Content warning: sexual content, drug use
Lydia’s heat-swollen and sweat-sticky legs prickled under Creepy Clerk’s green-eyed gaze. Ignoring them, she filled her empty bottle from the water cooler, then chugged its contents until the aftertaste of vomit was gone. She knew what she must look like. Her eyes felt gritty, and the green-colored contacts she’d been wearing for two days badly needed alone time with some saline solution. Her long, dark hair was matted and had taken on the same yellow-brown color everything eventually in the desert became. The tuxedo jacket she wore was two sizes too large, and it smelled sour after the four-mile walk. After the sun had cleared the mountains to the east, she’d chosen to minimize sunburn, which maximized sweat, but her bare legs hadn’t fared as well, the burned skin on her thighs ruined the gothic aesthetic of the haunted windows tattooed all over her legs.
As she refilled her bottle, she glanced across the small lobby to find Creepy Clerk quickly glance back to their book. She squinted to see their name tag. He/him. To his credit, his face was more neutral than hers would have been if she’d been the one peaceably reading and he, in peak hot mess, had stomped in from the desert. Then again, he also might have been pondering how high the sunburn on her legs went.
She shoved her now full bottle back in her day bag and punched the elevator button. Now that she’d stopped moving, she felt the tidal swell of exhaustion. The adrenaline from Ghost’s last e-mail had worn off, and what fumes she had left were from… when had she last eaten?
She looked at the unsecured elevator button and her stomach cramped as she remembered, for the fiftieth time this morning, a comment someone made about how this place was always getting robbed.
…there you were with that stupid trunk, Ghost had written. I looked you right in the eye… Did you see me?
Had they really seen her, or were they just fucking with her?
…ready or not, here I come.
If they meant her harm, then what were they waiting for?
The elevator arrived and as she stepped inside, she was disoriented by a sudden, intense feeling that she was forgetting something. She steadied herself against the cool metal wall as the doors shut and let herself feel the rhythmic, throbbing ache in her blisters. Her eyes traced the dents and scuffs on the brushed metal doors as the water in her stomach gave a warning slosh as the elevator began its ascent.
Lydia exited on five and walked through the halls with measured steps, past the uniform rows of empty rooms and their green lights. She stopped before the door at the end of the row beneath the lone red light on the floor, pulled her phone from her boot and tapped it to the entry pad. The light cycled to green. She opened it.
Her trunk was gone.
Three Days Earlier
Lydia dismounted into the tangle of sweaty sheets. His soft brown skin glistened beside her, condom on his wilting cock. He wore a half-mast version of the irresistible smile she’d wanted him for, and she knew the rest of that smile was lost to the pleasant annihilation of fucking. He’d been good. Young enough to still be grateful, old enough to take his time.
She wished she could remember his name.
The air in the small bedroom was stifling, and the gravity well in the center of the saggy, lump-riddled mattress drew her body back towards his. She shifted stiffly away from him, one arm clutching the naked side of the mattress, so she might cool down as she enjoyed her orgasm’s afterglow. One of his hands found her leg. His hot fingers traced the fluorescent lines of the rainbow tattoo that coiled around her body from ankle to neck. His eyes met hers and he grinned. “That was fun.” He brought his hand toward her cheek.
Lydia sat up, then fumbled for her underwear on the floor, finding them in front of the space heater. She stood and slipped them on. They were uncomfortably warm. “Toilet?”
He propped himself up on one elbow and pointed at the bedroom door. “End of the hall.”
The floor was gritty and uneven, so she brushed her feet clean before she pulled on her boots, then grabbed a shirt from the pile of discarded clothes at the foot of the bed. His. She maneuvered herself around her battered, sticker-covered, brown leather trunk next to the door.
At some point in the house’s history, the door had fit its frame. Now it was held shut with a hook and an icy draft leaked in through the cracks. She freed the hook and caught the splintering wood before it hit her trunk, then clomped down the dark hallway. Holes in the drywall let in a damp draft, and the complex perfume of petrichor mixed with the eau de rotting fish aroma of the nearby Salton Sea. She passed a dark bedroom filled with rotten furniture. There were child-sized notches carved in the doorframe beneath names now too faded to read.
She paused at the bathroom. Unfamiliar bathrooms always made her vaguely anxious for a reason she couldn’t specify, so she’d decided at some point it was due to a totally rational fear of slipping and hitting her head and nothing more, which helped a bit, but not entirely, but that was good enough. Thankfully, from what she could see in the dim light, “slippery” was not a word that could be used to describe this bathroom’s sparsely tiled and grime-matted floor.
As she peed, she thought about how anxiety was a survival mechanism. There was some biological imperative behind imagining everything that could go wrong. Maybe the prehistoric humans who got all wound up over nothing were most likely to live long enough to procreate. As such, anxiety was adaptive when it concerned a fear of slipping and hitting your head on a glass shower door, but what about when it was being caused by other people? You could plan for encounters with slippery bathroom floors, but there was no way to adequately plan for other people.
As Lydia thought about it more, she realized it might make for a good essay topic. She pulled her phone from the charging slot in her left boot and checked her bank balance. She had plenty for the tattoo update she was getting tomorrow in Niland. No need to rush a draft. She could let it marinate a bit.
Lydia set her phone on the sink’s ledge, stood, then poured water from a nearby bucket into the toilet bowl until it flushed. She rubbed her hands in the frigid trickle from the sink faucet, then pressed a numb hand to the back of her neck and the warm metal covering the neural port beneath her long, damp hair. She peered down the hall to see if he was watching her, but he’d gotten up to shut the bedroom door after her. What was his name?
She opened her dating app. There he was. Carlo, 22.
She slid her phone back into her boot, clomped down the hall, and unhooked the door. As she shut it, she noticed the room smelled faintly of wet wipes. She slipped his shirt over her head, stepped out of her boots, and collapsed onto the damp sheets. He smiled that smile again and she let herself melt. Just a little.
If she stayed, they’d probably fuck three times a day, all skin-drunk and giddy. But after not so long a time, she’d feel stifled, or he’d see her for who she was. Either way, she’d leave. This was the most he was ever going to like her.
A bead of sweat ran down her cheek. Carlo caught it with a fingertip.
“I like you, Polly.” That fucking smile.
Out here by the Sea, two A.M. was a dead hour, and there was nowhere else to go. She might as well make the most of it and give Polly a good send off. She touched her forehead to his and lied.
“I like you, too.”
“Hell is other people.” – Jean-Paul Sartre No Exit (1944)
Is the gaze of others a weight on your skin? Have you ever stopped yourself from doing something you wanted because you worried what other people would think? Even when alone? What triggers this hyper-concern with others, this overdrive in our pattern recognition in which all mental roads lead to ‘I’m a total fuckup’? Once, long ago, before we lived in large communities, our anxiety served an evolutionary purp-
The van lurched over a bump and her trunk heaved against the seatbelt that secured it on the bench seat beside her. It knocked against her hip, which knocked the rollout keyboard from her lap. The keyboard landed on the faded, yellow backpack jammed between her feet and the seat in front of her. She leaned against the door and pinned her trunk against the opposite door with her foot, then picked the keyboard up. After trying a few different positions, she gave up and jammed the rolled-up keyboard back into her backpack. She pulled her phone from where she’d wedged it in the setback pocket and flicked the cloud doc shut.
She looked out at the dusty brown landscape and the distant shimmer of what remained of the Salton Sea. It was early but the van was already oppressive in both temperature and scent. This morning, as the sun rose over the Chocolate Mountains to the east, the Sea reeked of a particularly potent combo of dead fish and rotting eggs, emboldened by the night’s rain. The drive south from Carlo’s place in Bombay Beach to Niland wasn’t long, but the roads were caked with mud, which made the going slow, and while the person driving had as many windows open as could open, the thin breeze they admitted only concentrated the smell of the Sea in the van.
Carlo had told her about it the night before; how in 1900, the Colorado River had been diverted into a dry lakebed known as the Salton Sink to make the land arable, but when the river had swelled, the resulting flood emptied the river’s entire contents into the Sink until it became a Sea. People had flocked from the western coastal communities of Southern California to the Inland Empire to build homes and resorts along its shores. But as the unnatural Sea slowly evaporated, its waters concentrated the toxic agricultural runoff from the nearby farms and livestock yards. The wildlife that had made the Sea their home began to die off, and the people who had settled there fled back to the coast. Now, it felt like the desert was trying to forget the Salton Sea had ever existed. Lydia found a strangely familiar comfort in it, like she had come home.
Lydia pulled up the collar of the shirt she’d borrowed from Carlo and filled her nose instead with his smoky, spicy smell. She opened her dating app. She smiled as she did a quick scroll through the three months of messages she’d gotten as Polly. The enby with the California accent. The Burner couple. The masc with the floral quantum dot tattoo. The fem with the depressive cat. Carlo and his smile. They’d all been fun. As she deleted her profile, she let herself feel the small loss. She’d had fun as Polly.
She opened her messaging app and found the one from the tattoo artist, Marnie, who’d confirmed she was meeting Lydia today near the storage place in Niland. Months ago, Past Lydia’d had the foresight to book this appointment correctly anticipating that Present Lydia would be ready for a change. Lydia browsed to Marnie’s portfolio for the umpteenth time that morning. It was all derelict architecture amid nature, haunted faces, bones, and flowers. Her use of color and texture was stunning, which created a distinct sense of motion in so much stillness. The rainbows on Lydia’s legs looked hideously dull by comparison.
She looked up in time to see the sign announcing their arrival in Niland. As they passed the sign, her phone vibrated. An e-mail. “About your writing.” She smiled. Probably from someone who liked one of her essays. She liked that she could be herself (or at least as much of herself as she could remember) in her writing. She also liked how any connections she made because of it were made at a comfortable distance.
With everything that’s changed, it’s refreshing to know you’re still the same old, self-absorbed, pseudo-intellectual ass I once knew. Though it may not seem it, I hope you keep writing more of your whiny drivel. I get a lot of comfort knowing some things have stayed the same, and though you wouldn’t remember me, I do hope you’ll someday remember this e-mail
Her stomach cramped. What? Pseudo-intellectual? She scrolled up to the header. The sender was email@example.com, sent to her professional writing e-mail, which was easily found by anyone with the most basic Google skills. It could be from anyone she’d once known.
“Hell is other people, alright,” she sighed, then deleted the e-mail.
She reopened the dating app, and in the time it took for the van to crawl the last mile into town, they’d left the stench of the Sea behind, and her new profile was up. Since Past Lydia had told Marnie her name was Delia, this time, she’d be Delia.
Lydia had a good feeling about Delia.
Lydia watched the van kick up dust behind it as it drove away. The area’s slow-motion disaster had done nothing to deter the Sea’s growing community. Squatting artists like Carlo, survivalists, and runaways filled the abandoned properties of nearby ghost towns and set up permanent camps at Slab City, just across the train tracks east of Niland. Their collective DIY spirit could be seen in the scavenged material home remodels, the sand-bleached, yet still vibrant mosaics and murals that covered every visible surface along Main Street, and in the easy demeanor of the people loitering in the shade of the covered wooden sidewalks.
Lydia slung her backpack over her shoulder and pulled her trunk behind her by its retractable handle, its inset wheels catching on the deteriorated pavement. Awkwardly balanced and nearly as big as she was, it yanked back with every step. She felt people’s eyes on her as she passed and increased her pace.
The only state-owned self-storage in Niland was in the new-ish building at the end of the street, barely coated yet with desert-yellow dirt. Their seemingly obligate punny names made Lydia’s eyes roll, but the state system was both efficiently interconnected and affordable, and saved her from the predatory prices of the private companies that emerged in response to California’s hemorrhaging population. Other than the trunk and her backpack, the remainder of Lydia’s life was in a similar storage building in San Diego.
