The actress gazes out at an ocean the color of Berry Blue Kool-Aid. The sea is thirty yards away, beyond the sprawl of a sugar-white beach. Everything looks cartoonish, saturated with artificial color—clouds, sky, sea, sand. Is it the procedure, she wonders, filling her with vibrancy already, restoring her eyesight, making her hardened lenses flexible again, strengthening her iris muscles? Will her eyes glint with beautiful fury again? Will they tear up with passion as a beautiful rogue sweeps her into a savage embrace?
This morning, she felt strong enough to rise from bed, and her nurse wheeled her out to the veranda—a slab of modernist concrete tricked out with cable rails. The female nurses wear 1950s uniforms, a retro touch that matches the architecture: starched white dresses with Peter Pan collars, ivory patent-leather T-strap shoes, old-fashioned crown-like hats emblazoned with blood-red crosses. The male assistants, handsome with delicious tans, wear ecru chinos and snowy polos. The building is white-washed. Though the staff represents an array of ethnicities and skin colors, the doctor has flawless alabaster skin.
The actress inspects the long veranda, counting patients: seven this morning—three men, four women, including herself, each one in a wheelchair equipped with a side car containing what the doctor and staff refer to as the “restorative unit,” a two-foot-long contraption connected to each patient by a thick, supple black tube. The unit, sheathed in a ribbed aluminum shell, half robotic, half bioengineered, filters the blood and slowly restores youth, taking five-to-seven years off per session, or so they claim. Each session lasts a month, so the actress has time for just one, and then she must begin her stint as a matriarch on a second-rate history mini-series. Or perhaps she’ll be fired for looking too young? Perhaps they’ll recast her, not as an ingénue, but as a ripe sexy woman with power and pawns, a queenly sort with a harem of young studs.
The actress is skeptical—she’s always skeptical—but that didn’t stop her from taking a pamphlet from her cosmetic dermatologist after yet another round of injectable dermal fillers.
“I’ll Google them immediately,” the actress had said.
“They’re not on the internet,” whispered her dermatologist. “They’re that exclusive. Please be discreet.”
So the actress called the number. She spoke with an agent, who answered all of her medical questions in an aloof, scholarly voice. The agent did not push her to purchase a “spa-cation” package. The agent sat in silence as the actress studied her iPhone calendar. After the actress read out her Visa number, the agent explained that they would book her flight to the San Juan International Airport and email the details. A small plane would fetch her from the airport. She should wait in Concourse C and listen for her name to be called. The flight to the island would not be listed on her official itinerary.
* * *
The actress dreams of her daughter, a reoccurring nightmare she hasn’t had since her child was a toddler. But it comes back full flush now, pulsing with menace, stored in some obscure nook of her brain and coaxed out, perhaps, by the procedure.
She and her toddler are picnicking on Calabasas Peak when darkness shrouds the mountain. The actress looks up and spots a spacecraft that resembles a giant blackberry composed of multiple semi-sheer drupelets. The ship swoops low and emits a luminous beam that sucks her daughter up into the sky. Whoosh. She’s gone. But no: there she is, trapped in one of the dusky drupelets like a bee larva in a honeycomb cell. The ship floats away, a grotesque piece of balloon art. The actress weeps, bereft on the windy mountain.
Later, right outside Maddy’s Market, the sky goes dark again. The strange spaceship hovers like a thundercloud and stabs the asphalt with multiple beams. Blond teens descend to Earth, dressed in 1950s clothes. They stagger around the empty parking lot, eyes aglow like the Children of the Damned. A young woman approaches the actress, her face bland, her puffy pageboy the color of fake snow.
“Mama,” she says in a zombie voice. “Don’t you recognize me?”
* * *
Unsettled by her dream, the actress eats breakfast in bed: a perfect poached egg, a fruit-cup—scarlet melon cubes and ominous blackberries. Her left flank aches. She knows there’s a stitched-up wound where the doctor cut her open and fused tubes from the restorative unit to her own veins. But she can’t see the wound. She doesn’t want to see it. Though a flexible rubber, gauze-lined pad hides the healing wound, she could probably peel it back and take a peak, see the tubes concealed by the black conduit that extends to the unit, maybe catch a glimpse of the high-tech parts that filter her blood. But the thought of looking makes her heart flip like a fish.
And Dr. Ossenfelder has appeared, startling her. She never hears him coming. Two nurses hover behind him, one blond, one brunette.
