She looked relatively normal, he noted. Though, Alex had been doing this job long enough to know that his own preconceived notions surrounding appearance were typically dashed the moment they started telling their story if they chose to do so.
She was laying on her back, her shirt already off and her eyes closed, breathing deep.
“Hey there. I’m Alex. I’m the artist assigned to you as part of your witness protection process. Your record shows you only have one? The chain-link on your left breastbone?”
She only nodded, so he made a show of getting on with the preparation. He placed plastic bags on the spray bottles, removed all the sterile packaging within her line of sight should she choose to open her eyes at any point, and began to disinfect the work area.
In her file, she had detailed what she wanted the chain-link replaced with, but part of his process was confirmation and validation just in case.
“So, an exploding nebula, huh? Any specific size or colors you had in mind?” he inquired of her.
She took a moment, opened her eyes, and looked to him. “Just make sure the link is entirely covered. And make it large enough that it’s not directly over my heart anymore,” she said lightly. He noticed her gently rubbing the area over her heart with her right hand. She looked devastated.
Clearly, this was a highly symbolic tattoo.
“I don’t really care about the colors,” she continued. “But could you try to make sure it looks like an exploding star? And maybe show the sparks mingling and coming down together.” Another pause. Another breath.
“That’s what he always told me we were,” she spoke even softer this time. Alex felt himself draw in closer to hear the delicate details of her vulnerability.
“Our story was written in the stars, he’d tell me. He said he knew, he was SURE, that we were stardust from the same piece of exploding star.” She huffed out a breath, slightly distraught.
“The worst part?” she said while dropping her head back and staring at the uniformly white ceiling tiles. “I’m still not sure that he was wrong.”
Alex sat there, searching her face, incurably curious but not wanting to break such an unprotected moment. This was, very obviously, something he doubted she ever spoke of.
But that was the thing with tattoos, he knew. When a person has a moment or a feeling or a person in their life they want to remember, there’s an inclination to want to cement that need on their bodies. To brand themselves with a tangible representation of that instant in their timeline.
Even the most random or ridiculous tattoos held some heavy piece of a person that needed a sacred space to land.
“Sounds like a hell of a connection,” Alex spoke gently, echoing their soft exchange of words so far. Here was a woman that held her words tightly now. Each one deliberate and valuable.
She only looked at him, gifting him with a half-hearted smile framed by a pair of unreasonably emotive eyes.
The correlation dawned on him then. “Ah. Hence the chain-link. I get it, I think. That’s clever,” he said, mimicking her half-smile but offering her an encouraging expression.
Alex moved back to his station to prepare the ink. He thought for a moment of how to recreate this unmistakably symbolic tattoo for her. He had an idea to draw the open expanse of space above and over her shoulder, with the sparks intertwining over her heart. Covering up the small ink already there would be no problem with the dark blues and purples he was already considering. This new one could serve as a reminder but also disguise the current art resting above her heart.
He moved to the table and asked if she was ready to begin.
“It’ll likely take a few hours. I’ll have to go a little deeper on the areas already covered. If it gets too intense, let me know and we can take a break,” he instructed her. Again, she only nodded.
As the gun began its deliberate journey along her skin, he felt her sigh. Some people, he had come to recognize, feel a sharp sense of catharsis during the experience. The actual physical pain acting as an agent of release. Emotions trapped within the depths of a person’s psyche finally free to breach the surface of suddenly shallow waters.
He’s seen many people cry. Not with the pain of penetration, but with the agony of an abrupt eruption. Like magma finally reaching the surface to explode as lava. Unapologetically expressing the heat of too tightly held, constrained energy.
He felt for her then, as she cried her silent tears. Watched as her grief dripped down the apple of her cheeks, soaking into the locks of her auburn hair. She made no move to wipe them away, giving them the honor of her conscious liberation.
After a while, her melancholy became slightly less heavy, transmuting to an energy more akin to contemplation.
