Science Fiction & Fantasy

TOR_Lightspeed_Stone_in_the_Skull_728x90

Advertisement

Fiction

Natural Skin

As I shrug on my jacket, moving across the carpet as quietly as I can, my sister Xuemei pushes her blankets aside and rolls over onto her belly with a soft murmur. “Liin jie. Where are you going?”

Fuck. I glance at her across our shared bedroom, her pale skin glimmering in the near darkness. My shoes are already on; no use lying about it now. “Go back to sleep, kiddo.”

“Are you going to see a surgeon?” My throat tightens and she leans forward. “Again? Ba’s gonna be angry when he finds out.”

“He won’t be back til Tuesday. And he’s not going to find out.” I glare at her. “You need to stop snooping around.”

“You’re the one who didn’t delete your browsing history.” Xuemei peers at me through her curtain of black hair. She’s barely more than a child, but she looks older. Her bones are changing under her skin, growing long and elegant as she shifts through puberty. In a few months she’ll be taller than me. “Where are you getting the money for this?”

I start lacing up my sneakers. My phone and wallet are in my pockets already, and if I don’t hurry, I’ll miss my window. “Not important as long as Ba doesn’t notice.”

“You’re too careless. What if you get hurt again?”

“He’s not going to hit me.”

“He’s not going to hit me,” she says. Silence stretches between us, truth stretched tight and delicate in the air. I break the quiet by zipping up my jacket, and Xuemei shakes her head. “Are you really gonna make a break for it soon?” When I nod, Xuemei reaches for my cheeks. “Good. I’ll miss you.”

I turn my face away from her questing fingers and push her back down onto the mattress, tucking the blanket in around her so she can’t move. “Don’t worry. You won’t be around to miss me.”

Xuemei snorts. “I wish you were going to Ottawa instead of me.”

Me too. But I don’t say that, leaning over to kiss her forehead and swallowing my words against her skin. “Sleep tight, kid. Don’t lock the window or I won’t be able to get back in.”

She snuggles in, making a nest for herself. “Okay. Be safe, jie. Don’t get mugged while you’re out. I don’t have much of the good makeup left.”

I wait until my sister’s breathing steadies before slipping out the window.

No one’s awake to see me climb from our tiny apartment onto the fire escape, then eight stories down to the ground. Toronto winters are cold as fuck, and the frost bites at me even through my thick gloves. Fat snowflakes float down around me, covering the black, sunken drifts along the sidewalk with a new, pale skin.

Two men sit smoking on the steps of the convenience store, tobaccoed breath curling into the winter air as I cut through the deserted streets toward the nearest subway stop. I can feel their stares burrowing into my back. “Hey, sis,” croaks one of the men, the stench of hongtashan creeping along behind me. “Where are you going? It’s dangerous to be out, walking all alone at night. Why don’t you come keep us company?”

I slouch further into the scarf wrapped around my neck and pick up my pace, hurrying into the safety of the St. Clair station.

The Chinatown night markets six stops down the University-Spadina line are alive with business, packed with clamoring customers and shouting merchants despite the snow and the late hour. Fruit carts laden with net bags of lychee and clusters of lanzones; vendors hawking knockoff Gucci bags and Burberry scarves; racks of watches and lighters and vouchers for cheap international phone calls. Everything and anything is for sale. Cantonese batters the air and a heady, rotten scent crisps my nostrils—the smell of meat and trampled fruit, old newspapers and sweat.

As I shove my way through the milling throng, a kid dodges in front of me, kicking up dirty snow, his jacket lighting up with a dozen LED bars in alternating patterns. “How about some data infusions, jie,” he says breathlessly. Plastic tubes full of synthetic blood click at his belt, alongside a sheathed, slender hypodermic needle. He’s bundled up against the cold, but the stretch of skin exposed by his scarf is peppered with bandages and tiny purple specks, like mosquito bites. “Untraceable, DRM-free, nice and clean. The newest books from all your favorite authors, or maybe a package of answer keys for the standardized tests of your choice. How about it? A perfect MCAT could be your ticket to a white coat and a surgeon’s degree.”

