A Well-Lit Room
Her boney fingers pinched the edge of the catalog. She sighed; turned the page; sighed, again. She looked at the donors carefully. She spent a good five minutes on each of the three pages she was considering. She studied their unique characteristics.
In the end, a young black man caught all of her attention. He was the right age; he was a bit taller than she had hoped for but was still her best choice. She tapped her long fingernail on the young man’s chest before circling her final selection in a red felt-tip pen. She closed the catalog and stirred her tea calmly. The clock ticked slower than usual tonight as the “tink” of the spoon gently echoed and dissipated into the darkest crevices of her home.
The woman smiled imperceptibly to herself. This is what she wanted even if she had spent her entire life fighting the system that created this gray area to begin with. She rocked in her chair for a bit. A single photo on the mantle illuminated her loneliness and suddenly she felt the room brighter than it had felt in a long time. It was a photo of a young Mexican boy in his late teens. He was hugging the once lively woman. Suddenly, this worn-down woman was a mother pained by the loss of a child and somehow, this was the coping mechanism she clung to. She had finally accepted reality for what it was – a dimly-lit path to brighter days.
Her aching body slowly made its way down the hall and into a restroom where the steam would soon be rising from the tub. She slinked off her nightgown and stood before the vapor. Her devastated body was smooth and stretch marks long since faded and were barely visible under her bellybutton. Her hair was pulled tightly into a bun. The last few years were especially rough on her and had warn her tresses down into peppered straws of hay.
Tomorrow she would submit her decision and finalize the matter. Tomorrow would lead to a new path. Tomorrow she would see things justifiably different.
She slowly dipped herself into the tub of hot water; to her, the heat felt much like being embraced, and she missed the feeling. She moaned softly as she let the water conquer every part of her body until only her face was above water. Her bronzed skin turned golden red. Her hair swayed around her sympathetically. She took in a deep breath and unobtrusively submerged her face, too.
Under the water, in her own space, her closed eyes still see him in his final moments. A bubbly 19-year old heading out with his friends. His warm peck on her cheek before waving goodbye at their front door. It was eight years ago, but it felt like only yesterday. She comes up for air and gasps from the pain she could no longer contain. She croaks loud. Painfully. Broken.
Night fell unpleasantly. She tossed and turned as she did every night. She could still feel the vibrational boom against her ear as the lead ripped by barely grazing it. She touches her scarred ear for a moment. What she would have given to be 2 inches further left, instead of him.
It was still dark out when the birds began their morning routine. She put her warm feet on the cold floor and tapped her toes a few times to wake them up.
She smoothed her hair back in a sleek bun. She passed her gentle hands over her black suit and adjusts her coat a bit. She took a look at herself in the mirror. She tucked her catalog under her right arm after staring at her son’s photo one last time before leaving. Unsatisfied, she sighed deeply and walked out toward the front door.
She arrived at a small waiting area and remained poised for the receptionist to acknowledge her presence.
Without looking up, “Identification, please!” The receptionist is a petite black woman with modest features.
She dug through her purse and drew out her small wallet. A picture of her son fell onto the counter and she quickly retrieved it before the receptionist even realized it was there. “Here it is,” she says quietly. She clears her throat rather loudly and repeats herself, “Here, it is, my identification.”
The receptionist takes the ID and smiles. She types something into the computer “Here is your number” The receptionist swallows conspicuously, and she seemed as if she wanted to say something.
“Thank you,” she says, kindly. She looks at the number.
“Ma’am, I’ll take your donor selection, now. Please, take a seat. Is there anything I can get for you?” The receptionist appeared intrigued. “You’re doing the right thing. I—” She breaks eye contact. “I’m one, too,” she whispers. “but… I learned from it.”
She smiles lazily at the receptionist.
The receptionist changes her tone. “Would you like some water? Maybe some coffee, or some tea?”
She thought about the question. The only thing she wanted was to have her son back, but that would never happen. “No, thank you.” Her words as polite as her demeanor. She handed the receptionist the catalog and shows her the one she chose.
The receptionist clears her throat and inputs the selection into the computer.
She sits quietly, and after a few minutes of waiting, a short stalky man stands at the door with a clipboard.
“Maria – Santos!”
Maria takes a deep breath and stands up tall. “Yes!” She walks toward the man and hands her an ID badge.
“Keep this badge on at all times. It is going to be brutal in there. Are you prepared mentally?”
“I think so,” she stammered.
“Did you take the supplemental classes or just the mandatory ones?”
“Yes. Yes, I took them all; I’m ready.”
“Good! Did you pick the right donor? Those can be tricky…”
“Yes, yes I did.”
“Right.” He stopped at looked at Maria, heavily. So, you’re completely… ready?”
“Yes!” This time she says it with a bit of agitation.
“Here is your kit.” He looks at her again, deeply sympathizing and empathetic. “Ms. Santos, I am really sorry for your loss, I hope this gives you the closure and peace you need.” He hands her a small box and unlocks a door. He turns on the lights and closes the door behind her.
