I hear the dermlings as soon as I’m inside the prep room. They’re squealing, little hooves clattering on the slotted stall floors. I take off my school jumper, put on the clean overalls from my locker. Then I pull new shoe covers over my trainers, wash my hands, read today’s chart. The stink of sows and dermlings seeps in from the stalls: hay warmed under heat lamps, fresh shit, milk-crusted teats. It’s a hot breath you feel all over your skin, that smell.
I fill up the feed bottles, put them in the trolley with the lotion. I’ve got the eight-weekers, so it’s the heavy formula. It leaks, glossy against my dry hands, richer than cream. There are four litters of eight-weekers, ten dermlings in each. Mustn’t have been any losses – unusual for winter farrowings. Two of the litters are deep mahoganies and the other two are honey beiges. The honey beiges are prone to sores around the eyes – I make sure there’s ointment and application sticks in the trolley.
When I open the door to the stalls the cries are louder, reverberating off the stainless steel walls. A sow shrieks and others answer her. Grunts and squeals merge, filling the large space. Figures in white overalls move up and down stalls, carry things out of trolleys, slam gates shut behind them. It’s like an underground station: the rush of fetid air, artificial light, so many bodies. But the screeching here isn’t metal on metal, it’s flesh calling flesh.
I walk over to the farrowing stalls, looking for Ginny. I find her squatting in the dermlings’ side of Pam’s stall, pressing a little runt to one of Pam’s swollen teats. We aren’t meant to give them names but we do. Just the sows. Call me old-fashioned, Ginny says, but if I’m gonna put my hand inside an animal’s goddam vagina, I’m gonna give it a goddam name!
Ginny’s worked at NuSkin since the early days, back when they just produced litters to order. Her skin is creased, and not just with fine lines. I watch the folds of skin bunch around her eyes when she laughs, tight and quick. She has a NuSkin but it’s from a breed we don’t produce anymore, tawny rose. She won’t get another one. Ginny says the sows don’t give a shit what she looks like.
It’s all women working the stalls. I’m the youngest. They don’t usually take on girls still at school, but Ginny is an old friend of Nana’s – that’s how I got the job. She’s taught me how to catch dermlings by the hind legs, how to hold their snouts without getting bitten. But she says I’m not ready to help with farrowing yet. That’s for women who’ve given birth themselves. One day, she says.
Pam’s got nine dermlings, all identical except for the slightly smaller runt. Ginny tells me there was another runt, but it was born dead, has already been taken by the boilers. Pam’s eyes are closed but she is grunting softly. They always do that after farrowing. Singing lullabies is what Ginny calls it. The runt is latched onto the teat now, sucking.
Ginny strokes Pam’s side, looks up at me. ‘It’s her seventh litter. Boss says it’s her last.’
There are no scars on Pam’s plump body. Her golden brown skin is beautiful, and there’s so much of it. But sows aren’t used for NuSkin anymore, only dermlings. Pam will go straight to protein processing.
‘You seen the eight-weekers yet?’ Ginny asks.
‘No, I just came in.’
‘One from Ellie’s litter’s not too good. Might not be able to salvage it, but see if you can get some formula in it.’
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I’ll try.’
If a dermling dies or its skin gets damaged they dock our pay. It makes you careful.
I have to walk past the younger dermlings’ stalls to get to the eight-weekers. I hate going past the three-weekers, squealing like crazy when they’re first weaned. It’s a weird high-pitched squeal the three-weekers do; really does my head in. But we have to keep the dermlings in separate stalls once they’re off the teat. They’ll play and fight if they’re in together, like puppies. We can’t risk a bite.
The stalls are separated by vertical slats so the dermlings can see slices of each other through the gaps. They can see slices of me too, as I move past them with my trolley. Some bash their snouts to their gates, some screech at me, heads upstretched. Others take no notice, remain in the far corner of their stall, huddled into themselves.
The first stall in the eight-weeker zone has a honey beige dermling in it, a gilt. She barges at my legs when I come in, shrieking up at me, eyes darting. I let her get a taste for the bottle then clip it to the feeding stand. Her suck is strong for her size and I struggle to fasten the bottle while she pulls at it. Once it’s in and she’s got her rhythm I squirt the lotion onto my hands, squat down and start to massage her. First I do the hind quarters, taking extra care around the growth points of the hips, then up through the belly to the chest. Ginny showed me how to do it this way, in slow soft circles. It relaxes them, stops them squirming.
It’s finishing lotion that I’m rubbing in. Next week, this dermling and the all other eight-weekers will be gone. I move my hands around the gilt’s neck, can feel her gulping down the formula. Each suck reverberates through her little body. She’s growing fast, every cell inside her dividing and multiplying endlessly. The perfect donor.
The gilt finishes the formula but stays by me, enjoying the rub down. She’s slippery with lotion, her skin so much smoother than my own. My hands circle up and down her body and I want to let myself sink down into the hay. But I have to move on: we’re only allocated six minutes per dermling with two minutes transition time in-between. Some of them will need the ointment in their eyes, will take longer. The gilt squeals when I get up, nips my ankles. I hear her slamming into the gate as I click open the next stall.
