“I have this great idea for a movie,” said James.
“OK, let’s hear it,” said his agent, Kami Putnam-Heist.
The snow was so thick and white that it made James squint as he looked out the window. A sudden gust of wind blew the snow back up toward the sky. Winter had come to the city and brought with it a flurry of new ideas. James told Kami this was going to be a historical film set in Russia.
“Go on,” Kami said.
James walked across his living room to the door, which led into his study with all of its Mac products and lovely art. As he walked, he explained the story to Kami, who occasionally contributed an encouraging “mm” or an expression of surprise.
James crossed to his Macbook Pro and moved his finger on the mousepad to make the computer wake up. The Wikipedia page for Dyatlov Pass Incident was open.
“I think we need to preserve the mystery,” he said, “the audience will think they’re getting a ghost story, and it won’t be until the KGB guy’s last line that they put together the puzzle of the government conspiracy.”
“Absolutely,” said Kami.
“So it’s a hard piece, not like a Shyamalan thing. You know?”
“Oh, no.” They both agreed that it was too early to meet with investors until he’d attached some talent, or at least until the project took clearer shape.
“It’s actually snowing here right now!” said James.
“Well, watch out,” joked Kami. The conversation moved on to other matters, as James was involved with a great number of projects and graduate programs, and thus had an absolutely grueling schedule. Without Kami and the rest of his team, there was no way he could get it all done.
“Well, I guess I’d better get on it,” he said. They said their goodbyes.
James decided to go to Whole Foods. The wind was howling outside his fifteenth-story windows like a devastated widow. He called his driver, who showed up in about thirteen minutes. They headed for Whole Foods. James’s girlfriend, Ahna, came too. They picked her up on the way; she’d just finished having lunch with her friend Jessica on Prince Street at a place called S’Mac, a long white box that only served mac ‘n’ cheese. Ahna didn’t seem very happy with him, though he didn’t know why. When he kissed her hello she’d offered no tongue.
He put the hoodie of his parka up before going into the Whole Foods to shield himself from the paps. He told Ahna what he needed produce-wise, and she went to go collect it while he walked over to the hot food bar, deep in his parka. It was 3:30 PM, a quiet hour for the usually bustling Whole Foods, and the hot food bar was unattended except for James. He surveyed the offerings: fried plantains gleaming softly gold and brown, the arboreal green of the steamed spinach, the lascivious clumps of General Tso’s chicken. For a moment, James pretended to be mystified by the fact that the foods were all different colors, and textures, and chemical compounds, but the steam rising from each took on the same form, color, and density for a moment, before evaporating into invisibility, into nothingness.
He didn’t believe in gender but sometimes Ahna could be a real defensive bitch.Tweet
In checkout, James tried to explain his movie idea to Ahna.
“It all comes down to one moment, you know? It’s like, this amazingly rich aesthetic example of a basic philosophical truth about history. We can never know what happened there, because that’s the nature of time. Oh whoa! I just realized, it also ties in to some ideas in string theory, which could be a good angle to go with, like, their bodies are the first sign of effects of this excess of dimensionality. You know? I mean history is in essence, an act of violence.”
“Sorry, what?” said Ahna. She was looking at a bowl of snack-sized bags of organic animal crackers. James saw white anger like the snow. It was like there was this part of his reality that she could just never understand, and it was rapidly eclipsing all the other parts. Ever since he had taken a turn for the intellectual, things had been rocky between them. He didn’t believe in gender but sometimes Ahna could be a real defensive bitch.
“Never mind,” he said grimly. The number 23 scrolled down the purple column. James and Ahna were in the purple line. They walked to the number 23 cash register and paid for their groceries. The cashier recognized James, and couldn’t help but smile at him. James smiled back. Then he looked at Ahna and felt a pang of recollection. He remembered lying on their stomachs on wall-to-wall carpet, watching Welcome to the Dollhouse on Netflix instant, hungover at someone’s apartment.
“Hey, do you want me to come by later?” he said.
“I thought we were going to hang out now.”
“I need to go do some work for a few hours,” he said gently.
“Oh. On your history thing? Reading more PDFs?”
That did it.
“You know, I’ll just call you later,” he said. They were at his car. As his driver swung the door open James muttered, “Maybe we both just need a little space,” then shut it in Ahna’s face, as she stood there frowning. James felt a little bad as they drove away and his girl rescinded from view, not moving. He always tried to practice compassion, but his pet peeve was people who were so scared of growing intellectually that they shut down at any challenge to their normative ideas. Withdrawing his iPhone from his pocket, he put in his code, tapped open his Instagram, and the small heart which tracked his new interactions expelled a little speech bubble reading 203 at the bottom of the screen.
