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Mark Off the Years

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Allison gets her first tattoo when she’s sixteen, a bow and arrow right behind her ear. It’s not very beautiful. The arrow is crooked and the bow isn’t symmetrical, but it’s hers. Her parents are furious when they find out. She calmly tells them that if they’d given her permission, like she’d asked, she wouldn’t have had to sneak in and out of the house at three in the morning to get one illegally.

Her father sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.

‘You’re grounded for three weeks. And get in the car. We’re going to the hospital to makes sure you didn’t catch something,’ he says.

After the doctors give her a clean bill of health, her father tells her that if she behaves until her eighteenth birthday, they’ll pay for a real tattoo from a real tattoo artist.

So for the next eighteen months, she behaves exemplary. Most of the time.

~

As promised, her parents pays for her second tattoo. She gets it a few days after her eighteenth birthday. It’s small and mostly on the inside of her wrist. She’s still a in high school, and though she’s allowed her multi-coloured hair, ripped jeans and a modest amount of piercings, they have a strict policy on visible tattoos.

So it’s small and hidden by a leather wrist cuff, but that rose with its stem wrapped around her wrist and the leaves starting to fall off, is there and knowing that is good enough.

~

Allison gets her third tattoo almost a year later. Things have been difficult. Her mother had died in a car accident during the summer, a drunk driver who’d been so intoxicated she hadn’t even be able to get her phone out of her purse to call 9-1-1.

Allison decided to postpone college for a year. Her father hugs her and tells her they’ll can go anywhere she wants.

They go to France. Her mother always loved it there. Allison still misses her, every day, but especially on her birthday. She stays inside, glaring at the sun, offended at its daring to shine so bright.

‘We’re getting a tattoo,’ he tells her that evening. ‘To honour her.’

‘She hated tattoos,’ Allison snorted.

‘That’s not entirely true. She just didn’t want you to have any regrets. She knows what a pain it is to get them removed.’

Allison laughs until she cries.

They decide to keep it simple, a star with a stylized V in its centre. They get them over their hearts.

~

She gets her next tattoo right after her twentieth birthday, a couple weeks into her first semester at Berkeley, as a present to herself. It’s her family crest, Athena holding a spear in one hand and a shield in front of her with the other. Her owl is sitting on the shield that depicts a wolf getting pierced by arrows. Initially that had been all she’d wanted for the tattoo, but the artist persuades her to get the bow and arrow, the aconite and the words as well.

‘It’s part of it,’ Laura says. ‘You can’t just get half your family crest.’

Allison agrees, it may or may not have something to do with Laura’s kaleidoscope eyes and her soft looking, black hair.

The tattoo covers most of her upper arm and is too big to do in one sitting, but Allison won’t mind going back and sit in Laura’s chair for a couple more hours.

She hadn’t wanted to show Lydia, her roommate and unexpected new best friend, the tattoo until it was finished, but Lydia’s eye falls on the bandages when she’s changing her shirt the next day. She demands to know what happened, looking furious and like she’s planning someone’s murder.

‘It’s just a tattoo,’ Allison laughs. ‘I didn’t actually want to show you until it was finished.’

‘Oh,’ Lydia deflates. ‘Can I see it now?’

‘Sure.’ Allison peels off the bandages and Lydia moves closer. She reaches out like she wants to trace the lines, but realizes what she’s doing just in time. ‘It’s my family crest,’ Allison explains. ‘They used to have this ritual after they’d become nobles. If you made it to twenty, you would be send out into the woods to hunt for a wolf. If you came back with one, you would be allowed in the hunting parties of official missions. If not, you would always have to stay behind. There were no second chances. I figured it was appropriate since I’m twenty now.’

‘When did that happen?’ Lydia asks, looking affronted. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’

‘It was last week. And it’s not like anyone here cares that much.’

‘I care. Besides we’re in college. Everybody cares for any excuse to get drunk.’

The following Saturday Lydia throws Allison the best party she’s ever been to. And it’s not just because Lydia pulls her in for a kiss in the middle of their makeshift dancefloor.

When it’s time for Allison’s second appointment with Laura, Lydia demands she take her with her.

Allison regrets agreeing the moment she steps through the door of the shop and sees Laura waiting for her with a bright smile. She really hopes her newly acquired girlfriend doesn’t notice how her step falters.

She secretly hopes that Laura and Lydia don’t get along. It would make it so much easier on her. But that’s not the case. She listens with fascination as the two women’s subtle but friendly interrogation of each other. She learns that Laura runs the shop with her brother and uncle. She went to art school, but soon realized that canvasses weren’t what she wanted to decorate. She already knew how to tattoo and her uncle had officially taken her on as an apprentice and later as a partner.