In the lobby of the storage building, a fan spun in the open window behind the fem at the check-in desk. Lydia checked them out as she filled her water bottle from the cooler by the elevator. They had a mess of glossy black curls and beautiful deep brown eyes that glared at Lydia over thick-rimmed glasses and the top of a softcover book. Lydia squinted. Nausea by Sartre. A coincidence, but Lydia knew that coincidences were as close to meaning as anything got.
Lydia glanced at the clerk’s nametag as she approached. She/her. She was cute as hell.
Cute Clerk sighed as she put her book down. “Can I help you?”
“Two nights, please.”
“Short term locker, then.”
“No, a room.”
Cute Clerk’s gorgeous brown eyes took in Lydia’s trunk, her backpack, her too-large and now sweat-soaked shirt. Lydia kept smiling.
“This isn’t a hotel.” Ice in those eyes.
Lydia’s smile faltered as she decided to downgrade Cute Clerk to just Clerk. “I just need to rearrange some things. Privately. It’s not like I’m gonna sleep here.”
Clerk frowned as she typed something into the laptop beside her.
Throat dry, Lydia tried to swallow as she looked out the window. Across the street, three people were leaning against the side of a building smoking. Suddenly, the door beside them slammed open and someone as yellow-brown as the desert stumbled a few steps onto the sidewalk, then fell into the street. They sat up briefly, laughed, then vomited onto the broken asphalt. When Lydia looked back at Clerk, Clerk was glaring at her.
Lydia pointed at the building across the way. “What’s that place?”
“A shithole.” The clerk slid a tap pad towards Lydia, which displayed a total at its top. “Total plus deposit.”
More expensive than Lydia’d expected, but she refused to let this chip away at the good feeling she’d had this morning about Niland. She pulled her phone from her boot and tapped it to the sensor.
“Fifth floor. You’ve got access ’til this time Sunday. Security checks the rooms every hour,” she said. “There are substantial fines for sleeping.”
Lydia’s cheeks burned as she shoved her phone back in her boot and dragged the trunk to the elevator.
“It’s broken,” the clerk yelled after her.
“Great,” Lydia sighed and pulled open the door marked “Stairs” beside the elevator. She was greeted with the smell of hot, stale piss.
Maybe coincidences were overrated.
By the second floor, Lydia didn’t like Clerk. By the third, she wondered if a corpse could be fined for “sleeping.” By the fourth, she’d adopted the mantra “forget don’t forgive” for each step, which, by the fifth-floor landing, had lost all meaning. She pulled her trunk past rows of identical doors with their steady green lights, and by the time she found her room at the end of the last row with a red light above it, she realized green meant empty. Clerk had given her the farthest room from the stairs on the highest floor. Cursing, she unlocked the door with her phone, which caused the light above her room to turn green, pulled her trunk inside, then let the door shut behind her.
She fished her keyring out of the bottom of her backpack and slipped its lone key into the trunk’s lock. As she turned it, a flap opened beside it to uncover a fingerprint pad. She touched three fingers to it until the lid’s catches released, then propped its lid open on its support arm. Inside, a neatly braided profusion of wires surrounded an even more neatly ordered array of electronics, all bolted to a metal frame surrounded by a thick layer of gray, shock-absorbing foam. She removed her tool kit from a compartment at one end, unspooled the power cable, then plugged the trunk into the wall. Indicator lights flashed on as she removed a fat laptop from its slot at the other end of the trunk.
As the diagnostic script ran in one window on her desktop, she freed a small black case from beneath a ribbon of wires. In it was a carefully folded mesh beanie, to which she systematically attached wires, then slipped it onto her head. In another open window on her desktop, she confirmed in the schematic that the magnets in the mesh were properly aligned to their counterparts in her scalp as each contact point lit up green. Lastly, she pulled the pneumatic injector from the bottom of the case the beanie had been in and inspected it carefully for damage. Satisfied, she pulled a long, thin metal box from a slot cut in the trunk’s foam padding and popped it open. There were plenty of cartridges left, which meant she could have as much worry-free fun as she’d like. Delia might even be the best Lydia yet.
She used an alcohol wipe to sanitize the injector and cartridge and loaded the cartridge into the injector. She then pulled her hair away from the port on the back of her skull and with practiced fingers, popped the cover from her neural port, which she also gave a once over with a fresh wipe. She felt the nozzle of the injector slip into its place in the port, then depressed the plunger. At the familiar pulse of headache, she set a timer on her phone for ten minutes, enough time for the nanoconstructs to find their appropriate places among her neurons.
She opened the neural calibration software to review the results of the diagnostic scripts. Once satisfied, she opened her cloud storage folder and selected all the neural coordinate backup files that had been uploaded – one for every night she’d been Polly. She then kicked off the comparison script which would compile a list of all the differences that had accumulated in her brain between her first day as Polly and now. This process couldn’t be rushed. Not when one of the possible outcomes of a mistake was a psychotic break. As she waited, she touched one of the long, ropey scars that ran behind her ears and up her scalp. She had no memory of getting the neural port installed, or of having the construct-counterparts embedded throughout the neurons in her brain. She couldn’t even remember what event or events in her life had qualified her to get an intervention so extreme (now so illegal), though she also figured perhaps that had been the entire point.
When her timer on her phone let her know ten minutes had passed, she opened the spreadsheet she used as a sort of diary to record everything that had happened to her on a particular date and time, as well as the neural changes that were recorded at that same time. She started a series of quick spot checks comparing the list of coordinates to be targeted against the coordinates in the diary. Her cheeks began to burn as she remembered as she read.
The Enby with the California Accent’s face when she’d forgotten what age she’d said she was in the dating app.
The masc with the Floral Tattoos’ eyes when he’d caught her sexting someone else.
The Burner Couple’s front door slamming in her face.
They’d all ended badly. All of them except Carlo, but that was only because she’d ended it first.
Better to just forget it all. Start totally fresh.
When the list of coordinates was complete, and the calibrator was showing all green lights, she clicked on the batch file on her desktop to execute the scripts that would give Delia the kind of fresh start she deserved.
Bye, Polly was Lydia’s last thought before everything fuzzed out.
Lydia bounced down the stairs, day bag banging a happy rhythm on her hip. Her skin was handwipe fresh under her clean black shorts, green mesh shirt, and white tank. On a whim, she even put in one of her pairs of colored contacts, transforming her eyes from their usual milk chocolate brown to a lush grass green. When she reached the lobby and the sunlight hit the rainbows on her legs, she felt a twinge of sadness that they’d be gone soon, but she was in too good a mood to dwell. She gave the cute fem clerk behind the desk a wink as she approached.
“Where’s the nearest bar?”
Cute Clerk, she/her, according to her name tag, frowned in response.
Lydia’s cheeks warmed. They must have had this conversation already. Looking through the window behind her, Lydia spotted a group of people smoking and standing in the shade beside a building, and a pool of vomit nearby in the street. Bingo. When she looked back to Cute Clerk, she realized it was more than just annoyance. Cute Clerk disliked her. Lydia pushed down a neap tide of panic. Having someone hate her was a terrible start for Delia.
“How about your favorite bar, then?” Lydia beamed.
Cute Clerk’s glare deepened. “I don’t drink.”
Of course. Lydia looked at the book Cute Clerk was reading. Nausea. She could work with that.
“Well, how about a good place to interview people about the existential themes in the art around here, then?”
Cute Clerk softened. “Um, Collab Coffee? Big Greco building by the tracks on the east side of town. You’re a writer?”
Lydia relaxed a bit as she rifled through the scattered knowledge she had of the area. “I’m doing a series on outsider art in the Southwest. The community here seems vibrant.”
Cute Clerk put her book down and crossed her arms. “You mean the Slabs?”
Though Lydia couldn’t say if she’d been there before or not, she knew Slab City was the colony of anarchic squatters on the unincorporated land east of Niland. Lydia nodded. “In part. Any recommendations for things to see?”
“Not in the Slabs,” Cute Clerk said. “Nothing but tweakers and lowlifes. But there’s plenty of stuff in town. Murals. Art installations.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Lydia beamed. Then she noticed that the clerk’s brown eyes were cut through with veins of green. The effect was so beautiful, it made Lydia’s heart skip a beat. She blushed. “By the way, you’ve got gorgeous eyes.”
Red crept up Cute Clerk’s neck. “Hey, look, I’m sorry about earlier.”
Lydia grinned and waved Cute Clerk’s comment off. Lydia, after all, had no idea what Cute Clerk was talking about. “No worries!”
Lydia bounced out the front door into a bright, arid afternoon. She had a bit of time before Marnie was supposed to be meeting her outside the storage facility. Lydia was glad that past Lydia had gotten Marnie to agree to pick her up in town so she didn’t have to lug her trunk around all day. It was near noon, and the heat was considerable, and the rain-swirled mud had already baked back to powder. For now, Lydia craved shade and company. She approached the smokers.
Two presented masc, one shirtless, with a splash of black analog tattoos across their deeply tanned neck and chest. The other Lydia could only describe as “faded” in washed out grey jeans, with skin and gaze to match. The third was androgynous. They were tall with faintly Asian features, wearing tight black pants, a baggy green flannel, and a mop of matching green hair. Neck Tattoo and Faded shared a joint, while Green Hair lit a cigarette. She decided she liked Green Hair the most out of the three. There was something vaguely comfortable and familiar about them.
“Buy you a drink for one,” Lydia indicated Green Hair’s cigarette.
Their eyes, the color of desert scrub, took Lydia in, then passed her the rollie with a shrug.
It tasted of leaves, leather, and molasses, and burned the shit out of her throat.
“Thanks. Delia. She.” Lydia said.
“Prawn. They.” Their eyes became absorbed by the habit of their long fingers as they gathered tobacco from a leather pouch at their hip into a slip of rolling paper.
“Prawn?” Lydia raised an eyebrow.
“Too tall to be a shrimp.” Prawn licked the paper between their fingers then rolled it into a perfect cylinder. They really were stunning, and it took Lydia a moment to realize she was staring.
“Steve, he,” Neck Tattoo said in a parched voice. He nodded towards Faded beside him, whose eyes were fixed on Lydia’s chest. “He’s Jog. New to town or passing through?”
Lydia took what she hoped looked like a casual drag as she turned her body away from Faded. “Unsure yet.”
“You shouldn’t have used them,” Prawn said.
Lydia picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue then realized Prawn was talking to her. “Who?”
“Those assholes.” Neck Tattoo jabbed his thumb at the storage building.
Lydia frowned. “Why?”
“They get robbed a lot.” Prawn lit the rollie between their lips. “Because they’re assholes.”
Lydia’s chest tensed around the smoke. “Who robs them?”
“Tweakers from the Slabs.” Neck Tattoo shrugged.
“What was in that trunk?” Faded’s watery green eyes narrowed as he stared at Lydia’s face. His teeth were yellow, his voice was surprisingly resonant, and he was creeping Lydia the fuck out.
“Dude, the fuck is wrong with you,” Neck Tattoo gave Faded an angry shove, then turned to Lydia. “Sorry. He’s a piece of shit.”
Lydia managed a nervous laugh, then looked back to Prawn to find them contemplating her lips as she took another drag. She relaxed a little. She might have a chance with this one. “Live in Niland?”
“No,” Prawn said.
“Slabs,” Neck Tattoo said. “But the beer’s here.”
“I’ve never been to the Slabs.” Lydia inched towards Prawn who didn’t move away.
“You look familiar.” Faded took an unsteady step towards her. “You been here before?”
Neck Tattoo grabbed Faded by the arm and pulled him back. “Dude. Fucking stop it, you’re being a fucking creep.”
“It’s Slab City Prom tomorrow night,” Prawn smiled down at her. They had wonderful teeth. “You should come.”
Lydia played with a tendril of her hair. “No one’s ever asked me to prom before.” Not that she could remember, at least.
