My mother phones me while I’m in the garage store, and because my phone’s a broken-down piece of shit, I don’t even realise it’s her. I put the phone to my ear and hear her staticky shriek and hit End Call, immediately.
The store’s almost empty, but the guy at the counter titters a little. Ears burning, I shove the milk and bread across the counter at him, hating the benign glitter of hisAR Wildz VRDs: blacked-out irises, with silver X’s splayed across them. What kind of a cashier even has the money for full-on lens surgery, anyway?
And I can’t be blamed for not wanting to talk to my mother. It’s probable that in some way or another, she’s discovered my grades, or lack thereof. I’ve attended maybe twelve lectures in the last week; I just don’t have time to do any more. I didn’t think missing the Hydraulics test on Tuesday would have landed me a zero; I’d expected an Absent, but I guess the lecturer must be on to me.
I’m sure it’s even that serious. My lives on the other side of the city; if she really wants to scream at me, she can just drive out here instead. That’s when I’ll start to care, I think, pushing out through the sliding doors of the garage store, cheeks still hot.
It’s a warm brown Johannesburg evening, a faintly damp breeze smacking my cheeks with the smells of exhaust and piss and fried food as I shuffle off down the pavement. The streets are dark, apart from the pools of light from the shopfronts, and the people walking here are shufflers like me. I turn my AR glasses on because it’s depressing, and instantly — among the sudden bright spikes and crystals of neon that reveal themselves to me — I’m mobbed by adbirds. They flap and circle around me, flaring with video, emitting sweet, tinkling cries from their non-existent throats.
“Fuck off fuck off,” I mumble, blinking them away, but directly ahead of me there’s a hacked promo. Outside of a little BnB, a woman who looks like some vaguely-familiar TV actress (blonde, Americany, middle-aged, with pearls around her neck) extols for a few moments the advantages of the English-style garden beyond the high walls, before abruptly flickering to nude, a garishly pink body gleaming and gyrating below her white-toothed face. The sound file switches to Japanese porno screams, ridiculously loud as she smiles professionally, HD head bobbing spastically on the twitching flat-textured frame.
Despairing, I turn it all off. I just want to get home.
My apartment is dark; the sliding door onto the narrow strip of balcony is open, and the wind is getting colder. Someone in the block is playing 80′s metal, or something similarly unpleasant. On my unmade bed, with the clear plastic ALLHalo pressing into my eye sockets and ears, I make sure that the green panels of my gloves are resting securely on my fingertips. They’re a little loose; I get contact failures from time to time, but I can’t afford customs on my allowance, and I’m not about to ask for more.
In the eight o’ clock stillness I take a few deep breaths, like a swimmer preparing to dive, and hit play on the HopeBox humming on my duvet.
ALPINES, if you will credit it, started off as a post-apocalyptic sandbox sim. Yes, this hysterical many-fonted mess of pre-teens and addicted housewives, all pumping up their increasingly physics-defying Tuscan mansions in a kind of coreless suburbia, was once a solemn artsy project by some little British indie developer: you and your BA-wielding friends could experience the existential peace of a devastated earth, without having to start a war yourselves. Build your little ALPINE cabin with plastics scavenged from the poignant ruins, and wood from the tastefully muted forests just north of the original server’s settlement zone; ponder the meaning of life around the prettily-rendered fire every night.
But then, like Lander Virtual and Supershades, ALPINES introduced PC body-wraparounds: you could get scanned at your local VR arcade and upload the skin onto your avatar, with bonus airbrushed cheeks and big, blown-out tits.
Because only women ever want the natural look. Men are entirely too romantic: they’d much prefer to wear the hulking shoulders and bulging codpieces of normal PC’s, than to face up to bodies giving softly and spreadily in to addict rot. It was women who made ALPINES what it is: women who wanted something genuine and soft and 100% organic, just like the plushy ALPINE forests. Something to make your virtual reality experience a little less virtual, and thus a little more lonely.
N. wanted that, too.
For a moment, I’m at the loading screen, the PLEASE WAIT sign creak ing in front of me. Then my cabin’s bedroom shimmers into focus around me.
