We Clean Everything But Souls
by Bentley A. Reese
Cleaning skin is not easy. It’s a dirty business. Although to be fair, all cleaning is a dirty business. You’d never think you could get so dirty making other things clean. Not a lot of people know what happens when they hand their identities over to Majestic Skin-Blasting Laundromat. They don’t care what goes on in our washroom, or the way our whole building rumbles when Jabe hits the suds, or how sometimes orange lights shoot through the laundromat’s windows late at night. No, no one cares, as long as their faces come out sparkle-sparkle, and their teeth are diamond brand when we hand their skins back over the counter.
Hell, I’m not entirely sure what Jabe does in the washroom, and I’ve worked at Majestic for longer than I can remember. Literally. I’ll say one thing about washing skin though: It involves a lot of water. And soap. Sometimes, Jabe comes out of the washroom after a good scrubbing and her entire body will be covered in glistening soap scales, from her squirrely bun to her rubbery boots, dripping off her in clumps like she’s some land-crashed mermaid somersaulted into suburbia. On those days, she drags the skins out of the scrubbers like they’re corpses, slapping them on the floor tiles and hauling them onto hangers with curses on her lips, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s ever handled my skin that way, and if I’ve ever hung in the front window, advertising my life for rent.
When Mr. Marv walks through the Majestic’s doors ten minutes before lunch, I peel open a smile and wonder if Lucky Burger across the street is hiring. Mr. Marv slimes to the front desk and starts hitting the assistance bell over and over, even though I’m standing right there on the other side of the counter. I blink. Mr. Marv coughs gunk onto my clipboard.
Mr. Marv looks and smells like a purple octopus that died in a tanning bed. His species is from the Medusa cluster, or maybe somewhere else, I have no idea, but he has eight tongues spread out over a fat, cell-like body. His species is a bunch of weirdoes who taste with their eyes and hear with their tongues. They aren’t popular at concerts.
“Welcome to Majestic Skin-Blasting.” I flick Marv’s tentacle off the bell.
Marv blows me a snot bubble.
“Oh yes, you do smell terrible.”
Smack goes a tongue. Marv’s entire body shivers and wiggles.
I don’t speak purple stink monster. Mr. Marv certainly does not speak Ponzi-approved English. Still, that doesn’t stop his tongues from getting intimate with my face. Three or four slime over my lips, while another starts dinging the assistance bell again. Each tongue leaves a trail of spermish goo behind it, getting my uniform nice and disgusting.
This, this right here is why Jabe always tells me to wear a plastic bag over my hair. But of course then all the girls coming to Majestic to actually have clothes dry-cleaned would laugh at Gaige, the jellyfish girl, and the only human on Ponzi who makes seven-fifty an hour pulling clothes and skin out of washing machines. If I’m human. Even Ponzi’s real humans aren’t positive they’re human, so it’s important for all of us to act as human as possible, which normally means being as inhuman to everyone else as we can.
My job at Majestic is to keep the washers filled, the clothes-spinners spinning, and to clean up after Jabe’s cleaning, which is dirtier than any grit-covered identity shoved into our deposit chute. You might call me an assistant manager, but if you did, you’d be an idiot. Majestic only has two employees, so I just have authority to manage myself, and I’m about as good at that as I am at stopping Mr. Marv from dinging this fucking dinger.
Jabe comes out of the washroom three dinging minutes later, decked out in her suds gear, rubber up to her eyes. She has Marv’s skin slung over her broad shoulders. “Gaige, help me get this gentleman’s skin on him.”
I glance at the clock hanging over the door. “Lunch is in two.”
“My eyes work. Lunch is in five, but do this and you can be out in three.” Jabe smacks Marv’s tongue off the assistance bell. Jabe is the only person I know who can speak any alien language. Unfortunately, she can only communicate knock that shit off.
Jabe unfurls Marv’s skin, which is the husk of a middle-aged man with no hair on his head and a run-away-from-me mustache. This identity is the only one large enough to fit Mr. Marv. Any Marv, actually. We call all of Mr. Marv’s species Mr. Marv, because calling them whatever their actual names are would take too long and they wouldn’t understand us anyway. Jabe roughly grips some of Marv’s slime and shoves it into the suit’s open zipper. Marv seems to complain about her roughness, but Jabe ignores his squeals.
