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.
The windows still looked spotty when Mrs. Landsdale walked through the lobby with Ms. Desai. Both were dressed in those yoga pants that transformed from opaque fabric into mesh netting when exposed to perspiration. Mrs. Landsdale’s bandages were newly applied. Daisy had given both women free youth-restoration elixir gift packages, gently strobing with luminescent jellyfish protein in their frosted bottles.
“My skin may never recover from that,” Mrs. Landsdale said in a voice that was meant to be overheard. “I could have been seriously injured.”
Ms. Desai shot Edwina a sympathetic look. “I hope you catch her. It’s horrifying what those people think they can do.”
They drifted outside, discussing whether to hire a rideshare or walk up the hill to their neighborhood.
As they passed out of earshot, Edwina caught Mrs. Landsdale’s parting salvo. “Did that girl just sit there while a hobo destroyed her shop?” she asked with exaggerated incomprehension. “Why didn’t she do anything? Is she profoundly basic? I’m never going to that place again.”
“Same,” said Ms. Desai. “We can always go to Nature’s Blessing in the Marina.”
Edwina made sure she’d sprayed every fleck of ordure off the windows before returning inside to start the shutdown routine. Daisy was still banging around in back, so she walked to the garden suite to check on her. Daisy was kneeling next to the orchid display, carefully emptying several tiny trash containers into a scented plastic bag. She looked sweaty and her ringlets had wilted.
“Hey, I’m going to start closing up. Are you almost done?”
Daisy looked up, and Edwina braced herself for rage. Instead, her colleague’s face was streaked with tears. “I’m done.” Her voice was hoarse.
“Are you okay?”
Daisy shook what remained of her curls. “Of course I’m not okay. Mrs. Landsdale is one of my best clients. I’ve gotten a ton of referrals from her.”
Edwina flashed on the conversation she’d just overheard between Mrs. Landsdale and Ms. Desai, and felt an unfamiliar flare of sympathy for Daisy. Clinicians worked for those bonuses, and Skin Seraph wasn’t a just day job for Daisy. It was her career.
“I bet she’ll forget about it tomorrow when she tries that elixir,” Edwina said with forced cheerfulness.
Daisy shook her head. “I hope so. That wasn’t some free sample. I gave her the good shit.”
“I dunno. I think I’m the true judge of good shit now.” Edwina cracked a grin and Daisy let out a laugh-sob noise that turned into a genuine laugh. It was the first time Edwina had ever seen her without absolutely perfect makeup and structured hair.
Daisy slung the bag of trash over her shoulder and cocked her head at Edwina. “Do you want to drink some of those CBD coolers that Isobel and Brad left in the fridge?” she asked. “I really need to relax.” Isobel and her boyfriend Brad, whom she’d hired as some kind of nebulous marketing manager, always kept drinks on hand for pop-up influencer parties.
Edwina blinked up her chat with Alyx, which had mostly degenerated into poop emoji. “Can I invite my friend Alyx? I told them to meet me after work.”
“The more the merrier.”
The three of them sat on massage chairs in the restoration room, drinking and watching Fae Killer memes on YouTube. That’s when Edwina remembered the security camera footage. She had two witnesses now, and wanted to see what they thought.
She and Daisy swiped through Skin Seraph’s dashboard lazily, digging into several maintenance menus before they found the security cam file. It was set to delete anything older than a week, so her first encounter with the woman was gone. But this afternoon’s encounter was there. They watched the scene unfold with mouths open. The webcam was positioned over the door, which meant most of the action at the windows happened at the edge of the video. Still, they could zoom in to see a person touching the windows, face averted, her movements a jerky blur.
“Is this in fast motion or something?” Alyx asked. “It looks weird.”
Daisy fiddled with the controls and brought up the timestamp. “Nope,” she said. “She’s just moving really fast.”
And then they came to the part where the woman winked out. It happened on film just the way it had in real life: she was there and then not there. Except now it was easier to blame on bad video than it had been when the actual scene was streaming into her eyes.
“There must be something wrong with the webcam,” Daisy said uncertainly.
“Yeah it’s glitchy,” Alyx agreed. They chugged more CBD cooler, and looked over at Edwina. “Right? It’s glitchy.”
