ANDATA EXPRESS/
HOLOHAUS1/
SWORDS UNDER /
THE PHOSPHOR
SKY

>>CHARACTERS

>>NEXT

cw: death, guns, body image, bullying, sexual coercion, slut shaming, homophobia, slurs


Wow, 16 years old already. Time totally flies. I have no idea what comes next, or what I’ll do when I graduate. I hope everything that is good in this short life comes to you guys. --Elon Rao


A ring trembles in the air.


The livestream had already reached an audience of thousands. Though the link was spread only through peer-to-peer messaging apps, it’s unlikely it would stay off the archives for long. On the face of it, all the sites are clean, minimal; pure business, content-delivery systems tightly controlled by thousands of battalions of Indian labor. Paradise surely is an HTTP server wiped so clean, history’s filth could not tarnish it. But look through the gaps between the autofilters, the sorting algorithms, the censor-bots-- there’s bits without name; untagged, unlisted. A wild bush of numbers, only pure static ‘til the right constellation is cast. Outside the Gardens so heavy-handedly pruned & cut, worms squirm in the dead soil. Beneath the mud in the glow of a monitor, faceless organisms shake in constant orgasm-- fucking, dying, repeating. Every pulsating light is a spark of heat in the loins of soil, a flickering instance of life that drowns in the black. Once in a while, you catch a glimpse... ‘tween the cooking videos, bullshit nothing-ads, complaints: a severed head, laying on your lap.


These were his useless thoughts as the boot forced him into the ground. The mud tasted of heavenly comfort, a reminder that even the worst pain will eventually give way to peaceful nothingness. When you think of your death, you rarely think of the mundane circumstances leading up to it. The boring car rides, the small-talk; you smell the burger but the pointlessness of your hunger robs you of any enthusiasm to eat. Funny little regrets come to mind now. I was too nice, probably. I shoulda fucked before all this began, or at least jerked off. He thinks of their eager eyelashes, their whispers. So much pussy I didn’t get to have, for no reason at all but my own inaction. You think I’ll go viral with this? He sees the red bursting in his vision, mangled by compressive foam-- zoom in, full-screen, yeah kill him again and again with every replay. He dies anew every time.


They dragged him onto an orange tarp, splayed before a phone taped onto an AK-107 with its butt stuck into the soil. He saw the quirks of this particular AK-107; the worn-out trigger, the foreign magazine, a little anime girl etched on the receiver. “It’s beautiful out here, ain’t it.” He turned onto his back-- the crickets were chirping, yearning for the pink belly of afternoon. The trees dance along. A bird perched upon a branch paid little heed, too engrossed in its own survival, hearing squirms of fear underneath every canopy. He heard a stream wash by beside them, water clattering up against a long-abandoned bunker. A man approached him-- first he saw his Yeezys, cream-colored but tarnished by the mud. Black pants; Balenciaga for sure, he recognized the stitching. Tactical vest with grenades, spare ammunition, a selfie stick. His face was covered by a balaclava, topped by a Supreme hat. Extremely mint fit, worthy of some great warrior immortalized in bars. Gold SIG 1911 .45 pimped out with the rubies sat in his holster. This gun fucks. And in his hand, a shimmering saber; dazzled by sunlight, he feels something cover up his head. The world goes black; the water, the crickets persist. He hears the bird’s wings flutter away. He feels his throat swell up as every cell of his body began to ache.

“Thank you guys out there for joining us on this livestream. Big shout-outs to all the subscribers, and the patrons we got. Big shout-outs to BabyGhoul, thanks for spreading the word. Hope you’re enjoying the content we’re putting out. Y’all, it’s crazy out here. But we’re gonna keep delivering to you folks, no matter what.” He hears the sharpening of the blade. “If you like what you see, give us a like-- subscribe.” He feels himself placed on a pedestal, uneasy plastic quivering under his weight. A boot presses into his back.


