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Barbara Lewis leaned in close, trying her best to not breathe. Luckily the buzz of her gun blocked out the sounds of her gasping for air. She always hated it when her clients didn’t believe in the ritual of bathing. She finished the last little bit of color, wiping away the beads of blood and extra ink. Leaning back, she shut the instrument off and took a deep breath.
“Okay, lemme get you cleaned up and you can have a look,” she said, deep voice booming in the small room. The burly, smelly man she’d just finished tattooing, grunted his acknowledgement. With the carefully swipe of an ointment-covered cotton ball, the death skull came into full, grinning view. “Okay, check it out.” She handed him a hand mirror, which he took, standing to look at the artwork he’d just received.
Ten minutes later, Barbara had put her inks away, and her gun into the sterilizer. The front door to the shop opened and her niece walked through. “Hey, babe,” the older woman called from over her shoulder. “Room seven needs your caring touch.”
“Okay.” Becca shed her jacket and began her work day.
“How are you, kiddo?” Barbara asked, busying herself with the business.
“Doing okay. Sorry I’m late, my meeting ran over,” Becca called from room seven. Broom in hand, she swept up the day’s mess, gathering the trash and bundling it.
Becca looked up, surprised to hear her aunt’s voice close by. The older woman- all six feet, two inches, two hundred pounds, and short, bleached buzzed hair- was leaning against the doorframe, watching her niece at work.
“How are those going?”
“Good.” Becca leaned on her broom, unable to meet her aunt’s eyes. “It’s been good for me, Barbie.”
“Then that’s all we can hope for, B.” The large woman walked over to Becca and took her in a monster hug. “I’m proud of you.”
“Do you guys know how crazy you are?” Braxton asked, meeting Carrie’s gaze in the rearview mirror. The petit brunette sat behind the wheel, grinning back at her.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You never wanted a tattoo.”
“Yeah, not until Carrie found out Becca works there.” Lydia, sitting in the passenger seat, grinned, laughing outright when Carrie smacked her.
“You didn’t have to come,” Carrie pouted. “Either of you.” Braxton and Lydia laughed, further embarrassing the driver.
The Tortured Souls tattoo parlor was a medium-sized square structure with a small parking lot. The brick was painted piss yellow with an ornately painted sign above the double glass doors.
Carrie pulled into a space toward the end of the building, next to the other five cars parked there. Including Becca’s van, which Lydia was quick to point out. Braxton rolled her eyes as she climbed out of Carrie’s piece of crap car. She was tired of hearing her roommate groan over her lust for their newest roommate. The only reason she’d gone along on this fool’s errand was because she was abducted, told that the three were going to have a nice lunch.
The lobby of the shop was spacious, a seating area in front of the large windows with a worn leather couch and loveseat. A square block table in front of them was covered in glossies sporting newest tattoo news and styles. A reception counter, with cash register, was just inside the door to the right, and beyond was an open space. The walls were covered with pictures of tattoo designs, and the various body parts they were put on.
A lone table stood in the center of the room covered in fat photo albums filled with more designs to choose from.
“Nice place,” Carrie complimented, looking around. Lydia joined her as they began to flip through the framed rows of design choices along one wall.
Though Braxton had to agree, she felt nervous to be there, much like she did inside a bar, both places she’d never spent any time. Her newly-formed artistic eye thought the artwork and designs before her were outstanding. She walked over to a wall plastered in full back pieces, marveling.
“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
Braxton turned, not entirely surprised to see Becca standing next to her, hands tucked into her back pockets as she took in the artwork before her. “Yeah. It is. I have a hard enough time doing this on paper, let alone skin.”
Becca smirked. “I don’t know. I’ve seen some of your work.” She glanced over at the blonde. “You’re pretty good.”
“Thank you.” Braxton felt shy at the compliment.
Sensing the blonde’s discomfort, Becca changed the subject. “You getting a tat today?”
“Oh, no,” Braxton laughed nervously. “I’m here for moral support for those two numbskulls, I guess.” She nodded toward Lydia and Carrie, who were excitedly talking about what they were going to get. Just then one of the tattoo artists joined them. Braxton glanced back to Becca. “Do you have one? A tattoo, I mean.”
Braxton turned to face the taller woman, curious. “What are they?”
Becca grinned down at her. “I can only show you one.” She turned, moving the strap of her tank top aside slightly to reveal a soaring eagle on her shoulder blade.
