Gia brushed the blunt ashes off of her apron but only ended up smearing the Smoke grey ash into her polyester apron.
“Ugh, Gabby, I hate this job,” Gia moaned to her fellow waitress on their too-short break.
Gabby shrugged. “I mean, a job’s a job.” just be grateful we have one in this pandemic, putting her cigarette out on the curb, while Gia Neatly packed her half burned blunt into her smell proof Doob-tube. Inside, the place has gone from manageable to disaster.
Gia threw her hands up. “That last customer ordered 50 dollars worth of snow crab, and drops a nickel
Gia grunted. “It’s not funny, Gabby!”
Those things are big, sharp, and heavy, he was inconsiderate to make me carry them to his car. And not even give me a dollar!
“Work is what you make of it.” spouted Gabby
“Easy for you to say, Miss Employee of the Month.”
Gabby smirked. “Speaking about that, the gift basket they gave me had this coupon. I got no need for it, but I figured you might.”
Gimme that! Gia swiped the coupon out of Gabby’s hand. It was 55% off a tattoo at a place called (the Hermes Mermaid)
Dope!, hope they have some good ones! The following morning, Gia stood in front of the tattoo parlor. The marquee saying INK OR SWIM blinked in neon blue, and painted tentacles wrapped around the letters like a vine. The sign on the door flipped from Closed to Open.
Gia pushed the door and was greeted by a burly woman with a septum piercing. Each arm’s sleeve tattoo went up to her broad shoulders. On the left, a kraken attacking a pirate ship; on the right, a graffiti font tribute to some biker gang.
“Hi there. Mama Squid here.” She held out her hand and firmly shook Gia’s.”
“Mama Squid? Oh, because squids shoot ink. Cute.”
“Actually, it’s because I work six times as efficiently as my competition.” She winked. “So how may I help ya?”
Gia tugged on her left earlobe. “I want a ladybug here.”
“I can do that, kiddo. Come sit.”
Gia sunk into the chair. The shop’s decor resembled an aquarium with its aquatic theme. Glow-in-the-dark starfish stickers and dolphin murals adorned the walls. Gia felt as if she was back at the Siren Shack.
Gia pointed to the shelf of ink bottles. “What are those bottles on the top?”
Mama Squid grimaced. “Those are Forbidden Colors. I refuse to use them out of superstition.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Well…” Mama Squid cleared her throat. “According to legend, the ink from those bottles is cursed with the ancient blood of River sprite. It’s silly, sure, but I’ve seen things.”
Gia raised her brows. “Huh, interesting. Anyway, about this ladybug. I’ve never had a tattoo before. Ladybugs are symbols of luck in my superstition.”
“Let me do a quick sketch first.” Mama Squid drew up a picture of a ladybug. “First I outline it on your skin, then I trace it over with color. It may sting, but Mama knows what she’s doing. Trust me.”
Gia gulped. “Let’s do it.”
“Check it out,” Gia told Gabby on their next shift. “I got a ladybug for good luck.”
“Did it hurt? How was it?”
“It didn’t hurt, no. Not really. In fact, I kinda want to get another.” Gia paused. “Hey, silly question, but have you heard of River sprite?”
Gabby stared at Gia like she just swallowed a bug. “Um, I’m sorry, what?”
“Yeah, my tattoo artist said something about River sprite tattoos? She was weird but surprisingly sweet though.”
The two girls laughed in sync. “Crazy,” added Gabby.
“Yeah. Ugh, my break’s over. Gotta go.”
“Hopefully you see you-know-who today,” laughed Gabby.
Gia carried the platter of lobster rolls soaked in melted butter to her table. “Here ya go, sir. Enjoy!”
The customer, a short man as pale as death, motioned his index finger to beckon her closer. “Shhh, lean forward,” he whispered. “Whaddya know about—” He stopped to survey the area suspiciously. “River sprite?”
“Uh, not much. They’re just some urban legend—”
“They’re not just some legend,” said the strange man starkly. “Their blood holds strong magic. But be cautious.”
