by B Morris Allen
I’ve been down in the heart of Wrinkletown, stood in the Blemish itself, with unmasked people as far as the eye can see. You get used to it. Eventually, you realize that wrinklies aren’t so bad. In fact, they’re like normal people – just more open about it.
“Oh, Saja, it was awful. They took him out of the autowomb and showed him to us! Can you imagine?” My heart raced at the memory – the plumdark prune where a face should have been, all creases and crinkles and corrugation. “It was like packing material. Dirty packing material.”
“Ew.” A slight tightening of the eyes showed her distaste. Saja’s facial masking emphasized curves and exaggerated her features – a deliberate rejection of the fashion for flat planes and minimalized noses. “Which one of you did he look like?” A smile flickered past lush, graceful lips
“Funny.” As if I would know. I’d never seen myself without masking, let alone Brendan. “We were pretty shaken up.”
“I can imagine, Jene.” Saja’s color was a delicate mauve on the cheeks, deepening to rich brownish clay on the temples and brow. I wondered whether she’d give me the design. Probably not. She’s paid to be a trend-setter, and I’m as far from trends as you can get. “I hear babies look like something out of Wrinkletown.” The city’s twelfth district, set aside for those disturbed souls who chose to go unmade. “He looks normal enough now, anyway.”
We looked at the cradlebot, just inserting a nipple between my son’s plump red lips. He took it with a happy gurgle.
“Yes, well, the nurse took him and gave him to the smoother right away. There’s a job I wouldn’t take.” The mere thought was repulsive. “Looking at unmade babies all day long. A whole day of it. It’s awful.”
“Someone has to do it. Be thankful it’s not you.”
“I suppose. Though with the amount we paid for gene-mods, you’d think he’d have just been born…you know…presentable.”
“All’s well that ends well.” She glanced over at the cradle where Enrique’s cheeks glowed with carefully applied good health. “Is this his look?”
Was that a touch of condescension? Brendan and I had chosen a conservative look, one we felt could last for years before redesign. Was it too traditional, too boring? “We thought it would work initially,” I said with caution.
“Oh yes. He looks fine. Very ‘I’m a baby’.” I winced. “Whenever you do decide to update, let me know if you want me to take a look.”
Brendan and I had argued about that point when she made her first offer, before the birth. Brendan was in sales, and thought we didn’t need some ‘celeb’ giving us tips. I told him there was no call to be nasty, and it all got worse from there.
“Thanks, sis. Will do.”
“Not that he doesn’t look good now. Traditionalism is making a comeback.”
“How’s business?” Anything to change the subject.
“Good!” A gentle smile curled the tips of her mouth at just the right angle. “Krasiv & Bella just sent me their latest kit – reaches all the way around the head. It can even redistribute follicles, see?” She turned to show me the back of her neck. It looked long and bare and just the same as always.
“A little painful, but…” She shrugged and rose. “Anyway. I have to go.” She leaned down to kiss my brow. “And turn down the gloss a little on your eyeshine maybe?” She winked; friendly advice to the dowdy brother, no offense intended.
“Bye, Saj. Thanks for listening.” Saja wasn’t much of a listener, but I’d had to tell someone, and it wasn’t the kind of story you could share with colleagues or casual acquaintances. “My moment in the dark ages.” When people had walked around with faces naked for everyone to see, forcing each other to stare at every blotch and bruise and birthmark. Birthmarks! The very concept was grotesque.
“Maybe it’ll grow on you. Next I see you, you’ll be a full-fledged wrinkly,” she teased, and closed the door behind her.
A wrinkly. I shuddered, telling the housebot to clear the dishes. Could anyone really go out in public unmade? They couldn’t legally, of course; not outside Wrinkletown. But who would have the courage, even there, among other wrinklies?
The whole idea made me faintly nauseous, and I stepped into my prepper. The door closed and locked firmly, and I turned the manual lock as well. The solid thunk of the bolt was reassuring – snug in my own little well of privacy, safe from peering eyes and cameras and recorders, without judges other than myself, and that was plenty. The telltales in the mirror glowed green to confirm my seclusion.
