The Red Tattoos

“Just don’t ask him about his tattoos. That’s the main rule for the summer. Do you understand?”

Grayson jerked his head up, flipping his long black hair out of his eyes. He stared at his mother’s face in the rearview mirror, moved his dark brown eyes back to his phone, and continued to flip through the screens. He heard Makayla sigh, but she didn’t react; she was glued to her tablet as usual.

“Grayson, I expect a response when I speak to you,” his mother snapped. “Do you understand the rules when you’re with your grandfather and that woman? I don’t want any problems this summer and I certainly don’t want to have to drive all the way back out to this wilderness before school starts. If you get into trouble out here…well, just don’t.”

“Fine,” Grayson said. “No trouble…we get it. Why do you hate her so much anyway? What’s Gran ever done to you?” As soon as he heard the words leaving his mouth, he knew he shouldn’t have let them. Grayson could feel Makayla’s instant glare from beneath the thick black hair that always fell across her face. She instinctively pulled it down to cover her neck. He looked over at her just in time to see her middle finger slowly emerging from the top of her tablet. Why could he never just shut up? He braced himself for what was about to come.

“First, she’s not your grandmother, so I don’t know why you insist on calling her that. My mother, your real grandmother, died fifteen years ago. Yanhong is just some woman that your grandfather married. She’s not family. She’s not even from this country. She barely speaks the language and still she thinks she can come here and replace my mother? Well, it’s not going to happen.”

“Mom, I’m twelve and a half. Mak is eleven.”

“And a half,” Mak inserted.

Grayson gave Mak a quick withering look then stared at his Mom in the rearview mirror again. “Your mom is just a woman in a picture to us…we never met her. Gramps married Gran right after I was born. She’s the only grandmother we’ve ever had. What do you expect us to call her?”

He heard the grunt escape from his mother’s throat—the non-answer he hoped for. She picked up her phone and tapped hard on the screen—calling one of her friends to complain about Gran and Gramps for the millionth time. He just didn’t understand adults—well, most adults. Yanhong was the nicest person he’d ever met and yet his mother talked about her and treated her as if she was the worst person ever. It wasn’t that Gramps had dumped her mom to marry Gran. Her mom was already dead. Adults made no sense…at least his mom didn’t.

He stared out the window as the car bounced along the gravel road. Boreal forest surrounded them. Grayson had travelled this road every summer, every Christmas, and every spring break for as long as he had memory. There would be one more house on the right, some old corrals around the next big curve, and finally a collapsing barn. Then they would be at Gran and Gramps’ driveway—well, more like a dirt road that led up to “the ranch,” as Gramps called it.

He reached across the seat and gave Mak a gentle nudge. She turned, her deep brown eyes glaring at him. He put his hand on top of her tablet to stop the slowly rising finger and nodded toward the window. Her look softened as she saw the smile on his face. Understanding flashed across her eyes. “Wait for it,” he whispered, “she’s about to lose it.” Mak put a hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle.

Grayson studied his mom’s expression in the rearview mirror. “Hey Eileen, it’s me. Yeah, I know, but we’re out here in the middle of god-knows-where, so there are no cops to see me talk and drive. Seriously, there’d be no cops if we crashed and actually needed them. I hate leaving them, but with Kyle gone, no one to watch them while I work, and this routine we got into of them spending vacations with Dad; what can I do? I just don’t like that woman, or Dad frankly, having all this influence over them—especially Makayla—she’s so young and impressionable. And my father, with all his crazy…hello, hello? Dammit! Aagh…”

Mak burst into laughter. As soon as she did, Grayson could contain himself no longer and his laugh exploded through his nose. If he and Mak knew there was no cell signal once you passed the big curve, how could their mother forget…every trip? The best part was, each time it happened, she’d go crazy. Last Christmas she used a bunch of her “forbidden words” and actually threw her phone. Today she was handling it much better, but the laughter from him and Mak didn’t help.

“Grayson and Makayla Lord, you knew that was going to happen and you didn’t warn me,” snapped his Mom. “I was busy talking with Eileen and suddenly nothing. She probably thinks we were in an accident and has called the police.”

“Or she’ll remember the same thing happened at Christmas.” Grayson stared at Mak for a second, not believing what he had just said. Then, their laughter filled the car again.


