On the palm-sized screen it looks curiously real, like something he’s already seen. She slouches in the drugstore aisle, clawing the skin on the back of her hands, sunglasses black and gleaming in the halogen daylight. This is the girl: a bored blonde, her head at once too big and too little for her whittled-down frame. Smaller than life, shorter than expected, not as pretty, torso adrift within a pair of creased track shorts and an oversized black sweatshirt with gucci spelled out on front in serifed white letters. Bruisy shadows under her mouth where the light falls badly. The footage has a handheld wobble; from time to time it sinks behind a shelf and you can hear the sound of close breath, the body of the camera holder hovering out of view. She keeps taking a box off the shelf, putting it back, picking it up again. Against a background of sanitary napkins, pregnancy tests, and adult diapers, she looks aimless, misplaced, like a child rehearsing an adult gesture they’ve seen but not fully understood.
Patrick Hamlin shields his eyes from the California sun and squints down at the miniature face on-screen, shrunken behind oversized lenses. He can’t help but feel disrespected, seated off to the side of these production kids—half his age but wearing better clothes—slim-limbed youths who picked him up at the airport and then detoured without asking to this noisy poolside bar, nestled in the crotch of an overpriced hipster hotel. The potted palms by the bar all have smiles painted on their trunks, and sultry cartoonified eyes made to be photographed and uploaded to the feed. At check-in, bowls of red rubber condoms sit gratis, waiting to be snatched up by smooth-armed men and women delighted at the novelty of a cock that resembles a balloon animal. Now he’s jet-lagged and dehydrated, headachy from drinking a jumbo gin-and-tonic in the glaring bright, mouth dry and tasting of stale wool as he leans over to watch their video clips on a scuffed-up smartphone, the armrest digging into his soft belly. Plastic glasses litter the tabletop, as the kids slurp from twin Bloody Marys as tall as toy poodles.
“What is this?” Patrick asks, as the girl in the video fingers the sealed opening of the little box, her gestures halting but not unsure. “What am I seeing?”
“You have to start from the beginning to get the full effect,” says one of the kids encouragingly, a Hispanic twenty-something in a short-sleeved button-up patterned with small embroidered horseshoes.
“Like a horror movie,” adds the paler, smooth-faced one holding the phone. His arm drifts toward and away from Patrick randomly, making it difficult to follow the tiny happenings on the tiny screen. “You need those shots of the suburbs and hedges and mailboxes to prep for the massacre that comes later. When the violence is unleashed, the viewer can’t comfort themselves by thinking it’s a neighborhood fundamentally different from their own. They’ve already swallowed the pill.”
“Like at the beginning of Scream, where she’s making popcorn on the stovetop,” says the one in the horseshoe shirt. “Yeah, or in Triumph of the Undead Dead, where they’re in a used-car lot arguing over the price of a station wagon right before they get devoured,” says the Arm.
Come on, Cassidy, says his voice behind the lens. I don’t think your fans would appreciate that kind of language. Give us a Kassi Keene: Kid Detective salute, can you do that?
Devoured? Patrick has no idea what he’s supposed to be looking for. The girl on-screen is famous, he knows, but he can’t imagine why. She has long yellow hair and an overstuffed pout. She could be any teenager at the mall, an expensive mall, riding the escalator up and down in the afternoon stupor, clutching outsized shopping bags in both hands that swing slowly in the breeze. In the small, impossibly clear picture, her mouth is set in a stiff line, but somehow he senses that she could burst into tears at any moment. She reminds him of his daughter, or is it a combination of his daughter and his wife? On a screen in his mind, he sees their delicate mouths projected side by side, familiar lips that he’s wiped with a towel, precisely etched and painfully exact, the pale, satiny pink of carnations or cooked shrimp. Back on the East Coast, three hours ahead, they must be setting the table for dinner, portioning out scoopfuls of pasta and salad, his nine-year-old daughter frowning in concentration as she folds flimsy paper napkins in half. Lately, whenever he tries to picture their faces, whether smiling or unsmiling, the image won’t hold: involuntarily, he always sees the smooth lines tremble and collapse into twists of emotion, the unbeautiful shapes of someone about to cry.
“Skip ahead,” says Horseshoe Shirt to the other. “We’re losing him.”
“But think about how much of the story we’ll lose,” the Arm argues, “if we rush it. The ambient time, boredom, irritation, atmosphere. The texture. The suspense. A long stasis that, like winter blossoming into spring, reveals surprises within. What this sort of footage lacks in plot structure, it gains back in the quiet sorcery of something happening out of nothing, monotony upended by the eruption of something new. The cinephile in me can’t abide.”
“So true. But avoiding loss is impossible in a world that struggles to conjure even the basic sense of presence. Capture itself is a form of loss, all a matter of PPI,” Horseshoe replies, and they nod at each other solemnly. The video is dragged ahead an inch or so.
