Edition 13: Get Rich Quick with Digital Ink by Megan Neumann
When the body is the last frontier for advertising, what will advertisers do to ensure that their return is worth the investment?
I didn’t think our marriage would last after Jake got those ridiculous tattoos. They glowed all night, their messages flickering on the ceiling of our studio apartment: miracle hair growth, free porn, or earn money from home. I’d lay there, my eyes tired from the light. Even when covered with a sheet, I could see them. After all, they were designed to be bright enough to shine through clothing. As the hours of the night passed, the small batteries embedded in his skin lost their power, and the tiny lights dimmed. But by then, it was too late. I hadn’t slept.
“You could wrap your arms in something before you go to bed. Maybe just put on a really thick sweater,” I said, the two of us sitting on the couch, watching TV.
“I’m not going to do that, babe,” he said. “You know I hate anything on my body when I sleep.”
Why did I let him get away with that? Or better yet, why did I ever agree to those tattoos? We needed the money, of course. Jake’s job at the gym paid little, though he loved it there, and I was still in school. The monthly checks were nice, though far too small. They weren’t worth the embarrassment of eating dinner with your parents while a half-naked woman pranced on your husband’s arm above the words: “Lonely? Call Now!”
How many people had called that number after seeing Jake? I really didn’t want to know.
Selling advertising on your body wasn’t a new concept. I had heard of it with ordinary tattoos. They never really caught on though. It wasn’t until the invention of digital tattoos that people’s bodies had become walking, glowing billboards for products day and night.
Jake’s tattoos had the lowest of the low as far as product quality. His arms displayed ads you’d see along the top of a website for miracle sex cream or on TV at 3am during an infomercial for that same miracle sex cream. Celebrities had the higher end products: Ferraris and a maybe a Gucci purse. Products of that caliber would never appear on Jacob’s biceps. It would degrade the brand.
Jake didn’t seem to mind the tattoos or the light emitted by the tiny bulbs beneath his skin. If he did mind, he hid it well. He regularly wore wife beaters and insisted on lifting weights even though he knew the movement would charge the batteries. After a few weeks of having them, he said he could feel the lights brightening and dimming in his arm. Sometimes, when the words changed, he felt the lighting of the letters and could make out the words and pictures on his body without looking.
“It’s like a tingling,” he said. “A tingling across my arm that makes an image. I don’t even have to think about it. Like right now, I can tell you there’s a woman sitting on her knees with her mouth open.”
“I’m getting sick of those things,” I told him one night when we were lying in bed, trying to be intimate.
“Just relax, kiddo,” he said wrapping his glowing arms around me. “Try to ignore them.”
How could I ignore a moving picture of a doctor inserting some kind of probe into a patient’s butt? The words beneath said, “Don’t Live in Pain! Cleanse Your Colon Today!”
Months of poor sleep made me snippy with Jake. I’d been losing my temper when there was no reason to be angry.
When he asked me what was wrong, I said, “We’re never alone now. Even with the TV, the computer, and phones shut off, they’re there. They’re following us everywhere.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” he asked. “There’s no one here but us.”
I thought it was because of my temper that Jake started acting strangely. I first noticed it when he came home late and got in bed smelling like cigarette smoke.
“Have you been at a bar?” I asked, covering my nose with a blanket. “You reek.”
“No, babe, I’ve just been out driving, that’s all.”
“Then why do you smell?”
“I was smoking in my truck.”
I sat up and turned on the lights. His tattoos dimmed, adjusting to the brightness. “Since when have you smoked? And who smokes anymore? Only old people smoke. Besides, I hate cigarettes. You know my grandmother died from smoking.”
“They’re making a comeback,” he said.
He covered his face with his forearm, obscuring the tattoo on his left bicep. I was glad for it too because it displayed an ad for some kind of Asian schoolgirl fantasy. I instantly had a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t know if it was from the smoke or from my disgust over the schoolgirls. Or both. Strangely, Jake’s right arm tattoo had gone blank. This had happened only once or twice before when, we assumed, there was an error in the data feed and the images couldn’t be loaded. When that happened, he’d shake his arm until the tiny computers rebooted.
“Could you please turn off the light?” he said. “I’ve got a headache. I feel like shit.”
“It’s because you’ve been smoking.”
