The Color of a Rose
by Val Gryphin
The bell jingled as the biker pulled open the door and stepped up into the shop, squinting in the filtered light. He looked around at the walls covered in flash and photographs of tattoo conventions before he walked over to the work area where the gray-bearded tattooist sat. The old man rose from the chair and they clasped hands.
“This is gonna be a bad-ass tattoo James,” said the tattooist as he scrutinized the healed outline on the biker’s upper arm. The biker nodded as the old man walked off and began to pick out bottles of pigment, placing them by his ink tray. The biker watched for a moment, then lit a cigarette and walked slowly around the shop. It was small but immaculate, and the biker had noticed that even the little notepad by the phone never strayed far from its place. The furniture’s deep earth tones reflected back off the black tiling, and heavy black letters formed the only decoration on the windows — Black Magic — the only advertising the old man had used in over thirty-five years.
The biker stubbed out his cigarette, and watched the street for a minute longer before walking back over to where the tattooist worked. He settled down into the comfortable high-backed chair, tension evident only in his powerful hands and the quickness of his gray eyes. He stripped to the waist, revealing a slight six-pack and a deeply puckered scar across his breast.
The tattooist finished selecting his colors, sprayed a paper towel with alcohol and wiped down the healed outline on the biker’s right bicep. Nodding to himself, he picked up the tattoo gun and inserted an outlining needle. The gun started to hum like an angry bee as the needle shot up and down. Leaning forward, the tattooist began to do a quick touchup on the outline. The biker leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling as light waves of pain washed up his arm, the sensation soothing. Thin lines dotted with blood rose from the quickly reddening flesh.
There were always bikes parked in front of their house when James was growing up. He had been slapped for touching a bike before, so he satisfied himself with staring at whichever bike held his fancy at the time, sometimes sitting on the ground beside them for hours after being kicked out to “go play”. For a while the object of his attention was a dark purple bike with gorilla bars and lots of glimmering chrome. Finally, one afternoon he couldn’t stand it any longer and climbed up on the seat. The leather was hot on his legs, and he had to reach up, bracing his feet on the pipes, to grasp the handlebars. He only meant to sit there for a minute, and get down before he got caught, but suddenly big hands grabbed him from behind.
“Son, that is a good way to get your ass kicked.” He was spun around by the towering owner of the bike.
The man regarded him for a minute. “You like that bike?”
“Want a ride?”
James nodded again, eyes and mouth wide open. The big man chuckled and easily swung him onto the passenger seat, then clapped a helmet onto James’s small head. As they roared onto the street James held on tight, the vibrations rattling his teeth. The houses flew by and the cars on the road became a blur. James tasted metal in his mouth and tried to sit up as straight as the man in front of him.
Then the ride was over and the big man lifted him off. “Later son.” He roared off. James watched, but didn’t see the purple bike at his house again.
The tattooist finished with the touchups, removed the outliner, and inserted the filler needle with its fourteen tiny points. After he wiped down the tattoo again he grunted, then began to fill in the black robe of a kneeling woman. She stared at the ground, her long gray hair whipped around her by a wild storm, and an empty eyed skull rose above the collar of the robe.
Later, James asked his mother if the big man was his father.
“No fucking way.” She slammed the bowl of mac and cheese in front of him. “But he’s a hell of a lot more of a man than your asshole of a father could have ever hoped to be. The day I met that fucker was the worst fucking day of my life.”
He never asked about his father again.
The skeletal figure was kneeling by the side of an open grave, the yawning mouth wide, a handful of white lilies held in her bony hand. Blood flowed as the needle etched, staining the innocence of the flowers. Nestled at the base of the lilies was a rose; a bud not yet bloomed.
James had met Margaret when she was barely sixteen. He was a month away from twenty-five and fresh out of jail on a misdemeanor charge he had pled down to. When she was three months pregnant they finally went to tell her parents together. Neither parent would let them inside, so they stood on the front porch as Margaret stammered the news.
“You fucking whore!” her mother flew into the house.
“God-damn asshole! Fucking child molester!” Her father screamed inches from James’s face. “If I had a gun I’d blow your fucking head off!” Margaret pressed her fist into her mouth and stepped back against James. Clothes started raining down around them, flung from a second floor window.
“You little cunt! I never want to see you again! Get your shit and get out of here!” her mother shrieked. Stuffed animals and a jewelry box flew out of the window, and the front door slammed behind her father as he stormed inside. Margaret was weeping, and James clenched his jaw as he gathered her clothes into a bundle. With a moan Margaret picked up a china doll with a shattered head, then clutched a stuffed green bear to her chest.
They were married that night, and when their daughter Angie was born, Margaret put the green bear in her crib. James gave up his partying nights for the navy-striped uniform of an armed security guard at a glitzy gated community uptown and during the day he watched their daughter while his wife worked at the diner down the road. Their trailer on the edge of town was small, and there were always toys out front, but he never dreaded going home at the end of each long shift.
