Literary FictionScience Fiction

Butterflies on Barbed Wire

By Marie Vibbert
3,953 words · 15-minute reading time
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           Damien goes to the front of the shop, a room papered in tattoo designs grouped in large chunks – animals to the left, tribal designs to the right, lettering and fonts all along the top, and in-between things squeezed here and there. Up high on one wall where children won’t be able to get to it is a flap that says “This tattoo is free” covering a shot of a guy’s dick with a tiger on it. It’s been up there since before Damien was born and no one has ever taken them up on the offer. He doesn’t know if the tat was done in this shop or is one of those pictures passed around and around the internet.

            An older woman stands eyeing the flap dubiously. She has a leather briefcase hugged to her chest like school books, and this makes her seem younger, but he can see the grey under her red hair dye. “Can I help you?” Damien asks.

            She smiles a sales rep smile. As she turns he sees an animated LED tattoo, a lizard crawling around and around her right wrist. “I see you don’t yet carry Flexi-Print.”

            “No ma’am,” Damien says. “We’re just a tattoo shop.”

            “Flexi-Print is the state of body art today. You’re behind the times.”

            Damien points to the “No Solicitors” sign. “I’d sure love to talk, ma’am, but I’ve got a customer.” The comforting buzz of Grandpa’s tattooing in the room behind makes him obviously a liar.

            She stretches an arm between him and the curtain to the back room. “Let me leave you a sample. You may change your mind.”

            “Okay,” Damien says. “Then go.”

            She sets her case on the cashier stand and fishes around in it. “I know you don’t sell even the basic model, but what I’m really selling is this new technology that works off of Flexi-Print. It’s called Scrim. It not only displays animations and still art on your skin, but also real 3D. Imagine a hole in your arm showing your bones or a parrot on your shoulder.”

            She taps her wrist with a pen and the lizard pops out of her skin with a rippling animation. It pauses to glance up at him each circuit around her wrist.

            Damien imagines exposed gears inside his arm and a dragon on his shoulder. Damien takes the silver plastic baggies from her and thanks her.

            He cuts back through the workroom without looking at Grandpa and the girl getting her son’s name on her neck. He goes through the door that leads from the shop to the house.

            Dad and Uncle Ray sit on the sofa, watching a documentary about sea life. Damien sits next to Ray because that’s where Aubery sat, with her long fish-white arm touching his. Damien doesn’t like to think about other ways they touched, about how Aubery was Ray’s wife even before she was Grandpa’s apprentice, but even so, he finds himself laying his arm, in its long white sleeve, next to Ray’s on the couch. Ray shifts and scowls at Damien. “What are you doing?”

            Damien gets up. “I’ll start dinner.”

            “Why aren’t you in the shop?” Dad asks, without looking away from the TV.

            “Grandpa’s got it,” Damien says.

            He leaves the Flexi-Print samples in the cupboard with the baking supplies. No one else will see them there.

            When Damien was sixteen, his father said he could get his first tattoo. Aubery had moved in just a year before. She waited for him to settle into the client chair. “What do you want?” she asked.

            His skin tingled with possibilities. “Whatever you want.”

            “You don’t mean that. You’ve had sixteen years to look at the pictures in the front office.”

            “I want to see what you’ll draw when no one makes you draw something,” he said.

            For the first time, she really looked at him, like he was interesting to her. “You’ll take that back,” she said. “I could want to do the tiger.”

            He pointed to his arm. “Whatever you want. Right there.”

            So she picked up a pen and sketched a butterfly. She raised her eyebrows at him. He knew she expected him to squirm and complain about a girly tattoo. “Whatever you want,” he repeated.

            They stared at each other like it was one long game of chicken as she inked in that butterfly. Her hands were good, and her eye for detail and line. The butterfly came to life on his arm in delicate tracery even before she added color. “You’re going to get made fun of at school,” she said.

            “No I won’t. I love it.”

            She drew deep cobalt lines down from the edges of the butterfly wings, lighter on the front side like a real insect.

            The next day at school he peeled the bandage back carefully while his friends gathered close around the cafeteria table. There was a moment of silence that lasted too long. Frank wrinkled his nose. “Dude,” he said.

            Like one beast, his friends all dropped back into their chairs, away from him.

            “That’s a girl tattoo,” Liam said.

            Jake got up on his chair flapping his arms and singing in falsetto, “Damien’s a butterfly! A pretty butterfly!”

           Damien’s admiration for Aubery’s art solidified right then into passionate love for the butterfly tattoo. He stood up. “Forget you guys,” he said.

           Frank stepped in his way. Damien pushed him. Like the natural pull after a wave hits the beach, Frank pushed back. The fight felt right, even the part where Liam and Jake wrestled them apart.

