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Chapter 5: The Empathy Tattoo

What’s it like being in love, Summer asks me. Never thought I’d be answering that one. It’s a lot like the Tupac garden. A month ago, everything was drab and lifeless. The corpses of violets falling over skeleton roses. Tulips bowed by the weight of their own dying pedals. Weeds sneaking up like scavengers to steal the remains. Now it’s a botanical splendor. The white roses and the lilies have just hit their peak. The short fence isn’t nearly enough to contain the peonies, which are outgrowing everything. A sudden, beautiful chaos. That’s what love is like, I tell her.

For six days straight, I walked past the old buildings on my way back to Greymore’s apartment, stopping mid-block to stare at the community garden. I thought it made the street look like a gap-toothed smile. The garden had fallen into a bad sequence, so on the seventh day, I returned from the hardware store with an arsenal of tools and went to work on the dry socket. The next few weeks were spent tilling and landscaping every corner into beds and paths and grottos. People mostly used the space as a trash bin or a toilet, but now it’s like people are afraid to sully it.

I haven’t told Greymore, because it negates one of his ghost rules: never leave a piece of yourself behind. I haven’t told him, but he knows I’m the one behind it all. The smile that creeps up every time we pass by says it all. Greymore calls it the Tupac garden, because it looks like a flower that bloomed from a crack in the concrete, like that rapper from the twentieth century he’s always listening to. The seed must grow regardless of the fact that it’s planted in stone, Tupac once said, before he was shot to death in a far-off desert.

“Come on, we’re gonna be late,” Summer pleads, tugging at my elbow. “Greymore’s heart waits to be bound to yours.”

I snatch an apple from the outstretched tree branch, before letting her drag me down the block. Summer is thirteen years old, a Rivegan G-10. Greymore started bringing her around the apartment a few weeks ago so I’d have someone to talk to while he’s off doing whatever it is he does for the Rivegans. Summer’s not like Greymore at all, she’s more like a transparent zebra fish, you always know what’s going on inside. As a mediator for the Rivegan family, she’s negotiated trade deals with businesses and foreign countries adding up to hundreds of billions in credits for her family. Right now, the only thing on her mind is what it’s like to be in love with her big brother.

I wear his faded red sweatshirt with the hood fixed to the neck because it smells like him. I chew on the draw strings, the same way he does, to feel closer to him. I see his face in every passing stranger and behind every window of every anti-gravity car. When someone else opens their mouth, it’s his voice that slips out. On those rare occasions when he sleeps, I can feel his stomach rising and falling like those buildings on the horizon. The lines separating the past from the future blur, leaving only right now. And right now, there’s Greymore. That’s how love is.

“That guy just looked at your butt like it was something hanging on the wall at the Guggenheim,” Summer giggles, brushing tendrils of blond hair from her shoulders and fidgeting with the torch suspended from the chain around her neck. A flame cupped in two hands, it’s the Rivegan family crest.

“What? Oh, no, he was probably just stretching a muscle in his neck.”

“Stop it,” she says, her voice getting all serious now. It must be the one she uses in boardrooms and embassies. “People should stare at you. You’re so beautiful, Tessa. I hope I look like you when I’m old. And I wish to be in love, like you and Greymore.”

I take a bite of the apple from the garden, letting the sweet unexpected flavor linger for a moment. We round the next corner, finding Greymore and Phoenix waiting outside the parlor. A sign flickers beside them, noble gases spelling out: Tattoos – Thermal Reactive – Motion – Empathy – Custom – Fine Line. A second later, it blinks off again.

“What do you think of Phoenix?” Summer asks, with a spellbound look I know all too well.

“I think I saw him cut a man’s throat open like he was slicing bread.”

“Yes, but he was a bad man, a scavenger. He saved your life, so you and Greymore could be together.”

“And he’s your brother.”

“Love knows nothing of DNA. We are all brothers and sisters, made of the same building blocks. Me, you, the monkeys in the zoo, we share more than 96 percent of the same genes. Would it worry you if I fancied a monkey?”

“Very much so.”

“This sort of things happens in every family.” She leans in closer and whispers, “Even yours.”

The poison thought burrows through my head. Could she be right? Pheromones from a member of your own family are designed to send deterrent signals to the brain, not rewarding ones. “No, never! It’s forbidden.”

“Believe what you want, Tessa, but I truth speak,” she tells me as Greymore slides his arm around me. Today, he’s wearing the sneakers with the cityscapes drawn around the souls, the backwards-twisted cap, and the sunglasses clipped to his t-shirt.

Phoenix tries for a kickflip, but the antique skateboard isn’t cooperating. “Why do you bother with this dusty old thing, Greymore. You’re such an outlier.”

“It’s not dusty, it’s retro. One day, you’ll understand the difference,” Greymore says, smacking the door to the tattoo parlor, ushering us all inside. I take one last bite of the apple before dropping it in the trash container and stepping into the studio.

Tubes, sterilizing bags, and laser tips battle for space on a countertop with biohazard containers of all sizes. The displeasing conversation I just had with Summer, combined with the smell of antiseptic, makes me dizzy.

The front wall has a split personality: a rose in full bloom, followed by a wolf baring gruesome fangs; a painted Geisha in flowing robes, whose neighbor is a skeleton blowing smoke off a handgun; swirling clouds rolling up against razor-clawed demons. A gallery of potential images to brighten up the skin.