I ignore him, stalking past a seafood stall; whole fishes and octopuses stare up with dead eyes from their bed of ice. I can feel my phone’s edges digging into my leg with each step, the address and code stored on it burning like coals at the back of my mind. But the kid dogs my steps, weaving into my path. He’s got a tacky, light-up tattoo, luminescent biopigments inked over his brow in the shape of a sun.

“Do I look like an info junkie to you?”

He has the fucking audacity to wink at me. “Ain’t gotta be salty, jie. I only sell high quality, highly reputable shit. Intravenous too! Just one injection in the port of your choice and it goes straight to your brain.” He fumbles in his pocket for a cord. “I’ll cut you a good deal. Two of whichever bundles you want for the price of one. All the needles are sterilized and in a few days you won’t even see the mark.”

“I don’t have a goddamn port,” I say, showing him the patch sewn onto my jacket. The government emblem for Natural Status—no bodily modifications, no drugs, the basic requirements for government jobs—is stitched there in silver thread. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, and you’ll be lucky if I don’t report you at the next police station for it.”

“Bullshit.” He won’t get out of my way, slushing through the muck ahead of me. “Anyone can buy a jacket. You wouldn’t be down here if you weren’t looking for a little something extra, and you’re about as Natural as a two-headed dog. Those eyelid folds are definitely fake. I can even see the scars.”

Shame flares white-hot through me and my hands fly reflexively to my face. The kid throws up his hands and backs off when he sees my expression, flitting into the crowd to find a new target.

It takes a few moments to stop shaking. I run my fingers carefully over my eyelids, feeling the healed incisions.

Expensive. Discreet. Almost natural.

In a few days you won’t even see the mark.

But Xuemei had known that first night I’d come home from a street surgeon’s clinic two years ago, had laughed at my still puffy eyes with her clear, beautiful, cruel voice and chased me around the room, trying to push her fingers into the soft tissue. Here, Liin jiejie, I’ll fix your face for you!

True beauty recognizes its imitators. How many other people could tell? How many others I’d passed on the street tonight had known at first glance, just like my little sister? How many had seen my careful, even embroidery on my jacket patch for what it was: not machine-perfect, not government-issued, but fake, fake, fake?

The scars crawl like mealworms under my itching fingers.

I jerk my hand away before the urge to claw my eyes out gets the better of me. Mentally, I add scar cream and whitening lotion to the list of things to get before the night is over.

The night market gets dodgier the farther I go, the electric streetlamps redder and less frequent, the snowfall heavier. The address I’m looking for turns out to be a room above a murky pool hall and an acupuncturist’s shop. I ring the buzzer, glancing at the tattooed, shaven-headed men gliding like sharks through the jade-colored light next door, pool sticks in hand. One catches my eye and grins, no mirth in his eyes. Despite the cold, my palms are sweating; I strip my gloves off and wipe my hands on my jeans. “Hurry up,” I mutter.

“Neh yiu mut lun?” The voice through the buzzer is harsh, flat.

The words from the deep net forum flash through my head and I dig out my cellphone. Please, please be real. “Nei di Zhao zung ji-si?” I read, stumbling over my Cantonese. The sounds are rusty, ugly and unfamiliar in my mouth.

There’s no sound but the wind, blowing frigid air in my face. “Faan uk kei,” says the voice from the buzzer at last.

“No, please—” I grasp at the door. “I need to see the ji-si. Please. I have an urgent request. He’s the only one who can help me.”

A moment later, the lock clicks and I push my way inside.

As the elevator at the end of the dingy hall creaks slowly upward, I wonder if Xue really will miss me if I don’t come home tonight, or if she’d use my disappearance to put off starting her negotiator training for another year. Baba had sent in an application for her without telling any of us, and when Xuemei’s letter of acceptance had arrived, she pitched such a fit that the neighbors began to bang on our walls.

I’m doing you a favor, our baba had snapped. I’d watched them fight from the hallway door, unnoticed by both. This is what’s best for the family and what’s best for you. There are people who would sacrifice everything for the chance that you have!

Let them have it, then! she’d shouted.

Baba had slapped her across the face, shocking both of them into silence. I’d lingered by the door, unnoticed, my own dreams crumpling in my chest.

