By Annalee Newitz

In a near-future San Francisco where the gig economy has made work more precarious than ever, Edwina is an average twenty-something scrambling to hold down her job with a major skin care brand. Until her awful boss does something you should never do—angers the fae on social media—and the struggles of her job take on an even nastier shade.

Wildfire season turned sunset a rotten orange that seeped in through the shop windows and spread across the floor in lurid streaks. Edwina leaned on the poured concrete counter, watching women walk past outside, pushing strollers whose fabric gently strobed with the names of their nannyshare agencies. Usually they veered off to buy groceries at Whole Foods, currently bathed in a hellish glow. But sometimes they peered inside, looking beyond her to stare at rows of glass bottles full of creams and aromatherapies and anti-aging remedies. A small, tasteful sign in the window guardedly alluded to the services they offered at Skin Seraph:

Feel younger with a moisture peel

Indulge in a revitalizing mask

Try cool sculpting for clean lines

Even out your natural color with melanin toners

#skinseraph #selfcare #youdeserveit

Customers trickled in all day. Women asked for less hair and men asked for more. White people wanted to be tan, and brown people wanted to be paler. Older people wanted tight, matte skin and younger people wanted plump, dewy cheeks like on K-beauty Instagram. Edwina’s job wasn’t to help them. She was a “customer care associate,” which mostly meant she babysat the system that texted appointment reminders. Occasionally she took calls from harried assistants trying to rebook their bosses. Her physical presence wasn’t necessary, but her boss Isobel wanted Skin Seraph to feel elite and expensive. That’s why she’d hired an actual human to stand here on the premises instead of outsourcing to Task Rabbits like Edwina’s cousins in the Philippines.

Sometimes customers would ask if she used any of the products. Edwina had tried most of the Skin Seraph–branded masks, so she could say honestly that she did. She liked the company’s signature citrus-and-cinnamon scent. But she’d never had a chemical peel or Botox or laser color correction. Most customers were looking for something way out of Edwina’s price range. She tried to be nice to everyone, because this was a decent on-site job with health insurance and a 401K plan. There were limits, though. She wasn’t going to do free brand repping like Daisy, the staff clinician. Daisy’s self-care videos blew up pretty regularly, and they were full of artfully deployed Skin Seraph products. That’s why Daisy got bonuses while Edwina never would.

Isobel ran fifteen Skin Seraph stores in three countries, but she still found time to micromanage their bonus system. All the employees had to install this humiliating productivity app called MakeMeProud that tracked how many people they’d converted into loyal customers and pushed leaderboard updates to them every hour. Daisy always won because she had incredible numbers from her socials. The app could see who clicked “buy” after watching the clinician apply toning snails to her face on Instagram. But since Edwina worked at the front desk, it was hard to prove she’d triggered a sale. The one time she used the app to log a $500 purchase of foot cream, Isobel rejected it because “merely operating the cash register is not the same thing as brand conversion.” Edwina had given up at that point. Her salary wasn’t great, but it was good enough. At least Isobel didn’t leave screamy voicemails for her like she did for the high-performing clinicians.

Edwina sighed, rested both elbows on the counter, and let her shoulders rise up until it felt like they were touching her ears. A cute person with a dog stood outside talking to someone remote. Maybe they were arranging a dinner date. Or having a conference with fifty people in Shenzhen. Idly, Edwina wondered what time it was in Shenzhen. Was it morning there? She blinked up an interface in her contacts and searched for the answer.

Outside, the sunset was browning into twilight, and the cute person wandered away. Edwina would be closing soon, leaving a few dim lights strategically trained on their most expensive products, which had been decanted into crystal polygons that shot rainbows onto the white display shelves. As she wiped Instagram out of the air, she noticed a woman staring into the window directly at her. Something was wrong with her skin, which maybe made sense because she was staring into a skin care boutique. Edwina squinted into the smoky shadows, blinking all the feeds out of her contacts. Was that a sunburn or some kind of scarring? The woman placed her hands on the glass, leaning in so close that her breath made a frosty, opaque circle. Now Edwina was sure the darkness was messing with her vision, because it really looked as if tiny cracks were growing outward from the woman’s fingers.

No. It was actually happening.