Edwina debated whether to agree with them or come out and say it. She took another swig of CBD, looked at Alyx’s lean face with their jet-black eyes, and Daisy’s pale, de-sparkled cheeks. “That’s actually what I saw too. She moved really fast and then she disappeared. Daisy, remember how last week I said I thought I saw a woman breaking the window? It’s the same one. She disappeared then too.”
Daisy set her bottle down carefully. “So, what is this? Some kind of . . . fae?”
None of them laughed.
Alyx pulled their mobile out of a back pocket and unfolded it on the table between them. “So obviously fae aren’t real,” they said. “But it could be somebody in a costume fucking around with the camera, right? Let’s see if there are other reports like this on Nextdoor. People freaking love to report vandalism there. There’s also a feed from San Francisco city government where people submit cleanup requests.” Alyx already had six feeds going on the mobile.
“You don’t think fae are real?” Daisy asked, using the very serious voice she usually reserved for talking to customers about gold flake masks.
Edwina and Alyx glanced at each other and then at Daisy. “I mean, I love Fae Killers, but that’s not real life,” Edwina said.
“Well, no, that’s not real life,” Daisy agreed. “But there are definitely fae here in San Francisco.”
Edwina’s heart sank. She was just starting to like Daisy, and now she felt herself withdrawing. It wasn’t as if she was some kind of douchey skeptic who hated all people with New Age beliefs, but it was going to be hard to solve this mystery if Daisy blamed it on ancient aliens.
Alyx broke through Edwina’s disappointment spiral. “What do you mean when you say there are fae here in the city?” they asked.
Daisy shrugged. “Don’t you run socials for brands? You must have seen Fae Twitter. A lot of companies hire fae consultants now to help them with outreach because dreamwalking is a great way to raise brand awareness.”
“I’ve heard of that, but I thought it was like hiring astrologers or something.” Alyx looked nonplussed.
Something about Edwina’s expression and Alyx’s tone had gotten through to Daisy. She dropped her eyes and picked at one of her nails. “I guess it’s like that. Some people believe fae are real, though.” Daisy laughed nervously. “It’s probably like those magicians in Vegas who turn people into giant pigs, but then it turns out to be a hologram, right?”
“Wait, did that happen? A magician turned somebody into a holographic pig?” Edwina was eager to change the subject. “I’m looking that up on YouTube right now.”
After she found it, they spent another hour clicking on even more bizarre magician videos. Then it was time to head home. Daisy hopped in a rideshare while Alyx and Edwina walked down the hill to catch BART.
At the West Oakland stop, Alyx hugged Edwina goodnight, but kept a warm hand on her arm as they separated. “I’ll use some of the algorithms we have at work to look for reports on that shit-smearing lady, okay? I bet somebody has reported her, and then at least you’ll know more.”
Edwina nodded. “Thanks. I’m still stuck in this weird energy from what Daisy said about the fae.”
“Social media people have a zillion superstitions,” Alyx laughed. “Gotta pray to the mushroom people if you wanna go viral, man.”
“I guess so.” Edwina managed a smile, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the skinless woman who had shattered and unshattered a window. Like she was casting a spell. Edwina glanced up at Jupiter, still burning brightly overhead, and remembered how the collagen had glistened in the woman’s cheeks as she said hello. Maybe it wasn’t a spell. Maybe it was a curse.
The next day at work was a lot more fun than usual because Edwina finally had an office friend. Now she and Daisy could roll their eyes at each other when there was a particularly rude client, and she had somebody to grab a turmeric latte with at Martha & Brothers up the street. Daisy snuck a look at her socials as they waited in the coffee queue behind three women with four Babyfren carriages between them.
“Oh shit, Edwina,” she said with a quaver. “Ohhhhh shit.” Her eyes had that foggy look of somebody accessing a lot of feeds on their contacts.
A chill crept up Edwina’s arms. “What is it?”
“Mrs. Landsdale posted a seriously psycho review of Skin Seraph on Mommyland and it’s blowing up everywhere.”
“Omigod let me see.”
Daisy flicked the link to Edwina’s contacts. It was posted in the San Francisco shopping forum, and already had thousands of upvotes after only an hour.
