A Monkey in Chameleon Skin
by M. L. Robinson
Just before Macella-Carvelle’s biggest product debut of the year, Violet ruined the face she was supposed to be modeling. It was mostly an accident. She didn’t really mean to mess it up, mainly for her technician Giodi’s sake. But, truth was, she was happy the face broke, and relieved that she had just a little more time with her old self.
She didn’t like this new face. Not one bit.
How could anyone? Its eyes were like little black arrowheads stuck on hard plaster, the nose turned up at everything on its own accord, and the mouth’s default expression was this snarling frown that Giodi described as “chronically-inconvenienced.” It was just awful.
Even worse, Violet would be required to be in public with this new face. Soon, anyone standing behind a cash register would look warily at her. Teachers would shudder at the sight of her. The poor folk trapped in the occupational serfdom of “customer service” would fear her. Maybe even hate her.
Of course they would hate her. How could anyone be loved with such a face?
They wouldn’t, and for Macella-Carvelle that was just fine. Their CleomatriaTM line of faces were faces of Confidence, Control, and Power. Each face was that of someone who got things done no matter what the world thought about them, or whatever nasty things were whispered behind their backs.
It wasn’t personal, Violet tried to tell herself. The cultural weather had changed, and Macella-Carvelle Ltd. simply adjusted their sails. For seventy years, they had sailed through the changing trends with creams and colored cloth. But in the modern day, slapping on a fistful of skin-mud and calling it “beautiful” was not enough. Now, Macella-Carvelle’s commercial empire was made of more hospitals than clothing factories, more gene-clinics than retail space, and the winds of beauty were changing once again.
Violet was changing, too.
In her dressing room behind the stage, Violet sat in a makeup chair within a nest of wires and cables while Giodi put the final touches on her face. Violet did her best to avoid looking at herself and, instead, watched the crowd grow on a large monitor on the opposite wall.
A separate system put the crowd’s video feed through a program Violet recognized as Smokey Eye. Smokey Eye was a scary bit of software; the gossip-groups said Macella-Carvelle had spent almost an entire year’s revenue developing it. After some time, Macella-Carvelle’s mysterious Smokey Eye had finished slicing up the crowd and rendered out its verdict:
PRIMARY MARKET: FEMALE, LIFE GROUP 3-5
“Girl, stop worrying,” Giodi said as he waved a flash-styler along her hair. Half of her hair length zipped backwards through her scalp at the styler’s touch . “I can tell you’re worrying. Stop it. You’ll mess up the expression lines, and I’ll have to re-set them again.”
“Sorry,” said Violet mechanically.
“See?” Giodi laughed. “You’re halfway there already! Just keep your ‘I’m-Gonna-Kill-Giodi’ look for as long as you can, and you’ll be right on brand!”
Whatever Violet’s reaction was, it wasn’t what Giodi wanted. Violet refused to look in the mirror and see what horrible expression she must have now. Already this wicked face was ruining things.
“I was joking,” said Giodi, a little hurt. “Seriously, relax a bit. You’re overthinking all this. I’m serious, stop it! Don’t touch that!”
He smacked at Violet’s hand away from the nail-color presets; not unkindly, but Giodi was fussy when it came to his machines. He moved too late, though, and Violet’s nails blinked from the evening’s theme color to a soft, rosy pink.
“I just want to compare, that’s all,” she said.
Giodi shooed her hand away from the console.
“Well, stop comparing!” huffed Giodi. “We’re already behind, and now you’re gonna make me do it all over again. Wait...” He swirled his hand around the screen, and Violet’s nails spun in a whirling roulette of color until they settled on a shade like dead snow. “There. I got it. Now, don’t touch it!”
Violet gave one of her nails a few angry flicks, trying to see if it would come off. It wouldn’t. The color was part of the nail itself. She dragged a finger alongside one of the nails: medium length #2, tapered but unthreatening. It felt no different than her regular nails. Not the slightest hint of a film, not a trace of lacquer or extra weight. But if she sat quietly without moving or thinking at all, she could feel them itch, like tiny velcro hooks scraping the edge of her cuticles.
She stared at the alien color. “Do I have to do this?”
Giodi sighed. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I really am.” He rubbed at his own face. It stretched a bit like putty, and held for a bit before settling back into its normal shape. “I know this look isn’t you, but this is the direction Macella-Carvelle wants. We gotta make Life Group 3-5 happy. That means conservative beauty profiles, neutral colors, and being Super-Duper-Serious-all-the-Gad-Gam-Time. Look straight.”
