Somewhere in America, a giant monitor lizard is making his way through Versailles, a 100-room mega-mansion set back from the ocean. The human that tended to him was fired for not wearing her complete uniform. In her absence, the six-foot monitor made his escape from a makeshift cage of chicken mesh and rough cuts. His lizard eyes dart from thing to thing but there is no meaning really, only forward movement and a hunger that is fast turning a tame animal into one ready to bite the exposed flesh of those not feeding him. Most of the people living in the residence do not know the monitor exists. The yellow and blue-black scales that make up his hide reflect the low light coming in through a window. He is in the Grand Ballroom now, his lizard brain detecting the change in texture from soft to hard under his belly. He makes a decision on direction based on faint smells and the distant sound of clinking, metal on porcelain.
Elsewhere in Versailles, Casey Baer is waking up. He is the man of the house, CEO of the internet’s pre-eminent social network. A man for his times. His dreams were of mass murder, the silk sheets under him lightly damp with clean sweat. But there is no lingering guilt. Casey slips out of the bed, careful not to disturb his once beautiful wife. Standing up straight, he extends his left arm out at ninety degrees to his torso and makes a fist. A charisma without witness. His tall, lean, 42-year-old body is that of the modern sprinter, youthful, uncanny in its construction. His right hand he brings near his chin, index and middle fingertips finding an invisible bow string. He draws back, left eye closed, right eye focused on a target somewhere well beyond the bedroom wall.
His daughter, Missy Baer, turns sixteen today, but her birthday won’t be announced on the network because first thing this morning she deleted her online profile forever. That was her first act. Her second was to run away from home, never to return. Versailles is missing its princess.
Missy walked the beach alone, sword angled down in line with her mesh skirt, black baseball cap pulled over her eyes like she’s feeling the future. Waves broke gentle, the sun rising. All summer long she’d practiced on the sand, boys watching through their phones from the low dunes, boys drinking vodka till the fade. They always kept their distance. Saw a girl preparing for battle. The war inside.
Today was her birthday. Sixteen candles. But Missy wasn’t coming home. She thought about the gleaming palace, her sleeping parents king and queen, twin brother deep in the west wing, four out of seven screens telling him the same thing. River didn’t sleep. His room so big you could play hide and seek and win.
Facing the water, she made a circle in the sand with the tip of her sword and struck her first pose. Eyes closed. It was like slow motion. No one to see this now. This time alone was molten, an arc of quicksilver. Second pose, the blade passing close by her left cheek, her long blonde hair and skinny wrists tied with black ribbons. Her mind played the right music. Third Pose.
Missy sheathed the sword like a pro, relaxed the muscles in her shoulders. She walked back through the gardens to her car, a crystal black SUV with diamond-encrusted rims. It was a brand new vehicle. An unbirthday gift from her father. The PX8 paint was the blackest on the market. She remembered the monitor lizard, wondered if someone thought to feed it with Leticia gone. Leticia was like a second mother, singing lullabies in her own language. Missy turned the key in the ignition. The engine vibrated through her bones. The car telling her it would be okay. But she had a bad feeling all the same. She made sure to frown to herself just in case. The electronic gates opening at their own pace. Versailles in the rear mirror. Her car moving out of frame.
The link turned up in her email back in June. No sender, no subject. A video of Missy’s favorite singer, pop princess Scout Rose. But this was crazy. Scout was missing for almost a year. The most downloaded artist of all time had disappeared without a trace but here she was, in a new video. Missy waited for the music but the music never came, just the sound of wind moving past an unprotected microphone. She was dancing in a desert with her eyes closed, gray mountains in the distance. The sword made it ritual, a rite of passage, but she was dancing, enjoying herself, taking pride in her every move. There were other figures in the background. They wore plastic animal masks, the kind you saw at kids’ parties. But they were out of focus, their attention on Scout and her performance.
Missy watched all seven minutes. According to the counter, she was the first person to ever view this video. Her impulse was to share it to her network, but something gave her pause. This was a new feeling. Of wanting to keep this close. A secret crush. My inspiration. She knew it would blow up in no time but she would always be the first, the very first person to see this video. She watched it again. And again. There was something about it, seeing her hero without the music, this new found grace, like courage, her command of a new language. But why? And what did this have to do with her disappearance? Missy noticed Scout’s black baseball cap had a white star over the peak. All Missy knew was she loved what she saw, and wanted more.