“Hold up. There’s something I wanted to talk to you guys about. I read all the comments from the old people like, ‘oh they’re commies. They’re fascist.’ Shit-- I don’t even know what communism is. But I know it’s some Boomer bullshit. You think I give a fuck what some old ass white bitch wrote? Nah. We do it for the ‘gram, man. We do it for the sauce. We kill for some fire ass shoes. We kill for the hype bitches. We kill to flex what we got. We’re out here to slay, seize the day, for nobody but ourselves-- and yeah, we do it for Hello Kitty and those Playstation cards. Thank y’all for those! We do it ‘cuz that’s the game out here. We do it because there’s no other life to live but this one, so you gotta live it up and enjoy your life. We do it because... well, the stars out here are just beautiful. We do it to show you that you can live life the way you want to, on your own terms, and if you’re working for some asshole your whole life, getting no fucking money... well that’s your fault. Truth is, the real living’s out here. And I want y’all to be a part of this. This is what life was meant to be, y’all.” He hears footsteps approach, a voice straining. His throat wells up with panic, terrible spasms in his stomach, he starts to tremble, to shake. It’s no use anymore.


“Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Just clearing things up. Much love to everybody watching... oh, and stan BabyGirl!” With one swift movement of the sword his head disconnects from the body, the blood bursting from his neck and gushing all over the orange tarp; ceaseless red, like a river trickling onto the sweet-smelling grass to birth new life.


The torn covering on his head falls away. His eyes remained open, watching the phosphor sky turn purple.


It was still raining by the time Yelena got home from swimming practice. She was standing there under the guard of an awning, chewing on a Granola Stax while watching the water pour down the pipes of the Seven-Eleven, the towering business complex, the cafe with the good oat milk and the pretty hearts in the coffee. From the thick glass elevator to her mother’s apartment, you could see the pillbox warehouses, the farmer’s markets, and the sky-scratching hotel-- and from the top, Yelena imagines herself floating on the tips of the buildings, talons tightly grasping the concrete, the firmly enclosing glass & steel not a barrier but only a dimple in the vast landscape that yields to her.


“I don’t want you to go. I think, actually I forbid you.” The lobby of the apartments were always empty; sleek surfaces undisturbed by the human touch. The rattling, snarling jazz-funk was always drowned out by the battery of machines-- conditioning machines, thousands of watts delivering comfort. Somewhere a pipe is heaving with oil, Earth blood pumped across mountains. Machine hum is the sound ghosts make when they’re burned up for fuel; listen, you can hear them screaming all around you.


“I told you, no. You’re not going.” Yelena looks at herself in the fresh-smelling year book. She hates the chubby curves of her face, the angle of the bangs. She took her scissors and chopped at its edges, hoping for a novel hideousness. “Tears to Mona Lisa, Medusa to liquid,” giggling at the quote below her picture. She draws daggers, bleeding, aimed at at all the bitches with wide purses & pussies but no brains. “hehe,” she replies. The kid below her wore a fading t-shirt, pimpled face below the greasy hair. “I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know where I’m going. I hope everything great happens for you all,” I see you Elon Rao. I see you all, Raise it up y’all.


Limbs pulsating with pain, Yelena laid in her bed. Boom-clap. Above her, blue prints and schematics of a T-72 tank slowly peeled from the wall. Through the window, he’s shouting at me and just me. Three woman turned their asses to the screen. Droplets of sweat take flight, fat shaking; she sucks on her lips. “Corny video, good song,” hyperlinked. “I want a big ass like that,” she responds. Chinese anaconda with a golden tooth. “These buns take cash only,” ASCII giggles. Yelena’s mother knocked, entering anyway. “Slushaj,” she said. Yelena turned onto her side, away from her mother. “Slushaij, Yelena.” Her mother sat at the edge of the bed, her dark eyes flickering. “O tebye zabachus. Moya Lenochka, moy tolko adin.” Yelena sighed, loudly with her whole body; given the power of a child, she finds it easy to revert. Shouting, pointing a grimy finger at her chocolate-covered hole. Spoiled little brat, doing it just to see how far the mother’s hand twists-- she fights the feeling, a child yearning to stomp an insect.