I groan and slump around the counter. Getting a skin-suit on Marvs is never easy. Jabe yanks the suit’s zipper all the way down and hands me a limp, empty skin-sleeve. I grab an empty laundry hamper, flip it over, stand on it, and hook a leg over an open washer. Up high and braced, I pull the empty sleeve up, and Mr. Marv slides down through more of the open zipper. He jiggles forward, flooding into the cleaned skin and filling its feet. His momentum carries a lot of his tongues onto Jabe, who is enveloped by his purple folds, cursing while she tries to hold the suit steady.
The alien gurgles, his body squeezing through the dark interior of his pre-purchased skin, its smart-graph synapses sealing against his tentacles and inflating his human toes. Mr. Marv starts to swing up as more of his body fills the suit, but he ends up top heavy, flailing, half-in and half-out. Jabe has to hold up most of his weight.
“The zipper, Gaige, the zipper! Jesus Christ, are you pushing or pulling? If you forgot how to pull again, I’m going to drown you in the washer,” she yells. Jabe squats deep to hold Marv’s weight. I yank at the zipper, getting it past his waist.
Jabe’s boots hit a bottle of detergent and it spills across the floor. Some sort of blowhole emerges from Mr. Marv’s back and sprays gunk onto the ceiling. Purple rains all over the rows of washers and dryers on display up front. I go at the zipper with a hard jerk, practically standing on the washer now, balancing on its glass lid, an unused skin-suit staring up at me from inside. Its eyeholes are empty and its mouth curves into a surprised O-shape. Jabe rallies below me, her feet scuttling in my direction with the purple alien piggybacking on top of her. Two women trying to stuff a space horror into a skin sock, we must be quite the sight.
The zipper rises, slowly — slowly. We get up to the armpits and Marv stands steadier. Jabe runs around the final plume of purple now mushrooming from Marv’s head like a troll doll with its hair made out of afterbirth. She nearly slips on a scrubber sailing its merry way through the pools of detergent. When she gets around to my side of Marv, Jabe starts cramming handfuls of purple folds into the zipper’s opening, forcing it all down. I help, kicking at it. With a pop, the zipper reaches the back of Marv’s head and I lose my grip, backpedaling onto the floor and smacking my tailbone into the corner of a washer.
Marv turns around, flexing his new set of arms. He is naked, or at least the shell of him is naked. This skin works well for Marvs because since it’s bald, we don’t have to get gunk out of his hair before he leaves. Marv feels himself over, his face full of marvel and confusion. He looks down at his penis, then up at us. “Who am I?” he asks, conversationally.
Jabe, quick on her feet as always, marches to the window and grabs a three-piece suit from the display rotary. Most of Ponzi, when asked about the Majestic Skin-Blasting Laundromat, will say that we’re very good at ironing their clothes, delivering their dry cleaning, or getting blood stains out of their underwear. Only newcomers and oldgoers get to unzip and see the real cleaning.
Jabe brings Marv his clothes, handing them over in a plastic sheath.
“You’re Billy Posh,” Jabe says. Jabe pauses, her eyes swerving over to me like a set of homicidal magnets. “Gaige, go get Billy’s suitcase. He’s a busy man with busy things to do — and he needs to know who he is before he can get doing them.”
I run back to the counter, vaulting over the detergent as I go. Under the register, amid my multiple employee reports, is the recent intergalactic fax sent by Mr. Marv’s corporate sponsor.
“Let’s see.” I page through the files. “Looks like you’re forty-two, Mr. Posh. You have two kids and a wife over on Cranston, which is about five blocks thata’way. You’ve come back to Ponzi to work as an accountant for Beckinsale Tree Burners after you concluded your last job as a fiscal advisor on, uhm, Murglurgurgur. Your flight landed a few hours ago — and your wife is waiting for you at Lucky Burger, just across the street.”
Mr. Marv, now Mr. Posh, blinks. “I have a wife?” The nanotech in his suit is starting to mold the body inside it, integrating the alien’s consciousness with the synthetic identity his company rented. Soon, he’ll forget this conversation, and his past will blur into the present as he goes to his rent-a-family.
