A giant trout with eyeballs on the side of its dirty yellow face.
The back of Juana’s head.
Nad of her Nadja tattoo.
Greying sky grey track no bodies no cars.
Stone mattress, skinny trees.
Mild autumn breeze.
None of it made much sense until I felt my legs move, rolling in the idea that I did in fact have a body and there were insects making clicking sounds around me.
I stood up and quickly realized I’d been sitting with my back against a stone wall, with Lexi and Juana lined up on either side.
‘Did we…’ started Lexi before ending it with a battle cry yawn.
‘Is this the lava cave?’ asked Juana, prodding a fist into the back of her neck.
It was a familiar name…lava cave…but I couldn’t remember why. Last not-so-blurry image in my head was a hand sticking out of the car window, trying to catch those weird green streaks of light in the air outside.
‘The sign says it is,’ said Lexi, on her feet now, walking with a slight stagger across the grass. ‘Lava Caves – Temporarily Closed.’
‘We were going inside,’ muttered Juana, getting as far as her knees, face seemingly puzzled by her own line. ‘I remember…we were going inside and…’
‘…decided to take a nap?’ I finished, gesturing at the state of the terrain we’d just used as a mattress.
‘Sì…that is strange…’
‘With rocks as pillows…all of us, at the same time. Yeah, very strange.’
‘What the hell’s he doing,’ muttered Lexi, drawing my attention to the forest on the left and getting an immediate, ‘huh?’
It was well-deserved. Our whimsical alien tour guide was standing in the middle of the road [or Heavenly Nature Trail according to the nearby sign; twenty dollars for free roam, forty-nine for VR tour]…holding one arm up in a crooked tree pose, while the rest of his body got struck by continuous, low-level electric shocks.
That’s what it looked like anyway.
Thank the nebulous gods there was no one else around to see it.
‘Nick,’ I called, following Lexi over to him, but stopping a metre short in case his jerking movements evolved into alien-powered spasms with deceptively long reach.
He didn’t respond.
Or appear to even notice his name being called.
I could hear jagged whispering sounds that could’ve been attempts at communication [or a relapse to his native tongue] and, visually, there were these little whisps of faint lilac, kind of insulated in a darker lilac fog…shooting off his head like angry static.
The sane professor getting fried in Resonator 2.
Nick putting on a show.
But for who? There was no one there.
The spasms continued, the purple phasing into tendrils, rhizomes, moans that sounded like real discomfort.
No…not a performance.
Maybe rage at taking an unexpected nap.
At the whims of the tyrant purple.
So severe, so deflating that it made him disintegrate.
No…wait…there he was.
Cut and pasted to another patch of trail further left, whacking his head against the pricing board, elevating, floating
both arms peeled back
purple chaos still roiling
and then a shift
cut out and re-drawn, this time in the air above the No Parking sign, hovering without even the slightest claim that he was supposed to be up there.
A claim that was instantly redundant as he vanished for a third time
until I looked higher up and saw a figure by the distant tree line
hanging rigid for half a second
About eighteen different questions lined up in my brain, all of them functionally useless as Nick had just evaporated into etherwave nothingness and Lexi was stood tilted by the sign, looking just as blank as I probably did.
Did you know he could do that?
Was that flying?
Is that how he gets to Triton?
What was all that purple fog?
I walked in a jagged curve over to Lexi, giving a shrug in advance, then just stood on the opposite side of the sign, vaguely looking at the trail, waiting for Nick to come back and say, ‘alien stretching, guys. Classical method.’
Lexi did the same thing, coupled with intermittent glances at the sky. Which was somehow even greyer now. Directed by the January version of Ken Loach. After looking at the Nature Trail pricing board.
I eventually got out a basic, ‘what happened?’ and she replied semi-lethargic with, ‘just vanished.’
‘Don’t know. Just…flying and then…gone.’
‘It did look weird.’
‘The purple vapour, his arms…’
‘Gone. There again. Gone. There again. Gone. There again.’
‘…skewed, the spasms.’
‘Bizarro colour too…like a Varo Jr filmn.’
‘Yeah. Bizarro. I don’t know.’
There was nothing much else to add so we went back to gawping at the scenery. And then blurted out a jump cut, ‘jesus, kuso…’ as Juana pulled up between us, tattoo covered, face pure ghost auditor.
‘Did you see that?’ I asked, pointing vaguely at the sky.
‘Frustration at taking a nap. Alien headache.’
‘All of them or-…’
‘Doesn’t matter. I have no desire to go inside an empty lava cave. Or hike that heavenly nature trail. Or wait around under those weird grey clouds.’
‘But…Nick, he just-…’
‘No more time wasting.’ The Mexican-Yaqui adjusted the strap on her bluebell dress, moving it about one hundredth of an inch closer to her neck, then looked off further down the trail. ‘The car…where is it?’
The patch of grass outside the deserted Lava Caves held us captive captivated comatose in a tritanium ankle lock for another hour and a half before we eventually agreed that Nick wasn’t coming back.
At least not anytime soon.