Prawn smirked. “Delia, will you go to prom with me?”
Lydia let herself melt. Just a little. “Sure.”
“Great.” Prawn flipped open the leather cuff on their left wrist then held it out to her. Lydia pulled her phone from her boot and tapped it to their wrist to exchange their contact info.
Feeling grateful to Past Lydia for making such a good call on coming to Niland, she slipped her phone back in her boot, crushed the cigarette out on her sole, then slipped an arm in Prawn’s. “How about that drink?”
Lydia turned around. In the road, in the world’s shittiest golf cart, was the most stunningly beautiful creature Lydia had ever seen.
“I’m Marnie. Hop in.”
The golf cart sped over the uneven dirt road heading east out of Niland. Lydia hung on to a handgrip welded to the rollbar under the cart’s canopy as they had passed the out-of-place looking Greco-styled Collab Coffee building that Cute Clerk had mentioned, then crossed the train tracks, after which the crumbling plaster and bleached wood buildings of Niland were replaced with the dirt hills and torn chain-link fences of the unincorporated area beyond. But Lydia barely noticed any of it because she couldn’t take her eyes off Marnie.
There was something ineffable about Marnie that was stirring something up deep, deep inside Lydia, almost like it was love at first sight. First, she was Lydia’s exact type. Her bottom lip had an offset silver ring through it. She had dark hair, cropped short, with a smattering of gray at her temples, and the start of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. Her well-muscled arms were covered in a riot of analog tattoos, all the way down to her fingertips. Lydia also strongly suspected that her ass would keep the promise her thighs were making as they worked the pedals. But it was Marnie’s eyes that let Lydia know she was in trouble. They were green like a fucking rainforest and Lydia had to keep stopping herself from staring.
Marnie pointed to something off to Lydia’s right, and Lydia tore her gaze away from Marnie’s face to see a small hill set back from the road by a few dozen feet that was painted sky blue and covered in raised red and white text that proclaimed, “God is Love.” Atop it, a wooden cross extended its arms along an ambivalent horizon. Salvation Mountain, Lydia dimly remembered, was a labor of love and donated paint made by a single artist. Its meager summit was crawling with tourists. Sunlight glinted off a camera lens pointed in their direction. Someone in a plaid shirt was taking photos in the direction of Niland.
As Lydia took in the details, the parts where the hay bales were peeking through, the multiple tunnels winding through the structure’s base, she noticed someone watching them from one of the recessed areas. All Lydia could tell was that they were pale and dark-haired before they disappeared into the shadows beneath the Mountain. Lydia felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
Just past Salvation Mountain, painted-on letters on a concrete shed announced their arrival in Slab City, the “Last Free Place.” Along the road, Lydia saw all manner of dwellings – yurts, trailers, shacks, buses – all in various states of upkeep and decoration, interspersed with shade structures, solar panels, and generators. Soon, they sailed past a mid-size stage, attended to by a few rows of desiccated pews, set back from the road with “The Range” painted in white letters above it. Most people seemed to be inside against the heat of the day, which gave the place an eerie, haunted, feel.
“Thanks for coming to pick me up in Niland,” Lydia said, eyes returning to Marnie’s face.
“No problem.” Marnie’s eyes never left the road. “Thanks for sending a photo over. You were easy to spot.”
Lydia had no memory of sending Marnie a photo of herself. Must have been the doing of Past Lydia. “Have you lived in the Slabs long?”
“I don’t live in the Slabs,” Marnie said.
Sure enough, at the end of the road, Marnie turned left, away from the road that went deeper into the Slabs, and out towards open desert. They wound between scrub-covered hills for a few minutes, the tamped down dirt road demarcated by old tires stuck in the ground at regular intervals. As they hugged a curve around a small hill, a meter-tall silver fork appeared. Beside it, through a copse of insubstantial trees, which looked more like shrubs with their long, thin branches and small, delicate leaves, was a sign that said, “West Satan.” Marnie, however, went right, and after another minute, stopped in a tire-fence-lined cul-de-sac in front of what Lydia could only think of as a tetanus wonderland.
Past the tire fence, scrap-metal art rose like metal carbuncles from the earth in what looked to be an expansive sculpture garden. Taking it in, Lydia noticed an irresponsibly tall teeter-totter to her left and a three-story wooden treehouse erupting from another stand of the same type of wispy tree. Further back, she could see a decaying, empty house half-sunk into the dirt, and a burned-out car frame beside a sign that said “Car-B-Que.” In all the spaces between stood countless sculptures of trash and scrap metal, amongst which small groups of tourists were taking selfies with their phones. A sign above the entry archway to the sculpture garden read, “East Jesus.” Beside the sign extended a wall in which a school bus had been embedded which had “Nothing Ever Happens” painted on its side.
Lydia scrambled out of the cart to catch up to Marnie, who was already past the bus and halfway to a small gate that stood between a ten-foot wall of broken televisions and a concrete wall inset with thousands of colored glass bottles. As she stepped through the gate, Lydia noticed a sign with rules for non-residents and info on tours.
“Tours?” Lydia asked.
“We’re Imperial County’s only art museum,” Marnie said.
To the right, three peeling school bus seats circled a table with an inset fire pit. Beyond that, a permanent shade structure covered a lounge area around an old knee-high pool table, a small bar, what looked to be a sizable indoor/outdoor kitchen, where Lydia could hear voices. But Marnie went left, past a small area filled with musical instruments with a cutout of Elton John sitting at an upright piano, into a courtyard. Another wispy tree lent shade to the space between two trailers painted with things Lydia didn’t have time to ponder before they passed into a larger courtyard ringed with three more trailers. Marnie stopped in front of the furthest trailer, which was covered entirely with bottle caps, to unlock its door.
Lydia, noting Marnie’s thighs had indeed kept their promise, followed Marnie in as Marnie tugged closed an emerald-green curtain to their right, but not before Lydia glimpsed a drawing table, sitting area, and a neatly made bed covered in a handmade quilt. To the left was a white leather tattoo chair and a long counter covered with clear drawers filled with small bottles of ink, an autoclave, and a computer workstation. The walls were absolutely covered in art.
Marnie pulled a stool up and indicated another beside the door for Lydia. “So, you want your dots redone.”
Lydia felt pleasantly naked under Marnie’s gaze. Her cheeks warmed.
“Show me. Undress to your comfort level.” Marnie indicated an empty plastic bin on the floor, then swiveled to face the computer behind her.
Lydia put her bag in the bin, pulled off her boots, then stripped down to her underwear. When Marnie turned back to take Lydia in, Lydia felt an ache deep inside. Fuck, she really wanted Marnie. She couldn’t remember ever wanting someone more.
Marnie’s eyes widened. “How much coverage?”
“Full body,” Lydia said.
Marnie whistled. “Hold up your arms.” She ran a long plastic wand along Lydia’s body, which Lydia knew was to map the location of each Qdot, as well as their spectral emission data. Lydia used the time to look at Marnie’s drawings, all ghastly and gothic, full of the baroque of decay, pale figures with hollow eyes staring back from dark recesses. Lydia felt the hairs on her neck prickle again as her eyes drifted to the tattoo inks. She wondered what getting an analog tattoo felt like. She didn’t remember getting the Qdots, nor did she know how she’d gotten the money for them in the first place.
“Okay, what are you thinking?” Marnie asked.
Lydia hadn’t been exactly sure what she was going to ask Marnie for. She had always been an in-the-moment kind of person, so she did what she did best and followed her gut. “You do such amazing spooky stuff. I’d love a full-body haunting.”
Marnie leaned back for a moment, spinning her lip piercing with her tongue. As her eyes unfocused, a vague smile formed on her face.
Lydia knew most of their time together would consist of Marnie drawing on a tablet, with only a few minutes spent on reprogramming the Qdots, but Lydia wanted Marnie’s hands on her. All over her. She looked back at the tattoo gun. “Could we also add in an analog tattoo?”
Marnie’s focus returned to Lydia. “Hm. We’d only have time for something small-ish. Maybe a bit larger than one of your hands. And it’d be double what I quoted you. You’re lucky my late afternoon cancelled since you’ll be here all day.”
And hopefully all night, Lydia thought, then blushed and spread her hands out in supplication. “I’m all yours.”
Marnie smiled, and was there something a bit more than friendliness there?
“Okay,” Marnie said. “There is something I’ve been wanting to try with dots. Let me show you what I’m thinking, and you can tell me if you’re interested. And don’t worry, next to full body dots, this’ll be nothing.”
And Lydia couldn’t wait for nothing to happen.
Lydia woke to the distant rumble of a train pulling the dawn’s shadows behind it. She’d been dreaming that she and Marnie were the only two people left in a soft, quiet world, their entwined roots drinking deeply of one another. As the dream dissipated, its feeling pleasantly lingered, leaving Lydia feeling an unprecedented kind of peace. Wrapped in sheets that still faintly smelled of the evening’s efforts, Lydia rolled towards Marnie. As she reached for her hip, it set off a bone-deep throb and fresh wave of burning in her upper left arm. Part of her reflexively wished to unremember the four hours of agony under the tattoo gun, but the pain was so wrapped up in the Marnie-ness of the experience, part of Lydia wished her arm might hurt forever.
Lydia’d surprised herself at how much she’d told Marnie about herself (despite her spotty memories of studying computer science and neurobiology), about her writing, about some of the travels she remembered, a few she didn’t, and about her life now in storage in San Diego. Once the tattooing was done, the talking had escalated to touching, and when Marnie’d touched the metal on the back of Lydia’s skull, Lydia’d changed the subject with her lips.
Lydia gingerly sat up. The plastic-backed bandage was still in place beneath the gauzy white compression wrap. Marnie had told her another East Jesuit had developed the molecular sensor inks they’d used for parts of it, which were designed to bind different hormone molecules. Marnie’d had the inks specifically designed to interact with Qdots so they’d change color depending on what hormones they detected, thus turning Lydia’s upper left arm into a molecular mood ring populated by ghoulish characters that would appear and disappear in the windows of the traditionally inked expressionist-style haunted house. Marnie’d said Lydia would have to wait until the inflammation went down before they could see how it came out.
On the rest of Lydia’s body, the rainbows had been replaced with arrays of not-so-empty windows, decaying doorways, rotting flowers, dusty cobwebs, overcrowded crypts, and leering gargoyles.
Once they were done, in so many ways, Marnie’d made Lydia feel so very right, so complete, like her entire life had been preparing her for this moment of profound belonging.
Lydia heard her boot buzz on the ground beside the bed. Lydia reached off the side of the bed and retrieved her phone. Marnie rolled over with a contented “mmm” and wrapped an arm around Lydia’s waist, which made Lydia’s arm throb with a fresh stab of desire.
Two e-mails. One text.
The first e-mail was from an editor with notes on an essay Lydia didn’t remember writing, which made Lydia remember her freshly diminished bank balance. She made a mental note to try and find a quiet place to work today so she could turn this essay around and get paid for it, but she also got a nagging feeling she was forgetting something.
The second email was from firstname.lastname@example.org. Lydia smiled at the coincidence as she glanced at the ghouls arrayed along on her bare arms. She opened the message.
I’ve been thinking about you nonstop. You’re making me feel nostalgic for all those times we use to have. You wouldn’t remember, though, since I’m just another blank spot in your mind. It’s no wonder why you haven’t changed a bit.
I don’t understand how you can write such earnest essays while hiding so effectively from those right in front of you. You’re an elaborate shell game of a person. Lydia. A flesh-bound lie.
I hope you feel bad all the time, because those who make the mistake of loving you don’t get to forget. They’re condemned to be in some distant but constant way,
Lydia’s stomach cramped. It had been sent to her writing e-mail address, which was easily found by anyone who really wanted to find it. She assured herself this was just another asshole on the internet, then deleted the message. She snugged in close to Marnie and took deep slow breaths of Marnie’s warm and slightly sour smell until she felt calmer again, but that sense of peace she’d been feeling this morning was gone. Was she such a liar?
