Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Inkmorphia

For my eighteenth birthday, I get a tattoo. A small red heart on my shoulder, Loot inked across it in black cursive. Loot was my brother’s nickname. He was twelve years old when he disappeared. I was seven.

The next morning, I peel off the bandage to take a look. A vine with thorns where there was no vine with thorns. It wraps around the heart, above and below Loot’s name.

I look at the drawing I sketched and gave to the tattoo artist. No vine with thorns. I look at the picture on my phone that I took of the tattoo yesterday—red and raw. No vine with thorns.

I wake up my mooch-friend Delia, who’s asleep on the futon in the living room. “Do you remember this?” I show her the tattoo.

“What?” She’s groggy. “Yeah. You got a tattoo. I was there.”

“The vine with thorns,” I ask. “Was that there before?”

She sits up and leans closer. “No?”

“Correct answer,” I say. “No.”

• • • •

After my shift at the Art-a-Rama where I sell Blick and Utrecht supplies to art students, emo high-schoolers, and parents with kids they’re not sure what to do with, I go back to the tattoo parlor. It’s in the same strip mall. They’ve got bells on the door, and as soon as I’m inside I hear the electric snap and buzz—an older woman getting something small inked on her ankle. Molly is doing the work. She’s a throwback, very “Love is a Battlefield.”

Peppermint is behind the desk. She cleans and schedules, but also does a lot of nothing, which is what she’s doing now. I ask if Wilson is around.

“Why?”

“I just want to talk to him.”

“Ink’s ink. No refunds.” She points to a sign taped to the wall behind her: What’s done is done. No refunds. And another one below it, This aggression will not stand, man. —The Dude, which is, of course, a Big Lebowski quote.

“Can I just talk to Wilson?”

She glares then rolls her eyes. “Tuesday’s rib day. It’s ugly in there.” I don’t know what this means. She nods to the Employees Only door.

It means that Wilson’s ordered from Eve’s Rib, a feminist food truck around the corner. He’s eating ribs from a take-out container, sitting at a small table. The room has Old World filing cabinets and folding metal chairs. The walls are covered in framed tattoo art. He looks up, mid-bite. He’s got jacked biceps, a big reddish beard, and one of those high bellies of tough lard. “What up?”

“It’s weird,” I say.

He’s not surprised that things are weird. “Uh huh. How?”

As I explain the vine with thorns, he wipes the barbeque sauce from his beard and fingers. “Let’s see.”

I show him the tattoo.

He says, “Yeah, shit’s undone.”

“What?”

“Your grief and shit. It’s undone. As in not complete.”

“This is something that happens?” I ask.

“It’s rare. But it’s happened to clients of mine, here and there.”

“That’s messed up. It makes no logical sense. A tattoo can’t change.”

“Yeah, but do cell phones make logical sense, if you think about it? Or infinite math. Or why we’re here at all. Or the soul or consciousness or infinite parallel universes . . . Your shit’s undone. Might be grief-related.”

“I was little when my brother died. I barely remember him. This is my grieving. This tattoo.”

“Nah, this is just a recognition. You need a reckoning.” He drops the takeout box and wadded napkins in a trashcan. “How old was your brother when he died?” He stretches his back.
“Twelve,” I say. “And, well, we assumed he died. He actually disappeared. Like the kids you see on milk cartons.”

“Undone.” Wilson raises his heavy eyebrows and shakes his head. “Very, very undone.”

• • • •

I did grieve as a little kid. I stopped speaking. I didn’t speak from age seven to age ten. Three and a half years.

Not a word.

Not one word.

• • • •

“This page says that brambles have complex genetics because they hybridize promiscuously.” Delia gives me a look of dainty shock, her hand over her mouth then whispers, “These vines are slutty.”

“Are botanists sexier than I thought?” I’m boiling shrimp-flavored ramen—two packages—like Delia lives here now, and I think she might. “What else does it say?”