“Of course you have a wife,” Jabe says, smacking Posh on the back and rippling his moist skin. “And you should probably be getting back to her. Here, here, get your clothes on. Don’t worry, your card already went through the system.”
Posh dresses, covering the golden zipper running the length of his spine. Jabe coaxes him out the front door. Mr. Posh, for his part, stands on the other side of the glass, dripping in his suit, cars and pedestrians blurring past him on Main Avenue. It’ll take Mr. Marv awhile to get used to his new mind. Mr. Posh has been worn by three different species, sixteen different individuals, and has existed with his wife and two children on Ponzi for twice as long as I’ve been alive. Mr. Posh’s life pauses every time the skin needs a cleaning — or whenever the company renting him moves their employee off world and begins again when a new client shows up.
Ponzi is a planet with no mirrors. No mirrors, and a lot of turtlenecks. Mirrors show the zippers on your back, and no one wants to know they’re not human. Unlike most planets, every species is welcome on Ponzi. It’s a solidarity planet owned by Earth, which is about seventy light-years thata’way, lent to the United Collective of Species. When there are ninety-three known sentient species, from us meat men, to Mr. Marv, to sentient gases, to homicidal collectives of ants, to English-speaking bubbles who aren’t sure if they’re alive, to space whales, to particularly vocal forms of fungi — it’s very hard to have a planet hospitable to every species. Unless, of course, everyone is given a common element, unless everyone is able to rent a slice of humanity. If everyone wears a mask, does it really matter what’s hiding underneath?
Jabe gets to work drying the floor while I follow Mr. Posh outside, kicking my scrubber heels off as I go. My bare toes squooze through spilled detergent. The concrete of the sidewalk is cooked up nice and warm from the half-day sun. A couple passes me, one of them being dragged by an overly enthusiastic husky. The wife looks at my bare feet with dagger eyes. I dagger right back at her, tipping my Majestic Skin-Blast visor in her direction. They hurry past, the last pedestrians on Main Street. One minute until noon, that means Takeoff is coming. No one likes to be outside when the spacejet breaks atmosphere. Down the block, the looming staircase of Ponzi’s galactic airport rises into the sky. Anyone coming to Ponzi has to step down that marble walkway, with the smiling statue of a man on one side, and an unzipped suit on the other, hanging halfway down the waist of a void walker. Void walkers are tough to clean, because they love eating human flesh and hate chloride. A lot of times, one of them will walk through the store’s wall, forget they’re here on business, and try to eat me. Of course, they have nothing on Jabe. Jabe will rip a void walker in half, shove both parts into a suit, and zip it up all before their card clears. Anyone arriving at or leaving Ponzi has to pass through Majestic Skin-Blasting and Lucky Burger. We deal in endings and beginnings.
I light a cigarette, pressing my cheek against the warmness of the stop sign on the corner of Branston. I can see inside Lucky Burger, through all of its bright adverts, and watch as Posh greets his family for the first time. Two kids, a girl and a boy, and an equally pudgy wife hug their big tub of a father. Mercenary lives, every one of them. I wonder how many lives have filled little Timmy there hugging his father’s leg — and if the alien inside him now is a century older than Mr. Posh. These are the things you wonder about on Ponzi, because it’s no fun wondering if you have a zipper and what might be beneath it.
A girl walks out of Lucky Burger, twenty if she’s lucky and twenty-five if she’s not. She wears a Lucky Burger uniform and an expression so sour it could eat through a spacejet hull and still taste tart on your tongue. Blonde hair, cut short and banged long, smothers a neon ball cap pushed back so far it looks like an anorexic halo. Her heels go up an inch and her company apron is hoisted to the side, revealing more of one pale, stretch-loved thigh than the other, and covering the Burger of her Lucky Burger uniform shirt. Her apron is always like that. Every lunch break. Someone didn’t teach her to tie it right.
We both take drags off our cigarettes, watching one another in the warm summer air, even when it’s not summer. She looks like she’d smell yellow and taste like mustard. I don’t know anything about the girl, except that she smokes Blue American Spirits in direct opposition to my Marlboros, and that she smokes right when I do, during noon Takeoff.
