Note: This story was composed for a writer's challenge in which entries must be less than a thousand words.
“Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil among the unhallowed damps of the grave to animate lifeless clay?”
-Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein"
It started with the skin.
Elsa stayed up all night looking at it. Sometimes she got so close that the sleeping body would roll over and murmur, fitful and dreaming, so that Elsa would have to stay absolutely still and quiet for a time. And she would continue looking.
The skin: It seemed a whole, solid thing, but up close she saw that it was millions of tiny pieces fit together in a way too subtle for the human eye. What a marvelous contraption; how could it be whole and yet still move as it did? Why didn't it break? And when it did break, how did it make itself whole again?
A face was skin, and a face was an identity, so that meant a person's identity was in their skin. Touch, that all-important, silent language of affection, was nothing but skin on skin; even lovemaking.
Elsa loved the body, and the skin. It loved her back. Life was good.
Something was wrong that morning. The other side of the bed was cold; the skin was pale and clammy. It did not move when she touched it, did not stir when she said its name. She wrapped her body around the unmoving form, trying to coax it back to life, but the face did not twitch back into a meaningful expression. The chest did not rise and fall with breath. Something had happened.
Elsa examined every inch of it; the skin was still perfect. It was the body beneath the skin that had failed. Blood, bone, heart; these things were so unaccountable. So hidden.
But the skin could be saved. And the body? Should she fix it? No, she decided. Better to make a new body. A perfect body. Tall; strong; indestructible.
Scalpels. Chemicals. Work fast, before it's spoiled. Remember you'll have to put it all back together later, so make the pieces large. And all the while planning, engineering, designing in her mind: the perfect body. The perfect formula. The perfect flesh.
Parts. They had to come from somewhere. Nothing from the old body could be trusted. Throw everything out. Start from scratch. Where to find materials? Elsa had to go shopping. She covered her skin with makeup, scented it with perfume, accented it with fabrics. She went out. She met people. People with muscle and sinew and bone beneath their skin, people with beating hearts and quick minds and strong bodies.
She talked to them. She drank with them. She danced with them, skin glancing against skin in the dark corners of a bar. They fell into bed together, gasping, giggling, clothes coming off and sometimes tearing, Elsa's eyes taking in every beautiful inch of their skin moving on her, against her, under her. So warm. So soft.
Sometimes she found what she was looking for: A heart that beat steady when she put her ear against the chest, or arms that felt solid and strong as they held her close, or lungs that took even breaths in spite of the heat, the sweat, the cries.
Then came the needle. In it goes, quick and easy; the skin accepts it. Only a little dot of blood marks its passing. Then she carried the sleeper down to the workshop. Then came the cutting.
How long did it take? Too many years. Her creation aged in reverse: As years went by, it came closer to life, further from death. So much work. When the body was done the old, perfect skin had to be attached to it. And how to animate? How to make the skin move and live again?
It lay on the slab, powerful and imposing, but unmoving and unaware. Elsa pondered. She remembered their touch; maybe the skin would remember too. She shed her clothes, climbed onto the slab, straddled the body between her legs. She lay on top of it, her skin against its. It was pale, immaculate, like a statue. Or an angel.
She pressed kisses to those quiet, unmoving lips. She rubbed her flesh over it. She ran her hands over its limbs, its hips, its thighs and stomach. She kissed its neck, its shoulders, the hard protuberances of its nipples. She let her tongue wander. She recreated the long nights and the warm mornings of years ago. She tried to make it remember.
It was subtle at first, but she felt it: a quiver, a trembling, like the vibration of a spider's web. Then it stirred. The ribs expanded with the first breath, and when she felt the fingers twitch and twine around her own she gasped and then whispered in furious exaltation:
"It's alive...it's alive!"
It stood. It walked. It lived and breathed and saw and knew and felt. It was perfect, unblemished, immortal. They would never be parted again.
Elsa threw her arms around it and kissed it. But it did not kiss her back. Elsa waited, aching to feel its embrace again, but it remained still. She saw indifference in its eyes.
Heartache. Tears. Elsa ran away. In the bathroom mirror she wiped her face, and then she understood: She saw the wrinkles, the wear, the marks of age. Her creation became whole over time; she had fallen apart. Of course it did not care about her. It would not even recognize her.
Her body was still strong. Her skin had failed it. She would have to start over. Her hand trembled a little as she pressed the scalpel blade against her cheek.
"Throw it all out," she said. "Start from scratch."