New Skin

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New Skin.”

They were sitting at a table by the terrace’s edge. She had promised to come with him, to lend him moral support and social legitimacy. She supplied neither as she lit her fourth cigarette of the hour. He stopped babbling for a moment to take in the full splendor of her face; her eyes met his with steely resolve.

“It won’t change anything,” the model said. Her face was slack with disgust. She took a deep drag from her cigarette.

“I disagree,” he said. She shot him a withering look.

“Things change,” he said, “people just get used to them. Either that, or they don’t know how to handle the changes.” She rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Well,” she said, “I tried. You might as well find out for yourself.” She got up, with her wine glass in one hand and the cigarette in the other, and walked away without looking at him.

He watched the people around him. They were mostly ugly, but tonight they were happy and filled with a sense of possibility. In a few hours, they would all be young again, with completely new faces, houses, spouses, and even new minds. They were finally getting the lives they had always dreamed of. His model friend was too jaded to appreciate her good fortune.

“The Businessman doesn’t make deals with just anyone, you know,” she told him six months ago. She wasn’t a model back then; she couldn’t be one, not yet. He thought she was beautiful before her metamorphosis, even with her crooked nose and her two front teeth overlapping. Those little things kept her off the covers of magazines, but they made her more memorable. Now she was just a face among faces. Her smile no longer reached her eyes.

He never learned how she met the Businessman. To meet him, you needed an introduction, an appointment, and something of value to offer. His office was at the topmost floor of the Sulgane Building, a tower of delicately arched steel beams and large panels of pink glass. Transients were always muttering to themselves by the entrance, unsettling the tourists trying to take pictures.

She wangled him an appointment by “calling in a lot of favors.” “Don’t be late,” she’d warned him; he wasn’t. As soon as he arrived at the Sulgane, an elegant young woman ushered him into an elevator. She placed a key in the elevator’s control station; it rocketed to the top of the building. By the time he caught his breath, he was standing in the middle of an office, facing a man sitting behind a desk.

The room was bathed in a soft pink light. It was without ornament or ostentation, not that he would have noticed;  upon staring into the Businessman’s eyes, our protagonist felt an irresistible impulse to devote himself to the handsome, pale face that stared back at him.

“Mr. Barnes,” the Businessman said. “Thank you for coming to see me today.” His voice, a smooth and cultured baritone, washed over his visitor like a wave. He smiled at his visitor, an engaging, intimate smile.

“Do sit down.”

Mr. Barnes sat in a chair that he hadn’t seen when he first came into the room. He was suddenly very close and very far from the Businessman; all the world vanished except for those eyes.

“How may I assist you today?”

Mr. Barnes stammered something about getting an appointment through a friend, an aspiring model, but the Businessman waved this away.

“I know all about Milena,” he said dismissively. “I want to know about you. My time is worth a lot. Please don’t waste it.”

“Milena told me that you can give people entirely new lives,” Mr. Barnes began. “You make them rich when they’re poor. You make them pretty when they’re ugly. You make a million people fall in love with a man, even if his own mother can’t stand him. You give them glamor and power when they don’t have a right to either. And the price is…well, she said it was ‘modest.'”

The Businessman’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he chuckled. “Milena is right, of course–I can, and do, make incredible things happen. But I’m afraid she may have misled you. The price is not modest,” he said, spitting out the last word like an olive pit. “I don’t believe in charging less than I’m due. And a service like this has no equal, just as its price has no equal.”

The Businessman got up and walked toward the window. He stretched his body into a parenthesis, leaning back while resting his weight on the balls of his feet.

“Only a few people can truly pay for what I give them,” he continued. “Not because of any failure on my part. I have faith in every soul who crosses my threshold, but not all of them have faith in themselves.” He turned back to Mr. Barnes and locked eyes with him.