I slid onto the little stool, leaned my face into the soft mask of the painter. No fancy wraparound model here – just a dependable, high-end conservative one with a hair attachment. Saja had programmed it for me, initially, but I had toyed with the parameters a little. Too much, perhaps. I dialed down the eyeshine a little. The avatar looked dull, and I added a little blue to compensate. That fit poorly with my loamy skin tone. I played with options for a while, steadily making matters worse.
“Just wipe it,” I said in frustration. “No!” I closed my eyes just as the avatar turned a dull khaki, the nose too big, the lips too thin. “Apply Saja 1,” I said hurriedly. The design was a good two years old, but Saja was a leader, not a follower. The design might be dated, but it would still work.
All through the afternoon, as I outlined a report for the desk to write, I was distracted by the specter of a coarse nose hulking above lips like dry planks. Was that how I looked? When the outline was done, the desk compiling, I sought solace in cookery, ignoring the house’s predicted match in favor of creativity. I chose basil, zucchini, seitan, buckwheat, played with spices and cooking styles until I had something novel, and scheduled it to cook.
It was a disaster, of course. Brendan had had a long day of meetings, negotiating new water rights for the Gorge. I could see the irritation in his eyes, the slight flush that even his careful masking couldn’t hide. He looked across the artful table of grilled and toasted delicacies and told the house to make him a sandwich.
“How’s the baby?” he asked, making conversation as the house slid a perfectly toasted sandwich in front of him – dark rye with zucchini and seitan strips. We both stared at it until he forced a smile.
“Fine. Eats well. Sleeps well.” I strove for something less anodyne. “Saj was by. She says hello.” She’d said no such thing, and he knew it.
“Give her my love.” He quirked a perfect eyebrow to share the joke, declare a truce.
“Bren,” I blurted, knowing the moment was wrong. “Have you ever wondered what you look like?”
“I know exactly-”
“No, not your face. I mean, beneath the face. What you really look like.” In for a penny. “Unmade.”
The false cheer drained from the smooth white of his face. “Is this about the baby? The attendant’s been fired, the nurse penalized. There’s nothing more to think about.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. I just…” What did I? “I was just curious, is all. In the prepper today, I -”
“What you do in the prepper is for you to think about.” Evidently marriage only took us so far. “Look, Jene.” The epitome of reasonableness. “Maybe we should reconsider talking to someone. It’s a… a shock, seeing a baby like that. No one should have to see their own son without cosmetics. I can understand if it’s… troubling you.”
“Yes, fine. But that’s not the point. I…” I decided to leave it alone. “I’m fine.” And I would be. It had been a moment’s curiosity, that was all.
“If you’re sure.” He took a bite of sandwich, wiped a smear of oil from his cheek. The masking self-repaired, showing just a trace of dark stubble before it vanished again under a surface of serene porcelain.
Over the next few weeks, the mental images persisted, and I spent hours looking at my carefully programmed face in the prepper, running a gentle finger over a nose that looked perfectly average. Occasionally, I played a game of chicken with the painter, giving careless commands to wipe my masking, closing my eyes just as the avatar cleared, knowing that someday I would slip, would see again the face beneath my face – my real face, I began to call it.
I confided one day in Saja, with a wince that my masking surely transformed into a glance of mild concern.
“And why shouldn’t you?” she asked. “Have you never seen yourself naked?”
“Well, naked, yes.” I was reasonably fit for my age. “But…”
“Unmade is the same. There’s no need to be ashamed, Jene, unless you go out in public.” She pursed lips now painted a pale blue that contrasted sharply with translucent black skin. “Even that, if you want.”
“Oh, come on, Saj. I just asked -”
“Well, why shouldn’t you go out unmade, if you want to?”
“Hold on, now. I’m not a wrinkly. I’m just curious.”
“No reason you shouldn’t be.” She leaned forward. “I’ve done it too.”
“Gone out! Surely not.”
“Well, not that, no. But I’ve looked at myself in the prepper.”
“Oh.” It seemed tame, in contrast. “And?”
She smiled her perfect smile. “Not so bad.”
“Really. Wrinkly, of course. Spotted, even. I have,” she winked, “freckles. Real ones.” They’d been in fashion five years back.
“Really? How did you… What do you look like?”
“Want to see?”
“No! That’s… You’re my sister!”
