‘Didn’t fucking wait for me,’ Sadia wailed, throwing another video case at my head
picking up the next one
shadow guy rowing the boat on her behalf
and all I could say back was,
‘you didn’t wait for me either,’
‘you’re really fucking this shadow guy?’
‘Portland, that shithole?’
The words may as well as have been medieval Urdu
Critters 3 hitting me on the neck
clipping Lexi on the hand as she tried to climb back into the boat
Tenebrae jacket soaked through
eyes flared witch-purple.
‘Don’t even like her,’ I whined, helping her in, another video sailing over my head,
‘that’s why her face is so vague, so hazy, I don’t even remem-…
Eyes wide open
The environment re-assembled itself, without sound.
Ah, Nick’s place. Lake Arrowhead. Architectural mishmash. Aliens and lunatics in VR hoodies, copies of copies in ice buckets.
I hung one leg out of bed, rubbed my eyelids, sharpened the wall opposite.
Alenka Unk’s muff stared back at me.
Tammy Takahashi’s tits on the next poster along.
Hand went down, reflex, getting a good grip.
A few strokes.
Fingertips at the top.
Fuck, not even here.
On a bed surrounded by sex.
I pulled my hand back up and assessed. All the duvet was bunched to the left, over Lexi’s top half, while a few wisps of unkempt hair had glued themselves to the side of her cheek.
She must’ve realized I was observing her as the duvet was suddenly dragged up over her face.
Ha, autopilot defence.
I wanted to pull the duvet back down and kiss her, but that would wake her up, and I wasn’t ready for that right now, not with things the way they were.
Post-dream sex, Lexi, with a floppy piece of rubber?
Swinging my other leg off the bed, I put on my pants and the generic Planet Dark t-shirt laid out on the chair, my Damijana Chu hoodie too, then headed quietly out into the corridor.
The kitchen was just how I’d left it the day before…apart from the sepia-tone paintings of Lake Arrowhead on back wall, the four stools next to the high table, the bread and fruit stacked in two large bowls, and the insane amount of sunlight that was being soaked in by the windows, which themselves seemed larger, too.
‘Alien magic,’ I muttered, taking a carton of cranberry juice out of the fridge, checking the expiry date and emptying almost all of it into the Arrowhead Boat Tours glass [also new].
Maybe Nick can do something for my libido.
A few friendly tendrils of purple mist.
Or refill this juice can at least.
I took a sip, not really expecting much, but then quickly realized my left hand was planted on my crotch.
Rise, you wretch.
For Lexi’s sake.
Before she starts fucking someone else.
A brief image of Nick with one hand on her waist and an eleven inch dick slipping inside broke inside my brain and was instantly excised.
No, he wouldn’t.
He’s basically asexual.
No interest in women at all.
I sipped more of my juice, looking at some of the sepia lake-scapes on the wall. Luckily, my hands were both on the table as Lexi appeared from a portal behind me, or possibly a regular doorway, and asked if there was any more juice.
‘Give me a sec,’ I said, getting up and walking over to the fridge.
‘Wah, he’s got fruit and bread too.’
‘Thank gods, I’m starving. Serious, my stomach is growling. You been down here long?’
‘About ten minutes.’ I grabbed a second Arrowhead promo glass and poured out the cranberry juice in front of her. ‘Enough?’
She took the glass and drank a third of it in one go. Then grabbed a pear from the bowl, rotated it, squinted at a brown patch, and started throwing it up and down. ‘Had a quick peek in the living room. Juana’s buried under the blanket, no movement at all.’
‘Too early to eat brains, I guess.’
‘Kinda surprised she’s still here, actually. Half expected her to take Nick’s car and drive back to Fresno.’
‘She wouldn’t get very far.’
‘I would never steal someone else’s car,’ cut in the Mexican herself, walking past the island table with bare legs and a dress-long Active Koala t-shirt, stopping in confusion by the patio screen door, shielding her eyes from the sun, then coming back and pulling out the stool next to her employee.
‘Immersion haze?’ asked Lexi, throwing the pear up again.
‘It’s tough sleeping on a couch. Especially a stranger’s.’
Juana stared off at one of the paintings, detangling a stubborn clump of knotted hair…then the gears kicked in again and she said, ‘si.’