           Dad came to the school in his stained T-shirt that showed too much of his hairy belly. Damien got to go home early and wondered how it felt like neither a reward nor a punishment. Dad was silent in the car. He pushed Damien’s shoulder as they entered the kitchen. “Go on up to your room; you’re grounded for fighting.”

           Their house was (is) like an anthill, human-thickness paths worn through the piled detritus of time and absent people – quilts, teacups, board games. Damien lay on a bed that used to be his great aunt’s and watched the bowling trophy and clown lamp, both of unknown origin, rock into each other as his father’s heavy steps shook the hallway.

          “You’re turning him into a woman!”

          “Ray! Don’t let your brother talk to me like that!”

          The hollow-core laminate door did little to block the progression of the argument. Damien looked at the cracks on the ceiling and concentrated on the pleasant burn of his new tattoo.

          Aubery pushed his door open so hard the top hinge cracked. “You’re coming with me,” she said.

          Her face was wet and her hand shaking. He let her lead him down into the shop, let her peel his bandage off and wash away the ointment. With a look of angry determination, she carved barbed wire into his skin. Sharp point after point, she caught the butterfly in it, tore its wing and made it helpless.

          The guys at school preferred this tat. Damien didn’t like to see a creature suffer, even an imaginary one suffering imaginarily, but he didn’t complain; he’d already decided his skin was hers to do with what she wanted.

            Damien wakes up early and takes a shower with the pink soap Aubery used, which is still in the shower and no one will throw away. He watches the bubbles slide over his tattoos. Damien has a vulva tattooed on his inside right forearm. It is open and glistening and not at all stylized.

          It was Aubery’s last attempt to play tattoo chicken with him. Her face was thin and pale under the thick bandana that covered her bald head. Her eyebrows and lashes had always been pale and wispy, always half gone, but still the fleshy, naked edge of her eyelid was horrifying. She was silent and he feared a space had opened between them, but when she finished the initial ink, a grin cracked across her cheeks and she said, “I really ruined you, didn’t I?” Her hand ran over the lines of previous tattoos, and they kissed, and cried.

           The tattoo doesn’t look like Aubery’s vulva, which was darker on the outside and pinker inside and altogether more wrinkled.

            Damien wears long shirts a lot. He puts on a second-hand shirt for a baseball team he has never watched or cared about. Long red sleeves.

            He goes to the kitchen and sets a pot of coffee brewing with chicory, just how Aubery always did.

            Grandpa and Uncle Ray won’t come down until they smell the coffee already brewed. Dad won’t come down until the day is half over. Damien opens the cabinet for baking supplies so he can make the scones Aubery used to make and sees the silver foil packets from the sales rep.

            There is a pretty, plastic-feeling card with instructions and holographic images. Damien is familiar with the basic concept. Inside the foil packet is a rectangle of white mesh with a sticky backing. You laid this sticky-side down on your skin where you wanted the image to be, and then used a special stylus to push each cross of the mesh into your skin, embedding too-tiny-to-see emitters into your skin, like injecting ink for tattoos. Damien can try the display out without injecting it, just leaving it on his skin.

            He rolls up his sleeves. His first instinct is to cover the vulva. He sets it there, and then immediately pulls it off. The embarrassing tattoo is his, and so is the humiliation, and he doesn’t want to lose any of it. He looks briefly at his other arm – at the butterfly caught in barbed wire.

            He sits down and lays the mesh on a bare patch of skin above his knee. He doesn’t want to cover any of Aubery’s tats, not the ones that mean something nor the ones that are just doodles. He loves the doodles best, because they don’t mean anything but Aubery.

            There’s a memory chip that can hold your custom program. Right now it has a demo in it. He pops it into the provided stylus and passes it slowly over the mesh to activate it. The mesh shimmers, and then an orange and blue oval is flipping, end over end, into and out of his thigh. The illusion is only slightly marred by the mesh backing.

            It is, in a way, his first tattoo since Aubery’s death. He’s trying to decide if he hates it for being unworthy of that when Grandpa shuffles in, his slippers scraping on the linoleum.

            Grandpa holds a cup of coffee to his face and inhales deeply, leaning back against the draining board. He takes a long mustache-strained slurp and opens his eyes. They immediately track to the colorful animation on Damien’s thigh. Coffee spills over the clean dishes as Grandpa throws his mug in the sink. “Where’d you get that?”

            “A sales rep,” Damien begins. He reaches for the control wand, but Grandpa tears the adhesive film from his skin before he can pick it up.

