When I wake I'm craving almonds and want to die. Pretzeled in the top sheet, fighting the light...hurts when I move, go easy...something died in my mouth, breath could bring down a plane, and the light...Jesus, that's...fuck, that's bright. Hot too...pores fuming booze...sheets wet, what the...oh God I must've...I mean, I haven't been that fucked up since...clothes on still, one shoe, nice touch...stomach in revolt, just thinking about it makes...aw Christ, I'm gonna...run for it, wait...that was close. Too close. Why do I do this? Now if only I could remem—Wait a...I catch my reflection in the mirror, one shoe on, halfway to the bathroom...I approach, stick out my neck and the new mark there...what the f...? Is that...? Aww man, what did I do? What the hell did I do?!
I stare at the tattoo.
Midway between my jaw and collarbone on the right side, the thing is black and comprised of three interlocking triangles, like a closed three-link chain. I touch it with my fing...ouch! Fuck! Fresh wound. Permanent. I feel around for my cell, still in the pocket there along with my wallet and my keys...Keys, God, how did I get home? Memory dial reaches through space. I stare at my neck.
"Yuh?" croaks Gil on the other end.
"Hey, question for you, uh...I appear to have gotten a tattoo last night..."
"Yeah, noticed that."
"Why did you let me do that?"
"I didn't let you do anything. You disappeared for like two hours."
I hear Gil groan a bit, losing his own war, "You remember going to the Foxfire?"
"Zelman and I were playing Golden Tee and drinking Long Islands. Things got a little heated, on account of the fact he cheats like a bitch. Guess I didn't see you leave."
"And I was gone for two hours?"
"Something like that," he glugs fluids for a while, the pulsing swallows coming loud through the earpiece, then a pronounced exhale, "Found you when we were driving back, just kind of stumbling around in the street a couple miles away. Your neck was bleeding."
"Does it hurt?"
"Yeah. Jesus, Gil, what is it?" I step closer to the mirror now, inspecting the mark. Someone put a lot of work into it.
"Dunno," Gil hawks and spits, "You don't remember anything?"
"No." Another almond urge prompts much needed moisture in my mouth. The craving confuses me. I hate almonds.
I'm late for work.
Three minutes after I get in, the girl in the next cubicle whose name I think starts with a "B" tries to talk to me about a dream she had last night. I ignore her, and she talks to my turned back. She is a futureless sap, readily content. This place is full of them. I don't belong here.
Gil comes by my desk and cackles when he sees me. His laugh devolves into a hacking cough and he spits in the little trashcan next to my desk. He grins and tells me I look like shit. Everything is funny to Gil. His mind stopped growing in high school. He played football, then. Now he's doughy and red and tweaks the nipples of other men in the halls. He'll work here forever. I wing a credit report at his head, and he shuffles off.
Twelve minutes later I am summoned to Employee Relations. I sit before the morbidly obese lady in charge of personal appearance issues. It is not without irony. Her rank perfume wafts over the desk and piques my nausea to a dangerous redline.
"We need you to know that this is not a limitation on freedom of expression..."
I eye the pink trashcan on the floor alongside the desk, certain I'll be using it to "express myself" if this meeting goes much longer.
"...you just have to cover it up. A sweater could do. Or some makeup, maybe."
"We appreciate that."
I get up to leave and then turn back, "Do you know anything about tattoos?"
The woman stares at me without expression. Then a small, sly smile curls up at the corners of her mouth, "Can you keep a secret?"
I nod, on guard. I don't trust such smiles from women who wear that much perfume. She slowly peels the right shoulder of her blouse away, exposing the area of her upper back, just above the blade. There's a tattoo there, a small red rose, its once proper petals now malformed by back fat. "I got it in college. I wanted a black one, but my friend convinced me that was Pagan."
I squeeze out a tight smile, "Was it, I mean...when you got it, was it hot?"
"Yeah, like...well, feel this." I approach, and she straightens in propriety. I hold my neck out in front of her. Finally, she touches it. She frowns with whatever tactile nuance she has registered. She pulls her hand away, uncertain.
"It's hot, right?"
"It is warm."
"Yours wasn't like that?"
"No, I don't...It was a long time ago." She goes back to her work.
I go home sick.
I sleep for fifteen hours, and when I wake I swear the tattoo has moved. Migrated a couple inches upward. Towards my head.