“Does it have meaning?” Braxton asked, moving closer to see it better. “It’s beautifully done.”
“Yep. My aunt’s one of the best in the biz. And, yes.” Becca put her shirt back in place, once again facing the blonde. “It does have meaning.”
Braxton was about to ask, as well as about the second tattoo, but the enthusiastic greeting from Carrie froze her tongue. She stepped back, watching as her three roommates discussed Carrie and Lydia’s choices. Uninterested, Braxton moved away, once again checking out the tattoos that the parlor proudly displayed that they’d done.
“See anything you like?” a deep, albeit female voice said from behind her. Braxton turned to see one of the largest, most intimidating women she’d ever seen. A broad smile curved her strongly-featured face. “Have you decided what you want yet?”
Braxton noticed that the bleached blonde had the exact same color of eyes as Becca, and wondered if maybe this was her aunt, whom she had said owned the place. “Oh, uh, I’m not getting one. Just here with some friends.”
“The friends that are climbing all over my niece?” Barbara said, glancing with amusement at an overwhelmed Becca.
“Yep. Those would be the ones.”
The large woman turned to the petit blonde. “They the roommates?”
“Two of them. I’m a third, and our fourth isn’t here. I’m Braxton.”
Barbara nodded, almost as though realizing something that she wasn’t sharing. “Becca’s Aunt Barbara. You can call me Barb or Barbie.” She extended a huge, calloused hand, which was taken. “Nice to meet you. You sure you don’t want one? Just one word of warning,” she said, holding a finger. “Tattoos are like chips: you can’t have just one.”
Braxton chuckled. “I’ve heard that.” She noticed the full sleeves on Barbie, plus a dragon that was wrapped around her neck, the tip of it’s fiery breath tickling the hollow of her throat.
“Looks like they’re ready to rock. If you change your mind, let B know. We’ll get you hooked up.” With those parting words, the large woman took Carrie and Lydia down a long hall, followed by the other artist who had been talking with them earlier, leaving Braxton and Becca.
“You okay out here?” Becca asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. If you need to go…”
“Gotta go get some equipment out of the sterilizer and to Barbie and Jill. You want something? Water? A coke?”
Braxton shook her head. “No. Thanks.”
“Alright. Well, if you want to join Carrie or Lydia, I think they’re in rooms three and five.”
“Thanks.” Left alone, Braxton walked over to the couch, plopping down with a heavy sigh. She was already bored, and she’d only been alone for five seconds. She tapped her thighs randomly, wishing she’d brought a book or even homework to keep her occupied. “This sucks,” she muttered, contemplating heading back to watch her friends get pricked repeatedly with a tiny, ink-filled needle. Deciding that wasn’t all that appealing, she stayed put.
The bell above the door chimed as a group of giggling teenagers walked in, feeling oh-so daring for venturing into a tattoo shop. They glanced at her briefly before heading toward the design displays. Their laughter got louder, making Braxton groan and roll her eyes.
“Peachy,” she muttered, irritable as she grabbed one of the magazines and absently flipped through it.
“I hate it when they’re obnoxious,” Becca murmured, sitting next to Braxton. “So annoying.”
“Definitely. Can’t believe I was their age just a few years ago.” She shuddered at the thought, which made Becca chuckle.
“Yeah, been a few more for me, but perish the thought that I was ever giggly.”
Braxton grinned, tossing the magazine aside. “Do you get them in here very much?” she asked, indicating the trio of teens with a nod of her head.
Becca nodded. “Sadly. Mommy and daddy give them a wad of money and tell them to go play. In they come.”
Becca grinned. “Yeah, poor baby indeed. You, anyway. You look like you’re bored out of your mind. Something tells me a trip to Tortured Souls was not on your agenda for Thursday afternoon.”
“And you’d be right. They tricked me. I should be at Appleby’s right now.”
Becca laughed outright. She met Braxton’s annoyed gaze. “I’m sorry. You just look like a petulant child right now.” Braxton stuck her tongue out at Becca just to see her smile.
“Hey, can we get some help here?” one of the teens said.
Becca growled quietly, then pushed to her feet. “Talk to you later.”
