It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I know that line has been offered countless times, to parents, bosses, commanding officers, medics, and others. I know it usually doesn’t actually explain much or buy much forgiveness. I really wish I could say something more original here.
But all I have is: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I got a tattoo. Lots of girls get tattoos. It wasn’t a big deal. Sure, it was a little weird that someone else paid for it, that someone else picked the design, that someone else told me to make sure it was never exposed to sunlight—but hey, the idea of giving up my nonexistent habit of skinny-dipping wasn’t so bad next to the idea of not making rent, so I got the tattoo.
I got the tattoo because it was worth five thousand dollars. I needed five thousand dollars because I couldn’t afford rent and groceries. I couldn’t afford rent and groceries because all my money and most of my predicted future money was going to Zax Countelbuck—look, don’t make that face, we all know it’s a stupid name but it’s not healthy to laugh about it—because he got it into his head that I’d cost him a hella lotta money. See, my terra cotta pot of geraniums fell off my fire escape balcony and shattered on his pet wizard’s spell circle during some drug deal, and the buyers got away with both the product and the money they were supposed to pay for it. My argument that maybe they shouldn’t have picked an apartment alley for the deal didn’t do much to soothe his temper.
So Zax announced to my boss that seventy-five percent of my checks would be going to pay off my debt to him. My boss, Dae-jung, is a nice guy and all, but even a nice boss doesn’t go against a mandate from Zax, not in this part of town. What was left of my check wasn’t enough to live on, not even with Dae-jung letting me take home all the leftover café buns and whatever he “accidentally” burned.
So, when this woman knocked on my door and asked me if I would get a tattoo for five grand, I said yes.
It was a weird little pattern, somewhere between tribal and geometric, and it sat below my left kidney. It barely peeked above the waistband of my jeans, but because keeping it away from sunlight was part of the deal, I made sure to wear long-waisted shirts, even if they were narrow-cut, to show off the figure my lean budget was keeping.
Everything was fine for the first year. I banked the money, keeping my mouth shut about it so Zax wouldn’t send anyone around to ask where the rent was coming from and demand I send the rest to him. I made sure to change clothes inside away from windows or in the dark, and since I wasn’t engaged in any romances of the cinematic kind where we end up naked in the park with cherry petals softly drifting over us, it wasn’t any kind of inconvenience.
The problem started in the second year, when the tattoo got a little itchy. I didn’t think much of it at first, just figured my lousy studio apartment was more literally lousy than usual.
Then I realized it was only the tattoo and nowhere else which itched, and it was itchier on sunny days when I wore light colors or looser weaves. I tried wearing only black, or lighter colors layered to block more light, and it got better. Whatever the thing was about sunlight, the tattoo was taking it seriously.
No, I hadn’t heard again from the woman who’d paid for the tattoo. I hadn’t heard anything from her after I’d agreed to do it. She prepaid at the tattoo parlor, she picked the tattoo artist, she provided the art to him. After I left the parlor, still stinging, I went home to find a fat envelope of non-sequential bills waiting on my air mattress. (I only knew to check the serial numbers for sequence because of the pulp thriller paperbacks left behind by readers who finished them at the café. I’m not sure it would have mattered in my case, but I felt clever for checking.)
I was marginally impressed, because the ward on my door was still up when I got home and found the money, but only marginally, because it wouldn’t take that much to get around my ward. It’s there mostly for the punk kids in the building who like petty thievery and vandalism more than Pokémon.
Then, a few months into the third year, the tattoo started to itch again through the shirts, and I had to start wearing a denim jacket over it to block the sun. I figured this was going to get real old real fast with summer coming on. And I hadn’t heard anything back from the woman, and I figured she was long gone and maybe it was time her tattoo was, too.
I wasn’t entirely stupid; I did try to do some basic scrying on the tattoo to see what it was. But turns out it’s freakin’ difficult to work on your own back. Unfortunately, the strongest practitioners are generally in with Zax or his competitors. Most of my friends with any kind of talent are hobbyists at best, maybe up to fleecing some tourists with card tricks or entertaining their cats with shiny dots on the wall. Not “figure out if someone put a functioning spell in my skin” level of talent.
Besides, it was a tattoo. The guy who did it was a regular tattoo artist in a regular tattoo parlor, done while you wait. Sure, the sunlight thing was weird, but the whole situation was weird.
I decided—hear me out—to transfer the tattoo. To move it onto someone else, someone who wouldn’t care.
I got a couple of books from the library, because my card was still good even if I didn’t pay much in the way of taxes, and I looked up a few sites on the library computer. I made my notes and sketches for the circle. It all looked plausible. Might as well use my stalled training for something.
I waited for my day off, so I wouldn’t have to get up early for bakery morning hours, grabbed a box of leftovers, and set up my workspace in my apartment.
It didn’t take long. I flipped the air mattress up against the wall to make a clear spot on the floor, and I propped open the bathroom door to let in air from the fire escape window which had started the whole mess. I chalked out two tangential circles, double-checked my markings, and put a day-old roll in the middle of one circle. Then I pried up the loose floorboard in front of the bathroom and I waited.
It was twilight, and I’d put out the single bulb in favor of a candle which shed less light and made the room more comfortable for my target audience. It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before the cockroaches came out of the floor and, after a brief reconnaissance, made their way toward the roll in the chalked circle.
See? If the tattoo went on the cockroaches, it would be protected from sunlight forever. Still safe in my apartment, still in the dark, still on living things if that mattered. Not on me. It seemed like a workable solution.