It feels like a cat scratching my wrist with a hot claw. I want to pull my arm away, jump out of the chair, and run out of the shop, but Adele, Sara, and Emily are watching me carefully, studying my expression. I try to be strong and bite down on my lip. I think of something else, like being in my bed, under soft covers, hugging my teddy bear. I can’t let them see me cry, because then, they’ll see my weakness and won’t include me.
This is my chance to fit in.
Fifteen minutes earlier.
I am standing outside the pharmacy with a bag filled with pain killers for my mom, who is bedridden with a migraine, again. I’m supposed to come right back, but then I run into The Girls.
“What’s in the bag, Rose,” Sara says, trying to swipe it from my hand. I hold it tightly in between my fingers. The bag contains my mom’s medicine, but also acne medicine, anti-stomach ache pills, and anti-depressants to “help me deal with things.”
“Nothing interesting,” I say.
Emily looks at her phone. “Look at this, Charlie posted he’s having a party tonight.”
Adele checks her phone. Sara does the same. A couple on a motorcycle park in the empty spot next to us. He’s young, maybe in his twenties, wearing a white T-shirt and aviator glasses. His muscular arms are covered with tattoos. She is younger, with long blond hair and a body to die for. Neither notice us standing there and why would they? We are just a bunch of kids taking up space. We can’t help but stare at them as they pause at the window of the New Rose Tattoo shop next to the pharmacy. I want to be the girl, to feel real because someone loves me. I want to be more than a different Rose, I want to be a new one.
“I think I want this one,” the blonde says, pointing to a flower design. “With our initials inside.”
“That’s hot,” he says, and kisses her on the mouth. “But I want us to get those soulmate ones, with the triangles.” He points at something in the display case.
“Okay,” she says, and runs her hand over his backside.
He opens the door for her and the bell jingles; the sound echoes in my belly, and makes it hurt more. I cringe.
A police car’s siren breaks us all from the moment and after it whizzes by, Adele says, “Let’s get tattoos.”
“We can’t. We’re not old enough,” Sara says.
“Not true.” She whips out a silver AmEx. “This makes us old enough.” After waving it around in Sara’s face, she puts the credit card back into her phone case, and then pulls at the twisty around Emily’s ponytail.
“Owweee,” Emily whines.
“Now you don’t look 12 anymore.”
“I’m almost 15, not 12,” she snaps. Then quietly she says, “I always wanted a tattoo.”
“My mom will kill me,” says Sara.
“Baby,” Adele says. “We’ll all get one, then none of us will get in trouble.”
“Okay,” Sara says. She is eager to please.
Adele looks at me. Pauses. I feel my skin start to itch. She is so beautiful, with her blue eyes and flaxen hair and stylish clothes. Not only should I have worn something other than ratty sweatpants and my dead brother’s baseball hat, but also I should have dabbed deodorant on my armpits. I smell like a skunk.
Stupid, stupid Rose.
Adele finally speaks. “If you get a tattoo first, we’ll let you hang with us. And then, maybe you can come to Charlie’s party.” At the mention of Charlie, my heart races and my cheeks burn. I’ve had a crush on Charlie since the third grade and Adele has caught me staring at him a dozen times.
I look away toward the tattoo shop. Life is short, Tristan’s death proved that. I nod.
“Let’s go,” Adele says, pushing me in front of her. I walk to the window. There are so many designs. But then I remember the motorcycle guy and see the sign. “Soulmate tattoos: Attract The One, Keep The One, 4 Ever.”
An idea forms in my head and I think about Charlie’s long eyelashes and the way his blond bangs fall across his forehead like a California surfer’s in those Abercrombie and Finch ads. I nod again and open the door. The Girls follow.
At the desk, the bearded, grungy-looking guy barely looks up.
“She wants a tattoo,” Adele says and slides her AmEx across the counter.
I roll my shoulder’s back, stand tall like Tristan taught me to do the time he snuck me onto the roller coaster with the height requirement.
The bearded guy raises an eyebrow. “Is a parent with you?”
Adele is about to protest when a girl comes out from the backroom and upon seeing me, smiles.
“Rose,” she says. “How’s my favorite sister doing?” She comes around the counter and gives me a hug. I tense up at first, but then smell her perfume. She smells like the beach on a hot summer’s day. My shoulders fall and I wrap my arms around her.
It’s Bev, Tristan’s dead girlfriend’s sister. During Tristan and Elle’s funeral, it was Bev who stood next to me and held my hand. It was Bev who held my hair back when I threw up in the bathroom, over and over. It was Bev who said “life will go on.”
