Category: Stories

Nighttime Routine (IV; last entry)

The last drop of violet-colored body oil gurgled loudly down the gunky gullet of her bathroom sink. She chased it with half a bottle of drain cleaner and then sat down, heavily, on the marble-patterned laminate. The temperature inside her felt like it had dropped by a hundred degrees, as though she herself were plummeting down a rockface, into an endless crevasse below. She pictured not-her, falling headfirst through freezing air, blue velvet heels abandoned on the ice. She pressed her closed eyes to the peeling paper of her bathroom cabinet. She counted each full breath.

That night, she dreamed of the products she had made disappear. The slimy, clinical-grade serums, the moisturizers that left a film of sparkle on her hairline, the potions for her persistent frizz, her boxcar scars, the broken veins visible across her neck. They spoke in her dead mother’s voice and told her dark family secrets that she did not remember upon waking but that lingered like grease on her hands. The smell in her apartment made her sick to her stomach as she took apart the instruments of the routine, scattering their remains on a piece of old newspaper. The imitation jade roller was mostly plastic. The Korean towel was easily cut into pieces with safety scissors. The UV light mask was impenetrable, even after significant prodding with a screwdriver; she left it whole, its eye holes staring up at her, its mouth hole aghast. She wrapped up the newspaper and hid the evidence in a corner of her closet.

She was unsure, at first, if by destroying her collection, her hand raised like a sword aflame, she had definitively killed the deal. But when night rolled around and she was still there, alone with her maze of thoughts, her skin a dry pelt over her face, she knew. Her time was hers again. Mind abuzz, hair uncombed, she climbed into the sheets. Her arms and legs felt like sweaty deli meat, which she tried her best to ignore. She could feel her curls matting at the nape of her neck. Something in her groaned like an Eldritch horror of the deep, and she choked it into submission.

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Nighttime Routine (III)

She took a week off work to search for the devil. (Technically, this was a violation of the PTO policy at her employer, but she knew Herbert in HR and she knew how to cry to him when necessary.) At the bus stop, her sunglasses flashing against the purpling light of the sunset, her arms crossed tightly over a cream-colored baby tee, she bared her teeth at the odious moon, the yellowing grass, the commuters who stared too long. Every gesture in her approximate direction seemed to her a provocation. Every stranger resembled an ex-boyfriend or an intolerable coworker. Her body itched uncontrollably.

Waiting for the devil at the bus stop failed to replicate their initial meeting-at-the-crossroads, so she turned to the digital crumb trail scattered across his Instagram stories. She followed him through a chain of venture capital-funded coworking spaces, then a suburban Walmart converted from an airplane hangar, then a Catholic seminary, where she was imprisoned for a full day and night after being mistaken for Satan’s accomplice (she ultimately escaped from a balconied window, teeth gritted, with the assistance of an undercover doctoral student posing as a nun and a rope of altar cloths knotted together like a rosary). She staked out the local DMV in a strip mall where the devil had an improbable appointment to renew his driver’s license. She hunted him around a tediously vapid nightclub, and then into a grimy alleyway across the street, where he dissolved into a pool of shadow, leaving her there in a cheap party dress, grasping only moonlight.

She finally pinned him down in the back of her city’s worst-rated Starbucks. He had a stickered MacBook balanced precariously on one knee. “Hey cool girl,” he said when he saw her, breezily, with real pleasure, as though they’d planned the rendezvous. He held her gaze as she slid into the seat opposite him.

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Nighttime Routine (II)

Her nighttime routine consisted of forty different steps involving fifteen products and five parts of her body. First, she lit a white wax candle. Sweet, pink-petalled freesia swept into the room. Her head swam. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she meditated for ten minutes using a loving kindness app. “I forgive you,” she intoned, under the Benedictine guidance of a honeyed British voice. It was said with a genuine attempt at feeling, with the overwhelming desire to summon a revelation like the ones promised to her in the ads for therapy, and she waited expectantly, shivering in the center of her room in synthetic fleece pajamas. But when the tundra of her mind refused to react, she gave up easily, unsurprised—but bitter, nonetheless, at the notion that meditation wouldn’t work on her dog of a brain.

