INDELIBLE (Fiction)
 Content Note: This story contains references to sexual assault and depictions of self-harm.

Indelible

This is a story about a man who likes beer. 

And, I mean, who doesn't like beer? Who doesn't have a beer or two from time to time? There's nothing wrong with that. But this man, he really likes beer. He likes beer maybe a bit too much. There are a lot of people in this world who like beer, and maybe this story will make you think of one in particular, someone you know or have heard of.

But the man in this story, the thing you have to know about him is, he drinks to the point of blackout drunk. Not all the time, but enough times. Maybe too many times.

If the man you're thinking of is a man has never drunk to the point of blacking out, then the man you are thinking of cannot be the man in this story. 

It's very important that you know that going in. 

The other thing I guess you should know is what we mean when we say "blackout drunk". It's not that he drinks until he passes out. No. What he does, when he gets a mind to, is drink past that point, while still remaining on his feet. A blackout is what happens when your brain turns off the body camera and takes the festivities off-record. You might be totally awake. You might be smiling, laughing, having a good old time. You might be talking and carrying on. You might be doing any number of a things, but when you wake up the next morning, you'll have no memory of any of it. No idea how you got there. No idea what happened. No idea what was done to you. 

No idea what you've done.

Now, a lot of people find this sort of thing terrifying, but this man, the man in our story, was never frightened by the prospect of a blackout. Why would he be? Nothing ever happened to him. It was a habit he first picked up when he was young and therefore immortal. He and his friends were going places, everybody said. They all drank, and they drank to get drunk, and if that was the goal then the person who got the drunkest won, and he won every time. 

And nothing bad ever happened.

Not that mattered.

Not to him.

The man in our story just finished his morning shower. He liked showers, long, hot showers. They gave him a chance to clear his head, which usually needed clearing in the morning. It was his last time to be alone with his thoughts before he had to go out into the world, where more and more he spent his days wondering what people were thinking when they looked at him, what they said behind his back. He wasn't used to that. He'd always known he was going places. 

The idea that people might be talking about him, whispering about what he'd done, speculating about his personal life, casting judgments, it all felt perversely familiar to him, but he couldn't think why, or from where. He'd certainly never treated his fellow man in such a shameful fashion, so he couldn't figure out why he couldn't shake the feeling that some kind of a turnabout had happened in his life.

He had just finished his shower, as we said, and so he stepped out of the cradle of warm, steamy air into the relatively cooler bathroom, wincing at the touch of his bare feet on the bare tiles.

Heated floors, he thought, wincing in anticipation as he feet touched the cold bathroom tiles fresh out of the warm shower. He turned to face the vanity, the his-and-hers sinks below a mirror that was completely fogged over. And heated mirrors. Add that to the list.

The theory was the list was his plans for the future, a way to prioritize his spending in order to best enjoy the fruits of his steadily improving life. The theory behind that theory was that if he knew what the money could actually buy, he'd blow less of it gambling.

The problem with both theories is that, well, he never meant to gamble, did he? He never meant to do a lot of things, if you came right down to it, and he was sure that had to count for something. 

Sometimes he even believed it could count for enough.

But somehow, BOB never thought about things like the list before doing something screwy like going all in on a hand he was sure was a sure thing.

It was a good thing nobody knew about BOB, that he had rarely mentioned BOB out loud and never, so far as he could remember, explain what it stood for. It had been his own private joke, his own private excuse, for the things that happened when he had a little too much to drink, when good ol' Brett went away and Blackout Bart came out to play.

It would have been hard to explain that one away as a drinking game. 

Every word of the charming little initialism was an indictment. Every single word.

He sighed away the dark thoughts and grabbed a hand towel to try to clear away the condensation so he could shave and get on with his day. He knew he wasn't supposed to do this, as both his mother way back when and his wife in the here and now had yelled at him for it -- something about scratches or streaks, who the fuck even knew -- so he tried to do it gently and slowly under the theory that this might make it better. If he caught an earful for it later, at the very least he'd have something to say for himself: I was careful.

He reached for his shaving cream and turned to face the man in the mirror, then stopped.

Six black letters sprawled across his forehead in loose, spidery handwriting.

RAPIST

His hand went to his face, his fingers working to try to smudge them away, but they didn't so much as smear. He reached for the hand soap, then stopped. He'd just spent a good forty-five minutes in a very hot shower. He'd washed his face. Well, he'd splashed water on it. But he'd definitely washed his hair. It was hard to believe that anything that could be washed off wouldn't have ran off his skin by that point.

