On Deacon Street, two or three of the older buildings had been knocked down and vacant lots with tufts of weeds sat between the struggling dollar store and Bill’s Tattoos and Piercings. The tattoo place had been there for years, even before the structures demolished last spring were built, and it looked it: pits and peeling wood showed in the sign, despite the layer of fresh paint applied to it every year, and the stonework on the corners of the walls had been smoothed by generations of tough guys and sassy girls leaning against them. The sidewalk in front of the parlour was permanently stained by countless cigarette butts, the ends of cigars, and spatterings of chewing tobacco, dropped or mashed or spit in displays of careless nonchalance, studied flirting, or seconds of fury. The original owner of the building had installed a fancy stained glass window over the picture glass, and to the business and patrons’ credit, no-one had ever destroyed it. Bill’s Tattoos and Piercings might have been exposed to all kinds of other abuse when drunks fought or breakups happened, but the window stayed. And so did the business.
They’d taken in a new artist in the past week, Tanya knew — the advertising was all over social media. A specialist in portraitures and three-dimensional skin art. His name was Brown Chimes (she still shook her head at the thought of parents who’d curse their child like that), and he wasn’t from the area. But for what she had in mind, he was perfect, even if the price was a little high.
Memorialize your loved ones or pets with Brown Chimes’ expertise in lifelike portraits, in colour, sepia, or black and white! Sessions by appointment only — $500 minimum.
Tanya cracked her knuckles as she passed the vacant lots, checking her phone again for the time. It wasn’t the pain of the tattoo that she was worried about, or being late; for once in her life, she was actually early, and this was far from her first visit to Bill’s. It was the risk she was taking, having seen other people’s work. A portrait had to be done with care or else it would look as awful as that time someone had tried to fix Jesus’s picture in that church overseas. If she ended up with something ugly and exaggerated inked into her skin . . . Well, the worst that could happen would be a cover-up, but that would have to wait until the first one healed, and the new one would depend on the size and details of the old. It was all very risky.
But she had a mission. It had been on her mind ever since Eddie’s funeral. She had her boyfriend’s pictures still, lots of selfies they’d taken together and a nice formal shot from prom. He had been the love of her life, Tanya just knew it. She’d thought about following him into the dark after he’d been killed in his car, hit by a drunk driver, but she’d also known how he would have felt about that. He’d want her to move on. Eventually, she knew she would; she’d date again, maybe even get married, although it still hurt her deeply that it wouldn’t be to him. One day the photos might fade, or be lost in a fire, or deleted if she forgot her Facebook password and couldn’t get to her account, but a tattoo — that was forever. Just like their love would have been. And if she did fall for someone else and get married, he would still be with her.
The tarnished old bell jingled as she opened the door and stepped inside. Classic rock was playing at a reasonable volume on Bill’s stereo, and one or two young people were lounging on the black leather couch in the centre of the room, mocking their friend as he was getting inked on his back. Tanya approached the counter where a red-haired woman in her twenties was focused on finishing a design by hand.
“Hi! I’m here for–”
“You’re Tanya,” a quiet voice said. She jumped, startled, and turned to her left.
A tall, gangly man with startlingly pale skin and a brown beanie was smiling at her. He had exotic tattoos covering every inch of the right side of his body, neatly dividing his face down the centre of his slightly crooked nose, over the centre of his Adam’s apple, and descending through his collarbone into the neckline of his tank top. Tanya didn’t usually stare at people with body art, knowing it was rude, but this — she’d never seen anything quite like it. It was as though someone had started in a colouring book and folded the page over to keep half of the picture untouched.
“I know, it’s shocking, isn’t it?” He beckoned to her, turning as he walked away. He kept talking, despite not looking back to see if she was following him. She liked his faint British accent. “It’s a work in progress. I’m always adding small things as I go. I move around a lot, so I get a fresh tattoo to remind me of every place I’ve visited and everyone I’ve met.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why he’d chosen to keep the one side of his body pure, but it wasn’t her business. Tattoos were personal choices.
He led her into one of the back rooms, but left the door open. “Bad Moon Rising” drifted in on their wake.
“Did you bring the picture that you wanted to use?”
Suddenly, Tanya’s mouth was dry. She nodded, fishing around in her purse for the snapshot of Eddie half-turned away, his lips partly open at the start of a laugh. She held the photo tightly, tears gathering in her eyes and blurring her vision.