“I canot do a thing for a man who won’t allow himself to be served,” he said. “It sounds silly, but it’s true. If you will put yourself in my hands, Mr. Barnes, I can open worlds for you, vistas of experience and pleasure beyond your powers of imagination. I can make anything happen for you that you desire. But I cannot lift a finger without your permission. If I am to assist you, you must believe in yourself, and trust in me.”

Mr. Barnes did not quite follow this line of argument. He nodded anyway. An enormous smile broke over the businessman’s face, hiding his eyes behind a thousand wrinkles. He strode to Mr. Barnes and shook his hand.

“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m delighted to have you with me. Go home now–someone will call you with instructions very soon. When these instructions come, you must follow them to the letter, or I am powerless to give you what you desire.”

Someone called Mr. Barnes the instant he came home, cordially inviting him to a party on Pierce Street. That was how it started. He’d spent the past six months going to parties, soirees, salons, luncheons and other events where he felt enormously out of place. He’d woken up in penthouses, mansions, hotel suites, even private jets; he rarely slept alone. There were long stretches of time that passed without his knowing. He didn’t worry about them, even when he woke up in a sweat, unable or unwilling to remember his dreams.

Everyone was at these parties––everyone––all of them united by a common purpose. Their work for the Businessman drew them together, gave their lives meaning, gave them hope for a brighter future. Their hope infected Mr. Barnes. The Businessman, he felt, would not let him until his great task was accomplished. He had never been happier.

In the meantime, Milena became a model. She graced the covers of magazines around the world. She became the latest muse of a fashion designer. Objectively, she was one of the most perfect women he’d ever seen in the flesh. She looked like a walking Photoshop. And yet…he remembered the old Milena, the crooked nose and overlapping teeth, the light in her eyes, and her laugh, bubbly and infectious. He had not seen her laugh once since her metamorphosis.

No matter. In a few minutes, a man would tap him on the shoulder and usher him into a small room. The Businessman was waiting there, waiting to help our protagonist design his new life. He’d puzzled over it for months now. How muscular did he want to be? How much money was too much? He wanted ten cars, but which ten? Any more was just overkill…and there were so many mansions to choose from, so many women dying to become his companions…

Of course there was a price, but it was a reasonable one. He didn’t think about it much. Soon he would have a new life and everything would change. If he was lucky, he would never get used to it.

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Nothing But Hope

Chinese takeout box. Photo by Steven Depolo, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Mystery Box.”

“Merry Christmas,” Gerald said, out loud, to himself. Carlie was already up and making breakfast. He reached out to feel her warmth still trapped underneath the blankets. A sharp corner met his hand. For a moment he plunged into a gestaltic limbo, trying to reconcile the sharp corners and flat edges of the mysterious object with his expectations of softness and warmth. He opened his eyes. They focused on a red box, wrapped with a white bow, placed underneath the covers, where Carlie slept.

Gerald sat up in bed and placed the box in his lap. It was surprisingly heavy. Its label read, in neat, printed script, “Open me if you dare.”

“Honey,” Gerald called out. “Honey, come here. I found your present.” She didn’t answer. He could hear her pacing back and forth in the kitchen. The sound of pots banging, plates clinking together, and water running in the sink told him that breakfast was almost ready. He untied the bow and tore through the wrapping paper, revealing a small Chinese take-out box. He laughed and unclasped the lid.

The bottom of the box was unusually dark; for a moment he thought it had been painted black, and stuck his finger inside to feel the texture of the paint. He couldn’t feel anything, even the sides of the box, and his finger disappeared into the darkness without touching it; then he felt something, from below the bottom of the box, reach out and grasp his finger.

Images flew across his mind’s eye faster than he could take them in. He traveled through seven places before he could catch his breath, battlefields and landscapes and endless crowds, with desolation following ecstasy and preceding unbounded rage. He felt many things in quick succession: a bullet clinking against his helmet, the cold body of his only child in his arms, soft wet sand in the spaces between his toes, the ground falling away underneath his plane, the sound of a thousand voices lifted together in one song, of his own voice merging and joining with theirs, and countless births and deaths, every one of them painful.

