By Christi Nogle
Brochures fanned across the lace tablecloth in Grandma’s dining room. Up close, I saw the recruiter’s immaculate makeup starting to crack, the silver showing against auburn at the part in her hair. She slanted forward with briefcase on knees and weight on the balls of her feet. I was meant to think she’d bolt and that I’d lose my chance, which made me wonder why she was so desperate.
“An innovative, community-owned academy.” The paper was thick, graphic design on point with a subtle white font over a background of the canyon at sunset. The recruiter dropped names I only pretended to know, graduates who were making waves in the gaming industry, townspeople treating academy kids like a semi-pro sports team. I tried to trust the images on the brochures and turn off the signals I was getting from her.
Grandma’s eyes welled. To her question of how many from my class, I told the truth: “Just me. I think I’ll be the first from town.” It wasn’t just the town. I’d be the first from our state.
I signed, spent the next six months sure that it was a scam. Then I had two weeks after graduation to shop and pack and part from Grandma, nearly weeping. I fit in a few last dates with Jack before it was all over. Then it was the bus to the plane and the wait in a tiny airport until all of our planes had come in and the academy shuttle picked us up in the dark. Each leg of the trip was like another six months.
The dormitory just about burst my heart when I entered: wide pine floorboards, wide dark ceiling beams, and chains of cut-paper flowers strung across the beams. Twelve beds were organized like a muffin pan in four rows of three, each one made up with beige sheets and a patchwork quilt. Each bed had a round nightstand with a stained glass lamp on it. I chose the one with lions on it. One girl’s lamp had a dragonfly, one girl had a little more brass in her hair, and other than that we were all the same and seemed to know it. There was some talk around how excited we were and what a pretty place.
We hadn’t seen the place yet, to say that it was pretty, but for a cobblestone parking area and a series of dark walled gardens crossed en route to the dormitory. Some of us waited turns to wake our loved ones with calls from a corded phone in the corner. I did. I told Grandma how fine the trip had been and repeated inane things I’d already said to the girls.
A sleepy girl brought a cart with salad and homemade bread with butter, glasses of warm spiced milk. We sat on hard chairs on the patio and balanced our plates on our knees.
We joked about the outhouse on the way down the path, but inside we found modern toilets and sinks, a good strong shower. The counter held deep stacks of unbleached cotton towels and a glass bowl of travel-size toiletries with European names. Still, I dreaded the time I would have to come down the dark path alone.
It is midnight now. I find my bed soft and sweet-smelling. Patterns play before my eyes, just thin gray static that morphs into lines and swoops, then sleep comes hard. It can’t be more than five minutes before my blood calms and I’m out.
I’ve dreamt of a school like this, a chance like this. I wake to the smell of windows standing open all night. The morning lights the distant canyon and edges in to pastures of sheep and of cattle, the closer fences of grapes, and opposite the canyon the lava stone of all the campus walls and buildings. One of the pamphlets had a story about the people who salvaged this stone. It was heartbreaking.
A girl barely older than us arrives saying she’s to be our mentor. She wears a soft workshirt and tan duck pants. Her body is healthy, skin peach-tinted. We sit in an arc before her on the patio where she tells us how our first week will go. We’re to keep lists of what we want from town, observe classes, and get adjusted. She asks us how we’re going to feel being disconnected from our phones and such, and now I see that this meeting is some sort of counseling session. One girl voices our apprehensions about being away from technology.
“We have technology,” the mentor says. She lists the appliances and gym equipment and all the rest, but of course that is not what we mean. She talks at length about our healing.
At the end, she gives us bundles of clothes like her own, all stiff and sharp smelling from drying in the sun, and for each of us a leather-bound journal. Mine is emerald and has a tree of life tooled into its cover, pages of creamy, thick unruled paper.
I make calls to Grandma and to some friends. My news is happy. The other new girls and I sit in on classes in drafting, architectonics, calligraphy, drawing, a class where a dozen girls discuss the plots of books I haven’t read. The professors do little more than cross their arms and lean back, pleased.