“It’s not sexual, Jene.”
It wasn’t, but it was revolting, wrong. And enticing.
“Maybe I’ll try it myself,” I said to move things along. In the privacy of my prepper.
“You should.” She patted my hand, brown masking on black. “Maybe you’re a redhead.”
I laughed. We’d always mocked the kids who tested the edges of fashion, aimed to shock with extreme looks. I’d kept my own hair within a narrow range of brown for years.
“I’ll let you know.”
Over the next month, I spent more and more time in the prepper, taking longer and longer glimpses of my unmade avatar. Eventually, I came to moment I had dreaded and anticipated.
“Wipe it,” I said firmly. The avatar obligingly faded to its now familiar dingy khaki color, the nose a jutting promontory, the lips a mere suggestion of arc. “Remove masking,” I said, with slightly less certainty. The image blanked as the painter began its weekly cleansing. I felt my skin tingle as the layers peeled, as exfoliants were scrubbed on, wiped off. I felt raw, exposed, and I waited unconsciously for the gentle, soothing cream base that presaged a fresh masking. It didn’t come. I’d set no new painting program. I breathed deep and leaned back.
“No masking applied,” warned the screen, flashing red – black – red as I lifted my face, eyes still closed. The air felt cold on my cheeks, and I felt fragile, as if a puff of breath could sear me, mark me, leave a scar to buff away.
I sat, uncertain, with the bright lights of the prepper forcing their way through my eyelids to set violet stains growing, shifting, merging, fading to lilac. Was I ready to face the mirror? Could I face my raw self, my impurities exposed at last, my dark secret thoughts evident to a passing glance? I snapped my eyes open before I could consider further.
It was… coarse. The skin, a light oatmeal mix of mushroom flecked with sand, was pitted and mined with gross pores, shot through with light blue canals of blood beneath the marbled surface. The nose was a sharp spine terminating in a flat tip with huge, gaping nostrils. Pale blue irises peered out of dingy white mapped in thin red threads. At the outer corners, nets of skin gathered tight against encroaching age. My hair was a weave of dark auburn mixed with dusty grey.
It was crude, like an artist’s base, before the final surface was applied. Yet it looked like me. Not the me I was accustomed to seeing, the one that Brendan kissed good night, the one that had greeted my squalling, crinkled son, but a me that felt like me. It smiled when I smiled – a full-face symphony of motion, the lips crooked unevenly, the pale eyes narrowed and wrinkled, the cheeks folding into a relief of thin seams and joints – a far cry from the sleek, subtle aspect I showed the world. It was genuine, majestic, and its ruined beauty cut me to the quick. A tear trembled in one eye, and I blinked, but no masking wicked it away unseen. It trickled wet and cold down a maze of obstacles, turning left at this lump, right at that chasm, to finish at my upper lip, with its dark speckles of shaved but shadowed hair. I touched the moisture with one finger, marveled at the delicate sensitivity of bare lips, tasted salt, felt it drying on my cheek.
“Brendan will arrive in twenty minutes,” announced the house. Its cold, matter-of-fact tone broke the spell, left me staring not at an exquisite portrait of Truth, but at a wrinkly – a coarse-featured gargoyle, weathered and withered by exposure.
I plunged my face back into the kit. “Saja 2,” I blurted. By the time Brendan opened the door, I was the Jene he knew and loved – as much the real me as anything he’d ever seen. He kissed my full, smooth lips, and all was well.
“My kit broke the other day,” Saja said.
I shrugged. Cosmetic companies delivered kits to her every week to endorse, review, occasionally excoriate.
“I went out,” she said. I shrugged again. “Out,” she repeated.
“Oh! You mean…”
“Unmade. Down the street and back.”
“Isn’t that… Isn’t that a risk? I mean…” It’s not against the law to go unmade, so long as you stick to walled districts. Wrinkletown. The name tasted stale, unwholesome.
“I met two friends. They congratulated my bold new look.” She smiled, delighted. “One asked for the program.”
“You could start a new trend.” Here was a way forward! “Call it something clever, give out a null program.”
“Say it automatically individualizes the look,” she agreed. “It would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes! What could we call it? ‘Natural’, or ‘Fresh’, or …”
“I love it! Look, let’s -” I stopped, regarded her calm mask, now of pale jasper with hair of jet. “You don’t mean it, do you?”
