About the Author
Celeste is 24 years old and is currently a second year MFA student for Fiction at Florida International University. She typically writes speculative horror that delves into magical realism.
“You aren’t supposed to pop your pimples.”
Between them, the soft hum of the bathroom’s meager fluorescent bulb fills the morning silence. Piper’s fingers ignore her sister’s warning, index and middle poised around the swelling of a zit just above her left brow. When she squeezes it only yields clear pus, like cystic acne is wont to do, and leaves her with a throbbing ache, which reverberates across her forehead. The area around the pimple blanches white for a moment then relaxes into an angry red, inflamed.
“I don’t care.” Piper leans back from the bathroom’s faux-granite counter, soreness blooming from the spot on her hip where the edge had dug into her flesh. If there is one thing Sloane is good at, it’s showing Piper how bad she is at being a girl.
“Maybe you wouldn’t break out so much if you didn’t eat like shit.” Sloane deposits wisdom as generously as she applies her mascara, coating already thick lashes with another gunky layer. Up close they look like a spider’s legs that she had glued to her eyes. Sloane really is beautiful, in the old Hollywood kind of way, with her small chin and her large eyes, though she wore thick coats of makeup on both. She is adopted, though, so neither of their parents can take credit for that achievement. “C’mon, we’re gonna be late picking up Becky.”
The back of Sloane’s car is cramped with broken umbrellas and twisted binders and has just the faintest scent of cat litter. It’s mostly covered up by the air freshener plugged into the front air conditioner, but the flowery scent of summer lilac doesn’t quite reach all the way to the backseat. Their parents claim the car is both of theirs to share, gifted to them the year they had both turned fifteen, but Piper hasn’t driven it since she used it for her second license test. She’d been disqualified the first time for hitting a cone while backing up.
Their neighbor, Becky, only lives four houses down from Sloane and Piper but insists on being picked up at her house to carpool anyway. She is always punctual, standing at her mailbox when Sloane pulls up, and always slides into the front seat without acknowledging Piper in the back. She plays pop music too loud on the radio and frequently forgets to put on deodorant. Today is one of those days, and even artificial summer lilac cannot cover Becky’s B.O.
The two girls in the front seat fall into their usual chatter, something just lingering on the edge of gossip without falling squarely in the territory of being considered a caricature for high school girls. As they wade through morning traffic Becky recounts for Sloane the latest dirt on members of the highschool band, of which Becky is second-chair flute player. Alan Scott beat her out for first seat back in freshman year and she swears it’s only because his parents have been paying the band director for lessons since Alan was in fifth grade.
Piper leans back in her seat away from the two, idle fingers wandering to the still-aching zit on her forehead, eager to remove herself from the conversation. It’s the same thing she does at school, edging on the outer skirts of the halls, the lunchroom, the class. People call her stand-offish, but she thinks that isn’t really fair. As much as Piper removes herself, her classmates seem just as eager to let her be removed. There is always a place for Sloane among their peers. There never seems to be one for Piper.
She doesn’t have much in the way of nails, tends to chew them off especially short during exam season, but her thumb nail has grown decently long in the past week or so and she uses it now to dig in to her pore, at where she imagines the base of the pimple to be. Sometimes if she presses on the right part of a zit, the pressure built up inside will be enough to pop it, even without creating an incision in the top. This one may be too deep-seated for that to work.
Still, Piper tries. Her knuckles begin to stiffen, locked in the same position for too long. Is it possible for puberty to cause trigger finger? Just when she thinks she might give up, her complexion gives way. Has she just scratched the surface of the pustule? It’s hard to tell without a mirror, so Piper retrieves her phone, setting the camera to front-facing mode.
In place of the pimple, just above her left eyebrow, there is a large gash, one poorly concealed by her bangs.
For a moment, she is stunned. Is she just seeing things? Cameras have been known to be unfaithful before, now might not be any different. Discarding the phone, Piper looks to the cluttered floor, sifting through junk before finding the better half of a broken cosmetic compact, its dirtied mirror still attached. She rubs the surface of it against her jean-clad thigh then brings it up to inspect her forehead.
Yes, there it is. The gash is two inches long, perhaps a little longer, and is bleeding remarkably little for being so long. In fact, it hardly seemed to be bleeding at all, and wasn’t painful in the least bit. Piper teases at the tissue on either side of the chasm, pushing it closer together then apart once more. The tear widens another half inch.
Piper drops the compact, hands shaking only the slightest bit. Under her thumb nail there is hardly any trace of blood. Weren’t head wounds supposed to bleed in a dramatic, substantial way? Why is all her blood staying within the neat little incision she’d made for herself on her forehead? For a dizzying moment, Piper thinks this sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone she’s seen, and Rod Serling’s voice drifts through her head, hypnotic as she cleans the broken compact mirror again with idle, unbelieving hands. You unlock this door with the key of imagination, beyond it is another dimension…
Shaking the image from her mind, Piper analyzes the cut once more. It’s too far to the left to be concealed by her side-swept bangs, but it could be hidden by a beanie, or a cap if she had one. She consults the floor once more but the only articles of clothing she seems to find are torn shirts and a pair of shorts that seem to have mustard forcefully rubbed into the crotch.