She left her comment.
capturethecastle: 5 seconds ago
If this is the future, I want to leave now
In the days after watching the video she hadn’t slept too well, dreaming in wide, neon beams of pink and green and blue, no story, no control, like falling in love. Next thing a package arrived with her name on it. A long wooden box from New Zealand. Missy didn’t know anybody in New Zealand but she loved getting packages in the mail so she ran up the stairs to her bedroom, locked the door and knelt on the pink carpet. When she saw what was inside she had to cover her mouth to stop herself squeaking. A sword. But not just any sword. The sword from the video. It was perfect. She balanced it on her knuckles and couldn’t stop smiling. So lucky!
Since then she’d practiced every day on the beach, switched her phone to silent, told friends she was with other friends. It felt so great to be doing something. By late summer she was better than the video. Now she needed a new routine. Her own moves.
And right on cue another late-night email. No sender, no subject. The message itself was two words:
She clicked the link and nothing happened. Then out of the corner of her eye she saw her phone light up on the bed. It was downloading an application out of nowhere. The icon was a white star against black. She touched it. Custom GPS. Her location marked by a blue dot. Then a voice from the handset. A man’s voice.
Congratulations, Missy, you leveled up. Gather your things, your sword, your thoughts. Be ready to follow in Scout’s footsteps. Your adventure begins tomorrow, at first light.
Missy felt the sun pass across her face and for three four seconds she was driving blind, the world beyond her eyelids rendered in a dark, coral pink. The summer was almost over and she might never see her friends again, her brother, her mom, her mom would be so upset when she found out, so upset, and that made Missy upset. Missy didn’t know what would happen, she didn’t want to think what her mom might do, she really didn’t know. The thought nearly made her turn the car around, her mother still asleep, still asleep and not knowing she was gone, then waking up on her daughter’s birthday, waking up in her dark, dark bedroom, the late morning light pressing on the heavy curtains. Her beautiful mother, all the unworn clothes in her wardrobe. The thought nearly made her turn around but she didn’t, her car traveling at high speed with her in it, her car, her car, her journey into the unknown, away from the past, from Versailles, and into the future. If this is the future, I want to leave now. She’d been ready to go for some time, even before the video. Her father’s betrayal. What Casey did. What Casey did had cast a shadow over Missy. The sword video had shown her there was light behind the black curtain. And now the voice on her phone guiding her out of the city, like a robot voice but more real. It was like someone calling from the other side of her reality. The start of a video game. Her sword, the sense of being chosen. She was like, Yes!
All she knew now was driving fast in her hot new car. And she was a good driver. The instructor told her that. You’re a good driver, Missy. Don’t mess it up getting yourself in no car accident. No, she could handle herself behind the wheel. Music up loud on the 5.1, all the windows down, cruising like there was no yesterday. Missy put on her sunglasses and for a split second her mind’s eye is a camera outside the car, pointed in through the windscreen. In that second she is watching herself like on film. The speed of the car, the thrill of escape – she gave a scream of delight that cut through the music like a silver coin into a deep swimming pool. This was her, this was all her. Away from Versailles, no cameras on her now. Missy at the controls!
Pretty soon it was time for breakfast. No one to tell her she was late. She pulled into a truck stop, wondered if it was too early for a cheeseburger. Yeah, she could do a cheeseburger and soda right now. Come to think of it she’d never been this hungry in her life. It was that hunger you get when you fly somewhere in an airplane. Everybody always hated on airplane food. Not Missy. She loved airplane food.
Turned out this was a great truck stop. It had a good feeling for some reason, everybody in there chatting away and friendly. Missy noticed two young dudes by the window eating pancakes with their tops off and painted faces. Not like clowns but sort of like clowns. Kind of handsome in a weird way. She overlapped her hands on the counter, leant forward and ordered a coffee.
‘You’ll have to speak up, honey.’
‘I’d like a coffee.’
‘Coffee. Coming right up.’ The nice lady with the turquoise eye-shadow placed the cup in front of Missy and gave her a second look. ‘You come far today, sweetheart?’
‘Not far.’ Missy raised her eyebrows in anticipation of the next question, but when it didn’t come, she was quick to close the gap: ‘Can I please get a cheeseburger, or is it too early for that?’
‘Darlin’ you can have a cheeseburger – whenever you want.’
Missy smiled. This was so nice. Everybody being so nice to her.
Missy liked her coffee with milk and lots of sugar, she couldn’t get used to the taste but she would. She was determined. She looked over her shoulder for the shirtless clowns but they’d gone already. She shifted focus and saw them walking to their car outside the window. A big, wide, beat-up car from the 50s, she didn’t know anything about cars but it looked cool, there was no roof and they drove off in her direction. Some kind of music festival maybe? Missy sipped her coffee and remembered her birthday. She looked down at her bare arms, hands, her fingers, but they didn’t look any different. She felt it though. She’d always felt a little older inside. She looked over her shoulder again and that’s when her food arrived.
