This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Body transformation
The year before, the girls at school had called her Little Lila. Amelia, in particular, had claimed Lila as her own; she would wait in the hallway to wrap Lila in a tight hold, cooing like a dove over her baby-doll friend. Lila had adored this partnership—sitting with Amelia over lunch, spoon-fed bites of lasagna she’d cut to size with her plastic knife. Amelia was more attentive than even Lila’s own mother, who worked too much to feed her so slowly and deliberately.
But over the summer before seventh grade, Lila had burst upward and outward. She was four inches taller, now average for her age, and had sudden breasts that couldn’t be hidden even under a baggy shirt. Her grandmother had said to her mother that it was all the cow’s milk she drank. Too much growth hormone. That was all it took to fall out of favor.
When she’d arrived to school on the first day of the year, her friends had called her only Lila, and had hardly given her a second look. She wasn’t given a special saved seat. Instead, Quinn, who last year had been ugly, pimply and skinny, had taken her place beside Amelia. Quinn’s SuperNat, the newest model, fixed her skin and rounded out her face with an airbrush filter. Amelia didn’t seem to be able to resist touching Quinn’s silvery band—until two weeks into the year, when she came to school with one of her own.
A month later, and Nats were an infestation. Since then, Lila’s friends had stopped leaving a chair open at the lunch table; Lila, Nat-less, had to drag her own to join them each morning. Still, they made space, metal chairs grating on the tiled school floors.
“My dad promised me the newest expansion this weekend,” Amelia said. “Phase one of my birthday plans.”
Amelia fiddled with her Nat dial, enhancing her eyes to a bigger and brighter and more beautiful orange-gold. She looked like an exotic cat, an alien-child. It was a remnant of the last expansion, released only three weeks ago. Half of the school had fur and whiskers. Teachers had banned them from using the appearance features during class, but that just turned into a game to see who could get away with fangs or a tail the longest. Lila’d worn her leopard print sweater every three days until someone noticed. But after a while, no one thought furry ears were funny anymore, anyway. Amelia and Quinn and all the other kids with Nats had shifted to wanting to look older and cooler than their age, instead.
“My parents won’t get me the new pack.” Quinn pouted into her muffin. “They say it’s a waste.”
Lila hadn’t even asked for a Nat. They were too expensive and upgraded too fast. She’d be behind and even more embarrassed than now, like Quinn felt.
“My parents don’t want me to have tech, either,” Lila said, unprompted.
“I thought you only had a mom?” Quinn asked as she subtly copied her eyes to Amelia’s.
Lila busied herself breaking the crusts off her poptarts.
Amelia, meanwhile, began to look bored. The conversation had dawdled; Lila’s friends didn’t want to talk about new Nat packs they weren’t getting. Amelia sucked her orange juice through a straw. Her teeth played on the plastic, one front tooth bigger than the other despite all of the Nat’s help. She’d bite and push and bite and push, malforming the straw into a flat worm. Her eyes drifted from their table, even as Quinn tried to regain her attention, to beyond.
“I heard Macy has four Nats,” she said, suddenly, pointing to a small, redheaded girl at the table diagonal to theirs. “Her parents are super-rich.”
Macy was indeed wearing a Nat, hiked a little high on her wrist, but she looked generally like she had her own face. She was bent over a book, reading.
“Doesn’t Macy live in your neighborhood, Lila?” Amelia had turned her attention to Lila, tearing a napkin apart piece by piece.
Lila was startled to be addressed by Amelia. She had seen Macy walking home a few times, but she’d always pedaled around her. Lila knew which house belonged to Macy’s family because they had recently installed a faux waterfall out front. Lila’s grandmother called it an eyesore. Macy’s home was part of a trend of new, young families buying out the homes of the elderly in Lila’s neighborhood and refinishing them with the latest tech. After a few years of this, it was now the older homes that stood out.