Disgusting experience at Skin Seraph—DO NOT GO THERE
I have been going to Skin Seraph in Noe Valley for more than a year, and have always had a pleasant enough experience but NEVER AGAIN. Last night a hobo attacked the windows and smeared them with excrement, and the management did NOTHING. The entire place smelled terrible, and made me extremely ill. My skin peel was ruined and my doctor says I may have scarring. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE AND DANGEROUS. This is a medical establishment and the management has NO SECURITY. The girls who work at the store did nothing to stop it, and then they rinsed the windows with nothing more than a little tap water. Can you believe it? That window is probably coated in all kinds of disgusting microbes now, and who knows how much has been tracked inside to infect everyone who goes there. I’m warning you, as a concerned mother, to avoid this place. It’s another case of a local store becoming a chain and the service suffering as a result. I’m also contacting the city to recommend an inspection IMMEDIATELY.
The comment section was filled with outrage and recommendations for other local skin spas. When she got tired of blinking through them, Edwina looked up to see that Daisy had the same expression she’d worn last night when she was cleaning up in back. Her eyes were going red.
“At least she didn’t name me,” Daisy said shakily. “There’s that. She didn’t link to me or say I had personally done anything wrong.”
Edwina touched Daisy’s shoulder. “Nobody will be able to track this back to you. Skin Seraph might be canceled for a few days, but you’re not.”
Daisy looked vague again, and then refocused her eyes on Edwina. “Good. I gained a bunch of followers for this video I posted yesterday. So far, I’m fine.”
Then they both checked Skin Seraph’s socials, and it was a bloodbath. Followers had plummeted, and people were screaming at them about how they were unsanitary and disgusting and doomed. There was some conspiracy group that was fixated on the term seraph as a sign of Satanism, and now the store was on their radar too. Skin Seraph’s timeline was full of reminders that “the Beast can’t hide” and vague threats to Isobel and Brad. Somebody had even dug up Isobel’s mobile number and was urging people to text her about the dangers of consorting with devils.
“These guys don’t even understand that seraphs are angels,” Edwina grumbled. She got a half-hearted laugh out of Daisy.
“They are idiots, but Mrs. Landsdale is a huge influencer on Mommyland. She could actually kill the brand.”
“I wonder what Isobel and Brad are going to do? Do you think they know about this?”
Daisy looked at her like she was basic. “Edwina. Of course they know. I’m sure they’re having a very bad meeting with their marketing people right now.”
Most of the afternoon appointments were canceled, so Edwina and Daisy did a deep clean on the garden suite and unpacked a new display of frog milk bottles. They got a memo from Isobel around three p.m.
To: All Staff
From: Isobel Chang
Subject: Exciting changes!
We are pleased to announce that Margot Redberry is taking over as Skin Seraph’s new marketing manager. Brad will be stepping down to focus on special projects, working closely with our partners in the Philippines to develop new markets. Please take a moment to congratulate Margot. We’re so excited to have her in this big new role!
“Wow—she fired her own boyfriend!” Edwina exclaimed. “This must be really bad.”
“Uh, yeah. Did you see the story in Teen Vogue? Basically it’s quoting Mrs. Landsdale’s post and then linking to a bunch of other people talking about how the Skin Seraph stores have all become super unsanitary. Also they’re saying the frog milk line is made with endangered tree frogs or something?” Daisy looked dubious. “I’m pretty sure that’s not true. All this stuff is biomimetic. It imitates animal proteins, but it’s made in labs.”
Edwina stared out the front window. There was one smeary spot left in the corner, where the skinless woman had pressed her fingers last night. Were they going to lose their jobs? She still needed a hefty amount to build a solid nest egg for graduate school, and she didn’t want to go back to gigging for a dollar a minute.
As if she’d read Edwina’s mind, Daisy pulled out her mobile and spread it open to a page full of task offers in San Francisco. But then she wiped those away and opened up her Twitch dashboard. “Want to see something totally secret?”
Daisy poked at an unpublished video called “Sweety Quest.” It was a teaser for a new streaming romance series, starring Daisy, the hapless heroine looking for snuggles in the big city. Sponsored by Sugardew, the new Korean-style face-care brand. “They hired me to do a show about their new line of nightlife skin products—like all the stuff you need for going out and recovering afterwards. Isn’t it dope? I’m a real influencer now!” Daisy made a face. “I mean, I know that sounds awful but I’m really excited. I get to write and direct all the episodes, and they said I can do queer content and have lots of stories about women of color.”