Giodi lowered the chair and attached the color input to her temples. He swept a few commands into the console, and the machine began to whirr, changing the color of her eyes.
Violet shuddered, as her eyes locked in place. Now she couldn’t look away.
No matter how many times Giodi changed her look, that feeling never got better, and she never got used to it. Furious little prickling spread through her face, as if she had become a colony of little ants with sharp feet. She wanted to scratch at them. But that would ruin the face again. The feel of thousands of tiny mites spread behind her eyes, clamping on to pieces of her, changing her, trying to blend in like they belonged.
But they didn’t.
She gripped the chair as the itching got worse.
It was ridiculous. It was irrational. But she couldn’t help it. Ants scampered along the rims of her pupils and into her eye-whites and down where her nose mixed with her mouth. Little ants marching one by one, eating her from the inside out and spitting out a form that wasn’t her, an image that catered to women with withering raisin eyes and to the men rubbing at dead blue veins in their hands. And tonight, their unblinking glares would fall on her. Jealous for the confidence they did not have, envious of a form that Violet had begun to loathe. Their eyes burning. Searing. Lips curling.
She came away from her thoughts to find Giodi starting at her. He pulled the eye-changer back, his normally cheerful and immaculate face scrunched into a worried prune. “Your heart rate just spiked to 148 BPM. What’s wrong?”
Violet took a breath. “It’s nothing.”
“Come on,” Giodi pushed the console away. “I know you better than that. Seriously, what’s going on?”
Violet bristled. The thought of biting ants had latched into her mind and wouldn’t let go. The more she tried to forget, the more the thoughts dug into her like a tunneling worm.
And the way Giodi said he knew her. What did he know? How could he possibly understand how she felt?
He didn’t mean it that way. Of course he didn’t. Giodi, despite his size and how mean he could look, wouldn’t hurt a fly’s feelings if he could help it. But the words pierced through her all the same, adding barbs to that worm now writhing its way into wrong places.
She needed to lie. She was good at that. Lying was practically a part of her job, anyway.
“I don’t know,” she said in-between shallow breaths. “I don’t like the color, I guess. Of the eyes. It’s not me.”
Giodi made a frustrated puffing sound. When he got flustered, Giodi looked like a bit like an overgroomed orangutan. “Welcome to the effing industry. Story of my life.”
He brought the machine back in place, and the itching grew to a buzz. The thoughts came back, so strongly that she could nearly see them. Ant colonies scrambling to escape a boiling flood. Chameleons with bulging, wandering eyes. Monkey masks stretched tight over human faces. She looked over at Giodi as best she could. She should ask for help. She needed help more than ever before. But from that angle, Giodi looked too much like an orangutan from the years of collagen pads and stem-cell boosters overgrown with fat.
Now she couldn’t unsee how fake Giodi was; an old, fat monkey wearing very young skin. She imagined the face beneath the mask, and terror ripped through her, latching onto her and chewing the thoughts into her: Monkey Face, Chameleon Skin Monkey Face, Chameleon Skin Monkey Fa—
Stop it. Stop it!
Violet took a few ragged breaths. Calm down. Calm down, she thought. But the thoughts wouldn’t stop. Monkey Face, Chameleon Skin Monkey Face, Chameleon Skin Monkey Fa—
I don’t want to think this. I don’t want to see this. This isn’t me. I don’t want to! Fake nails and fake skin and fake eyes and fake faces they’re all fake, and I’m fake too!
On the monitor, a red warning flashed. A new screen showed a heartbeat, its peaks and valleys closing in on each other like jagged electric teeth.
“Violet, you’re at 157 BPM. What the heck is going on?”
Giodi rushed to the tablet console and began to type. Violet looked over at him, terrified. Without his smile, the collagen controllers in his skin relaxed too much, and his real age started to show. His face drooped and hung off of his face like puffy jowls.
Monkey FaceChameleonSkin MonkeyFACE Chameleon SKIN Monkey Fa—
Violet started to shake.
“Violet, it’s just a color. Look at me.” Giodi jumped from the tablet over to Violet’s side, grabbing her shoulders. “It’s just. A stupid. Color. OK? Now breathe! I need you to breathe, honey. You’re overstimulating yourself! Breathe!”
But she couldn’t. Her head swam, and her heart pounded in her throat. Right next to her own collagen shapers. And the melanin toner. And procedural voice-box generator lodged in her throat. And the tiny gears at the corners of her eyes. Suddenly, she could feel them all; each piece of her tingling as the feeling of ants with sharp little razor jaws scrambled along her insides.
