The tattoo was aged. Fifty years, it looked like, with lines so soft that some were barely more than smears. Problem was, it hadn’t been there yesterday. Marco couldn’t stop staring at it. So it wasn’t the first time he’d come to with new ink and no recollection. Whatever. But this was different. The hair on his arm was untouched. There was no tenderness. It really looked like it had been there for decades. And yes, he’d tried to scrub it off.
Marco struggled to focus on the illustration he was working on through the morning. It was due Thursday and attempt number three was no better than two or one. His shading was off and the characters’ features looked forced. He couldn’t stop looking at his arm. With a sigh, he threw down his pen and grabbed his keys. Nothing like a little hair of the dog. He needed to talk to April. She’d been behind the counter last night. As far as Marco knew, he’d come home around ten and headed to bed after trying to rescue illustration attempt number two for a couple of hours. Obviously, that wasn’t the end to last night’s story, and if there was more to tell, April would probably know about it.
April greeted him with a nod and a filled glass. “You’re in early,” she said.
Marco displayed his arm. “I’m trying to figure out who did this,” he said. “Someone thinks they’re funny.”
April inspected the tattoo. It was an old style. A woman giving a sultry pout with the hint of a smile.
“I never noticed this one before,” she said. “Looks old.”
“Well, it wasn’t there yesterday,” said Marco.
“That’s weird,” said April, rubbing at it.
“It’s not a tattoo,” said Marco. “Can’t be. Not a press-on, either. Some joker must have done this while I was sleeping. You don’t know anything about it?”
“Me? Nuh uh,” said April, moving to refill another patron’s glass. “It’s good work, though,” she added from the other end of the bar. “You don’t recognize the style?”
Marco hadn’t considered to target style. He knew a lot of talented artists, and many of them would have considered this the perfect practical joke. An artist’s style though is like a fingerprint. He should be able to tell whose work it was. He looked again at the washed out tattoo. It didn’t match anybody he knew. That said, one artist could certainly imitate another. It could be a copy of someone else’s tattoo.
“Thanks April,” Marco called, tossing a few bucks on the counter.
He tried to concentrate on the illustration through the afternoon, waiting for one of his friends to come forward with their joke. No one did. Even that night, as he showed it off and shared a good laugh, no one took credit.
The next morning the image seemed sharper. Her face had better color and the blending was more defined. Whoever the original tattoo had been modeled after was a timeless beauty. He wondered how long ago she had lived, and who had loved her enough to immortalize her on his body. She’d be named something like Ivonne, or Sonya. He liked that. Sonya.
“Sonya,” he said to no one in particular. “Exotic, beautiful Sonya. If I’d known you, I think I would have loved you.”
He rubbed again at it. Strange that it looked better on the second day. Well, whatever. It wasn’t like it was actually a tattoo. The change meant it was wearing off. He just wished the mastermind of this little game would reveal themselves. That night his friends accused him of dolling her up. He went with it, waiting for the big reveal, but it didn’t come.
In the morning his arm was kind of sore and he considered getting to the doctor, in case the ink used in this little joke was toxic or something. The illustration that he turned in was well below his usual standard of work. Whatever. It was done and he got paid. The tattoo was bright and, frankly, gorgeous. This joke was getting weird. And his arm was really getting sore the longer the day got. Rubbing it, he realized that the hairs on his arm were shorter over the fake tattoo. He didn’t go out that night, and double bolted his door. This was starting to get creepy.
The next morning he woke up early because his arm ached where the tattoo was. The colors were bright and the skin was a little raised. There was no hair over Sonya. Someone had actually tattooed her on! Marco jumped up and checked the door. Bolted. Windows were locked, too. He sat at his drawing table, staring at a blank page through the morning. NOT looking at Sonya. Refusing to look at Sonya. Unsuccessfully. The work was amazing. She was lifelike. Smoking hot. Mysterious. And now, permanent. This, no joke, was a tattoo. Creepy had just become downright chilling.
He wore long sleeves when he went out, and avoided conversation about his “fake tattoo.” He suspected all of them now. Any one of them could have done it. Drugged him or something. But why? He was a decent guy. Didn’t mess with people, generally. This had gone about a mile past funny.
Morning was more painful than usual. His head throbbed and so did his arm. Lifting his sleeve, Marco decided then and there that he was losing his mind.
“Another early appearance from Marco,” observed April when he shuffled in. “Twice in a week. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Marco bared his arm. Sonya’s outline was black over reddish, raised skin. A fresh tattoo with no color. None of the vibrant shading and detail of the day before.
“Decided to make it permanent?” she smiled. “Did you ever figure out who it was?”
Marco replaced his sleeve. That was what he’d come to learn. She had seen it. He hadn’t imagined Sonya. In a small way, he almost felt bereft. What remained of the tattoo was a simple scratched out line drawing. Sonya’s mystery and beauty were diminished. He left without a word.
Two pots of coffee and all of the lights on kept him up into the wee hours of the morning. He sat on the sofa, watching the door and windows. When he started awake he couldn’t tell how long he’d dozed. Birds chirped cheerily outside but the light in the windows was still weak. He checked Sonya, and found she was gone. No lines, no agitated skin, no shaved hair. His arm was exactly how it had been before all of this madness. That was it. He’d gone mad. The deep end was in his rear view.
There was a message for a new illustration assignment but he ignored it. He went to the boardwalk and crowd-watched on a bench instead. It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. And worst of all, he missed her. As bizarre as this whole thing had been, she’d felt right somehow. He ached to see her face again. In the afternoon he returned to his drawing desk and took a few whacks at recreating her but every attempt was lacking something. Dead tired, he dropped on his bed fully clothed and slept deeply.
The next day was a wash. He mostly stared at the wall, and his empty arm, and sometimes at his cold coffee cup. He joined his friends that evening, but wasn’t up for conversation. The bottom of his glass was far more interesting. And the next, and the next. He saw her everywhere. Every woman in the place reminded him of her. The way he felt like she would have moved. Tossed her hair over her shoulder. Laughed. The woman at the counter, with her profile. He approached unsteadily.
He was opening his mouth to issue his very best pick-up line when she turned to face him and the words shriveled on his tongue. Marco’s knees went AWOL and he staggered back onto a stool, nearly overturning it.
She smiled in her sultry, mysterious way.
“So tell me, stranger,” she said, teasing a finger down his shoulder, “what do you say to hitting the town, with me on your arm?”
Marco’s laugh was something near hysteria.
“I’d say that’s exactly where you belong,” he said, offering up his arm.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!