Indelible ink. Well, nothing was really, truly indelible. Rubbing alcohol would probably make short work of it… but then he stopped. Was he being too hasty? Destroying evidence? Someone writing "rapist" on his forehead while he slept was proof that he had been violated, that someone had taken advantage of him. He should preserve it. He should get pictures. He…

He could read it in the mirror. It appeared forwards. Which meant it would look backwards to everyone else. He remembered someone, a woman, who had said Obama supporters carved something into her cheek. If anyone saw him like this, they would think he had done it to himself. That was probably the whole plan.

Well, he would show them. He'd tidy up their handiwork, then carefully inspect every inch of the house until he found where they'd broken in, and then he'd call the cops. No, the feds.

And when they caught the sick son of a bitch who'd done it, the joker would go to jail knowing that not only had he been caught, but he'd failed. His attempt to smear him as some attention-seeking wannabe victim -- which the perpetrator no doubt thought the very height of irony -- had failed.

Speaking of smearing… there was no rubbing alcohol in the bathroom, or if there was, only Ashley knew where it was, but his aftershave had alcohol in it. So he would just shave like normal and then -- more irony ahoy -- apply liberally.

He whistled as he went about his routine. He hadn't really felt in control of his life for weeks , months now. After the confirmation was completed he'd waited for that feeling to go away, for him to feel like he was master of his own destiny again, but that had never happened. And then when he'd seen the letters on his face, it had been like… well, he didn't have any frame of reference for that. The idea that someone could have come in to his bedroom and done that while he was sleeping, completely unconscious… he just couldn't fathom it.

Well, he could still deal with it. He reached for the aftershave, splashed some on his hand, then clapped it across his cheeks. He then took his fingers and tried working the solution into the letters. No change. He splashed more out and tried again. Nothing. Still more. Still nothing.

"What the fuck?" he said. "What the actual fuck?"

Had someone brought in a portable tattoo gun while he slept? He'd had a couple of beers, but he was pretty sure that was it. He could easily imagine himself sleeping through someone drawing on his face -- wouldn't be the first time -- but this was a whole other level.

He leaned in close to the mirror and moved the skin of his forehead around with his fingers, stretching it out. Was the ink on the surface, or beneath it? He couldn't tell, couldn't figure out what to look for. He tried scratching at the letters with his fingernails, seeing if he could get any of the pigment to flake off. He scratched harder. Harder. He let out a yelp as the aftershave was ground directly into the fresh wound.

This was bad. He couldn't let anyone see him like this. If he came downstairs wearing a hat, Ashley would want to know what was up. He was just lucky she had been sleeping in the guest bedroom lately. And maybe luckier still that she hadn't moved her shit out of the master bath. An idea was beginning to form, a desperate idea, but one that might work, if he could just figure out… of course he could figure it out.

Women did this every day.

How hard could it be?

"Did you smear liquid foundation on your forehead?" Ashley said when he came into the kitchen, half an hour later. No good morning. No how did you sleep? No So what's it like being an associate justice?

No I love you

"What?" he said, trying to convey with both facial expression and tone of voice how ridiculous an idea this was. "No! What?"

"God damn it, Brett, I can't fucking believe you're lying to my face," she said. "I shouldn't be surprised. But somehow I can't believe it."

Why did she have to make a big deal out of this? If he was wearing makeup -- and incidentally he was but that hardly seemed like the point -- and she happened to notice it then she should have been able to figure out that he was trying to cover something up. Which, if you were being both fair and logical, made it rude for her to call attention to it.

If he lied -- and he had, but again, that was incidental and beside the point -- it was her fault for putting him on the spot.

"Baby, I promise, I don't know what you're talking about," he said. How could she see it? He had seen it in the mirror, of course, but he'd been the one to put it on, which obviously would make it more obvious. "Like you can even tell if someone's wearing makeup. I mean, the point is it looks like skin, right? I can't tell that you're wearing any."

"I'm not wearing any, I haven't done my face yet," she said. "How could I when you take forever in the goddamn bathroom? And of course I can tell. You only did that one spot and you just slathered it on. If you want to cover something up, that's not how you do it. I mean, for Christ's sake, there's a bottle that literally says concealer on it, if you weren't going to ask for help."

"Help with what?" he said. "I don't have time for this. I have to get..."

"You look like a fool and you can't go anywhere looking like that," she said. She pulled a wipe from somewhere and came at him like he was a baby who had just spit up.

"Wait!" he said, reaching for her hand. "Don't!"

"Jesus, what did you do to yourself?" she said, her eyes fixated on his forehead.

"Wait, I can explain…"

"I keep telling you that popping zits only makes them worse. For the love of God, you are fifty-three years old. And you really mangled this one. No wonder you tried to cover up. Well, I mean, it's still a dumbass thing to do. We're not even the same color."

"What are you talking about? We're both white, aren't we?"

"Stay right there and I will get you a bandage."