            The logo blinks and sways in the air, hollow on the back as Grandpa shakes it. “We make permanent art. It hurts. It’s a part of you. You get buried with it.” He slaps the mesh down on the table. The image breaks into two identical copies, one smaller than the other, rotating into each other like beaters on a mixer.

            Grandpa turns back to the sink, his passion deflating. “Shiiit. Look at this mess you made me make.” The pieces of the cup clink together as he gathers them.

            Damien carefully picks at where the sticky backing has folded against itself.

            Grandpa returns to the table with a fresh cup. He watches Damien working to straighten out the sample. He turns it off, so it’s just a piece of mesh, like a square of sticky bandage.

            “Just throw it out,” Grandpa says. “You know I how I feel about that shit.”

            “It was free,” Damien says. “I wanted to try it.”

            “These candy-asses today. They don’t even know what the scene was about.”

            Damien pushes the wrinkled gauze back into its foil packet. “You do capsule ink,” he says.

            Grandpa scowls. “The hell! Boy, that ain’t even the same thing!” His face is red enough to wash out the dragon that curls around his left eye.

            Damien goes back to the baking cupboard and gets out the big mixing bowl. “I’m making scones,” he says.

            “Thank Christ,” Grandpa says, “Finally something useful.”

            Damien is cutting the butter into the flour when he hears Uncle Ray enter and get his coffee. “Can you believe what your nephew brought into this house?” Grandpa asks.

            Damien listens to all the reasons temporary tattoos are evil. He thinks about capsule ink, which they sell. It’s just the same as a regular tattoo, but the ink is water-soluble. It sits in microscopic capsules that protect it, but if the owner decides they don’t want their tattoo anymore, a quick spray of a certain chemical breaks the capsules and the tattoo bleeds away as quickly as a phone number written in pen.

            The embedded projectors are more permanent.

            “Stop that,” says Uncle Ray. It takes a second repeat for Damien to realize he’s talking to him. He turns from his mixture. Ray is standing directly behind him. “Stop making those. Make something else.”

            He’s making the black currant scones Aubery made.

            Ray looks like he might cry and he knows it and it scares him. “I don’t want any more fucking scones,” he says.

            Damien is frozen, unprepared for a morning without scones. How will his family not fly apart without Aubery’s scones and Aubery’s coffee holding the center?

            “I like to cook,” he says.

            “Make bacon. Make eggs.”

            Dad comes stomping down the stairs carelessly like a large weight dropped from the landing above. Everyone turns to watch him enter, and he looks at everyone else.

            “Damien, why the hell do you always have to be doing women’s work when I see you?” Dad asks.

            Damien leaves the half-formed dough on the counter and walks out the kitchen door.

            There is nothing in their tiny town other than the tattoo shop, a bar, an old general store, which sometimes opens as an antique shop, and an abandoned gas station. There’s a new gas station with a convenience store five miles up the road near the freeway entrance and for most people that’s the real center of town.

           Damien knows his dad has a sometimes-sexual relationship with Madison, the bartender at Billy and Charlie’s. The bar is owned by a man named Mike. He chose the name because he thought that two men’s names sounded friendly and he didn’t know anyone named Billy or Charlie who could take offense.

            It’s daytime and the bar is empty. Madison leans her heavy breasts on the bar top, watching Damien play a simulation he has just written on the Flexi-Print. It’s supposed to be Aubery’s face, but he hasn’t quite gotten her, yet.

“I can select a solid shape, or a point,” he explains, tapping the stylus on Aubery’s too-round cheek and then sliding it thinner. “You never have to stop changing it.”

            “That’s why your grandpa doesn’t like it.”

            “But I don’t even need a device to run the software. It’s all included. I can really do this, Madison. Maybe you could talk to my dad about it?”

            Madison purses her lips and pulls away from the bar. She busies herself wiping down the taps. “Truth is, your dad asked me to talk to you about something.”

            “I don’t want to go to the junior college,” Damien says. His visit to the local junior college depressed him. There was all that empty hope that knew it wasn’t going anywhere but was trying so hard to pretend.

            Madison smiles. “No, not about that. Though you should, you know. Get out of this place, somehow.” She gives the taps one more thorough wiping each and steps back. She looks guilty. She walks around the bar and takes the stool next to him. “When’s the last time you were with a woman?” Her eyes move back and forth, searching for something in his face. She leans closer. “When’s the last time you had sex? Have you had sex?”

            “I… uh, I’m eighteen.” He thinks of Aubery naked, skin like paprika sprinkles on egg white. Aubery holding a finger to his lips as she stepps into his shower, silently daring him to make a sound. He thinks of Madison with his father, about where her tan-lines end and about the picture when she was younger and had just gotten the star tattoo on her hip, holding her pants down lower than necessary and laughing at his father behind the camera.