Ahna still hadn’t texted him by the time he got home, where James went into his bedroom and threw himself down on the bed. Actually, it wasn’t “a” bed, it was two hospital beds set side by side. Each bed had its own remote control that could raise the head or foot. His assistant Dana had bought the beds when he had a kidney infection a few years ago, and he’d given his old bed to one of the people in his MFA program. He hadn’t been able to put any pressure on his back at all, so had slept sitting up. He was in his New York apartment pretty rarely. He hadn’t gotten around to getting rid of the beds yet. Now he reached over to the remote and hit the button that made the bed vibrate, which he found soothing.
He and Ahna were on a “break” during this health problem, and he’d never told her how he had actually got the infection. His getting sick had brought them back together, and it had never felt like the right moment to get into the details. She’d left her role in a production of The Hairy Ape at the Santa Monica Theater and flown out just to take care of him, because in her heart she still loved him, and always always would. James thought back to that crazy time.
In the expensive and youthful East Village, Ahna was walking to pick up her dry cleaning. She was on the phone with her mother talking about a Google document where their entire extended family was entering their Christmas lists so that the rest of the family could buy them the gifts they wanted.
“No, I think that she—oh, OK. No, that makes sense, just have her send the email with whatever,” she said. She was holding her phone inside her wool hat in order to protect it from the snow.
“Oh, really? Didn’t she say before that she wanted to play it by ear?” Ahna stepped out onto First Avenue.
A limousine braking in the slush ran into her, knocking her backward. Luckily, it didn’t run over her legs or anything, but still, she was definitely injured. Her phone flew out of her hand and into the gutter, right into a puddle of sleet. The limousine stopped and the driver got out.
“Oh my god, fuck oh my god are you OK?” said the driver.
“Yeah,” said Ahna, but when she tried to sit up she slumped backwards, “Whoa.”
The limo driver did a couple checks on her legs and other joints to see if anything was broken, but no. However, he said, “Bad news honey. I think you have a concussion.”
“I’m so sleepy,” said Ahna.
“Don’t go to sleep!” shouted the driver, “Get in! I’m taking you to the hospital!”
“My phone,” said Ahna.
“Ah, of course,” said the driver. He lifted the phone out of the puddle. The driver didn’t have an accent although he appeared to be Hispanic. He helped her up and opened the back door of the limousine. He explained to his client what they were doing, and his client said of course.
Ahna got in. In the back seat of the car was a middle-aged white man. He smiled at her and she slumped over. The driver rolled down the partition, and said, “You should keep her talking, sir!”
“What’s your name?” asked the white man, and much to her surprise, Ahna found it easy to respond.
“Ahna,” she said. The inside of the limo was dark and moody with inlaid wood. There was a small bar in the corner. She enjoyed the way her perception seemed warped in the limo, probably because of her injury, since she’d been inside many limousines before.
“Camera Obscura,” she slurred, “and Regina Spektor.”Tweet
“Who were you talking to just now, my dear?”
“My name is Richard Hayne.”
“Keep her talking!” said the driver in the front seat.
“I’ve got it, Rodrigo,” said Richard Hayne, and Rodrigo rolled the divider back up between his area and theirs.
“Now, Ahna. What sort of music do you listen to?” Richard looked like a white mouse or a Scandinavian, with his paper white skin, light blond hair, and his red eyes.
“Camera Obscura,” she slurred, “and Regina Spektor.” Her head lolled back on the seat as she passed out. The limousine sped through the snow toward New York-Presbyterian University Hospital. Richard grabbed Ahna’s phone and texted Ahna’s mother that she had just run into an old friend named Amanda and would call her tomorrow. He’d guessed Ahna would have a friend named Amanda, and he was right.
Their six-month separation had been the only break in a relationship that had otherwise remained a constant for the past four years. Ahna had been out in California while James had remained in New York, where he experienced his first and only period of depression. Looking back on it all now, James reflected that the break wasn’t really anyone’s fault, just the outcome of the inevitable cracks that emerge when one person in a relationship is growing and the other one is standing still.