On-screen, the girl looks furtively toward the checkout counter, then back down. Silently, she slides a finger under the flap, splits open the little box, wriggles her hand into the aperture in the cardstock. She’s peering inside now as she pushes the contents around with the tip of a slender manicured finger. Now the shot is tightening, homing in on the box, which seems to be full of tampons. The girl deftly slides three of them out and pockets them without looking, staring straight out in front of her like she’s searching for someone all the way across the room.
“She’s stealing tampons?” Patrick asks.
“Shhh,” say the kids.
The camera lurches into motion, as the cameraman steps out from behind the shelves and speaks. Hey, Cassidy, whatcha doing? You gonna take those without paying? His voice is cheerily unfriendly. Is it that time of the month? You out of money? You on the rag, Cassidy? Smile into the camera—come on, baby. Cassidy looks up, her face soft and innocent and surprised for a moment, mouth slightly parted and revealing the tips of two adorably large front teeth. Then the features rearrange. What the fuck? growls Cassidy, her grip tightening around the tampon box as it caves in. You guys stake out the maxi-pad aisle now? Do you want to hide in my shower and watch me put it in? The cameraman giggles humorlessly. Come on, Cassidy, says his voice behind the lens. I don’t think your fans would appreciate that kind of language. Give us a Kassi Keene: Kid Detective salute, can you do that? The one from the TV show. Baby, you’re so moody right now. You got cramps? Cassidy lets out a weird, strangled sound. She hurls what’s in her hand right at the lens, and a mess of brightly colored cylinders bursts once, like big, clumsy confetti, as the camera whirls down to the drugstore floor and back up again, seeking her face. What it finds looks ferocious. Press delete, cunt, Cassidy says, her hand reaching. Or I’m appropriating that fucking phone.
So this is all being shot on a camera phone, Patrick thinks, scratching the side of his neck, where a stinging itch, like a bug bite, creeps across his hot skin. Incredible resolution. Phones, he thinks, are the one thing in the world that seem always to be getting better.
Now that the two of them are in motion, the incredible resolution of the camera lens seems less equipped to handle all the physical activity. She’s coming toward him with her hands out, clawlike, grabbing things off the shelves and hurling them, hard, at the arms or upper body of the man holding the phone, causing the picture to seize and tremble. He tries to keep up the nonchalant chatter, asking, Is it ’cause Five Moons of Triton was a gigantic money-suck that you need to shoplift your, uh, feminine devices? Times that tough for Kassi Keene? But it’s clear from the lengthening pauses in his trash talk that he’s in some degree of pain. As he backs away at an increasing speed, he’s running into the sharp metal corners of the shelves, knocking down prim rows of packaged cookies and crackers that fall to the floor with whispery thuds. At the same time, Cassidy Carter has driven him toward the exitless back of the store, into the aisle with the household cleaners, and is battering him with a value-sized jug of hypoallergenic laundry detergent.
She grips with both hands and swings it like a sledgehammer. A little bracelet on her wrist glitters in the light. She’s telling him to give her the phone, but she’s saying other things too: Fuck the menstruation-industrial complex for making her buy a pack of twenty-four when all she needs is one or two to get to the end of her cycle, fuck America for being a nation-sized landfill run by Lexus rednecks who’ll never in their lives be able to comprehend the actual spiritual profundity of Five Moons of Triton, fuck all her fans for buying the magazines with the stolen photos of one of her old Brazilian wax sessions, her fans are creepy goblins and would chop her into little bits and eat the pieces raw if they could, and they would take a billion photos of it and probably tag her in every single one. By now, the phone is on the floor, camera pointed up at Cassidy, who looms over it with a dark expression, her legs long and bronzed and extending improbably, impossibly, up toward the sky.
As she unscrews the lid to the detergent and upends it all over the cameraman’s occluded body, Patrick can’t help but think that female anger has an outlandish quality to it. In a face rigorously conditioned to be beautiful, ugly feelings come as a violation of basic principles, like the monstrously large species of coconut-eating rat he had read about on the internet, discovered on a tropical island when it fell from a tree onto a passing scientist. While she was clubbing the head and back of the cameraman, the lower half of Cassidy’s face had been screwed into a position of uncontrolled fury, the lower lip knotted and drawn down to expose her smooth, square teeth. At the same time, the upper half of her face, enveloped by sunglasses, seemed perfectly placid. From the nose up, there was a sort of fragile glamour that you could have fallen in love with on the spot—and it was a truly fantastic nose, actually, elegant but wholesome, lightly freckled, the tawdry bridge sleeking down to a delicate, chiseled tip. It was the sort of nose that reminded you at first of other noses you had loved in days gone by, but then began by degrees to eclipse those other noses, until all you could remember was this new nose, perfect and organic and whole.