“How are you feeling?” asks the doctor. His brow-veins glow in the fluorescent light. His irises are the color of blue pearl crocuses.
“Okay, I guess. Weird dreams.”
The nurses check her vitals while Dr. Ossenfelder fiddles with the restorative unit, sliding its crenulated case open just enough to stick his hands inside. Lying in bed, the actress can’t see inside the unit, which rests on a small, wheeled bedside table. She watches the doctor hook a long, transparent tube to something. Then he takes a bottle of emerald liquid and funnels it into the tube. The restorative unit emits a squelching sound. The blond nurse behind him winces. But then she smiles, the broad fake smile of soap-opera diva.
* * *
The actress has dinner in the dining room for the first time. Nurses wheel her up to one of the Danish modern tables. Paintings of deep-sea beasts, barely visible in black water, hang in gilded frames. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a dazzling view of the ocean.
The man to her left looks ancient, beyond ninety, his drippy eyes buried in pink crinkles. He doesn’t speak. But the woman on her right, who looks fiftyish, introduces herself.
She’s from Texas, a wealth advisor, with good skin and pale gray hair cut into an elegant bob.
“I’m not vain,” Rose says, almost in a whisper, as though she’s talking to herself. “I don’t need to be beautiful.” She laughs. “But my clients have started to distrust me. I’m almost sixty, and they want young hotshots with so-called fresh ideas. All I need is another five years in the business, and then I can retire.”
“Unfortunately,” says the actress, “my job requires a standard of so-called beauty. And you look amazing, by the way. Have long have you been here?”
“Two weeks and five days,” says Rose.
“Well, the procedure seems to be working.”
“According to Dr. Ossenfelder, I’m about to experience the surge.”
“An overwhelming flooding of bodily energy. I’ll want to run down the beach, he says. Turn cartwheels in the sand. Go swimming. But I can’t, of course, until they unhook me. But they’ll allow walks during week three, with an attendant who rolls the restorative unit along in a special cart with bicycle wheels. But you have to be careful or you’ll unhook a vein.”
The actress grimaces.
“Nothing they can’t fix,” says Rose. “But messy.”
* * *
Three days later, during the middle of her second week, the actress sits on the veranda beside the ancient man, phone pressed to her ear. Clouds thicken in the sky. The sea looks dark. She thinks she spots an island in the distance, treeless, but when the island disappears, she realizes it’s some sea creature descending into the deep.
“Mom?” says her daughter after the fourth ring.
“Where are you now?”
“Not quite sure. An island, somewhere near Puerto Rico.”
“Are you getting some work done?” Her daughter, an artist, chides.
“Just relaxing hard before my mini-series starts up. How’s the installation?”
“We just released another bot.”
Her daughter lives in a renovated Family Dollar in Bushwick with a band of chicly scruffy youths. They make grotesque robots—part human, part animal—and release them into various parts of the city at dusk.
“Last night was beautiful.” Her daughter sighs. “We activated a baby faun at the Cloisters. At least a dozen people spotted it. Media fallout guaranteed.”
The actress pictures her daughter sprawled on her futon, hair tangled into a mad-princess whirl, unisex jumpsuit crusted with paint and epoxies. She remembers when her daughter first discovered the cultural value of female beauty, the mystic whoredom of fairy-tale princesses. She remembers when her tiny girl gazed into the mirror and made her first fuck-me face, long before she understood what it meant, and the actress felt her heart turn dark like meat left out in muggy air. She remembers when her daughter read Andrea Dworkin in high school, shaved her head and started painting. She recalls her feelings of relief when she realized the paintings were very good.
“Sounds enchanting,” says the actress.
The actress listens as her daughter describes her group’s next project, their plan to build a theater in the apartment, back in the old stockroom where bargain wares once filled the shelves.
When the conversation wanes, the actress pockets her phone and gazes out at the ubiquitous sea. She spots Rose speed-walking down the beach, a male attendant marching along beside her, trundling her restorative unit across wet sand. Rose waves wildly. The actress waves back. She would love to join Rose on the beach, but she hasn’t felt the surge yet, though her back no longer aches. Her face looks fresher, not miraculously young, but relaxed, healthy, pink.
The actress hears a bleating sound. She turns to the ancient man beside her, a stroke victim, she thinks. He grunts. He murmurs. His gnarled left hand slaps the crinkled metal shell of his restorative unit. His eyes ooze. His mouth opens like a wound.
“Bah,” he says. “Bah.”
