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July 18, 2007

Filed under: fiction»short

Skin Deep

She's got scars all over, this girl. Not emotional or metaphorical, either. They ring her body like the orbits of tiny moons, dot her arms and legs with slick spots like impact craters. Her skin is a whole solar system of past abuse, although she can't even remember skinning her knee.

If only she could remember where they came from. As far back as anyone can remember, she's had them, although there weren't always so many. In elementary school, they had barely surfaced. But by high school, the scars had spread and thickened. And they began to itch. God, did they itch: some days it seemed like all she did was scratch. Even today, most times it's all she can do to get through the workday, then go home and run her fingernails up and down the scars, hoping for relief.

One day she just can't take it anymore. Can't stand the looks, the itching, the self-loathing. The girl skips work, puts on her best suit, does her makeup, and then walks down to the closest highway overpass. She stands on the edge, wavers.

Down below, on the highway, someone looks up from their grey, two-door sedan, and sees the girl. Shocked, they freeze up, foot instinctively going to the brakes. It's the wrong move, because the driver behind them isn't paying attention either, and plows right in. The next car is a tractor-trailer, which jacknifes across the lanes, horns blowing the entire time. Traffic slams to a halt, but not before four more cars have joined the pileup, sliding it gently into one of the bridge supports. The impact knocks the girl backwards, off the rail and onto the asphalt of the bridge. She shakes her head, blinks against the smoke from below, and staggers home.

The next day, the flesh of her right hand and arm is unmarked all the way to the elbow.

***

She tries another bridge later in the week, superstitious, although this time she waits until late at night. No accidents. No newly unscarred skin, either. She can't stop touching her arm, although it doesn't itch anymore. She's hypnotized by the sight of herself without imperfections. Her fingers move more easily now. She types more quickly at work. Her coworkers don't notice the physical change under her long-sleeve shirt, but they whisper about how she smiles.

The girl finds other solutions. One day she trips a coworker down a stairwell by accident, and her scars retreat to above the elbow. She pulls the fire alarm, emptying the building for a couple hours, and the new skin reaches her neck. After each act of chaos, the affected scars feel cool to the touch before they fade away overnight. She feels guilty about the remedy, but can't stop. It feels too good to wake up with a little more of herself uncovered. The girl had become used to her markings, as if they were integral to her identity. That has changed: she sees herself now as someone pure, maybe even beautiful, being revealed from underneath her retreating disfigurement. She hums "Swan Lake" to herself on the Metro in the mornings.

And deep down, she loves the daring, mischievous (dangerous?) girl who plays the pranks, sabotages the work of others, causes such a terrible commotion. It is a thrilling thing to suddenly be a femme fatale, one with a skin full of excuses for her bad behavior.

When the scars have retreated past her face (opened a door as that bike messenger was going by--she sent him a card at the hospital but is suprised to find that she's not really sorry), the girl can't hide the change in her appearance anymore. She tells her friends and coworkers that it's laser surgery. Amazing, what they can do nowadays, she says. A boy from Customer Service asks her out one day. She lets him take her to the movies. He's almost amused by her scars and their story. After the third date, she stops answering his calls. When they pass in the hall, she remains stone-faced to his pleading glances. She responds to his e-mail by threatening to report him to HR. And at home, she relishes the now-smooth surfaces of her shoulders in the mirror.

***

The smaller the markings become, the more they itch. At least, that's the way it seems. Maybe it's just her mind being focused on them. She wonders if she's becoming obsessed.

The smaller the markings become, the harder it is to remove them. The same trick won't work twice, she finds (no card for that cyclist), although a slightly more harmful version sometimes does. She wonders where it is leading her, and how far she is willing to go.

She no longer wonders at why her scars vanish, or why her cure is someone else's disease. She comes close, one day, to that level of introspection. It's at the movies, of all places.

The girl has always heard about yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. She feels like it's expected of her, now that she's become a walking catastrophe. It would be a shame to let it go untested. So on opening day for the summer blockbuster, she buys herself a ticket to the prime-time showing, plus a big box of popcorn, nachos, and the largest soda they'll sell her. Then she plops down in the middle of the theatre and kicks her boots up on the seat in front of her.

Her mistake is just one of timing. She's not really paying attention to the flick at all, just waiting to see when everyone is most likely to be distracted. So the girl doesn't realize that the onscreen hero has a gun pulled on his nemesis--it's a very tense moment--right when she sits up, takes a deep breath, and screams:

"FIRE!"

There's a pause, a silence, and then a laugh from the people in the theatre. "Yeah, shoot the bastard!" someone yells. The girl is taken aback. She's lost her nerve for a moment. The action hero puts down his gun, an explosion goes off, and the light reflected from the projector's beam shows the girl the faces of the people all around her. Some are bored, some are laughing, some are enraptured. Has she really believed that she can cure herself by putting those same people in harm's way? Was she really willing to do that? Look at them, enjoying their packaged violence. Ghouls.

Her left-hand fingers itch under the scars.

She takes the top off her soda. Dumps it in the lap of the audience member to the right. Stands up, tipping the nachos over to the left. Walks out. Doesn't think about the ethics of her peculiar skin any more.

***

And so, in the end, the girl finds herself in the basement of her apartment building, staring at the water heater, a monkey wrench in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She's thinking that if she hits it in just the right place, she could dump cold water into the showers of everyone in the building. Of course, she could also set the place on fire. Maybe even blow the tank, send natural gas flooding through the basement to be ignited by a single spark, kill everyone in the building including herself. It would probably hurt quite a bit.

On the other hand (ha!), there's still just the tips of the fingers on her left hand still unclean, the scars masking and distorting her fingerprints. On cue, she scratches the fingers together in absent-minded irritation.

She hefts the wrench. Looks at the piping. Thinks about the possibilities. In the part of her mind that still feels like she has a choice, she wonders if she'll swing.

Future - Present - Past