The tattooist finished the green on the flowers’ stems and paused to study his progress. Then he took out his brown pigment and began to map out the grain of a highly polished wood making up the cross that stood at the head of the grave. Except, upon closer inspection it was not a cross at all, but a bluntly shaped dagger, sunk deeply into the ground. It towered above the skeleton, the handle reaching for the sky. He paused to clean the needle. “You want to take a break man?”
The biker shifted in his chair and shook his head. “Not yet.” The tattooist nodded and returned to work.
Two trees began to solidify on either side of the blade. In their dark gray bark it was almost possible to see faces in torment. Gnarled, twisted and scarred, the branches reached for the sky, like the arms of the cursed, pleading with their Gods to save them. God wouldn’t save them. He never did.
The neighbor girl hoisted Angie onto her hip and gave James and Margaret a grin. “I’ll try not to feed her too much ice cream before bed.”
Margaret grinned back. “You’re the one whose gonna have to put her to bed, not me!”
The girl laughed and Margaret was on the back of the bike before James could even throw a leg over. They waved to their daughter, and then they were heading out of town, up the hills to one of the bluffs overlooking the valley. She was off the bike before he cut the engine, inspecting their hidden campsite.
“The wood we piled is still dry.”
He put down the kickstand and pulled a blanket from the saddlebag. “Are you hungry? I can get some chili warming up.”
She grabbed the blanket, threw it over her shoulders and wrapped her arms around him. “That’s not what I’m hungry for.” She pulled him down to the ground and he growled under his breath. No matter how tired he was, he always hungered for her.
The tattooist finished with the trees and stretched. Both men rose and silently walked out onto the porch, the bell tinkling behind them. Lighting up, they watched the traffic passing by, the hot summer air laying heavily on them, making even the cars seem sluggish. The tattooist stubbed out his cigarette and stretched before going inside. After a moment the biker followed.
As he settled down in the chair, he winced as the tattooist wiped his arm again, the alcohol ice-cold against his fevered skin. Again the needle did its work; gray storm clouds in a tormented sky, fingered and whirling, dancing in despair, voices in the wind screaming with pain. Now a deep, sullen red flowed from the needles. It stained the ground as it spilled from where the knife had pierced, and spread in a widening arc beneath the kneeling figure.
The night before Angie was to turn three, James came home from work to find deep tire treads in the driveway, like someone had been spinning wheelies. He cut the power to the bike, and resting his hand on the butt of his gun entered the house.
The house was quiet, and nothing seemed out of place. He walked down the hall holding his Maglite in his left hand, still keeping the right on the gun. Quietly he pushed open the bedroom door and turned on the flashlight.
Blood. Blood. Rivulets of blood. Everywhere. Margaret lay crumpled on the floor by the bed, her nightgown ripped, skin gashed and bloody, her eyes glazed and staring.
“Angie!” He spun to run to his daughter’s room, then froze as he saw the small bundle by the closet door. He brushed her wispy hair away from her crushed forehead, the green bear under her head soaked with blood. Blindly he removed his jacket and wrapped up her tiny cooling body before carrying her over to his wife. When the police arrived it took two officers to pry open his fingers so they could remove the bodies. James let out a guttural moan as the paramedics closed the ambulance doors, and the sergeant standing with him fought back tears.
“So what’s it going to be man? Red or black?” With a start the biker looked at the tattooist. Originally he had wanted the grave to be red, red as souls burning in hell. The tattooist had said black, black belonged to the picture better.
“Black.” The old man was right. The grave darkened slowly, then totally.
No witnesses, no DNA matches. There were no leads, no jailhouse informants. He buried them the next week, the child in her mother’s arms, the red satin lining of the coffin in which they lay bright against the paleness of their faces. It rained, and after the dirt was replaced and everyone was gone he stood on their grave and screamed.
The tattooist sat back with a sigh and admired his work. “Well, what do you think?” The biker hesitated.
A banner, hung with the ends curled under, formed below the picture. Inside, in elaborate black lettering, ‘Aeternâlis.’ The tattooist nodded as he finished. As the tattooist spread clear protective gel over the tattoo, the bell over the door tinkled and the sounds of traffic briefly slipped in.
“Hey man, now that is some ink!” A young man swaggered over, thick gold chains around his neck.
“Have a set, I’ll be with you in a minute.” The tattooist kept his eyes on the bandage he was applying. One last piece of tape and he was satisfied.
As the biker rose from the chair and pulled on his shirt the young man looked him over closely. “Say, what does ‘at-er-nales’ mean anyway?”
The biker looked at him, expressionless —
and shrugged “Nothing. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
And he turned and walked out the door.
Val Gryphin lives in the in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes and works on her plans for world domination. She grew up in Louisiana and still is fond of the South. Her publishing credits include Tattoo Highway, Dark Horizons, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer.