Inside Drops of Crimson

Magic Needles by Janet Sever

When Grace Gund walked into my shop the first time, I couldn’t believe it. We'd had a few classes together in high school, but I hadn’t seen her in the five years since we’d graduated. Of course, we never exactly traveled in the same circles. I'd hung out with the druggies and the drinkers and dated the biker chicks; she hung out with—well, she didn’t hang out with anybody.

“Hi,” she said, in that same breathy voice I remembered from the few times she'd spoken--only when called on--in history class. She stared at her shoes when she said it. Walked around the shop, checking out the artwork on the walls. Skipped over the military designs; most of our business is from gung-ho new recruits assigned to Fort Eustis and the Yorktown Naval Air Station. That wasn’t what she wanted.

Grace stopped in front of the display of flowers. Her fingers walked across several designs and came to rest on the petals of a replete scarlet rosebud, so detailed that it included a droplet of water on one of the petals. She was the only person in the shop; I couldn't help but watch her. A little more threadbare than she'd been in high school. Skinny. Insubstantial. Dirty blond hair, fine as a baby’s, sagged down her back. Was she still wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs? Duct tape cinched the top of her shoe to its sole. Her eyes, pale blue under stubby lashes with unkempt eyebrows. She was faded. . . neglected. I don’t know why I remembered her at all.

She continued her tour of the displays, fingers tracing one of the sets of wings. I’ve got four different pair, and she liked the ones that also happen to be my favorite.

“Pretty,” she whispered, not raising her head.

“We could do that if you want to. Not all today, of course. Those would take several days.”

“No, I want the butterfly,” she said, gesturing over to the east wall. She’d picked my most colorful piece—that butterfly is glorious, a meld of reds, blues, pinks, greens and a vibrant orange that I mix myself. I love doing that butterfly. It's not small, either, and it's a surprising choice for someone's first tattoo. Usually people start with something more modest, then work their way up to the bigger pieces.

“Good choice. Where do you want it?”

“Side of my leg, I think. Calf?”

After she signed the paperwork, she climbed up on the table. I cleaned her leg with alcohol and explained how everything would happen, how it would feel. I wondered if she was noticing my own art; I’d added a lot to it over the years and I wear a muscle shirt in the shop to show it off. Grace didn’t say a word.

“So what’ve you been up to since high school?” I try to keep conversation up while I work--helps distract customers. Some of them will stare at the needle, fascinated, as the tip of it sews in and out of their skin. Others, like Grace, lean their head back and try to ignore it, faces fixed, lips tight, willing it to be done quickly. Grace was so bony, I think it probably hurt quite a bit. But she didn't say anything, didn't even wince. Tough girl.


“Where do you work?” The outline of the butterfly was done, and I started to fill in the colors. First the blue, then the violet.


"What do you do there?"

"Clean up."

“Well, Grace, I gotta tell you. I almost fell over when you walked in today. If anyone had told me that Grace Gund would be walking through the doors of Tidewater Tats, I woulda called ‘em a liar.” I saved the orange for last; it’s my favorite color, and there’s something about that color that makes that butterfly come alive. The design has a little shadow around it, so it’s like a real butterfly landed on her leg and could fly off with the slightest movement, a breath of air. At the same time, you can’t quite tell where butterfly ends and skin begins.

We didn't talk after that until I finished; then I gave her the standard speech about keeping it clean until it healed. Gave her a complimentary tube of Neosporin. Told her to keep sunscreen on it to keep it from fading. She paid her seventy bucks and walked out without another word. She hadn’t looked me in the eye the whole time she was there.

I watched her get into a beat-to-shit Datsun fossil, then three Navy guys came in and demanded service. I forgot about Grace Gund before I’d even put her money in the register.

Grace surprised me again when she walked into the shop about three months later, especially because I barely recognized her. She acted the same, shy and afraid, and she was dressed in faded and crummy clothes, but she was changed. Her zits had cleared up and she had gorgeous skin--and I know skin. At first I thought she was wearing colored contacts, her eyes were so blue. Her hair was lighter, fuller. Her cheeks and lips were pink, and I could tell it wasn’t makeup. She was actually pretty, and I'd never seen a hint of that beauty in her before.