If he was honest about it, Patrick had always sensed a disjunction, with girlfriends and mothers and even his own nine-year-old daughter, between the anger they professed to feel and the spectacular utility of that anger, to startle and confuse. He had the eerie feeling, when watching an angry woman, that he himself was being watched from someplace deep inside her— watched with the smooth, distant intelligence of a cat. Now, as he watches Cassidy shrug off the grasp of the drugstore employees who’ve banded together to try to restrain her, he wonders if there’s a tiny, childlike version of this woman pointing and laughing within the calm center of her rage. Suddenly, Cassidy grins. With one smooth movement, she reaches down into her track shorts, pulls out the spent tampon, and slings it at the cameraman’s prone body.
Namaste! she shouts, as she is led away.
“And that,” says the Arm, pausing the clip, “is Cassidy Carter. I can’t believe you didn’t know who she was. It’s as if we found you on a Micronesian island and we’re teaching you, like, what a flashlight is.”
“She’s that famous?” Patrick asks, tilting the last drops of WAT-R from his drinking glass onto his sweaty, reddening neck.
“More. She was a Happy Meal toy. I had two when I was growing up. I used to make them karate-fight each other.” Horseshoe makes rigid motions with his hands.
“Okay, she’s famous, but she’s clearly crazy,” says Patrick. “I just don’t think any serious film uses an actress who’s assaulted someone in public. On video. Over feminine hygiene. How could you guarantee that she’d behave herself? It’s too risky.”
Phones, he thinks, are the one thing in the world that seem always to be getting better.
“Crazy is bankable,” says the Arm, swiveling in his seat until he makes contact with their waitress. He lifts the empty WAT-R bottle and points to it with a hand shaped like a gun, then holds up three fingers. The waitress nods, gives a thumbs-up, and rolls her eyes. “So is free PR, like that video you just watched. So is the number-one nose in America, and the former face of Bellanex.”
“Bellanex?” says Patrick.
“That acne cream that caused seizures. It made a lot of money, though,” Horseshoe says, humming something that could be the Bellanex jingle.
Patrick stares down at the paused image. The girl is frozen, sandwiched between two drugstore employees in red vests, who hold her by the elbows. She’s looking back toward the camera with a gigantic, diamond-hard smile. With her right hand she gives a cheery two-fingered salute, like a Girl Scout, but cuter.
“I hear you, I see your point. But I’m going to have to veto her,” Patrick says with finality. He leans back in his seat and swigs his diluted gin to punctuate. Braided strands of plastic in the seatback squeal as he adjusts his mass.
There’s an uncomfortable silence. When the Arm speaks, he sounds a couple years older and somberer.
“Yeah, well, with my regrets,” he says, “you aren’t actually attached to this film with any veto power, per se. I hope you had a chance to look over your contract and the duties and responsibilities outlined, you know, therein.”
Patrick’s head begins to ache a little. He squeezes his eyes open and shut. Even when his eyes are closed, the light seems to find its way in, soaking the eyelid and turning his visual field a fleshy shade of red. There’s a knotty feeling in his throat, as he weighs the possibility of getting his phone out and looking up his contract right now, right in front of their bright, inquisitive twerp eyes. He looks out at the dull-turquoise pool, fully engulfed by the looming shadow of the hotel above. Neon-green pool floats shaped like hearts rotate aimlessly in the blue.
The Arm explains patiently: “Your contract stipulates that in exchange for the rights to your novel, Elsinore Lane, the access to which is bestowed gratis, you will receive one paid production-assistant position, budget-contingent, which you may bestow at your discretion upon the individual of your choice. Including yourself, if you are your own choice.”
Horseshoe Shirt pats Patrick on the back a few times. “You’re one of us, man,” he says in a friendly way. From his underarm comes the waft of artificial cedar.
The Arm gives him a tight smile. “Don’t shoot,” he says, lifting his hands up in mock surrender. “Messenger.”
The waitress comes up with a tray carrying three bottles of WAT-R, each one molded into a faceted shape resembling a diamond, indicating its premium quality. California sunlight shimmies through the hard plastic, pale and golden at the same time, casting a pattern of dancing light on the bistro tabletop, like the bright mottle at the bottom of a swimming pool. She places the bottles on the surface in front of them. Slowly, one by one, she opens each bottle and sets the caps together on the far end of the table. She picks up the bottle in front of Patrick and pours it into his drinking glass. She does the same with the other two bottles and glasses. The WAT-R tumbles in, cold and transparent and odorless. She looks at the three of them sitting in silence and walks away, toward another table.
In the back of the Arm’s dinged-up four-door sedan, Patrick searches on his phone for the email his agent sent him, the one with the contract attached. The subject line is Re: Hello! and the only text is a phone number, his agent’s, so that he can call if he has any questions. He opens the contract searching for something to prove him right, but what it says is little different from what the Arm relayed at the poolside bar, where he had drunk so much gin-and-tonic that the generic techno piped in through hidden landscaping speakers lost its shape, turned to mush in his ears. As he reads, the terms of the agreement feel familiar to him, but far removed. “Approval-blind script consult,” he reads, and “standard etiquette budgetary maneuvers.” He remembers some of the phrases from that first read, but they don’t sound as hopeful this time around. He thinks back to that first day, opening the contract, reading that term, “production assistant,” and feeling such a shiver of pride that he had to put the document down and pace around the house to manage his excitement. He phoned his wife.
