NewSkin

How many of us truly notice ads for new beauty products anymore? It seems that like toothpaste, a new and improved formula using an obscure substance is released every other week, with promises to revitalise youth and reduce wrinkles etc. My boyfriend, being the lovable but slightly-obsessed-with-his-appearance-fellow that he is, was messing about online and saw an ad from a skincare company. You might be thinking, seriously? This is an account of an incident surrounding a dodgy skincare product? Well yes it is, except this wasn’t really a product, which is why it’s terrifying.

They claimed to be able to fix all your skin problems in one go, acne, wrinkles, rosacea, enlarged pores, grey tired skin, you get the picture. Anthony went ballistic the moment he saw a slight red patch forming that might indicate a breakout, and would spend the evening hidden away in the bathroom covered in whatever-the-goop-of-the-now is, all over his face. It’s a good job we had a second bathroom, because I wasn’t allowed to disturb him during this palaver. The only mark on his face, was a half-penny sized circular mole above his left eyebrow, which we affectionately called his beauty spot. It didn’t mar his appearance one bit, if anything it added to his charm.

One evening a while ago whilst sitting across from him on the other sofa, I noticed his face light up and his eyes widen. He started going on about trying this new thing online, how they were looking for subjects for trials. I was kind of surprised, because trials mean anything could go wrong, but given the price they were planning to charge if everything was successful, he was absolutely up for it. Considering I just thought it would be another serum/cream/variation thereof, I simply rolled my eyes and went back to reading. A few days later, he got a text message from a hidden number asking if he was still interested in being part of the trials, one of those ‘TEXT YES OR NO’ to respond kind of messages, although I wasn’t sure how that would work with a hidden number. Of COURSE he immediately responded with YES, making this kind of happy chuckling noise, which was the first idea I got that he’d even received the message.

“What are you chuckling at?” I asked.

“The trial just asked if I still wanted to participate, and I said yes.” He said gleefully showing me the screen of his iPhone.

“Just be careful okay? It’s a TRIAL. You don’t know what this might do to you. You freak out over one tiny spot of redness, if they trash your skin, you’re not going to be happy.” I offered in response.

He rolled his eyes at me, and started texting furiously in the manner he did when he was excitedly talking about something skin related with his best mate, George. They were honestly like two old women texting back and forth about Gardener’s World or something, very endearing.  Of course George had perfect skin, and barely any breakouts. As much as they were best mates, Anthony would at times curse him for being so outwardly perfect.

The next few days came and went, and finally on the following Monday morning, Anthony was summoned to an appointment in a private estate in the middle of nowhere.

“That doesn’t strike you as odd love?” I asked curiously.

“No, I mean they’re protecting their stuff right? It makes sense to be cautious.” He said whilst filling his backpack for the day.

“Well where is it you’re going exactly?” I asked again, frowning somewhat.

“Heh. I’m not allowed to tell you. Secret and all.” he said sheepishly.

“Err..I am NOT okay with that, you either tell me, or I’m following you and I’ll be there anyway!” I responded, obviously concerned that my boyfriend was about to enter trial I knew nothing about.

He looked at me, horrified not because I said I’d follow him, but because he didn’t want me to ruin his chance at the trial.

“You can’t! If you turn up I don’t know what will happen, and I really want to do this.” he said with obvious worry on his face.

“Look, I don’t want to sound like the controlling girlfriend here, but if this was me, you’d be concerned too and you know it. So please tell me, it’s not like I’m going to go announcing it to anyone else. You clearly want to do this and I can’t stop you, but please just tell me where it is.” I said in a softer tone, touching his arm and stroking it softly.

“I just want to know where to find you if anything bad happens okay? I love you. I’ll worry all day otherwise.”

To my relief, he relented and sent me a screenshot of the place on Google maps so I could look it up later. I figured that was the best I was going to get, and settled for it. He kissed me on the nose, and went back to stuffing things in his bag. He left the house telling me everything would be fine, and that he’d see me later.