For a moment, Gerald flew above his own mind. He felt, rather than saw, the whole pattern of these ceaseless impressions. His inner world filled with light. Then something in his mind snapped, the light fell away, and all was insensate darkness.

Breakfast was ready. Carlie walked into the bedroom and looked at Gerald. He was sitting up in bed, with one hand thrust in a Chinese takeout box on his lap. Gerald didn’t return her gaze, even when she said his name. She slowly walked to the bed, calling his name and reaching out to him. When Carlie touched his shoulder, Gerald’s head jerked up and he gasped, making her jump back.

“I’m sorry,” Gerald mumbled in a voice not his own. He didn’t look at Carlie. He didn’t look at anything. He fell from the bed onto the floor, muttering in a language Carlie didn’t recognize––if it was a language.

The old Gerald, as Carlie would come to call him, never returned. A bumbling, incoherent, unpredictable figure took his place. This Gerald would go on to lose his job, then their apartment, then Carlie herself.

Maybe it was a seizure, the doctors would tell her. Maybe a localized stroke of some kind. His brain is visually normal and healthy. This is just one of these cases that baffles medical science, one doctor would tell her. When Carlie would finally leave Gerald on his parent’s front porch, she would have no story to tell about their lives together, no explanation for their experiences. She would walk away from Gerald with nothing but sadness and unanswered questions.

In the moment, as she helped Gerald get to his feet, no presentiment of the future entered her mind. The Chinese takeout box slid to the floor, next to some torn-up wrapping paper. When Carlie returned from the hospital to get Gerald’s medication from his bedside table, she didn’t notice that the box and the wrapping paper were both missing. Only a small white ribbon remained on the bed. Carlie threw it out, and never thought about it again.

Photo by Steven Depolo.

Glad Tidings

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Secret Santa.”

“He’s just gone,” Margo sobbed into the phone. “Last night he got up around three a.m. and I don’t think he came back to bed. When I woke up this morning, he wasn’t there.”

“Maybe he went to go get you something,” Sarah said.

“On Christmas? Nothing’s open!”

“What about Chinese food?”

“Why would he get Chinese food?” Margo said. “We have more leftovers than we can eat in a month. And he left his phone by the bed!”

Sarah relayed this information to David, who was standing behind her with a bemused look on his face.

“I’ll call him,” David offered.

“You can’t,” Sarah said, and explained why not. David scratched his chest and stared into the middle distance.

“It’s probably some misunderstanding, Margo,” Sarah said into the phone. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”

“When I see him again, I’m going to kill him,” Margo wailed.

Sarah hung up and turned to David. He was still standing there, looking at nothing.

“We have to go over there,” she said. “Margo’s out of her mind with worry.”

“On Christmas? What about the presents? Who’s gonna watch the kids?”

“Then I’ll go and you stay home,” said Sarah, and walked to the dresser. She was half-changed into her day clothes when David spoke again.

“I’ve been kind of expecting this,” he said. Sarah wheeled around to look at him.

“Expecting what?” she asked. Their eyes met.

“This…type of an ending to their relationship,” David explained. “Carl’s the kind of guy who hates any emotional scene. I know he’s been bored for awhile, and…I know he’s done this kind of thing before.”

“Done what? Gone out for a pack of cigarettes? David, he left his phone.”

“I’m just saying. It wouldn’t surprise me if he leased an apartment somewhere across town. With any luck, he’ll call me later today to go get his stuff.”

Sarah stared at her husband in disgust. The kids’ voices chirped happily in the living room. Sarah turned back to the dresser to find a coat.

“It’s not our problem, Sarah,” David reasoned. “Leave it alone. The kids need you today more than Margo does.”

“Daddy, mommy, come here!” Christina yelled from the other side of the door. “I got a present from Santa! Come see!”

“Be right there, sweetie!” David yelled back, not taking his eyes off his wife. Sarah glared at him for a moment before opening the door.