“Hey, Grace, how’s that butterfly working for you?”

A faint smile crossed her lips, coming and going so fast that if I’d blinked, I would have missed it. She still didn’t meet my eyes. “I love it.” I could barely hear her.

Again she wandered around the room, trying to choose her art. She stopped at the wings again, the same pair as before.

“I could probably do a lot of work on those today,” I said. “Been real slow.”

She shook her head, touched the wings again, and moved on. I waited; I was starting to figure her out a little bit.

Finally, she stopped at the animal section. “I want the tiger,” she said.

“You sure?” I asked, surprised. Usually big burly guys chose the tiger; I'd never known a woman to pick it out. I like that tiger though--he’s powerful and confident, and his yellow eyes stare at you like he’s daring you to fuck with him. I’ve thought about getting that tiger myself.

“Yeah.” She got up on the table and rolled up her shorts to expose her upper thigh.

“Sorry, but you’re going to have to take them off. They get in the way.”

Scared eyes focused on mine for the first time, and for a minute I thought she’d bolt out of the shop. But she surprised me again by slipping out of her shorts quickly, revealing plain cotton underwear that was dingy gray, threadbare, with a rip near the waistband.

“So how’d you get interested in tattoos?” I asked her as I outlined the imposing tiger. I felt her shrug. I said, “I got into ‘em because my dad had a bunch, and when I was a kid, I wanted to be like him.” I wanted to keep talking to distract her, because the tiger was bigger than the butterfly, and it was going to hurt. The last one of these I did, after I got the outline done, the guy left. Said he couldn’t stand the pain of the blocks of color to be filled in. Grace, it seemed, was tougher. “Got my first one when I was 14," I pointed to a small six-sided Dungeons and Dragons die in blue ink on my bicep. "That's the thing about tattoos; you have to live with them forever. The D&D phase passed, but the memory lingers," I laughed. "Still, it kind of goes with the one next to it, and I like that it represents something I was really into back then." The die is sort of nestled in the neck of a large green dragon with multi-colored scales and a long tail that wraps twice around my forearm and ends on my wrist.

“Nice,” she said, barely looking.

“So why the tiger?” I asked. She shrugged again.

Her tattoo took almost four hours, and although she winced several times, she was a trooper. I wish all my customers could sit that quietly for so long without fidgeting or bitching about how much it hurts.

“That’ll be $120,” I said.

“I thought it was $180?”

“Call it the Denbigh High alumni discount."

“Thanks,” she whispered, and quickly smiled. The first time I’d ever seen her really smile, and I felt a little tug. After she walked out, I didn’t forget her quite so quickly.

She came in again at the end of summer, only this time she didn’t come alone. She brought her boyfriend, a guy I knew from my druggie days. Back then Jake Burgess was only into consumption, mostly weed. I knew from seeing him lately cruising Yorktown beach that he’d expanded into sales and distribution. Word was that he could get you anything but specialized in crack. A guy to steer clear of.

“Hi, Tony!” Grace said as she walked into the room. She was so different that I wondered if she was coked up, but her eyes were clear and she was even prettier than she had been the last time she was in. Her hair was lightly curled and bounced as she walked. A short skirt and heeled shoes revealed long lean legs. A hint of makeup accentuated the blue of her eyes, and she smelled wonderful, like a flower garden after a rainstorm.

“Tony, you remember Jake Burgess don’t you?” We nodded cool hellos.

Together they went around and discussed the artwork, Grace practically chattering. I figured Jake was getting the work done this time, but it turned out to be Grace again. I saw her fingers stop at the wings, but I spared her the sales pitch. I didn’t want her getting the wings while Jake was here. She leaned up and boldly kissed Jake on the mouth; he bent over and whispered in her ear and she laughed, a melodious laugh.

“Tony, I believe I want the fish today. This fish right here.” She pointed to a large Japanese koi, mostly dark gold, but with a light wash of rainbow colors. He had large pink lips and was nestled in colorful seaweed. “And I want it right here,” she said, as she stepped out of her skirt and pointed to a round buttock accented by a miniscule pink thong.

I didn’t say a word as the needle zipped in and out of creamy skin.

“I want to take you snorkeling,” Jake said, holding her hand.