I did see him later, but he was a little strange. He was full of beans sure, but he seemed a little distracted. I asked him how the appointment went, and he told me they asked him what he wanted from his skin, and what problems he wanted to straighten out. He showed them a photo of his mate George, and basically told them he wanted to have skin as clear as his. There was some conversation about how attractive George was, and how his skin looked amazing, in fact it was the kind of conversation Anthony revelled in. Yes, my boyfriend was a total appearances guy, but he was sweet and attentive, and had never done anything wrong to me ever. He was there for me through my transition, even when my family ostracised me for being trans, so to say that he was the centre of my life, was a complete understatement. Not to sound sappy, but we were disgustingly in love.  His distracted behaviour worried me.

“So did they give you any treatment today, or was it more of a preliminary thing?” I asked, leaning into him a little.

He was staring into space somewhat, and I had to squeeze his arm gently to get his attention.

“Oh, no, uhh..I mean yes kind of.” he mumbled.

“Okay? What did they do?” I pushed further.

Silence again.

“Anthony?”  I quizzed.

His legs wouldn’t stay still, and he was bouncing them up and down as if he were incredibly anxious and wanted to be somewhere else.

“Anthony?!” I repeated firmly.

“Sorry! Yes they gave me an injection with something in it, they told me it would prepare me for admittance next week. It takes a few days to kick in, apparently.” He said softly, sounding really tired.

“What did they give you?” I asked with an arched brow.

“Oh..I uh..I don’t know. They didn’t say.” he responded with a yawn.

“Right so you let someone on a trial inject you with something you have no idea about and you’re okay with that?!”  I semi shrieked.

He didn’t respond. I knew he was particular about his appearance, but I didn’t think he would be that naïve.  I was really worried now, he wasn’t himself and he couldn’t really hold a proper conversation with me without being prompted. He then did something he doesn’t usually so, and fell asleep deeply on the sofa. I let him stay there for an hour whilst I mindlessly listened to a podcast, but when it came to me coaxing him to come to bed, he didn’t even stir. He wasn’t going anywhere. I admit I checked to see if he was still breathing, and he was, so I covered him over with one of the blankets, and settled myself down on the opposite sofa. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone, even if he was just sleeping.

I drifted off soon after, but my sleep was fitful.

When the alarm went off on my phone at 06:00AM, I jumped and almost slid off the sofa. He was awake, sitting bolt upright and just staring blankly into the television.

“Anthony?” I asked, moving over to sit beside him, waving my hand in front of his face.

Nothing. He didn’t even blink.

“ANTHONY!” I cried, stooping down in front of him and clutching his shoulders, squeezing them slightly.

He came round suddenly, his face splitting in half with that amazing smile that made me melt entirely too often.

“Heyyy babe.” He said, leaning forward and kissing me, even though my face was clearly filled with worry.

It was like someone had just flipped a switch in him, he’d been in standby mode and now he was awake and full of beans again. He stood up quickly, announced he was going to take a shower and then get ready to go to work. I remained crouched down on the floor for a moment, confused.

“Hey wait, babe? You have been acting really weird and I don’t think you should be going to work today. You weren’t yourself last night at all.” I said, my voice wavering a little.

“What are you talking about love? We sat and watched TV last night and talked about my great day at the clinic!” He said jovially.

Unless I was missing something, his version of events from the night before were very different from mine.

“Uh no sweetheart, we didn’t. We didn’t even switch the TV on last night, and our conversation about the clinic was forced because you were very confused.” My voice wavering even further.

“Don’t be silly, Izza. I remember it clearly. You fell asleep watching Q.I with me, and then I went up to bed, leaving you sleeping on the sofa covered in a throw.” He said, completely unfazed and convinced his version of the night before was genuine.

I froze. I was getting really scared now. I spent the next thirty minutes or so begging and pleading with him not to go to work, and to go to the doctor with me to find out what he’d been given, but he was firm. When he’d made up his mind, there was generally no changing it. He refused to stay at home and realistically, there was nothing I could do about it.  I asked him to at least stay in touch with me throughout the day via text and he obliged, except the texts he sent me didn’t seem like him at all. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but when you know the bones of someone and they’re acting completely differently, it’s legitimately terrifying.