Thanks to N., it’s not bad looking. The walls and floor are pale, and above my bed hangs a yin-yang symbol, superimposed over a patch of gently shifting, pink-tinged ocean.
I look down at my hands (trad, not wraparound) and wait. It doesn’t take long for her to appear. N. opens my door and smiles at me, flower petals drifting down from the antlers on top of her head and melting into nothing.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, and sits down beside me. Say what you want about ALPINES, its graphics are near-perfect. I can see every pore on N’s skin, every hair on her head, even the glitter of her eyeshadow. It’s miles ahead of Lander Online’s uncanny-valley dwellers.
“Me too,” I tell her. Outside, the forest chirrs softly. The light is beginning to fade.
Some junior girl has a breakdown, claws her way out of the school hall in tears. I don’t know who she is: a real laitie, with a blonde weave and bubblegum-pink lips. Her face is split in a tearful wail. One of the English teachers pursues her, wobbling in her shapeless lump of a blouse.
The headmaster pretends not to notice. He’s a small man with a nasal voice; like his suit, his speech is too big for him. He’s droning about the five stages of grief when all anyone in this hall wants is to get out quickly so they can eat something before fourth period starts.
“ There is no pain greater,” he warbles, peering around at all of us severely, “than the pain of a parent who has lost their child. Those of you who attended the funeral yesterday will know that the Dlamini family is struggling to persevere through the hurt and the uncertainty that surrounds them.”
Not once in his whole speech has he come close to saying the word suicide.
At the back of the hall, I shift on my chair, rearranging my skirt over my thighs, and think about finals, looming up at the end of the year like some shapeless monster. It’s my final year of high school. It’s the year that will decide everything: whether I get into Engineering at UCT or whether I’ll have to settle for Wits, whether Oliver Tambo’s Academy of Science’s fees will have been worth it, or whether my parents should’ve paid more.
From the garlanded picture frame up on the podium, the dead girl smiles out at us. It’s a school photo, against the ubiquitous grey background of the counsellor’s room. She’s wearing the braids she had at the beginning of the year, and enough make-up to hide her acne scars. She looks like someone else. She looks almost pretty.
Looking at N.’s captured face, at the glassed-over ghost of her, a sudden wave of stuffy choking heat washes over me, slides slippery under my arms and behind my knees and into my dried-up mouth. The tears that gather in my eyes are only an afterthought.
N. and I go down to Cherokee Lake and sit under the glowing, mutated trees, watching a cluster of women in long grey skirts and headscarves washing clothes in the sparkling water. The leaf-shaped brooches they wear identify them as members of the AmishLoversUtd Guild; infamous for their kinky foursome RPs and staggering lack or irony. I suppose there must something appealing about the Amish, if you squint hard enough. All that denial of earthly pleasures. All those rules and forbidden god-knows-whats.
You’d have to ask N., not me. She’s sitting there with a goddamn romance novel on her lap, engrossed. The e-book file appears as a thick generic tome. I shift around on the fallen leaves, watch the background insects hover on their looping paths, waiting for N. to get bored.
This server ‘s time zone a little behind ours, so it’s still afternoon here. Everything is suffused in a puffy golden glow.
Eventually, N. closes the book, sticking a plum-nailed finger in as a bookmark, and asks: “Do you want to go to town today?”
I shake my head no. Town in this case means the nearest settlement, Indian Glade, which has nothing to do with Native Americans–as ALPINES–would have it but everything to do with India Indians (it’s owned by someone from Bangalore called ishq_meens_LOVE117 who charges too much rent, and occasionally lights up the night sky with Hinglish messages to her friends.) I hate it: only hardcore no-lifers are prepared to shell out enough to live there, so the town is a mass of blinged-out palaces and wraparound avatars in Harajuku outfits, and the chat is a continuous consumer whine.
“All right,” N. says, “then we’ll go to the Undercaves instead. How about that?”
