It all started with a bump, hard and stiff—it looked like somebody’s face when they’re being choked to death with a plastic bag. Mili Ray ignored it and expected it to go away, covering her neck with her long hair at school and wearing collared shirts and turtlenecks that prompted people to speak of hickeys and Mili’s situationship with Michael. But a week later, when she inched her chin toward the lights in her bathroom, she saw that the bump had grown into a miniature island with swaying palm trees on her neck. She tried to pop it, digging her plastic nails into her skin till she drew blood.
She went to her mother, who reminded Mili about daddy’s photoshoot that weekend and then drove her to the doctor to have the thing seared off immediately.
The waiting room furniture was covered with pink bear fur. A pair of twin girls were taking turns pinching each other’s noses and preparing what to say when they met with the otolaryngologist. They had freckled skin that was beginning to sprout teenage acne, which bothered their mother who sat quietly beside them.
Mili’s nails were painted red this week, a mix of gloss and tiger blood from her recently deceased Pocket Tiger—a genetically modified tiger that grew more and more depending on how much you watered it. Most people loved to carry them in their pockets, so they didn’t water them because Pocket Tigers could survive weeks without water till they died. She had the blood from her dead Pocket Tiger extracted in daddy’s lab and poured into a vial which she handed to her nail lady to be used as the base coat for her nails. A memorial.
Her nails always matched her planned outfits for the week—french, gradients, jewels, whole drawings on her fingertips, diamonds (real ones too). And rabbit fur for good luck, and fairy wings, and metal from the skeleton of the Titanic, and little elf teeth that glowed red in the dark. One time she had even gotten seeds in a coat of dirt that had sprouted tiny tomatoes from her nail beds.
The secretary called Mili’s name and walked her to the doctor’s office. After the X-ray, the doctor told her disturbing news: The thing couldn’t be removed because it was made of bone and cartilage that had somehow gotten tangled with her jugular vein, and removing it would surely kill her.
Daddy was the president of the research company that created Pocket Tigers. The theme of the photo shoot that weekend, organized by New Evolutions—an emerging magazine that covered new evolutionary technologies and experiments—was The Rays. The color scheme was skin.
They had been asked to wax. Every inch of their bodies had to look smooth and elastic. Roman Ray, Mili’s older brother, had just turned twenty-five and had starved himself in preparation for the shoot. He said he wanted to look like he had just emerged from a lab cocoon, steamy and hairless. His bones jutted out of his abdomen and kneecaps and his skin looked transparent. He had waxed his head, eyebrows, and eyelashes too even though the stylist told him it wasn’t necessary—he had done it all for daddy, who had once predicted, in one of his dinner table sermons to his family, that the next wave of evolution would bring about the first generations of fully hairless humans.
Will humans ever stop evolving, daddy? Mili asked as they stripped in the studio.
One can never be too evolved, Roman replied and daddy patted his son’s bald head with cold fingers.
They posed naked, one-by-one and then all together.
In a circle and then a square, back-to-back and face-to-face.
They were told to growl and snarl, and then to purr, and then to imagine themselves as cats digging their claws into wild guinea pigs.
They were made to oink and pretend they had horse dicks, and then to fall asleep with their eyes open so they looked like corpses.
The bump continued to grow on the side of Mili’s neck, but they assured her that it would be edited out of the pictures. And so would their eyes and mouths.
For her graduation celebration—which started with a week in Cancun, followed by three days in Puerto Rico, four in France, and a space cruise—Mili wore a band around her neck that, when tight enough, pushed the bump, now a tennis ball, into her neck. It cut off her respiration, but she became accustomed to fainting a couple of times a day. Daddy hired two maids to shadow her and catch her body whenever she lost consciousness, and she returned to her home alone after her parents decided to extend their space trip to spend three extra months in their luxury moon home.
Soon, the band stopped fitting and the bump stopped growing in diameter and started stretching outwardly. The palm trees had grown into fingers, and when the nails grew long enough, she had her nail lady paint them too.