“Can’t swim,” Grace said. “I’m actually kind of afraid of the water.”

“I’ll teach you, baby,” he said. “Like I’ve taught you everything else.” She laughed and her ass jiggled ever so slightly; I had to stop for a minute so I wouldn’t mess up the work. I turned my head as Jake tongued her tonsils. I finished up the fish; it glistened and seemed ready to swim off her skin. No Denbigh High Alumni discount for the koi today.

I don’t know what it was that made me close the shop and go down to the beach later that week. Maybe it was jealousy, or maybe I wanted to see her again. I hadn’t been there long when they pulled up in Jake’s Shelby convertible; he went off to transact business while I watched in appreciation as she walked down to the water’s edge. She held her chin and walked so confidently, so unlike that girl I went to high school with, or that girl that walked into my shop that first day. I was glad that she’d hooked up with asshole Jake if he made her that happy.

I called out her name, but she didn’t hear me. I was surprised when she waded out into the water and dove in; Jake must have been a good teacher to get her over her fear that fast. She stayed under the water so long that I started to worry, but her head broke the surface as Jake swam out to her. They kissed and embraced, mostly naked bodies pressed tightly together.

I packed up my towel and went home and tried to forget about Grace Gund.

February can be a nasty month in coastal Virginia, and that year it was a doozy. We had rain and snow; the roads were bad and hardly anyone was out. I sat in my shop day after day and wished a sailor or a soldier would come in for some work. Mostly I read skin art mags, or drew new designs. I was glad when the bell jangled, but I was especially glad it was Grace.

She was still beautiful, but her eyes were red from crying. “Hey there, kid.”

“Hi.” She tried to smile, but it was the saddest thing I ever saw. She began her slow trek around the room, stopping in front of the wings, then moving on. Today was not the day for those.

I have a big collection of hearts. Hearts with names in them, hearts with arrows through them, broken hearts. She frowned at the display. “Do you have a repaired heart?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“My heart is broken…” she said. “I want one that’s fixed.”

I thought for a minute and brought a notebook from under the counter--new stuff that I’d been working on this winter. I showed her a three-inch wide heart with a jagged tear and dripping blood. The heart was sewn together with large, crude x-shaped stitches. I’d designed it with occasional visiting biker gangs in mind.

“That’s it! That’s what I want!”

“You’re sure?” Her other tattoos were truly beautiful; this one was bold, but crude, rough. "Give me some time; I can make you a custom--"

“No, that's the one I want.” Her eyes begged. I’ll do anything that makes her happy, I thought.

“So what happened?” I asked. I tried to be professional and not ogle the nipple on the breast I was tattooing, not to think about the warm handful, but it was difficult. Funny that I was so attracted to this girl when I had been practically repulsed by her when she came in the first time.

“He dumped me. I found out he was selling drugs, which was bad enough, and then I caught him in bed with some—some woman. He wanted me to fool around with both of them!”

“I’m so sorry. How long ago?”

“It was back in September. And I can’t get over it.” She wiped at her eyes.

At that moment, I wanted to take her in my arms, comfort her, hold her, make the pain go away and make the memory of Jake disappear forever. But I couldn’t. She needed to get over him, or I’d be the rebound guy. I’d wait until her broken heart healed, then maybe we could go out, take in a movie. I’d never hurt her like he had.

The work was good, and she let me admire that beautiful breast and its adornment for a second before she put her shirt back on.

“How much?” she asked.

“On the house.”

“Thanks, Tony.” She gently touched my cheek and smiled. I felt sad when the bell jangled as she left into the cold.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her after that.

I planned to call her, but I kept finding ways to talk myself out of it. Was the time right? Is she over Jake? Then I figured I’d waited too long and that she had probably found another guy. Timing was never my strong suit.

But then she came into the shop in May. She seemed happier, and was even more stunning than before.

“Hi, Tony,” she greeted me. “It’s been a while.”

“It sure has. You look great.” She’s too happy, I thought. She’s in love with someone.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been by. I’ve been busy; I got promoted at work, and I’ve been giving swimming lessons at the Y.”

“That’s okay. I’ve been thinking about you.”

“I’ve been thinking about you, too,” she said, and smiled. “Do you think we could go out sometime?”

