Alex had always wanted a tattoo. Even as a little boy, while his peers were off playing kickball down the street, Alex would hang out at the corner of Elm and Lakewood with the various bikers that loitered the area. There, skinny and drowning in his over-sized glasses, Alex would try to blend in with the hulky men and listen to their stories. While his ears took in the tales of war, depravity, and love lost, Alex's eyes absorbed every mark of every tattoo they came across. The colors, the nautical signs, half-naked women, and meaningful sayings, called out to him in a language that touched his soul. These tattoos were more than pictures on bare skin. They were works of art that screamed out to the world all the adventures these men had experienced. To Alex, they were proof that this motley crew had actually lived, damn it. Alex wanted the same for himself.
Instead of the usual childish toys that most boys his age requested for Christmas or birthdays, Alex always asked for books. Specifically books with pictures. He requested comic books the year he turned nine. At age eleven, he matured to graphic novels. His teen years saw Alex devouring any art book, no matter how abstract, that he could get his hands on. His parents, happy that their only child was obsessed with pictures instead of drugs, obliged him in his demands all through his youth. They accepted that Alex was quirky and a loner. They stayed up late at night discussing how proud they were of their sixteen year old son who did well in school and didn't seem to have the same girl troubles of his cohorts.
He'd find himself someone special one day, they told each other. Just you wait and see.
It was around this time that Alex got a job at the used bookstore three blocks down from the local biker hangout. To Alex, the gig was perfect. It was right after school and it gave him unlimited access to hundreds of books. Alex couldn't have been happier.
But, his parents could've been.
The first sign that Alex's obsession was bordering on that side of obscene was during his senior year in high school. While all the other seniors were receiving admission slips to various colleges, Alex showed no interest in a higher education. In fact, Alex had no interest in anything other than finding the perfect tattoo. It seemed to him that at some point during his life long quest, and while pouring through countless books of art, history, and even the occasional porn mag, he would've stumbled on to what he was wanting. Some picture of something somewhere should have spoken to that inner need that he couldn't describe. But it hadn't happened yet. And the longer it took, the more depressed Alex became.
His parents worry only increased as Alex entered his twenties. He showed no signs of getting a full time job, moving out, or getting a girlfriend. They began to worry that their son's quirkiness was something deeper and darker. His mom thought he may be bipolar. His dad figured Alex to be a sociopath.
Either way, the kid just wasn't right.
It was four days after Alex's twenty-eighth birthday that the old woman walked into the store. Philip was standing behind the cash register flipping through a People magazine from 1987. Glen Close was on the cover looking, as far as Phillip could guess, very appetizing to every straight male in the late 1980s. Phillip could only guess because he hadn't been straight since that night he played Seven-Minutes-In-Heaven with Tracy Carmichael back in the seventh grade. He hadn't lasted seven minutes, hell he had barely lasted two, and the experience was nowhere near heavenly. Phillip had both figuratively and literally come out of the closet that night.
Phillip had hired Alex simply because he'd seen the boy around and knew he didn't have any friends. He figured the the quiet loner wouldn't be much trouble and he wouldn't have to worry about Alex missing work to do something stupid like hanging out with his friends. Of course, he'd had no idea that Alex would try to retire from the bookstore that Phillip had opened some twenty years ago. But, what did he care?
The old woman was the first customer that Tuesday afternoon. Both Phillip and Alex had spent the day sorting through boxes of old magazines and books that someone had dropped outside the front of the store. Alex normally didn't work Tuesdays, but Phillip was feeling his age that particular day and just didn't want to go through all six of the boxes by himself.
The old lady, Phillip didn't know who she was, approached the counter cautiously. She was short, maybe five feet tall on a good day, and shuffled her feet ever so slowly. Her grey hair was long and in desperate need of a washing. It fell around her shoulders and into her face. She was white with crooked yellow teeth. Phillip took in the woman's wrinkles, the way she hunched forward as she walked, and her long (almost too long to be natural) fingers that held a thin book in them, in one glance. But, it was her eyes that made him do a double take. They weren't a color he'd ever seen on the color spectrum before. And as a former art student, he'd seen them all.
