The salon at the end of the road offers something better than all the rest.
Your Beauty is Our Dream
She prodded at the mole on her left cheek with a thin finger. It was a dark orange brown color and it was more a splotch than a blemish. The fluorescent lighting shown down on her in an unflattering way, highlighting flaws that would have otherwise been overlooked. Katarina saw the place where the fine hairs on her upper lip were starting to regrow before dully noting that her next appointment at the salon was just three days away.
Katarina's skin looked washed out in the mirror, with the wrinkles she had been delaying since twenty-five finally winning the battle for existence at thirty-two. She washed both hands in the sink under cold water with pure organic vanilla scented soap, then shook off the excess water with a flick of either wrist. She completed her morning regime by massaging her face with both hands for twenty minutes, pulling her skin almost violently up to down, left to right, and in small circles.
She had washed her body thoroughly with a lavender scented moisturizing bar before applying an exfoliating sea salt scrub. She had raked the salt over every corner of her body to remove any offensive dead skin left, until everything glistened red and fresh as the day she was born.
The steam left from the scolding hot shower lingered in the air making her flushed and sticky with fresh sweat. She began her makeup routine by turning on and positioning her magnifying mirror so that she could see even the smallest details, even the most minor mistakes, for correction. Katarina pressed down on the silver lid of the ornate glass bottle of her new primer, then spreading the thin cream languidly over both face and neck. She grimaced at the wet feeling underneath her fingers.
She jumped when her phone vibrated against the crowded marble vanity. Twenty-four new emails. Sixty-seven new messages from people she didn't know. Three texts from people she did. Katarina sighed with a sharp exhalation of breath that fogged over a small circle on her mirror.
Next was slathering green over the red splotches, then orange over the deeply discolored area underneath her eyes, and finally the application of a shade lighter than her own skin to highlight her already prominent cheekbones. An involuntary scowl came over her face as the phone kept vibrating against the counter, making a grating noise with every new notification. She couldn't turn it off though. She didn't want to miss something important.
The neighbors in the apartment to the right were starting off the morning with a screaming match again - their small dog screeching more than barking to finish off the chaotic noise. It was something small, because she carried it around in her arms whenever they met for a chat in the hall. A Chihuahua? A dachshund, maybe? It didn't matter - it was just as loud and shrill as its owners.
Katarina felt a headache growing faintly from the back of her skull, just above the nape of her neck. She hated headaches. The pain would start out small with just an ache at the back of the head, but over the hours it would grow the same way mold does on ignored fruit.
She pictured it - the overripe strawberry that was her brain. You didn't notice it at first, but there were spots of dark, slick rot growing around the red fruit. The next time you saw it there were small white hairs growing just out of sight, but the disease was spreading more and more with every second. Slowly. Virulently. Then it is unsalvageable. Then there is a pain so bad she can't move without a wave of nausea pooling in her stomach, and the throbbing of her head being twisted ever tighter in a vice.
After spending a night tossing and turning from the medication that would upset her stomach even more, Katarina would finally fall into a dreamless sleep to awake fully recovered in the morning.
It was a cycle.
The waiter was a young man, thin and listless looking. He took their order without embellishment, spending no more time at their table than was required to maintain the veneer of hospitality.
"I'll take the cobb salad, but no cheese and no bacon. Dressing on the side." Mel ordered without looking away from her menu.
"Avocado veggie sandwich with a hot detox tea. Water too please." Katarina intoned next, without looking away from her phone.
"I'll have that right out."
Katarina glanced up at her friend, taking in the bright orange lipstick and well blackened long eyelashes over her doll like eyes. Mel had an effortless beauty, without need for the extreme corrective measures Katarina had to employ every morning and night. For her perfect complexion, there was no need for hydrating balms and oil free full coverage foundation. No, anything she applied was for fun and added emphasis for an already pleasant feature. Any shade was perfect with her coloring - any new trend she could pull off with ease.
The waiter brought the food then gave a required smile before quickly walking off to another table. Mel poked at the greens presented in front of her.
"We haven't done anything fun lately. We should have a girl's night!"
"I don't know...what are you thinking of? Not that bar off seventh again?"
Mel gave a mean-spirited laugh that made her mouth curl up at the edges.
"Ugh no. God that place was a fucking dump. I mean the new place downtown. Chere, I think. It's a club."
Katarina clicked her black four-inch heel on the restaurants laminate floor. She was picking at her food too, but with a shaky hand. She took a sip from the grassy tasting herbal tea to hide her weakness, her face twitching with another dull spike of pain. The headache was threatening to get out of control if she didn't take something for it soon.
