blushing, Dre dives down the hallway, the eyes of the school boring into his back.
At lunchtime, he tosses Mac N’Cheetos on his tray and freezes at the sight of Ivana and Jacob Mueller standing face to face, flirty messages scrolling across their foreheads. They communicate with such ease, it reminds Dre of two birds entwined in flight.
Dre puts his head down and sits with his squad. Their tattoos don’t dance. Gotta have Wet Ink ™ for that. He eats furiously, in silence.
Dre lives with his mom in a Section 8 apartment over a bus stop. He rifles through his mom’s purse as she snores in front of the TV he once found on the side of the road: An out-of-date license, a green card, a bill.
He leaves the twenty in there. His mom is usually broke: Good thing his lunches are subsidized. But there’s another way to get Wet Ink ™.
His mom’s tablet is cracked in a dozen places, but it still mostly works. Dre searches for Wet Ink ™ and fills out the contract. It takes him a long time with all the complicated sentences and legalese. They ask for a parental signature. He touches her finger pad to the scanner, and so the transaction is complete.
Dre’s surprised when he hops off the bus and the clinic’s in a strip mall. He’d been picturing something… bigger.
He had the idea the procedure would involve a real doctor with a stethoscope and mask. Instead, some guy hands him a cup of pink, sweet syrup. He can barely get it down. They send him to the lobby to watch eighty-year old Ellen interviewing someone.
“That’s it,” says the receptionist. He goes back to playing with his phone.
“Just wait a week.”
With a heavy feeling in his stomach, Dre takes the bus home. He suspects he’s been had. This isn’t his world. His mom always told him never sign nothing. Dre starts to get itchy everywhere. It only gets worse—a rash that covers his whole body.
“You look like shit,” says his mom. “You roll in poison ivy or something?”
Later that night, the rash goes down. Now Dre’s skin tingles, almost tickles. Worse than the itch.
His phone beeps. It’s a message from Wet Ink ™. Tells him to install an app. It links a tutorial showing him how to subvocalize, calibrate, and teach the app.
He starts practicing. His mom walks by with some laundry and just stares.
“What you playing at?” she says, eyes widening like a cartoon. “The hell you–?”
Dre runs to the bathroom. A shitstorm of static and grids and blotches flow over his face. He almost screams. He touches the weird patterns, but his skin feels the same. It’s Wet Ink ™. He has it now, but it’s wild.
He remembers about subvocalizing.
“Mmm, mmm, mmmuh,” he says. The Ink jerks and spasms into the rough shape of an “M.”
“Puh, puh ,puh,” he says. Now there’s a sloppy, disproportional “P.” It wriggles like a sea creature.
He sees his mom leaning against the doorframe, arms folded, shaking her head. “You done fucked up.”
“It’s my life,” says Dre.
He practices. By midnight, he manages a sloppy “get a cup Ivana?” without moving his lips.
The next day, Dre follows a flash of platinum in the washed-out crowd, his heart thumping dizzy. He’s patient. He has one chance. And so when Ivana detaches from her sis-bro bodyguards on her way to Algebra, he walks right up.
“Oh, hi,” she says. Her pale blue, mysterious eyes take him in–just this once, unguarded, curious, even interested. He can’t mess this up with clumsy words.
He doesn’t. Dre doesn’t say anything, as he has to concentrate with all his power, and just writes her a complimentary message using Wet Ink ™.
Ivana’s eyes widen as she reads the text across his face. Ivana’s thin, lovely lips widen into a smile.
Then Jacob Mueller intrudes on the circle of light. His lip curls ironically. Amused. Dre amuses him.
“is that even English?”
Ivana covers her mouth to smother a laugh.
Jacob’s a tall, beefy kid with pale, fashionable clothes. Dre drives his shoulder into his gut. They both go down, fists swinging, connecting, smashing, teeth breaking, blood smearing on the floor…
After that, things just go downhill. Dre tries, but he fails. No matter what he does, it always ends up bad. By the time he’s nineteen, it’s so bad Wet Ink ™ cancels his contract, writing off the ad revenue. Their sponsors don’t want their logos flashing on the skin of a felon. They send an update to his phone that deactivates the implementation.
But soon enough, the State taps in with their own app.
And a list of his crimes scrolls across his forehead.