Takeoffs are for introverts and haters. No one stays on the streets when the intergalactic subsonic spacejets break atmosphere. Seven miles long, four miles wide, the local spacejet uses gravitational-reversal to push itself out of orbit, before firing up engines that could cook a star. Every day, at noon, the sky goes black for a full five minutes. The temperature of Springville drops twenty-degrees from the barometric fluctuation caused by all the air filling seven miles of going-going-gone mass. Winds hit forty to sixty miles an hour. Compasses go insane. Some people say being outside during takeoff gives you blood cancer, something about the radioactivity of the spacejet’s stabilizing thrusters. What bullshit, I think, as I smoke my Marlboro down to the stub and enjoy the burn on my knuckles.
One in three people on Ponzi aren’t actually people. Of course, you can’t feel your own zipper, the suits are designed for their wearers to be unable to sense them or touch them. Why worry about a body you’re only renting? Why worry about thoughts in a mind that might not be yours?
The ground shakes as Takeoff begins. Lucky lights another cigarette. The artificial sunset nears as the S.S. Furley rises, spiraling up. Our horizon becomes metal. The sky turns into a concave bowl missing one half of its blue and gaining a glacier of composite steel. For a moment, the reversal effect of the Furley reduces the surrounding gravity to 0.5g. I feel like if I jumped hard enough, flew far enough, I could grab onto that space giant and leave this world of zippers. But, I’m all the way down here, and if I left, who would feed Napoleon? Napoleon is my cat.
The entire street goes black, leaving only our cigarettes reaching out to each other in the dull glow of the synthetic windstorm. Trash bags and tin cans fly over our heads. I get hit in the leg by a discarded phone case. Trees blow, their leaves rustling and flying free, getting swallowed by predatory hubcaps barreling through the air. A gang of tires speed past us, bouncing and rolling. During Takeoff, the inanimates wake up for a few precious seconds and show us blood-pumping anomalies who really owns the universe. When the lights come back on, and the Furley has broken atmosphere, I see Lucky again. She has her hat off, gripped in a ball pressed against her hip. Three long, static-stranded hairs rise from her hair bun.
I point at the spacejet fading into the horizon, as if to say, see that?
Lucky nods — patronizingly? As if to say, yes, yes I did.
I don’t know anything about Lucky. I’ve never said a word to her. I don’t know the color of her eyes. But, besides my mother, my sister, my Napoleon, and my Jabe, that mustard-haired girl is the only face on Ponzi I give two shits about. What’s important about Lucky though, what is specific about my relationship to her, is that I can remember when I first saw her, standing sullen outside of Lucky Burger’s doors. She’s not a blur of memory, a constant infinite loop of always-been. I have an obsession, an obsession to see what might be hiding on Lucky’s back.
I sigh, dropping my second stub onto the street and following the vapor trail of the spacejet. Already, it looks so small. I heard on the news that a marine battalion is on the S.S. Furley, all the way from Earth. Ponzi was just a pit stop for them, unloading the ship’s private passengers and refueling before it headed out to the periphery systems of the galaxy where the marines will fight an upscale war against some terrifying aliens. The galaxy probably depends on them. Probably. But then again, the galaxy will depend on somebody else after them, and before them, and probably even right now is depending on someone else too. It always does. The galaxy is a fickle bitch. Books tell stories of men like them, up in the fires of the atmosphere. But do they ever talk about the girls who clean their clothes under the afterburn of their majestic ships? The universe is made of workers, but no one likes workers. We don’t even like ourselves. Workers would rather die than be told, in the end, that all we are is workers.
There’s a signpost on the corner near Lucky Burger. It advertises opportunities for work off world. Sometimes, I fantasize about walking over to it. A lot of people online, from other planets, ask why no one on Ponzi ever just checks their back, just investigates whether they have a zipper. Well, I’d ask them why they aren’t digging around in their colon for cancers? Do you wanna find your cancer? You do, but you also most definitely do not. Not knowing is terrible, finding out is a lot worse. Would I peel myself off and become a Mr. Marv? Or would I just be the skin, and would Jabe hang me up to dry?
When I walk back inside, Jabe has cleaned up Marv’s mess. She’s already serving a group of Langers, which are triplet-looking dwarves all bound together by one umbilical cord. Jabe shoves one into the skin-suit at a time and zips it up. The dwarves become a naked thirties-something black woman just now opening her eyes. Jabe dresses the woman and then coaxes her out of the store and snaps her rubber gloves into a waste bin. “Stop going out and glaring at that damn sign. Either go over there and sign yourself up or enjoy the time you have before someone else puts you on. I know I am.”
