Shay was gone. Her foundation, her mascara, her subdivided disc of eye shadow, her bag of gummy Life Savers disappeared from the edge of the bathroom sink. The floor of the shower was wet and cold. I squeezed toothpaste onto my frayed brush. When she left without notice there was no telling when she’d come back. When she’d return, eyes closed, speech crooked, to the threshold of my room.
I crushed up some of the powders I still had. They were between the knives and forks in the silverware drawer in little clear pouches. I crushed my powders even finer; I cut them up. I went down two rails and said good morning to a colander that was out. I checked the refrigerator but Shay had killed the OJ and all that was left were three old jars of marinara sauce, clustered at the back of the bottom shelf. There was some pesto too. But none of it did me any good. I ordered pork lo mein from China Moon and sat down at my desk to work.
It was a workday for me. Every other day was. My work involved sitting at my laptop, surrounded by unopened mail, packets of duck sauce, fortune cookies, and compiling massive databases of email addresses. My email addresses were all high interest, meaning personal or work email. All of them active, new. I’d find them through company websites, school databases, and I’d add them up. I’d break them up into demographics. Then I sold these bundles to spam giants and marketing groups. I called it hunting and gathering and I’d done it since before I’d ever met Shay or seen what numbers she had at the end of her username.
I’d had the dating profile up for a long time. My pros (self-awareness, income) and cons (no clear ethical system) were listed along with a couple bands that I used to listen to when I listened to music. No one sent me messages and I never updated it. Then, last summer Shay sent me a message that said, “you there?” and I said, “yes,” and looked at all her pictures. She seemed sort of young, flat chest, slouched under lens flare. All her pictures had other people in them, girls like her, family, small crowds of others. I realized right away Shay and me had nothing in common. But we talked nights. Broad, hollow conversations that added up like snow, until, even though we never discussed our own lives, it seemed like we knew each other. The night I opened the door she had the one duffel bag and the gummy Life Savers. She could have been fifteen or twenty-one. I felt afraid. I felt like she had tricked me and that I’d be arrested or attacked by someone. But nothing like that happened. She had sex with me twice then opened every fortune cookie in my apartment and accumulated all those small, latent prophecies for herself.
Soon I had to ride the elevator to the lobby to get my China Moon. I took my bag, signed the receipt and stepped to the mail area. I rarely got anything but I liked to check the package box to see if there was anything interesting I could steal. That day there was one package. Medium, white cardboard. The return address was a smear of pencil lead. The recipient’s name was Richard Portola, who apparently lived on the 3rd floor. I glanced around the lobby, the faux stone tiles and cheap chandelier, and took the white package back up to my room.
I opened it like any package, with brute force. I ignored perforations and dotted lines and just tore at it until it came open. Inside I found a small handheld console with a power adapter and one game cartridge. I’d never seen this console and I played video games at pretty much all times. The thing had no brand; it looked like a black Gameboy with a slightly larger screen. I rolled the smooth machine over in my hands. The game was unlabeled so I put it in and flicked the on switch. The colors were crisp and simple, large clean pixels and boxy text. The title screen flashed “Cold Planet” in basic teal. Below the title an astronaut took slow steps across a barren landscape (a line). This was clearly some sort of cool game from the disco age. My options were “start” and “continue.” I tried to continue but there was nothing. So I had to start. When I hit start I showed up on a clear white surface, my astronaut, with slanted snow falling in the background. I could go right or left.
I began my exploration of Cold Planet with short, intense lo mein breaks. I propped myself up in bed with the steaming noodles and the mystery console and got a feel for the mechanics. The game had no enemies or ways to die. It didn’t really have anything. It seemed to be a large 2D world rendered in ice and snow. I could climb tessellated cliffs and descend into crystal caves filled with identical shimmering cubes. But this superficial exploration was all there was. Games were big for me, big for Shay too. I had a flat screen with some new consoles (PS3, Xbox) hooked to it, controllers extended out to the bed. Shay liked shooters. Shay liked especially to find a sniper rifle and hide somewhere dark. She’d get totally quiet lying beside me in bed, like she was actually stealth. I’d gone back and showed her all the retro classics. We played through them in huge marathon sessions, half-drunk, naked. Would Shay like Cold Planet? No. Shay would say that it had no point. Shay hated it in a game when she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. I crushed up more powders and explored Cold Planet all night.
I woke covered in grease sweat at an uncertain hour. I opened my curtains and looked out at the great cement landscape of the city, bright with midday sun. Then I closed the curtains again. I liked to keep the apartment the same temperature, the same brightness, at all times. My equilibrium was 65 degrees with two lamps on (one lamp on standby). I ate the rest of the cold lo mien and the egg roll.
As I stared blank and uneager around my room I noticed that Shay had left a bra on a chair. I wondered if it was a sign she’d return or just a forgotten thing that I’d get to keep. I lifted it to my face and smelled it, felt the velvety synthetics, soft like plastics can be soft. I smelled the bra some more and beat off just standing there like an idiot. Near the end I wasn’t even worried about the bra or Shay’s chemical smell. I just focused on a speck in the kitchenette tile and wished that it would be over.