“Berries.” She holds up the picture of my tattoo on my phone and the page of scientific etchings from the site on her phone, her eyes darting between them. “By the look of these thorns, they’d probably be . . . blackberries? I found them under Wild Brambles,” she says. “That could be my porn name, you know?”

“I hate berries.” The noodles are losing their stiffness. I swirl them with a fork.

“No one hates berries.”

“Lots of people hate berries. They stain your teeth. The little seeds get stuck in your molars. They’re all . . . pulpy and gross. And you never know when one’s going to be sweet or sour or tart.”

“We always bought them at the store in little containers, but it’s cool that you can just find them. Like in nature. Like when Huff and Gee go mushroom picking, and want us to trust ourselves to them to eat their random ’shrooms and not die.” Our mutual friends Huff and Gee went through a serious foraging phase.

“I used to pick wild blackberries as a kid,” I tell her.

“But you hated them.”

“Yeah, but I’d still pick them. At the junk yard. When I was little, with my brother.”

“At the junk yard? Why were you at the junk yard?”

“I guess the only reason kids are ever wandering around junk yards. No one gives a shit about them.”

“Your parents gave a shit, in their own way. Jill and Ed just had a philosophy, right? What’s that thing they did?”

“Free-range parenting,” I say. “It was based on ’70s childhoods, when kids were free to explore and roam.”

“Yes, that.”

“It was a philosophy that let them get high all day,” I tell her. “It was bullshit. Everyone else had violin lessons and soccer games, and we were rummaging through a junk yard.” I rub my jaws. They’ve been aching. I clench my teeth in my sleep. I’m supposed to Zen out more.

“Maybe Wilson’s right, and your grief or whatever is undone,” Delia says.

“I don’t know what undone even means,” I say. “Don’t most people get tattoos because they’re not done with someone yet, or don’t ever want to be?”

“Was your brother really never found?”

“He was really never found. He’ll always be undone.”

• • • •

The next morning, the tattoo is gone. My skin is blotchy where it used to be, with three parallel scratches like the tattoo was ripped off, nails on skin. I lay there and just stare.

Honestly, I’m relieved it’s gone. I let my head sink back into the pillow and stare at the ceiling. This is better. This is good. Done or undone. Recognition or reckoning. That bullshit no longer matters.

But then, ten minutes later, I’m in the shower. I find it—the heart with Loot on it wrapped in thorny vines on the right side of my ribcage, on the skin that slides over the very last rung, home to the smallest rib.

• • • •

“As a little kid, I couldn’t say Luke. It always came out Loot. My parents liked it. ‘Our babies are our loot,’ my mom would say. ‘You’ve got to treasure your loot in this world.’”

I’m lying on the futon with Delia, my hair still wet from the shower. My hands are shaky. I’ve been crying off and on.

“But what you’re saying is . . . ?” Delia asks.

“They didn’t treasure us,” I tell her. “After Loot disappeared, my father moved onto harder drugs. But my mom changed her life. We moved into my grandparents’ place. She finished her GED and took community college classes. There was no more free-range parenting. I was hovered over, watched, fed, loved. You know, treasured. Losing my brother probably saved me.”

“When did you start speaking again? When you felt safe again and loved?”

“I guess so.” I think about it for a minute. “Actually, it was the school nurse who pushed it. She got me in with this specialist.”

Delia tells me to call in sick at the Art-a-Rama, and I do it. I’m functioning at the level of: just follow orders. She makes me tea and gives me a Xanax from an Altoids tin stuffed with cotton. “You should sleep. Like a really good, deep sleep.”

• • • •

I doze off and wake up—anxious. I look for the tattoo and it’s still there on my ribs.

I doze off again.

I wake up.

It’s gone.

I don’t want to look for it.

I doze.

And I wake up and I search my body.

I find it on my inner wrist, sitting above a series of meticulous scars. Cuts I made myself when I was twelve years old, around the age Loot was when he disappeared. “Delia?”

“Yeah?” She’s in the kitchen. “Everything okay?”