I groan. “Jabe, you are human.”
“Don’t you dare say that,” Jabe says, both off-handedly and caustically, a strange talent she has of being enraged and detached at the same time. Jabe throws the detergent bottles into a basket, hauls it into the washroom, reappears, and begins scrubbing the front desk. “I’m not human, I never was human, and I never will be human. I haven’t decided what I am yet — probably some kind of chimera, maybe a sentient gas. I don’t know, but something with wings, or maybe a tail. As long as I can fly, I’d be happy. I think I can feel it, Gaige, I think I can feel a tail. Don’t you think I have a tail?”
“If you’re so confident, undo your zipper.”
“That’s just what the gremlin inside wants me to do, to be let out of Pandora’s box,” Jabe says. She slaps two dryer lids closed, hauls out three soaking wet piles of clothes from a washer, and begins stuffing them into a third open-mouthed dryer. Jabe is older, early fifties, but she could wrestle me to the ground and snap my arms off without blinking. “If I am just a skin — and that’s all I am — I stop existing once I let the alien inside me out, and I only start up again once something else rents me. No, no, I’m keeping the little shit inside. I’m no human, all right, but I like my job, I like my work. We’re cleaners, Gaige, we make things sparkle.”
“You’re a batshit crazy bitch, Jabe, you know that?”
“I’m the only bitch on this planet who’s at peace with what’s on my back.” Jabe shrugs. “Anyway, it’s not like you have to worry. You’re as human as they come. Get the rest of those washers loaded. I need to get the washroom ready for the landing tomorrow morning. A bunch of beanstalk men are coming in and they want to be Asian brothers. We only have one family of Asians, and they’re dusty as hell, so I’ll have to break out the suds and get all the skins on their hooks.”
That night, I sit down to dinner with my mother and sister. It is a warzone of confusion. I don’t know them — well, I do, but I don’t know if I really do. Our apartment is tiny, up on the third floor of an ancient housing district famous for its garbagy smells. We eat from another Lucky Burger, its bags pedestalled between the three of us. I have memories of growing up on Ponzi, my mom blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday when I had strep, riding bikes past the airport’s staircase, and of me pulling my sister’s hair when she stole my leggings last week — but every skin-suit has memories, identities, and every suit has sister suits, with some real and some fake memories lived together. The humans on Ponzi have to live not knowing if their memories are really their memories. The benefit too, sometimes, is that you aren’t sure if your memories are really your memories. Maybe this morning, Jabe put me into a suit and then told me to man the front desk.
“You read about the marines going to fight the Groths?” my mother asks me. She works at a trading firm uptown and has the frail body of a caged canary. I don’t know how much I look like my mother, but I hope my face is stronger. I hope my eyes are less afraid.
“No,” I lie, for no reason. “You see the new episode of My Daughter Ate Dorothy?”
My sister, oddly enough named Dorothy, says, “No.”
The next morning, I help Jabe with an Oracle, a type of alien who can only see three seconds in the future and three seconds into the past, but is mainly made out of acid, and doesn’t understand the concept of the present. It’s tough getting it into a suit — and when we do, it’s a whiny thirteen-year-old boy wondering where his mom is. She’s in Lucky Burger, across the street. Jabe ushers the kid outside with a smack to the ass.
Before she lets me out on break, Jabe has me strip her down behind the counter, pulling down her overalls and slapping off her gloves. She pulls her hair into a bun and leans her naked back forward. “You see it, right? You see the zipper?”
Jabe has no zipper on her back. She’s human.
“No,” I say. “No zipper.”
“You liar,” Jabe says. “I knew you’d lie, ever since you came in asking for a job, whining about that boy who dumped you, I thought, Jesus if one thing about this girl is true she’s so boring she’s gotta lie to make her life worth living.” Jabe has her clothes on and her scrubbers scrubbing before I’m out the door. “I’ll ask you again tomorrow, about my zipper,” she says, in a reassuring voice I think is more directed at herself than at me. “Maybe you’ll be honest then and tell me about my zipper.”