And, as the sky was already turning dark, it would probably be wise to start walking down to the main road, or freeway, and see if we could find a bus back into Bend.
‘Portland would be ideal,’ said Juana, still rotating the kinks out of her neck from our impromptu nap.
‘Bend tonight, Portland tomorrow,’ Lexi drifted back, explaining that it was still a four or five hour drive to Portland and, on a bus, that could stretch even longer.
‘They do go pretty slow,’ I said, checking my wallet to make sure all the cards were there. Specifically the one with Cali-compatible credit on it. Lose that one and I’d be on the street, done for.
‘You sure there will be a hotel?’
‘It isn’t that big a place.’
‘We’ll be okay.’ Lexi paused, forcing her head through the Damijana Chu hoodie she’d just taken from me. ‘There were busy streets on the way in…relatively busy. Must be some hotels somewhere.’
Juana took out her phone and swiped for a minute, probably searching Portland places to stay, then, rubbing the back of her neck again, put it away and said, ‘okay, we try Bend.’
‘Then head to Portland tomorrow.’
I checked back on the trail we’d just walked then up at the tree line for any incongruous shapes. ‘You think he’ll catch up to us?’
‘With his alien magic?’ asked Lexi, copying Juana and pressing knuckles into the back of her neck.
‘Probably. At some point.’
‘And act as if nothing happened?’
Juana muttered something in Yaqui, laughing at us.
‘What?’ I asked, genuinely perplexed.
‘It is hard to be around humans sometimes.’
Bend was obviously larger than Juana thought as not only was there a fairly frequent bus running into town from the lava caves trail, but there were about five hotels lifting their skirts up [or trousers down] at us when we got off.
None were particularly appealing, but they existed.
‘Default choice if we can’t find anything else,’ I offered, getting a sì, quizás from Juana.
‘Better premises have been found.’
Pointing right down a side street, Lexi followed directions on her phone to a smaller, and slightly cheaper, place, finally bringing us to a soldier’s halt in front of a row of eight identikit bungalows.
Unlike the hostel the night before, this one was themeless, had no pool, no VR shack, and no vending machine for late night, zero-sugar lemon juice. But neither Lexi or Juana really cared as they were tired and their heads felt tight and all they wanted to do was collapse on a relatively comfortable bed and fall asleep in spurts to some random horror mess on GENTE+.
‘We’re booking in then?’
‘Already done,’ replied Lexi, waving her phone at the side of my head.
‘You paid for it?’
‘We’ll sort out the compensation later.’
‘Tomorrow morning,’ edited Juana, putting both palms on either side of her neck, both elbows out, and doing what sounded like a pterodactyl mating call.
‘Works for me.’
Dinner was replica lamb kebabs and lettuce in bed, with Juana accepting Lexi’s offer of a cushion-mattress on the floor of our room.
‘To save cash,’ she whispered into my hair at the check-in desk.
‘We’re not that poor.’
I strongly suspected there was another reason, but didn’t dwell on it as…honestly…it was a relief not to think, hey, should I try to touch her, initiate something?
If I don’t, will she think it’s weird?
And the very worst one: does she know I can’t get it up anymore?
Those questions slipped back into black and white noise as all three of us lay on the bed, watching Gremlins 2, waiting for the door to open and a smirking Nick to stroll in, the Bored Real Hard jacket slung lax over one shoulder.
By the time we got to our second filmn, The Editor, Juana was already asleep – on the bed not the floor – curled up in her bluebell dress and impossible to budge.
Half an hour later, Lexi was in the same state.
Before that, they’d both complained of grogginess, possibly from the nap, or maybe the weird Negativity Museum we’d gone into earlier.
Both were possible, though it was odd that my head was okay. A bit hazy now and then, but not bad enough to make me grind knuckles into it and fall asleep at nine in the evening.
Or spasm like a loon and float off weirdly into the sky.
‘We are all editors of our own realities,’ came from the screen.
The words sounded like a command, provoking me into rolling off my tiny strip of bed and head over to the door. As soon as I moved, Juana extended her legs, colonizing the space I’d left behind.
Sneaky Yaqui devil…
Based on how hard it’d been to move her half an hour ago, plus Lexi’s habit of nicking all the covers, it was unlikely I’d be sleeping on the bed tonight. Or sleeping much at all based on the thinness of those cushions.
Ah well, I wasn’t that tired.
‘And what if Claudio were to suddenly die? What then?’
I hovered by the bedside table, imagining the book-shaped rectangular space Moon Prison should’ve been filling, then internally shrieked fucking Nick Stahl as I thought about all our luggage still in the trunk of his car.
He couldn’t just leave us here…with nothing.
Unless he really was ill…injured in some way…
‘Don’t worry about that silly, little man. He can cut it as many times as you like, he’s pathetic.’
I walked to the door and pulled down the handle slowly, letting out a snipped kuso when a beeping noise warned that the unlocking process was complete.
Luckily, Lexi and the recovering brain addict were in Vishnu sleep, not even an irritated moan as I stepped outside and another beep indicated the door was finally closed.
On the street out front there was little to no traffic.
