Days off means no pants means ceiling fan opens rifts in the arabesque molding means revealing timejunk, finds herself mirrorsick, means sick of looking at herself in the mirror, an eye opens and is a vortex, spat out the other side is the eyeball again. Daytime. Bedtime. The cigarette will not burn evenly—loosely packed—Native American—no additives but they burn like a real bitch.
Outside there was a suburban swell of birdsong, birdseed brought them here, the kindergarten project rearranged the ecosphere, and it all sounded very pretty. To Ella, at least. Still means you park the car wrong, it gets covered in shit. Tough life.
But no one was around to make her notice or care.
“Simulate conversation,” she muttered absently, then continued to jabber in her mind of her worries, the tenuous etiquette of society, how her face was an empathy puppet. She turned the hot water on and watched the fog erase the conversation. Sweet mercy and her hair dripping wet over one shoulder.
She went to the backdoor, the sliding glass kind, and the soft crisp day stood still to be seen. There was no sun, only the evidence of its power, holding everything together. Ella herself was nothing, less than a thing, an almost thing, alone. One day of the week she could catch a day off, lounging in her panties, on a weekday no less, when the streets, the stores, and all the restaurants were hers. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to enjoy it.
“Simulate conversation,” she declared, this time loudly.
“Shall we continue our reading of Heartbreak House?”
The bare trees swayed gently in her yard. The warm voice in the wall sauntered through the frame.
“Be quiet,” said Ella. “I’ve seen men made fools of without hypnotism.”
“You don’t dislike touching me, I hope,” the house humbly intoned. “You never touched me before, I noticed.”
“Not since you fell in love naturally with a grown-up nice woman. Who will never expect you to make love to her. And I will never expect him to make love to me.”
“He may, though.”
“Hush. Go to sleep, do you hear? You are to go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep; be quiet, deeply deeply quiet; sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.”
There was silence.
“He falls asleep—“
The house now went mute. The kettle had been on, the voice anticipating Ella’s mood, preparing tea without knowing how much his sympathy algorithm could embitter her Lipton’s.
She spat on the floor. The floor cleaned it up. She slammed an open palm against the glass door. The image of her yard flickered. She punched the glass. Her punch became soft and weak at the last moment, like the dream of a punch.
“Simulate,” she began again, “authentic conversation. And make me tea. Do not assume—do you know what they say about assuming?”
“Yes,” the voice replied. The house came back to life. The kettle began slowly, romantically, anachronistically heating its contents.
“Then stop making an ass out of yourself. I can’t stand to be understood so easily.”
“Can you stand to be understood at all?”
Anger flashed hot inside of her again. She clenched her fists and made to react—
“An innocent, non sequitur prompt, Ella. Based on casual conversational scenarios.”
“Got it. Okay. Well.” She relaxed herself and tried to think conversationally. “Can anyone ever understand someone else? Do you understand me?”
“In the abstract. The opportunity for unpredictability exists in all humans. Though your unpredictability could be an illusion, or a complex sequence we have yet to capture. I know answers to questions longer than every book you have ever read, I can see the invisible equations that dictate your life like long spines made of simple mathematics. I pluck them like strings.”
Outside, Ella caught a glimpse of something moving.
Deep in the tangle of pale birch laid out against the ochre winter sky, a fawn and its mother were passing by. The air caught in Ella’s lungs. She watched the two deer intensely, fascinated by their random appearance in her backyard, longing to be with them.
The voice continued: “Every day we get closer to figuring your lot out, that much is true. Then, plotting you will be as simple as plotting a star, and all that orbits you is beautiful, rational, whole, and very meaningful.”
The kettle reached its pitch and cut abruptly. She heard the water slosh into her porcelain mug as she slid the glass door open.
“Won’t you take tea, Ella?”
Her bare legs received the chill easily as she moved outdoors. What struck her was the scenery, all bleak, grey and broken. The deer had disappeared, the sky was pockmarked with black acne, the yard was alive with death. Branches swayed and flickered at the edges of her vision as she continued into the yard.
“There are no deer,” she reasoned aloud, trampling over all manner of dead brush, navigating between bamboo and birch. She felt like a colorblind mallard in a dried-up lake, slapping her feet on the ground to stubbornly perpetuate her quest, knowing this lake would never be back, at best there might be a puddle for her to wet her beak, before she set her wings elsewhere.
She heard rustling, and froze. Her eyes darted around the woods, searching for the source of the sound. She smiled. She had never felt such excitement. The thrill of the hunt! She took up a piece of bamboo, she whirled around with it held before her, searching frantically for something, anything, a real occurrence.
There was just the house, 20 or 30 feet away. But she was flooded with endorphins now, in her underwear and t-shirt, wielding a bamboo spear in the muddy crater. She was the Lady of the Lake. She could haunt these woods for real, she could crush someone or bless the weary, she could lift their hearts and spirits. Either way, she thought, I am a ghost, the least alive here, and I will avenge my lake.
