Bevan arched her back and stared over her shoulder, trying to determine if the patch of skin on her hip was vacant property or a hibiscus leaf that had never been filled in. When her vision blurred, she sighed and walked down the hall to the bathroom, the skin in question vibrating like hummingbird wings.
The cheap fluorescents buzzed and groaned. The old bulbs illuminated Bevan’s skin the wrong way, dulling the vibrant fuchsia, indigo, and lime she wore proudly like war paint. However, the hazy yellow light did the trick. Bevan’s suspicions were confirmed. She’d run out of real estate.
“Dammit,” she breathed. Bevan’s hands had begun to twitch earlier in the week, the way they always did when her thoughts turned to color and needles. At the time, she’d resorted to walking to the small grocery two blocks away and submerging her hands in bulk tubs of rice to dull the buzz in her fingertips.
Bevan considered putting on her sneakers, but instead, she picked up her cell phone. “Come over,” she whispered when he answered.
* * *
Tyce had once asked how many tattoos Bevan had, over Circle K breakfast burritos and Tropicana orange juice. Bevan didn’t cook.
“I lost count after fifty,” she said. “The number didn’t really matter after that—just the feeling.”
Tyce traced his fingers over a purple butterfly on her bicep. It had fangs. “Each one is a story, right?”
“I don’t know if ‘story’ is the right word.” Bevan looked thoughtful as she chewed. “It’s more like a craving.”
“It was that way for all of them?”
“You crave needles and pain and color?”
“They’re very necessary.”
“You’re a strange girl,” he said.
“What was the first one like?”
* * *
She’d been drunk, or as drunk as college freshmen could be on raspberry Boone’s Farm. When they staggered into the tattoo parlor, Bevan was sure she and her group of friends would be turned away, but before she knew it, she was sitting in a leather chair talking about unicorns to a guy with a pierced lip and a cross on his forehead.
When the needle kissed the skin of her ribcage, Bevan held her breath. It hurt like hell. She bit her lip, closed her eyes, and sunk into the pain. Her friends whispered encouraging words and held on to her fingers.
But then the pain transformed into something as refreshing as a spring rain. Bevan’s skin burned and then cooled in a steady rhythm, reminding her of ocean waves crashing and retreating on a distant shore. She let go of her friends’ hands and pressed her fingertips into leather.
When the buzzing ceased, the rhythmic sensation Bevan had succumbed to was replaced by the sterile cold of an antiseptic wipe.
Bevan heard the tattoo artist say, “All done.”
But she knew she wasn’t.
* * *
“What’s wrong?” Tyce asked when she opened the door.
Bevan didn’t answer. She turned away, took a few steps, and sat down on the ripped red couch. Tyce closed the door and sat down beside her.
“What do you think of my face?” she asked.
Tyce frowned and then let out a low laugh. “What is this, a test?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “You’re gorgeous, Bevan.”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” Bevan said. “What do you think of my face… as a canvas?”
A shadow passed over Tyce’s features and his nostrils flared. “No.”
“No,” Tyce repeated. “I won’t let you break that promise to yourself.”
“My hands itch.”
“We’ll scratch them,” Tyce said.
“There’s no other way.”
Tyce held Bevan’s face between his palms and kissed her forehead. “We’ll find one.”
* * *
The second time, Bevan was nervous. She walked alone to the tattoo shop, thinking about shipwrecks and songs and the times she’d been forced underwater during preschool swimming lessons. The artist at the front desk recognized her. “You’re back.”
“I want something big,” Bevan said.
Bevan ran her palm across the skin of her breastbone.
“There’s a lot of bone there,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. It’ll probably take multiple sessions. And it won’t be cheap.” When she didn’t make a peep, he asked, “Are you sure?”
“Okay. What do you want?”
Bevan took a piece of paper out of her purse, unfolded it, and set it on the counter.
