Brittle footsteps rattled the deserted street. Ellenʼs route home was desolate. Recession plucked businesses from small shops and cafés, despite politiciansʼ economic sleight of hand. Now this cut-through was an unremitting row of hoardings layered with torn posters, angry graffiti and rusting shutters. Tides of rubbish flooded doorways. The councilʼs cost- cutting initiatives included switching streetlights on later, so Ellen was surprised to see a glimmer in the dusk. One of the hitherto vacant units stood out: boards removed, windows gleaming, detritus swept away. Exotic fretted lamps scattered bright florets about the shop and over the pavement, lighting an alluring pathway to the door, propped slightly ajar. A demure sign in antique, looping font, announced ʻPop-up Boutique: High Fashion for Hard Times.ʼ Ellen needed a new top for work. Something small, to lift her mood. Quite justifiable. The door brushed luxurious carpet as she pushed it open. Distant, chiming bells summoned a sales assistant. Tall, sleek, perfectly coiffed and manicured, she sashayed gracefully between racks of clothing to greet Ellen with a supercilious smile. Can I help you? Just browsing. The words leaden, tannic in her mouth. The weight of a wearying dayʼs work freighted Ellenʼs unfashionably broad shoulders. She caught a whiff of her own odour, felt her hair puff up in a tangled mess. The long, ornately framed mirror by the door confirmed it; she wasnʼt the same species as this poised apparition. About to retreat, Ellen saw haughty appraisal flickering in the assistantʼs dark eyes and a surge of resentment propelled her further into the shop. She made a show of studying the stock, hiding horror at the price tags by lifting items off the rail, creating a safety curtain between her and the assistant while she smoothed her features into neutral. Why open a designer outlet in this run-down part of town? She paused too long with one dress and received a sarcastic, “Shall I hang that in the changing room for you?”
It was a size smaller than Ellenʼs usual, a good deal more expensive than anything in her wardrobe, but her blood was up and she handed the dress over with a defiant glare. She selected a few more items, entirely at random, and marched to the back of the shop, towards the heavy purple velvet drapes, fringed with gold, encircling the changing cubicle. The small curtained area had its own atmosphere. Sound was muted. A flattering firelight glow warmed her complexion and the air smelt gently of cinder toffee. Ellen breathed deeply, relaxed, let irritation melt away and wallowed in her sumptuous surroundings. The dress waited, hung from a baroque gilded picture frame. A sartorial Old Master: high necked, long-sleeved, fitted to mid-calf. Should have been dowdy. Oozed understated elegance. Youʼd say grey but it shimmered silver when swung one way, hinted lilac the other. Yielding fabric caressed exploring fingertips. What harm in trying it on?
It wasnʼt easy shuffling the neat design over wide hips and wider shoulders. The zip required serious contortions. Tiny pearl buttons at the nape of her neck were fiendishly slippery. Once it was on she admired the effect. Astonishing. Miraculous, in fact: waist cinched, hips sensual, breasts pert, neck, arms and legs elongated. In the mirror she stood transformed; a vision to match the assistantʼs forbidding beauty. If I was richer, she mourned. She reached back but the tiny buttons ran further than she remembered; from her hairline to her shoulders. The angle was torturous, their smooth surface eluded clumsy fingers. She struggled to force her arms back far enough to reach the zip between her shoulder-blades. She hunched forwards, twisted round, glimpsed the recalcitrant fastening in the mirror but it danced from view as she turned. Heart pounded. Panic gripped. Heat rose molten through her body. She tried to roll the skirt up, maybe pull the dress off over her head. It emitted a sickening screech of stretching seams when it was only mid-thigh. A boulder of misery crushed her stomach. She could appeal for help or hide there forever. The assistant looked up, surprised. Looks good on you.
The delicately arched eyebrows did it, with their implied sneer. Ask this harpy for help? Sheʼd die first. Doesnʼt it? Iʼve decided to wear it home, if youʼll clip the label out for me. You do take credit cards?
Elated and distraught, Ellen scurried off. If the universe wanted her to own a glorious but ludicrously overpriced dress, who was she to argue? She paused outside her local wine bar. The posh frock demanded a night on the tiles. A quick call to Sally and the two soon perched on stools, sipping prosecco and attracting more approving male attention than was normal. She should have been happy but the high neck choked her, her arms were pinned to her sides and the skirt bound her thighs together. Waves of prickling heat threatened to smother her, so she retreated to the bathroom seeking a reviving splash of cool water.
She pushed open the heavy door, was briefly blinded by harsh lights glinting on marble. A beautiful woman pouted in the mirror to refresh scarlet lipstick. Tall. Sleek. Dark chignon so perfect it might have been painted. Ellen couldnʼt face the sales assistant again. She fled the bathroom, made hurried apologies to Sally, dashed gasping from the bar. Her breath fogged in frigid darkness.
Icy air didnʼt stop the fission reaction exploding through Ellenʼs constricted limbs. At home she repeated the satanic yoga postures she tried before, without success. She sent text messages at fifteen minute intervals, each more hysterical, begging Sally to stop off after the bar. No reply. She pawed the screen forlornly, in case her phone conspired against her, concealing messages. It glowed, insolently mute. No one else to call so late.
Hours of misery before her tired eyes sent a seething swarm of insects scuttling over shadowed walls. She clamped her lids shut against them. Sleep crawled from its lair and seized her, dragged her through a set of suffocating scenes. Caught in a roaring avalanche, pounded by snow, buried deep, unsure which way to dig. Sucked into quicksand, pulled down while throat, nostrils, ears flooded with slurry, body a skin sack full of concrete, sinking through a bottomless lake. Camped in a humid jungle, waking to a pythonʼs embrace while an anaconda devoured her from the feet up. Screaming inside her paralysed corpse while unheeding friends bound her tightly, ready for the mummification they insist she wanted.