He never used text-speak or emoji, he abhorred both. We always texted in full sentences with proper punctuation, so when I got “omg babe stop worrying I’m ok” with a thumbs up emoji, I flinched. He wouldn’t be messing with me like that, it’s not the kind of thing he would do even as a joke, as it was a pet peeve for us both.

I called him at work. He didn’t answer, someone else did. When I asked to speak to him, they told me he’d called in sick this morning, and wasn’t there. I forgot to breathe, and my head rushed with my heart pounding in my chest. What the fuck was going on?

I called his phone. I got a ‘this phone is switched off’ as a message, which I’ve NEVER heard before. He always keeps his phone on, the only time it’s off is when iOS updates, or he has to restart it for some reason. Panicking, I fired off another text, swearing at myself for not realising he wouldn’t get it if his phone was off.

I got something back immediately, again in text-speak with emoji. “Hi bb rlly busy @ work will call u l8r”, with a heart emoji on the end.  What the fuck? How was this happening when his phone wasn’t even switched on, and why would he use that horrible text-speak?  I did the next best thing to calling him, and tried to call George.

George also didn’t answer. I texted him, except nothing came back which was equally weird because he was surgically attached to his phone. George not being near his phone was like asking him to stop breathing. It was 15:03PM, and he absolutely would have been awake and quick to respond. Ten minutes later, I called again, I got voicemail and left an urgent message, along with another text. Yes I was aware I was probably sounding like a panicked lunatic, but I WAS in fact very panicked.

Thirty minutes later, still nothing from either one of them.

Frantic, I called his mother, who had also not heard anything from him. Of course now I had the added side effect of her losing her marbles over this, and so she started texting him and getting the same nonsense back even though his phone was switched off. Finally remembering that I had the map screenshot from the day he first went to that clinic, I revved up my laptop, and started exploring Google maps. It was my own fault for not pushing him more, but all I could see was a back-road name in the middle of nowhere. I’d have been fucked without the Internet, but then he wouldn’t have been in this position without the Internet either. It occurred to me that George might be with him, because they were like kids in a toy shop when they were together, but Anthony had been acting too strangely for me to think it was as simple as that.

My thanking the Internet was too premature in terms of location information. Nothing came up for the name of the back-road. I even upload the screenshot into an image search hoping something would come up, but what DID come up wasn’t at all helpful, because it was a fucking quarry in the middle of the Pennines. Either he’d given me fake information on purpose, or something more sinister was at work. I was fucked, I had no idea where he was, couldn’t reach George, and no way of contacting him whatsoever. I started searching around the house for anything, any little piece of information as to his whereabouts, and after turning his desk area upside down, and finding absolutely nothing, I was really close to losing it. I felt so sick that I bolted upstairs and into the bathroom, heaving my guts up into the toilet bowl, almost not having time to lift the lid first. After ridding myself of the contents of my stomach, I noticed the crumpled pile of his clothes on the floor. Pushing my hair behind my ears, I rummaged around in the pockets of his jeans, and the hoodie underneath them. Nothing in the jeans. Something in the pocket of the hoodie. Felt like paper. It was a small Post-it note, folded in half so the gum sealed it together. It simply said NewSkin on it. Nothing else. No number, no additional information, no nothing.

I rushed downstairs again to my laptop, and searched for the phrase, and a very simplistic but professional website came up, along with a couple of bizarre results that made no sense. They kept trying to redirect a site with a .onion tld, but I’m not very techy so I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t open them despite my trying several times, and I was so frustrated that I almost threw the laptop across the floor, and then the door opened.