None of them measure up to the tattoo artist’s back, which is all we see of him right now, lying on his stomach, head buried in a leather face rest. At first I thought it was a massage chair for those with tattoo anxiety, but the more I think about it, probably it’s there for customers having art scratched across their backs. The tattoo covering his blotchy skin shows an artistry that must’ve taken years to cultivate – angels scaling a ladder that stretches from the earth above his lumbar spine up into the sky below his neck. Greymore and I exchange smiles. We’ve talked about this so many times, now we’re finally doing it.

“You admire my marks, yes? I draw you one just the same, if you like. Print my own laser heads. No one has colors like I have,” he says with an accent I can’t place. He pushes himself out of the chair, dropping a glass pipe into the sink. The skin on his back sags, muddying the image slightly.

“You have empathy tats?” Greymore asks. Most of the time, empathy tattoos are invisible to the naked eye, but the radiation embedded in the skin picks up on tiny changes in conductivity, revealing different images that only appear when you’re feeling strong emotions. Greymore wants evidence that what we feel is real, and not just something that happens between two people who’ve been sheltered for too long without real human contact. Also, he said it wouldn’t hurt.

Greymore sits down first. The tattoo man pulls on a grimy t-shirt and sketches on a computer screen attached to the hydraulic chair. A few minutes later, he puts down the stylus and snaps on a pair of radiation proof gloves, swinging the arm of a robotic laser over Greymore’s left arm. If he’s scared, Greymore doesn’t show it. Then again, he never does.

Still, I can’t watch. I walk to the other side of the parlor and stare out the window. First drafts wander the sidewalks, swallowing their bitter coffee and browsing the storefronts.

Behind me, Phoenix dips his fingers into a jug marked Green Soap and teases his film-covered hand in Summer’s face. Summer recoils, laughing. The two of them, it makes my stomach queasy. It happens in every family, she said, even yours. I still don’t believe it.

“All done, my friend,” the tattoo artist declares.

I pull myself from the window and return to Greymore’s side. The swelling over his arm morphs into different shapes and tints, scrolling through the primary colors. Red, blue, green. The mark finally settles, forming a coded series of numbers and letters, before disappearing. “That’s it?” Greymore asks, his tone unable to hide the disappointment.

“You’re too tense right now,” the tattoo man says, massaging Greymore’s shoulder. “Relax for a few minutes, the image will show itself.”

I hear giggling behind me. Phoenix and Summer are blowing air into rubber gloves, making funny shapes. Ugh.

The tattoo artist smiles at me, revealing multi-colored teeth. “You’re up, doll face.”

I unclench my jaw and fists, trying to iron out my beta waves as I sink into the artist’s chair. It’ll be over in a minute. Just focus on Greymore. He’s wearing one of his silly t-shirts again, Vote for no one, No one tells the truth. The tattoo man focuses the lens of the laser over my wrist. I close my eyes. I can hear the charged particles colliding against each other, my skin soaking up the thermal vibration. It feels like when you’re a kid, and you play out in the yard too long without taking your sunblock tablets.

When I open my eyes again, Greymore is holding my hand. An ash tree grows along the skin of my right arm, from the roots looping at my wrist, to the six branches spreading just short of my elbow. The same drawing bleeds across Greymore’s arm, the roots at the bottom of his tattoo meeting the roots of mine to form the shape of a heart.

“Look, it worked,” Summer squeals. “It’s so very lovely.”

Phoenix bites at the skin on his hand, it’s this anxious glitch he has. “I’ll take one, too,” he commands. “The kind with the optical scan, where only the right password holders can see it.”

The tattoo man swings the cold laser up towards the ceiling and peels off his gloves.

Phoenix reaches out and holds up Summer’s locket. “This symbol right here. I want it like this.”

“No, he’s only kidding,” Greymore says, releasing my hand and shooting Phoenix an icy stare. “You do nice work, Rembrandt. How much do we owe?”

Phoenix bumps Greymore’s shoulder on his way over to the chair, their eyes locked the whole way, until Greymore finally looks down at the floor. “Hey,” Phoenix shouts, unbuttoning his shirt. “I have credits to spend, and I want a tattoo.” I can feel Summer’s pulse quickening.

“How about a little smiley face emoji over your ankle?” the tattoo artist asks, chuckling.

Phoenix leaps onto the chair, eye to eye with the artist. “What did you say?”

“I only lay my tracks on people old enough to wipe their own asses.”

What happens next is hard for my orderly brain to process, as things that happen with such velocity often are. I turn away, pressing Summer’s head against me so she won’t see it either. Her tears dampen my shirt as we listen to the tattoo man spitting and gagging and sputtering a few syllables here and there, but I suppose it’s difficult to speak with the nozzle of a laser jammed down your throat.

“I’ll lay tracks right over your foul tongue, you old fossil,” Phoenix yells over the screech of the laser. He must be irradiating the poor guy from the inside out.

The laser finally goes quiet. Greymore grabs me by the arm, his other hand clutched around Phoenix’s collar as he drags all of us to the door. The tattoo man twitches on the floor, coughing a mask of blood over his face.

“We can’t leave him,” I say, pulling myself free. “He’ll die.”

Greymore studies my face a moment. “Can you really save him?”

“I have to try.”

“Get Summer out of here,” Greymore yells. Phoenix wavers, biting his hand again. Greymore bends down, hands planted over his knees. “You wanna have a go at me, we’ll do that later. Right now, you get her out of here so we can clean up your mess.”

Phoenix gnashes his teeth and draws back his elbow, lunging forward, his fist stopping an inch from Greymore’s jaw, but Greymore doesn’t flinch.

Phoenix backs away. He grabs Summer’s hand and leads her out the door. Greymore flips the sign to Closed, and turns to me. “Alright, tell me what you need.”

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