Anna walked past the neon sign, “Lady Sarah’s Tattoo Parlor,” every day from her job as a grocery sacker. She had never dared to enter the…
Anna walked past the neon sign, “Lady Sarah’s Tattoo Parlor,” every day from her job as a grocery sacker. She had never dared to enter the place, but she liked the pretty pictures displayed on the window. Those silly butterflies and dragons reminded her of childhood times, in particular, when she had played hide-and-seek games with friends at dusk in the precious minutes before parents called their children inside for dinner. She remembered the butterflies and lightning bugs and the heavy smells of honeysuckle flowers.
A glance at her watch made Anna spin around and run up the hill to the brick one-story home surrounded by a white picket fence. No time to tidy anything or fix her hair. Thomas would be home soon. “The clock must be wrong,” she whispered as she fixed the meatloaf.
Six o’clock. The table was set and the meatloaf, thankfully done on time, was ready when her husband of eleven years came home. He whistled as he hung his coat in the foyer’s closet.
“Hello, darling.” He nuzzled her neck, then kissed her.
“Would you like some wine?” she asked.
“I’ll take a glass at the table.” He sniffed and Anna’s gaze was drawn to his slightly crooked nose. “Meatloaf?”
She nodded and twisted the tea towel in her hands.
“My favorite. You’re so good to me.”
Anna poured a glass of wine and served it to her husband, then she fixed his plate precisely the way he liked it. He sampled each item and nodded approval; she took her place at the end of the table. Thomas talked about work, friends, and life, and Anna pretended to listen as she thought about the tattoo parlor and the little butterfly she’d noticed today.
“Too many onions, I think,” Thomas said suddenly. “How many times must I tell you that you use too many damn onions?”
“I’m sorry,” Anna whispered. “I didn’t realize.”
“Of course you didn’t realize, Anna. You’re stupid. All I expect from you is a decent meal — and I get garbage. Garbage!”
Thomas pushed his chair from the table. “Come here.”
Knowing hesitation would only worsen his temper, Anna obeyed.
“Why did you feed me garbage? Did you empty the trashcan on my plate? Did you?”
She saw the anger glittering in his green eyes, the eyes she’d once compared to a mossy pond in a silly love poem she’d written to him. She said nothing and Thomas grabbed her arm, yanking it hard. “Did you feed me garbage?”
Anna struggled for the right words, searching for the exact tone and phrase that would calm him and prevent what she knew was inevitable. She stared at his mottled face, the vein in his neck that always throbbed when he got upset. Hot emotion speared her. Anna thought of the colored pictures in the tattoo parlor, especially the butterfly she liked so well, even as fear warred with this new feeling. She was so tired of Thomas, of being afraid, of the emptiness in her heart.
She jerked her arm out of his grasp. “You liked the meal just fine before the last bite.” Her hand flew to her mouth. Oh dear God. Why had she said that?
Thomas’s mouth dropped open, but his surprise turned to fury in a matter of seconds. The blow sent her staggering and the next rapped her head against the wall. Her vision blurred as she slid down to the floor.
“Look what you made me do. If you would’ve have kept your mouth shut and just fixed my dinner the way I expect, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s your fault, Anna.”
“It’s my fault,” she whispered, cradling her sore cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“I can’t stand it when you’re like this.” She heard Thomas’s steps recede and knew he was in the foyer getting his coat. “And for God’s sake,” he yelled. “Clean up this mess.”
The door slammed shut.
Anna curled into a ball and cried.
* * *
Thomas was kind to her during the next few days. He brought her gifts and took her out to dinner twice. This was the man she’d fallen in love with, the man who made rare appearances these days. Most of the time, she lived with the monster Thomas, the one she didn’t love, the one she feared.
“I’ll be going out of town,” Thomas announced on Thursday. “It’s a weekend business trip. You don’t work, do you?”
Anna nodded. “Only on Saturday. One to five.”
“Can you switch the shift? I haven’t said anything, but ever since you took the job, your housework has suffered.”
She heard the warning, but the few hours of freedom was worth asking, “It’s just four hours, Thomas. I don’t mind working the shift. And I’ll work extra hard on the house. Please?”
Anna’s heart thudded as she watched her husband’s brows draw together. Then he smiled indulgently. “What would they do without you? You can work. This time.”
