Monitor World

She died in the game, and saw him looking at her.


That summer, she always spent her lunch outside of the hangar. She ate in her car, or squatted in the shade of the fence, dribbling bottled water into the dirt. There was a game she played on her phone, shooting zombies. Across the parking lot was a pilot school, with a flat roof and a smoky glass door. She never saw a single airplane take off from the tarmac. At lunch, or at five thirty when she was coming out at the end of the day, she would see the man standing on the deck in front of the school. He wore aviator glasses and had a cigarette. She never saw his eyes, but she knew he was looking at her.

He had short, bristly black hair, wore a crisp, white shirt with an embroidered insignia and pressed, dark pants, even in the heat. He must have been someone at the school; he must have been a pilot. If she looked him in the face, he didn’t turn away. Not his mouth, not his body, nothing about his posture ever changed, and particularly not the angle of those impenetrable black lenses always directed at her face.

That summer she was twenty-five. Her boss was a guy with a plane and a hangar. She spent from nine a.m. to five thirty p.m. in the hangar, which had a steel-framed ceiling like an enormous tent. It was partitioned so her boss’s plane was separated from them by a makeshift wall, and he rigged up electric fans around the space to alleviate the dead air. She and two others, one twenty-one, one twenty-two, worked on shiny new iMac computers with little labels with their initials: N.R. for her, A.M. for the twenty-one-year-old, K.L. for the twenty-two. They edited web copy. The web copy read as suspiciously scripted, sent in by cheap ghostwriters from non-English-speaking countries. They posted the articles on websites with too many hyphens in the URLs and shared the links on social media websites under fake profiles they made up by the dozens. In the hangar, their screens were visible at all times. There was no privacy. N. hated being the oldest worker there.

All around them was arid desert. Beyond the pilot school, there was a diner where some early mornings N. got coffee and listened to the TV. The local news was full of stories of pedophiles and abducted children, bus drivers who were keeping women locked up in their basements for years. Listening to it, you could easily be convinced the world was dark and unnavigable, that danger could swallow you up on any street corner.

The waitress was like a character from a Lucia Berlin story. She had brown hair bleached gold by sunlight and bronzed, spotted skin. She knew the girl by sight; she acted motherly toward her. When N. sat down at the cafe, the waitress poured her coffee first, moving protectively through the weather-beaten men wearing the same dark glasses as the aviator who watched her.

At twenty-five, N. believed herself pretty enough to be looked at and too old to be mothered. Before that, she had been awkward. In high school, her cropped hair puffed out unevenly and eyeliner ran off her flat, oily eyelids. Her acne had persisted even after her breasts and hips failed to fill out. Her skin was permanently sun-darkened from the laps she’d run around the football field. She had grown out her hair, found a skincare routine, and bought different eyeliner, but this last thing, the tan of her skin, was—despite the papaya soap she bought from the Vietnamese market and the kojic-acid soap she ordered from Japan via eBay—the one thing she had not managed to change.

▴ ▴ ▴

The Cave had popped up in her sponsored ads. It had a dark, pixel-art interface that looked decidedly retro, a callback to ’90s anime predicting what the Internet would look like in the future. The motto was: “for lovers of the underground.” The chat function used avatar sprites, like something out of MapleStory, and everyone listed some kind of Internet handle instead of their real names, which made it feel a little more like an actual game set in some digital alternate universe and a little less depressing than real life.

N. uploaded two pictures into the app. Her username was dDdgh0st. On her profile, under “Occupation,” she’d written: “disembodied digital ghost.”

His name was agamemnon_the_king. His chat avatar had purple hair and green eyes. There was one picture, which showed the serious, elegant face of a man with long hair looking directly into the camera, shot in black and white. His age was 31, and his occupation was theatre.

Hello, he wrote on the day they matched.

What’s up, she said. It was evening, she was in the kitchen, and over the island, the canyon sunset was falling through the window. In the refrigerator, her mother had left a wrapped bowl that N. was warming up for a meal.

Why is a nice girl like you in a place like this?

It was such an old-fashioned line, so casually derogatory; she was intrigued.

Looking for a prince, but a king could be better, she wrote.

You appreciate me more than my wife does, he said.

After a few moments, but not so quickly as to be unconfident, he added, (That was a joke.)