I swallow tears. She knows how empty I feel, all the time.
“I want a tattoo, like the one she’s getting,” I say pointing to the blonde in the chair laughing.
Bev considers this. A flash of understanding. She whispers into the bearded one’s ear and he disappears into the back room.
“Come on,” Bev says.
Adele, Sara, and Emily are quiet as they follow me following Bev.
I sit in the chair and watch Bev as she opens a design book and shows me which tattoo she thinks will look good on me. The Girls have their opinions and snap at each other like crows fighting over a carcass. Adele likes the wyvern with its head of a dragon and tail of a serpent; Sara likes the harpy; and Emily likes the heart.
I choose the triangle one from the display case and once again look over at the motorcycle guy and his girlfriend. I decide to get it on my wrist, over the ulnar vein where I can feel my heartbeat. I ask Bev if my racing heart will make it hard to tattoo. She laughs, says no, and then shows me her wrist where she has tattooed Elle and the date she died. I don’t say anything but think I should tattoo Tristan’s name on my wrist with the same date. But Bev is already engaged to her soulmate, a British guy with a shaved head. He was at the funeral. I need this tattoo.
Tristan would understand.
The Girls are whispering and giggling as Bev brings the needle to the edge of my skin.
“You’re really going to do it,” Emily asks, placing her hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to,” she adds.
“Shut up,” Adele demands and elbows her. She takes a step back, crosses her arms.
“Which ones are you going to get?” I ask to break the tension. After a long pause, the unanswered question floats to the tin tiled ceiling.
Adele holds the design book tightly against her chest. I glance at her. She is not looking at the book. Sara and Emily aren’t either. They are looking at me, in the chair with my shirt rolled up and my wrist doused in alcohol, as white as a blank canvas.
Then I realize that it’s a set up and suddenly I don’t care. I want the tattoo more than I want them to like me because I know in my heart that it will work. I’ll find my soulmate and won’t need them anymore. The universe owes that much to me, now that I’m alone without my brother and without my father. I close my eyes and sit back on the chair. I relax my wrist.
“Ready?” Bev asks.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I say.
Bev brings the needle to my skin and I grit my teeth.
My left wrist burns as I sip from the plastic cup. Adele is irritated. I can tell by the way her eyebrows are wrinkled ever so slightly. The tattoo has made the rounds. Several of the cool kids have come up to me to see it. They all think it’s neat and I’ve gained something I hadn’t ever had before: interest in me, not the event. I don’t hear the whispers of “Is that his sister,” “Does she know about his boyfriend?” “Do you think IT runs in the family?” Instead, I am the girl who “got a cool tattoo that you have to see.”
I can tell Adele is uncomfortable with the kind of attention I am getting. I want to ask her what she thought would happen but I know the dialogue would be something along the lines of “I thought you’d look even dumber than you do, and I’d be the hero for making you do something stupid.”
“I’d never get a tattoo,” Adele states.
“Me neither,” Sara echoes. Emily stays silent. I pull my shirt sleeve over my wrist, but it’s not long enough and purple ink on the points of the triangles show. I let my arm hang by my side. My stomach twists and turns. I should have tripled the antacid meds, doubled the anti-anxiety ones.
“Tattoos are trashy,” Adele continues.
“Yeah,” Sara says. She glares at Emily.
“Hmm hmm,” Emily agrees.
Charlie joins us outside on the deck. He is eating a slice of pizza and listening. I admire the fisherman’s bracelet around his right wrist. It is red, white and blue, patriotic and thick. He wears a white T-shirt and faded jeans. He exudes cool. I tried really hard to look nice. I have on ripped jeans and a vintage long sleeve T-shirt with his favorite band. I am wearing a padded bra that gives my A cups some umpf. I even conditioned my wild hair so that the curls are soft, not frizzy as they fall down my back. His eyes meet mine, then they travel to the T-shirt and I see a slight grin form. My skin prickles. I take another sip from the plastic cup. The punch tastes wrong and I consider that it’s spiked, maybe with vodka, but I don’t know and I don’t care. I continue to pretend I like it even as it burns going down my throat. Charlie’s face becomes a bit fuzzy. I think it’s the setting sun and the poor deck lighting.
After a while of trash talking about so and so who wanted to come to the party and was told not to, someone calls for Adele. A boy. She turns around quickly and her arm knocks into mine. The cup falls, red punch spilling across her white sneakers.
“What the hell,” she snaps.
My cheeks turn crimson and I stutter, “I’m sorry, I didn’t–” My head spins and I feel bile in my throat. I am going to throw up.