On Friday afternoon Thomas called from the airport to check on her. He called again when he arrived at his hotel and once more at 3 a.m. Anna was used to his paranoia, but late-night phone calls were a small price. His absence from the house made the hours precious and sweet.
Saturday, she was ready for work by Noon. She didn’t dare leave yet, even though she itched to be out in the autumn sunshine. At 12:30 the phone trilled and she caught it on the first ring. She listened to Thomas tell her about the boring seminars, then he said, “I’ll call back at 5:15 p.m. I love you.”
The words nearly stuck in her throat, but she finally said, “I love you, too” before hanging up the receiver. She left, eager to be at work. She stopped to peruse the tattoo parlor’s pictures, looking until she found the small butterfly she liked. Delicate blue with black on the edges of its wings, it was freedom in motion.
“Trying to work up the nerve, huh?”
Startled, Anna backed away from the window and looked at the gray-haired woman standing in the door. “No, no. I could never — ”
“Of course you could, honey,” she said, flexing her tattoo-covered arms. “It’s art.”
Her brown gaze was friendly, and Anna relaxed. She stepped closer to see the unicorn on the woman’s shoulder.
“It’s very nice.” She paused. “I like the blue butterfly.”
“Good choice.” The woman held out her hand. “Sarah Brown. This is my shop.”
Anna timidly shook her hand. “Anna. It’s nice to meet you.”
Sarah’s gaze turned sharp as she gazed at Anna’s face. Out of habit, Anna bent her head even though the fading bruise was hidden by make-up.
“Looks like you know something about tattoos already.”
“I’ve never had a tattoo.”
“You live in that pretty house on Locus Hill, right? This is a small town, but I never see you anywhere but walking to work and back.”
Anna felt the color drain from her face. “I have to go.”
“I know all about tattoos, honey. The ugly, hurtful kind is what made me open this place. I hid mine with pretty pictures.” Sarah leaned close, her eyes reflecting a kinship Anna had never felt with another human being. “The best thing I ever did was leave the man who gave me those ugly tattoos.”
Anna stepped back, gripping the strap of her purse. “I’ll be late for work.”
“You come back and I’ll do the butterfly for free.” She took Anna’s hand and squeezed. “Tattoos saved me. They can save you, too.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think so.” Anna hurried away, her insides queasy. Sarah Brown knew what Thomas did to her. Sarah Brown knew the pain and the humiliation. Anna didn’t feel so alone anymore, and the thought almost made her cry.
At 4 p.m., the manager told Anna to go home. She gathered her purse and coat, wondering what to with the hour she had left. Sixty minutes of time she didn’t have to account for — it felt like a Christmas present. Sarah’s offer intrigued her, but she didn’t dare get the butterfly. Still, she found herself in front of the parlor, her hand hovering above the door handle. What would it hurt to just look?
Anna took a deep breath and opened the door. A bell tinkled, announcing her entrance. The place was small, but clean. Two couches faced each other in the center of the room. The walls were white and filled with hundreds of pictures. She looked toward the counter at the back of the room just as Sarah entered from a door marked Employees Only.
“Ready?” Sarah asked.
Anna meant to say no, she was only going to look for a minute before going home. Instead, she found herself following Sarah around the counter and through the door.
Two pink chairs that looked like comfortable versions of a dentist’s, were long and slightly curved in the middle. Sarah patted the one on the right and Anna found herself laying on it without protest.
“This is the one, right?”
The tiny blue butterfly fluttered alone on a white sheet. “Yes, that’s it.”
“I’d suggest the inside of the ankle. You can always put a bandage on it and claim a scratch if you have to.”
Sarah helped her shed the coat and took the purse, putting both onto a counter. Anna felt calm, as if getting a tattoo were the most natural course to take. Strangely, she wanted the butterfly more than anything else in the world.
“Now I’m not going to kid you — this will hurt, especially on the ankle. There’s not a lot meat in that area, so it’s more sensitive.”
Anna smiled. “I can handle pain.”
“I know you can.” Sarah’s gaze was kind. “I use a special kind of an ink. It has unique properties.”
“What do you mean?”
“Free me, butterfly. That’s all you gotta say when you’re ready.”
“Like a spell?”
“If you like. At the end of the day, honey, you’re the one with the power to change your situation. But your butterfly — it’ll help, too.”
Anna watched as Sarah put on latex gloves. Then the artist pressed a paper with the butterfly’s outline onto the inside of Anna’s left ankle. “I’ll do the outside, then I’ll color it in. You want blue with the black outline?”
