Mountain, mountain, mountain.
Mountains on every side. Mountains that looked pixelated by gravel and chaparral, mountains that looked like their faces were crumbling. At certain hours of the day, with the sun disappeared and the mountains outlined, the mountain range looked like a tidal wave, about to crash down, about to sweep everything clean.
The steady desert heat meant Thora applied and reapplied medicated lip balm, refilled her water bottle from communal jugs, water tinted by lemon slices and mint. They weren’t allowed cell phones but could call home as much as they liked – after the first week, anyway. They could go into town with staff supervision. Thora didn’t leave the Center, but her roommate, Ally, came back with turquoise dreamcatchers and magazines, big Saran-Wrapped cookies from the bakery.
When Thora wasn’t in group, or doing check-ins with her counselor, she and Ally sat out by the pool in terry cloth robes, on lounge chairs that smelled a little moldy. Ally was twenty, the daughter of a senator. She wondered aloud how many Instagram followers she might have lost over the last month without her phone. Because Ally had diabetes, the staff let her keep her insulin and syringes, which she carried around in a pink zip-purse with a crown on it.
keep calm and carry on.
Thora liked to watch Ally inject herself, pooch up the pale skin above her waistband. It was almost like doing drugs herself.
All in all, it was a nice place. The landscaping was professional, attended to by many sunburned men. The food had a pre-chewed quality, lots of purees and smoothies, though, famously, the meals were good, better than at other places. Thora could attest to that, no soggy chicken fingers, no frozen chocolate cake crispy with ice shards. They were well nourished. The staff gave out vitamins in plastic organizers, grainy vitamins, probiotics in gummy form, which was another way to tell this was not quite rehab but some way station before rehab, the rules loosely enforced, the idea of authority introduced without the necessary follow-through.
It was more of a holding pen, a quiet place – it was assumed that everyone there was very tired. They were all overworked, stressed, and perhaps that had led them to make bad decisions that
had adversely affected the people around them. The Media Room was stacked with old Academy screeners, though every night for the last two weeks, Ally and Thora had watched a Ken Burns documentary about national parks. This alone seemed to take years off their lives.
When Thora called James, once a day, she could tell he was summoning a sort of gravitas, performing a solemnity he would later report to his therapist. He was attempting, she realized, to be present. Thora had only been gone two weeks: already James had started to seem theoretical, a series of still photos that didn’t quite coalesce into someone she had married.
‘You sound strong,’ James said. ‘Really.’
‘Mm,’ Thora said.
‘I love you,’ James said, somber, his voice dropping an octave.
For a moment, she studied the silence between them with curiosity: suddenly she could do things like this, stop answering, stop talking, and it was fine.
She forced herself to speak. ‘I love you, too.’ James was, she knew, not a bad person.
They were bored, lights out, Thora’s headlamp illuminating the corners of the room: the not-bad abstract paintings, the window cracked to let in the chilly night air. Outside were the dark shapes of the big aloe plants, the cacti. Thora stared at the twin beds, the matching coverlets. She hadn’t shared a room since college. It had been so long ago: she couldn’t remember if she’d actually liked any of her friends, the girl she lived with who kept her hair short, who baked loaves of sourdough in the dorm kitchen. She was a wilderness guide now. Thora was sure her life would seem appalling to the girl. Maybe it was.
Ally slept naked. Thora could’ve complained about this, she guessed – complaints were almost encouraged, showed they were setting limits and responding proactively to their environments – but she didn’t care. Thora liked the blunt fact of Ally’s presence, liked watching Ally move around, inspecting one of her pale tits for nipple hair under the lamplight. They took away Ally’s tweezers after she plucked every hair from her left armpit, though she showed Thora she could do it with her fingernails, too. She often fell asleep with one hand on her crotch, as if it was a pet. That night, Ally was reading the book she’d been reading the last two weeks. Thora had seen a lot of people carrying the book around the Center: making a big deal of bringing it to lunch, women squeezing the hardcover tightly to their chests as they walked to Restorative Yoga.
‘Can I see?’ Thora said. Ally passed it over.
Thora read just a few pages. It was about a plucky doll maker in occupied Paris during World War II. It seemed like a book for people who hated books.
‘This is terrible,’ Thora said, flipping the book to see the author photo. A woman stared back from a razzle of Aztec jewelry. ‘The author looks like the world’s most cheerful nine-year-old.’
‘It’s actually really good,’ Ally said, snatching it back. Thora had hurt her feelings.
‘Sorry,’ Thora said. Ally didn’t respond, on the edge of pouting. She had pulled the covers up over herself, turning away from Thora.
‘Wanna test my blood?’ Thora said.
At this, Ally brightened. She sat up. She had been begging to test Thora’s blood sugar.
‘Come here,’ she said, patting her bed, taking out her little pink purse. Suddenly she seemed very professional, despite her nudity.
Ally held Thora’s right hand in hers, palm up, the fingers splayed.
‘Here we go.’
She jabbed Thora’s finger, then held a tissue to it to absorb the drop of red. It stung worse than she had imagined it might. Thora sucked her fingertip hard.
‘You do this to yourself all the time?’
‘One-oh-five,’ Ally said, briskly, after feeding the paper slip into her little machine. ‘Very nice.’
Ally dropped the used needle into an empty seltzer bottle, a poky mess of trash and bloody napkins that she kept on her nightstand, like a gory snow globe.
Thora woke in the blue morning light, Ally’s voice coming from the bed next to her. ‘The people are eating,’ she muttered. ‘The people are eating.’ The medication Ally was taking seemed to make her a little crazy. When Thora went to check on her, she saw Ally was still asleep, a pillow clenched between her knees.
‘You just kept repeating yourself,’ Thora told her at breakfast. ‘Over and over.’