She’d kind of lied when Marnie’d asked about her neural port.
And of course, she’d lied about her name.
And she wasn’t sure about a lot of the details she’d use to fill in the holes in her memory, either.
She sighed and rolled on her back, ignoring the pain in her arm, and picked her phone back up.
The text was from Prawn. They said she still owed them a drink and proposed some spot called Buckshot to meet up for a late breakfast.
She could get Marnie to drop her off earlier in the golf cart once she was awake, maybe even get a little editing done there waiting for Prawn to arrive, so she wrote Prawn back that she’d meet them there in a few hours. She turned back towards Marnie and closed her eyes, looking forward to when her hands could be Marnie’s alarm clock.
A few hours later, they were fucking.
That Prawn managed an erection on psychedelics was itself a miracle, one which Lydia deeply appreciated as she rode them in an abandoned house in Niland, the sweatshirt Lydia’d borrowed from Marnie all bunched up beneath Prawn’s bare ass. Sweating, eyes closed, Prawn’s large hands clutched Lydia’s hips. Lydia was in her happy place, lost in waves of raw sensation, the mushrooms causing fractals of light to bleed from everything, which pulsed in time to the now pleasurable ache in her arm.
The house they’d brought her to after a surprisingly good breakfast had been gutted, and what shade there was supplied by the rows of desiccated beams that held up what remained of the roof. A hot breeze blew in through the missing windows, a third body against her skin, but everything felt soft, and the desert browns were tinged with greens that pulsed as she bounced on Prawn’s cock. She looked down and saw
She lost her rhythm.
But it wasn’t Marnie. Not exactly. The face was both hers and not, like another, out-of-focus face was projected onto it. The figure beneath Lydia propped herself up on her elbows before laying back and throwing an arm over her face. “Headrush,” the figure said with Prawn’s voice.
Lydia clamped her eyes shut.
“You okay?” Prawn again.
She felt her heartbeat in her temples, her throat, her cunt, her arm. She waited. It slowed. When she opened her eyes, it was Prawn looking up at her.
“I think I just need a change of position.” She kissed them. Their lips wrote a symphony, and their tongues sang memories of coffee and whiskey. Prawn wrapped an arm around her back and flipped them both over, grit and wood digging into her back. She gasped as Prawn entered her again and everything momentarily sparkled. “Fuck.”
As Prawn thrust inside her, the floor danced back. “Fuck!”
She looked into their eyes, dilated black pools that filled slowly with green. She shut hers again and instead watched the kaleidoscopes of rainbows dance behind her lids.
Marnie’s sweatshirt pressed into the small of her back as Prawn laid atop her, wrapping their arms beneath her shoulders. Her breasts slid along the bare skin of their chest, an orgasm building within her, but when Prawn pushed themselves back up on their hands, their face stared back with fully green eyes. Lydia pulled their face down to hers and kissed them, then held them to her chest. “Don’t stop,” she whispered. “I’m close.”
At the memory of Marnie’s expert hands, her orgasm blossomed. She gasped, “I’m coming.”
Prawn pulled themself back up and locked in the pace, and when Lydia opened her eyes as the crest of her orgasm neared its break, she saw not Prawn, nor Marnie. The features of their pale face, framed by a mop of short, dark hair, were smeared like a ruined oil painting. The only in focus features were the pair of clear green eyes. Confusion and pleasure broke within her simultaneously, rushing outwards to crawl across her skin, prickle down her burning left arm, and up and around the port in her scalp, in undulating, annihilating waves.
Lydia pushed the body off her, sat up, and pulled her knees into her chest. She watched the desert breathe with her through an empty window.
A long moment later, the sound of a lighter behind her, followed by the musty smell of weed. A smoldering, perfectly rolled joint appeared beside her, held in a large hand with slender fingers. Without looking back, she took it and took a few puffs, letting the weed spread its thick, lazy tendrils through her mind, muting everything but the echoes of her orgasm still fizzing in her skin, and an unexplainable sense of profound shame.
“It’s okay,” Prawn said. “I wasn’t gonna finish anyway.”
Who was that?
Lydia sat in one of the sun-bleached pews set back a dozen feet from The Range’s stage, not-listening to the generic dance music playing over the PA as a live band set up their gear. Her arm burned and ached, the weed and mushrooms had worn off, and it was getting cold. She stuck her hands in her armpits as a gust of wind bit at her bare legs and arms. She watched the tide of thrift store prom dresses and ancient tuxes parade past, flowing from the photo booth beside the stage before disappearing into the Sea of humanity behind her like so much rain into the desert. Though no one was paying her any particular attention, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her.
Who was that?
Someone offered her a beer. She looked up. It was Prawn, now wearing the green feather boa and black mesh top their partner had brought with when he’d met up with them. Prawn’s other arm was around Partner, who smiled as he sucked on a freshly lit joint. He was shorter, round, with dark skin, brown eyes, and short bleach blonde hair. He was shirtless beneath a perfectly fitted tuxedo jacket, matching slacks, and bowtie. Lydia shivered, remembering Marnie’s sweatshirt, which she’d forgotten in the empty house.
“You look cold.” Prawn took the joint from Partner. “We have something that can help with that.”
Partner produced a small baggie filled with blue pills from his inner jacket pocket. Lydia felt her eyes dilate in anticipation. “Molly?”
“Best you’ll ever have.” Partner beamed up at Prawn.
“Oh, stop.” Prawn gave Partner a playful shove. Prawn’s eyes had returned to their usual desert scrub color, thankfully, once the mushrooms had worn off.
“Wait, you made those?” Lydia asked.
“Only way to be sure,” Prawn said.
“That it’s actually Molly?” Lydia asked.
“That it’s the best Molly.”
“Amen,” Partner said. He passed out the pills with a small flourish. “To prom!”
Lydia stood, then washed hers down with a sip of beer, the familiar bitterness lingering on the back of her tongue. Tomorrow’s come down would be hell, but that was a Tomorrow Lydia problem.
The filler music stopped, and the band on the stage began to play something acidic and bluegrass and eminently danceable. Prawn put their arm around Lydia. Her cheeks warmed.
“So, you’re a writer.” Partner said.
Lydia’s heart missed a beat. She didn’t remember telling Prawn that. It was dangerous territory. A way someone could tell she was a liar. She needed to change the subject.
“With a lower-case w. I used to be a scientist.”
Partner’s face lit up as he pressed a hand to his chest. “Proud grad school dropout, myself. What did you work on?”
Lydia’s heart skipped again. “You’re a scientist, too?”
“Was, if you believe my mother. Data science. I did a lot of modeling of biological systems, but ultimately felt suffocated by the limits of bacterial metabolism.”
Lydia smirked, pointing at Prawn’s hair. “So, you came out here and found greener pastures?”
He pulled Prawn’s free arm around him. “More like greener pastures seduced me.”
Prawn kissed him on the crown of his head. “Like I made you drop out.”
“You made everyone look bad, Dr. Four Year PhD,” Partner said. “You’ve got degree enough for the both of us.”
Lydia grinned. She liked Partner. He gave her the same kind of comfy vibes Prawn did. “Wow, four years, huh?”
Prawn freed their arms and shrugged as they began to roll a cigarette. “I like doing stuff with my hands. Makes me feel like a wizard.”
“But you ducked my question.” Lydia noticed Partner’s eyes had taken on a greenish hue as he looked back at Lydia.
Lydia tensed. Her memory of the three years she’d spent at UC San Diego was about as sound as the house she and Prawn had fucked in, and when she tried too hard to think about that time in her life, it made her feel an unformed and dull kind of anxiety. She thought of her trunk, covered in stickers from places she could only confirm she’d been to by looking at entries she had no memory of putting in her diary. But these people were fellow like-minded misfits. They felt like a kind of home. She didn’t want to lie. “I doubled in computer science and neurobio. I wanted to be a professor, but I discovered I don’t like being stuck in one place.” She took a nervous sip of beer, then changed the subject. “How’d you two meet?”
“Parties,” Prawn said, and passed a rollie to Partner.
“Fucked at a lot of parties, you mean,” Partner laughed. “Some of the best were out here, and we kept finding each other whenever we came back. After Prawn got his hood, we moved here. That was two years ago now.”
“Felt like home,” Prawn said.
Lydia felt a fresh rush of warm feelings for Prawn at that sentiment, complicated by a growing rush of anxiety.
Partner smiled, his now green eyes flashing. “Where’s home for you?”
“Lately nowhere.” Lydia’s throat went dry. “A while back it was San Diego.” That at least was mostly true. There had been somewhere else before San Diego, but trying to remember anything before that pumped the feelings of anxiety up to eleven.
“Ah, yes, San Diego,” Partner said. “Land of sunshine and science. Did you go to UCSD, too?”
She accepted a lit rollie from Prawn and as the nicotine buzz spread through her, the stage lights looked a little brighter. She could feel the familiar buoyant creep of Molly start, which was amping up her discomfort. The abyss in her mind she’d been dancing around began to pull at her, making the lights and the music dim. She looked up to the stage where the musicians’ movements began to strobe with the beat of the drums. “I don’t really want to talk about this, okay?” she mumbled.
Prawn wrapped an arm around her, which brought her back into herself. “Hey, don’t worry about him. This is Slab City, the freest place on Earth, and tonight is Prom. There’s no past. No future. But if you’re sober, you’re wrong.”
Partner howled then kissed Prawn. When they’d finished, Prawn kissed Lydia, the Molly announced its full arrival, drowning her anxiety in the bliss of pure, chemical joy. When they finished, Partner grinned at her, his eyes once again brown. “Can I kiss you, too?”
Relieved, she blushed, then nodded. As they kissed, the world began to spin, all fuzzy bobbing pleasure. She could feel the effervescent starlight above wrap her in its thin, sparkling warmth. When she disentangled herself, she looked at the crowd only to see Marnie, a few feet away, her green eyes fixed on Lydia. Behind Marnie was the green-eyed, smear-faced figure, standing still as a stone for a moment until the river of dancing bodies engulfed them.
It was dark when she woke. She took stock.
Naked. And sticky.
Freezing cold and uncomfortably overheated, in turns.
In a bed, with warm bodies and damp blankets.
Someone’s arm across her belly. That someone was snoring.
Every atom of her hurt.
She pressed her palms to her aching eyes, harbinger of the headache to come. There was grit under her nails, on her lips, beneath her eyelids. Her mouth was as toxic and arid as the dying Sea. She was regret, made manifest.
She scooted upright, eyes adjusting to the dark. Beside her were Prawn and Partner. Snippets came back. Dancing. More Molly. Where was she? A trailer. Beyond a divider curtain, what looked like a wall of small, green blinking eyes. No, not eyes. Indicator lights. She must be in the Slabs. Prawn had said they lived there.
Shivering, nauseous and desperate for water, she crawled to the foot of the bed and put one foot on the carpeted steps. She found a water cooler in the small kitchen area and filled her empty water bottle, drank until she had to pee, then filled her bottle again. She felt better, other than having to pee. Since there was no bathroom in evidence in the trailer, she’d have to go outside. She found her boot, found her phone in it, then pulled it free and used its light to locate the rest of her clothes. When she sat to pull on her boots, she allowed herself a smile. Despite the comedown/hangover, last night had been fun. Prawn and Partner were hugely fun humans and she liked them both very much. She let herself enjoy the feeling the thought elicited. To have found three amazing people she liked and who liked her so soon after arriving in a new place felt like so much more than a coincidence. Then she remembered seeing Marnie the night before, and then the green-eyed face, and she felt nauseous all over again.
She unlocked and cracked open the front door. The frigid desert cold raised goosebumps on her bare legs and arms. Partner’s tuxedo jacket hung on a hanger near the cooler. She pulled it on. It smelled of him. And Prawn. She slipped outside.
