Sitting cross-legged on the quilted bed spread, Mina draws out the scene on a fresh page in Sal’s spiral-bound notebook. Sal lies down alongside her, her head propped up by her hand, her feet dangling off the mattress. Outside, visible in the limpid, otherworldly color that streaks through the tiny basement window high above them, the night sky is already slurring into an icy, pinkish dawn. The early light casts them in the touchable, textured chiaroscuro of a painting.
Together, the younger with her hair in her eyes, and the elder with her illegible expression, they communicate with slight changes to posture and diversions of attention rather than words. Sal watches the bobbing of Mina’s bowed head as she carefully recreates the vision, noting her focused, scrunched-up face, the precise movements of her crimped hand. In many ways, Mina behaves like an eternal child—stubborn for the sake of stubbornness—but on the rare occasions when seriousness takes over instead, it transforms her from a girl into something else entirely. Not exactly like a woman, Sal thinks, but like a pendulum finally set into motion.
Mina’s version of the tiger looks less like a beast and more like an oversized house cat, an effect further exaggerated by comically triangular ears and oddly proportioned eyes. Mina’s drawings have always been clumsy, but she never fails to get her point across. The rectangular altar is thrice-outlined in ballpoint pen, ink oozing at its corners, announcing its position as the vision’s imposing emotional center. The heart of the dream. The lumpy oval lies above it, a vaguely humanoid form which Mina is now describing as a sacrifice.
“And, to either side, this guy with a very sharp thing, and an old woman. Like a king and a witch from a story.” Mina draws them rapidly: stick figures with bobble heads and blank faces. After a moment’s thought, she scribbles in a curved dagger in the hand of the first figure, and a hood cloaking the second.
To herself, in her capacity as an interpreter of dreams, Sal thinks: Time, slicing seconds off with a knife. Death, shrouded. That leaves three meanings to elucidate before dream becomes reality: the tiger, the sacrifice, and Mina, the archer.
Waddling to the toilet at three in the morning, legs clasped as tightly as the latch to a jewelry box, she flings open the door of her bathroom, bare feet bouncing against the shock of the frigid tile. The blurry shape of the sink looms ominously. Groping in the dark, she flips on the switch to her left. Stingingly bright light floods her field of vision—but it’s not the interior of her bathroom she finds, with its dowdy fixtures and seashell wall accents, but a long, winding suburban street. She stands on the smooth tarmac, sandwiched between rows of identical two-story houses and manicured trees, all awash in the pearly, deep purple of summer twilight.
She has changed, too. Instead of polka dotted pajamas, she now wears a fleece hoodie, ripped jean shorts, and dirty off-white sneakers. It’s the outfit of an adolescent with little patience for respectability, and a strong desire to skulk around shopping mall parking lots, hood pulled up, rubbery cord tightened around her neck. Her urge to urinate, which had awoken her from sleep, has disappeared entirely. She breathes in, feeling the youth of her in-dream body as intensely as a drink of cool water. The air smells green, like lawn grass, wet from a parade of sprinklers, and faintly sweet, like fresh fruit.
There’s an arrow on the sidewalk, drawn in baby blue chalk. A few feet away, another, and then another. She follows the trail until it leads her to a house at the far-end and middle of a cul-de-sac, positioned along the street like a keystone in an arch. It is a standard, factory-made two-floor house made of white paneled wood and windows with green shutters. She inspects it from the driveway, feeling the wind play through her long hair. There’s no evidence of movement inside, but she feels antsy, expectant, as though sitting in a movie theater right before previews. She knows something is about to take place. Going around the back, stepping quietly on a path of cobblestones strewn through the grass, she arrives at the yard, where a mise-en-scène is silently unfolding.
Hey, it’s me again.
[Eyes are shaded, poorly, in navy blue. Muddy puddles up to her brow bone when she blinks.]
By popular request, I’m sharing the contents of my bag today.
[Big smile is unshakeable. A cheery, four-note tune plays. Her intro is an animated fairy choppily waving a wand.]
A scarlet iPhone. Can’t live without this!
[Now replete with oxides from a Chinese mine. She taps on the screen.]
Here’s the last video I watched. The title is “Daughter of the House of Illusion.”
[The thumbnail image is a lush illustration of a female archer against a dreamy background, nocking an arrow made of purple flame. Her oil-painted irises are a light, cloudy gray. The description reads: Manifesting power, grace, femininity, a perfect heart-shaped face, and a hair-free body.]
I’m a spiritual girl. I really believe in manifestation. I’ve got my own sigil, too.
[She holds up a brooch to the camera. It’s shaped like a fist with a protruding middle finger, made of overwrought gold metal.]
Now we move onto my face. Of course! Can’t go anywhere without this.
