It had been a week since the surgery. Pink, angry patches of melted skin had cooled, leaving in its wake a creamy, milk-like complexion. Brynn’s hooked nose had righted itself, carved into a beautiful, snub little slope. Her mouth was cherry red and proportionate, her iridescent eyes fringed with dark lashes. When she thought to smile, Brynn used to resemble the face of a lopsided donkey. Now, teeth shifted into proper position, she matched the society around her. Manufactured, illusive, beautiful.
Brynn touched her new face tentatively, still getting used to the fact that it was her in the mirror, and not some gorgeous model. Even Aaren noticed her now, his gaze lingering on her form, her smile, the amber glint in her eyes. A week ago, Brynn would have given anything for his attention. Now, she resented it. Was it possible to be jealous of her own face?
Her skin felt sticky, suffocating. She’d blasted the air conditioning again, but it never seemed to do her any good. A minor side effect, they assured her. It will disappear by the end of the month. Your new pores still need time to adjust. But no one had mentioned the crazed side effects that she was feeling now. No one had told her about losing herself, or the way it felt to be a prisoner in her own body.
There were no words to describe how she felt so… empty. And violated. The question that weighed her down was like a ghost, haunting the shell of her former self. What did you let them do to you?
Brynn moved to her desk, hands shaking as she fumbled for the hidden compartment beneath it. Her thumb found the latch and she pressed harder, waiting till the drawer swung open. It was empty, save for a piece of paper. The letter was folded and creased so many times that it looked to be years old, rather than a day. It’s request was simple: to stop taking the pills they gave her, and run away. But Brynn was terrified. She never lasted long without the pills. Her head would start to pound, and her vision would spin, colors and landscapes blurring until nothing made sense.
Daniel had been so sure, so full of hope when he had pressed the letter into her palm. It was dangerous of him, stupid really, to trust her. Then why hadn’t she reported him already? Brynn let out a sound of disgust, slamming the compartment shut. She stalked over to the window and drew the curtain aside, needing fresh air and knowing that she could never have it.
Rain traced patterns down the window pane. Breathing unevenly, Brynn rested her forehead against the cool, comforting glass. Condensation formed in droplets, running wet rivulets down her cheeks and nose. She pretended that it wasn’t mixed with salt. Even crying, Brynn knew that she looked pretty. Her eyes became dark and luminous, crystalline tears clinging to her skin like glass.
“Still moping?” Aaren leaned casually against the doorframe. “I thought you said you were taking pills for that.”
Brynn brushed back hair from her face, even though she knew it looked perfect in disarray. “I forgot to,” she said quietly. She barely registered the lie. Brynn rarely did anymore.
“Well, that sucks. Take something before we go. I can’t be caught with some depressed chick tonight.” Aaren swept his gaze over her incredulously. “You’re wearing that?”
Brynn tugged self-consciously at her sweater. “I’m not going.”
“Excuse me?” Aaren’s arm slipped from the doorframe and he lurched forward, temporarily unbalanced. His accusing gaze followed her around the room, intensifying when she pretended not to notice. Something in his stance, maybe arrogance, struck a nerve with her.
Brynn folded her arms across her chest, savoring the small act of defiance. “Go without me. I’m sure Rachel will be more than happy to accompany you. Or Madelyn.” Brynn looked up at him. “Or is it Lana, now?”
Aaren’s scowl deepened. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately. It never seemed to bother you before you were ” he searched for the right word.
“Pretty?” Brynn supplied. She was disgusted to see him shrug. “Well, other girls are too. I’m not going tonight,” she snapped. “So forget about it, okay?”
Aaren lingered in the doorway, torn between pride and confusion. For a moment, she pitied him, for being so easily fooled by illusions, and simple words like ‘pretty.’ Like she had been. Perhaps he was the future version of herself, what society would eventually make her become. But not tonight.
“You’re going to regret this,” Aaren warned. His beautiful eyes, so dark and full of promise, flashed dangerously.