This wasn’t Slab City.
This was East Jesus.
She knew it was East Jesus because the trailer next door, covered in bottle caps, belonged to Marnie.
Panicked, she quietly slipped back into the trailer, gathered up what scattered things of hers she could find by phone light back into her daypack, then slipped back outside. She crept to the compost toilet she knew was near the kitchen, pulled the door shut behind her, then sat down to pee and think.
Had Marnie heard them fucking? She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and checked the time on her phone. It was near sunrise. She didn’t know where else she could go, but she knew she needed to get out of here.
She had an e-mail. From Ghost. Her hands shook as she opened it.
Last night you must not have been feeling your self. Do you think it’s the desert climate that doesn’t agree with you, or is it instead the constantly shifting sand under your feet?
Did you know you’re recognizable by that stupid trunk you’re always lugging around? Have you ever considered what your life would be like without it? I wonder if you’ve ever thought of keeping souvenirs from the people you erase. Or is that what the stickers on your trunk are for?
Do you already know who you want to erase this time? I bet one of them will be me again. If so, will I get another sticker, or do we only ever get one?
I will look you right in the eye soon enough, Lydia.
Will you know me?
Because I know you, Lydia, whether you’re ready or not. I am
Lydia’s eyes fixed on the typo in the message. …your self… It was a simple enough thing to miss, but so easily fixable on a first edit pass. Once erased, the errant space would give the small satisfaction that everything was perfect and whole, and then the whole thing quickly forgotten.
She stood, turned, then vomited up all the water’d she drank into the toilet.
Her stomach continued to roil as she scattered a scoop of peat from a nearby bucket over her mess, wiped her mouth on the jacket sleeve, then collected her things and half-crept, half-jogged through the courtyards and out the front gate.
Ghost knew where she was. Had been close enough to see her, even. And had that thing about looking her in the eye soon been a threat?
As she walked, she glanced back over her shoulder to see the sky lightening over East Jesus, which was disappearing behind a cluster of the insubstantially wispy trees.
Maybe Ghost was Faded, that asshole outside the bar who’d asked about her trunk. Or maybe it was Partner? It felt like he’d been fucking with her last night. No, Ghost knew her real name. Like Cute Clerk did, from checking Lydia in at the storage place. Cute Clerk also knew she was a writer. But no, she hadn’t acted like she’d recognized Lydia, did she? Faded had seemed to recognize her, though. Maybe they had met before, and Lydia just didn’t remember. Had she been here before? Ghost had said she’d erased them, after all.
Whatever. She’d get to Niland, get her trunk, and leave. After that she would change her writing e-mail, then erase this whole stupid experience. Whoever she was next time couldn’t have a worse time than Delia was having.
She opened her map app and pulled up the storage facility to see how long the walk would be.
Her stomach turned again.
It was four miles away, and it was called Your Self Storage.
When she stepped into the storage building lobby, Lydia knew she wasn’t nailing the “paying customer” look.
“Can I help you?” The masc (he/him according to his nametag) sitting at the check in desk had the mien of someone looking for an excuse to have her thrown out. He was middle-aged, olive-skinned, and, of course, he had green fucking eyes.
She pulled her phone from her filthy boot and tapped it to the reader on his desk. “No, you can’t.”
She stopped at the water cooler, refilled her bottle, drank it dry, then refilled it again, ignoring the crawling feeling of Creep Clerk’s gaze. She pushed the button for the elevator. As she boarded, Lydia reeled against another nauseating sense of presque vu, likethere was something important she was forgetting about. As the doors closed, she steadied herself, and focused on the dents and scuffs in the elevator’s metal doors, the scars of past collisions.
On the fifth floor, she walked steadily past the staring green lights, ignoring the impression that every light was an eye, and in every flicker of an overhead light, the shadows coalesced for a moment into a figure with dark hair that framed a pale, distorted face, remembering with each step They. Get. Robbed. A. Lot.
Her door. Locked. Red light mercifully shining. She tapped her phone to the entry pad.
Her trunk was gone.
She sat down hard in the hallway.
As the nausea ebbed, she noticed the security camera at the end of the hall, its faintly green lens hollowly staring. Had it seen who’d done it?
It would be an easy enough thing for someone to clone her storage access if that someone had gotten close enough to her to get the info from her phone. She usually kept her phone in the charging slot in her boot, which was lined in a way to prevent that kind of theft, but it’s not in there all the time. She’d checked into the storage location with her phone. She’d paid Marnie with it. Hell, she’d even exchanged info with Prawn that way. If any of them were Ghost, they’d had a golden opportunity. Or maybe she was overthinking things. She hadn’t changed the password on her storage account in years, either, and it wasn’t a particularly strong password.
She felt like she needed to scream or throw something, but with the security camera’s eye on her, she pushed the feelings down, calmly stood, stepped into the empty room, and closed the door behind her.
Not empty. Her backpack was still there. Beyond that, she still had all her cloud backups, her neural port, and the constructs in her brain. She even had a stash of additional cartridges in San Diego. She could go back to San Diego, find a place to crash, sell stuff from her storage unit and write to eventually save up enough money to try and build another rig. Provided she knew how to build one, and enough time hadn’t passed yet that she couldn’t pinpoint erase things anymore, but that was a worry for a Future Lydia. The point was this wasn’t the end of the world. She could make it work.
But Ghost knew her. She couldn’t just wait things out and hope they’d lose interest. What’s to prevent them from targeting her again? No, she needed to figure out who they were, then she might understand what it is that they wanted from her. Maybe she could even convince them to give her trunk back. But how? She couldn’t ask the police. Neural editing rigs were heavily controlled medical technology, and even if the constructs had been installed in her skull legally to treat some trauma she no longer remembered, she certainly hadn’t come by the equipment in her trunk honestly. No, she’d need to find Ghost herself.
She dumped the contents of her backpack on the floor and took stock. Clothes (mostly dirty), keyboard, chargers, toiletries, extra contraceptives, first aid kit, (which she relieved of its painkillers), her stash of colored contacts, and dry shower kit. She stripped and gave herself a once over with her shower kit, washed her hands, and detangled her hair with her fingers. She stripped the sweaty bandage from the tattoo and carefully cleaned the scabs beneath. She looked in her day bag for the balm Marnie had given her to put on it to prevent it from drying out, then realized she’d lost that too. She removed her green contacts, tossed them on the ground, then donned what clean clothes she had – a too big t-shirt with the neck cut out (featuring a band she didn’t recognize) and a pair of ripped black jeans. She shoved everything back in her backpack, clipped her daypack to it and left the now empty room behind.
Creep Clerk’s green eyes found her immediately as she stepped off the elevator.
“I’m checking out.” Lydia tapped her phone to the reader, which, after a few taps on Creep Clerk’s keyboard, made the total appear above the tap sensor. She tried not to think about how little she had left in her bank account as she tapped her phone back to the reader.
She turned to go, then hesitated. If she was going to sleuth things out, she needed to start here. No way they’d let her watch security footage without her admitting something had been stolen. Saying those magic words would set off a chain reaction of official paperwork that she wanted nothing to do with. But she could at least find out when her trunk had been stolen. “Excuse me. When was the last time my room was accessed?”
As Creep Clerk typed, Lydia noticed a dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment at his elbow and wondered if everyone working here was a fucking lit major.
“Yesterday. Just after nine A.M.”
When she’d been in bed with Marnie.
The mid-morning sun stabbed at her eyes. The painkillers were taking their sweet time, and with every breath she remembered the evening’s cigarettes. She needed a place to think. With greasy food to fill her hollow stomach. She remembered that the place Marnie had dropped her to meet Prawn for breakfast wasn’t that far from here.
The Buckshot Deli & Diner was a squat building, painted a faded army green, its name hand-stenciled above a peeling white door. By contrast, its interior was clean and bright, and just being inside the place was improving her mood. She slid into one of the cherry-vinyl booths along the wall near the door. Two other patrons sat on matching red stools at the polished wooden counter, nursing mugs of coffee, mindfully ignoring their own reflections in the long mirror that ran the length of the wall opposite the counter. She pulled her rollout keyboard out of her backpack and propped her phone against the condiment rack. Thankfully, infuriatingly, there were no more messages from Ghost.
A menu slid onto the Formica tabletop in front of her. “Anything to dr- “
“Coffee, black,” Lydia said without looking up, suddenly afraid to find another pair of green eyes looking back. Her head throbbed and she closed her eyes until it subsided.
When she opened them, the green-eyed, dark-haired, smudged face person was sitting across from her.
She (how did Lydia know she used she/her?) was wearing the colors of a bruise, sitting easily in the spot closest to the wall. It looked like she was talking with someone, but her voice sounded as smudged and washed out as her face, the skin around the darkness where her mouth should be rippled and cracked like a crumpled painting. As goosebumps raced up Lydia’s arm, the tattoo scabs began to itch and pull at her skin. The figure’s eyes were fixed on the empty space beside Lydia, but as Lydia extended a hand towards the figure, she was overwhelmed by a profound sense of déjà vu. Right before her fingers made contact, the figure’s eyes fixed on Lydia’s, and in those eyes was an ocean of pain and disappointment.
A mug of coffee was plopped down on the table in front of her. Its contents sloshed alarmingly, but none spilled. “Anything to eat?”
Lydia forced herself to look up. Middle-aged fem, close cropped greying hair, with ruddy, freckled cheeks, she/her on her name tag, and green fucking eyes. Lydia swallowed and pointed at the woman across from her. “Aren’t you gonna ask what she wants to drink?”
Waitress glanced at the woman, then back to Lydia. “I’ll give you a few minutes.” She left.
Lydia gripped the edge of the table. “Who are you?”
Bruises blossomed across the figure’s face, concentrating in its cracks, as bright red beads brimmed along her lower lids. Where they ran, they left red streaks behind.
Lydia jumped, banging the table hard enough with her knee to slosh coffee onto it.
Marnie. Green eyes concerned. “Are you okay?”
Lydia looked back to the bench across from her only to find it empty. She took a shaking sip of her coffee. The coffee was good. Hot.
“Want company?” Marnie asked.
Unthinking, Lydia grabbed for Marnie’s hand. Marnie’s skin was cool, soft, and callused. Marnie covered Lydia’s hand with hers and slipped into the bench opposite.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Lydia let go of Marnie’s hands, averted her gaze, and took another sip of coffee. She felt more naked now than she had when Marnie had been reprogramming her Qdots.
Marnie leaned forward, elbows on the table. “How did you get here?”
“Last I saw, you were in no condition to be standing,” Marnie said, “let alone to be walking four miles.”
Lydia remembered the look on Marnie’s face the night before and her stomach cramped. “I’m sorry.”
Marnie looked confused for a moment, but before she could respond, Waitress’ reappeared holding a stapled paper bag and a well-used thermos, which she put on the table in front of Marnie. “Want a mug, Marn?”
“I’m good, thanks Pat,” Marnie said. “Have you ordered yet, Delia?”
Lydia shook her head.
“One special, please,” Marnie said. “And put it on my tab. Thanks, Pat.”
Lydia watched Waitress walk away. When she looked back to Marnie, she winced at the green in Marnie’s eyes. “Does everyone know everyone here?” Lydia asked.
“No,” Marnie said. “Used to be, maybe. Now, it’s getting to be just like any other place.”
Lydia wanted to disagree. To say this place was special and maybe Marnie just maybe couldn’t see it because she was inside it. A part of it. Instead, she said, “I really love your art.”
“Thanks for being a willing canvas.” Marnie looked at Lydia’s arm. “Looks pretty angry. Have you been using the balm I gave you?”
Lydia didn’t know why she nodded, which made her feel more miserable.
“Make sure you do, otherwise it’ll heal like shit.” Then, Marnie’s face lit up. She pointed at Lydia’s arm. “Well, now, will you look at that.”
