The next morning was a little different from the previous one as Lexi was still in the room, had a Fordian monopoly on the duvet and didn’t seem to care that Juana was snuggling up to her from behind.
At some point during the night, I’d made it back onto the bed, but now…I was on the brink of floor again, one foot planted like a Kubrick tripod on the carpet, the other tilting over the edge of the mattress…brain still trying to figure out which town we were in.
I looked opposite, at the TV propped up on the wall. It was frozen on the GENTE+ menu screen, the highlighted box prodding me to watch Void Galaxia.
In terms of layout, it looked almost identikit to the last place we stayed at…the WinterMute hostel…but the décor was absent, and there was no narrative voice feeding me lines that may or may not have been from Neuromancer…which meant…
The lava cave place?
I got off the bed and grabbed my phone, checking the internal map.
The bungalow hostel, after the bus from the lava caves, where, for some reason none of us could recall, we had all decided to take an outdoor nap and Nick had…gone through some kind of fit…lost his mind…spasmed like a schizophrenic up into the clouds.
Kuso. That was real.
And he still hadn’t returned. At least not to this room.
Putting on the only t-shirt I had left – a very creased, not so great smelling Don’t Get Cyber, MAN – I headed to the door then swerved right to the window when I remembered the beeping noise from the night before.
No car outside. No grinning alien prick standing next to it.
So he really had pissed off with all our luggage?
I turned back and looked at the snapshot on the bed. Lexi being sucked dry by a Mexican cannibal and sleeping through it. Or Juana covertly cupping Lexi’s tits and nibbling on her shoulder blades. Both were man-centric and should’ve produced some reaction, but all I really felt was exhibit grade curiosity. Where exactly were Juana’s hands? How did they get into that shape, with the duvet in such a skewed position?
Lexi moaned and rolled onto her back, forcing reflex activity.
I picked up the remote and pressed play on Void Galaxia, skipping past the childhood frames – the loss of Kazy, the weird lake scheme – and straight to the wormhole appearing at the Pluto Lagrange Point.
The humming noise of the ship woke Lexi and provoked her body up into a sitting position. Juana stayed with both hands flat in the same place until Nakagami shouted that the wormhole was emitting blue orbs of light, and then she was up too.
‘Void Galaxia?’ asked Lexi, after a bit of swaying and eye massage.
She looked around the room and the small amount of street she could make out through the tiny gap in the curtain.
‘Bend,’ I said, reading ahead.
‘Portland…’ replied Juana, half sliding, half crawling off the bed and picking up Lexi’s pants.
‘Dress is hanging in the bathroom,’ I said, putting a hand up as a guardrail against my eyes.
‘Your dress. The bluebell thing. Don’t worry, I didn’t wash it.’
She nodded, tossing the pants on the bed, then bounced off the side wall into the bathroom, apparently not giving a shit that she was completely naked.
Not even a pair of knickers.
‘Was she…’ started Lexi, watching Juana fade out, then glancing back at the empty space on the bed.
‘The whole night?’
I turned back to the screen, Nakagami jabbing the button for the airlock, yelling for compliance. ‘Yaqui culture maybe.’
Without Nick around, breakfast was a much more sedate affair.
The bungalow complex offered free bread rolls, but they looked dry and enervating so we walked down a few streets until we found a little caffé called Aveeno.
Juana, of course, carried the baton of the Portland, Portland, Portland conversation, laying out a no frills plan to take a bus, get over there, buy some fresh clothes to replace the ones we’d lost, and then conduct some very basic, very close surveillance of Sadia’s new place.
‘Do we know where she lives?’ Lexi asked, taking a sip of her second cup of black coffee [which wasn’t called Americano].
‘Sì, I have it in my messages. Something Williams Avenue. North, I think.’
‘And you believe she’s still there?’
Juana took a bite of her pastry, then caught a falling drop of cream with her finger and ate that too.
‘It wasn’t that long ago,’ I said, pulling back the local news site on my phone. ‘Doubt she’s moved. Hey, what the…’
‘Bad news?’ asked Lexi, pushing up to my side.
‘It’s different again. The museum thing…the place we saw.’
