Words and Symbols
Maisie grimaced as the needle hit her skin. She welcomed the pain though. Some pains are like wet blankets you throw over more fiery aches. The needle that carved through her arm was just that, engulfing the flames and leaving ink in its wake.
She breathed deeply, relieved to feel something different. For the last nine years, October 19th reminded her that she was alone, and she always tried something new to help her forget. This year, she was trying to remember.
Jada waited until Dexter, the tattoo artist, had shaped a few permanent strokes. “You don’t have to do this, you know.
Maisie shook her head. “You’re such a dork.”
“You’re the one who brought me to the underbelly of society. No offense,” Jada said, nodding at Dexter.
“Just ignore her.”
She had a point, though. Maisie came for the tattoo, but the hepatitis was a package deal apparently. Maisie sat in an old computer chair that sank down a little every few seconds and had a nasty stain. When she walked in, her shoes stuck to the floor, and she avoided the tiles that were noticeably darker than others. The walls were lined with pictures of strange symbols and bleeding hearts, and Maisie wondered if she was somehow joining a cult. She signed a form with tiny print before the needle hit her skin, and this looked like the kind of place where goat sacrifices were made in the middle of the night.
It was eerily quiet, too. While there were five or six other chairs in the room, Maisie hadn’t seen anyone besides Dexter, who seemed like a nice enough guy. Big, balding, and gasping for air with each breath, but he had a nice smile. The only other sign of life was smoke coming from a back room that wafted throughout the whole place, making the scene a bit hazy.
“Where is everybody?” Maisie asked.
“Sundays are weird days,” Dexter said. “People take it easy. Sleep in. Recover. They aren’t looking to get tattoos when they’re relaxed. Most need a little adrenaline to come in here.”
Maisie had plenty of that when she walked through the door. She spent most of the day trying to stay busy, even reading a few chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird to prepare for her Intro to Literature exam at college. It was hard to focus, though.
“Your first tattoo?” Dexter asked.
Maisie nodded. It wasn’t her plan to get one this year, but she needed it. Felt it down to her bones. Her mother’s voice, once so clear, now grew weaker. It was more an echo than anything else.
“What happens if Bradley finds out?” Jada asked.
Maisie scoffed as she twisted in her seat. “I couldn’t care less what Bradley thinks.” That was true enough, but she did wonder how Brianna would feel. It was strange how different her foster parents were. Former foster parents? She didn’t know how to say it now that she’d aged out of the system.
Neither of them wanted her to get a tattoo, at least not at 19. Something about a permanent decision at a young age and blah blah blah.
“Maybe you should,” Jada said. “They feed you after all.”
“Not for long,” Maisie said.
Jada threw her hands in the air. “No way you’re really moving out.”
There was no way to make Jada understand. The Hastings were nice and all, but today was a good reminder that not even her parents had the resolve to stick around. At least her mom gave Maisie the dignity of dying instead of abandoning her outright. Her father didn’t have quite so much tact.
“They’ve done their duty. I’m getting ahead of it,” Maisie said.
“Wasn’t their duty over months ago?” Jada asked.
“I guess. But people like the Hastings need a good reason to bail so they can tell their friends they tried.”
“Somebody going to come yell at me for this?” Dexter asked, his arms full of colorful tattoos, mostly of mystical beings: dragons and werewolves and such. He wore a short sleeve button up shirt that was supposed to tuck into his jeans but had little chance of staying that way. Dexter was so focused on his art that Maisie couldn’t tell whether he was genuinely interested or just making conversation.
“Do people actually do that?”
“Daddy’s little girl gets a tattoo, and papa needs someone to blame. They’ve come in here with bats before.”
“No daddy’s girl here, that’s for sure.” Maisie touched the scar on her leg, a parting gift from her father.
“Does it bother you?” Jada asked Dexter. “You’re just doing your job.”
Dexter’s eyes never wavered from his art, shading in some pieces. Sharpening lines. He concentrated on each stroke, like he was painting the Sistine Chapel. “Nah, these papas care; I get it. Got a little girl of my own, and I’d break someone’s legs if they messed with her. They think we’re shady, but that’s the business I guess.”
“You do have a demon wielding an axe on the wall,” Jada said.
“And crows pecking at a carcass,” Maisie added.
Dexter burst out laughing, a deep but jovial sound that ended in a hacking cough. “That doesn’t help, I’m sure.”
I bet his daughter loves that laugh, Maisie thought. Based on the 30 minutes she had known him, he seemed like a good dad. She could picture his daughter looking into her father’s eyes and seeing safety and love, an intensity and sweetness both raw and pure.