She started talking then. Like a stream of consciousness, words that didn’t entirely string together cohesively, but Alex could still make sense of the impressions behind them.
He began piecing together parts of her story. His story. Their story intertwined, like the chain-link now half obscured over her heart.
They met as randomly as two people could. Like the universe had been conspiring all the while to have them meet in some accidental middle. But it was more than that, she had said. It was like her life had suddenly fissured. There was a gaping crevice between the time before him, and then the time after.
“I didn’t even know how to measure moments, before. It was like suddenly I was aware. I was awake. I could calculate the sounds of our seconds. I could suddenly quantify the pulse of our sighs, the pleasing friction of our skin as it brushed together. We were all at once a whole equation uncalculated. My new purpose trying to find the answer in the topography of his face. The landscape of our love became our obsession. I experienced our connection like a currency. Of debts we enjoyed paying back in full.”
Her stream continued, flowing like a river, unhindered. Finally.
“Do you know anything about chemistry?” she asked at one point.
“I know enough to get by,” Alex had responded.
“We had a connection that I’ve never been able to understand, to rationalize. It was so chemical in nature. But that we’d have the same reactions within ourselves? How could it not be sacred? What if it really was because we were created from the same star?”
These questions appeared to Alex as her own internal interrogation, so he stayed silent and let her continue.
“Anyway, we lived on the high of our own equilibrium for longer than we should have. The basis of all chemical reactions is the breaking and the creation of bonds. We shaped our own solution the moment our eyes met. And fuck if it wasn’t absolute magic. But the moment her saw her, the moment he decided to use his energy to break our bond by including another, it was like he poured water into acid. Of course there was a violent reaction.”
A long-held silence this time. Alex felt his heart speed up. He knew the motive for her participation in witness protection was forthcoming.
“He killed her,” she whispered.
He saw her muscle memory activate, moving her right hand back to the place over her heart before she stopped herself.
The tattoo gun abruptly stopped its rhythmic vibrations. Alex leaned back in his seat and she sat up, looking down at her now covered up remnant of him. Of them.
“He killed her,” she repeated, her voice barely more than a stuttered breath.
“That’s what happens when you upset the equilibrium. He betrayed our chemistry. He added a contaminant. What did he think I would do?”
She was looking at him imploringly now. Her once sad eyes now full of uncertainty and confusion.
“It was you who turned him in,” Alex deduced, saying the words he imagined she couldn’t bring herself to say aloud.
“I did.” Another pause.
She laughed then, a haunted sound.
“I have to dye my hair. Wear contacts. Change my name, my clothes, my job. I have to relocate. Find new friends and forsake my family until they find him. But he’s so good. I doubt they ever will,” she said, obviously resigned to her fate. She starting to pick at the skin around her fingers. He noticed the scabs, then. Bloody and unhealed.
“The worst part,” she concluded, “is that I miss him every moment. The chasm between the time before him and after him? I find myself standing at the precipice. Wondering if I could somehow jump backwards in time just to feel that chemical rush of what was us. It comes in waves, the nostalgia. The homesickness of where my heart used to land. Even if we corroded, some days I feel like I could still find magic in the rust of our tempered metal.”
Alex felt the weight of her final sigh. It seemed less than it had been, though there was still a heaviness that spoke of unresolved attachments.
Later that night, as Alex sat alone at his kitchen table, his mind couldn’t stop wandering back to her. She was pleased with the end result, he could tell. She offered him a genuine smile when he pointed out the dancing sparks of a rust-colored red that landed just above her heart.
“It was real,” she had said. And he believed her.
Now, sitting by himself as he did most nights, he wondered if he’d ever sacrifice his comfortable solitude for something more explosive. Was there someone in his timeline with a shared cosmic link? There was a gnawing in his soul then. A lingering state of abstraction. How could he feel homesick for a person he didn’t know existed?
He went to sleep that night feeling like he was wandering the plains that would narrow to form his own rift in consciousness. Maybe her story was the universe manifesting the beginning of the knowing for him too?
He hoped so.