As they wound their way up the road and through the trees, butterflies grew in Grayson’s stomach. That was just wrong. He was twelve and a half now—he was cool. Twelve and a half year olds didn’t get excited about seeing their grandparents. Twelve and a half year olds hated seeing grandparents—it was almost as bad as seeing parents.

Then, he saw it…the roof of Gramps’ shop peeking out just above the trees. He loved that shop. All of Gramps’ old tools, the smell of gasoline, oil, and metal, the thin layer of dust and dirt over everything; it was nothing like living with two girls. There was a big tub of hand cleaner and some old rags to ‘get the heavy stuff off’ when you left the shop. In there, nothing else mattered. He didn’t think about hassles at school, fighting with his mom, what a pain Mak was, where his dad might be; it was quiet in the shop. Well, it was noisy with all the tools and engines, but it felt quiet…safe.

4 thoughts on “The Red Tattoos

  1. Joyce says:

    This piece of writing did not keep me interested. It starts out with a warning about tattoos, and never mentions anything about them again. What’s the significance of them being red? It just talks about how kids feel about the adults in their life. What do the tattoos have to do with the story?

    Expand on your hook. Why not question him about them. Why is it rule for the summer.

  2. Liene says:

    The writing was easy to read. I didn’t find myself paying attention to the writing much. Which, for me, is a good thing, because it didn’t stand out above the story as trying too hard or too little. So that’s a big plus!

    The thing I’m most confused about is if we’re supposed to like these characters or not. The kids seem to not be on their best behavior, the mom seems ticked off (and used to being ticked off), the kids are using signs I personally don’t see many 11 year olds using. If this is the intent, to show the rebel side, and the dysfunctional family relationships, then I get it. If not, I am a bit confused as to why you’re starting with a scene that paints the characters this way. They seem to be a family who fight a lot. And then there was suddenly laughter. Was it laughing at their mom? or all of them laughing together? The rest of the scene gave me the impression that it was the kids laughing at their mom, though the laughter was written a though they all laughed, because the laughter filled the car, not just the backseat.

    A couple more things. When the mom is explaining to them about how their grandmother isn’t really their grandmother. This seems like a thing she would certainly have told them before, many many times. Clearly it is written in so we, the readers, are given this information. The thing, is, that’s what it feels like. Maybe if the mom was more exasperated that she has to tell this to them, AGAIN. or something like “you know this already and nothing will change the fact.” Not in those words, but the idea. Or maybe (since the kids seem to not have a problem talking back to their mom anyway), one of the kids could react to it more, instead of just replying that she’s the only one they’ve known, they could add that they’ve heard this a million times already and will she stop repeating it.

    From the perspective of the narrator Grayson, I definitely get the vibe that he thinks his mom isn’t the smartest person on the planet, and you can tell she is a bit fed up with how her kids treat her that way. She is the authority, yet her kids don’t respect her at all, thinking they’re smarter or better. Maybe this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, it’s just the vibe I got from it.

    But I did like the flow of the story, and as I mentioned, the writing style was great, not too much and not too little! I definitely liked how you added the description of the surroundings, how Grayson had been there many times and so he knew what would be coming up in a moment.

  3. Ray says:

    Hey Liene, thanks for the crit…it is really helpful. You got the vibe exactly right, the dysfunction, the frustration, the laughing at mom, etc. I will definitely do some tweaking to address the laughter issue as well as the “this is old info we’ve heard before about Gran” issue. This first portion stands in contrast to how they relate to their grandparents in the next few pages, so it was intentional…but since you don’t know that…your concern about how the main characters come across is certainly valid. Thanks again. 🙂

  4. Anna Orridge (@orridge_anna) says:

    Hi! I found the characterization and depiction of the familial relationships here very convincing and this kept me hooked right to the end. It feels a touch mature for MG, though, and has a bit of a YA feel to it, especially since the MC seems so perceptive and measured in his responses to his mother. If he is precocious in this way, don’t you think he would be able to understand his mum’s antipathy to ‘that woman’?

    The line about tattoos is a good opening, but it feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the writing. Expand, or perhaps leave until later?

    Because you appear to be going for deep POV, I’d avoid the references to his black hair and physical appearance at this stage. It kind of yanks us out of his perspective at too early a point in the narrative.

    Otherwise, I think the voice is working really well here, and it’s a great start.

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