Maybe Daisy believed in fae, Edwina thought, but she was also a genuinely nice person. It was hard not to like somebody who was promising to make romances that pandered charmingly to your exact demographic. She smiled. “Wow, congrats! Are you allowed to rep other brands while you’re here, though?”
Daisy looked around, as if Isobel might jump out of that memo and scream at them. “I was worried about that, but I think now . . . well, now might be a good time to think about finding other brands to rep? You know what I mean?”
Edwina hung her head. “Yeah. I know. I have no idea what I’ll do if this job goes away.”
Impulsively, Daisy hugged her. “Maybe it will be fine here. But if not, I know you’ll find something.”
That night, Daisy came along with Edwina and Alyx to an old bar in the Mission where the drinks were strong and grizzled millennials sat around debating politics with their thick phones propped on the tables next to their face masks. The wildfire smoke was back again.
“I love this place,” Edwina said. “It’s been around for forty years—like since the early 2000s. It’s the real San Francisco.” She finished her scotch in two gulps, and ordered another one.
Alyx sipped slowly on a rum and Coke. “So I found out something pretty interesting about Skin Seraph today while everybody was losing their shit about . . . the shit.” They raised an eyebrow.
Edwina sighed. “I don’t know if I can take more Satanist conspiracy stuff.”
“Did you know that Isobel hired a fae-owned firm to promote Skin Seraph last year when she took the chain national?” Alyx asked. They flipped open their mobile on the bar so the two women could look over their shoulder at what was onscreen. It was a Tweet from a brand consultancy called Witchy Wonders, announcing that they’d just signed a contract with Skin Seraph to “sprinkle a little fairy dust on their already excellent brand.” Alyx thumbed to the next screen. It was a PDF of the actual contract. “Obviously you never saw this,” they said. “But Memegen has access to a lot of private corporate information. It looks like Isobel has been hemorrhaging money, missing bill payments. And she stopped paying this Witchy Wonder contract too.”
Daisy sucked in her breath. “Oh no. She didn’t pay her brand consultant?”
Edwina was starting to feel drunk, but it wasn’t from the scotch. It was this conversation. “Okay, so you’re saying that fae are real, and they are brand consultants in San Francisco.” Her voice came out a lot more evenly than she expected it would.
“I mean, yeah?” Daisy arched a perfectly gilded eyebrow. “I told you last night.”
“Like actual fae, with actual magic powers? Not cosplayers or pagans?”
“I don’t know about powers, but they are contractors,” Alyx said. “And I can definitely understand being pissed when you don’t get paid. Contractors are always the first to get screwed.”
“Tell me about it,” Daisy groaned.
Edwina thought about the three years she’d worked as a Task Rabbit after college, and how grateful she’d been to get hired as a staffer at Skin Seraph. “I mean, I get why this Witchy Wonders person is angry, but she’s going to ruin a lot of people’s lives. It’s not just Isobel. There are hundreds of Skin Seraph employees all over the world.”
“I’m going DM them,” Alyx said, fingers twitching midair.
“What? No!” Daisy yelped.
But Edwina was curious. “Do it!” she said. “See if you can find out how bad the contract violation is.”
Alyx started giggling, eyes foggy with data. “The person running their socials remembers you, Edwina. She says she’s really sorry because she liked how sparky you are.” Alyx kept typing. “Okay, yeah. Yeah. This is bad. There’s nothing you can do. Isobel really screwed Witchy Wonders over, like for tons of money, and Skin Seraph is going down hard. It’s going to get a lot worse.” Alyx’s eyes cleared. “She says you should look for another job now. She’s willing to give you a few days before she pulls the trigger on the next curse.”
Edwina sank down on the bar stool, feeling simultaneously freaked out and vindicated. There was no way she was going to find another job with decent benefits in a few days. But it was oddly affirming to know that there was a scary magical woman roaming the city who thought she was sparky. Suddenly, she had an idea.
“Alyx, ask if she’d be willing to meet with me and Daisy to work something out. Maybe we can salvage this.”
A smirk spread over Alyx’s face as they typed. “She’s open to talking. She says she’ll meet you at Skin Seraph tomorrow when you close.” They folded up the mobile and tucked it into a front pocket. “Her name is Agony, by the way.”
Recalling the fae’s last couple of visits to Skin Seraph, Edwina was willing to admit that Agony had earned her hyperbolic name.
