I walked out of the tattoo shop. After I’d sat back in the chair, and my wrist had been cleaned off, and the man with the nose and tongue ring honed in on my breathing space, I sat up, pushed him aside and left without a second’s hesitation. I was scared, but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t my first tattoo, even though I was still seventeen.
I had other plans for next few: a pink dream catcher on my other thigh, a carnation on my ribcage, a sun on my hip bone. I didn’t plan your name to be the next thing marked on my body. Then again, I didn’t count on you dying this soon either. You always talked about it in the vaguest sense, that longing to leave this world because its weight was too heavy to bear on your own. But you always made the most serious things seem trivial. It was too hard to tell what wasn’t trivial until it was too late.
Today’s tattoo was going to join the heart on my wrist, your name in simple black script running through it, but something about that mark on my skin would make your death too personal, too real. And I had to get out of there before it happened. I hadn’t brought anyone to the shop with me, wanting to make this venture alone. I left my purse and all of its contents on the table, but I wasn’t too worried about it. I no longer needed a fake ID since the shop’s manager knew me and my phone wasn’t worth much, if anything. Everything in there was replaceable, as most things in life often are.
I decided to wander through town for a while, hoping to pass some time before it got dark out. It was still early, but the sun always set early in the winter, even towards the end of January. It wouldn’t have made a difference, because the sky was perpetually overcast, from rain or snow, on any given day. I didn’t know where to go after a while though. My mother worked a twelve-hour shift at the hospital tonight, and going to your house wasn’t an option anymore. Your father was too angry and your mother too upset, and your sister would look at me with those eyes – your eyes – and I’d feel too guilty to be hospitable, even towards your grandmother who would feed me until I couldn’t feel anything but my budging stomach. Your house is perched on the edge of the main road through town, so I passed it every single day. Today was no exception.
The kitchen and living room lights were visible from the street, which should have been unusual because no one ever used to be home. Aside from that, everything looked the same; paint chipping from the trimming, garage door that would barely shut, the ill-fitting blue mailbox that still had the family name painted on in red letters.
I hadn’t been inside since the day of the funeral, when I skipped the trip to the cemetery and came back here on my own. I looked from the outside every day when I walked by, and every day, it was some variation of the same few things: yelling, slamming, the angry revving of a car engine or your sister’s screams somehow drawing even more attention their way. I was about to walk away as I usually did when the front door open and shut. Before I had a chance to turn away, I saw a puffy pink jacket and curly black hair scurrying towards me.
“Madi!” she said, relief springing in her eyes at seeing me for the first time in weeks. “Madi, I missed you!” She reached to give me a hug, her arms cinching around my waist as she buried her face against me.
I draped an arm around her, not wanting to get too close. “Yeah, I missed you too Nikki.”
When she pulled away, she looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Why haven’t you come over? You used to all the time.”
“I’ve been busy,” I offer as an excuse, and I think even she sees through it. She says nothing about it, grabbing onto my hand. “Come in now.”
I looked down the street. “Nikki…I really need to go—.”
“I have something to show you,” she said.
I shrugged her off me. “I’m sure it can wait, can’t it?”
“You won’t know if you don’t come see,” she said, desperation leaking through her voice.
I turned back to her, letting out a long breath. I didn’t want to go in at all, because I couldn’t handle what was on the other side. But I could only be so selfish when I can see in her eyes how lonely she is right now. “Okay, fine.” I said. “Let’s just make it fast. I have somewhere to be.”
She took my hand again and led me up the driveway and onto the sidewalk, bounding up the porch and pushing in the front door. She took me past the bathroom, past her closed bedroom door, through the alcove that separated your room from hers, still littered with toys and unfinished art projects and bookshelves filled with novels and text books. The door to your room looked untouched, but a second glance revealed the sliver of door that was left ajar.