“I don’t feel good!” Violet’s breath quickened. “I don’t... I can’t.“
“Yes, you can!” Giodi gripped Violet’s shoulders. “You can do anything! You can be anything! Just calm down!”
The buzzing had become shrieking. Every cell in her body roared a hissing static, frantic, chaotic, growing so loud that she drowned in the noise. A set of floodgates opened, and Violet and all her colors fell into it.
“It’s not me.” Violet’s voice had become a mantra, repeating the sound of the words until she too became lost in them. “It’s not me. I am not me. I can’t... I want to be me—”
“Violet, stop it! You’re scaring me! Stop it, please!”
Giodi put a hand to her cheek. Immediately he yanked it away with a shout. A searing smell, and the hiss of flesh on heat filled the room. A peal of fresh blisters rose on his palm.
“Be me. BeMMmmm.MMMMMMEEEEEEEEE333333#######!!”
* * *
Violet’s neck snapped.
Giodi recoiled as every permutation of twenty stirring female voices screamed together in terrified, distorted mockery. He watched in terror as Violet’s chest jerked and slammed. Machinelike. Unnatural. Every muscle in her body tightened at once, and her neck and face bulged with thick, ropy chords beneath once flawless skin. Violet’s face stretched to its absolute limit, hanging loose in a horrified rictus until at last it came undone.
Splat. Splat. Splat. Violet began to drip all over the dressing-room floor.
Swearing and cussing, Giodi shouted all the words he knew at the top of his lungs. He banged his leg on the desk as he swung around to the console. Ignoring the pain in his leg and the rising blisters on his hand, Giodi brought up a hidden screen on the makeup console: stark, bare, filled only with lines of computer code. He typed furiously into the keyboard as fast as he could with blistered hand, now wet and glistening and dripping with pain.
By the time he stopped the process that had sent Violet into a death spiral, much of Violet had dissolved into a seething grey puddle.
All that was left of Violet, save for the remains of her gunmetal skeleton, were a few fingers from her right hand.
The nails were soft pink.
Footsteps pounded outside dressing room, and the door yanked open. A girl with a tablet in the crook of her arm and a small microphone attached to her ear rushed inside. “Is something burning? It smells like—”
Giodi turned up from the pool of Violet and looked at the woman in the doorway. Dumbstruck, it took Giodi a few moments to recognize her: Jen, one of the stage managers. For a few excruciating seconds, Giodi found himself in the kind of moment that people spend their rest of their lives to forget.
“Oh God.” Jen brought a hand up to her mouth. “The synth melted, didn’t it?”
Giodi, dumbstruck, couldn’t bring himself to respond.
“That’s the most. Disgusting. Thing. I’ve smelled. In my life.” Jen spoke through a muffled mouth. Giodi could hear her suppress a retch. “Did I breathe it in? I think I did. Oh my God, it smells like road construction!”
As if Jen had cast a magic spell, Giodi suddenly could smell it too. Summer tar slapped on an overhot BBQ. Melting glue and burnt pork. Something chemical and living now reduced to sticky, tacky ashes. Giodi had lived through many long years thanks to Macella-Carvelle, more than he would ever dare to tell anyone. Even then, after all those long years, nothing he had ever smelled in his life compared to the smell that now filled the room.
“I...” he stammered, gripping his burnt hand and doing his best to keep some semblance of sanity. “I... we... we gotta call the hospital. We... we gotta call someone! Violet! Violet, she... I... I was just... We gotta call her. Who has her contact info? We gotta call someone!”
Jen turned to Giodi with a look of disgust and confusion that made his blood boil.
“Why? It’s a synth. Who do we call besides maintenance to come scoop it up?”
Yet there was no one to scream for. Jen was right about that. Nobody would mourn for Violet here. There was nobody to call other than for industrial solvent and a strong mop. Too much still needed to be done, and there wasn’t time to make a scene over broken tools or burnt hands.
Jen held the door closed and let him scream himself blue in the face.
The show went on, despite the smell. A small army of air fresheners and some industrial cleaning supplies ensured CleomatriaTM was a smash hit. The fashion world laid gushing accolades on Macella-Carvelle for their brave new standard of strength and beauty.
There was a party to celebrate. Much of the head Macella-Carvelle office had been decorated in a rainbow of colorful streamers, with plenty of violet and silver and gold as those were the company colors. Giodi dressed in all black that night, and spent much of the party drinking quietly alone at his desk, his right hand wrapped in long unchanged gauze.
Nobody asked him why.
Copyright © 2019 by M. L. Robinson