It’s too bright when he opens his eyes. The sun is shining through the window, illuminating the small specks of dust floating around mid-air. Birds are chirping outside, and he closes his eyes again, tries not to move too much. He doesn’t remember how much beer he had to drink last night, but today it feels like too much.
He’s sweating, the duvet is clinging to his chest and legs, and his hair is damp. There’s a sour smell in his room, of sweat and beer and smoke. Fuck. His mother is not going to be happy about the state of him today.
It’ll be worth it though. His friends and him are all aware that this may be their last summer together. Fresh out of school, adult life ahead of them. They take every chance to spend time together, yesterday they hung out in Urraparken, drinking and laughing and playing.
He actually doesn’t feel good at all; he’s feverish, and when he tries to turn around there’s a searing pain just below his ribs, like his skin is on fire, or like there’s a big scratch-wound there. He winces, tries to remember if he took a fall yesterday, but he can’t, he’s too dizzy.
When he gently puts his hand on the right side of his stomach, the skin is burning hot and feels rugged underneath his fingertips, and when he lifts the cover to look he sees a dark patch there, about the size of his palm.
He freezes, has to close his eyes for a moment.
Surely, it can’t be, not this soon?
But when he looks again, he’s sure.
He’s gotten a mark. He’s only been eighteen for about a month, haven’t even had the time to start worrying about it yet.
No, that’s a lie. Of course, he’s thought about it, what it would mean. How it would facilitate his life if he was bonded. How content his father would be if he got a mark.
The lines are blurry, but some of them have started to crystallize.
He pulls the cover back up, tries to process what’s happening. What will be happening. His mother is going to tell his father, who will be making the call as soon as he finds out, he’s sure of it. There’s no way he’ll be able to hide it from his mother, not with the fever.
They’ll probably come to get him this afternoon, and then he won’t be back until it’s done.
Until he’s been bonded.
He knows he should be glad, but at the same time, he can’t help but think that his life is over. At least his life as his own. Soon, he’ll be tied to another person for the rest of his life, and even if that’s supposed to be wonderful and meaningful and everything, he likes the way things are now.
Maybe he’ll be moving someplace else, where his mate lives. Maybe his friends will, too, if they get marks.
At least he’ll know soon. And when he knows where he’ll live with his mate, he can apply for university, at least there’s that. He’ll no longer have to wonder if or when it’s going to happen.
It feels a bit awkward, sending the text to the group chat. He doesn’t want to brag or sound smug about it, absolutely not. But he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to speak to them when he’s at the clinic, so he just sends it. Gets several hearts and well-wishes and encouraging words within minutes, as well as status reports: they’re all very hungover.
His mother starts crying when she finds out, like he knew she would.
She’s got that green dress on, the one she wears when she’s outside in the garden during summer, and her hair is drawn back with the brown combs she always uses. She wipes her cheeks with a kitchen towel, sits down beside him and pours him some more orange juice.
“It’s so soon, I wasn’t prepared for you to leave just yet,” she whispers, and Isak is struggling to hold back the tears, the sandwich growing in his mouth. “Should I pack your bag? We should call your father, let him call the clinic. I’m sure he wants to be the one to do it.”
It doesn’t take many hours until there’s a hard knock on the door. The man outside is wearing a dark suit, and a black SUV with tinted windows is parked in front of their own car. He’s got a serious expression, doesn’t smile at all, even though he must see how worried Isak’s mother is.Maybe the man is trying to be professional, reassuring in front of them both, but there’s really no need to act like someone is seriously ill, Isak thinks.
His mother is nervous too, he can see it in the way she twists her hands, how her jaw is set. She’s changed into a light blue dress she usually wears for church, wouldn’t ever wear her garden dress in front of people she doesn’t know.
“Good afternoon. I’m here for Isak Valtersen.” The man has got a folder in his hand with Isak’s name and today’s date on it. There’s also some kind of logo that Isak supposes belongs to the clinic, but he’s not sure, not aware of where he’s going exactly.
His mother nods. “Yes, he’s here.”
“And you are?” He looks at her, eyebrows raised in question.
“His mother. Marianne Valtersen.”
