Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Like most teenage boys, I believed that I was a wolf, not a sheep. And, like most teenage boys I was wrong. I was very much a follower.
Specifically, a follower of Daniel Lawman.
Daniel Lawman was the coolest boy in school. Handsome, charming and effortlessly intelligent. I ached to be someone like him but, along with everyone else, all I could hope for was the occasional crumb of his attention.
I was not a stupid kid and I often did well at school but I'm embarrassed to admit that, for the longest time, the moment I recalled with the most pride was the day that I made Daniel laugh.
I don't remember what the joke was, but the whole class laughed and I got a detention because of it. I didn't realise that it had caught Daniels attention until that afternoon. We were in the locker rooms, getting changed for P.E. when out of the blue he came up behind me and punched me on the shoulder.
'Great one this morning, Simon,' he grinned. 'Killed it.'
I stared at him open mouthed, willing myself to say something, to say anything. The best I achieved was a stuttered 'Thanks!'
He tapped a finger at me. 'You should be a comedian.'
And then I found out just how much of an impression my joke had made when he suddenly decided to share with me his Secret.
He glanced around to make sure no one was watching and then, turning slightly to the side, lifted his shirt.
'Check this out,' he said, smirking.
On his ribcage was a tattoo. A red eagle, wings wide, claws dripping blood. Hideously clichéd, I now realise, but at the time it was the coolest and most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
'Where did you get that?' I breathed. 'And how? Don't you have to be eighteen to get a tattoo?'
Daniel shrugged. 'My cousin Steve did it. He's a great artist.' He pulled his shirt back down, tucking it into his trousers. 'I got it as an early birthday present.' He laughed. 'Two years early.' He offered me a charming grin and a wink. 'Don't tell anyone, yeah? I don't want to get Steve into trouble.'
I nodded with enthusiasm. For the first time in my life I felt part of an exclusive club – one of the few people who knew something intimately private about Daniel Lawman.
To be honest, that was pretty much the entirety of my relationship with Daniel. He rarely spoke to me after that and I don't think I ever made him laugh again. But it didn't matter. I would always have that moment in the changing rooms, that instance of trust.
And the sight of the tattoo.
God, I dreamt about it. I sketched it endlessly, wishing that it was on my skin. Whether it was the design itself or my association with the boy who had it, I don't suppose I'll ever know.
But I wanted it. I needed it. I would stare at myself in the mirror and feel that I looked incomplete because my skin was unmarked and boring, with a dull patch on my ribcage where a red eagle should be.
I resolved to get one too. And I was sure that I couldn't wait two years to do so.
I probed tattoo forums, asking whether anyone knew of an artist who might be a little flexible regarding the age of their clients. I tried to be as delicate as possible, of course, framing my questions as a general curiosity rather than an actual search... but I guess I wasn't careful enough.
You want to see Jack, said the message. He'll do you.
Then underneath, a phone number. Nothing else.
The number was a landline, I saw, rather than a mobile so I called it the next day. My heart pounded as it rang and I found myself hoping that maybe no one would pick up. Then there was a click.
'Hellooo.' The word was drawn out, almost sarcastic and the voice was high and a little whiny.
I tried to speak, coughed instead and then managed to get my words out. 'Um, hi. I was told you do tattoos?'
'Oh yeees!' came the reply. 'I do indeeeed. Would you liiike one?' Jack, assuming that's who I was talking to, sounded delighted at the prospect and also somewhat patronising, like an old woman offering a sweet to a child.
'Uh, yes,' I said. 'I'm after a red eagle...'
Jack cut me off. 'You can give me the details when you get here. Is tomorrow acceptable?'
I nodded, then realised that was stupid and managed a weak, 'Yes.'
'Excelleeent!' Cried Jack. 'Bring your sweetness here tomorrow at 7 o'clock sharp!' He gave me an address in town. It was not an area I would have ever wanted to go to on my own
Also... my sweetness?
But I wanted that tattoo. Some little madness had attached itself to my vulnerable adolescent brain and was telling me that I would only be complete when I had it. Only be cool when I had it.
And so, the next day at 7pm, I went to see Jack.
