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Perfect Skin

Rob Gillham is a part-time musician and full-time web designer (because he has to eat). He writes mostly for fun and has a deep love of science fiction and all things dark and weird. He lives in London and has precisely no cats. He can be found on Twitter @robertgillham or at robgilham.com.

I see her as soon as I enter the coffee shop. She is sitting alone as always. An espresso sits untouched on the table in front of her. A paperback book lies open beside it. As ever, I'm gripped by her appearance. She is weirdly, uncannily beautiful.
Her shoulder-length, blonde hair makes her easy to pick out, even in a busy place like this. Yet what really stands out about her is her skin. She is not merely pale. Her complexion is the color and texture of smoothed alabaster. On closer inspection, it is almost unnaturally flawless.
Of course, lots of people have dermal improvements done nowadays. I know one girl who got herself a permanent, year round golden tan. I've just never seen anyone whose skin color has been altered to this near-supernatural level of whiteness.
There's no doubt that she's beautiful. Pale skin, blonde hair, and her well-defined cheekbones make for an alluring combination. Yet, at the same time there is something indefinably wrong about her. It's this contradiction which lies at the heart of my fascination. I desperately want--need--to know more about her.
This morning, every table is already taken and even free seats are scarce. Strangers are forced to share tables, awkwardly ignoring each other while they finish their coffee. Only she has a table to herself.
Right now, a more conventionally pretty girl would be surrounded by men wanting a seat next to her. However, she is never approached. It's almost as if the slightly inhuman quality of her appearance acts like an invisible barrier.
Despite this, today serendipity is offering me a chance and I intend to take it. I make my way toward her, making a show of scanning the room, just another customer seeking a free seat. I frown and then, almost as an afterthought, allow my eyes to alight on her table in front of me.
"May I sit here?" I say. "It's busy today."
She looks up and I realize her attention has been somewhere else entirely. My little performance has gone completely unnoticed. Her eyes flicker over me briefly. As they do, I'm shocked to realize for the first time that her irises are a light shade of amber, like honey. They look more like the eyes of an owl than those of a human being.
"Hello," she says, as if she already knows me vaguely.
She says nothing more beyond this. I hesitate for a moment, unsure if I have tacit permission to join her or not. Feeling increasingly ridiculous, I decide to sit down anyway.
The waiter comes and takes my order. As he leaves, I turn my attention back to her, but she's already re-immersed in her reading. It's as though she's already forgotten I am there.
In desperation, I blurt out the first thing that comes into my mind. "Say, a paperback book! You don't see people reading those much these days."
She looks back up at me and I almost wish she hadn't. The direct scrutiny of those eyes is intensely disturbing. Her mouth, though, betrays a tiny hint of amusement.
"What's wrong with my book?" she says.
"Nothing!" I bluster. "It's just, well--not many people can afford paper books anymore. They're hard to find secondhand too, the ones that aren't in old collections, that is."
"So anyone who reads a book is either very old or very rich?" Now I am convinced she is toying with me. That I suppose, is progress of a sort. She's not exactly being flirtatious, but at least she no longer seems quite so disinterested in me.
She leans forward, night hunter's eyes catching me in their full beam. "Which am I?"
This is clearly a trap.
"Neither," I say carefully. "I suppose that's why I was so intrigued."
She looks away and exhales ever so slightly. Is she laughing at me? I wait for her to say more. When she doesn't I begin to feel frustrated. Her disregard for the conventions of conversation confounds me.
She still hasn't looked back at me. Instead, she is now studying her bare arms. They are as white and unmarked as the rest of her.
"Do you know, I used to have freckles," she says almost dreamily. "Hundreds of them, all over my body. They burnt them off."
She sits with her arms slightly raised and head to one side, eyes now distant and unfocused. She looks more like a doll than a living person.
"They seal you in, you see." she continues, not addressing me, I am certain. "After they get the cancer out and replace all the broken parts. It's like a coat of varnish to finish, my husband said."
She frowns. "I never liked the hair, though. It wasn't like real hair at all. My husband chose it. 'You can always change it later,' he told me. Then, after he died, there never seemed much point."
She smiles sadly. "It's an odd thing, to stand by your husband's grave after seventy years of marriage--and find half the people at the funeral think you're his daughter."
I can't think of anything to say. When did we finally run out of room to bury the dead in the ground? Thirty, forty years ago?
She's looking at her arms again.
"The skin treatments are much better now, I'm told. Impossible to tell from the real thing, they say. I just worry it's not as good quality."
"This--" she says approvingly, gesturing at her own body, "has lasted me a very long time indeed."
She looks up at me again, as if suddenly remembering I am there.
"Are you married?" she asks abruptly.
"No," I say.
She leans forward and pats my hand. Hers is so white and featureless, she could be wearing gloves.
"You should find a nice girl," she says.
Then she picks up her book and leaves. Her espresso is still there, cold and untouched, as always.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 3rd, 2020

Author Comments

I was frustrated with depictions in popular media of vampires and other characters who have supposedly lived a long time in a young person's body. They never seem to reflect the true changes in outlook and mental state that occur as we get older. I wanted to imagine what it really felt like to interact with a person who was outwardly young, but had the life experience and mental state of a far older person. As we all live longer, this is a issue society will increasingly be forced to address. Perhaps we should also question whether living longer for the sake of it is a truly desirable goal.

- Rob Gillham
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