He rolled over and made a noise like a cross between a groan and a hacking sound. Then he started coughing and didn’t stop until I punched him in the back.
“You are going to tell me what’s gotten into you!”
“I just wanted to, all right! Jesus, woman!”
He pulled the blanket over his head. The conversation was over. I sat staring at him for what felt like hours. I may have fallen asleep sitting up, watching him. In the back of my mind, I feared this wasn’t as simple as Jake made it out be. Then finally, when I felt I would collapse, I turned off the light and lay down on my side of the bed.
Jake was a regular smoker after that. He’d do it in the house, in the car, and even in bed while I tried to sleep beside him. He was doing it, I knew, to get back at me for being a bitch.
“You don’t have to do this to prove a point,” I said. “You’re only hurting yourself, you know.”
“Shut up, will you? I’m not smoking because of you. I’m smoking because I want to.”
“Whatever,” I said.
The next act of defiance was less annoying and far more peculiar and frightening. I came home from school to find Jake in the kitchen, standing in the middle of the room, gazing at some fruit on the island.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We’ve got to buy some Super Fruit Mega Energy Drink,” he said.
“We’ve got to buy some Super Fruit Mega Energy Drink.”
“OK, that’s what I thought you said,” I said, assuming this was an energy drink they sold at the gym. “What’s so great about this drink?”
He picked up an apple lying on the island, holding it in front of his face, turning it slowly so that he might examine every curve of its smooth surface. “It’s the best,” he said. “It’s the best drink in the world. It’s made from real fruit. Everyone must have it.”
“OK,” I said again. “I’ll pick some up next time I go out.”
The apple flew by my face and smashed against the refrigerator door, bits of it scattering across the kitchen. I felt a fleck of its flesh on my check.
“Dammit, woman! I need the Super Fruit Mega Energy Drink now!”
“Jake! What’s wrong with you?”
He came at me and grabbed my shoulders. “I need it,” he said. He was a mess, tears forming in his eyes, his face and neck a deep shade of crimson. “I can’t think of anything else. It hurts me. I know that if I have it it’ll make me better.”
I nodded, slowly. “Get in the car.”
We drove down the street to a gas station. I hoped they carried his energy drink. Just in case, I told him to stay in the car. I didn’t want him throwing another tantrum.
The station carried an unusual amount of the drink. The cases were stacked high in the back corner. Dust had settled over the top.
I bought one case, and when I gave it to him, he pulled a can out of the packaging. Without a word, he guzzled the contents. The bright pink liquid dripped down the side of his mouth and his throat. He didn’t seem to notice this. When he finished, he took a breath and asked, “What do you want for dinner?”
“Are you on drugs?” I asked. We sat on the couch, watching some rerun on TV. Both of us had our hands buried into a bucket of fried chicken. We’d been eating it silently. I wanted him to speak first, but when it was clear he’d say nothing of the energy drink, I spoke up. “I ask because of earlier today. Remember? You haven’t apologized for the apple yet. You can tell me the truth,” I said. “In fact, it’ll be a relief to know that drugs are causing this.”
He ripped strips of chicken from the bone with his teeth, chewing slowly, perhaps thinking of what he might say to me. Or perhaps, he was gone again, and he’d do something else completely insane.
When he finally swallowed, he said, “No, babe, I’m not on drugs. You know I don’t touch that shit. It’d ruin my body.”
“Is it steroids?” I asked. “They can mess you up. Do you remember my brother? I don’t want you to be more muscly. You look fine the way you are.”
He shook his head. “I’ve just been feeling weird lately. That’s all. It’s like I’m getting urges for things, and I don’t know why.”
I started to think that he was just going insane. Had I seen any signs of it before? Should I take him to a doctor? Would he even go? He was dangerous but I couldn’t see myself leaving him alone to deal with this madness. As I thought this, his tattoos caught my eye. It was that butt doctor again on his left arm. Again, the other side of his arm had gone blank, or so I thought at first. When I watched the blank side, I thought I could see something there, just a glimmer of movement. Were there words embedded in the darkness of his tattoo?
When I came to the realization, I felt a stab of anger. He’d done this to himself, hadn’t he?
“It’s the tattoos,” I said.