Charlie grabs my wrist then, the one with the tattoo, and suddenly we are flying, off the deck, across the water, and toward the horizon. Up! Up! Up we go, into the twilight of the setting sun. Wonder sweeps over me, pours into the crevices of my broken soul mending the cracks together with magic glue.
I look down at our hands, fingers intertwined, skin upon skin, linked tightly like the individual parts of a chain-linked fence. Then I see it. The purple ink on his wrist. Three triangles overlapping, a mirror image of the tattoo on my wrist. Could it be?
Yes it could.
“I don’t know what’s happening!” Charlie says. His lips aren’t moving instead I feel his silky voice in my head.
“Either do I!” I reply, thinking it, and I see his eyes reflect understanding. We continue communicating through our thoughts.
“I just wanted to get you away from those witches.”
“Thank you.” I watch as the ripples on the water criss cross. How are we flying?
“Did they make you get the tattoo?”
I smile as he waits for my reply. “No. I wanted one.”
“This one in particular?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “How about you, did you want this one, too?”
He pauses. Closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “It was a dare.”
We continue to fly, like birds cruising over the water with their wings extended, letting the wind push us forward. The chaos inside of me settles down. I don’t care where we’re going, just that we’re going, together.
“I’m glad now.” His voice circles around my head, then finds its way into my warm heart.
For the first time since Tristan died I have a feeling that is not bad. It feels good and I don’t want it to end. I think of my brother, and what he must have been feeling, high on drugs, high on love, high above the city limits on the bridge. In the end, and maybe just for a few seconds, he and Elle were free like birds, flying through the air, forgetting about all the worries on the ground. But they weren’t weightless after all. They didn’t have wings. They could not fly.
I thought Tristan was just moody, maybe depressed and I could never understand why. He had it all: a pretty girlfriend, good grades, friends, an athletic scholarship to a good college. I should have known it had been all a ruse, that his midnight breakdowns, his tears, his insecurities weren’t just an act like my mom had said. She kept repeating that Dad had died when he was too young to remember, that it was in the past long ago. But Tristan had remembered finding the body, had recalled stepping in the blood–this much I had overheard at the funeral. Tristan’s feelings from the trauma had been real and no one had paid attention to them. He was twenty times more broken than my dad had been, ten times more broken than I think I could ever be.
What was it like, being dead? Was he and Elle together in a place beyond, floating through the cloudless sky feeling invincible, feeling not bad, like I was feeling right now? Was he with my dad, listening to him play a sad song on the guitar and apologizing over and over and over like the home videos he made for mom?
“What did you say …” I begin to ask Charlie. I want so badly for him to say he wants me too, to say he knows he’s my soulmate, that I matter more than his football, more than his friends, more than anything. My heart pounds again, waiting for him to repeat what I think he said, that he is glad we had finally found each other, glad to be holding hands, glad that it is me.
Charlie turns his head and I see a blankness that catches me off guard. His eyes flicker and roll to the back of his head.
Then I hear a crack and the sky opens up in front of me, pulling me into it. I try to scream, but my throat is on fire. Charlie tries to hold on, but our fingers release under the pressure. I reach and I reach, but I can’t find his hand.
I’m falling, falling into the darkness of the water that is now swirling and raging below. I am suffocating.
I am drowning.
I am becoming … nothing.
There is a silence that is deafening and my ears pulse and my skull expands and contracts as if my bones are screaming in agony. A heavy blackness, like an endless dark night fills the space. I cannot exist in this place. I cannot.
Charlie, please, please save me! My pleas are swept into the void, swallowed by ghouls who begin to moan in the great distance.
The terror is so intense that I become numb, and I can feel the revolt in my body, where even my blood refuses to circulate. What will come of me, why does no one care?
And then, suddenly, I jolt, wake to a blinding bright light in my eyes, swallowing air in giant gulps. Someone is pointing a phone flashlight at my face.
“Jesus Christ,” Adele exclaims.
“Are you okay?” Emily says.
I’m laying on the ground, confused. I smell vomit, which makes me want to throw up. Charlie’s brother, Christopher, a college student, is staring at me. He looks like Charlie, except his eyelashes aren’t as long, and his nose is wider. He’s holding a wet paper towel and I am mortified to realize that it was me who threw up and him who wiped the vomit from my mouth.
“Let’s get her cleaned up properly,” he says, signaling to Adele and Sara and Emily to help me.
“No way,” Adele says and walks away. Sara and Emily exchange looks.
“Come on, we’ll take her to the bathroom. If she can walk,” Emily says.
Charlie is standing with his friends behind Christopher. He looks smaller than I remember. His face is all twisted and pale, like he just saw a ghost. I need to ask him, but my mind is all jumbled.
