In the morning, I hang out my skins to dry. I watch them, soft and paper-thin, draped on the drying rack: the older ones have become almost translucent, they cast a pinkish glow on the floor. The latest acquisitions, still thicker and barely worn, remind me of satin—in everything but the experience of putting them on.
I step onto the rectangle of sunlight on the floor. Not even ten a.m., and the heat wave has already struck the city; by noon, the apartment will become uninhabitable. On a second thought, I pull the curtains, and move the rack further into the shade.
All this heat, and I’m shivering. It’s an almost pleasant kind of shiver, and I take my time admiring the goosebumps that run all the way down my arms and legs, uncovered by the tiny sleeveless shirt and knickers. The fever takes some of my soreness away. I glance at the rack again; the skins look so inviting. But today I have to stick to my own.
Sometimes I think it becomes more damaged than the skins I’m putting on, but maybe it’s just the inescapable itching that I’m carrying around. Every day I find new infections, marking the places where skins blended with mine. I can’t put that rash out. The best I can do is conceal it with a bit more makeup, but then the powder keeps falling off.
On a second thought, I grab a fresh piece from the drying rack and press it to my belly. It’s a shade darker than my own complexion, with a cute little bellybutton. I feel my own skin stretch and adjust, take in the foreign body; the grafting is never smooth, something in me rebels against it, but I press the skin tighter, and it holds in place. I pull up my top to see the seams fade and blend in, soon nothing more but dark, glistening ridges on me.
Now I can prepare for the day. I retreat to the bathroom, scoop out a fistful of lotion, and slap it on my skin wherever I can reach. Then clothes. Then makeup. I keep my hair loose these days, to cover the red blotches on my neck.
I run into the still, hot air between blocks of flats: you can trust this robust Soviet concrete to hold in place for decades and suck up sun rays like a sponge. Someone gave my door a makeover: now it’s sporting a barely legible graffiti.
Two stray cats follow me with their yellow eyes. We’ve got a lot of them here, strays and ferals. They never run away from me. Guess they can spare some sympathy for fellow predators and castaways.
At some point, I even thought of adopting a cat—not necessarily out of love for homeless pets. I liked how it would make me look. One rainy February day, I showed up in a pet adoption charity, circling my thumbs and asking if there were any cats to take. It had to be a charity. A shelter would drive me crazy.
“There are always cats to take,” said the guy behind the counter. He had a golden septum piercing and matching stretchers in his ears that I immediately wanted. I swallowed hard. “Would you like to see our darlings?”
They didn’t keep any pets in the office, so he handed me a folder with their photos. I grabbed it, nearly breathless. I wanted the cats, all of them, all the life they were promising. Long, lazy mornings, me sipping coffee and them sprawled across my legs. Cozy evenings when I wouldn’t be alone, so nothing would drive me up my walls. Instagram pictures I could share. Scratch marks on my forearms I’d show to colleagues, laughing.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything that much.
Eventually I decided on a cross-eyed tabby, named her after my childhood friend, and took her home.
We didn’t last long. I started eyeing her hungrily, craving that feline offhand elegance. I’ve never had a skin of something other than a human. I fantasized how snugly it could feel against my own. The tabby kept backing away. She stopped eating, too wary of anything that came from me. She’d hide under the sofa the moment I returned home. Sometimes in the night I could see the iridescent membranes of her eyes, two full moons following me everywhere. My nerves were on fire. Neither of us slept.
I took her back to the charity, clutching the transporter in my bloodied arms. The guy did a double-take when he saw us: my hollow eyes and the tabby hissing and rocking in her box.
“I guess we weren’t meant for each other,” I said, putting the box on the floor like it was burning my hands.
The cat kept her gleaming, angry eyes on me.
“I guess not,” he repeated and hesitated. “Would you . . . would you be willing to try your luck with another cat?”
“No,” I snapped.
He looked up.
“Hey, no pressure. I can see why you would be cautious.”
“It’s just . . . ” I stuttered. “It’s been quite rough, okay? But thanks. I hope she finds a new home.”
I needed to get out of there, far away from the sense of failure and the reek of hatred, and the guy being so calm about it all. I opened my wallet and threw a fifty bill into the charity’s donation box.
I ended up with five cans of cat food, scratches scabbing on my already awful skin, and a reminder that energy bills are due.