* * *
The night Tyce met Bevan, he couldn’t care less about charcoal sunsets or wooden boats precariously tied to docks—though he knew he should care. It wasn’t lack of appreciation; he was distracted. It seemed others in the gallery felt the same. Few were gazing at the artwork on the walls. Instead, their heads bobbed to the north side of the room where the tattooed girl stood, seemingly a piece of art precariously placed at the wrong show. She wore a white, men’s undershirt and black shorts, sharp contrasts to the color that swam across every inch of her uncovered skin—save her neck and face. Her brown hair was pulled into a messy bun on the top of her head, exposing the hard line where ink ended and pale skin began. Any time the girl moved, her spectators refocused their gazes on their glasses of champagne and made small talk, hoping they hadn’t been caught staring.
“Do you see anything you like?” the gallery curator asked Tyce.
“Perhaps.” He buttoned his suit jacket and moved across the room, sidestepping wait staff and snippets of curious conversation. When he reached the tattooed girl, he stood next to her and leisurely put his hands in his pockets.
The girl smiled and shook her head. Tyce waited, but she didn’t engage him. Instead, she walked to the next piece of artwork, a giant tsunami about to overtake a small beach town. There were fish and mermaids in the wave, who looked serene despite imminent disaster.
“I love water,” the girl said.
Tyce nodded. “My sister does too.”
The girl turned and frowned at Tyce.
“It’s her work,” he said.
“Ah.” A waiter offered the girl a glass of champagne. She took a sip. “You’re unexpected.”
Now it was Tyce’s turn to frown.
“I make bets about who’s going to approach me when I go out.”
“Am I costing or making you money?” Tyce asked.
The girl laughed. “Neither. I only make bets with myself, so I always win.” She took a sip of champagne. “I like this one,” she said, gesturing to the painting. “It’s both frightening and beautiful.”
Tyce stared at her profile. “Yes,” he agreed.
* * *
“And I’ve lost count,” Tyce said, hovering over Bevan’s kneecap. He’d started with her shoulders, counting the stars, the mythological sirens, the birds, the portraits, the logos, the symbols of both peace and war—and worked his way over her stomach, counting the mountains, the lilies, the skulls, the torpedoes—over her hips and down her legs, counting the ropes of barbed wire, the pinup models, the villains, the tree branches, searching for a number.
“I told you you wouldn’t make it,” Bevan teased.
“Perhaps I need to start again at the top,” Tyce said, climbing over her.
Bevan kissed him and dug her fingernails into his back, and for a moment, the weight of Tyce’s body canceled out her swirling brain, her twitchy palms. Sometimes, she didn’t need rice, only him.
Tyce pulled away from her, held himself up in a pushup position, and peered down. When Bevan breathed, the tail of the siren etched across her breastbone waved at him, gentle as a breeze. The sweat on Bevan’s chest made the silver scales glow and the rock upon which the siren sat look like crude oil. The creature was topless, but her breasts were sheathed with raven black hair. Netting that resembled moss hung over her shoulders, and human skulls floated in the water around her, totems and trophies. The skulls, too, bobbed with each breath Bevan took.
“Endless,” he said.
“What?” Bevan asked.
“It’s the number, your number.”
Bevan closed her eyes and smiled.
“Beautiful,” Tyce whispered into her neck, “and endless.”
* * *
“I need you to find it,” Bevan said through grit teeth.
“I will,” Tyce said, though he sounded less than convincing.
Bevan stood naked in her bedroom with Tyce on his knees in front of her, examining the intricate designs on her hips. Bettie Page in black lingerie grinned at him from one hip, surrounded by flames. Ropes of barbed wire intertwined and snaked around Bevan’s bellybutton and then journeyed to her other hip, where the cords wrapped around the Joker from the Batman cartoon series. Cherry blossoms floated from the barbed wire downward to Bevan’s pubic bone. The spaces in between were blanketed in multicolored stars, black hearts, tiny bird’s wings, and a rusty anchor—its chain running up Bevan’s side and over her shoulder to her scapula, where a ghost ship swayed each time Bevan lifted her arm.
Tyce sighed and Bevan glared down at him. “You’re no help,” she spat, pulling a long T-shirt over her head. She sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the wall.
Tyce got to his feet. “You could get your favorite pieces touched up.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I know it isn’t.” Tyce paused. “But you’ve run out of room.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Bevan, you need to stop.”
Bevan didn’t answer. Tyce stared at her back, her slight frame and sunken shoulders. He wanted to close the distance between them, wrap his arms around her and hold her, but he knew she wouldn’t let him. Not now.