Her mother had bought this one-story house in a half-finished development the previous year. There was no father in the picture. Bushes of wild yellow flowers dotted the trails along the neighborhood, and if she got close enough, she could hear the dry hum of bees. There weren’t enough streetlights and night driving was dangerous. The long distance from the city center would have made it hard for the girl to see her old friends, if she had had old friends, but she had not hung onto her friends anyway.

Her mother was an emergency-room physician and was never home during normal hours. Since N. had moved back, mother and daughter passed through the house like two users in an A/B test, with only the bowls of food she left on the counter and the drip coffee N. set to be ready at four p.m. as the tracks of each other’s existence. It had been almost a year since Hillary lost the election, since people had cried walking that night on the streets of New York, and nearly three months since she’d left graduate school and found a job off Craigslist editing web copy in an airplane hangar. She was giving half of each paycheck to her student loans.

In the bedroom of this home, which was not her childhood home, N. lay on the mattress with the red, flower-patterned duvet she’d had as a high schooler, folded her clothes into the white dresser she had once put her first bras into, and drew pictures on a Wacom tablet at the same desk she’d studied for her AP Statistics exam. When it got dark, she lowered all the blinds and tried not to feel uneasy at being alone in an empty house on the ground floor. At night the air was genuinely cool, and she would take out her favorite of her graduate school sweaters, then huddle watching anime at her desk and telling herself she was going to shower and sleep, in just ten more minutes, fifteen…

She’d downloaded The Cave because she wanted something to happen.

A few hours after her last message of lol, just as she was getting ready to shower, agamemnon_the_king wrote, So, what does a nice disembodied digital ghost like you do for fun?

Haunt Tumblr, she wrote back, play pranks on the audio tracks of YouTube videos, steal webpages and bring up 404 error codes.

He said, What a busy life. Do you ever come out to play in the real world?

▴ ▴ ▴

The King lived in a new apartment complex that was not quite downtown. It took her forty minutes to get there. Racing through the empty intersections and the stoplights blinking red and green, N. thought, Am I really going? Is this really going to happen?

She had never done this before: gone to the house of a man she had just met that same day on the Internet. Her car felt like a protective bubble of unreality from the outside world; she felt like she was in a video she could pause at any moment; she wasn’t really inside her body.

It was much more plausible to think she was astral projecting and her real body was somewhere else, in bed, sleeping. Her body was only dreaming it was in the car and turning off the exit ramp and stepping on the brake and parallel parking in front of the address she’d gotten from agamemnon_the_king. Her body was only dreaming she was texting him, I’m outside!, and checking her reflection in the rearview mirror. Everything was a fiction, a fantasy imagined by that body, still in pajamas lying in her bedroom…

agamemnon_the_king walked out of the sliding glass doors. In Real Life, he was short. He had sloped shoulders, a long neck, deep bags under his eyes visible under the streetlight. Then she really was following him inside, up a silent, smooth elevator to a living room where there were stacks of heavy, white books, a deep couch, framed pictures on the wall. He was a little bit uglier than she had thought he would be, and this was comforting and made the scene feel more like play-acting.

The man offered her dry wine in a crystal glass, asked her if she was hungry, leaned over the kitchen island, pushed her lips open with the edge of the glass. The wine was dry and left a taste of salt on her tongue as she swallowed. This, the injection of her sense of taste, brought the scene more judderingly into reality for her. She was like Persephone, eating in the underworld. He refilled his own glass, and something about his hooded eyes, how they monitored her, scared and thrilled her.

He didn’t turn on any lights in the bedroom. There was more art on the walls, in large white frames; the shapes were fleshy, grotesque, erotic. The whole time she had been smiling, joking, performing. And still she felt it wasn’t really happening. She was in a cutscene she had to see to the end. This is real/This is not real, she thought, like a coin toss. The man laid her on the bed, peeled off her sweater, ran a finger from her collarbone to her ankle and said, “You are very lovely.” Liquid pooled into her underwear, which he took off a moment later. When he put his fingers inside her, she thought, apropos of nothing, of the aviator, the dark sunglasses observing her under the omniscient and ravaging sun.

▴ ▴ ▴

The next morning, N. drove to work from the man’s house just after dawn. She had slept for perhaps three, four hours. At the diner, the Lucia Berlin waitress came over with the coffee pot.