After work, Gia hit up the old library on the hill. It was dead. But she could not blame people for not wanting to go, for it smelled of decay and rot. It had a creepy air, and most people would rather use their computers and smartphones than spend a moment in a library. When she stepped inside, she almost gagged on dust.
“May I help you?” A startled lady cooed.
“Where’s the supernatural section? Old legends and folktales? That type of stuff.”
The librarian pushed up her thick-rimmed bifocals and cleared her throat. “Follow me.” She led Gia to an aisle in the back. “Do you know which title you’re looking for?”
“Something about River sprite.”
“Hm. Try River sprite and other Aquatic Creatures You Should Fear. The books should be in alphabetical order.”
Gia ran her fingers across the spine of the books, those untouched relics lining the shelves like a museum exhibit, until she landed on the R’s.
“Rising Star Signs… Ritual Sacrifices and their Ethical Purposes… aha! River sprite and other Aquatic Creatures You Should Fear.” Gia opened the Table of Contents and flipped to the page on River sprite. She read an excerpt:
“River sprite were said to have been first discovered by treasure hunters who would dive to the bottom of bodies of water and collect strange conch shells. When dusting them off, in hopes of selling them, genies would swim out, genies with clownish faces and mermaid fins under their torso.
Though they promise to grant a wish and seem genuinely helpful, River sprite always twist it in sinister ways.
Certain poachers and alchemists hunt these beasts for their blood, which is said to contain certain mythical properties, often used as an ingredient for concocting elixirs or potions and enchanting otherwise ordinary objects.
Some have harvested this power to get a wish without the interference of River sprite. Because of this, River sprite are an endangered species and have become more hostile towards humans.”
Gia closed the book. “I wonder if that’s true.” A crafty smirk swam to her face. “Only one way to find out.”
Even though her ladybug had not finished healing, Gia stepped back into Ink Or Swim. A pretty, skinny bombshell greeted her, clamshell earrings bouncing as she bobbed her head to the classic rock blaring from the boombox. The teal streaks in her otherwise bleach blonde hair complemented her sparkly seafoam eyes. She was no older than 28.
Mama Squid came from behind her. “This my apprentice here, Starla Fischer.”
Gia stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Gia,” she introduced.
Starla gently shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Mama Squid patted Gia on the shoulder. “So, back for another, huh? Pretty soon you’ll be like me: more art than flesh. Ha, that’ll take you some years.”
“Do you know what you want to get?” Starla smacked her glitter-green lips.
“Something simple. A money sign on my inner wrist.”
“You can do that easy, Annie.” Mama Squid grabbed her stomach and swiftly lurched to the bathroom. “Now excuse me, but those truckstop tacos never stay in me for long.”
“She’ll be a while,” giggled Starla.
Gia smiled, thinking this will be easier than I expected.
After Starla outlined the $ inside Gia’s left wrist, she reached for a bottle of green ink.
“Actually,” Gia interrupted, “can you use that specific shade of green there?” She pointed to the Forbidden Colors.
“I don’t think I can. Mama told me to never use those colors. Sorry.”
Gia yanked out a 20-dollar bill from her pocket and slid it into Starla’s hand. “I really love your hair by the way.”
“Eh, I’m sure it’s fine. She probably won’t even notice I used it.” Starla fetched the bottle from the top labelled Envy Green and put her index finger in front of her lips. “I won’t tell you if you don’t.”
Gia grinned, but something in the pit of her stomach sank as she watched Starla dip the needle into the ink cap and shade her tattoo.
Later that day, Gia stopped by the gas station to test her theory. At the convenience store, she bought a lottery ticket and a pack of Newports. Her wrist began to throb.
The cashier eyed her tattoo as she paid. “I’ve never seen such a vivid green before.”
Oddly enough, Gia’s dollar sign tattoo had healed, yet her ladybug still hadn’t. “Thank you.” She pilfered a coin from the “Leave-a-Penny, Take-a-Penny” cup and scratched the lotto ticket like a bad itch. Once she finished, she stared at the ticket without blinking. She squinted and pinched her arm. She hit the 7-7-7 mini-jackpot.