“What?” he asked with a mouthful of chicken. “What about the tattoos?” Then it seemed to dawn on him. “Oh, babe, the apple? Pfft! How could the tattoos do that? They’re just lights.”
“But you said you could feel what the images are. Have they been running ads for cigarettes? Or energy drinks?”
He paused. “I don’t think I have noticed any ads like that. Cigarette ads are illegal and have been for years, haven’t they?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and an energy drink is a little too swanky for you, no offense.”
He nodded. “Yeah, and even if they had been advertising on my arms, babe, why would that matter? I’ve had tons of porn on my arms, and I watch the same amount of porn I always have.”
He had a point, but I didn’t think it was as simple as that. “Advertisers use hidden messages in their ads all the time,” I said. “Or they used to. They’d put messages in images that make you react a certain way without you realizing why you’re acting that way. Usually they are something to do with sex and really obvious, like a whiskey jar with two glasses in front of it to be a phallic symbol.”
“Never mind,” I said. “I need to do some research. You need to rest. Maybe you should skip work for the next day or so. I don’t want you leaving the house.”
His arms were thick under the sleeves of his t-shirt from years working out. Half of the ads were blurred and hidden by his clothing so I could only see the web addresses displayed along the bottom. Based on words in the URL I was glad I couldn’t see the images.
Before the tattoos were installed, the doctor told Jake it was perfectly safe.
“It’s just your typical digital tattoo. The images will change throughout the day based on what the ad server sends to them. The only difference between this and someone’s normal digital tat is that you don’t have the power to change what displays.” The doctor, Dr. Harrington, had slicked back hair and tanned skin that was unusually tight and without a single visible pore. He smiled at us with his too white teeth and shook Jake’s hand with a hand covered in gold rings.
“What about removal?” I asked. My voice cracked when I spoke. I had been nervous the whole time we were in the office. The doctor had been nice enough, but something about his demeanor—those shiny white teeth and the ease at which they appeared—made me believe he’d turn on me as fast as he could turn on his smile.
“Why would you want to do that?” he said.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe we would get tired of them.”
He was still smiling when he said, “You have a lifetime contract with the Digital Body Leasing Corporation. Removal is possible, but there’s a fee. A high fee.”
Jake squeezed my thigh and said, “Babe, don’t worry about a thing! They’re just tattoos! You won’t even notice them.”
Jake hated when I said ‘I told you so,’ and for once, I didn’t want to tell him that I was right and he was so terribly wrong. After I had read about the energy drink, my limbs, especially my knees, were wobbly and hard to move. How would Jake take it I told him what I’d learned?
It turned out he wasn’t bothered by it at all.
When I found him, he was standing in the middle of the apartment, holding two shirts in front of him, each shirt held aloft while he examined them closely.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to decide which shirt I should wear for the trip.”
“Where are we going?”
He folded both shirts neatly and placed them in a suitcase on our bed. “Oh, babe. You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got to do this by myself. A man’s gotta do his duty for his country.”
I didn’t like where this was going. The suitcase on our bed was half full of his clothes and bathroom items.
As though proud of himself, Jake stood taller. He had a look of arrogance I hadn’t seen since we first started dating, when he was still in perfect shape and never felt insecure.
“Yeah, my duty. I’m going to enlist tomorrow. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of this before! I’ll finally be able to completely support you. Did you know the military pays you money?”
“Of course, I knew that.”
His mouth hung open, his smile fading. “Well, why didn’t you mention it before, babe?”
“Jake, you know the military pays. You’ve just never wanted to join before.” I tried to keep my voice calm. I didn’t want to sound condescending.
“Yeah, I guess I never thought of it. That’s all.”
Jake folded a few more shirts and put them in his bag. I sat on the edge of the bed. I needed to stop him, but how? His mind—what little was left of it—was made up. I needed to bring him back. I needed him to realize what was happening.
“There was a scandal with the energy drink,” I said.
He zipped up his bag and then sat on the bed looking satisfied.
“Scandal?” he asked, as though he didn’t understand the word.
“The stuff in it is legal, but unsavory.”
“Yes,” I continued. “It’s extremely addictive. People are calling it a drug, but with more sugar. The word got out months ago and since then the sales have plummeted. Don’t you see what’s happening?”
He gazed blankly, his biceps flashing images.