“If I wanna go, you can’t stop me,” schoolyard bluff. The room sat silent. Mama’s credit card details should still be logged somewhere. Yelena’s mother looked across the room; the posters of black rappers with contorted fingers, bling-bling on the leather seats, dollar-dollar bill stuck in a thong... there in the middle, a picture of a shack with blackened wood. Beyond its frosted windows, hazy stretches of taiga receded from the crisp autumn brown and slowly melting into white frontier. In the winter, the deadening chill could make your own heart beat like a metal drum. Suffocated by the smoke, noise of crowded homes caked in oil and sweat, Yelena’s mother relished the banal reprieve of eating grandma’s berry jam at her country house. She missed the softness of grandma’s voice as she cooed along to scratchy bootlegs-- this man’s diamond-studded teeth and gold chains would have sounded to her like screams of a distant alien civilization. She gets up from the bed... the books, the little Buddha statue, a few bullets, a picture of Christine and her daughter. Right; she reasons with herself that rebellion in children is natural, even necessary for an independent and strong will-- must the spirit always be the first casualty in mutiny? It would have been simpler for her own mother, cooped-up in their little village together. It’s easier to inoculate your child from the terror of the world when the world comes through only in teeny-tiny slivers of light. She remembers how her mother would cover up the gray mirror of the television with lace, frightened of its radiation. She can’t shake the feeling that even at this young age, her daughter knows more about this world than she herself ever will. In American life, rot exists under the surface-- once it exposes its festering insides to you, you’re already in too deep.


“It would have been easier if your father was still here,” with her arms crossed she returns to Yelena’s side. Yelena turns onto her back; her mother seemed so frail, like a hatchling rising from a brown sweater. The rebellion tasted bitter when she swallowed it. “It’s just a summer camp, mama.” She rose up as her mother sat beside in embrace, seeking warmth. “Nothing can happen to me there.” Yelena stroked her mother’s hair. “I’m not a little devotchka. I’m a grown woman.” Yelena’s mother dug her face into her daughter’s shoulder. “And don’t mention dad, please. I still have to see that jerk. Take his money.” Her mother rose up slightly in protest. “Tvoi papa. Nye, nye zabijvai” “Yeah yeah, no za-bu-v-ay.” The phone vibrates. Sports star. A man chases another man with a machete, it’s all anyone’s talking about at in summer chats. Mrs. Nabokova closes the door to her daughter’s bedroom and tenderly shuffles to the fridge. In the light of the open fridge, she quietly watches the eggs & milk grow warm. She disappointed herself, she hears her father’s voice: how pathetic to mourn the things you cannot change. She takes the cheese, bites a chunk, two chunks out of it, and places it back in the fridge.


I had this weird dream.


Yelena-- a jarring motion, her stomach churning as she rolled through a room grander than anything she’s ever seen-- windows made of glass, but the sun so bright they shone like burning squares of light. She’s not walking, she’s dripping away; like water, she’s flowing. She sees herself reflected in every wall, in every floor; she hears music in the far distance, so far that when it reaches her ears its only the sizzling haze of a violin, a harp, a guitar, a drum. The stones call to her, speaking with a foreign but familiar voice. The pebbles screamed. Sand groans.


Her chest is bare, unashamed, a cold breeze comes through the air and ripples through her black cargo pants. She sees her reflection in the glass; she recoils, she jumps, gasps. The head of a teeny-tiny doe grew from where her neck had been, eyes placid, heavy with musty fur. A roar comes from the innards of the valley. The edges of her being form the point of a dagger. She pulls the arrow to her neck, flames simmering at its tip as the bow groans under the pressure. She takes aim at the walls. The walls burn away, falling to the floor to reveal it as smoke, mirror; a shimmering waterfall comes through the facade, waves clattering onto the stones far below obscured by the aching fog. Her eyes fall shut, the arrow releases and whistles through the trees, through the leaves, through life itself, without bondage, vines, roots growing in every direction as the insect crawls up its tree, as the vulture falls on its carcass, as every cell within the soil cries out in tender agony while worms writhe in the flesh. The doe falls dead.


I had this weird dream. “?. Wha happen.” She whispers into her phone, her voice might frighten it away. I had this weird dream, that I was in a forest somewhere. Or a cave, and there was water rushing in. And everything was huge, like you could see trees & rocks for miles. But for some reason I didn’t feel it was any distance at all like, for some reason I felt just by my own will I could traverse over all of it, I felt, just by my own will that it was all mine and that the palm of my own hand with its peaks, its seams was no smaller than the vast rushing rivers & heaving trees that were before me. I felt that I heeded the call, like, it had a question for me and now I was answering. And I heard them screaming through the forest, and I heard them laughing, I heard singing and I ran through the forest and I searched for them.


What happens then?