“It’s so hard to let them go, isn’t it?” Brown said. He sat on a padded stool and scooted it close to her to see. He patted her hand kindly. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you what you want. It’s my personal guarantee.”
The first session would be the sketching, he told her, and that would take about two hours. She’d let that heal for a week or two, then return for the shading (if she wanted it). Tanya considered again where she wanted the tattoo: it had to be a place where she could see it, but not too visible all the time. Private. Personal.
“Let’s do it on my upper thigh,” she decided. “If my future husband doesn’t like it, screw him. Eddie was my soul mate.”
Brown nodded. “I’ll give you a cloth to cover your lower half, then, and we will begin.”
He gave her a few moments of privacy to remove her jeans and arrange herself on the table, and then cleaned his hands and put on black protective gloves. She watched as he picked up the needle, and sat up, alarmed. “Aren’t you going to make a stencil first?”
“I always go freehand, love,” he told her. “I’ve never had a dissatisfied customer. And if you don’t get what you want, I’ll do a cover-up for free. Oh, and do you mind if I sing while I work? It helps me to concentrate. And I’ve been told I have a pleasant voice.”
Mollified, she relaxed and nodded, and let him begin.
* * *
“Look, Eddie,” she whispered to the stone. “Isn’t it great? I’m going back on the 17th to have it coloured in.”
As soon as Brown had finished up and put the bandages in place, Tanya had paid him in cash and headed straight for the graveyard. Peeling back the surgical tape was about as annoying as the needle had been, and she knew she was risking infection by exposing it to the air so soon, but she had to show him. Plus, she was glad to see that the forget-me-nots she’d planted a few days earlier were still alive on his plot, and thriving.
“Baby, I miss you so much it hurts,” she told Eddie’s stone. “But this is helping. It’s helping a lot.”
She replaced the bandages, patting them carefully into place, and leaned over to kiss the top of his grave marker. The tattoo twinged as she moved, and for a second it felt as though her skin was crawling where the fresh ink was settling in. Tanya slapped her leg with the flat of her hand to kill the itch.
* * *
“The skin tones and highlights are almost done,” Brown told her at the end of her second session. “But I’m afraid you’re going to have to come back one more time for the final details.”
“How much more is that going to cost me?” Tanya asked. She tried to hide her dismay, mentally calculating what she had left in her bank account.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s included.” He soothed her, smearing a layer of clear jelly over the portrait. “Two more weeks, and you’ll have your Eddie forever.”
Tanya smiled, though she didn’t feel very assured — it was hard to see the face on her thigh without a mirror, and he was working so fast to cover it with a fresh bandage that she hadn’t gotten a good look. She paid the second half of the deposit, her mind already steps ahead and in the graveyard.
As she approached Eddie’s grave, she sighed with annoyance. The forget-me-nots were rampant, no longer a pretty sprinkling over the grass: they threatened to overgrow the stone and spread to the neighbouring plots. Would that bother the mourners who came to the other graves? Tanya hated to do it, but she spent the time on her knees pulling and trimming the flowers back. Kneeling pulled uncomfortably on the skin of her thigh, but she’d left her hand sanitizer at home. No showing Eddie his portrait tattoo today. “I love you,” she whispered, kissing her grass- and dirt-stained fingers to his stone.
The tattoo itched and crawled, burning under the bandage.
It bothered her so much, she barely slept that night. After-care rules were generally to keep the tattoo covered up and dry for twenty-four hours, but after tossing and turning until three am, she had to see what was going on.
“Please, don’t be infected,” she begged, standing in the bathroom with her leg propped up on the toilet.
To her relieved surprise, when she peeled back the tape and lifted the gauze, everything looked normal. Perhaps a bit more swollen than she was used to — Eddie’s face appeared to have contours and hollows, but she reflected that Brown Chimes did have talent in depicting the third dimension in art. She picked up a hand mirror to look at it from another angle, and dropped it promptly when the eyes in the tattoo flicked and looked back at her.
“Shit!” she cried. “Seven year’s bad luck!”
Tanya’s hands were shaking. She told herself it was because of the noise of the shattering glass. She knew she should tiptoe over and around the shards to get the broom and dustpan, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off her thigh.
On the counter, in her makeup case, was a small travel-size compact. She rummaged for it until she found it, and then, not breathing, held it over the portrait.
It was fine. Nothing moved. Just her imagination, then. A trick of her eyes.
Tanya laughed to her herself. The air felt good on it, so she ripped the rest of the tape off to let the tattoo breathe, and went to get the broom.