“Isn’t that a job for a kid?” she asked, over the sound of trampoline springs squealing in the background.
“They’re called PAs,” he replied.
“I don’t know, Patrick. You tried to break a book contract once because you didn’t like the paper they were going to print it on. I think you like to be involved.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Patrick. “They want me involved. On set.”
There was a long screech, accompanied by a loud and violent thumping.
“What was that? It sounded terrible,” he said.
“Nora just did a backflip on the trampoline. Everyone was clapping.”
“If you think I should stay here at home, just say so. I don’t mind. I’m sure I can give them my guidance on some things over the phone,” he said, grouchily.
But Alison hadn’t put up much of a fight after all. After that brief phone call in the middle of Nora’s gymnastics class, the question never really came up. Patrick had signed the contract, and Nora had learned how to do her backflip on the springy, ultramarine-blue tumbling floor. Almost a year had passed since that conversation, enough time for the studio to contract out the adaptation, put together a crew, and secure a soundstage to film in—but when he stopped to think, it seemed clear that whatever was eating Alison now, making her so inexplicably sad and distant, had been nibbling even then. Though she said normal Alison things, poking at him in her invasive, cottony tone, there was a lag to everything, a second meaning, a thing she wasn’t saying that only occasionally slipped out. That night, he heard a long pause on the line, followed, unexpectedly, by a burbling sound, like a small amount of water running over rocks. Patrick realized that Alison was crying. “She’s so happy, Patrick,” she said through a scrim of tears. “Why do I feel like she’s the happiest she’ll ever be?”
The city viewed from the highway has little to do with the place he had seen on the ground. It resembles an old photograph, colors faded, with a swath of flat gray rooftops close to the highway, a sea of smaller homes and buildings with reddish, quirkily tiled roofs in the middle ground. Neighborhoods pool at the base of the brown hills in the distance; tiny modernist structures stud the slopes and peaks, swaddled by smog. It looks like a diorama, three different strips of cardboard painted and stood upright to form a realistic landscape, each successive piece rendered a little hazier than the one before, articulating how vast the distance is between where they had been and where they are going. The smooth, synthetic edge of the seatbelt digs gently against Patrick’s throat as he plugs Cassidy Carter’s name into the search field and discovers, to his surprise, that she’s starred in over twenty movies, many so famous that he recognizes their titles, though he has never actually seen any of them. He learns that she has a sister named Juneau and a father who used to sell farm equipment—the stationary kind, like silos—until he left them all behind to try for a music career in Nashville. He learns that she was paid $195,000 per episode of Kassi Keene: Kid Detective, which made her the world’s highest-paid child star until the end of the show’s five-season run. There’s a photo of her from a profile published to coincide with the show’s finale—she’s dressed as a sexy Sherlock Holmes, lounging on a gigantic red velvet question mark. “Who Killed Kassi Keene?” the headline reads. “It Was Miss Carter in the Studio Lot with the Hot New Film Career!”
In the front seat of the sedan, the production kids make loose, sporadic conversation, like old friends. They do each other small kindnesses: the Arm fixes the A/C vents so the cool air blows with greater precision upon Horseshoe Shirt’s glistening forehead; he in turn unwraps a stick of gum the exact color and shade of a fresh tennis ball and pushes it into the Arm’s mouth as he drives, both hands on the wheel, maximally alert and responsive. When the flavor has left, Horseshoe feels around on the floor for an old receipt and holds it patiently before the still-chewing mouth, waiting for the Arm to deposit his cud before tossing the little packet out the passenger-side window. All around them, the cars crawl forward fitfully, incoherently, first one lane and then another, never in unison.
“Wow,” says the Arm. “I would give anything to be able to just zoom up and over all this traffic right now.”
“Everyone would be gazing at you,” says Horseshoe, “in wonderment.”
“Remember that scene from Back to the Future Part II where Doc shows up in the DeLorean and then it lifts off from the ground like a spaceship and the wheels retract and it jets off into the future? Like a spaceship?”
“They would be taking videos on their phones, selling them to TMZ. Buying Kawasaki motorcycles and vacation packages to Los Cabos. Statues of lions and horses for their backyards. Et cetera.”