I pick up three cans of smoked almonds at the store, then go to buy a turtleneck before work, and something strange happens. A homeless guy approaches my car with a handmade cardboard sign. I've seen this man before. Many times. I consider him a lazy blight and today especially his parasitic bullshit is rubbing me wrong. I have real problems. Inside, I smolder. As I wave him off, he freezes, eyes locked on me through my driver side window. His eyes roll back into his head and he collapses there in the street. He begins to convulse, in the throes of seizure. My tattoo grows warm again as he thrashes.
Two nearby cars disgorge their commuters who, with a pedestrian bystander, descend upon the transient in a crush of knee-jerk Samaritanism. They hover over the man and look to each other in blank expectation, impotent do-gooders precluded from action by a combination of medical ignorance and the forcefield of stench they now encounter around the homeless guy.
I drive away, call in sick for work again, and find a dermatologist.
A receptionist with a tight ponytail and inflated lips says my insurance won't cover a cosmetic procedure. Her conciliatory tone is false and knowing. I envision her as an old, sagging woman crying in front of a mirror, and it gives me solace. When I get in with the actual doctor he says it will take eight to ten visits to remove the tattoo with his laser. I could scrape the goddamn thing off with a tongue depressor in less time. I don't have the money for eight visits.
"Does it feel hot to you?"
The doctor touches it with his finger, frowns, then touches my forehead with the back of his hand, "When did you get the tattoo?"
"Two days ago."
"Possible it's just part of the healing. The body has to work extra hard to repair the damage."
"Weird though, right?"
"I think it's moving."
His eyebrows arch, but his forehead stays curiously flat, defying physics; shoots his own Botox, this fuck. I elaborate, "I mean, I think it's in a different place now than it was when it started."
"Barring some sort of acute weight fluctuation, I don't see how that's possible."
"It's moving up towards my head."
He calls for the next patient.
I read online that it's against the law for anyone to tattoo you if you're under the influence of drugs or alcohol, never mind completely shithoused. I fall asleep feeling violated.
When I wake the thing has moved again. It now snakes up and onto my ear, making my right earlobe and the outermost ridge of my ear almost entirely black. Like a cancer. Spreading and dark and vaguely necrotic. I have to get this taken care of. I have no money. I need a plan.
I park my car in the employee lot as the morning drones stream in. I'm scrunched down in my seat, so no one can see me. Even from this vantage they make me sick. The longer I stay here, the more I risk being contaminated by their mediocrity. One day I will leave this all behind. For something important on a level they can't understand. I will know my destiny when I see it.
I see Gil arrive and head towards the building, I yell out the window to him. He sees my car and frowns and heads over. He stops short when he sees my face, "Dude, what is wrong with you?"
"I need you to show me exactly where you found me that night."
I drive, while Gil navigates to the intersection where he found me stumbling and drunk and newly marked three nights earlier. He stares at the side of my face, "It's going in your ear, dude."
"Right or left."
"Uh, your right ear, duh—"
"Do I make a right or left?" Gil is on the last fiber of my last nerve.
I turn at the street sign.
"The next block, right here."
I slow the car and pull to the curb. The intersection is typical of the region—payday advance, liquor, Chinese takeout. A bum rolls a shopping cart filled with crap. Gil is antsy, "Why are we here anyway?"
"If this is ground zero, then the tattoo parlor has to be within a couple mile radius."
"So if I can find the person who did it to me, I can get them to pay to get it off."
"Yeah, good luck with that—"
"It's illegal to tattoo someone who's that drunk. They took advantage."
It takes much of Gil's energy to suppress further skepticism. I drive around as we look for tattoo shops.
Nine blocks later we find one. The storefront is covered in bubbled graffiti and the glass in the front door is spidered from what looks to me like a bullet hole. Inside, the store is empty. Gil and I are greeted with the smell of wet cigarettes and burnt hair and the sound of tinny, unnerving speed metal squawking from small, blown speakers mounted to the ceiling. There is a floor-to-ceiling display of sample designs by the counter, to jog inspiration in less assured patrons. There are lots of skulls and crosses and butterflies. My tattoo is not among them.
Gil scrutinizes the sample art, "I've thought about getting one, you know? Something tribal." I call out to the empty store for employee assistance. Gil points to a series of vine-like renderings on the wall.