"How can I help you?" He asked her. Phillip tried to casually meet her gaze. Unfortunately, whenever he looked into her eyes, all he could do was stand there like he was in some sort of trance. Her eyes were hypnotic.
They weren't brown or gray or blue or any of the other conventional colors. They were dark, yet he could see flecks of purples, reds, and other colors that could not be named. The old woman's eyes held no life. No emotion. She held the look of a human with no soul.
She scared the hell out of Philip.
"I'm here to see if I can get some store credit for this picture book." Philip was amazed at how young and sharp her voice was. Had he first met the old woman by telephone, he would've never guessed she was this old half-dead looking being standing in front of him.
"May I?" Philip gestured towards the item she was holding. He watched her carefully place the thin hardback book into his hand. He held it up and carefully examined it.
The book was thin. He guessed it held maybe fifty pages, if that many. The cover was black fake leather with bright yellow Xs marking the front and back. There was no writing to indicate a title or author. Phillip set it down on the counter to open it.
"Wait," the old woman grabbed Phillip's hand. Her grasp was firm. Her flesh was hot. "Do you have to do that now?"
"Don't you want to know how much credit you're gonna get in return? I have to look inside the book to determine the amount."
"No. Never mind." She shook her head in disgust. "Can you just leave the amount on a sheet of paper or something?" The old woman asked in that too young voice. "I can come back another time."
"Sure," Phillip eyed her suspiciously. "I can do that. What's your name?"
The old woman stepped back from the counter and looked at the book as if it were a long lost love. She appeared heart broken and rejected. Phillip thought, almost felt, that she'd change her mind and yank the book out of his grasp. He could almost see the gears in her brain kick into reverse.
However, the old woman did nothing but shake her head once more and walk away.
Phillip watched the odd woman walk out of the store. The memory of her eyes gave him the chills. He could still feel her gaze on him even after she'd left.
Phillip did the best he could to shake the sensation away.
You're crazy, he told himself. He wondered what it was about the thin book that caused the old woman to behave the way she had. He placed his hand over the leathery cover and felt an electrical charge shoot through his hand.
"What the hell," he muttered.
"What the hell, what?" Alex asked. Phillip wasn't sure how long Alex had been standing in front of him with that amused expression on his face.
"Nothing." Phillip snatched his hand away from the book. "A customer just brought this in for store credit. You wanna have your way with it before I store it some place?"
Grinning, Alex picked up the book only to immediately drop it. "What the fuck?"
"Problems?" Phillip asked.
"Nah. Static electricity or something. Is this the only thing she brought in?"
"Yep." Both men looked at the book laying on the ground. Neither seemed too eager to pick it up. "You gonna get back to it or what?"
"Yeah." Alex replied. Picking up the book, he shook off the feeling that something was wrong it. Books were books. Paper with ink. They did not give off electrical charges. He grabbed the thing up and headed to the back room of the dusty bookstore to see what it contained.
Meanwhile, Phillip couldn't get the old woman's eyes out of his head. Not only did they creep him out, but they reminded him of something. Something chilling, but he just couldn't figure it out. Doing his best to shrug off the image, Phillip returned to Glenn Close. Yep, he thought, still gay.
Alex's favorite spot in the store was an uncomfortable wooden chair in the corner of the backroom. One had to maneuver their way through a maze of boxes and stacks of books and magazines to get to the chair. He would lose track of time pouring through book after book looking for a picture of his perfect tattoo. About five years ago, Alex even took to praying to whichever deity would grant him his wish. When he got to his favorite spot, book in hand, he was hoping that maybe he'd finally gotten his prayers answered.
Opening the book brought a charge straight into his hands. His fingers seemed to fall asleep. It took him a few minutes of flexing them before he could get his blood to circulate properly. His ears picked up odd tones that they didn't pick up before. His pupils dilated. None of this registered with Alex. He didn't pick up the change in frequency or how lightening seemed to shoot up both his legs at the same time. Alex didn't seem to hear the whispers or feel the hot breath of the unseen being that whispered them. He took notice of nothing but the face that stared off the page and into his eyes. It was the image that he's been searching for his whole life.