I shake my head again, because what I’d really like is for us to go back to my house, where at least it’s private. I might even have cash for her interior decorating: N. can spend hours scrolling through the infinite design packs in the Modern Livin’! menu. She has an eye for this kind of thing, for someone who never showed a flicker of interest in art or aesthetics when—
Perhaps it has something to do with the computers. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that N’s mind now works exclusively in ones and zeroes, each one of her neurones replaced by a bright, hard little flicker of circuit. You’d think that art wouldn’t have anything to do with machines, but it does. Every brush-stroke ever made, every thumb ever jammed into clay, every shift or blurry stretch of texture tiles on my cabin’s walls, is based on a calculation, on some kind of terribly refined mental coding.
In the end, we go to the Happy Families Picnic Spot, because it’s boring and empty, and N. knows I want to be alone with her.
N. is waiting for me in our form classroom, like I told her to. She’s sandwiched between the teacher’s desk and the wall, head down, shivering. The air-con blasts icy plastic-smelling air through the room.
N.’s not fat, nor is she curvy ― she’s just big. Tall, flat-chested, the kind of barrel arms you’d expect to be muscular, but aren’t actually toned at all. She stands curled in on herself, slumped, as though she’s trying to take up less space. As for her face, it’s what novelists would call plain: so utterly lacking in ornament that your eye just slides right off it. It’s sort of long and lumpy, but she’s not ugly enough to be memorable.
I have known her since sixth grade. Back then, we were best friends.
“Where is it?” I ask her bluntly, slamming the door open just to see her jump. N. smiles at me, or at least stretches her mouth rather frantically, and crouches down to unzip her schoolbag. I wait, watching the muscles of N.’s bare, hair-fuzzed calves shift, watching her root with increasing panic, until she pulls out my Advanced Mathematics folder.
“H-here you go,” she says, holding it out to me. I take it from her, tuck it under one arm.
“Thank you,” she says in a rush. “I ― the notes were r-really, um, helpful. Thanks a lot.”
“Uh huh,” I say.
She smiles at me, and I like the nervousness in it. She’s like a character in a dating sim.
“How’s your boyfriend?” I ask.
She jumps, stares at me, wide-eyed. “M-my boyfriend? I. . .don’t have a boyfr–”
“Liar.” My laugh is genuine. “Your boyfriend, on Manning Road. In that apartment block. You visit him every week, right?”
N. looks horrified.
“I d-don’t have a boyfriend,” she says at last. “That’she where my research group meets. I t-told you about that. Um. . .h-how did you. . .find the. . .”
I say nothing, just smile coldly down at my shoes until she mumbles a quick “Bye,” and leaves.
Oh, N.! I could have told her the name of the apartment building (Clementine Heights), the exact time she last visited it (16h11 last Friday) and the colour of the top-floor door she knocks on (peeling red.) I see her when I drive home that way, after netball practice. She’s not even trying!
I could have told her all this, but then she would have thought I was a stalker, which I’m not.
Or I could have told N. that she didn’t need some stupid research group, because she was the cleverest person I’d ever met–but I didn’t need to. The newspapers, the teachers, the judges at all those inter-school Olympiads-―they’d already told her that, even if N. acts like she doesn’t believe them.
I didn’t need to, because N. likes me already. After all, I’m not the top Ad vanced Maths student, but it’s my notes she borrowed, not anyone else’s.
The one thing I couldn’t have told N. was what she was doing inside that apartment. That’s something N. will have to tell me, eventually.
The Happy Families Picnic Spot is on a hill-top, overlooking the Whitebush River. It’s supposed to look like it’s been hastily abandoned, presumably by people fleeing the nuke that started the ALPINES world. There are immovable Tupperware boxes on the table, immovable picnic baskets on the ground; just down the overgrown road there’s a ruined car, its green paint faded, plants growing through its windows. According to N., back when ALPINES started, there were four skeletons inside the car―two big, two small―but the dev team took them out when they dropped the age rating to 12+, just like how they took out the End of Haze Cult House (a huge Southern farmhouse, N. says, the lounge crowded with skeletons of the suicidal cult members, with big chemical-filled vats in the corner of the room in a vaguely offensive nod to the Jonestown massacre.)
From the picnic spot you can see the river, sparkling impossibly far away. Apparently, we’ll be able to take a footpath down to the riverbank from the Gas Station, in the December update.