She thought about what parts of this to share with Amelia, weighing how much she could lie to garner interest. But Lila’s mouth didn’t catch up with her brain fast enough to respond before Amelia became impatient. Her friend sighed, long and exaggerated, like an actress on TV. She brushed aside the scraps of napkin, sending them flittering to the floor. She turned away on her spiny elbow, showing Lila the back of her head, and called Macy over.
Lila spent the rest of the morning in history class examining Macy from behind. Macy sat in the row nearest to the door near the front of the room because her last name was Bradley. Lila’s last name was Morris, which meant she sat toward the back, which gave her the freedom to ignore the teacher at will.
Lila determined that she’d been wrong when she calculated Macy’s appearance. Macy’s hair must be a fake red, super-enhanced by her Nat. It was unnatural, a sunny copper. Lila imagined Macy’s true, boring face, beneath the filtered settings of her Nat. She pictured herself peeling away the skin around Macy’s button nose, revealing the lumpiness beneath; her skin would go from rosy pink to corpse-like; she’d have no freckles and small piggish eyes. Then Lila would put that skin on herself and they’d trade places. She’d go home to Macy’s big house, where her bedroom was white with soft yellow curtains. She’d trick Macy’s parents into believing she was their daughter, and then she could hit them over the heads while they slept. Then her mother and grandmother and little sister could all move in.
Lila took her pencil and rubbed the eraser on the blank page of her notebook, deleting her bad thoughts. She swept up the eraser shavings and forced herself to eat them as punishment.
Macy was quiet. She didn’t once raise her hand in class, and Lila was unsure if she’d ever heard what she sounded like before that morning. She seemed to take a lot of notes, though. Lila imitated her from afar. Lila’s handwriting was slanted and ugly, and she stopped writing after a few lines, having run out of anything important to say.
Every day in good weather, Lila biked to school from her house. It took about fifteen minutes to pedal up the two hills in her neighborhood and down the main road’s sidewalk. Sometimes, she cut through her neighbors’ backyards, instead, which cut down the time almost by half.
That afternoon, Lila walked her bike home through the woodsy trail behind her neighbor’s houses. Sweat pooled beneath her arms and in the underside of her new bra; she’d gotten a spot of sauce on her T-shirt at lunch, and she had to keep her pink jacket zipped up the rest of the day so no one could see. She’d gone to the bathroom during math and tried to wash it out with hand soap and water, but it had only made the stain spread thin and orange.
It was easy enough to drag her bike through the grass and mud. The wheels clicked, the back pedal occasionally hitting her in the calf, which stung, but she liked it. She passed the peach-colored house that used to belong to Ms. Owens before she died. She’d let Lila pick apples from the tree in her front yard, had taught Lila how to feed caterpillars in a jar until they cocooned and cracked, revealing the gem inside. The new owners were in the middle of repainting the house blue.
The houses fell out of sight as the pines deepened. The woods were small, only the gap between yards left too wild to tame and fence. Lila used to climb trees here, sap lining the cracks of her palm. She had a favorite tree, even—one she’d named, christened with an offering of a dead baby bird that she’d tried to save, buried in its roots.
The trees made Lila feel little again.
She walked most of the way home and then stopped in the tree line where she could see the road. She leaned her bike against a trunk and waited for Macy, who she knew walked to school alone on nice weather days.
It took a few minutes until Lila witnessed red hair bopping in the breeze as Macy rounded down the hill. She gripped both straps of her backpack tightly and walked heel to toe, as if memorizing the precise amount of steps. She barely noticed her surroundings.
Lila gathered her things and emerged from the trees just as Macy had passed, so that she’d stop to turn around at the noise.
Macy was a few inches shorter, meeting near Lila’s chin. Lila knew she recognized her, that they’d just been in proximity that morning, but Macy still looked her up and down in judgment.
“What were you doing?” Macy asked, her voice piping and sweet.
“It’s a shortcut from school.” Her tongue felt slow and heavy and swollen, even after practicing what she’d say.
Macy peered behind Lila. “What’s back there?”
“Just trees and houses.”
Appeased, Macy began to walk again, but waited for Lila to fall into step beside her. They moved side by side, saying nothing, for only a few minutes until they hit the bottom of the hill and Lila’s house. Macy’s was just around the corner, another three or four houses up.
