Ever wake up not knowing where you are? The character in this story does and the good folks at Fiction On The Web brought you the tale, originally published in November 2018.
by DL Shirey
I flinch awake. My shoulder blade sears, the afterburn from a dream. Everything but the pain evaporates, leaving half-remembered threads: a horse thief, face pressed in dirt, a boot on the back of his neck. My neck. Arm wrenched up an instant before feeling the red heat of metal; a branding iron hissing skin.
The dream is displaced by another unreality: I don’t know where I am. There’s a trail of ants on a bedside table converging on an ashtray and a half-sucked peppermint. Alongside it an empty Jäger bottle, a lighter and pack of smokes. The first inhale tells me this isn’t my brand. When I kick away the ratty blanket and curl my legs off the bed, the floor comes too quickly. The mattress and box spring have no frame beneath them. Between knees I see my nakedness, cement floor and a spent condom.
I stretch and my shoulder blazes again. In reflex I grab the spot and pain compounds when I touch the braille of welts. The jolt clears fog from my eyes but where I am has no associated recall: cardboard boxes stacked five-feet high, makeshift privacy for the bed. No windows, a double row of fluorescent lights hangs from the ceiling, half on. A sick bleach of color coats the flickering walls of a storeroom. It looks like my mouth tastes.
Something wet and sticky is on the mattress as I push to my feet. Behind the boxes is a card table and three folding chairs; beyond these are two doors, the open one is a toilet. Most of my clothes are strewn on the floor below the table; playing cards and shot glasses above. I remember being dealt to, downing shots for lost hands instead of playing for money.
The ringing in my ears turns into a buzz.
In a panic, I harvest clothes. Wallet and keys are still in my pants. I tug on boxers and jeans while standing, socks and boots with the help of a chair. My shirt is nowhere to be found. For now, just as well; the thought of screwing my arm down a long sleeve and tugging the flannel across my shoulder makes me wince. More than anything I have to pee.
The toilet is marginally less filthy than the sink. I flush with my foot, but contact is needed to turn the taps. Cold water, and no soap that I can see. I let the water run, waiting for hot. I can’t find a light switch, so I back out of the john and see one by the door. The knob has been decimated, nothing but a scar where the switch should have been.
The water’s still cold when I splash my face. A towel hangs from a ring on the wall but the grime is blacker than the unlit room. I let water drip from my face into the slow-draining basin. Bolted above the sink is a sheet of polished aluminum instead of a mirror, my shadowy reflection distorted by a gash in the metal. Still, I twist to inspect the pain in my shoulder.
Tattoo. The start of last night creeps back on me. The buzz grinding in my head isn’t a hangover, it is coming from outside the other door.
Straddling a straight-back chair is a deeply-tanned beast of a man who last night called himself Lennoc. He’s hunched forward, using the scarred chair-back for an armrest, biceps permanently flexed. Cheek on wrists, facing me. Eyes click open when I shut the door behind me.
“Wildcat,” Lennoc addresses me by my fresh tattoo.
The woman bent over him doesn’t look up, instead, speaks directly to the ink gun in her fist. “That he is,” says Kyah. Her I know.
Kyah slaps the bull on the backribs, the very spot she was inking, the signal for Lennoc to get up. If I recall correctly, he’s her bouncer, bodyguard and roommate if Kyah ever goes home. Her name is on the store window; open 24/7, the glass reads. Lennoc unfolds from the chair, a reverse-pyramid of muscle, his slim hips clad in board-shorts. He uses Kyah’s shoulder for support as he slides each foot into a flip-flop.
The soles of his feet snap as he approaches. His bare torso is a patchwork of inked camo colors; large, uneven rectangles of olive greens, browns and grays. The swatches form a collar at his throat. As he lumbers towards me, the muscles in my neck tighten; a sting reminds me of the wildcat tattoo.
“Coffee?” he asks.
I nod in response.
There’s a rack on the wall beside me, a dozen hooks holding a dangle of mugs. Lennoc plucks one and hands it to me, a picture of Crater Lake on the side. He points at a pot on a table against the far wall. When he turns his back I see that each camo patch is an intricate web of design, tattooed in uniform color, but each with a different style and theme.
