She rolls up her sleeve, and the story it tells is enough to halt my normal question-and-answer portion of the consultation.

I sit back on my stool, placing my hands on my knees, and look back to her face. Her hair is jet black, and not in that over-dyed Emo way, where the hair eventually becomes like dark straw. The hair falls in shimmering ringlets over her shoulders, framing her pale white face. She looks me dead in the eyes, and the bright blue is staggering. When she had walked in, head down in a slouchy zip-up sweatshirt, with exposed shoulders and a grey tank-top, she looked like any other Punk Grrl looking for some ink, but now, her white face is revealed, waiting, and the long raised red scar runs down her wrist.

It’s not a clean scar, surgical.

It looks as though there was anger, intent, behind it. The path begins at the base of her palm and runs three wandering inches down her arm. It’s horrific; the simple beauty of this girl, with the mark of destruction she wears.

“I’m sorry,” I stutter.

“Don’t be.”

Her voice is raspy, like a smoker, but she doesn’t smell like it, the voice older than the body it comes from.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay. You’re going to fix it.” She lets out a quick smile.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper, which had once been white, but was now worn from excessive and constant handling.

I expect a design, a flower or tribal band, to mask the jagged interruption on her white wrist. Instead, opening the paper reveals a single word, written in all capitals.

“Is this what you want?”


I pause, and she averts her gaze down to the scar.


“Over it, so it’s divided down the middle.”

“I can’t, it won’t look…”

“Good?” Her answer is accompanied by another smirk, and I look away, blushing.

“No, I didn’t mean that. I can’t reproduce this, the ink won’t distribute uniformly.”

“I know.”

“But I can’t guarantee how it will look.”

“That’s fine.  That’s okay.”

Her eyes dominate her face, a blue that I wish I could represent in my work, the moving ocean, a sapphire at noon.

“Do you want a different typeface or…”

“No. Just like that. Please.”

I get up, scan the paper, and print the transfer. She waits patiently, looking ahead and flexing the fingers on her wounded arm.

“Like this?” I place the transfer on top of the scar, so that it divides all the letters horizontally, and it crinkles where the former wound doesn’t allow for a flat application.

“Perfect.” The remnant of her smile fades.

“Are you sure? When I get to the scar it won’t look like…”

“Yes. I’m sure.” Her eyes are closed.

I unwrap the sealed packages of needles, and grab a cup, filling it with black ink. I attach the needle to the gun, and lower the tip of the dripping needle to her alabaster arm. I hold her arm with my left hand at the elbow, thumb on her vein, keeping the skin taut despite the raised tissue, and I can feel the blood pumping through her.

I begin with the first letter, filling in as I work, and reach the first intersection. I look up. She nods, and closes her eyes again.

The ink hits the scar, and the mess of flesh scatters the ink into strange patterns under the skin. Intricate and marbled, the paths grow thorns and black spires, against the rest of the letter.

I finish through the mark, and look up. Her eyes are still closed, but a pathway of tears line her cheeks.

“Are you okay?” A whisper.


Her answer is small, a hit dog, a wounded child… but true.

I progress down the scar, trills and tiny vines flowing along the break in the single word, and there is no more talking, only the hum of the gun droning in the back room parlor.

I sit back when I finish, grab a paper towel to dab at the emerging droplets of blood along the black word.

It runs along the scar, only the tips are protruding. Within the mark, the ink has taken on its own path, I could stare at it for hours.

Smiling, I meet her eyes.

“Do you like it?”

She looks down and nods.

I reach for my Polaroid camera, but she puts her hand on my knee, stopping me cold.

“Could you recreate it?”

“The tattoo?”

“My tattoo.”

I can’t. It’s a beautiful accident; without the scar tissue, it would be impossible.

“No,” I say, and put the camera down, understanding.

I finish wrapping her arm, noting the similarities to how this must feel, again, for her to walk the streets bearing a bandage like this.

She stands, placing her thin hands along my jawbone, and kisses me on the forehead, her raven hair falling across my ears.

She leaves the money with the receptionist and walks out the door into the midnight streets, not looking back.

