It’s the coppery taste of blood that hits her senses first.
That light iron aftertaste of someone who took a chance on that new year’s resolution, but overestimated and pushed the limits of their morning run.
Steph Gingrich doesn’t normally exercise.
Or do new year resolutions.
She doesn’t normally get tattoos either, yet here she was, crawling her way back from unconsciousness not too shortly after the biting needles pierced through the surface of her skin, vibrating against her collarbone.
For fuck’s sake, it had hardly been a minute and Steph’s body already noped the fuck out of there.
The buzzing in her ears is then replaced by a soft raspy chuckle of the artist lingering with a water bottle close by, smelling of latex, disinfectant, and cherry vape “...And she’s coming to. Welcome back to the world of the living, hun.”
She squeezes her eyes to block out the irritating fluorescent lamp that hangs from the paint-chipped ceiling, and stars collide behind her lids. The world just needed to stop spinning for one minute.
This was a stupid idea.
“Just take a breath,” the voice said, warm and endearing, “happens more often than you’d think.”
The plastic covering squeaks and snaps directly under her when she shifts her body “I’m…so fucking embarrassed.”
“Don’t be, seriously,” the artist hands over the bottle with more insistence. The thumping sting on her collarbone is calmed momentarily by the coolness of the refrigerated water bottle pressing against her bare shoulder. It prompts her to try opening her eyes again.
Theresa’s silhouette dominates her vision as she slowly pulls her into focus, and Steph is reminded of her tastes. The lamp behind her gives this butch angel an ethereal aura, illuminating her patterned skin, dark mid-length hair, and piercings aplenty. Steph is enchanted enough that she forgets her filters.
“Pretty…” she slurs, tongue feeling heavy behind her teeth. She winces at the sound of her voice, rough and pathetic. She squeezes her eyes shut as her chest begins to flush; a somewhat welcome change from the loss of colour she was most likely experiencing earlier when her body decided to fuck off. “G-Good. Pretty good. I’m good. T-Thank you.”
She can hear her smile, lips stretching over white teeth. “Drink up. Take a breather. Then we can get back to it.”
Back to it. Back to this act of spontaneity.
She takes a greedy gulp of water and it makes her teeth ache. "This isn't a normal thing for me, I swear."
"Are you high? Have you been drinking?" She asks almost jokingly.
Steph’s eyes pay little focus on the artist prepping her tools, rather she tries to rake through her memory of the past twenty-four hours for an answer. "Well, no. Not super recently. I'm just buzzing on very little sleep and...stress, and I guess things got too loud and it all became too much all of a sudden?"
The thought hung in the air for an uncomfortable moment. It gives the pair of them pause, then Theresa breaks it by the shrieking sound of her tattoo gun buzzing into an inkpot.
"Damn hun, this isn’t actually a therapist's couch, but it might as well be.” she says, pushing her feet to roll her stool to Steph’s right side “You'd be surprised how many people have spilled their guts here. Both words and vom." she gently presses a moist towelette on the now reddening skin, soaking up a few stray spots of blood "Seriously though, if you do need to empty your guts, please let me know? I'd prefer it in a bucket than on my floor."
"Oh, you'll be the first to know."
"I have a question though if you don't mind," she asks, ducking her head down and that smell of warm latex and cherry hits her senses again, only to be overwhelmed out by the sharp sting of biting needles. “It’s nothing serious, I ask this of all my clients.”
"Shoot." she winces a reply.
"Why the bird?"
Because swallows are cool? Because it was the first piece of flash art that caught her eye when she looked through Theresa’s portfolio? Because it was the first one that was within the acceptable price range that Gabe approved of?
Was there a reason beyond that?
Did there have to be?
"I don't know. Felt...fitting, I guess?"
Theresa hums and digs in her needle forming the arch of a wing "For all the years I've been doing this, you come to realise that it's not always that deep. Sometimes it's a feeling you had at that moment. Like, how are you feeling right now, Steph?"
Tell us how you really feel, Steph.
That swell of anxiety of being examined bubbles up from her throat, and she isn’t sure if she wants to speak it or tell Theresa to fuck off.
She settles for the latter.