Lila kept her eyes on the SuperNat band on Macy’s wrist. It flashed the time in bright teal letters. Her grandmother would expect her home to do homework at the table before dinner.
Instead, Lila turned into her driveway, the bike squealing on sand that had accumulated at the edge of the road that no one in her household had thought to sweep away.
“Do you want to walk together again tomorrow?” Macy asked.
Lila searched Macy’s face for meanness but couldn’t find it, so she agreed.
It was strange; the following day, when Lila left for school, Macy was waiting at the end of the driveway with a shiny, electric yellow bike.
“My mom got me one so that we could ride together,” she said, a pink helmet strapped tight around her chin. “She wants to meet you, too. Do you want to come over after school?”
Lila ran back inside, leaving her own bike to topple over, kickstand forgotten. When she came back out, she hurriedly stood it upright again, worried that Macy might leave without her if she took too long, made too many mistakes. “My grandma says I can.”
Like yesterday, they rode in silence. Macy’s bike was new and techy and had stabilizers; it was obvious she couldn’t ride without them. Lila’s bike was old, her older brother’s, and the most techy thing it could do was tell her the time so she wouldn’t be late. Macy’s slowness made the ride take longer than normal, but Lila found she didn’t mind. She took the time to notice the brown-tipped leaves on the trees, the limey orange of the grass, untreated even at the rich houses now that winter was approaching. Everything felt new. Lila imagined how she’d tell Macy all about the neighborhood: about Ms. Owens and the caterpillars, about the way the houses used to look. She practiced the lines, readying them for the right moment.
When the two of them got to school, they left their bikes next to one another; Macy hung her pink helmet around her seat. As they crossed through the school entry doors, Lila looked for her normal table, for Amelia, but Macy stopped and pulled a book out of her bag.
“Do you read comics?” she asked, showing Lila the cover of the newest edition of The Adventures of Juno Sage. Lila hadn’t read any of it, so she lied.
Macy took her by the hand; her fingers barely made it the entirety of the way around Lila’s palm. There was space there, cupped between their hands, like they were holding something secret. Macy pulled her to a table far from her usual where they sat alone together, flipping through the pages. Lila wasn’t sure what the story was about, but she laughed when Macy laughed to disguise her ignorance. Macy’s nose turned red like her hair the more excited she got. Even the Nat couldn’t hide it.
Lila wanted to see herself in that moment, to know if she looked the same, giddy.
That afternoon, they biked to Macy’s house and Lila met Macy’s mother outside, where she was gardening. She called it landscaping. “I’m landscaping the front yard,” she said, and wiped a gloved hand across her cheek, where a gnat had perched on a drop of sweat. She was planting climbing roses around the newly installed waterfall. “Lila, it’s good to meet you.”
Mrs. Bradley offered them tea and orange slices. The two of them sat at a high-top glass table, legs dangling. A large window faced the backyard, where the Bradleys had installed a pool and white fence to surround the property. Macy kicked her bare toes against Lila’s knees, leaving light scratches where her toenails were too long. She picked all the tiny strings from her orange slices and dropped them into her mouth, pretending to be a monkey eating a grub.
Macy wasn’t one to speak often, which Lila appreciated, but she was intensely physical. She invited Lila to her bedroom and gave her a teal bathrobe, wrapping Lila in it herself and sitting her down at the foot of her bed to braid her hair.
“I watch a lot of videos,” she bragged. “I braid my mom’s hair.”
Macy’s room was a soft blue, not the white that Lila had imagined. She had a four-poster bed and sheets and pillowcases that all matched. One corner of her room was piled high with stuffed animals; one wall covered in bookcases with numbered collections of comics. A galaxy projected onto her ceiling from a SleepBox in the corner. It was orderly but warm.
Lila watched the stars spin. Macy’s fingers tickled her scalp, pulling her hair tight. Lila was glad for the robe that disguised her goosebumps.
Macy gave her one long braid, then two; a fishtail, a braided crown.
