Note: Unedited and subject to change
It didn’t matter. I was used to running and always kept a spare life in the trunk. Spare clothes, spare driver’s licenses, spare social security numbers, and a spare tire. As soon as I felt like I was a comfortable distance away, I’d pull into a motel under a new name. I’d change the plates on my car. Yes, Jose wasn’t the most inconspicuous of vehicles, but I was sentimental about it. After all, it wasn’t even mine.
Then, tomorrow, I’d figure out my budget. Figure out how long I could go for before I’d need a legitimate job. Figure out that moment when I’d have to stay true to my word and make sure that this truly was the last time.
I careened around a corner, then slowed as the car disappeared into the traffic heading across the Ohio River. With my free hand I opened my wallet and went through my spare IDs. Now that I was going to go legit, I didn’t have much of a choice.
I took out the California license that said Ellie Watt. I’d need to change the expiry date and photo since the last time I had set foot in the state was seven years ago, just after I’d turned nineteen. But it would do. I was Ellie Watt again.
I was finally me.
He unlocked the door and flipped over the “open” sign as we stepped in. The place was kitschy as anything. It was like walking into Graceland if it were owned by Jon Waters. The walls were an obnoxious green, the suede couch was orange, the coffee table was pink and made out of alligator skins. I had to do a double take. A 1930’s scuba diving suit hung in the corner by a paper mache Speed Racer. There was a stack of shiny guitars underneath a flatscreen TV that was showing Who Framed Roger Rabbit with Asian subtitles.
But for all the visual diarrhea, I couldn’t help but add up the dollar value of the place. He wasn’t kidding when he said he brought in the dough. As ugly and camp as half the stuff was, they’d be worth a pretty penny to purchase.
“Can I get you a beer?” he asked. There was a small, retro fridge beside his tattoo chair and when he opened it, it glowed glass-green from all the Heineken.
“Please,” I told him. Probably wasn’t the best idea since my stomach was still growling and I was strangely nervous but I could never pass up a free cold one.
He nodded at the couch. “Why don’t you take a seat? Here.” He reached over and handed me a stack of binders. “That’s all my art in there. You know, in case you’d have a change of heart and let me ink you.” His eyes twinkled mischievously.
“I don’t recall you giving me the chance to turn that idea down,” I said wryly, taking them from him and sitting down on the couch. For all the orange suede, it was really comfortable. While he busied himself getting ready for the client, I flipped through the pages.
His art was beautiful. From soaring owls, to photograph-quality portraits and strange symbols, Camden looked like he could do anything. All of his work had a certain shadow, a certain dark quality about them that instantly reminded me of art class. Back when he and I were friends, back when we’d sit next to each other in Mrs. Slevin’s class, he’d doodle page after page of his sketchbook with these highly detailed and intricate drawings, all with a skinny black pen. One day I let him draw all over my arm, from my knuckles all the way to my shoulder, before Mrs. Slevin yelled at him, throwing around big words like “ink poisoning. “ I had worn those drawings with a perverse sense of pride, like the freak I was.
I peered up from the pages and watched him. He was sitting in his chair, playing with the ink mixer, brows furrowed and eyes bright in clear concentration. The package may have changed, but his eyes were still the same. Even now they were as engaged and coaxing as ever, like he was trying to get the ink to tell him its secrets.
“So what do you do for work, Ellie?” he asked without meeting my eyes. He knew I was staring at him.
“I work odd jobs,” I said and went back to flipping through the book.
“You never went to college?”
“Not unless you count the School of Hard Knocks.”
“Still funny, I see.”
“You gotta be something.”
I felt him pause, a heaviness at my back. The hairs on my neck felt like they were being tugged. I was reminded of the electric shock he gave me and I slowly turned my head. He was staring right at me, his expression unreadable. Something passed between us, but it felt foreign to me and I didn’t know what to make of it.