Sarah opened three small jars of ink and tore open a tiny plastic package. She took out a needle and inserted it into something that Anna thought looked like a large metal electric toothbrush — without the toothbrush. When Sarah turned the device on, it even buzzed like an electric toothbrush.
The first touch of the needle felt like a hot scalpel slicing her skin. Anna remembered when Thomas kicked her leg so hard, the calf turned black and blue. It knotted up every time she tried to walk. The prick of the needle didn’t hurt compared to that. She watched Sarah dip the needle in the black ink and then blot blood with a clean white towel.
Sarah finished outlining the butterfly, then she dipped the needle into a jar of clear liquid and into the jar of blue ink. “When I’m finished, it’ll feel like a sunburn for a while and be a mess for about ten days. Then the scab will fall off and you’ll be the proud owner of a pretty little butterfly.”
She watched Sarah lift the carved lid from a small stone container. Symbols were roughly etched into the gray rock. Inside the bowl was a glowing green liquid. She dipped the tattoo needle into the strange mixture and traced over the butterfly. Anna felt electricity pulse under her skin.
Within minutes, the tattoo was finished and Anna looked down in amazement. The butterfly danced on her ankle. Joy surged through her, and a laugh bubbled out. “Oh, it’s beautiful!”
“Freedom’s a beautiful thing. And that butterfly is free. Just like you are, Anna.”
Anna’s happiness faded. Free? Thomas was her life. She would have nothing without him. He’d made sure of that. Peeling away her family and friends. Discarding her hobbies and interests. Slicing and hacking at her life until nothing was left. Nothing but him.
Sarah put a bandage across the tattoo and gave Anna a small tube. “Take off the bandage in about two hours and use this on it frequently. Like I said, it should heal in about ten days.”
“Thank you.” Anna took the tube and gathered her purse and coat. “This means a lot to me. I can’t believe I did it.”
“You have a lot of courage, honey.” Sarah hugged her fiercely and gave Anna a measuring look. “You need somewhere to go — you come straight here. I live upstairs. And you remember what I said about this tattoo?”
“If I say free me, butterfly, it’ll help me.”
Anna nodded, though she didn’t believe for a minute a magical tattoo could help her. But she appreciated Sarah’s kindness and her attempts to comfort. She glanced at the clock. 5:05 p.m. Thomas! She thanked Sarah again and ran all the way home. The telephone was ringing when she burst through the door and she grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“Where were you?”
“In the bathroom,” Anna lied.
The silence ate away at her and she bit her tongue to keep from filling up the endless pause with nervous words. Then Thomas laughed. “Nature’s call is more important than mine, huh?”
He uttered a few more words then hung up. Anna expelled a nervous breath. She stared down at her ankle. Would she be able to hide the butterfly from him?
* * *
Three weeks passed without incident. Thomas never noticed the bandage, especially since Anna made sure she wore long pants and high socks. With the fall weather giving way to the chill of winter, her attire wasn’t too suspicious. She knew the butterfly was there, though, fluttering on her ankle. She felt like a naughty child keeping a secret and she began to enjoy having something only she knew about.
For the first time in her life, she owned something.
Anna had high hopes for the week. But on Tuesday night, Thomas came home in a surly mood. Dinner was a failure. He broke his plate then demanded she clean up the pieces. He hated every program they tried to watch on television and threw the remote at her. Later, he dragged her into the bedroom and flipped on all the lights.
Anna saw the edge of his temper and recoiled from the violence she saw in his face. While he pushed her onto the bed, she unbuttoned her blouse and allowed him to paw her breasts.
Thomas roughly tore off her clothes and entered her with a painful shove, grabbing her ankles and pushing her legs above her head. When he was done, he rolled off, sweating and breathing heavily. Anna hoped sex had taken away his anger. She got out of bed and grabbed a night gown from the dresser drawer.
As she shimmied on the pink lace nightie, Thomas asked, “What’s wrong with your ankle?”
Anna froze. She smoothed the ankle-length gown and kept her gaze on the beige carpet. “N-nothing.”
“You have a bandage on.”
“It’s a scratch,” she said.
“Let me see it.”
Anna lifted her head and stared at him. He stretched lazily on the bed, but his gaze held a familiar glitter. He wanted to fight. To hurt. To scream. All the rage swirling inside him like acid would be brutally gifted to her. It’s always going to be like this, she thought. Always.
