We came up with the idea while reading about a pair of our favorite writers, Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block. Westlake and Block were friends and had worked together on a few writing projects. On most of their shared writing projects, one of ‘em would write the first chapter, the second would write the next, and so on. On one book, feeling playful, they ended each chapter on a cliffhanger, daring the other writer to carry on. Carry on they did, having great fun as they did it.
Ready for a little fun of our own, Harrell took a yellow legal pad, Harrell wrote across its top line: Ashes & Ink.
“The Plotting Game™,” he said. “Let's try it, okay? I write a line, then you write a line. Bit by bit, we’ll plot a short story, see if it works, play with it.”
"So, ‘Ashes & Ink’?”
“That’s the title. I get off easy 'cause I was smart enough to go first. You decide where we go next.”
Over the next few days, we did exactly that. The legal pad was covered with lines, added at each writer’s leisure. The text ran something like this:
“Two girls, Megan and Stephanie. Megan thinks of herself as a boring ‘good girl’, Stephanie fancies herself a wild child, but they’re best friends.”
“Stephanie lures Megan to the wrong side of town – and it’s even wrong-er than she thinks because some of the people there aren’t necessarily people.”
“Not that Stephanie notices. She’s taking Megan to a hole-in-the-wall Piercing Parlor, staffed by the most attractive man alive.”
“The most attractive man alive isn’t attracted to either of the girls – well, Stephanie, a little -- but being the most attractive man alive, he flirts with them.”
“The most attractive man alive is named...Gage. Because I’m not going to keep writing, ‘the most attractive man alive’, that’s why. Anyway, Stephanie wants to get her nipples pierced ‘cause that’s what a wild child would do.”
“But she’s under the legal nipple-piercing age (is there a legal age for this? Research), so Gage suggests a tattoo, instead (there has to be a legal age for this, too. Doesn’t there? Would a parental permission slip work?) -- and a tattoo qualifies as 'ink'. He wants the girls to look through his design book.”
“His magical design book. If the average person opens it, they find flowers and butterflies. Maybe a skull or two. If the right person opens it, they see a magical design.”
“Like a hex or a religious symbol or a sigil. And, if this marking is pressed into the skin of this one, right person, in the form of a tattoo, then this person is now empowered.”
“Empowered to work for the bad things of this universe. Because Megan narrates the story, she's a good girl, and we'd assume she was going to be battling for the forces of good."
"Gage had spread ash, looking for a sign that the right person would come through his door soon. (Plus, ash qualifies as 'ash'.) When Stephanie arrived, he thought he'd found the woman he needed. To his surprise, Steph can't see the magical design but Megan CAN.”
“For the first time, Gage is aware of Megan. Intensely aware. But he's obviously lost all interest in Stephanie and she knows it. Pissed, she angrily pulls her friend out of the Piercing/Tattoo place and away the most attractive man alive.”
“This isn’t going to really be a short story, is it?”
At which point we stopped the Plotting Game™. Because, really, we're new at the process and the thing was taking FOREVER. If you'd like to see what we got out of TPG™, take a glance below and then we'll talk....
Ashes & Ink
Stephanie’s text read, Want to do something crazy?
What’s it going to be this time, Steph? Are we going to sneak smokes from your Mom’s purse, like we did when we were thirteen? Or, maybe, steal a bottle from Evil Ernie’s liquor cabinet again, like two summers ago?
Or is this going to be like the weekend before last, when we both used those crap ass fake IDs that got us bounced from Turks? The doorman laughed when he saw the IDs. Not that I should have been surprised. Even I could tell the driver licenses were bogus and I’d never seen a phony driver license before.
You thought, if we pushed our boobs in the doorman’s face, he wouldn’t even notice the smeared print on the cards or the fuzzy photos. What he didn’t notice was your push-up bra. God, I’ve never been so embarrassed.