Lydia looked at her tattoo. One of the windows in the house wasn’t so empty anymore. Faint green lines formed the body of a decaying woman hidden behind a shredded veil. Lydia couldn’t remember what mood the green indicated, Marnie had written it down in her aftercare instructions, and with how awful and mixed-up Lydia was feeling now, she wasn’t sure she’d even be able to guess.
“Isn’t that something.” Marnie sat back and poured some coffee from the thermos into its lid. “Prawn really is a magician.”
Lydia startled. “Prawn?”
“They designed the dyes. They’re a biochemist. Got their doctorate from UCSD. Thanks to them, East Jesus owns the patent. The dyes are also, thankfully, useful for medical monitoring and testing, too, so we’ve been a pretty well-funded operation ever since. The deal we have with the fab company lets us produce any variations on the dyes we want. That’s how we got the inks. We’ve even got an art project we’re planning about the Salton Sea itself. The evolution of its organic decay. It’s an exciting time to be an East Jesuit.”
Lydia’s stomach twisted. She drank more coffee.
Waitress returned with a plate piled with hash browns, cheese, sausage, eggs, green onion, and salsa. Lydia’s mouth flooded with saliva. She dove into it, annihilating her feelings with calories. Soon enough, she was feeling significantly better. Heavenly grease, drowner of hangovers, banisher of the evening’s ghosts.
Marnie pointed at Lydia’s backpack as Lydia ate. “Leaving today?”
Horrified, the words came out before she could stop herself. “I’ve been hallucinating. A woman. I might know her, but I can’t remember.”
Marnie lowered her coffee, eyes concerned. “You on anything?”
Lydia’s cheeks flushed. “No.” She knew she didn’t deserve Marnie’s concern, but fuck, she wanted to so badly. She looked down at her half-empty plate and felt nauseous again. “I’m sorry.”
“Why do you keep apologizing?”
Lydia’s cheeks burned. “Last night at Prom…”
“Right,” Marnie said after a short pause. “Don’t worry about it. We barely know each other.”
Lydia winced. She’d remembered how she’d told Marnie so much during the tattoo, but then realized Marnie had told her very little in return.
“Are these hallucinations a regular thing for you?”
Lydia blinked back tears. “No. They started yesterday and what I need to stop them was stolen from my storage unit.”
Lydia shook her head, then let the silence drag on.
“Did you call the police?” Marnie offered.
“No. No police.” Upon seeing the look on Marnie’s face, Lydia said, “It’s not drugs, okay?” She at least knew it couldn’t have been Marnie that stole her trunk. They’d been in bed together at the time. Lydia could trust her as much as she was capable to. She exhaled slowly, then said, “The thing on the back of my head you’d asked about the other day? It’s a neural-calibration port.”
Marnie’s eyes widened. “I thought only a handful of people had been in that trial before they stopped it.”
“Lucky me, I guess.”
“Can I ask what you got it for?”
Lydia stirred the cooling potatoes on her plate. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember much at all from before I moved to San Diego, to be honest. My calibration rig was stolen.”
Marnie chewed on her cheek for a long moment. “What are you gonna do?”
“I need to find out who stole it so I can get it back and get them to leave me alone.” She felt the small wave of despair. With a memory like Swiss cheese, where would she even start looking? Then she realized she didn’t need to remember. She had something better than memory. She still had all her daily neural backups saved to the cloud, and her diary. Whoever it was should be in there somewhere, and they’d be someone she knew before she’d left San Diego.
“I think I know how to find them,” Lydia said. “I just need…Shit.” Her face fell when she remembered her computer was in the trunk. “I have detailed notes on all of the edits I’ve ever made, but the comparison program I need to see who I knew where and when was on the computer in my trunk.” She sighed. “Fuck.”
“Comparison program, huh?” Marnie said. “I bet Zeb could write something like that, easy.”
Who the hell was Zeb?
Lydia held onto the golf cart’s handle as she watched her boot prints from that morning run backwards on the side of the road in the dirt, and wished undoing a mistake could be as simple as retracing your steps.
After Marnie pulled the cart into the East Jesus roundabout, Lydia followed Marnie into the resident’s area, but instead of going left towards the trailers, they went right, through the covered lounge area and into the kitchen, where Marnie dropped the to-go bag from Buckshot onto a counter. Someone in a dingy pink bathrobe and flip flops was cooking eggs on an elaborate camping stove array, and the smell of coffee filled the space. Lydia followed Marnie into the adjoining courtyard under the shade of another of those wispy trees, where three dusty couches sat around an unlit fire pit. On one loveseat sat Prawn and Partner, both shirtless, both in sunglasses, and both sharing a joint and chatting with a few people sitting on a neighboring couch. Out of the corner of her eye, near the fence that separated the area room from the roundabout, Lydia thought she’d caught a glimpse of someone with short, dark hair standing in the shade of the tree, but when she turned her head, the figure had vanished.
Prawn noticed Lydia first, then tipped down their sunglasses to give her a wink.
When Partner noticed her, he frowned. “Well, well, well. Marnie’s done the impossible and defied the laws of casual phy-sex. She reversed a walk of shame!”
Lydia’s blush intensified.
“Give her a break, Zeb,” Marnie said. “She came back to ask for your help.”
Zeb. Her cheeks burned.
The other Jesuits took that as a queue to disappear into the kitchen where she heard someone tear into the paper to-go bag.
“My help?” Zeb plucked the joint from Prawn’s fingers. “Does she need my help to remember she stole an expensive bespoke tuxedo jacket from me?”
Lydia had completely forgotten about the jacket. With numb fingers, Lydia slipped her backpack from her shoulders, then fished the jacket from the bottom of the bag. Zeb stood, snatched it from her, then made a disgusted face as he smoothed it out as best he could, folded it gently in half, then carefully laid it beside him on the couch’s arm as he sat back down. “There. She’s been helped.”
“I’ve been robbed,” Lydia blurted out. “My trunk was stolen from the storage place.” As soon as she said it, she felt ridiculous.
“So? Sounds to me like the universe is a fair and just place.” Zeb crossed his arms.
“My whole life is in that trunk.”
Zeb frowned as he took the joint back from Prawn.
“Please.” Tears brimmed in Lydia’s eyes.
Zeb sighed and turned to Prawn. “Marnie voted yes by bringing her back. I vote no. What do you think?”
Prawn took the end of the joint back from Zeb, looked at it closely, then flicked it into the fire pit. “I think you got your jacket back, and we haven’t had that much fun fucking someone in a long time.”
Zeb rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
He stood, draped his jacket over his arm and headed into the kitchen. Lydia quickly picked up her backpack and followed. She caught up with him as he grabbed one of the wrapped to-go sandwiches that had been arranged on the kitchen counter, then started off for the trailers without waiting to see if she followed. Once they got to the trailers, she waited as he unlocked the trailer using a handprint lock, then went inside. She had to hurry after him so the trailer door wouldn’t slam in her face. Inside, it still smelled like sex, and the pile of used condoms was still at the foot of the bed. The rest of the trailer was packed with electronics, and the aggressive air conditioning raised goosebumps on her arms, which prickled up her tattoo, but she didn’t dare ask to borrow something to wear.
Zeb took a moment to hang the jacket up, smoothed it down, then mumbled something about dry cleaners and El Centro. Once he was done, he turned to face her. “First off… what was your name again? D-something?”
Lydia hesitated. “It’s Lydia, actually.”
Zeb waved her name away. “Whatever- “
“No, not whatever,” Lydia’s ears felt hot. “It’s Lydia.”
Zeb rolled his eyes. “Please. Like you remembered mine.”
“You need to learn to respect other people’s things, Lydia.” Zeb took a seat at his workstation in front of a pair of large, curved monitors.
She lowered her backpack to the ground. There was a stool nearby with a stack of hard drives on it, but she thought better of touching anything and remained standing. “I said I was sorry.”
Zeb sucked on his front teeth. “You realize those are just words, right? You see all this?” He motioned to the array of computer hardware that covered the side of the trailer they were in. She recognized some as server racks. Others looked like computer towers. She couldn’t imagine what he needed it all for.
“I built all of this myself. You left the door unlocked when you left this morning. What if someone had snuck in this morning and stolen something? Most of this shit is custom built and irreplaceable. This is how I help Prawn do the in silico work they need to keep their biotech collaborations going. It’s how I help Marnie design the tools she needs to make her living through her art. And it’s how I keep East Jesus operating efficiently off the electrical grid. This isn’t just my life. This is also the heart and mind of East Jesus.”
Lydia’s eyes misted. “I really am sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” She saw the unimpressed look on Zeb’s face and continued, “I know that’s not an excuse, but it is the reason I took your jacket and left your door unlocked. I understand exactly how you feel. This morning when I got up to pee, I got an e-mail from someone threatening to destroy me by stealing my trunk. I left without thinking about how I’d borrowed your jacket to go pee and walked four miles into town to discover my life had been stolen. So, if I’m not supplicating myself enough to satisfy you, fine, but don’t think I’m not sorry when I am.”
Zeb watched her for a long moment, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll help you. But what the hell am I supposed to be able to do to find a missing trunk?”
Drained, she pulled her phone from her boot, found the cloud-based files she needed to analyze, then sent Zeb’s hub a request to share. “I need to compare a bunch of archived neural maps and pull out the lists of differing coordinates, then match those coordinates to values I’ve got saved in a spreadsheet. I’m hoping this will help me find whoever robbed me. Marnie said you’d be good to ask for help writing a comparison script.”
Zeb raised his sunglasses to the crown of his head, green eyes staring. “Wait a minute. Neural maps, like MRI scans?”
Lydia turned around and parted her hair to show Zeb the port in her skull. “Way more detailed than that.”
Zeb blinked. “How did you wind up with a neural calibration port?”
“I don’t remember, but my neural calibration rig was in the trunk that was stolen. I need to get it back. Fast.”
Zeb laughed. “That’s fucked up.” He slipped his glasses down, then turned back to his monitors. “But writing a comparison script should be easy enough.”
His fingers began to dance in the air and Lydia realized he had haptic implants in his fingers. She wondered if Marnie’d been involved in installing them, then wondered what other kinds of secrets this place held.
“What’s this format?” Zeb said.
“Matrices of all the neuron potentials and associational areas for every nanite coordinate in my brain. It’s a data format I’ve been developing for the last few years. Conditionally four-dimensional. Based on the idea of semantic layer data.”
Zeb took it in for a second. “Well, fuck me. Do you have some kind of indexing library? I can parse what you have here and with the other backups to write a quick comparison script, but it’d be faster- “
“Yeah, I’ll send it over.” Lydia flicked through her files.
“Shit,” Zeb said as he continued to take her database files in, his fingers flying over an invisible keyboard. “I thought this tech was abandoned. Why do you have all this data?”
Lydia crossed her arms in front of her. “I told you; I don’t remember how I wound up in the study.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Zeb said. “Why the hell would you keep messing with something that turned people into psychotic zombies?”
Lydia froze. That hadn’t happened to her, had it? She shook the thought away. It was from before she started studying the technology installed in her brain. Besides, she couldn’t access those memories anyway and, unlike now, she had no notes to look through. Better to not think about it. She took a deep breath in and exhaled to let out the feeling of panic this line of thought had elicited, then said, “Wouldn’t you?”
Zeb chuckled a little. “Touché.”
He worked a bit more in silence as Lydia stood, feeling vulnerable and miserable.
“You know what the dumbest thing about this situation is?” Zeb eventually said, without looking away from the screen. “I bet we’d have made great friends.”
Lydia sat on one of the bus benches by the residence entrance with her phone in her lap. She pondered the cigarette Zeb had given her when she’d asked, hoping it signified a thaw in their relations. Zeb had dismissed her once he’d gotten the script running, and she’d spent the last hour scrolling through the five years of entries in her backup diary spreadsheet which, at this point, had tens of thousands of entries in it.
