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Erica liked to have work done, nips and tucks. It was impossible to guess how old she was just from looking at her. You would have to know some history, some details.

We’d been classmates in a small American town, and met again by chance in the big city. The way we swooped at each other, squeezed each other’s hands, kissed and hugged, you’d think we’d once been close.

Erica looked elegant and successful. Her brow was smooth, her cheeks fashionably hollow. I admired her necklace, a rope of handcrafted silver.

“I’m a silversmith now,” she told me.

“I’m a teacher.”

“Brave woman.”

“It’s not so bad,” I preened, secretly proud of doing such challenging work. At least, challenging for me, a shy person, obliged to be sociable and dynamic. “I’d love to make jewelry,” I said.

“Yes, it’s fun.” Erica played with her necklace. “But it ruins your hands.” She spread her fingers, gazing at them sadly.

A few months after we reconnected, Erica was in hospital for a month. A procedure to sculpt her chin had led to infection.

“Why do you put yourself through this? I wouldn’t rush to have an operation even if I really needed one.”

Erica shrugged. “My husband will love this chin.” She tapped it lightly.

“I’ll bet he just loves you.”

“How sweet,” she said.

When Erica felt better, we met for a celebratory meal. We toasted her new chin with cups of tea.

As we touched up our makeup after eating, Erica suddenly grimaced into her mirror, an engraved silver circle she’d made herself.

“My cheeks don’t suit my chin.” She poked at her face, pushed the flesh to and fro like plastecine.

“They look just right,” I said.

It did no good. A short while later, she was in hospital again. This time, I met her husband. I thought Richard would be handsome, but he wasn’t. He was a gnome of a man with freckled skin.

“Why is she doing this?” he pleaded.

“I thought you’d know.”

He looked surprised. “No, not a clue,” he said.

“What about therapy?”

His mouth twisted. “She’s had it. Didn’t help.”

“Maybe another therapist,” I said.

His eyes drifted away. I let it go.

Half a year passed before I caught up with Erica again. We’d arranged to sample brunch at a new cafe. Afterwards, Erica freshened her lips with deep pink gloss. She glanced up from her mirror almost shyly.

“I’m having a baby,” she said.

We were both over forty. I stared at her.

“Assisted by technology,” she giggled.

“Well, congratulations,” I murmured. “When’s the happy event?”

“Five more months.” She glowed with anticipation.

But, a month later, the great adventure ended. I sat by Erica’s bed. She looked unkempt, unwell. A silver ring set with a large moonstone gleamed on her finger. She twisted it round and round, then took it off.

“My lucky ring,” she said. “Do you want it?”

“That’s all right,” I said, “you don’t have to…”

She pushed it into my hand. “Please,” she said. Her voice broke and I saw that she was crying. Tears dripped from her chin. “I have a high pain threshold,” she said softly. “All this…” she gestured towards her face, her body, “it hasn’t been so hard. It’s been, you know, a kind of work in progress. It’s been…exciting.”

I nodded and took her hand.

“I guess I’m too old for kids,” she whispered. “It didn’t take.”

There was nothing I could say, so I was silent.

“It’s an illusion, isn’t it? All this power.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“We should have been born a hundred years from now.”

“They’ll have their problems, too. It won’t be perfect.”

Erica wasn’t crying anymore. She was thoughtful. “Death’s master in the house,” she said in a low voice. “We tiptoe around, pretending he isn’t there.”

She looked away, absently stroking one hand. “By the way, darling, I talked to the doctor this morning. I’m having my hands plumped. It’s a new technique.” She pointed to a spot between bulging veins. “They use fat from your thighs and inject it here.”

“Skin Deep” was published in Cyclamens and Swords.


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