Brynn smiled sadly, wondering what she had seen in him at all. “No. I’m really not.”
Brynn huddled beneath the overhang of the apartment building, acid rain trailing blisters across her skin. She was cursing herself for coming, for being stupid enough to believe that it was safe. Daniel wasn’t here. She should have known that she was on her own. Tears blurred her vision as she took out the letter, allowing the ink to dribble and stain her hands. It stung, but the pain was a distraction from the ache inside of her.
“Hey! Stop!” Someone shoved her against the wall, covered her hands with their own. “Hey. That was really stupid. Let me see it.” Daniel turned her hands over, his fingers gently tracing the blisters that had formed. They were the only thing that marred her perfection. She felt fury bubbling up deep inside her, clawing away at her chest.
“They did this to me,” she whispered.
Daniel’s voice was quiet. “I know.” He paused, dropping his hands to her shoulders. “Listen. I want to show you something, before you make up your mind.”
She pulled away. “There’s nothing to decide.” Brynn shivered, thinking about the pills she left back at home. “No place for me to go.”
He looked down at his feet, seeming to struggle with something. “When I told you we could run, I didn’t tell you there was a place we can go.”
Brynn searched his face for lies, but she found nothing there. He was telling the truth. “You’re insane,” she whispered.
He groaned in frustration. “Yes. No. Look, I’m telling you, I’ve met these people before. They want to help you, and others like you. People who realize we’re meant to be something someone more.”
“I’ll be fine on my own,” she insisted, though the words sounded hollow even to her. “I can’t risk joining some gang…”
“They’re not ‘some gang,’” Daniel snapped, surprising her. “I thought you wanted a better life than this. A life without plastic images, and people controlling every move you make.”
“I do,” she said softly.
“Then stop whining.”
Brynn’s head snapped up, her eyes flashing, colliding with his. “You have no idea what it’s like ”
He held up his hands, a peace offering. “You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like to have the surgery done.” His shoulders slumped. “But I do know what that choice has done to me.”
Brynn felt a twinge of guilt, remembering the social pariah that Daniel had become. Shunned by his friends and family, targeted by the government his life was one she didn’t envy. “I’m sorry.” The words were simple, inefficient to cover the mass of feelings that they shared.
“We all are.”
Daniel sighed. “Look. You either want this, or you don’t. Do you want a life of freedom, of choice?”
Brynn bit her lip. “We’d be tracked down. Hunted. There’d be no going back.”
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy.” Daniel held her gaze. “But then again, it never was.”
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded, pounding on the vehicle’s door. “Enough with the games. I’m so tired, Daniel, I ” her voice broke, and she stifled a sob.
He reached out a hand to steady her. “I know. But there’s something I need to show you first.” Daniel shut off the engine, and unlocked his door.
Brynn stayed frozen in her seat, unable or unwilling to open her own door. He jumped out to do it for her, hoping she wasn’t nervous to be this far out of town. “I want to show you something. Please.”
“Show me what? There’s nothing for miles around.” Brynn threw out her arms, gesturing to the empty landscape. “I see sand, and the car, and that tiny pinpoint of light out there” she sucked in a sharp breath “that’s the town. We’re so far out of town, Daniel, I ”
“Please.” He didn’t move, didn’t reach out to touch her. “Please, just… look up.”
Brynn fixed him with a heavy gaze, and they stayed like that for some time, locked in silent battle. But curiosity got the better of her. Slowly, she tipped her head back to look above. Brynn gasped, letting the sound tear out of her chest like a gust of wind thrown backwards. The sky if it could even be called that anymore had exploded into a dazzling black canopy, thousands of diamonds radiating a distant light.
“What what is that? This?” She spun slowly in a circle, not caring how dizzy she felt.
“Stars,” he said softly. “They’re called stars.”
“They’re beautiful,” she whispered.
He grinned, his slightly crooked teeth somehow made endearing. “But they never had the surgery,” he teased.
Brynn seemed to miss the joke, her head still tipped back in wonderment. “That’s why.”