He said it would only hurt a little …
On her sixteenth birthday, Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. On my twenty-second, I pricked mine on the needle of a tattoo machine wielded by a beautifully complicated man who would go on to become my ruin.
Madden Ransom was everything I was never allowed to be: unfeeling, opinionated, rebellious … free.
He was also everything I was never allowed to be with.
And while Sleeping Beauty fell into a peaceful slumber as she awaited true love’s kiss, I fell into something else entirely—my heart in the hands of a man who’d never given nor received anything remotely like love.
It turns out when Madden told me it would only hurt a little … he didn’t mean the tattoo.
“I can’t help but notice you don’t have any tattoos.” At least none that I can see beyond his white tank top and ripped jeans. I scan the smooth, tanned arms and the arch of his muscled shoulders as he concentrates on my bare flesh. “Why is that? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m going to need you to stop shaking.” The raven-haired man with bronze skin ignores my questions and quiets the buzz of his tattoo machine. He forces a hard breath through his nostrils like he doesn’t have time for this, resting his forearms on the tops of his thighs as he studies me. “You want this to be crooked?”
“It’s a little chilly in here.” And I might be the tiniest bit anxious. If I could stop myself from shaking, believe me, I’d have done it by now.
A cool draft of air from the AC kisses the bare skin of my exposed abdomen, and a rush of goose bumps spray across my flesh.
His full lips press together as he studies the custom drawing he sketched and stenciled on me a little while ago, and I can’t help but wonder if he always looks this serious. I figured the owner of a tattoo parlor would be more on the laidback side, but Madden Ransom hasn’t so much as smiled since I got here, and every time our eyes meet—little bursts at a time here and there—there’s a kind of heaviness in his stare that I’ve never seen on anyone else before.
“A lot of people come in here saying they don’t have a thing about needles, and then as soon I get started—”
“—I don’t have a thing about needles.” I clear my throat, my fingertips tucked under the hem of my shirt, which is lifted just enough to cover the lowermost part of my bra. “I’m pre-med actually.”
I offer a nervous chuckle and, in this moment, I detest how much I sound like my mother, casually and nonchalantly working humble brags into conversations. Only despite the way it might seem, I’m not bragging, I’m simply trying to prove a point.
“Good for you.” He doesn’t look up, doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. His needle returns to my skin, the buzz filling my ear, and my body tenses. “The pain okay?” His voice is monotone, disingenuous. I suppose if a person does this job long enough, their sympathy eventually wears off. “You need a break?”
“No … keep going.” Dragging in a hard breath, I let it linger in my chest as I brace myself against the hard bed beneath me.
He readjusts his black latex gloves before switching the machine on again. And that’s what it’s called—a machine. According to the research I did before coming here, tattooists hate when you call it a “gun.” I wanted to make sure I knew the vernacular before I wandered in here like a lost child off the street (or an overprotected, naive, Park Terrace princess who’s rarely allowed to venture outside her castle).
“So, why don’t you have any tattoos?” Once more I ask the question that’s been bothering me since I walked through the doors of Madd Inkk a half hour ago. A ribbed tank top made of bleached cotton hugs his sinewy torso, and I couldn’t help but notice when he took me back to his station that there wasn’t so much as a hint of ink on his perfect skin.
The man at the next station over gives a puff of a laugh, his full chest rising as he shakes his head.
“Madd’s got commitment issues for days,” he says, turning his crystalline blue focus back to his client and filling in a geometric pattern with ink the color of midnight.
The sturdy-shouldered man in his chair doesn’t so much as flinch as the needle pricks his skin. He just keeps scrolling his thumb along his phone like it doesn’t feel like a thousand tiny kittens are scratching his flesh.
“Can’t commit to a woman, a car, or a tat,” the artist adds.
“Fuck off, Pierce.” Madden returns a gloved hand to my ribcage and starts the machine once more. A moment later, the needle peppers tiny specks of ink into my skin. Every so often, he wipes the area clean and starts again. “About half done.”
He said it would only hurt a little, and that it wouldn’t take long, but the past eight minutes have all but dripped by, like morphine into saline, tiny drop by tiny drop.
“Seriously though, why don’t you have any?” I ask.
I’m not letting this go because it’s a valid question given his profession as both an artist and the sole proprietor of this shop.
Plus, I’m curious.
And I need a distraction to get me through the rest of this. The front of the shop is covered in wall to wall “flash.” Drawings and renderings. Hundreds if not thousands of them. Back here the walls are less interesting. There are certificates. State licenses. A few framed photos. And a privacy curtain.
I don’t expect some lengthy, personal response. I’ve spent maybe a half hour with this man and he’s said all of fifty words to me. A simple answer would suffice.