“What are you thinking?” Daisy asked, picking at a piece of glitter caught in the sleeve of her sweater. “I told you I’m probably not staying at Skin Seraph. Plus, are you really going to try to bargain with a fae? That shit is dangerous.”
“Listen.” Edwina expertly flicked the glitter off Daisy’s sleeve. “She likes me, right? I just want to see if we can get her to slow down. I need this job if I’m going to save enough to go to grad school next year. Plus, I actually like working at Skin Seraph—it’s chill, and we have good benefits.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Daisy shot Edwina a look of sympathy.
Alyx poked Daisy’s shoulder. “Don’t you want to meet somebody who is a literal shit disturber? She sounds cool.”
Daisy laughed. “I guess so. But I’m out if things start to get weird. And I’m not going to make any deals or bargains with her.”
“Thank you!” Edwina hugged Daisy and Alyx at the same time, almost unseating herself in the process. She had no idea what she was going to say to Agony, but somehow it felt like she was making the right choice.
The next evening, Daisy kept finding excuses to sit at the front desk with Edwina, watching the sidewalk outside warily. Nearly every appointment had been canceled, so it wasn’t like she had anything to do in the treatment rooms.
As daylight drained from the picture windows, a flock of green parrots crowded into the tree outside, chittering and eating the tiny red berries that grew between its spoon-shaped leaves. More kept arriving. Within minutes, it was hard to tell parrot from tree.
“That’s kind of weird,” Daisy said, pointing at the growing flock.
As if in answer, the door shushed open and three parrots flew inside to land next to the bottles of frog milk. Their feathered heads were as red as the berries they’d been eating. One of them immediately squirted a shit onto the pristine glass shelf.
Following the parrots inside was a woman with magenta hair in a fitted green jumpsuit embroidered with tropical flowers. She was muscular and tall, her bulky silhouette filling the doorway. She curled her hand into a gun shape, index finger pointed at the camera over the front desk, and an alert flickered in Edwina’s contacts: Skin Seraph Security Feed Temporarily Offline.
“Well that wasn’t creepy at all,” Daisy whispered.
“You must be Agony,” Edwina said loudly. “I’m Edwina, and this is Daisy.”
The fae smiled and pretended to blow smoke from the loaded barrel of her finger gun. Now that she was wearing her skin, Edwina could see that she was probably in her late twenties, with a pale brown complexion. She might be Latinx, or possibly southeast Asian. Did fae have human racial identities? Probably best not to assume.
Agony walked slowly around the store, picking up a revitalizing cream packaged in a squishy plastic bulb, peering at its warning label, then setting it back down. One of the parrots landed on her shoulder.
“I—I like your jumpsuit, Agony,” Daisy said.
At last the fae looked directly at them. “Isn’t it the best? I got it on sale at Wildfang.” Agony finished her circuit of the room and leaned on the counter across from them. “I love your self-care videos, by the way. I’ve been following you for ages.”
“Oh thanks!” Daisy had the desperately upbeat tone she used when Isobel visited the store and yelled at the clinicians who weren’t on the MakeMeProud leaderboard.
Edwina was glad the small talk was handled. “So, Agony, I wanted to talk to you about this thing you’re doing to Skin Seraph,” she said.
The fae turned her gaze on Edwina, and she felt a pleasurable tingle of . . . something. Was that magic, or was Agony just super hot? “I told your friend Alyx that I’d give you a few days before I burn this brand down.” Agony looked down and the tingle receded. “And for the record, I do feel bad about it. My boss at Witchy Wonders has this scorched earth approach that feels very 2020. You know? She’s from that extremist generation.”
“Yeah,” Edwina sighed. “Our boss is awful too. Obviously.”
“That’s why I’m going to work for myself,” Daisy said. “I just got another sponsorship.”
Agony shrugged. “You’ll still be a contractor. That means you can get screwed by ten people instead of one. Trust me. I spend half my days chasing down payments for the company. And when they don’t pay, well . . . I have to deal with that too.”
“Why do you work there, then?” Edwina was genuinely curious.
“I love doing socials and events. I figure I’ll work at Witchy for a couple more years, build up my portfolio, and then get a staff job at a marketing or design firm. I need some health insurance and stability.”
Daisy was losing her anxiety frown. “I hear that. I’m going to miss the health insurance here.”