One of the Jesuits set a slice of apple pie on the table beside her, then vanished back under the shade structure to rejoin what sounded like a low-key party that was happening in the living room. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had apple pie. Had she erased it, or had it just been a long time? She slipped the cigarette behind her ear and took a bite. It was tart, sweet, and tender, but the aftertaste left her feeling hollow.
She turned back to her diary. Its records started with what looked to her practiced eye like the erasure of a single mistake. It had been done during Lydia’s first year in grad school, she knew that much from the timestamp on the entry. There were no notes associated with that first short list of coordinates, which meant it was probably Past Lydia testing the rig. The next entry was from a few months later. Again, there were no notes about it beyond the timestamp, but as the number of entries increased over the next year, extended to the end of Lydia’s second year in grad school, so did the detail – evolving from just first names, to first and last names and locations, as well as the dates and times the memory had been first written. Some of the names recurred, but mostly they were unique. Lydia hoped Ghost’s name wasn’t in this list of what looked like one-off interactions some Past Lydia had wanted to forget about.
Then there was an entry highlighted in red, from around this time of year, three years ago. Lydia knew that entry had been Past Lydia trying to restore an erased memory. Lydia knew it was unwise to try restoring erased memories because Past Lydia had left warnings against it everywhere a future Lydia would see – in her cloud backups, in a header in her diary, even as a part of her laptop’s wallpaper. As far as Lydia knew, she had always taken this advice from Past Lydia seriously.
The next entry, made a week after the attempted recovery, was an extensive revision that included detailed names and locations. After the big revision, the entries had been grouped under the different assumed names Lydia had used, and the locations changed from San Diego to other locations in Southern California, then to locations outside of California. Lydia knew it was cleaner to travel under different names, as it gave her plausible deniability if she ever ran into people she’d erased. Fortunately for Lydia, she knew Ghost had to be someone she knew before she’d left San Diego and had likely been included in the big revision. There were a lot of coordinates with their cramped lists of annotations that she’d been skimming through, trying to see if any patterns became apparent. When she tried to think back to that time, it gave her a tumbling, hollow feeling in her stomach.
She hadn’t come across any Zebs or Prawns as she skimmed, but she knew those weren’t likely to be their real names. Looking at all the entries made after the big revision, she knew she was assuming she hadn’t ever used her real name with anyone, knowing she’d full well told Zeb her real first name in a fit of honesty. If other Past Lydias had been so foolish, she supposed she might never find Ghost among the sea of names, places, and dates.
She continued to skim through the list of pre-revision names and places and paused.
What, she’d been out here before?
“If you don’t want it, you should give it back.”
Lydia jumped, startling a fly that had landed on her unfinished pie.
Prawn, still in their underwear, sat beside her, holding a plate with a piece of half-eaten pie of their own. They smelled like soap, which Lydia envied.
“The pie?” she asked.
“He’s got a rule to always give a cigarette to anyone who asks, but he secretly resents it. If you’re not gonna smoke it, you should give it back.”
She reached up and touched the cigarette behind her ear. Not a peace offering then. She moved it to her lips. Prawn lit it and she tensed for the inevitable cough, only to discover her throat had moved beyond caring about smoke.
“Who made it?” Lydia asked.
“No,” Lydia said. “The pie.”
“Julian Pie Company.”
“Isn’t Julian desert now?” Lydia asked.
“Dessert,” Prawn smirked and took another bite of pie. “They moved to Santa Barbara. Apples from Washington.” Prawn shrugged. “Still tastes good.”
Lydia looked down at her slice. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you apologizing to me or the pie?” A long moment passed, the sound of Prawn’s fork against their plate.
Lydia looked at her phone. Niland. Had she been to East Jesus before, too?
“I lied to you,” she said. “My real name’s not Delia.”
“You think mine’s Prawn?” Prawn finished his pie. “You gonna eat that?”
The apples were sweating. She shook her head.
Prawn started in on her piece, a placid look in their desert eyes. “Pie should never be wasted.”
“Prawn,” Lydia let the cigarette burn between her fingers, “Why did you tell me you lived in the Slabs?”
“I never said I lived in the Slabs.”
“That first day I met you, you said you lived in the Slabs.”
Prawn thought for a second, then smiled. “Steve said he lived in the Slabs. I didn’t answer.”
The sunset over the Chocolate Mountains pulled with it a chill wind from the east, which had thinned the crowds of tourists loitering in the East Jesus sculpture garden. Lydia was grateful for the solitude as she stood before the twenty-foot wall of tube TVs, her bare arms wrapped around herself for warmth, staring at two screens that declared, “You’re not good,” and, “Some things never change.” She could feel the figure watching her, always just out of her line of vision, coalescing from the chiaroscuro of shadows made by the different pieces of art by the waning daylight.
She’d found her name in the East Jesus guestbook that was set out in a recessed cubby hole in the sculpture garden. Her real name. Three years of pages back, the date on her entry was from only a week before the big revision. She’d taken a photo of the page, but hers had been the only entry made on that day, the names around were otherwise as unfamiliar as the ones in her diary.
She followed the path back towards the roundabout, past the irresponsibly tall teeter-totter towards the treehouse as the shadows ambled after her. A sign on the tire fence in front of the treehouse announced she wasn’t allowed to enter without a resident. She looked up at the platform at the top, unable to see what was on it through the tree’s thin branches.
With her boot, she worked free a flattened bottle cap from the ground. In her hand, it felt warm from the sun. Everything here was made from old, discarded things, freed from what they’d once been, remade into something meaningful. She turned the cap over in her hand. Here, this wasn’t trash. Here, this had a future. She placed it carefully atop one of the tires so it might be found.
“There you are.”
Lydia jumped. Marnie. Her heart gave a helpless flop. “Shit, you scared me.”
“Twice in one day,” Marnie smiled. “Zeb says script’s done.”
Lydia looked up at the tower. “What’s up there?”
“Flat screen TV.”
Lydia absently rubbed at her tattoo and snagged a scab. “Why up a tree?”
“Gives a better perspective.”
Lydia looked into Marnie’s green eyes and realized she barely knew anything about Marnie. Most of the talking during the tattoo session had been done by Lydia. Lydia blushed. “How long have you lived out here?”
“Five years.” Marnie slipped an arm through Lydia’s, thus intensifying Lydia’s blush, and strolled with her along the tire fence back towards the residences. “I met a resident a while back after coming out here for a party, then I kept coming back. Started collaborating on a few different art projects, became a caretaker, now I’m a resident.”
Lydia’d apparently come back, too. She understood why someone would want to. Now she hoped she might get to come back again after she’d found her trunk. “I get that. It feels like home here.” She felt Marnie’s eyes on her burning cheeks as Lydia looked down to watch their feet move in step. “You do, too.”
They stopped in front of the “Nothing Ever Happens” bus. Marnie turned to Lydia and lifted her face gently by the chin, so Lydia was looking right into those beautiful green eyes. “Look,” Marnie said, “you’re gorgeous and you know it. And those hints of depth and pain? Irresistible.”
Lydia’s blush intensified.
“But I know that’s also designed. It’s clear you need people to like you to feel good about yourself. I’ve dated people like you before. I could love you with everything I have, and I’d never get anything back, right?”
Lydia’s heart twisted up, unable to look away from those green eyes.
Marnie shrugged. “Maybe I’m wrong about you, but you look like the avoidant type. I’ve learned to listen to my gut over the years, and my gut tells me I know how this story ends.”
Lydia looked away, numb, to see Zeb in the courtyard having an animated discussion with the resident Lydia’d seen in the kitchen earlier that day in the pink bathrobe. “What if you’re wrong about me?”
Marnie sighed. “Well, then I’m an asshole, and you’re better off not getting attached. Take care, Delia.”
Lydia watched Marnie open the gate with her hip, then grab a beer from a pile beside Zeb on the table by the fire pit. As Marnie stepped towards the lounge area, a fem with long black hair wrapped her in a hug. The two kissed before they both disappeared beneath the shade.
Zeb met Lydia at the gate and handed her a wireless storage hub. “All set. I did a few significance spot checks. Looks good.”
Lydia hesitated at the weight of the hub. It felt expensive. “I can copy this and give it back.”
Zeb held up a hand, eyes cut through with green. “No need. I learned something new today. It’s given me more than a few ideas about ways to model complex, dynamic systems that I’m excited about, so consider it a fair trade.” He pointed at the hub. “I put a copy of the script I wrote on there, and all the output logs if you want to check them. I put basOS on it, too, in case you need to write any other programs or analyze anything else with it.”
Prawn trotted in from the trailers wearing tight black jeans and a tattered orange sweater. They gave Lydia a side squeeze which pulled at her scabs. “My turn for a supply run for the party tonight, so I’m your ride back to Niland.”
“Thanks,” she muttered. “I just need to grab-” but her backpack was already loaded into the golf cart, with a small jar sitting on top of it with a yellow Post-It stuck to it. It was tattoo balm. The note said. You forgot this. Lydia shoved it and the hub in her backpack and as Zeb and Prawn kissed goodbye, she climbed into the cart and looked to the darkness rising above the mountains.
Prawn’s weight tilted the golf cart, then the engine sputtered to life. When the cart pulled onto the road, Lydia didn’t dare look back.
Lydia lost herself in the water cascading down from the gold-plated rainfall shower head. Water dripped off her brows, her nose, her lips, her breasts, and pooled on the mirror-smooth black tiles under her ass. Off came the dust, the loose scabs of dried blood and ink. Gone was the drug sweat, the sweat of anxiety, and the sweat of other people, leaving behind just Lydia.
After the hours-long rideshare west to San Diego, Lydia was broke, but she’d wanted the kind of hot shower she currently couldn’t afford. With the extravagance of the decor, she hoped there was no water timer. If it was up to her, she’d stay under the spray until the bathroom filled to the ceiling so she could float, embryo-like, in blissful annihilation.
Three names had stood out from the results of Zeb’s coordinate mining.
The first was Ness. A classmate from UCSD. The edits associated with her name during the big revision had been extensive, which meant they must have been close. But she now lived in Wisconsin, and photos on social media showed her to be happy with a husband, a hound, and a baby. She couldn’t imagine this person flying out to Niland to steal her trunk.
A 30-second warning click sounded. Lydia didn’t move so every remaining drop would find its path to the drain along her skin. When the faucet ran down, she stopped and looked at the water around her feet to find she didn’t mind the thought of slipping as much as she’d been expecting to.
The next name was Qing. She’d apparently been a post-doc in Lydia’s lab, according to Qing’s CV on her Rockefeller faculty page, along with an intimidating list of first author papers. Qing had worked on the engineering side of things involving the memory calibration technology during her time at UCSD. While the edits associated with Qing weren’t as substantial as those with Ness, they were still extensive, but Lydia couldn’t imagine Qing having enough time to be angry with anyone. Why she’d been deleted, Lydia couldn’t say. Maybe the hardware Lydia had stolen and installed in the trunk had been Qing’s project and Lydia had felt guilty about it.
She stepped onto the gold bathmat in front of the fogged-up mirror above a vanity and worked her fingers through her hair to detangle it. On the counter were a neat arrangement of combs, cotton swabs, and small bottles. She finished with her hair, then drew a smiley on the mirror with a finger.
The last name was Matija. She’d had the most extensive edits, many overlapping with Ness’. Had she been Lydia’s best friend? Her lover? She was still at UCSD, a post-doc in the Neuroscience department, doing work on memory. There was no photo of her on her research page – just pronouns, e-mail, and phone. Lydia’d found Matija’s picture-sharing social media page, and there, the top post had been a photo series posted just this morning with the caption, Wish you were here. One had been taken from the top of Salvation Mountain, another from the top of East Jesus’ irresponsibly tall teeter-totter, and another taken of the Greco Colab Coffee on Main Street. When Lydia had zoomed in on that one, there was Lydia, dragging her trunk towards that damn storage place. The final photo had been taken elsewhere and was of a women with short dark hair, a pale face, and green eyes. She had an easy smile, was holding a beer on a pub patio while sitting at a grated iron table, and was absolutely gorgeous. Lydia’s heart had frozen when she’d seen her.
