Prose Header

Skin Deep

by Robert S. Tyler

part 1 of 2

“Have you ever gotten a tattoo before?”

“No.” He didn’t turn his head.

The voice was by his ear. He thought he could feel the follicles on his bare arm reacting to the voice. “This will be a very long process, probably all day. You understand?”

“I’m ready.”

A slight pause. “All day.”

“Just make her beautiful.”

* * *

“Bry-Guy,” Eric said, lightly tapping Brian on the arm. He winced slightly, looking down. “How’re you doing?”

“Fine, Eric.” He looked up as Eric roughly dropped his messenger bag. His arm was sore. “You?”

“Ready to roll, son,” he said, adjusting his carefully messed-up hair.

Brian looked at Eric, co-worker by day, local indie rock star by evening. Unshaven face, swarthy hair, tan skin, and thick black glasses. Brian imagined people that looked like Eric owed a lot of their sex appeal to Johnny Depp.

Brian caught a glimpse of his reflection in the computer screen and wondered who he owed his sex appeal to. Woody Allen? I guess he made nerdy guys... uh... he struggled to finish the thought. John Cusack? No.

“You ready for the beach picnic?”

Brian blinked, and tried to look busy at the keyboard. “Yeah.” Two weeks. Should be safe to get it wet. The blood rolled in and out of his hands at the exact same time. Brian moved his hand to the mouse, looking at the pain under his sleeve, wondering if what he was feeling was still the aftershocks of Eric’s hand.

* * *

He stepped through the door, chewing the fruit. She looked up at him, fire in her eyes to match the color of her hair. The white and blue silks she wore were sheer, and accentuated the curves of her figure. He looked her over.

“Take your time,” she spat at him with muted energy.

Brian swallowed the fruit. She was beautiful. The red hair, the fair complexion with the rose-colored flush in her cheeks, and the blue eyes were a stark difference from the tanned skin more common on the Barbary coast. She slumped on the floor, legs folded underneath her supple frame, hands tied above her head, chained to a post.

He stepped forward. “I don’t plan to.”

The fire died for a moment. Brian could see her eyes were green now. “You’re Irish too.”

Brian peeled another slice of the grapefruit off. “Where were you from?” he looked around the dimly-lit room. “Before this?”

She looked down. “Cromwell had taken our land. Father said if we made it to Spain we’d be safe.” She looked away. “We were attacked. Pirates. Everyone else was killed, but when they saw me they said I’d serve them better alive.” She looked back up at him, somehow keeping the tears away. “All night they’ve been bringing bidders in to get a good idea of what’s on sale tomorrow.” Her eyes burned the tears away.

“That first night on their ship I clawed and kicked. I bit and thrashed, but they held me down while they tied me to the mast.” She looked down, her red hair falling down her pale shoulders. Brian could see the whip marks on her back. “I’m just a slave now. They have another one here–”


She looked at him but didn’t break the pace of her story. “He speaks English.” Her cheeks were redder. Their colour no longer complemented her luscious hair, they were darker, almost purple. “He recognizes the bidders here. He says it’s the bedpost or the whipping post for me. With some of them it’ll be both.”

She straightened her neck. “So, have you enjoyed this? Or will you show up tomorrow too? Watch me writhe in the sun for the buyers?”

She wanted to stop, but her neck quivered as she swallowed. “I’ll be auctioned at noon.” She struggled to sit up, hiding the way her arms were trembling in the chains.

Brian admired her. He looked back up from the fruit. “My father fought Cromwell at Kilkenney. We all did.” Brian looked off. “My brothers and me. I ... ” He shook his head. “When we lost... my brothers. My father...”


Brian nodded. “Cromwell.” He looked at her tanned white flesh without taking it in. “I was scared, I... I ran home to my mother and my sister. I didn’t know what to do, what would happen.” He shook his head. “Cromwell ordered we be taken to Barbados.”