Ha, tired was right. In a weird way, she reminded me of Asami. The casual meandering style, the messed-up hair, the complete disinterest in what anyone thought about it…out of sync replies…bizarro head tilts at the floor…
I got up and grabbed another glass, pouring out a giant shot of cranberry juice.
‘Mine?’ asked Juana, when I placed it down next to her hand.
‘Doesn’t mean I forgive you for trying to eat my brain.’
‘Or that I ever will.’
‘Un futuro verde pálido…’
She muttered a little bit more in Spanish, then a little bit more, then something related to Kip, then nodded to the table and coiled her fingers round the glass.
‘What about me?’ asked Nick, materializing out of pale white air over by the patio screen door, back facing the sunlight, arms folded.
‘No need for gasps, just the house owner returning from the swamp. Good to see you were rude enough to start eating my shit.’
‘Sorry, I thought it was…’ started Lexi, holding up the pear, glancing with Stasi eyes in my direction.
‘Relax, I’m not angry. In fact, complete transparency, I put all that in the bowl earlier this morning. Complementary breakfast for my treasured guests.’
Lexi gave Nick a few seconds of Gena Rowlands face then mumbled something and went back to playing catch with the pear.
‘You’ve been out already?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘But it’s…half eight.’
‘To a Lake Arrowhead resident that’s like midday. How about pouring some juice, Keni?’
‘Must be your alien stamina,’ said Lexi, leaning back on the stool, switching back to her juice glass.
‘Ah, host ontology out in the open, very good.’ Nick came over to the stool and tapped the table with two fingers as I poured out some juice for him. ‘How was the bed? Big enough for two?’
Lexi let out a not so quiet weirdo then went over to the sink, running some water over her pear.
‘Comfortable mattress?’ prodded Nick.
‘The bed was fine,’ I replied, pushing the glass against his hand.
‘And the décor?’
I coughed, not even close to convincing. ‘Quite explicit.’
‘Ha, to be honest, I haven’t seen any of those movies. Just thought it would help to stimulate the two of you…for your own adventures.’
Lexi stayed by the sink, biting into the pear.
I returned to my stool.
Both of us eventually ran out of pale shadow face and drifted over to the paintings.
‘Okay, your business.’ Nick took half of his cranberry juice then grabbed a slice of bread, folding it and eating it raw. When he was done chewing, he gestured with his wrist towards the seat outside on the patio. ‘It’s gonna be hot out today, and we’re probably gonna end up swimming in the lake at some point, so I’ve put bikinis out for you two ladies. Fresh t-shirts as well. Keni, you’ve got a choice between shorts and a sarong. And a yellow scuba diving suit.’
‘I’ll keep what I have on, thanks.’
‘Traditionalism, fine. Juana, you should still be stable for a day or two, no need to pick anyone up yet. Though if we do happen to come across a good candidate…’
‘I can control myself,’ finished Juana, taking a yellow apple, biting off a tiny chunk.
‘Good. We’re all set. Twenty minutes for breakfast then we go. Okay?’
‘And if we want to go home?’ asked Lexi, picking a nail into the brown patch of the pear.
‘Ha, no one’s that dense.’
‘If we insist…’
‘This is Lake Arrowhead, Lexirella. Absorb it. Let it pleasure you.’
Lexi took another bite of her pear, looking over at me. I didn’t have anything to chew on so I sipped up froth residue from the surface of my juice.
Was she expecting back up?
Maybe not as she quickly floated off to the paintings, leaving me with my glass and the ambush thought of her in a bikini, surrounded by other men…with my dick on a rack in the dungeon, lifeless, not even worth summoning Lavinia for.
The first location on Nick’s undemocratic itinerary was the Lady in the Lake.
Not a surprise, really, as he’d been pimping it since I’d first trespassed into his housse the day before.
It wasn’t that far either; just past the main promenade on the other side of the lake. And, as it was still early, the roads were clear, which made the drive over quite relaxing.
‘All the perverts must be sleeping,’ said Lexi, sitting in the back with Juana, both with anime t-shirts over their bikinis [Wicked City Spider Demon for the Mexican, Xxun the Neutrino Alchemist [from the travesty that was the Beyond the Rabbit Hole anime spin-off] for Lexi], while I hung my arm out of the passenger side window.
‘Boating, more likely,’ replied Nick, pointing out at the lake.