I showed her my phone screen. ‘See, now it says it’s there for the entire month. But I checked last night and…first it said it was a Muslim pedophile ring…disputed…then it wasn’t there at all, no article, no reference. Now it’s got a promo piece.’
Lexi raised the cup vaguely to her lips, glancing at Juana…and reacted way too slow as some of the coffee spilt out over the rim.
‘Don’t you find that weird?’
‘Maybe you searched wrong,’ replied the Mexican, passing Lexi a tissue. ‘A different site.’
‘No, it was definitely there.’
‘On the same site?’
‘Or not there. Last night, I mean. Yeah, same site.’
‘Hmm. Falta de sueño…tal vez.’
‘Things were pretty blurry last night,’ added Lexi, dabbing the Ko on the front of her Kollontai Shoe t-shirt, mumbling foda at the stain.
‘I remember waking up at one point and…seeing like a load of green eyes by the window. For a minute straight. Really weird.’
‘But then I looked at the TV for a bit and…when I looked back they were gone. Probably immersion haze…or a relative of it…a loose one.’
I checked back on my phone, re-reading the same headline. ‘I suppose.’
Nearby, an elderly guy walked past, with a little boy tugging on his hand, screaming, ‘Pluto 2280, Pluto 2280, Pluto 2280, Pluto 2280.’
‘It was a weird place,’ said Juana, finishing off the last bit of pastry then pulling her chair slightly closer to Lexi…and examining the faded coffee stain.
‘Sitting in that car seat, watching the Jupiter show…that racist curator and his ‘devil’s door, devil’s door,’ garbage. Glad we got out of there.’
‘Another one of Nick’s great ideas,’ said Lexi, swatting Juana away. ‘It’s dry already. Stop it.’
‘Still some residue…’
‘Look at your own clothes.’
‘Necesita una limpieza adecuada…’
Lexi turned side on to the Mexican, taking out her phone.
‘We can find a shop to clean it…’
‘Wonder where he is now,’ I said, almost drowned out by a voice in a passing car yelling, ‘in what fucking way?’
‘Alien Nick? Probably on one of these tables, watching us. Or in that manhole over there.’
‘Wouldn’t put it past him.’
‘Or having another fit out near Neptune. Fuck. Foda. Still weird how he just vanished like that. I mean, from a human perspective…for him, an alien…maybe not so weird. I don’t know. Better get our stuff back to us…wherever he is.’
‘But he probably won’t. Too mundane for the likes of him…returning stuff. Explaining things.’ Lexi took her cup, sucked up some coffee dregs. ‘Ah, maybe we should just buy some clothes here, my t-shirt’s starting to smell quite bad. What do you think, Juana?’
Lexi laughed out in staggered breeze, putting a hand on Juana’s bare arm. ‘One track lady.’
I latched my tongue onto the top teeth, killing what I was about to say, and instead examined the AVEENO logo on the coffee cup.
Nick not coming back?
The guy who’d found me in a basement in Fresno?
Not that easily.
Having nothing else to do in Bend, and with no firm methodology or scan-tech to track Nick, both Lexi and I handed the reins to Juana and allowed her to lead us like neutered boxer crabs over to the bus station.
She’d already bought three tickets online, apparently, so all we had to do was find the right depot then sit on a bench and play with our phones until the bus came.
‘Portuguese?’ suggested Lexi, waving a Brazilian travel vlog at me.
‘Sim. Esta okay.’
‘Then Japanese after.’
We managed about seven minutes before Lexi finally admitted she couldn’t understand what they were saying, mostly cos there were no subtitles to hold our hands, and there was a Big Brain Bakunin video critting Tomomi Itō’s analysis of the hyperreal lurking in the recommended section, all of which was probably beyond us, that’s what I said to Lexi, and she agreed, but it was BBB so, ‘let’s watch it anyway.’
Turned out we were wrong, it was quite accessible, and the hyperreal was basically just a signifier for all the shit around us, the VR games, the online trauma, society in general, no fresh future dome for humanity to-…
The sound of screeching wheels punctured our theory bubble as a familiar car pulled up where the bus should’ve been and an Indian-looking woman in Nick’s Bored Real Hard jacket told us to stop fucking around and get in.