A big point of contention had been his burgeoning friendship with Marina. As he and his latest frentor (friend-mentor) grew closer, Ahna had felt increasingly threatened. He’d tried to reassure her that he respected her opinions just as much as Marina’s, but there was something to her feelings: Ahna was just a theater person, while Marina was a performance artist whose work was as smart as a paper at a sociology conference. James had tried to explain to Ahna that it wasn’t that he didn’t think she was “as smart” as Marina, it was just that she didn’t have the same skill set, the cognitive tools to handle high-level art production as cultural analysis. But Ahna never seemed to understand. No matter how many times he reassured her, Ahna accused him of treating her like a dumb blonde. Things came to a head the night before their flight to Palo Alto to visit Ahna’s family for Christmas. He’d casually mentioned that Marina believed the propagation of Judeo-Christian ritual was an extension of capitalist ideology unless combined with some kind of ritual sacrifice. And had she ever flipped! She said she hated his New York self and missed his LA self, and James knew that was just code for “too much reading and writing.” She’d even called him pretentious.
So they’d decided to take a break.
He still couldn’t tell which was best for his career: the restrictive stability of a long-term relationship or a single existence that would allow his frequent self-discoveries to proceed unchecked. He hoped to figure this out by the time he was 35, but in his more honest moments had doubts as to whether Ahna would still be in the picture by then.
He decided to check on the snow. He got up and went into his living room and looked down on Sixth Avenue. With a bit of squinting he could see into the top-floor window of another apartment building, which was lower than his building’s top floor. A piece of bright white paper fluttering above a radiator grate drew his eye. James pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and pushed the home button to see if he had any texts. He didn’t. He walked back to the bedroom, unsettled.
He lay down on the bed without pulling back the covers and reached under the pillow for his iPad. He unsnapped and flipped up the cover up and continued reading the JSTOR PDF about gender in James Joyce’s classic novel of Form, Ulysses.
The maternal is deflated . . . in the descriptions of the pseudo-mothers with their young charges, of women’s friendship as false, their competitiveness intense, and Gerty in particular immobilized until she reveals her limp . . . male-female relations are transformed yet again into a kind of prostitution, in Bloom’s summation of his interaction with Gerty, the feminine once more poses a threat: ‘Drained all the manhood out of me, little wretch’ (377), he says of the twenty-one-year-old woman, or in his words ‘that little limping devil’ (370).
James let out a frustrated sigh. He reached over for the bed’s remote and pushed the up button for the head section of the bed. As the mechanics hummed, raising him into a propped-up semi-seated position, he knit his brow. He found that reading too harsh, and lacking subtlety. It was clear, to James at least, that Leo’s encounter with Gerty was fueled by an unfulfilled desire for the female experience alongside his sexual desire. Yet despite his empathy and desire for comprehension, Bloom remains a man, and his frustrated concentration on the girlish figure becomes darkly bitter, invasive to the point of obscenity. Just then, his iPad screen went gray and showed a spinning wheel. Then it went black. He was out of battery.
He was feeling too lazy to get up and find his charger in the other room, but luckily he’d remembered to bring his Macbook to bed with him. He opened it to Google some things about his Joyce idea, but was confronted instead by his last open Wikipedia page: Dyatlov Pass Incident. He sort of read it, then clicked on his Twitter bookmark. Refreshed it. He shut his eyes to meditate. He wanted to cast Rooney Mara as a Russian scientist, especially after he’d read about her early life as a skiing prodigy, making her the perfect fit for his envisioned chase scene. He wondered if she had been popular in high school. It was surprising how many hot girls hadn’t been.
Meditating on his plot soon turned into a cozy cat nap for James. As he slept, the snow continued to fall on New York, silencing the whole city, muting the jewel thieves and killers, the priests and the sailors, the men who love their mothers and the men who don’t that much really.
In the exercise room, Lindsay01 was sweating on the elliptical, her earbuds blasting the latest Playlist4Review. The trend nowadays seemed to be electronic music swelling continually to a shrill climax. The whole room was full of people on identical machines, half of them listening to the playlist and half watching the film. Heathx7 was on the elliptical to her left and Alexis976 was to her right, both of them staring at the television fixed to the ceiling. It was an independent romantic comedy set in San Francisco. Zooey Deschanel blinked her big eyes: she was blissfully unaware that her free spirit could rock the world of a tightly wound but sensitive man like Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Fitness Session was no exception to the ban on personal conversations, although right afterward they usually got a Freeform Interaction Session to share thoughts and feelings about the Playlist4Review and film. If the Freeform Interaction Session yielded any especially good observations, the team members involved would be allowed to bunk together, where their witty repartee would be recorded throughout the night. It was a coveted opportunity among the creatives. Some sweat rolled into Lindsay01’s eyes and made them start watering. The buzzer for end of Fitness Session sounded, and Tom the workout guard called out, “Scan your ID cards before hitting the showers.”
