Skin Deep

isn't quite as far as the needle goes…

The ceiling fan of Needle and Webb rocked in its socket, mingling with the grinding noise of cars outside. 429 Nailscreek was the southern address.

I sat flipping the glossy pages of a dull magazine, filled with fashion advice for those that were clearly starving for clothes and articles on sex and relationships for the people too dumb to figure anything out with common sense. It was usually like this- one or two customers a day, a couple more on the phone making appointments or asking questions. Most schedule for piercings, and then the remaining few come in for tattoos.

Today was no different than yesterday. Outside the sun fed off the few remaining dewdrops of the morning and radiated a strong glow through the wide front windows. The place had a small scent of dust and the sun's rays never seemed to help. Dressed in a white tank top and some denim shorts, I groaned at the lack of air conditioning in the barely-getting-by business and flopped the magazine closed.

"Jess, when are the Sanders brothers supposed to come in?"

That was Aaron Webb, devoted owner of this body-art parlor and my employer. He was also my boyfriend. His black hair was tipped white in a stylish way thanks to some cosmetologist down the street. I admired the piercing above his gray-blue eyes before scanning down the list on the computer. "Just now actually…" I answered. He frowned some, looking towards the window and then kissed my cheek before retreating back through the black curtains.

I sighed and leaned onto the counter. A few minutes it was that I sat like that, my mind blank of thoughts, when the door clinked a bell with entry. In walked two young men, both with sandy brown hair and green eyes. These were the Sanders brothers, Jim and Jake- exactly alike except for the different t-shirts of green and navy blue.

"Aaron!" I hollered and smiled at the twins, beckoning them forward. "Just sign-in and I'll go over the agreement slip with you here." Aaron was likely finishing getting the station ready, cleaning and preparing the ink and such. He came out to look over the signed clipboards I'd arranged for each and nodded before taking them back through the curtain. Jason, our only other full-time worker here, was going to tattoo Jake at the same time Aaron tattooed his brother. They were getting an elaborate rendition of the Gemini in the Greek Zodiac. It was an interesting design. At least they chose something with meaning.

I heard the clients conversing with strained voices. They tried to keep a brave facade, but rarely would any admit that a visit to this shop was a painless one. Aaron gently talked to them, patiently and persistently working away at their skin. I didn't need to be with him to know the process.

It wasn't much longer that they had to go. Today was just the outline. I heard them step out, skin raised and red and black from ink and blood. Aaron led them over to the register where they paid, satisfied with the beginnings of their tattoos and I assumed Jason was in the back, cleaning up.

"I'll see you next week then to color it in, boys," he double-checked as they were walking out the door. Our bank account was now a little more than two hundred dollars richer, but supplies were expensive so we didn't count on much profit.

Aaron snapped the white, latex gloves off of his hands and deposited them into a hygienic trash bag. "Nice kids," he said. "Just turned eighteen last month."

"I assume their mother is at least lenient with the tattoos? Though she probably doesn't quite approve of it," I added. Most parents don't.

"No, actually, she encouraged the design," Aaron stated. I raised my eyebrows. "Jake is a bit of an artist, apparently. He made the concept for that tattoo."

I nodded my understanding and spun to face him on my stool. "There are no more customers until about six, ya know..." I said pointedly with a grin. He returned the smirk and leaned forward a bit before starting back up, looking towards the door.

"I think we have one now."

Turning back around to face the glass door, I watched as a woman about my age entered the building. She had blonde hair with highlights and overdone make-up of every expensive cosmetic product on the shelf.

"Aaron!" she exclaimed breathlessly and hopped in her high-heels to hug him tightly. "I thought this was your shop! See, I was looking around for a place to get my tattoo done, and then I saw Webb above the door and thought- Oh my God, maybe it's him!"

An awkward silence followed, so I broke it.

"And ... who might you be?"

She stared back and forth from me to Aaron, and then to Jason as he walked into the lobby as well. "Well I'm Erika!" My boyfriend looked at me with a pained smile- either forced politely or embarrassed with good reason. She noticed, and took the liberty to explain. "See, me and Aaron dated once- Aaron and Erika. It sounds so perfect! But that was a long time ago, back in High School probably. Anyway ... can you do my tattoo or not?"

Again that silence prevailed. Maybe it was something that always followed idiocy.

"Well, did you have anything in mind?" I asked her, ignoring the other for now and focusing on business.