The sun had long since set by the time I arrived, my path lit only by flickering orange street lights. The address was on a small industrial estate, squatting amongst small grubby businesses, repair shops and other units of indeterminate purpose. A handful of men stood around in scruffy oversized clothing, with cold faces and piercing eyes.
I had tried to dress to make myself inconspicuous – jeans, a hoody – but I still stuck out like a sore thumb, embarrassingly young and out of place. I hurried past them, not making eye contact. Eventually I found the place I was looking for. The door was locked and, as this particular building had no windows, I couldn’t see inside. I knocked and waited. My heart was pounding and I was painfully aware of the cold-faced men watching me.
No one answered, so I knocked again. An unpleasant suspicion began to form in my mind: was this all a prank, or worse…a set up? Oh god, was I about to be jumped by these guys? I was just about to make a run for it when I heard footsteps from inside the building and the scraping of locks. I held my breath … and then the door opened.
At first I couldn’t make anything out at all; it was pitch black on the other side. Then a pale face loomed into view.
Jack stood before me. His face was long and thin with oddly bulging eyes, yellowish skin and lank hair. He was tall with spindly legs and arms but his torso was strangely round, with sagging breasts and a bloated stomach. He was wearing black overalls and a white apron which he was wiping his fingers on as he stared at me. I opened my mouth to speak but didn’t get the chance.
‘Ah yes!’ He cried, ‘The young man who wants the tattoo. Of course, of course, come in, come in!’ He stepped aside, flapping his hand towards the darkness of the interior. I didn’t want to go inside at all but found my feet carrying me forward as if they didn’t care what the rest of me wanted.
Jack shut the door behind me and I suddenly became aware of an unpleasant smell, bleach maybe, mixed with something meaty. I couldn’t tell whether it came from the building or from Jack himself.
He skipped ahead of me, moving oddly lightly for someone so awkwardly built. I followed as if in a trance as he led me into a room off the side of the entrance corridor. It was surprisingly brightly lit, filled with cupboards and shelves weighed down with bottles. In the middle of the room was a black chair that looked like a dark version of something you’d see at the dentist. Jack waved me to it.
I sat down and he perched delicately on a stool next to me.
‘Now, young Simon, what can I do for you?’
I reached a shaking hand into my pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, onto which I had sketched the design of Daniel’s tattoo. I passed it to Jack.
‘I’d like this, please.’
Jack peered at it, an unsettling smile on his pudgy lips, his eyes oddly expressionless.
‘How pretty!” He exclaimed. ‘But not, I think, an original?’
I had fully intended to pretend that it was so the question caught me off guard and the truth slipped out.
‘Um…no…I copied it from a boy at school.’
Jack giggled, a most unpleasant sound. ‘Ah ha! Sweet, sweet Daniel!’
I sat up straight in astonishment. ‘You know Daniel?’
‘Why of course, my love!’ Chuckled the man. ‘I was the one who gave him this pretty picture!’
So Daniel had lied to me when he had said his cousin had done the tattoo for him. I struggled to think of him coming to this place, sitting in this chair. It was strange to imagine the effortlessly cool Daniel in this creepy dump. However, I was also pleased – if Jack really had done Daniel’s tattoo then I could expect mine to look exactly the same.
I pulled up my shirt and pressed my hand to my ribcage. ‘I’d like it here, please.’
Jack’s head jerked up and he stared at my exposed skin. His mouth was slightly open, his eyes wide but his face was bizarrely still, his expression unreadable. Then he snapped into a smile and looked up at me. ‘Of course!’
I lay back on the chair and shifted slightly to my side as Jack got up and moved around the room picking items up off shelves, though I couldn’t see what. I let my eyes wander, feeling nervous and excited. There was a clinking of bottles somewhere behind me.
‘You know this is a painful procedure, yeees?’ Enquired Jack. I replied that I did. ‘Good, good,’ he giggled. ‘Then perhaps a little something for the pain?’
I was about to ask what he intended when two things occurred to me. The first was that I couldn’t see anything in the room that looked like a tattoo machine and the other was that Jack had known my name without me telling him.