* * *
The actress dreams of her daughter, seven years old, running through a park, long silky hair whipping behind her. Hairy faun legs jerk beneath the child’s torso—robot legs upholstered in faux fur. But her hooves look real. Bony horns sprout on her scalp. Her eyes glint with goatish mischief as she skirts the edge of a wood. And then her daughter disappears into the shifting green shadows of the forest. The actress ambles after her on leaden legs, but finally makes it into the woods, dark now, full of flitting things—flashing wings and tails. Eyes glow in the leafy gloom. The actress hears her daughter bleating, deep in the forest, wild and unreachable.
When she wakes up, her daughter’s still bleating. Now she’s bellowing.
The sound echoes down the hallway.
“Bah-bah,” somebody bellows. The actress recognizes the voice of the old man, the stroke victim, but amped up several decibels.
And then the bellowing stops. The actress sits up in bed, listening. She hears a wheelchair squeaking down the hall. She hears nurses whispering. And then she hears nothing but the amnesiac wash of the sea.
* * *
The actress has dinner with Rose. Rain dribbles down the huge windows, blurring the sea. They slurp salty soup, the broth afloat with tentacles and fins. In the darkish dining room, the paintings on the walls come to life, sea monsters emerging, touched with phosphorescence, their eyes lustrous and melancholy.
Rose gesticulates with her fork. The actress notes improved muscle tone, blond hair-roots, a slight erasure of marionette lines and crow’s feet. Rose smiles excessively.
“I feel good,” Rose says. “I do want to run down the beach and frolic in the waves, but I’ve got one more week.”
“I think I feel a little more energy,” says the actress.
“Just you wait. Hey.” Rose glances around the dining room. “Where’s the mummy.”
“You know, the old guy.” Rose smirks. This is the first time she’s called the ancient man the mummy, and the actress wonders if her sparkling cruel wit has something to do with the surge.
“I think I heard him bellowing last night,” says the actress.
“God,” says Rose, “You think he croaked?”
The actress looks around, taking stock of the patients seated at various tables: the dumpy business man who always has his nose in a finance magazine; the thirtyish babe who might be in the porn industry; the trophy wife, a mite plump, who just had her third kid; the silver fox, a politician from France who once had a reality show. But the old man, who usually dines alone in the darkest corner of the room, far from the blazing windows, under the painting of the red sea monster, is missing.
* * *
The actress dreams of running. She runs through a glittering city, through greening suburbs, through exurbias spotted with mock-Tudor estates. She runs through agricultural zones, fields and forests, and finally, deep into a jungle alive with prowling orange cats. She scrambles up a mango tree, the fruits fiery in the velvety green. At the top of the tree she unfurls wings and flaps up into the sky, her stomach churning. She sees a winged figure in the distance, spinning around a small pink cloud—her daughter. The actress tries to catch up with her, but the girl flits off into the blazing blue.
When the actress wakes up, her fingers are crimped with cramps, her legs spasmodic. But the tension subsides and she sinks back into her bed, buzzing with pleasant energy. She hears a rattling noise. It’s the restorative unit, its machinery chugging hard. The crenulated case wobbles. She’s never seen it move before, and fears that some component’s gone haywire, thrown off by the surge. She buzzes for help. A tanned technician arrives, a nurse pushing an instrument tray behind him, their mouths clenched into fake smiles.
“Feeling a burst of energy there?” says the nurse with the glossy black bun. “Congratulations.”
“Just need to work out a few kinks,” says the technician.
He unlocks the case of the restorative unit, slides it open, and frowns. The nurse gasps, bites her tongue, smiles tensely.
“Just a little glitch,” she says. I’m afraid you’ll need to be out for this.” The nurse fills a hypodermic needle with violet liquid, rolls up the actress’s silk pajama sleeve, and injects the pretty potion into her arm.
* * *
The actress strides down the beach with Rose, shocked by the power in her limbs. Technicians walk beside them, rolling their restorative units.
“I told you,” says Rose, her grin almost manic, spittle collecting in the left corner of her mouth. “Can’t wait to be unhooked. Then I fly back to Dallas and kick ass for a few more years, line my nest, retire in some well-packaged paradise. Belize maybe? I don’t know. Or maybe I’ll come back here for another session, turn myself into a hottie, fuck some brawny lads.”