This budding third arm became convenient. She could hold her phone with it while she used the other two hands to lather her hair in the shower. She could multitask like never before, brush her teeth while she did her makeup, hold her purse while she texted, and arrange her hair while she pulled up her pants on the toilet.
But upon his return, daddy didn’t like it. There’s no symmetry, he said, pounding his fist on the dinner table. The table shook and Roman’s juice tipped over the side of the table and onto his naked body. During daddy’s absence, Roman had decided that truly evolved beings didn’t need clothing, that their bodies should be efficient enough to regulate heat on their own. He had designed tablets that you could take to feel hot or cold and had burned all his clothes. He moved out of the house with his fortune from his heat-regulating tablets.
Mili had helped him find the apartment and choose what animal skin to drape over the walls of each room, holding a clipboard in her third arm and her phone and pen in the other two. When Daddy asked to see the apartment, Roman popped a tablet into his mouth and walked out of the room. Daddy didn’t notice. He sat on his computer and typed.
New Evolutions had contacted Roman about scheduling an interview. They had suggested a father-son issue, but he refused. He said evolved beings didn’t need fathers. They could survive without hunting trips and games of catch. They could learn to shave on their own. Making love should be instinctual. Evolved beings didn’t need to talk about their emotions because they didn’t have any.
Your skin is turning purple, Roman, Mili told him as he cursed and wiped the juice with a napkin.
It’s a natural side-effect, he muttered. She snapped a picture of him with her third arm and posted it, captioning it “Is purple the color of evolution?”
It went viral and started a fashion trend where people overdosed on tablets to get the purple look. Salons advertised purple spray tans for those who couldn’t afford the tablets as prices rose, but you could always tell when the purple was off slightly, splotchy.
Some months later, Roman disappeared.
Mili found him at the toilet in his apartment, in a pensive shitting position with his head propped on his two fists. She had come to demand he accept daddy’s proposition to buy the heat-regulating tablets.
She didn’t realize he was dead because there was no smell. She thought he had simply fallen asleep.
His skin was just like an eggplant’s, and when Mili tapped his arm with one finger it gave in under the pressure and left a small fissure, the imprint of her acrylic nail. She had told the nail lady to file her nails into claws this week, sharp enough to slice teeth. She tapped him again, another hole. She dug in again, deeper this time, till the first third of her finger was absorbed into the gel, and when she pulled it out, a white plastic substance oozed out, slightly thicker than saliva. She squeezed the sides of the skin around the hole and the transparent yolk poured out abundantly under the pressure, and she continued to squeeze until his bicep was deflated, the skin candle wax glossy and bruised.
She arranged him so he wasn’t leaning forward anymore. No longer pensive, he now sat with his arms hanging by his sides, his back against the toilet tank, the top of his bald head cold on the wall behind him. His mouth was agape and when Mili looked inside, she could see straight into his lungs. They were transparent, as were his heart and blood. He was a purple chicken full of liquid plastic.
She dug her nails into his stomach and let them glide through the skin, and more liquid oozed out of him, and the bathroom was so quiet she could hear microscopic air bubbles popping.
She turned away from him and toward the sink. Over it, the mirror was encased in gold. The bathroom walls were covered in elephant skin with a layer of fuzz.
She stared at her reflection and analyzed the fine lines that framed her mouth, mentally marking the places where she needed more botox. Then her eyes moved down her face and traced the arm which was now fully grown. It hung limp on her shoulder.
She lifted her fingers toward the base of it, where it connected, where it had been a small bump once.
There’s no symmetry, she told Roman’s corpse.
She dug her nails into it and blood spurted onto her reflection.
She began slicing, and when she reached the bone, it felt like cutting steak with a butter knife. She sliced till the arm fell with a quiet thud on the bathroom tiles.
Mili stood there with blood squirting out of her neck and her mouth opening wider and wider, and she thought about how she was finally perfect again.
An hour later her body was still standing, and her brand-new Pocket Tiger crawled out of her pocket, parched and dying, and licked the blood off the floor till he was full-sized again.