"No, not really," she said, frowning. "You folks got some catalogs that I can look at right? Pictures and stuff?" I looked back at Aaron and then nodded politely to her. We had many, actually, all divided by subject into binders on the shelf against the side lobby wall. I pointed and told her to scan through them as she liked. Giddy as can be that she didn't have to think on her own, she pulled down the binders titled "Flowers," "Birds," and "Fairy Tale Critters" to begin browsing.

I rolled my eyes and walked back through the black curtains. I'd been right about Jason. He had stayed behind to clean up the place, as was obvious by the slightly fuller trashcan and the shining glare off the counter. Waiting with my hands on my hips never proved so frustrating.

Finally after a minute, my lovely boyfriend parted the curtains to peer in. Then, upon seeing my expression, he fully entered the room and paced over to me. "Are you okay, Jess?"

"No I'm not and you know it, so cut the crap," I said. He looked genuinely confused and I cursed some about the ignorance of a man's mind. "What's that girl doin', struttin' in here and huggin' you all cute and cuddly like?" My accent was normally sweet and concise in public, when I was being polite like I was raised to be. Obviously though, it's times like these that my voice really doesn't care about manners.

"She's an ex-girlfriend, she told you herself, and she's here to get tattooed."

"She also told me how cute the two of yall's names sound together," was my short-fused reply.

"She wants a tattoo," he repeated. "That is the business we run here. Body art. Tattoos and piercings."

When I folded my arms and shook my head angrily he sat on the wheeled stool and pulled close to me. "Dearest, you don't deserve to mar that pretty face frowning over some cheerleader I dated ages back."

"Aaron, you know what kind of tattoo she'll pick out," I stated simply, still glaring, but softening up to him. Aaron knew about my disgusted hatred for the idiots who wasted money and time and didn't plan out their tattoos. They don't stop to think what it really means to have it there- forever. Thousands of years ago, tattooing was nature's survival test to humans. Tattooing was ceremonious, symbolic, and life threatening. Those that died were weak. Those that lived…well, just lived to see another day. Tattoos were never meant to be a sick fashion trend.

Those fleeting, simple, decorative, and stupid tattoos that most of the population was as driven to getting as they were to reproducing…annoyed me more than anything I've ever known. Like mindless animals, males and females alike flocked by the dozens to get branded with such wastes of inkbottles. Barbed wire, roses, and skulls for the men. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and tribal tattoos placed strategically above the buttocks for the ladies. They give cliché false symbolism in words like "It represents me breaking free, starting my own life," and other pathetic phrases. They never stop to think about how easy it is to crush a butterfly's wings. Sometimes I crave to remind them.

"Yes I do," Aaron answered. "But it brings money in and you know that I love my job despite those people that just don't get it," he said, kissing me lightly and standing. He sighed. "At least you do," and walked back out. I followed grudgingly, a bit of exhaustion now wearing me down.

Erika took her sweet time looking over all of the pictures. Since the three of us couldn't really spark up a conversation, Aaron simply turned on the radio. The speakers were nothing special, but supplied us with a nice Rock tune while sitting around.

When the song changed, I looked up at the clock. Two-thirty. The hottest part of the day had passed, but the earth was still baking and wouldn't cool down until ten or eleven at night. Even then, though, it wouldn't be too bearable.

"Babe, I'm gonna go get a new magazine or somethin', okay?" I finally said to Aaron. He smiled and waved me on.

Two hours and an ice cream cone later, Erika finally stood up. In the fifteen minutes that I'd been gone she had pulled three more binders off of the shelf. I didn't care enough to look for their titles.

"It was so hard to decide," she began as only the counter separated us. "There were just so many! But I think I like this one the best…" Her pretty-in-pink nails pointed to exactly what I'd predicted it to be. A graceful butterfly with elaborate wings and colors perched on an equally ornate rose.

I smirked bitterly after glancing towards Aaron. "And why did you choose this one?"

"Oh well look at it!" Erika exclaimed. "It's just so pretty! I love roses, and I love butterflies, and the colors are gorgeous and…" I stopped listening. Beauty, beauty, beauty- that's all she went on about. I'd known girls like her all my life. She was just as obsessed with attractive looks as they were.

"And the meaning that you see in it?" I asked her.

"Well it's my first tattoo, right? I figure it's like me spreadin' my wings into womanhood," she answered with a beaming face.

"What about the rose?"

She seemed stumped. "The rose? Uhm, well the rose might be me taking the most I can out of life."