“Will you ever look at my back?” I ask her.
Jabe shakes her head as she works. “You don’t need me to look. No point, it’d be a waste of time. It’s a waste of time wondering if you have a zipper. You know or you don’t. I have a zipper, I know that. You don’t have a zipper, I know that too.”
Lucky and I practice spitting during takeoff. We do this sometimes, when we’re bored. We do it every day, actually. The wind is so strong during takeoff that when we both spit, it flies up, straight up, into a twister cone of all the downtown trash. You can watch your spit fly for quite awhile. Twice, our two spit wads smack into each other. We do an across-the-street high five then, before getting back to work.
Inside, Mr. Quaker has shown up for the third time this month. He cries and cries and Jabe keeps handing him tissues. A tiny, young man with red eyes and trembling lips, Mr. Quaker is, as usual, covered in blood and something else — oil? His suit, fresh-pressed, is covered in black and red. His hair sticks tight and angry to his skull.
“Oh, it was horrible! He just came out of nowhere, right off the sidewalk.” Mr. Quaker squawks. Jabe nods, her eyes bored. “I was on the phone and — I swerved because, because you know what it’s like. Children, you can’t hit children. They’re … I have a son myself. I just, I imagined what it would be like if I found my son lying there on the road with his …”
I go around them and lean against the front counter, flipping through a travel brochure I bought last week. One of the destinations is a vacation spot on Mercury — and all the people are on fire. The burner suits are really what’s on fire, but still. On Mercury, I hear you can play sports like fire tennis, fire polo, and fire soccer. They’re essentially the same thing as regular tennis, polo, and soccer, but you’re on fire.
“I hit a couple,” sobs Quaker. “I missed the kid and swerved, but I hit a couple going through the crosswalk! Flipped my van. Oh god, I just — there was so much blood. They were following the rules too, they were in the goddam crosswalk!” Quaker hugs Jabe, soaking her in his fluids. “I came right here. I had to get clean. I just, I just knew I had to come here.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Quaker,” Jabe tells him. “Blood isn’t hard to get out at all. What’s that you got on your suit, besides the blood?”
Quaker blinks. “Uhm, cranberry juice and blue berries. I was taking a delivery to New Gardens when it happened.”
Jabe purses her lips. “Now that, that’ll be a little trickier. Not to worry though. Get those clothes off, go on, and let me get a grip on that zipper of yours. Oh, don’t give me that look, yeah there’s a zipper back there. You were here three weeks ago.”
“I was?” Mr. Quaker asks. His voice is a scratch on glass. Jabe is already stripping him. A second later, she grips the brass zipper on Quaker’s spine and yanks it down hard.
Mr. Stone steps out of Mr. Quaker, letting out a deep yawn. Mr. Stone is actually a more anthropomorphic alien, standing upright with two arms and two legs, but he also has a spider for a head, basically, and his skin is stonemat gray, covered in black rings that remind me of a tree’s insides. Mr. Stone’s mouth runs down his chest to his smooth crotch, and it opens up-down, caverny and wet.
“Wow, really got into it that time. I maxed out two credits cards — was worried about my mortgage. My mortgage! I don’t even understand, conceptually, what a mortgage is.” Mr. Stone makes a noise that might be a laugh. He seems to pet his own head with his spider-like hair.
“Finish all your business on Ponzi, Mr. Stone?” Jabe asks as she whips Mr. Quaker’s skin roughly through the air, smacking it twice on the floor to get as much of the excess juices out of it as she can. It looks like Mr. Stone secreted something blue into the inside wires and meshing.
“Oh, most of it,” Mr. Stone says brightly. “It’s always easy working here on Ponzi, very straightforward assignments. The negative, of course, is you lose a lot of personability when everyone is covering up their true species. I like speaking to people, even when I don’t kill them. I’m much more of a Marx worlder, much more social planet.”
I shift a little bit behind the counter. Mr. Stone is worse than the angriest void walker or goolags, who think sex is an equivalent to shaking hands. Mr. Stone murders people — but that’s not entirely true. He’s sent to Ponzi knowing that the suit, the life he puts on, will murder someone accidentally, through a long process of unhappy coincidences. But legally, Mr. Stone isn’t culpable, because Mr. Quaker really, truthfully has no idea what was going to happen. On top of that, Mr. Stone’s species has legalized murder on their planet, so they are partially protected by the Cultural Defense Act, no matter who or where they kill.