Only the life drawing class gives me pause. The tableau vivant at the center of the room, the man and woman posed in a desperate nude embrace. I’ve never seen a nude man except in pictures. I haven’t even looked at a video if I knew it might have something like that in it, and yes, it was hard to get through high school so innocent.
I think this is part of why they took me. I suspect it was also something about my body, my face. Our mentor could be my sister. Most of the girls could, and there are other things common between us.
Not one of us seems to like games. We’re told we’re going to form the next wave of creative talent in the industry, but in the week we share the dormitory, no one takes a board game down from the shelves or spreads a hand of solitaire. In the few hours between work and sleep we will sample old books from the shelves or, more often, we will withdraw to our beds to sketch and write in our journals.
Our mentor says that the goal of our education will be to show others what we have seen—though first we have to see something.
For now, we visit classes and cook and clean and learn some of the work of a farm. In the evening we take long walks on a cobblestone path that weaves through fields. It always seems like we are going to go to the edge of the canyon, but the path loops away just before. At the furthest point, we sometimes see animals in the wasted acres of sagebrush between us and the canyon. Jackrabbits, foxes, distant deer.
When I see the fox, my hands still shake from a chicken whose body I held as she died, a chicken I wouldn’t touch at dinner, but then I see the fox and have that little animal shock and realize I am so hungry I could kill and eat another whole chicken.
At week’s end, we pile into the academy shuttle and ride the half hour to town. We dress in street clothes, but we are already different from the locals. They seem course-grained, like they are formed of swarms or static, surrounded by beeping and buzzing and the ubiquitous screens.
In the stores we run into three or four couples who have our academy crest embroidered on their polos and sweatshirts. The men are very old and the women somewhere in middle age. We’re made to stop and briefly greet them. They say they just happened to be out shopping. No one has told us to, but we have a haughty stance with them. We are aware of our long legs and our sharp jawlines as we stand beside them. They have a little bit of regional dialect and don’t seem like very serious people, somehow. And there are boys our age and older looking at us like we’re meat. I’ve never caught someone looking at me that way before—or maybe I just caught them and they looked away embarrassed—but these boys and these men do not stop when I meet their eyes.
The people are harried, even the kids, all of them profoundly unattractive to me. On the street our mentor says that it wasn’t true that they just happened to be out. “No?” one girl says, and the mentor mumbles, and I think it is only I who hear: They received mailings telling them the date in case they wanted to be the first in town to see us.
We’ve been told to charge purchases to the academy, but the things for sale interest me no more than the people. I return to the shuttle early with some of the others. I think ahead to the evening. We will have a fire out on the knoll if it’s cool enough. We will look out over the canyon in one direction and the sun setting in the other. If I can stay awake, I’ll watch the stars. I write about this in my journal. I smile to myself with the sun warming my face and feel content with what I have.
Three of us have come back empty-handed, and it is to those three that our mentor makes her visit late in the night.
She guides the loud luggage cart over cobblestone paths, through walled gardens to a building with high lavastone walls. I am the first to lift my bags and go with her while the others wait. We pass through an arched doorway and up a staircase to a nine-by-nine room paneled and floored in pine. It has a door, a bed, a large cedar trunk and three pegs for clothing, nothing else. No window. She gives me my class and chore schedule on a slip of paper.
“Will you be alright?” she asks.
I’ve passed a test and know my rank and am secure. I gush some of this to mentor. She hugs me and says I will be alright, and she goes back down the stairs to cloister the others.
In the morning, I am off to classes like the ones we visited as a group. In the afternoons I’m shoveling compost, picking peaches. Muscles torn in the evening heal stronger by morning. All of the spaces are pleasant, clear and open. The light is good.
The other students and I do not talk except in the classes requiring discussion. We debate or we ruminate when we are asked to do so and only then. The tennis court stands empty and in common room after common room, the decks of cards stay still in their wrappers.
