No warning sign in the swimming pool, and in she dropped.
Half a minute later, the yellow floating bots appeared.
Trying to drag her under.
I knew the episode well, must’ve watched it at least fifteen times, yet I was still fixed meerkat-like to the screen as Lexi nudged my arm and asked, ‘what happened earlier?’
She nodded. ‘Feels blurred.’
I adjusted position, almost giving in to the idea of crossing my legs.
Nick had told me that, post-readjustment, she would be able to accept the truth without traumatic association, but I wasn’t convinced that any human could do that, especially after only two hours, so I went with my own, slightly tamer version.
‘Well, you walked into town, which was quite far. You checked out the VR plaza. Then you drove to a local tourist spot…with a photographer you met…and did some weird poses. Artistic poses. In a bathtub.’
She looked at the towel around her neck, feeling its texture like it was a stranger’s skin.
‘Then the photographer guy left…and we all came back here for relaxation and GENTE+.’
‘Where is here?’
‘You don’t remember?’
She paused, searching the walls of Nick’s living room for an ownership plaque or giant envelope with the address on it.
‘This is Nick Stahl’s housse,’ I continued, for some reason gesturing at a vaguely Celtic-looking decoration nearby. ‘He’s a friend of mine.’
‘The movie guy?’
‘Before, yeah. I don’t know if he’s done anything recently.’ I frowned at the Mega Man cushion behind her, picturing the blue-skinned guy in the bucket upstairs. ‘He invited me to come here and…you decided to tag along.’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Yeah, it was a bit of a blur for me too. Happened very fast.’
A scream from the wall-locked TV, one of the side characters being sucked through a rubbish chute by the mobile security bot.
Lexi followed the sound and squinted at the screen. Then the fringes of it. Then the video cases on the carpet below.
‘Juana. Work,’ she whispered, sitting forward.
‘I have to get back there. You too.’
‘Our shift must’ve started…hours ago…days…’
‘Don’t even think about that servitude shit,’ said Nick, strolling in from the left-side arch and throwing a book on my lap. ‘You’re on vacation in the finest recuperation centre in all of Lake Arrowhead. All of California too. No, wait…Recoveropolis in Marin County. That one’s pretty decent. But apart from that…’
Lexi’s hand shot up to her temple, another moan of, ‘don’t feel so good.’
‘She’s struggling again,’ I narrated to Nick, who swatted away my line and pointed at the book sprawled half-open on my lap. ‘I’ll read it later.’
‘Might not get the chance, dude.’
‘What do you mean struggling again?’ Lexi asked, rubbing her head.
‘Ignore the worrier. You had an exciting morning on the road, now you’re feeling the backend of it.’
‘Still feels blurry…’
‘Watch some GENTE+, unwind.’ He glanced at the screen, muttering, ‘fucking jazz hat,’ at the Seventh Doctor. ‘Not this junk, something good. Dead Bitch on Pluto. Blake’s 7. No…Nightmare Castle. Get that on. It was in the horror archive section, last time I checked.’
‘That’s one of my favourite filmns.’
‘With good reason. Barbara Steele, those eyes…shame she got old. You want a drink? Something to eat?’
Lexi picked up the remote and looked at the buttons…then closed her eyes as if the whole thing were transmitting pain signals directly into her brain.
‘I think she’s really not well,’ I tried again, putting down the book he’d thrown me, which of course was his own personal copy of Moon Prison.
‘Probably the overlay,’ replied Nick, snaking round the back of the couch, resting his elbows on the spot between Lexi and myself.
‘My adjustment on top of Juana’s amateur fiddling. Could be mixing together…crossed images, too surreal for the brain to process.’
‘You mean the video caffé stuff?’
‘But at the same time, starkly authentic. Meaning it happened but also couldn’t have happened cos nothing that bizarro could ever truly happen. Not in this object-reality.’
‘What’s he talking about?’ asked Lexi, putting her head against the back of the couch, eyes still closed.
‘Just rest now, dude.’ Nick placed the tips of his fingers on her skull in a tripod formation and pressed inwards. ‘Let me isolate some of the older horror. Make it a little more beige.’
‘This is the third time already,’ I said, half putting a hand out to push him away…and stopping when I saw his eyes firing up purple.
‘Strip away the Juana edits…calcify my parts…and things should balance out.’
‘And if they don’t?’
‘Then she’s done. No choice but to medicate and dump the body in the lake.’
I didn’t have time to say what the psychotic fuck as he was already laughing, the lilac mist swirling in sharp lashes around his hands.
‘Stop looking so fucking morose, Keni, and read the book I gave you. It’ll help to regulate your mood.’