I got back on Cold Planet and wandered up and down huge frozen ziggurats, through their corridors to deep, empty chambers. During this session I got the idea that there was something I was looking for in the game. I don’t know where I got the idea because nothing in the game indicated that there was something to be found or even a point. But I thought there must be something, somewhere, hidden. So I explored everything thoroughly. I took my time.
Late in the day I looked at my face in the bathroom mirror. There were blood vessels burst in my cheeks, light red galaxies. And my eyes were sunk, like whatever sleep I got had just rolled off me. But apart from that, I looked the same, like the picture on my dating profile, placid and remote. I cleaned the bathroom. I scrubbed the piss out of the grout by the toilet and bleached the tub. I scoured the toothpaste shit out of the sink. I cleaned everything until it was white then fell asleep to the smell of Lysol.
It must have been late again when I woke suddenly, slanted on my bed, to someone knocking on my door. I wasn’t sure if the knock had really happened so I waited to see if I was dreaming, if I would wake up into the same room, in the same position, only real. The knock did come again, fast like a police knock. I stepped through the lamplight to the door and checked the peephole. The peephole was black. The knock came again and I startled backwards into two trash bags, falling over. I stayed on the ground like that, quiet, trying to undo my sounds, until the knocking stopped. Then I went back to bed and didn’t sleep.
In the morning I put on a T-shirt and opened the door. Someone had spray painted over my peephole. Long black lines dripped down from one high mark. My neighbor’s doors hadn’t been marked—just mine. My first thought was that Richard Portola had come for Cold Planet. But how could he know that I took it? Or where I lived? And what sort of person would knock on a door in the middle of the night for an hour over a video game? I crushed up my powders and sat down to hunt and gather.
The repetition of checking sites and refreshing my lists calmed me down and I started to think that whoever had come the night before had the wrong address, that they had made a mistake. Hunting and gathering always had this effect, the effect of balancing me. I sorted through faculty emails at colleges, checked my trap sites. It required just enough thought to keep the mind alert. After my work was done I kept myself busy cleaning, putting trash in bags. Only after the whole apartment was clean did I let myself think about Shay.
I missed her being there, but also how she would go run errands, buy whiskey so I’d never have to leave the room. I liked how she didn’t talk during the day but sometimes during the night. Especially at the start, she’d want to stay up and get drunk, talk. Some nights I would learn small things about her real life. I learned that she had brothers, younger brothers, but I couldn’t say how many. And from that I assumed that she lived at home or at least did before running away. I didn’t know if she was from this city or some other city. I didn’t ask her more. I felt like that was my main charm for Shay. I never asked her about anything. When she came back once with bad bruises I didn’t ask her about them. I noticed them and said something else. One night, that first week, or the second, she stood at the open refrigerator holding a plastic 2-liter of Sprite. She looked back over her shoulder at me as if she was going to speak about herself, say something direct. But she must have changed her mind because she just poured the Sprite into a cup and turned out the lights.
The knocking came again. I was terrified. I hid in my sheets like child. I thought maybe Shay had a boyfriend. That someone who loved her had found out about me. I had nowhere to hide but my apartment, but my bed, so I waited the knocking out. I created long paranoid narratives about Shay and Richard Portola that could never be true except while the knocking sustained. After it stopped I passed out from sheer exhaustion and woke a half an hour later starving. Leaving my apartment was out of the question, even to go to the lobby to meet the China Moon deliveryman or the pizza man. I ate fortune cookies for sustenance but still felt weak. I found old hot dog buns in a cabinet and dipped them in marinara sauce. I did this while I stared at the solar outline of my pulled drapes. I realized it was daytime. The apartment was full of bagged garbage. All my powders were gone.
I wandered Cold Planet. I searched mountainous zones, climbed quartzite spires that blinked against a faint cosmos. Halfway up a frozen turret in a room with thin ice walls backlit by still quasar I started to think that maybe Cold Planet was a prototype, just a world with no content. Maybe Cold Planet was just a pretty, unfinished thing. I played, nervous and sick with a racing heart until I fell asleep.
I had a dream about Shay on Cold Planet. In the dream she was beautiful, not the scrawny, hungry girl that stayed with me but made-up with her eye shadow, fed and curved. Shay walked across flat ice, a frozen borealis of minerals. This world wasn’t pixilated, this world wasn’t something I could hold in my hands, this world was vast. She paused to reach look into her bag of gummy Life Savers, indecisive, fingers poised over a whole spectrum. I noticed then that I couldn’t see my breath. Shay started moving again, towards me, aimless. I tried to lift my hand to touch my face but there was nothing. No breath, no arm, no face. I wasn’t there, I was just part of that endless landscape and Shay passed through me like a doorway, eyes open, mind clear.
The knocking came again. It pulled me from the dream before I was ready. I was scared like before, so scared, my lips trembling and chest choked. But then, and maybe it was the smell of Shay from the pillow, the faint traces of her chemicals, or afterimages from the dream, but memories of her bloomed up my spine, to the hollow of my skull, brief thoughts, the veins under the skin of her wrist, the hieroglyphics she left in a fogged mirror, her fingertips on the zipper of my pants, my boxers, the length of my dick, half of her face sleeping. And I thought: what if Shay is out there? What if that’s Shay knocking? I walked a straight line to my door. “Shay?” I asked. There was nothing. “Shay?” I asked, loud. There was nothing for such a long time.