“Hey, uh, Sloane?” It’s worth a try to see if there is anything in the front seat.
“Don’t distract her while she’s driving.” Becky doesn’t look back as she replies, front visor flipped down so she can apply a thick coat of petroleum jelly on her lips in the plasticized mirror. Her lips shine damp and slick in the morning’s rising sun. Piper’s stomach churns at the sight of them.
“Sorry. Can you see if there’s any hats up there? I’m having a – bad hair day.”
“You’re having a bad hair day every day,” Sloane scoffs, accelerating a bit to neatly run a yellow light.
Becky gives a long groan but bends down to look, kicking a few textbooks and fast food containers out of the way as she goes. When she does find a dusty baseball cap she throws it into the backseat behind her unceremoniously.
Piper mutters her thanks as she shakes crumbs and dirt from it. The hat bore the insignia of a baseball team Piper had never been to a game for but had seen them play on TV and knew they were decent. This will work.
Compact in hand once more, Piper settles the cap over her hair, ginger with her movements as she smooths it down the cut. There. Hidden from sight. It isn’t a permanent solution, but it will get her through the day. Piper settles into her seat once more, pocketing the broken compact. She can make it through this.
Hats aren’t expressly forbidden in her school’s dress code but Piper still receives a slew of dirty looks from teachers as she makes her way through the halls, their glares anywhere from dismissive and light to harsh and grating. She bows her head against them, shouldering through the early morning crowd to her locker, grabbing her books and heading to first period. Her seat is at the back of class, in one of the darker corners of the room, so she doesn’t feel as exposed as she pulls out the compact, glancing at her skin beneath the cap’s brim.
The cut seems to be creeping down, itchy and insistent, now at the arch of her brow, growing larger with every facial gesture she makes. A small spark of panic blooms in her chest but Piper forces herself to put the mirror away, to sit back in her seat and focus on class. There isn’t anything she can do about it now, anyway, and if it isn’t bleeding and didn’t hurt, why couldn’t it wait untill later?
She brings a hand to her mouth, front teeth already beginning to gnaw on her too-long thumbnail, one which doesn’t have any blood beneath it, one that doesn’t betray the gash it left across her forehead. Sloane continuously lectures that chewing her nails was disgusting, that it’s something only true heathens did, that it betrays a sort of baser nature that most proper people would be ashamed to display in public. Sloane is only 6 months older than Piper but seems to know much more. It wasn’t until after their parents had adopted Sloane that they’d realized they were pregnant with Piper, something they’d called a miracle growing up.
“We’d tried so hard to have children,” their father had told the girls, the three of them cuddled up on a worn blanket spread out in the backyard.
Their house was too close to the city to see any of the good stars but the moon was especially bright that night and Piper thought she could see every individual crater from her spot in the grass. She begged him to let them sleep outside for the night, to dig out the old tent they’d found in the garage the weekend before, but the most their father conceded to was letting them stargaze, or moon gaze, or space gaze. He’d made up for the disappointment with cups of hot chocolate, sweetened extra with honey and coated in a pretty, thin dust of powdered sugar.
“For a while we never could conceive, so we decided to adopt Sloane.” He leaned over, pressing a kiss to the top of Sloane’s head. “A few months later we realized we’d managed to get pregnant after all, and that’s where you came from, Piper.” He did the same for her, and the little girl reveled in the feeling of his lips against her hair, tucked into his side.
“That means you were an accident,” Sloane had told her later that night, when they’d brushed their teeth and padded back to their rooms in the dark after the hall light had been turned out, changing into their too-long nightgowns.
Piper’s was soft and worn and pink, pilled with polyester eggs from being washed too many times. Sloane’s was a light purple, gauzy and flowy, and she looked a little like a spring goddess as she swept across their shared room, climbing into her bed. Piper almost expected to see flowers in her wake, a lilac for every place Sloane’s feet had touched on the carpet.
“Mom and Dad didn’t mean to have you, cuz they already had me.”
“They wanted both of us.” Piper can hear the lack of conviction in her own voice. Her parents had been trying to get her out of her thumb-sucking habit so she settled for chewing on the skin around her thumb. Though her adult teeth hadn’t come in quite yet her first set had been plenty sharp enough to mar the pigment around her finger, drawing blood just around the nail bed.
“They wanted me.” Sloane flicked out the remaining lamp, extinguishing the last bit of light. Their room growing up had glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling that illuminated once all the other lights had gone out.
To Piper they looked more real than the specks of light she glimpsed in the sky, sprinkled around the moon.
Her teeth slice through her too-long thumbnail and Piper curses under her breath in class, back to the present. The hang nail dangles to the side of her finger, but Piper’s eyes are drawn to the new cut that slices down her thumb, one that extends from the tip of her finger to the joint of her thumb and palm.
