It took about ten minutes to find Lexi hiding out near the fringes of Kip’s garden, and another ten minutes to convince her not to hitchhike back to Fresno.
My main argument: you’re not thinking rationally right now.
The argument in my head: you might get kidnapped by another Reagan fanatic.
Obviously, she didn’t agree – my boss keeps trying to eat people’s brains, is it rational to stick around? – but something inside, possibly a Nick Stahl-influenced neuron, carried her back to the car, and as soon as we were in the back seat, away from all the lunacy, she dropped her head on my shoulder and said, ‘better when it’s just us.’
‘No weirdos getting in the way.’
I stroked down the side of her face, stopping at the shoulder. There were no sounds from the party in the housse, by the pool, no sounds from the overgrown Bonsai trees to the side. If I’d closed my eyes, we could’ve been anywhere.
Naturally, the silence was short-lived.
The door on the passenger side opened…then slammed shut. After several muffled shouts in Spanish, probably insults, it opened again, with Juana being pushed down onto the seat, the top of her Moon Factory Ø hoodie awkwardly scrunched up on one side of her head.
‘Lexi…’ she started, turning to the back seat, but was interrupted by the click of the driver’s door, and then Nick barking Herzog-like to wipe the fucking blood off her chin. Then softening instantly…to a jarring degree…and adding, ‘in case it drops on the upholstery.’
‘It’s all done?’ I asked, not really sure what done meant in this context.
‘Some on your hood too,’ he said, reaching over to Juana and scrubbing it off himself.
‘Head spurted…’ the Mexican replied, glaring at his wrist.
‘Hmm. Kip is an unorthodox guy. Don’t worry, I’ll get you a new hoodie back at my place. Give you a proper bath too.’
‘Is it all taken care of?’ I tried again, leaning forward onto the shoulder of Nick’s seat.
‘We’re getting to that, Keni, relax.’ He steered the car through the gates [clipping the side of one of them] and out onto the racing circuit road, its dark blue light and tree combo oddly comforting. ‘Yes, in answer to your pedantry, everything has been taken care of. Kip is resting after a serious fall. The head wound is not as bad as first thought. No need for medical attention tonight.’
‘Won’t someone come up and find him, see all that blood?’
‘Witnesses, dude. Got three of them to corroborate the fall story. Another two to feel guilty about not stopping it.’
‘They really believe he fell?’
‘Of course, saw it with their own eyes. Fuck, this road is pretty at night. Look at this turn coming up, the oval window gap between the trees…’
Out of toy soldier habit, I followed his command and looked across at the lake view. The alien was right, it was pretty. You could see the DINER caffé and VR plaza as block silhouettes on the other side of the shore, singled out by their green neon glow. Alluring. Monopolistic. Exact same place Lexi had got abducted from ten hours earlier.
‘Didn’t mean to bite him,’ said Juana, creeping round the front seat again, reaching a hand out towards Lexi with leper-like conviction, ‘but he provoked me…’
‘Yeah, you said that already.’
‘…and I reacted. It was too hard to-…too close. Couldn’t stop myself.’
‘Don’t over-apologize,’ said Nick, eyes on the road up ahead.
‘I’m explaining it to her…the reasoning…’
‘You fucked up control-wise, not the actual sucking thing itself. And there was some discipline involved…’
‘She made a hole in his head,’ interjected Lexi, pushing deeper into the back seat to escape Juana’s floating hand.
‘More of a dent actually.’
‘Wasn’t as bad as it looked,’ added Juana, retracting her hand, ‘ from your angle.’
‘You cratered the heads of all those guys at work,’ continued Lexi, leaning in against the side window. ‘Right in front of me. While asking about my time in LA. Cratered their heads with your bare hands…’
Her voice trailed off on the last line, followed by slow repetition of cratered their heads, as if the words themselves were a puzzle to her.
Juana glanced at Nick, scraping at the dry blood still on her chin. ‘She remembers.’
‘Yeah, but her tone seems off.’
‘You were in LA?’ I asked, moving in next to Lexi’s shoulder, trying to remove her from the two things in the front.