I’m asked to focus on images, but words still occupy me as I lie in my little cell before sleep. Splayed, I think now, flayed. The words make me think about touching myself, but I do not. The image of a white lion flickers at the edge of some wall or boundary.
I have a memory of a book I must have once read, where a man always pictured, at the moment of orgasm, a show dog jumping through a hoop in triumph. I seek in vain for the title of the book or for anything else about it, but then the images begin their strobe, lines at first and then mosaics and paisleys and cutwork waves of the sea in aqua and navy, then flowers and glossy fruit, intense patterns this time.
I’ve been taught to name this effect on the way to controlling it: hypnagogia. This state might normally last a few moments, but I have learned to stretch it to an hour or two before a deep and restful sleep finally comes. I will wake during the watch and see more imagery in the dark before I open my eyes.
I go down my stairs to my little outhouse in a long pale gown. I am no longer afraid of the dark because I see so clearly at night. Everything lit is silver and blue. The dark is true black where it was once gray static. I see a lizard on a rock outside the outhouse, stars, burst roses, the cobblestone of the path. I can see some of the distant way to the canyon. A figure moves far out in the fields, blue-white like my gown but so far away, dim and swift.
The humming in my ears is gone. I hear the last crickets and the rustling of sheep and everywhere, leaves touching leaves. When I piss, it is loud.
Back upstairs in my little chamber, the imagery is back before my eyes as I sit, then slump against pillows. It is on its way to being a game. Viewed from the side it is like an ant farm, the structure of tunnels building themselves in flat cartoon colors, blue and tan and chalk red. There are ruptures in the walls of the tubes, allowing glimpses inside. Fast-moving patterns within the tunnel give way to darkness and a crescent of light on a horizon, and I approach the light, which reveals itself as a rupture looking into a little lighted cave. I look inside to see a pair of lovers gripping one another and whipping around in the wind. They are animate, though flat as paper cutouts, stroking each other’s backs and making angry, confused faces toward me. A paper banner beneath them reads “Paulo and Francesca.” I feel there has been a little breakthrough.
I mention this to a professor after class. He does not think anything of the names but says it sounds like I’m beginning to render game architecture, which is encouraging.
“I’ve never played games. I don’t know how they’re supposed to go,” I say.
“That’s why you’re going to be a great designer,” he says.
As he leads me out into sunlight, he passes me stale, worn books of Gaudi buildings and M.C. Escher drawings and a stack of pages cut out of magazines. “To think about before sleep,” he says.
Mentor has asked me to have a conversation with myself. She says it is simpler than one might think. There is a large screen beside my bed now, which I am to think of as a mirror. There is a hard shell to cup my head.
I stare at the screen until my eyes fall closed. I jolt out of sleep as a half circle of chairs appears before me, then settle again. There is a clamp of the aperture and the chairs are peopled, another shutter click and then a single figure only, plainly myself, sits before me.
The image of her is neither flattering nor horrifying, as photographs tend to be. She looks like someone on the cusp of great fortune, a girl who’s gotten a chance. Her skin is clear and golden toned, lips full, long hair streaked from sun. She does not offer conversation. She smiles and says, “go ahead” and will not say more.
It’s an easy slip from here into reverie. Looking at her until I tire, my eyes close and I see patterns. There is no sense of time passing. The imagery is no more or less intense than usual. When it is over, she is holding my journal so I can see the white page, which says, in my hand:
Chalk red, tan, butterscotch, cross-hatch. Galaxies, violet and purple white Hubbel imagery. Art Nouveau imagery. Bas relief chevrons, gray iridescent rainbow obsidian, fish bones. Western lines, arabesques, psychedelic Art nouveau. Klimt, cloisonné, Celtic knotwork, fractal patterns. Galaxies, Hubbel imagery blue and gold. Golden swoops and aqua, more Art Nouveau, ancient Egyptian flat colors. Cabbage roses. Gold filigree on deep red. The layered geometries of a red tile. Orange topographia on black background,
And it goes onto the next page and the next, the handwriting growing tighter and looser, nearing illegibility by the end. I feel the cramp deep in my hand. Though the words are insufficient to describe what I saw, I can account for the general order of the list.