"Yeah it looks amazing from the reviews. Five-star rating and the drinks are great. Do you think it's worth it, though? I'm really broke after we went shopping last week." She joked with narrowed eyes.
"Aw come on, I need it after the shit week I've had. You too, right? I'll invite all the girls from the store so we can really party."
Katarina's mind was already racing with the expectation of a night starting at ten and ending at two. She would drink the rest of the money she had saved, then find someone to hook up with before stumbling out of his apartment the next morning. He would be tall, dark and handsome. He would know how to dance. It was a perfect night.
"Okay, okay! How can I say no?"
The waiter returned to clear away their plates.
"Are you sure you're done? Would you like a desert or drinks menu?" He recited with a noticeable hint of irritation.
"I said we're done. Just bring the check." Mel said with a glare that went straight into the tired man's eyes, without remorse from either party.
They first spotted the store as they were walking down a line of shops with windows full of the finest clothing, shoes and jewelry. Mel and Katarina let their eyes linger over the newest designs from Chanel and Christian Louboutin, then over the ubiquitous light blue boxes framed by glass from Tiffany's. There were bright colored bags from Michael Kors displayed next to the window for Gucci and an imported luxury car dealership next door. All the people on this side of the street knew enough to remark tastefully that the new displays were good - but not too good.
There could always be advances in luxury, taste, style. It was best not to be overenthusiastic about anything.
Katarina caught the glare of bright neon lights from within a side alley which could only be seen at an angle from the main shopping district. It was buried under awnings and balconies, but the neon sign and sleek chrome lined windows gave the building enough elegance to compete.
"Let's go over there - I've never seen this place before!" She said as an afterthought as she left Mel gazing into the eyes of a rose gold bedecked mannequin.
Katarina squeezed her long body through the short opening in the alley, worrying about dirtying her pristine white coat from the brick. She could smell sewage coming from a manhole somewhere nearby, and the usual piss scent from crowded city streets. She didn't even glance to see if her friend was following behind.
The space the front window occupied was narrow but enough for her to see a beautiful display of models faces lined up from end to end. "YOUR BEAUTY. OUR DREAM. "read the banner underneath in a swirling cursive script. The faces were almost perfectly symmetrical, with large eyes, high cheekbones and full, pouting pink lips. They looked out at Katarina with a bemused expression. They were saying they were ready for her to join them, up there in that window where everyone could see.
Each model was perfect: men with jawlines sculpted from stone, women with eyelashes that went on for miles. Katarina wondered what service this place offered before hesitantly walking up to the ornately decorated doors. There were no other signs to shows hours, or to give any indication of what was inside. She glanced around quickly before swinging the door open with one strong pull.
Inside the bright white light blinded her, making the silver colored front desk a blur of metallic sheen. It was the only object in an entryway that looked to be impossibly large for the thin space the building's exterior occupied. There was a similarly brilliant white, thin computer screen on top of the desk, but nothing else. The words on the wall behind it repeated the slogan displayed on the banner outside "YOUR BEAUTY. OUR DREAM."
Katarina could feel the pounding in the back of her skull even though she had taken her migraine medication after lunch. It was still spreading out, still growing with all the voracity of a mold.
She cleared her throat while peeking over to the right, where the wall opened into a long, medically lit hallway lined with six silver doors on either side. The marble floor and the metallic doors reflected the lights back in weird directions, so that at some angles Katarina was blinded while at others the corners of the building seemed dark.
"Hello?" Her voice sounded strangled as it echoed through the empty building.
No one offered an answer, or so much as the sound of a heartbeat, from down the corridor. There were no decorations, no more pictures of models smiling faces on the walls, and no trace of color.
Katarina was starting to feel uncomfortable in the silence of the place when the sound of automated chimes made her jump. She spun around to where the thin computer screen displayed a menu with the words "Welcome" in the same calligraphic script. Another three chimes rang out before an unaccented voice began an introduction in perfect English.
"Hello, and thank you for choosing us as your treatment center today! We welcome you to our new downtown location. Please enter your name below and the service you would like to receive."
She did as she was told then pressed enter. The screen now showed a menu with four different choices: One, Two, Three, and Four. Katarina stared at the screen with a blank expression - there was no explanation for what any of the choices meant. She assumed this was some sort of new digital sign-in service for a salon, so that way they wouldn't have to bother with a receptionist.