So did I want to do something crazy at this particular moment? Not really. Give me another six months, let me live long enough to escape high school, semi-sane and mostly intact. Let me grow old enough to get a real ID, let me – I don’t know what. Go to college, get a job, find true love?
I’ve had my fill of crazy for awhile but Stephanie is my best friend so I texted back, Sure.
Which is how we both ended up in east Dreyer, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, as my mother says. A town of about 60,000, Dreyer is pretty much an asphalt splash in the middle of the desert. If it wasn’t for the giant Sirus Bros Water Reclamation Facility, the place wouldn’t even exist. During the winter months, when the rest of the world goes cold, the area attracts more than its share of transients and drifters so its bad side ought to be really bad. It isn’t, though. It’s mostly pitiful.
Boarded up stores line the sidewalks of Poorville and the whole area has a stink of sad over it. Most nights, there’s a line of people waiting outside of the Shepherd’s Shelter, needing a place to sleep. The only place that does any business is Gene’s Liquor. It used to be a 7-Eleven convenience store but, in this part of the city, even a dash-and-grab is a little too upscale, I guess. If you want something to eat, you can go with the Red Twizzlers at Gene’s front counter or join the homeless at the Dreyer Food Bank.
“You’re not dressed for this neighborhood,” I told Steph.
“I’m bringing a little bling to the less fortunate.”
“So where are we going?”
“Secret,” she said.
“Oh, no, not this time. Tell me or I’m going home.”
“Gonna walk? We took my car, remember?” We left her silver Tercel six blocks back, in the chain-linked tar pit that passes for the city’s only parking lot.
“You’d make me walk?” I said. “Some friend. Tell me.”
She’s such a pain in the ass, sometimes. I told her so, too.
Steph laughed. Seeing a bag lady perched on the pavement ahead of us, she grabbed my hand and pulled me across the street.
“It was an old woman,” I protested. “What was she going to do, mug us?”
“Exactly. She might be old but she’s still female. She knows fashion.”
“She was wearing a sleeping bag as a jacket.”
“She wanted my Couch purse,” my friend said with certainty.
An alleyway extended into the sidewalk at its center. When Steph entered the alley, I followed.
“It isn’t a Couch bag,” I told her. “I was there when you picked it up at the import place over in Lincoln.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“It costs thirty dollars. How do they make a profit, selling top label stuff at less than wholesale?”
She looked at me and, together, we said, “Volume!”
It was an old joke, stolen from an online video site, and we used it a little too often. I noticed a doorway at the end of the alley, a sign over its entrance. The sign wasn’t lit and, in the gloom of the corridor, I couldn’t read it.
I opened the clasp on my purse. From out of the shadows, a voice rasped, ‘Got any spare change?’
Crouched beside a big metal dumpster, a homeless old woman glared up at us. Steph reached out like she was going to stop me, saying, “Megan, don’t.”
She didn’t want to look at the bag lady, didn’t want to acknowledge her existence, as if she might come down with some kind of Poverty Virus. I wished I hadn’t looked at her, either. I could have sworn this was the same bag lady we’d ducked just a few minutes ago. She had the same tan and wrinkled face, with stringy white hair draping onto her shoulders. She carried the same stained-blue sleeping bag, hunched over her body.
“Spare change?” the woman said again. Her brown eyes suddenly brightened and turned yellow. They became elongated and she stared at me through lizard eyes.
Wanting to freak, I shoved three wrinkled dollars into her hand.
“Thank you, Megan,” she said.
She knows me? I thought, only to remember, almost at the same time, that Steph had used my name. The ancient … creature … curled the bills inside her arthritic claw and shoved them away beneath the sleeping bag. She smiled up at me, with a mouth nearly empty of teeth, and I saw her eyes were normal.
They’d always been normal. Of course, they had. Even in Poorville, people didn’t have lizard eyes.
Steph gave an exasperated snort and brought me further down the alley. “Now, look what you’ve done.”