Jabe snaps the zipper on the suit right off, which she sometimes does when something needs a heavy sudsing. Putting it back on isn’t too hard, but if the zipper comes off in the wash, well, it’ll shut the entire washroom down for days. Mr. Stone approaches me, one of his four-fingered hands playfully tapping the service bell.
“You look so very pretty today, Miss Gaige.”
I smile at him, pursing my lips. “You look particularly hungry, Mr. Stone.”
Mr. Stone’s vertical mouth squishes downward, which is his species’ equivalent to a smile. “Always nice seeing you.”
Mr. Stone is one of the 2% of alien species with a mouth that can approximate English — but that doesn’t mean he has a brain anything like a human’s. The aliens that can speak English are actually the worst, because it’s not just 0/0 translation, which causes neither of you to bother pretending you know what the other one wants. Those with human-like mouths, well, they can talk to you, they can ask you things, they can make you think the gap between species isn’t all that big, that we aren’t all that alone. But then you remember little details like, for instance, Mr. Stone’s entire species thinks and speaks entirely through lies.
Mr. Stone only can lie, because his species copes with the blunt pointlessness of reality by installing fiction in every aspect of their brains. They see reality, and they have to bend it in their heads, and call it something else. Nothing Mr. Stone ever says is true.
“Gaige, ring Mr. Stone up. His company called and said an hour ago he’d pay with credit. I gotta take this skin into the washroom.” Jabe hauls Mr. Quaker over her shoulder and soggers through the washroom’s flapping doors.
“Coming back to Ponzi anytime soon?” I ask Mr. Stone as I prepare to process his card. Mr. Stone killed a nice boyfriend of mine, I think. I don’t remember my boyfriend besides the fact he smelled like charcoal and his zipper was cool on my hands when I held him in bed while we listened to the complex’s walls shake and the water wush-wush as the spacejets roared over our part of the neighborhood. I didn’t love my boyfriend. I’m not sure if he existed. He definitely did dump me though.
When Mr. Quaker, AKA Mr. Stone, accidently blew out his weed whacker on our lawn and the blade cut off my boyfriend’s head, a fire sprite came running out of his skin-suit. It ran right past me as I was sun tanning on the apartment complex’s driveway. Mr. Stone unzipped from Mr. Quaker and chased my boyfriend down, putting him out with a sprinkler. What I mainly remember from that day was that the sprinkler’s head was one of those tacky decorative ones, with the water coming out from between an abashed farmer’s legs. My boyfriend became a little burn mark on the grass and then the next day my mother made us spaghetti from Fast Mart.
The smile I wear while I ring Mr. Stone up, it definitely has a zipper.
“Oh.” Mr. Stone yawns again and I wonder where his lungs are. In his armpits, maybe? “I don’t think I can, not very soon. The universe is such a big place. I love to travel. I love to meet new people. I need to meet new people. Always, I need the new. I get lonely, do you understand me, Miss Gaige? It’s hard living like me, it’s a hard life, being what I am.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Mr. Stone smiles again. He lifts his hands up in a shrugging motion. “Oh my, I seem to have lodged my wallet in my mouth pocket, could you retrieve it for me?” Mr. Stone’s zipper-shaped mouth uncoils, drooling black, dozens of molar-like teeth descending deep into a black pit. Mr. Stone’s mouth is deep, so deep I wonder how such a thin creature can have such an abyssal soul. His species has pockets of flesh where they keep things like wallets. It’s similar to humans, but we just floss.
“What?” I stammer.
“Could you reach into my mouth and grab my wallet?” Mr. Stone asks me. He’s taller than me by four feet. I notice his skin is sweating something. It’s dripping off his fingers and sinking between the cracks in the tile floor. His spider legs have little human hands massaging his cat-looking eyes. “My arms are still a little stiff,” Mr. Stone says, flexing his hands. “Be a dear, won’t you? If I can’t get to my wallet, I can’t go get a delicious burger before my flight takes off.”