‘And turn this Doctor Who shit off. It’s staining my living room.’
‘…after Lexi feels better.’
He cursed in some other language and the TV switched off. Then, rotating his neck in two imperfect circles, continued with the fingertip work. Based on the repetitive pattern of the movements, it looked like the re-adjustment routine was entering its autopilot stage. His eyes too…lilac and distant…off in the Oort Cloud somewhere…cruising through one of those stretched space pockets he’d been going on about earlier…that he’d probably made up.
Another two minutes and the procedure was complete.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked, putting a therapist’s hand on Lexi’s shoulder.
‘I was just thinking…’
‘…about watching Nightmare Castle.’
‘Good idea,’ said Nick from behind, patting Lexi on her other shoulder.
‘Then going out around the lake later. Maybe check out the fake corpse that bobs up to the surface, with the fish coming out of her mouth.’
I glanced at Nick, mouthing what have you done, and got jumping eyebrows in response.
‘We should try to make the most of our time here,’ continued Lexi, stretching her arms out, yawning deep, ‘before we go back to work. Hopefully, Juana’s doing okay without us.’
‘Do you miss her?’ asked Nick, coming back round the side of the couch and sitting down way too close to Lexi.
‘Your friendly boss. The Mexican filmn buff.’
‘A bit. I guess.’
I reeled my head back behind Lexi, trying to get Nick’s attention, then almost went nova when I saw his hand resting on her thigh.
What the fuck did he think he-…
‘I’m sure she’s doing fine in her basement office,’ the alien mage continued, sleaze hand moving down to her knee. ‘Dealing with all those difficult customers.’
‘They are pretty annoying.’
Lexi started another they…then phased out, her eyes drifting over to the wall screen and Barbara Steele touring her husband’s lab with a glass of brandy in hand.
The filmn kept its grip, as Nick let go of both her thigh and the conversation thread, and I returned with formless grumbles to Moon Prison, managing to find the page I was up to in Fresno and reading seven more before Lexi started rubbing her temple again.
‘Their heads…’ she said, voice coming in from a different dimension.
‘Headache?’ I asked, going into massage mode.
‘Cutting open…the spoon…spiral trap on the-…’
My hand stopped an inch from her scalp, just as she turned to face me, her eyes Barbara Steele-like.
‘…blood on…open at the…’
According to the alien mage/physiologist/Lexi Whisperer, it wasn’t completely normal to relapse this many times in one day, but it also wasn’t abnormal, especially considering the Mexican demonological context.
‘You mean Juana?’ I asked, watching the mist retract itself back into his wrists.
‘There, I’ve stabilized it. For now. But we need a tangible aspect to things…if any of this is gonna work.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Stay here. Keep watching the filmn. Anchor her.’
The fifty thousand questions I had leaping off my something-cortex diving board were all shoved back into the changing room as Lexi pushed in from the side and rested her head on my shoulder.
Then lifted it up again seconds later, saying it was too bony.
I shifted position, giving her the top part of my chest.
It seemed to suffice.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked, stroking down the length of one particular strand of hair.
‘Feels like I’ve been sitting in a room watching old filmns for four years straight.’
I thought about adding some detail, something about the video caffé, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. Projection screen room could lead to basement office could lead to brain buffet could lead to…
‘I wonder what Juana’s doing right now,’ she said, her stronger hand moving onto my thigh.
‘Her mysterious afternoon antics. Where does she go? Who does she see?’
I looked down at the cover of the book next to me, hoping for inspiration, settling for blunt surface. ‘Maybe she’s reading Moon Prison.’
‘Ha, in secret…’
‘It does feel a bit 80’s in its aesthetic, which we know she likes.’
‘Ah, I hate that word.’
‘It’s really hard to say. Same with that other S one…sphere…I always have to slow it down to the basic s and ph sounds.’
‘That’s not that bad.’
‘When I was a kid, I used to say geep instead of sheep.’
She laughed, repeating geep a few times.
‘Every time, geep. Until I was about six or seven.’ I paused, pulling back the memory of my grandparents taking the piss out of me in the Lake District…and got a Japanese one instead. Ryu shouting right into my ear for buying him The Fountainhead instead of Between Peasants.
‘Geep instead of sheep,’ Lexi said, running her hand down to my knee.
‘Yeah, it was pretty weird.’
‘That Sh sound. Just couldn’t do it.’
On screen, the ghost version of Barbara Steele appeared, dragging Lexi away. Not hard to see why. The character’s hair was combed over onto one side, covering the right eye, while the other one compensated by rendering itself planet-like.
‘Be creepier if she weren’t so pretty,’ I muttered, getting a grunt back.
Then a coughing noise.
