If I’d been expecting a high-speed chase around the loop road of Lake Arrowhead [and half of me was], then I was quickly put in check. Not only did Nick’s Lego car lack mass and horsepower, but the engine seemed to be on the verge of exploding whenever it crept over seventy. And the road itself was practically deserted. Just the occasional car going the other way, towards the town centre, and one vacant-looking elderly man watching his dog take a shit beside a Pluto 2280 promo.
‘They’re not even in sight,’ I moaned, essentially planting my face against the windscreen. ‘Can’t you go any faster?’
‘Speed limit’s fifty, dude.’
‘So? It’s already on sixty-five, and they’re miles ahead of us. They must be…unless they turned off on one of these side roads.’
‘Or changed to another car. Or bike. Or speedboat.’
‘Even more impossible.’
‘Okay, maybe the last two…but there’s been about twenty side roads already, they could’ve easily taken one of them.’
Nick made spluttering sounds, possibly laughter.
‘What, they couldn’t?’
‘Come on, this is my neighbourhood, dude. I know this place like the back of a human hand. All these little turn offs you’re seeing, they lead to one single housse, sometimes a grove…and all the ones we’ve passed so far have been pretty good friends of mine. Definitely not the types to pick up a random girl from outside the local VR plaza.’
‘You know all of them, from all those side roads?’
‘Names and character flaws. See, that lane we just passed, part of Morris Chestnut’s estate. This one up ahead, that goes to Karen Fukuhara’s housse. Ah, she’s quite funny, one of my favourites actually…like, there’s this huge artificial lake in her garden, all these robotic piranhas swimming around…and every time she has new guests round, she’ll wobble near the edge of the lake, act panicked and, boom, just fall in…then, when she’s under, she’ll send these cheap, little blood packets back up to the surface, pricking them so they leak out. If she’s feeling really dark, she’ll skip her own drop and push a guest in instead. Did it to me once, right after I said her nose looked weird.’
‘Can we focus on the other car?’
‘Obviously, she didn’t know who I was…so I fucked with her back. Stayed at the bottom of the lake for twenty minutes before finally resurfacing. Stuck some of the robot piranhas on my neck too. Wah, should’ve seen the look on her face…dopey witch thought she’d just murdered the actual Nick Stahl.’
‘Dude, calm down. We’re getting there.’
‘When…we can’t even see them.’
‘Just a few more minutes.’
‘Could be anywhere by now…if he’s going faster than us…which he must be. Kuso, Lexi. What the fuck was she thinking? She better be okay.’
Nick whistled and slapped a hand on my thigh, sparking an instinctive, ‘what?’
‘Hate to be an optimist, but maybe she just hooked up with the guy?’
‘Met him in town, felt drawn to his voice or face or whatever it is you humans see in each other…then decided to go back to his place and fuck.’
‘No. Lexi wouldn’t do that. Not her style.’
‘She did it with you.’
‘That was after three days…’ I paused, bringing back memory blocks that seemed blurry almost as soon as I pressed review. ‘Maybe more. And in her home city.’
‘Maybe she really likes this guy.’
‘No, her face, eyes…she looked drugged. It wasn’t-…whole thing didn’t look normal, she wasn’t-…it was not reciprocated.’
‘The guy probably put something in her drink and…just enough that she could still walk, make it to his car. Kuso, they could’ve turned off anywhere, any of these forest trails…what are we gonna do?’
The car braked suddenly, sending my face slamming into the windscreen.
‘Here,’ said Stahl, looking left at a familiar dirt track.
‘Jesus, you could’ve warned me…’
‘Seatbelt, dude. Not my fault.’
I looked down at the belt clip, clipping my tongue as I remembered trying to plug it in when I first sat down, and how stubborn it was. Ah, possibly still my fault. And irrelevant, as this piece of shit micro machine wasn’t capable of throw me clean through the windscreen speed.
Nick turned the wheel to face the track ahead and then stopped again.
‘Isn’t this the same one we-…’ I started, recognizing the REAGAN CULT CABIN sign pinned to a nearby tree.
‘They were here about ten minutes ago,’ Nick said, pointing at the dirt on the track.
‘One of my abilities.’
‘What, reading tracks?’
‘No, visualizing trails. I touch your leg, you’ve touched Lexi before, this gives me access to the sub-atomic-…to the base connection of the…’ He breathed out, pointing at the track again. ‘They’re down there.’
‘Okay, then we follow.’
‘Of course, she might be in trouble. More than might if they’re in that weird fucking cabin.’
‘You don’t want to check out the lady in the lake first? It’s pretty fun, when the fish swims out…’
I leaned over and pushed his knee down, trying to make him accelerate. ‘Go, drive…’
The car lurched forward.
‘Hey, that’s my leg…’
‘She really might be in trouble. Please.’