            Madison pats his hand. “Your father’s worried about you. There aren’t that many girls your age around here.”

            “When I’m ready to meet someone,” he says, “I know where to go.”

            Her fingers curl around his wrist as he starts to stand. “You do like girls, don’t you?” she asks.

            “Very much,” he says.

            He leaves before she can ask the next question.

            Damien doesn’t blame his Dad for his mother leaving. He doesn’t blame his mother, either. She left because Dad sleeps with Madison. Dad sleeps with Madison because he can’t help himself. Damien understands that.

            They are living with Grandpa and Uncle Ray temporarily, until Dad gets his affairs together after the divorce. It’s been ten years and Dad still hasn’t gotten his affairs together. Damien does blame him for that. He blames cancer for killing Aubery and he blames Grandpa for both his sons being unable to move on or get a job. He wonders about Grandma, and if there was another Madison, or another cancer. She’s only a photo in the living room, in a swimsuit, squinting into the sun, the color all faded from age.

            There’s a photo of Aubery next to it, now. Its wooden frame is the newest, most expensive thing in the house. It looks spliced in by too-sharp special effects.

            Damien can’t use the model of Aubery when he demonstrates the Flexi-Print to Dad and Ray. In his room, he starts a new file. He will make a butterfly. He pulls up the shapes tool and makes two rectangles to start the wings and a cylinder for the body. Then the heel of his hand pushes the mesh accidentally and because the mesh isn’t perfectly on its slick backing it wrinkles. One of the rectangular wings distorts. It’s not simple, not like a water ripple. A tiny iteration of the rectangle has popped out of it. He thinks about the logo splitting.

            Damien spends a long time wrinkling and folding the mesh. He puts the butterfly on the fold of his elbow and watches it change as he moves.

            No one calls him down to dinner. Grandpa makes pork and beans and no one saves Damien a portion. He eats a scone and makes more coffee and stays up all night, working on his butterfly. The way 3D images fold is different from flat images, and it fascinates him. The motion of the skin becomes a part of the art.

            Sometime around two in the morning, not knowing why, he adds a curl of barbed wire under the butterfly. Low and shallow, it is harder to break with folding. It holds its form as wings tessellate and compress over it.

            Damien shows them the logo first, then the butterfly. He doesn’t wrinkle the mesh – he doesn’t want to have to explain it. Without any wrinkles the lines on the wings appear random, but it is still a passable butterfly, if not real and alive like the one Aubery drew.

Dad chews the inside of his cheek. “Dad’ll never agree to it,” he says.

            “I’ll sell designs online, from my room. I just need my own data plan,” Damien says. “Grandpa will never know.”

            Dad looks at Ray. Ray shakes his head. “There’s just no money for it,” Ray says.

            “Why can’t you do something,” Damien asks his dad. “Why can’t you get a job? Some kind of job?”

            Dad’s face gets red just like Grandpa’s. Damien blacks out for a second after the punch to his jaw. Not long enough to fall. Dad stomps away.

            “You shouldn’t have said that to your own father,” Ray says.

            “Why don’t you get a job?” he asks Ray.

            “Why don’t YOU?”

            Damien doesn’t answer that he has a job as Grandpa’s assistant. Grandpa doesn’t pay him because times are tough. He stands mutely while Uncle Ray storms off muttering, “Like jobs can just be GOT.”

            Damien smooths the Flexi-Print sample over his Adam’s apple. He looks at himself in the dusty mirror. The clown lamp is behind him. He turns on the simulation. Aubery’s face floats against his chin. He adjusts its size up as high as the small patch will allow. He moves the image in front of his face.

            It won’t expand further than the width of the patch. One third of Aubery covers his face, like he and Aubery are spliced together. The nose isn’t quite right.

            He turns to the side, watches her slip into negative, like a wax casting.

            He turns it off.

            He thinks about sex on the bunk beds in the storeroom. Solidity. Solid objects. His fingers crushed between the headboard and wall. He thinks about his father and his uncle, on those same bunks as boys, also trying so hard not to be heard. That is his family – living on top of each other and trying not to touch.

            Holograms can’t bruise each other.

            He opens his butterfly file. He deletes the barbed wire and watches the butterfly flex its wings a few times on his arm. He has figured out how to match it to the range of motion of his elbow. As he bends and straightens his arm, the butterfly twists and takes off, hovers and drops. He smiles.

           Damien packs scones and beer into the lunch box Dad used to use when he had a job. He writes out the directions to the sales rep’s address on old receipt paper. He leaves Aubery’s diminutive face playing in the air over the kitchen table, a placeholder for the space he leaves behind.

This story originally appeared in Analog.


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Author: Marie Vibbert

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