His perfect tattoo.
It was a face. Black and white with scattered pixels. No mouth to speak ill of him. No ears to hear anything negative others may say. The eyes were sunken so far back into the skull, that one just assumed they were there. There was not any evidence to suggest they actually existed. But, to Alex, they were there. They spoke in a language that he heard and understood. They acknowledged his deepest secret desires. Like how he longed to wrap his hands around someone's throat and feel the life beat out of them one pulse at a time. The secret eyes knew he looked at the pretty red head that browsed the bookstore every Thursday with a sadistic interest. They seemed to know more about him than even he knew.
This was it. All his searching was over. He looked one more time at the face staring back at him and, with book in hand, ran out of the store. Away from the dusty corner that heard his pleas. Away from the puzzled expression on Phillip's face. He ran away from it all and towards the only place in town that could give a man a decent tattoo.
Tony's Tattoo Parlor and Other Things was a staple in the small town. Tony was in his seventies with a crew top hair cut and long arms. He claimed to be only 6'5", but some speculated that he was taller than that. Tony was skinny. Real skinny. Skinny enough to cause people to question why and if there was something really really wrong with him. Tony liked to let them talk. He figured it gave the townspeople something else to moan about besides their pitiful excuses for lives.
No one knew what the 'Other Things' on the marquee stood for. And Tony wasn't telling.
On that particular Tuesday that saw Alex's dreams come true, business had been painfully slow for Tony. He hadn't seen a customer all day and was starting to calculate how much it was costing him just to run the lights in the joint when Alex busted in through the front door.
"Holy shit in a fucking corn basket," Alex exclaimed. "I've finally found it."
"It! My tattoo. The one I want you to tattoo on me right now. Right this instant."
Tony had known Alex all his life. He knew about Alex's bizarre obsession and even spent a considerable amount of time contemplating what was wrong with the kid. Some subscribed to the theory that he'd been working with that homo, Phillip, for so long that the kid had actually turned queer. Others believed that he was some sort of eccentric genius that hadn't quite discovered what he was a genius of. There were some, still, that thought Alex to be a momma's boy and he figured all he needed was a good ass whipping. Tony didn't really subscribe to one theory over another. He just knew Alex gave him the creeps. He didn't like the kid. Never did.
"Calm your ass and let me see what you're talking about." Tony reached out his hand to take whatever picture Alex had.
Alex went to hand over the book, but found he couldn't let go. Not 'let go' in the sense that the book held some special meaning to him, but more he couldn't let go because he couldn't get his fingers to do what he was instructing them to do. The tendons in his hand were contracted, and no matter what kind of instructions his brain tried to give them, they just didn't want to let the damn thing go.
"Well?" Tony asked.
"Here," Alex said thrusting the book at him, "take it."
Tony took the book from Alex. The young boy didn't seem to want to let it go, but after a considerable tug, Tony got the damn thing out of his hand.
And that's when Tony thought he was having a heart attack. The lightening that hit his heart traveled from the book and up his arm. When it hit the old ticker, all Tony saw was a burst of purple and red flashing in his corneas. Heat radiated down his torso. And for a moment, a brief ever so frightening moment, a face appeared in his mind's eye. A face that didn't have eyes, but he thought they were there anyways. Hidden. Judging.
"Well, open it." Alex prodded him.
"Uh. Um, I'm not sure I can do anything for you today, bud." Tony stammered. He could still feel the heat running through him. His heart, once under attack, was beating at its normal rhythm. "I'm really busy right now."
Alex glanced around the empty tattoo shop. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a clump of bills. "Here's a thousand dollars. To be sure it's not more than that. Open the book and tell me how much you'll charge me. Whatever it is, I'll pay it. I have the money."
But, Tony didn't want to open the book. He didn't want the creepy kid in his shop. He didn't want the freakish images in his brain. The heat had spread from his torso and was now circulating his ball sack. Nah, Tony didn't want any of it.
But, he sure could have used the money.