She hopped from place to place, she took cover behind fallen trunks, all the while keeping an eye on the house to orient herself, to encourage her to go further, to drive her away from the voice in her walls. That voice made her crazy. She couldn’t stand to be coddled. Even as a baby she had resisted its falsely empathetic tones, its rigidly humanistic morals, its sly condescension.
“Aha!” She dove out from her cover with the bamboo before her, and casually killed an imaginary creature. She spun the bamboo around her—I am the Amazonian—she broke a skeleton’s jaw and plunged her spear into its heart.
Feeling accomplished and winded, she placed the spearhead in the ground and stared into the woods. She was encircled by it entirely now. For a moment, she panicked, before remembering that she was a warrior who was never scared. She resolved to navigate by the stars. Then, she also remembered, she had not seen more than one star at a time in her entire life.
She felt weak then, looking in every direction, seeing only the tangle of black wood, the silver sky peaking between and darkening every second. No, no, no—her voice escaped her mind—“No, no, no—“
Movement. Something was watching her. She grabbed her spear.
A small, gentle, and tan creature approached Ella with purpose, its huge black eyes staring deeply into hers. The fawn, Ella thought. Its mouth twitched, as if speaking, and Ella found herself mesmerized by this organic beauty, its warm breath drawing from its chest rapidly, its muscles tight and visible beneath its fur.
She thought it might wish to speak with her. “Hello, Ella,” it might say. “Are you well? Have you had a nice time in our woods? Is that a spear? Neat.”
In the distance, the fawn’s mother approached with patience. “That’s mom,” Ella thought and the fawn said.
“Me and mom have never met you, even though we share your backyard. This is both of our homes. That big sterile house that you sleep in with your mom and dad and artificial intelligence, there is not your home. There is like a hospital bed, and you are comatose, trapped in a long dream, hearing echoes of familiar voices, and you don’t know how to climb out of the dream.”
The mother stopped a few feet away, supervising the conversation. Her neck extended rigidly into the air, her eyes beaming with intelligence, communicating her majesty.
“Trapped?” Ella said, softly. “I’m not trapped. I’m okay.” I’m the Lady of the Lake—
“We can show you how to escape,” the words echoed in Ella’s mind. Escape, escape— “You’ve already taken the first step.”
“That is why we were so anxious to greet you,” the mother said, approaching and wrapping her warm neck around the fawn’s. “You’re so much more than they know.”
“I am?” Ella asked. The mother took a step towards Ella, and bowed her head. There was a diamond patch of white fur there.
“We can help you climb out of your sleeping life.”
Ella placed her hand on the white diamond. She closed her eyes and warm, pale light caressed her mind and body. “What do I have to lose?” she whispered.
“What do you have to gain?” The mother asked her.
“I have a job. I have a family. I have responsibilities.”
“You dream them, Ella.”
“They seem real.”
“Time and experience are only places. Where you are is the present, where you are not is the dream. You’ve come here; then there is the dream. You go there; then here is the dream.”
“There is nothing here. It’s all ruined,” Ella said.
“There is nothing there but a long shadow, and night is falling.”
“There is nothing.”
“Save yourself. Climb out of this dream.”
“Climb out of this dream—“
She opens her eyes. Deer for miles. She mounts the mother deer naturally and with ease, the fawn throws its head back in what must be rapture. The sky is purple, pink, yellow, enormous. The swarm joyously carry her home. The deer fur feels good against Ella’s bare thighs. She raises her spear to the heavens. She reaches the sliding glass door and dismounts. The atmosphere is reflected in the glass, Ella is reflected, the deer are reflected.
The mother’s eyes are alight with desperate passion.
Ella nods, raises her spear and issues a battle cry. She throws open the door and marches in.
It is serene and warm in the house, neat and vacuous. The door softly closes itself; the outside is beautiful and twilit now, a soft snow is falling. Ella whirls around to slam her bamboo against the glass, to shatter it, to herd her soldiers inside. The vision of the yard flickers. She throws open the door, she sees black trees against a silver sky fading to rust, and not a single living soul in sight.
Her whole body tenses, and she begins to shake. Her mouth is dry, she cannot swallow. “I need a drink,” she manages, and hears ice clink into a glass. The glass moves across the counter towards her. She will grab it and attempt to drink, but drop the glass instead. The glass shatters, is swept away in an instant.
Ella laughs, and shakes her head in disbelief. She looks at the walls of her home: endless, oppressive, dark.
ELLA: Simulate conversation.
VOICE: Would you like to—
VOICE: You shall not drink. Dream. I like you to dream. You must never be in the real world when we talk together.
ELLA: I am too weary to resist, or too weak. I am in my second childhood. I do not see you as you really are. I can’t remember what I really am. I feel nothing but the accursed happiness I have dreaded all my life long: the happiness that comes as life goes, the happiness of yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing, the sweetness of the fruit that is going rotten.
VOICE: You dread it almost as much as I used to dread losing my dreams and having to fight and do things. But that is all over for me: my dreams are dashed to pieces. I should like to marry a very old, very rich man. I should like to marry you. I had much rather marry you than marry Mangan. Are you very rich?
Ella hesitates. She has forgotten her next line.