The metro slashes our city into four unequal parts. These days, I’ve taken to using it whenever I can. I don’t have the strength for cycling anymore, and there’s something about natural light that reveals my state more than the electric glow of the underground.
On my way, I go through the news feed on my phone. They’re mostly science news: I look for familiar names of fellow scientists, greedy for their success stories and relieved I don’t see my name among them.
I did publish a study once, too. Apparently it was good. Maybe even better than good. Big fucking deal. It’s been a year ago, and by now everyone should have noticed that I’m a waste of space and grant money.
They haven’t crossed me out completely yet. In a way, it’s worse. They’re worried. And one thing more excruciating than hanging on in there is the communal pity. They’re oozing pity at me. They shove it down my throat. There’s a tint of expectancy to it when they think I can’t see it: shouldn’t you have made something new by now? But my next big act is not coming.
I walk past the labs, dodge the pitiful glances and sit down in my cubicle, surrounded from every side by the clatter of keyboards. Someone had left the morning post on my desk: a sleek envelope, a grant gala invitation. Oh yes, Marcin’s new project got funded; they’ll announce it on December 6th. It means I’ll have to be there too. I breathe out and count the days.
Then comes a text from Marcin. “Come see me asap.”
Is this it? Has he had enough of me? I hope so. I don’t know what I’d do if that’s true, but it will be something. A change. Something. Anything.
Picking up the invitation by two fingers, as if it was either fragile or hazardous, I look for Marcin. If I were into male skins, I’d definitely want his too—for the way he stays composed even when everything around him goes to hell. For the pretty angles of his fingers. For his smile. I’d love to wear his smile.
He’s waiting for me in his office, long legs stretched forward, the smallest frown between his brows. He’s in his early fifties, but has so much energy I easily forget about the differences between us; I trust him way too much.
“Alina,” he says, smiling. “Good to see you.” He gestures to the other chair. I fall on it, feeling the skin on my belly adjust.
“Good to see you, too,” I lie and twist my thumbs together.
Something about Marcin’s face doesn’t quite match now. I can’t tell if it’s concern, or worry, or the opposite—some delightful news. Given my lack of accomplishments, it’s probably not the latter.
“How have you been doing?”
“Fine. Thanks.” My cheeks pinch from the forced smile.
He inhales deeply.
“I was given the impression that perhaps you’ve been . . . bored here.”
“Well, yes.” He looks into his coffee cup, only to find it already empty. Sighs, puts it back. “I mean, your work has been . . . solid. Good quality. Reliable.” Ha, ha, ha. “But I can see you’ve been losing your heart, it’s not the same for you, is it?” He leans towards me.
I back off. No. No. Don’t look at me like that. Don’t peer into my face. There’s nothing there you’d like to see.
“You’re cut out for the bigger things,” he says, and I’m not sure it’s a compliment. “You proved it early on already. And perhaps we’ve been too . . . protective about you.” He takes in my tiny, half-starved frame. “Didn’t want you to, well, risk. Even after all you’ve done.” He smiles faintly. “But perhaps”—words hang in the air, thick with promise and danger and demand and they chafe at my skin it’s crawling I feel like I’m going to burst but in a good way maybe?—“perhaps you’d like to be included in some bold study again?”
I lick my lips.
“I think I’d like to,” I say, ignoring the squirming in my stomach. “Please give me a few days to consider.”
This is not fair.
I have to prevent myself from leaping and running out of his office.
In the corridor I face our conference posters. Just seeing them—my name on them— rekindles a tingling sound in my ears.
People say it was beginner’s luck, but I insist on believing that in my whole disaster of a career I did this one thing right: followed my hunches, followed the trails, however faint they seemed.
That’s the thing about science: it’s a constant crawl through uncertainties. Especially in biology. Our subject is infinitely diverse, malleable—yes, but also vulnerable. It takes a rare combination of knowledge and faith to see patterns in the glistening mess of our own bodies.
It takes a huge deal of conviction to believe in your ideas, to think you could cure something one day.
I was lauded for courage, persistence, everything but ethics. I got prizes. I’m still getting them.
I’m terrified that I had burned myself out that time and there’s nothing left.
After six hours of procrastination, I hit the gym. It’s my way of punishing myself. I remember I used to enjoy it, once: the mellow tiredness afterward. Now it’s only about the sweat and the pain. Next to me, tall slim girls in their hot pink tops run on the treadmills. In the mirrors, I look much like them. It’s only the inside that’s different.