Two years prior, when I’d asked him to sign my own application, he hadn’t even glanced at it. My job as the oldest daughter, Baba had told me, was to stay home and keep the household running. Someone had to keep track of the finances while he was away on his long, monthly business trips and Xue was off at school. Don’t be ridiculous, he’d said as I’d stared at the kitchen floor. Xuemei’s much better with people than you are. And do you really expect to be successful with a face like that?

My thumb creeps to my eyelid, but I jerk it back before I start rubbing the scars again. The eyelids had been my first surgery. The first of many mistakes, but the first of many adrenaline rushes, the deep satisfaction of watching my face take on another shape.

My reflection frowns back at me from the smudged chrome walls, mouth drawn thin. Relatives keep saying that the family resemblance between Xuemei and me has gotten stronger with age, but they’re full of shit. There’s nothing between us, no resemblance in her soft, pliant skin to the taut, calculated perfection of mine. Her dark, naturally lush hair versus mine, pin-straight and flawless.

No comparison at all.

The mirrored doors slide open. A hallway with ugly, patterned blue carpet stretches before me, walls slotted with wooden doors. The third room on the left is marked 4C. A full minute after I knock, a series of bolts shudder back on the other side, one after another. It’s nearly pitch black inside the apartment; only a handful of glowing computer monitors light the rooms. With a click, a pair of naked light bulbs flare on.

The ji-si stands on the ratty carpet, shirtless but for a black sports bra, one hand on the switch and the other holding a .22 pistol. Her face, obscured by the long beak and saucer eyes of a burnished mask, is pointed at me. So is the pistol.

“You’re the ji-si?” My voice is a dry croak.

“Neh yiu mut lun?” the flesh broker repeats. Her voice grates within the mask, the deep tones of a voice scrambler cutting the air.

Black market surgeon to the discreet, parts-swapper to the desperate, butcher to depraved folks who hunger for the most decadent, forbidden meats. Urban legend, miracle worker, nightmare, my first spark of hope. She’s real.

I take a step toward her, unconsciously, and she cocks the pistol. I freeze.

“Are you fucking deaf? Or are you just stupid?” It’s in English this time, languid, contemptuous. I straighten up, stare into the mirrored eyes of her mask.

“I’m here to sell,” I say.

After a moment, the gun flicks down. “You’re gutsy.” She tucks it in the back of her sweatpants and beckons me inside. “I appreciate that.”

I follow her, chest loosening.

The ji-si’s voice buzzes through the apartment, distorted by the mask’s metal beak. My eyes roam her body, all lean muscle and webs of scars. “There’s a big blizzard coming. It’s supposed to fuck up the whole city and last all night, but if the anesthesia hasn’t worn off by the time the storm hits, I could put you up until morning for an extra thirty bucks.” As she puts a kettle on the stove, I glance around the apartment. It’s cold, almost as chilly as it was outside, and surprisingly clean. Laminated menus in oversaturated colors hang by a work desk, laying out various surgical options, accompanied by photographs of carefully preserved body parts and posed, smiling portraits. Past them is a sturdy rack of knives and surgical implements, woven through with electrical cords and plastic tubing. A long table stretches along the far wall, with a plastic sheet set up beneath. I swallow.

“I won’t need to stay the night.” My voice is frigid, brittle. My pulse is going crazy. Don’t crack. “This shouldn’t take too long.”

The ji-si laughs, an eerie echo. “They never think so. But good surgery is about more than just hiding the seams. If you want cuts that’ll heal without any of that ugly scarring, I’ll need to take my time.” She indicates the kettle, lit up beneath by a glowing red coil. The ice batters the windows outside. “Tea? It’ll warm you up. It’ll also make everything go nice and dreamy, so you won’t feel a thing when the knife goes in.”

I can’t see her face, but I’m sure she’s smirking. “No thank you,” I say. “That won’t be necessary.”

Zhao crosses the room and we’re suddenly close, too close in this tiny apartment. Her hand closes around my forearm, and I realize, for the first time, skin to skin, how little she’s wearing.

“Come here. Let me get a better look at you.”

She guides me onto the long table, pushing me down so that my spine touches its steel surface. Then she swings her legs up and follows me, ignoring my surprised gasp, her sneakers squeaking against the metal. “What—”

“I need to see what I’ve got to work with. Pretend you’re at the doctor’s.” She’s wiry but much heavier than she looks, and I can’t buck her off with her weight settled on my hips. Panic rises hot in my throat, but instead of fighting, I stay very, very still.

