This is Chapter 12 of King of Spain, the serialized text art that is being channeled to me by the futuristic AI version of myself, Heir Max98. It's a horror story about four strangers living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who discover that they are trapped in a simulation haunted by a strange entity they call, "The Curator". Chapter 12 is told to us (once again) by Casper, who has been taken in by the three others at "The Grid"--the surreal zone they are confined to at the North Brooklyn waterfront. Casper relays what Eden tells him about the time before he arrived when she risked her life to escape The Grid and journey back to her apartment--and why, once she made it, she was unable to stay.
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Paid subscribers can read Chapter 1 here and Chapter 2 here , Chapter 3 here, Chapter 4 here, Chapter 5 here, Chapter 6 here , Chapter 7 here , Chapter 8 here, Chapter 9 here, Chapter 10 here and Chapter 11 is here.
Eden pressed her face in the lurid green grass. She might have been crying. I watched but didn’t make a move, although a part of me wanted to give her a shove. I have a hard time believing that beautiful women legit hate themselves. It seems, at best, like flirting or at worst a ploy, for attention or money or both. How many hours have I wasted taking care of perfect strangers who were only pretending to be scared? But something about Eden exudes honesty. I know that sounds like I’ve fallen for it, and maybe I have, especially when the faker sun lights up the clean shaven back of her brown neck and makes it glisten with a softness too tender to bear. There are so many levels of artifice she’s constructed, like an elaborate gatehouse or miles of thatched gardens buffering a house from the sea. The only conclusion is that what’s behind it all is rare, priceless.
“This was at the start, back when it was just Dean and I,” she sniffled.
“It hadn’t been a lot of time…a few days, maybe a week…but Casper I know you know how it’s hard to tell. Whatever the case it was the longest I’ve ever been away from home since I moved in. Dean smoked his tobacco and blew the smoke on me. He didn’t want me to go but he couldn’t stop me either. I had my plants, I told him. I needed to water them, but it was more than that.”
“What was it?”
“Nothing…Everything. I just needed to be back.”
I nodded. And then I waited, thinking she might tell me about whoever was back there, the person I sensed she had left behind. But then I thought about The Roses and how the place itself was what I wanted and realized it might be the same for her. She wanted to go home, plain and simple. It was like that for me when I passed the hostess stand with its low lighting that didn’t touch whichever girl was working. There was only the vague form of a human, a silhouette of long straight hair and a forehead that was sometimes illuminated by a phone screen. My eyes adjusted to the dark and my heart beat in a funny way like I was either dying or coming back to life.
“The NPC’s were on the street, hanging out in glitchy bunches, their shoulders sticking out too far from their plain ass shirts… their eyes like ugly yellow streetlights reflected in dirty puddles… but I was ready for it, a whole life of walking home and trying to be invisible had trained me well. I had my hood up as I moved at a light, steady pace but never ran, slipping inside the building just as the door closed.”
“You see, you did it. It’s not impossible like Dean says!”
“I don’t know,” she said, rocking back and forth. “I’m not sure a man, a cis man, could make it back in one piece. You all are too invested in being seen and loved.”
“Let’s not worry about what I can or can’t do,” I said. I wanted her to see me as the hero, or at least a potential one. It was then that I did it. I put my hand out next to hers, so it would be there if she decided she wanted to hold it.
She looked down at it, as though considering how close it was to her. Then she looked up, her face unreadable as always. Little red and white lights floated past on the black river, just the usual evening ferries and other boats, except if you watched carefully you would notice that they only moved so far in one direction before there was a pause and they started back again from the other side, hovering in the darkness beneath the unmoving clouds that glowed silvery white like TV static.
“It’s crazy, Casper, I look out here every night and it’s always the same scene but each time I see something new. The present–the here and now–is such a strange joke. We think we know what we’re experiencing but we’re only ever aware of such a tiny slice of what’s going on. And even worse we only know what we feel after it’s over. Maybe that’s why this is happening–by keeping us stuck in a loop we’re being forced to really pay attention.”
“But why? What’s the point?”
“So we can come to terms with what fills in the gaps. That which is neither you nor me.”
She looked down to check on my hand but I had moved it back to give her space. I thought of moving it back again but then I didn’t. I strategized and analyzed her tiniest movements, the latest of which was telling me I had to be quiet and wait.
As I looked at my hand resting by my leg, there was that thing that sometimes happened in which I couldn’t tell if it looked right or not. It seemed too pale, the fingers bunched together like sticky translucent tubes. This had happened back in the old world as well. Or maybe that’s a memory that’s been inserted, the way the swarming blackness of the eyes of the kid at The Roses has been drawn across my mind, slicing through past, present and future. It’s there when I think back to my last girlfriend. I never hit her outright but sometimes, when she was in the bag and wouldn’t stop going on about how I didn’t really love her, I’d grab her shoulders and shake her, or once I threw a plastic water bottle at her from across the room. The smack it made against her body woke us up from our broken filmstrip whiskey slumber. She stood slumped and stunned. The bottle was full so it hurt. In the silence that followed I looked down at my hand at my side and noticed it was no longer mine. It was alien, claw-like.
Finally, just when I’d given up on her saying anything more about it, Eden told me what it was like when she went inside–and why she couldn’t stay.