Cliché, was all I thought. I'd heard the exact same phrase reworded again and again and again. A hundred times over only made it duller. "Uh-huh," was all I said. Then I turned, as if testing, to Aaron. "Well, are you up to it?"

"Of course I am," he boasted before addressing the both of us. "Schedule Erika for Wednesday and being as it's not that big, I could finish it up in just a couple hours. Where do you plan on putting it?"

She thought for a moment, and then smiled brightly. "Right…here," Erika said, and pointed to…her lower back. "The only other place I could think of might be here," she pointed to a spot on her right thigh, below the hipbone, "but I think that'd hurt more."

Aaron shrugged. "Neither place would hurt too bad. All tattoos come with pain, so if you change your mind about it, it's perfectly all right."

"Oh, no way!" she said rolling her eyes. "My boyfriend thought it was so hot when I told him I was getting a tattoo. I want to see what he does when he actually sees it!"

"I can imagine…" I muttered. This woman acted like she was still sixteen or something and it was annoying me worse than any of the others. Erika put on some silver-rimmed sunglasses with pink lenses and waved before swinging her purse and herself out the door.

Jason gave me a look that said everything I was thinking and turned the radio up. I glared at Aaron, whether it was his fault or not that that vile little girl came in. Then I unwrapped a granola bar and chomped away while turning a page of my new magazine. The glossy sheet ripped.

When I woke the next morning I could smell food cooking. I lived at Aaron's place, which was only a ten-minute drive from the shop. I hadn't slept well, though I couldn't remember my dreams no matter how hard I tried, and believe me- I tried. I sat for minutes on end, straining my mind. The memories were right on the tip of my head but it was like struggling to remain on the tip of an iceberg. I just kept slipping.

If someone asked, I wouldn't be able to tell them exactly why I struggled so hard to remember my dreams. I just knew they were important. There was this lingering feeling of darkness on my brow, almost a foreboding, but definitely thrilling.

It wasn't until Aaron came in the bedroom that I rose up from the mattress.

Breakfast wasn't a large ordeal, nor was it a talkative one as the dreams that I couldn't remember still plagued me. Afterwards, he drove our vehicle, a 1996 Jimmy up to the shop. He unlocked the door and headed straight to the back while I began opening blinds and turning on the computer. It would only take about ten minutes for Jason to arrive, and he would likely stay up front with me to talk while waiting for customers.

Staring at the computer screen revealed the barren schedule for today. A fifteen year old coming in for an ear piercing at noon, a belly piercing for an older teenager at two, and surprisingly enough, a tattoo for a war veteran at three. It was just as Jason walked in the door with a tired smile that the phone rang and I answered… "Needle and Webb Body Art, how can I help you?"

The day was… expectedly boring. The fifteen-year-old girl was a bit different- it was her first ear piercing, but regardless she didn't scream or even really wince. As for the older girl who got her belly done…well…she didn't do too bad either, but naval piercings are always more of an endurance test than anything else. The client is told to wait six months on average before changing the ring, and for the first two the wound itches and reddens. I personally only ever got one piercing after my ears, and that was my nose- not too unlike the ear, really, because it's made of cartilage as well.

A bit early the elderly man came in for his tattoo- a camouflage helmet resting on a bloody, dirt hill littered with bullets and their shells. It was simple, but screamed wisdom, experience, and pain. Ray McKey was his name, though it wasn't his name that was important…it was the epiphany that Ray McKey's tattoo brought to me.

This old man sat and endured one more scar among many others from battle with nothing more than a solemn face, yet that girl…Erika, was coming in just the day after to get some cute little bug cut right above her behind. This girl must have had a grandfather or father or brother who'd gone off to war, and the best tattoo she could come up with was a butterfly? My own grandmother was a cook in the same war Ray McKey was in, and Aaron had a stepbrother who'd served some time overseas. How could it be even be legal to allow such disgrace to occur? Why would Aaron even consider tattooing people like Erika?

It plagued me all night and morning. As my traitorous boyfriend and me laid down that night, my thoughts never budged an inch from that spot. Why? How could they…how could he? Aaron said his job made him the happiest person alive because he loved tattooing, yet tomorrow at one o'clock in the afternoon he would execute the very essence of tattoos, their very meaning and purpose…and he would do it in the form of a butterfly and a rose on another woman's body.

I guess defilement never looked so pretty.