“No.”

She walks into the room, hands me a glass of water. She sits down on the futon, her back to the wall. “Come here,” she says. I hug her around the waist, and she holds me and strokes my hair. I can hear her heart. “Tell me about your brother.”

“He was a kid. Lanky. He had, you know, mosquito bites all over his arms and legs, and cut his own hair so it was jagged and messy. He wished we had a dog. But of course, my parents couldn’t take care of a dog. They couldn’t even take care of us.”

“Were you hungry?”

“What?”

“Were you getting the berries because you were hungry?”

“I don’t think so,” I say. “I don’t think it was that bad.”

“Did he cut his own hair because no one would cut it for him?”

“Maybe.” And then I thought: Was he lanky because he wasn’t fed enough? I was scrawny too. Was he covered in mosquito bites because he was out at night? “There were puppies in the junk yard.” I remember them now. The mother’s stretched out stomach, her rows of puffed nipples, the puppies climbing all over each other—their silky coats getting covered in dry dirt. “That’s why we went. My brother wanted to show me the puppies.”

“Like from a stray dog?”

“I guess so.”

“Did you ever see them?”

“We weren’t supposed to be in the junk yard.”

“That’s where the puppies were or the berries?”

“Both.” I see my brother now. His lean face, the blue pockets beneath his dark eyes. He’s tired. A tough twelve-year-old—thick nose, sharp narrow jaw. His voice just starting to change. He’s whispering to me, Don’t tell anyone we’re here. We’re not supposed to be here. “It doesn’t make sense. I mean, I don’t think my parents would have cared if we were at the junk yard playing with puppies and eating berries. They didn’t give a shit back then.”

“So why weren’t you supposed to tell?”

My breath goes shallow. A sharp pain spikes in my right jaw muscle. I want to say something, but I can’t open my mouth. And if I could, I’d know what I wanted to say. But because I can’t, I don’t know what I want to say. This makes no sense.

I flip my arm over to show Delia the tattoo.

It’s gone.

I stand up, strip down to my bra and underwear.

“Nothing,” Delia says.

• • • •

I eat cereal for dinner. I check. Nothing.

Delia and I listen to this new indie punk band she loves. I check. Nothing.

That night, Delia and I are brushing our teeth together, like we’re a couple and maybe we are, maybe we’ve been a couple for a long time. I brush my tongue, the way dentists recommend, and there it is—on my tongue. I spit the toothpaste foam out of my mouth, stick out my tongue in the mirror.

Delia looks at it. “Damn. That’s a lot.”

“Do you think my grief is undone?”

She puts her hand on mine. “I’ve got something.” She leads me to our tiny kitchen. She reaches into the fridge and pulls out a carton of blackberries.

She rinses them and puts them down on the table in front of me. “Try one.”

I don’t move.

“I was thinking,” she says. “Kids love berries. I think they just do. And hungry kids really love berries. So maybe, I don’t know. Maybe, once upon a time, you loved berries. And then, for some reason—maybe some really awful reason—you stopped.”

The blackberries are shiny. Each little cluster of bulbs are perfect and taut. I pick one up. It’s fat.

“At least, you might find out that you’re now grown up and you like berries, right? Tastes change over a lifetime.”

I’m not grown up. I feel like a little girl still. A little girl holding a blackberry cupped in her hand. I pop it in my mouth. It sits there, on my tongue—on the tattoo of Loot in the heart wrapped in vines.

And then I slide it over and bite down. It’s sweet and a little tart. It fills my mouth with juice. As I chew, I grind the seeds. I swallow it all down, whole.

I remember a plastic bag full of berries. It drops to the dirt and the berries roll out. I’m a little kid, reaching for the berries, trying to pick them up fast and put them back in the plastic bag. One rolls all the way to the edge of a cement pad—a cage. The dog who had the puppies wasn’t a stray. There were cages.

I feel sick. I rush to the kitchen sink and heave. Nothing comes up. “Fighting dogs,” I whisper, my voice hoarse. “They were raising fighting dogs.”