Allison also learns a couple new things about Lydia, like how she loves to draw and had almost gone to design school. In the end math had fascinated her more than colour swatches.

With each passing second Allison feels herself more torn between the two women. And by the end of it, when the tattoo is done, she realizes she should probably talk to Lydia about this.

She doesn’t expect it to be as soon as they get their post-tattoo coffee.

‘You like her,’ Lydia says.

‘She’s nice,’ Allison admits. She picks up her cup and takes a big gulp of her drink. It burns on its way down.

Lydia squints her eyes, stares intently at her for a moment, and then changes the subject.

Allison has hopes that Lydia’s forgotten all about it twenty minutes later, when they walk back to the bus stop. It’s right outside the tattoo shop and as they walked past it Lydia had kisses her, tells her she’ll be right back, and disappears inside.

Allison thinks that maybe Lydia forgot something, or that she’s going to make an appointment for a tattoo for herself. She definitely doesn’t expect Lydia to come back outside with a happy smile on her face, saying, ‘Laura says she’d be happy to go on a date with us. I said we were going out next Friday anyway and that we’d love her to come along.’

Allison looks back at the shop. Laura is standing by the window and waves at her. Allison waves back in a daze.

Did Lydia really just ask Laura out? With both of them? On a romantic date? And Laura said yes?

‘I like her, too. So I thought why not simply ask?’ Lydia explains.

Just at that moment, the bus pulls up. Allison is still stunned by the way her relationship has developed and Lydia has to drag her inside. She doesn’t snap out of the daze until they’re close to campus.

‘You’re amazing,’ Allison says and presses a kiss to Lydia’s cheek.

‘I know.’

~

On her twenty-first birthday, Allison gets her fifth tattoo. It’s a gift from her girlfriends and she has no idea what it’s going to be. Knowing them, it could be anything from a flower, to a grizzly bear, to a terrible pun.

Laura picks them up at their dorm. And on the drive to town, Allison gives interrogating them one more shot. It’s no use. Laura just keeps grinning at her in the rear-view mirror and Lydia decides to shut her up with her mouth after only ten minutes.

When they arrive, Derek greets her with a warm hug, wishing her a happy birthday. He leads her to Laura’s station where there is already chair waiting for her. She sits down and pulls her shirt up so Derek can start preparing the skin while Laura gets sets up the station. It’s the only thing she does know about the tattoo, that it will be on her right side, above her hip.

‘Do you know what it’ll be?’ she asks Derek.

‘Yes.’

‘Are you going to tell me?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’ she pouts.

‘You mean aside from the fact that Laura and Lydia would castrate me?’

‘Damn right,’ Laura mutters from behind her brother.

When Derek’s done, Lydia puts a blindfold on her.

‘Good luck,’ Derek says, before disappearing into the back.

She feels the brief press of the stencil paper against her abdomen and then the tip of a marker as Lydia starts to draw in some of the details.

She’s officially given up on trying to find out what they’re giving her so she tells them about her new professor for 18th Century Lit. It’s a tiny English man who doesn’t seem to realize his coats are two sizes too big and his trousers at least a size too small.

When the buzzing of the machine starts, Lydia twines their fingers together and squeezes lightly.

‘You’ll love it,’ she assures her.

Allison squeezes back. She has no doubt she will.

Time always flies when she’s with her girlfriends. So when Laura declares that she’s done, Allison is surprised. The blindfold is pulled away and she blinks in the bright light. The first thing she sees are her girlfriends’ smiling faces.

‘What do you think?’ Laura asks, pointing at her stomach.

Allison looks down and tries to see it, but the image is upside down and it’s not a very comfortable position. She quickly slides off the chair to inspect the tattoo in the mirror.

‘I love it!’ she grins.

It’s a tree, but instead of leafs it has butterflies in every colour. There are a couple stray butterflies flying across her abs.

‘I’m glad you like it,’ Lydia says, coming up behind her and wrapping her arms around her waist, just high enough to avoid the tender skin. She kisses the top of Allison’s shoulder. ‘It would’ve been a pain to get it removed.’

‘I would never do that,’ Allison mumbles. She’s still twisting her hips a little, trying to see the tattoo from every possible angle.

Laura doesn’t say anything, she just stands next to them and watches Allison’s excited face in the mirror. When Allison catches her eye she grabs Laura’s hand and pulls her in front of her. Laura steps as close as she can without actually touching her and then Allison pulls her into a quick kiss. It’s probably a little too dirty for the middle of Laura’s workplace, but neither of the other girls seems to care. Laura groans as Allison sets her teeth in her lower lip, and Allison can feel the vibrations of Lydia’s pleased hum.

‘Thank you,’ she breathes out, pressing her forehead against Laura’s.

‘You’re welcome. Now let’s get you bandaged up so we can go eat some birthday cake.’