“I see.” He writes something on a paper and then hands it to her. “Here is the contract instituted by the clinic between them and Terje Valtersen. It states that Isak is to go with me to the clinic in Dokka, where he will remain until bonded. During the stay, the clinic will provide him with all necessities and see that he is well taken care of. We have medical professionals and specialists available at all hours.”
“Will – will he be able to make phone calls?”
“The number to the clinic is written on the last page, and there is also the name of his coniunctologist, who will be the one to decide when contact with the outside world is beneficial for your son.”
She nods once again, and Isak can see how her hands are shaking. He wishes he could be more of a support to her right now, calm her, but he’s already having trouble standing up from the fever, the nervousness, the whole situation.
Suddenly, he wishes he’d studied more, read things about bonding, how it’s supposed to proceed from now. But it’s too late now, and he guesses he’ll find out anyway.
“Thank you, Mrs Valtersen. And remember, this is all natural, nothing to fear. You should be happy your son has presented with a mark.”
“Yes.” She swallows. “I am. Thank you.”
“We should go.” The man looks at Isak, but doesn’t move, doesn’t turn around to give them some privacy, and Isak can’t relax when his mother hugs him goodbye, has a hard time keeping it together. His fever must have increased too, he's sweating through his t-shirt. She kisses his cheek before she hands him his backpack, and then he’s being led to the car by the man in the suit. When he turns around just before stepping inside the car, he can see the tears running down his mother’s cheeks while she's blowing him kisses, smiling weakly.
He must have fallen asleep during the car ride, because when he wakes up it’s dark outside. A gate opens before them, and they drive slowly towards a well-lit compound. It’s almost like some kind of military base, with trees and bushes in straight rows, houses without any kind of ornamentation or bright colors. Only the clinic's name in an impersonal font over what he supposes is the main entrance.
He’s led inside by a nurse whose name he can’t remember. It hurts when he walks, he’s sleepy and still feverish, shivering from the cool air outside. She leads him patiently through long corridors but doesn’t speak much, must see that he’s pretty out of it. Maybe everybody who comes here is?
They’ve only touched upon the subject in school, in civics, mostly regarding the division between those with a mark and those without, Isak didn’t really pay attention, he kind of regrets that now.
Should have done some reading, he knows that there’s a whole section at the school library about soulmarks. And of course, there are endless sites dedicated to soulmarks and soulbonds, but the field is vast and quite intangible.
Both his parents have got one, they’re bonded and all, but he knows that was no guarantee for him to grow one. That no one really knows what causes the soulmark to develop - or what impedes it.
Even though he didn’t speak with his father before he left, he knows Terje is relieved. Isak has seen the nervous strain it has put on him this last year leading up to his eighteenth birthday.
But he’s surely content now. Relieved that his son turned out the way he wanted. Marked, soon to be bonded.
The nurse stops and directs him inside an exam room with bright, fluorescent lights.
“Doctor Nielsen will be here shortly, so if you would please undress. You can leave your underwear on.” She turns around, starts sorting through some papers and Isak exhales. He’s exhausted, it feels like he’s been awake for several days now, even though it was only this morning it all started.
His mark is still hurting, and he grits his teeth as he pulls his t-shirt off and puts it on the chair with his backpack and the rest of his clothes.
The man who enters must be about the same age as his father. Glasses, grey hair, not very tall, Isak probably has a few centimeters on him. He nods towards the nurse as he closes the door, and then proceeds to greet Isak with a handshake.
“So, Isak. Welcome.” He looks down at the irritated skin surrounding the mark before he catches Isak’s eyes again. “This is just a quick check-up to get you inscribed, okay?”
“You can lie down, please.”
The coarse paper on the examination table rustles when he moves, and he has to close his eyes when the nurse lights an even bigger lamp above him, pulls it down towards his stomach, directing it just above his iliac crest on his right side.
“Isak, it says here that your mark showed up this morning?”
He nods, tries to look at the doctor, but squints. “Yes.”
“And you are eighteen years and..?”
“Hm. It looks irritated. Is it sore?” The doctor touches it before he’s finished asking the question, and Isak fights the urge to recoil. “I see. And this is nothing you did to yourself, Isak?”
“What, no, I – ah!” He cries out as Doctor Nielsen touches it again, prodding at the outline of the mark with his fingers.