I see something. A flicker comes through the trees-- the flame of a candle growing as it sucks up its neighboring air. I see something. The valley below me becomes engulfed in flames; a brilliant orange, a searing yellow, crimson & red pouring & spilling onto the cluttered floors of the forest. I see something. A figure reveals itself from ‘tween the trees; flames rising from its shoulders, from its torso, from its head... a procession of sparks & embers following in its wake. It has no face, a tattered black cloth covers its naked body and I see something, I see multiple figures grow out from the dark, wearing rusted chains & ancient symbols now a mystery. I see every languid step it takes, formless black cotton billowing, glowing with gold I see something as it runs beneath me drifting in, drifting out of the branches, hiding itself in the leaves but I sense no remorse for the flame, nothing is kept from the flame ‘n the figure is so free that I cannot even see the shape of its limbs, the contours of its legs, the skin of its arms-- black cloth bursting, shrinking like a heavy lung that inhales, exhales flames and though the heat kisses my lips, brushes my fingers my chest I feel no shame and I could only watch with every part of my body arrested, yearning for the heat.


It was as if some incredible secret behind everything I knew had suddenly been whispered to me.


Yelena drifted in, out of sleep there on the sides of the river. “Not a morning person,” she whispered to herself as she rubbed her face with her hands. In the morning, she’d been woken up with the smack of a pillow-- “ssssh,” Christine slithered away like a snake and disappeared into the fire beyond the open door. They trekked up the mountains in their pee-jays, towels hanging from their shoulders, holding hands ‘n peeling oranges as they nervously jittered from one tipsy rock to another. Beneath Yelena the black rot beckoned, its soft branches sharp with wolves teeth, its ravines heaving with laughter. Shutting her eyes; “come on, let’s go!” the valley spoke back. A carcass laid dry on a bed of stone, its hide hung from a withered tree. She feels her muscles releasing, the skin of her feet turning to water-- body split into pieces by the jagged rocks, its disparate components realized. Gut, breast, heart; a confederacy of machines that buzz & hum, aching to produce life.


She shut her eyes and leaped. She opened her eyes and the pitiless ocean welcomed her with a hungry wave.


Sometimes she’d squeal as the bursts of water landed onto her skin, frigid there in the early morning wind. Even amongst friends, she still felt some embarrassment; she covered her body, its incomplete, billowing features hidden from the prying eye of other teenage girls. Looking at the taut perfection of others, their flesh precious investments maintained & kept, she feels as if she’s staring into the decomposing guts of a roadside kill who spreads its legs and irrefutably shows its own wretched nature. A part of her resists; she’s reminded of her own mother’s revolting envy, dragging her daughter by the arm, violently, to show that little girl guts fared no better under the wheel. Then she’d pull little Yelena closer, remembering what she’d seen on the news. She wondered if the other moms obsessed like her mother? No, undoubtedly their blood showed refinement; jeweled trophy girls who would have been swept up by the greedy, powerful pedophile and never subdued by the indignities of primitive, servile living. She hated them. She felt like a faulty Swarovski crystal surrounded by factory perfection; each defect only made the more apparent. “Oh,” she catches herself. A little hare hopped through the grass. Yelena jumped up, shooed and frightened it away, praying for safety from the wolf.


Three girls sit in the bushes across from her, stifled giggling, little attention paid to those hurtling off the pier into the water. Yelena’d like to think that some of the giggles were about her, to find in mockery a recognition of their disparate fates. She’d welcome the honesty-- “yes, we admit it Yelena. We’re through pretending. Your mother was right. Now kiss the asphalt.” Maybe it could happen. She doubts it. Christine came out of the waters, her jet-black hair a shroud over her skin. “Why you sitting here like a fucking lesbo perv,” she said in that sing-song voice, rising pitch on the ‘perv.’ Islands of grey ancient stone crackled with sparkling water. Christine squat before Yelena, her brown eyes growing twice their size. “Are you,” getting quieter towards the end, “PMS-ing?” Yelena hid her face, shaking with laughter. The girls loosely draped themselves in towels, hurrying back to base camp before the inevitable brow-beating counselors awoke. Christine looked back at Yelena, teeth click-clacking, shivering as she pulled the towel tighter around her minute body, signaling for a picture with her fingers. “For the gram, Lena!” Through the mud, they trekked up the caverns, on the trail down from the hills where the wooden summer houses stood ‘n above the empty depths of stone in which the crickets, shimmering of leaves echoed. Woodpecker rattle, Yelena watched from the wooden porch as the sun rose from the mouth of the canyon. Part of it had been scorched black in a wild fire; she imagined the awe of seeing it closely, the skies turning red like Gehenna, flickering flame burning on your cheeks. Oh, how she ached to stay out here.