Her words seemed to ricochet inside my confused thoughts. Finally, I reacted. “What did I do this time?”
“You give them money, those people can sense it. They know you’re an easy touch.”
“Those people?” I asked.
“The next time we come here, they’ll be thick around us. All of them with their hands out, wanting, wanting, wanting.”
“Whatever we have and they don’t. Or don’t you agree, Saint Megan?”
Even if I did, I’d never let her know.
“Sometimes,” I said, sounding a little sanctimonious, “it’s good to share with the less fortunate.”
Right then, God should have struck me dead because, honestly, there are times I suck as a person. When the old woman asked for spare change, my purse was open – but not to give her anything. The alleyway made me nervous and I’d been licking my lips. I was reaching for my lip gloss.
I wanted to avoid the street people just as much as Stephanie did. I didn’t plan to share my money with anybody and I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t seen the bag lady’s bizarre eyes and gotten scared.
“Okay, we’re here.” Steph stood in the doorway at the alley’s end. Above the door, there was a carved, wooden sign, reading, Pym’s Tattoos and Piercings.
A bell jingled as we entered the long and narrow shop. A pair of glass-fronted counters ran alongside one wall of the business, filled with assorted paraphernalia. On the opposite wall were some decorations, if samurai swords and fighting stars can be considered decorative.
I wondered if Mr. Pym, whoever he was, had some kind of ninja complex. Whatever his issues, he wasn’t in the showroom. Except for us, the shop was empty. The spring-loaded door wheezed to a close behind us. When it did, a voice softly said, “Get out while you still can.”
I jumped. Steph said, “Isn’t it great?”
“Maybe during Halloween.” I thought the mechanical voice sounded creepy and was a little bit infantile. I was ready to leave when the curtain at the back of the room parted and a guy walked out.
“Gage Brogan,” Steph whispered to me. “What do you think?”
Gage was older than we were, tall and slender, black-haired and dark-eyed. His t-shirt fit well enough to hint at the muscles in his arms and chest. He came toward us, easy and confident, as if he knew he was good-looking but wasn’t too impressed by himself or the world around him.
He was the hottest-looking guy I’ve ever seen in my life.
He considered me briefly before focusing on Stephanie. And that, sadly, is the story of our friendship.
Steph is shorter than me (“Fun-sized,” she says), curvier – by which I mean, breast-ier – with full lips and long, thick hair. The shape of her eyes and the cocoa color of her skin combine to give her an exotic appearance. When she wears something low-cut, her cleavage magically clouds men’s minds and make them stupid.
Today she was in full shock-and-awe, dressed to conquer. It worked, too, grabbing Gage’s full attention and rendering me nearly invisible.
“Stephanie Buffett,” he said, in a voice deep and sweet as honey.
“And friend,” Steph said, moving slightly backwards so that I’d come onto his radar. “This is Megan Kessler.”
He dipped his head at me, briefly, forced to acknowledge my presence. I nodded at him, worried that I’d blurt something awkward or idiotic if I tried to speak.
His focus returned, laser-like, to my companion. “You came back.”
“Told you I would.” She took a slip of paper from the faux-Couch purse, unfolded it, and gave it to him.
He considered it. “So your folks are cool with this?”
“My mother is.”
“Nice.” He went behind one of the counters and pulled out a log book. “Got a driver’s license?”
“You want to find out where I live, don’t you?” Stephanie flirted.
“If you were a year older….”
“You’re only twenty-one.”
“And you’re only seventeen.” She pouted prettily and he pretended not to notice. She gave him her license and she copied its number into his book. “State regs. I have to record an identification number and date of birth whenever I do a piercing.”
“Piercing?” I said.
“You saw the name of the shop, right?” he asked me. “Don’t worry, it’s totally safe. I only use packaged, sterile equipment.”
Oh my God. Stephanie is getting something PIERCED and she wants me here to watch?
Please let it be her belly button.
