The Man with See-through Skin had a refrigerator that was empty save for a jar of pickles and a single cucumber swaddled in perforated plastic. He accepted this breakfast and ate with a fork and knife, alternating fresh and vinegared bites. His teeth recoiled at the plainness and sharpness in tandem. He remembered neither buying nor eating the other foods that came before but presumed he had enjoyed them.
The Sun was finally storming in through the window. It was fortifying and so he washed and dried his dishes. He picked the peeling skin from his ears and combed the newness beneath it with the tines of his fork. His hands, unsheathed by gloves, grazed clean and filth with equal opportunity. A second scrubbing and the cutlery was reborn while the water streamed to scalding. He lingered in the steam, lost imagining how it might feel to be pickled and preserved.
Urinating in his sleep and staying in the mess until the morning, as he’d been doing with increasing frequency, approximated the feeling. The wet white sheets were a second see-through skin. For all he knew, the pickling happened long ago. He’d been listless for so long. But on that day, he was no longer worried. He relished the thought of sleeping through the end of the world, alone.
Three miles down the road, The Unflinching Man woke late in the day. He was unable to breathe without effort and thus swallowed a triple dose of decongestant with his first cup of sweet coffee. The mirrored medicine cabinet hung open at an obtuse angle. His reflection escaped him—the pupils ballooning to black holes in miniature. They could hunger and swallow, it seemed, but not taste.
He set down his mug and rose from the square kitchen table for two. He had long since ceased having work with which to fill his days. With a flick of his wrist, the stove top burner ticked to life. The metronome reminded him how long it had been since he last tested himself. When he was a younger man, the trick had been good for impressing his peers, drunken ones in particular. When he was older, but still a young man, the trick had been good for revealing the heart of any stranger. One type of person would egg him on; he was a saint spilling miracles. The others would pity him for a moment before they settled on fearing for themselves.
Now he was wide awake, on the precipice of middle age. His hand fell back into the habit of the flame. He waited for his skin to blister from silver to red like a bag of mixed tinsel. The colors cued his studied flinch. Like his mother before him, he could not feel the pain he knew he was meant to.
The Man with See-through Skin walked to the corner deli for lunch. He eschewed his usual sandwich, inspired instead by the novel idea that he might liberate everything green that was trapped behind the plexiglass. The meat of the clerk’s opaque hands assembled a deep bowl of wonder. He maneuvered tongs with a casual mastery. Pointillist broccoli lounged on peas tumbling through shards of pale lettuce and rafts of kale. Celery strings like the hair of a sea angel. The browns and whites and oranges of the squeeze bottle dressings piqued the Man with See-through Skin. He shook his head in polite decline. Only the verdant parts would do.
He hurried to the street where he crouched to peck at his food with his fingers. Each unlubricated bite lasted its own eternity between his teeth. He was full and content but would not let himself be satisfied. Desire stretched over him like kitchen clingwrap. He set out to free himself from the new layer of itching skin.
The Unflinching Man had a wife once. It had been two o’clock in the afternoon the first time he spied her lying in a lawn, some forty years ago. She held the Sun’s gaze for a moment too long. He looked on, his eyes heavy with the lust of self-recognition. Her one-piece swimsuit went an inch too tight when she rolled from her back to her cloud of a stomach. From his lips went a whistle. He never inquired as to how she could stand the light for that extra moment. A small part of him knew she would not have an answer.
For every new year of their love they traveled to a different foreign beach. Every year she was floored to discover she’d been burned on a cloudy day. It was then that he truly fooled himself into thinking they were two of a kind. Still, she gritted her teeth when he pinched her. She rubbed the red spots and it was wet where she blinked. He thought his touch so gentle and yet he could hurt her with a feather.
The bright side: Had they still been married, the statistics said, his life would be longer, and hers clipped in turn.
The Man with See-through Skin walked for hours, straight through and out of the city, and only stopped when he found a hill he hadn’t known he was in search of. He bypassed many others along the way. His subconscious deemed them too short, or not steep enough, or their grass was flecked with yellow and brown. He had succeeded in agitating his appetite and wondered what he would have for dinner. He could have feasted on anything had he stayed back among the steel and bricks. But he was stranded in sea of emerald. He was no ruminant. He could not graze and conjure cud.
A new mood struck after he removed all his clothes in a stupor. The stained and wrinkled cotton rolled away down the hill. He had no will to move. Once bare, he felt quite at home. He shut his eyes in the hope of retreating from his parchment skin. There in the dark he was a pariah no more. Gone was the grating question of what he might like to have for a life. He was to be a vegetable in so much vegetation. The Sun set in its own time.