“You have an extraordinary face,” Zhao says as she rearranges my limbs, shifting my hair away from my shoulders. Her hands are clinical and calloused, but her knees press down like blades on either side of my body. When she smoothes her thumbs over my cheekbones, it takes every ounce of self-control not to flinch away. Her fingers feel like they’re leaving a trail of embers down my body. “Nearly all artificially constructed, from top to bottom.” She glances down at the patch on my jacket and says, mockingly, “Even though you’re a Natural.”

A motorized handsaw hangs overhead, its cord coiled like an adder, just out of her reach. Just out of mine. I bark out a laugh, glaring at her. “Disappointed?”

“Oh no, darling. I think it’s beautiful. You’re a walking display of artistry, a testimony to gorgeous knifework.” She sighs. “It’ll be a shame to take you apart, but, well. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

The way she says it, so reverently, her fingers lingering at the seams of old wounds, almost gives me pause. As if, perhaps, it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to be taken to pieces by this woman, to have her see what’s inside. I open my mouth, but the shift of her knees makes me gasp.

“The market’s been strange recently. No one knows what they want these days. Skin, of course, but it would be hard for you to walk out of here without any of that.” The ji-si is humming to herself, distorted tones filtering out of her mask. Her palms skim my stomach and slide to my hipbones. “Breast, or belly? Mm, perhaps the thighs.”

“Wait,” I gasp. My blood is pumping so hard that I can hear it ringing in my head, and I’m not sure if it’s fear or something else entirely.

“Why?” murmurs Zhao. The tip of her metal face scrapes my skin as she bends toward my neck. Its round, empty eyes glitter. “So succulent and sweet. So perfect. I could keep every one of your parts for myself, customers and profit be damned.”

“Wait!” I push back on her chest. “You’re wrong. I’m not here to sell any of my flesh.”

Zhao pauses, the muscles in her neck tightening. Her grip on me is bruisingly hard. “Are you playing some kind of game with me, little girl?” she asks, her voice so gentle that it makes my skin prickle with fear. “You walked into my house and promised me a sale. And I intend to collect something for my coffers, whether you like it or not.”

I turn my head to meet her gaze. “You’ll get your money’s worth,” I say. “But not from me. I have a little sister.” My voice catches. “And she is much prettier than I am.”

Moving slowly and deliberately, I slip my wallet from my jeans’ pocket and flip it open to show her the picture tucked inside. It’s Xue’s junior high school promotion photo. She’s posed on a little stool in front of a pastel background, dressed up in her uniform-issue blouse and checked skirt, a blue bow tied loosely at her neck. Darling Xuemei, Baba’s favorite, barely a teenager and already in full bloom. Doe-eyed Xuemei, all smooth, milky skin and rivers of black hair. Beautiful, natural Xuemei.

“I came here to sell her to you,” I tell the ji-si. “Every last inch of her.”

Zhao studies the picture for a moment, the blank eyes of her mask showing me nothing. Cold sweat beads down the back of my neck. “A little young, isn’t she?” she says at last.

I wet my very dry lips. “I hear that’s what people want these days.”

She throws back her head with a horrible, hacking laugh that echoes through her beak. “Auctioning off your own sister? God. You’re a piece of work.” She looks down at me, metal face glinting in the raw, naked light. “I like you.”

I stare her down. “Look at that picture and tell me she’s not twice as beautiful as any of the girls on your menus. People will be clamoring for a piece of her.”

The flesh broker slides her thumb over the photo. “So they will. She’s almost as pretty as what I’ve got on the table now.” She angles her beak toward me. “Tell me. If I let you go, how exactly are you planning on getting her here?”

I shake my head. “I won’t. You’ll have to come to me. My father’s away on business, and I can drug her dinner so she’ll be ready for you tomorrow night. I’ll pay extra for your transportation.”

Zhao studies the picture, hungry. I look away. Eyes always turn greedily toward her, but nobody ever looks at me like that. Nobody but the ji-si, warm and hard on top of me. “Will you, now. You have this all planned out.”