N. says my name, and I turn to her, startled.
“I said, you’re really quiet today,” she says, smiling. “Is something wrong?”
“N-no.” I blink at her. “Why?”
She regards me. “You just seem a little down, that’s all.”
I bite my lip.
“You’re always so quiet these days,” she says vaguely, picking at the pale peach fabric of her dress. “You never used to be like that.”
“ I’m just relaxing,” I say, my voice tinny. “I’m just ― enjoying this.”
N smiles at me, a little confusedly, as though she hasn’t heard what I said but doesn’t want to bother me by asking to repeat it. And then she looks away again.
And it’s at moments like this that I’m gripped by a terrible uncertainty. N. as I remember her would have squealed, stammered some mundane reply. This kind of serenity doesn’t belong on a face like hers, even cleaned up by the tech.
So yes. I have my doubts. As to what N. really is. As to whether she’s even N. at all any more, outside of the name that floats above her shoulder on my HUD and that face, the painfully familiar, subtly altered face, bereft of its acne and lumpy hairline, that smiles in profile down at the river. A new N., made of numbers and looping animations, limbs scattered across a data farm in China, across the airwaves sucked down into my HopeBox.
The self is in the brain, and N.’s brain no longer exists; its tissue has long since decayed, carried away in the tiny subterranean stomachs of the millions of ants and worms and little nameless creatures, away into the spaces in the oil. Because that’s where her body is, after all. Her gravestone has carved daisies running up the side of it.
And yet here she is now, an antlered goddess, bright in the sunset, and the doubt twists and eats away in my wretched belly.
N. scrapes my hair out of my face, holds me steady as I heave and twitch. My vomit tastes of vodka, burning my nose and throat.
“It’s OK,” she says from somewhere above me, and I want very badly to cry.
After it stops, N. lets go of my shoulders, lets me sit up by myself. I steady myself against the toilet bowl. She finds a spray bottle of Sea Breeze and squirts it liberally around the room. I want to tell her to stop, because the smell isn’t helping, but I don’t trust myself to open my mouth.
It’s a nice bathroom, though. All spacious and white. The water purifying unit in the corner barely makes a sound, its side panel displaying a column of blue PureLife crystals. I can still hear the music from downstairs, reduced to a dull twang and thump. Someone shrieks half-heartedly. It’s a shit party. There wasn’t much else to do, anyway.
Eventually, I stop shivering and sweating quite so unappealingly, and N. crouches beside me again. My turquoise dress is slipping off my shoulder; the left half of my bra is nearly exposed, the black strap sliding uncomfortably. N. looks at me, and some second wave of alcohol pulses in me, and I feel my tongue loosen itself quite suddenly. Since she’s the only other person in the room, I fix her with a steely glare.
“You’re a bitch,” I tell her.
“You’re a recluse,” I tell her.
“You need, like, psychological fucking help,” I tell her.
“Why?” she asks, eventually. Her voice is quiet, a little resigned.
“ N.,” I say severely, “ I think you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t even try to pretend that this isn’t the first time you’ve gone out all year. And –” I stab at her accusingly with a quivering finger — “you’re hating it, aren’t you? If you were enjoying yourself, you wouldn’t be hiding in the corner like some fucking young-adult protagonist, would you? I saw you. Hiding by the speakers like a main character or something. You don’t even like this kind of music.”
N. just looks at me, her mouth turned down.
“I can’t go out,” she says eventually, plaintively. “I board. We only get to go out on F-Fridays, or on, um, weekends, if we get permission, and my parents say I have to keep my grades up–”
“So what do you do all day ? Play VR games? You can’t do that for so long.” I rest one elbow on the toilet seat, pulling myself up to see her face better. “What, do you boarders just have porn marathons all weekend, or–”
“I program,” she says, voice trembling. “I-it’s something I’m really, um, passionate about, you know. I even write for a blog now, there’s a whole group of us and we research things and, um–”
“You stay in your dorm room,” I say, enunciating each word clearly, “and just, like, sit on the computer all day. That’s what I hear. That isn’t healthy.”