The three other people on the bench looked at us as we continued to sit there, gawping back at the KIA stinger.
‘Don’t give shock face, it’s me, Nick. Get in.’
Voice was different, tone a little more aggressive, but the directness was spot on.
‘Are you frozen?’
And now the eyes were flaring up lilac…
‘Nick?’ I muttered, the ck almost non-existent.
‘Look…bus is permanently delayed. If that’s what you’re waiting for.’
‘Road accident. Two dead, one paralysed for life.’ The eyes dimmed a little, as the Indian woman’s fingers…Nick’s fingers…flicked at the top of the steering wheel. ‘Best way to Portland’s by car anyway. This car.’
‘Come on, comrades, shift yourselves. Can’t sit on a bench forever.’
Throwing her extortionately priced carton of oat milk at the nearby bin [and missing], Juana got up and opened the passenger door, sliding in as if it were her dad picking her up from a regular Tuesday at school. That was it? She was just getting in?
Lexi paused the Itō video, said, ‘fuck the bus,’ and went for the back.
‘The fuck are you still sitting there for?’ barked the Indian woman, the purple in her eyes virulent again. ‘You should’ve been first in, Keni.’
‘No…’ I said, quite pathetically, as I followed Lexi onto the back seat and then, ‘sorry would be a start’ to the back of our new driver’s head.
No response except a grunt.
Then the wheels were screeching and we were off out of the bus depot, a solid forty kilometres over the speed limit.
Any expectation of repentance or detailed explanation of where he’d been for the last sixteen hours was guillotined instantly as we were told to stay silent until later, then a terse follow up of, ‘dish out info when I feel like it, don’t push.’
‘We’re going to Portland, right?’ asked Juana, pulling out another carton of oat milk from god knows where.
‘But you just said-…’
Her eyes reacted, the yellow so lucent that it reflected off the windscreen and forced me over to the side window Then I realised it wasn’t actually her eyes, it was the sun hitting after our screech turn onto the 97. But still…they were pretty bright…and ultimately toothless.
Gradually accepting the current status quo…that had been thrown sack-like over our heads…Juana coasted into a transient state, sipping on the oat milk straw and staring off at the mountains to the west, while Lexi and I discussed our situation in nominal whispers.
‘You think he’s having a mental breakdown?’
‘Alien glitch maybe.’
‘I don’t recognize the Indian woman…the new face…’
‘Real one’s probably in a bucket.’
‘…but she looks crazed.’
Some of her theories [and my own] made me flinch a bit, but I persevered through irritation and perhaps even rage, making the calculation in the more rational zone of my brain that Nick wouldn’t hurt us for just guessing things.
I was half right.
After Lexi’s [non-whispered] speculation that he’d been off in Portland the previous night, messing with homeless people or prostitutes like a little coward, the Indian woman hit the brakes, clambered awkwardly over to the back seat and gripped us both by the throats.
I closed my eyes to block out the lilac glare, and made a weak attempt to pull the lunatic’s other claw off Lexi…but her grip…no, her whole arm…was like a metal girder.
‘One hour. No words,’ she said calmly, digging the nails in as an exclamation mark then releasing us.
Sucking in as much car air as I could carry, I tried to say fucking psycho but nothing came out. Another try, without the fucking, still nothing. I looked left and saw Lexi touching her own throat, mouth open, emitting a silent monologue.
She’s taken our voices, I mouthed, prodding Lexi on the arm.
‘You can have them back in one hour,’ said the Indian woman, who was back in the driver’s seat, flicking something out of the window. ‘If you don’t annoy me.’
It was too ingrained in our reflexes not to respond with some kind of invective, and that’s what Lexi and I did, even when giving up and folding our arms.
Yet every single time…no sound.
‘To deal with the obvious questions first,’ the Indian woman continued, looking at us through the windscreen mirrror, eyes still a faint tint of purple. ‘I have taken the form of an Indian-American woman. Ex-model working in AH-Bot sales. Gay as Juana here. Speaks standard Hindi as a second language. Basic insults in Tamil. Name is Reshmi. Call me this instead of Nick, it’s easier. What else? Hmm. My previous abilities have not changed. Yesterday vanishing act was both controlled and necessary, despite what you think you saw. No, comrades, do not anticipate an apology. That too is unnecessary. A distraction. I am tracking a dangerous foe. Focus is needed. You can talk freely at meal times. Do not try to change the agenda. Juana, that goes for you too. Everything will be fixed soon. Tomorrow, I will take you to Portland.’