Then I go home. Big word for a flat inherited from my grandparents, complete with cheap furniture and collections of crystal glass I can’t bring myself to get rid of. Some patron saint bows his head and his sad painted eyes meet my skins. I sit on the floor, inhaling the faint sweaty scent, keeping it deep in my nostrils, knowing it won’t last long.
They smell of courage, celebration, comfort.
In the following months, there isn’t much to do in the lab. Marcin had stunned me into caution. Any meaningful analysis would bring me back to his attention. “Aren’t you bored here?” he’d ask, genuinely concerned. “Is this the life you want?” I spend my evenings in the apartment, curtains drawn, staring longingly at the skins.
Sometimes it’s certain parts that I’m craving, like someone’s cute ears, or an artful tattoo sleeve. But usually it’s the way a person carries oneself, this feeling of being at home in one’s own body. That’s what I borrow.
It doesn’t take long before they begin to shred. All in all, they can’t heal. They dry out, no matter what I do. I hold a particularly beautiful tattoo to the light, and then it rips apart in my fingers: first a hair-thin crack, then suddenly there are two pieces, broken beyond repair.
I’ve taken to sewing, but seams hold only for so long, and there’s still the glisten of surgical thread. I stare at the curved needles, and hold back the urge to sink their hooks into my body, pull at never healing scabs, and let myself fall apart.
I indulge in this fantasy, and then get back to work: keeping myself just mediocre.
No one goes about their days skinning people. In my case, it was that my job that had started it; grafting tissues and growing them from scratch. There’s an unearthly cleanliness about labs, a stark contrast to the messiness of life.
And then one day I thought, if I can impose order on the patch of cancerous cells before my eyes, maybe I could, too, do the same thing to myself?
It got easier with time.
I choose someone I know from my gym. Her orderly ponytail and no-crease clothes betray a corporate lifestyle. But there’s also sadness in her eyes, and that’s what captures my attention. Her courage. The fact that, although she doesn’t like her life, she doesn’t stop. I want her commitment. The ability to turn oneself into a statue. She’s certainly not the one to eat ice cream in the bathtub while tears smear her perfect no-makeup makeup. I imagine running my hands over that smooth taut skin, and putting it on mine, feeling it close over me, force me into that beautiful shape. The anticipation of the wearing—how my body would fight against this firm order!—makes me lose my breath, lose my rhythm on the running mill.
This earns me a brief glance from her. I smile back. My task starts now.
It is a chilly November afternoon when we head out of the gym together. I haven’t had time to prepare, but I have to make the most of what I have; no idea if I’ll get another chance. And I should hurry. My body has become a criss-cross of seams, my hips flaking off, a nasty eczema on my left shoulder blade. I’m a walking study in transplant incompatibility. There’s a deepening scar stretching along the ridge of my nose, too. Wearing old, dried skin does this to you. I need a new one. Desperately.
“Nice shoes,” I say.
She turns to me, breathing out puffs of mist.
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Although they don’t look too comfortable.”
A tinkling laughter. “You’re right. They aren’t.”
I nod with sympathy. We both know how this works. We’re supposed to be everything. Our eyes meet. Now we can allow our arms to sag, to let the burden show. Just a little. We’re not putting our guards down completely. But we recognize someone of kin in each other.
This is the moment I know I’ve got her.
“It’s been a rough week,” I say, scratching absently at the scar. Hoping my nose won’t fall off right now. “Would you join me for a drink?”
She hesitates. Managing alcohol is a tricky issue: don’t drink, and people will consider you stuck-up. Drink, and you become loose, you breach your perfect diet. You lift the glass knowing the risk of finding yourself, hours later, bending over a gutter, your pretty high-heeled shoes in your hand, wine stain on your new silk shirt.
“I don’t drink usually,” I say, flashing my most endearing smile. “But I deserve this tonight.”
She smiles back.
Half an hour later, we sip our drinks by the underground station. The bar isn’t a place in which any of us would allow to be seen. The stale, cigarette-infused air tastes like forbidden adventure.