‘What, all of them?’
‘I don’t see many,’ replied Juana, putting her face out into the passing breeze.
Nick leaned left, taking the car with him. ‘Ah, you’re right. There’s usually more. Must be an event happening out of town somewhere.’
‘Or they’re sleeping,’ repeated Lexi, her tone this time a lot more caustic.
I looked at her through the windscreen mirrror, trying to subtly shake my head as a warning to dial down the fire. Then I saw her [and Xxun] glare back and remembered my fist slamming into Nick’s face the day before.
Okay, maybe a bit of fire was okay.
In controlled bursts.
The car pulled off onto a small road that ran closer to the lake, and a minute later, stopped completely in a makeshift car park with only one other car.
‘Almost time for the corpse,’ Nick said, jumping out of the driver’s side, pulling the seat back to let out Juana.
‘Sounds weird,’ said Lexi, getting out on my side and instantly putting her hand over her eyes to block out the interrogator sun.
‘Come on, quickly.’
‘What?’ I asked, peeling off my Damijana Chu hoodie.
‘A bit, yeah.’
‘But we’re still going down there to see it?’
‘Seems like it.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Juana, sliding between us, tugging on the bottom of Lexi’s anime t-shirt. ‘Replica dead bodies are never as bad as the real thing.’
‘Unless they’re done by Screaming Mad George.’
‘Not as bad. Right. Mad what?’
The Mexican opened her mouth to explain, but was cut off by a yell from the other side of the car park.
‘You glued to the fucking concrete or what? Move!’ Nick dropped his arms, punctuating his line with a slap to the bonnet of someone else’s car. ‘We’re gonna miss the fucking thing.’
‘Moving,’ I replied, doing my own tug on Lexi’s t-shirt.
‘Do we really have to do this?’
‘Can’t we just wait here by the car?’
I put a hand up blocking the Mexican’s attempted reply, and tugged harder on Lexi’s t-shirt. ‘Come on, before he goes nova.’
With the sun stockpiling heat death above, and Lake Arrowhead doing fuck all to stop it, Nick guided the three of us down a well-manicured path, past a tacky sign that said ‘LADY IN THE LAKE – 50M’ and onto a small pier that had a family of three at the end, the dad taking pictures of wife and daughter next to a holo-board of the infamous corpse.
When we got close, I could hear that they weren’t speaking English…in fact, it sounded a bit like Portuguese.
I nudged Lexi and whispered, ‘practice time,’ but she ignored me, turning to Nick instead and asking when the dead body was going to rise up.
‘Any second now…’
‘I’m sweating,’ said Juana, taking off her Spider Demon t-shirt and draping it like an towel over her head. Then fixing the back strap on a bikini that Nick swore was the same one Isabella Adjani wore in One Deadly Summer [a clever boast as neither I nor Lexi had heard of it].
Lexi’s bikini, on the other hand, was a simulacrum of the white piece from Coffy, a filmn most younger people knew from the remake, though, despite the insane heat, she wasn’t showing much of it at the moment.
Too shy maybe?
Attached to the Xxun t-shirt?
Or still feeling some trace trauma from the Reagan incident?
If incident was a strong enough word?
Didn’t feel like it…
Somewhere on the boards of the pier, a beeping sound commenced, followed by an announcement that the lady was about to appear.
I half-focused on the spot of water Nick was pointing at while the remainder, the pervert half, covertly glanced at the side of Juana’s vermilion bikini. Then the tattoo on her neck that I’d never noticed before…Nadja ja ja in a neo-gothic font. Then the side of her bikini again.
Don’t look at the slope, don’t search for the nipple.
Lexi, Lexi, Lexi, Lexi…
I looked at the slope, the underside curve.
Stared at the vermilion.
Cut out clothes, history.
Painted in sex.
The lunatic who’d tried to devour my brain…bouncing gently up and down on my lap with a giant spoon in her hand…explaining the tattoo…downplaying the feast…insisting with radium yellow eyes that it was the only way to feel hard again.
Still didn’t work.
The darkness of it…the void-desperation…should’ve had some effect, but…nothing. Just the object-weirdness of a topless Mexican demon tapping my head with a spoon…no pubic hair…hospital room tits…dick on a flesh-coloured mortuary slab.
‘The water, Keni,’ said Nick, patting me on the waist.
