The man limped as he entered Skin Arts tattoo parlor. Hector only noticed because the shop was empty that early in the afternoon. Men didn’t generally come in wearing a suit and tie. He flipped his magazine closed, stuffed it under the counter, and yawned into his hand.
The man’s face didn’t move for a few moments — long enough that Hector thought of a mask, not a flesh and blood face. Then his eye twitched, a small movement, just a flicker.
“I’d like a tattoo,” the man said in a steady, calm voice. A banker’s voice, Hector thought. The man reached into his suit coat and produced a folded bit of paper, worn and slightly yellowed. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I need to know if you can do it.”
The look on this man’s face — the steady blue eyes and clean skin — made Hector feel dirty, gave him the sensation that he should scrub his own tattoos with steel wool until he scratched through the dermis and peeled away the pigment. What did he want with a tattoo? Hector took the paper and unfolded it slowly. From the stains and softness of the paper, many other hands had done the same.
Three letters: E.G.M. The font was wide, plenty of black ink if the man wanted a fill.
The man shook his head. “No. Just the letters on my leg, in black.”
Hector quoted a price, and the man seated himself in one of the chairs. Such a simple job would take less than an hour, and the man hadn’t even haggled when Hector boosted the price for the fill. He gathered the works, his needles, the iron, and laid them out next to the chair.
“You can either roll up, or drop the pants completely.”
The man nodded, and his fingers tugged at the cuff on his pants, revealing a prosthetic leg.
Hector gawked. Was this a joke?
“Is there a problem?” The man’s voice was smooth, not the least agitated or upset.
Hector’s head swung slowly from side to side. “I… I don’t think… ” He stood from his stool, nearly toppling his tools. “I can’t ink a fake leg, buddy.”
The man frowned, the first time he had shown any emotion on his mask-face. “I see.”
Guilt boiled in Hector’s stomach — he couldn’t explain why, but the man hung his head and looked so disappointed. “I’m not trying to… y’know, dis’ you or nothin’.”
“I can find someone else who can.” The man shrugged and started to pull down the pant leg but stopped mid-calf. His eyes locked with Hector’s. “I assure you this isn’t a joke. I’ll double the price.”
“Look, I can’t promise anything.” Hector’s head swam with the promise of twice the fee.
“Will you do it then?”
A pause — time crawled at a snail’s sprint. Hector nodded. His brain screamed no, but his fingers felt the money. Hector quickly traced the letters on the prosthetic leg before he decided otherwise. Count the cash, he told himself, who cares if this guy is a nut job. He opened a fresh needle package, and clicked on the gun. The machine buzzed. His forehead started to sweat and he brushed away a few stray beads with the back of his hand. With a deep breath, he pressed the rapidly vibrating needle against the smooth artificial leg, and it gave like flesh. Hector jerked the needle away.
“Is everything okay?” The man’s voice sounded distant — not in pain, but something else.
“Fine — fine. Just getting a feel for…” Hector waved the gun toward the leg. He pressed in again, and started making the first line of the E. A tiny bead of blood trickled from the dark mark — more than Hector was used to seeing from real flesh. His eyes glanced away to the man’s face; the mask didn’t break. Hector swallowed the bile that burped into his mouth, and resumed work. Perspiration continued to work its way across his face — he hadn’t sweat as much since his first job.
“The initials, someone close?” Hector asked. He wanted to fill the room with something other than the buzz of the machine. No money is worth this, he thought.
Something in the man’s tone made Hector wish he hadn’t asked.
“Ellen,” the man said. “Her name was Ellen, and she was seventeen.”
Hector blotted his forehead with the back of his left arm. He stopped momentarily and soaked up a little blood with a gauze pad. When his fingers touched the prosthetic, it was smooth and plastic.
“She was driving the other car.”
Hector leaned back from the tattoo; the E was done as was half of the G. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Can you finish? No one else was willing to do this. I’ve tried most shops in the city.”
The parlor was silent save for the buzz of the tattoo gun for a few, long moments. Finally, Hector rubbed his face and nodded.
“Good,” the man said. “There will be more blood — but I want you to finish, no matter how much pain I’m in, no matter how much I ask you to stop.”
With a deep breath, Hector bent forward and pressed the needle into the artificial leg and tried to focus on the ink through blurred vision.
Aaron Polson is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. He currently resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. His short fiction has appeared in various places, including Reflection’s Edge, GlassFire Magazine, Big Pulp, Johnny America, and Permuted Press’ Monstrous anthology.You can visit him on the web at www.aaronpolson.com.