For each thing The Unflinching Man did not ask his wife there was something she did not ask him, including where he had come from. He was borne of a woman from a peculiar place in Sweden, but his mother left her home just one month before the village would soldier the coldest month in the history of Scandinavia. The chill lived on in her fingers. It nestled in her lips and toes. What a relief to have never given her grandchildren who would dread her embrace. When she died, he found the grief tolerable enough. He’d reached into her casket and smiled at finding the familiar frost. His wife did not attend the modest funeral. In death, he thought, the essence of the living remains.
He had shown his mother his trick for the first time when he was three years old. Her shoulders creaked as she confessed the thing she’d known and buried. He had been the rare unfussy infant—his mother’s son. When she birthed him, she screamed for the sake of appearances. She had long since mastered the necessary deceptions, all of which were preferable to the risk of provoking certain curiosities and accusations. Were it not for the secondary contortions playing another person entirely would have necessitated, she could have been a brilliant actor. Her child would need not put on such performances. She cried out in earnest joy when she learned the thing she’d grown inside of her was to be a man.
His see-through skin was only as thick as cigarette paper but its many layers had heretofore made him sturdy enough to move through the world. Now he made the most of his inertness and soaked up the Sun better than any idle iguana, more efficiently than any blade of grass. Warmth was the skin he vowed never to shed.
It dawned on him: he did not have a choice. He was part of Earth now, or he was one with the Sun, trapped in some sort of orbit. He could only make so much sense of it. There was no sweat to wipe from his brow though his smallest muscles sometimes deigned to twitch. The heat stayed in him so loyally he could no longer tell when the Sun rose or fell. In fact, it had begun to do less of both. After some weeks, the Star was resigned to hover, never hoisting itself more than halfway up. It was endless, but not quite summer. The temperature dipped imperceptibly as the Man with See-through Skin imbibed more and more. The fog he’d known for so long lifted. His immobility was nearly complete. Soon he would be free.
It was noon when The Unflinching Man climbed the tallest hill he could find. Six cups of coffee had been his fodder that morning. Though he did not know it, he was a mere thousand yards from another man, another soul entirely untethered. Across the way, The Man with See-through Skin lay invisible, now greener than the grass. The Unflinching Man straightened his spine and stared at the Sun, which was now that much closer. And yet it seemed to have faded. One hundred seconds passed and he did not blink. The last obscuring clouds slipped from the sky like silk robes pooling on a tiled floor.
Where had his wife gone? One hundred seconds more. It was bright but not beautiful and still nothing hurt. He stared on without contest. There was no opposite pupil or iris for his to best. He sighed with the knowledge that he was winning. He did not blink. The seconds were longer, or they were shorter, now that the Sun was dying. It did not dive into the landscape. It merely tested the waters with its toes. His circadian rhythms became syncopated to the new sort of time. The reds, whites, and blues of his eyes felt dry, but not hot. His cells were merely annoyed. His legs kept him stalwart while hundreds of thousands sort-of seconds more passed. He was so close to hurting before everything went black.
The Man with See-through Skin’s thoughts slowed. His memories were bleached behind his eyes. The last image he conjured was many months old: a young couple ahead of him in line at the drugstore, during the dragging week between Christmas and the New Year. The woman fussed with the self-checkout kiosk, desperate to move as efficiently as possible for fear of inconveniencing the patrons behind her. Her right hand hitched a toddler to her. She scanned barcodes with her nondominant hand while her husband grabbed a rubber werewolf mask from the clearance bin. Its cheapness made it more grotesque. He hid his face in it and hunched in waiting. Soon, she would turn around. The shock of the creature she’d wed would frighten then thrill her once she remembered he was merely a man. He stood stone still for one hundred seconds before realizing his love had gone blind to him. She had not so much as shuddered at the feeling of someone lurking over her shoulder. The hairs on the nape of her neck were at ease. Upon seeing this, The Man with See-through Skin relinquished his place in the queue and retraced his steps, carefully placing every item he longer needed back where it belonged.
From his place prone atop the greenest hill, he had taken the whole world’s energy for himself. Still, he did not glow.
The Unflinching Man turned his head round and round in the abrupt dark. He could not look down. It was so black as to be unbelievable and yet he was certain there was a spark left to chase. That glint would linger in the corner of his eyes forever. It was as if God had taken his portrait without warning him of the camera’s flash. He heard a noise or he heard no noise and started at the feeling of being the last man left. Losing one sense had muddled the others. He settled into the shivering creeping into his veins. The cold of his destiny chattered, a percussive lullaby.
There was a Sun once, until a man consumed it. But for all he destroyed he was a small hero, for he restored darkness to the Earth in the split second before his fellow man went blind.