“You h-heard wrong, then.” She glares at me. “I’m part of a r-research team. We have a blog, it’s called–”
“You shut your blog down two months ago!” Which wasn’t, on the whole, much of a great loss. Half of N.’s posts were vague, timid, cutesy essays about the merits of some specific VR game, or AR mystery setups, or some obscure tech or other; the rest were apologies for not posting enough.
“This one isn’t my blog,” she wails. “We run it. The team. There’s six of us, we write about ― um, about AI and–”
Footsteps clatter past the door. I can hear someone laughing breathlessly.
“Right.” I’m starting to feel sick again. “AI. Research into that isn’t even legal, unless you go through the Offices–”
“It’s not research research,” she protests. “It’s, um j-just a club. We’re all friends. And we just kind of, um. . .talk about ideas. Concepts. It’s nice. It’s not. . .”
No, I’m not nauseous. Something in my stomach doesn’t feel right, though.
“I could g-give you a link if you want,” she says, with a feeble, defeated spark. “I think you might like it.”
“I don’t want to hear about your shit,” I say, loudly enough that my voice flattens out and echoes on the bathroom tiles.
N.’s shoulders slump. She sticks her neck out like a turtle, looks down at the floor. I feel bad. I know I should ask her what else she does, all alone in the dorms, because I don’t even need to be told that N. is all alone.
I should ask, but I don’t. In the same way that I didn’t ask about the neat bracelet of bruises N. wore, after she came back from her parents’ house in Port Elizabeth, a little chain of smudgy skin. I noticed it for the first time sitting in EGD behind her, and I couldn’t look away. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was so cute.
“Can you stand up?” she says meekly, after a long time.
“Yeah,” I say, and she reaches out, drags me up off the glittering floor, the feel of her skin sending a shivering wave through me. I say, “Thank you.”
N. looks at me like I’m a different person, a nd this is when I kiss her. The truth is, I’ve never kissed anyone before, although I’d like to give the impression that I have. I just smash my vomity mouth down on hers, wait for a few seconds, then pull back and look at her.
When I see the look in her eyes, I slap her in the face, as hard as I possibly can.
The next day, lying in bed with a head that feels like a bubble of glass, I search for N.’s blog. I Google her name; I Google our school’s name; I search for programming blog teenager sa and computer blog high school sa, but I find nothing at all. And it’s not like I’m going to call her now and ask her what the name of it was, so I try to put it out of my mind.
Actually, I never call N. again. I stop talking to her, apart from the occasional encounter s at school, during which I am cruel. During which my face infallibly feels like a massive burn of mingled embarrassment and fury. This is because N. is more afraid of me than she was before, as if she thinks I’m going to try to kiss her again.
Which I wouldn’t. I’m not stupid.
It is three months and five days after the night I kiss N., in a designer bathroom at a house party, that she crushes and swallows half a bottle of sleeping pills, in the safe darkness of the girl’s bathroom in the school’s boarding-house. They find her on the floor the next morning. Her head was bleeding: she’d whacked it on the wall, falling.
It’s starting to get a little darker, here. The sky has taken on a dizzy tinge; in a few minutes the town lights will start to come on, and everything will become ink-blue, washed dark.
And I ― watching N. pick wildflowers flowers for her Herb Garden ― am suddenly reminded of something.
I sit up straight, suddenly wide awake, smack the table to get N’s attention.
“You do know about the restrictions,” I say, voice tight. “Coming in. With the December update.”
“Oh, that’s months from now, isn’t it,” she says airily. She is crouched on her knees, tugging at tugging at a stubborn root. “Months and months.”
“The restrictions,” I say, louder. “About time playing. If you stay logged in for eight hours straight, you get a warning. If you get three warnings, you get a suspension. If you get three suspensions they delete your account. Just like high school.”
The artificial sunlight makes patterns in her hair. N. looks at me, eyes wide, confused, her grip lax.
“So what are you gonna do?” I ask her. My voice sounds calm, but my heart is pounding so heavily my vision is trembling. “When the update comes?”
I am leaning forward, eager to hear, hanging on the faint ebb of her smile.
