His head pounded and his ears rang. A culture of the inside of his mouth would reveal botulism. Why the left cheek of his rear-end stung he could only guess. He was sure these were symptoms of some foreign rare disease contracted by too much contact with new people.
Germs were one of the drawbacks of teaching. But it was a steady paycheck and the work wasn't too hard. Sure, there were teachers that poured themselves into the work, those that pulled ten hours a day. He used to try to make math fun, but it never paid off. Apathy was easier and paid the same.
Carl loved mathematics because you could define the world with logic and meticulous study of topics such as quantity, configuration, space, and change. All knowledge contained deductive reasoning, starting from axioms and definitions. Indeed everything mankind had accomplished stemmed from mathematics in one way or another. It was what got mankind out of the caves, held us up with steel among the very stars and allowed us to touch the depths of the ocean.
Those who thought the world was anything more than matter and math were simpletons. Someday he would be able to express the formula to prove it.
Carl hoped that a hot shower, a shot of Listerine, and his regimen of vitamins would somehow wash away everything. He dried his almost nonexistent hair off. Then he careful placed his horn-rimmed glasses back on, he could then see why his butt hurt. There, big as any theorem, Pythagorean or otherwise, were the words "Bite me". Beneath the words was a set of vampire teeth; a drop of scarlet threatened to fall from the sharp canines.
He stared at it with disbelief. "What in Euclid?"
There was no tattoo when he went to bed the night before. It's not as if he had been drinking. Carl hasn't had more than one beer in years, nor did he live in a college dorm.
An equation of one of his students breaking in, drugging what he ate, and then tattooing his backside, ran through his mind. That was the only thing that added up.
He quickly combed through his mind's neatly stacked columns of students capable of such a thing. Kevin Drake was the logical answer. He could see Kevin laughing his fat Goth ass off about his old math teacher's pale furry behind as he told his little conclave of his escapade.
Carl called the police to report a crime. The school was next, stating that he was ill. It occurred to him that by now there were pictures of his pricked painted posterior. From phone to Internet it would travel. He was sure that by the end of the school year there'd be a song with his flat math teacher's butt dancing, the tattooed choppers singing and farts escaping his ass at clever intervals. Again Carl Bradley would be the butt of a joke.
The police came, asked him questions, and checked his house. They took him to the hospital to run blood tests. It became evident that they did not believe Carl or didn't care that his behind now sported teeth. He was used to being condemned; after all, he was a middle school math teacher.
Carl heard one of the officers say, "Maybe it's a new form of tagging?"
Yet another added, "Drive by tattooing," and then snickered at his smart remark.
"There's no sign of a break in and we'll know about the test in a couple of weeks. How many people have keys to the place?" Officer Hadely asked.
Carl had to admit he had no idea. He had only come into the house a month before the school year started. He hadn't even finished moving in yet.
To his surprise, he inherited the house and everything the guy had owned. His cousin, David McNeal, had died in a car crash earlier that summer. One step in the house on the corner of Barker Lane and Bradbury Street he knew why they had never been friends. The dwelling contained tons of dirty dishes, even more dirty magazines, pounds of dog-eared paperbacks that even a thrift store turned down as a donation and a few hundred movies. Most of which, he himself would never have watched unless forced to. "Bound by blood not of soul," his mother would have said.
Carl could only lie on his stomach. As best he could, he tried to watch the news before he fell asleep. He desperately wanted his normal routine back. Even before the tattoo, so much of his habits had to now accommodate so many strange unfamiliar things.
He couldn't imagine another place that would be more uncomfortable to have been stuck with a needle hundreds of times. Carl had changed every lock and made sure that each window was nailed shut. He threw out every bit of food and medicine in the house and had purchased a few frozen TV dinners and medical supplies to tide him over. "Better safe than sorry," his mother would have said.
Over the next month, every few days, a new tattoo appeared: skeletons waltzed in a graveyard among tombstones, a ghoul dined on a corpse with fine china and crystal. A huge ugly rat appeared above his wrist. On the front of his wrist was the back half of the rat. Its scaly tail poked out of his long sleeved shirts. Directly on the other side was the front half of the rat as if it had chewed its way through his flesh and bone.
As each scene rose, a nightmare followed. Any word connected with dreams wasn't the right for the experience, even though he was asleep. What Carl saw, smelled, tasted and felt was more vivid than anything he experienced when he was awake. A dark twin of the new tattoo somehow became a vision.
The math teacher never cared too much for doctors, unless it was absolutely necessary. Carl got exercise and took vitamins. He didn't smoke, drink alcohol, or eat fast food. With the help of his computer, medical journals and the local drugstore there wasn't too much he couldn't treat himself. For instance, he read all about tattoos and the best way to prevent infections from settling in. He had taken the extra precaution of getting antibiotics from Mexico.
Carl woke to more pain then ever before. His ankles were bloody. Receiving a tattoo there could be especially painful, due to the almost negative fat layer they were almost sure to hit bone. He cleaned and treated the new "art". Carl was sure the things that lurked around his ankles were zombies.
On his thigh, a witch held her lover's heart and the other a raven flew in moonlight.
On one arm an apparition appeared. What emerged on the other arm made him more apprehensive than all of the others. For this dream was the worst of all. When he woke, Carl knew whom the tat was of, Jack the Ripper. Every cut, Carl smelled the blood and tasted the flesh of each whore. There were more murders then the ones Jack was infamous for.
His mind searched for answers. The explanation of a prank did not add up. There was an unknown component to the problem. Who or what he could not define, but the result was evident. He had become a freak.