It didn’t work.
Her eyes were somewhere out through the side window, probably doing memory collage on the lake surface.
But her lips were still moving.
‘You cratered the heads of all those guys at work. Cratered their heads. Put a crater in their heads. There was blood, on the floor, whole pond of it. That was real. Real blood pond. I saw that, it happened. We talked as it was happening.’
‘She’s drifting,’ said Juana, reaching her hand over again and immediately having it yanked back by Nick.
‘I’ll sort it when we get back,’ he said, keeping his hand on the shoulder of Juana’s seat.
‘That’s too long.’
‘Just a couple more bends.’
Blocking them both out, I positioned my face in front of Lexi, hooked onto the eyes and told her in my best Tsukubashi voice that it wasn’t her fault. I even repeated some of Juana’s sophistry, that those guys were all perverts who’d tried to grope her in the back room.
‘The bathtub,’ she continued, her eyes on my reflection…but not. ‘I was in there naked. The guy wanking on the chair opposite. I can see it, hear it. He said he was going to paint me blonde for Ronald Reagan. And take pictures to remember it. But there was no camera. He wasn’t-…I didn’t ask him to-…he took me there. Drugged me. Said he was going to paint me blonde. For Ronald Reagan.’
‘Nick…’ I said, waving my hand in front of her face.
He answered by braking, swerving the car over to one of the blue lights, parking diagonally and then scrambling over into the back seat. In theory, three adults in the back seat of the Lego car should’ve been impossible, but, in practice, it appeared to be fine. In fact, there was enough room for him to stretch his arms out straight, no bending at all, and clamp his fingertips on Lexi’s temples.
‘Was I kidnapped?’ she asked him, almost a murmur, as the purple mist once again began rolling out of his fingers.
‘Correct. You were kidnapped. By a pathetic creature. There was never any real danger as he didn’t have the balls to hurt you. Or rape you. He just wanted to put you in a bathtub and wank over your unconscious body from ten yards away. We came and protected you, me and Mark. We put the weakling in the lake. Juana protected you, too, from the perverts at work. She ate their rotten, pervert brains. Stopped them. No one can touch you now. You are safe with us.’
The last line was repeated, and seemingly echoed around the car, as the purple swirls gradually faded back into Nick’s hands.
‘Is she okay?’ I asked, getting an abrupt shh in response.
Lexi stared dead ahead, at the back of Juana’s seat, then turned to Nick and asked in her normal voice, ‘why do I attract these weirdos?’
‘Poor choice of location,’ replied Nick, climbing back into the driver’s seat and restarting the engine. ‘VR plazas tend to pull in those kind of reprobates.’
‘It never happened in Fresno.’
‘You must’ve looked lost here. Dazed. Easy target.’
Lexi looked at the palms of her hands, frowning, then the octopus logo on her blue sports vest. ‘I remember now. He complimented my top. Said it looked tight. That the octopus sign had nice tentacles. Then offered me a coffee he’d just bought.’
‘A common trick,’ said Nick, beeping the horn, presumably at a rogue animal on the road up ahead.
‘It had a brand on it…a logo. Next thing I know I’m in his car. Then we’re walking by a lake. Dizzy, couldn’t walk straight. He held out an arm and steadied me. Then I’m in a bathtub, cold…tired.’
I patted her shoulder as she talked even though there was no sense of pathos to what she was saying; it was more like someone trying to describe a filmn they’d watched when they were a kid. Whatever Nick’s purple mist had done differently this time, it was working.
‘It was weird, he took off my clothes…but closed his eyes as he was doing it. Said it was disrespectful to observe such things.’
Nick laughed, ragged. ‘Then started wanking over you two minutes later. Typical Reaganite.’
‘Typical male,’ edited Juana, turning round to Lexi again, only this time keeping her hand on the back of the front seat. ‘If I’d been there, I would have eaten him. Ripped his whole head out.’
‘Okay, don’t push it, Juana,’ said Nick, steering the car round another blue light corner. ‘Purple’s still stabilizing.’