"Like one of these arm-bands, barbed-wire or whatever. Those are pretty sweet, right?" I stare at him with clinical detachment, recognizing his sudden affinity as an impulse born of exclusion. The need people have to conform and be a part of the world around them never ceases to disgust me.
An "artist" approaches from the back. He is rail-thin with big veins and copious tattoos, and he smells like pot. Inked upon the surface of his shaved head is a blue beanie with a white Star of David in the middle. He calls me "bro" a lot, and he says he thinks my ink is "tight" and wants to know who did it. This is not without irony. I look at this person and wonder if he has the higher reasoning faculties to understand how ridiculous he is.
I ask through gritted teeth if there are any other places in the vicinity that may have done the work. He tells me about another establishment five blocks away.
The girl at the second store is bouncy and riddled with piercings. Her hair is black and pink and worn in multiple pigtails, sprouting from her head at all angles like some white-trash Gorgon. As she bounds to the front to greet us, I have a fleeting vision of her in an MRI tube having all the metal sucked out of her face by the giant magnet. When she sees my ink the bounce dissipates, and she slows her approach. With a kind of shocked, unblinking expression she asks, in a smoker's voice, where I got it.
"That's the thing. I don't know."
"I got real hammered a few nights ago, and I don't remember anything."
She continues to stare at the mark, "I knew someone with something like that. I mean, it's different, his didn't go onto his ear like yours, but most of it..."
"It used to be on my neck," I explain. She seems not to know if I'm kidding.
"That's where his was," she says, proceeding with caution. "He did it himself. He was really proud of it."
"He did it himself," I echo, tasting progress. "So he works here."
"No, I mean..." Her rasp is tinged with sadness, "He used to." She pulls a framed photo off the wall. The picture shows this Gorgon girl and another man, with dreadlocks, heavy-lidded eyes, and a beard that is braided into thin, hairy stalactites on either side of his chin. He looks smelly, and his age is impossible to tell. "That's Anders," the girl says. The neck of Anders has my exact tattoo, at least how it looked before it started moving. I look up from the photo, determined, hopeful even.
"He was really into runes," the girl explains. "That's what the symbol is, I think. He said they had power."
"Where is he now?" I ask, my hands clenching and unclenching at my sides.
She averts her eyes, uncomfortable.
The girl rides shotgun with me and navigates to a new destination, while Gil sits in back gawking. He asks her about pain and fellatio and metal detectors. I am still processing the impossible bit of information the girl shared with me just moments earlier, as we drive through the bombed out neighborhood. Plastic bags blow across the street like tumbleweeds. Every other store is boarded up and covered with graffiti and half-conscious derelicts. Every block is the same—payday advance, liquor, Chinese—
"There," the girl points up ahead to a small collection of items sitting on the sidewalk outside a rusty fence that borders a condemned building. I pull up in front of the items. There are some candles, half-dead flowers, and a photo of Anders, all gathered into a sad, lazy tableau.
"That's the shrine," the girl says wistfully.
Anders was killed in a mugging two weeks prior, she has told me. Nine full days before I woke up with my tattoo. She says the area has gotten so bad you can't walk alone at night, but that Anders believed he was "protected." Guess he was wrong. "Of course, you could barely understand the guy," she says with a pitiful chuckle. "His English was pretty brutal." I see something amongst the items now that makes the sound of her die in my ears. I get out of the car and approach the shrine.
There are three unopened cans of smoked almonds.
The girl tells me Anders was addicted to almonds, that he ate them constantly. I think of my trashcan at home, overflowing with empty cans just like these.
The girl squats down and plucks the dead petals from the flowers, "Weirdest thing is, two different people have come into the store since he died and said they saw him."
"Saw your dead friend?" I frown.
"For real," she nods. "Said they saw him walking a few blocks from here." The girl smiles sadly at the notion, "Said he had his kit with him." I look up, vague dread slowly dawning.
"You know," she says, "His tools. For inking."
At home, I throw my remaining cans of almonds in the trash and go online to research runes. It takes six minutes to find an image of my tattoo. The site says it is called the "Valknut" or "knot of the slain":
"The Valknut symbolized the power of the god Odin to bind or unbind a man's mind, so that men became helpless in battle...The symbol has been found on stone carvings with funerary motifs, where it signified the afterlife."
