I take a deep breath, letting the musty air from the dark parlor burn my lungs. There’s nothing pleasant about this place. If I thought it had looked bad on the outside, it was even worse on the inside. A beat-up air conditioning unit clunks away in the window in front of me. I wipe my hands on my equally sweaty thighs as I stare at the chipping paint caked on the top windowpane. “Fuck this” and “Brad was here” are etched into the black, along with several crude images. I couldn’t agree more with Brad, whether he wrote the former or not.
A blinking, bug-filled fluorescent light pulls my focus away from the screeching window. It dangles on a metal chain. It looks new. The old one probably snapped and smacked the last client in the head. Let’s hope I’m not so lucky.
I squint through the palpitating blink at the dingy ceiling tiles tinted yellow from decades of cigarette smoke. Stars spot my vision, and, for a moment, I second guess everything. How did I end up here, sitting on this torn vinyl table that’s sure to leave a heat rash on my legs? Was I really going to go through with it?
And it’s the silence under that God-forsaken howling air conditioner that reminds me why I’m here, what I need to do.
I take another deep breath, making myself savor the damp smell. I have to remember the plan. I’ve watched this tattoo parlor for months. I’d calculated the perfect time to waltz in, memorized what I would say, practiced how I would carry myself. I’d gotten this far. I couldn’t back out now.
An ear-piercing scream tears through me. Figures they’d show up now. They always show up when I have something important to do, or I’m using the bathroom, or I’m trying to pass an algebra exam.
The ghost wants me to flinch, to fall to the floor and cradle my head and scream for my mommy. Twelve years ago, I probably would’ve. But not today. All I do now is roll my eyes and put up another wall, taking my time with each invisible brick so they can watch and scream and beg. If they’re not the scream I’m looking for, they don’t deserve my time of day.
Before I place the final brick, I listen, waiting.
The familiar feeling of disappointment tugs on my heart as I place the final brick in front of the door.
And then the shift and squash of someone large plopping down on a chair brings me back to the physical world.
I blink to find Jeffery “Bear” Johnson sitting in front of me—legs splayed, tatted arms nearly reaching the floor, scraggly beard grazing a broad leather-coated chest. Even though I’d seen this boulder of a man enter and exit the building a thousand times, sitting across from him was an entirely different story. His reputation preceded him. Everyone in Stagnant Hill knew who Bear was, and although I’d lived in this washed-up town my entire life, I’d only ever heard rumors. And staring at him now, I wouldn’t doubt a single one.
“Yer sure about this, Madison?” the gorilla asks. His voice is strangely mellow considering his rough features. “I could add er few lines to even—”
I don’t give him a chance to finish. “No. That’s what I want. Exactly that.”
He shakes his head. “Teens,” he grumbles as he spins around to the stained table. “Some freedom and money and nothin’ changes yer minds. But at least I get er decent buck out er it.”
I hold my tongue. I wasn’t like the other 18-year-olds in Stagnant Hill, and not because I’m some cliché book trope—I highly doubt any of those characters could see ghosts. I haven’t been like other girls or boys or people for twelve years. But this was going to change that. This was going to set things right.
A small smile tugs on my lips at the thought of her being happy again. I search for her voice, but all I’m left with are flashbacks.
I watch as I point up at the tree to the cat only I can see.
I watch as we scale the branch. Her arms held out in a T.
I watch as I reach out, her shoulder blades warm in my palms.
I watch as her brains splatter across the pavement.
I watch as the light leaves her eyes and freezes her face in a silent scream.
I hear the utter silence as her spirit slides under the door without a sound.
Claire’s been quiet for twelve years. Every other ghost in Stagnant Hill haunts me. Every one except Claire. I’ve tried everything to bring her back—rituals, chants, dark magic—but nothing works. My twin sister refuses to haunt me, to forgive me, and this is my last hope to fix what I’ve done.
“Any meanin’ behind er tattoo?” Bear’s question startles me, and I let the guilt shake away with my thoughts.