“Yes. Definitely. For sure. How about tonight?”

“How bad will I hurt if I get these done?” She walked over to the wings that she’d admired so many times.

“Well, we can’t do those all in one day. That’s a several day job, and we can’t do it all at once. I’ll do the outline first then fill in. It doesn’t look like it, but there’s a lot of fill.” The wings were angel wings and they started on each side of the neck and spread out over the back and touched the top of the buttocks. There were hundreds of feathers, and each one was individually shaded and seemed three dimensional. From far away, it’s black and white, but up close, you can see all kinds of colors. I’d never actually inked them on skin before. “We're going to have to allow time to heal in between, too.”

“Let’s do it,” she said. “I’ll have to do it on weekends; I don’t have much free time because of my job. I don’t care how long it takes, though, I want those wings.” She skimmed off her t-shirt and bra and climbed up on the table. She grinned at me. “Make sure you don’t do so much that we can’t go out tonight, okay?”

The next few weeks were the happiest in my life. I inked her, and we hung out. The work took longer, because we talked and I wanted it to be perfect, so I went extra slow. Many times we gave up the needles entirely and made love in my apartment in the back. She became more beautiful as time went on, and as the angel wings spread in greater and greater detail across her back, she began to glow. When you have work done like that, it becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. And as you keep getting the needle, you go to this other mental place. If you’ve ever gotten tattooed, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Finally, after almost of month of dating and inking, I was almost done. I had something special planned for that last night. "I'm down to the last feather," I said. "God, this is gorgeous. Gonna have to take lots of pics; every one of the magazines is going to want you on the cover."

"Tony," she whispered. "Stop now."

"What?" I did stop. "All this work; I have to finish. It's like maybe ten more minutes."

"No. Don't finish." Her head was down and she was talking into the padding of the table. I could barely hear her. "I'm afraid."

"Afraid?" I put down the needle, went over to the head of the table, tilted her chin up to look at me. "What are you afraid of, sweetie? The worst is over."

"I'm changing. I can feel it changing me." A tear dripped down her cheek.

"We talked about that, honey. Tats do change you. They're permanent; they show the world an aspect of what you're like inside." I stroked her hair. "It's going to be okay."

"But I think it's more..." she whispered.

"Do you trust me?"


"Do you love me?"

She smiled through her tears. "Yes... Tony, you're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"Then let's finish this up, and let's start planning how to spend the rest of our lives together." I kissed her forehead.

"But Tony..." She stopped. "I love you, and I trust you, but I think we shouldn't finish this."

"What could happen?"

Grace was silent, and I took her silence for permission to continue. She didn't get up or try to stop me as I put the finishing touches on the last feather of her angel wings.

I put the ink away and cleaned up the workspace as she admired her back in the three-way mirror. It was my best work yet. So realistic; you knew exactly how those feathers would feel if you could only touch them. "They're perfect, Tony. I'm sorry I wasn't going to let you finish. A masterpiece, your masterpiece, on my back."

I had heard people described as "radiant" before, but until I saw her smile at me, standing in my studio, I'd had no idea what they'd meant. She had an inner fire. So special. What had happened to that shy, pathetic girl that had come in to my shop a little over a year ago? The homely frightened caterpillar had turned into a beautiful confident butterfly. My butterfly. Mine.

I smiled. “I have champagne. We should celebrate."

I went into the kitchen to retrieve the bottle and glasses. As I closed the fridge, I heard a loud whoosh from the studio, like a large bird. Walking back in, a pure white light blinded me.

Grace’s glow had become a piercing brightness, and the noise was her gold and white angel wings slowly opening and closing. Grace faced away from me, and I watched as my artwork came to life, as fantasy became reality. What was going on?

Slowly Grace turned to me. Tears filled her eyes, but she seemed happy at the same time. “I was afraid this might happen,” she said. “I love you Tony. I love you so much. I always will.”

What had I done? How had it happened? Her wings flexed again as the door to the shop opened by itself. I couldn’t do anything but stare as Grace flew skyward, became a light dot against the dark sky.

I miss her always. My angel.

About the Author

Janet Sever lives in Irving, Texas. In the few free moments between working at her paying job at an insurance company and taking care of her three dogs, she writes strange little stories like this one
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.