Part One: Tattoo a
Kendra watched with shock and horror. She couldn’t believe what was happening. The guy she thought had been flirting with her for the last two weeks just presented all her ideas in her company’s morning meeting like they were his own. She wanted to stop him. She wanted to scream and yell at him but the words wouldn’t come out. They stuck in her throat, forming a lump. In the end, all she could do was sit there and watch. She tried to keep her face impassive and emotionless but she felt her eyes tearing up anyway.
“E-excuse me,” she said, rising from her seat.
Her voice was small and sounded like she was on the verge of crying. As she got up, her eyes just happened to meet Tyler’s (which was the asshole’s name). There was an undeniable spark of enjoyment in him at what he did to her. It was like he was proud of himself.
She almost broke down and cried right there, but she managed to walk out of the room a second before the tears flowed freely.
She ran through the luxurious offices where she worked. Her dried out, boring, and stupid hair was flying out behind her. Her big, clumsy feet slapped at the hardwood floors. It felt like her body was mocking her with its ugly little imperfections.
All her life she’d been the awkward, goofy girl that was shy and reserved. She was always afraid to let anyone know how she really felt. People like Tyler, the pretty, beautiful people of the world, felt like it was their duty to use and abuse her.
She absolutely hated it.
She still remembered how it felt when Tyler came into her office, flirting with her. She hadn’t known then that the only thing he was looking for were her ideas. Their firm had a new client and he wanted to impress them. Instead of doing any real work, he came to her and got her to drop her guard. Then he stole everything she came up with.
And she let him do it.
She hated herself for being such an idiot. How could she possibly think a guy like Tyler would’ve been interested in her? The idea itself was ludicrous. It was flat out idiotic!
She felt the tears rushing down her cheeks even faster now.
She could feel all the eyes on her as her co-workers watched her run away. She felt like a complete fool and she felt like everyone at her work thought the same thing.
So she left. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, or the most professional, but that didn’t matter. She just couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t take Tyler. She couldn’t take her own failures. She couldn’t take watching the people around her make jokes and then point and laugh at her. It was too much.
Eventually, she made it out of the building. She stood on the sidewalk, still crying, and tried to hail a cab. Several went past without stopping until one of them finally pulled up to the curb. She got in and gave the driver her address. Then the cab moved into traffic. Sometime later, it pulled up to her apartment building.
She paid her fair, got out, and ran into her building without looking back. She pounded a finger into the elevator button and backed up a step, waiting. She rubbed the tears out of her eyes and then wrapped her arms around her stomach. Her mind was an emotional whirlpool and it made her feel sick. At the heart of it all was a nearly blinding frustration.
Frustration at the world but mostly she was frustrated with herself.
The elevator doors opened and she numbly walked inside. When it got to her floor, she got out and ran to her apartment. She fumbled with the key for a minute before managing to get it unlocked and opened.
After she was inside, she immediately walled herself in her bedroom and away from the shitty, outside world.
Some part of her felt like she was being childish, that she should’ve stuck up for herself and called Tyler out for what he did. That part was weak though. That part never won. The childish part of herself always won. That was the part that seemed to make her cry at a moment’s notice. It was the part that made her run instead of standing up for herself and taking what was hers. It was the part that made her hide inside her bedroom for hours at a time.
An hour, maybe two, went past. Then someone knocked on her door. It interrupted her miserable self-loathing. She jumped, startled by the loud and unwelcome sound.
“Go away!” she yelled.
“Kendra!” a voice called back.
That was Jenna, her roommate and best friend. Jenna was also a model. A freaking model! She was the last person Kendra wanted to see or talk to right now. Jenna had men literally throwing themselves at her, while she only had men trying to scheme their way into her defenses long enough to steal everything from her.
She threw a pillow at the door halfheartedly. The soft thump it made was not nearly as satisfying as she wanted.
“You can’t keep hiding in your room whenever something goes wrong. Come out. We’ll talk about it,” Jenna went on.
But Kendra didn’t want to talk, at least not with Jenna. Ms. Perfection didn’t know what it felt like. Ms. Gets-Everything-Handed-To-Her-On-A-Silver-Platter wouldn’t know the first thing about what she went through every day. Kendra didn’t want to hear her friend’s false sympathy or her pretend understanding.
Jenna wouldn’t quit though. She kept at it and the more she talked, the angrier Kendra got. It finally got so bad, she decided she couldn’t be there anymore. She needed to leave. If she had to hear one more of Jenna’s “It’s not as bad as you think” speeches, she thought she might put her fist through a wall. She needed a place to think. She needed out. And she knew where to go.
