A man named Henley Newman walked into the tattoo parlor neatly tucked away in a little nook of a lazy strip mall. If one didn’t look too closely, they’d never notice it. It was a pristine little shop, with wild and creative pieces of art hung everywhere. It was much cleaner than many of the other shops he’d been to in the past.
He carried a bag with him, which he placed on the counter. The bag was hefty, but not as heavy as Henley Newman’s heart. He missed his father dearly, and was hoping the artist would be able to resolve his troubles.
The artist greeted him warmly, then looked at the bag on the counter. It was a simple bag, velvet red with golden trim. The artist recognized it at once. He’d done this before. He nodded solemnly. “Do you have a design picked out?”
“No,” Henley Newman replied, then proceeded to look through a catalog of the artist’s work. After taking his time to flip though the booklet, he decided on a design he liked. The image didn’t matter much to Henley. What mattered was what was in the bag.
The artist looked at the one he picked. It was a simple design, an eagle holding a banner. “Let me prepare a stencil and the ink,” he said, and gingerly picked up the bag. He carried it around the counter and back into the shop. He disappeared for a few minutes, then beckoned Henley to the back of the parlor. No one else was in the shop. He was waved into a cubicle and directed to sit down in the chair. Reruns of Seinfeld were playing on TV.
“Who is in the bag?” The artist asked as he fit into the sterile gloves.
“My father,” Henley replied, a shadow of grief across his face. His father had only been dead two weeks at most, just long enough for a funeral and then for the ashes to return. Those two weeks had ripped a hole a mile wide in his heart. Henley couldn’t bear to be without him for any longer. “I like getting a tattoo in honor of all of my loved ones when they pass,” Henley continued. Lifting his sleeves, he showed off a collection of tattoos for various family members: a dragon clutching a heart for his mother, a butterfly perched on a tulip for his grandmother. There were two dozen more woven into intricate sleeves up his arms.
“That’s a sweet tradition,” the artist said. He showed his own tattoo he had done himself for his own mother. “Sometimes the best memorial is one that is personal and done in flesh and ink.”
“It really commits them to memory,” Henley agreed. The artist didn’t know the half of it.
The artist placed the stencil on the top of Henley’s right shoulder. The space had been saved specially for his father. He proceeded to mix a scoopful of the ashes carefully into the ink, mixing it thoroughly. Then he loaded his tattoo needles. The machine whirred to life. Brrrzz. Slowly, the needles scraped along Henley’s skin. He knew it would hurt, had anticipated the scratching sensation. It wasn’t his first rodeo. The pain was nothing compared to the immense loss he felt.
Henley waited, seeking the expanse of his mind for the familiar sensation he’d felt with the other tattoos. The only sensation he felt for a long time was the pain like a cat scratching at his shoulder. His shoulders slumped slightly in disappointment the longer he waited. The artist noticed as Henley’s facial features scrunch together slightly as he tried to hold his composure. Artists are good at picking up such small details.
The artist stopped. The tattoo was almost halfway complete. “Are you ok?” He asked. Henley answered that he was, and they continued.
His disappointment grew into desperation as he sought eagerly, almost frantically, for the sensation. Where was it? Maybe this one was different from the other ones. Maybe he wouldn’t come. Silently, he cursed the crematory for their blunder. Had they not followed the directions to the very letter?
At last– to his relief and overwhelming joy– the sensation Henley was waiting for hit him. He was beginning to doubt it would ever come.
For a moment, the pressure felt as though his head might burst at the seams in his skull. Then, there was only relief. Sweet, sweet relief. He relished the warmth of his father’s soul as it joined his own.
“Where am I?” Asked the confused voice of his father. The voice was in Henley’s head like it was his own thought. His father was greeted by a torrent of other voices– his wife and mother, and all of the other relatives Henley had memorialized in ink on his body– all in Henley’s head. It was a room full of people all inside his mind. They rejoiced in their reunion, though his father was confused.
“You’re home dad,” Henley said in his thoughts. “The tattoo brought you back. Your memory is safe with me now.”