It was nearly five o’clock when Sarah came over. Margo was still crying. She was sitting curled up on a couch in the living room with the lights off. The Christmas presents were still wrapped underneath and around the tree. Sarah tried not to look at them.

“He hasn’t called,” Margo moaned. Sarah sat next to her and stroked her hair.

“I’m sure there’s some innocent explanation. His car’s in the driveway, right?”

“I called the police,” Margo sobbed. “I called his mother. Nobody’s heard from him, but it’s too early to file a report.”

Sarah got up to turn on the light when one of the presents began snoring. She froze. She turned to see if Margo had suddenly dropped off to sleep––but Margo’s eyes were wide open and fixed on Sarah’s.

They both turned to look at the tree. There was a large box, larger than all the rest, wrapped in red with a large white bow on the top. Sarah went to it and lifted its lid, then jumped back.

“There’s a man in the box!” she yelled, and for an agony the two women looked at each other, eyes wide with terror. They stumbled together into the kitchen. The snoring had stopped.

“Get the phone!” someone screamed. They reached the cordless phone; Sarah dialed 911 and held the phone up to her ear.

“It could be Carl,” Margo mouthed to Sarah, who shook her head. Margo went to grab a knife when she saw a letter left on the counter, in a nearly unreadable hand. It wasn’t there that morning. Margo picked up the note with her other hand and read it.

Dear Margo,

Merry Christmas. I’ve taken your boyfriend and left you a better one instead. Let’s face it, Margo, Carl was a bit of a drag. He was aimless, he was boring, he had no interests or hobbies. I never fleshed him out or gave him any depth. He didn’t move the story along at all. The best thing he ever did was disappear.

You’ll like Henry a lot better. He’s kind, he’s considerate, he’s always neat and tidy. But there’s something off about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on. I’m not going to spoil your own story for you, but rest assured that when it’s all over, you’ll wish you had a man that would only bore you to tears.

Sarah motioned at her friend to put down the letter. Margo didn’t put it down. She couldn’t.

Go into the living room and drop this letter into the fireplace. If you do, I promise you you’ll forget all of this unpleasantness. I’m giving you a new story, Margo. Embrace it. 

Glad Tidings,

The Author

Sarah screamed at Margo not to go into the living room. The 911 dispatcher reassured Sarah that police were on their way, but she didn’t hear him. Sarah ran into the room after Margo, only to see her friend staring blankly into the fire.

“When did you light a fire?” Sarah asked.

Margo turned to her friend and smiled beningly. Henry Swanson, Margo’s longtime boyfriend, squeezed by Margo in the doorway.

“I almost forgot,” he said, and handed Margo a present. Margo blushed and covered her smile with her hands. The package was small and red, with a big white bow on top. Margo shrieked as she untied the bow, revealing a small black box.

“Henry,” she beamed.

Sarah watched Henry get down on one knee. Someone on the other end of the cordless phone was bellowing. Sarah put the phone to her ear and heard a man’s voice calling to her.

“Can you hear me?” the voice asked. “I need you to respond. Help is on the way.” It was a strange voice, not David’s, not anyone else’s that she knew of.

“Oh Henry, it’s perfect,” Margo said, admiring the ring on her finger. “This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever received!”

Red and blue lights flashed outside. Sarah felt the phone drop from her hands. This was the happiest moment in her friend’s life, and yet it all felt wrong and out of place. The world faded to black.

“Don’t thank me,” Henry said. “You’ve made me happier than any man on earth. I can’t help thinking there’s someone up there looking out for us, who wants us to be incredibly, indescribably happy.”

They didn’t notice Sarah until her body planked forward into the living room. They were both running to her when the front door burst open behind them. For a moment, time seemed to slow down and almost come to a stop; Margo felt as if she’d been dropped into a world that she didn’t belong in. And then it passed, Margo turned to look, and the story continued.

Featured image by Roland zh, used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.