If you want it, you take it. She quietly settled back into her bunk, under a banker’s daughter who snored. The sweatshirt felt soft on her wet skin, she tried to hide the frayed edges under her legs. Christine came up to her in her hopeful Yale hoody, shaking up nail polish with her teeth sticking out. “Lemme do this,” like Theresa anointing the damned. “It’s cute,” ‘n Christine sat in Yelena’s bed painting toe nails with a silver-opal sheen, forehead rippling with concentration. “I like it when we’re wearing our pajamas.” The break in silence surprised Christine, she expects nothing from the ever-pensive Yelena. “It makes it feel like we’re all the same. You know, like we’re just girls hanging out,” Yelena murmured, yawned. Christine looked at the other girls, slipping into their tee-shirts, leggings; before the day started, no-one cared to show their wealth, no shade, no backhanded compliments. “It’s peaceful,” Christine answered as she put the final touches on Yelena’s big toe. She looks up, smiles, puts the brush back into the nail polish. “Reminds me of like, when I used to go into the mountains with my dad in Taiwan. It was nice. Trees don’t care who you are, right?” Yelena’s toothy smile ‘neath pale eyes showed Christine that she had an uncultivated sweetness, a ripening strawberry still on the vine. She felt protective of Yelena; she would cry in impotent shame when the other girls would mock her behind her back, mimicking the ruthlessness their parents had towards the lesser, the common. It’s not so rare, she reckons, but yet as soon as one of us well-to-do folks falls, they’re covered up, their spot taken as if they never really existed. Her parents took pity on Yelena, even making sure she’d have something under the tree during the big family Christmas Eves, but Mrs. Nabokova’s very presence arose superstition as if she’d carry a wind of contagious poverty with her. They’d gossip about her shoes, how much Mr. Nabokov paid in allowance. Christine never asked Yelena what Mrs. Nabokova did on Christmas Eve.


“There,” Christine twisted the nail polish cap back on. Yelena stretched out her legs, shaking her painted toes. “You like it?” Yelena nodded. “That’s Louboutin. Don’t say I don’t take care of you, babe.” ‘n just across on the next bunk, the fizzle of heavy music in a little babe’s ear... motherfucker scrawled in the notebook. “So run!” A giggle rattles through the radiator. It’s something like community. Christine kissed Yelena on the forehead, pulling the covers over her shivering body. She finks; Yelena easily coulda turned into them weird girls with greasy hair, school shooters with the faggy black pants dissecting the skinny bitches with a buckshot razor. One of Yelena’s pale eyes looked back-- Christine wonders what Yelena could see that she herself could not. What would I see through those sad little jewels there in the night?


She thought of herself riding in the backseat of a car. His golden rings & diamond things dazzle brilliantly even there in the darkness of phone screens & dashboard lights. The streetlights flicker by her. She can feel him breathing through the seats, the V8 roar of his body. Every time he raises his hands to pull a phone from his coat, she flinches. The fear keeps her there, present, unwilling to burrow herself into the darkened car of her pointless fantasies. Present, alert; like a doe hunted by the mountain lion. She touches the aches, the bruises on her body, her face... as if her own body was simply territory to be marked. She’d always felt like a blank surface, but now she’s given definition, one bloody wound at a time. The sensations make her weak at the knees. She wished beauty was forever.


The morning was a haze to Yelena; disturbed sleep always made her head feel like a balloon, heaving with helium, her eyes perched atop a great height. There’s a coming, there’s a taking and the little globules of white sunscreen on pristine skin; she takes for the yellowing woods, safely hidden from the excruciating screeches of the camp counselors. Leaves crunch ‘neath the muddy sneakers ‘n the river splashes down from the rocks. It’s only in the silence of water hurtling, the panicked jitter of drowning ants, that she feels the depths of the sickness, the nausea living caused her. She ignores the buzzing in her pocket, Christine warning her of the imminent consequences: they’re gonna send you back home for breaking camp rules. Through the leaves, she hears the whining of the free colts, their muscles glistening in the chill of the lake. There’s a bracing terror in her shoulders, of inevitable decline. A bush of beautiful wild flowers, fleshy purples & decadent oranges, swaying to the sensuous morning wind. Yelena watched it for a few moments, feeling the histamines flood her nostrils. She stomped her foot into the flowers... the fleshy purples melt into muddy browns, the decadent oranges ooze mushy green. Hormonal tears suddenly flooded into her face. She turned her back to the glittering lake and headed for camp.