The next morning was similar to the one before, only this one contained more sitting on the bed for a while to think. Silently, I made a pact with myself. I had no tattoos of my own. Some would call my commitment hypocrisy, but nonetheless. I had yet to get a tattoo because I wanted each and every one I might choose to be important. If it would be on my skin forever than damn it I would forever look down with pride at my decision, at my badge of life. My pact: never let a tattoo be branded on someone if they didn't fully believe in its significance and purpose. Never, not while I could stop it.

So I sat at the counter while Aaron worked away at a client, painting my nails with my eye on the clock. Eleven fifty-nine. The bottle of red varnish sat before me and it's anti ingredient of Acetone lie before me (the latter in a cheap, pink-capped bottle). I took my time anxiously and gazed up again. Twelve fifteen. If I was going to prevent the guillotine ritual at one o'clock than now was my time. One hand done and the next started at twelve twenty. Twelve thirty- second coat. Twelve forty, done, but I spilled the bottle on the roughened wood countertop (which was now even more damaged, thanks to my clumsiness). I picked up the bottle of nail polish remover and a cotton swab to clean the mess. After I was done, I nervously twirled the cap back on while fixated on the warning label. Extremely flammableAvoid eye contact and inhaling …harmful if ingested…

Harmful if ingested.

Everyone knew Acetone, most commonly found in nail polish remover, was poisonous, but no one ever picked up a bottle and drank it. It was perfect for my purpose. One could only imagine what would happen to the skin tissue if…just maybe… mysteriously…

It was decided. Twelve fifty and Aaron was out, getting lunch with Jason after I told him truthfully that I wasn't hungry. With the bottle gripped tensely in my recently painted fingers, I headed into the back room. Aaron had already set up everything for when Erika came and he was likely to be back in a few minutes. Looking around…I saw the inkbottles he'd chosen for her tattoo already laid out.

A cap-full into the black. A cap-full into the red, the orange, the pink, the purple, the green, the yellowish gold, the brown… I worked through them all, pouring approximately as fast as I could. When I stood straight and looked at the time I knew Aaron was only seconds away from clinking that doorbell with Jason and heading back here. I froze.

Aaron always does a test first, needle only, so that the client gets a taste for the pain. We always use fresh needles. Just simply unwrap them and then dispose when finished, so as to avoid blood pathogens. Very cleanly, but Acetone stings on cuts. If Aaron did a pain test first and she had a normal reaction he'd continue to do it in ink. But if he started the ink and her reaction was different…worse…then he'd stop and reschedule, thinking that the ink was contaminated or bad.

I heard the front door open and quickly capped the bottles- all of them- before heading back out calmly. Erika like the sister of Satan himself walked in the door, smiling and laughing with Aaron and Jason behind her. They didn't see the bottle thanks to the counter and I stashed it away beneath on the shelves.

"Everything's all ready Erika, just come on back here," my boyfriend said, and she followed. I did too. After she sat down, he told her to unbutton her pants, lift her shirt up a bit, and lie facedown (how I couldn't help thinking she deserved to be). He casually moved the clothes to make area for the etched transfer tattoo and asked, "What's that smell, Jess?"

"I was painting my nails at the counter…" I answered, with more confidence than I felt. "I did spill a little, but cleaned it up just fine." He nodded, concentrating.

"Erika, I'm going to do a test here now, just to see how you take to the pain. Needle only," he said as he began unwrapping the weapon.

I had to stop him. Thinking frantically, I told him, "Aaron, honey, is that really necessary? You've got another client scheduled at two and-"

"Then Jason can take care of them, you know that," he cut me off. I cursed, holding my breath. Aaron raised the needle above the outline near the antennae and lowered it as he was used to. In mere seconds it would touch the skin and…

She screamed. She utterly broke into tears after that scream and caused Jason to walk in ashen faced and alarmed. "What'd you do!" he yelled over Erika's blubbering.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing besides the pain test!" Aaron replied. A sighed a breath of relief. Most people just winced a little bit or groaned and bellyached. Some cried silently through sheer pain and others barely felt it. Rarely did anyone scream and bawl out tears.

"Do you…want to continue this?" I asked her. She appeared to be grimly thinking. "There won't be any pain if you stop now, now that you know how it hurts. Of course, then your boyfriend won't think of you as hot as he would if you go through with it, but at least you'll feel better, right?" I asked, almost taunting. I wanted this punishment; I wanted to be the black-hooded executioner, even though death was far out of the picture for the drama queen.

