by Lydia Ship
M's tattoo came alive at the office, mid-afternoon, as she fought against boredom. Against the small of her back, a sudden tickle, and prickly insect legs skittered. M sprang from her seat but now she was aware that to anyone else who stood above the cubicle maze, her head and shoulders jerked, clearly visible, though around her, scatting keys clacked on, oblivious. She bent to inspect the seat and carpet for a dislodged spider or moth, plucking the back of her sweater. Just then, grazing on her back returned. Startled, M hooed this time and shimmied. Typing paused. Eyes and mouth bunched shut, M touched the small of her back, and horrifying papery wings brushed her fingertips.About that time, What! cried Dustin the temp from across the room. M could pick out his yawning voice from everyone else's. She peered over her wall as his head and shoulders rose from his cubicle across the room, and from somewhere on his shoulder came a quick-footed, inflected speech—an Asian word, muffled underneath his shirt. One glance at M and Dustin hustled, head ducked, to the handicapped restroom, where M followed.
Dustin let M in when she knocked, and he slapped his left bicep against the wall. The voice on his arm groggily drifted, and then returned, louder, repeating the same slide-whistle sound: "YooungSHEE," it said.
"Can everyone hear that? God, shut up!" He barked directly into his arm, and for a moment, the tiled room was silent.
Then the voice returned, an old man's beleaguered tone, "YooungSHEE."
Meanwhile, M turned her back to the mirror above the sink and lifted her sweater, twisting her head around and stepping back for a closer look at the ink-blotted insect. She'd gotten it ten years earlier when she was eighteen, and over the years, she'd invented different meanings behind it for every person who saw it. But the truth was she'd gotten it on spring break freshman year, for freedom or love or something else vague she'd long forgotten, just like everyone else she used to know. M still wore low-slung skirts and jeans with cut-off tops to show it off and her first year at the office it had been a last link to youth, but the longer she stayed at the office, the more she hated it, and now she relished positioning her fingers where the butterfly's legs touched to remove the butterfly like a tick. "Don't tell anyone," she said to Dustin.
Dustin stared at her. "Holy!" The word cadence from his arm grew bored and droned on flatly, "YooungSHEE. YooungSHEE."
Just then, Jenna shouldered into the large room, all perfume and hair, jostling M. "I need a doctor," Jenna wheezed. She thrust her hand out for their inspection. Protruded barbed wire encircled her finger, looking somehow appropriate with Jenna's long lacquered nails.
Dustin poked the metal spikes, drew back, and sucked his finger. "YooungSHEE."
"Huh?" Jenna said.
"I didn't say anything. That's my freaking tattoo," he told her. "Hey, I didn't know you had a tattoo."
"I keep it covered with a ring. What's with this?"
M plucked and flicked but the butterfly stayed put, shook, righted itself, and flapped again. "It won't come off!" M spat.
Dustin laughed at Jenna. "Good question. Why a barbwire ring?"
Jenna laughed like barbed wire. "Dude, I don't have a Chinese man talking on my arm. Do you even speak Chinese?"
"It's courage," Dustin insisted.
"Yeah, what if it's not?" Jenna grinned at M. "Our rebellious sides are rebelling. Like, half the office went to find bathrooms a second ago."
M couldn't stay at work. She took a sick day and at home, she tried on several thick sweaters in front of her mirror, but sweaters only made her back appear as if it had a throbbing cyst. How could she go back to work—where so much of it was seeing and looking and doing nothing but seeing and looking—with an insect waving from her back? Maybe she could try doing something she'd always wanted to do, like. . . well, what?
A few hours later, headlines appeared on the internet reporting global tattoo mayhem. The articles took a didactic tone—YOUR MOTHER ALWAYS TOLD YOU, THINK BEFORE YOU INK—and didn't quite specify what, exactly, was happening regarding the tattoos, only that tattoo incidents were spreading. Mass blog and web posts busily attacked what appeared to be deliberately vague journalism, though the reactionary posts did not clarify the predicament, since some kind of political correctness had become involved almost immediately. Wild rumors began, which news stations promptly reported and political talk shows ridiculed. Tatted people—once ready to flaunt their wild sides, now enslaved in yet another way—for the most part kept to themselves and told no one, or else they disappeared altogether, for the stars would never stop burning nor the crosses stop bleeding nor the sexy women stop gyrating nor the lions stop roaring nor the hearts stop throbbing nor the Moms stop giving advice.
Other stories by Lydia Ship have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, The 2nd Hand, The Battered Suitcase, The Pedestal, A Capella Zoo, The Armchair Aesthete, New South, Neon, and The Dead Mule, among others; in the spring, one of her stories received a Pushcart nomination, and she is a Contributing Editor at The Chattahoochee Review. Read more of her stories here.