I blinked and re-adjusted.
A tangled lump of seaweed rose up lethargically to the surface of the lake, then a mop of dark-rooted blonde hair, then a grey-white face that, when I first caught sight of it, genuinely looked like it belonged to a real person.
‘Fucking hell…’ I mumbled, a little too loud.
‘Wah, she’s naked too,’ added Lexi, glancing at the family nearby, who seemed to have no problem with their kid watching all this.
‘Like Ophelia,’ said Juana, lifting her t-shirt a little off her head.
After about a minute of bobbing in controlled circles, the corpse’s mouth opened and an eel-like fish swam out. It circled around the dummy’s head a few times then vanished back between the yellowing teeth.
‘That was pretty bleak,’ said Lexi as we headed back to the car, the sleeves of her Xxun the Neutrino Alchemist t-shirt rolled up onto her shoulders.
‘Impressively so,’ added Juana, scratching at the skin around her Nadja ja ja tattoo.
‘The detail of the eel…coming out of the mouth…living there.’
‘You liked that part?’
‘Bit bit bit.’
‘Nah, it was much better before,’ countered Nick, several steps ahead of us all, car keys already in hand. ‘More authentic. The hair on the corpse…they’ve dyed it blonde now, made it less coarse…taken her nightdress off too. Probably under pressure from all the sleazes on the local council. Bunch of fucking troglodytes.’
‘It did look pretty realistic,’ I said, moving left to the passenger side as the car appeared ahead of us.
‘That’s cos you’ve got no comparison point. And no expertise in dummy-making.’
‘Err…I guess not.’
‘Do you?’ asked Lexi, coming round to my side of the car.
‘A lifetime’s worth.’
‘I never lie when it comes to prosthetics.’ Nick opened the driver’s door and pulled up the seat, letting Juana climb in. ‘Might as well hit Able Bridge next. Check out the waterfall, walk around a bit…then come back for some lunch. Okay?’
‘The lunch part sounds good,’ I said, pushing the seat down after Lexi who laughed as she settled back in.
‘You’ve just eaten breakfast.’
‘Half a slice of bread.’
‘That’s your own fault, dude. Too cautious.’ Nick started the car and pulled back out onto the small road. ‘You too, Lexi. Still hiding that beautiful Pam Grier bikini I gifted you.’
‘I’m not your personal model.’
‘No, but you’re gonna be a pool of sweat if you’re still wearing it past midday.’
‘I feel fine.’
‘Okay. But if Keni takes his t-shirt off…’
‘Mark,’ I cut in, correcting him.
‘…and I take mine off, then it’s just you left. Mark, Keni, same thing.’
Lexi rolled down her t-shirt sleeves, dusted off imaginary bits from Xunn’s anime face. ‘Why do you call him Keni all the time?’
‘Easy. It’s his name.’
‘Huh? No, it isn’t. It’s Mark.’ Lexi leaned forward into the back of the front passenger seat, looking at me through the windscreen mirrror. ‘Right?’
‘Dude, don’t say long story. You were Japanese, got your brain switched with a Scouse guy, kept your face, now you’re fifty times more interesting. Or you would be if you took the handbrake off.’
‘Err…’ I turned to the backseat and saw two faces carved out of stone staring back at me. ‘It’s mostly true. Some of it.’
‘You got your brain switched…’ tried Lexi, glancing at Juana, whose eyes were now clamped to my forehead.
‘Yeah. Kind of.’
‘There are two brains inside you…’ the Mexican cannibal said, reaching out a shaky hand towards my scalp.
‘Hey, I’m not a museum piece.’ I swiped backwards at her claw, stopping it temporarily. ‘And don’t keep copying everything this guy says. I’m Mark, not Keni. That’s my real name.’
Lexi mouthed a drawn out okay, Mark and put out a hand to guide Juana’s arm back down to her lap. ‘I’ll let you explain it to me later. Without the alien around.’
Nick laughed, beeping the horn for no apparent reason.
‘I’ll try,’ I said, looking down at the stern Neutrino Alchemist face on her t-shirt.
After spending an hour hiking out to Able Bridge, ten minutes listening to Nick complain about its poor restoration work, and another hour hiking back, we’d finally drained enough of our energy reserves to go for lunch.