Tony reluctantly opened the book and stared into the face that he'd seen only minutes earlier in his head. He quickly snapped the cover shut.
"Two thousand dollars and it's a deal."
Alex whipped out another thousand and instructed the older man to place the tattoo on his back. While the young man was taking off his shirt, Tony began to get all his gear in order.
Colors. What colors should he use?
That's gay. Has to be more than purple. A dark purple, yes, but what else?
Reds and grays.
What about those other colors? The ones that don't have names. How do I make them?
They'll come on their own. And when you're done....
And when I'm done?
Alex had no idea about the exchange going on in Tony's head. He had already positioned himself on the chair and was trying hard not to giggle with excitement. He felt like a teenage boy getting his first glimpse of a pair of tits. He heard the needle come to life. The bussing sound gave Alex a hard on.
"Hold still," Tony growled.
Hours. That's how long the process took. As Alex's blood mixed with the ink, hours passed and Tony began to see his worst fears come to life. There in the sunken eyes, Tony saw what he never wanted anyone else to see. He saw that girl he met when he was in his twenties. She's said no, but foolishly Tony had thought if he'd just pressed on, she'd begin to really enjoy herself. For a skinny guy, Tony was very strong. Especially in his prime. She had left him, limping, bloodied and crying, swearing hell and damnation on his head.
He'd moved after that. Taking the secret with him.
Then he saw the bar fight he was in. Just him and some greasy Mexican that talked too much shit. They'd met in the back alley after final call, settling some stupid argument once and for all. Red had flashed in his eyes, and it wasn't until his vision had cleared, that he'd seen all that was left of the Mexican was a bloody head and body.
That was another move.
As the face from the page came to life in front of him on Alex's pale white skin, Tony saw all his sins come to life. The wife of his best friend that laid in his bed countless nights. That girl that wasn't quite of age. The thousands of dollars he'd stolen from the old lady two moves ago just to get the shop up and running. They were all there asking him when did he plan on making amends for the wrongs he had done.
Funny thing was, Tony had never looked back. Never given any of it a second thought.
Hours went by. The sun set and the moonless night said hello as Tony was just putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. The colors were perfect. The face was there with the eyes that no one could see.
As tony blotted away the blood that seeped through, he noticed Alex's breathing. It was irregular. Shallow even. Like the air in the shop lacked the ingredients he needed to sustain his life. Blood mixed with sweat trickled down his back. Welts rose from his ribcage as if someone had been whipping the poor boy.
"You ok man?" Tony asked.
"I'm perfect." Alex replied in a whisper. He slithered out of the seat and asked for a mirror. Standing with his back to the big mirror on the wall, Tony tilted a smaller mirror so that Alex could see his handy work.
"Perfect indeed." Alex murmured.
Alex left the money behind, along with his shirt, and walked out of the tattoo shop. Tony looked after him in simple astonishment. He was so focused on Alex's odd behavior, and the images in his head, that Tony never took notice of the pools of blood that had collected on the floor. It was not common for a person to bleed that much during any tattoo session. So, Tony didn't realize that the blood, mixed with the ink and sweat that had trickled down Alex's back just moments earlier, was collecting in a pool right around his feet. And since he didn't notice, or realize, what was going on (especially with his eyes still on the door and his thoughts still on his sins) it came as a complete shock when he slipped in the wetness on the floor and hit his head on the table on his way down. The crack was unnatural at best.
Tony didn't have time to think of karma or any such nonsense on his way down, because as soon as his head hit, and it made that awful cracking sound, his eyes closed and the face appeared once again. Only this time the backdrop wasn't some black mixed with funky colors. It was the pits of hell and, this time, Tony could feel the heat on his face.
Alex walked home in a daze. The people who passed by him on the street, once seeing the face on his back, gasped in terror. One old man made the sign of the cross. One little girl clung to her mommy as she began to cry. One teenage boy, just moments away from deciding which college to apply to, went home and hung himself. All these goings on to the back of Alex did not make an imprint on him. He didn't hear any of the commotion. All he seemed to hear was the sound that played at that unnatural frequency. A frequency that humans aren't supposed to hear sound at.