When she finally got bored and declared Lila finished, she spun her around and kissed her on the forehead. “There,” Macy said, and tucked her fists under her chin, like she was posing for a picture. “You’re all done.”
She encouraged Lila to look at herself in the mirror. Macy had her own bathroom; Lila shared one with her mother and grandmother. It was the only place with a mirror where Lila could look at herself, which she tended to avoid. Here, when Lila stood before Macy’s mirror, new tech scrawled cursive text about her face: You go girl! The braid made her wide cheeks look rounder, her forehead taller. Under the fluorescent lights, her skin was pale and sheer. Still, the rainbow of text above her head gave the illusion of a crown, and she smiled.
Macy stole her mother’s makeup from her vanity. She airbrushed her face a pale white, colored her eyelids bright purple. Lila had never used makeup before; her mother and grandmother didn’t wear any. Sensitive skin ran in the family. Still, Lila participated: she dipped her finger into a pinkish-orange cream, rubbing it into the flat plane of her cheeks in two slow circles. In the confinement of the bathroom—door closed, thighs aching from kneeling on the counter with the sink between them—they drew with lipstick on each other’s skin, painting outside of their mouths and onto their necks, writing words like hello! and sexy! and cutiepie! Lila savored the slippery wax against her skin. She drew a band around her wrist in dark purple, filled it in, using the lipstick down to a stub.
Macy held up her wrist beside. Her band was solid and 3D and real. It told Lila it was almost six. She should head home soon.
“Don’t you have a Nat?” Macy asked.
Lila thought about it for a moment and lied for the second time that day. “Mine broke and we had to send it away to get fixed.”
“That’s sad,” Macy said, although her expression was skeptical. She dialed her Nat to turn her hair bright pink, blew kisses to herself in the mirror. She looked at Lila from the corner of her eyes. “Do you want to play with mine?”
Lila held her breath. “Yes,” she said, and it was airy, and she felt lightheaded. She held out her hand.
Macy retreated. She dialed her hair back to the red it’d been before. “I just meant you can change the settings on me,” she said, and stuck out her wrist. “You know, make me pretty, like I did for you.”
Lila acquiesced. She toyed with the dial of Macy’s Nat for a few minutes. She couldn’t find a way to make Macy’s features more flawless; her eyes were already big enough to be perfectly babydollish, and her mouth was round and full. Lila did adjust Macy’s childlike makeup with the push of a button, smoothing the purple shadow into a stunning lavender smokey eye. She looked elusive, old-but-young, a baby and a grown woman depending on the light. Lila pushed Macy’s hair back with water, so that she looked like a mermaid exiting a pool, or a glamrock star after a show.
Macy seemed to appreciate Lila’s expressions more than herself in the mirror.
“Maybe on Monday, I’ll let you wear my Nat to school,” Macy said as Lila’s glowing interest faded.
So Lila waited.
Over the weekend, they separated only briefly to shower and eat lunches at their respective homes; otherwise, Lila stayed with Macy at her home or in her backyard overnight and into the following day. It was as if it had always been this way, that Lila had never had another friend, that the rest of middle school had never happened.
Lila didn’t want Macy to see the interior of her house. She wanted Macy to believe she was like her, that her mother made her breakfast and cut her fruit and that her father went on long business trips. When Macy asked, Lila redirected them, instead, to the tree line behind the neighbors’ houses.
“I have a favorite one,” Lila admitted, when Macy still pouted. The day was hot and sticky despite being October, and Macy was already smearing droplets from her forehead. “I’ve never showed anyone.”
Macy preferred to feel special, so this was the comment that caught her attention.
They trudged up the hill, through backyards, to get to the trees. Lila felt sweat melt from her neck down her shoulder blades, catching in the cotton of her bra. She only had the one; her mother wouldn’t want her to make it smell.
Lila guided Macy to a tall fir tree, the only one in the row that had soft needles. She showed her where they should put their hands and feet in order to climb as high as possible, and allowed Macy to take the better spot, the crow’s nest, where the thick trunk ended to make a flat plane. Lila sat below on a branch. Sap glued the underside of her thighs down tight.