Horseshoe lights a cigarette and sticks his arm out an open window and into the sunshine. Talk radio filters through the air from a Honda Civic on the passenger-side flank of the car. Today’s program is about violent encounters with wildlife on the fringe of urban spaces. One of the guests is a mother of three who was attacked by a pack of raccoons while trying to return a pair of sneakers to a local Foot Locker just after closing. “They took the box from my hands and began pawing through it. They chewed at the brand detailing, the little swoosh. I think it was because of the leather scent they spray in these things, just too completely real. But if it can fool a wild animal, it must be a high-quality product.” The driver of the Civic is female, in her twenties, with a lime green streak in her hair. When she looks over, Horseshoe smiles at her and waves with his cigarette hand. She looks away.
“Do you know why we have traffic?” the Arm asks suddenly.
“There are too many cars,” Horseshoe says, in a sad tone.
The Arm shakes his head, gazing out the window at small plumes of smoke in the distance, on the occluded face of the yellowing foothills. “It’s because nobody can see the whole picture. There’s enough road for all the cars to move along smoothly at the same speed, but even if we understand this at a rational level, we can’t do anything with the knowledge. Our default is to behave as self-interested individuals. Sometimes we work against that principle and defer to another driver, but even that’s just a variant on individualistic behavior. When you slow down to let someone merge in, you contribute to the worsening of the whole.” He nudges the gas pedal. The car lurches forward three feet, and then rolls down to a near halt.
“Altruism is no escape. Only an exhaustive revolution could hope to alter the scale of daily existence,” says Horseshoe, searching the glove compartment for more gum.
“Sometimes there are crashes. Fender benders. People lose their lives,” says the Arm thoughtfully. “The victims long for a better world, a world in which the cars pass serenely in discrete space and all conflicts are indefinitely deferred. A car crash challenges scale directly. Self-driving cars were the industry’s answer to that challenge, but the consumer experience wasn’t in demand. The average person would rather retain control and believe themselves lucky than take on a statistically smaller risk, governed by the probabilistic Other.” He puts on his signal and lurches suddenly, violently, into the right lane, the sound of horns swarming around them, muted by the chassis of the van, which shields them and holds them tight. “People don’t want to place their trust in their vehicle; they want the sensation of silky, effortless agency.”
“You can’t repair an appetite, you can only feed it or ignore it.”
“To go from one stage to another requires passage through an ungainly middle space. In this middle, human-driven cars crash into computer-driven cars, computer-driven cars crash into human-driven cars—either way, they kill the humans inside. When change happens, we want it to happen all at once. In transit, there’s catastrophe.”
“Catastrophe is incomplete change,” says Horseshoe casually, fishing a cigarette out of the pack and tucking it behind his ear. “Change is violent for those who arrive to it late.” He swivels around and offers up the opened pack to Patrick, who doesn’t even notice the gesture. “The safest thing would be to remain perfectly still,” he says, shrugging as he untwists, “and let the future simply arrive.”
Patrick is texting Alison: Almost at the hotel. California is paradise. These guys from the film company are genuine West Coast stoners. Call you when I’m finally alone. He looks up from his phone, eavesdrops on the conversation for a second, and looks back down. He searches Cassidy Carter net worth, then Cassidy Carter arrests. He feels oddly unable, for some reason, to interpret the results. Is $850K a lot of money? Is three a lot of arrests? Between the lurching movement of the vehicle and the impassivity of the hills in the distance, he feels a little like he’s out to sea, bobbing in a lifeboat as his body bakes beneath the heavy sun.
“I wrote a script in college about an alien invasion,” the Arm says. “Small crablike creatures attach to the neural centers of cheerleaders. It begins as a slasher flick—people die in creative and ironic ways—but when the takeover is complete, it becomes a quiet, peaceful sort of thing. Then it’s a movie for the aliens, full of colors, lights, moving shapes, and warm, buzzing sounds. But as long as a single human being is alive, its genre is horror.”
“Was your script any good?” Horseshoe asks.
“I could see it getting made. Elle Fanning as the Last Girl. Tessa Thompson as a brilliant, corrupt scientist. Tony Hopkins as a human possessed by the alien queen.”
“Thanks, man. It means a lot to me to hear that,” says the Arm.
“You gotta have faith. That’s why we make such heavy sacrifices, man, because we have faith in the art form. In the product. In the industry. In the ephemeral rendered luminously concrete. It’s the machinery of dreams.”
“But do we have faith in the industry? Is it a blind faith, based on nothing more concrete than the faith of other blind people who assure us that there is something there to see, if we could only see it? Is it a false faith, the belief that we who make fifteen dollars an hour will someday employ others for fifteen dollars an hour?”
Patrick looks up sharply from his phone, too sharply. Reading in a moving vehicle turns his stomach; there’s a tilting feeling somewhere inside his head.
“Wait, what do we make an hour?” he asks, concerned.
“About fifteen dollars,” says Horseshoe.
“My parents buy vegetables for me when they come to town,” says the Arm.
Patrick stifles a groan. “What is this job?” he asks. “Is it skilled labor? Do you manage others? Do you make decisions?”