Not a chance in hell I’d tell him the truth. “Would you be disappointed if I said no?”
A faint smile tugs on his lips. “Nah. But it’s like nothin’ I er seen before.” He shrugs. “Thought it’d be some family thing er somethin’.”
“You’ve known about my family for years,” I say with a roll of my eyes. “Have you ever seen something like that around them?”
“It’s not fer Claire, is it?”
My throat catches. “No. It’s not.”
Bear grunts, eyeing the piece of scrap paper with my etched design. He opens his mouth to speak again, but I don’t let him. “Just do it already. I’m not paying you for conversation.”
This causes him to chuckle and shake his head. Guess not many 18-year-olds are willing to talk back to him. Add that to the “Ways Madison Isn’t Like Other Girls” list.
I close my eyes as he begins to transfer the design to the inside of my forearm. A shrill of cries and shouts billow out as I open the door to the souls. Please, just answer me.
I open my eyes and glance down at my arm to see a blue crisscrossing of sharp angles. I’ve memorized every line of this rune—designed it myself after months and months of research and deep dives into the dark web. It’s the rune that’ll bring my sister back. “Perfect.”
Bear grunts again, obviously taking my need for no conversation seriously.
I slam the door to the spirit realm and ignore the distant shouts for help as I innocently ask, “You’re going to use my ink, right?” I reach into my back pocket and pull out a vial of a murky, dark substance. The edges glow a deep brown under the flickering yellow light.
He stares at the vial, utterly unreadable. “Madison, I—”
I toss a stack of bills onto the table. There’s nothing Bear wouldn’t do for a buck.
He flips through the wad with his thumb, the edges fanning out before him. A pleased smile stretches across his lips as he tucks the stack into his pocket. “It’s er pleasure doin’ business with er,” he says with a wink.
With no questions asked, Bear takes the vial. It’s a good thing I’m not planning on using my college savings, I think to myself. The thick, practically clumpy, liquid drips from the vial slowly, and I can feel Bear’s annoyance. I was lucky to snap off enough of Claire’s fingers and set her coffin back in the ground without getting thrown into jail. But I wasn’t about to buy a heavy-duty blender to whip up my concoction of bone, food coloring, and ancient herbs.
I lean back on the table as the final drop leaves the vial, close my eyes, and open the door once again. It’s now or never.
I call out to her, racing past unfamiliar faces and mists of smoke. They cry and cry and cry. They beg me for help, but I’m not searching for them. I’ve never cared about them.
I feel the first prick drive into my skin, but I keep diving. The buzz of the gun is a distant whir.
Each thrum of the needle sends me further and further until I’m the farthest I’ve ever been.
I suddenly stop, the phantom wind easing at my sides. It’s quiet. Too quiet. There’s nothing but gray. This is it. I’ve reached the gate, the final door to the spirit realm.
I sink to my knees, chanting the ancient words I’ve memorized into the chill expanse. Is this where Claire’s been trapped? In an endless pit of nothingness?
My body buzzes, and I can’t remember if that’s the feeling of the tattoo gun or something new.
The gray around me blurs. But it could’ve been that way before.
Forbidden words mumble out of my lips, but I can’t hear them.
I’m saying my name.
But I haven’t called myself that in years. Twelve, to be exact.
The gray thickens to a sludgy black until it’s covering my hands, filling my lungs, and coating my eyes. The gate is taking me too soon. I thought I’d have more time. I want to hear her voice. I want to see her. I want to say it should’ve been me all along. But the only thing here is my reflection.
Except she has a dimple in her left cheek.
Relief washes over me as the image fades. My sister is free, and so am I. I sink down and down until I fade away, becoming nothing more than a whisper in the dark.
Aly Rusciano is a Creative Writer based outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated from The University of Tennessee at Martin in 2021 with a BA in English, focusing in Creative Writing. Aly’s publications can be found on her blog: https://alyrusciano.wordpress.com