You aren’t allowed to do work on anyone drunk or stoned, but this guy has all the right paperwork and identification, so you ignore the dull gleam in his eyes and the way his hand shakes when he signs his name. It isn’t until he’s sitting in the chair that you think, Maybe this is a bad idea.
You are alone in the shop. It’s a holiday weekend, fall break or something, so work is slow. Your boss, Mario, left you a six pack in the fridge to keep you company. The sticky note on the side says Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
Your customer rifles through his pockets, taking out one crumpled page after another. At last, he produces a scrap of paper and smooths it across the counter.
The beast is a tangle of angry tentacles, a thick and eyeless monstrosity rendered in ballpoint pen. A single puckered limb wraps around naked female flesh, breasts pressed up, legs helplessly kicking. Hundreds of dollars in art classes and you’ve never been able to achieve that kind of breathless motion with lines. “You did this?” you ask.
He doesn’t meet your gaze, staring at the wall behind you with such intensity you almost turn around to check that no one is there. “I need to cover something up,” he mumbles.
He lifts his shirt and with a long, dirty finger, taps a stretch of skin across his right chest, four letters in looping red text. A skull’s tongue lolls out over the word SINE. The word tugs at something festering inside of you. It’s a familiar design, but you can’t remember where you’ve seen it before.
You square your shoulders, put on your tough guy face. “Two hundred,” you say. The credit card he hands you has a different name than the one on the forms, but you take him to the back anyway and point to a chair.
As you shave the hair from his chest, you think about Kath. She says the way you ink it’s like you can reveal what was already there, under the surface, a way of showing truth on skin. A gift, that’s what she called it.
Kath used to come to Apocalypse Ink about once a month. Usually her boyfriend came with her, a prissy, preppy guy who turned white whenever she went under the needle. When he wasn’t there, Kath talked the whole time; she said it helped with the nerves. Mostly, she talked about photography. How she wanted to move out to California and take photos for beach weddings. How her parents were forcing her to finish getting her psychology degree first.
You and Kath, you’re the same.
Your parents weren’t exactly happy with your plan. They wanted you to stay in college, get good grades, get a job in an office. Now that you’re working at a tattoo parlor, your dad won’t speak to you. Whenever your mom calls, all you hear is dry sobbing on the other end of the line. It’s been a never-ending argument since they learned you dropped out, and you’ve never even had a chance to explain to them that you’re happier this way.
You copy the design to the transfer paper, then carefully place it on his chest, over the four letters and the skull. “You ready? If you need water or the bathroom, now’s the time.”
The customer shakes his head. “Do your worst,” he says.
Everyone reacts differently to the needle. Most people don’t know how to be alone in their pain. They flinch and twitch, muscles spasming. You’ve seen tears roll down the cheeks of grown men. Girls grab your arm, pierce your skin with their sharp nails. Kath only asked you to hold her hand, that first time. Before the boyfriend started coming.
Some people talk. The nervous energy spools out of them in waves of jokes, lengthy anecdotes, even secrets. But this customer is the silent type. He lets you work in silence.
A tentacle erases the S and I. N becomes the curve of the woman’s tits.
The last piece you did for Kath was a mermaid. None of that Disney shit; she wanted something fierce, sexual, with fangs and webbed fingers. You even tried to put some of Kath’s features into it: the shape of her little face, the arch in her eyebrows, the freckles across her nose. Then you transferred it to her upper thigh, and she squirmed and writhed, nearly kicking you in the head. When it was all over, she threw her arms around you. She said you were the most talented person she’d ever met.
You reach for that memory often. It’s like a lucky coin you carry in your pocket, finger the edges until it turns smooth. It gets you through the days when you have to do frat letters and feathers.
The customer coughs. He mumbles something you can’t hear.
“What’s that?” you ask.
“It’s nice,” he says, waving his hand towards his neck.
You realize he is talking about the ship. A recent addition—neck tattoos didn’t used to be your thing—it came to you in a dream, a ghostly, grand vessel, and the very next day Mario inked it under your left ear.
“You designed that?”
The customer’s breath on your face is rough and salty, like the spray of a sea wave. “Then I’ll bet you’re crazy. All the best artists are crazy.”
“If I am, you’re letting a crazy person tattoo you right now.”
The man flashes you a fishbone grin.
You stop to check your work. You can still see the skull and the word SINE, but only faintly; they fade into the ink like a magician into a cloud of smoke.
Somehow, this is what stirs the memory:
The basement of your freshman dorm, an unfinished cement floor scattered with broken chairs and empty beer cans where you and your friends went to smoke weed when you should have been in class. In the haze of smoke, the stenciled words and skull bled across the wall. Unsettling, spooky. Inevitably, someone would ask, Where the fuck is cosine? Drugs and a lingering sense of unease meant the joke was always funny.
And didn’t SINE appear in other parts of campus, too? Scratched on the walls of the men’s bathroom on the second floor of the library? Drawn in chalk on a deserted classroom?
Now you remember it all clearly. SINE was a kind of celebrity at the university, never seen in the flesh but only through the stenciled images he left in strange places all across campus. The more obscure the location, the more you admired him as an artist. He didn’t want to be known in daylight or clarity. Only in darkness. Only under the surface.
The realization is so startling you have to stop your work. You wipe the ink away and look at the customer again. You wonder how old he is. His body is dry and shrunken, but his cheeks are pageboy soft, covered with fine yellow stubble, no trace of grey.
You try to keep the excitement out of your voice as you wipe the excess ink with a paper towel. “So…Who is SINE?”
The customer’s eyes narrow. There is unconcealed reluctance in his voice when he answers, “My name is Enis. SINE was Enis backwards. My alter ego.”
“I did some things,” he says, interrupting you. “I was a different person, when I was SINE. I’m not proud of it.”
You work carefully, taking your time, until the sea monster is complete. For a moment, you admire it silently, just you and your work in your own private world. You can see that you achieved exactly what you’d hoped. You captured the power and depth in the original drawing; it shines vividly bright over pink skin. It is, without a doubt, the best work you’ve ever done.
“All finished,” you say.
The customer stands up and walks to the full-length mirror, puffs out his skinny chest. The kraken emerges from his flesh, pulsing with blue and green life.
“See that?” he says, “A new man.”
You smile, and you aren’t sure if you are happy or disturbed. You have the unsettling sense that somehow this man understands you as no one else can.
You check your phone. First thing on your Newsfeed is a photo of Kath. The location is listed as San Diego, California. She’s on a beach, a red bandana wrapped around her head, her arms stretched way up to the sky. Beneath the hem of her shorts, you can just see the fins of a mermaid’s tail.
When the customer leaves, you do clean-up. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. As always, you look away from your face: flat and dull as a chopping board.
Instead, you examine your tattoos. Sleeves of snakes and roses, bats and daggers and tree limbs. They come alive in the afternoon light, a map of everything you are and will be, woven across your flesh. Amidst this tapestry, there are still some places where naked flesh shines through: parts of your hand and forearm, your elbows and wrists. An ocean of blank flesh calls to you, beckoning you towards unexplored worlds.
Melissa McDaniel is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose interests include mixed media, fairy tales, and Ouija boards. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Witch Craft Mag, Psychopomp Magazine, Outlook Springs, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @melissamcd29.