She suddenly got up and went to her bathroom, running a brush through her tangled hair as quick as she could. Then she opened the door. Jenna was on the other side. The sight of her made Kendra want to cry all over again. Her model roommate was a perfect 10 in every sense of the description. Killer, athletic body with long blonde hair. She had dazzling blue eyes that were bright with intelligence and compassion. Her face was flawless and smooth, despite the fact that there was a slight frown to her lips.
Kendra slid past Jenna without a word and headed for the front door. She ignored all of Jenna’s questions as she opened it—and also ignored the concern laced in her friend’s voice. She stepped into the hallway and shut the door behind her, cutting off whatever else Jenna had to say.
She got back in the elevator and rode it down. When she stepped into the lobby, she kept her eyes glued to the granite-tiled floor. She headed straight for the doors, ignoring the people bustling about around her, and walked outside. The sky was a dusky, evening blue. Traces of pink and purple were just starting to stain the horizon.
She hailed another cab, told the driver where to go, and then waited in silence. Ten minutes later, it parked on the street in front of a simple storefront. The sign above it read Bendis Tattoos. She didn’t know what the name Bendis referred to, but she thought it was a pretty-sounding nonetheless.
She paid her fare, went inside and was immediately hit with the familiar aroma of incense mixed with Glade’s Hawaiian Aloha plug-in air freshener. The main part of the shop was just one big room with walls painted a dark, crimson red. The floor was covered with chestnut-colored hardwood that polished to a high shine. Covering the walls was every manner of tattoo imaginable. They were artfully arranged in simple black picture frames.
She found the shop shortly after she graduated from high school. Or, more accurately, Bendis found her. She got an email one day saying they saw her art at a showing her school put on every year and they wanted her to do some work for them. She loved to draw so she figured why not and extra the extra money for college didn’t hurt either. She hadn’t known what to expect going there the first time, but soon after meeting the owner, all her worries dissipated. Over the years, she still sent in some of her tattoo concepts to the shop and looking around the place she could spot several of them hanging on the walls. She even saw her favorite piece she ever did. That one was an interlocking design of tribal butterflies meant to go around the neck like a necklace.
She heard footsteps.
“Hey, kiddo,” a deep-throated voice hailed. There was a faint British lilt to it that she always found comforting.
She looked up and saw the owner of the shop, Merle Bane, walking out of one of the rooms in the back. He was drying his hands off on a pristine white towel. He had a wide smile on his broad face that lit up his grey eyes.
That was the real reason she liked coming to Bendis. Not because of the money she’d been able to make, but because she always felt loved there. It was strange, she knew that, but she couldn’t help how she felt. Merle treated her better than anyone else had in her entire life.
“Hey,” she responded. Despite how good it felt being back, she couldn’t keep some of the sadness out of her voice. Merle picked up on it immediately.
“Something wrong?” he asked, concerned. She liked hearing the real, genuine worry in his voice. She didn’t have a lot people that really cared about her. Reflecting on it, Jenna was probably the only other one. But she felt she connected better with Merle at times. He seemed to understand her and what she went through better than Jenna.
“Bad day at work,” she explained, sitting down on a black leather sofa. She exhaled loudly and leaned her head into her hands. She cried softly as she remembered the look in Tyler’s eyes.
Merle sat down next to her, his broad hand rubbing her back with affection and care.
“What happened?” he asked.
She hesitated for a second, as if ashamed to continue. Her head was still in her hands but she managed to pick it up weakly and look Merle in the eyes. Hers were red and puffy.
“Some asshole stole all my ideas for a new client. Every last one of them. And I just sat there like an idiot and let him do it.”
Merle was silent for a long time as he took that in.
“Ah…is that it, then?” he finally said.
She was expecting something more sage-like, full of the wisdom of the ages and all that stuff. She wasn’t expecting a simple Ah…is that it, then? She looked at him, confused.
He stared back at her and shrugged.
“That’s all you got?” she asked, disbelievingly. She stopped crying as she looked at him.
“That’s it,” he replied.
“Not even a ’keep your chin up?’”
“Look,” he replied, seriously. “I’ve told you already. You won’t get respect from others unless you stand up to them and force them to look at you as a different person. Until you do that, I’m afraid you’re gonna be stuck in those situations over and over again, unable to do anything. People only walk all over you because you let them. Like the bloody git that stole your ideas.”
“I wish I could do that. I really do. But instead, I freeze. Like I did today,” she replied. She looked out the window.
It was dark now. Bright lights from dozens of lampposts outside bathed the street. Trash and debris fluttered down the sidewalks and streets, carried along by errant gusts of wind. She tracked each of them, finding it soothing to lose herself in such a boring task. It was easier than facing her failures.
