The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Alan Brennert’s “Skin Deep,” we see for the first time the events of September 15, 1946 from the viewpoint of someone living on the West Coast of the United States. Trina Nelson is a pretty, popular sixteen-year-old high school student whose idyllic life took a turn for the tragic because of the Wild Cards virus. Now, she wants nothing more than to live out her days in the shadowy anonymity of the Jokertown on the Santa Monica Pier. But life, it turns out, has still another wild card to deal Trina…
Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was playing on the jukebox, filling the Menagerie with its cool syncopation as the clock ticked toward two a.m. Trina, wending her way through tables carrying a tray of drinks, hated working the late shift. Most of the nats were long gone, leaving only the drunkest of jokers, and the drunkest were also the grabbiest—but none grabbier than a cephalopod. She felt a lithe tentacle trying to loop around her waist but managed to wriggle away from it even as she balanced her wobbling tray.
“Bongo, please,” Trina said in exasperation, “stop kidding around?”
Bongo K. was a skinny kid with reddish-brown skin, wearing dungarees and a gray sweatshirt with holes for his eight happy-go-lucky tentacles: one was holding a shot of Jim Beam, another was coiled around a bongo drum, and a third drummed in surprisingly good time with Brubeck’s horn. Bongo was usually rather shy, but after two drinks he became a bit frisky—and loquacious:
“Baby, I dig you, that’s all,” he said imploringly. He used a fourth appendage to snap up some abandoned flowers from a nearby table and waved the bouquet in Trina’s face, forcing her to stop in her tracks. “Just listen to this poem I’ve written in testament to your ever-loving beauty—”
Beauty? Trina wanted to puke. She didn’t know which she hated more: men who were repulsed by her face, or those who found such deformities arousing. She pushed aside the flowers, her exasperation flaring into anger.
“Doug!” she called. “A little help here?”
Doug was the club bouncer. Sprawled on the floor next to the bar, he resembled the top half of a giant jellyfish; unlike Bongo he had no tentacles but a compensatory telekinesis that he was using to scoop beer nuts off the bar and pop them into the orifice that passed for his mouth.
Bongo started to object: “Hey, cool it, man, I—”
Doug wrested Bongo’s tentacle from around Trina’s waist using invisible tendrils of his own. He forced Bongo to put down his Jim Beam gently on the table but let him keep his hold on the bongo drum. Then, as if it had been yanked aloft by a winch, Bongo’s whole body was jerked up into the air with his tentacles pinned against his body, hovering like a helicopter without rotors.
The chromatophores below the surface of Bongo’s skin turned him literally white with fear. “Aw, man—”
>I’ll take him home, Trina. Almost quitting time anyway.<
Doug floated up off the floor and toward the door, with Bongo trailing him like a tethered balloon. Trina went to the door and watched them head up the boardwalk to the building that was once the warehouse and loading dock for Santa Monica Seafood but was now a hotel for most of Los Angeles’ amphibious jokers, with easy access to the ocean and to refrigerator units for those tenants sensitive to heat.
In minutes Trina was off duty herself and outside taking a deep breath of the cool, briny air. It was a beautiful summer night, a full moon floating above the Santa Monica Pier. The food and amusement concessions were all closed, deserted except for the carousel, where one or two desperate joker hookers straddled wooden horses, smoking cigarettes as they waited forlornly for johns. A pair of masked jokers—one wearing a royal-purple cloak and hood, the other a cheap plastic likeness of Marilyn Monroe—staggered tipsily past the merry-go-round, giggling and pawing at each other as they headed, presumably, to one or the other’s accommodations.
During the day Trina sometimes wore a mask herself to hide her face from tourists, but at this hour of the morning the tourists were long gone. Rather than returning to her apartment above the carousel, Trina climbed down a side ladder, onto the sand. Under the pier, she kicked off the three-inch heels the manager made the girls wear along with her tacky cocktail dress. Beneath it she wore her swimsuit; excitedly she padded out from under the wooden crossbeams and pylons that supported the pier and onto the beach. It was empty this time of night and the rippling moonlight beckoned from across Santa Monica Bay. Here there were no nat eyes to gape at her misshapen face in horror or laughter; no screams from children too young to understand what the wild card virus had done to her.
She dove into the water and immediately felt calmer, at ease. She swam toward the distant moon, then flipped onto her back, floating on the night tide. Here she was a child again at play, or a teenager swimming out to meet her boyfriend Woody—after fourteen years his tanned face, bright blue eyes, and blond crewcut still tender in her memory—as he straddled his surfboard waiting for the next set of waves, smiling at her as she swam toward him. He kissed her as she swam up, running his hand along the side of her swimsuit, giving her gooseflesh.
She could barely remember what a kiss felt like.
She swam for the better part of an hour, until, exhausted but happy, she returned to the beach. She retrieved her shoes and clothes, scrambled up the ladder, and headed for the Hippodrome, the castle-like building that housed the carousel. The old Looff Hippodrome dated back to 1916 and was an architectural goulash of Byzantine arches, Moorish windows, and Spanish Colonial turrets, all painted a bright mustard yellow. Trina hurried inside a side door, up two flights of rickety stairs, through narrow corridors to one of the seven small apartments above the merry-go-round.
She opened the door to find her cat, Ace, waiting. He greeted her with a familiar miaow that Trina knew meant both “Where have you been?” and “Feed me!” She went to the kitchen, opened a can of Puss’n Boots, and smiled as he attacked the food. Then she went into the bathroom to take a shower. The room was the same as it was when she moved here fourteen years ago, except for the vanity mirror, which she had taken down soon after moving in.
It was an airy, one-bedroom apartment, and the living room—inside one of the building’s turrets—enjoyed a view of the surf lapping at the beach. She ate a sandwich as Ace finished his dinner, then sat down on the divan next to the windows. Ace jumped into her lap, purring as she stroked his orange fur. She gazed out at the waves rolling to shore, their white crests iridescent in the moonlight, and at the beautiful but forbidden lights of Santa Monica. She was born and raised in this city but was now virtually an exile from it, like a blemished princess hidden away in a high castle.
Trina picked up her subscription copy of Time magazine and grimaced at the lead story about Richard Nixon securing the Republican nomination for president. She didn’t know much about his opponent, Kennedy, but she remembered Nixon’s venal attacks—as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee—on the legendary Four Aces, heroes whose lives and reputations were casually destroyed by HUAC. Trina was willing to don a mask and walk over hot coals, if necessary, to the polls, in order to cast a vote against Nixon.
The other news story that caught her interest told of how the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina—the subject of sit-down protests for the first five months of 1960—had finally capitulated and would allow Negroes to join white patrons at its lunch counter. She was happy for their victory but despaired of any similar civil rights movement for jokers.