“Funny,” he told Stephanie. “Your signature and your Mom’s signature look almost exactly the same.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Can be.“ For the first time, I noticed a faint accent beneath his words. Irish? “I can be flexible when it comes to paperwork. Depends on whether Mum is the litigious type. A sweet little ankle tatt, well, girls will be girls, as far as most parents are concerned. Things are viewed differently when the bad man puts a stainless steel rod through her angel’s nipple.”
“Are you a bad man?” Stephanie asked him.
I can’t stand here and watch Steph get her breast punctured.
I’ll pass out.
“Never judge someone by their reputation, girl,” Gage said. “I”ll tell you this, hand to heart: I’m no angel.”
“You’re getting your nipples pierced?” I told Steph.
“Only the left one.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Sometimes,” she said, speaking more to the person in front of her than to me.
“A lot of people do it,” he said. “Especially the ones who are a little … ill-behaved. One quick burst of pain and the pin’s in place.”
The seductive expression melted from Steph’s face. “How much pain?”
“Nothing you can’t handle.”
The comment didn’t reassure her. “How much pain?” she repeated. “Don’t you use some kind of numbing spray?”
“I have a nebulizer,” he said. “Doesn’t really help. Keep a bag of ice on the boo-boo and the burning sensation passes in a couple of days.”
I wondered if he was telling the truth. For some reason, I had the feeling he wanted to scare her away from the procedure. As if to prove my suspicions, he placed a stainless steel pole on the countertop.
“You use that?” I asked. I hate needles and the sharpened end at the tip of the pole appeared bigger than King Kong’s hypodermic.
“It’s huge,” Steph said. “It’s way too big.”
“You’d be surprised how much nipples stretch.”
At those words, Steph’s wild child attitude vanished. Gage realized it and took pity on her. “The point is, without a legit okay, I can’t work on you, anyway. Pym would fire my ass.”
He smiled, as if to soften the verbal blow. Gorgeous.
Really good-looking men give me brain freeze, reminding me that I’m incapable of staring and talking to someone at the same time. I sensed he was ready for us to leave and I knew I’d never return to this part of town. If that was the case, I wanted him to look at me, just one more time.
Yeah, I know. Dork.
“So this was a waste of time?” I asked.
Annnnd … nothing. He couldn’t be bothered to face me. Instead, he asked Stephanie, “Do you think this was a waste?”
“Nope,” she said, thrusting her chest not-so-subtly forward. “Not if I get an ankle tattoo.”
“If it won’t get you in trouble with your boss.” She emphasized ‘boss’, to tease him and to put him in his place. It’s one of the things she does that drives me mad: Once a boy notices her, she’ll play with him, reeling him in.
Older or not, Gage was being treated the same way. I think Steph was in for a surprise. He wasn’t anything like the boys at our high school.
“I’ll risk it,” he said, placing a three-ringed binder on the countertop.
The binder looked brand new, all white and shiny, and Steph flipped it open. The first page was white, like the binder, but the paper was thick and much older, as if it belonged in an ancient manuscript. There was a single drawing on the page, a glorious red rose, its stalk infested with wicked thorns.
Steph loves roses but she wrinkled her nose and turned the page. There was another heavy sheet of paper and, again, it held a single image: A withered red tulip, its petals twisted and brittle.
“Another flower? Is that all you have, flowers?”
“I thought girls liked flowers,” he said.
“This paper doesn’t look right. Maybe it’s the red ink.”
“It’s vellum, not paper. And that’s not ink.”
“Right,” I told him, jokingly. “It’s blood.”
He smiled. “How did you know?”
She flipped past the first section and the flowers disappeared. Orchids were replaced by tigers, tigers were replaced by dragons and griffins, and then abstract designs took over the catalog. Gage’s interest grew sharp as Stephanie neared the back of the book. She considered the last image before returning to the first page.
“I’ll have the rose,” Steph said.