Deep in the night, Carl awakened. A searing pain ran across his chest, as if thousands of tiny hot pokers pierced his skin. He staggered to the bathroom and flipped on the light. With as much urgency as he could, he removed his blood soaked t-shirt. This time, it seemed his flesh was flayed until the blood was washed away. There was yet another tattoo. It was larger than any of the others, with more realistic details.
In the mirror, he saw not only his brown eyes looking at the reflection but a golden set of cat's eyes as well. A naked woman who was covered in soft black fur watched him from his chest. She lay on him, her long tail wrapped around his back. She was more cat than human, but her lips... Her lips deep as cherries glistened as if they longed for a sensual kiss.
With great care, the math teacher dabbed first-aid cream to the fresh portrait. Each touch brought a strange sensation he had never know before, one of pain, yes, but of pleasure too. Against his will, his recognition of this became evident. It was as if he lost control of not only his life but of his own skin. "Where the body goes, so follows the mind," he could hear his mother say.
Her voice purred. "I wish she would shut up."
Carl froze, unsure of what he just heard. Only with his eyes and the aid of the mirror, he searched the room. No one.
"That's it. I've gone insane."
"Not yet." Now he knew that the voice came from inside his head. It reverberated as if she was speaking in an empty room.
"Well then, I don't have far to go." He opened another roll of gauze to wrap the fresh tattoo.
He could not go back to sleep. His bed was soaked in sweat and blood. This would make eight new mattresses he had to buy. Although it was tempting to drink a shot of whiskey and take a sleeping pill he decided not to.
Inside his mind, Carl told himself that come the morning he'd check himself into hospital for professional help. See if he could get some pills to help alter his brain's chemistry to a more normal state. He had never trusted any psychologist. They did not practice a true science.
With caution, he made his way into the living room. News would soothe his nerves. The news was full of facts and of things far away.
"Write." In his head, a sotto-voce came like a dark chocolate truffle.
He refused to acknowledge the voice. It was one thing to hear a voice and another to talk back to it. He began doing math problems in his head. When Carl wanted to calm himself, nothing was better than working an algebraic expression: B squared plus H squared equaled. . .
With greater insistence, the word was repeated. "Write."
He met this command with turning the volume of the news up. Fritz yelled tomorrow's forecast at him.
"Carl, I know you can hear me."
He concentrated harder on what had happened in baseball today.
"Turn the TV off or there will consequences."
He sat closer to the TV.
"Pain or pleasure, it's your choice."
Now he turned on the radio too. "Ode to Joy" blared from the speakers.
Every scrap of skin that was not tattooed began to itch like mad. Carl looked at the place he was currently trying to relieve by scratching. A stinging red welt appeared in the shape of the word "Have". The word-welts became sentences. "Have you ever been to The Slaughtered Lamb?" These in turn, formed paragraphs.
Almost running, Carl went back into the bathroom to find a measure of relief in the shower. He scrubbed vigorously with a luffa. He caught his reflection in the mirror even though he tried hard to never look at himself naked, not wanting to see the horror his own skin had become. The tattoos repulsed him. The welts made leaving the house impossible. He couldn't think, let alone drive any where without crashing.
"Are you ready to listen?" She hissed.
He began to sing at the top of his lungs. "OH SAY CAN YOU SEE."
"If you're going to be difficult." With unseen claws she drew blood.
Carl grabbed a towel to try and stop the bleeding.
"I can stop the itching, the bleeding, and the pain if you would only talk to me."
What had he to lose? There wasn't much left of his mind. He doubted that he could do simple addition now. He didn't even recognize himself any more.
Defeated, he shut his eyes and gave in. "What do you want?"
"I want you to write my stories."
"I don't understand? I am not a writer."
"You are, if I say so."
"Who are you? Why me?"
"I am Imari, and this is your house. He was your cousin. You can ask him."
"He's dead." Carl opened his eyes.
The cat-woman, now muse revealed, stood in front of him no longer ink on skin. Glossy, sable fur covered her shapely form.
"Can't you find an English teacher to possess?"
"It's more complicated than that. If you live long enough, I'll tell you someday."
He watched her long tail swish back and forth as if she were keeping time to unheard music. Her claws multi-colored extended and contracted.
She stepped closer to Carl and placed one hand on him. All of the itching stopped. Imari stroked one of the tattoos on his arm that was still fresh. The patch of flesh stung, but the odd sensation of pleasure returned. Normal people did not find gratification in pain. Only freaks did. Then he recalled what he looked like. He could get a job in a sideshow now.
"We need each other, writer and muse. I have such sights to show you. Such stories to tell. In the math that you cling to, there is space around each number. Between those facts are spaces also. In that void, that space, is imagination." Imari squeezed another tattoo, making the story rush into his mind filling his grey catacombs with images slick with color, music echoing, and scents of jasmine thick in the air.
"I don't see how I could be of any use to you. Perhaps you should find someone else?"
"I could. It could be fun." Again, she touched one of his tattoos, her golden cat eyes focusing on his skin, no longer meeting his dark eyes. "I could take back my stories. Cut them from your flesh, bit by bit. But you won't survive the ordeal." She extended her razor sharp claw piercing the edge of a tattoo, drawing blood again. With her other hand Imari caressed his hip, bringing him closer to her. "But that would be destroying myself as well. Unlike you, I will find another vessel. Someone will call me forward and create a space for me to live." Again, she cut a little more of his colored skin. Imari kissed the open wound with those cherry lips, and licked his tattooed skin clean of blood with her coarse cat tongue. On the tip of her colored claw a piece of tattooed skin hung. Details of the story slipped away. She held the flesh up to his mouth. "Shall I take my gift of stories back?"
Imari smiled and licked her deep-cherry lips. "Good."
Naked skin and soft sable black fur touched fully. She placed the fragment of tattooed flesh into his mouth. "Swallow."
They kissed, becoming one.
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