Was Matija the distorted face she’d been seeing? Or was she Ghost? Could she be both?
Lydia worked up the nerve to send Matija a message as the car had passed over the San Diego County line.
Matija had responded as Lydia was dropped at her destination in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter with an offer to meet for coffee on campus tomorrow. Anxiety had been twisting in Lydia’s belly ever since.
The face she’d drawn on mirror began to run. In the streaks, Lydia could see her own face, her brown eyes streaked with green. Or maybe the face Lydia had been seeing was her own, and this was just some big coincidence.
Steam billowed from the bathroom as she opened the door. She passed the black-sheeted California King bed and the doorway to the living room to stand before the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked South towards the Coronado Bridge. The golden lights of the Gaslamp below did nothing to penetrate the silent black water of the Bay. She stepped to the glass to better feel the night on her skin, her nipples hard from the cold. Dozens of floors below was the old Convention Center, partly demolished, water lapping at its foundations. She imagined the glass coming unstuck, her body falling. She closed her eyes and pressed her palms to it.
Hands. On her hips. Large. Rough lips on her shoulder. She leaned back into a warm, furry chest. An eager cock pressed against her ass through a pair of damp boxer briefs. The hands pulled her away from the window towards the bed, and when she opened her eyes, she saw the face staring back at her in the glass as she succumbed to black sheets.
Who was she?
On her walk across campus to Porter’s Coffee Shop, Lydia felt more kinship now with the peeling eucalyptus trees – thieves of water in a salt-drowned city – than she did with the students. As she’d walked, she felt the figure’s presence two steps behind her, close enough to touch, even, if the figure hadn’t been made of shadows. As Lydia walked onto Porter’s back patio, her sense of déjà vu piqued, and for a moment, every face staring up at her was the figure’s – except it was the face from Matija’s photo. She could feel the gaze of every pair of green eyes fix on her, her filthy pants, and the too-large dress shirt she’d borrowed this morning. The effect faded almost instantly, but one face kept looking.
It wasn’t her face, though, but from across the patio, Lydia could tell she had the same green eyes. Her hair was sandy-brown, she wore tortoiseshell glasses, and a hint of a tattoo stuck up from the collar of her maroon button down. Based on how she was controlling the emotion on her face, Lydia knew she had to be Matija. Lydia put her bag on the ground beside the rickety grated iron table and dropped into the empty chair across from her.
There was a cup of coffee waiting. “It’s probably cold,” Matija sighed.
Her deep, fem voice stirred something ineffable inside Lydia.
“Also, you look like shit,” Matija added.
Lydia took a sip. A latte with lavender syrup. Her favorite. She frowned. “Are you fucking with me, Ma…?” Fuck. She didn’t know how to pronounce her name.
Matija crossed her arms. “It’s a fucking peace offering. I’m willing to hear what you have to say.”
“Did you steal my rig?” Lydia blurted before she could stop herself.
Matija’s annoyance turned to confusion. “What?”
Lydia narrowed her gaze. “You were in Niland this past weekend.”
Matija’s confusion grew. “It was Slab City Prom. I’ve gone every year since high school.” She furrowed her brows. “But of course you don’t fucking remember. You’ve turned your memory into Swiss cheese with that stupid thing.”
Lydia frowned. “You were following me.”
Matija blinked. “No, I fucking wasn’t. That’s the last place I’d expect you to be.”
“Yeah, right,” Lydia crossed her arms. “Then how come you took my picture on Main Street?”
Matija frowned and pulled her phone from her pocket. Lydia watched her scroll, find a photo, then zoom in with her fingers. She looked surprised. “Holy shit.”
“So, you’re saying, Matija, that it’s just a big coincidence I’ve been getting threatening letters from someone who I knew in grad school, who saw me on Main Street in Niland on Friday, and who knew exactly what was in that trunk.”
Matija slipped her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Jesus, Lydia. I go by Mat, not Matija. You haven’t changed at all have you. You know,” Mat continued, angry now, “I came here today thinking that you’d remembered Moira and had started a twelve step or something, and I was meeting you today to hear you confess all your sins. Maybe even get a fucking apology, but you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
Lydia felt like she couldn’t breathe. “Wait, who’s Moira?”
Mat threw her arms up. “Oh my fucking god.”
But Lydia wasn’t listening anymore. There hadn’t been a Moira on the list, had there? Lydia pulled her tablet from her bag. A quick search produced no matches. Quietly, Lydia asked, “Can you spell it for me?”
“Unfuckingbelievable. First, fuck you. Second, I never want to fucking see you again, so consider this the last time I ever help you. I’m glad you lost your stupid rig. You should live with what you did.”
Here is what Mat told Lydia.
Mat and Ness had been in Lydia’s incoming neuroscience PhD class. Ness and Mat started dating their first year, and Lydia had become fast friends with both, since they were all interested in studying memory. Mat had been interested in Lydia’s experience with the neural calibration therapy (which Lydia couldn’t remember much about even then), and Lydia had been interested in Mat’s high school best friend, Moira. Once Lydia and Moira started dating during Lydia’s second year, Lydia had proclaimed Moira the love of Lydia’s life (which didn’t sound like Lydia). At the end of their second year, Mat invited Lydia and Ness along on her and Moira’s annual trip out to Slab City prom, where Lydia, high on something, had tried to cheat on Moira (which did sound like Lydia) with Mat. In front of Moira (which sounded a lot like Lydia). The next morning, at Buckshot diner, Moira had told Lydia she needed space.
A few days later, Lydia had shown up at Moira’s place like nothing had happened, which caused an argument, and Lydia confessed to erasing the incident. Moira then broke up with Lydia, and in an effort to win Moira back, Lydia had tried to convince Mat to help her recover the memory, but when Mat discovered all the additional names of people she’d cheated on Moira with, Mat had abandoned her. Lydia disappeared entirely from UCSD after that, which they only found out because the campus police had paid Mat, Ness, and Moira a visit to ask about Lydia’s whereabouts since she’d apparently stolen some expensive equipment from her lab on her way out.
Mat showed Lydia a picture of Moira. It was the same woman who’d been at the end of Mat’s photo series, but this one was from an obituary from five months ago. Aneurysm. She’d been living alone. Mat blamed Lydia for breaking Moira’s heart, so no one had been with her when it happened, which Lydia didn’t think was fair. Ness had found Lydia’s e-mail, and Mat and Ness and reached out to let Lydia know about the services, but Lydia hadn’t responded so she’d missed the funeral.
At that point, Lydia had gotten up and left.
Lydia’d felt sick the whole trolley ride heading South from campus, every face in the window reflecting Moira’s back at her. She had found no message from Ness in her e-mail, which meant Mat was lying, or, more likely Lydia had deleted it.
None of it, however, answered how Moira’s face had resurfaced in Lydia’s memory, or why there had been no mention of Moira anywhere in Lydia’s diary. Had Past Lydia deleted all mention of her during the big revision? If so, Moira was now impossible to find and edit out, even if she managed to find whoever stole her rig.
At the Tecolote Road stop on the shores of Mission Bay, she exited. She could smell the brine of the Bay west of the station as she descended from the train, then began the short walk uphill, east, to her storage unit.
What now? Should she save up enough money to build a new rig, and meanwhile try to hunt down where Moira’s ghost now existed in her mind? Or maybe she should just sell everything, move to a new city, pick a new name, and become the kind of person who could learn to live with her bad choices? She couldn’t see how she could keep on being just Lydia since that option, at this point, was the least appealing of them all. Whatever she chose to do next, though, she needed to see what kind of resources she had at her disposal.
She unlocked the storage place’s lobby door with her phone, checked in at the unmanned desk, then rode the secure elevator to three. Her feet took a familiar right, following the windows that reflected sunlight off the bay as green shadows on the wall. She reached her unit and unlocked the door, ready to begin an inventory of her life.
To find her trunk.
Her phone buzzed.
A video message from Ghost.
No, it was a video of Lydia. Against a dark background, her face dimly lit by the light of her phone screen. She looked tired. Sad. The timestamp was dated four months back. Right before she’d become Polly. One month after Ness had reached out to Lydia about Moira death, if Mat was to be believed.
“Hi Lydia,” Past Lydia whispered, her spectral green eyes staring directly into the phone camera. “I hope you’re doing okay. If you’re getting this message, then I guess my plan worked.”
Lydia’s hands went numb.
“You know we’re not the happiest person. We’re anxious all the time and don’t quite know why and no matter what rational excuses we make, it doesn’t help. So, when this old friend of ours from back in grad school reached out last month, I decided to ask her for help since she’s working on an adjacent technology to the neural rig in her research. She let me know about what we did to Moira, and I thought that maybe, with her help, we could put Moira back into our memory, and that might help us to be less anxious all the time.” She looked at the camera for a moment, then away again. She looked haunted. “I sent her our backups and diary, and she sent back what seemed like good advice, but it didn’t work. I’ve just been seeing her face everywhere and it’s been giving me panic attacks.” She sighed. “I do think Mat was onto something, though, so I think I fixed the issue.
“But I don’t want all those good times to be behind us just yet. I think we deserve one last hurrah before the rest of our lives. So, I’m erasing Moira again tomorrow. All of this iteration, actually, since this has been a super shit go. I’m going to start again as Polly tomorrow after I get our dots updated to something more cheerful. Maybe rainbows.”
There was the sound of a door shutting behind Past Lydia before the video went black. A muffled voice. Angry. Past Lydia yelling she’d be right there. Her face reappeared. “I think the problem was I wasn’t remembering Moira in a place that was attached to her in any way, so I made the dots appointment with Marnie so we’d head back to Niland in time for Slab City Prom, since I know any time we change our dots we like to have a fresh start. What Polly won’t know is that the backup file we’ll use in Niland is designed to put Moira back for good.” She half smiled. “And don’t try to edit her back out, I made sure we’ll never be able to find and erase her again.”
“Hey, come back to bed already!” The angry masculine voice echoed in the space behind Past Lydia.
“Since we triggered this message, that means we’re back at our storage unit in San Diego. Sorry if the Ghost messages were freaky. I had those scheduled to be sent out once we returned to Niland. I wanted to make sure we were thinking about the past and weren’t having too good a time.”
“As for the trunk, I pre-arranged for the storage folks to transfer it back here once you deposited it in the Niland storage facility. I didn’t want us running straight to it once we realized something was wrong. We’ll need some time to think, which I knew meant we’d come back to San Diego. It’s as good a place as any for a fresh start, right? We thought that once before, anyway.”
Reflective tears welled in Past Lydia’s eyes. “I didn’t have it in me to have the trunk destroyed. We’re afraid of not having a safety net, and I don’t think that much has changed.
“I hope you’ll be a better Lydia than I am. Was.”
The message ended.
Lydia steadied herself on the doorframe. Eventually, she pushed the door in until it held itself open. She kicked the trunk once, heavy with the weight of the equipment inside. She sat down on it, facing the windows. She pulled out her phone and found an electronics recycling company that could do a pickup from her storage locker that afternoon.
When she was done, she looked up at the window opposite her. In the glass, beside her own green-eyed reflection, was Moira’s face, both wearing the same exhausted expression.
It sure as hell wasn’t the best start for Lydia, but at least it was a start.
About the Author
Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and speculative fiction writer by night. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in places like Asimov’s, Analog, Tor.com, and Uncanny. You can keep up with her and her work on her website: kellylagor.com, or on various social media places as @klagor.