published June 13, 2016
Jeff encounters a mysterious tattooed stranger at the gym.
It had been a month and a half since Jeff had set foot in the gym. He let out a sigh as he pulled into the parking space and turned off his engine. Back to square one again. It never failed: every time he felt like he was finally making some progress, he would get sidelined by an injury or an illness. Now once again he was getting back into working out after a too-long hiatus. This time the reason for his absence was a girl. His girlfriend Samantha had dumped him out of the blue two months prior. During the resulting depression the last thing he felt like doing was work out.
As he climbed out of the car and shut the door, he briefly glimpsed his reflection in the car window. A skinny, pale man looked back at him. Sighing again, he locked his car and turned to walk to the gym entrance.
After he entered the gym and checked in, he made his way to the locker room, feeling a vague sense of self-consciousness. He imagined the gym’s daily inhabitants staring at him disapprovingly. “How many years has he been coming here,” he imagined them saying, “And he still looks like a twig?”
Stop it, he thought. Get over yourself. Everyone here is more interested in their own work out. No one cares … no one would even notice that you haven’t made as much progress as you could have. Heck, just the fact that you’re here at all puts you well beyond most people.
And yet, Jeff’s mind drifted back to Instagram, Facebook, YouTube … all the places on the internet where the impossibly fit and buff guys could flaunt their seemingly effortless physiques. What do they have that I don’t? Jeff thought. Don’t they ever get injured? Don’t they ever get sick? Are they all really scarfing down meals every hour on the hour and hitting the gym with religious intensity? Don’t they have lives?
Jeff knew it was neither good nor healthy to be this bothered by his physique. He knew that he would stand a much better chance of getting a new girlfriend if he instead focused on meeting people, on dating, on putting himself out there. But he couldn’t help it. He had always been a fairly shy guy, and he didn’t know where to even begin with all that stuff. He had only met Samantha because their mutual friend had introduced them. When it came to meeting girls on his own, he was clueless. At least he had some idea of what it took to gain muscle. Even if most of his efforts seemed to be in vain.
He stowed his towel and change of clothes in a locker and headed out to the gym floor. Starting with a brief warm up on the exercise bike, as was his custom (emphasis on brief, as every calorie was precious for someone with his metabolism), he then made his way over to the bench presses.
There were always at least two or three extremely built guys at the gym, with the kind of bodies that he envied. Not even that expectation could have prepared him, however, for the man he found at one of the bench press stations.
He was huge. Now, Jeff certainly aspired to be “buff”. But as far as he was concerned, when it came to muscle, it was possible to have too much of a good thing. Someone of this guy’s musculature was what Jeff usually referred to as a meathead, or a gorilla. Girls didn’t like that sort of thing. Jeff figured that anyone who wanted to get that big was a little too into themselves.
The man wore a black tank top, with the straps straining against his colossal pecs. His deltoids, biceps and triceps resembled chiseled marble. It was as if the statue of a Greek god had come to life, busted out of the museum and hit the gym to get some reps in. Jeff couldn’t help but stare, in spite of himself.
As the man finished his set with a grunt, he sat up and turned his head to look in Jeff’s direction. As their eyes met, Jeff nervously diverted his gaze, embarrassed that he had been caught staring.
“You waiting for this, man?” the man said, his deep voice resonating in Jeff’s ears.
He looked back at the man, who was getting up off the bench and walking over to him.
