“What the hell is that?”
I pulled the pillow over my head to escape Lisa’s voice. It had started out shrill and then climbed until that pierced my head like a spike.
A white-hot, serrated spike.
This sonic assault accompanied a stab of pain to the back of my right shoulder. Afraid Lisa had actually grabbed a knife, I rolled forward—and ran right out of mattress. I crashed to the floor, and my head exploded, bone and gray matter spattering the bedroom walls.
“Ouch,” I whispered. “I’m dying.”
“You’re hungover. You stink. Go take a shower. Now. Then I expect to hear all about this.”
Another stab of pain from my shoulder, what I recognized now as a sharply prodding fingernail, sent me across the floor in a pathetic drag.
“Ouch,” I whispered.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“What kind of an idiot gets a tattoo of his own face?” said Lisa. “I’ll tell you what kind. The kind of idiot I’m stupid enough to marry, that’s what.”
I stared into the mirror in a sick kind of wonder. That was definitely my own face on my bicep. My face, stretched into an unfamiliar smile, both wide and joyous, but—
“How did it get there?”
Lisa’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh, don’t you even try to pull that bullshit with me! I have half a mind to call Vinnie right now.”
I winced. “Vinnie? Why? What are you—”
“You know why, Mr. ‘I’m gonna get a tattoo even though my wife expressly forbade it’!”
The last time she’d “called Vinnie” had been right before the wedding. I’d been stupid enough to tell a friend of ours I was having second thoughts about getting married. They’d talked to Lisa, and she’d called her brother.
The wedding had gone on as planned. My broken ribs didn’t show, and the photographer was just about able to airbrush out the splint across my nose.
“I should call Vinnie just because you were drunk. You know I don’t want you drinking.”
“It was my brother’s bachelor party.”
“Your brother’s an asshole. Your whole family is assholes. You know this, right?”
I thought of Vinnie.
“Get it removed.”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“I can’t remove it.”
I stared at the doctor. “What? Why?”
“It’s not a tattoo. At least, it’s not a regular tattoo. I can’t find any sign of actual inks at all. It’s the weirdest thing.”
Panic rose in my chest. “You can’t remove it? Even with that laser-thingie?”
He shook his head. “Your brother doesn’t know where you got it?”
“The last he remembers is pouring me into a cab and giving the driver my address. Jesus Christ, what am I going to do?”
“I took pictures. I’ll ask around the ink community and see if I can’t find out where you got the work done. Perhaps they can help.”
He showed me a polaroid of someone’s upper arm. There was a tattoo of a pair of spectacles on the arm.
“That’s not my tattoo.”
“Well, the lighting might be different— ”
“It’s not even close. I— ”
I’d raised my arm, turning toward the mirror, then stopped, shocked. There, on the outside of my biceps, was the tattoo of a pair of glasses.
“What the hell?”
I looked at the doctor, wanting an explanation, but a second shock sent the question skittering right out of my head.
I guess he can’t actually see them, sitting on his face like that, so maybe he can’t tell, but just how the hell did I wake up with a tattoo of my laser doctor’s glasses on my arm?
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“You wear long sleeves. I don’t care how hot it is, I don’t want to see it. And I’m calling Vinnie—I can’t believe you’d try that bullshit story about it not coming off.”
“It’s true, I swear! Please, just call the doc and ask before you call Vinnie. For me? Please?”
“You have until the end of the week to start getting rid of it, or I’ll have Vinnie make me some earrings out of your balls. Capishe?”
My testicles tried to climb up into my stomach, where they might be safe.
“But honey, I— ”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
I sat on the train, lost in thought.
What the hell is going on?
I’d woken up and looked at the tattoo before leaving for work, wondering if it would still look like a pair of glasses.
A blue horse, rearing up and pawing the air, I thought. But how? And, Jesus, why?
I stared into space, lost in thought, until my eyes sort of rolled into focus—on the back side of a paper the man across the aisle was reading.
I snatched the paper from his hands and looked closely. “Is this right?”
“Hey!” he said, face reddening. “Get your own damn racing form!”
“Is this right?” I said again, tapping the form. “Is there a horse running today called Blueboy?”
“Blueboy, yeah, but Christ, he’s a fifty-to-one longshot. Waste of money. Now, can I have my form back? The next stop’s the track, and I— ”
I handed him the form, no longer listening, and checked my wallet. One crumpled twenty—my “allowance” for the week.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
I was two hours late for work, but at fifty-to-one Blueboy had put a thousand dollars in my pocket. Leaving the track, I had wondered what to do with the money.
I could maybe pay somebody to cut the tattoo off . . . or maybe I could just give the money to Lisa on Friday, make her forget to call Vinnie. But then I’d have to explain where it came from, and Lisa doesn’t allow gambling . . .
I felt a cold fluttering in my guts. And my balls. I really needed to figure this out.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
10 23 14 17 53 6
I stared at the digits on the back of my arm.
I’d hustled into the bathroom right after waking, curious to see what form my tattoo would take today, hoping, somehow, for another track tip. This, though . . . unless there was a horse out there with a very weird name, today’s tat had nothing to do with the track.
That grouping looks familiar, though. I’ll have to check the paper or something to make sure, but I think . . .
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“And the PowerBall number: six!”
I sat frozen as the blonde on the screen slid the little ball marked with a 6 into place next to the others. They flashed the completed PowerBall number across the bottom of the screen.
A number matching the one hidden by my sleeve.
And on the ticket in my wallet.
“What are you watching?”
“End of the news, dear.”
“I hate that whole lottery thing. Don’t you let me catch you buying a ticket. Oh, that reminds me. Tomorrow’s Friday—the end of the week. You come home from work with that thing still on your arm, I’ll have a new set of earrings.”
“Don’t you ‘yes dear’ me.”
She snapped off the television as she passed.
“Come to bed. Now.”
I stared at the dark screen for a moment.
Things are trying to go my way, I thought, outwardly calm. What am I going to do? If Lisa finds out—it doesn’t matter. She’s calling Vinnie tomorrow night, there’s no avoiding that. What am I going to do?
~ ~ * * ~ ~
What the hell is that?
I squinted into the mirror, but no matter what I did with my eyes, the tattoo’s reflection refused to change.
It was an eight.
A stylized figure eight, three inches high. There were a few dots inside each loop of the eight, as if the artist had started coloring the number in but been interrupted and not come back.
I ignored a knock on the door.
It predicts things, I thought. I just have to figure it out. I figured the others out.
But I hadn’t really figured anything out. The glasses and racing form had fallen right into my lap, and yesterday’s number had been all but labeled “Lottery.”
I stared at the eight. What now? Is something going to just fall into my lap to explain this one?
Another knock, hard and imperative.
“Come out of there! And bring my bag. Make sure my epi pen is in there, too. I’m meeting the girls for brunch at that new French place downtown, and sometimes it’s like those foreign idiots have never even heard of nut allergies.”
There was a pause.
“Then I think I’ll go invite Vinnie over for dinner tonight. That sound good to you?”
While she stood taunting me at the door, I worked swiftly. Opening her handbag, I slipped out her emergency epinephrine pen and shoved it deep into my pocket.
“The pen’s in there,” I said snapping the bag shut. “Be out in a sec.”
I rolled my sleeve down, covering what I now recognized as the tattoo of a peanut decorating my upper arm, and checked myself in the mirror.
My face was stretched into a now familiar smile, both wide and joyous.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. His story “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012.
Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
More about his work can be found at www.RobSmales.com, or you can look him up on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Robert.T.Smales.