It was Anthony, but he looked different.  His hair was completely gone. Clean shaven to the point where there wasn’t even any shadow. The mole above his left eyebrow was also gone, and the brows were thinner. I couldn’t imagine he would have let them cut his hair willingly, as it was as important to him as his skin. Thick, almost black and cut neat and short into the nape of his neck and sides, but long on top. He didn’t even like anyone touching it, it was like trying to get near Fonzy, he’d freak out and tell you to back off. Seeing him like that startled me utterly. Hot tears slipped own my face and I ran towards him, wrapping my arms around his neck and sobbing hard into him. He stood completely motionless, and didn’t say a word to me. After a few minutes I pulled away, wiping my face to look at him and tearfully ask him where he’d been. His skin was peculiar and looked like it didn’t fit him. He looked at me really confused, as if he’d been out of it for a few days and didn’t know where he was. He was fully clothed in the same gear he left the house in earlier, but he had no recollection of the last few days.

Who are you? He asked me, looking terrified.

“Waitwhat? It’s me, Izza. Your girlfriend, you live here with me. Where have you been? I said in return.” Shaking violently.

“I don’t know who you are? I only knew to come here..I..” He trailed off, before collapsing to the floor.

I called an ambulance and tried to revive him myself, but he wasn’t coming round. His skin felt so different, not like the skin I’d felt under my fingers countless times. It didn’t feel as if it fit him properly either. I pulled his clothes back up over his belly and looked at him, not sure of what I was looking at. Parts of it were visibly shrinking as if it were trying to mould against him properly, and it was inching around and tightening in that way that elderly skin does when you pinch it.  Fresh tears trickled out of me, slipping down my nose to make tiny plicking sounds on his clothes as I tore them away from him to get a better look. I could see this unfamiliar skin shifting and tightening in different places, some of it completely different in shade, paler somehow but levelling out to match the rest of him. By the time the medics arrived, I was in shock and unable to speak coherently at all. Fortunately, being unconscious was enough for them to load him into the truck and haul us both away to hospital. His phone had skittered out of his pocket during my pulling his clothes from him, and whilst my mind was racing with all the worst thoughts you could possibly imagine, I yanked it out of my coat pocket and switched it on, unlocking it, because fortunately we both knew one another’s unlock codes. I went to his text messages, specifically the ones from me. I could see the ones I sent him, but there were no responses from his end. It was like I’d sent a barrage of texts with no replies.  Pulling my own phone out, I checked them again, and all the dreadful text-speak emoji ridden messages he’d sent earlier, were gone. I choked on my own breath, a sob escaping as the prelude to a complete breakdown in the back of the ambulance. I was losing my fucking mind.

Taking great heaving gobs of air between sobs, I checked messages between he and George. There was their usual excitable exchange right up until the time he went out earlier. The conversation took a sombre note as Anthony told George he really needed to see him because things weren’t okay and he needed help. Naturally as devoted as George was, he asked Anthony where to meet him, and Anthony simply told him to meet him outside work and they’d drive somewhere to talk. I mean that sounds fairly innocent as it goes right? If your best mate asks you to meet up because you need help, you fucking go, right?

I called Anthony’s mother as we hurtled through traffic. I told her to meet us at the hospital and that I had no idea what was going on. I asked her to check her text messages, and she blurted out that they’d all GONE. The texts she’d sent to his phone looked like mine, a barrage with no responses. I lost the ability to talk at that point.

The next few hours were a brightly lit and background noise filled blur after they rushed Anthony inside. Nobody was sure what they were seeing with his skin shifting around, or what on earth I was babbling on about when I said his skin didn’t look right. I tried to tell them how it didn’t feel like his, and where he’d been, but all it sounded like fragments splintered from a broken mind to the point where they were considering admitting me for being mentally incompetent. He was sedated in his own room, looking drained of colour and fragile. Hours later, the skin on his frame looked like it belonged there, settled against the contours of his body, albeit slightly paler than his usual tone. The skin was…flawless. Whatever it looked like as it was morphing and shifting to fit him so perfectly, it didn’t look that way anymore. It was almost translucent with soft downy hair in the right areas. All this had happened over the course of a day, a day that he knew nothing about, nor anyone else for that matter.