“So early today,” the waitress remarked. “Here you go, honey.”

At work, she nodded sleepily over the lists of 10 ways to get the most out of your garden fertilizer” and “Try these top 5 anti-virus software for business professionals.” She plucked at her sweater feverishly; should she take it off? She didn’t want the others to notice she was wearing the same T-shirt. She could still feel the King’s fingers in her. N.’s organs writhed, and she squeezed her thighs together as tight as they would go.

“It won’t let me make any more Facebook profiles,” the twenty-one-year-old said suddenly.

Their boss stood up. “Let me see?”

“I’m having the same issue,” the twenty-two-year-old said from his desk.

N. looked at the article she was publishing on After she published it, she was supposed to share it on four different social media platforms under fake names. She opened the Gmail account she’d made under the name Linda Hallberg, contributor at best-garden-hose-enthusiast. Your IP address has been blocked due to suspicious activity, Facebook informed her. Her boss went around the other side of the partition and began rummaging around.

“What about you?” the twenty-one-year-old asked N., but N., who had her earphones in, pretended she didn’t hear.

“What are we going to do?” the twenty-one-year-old asked.

“I think he’s going to scramble our IP address,” the twenty-two-year-old said.


The twenty-two-year-old shrugged. “I dunno. I just hear that’s what people do.”

Meanwhile, N. thought, gazing at the Facebook email, no one knew what she had done last night. The sex had been good—so good that, remembering it now, her legs went weak, and she wanted to drive back to the King’s house and repeat everything they had done the previous night, right this instant. She thought of the boys she had slept with before, the awkwardness, the self-consciousness, how the sex had at best been almost enjoyable but never quite. How distant and unreal they felt now. She had come out of the night and left the King’s house alive.

Her boss came back and started fiddling with another device. When he bent down, the sweat along his hairline glistened under the artificial light like a lick of slime. It couldn’t be good for them, working in this heat day after day, even with the fans on. N. stared absently at the shiny skin on his forehead.

The air felt stifling, the writhing in her stomach intensified—was it the thought of the sex? She fanned herself with one hand; the lights above seemed too bright, and the twenty-two-year-old asked, “Everything all right?”

She nodded and scooted her chair directly in front of a fan. She was fine, it was just, she felt, quite, very hot—

And then she was stumbling out to the parking lot and the twenty-two-year-old was following her, asking if she could drive home okay, N. was waving him off, in the car she checked the rearview mirror and saw her skin was pallid, damp, she pulled out of the lot in a reckless swerve, through the rear window she could see the aviator, who had come out to the deck, who was staring at her car under his black sunglasses, standing at the porch of the pilot school. His gaze made her stomach churn more; she stopped the car for a second with an abrupt shuddering of the brakes. She wanted to step out, speak to him, but then she saw his foot move, was he going to walk towards her? Her foot swiveled to the accelerator, she was out on the street, she managed, barely, not to hit the car behind her changing lanes off the freeway, and in her mother’s house in the half-abandoned neighborhood, she was tugging off her sweater and heading to the toilet and lifting the lid and vomiting out an egg-colored bile—but why? She didn’t feel ill, no, it was good what she felt, tingling all over, from her belly to her toes, yet still—she lifted water into her mouth from the bathroom sink, flushed the toilet, realized she had to pee, pulled down her pants, sat down, and saw the smear of blood on the underwear she hadn’t changed from last night: oh. She had started her period.

▴ ▴ ▴

In graduate school she made an animated short titled CHECK THIS BOX TO VERIFY YOU ARE NOT A ROBOT. It started with a tiny girl with an electrical outlet in her back waking up in an empty bedroom. The girl, the room, everything was sketched out with rough lines and no color. The scene expanded, the girl’s bedroom was actually an enormous control room with a spread of computers and a thick coaxial cable dangling on the floor. The girl plugged herself in and the first monitor turned on.