‘She’s not okay?’ I asked.
‘I feel okay,’ replied Lexi.
‘She’ll be fine. Soon as we get a filmn playing.’
Apparently, as punishment for her lapse in judgment at Kip’s Place, Juana was going to have to sleep on the couch – a very well-cushioned, big enough for a basketball player couch – and to balance the severity of that, she would get to choose what filmn we all watched before bed.
Naturally, she picked some obscure 80’s thing, but that didn’t bother me so much as the fact that Nick made Lexi and I sit either side of her.
‘It’s okay, she won’t bite.’
‘Not Lexi, no…’
‘Unless your hands start to wander. Dude, relax, you’re fine. She only eats guys who have it coming. With the odd exception now and then.’
‘Dude, you half deserved it. That shoddy work ethic of yours. Don’t say what, it’s true. You’re like one of those old British construction companies, slow and half the time missing. Useless.’ He coughed, probably as a way to bury his own tangent. ‘Anyway, she’ll be too busy watching the filmn to do anything. And you’ll be too busy watching to worry about it. Fuck…House of Clocks. Been a long time since I’ve seen that one.’
Despite his assurances [and insults], and the new Fox with a giant carrot cartoon hoodie Juana had on, both Lexi and I still tried to shift ourselves over to the far corners of the couch, eyes fixed tight on those cannibal claws. However, each time we made it to our respective arm cushions, Nick raised a hand and, without any giveaway flash or musical cue, we were transported right back to the middle again.
Finally, after seven separate attempts, we both decided to just accept our fate and settled [at tilted angles] into the credits of The House Of Clocks.
‘It’s Fulci…’ whispered Juana to no one, as a Twin Peaks style melody played over stills of Renaissance statue heads, followed by names I’d never heard of, followed by blue mist cocooning an old mansion, eerily similar to the stuff they’d been pumping out over Kip’s pool, followed by an increasingly persistent and rhythmic ticking clock.
‘Okay, change of plan,’ said Nick, as the music faded and the first timepiece appeared.
‘You mean we can go to bed?’ I asked, giving out a reflex spasm as Juana’s leg brushed against mine.
‘The filmn’s starting,’ said Juana, moving her leg back.
The clock and the character with huge goggle glasses investigating it both vanished from the screen.
‘This filmn lacks current resonance…so I’m changing to something…a little better.’ As Nick spoke, various images came on the screen and departed again, with the last one being the intro scene from Howl’s Moving Castle. ‘Pay special attention to the Witch of the Waste character. Might help you lose some of that ridiculous stiffness you both have.’
I looked behind Juana’s head at Lexi, and guessed from her in a vertical coffin posture that I was pretty much a mirrror of it.
‘What about my filmn?’ asked Juana, clearly missing the explanation.
‘Tomorrow night,’ replied Nick, putting a finger to his lip and pointing at the screen on the wall.
Some aggrieved Spanish staggered out, coupled with Juana stretching her arms and cracking what I guessed was her shoulder bone.
Expression on her face? Nothing.
Kuso…that didn’t hurt?
No one else seemed to notice or care, so I pulled my own arms in a bit tighter and focused on the Miyazaki piece. It had been less than a year since I’d last seen it, and that was with Charlie on the couch next to me. Wah, Charlie…I’d almost forgotten.
I had forgotten. Dad too…mum…all of them. Even the memory of it…watching the old woman traipse up the hill to Howl’s castle, the same scene that was on screen right now…it didn’t feel real. Like it had happened in a dream instead of my actual living room. My living room. My TV. My sister…
‘The filmn, Keni,’ prodded Nick, looking over at me from the other chair.
I blinked, 90% automaton, and went back to the screen.
The old woman, who was really a cursed young girl, cleaned up the rooms of the castle and argued with the magical flame.
Japanese sounds came out of both characters and I understood all of it.
No need to even glance at the subtitles.
When we reached the famous steps scene – the Witch of the Waste having an asthma attack on the way up and the old woman character sympathizing – Nick started adding his own commentary, telling us how this part in particular was relevant to Juana’s situation, even though she was far more attractive than the wasted witch.