“I don’t believe it.” Gia handed the winning ticket back to the cashier, who then pulled out a dozen $100 bills from the register. “This can’t be a coincidence,” she thought.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” joked the cashier, a bit of jealousy twinkling in his eye.
Gia stuffed the crumpled wad of cash into her knockoff designer purse and took the bus home.
On the following Taco Tuesday, Gia returned to Ink Or Swim to Starla spraying lemon-scented Febreze in the air.
“Back for more? Somebody is addicted, huh?” Starla popped her bright pink bubblegum. “Mama Squid is doing, uh, business. Whatcha need?”
Gia cocked half a smirk. “I know it’s cliché, but could I get a heart with a rose through it like an arrow? And on my chest?” She slipped fifty bucks in her hand and pointed to the shelf of Forbidden Colors. “Can I have Sanguine Red?”
Starla grasped the shark tooth pendant that deGabbyted her neck and twirled it between her fingers. “Of course.”
The finished product looked sloppy, the rose thorns a bit asymmetrical, but the picture was recognizable nonetheless.
The next day, back at the restaurant, Gia showed off her latest tat. “Check this out, Gabby.”
“Another tattoo? You need help, girl.”
“You should consider getting—”
“Oh my God! There he is, Gia.” Gabby turned Gia’s head towards a booth in the corner.
“What do I do?” Gia hid behind her hands.
“Don’t be shy. Just take his order!”
The guy they were ogling, a handsome regular, sat alone, fiddling with his his smartphone device. Gia awkwardly staggered to his table trying not to lose her words.
“Uh, hi. My name is Gia, and I’ll be your server today.”
“Can I have the, uh, bucket of fried shrimp specialty?”
Gia zoned out for a second, slipping into a brief fantasy in which she and this stranger were kissing in the employee parking lot. “Shrimp special, got it. Anything to drink?”
The boy’s dimpled curved. “Root beer, light ice.”
Gia swept her hairnet coyly. “Coming right up!” On her way back, she shot Gabby an approving look.
“Go for it,” whispered Gabby as Gia entered the kitchen to put in the boy’s order. She briskly dropped the beverage off at his table without making eye contact with him. Some time passed in which Gia would casually gaze at him until he looked back and she’d shy away. They played this game of eye-tag until the chef finished preparing his meal.
Gia brought the tray back to his table: a bucket of fried shrimp, sautéed in garlic butter and lemon, with a side of extra salted french fries. She glanced at him, embarrassed.
Rod took a piece of shrimp and dipped it into cocktail sauce. “Thank you, Gia.”
“Shawn,” he answered. “But my friends call me Rod.”
“What does your girlfriend call you?” Gia regretted saying it as soon as the words left her lips.
“I don’t have one, but if I did, she would call me… with my phone number.” Rod smiled, garnish caught in his teeth.
Gia’s cheeks flushed redder than her new tattoo. “Well, enjoy your meal.” She scurried away without making eye contact and didn’t return until he asked for the check. Her hazel eyes grew at the sight of the receipt.
“Oh my God! I saw how you two were flirting.” Gabby screamed to Gia after work. “Tell me everything!”
“Well, his name is Rod, and his voice is so sexy!”
“What happened? Spill!”
“Not only did he tip extraordinarily well, he even threw in a couple extra digits. His.” Gia flashed the paper to her, showing her the phone number and gratuity under his cute autograph. “Would it be creepy to frame this on my wall?”
“Yes!” Gabby playfully slapped Gia’s shoulder. “Now give me your phone. I’ll text him for you!” She snatched it from Gabby’s hand and began to search for Rod’s name.
“No, stop!” Gia tried to steal her phone back, but Gabby was too tall and kept dodging her.
“Awh, you even put heart emojis by his name!”
“Give it back!” Gia yelled like an irritated schoolgirl.
“Here you go,” Gabby snickered. “Don’t worry. I already sent him a message. You’re welcome.”
Gia’s heart sank like an anchor, her blood rushing like water, a wave of anger and terrified excitement drowning her. She felt like she just jumped overboard without a life vest. She didn’t even read what Gabby had texted before she felt her phone vibrate. He responded.