Braxton felt almost giddy as she watched Becca go. She’d enjoyed their quiet camaraderie since she’d been at the parlor. She had been pleasantly surprised by the taller woman’s sense of humor. Maybe hanging out at the tattoo shop wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Margot glanced into the rearview mirror once again then returned her full attention to the road. Her palms were sweaty and her head pounded. The miles flew by quickly, her speedometer kept at a nice, easy seventy-two miles per hour. Her dust-colored sedan blended with her fellow travelers, allowing her to be the wall flower on the road that she was in her life.
Sitting next to her on the bench seat was an overnight bag, filled with enough clothing to last her for three days before they’d need washing. If she decided to stay longer, she knew Braxton would allow her to use their facilities. She checked her rearview one more time before hitting her turn signal to take the next exit, which would take her to Braxton’s house.
“Are you guys sure?” Braxton asked, feeling monumentally guilty as she watched Lydia carry the last of her stuff into Carrie’s room. “Really, I can take the couch and give my mom my room-“
“No, no,” Lydia waved her off. “We like your mom. Besides, if giving her my bed for a few days means her cooking those orgasmic waffles again, then it’s more than worth it.”
Braxton rolled her eyes. “One track mind, I swear.” Resigned, she brought her stack of clean sheets into the downstairs bedroom, and quickly made up the bed. The red numbers of the bedside alarm clock told her that Margot would be arriving within the hour. She’d been shocked when she’d gotten the call earlier in the day. Her mother had told her she’d wanted to come visit, but Braxton figured it would be left to just that: want. She was even more surprised to hear that her father wouldn’t be accompanying her, though relieved beyond measure.
One more glance around the small bedroom told her that there wasn’t anything left in the room that would offend Margot Crowley’s tender sensibilities, or get her into trouble, so Braxton was satisfied. She switched off the overhead light and padded out into the living room.
“Hey everyone,” Jared said, coming in through the front door. “How’s the new tat?” he asked Carrie, who was sitting on the couch spreading a generous amount of lotion on the new body art.
“It’s great. Come check it out.” Carrie kept her shoulder bared long enough for him to see, then recovered herself.
“Very nice. I’m going to guess you’ve decided you’re a dyke this week to get a half-naked woman tattooed on your shoulder.” He tossed his jacket over the back of the couch, and flopped down on it, bouncing slightly. He grinned at Carrie’s glare. “What did Brax get?”
“You’d know what I got, or didn’t get if you were here long enough to find out,” Braxton said, wrapping her arms around Jared’s neck from behind.
Jared grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, well…” he turned his head enough to place a quick kiss on her cheek. “What did you get?”
“I didn’t.” She sat down beside him, resting her head against his shoulder. “And my mother’s on her way.”
“What? Why? Is everything okay?”
“I guess. She didn’t elaborate.”
“She misses you, Brax. Is that so hard to believe?” Carrie asked, closing the cap on her bottle of Curel.
“Yeah, Carrie, it is. Why now? I’ve been here for three years. When I got into the accident was the first time she’d even seen where I live. I don’t buy it.”
“Well, think about it. You got into an accident where you almost died. Regardless of your parents’ weird ass ways and beliefs, I think a scare like that, with someone’s kid, would scare anyone into changing. Well, except for maybe your dad. I don’t think there’s any hope for him.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Braxton said dryly. Their conversation was cut short by the knock on the front door. Braxton sighed, pushing to her feet. “Here goes nothing.”
Carrie and Jared exchanged a look.
Margot waited none too patiently for her knock to be answered. She put a smile on her face as the inner door was opened, then the screen door was pushed and held open for her to enter.
“Hi, Mom,” Braxton said, making sure Margot was fully in before allowing the screen door to slam.
“Hi, honey.” Margot dropped her bag and turned to her daughter, taking her in a tight embrace. Pulling back, she held Braxton by the upper arms, looking her over. “It’s so nice to see you looking so good, Braxton. You’re hair is so cute.” She smiled, touching a few soft strands.
“Oh, thanks.” Braxton felt a little embarrassed by the attention. “Is this all you’ve got?” She took her mother’s dropped bag in hand.
“Yep. That’s all.”
“Okay. Well, follow me. You’ll be staying in Lydia’s room, she’s going to, uh, share, with Carrie.”
“Oh, honey, I don’t want to put any of you kids out.”
“Don’t worry. They said they’re willing as long as you cook for them,” Braxton grinned, flicking on the light switch and setting the bag on the bed. “Do you need anything? Want anything? Hungry? Thirsty? Want a shower?”