Dangerous foe was the thing that stuck out, but I had to wait another fifty-odd minutes to ask about it, and when I did, I realized I’d already forgotten her new name.
‘Excuse me…err…’ I said, after several raspy attempts.
‘You have one question.’
I hacked up the phlegm lodged in my throat, glancing at Lexi. She still had her arms folded and was staring at the back of Nick’s-…the back of Reshmi’s head. Didn’t seem too interested in opening her mouth.
‘Who is this dangerous foe you’re tracking?’
‘A coward,’ Reshmi shot back.
‘Do we know them?’
‘No follow ups.’ She looked right, and I copied. The sign coming up said Sweet Home – 10km. ‘We’ll be making a stop soon.’
‘Lunch?’ asked Juana.
‘Maybe later. If you behave.’
The stop in the tiny town of Sweet Home was brief and oddball.
First, we parked outside a desolate grey warehousse with a faded sign that said Radiator Supply Housse.
Then, with the three of us watching on from the car, a surprisingly tall, trim and quite pretty in a manic way Reshmi marked out a triangle in the dirt, stood in it with her palms flat against her temples and…to give it sci-fi terms…flickered in and out of reality…while, at the same time, maintaining a sort of purple glimmer cloud at the elbows, shoulders, and skull.
When the ritual was complete, she got back in the car and coughed out something in what I guessed was an alien language, then translated it with clear irritation into, ‘not here.’
‘The radiators?’ asked Lexi, deadpan.
‘… … … … … … … …’ Reshmi jabbed green-painted fingernails into her forearm, not bothering to turn. ‘… … … … …’
‘Is that your native language?’
‘Next stop, Lebanon.’
‘Where?’ I asked, squeezing Lexi’s hand and mouthing don’t.
‘Not the country.’
‘Sorry, I thought it might be a-…’
‘No more talking in the back seat zone.’
‘That includes hesitation noises.’
I slouched back, moving a hand back to pull up the hood…then realizing I’d given my Damijana Chu blanket to Lexi again.
‘Will there be lunch in Lebanon not a country?’ asked Juana, pulling the side of her hair back.
‘Funny little Yaqui…’
A quick [silent] search on the phone told me that Lebanon was a small town about ten kilometres north-west of Sweet Home and that was about it.
Nothing much to see apart from a couple of [pay-to-play] small parks and a main street with a non-franchise VR.
Obviously, we skipped all that and stopped outside an abandoned clinic.
NOVA Health Urgent Care.
Reshmi rehashed the same performance from the radiator supply housse with pretty much the same results.
Ethereal body buffering and Not here.
Presumably she meant the dangerous foe…the coward…who, according to Lexi, was probably a figment of Nick’s…no, Reshmi’s psychotic breakdown.
But when we cajoled Juana into asking her directly – who is the dangerous foe? – the Indian ex-model just tapped the steering wheel and said, ‘next stop, Stayton.’
Around four in the afternoon, Reshmi finally got hungry herself and bought us all burgers from an artisan place called Origi-Null.
‘Five dollar flat rate for the burger, fifteen for four mandatory toppings…equals fake independent cunt shit.’
‘You want us to chip in, give you some-…’
‘Are you sure?’
‘… … … … …’
We drove a bit then stopped, eating the burgers in the car while Reshmi buffered jagged purple outside the deserted Knife River Corporation, which was apparently a concrete supplier. Or it had been before they’d let half the roof collapse and the red paint decay into pale orange.
‘Not here?’ guessed Lexi, mouth half full with burger meat as Reshmi got back in the car.
‘They considered it…’
‘…for a long time.’
‘The coward?’ I asked, scrunching up my burger wrapper into the scruffiest of balls.
‘One more stop,’ she said, starting the engine, ‘then call it a day.’
That one more stop was also in Stayton, an old rundown cinema on an empty street, and after that it was hostel time.