‘Juana can walk up steps fine,’ responded Lexi, surprisingly blunt.
‘She’s not physically falling apart either.’
‘Come on…don’t persist. You’ve had friends on methadone, Lexi.’
The line must’ve had some truth to it as Lexi’s face froze. How the fuck did you know that was what I expected to come next, but instead she just shifted position and edged closer to Juana.
‘We have a work in progress here…a friend who needs our patience and empathy. It’s up to all of us to keep an eye on her. Stop any more Kip moments from occurring.’
I wanted to say friend? She tried to eat my brain, but the passion wasn’t really there to do it justice. The whole basement scene felt like it had happened weeks ago. And all I could see now was a stoned-looking Mexican in a slightly faded fox with a carrot hoodie.
‘Can’t you just alter her memory?’ I asked, settling for a soft alternative.
‘No. Not with base urges.’
‘It wouldn’t stick,’ added Juana, half turning to face me then quickly pulling back.
‘You mean it’s innate?’
‘Like eating and drinking. She can’t not do it. If she did…it’s done…skeleton time.’
I nodded out of habit, vetoing the inevitable follow up question. Would we have to find her more brains to eat? I was pretty sure I knew the answer anyway.
‘What do you mean alter her memory?’ Lexi asked, bending down and peering at me from behind Juana’s neck.
‘Is this like the thing he…’ She stopped, looking at the screen, the Witch of the Waste entranced by the spinning, flickering shapes projected onto the wall. ‘Did that happen? In the car? No, it’s-…I remember being in a bathtub. There was a guy…in a rubber mask, wanking nearby. And Juana…you were asking me about LA…with blood on your cheeks. I remember that happening too. It did happen. But you’re-…it’s more normal now. The blood and the-…that bathtub thing…’
She trailed off with body shivers, jerking all the way to the far side of the couch when Juana touched her on the arm.
‘Okay, this should be the last one,’ Nick said, pausing the filmn with his magic finger and coming over.
‘Why does she keep relapsing?’ I asked, standing up and being pushed back down onto the couch with no touch as I tried to get to Lexi.
‘I told you, incongruity.’
‘Sit down and let me work.’
It wasn’t a threat, but I did what he said anyway. Watched for the fifth or sixth time as the purple mist swirled around Lexi’s temples, hopeful that this time it could actually do its fucking job.
Whatever that was.
‘Here we go, let’s straighten this out. Nice and purple…’
Nick ran through a new set of lines, explaining to Lexi directly that he was regulating her mind and helping her to accept things that most humans considered traumatic, and that the whole process was a good thing as long as she accepted it completely, understood that the bathtub scene and the basement murders had happened, and that any sudden feelings of displacement were completely normal, encouraged even.
‘All part of the recovery journey,’ he finished, pulling his hands away and stepping back.
Lexi kept her eyes fixed on the wall screen for a while, minutes perhaps, then finally looked up at Nick. ‘You’ve altered my mind.’
‘To help me.’
‘Yes. That’s better.’
She touched her head tentatively, as if expecting an open wound. ‘What are you?’
‘In one, digestible word. Alien.’
‘Mark will fill you in on the rest.’ Nick clapped his hands together, wiping the filmn off the screen behind him. ‘Now it’s time for bed. Busy day of recuperating tomorrow. Gonna take you guys to see the lady of the lake. Very exciting. Juana, I’ll get you a blanket and some pillows.’
‘And my filmn?’ the Mexican asked.
With little fanfare, Nick corralled us both upstairs and into one of the bedrooms I’d explored earlier that morning.
Only now it had a huge King-sized bed, a study desk, a copy of Moon Prison, and posters of erotic sex movies plastered all over the walls. I was no expert, but I recognized most of them. Story of O. 9 Songs. Caligula. Sex And Zen 4D. Betty Blue. Betty Bluer. Betty Bluest. Uranus Hypno Grab. Each image either full nudity or blunt penetration shot.