Her avatar popped up on screen, reborn into a new world, and this world was fully realized: it had color, shape, dimension, music, cotton-candy trees. But before long, blocks of gray crept in, there were shadows in strange forms on the floors of the treehouses, the background music turned ominous, the screen flickered, pixelated, squares of gray dotted the sky in binary patterns (cut to: the physical body, comatose below the monitors, twitching), and finally, once the dreamy pink world degraded into a sketchy, draft version just like the real world outside, the avatar found another room with a monitor. There was a new character, a man with a fixed smile, like a mask. His speech scrolled across the screen: Welcome, isn’t it beautiful here? This place, it’s so lovely, I could just stay here forever, sit and watch the world go by without me. This place, it’s so lovely, I could just stay here forever. Isn’t it beautiful here? To sit and watch the world without you. And the second monitor turned on, there was another world in there, full of color that started to bleed out over the edges of the screen, greens and oranges and yellows, pumpkins, a road, the man turned to look, the avatar saw the man had no back, he was all face and nothing behind it, he was completely depthless, a straight line, and the world in the second monitor expanded out and intruded more into the first…

N. was thinking of expanding it into a video game. The girl’s avatar would hop through different monitors and their associated worlds, meeting strange figures (once people?) who talked in long strings of zeroes and ones or Wingdings. Half-heartedly, she was trying to decide how she wanted the story to end: what if there was an option for the avatar to remain in the monitors forever? Maybe it was easier to stay, even in those decaying empty places, than to emerge into the Real World. Maybe all the characters the girl encountered had once been Real People who decided to move into the Monitor Worlds for good.

She thought that the girl plugged into the computers probably had some trauma at the back of her life (why else would she avoid her real life so hard?), but N. wasn’t very interested in the “why” of things, only the “what.” And more and more, she liked staying in the imagination of the Monitor Worlds, creating tableaus of different worlds and color palettes, then ruining them all with a few mouse clicks.

The second time she met the King was on a Thursday. He called her over late, eleven p.m., and she once again fell into the comforting sense that they were play-acting. Nothing that happened this far into night could be real, including their meetings, which felt clandestine for no reason. He greeted her with a flourless chocolate loaf cake sprinkled with powdered sugar, and she wondered what he was overcompensating for. On his couch, which was expensive, deep, and very comfortable, he massaged her calves. He had a strong grip.

“Do you do sports?” she asked.

He said he had a black belt in judo. She felt the thrill of being cared for in a dangerous situation.

He had a shelf of DVDs behind the couch. For movies, there were names she didn’t know, like 10 to Midnight, Death Wish II, Basket Case, Cat People. For music, there were CDs: The Police, Depeche Mode. N. picked up a DVD and looked at the cover: garish and pulpy.

“I don’t know any of these,” she said.

“They’re from the 80s. Classics.”

The photos on his wall were of naked bodies arranged in strange poses against a brutalist landscape of a stark black house. The bodies were thin, pale, long-legged, firm. The pictures were not sexy—something about them was very cold.

“What are these? Porn?”

The King laughed. “They’re by a Japanese photographer. He’s famous.”

“They’re kind of creepy.” Nothing was real, which made her bold. “Are you creepy?”

“I like them. Everyone seems like they could turn violent in just a second.”

That was what it was, N. thought. The feeling she got from him. Of not knowing whether the next moment would be safe. What was so alluring about being in his company: he rubbed her legs, and she didn’t know what he would do next.

The King slid his hands up her thighs.

During the night he started snoring with the deep, throaty rumble of an old man. This punctured the film of unreality and N. wanted to leave. She shifted restlessly around on the bed. One of the small photographs by the Japanese photographer was hung on the wall. In the background was a tiny woman in a ballet pose who seemed about to take off. Swallowing the foreground was a man facing her—his posture, the adamant line of his legs and shoulders, was threatening.

▴ ▴ ▴

On Saturday she was watching TV on the couch when her phone pinged.

Still recovering from the scratches you gave me, the King said.

The intrusion of the King into her weekend morning was unwelcome.

Lol, she typed, though she didn’t find it very funny.

He followed up shortly: What are you up to?

I’m staying home today, not feeling well

Oh no, what’s the matter

Stomach issues

Where do you live? I can bring some soup

N. paused. Below her stomach, she felt her intestines knotting together again. Was he being caring, or was this crossing a line? Instinctively, she didn’t want the King to know where she lived. Even if she didn’t live with her mother, she wouldn’t have wanted him to know.

She closed her eyes, her mind swimming with feverish images: the dark highway, the white sugar on the chocolate cake, the airplane hangar, her reflection swimming in the black coffee in the diner…

“Did you eat lunch yet?” her mother’s voice floated into the miasma.