My vision blurs, and I squint to read the text. I shiver and touch my face, which is covered in a thin film of chilled sweat. I feel light-headed, and for a fleeting moment I lose the feeling in my hands and forget where I am. I stand unsteadily and go to the mirror to confirm my own existence. It takes me a second to recognize myself, then I realize the tattoo has again moved. It is now half-disappeared into my ear.
I go back to the dermatologist. He is flummoxed by the now undeniable migration of my tattoo. I tell him I want to start laser removal procedures post haste. I want this thing gone. I'll borrow the money, steal it, I don't care. He wants to schedule me for the following day, but I want to do it NOW. He is wary of moving too quickly, "We don't know exactly what we're dealing with here—"
"I don't care, I want it off—"
"I'm not comfortable rushing—"
"It's going in my head!"
A waxen look comes over the doctor's face, his eyes roll back into his head, and he falls to the floor in the throes of seizure. My tattoo is burning when the fat-lipped receptionist rushes in and freaks out over the doctor and finally sticks a pen in his mouth to prevent him from swallowing his tongue. The pen snaps, and the doctor gurgles dark blue ink like a giant, grand mal baby. I slip out, unnoticed.
I go home and pace urgently and crave almonds. I dig through the trash like a junkie, remove the discarded cans of almonds, devour all of their contents in five minutes, then puke them up all over the kitchen floor. It is a violent and jarring eruption—the retching sounds are augmented by intermittent moans of powerlessness that seem to come from somewhere else—and in its wake, I half-collapse to the floor. As I sit weakened and hunched, amongst bile and acid and amusingly intact, undigested nuts, my mind and stomach are drained. I am empty. With moist eyes I consider the five-inch drool cord that hangs from my lower lip and hovers just over the cracked linoleum floor in a seeming defiance of gravity. There is something about this, some inspiration that jogs in the back of my mind...
Using the power of cautious oral suction I begin to withdraw the spit back up towards my mouth. I can reverse its course. I can reverse its course!
I sit upright now, infused with revelation, and I realize what I must do.
I fill the sink with cold water and ice cubes. On the stove I bring a pot of water to a boil and, into that water, I submerge the sharpest knife I can find. While the knife boils, I dunk my head into the sink, in and out, for several minutes until my face and ears are numb with cold. I take the sterilized knife from the boiling water and lock myself in the bathroom, in front of the mirror.
I wonder if the neighbors hear the screaming.
Gil comes by the apartment four days later. I haven't been to work or returned his calls. He rings the bell and gets no response. But he knows where I keep my spare key, and he decides to let himself in. He notices upon entering that the apartment is darker and dirtier than usual, and that it smells of body odor and fire. He calls out for me, but gets no response. He turns on a light and sees me sitting on the couch, facing away from him, in front of the TV, which is turned off. He calls out to me, but I do not move and I say nothing. As he approaches me from behind he sees that my hair is unkempt and unwashed and has started to coalesce into clumped, oily strands. He is afraid now, but uncertain as to why. He slowly comes around the couch, inadvertently kicking one of the many empty almond cans there. When he sees the right side of my head, his eyes grow wide and his mouth opens with a clucking sound.
My right ear is gone. Most of it, at least. There are remnants of jagged cartilage protruding from around the hole there like the risen edge of a lunar crater. The tattoo appears to be gone. Gil looks around and laughs half-heartedly, like someone is playing a joke on him.
"Uh, dude? Think maybe you need a doctor..." Gil waits for a response and gets none. He completes his walk around the front of the couch. When he sees me from the front, fear roots him to the spot.
The whites of my eyes are swirled black. Ink tendrils swim there like blood dropped in milk, forming in each eye the symbol of three interlocking triangles.
Gil drops the spare key, as his eyes roll back into his head. He collapses to the ground in a flip-flopping heap. But I don't know him anymore.
I rise and see my image in the mirror, but it is not me. In the reflection, the tattoo is back on my neck, and I have dreads and a beard with braids on either side of my chin. The man in the mirror looks familiar, but I can't place him. I wonder as to his identity with my last vestige of thought. He answers with my mouth now, but he speaks in a Germanic tongue that I can't possibly understand. Yet somehow, in that final moment, I understand completely.
I am vengeance, it says.
The young man who was no longer himself stepped over the body on the floor that he no longer recognized. He left the house and went into the world. Though he would never have conscious opportunity to realize it, he had come to fruition. He had done what he always told himself he would do. He had left his life behind.
He had found his destiny.