The room smelled of jasmine and clean linens and open windows. “It’s almost embarrassing, how simple it is,” she said in low tones. “It’s just one easy secret.” She waved her hand in a formless gesture. She looked almost embarrassed.
Well. She looked almost embarrassed, and she looked 27 years old. That was why I had come.
“Of course,” I said. “I’ve heard that.”
“What have you heard?”
“Oh,” I said, wondering how much to reveal, how carefully to avoid offending. “Rumors, mostly.”
She smiled. “I know you have heard rumors. I want to know which ones.”
“Well,” I said. “They say — that is, some of them say —”
“Who says?” she asked.
“Ah. The dermatologists. They hate me, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “They say it’s a scam, some of them. Some of them…some of them say you use blood.” The smell of jasmine grew stronger, sharper, more insistent.
“It is difficult for them to understand,” she said. “That a mother, a 53-year-old mother, a 53-year-old local mother, could learn a single trick that makes her look 27.”
“Yes, about that,” I said. “Where are your children?”
“It’s not a trick,” she said. “It’s a technique.”
“I only ask,” I said, “because you mentioned them earlier, in your letter, and I thought perhaps that was part of the secret.”
“The secret,” she said, leaning forward, “was given to me long ago. And the secret is not potions, not creams, not surgery, not magic. The secret is this,” and she placed her thumbs firmly at the base of her jaw and pulled.
I couldn’t help the scream. Her smile stretched out and floated up above her mouth as she painstakingly and carefully flayed the skin right off of her face. First one eye, then the other, popped out from underneath the peeling layer of flesh as it traveled upward toward her forehead. With some effort, she pried the last of it off of her hairline and sat back. “That’s all.”
“How —” I began, stammering. “How did you —”
“Practice,” she said. “Practice, and hard work, and sacrifice.”
“What kind of sacrifice?”
“There’s no time for that now,” she said.
“Of course,” I said quickly. “You’re tired from your work. Please let me come back another time. I must write about this. I must know the rest of your story.”
Her smile grew wider. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “The secret stays in this room. Stays with me.”
I felt behind me for the door and realized stupidly that it, and the room around me, was dissolving rapidly. Black spots crowded the edges of my vision and I had just enough time to watch her face swirl above mine before even that dimmed into nothing.
“There’s another secret,” I heard her say, and then I heard nothing.