Two weeks later. He lay in bed, dreaming. He was in a valley, in front of a crumbling stone altar. On the altar there was a faint, rust-colored stain that hinted at what sort of rites might have once been performed upon it. Dilapidated pillars stood around him in a semicircle, all of them carved with strange, foreign symbols. The pillars were pitted, as though eaten by acid, and the scent of ocean spray came to him on the wind. From where he stood, however, he could see only rolling hills. Something about these round, grassy mounds disturbed him. They instilled in him a great fear of the unknown, of things from before his time and place. Above him, a million stars gleamed in patterns that were foreign to him. He was suddenly very frightened. He clawed his way back to the waking world and lay in bed, drenched in cold, cold sweat, until it began to get light outside.
You must login to vote
Two days later, and he was once again standing before the door to the tattoo parlour. He was pale, wide-eyed, and weary. He had found himself unable to escape the fixation placed upon him by his dream of the altar on the hills. He had been unable to sleep- every time he began to nod off, he would snap back awake, terrified. Needless to say, he had begun cutting classes again. Also, oddly enough, he was for the first time thankful that he lived in flat country. He had developed an inordinate- but compelling- fear of hills. After two days of this, he had given in.
He knocked, and was greeted once again by the mustachioed black man with the blinding smile. Leo noticed, for the first time, that the manner in which the man spoke- a constantly cheery, aggressive sort of friendliness- could mean anything from genuine good will, to sarcasm, to deep resentment. It didn’t matter. He needed the tattoo.
In the end, he chose the other shoulder. Again the pain that was not quite pain, again the blank spot between the beginning and the end. He paid the man- 100 dollars plus a fingernail clipping he chose not to ask about, went home, and slept for eighteen hours. He did not dream of the altar and the hills, but just before dawn awoke with a single, pervasive image in the forefront of his mind. He saw the altar again, a crumbling relic that hinted at dark practices once performed upon its slab. He saw someone laying on this altar- a man, bereft of all hair, completely and utterly white. This man had no wounds that he could see, yet he felt very strongly that the man had been sacrificed.
In the morning, he felt better.
“I think I can see where this is headed.”
“How many tattoos do you have?”
“Jesus god, Leo!”
“You don’t understand! Every time I dreamt one of those dreams it would stay inside my head! It would claw at my mind! I couldn’t get a moment’s peace without those tattoos…”
…and every time he went back it was a little bit easier. The smiling man, the chair, the pain that wasn’t, really. Every new tattoo he received was paid for differently. The man always wanted something odd from him; a vial of spittle, a flake of dead skin, and once, frighteningly, a bit of his blood. This was along with the usual payment of one or two hundred dollars, a payment which also became easier as time drew on…
“Why have you come here?”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Look, I know I’m a good friend, Leo. I know you trust me. But if you’d wanted to tell me about this, you’d have done it a long time ago. Why are you here?”
“Tell me, dammit!”
“I’m out of money.”
“I thought it might be something like that.”
“I can’t help it, James! I NEED another tattoo! I’ll go mad if I don’t have it.”
I sighed. What could I do? Eject him from my house? Leo was my best friend, and it pained me to see him in such a bad way…but how do you stop something like this?
“Look. My house has many rooms. More than I’ll ever need. You can use one of them. Sleep there as long as you like. As long as it takes to get yourself together again. Also, and I only mention this in passing, there happens to be a cupboard in the dining room where I keep about five hundred dollars for emergencies. If it were to disappear, I’d probably never know.”
“Thank you, James. Thank you.”
I tried to ignore the tears running down his cheeks.
Life went on, as life often does. Leo came back that night with a new tattoo- a giant metallic skull that leered down at a tiny man in a trenchcoat- on his head. I pretended not to notice. I was becoming very good at pretending not to notice things.
One night, not long after, I heard a shriek from the other end of the house. I leapt out of bed and pounded down the stairs. The cry came again- a panicky wail- from the bathroom. I threw open the door. Leo was standing there, in front of the mirror, goggling at himself and screaming. Across his face, his hands, across every unmarked inch of his body, complicated patterns were tracing themselves. I watched in horror as a strange, twisted ideogram scrawled its way across his left cheek.
There were designs on his fingers, designs on his lips, designs on his penis; and as the night drew on, tiny black lines began to scrawl their way over his eyes and teeth. Stunned as I was, I acted as the voice of reason, leading the still-bawling Leo to a big leather chair and sitting him down.
“Leo,” I said, desperately trying to reassert reality. “There must be some explanation. A taint in the blood, a skin reaction, something.”
“Sure there’s an explanation,” said Leo. He spoke in an alien tone, a voice I’d never heard him use in all the years of our friendship. “I’m damned, James. Something wants me damned.”
“I’ve felt it for a while now. Something’s there, always watching, waiting for me to die, or change, or something. I know this sounds insane but you’ve got to believe me. I think I’m dying, James.”
“Don’t talk like that. I’m going to fix you a brandy and you’re going to go to bed, and in the morning, you’re going to go see a doctor.”
“No! No doctors!!”
“Goddammit, Leo! Have you looked at yourself? You’re turning into a Chinese puzzle and you want me to just sit back and let it happen?!”
“Please, Leo. Just…can we talk about it in the morning?”
I deflated. “Yeah. That we can. Let me get you a drink.” I got him his drink, debated with myself, and dissolved a sleeping pill in the mixture. Just for tonight. He drank it down.
“Does it hurt?”
“It’s cold. Really cold. I feel like part of me isn’t quite here anymore.”
“Huh? Where is it?”
“I don’t know. Out there. Somewhere.” He looked at my ceiling.
“Go to bed,” I said. “We’ll talk in the morning.” He obeyed, and I reluctantly trudged back up the stairs, certain I would never be able to sleep.
I was wrong.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.