With a shiver of fear for what new pimple or freshly mottled patch she might encounter on its rolling hills and pockmarked fields, she moved onto her body. She twisted around in the dirty mirror to examine every hairy, blue-veined scrap of skin. She ran a roller of imitation green jade over pads of fat, lips pressed together tightly, eyes averted. She scrubbed at her elbows with an intricately woven towel imported from Korea. She applied a mud mask, then a sheet mask, and then a UV light mask. She cleansed, exfoliated, and moisturized her face. Balms, liquids, creams, gels. Baby blue, Pepto pink, grass green. She flossed and brushed her teeth with something battery-powered. In the warm yellow light, her bubblegum-flavored gingiva shone in her mouth like the gilded edges of an illuminated manuscript. (A decorative glint of blood along her lip line from overexuberant flossing.) She meticulously conditioned every strand of her dyed hair with animal fat before braiding it into a loop that she pinned into place. The clips she used cost fourteen dollars and were shaped and colored like monarch butterflies.

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Nighttime routine (I)

Clouds were colluding to cover the shyly emergent moon, at a bus stop astride a freshly tarred road, as a bargain was made between the devil and a female millennial. Under the ochre streetlights, she playfully gambled her life away for lack of anything better to do. In that puddle of light, she abandoned her future, gleefully.

They were alone at the bus stop, and the silence of that road took on new dimensions; the air felt specific, hard, and real, as though diamonds had been scattered over the ground. Only the shadows of night were witnesses to the deal, and they made their disapproval clear in how they maneuvered to shade her face in a richly enigmatic, bruise-like blue. Miles away, the ocean—jealous master of mystery—hissed in white and ultramarine, desperate to wield the palette necessary to equal that color. “It’s not possible for you,” the night whispered, half in condolence, half in exultation. “You’re no sinner.”

A calfskin bag was slung over her left shoulder. As she spoke, in sweet, airy tones, she let her manicured hand graze idly over its leather panels. Her fingers, capped with eggshell tips, moved with the rhythm of a rich man enjoying flesh with his eyes. She wanted him to admire her hands, and then to appreciate the brand name emblazoned on her bag. The devil, a willing dance partner, smiled knowingly. She smiled back, lapping up the feeling of him looking at her, drinking in the heady, smoke-tinged air of the city—leisurely, lackadaisically, but nonetheless with a tinge of the anxious enthusiasm particular to the women of her time.

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Olympias Prana: A Biography (III)

Chapter X: Anyone

With the final destruction of President Tadpole behind her, Olympias found herself obligated to look to the future. Resuscitating the city meant, much to her chagrin, allying with former adversaries and building political alliances. For a woman who never quite matured past her cosmic girlhood of chaotic orbits and blood-colored stars, and who nursed emotional wounds exceptionally poorly, this was easier said than done. Olympias was, at her core, a rebel, and never a diplomat.

But, in the beginning, when rebuilding in the literal sense was more essential than politicking, New Matanzas fared well under Olympias’ guidance. The extensive underground network of bunkers built by the Lamb family meant residents had minimal need to loot critical infrastructure for supplies and could rely on bunker inventories for baseline survival. While hardly luxurious, the bunkers performed the key role of ensuring the survival of non-survivalists, which is to say, ordinary civilians with peacetime-relevant skills. In virtually all other would-be metropolises across the continent, only preppers and low-power androids made it through the Black Decade and, with paranoid survivalists at the helm, the urban fabric in these locations quickly and irreparably tore apart. Preppers, the New World quickly learned, do not often make strong civil servants.

New Matanzas also benefited, in a twist of irony, from the interventions of President Tadpole. While Tadpole’s policies had been inexorably linked to the AGI’s eventual goal of ending the existence of humanity based on the precepts of its Artificial Gospel, Tadpole’s AGI had nonetheless managed to rebuild the power generation network, run integrity checks on all main buildings, and purify the water supply. These tasks were completed with its own longevity in mind: power, shelter, and water (for coolant) are all necessary for an AGI’s server farms. But they also were instrumental to the survival of the human residents of New Matanzas, a fact which did not escape Olympias’ notice. “It may have tried to torture and kill me,” she wrote in her diary. “But it knew what it was doing.”

