Category: Stories

Hypervigilant

In the ruins poking over the horizon—sandy yellow, blurred at the edges, pink marble monuments glazed by the greenish sun—lies everything I have ever wanted. I stand on a distant dune, kitted out in a broad-brimmed hat, khaki overalls, and combat boots. I’m waiting for my opportunity to approach. The air is alive with heat, light, and whorls of dust.

Sand turns to worn cobblestone under my feet. The monoliths are tall and rectangular, providing some shelter from the elements in the form of long, cascading shadows. But they are afraid of my encroaching presence and recede from me as I walk by, no matter how slow and careful my steps. I observe one at its base, noting the irregular pattern of its pink-gray stone. But out of respect for its discomfort, I restrain myself from laying a hand on its cool surface. In response, I feel it release an icy breath of relief onto my retreating back.

I don’t begrudge the monoliths their distrust. They have ample reason to fear my visits. At first there are only a few broken monoliths scattered among them, but, as I press forward, I see they have grown in number. They lie in perfect halves, snapped apart cleanly, like toothpicks. Stepping over them feels profoundly wrong—like committing a crime in paradise. Sweat runs down my spine in thin, snaking lines.

There isn’t a whole monolith to be seen anywhere by the time I make it to the swimming pool at the center of the ruins. The broken monoliths here are nothing but piles of rubble, the dusty rose of the stone reduced to the color of spilled brain matter. The pool, lobular and ordinary, its sides bounded in unfinished concrete, is clear and glassy in the light. Palm fronds litter its surface. I shed my clothes and submerge myself, hissing in pain as my bare skin, scraped raw by sand and wind, makes contact with the water. At first, I swim cautiously, crossing sign posts in my mind as each stroke gets me closer to the deep end of the pool.

I almost have my hand on the concrete edge, terror and exhilaration catching in my throat, when I feel her launch herself from the bottom. A sleeve of bubbles, a torrent of force, churning underneath my shadow. I feel her anger before the grip of her hand, grabbing my wrist with her thumb and forefinger. Her nails dig in, drawing blood. I manage to heave in half a breath before she drags me down.

“Does it help,” she hisses in my ear, “to write out hundreds of words of stilted preamble? Does it delay the inevitable?”

(more…)

Bliss Point (4/5)

The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. She hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament; righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.

But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it is.

The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.

“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.

At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.

(more…)

Bliss Point (3/5)

“The tiger,” Sal yells back at Mina, as they run through the stubbly grass of the neighborhood backyards. “That’s what you shot, right?”

Mina nods mutely. Gone is her desire to deny. The scream rings through her mind like a struck gong.

“I get it,” says Sal as gently as their mother, and Mina reels back on the line, hooked and stung, both encouraged and profoundly dismayed by the show of empathy.

It feels good to be understood, but bad to be understandable. She wants desperately to be like Sal: an enigma, a mystery of cold gaze and muscular arms and strawberry blonde bobbed hair. She wants that steely light in her eyes, a torch that never dims, to fall into her possession.

“You’ve never liked cats,” Sal continues, and Mina smiles grimly at the accuracy of that explanation.

She keeps her eyes forward, gaze bobbing jerkily as she tries to match Sal’s pace. Mina had started out like a race horse, flush with adrenaline, but that chemical is quickly receding, leaving her hot and panicked in its wake. But Sal is immune to tiredness, gliding forward with no sign of exertion, her legs pumping with raw, fluid, impossible strength.

“Sal, I have to stop,” Mina pants, her hands coming down heavily onto her knees as she sinks to the grass of a neighbor’s backyard. Sal doesn’t say anything. A twisted magnolia watches as she immediately slides her arms under her sister’s armpits and hoists her back up to a standing position.

“Come on, Mina,” Sal says evenly, “you know you don’t have a choice.”

(more…)

Bliss Point (2/5)

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.

(more…)

Bliss Point (1/5)

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.

(more…)

What’s in my Bag (OF HORRORS)?

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.]

Flood the Zone (2/2)

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?

(more…)

Flood the Zone (1/2)

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.

(more…)

The Fisher Princess V

The Fisher Princess I / The Fisher Princess II / The Fisher Princess III / The Fisher Princess IV

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…)