* * *
“Listen to me! There’s something wrong with my boyfriend’s grave!” Tanya pounded on the door to the groundskeeper’s office. “Maybe there’s a broken pipe or something, making a sinkhole. It’s disrespectful! If you don’t fix it, I’m going to report you! Are you even in there?”
Furious, she turned on one foot and stalked away, back toward Eddie’s plot. The forget-me-nots were as wild as ever, but they looked as though they were crawling up out of a ditch: for some reason, every time she’d come to visit over the last weeks, his grave looked for all the world like it was sinking. If the flowers hadn’t been there, she’d have sworn that someone was stealing dirt by lifting the sod and putting it back, but the plants were undisturbed.
“Don’t worry, Eddie,” Tanya promised. “I’ll look after it.”
And now she was late for her last appointment at Bill’s. Tanya ran the last few blocks, pissed off with herself for wasting time at the graveyard again, and arrived just as the red-haired clerk was fitting her key into the lock of the front door.
“Wait! I’ve got an appointment with Brown!”
“We’re closing early today,” the woman said, looking her up and down. “It’s a holiday weekend. You should have been on time.”
A hand appeared in the glass door front. Brown knocked on the window, smiling down at them, and he pushed the door open. “It’s all right,” he said. “I was just cleaning up, and I was waiting for you, Tanya. I knew you’d be here.”
Gratefully, Tanya slipped through the small opening he offered. She didn’t bother to look as he shut the door tightly, heading straight for his back room. The little jingle and the slide of the lock into place echoed through the empty ground floor.
“So, how does your tattoo feel? Healing well?” He entered the room noiselessly, making Tanya jump. “This last session will be painful, but it will be worth it. It will truly bring your portrait to life.” He gestured widely, grinning.
Tanya’s heart beat faster. Her skin felt cold and sweat broke out on her forehead. “How much more needs to be done?” she stammered. “I mean, it looks pretty good to me.”
“Small details, sweetheart,” he reassured her. “Just get comfortable.”
“Are you going to sing again?”
“Of course!” He showed her all his teeth. “It’s what I do!”
He was right about it hurting more. Over and over, Tanya gritted her teeth and gripped the vinyl mattress on the table. Her sweaty palms wore away the thin paper covering that was meant for sanitation. Brown worked steadily without a break, grinding lines into her skin with a needle that felt like a razor blade, singing all the while.
And then came a sharp clap of pain she hadn’t expected at all, a streak of lightning in her skin that seared to the bone. She flinched, crying out, and the next thing she knew, he was dabbing her face with a cool, wet cloth.
“Is it over?” she asked. Her throat was dry. “Are we done?”
“Yes, my dear, you have what you wanted. Eddie is with you forever, in portrait as well as in spirit.” He helped her to sit up, handing her a plastic cup of water. “Would you like to see before I wrap it up?”
Tanya actually wanted to be sick. “No, it’s okay. I believe you. I just want to go home.”
He shook his head, understanding.
At the door, she paused, and then took his hand. “Thank you for this. I’m sorry I was such a whiner. I really do appreciate your time and your talent.”
“It is my pleasure.” Brown said, covering her hand with his own. “I’m honoured to be able to do this for you. Find me if you are at all dissatisfied, and the cover-up is free.”
Uncomfortable, Tanya ducked her head, and clumsily opened the lock to let herself out.
Her thigh burned and leapt under the bandage as much as it had after her second session. More, even, by the time she had reached the graveyard. Limping, she made her way over to Eddie’s stone, where the depression in the earth had gotten so deep, she couldn’t see the forget-me-nots anymore. Moaning, she stumbled over to the plot and looked down to the bottom.
Dead and withered flowers and their stalks lay twisted over a layer of brown grass. The brass fittings of Eddie’s coffin were visible around the edges of the pit, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight filtering into the shadow of the grave.
Weeping, Tanya fell to her knees, and once more, the skin on her thigh pulled. It throbbed, actually. She laid a hand over the bandage, feeling the muscle of her leg twitching and jumping. It was turning her stomach. Nails scratching her own flesh, she tore away the tape and gauze, and then she shrieked as the portrait’s nose flared in the fresh air. She crawled back, trying to get away from her own leg, while Eddie’s tattooed eyes blinked and strained to look up at her. His upside-down grin looked like a monster’s grimace. She hit another gravestone and was trapped.
“Hey, babe,” said Eddie’s tattoo. “What’s shaking?”