Lexi suggested a quick phone search for decent places, but Reshmi already had a place in mind, which just so happened to be the functional little grey block we were pulling up to.
‘Looks a bit bland…’ said Juana, sticking her face to the window.
‘No VR either,’ muttered Lexi.
‘I’ll check us in.’ Reshmi got out and closed the door…then re-opened it to let us know that we could find our own dinner.
‘You’re going out?’ I asked, but it was directly to the car door again.
Reshmi may have been a new avatar, but she wasn’t a cheapskate.
There were several compact pods vacant at the hostel, without any amenities, basically just bunkbeds with vertical corpse standing space, but she shunned them all, literally tutting at the promo pics, and instead treated us to two deluxe suites, complete with large screen and GENTE+, plus access to the pool three blocks down.
Then took the car and pissed off again.
Did a lap of the car park.
Came back, wound down the driver’s side window and chucked the room keys on the concrete [almost in a puddle].
‘No scheming…’ she shouted, speeding off again.
In the Elsinore Suite, Lexi and I stretched out on our king-sized bed, alternating between chicken wings and mushroom salad, avoiding the creepy monochrome mill print on the wall, trying to decide if we should make a run for it or stick with Reshmi and hope she calmed down a bit.
‘If she does that mute throat thing again…’
‘But then if we sneak off, she might do worse.’
‘A lot worse.’
Near the end of a random episode of Moons Of Guangdong [that we were only half-watching], Juana came in and lay down between us, saying it was lonely in the other room.
‘She’s still not back?’
‘There’s only one bed too.’
I tried to do a whistling noise and was surprised when it actually worked. I’d never used to be able to do them, but now…
‘What the hell happened in that volcano?’ asked Lexi, stabbing a mushroom with her chopstick.
‘Lava caves…’ corrected Juana, eyes fixed on the TV screen.
‘Did we get attacked or something? Is that why we were napping?’
‘Only Nick knows,’ I answered, picking up a 99% eaten chicken wing and biting off a dust-sized piece of meat. ‘Sorry. Reshmi.’
‘Great. We’re at the whims of a lunatic alien.’
‘She’ll probably tell us eventually…’
‘With a vicious mean streak.’
‘…when her mood swings back the good way.’
Juana coughed, cutting off Lexi’s next line. ‘This is Colonies of Guangdong.’
‘I like this serial. Muy relajante.’
‘Lots of background players doing things. What do you call it? Versimulation? Versimu-…’
‘Sci-fi. Old.’ I glanced to the left of the screen, taking in the long dead mill workers trapped forever outside their shitty workplace. ‘Kind of old.’
The next morning, someone yanked my legs halfway out of the bed and told me to stop lazing around, get in the shower.
‘She’s already done. It’s your turn.’
I rubbed vaguely near my eyes and looked up.
Reshmi was standing there, impossibly tall, top half covered in what my hazed consciousness translated as the Colombian football jacket. Behind her, perched on the end of the bed, was a punk version of Lexi, hair dyed green, t-shirt skin tight and branded with a reverse cross.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, pulling my legs back up onto the bed, squinting at a dirty white dress with strawberries and a blonde wig laid out on the chair nearby.
‘Come on, up, shower.’
Reshmi leaned down and whipped the duvet clean off, letting it drop onto the carpet.
‘Shower, Keni cat. Now.’
‘Alright, I’m up…relax.’
‘And no daydreaming in there, we’re already losing time.’
I reeled off another relax, frowning as I walked past the dress, then mouthing what the fuck to Lexi before heading into the bathroom. When I came back out five minutes later, Reshmi was standing by the door, holding up both the dress and wig.
‘To go with your new football jacket?’ I tried, gesturing with my forehead at the Colombia badge on her chest.
‘Not for me.’
‘She has something else.’
‘You’ve got one minute,’ Reshmi said, unfastening my towel and doing absolutely nothing as it dropped down onto the carpet.
Instinct split two ways, half dick cover with my right hand, half crouch to the floor. ‘What the fuck are you do-…’
‘The dress, the wig…put them on.’
‘Don’t be difficult, Keni, there really is no time for it.’
‘Just wear the thing,’ said Lexi, pulling down a strand of her new green hair. ‘It’s not that big a deal.’