The needle drags against my ribcage and his mouth flattens into a hard line. “Guess I haven’t found the right one yet.”
I don’t buy it. And I’m pretty sure he’s giving me an answer just to shut me up, but it’s not like I can call him a liar. I don’t even know him.
“It’s ink, bro. Not a woman.” The artist at the next chair—Pierce—says without so much as glancing in our direction.
“No fucking shit, bro,” Madden snaps back at him, and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. His expression hasn’t changed since the moment I first laid eyes on him.
I lift my gaze to a hand-written sign across the room, hanging behind the cash register.
NO CHINESE SYMBOLS
NO INFINITY SYMBOLS
NO TRAMP STAMPS
The distractingly pretty, lavender-haired girl working the front snaps her gum as she hunches over the glass counter, her face colored with boredom as she thumbs through her phone. The shop isn’t as busy as I thought it would be, but then again, it’s the middle of the day on a Wednesday. It’s not exactly peak hours around here.
“I think you’re going to like this.” He wipes a damp rag across my stinging flesh, his inky brown eyes resting on his work. Madden sniffs, though it isn’t quite a laugh. “Shit. You better. It’s forever.”
He looked at me sideways when I told him I wanted him to choose the design. I didn’t come prepared. I didn’t bring screenshots or Pinterest pins or any other kind of inspiration. To be perfectly honest, this isn’t about the tattoo so much as it is about getting the tattoo.
“I trust you,” I told him as his dark brows knitted together, and then I added, “I just want it somewhere hidden.”
A moment later, I was handed a clipboard and a small stack of forms to complete, trying my hardest to steady my breathing as he prepped his station.
When he brought me back, Madden suggested the side of my ribcage, in an area easily hidden by bras and bikini tops, and he didn’t once ask me why I’d take the time to have this done if I wasn’t going to show it to anyone. His one and only caveat was that I never ask him what it means.
He was adamant.
“Not even on your deathbed,” he said. One of his colleagues overheard him and called him a “heartless bastard,” offering a laugh that was more amusement than anything else, and for a split moment, I felt like the butt of some inside joke.
And then I wondered if he was gaslighting me. I know what people see when they look at me.
“Still doing all right?” he asks, not glancing up.
I nod even if he isn’t looking at me right now. “Yes.”
The muscles of his forearm flex as his left palm splays across my skin. A moment later, our fingers brush when he pushes the fallen hem of my top out of the way.
In the strangest way, this feels like a dream.
The icy-cold air on my bare flesh …
The sterile scent of alcohol wipes and powdered gloves …
The vibrating sting of the needle against my skin …
The heavy metal playing on speakers in the back …
The shaved heads, “sleeved” arms, Harleys parked out front, and the girls in half-shirts and mini-skirts all work together to form an ambience foreign to any I’ve ever known …
I try not to stare too much, but this must be what Alice felt like when she first arrived in Wonderland.
“There.” Madden shuts off the machine when he’s finished, and then he cleans the tattoo one more time before dabbing on a finger-sized scoop of ointment.
“Can I see it first?” I ask when he reaches for a bandage.
He stops, turning to face me, his shoulders slumping like I’m asking the world of him. “Right. Go ahead.”
Sitting up, I contort myself until I can almost see the beginning of a black and blue outline against warm pink skin.
“Here.” Madden shoves a handheld mirror toward me.
It’s a butterfly. Small. Not much bigger than a silver dollar. Brilliant blue with black veining.
“You done now? We good?”
I place the mirror aside and let him patch me up. Tattoos are flesh wounds, I know that. And I’ve already read up on the aftercare. I say nothing as he hands me a set of instructions printed on yellow paper.
Madden cleans up his station before yanking off his gloves and tossing them in the trash. “Missy will check you out up front.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure why I expected him to walk me up. He’s not a hairstylist or aesthetician. People don’t come here because of the service.
Sliding off the client bed, I tug my shirt into place and locate my bag. My skin throbs from beneath the bandage, but it’s tolerable and not as bad as I expected.
“Thank you,” I say, turning to him before I make my way to the front. My gaze falls to his right hand for some reason—as if my subconscious was expecting a freaking handshake—and he definitely notices.
I can’t get out of there fast enough, and as I trot to the front in my pink Chanel flats, I’m not sure if all eyes are actually on me or if I’m imagining it. I’m sure to them, I’m an alien—a strange sight. I even heard one of them say, “They don’t make ‘em like that in Olwine,” when I first arrived.
If they only knew how much I’d rather be like them than like … me.
I envy their freedom more than they could ever know.
As soon as I pay—$150 cash plus a twenty-five percent tip—I step lightly toward the door and eye my little white Volvo parked on the corner, but the closer I get, the more I realize something looks … off.