From up here, they spied on the houses in the neighborhood. Lila watched dogs go belly up, painters climb the exterior of Ms. Owens’s old house. The wind brought the sounds of new water features, birds moving south.
“We should come here every day after school,” Macy said as she pulled a comic book from her bag. She passed one to Lila as well, and Lila’s fingers stuck to the cover. “I bet my mom could build a real fort up here. We could have a ladder and blankets and everything. I’ll ask.”
Lila had never thought about changing the landscape of the trees. She had lived in this neighborhood, climbed these trees, for her whole life, and had never wanted more than the crow’s nest. Now, she envisioned cutting down some of the thick branches of her favorite tree, of sculpting it to make it better, safer, more comfortable for herself. She could dig up the body of that bird, her shame, and move it somewhere else, so that she’d never be reminded. It was pleasing, thinking of peeling away all those undesirable parts.
Lila noticed, too, the way that a small branch poked into her left side. It angered her that the branch had leaked brown wax onto the yellow of her shirt. She snapped it off with her fist and let it fall to the ground below.
Macy laughed and broke a branch of her own, one just out of reach, and tossed it away. Brown flakes fell into her bright red hair. The Nat disguised them as specks of sunshine.
On Sunday, after a final brunch of small cakes and half-cut sandwiches, Lila was asked to leave.
“We have errands to run, unfortunately,” Macy’s mother said, with the same dip of her lip that Lila had seen Macy do when she wanted something.
Lila walked home. Her mother worked the closing shift on Sundays and wouldn’t be home until late. Instead, her grandmother greeted her with a hug when she opened the door. She smelled strange, almost unwashed, after so many days of smelling only Macy’s citrus hair. At Macy’s house, the walls were white and crisp, and the countertops marbled. Here, everything was yellowed. The oils of their fingers had stained it. The ceiling was covered in brown water spots, like the house was diseased, crumbling. It was ugly, old.
It wasn’t hers: none of it. It was her mother’s, her grandmother’s—the people before them, who built the house. It was too small for her, too ugly. She’d seen what it could be and being left with this—she didn’t want it anymore.
Lila went up to her room. She took craft paints and covered her bare, yellowed walls in soft blue, as far as she could spread the bottle, painting at first with brushes and then with her hands. Lila pulled her mattress on the floor to drag it to a space beneath the only window in her room. She covered it with cushions stolen from the couch. She’d sleep there, luxuriant.
Her painted hands had smeared the sheets. She lay in the sun rays from the window until they faded. Her mother arrived home and came immediately to her. They could have picked out paint from the store, she said, if Lila had only asked.
On Monday, Lila waited for Macy at the end of her driveway. She’d rolled the sleeve of her sweater up, prepared. The bare skin prickled. It was cold, the weather having turned, and Lila wore a hat to cover her ears. She refused to wear a coat: refused to spend even a second unable to see the Nat on her wrist.
Macy didn’t show. Lila finally left ten minutes later than her usual time.
When she arrived through the school’s double doors, the lunchroom was uproarious.
About half of the children with Nats were transparent with a silvery, rainbow glow. They screamed when they touched one another and felt the illusion of passing through skin. Another quarter were covered in a fine layer of hair, a mix of grey and white, with hooked, wolfish ears that swiveled with noise. They howled, climbing on tables until the teacher on duty chased them down. The final few were stark-white, their skin thin enough to see the blue-green of veins snaking through. They opened their mouths to hiss and show off pointed teeth, brushed away hair to reveal pointy-tipped ears.
The normal children sat at tables on the outer ring, burying their faces into cereal.
Lila had forgotten the SuperNat expansion and Amelia’s birthday, to which she hadn’t been invited. But there Amelia was, at her usual table with Quinn and the others. She’d chosen a vampire, her hair darkened to a blackish red. She’d worn all black, too, to really sell the look. Her lips were pale, bruised, and she looked haunting, sexy. Quinn, who must have convinced her parents, after all, was a ghost, which, though cooler in effect, ranked lower than Amelia’s beautiful aesthetic. Quinn sat with her arms crossed across her chest, disappointed. Lila could see straight through to the orange chair.