‘Okay, dude. I’m driving. But only cos there was a please in there…’
He resumed control of his own leg and took us through the trees, extremely slowly, at some points gesturing towards a flower to the side and using phrases like Phylogenetic Taxonomy, while I slapped the dashboard and told him to speed up.
‘You really like her that much?’ he asked, stopping the car by the same lake we’d visited an hour earlier, whistling at the red car from outside the diner parked just a few yards ahead.
‘That’s it, same car. They must be in that cabin.’
‘I mean, is she worth all this effort? Or do you just want to fuck her again?’
‘Come on, out, let’s go.’
I opened the car door and honed in on the cabin at the far side of the lake. It wasn’t that far, and there were hiking tracks running right and left…but it wasn’t clear which one was fastest as both were obscured by trees in certain places.
‘Objectively speaking, you do tend to lead with your dick. And Lexi is quite an attractive human to be fair. But then, you don’t actually know her. You just fucked her after three days. On a Mexican demon’s couch no less.’
‘Are you coming or not?’
‘And before that there was the blonde depressive. Came all the way out here to fuck that one and then…pah…when you found out she’d gone already, in the arms of a very dangerous man…’
I glanced back, four steps along the path to the right.
‘Thought that might get your attention. Yeah, carrying Juana back to my housse gave me the trace of her…too decayed to be really accurate, but I could see who she was with. Lot of darkness in that guy. Don’t know how long your sweet Sadia’s gonna keep it at bay, especially if she won’t fuck him. Very perilous situation. Maybe we should go and rescue her instead?’
I balled my fist, as he left the car and strolled up to me.
‘Or is her pussy too nebulous now?’
‘Abstract cunt poked by abstract psychopath, in some state you’ve probably never heard of.’
Nick stopped next to me, clamping a hand on my shoulder. ‘Yeah, you’re right. Forget about the blonde pixie, Lexi’s the priority. Real face, real tits, real muff. Get her out of there in one piece and the two of you could be fucking again within the hour.’
‘I’m going to the cabin.’
‘Ah, maybe half that time, if you don’t mind Reagan quotes.’
‘You can stay here and be useless…play out your weird little sex scenarios…’
I turned to continue on the right side path, stepping to the left a bit to avoid an oddly immobile frog.
‘Just admit it, Keni…it’s the body you’re rescuing, not her.’
I opened my mouth to respond then overruled myself and focused on the compact, object-real form of the cabin.
‘You wouldn’t be going over there if she looked like a dinner lady.’
‘Keep your voice down,’ I shout-whispered back, without turning.
‘And I can prove it.’
‘Fucking tannoy cunt,’ I added, carrying on past some puddles, kicking some pebbles towards the lake on the left and…not moving any distance whatsoever.
I stopped, almost toppling forward into the dirt.
‘A test, Keni,’ said Nick’s voice, seemingly camped inside my ear.
‘My legs,’ I said, looking down. The signals were leaving my brain and apparently saying fuck you to their destination, as I was rooted completely to the ground. ‘Nick…the cabin. I have to get over-…’
‘Test first. Asian knight routine later.’
I tried to finish my line, but the power had been cut in my throat, my vocal chords. The intention to tell him to get the fuck away from me was there, but the sound waves were defiant. As were the motor functions in all my limbs. Arms, legs, hips, neck, all paralysed, gone.
An alien puppet show?
A blurred hand flashed past below, dug down into my pants, planted itself on my crotch.
Then started rubbing up and down.
Gripping the stem.
Thankfully leaving my balls alone.
Images of Lexi and the couch filtered in, followed by Nick rescuing me in the basement, sleeping on my floor in Liverpool, a conjured-up Sadia with her bare back, asking if I wanted to go again, her blonde hair phasing into a wig as Nick turned round, cum dripping off his lips.
‘There we go, nice and hard…’ Nick said, flicking the top of my dick then shifting his hand upwards to my left temple. ‘Now for the epilogue…’
‘…whatever the word is.’
No fucking time, you koala wreck spelled out all in my head as I looked over at the cabin, its windows, eyes, its door, a mouth, its guts, slowly digesting poor zombified Lexi.
‘There we go, almost set…’
I heard the words and glanced left. His hand was still fixed on tight to my temple, with purple vapour flowing out from his wrist, and the longer it flowed, the more feeling I had in my limbs and the less feeling…in my dick…until finally there was no stiffness at all.
‘Kaplah, finished,’ Nick said, pulling away his hand.
The fuck did you just do to me came out of my mouth in breath only, followed quickly by a frenzied punch to the side of the pervert’s face.
He didn’t move an inch. Just put the back of his hand up to his cheek and laughed.
‘When words fail…’ he said, taking a step back.
‘Fucking deserved it,’ I replied, and this time the words came out, making me jump a little. ‘What the hell did you just do?’