In his mind’s eye, he saw his mother holding Brianna at the docks as the males were separated from the females. He tried reaching out, just to touch his sister’s fingers again, but the hard club slammed into his limp hand. He could still see the tears on her face as the men laughed, dragging her away, feasting their lecherous eyes on her body. “I was a slave too. I know the punishments masters can inflict.”

Brian chewed the fruit. She noticed heavy burns and scars covering his hands as he peeled another piece off. “Traveled America for a bit, but Catholics are scarcely more welcome there.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Privateered for a while before joining up w–”

“A pirate, then?” She slunk her legs underneath her body.

He walked closer, peeling off a slice of fruit. “So to speak.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t make it to Spain.”

“Neither could I.”

He laughed quietly. “I was in town when Hakim heard my accent. He recognized it and told me he had something I’d want to see.” He offered the grapefruit slice.

She pulled her head back, but didn’t move her green eyes.

“Suppose he thought seeing another Irish in chains might provoke me to purchase you at a substantial profit.”

She looked from the fruit in his scarred hand to his rough and square face. “Has it?”

“No,” he said. She felt her heart slide in her chest. Without warning, he slid the grapefruit slice along her full red lips. It felt cool, and she could sense the wet juices inside. “But it’s made me want to free you.” He slid the slice inside her mouth, his thumb lightly grazing her lips.

* * *

“Brian.” The voice was as harsh as civility could allow.

Brian was suddenly staring at his computer screen again. The grid of coded problems and actions taken stared back at him, unblinking. He looked at his hands. Small. No scars. They’d been typ–

“Brian,” it said again.

Brian turned to see a skinny balding man in a shirt and tie as nondescript as the office.

“Yeah,” he said. He felt his eyes adjusting to the fluorescent lights. Photo-negative shadows of the room, the fruit, her dress, all blinked away.

“Have you been checking your email?”

“Uh, no.” His eyes scanned the office for a clock. Morris sighed.

“I’ve emailed you three times now. Have you tallied the requests for software updates yet?”

Brian swivelled back to his computer. He clicked on a tab, desperate to find what Morris was looking for. “Yeah,” he said as the screen opened up in front of him. When did that happen?

Morris rapped on the cubicle edge. “Send it to Jay. He needs to set up the schedule before noon.”

“Ah, sure,” Brian said, opening his email, and noticing the new messages from Morris. “Sending it out now.”

“Good,” Morris rapped the edge one last time. “We aren’t at the beach yet.”

As he walked away, Brian looked at the clock on his computer. Eleven-sixteen? I just got here...

“Brian.” He looked at Eric.

“Get your head in the game.”

“I know,” he said.

“Hey, either you want to work in infosystems for the nation’s third largest wholesale hardware distributor...”

“Or you don’t,” Brian said, attaching the file and sending it out. Somewhere, a copy machine finished spitting its last paper out. “Going to the vending machine,” he said, standing up.

* * *

“Wish everyone stayed this still, Brian.”

He still didn’t want to look. He gazed straight at the sterile white shelves in front of him. A handful of photos were tacked on the walls: especially inventive or well-designed tattoos. “Thanks,” he said, not even thinking the word.

“How’re you doing?”

He had a sudden flashback to eighth grade when he sat in front Charlie Espozito. He could feel Charlie’s newly-sharpened pencil jabbing quickly into his back. Now a thousand sharp pencils had been stabbing into his arm for the past three hours. “Fine.”

“We can take a break if you want, go get some lunch.”

Brian blinked three times. “I’m good. Just make her beautiful. Do whatever it takes.”

The needle hummed as the pain jabbed through his skin again. “Do you have a girl, Brian?”

“No.” Hum. “I don’t get out much.” Pain.

“Tattoo is pretty big.”

Something brushed his arm. Don’t look. “Maybe it’s a first step,” he said, not believing it.

“Maybe it is.”



* * *

Brian stood at the machine not knowing exactly what to get. He wasn’t even that hungry. The employee lounge was cramped, and the blue decor somehow reminded him of the YMCA. He absently ordered the peanut M&M’s because the yellow wrapper caught his attention.

As he opened the door he almost bumped into someone.