She made up her mind with a shrug then pressed the second button on the touch screen.
"Thank you for choosing your treatment option. Please wait while we process your request."
The silence resumed for what felt like an eternity before the screen finally displayed another of the faces of the models from the outside.
"Please proceed down the hallway to the left. Your personal treatment center is room number six on the right side of the hall. We hope you enjoy our service, and thank you for your loyal business. And remember Your Beauty is Our Dream!"
The voice cut off and the computer went dark. Katarina once again glanced down the long hallway to see that, yes, the sixth door on the right had swung open at a perfect right angle. She couldn't see anything beyond that, though, as the reflection from the overhead light was piercing her eyes once again.
She briefly looked back at the front doors, but knew that she couldn't leave without at least satisfying her curiosity first. Where had Mel gone? She thought at the back of her mind. She normally would have called me by now, but her phone hadn't made a sound since she came in. Oh, well, they would meet up again after this.
Katarina's heels were shotgun blasts as she made her way down to the only open door. There were only large roman numerals from one to six to differentiate one room from another, and no door handles on the outside. It was all mechanized, and apparently tied back to the console at the front. Amazing, she thought. Katarina didn't know if she even had enough money in her bank account to pay for whatever service this was - but that didn't matter. She would take out another loan from her mother.
She walked into the room without hesitation.
After finishing her own shopping, Mel tried to call her friend repeatedly, with each attempt becoming more frantic. Katarina never missed a call as a matter of principle.
Mel was about to give up when she walked by the alley on the way to her sedan, and remembered Katarina's long blonde hair disappearing behind the brick wall. She didn't want to go searching for her friend - all she wanted was to go home and soak with a charcoal honey bath bomb. It was quick dissolving and wouldn't even stain the tub. The well-dressed saleswoman had assured her that it was the best way to pull the toxins out of her skin. Toxins, she explained, that built up in the body from everyday pollution and could cause skin damage and premature aging.
But the alley was right there, on the way back.
Mel maneuvered through the crowded space and was surprised to see the bright neon lights of a store front in such a dingy place. She couldn't recognize the building but went inside the floral designed glass doors to see only a front desk with a single computer.
She waited for an attendant to show up before looking down the hall with annoyance. There was a single door open at the very end. If no one was going to wait on her then she would have to go find an employee herself.
Long legs carried her quickly to the room, but inside it was pitch black. A disturbing kind of darkness only available in space with no windows and no other exits. The kind of dark you could distil into ink. Mel's hands groped at the walls to find a switch but only felt their cold, smooth surface.
She stepped inside fully to look for a lamp when with a hum the fluorescent bulbs turned on all at once. A little groan escaped her as she shielded her eyes with a hand until they had adjusted enough to stop watering.
It was a moment before she fully registered what she was seeing.
There was a large chair in the middle of the room, the same kind used by dentists. It was long and cushioned, leaning back so that the practitioner could get to the mouth with ease. It was surrounded by wires and a small steel coated box was connected to it on the left side.
Medical instruments were laid out on a raised platform, and when Mel came closer she could make out their details. There were scalpels, tweezers, forceps, small circular saws, what she assumed was a drill, and a larger saw with a straight blade. Without thinking, she touched the button on the circular saw then nearly screamed when the thing roared to life.
Was this a doctor's office?
She inspected the metal box to find that there were no buttons, no outlets, and no displays. It was a perfect metal cube except for a robotic arm which extended outwards. She realized with a shiver it was there to grasp the implements on the table - the newest form of surgery, she guessed.
It was then she looked around the room and noticed a large display case, of the same sort a jewelry store used to show the shine of its products. It was large enough to take up the entirety of the back wall.
She peered down and froze. Her heart seemed to stop for a beat and the blood rushed through her ears.
There under the glass was Katarina's face. Her eyes shown up at her from atop a beautiful, serene smile. The most genuine expression Mel had ever seen her friend make. The orange mole she had always hated was gone, and so were any signs of aging she had accumulated over the years. Her skin was practically luminous it was so bright, with lips a natural but enviable shade of red. Fuller than the thin lips her friend had always hated.
Mel couldn't help but smile too. The skin of the face had been severed neatly, before being placed on a realistic mannequin's head - a perfect fit. There were still traces of blood dribbling down the sides, but that would dry with time. If she looked closely she could see the slightly ragged edges where the saw had cut, but it wasn't noticeable.
She did not know what had happened to her friend - how she could have been transformed. She looked more beautiful and alive than the real thing.
She placed a hand over the top of the case.