At first the new tattoo was an adjustment; beyond smearing moisturizers, the distant itch and general tattoo care, Lane could always feel the weight of it on him. There was, though, no actual weight, any sensation was entirely in his head, just like the way he felt that people were looking at him differently, even when his ink was covered. He felt changed, but the change was internal; he couldn't even put a finger on how he was changed, or if it was a real change at all, but he could feel it, omnipresent, wrapped around his spine, all the same.
The pragmatic part of him knew that even though he himself had made some marginal change it didn't make any difference in the way others acted, even if they saw the tattoo itself, which was really only a small outward sign of his tiny metamorphosis. He tried to talk about it with Cecilia, be he felt that she was a little dismissive.
“I understand like you feel there's been some kind of a shift in the world, Jared, but there hasn't, really. It's a small change, and the tattoo itself isn't anything. You are what you make yourself, not what you look like, and not what other people see.”
“So, you don't feel any different?”
“I felt different, a long time ago, and then I realized that I just felt like me.” She stopped, indicating a door. It was an old storefront, but the windows had been painted over from the inside.
“It's an art gallery. We're here for a party.”
“Shouldn't they have a sign or something?”
Cecilia shrugged as she contemplated her hair in a blacked out window. “Artists are weird. Try not to stare too much, okay? I don't think anyone would bother you about it if you did, though.”
“What to you mean?” Jared tried to ask as she swept him inside.
It was dark in there. As his eyes adjusted he found a disinterested looking DJ standing between two awkward looking sculptures. Various colored lamps, possibly exhibits themselves, dotted the room, shedding some light on the eclectic clumps of guests and the makeshift bar.
“Have some snacks and get all the free drinks you can. That's what these things are for. I'm going to look around and see who's here. We can leave when you get bored, okay?”
With some carrot sticks and a weak screwdriver in his hands, Lane milled around, looking at the artwork. He didn’t know anyone at the show, so he kept to himself. One particular sculpture caught his eye, a female mannequin, life sized, wearing a plain, white dress made of thin jersey fabric with its back turned to the room. Under the dress, all over its back, lights flashed, blinking in patterns and changing colors like the suburbs in December. There wasn’t anyone else around, so he paused for a moment, vacantly contemplating the pattern without feeling like he was eavesdropping on anyone’s conversation.
“I’m not an exhibit.” The mannequin spoke as she turned around. There were more lights on the front. “I wished to be a real girl and the star granted my wish.”
“Oh,” Jared stifled his shock. “I knew that. I was just looking at your, uh, lights? They’re part of your dress, right?”
“These?” She pulled the front of her dress down to expose a few of the lights. They winked away merrily under the skin on her chest. “They’re subcutaneous implants.”
“So, you just have lights randomly blinking all over your body all the time? Doesn’t that get kind of annoying?”
“They’re not random. I control them.” The girl tapped her thigh a few times and the lights all went out for a moment before the random pattern was replaced by a butterfly, slowly flapping its wings on her chest. “They’re not all over my body either, just my torso. Pay attention.”
“So, that makes you a Johnny, right?”
“You could say that, I suppose. This is kind of a Johnny party. How did you find your way in here? You don’t even look like you’d have a tattoo.”
“I do have a tattoo.” Jared opened the front of his shirt to expose his shoulder.
“That looks new,” she said, leaning in to look at it in the light from her skin. “Your first one?”
“Hah! I knew it. The first feels like such a big deal.” She lifted the hem of her dress up to show him a flock of birds on her right thigh. “But it’s just a start. I feel like it really asserts ownership of my body to do what I want with it. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t get tattooed.”
“Is this guy bothering you?” Another woman joined them. She was topless and had a lot of tattoos, a very severe haircut and she glared directly at Lane. He took all of this in stride, though there was something not quite right about her.
“Yeah. He won’t tell me what he’s doing here. He just got his first tattoo, though.”
“Is that so? Let me see it.” She looked at it appraisingly. “Nice work. I could do better, but that’s not something to be ashamed of. Looks familiar.”
“My girlfriend designed …” Jared’s jaw dropped and his drink hit the floor when he saw it. The tattooed girl’s breasts each had a subtle, shiny, white scar in place of a nipple. He scrambled to recover without embarrassing himself. It was too late, though. The damage was done.
“Oh my God, the look on his face!” The illuminated girl laughed and staggered against the other for support, the pattern on her back still blinking serenely. The tattooed girl’s countenance softened and she punched Jared in the shoulder playfully.
“I saw him come in here with Cecilia. You’re all right, new guy.”
“With Cecilia? He’s practically one of us already.” She disengaged from her topless friend and hugged Jared. “I’m Melody and this is my girlfriend Nine. I’m sorry for giving you a hard time earlier. Did you say that Cecilia designed that tattoo?” she turned to Nine. “You should see if she’ll let you hang it up in the shop.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Jared.” Lane was still a little stunned.
“It’s okay, you can ask me whatever embarrassing question you’re holding back right now.” Nine smiled amiably.
“Well, um, I know Cecilia, and I’ve talked with a doctor who does this; I understand the whole thing about trying to make sense of the world, and taking control of your body and your environment and all of that, but, why this? What made you decide to do this?”
“I don’t know. Nipples are weird.”
Lane had no answer for that line of reasoning. Maybe nipples are weird.
“Is this guy bothering you?” Cecilia stomped gruffly over and nudged Lane in the ribs. “I’m glad to see he’s mingling.”
“You should have seen it, Cec,” Melody was still having a hard time containing herself. “I thought he was broken.”
“Hey, he showed us his tattoo.” Nine interrupted. “I’d like to see the original, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll email you tomorrow. It looks like I’d better help butterfingers here get a new drink. Later, babes.” She steered Lane back toward the bar.
“I already gave him a drink.” The bartender was a gruff little weedy man with a lot of scars. Some of them looked accidental. “What’s he need another one for?”
“It’s not his fault. Nine showed him her tits. Give him another and I’ll let you make me a piña colada.”
The bartender shrugged and pulled out a wicked looking tool, covered in blades. “I can see how that might drive a man to drink.” He grabbed his left hand with his right and pulled on it, twisting back and forth until it popped off. He replaced it with the blades and made them spin a few times, making a noise like a power tool. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” He then proceeded to use his prosthetic to savagely, gleefully, pulverize some ice for Cecilia's drink.
Cecilia was already talking to someone else, moving from group to group like a butterfly, so Jared took a seat at the bar next to a tray of filled wine glasses waiting for the next wave of guests. Another man sat there, tired looking, hunched over an empty beer.
“Excuse me,” the stranger turned toward him. “Could you pass me one of those?”
“Sure.” Lane's eyes were drawn to the side of the man's face. “I'm sorry, but is that ...”
“Yes,” the other man interrupted, “it's a camera, no, it doesn't work. It's a long story.” He sipped the wine and frowned.
Lane helped himself to a glass.