Margot laughed at her daughter’s eagerness to please. She gave her another hug. “No, sweetie, all I need is to be able to spend some time with you.”
Laughter rang out in the kitchen as the roommates and Margot sat around the kitchen table, finishing the wonderful dinner the older woman had prepared for them all.
“Hey, who wants a drink?” Lydia asked, jumping up and grabbing a bottle off Jack Daniels from the pantry. She held it up in invitation. A round of “Fuck yeah!” met her. She grabbed an armload of glasses, Becca the only one refusing.
“Mom!” Braxton exclaimed, watching in horror as her mother accepted a filled glass.
“What?” Margot asked, shuttering after the sip she took. “I’m allowed to have a little fun, too, aren’t I?”
Braxton had never seen her mother drink a drop of alcohol her entire life. Especially after Fletcher’s heavy drinking for many years. Braxton barely sipped her own drink, uncomfortable with drinking with her pious mother. The teachings of her childhood came back to her, and she couldn’t help but feel this was actually a test from Margot.
Braxton sat on the front porch of the house, watching the beautiful colors of the sunset as they bled across the sky. She didn’t look to see who was joining her as the screen door slammed shut.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” said a soft voice. Braxton glanced over to see Becca looking down at her. “Mind if I join you?”
“Nope.” Braxton patted the cement step next to her. She waited until Becca was comfortable and settled before speaking again. “You don’t drink, do you?”
The taller woman shook her head. “Nope. Why do you ask?”
Braxton shrugged, sipping from her bottled water. “I’ve noticed that every time alcohol is brought out, you always decline. Or leave.”
“Very observant. I don’t drink anymore.”
“Long story. Your mom is nice.”
Braxton noticed the quick change in subject and decided to give her a reprieve. For now. “Yes, she is. I have to say, it disturbed the hell out of me to watch her with everyone tonight.”
“Let’s just say that the strongest thing I’ve ever seen her drink is wine f communion, and I’ve seen her drink that often enough,” Braxton explained dryly.
“Ah. Got’cha. You don’t drink much either, do you?”
Braxton shook her head. “Nope. I’m delightful enough without it.”
Becca laughed. “I’d agree.” They exchanged a glance which broke when the screen door was opened again. Seeing it was Margot Crowley, Becca got to her feet. She bid them both a good night, then disappeared inside the house.
“Hi, sweetie,” Margot said brightly. She was still feeling the wonderful buzz from the whiskey she’d had earlier. She’d had more fun in one night than she’d had in twenty years. “It’s going to be a beautiful night.”
“Yeah. I think so. Nice sunset, anyway.”
“I’ surprised you’re not capturing it on paper.”
Braxton chuckled. “Somehow I don’t think it would be quite the same in blacks, grays and whites of charcoal on paper, Mom.”
Margot also chuckled. “No, I suppose not.”
They were both quiet for a long moment, both absorbing the beauty around them, as well as the other’s presence. “Why did you drink tonight?” There was no recrimination in Braxton’s voice, just pure curiosity.
Margot didn’t answer for a moment, trying to pick her words carefully. “Braxton, I’m forty-two years old, though I look ten years that, and feel twice that.” She glanced over at her daughter, who had pulled her legs up against her chest, arms hugging them tight. “Do you understand?”
“I’ve been married more than half of my life,” Margot continued to explain. “Your father was the first man I was ever with. I lost my virginity to him, and I lost my life to him. All our married life has been about him and his needs, whether it was the bottle or the bible. Somewhere along the way I’ve forgotten who I am. I have no identity, other than Mrs. Fletcher Crowley. I have nothing that’s my own.” She gently brushed short, blonde strands from Braxton’s forehead. “Not even my only child. You’re your own woman now.”
Braxton met her mother’s gaze. She looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. Her hair was blonde, like her own, but thin and dull. Her eyes, though bright from her drink, were just as lifeless. Wrinkles lined her face long before their time, and Margot Crowley had no happiness in her face, nor the reed-thin body.
Something occurred to Braxton. “Are you going back home?” she asked gently.
“I don’t know, honey. All that I do know is if you get a call for me, I’m not here.” She looked intently into Braxton’s eyes. “Okay? I’m not here.”
“Okay, Mom. You’re not here.”
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