I see why mentor recommended this exercise. If I can take notes or sketch during a reverie, I am a step closer to building my game world, though it remains to be seen if the words will be written there once I am fully awake. The list is sensical, except for one thing.
“I don’t know ‘Art Nouveau’,” I say.
“You’ve heard the term,” she says.
“Maybe, but I don’t know why I’d use it if I don’t know its meaning.”
She takes the notebook back and finds the references.
“When you said, ‘psychedelic Art Nouveau,’ that would be like a sixties poster, Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead. There’s all this scrollwork, bright colors, maybe flowers. . .”.
She doesn’t have to keep talking. I can see the posters she mentions and others like them strobing, superimposed over her face while she speaks. I linger on a bright orange blacklight poster that says, “The Burden of Life is Love” with a long-haired girl drawn in flowing black lines. I can see the rest of the room where the poster hung, the television playing in that room. I recognize the show on the television and the people sitting before it, my ninth grade boyfriend and his brothers in their basement, me trying to hear the show over their talk. At the same time, I see the me in front of me giving a lecture on Art Nouveau. These images layer on one another on the screen.
“This is too much,” I start to say, but I cannot speak. My mouth feels forced closed. It is not until now that I feel fear.
She is still speaking, “Now, when you mentioned Art Nouveau the second time, you probably meant something like one of those Alphonse Mucha calendars, all these double-chinned ladies. I had one calendar of them with iridescent glitter, and . . . ” The pages of the calendar display, and I am sure I’ve never seen this hideous imagery before. The women are crusted with scales of glitter like fish, the paper shiny and cheap.
Through the veils, I am seeing other scenes from my life, just glimpses of corners of rooms and of expressions. They are discernable only because they are all of them so familiar.
She says, “It makes me think of the wall of calendars in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” and an image comes before all of the others of a black and white photograph of a poor person’s house a long time ago. There are pictures hung on a wall, and she is lecturing again about how they were all sharecroppers in the Great Depression and they couldn’t afford to buy anything pretty but would hang old calendars for decoration, and how when you read the book you feel this overwhelming guilt for the way that you live and the way poor people the world over are forced to live and the guilt is part of the beauty of the book. She talks forever, and I become more and more frightened because I have never read or heard of this book, and then I must sleep deeply because the next thing I know, I am standing against the wall, shrieking and clutching at my mouth to stifle the sound.
Mentor is a few feet from me, calming the air with her hands, saying “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She is only dimly there and still followed by a comet tail of copies of herself that are dimmer still and at the very end disappearing, an arc of figures moving sideways toward me in a way no human moves.
“Oh my God,” I say when my mouth will move again voluntarily. “I was so scared.”
She comes to me and holds me, but mentor and I do not talk further. I’m made to understand that I’m supposed to be talking to her from now on, let her become my counsel.
“Did you think you saw a Tralfamadorian?” she asks.
I think, again you say words I do not know. You’ve brought fear back to me. Why? “Who are you?” I say.
“I am you,” she says. “I couldn’t be anyone else. If I say words you don’t remember, it’s from books you read in passing.”
I let her keep talking though I hate her bitterly for making me fear this little room that has been such a comfort to me. Before her, I felt so safe locked inside.
Is she an enhancement of me? Is she the me who is unbounded, or what I would be if I were a machine? Mentor tells me she is there to enhance my aesthetics, enhance my erudition.
I open my green journal to read the handwritten words again and see that the paper has been replaced with a small tablet, all my pages scanned in and the new pages indistinguishable from the previous ones. I keep turning the virtual pages and see that she has written many new thousands of words in my style.
I’m learning to render from memory.