Ahna’s mother texted her five times, and Richard texted her back, “Tonight is looking crazy but hopefully tomorrow,” to which Ahna’s mother responded, “OK stay warm sweetie.” She seemed like a nice woman.
He rolled down the partition between Rodrigo and himself. “Let’s keep this one,” he said.
“Yes sir. I’ll let them know,” responded Rodrigo, pushing a few buttons.
Ahna’s mom had really liked James, to the point that it was weird. The first and only time James had come to visit Ahna’s family home, her mom, Elyse, had walked rapidly into the kitchen as Ahna was sitting there at the marble island eating a sandwich. Elyse had walked in, giggling.
It was unusual for Ahna’s mother, who she called by her first name, to giggle about anything, as she was a female administrator in a pharmaceutical sales call center who had a miserable life. She said she’d seen James coming out of the shower, naked, because he hadn’t closed the door all the way.
“Did he see you see him?” Ahna had asked her mom.
“I don’t know,” Elyse had said. “I think so, maybe.”
What was James up to? Still napping. He lay on his bed, wearing a mauve tee, loose fitting pewter wool-blend trousers, white socks, and a navy cardigan, all from Rag & Bone. His brow, though unwrinkled and drug-free, was marred by a troubled shadow. He heard someone whispering in Ancient Greek from the kitchen, so he got up and walked there. The internet was suspended like a painting on the wall. He couldn’t tell what the whispering voices were saying in Ancient Greek, and then the whispering stopped. He was holding bowl of hot soup (or was it mac ‘n’ cheese?) and realized that the internet was showing the Wikipedia page for the Dyatlov Pass Incident. He ate and read while standing up.
The Dyatlov Pass incident resulted in the deaths of nine ski hikers in the northern Ural Mountains on the night of February 2, 1959. It happened on the east shoulder of the mountain Kholat Syakhl (Холат–Сяхыл) (a Mansi name, meaning Mountain of the Dead). The mountain pass where the incident occurred has since been named Dyatlov Pass (ПеревалДятлова) after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov (ИгорьДятлов). The lack of eyewitnesses has inspired much speculation. Soviet investigators determined only that “a compelling natural force” had caused the deaths. Access to the area was barred for skiers and other adventurers for three years after the incident.[better source needed] The chronology of the incident remains unclear because of the lack of survivors. Investigators at the time determined that the hikers tore open their tent from within, departing barefoot into heavy snow and a temperature of −30 °C (−22 °F). Although the corpses showed no signs of struggle, two victims had fractured skulls, two had broken ribs, and one was missing her tongue.
The page faded away and was replaced by a movie, seemingly shot on whatever cameras they used to make it look blue in Twilight. A Russian woman of ethereal beauty gazed towards a mountain range, also of ethereal beauty, and said grimly, in English,
LUDMILA ALEXANDROVNA DUBININA: (Grimly) If I was a superstitious woman, I might be worried.
ALEXANDER SERGEIEVICH KOLEVATOV: (Bemused) Why worried, Ludmila?
LUDMILA ALEXANDROVNA DUBININA: Cause my grandmother Polina always said that when you hear the wind say your name, someone’s going to die soon. Or maybe it’s just that something in my bones says, we’re never going to see that famous mountain they promised us.
Their eyes meet in understanding (or something more?) before a gust of wind makes them both wince.
“I should really remember this dialogue!” James told himself, “and write it down when I wake up. This is solid writing.” He tried to concentrate on the scene on the wall, but it seemed like the harder he focused, the blurrier it got. He admitted to himself that he was lucid dreaming, but tried not to make too big a deal of it, lest he jerk himself awake. He woke up drenched in sweat, with a big erection. He fumbled for his moleskine on the bedside table, trying to hold on to the dialogue in the movie in the dream. Ludmila, Alexander, Ludmila. The wind. He looked at what he had written, but it seemed too hip and then he realized it was no good. He shut his eyes and tried to breathe easily, to let the dream resurface . . . but no.