Jealousy burns my voice hot and ugly. “I want you to take every ounce off of her, every hair, every bone. Everything. I want you to package her into little bits and make her disappear.”

The ji-si rocks back on her heels, balancing over me. “My, such animosity,” she murmurs. “Wherever does it come from, I wonder.”

The table is cold beneath my cheek. “What does it matter? You’ll get your business, and I’ll get rid of mine. We both go home happy.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Her fingers grip my chin and she turns my face toward her. “She’s not going to come back if you change your mind,” she says, very quietly.

I think of how Baba looks at Xuemei, how his face softens at the very sight of her. “Good,” I say.

Zhao pats my cheek. I narrow my eyes at the condescension. “Nay hou duk yi, dan hai nay jun hai hou soh. No, we’ll go fetch her tonight, under the cover of the storm, before the rest of the city’s snowed in. I’m not about to let you waltz out of here and leave me empty-handed if your conscience decides to show up.”

I don’t have much choice, not with my own skin on the line. “Fine,” I say. “The apartment’s not far from here, anyway.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” says the ji-si. “Come to the other table with me. Let’s talk numbers.”

When she climbs off me and swings to the floor, there’s a strange, cold feeling in my chest I can’t name. I can’t tell if it’s relief or disappointment.

In the end, we settle on nearly a thousand dollars: the largest sum of money I’ve had in my life, and more than enough to buy me a one-way plane ticket out of town. I know Zhao’s cheating me, but I would take much less to be rid of her for good. One perfect little sister in exchange for a new life, a slate wiped clean.

“I’ll even fix your face if you want,” Zhao offers, a sly twist to her words. She turns Xue’s photo over in her fingers. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed what you’re doing. I can make you look exactly like her, if you’d like.” She places the picture on the table, face down, and slides it toward me. “Think on it. Although to be honest, I like you just as you are. It suits you.”

I bat her hand away. “I’ll think about it,” I say curtly. She just laughs at me.

Before we leave, Zhao makes me drink a shot of scorching baijiu with her. “To your fortune,” she says, toasting me. “And mine. Chinese cuts are selling well. Per ounce, almost as profitable as Japanese.”

To Xue, I think, looking at my bent reflection in Zhao’s mask. My heart coils in me like a viper. To beauty.

• • • •

The blizzard almost catches us on the way home, but the cab cuts through the wind and snow, its driver partitioned away behind a thick, tinted sheet of bulletproof glass.

The ji-si and I make it up the fire escape before the worst of the storm hits, but the snow has begun to fall in thick layers, making climbing difficult. The ji-si is limber, but the cold slows me more than I anticipated. I should have brought a thicker jacket.

At the landing before mine, something drapes over my shoulders. It’s Zhao’s long coat. “Keep up,” she says. “It’s going to be a long night.”

I wrap the coat close and clench my jaw. I can hear her grinning at me. The coat is soft and warm, and it smells medicinal, sharp with sweat. It smells like her.

Xuemei’s nightlight glows soft pink through our bedroom window. My little sister is right where I left her, tucked into bed, her hair spilling over the pillow. Her program acceptance letter rests on the desk beside her.

“Open the window,” I say to the ji-si.

She already has a plastic capsule in hand, a syringe tucked between her fingers. There are teeth in her voice. “Oh no. You’ll have to do that yourself.”

Standing outside our room, I can’t hear the sound of Xuemei’s gentle, even breathing over the relentless howl of the wind. I can’t hear my own. As I place my gloved palms on the window, the ji-si’s jacket heavy around me, Xuemei stirs, rising halfway from the bed. Her large eyes are dazed and luminous, their spark of childish cruelty dimmed with sleep and clinging dreams.

“Last chance,” says the ji-si.

On the other side of the glass, my baby sister. Inside that room, my ticket out and the face I deserve.

Xuemei mouths something. It might be my name.

I smile, feeling the scars on my eyelids stretch, and pull open the window.

Alyssa Wong

Alyssa Wong

Alyssa Wong studies fiction in Raleigh, NC, and really, really likes crows. Her story, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and she was a finalist for the 2016 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize, the Bram Stoker Award, the Locus Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. Her work has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Tor.com, among others. She can be found on Twitter as @crashwong.