He walked into his house and headed to his room without saying anything to his parents. Once in his bedroom, Alex closed the door and collapsed, face down, onto his bed. There he slept.
Alex slept for three days.
The second day that Alex was a no-call, no-show, Phillip began to worry. A call to Alex's parents revealed that the boy must have the flu since he'd been sleeping for a couple of days straight. But, Phillip wanted to see Alex. He needed to talk him and tell him about Tall Tony biting the dust in his shop the other. Phillip needed to tell Alex about the old woman and her crazy eyes, about the book that had something wrong with it (no matter how crazy it sounded), and about his nightmares. Phillip had been having all kinds of crazy dreams and just needed to know if Alex had been having them too.
But, Alex's mom was insistent that her son had the flu and shouldn't be bothered. Well, as much as Phillip could figure out, the old twat didn't know what she was talking about. Some weird shit was going on and he needed to warn Alex about it.
If it weren't too late.
Phillip drove over there Saturday afternoon. It was a beautiful day. Temps in the mid-seventies. Over half the town was out and about, and Phillip secretly wondered why the weather couldn't reflect the dread that was going on in the pit of his stomach. In the movies, it was always cloudy or storms were striking outside when evil shit went down. But, not in real life.
As Phillip stepped onto the front porch, he could hear the boy's parents arguing inside.
"What the hell do you mean leave him alone?" Alex's dad shouted. "Have you taken a whiff of the shit belly odor coming from his room?"
"He's sick," the mom cried. "We need to give him some time."
"The boy needs to get his lazy ass up and shower. Or at the most, he might need an ambulance. Either way, I'm going in."
Phillip didn't bother knocking. He walked into the house to see the parents of his longest working employee glaring at each other with murderous looks.
Phillip didn't bother to access the situation or to even say hello. He headed straight upstairs to Alex's room. Never mind that he had no idea which room Alex actually inhabited. But, he didn't need to know. The smell that greeted him at the top of the stairs was enough to knock him back a few feet. The closer he got to the door at the end of the hallway, the stronger the pungent odor became.
Is he dead? Phillip wondered.
He put his hand on the door knob and felt the electricity that had shocked him days earlier as it flew out of the book.
Breathe, he told himself.
Taking the bottom portion of his shirt, he covered the doorknob and opened it that way. He flew the door open without bothering to enter the room.
Phillip couldn't enter the room. He couldn't move at all. He stood rooted to the spot, his eyes taking in the walls of the room.
When the house was built in the early eighties, Alex's father had all the walls painted white. His reasoning was that white went with everything and it were easier to clean that way. However, gone were the glossy finished white walls. Instead, they were a mix of colors that found no home on the color spectrum. They seemed to ooze paint and something else. A something else that Phillip did not dare investigate. The walls shuttered under the weight of the sound that no one but Alex could hear. But, Phillip had the feeling it was there. His ears just couldn't pick it up. But, the goose bumps that rose on his flesh indicated the sound existed.
"Well?" Alex's father asked. "Did you wake him?"
"No. I don't want to go in there."
Alex's mother stood behind her husband, and with pleading eyes, asked someone to please check on her only child. She couldn't do it. She was too afraid.
"Oh hell," his dad said as he shoved passed Phillip into the bedroom.
It wasn't the sight of the body that caused Alex's father to scream. It wasn't the way all the fat and fluid seemed to be sucked out and so all anyone saw was skin, bones, and veins. It wasn't the protruding eyes, or how Alex's head seemed to lay to one side at an ungodly angle. No, it wasn't any of that. And it wasn't how his hair had turned gray and was trying its best to fall out. Nor, was it his tongue, long, thick, and purple, almost like a cow's tongue, laying out the side of his mouth. It wasn't the shallow breathing that came from what looked like Alex's corpse. It was none of that that cause his dad to scream.
When asked later, what terrified him the most about seeing his only son laying there, more dead than alive, the young man's father could only give one reply as he shivered in the memory of it all.
The tattoo had winked at him.