“Who?”

“At the junk yard.” I spit a few times.

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were you with your brother when he disappeared? Were you there? Did you see something?”

If you see something, say something. “No, but . . .”

“But what?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t say anything.”

“Why not?”

“I stopped speaking. Selective mutism, that was the diagnosis.”

“There must have been cops asking questions.”

“Lots of cops,” I say. “But my parents protected me. My mom slept in my room because I was scared.”

“Did the cops think you knew something? Why stop speaking then? I mean, you could have been helpful, maybe.”

Don’t tell anyone we’re here. We’re not supposed to be here. “I promised my brother. I said wouldn’t tell.”

• • • •

My Dad overdosed when I was sixteen. My mom now works as an LPN in a nursing home. I call her up. “Hi.”

“Oh my gosh! How are you? I miss you. Is everything okay?”

I don’t call much. “Everything’s cool. I was just wondering about that day.”

“Honey, what day?”

“The day Luke disappeared.”

“Now? You want to talk about that now?”

“Was I with him that day?”

“No, no. Of course not. No. You were with me! We made microwave popcorn.”

“That shit causes cancer.”

“And we watched a movie! We were snuggling on the sofa all day.”

We never snuggled. “What movie?”

“I don’t know. Some kid movie.” She’s defensive now. Her voice is all ratcheted up to some weird atonal singsong.

“I got a tattoo.”

“Of what?”

“A dog. The kind people raise to fight.”

The air goes still. My mother is completely silent.

I refuse to fill the void.

Finally, she gives. “I don’t even know who would do something like that. To animals. It’s awful.”

“I’ve gotta go.” I hang up. I turn to Delia who’s listened to the whole thing. “She knows.”

“I have to ask a question,” Delia says.

“I don’t know the answer.”

“Do you know the question?”

“You’re going to ask how my parents made money, right? Back then, when Luke and I were little. You want to know if they were part of the dog fights or something, right?”

“No.” She shakes her head. “No, of course not. I wouldn’t ever accuse your parents of . . . No. They were good parents.”

“They were bad parents. Like textbook bad parents.”

“But they loved you.”

“What if they were both? Bad parents who loved me.”

Delia’s upset by the idea. Her eyes look glassy, like she might cry.

“If you weren’t going to ask that, then what were you going to ask?”

“How far away . . .” She stops speaking.

“How far away was my childhood home from the junk yard?”

She won’t commit. She looks at the plants on the windowsill.

“That’s the same question, isn’t it?” I walk up closer to her and hold her hands. “If we lived far away from the junk yard, so far that my brother wouldn’t have stumbled on it, we’d only know about it—puppies and blackberries—if someone had driven us there. At least the first time. After that, my brother would have known it was cool, and he’d have made me get on my Huffy and bike out there with him.”

She leans toward me so her forehead touches mine. “You had a Huffy?”

“A hand-me-down from him. It was blue.”

• • • •

I wake up very early in the morning. My heart is thudding in my chest and I know—I know for certain—that the tattoo of the heart is now in my own heart. It’s within me. I roll over and press my body up against Delia’s body, like this is how we’ve lived for a very long time—together. “We have to go back,” I whisper. “I have to see it for myself.”

“I know,” she says. “I know.”

• • • •

By afternoon, we’ve made it out of the city and back to my suburban childhood. Dollar Stores and pet groomers and fast-cash lending. A few trailer parks. A mini-casino. “My old neighborhood,” I say, pointing to a white brick wall with Fern Grove painted on it in black cursive.

Delia’s driving. “You want to see your old house?” The only entrance road leads to a series of cul-de-sacs, a whole bunch of nowhere. “No.”

She follows my directions. We’ve already clocked the distance between my house and the junkyard. It’s far. Too far, and out of the way, close to nothing, the opposite direction of our school and the downtown strip malls. “No way my brother would go this far, but mostly not in this direction.”