“I’m going to order takeout from that Chinese place around the corner. What do you want?”
“I’m not hungry,” Bevan said. She rubbed her palms on the tops of her thighs until Tyce left the room.
* * *
She scratched her skin and watched it flake. Chapped from the cold, there were patches that looked ashy, neglected. Usually, Bevan would slather her body with lotion, wrap herself up in her sheets, and let the moisture soak in so that none of her fine lines, her quotes in script, her cartoon characters would fade. Now, Bevan watched her skin flake and wondered how far down the ink had set, how far down she could reach to pull up her past and make room for something new.
* * *
Bevan stood in front of the strip mall shop, the heat from the asphalt floating up to tickle her calves. Out of the corner of her eye, two teenagers stared at her through the glass of the pizzeria next door. Bevan was used to strangers staring. No one knew what to think of a woman clothed in color from her neck to her toes. Some turned away, offended. Some wondered why she did it. Others set their gazes on her, imagining the shapes beneath her clothing, shapes that had nothing to do with anatomy but rather, a different kind of fantasy.
Bevan scratched her thigh and pushed open the door. A bell tinkled overhead. The reception desk was empty, so Bevan waited by the door. A moment later, a man in a white doctor’s coat approached her, smiling. He removed a pair of dark glasses from the bridge of his nose and placed them on the crown of his head. “Welcome.”
Bevan glanced around at the stark white walls, then trained her eyes on the man in front of her. He looked like salvation.
“I need more room,” she said.
* * *
“What did they do to you?” Tyce asked. The unicorn on Bevan’s ribcage was sickly white, raised, and bleeding.
“Exactly what I asked them to,” Bevan said. “I have another treatment in about seven weeks.”
“Why did you do this?”
“I need more room,” Bevan said.
Bevan shrugged. “I’ll get something new. I’ll be able to sleep at night.”
“And then what?”
Bevan frowned at him. “It’s my body.”
“And they’re destroying it,” Tyce said. “You look like you’re broken.”
“Maybe I am. And maybe you should leave.”
* * *
Tyce dreamed of the tiger on Bevan’s thigh. It sighed and stretched, puffed hot air through its nostrils, and slinked down Bevan’s leg to sit at her ankle. The cat licked its paws and stared at Tyce with startling blue eyes—eyes that didn’t belong to a tiger. It growled softly and then moved again, heading back up Bevan’s leg, stepping on roses and names of lost loves written in fancy script as it passed. The tiger ascended the small of Bevan’s back, and Tyce could hear its old bones creak and sway. Tyce lost sight of the cat as it disappeared beneath Bevan’s armpit.
The next time Tyce saw the beast, it was huddled on Bevan’s chest, purring and alert, its muscles compact and contracted. With a growl, the cat raked a heavy paw across Bevan’s chest. It ripped through the siren on the rock, ripped through flesh, ripped through Tyce’s favorite part of Bevan to reveal a pulsing heart. Then the tiger turned, set its sights on Tyce, and pounced.
* * *
I shouldn’t have asked him to come, Bevan thought.
The lasers hummed. Tyce looked sick to his stomach.
“What are you thinking?” Bevan asked.
“Do you really want to know?”
“I guess not.” Bevan winced. Despite the topical anesthetic, little lightning bolts of pain poked and prodded her ribcage.
“Almost done,” the doctor said.
“How many more treatments?” Bevan asked.
“It’s hard to say,” the doctor said. “We’ll have to see how this heals up.”
Tyce put on his jacket and left the room.
* * *
“You have to stop, Bevan,” Tyce said. “Please.”
Bevan pressed her lips together and took a bottle of beer out of the fridge. “You don’t understand. You never understand, Tyce. I’m so sick of trying to explain this to you.” Bevan glared at him. “It’s just skin.”
“Bullshit,” Tyce said. “We both know this is about more than that. It’s deeper than that.”
Bevan licked her top lip and set the bottle of beer on the kitchen table, heat rising in her belly. “That’s right,” Bevan said, her voice rising. “This is about more than my skin. This is about me. Don’t you get it? This is who I am. I’m the amazing tattooed girl. I’m covered in stories and ink.”
