“Angels are light in order to fly?” mom shrieks. You roll your eyes and mince. What does she know.
“That’s stalking, you know.” Your brand-new Japanese chef’s knife flashes, a thing of beauty.
“You wanna call keeping an eye on my daughter stalking, you go right ahead.”
“Mom, you don’t belong on those sites. And anyway,” you shove the parsley away with the blade of the knife, fleshy green mash lining the edge, and go after the lettuce. “And anyway, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Which predictably sets mom off on a tirade, giving you time to put the phone on mute and go pee. You come back and she’s still going strong. “– not to mention what we spent on rehab –”
Suddenly cucumbers seem like too much work. You carry salad and phone to the table, switch back to internet. Two more likes on the photo while mom wails “And your hair, Jeannine. Your hair was so beautiful.” You look at the photo, tell yourself you’re trying to see it with her eyes. It’s your best yet, and already stuck like glue to the top of the page. The girl in the photo could be anyone under 90 pounds and stick-thin, and she chose the platinum blonde curly super-short wig. Just the right ethereal touch, you think.
You come out of the interview knowing you failed. Fumbled the blank-spots-on-the-resume question, though you knew it was coming. Couldn’t figure out an answer in all the days beforehand, and spur of the moment didn’t deliver. You cringe, jerking the door to the stairwell open, trying not to think about the dismal limping rest of it. Four flights down. You guess it’ll burn 18 calories and check the Fitbit. Up was 41. Weighing the merits of eating or saving the 60 calories you’ve earned takes you to the bottom floor. Just inside the stairwell door, a man is leaning against the wall. It’s started to rain, piddling outside the emergency exit behind you. The man separates himself from the wall, smiles, opens the door. You squelch a shudder, ignore him, and go through, into the banal safety of the lobby, the security guard reading Vogue, the receptionist with his pocket square and his too-white teeth.
Halfway down the block, Stairwell Guy materializes beside you, starts talking like you’re having a conversation. A job, he’s saying. A job that fits your qualifications. College degree, fine arts, doesn’t give you much to go on but being an artist or teaching, right. Too bad about the gallery job.
You stop, stare at him, demand to know how he knows anything about you, when he hands you a card that you, so well trained, take automatically. Stairwell Guy turns, walks into the crowd. A week later, eviction notice on the door, you call the number.
They set you up as receptionist at a restaurant it takes months to get into. You keep uploading photos. You gain a pound, you lose two. The kitchen acts like you don’t exist, but a busboy catches a serious crush. The adjacent bar is always hopping, and your directions are to spend an hour there before and after every shift. The bartender doesn’t know what to make of you, calls you Bones. Checks come looking like they’re dividend payments from a fund of some sort. You buy furniture.
You turn over logins and passwords to the guys who send the checks. You never engage with anyone online, but now you do. You parry and thrust, you send a tantalizing message, then disappear. Buy as much time as possible for the guys with the checks. The target is local, they’ve tracked him to here. Now something has to draw him out. You’re the bait.
Engaging, you quickly find out that guys who stalk thinspo sites fall into two categories: 1) Those Who Have Little-Girl Fetishes (To Be Avoided) and 2) Those Who Have I-Want-to-Crush-and-Kill-You Fetishes (Also, To Be Avoided). But there’s one guy out there that it doesn’t matter which type he is. You want him to choose you. Invest in a new photographer’s light and take a photo with your body so brightly lit it coronas all the contours and throws a skeletal shadow on the wall. Three new guys show up. The guys with the checks flag one of them. You feel like a spy.
Saturday night after a shift and 10 minutes before closing, you’re standing at the bar, turn around, and there’s a guy a head shorter than you, balding, soft brown eyes, soft voice. He apologizes, but the way his hand brushed the plane of your hipbone and measured the crevice of your waist wasn’t accidental. You text your contact on the burner, only the second text on the screen. They text back in seconds, asking if you got a photo. The guy is gone.
Two weeks later, Brown Eyes starts showing up again, regular. You text a photo. Not our guy, they say. You just got an admirer.
Another wet night and your car gets stolen, your 10-year-old Audi. You call the police, you call Uber, you track the car as it pulls around the corner and slides into the curb; a respectable black Mercedes, nothing flashy. The driver is Brown Eyes.
You go for the handle but, “Friend of mine wants to meet you,” he says.
So you stay put. You stay, and you listen.
The Audi turns up a week later, interior detailed and shining, washed and waxed, right in front of your apartment building. You hadn’t even had time to file the insurance papers. And you hadn’t told the feds the target had made contact. Told yourself you were trying to figure out which category he belonged in, Pedophile or Crusher. He doesn’t seem like either. He also doesn’t seem like the kind of criminal that would warrant such a high level of scrutiny. When you ask the feds, you’re told it’s corporate-level stuff. Techy.