Though the actress wants to break into a run, every cell in her body tingling with vitality, she doesn’t feel like talking, so she lets Rose chatter away. The actress can see farther down the beach, all the way to a collapsing, half-built hotel some developer abandoned a decade ago. Her skin feels soft, suffused with miraculous moisture. She feels a ruttish tingle in her groin, probably from Rose’s raunchy descriptions of men in their prime. She pictures her ex-husband, a bald producer with a toad-shaped physique. She pictures her last boyfriend, a sweet, aspiring screenwriter struggling to get into the game. Feeling a pang for him, she wonders if he’s still in Nashville.
“I mean, says Rose. I’ve done it before, but because women are socialized to have a narcissistic sexuality, I was put off by the sight of my crone hand caressing the nubile thigh, you know what I mean? The discrepancy made me think of nothing but my own hideousness. Couldn’t get my rocks off. So fucking unfair.”
“You were far from hideous.”
“Relatively speaking,” says Rose. “And you look fucking stunning! Didn’t know you were a redhead.”
“Used to be.”
“Well, it’s coming in again. Such a lovely shade. I wonder how long it’ll all last?”
“I need to rest for a minute,” the actress says.
“What’s the matter?” says Rose.
“Nothing, you go on—I can’t keep up is all. And I need to make a phone call.”
The actress feels fine, but she’s tired of Rose’s voice. Her barefoot technician, whose tan, she notes, is fake, discreetly moves away and squats to inspect a seashell.
For some reason, the actress pretends to make a call, phone pressed to her ear, her heart pumping strong, her sharp eyes scanning the sea for signs of life. She spots an iconic fin, knifing through the water. As the shark gets closer she can see its dark body in the clear sea, sleek and swift, nostrils filtering the water for traces of blood, for a sign of some floundering animal with the life leaking out of it.
* * *
Startled out of a dream by a gurgling sound, the actress clicks on her bedside lamp. The noise is coming from the restorative unit, probably some biotech component pumping a new elixir into her circulatory system. The unit wobbles, just slightly, and then stops, so she doesn’t call the nurse. She lies in bed, trying to remember the face of her last boyfriend, the screenwriter she met a few summers back: though she can picture his eyes (wide and startled like those of a nocturnal animal caught in a camera flash) and his mouth (thin and pinched into a line), the rest of his face is a freckled blur. But she remembers his smell: the cinnamon scent behind his earlobes, the brothy funk of his armpits, the odor of his scalp and unwashed hair. She remembers how his naïve optimism veered into dark sulkiness. One murky rainy morning he said, “this town is killing me,” and left for Nashville a week later.
Her sudden craving for him forms a knot in her stomach, and the actress tries to curl into a ball, but she feels the tug of the unit tube and lies flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, wondering if she should track him down when she leaves. Her lips are fuller now, plumped with native collagen, naturally kissable, no freakish injections swelling them into weird shapes. She doesn’t miss the glamour of beauty as much as the thrum of vigor in her body, the sparkling blood, the enchanting blend of hormones and neurochemicals that goaded her to seek his warm, mammalian body in the musky dark.
* * *
“Oh my God, this is unreal,” says Rose, performing a taekwondo kick. Rose, free of her restorative unit, runs in circles around the actress. She zips to the ocean and back. “Just you fucking wait.”
“Go ahead,” says the actress. “Sprint down the beach. Don’t worry about me.”
Rose dashes off, kicking up sand, leaving the actress alone with Tim, the technician with the spray-on tan. His hair is dead black—dyed, Rose discovers, wondering why she never noticed this before.
“I suppose I’ll be doing that next week,” she says.
“You will,” says Tim, turning to gaze at the forest.
The actress regards the lush green, pining to penetrate it, wondering why the spa doesn’t develop trails for nature walks. Perhaps they will in the future, she thinks. Perhaps she should suggest this in her Customer Satisfaction Survey. And then she spots a flicker of movement at the forest’s edge. A pale shape. A tiny potbellied human.
A naked toddler darts out of the woods, his head bald, his skin glaring white in the sun. The child runs toward them, but then retreats back into the trees, stands at the forest edge, peering out at them.
“It’s a little boy,” the actress says. “Where did he come from?”
“Oh God,” says Tim. “This is bad PR, but I guess I have to tell you now. There’s this hippie commune back there behind the rotting hotel. We’re trying to get rid of them, but it’s complicated. The developer who abandoned the hotel owns the land. Now he’s some kind of Zen nut nature freak—that’s why he ditched the luxury hotel idea. He owns two hundred acres here, refuses to sell. They have his blessing. Some cult, I think.”
“Cult? How fascinating. What kind?”