‘Are you hypnotised? I’m not wearing a fucking-…’
The words stopped and thoughts turned to fog as Reshmi pressed the tips of her fingers into my temples, whispering things I couldn’t understand but which sounded soothing, gentle, soft, authoritative…
I blinked long and slow several times, each one a piece of chopped duration, splice-cut to near future scene and
at some point
I was standing by the car window, looking at the reflection of myself in a long, white dress, and blonde wig, agreeing with Lexi that the strawberry pattern wasn’t as ugly as we initially thought.
‘Blonde hair suits you,’ said Juana, sitting in the front with square frame glasses and a light-green cardigan that made her look like a knitting instructor.
‘Gracias,’ I replied, riding out an abrupt stabbing pain in the back of my skull then opening the car door and sliding in next to Lexi and her satanic punk t-shirt.
‘Next stop, McMinnville,’ said Reshmi, guiding the stinger away from the hostel and out into the no traffic street.
We drove through Salem and curved upwards to McMinnville, which was pretty much a continuation of the small town in retrograde series from the previous day.
Only this time, Reshmi got a little lost looking for her designated structure.
‘It should be here…’ she said, pointing at an empty strip of land to the left.
‘What’s it called?’ I asked, picking up the phone from my lap.
‘Keni, you’ll have to ask someone.’
‘You’re the most approachable.’
‘Err…okay. If you don’t want to just search online.’
‘Here, try this guy.’ Reshmi pressed a button to bring down my window, gesturing with fringe lilac eyes for me to poke myself out.
‘Excuse me…’ I said, getting the elderly guy’s attention [and his dog’s too]. ‘We’re looking for a place around here, it’s…’
‘Evergreen Lodge,’ whispered Reshmi, hand on my left thigh.
‘Some place called Evergreen Lodge. Do you know where it is?’
The elderly man stared at me, his whole face doing a performative slow motion lap around the outline of my blonde wig then dipping down to the strawberry dress.
‘Fruit,’ he muttered, finally, and kept walking.
‘Not a very enlightened human,’ commented Reshmi, pulling back out onto the street and beeping at the pensioner as she passed.
‘He seemed confused,’ I added, turning to Lexi.
‘Probably a bit weird to ask like that.’
‘Cute dog though. Completely undeserved for someone like him.’
‘Yeah, dog was okay.’
‘Maybe we should head to Portland,’ said Juana, pointing her face too far down and almost losing her glasses. ‘… … … … …’
‘Let’s try another passerby,’ continued Reshmi, scanning the pavement ahead.
‘Or we could just check on the phone,’ I offered, miming it out.
‘Here, this guy. He looks quite young.’
Before I could shoot out, hey, someone else’s turn, the car had pulled up parallel to the curb and rolled into a matching pace with the guy, who was walking in little slalom motions along the pavement. ‘Excuse me…’ said Reshmi, leaning out of the driver’s window.
‘Much better. Keni, you’re up.’
‘It’s on your side.’
‘Last time, I promise.’
‘Come on, quickly, our young friend is waiting.’
‘Kuso. Better be the last time.’ I coughed, facing the guy with the slanted head outside, this time keeping my face inside the car. ‘Do you know where Evergreen Court is?’
‘Lodge,’ corrected Reshmi.
‘Sorry, Evergreen Lodge.’
The guy looked straight at the front of my dress and rubbed his thigh.
‘Is it near here?’
He stopped rubbing and came up to the window, poked his head right past me and asked if he could come with us. ‘Down to San Diego, beaches, bongos, Bogdanovic left turns. I know where it is, franza, the whole blitz, every little nook, hook and cranny.’
‘Are you high?’
‘In times of rectitude, lady face, Stayton in your prime fat-…’
Reshmi told him to fuck off and pulled away, then gave out a long kusoooo as the guy kicked at the car door, screaming to the exhaust fumes that we weren’t the real green feel anyway.
‘We’ll ask a woman next,’ Reshmi announced, turning onto a new street with even fewer pedestrians.
‘No need,’ said Lexi, holding her phone forward through the seat gap. ‘Evergreen Lodge. Right here.’
‘You found it.’
‘It’s on the map.’