She lifted the gown and put her ankle on the bed. She ripped off the bandage. Thomas’s gaze lazily flicked down.
“What the hell is that?”
“A butterfly,” Anna said.
“You got a tattoo?”
Thomas sat up and swiped at her ankle. Anna moved her leg before he could grab her.
“You dumb bitch. You’ve ruined your body.”
Emotion twisted endlessly inside her. “You ruined it first.”
Thomas blinked rapidly, his expression dumbfounded. Anna left the bedroom and went into the kitchen. Seconds later, she heard Thomas’s bare footsteps slapping against the tiles. The glass of orange juice in her hand trembled and she choked on the tart drink.
She looked at his naked, hairy body and his ugly sneer. The monster Thomas would always be stronger than the man she fell in love with, the one who bought her chocolate and listened to her silly love poems and promised to protect her.
He knocked the glass out of her hand. Juice splattered everywhere as the glass shattered onto the floor. He slapped her, hard, and she lost her footing, landing on her hands and knees. Shards cut into her palms and her fingers curled around a large jagged piece. When he jerked her up by the shoulders, she pushed the sharp end against his throat.
“Let go of me.”
“You won’t hurt me. You’re my wife.” He squeezed her, his bony fingers digging into her flesh, but Anna pressed the sharp edge against his throat, daring to make him bleed.
He released her, but she knew it was only a temporary reprieve.
“I don’t want to be your wife anymore.” Anna backed out of the kitchen, holding the shard. Thomas watched her through slitted eyes, a predator sizing her up before he attacked.
She hurried through the living room to the foyer where she unlocked the door and opened it. “And for God’s sake,” she shouted, “clean up that mess!”
Anna only made it a few steps down the front walkway. Thomas easily caught her, throwing her to the cold, dewy grass before getting on top of her and punching her face.
Pain radiated through her jaw and she felt some of her teeth loosen. Blood filled her mouth.
“You whore!” he screamed. “You dumb cunt!”
He punched her again, this time plowing his fist into her right eye socket. She closed her eyes and swallowed the fresh blood filling up her mouth. She heard Sarah’s voice whisper, “You know what to say.”
“Free me, butterfly!” she yelled, despite the knowledge it was stupid to say the words. No one could help her now.
Then she felt heat on her ankle.
Thomas screamed and toppled off her.
The butterfly that had once adorned her ankle had somehow lifted off her skin and now, it grew larger and larger, until it was the size of a grizzly bear. Its blue wings and black body pulsed with an unearthly green glow. Thomas scrabbled to his feet and backed away, his eyes bulging with incredulous fear. “Get away from me!”
But the butterfly stretched its glistening, pulsating wings and wrapped them around Thomas. It dragged Anna’s struggling, screeching husband into its embrace.
Anna wobbled to her feet and watched as the butterfly’s wings drew tighter and tighter around Thomas, and within moments, she couldn’t hear Thomas’s cries anymore. The butterfly’s green glow faded until it disappeared completely.
The creature’s colors bled away until only an ashy gray was left.
It crumbled to the ground.
Flakes of gray dotted the grass until the wintery wind whisked away the evidence of the butterfly … and of Thomas.
Her entire body shook as adrenaline and fear drained from her.
Thomas was gone.
Ann turned and took off down the sidewalk. The minutes stretched into forever as she ran to the tattoo parlor. She pounded on the front door, relief flooding her as the lights came on. The door opened and she saw Sarah’s concerned face.
“The b-butterfly,” she whispered, “it … k-killed him.”
“Don’t you feel sorry for that shitty husband of yours.” Sarah ushered her to a couch and Anna collapsed. The past few minutes had felt like a lifetime. She told Sarah everything. “It doesn’t feel real,” she said. “Maybe Thomas isn’t really gone. Maybe I’ve just lost my mind.”
“He’s gone,” said Sarah confidently. “But you don’t have to worry about any of that now. We’ll deal with what comes next tomorrow, okay?”
Anna nodded. Her eye had nearly swelled shut and her jaw throbbed with lightning zaps of pain, but she still felt better than she had in a long time. Like the boulder crushing her for so long had finally been rolled off her.
“I can breathe better,” Anna said. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve taken a full breath? Oh God.”
Sarah put a comforting arm around her. “You’re free, little butterfly. You’re free.”