“Umm … yes, but I can wait. I mean, how many sets do you have left?” Jeff asked, his quivering voice betraying his nerves. Why the heck did he feel so nervous? He noticed as the man approached that he had a peculiar and rather prominent tattoo on his chest. Several lines of text in some foreign language, partially covered up by the strained straps of his tank top. Jeff tried to make out what language it was, but he didn’t recognize the characters. And yet, he had the oddest sensation that if he just concentrated on them for a few seconds their meaning would become clear …
“I’ve still got a couple,” the man said, snapping Jeff back to reality. “But you’re welcome to work in if you’d like. I could use a spot.” He held out his hand. “Caleb,” he said. Jeff cautiously shook his hand, feeling a little light-headed for some reason. “I’m Jeff,” he said. “I don’t think you want me spotting you though …”
Caleb chuckled. “Don’t think you could handle it? Don’t worry. You won’t need to do much. Here, before you start let me just get one more in since my weights are already set up.” He walked back over to the bench and laid down. Jeff nervously followed and got in position behind the rack. “Just be ready to help me guide it back to the rack. It’ll be fine,” Caleb said reassuringly. “Just focus on a fixed point on my chest.”
“Sure thing,” Jeff said. He looked down at Caleb’s chest, at the strange writing, inverted from his vantage point. “What does your tattoo mean, by the way?”
“Read it for yourself,” Caleb said with a wink. Then he immediately began his set.
Did he just wink at me? Jeff thought. Is this guy gay? There is no way in hell this guy is gay. And even if he is, there’s no way he’d actually be interested in me.
Jeff frowned, confused at the thought that just crossed his mind. What did he care whether some dude would be interested in him or not? This was just some overly muscled guy who he was helping on the bench so he could get on with his workout. It didn’t matter whether the guy was flirting with him. Or just teasing me, Jeff thought. Like he’s teasing me by telling me to read his tattoo, when it’s clearly in some other …
His thoughts quieted as he stared at the upside-down tattoo. The words meant nothing to him, and yet again, he had the strangest sense that the meaning was within his grasp. In addition, he felt as if he could almost hear a voice whispering to him, at a barely audible volume. If he only focused long enough, perhaps both the meaning behind the words and the message of the voice would become clear …
“ … ten,” Caleb said, re-racking the weight with a clang. Thanks Jeff, I appreciate the help.” He sat up, breaking Jeff’s line of sight with the tattoo.
Jeff blinked his eyes, remembering where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. Damn, he thought. I’m glad he was able to handle that on his own. I can’t let my mind wander like that when I’m spotting someone! “No problem, man,” Jeff said. He still couldn’t believe he was working out with such a gorgeous guy! Caleb got up and patted him on the back. Jeff felt himself becoming aroused.
“Okay, you’re up Jeff. How much weight you want?”
Jeff’s eyes widened. Oh crap. I can’t let him see what a weakling I am, he thought.
As if he had read Jeff’s mind, Caleb said, “And don’t worry about how much you can lift, man. We all have to start somewhere.”
Reassured by Caleb’s calming voice, Jeff asked him to leave a 25 pound weight on each side of the bar. Surely he could handle that much.
The actual set went just fine. In fact, Jeff surprised himself with how effortless the total of 95 pounds was to lift. Maybe he had under-estimated himself! His excitement grew even further when he realized that now it was Caleb’s turn … which meant he’d have another chance to gaze at that tattoo on Caleb’s magnificent chest …
Jeff got in position behind Caleb, noticing a slight burning sensation across his pecs. Probably from having not worked out in so long, he thought. I’m going to feel this tomorrow.
As Caleb began his set, Jeff made a deliberate attempt to be as alert a spotter as he could be. But by the fourth rep his gaze had again settled on the mysterious tattoo. Again the words seemed to hold some meaning that he couldn’t quite grasp, and again, he thought he heard a faint voice muttering something …
“Excuse me, are you done with this?” an unfamiliar voice asked, rousing Jeff from his concentration.
As Jeff’s vision refocused on his surroundings, he was taken aback. He was sitting on the leg press machine, clear across the room from the bench presses. Looking around, he realized that Caleb was nowhere to be seen. Confused, Jeff looked at the guy who had spoken to him and said, “Um, yeah … all yours …” He got up and slowly walked back to the bench press area. All the presses were being used by various guys. Jeff looked at his watch, his mouth gaping open. Nearly two hours had passed since he had first arrived at the gym. How was that possible?