“You religious?” Dexter asked as he finished the last stroke. Maisie looked down at the lily, her mom’s favorite flower, glistening on her forearm. On top of that flower was written, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
“No, not really. My mom used to say it to me. Drove my dad nuts, but it’s stuck in my brain for whatever reason.”
“And now on your skin,” Jada said as she hovered over Maisie’s chair to get a good look.
Maisie stared at the tattoo for a few seconds, her eyes struggling to keep the tide at bay. Her mom didn’t seem that religious either, but certain words and symbols become a part of who you are even if it doesn’t make sense.
Maisie stared at the photograph, knees facing the back of the couch. She’d memorized the details. The Hastings stood in front of a wooded area beside their church. Bradley and Brianna’s eyes were locked, a sparkle in both. Alexis, a new teenager at the time, sported pigtails and was throwing leaves into the air that her younger brother, Liam, ran under.
The picture had been up since Maisie landed on their doorstep four years ago. Looking at it made her sweat—hot flashes sweeping unevenly over her body. She pushed up the sleeves on her sweater and blew cool air onto her arms, feeling a deeper burn in her tattoo that her breath couldn’t reach. The family looked so happy, so complete.
It reminded her of a time long ago when her parents were both around. They had taken a Thanksgiving picture in the kitchen of their apartment, empty pizza boxes and bottles of soda behind them on the table. She could still smell the smoke from the cigarette her father refused to take out of his mouth. Maisie’s mom stood in the middle, and the exposure from the camera brightened her, made it look like the light in the room sprung from her smile. In that moment they had nothing, but it was everything they needed. Then the light went out.
Dinner had ended about ten minutes ago. Soon, Bradley and Brianna would come into the living room and sit down at Maisie’s request. She owed them an explanation if nothing else. Maybe a thank you.
Brianna came in first, smiling and pulling her auburn hair back into a ponytail. She shivered as she grabbed the soft white blanket from under the coffee table and wrapped it around her shoulders. A moment later, Bradley entered, bringing two mugs of coffee that he sat on the wood top of the coffee table. He plopped down beside his wife.
“You still don’t drink coffee, right?” Brianna asked as she took her first sip. “College sometimes kick starts the habit.”
“No, it’s still gross,” Maisie said, and Brianna chuckled with a tiny snort at the end. She laughed more than anyone Maisie had ever met, which was strange, because Bradley could barely find a smile to put on at all.
“What did you want to talk about?” Brianna asked.
Maisie took a deep breath, put her hands on the edge of the couch. She had dreamed of this moment for a while now, telling herself how freeing it would be to get out from under her foster family. They were a different kind of people than her. The Hastings had rules upon rules upon rules about when she could go out and who she could see and what she could wear. They wanted to know where she was. Always.
She looked back at the family picture. It was clear she didn’t belong here, but now that the time had come, the words she rehearsed all day were scrambled, fragmented. Every time she started to speak, her chest tightened, like someone was squeezing her organs together. It didn’t make sense, but Maisie tended to follow her instincts. Maybe this was a bad idea.
“What’s that?” Bradley asked, tilting his head. He walked over and crossed his arms in front of himself. Broad shouldered and clean cut, he looked like he could still serve in the military, and his dark eyes stared through her, like he was rooting out the contents of her soul. “What did you do?”
At first, she had no idea what he was talking about. He always carried the same stern look, whether he was happy or not. It made him seem reserved to most people, but it scared Maisie that she couldn’t read him.
“Tell me that’s fake,” Bradley said.
It took Maisie a few more seconds to realize she hadn’t put her sleeve down, but when it hit her, it almost knocked her out, sucked the air straight from her lungs. There, glimmering with the shine of the antibiotic cream Dexter put on, was her tattoo.
“So you ignored us. Again.” Bradley said. He let out a long sigh.
Maisie felt the heat rising inside her, bit the inside of her mouth until she tasted blood. Her tongue was loosed. “I didn’t do anything to you. I’m 19. It’s none of your business.”
“You could have told us,” Brianna said. “Helped us understand why you wanted one so bad.” She looked almost hurt, maybe disappointed.
“You should have told us, and when we said no again, you should have listened,” Bradley said.
Today was not an ordinary day. How did they not know that? “Whatever. Who cares what you think?” Maisie jumped to her feet. Bradley could shove it. He had his family; she was just formalizing the scarry remains of hers, putting flowers on that grave.