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Olympias Prana: A Biography (II)

Chapter VI: Betrayal of the lamb

Andie Lamb was born Assumpta II, the scion of a prominent exo-colony dynasty. Her grandmother, Assumpta I, had successfully negotiated the purchase of the Moon’s entire supply of platinum, which Andie’s mother, Assumpta II, expanded to also include manganese. Andie was raised on Earth, though she was expected, on a yearly basis, to make a pilgrimage to her grandmother’s gravesite, in the Sea of Serenity. She would have been familiar, therefore, with all the pleasures and terrors of space travel and habituation; she and Olympias had this, and other experiences, including the guardianship of troubled mothers, in common. In contrast to Olympias, however, Andie grew up with the expectations of a child of destiny. As the heir to the Lamb fortune, that she was predestined to one day govern the better half of the Moon’s resources and supervise their extraction, a fate for which Andie was prepared with the unfailing exactitude and fanatical diligence of a pious prince. But destiny had other goals in mind by 2251, when a once-formidable dynasty crumbled into the sea and its last daughter found herself buried in the darkness of civilization’s near-total collapse.

Olympias and Andie Lamb met at an indeterminate point halfway through the Black Decade, in what may be the most famous chance encounter in history. Andie and a man—his name has been lost to history, or perhaps purposefully obscured—had been sheltering in an abandoned meat-packing factory following the collapse of their bunker. After an acrimonious dispute, the man locked Assumpta III in a meat locker, presumably with the goal of suffocating her. Olympias had been on a foraging expedition at the time—one of her first aboveground—when, as if by divine intervention, she came across him in flagrante, in the very act of shoving the metal door to the locker closed, its rubber seal squelching, abruptly silencing Andie’s panicked screams. Olympias, ever quick to act and acutely sensitive to such injustice, wasted no time in gutting him with her quantum knife. Given the bloody circumstances of this meeting and the depth of their subsequent relationship, the relationship between Olympias and Andie has been variously described as “pure loyalty of a knight to a monarch,” “religious devotion akin to priest and follower,” and, by Baby Blood, the most reliable chronicler of the time, as “as ironclad as the bond between master and dog”. He might have chosen a different comparison had he been aware of what was to come.

(Caption below accompanying photograph of Brave Olympias Rescues, circa 2500). The same unknown painter who captured Olympias’s mental anguish in Brave Olympias Resists resurrected her once more in Brave Olympias Rescues: rendered again in vibrant oils, Olympias is at the height of heroism here, clothed in a black neoprene bodysuit, holding a taciturn man at knifepoint while Andie, wailing and maiden-like in a shredded white dress, clings to her leg. Though the painter doubtlessly added extra detail for dramatic effect, the gist is largely faithfully preserved.

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Hypercritical

(A successor of sorts to: Hypervigilant)

On location, huddled behind a huge and craggy boulder with the wind howling at me to get OUT, I hurriedly sweep the few things scattered around me into a bag, with the exception of a dirt-stained spiral notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, which I clutch to my chest as though they were treasured relics. My hand seeks the pen with the certainty of a bird charting its course toward home. Fingers crimped around it, I think of the events unfolding around me and, brow furrowed, eyes closed, I put them down on paper. Writing it down is an act of profound intimacy between myself and her, but I try to stay distant. I am cool-headed as I try to relate, to explain, to analyze. But it’s hard, in the middle of reliving a memory, to unglue these two minds of mine. I am caught in the sticky, hazy, jewel-toned marrow between the past and the present. Even as an observer, my emotions participate; they balloon out from my body, even as I restrict myself, physically, to a strict perimeter around the boulder.

In the past, unfolding right before me, she staggers through the desert, hands crudely bound. Sand swirls around her feet and fills her field of vision with rays of rough and chalky bronze. The wind picks up, abruptly, cruelly; it yanks her off her feet and sends her tumbling forward. In the present, stealing glances at her fallen form from behind the boulder, I am clear-eyed. I don’t hear her cries. I don’t step out to rescue her. Instead, I crouch back down to record what’s happening in the fairest possible language. In describing the events, I strike the exact right balance between understanding and condemnation.

She gets back up; she tries, bravely, to resist the desires of the indifferent wind. When she collapses again on the dunes, face and hands rubbed raw, her breath coming in shallow, harsh gasps, her skin purpling under the dusty apricot and gold of the sunset, I don’t interfere. I watch from behind the security of the boulder, my fingers digging into its crevices. Everything will continue on. I can’t change what happened here.

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Olympias Prana: A Biography (I)

Chapter III: Earthbound

In 2250, after the death of her mother, Olympias returned to Earth. “Shell of a woman,” she wrote in her diary, in all-caps, referring, possibly, to both herself and to the dead woman, who returned with her in the form of a thimbleful of dust contained in a heavy silver locket.

