David had resigned himself to a day of inventory and doodling designs when the tinkling of the bell announced a customer. He checked his shirt for stains and ran his fingers through his dark honeyed hair, trying to keep it out of his eyes despite the losing battle.

He turned and was met with two large, wide-set eyes that hovered between gray and green and he stopped short, his heart skipping in shock as he looked into eyes just like his—it was disconcerting, to say the least. Dimly he registered that the eyes belonged to a young girl. Did she get compliments about them the way he did?

Sucking in a steadying breath, he launched into shop mode. Chatting always helped calm him, and he welcomed her and asked how he could help.

The girl was chewing slightly on her lower lip, looking around at the prints and bottles of ink color that lined the shelves in a kind of hesitant fascination. Her answer was soft, “Do you do script tattoos?”

“Any font you’d like. I have a book if you want to take a look, but if you have an example of the writing you want I can use it for a template.”

The girl fished around in her purse, pushing her dark blonde hair out of the way when it fell in her eyes. She managed to give the impression of shrinking into herself, like she wanted to hide from something, and withdrew a piece of paper and handed it to David. The script was loopy and sweeping:

An unsolved mystery is like a thorn in the heart.

“How much would it cost?” she asked.

“Scripts are usually in the lower price range,” David said, “But it will vary depending on the kind of ink you want and how big the lettering is. Where would you like it?”

The girl twisted and ran a finger along her ribcage, from the underside of her left breast around to her back. “I was thinking the text could be about two inches in height,” she said. “Is that too big?”

“I can do a letter with marker, see if you like it that size.”

The girl nodded, “That’d be perfect.”

David gestured to the shelves of ink color. “Pick out the one you want.” He moved to set up the chair, set up toward the back of the studio room behind a set of red-and-black Chinese screens.

The girl walked around the screens with an ink color she had selected just as David finished sanitizing the chair. He had cleaned it that morning, but it paid to be careful—he’d rather spend a few extra minutes cleaning things than get busted by a nasty customer or surprise inspector. The health guidelines for sticking needles into someone’s skin were pretty damn strict.

The girl took off her shirt and David kneeled on the worn Asian-style carpet. Using a marker about the size of the needle, he drew the script on her side to show her how big it would be.

“What do you think?” He asked.

The girl craned her neck, her hair falling into her eyes again as she tilted her head to get a good look. “Perfect.”

“Let’s get started, then.”

David set up the needle and ink as the girl settled herself into the chair. She’d selected one of his favorite inks, and he felt the corner of his lips quirk upwards in approval.

“Is this the first time you’ve gotten a tattoo?”

“Yes. I’ve been eating ramen every night so I could afford it.”

“Just like the cliché says.”

The girl laughed, the corners of her eyes crinkling up.

“How did you decide what to get?”

“It’s a quote from a book my family used to have lying around the house.”

From there it only took a couple more questions before she was launching into her life story. He learned she didn’t have a lot of friends, her dorm roommate was always out partying, and she wanted to major in Art with a minor in Asian Studies. David explained how the scroll paintings on the walls, dragons of green and blue and pearl outlined by brushes of black, shining ink, were his original work. The girl smiled and gazed at them approvingly, calling them beautiful. David told her how he’d gotten started, making a name for himself and building the place up from scratch—including combing the local flea markets. He had more money now than when he’d first started, but he liked everything that he’d bought. Haggling with the sellers had been a combination of fun and irritating, but he’d loved inspecting each piece to assess its quality and mingling with the colorful people populating the fairs. The girl listened in fascination, those unnervingly similar eyes shining as he described his work. She seemed to be craving conversation, and when he asked her about it, she told him—laughing nervously—that it had been a while since she’d had a good talk with someone.

“I’m the oldest of three, and going from arguing and chatting all the time to suddenly being on your own is a real change.”

“You’ll get used to it,” David said, concentrating on getting the angle of the letters just right.

“What about you?”

“Me? I’m an only child.”

“Have you ever wanted any other siblings?”

“I wanted a sister when I was little.” He’d begged his parents for years about that. It was probably what had led to the confession. “My mom couldn’t have any kids, though.”

“They must have been really grateful to have you.”

Were they, though? Neither of them had been all that happy when he’d dropped out of college after two years to get an apprenticeship and earn his license.

“I guess so. I was adopted so at least I knew they wanted me.”

The girl’s eyes slid over to him, and he had the fleeting impression of gazing into a mirror. “What’s it like?” She asked.