Her name is Maja. She’s a translator. I’m ready to exclaim how awesome this is when she breaks the spell, adding that she translates documents for some international company. This explains her clothes. She confides, with a conspiratorial little smile, that she doesn’t really like them. In a parallel universe, she has studied history, and perhaps has a little shop dealing in used books; that’s what she hopes for her alternative self. She knows she’ll get engaged with her boyfriend soon. He’s been giving her hints. She’ll say yes, although she doesn’t know if she wants to.
I listen and return anecdotes from my own life. I take pride in them being mostly true, but I touch up the glamour a bit.
Maja talks, at first in short clipped sentences, then more openly, although I can tell a finely crafted narrative when I see one. She’s still spinning a tale, monitoring herself. I listen and nod, and ache for the moment when I can become her. I shut my eyes, imagining her perfume enclosing me, the tug on the scalp created by her tight ponytail, squeezing into her perfect hips.
“I need to use the restroom,” she says after we’ve ordered the second round.
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll be right here. I’ll keep an eye on your drink.”
I drop the tablet into her glass as soon as she’s out of sight.
If it wasn’t for feeling better in female skin, it would be for the ease. Girls don’t expect other girls to slip them rape pills. This is too convenient for me not to exploit.
Maja comes back, a fresh coat of powder on her nose, the sad twinkle in her eye almost entirely gone.
“Thanks.” She takes a sip. I’ve been holding my breath, expecting her to recognize the poison. But of course she doesn’t.
Soon, I think. Soon. My skin aches.
An hour later I take her out of the bar, hugging her waist. We’d about the same height, if not for her heels, but it’s too cold to take them off.
I lead her to the underground. In the train she dozes off on my shoulder. Perhaps we’re too close, perhaps someone will spot us together; but I can’t think of this right now, not with all the singing in my head and her perfume up my nostrils, taunting me.
We walk out into the night. Icy air has seized the buildings and windows. It’s bitterly cold, and the temperature’s still dropping. We both hobble on icy pavements and giggle. When she accidentally drops her purse, I don’t pick it up.
I have no witnesses other than the strays: a few pairs of yellow eyes gleaming from the dark. It’s fine, I want to tell them. I’m out hunting. No worries. But they barely acknowledge me, anyway.
I open the door for Maja. She tumbles in, remembers to take off her shoes. I help her with the coat. I might keep it, even though I shouldn’t; it goes too well with her complexion. I indulge myself, putting its sleeve next to my face. No. I’m still a sickly yellow coming apart at the seams.
Maja doesn’t hesitate when I lead her to the bathroom and let the water run in the tub. Her eyes are a serene pale blue. I gaze into them, hard, when I make the Y-shaped cut on her chest.
She’s too drugged to oppose, but I muffle her with my hand anyway, pressing her buckling body to the bathtub floor. This is where the gym comes handy. Blood trickles down the drain. I let the water run, take the red away, cleanse us both.
The skin needs to be fresh. This much I learned in my first, hasty days, when sometimes my craving was so powerful I could chop off someone’s arm. Now I know better. I press Maja under water. Her glassy eyes still stare at me. Her ponytail comes undone. Her muscles go slack. I can sense the last of her body heat dissipating.
The water is still gushing. I have a busy night ahead of me.
I walk into the dead of November night. Everything is frozen over. My lungs burn with each breath, streaks of hair form icicles and tap on my arms. I breathe in deeply. I tell myself: this is real. You are real, you are real, you are real.
I feed the remains to the strays. I leave the bags in the corner, back off, and watch. A pack of foxes appears and pulls at the plastic wrappings. They scuttle off with chunks of meat in their narrow maws. I’m satisfied how nothing goes to waste.
I retreat to my flat only when my fingers have gone completely numb. The fingertips are macerated with water, soft and malleable, cracking easily. The chemicals I’ve used will leave them soon dry, but they also make wearing the skin easier.
Maja fits me snugly. In the way her skin opposes mine I sense that previous sadness, the sad determination and persistence. It has written itself into her very being. But she’s stronger than me. She will hold me together.
I put her on, throw a blanket on mine-her arms, and curl up on the sofa, watching the frost flowers cover the dead landscape behind the windowpane.
December 6th: a crystalline night, merciless and cold. Marcin offers me his arm. We walk together, towards the foyer. The frost gnaws at my calves, protected by nothing but sheer black tights.
I’m all black and silver, a smoky-eyed jewel fairy in a small somber dress. What others don’t know is that there’s Maja protecting me from their eyes. It’s Maja’s legs that are freezing in the cold. Her waist cinched in the corset. I kept very little of me.