“No, no, it looks real enough. But it’s only half a mark, that may be why his reaction is so severe.” He is talking to the nurse, but turns to Isak again. “It’s not unusual though, that marks appear gradually. It will probably develop during the next few days, don’t worry.” Doctor Nielsen removes his gloves and nods to Isak, maybe it’s supposed to be reassuring, Isak doesn’t know. He’s just grateful that he isn’t required to answer any more questions. His mind is swimming, his whole body is hurting and he just wants to go to sleep.
After leaving both skin and blood samples and getting his vitals checked, the nurse applies some calming ointment on his mark before he is given medication to ease his fever along with some clothes; loose pants and a long-sleeved shirt, white with thin, blue stripes. They’re comfortable, fabric soft from being washed countless times. Like an old fashioned pajama.
He is finally being led to a room, will soon be able to lie down. He hopes he’ll get to sleep, that the fever and the tiredness will quiet his mind and let him drift off.
There are voices and flickers of light, and then it’s all black again. He’s warm and it seems his clothes are wet. Everything burns but then it’s like he is submerged in cool water. In that lake by the cabin where they went when he was a kid. Where he admired his father’s mark, covering his left shoulder. He had drawn a mark on himself with a pen later that evening, and his father had laughed and ruffled his hair.
He is hurting again, and his throat is dry, too dry to talk. When he opens his eyes, he has to close them again, the light is too bright and he doesn’t recognize the room he’s in. His back is stiff and his neck smarting and it smells of sweat when he moves, whiffs of warm air from underneath his cover.
There is rustling in the room, the sound of a door opening and closing.
“I think he’s waking up.”
He tries to speak, but only manages to croak and then cough. When he opens his eyes again, he remembers everything. The mark. The clinic. The fever.
“Isak, do you know where you are?” Doctor Nielsen is standing beside his bed, a serious look on his face. Isak nods, and a woman dressed in grey approaches his bed with a cup and a straw, offering him to drink.
The lemonade is sweet and cool, and he drinks it all in big gulps. The woman in grey puts the cup away and dabs his forehead gently with a damp cloth.
“How are you feeling, Isak?” she asks, voice low and gentle.
“I’m – I don’t know. Sore?” He closes his eyes again.
“You’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last four days, we were getting worried.” Doctor Nielsen interrupts.
For days? Isak draws a sharp breath. “Oh, I – “
“Would you please uncover his mark so I can take a look?”
He is wearing a different shirt now, it’s more of a gown with buttons on the front, he realizes as the woman in grey lifts the cover and starts unbuttoning it. He can feel the mark burning before he sees it, an angry red eruption surrounding it. It looks horrible, probably not at all like a mark should, the black lines blurry against his swollen skin. He winces when Doctor Nilsen touches it, closing his eyes to try and fight back the tears that are threatening to spill over.
“Your mark is expanding, but the process is slower than we would like. It’s still tender, I see?”
Isak nods. He doesn’t trust his voice enough to speak right now.
“As long as your mark isn’t complete, we can’t match it against your mate.” Doctor Nielsen clears his throat. “You know that the marks are supposed to match, right, Isak?”
He nods again.
“Right now, yours is underdeveloped, the lines aren’t very clear, and they are yet to form the outer ring surrounding your mark.” He speaks slowly as if he’s talking to someone very uninformed. “So what I propose is that you’ll be staying here, in your room, and we will begin hormone treatment to help it along.”
Isak blinks, and Doctor Nielsen must see his confusion. “The treatment is intense, and you won’t have the strength to wander around anyway. The helpers and the nurses will see to it that you have everything you need.” He nods at that, as if that’s the end of the matter, an overbearing look on his face.
He swallows and nods, slowly. “Yes. Okay.”
“This is nothing to worry about, we will make sure to find your mate. And you should be grateful that your parents signed you up to come here, where we can offer you the most advanced and efficient treatments.” And then he turns around and leaves with a short nod.
Isak closes his eyes again, tries to swallow down the lump in his throat. Fuck . Of course his mark has to be faulty. Maybe it’s not even a real mark? What if he doesn’t get one, if he can’t be bonded? What will his father say?
He wants to call someone, wants his mother to comfort him, wants to listen to Jonas rant about how bonds and soulmarks are just a construction, a standard set by an unequal society depending on an upper class and another, disposable class to be used without reconsideration, but he doesn’t know where his phone is, or if he is even allowed to use it.