“Maybe he just went looking, you know . . .”

The road flattens and winds. “He wasn’t a cyclist on a biking vacation. He was a kid who wanted things. He was a kid who’d slow walk the aisles of the minimart, looking for the best way to spend a dollar fifty. What if it’s no longer there?”

“The junk yard?” Delia says. “Junk yards are junk yards. They don’t magically transform. Not out here.”

• • • •

She was right. The junk yard was exactly the same. A dirt road, chain-link fence, the small stand-alone office in front. Mounds of junk. What we throw away, what we’re willing to shed.

I look at it and see: so much sad, useless shit.

I look again and see: childhoods.

There are trees at the edges of the lot. We get out and walk the fence line. There are weeds and brambles, yes. Some poison ivy. Lots of vines with thorns, no berries. We walk all the way to the far side, hidden by the tall stacks of moldy sofas and mattresses, car parts, TVs, large plastic toys—a pink kitchen, a red battery-operated car . . .

And there’s a garage, closed up. A half dozen storage units. And a barn. All of this was once farmland. “The dogs were kept in the barn,” I say.

Delia takes my hand and tugs. “Ready?”

The barn is closed, but there’s a side door. Delia pulls and it swings open.

The dirt floor. The cages are gone—but there are a few cement pads still sitting there in squares. I can still smell the dogs, the heavy musk, the suffering . . . I dropped my plastic bag. The berries rolled in the dirt. I tried to pick them up. A man was yelling at me; that’s why I was going fast. What the hell are you doing in here? You’re not supposed to be here!

“I was looking for Loot,” I tell Delia. “He’d gone to find the puppies.” I walk to one of the cement pads. “The dogs had been so abused. They’d been made to be vicious.”

The air in the barn is still and quiet.

“Did something happen here?” Delia asks me.

I look down at the dirt floor. I remember something pulpy and dark—a bloody little clump. Like mashed-up berries. “It wasn’t berries,” I say. “It was flesh. It was part of a body. It was a clotty piece of . . .”

I whip around and run out of the barn. All the muscles in my body feel as tight and knotted as my jaw.

Delia follows me, saying, “It was probably an accident. He just got in there with the dogs or they were loose or being trained to attack . . . and . . .”

“And they covered it up? They took what was left of him and buried it somewhere far away from here? Dumped it in some other junk yard?” My eyes go wide but I feel blind. “And my parents knew what had happened. My father. He must have taken Luke here at some point. My mother knows. She knows.”

I start running back the way we came. My legs feel weak and my stride is jagged. I can’t breathe right. Is the tattoo of the heart ballooned up within me? Is it pounding louder than my own heart? Is this what happens to undone grief? Is this a reckoning?

I grab the chain-link fence to steady myself. Was my father’s overdose a reckoning? I bend over to catch my breath. I keep my eyes shut and then I hear Delia’s footfalls. They come to a stop beside me. She puts her hand on my back.

“My parents protected me from the cops with all of their questions,” I say, through ragged breaths. “Because I knew something.”

“Listen.”

“And the school nurse pushed it? She got me into a specialist? Why did she have to push it? Why weren’t my parents getting me in with someone? Why let me go silent? Unless it benefitted them.” I stand up and grab Delia. I hold onto her as tightly as I can. She grabs hold of me too.

“Keep breathing,” Delia says.

I realize I’m holding my breath and that I want Delia to keep telling me to breathe, maybe in one way or another, forever.

I exhale. And I feel it—lighter, airier, made of almost nothing, nearly weightless—the tattoo flutters, not like a heart at all, but something as delicate as moth wings. And it lifts up from inside of me—up through my throat and out of my mouth, into the air, the trees, the sky, which is undone but trying to stitch itself together with clouds.

Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the author of over a dozen novels, including Pure and The Seventh Book of Wonders, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. There are over one hundred foreign editions of her novels overseas. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, Terraform, Conjunctions, and Strange Horizons. She teaches screenwriting at the Florida State University Film School.