She thrashed through a tortured night, feverish. Woke to a sickly dawn. The sweat-soaked dress had twisted tighter, its flowing fabric was stiff. Ellen couldnʼt turn enough to see the fastenings in the mirror. She was exhausted. Defeated. She wept with relief when the doorbell rang. Lucky the keys were in the lock. Sheʼd never have managed to steer them there now. Her fingers were numb and near useless. Sally came bearing croissants, ready to debrief her best friend on the nightʼs erotic conquest. She wasnʼt sure if Ellenʼs predicament was horrific or hilarious, until she snipped off the pearl buttons with nail scissors and the dress stayed put. The zip had set solid. Sallyʼs mocking assistance turned to concern. Ellen, the fabricʼs bonded to your skin. Iʼm not kidding. What the hell is this stuff?
They ran a hot, soapy bath, hoping to soak the cloth away from skin that burned beneath it. Sally helped Ellen, almost immobile, into the water. Submerged her fully. Bubbles sprang from the fabric and the dress shrank, squeezing mercilessly. Ellenʼs breath came shallow and sore. Sally hauled her out, bundled her in towels, called a cab and demanded the driver rush them to A&E the fastest route he knew. The fastest route was the shortcut Ellen took from work. As they sped along the alley, her bulging eyes sought the boutique but found a shabby strip of abandoned shops. How could it be gone?
The admissions clerk assumed an overdose, till she tried to prise the dress off Ellen to ease her convulsions. Doctors applied solvents, which stung but didnʼt help. Her vitals were plummeting, there wasnʼt much time. They paged the plastic surgeon and prayed sheʼd come at once.
Sally slumped in a slippery waiting-room chair, chewing a stale croissant she found in her bag when hunting for a hanky. She hadnʼt stopped crying since they carted Ellen off. Hours now. The heaving shudders subsided but tears trickled ceaselessly. Her collar was wet with them. Ellen looked so lovely, perched on the stool in the bar, the shimmering dress casting an aura of soft-lit glamour. Only last night. Insane. Seemed Ellen shed her inhibitions, peeled away insecurities, had dermabrasion for the soul. She glowed. Said when she rushed off it was hot flushes from the dress but Sally wasnʼt sure. For a while there, her beauty was unearthly.
The surgeon removed her mask, looked glassily around the waiting room like one concussed. Sally gestured questioningly and the woman dropped into the seat beside her. Baggy scrubs puffed lumpily as she sat. Iʼm Miss Stuart, I was your friend Ellenʼs surgeon. Was? Oh God, what happened?
No, no, Iʼm sorry. She made it through surgery. Sheʼs stable, in recovery now. You canʼt visit her yet, though, sheʼs too vulnerable to infection. When can I? I donʼt know. But youʼll have plenty of time. Itʼll be a slow process.
Process? Well, thereʼs not a lot of skin intact, for grafting… Iʼm sorry, didnʼt someone explain? Yes, the toilets are just over there.
When Sally emerged, with bloodshot eyes and acid breath, the surgeon handed her a loose parcel of Ellenʼs clothes. I think youʼd better take these. The dress in particular. Your friend might be able to sue the manufacturer, if it was an allergic reaction. I checked the label but it was a little…strange.
Sally thanked her, took contact details for further queries, and watched Miss Stuart vanish through a series of sliding doors. She sat a while longer, till her legs could be trusted, then wobbled down the stairs to the taxi rank. The taxiʼs heavy metal shell and expansive leather seats reassured her, made her brave enough to inspect the parcel. The dress was an obscenity: stinking, shredded, leathery and tattooed with blood. Sally couldnʼt bear to touch it but could read the label. Where youʼd expect laundry advice or warnings against dancing near open flames there were only two words: Caveat Emptor.
Sally sealed the clothes inside a ziplock bag and stored them in the freezer. Sheʼd ask Ellen what to do with them when she was able to discuss it. Sounded like that would take a while.
Miss Elizabeth Stuart finished her shift at 9pm, the worst for a long time. The car crash was gory, the scalded child harrowing, but the one still haunting her as she crossed the deserted carpark was the woman sheʼd been forced to skin to keep breathing. Went against every instinct, all her training. She repaired damage, didnʼt inflict it. One of the reasons for selecting her specialty. Liked to give peopleʼs beauty back. This patient, early thirties, good shape physically, probably attractive when not contorted with pain, dress obviously expensive although ruined, was utterly inexplicable. Hard to treat what you couldnʼt explain. Sheʼd done her best. Hoped the woman would recover. Whatever treatments they devised, thereʼd be scars.
She threw her bag onto the passenger seat, fumbled in the glove box for a breath mint, reversed gingerly around the concrete pillar designed to snag wing mirrors. Her spatial awareness was shot. She yearned for her duvet. The fridge was empty, though, and shopping would be worse after sleeping. Sheʼd be hungry then, too. Her best bet at this time was the mall off the ring-road, where the supermarket hung on despite declining custom. She left the car slewed across two bays, because she could. Nobody was there. She found her purse and slouched sleepily along the walkway. All the units were empty, had been for months, but one boasted a smart new pop-up shop. She paused at the window display, mesmerised by soft shapes and magical colours. At her friendʼs wedding the following week sheʼd be forced into seeing her ex. It would certainly give her a confidence boost to arrive in a killer dress.