She heard the unmistakable cry of glass fracturing, and the threadlike fissures spread faster, forming a snarled pattern like a medieval street map full of twisted roads. The woman continued to gaze at Edwina, hands and breath at the center of this bizarre form of vandalism. Edwina jumped out of her chair, flicking the emergency call screen into her left eye. But something kept her from pinching the button.

Hesitantly, she approached the woman. Her skin—it wasn’t skin at all. There was no skin. The woman’s muscles moved wetly, beaded with clusters of yellow collagen, veins and arteries a throbbing lace across her cheeks and neck. Her lidless blue eyes were set into sockets the color of rubies. Her lips slithered with fat.

The jagged cracks had wound their way to the edges of the window frame.

“Get the fuck away from here!” Edwina screamed without thinking. “I’m calling the police right now!”

The woman smiled, squeezing the tissues of her face into a new configuration of oil and blood. All around her, the glass whined and sagged, on the verge of collapsing into a million shards.

“Go away! Leave right now!” Edwina realized distantly that her voice was rising to a higher and higher pitch.

She reached up to pinch the button that would call Skin Seraph’s private security service. Before her fingers could rub together, the woman disappeared. It was as abrupt as a bad special effect: she was there, and then she was gone. Shaking, Edwina reached out to touch the glass where the woman’s hands had been. The windows were perfectly smooth.

Daisy came racing out of the back, where she’d been assisting with the day’s last chemical peel. Perfect pink ringlets bobbed around her pink face. “Are you okay, Edwina?”

“There was—there was a person messing with the windows.”

Daisy made a big show of opening the door and looking up and down the street, now glowing with LEDs from the Whole Foods parking lot. “Was it that homeless lady again?” she asked. “The one with the cute cat?”

With no other way to explain what she’d seen, Edwina nodded. “I think maybe it was her, yeah.”

“She used to stay down in the Mission at the BART station, but now she climbs the hill to Noe Valley because people in this neighborhood have more money.” Daisy sighed. “I have to admit it’s relatable.”

Edwina kept staring at the place where the woman had been, and Daisy finally went back to her chemical peel, still talking about homeless people. Except that woman hadn’t been carrying a cat. She might not even have been real. Edwina sat back down behind the desk and put her head in her hands, wondering if she’d finally gone crazy.

Half an hour until closing. There were no more tasks in her queue, and the last client of the day was with Daisy. She had no reason to be here other than to lock up. Pulling up a chat window, Edwina texted her best friend Alyx. They ran social for a few Memegen brands, and were always online.

Edwinner: I think this job is starting to drive me insane.

Alyx777: Too many face transplants? That shit is grisly.

Edwinner: I seriously thought I saw a woman breaking our windows. I actually screamed or something? Daisy came running in, and now I feel like an idiot. I guess I’m hallucinating now.

Alyx777: Dang! You got Daisy to notice something other than her follow count?

Edwinner: Haha yes! But now I feel really weird. Do you want to hang out in a couple of hours and watch the new episode of Fae Killers?

Alyx777: YASSSSSS luv u!

Talking to Alyx always made Edwina feel better. Maybe her job arranging appointments to revamp people’s faces was bizarre, but it was practically mundane compared to Alyx making tax payment apps into loveable personalities on WimWam. Edwina sent some music to her earbuds and wiped more coin into her streaming account so they could watch Fae Killers uninterrupted.

By the time she returned to work after the long Memorial Day weekend, Edwina had chalked up the window incident to exhaustion and put it out of her mind. The wildfire smoke had cleared briefly, and Jupiter rose like the business end of a bright laser pointer in the sky over Whole Foods.

She blinked up two windows. In one, she stacked the week’s appointments, and in the other she chatted with Alyx. They were excited about a new marketing campaign where the nannyshare app Babyfren came out as a Fae Killers superfan. In Babyfren persona, Alyx posted a video about how all infants secretly want Fae Killers’ naughty shape-shifter Puck to be their daddy. It instantly sucked up a thousand new Babyfren subscribers in San Francisco alone. Edwina had to admit the video was pretty hilarious, especially when the infant drew a big circle around Puck’s “tight fae butt.” Idly, Edwina wondered if Babyfren got a kickback from Fae Killers, or if maybe Memegen represented Fae Killers too. She was about to ask Alyx when a dark silhouette blocked Jupiter’s light.