“Mom and dad think it’s locked. They told me to stay out after she went,” she said. “But it never did shut all the way. There’s a crack in the frame. Only Sky and I knew that, though.” With a forceful shove, the door sprang open, and she looked over her shoulder to make sure her father didn’t hear before leading me inside, tilting it back to where it was. “The light’s on in my room, in case they come by, so it’ll seem like we’re in there. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
She dropped my hand and walked over to your bed, settling into the covers, waiting for me to join her. I ambled around, knowing the groundwork of your room even in the near dark. Everything was as it had been before you died, down to the science text books lining your dresser and the clothes littering the hardwood floor. Everything was as you left it, except for the bed. It was apparent that Nikki had been in and out of here a lot, and I was surprised that she hadn’t been caught. It wasn’t the mess – which in your lifetime was perpetual – but rather, the music. She had your iPhone plugged into its dock, blaring music from the speakers. The volume was lower than normal, but not by much.
“I don’t keep it on all the time,” she said as I leaned in to get a closer look at the screen. “Just when I’m in here; just like she did.”
Nikki didn’t say anything for a while, which was fine, because I didn’t feel much like talking, let alone about you, with your presence so abundant and glaring.
“Tell me about your dad again, will you?” she asked after a while.
I wasn’t too shocked when she asked. You two had the worst habit of dredging up the details of my life when yours got too hard. But for some reason, you found comfort in the dots I’ve connected of my father, and I’m so far removed from his presence, that recounting what I do know didn’t bother me. I started with the same basic facts I knew, adding details to make the story longer and more interesting than it was, since I didn’t know too much about him. I always ended with the same line, even now.
“His first name is Nicholas and his last name is Liebman. He gave me my first name, because it sounded so pretty and American. My mom picked my last name, and she wanted it to command respect. It’s why I’m a Staff and not a Liebman.”
Again, we sat in silence, and its palpability was more noticeable now than ever. I looked to the crack in the blinds to see the orange and pink bands of sunset peeking through the overcast clouds.
“Madi, I’m scared.”
I looked back to Nikki. “Why are you scared?”
She shrugged, her eyes fixed on her thumbs battling for dominance. “I’m scared I’m gonna forget Sky.”
I reached over and patted her fidgety hands. “You won’t forget her. You never forget someone you love. Trust me. You just don’t.”
She looked at me now, her eyebrows cross. “You’re a liar.”
“What are you talking about?”
She turned away.
Her hardened eyes narrowed on me. “When we were little and you talked about your dad, you used to say a lot. About his horses and how he cooked and the places he went as a kid. But every time you tell it, you forget something else!”
“Nikki, come on,” I said. “You have to know that most of that story was lies anyways.”
Tears fell down her cheeks as her voice started to crumble. “I don’t want it to be that way with Sky. I don’t want to start losing parts of her. I don’t want to forget something every time I talk about her. She was all I had, and I’m scared that she’s just going to be a person in a story, just like your dad.”
“There’s a difference,” I said, although in her hysteria, I couldn’t tell if she heard me. “I never knew my dad because he took off. She’s been your sister your entire life.”
“So?” she spat. “Dying, moving… It’s still leaving. And once someone’s gone, what you have left goes too.”
You’d know how to help her, if you were here. You could be harsh and selfish at times, but you were a good sister, and a better friend. Maybe that was the problem – you and I were always a package deal, best friends or girlfriends. With you gone, I should be a good substitute. But I’m not you; not even close.
I left before she could say anything else, wanting nothing more than to get away from that house, that family, and the feeling of you that was there, even without your physical presence. As I walked down the hall, I tried not to notice the blank spaces where your pictures once were, something I neglected on the way in. I wasn’t paying attention and as I rounded the corner to the alcove, I ran into the hard chest of your father.
“Sorry,” I said, a reflex that we all observed when we made a noise in your house.
The tension in his body quelled as he ran a hand over his now wrinkled shirt. “It’s fine. Just be more careful next time.” He looked from me and back down the dark hall. “What were you doing in there?”
“Uh,” I said. “N—nothing. I was just with Nikki. She had something to show me.”
He gave a quick nod and his body got hard as he said, “Oh, well. Then I trust you’ll be going now. We’re busy here.”
I should have taken my cue and walked away. But something in the way he spoke, the even tone of his words, the business-like manner in which he was trying to file me out of his life-like he did to you made me mad. “Busy doing what, exactly? My mother said you haven’t been at the hospital in three weeks.”
He smirked. “I think that the nurses shouldn’t be concerned with my settling personal affairs.”
“Oh, so your daughter was just a personal affair?”
My response must have been predictable, since he didn’t even flinch after I said it. “Madison, I don’t think that’s any of your—.”