A low moan escaped his lips. Lips that were slightly cracked but fuller in a way that didn’t look like him. He was still beautiful, but those lips were not his. I leaned over and gently slid an ice chip over his mouth, letting him flick his tongue over them and take the ice inside. Moving around behind him, I helped him turn onto his side, conscious that I didn’t want him to choke on the chip.

The door opened and it was one of the doctors, looking incredulous, accompanied by a plain clothes police officer, and a uniform. Anthony’s mother rushed in and clutched her son’s hand, sobbing breathlessly.

“I don’t quite know how to say this with any tact, so I think the best way is just to say it. We think Anthony has been given a complete skin transplant, from head to toe.” The doctor said, quite baffled.

“Wh..what?” I said, more of a statement than a question.

“The skin on his body…it didn’t belong to him originally. We watched it move and tighten over his body like you saw, but we don’t know HOW. He’s got some pretty weird drugs in his system right now, combinations we’ve not seen before, which might account for his memory loss and out of character behaviour.”

Silence.

“Are you telling me the skin on his body doesn’t belong to him, doctor?” I breathed, reeling at the thought.

“Yes, I am.” He said, still incredulous.

Anthony tried to speak, but his throat was dry and he sounded raspy and inhuman. His mother whispered at him not to try, and he fell silent again, drifting in and out of consciousness. The plain clothes police officer started talking about taking fingerprints from Anthony to see if anything was in their system. My head was still reeling and I wasn’t really listening, until it dawned on me that whoever’s skin he was wearing would have to be in the criminal database for that to work. The doctor said they would keep him sedated until he was recovered and all the foreign drugs had been flushed out of his system. I brushed my finger over his lips again, and spent the entire night at his bedside along with his mother. We both remained in chairs and slept in shifts to watch over him. It was the longest night of my life.

The following morning, Anthony was wide awake and bright as a button. He knew who I was, didn’t feel confused, and all traces of those drugs were out of his system. The only problem he had, was no memory of the last couple of days. He wondered why he was even in hospital at all. He reached up to scratch his head, and that’s when the shrieking started. With no hair up there, he demanded to know what had been done to him and why he was there.

“Anthony..” I asked him gently, amidst his outrage

“Why am I fucking here Izza what’s going on?!” He spat from between lips that weren’t his.

“..do you remember NewSkin? Does that phrase bring any thoughts to mind?” I continued, reaching out to comfort him.

He pulled away from me, as if I’d done this to him.

“You went to start a trial for a new skin product, and went completely off the grid. You came home and you were acting SO strangely, like you weren’t you at all. It’s like you were on something that made you zone out, and you passed out hard and I couldn’t wake you. Please, you HAVE to try and remember, we need to know who did this to you and where they are!” I pleaded desperately.

Our conversation was halted abruptly as the doctor and plain clothed policeman stormed through the door, the doctor pleading with the policeman to stop for a moment and remember that Anthony was still in recovery.

“Doctor, if you think I’m going to leave him here unattended after what I’ve just seen, you’re a fucking cretin. There will be an officer on the door from now on until he’s cleared for coming down to the station. He is officially on lock-down.” He hissed, snapping a cuff around one of Anthony’s wrists and connecting it to the sidebars on the hospital bed.

I stared at the officer in a panic, asking what the fuck he thought he was doing by cuffing my boyfriend to the hospital bed. The colour drained from my face like liquid from a broken glass as we all listened,

“There’s CCTV footage of him meeting his supposed friend, George outside his place of work and leading him away roughly by the arm. It times very closely with the texts they exchanged in the afternoon, and they were seen again on the outskirts of town, Anthony still gripping George in a way that suggested he was under duress. A car with Anthony’s registration plates was found abandoned on the motorway about half a mile away from farmland. The farm? It’s not actually a bloody farm, it’s some weird underground facility using the farm as a cover.  There was blood trailing across the field and our ground team found a skinless corpse abandoned in the middle of it, like it was fucking garbage. We had to identify it from dental records, and it’s George Barber.”