“I’ll have to see,” she says, and rips the flower out of the ground, tearing the stem, which cleaves like a crystal. It vanishes into a faint shimmer; she cries out in dismay.
N. never answer questions about the game, or what she’s doing here. Not ever.
Fair enough, I suppose.
When the e-mail comes I’m in Maths, watching the shapes moving across the e-board. I’m aware of my phone buzzing in my schoolbag, but I ignore it. After all, it’s my matric year, it’s the most important year of my high school career, and one would think I’ve had enough distraction already.
I ignore it all the way through Maths and all the way through Physics and all the way through the school to the parking lot at two-thirty. And then, in the car, I thumb the sensor and unlock my phone, scanning the message.
Dear Traveller. . .
. . .please click the link below to get your activation code. Remember: The Grass Is GREENER Over Here!
(This message has been sent to you by ALPINES consumer services. Please do not reply.)
Dear Traveller. . .
I stare at my phone for a long moment. It takes a while for the meaning of the words to filter in, even longer for me to understand them.
ALPINES is familiar. It was one of the games N. used to play―and fuck if the thought of her doesn’t make everything shudder, doesn’t make the car tremble around me as if it’s been buffeted by a strange wind.
W hen I look back at the phone my hands are trembling. One of her pointless social VR MMOs, isn’t it? They all bleed together in my head: the swords-and-sorcery types, the cyberpunk crime sagas and the spaceship soaps, the murder mysteries and zombie horrors and now this: post-apoc R&R.
I’ve never seen the appeal, personally. To play this game you’d have to admit that you were the kind of no-life bastard who got off on completing fetch quests and upgrading your farm equipment, like N. I’m not that kind of bastard. I’ve never even looked at the website, let alone made an account.
I switch my phone off and put it back in my bag and go home and study and study until my eyes are yellow and swelling up. And then―at half-past eleven, my fingers smelling bitterly of ink, my teeth locked into rictus―I click the fucking link.
It brings me to a generic thank-you page on the ALPINES website, with a messy snowy shape beneath the logo. I scramble off the bed, open my cupboard, retrieve the HopeBox from where I left it when fourth term started. One evening of time-wasting, I tell myself, can’t hurt.
(Because I’m in matric and I’ve already missed so much, all because of N., that selfish bitch, and in the state I’m in now, everything that isn’t studying — from eating to sleeping — counts as wasting time.)
I switch the Box on, point the camera at my phone, scanning the activation code on the screen. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds to link; no more than five or ten minutes to install the game. The icon is pretentiously pixellated. I click it anyway.
The character customization is done IRL, on the HopeBox’s touch screen. I skip through, impatiently. I put on my halo and gloves when the game signals me to, and then there’s the loading screen: blocky technicolour graphics like the intro to a 1990′s PC game, the ALPINE village cupped closely in the massed trees at sunrise, with the signboard swaying mechanically in a breeze that touches nothing else.
The opening is in comic-strip form, lush indie-graphic-novel images looming up before my eyes. I click: the Golden Age of Civilisation reached, blah blah, then greed, then war, then nukes, then me, hauling my ass through the radioactive muck to start my new life here, at the little ALPINE settlement of NEW HAVEN (the server name.) My heart is racing; I can’t shift the scowl from my face. I want to get this over with.
Fade to black. Sensation seeps in. I’m lying down. A hard bed. It’s cold. Birds humming, somewhere nearby.
I open a new pair of eyes, look up at a white ceiling, pristine and bare. Pull myself hesitantly upright. I’m not entirely at home with VR games, not yet. It’s all a little disorientating.
But here I am: Asian Female Preset 19, just with spikier hair because I couldn’t resist. I look down at my hands: generic tan, nails with perfect crescent moons at the bases, mirror-image patterns of creases on each one when I turn them over. I’m wearing a 1950′s-ish dress, teal and white, with a stiff skirt that wobbles unpleasantly as I move. When I look at it for too long a little greenish tag flares beside it: Stepford Sweetheart Dress, Type: Clothing, Value: $3. The dress that walked through hell with you. It’s still swingin’!
More flashes: here’s the HUD I recognise from the screenshots, Health Vitality Money Attributes Trophies Scrapbook Questing. Tutorial box in the corner: It’s morning. You’re here. Why not step outside, take things in?