“It will be fine, Doctor Nielsen is very competent,” the woman in grey says as she carefully buttons his gown and pulls the cover back up. “Would you like to eat something? You haven’t eaten since you got here.”
The mere thought of food makes Isak stomach churn, but he nods nonetheless. “That would – yeah, I can try.”
The woman nod, smiles at him. She closes the door behind her, and Isak lets out the breath he’s been holding, tries to relax his hands balled into fists, tries to fight back the panic threatening to overtake him.
Tries to believe that it is indeed going to be fine.
There’s a window in his room, and when the blinds are up he can see some kind of yard outside. The few benches are unoccupied, there aren’t many people outside despite the sunny weather. There aren’t any flowers here, just well-trimmed bushes and never-ending lawns, but he knows that the meadow in the glade behind their house is blooming now, it was when he left. Poppies and bellflowers and different kinds of grass he can’t name. It’s probably warm outside, and he wonders what his friends are doing. If they’re on the beach or in a cabin somewhere, enjoying their last summer before adulthood. Without him. If someone else got their mark.
Every morning after breakfast the nurse comes with his shots, and then again after dinner. Doctor Nielsen was right about the treatment – he barely has energy for anything else than staying in bed. There are several persons dressed in grey that helps him, bring him lemonade and help him sit up. He doesn’t know their names, they don’t say much. And he’s not in any shape to strike up a conversation, anyway.
The first couple of days the hormones made him throw up, made him almost delirious. Now he’s just nauseous and tired. Bored out of his mind, hungry but without appetite. He still hasn’t got his phone back, and there’s no tv in his room. It’s best to avoid too many impressions, as your body has got a lot of adjusting to do , the nurse explained when he asked.
He tried to understand how watching tv could change the due course of hormones in his body but knew better than to question the doctor’s orders. He’ll be out of here soon, and he’s still got his books from school. And of course, the book that the nurse gave him. The Beauty of the Bond - an Introduction to Soulmarks and Soulmates. Even though the cheesy cover that honestly looked like something out of a romantic movie made him roll his eyes, he flipped through it, curious about what he is supposed to experience in the near future.
The read was a disappointment, though. While he wanted to know about the evolutionary reasons behind the bond, why the human race had started to present with marks some centuries ago, what the genetics research shows, the book focused mostly on love. How a bond conjoins two persons for life, like two missing pieces of a puzzle, almost as of some divine intervention. How genuine love is something that grows between bonded mates.
He himself has never been in love, he thinks. He’s been attracted to people, sure. Mostly boys, if he’s honest, but he’s never done anything. Never gone further than kissing someone at a party, letting his hands roam over strong shoulders and firm chests.
Some say that it could affect your mark if you were to fall in love with someone who isn’t your soulmate, but Isak thinks that it’s mostly rumours.
He sighs. Looks up at the ceiling, at the cracks he knows by heart now. The grey stain at the far left corner, the door seal that is a centimeter too short where the ends are supposed to meet. Lets his hand travel downwards, underneath the cover, touching the mark through the gown.
It’s not as sore now, still aches but he’s able to touch it. And it’s grown, developed as planned, according to Doctor Nielsen. The mark is placed just above his iliac crest on his right side, an intricate pattern of thin lines that run in parallel, almost like a large fingerprint. It would be exactly like a fingerprint, only one possible match, had it been completed.
The next day, it’s Doctor Nielsen himself who administers his shots. He’s much less gentle than the nurse, pinches his skin where he’s already sore and shoves the needle in deep.
“I know these shots aren’t very pleasant, but they’re for a good cause, you know.”
Isak nod, clenching his teeth and tries not to bite back at the condescending tone.
“I’ve got news for you, though,” Doctor Nielsen continues as he turns around to discard of the shots and the gloves.
Isak pulls up his cover, doesn’t feel comfortable like this, undressed and almost vulnerable. He clears his throat. “Okay?”
Doctor Nielsen turns around again, rights his glasses. “Even though your mark still isn’t fully developed, it was enough for the database.”
Isak just looks at him, doesn’t dare to guess, even for himself.
“We’ve found your match, Isak.”