“Of course,” he said, as warm and charming as ever, but an undercurrent of emotion lay beneath his words. Disappointment? If so, I didn’t know why. The rose was beautiful.
“Come into my parlor,” he reached a hand out to my friend, “said the spider to the fly.” Steph folded her fingers into his palm and the two of them walked out of the front and past the back curtain.
Neither one of them gave me a glance. Gage still didn’t know I existed; and Steph just assumed I’d sit on my butt and wait as long as she needed. She was right but only because she’d driven us here. If I had my car, I’d have abandoned her in a heartbeat and gone someplace fun.
I sent an emergency text to Cheyenne Holguin, begging for a ride. I didn’t have much hope: Cheyenne is perpetually broke, even worse than me. She uses one of the by-the-minute cell services and she’s always out of minutes. Carrying the design book, I went to a three-set of plastic chairs and sat down.
I’d never given it much thought but I always assumed these kinds of shops had some kind of standard tattoo book. I remember seeing the same kinds of tattoos, anyway: Sun designs, some vaguely-Oriental lettering, a hummingbird, those kinds of things. These illustrations weren’t the usual fare. If Gage drew them – or the mysterious Mr. Pym – then the artist deserved to be proud of his work. These illustrations were really good.
I leafed through the pages casually, wondering if I might want a tattoo someday. Maybe on the small of my back, I decided. Something I could show if I was in the mood or with the right people, something I could hide if my future employer hated ink on his wage slaves.
At the very back of the binder, behind the abstract line work, were three pages that Steph had missed. They were the only drawings not in red; the only ones that looked as if they’d been created by a different artist. The paper, too, was different. White, like the vellum, its texture reminded me of the expensive calfskin wallet my Grandfather used to carry.
Each page held a single illustration, just like the rest of the book. The next-to-last picture, done with a fine line and colored a rich, deep brown, made me catch my breath. I put my left index finger to the plastic sheet protecting the image. In my imagination, the page felt warm to my touch.
From the back of the store, I heard Steph cry out: “How much?”
She came into the front area, snapping her wallet closed. Casually, Gage followed after her. “Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good.”
“What’s that, the company slogan?” Steph swept past me. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait,” I said.
My request slowed her long enough so that she didn’t go out the door. She faced Gage, still steaming. “You said you’d do the piercing for a hundred bucks.”
“You want the rose,” he said, “and it’s a three hour job, easy, to get it tight.”
“But the piercing – “
“I was never going to pierce you.”
His statement shut her down. She literally didn’t know what to say.
“You thought I’d take a permission slip to put metal through skin? No chance. The state inspector would shutter us in seconds,” Gage said, “I wanted you to come back, true enough. I wanted you to see the flash on the wall, go through the design book. It was worth a shot.”
Steph looked at me: What the hell?
“That what I get for spreading ash on a Thursday.” He shrugged. “Half-truths. Someone like you...I should have known it wouldn’t happen.” He turned away. ”Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.“
He couldn’t have been more obvious: He was totally over Steph.
“I want a tatt,” I told him, the decision washing over me. I pushed the binder into his hands. “How much?”
“Hey, I didn’t see that page,” Steph said.
Gage reacted then, looking down at the book.
“Ugh,” my always-sensitive friend stated. “What kind of drawing is that?”
“It’s a sigil.” His nearly-black eyes met mine. “You?”
As he looked at me, I felt a charge go through my body. I’d heard of such things before but I’d never believed in them, never actually knew the sensation. I did, now: An electrical current surged through me, from head to toes.
“Friends don’t let friends get ugly ink,” Steph pronounced. “Screw you, Gage.”
She grabbed me, pulling me from Pym’s Tattoos and Piercings. Gage remained in the center of the store, staring out at me as we left.
* * * *
Whew. Definitely not a short story but, possibly, the first chapter of a new novel. Don't know if the title works, though.
Ashes & Ink? We gotta do better than that.