It was stirring again. Declan felt the hot itch in his chest. The prickling flesh beneath his T-shirt. It was almost time.
He watched her return from the kitchen, holding two glasses, a corkscrew in one hand, a bottle of white in the other. Her cheeks flushed, face framed by curly brown hair. She tiptoed towards him, avoiding several paperbacks scattered across the floor.
“Sorry about the mess. Don’t get many visitors,” she said, dropping on to the sofa beside him. He took the glasses and bottle and placed them on the coffee table. Leant in and delicately kissed her forehead.
She laughed; a nervous, forced giggle. “Oh God. Hope you don’t think I ask every man I meet at the station to come home with me.”
He smiled, held her gaze, stayed silent. This close he could see the signs of age softened by make-up. Dark bags beneath her eyes, worry-lines beginning to show above the brow. She looked older than her 38 years, but soon it wouldn’t matter.
“To be honest,” she said, looking away, “I don’t really meet men at all. Or women, for that matter.” She turned back, not quite looking him in the eye. “Other than me, you’re the first human being that’s set foot in this flat. It’s pathetic.”
Another laugh, louder and emptier than the first.
“Hey, come on,” he said, caressing her cheek. “We’ve had a lovely night, haven’t we?” He lowered his head, lured her eyes back to his.
“Tell you what, why don’t you pour the wine. Okay if I use your loo?”
She brightened, turned her attention to the glasses on the table. “Sure. You’re right. It’s been really nice. Bathroom’s just through that door.”
“Back in a sec,” he said, making his way across the room. Then, as he closed the door, “Stick some music on, too.”
Turning on the light to reveal an aqua colour scheme, its paint faded and peeling, he stepped over to the wall cabinet and looked inside. No surprises. Vitamin supplements, herbal sleep remedies and Valium for when they didn’t do the job. He closed the cabinet, flushed the toilet and turned around to see a large wall-mounted mirror behind the door. Music started up from the living room – a sentimental ballad he couldn’t place. He took a deep breath and looked in the mirror. Held out his hand, watching the tremor in his fingers, feeling the adrenalin take hold. He breathed out slowly, trying to calm his erratic, shallow breathing. Counted to ten, holding it, doing the same again. Sucked in air, inhaled the damp and the bleach. Held back the dizziness and nausea.
He heard the gentle clink of wine glasses and took off his T-shirt to reveal the large blue and green tattoo. His abdominal muscles tightened and flexed, distorting the image with each shift and movement. Bare chested, he left the bathroom.
She was looking down, sipping her wine and studying a CD case. Didn’t see him until he reached the sofa. She glanced up at him standing beside the coffee table, her eyes flicking to his chest. She gasped, let out a high-pitched laugh.
“Declan! Your shirt! I . . .”
He watched her face as she looked at the tattoo. He saw her fear and confusion and forced a reassuring smile. She put a hand to her quivering chin, eyes wide as she took in the image. A female face in green and blue, a portrait of her.
“I don’t . . . how . . . why is there . . ?”
An electric buzz ran along and beneath the lines of ink on his body. She snatched a breath to scream, but he sat down, put a finger to her lips.
“Shh. It’s okay. You know why I’m here.”
She cried and he pulled her in to an embrace, her moist eyes pressing against his hot skin.
“I’ve enjoyed tonight. You have too," he said. "But you’ve been alone for too long.” Black rivulets of mascara ran down her cheeks. “You’ve wanted this for a long time. Haven’t you?”
She bowed her head. He gently lifted her chin until she was looking at him again. “It’s over now. I’m here to help you. Okay?”
Her voice, small and broken, she said, “Yes.” And held his shoulders, taking another look at the tattoo. Declan followed her gaze, watching as the lines shimmered and writhed. Mesmerised, her eyes grew distant.
“What do I need to do?”
“Just lie back. Everything'll be okay.”
She stopped crying and wiped her face then laid back with her head on the arm of the sofa. Declan stood, taking one of the cushions from the chair. Seeing her fear returning, he bent down, kissed her forehead, whispered in her ear.
“Thank you, Joanne. I love you.”
She was still, her eyes closed like a child pretending to sleep. His pulse quickened. Another wave of energy coursed through his body. He took the cushion in both hands and lowered it over her face. Taking measured breaths, he increased the pressure, waited for her to struggle - they always did. She jerked beneath him, kicking, grasping, resisting his strength. He straddled her legs, forced her deep into the sofa. Holding her down with the weight of his body. Muffled screaming, choking. Her long fingernails tore at the flesh on the back of his hands. A last ditch attempt to cling to life.
He was sweating. Breathing hard. Gripping the coarse material of the cushion until, at last, she was still and silent.
Once more he became aware of his surroundings, heard the inane music still playing. He took away the cushion and saw her face. Her top lip caught on her dry front teeth, giving her a macabre half-smile. He carefully lifted it back into place with his thumb then walked over to the stereo to kill the music.
Silence. The adrenalin rush faded and exhaustion consumed him. Unsteady on his feet, he shuffled to the armchair, collapsed in to it. The burning from his chest subsided and he closed his eyes.
He awoke in a cold sweat, saw the body on the sofa and felt a pang of guilt, quickly replaced by terrible pain, like boiling wax being poured across his ribs. He caught the familiar smell of burning flesh, watched the lines of the tattoo thrashing around like a wounded animal as they melted away, adding to the map of ugly scar tissue already there. It was happening so soon, the change becoming quicker each time. The portrait had barely disappeared before the burning sensation was replaced by a new agony. Needles tearing through skin, dozens of tiny blood spots, linking fresh lines of ink; a sick dot-to-dot puzzle. He buried his face in a cushion and screamed.
Seconds later it was over. He blinked, felt the sting of sweat and tears and went to the bathroom to clean up. Flinching, he wiped away the last of the blood and stared at the new ink-ling on his chest: the face of a middle-aged man, balding, with sagging cheeks and untidy stubble. For now, the face of a stranger. But Declan knew he was out there.
Alone, afraid and dying to meet him.