Fresno, California, a few weeks earlier…
Sadia lay in bed, Anubis-real, static.
There was light coming in through her window, which meant it was at least twelve.
Rays of bleak normality…
She thought about lifting herself up and reaching to pull down the blind, but there was no point. She already knew what time it was, and that half the day had gone, and trying to hide that fact wasn’t going to make it any less true.
Work, activities, do something…
She turned away from the window and faced the rest of her room. There was the medieval corset in the corner. That had to be finished at some point. Then over by the desk there was the sketch she’d started the night before, the one of the Slovenian castle, and…no, that was no good. She didn’t want to finish that one. It was a forgery, a lie. She didn’t even want to look at it.
Up, you wretch…
Pushing her head into the pillow, she tried to think of reasons why she should bother getting out of bed at all. The corset? The sketch? VR with friends? Mexican Video Caffé owner? None of them were powerful enough. Not even Juana. It was as if she were caught in two different universes and neither one would let her in permanently. Wouldn’t let her…just…rest.
There was a knock at the door.
A turn of the handle.
‘Honey…are you okay?’
The door started to open…
…then stopped halfway, coupled with a sorry.
‘It’s half past twelve.’
‘I know, I’m up.’
There was a pause before the next words.
‘Lunch is downstairs when you’re ready.’
‘I’ll be there soon.’
The door closed and the room reverted to miserable again.
‘If she’s really been hexed, which I doubt she has.’
‘She has, really.’
‘The Oregon witch, found out last week and hexed her. Said something like-…fuck, what did she say again? Defences?’
‘Not buying it.’
‘Ah, that’s it. Cos she’s normal, or a sceptic…’
‘Witchcraft is a scam. Full of militant occultists.’
‘…she wouldn’t have the-…nah, listen for a sec, let me say it first…’
‘Semi-militant. Okay, fine.’
‘…cos she was a sceptic, and didn’t really believe all this, she wouldn’t have the defences to battle it…’
‘…or repel it or whatever. To make it go away.’
‘What kind of defences?’
‘Don’t know. Occult ones.’
‘To repel a witch?’
‘A real one, not those goth weirdoes?’
‘Like, a one hundred percent real, I can do magic, witch?’
‘Yes. For the thirteen hundredth time. A real witch.’
The two friends in matching station overalls each took a breath and looked at the alien pharmacy opposite, searching for their next lines. Sadia, sitting on the third chair around the table, stared out the promenade window, at the Byrgius Crater Entertainment Strip.
Not many players outside today, she thought. Yesterday there were at least…how many? Twenty? Now, not even five. Where is everyone? Another server?
‘But…wait a minute,’ continued one of the friends, stirring her pale green and semi-misted Kontolian tea.
‘This real witch…’
‘How do we know she’s real? I mean, people can say they’re a witch…’
‘Don’t know, just what I’ve heard.’
‘…right, I know that, but how do we actually know? Like, know know?’
Sadia came back from the promenade window [plus the dearth of sentience beyond it] and decided that maybe it wasn’t just Moon Factory 7, maybe everyone had just got fed up with VR in general and gone off to do something in the real world.
‘You in there?’
She blinked, auto-responding with ‘yeah, thinking,’ while her mind played catch-up.
Far as she could tell, they were talking about witches. Real life witches, not the Grand High Witch from the Roald Dahl book or the hag from No Country For Old Crones. A stupid subject, really. There were no witches in this world, nor anything supernatural, it was all fiction made by people who couldn’t face the truth of things. She despised those people, the fiction makers. They didn’t try to deal with anything, they just locked up and hid from it all.
What do you take meds for, Sadism?
Ha, even her brother was one of them. Or he was too young to understand. She didn’t know which. In truth, she’d never really thought about it. No one had what she had, they couldn’t. But maybe her brother would have something similar soon. Maybe he’d get the same problems she had in the next few years. Then he’d stop using that fucking nickname and have some basic empathy for the shit her brain was-…for everything she was dealing with. Coping with. Semi-coping. Through sub-standard poetry that no one ever read or liked. Except guys who wanted to fuck her. Pretended they didn’t, but…she knew they did. I really like the imagery in your burning housse poem, Sadia, it’s so-…
‘You’re not saying much…you okay?’
‘Hey Sadia, wake up! You look half-zombified.’
She glanced up, finger dipped in artificial, lukewarm human coffee. ‘Huh?’
‘You were just staring into space like an AH-Bot.’
‘Cansada. A bit tired.’
‘Maybe patch out for a bit, go for a walk outside.’
Sadia nodded, moving her hand to her temple.
‘Then come back when you’re feeling fresh again.’
‘About ten minutes maybe.’
‘Then we can get started on the graviton emitter arc.’