I turned to Lexi, confused at the volume, then realized it was coming from the other side of the room.
‘Re-introducing everyone’s favourite boss lady and 80’s trash filmn aficionado,’ trumpeted Nick, standing in the doorway and grinning like one of those VR plaza emcees, his arm fully cocooning the shoulders of a stoned-looking Juana.
Both Lexi and I stared, probably for very different reasons.
Her, because her boss had just materialised out of thin nitrogen.
Me, because the woman…or demon…who’d tried to eat my brains the night before had just been let out of her bucket.
Out of reflex, I reached for Moon Prison, propping it up edge-first as a weapon.
‘Juana,’ said Lexi, taking her hand away from my knee.
Hello Lexi tried to force its way up the Mexican demon’s throat but by the time it collided with air particles, it sounded more like hrrrree. That was what my ears caught anyway.
‘What are you doing here?’ Lexi asked, sitting up.
‘Vacation,’ she said softly, coughing the tion part.
‘How? Why? It doesn’t-…how did you even get out here?’
‘Okay, don’t crowd her,’ said Nick, guiding Juana in front of the wall TV and pausing Nightmare Castle seemingly with his finger. ‘She’s still getting used to the clothes I put her in.’
As if promoting the point, Juana shuffled her hands out of the sleeves of the Moon Factory 0 hoodie that was clearly XL size, and pinched at the winter pants with little UFOs dotted around. It was an odd combo, given that it wasn’t at all cold outside.
‘Nick…’ I whispered, getting both his and Juana’s attention.
‘Relax, geep, she’s not going to do anything. This is an authenticity session…a more practical readjusting that will…sorry, Lexi, blank realism, just gonna say it…help you deal with the images that are probably starting to seep back in right now.’
‘Ah, okay, they’re not quite there yet. Never mind. You’re still aware of them on some level though.’ He leaned into Juana’s ear and whispered thirty seconds worth of pep talk, then took a step back. ‘Juana is going to do a mix of apologetics and excuse-making. To you, Keni…sorry, Mark…for trying to eat your brain. And to you, Lexi, for mesmerizing you intermittently during the last nine months and forcing you recently to assist her in murdering sleazy pieces of shit in the video caffé basement.’
The spiel was so overt, so unbroken in form that neither I nor Lexi said a thing.
I knew it all already.
And Lexi…was probably in shock. Or confusion.
‘Juana…the stage is yours,’ said Nick, gesturing to the spot the Mexican cannibal was already occupying.
Tugging at the outside sleeves of her classic VR hoodie, Juana did her own version of clearing her throat, which was basically just a long ehrrrrrrr sound, and then, phlegm exorcised, started to speak.
‘Mark…lo siento. Forcing you down to the basement and trying to eat your brains…like that…was a low moment. An arrogant moment. You’re quite a strong man, physically, and…I admit that…on a base level…I did enjoy the power I had over you. The reversal of things. But it was a shameful act and…I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me….and try to remember the better times we shared.’
My brain whirred, attaching the words to the image in front of me.
Juana in a Moon Factory 0 hoodie.
In winter pants with cartoon UFOs on the legs.
Inside an alien sociopath’s mansion.
Saying sorry for attempting to eat my brain.
I looked at Nick to try and make sense of it all, but he was too far into his performance, mouthing I forgive you, Juana to me and mimicking a tiny hand clap.
‘This is too weird,’ I said, finally, staring off at the wall TV.
Juana made another ehrrrrrr sound and turned to her other staff.
‘Lexi…es difícil de-…’ She paused, pulling the collar of her hoodie up, the top of the Moon Factory logo folding into her neck. ‘I don’t really know what to say. Nick says that you’re having trouble adjusting…due to my poor memory manipulation skills. I suppose it’s possible. Things that I’ve done…have been a bit sloppy the last few months. Maybe I didn’t take enough care. But…’
‘Apology,’ whispered Nick from the side.
Juana’s pupils flashed yellow for a millisecond…then sank back into the cornea as the demon host nodded and the words continued.
‘I did not intend to mess up your head…this bad. And I want you to know…you, specifically…mi querida Lexi…were never in any danger. Not in my basement. I would never have-…nothing would have happened there. Not to you. I hope you can forgive me.’
Juana added a cough at the end, then looked at Nick, who clapped his hands together and retook his place in front of the TV screen.
‘There we go, all sorted. Give it a few minutes to filter through, wrap up the horror filmn and we should be good to go in…two hours?’
He looked at me as if it were an actual question, but all I could offer back was, ‘what?’
The Mexican hesitated, then lifted her shoulders in slo-mo.