When I’ve finished all the eight-weekers, I fill in the charts and do the sanitisation back in the prep room. Then I take off my overalls and shoe covers, wash my hands, put my jumper back on. Out in the yard, the boilers are talking loudly, laughing as they collect the run-off from the debriding rooms. I keep my eyes down as I walk past them and their big metal tubs. I don’t want them to notice me. Don’t want them to make any comment about my body, my hair, my face.
Yesterday one of them said something about my legs, then another guy said something else and they all laughed. I don’t know what he said, but it was probably something along the lines of, ‘pity about the face’. It’s not just that I’ve still got my birth skin. My cheeks are pocked and blotchy, even with a decent layer of foundation. My face exploded when I was thirteen. I’ve had treatment but I still get pustules around my jaw. The scarring is what people notice most now though. I heard a boy on the train say to his mum that my face was like a sponge. He was right: my scars are little holes, sucking in stares. Leaving me open.
If I had my way, I would have a partial NuSkin already, just on my face. I don’t care if it’s not a true match and I get a line around my neck. Mum says I have to wait till we can afford get a full NuSkin, that I will regret doing my face only. She says no one my age has NuSkins yet anyway. But most of the girls in my year are getting their first NuSkins in the holidays, booked in straight after graduation. And they don’t even have acne or scars like me.
They talk about it in the toilets as they fix their make-up together, holding up swatches, debating what works best with their natural eye colour. I do my make-up sitting on the lid of the toilet seat. I don’t want them to see me rubbing liquid foundation into my pitted cheeks, dabbing concealer on any new red lumps along my jawline. I use the mirror from my pressed-powder compact, balanced on the toilet paper dispenser. Sometimes there is pressure building under the welts and I have to release some pus. I lean close to the mirror, press until the yellowy-white forms rupture the skin. Then I have to stay in the toilet stall, listening to girls come and go: a steady stream of piss and talk. I hold toilet paper to my face, wait for the open holes to stop weeping.
It won’t be like this forever. I’m taking as many shifts as I can and with my staff discount I’ll have enough to pay for a partial NuSkin by the end of next year. I’ll be eighteen then, so can sign the consent myself. Everyone at school knows I work at the clinic now. Thalia and her group come over at lunch, ask me questions about it. They must imagine it’s glamorous, like a NuSkin advertising campaign or something. I don’t tell them what it is actually like, what I actually do there. They’d think I was even more repulsive if they knew.
I told them I work with the skin stock so they grill me about the ranges. They want to know about the new collections and what will be coming out next season. Thalia said her mum thinks buying her a NuSkin as an investment because it will give her more opportunities. My mum laughed when I told her that. Mum only changes her NuSkin every five years, the maximum time she can push it out for her job. But she’s old – it’s different for her.
Mum thinks working at the clinic is making me obsessed with NuSkins. She doesn’t realise that compared to most girls my age, what I’m asking for is nothing. I’ve told her I would be happy to have a partial NuSkin from an old range. That I just want to stop being a freak. But she doesn’t get it.
And I’m not obsessed. I pretend to be interested in the colour charts with Thalia and the others but I’m not. It’s hard to see NuSkins as just a colour once you’ve worked with the dermlings. They see honey beige and think it would look great with some bright blue bathers they want. I see honey beige and think of eye sores and ointment.
Everyone knows that NuSkin has to be harvested, but they don’t understand the process. Most people are happy knowing it’s ‘made in a lab somewhere’ and that it’s not taken from dead humans. I didn’t know about dermlings until I started working at the clinic. I didn’t know about any of it, except for the end result of course.
But I saw every stage of the process at my induction. They like the stall-hands to know where the skin ends up, so they take us through every section of the clinic, show us every step. It wasn’t the dermlings that shocked me most though. It was the debridement. People assume that your birth skin or old NuSkin gets cut off. But actually, they destroy your old skin with an acid solution, then spray the dead tissue off with tiny hoses. Debridement. That’s what leaves the best surface for the NuSkin to adhere to.
I vomited when I had to watch the debridement at my induction. I kept it together when I was in the viewing room, but straight afterward the sick came lurching up and I had to run to the toilets. It was the pulpy red and white of the woman’s body without skin that I couldn’t get out of my head. Everything was so wet. Raw.
I used to feel sick when I saw the sludgy run-off coming out of the debriding rooms. But I’m used to it now. It’s just the groups of boilers I try to avoid. Today they don’t call out to me. I can walk the stretch from the operating theatres to the showrooms in peace. But when I get to the clinic gates there’s a man waiting there. I can feel him looking at me as I swipe my keycard to get out. I keep looking straight ahead at the gates, waiting for them to open.
He asks, ‘Why haven’t you got a NuSkin yet?’