In the bath, under an over-saturated pic of Alain Delon owning the beach in Plein Soleil, Sadia held her hand an inch above the water and tried to make it rise.
She focused, in a template chamber of her mind, connecting the palm of her hand to the invisible atoms of the surface…and it worked. The water rose up and around the back of her hand. Fresno evaporated and Portland took its place. A guy who’d written the new Howl didn’t mind that she’d written something better, didn’t mind that she was also fingering the owner of a video store caffé. Getting fingered in return. Fucking in front of the projection screen. Warm yellow glow. Endless slopes of snow outside. A castle under construction. The Moon winning constant battles, night after day after night after-…
Her hand was under water, becoming prune-like.
She looked opposite, away from Delon, at the old pics of Fresno her dad had put up.
Before he’d strapped his mouth to the exhaust pipe.
Fresno City College, 1986.
Looked like a futuristic matte shot of a Star Trek city. Strangely uplifting…for a second…until she remembered it was already gone.
Doi-Lock Grape Farm, 1988.
Rows and rows and rows of grape trees.
In that guise, anyway.
For most kids, the VR plazas were the main place to hang out in Fresno, but when you got old enough to drink underage, other options emerged.
Like the place Sadia was currently sitting in, BOA BOA Grape Park, not too distant from the city centre, but far enough for kids not to be able to walk there.
She rotated the Asahi can in her hand in quarter hour turns, watching the guy she’d slept with three times try to provoke one of the AH-Bots into chasing him.
Behind her was the sign for the park, a giant cartoon grape guitar band, with a bubble by their heads that said GRAPE TIMES AHEAD.
Pinned up against that was Gita, telling Yemi to go harder, she was getting cold.
‘Thief right here…’ shouted the teen provocateur, flicking the AH-Bot’s head, ‘…stealing your fucking produce, motherfucker.’
As usual, the AH-Bot paused, scanned its surroundings, then continued spraying the grape lines.
Billy looked back at Sadia, smirking. ‘Maybe if we fuck against his back? What you think?’
Acid spray his fucking face off.
‘Fuck, I was only half-joking,’ he added, rubbing the crotch of his jeans. ‘But now I think about it…’
Sadia rotated the Asahi another quarter, then drank.
Behind her, Gita came.
Or pretended to.
Grape times ahead.
Alone in her bedroom again, beyond Anubis, drained.
The medieval corset was still in the corner, inert, and the sketch she’d started a couple of nights earlier was slumped on the desk in front, mocking her. Digging into her brain and forcing her to mock herself. Revenge of the object. Just like Baudrillard said. In the only book of his that could be understood. By her. Unlike Fisher and Bōl, who produced videos, used common words, easy metaphors and allusions.
Do something, wretch.
She picked up the pencil and went over the outline of the castle. Stopped and looked at the slightly thicker line she’d drawn.
‘Real castle or pencil castle…’
The pencil dropped and she studied the castle gate for a full minute. Then a few more minutes. And then a few more. Who invented the pencil, she wondered? And who keeps making them now? She thought of Russian people propped up in front of rows and rows of work benches, sharpening lead, fitting it into wood shavings, and then taking each pencil and throwing it into some kind of pencil bin, and then the bin was picked up and taken across the factory floor and over to the first of a line of trucks waiting outside, and then-…
The screen to the side of her flashed once.
She came out of her pencil factory and saw a message icon. It was from one of the author guys, Mark.
Gods, I haven’t replied to him for ages, she thought. Haven’t replied to any of them.
Maybe I should…
She looked at the subject line on the screen.
But what’s the point? He’s over there, I’m over here…and it’s not like any of them are that interesting anyway.
Hey Sadia face, it’s now been a thousand days since I heard from you…actually that might be wrong, maths is not my strong point, haha…but it’s true, it’s been a while…I’m still reading your stuff and thinking about you though…don’t wanna be too gooey, but I looked at flights to Fresno the other day and seriously thought about booking one…I’ve got cash, that’s no problem, but I don’t know if I’d be turning up to a smiley face or a shotgun…like, who are you? Mark who? Oh shit, really…you came all the way here, are you nuts? Yeah, so, I haven’t done that…don’t worry, I’m not a psycho haha…but it’d be cool to hear from you again. I miss our chats…
btw, weird bit of news…I met Nick Stahl last night…seriously, Nick fucking Stahl…and he stayed at my housse [not like that]…I swear I’m not making this up…assuming you know who he is. Thinking about it, he has been out of the loop a while…and is technically pretty old…though you wouldn’t know it from his face…looks around 35 tbh…maybe with surgery ha, not sure.
Anyway, write back soon if you want
She read it over a couple of times, stopping on the Nick Stahl line.
The washed up filmn star?
From Post Office and that shitty Terminator filmn?