Leticia had told them bedtime stories when they were kids, made them up as she went along. There was this one about a white dog. Woof-woof. It was Missy who woke to the sound of barking outside. She went over to the open window and saw a big, white, fluffy dog waiting in front of the house. Woof. She put on a cardigan over her nightdress and went downstairs to see what the dog wanted. She followed the dog for a long time till they reached the edge of the gardens belonging to Versailles. Woof-woof! The white dog had led her to a place where he’d been digging. He’d dug a deep tunnel right under the fence and next thing Missy knew the dog disappeared inside. Well of course she had no choice but to go in right after him. Once outside Missy saw that the dog had grown much bigger, so she climbed on his back like he was a little pony and off they went, due north towards the forest. Once inside the trees, the dog introduced Missy to a pack of wolves and that’s when she realized he’d been a wolf all along. But instead of eating her up the wolves took care of Missy and showed her their way of being, and that’s where she remains to this day, living wild in amongst those dark trees.
Missy couldn’t eat all her cheeseburger but it was so good. She thought about calling Leticia on her phone but decided it wasn’t the right time, not yet, better to get back on the road and put more distance between her and Versailles. She got back in her car and opened the new app on her phone. It took a moment to triangulate her position and told her to continue north-east, towards the mountains. Was she really following in Scout’s footsteps somehow? For now it didn’t matter. She was free. A free Missy.
As the sun rose above the horizon, River typed words into a binary translator.
01010010 01101001 01110110 01100101 01110010 00100000 01000010 01100001 01100101 01110010
River Baer likes girls
01010010 01101001 01110110 01100101 01110010 00100000 01000010 01100001 01100101 01110010 00100000 01101100 01101001 01101011 01100101 01110011 00100000 01100111 01101001 01110010 01101100 01110011
River Baer likes boys
01010010 01101001 01110110 01100101 01110010 00100000 01000010 01100001 01100101 01110010 00100000 01101100 01101001 01101011 01100101 01110011 00100000 01100010 01101111 01111001 01110011
Hornier than a 4-balled tomcat
01001000 01101111 01110010 01101110 01101001 01100101 01110010 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100001 01101110 00100000 01100001 00100000 00110100 00101101 01100010 01100001 01101100 01101100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01110100 01101111 01101101 01100011 01100001 01110100
River wasn’t himself this morning and it felt good. It wasn’t just his new bear costume that fitted him like a dream. He’d been up all night again on the internet, generating fictional profiles for the social network. It was his art, his thing, pretending to be different people, dreaming other lives online. Some were never more than a name, others he took all the way, finding them real friends, real enemies, in and out of love, sparkle and fade. His favorite profile of the night was a mom of one named Jenny. She’d majored in English at college but had to give up her dream of becoming a writer after getting pregnant with her first kid. She had long, red hair, green eyes and a husband she thought was having an affair. River came up with Jenny at three in the morning watching a documentary about overfishing in the East China Sea on mute with some underground Polish hip-hop playing so loud the bass sent a glass showjumping trophy smashing to a thousand pieces on the floor.
There was nothing unusual in the conception, Jenny came to him as they always did. First as an emotion, not his but real. Colors. A play of light and sound. Then her voice, at first as heard through a wall, then right there in the room with him, like she was in his head. He decided to go on with Jenny. He ordered breakfast in bed on his phone and started streaming the second in a series of films about human trafficking in the former Soviet Bloc nations. He would work on Jenny all day, take her on some forums. No better way to discover who she was than to be her, go through her motions. He knew just the place to start. He found a message board with mothers exchanging baby tips. Perfect. Then he paused. Something he had to do first. It was like a ritual, part of his creative process. River walked casually across his bedroom to the tennis ball cannon, got up on the high stool, spread his legs, ran his fingers through his longish brown hair and took a deep breath. He pressed the green button on the plastic remote.
THUNG, the yellow tennis ball hit him right boom in his private collection. The pain wasn’t pain, it was a dull paradigm shift, a sad dragon in the mist, a deluxe gray curtain falling lazily across his consciousness, it was exit stage forward, a thousand oncoming headlights but no blood. The sounds he made in the aftermath were those of a sea lion shrugging off the powerful advances of another male. River collapsed on his knees and inadvertently licked the floor like it was a block of ice on a hot summer’s day. Muscle memory. He was ready now. Totally ready to be Jenny. He slowly got to his feet like a ruined hero and stumbled back to his work station, a concave semi-circle of seven vertically oriented monitors framing an endless cascade of live social interactions.