I turn to him then and see it’s one of the debriders. A tall man with dark hair and a heavy brow. He has a golden olive NuSkin from the luminosity range. The debriders get paid a lot, always have the latest NuSkins.
‘Why haven’t you fixed this up?’ he says, gesturing to my face.
I turn away from him and go through the gate, but he slips in behind me, puts his hand on my shoulder once we are out on the road.
‘Girl,’ he says. ‘I can help you.’
I shake off his hand and start walking. Fast.
‘I’m training,’ he calls behind me. ‘To be a draper. I need to do a practice draping, before my final examination. I could do one for you. For free.’
I stop then, turn around to look at him.
‘I’ve draped a sow. Did a really good job – I can show you.’
He gets out his phone and flicks through photos. He stops on an image of a debrided sow lying on an operating table. The same red and white mess as a person who’s been debrided. Then he pushes play and a time-lapse video starts. The debrider comes into the frame in scrubs, and the sped-up video shows him moving rapidly around the sow, laying pieces of NuSkin on her. A vet tech comes in and out of the frame, passing him sheets of freshly cut donor skin. Looks like warm almond or something similar.
The video shows the debrider trimming, stretching and hanging the NuSkin, fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. They lift the sow halfway through the draping so they can do her other side. She is monstrous suspended above the table by the pulley system. Half raw. Unfinished.
I watch the two figures lower her down, and the patchworking resumes at rapid pace. When she is covered by the NuSkin the debrider pumps his fist in the air, smiles at the camera. He stops the video then, flicks to a picture of a warm almond sow standing in an examination room, zooms right into her face.
‘This is one week after. Look how good the seams are. As good as any draper.’ He hands me the phone.
I zoom in further: there are faint lines around her snout, mouth and eyes but they are mainly concealed in the skin folds. No puckering. It’s a good draping.
‘When could you do it?’ I ask.
He seems surprised, pauses. ‘Well, I would need to source the NuSkin. It all depends on the availability. It can vary you know, depending on what dermlings are surplus. What colour do you want? Something close to your natural?’
I need this. I don’t want to wait, don’t want to risk anything getting in the way.
‘Any NuSkin from the current collection is fine. Nothing damaged though,’ I say, meeting his eyes for the first time.
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘I will make sure it’s good quality. Ten dermlings, right? You’re a size 10?’
I feel his eyes move over my body, measuring my skin.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Size 10.’
‘Great. I’ll let you know when I’ve got them and then we’ll set the date.’
I nod, then walk away, heart thudding.
It’s five days until I see the debrider again. I think that maybe he has found someone else, or that it was all a trick. But there he is waiting at the clinic gates at the end of my shift.
‘I’ve got your dermlings,’ he says. ‘And I have an anaesthetist and vet tech sorted. So we can do it next week. If you still want to.’
‘I do,’ I say.
He looks at me and I feel his eyes sticking on my scarred cheeks. ‘It needs to be after hours of course.’ He looks at his phone. ‘We could do Thursday night? Friday night?’
‘I can do Friday,’ I say.
He passes me his phone. ‘Put your number in. The anaesthetist will call you tonight. Go through what you need to do to prep.’
‘So you will you be doing the debridement too?’ I ask.
‘Yes, of course.’ He laughs. ‘That’s the easy part!’
I feel weird then, thinking of him spraying the necrotising solution all over my body while I’m unconscious, watching it burn part of me away. I expect him to ask me if I’m eighteen but he doesn’t. Perhaps I won’t even have to sign a consent form since it’s happening after-hours. Mum would be horrified. But this is my chance to be normal.
The clinic is different at night with nobody around. Mum thinks I’m at Thalia’s. She was so happy that I was going to stay at a “friend’s” house. I feel bad lying, but if she knew she would definitely stop it. The debrider will drop me back home tomorrow night, once the growth patterns are established. Once Mum sees me with my NuSkin, she will realise it was the right decision.
I’m naked under a sheet on the operating table. The debrider is talking to the anaesthetist outside the door but I can’t hear what they’re saying. We’re waiting for the vet tech to bring in the dermlings: they prep and sedate them in a different part of the clinic. The anaesthetist doesn’t want to put me under me until the dermlings have arrived because she wants the sedation to be as short as possible.
I hope they come soon. I want to be unconscious, to get this over with. The trolley beside me is filled with solutions and the hoses are hooked into its side. The cannula is making my arm stiff. I study the ceiling – it’s a grid of little holes. I try not to think about the debrider, what he will do. I try to count the holes in the ceiling, but keep losing track. I take deep breaths, imagine walking into class with my smooth new cheeks. It will be worth it.
Then they wheel her in. Not the ten dermlings I expected, but a sow. It’s Pam. The debrider speaks quickly, explaining that they could only get a sow, but her skin is pristine, no damage at all and will make a high-quality NuSkin. Pam’s eyes are closed and there is a tube in her mouth. I smell her hot breath and the finishing lotion she has been prepared with.
I let my eyes run the length of her. She’s glistening.
And soon that skin will be mine.