The room was deathly silent. Anthony went whiter than he already was and looked down at the skin on his body, that perfect, flawless skin that he always coveted so much. I couldn’t hear a fucking thing. The bottom had just dropped out of my world.

Muffled voices between the doctor and the plain clothed policeman mentally pulled me back into the room, and I demanded to know how someone with no fucking memory of the last couple of days could possibly have done ANY of that.  The doctor looked at me with an expression of sorrow, and explained that the drugs in Anthony’s system had been a concoction of hallucinogens and psychotics.  He could have been manipulated to do anything, given the right suggestion.

Anthony’s mother had fainted and was being carted from the room by a pair of nurses. Anthony was dumbstruck, and turned his head to look at me, his face dripping with tears.

“I didn’t, I..I don’t remember, I couldn’t have..please Izza I DIDN’T, please I didn’t do this, How could I, I can’t remember!”

He was sobbing now, this was not the face of someone who just killed his best friend and skinned him alive to wear him like he was his own to keep.

I looked at him, his beautiful face blurred through my own tears, huge sobs choking out of my body like I was going to vomit at any moment. I was dragged out of the room by the police officers on the door, I wasn’t even allowed to stay with him. I was being hauled off for questioning down at the station, and I had no idea what I was supposed to fucking do.

They kept me there at the station all night.  I was interrogated until I was completely non verbal and shaking like a terrified child. I remember telling them how I found the piece of paper with NewSkin written on it, and how I searched for it online, finding a site referencing that weird .onion tld website that wouldn’t load.

It turns out there’s this layer of the Internet called the Dark Web, but you can’t access it without using something called Tor. You can buy pretty much anything you’d like on it, from illegal drugs, hit-men, and services you really didn’t think existed outside of a twisted thriller. NewSkin offers a service to people who need to change their appearance because they can’t look like themselves anymore, for whatever reason, no questions asked. George wasn’t the first skinless corpse the police had found. They think the doctors and scientists working in the facility were using unsuspecting members of the public as experiments to perfect the procedure, under the guise of a skincare trial. They think people pay them to make them disappear, but mostly, it’s rich people who are dissatisfied with the skin they’re in, and they want a change. They don’t care about everyday folks like us.  Why replace only parts of your skin, when you can have a complete do-over?

Devastated by the possibility that he murdered his best friend for his skin, and at the loss of his platonic soulmate, Anthony took his own life a week later. He’d been left unattended in his hospital room for ten minutes whilst the officer with him went to use the bathroom.  He figured him being cuffed to the bed meant he could risk it.  The stupid bastard had left a pen behind as he got up from the chair next to the bed. Anthony managed to reach it using his toes, and stabbed himself repeatedly with it in the neck with his free hand until he bled out and died. Blood was still pulsing from his neck when the officer returned with the nurse, but it was too late. The plain clothed police officer came to the house and told me himself. He looked ashen.

By the time they got search warrants for the facility at the farm, it had been gutted and deserted. There was absolutely no trace, even with forensics spending weeks there. There was nothing they could do, it was a dead lead. When I asked about tracing the strange text messages, I was told it’s easy to manipulate modern technology to do such things now. It would all have been part of the set-up, and likely wouldn’t have returned anything useful. It was like they’d just given up.

I was numb with loss. I stopped caring about what happened to me, stopped leaving the house. I know more about the Internet now that before. I became obsessed with knowing about the kinds of people who would sell things like this online. NewSkin still exists on the Dark Web, but the site has been pulled from the surface web, pending police investigation.  The things they offer are disgusting, and it’s all done like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

A few days ago, a new site appeared offering trials to select members of the public for free, if they satisfied a few prerequisites. It’s called NuSkin.  That was the day when I finally ventured out to see my doctor.  I was halfway into town when I saw Anthony’s mother in front of a man who made me stop and forget to breathe. When he turned around, it was Anthony’s face, as clear as day, right down to the mole above his left eyebrow.

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