I cross the room. Nonchalance is my mask; like it’s every day I party with a tattooist and wake up in a storeroom. Out of the corner of my eye, Kyah scrapes the straight-back chair to its place in the well of a steel office desk, the desktop a litter of tools, rags and wads of paper stencils. She sits in a leather barber chair beside the desk.
I remember the barber chair, curling onto one hip while Kyah applied the wildcat. I gripped the neck of a Jack Daniels bottle, hoping it wouldn’t break. Not uttering a sound. Then cash was transacted, drinking continued, a poker game, fuzz until this morning.
Crater Lake fills to the brim and I return the glass pot to its hotplate. My shaking hand tries to keep the coffee from slopping over the sides, so I rush to gulp a mouthful. My tongue will spend the day regretting that I didn’t test the temperature.
“Ready to even the score,” Kyah says. She is not posing a question, it’s a statement of her preparedness. She hitches one knee over the arm of the barber chair.
Her shorts had once been blue jeans, hip-huggers, the legs torn off to what now could be described as a denim thong. The only other thing she has on is a faded-pink bikini top. No flip-flops for Kyah, the bottom of that dangling foot has grime blacker than her skin.
“Come again?” I respond.
“Darling, we been through all that. Time to quo that quid pro. Remember our deal.” Her flattop Afro tick-tocks back and forth with those last three words.
I recall no deal. Kyah crooks a finger for me to walk closer. Nonchalantly I do, setting the mug on the cluttered steel desk.
Kyah has but one tattoo, a long one. It starts under her hairline, traveling down one cheek and around the back of her neck; parallel ribbons and crossties like model railroad tracks. The color is subtle, only a shade lighter than her skin. It glows like spot varnish. The rails emerge on her opposite shoulder, junction, one line spiraling down her arm and the other to a network of interconnected, transcontinental track, circumnavigating every visible plain, hilltop and valley.
“Last night you did me, this morning you do me,” Kyah says, “Fill ‘er up, son.”
“This one’s mine.” Lennoc pokes a thick finger where the tracks emerge from one bikini cup.
Kyah spreads her legs, her hand pulls taut the skin of one thigh. I see a delicate difference in the color of the tat on this leg; only half the railroad ties are inked, the others merely outlined.
Kyah says, “Just like a coloring book, don’t go outside the lines.”
Reality jolts me before the caffeine does, as I realize what is expected of me. My eyes count the steps to the shop’s open front door, but Lennoc is behind me before I can turn. He jambs his fingers into my armpit and wraps his hand around my arm. I cannot control my panic or my feet. With his free hand, Lennoc yanks the straight back chair out from under the desk and throws me into the seat. Kyah picks up an ink gun from the desk and presents it to me. My arms don’t work.
The bile in the back of my throat is coffee-flavored. My words whine like a schoolboy’s, “But I’ve never done this before.”
“Not hard.” Lennoc grabs the gun from Kyah and puts the tip and inch from my forehead. As if by magic, the buzz ruptures the silence. “Pedal on the floor, just like a car. Now you try.”
He pulls the gun back, just enough room for me to drop my head. I see his flip-flop decelerate and the buzz grinds to a halt.
“You try,” Lennoc repeats.
I will my foot atop the pedal and the ink gun revs. I look up at my target, then to Kyah’s smile. Her teeth are white and crooked.
“Don’t think of it as skin,” she said, “Just ease into it till you feel the surface break, then move your hand where you want the color to go. You’ll be fine.”
Lennoc offers me the gun. When I don’t move, he slaps a big hand on my neck and forces my head down to my knees. I watch his foot mash over mine, activating the ink gun’s drone. A moment later I feel the sting, a fresh agony on my new tattoo.
“If you don’t ink, I’ll do some freehand on the wildcat, here,” Lennoc said above the buzz, “You think it’s tender on the edges now, just wait.”
“Okay, okay,” I shout at my lap. My foot is freed and the room rings with silence.
“Why me?” The dryness in my mouth barely let the words slip out. I raise my head.
“To mark the occasion, motherfucker,” says Lennoc, forcing the ink gun into my hand.
“Make your notch, gunslinger,” Kyah croons. She settles her denim thong further down on the chair and tips her flattop into the headrest. White teeth fold over her lip in anticipation.