‘See if you can help each other unwind,’ Nick said with a wink, exiting and closing the door behind him.
There was a locking sound too.
Then an unlocking sound.
‘Joking,’ came from the other side of the door.
‘Okay,’ I said, looking around the room, clasping my hands together, flinching at Bobby Cho’s dick shot on the wall opposite.
‘Bedtime,’ said Lexi, pulling the Salifa X jacket over her head.
If nothing else weird had happened that day, it may have been awkward, but as Nick had just told Lexi he was an alien, it wasn’t too bad. Even taking off our clothes in front of each other felt normal.
‘How is he an alien if he’s a movie star?’ was her first question as she lifted up the blanket and swatted away the pack of condoms lying on the sheets. Then, when I looked stuck, a more precise one: ‘where does he come from? Which planet?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘He didn’t tell you?’
‘I asked, but he evaded…changed the topic to something else.’
‘And why does he look like Nick Stahl?’
‘Don’t know. A disguise, I guess. The real one’s in a bucket in his room…comatose.’
‘Some kind of storage method. I really don’t know. I just walked in, saw it and…yeah. Nick Stahl in a bucket, out cold.’
She shifted towards me as I entered the bed, reaching out an arm and putting it over my stomach.
‘You think he might be lying? About the alien part?’
‘Don’t know. I doubt it.’
‘Maybe it’s all some kind of hypnotism trick.’
She moved her leg across, using her knee to rub against my thigh. ‘He made you think you saw Nick Stahl in a bucket, but really…’
‘He does know how to mess with people’s minds,’ I continued, moving my hand down to her waist. ‘And make us remember things differently. Beyond that…I don’t know.’
‘Okay. So when he said you could fill me in…’
I laughed, shifting my legs away as her knee moved up onto my dick. ‘Yeah, I’m not sure where he got that idea. If anything, questions seem to make him more annoyed. Or they did when I asked them.’
‘He is a weird guy…’
Lexi’s knee retreated, replaced by her hand, which rubbed along the surface of my pants a few times before slipping inside.
‘You want to…’ I half asked.
‘If nature’s willing,’ she said, lifting up the stem of my barely conscious dick and tracing her fingernail down from the tip.
I coasted through the scenes of our previous fucks, moving my own hands over her body, across her breasts, down between her thighs, but nothing seemed to get any blood flowing.
‘It’s been a pretty long day…’ I said, putting a failed hand out to stop her as she moved her head down past my stomach.
‘Give me thirty seconds,’ she replied, pulling the tip to her tongue.
The touch of her should’ve provoked something, but…nothing.
Not even a reflex spasm.
And my armpits were beginning to sweat.
I want to fuck my girlfriend.
Want to fuck Lexi.
Want to put my dick inside her cunt and watch it go in and out and
Wanna fuck her down into the mattress, through the headboard, through the Caligula poster, all the way into her
It was no good, all the commands were dry ink.
Thing inside a thing spurting out a thing.
Watched by things.
Out of desperation, I looked at the walls, the posters of actors fake-fucking, Bobby Cho leering at Jenna Saturn’s clit, but the framing was too austere, the outline of the edge of the image telling me in shark words THIS IS NOT A REAL FUCK.
‘I need a break,’ she said, abruptly dropping my dick where she found it and pulling herself back up to the pillow.
‘That party,’ I said, stroking her arm. ‘All the weird pool shit…I think it’s messing with us.’
‘We should get some rest.’
I stroked her arm a while longer then pulled away. The faint sounds of Juana’s filmn drifted up through the floor. The electronic organ melody. We both lay on our backs, staring up at the higher parts of the wall.
Lexi in the bathtub.
Hanging off my shoulder.
Punching the pool party perv.
Stabbing the Kontolian cosplayer in the calf.
Putting me in her mouth.
None of it did anything.
I turned and looked at her again, at the side of her face, then down at her chest. Then back at her face again.
She pretended not to notice at first, then reached down for my hand and smiled, her eyes still on the walls.
‘These posters don’t fucking help much, do they?’