“Of course, you don’t see.” I sighed and wondered if he was worth the trouble. I believed the old Jake would have figured it out on his own, but the ads had scrambled his brain. “They’re pulling the product. They’re not going to make it anymore. So they’re trying to sell the last of it, but it’ll never sell after the scandal. No TV network will run their advertisements, so the last thing they can do is use the hidden messages in cheap media like your arms!”
“I’m not cheap,” he said.
“You are. You sold your body for seventy-five bucks a month. You sold my peace! And your life!”
I could tell he was hurt; the features of his face seemed to crumble and sag.
“You’re being a bitch,” he said.
“No, I’m telling you the truth. You don’t want to join the army. Do you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, reaching for his packed bag as though it would save him from my questions. “I feel like I need to.”
“Think about it, Jake.”
He nodded, but I didn’t know if he was capable of thinking about things anymore. I’d have to take care of this myself.
I found Dr. Harrington’s house from a real-estate article for rich people selling their homes. His house had been on the market for eight months with no takers. This damned economy. I didn’t think they’d let us into the gated neighborhood, but apparently Dr. Harrington was having a party that night and he invited all sorts of “colorful” characters, according to the guard.
“Security sucks around here, huh?” Jake asked as we pulled into the driveway.
“Yes, it does,” I said, gathering all my courage. I didn’t want to face the smiling doctor again, but he was our best chance of disabling the things on Jake’s arms.
The party was loud and wild and far more decadent than anything I’d seen on the tattoos. In the front room, three naked women and one naked man splashed around a wide circular pool with a fountain in the center. We passed several rooms, each of them blasting a different song from speakers and each of them with flickering lights. I heard laughter coming from all directions. No one seemed to notice us except one drunken women who lunged at Jake, throwing her arms around his neck and leaning in to kiss him.
I pushed her onto the floor and grabbed Jake’s hand. “We’ve got to find Harrington. I want to get away from these people as soon as possible.” I had to shout over the music. Jake didn’t seem to hear a word I said. He had paused in the middle of a hall and looked forward with no expression on his face. At first, I thought he had found some beautiful naked woman to leer at. I was going to punch him, but then I realized there was no one there.
On his arms, the one digital tattoo played the butt doctor video again. There was no sound, of course, but the doctor’s words scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I kept my eyes wide, refusing the blink. The whole ad played through, but I saw nothing. Just a butt doctor promising miracles. For a moment, I thought I could understand why Jake would want to join the army. It seemed like a good choice for him.
A woman screaming in another room woke me from my stupor. I rushed to Jake and leaned toward his ear. “What’s wrong? What did you feel?”
“What are you talking about,” he shouted. “I’m fine. I need to go home though. Gotta pack for tomorrow.” He shrugged as though there was nothing he could do, as though leaving to join the army was just a necessity of our lives that we had to deal with.
“No! We’re finding Dr. Harrington.” I dragged him further into the party house. The place was a labyrinth of themed rooms, orgies, and dancing.
Harrington was in a room on the third floor, surrounded by naked women, but thankfully he was clothed. He had a drink in each hand and was clearly inebriated. When he saw us approaching, he raised a glass as a welcome. He smiled a droopy, drooling smile. Then he realized who we were, and his smile faded.
“Do I know you two?” he asked, his voice hoarse from presumably shouting over the music. “You’re not hot enough to be at my party.”
I pulled Jake forward and pointed at his arm. “You did this,” I said.
Harrington shooed his women away. “What do you want?”
“We need these things gone.” I said. Jake was pulling away from me. I used all of my strength to keep him at my side. “Now!”
Harrington laughed. “Girl, you didn’t have to come to my house for that. Call my office. Make an appointment.”
“No,” I said. “We can’t make an appointment. I tried that and the woman told me it would be forty-two thousand dollars. We can’t afford it.”
The doctor threw up his hands. “Then there’s nothing I can do. I’d love to help you, but I’m trying to run a business. Perhaps there are others out there willing to do the deed. They may be a little less qualified than me, but I’m sure it can be done. It’s illegal, of course, to break the contract with Digital Body Leasing. They might track you down. They might make you pay.”
“I don’t want to be tracked down,” I said. “And besides, I don’t have time. Jake’s gone crazy. The ads are doing something to him. He needs them removed now!”