Oh. N. opened her eyes and saw her mother there, looking tired. It felt like a long time since she’d seen her.

“Sorry, Mom, I forgot to start the coffee.”

She moved to the couch and put a hand on N.’s forehead. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick?” Her hand was cool and dry.

“My stomach’s been a little funny.”

Her mother brought her hands down and squeezed N.’s feet, hard.

“Eek!” She squirmed. “Mom, it’s okay. I already took some ibuprofen.”

But her mother’s grip relaxed her. Her mother said, “I’ll make you some ginger tea.”

N. watched her set a small pot on the stove. Her mother was short, thin, and pale, with sensible short hair and a competent, no-nonsense manner. Even watching her bent over the cutting board, N. felt protective of her.

“How’s the hospital?” she asked.

“We had a sad case last night. This guy brought a girl in with bruises all over her neck and face. He said she’d fainted.”

A whispery feeling ran up N.’s skin, like walking through a spiderweb. “Did he hit her?”

“She said she ‘fell’ because she had ‘low blood sugar’ and kept asking, ‘Can my boyfriend stay?’” Her mother sighed. “I asked if I could speak to her alone, but she wouldn’t let him leave.”

“At least he brought her in?”

“These abusers do all sorts of things,” her mother said. “You have to be careful.”

She brought the mug to N. and smoothed her daughter’s hair. When N. brought the cup up to her mouth, the smell of ginger was spicy, pungent, traveling through her nostrils up to her brain where she imagined it lighting a tiny fire.

▴ ▴ ▴

The King started texting her more through the weekdays, even when she didn’t reply.

Think I might need someone to help mount some shelves, haha, have you heard that one?

Did you eat lunch yet today?

How’s work?

3 PM slump

I get headaches when it’s hot like this

It’s so dry I have a nosebleed

At lunch, N. checked her messages in her car sitting outside the hangar. She tried to identify what she was feeling, and it was repulsion. She didn’t like that the King was trying to talk to her more now; it was needy and made their encounters less flimsy, less transactional.

In the side mirror, she saw the door to the pilot school swing open. The aviator came out and lit a cigarette. It was hot, but there was no trace of sweat on his starched, white shirt. N.’s cellphone pinged again.

Are you busy tonight?

This would be the last time, N. decided. The King was getting boring. The fear she had so viscerally felt had been replaced by a kind of pity.

When she went over, it was raining and only six p.m. In the cool gray light of his living room, the man looked sagged and tired. He brought her a small cup, she brought it to her mouth, took a gulp, almost gagged. She hadn’t been expecting wine.

Drinking alcohol without having eaten, N. felt herself growing languid. Turning her eyes onto the man in the early-evening light, she saw the bags under his eyes were puffy, and there were even a few gray hairs at his temple.

“What’ve you been doing all day?” she asked.

“Watching this old reality show called To Catch a Predator. Have you heard of it?”

“No.” N. hesitated. “True crime?”

“Yeah. These pedophiles, it’s so funny.” The man laughed a short, ugly laugh. Had he always had those jowls? “Some of them say the craziest shit. My favorite one…”

Later in bed, after sex, which for the first time felt perfunctory and disappointing, he told her he was writing a play.

“What’s it about?”

“Charles Manson.”

“The cult guy?”

“He just died, you know.”

“He was still alive? I don’t even know when all that stuff happened.”

The man chuckled. “He was misunderstood. There were a lot of ways in which he was a genius. And charismatic. The guy was a leader! But everyone only remembers the one thing.”

N. kept her voice very measured. “But he was a murderer, right?”

“He didn’t actually kill anyone himself. It was his followers. The young women.”

Suddenly, the King lunged at her stomach and tickled her. “Girls can be scary!” His voice turned high-pitched, incongruously childish. N. wanted to ease away from his circling hand.

“So, what’s the new thing about the play?” She tried to change the subject. “Like, how is it different from what actually happened?”

“I’m thinking of having all the parts played by children. Twelve and under.”

“Like, Charles Manson and all the women and everyone are just going to be kids?”

“Don’t you think it would be cute? All Lord of the Flies. Inherent brutality of humanity and all that.”

His voice had turned crueler talking about the children. She didn’t like the way he sounded. She imagined a young kid on stage, artlessly acting out an orgy. She felt tense, her hands tingled.