“Really sell the program?” She shrugged. “It would be fun, but it wouldn’t go far. There’s no real money in it. Besides, what if it caught on?”
“What if it did?”
“Oh Jene, I’m sorry. You’re really caught up in this, aren’t you? Be serious. I went out for twenty minutes, unmade, and already my skin changed color. I could feel it burning. The next day, I had more freckles than before. Imagine, if I did that every day!” She shook her head. “In any case, how would I change my look? You wouldn’t want to look the same every day, would you? I mean, most people wouldn’t. And if I did, who would follow me? Who would pay me?”
We left it at that. I said no more about my experimentation, my weekly self-examination. I scheduled my weeklies now when Brendan was at the office. We no longer engaged in our morning ritual of mutual appraisal, our small efforts to surprise each other, to deserve the minor compliments we gave each other more now by rote than out of interest. We focused instead on Enrique, with no better result.
“Look, Jene,” Brendan said at last, exasperated. “I understand if you want to make yourself grotesque, wandering around with scarcely any masking. At least you work from home. But the baby is another question. Look at him!”
We looked down at a wriggling, burbling child, eyes bright as he grabbed at a toy dangled by the cradlebot, tried to stuff the toy’s smooth plastic into pudgy cheeks mottled with healthy pink. A thin layer of saliva smeared down his double chin.
“He’s not! He’s a freak! When I wanted to show a picture of him the other day, I had to have the desk doctor one up, so he’d look partway normal. Anila Bates from network ads asked if he was sick!”
“He’s perfectly healthy.”
“I know he is. But look at him.”
“I have. Have you, Brendan? Have you ever seen your son without his masking?”
His face, for once so mobile, froze. “What have you been doing, Jene?”
“Looking at our son the way he is. It’s not illegal, Brendan.”
“Maybe not. But it’s not normal, Jene. It has to stop. You have to stop. Look, I want you to talk to Saja. She says she started you off on this. Maybe she can bring you back.”
Silence. “You talked with Saja?” I asked at last.
“Yes! I’m worried about you, Jene.” A trace of the man I married peeked out through the margins of his masking, and my heart warmed. This was the man I’d given my heart. “It’s getting so that we can’t go anywhere. People might see you.” And this was not.
“I can fix that,” I answered stiffly, and took my righteous anger to the solitude of the prepper. Inside, I took off my masking, and watched tears flow slowly down my face, leaving slick, salty trails to show their passing. After an hour, Brendan knocked and called my name. I watched my reflection in the mirror as, calmly, serenely, it didn’t answer. Eventually he went away.
The next day, Enrique and I, masked in matching sepia skin with chestnut hair, went out. We hailed a cab, directed it to the edge of the twelfth district, near a cafe I liked. It was a thin pretense, if Brendan checked the charges, but it was something. Enrique strapped tight to my chest, I walked down one block to the walls that marked off Wrinkletown. A guard stood at the edge, but he did no more than give us a ‘takes all kinds’ look as we passed in. His function was to prevent the unmade from getting out.
‘Welcome to Wrinkletown!’ offered a bright, tattered sign. ‘Be yourself.’ The streets were dirty, as if they saw only occasional cleaning. I watched a crumpled candy wrapper flutter down the street before circling at a corner and settling in the gutter. Above it, a sign offered fresh juice, and I walked toward it.
The proprietor was a wrinkly, or near one. He wore a thin layer of masking, perhaps hiding minor blots, but doing nothing to disguise a lump on the side of his nose, or an imperfectly shaven cheek.
“Morning,” he said skeptically. “Help you?”
“Some juice, please. Uh, grapefruit.” I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, off the uneven stubble that dangled from his gaunt left cheek, so different from the smooth, equally gaunt right one. So flawed; so public.
He nodded. One long, unshaven hair waggled slightly with the motion.
“Here you go,” he said, sliding a scratched but immaculately clean glass across the counter. a paper-wrapped straw beside it. “Don’t get a lot of kids in with the gawpers,” he nodded at Enrique. “Training him young, are you?”
“What?” Gawpers. He meant me. “No! No, not gawping. I…” How could I explain to a stranger my perverse prepper habits?