If there was pity or sympathy in Harrington’s face, I couldn’t see it. It was too dark in the room, and besides, he wore sunglasses so his eyes were two black holes on his tanned face.
“Listen,” he said, his voice lowering. “I would like to help you. I feel bad for you, really. You’re not the first this has happened to. I’ve found it really depends on the will of the person and the types of products being advertised. Your man there,” he nodded at Jake, “he’s not the brightest, so it’s done a bad thing to him. But DBL is owned by a company that is big and very rich. They don’t own just digital body tattoos; they own every digital advertising company. And even bigger companies own them.
“If I remove your tattoo, they’ll find out about it when the signal from your man dies. Then I pay the fee for you and maybe I pay more than that. It’s too much of a risk for me. And for you too. Just keep your head down. You don’t want them to find out that he’s gone loopy either. It’ll be bad for DBL’s reputation. They’ll take him someplace they take all the other misguided, tattooed individuals. Let your man run off to wherever he’s got to go. You’re probably better off anyway. Or, if you’re really desperate and not too concerned with scars, you could always do it yourself.” Harrington revealed his white teeth in the black light of the room. They glowed blue, and I felt sick to my stomach.
“You’re not much of a doctor,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m not.”
Jake had a hard time on the ride home. He kept asking me where I was taking him, removing his seat belt, and trying to open the door. I assured him I was taking him home so he could rest up. “You have a big day tomorrow,” I said. “You’re going to enlist and leave me.”
That brought a smile to his face.
At home, he went to bed. I lay beside him with the lights of his glowing tattoos shining directly in my eyes. When he had been sleeping for several hours and the lights from his tattoos had faded almost completely, I went to the kitchen and grabbed the sharpest knife I could find. Returning to the bed, I touched it to my fingertip and realized it wasn’t very sharp at all. For a moment, I felt a deep regret, wishing I had taken better care of my kitchen knives.
I sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Jake’s hair gently. I whispered, “Wake up.”
“What is it, babe?” he asked, his eyes squinting from the dim light of his tattoos. “Is something wrong.”
“We’ve got to get rid of them,” I said. “You can’t go tomorrow.”
He saw the knife in my hand, and he didn’t pull away. I saw a glimmer of his old self in his eyes. I knew I’d have time to do what needed to be done.
“You’re right,” he said. “We’ve got to before they start playing the bad ones again, and I can’t control myself.”
“It’s going to be really painful,” I said. “You’re going to want me to stop.”
“I can handle it. Just give me something to bite down on. And maybe a drink, too.”
He had three shots of whiskey, and then I gave him his wallet to bite down on. The process was messy and slow going. The knife had to go in deep enough to remove the tiny lights embedded within the skin of his arms. Beneath the lights was a thin layer of metal resembling a circuit board. I removed those too.
I tried to work fast, but the knife was so dull and his skin and the components of the tattoos became so slippery. He screamed a muffled scream through the wallet in his mouth, and I cried from all the blood and his pain. Eventually, he passed out.
When I was done, Jake’s tattoos were replaced with squares of open flesh. I washed the wounds with alcohol and wrapped them. I hoped he wouldn’t bleed to death or get an infection.
“That’s the best I can do,” I said when he regained consciousness.
He nodded and smiled. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“We need to leave,” I said.
“Why? Because DBL will come after us? I’m just one dude. Maybe they’ll want nothing to do with me when they realize I didn’t expose them with my craziness.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not about that. I just want to get away. I want to live somewhere where it’s dark at night.”
Jake seemed to think about that. Then he nodded, “Whatever you want, babe.”
The town we moved to was small, but I liked it. There was a college I went to during the day, and Jake worked at retirement home helping older people get in shape. No one had a digital tattoo or even a regular tattoo with real ink that I knew of. We didn’t have a TV or a computer. When I wanted news, I asked my neighbor what he’d heard. At night, all I could hear was the chirping of crickets, and when I turned off the lights, the darkness was complete and beautiful. I slept soundly beside Jake. Our marriage had never been better, even if he never managed to give up the cigarettes.
Megan Neumann lives and writes in Little Rock, Arkansas. She likes her fiction dark and with a bit of humor. When she’s not writing, she and her husband spend most of their time managing a household of wild beasts.