“At this stage in our careers,” says Horseshoe, “I think the most accurate thing would be to say that we are managed by others and make only the simplest decisions, the sort of decisions no one else cares about. But, obviously, nobody can know, ourselves least of all, what our futures may hold in store.”
Maybe this is why people have families, he thinks, so that every day, at least once, they can walk into a room and feel known by every person in it.
Patrick grimaces and rests his head against the curve of the window. Pressed against the cool, firm glass, he stares out at the vestiges of Hollywood, far away now and muffled in haze. The sky is blue but diluted by a grayish, brownish undertone that can be found everywhere and nowhere at once—like the halfhearted presence of his wife and daughter over text or phone, like the internet, like DDT, banned in the United States but increasingly prevalent in South America, Africa, Asia. Like the omnipresent Cassidy Carter: an ambient mechanical whine coming from somewhere deep within the house that, once heard, can never again be unheard. The production kids drone on in front, talking about the fundamental correlation of the internal-combustion engine to the film projector. In the surrounding lanes of traffic, the other cars seem to move backward and forward randomly, pointlessly, going nowhere. He can’t tell whether the van is moving or sitting still, but he knows that whatever is happening upends some organ deep in his torso. He is light and heavy, sunburny and chilled, dizzy and pulsing and empty like a balloon. High overhead, a hawk hangs in the air, frozen in place, as though the fact of atmosphere were only a theory, a lie. He realizes suddenly that he needs to get out of the car.
“Pull over, it’s an emergency,” he says weakly.
“It’s a catastrophe!” says the Arm cheerfully.
“Pull over on the shoulder, or get off the highway?” Horseshoe asks, sounding concerned.
“I don’t know,” mumbles Patrick, his eyes squeezed shut.
The turn signal goes on, and the sedan begins its slow meander into the rightmost lane. At the side of the road, pink hibiscus in bloom. Patrick lies horizontally in the back seat, his arms crossed, trying to fit the curves of his body into seat troughs designed to cradle upright, individuated asses. He stares straight up at the van’s nubby beige ceiling, tries not to think about his mouth filling uncontrollably with moisture, trying not to notice the emergency feeling growing louder like an approaching siren. Has anyone ever drowned in their own saliva, choked on it, maybe while asleep? he wonders, as the car rounds lazily through the off-ramp and pulls into the first available outlet, a large and desolate Mexican-restaurant parking lot. They slow to a stop near the turn-in, and Horseshoe gets out. The scent of parched and sunstruck vegetation fills his nostrils, and he inhales deeply with a satisfied look on his face. Then he opens the back door for Patrick, who crawls out onto a patch of vividly, electrically green grass near the front entrance and dry heaves behind the geraniums.
“He should do child’s pose,” says Horseshoe, stubbing out his cigarette and lighting another.
“He should try chewing on something tough and low calorie,” says the Arm thoughtfully. “Maybe a twig.”
As the kids loom above him, smoking, Patrick pulls himself into a fetal position on the ground. He wraps his arms tight around his middle-aged knees and tucks his head in, closes his eyes tight. It smells like mulch and quesadilla, and the clean, dry odor of the prickly lawn. He rocks gently back and forth. The sun has started to set, and the brownish tinge takes fire, igniting reds and oranges and pinks that defy summarization. Now when he closes his eyes, the fleshy red color has become even redder. The beauty of a sunset comes from the distance the light must travel in order to reach the eye of the one observing it: the greater the distance, the more encounters that light has with air particles, scattering and shifting the visible wavelength away from the familiar blue and toward exotic, desirable colors. When the breeze blows in just the right direction, Patrick can smell the scent of flowers—detergent from a laundromat across the street. Tapping their cigarette ash out onto the concrete below, the production kids stare into the sunset, squinting, shielding their eyes. They watch the indescribable colors burn over the sky, not even trying to describe them.
Off Highway 210, at the base of a hill blanketed in ivy and eucalyptus, the Hacienda Lodge offers beds and motel breakfasts to out-of-towners unfamiliar with the layout and geography of Los Angeles County. In front of the door to Room 213, Patrick slides his key card in and out of the reader at varying speeds. The reader blinks red, and then red again. The night is surprisingly dark here, despite the nearness of the highway, and the parking lot is a sea of available spaces. When the door swings open at last, it reveals two queen-sized beds a foot apart, a chair upholstered in green performance plush, a TV with no remote. The room has a yellow cast: pale-dun paint on the walls, ochre carpeting, and on the beds a quilt patterned in floral butterscotch. Through an open window in the bathroom, the whine of cars passing by at high speed mingles with the dry, green, medicinal scent of silvery trees.