“Fuck,” she mutters, hand balling into a fist, hiding it beneath her desk. Though she can’t see it and though it doesn’t hurt Piper can feel it inching wider, not quite painful but somehow itching, tingling, the gash extending down the meaty part of her palm, closer to her wrist. She glances down into her lap, slowly unfurling her hand. There’s no blood and when she teases the cut apart with her other hand she realizes she can see straight down to the miniscule muscles of her palm, pink and red and raw and wet. The tendons are mostly covered up in the inner mechanisms of the limb, but they glow a silver-y white when caught by the classroom’s fluorescent lights, almost luminescent.
Piper squeezes the cut closed with her fingers, pinching the skin as she looks up and around the room. Nobody is paying any attention to her, and though it’s a few minutes before the first bell their teacher is nowhere to be seen. Shouldering her bag, she makes her way up and out of the room before she can decide against it.
The halls are already sparse and she moves through them easily, making her way to the nearest restroom. It’s wholly unoccupied if the absence of feet beneath the stall door is any indication, and Piper rights herself in front of one of the mirrors, sliding her backpack off and onto the floor.
“There’s probably a reasonable explanation for this.” Her words are slow and even as she meets her own eyes in the mirror. It’s a trick her father had taught her when she was younger and prone to panic attacks in elementary school at the height of Sloane’s incessant teasing. Find a bathroom, find a mirror, look at yourself deeper than anyone else can. There’s an explanation for everything that’s going on, everything that you’re feeling. You just have to find out what it is or accept that it doesn’t want to be known.
Piper takes a breath, glancing behind her to make sure nobody else occupies the bathroom’s stalls before turning back to the mirror, holding her gaze as she reaches up to remove the baseball cap. She discards it in the sink. The crown of her hair is matted and frizzed and does nothing to hide the gash on her forehead. She smooths her bangs up and out of the way so she can get a better look at it. Though the cut itself doesn’t bleed the muscles beneath it are well-oxygenated, bright and rich in their redness.
In her science class a few weeks ago they dissected a feral cat, one long dead before it ever got to them. Its muscles were pale, almost white, and when they looked inside at the organs it was as if they’d been de-saturated in a software editing program, too pale and sickly to be real.
Her muscles are nothing like that, virulent in their brilliance, pulsating with the soft throb of every heartbeat, bright and present and demanding to be seen. The cut extends up past her hairline now, splitting her scalp.
Piper abandons the forehead cut, turning her attention to the newest gash. It reaches down past her hand now, all the way to her wrist, opening a window to the inner workings of the delicate muscles crisscrossing her hand and arm.
She flexes, palm up, bringing her hand towards her once, then away. The cut rips farther up her arm but Piper’s eyes are transfixed to the fluidity of muscles working together, a tangle of coordinating fibers and cords, functioning in tandem as she moves, stretches. Morbid curiosity bends its will to Piper before she can think to suppress it and she burrows a few fingers beneath the layer of her skin, thinner than she imagines them to be, tearing it down, peeling herself farther open.
And oh! It’s like an entire world hidden beneath her flesh! She tears a bit of it away from her forearm, the area coming away in her hand, separated completely from her body now, and about the size of her palm. It tears like several layers of wet tissue paper and though Piper knows skin should be tougher than this, is tougher than this, she can’t bring herself to question the miracle occurring before her.
She turns the patch of skin under the light, reflecting on it, and the underside of it is streaked with blood vessels and veins, like highways in her body, tinged blue and purple though she knows the blood within them is scarlet, the brightest red she’ll ever see. Piper places the section of skin on the edge of the sink. Her hands are slick with lymph, sticky and wet as it burrows beneath her short fingernails, but still she does not bleed.
She makes quick work of skinning her arm, the initial cut serving as a guideline to the top, all the way to her shoulder, and then to her back where she cannot reach without removing her shirt. Each section of skin is torn away in a neat, methodical fashion, laid on the edge of the sink, or sometimes inside it, with the utmost respect and dignity. A large chunk comes away from the back of her arm, almost the size of a sheet of paper though much thicker. When her arm is done, save for the delicate pink of her hand, she looks at herself in the mirror once more.
The larger muscles of her biceps are especially beautiful, though Piper knows the light of the bathroom isn’t doing much to complement them. They shine, glossy and smooth, and when Piper flexes she can see them being pulled taut against each other, then relaxing once more.
Outside the bathroom, the last bell before first period rings, echoing through the halls and Piper knows she cannot stay here for long.
Kneeling down, she opens her bag, retrieves a sweater and lays it out flat on the tiled floor. Her hands are gentle as she places her skin down atop the cloth, then folds it all together, placing it safely within her bag. There will be time later to find a better place for it, a more reverent place, though a part of her wonders if keeping the skin is worth it, now that she knows what she looks like without it, now that she knows all it has been hiding beneath it. But there will be a time later to decide what she deserves and what to do.
When Piper stands and meets her gaze in the mirror once more, gash split down her nose, almost to her mouth, she is smiling.