“I’m going home,” she said a moment later. She sounded very natural. “Gotta make dinner.”

“You sure?” He smiled. “You’re welcome to sleep here if you want, you know.”

“I want to sleep in my own bed.”

“What is your bed like?”

N. turned her head. “That’s a weird question.”

“I’m curious how you live,” the King said, also sitting up and kissing her on the cheek. “All right, I’ll walk you out.”

Sitting in her car parked on the curb, she tried the key again and again. “Shit.” She took the key out, shoved it back in, turned it again. “It’s not starting.”

“I can jump it,” the King said. “Don’t worry.”

While she waited for him to come back, she wondered if she should call her mother.

But nothing has happened, she told herself. Nothing has happened. He hadn’t said anything she could point to as obviously sketchy.

She remembered the excitement she’d felt the first night meeting him. He had been an unknown, she had felt the rush of getting away with something.

There was the way he’d looked at her over the food he gave her the first night. His eyes, hooded, intent, obviously monitoring how much she drank.

(The casual way he put his hand on the back of her head when she was giving him oral. There was no pushing, but there was the suggestion that if he wanted to, he could.)

No one knew she was here.

“I’ve got it,” the King said from behind her.

▴ ▴ ▴

He insisted on following her in his car.

“No, no,” N. said, shaking her head, “it’s fine. I’m just going home, it’s a long drive, don’t worry.” Then she bit her tongue, wishing she’d said she was expected somewhere else.

“I’ll just go along with you a little bit to make sure there’s no problems. What if your car dies again?”

“I have triple A,” she lied.

“Don’t worry,” the King laughed. Under the streetlight, his teeth were not very even. “I’m not busy. It’s not any trouble.”

“You really don’t have to.” N. shrunk away, then, because she was still alone with him on the sidewalk and she was afraid to be rude, she said, giving an excuse: “I live with my parents, so…”

He didn’t seem surprised. “I won’t come in,” he promised. “I won’t even stop. I’ll just see you park and make sure everything’s good and drive right off.”

He won’t take no for an answer, she thought.

On the drive back, her arms were locked in so closely to her body she could feel the tightness of her inner elbows. In the rearview mirror she saw the King in a Chevy Tahoe trailing closely behind her. There was heavy traffic. She tried to subtly lose his car, but every time she changed lanes, he reappeared on her left or a car or two to the side, then directly behind her, skimming along confidently. He was wearing black sunglasses, so she couldn’t see his eyes. As though he knew she was looking at him in her mirror, he suddenly grinned.

I am never going to see him again, she thought.

The world seemed too real now.

N. pulled off the freeway early. The stop was near a plaza with a frozen-yogurt chain and yoga franchise. In high school, she’d come here after track practice. N. swallowed hard. The Tahoe pressed behind her.

She kept driving, trying not to look around too much or go too slowly. She saw a side road with a stone sign and turned. There was a parking garage. Some neat shrubs outside. Without looking at the numbers, she pulled into a spot. In the second between the death of the engine and the shriveling of her seatbelt, a black hole opened inside her lungs.

She opened the door. His car was idling behind hers. She prayed whoever belonged in the actual spot didn’t show up.

“Well,” the King said, rolling his window down and looking at her without taking the sunglasses off, “everything looks good?”

“Yup.” N. forced herself to smile.

“Nice little neighborhood.”


The King looked around and said, “No one’s here. Come here a sec.”

Unwillingly, N. approached the car window.

He pulled her face in by the chin and kissed her on the lips. “See you next time.” God, his lips are dry, she thought. And too thick. Disgust ran down her esophagus, and she had to stop herself from wiping her mouth.

“Next time,” she said easily, and with enormous, invisible effort, lifted the corners of her mouth. She brought her hand up and waved. Surely he wasn’t going to wait to see her unlock a door and go into one of the houses?

No, thank God, he wasn’t. The King rolled his window back up and smiled his unpleasant smile at her again. He pressed the gas on his car, looped through the roundabout, and exited the neighborhood.

By the time N. got back to her real home, it was dark. She’d waited for ten minutes in the parking garage, hiding in the back seat of her car with the lights turned off in case the King, for whatever reason, decided to come back. Then she’d driven aimlessly for nearly two hours, going the wrong direction on purpose, before pulling into a gas station, filling up, and at last setting her route to home.