“Aaah!” he said. He stood up and walked to the kitchen. There were dishes in the sink. It had stopped snowing. Could he really make this movie? He’d never really tried to play the feature-script game before. The mystery of the event had overwhelmed him, which he’d thought would drive him towards a purer script, but maybe he was just too young or too overcommitted to handle something that was going to last forever in the public imagination.
Blinking in the gray light of twilight, James fumbled for his iPhone next to the bed and scrolled to Ahna’s number. Fighting was a stupid waste of his energy, and she always knew how to diffuse these moments of lost confidence.
James’s call to Ahna traveled through the air to AT&T’s cell phone tower at Tenth Avenue and 54th Street, was snatched by the tower and carried underground by a fiber-optic line, which connected it to a multi-port switch, then pulled the call deeper underground through a T3 line, which decided what new tower it should go to, then shot it up to the antenna, which, with lightning quick speed, asked the satellite for a location, sent the call to Ahna’s Subscriber Identity Module at New Canaan, Connecticut. All this took less than one second, over which time the call travelled about fifty thousand miles, to pop right into Ahna’s iPhone, and the sound of the cheery “Marimba” tune echoed through the front hall of 553 Weed Street, where she lay unconscious on one leg of an L-shaped suede couch, her head wrapped in white gauze. It was incredible that the phone was still working considering it had fallen right into a puddle. On the phone’s last ring, Ahna stirred and opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was the ceiling, which was too white and burned her eyes, making them blink.
She realized she was lying on the L-shaped couch and that Richard Haynes was sitting in an armchair on the other side of the room. She tried to get up, but found she couldn’t.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Oh, you’re up!” said Richard Haynes. He’d been doing something on his iPad.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“Why can’t I move?” She had the strange sensation of trying to move her legs and then not moving them. It would have been a fascinating moment if she wasn’t so terrified.
“I understand you’re probably feeling pretty scared right now,” he said, not answering her question. “But I want you to know that you’re actually part of something quite revolutionary. Are you thirsty?”
“I—yes,” she said. “Why can’t I move my legs?”
“Ahna, have you ever heard of diversified viral crowd-sourced rhizomatic brand consulting? I can see you haven’t. I’ll explain it through hypotheticals.
“Ahna, imagine you run a very large, very powerful company, which sells a lifestyle, i.e. clothing and funny little books. Your power in this industry comes from your skill in manipulating the subconscious desires and fears of a generation of slippery young people, Generation Y. You, Richard, have tapped into the main artery of Americans between the ages of 16 and 33: the golden goose. And the market knows it: your stock skyrockets, your brand spreads infinitely outward, almost unbelievably quickly. You are, in a word, crushing it. Now imagine that as the years pass, your sales numbers begin to founder. The Gen-Yers have moved out of your target bracket, replaced by a new set whose desires differ slightly, but crucially, from the taste-making sweet spot you hit on the day you opened your first Urban. You are haunted by the sense that you’ve condemned yourself to a Sisyphean struggle, selling to an age group whose tastes are moving further and further into invisible technologies, their code of cool evolving more quickly and invisibly than the market can grasp. These millennials aren’t as predictable, and the traditional forms of market research don’t work on them. They disperse their social codes and hierarchies through diverse social medias and a bizarre affect that confuses irony with earnestness. The boot, so to speak, no longer fits the foot. Water or OJ?”
A butler type showed up with a glass of water and a glass of orange juice.
“OJ,” she said.
“Pour a little in her mouth,” said Richard. The butler poured a little juice in Ahna’s mouth, waited for her to swallow, then poured a little more in.
“Imagine your position further complicated by the changing realities of corporate America. It’s not the same suits-and-boots cube you knew. Something’s stinking up the air, and your top consultants inform you that stench is change, and that you need to get with the times and diversify in something called new media futures: branding yourself through apps, online games, and customer surveys. But in your gut, you know they are wrong, terribly wrong. People don’t buy things due to exposure, they buy things for spiritual resonance. One Sunday you’re walking your dogs Taffy and Duke and the answer comes to you. As CEO, father of a family of 25,000, you realize your answer is found not in giving in to the lure of technology, but in turning back to the physical, back to the subjective real, back to the power of the individual. She’s done.”
The butler retreated with the half-empty juice glass. Ahna couldn’t see where he’d gone because she couldn’t turn her head.