The car continued straight then turned left, and left again, with Reshmi making no attempt to look at Lexi’s phone or ask if she was going the right way…almost as if the sneaky little rat had known all along.
Evergreen Lodge was actually a wooden church, and abandoned, and that was pretty much all we could gauge as Reshmi acted out the same flickering routine she’d done in the other deserted places and then came back and declared, ‘not here.’
Same thing in Longview.
And in Astoria.
Though apparently the last one was a long shot as it was too small to fit the Platonian ideal.
I assumed Reshmi was referring to population size, but when I tried to ask her, she just mumbled something about strategic amp-circles and then informed us all that the day had been a waste and the best thing to do was go straight to bed.
‘After dinner, right?’ I said, swatting Lexi away from my wig.
‘Yeah, I’m starving,’ she added, coming right back and twisting a new strand around her fingers.
‘Dinner…’ said Reshmi, as if it were a Sumerian puzzle.
‘Somewhere near that bridge,’ slurred Juana, the top of the green cardigan lodged in her mouth.
‘A proper restaurrant too.’
‘Yeah, not a burger place.’
Reshmi repeated bridge and restaurrant and then lapsed into vague mumblings of it may have been here to deceive, if the initial line is accurate, which town fits and which one is a lost cause, negative all the time or just a patch…until finally she coughed and said, ‘dinner. Not burgers.’
As per the requests of Juana and Lexi, the place we ended up at was both a proper restaurrant and close to the bridge. And a fishing equipment store. And a museum of the town sixty years ago. And a museum gift shop. And a dozen other things that they could charge for.
‘Permanent Neon Adventurism…’ Lexi pushed out under whistled breath, turning it into a fake gasp at the giant VR fish flickering by the reception chairs.
‘Doesn’t look much like a steakhouse.’
I pointed back at the door we’d just walked through. ‘The sign outside…it said steakhouse.’
‘Thought it did. Could’ve been a different building.’
‘Fish steak maybe?’
Taking a table pushed in against the wall, three of us checked out the menu and the painting of old Astoria hanging above, while Reshmi put her hand in the air and warned that this was going to be quick.
‘I’ll order for everyone.’
‘Then it’s bedtime.’
The waitress came over and listened to Reshmi ask for four steaks, well-done, then made the error of looking at the rest of us and asking if that would be all.
‘Four steaks,’ repeated Reshmi, holding out the four menus.
‘Okaaaaay. And to drink?’
‘Water. Four glasses. Clean.’
‘We have several special prices on the wine menu, if you’d like to-…’
The waitress glanced at me, then Lexi and Juana, rubbed the top of her left ear, probably code for something like has she kidnapped you, then took the four menus and scuttled back to the counter.
‘Fussy old wretch…’ said Reshmi, watching the waitress and not even attempting to disguise it. ‘She’s complaining about me…’
‘You were pretty rude,’ I said, pushing the strap of my dress further up the shoulder.
‘…calling me a bully. Rude? Kuso. I ordered the fucking meal. Write it down, go away. It’s not hard.’
‘She was trying to be friendly,’ said Lexi, waving her hand at the invisible muon barrier around Reshmi’s face. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t stare so much. Look at the décor instead.’
‘If these steaks don’t come soon…’
I reached over and guided Lexi’s hand back down, using our traditional mime code to warn her off aggravating the lunatic alien.
But then, as things died down and the water arrived, I thought, why did I say that? Or think it? Reshmi wasn’t that bad. Just in a bad mood. It’s not like she’d-…
Streak of green steered me left, a grainy Herzog voice saying how everything was forced, everything was wrong, the dress was not as pretty as I thought it was, and the blonde wig could-…
‘Fucking capitalist hag…’
I blinked, catching the blurred shot of Reshmi holding up a bottle and pouring the water robotically onto the floor.
‘Eighteen dollars for water.’
I glanced at Lexi, who was already reaching for a tissue to soak up the mess. Then taking a handful when she saw how tiny they were.
‘Isn’t that normal here?’ I asked, helping her.
‘Very clearly said free, complementary, not this bottled shit. Fucking leech…’
‘Okay, why don’t we just use the tissues to-…’
I bent down towards the carpet, just the right height to get a knee to the head and a curt ‘leave it’ echoing back.