Remembering the waitress from the day before, and Nick’s odd reaction to her, I suggested the same place, but was quickly overruled by our leader in chief, who stressed an urgent need to eat Hainan chicken at Gai-Father.
‘That place,’ he answered, opening the car door and pointing across the main road. ‘The one with the garish yellow sign.’
‘Looks weird,’ muttered Lexi, frowning at the scholar chicken logo.
‘Yeah, but the food’s good. And it gives me a chance to show off my Mandarin.’
‘You know how to speak Chinese?’
We did as instructed, Lexi and I taking one side of the cherry-wood table, Juana [with her Spider Demon t-shirt now hanging off her shoulder] snug by the window corner, and Nick practically hanging off the edge of the bench, waving the menu in the air. It took a few minutes for him to get attention as the place was quite full, the Lake Arrowheaders having apparently found their way out of their beds, but he finally managed to reel someone in.
‘… … … … … … …’
‘Four?’ asked the Chinese waiter in the Gai-Father cap, holding up fingers.
‘… … … … … …’
‘… … …’
‘… … … … … … … …’
The waiter nodded and pushed a few more buttons on his chicken-shaped pad. Then gestured at the number that popped up on the end of the table.
‘See how he only replied in English…’ said Nick, when the waiter was out of earshot. ‘That means my Mandarin is shit.’
Lexi burst out a scattershot laugh, quickly turning it into a cough.
‘Not as shit as most celebs, he could still understand my basic order, but…not good enough for him to switch. Which is why I like this place. Yeah, Keni, I’m a modest guy when the moment calls.’
‘I didn’t say anything.’
‘Dude, it was graffitied on your face.’
‘Hey, you called him Keni again,’ interrupted Lexi, taking a sip from the glass the waiter had just left in front of her.
‘I wouldn’t drink too much of that,’ replied Nick, nodding at the water.
‘Two dollars a shot. One point seven five if you live here.’
Lexi stopped, spitting some of what she’d already taken back into the glass.
‘Too late, it’s already on the table.’
‘Two dollars for water?’
‘From the tap probably. Don’t blame these guys, it’s everywhere around here. Lake Arrowhead economics. Wait till we hit the western shore.’
‘You mean you have to pay to swim?’ I asked, confused.
‘Swim, sit on the benches, walk on the sand, walk on VIP sand. Gotta watch the boundary line for that one, it’s quite sneaky.’ He paused as the waiter came back over, trying out some more Mandarin. Just like before, the Chinese guy stayed with English, though he did add something in his native language at the end. ‘Wah, he just lied to my face…said I had some improvement. Nice guy.’
‘You don’t sound that bad,’ I said, picking up a salt shaker with a smiling chicken on top and shaking it.
‘Thank you, Mr. Sichuan. But I’m not gonna do what those lying actors do and pretend I know something I don’t. You ever catch Jordi Wallace’s Cantonese attempt? Fucking awful, incomprehensible. Yet his character in the filmn says he’s fluent.’
‘Same with Spanish,’ said Juana, scrunching up her t-shirt and using it as a cushion against the restaurrant window.
‘They lie too?’
‘Sometimes it’s so bad I don’t even know it’s Spanish they’re speaking. Or trying to speak.’
‘… … … … … …’ said Nick, in what sounded like it might be a Spanish accent.
‘Exactly. Shit in Chinese, shit in Spanish. The only ones I’m actually fluent in are Japanese and Russian. And English, obviously.’
Lexi stopped examining her two-dollar glass of water and looked at him. ‘How do you know English?’
‘I mean, if you’re an alien…how did you learn it?’
‘Ah, back in the forum.’
‘Wah, I never thought about asking that,’ I said, looking at Lexi’s hand on the rip-off water. ‘Good question.’
‘Typical Keni, easily pleased. Sorry. Mark. Mar-ku. A good solid, Japanese name that one.’
‘Is there an answer?’
He looked off towards the back of the restaurrant, then at the VR promo screen to the left. Immersive Hainan vacations were apparently a stick’s throw away at the Lake Arrowhead VR resort, which itself was only a short walk from the main VR plaza. Both so attractive that Nick didn’t bother coming back.
After a full minute, I coughed, then repeated my question.
‘Answer?’ he replied, spinning back round. ‘Of course. The purple. Embedded it when I first came here.’
