You can’t find the Tattooist’s address in any book. It’s not on the internet, either—quite a feat, these days. You have to go into an unmarked alley, down a flight of stairs, and through a black door with an iron knob. Even then, it’s not a sure thing you’re getting tattooed.
One, they could be closed. Their hours are random, open midnight to three in the morning, or only Friday afternoon, or only while the sun hangs on the horizon on a holiday. If you don’t arrive precisely when the Tattooist feels you should arrive, the knob won’t twist open, and you’ll be left on the stairs.
Two, they might already have a customer. Or twelve. You can’t book the Tattooist in advance, so there’s no securing a spot. Even if you make it through the door, you might not make it past the waiting room.
Three, they might not want to tattoo you. The Tattooist is a mastermind. A genius. A god of ink. They want to tattoo unique ideas onto unique people. And if your idea sucks? They will kick you to the curb without a second glance.
But you find the alleyway. You stare down it, clasping that jar of yours. The alley reeks with the heavy, humid scent of garbage. You wrinkle your nose, and breathe through your mouth. The gritty brick walls seem to lean over you, leering. Soggy newspapers and rotten food litter the ground; you pick your way around them. At first, you don’t see any stairs, and your breath hitches as you wonder if maybe this isn’t the right alley after all. You pace up and down, then you see: a shadow in the ground. A step. Had it always been there?
You clutch the jar tighter to your chest, and descend.
At the bottom, there’s the black door. The paint is peeling up in several places, revealing wood riddled with termite holes. The iron doorknob is shiny with condensation. When you touch it gingerly, your hand comes away damp.
You look like you’re about to chicken out. Your pupils are dilated, and you chew the dead skin on your lips. You don’t have any tattoos. You’re not a shady person who gets tattoos in alleys.
But the weight of the jar in your hands…
You clench your fist, bite your lip so hard it bleeds, and turn the knob.
Inside, the room is claustrophobically small. There’s only three pieces of furniture, arranged into a triangle. Two couches, both black leather, saggy from untold years of use. They face a reception desk in a reverent formation, like pews facing a pulpit. Beyond the reception desk, there’s a doorway with no door, only black beyond.
You thought the waiting room would be sardine-packed full of people, but there’s not even a receptionist. You hesitantly perch on the edge of a couch cushion, gripping the jar so tightly your knuckles whiten. A fly buzzes, somewhere.
One minute the doorway is empty. The next, it is not.
You yelp, and almost drop the jar. You are so relieved to have not dropped it that you nearly laugh, but the appearance of the girl now standing behind the desk stops you. Her head is shaved, covered in a giant mandala tattoo, and her ears are more metal than cartilage. Her eyes dart back and forth behind thick cat eye glasses.
“The Tattooist will see you now,” she announces. She disappears through the doorway.
You panic at the sudden lack of light, but as your eyes adjust, you realize there’s a spot of brightness in the middle of the room. You head toward it. Now, you can make out more details: a chair, like those at the dentist. A table with little ink pots on it. A tattoo gun.
And a figure on a stool.
This is the Tattooist.
You hug your jar and whisper a prayer.
They motion for you to sit down. You comply, hands sweating and stomach twisting. You can’t see their face, only the faintest silhouette.
“What’s your idea?” Their voice is a whisper.
You hold out the jar, the urn. “I want my mom’s ashes in the ink.”
Your voice is steady. Your eyes are dry, unblinking. The only noticeable sign of emotion is this: you swallow. Like the words were a bitter pill on your tongue.
They shake their head. “Boring.”
An angry spark rises in your chest. “What, does that not suit your artistic vision? My mom is dead. I just want her with me.”
Someone grabs your arm—the receptionist. Her glasses glint.
You swipe her hand off. You’ll show yourself out, thanks. You stand to leave.
“Wait.” Words so soft, you almost don’t hear them.
“You just want your mom with you?”
They motion for you to sit.
You lay in the chair, hear the snap of plastic gloves. They take the urn, and mutter strange words as they mix the ash into the ink.
When they put the tattoo gun to your skin, it hurts—but you’ve felt worse pain. You listen to the droning whine of the machine, and close your eyes.
When you open them, a tiny, delicate daisy rests on your wrist. Your mom’s favorite flower. You look up to ask the Tattooist how they knew, but when you do, you freeze.
Your mother stands in front of you, glistening like woven silver. She raises a gossamer arm, and her fingers brush against your cheek, like the faintest touch of an icy petal.
You think, with sudden surety, your new tattoo is haunted.
You blink back tears. You reach out to hug her, but your arms pass through her. Your heart stutters.
Her smile wavers as her gaze falls on your tattoo. Is she mouthing, “No?” You can’t hear her.
Then she claws at your skin. You scream as sharp, stabbing cold pain shoots through you.
The Tattooist leans forward into the light, and grins. “Interesting.”