I navigate Preset 19, step by miserable step, to the little door of the cabin. Select USE on the pop-up menu. Step out into fucking All-American Narnia.
An introductory cutscene plays: the camera zooms out, panning over the tangled wealth of forest before me, rising higher and higher over the flat dusty plains beyond, swooping past the gleam of abandoned cities, until it’s hovering somewhere above the surface of the planet; which spins, obediently, to show me the devastation wreaked by the wars.
When the cutscene fades I’m back to standing in front of my cabin, in the half-light, and N. is there: sitting cross-legged on the grass and waiting for me, smiling, burnished moss-stained antlers protruding from the top of her head, dripping pink flower petals down into her lap like candy.
“You came,” she says.
When she brushes by me, leaning over to retrieve her backpack, I sort of press into her a little, and she turns to look me full in the face. I sh iver. I pull away.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
In the sky over Indian Glade, silver lights flash, spattering words across the sky. shoutout 2 myy babyy nafisa. . .bEsT fRiEnD. . .mY dOsTiIiIi. . .
“We didn’t do anything at all today,” N. says.
“You read your book,” I point out.
She purses her lips. “Yeah. Sorry. I shouldn’t have ignored you like that. I was just ― I love that series. I know you probably think it’s stupid, but–”
“It’s not,” I lie. “I don’t.”
“I meant together. With you.”
Petals drift toward my arm, vanish abruptly, without the usual fade effect. I’m too close.
“I don’t mind,” I force out.
She smiles a Grammy-winning smile. Her voice seems to echo through the server. “Neither do I.”
In the end, I take a bus. Yes, really. That’s how far I’m willing to stoop for this: public transport. I tell my parents I had an extra Afrikaans lesson and at three o’ clock I walk out of the school gates, down and around the corner to the bus stop, pushing in under the blue roof. It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.
The bus arrives, a big scary chrome-and-blue Metropolitan, and I get on without much of a hitch. Off it clatters, swaying in its mildly alarming way, and when the stale smell is becoming unbearable it grinds to a halt. My stop. I look out the window and shudder.
I’ve driven through here before, whenever my dad takes a detour on the way home from school, but I’ve never been here on foot. The sun has vanished behind the blocky mounds of the buildings. The whole place smells sourly of trash, and apart from the people the bus has disgorged, the streets are quiet. A trio of girls in public-school uniform, sitting on the pavement with their gleaming phones in their hands, regard me expressionlessly as I pass. Almost involuntarily, I dip my head.
Clementine Heights rises up in front of me, bulky spawn of Apartheid architecture: square, angular, face-brick, hideous. It’s in better condition than most of the other buildings around here ― no graffiti on the walls, the scabby red-earth courtyard is relatively clean ― which is probably due to the guard on his chair at the gate, an OPHD security drone hovering above him, dual rings spinning smoothly and steadily. I swallow, sidle up, but he doesn’t even look. The OPH is on standby, the green light on the core at the centre of its spinning rings fading in and out. I guess people just respect the fact that it’s there.
Heart pounding, I cross the yard, dart in through the double doors. There’s an orange-and-cream foyer, with a reception desk, but there’s no-one in sight. Which is OK, because I know where I’m going.
To minimise the risk of bumping into anyone, I take the stairs, not the lift. It’s a long way up ― I’m panting by the time I finally come out onto the snug balcony on the top floor ― but I’m here at last.
It’s the apartment on the right side of the top floor, with the red door, facing out onto the street. I saw N. going in here, just by chance, while my dad’s car was stalled in afternoon traffic.
The red door. There’s a grille at eye-level, although the screen behind that is pushed over it, and there are plants reaching thin green fingers into the crack between the top of the door and the bubbling plaster.
This is where N. is, some part of my mind wheezes.
I thought at first it was some kind of huge nasty coincidence ― some player character, with a cabin in the same zone as me, whose virtual face just happened to look like N.’s. After all, she wasn’t striking, not in any way. There are thousands of girls who look a lot like N. It’s so common I don’t even notice it.