‘Which was when?’ asked Lexi, lifting the glass up to her lips…then saying fuck and putting it right back down again.
‘Could add other languages, if I wanted to, but that would be cheating. When? Before you were all born. Juana too, I suspect. Though I’m not a hundred per cent on that yet. Ah, chicken’s here. Good timing.’
The waiter put four plates of yellow-skinned chicken and rice on the table, plus two little dishes of dark sauce, then did covert Tsukubashi eyes when Lexi asked Nick directly which planet he was from.
‘… … … … … …’ explained Nick, patting him on the waist, pushing him back towards the counter.
‘What did you say to him?’ I asked, watching the waiter bump into another customer’s table.
‘Told him Lexi’s afraid of taking her t-shirt off.’
‘Fuck off…’ came out of Lexi’s mouth, I guess before she could stop it. Then it came out again when Nick leaned across and tried to pick at her collar.
‘Come on…for Pam Grier’s sake…’
‘Which planet are you from?’ she asked again, swerving away from his grip, almost knocking over her water.
‘Ah, careful…’ laughed Nick, giving up on the t-shirt attack and settling back into his seat. ‘How about this meal? Looks pretty special, ne?’
‘Which planet are you from?’
‘Don’t forget to dip it in the sauce. Juana, you eating?’
Lexi leaned forward, blocking Juana’s face with her left hand. ‘Which planet are you from?’
‘She didn’t even open her mouth yet.’
‘Which planet…are you from?’
‘Okay, Lexirella. Just so that we can finish our meal. I’m from Triton.’
Nick paused, chopsticks gripped against two chunks of chicken. ‘I did not pin you for astrophysics knowledge.’
‘I’ve played Pluto 2270. Triton is one of the bases.’
‘Fuck…VR cheat. Should’ve known.’
‘You actually come from there?’ I asked, ignoring my own plate of food and tagging in.
‘You didn’t play that trash too, did you?’ he asked, turning to Juana.
‘I have no interest in VR.’
‘Wait…if you’re from Triton,’ continued Lexi, looking out onto the main road outside, the corner of the VR building just about visible, ‘what about the rest of your kind? Are they living there too?’
‘Were you actually born on Triton?’ I added, finally picking up one of my chopsticks.
Nick looked back at us both, guiding the two chunks of chicken slowly into his barely open mouth. Then scanned the tables behind.
‘You know, Juana, I think that guy might be checking you out.’
‘Must be your bikini.’
Juana pulled away from her window cave and searched over and around Lexi’s head. As the Triton question was seemingly dead in an alley, I turned and searched too.
Nick was right…but wrong too.
It wasn’t just a random guy, it was B-list movie prop, Andi Chopra. Star of Halt Vacation 2 and Pluto Fear, the filmn I’d watched just a few weeks ago. Or months. Possessor of iconic velvet-hobo hair. Rumoured ex-girlfriend beater. And, for some reason, this shittest of shit actors was in Gai Father, staring at Juana…as if she were his long, lost Ondōan love.
‘First brain-eating candidate perhaps…’ said Nick, finishing off another chunk of chicken. ‘Re-usable hair too. Very luxurious.’
‘Not interested,’ answered Juana, slouching back down against the window and draping the t-shirt over her vermilion bikini.
‘Ah, discipline. Good.’
‘He’s too well-known.’
‘Rationalism. Even better.’
Nick picked up a clump of chicken-oil rice and looked at Lexi, nodding along to a ghost melody.
She stared back, chopsticks untouched.
‘Are there other aliens on Triton?’ she asked, finally.
His eyes switched purple. ‘You should really make a run on the chicken. Best you’ll find outside of Hainan.’
‘Do they live there too?’
‘Rice is passable.’
‘Near this lake?’
‘I assume you know how to use chopsticks.’
Lexi sucked in a cosmonaut’s breath and released it slowly as I put a hand on her arm. ‘We’ll ask him again later,’ I whispered into her neck.
‘From the comfort of the dungeon rack,’ supplemented Nick, eyes returning to their normal colour.
‘When he’s less playful.’ I moved my hand down onto her palm, rubbing it softly. ‘Lexi?’
‘Like talking to a fucking stick,’ she muttered, picking up the optional fork by the salt shaker and stabbing it into a piece of no-sauce chicken.