“Ah.” He looked more closely at my masking, and I could feel the thin cover falling apart under the sheer pressure of his gaze. I wanted to touch my cheek, see if the flakes were already starting to peel off, or if it was coming off in long sheets that would dangle off my chin like wattles. “Welcome, then,” he said more warmly. He nodded at the baby again. “He’s welcome too.”
“Thanks.” I sipped my juice, through a straw, since the acid strips away lipmask. “How… do you…” I waved a hand in vague indication.
“Get along?” He smiled, a great chasm of cheer that showed rough lips and yellowed teeth. “Well enough.” He waved out the window. “The services don’t ever seem to come on time, mind you, and to buy the good stuff, we have to mask up and go out. But well enough, aside from that.”
“Is it … hard?”
He knew I wasn’t asking about shopping. “Not a bit of it. It’s comfortable, in a way, always seeing faces you know, recognize. Love. And they do change, you know.”
“Age.” Wrinkles, spots, signs of decay.
“Age. Wrinkles and blotches. Slumps and stoops. Wisdom and experience. Laughter and learning. It’s not for everyone.” He appraised me, shrugged. “Maybe not you.”
Was I to be rejected so quickly, before I had even started? A part of me felt immense relief at this reprieve from imagined, predicted battles. The vocal part objected. “Maybe. Maybe it is me.”
He looked at me again, at Enrique, pudgy limps dangling, a thread of drool just starting to drip down his fat neck to be absorbed by masking. “Tell you what. Take this.” He slipped a thin leaflet from a box on the counter. “Take it home. Read it. Think about it. If you want to, check it out.”
I took the leaflet, held it in sweaty hands. ‘The Naked Truth,’ it read. ‘Life without masks.’ There was an address in the twelfth district.
“Keep that private,” the man advised. “Best that way. If you come back, the office is on the Blemish – the square.” He smiled. “Tell them José sent you.” He offered a spotted, rumpled hand, and I took it. It was warm, rough.
“I think maybe you will.” He let go, and I let his hand slip away reluctantly. “He may not, though.” He pointed his chin at Enrique. “Parents…” He shrugged. “Something to think about.”
I thought about it all the way home.
I visited several times after that. I went to the outreach office on the Blemish, I talked to the team there, I read the propaganda. I brought Enrique, some of the time. Once, I even used their decrepit cosmetikit to wipe my mask, and sat unmade at an outside cafe for almost a quarter hour. Nothing happened. People came by, said hello, chatted about the weather, and went on their way. It was almost normal. After a while, I forgot to be self-conscious, and I got used to the marks, the bald spots, and, yes, the wrinkles. I couldn’t deny that ‘wrinkly’ was an appropriate name, but it no longer called up horror or disgust. Instead, I thought of José and his fresh fruit juice, of the people who walked boldly and baldly through the streets of Wrinkletown just like regular people.
It came to a head one night, as I knew it had to. Probably I wanted it to. Certainly I was applying thinner and thinner masks at home in the evening, and going unmade during the day. One day, when I was finalizing some report structures for the desk to produce, Brendan came home early. He had take-out – a hot wedge of the Moldovan corn-cake I liked. I suppose it was a peace offering. He brought it into the study, calling out “Your order of mamaliga, sir.”
I stood and turned, a big smile on my face. At last we were back on track.
I’d forgotten that I had no mask on. I don’t know what Bren’s face looked like beneath his. But it must have been bad; I could see a frown show through, and I heard him gag.
“Bren!” I cried, throwing my hands over my face. “Wait!” But he was already putting down the mamaliga, already turning down the hall to the nursery. I stood in his path, hands at my side, as he carried our unmade son back toward me. “Bren, stop.” He refused to look at me, just pushing past with a face as smooth as china. “Bren, we can talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” His voice was raw as he stood at the door, his back to me. “You’ve gone too far, Jene. Think about Enrique.” His voice broke, and I could see his arms trembling. Over his shoulder, our son made a happy face as he drooled on Brendan’s coat. “I can’t take, it Jene. I can’t … I can’t come home to see a monster. To see you’ve made a monster of my son. You’re going somewhere, Jene. I … see that.” His voice turned bitter. “I can’t help seeing it. But I can’t join you, Jene. Wherever you’re going, go alone.” He opened the door, and was gone.