I feel like myself again. The girl with eyes that will see through everything. The one who can hold the world with her gaze.
Funny how I needed Maja’s skin to be me.
The night is long, and I’m getting tired. So many pictures with Marcin and me. So many questions. Marcin elaborates on the project—and he genuinely believes in the breakthrough he’ll make. I mostly stand by his side, smiling, waiting till they let us go.
And finally, they do.
“That was tough, huh?” Marcin asks, beaming.
He hands me a drink. I swirl it a bit too eagerly. It spills. Liquid runs down my neckline, where the seams are.
It takes me a few seconds to realize that Marcin is staring at me. I brush the drops off and wince at the pinching pain. I press my hand to my sternum. The layers of skin and stage makeup come undone.
“Surgery,” I say through bloodless lips. “Don’t ask.”
He goes pale. “I had no idea.”
“Because I didn’t want anyone to know, all right?”
Marcin says nothing.
My voice can falter any minute now. It’s a thin lie. I can see the thoughts running through Marcin’s head. He would have known. He’s a goddamn biologist, and he’s seen enough skin grafts to tell one. If he doesn’t know yet, he’ll guess soon enough. I would be surprised if he had never wondered about my scars.
Or—a crazy scenario, but not an impossible one—if he had protected me.
“Go take care of it.”
He knows. I can read it in his face. He’s just giving me time.
Because of himself? Would his career collapse? Would he care?
Let’s make it about me.
Perhaps he wants to save me.
I nod and, holding one hand to the neckline, I head to the bathroom. There I lock the door, take off the heels and stare at my reflection.
Below the perfect face, it’s much worse than just a seam peeking out. The skin has flaked off, revealing my own rash beneath. Two flaps of Maja’s outer shell hang miserably, glistening pink with tiny globules of fat I hadn’t had time to get rid of.
No one would believe it was a botched surgery.
I bring the edges of Maja’s skin closer, tug at them, wishing them to seal. Instead, they start cracking elsewhere. Blood begins to run. In the long sleeve of my dress, the elbow patch breaks off. When I pull the front together, I feel the back stretching. The fabric of my dress sticks to the wetness.
I go through a mental list of my preparations, but I know the reason is different. It’s not me. I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s Maja, still fighting for herself.
That’s exactly what I wanted from her, didn’t I? I derive a faint sense of satisfaction from it. Knowing that, even in her death, she won over me. She’s got persistence written into her very being. And I know I’ll lose.
I kick the heels out and sneak into the corridor. Snatch someone’s coat. Tiptoeing on the carpet, away from other people’s sight, to the back door. I can’t stay here.
The door needs a good push, but suddenly I’m out in the brilliant night again. I fall on all fours, scratching mine-not-mine knees and hands on the hard ground. I don’t feel it yet, but soon my toes and fingers will freeze.
So what? I can’t go back inside.
I tell myself to keep moving. It’s not over yet, I can fight too. I bite down on my lip and crawl forward. I hide in the soft fake fur of the coat, hunch my arms, and move. I have no money for a cab, but there must be a bus stop somewhere. Without looking, I keep going.
When I lift my head up, I meet a pair of amber eyes looking right at me. The alley lights up with other eyes, all of them empty and intense at the same time. Like teddy bear eyes. Like when you thought that they could hold all your bad dreams in, and that’s why the teddy bears look so sad and wise. But these are not teddy bears. It’s a pack of foxes.
They must have smelled warm blood on me. I stop and hug myself. They approach me, slowly, unsure what am I—human? Prey? Something else entirely? Their sweet musk enfolds me. Or do they take me for their own? Can they sense how much I want to survive?
I stretch out my numb hands. The leader of the pack starts sniffing at my purple fingertips. I wait, breathing hard. The fox doesn’t bite yet. It’s not friendly, either, though. I’m the weak, outnumbered one here.
I sit, and I wait.
When it gets closer, I break its neck.
The pack backs off, but doesn’t run completely. They watch me. They watch as I gnaw at the skin on the dead fox’s nape, rip it open with my teeth, and wriggle my way inside. A clumsy, graceless human. But I make it. One more move, and I’m not cold at all. I open my new amber eyes. I see the bloodied coat beside me, like a hide of a bigger, graceless animal.
This night, I will run with foxes.