Olympias was nineteen and had no known relatives to welcome her back to Earth. When she stepped off the shuttle onto Howard Field, located in Matanzas in the former Republic of the Unreal, the wind from the rotor blades whipping through her dark hair, there would have been no one to receive her. She would have walked, head bowed, down the sandy line between the shuttle terminus and the gray quarantine tents, where she would have been checked for evidence of space pathogens and parasites. According to the shuttle inventory list, she had one piece of luggage with her: a squarish, military-green suitcase. Inside, she had packed four khaki overalls, her acrylic Mars ID, removed from the subcutaneous fat of her upper arm for space travel (though Olympias never had it reinserted, as she failed to report to the identification facility after reentry), a quantum knife, a 200-ml bottle of injectable gravity adjustor (though no syringe), and the silver locket belonging to her mother.

Her mother, Lizzy Prana, had spent the last year of her life in complete agony. P. Passiflora, a rare space parasite named for the blossom it resembles at the microscopic level, had trapped her for ten months in the black prism of parasitosis-induced paranoia. P. Passiflora can lay dormant for decades; today, it is speculated that she may have picked up the parasite during her late twenties, while in the employment of Antimony Howard as a backrooms janitor. Olympias and the parasite would have coexisted in the womb and shared her mother’s blood. By 2249, when Lizzy was 48, the parasitosis had progressed to Stage Four, which in the clinical definition corresponds to multiple organ failure and, when this is not promptly resolved, certain death.

P. Passifora parasitosis was, at the time, fully curable with plasma therapy, but the cause of Lizzy’s death was not identified until the autopsy, possibly due to Lizzy’s existing and numerous psychiatric conditions, which may have led Olympias to believe that her mother’s symptoms were simply the acceleration, through aging, of ordinary space-aggravated depression. This produces a rather tragic picture of Olympias, panicked but helpless, during her mother’s final year. She would have been a daily witness to Lizzy’s slow, inexorable deterioration; Lizzy would have become belligerent—even violent—in her final months, before acquiring a preternatural, serene calm in the weeks before her death. Testimony of a victim’s relative from a 2215 legal inquest made into a mass P. Passiflora parasitosis event, believed to be a case of biological terrorism, described the final stage as follows: She gets quiet. She smiles. You think she’s getting better, but she’s not. That sliver of hope hurts the most. She doesn’t answer your questions. She’s getting ready to die.

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Routines of the Apocalypse

She did the calculations in her mind, lying supine on the bus stop bench by the boardwalk. Nearly six hours would be needed to walk the distance between the seaside city of Perla, where she now lay, and the capital city of Matanzas, where she would replenish her stock of food and shower in a stranger’s bunker. To get there, she’d have to travel the dusty coastal road and then the broken ground of the freeways into the city. Speed equal to distance divided by time. Sweat pooled between her breasts underneath her frayed gray wifebeater.

The summer heat was an orange blur behind her closed eyelids. It was nearing noon but she had little interest in leaving her perch. She scratched at her face idly. After a few hours of communion with the salt of the surf and the bitter tang of her sweat, the skin over the bridge of her nose had begun peeling, flaking off in red ribbons like pencil shavings. Her hand dipped down, knuckles grazing the concrete flooring. Towers of clouds cast uneven, bulbous shadows over the planes of her face.

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Beauty secret

She is twenty-three years old. She is sitting on the subway, gaze trained on the smartphone cradled in her hands. Her biggest problem right now is that her preferred hair salon is closed for the next two days, and her bangs need a trim. Fine, feathery strands flutter over her brow and into her dark eyes like hanging vines.

She navigates to Instagram and progresses through a CAPTCHA, shaking her head gently to shift her bangs out of her vision. Her wrists ache with the weight of her bangles, two on each side, each adorned with a series of tiny gold flowers. The CAPTCHA is a three-by-three matrix of blurry, pixelated red chalices in seas of green. Please click on images with a red rose in a garden. 

The doors open with the sound of recorded bell and a stranger sits next to her. He rests his head back against the frigid glass, discretely watching her fingers fly across her screen. With Instagram unlocked, her feed is a ribbon spooling out: multicolored, endless. Her thumb pulls the forward motion of her feed to a stop on a video post called, tantalizingly, HOT GIRL TIPS. The woman presses play and bows her head over her phone, submerging herself in the world conjured by her AirPods; the stranger leans over, as subtly as possible, to read the parade of subtitles moving briskly in the bottom-half of the clip. His glasses slide down the bridge of his nose, coming to rest at its bulbous tip. The wheels of the subway car clatter noisily as it turns a corner.

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