“First, empower the children. That’s what I’ve always believed. My kids could always pick their own punishments, and the same applies to my customer. Significant neurological research reinforces this strategy: resentment doesn’t escalate if the customer feels they’ve on some level protected their own interests through making a choice. This theory involves going against my own instincts, as well. As a father and CEO, I tend to build myself up, but abundant research shows that this type of top-down leadership is not the best model. Effective teams aren’t dominated by a single leader; all members contribute. I even let the customer criticize me, before they give in, because what I offer appeals so deeply that they just can’t resist it. Anyway, you don’t care about all this.”
Ahna’s phone rang. She tried to turn her head to see the screen but was still paralyzed.
“All you need to know is that we’ve seen overall growth of 33 percent. Through the contributions of people like you, we’ve built our brand’s flexibility, incisiveness, and community engagement. Companies often create a few overarching rules and stick to them, which assumes we can anticipate every problem, but times change, don’t they? The Agile Family philosophy embraces the ever-changing nature of corporate America today and builds in a system to adapt to each new phase.”
Ahna’s phone rang again. She tried to turn her head to see the screen. She hoped it was James calling to make up. Suddenly his narcissism seemed endearing: of course a person had to focus on himself when he was juggling so much. Maybe he could send someone to pick her up from this odd situation. She began to feel a tiny bit more sensation in her toes. She wiggled them inside her boots. Her intuition told her not to let Richard see any movement.
“You’re probably going, What’s this old fart rambling on about?! How does he actually crowdsource this research? Well, you’ve already experienced step one: we drive around the Lower East Side whenever we need new T-shirt slogan ideas and look for someone who represents our primary demographic. Then Rodrigo hits them with the car and take them back here. It’s quite an art form to hit just hard enough to stun but not injure the freelance consultant. You see, though you can’t move, you’re not paralyzed from the accident! We slipped a quickly dissolving dose of Tubocurarine into your mouth while you were lying confused in the snow. That’s a neuromuscular blocking agent. When I say we, I mean Rodrigo and I. He’s been my driver for thirty years, can you believe that? Lasted longer than either of my marriages.”
Richard smiled fondly to himself, then, shaking himself from his reverie, said, “Travis?”
A handsome young man in the palest of pale pink button downs appeared at Ahna’s elbow. Flashing her a brilliant and heartwarming smile, he said, “Hey Dick, ready to get started?” Travis was holding some sort of medical-looking device.
“I’m not one of those confident ladies that will help your brand! For instance I think I have fat upper arms.”Tweet
Ahna found her tongue: “I think there’s been a mistake. I’m middle-middle class from Palo Alto, which is a cultural wasteland! I’m not zeitgeisty or even that fashionable! I have all this anxiety because my boyfriend is really rich, whereas I’m comfortable but, you know, I still have to hustle! Like, he even helps me with my rent because he feels guilty—”
Travis approached with the device, explaining that it wouldn’t hurt at all, it was just to monitor her brain’s response to the T-shirt slogans. He began attaching the sensors to her temples with a tender and gentle touch, while Richard looked on benevolently.
“I’m not one of those confident ladies that will help your brand,” she said. “For instance, I think I have fat upper arms and I spend hours at a time finding pictures of other people, other women facing in the same direction in the same pose as me, then opening the two pictures in two browser windows and putting them right next to each other and then making the windows small so it’s just the arms and putting the arms right next to each other and then comparing the arms to see which one is fatter! I do this on average once a week!”
Travis placed the box to which her sensors were attached on the same end table as her phone, right near her head. She heard him turn a switch and then a high-pitched electronic whir.
Travis said, crossing to sit in a chair adjacent Richard’s, “See, that’s just where you’re wrong, Anne—”
“AH-na,” Richard corrected him.
“Sorry, Ahna, because in fact the middle or upper-middle-class person with high levels of cultural capital is exactly our demographic. The rich don’t shop at Urban. Think about it.”
She thought about it and had to admit she’d never had a rich friend who shopped there. To them, Urban was a poorly stitched joke. She lay there, defeated and silent, while Travis and Richard both stared at her in faux anticipation. They stared so intensely she didn’t even wiggle her toes in her boots. A deep thud came from below them. Richard and Travis looked at each other, then Travis cleared his throat.
“So, go time?” He’d drawn a Macbook Air from the sleeve of his shoulder bag and opened it now to balance on one knee. “Alrighty,” Richard said, and both men turned back to her.
“Biden’s little girl!” Richard barked abruptly, in quite a different tone than he’d used before. Travis glanced at the screen attached to the sensors and made a note.
“Rich kid of Instagram,” said Richard.
“My Parents Went to Guantanamo on vacation all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
“My other car is a bike, NOT.”