“Watch your mouth,” he said, pointing his finger at her. “As long as you live in our house, you’ll follow our rules.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t live here anymore,” she said, looking back at the family picture one more time. She drank it in, let it fuel her rage and boil in her gut. It was her choice to swim on her own, but the Hastings had pushed her into the pool. “I’ll be gone by morning.” And with that, she fled to the basement, slamming the door behind her.
The blank canvas was like a shot of caffeine. It cooled Maisie’s blood and cleared her head. A canvas had endless possibilities and no baggage to limit it, no blemishes to work out. It could be anything she wanted. That’s what she longed for. A chance to blot out her own imperfections and start fresh. A pristine, white canvas that didn’t carry the debts of being an orphan, a petty thief, or the daughter of a user. So she painted her life as it was and also, how she wanted it to be. The process was messy, like her, but it helped her make sense of life.
She had just transformed the background of her latest piece, turning a grey sky a bit darker, when Brianna knocked and entered. She quickly covered the artwork.
“Figured you’d be painting.” Brianna said. “Can I see?” She had changed into her pajamas, the kind that someone must ship to all middle-aged parents.
“What do you want?” Maisie said, the words slipping out before she could think better of it. There was still a rawness inside her from earlier, and it was hard to hold her tongue when her body was in fight or flight mode.
Brianna shrugged. “Can I see the tattoo? I didn’t get a good look.”
Maisie sat down on the futon, the furniture where she usually slept. It was hard to get used to a bed after years of not having one. “Didn’t you just yell at me for it a few hours ago?”
“We didn’t want you to get a tattoo until after college, but I’ve always liked them. I have one, you know.”
Brianna carried herself with such grace and elegance; she didn’t seem like the tattoo type, and in four years, Maisie had never seen any ink on her. “Where?”
It seemed like such a simple question, but Brianna began a winding story about her father, a man she loved, who had forbidden her to go to a school dance. She pleaded, promised to wear whatever dress he approved of, to be home by curfew, even dance with only the church boys, but he refused. The night of the dance, she cried into her pillow after dinner, cursing her father’s reign over her life. It was freedom she craved, to be an adult even though the responsibility of that label seemed overwhelming. So she snuck out, had a friend drive her by the dance. But when they got there, Brianna couldn’t go in. She loved her father, couldn’t bring herself to openly defy him. And yet, that itch for freedom, to feel alive remained. That’s how she ended up at Sea of Ink, leaving with a tattoo of a Gouldian Finch, a colorful bird, on her thigh. Her father never directly forbade her from getting a tattoo; he never knew she wanted one. Until then, neither did she.
“Did he ever find out?” Maisie asked.
“No. But when he died, I felt so guilty about it that I confessed while he lay in his casket, and I swear he grimaced the entire time.” They both laughed, and Maisie felt her airpipe open just a bit. “No matter how mad I got at him, I always knew he loved me,” Brianna said.
She grabbed Maisie’s hand. “I’m not going to try and talk you out of leaving.” She waited until they made eye contact again. “You know…I’m here if you need me.”
Maisie’s eyes darted to her feet. “Didn’t seem like it earlier.”
She started to get up, flee the moment, but Brianna grabbed her shoulders and looked deep into her, peeling back layers with her eyes. “I’m here. You get me? You leaving doesn’t change that.”
A knot formed in Maisie’s throat, not allowing anything to come out of her mouth. The family picture was still fresh, a constant reminder of where she placed in the scheme of things. She just wanted whatever this was to end, so she gave Brianna a small hug and walked toward a small desk on the opposite side of the room.
Brianna’s words should mean a lot. They seemed sincere, and it was exactly what Maisie wanted to hear. But she didn’t believe her. Not when it came down to it. Brianna meant well, but Maisie had a way of being inconvenient, and even well-meaning people didn’t like to be inconvenienced. The day would come when it would be easier not to check in or text. They wouldn’t talk for a while, but Brianna would still like her Instagram photos and write comments about getting together soon. When soon never came, she’d apologize and talk about how busy things were. In that busyness, Maisie would gently fade into a memory.
She gritted her teeth, warring against the emotions that inched up her throat. Afraid of having second thoughts, she started throwing clothes in a duffle bag. It was time to get out of here. Fast. Then, Brianna’s voice broke through her fog.
“Is this you? All the way back here?”