"I can't walk around with a bandage on my forehead!" he shouted after her. "Ashley! Everyone's going to wonder how I got it! They already look at me like… funny. They look at me funny."

"Well, then you can think about how much less embarrassing it would have been to show up with a pimple, like a normal person," she called back.

Then it hit him: he was home free. There was no way she'd be prattling on about the zit she thought he'd popped if his forehead said RAPIST. Maybe there was something in the makeup that had sort of lifted the ink. Maybe the wipe she'd used had removed it. Weren't they always making new makeup that was supposed to stick on super good? Probably the letters had been written in, like, all-day color-fast waterproof luxuriant eye liner or something, which wouldn't come off for steam or soap or alcohol, but the make-people made the wipes, so…

But then, who would have had access to him while he was sleeping, and owned both makeup and the wipes that took it off?

Could Ashley… she had been showing some signs of irrational resentment, as if she somehow blamed him in part for what had happened.

But… no, it couldn't be. Because then why would she have removed the words along with the makeup that covered it up? Had she not been thinking? Or maybe it wasn't her intention to humiliate him in public, just to give him a good scare. Tell him that she knew -- that is, that she thought -- and put him on notice

It was an awful fucking thing to think about his own wife, but it was hard to figure out what else could be going on. He'd check for signs of a break-in, and hope he found them.

In the meantime he needed to make sure all the evidence was really gone, or else he'd have to figure out how to get more of those wipes. He pulled out his phone and put it, for the first time in his life, in selfie mode.

What the fuck?

The letters were there, bold and clear as ever against the red and irritated skin of his forehead. The line in the P, where he'd tried to scratch it off, even seemed kind of like it continued across the little gash he'd left. But maybe that was his imagination, filling in the small gap.

There was no way Ash could have missed that, no fucking way at all. So she was in on it. And, what, she thought she could fool him into going out looking like that? Or she was trying to make him think he was crazy? Gaslighting. That was the word. He'd thought the whole idea was ridiculous when they'd first explained it to him in the middle of… all the mess. But it was happening now.

She came back with a box of assorted sized adhesive bandages in her hands. He grabbed it from her, and took a handful of the full-sized ones.

"Jesus, I think just one of the little round ones will do," she said.

"Shut up," he said, using his phone as a mirror to cover up the words with bandages. He looked ridiculous, but he felt triumphant. He could get outside the house, go to his new offices, and spend the day buttoned up inside it, searching for ways to get ink off the skin. Once he was fully presentable, once there was no chance of exposure, he'd come home and then... then they'd talk this thing out.

Maybe after he'd stopped for one or two beers, to steady himself.

"Christ, Brett, you're the one who was worried what people will think!" she said. "You're only making it worse. And for that matter, dousing yourself with aftershave is just going to raise more questions than brushing your fucking teeth and gargling would. Do you want people to think you're a lush?"

"Better than what you want them to think!" he roared, then turned and stomped towards the foyer, where he grabbed his Washington Nationals baseball cap and pulled it down low to cover the bandages before heading off to work.

He told his clerks that he had some important and sensitive personal business he'd be attending to for part of the day, "nothing too hairy, just the kind of stuff that piles up when you're life's on hold, you know," and that he didn't want to be disturbed. They took it with good grace because he was, after all, the boss. He spent a good hour surfing the net in incognito mode, searching for every phrasing of his problem he could formulate and making notes like pine oil and turpentine and vinegar.

He thought about asking one of his clerks to run out and get him some turpentine, but didn't. Having underlings do minor personal favors seemed to have become newsworthy all of a sudden, and the infamous party judge asking for industrial cleaning solvents… they'd have a field day with that. 

There was probably some app that would let him requisition a delivery, but that had the same problem. People would talk.

Well, he'd look up a hobby store or something and stop on his way home. In case someone thought it was newsworthy that he was buying turpentine with a baseball cap pulled low, he'd buy a model kit and some paints.

He was probably overthinking it, but at least he was not going to be out-thought. Someone had done this, someone had done this to him. Whether it was just his wife or she was only involved, someone had wanted to make a fool out of him, and they were going to fail. He would see to that.

With a plan in place, he was ready to face the day. He just needed to check the bandages. If they were peeling or even looked a little saggy, well, someone would know where to get more of them. In the meantime he had his own private washroom, so…

The word had been written two more times, slicing at different angles across each side of his face.

Rushing out of the office with his hands clapped over his cheeks like the kid in those fucking movies probably didn't do anything to make him look less foolish. He shouted that he was having an allergic reaction and then shouted more loudly that he was fine when that resulted in attempts to help him, but he made it to his car without anyone seeing the writing.