From the moment she’d peeled from the curb in front of the King’s apartment until now, she had not let herself think or feel too much. Now, her head felt hot, and her heart strangled inside her airless, black-hole torso. She put a hand on the wall to steady herself. Then she turned on every single light in the house and went around pulling down the blinds one by one, avoiding her reflection in the dark pane, avoiding looking through the window to anything beyond, because, because what? In her bedroom, she locked the door.

Why are you feeling so scared? There’s nothing to be scared of, she told herself.

She forced herself to shower and pull on her favorite sweater. She took out her laptop and got into bed. She opened a video game. Her avatar ran around a dirt field shooting little pixie zombies who turned dark green, then purple when they were hit in the brain. The soundtrack was a cheerful piano medley.

Gradually, N. felt sleepiness overtake her. She became aware she was hungry; she hadn’t eaten. Her eyes grew heavy on the pillow. I don’t have to decide right now, she thought, what I feel.

Also, nothing happened, she thought. Maybe I was just being paranoid.

She drifted off with the sound on her computer still going and all the lights in her room still on. Perhaps because of that, or because her sweater made her too hot, her dreams were fitful, and all through the night she couldn’t quite tell if she was fully asleep or half-awake.

▴ ▴ ▴

Her stomach hurt.

In the bathroom, no vomit came out.

When she walked outside, there were noticeably fewer bees than there’d been in the middle of summer.

▴ ▴ ▴

Nothing had happened.

Nothing had happened.

▴ ▴ ▴

She typed his name into Google. First name + city + theatre. First name + city + name of a university on a hoodie she had seen in his closet. A reverse image search of his profile photo from The Cave.

Nothing. His invisibility on the Internet cemented how little she knew about him. An air of doubt had crept into her searching: that she had ever met him or driven to his house, that she had lain on her back in a dark room with pale photographs on the walls…

First name + Charles Manson. First name + Japanese photographer.

No hits.

▴ ▴ ▴

She blocked the King’s number. She started avoiding her phone, started turning the radio on when she was driving, started driving faster, started looking out for a black Chevy Tahoe. She started eating her lunch inside the hangar, started leaving work later, started not wanting to be alone, started wanting witnesses. He wouldn’t be able to find her; he hadn’t come to her house. They only knew each other’s first names. The fear she felt only in his apartment, only when she had wanted to feel it, was oozing through the cracks in her bedroom walls and made her afraid when driving at night.

A week later it was just her and the twenty-two-year-old in the hangar. Their boss had left for lunch. Their mouse clicks echoed into the silence. She couldn’t focus on the article. Coiled claustrophobia threatened to pop every blood vessel in her body.

Stealthily, breaking the rule she had set for herself, seeing the twenty-two-year-old immersed in a YouTube video that clearly was not about his assigned topic, best-mixed-martial-arts-gear, she opened a private browser and continued searching for the King online. First name + phone number. His first name had an unusual spelling.

“Hey,” the twenty-two-year-old said into the dead air of the hangar. “Did you bring lunch? Or do you wanna go out and get something?”

“Mmmm,” she non-answered.

And there—in an online directory, the first result on the search engine—were three hits.


She clicked on the page. The directory was like an online Yellow Pages. There were full names, addresses, phone numbers, even dates of birth. All this information just available with some swipes on the keyboard. The first two results were people with different spellings of his first name and who lived too far away. The last result was the name of the man who must be the King.

The street address was the one she had driven to.

He was a real person.

The date of birth listed was 1975.

She felt her intestines writhing again, like snakes. Pressure ballooned inside her head.

N. logged onto Facebook. She was still using the Linda Hallberg fake account. She typed the full name she had found into the search bar. There was one in Arizona, one in Colorado, one in Hong Kong, and there, sixth one on the list: the Facebook profile with the same black-and-white photo from The Cave. In the introduction box, the name of the city they lived in. The name of a liberal-arts college in Vermont, not the one from the hoodie. And a graduation year—1997.

She counted backward in her head. He must be at least a decade older than he had said.

She pushed her chair back. “Yes, let’s go get lunch,” she said to the twenty-two-year-old. Though it had been a long pause. Though it was too late to respond.

The twenty-two-year-old, whose name was Kevin, looked at her, a little surprised. As well he might, she thought, because she had been unsociable for more than two months.