"NO!" she bawled out, gushing more tears forth. "I'm gorgeous and I can do this." …as if beauty is a source of strength.

Very well Erika, I thought. You'll regret it like no one else ever regretted their cool-looking tattoos that they thought would make them popular. Time to crush the butterfly's wings…

She screamed again when Aaron followed her orders with needle and ink, but only I noticed the difference in decibels. Erika managed to control her tears to wet whimpers while he worked away. The skin of her lower back blossomed with the red of blood and ink and something else entirely…

It took him only an hour to finish, tape the section of skin off from contact, and send her sniffing on her way out the door. Oddly enough, she didn't seem quite as happy when she'd first seen the tattoo. I grinned giddily but turned away to hide it as Aaron and Jason conversed offhandedly. It was only the start.

A month after Erika's visit to reality I sat by the computer and register, with coffee on the counter and a newspaper sprawled before me.

Mysterious Deaths Continue

Three weeks after the first victim of 'accidental poisoning', three more victims have been claimed by…poisoning…acetone…ink…tattoos… other unknown contaminants…suspect murder…

My eyes skimmed the rest. I admit, not everything had gone according to plan. Erika was now dead, as were some of our other one-time clients. Now the press had picked up on it, as had the police.

Aaron walked in. He didn't read much of the papers, but this was the first one to connect anything. It was raining outside. "Where's Jason?" I asked him after he shut the door and dripped water on the entrance rug. "I thought you were picking him up."

I'd gotten a ride into town by my neighbor because Aaron decided he would pick our colleague up instead.

"He wasn't home," he answered. "Door locked, car still there though. I have no idea where he went. I tried calling with my cell phone but no one picked up inside."

Just then the door opened again and everything slowed down it went so fast. Men dressed in black-trimmed blue suits with holsters entered with guns pointed. Police. We both raised our hands quickly and the men of the law quickly handcuffed him, reciting his rights and so on.

"…under arrest for the murder of Erika De'langes, Michael Tomkins, Timothy Brookes, Sherry Goldwen, and Jason Macaw…"

I froze and so did Aaron. I saw his lips mouth "Jason?" while the police led him out to the car. As he walked by the window, his puzzled expression turned quizzically to me. I felt remorseful it had to be like this, but there was no other way. The police chief stood in front of me, his gray mustache tickling narrow lips.

"We have no motive for him, but all the evidence points to him. Each victim died of the same things- acetone, inflammation, infection, and so on. We knew it was him because each victim died because of their tattoos and each had gotten theirs done here." He spoke to me as if I was a child. In my head, I laughed. "Did you know anything about these people's deaths?" he asked me. I thought for a moment, looking down. I didn't answer. "Well, did you?"

"No," I said. "I knew nothing that I didn't read in the papers or was told now by you. I work here, and I live with Aaron. We were supposed to be together. But I guess there are some secrets partners tell no one…"

He droned on with some more questions, each one I answered with half the truth. The car with my innocent boyfriend was long gone and the rain had a cadence of soft secrecy.

In that day of apparent gloom, I felt satisfied.

One year later. I'm sitting at that same beaten countertop with an upgraded computer in a shop now titled Scarlet and Ink. I like the new owner almost as much as the old one. Scarlet Hammans, a tattoo artist from Illinois, heard about everything that happened through contacts and bought the store when it went up for sale. She hired me since I worked here before and named the place after not just the mixture of blood and ink when a person is tattooed, but also for the shady history of murder behind the previous shop.

Summer again. Hot as …well…I'll spare the clichés. Baking would be an understatement, I think, because it always feels like I'm boiling from the inside out in this weather. Scarlet stays up front with me, to see her customers come in and meet with them and to visit with me… It's nice. She frowns down on pointless tattoos, and always tries pointing people in the direction of something more meaningful.

…Last year, before Aaron was given a life sentence in a southern prison, he and Jason made some bet or another. Maybe over sports- I'm not sure. The loser had to get something stupid tattooed on his butt cheek. I couldn't believe that Aaron would do it…but he did. Jason lost, and Aaron laughed while giving him the tattoo. Jason had spent almost a year now in a new home of dirt and worms.

Someone enters the shop and Scarlet leaves her seat beside me to greet them. I smiled at the back of her red hair and look down at the book I'm reading. A Telltale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the recent tattoo on my wrist. A silver needle threaded with red while a spider crawls down it- a weaver of death.