“It’s a personal affair that you tore your oldest daughter down, and didn’t get her help, even when she asked?”
“And now you’re putting her away like some file you’re bored with while your other daughter is hiding her grief from you like she’s afraid of you?”
“Madison,” he said, his voice harsh and strict like when he corrected you or Nikki. “First of all, I don’t care if you aren’t my child. You will not disrespect me in this house. And for another…” he stopped, taking in a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to understand. You aren’t a parent, and even though you’ve always thought yourself one, you aren’t an adult. So I’d like it if you didn’t try to tell me about how to parent my child.”
“Like you cared before,” I said, side stepping him and stalking back towards the kitchen.
“Like I don’t care?” His reply didn’t shock me, but the cracks in his words, and the fact that he didn’t conceal it, was surprising. I turned to see him already facing me, hands defeated at his sides, a dumbfounded look in his eyes. “What do you mean I don’t care?”
I held my mouth open for a few moments, because I’d been expecting a fight and not a dialogue. Feeling guilty, I looked down. “I mean, you don’t seem like you do. You never did. It’s why she—.”
“Stop,” he said. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” He stood in silence for a few moments wiping away tears before he spoke again. “I’m more than willing to admit I messed up. And fine, maybe it is my fault. But I’m not the only person that was in her life.”
His glare sharpened at me, and I had the feeling that if I was his kid mouthing off, I would’ve been slapped. But he shoved his hands into his pockets and kept his focus on me. “Like I said, you aren’t going to understand. But I do care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. Memories are potent, but only if they’re fed into. And it would hurt too much to egg this family on.” He took a few steps towards me, the serious demeanor taking hold once again. “Sky is gone and she’s not coming back. You all need to realize that. The sooner the better.”
As he walked away, I tried to fight off his words. I always knew that you were gone, and wasn’t childish enough to indulge in the idea of heaven or the afterlife. But at the end of the day, I still had a subconscious hope that you would be back any moment, or just in the restroom, ready to walk into my room and hold my hand. And while he was wrong about a lot of things, he wasn’t wrong about the potency of memories. Unlike him, though, I was more than willing to egg it on, because even though it was hard to process that you weren’t coming back, it’d be even harder to accept it as fact.
Without a second though, I ran out the door and down the driveway, going back the way I came. It wasn’t until I was a block away that I realized where I was going. I threw the door open and walked back into the tattoo shop. Aaron, the man behind the counter, didn’t seem surprised by me coming back, glancing back down to his magazine like he was expecting me any moment.
“So,” he said. “Are you gonna stop being a chicken shit now?”
Your father’s words still lingered on my ears, making my chest swell in pain. If I didn’t get back out of here, I knew I’d get them marked on me as if to punish myself somehow. Maybe this was my punishment. Wallowing in the pain of the thought of that knife emptying your body and your corpse dissolving in the dirt was worse than any scolding your father or sister gave me. For all of us – it was punishment for trying to let you slip away.
I said nothing as I settled back into the chair, as he disinfected my arm, filled the needle with ink. I bit my lips at the appropriate times and groaned when the needle pinched a little too hard. I didn’t need to watch; I knew what I’d asked him for. When he was finished, I paid him and gathered my things.
“You can take off the wrap in two or three hours,” he said. “Just give it time to heal.”
I nodded as I put my purse on my shoulder and walked out the door, back into the cold air. Once outside, I stopped and leaned against the fence I was in front of, taking a last stop to watch the sky as it started to change colors. Masses of gray and dingy white clouds covered each inch of visible space, so much so that the few bands of sun that had been visible earlier were concealed. Underneath each ripple of cloud though, a muted version of a bright color stood out; pink, gold, orange, standing alone like a single window pane, reflecting the light and grit floating around the atmosphere.
I ripped the gauze off my arm and saw your name in black ink surrounded by thick, red skin. Pulling my coat sleeve up, I rubbed the area that burned, holding my arm close to my heart, trying to savor the pain that took you away. Because now I knew, you really weren’t coming back.
Anna Keeler is a writer currently living in Winter Park, FL, where she attends Rollins College. Her past internships include Winter with the Writers Literary Festival, which hosts various authors at Rollins College annually. Her previous publications include Page 15 and Burrow Press. She is a poet and fiction writer.