After the first meeting at the diner, where he looked like he fit right in – dreadlocks, paint-spattered clothes, red-and-green beanie – but he was palpably uncomfortable, after that you are taken to his house. It sounds creepy but it’s not; there are more than a few members of what you can only assume are staff liable to pop up at any time in any room. You realize you’ve driven past the deep-lawned, oak-tree-skirted front of the house a dozen times and always assumed it was an office building and maybe once it was; there’s parking underground for at least 20 cars. Not generally impressed by how wealthy people spend their money, you’re stunned by the beauty of this place inside. Fireplaces sparkle off soft-toned stone walls and wood floors in one room, wood walls and stone floors in the next. The house feels like it grew up out of the ground and spread from the glass escalator up through the central atrium to a leafy rooftop garden.
The perfect modern splendor of the house makes you think it’s quite likely some crime has been committed to finance this glory. It’s not something you can ask, so you continue to allow yourself to be brought at night after shifts. Later, some time before sunrise, you are delivered home untouched. You still don’t tell the feds. You suspect there’s your own crime bundled in there somewhere, fraud perhaps, as you keep cashing the checks. Treason maybe, when you told the feds he’d gone silent. Once, thinking you’re not listening, he mutters something about data, how it can be arranged in a way that’s organically simple. You think about calling the feds, but you tell yourself it’s not enough information. It can’t be anything they don’t know already.
He tells you to call him Lou. It’s getting harder to find time to post new photos online. Instead, he’s taking photos of you – clothed but unwigged. He doesn’t ask, but you shave the few struggling downy puffs of hair and lotion your bald scalp until it shines. Pleased, he guides you into position, never touching. He waves his hand, and you splay the fingers of your own hand wide on the wall, bathed in yellow light. He takes video of you kneeling, bent double, studying the floor where a puddle of blue light waves and recedes. A long-distance shot up to the top of the escalator where you’re poised under the trees meeting overhead, crossed by a violet arc. These photos mean something to Lou. He projects them on the wall, tracing the aura of the colors he uses to illuminate your body, making it glow.
He never offers you food, only hot green tea, and that in itself is a gesture of deep commiseration. Your hunger buzz grows louder day by day until you disconnect, disembody, free from the servile grumblings of your stomach. Your feet no longer touch the ground. It’s not an effort anymore to not eat. Food is grotesque, a pollution. You stop weighing yourself, there’s no need. The balancing act, the constant internal barter, the negotiations, the tradeoffs of effort for calories…all done. Every night you spend at Lou’s, you’re lighter. There are 11 voicemails from your mother on your phone.
And then one night, you black out, mid-photo, somewhere south of two in the morning. Spots quiver in the air, and you try to blink them away, but you know you’re going down.
You wake up in your own bed. Lou is there, beside you, fully clothed. He’s clicking through photos on his phone. They’re photos of you, you think, as you’re rising up to consciousness. The bony fingers, the bald head, the translucent skeletal contours reflected in a blue pool, a field of golden yellow, a violet arc. “It’s my IPO today,” he says. “This is my wife.”
You rise up in the bed, tuck the sheet around you, look at his screen. The photos look like you, but they’re not you. The stick-thin limbs, the bony fingers, the bald knobs of the head, those are the same. But in the photos Lou shows you, the light comes from within, she glows.
You stay silent. Lou swipes through the photos, the ones you know so well, the poses you held, the colors he bathed you in. “Two years I was up there,” he says. “She was an engineer on the ship’s systems. She would let me out of my room and show me.” Lou stops talking, looks out your dirty window, the digital billboard shifting from a Coke sign to an advertisement for the Dodgers. “I don’t expect you to believe this.” You don’t, but you let him talk.
“One day, I found myself right back where I left off, same day, same spot. Only,” he says, “20 pounds lighter with a full beard, long hair, and an idea of how data could be stored it so it wraps and wipes, leaving a seed that can regenerate when you need it.”
There’s banging on the door. It could be the feds, it could be your mother. You start to rise but Lou gently pushes you down. “They’re too late,” he says, checking his screen. The IPO is sold out. The blue from the billboard outside the window bleeds into the room, bathes it in a wave that fills and recedes, fills and recedes. The buzz of sound fills your head then empties, leaving only silence.
Leila Springer lives with her husband and two impossibly wonderful daughters in Los Angeles, where she tends an ever-growing menagerie and wonders why four years of staying up all night in architecture school, five years of working overtime as an engineer on the Disney Concert Hall, and two births without anesthesia didn’t prepare her for the agonies of trying to publish a novel.