Maisie thought Brianna had left, but she turned to see her foster mother staring at the painting she had just finished. It depicted the Hastings, walking in local Lawrence State Park through the woods with silver maples and red oaks lining the way. Bradley and Brianna were holding hands, Alexis was blowing a bubble with her gum, and Liam had a small rock in his hand and looked like he was about to throw it into the trees. The clothes were their Sunday best. The guys wore dress pants and a collared button up shirt. Bradley had his sport coat on. Matching yellow flowers were stuck in Brianna and Alexis’ hair and their pencil skirts and vibrant green blouses resembled Easter outfits.
Behind them on a trail that forked in another direction was someone else. The girl stared at the Hastings, her hair all over the place and tangled. Her eyes heavy. There were holes in her jeans, mud caked on the bottom of them. The clouds rolled over top of her: a dark, grey mass with ill intent.
“Is that you or not?” Brianna’s smile lines disappeared. Her eyes narrowed, lost their normal shine.
Maisie had never seen her foster mother look like that. So intense and solemn. “Yes,” she said.
Brianna took a deep breath, lowered her head, like she was praying and let all the air out of her body. “Meet me upstairs in ten minutes,” she said. “It’s important.”
Maisie sat her packed bag on the top of the stairs before walking into the living room where all four Hastings had gathered. It was warm; the fireplace crackled, making the room glow. Three candles burned on the coffee table and wafted vanilla lavender into the air. “Is this…is this an intervention?” She asked.
Everyone just stared at her. Maybe she should have snuck out, torn that band aid off. This had the look of a lecture, and she couldn’t handle another one. The endless drivel about wanting what’s best for her and being hurt by her choices, and on and on.
“Why yes, this is an intervention of sorts,” Brianna said. She rose from the love seat and grabbed a gift bag beside it. Motioning for Maisie to sit in the easy chair, she handed the bag to her. “We were going to give this to you for your birthday in a few weeks, but you need it now.”
Maisie struggled to make sense of the moment. What couldn’t wait for a few more weeks?
“Go ahead and open it,” Bradley said. “We should have done this a lot sooner.”
She pulled the top apart and threw the tissue paper to the side. Inside was a dark blanket that felt like a jar of cotton balls when she slid her hand across it. The blanket would be perfect for cool evenings while she studied on the couch, but it was a strange gift to gather the whole family for.
“Unfold it,” Brianna said. “There’s something you need to see.”
Maisie got up and spread the blanket on the floor. It was longer than most, and Alexis got up to help her stretch it out, hugging her when they finished. Then the blanket was in full view. It wasn’t a solid color. It didn’t have stripes or dots or a pattern. It didn’t have a clever phrase or the picture of her favorite band. Instead, staring back at her were Liam, Alexis, and herself, sitting outside the Dairy Crème with their heads close together and ice cream smeared all over their faces. They were all laughing, and the joy was intense and natural and free and seemed to emanate from the blanket into the room.
She could feel it before her mind could catch up. This picture meant something, at least to the Hastings, that she couldn’t put together. A lump rose through her chest, lodged in her throat. Unable to speak, her eyes darted around the room looking for answers. Alexis and Liam were smiling; Bradley nodded at her as her gaze swept past him. They all knew, but she couldn’t quite get there.
Finally, Brianna stood up. “This is our favorite picture of our kids.” She paused, waiting for Maisie to say something. When she didn’t, Brianna came over and put her hand on her foster daughter. “All of them.”
Maisie froze for a moment, mouth open, eyes bouncing between the three faces before her on the blanket. Then something burst, and a new heat overwhelmed her, different from the flashes she got earlier while looking at the family picture on the wall. This heat didn’t make her want to run or rage or seek revenge; it warmed her like the chili her mom used to make during cold nights when that tribe was whole, before death and abandonment excommunicated her. Before she knew the betrayal of human weakness in all its forms. When she trusted someone.
Her tears pelted the blanket like hail, her sobs releasing all the bitterness that had hardened for years but melted in an instant. After a minute, Bradley pulled her to her feet, and a sea of arms engulfed her. She could smell the familiar Tide detergent, almost taste the saltiness that flowed from the eyes in that circle. Brianna’s hand rubbed gently up and down her spine, and with each pass, it steeled her.
A part of Maisie died on October 19th all those years ago. Now, where there once had been only decay, she felt the small thump of a heartbeat. Blood was flowing. The picture on that blanket, like the tattoo on her arm, was now a part of her. Even if it didn’t make sense.
Nick Carrington teaches writing at Cedarville University. His work has appeared in Servants of Grace, Outreach Magazine, and Cedarville Magazine. He also serves as an editor for the Early Pregnancy Loss Association.
Photo Credit: “Tattoo needle” by Matt Borowick, Wikimedia Commons. (Modified by Veronica McDonald).