‘A test, I told you.’
‘Sexual assault, more like…’
I rubbed my temple, looked down at my crotch, scanning both for rogue wisps of purple smoke. There was nothing. Everything looked normal. An erection built and crumbled in under one minute.
‘You better get over there,’ Nick said, pointing at the cabin. ‘Poor zombified what’s-her-name is in big trouble.’
‘I’ll stay here, keep the engine running.’
Shaking my legs out to make sure they were active, then jabbing my temple to dislodge any lingering purple, I turned and marched straight through the puddles, breaking into a fast jog.
‘Psychopath…’ I whispered, when far enough not to be heard.
Just as it had appeared from the other side of the lake, the cabin was fairly non-descript.
Wooden planks eroding at the gutters.
Four steps leading up to a half open front door.
Windows dirty enough to obscure whatever weird shit was happening inside.
A plaque the size of a bar of soap hammered onto the front wall that said REAGAN CULT HANGOUT, with a yellowed scrap of paper glued on underneath: ‘If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to.’
I approached carefully, keeping my steps soft as I went up the steps and then breathing in relief when I saw a pile of metal pipes laid out on the porch.
No idea why someone would put them there, didn’t care either.
Any weapon was better than bare hands and fingernails. Especially if this nut had a gun.
Picking up the smallest, most manageable one without spilling over the others, I edged inside the cabin. The lights were off, but that was okay as there was nowhere for anyone to hide in the main room. No furniture or amenities. No TV. Just a giant, grinning elderly face stuck to the far wall, who I guessed was either an ex-grand dragon or Ronald Reagan.
Kuso…really was a cult…
In the distance, some music started up. Too faint to hear properly, but sounded vaguely poppish. A female voice too…
I checked behind the door, poking the space with my pipe, then moved past it, into the connecting corridor.
Two more doors materialised on either side. Random shouts coming from the one on the left, and the pop song entrenched within the other. I tried the musical door first, turning the handle and heading in with a couple more pipe swings.
Except a projection screen that I swore must’ve been a hangover from Juana’s place…until I blinked a few times and…no, it was still there. Playing a film with a blonde woman bouncing naked on a guy, on a car bonnet, in a deserted farmyard barn. With the pop song in the air around us. There is nothing left to say, there is nothing I can’t do, when I’m here with you.
Then it stopped.
Started up again.
The music, the blonde woman, the barn, the fucking…
‘Kuso…’ I muttered, checking the corners of a clearly empty room then backing out slow with my pipe aimed at the screen in case the blonde woman gave up fucking and jumped out at me. Felt like that kind of place. And then even more so when the sex stopped for the second time and looped in again, the lyrics already engraving themselves in my fucking head and…
Pushing awkwardly past the door and out into the corridor, I counted breaths for a few seconds before another shout from the adjacent room broke in and re-activated me.
I took a step closer, listening in to the follow-up.
‘Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber…’
Definitely male, definitely not a recording, a little bit exasperated, aggressive even, but no accompanying sex noises. Or murder noises. That’s what the positive side of my brain was saying anyway. I’d already put a bag over the other side, though the logic of not hearing any sounds from Lexi at all was still prodding through.
Maybe she was still drugged?
Or she wasn’t even here?
That idea died as soon as I reached the door. Again it was ajar, just enough for me to poke in, and when I did, I had to close my eyes for ten full seconds and open them again before accepting what was in front of me.
By the far wall, a graffitied bath tub, with Lexi slouched inside. On her head, a curly blonde wig. The rest of her body…it was too hard to tell. The water level was quite high, but I could see her collarbone, the bare skin of her arms draped over the side.
‘Fucking psycho…’ I mumbled, keeping it military low. ‘Lexi…are you okay?’
Too soft to expect an answer.
‘Lexi…’ I tried again, same volume.
If I hadn’t also seen her fingers moving, I would’ve feared her dead. But they were moving. Flicking, to be more precise. Without a doubt. And looking closer at her head, I realized that was moving too…swaying ever so slightly…perhaps a sign that the drugs were starting to wear off.
I took a long, measured breath, timing it with the nonsense coming from the space to the right side of the bath.
A man with no clothes, some kind of caricature mask over his face, sitting on a child’s plastic chair, obliviously tugging himself off while reading out loud what I could only guess were famous Reagan quotes.
‘Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end…’
He didn’t look like the biggest guy ever, but there may have been a gun tucked away behind the chair, so I stayed in ninja mode and darted forward, channeling all my rage into one wild swing at his legs.
He must’ve heard my steps as he turned mid-quote and took the hit dead on his shin…then threw himself on the floor, wailing like a hyena.
