Today’s prompt comes from the newsletter I received from D.A. Reed, a fellow Michigan author. She has also been an instructor at Jonathan Rand’s (Michigan author of the American Chillers and Michigan Chillers series’) Author Quest camp for young writers. Am I sorry about making that plug? Absolutely not.
Prompt: You work at a tattoo parlor. Every week the same man comes in to get the same tattoo; a tally mark.
Calvin was a big man. Not fat. Anyone who dared call him that to his back would take it back the minute they saw his face. He was tall and thick. Yeah, there was some padding there, but he was rock solid muscle underneath. He looked like he was part of a biker gang, except his tattoos were all wrong.
Even though he was a regular at Madd Dogg’s Tattoos, he was, for the most part, a pristine canvas. The only ink I’d ever put in his skin were little black lines, tally marks, on his inner forearm near the elbow joint. Every week he would have an appointment to have a new one added. The number had been steadily climbing for the better part of a year. No one had ever asked him what they stood for. Quite frankly, I didn’t think anyone would. I certainly had no intentions of doing so.
“Good morning, Kaliopi,” he said, settling into the chair. He was in a chipper mood. Normally he would sit down, say “One, please,” and that would be it.
“Good morning, Calvin.” I held up my ink gun. “Just the usual today?”
“Actually…” He rolled up his sleeve, revealing the sharp black tallies on his pale skin. “I’d like three today, if it’s not any trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
He actually hummed while I worked. And then I blew it. My curiosity beat out my common sense.
“Why the tallies?”
Everything in the parlor, minus the buzzing ink guns, went still. Even Calvin stopped humming. His bushy, untrimmed mustache, normally a fuzzy upside-down U, became a straight line.
“I’ll show you on Thursday.”
I wondered if I could get someone to cover my shift on Thursday so I could flee the country. Why couldn’t I keep my fat mouth shut? Rumors abounded about the tallies. The most popular theory was that they were a body count. I might have just secured a place on his arm.
“Oh, no, that’s alright. I was just curious. You normally get just the one.” The words kept tumbling out. Shut up, Kali. Shut up!
“It’s no trouble. I just got my van back. I’ll swing by Thursday.”
Thursday came. Not surprisingly, no one was available to take my shift so I could board a plane to anywhere but here. When I wasn’t working on someone’s skin, I was hiding in the back room. That was where my boss found me when Calvin pulled into the parking lot.
“Undertaker’s here,” he said. “We’ll miss you.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Thanks. That was super helpful.”
“Is Kaliopi here?” I heard Calvin ask someone in the front of the parlor. “I brought some of my tallies to show her. I didn’t miss her, did I?”
“She’ll be right out,” my boss called from the door I was hiding behind.
Calvin’s mustache straightened when he saw me. “Oh good. I thought I’d missed you today.”
“Nope. No such luck,” I said with a hiccuping giggle.
He held the front door open for me and ushered me outside. He took several long strides past me to his van and pulled the door open with a flourish. Three dogs tumbled out of the vehicle, tails wagging. The gravitated to Calvin as if he were the center of their universe.
“Hi sweet punkins,” he crooned, scratching butts and receiving face-licks. “Did you think Daddy left you? I’d never leave you sweet babies.”
Dogs. His tallies represented dogs. That hadn’t even been in the top 20 theories.
Calvin looked over at me, his mustache still a line. I realized it was his smile. “I rescued these babies last week. Older dogs aren’t as likely to be adopted as puppies. I pull them from shelters and foster them till they either find a home, or come to their end.”
“So, your tallies are your count of senior dogs you’ve rescued.” I knelt and scratched behind the ears of the silver-muzzled doberman who had wandered over to sniff my shoes.
“Sure is. What’d you think it was? A body count?”