“Oh, my God.” I clap my hand over my mouth when I see it—the boot. “No. No, no, no.”
A sign a few feet back says: NO PARKING 4-6 PM MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, and I check the time on my phone.
“Seriously?” I talk under my breath, a habit my mother detests. But if she knew I drove to Olwine today to get a tattoo, she’d detest that even more.
I grab the ticket off the window and dial the number on back, which goes to voicemail after a few rings.
Taking a seat on the curb, I hold the ticket in one hand and my phone in the other and try, try again.
I just need the jerk who did this to take it off so I can get home before my mother marches down to the police station and tries to file a Missing Persons’ report—which she’s done before when I was forty minutes late coming home from the library once.
“You, uh, need help?”
Following the sound of a man’s voice, I twist around and shield my eyes from the afternoon sun.
Rising, I tug my shirt into place and exhale. “Seven minutes past and they put a boot on my car.”
“Probably just did it to be a dick.” He almost smiles. Almost. It’s more of a smirk.
“Probably thought you were some yuppie, suburban soccer mom with that Volvo.”
I wish I could tell him that I didn’t choose that car, that I didn’t even want it, but my parents insisted because they wanted the safest, most reliable car they could find for their “precious cargo.”
Digging into his pocket, he retrieves his phone and thumbs through his contacts. A moment later, he lifts it to his ear and paces a few steps away. The sound of traffic and revving motorcycles drowns out his words, but when he returns, he slides his phone away and rests his hands on his hips, studying me.
“He’s on his way,” Madden says.
“Who’s on their way?”
“Dusty. Works for the city. You’re lucky he owes me a huge fucking favor.” His gaze grazes over my shoulder before returning. “You can wait inside if you want.”
“Thank you,” I say, taking careful measures not to look at his hand this time. “I really appreciate this. This has never happened before. I don’t know what I’d have done if—”
Madden gives a nod before strutting off while I’m still mid-sentence, almost like a silent way of telling me to shut it.
No one’s ever done that to me—walked away while I was speaking to them.
I watch him stride down the block, stopping next to a black muscle car with two white racing stripes—I think my brother had a model of something like that many years ago—and when he climbs inside, I catch him glancing at me for a single fleeting second.
Fumbling with my keys, I get into my own car and crank the air. It was kind of him—at least I think he was being kind—to offer for me to hang out and wait in his shop, but I think I’m going to ride out the storm in my own little UFO, counting down the minutes until I’m en route to my home planet of Park Terrace.
I kill some time on my phone and pretend not to notice when Madden drives by, his engine rumbling with the kind of contradictory unruffled intensity that almost matches his personality perfectly.
Twenty-six minutes later, a white-and-yellow City of Olwine truck pulls up behind me and a little gold light on its roof begins to flash. A minute later, a man in a gray uniform steps out, grabbing an oversized wrench of some kind from the back and waddling toward me.
I roll my window down. “Thanks for coming. I tried calling the number on the ticket, but I couldn’t reach anyone.”
Dusty, as the name on his shirt reads, doesn’t look up from what he’s doing, crouched next to the front tire on my side.
“You’re lucky you’re friends with Ransom,” he says when he stands, his face red and his breaths shallow. The wrench hangs in one hand, the boot in the other.
Free at last.
“Ransom?” I ask before remembering that it’s Madden’s last name.
“Madden,” he says. “I was on break. You’re lucky I answered for the bastard.”
An elaborate “piece” runs down his left arm, intricate and filled with bold greens and reds and purples, and barely hidden by the cuffed, long-sleeved button down the city forces him to wear even in June.
“Oh. Right. He was just helping me out. We’re not actually friends.”
Dusty snorts, his squinting eyes scanning the length of my car. “Yeah. Of course you’re not.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Right.” He begins to walk away.
Climbing out of the car, I yell for him to wait. “Do I need to pay the ticket?”
He hoists the wrench in the back of his truck, the metal hitting metal with a hard clunk, and then he waves his hand.
“So is that a ‘no’?” I ask, just to be sure.
Dusty gives me a thumb’s up before squeezing back into his truck.
I swear, it’s like I don’t even speak the language here.
The tattoo hidden beneath layers of bandages begins to throb just enough to grab my attention, and I return to my idling five-star-safety-rated princess carriage. Pressing the “home” button on my GPS, I head back to Park Terrace, back to Charles and Temple Karrington’s castle-like manse complete with iron gates, a staff of seven, and a million security cameras.
You can make a prison beautiful but at the end of the day, that doesn’t make it any less of a prison.
But I’m making plans to break out.
And this tattoo? It’s only the beginning.