And on it went.
With a gentle flick of the wrist, James tossed his iPhone on the bed. Why wouldn’t she pick up? He hadn’t been that rude. He was an artist and in the past she had always been so good about understanding that. Now he found himself really questioning the future of the relationship. She’d certainly always picked up his calls before, and he reflected that people do crazy things when egos are bruised. But this was taking valuable time away from him, time he could be spending on his script or some of his PhD homework! What were they going to do, go back to couples therapy? He simply did not have the time for that! He texted, Call me back ASAP, I’m done with this. After about seventy seconds of no reply he texted, Fine if this is how you want things to go. Just know you had a choice.
He took a deep breath. He felt emotionally exhausted from the last twenty minutes. He figured it could be productive to take a nap: maybe he could try lucid dreaming again and get back some of that dialogue. His phone showed an incoming text from Ahna’s mom, saying, Is A with you? She said she was busy with a friend but I need to talk to her. He set his phone on the bedside table face down, took off his pants, and got in bed. Which friend could Ahna be with right now? He wondered if she was talking about him, ignoring his texts while telling some sap what a bad boyfriend he was. He rolled over toward the crevasse and laid one of the pillows over his face, which made him feel secure. He breathed deeply, letting it all go. He let the soft pressure of the pillow on his face take him down, blocking out everything real, making him invisible to the world.
“Well, that’s it!” said Richard, “How do you feel?”
“The music is making me feverish.” At some point during the testing session, Travis had put on the jam band Phish and the epic guitar solos were affecting her. She’d been carefully investigating the responses of her nervous system with movements so minute they’d be unnoticeable, or so she hoped. She knew the effort of concentrated physical control had probably shown up as brainwave spikes on the EEG monitor, but they’d interpreted it as her reactions to the T-shirt ideas. ”Wow!” Travis had said. “Batch of winners here!”
Now, the trial was over. Richard had gotten up to use the restroom, mumbling sheepishly about his old bladder. Travis turned off the music and walked back to the kitchen. The quiet was broken by a series of sharp sounds coming from the basement.
“So, is that it?” Ahna asked Travis.
“Yeah. Thanks again, so much.” Through the kitchen’s entryway, which was about twenty-five feet beyond the chair where Richard had been sitting, Ahna could see Travis rustling around in a black bag marked with a biohazard symbol.
“Glad I could help,” she said. “By the way, when do these drugs wear off?” Craning her neck, she could see Travis taking a syringe out of the bag, and filling it from a vial with the professional ease of a TV doctor, holding it up to the light and tapping the bubbles out of the milky, opaque liquid. She moved her head back into position just before he glanced over.
“Well Ahna, I have some exciting news for you.”
Travis came back from the kitchen. Both his hands were free but he was walking sort of duck-footed. There was a wet gleam in his eye.
“You see, Ahna . . . I mean obviously this is all technically illegal. In fact, if the method got out, it would defeat the whole purpose of buoying our company forward, by bringing a lot of nasty publicity our way!”
“Yeah, it’s great, thank you so much.”
“So ordinarily, our freelance consultants like you are terminated after their service.”
“Wait, what? You mean you kill them?”
“Hang on, hang on, let me finish. When Richard identifies a temporary freelancer who he feels really represents our core values, he likes to put their talents to good use, rather than waste them, no pun intended. And, spoiler alert, we’ve decided to take this latter route with you! You’re going to be joining our core creative team. We have a full-fledged training program where you’ll learn the ropes, and then you’ll be getting your own workspace in the complex underneath us right now. You’re going to get along great with the rest of the gang.”
Ahna thought that there was a fair possibility that this was a hallucination. “What are you talking about?”
The toilet flushed and Richard came into the room, wiping his hands on his pants.
“Did you tell her?” Travis said he had. Beaming at Ahna, Richard said, “You’ve done so well, so so well. I hope you realize how rare this is.”
“How long does it last?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean how long do I have to stay here?”
Richard winced, and Travis jumped in, saying, “I don’t think you’re looking at this the right way, to be honest. We’re giving you an amazing career opportunity to work with the top brand identity in the country, all organic meals, a great gym, and the company of hand-picked creative innovators like yourself. Rather than terminate your work with us now, we will keep working with you until you turn 33! When that happens, you’ll be transitioned out of service and replaced, just as you’re now replacing Chelsea09.”