Gabby had written: hey xD it’s me, Gia, from siren shack lol so do you wanna hang out sometime??? 😛
Gia cringed so hard reading that, but before she could show her rage to Gabby, she read what Rod had responded.
Sure, I’d love to! How’s tonight at 9:30 sound?
Gia checked the time at the top of her phone. It was 8.
Yes, perfect! Let’s meet by the pier?
Later that night, Gia arrived at the pier. The moonlight illuminated the hot pink scrunchie around her ponytail. She found Rod sitting at the dock, dangling his threadbare shoes over the edge, skipping stones across the water. The ripples seemed to shriek as if the ocean winced in pain from every pebble thrown.
Gia tapped Rod on his shoulder, his skin exposed for he wore a basketball jersey with no sleeves.
“Whoa!” Rod shivered before turning around, his face pale. “Don’t scare me like that.” He paused. “But wow, you look stunning.” His jaw dropped as his eyes locked onto the beauty in front of him, his eyes that twinkled with the same intensity as the water below. Shining like rare gems buried beneath the waves. His smoky quartz met her emeralds, and their hands interlocked. Gia rubbed her palm across Rod’s cheek, caressing it gently.
Gia leaned in but immediately pulled back. “Part of me expected you to flake.”
“Of course not. Something about you drew me in. I don’t know what, but there’s something special about you. I can’t quite explain it.”
Gia chewed the inside of her cheeks nervously. “Aren’t you sweet?” Her heartbeat increased in tempo until it was pounding like war drums.
Rod blinked his puppy dog eyes. “I brought you a gift.”
Gia’s eyes widened. “Oh?”
Rod reached into his back pocket. “Close your eyes.” He handed her a single blood red rose. “Now open them.”
Before Gia could say anything, she clutched her chest, her heart pulsating rapidly, and coughed uncontrollably.
“My god, are you okay?” Rod embraced his arms around her shoulders and patted her back.
“Feels like butterflies.” She made a choking sound.
“Breathe in… Now hold it, good… now breathe out.”
Gia slowly inhaled and exhaled repeatedly as she gazed into Rod’s eyes, so wide she could see her own reflection in them. She pursed her lips then instantly covered her mouth with her hand. “That was strange. But I feel better now.”
“It’s okay, Gia. I’m here. I know we just met, but I am drawn to you. And I want you to be okay.”
They lingered in intimate silence before Gia decided to grab Rod’s face, swoop his hair back, and launch her lips onto his. He pulled her closer and tilted his head slightly as their tongues tangled like fish hooks in a tacklebox.
Rod placed the rose behind her right ear as they kissed, the flower’s color glowing almost holographically. A single rose petal dripped off and fell into the water below, floating down the Elysive Ocean. The current carried it away until it exited the horizon, like an actor leaving the stage, as if to return home.
Gia and Shawn shared many more nights like that over the course of a year, each date getting progressively more intimate. A week before their anniversary, Gia stopped by Ink or Swim for old time’s sake. Rod was out of town for a ten-year high school reunion, so Gia felt a little bit bored and a lot bit devious.
“Hey! It’s been a while,” barked Mama Squid.
Gia’s eyes darted across the room. “Does Starla still work here?”
“Yeah, but she ain’t here today, so I guess ya stuck with me, sweet cheeks.”
Gia tried to hide her disappointment. “No, it’s fine. Was just wondering.”
Mama Squid chortled. “So how’s can I help ya, dearie?”
“I wanna get a diamond on my ring finger.” Gia waved her left hand and wiggled her fingers. “Like the card suit.”
“That it?” Mama Squid sounded disappointed.
Gia pondered. “And how about we add little bells too?”
Mama Squid raised her eyebrows suspiciously. “I s’pose if that’s what ya really want I can do it.”
Sweat dropped from Gia’s forehead. “Wait, how about you show me examples of your talent. Do you have any sketchbooks?”
Mama Squid smiled. “As a matter of fact, I do. Let me show you a little something I’ve been working on. Hold on, it’s in the back.”