He turned out to be gracious. “Cool. The diner?”

N. drove them the four minutes to lunch in her car. The aviator was standing outside the door of the pilot school smoking. In the diner, the TV news played a story about a woman who had escaped her father’s cult. The Lucia Berlin waitress brought them glasses of ice water. “Hi, honey,” she said to N. “This your coworker?”

Kevin was short, baby faced, and very, very normal. He was originally from Texas and had studied business merchandising. He speculated on their boss, their jobs, how much longer it could possibly last. “I mean, it’s not like we’re making money, but what are you gonna do when he runs out of cash?”

“Oh. I didn’t think about that.” N. could barely chew on her burrito. Out of habit, she had asked for a black coffee.

“You were in New York, right?” Kevin went on. “But your family’s here?”

“My mom,” N. said. “And I didn’t want to leave her alone.”

“At least you know people here. My parents moved here in the middle of college.”

What people? N. thought. People with real lives? I don’t know anyone with a real life.

“I don’t know a lot of people. I was seeing someone for a bit. I just stopped.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Kevin stopped, then asked, since she was clearly waiting for him to, “Any particular reason, or…?”

“Well,” N. hesitated, “I started feeling like there were some things that didn’t add up… Like some of the things he said…”

The thoughts congealed inside her. The King, 31, occupation: theatre. If he was born in 1975, he was forty-two years old. Some of the things he’d said about her body, which she’d found so flattering and old-fashioned, now she thought he might have said them because he was so much older. How had she let him touch her? What signs had she missed? And what signs had she seen and let go? Had he done this before? The first night, hadn’t he been so confident, so relaxed? How many young women had he seduced? What kind of man…

“I mean, he didn’t do anything wrong?” she said, half question. “Technically. Except…”

“No, no.” Kevin leaned forward, shaking his head. He had very pale, fine eyelashes in his baby face. “Trust your intuition. You feel like you can’t trust what he says, like you’ve been lied to—no matter what, that’s not a good way to enter a relationship.” He crooked a smile. “I’m sure your mom would want you to be careful.”

The overhead lights clarified the tiny bubbles at the edge of the coffee. Suddenly N. wanted to cry. In the rush of everything that had happened since she moved home, her unhappiness, her frustration, the recklessness with which she’d met the King, she’d forgotten—she was someone’s daughter, a beloved daughter, and her mother would be sad if she were hurt.

In the car on the way back to the hangar, they were silent. On a loop in her mind, N. recalled the times the King had touched her; she felt disgusted, but she had also let herself enjoy it. She couldn’t lie to herself and say she hadn’t liked it, at least in the beginning. How horrible that she had let herself be touched by him those times, had been so eager, even—

“I’ve never actually seen a plane take off from here,” Kevin mused, looking out the window where the roof of the pilot school was coming into view.

The thought of the aviator being there, watching her from behind dark glasses, infuriated her. She turned into the parking lot with the chain-link fence. In the rearview mirror, she saw the pressed pants, the white shirt, still there.

“That man is always fucking creeping on me.”

Kevin turned his neck. “Who? That person standing over there?”

N. turned the wheel sharply. “He’s always looking at me when I’m out here,” she said, or thought she said, but her organs were writhing again, and that fever-dream miasma—black coffee, sunglasses, TV news, pale bodies, black house, chocolate loaf cake, a cup of wine—was crowding her thoughts. She thought of the girl wandering inside the Monitor Worlds. She wanted the body to wake up. She wanted the body to feel safe. What had she been doing all this time? Her hands tightened on the wheel.

CLANG—and then N. was coming to herself, Kevin yelping, “Oh my GOD, what are you doing?” and when the car was stopped, she saw she had rolled into the chain-link fence, her engine was still running, and Kevin was unbuckling his seatbelt and opening the door, and the aviator was walking over, taking off his sunglasses, and saying in a light voice she had never heard, “Are you okay?”

N. opened her mouth to yell something at the aviator, something like back off or get away from me! But no words came, only a choke of surprise. Coming up to her window—framed by the blue sky, concerned and kindly underneath the black sunglasses that a slender hand held aloft to the side—was the innocent and naked face of a young woman.

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Read the Author’s Note

Cleo Qian is a writer based in New York.