She stayed that way for a long time, just thinking. Merle didn’t say a word. He left her to her thoughts, to come to terms with what happened her own way.
Kendra replayed what Merle said in her mind like a broken record. His words tumbled through it like cascading boulders.
Force them to look at you like a different person.
But how? she asked herself.
The answer finally came to her and she whirled around with a sharp, slightly eerie look in her eyes. A look that said, plain as day, she had an idea she thought was brilliant.
“You’re right. I need them all to look at me differently,” she said suddenly, a bright, eager smile on her face. “I need a change, a very drastic, completely un-Kendra type of change that nobody would ever expect out of me.”
“I’m afraid to ask, but what kind of change would that be?”
She knew the answer to that question. She looked at the framed picture of her tribal necklace.
“I want a tattoo,” she said, standing up. Her voice was confident. She walked to her tattoo, her absolute favorite. It was fitting that it would be the one she chose for herself.
“A tattoo?” Merle asked. He was still on the sofa, his head turned so that he could see her. Kendra wasn’t paying attention to him. She missed the drawn, pensive look to his face. He looked like he was weighing something heavily on his mind.
“What’s the matter? You don’t think I should get one?”
He was so lost in thought that he didn’t answer her.
He came back to himself, focusing his attention back on Kendra.
“Sorry,” he told her with a small smile. “Just hate to see you like this.”
“Then give me the tattoo.”
He hesitated again, but she frowned at him.
“Please,” she begged, drawing out the word and giving him the puppy dog look on top of it.
Merle thought about it some more and then finally made up his mind. He didn’t feel good about it. In fact, he felt terrified of it. This was not something he ever intended to happen, but he couldn’t ignore certain truths anymore. He had to do what he could to protect her. Eventually, he thought, the pros would outweigh the cons.
“Okay.” He got up. “Which one?”
She pointed to the necklace of butterflies.
“I always liked that one the best,” he said as he joined her in front of the tattoo. “It’s a beautiful, intricate piece. It suited you the moment I saw it so I never put that tattoo on anyone else, even though a lot of people wanted it.”
“Really?” she asked, smiling for the first time since she got there.
“Yes. Now, come on. Let’s go.” He led her down a hallway to the last door on the right.
He opened it and they went inside. The room looked more like a dentist’s office than anything else. Plain white cabinets were affixed to the wall on their left as they walked in with a plain counter underneath them. Merle’s tattoo gun and supplies sat on a metal tray next to a long chair covered in white leather.
It was very intimidating, that chair. And a little creepy.
He led her to it and she sat down, not really feeling nervous at all. There was a heady excitement racing through her mind and she actually found herself reveling in it. She hadn’t felt like that since she was a kid after finding new and adventurous things to do for fun. That feeling of excitement quickly turned to a fluttering nervousness in her stomach as she watched Merle get his equipment ready.
Suddenly, things got super real.
This is insane! her mind screamed at her. You can’t do this.
She ignored that voice though and fought her nervousness down. She had to do this.
Her entire life she’d been paying attention to that voice way too much. That was the same voice that told her to just sit there and take Tyler’s crap. It was the one that told her to let people walk all over her.
She was done listening to that voice.
“I’ll be back in a minute. There‘s a special kind of ink I‘d like to use,” Merle said as he walked out of the room.
She nodded and when he left, she focused on her drawing. The nervousness slowly started seeping out of her while the excitement rushed back in to fill its place. She couldn’t wait for it to be done. She could already see everyone’s reaction in her mind. She saw their gasps, their shock, and their awe.
It was going to be great. For once, she wasn’t going to feel like a complete loser.
A small, vindictive smile spread across her lips and she was still wearing it when Merle came back in. He noticed it and a look of unease flitted across his eyes, like he was torn about something. It slowly faded and resolve took its place. Kendra thought it was a weird look for him to have, but her growing excitement over getting a tattoo quickly washed that away.
He smiled reassuringly at her and then went about preparing the ink, showing her the stuff before he affixed the little bottle to the gun. It was black, but when he held it up to the harsh fluorescents in the little room, it took on a slightly reddish tone. He put it down for a moment and traced the drawing onto her neck. Then he started up the gun and went to work.
She was fine at first. The tattoo gun hurt, but it wasn’t so bad that she couldn’t take it. Then something weird happened. The tattoo started to burn, like it was acid eating away at her skin. Her head began spinning uncomfortably. She felt like all the energy in her body was slowly being leached away from her. It wasn’t long before her vision started to go a little hazy. The colors in the room started draining away only to be replaced by a world of monochromatic amber hues. She shook her head. She could blearily make out Merle taking a step back, arms lifted.
Then her whole world went black.