With Mama Squid out of sight, Gia had the opportunity to set things in her favor. She switched the sticker with the bottle on the normal red ink with Sanguine Red and placed them in each other’s spots on the shelves.
“Check this out.” Mama Squid opened a comic book, the art style similar to the parlor’s dolphin mural. “This here is a rough draft of a little something I’ve been workin’ on. It’s a work-in-progress, but I think it has potential.”
“Wow, you drew all that?” Gia forced herself to sound enthusiastic. “Impressive.”
“You think so?” Mama Squid shuffled through the pages of what seemed to be an underwater fantasy-adventure with pirates and mermaids. “I’ve always loved nautical imagery, if you couldn’t tell, and comic books inspired me to pursue art, then tattooing, and… oh, you don’t care.”
“No, tell me more. That’s fascinating,” pretended Gia.
“It’s crazy, you know, how much is still unknown about the world, especially at the bottom of the ocean. This island alone… sorry, what was I even talkin’ ’bout? Oh, yeah, I’m good at art is alls I’m sayin’. I can transform your body to a masterpiece if you challenge me.”
Gia listened anxiously. “You’re really great, but I don’t know. I still want the diamond and bells; they’re symbolic.”
Mama Squid frowned. “I understand. It’s just I don’t get as much business as I used to.”
Gia consoled Mama Squid as she sighed. The tattoo did not take long, but to Gia, it dragged on for a lifetime.
When Rod returned from his reunion, Gia Rode him the biggest hug. “How was it?”
“It was fun!” He wore a tattered v-neck that read Elfcrest Sharks with his alma mater’s mascot emblazoned on it. His faded blue jeans fit too snugly on his legs. “I missed you.”
Gia felt a tingle on her finger. “I missed you too!”
Rod looked down. “Look. I have something important to ask you. It’s crazy, I know, but I feel I should.” He knelt down before her. “I want to start a new chapter—no, a new book—with you as my main character.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny blue box. “Will you do me the honor of becoming Mrs. Gia Findlay?”
Gia gasped. “Yes! Of course!” She slid the ring on her finger; the diamond had a reddish tint to it.
“DAMN, that’s big!” Gabby’s jaw dropped as Gia played hand model to show off her latest accessory.
“That’s not all that’s big.” Gia winked. “And I’d love it if you would be my Maid of Honor.”
“Um, duh!” Gabby threw her arms around Gia. “Did you pick out a date yet?”
“Yeah! We decided we want a spring wedding. It’s much more romantic. Flowers blooming, birds and bees making love, and then maybe we can honeymoon in Paris.”
“That’s awesome! I can’t seem to keep a lover for longer than a three-day festival weekend.” Gabby puckered her lips to the side. “Hm, maybe I could invite a stripper from your bachelorette party as my plus-one,” she joked. “And don’t worry, you can bet your sweet ass I’m going to hire the best strippers I can afford on my salary.”
Gia rolled her eyes playfully. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Months later, a week before their wedding date, Rod and Gia were sitting at the pier where they had their first date.
“I have something very urgent to tell you,” Rod avered.
Gia’s stomach rumbled. “Oh?”
“I don’t know how to say it, but I—” Rod looked at his feet. “Remember my high school reunion last summer?”
“Well,” Rod continued, “when I was there, I reconnected with my high school sweetheart. We both got wasted, super drunk, and we kind of, uh, well, we hooked up. I was going to leave it as some stupid mistake from the past, but—” He paused. “But she, well, she’s pregnant. And I want, well, I wanna raise the baby with her. Sorry, but I’m leaving you.”
Tears rolled down Gia’s cheeks and into the ocean where they would be collected with all the other tears.
“I’m sorry,” Rod said as he walked away.
Gia took the ring and flung it into the ocean.
The next morning, slightly calmer but still enraged, Gia stormed into Ink or Swim. Mama Squid was mopping the floor. No sign of Starla, but Gia didn’t need to bribe her anymore.