Dropping the pipe, I jumped on him and punched several times on his temple until he stopped wriggling. Then punched him again when he called me a farmhand communist. Then held my fist up for another…
‘When you can’t make them see the light, let them feel the…’
…and lowered it slowly when the guy’s head hit the floor, the rest of him probably drifting off into a bigger budget torture cabin.
‘It’s okay…’ I told Lexi, swatting the guy’s semi-erect dick away from my thigh and crawling over to the bath tub.
She was in no state to respond, just offering up her right arm as a token, and letting me lift her out of the water. My previous assumption was correct, the guy had stripped her and…with time from god knows where…even tried to paint her pubic hair yellow.
‘Let’s dry you off a bit,’ I said, looking around the room for a towel that didn’t exist. ‘Get you dressed again.’
She moaned, aiming and missing a slap at my face.
‘Hey, it’s me, Mark, not the weirdo…’
Another moan, no further slap attempts.
‘Don’t worry, I don’t think he did anything.’
The line was weird as soon as it came out and even weirder when I looked around at the room again. The lighting wasn’t too creepy, warm amber, but the black and white posters of Ronald Reagan pinned up on one face of the wall certainly were. And the guy’s mask…same thing. The quotes he was reading out too. Famous Reagan lines. Which meant he definitely was one of those cultists Stahl had been going on about earlier. Or a disciple trying to bring it all back. Fucking copy of a copy of a copy of a…
Lexi moaned again, trying to plant her feet on the floor and almost slipping back into the tub.
‘Right, leaving time.’
‘Come on, put on my jacket,’ I said, soft as I could make it, trying to feed her wet arm into one of the sleeves. ‘Until we find out where your clothes are.’
‘And before that guy wakes up.’
‘Yup. Pretty much.’
Back outside, the sun was starting to go down.
Alternating between leading a re-clothed and semi-wet Lexi by the hand and slinging one of her arms over my shoulder – depending how conscious she was at each particular step – we made it back round the side of the lake with only a few stumbles, and then another ten metres or so to Stahl’s Lego car.
Nick himself was propped up against the bonnet, eating a pear from god knows where, humming a triumphant melody as the two of us got closer.
‘The hero returns…with his damp princess.’
‘Liar,’ I spat back, with actual spit flying out and hitting his pear.
He looked puzzled for a moment then gazed down at the noiseless bonnet and smiled. ‘Let me guess, Reagan fanatic?’
‘Masked up, tugging off, quotes from the big man playing in the background…’
‘How the fuck do you know that?’
He tapped his temple without elaboration then moved to open the passenger side door, throwing the remains of his pear into the nearby trees. I watched his movements, straining to show visibly, tangibly, empirically on my face the annoyance at every casual flick and turn and…just all of it…the raw fucking nonchalance of this alien witch man thing monster.
‘You just sat out here the whole time?’ I asked, pulling Lexi back as she tried to move towards the car.
‘Some standing, some strolling.’
‘No guilt at all?’
‘Ha, don’t be dramatic, Keni. I just did the clean-up for you.’
He pointed at the lake, but when I turned, it looked exactly the same as it had all day. Not even a ripple on the surface.
‘What clean up?’
‘She looks a bit dazed. Must’ve been a strong dosage.’ He tapped the side of the car door. ‘Better squeeze her in and get her back to the Lake Arrowhead Recuperation Centre. AKA my place.’
I looked at the track leading back into the forest, working out in my head how far it would be if we walked into town.
‘Don’t be a sulk,’ Stahl said, walking round to the driver’s side and getting in. ‘I’ve already forgiven you for your transgression.’
‘Though if you ever strike me again, it’ll be the end of you. Just so we’re clear.’
‘You’re unbelievable,’ I replied, then gave a performative shake of the head as I guided a woozy Lexi into the passenger seat.
When we were all squeezed in and the engine was up and running, Stahl turned to Lexi and, without any preamble or smile, put his palm flat on the side of her neck.
‘What are you doing?’
‘And drying her a little. Relax, hero. It’s a painless task.’
He muttered some words, most in a different language I couldn’t understand, but there were English inserts, like arthousse porn and too timid to get it up.
‘Is she okay?’ I asked, after his hand was back [super casual] on the steering wheel.
‘What does that mean?’
He turned to me and smiled Tsukubashi-like. ‘I think you could guess.’
I grunted [also Tsukubashi-like [if someone ever slagged off the Ondōan telepathy fix]], running through the possibilities in my head – erasing the memory of the cabin, altering it, getting off on rubbing her neck while pretending to do something mystical, messing with me – but didn’t say any of them out loud.
‘Yeah, she’ll be okay now,’ he said, looking down at her right hand, which was inadvertently resting on his thigh. ‘Frustrated at the vagueness, but okay.’
His words seemed to have a mesmeric effect as Lexi’s eyelids opened halfway up, with some slurred noise following out of her mouth.
‘You…’ she said, finally, taking her hand off his leg.