An orange cloud filled the valley with smoke, crickets chirping their mating song coming alive in the afternoon fog as a torrent of ants spills open from a hole. Christine pulled out a map, circling around B3, C6 with her pink gel pen. “Here’s the boys’ camp. We’ll attack during the late night, when they’ll be tired from kayaking and shit. Don’t aim for the eyes, we want ‘em alive.” Christine’s strength had always been her decisiveness-- in her mind, there was no straying from the goal, whether it was getting 100% on her IBs or one-hundred-thousand likes. Her friends loaded BBs into their air-powered guns. “You do something, you do it right.” Mud erupted through the gaps of their toes, leaving traces behind them as they ascended the cliffs with the fading sun glowing on their backs. She hears the roar of a sacred tiger rattle through the cliffs. They split into two firing groups, never static but always trickling ‘cross the landscape, their Daisy BB Guns slung over their shoulders. Their best ally was the terrain, meticulously studied through stories on the ‘gram, paths charted through snaps. Yelena stayed back, promising to act as rear guard-- tho troof was that she wanted to see the sun fizzle out in the deathly embrace of the river. She wipes away the mud from her feet, comparing their jagged skin to the lacquered wood of her bolt-action BB gun. She hears howling in the distance, the birds take flight from their tender branches and flee into the indifferent sky. The boys’ camp had fed the girls’ camp faulty information through well-timed snaps, making sure screenshots were taken. There had never been kayaking, rather the boys waited for the girls and surrounded them with an arsenal of water-guns and icy hoses. After they’d be sprayed with frigid water, their shivering bodies were released only once they’d paid the ransom of ten minutes in the bushes and a friend request-- a high price to pay for learning the cost of war.


A deep thump.

Yelena rose up from the sunroof, feeling the wind tear through her clothes, her hair whipping violently behind her. She felt the turbo rattle under her feet, the low grumble ‘tween every thump. She extended her arms towards the sun, welcoming its warm embrace. All the little petty things of winter melt down in summer.


A deep thump.


The car beside honked, and the window fell down and a boy fixed up his baseball cap before raising his arm in the air and his arms swung along and he hollered, he raved ‘n swung and smiled to the thumping before Christina violently veered away and took the exit under the bridge.


Yelena fell back down onto the backseat, rattling the driver’s seat with a few sharp kicks as she fixed her hair. “You fucking bitch, you almost killed me;” she shouted with a loud cackle. Christina bumped up the volume, her creaky yelps (“shawty wanna lick”) failing to (“lick”) follow along (“lick”) with the twisting verse. Yelena, feeling her ears fizzle from the double iced-coffees, stuck her face up to the window and watched the two, three, four story townhouses whiz by. “Hey, Chris, who live in these?” Christina accelerates down the finely-paved residential road, her palms oozing sweat and her eyes pulsating with concentration. “Fags and losers,” Christine smirked, twitching with naughty power before making a rash turn that tumbles Yelena onto her back.


The streets smelled like burnt rubber, and a worrying smoke came from the wheels of Christine’s silvery sedan. “One of these days,” Yelena grumbled, “one of these days,” trying to hold onto her stomach contents. “One of these days, you’re gonna develop a sense of humor,” Christine shot back, desensitized to death-rides as her dulled ears still quiver from the music. She walked to her trunk and removed a large leather bag; seeming even more meek, petite with her flip-flops and pink hat. She thought of the little hare, thumping through the grass. “What’s that?” Yelena asked as she shut the passenger door behind her. Christine grinned, showing off that one chipped tooth that brought menace to those immaculate ivories. “I’ll show you just in a ‘sec,” she whispered. The car chirped. They walked up the driveway, through the garage into the backyard where Christine’s tiny Maltese came wheezing with a pink-bow beneath her agonized face. Yelena ducked down, “hey Chouchou,” and the Maltese barked ‘n bit her hand, prompting Christine to growl and kick the dog away into a yelping retreat.


