This story is by Katherine E. Soto and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Dude, look at my tattoo!” his client said. “What the hell happened?”
“Calm down. I’ll look at it. What happened?” Jose answered. Bizarre things were happening to his clients over the last week. Jose met his client at his chair in the front of the tattoo parlor.
“I took the bandage off this morning. Took one peek and got here as fast as I could.”
“Let’s see. What do we have here?” He pulled the gauze off the skin. Jose looked down at his tattoo art. “Hmm, what’s wrong with it?”
The client yelled, “What do you mean, what’s wrong? What’s with the hair?”
“Remember when you got the tattoo, I told you there might be unusual healing? The lion tattoo is one special tattoo I do.”
“But the hair!” he exclaimed. “In the tattoo…I don’t believe it! Is hair supposed to grow in it?”
“It’s a lion after all.” Jose said.
“Just do what you can. Okay? The smart mouth you can leave out!”
Jose put a clean bandage over the tattoo. “Like I told you, this tattoo is a new technique. Relax. Let it heal. Keep the bandage on three more days, then come back.” Jose led his customer up front to the cashier area and ushered him out.
“No charge today,” Jose told him.
“Better not be.” The door slammed as he left.
Jose and the cashier’s eyes met as Jose shook his head. “My special technique seems to be surprising people.” The cashier shrugged.
Jose headed to the refrigerator. He debated between beer, cola or water as he opened the fridge. He took a cola, popped the top, sat at his desk in the room.
His boss walked in from his office. “Jose, I almost stopped your client today, he was so angry when he left. Did you keep him happy?”
“Not really. He was pissed when he left. Re-bandaged and reminded him it was healing.”
“I would hate for your special technique to bomb.”
“Yeah, me too.” His cola finished, Jose sat at his desk next to his client chair drawing aimlessly deep in thought about the three tattoos he had done with his new technique. The first one healed up. His client liked it. The second had a few glitches, but he did right by his client. This third one, he didn’t know what would happen. The hair was thicker. It looked like a real lion with a mane.
He looked over at the old ink and machine he bought in Tijuana. When he bought it he chatted with the old woman who sold him the equipment. She said somethings to him, but he didn’t pay attention to all of it. The card that came with the equipment was in his desk. After finding it,Jose dialed the number.
“Hello, Tijuana Mane can I help you?” said a voice without a Spanish accent.
“Hello, may I speak to Marie?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Tell her I bought some old tattoo equipment from her shop last month.”
“Okay, hang on.”
While he held the phone, the girl yelled for Marie. She told her who was on the phone before Marie picked it up. Jose thought he heard: “Thank God he called!”
“I’m so glad you called, that equipment my mom sold you was the wrong equipment. Tell me you haven’t used it.”
“Only three times. Why?” Jose asked, puzzled.
“I’ll bring you replacement equipment, new and better equipment today. Whatever you do, don’t use the stuff you bought from us again.”
“Okay, okay.” Jose said, reacting to the panic in Marie’s voice. “What time?”
“About three. Put that stuff away! Use a locked box if you have to! Just don’t use it again!”
Jose hung up the phone. Two hours to go until three. He took the equipment down from his shelves and found all the ink he bought from her shop. He did not remember the skulls on the ink jars. This was a special tattoo machine fitting his hand like a glove. Even the ink was smooth, gliding and filling in each tattoo. Jose placed the equipment and ink into a box. A thought wandered through his mind: ‘One last tattoo before I let it all go.’ Slamming the box shut he walked away to sit across the room trying not to stare at the box.
He stood at the room’s front window at a quarter to three waiting for Marie. When she walked in a half hour late, she was a shock to Jose. This was not the lady he bought everything from in Tijuana. She was a younger version of the old lady. She was carrying a box. She groaned in relief when he took it from her arms.
“As promised, I brought new equipment for the old equipment. Can I have them all back, please?” Marie said.
“Sure, let me get the box.” Jose answered. He walked to his desk to retrieve the box. Marie looked relieved to see it as she checked the contents.
“Good, it’s all here. Thanks.” She turned to go.
“Hey, don’t I get an explanation?” Jose queried.
She walked over to where Jose stood looking him up and down.
“Got a drink?” she asked.
“Sure. Beer, cola, or water?” he asked.
Cold beers were in hand as they sat across from each other away from his desk and client chair in the customer waiting area.
“Tell me the story you promised.”
“Okay, okay.” Marie said. ”Let me get a drink and my thoughts straight.” She stared off into space as she drank a few gulps of beer. She looked at Jose.
“That equipment belonged to my grandfather. I never meant to sell them. My mother tried to get rid of the equipment several times , but it belongs to our family now. I track them down each time. This is my last time, I’m going to lock everything up in a chest and bury it next to my Grandfather’s grave tonight.”
“But it’s great equipment. Works great and the inks tattoo in spectacular colors.”
Marie interrupted him. “Have you noticed anything weird about the tattoos you did with the ink and the machine?”
“Well, yes. I had the three customers heal different from normal.”
“Lucky you only did three. My grandfather did ten. By the fifth tattoo things got weird. At first, we thought it was the new technique he was doing, but the equipment combined with the strange skull ink created more problems. The tattoos healed funny at first, then hair was inside each tattoo, then the tattoos began to move.”
Jose laughed.. “Tattoos don’t move.”
“These did. They moved up and down arms and legs. We could do nothing for our clients. Drove some to suicide. One was on his way to get laser surgery. He claimed the tattoos caused the accident. Grandfather decided that someone cursed the ink and equipment. He tried not using the equipment, yet he could not stop drawing tattoos.
I found him using the equipment in his office one day. I asked him what he was doing. He said he couldn’t help himself, he had to tattoo someone with it. The little tattoos were moving all over his skin. Rather than use the special ink on his clients, he tattooed himself. A great artist for years before this equipment and ink ruined him. Afterward, he withered away into his own tattoos.
Jose listened to the story with disbelief. “Marie, that sounds crazy, but I’ve seen my three client tattoos do what you describe. They each healed weird. The third has hair growing in it now.”
“I told you.” Marie said. “That skull ink.” She rose off the chair she was sitting on. “Young man, here’s my advice whether you want it or not. Don’t buy old tattoo equipment. Most carry either a curse or a ghost with them. That’s why I brought you brand, new equipment in exchange.”
Marie picked up the box and left the shop. He watched through the window as she placed the box into the trunk of a white car, slammed the trunk lid closed, and get into the car. As her car disappeared into the distance, Jose’s right hand itched for the feel of the old tattoo machine.