But then, when I moved the target over her, her name came up lilac above her head, and—
Hands trembling, I reach out, and knock.
I have that feeling that you get sometimes when you can sense that someone’s there. Even though I can’t hear anyone inside the apartment, and I can’t see through the grille, I can feel it. Someone’s inside, listening.
If the door would just open, I’d see N. in there, definitely. Crouched over her HopeBox, eyes hidden by her SuperVisor, mouth open in a V of delight.
But the door doesn’t open, even when I start banging with my palms on the old wood. I don’t hear a sound.
So w hat I don’t understand is this. When N. crushed those pills with the base of her stapler, into a bitter dirty powder on the bathroom countertop, did she know? Did she know, did she want it ― to transcend, to ascend, whatever you call it, to become ― this? Was that why she did it?
Or was it only after her death that it occurred to them, to the people behind the door, to stitch up the parts of her into pages of type, to make her up anew?
And, if that was the case ― how much of it was my fault? Could we measure it empirically, my guilt, against the guilt of the bruises, and the isolating nighttime noise of the dorms?
The words hum, throw themselves against the backs of my teeth, buzz and shudder. This is the other thing N. will not talk about.
The clock reads 11h38. Hand in hand, we walk back to the lake. The sensation in your hands is strongest, because that’s where the gloves are. It really does feel like someone’s grasp. I can’t say it feels like N.’s hand, because I hadn’t held her hand before she came here ― not since we were little kids, back in primary school.
“Cinderella,” she says wryly, and I almost squeeze her fingers, but not quite.
“Do you want anything?” I ask her. “Tomorrow?”
“No,” she says distantly. “Just come. I’ll finish the book.”
“OK,” I say, and then she hugs me, and I feel a faint, ghostly pressure, a hard-drive warmth all around me. She holds me for a very long time.
We don’t say goodbye. I pull away, feel the faint tear of parting, and the darkness flows in, flowers.
Traveller, You’re On Your Way Out. . .
The Halo presses itself into my eyes. My skin is freezing, chill with goosebumps. The muscle of my neck burns. I don’t have the energy to move.
I try to think of N., but now that I’m alone, I can only think of December.
Someday, I think, I’ll go back to Clementine Heights. I’ll sit outside, in the whistling stinking city wind, above the streetlights and the car lights and the traffic-lights, in the dark. I’ll watch the red door until it opens. I’ll wait as long as I have to. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be, anyway.
It’s all N. It always has been. I was always supposed to be with her, and that’s all. It’s because of our separation that everything has started to come apart.
When that door opens, she won’t be in there, but someone else will. I picture it as far as I am able: banks of computers, humming like cats, and people hunched among them. Skinny programmers, fever-eyed, wan, sickly. Magicians. They’d turned N. from a real-life girl, with body heat and sweat and hair that stuck out in spikes and a mouth that tasted of soapy gloss, to a deer-queen, an Artemis, a chunk of symbols in a constellation.
And I’ll step forward, into the heat and plastic-smell and soft exhalations of the fans in the towers and wait for their eyes to turn to me, big and glittering in the half-light, and then I’ll ask them a very, very big favour–
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Maya Surya Pillay was born in 1997 in a small city on the South African coast. She is currently a high school student, living with her parents and little sister, and finds herself (to their dismay) burdened with glorious purpose. Her hobbies include competitive glaring, arguing, pontificating, creepy breathing, steam-rollering, leering, condescending, loud screaming, chest-beating, vicarious living, and quiet weeping. You can find her at www.echolalalalia.tumblr.com, if you find yourself in a position so horrifically unfortunate that that seems to be a good idea. She says:
This story started out as world-building for a novel, but grew into something somewhat more unwieldy. As we develop into a society drowning in 24-hour, self-indulgent escapist entertainment, surely–surely there will come a day when someone aspires to become more than a consumer, but part of the entertainment itself; part of the big, fluffy, colourful mass we ingest and worship, a literal god in the machine.
Also, I wanted to validate my burgeoning gaming addiction to my parents, and this seemed like it was going to work. (It didn’t.)
Photograph by Daneel Olivaw is offered under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.