I drop my head, thinking about the swirls and intricacies, so much like the tresses that cascade down her shoulders, and see the open paper on the floor. The creases are years old, wrinkles in the folds, and the single word, centered on the paper, a man’s writing, high school boy or father or teacher, glares up at me in Sharpie black.


I pick it up, debate chasing after her, and her absent response is as clear as the ocean of her eyes.

Grabbing a felt tracing marker from the top of my workstation, I slash a line through the word, negating it. Refolding the paper, I place it in the pocket of my jeans, wondering if tonight, when the shift ends and sleep comes, I will wander through dark growing hedgemazes of ink.

Matt Daly is an 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher in New Jersey. He has an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry from New England College.

Rate this story:
 average 4.6 stars • 21 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • A hauntingly beautiful and powerful piece of writing. Thank you!

  • ajcap


  • There was a lot of clunkiness in this story, in addition to some pretty obvious typos and unwieldy tense changes.

    An engaging enough story, but I felt there was too much left unanswered.

  • Great story, wonderful prose and vey captivating.

    The only correction I can recommend (and it’s not likely to be noticed by many) is that a great deal of tattooist do not refer to the machine as a gun. They call it a machine in thier inner circles. Especially the ones who build thier own tattoo machines.
    If it were written from her pov it would have sounded natural, but not from his.

    Then again, all of my tattoos were done on the west coast, perhaps the artists are different back east.

  • Nice. The girl got her mojo back, and the tattooist got a sense of accomplishment for helping purge her demon.

    I did wonder though, what would he have said to her if he had decided to chase her down after she left his shop, and how would she have reacted? That’s something to play with the rest of the day.

    Four stars….

  • Really good story that kept me reading. I wanted to know what the word was. I think that you should have ended it at him crossing the word out, and slipping the back paper into his pocket. The last little bit there felt forced. Four stars from me.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Five stars. As close to a perfect story as one can get.

  • hsv

    I agree with magic mint. I loved the suspense of the story, although at times I felt frustrated with wanting to know! I love the picture you paint of the girl, almost desolate. However, I think the last part about the shift ending and sleep didn’t work and that the story should have ended with slipping the paper into his pocket.

  • joannab.

    great story. thanks. i went back and forth between 4 and 5 stars, because of not quite understanding the ending (now that i read the comments, i agree with magic mint above) and because of errors like taught instead of taut. however, i went for the 5 stars because of how the story gripped me, how eager i was to know the word, how “worthwhile” the word was when i came to it. congratulations.

  • Paul Friesen

    Wow, that was amazing

  • P.E.Libby

    A wonderful, sad and poignant story. Waiting to know the word was intrinsic to the core of the story. I knew it would bring a tear to my eye. And did. Too many young people have come across my path who fit this sad opinion of themselves. Five stars.

  • Beautifully written. Love that it was in man’s handwriting and that he I stint overly didn’t go after her. He let her have her moment. I also love that he is wondering if he will think of words he may have said to someone that could have wounded so badly. The unanswered questions are a part of what makes it beautiful. I love that the piece gave me room as a reader to imagine what pain she carried and what she felt. I had room to connect my own images and emotions. For a reader, a story like this awakens your soul! Thank you!!

  • Joseph Kaufman


    Paul, can you tell me where the “unwieldy tense changes” are? I’m sort of a verb-tense demon, and I just re-read the piece and couldn’t find any discrepancies. Certainly didn’t see any plurality of them. Can you elaborate?

    The “taut” issue has been fixed, and I found one other typo I will advise the staff to fix. Please feel free to be more specific so we can keep things clean. Always appreciated.


  • Excellent story. I read along hoping that the final reveal would be as good as the description and suspense leading up to it, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

  • @13 – ‘When she had walked in’ reads better without the ‘had’ since it’s clear from context the action happened at a point further back in the past; also, ‘which had once been white’ reads better as ‘which was once white’.

    The reason I wasn’t more specific is that in the past people get slapped wrist for doing so.

    I did feel that this story had far too much ‘tell’, though apparently 71 other people disagree.

  • Jay

    Why did she kiss him on the forehead? That seemed weird and overly dramatic unless they weren’t stangers. Good story regardless.