“She did great work with us,” said Richard. He had changed from a suit jacket into a slimming black pullover. He walked over to an alarm system on the wall and pushed a sequence of numbers. There was a whoosh of air suction as a panel in the wall slid to the side. “Travis is just going to sedate you for easy transport to our work center. It’s about a mile below the house. The others will just be finishing their processing session, so we’ll introduce you right away.”
The sun was setting outside in a very brilliant red. The French doors of the hallway faced west, and let in the light, so the hallway was broken into red strips between shadows. “You won’t feel any pain,” said Travis, “just try to relax, it’ll be like a beesting.” He pulled the syringe from his pocket and stepped close to her in one smooth motion.
James had felt himself waking up. At first he had the feeling he’d been asleep for a very long time, because of how wonderfully safe he felt, how pleased with the idea of starting a new day. Then he felt it was very hard to move, and he opened his eyes. At first he thought he was buried in the snow, which was silly because he wasn’t cold, but it seemed that way because of the white and gray shades, and the sense of light filtering through something dense. Then he realized what’d happened. He’d fallen between the two beds! Somehow he must have rolled into the crevasse and snuggled quite deeply into it. He twisted his shoulders to get one arm unpinned from his sides, but instead of getting a grip from within the crevasse, he felt himself sliding farther down. He twisted his shoulders again, and again the mattresses on either side pressed in on his vision, and the crack of light above him got narrower. He tried to move his legs in a similar fashion, and again he slid farther away from the light. He realized why the light kept sliding further out of reach. Impossibly, the harder he struggled, the deeper he slid down between the beds. The sheets and blankets were tangled around his arms and legs loosely enough that he could still try to reach up, but tightly enough to keep his arms and legs from moving more than a few inches. Crazy. He decided to take the opposite approach, and get to the floor. He started twisting around wildly, sinking farther from the light. He kept at it. The sheets were staying at their perfect, maddening level of tightness, not loosening the way one might expect from such thrashing about. He kept at it, waiting to hit the floor.
He was all the way down now. It had been hours. It felt like a hundred hours he’d been down in the crevasse.Tweet
But where was the floor? He should surely have made contact by now. The light, which had up until now still been a slit to look up towards, had vanished and dissipated into a generally lighter gray up above. James thrashed.
As Travis bent over her neck again to insert the syringe into her carotid artery, she grabbed his wrist and pulled herself into a seated position, then twisted as hard as she could. Travis screamed and dropped the syringe on the floor. Richard yelled something, and Ahna bit Travis’s face, feeling the skin give way and something hot come out. She was still dizzy, but everything felt very clear. All the noises seemed quiet. Travis reached out for her neck and she kneed him in the penis. He doubled over and she kicked him as hard as she could in the face with her Frye boot. Blood spurted from his nose and he made a gargling noise. She kicked him again in the head until she heard crunching, and bent down to pick up the syringe.
Richard was running for the front hall and she ran after him. The floors were marble, and the hall was floodlit with a fireplace built into the wall. A huge red square hung opposite the fireplace, and she wondered, “Rothko?” before catching up to Richard. He was digging in the top drawer of a Louis Philippe Cherrywood buffet cabinet.
“Stay the fuck back you little cunt,” he said, fumbling for a gun in the drawer.
After stabbing the syringe into his heart five or six times, Ahna ran for the front door.
Ahna was freezing, freezing, and running as fast as she could. They’d put her coat somewhere else and she hadn’t looked for it, so all she had on was a V-neck. She’d tripped on a rug and jerked a big crystal punch bowl off a table, a piece of which had flown into her leg. She was bleeding heavily now and grabbed a handful of leaves and snow to blot the blood with. Why she did this she didn’t know, maybe it was from a movie. The sun was setting, turning the snowy ground blue. It was going to be a clear night. She was running through a densely wooded area, keeping the road to her right and a big mountain to her left. When she came to a clearing, a field with some stalky crops, she slowed down a little. On the edge of the field the moon was rising and she felt incredibly happy, and as if all the animals in the woods were going to come and be around her.
He was all the way down now. It had been hours. It felt like a hundred hours he’d been down in the crevasse. Still tight, still blanketed and sheeted as before, but now he’d slipped far enough down that there wasn’t any more light. In fact, even if he had struggled further, he wouldn’t have known whether he was moving up or down the gap. His breathing had become relaxed. If he listened, he could still hear the sounds of the city: it would be night now, maybe, and the traffic would have picked up with people driving out of the city to New Jersey, or heading out to a show or dinner.