Probably just a cry for attention.
She understood that.
A noise from the garden outside – probably her brother – made her glance at the window, but the computerr screen quickly won her back.
Write back soon if you want…
He seemed like a nice guy, Mark. And she knew she’d written some really desperate stuff to him before…you’re so sweet, I miss you, you’re the only one who really gets me, that kind of stuff.
But all that…it was only cos she’d been feeling low…it wasn’t genuine feeling.
She read the message again.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to see him…he was okay to talk to, didn’t take himself too seriously, not like some of those other online guys.
He really did seem like a nice person.
Nicer than Billy anyway.
She thought about it a while longer…the danger of strangers, the strangeness of strangers, strangers who could be strange psychos from strangely town…then clicked off the message and went back to the pencil.
Sadia glanced at the cover, vaguely recognizing the pin-headed man, then back at the tall, Mexican woman in the 80’s style Slazenger jacket clutching it like it was the Munich Manual.
Juana the video queen.
The one responsible for running her favourite place in all of Fresno…potentially at a loss, as there never seemed to be enough patrons to keep the place going. Only art students and immersion hazers from the VR places opposite. And none of those had much money.
‘Plot…’ continued Juana, flipping to the back of the video case. ‘A sado-masochistic man finds a box that takes him and his penis to the ultimate erotic pain-scape. Eviscerates both of them. With hooks. Incapacitated, he spends the rest of the filmn flaying people in an attic, helped by a woman with no self-esteem.’
‘That’s what it says?’ asked Sadia, faking a frown.
‘Thematically. More or less.’ Juana looked at the front of the old VHS box again and put it back. ‘Though maybe a bit bleak for tonight. Bleak and British. Ah, this one could be better.’
Sadia looked at the new VHS box five inches from her face and read the title. ‘Veneno para las hadas…’
‘Not bad Spanish.’
‘Is it about fairies?’
‘Visually, not really. It is one of those filmns where things are ambiguous…is it really witchcraft, is it their minds…like this.’
‘Maybe it is a bit too slow for your current mood. No sé.’ Juana put the case back and bent down, running her finger along the bottom shelf. ‘Possession, also realistic…a bit daunting…Las Amantes del Senor de la Noche, no, Videodrome, no, Puppet Master 2, no, Angel Heart, no…ah, this one, the ultimate brain-soother.’
She stood back up, took Sadia by the sleeve and rested the new VHS case awkwardly on her palm.
‘I’ll go set up the projection screen,’ said Juana, straightening out her black dress [and the purple daggers scattered as kitsch motif].
‘Is it good?’
‘In a schlocky way.’
‘A brain soother…’
‘That’s it. Won’t change your life, but might prompt something…inside thought kind of things.’
Sadia turned to the back of the case and read through the blurb. Out of the corner of her eye, she observed Juana walking over to the back room door, fingernails running along the top of the video shelf, complete comfort/confidence in where she was and what she was doing.
‘I want to work here,’ she blurted out suddenly.
Juana stopped, half turning back.
‘After I graduate…instead of going to college.’
‘What about Portland?’
‘I can go there later…when I’m more comfortable. More stable.’
Juana moved again, continuing on towards the back room door. Reached it. Studied it. Put a hand on the STAFF ONLY sign and seemed to commune with it. Sadia let it play out as if it were an important Yaqui ritual from the tribal lands, standing propped against the Asian horror shelf for almost two full minutes before finally breathing out with audio and advancing.
‘You don’t want me to work here?’
‘Portland,’ said Juana, letting go of the sign, turning.
‘Whenever you get that small, mosquito moment of courage, go. Do not pin yourself to this place. Here, me…’
‘No, I didn’t mean-…I don’t wanna go yet, it was just a-…’
‘Portland. Slovenia. Japan. One of them, all of them. Go there. Do not think or hesitate. Go.’
‘But I don’t have-…’
‘Illusions will be demeaned…of course…but new things can sprout from that. Beautiful, new things. Better than this.’
Sadia watched Juana’s face, waiting for tears to roll out, or a smile followed by, just kidding, stay, we’ll watch Warlock on loop, naked, legs wrapped around each other, but it didn’t materialize. Instead, for a brief moment, she saw the same thing she’d seen once before, during the screening of Thirst…a flash of yellow in her eyes…only this time there were no wandering hands, no massage sticks.
‘Think about it at least,’ Juana said, pushing open the door. ‘During Warlock…’
Sadia muttered a perfunctory ‘yeah,’ leaning back against the acid sci-fi shelf she’d apparently stopped next to at some point. Glanced over at the caffe area. Imagined herself working next to Lexi and the tall annoying guy. Waited for the warm glow to arrive. The yellow of Juana’s eyes, the red from her Slazenger jacket. Something like a futu-