I went looking for him, of course, the next day. I wore my Saja-designed mask and called our friends, visited his office. They wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t let me in. Eventually, I heard from Brendan’s lawyer. We’d never had a lawyer before. She looked nice; probably client interface mask #3.
“Let me put it to you plainly, Jene.”I could hear sympathy mixed with distaste. “The marriage is through.” I’d figured that out already. I’d done my crying, and I’d come past begging. Especially since I knew what must be coming. “And so are your parental rights. Either you return your appearance to community standards, or you won’t see Enrique again.”
I closed my eyes. My mask was proof against tears, but I couldn’t stand to see that smooth, friendly, false face, and know that mine was the same.
“You mean, put up a false front,” I managed at last. “Give up my beliefs.”
“Call it what you like. Those are the terms. Have your lawyer call me when you decide.” She clicked off.
I didn’t have a lawyer, of course. No one would take me. As soon as they heard my problem, they waved me off. “We don’t do… that,” was the usual line, always delivered with calm, smiling, supportive face that showed nothing of what they felt and everything of who they were.
Saja was still talking to me, at least. “Just wear the masking,” she said. “What difference does it make?” She was setting the latest trend – a shadow pattern that seemed hide her features in permanent shade.
“What difference? I don’t know. The difference between truth and lies? Real and fake?”
The shadows moved across her face, her expression mysterious. “Happiness or no happiness? Are you happy, Jene?”
She knew I wasn’t. No husband, no child, and, it turned out, not many friends. I had my principles to keep me warm at night, my work to keep me company during the day. Even the work seemed to be drying up as word got out.
“I shouldn’t have to choose,” I insisted, as if someone would care. “Enrique is my son as much as his. Why should I have to lie to keep him?”
She shrugged. We’d already had all the arguments about truth and beauty. “We all lie about something. Mostly to others. Sometimes to ourselves. It’s all a question of pride. Do you have too much to love your son?”
That was the question that troubled my nights. Brendan was a lost cause. I knew that, even as it broke my heart. Enrique, though, still loved me. He was the only one who didn’t care what I looked like. It would be silly to wear a mask in order to keep him. It would be wrong. But it would work, and the only person to pay would be me.
Truth or justice. That’s what a lot of decisions come down to. We like to believe it’s easy, but we know it’s not. It never is. In the end, I called the only people I thought might know more about it.
“I had the same,” said José, topping up my juice. “I had two daughters. They live with their mother, now. On their birthdays, I used to make up, go and see them. Now…” With no mask to swallow them, the tears rolled wet and dark down his crumpled face. “Here,” he said, pulling framed photos from under the bar. “This is Linda. This one with the ribbons, that’s Magi – Magdalena.”
They were teens, made up in a style that had been popular some years back. I remembered the vivid jags of color, the oversized eyes. “And now?”
He shrugged, took the photos back in his hands. “I don’t see them now. When they grew up, …. It was embarrassing for them. I was.”
“So I should go back? Wear the mask?” I couldn’t let Enrique slip away, couldn’t end up alone like José.
“I don’t know.” He put the photos back under the bar, arranged them just right. “Things have changed. Maybe it’s different now. Maybe not.”
Give up my principles and keep access to my child? What would he think of that when he was older? What would I? Give up my child for the new self I’d only just found? What would he think of me now? In a few years, would he think of me at all?
Sometimes, when none of the choices work, you just have to make your own. If no one’s on your side, make new sides. With advice from José and a few others who’d lost their kids, I chose to fight.
So that’s my argument, Your Honor. Yes, I did those things. Yes, I moved to Wrinkletown. Yes, I go unmade. I’m not ashamed of it. This mask I have on? That’s not my face; it’s something my sister made up for me. It’s not me. It’s a fake, a fraud, a little piece of cosmetic trickery to make people think I’m perfect. I’m not. But I’m a good father. My son loves me. He doesn’t care what I look like. I sound like Dad, I smell like Dad, I play like Dad. That’s all he cares about. That’s all that matters.
“Blush” (© B Morris Allen) was published in Issue 7 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.