“Is she okay,” he asks Christopher.
Christopher doesn’t answer. He helps me sit up. In a quiet voice he asks, “What have you had to eat today?”
I can’t remember but I know it wasn’t much.
“Are you on any medication?”
In my head I say yes, several. Anti-depressant, anti-stomach ache, anti-acme, anti-anxiety.
“No,” I say.
He wrinkles his brows. “You shouldn’t drink if you haven’t had anything to eat and are on meds. Alcohol can really mess you up.”
His words don’t register.
Though my head is spinning, I make to stand. I feel something warm on my neck that falls onto my arm. I rush to the railing, hurl over the side.
I feel their eyes boring into me. I hear their comments. I smell the vomit and I sense the disgust seeping into their opinions of me. I want to jump.
A girl I don’t know approaches with a glass of water. I stare at it like it is poison. “Drink this. I’ll make you feel better.”
I drink. She is not wrong. The cool water down my throat is like elixir from the gods, quenching my thirst, clearing my head, reviving me to the present–but the present is a place I don’t want to be.
“There is an outdoor shower.” She looks around for Emily and Sara. Then, not finding them, she says, “I’ll take you.”
When I’m clean and dressed in one of Charlie’s T-shirts that is way too big for me, but smells like fresh laundry, I ask her what happened.
“I think you blacked out. Everyone was scared. You’re lucky Chris is an EMT.”
I stare at her. “Did I say anything while I was unconscious?”
She looks back at me. “You said Charlie’s name.”
“But it’s not as bad as you think. He actually tried to catch you before you passed out.”
I can’t quite process what she is telling me. Later, I’d imagine the scene bigger than it was; I’d classify Charlie as a hero. I would forget that I had been so stupid, doubling my meds, drinking recklessly just to fit in. I would blame the spiked drink and Adele. I would try and set her up to lose credibility, but my lies would have holes in them and I’d fail miserably and make things way worse for me. But at the time, I knew none of this, I was just happy to be alive.
I learn that the girl is Christopher’s girlfriend. I never get her name. But on the way home, she tells me one day I’ll find real friends, that high school is just a thing. She tells me to lay low for a while. Let the night fade into memory.
“Try not to think too much about it,” she says as I open the door of the Jeep to get out.
I don’t thank her.
Laying in bed, wearing Charlie’s T-shirt and tracing the outline of the three triangles on my wrist, I try not to think. My head pounds. I hear my mom crying out in the room next to mine. I put my phone on the charger. At 2% it is nearly dead.
“Tristan! My baby!” My mom wails. “Come back!”
I turn over and whisper into my teddy bear’s soft fur. “Oh Charlie.”
My phone makes a sound. I reach over and see the message.
“Can you talk?”
I stare at the text. Along with the words is a picture of a wrist. I recognize the fisherman’s bracelet.
And then I see the three purple-inked triangles peeking out from behind it, just over the ulnar vein.
I sit up in my bed. The teddy bear falls to the floor. I sense my heartbeat under my new tattoo, feel it slamming against my ribs.
I type a response back and press send.
Then, I wait … for what seems like eternity.
*Author note: So I was driving down a street in a cute town near me called Red Bank and saw what appeared to be a boarded up tattoo shop. The building was old, even dilapidated. I sat at the traffic light staring at the cracked window and the peeling paint on the sign until the car behind me beeped for me to move. I drove until I found a place to pull over, grabbed my phone and began typing furiously. Initially, the story did not include Rose’s brother dying of suicide, because I was afraid that I wasn’t qualified to write about it, that I wouldn’t give it enough credit. But then, in subsequent drafts, it felt right for Rose lose both her dad and her brother in that tragic way. Mental illness is real, and so misunderstood that even the experts, never mind family and friends, sometimes can’t see the signs. Rose is headed for a downward spiral herself, though she falsely believes someone else–Charlie– can save her. At the end of the day, only she can save herself.
Rose’s story is unfolding, and there may be more to tell, but for now, she only wanted to tell the beginning, which is not the beginning at all, is it? Stories never start there. They always start somewhere in the middle. I have an alternate ending for Rose as well, one that reveals the tattoo she and Charlie have is more than coincidence, and more than just two people coming together as soulmates (is there really a soulmate? or is life fluid enough to allow for many soul connections?). That ending involves a much bigger plan, one that strives to end the suffering of everyone who has been impacted by suicide or other tragic loss. What’s at the basis of that plan, you ask? Well, love and acceptance of course, two concepts that can save not only yourself, but the world too.