‘Lexi…’ Nick walked forward, putting his hands out and framing her in a skewed camera shot. ‘By the Lynchian look on your face, I’m guessing the basement scenes are reloading. Good, good. Key points to remember: Juana is a demon but an empathetic, moral one. Things got out of hand due to addiction issues. She only ate men who groped or sexually assaulted you beforehand. Your skull was off limits cos she both likes and respects you. If things are still fucked up after an hour, I can go in with the mist again. But it’s better long-term if I don’t. You know, we’ve all gotta face up to baroque-realism sometimes…right, Keni?’
There was no sane way to respond to any of that, so I looked at Moon Prison again, and then Lexi. She seemed to be doing okay. Lynchian was taking the paved road towards Capra town, not the dirt track to abject Spasojevic.
I patted her on the thigh, and said softly, ‘she didn’t try to eat your brain.’
My intent: plain realism.
The outcome: void confusion.
Her eyes floated back to Juana, who had been put on the bouncy castle chair next to my side of the couch, and then to Nightmare Castle, which Nick had started playing again [without the remote].
Both Barbara Steele and her lover were taunting the murderous husband, trailing him around his own castle before finishing him off.
Then the credits played.
‘Devil Rides Out?’ suggested Nick, already flicking onto the menu selection screen.
‘Beforehand…’ muttered Lexi, looking at Juana.
‘Or how about Countess Dracula? Ingrid Pitt with blood-soaked tits, plus the stable scene where the young guy sucks on one of her nipples. You’ll like that bit, Keni.’
‘Lexi…’ I said, framing her face and backgrounding everything else.
‘The V guy…groping me in the-…slurping noise…emptied-out skull.’
‘I’m not sure I like that tone,’ said Nick, giving up on the TV screen and coming over, swatting away my defensive hand.
‘She’s remembering it all,’ I protested, swatting air back.
‘Licking lips…brain crumb on cheek…’ continued Lexi, looking over at Juana, who attempted about fifty-seven different apology formations with her hands before just surrendering and slapping her palms flat on the arms of the chair. ‘Blood streams…Jammer on the-…’
‘Looks like it’s mist season again,’ said Nick, replanting his already purple-swirl fingertips onto Lexi’s skull.
‘You can really fix this?’
‘In the blink of a human eye.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Seven thousand per cent.’
‘That means…you definitely can?’
‘Jesus. Read the fucking book, Keni. Stop distracting me.’
With no real grounding in psychology or purple mist therapy, I couldn’t do anything tangible except sit back and either read Moon Prison or watch Countess Dracula on the wall screen.
Reading a book in front of others was too weird, so I opted for the latter.
Surprisingly, it was quite watchable, with a decent budget, though when the tits scene arrived, I did feel oddly bloodless.
Maybe it was the surroundings.
The Mexican cannibal sitting on one side of me, and my girlfriend wrestling with a supernaturally tinged psychotic break on the other.
It definitely wasn’t Ingrid Pitt’s fault.
She looked stunning and…I could put together the scenes of myself and the Countess, kissing by candlelight, playing with her breasts, fucking on a castle bed…but there was nothing attached to it all…no feeling, no lust, no segway into Lexi sex…just a dick signifier going in and out of a vagina signifier over and over and over and over and infinitely over…as if we’d accidentally switched onto a sex-ed channel for alien xeno-biologists.
What Lexi thought of it all, I had no idea, though I could see Juana was perched forward, hand on the side of her thigh.
Probably inserting herself in there instead of the soldier guy.
Just like me.
The scene changed, the filmn progressed.
Exposed as a murderer, the Countess became increasingly maniacal, yet somehow didn’t lose Lexi along the way. In fact, she started adding comments of semi-support, like, ‘she should bathe in his blood too,’ and, ‘if she picked on sleazy men it wouldn’t be so bad,’ and the final one, during the denouement: ‘her daughter’s such a flake, I would’ve tried to stab her too.’
Apparently, this was a good thing, as when the filmn had finished, Nick turned off the screen and announced, ‘the recovery is 90% complete.’
I looked at Lexi for subject-reaction, but she’d already left the filmn and was now skimming through Moon Prison.
‘It’s nearly five now…half an hour to get ready, then we head out.’
‘Out?’ I asked, looking at the early evening shade outside the window. ‘Where?’
‘See if we can find some excitement.’
‘Where are we going out to?’ I tried again, glancing at Juana for back up…and then switching quickly to the Mega Man cushion as my brain pulled back the basement horror.
‘Where are we going to?’ Nick repeated, staring at the cover of Moon Prison in Lexi’s hands. ‘Into the jaws of the night, Keni.’
‘The four of us.’
‘Are you sure that’s…’
‘Don’t say err.’