OK, baby forum. He made his first post as Jenny in an active thread about whether to give your baby milk heated up or at room temperature:
I make the bottles up ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator, then warm up when needed. My boy likes it warm but I think it depends on the baby. Hope this helps. :)
A little further into the discussion someone addressed Jenny directly.
Haven’t seen you here before, jenny78. We welcome you to the forum and hope you are enjoying your baby!
Thanks bubblegurl. I have a gorgeous 4-month-old boy named Buddy. He’s just the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I’m so so tired but of course I’m in heaven.
While River was waiting for a reply, a gentle chime and pulsing green LED told him breakfast was served. He opened the hatch in the wall and removed the tray. Sleepy Bear pancakes (yum) and hot chocolate with marshmallows, his favorite. Well, it was his birthday. He refreshed the page.
Buddy sounds like a darling. I remember those sleepless nights well. He could be teething mine started when he was 3 months.
Yes he must be teething. Last night he managed about two hours sleep. None of my usual tricks are working I’ve tried cuddles, car ride, movie, lullaby. Not a happy camper.
Have you tried taking him to bed with you? Mine is six months and likes her space now. I know it’s not a long-term solution but it saves you getting up every time.
That’s what we did I had him between us and he was okay after that. When he settles like that his breathing actually sends me to sleep quicker than anything. I’m so happy right now. I know you know but it’s this feeling of your life meaning so much more. It’s like waking up and the room is full of sunlight. Sure the endless nights have left me feeling like a zombie, but then one of these days Buddy will say something and it’s because of me, you know?
I know exactly what you mean and you sound like a wonderful mother, Jenny. So happy to welcome you to these boards. Don’t hesitate to check in any time. You’re never alone!
Likewise, bubblegurl. It’s a real comfort to know I can go online and share like this. Things can get kind of isolated at home when my husband’s at work. I know that sounds terrible because of course I have my baby but, I don’t know…I’m sure you ladies understand.
River was flowing now. Feeling the character. It was like Jenny saying these things just before he typed the words. It wasn’t always this quick but there was something about her. He could see her at a bureau of dark, varnished wood, the kind with a panel that folds down into a desk and drawers and compartments. She inherited this piece from one of her parents, her father – no – her mother. It was where she wrote her first novel about a spiritual journey to the Arctic north by nuclear icebreaker. It was where she still wrote letters by hand to her old friends and opened her laptop when she needed the internet, which was more often these days. She could lose hours online, adrift in a sea of celebrity trivia, baby forums and male-on-male hardcore. The search was for nothing in particular. Oblivion. She loved her son. Her baby boy. She wasn’t lying to those people on the forum. It was only that this reality, real life, felt more like a dream now, and when she closed her eyes, when she finally did sleep long enough to dream, that’s when it all felt tangible, and her world came back into focus. The internet was another such dimension. Browsing she could almost achieve a kind of dream state. She always made sure to delete her search history before her husband came home late at night.
River could hear her baby crying upstairs. He followed Jenny from her desk, across the sea-green carpet to the foot of the stairs. She paused only momentarily and they ascended together as one. He took Jenny into Buddy’s room, which smelled like strawberries and freshly laundered towels. She reached into his cot and lifted out her baby, bringing him close to her bosom and kissing him again and again on his warm head, whispering yes, yes, my darling, it’s alright, mommy’s here now, did you have a bad dream, bunny, did you? Well, you’re awake now and it’s all okay again. Jenny slowly danced and talked like this until Buddy was quiet again, but instead of returning him to his bed she took him with her back downstairs where she could keep a closer eye on him.
River bit down on the strawberry lollipop and swiveled in his chair to face into the bedroom. He only knew it was his birthday because his twin sister had come by late last night to say hi. Or had he dreamed it? Either way, he couldn’t remember much about the conversation. And according to one of his screens, he was about to get another visitor. His mother. She was in the corridor, approaching his room. River cursed under his breath before triggering the deadbolts. ‘Hi, Synthea.’
‘River, have you seen your sister this morning?’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Well if you see her will you tell her to come see me in my office, I want to wish her—’ Synthea Baer broke off when she realized. My darling River, I didn’t forget, please don’t close the door. I didn’t forget your birthday, you’re my son. Let me see your face, you look so tired, and it’s your birthday. I knew it was your birthday and I didn’t forget. Let me take you in my arms. She went to kiss her son’s cheek but he moved away before. ‘Happy Birthday, River,’ she said, but the door was closed again.
He opened his computer and watched his mother in the corridor. She turned to face the camera and held its gaze for a minute before turning and disappearing out of shot. By the time the monitor lizard entered the frame not long after, River had minimized the window and resumed his role-play as Jenny.