“That was kinda harsh,” Yelena said with concern as she nursed her sore hand. “Fuck that dog,” Christine cursed as she motioned for Yelena to go through the screen door. They slowly shuffled through the shaggy carpet, slouched like rats in a kitchen. Yelena made it to the stairs but Christine bumped her black bag on a table, causing a vase to tumble onto the floor with a loud thud. “Christine? Siii nayy maa?” though Yelena wasn’t sure what she heard. “Sii, mama! Just working!” ‘n she motioned Yelena to go up the stairs, pushing the black bag into her back like a spear.


Yelena looked at the massive collage of pictures that lined the bedroom, each of them a small monument to Christine’s will. Look closer, excuse the dust: you’ll see the skiing trips, the tennis championship trophies, nights on the town and weekends at the cabin, cheek-to-cheek with musicians, birthdays and weddings and Chinese monuments, and often Yelena tucked under an arm or a shoulder. She plucked one from the wall, showing a young Yelena astride a beautiful brown horse and Christine stroking its mane. “You still have this?” Yelena giggled, feigning her surprise. Christine dropped the bag onto her bed, doing a few stretches to sooth her back before turning to see the picture. “Of course. Of course, I loved that big-dicked monster,” she snarled as she did her side angle poses. Glistening slivers of light came off the pool under Christine’s window, crystal shards cutting through the many memories that burnt up in the sun. Folding herself in half, surrounded by white shards, Yelena suddenly saw Christine as an island onto herself, in which impressions of the outside world were distorted, refracted before they hit her eyes.


“So what’s in the bag?” Yelena blurted out. Christine rose up from her stretch, little beads of sweat gathering on her forehead. Her strained face slowly melted into that same sly grin, drippings from her feline cheeks. “Something cool,” she whispered as she wiped her forehead before undoing the zipper of the black bag. “I got it through a friend’s friend in Mexico. Cost a fortune to get here but I just had to hold it before I sent it off.” In Christine’s moisturized hands, a horrible greasy machine slick with polish showed its sharp wooden head. “Oh, wow,” Yelena muttered under her breath. She saw “AV,” “OD” etched in Russian on the receiver. Christine jerked the firing bolt backward, revealing the shining guts, hot angry steel. “Look at how you can fold the stock. Imagine getting hit by this fucker,” she hissed. Though they’d both shared clips, little files named with anonymous strings of unearthly numbers, the fantasy of bullets penetrating flesh remained precisely that. Postcards inked with stage blood. They were not party to the pain, the waiting & waiting, an oppressive atmosphere of boredom fouling up the air. “What is it called?” Yelena whispered, feeling a strange kinship. “Didn’t you watch the video I sent you?” Christine looked at the chips in the hand guard, the decades of dirt & luck caked onto the dark wood. Holding the chilled metal, she felt the apathy of history nervously tremble in her bones; a relic, a fetish that suggested another ancient world begging to be reborn. “It’s kinda cute, isn’t it? When it’s small like this.” She folded it and placed it into the bag, feeling her heart tremble as she shut the zipper. “It’s like an angry little bee. I wish we could play with it.”


Christine’s mother invited Yelena down for reheated stir fries & microwave-dried meat, all in orbit around a hot-cold bowl of white goo. She smiled along to every one of Yelena’s murmurs of excitement, noisy chews, quietly wondering what awful fare the poor child was exposed to at home. “You can have as much as you like,” her head gently bobbing along. She’d often send Yelena home with plastic bags full of rolls & dumplings & left-over soup, Mrs. Nabokova howling, swearing the alien oils & spices gave way to sickness. Above the puffy bags of skin, Yelena perceived searching flames; Christine’s mother applied moisturizer to her sleek arms and rubbed fiercely. “Everything good? Everything OK?” Yelena slurped on a soft piece of tomato. “Christine always talks about you. I think you’re a very good friend to her.” Yelena nodded along. Christine’s mother worked in finance, or technology, or something finance-technology as a lawyer, or something a little lower than that. Christine never talked about her parents, even when they took Yelena along on lavish trips, fine banquets, cute little getaways to stone-paved coastal towns that once had men with black hands & terrible coughs. Christine never talked about her father, ears buzzing with Business Class hum and mouth glum with whiskey, sending his love through the phone at the start of Ladies’ Night. The land of women was a pleasant one; albeit, a lonely one.