His father’s ashes were tattooed into his flesh– into his very soul– just as the rest of the family had been. A piece of Henley’s father would live in his blood and his memories.
A tear rolled down Henley’s cheek.
“Sorry. That was a painful spot, huh?” The artist asked, stopping momentarily, noticing the single tear.
“It hurt a little bit, but I will be alright now,” Henley replied. He was more than just merely alright, because now his father was home again.
The artist continued his work. He was almost finished.
“Home? What? I-I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to die,” Henley explained. “I found a magic that lets us avoid death entirely.”
“You’ll never leave us, hon,” His wife said to him. “We’ll never be separated again.”
“You’ll be with your family forever. Your memory will never die,” a third relative said. He thought it was his grandmother.
“You mean that you’ve been hiding this, for all this time?” His father asked. The horror of his situation was grabbing hold of him. “I-I don’t want to live forever.”
“I was so scared without you dad,” Henley said. A choir of voices joined him, voicing their fears.
“We’re all scared of death. That doesn’t mean I wanted to cheat it, for Christ sake!”
“But think of all of life’s pleasures that you’d miss out on, hon,” His wife swooned. “You’ll be able to live them all through your son’s eyes.”
“No, what? I don’t want that.” His father said. His voice was borderline hysterical.
“Henley’s shown us so many wonderful things. Things I’d have never had the chance to see. There really isn’t enough time to live life.”
“This magic is a blessing, hon. Why can’t you see that?”
“I thought you’d enjoy extra time dad,” Henley said, disappointed. “You were taken so soon that I- we didn’t want to let you go.”
“That’s not how life works. You’re supposed to cherish the time you have while you have it. Now let me go.”
“I can’t let you go. Not again,” Henley said. “You’re bound to the tattoo now. And until it fades away, your memory will always be here right beside ours.”
“I love you, hon,” his wife said. “We’ll be together forever.”
“It’s not natural. I want out,” he moaned.
“I won’t let you leave again,” Henley said. His voice was firm. “Death can’t have you. Won’t have you.”
Henley’s father wanted to scream. He actually did scream, though there was no way for anyone outside of Henley’s head to hear him. “Let me out of here. Let me out! Letmeoutletmeoutletmeout!”
“Aren’t you happy here?” Henley asked, upset to see his father act in such a manner. “You don’t have to die. I thought you’d be happy.”
“He’ll come around,” Henley’s grandfather said. “Afterall, it took a little getting used to for all of us.”
“Just wait until he sees what fun it is to see the world through your eyes, Henley.”
“You’re right,” Henley said. “I’m so happy that you’re back, dad. I’ve missed you so much. We all have. You’ll see how much you’ve missed us too.”
The artist heard none of this exchange. Didn’t hear Henley’s father continue to scream for help. He worked hard to provide his client with a beautiful memorial to his father.
The tattoo was finished.
The magic was sealed in place.
It was a brilliant eagle clutching a banner that read the simple word Dad. Its wings spread wide across his shoulder. Henley smiled at the reflection in the mirror, pleased with the work. The artwork was visually stunning and realistic– the artist was certainly talented– but the internal results brought an overwhelming feeling of joy and gratitude that Henley would never be able to express in words.
He had his father back.
“I’ve never seen a client smile so much at my work,” the artist said, rubbing the back of his bald head humbly. He chuckled. “I’m glad you like it so much.”
“It’s a perfect memorial.”
Henley left a very generous tip for the artist– more than the cost of the tattoo itself.
He picked up the little bag from the table, velvet red with gold trim.
Outside, the sun hung high in a bright blue sky. The day was still young. Henley smiled more warmly than he had in the weeks since his father’s passing.
His father was back where he belonged.
Death couldn’t have him.
Jake Milburn is the author of more than a dozen short stories. Dreaming of being a writer from an early age, he is currently working diligently on his debut novel in between short works of fiction. He mostly comes out at night, and currently haunts the hills of South Central Pennsylvania with his book hoarding bearded dragon.