It was the skinless woman again, raw face like a popped blister around her pus-slicked smile. “Hello,” she mouthed silently to Edwina, pressing her hand to the windowpane farthest from the front desk. She spread her fingers wide, trailing them behind her along the glass as she walked. Nothing cracked in her wake. The apparition paused in front of Edwina and rubbed both palms over the window as if washing it, but she left swirls of thick mud behind instead of soap. This time, Edwina didn’t pull up the alarm, and she didn’t scream. The woman swayed, almost dancing as she drew great arcs of wet brown curds over a display of snail masks. Just as the stuff blocked Edwina’s view of the Whole Foods parking lot, a smell hit her.

Anyone who rode the BART train in San Francisco knew it. People dug communal cesspits in the tunnels. Apparently using them was better than getting chipped and monitored at the city’s homeless facilities. And now the whole waiting room, with its clean white walls and spotless bottles of cream, was permeated by the unmistakable, heavy reek of day-old human shit.

Edwina’s eyes started to water. Only the most intense odors from the street could overpower the atomizer that perpetually emitted Skin Seraph’s aromatherapy mist. This had to be real. Should she call somebody? The woman grinned at her again, distorting the arrangement of blood vessels in her neck, and completed her work with a flourish of excrement in the shape of a blooming flower. And then, just like last time, she winked out.

“What . . . the . . . fuck?” It was Daisy’s voice behind her.

Edwina jumped. “What? What is it?”

Daisy had dyed one ringlet sparkly gold and wore two jeweled nourishment patches under each eye. “Is that . . . shit smeared all over the windows?”

Two women in spa robes and revitalization socks padded into the front room behind Daisy. “Oh my god!” one of them cried, putting a hand to her mouth and dislodging the depilation caterpillar on her upper lip. The other woman’s face was still wrapped tightly in quick-heal bandages and she couldn’t say anything. Instead, her eyes widened and she made a mewing noise in her throat. Then the bandages over her mouth went puffy and gray as ribbons of vomit slid down her neck. She ripped the bandages off, revealing a sticky red chin and an even more disgusting smell as she dripped onto the floor.

“Mrs. Landsdale!” Daisy screamed. “You can’t take those off!” She raced to help her client, grabbing a handful of soothing wipes from the counter and pulling the still-gagging woman into the back. “Ms. Desai, why don’t you lie down again in the garden suite while my colleague cleans up?” She shot a meaningful look at Edwina over her shoulder.

“It’s that hobo who begs in front of Whole Foods, isn’t it?” Ms. Desai asked conversationally as Daisy and Mrs. Landsdale disappeared into a treatment room. “I don’t know why they let her sit there. It’s private property.”

Edwina had finally processed what was happening. The woman was real. The shit was real. A woman had just vomited on the floor. And now she was going to have to be nice to a client while she cleaned everything up.

“I don’t know who it was. She didn’t look homeless.” The words felt algorithmically generated by her mouth as she looked for cleaning supplies under the front desk.

Ms. Desai leaned on the counter, readjusting the caterpillar over her upper lip. “You should report her to the police. You guys have a security camera out there, right? Just take a screenshot from it and make a report. That’s what my neighbor did when people kept stealing her Amazon packages, and they caught the guys. If the police have a face, they can find people anywhere.”

Edwina hefted the motorized window washer in one hand, its plastic tank sloshing with Clorox-spiked fluid, and looped the hose over her shoulder. She could plug it in outside. “Well, I have to do some cleaning, Ms. Desai. If you go back to the garden suite, I’m sure Daisy will be right with you.”

She didn’t bother to wish Ms. Desai a nice evening.

Soapy water cascaded over the glass, and Edwina used the hose to chase wafers of caked excrement into the gutter. As she followed the edges of the shit flower with needles of spray, Edwina realized that Ms. Desai had a point. She could review security footage and figure out what she’d actually seen. At least, once she was done here. Edwina sighed and wished Skin Seraph’s protective gloves didn’t cost twenty dollar each. It would come out of her paycheck.

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