The press was going to go wild. He'd have to make up an allergy and make it stick, something serious but not life-altering. Latex. Latex in the bandages. Or something in the adhesive. Then he'd just have to switch to some kind of fancy hypoallergenic brand, no big whoop, he could manage that, he could handle that, he could still beat this…

But someone had written on his fucking face, in his locked office, while he stared at a computer screen.

And he hadn't even touched the bottle he kept in the locked drawer. He was sure of that. 

So how the fuck did this happen? Some kind of time release ink? Or was he really cracking up?

If he was, it wasn't his fault. He'd been pushed. He'd been provoked, provoked past the point of reason. But no one would see it that way. They'd say it was proof of his guilt, even though no one could prove that he'd done it. No one could prove anything. Even he couldn't say what happened for sure, and that lying harpy at the hearing sure as fuck couldn't, so, as far as anyone knew or could say for certain, nothing had happened.

But try telling the jackals in the press that. Try telling the vicious Democrats who had decided to ruin his life for a partisan victory that.

Try telling his complicit as hell, shrew of a wife that.

He got home, power-walked from the car inside and past his stunned wife, up to their room -- his room, now -- and slammed the door, locking it behind him. He ignored Ash's shouts and pounding on the door, and eventually she went away.

He almost went into the adjoining bathroom, but he was afraid of what he would see. Was it still just three times? Or would there be more? After all, if they could do it to him three times, why not four? Why not five? Why not a dozen? He'd never felt so powerless in his entire life. He just sank down in the bed and tried to figure out where it had all gone wrong, if there was something he could have done differently, anything, that would have avoided this. It was such a perversion of justice, all so monstrously unfair.

He hadn't even done anything! Nothing worth remembering, nothing that any other guy wouldn't have done, nothing anyone had complained about, much, at the time, and anyway, wasn't it almost a kind of entrapment, to let someone do something, and go on doing it for years, and even let them get away with it, and then suddenly, literally decades later, present them with a bill and say they had to pay for it? Whose idea of fair was that?

It was capricious, that's what it was. Capricious and contrary to every ideal of justice and the rule of law.

He didn't even look at himself in the mirror when, some unfathomable time later, inevitably, he had to crawl out of bed and use the toilet. Afterwards, while he was settling himself back down in the bed, he reached up to peel the bandages off his forehead and stopped with a start.

The word RAPIST was written all over his arm, winding around and around like it was wrapped up in a rope made of words, or one word, over and over again. It was on his other arm, too. He sat up, scrambling out of the bed covers and tearing off his remaining clothes. His whole body had been branded, over and over and over with the word.

Sobbing, he groped for the lamp. While he'd laid there in a fog, the sun had set. If he turned off the light, he wouldn't be able to see it, and if he couldn't see it, then… he didn't know. He didn't have a plan. He couldn't handle this. But he could maybe handle it better, if he couldn't see it, and then maybe he could make phone calls.

The White House. McConnell. They had invested in him, damn it. They would have to handle this. They were in just as deep as he was. They'd put the FBI to work for him, they could get the CIA. They could send him doctors, smuggle him to a hospital. Find out how this was done to him. fix it.

He just needed to catch his breath, that was all. He just needed to make it go away.

He turned off the lamp, and then let out a long and anguished cry from the depths of his soul. Across every surface in the room, in white-hot glowing letters, burned the word, the same word, over and over again: RAPIST RAPIST RAPIST. Blazing bright, dazzlingly bright, so bright he could still see it when he closed his eyes. He couldn't escape it. He just needed… he could fix this, he knew it could be fixed, but he just needed to not see it, he just needed to not see.

Not see…

He struggled to his feet then staggered to the bathroom. It didn't matter where he looked now, the word was everywhere. It floated in space in front of him. It winked into sight when his eye fell on a portion of the wall and then he saw it poof away as his head began to turn. He tried to ignore it. He was looking for… he'd know it when he saw it. His wife had so much crap in the bathroom, so much crap everywhere.

In the story, Odysseus had used a brooch, whatever the shit that was. It had been Odysseus, he was pretty sure, in the story. He'd never been that interested in studying, truth be told. Odysseus Rex. Fuck it, it was all Greek to him, wasn't it?

There were earrings and he thought they might do, but their posts were pretty short and not that pointy. It was funny, he'd always assumed they'd be sharp, for some reason. To pierce the ears. But the idea was in his head, and it wouldn't leave. It was in its own way as intrusive and insistent as the word had become. He couldn't shake it, couldn't erase it.

Indelible.

"If thine eye offends thee…" he intoned weakly, then set to it. It was easier than he'd expected, but also harder. He didn't hesitate, didn't flinch away, but it was so much more work than he'd counted on, and then it was done, it was finished, he was finished, and he let out a sigh of relief that became a cry of pure anguish.

He could still see it!