“You know, this doesn’t really resemble a chaise longue.” She shifts in her chair for emphasis, causing the plastic film to squeak and snap. “Can’t expect me to spill my guts if you don’t get the decor right.”
Theresa snorts, seeming to catch Steph’s warning. She leans back, tilting her head to give an affirming glare and possibly admire her progress. “I mean, it’s a classic. Not a bad choice for your first ink.”
Steph peers down as well as she is able at the half-finished artwork, blue stencil bleeding amongst stark ebony against irritated pink.
Welcome to my chest, Swallow. I hope you don’t regret choosing me as your permanent perch.
It wouldn’t be lonely for long, she vowed. This wouldn’t be the last tattoo Steph would get.
This will be the last tattoo Steph will ever get.
Four hours later and Steph is miserable. Her fresh tattoo feels like an agitated sunburn by the time Gabe picks her up from the parlor. It’s a cool night in Denver and yet Steph’s skin is on fire. Barely content with her signature beanie, a pair of worn black skinny jeans, and a thin maroon tank. She declines to wear the denim jacket she wore when she first arrived and instead has it draped over her forearm. The layer of cling film radiates heat and shivers with every beat of her heart, only somewhat soothed by the heavy helping of aloe ointment. Steph snagged a tube as per Theresa’s advice.
And, surprisingly, her number too.
“So, you’re telling me you pass out in front of a girl and you still manage to get a date out of it?” Gabe asks when he returns from the taco truck, handing over Steph’s portion.
“What can I say? I’m a master.”
It was a victory that she didn’t realise she needed until she asked. The sting of Izzie, and the band -and well, everything- hadn’t truly left yet. She accepts the wrap and peels the wax paper before the thought gets its teeth into her.
“No shit. Do you mind sharing your mojo with the rest of the class? I certainly could use some.”
“What, why? You in the shit with your girlfriend or something?”
“Pshh, no,” Gabe says, biting into his burrito “Charlotte’s fine; we’re peas and carrots.”
“I hope so. Charlotte is way too good for you,” She winces, trying but failing to be careful not to irritate the healing bird that laid permanent residence above her right breast, “You punch way above your league.” She ignores the sting enough to tear into the soft taco with a pang of newfound hunger. “Christ, my head is still humming, dude.”
“Shit, if I had known you had a fear of needles, I’d have hung around to give you some moral support.”
“I don’t!” Steph insists through a mouthful “At least I didn’t think I did. It caught me off guard, honestly. Probably just low blood sugar or some shit.”
“Here’s hoping. Don’t want you to start a new hobby only to find it knocks you on your ass.”
“After that fiasco, I don’t plan to. Speaking of,” she bumps the back of her boot against the foosball table the pair were using as a perch. “Worth the hundred and fifty bucks?”
“It would have cost me twice that had I not sweetened the deal with the gummies; Thanks, by the way,” He grins, giving one of the freshly oiled goalies a spin “and no, don’t try to sike me. This is the greatest idea I’ve ever had.”
Steph snorts. “You don’t get many of those.”
“Look, don’t make me regret spoiling you with a tat, okay?”
Just one more day. Just one more day with this goober.
She’d tell him she’d not taken up the job offer eventually.
Just not now.
The bus ticket feels heavy in her jacket pocket.
It had taken a bit more muscle than expected to maneuver the foosball table into Gabe’s pickup. Any more on Steph’s part and her healing ink would have protested. The real challenge was getting the table up the stairs above the Black Lantern when they got home.
His home. Not hers.
Haven Springs was a paradise that she fell in love with. It was a place she could see herself retiring someday. Retiring with a wife, two point five children, and white picket fences. A golden retriever and a cat.
But that was far off into the very distant future, surely? It wasn’t something that Steph saw herself doing.
“You could stay here too. I wouldn’t try to stop you.”
She could still call Izzie and say she’s sorry. Take it all back. She still had time. It had only been a week and she had plenty of time to think it over. Both of them really. The truth was Steph did want to stay here. She just didn’t want to stay here without her. She wanted to stay here with Izzie and settle if just for a moment. Life on the road was a dream for her, but she made the mistake of slowing down too much when they reached Colorado.
