Every year, they got a new tattoo.
They first met at the Tattered Ink tattoo parlor and started chatting while they waited for their appointments. Brie was a first timer, ready to begin her rebel streak with a tiny, tasteful peace sign above her ankle. Asche was a veteran and had elegant designs that crawled up her right arm--everything from dragon scales to shooting stars to phrases like "carry on" and "live in the moment."
The guy ahead of them was screaming bloody murder. Asche turned to Brie and chuckled, "He's a wimp. I swear to God it's not as bad as he's making you think it is." She rolled up the sleeve of her heavily inked arm and grinned. "Barely even stings. Promise."
"I'm not afraid," Brie said. "At least not of the pain. I've heard the horror stories of people screwing the design up, and then you're stuck with it forever."
"This guy's good," Asche replied, pulling at a loose string at the hem of her distressed denim skirt. "My first tat at Eat at Joe's was a huge fuck up, but I've been coming to this place ever since. I've been satisfied with every last one."
"Eat at Joe's?" Brie asked, raising an eyebrow.
"The owner never bothered to change the sign. It used to be a diner, but it went out of business. A tattoo artist bought the place cheap and set up shop. His name was Joe, so he figured it'd work out."
"What did you choose for your first tattoo?" Brie asked.
Asche smiled and said, "That's a story for another day."
Asche's tattoos all told stories. She explained one after the other every time she and Brie met up for coffee at the place she'd worked in high school. The dragon scales represented armor. The shooting stars represented her dreams and goals. The words were reminders to keep on living and not look back.
"Looking back is too painful," Asche told Brie. "Way too goddamn painful." She glanced at her wrist and clenched her teeth. "But it's impossible not to when you have a visual reminder forever engraved in your skin."
"What are you trying not to look back at?" Brie asked, laying a hand on Asche's inked arm. "You can tell me anything. I won't judge you."
Asche laughed but didn't smile. "It's not judgment I'm worried about from you." She ran a finger over a tattoo on her wrist that looked several years overdue for a touch up. It was an infinity symbol--simple, black and unassuming. The ink was fading.
"Was that your first?" Brie asked, nodding to the symbol. "It doesn't look like a fuck up. It looks perfect."
Asche felt the acid rising up in her throat. It did look perfect. She'd always judged it as an imperfection that would always remind her of her far more imperfect self. How she'd run to the tattoo parlor the instant she'd turned eighteen, forked over the cash, ripped off her leather cuff and braced herself. She never once thought about what could go wrong. Joe left her with a perfect, never-ending loop.
Over the years, Brie expanded from the first peace sign she got the day they'd met. Every year she added a new detail to the masterpiece that was slowly swallowing her leg. Asche's sleeve was much more intricate and detailed, filled in over several more years. Brie went for bigger, broader designs that were just as meaningful.
Brie didn’t get a new addition to her growing collection the year she was pregnant. She was at about six months when the date arrived. She sat in the coffee place with a hot cocoa and awaited the arrival of her friend.
Asche blew into the shop, winter clinging to her hair and coat. “Shit, it’s cold out there.”
“You’re telling me,” Brie laughed. “Sit down. Coffee’s on me today.”
“Thanks,” Asche half said, half coughed.
“Are you coming down with something?” Brie pushed a large mocha latte toward Asche, who grabbed it and took a large swallow, savoring the drink’s warmth.
“Don’t suppose I can get a little whiskey added to this?” Asche shivered and cupped the coffee in her hands. Seeing Brie’s pointed look, she added, “I’ve been sick for a while now.”
“Well, don’t get me sick, I’ve got to stay well for two of us now!” Brie stroked her swollen belly and beamed. “I’m still working on name ideas… does the awesome godmom have any suggestions?”
“Brie, you won’t get what I have. You have nothing to worry about.” Asche’s stomach knotted up. She took another huge swallow of coffee, really wishing she could’ve bought both of them real drinks. “I’ve been sick for a long fucking while.”
“What do you have? Do you need cold medicine? Antibiotics?”
Brie dropped her mug, spilling cocoa on the table and her lap. “Shit, are you serious? You’re not serious. You don’t just tell someone that out of the blue.”
Asche downed the last bit of her latte and slammed the mug on the table. “Yep. I’ll be dead pretty soon. Probably within a couple weeks, definitely before the month is over.”
Brie’s mouth hung open. She studied her friend’s gaunt face—her eyes were tired and framed by dark circles; her lips were chapped, and the skin around her nose flaking. She had the flu that was going around, but she couldn’t fight it off.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You said it yourself, Brie,” Asche stammered. “You don’t just tell someone that out of the blue.”
The last days of Asche’s life crept by at a snail’s pace. The sunny hours were short, while the sleepless nights stretched on. Brie visited her every day until the day the door went unanswered and she fell to the ground and hugged her inked knees as close to her chest as they’d come with the baby bump in the way.
And every year, she got a new tattoo.