“No, you’re a coward. You’re hiding.”
“Your tattoos. They aren’t you. All of that,” Tyce said, pointing at Bevan’s exposed arm, “is something someone else created so that you don’t have to face who you really are. So you don’t have to let anyone else in.”
Tyce ducked as the beer bottle zoomed toward his head.
“You don’t know a fucking thing about me,” Bevan seethed.
“Funny, I think I know more about you than you do.”
Bevan flinched when the door slammed behind him.
* * *
“I’m pretty sure I’ve told you all my secrets,” Bevan said, sipping her iced coffee. They were sitting at a café not long after they’d started dating.
“That’s a good thing,” Tyce replied, rolling his cup of coffee between his palms.
“Is it? Doesn’t that ruin the mystery?”
“I don’t want a mystery.”
“Hmm. It’s my favorite genre.” Bevan pushed her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose.
“I do have one question for you, something I don’t know,” Tyce said.
“Go for it.”
“Why haven’t you tattooed anything above your neck? Not that I want you to—just curious.”
Bevan smiled. “I want to be able to recognize myself.” She swirled her coffee around in its plastic cup. “My freckles remind me of my mom. She left early on, but I remember her freckles. I counted them when I was little. And my brown eyes are from my dad. I don’t want any color to compete with that.”
Tyce nodded. “I get that.”
“My face is my history. It’s where I’m from. It’s me.” Bevan paused. “The rest of my body… is another story.”
“A story I’d really like you to tell me,” Tyce said, raising an eyebrow.
Bevan laughed. “You would, huh?” She bit her straw, basking in the flirtation.
“Well, a few more dates and I just might spin you a tale.”
* * *
Bevan was tempted to pick at the scab on her ribcage. It itched something crazy, but she knew she’d increase the risk of scarring if she gave in and raked her fingernails across the remnants of her unicorn tattoo. Bevan spread her fingers wide and then balled them into fists. No, she’d come too far. She’d completed her final treatment. She’d have empty skin in just a week’s time.
Bevan popped some popcorn and turned on the TV. She watched a detective solve a homicide case and then a woman from Jersey lose on a trivia game show. She checked her email and took a shower. She hoped he would call. When he didn’t, she rubbed lotion into her skin. The itching never stopped and the grocery seemed much too far.
* * *
The skin where the unicorn had been was a little sallow, but Bevan didn’t care. It would be vibrant and full soon enough. And Tyce wasn’t around to judge.
Bevan stared at her side under the fluorescents, at her puzzle of a body that seemed to be missing a piece, and smiled. It was time to call Tony and make an appointment.
* * *
Bevan couldn’t feel the needle sizzling across her side. She kept glancing down to ensure that Tony was pressing hard enough, that the ink was flowing beneath her skin. Each time, she saw the tattoo taking shape. She saw the artist wipe errant color away with a cool rag. She heard the electric hum of the needle.
But she felt nothing.
“That’s the thing about tattoo removal,” Tony said to her when they’d finished. “Sometimes, it messes with your nerves and you lose some feeling. Bet it makes a second tattoo easier, huh?”
* * *
Bevan twisted her spine and gazed down at her new tattoo. A perfect Georgia peach sat on her ribs, ripe and ready to be plucked. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she gazed down a second time, she imagined Tyce’s hands on her sides, the heat of his touch warming her like the sun at midday.
The fluorescents popped and fizzled, the old bulbs finally giving out. In the sparse light, Bevan narrowed her eyes, but she could no longer see her own reflection.
Tiffany Michelle Brown is a native of Phoenix, Arizona, who ran away from the desert to live near sunny San Diego beaches. Her work has been published by Under the Gum Tree, Pen and Kink Publishing, Shooter Literary Magazine, and Electric Spec. When she isn’t writing, Tiffany can be found sipping whisky, practicing yoga, or reading graphic novels—sometimes all at once.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “No Vacancy”:
Author Tiffany Brown caught our attention with her opening sentence. From there it only gets better as she masterfully pulls us into her character’s story. It’s a story we can read again and pick out even more of its subtleties. And isn’t that what makes for good fiction?