She soaked in the scenery and the people and before she knew it, it had sunk its teeth into her and refused to let go.
Haven Springs wasn’t what Izzie would call a dream, it turned out.
“See you around, Steph…”
It still hurts. God, she wishes she knew when it would stop hurting.
The drive back to Haven was a lot quicker than the drive up and Steph and Gabe spent most of it in silence. Perhaps he could sense a change in her demeanor and left her to her thoughts. They did discuss other tattoo ideas but Steph was pretty adamant that she was only going to have the one, even when people warned her about the start of a new obsession. “You never just get one.” Jed had told her when she announced her plans, and Steph's admiration of the man grew when he showed off the ink that littered over his own body. She’d have to put in more hours of pain and potential passing out if she wanted to get even close to his number.
It’s his son Ryan that gives them that extra oomph they needed to finally get Gabe’s new fixation up the stairs into his apartment. A man so small town that he looked like he walked straight out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. She told him when Gabe introduced them that she wouldn't have been surprised if he told her he nurses baby birds that have fallen from their nest back to health or something equally sickly sweet. And he also probably smelled of pine needles and responsibility. Ryan laughed and said that it came with the job of a Park Ranger. He even countered back, saying she probably smelled of freshly opened packs of Pokemon cards and tabletop miniatures.
They became fast friends after that.
After what felt like an hour of pivoting and careful manoeuvring, they finally got the blasted thing up the stairwell. All Steph could say was thank god for castor wheels. Gabe practically collapsed on top of the table once it finally was set in place, but tenacity managed to find his second wind and he was eager to get a game or three in.
Steph throws herself into a nearby desk chair and takes a swig from Theresa’s bottle of water, drinking it greedily. The water was lukewarm at this stage, and the number she had scrawled in black sharpie over the surface was smudged by condensation. She kept it close like a victory.
See? She could move on.
Gabe pulls Steph from her delving misery.
"Look, I know it hasn't exactly been the greatest start to a new chapter in your life, what with the band and...Izzie." Steph chews the inside of her cheek. "But you're here. And we have reasons to celebrate."
"We have a foosball table."
Steph rolls her eyes and gives Gabe a playful shove, but takes the hint, getting up from her seat to join her friend at the game table. She’s never really played a game of Foosball before. She remembers the rec room back in Blackwell having an air hockey table that never worked, and Steph was somewhat good at it.
How hard could it be?
For someone so keen on getting this table and driving all the way up to Denver to pick it up, Gabe played like someone who had never touched Foosball in his life.
It’s not like Steph was an expert at the game either, but his timing was off and his movements were sluggish. With her already souring mood, It was getting on her nerves.
After the third consecutive win in a row, she eventually called him out on it.
“You’re letting me win.”
“Pshh, what? No!” he vehemently denies.
“Seriously, you’re holding out on me. Why’d you buy this if you suck so bad?”
“You can be bad at things and still enjoy them!”
“I can’t believe you’re bullying me and my shit gameplay.”
Steph stares him down, hardly amused.
“Okay, fine. Maybe I was going a little easy. But I wanted to make you feel better. Is it working?”
“Gabe…” she warns, but it has no bite. It just sounds tired.
Gabe eyes her a moment, his mouth shifting into a sympathetic smile, then decidedly pushes away from the table, making his way to the liquor shelf and fiddling with what Steph assumes is a bottle of booze.
“Why don’t we have a drink? We do have reasons to celebrate for real, though.”
Steph leans against the table, trying to exhale the tension from her chest, but to no avail. Perhaps a drink would fix that.
“Sure, why not.”
“Awesome. And anyway, I’d like to make a toast,” he announces, handing the freshly poured tumbler of lukewarm whiskey “Here’s to your new job at the station.”
That weight in her chest and her pocket gets heavier at those words.
Alright Steph, no more beating around the bush.
Like ripping off a bandaid. Here goes.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” She takes the glass, avoiding eye contact as she downs the entire thing. Liquid courage. “I’m not taking it. I move to Denver next week.” She answers nonchalantly, putting down her glass and continuing to play as if it were not that big of a deal.