  • Joseph Kaufman


    I see your point, Paul… The past vs past-perfect distinction is always somewhat interesting, in my eyes. When I over-revise my stories (that point where you change a word in one cycle then change it back the next *smile*), I often vacillate on those tense questions. I think that reaches the point of the subjective, though, while still seeing why you would consider those examples unwieldy.

    And I think any criticism, technical or otherwise (if made unquestionably constructively) is completely allowed. If I were the author, I would very much want to know if a reader tripped of what he or she deemed an extra word here and there.

  • I love the image of ‘worthless’ being slashed through and cancelled out – beautiful. I thought the dialogue was great, but found a little of the description over-written. It made me falter only twice in the whole piece though and it was a great idea so, 4 stars.

  • Gary

    The one thing that stands out to me, and this is minor, is how does the tattoo guy know that it’s a man’s writing? That stuck out to me a bit. Like how does he know it wasn’t her mother?

  • Brian Dolton

    Interestign that everyone seems to assume the tattooist is male.

    From the body contact by the girl (hand on knee, kiss on forehead) I definitely assuemd the tattooist was female.

    It’s effective and complex but I really dn’t like the cheap withholding of the tattooed word. The tattooist knows it as soon as the paper is handed over, but doesn’t “think” about it in the narration until almost the end to try and give us a moment of impact. That doesn’t work for me.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    @15 @17: As a writer, I go with what sounds right in my head rather than what may be perfect grammar, and I can’t always explain why I said it that way–just that it feels right.

    As a reader, if it flows, if it keeps me in the story, if it makes sense in the world of the story–regardless of how it might work in the “real” world–then I say it’s acceptable. Some of the best stories break all rules and might not survive a creative writing seminar taught by “experts.” The final arbiter should be your gut–writer or reader. SOmetimes it does come down to–“I don’t know nuthin’ about art, I just know what I like.”

  • @21 – As I mentioned, the examples I cited sounded clunky to my ear as a reader – my ‘gut’ as you put it. The last thing I would want to do is put myself up as a grammar guru or an ‘expert’ (the inverted commas to add a not of derision are yours, not mine).

    Anyhow, it’s now over eighty people who disagree wih me, so it’s safe to inject a note of mild mockery.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    @22–Paul–I don’t mock anyone’s opinions. I mean only that good and great writing often goes against everything we were taught in school. A talented writer can get away with stuff that would lose points when judged according to accepted standards. The best stories on EDF often evoke passionately opposite opinions in the readership. And I wouldn’t pay much attention to the numbers. Majority opinions aren’t always right ones–even though for this story, I personally think they are.

  • @23 – thanks for educating me.

  • What a powerful story. Thanks for sharing it!

  • We don’t slap wrists at EDF! We only ask that typos be reported through the contact form so that they can be corrected unobtrusively. A discussion of how verb tenses are used is interesting and more than welcome.

    It’s great to see all this discussion.

    Gary (#19), I’m glad you brought up the question of whether we make assumptions about gender from penmanship — I would think a swirly script might be perceived as “feminine” and a spiky or square script might be perceived as “masculine” with no basis whatsoever, but you’re right that the story doesn’t give any clues as to why the narrator makes that assumption.

    Brian (#20), I too assumed that the tattoo artist was male until I saw your comment and read through the story again — there are no actual indications that I can see. I wonder if it’s the combination of a male byline and first-person narrative that creates the assumption?

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  • Johanna Miklos

    Every reader brings his/her own story to a story. I didn’t wonder about the gender of the tatoo artist because to me it didn’t matter. I read this as a story about beauty destroyed and few words are more destructive to our souls (I think) than being found “worthless.”
    Well told.

  • Gretchen Bassier

    Wow. I totally loved it. Loved the reveal of the word “worthless” – I desperately wanted to know. Everything worked for me in this one. Nice job, Matt!

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  • Mike

    Wow. Powerful story, well written. Thankyou

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  • This story has been nominated in the Short Stories: All Other category of the Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll.

  • Scott M.

    Beautifully written by a sexy beast of a man.

  • It also pays to analyze what tattoo artist you may use.
    When the tattoo becomes slightly lighter,
    you can apply the dark shade of concealer. He showed off his
    latest artwork via Twitter on December 31.

  • this is what flash fiction is all about

    • Just read it again. My kind of writing. Wonderful.