‘What’s she doing?’ asked Lexi, rising up from her seat.
‘Don’t think we’re gonna make it to the steaks,’ said Juana, going the opposite way, pulling the cardigan up over her head.
Judging by the purple flaring up in Reshmi’s eyes, and the length of her strides, I feared that Juana was right…and literally breathed out in relief when the Indian model veered right and disappeared into the toilets instead.
‘Hope there’s no hags in there,’ muttered Lexi, tissues still gripped in hand.
A minute later, the waitress appeared at our table with a [fish-motif] cloth and knelt down to wipe the carpet, telling us not to bother with the tissues, it was only water. I wanted to warn her to hurry up, get back to the counter and possibly clock off early before Reshmi came back, but she distracted us with random talk about different types of stains, how to get them off without expensive chemicals, and then the steaks turned up, and….thank the gods…she left along with the other waitress.
Still no sign of Reshmi though.
‘You think she’s really in the toilet?’ asked Lexi, picking up a fork and cutting off the fatty part of her steak.
‘Where else could she be?’
‘At the hostel,’ said Juana, sitting up straight again now that the food had arrived.
‘Foda…’ Lexi paused her cutting. ‘You two have money, right?’
I held up my hoodie and patted the pocket.
‘That means yes?’
‘Thank fuck, I thought we were…’
Pushing her green fringe to the side, Lexi dug into the steak and I followed with mine, cutting it up into little square strips first. Juana watched us both, then grunted [in Yaqui] and sliced hers in half, sticking a fork into one of the chunks.
By the time we were half done, the waitress came back over, asked if everything was okay…dabbed a finger into my steak…then picked up the quarter-full bottle of water and smashed it on the edge of the table. Smiling at the result, she used her spare hand to pick up my glass and, without ceremony, threw it against the old Astoria painting nearby. Then did the exact same thing to Lexi’s and Juana’s.
‘Fuck this fucking water,’ she screamed, as the last one smashed into pieces and rained down dangerously close to Juana’s head.
I pushed back into the seat cushion, waiting for someone else to do something, to say something, but no one moved. Switching eyes left, I saw Lexi stuck in the same state, and Juana…sifting through the glass that had just landed.
‘Fuck this fucking food,’ was the next slogan, as the crazed server seized my plate and threw it most of the way across the restaurrant, her aim skilled enough to hit another patron on the neck.
That kind of violent accuracy was clearly the last straw.
A stocky man in a fisherman slicker, either the manager or a cosplayer, rushed over and attempted to put an arm around the waitress’ shoulder, whispering not so quiet threats into her ear.
Psychologically, it was a bold move.
And then an amateurish one as the waitress used the broken half of the bottle still gripped in her left hand to stab him in the neck. Then the stomach. Then the chest…though the guy did somehow manage to lift up a forearm to block the worst of that one.
‘Fuck this fucking job,’ the waitress shouted, eyes glazed purple, pushing the bleeding slicker out of the way and marching over to the toilets, the bottle-dagger hanging loosely from her left hand.
The restaurrant stayed painting-like for a few more seconds, then an invisible god flicked a switch in one of the patrons’ brains and a shriek rang out. Other switches followed. The customers nearest the toilets got up and scurried out, while the staff edged slowly towards that corridor, with kitchen knives and sieves trembling in their hands.
I looked at Lexi and Juana, giving the universal signal to leave – balloon eyes – but they just sat there, ever so slightly swaying their heads.
A fresh scream erupted, and a second, forcing me back round.
Kuso, it was Reshmi, coming out from the toilets corridor, a puzzled look on her face as staff rushed forward and yelled, ‘where’s the waitress, what’s she doing in there?’
‘Get off me, dregs,’ she replied, pushing her way through and navigating back to our table, where she took one look at the wounded slicker guy on the floor, with five staff attempting to stop the blood loss, and said, without any fluctuation at all, ‘crazy fucking witch.’
Then sat down and looked at the broken plates.
The shards of broken glass.
Our Ubu Imperator expressions.
‘Fuck this fucking steakhouse,’ she said, standing right back up again, brushing non-existent dust from her hands. ‘We’re leaving.’