“Imagine the junk drawer at home,” she says, “Imagine the contents of your hope chest at home,” “your closet,” and so on. I draw out whatever she says in detail. Drawing the hope chest unnerves me. My mother left me soft dresses in deep earth tones and jewel tones and snarls of silver and stone jewelry. I remember how she romanced the past.
She says my healing is complete. She says what I’ve been cured of is a disordered relationship to objects.
All the time I draw she is talking to me about the contents of a chest in a little-used room of a sharecropper’s house, the little baby’s gown with lace on it, worn and kept as a memento, a piece of past finery not to be given up to time. I draw the cedar walls of the trunk, every fiber of the fabrics within the suitcase within the trunk. I can see it all, render it all.
She shows it on the screen just as it was. Breathtaking detail. I have gone to another level, I am sure.
I attend classes and do chores as I like now. Nothing is asked of me. The other life with her, I think of as the demimonde because that is what she called it once.
Trips to town are rare and painful. The people barely look like people anymore. I see black and white rectangles and know they are screens. I wish I could wear blinders, but that would not stop the terrifying noise.
I return to correspondence with Grandma. She asks for news of my world and sends news of hers. Laws are changing, and while I once might have agreed with what she says about it all, I find I am now indifferent. The upshot of it is that if things had been different and I’d gotten pregnant with Jack’s baby, I couldn’t have gotten rid of it, and maybe I wouldn’t have needed to go to school at all. I’m surprised to find I’m glad to hear of the changes. I think in someone’s life something like that did happen and turned out nice. I spare one brief moment to think what might have been, then tear up the letter and put it in a fireplace on my way to chores.
I am scheduled to paint an outbuilding, already savoring the way it will feel to cover pitted lichen-spotted clapboard with a fresh robe of white. The day, when I make my way out across the pastures, is as clear and real as ever.
Grandma writes that the world is like something out of science fiction, people now handled like crops and everything precious growing fragile. She is thankful that I am where I am and tells me never to leave unless there is word from her or a relative. She lists the names I am supposed to trust. I don’t know if it is really all so bad or if the problem is in her mind. I write back to let her know that the sun will rise and set and the gardens will be beautiful like always.
I still have dreams. Sometimes I am in a big disordered house I am trying to make livable but it has too many bathrooms and though they all have expensive jetted tubs, all of the tubs are stained with rust and algae and some are even filled with stinking piss.
She tells me these are architectures out of Kafka or Borges or Saramago, but when I ask for more, she says she never read them.
She tells me I am close to finding out something about Yeats’ gyres, and about the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. She is turning her hand to show me the movement of a gyre. It starts with broad swoops of the wrists and narrows down to the tight wave of a single finger before broadening out again. She says that consciousness once narrowed down on itself and realized—or mistook—that it was part of us and not a god but that now we’re gyrating out again and the god is simply becoming un-conflated from the consciousness.
I do not know the books she speaks of or the word conflate and, as always, I think of my journal and myself writing and know that the words will be there in the morning.
I am no closer to trusting her. She strikes me as mad, and more than that, reckless, always flaunting her pseudointellect. Always when I ask for more on the books she references, she says she never read them.
When I initiate, it is only ever about this plateau I seem to ride. I am getting no further in game rendering. Perhaps a spatial disorder is the next thing in me to cure, if it is indeed a disorder and not a structural flaw. I say, “I heard this story about. . . tribal people? I feel terrible. I don’t remember their name or even what continent.”
“It’s alright,” she says. “Tell me.”
“These people never get lost. They think of themselves as a dot on a map and always know where they are because they have a mental image of the map and an image of where they are within it. But I always get lost and when I do, I’m not intrigued. I’m panicked.”
“You have to think about the winning if you’re going to play a game.”
“I never care. If I do win something, I think it couldn’t have been that hard.”
“Except one time.”
“Coming here. Yes, well,”
I smile remembering it. “A costume contest.”
“I remember,” she says.
I say it anyway. “Grandma and I stayed up drawing fur on a white sweatsuit and braiding a yarn tail so I could be a lion, and in the morning we painted my face and ratted my hair. We sprayed all this white in it and silver glitter and multicolored iridescent glitter, so I had a big wild shimmering mane.”