No parked KIA stinger surveilling me or the bungalow.
I stretched out my arms and looked at the phone. The local news site had nothing on floating alien figures buffering in and out of observable reality, which was a relief. But it did have something about the Museum of Negativity. FAKE ART COMPLEX CHANNELS SATAN, KIDNAPS LOCAL KIDS. That was the headline. Below it, text that wasn’t much different. A bearded handyman from Salem saying he’d done surveillance on the place for weeks, seen men in Satanic cloaks smoking cigarettes out back, then, somewhere in the middle of the story, claiming it wasn’t a real exhibition centre at all, but the epicentre of a Muslim pedophile ring…thick accents, kids going in and not coming out. And, at the very end, final paragraph, the mayor of Bend saying no such museum existed and that the accuser was delusional, had a long history of making these sorts of outlandish claims.
Hang on, what? Didn’t exist?
I read to the end, frowning at the claim that some unverified sightings of said museum had been made, but when the reporter visited the alleged site, all they found was an abandoned fishery.
We were inside the thing that morning, with the weird red tie guy…the Jupiter show and the saxophone…the little Mexico diorama…
A car beeped its horn down the street, forcing my eyes up from the screen.
…the growing red dot. Was that…
The air collided with my skin, vibrant, sticky…green streaks within darting from molecule to molecule…fusing at hinge-points, threatening mist.
I closed my eyes, seeing the same green shade on the inside of my eyelids.
Was this screen flare?
The museum constructed itself within my subconscious, the four car seats in front of the projection screen, Jupiter growing larger, the darkness, the curator, the green flashes on all sides, a voice saying repeatedly, ‘brain willing, brain whole,’…
I opened my eyes, riding out the haze transfer between ether-scape and street-scape, keeping the inside picture fixed in frame.
But the projection screen was different.
It wasn’t Jupiter anymore, it was
the Nightmare Castle woman
half a face covered by long black hair
single eyeball glaring
‘Brain willing, brain willing’
A dog barked, erasing the image, pulling me back.
The green streaks were gone.
As was the voice.
I looked at my phone again, refreshing the article about the Museum of Negativity…only now the headline was different. PILOT BUTTE VOLCANO SHOWS SIGNS OF RECOVERY.
I clicked back to the home page and skimmed the other headlines, then the smaller pieces, and finally typed in a direct search.
‘Museum of Negativity Bend.’
Not even a basic announcement of its arrival.
I lowered the phone and stared off at the mountain silhouettes in the distance.
Was it a dream?
A lunatic’s art pop-up?
There was one guy who could probably tell me, but he’d decided to vibrate weirdly and piss off into the sky.
Selfish alien bastard.
Didn’t even leave Moon Prison behind.
Or our clothes.
A young-ish guy in a basketball shirt walked by, holding what I hoped was his girlfriend by the back of the neck, and then stopped at the bungalow two doors down.
I waited until they were inside then turned back to my own door.
Put the key-card to the electronic reader.
And stood there.
Didn’t even tell us where he was going, a voice continued in my head. Didn’t ask if we were okay. Didn’t offer to take us with him. Didn’t leave the car. Didn’t-
Head on the hardest of the cushions, Sci-Fi Queen hoodie as makeshift blanket, screen diagonal on the wall above, I stared left at Juana’s mouth, open like an abandoned lava cave.
She wasn’t snoring.
Neither was Lexi.
But it looked as though she should’ve been.
Like someone had pressed mute.
Real and not, I thought, moving from tooth to tooth.
Cannibal or not.
A grunting noise from the other side of the bed.
Lexi, my girlfriend.
Person I slept next to in novelty motels.
Person I sleep kind of near to in template motels.
Flash of light on the screen, for a second it seemed green, but when I looked over it had morphed into a dull violet colour.
The cybermen docking at an industrial complex.
A space station.
Probably somewhere in Wales.
Bursting through a green-lit airlock, tin-foil suits with no dick outline, no smile.
‘Utterly ruthless, total machine creatures,’ says the Doctor.
Was this a good episode?
I had no idea.
Were the actors still alive?
The men inside those suits, the traitor, the extras with-
‘Not the plague, commander…poison.’
Was this scene playing out somewhere, in a field next to the Museum of Negativity?
The Cybermen, the doctor…the other players…were they beyond all this?
Another grunt from the bed, this time Juana, mouth closing up.
Rotation towards Lexi.
Body on body on-
The screen pictures changed.
Regular humans shooting at humans in melt-face.
Cybermen and doctor off in the void.
‘When we reach the centre of Voga, we’ll be fragmetised.’
I turned on my side, facing Lexi’s scrunched-up jacket.
Dick broken into atoms.
Sequestered to a cold Welsh cave in the middle of-
‘I sometimes wonder if your friend is right in the head.’
The screen went dark.
My hand pulled off the Damijana Chu hoodie and folded it into a pillow. Placed it on top of the cushion.
These aliens…Cybermen…melt-face guys…
Did any of them fuck?
Was there a part of their brain that would-…that might consider it?
Dream of it?
Or was it all just kill…theatrics and kill…cut-price?