The room was quite peculiar and smelled of fresh oranges. There were two thick glass walls separating the room into three sections. She was in the middle one.
The room to her right was dark. After a few moments, the ceiling lights powered on strong. Maria squinted and shielded her eyes until they adjusted to the brightness of the room. There were medical machines that made it look like a hospital room. There, lying on the bed, chained like a dog was the man who killed her son. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, but she couldn’t hear anything he was saying. The man’s face was red, and he was sweating profusely. Maria was taken back by the sheer proximity she was in. She suddenly began to sweat and shake from the distress. She was not prepared for what was about to happen, even if he had been educated and coached for it. In that part of the room there was also a nurse who was jotting down notes and checking her watch every few minutes. The nurse never acknowledged Maria, and she was completely unfazed by the man she was tending.
The other side of the room had an elevator shaft and steel doors. The elevator wasn’t really an elevator, but a shaft to transport them there. It was a giant pneumatic tube system for “bodies”.
Maria knew exactly what was going on, and yet, she was still terrified on the inside. Her shaking hands opened the box kit and took out the leaflet on “Trey Wilkson”, her donor.
He had been killed in an automobile accident last year. He was 28 years old. No other information was available except that he was a registered donor. Trey was the same age her own son would have been. She placed her petite hand back inside the kit and pulled out a small plastic bag. She put it to the side in a nice, neat place and put her hand back in the kit. She felt around for more contents but there were none.
The pneumatic system went off like an elevator ding. The light was flashing red. A black body bag was wheeled out from the shaft doors by two men. They pushed him through to the room with the nurse. For a second, the screaming man could be heard spewing profanities and racists slurs at the staff until the doors closed.
A man in a suit enters the first room with the convicted man and presses the audio button for Maria to listen.
“Jeremy Giles, you have been tried and convicted of a racially motived hate crime that resulted in the loss of life. For this you were sentenced to permanent skin reassignment by desquamation. Do you have any final words for the victim’s family?”
“Go fuck yourself, you-- wetback piece of shit lover!” He spat in the face of the suited man and continued his rant.
“Jeremy, it is with no pleasure that I command your sentence be fulfilled on this day in which case you will be free to live without further punishment by law for this crime but will remain punished by your own self-loathing. May you find inner peace and personal tolerance by that which you hate most.”
The suited man was about to cut off the audio, but Maria interrupted him and signaled for him to leave it on. He nods and walks out.
The body bag containing Trey is wheeled next to him and Jeremy begins to thrash louder and harder than before.
“Fuck you, Mexicans! Yous should never have made it far enough to become the majority!” He spits and shakes violently trying to rip free from what is about to happen. The staff begins to unzip the bag and Maria interrupts them. “Jeremy—Jeremy Giles. This is the first time I have ever had the courage to call you by your name.” her voice trembles but strengthens with every word. “I thought about what I would say to you if I ever had the chance.” She licks her lips cautiously.
Jeremy continues to scream and thrash.
“This law was controversial from the start, and frankly, I voted against this method every single time, but now it has been passed into law, and it is with great pleasure I see justice in its purest form; truthfully, and with eyes open.” She nods at the staff members and they unzip the body bag, revealing the fresh skin of Trey Wilkson.
Upon seeing the dead flesh of a black man, Jeremy becomes hysterical. “What the fuck is that!? I didn’t kill no nigger! This isn’t an eye for an eye!” He spits on the corpse and throws his head back repeatedly to make himself blackout.
“His name was Trey Wilkson!” Maria’s words now full of power and depth. My son’s name was Ray Santos!”
They turn him on his side and begin to slice smoothly into his skin. A deep incision is made under his left-arm all the way down to his thigh. He screams in pain as they begin to separate the flesh from the muscle. The yellow gel of fat ripping away from the muscle was almost too much for Maria and she grabs the bag and puts it to her lips. She heaves; takes a deep breath; puts that bag down and presses the button to talk, again.
Maria continues to deliver a powerful message as he takes on the excruciating pain of being skinned-alive. “Like you, I didn’t really think, this law wouldn’t go into effect, but it did! You should have changed your ways then. Now you will be the thing you hate the most, and it is beautifully, justified.”
Maria sees the process and she is torn between watching and not watching. She grabs the plastic bag and places it against her mouth for a second until she is sure she won’t vomit.
“No, no, no…” Jeremy begins to blackout and soften up.
“For too long, white people have been slapped on the wrist for things as serious as murder while blacks and browns rot in jail for petty crimes. Now, by placing you in the skin of a black man, you will learn how hard it is to be every other color but white. Now you will be forced to treat us all equally, because how will you know if the person under their skin was what they claim to be on the outside?
Jeremy wakes up to face a mirror above his bed and cries out in pain at the sight of himself.
Elizabeth Duran: “I am an unpublished 2nd Generation Latina with a 2020 bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of California in Riverside.”