Ally pushed for details, asking Thora whether she’d said anything else. ‘I can handle it,’ she said, ‘just tell me,’ and it struck Thora that Ally wasn’t nervously patrolling the spill of her psyche, worried about what poisonous things she’d let slip, but that Ally genuinely hoped to learn something valuable and unknown about herself.
Before she’d come here, Thora had gotten in what her counselor Melanie would call a bad spiral.
It was the afternoons that did it, three o’clock like a kind of death knell, the house seeming too still, too many hours of sunlight left in the day. How had Thora even started going to the chat rooms? The last time she had been in a chat room was in high school, sleepovers where girls crowded around a desktop computer and wrote sickening things to men, all of it a joke, then furtively masturbated in their sleeping bags. Or at least Thora had. And now she was back, typing in a username.
How quickly the messages had come in:
Hey Thora! Cute name Asl
Wanna chat Asl?
Are you 18 or 18 isshhh
It amused her, on her laptop in bed, her husband at work, to reply to these men. To conjure an eighteen-year-old that did not exist, an eighteen-year-old that Thora had never been, certainly: blond, blue-eyed, a member of the cheerleading squad. Did high schools still have cheerleading squads? Had they ever? It didn’t matter how ridiculous the things she said were, how big she made her tits, how short she made the skirt of her supposed cheer uniform, the men seemed to believe, wholeheartedly, that she was real. A ludicrous illusion they were building together, and she found she enjoyed the back and forth. Pretending not to know why the men were chatting with her. Writing hahahaha whenever they brought up sex. What’s that, she typed when someone mentioned double penetration. When they asked her pointed, leading questions about her real age, she finally agreed that she was, in fact, only sixteen.
They were ecstatic, writing back instantly, the sudden use of exclamation points like cardiograms from their throbbing erections:
I won’t tell babe don’t worry!!!!
Her stupidity delighted these men. They had found her, at last: a teen cheerleader who wanted to learn about sex, who wanted to learn about it from them! Too stupid to understand what they were taking from her!
After a while they wanted photos. She ignored the requests, usually, closing the window, but then she thought, why not?
She spent a good hour on the bed, trying to take a photo with her face mostly hidden, a photo where she didn’t look thirty-five but instead looked like a teenager: a finger in her mouth, her tongue peeping out like a little cat. Her tongue looked strange, too pale, but if she used a filter, one arm covering her nipples, she might look eighteen.
The men loved the photo. But then they wanted more.
Are you shaved?
Oh ya, she said. She was not.
How many dicks have you seen.
Um, she would type. 2. Is that weird?
Have you ever had a boyfriend?
No, she typed. I wisshhhhhh!
Amazing how this ate up the afternoon, four hours passing without Thora looking up from the screen. She had missed two texts from James.
If she had better friends, she would have told them about what she was doing. Or if James was a different kind of person. Because wasn’t it sort of funny? She had an entire run of photos of herself on her phone now: bending over, the seat of her underwear pulled tightly across her ass, pictures of her face from the nose down, a nipple between her fingers. They all wanted a pussy shot: she found one off the internet to use. She sent the same photo every time, so gradually she began to believe this bare pink pussy was her own pussy, and in fact began to feel proud of just how perfect this pussy – her pussy! – was.
She had never been the focus of so much attention. So many men trying to coax or trick her into giving them what they wanted. And that was the part she liked best, the knowing/unknowing – it wasn’t possible to summon artificially, role play wouldn’t do it. It had to be real.
She only hated them when they got mean: when she told them she had to go, and they typed back, furious.
Are u fucking serious just help me cum pls
Im so hard
When Thora got bored of talking to the same men, she started signing in under different names. Usually under James45. Sometimes DaddyXO. She talked with the men, pretended she was a man, too, and they sent her photos of teens in bikinis at public pools and she sent them photos of herself.
Such a whore, she typed. Little teen whore.
Mmmm fuck, a man typed back. Love those teen tits.
It seemed obvious that the photos of her were not photos of a teenager, but no matter. Their wish that the tits belonged to a teenager was so strong that it created an alternate reality. She had never been so excited: seeing herself as these men did, some unformed idiot who needed to be fucked. Her sheets smelled like sweat, all the curtains drawn. She didn’t eat for whole days.
‘You’re so wet,’ James said one night, surprised, when she put his hand in her underwear. But then they had sex the way they always did, James coming on her stomach, his body jerking in a series
of convulsions, as though he were being riddled with bullets at the O.K. Corral.
It had all seemed funny except that, truly, she would rather do this than anything else: run the usual errands that kept things in motion, see James, have dinner with him. It was like having a calling, finally, the way she had once imagined she might. A life organized around a higher goal. While James slept, his back turned to her and the covers kicked off, she typed furtively on her phone to men who sent photos of dicks, sometimes tiny squibs of flesh between massively fat thighs, sometimes overlarge penises with the porn watermark visible in the corner.
Wow, she always typed. I don’t know if it will fit.
That was not the reason she had ended up at the Center, exactly, the chats, but it hadn’t helped.
There was a hike in the morning, before the temperatures got unbearable. On the drive to the trailhead, Melanie had turned the radio to a Christian talk station Thora mistook for NPR until they said ‘resurrection’ one too many times.
Thora scrambled around the boulders, up through the dust and the sage. She drank lukewarm water; Melanie passed out protein bars. Last session, someone kept mashing these into coils and leaving them in the urinals, or so said Ally, a veteran of the program. It was a real problem, fake shit being essentially as difficult to clean as real shit. Was there a lesson there?
By the time they got back, G. had already arrived.
No one had known he was coming. He looked, if anything, exactly like the person in the newspaper photos – froggish, squashed, well fed.