“I was a baby so I grew up thinking my parents were my biological ones. Had a bit of a falling out when they told me, but we patched it up. It was more that they’d kept it from me than anything else.”

He’d wondered how many other things they’d kept from him—worried for years about what was true and what was false.

“People think they can hide things but they can’t, not really.”

“I had no idea until they dropped the bomb.”

“Maybe it depends on the secret. Take me—I never exactly said to myself hey, my mom hates my dad, but I always knew. She only married my dad because she was pregnant with me, you know. I’m not good at math but when someone gets married in November and their kid is born in February it doesn’t take a lot of skill with numbers.”

David snorted in agreement. “Sounds like you solved the mystery.”

“What?” The girl looked down at her tattoo. “Oh. That’s not the unsolved mystery.”

“Then what is?”

“Let’s just say my birth wasn’t the first time my dad knocked a girl up.”

David was about halfway through the tattoo now, and wiped off some of the excess ink. Finding that out had to have been tough, to say the least. He remembered when he’d found out about his adoption. He’d been so angry he’d flipped the coffee table.

“How’d you find out?”

“Stumbled across it. He doesn’t know I know.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“And how exactly is that conversation going to start?”

David chewed on his lip, staring at the ink as it sank into her skin. Lacking an answer for her, he shrugged. His parents had started the adoption conversation, not him. He didn’t know how these sort of things went.

“Did they abort it?”

“No. Gave it up for adoption. Apparently the mom was bat-shit crazy. They didn’t know that at the time—thought she was just normal teenage crazy—but I guess she’s in a mental institution now.”

“’Normal teenage crazy’?” David interrupted, pausing to refill the needle with ink.

“Would you rather I said hormonal?”

“Hold still.”

The girl sucked in a breath as the needle reentered her skin. “I don’t think my dad ever saw the mom again, but I know he didn’t see the baby after giving it up. Makes me wonder if he’s really cut out to be a dad.”

“Was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you do.”

“He’s a good person. I know that. And it’s not as if I had a bunch of other dads raising me to compare him to. But when I see fathers on television or hear my friends talk about their dads I do think—I think he could have done a lot more. Been there, I mean.”

David remembered wondering if his dad was a good dad, and if his biological father would have been a better one. He never outright accused his father, but it did lead to a lot of fights.

“You know, I always dreamed of having an older brother. Someone who could show me the ropes, take care of me, give advice; you know, be a guiding presence—don’t need a psychiatrist to figure that one out—and it turns out my wish came true. I do have an older sibling, somewhere out there. I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl but they exist. It’s funny, isn’t it, in a horrible way?”

It was kind of funny in that twisted, ironic way that life had. He finished the last letter and pulled back, setting down the needle.

“Here,” David picked up the mirror he kept next to the rest of his equipment. “Don’t touch the skin just yet, but you can take a look.”

“I love them,” the girl said, her eyes hooded as she gazed down at the tattoo. “At least, I think I do. I don’t know.”

“Kind of too late to get it redone,” David replied.

“It’s lovely.”

David’s gaze followed hers. It was a job well done, if he did say so himself. The script the girl had picked out helped, managing to be both elegant and whimsical, and the ink she had chosen was, as he’d said, one of his favorites: blue-black, and shining like liquid in the light from the industrial lamp.

David cleared his throat. “There’s some supplies you’ll need to take care of it over the next couple of weeks to make sure it doesn’t get infected.”

He stood up and headed over to the shelves to pick out the tattoo wax, giving her a moment to put her shirt back on and compose herself.

“I’m sorry,” the girl said as she joined him. “I never told anyone all of that before. You’re easy to talk to.”

“Don’t worry about it,” He replied, ringing up her total in the cash register.

As the girl paid, he marveled that she had no idea how many people had said that to him over the years. Maybe it was the fact that he was a stranger, or because letting someone stick a painful object in your skin required a good handful of trust, but customers tended to open up to him. He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner as he handed her the bag of supplies.

“Just apply this three times a day to the spot for about two weeks. If the swelling doesn’t go down or it itches, then come back in and I’ll take a look.”

“Thanks, I will.”

The bell above the door tinkled, the sound echoing in his ears.


Madison Flannery

Madison Flannery is an undergraduate student at Principia College, currently working toward a B.A. in Theatre and in Creative Writing. She enjoys telling stories through both writing and acting, and is eager to share those stories with the world.