“Haven’t seen you in ages.” Mama Squid saw Gia’s red eyes. Are you okay, dearie? Hold on. Let me get ya a fresh bottle of water from the fridge in the back. Be right back.”
While she fetched a drink, Gia swapped the label on an ink bottle with that of forbidden Grisly Gray. Mama Squid returned with a water, none the wiser.
Mama patted her shoulder. “What’s bothering ya, hun?”
“Nothing,” Gia wept. “Can I get a tombstone tattoo that says R.F. 1992-2020 on it?”
Mama Squid’s eyes widened. “Wow, how young. I am so sorry for your loss. May I pry?”
“He was my fiancé,” she whispered.
He’s dead to me, as well as the dream of us living happily ever after, she mused to herself.
“Well, I’m sure they’re in a better place now,” consoled Mama Squid.
We’ll see about that, thought Gia.
“Where do you want it?” Asked Mama Squid.
“Place it wherever the most nerve endings are,” Gia said coldly. “I want it to hurt.”
The next night, Gia received a phone call from Marlon, Shawn’s older brother. Perhaps he did not know Shawn had dumped her, she thought, ignoring the call. She later checked the string of voicemails he left in which he relayed that night’s events:
Rod and Marlon were on their father’s sailboat, enjoying the April breeze. Shawn plucked a Corona from the cooler and tossed it to Marlon.
“Good weather today,” noted Marlon between sips.
“Yeah, I’m glad we decided to do this. It’s been a while since we just lazed out on the lake.” Shawn threw another empty beer can overboard. It did not splash. Instead, water bubbled like champagne around the boat, but they did not disperse. The bubbles grew in size and stalked the sailboat.
“I need to take a piss. Look the other way. No, better yet, go on that end of the boat.” Rod unzipped his cargo shorts and began to urinate. Looking over the edge, he noticed the congregation of bubbles pushing against the boat. He aimed for the bubbles, and in doing so, lost his balance, stumbling into the water.
Marlon, too busy jamming to their portable radio, which he turned up to maximum volume in order to drown out the sound of his brother peeing, could not hear the splash Rod’s body made. By the time he noticed Rod’s absence, the boat was too far ahead, and Rod did not have the energy to swim drunk. The unforgiving Lake Cramos engulfed him.
Marlon’s voicemail chain was more or less a recounting of this incident. Gia, first listening aloud on speakerphone, feigned shock, while Gabby gaped her mouth in disbelief. In her head Gia mused, well played, unsure of whom she was addressing. She felt a ping of remorse, but only briefly. She knew she could replace that feeling just as easily a covering up a bad tattoo.
The cathedral pipe organist played a somber dirge, minor chords reverberating throughout the Church of the Weeping Pixie. Gia stepped through the chapel doors, fashionably late, and sat in a pew in the back row. The projector screen hanging above the coffin displayed a slideshow of Shawn: baby pics, high school yearbook photos, college graduation, family picnics. His high school reunion. The typical collage of one’s life cycle, for a person can be so neatly defined by a collection of highlighted snapshots.
After the memorial service, a familiar face approached the exit. Gia glimpsed the teal streaks in the woman’s hair, tied in a bun, and immediately recognized her. “Starla?”
Starla swiveled her neck around as if suffering from roller-coaster whiplash. “Gia? Oh wow, funny seeing you here.”
Gia’s eyes were drawn to Starla’s enlarged belly. “So, if I may ask, how did you know Rod?”
“We dated in high school. Then we sort of drifted apart, but I never quit loving him.” Starla sobbed and wiped her face with a black chiffon handkerchief. “I would have done anything for him. Now excuse me. I must grieve in peace.”
Starla leaned back, gripping her baby bump. Her shirt lifted up a bit, exposing a tattoo on her stomach. The black ink was peculiarly striking as it formed the tiny illustration etched on her skin; the silhouette of a man with an uncanny resemblance to Shawn kissing a woman with an uncanny resemblance to Starla, cradling a baby in her hands, were all depicted, like inkblots, inside the vibrant red of a hopeful heart.
The harsh toll of the funeral bells echoed.
Gia’s finger began to itch.