Lila didn’t see Macy until she was in front of her. She’d chosen a werewolf, and the layer of fur on her body was tinted red, like her hair. Her eyes were blown up twice their size—she looked frightening, cartoonish. She bared her teeth, which were yellow and disgusting.
“Lila!” She struck a pose, snarling. “My mom bought me the Halloween expansion after you left. Don’t you love it?”
Lila did not. She thought Macy looked ridiculous. Amelia, obviously, was one of the few who understood the true purpose of Nats: to make you better. The best. To remove all the flaws and make you perfect. Macy didn’t deserve her Nat, not the way she used it. Like a toy.
“You said I could wear your Nat today,” Lila said.
Macy pouted: that same stuck-out lip, thickened by her aggressive, ugly teeth. “I was, but I didn’t know I’d get the upgrade. Maybe next Monday?”
The bell rang, and they were ushered off to class. Lila did not speak that entire day. Instead, she thought. By the end of the day, her thoughts had congealed into a sticky mass.
Later, Lila walked with Macy to the parking lot. Macy was supposed to wait for her mother to pick her up because of the cold, but Lila stopped her. The day had cooked to a good temperature; Macy didn’t even need to wear her jacket. She carried it tucked in her hairy arms.
“Why don’t we walk?” Lila said, taking Macy by the hand. With the fur, their hands were hot. Lila hated how it felt: scratchy, like an old coat. “I’ll leave my bike here.”
Macy protested, looking for her mother, but Lila knew how to convince her by now.
“I made you a present. I left it for you in our tree.”
They left for the neighborhood before Macy’s mother could pull up. Lila’s shoes, a little too small for her—had she grown even more?—were tight and achy against her feet. They left the concrete, struck into the grass, walking too fast. Lila wanted to get out of sight of the houses. Macy stayed quiet during their walk, though they remained linked. Lila felt her fingers squirming, like they wanted to slip away.
They were unseen. The painters had finished at Ms. Owens’s house. It was blue: the same blue as the sky, the same blue as Macy’s bedroom, as the ugly, patchy wall Lila had tried to paint to replicate what everyone else had.
They stopped at the base of the special tree that Lila had shared with Macy. Lila let Macy tug away her hand. She looked to the pile of sticks they’d ripped and twisted from the tree in the days before. There wasn’t a present there. Macy had noticed by now. She’d started to sniffle.
“You can wear my Nat now if you want,” Macy whispered, her bottom lip wiggling.
Lila held out her hand. Macy unclasped her SuperNat.
When it disconnected from her skin, Macy appeared again, fur melting away. She was a little girl with red hair, her nose buttoned and upturned, with dolly-eyes and red stained cheeks. The Nat hadn’t changed much—a detail, here or there. Blocked the mole near her mouth, the tilt of her nostrils.
Lila had wanted it to be different. She’d wanted Macy, underneath, to be like her: piggish, disgusting. They could have shared it. Instead, she only had proof: she would never be like Macy.
So Lila hit her. She only had one hand, the Nat clutched in her right fist. She pushed her down first, then climbed on top to hit her again and again in the face. She beat so much redness into Macy’s face that it turned purple. It was her left hand, her weaker hand, and the impact felt dulled, disconnected. She was floating. She couldn’t stop. She tore at Macy’s hair until she came away with thick strands, then she put it in her mouth, chewed it, spit it back on her cheek.
Macy cried, softly, when Lila stood up, leaving her there on a bed of pine needles. Her crying sounded like choking.
Lila took the Nat back home with her. Her knuckles were torn; her hand was buzzing. She bypassed her grandmother and her little sister and rushed to her bedroom, where she snapped the Nat onto her wrist. Her fingers wouldn’t steady when she tried to turn the dial. She moved it right and left but felt no different. She didn’t have a mirror in her room, so she stared, instead, at her shadow on the soft blue wall.