Patrick lets his body fall backward onto one of the beds and lies there with his arms by his sides like a patient in a hospital bed. Of all the things that bother him about this day, the one that stings the most is the feeling of being nobody in particular, just a man middling through his forties with a body of middling fitness and three books that no one on this coast ever inquires about. Maybe this is why people have families, he thinks, so that every day, at least once, they can walk into a room and feel known by every person in it. He conjures a memory, or is it a fantasy, of home—he’s with the two of them on the couch, he’s tickling Nora and she’s laughing brightly in slow motion, and Alison joins in, and they laugh together for what feels like forever. It feels so real, but in actuality Nora hates to be tickled. His feet still sweaty in his leather shoes, he digs the phone out of his front pocket and calls Alison. His mood sinks a little more as he listens to the phone ring and ring and then go to voicemail. You’ve reached Alison, says the recording in a miniature version of her voice. Do I want to be reached?
In the bathroom, he turns both faucets, but nothing comes— only a faint scraping sound from the rotating fixtures. Crouching, he opens the cabinet beneath the sink and finds a vacated space: the pipes end abruptly; their open gullets gape above a little upright notice from the hotel, informing him that WAT-R pods are available for guest rental at an additional fee, inquire at the front desk, installation not included. He thinks he remembers seeing an article about WAT-R pods a year or so back, when California switched over from the old webwork of mains and pipes to the new, privatized system —but he can’t recall whether he actually read it. Insect song blares through the open window, and he wonders if maybe his situation isn’t as depressing as he thinks: he may just be dehydrated, overheated, unable to see it all clearly.
In a men’s exercise magazine, he had read that hypohydration comes with a slew of mental side effects: slowed or faulty reasoning, false memories, hypersubjective judgment. The article warned that you should never make a major decision about personal relationships or employment while under-hydrated. An hour before exercising, an adult male should drink one twelve-ounce glass of water, then another one fifteen minutes before beginning the warm-up. In the first twenty minutes of activity, at least two small glasses of water should be downed quickly, and then one sixteen-ounce glass for every following hour of sustained physical activity, plus more for unusually hot or dry conditions.
On the dresser next to the TV sits an extra-large bottle of WAT-R Pure, WAT-R’s downscale diffusion line. Unlike the bottles at the hipster hotel—thick, expensive plastic bullied into the many-faceted shape of a gem—this bottle is like any other: only the WAT-R logo in cool Helvetica remains the same. The price tag reads $4.50. Patrick twists off the cap and slopes the bulky object upward. The cheap plastic caves beneath his fingertips as smooth, clear WAT-R, the exact and mediocre temperature of his motel room, slides deep into his throat, leaving behind a stale taste, like ice that’s been too long in the freezer.
He sits on the foot of his bed with the bottle between his knees and calls Alison twice. On the other line, someone picks up. There’s a loud, close sound, something being rubbed over the mouthpiece. Silence, and then Alison’s voice, tentative, asking “Hello?” as if it were a question.
“It’s me. I called earlier,” says Patrick. Hearing his own voice, he realizes that he is more annoyed than he had thought.
“Oh. I’m sorry. How long ago?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says.
“Okay,” she replies. He can’t tell if she’s annoyed at his annoyance or if, on the other hand, she is not annoyed, not thinking about him at all.
“So—I landed safely. Two kids who work for the production company picked me up. I don’t think they have much access to what’s going on with the picture; I’m saving my questions for when I meet with the producer tomorrow.”
“Oh,” she says. “All right.”
“I look out the back window of our house and I don’t see the park or the trees. I see all of it dying. Part of me knows it’s not— ‘dying’ is the wrong word for it—but another part can look out and see a place that’s already dead.”
“These kids, you know, they like to speak about everything as if they know all about it, but I can’t imagine anyone showing them the budget for the film, asking them if it all looks right. I can’t imagine anyone even telling them who the VIP they’re picking up at the airport is, what his job title is—they’re nice kids, but you can tell they’re not in any position to see the whole picture. I have to say, it’s getting on my nerves, and it’s only the first day. Well, I can’t complain about being driven around. There’s so much traffic here it makes you want to crash your car. At least the weather’s nice. It’s a pure blue sky. No clouds.”
“I don’t know,” says Alison distractedly. “I’ve always liked clouds. You watch them change and grow and move across the sky. They turn the sky into a sort of entertainment, like theater or cinema, when you get to know the common types they’re like characters showing up again and again. My favorite was always cirrus. Ever since I was a kid.”
Patrick doesn’t reply.
“Patrick, are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” he says.
“Cirrus clouds. Do you know what I mean? Like soft, gauzy scraps of cotton wadding, stretched thin and drifting through the sky. I made some for a class project once, it must have been fourth grade. I used two whole boxes of Q-tips.”