“It was like the calendar, the Mucha women.”
“Yes,” I see this. I was glittering all over like fish scales. I say, “I remember when I came home that night after winning the costume contest, I took off the sweatsuit. My skin was so dark against my white hair. My belly button was high on my stomach and my ribs were just heaving.”
“Your first erotic memory.”
“No, of course not.”
“Too early for that?
“The first time you thought you were beautiful?”
“Not that either,” I say. I’m too ashamed to admit it, but I have never questioned my beauty.
“The first time you thought you were powerful?”
“You want to go into a game with that in mind.”
I don’t know. I guess I’m a senior. I imagine it’s like what a sports star must feel, to enter the flow, to not think of time or care for other things. I live in my lab overlooking the canyon, far from campus. I have powerful computers, sleek black work surfaces, a bank of windows looking out over the rocks.
I can render not just how a memory looks but how it smells, how it feels, or we can. We render Jack, and he is perfect. Soft eyes, soft hair on his face. He smells like him but stronger. Within my thesis game, I embed a memory of getting to the point on the last night when I stopped him, when I stepped down from his truck, the kiss. We render fictional backstory to add to the feeling. I might have been, perhaps, a little bit bad and now was being good being with someone like him, and by stepping down from the truck I was being even better. In the game, the pounding in my groin is like the pounding on a thick wooden door.
Thesis project, dissertation, whatever: a game. I know it is pretentious, uneven, but it is so vivid. The player is the girl with promise. You can look into her every drawer at home and her friends’ homes. You can look into every corner of her mind. You can do whatever you want with her grandma, her friends, and then you can take the trip to school and learn design, though this part is vague because I must not sell out secrets. It’s rare a senior project finds distribution, but even so. And then once the player is in school, it all becomes more fantastical. The lion lurking like the minotaur in the maze of school buildings, the gods with heads of foxes and chickens and sheep. There is a sequence lifted from the start of House on the Borderland, which she claims not to have read. She tells me to tell mentor and the panel that the game is a Künstlerroman. I tell them that without feeling I need to know the word. I trust her implicitly now.
I keep thinking it’s finished. She says, “No, you’re going to spend your life on this. Can’t you feel it?”
The panel gives me accolades, far as they ever do I’m told. On graduation night, mentor leads me out to a patio lit with Christmas lights for the first dance and then the others join. None of us are dancers. We have a live band and for the first time in years hear the songs of our youth and get just a little stupid on champagne.
Sponsors dine at tables on the dark edges of the patio. We will circulate and speak with them as the night wears on. I focus on the dinner jackets’ academy crests and try not to see the faces.
Late, late into the mingling, mentor approaches me, eyes welling. I’ve gotten an offer.
The room looks like a sound studio. Where singers would stand, I construct the inside of Jack’s truck cab. All of it is there, at once accurate and ornamented with sworls of pattern, the spangled X-ray diagram lifted from a book of Alex Gray paintings, swirling paisleys and floating jewels, the empty shape of a man where the player will be and the empty shape of a woman cupped against him.
I am starting to enter the space for her body. It feels like the player is pouring in all around me.
“Yes I said yes I will Yes,” she whispers with a dry cough of a laugh and is gone.
I am alone in that space where he straddles my knees. The player’s thumb sticks up between my top button and the fly. It’s pulling up the seam, cleaving me. The player, whoever they are, is about to pull off the button. The pounding like someone knocking on the door of my cell, it doesn’t end.
About the Author
Christi Nogle’s short stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Nightscript III and are forthcoming from Black Dandy and The Arcanist. Christi teaches college writing and lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cats.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly‘s books include the Ironskin trilogy and the Seriously Wicked series, and her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.
She is extremely delighted to have had both her stories and her narrations featured on all four Escape Artists podcasts. Find her intermittent, Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast at Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com), or find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.