Cocking her head, Agony blinked up something on her contacts. “Your numbers are amazing, Daisy. You should come to this healer pop-up I’m organizing. We need somebody to talk about nourishing beauty products.”
Edwina watched the two women talking shop and wished they could be friends. Agony might be a fae with supernatural powers—or a really good cosplayer with a camera-killing device hidden up her sleeve—but her job situation sounded a lot like theirs. There had to be some way to get her on their side. Suddenly she had an idea. “Remember how Wooden Board Café had that whole scandal where the dude who owned it was forcing everyone to do creepy stuff like compete for overtime bonuses and clean the bathroom when he was in the stall taking a dump?”
She had their full attention. “Well, Wooden Board is still open now, right? That’s because the workers all joined a class action suit, and the dude decided to settle by quitting and giving them the business. So they became a worker-owned cooperative. Everybody has a share in the shop. It worked out great and they started selling those really amazing cheese tarts.” Edwina paused. “We could do that.”
Daisy was dubious. “But Skin Seraph is an international chain. We can’t turn it all into a co-op.”
“No, you mean with the Skin Seraph workers at this one shop, right?” Agony continued to blink up feeds as she thought it over. “It might even work, because your boss could get rid of the shop that got her in trouble in the first place. She could do a total rebrand.”
“Okay, sure. But what would we do with a shop?” Daisy asked.
Edwina’s heart began to pound, and she realized with surprise this mattered a lot to her. “We all need jobs. Daisy, you want to be a self-care influencer, and this shop is the perfect place to build your brand and make video. Agony, you want to do events? We’ve got amazing spaces here for retreats, classes, and pop-ups. Listen. How often do you have the chance to grab prime retail real estate that has suddenly become garbage? Isobel has a dozen other outlets—she doesn’t need the hassle of dealing with all the fallout from Agony’s curse. We’d be doing her a favor. And we—we could make a really great store. We don’t have to do it forever. But wouldn’t it be nice to build a business where all the workers would be owners, so we could give ourselves good health benefits and vacation time and stuff?”
Daisy looked thoughtful. “We could get rid of Isobel’s shitty bonus system, too.”
Agony waved her hand to dismiss whatever she was accessing online. Nobody said anything for a minute while two parrots fluttered down to the counter. The third, still on Agony’s shoulder, spoke first. “These humans have good hearts,” the bird said. “You can trust them.”
Another bird cackled. “Or you could swindle them! They’re credulous!”
Agony rolled her eyes. “We’ve talked about this, Loudface. That’s an inside-your-head thought.”
Edwina glanced at Daisy, worried the talking animals might be triggering her anti-fae feelings. But she was toying with one of the free sample packets they kept behind the counter, seemingly oblivious to the possibly-magic, possibly-trained-parrot scenario.
And then Daisy said the last thing Edwina expected. “You know what? Fuck it. I’m in. Let’s do this. Let’s make a store.”
“YESSSS!” Edwina did an awkward wiggly dance. “We can do this! What do you say, Agony?”
The fae looked at Loudface, then behind her through the windows, seeming to measure the armies of pedestrians swarming Whole Foods across the street. When she turned back around, she was smiling. “We’re going to need a lawyer. And a business manager.”
It was weird how you could want something badly, and not realize exactly what it was until you found yourself in a completely anomalous situation. Edwina drummed her fists on the counter in triumph. “I have a couple friends who might be able to help. They just got their MBAs and have done some start-up stuff.”
“My mom is a labor lawyer,” Daisy said haltingly. “This might be the only time she will ever understand my job.”
Agony’s smile turned hard. “And I can make your boss very . . . receptive to our offer.”
“We’ll need to ask the other workers if they want to join us, too,” Edwina said.
“After my next curse, though? Because we don’t want to tip our hand.”
“Yeah that makes sense.”
“Hey, do you want me to do it right now? It’s going to be super gross and scary.”
Edwina looked at Daisy. “Do you want to? I want to.”
Daisy shrugged and then grinned a little. “No more poop, though, okay?”
Agony crooked her finger and they followed her outside onto the sidewalk, facing the illuminated interior of a business they were about to claim as their own. The fae raised her arms, fingers spread wide, and Venus became visible in the evening sky.
That’s when the fat, warm drops of blood began to fall.
“#Selfcare” copyright © 2021 by Annalee Newitz
Art copyright © 2021 by Rebekka Dunlap