He flops back on the motel bed and exhales loudly. In the weeks leading up to this trip, he had tried to show Alison movies about Hollywood, about writers going to work in the film industry and detectives tracking down the murderers of beautiful women strangled in the hills, had sent her real-estate listings for modernist mansions with pools and topiary perched precariously in the brown steepness. He bought Nora a book about glamorous actresses of yesteryear, hoping her fascination with historical disasters past might be cultivated into something broader, a fascination for the industry and the state where he could already almost see them living, laughing together and soaked in sunlight. The idea of a future in California, with a swimming pool and a full-sized trampoline on which Nora could hurl herself upward into the cloudless sky, seemed more real to him the closer he came to the date of his flight: his daughter could go to school with the children of Kardashians, his wife could restore her frayed nerves, become one of those women in vintage kimonos who wear their hair in a waist-length braid. But neither of them took an interest, or even seemed to notice what he was trying to do. He felt like a man slaving away, uncelebrated, digging for lost treasure in the unmarked desert.
“Can you just pretend that you care about what I’m doing here?” he says. “I’m living a literal adventure, and you make me feel like I’m sitting alone at home, imagining it all.”
There’s a pause on the line, and when her voice comes back it’s his Alison again, more alert, more familiar.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were feeling this way,” she sighs. “You know how it’s been for me lately, everything so blue. It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that something good could happen. And I’m not sure how the movie world works, but I know this is really exciting for you. And I’m proud, believe me. Nora is too.”
“Thank you, that means a lot,” says Patrick, and it’s true, he feels a bit better.
“It’s not your problem, Patrick,” she continues. “It’s really not. I know there’ve been times I made you worry. That thing about the lawn—I know that was so bad.”
He remembers Alison on the lawn in her pajama pants and sleep tee, and shakes his head sharply, as if to make the image less clear.
“I don’t know if you can understand what it’s like,” she says, her voice growing quieter, taking on a pale tone. “I know I’ve said this before. But I look out the back window of our house and I don’t see the park or the trees. I see all of it dying. Part of me knows it’s not— ‘dying’ is the wrong word for it—but another part can look out and see a place that’s already dead. You see? I look at Nora and I know there’s no future for her, and it tears my heart in two. And what makes me feel crazy is that all around me, everywhere, people are driving cars and buying propane grills and eating double cheeseburgers, and not one of them acts like they’re dying, even though they are. Not one of them sees what I see, and that means we have no chance.”
“Listen,” says Patrick, tense and urgent, “just listen to yourself. If you heard someone else saying this, your sister or Nora or me, what would you tell them? You would tell them to get help. To go see someone.”
“Or maybe I’d listen to them. Maybe I’d think about whether there was any reality to what they were saying.”
Some background chatter comes over the line. He can hear her covering the microphone with her hand, talking to someone else.
“What is that?” Patrick asks. “Who are you talking to?”
“It’s Nora,” Alison replies off handedly, her mind elsewhere. “She’s asking me if she needs to pack a puffy coat.”
Suddenly, Patrick feels nervous. He stands up, walks to the front of the motel room, nudges the curtain aside, and stares out at the lone car at the far end of the lot below, sitting with its lights on and windshield wipers running, though there isn’t a drop of water in sight, the blades whipping blindly back and forth.
“Pack for where?” he asks. “Where are you two going?”
When Alison answers, she answers slowly. She may be trying to reassure herself as much as him. “I’m taking Nora with me on a nature retreat. It’s sort of a, I don’t know, support group. You know, the exact thing you think I need.”
“Well, where is it? What’s it called?” He’s raising his voice now, which she won’t like. “How far away is it? And, Alison, how are you even going to get there? You don’t drive.”
“I try not to drive,” she says. “And there are so many ways to avoid it—you can bike, you can carpool, you can take the bus all the way to the shopping center. But you know I used to drive an hour each way to that vet clinic outside of Philadelphia before I had my own practice. And it’s just for a few days, while you’re out of town. I don’t want you to worry,” she says in a soothing tone.
“I’m worried,” he says.
“You don’t need to be. It’s a well-known place. They have a website.”
“Well, that makes me feel better,” he says sarcastically. “Does this place also have a name?”
“Earthbridge. It’s called Earthbridge.”
“That sounds ominous. A bridge from Earth to where?” “I’ll give you the phone number,” she sighs.
Through the bathroom window, which he discovers is not just open but missing a pane, the sweet, wet scent of night-blooming jasmine forces its way into the room. Out on the ivy-covered slope behind the Hacienda Lodge, rodents scurry up and down through the ground cover, causing the broad, dark leaves above them to jerk violently from side to side. Patrick punches the number his wife gave him into a search engine, but nothing comes up. Then he enters just the area code alone. Upstate New York, far upstate, near Oswego. Near where Cassidy Carter shot her first starring feature at age nine, a feel-good comedy set at a summer camp where all the adult counselors have been taken prisoner by a band of drug smugglers and young Cassidy has to assume the role of leader, directing a horde of preteens to hunt, forage, and scavenge for food. What was that movie called again? He takes another long swig from the plastic bottle at his bedside and then falls asleep with his mouth open to the dry, chill air. All through the night and through his formless dreams, strange sounds emanate from the hills behind the motel, sounds that could be cries of pain but could just as easily be laughter.