At that moment he realized that he felt a pleasant burn throughout his entire body, as if he had just completed a full body workout. But that was impossible … he had no recollection of anything past his first set on the bench press! Most prominent of all was the burning sensation across his chest.
Jeff wandered back into the locker room, his mind going over and over what had happened, or at least, what he could remember. But there was nothing but a blank. The last thing he remembered were those words inscribed across Caleb’s beautiful, bulky chest. The ones partially obscured by his tank top, written in some unknown language. Jeff reached the locker room sink and let the water run over his hands. He splashed water in his face, trying to clear his head. He had all sorts of thoughts swimming through his mind, some that didn’t make sense. Other than him, the room appeared to be empty. He brought another handful of water up to his face.
“Do you believe the eyes are the window to the soul?” a voice asked.
Jeff looked up. He was no longer alone. Caleb stood there behind him, shirtless. His upper body exposed, Jeff marveled at his rock-hard abs, his powerful arms, and of course, his massive chest with the lines of text inked across it.
Caleb continued. “I never really knew what that meant until about a year ago. I was a graduate student, studying ancient languages. I came across this book. This book continued a language that I’d never seen or heard before. This was no ordinary language. Words translated into this language acquire power. A power that comes out when the words are seen, and read. But I don’t have to tell you that.”
Jeff stared at him, perplexed. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What happened to me earlier? Why did I black out?”
Caleb shrugged and said, “Sorry about that. Part of the message was covered up. The words only hold their full meaning when they’re all together. Here, you wanted to know what the tattoo meant? Take another look.” He stuck out his chest for Jeff to see.
“What the heck are you …” Jeff started, but as his eyes fell upon the tattoo he grew silent. The words seemed to almost pop out at him, as if he were wearing 3D glasses. The voice he had heard before appeared, but louder this time.
“As it is written, so it is read,” the voice chanted. “As it is read, so it becomes.”
The voice began to pick up volume in his mind and suddenly, Jeff could understand. The meaning behind the words across Caleb’s chest, which had seemed so elusive before, was clear to him. They were directions. Orders. Not for him, exactly. For his body. And his mind.
He began to grow hot all over. His muscles burned like fire. He felt constricted in his clothing. A feeling of power flowed through him. He heard a tearing sound as his shirt and shorts began to give way, his muscles growing past the limits of their fabric. The floor grew slightly farther away as his height increased from an average 5’10’’ to an impressive 6’4’’. He stood eye to eye with Caleb, who smiled with delight.
As the changes continued, Jeff turned to look at himself in the mirror. His pecs, now free of the shirt he had been wearing, had inflated and were now like two stone slabs. His biceps and triceps swelled as if someone were filling them up like water balloons. His thighs grew so much they began to force his legs apart. While his facial features were still mostly recognizable, his body had completely transformed. As the changes slowed and stopped, he realized that he now had a physique to rival Caleb’s. Then, the burning sensation that he had felt on his chest before returned, only more intense. As he stared in awe, words began to appear, inked on his skin. Familiar words, now scrawled across his bulging pectoral muscles. He looked back at Caleb. “How … why …?”
Caleb smiled and gave a shrug. “It’s the aspect of this language I hadn’t realized before. Once a message, a spell is created, it develops a life of its own. A will.”
“A will?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah. A will to be spread.”
Suddenly Jeff felt a powerful lust sweep over him. He stared at Caleb hungrily, then walked over and pulled him into a passionate kiss.
An hour later, Caleb and Jeff left the gym hand in hand, both clothed in similar tank tops and shorts. “Always bring extra clothes,” Caleb had said with a grin. “You never know when you might need them.”
Jeff stared devotedly at his new partner, the memories of his existence as a skinny, unconfident straight guy seeming more and more like the plot of some half-remembered movie. There was no more need to think about the past. The past doesn’t matter, Jeff thought as he noticed a familiar burning sensation across his chest. What matters is the future. We have a life to build. And a message to spread.
If you want to see the picture that inspired this story, click here.