[She slides two fingernails underneath, applies a bit of pressure, and removes it cleanly. Underneath, her flesh is not bloody, but flat, smooth and milky white.]
It feels really good to take it off at the end of the day.
[The mouth on the face in her hands continue to move and speak. She adjusts her grip, dangling her face from one finger like a piece of costume jewelry.]
Sometimes I do a Korean sheet mask with fifteen different kinds of ceramides. I feed my face Vitamin B2, and also this pink pill here, which is for
[screaming siren noise; REDACTED?]
Now I’d like to share my snacks—everyone should carry a high-protein snack to nibble on throughout the day. Lately I’ve been loving this 8-ounce block of American sharp cheddar cheese. I take this thing everywhere with me, plus my Japanese Santoku knife for easy slicing. I got my name laser-printed on the handle. See?
[The blade is as long as her forearm. It catches the light as she lifts it up to the camera, one hand held behind so the lens can zoom in on the finer details.]
Finally, my house keys! I have three keys, one for each door at the entrance of each concentric chamber within my house. But I obviously never go into the last chamber. Not since the incident—long-time subscribers know what I am talking about!
[She giggles. Her teeth, in the garish ring light, look yellow and uneven.]
I got this cute keyring as a free add-on with my most recent 300-dollar purchase at Nasty Gal. It’s got a fun quote on it.
[In miniscule type, the plastic rectangle attached to the keyring reads: Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.]
She gets the sense the raft build is from an early edition of the game. While its component pieces are generic items that are readily available on the map, the crafting instructions feel unintuitive and clunky, like a relic of a time before a UX professional was paid the big bucks to iron out the user experience. She even notes, with abject horror, a typo: 12 wod logs.
She places the crafting blueprint on the ground: a rectangular grid divided into twelve strips, with interlacing lines where the ropes are meant to wrap and bind. She has to position the logs exactly on the gridlines before they slot into place with a wet-sounding click, requiring considerable finesse with the arrow keys. A recommended step includes flax thread for a makeshift sail, but there’s no flax to be found in the game. Pouring over a fan archive of Apocalyptica press releases, she finds stray mention of iridescent flax flower in an Apocalyptica beta test that was patched out by the mid 2000s.
Tying the ropes is a million times more maddening that wrangling the logs. A wrong knot and the rope wiggles out of her grasp, like a snake; too many of these abortive maneuvers and it disintegrates in her hands entirely. She considers giving up, but there’s something charming about the challenge, and anyway she already has a purpose in mind for the raft. She’s going to position it next to the FLOOD THE ZONE graffiti, as a kind of ironic art display. She hasn’t been able to figure out how to remove the graffiti, which is unusual in a sandbox game that prizes user freedom like Apocalyptica. Even the wall itself seems rooted in place now, invulnerable to her trusty pickaxe. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them, right?
She boots up Dreams of Apocalyptica, clipping her fingernails on the couch while she waits for the game to load. Yellow crescent-shaped slivers catch between the blades, and then fall onto her dark pink sweatpants.
Just glancing at her laptop on the coffee table, its screen cocked, dust motes playing visibly across its face, makes her heart squirm and glisten with a slippery jolt of dopamine. After a day of work, tiring and emotionally void, the rush is better than anything. Dopamine feels so good moving through her body that she often fantasizes it will heal her many ailments; a miracle hormone like a string of pearls sleeved into her bloodstream, clearing the path of chronic cholesterol build-up and the molecular memories of her anxiety, disordered eating, and many latent childhood fears.
In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she plays as a vaguely humanoid blob with purple elfin ears, fuzzy green hair, and huge, glittering red eyes. She wields a sword with a golden tassel, though she uses it only on the poison-spitting skeletons that live in the procedurally generated forests. Her task is to rebuild the kingdom after a cataclysmic event, in coalition with a hundred-thousand other casual players, a responsibility she takes more seriously than anything, including her 9-5 and her handful of decaying friendships. In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she has something nothing else can provide: purpose.
Max’s vision narrows, then darkens, like the spiral of a camera lens closing in on itself. Far below, she hears water lapping against the shore. Light, misty and moody, reappears from somewhere above.
A soft wind, warm as an exhalation, ripples through. Max won’t be able to recall what she sees here, but the feelings will linger forever. A sensation like waiting in a tunnel.
Max feels the stranger’s touch again, this time on her shoulder. Something inside her sparks in response, as though struck with flint. A tendril of information enters her mind, softly but assertively, stripping away any other thoughts, like a melody triggering a childhood memory. But it’s not a memory belonging to Max.