The way Gabe staggers the slider and doesn’t bat an eye when the ball rolls past the goalies were evident enough that yeah, it was that big of a deal.
The pair of them stand over the table. A beat of silent hitting with the subtlety of an awkward elephant. Steph can’t help but brace for the inevitable dam to break.
It’s Gabe who eventually does.
Steph chews on the inside of her cheek, eyes locked with the ball bearing sliding against the smooth surface. A sight that was better than what was Gabe’s definite disapproval.
“Steph, are you fucking with me?” His voice sounded like a disappointed parent and it hurts.
“Gabe, this?” she finally says, and gestures weakly around them, causing the plastic film wrapped over her chest to squeak with her movement, “It wasn’t going to be a permanent thing. You know that, right? You have a job, a home. Fuck, you have a girlfriend.”
She certainly didn’t anymore.
“Who says you can’t have that too?” He asks softly after a beat.
“I do--Did. And I fucked it up by considering this place for too long.”
“A place you love.”
She whines, tears openly flowing at this point “Loving a place isn’t enough.”
Gabe lets out a long breath, deflated.
“Wow. And I bought you a tattoo and everything.” He tries to joke, but it falls flat.
The very mention of the tattoo causes it to thump against her chest. Stinging flesh and guilt. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“No, no, you haven’t. It’s just,” He finally picks up his glass, staring into its contents and shrugging helplessly “I don’t believe you.”
This gives her pause. She stares up at him, disbelievingly.
“I have the ticket, dude. It’s in my pocket. It’s settled already.”
“Yeah, sure, Kinda a waste of fifty bucks, if you ask me,” He finally downs the glass, “cause we both know you ain’t gonna go through with it.”
“The fuck? Of course I am! I don’t belong here, Gabe.”
“Says who? Izzie?”
“I--,” she sighs, frustrated, fingers pinching the bridge of her nose. “I can’t,” she says roughly, her resolve cracking in her throat.
Fuck, she was sick of crying.
Gabe spins the slider and it whirrs, filling the silence.
“We could play for it?”
A beat goes by.
“Play for it.” He repeats, but firmer “If I win, you...have to stay here in Haven.”
Steph couldn’t believe what she’s hearing.
“After your performance? Dude, give it up. I already booked a bus ticket.”
“Hey, I’ve been watching you play enough. How hard could it be?”
“I don’t know…”
“Wait, wait, hear me out.” he pleads “One more game. If I win, you have to stay. If you win? I’ll cover the ticket.”
This was ridiculous. Laughable. The audacity of it made her bark a laugh.
“You’re being serious, aren’t you?”
He smiles in that Gabe way, all teeth and stubble, his brow raising in a challenge. “What say you, Gingrich?”
Steph chews the inside of her cheek, shaking her head in a laugh. She matches his challenging stance with a glare of her own.
“I’d say you just lost fifty bucks.”
The black marker bleeds into the white paper as she takes her time to drag the felt tip to write ‘FOOSBALL CHAMPION’ in bold. The bus ticket lay next to it on the coffee table, torn in half upon Gabe’s request.
Steph felt swindled.
And yet somewhat relieved.
Gabe is still howling his victory in the background, dancing like a showboating field player after a touchdown.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Presenting your new Foosball Champion; Gabe Chen.” He bows with a flourish, holding out his hand to take the partially drunk bottle of whiskey that Steph haphazardly sellotaped with the paper sign. Gabe places the bottle on the mantlepiece just above the gas fireplace and he bows to it like some kind of shrine, and Steph’s eyes were threatening to fall out of their sockets with how hard she was rolling them.
“Ughhh, you’re the worst! I can’t believe I have to stay in this stupid town.”
This stupid, surreal town that had shown her something special. Something that could feel like a home.
As unreal as the thought was.
Gabe is laughing and it’s contagious like always, and it’s clear he is relieved too. He smiles warmly.
“I think we both know you could have beat me if you really wanted to. So, you’re welcome.”
At that moment, the heat of the tattoo on her chest finally feels pleasant.
It felt new.
All of this felt new.
Perhaps new is just what she needed.