“Laura,” he said, staring at her. Hide the M&M’s! HIDE THEM! Wait... she’ll see you try to hide them! Slip your thumb over the top... good... Now keep your hand at your side. Maybe she won’t see it.

“Hi Brian.” Laura DiFilippo. Roman Goddess. Even here, dressed in khaki shorts and a lime-green blouse, Brian couldn’t stop thinking about her like she was something from a 1940’s movie. Everything about her seemed soft and alluring. That was the perfect word for her. Alluring. “Ready for the beach?”

“Yeah, I... I normally don’t go for the company team-building stuff, you know?”

“I know.” She rolled her blue eyes. “I took a sick day last time.”

“Ah,” he said. Say something, dammit, SAY SOMETHING!

“But I love the beach,” she said with a smile. “Don’t you?”

He had a flashback to his eighth-grade class trip to the beach. Charlie Espozito wrestled other kids in the water and already had a six-pack carved into his stomach. Brian wouldn’t even take off his yellow Hulkamania Still Rules!! T-shirt as he waddled into the salty waves.

“Absolutely,” he said, sliding out of the way, and keeping his M&M’s behind his back. “I’ll see you there,” he awkwardly warbled out as he tried to hold the door for her.

“I’ll be watching,” she said, ducking under his arm.

Brian stared at the brown hairclip holding her honey-colored waves back before the door closed behind her.

* * *

“You pick locks well for a slave.”

Brian helped her up, delicately holding her chafed wrist. “I was a house servant. I learned how to get food and how to hide.” He flashed the metal wire in the dim lamplight.

“Clever,” she said, standing upright. Her cheekbones were perfectly formed, creating rosy spheres that called to Brian. “And now?”

He slid the thin metal wire back into his belt. “They took my weapons when I entered.”

“More cleverness.”

“Indeed,” he said, ducking low.

She stepped back from him as he collected handfuls of dust from the ground. He came up with a filthy palm dripping with dirt. He motioned for her to get behind him and knocked on the door.

The guard’s shadow blocked the light from the barred window; she cringed for a second behind him. What would happen if this failed?

Before she could imagine any more, the door unlocked and swivelled open. He blew a handful of the dust in the guard’s face. Pushing him back with one hand, Brian ran out the door, slamming the back of the guard’s head against the wall.

As the second guard moved in, Brian’s free hand went to the hilt of the first one’s sword. With one swift motion, the blade swiped out, cutting the assailant’s throat before finding its way under the first one’s ribs. Brian held his hand over the guard’s mouth as the life ebbed from his body.

He wiped the blade and looked back at her. “We’ll need to find another way out.” He pulled her down the dungeon corridor, kicking open doors and poking his head inside rooms. Finally he found one with an open window.

“Perfect,” he said, doubling back and casting a quick glance down the stairs. “Drag him,” he nodded to the second guard as he effortlessly picked up the first one. She dragged the body down the hall as best she could, careful of the blood. Brian was hauling his to the window.

“Why are we doing this?” she asked as he tossed one out.

He looked at her, a glint of flint in his eye. “We’ll need to land on something.”

* * *

“Bry-guy,” Eric said.

A glint of flint? What the he... “Yeah,” he said, feeling the mouse under his palm again. The mousepad’s spongy texture held his arm above the desk.

“Time to go.”

“What?” He scanned the clock. One-thirty. Did I eat lunch? He looked at the crumpled M&M’s wrapper adjacent to the mousepad.

“Beach, man.” Eric was looping his messenger bag over his head. “Either you want to bond with people who work at the nation’s third largest wholesale hardware distributor...”

“Or you don’t.” Brian stood up. His arms felt heavy. “Gimmie a sec.”

* * *

His arm felt like a thousand thumbtacks were stabbing all the way through to the bone. “Why does it matter that she’s beautiful?”

Brian hadn’t looked yet. He wanted to ask the artist to repeat the question, to buy time. “If you’re gonna get it tattooed, why not go all out?”



“Why this one, though? Lots of pin-up girls in my sheets. Why this?”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Robert S. Tyler

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