Max looks at the stranger in confusion. The stranger’s face has twisted into a pained grimace. She’s on the cusp, Max realizes, of breaking into tears. It’s like seeing her mother crying for the first time; the shock and fear are crippling, and Max’s hand, possessed by a longing for closeness that confuses her later, reflexively moves up to cup the stranger’s cheek. Her eyes widen. Instantly, a fresh, smooth, dark heat like moonlight radiating through space—(more…)
“Hi,” Max says. She gets up from the table, arms held stiffly at her sides. The stranger is sitting up on the couch, still wrapped in the sheet. Her face is covered in darkness, as though alighted upon by a black, tarry brushstroke. A thumbprint of charcoal. The braid swings across her back like a pendulum. Max wipes the sleep from her eyes like dragging a rag through a puddle, her heart rising, fast and hot as a cloud of steam, into her throat.
Max has awoken past dark a thousand times over in this room, but the dimensions of the cabin feel different now. The walls have closed in like the sides of an enchanted labyrinth. The night flexes, casting its shadows over the furniture, casually wielding its power to transform ordinary space by way of scattered moonlight.
She reaches for the propane lamp at the center of the table—her arm feels longer, her movements sluggish, her reach unending—and flicks it on. She meets the stranger’s eyes and is surprised by the plainness of her face. No trace of beauty there. But her eyes are shards of veined glass catching the reflection of the moon on the window panes, and she holds Max’s gaze with a sense of authority, of determination, that Max wants nothing more than to turn and run from.(more…)
The stranger lies on their two-seater sofa, a wrinkled cream-colored bed sheet tucked neatly around her body. Her hair, still damp to the touch, has been arranged so that it falls over the edge, pooling on the corded rug. Max kneels down, a plastic comb in her hand. She begins very slowly carding through the fine strands, stopping only to delicately pick through the worst tangles with her fingers. The stranger doesn’t stir.
“How you doing?” Cal asks, bringing a wooden chair over to sit by them.
“Plummy keen,” Max says, an old inside joke. Cal feels relief then, clear and warm. In the truck headlights, arms wrapped around her chest, in a state of partial undress and shivering furiously, she had looked not fragile, but frighteningly unfamiliar to him: alien, threatening. He’d had to push past the feeling to rush to her, peeling his fleece jacket off as he jumped out of the truck, but still it had lingered—a ripple of fear in an otherwise placid mind.
Now, secure in the cabin, he feels the last of that emotion release him. He eases into the chair, resting his chin in his hands as he examines the stranger’s face, studiously, methodically, as though searching a craggy mountainside for a foothold. Her oval-shaped face is completely, unnervingly still. Every muscle is relaxed, pliant, freed from the burden of expression. A pallid canvas. But underneath purple-veined lids, her eyes move feverishly, unnaturally.
Twenty-nine and rapidly losing her battle with self-disgust, the oracle takes the complicated step of formally rejecting her birthright. It’s a big deal, but, as with most of her decisions, the enormity of it is inversely proportional to her confidence about it. When she meets her sisters at a bar downtown, she is cagey, leery about questions, and secretive about her motives. She meanders from point to point. A hummingbird in a sea of carnivorous flowers.
She tries to soften the blow of her departure even as she formalizes it. She tries to play it off casually, but winds up defending her desire to leave with more passion than she truly feels. An actor in a play, in an ill-fitting costume lined in pink seed pearls, stumbling over her overwrought lines, she chatters like a parrot at the table. Cigarette smoke fills her vision. Three pairs of unfeeling green eyes stare at her through the gray haze, but she can’t seem to stop talking. There isn’t any money in prophecy anymore. Truth isn’t a commodity worth selling.
“It’s my choice,” she says. Inside her starchy, rigid white blouse, her flesh recedes with horror at the sound of her voice, which wobbles, cracks, and then fades into nothing but noise. The hummingbird, which at least possessed its beauty even when it was lost, transmutes into a blood-soaked mosquito.
Her sisters listen in dutiful, but sullen, silence. Identical oval-shaped faces hovering above thin necks and clasped hands, symmetrical as gems set in a choker. They don’t say it, but she understands what they want her to do. She takes a deep breath and focuses on their eyes, turning the key in her mind that exposes her to the current of their true feelings. The hard pebble of honesty, lost in the dirty waters, retrieved by her hand. Swirling around her sister’s irises as monotonously as stock tickers along a marquee, she reads the dull, soapy froth of feelings that collect there like tea leaves: condescension, apathy, and, naturally, glee. The unabashed and unconcealed joy of lesser members watching the scion fail.
Even more than this sisterly contempt, which she expected even as she implored them to consider her feelings, she hates the shame of unfulfilled potential, a dagger which she aims at herself and which rises in her throat as she walks home, bilious, chunky, aggressive as heckling after a poor performance. Standing naked in the shower, she punishes herself with the image of their eyes.