And then Jack stepped quickly up beside the chair and pressed a mask down upon my face, covering my mouth and nose. I struggled but he held me down without difficulty, leaning down to stare into my eyes. ‘Easy now, my love! You’ll get what you came for!’
As I slipped into unconsciousness, he added ‘And I’ll make sure you get home in one piece.’
Several hours later I finally fought myself back to consciousness. I remembered fevered dreams of horrible sounds, slicing, screams maybe… An awful image of Jack standing over me, with blood on his face whilst he chewed on a pale sliver of… something. He was staring into my eyes as he did so, his pupils impossibly big in the bright room.
I was lying on my bed, in my room. I tried desperately to remember how I’d got there but I couldn’t recall anything. Dawn was breaking outside the window and my bedside clock announced that it was morning, still a few hours before I needed to be at school. I climbed to my feet with my head spinning and tottered over to the mirror. My whole body ached but a sharp pain in my side needed to be investigated immediately.
With shaking hands, I raised my shirt and looked at my ribs.
There it was: a tattoo of a red eagle, wings wide, claws dripping blood.
As shallow as it may seem, I was so delighted at the sight of it that the confusing events of the night before were purged from my mind. I stood there, admiring it, already feeling more like a man than a boy. But as I peered closer at that magnificent bird, something looked a little wrong. I had read that a new tattoo didn’t look its best at first but this one looked really strange. It was angry around the edges rather than on the design itself. Raised and raw.
But what did I know? I’d never had a tattoo before. How could I tell what they were supposed to look like when new?
I went into the bathroom and gently cleaned the area. It was agony to touch but I was far too excited to care. It needed to look its best so that I could show it to Daniel. He would appreciate what I had done, and understand the importance of the thing.
I positively skipped to school.
It was all I could do not to show it to my friends, to everyone I spoke to. But, no, I needed to save it for my Tattoo Twin. I was breathless with excitement.
But he wasn’t in. I asked around, as casually as I could, but no one seemed to know where he was. I trudged home at the end of the day, trying to keep my disappointment from turning to tears. What did it matter if he didn’t see it today? Daniel would be in tomorrow or next week and I could show him the tattoo then. I only had to wait.
But he wasn't in the next day. Or the day after that.
I came down to breakfast on Saturday morning and as soon as I walked through the door into the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. My mother was hanging up the phone, her face a little pale. She looked up at me as I entered with tears in her eyes.
‘What’s happened?’ I asked.
She almost ran over to me and swept me into a tight hug. Her arms pressed against my side and I almost cried out at the pain, pushing her away. She wiped her eyes.
‘Simon…someone from your class has been killed.’
A chill ran over me. I felt a sudden leadenness in my stomach. An awful inevitability.
‘Who?’ I asked, although I was sure that I already knew.
She probably said other things after that, but I didn’t hear them. I went straight to my room, cold with shock. I didn’t speak, didn’t eat. My mother was sympathetic but a little confused. She hadn’t realised, she said later, that the two of us had been so close.
It came out that his body had been found on an industrial estate. The cause of death wasn’t clear at that time, but there had been significant blood loss from a large wound in his side. Over his ribcage.
Some odd ritualised mutilation, it was theorised.
I stood in front of the mirror looking at what had been, for a few glorious days, my pride and joy. I felt sick. Now that I looked closely, I could see the tiny stitches that held on my beloved tattoo. I could see that it was raised where Daniel's skin jutted up against mine.
Overwhelmed with sickness and horror I tried to work my fingers underneath it, ignoring the agony of doing so, to try and pry it from me, but it was no use. Our flesh was already melding together. It should have been impossible. My body should have rejected the graft but instead it was knitting into me, as if it was just a wound to be healed.
After another three days no one would have been able to tell that the tattoo had ever belonged to someone else.
Sometime later, when the investigation had died down a little, I returned to Jack’s address. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that the building was almost completely gone – blackened, charred and derelict. I could tell the police about Jack, I suppose, but would they really believe me? My wild story of how I ended up with Daniel Lawman’s tattoo on my body? Maybe, maybe not.
But mostly I fear that someone will see it, and end up with a burning desire for it like I did. That they’ll find Jack and ask for an exact copy.
And then he’ll come for me, and pass on his red eagle tattoo to the next customer.