With an egg roll in her hand, Yelena walked down towards the garden where Christina posed with her phone. Through the opening made by the luscious vines, twisting and entwined like mating snakes, swaying in the wind, Yelena watched the kissy-faces, the yoga stances, the finger-guns pointed to the temple-- a horrible rattle ached through the phone’s miniscule speakers, and she did close-ups of the constellation of her bruises, cuts, dents. What you’re looking at, Christina’s not there, it’s not happening. A thousand girls squirm in Christina’s high-definition drool, dropping down her slick throat. A piece of corn fell from Yelena’s egg roll onto the fresh dirt. You’re seeing a shadow, a trick of the mind that demands continuity. She shot a kiss to the phone, then bit her finger until she drew blood. A ding and a comment popped up: I would die for you, Christina. “Welcome to the tribe, bestie.” While we twirl our little pens around our fingers, she’s in the back imagining herself painted in blue-black. She has her little kiddie fingers drawn around bleached bone, she’s so so afraid. Stroke the screen with your tender finger; she lays there beside money shots of exploding tank shells and scorched clay, distant accordions weeping along. “I’m gonna see all y’all in the Zone, next week. Next week; making it happen, meet-and-greet every day, right there under the sun and the stars, baby.” She blew another kiss to the phone, fluttering her lashes, her neck exposed-- “don’t I look obedient and vulnerable, guys?”


“Everything’s ready,” Christina whispered. Yelena brushed her teeth, closing the window as the chill rippled through her pajamas-- a little palm tree at an oasis rotting at the edges. The screen buzzed, the controller vibrated; men sharp like metal marched into the stench of their Remington fates. “Everything’s ready,” at night the house creaked, groaned; she heard Christina’s mother laugh downstairs. She laid down beside Christina’s bed; the same little pony-clad blankets, an old familiar little bear. In the glow of orange, the phone buzzed on Christina’s face, flickers of shades in her eyes. “Jesus, you sleep with that thing?” Yelena croaked, she spat out into her cup. Christina giggled-- “you don’t really get it,” she grinned; she cackled. “But that’s okay. That’s why I like you, Lena.” Yelena huffed, shaking her head: “you’re so strange. I like you too.” Christine laughed again, letting her phone fall onto her chest. “Do you want to hear? You wanna hear about it?” Yelena shut off the desk lamp; bars of sliver-y moon shuttered the entire room. Christina laid above the blankets of her memory foam coffin, white heat burning on her limbs. Whispers tugged at her ear. The floor creaked with laughter. “Everything’s working my way,” she shifted onto her side towards Yelena, her phone tumbling down. In the soft anonymous glow of television, Christina’s face shimmered with life. “Do you think they’ll make videos about me, Lena?” Yelena couldn’t keep her composure-- her face burst into a shrill giggle, and Christina’s fangs followed along, and a teeny-tiny mouse creaked through the cracks in the floor, little whiskers drunk on laughter. “Fuck it, let’s stay up.”


She stumbled down the stairs, wiping her sweaty head as she looked for a mug in the dark. She tried to piece together the visions into something cohesive, every waking minute seemed to obliterate the past. “Valeriana tchai, Lenochka;” she listened to the rolling shimmer, the water boiling on the stove. Christina’s mother had fallen asleep on the couch, mouth agape and thick with moist snoring. The visions were always the same, but different. Warm milk on the lips would soften her crying when she was a child thrown awake by constant nightmares. Yelena was jealous of the restful silence on the woman’s face; she was jealous of any silence, the stillness of open spaces yet to be predated upon by terrible thoughts. She envied the weightlessness of the other girls, unburdened by worry, freely hopping from one platform to another like fairies. Split open the little teenybopper’s skull and you won’t find a hive of greedy wasps, fucking on each other with slick, hot yellow bodies-- no, you’ll find a massive eye staring back at you and a coy ‘lil giggle. Yelena sips on the grass-y tea, disgusting in a warm and familiar way.


I had this weird dream.


I was on an orange disk, the taut edges extended into every corner of the horizon. I walked towards the light, the cold chill of nothing lashed my exposed back. And I saw you, bigger than any mountain or machine; I saw you pass by over me like a burning bird of prey. And you fizzled up in the atmosphere, and turned the sky into ash. And then everything became dark, but I was still there. I was alone.


Strange.