“What’s that?” Celeste asked, as I entered her house pulling the tank behind me.

I didn’t think of how I was going to explain it when I pulled it out of my car. Celeste had never taken an interest in my personal belongings before so I didn’t think she’d even notice me carrying what could easily be a small bomb into her home.

“It’s nothing,” I told her, “I just might need it later.”

Her eyes grew wide and I could tell she was starting to panic.

“Oh god,” she said, “is it a drug thing? Because you said you didn’t do drugs and I can’t have that in-”

“Shhhhh,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, feeling the residue from her applying too much lotion in anticipation of my arrival, “It’s just an oxygen tank in case I run out of breath. I have asthma.”

“That don’t look like no oxygen tank I ever seen,” she retorted, “I’m 78 years old, you think I don’t know what a-”

I set the contraption down near her dining room table and eyed her as I headed in the direction of the bed. The reason she called me. Her voice trailed off as I removed my shirt and turned into her guest room. I’d never been in her bedroom, we always did our transaction in the less intimate guest room. She was right behind me. We embraced and kissed as I lay her on the neatly made twin bed, choking down the scent of her medicated lotion and vintage lipstick. “More Than Words” by that hair metal band played through the walls. I wanted to crawl out of my skin more than usual.

A few minutes later (maybe 12, tops) she was in the kitchen preparing a pot of worthless coffee and I was sitting at the dining room table planning my escape. I had to hurry before she came back in the room with a piping hot cup of decaf disappointment. I panicked for a brief moment when I realized I’d forgotten to pack any rope or string, but I saw Celeste’s flip-phone charger to my right and improvised in the moment. A regular fucking MacGyver I thought to myself as I used the cord to tether my right ankle to the right leg of the antique chair, sloppily tying a tight knot and wishing I hadn’t dropped out of Cub Scouts. I tested my handiwork by trying to kick out of the knot; not going anywhere, motherfucker, I told myself. I peeked around the corner to see Celeste hand-washing some cups for us. I had to hurry.

I had to get the next part right the first time. I had watched instructional videos on youtube and practiced once or twice, but I hadn’t mastered it yet. If there ever was a now or never moment, though, this was it. I leaned my head back as far as it could go, keeping my neck straight (this is crucial for clear passage) and opened my mouth as wide as possible. I choked and gagged, my body convulsed and my eyes watered. The pain was unbearable for a brief moment, but only during the initial breach. Once I got my skull out the rest came pretty easily. And then, silently and swiftly, I’d done what I had wanted to do so many times before. I crawled out of my own skin. As I pulled my left foot out of my gaping mouth I peeked into the kitchen again. Celeste was standing over the coffeemaker, waiting. I never understood why she stood there in anticipation because her coffeemaker buzzed when it was ready, but now wasn’t the time to question it. 

I stood over my deflated skin, slumped over the table like a discarded trash bag, and noticed for the first time how badly I needed a haircut. I made a mental note to get a trim when I got back in myself. I struggled with my belt at that angle but eventually was able to work my pants down. I hadn’t worn underwear just to speed things up. Fortunately, I wasn’t in my skin when I slid the clear plastic hose into my own anus. In my lack of preparation I hadn’t considered that some form of lube would have been a nice gesture. Sorry, I told myself as I eased the hose further into my orifice, gonna be feeling that later. Once the hose was securely in place I turned the valve on my portable helium tank. Fuck, I didn’t think about how much noise it would make. The blaring sounds of impossible 90s romance ballads drowned out the hum, though, and I hoped Celeste wouldn’t notice. I grew impatient and frustrated that I couldn’t inflate myself faster and started moving my skin around, hoping to smooth out the kinks and speed up the process. Celeste shouted over the music from the other room. I turned the valve off, my half-inflated skin just starting to sit up yet still noticeably lifeless.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You want some apple pie?” Celeste said, again.

“You know I love pie,” I said, then, in an effort to buy some time, “Would you mind heating it up?”

Once I was fully inflated I did my best to make my skin bag look natural, tucking and wedging my appendages under the table to fight the helium’s natural inclination to float me to the ceiling. What I hadn’t considered was that my skin had no eyes. I had my eyes with me and I was going to need them. I used the first two fingers on my right hand to pull my eyelids down. It felt like that cliche movie scene when the protagonist discovers a dead loved one and carefully closes their vacant eyes. I didn’t have time to consider its symbolism, though. I had to get the fuck out of there.

I tiptoed to the door and slipped out, careful to leave it unlocked so I could slide back into my skin in an hour or so. I don’t know if it was the freedom or the lack of a protective layer, but the sun felt warmer and the breeze felt cooler. It was so nice I decided to go for a walk. There was a 7-11 a block away and I thought it would be nice to grab a beer and enjoy the nice weather while I sipped it. It was a nice walk, I chatted with an older couple and got to pet their terrier and the wind really did seem to be singing to me. I congratulated myself on such a flawless escape and was beaming with pride in my resourcefulness.

The 711 cashier’s name tag said Vince. Vince looked bored.

“Hey there, Vince.” I said, placing my Colt45 and Funyuns in front of him.

“Afternoon.” he said, not looking up as he rang up my items.

After he scanned the beer Vinced raised his head. He peered over his bifocals and looked me up and down suspiciously.

“You got ID?”

Fuck. I had left my wallet with my skin. No ID and no way to pay Vince. Dejected, I began my trek back to Celeste’s place. The sun was starting to feel too hot and I wondered if I should have applied sunscreen to my exposed guts and muscle tissue. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Then my heart dropped. Not literally, but it could have. Looking at it exposed I’d realized that the human heart could be removed as easily as an alternator from a car. Celeste’s house was flanked by emergency vehicles – one fire engine, one ambulance and two cop cars. I jumped behind a dogwood tree and peered around it, assessing the scenario.

Celeste must have noticed my lifelessness (either because I wasn’t eating any pie or she needed to charge her phone) and called 911. And now there were EMTs in her dining room probably trying to revive my empty skin with a helium tank coming out of the ass. I wasn’t really sure if it was illegal, but they would certainly want to question me and, most importantly, there was no way I could tell the truth without hurting Celeste’s feelings.
I was just going to have to start over. My skin had my wallet and my car keys, but I had to get out of there. I doubted anyone was looking for me, but I ran anyway. I was eager to separate myself even further from my skin. You did it again, asshole, I said to myself as I sprinted past the two-story homes and perfectly groomed landscapes, you never think anything through.

“Celeste” is the first in a series of short stories written by Jerome Spencer in 2021. Read the second here. Limited physical copies available now through the author.

Illustration by Nathan Ventura.