In the washroom, I hear the main turbines starting to spin and the slap of spinner rags hitting metal. The lights flicker from the sudden power surge, and suddenly I panic in the bare black. What if Mr. Stone’s wallet isn’t actually in his mouth?
“Gaige?” Mr. Stone asks. He points at his mouth. “A little help?”
I press one last random button and then I walk around the counter. The Majestic Skin-Blasting is a cold place. I don’t know who actually owns it, but Jabe deserves it. Whoever they are, they blast too much AC, maybe to keep the liquid smells down to something frozen. My fingers hesitate at the event horizon of Mr. Stone’s mouth.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Stone laughs. It’s gross. “I don’t bite. I never bite.”
Mr. Stone’s gums feel like yogurt inside summer road kill. It’s oddly… liquid-like, but warm, very warm. I look him in the eyes as I fish for stuff. I find something, sort of deep in his mouth. I pull it out and see a picture of Mr. Stone with another Mr. Stone, a smaller form of his species. Maybe his kid? It looks like Mr. Stone is eating him. I stick it back in Mr. Stone. Finally, I find his wallet.
He tips me a hundred bucks before leaving. I can’t decide if that’s a compliment or an insult. Mr. Stone will be back in a month, to slip Mr. Quaker on once again. There is more Mr. Stone than just one, but every time I speak to him, it seems like the exact same alien. Happy, jovial, and hungry. The horror is I might have a Mr. Stone beneath me. Lucky, with her long sighs and the way she opens Lucky Burger’s pull-doors with her feet, half-in her shoes, she could be a Mr. Stone.
When Jabe isn’t at work the next morning, I have to open up myself and clean a Glinger, which is basically a sexed-up Moose. When it hits lunch and Jabe still hasn’t shown, I notice the washroom’s doors are still unlocked, which they shouldn’t be, if Jabe ever left the building the night before.
I go into the washroom and find Jabe on the floor — or what’s left of her. She used the sprawl hook on herself, but she had no zipper, so the hook ripped off her skin, her real skin, and took it into the cleaner. Down on the metal matt floor, a red fetus of a body lays curled up, smiling, as if it is proud that finally, it has proven it wasn’t human. Jabe’s skin hangs from one of the cleaning racks, with all the others, and it’s hard to tell the difference between them.
I go back to the front desk and smoke one cigarette inside. It’s two hours to noon.
Jabe couldn’t handle it. I don’t think I can either.
Handling things is overrated in this universe.
It’s time to go.
Lucky’s face is priceless when I walk into Lucky Burger. She’s working the front desk, elbows on the counter, hat over her eyebrows. A fat man is trying to return his hash brown and is shoving it at her dead eyes. I push him out of the way, suddenly closer to Lucky than I ever have been in my life. She has big pores on her nose. I never expected that.
“What’s your name?”
“Do you want to go on the next spacejet out of here with me, Jessa?”
We go into Lucky Burger’s bathroom and get naked. Why? Because we both need to know something. We need to know who, or what, we’re leaving Ponzi with. We stand there, in the girl’s bathroom handicap stall, facing one another. Neither of us have anything close to tits. It’s a walk-in bathroom and we don’t even have a door. Jessa, I see, does dye her hair. A tuff of brown covers her crotch, rising like a little bunny tail from gapless thighs.
I’m about to ask who should go first, who should turn around, when Jessa turns.
Right there on her back is a brass zipper.
Jessa turns around, her face all eyes. Those big, wide, trapped eyes, that just now, I know are fabricated. Just a skin. Those eyes, they aren’t real. Whatever’s beneath Jessa, isn’t Jessa. Or is it? Or is just her skin enough?
“Is there anything there?” Jessa asks me. Her voice is scratchier, more nasal, than I expected. If I tell her the truth, if I tell her she has a zipper, she might stay here. I guess the question is, did I fall in love with the girl in front of me, the idea of her, or what’s buried deep under those eyes. What if it’s a Mr. Stone? What if it’s something greater and realer or more human than even a human? If I had a zipper, would I want to know if I had one?
“No,” I say, smiling. “There’s nothing.”
Jessa exhales in relief. I turn around next. Fear swallows me.
I stare at the grimy tile wall, and I wait.
When I step back to face her, Jessa is smiling.
“Nothing at all.”
Copyright © 2017 by Bentley A. Reese