“I don’t know, moon-worshipers, maybe? Something involving aliens, I think. They grow their own pot and God knows what else. Listen, I’d better call security. That kid looks too little to be running around alone. He might get hurt on our property.”
Tim whisks out his phone and walks away from her, paces back and forth as he talks.
The actress watches the child, his wan skin shining in the shadows. She wonders why he’s bald, since hippies usually prefer kids with tousled manes. But there’s the cult element, the lunar idolatry. They probably shave their heads to mimic the heavenly body they worship, she thinks.
“They’re sending someone,” says Tim, walking back over. “To take the kid back to the commune.”
“Why don’t you go check on him? I’m fine here.”
“They’re skittish. He’ll run. You have to know how to handle them.”
“Oh shit,” says the actress, holding her breath as the boy disappears into the trees. “He’s gone.”
* * *
That evening, rain dribbles down the dining room windows, and Rose raises her wine glass in triumph.
“To tomorrow,” she says, clinking glasses with the actress and Blaise, the French politician who launched his career from the ashes of a reality show called Les Avocats en Mal D’amour.
“Lucky bitch; is that how you say it?” asks Blaise.
“Not quite,” says Rose, “though I’m a lucky bitch indeed.”
The actress feels out of sync with their banter. Thunder rumbles. The sea convulses. The gray light outside darkens to inky black. Wall sconces pop on, brightening the sea monsters that drift and squirm in gilded frames.
“So,” whispers the actress, “have you heard of the cult that lives in the forest?”
“Cult?” says Rose. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Shhhhh,” hisses the actress.
As she tells them about the child, their expressions grow wryer, eyebrows raised into whips, smirks twisting their newly luscious lips.
“Hallucinations are a side effect to the treatment you know.” Rose winks at Blaise.
“And dreams,” says Blaise. “So vif, almost torturant.”
“This was no hallucination,” says the actress. “My technician actually called security.”
“A moon-cult,” says Rose. “How cool. Maybe they have a female cult leader for once, the moon being a feminine celestial body and all. I mean, why are cult-leaders always male?”
“Insecurity,” says Blaise, humoring her, “surcompensation.”
“Don’t forget sex,” says Rose. “They’re usually in it for the sex, particularly the older guys. An elaborate way to pull some poon.”
Blaise titters. “Although the word poon is peu familier, I think I can guess.”
“Go ahead,” Rose teases.
“Chatte,” Blaise purrs, his cheeks flushing.
“I’m glad I’m out of here tomorrow,” says Rose. “No telling how handsome you’ll be next week.”
Feeling excluded from their flirting, the actress gazes up at the blue sea monster, an ancient leviathan with barnacles pimpling its back. Its belly is obscured by the darkness of the deep. It lifts a tentative eye-stalk above the water’s surface and gazes up at a cloudy sky.
The actress feels a qualm, a swish of nausea, a hazy premonition, the same feeling she had before the screenwriter left her, before her mother died, before her daughter dropped out of Berkeley and moved to New York.
She studies the sea monster, noticing, for the first time, multiple lamprey-like appendages slithering out from its snout, each tip a suction cup bristling with multiple teeth.
* * *
The actress stands on the wind-swept beach, close to the forest, staring at the abandoned luxury hotel—steel beams, cement floors, four stories of rain-warped wood.
“Does the cult live in the hotel?” she asks Tim.
“Not that I know of,” he says, “too dangerous.”
“So they’re further back in the forest? In a clearing?”
“Yep.” Tim studies his phone. “That’s right. They live in tents.”
“How many are there?”
“Hell if I know. Twenty or thirty, maybe?”
“And the children?”
“What about them?” He looks up, his eyes alert.
“Twelve? Fifteen? Who knows. They hide in the forest like animals.”
“Food, water? How do they live?”
Tim’s phone dings. He apologizes, moves off to answer a text. The actress stands next to the forest, staring into the humming green. She pictures pale, bald children, naked, swinging from vines and scrambling up trees. She listens, hoping to hear the sharp, happy cries of their play. She longs to slip into the woods and sit quietly in a sun-dappled place until they creep from their cover, inching forward like curious fawns. She imagines bodies smeared with berry juice, arcane symbols scrawled onto their skin. She imagines their eyes, big with mysteries, blinking, wet.
* * *
The actress dreams of moon-pale children with luminous skin. They hold hands, dance circles around a stone orb, their bald heads echoing the full moon. She spots her daughter among them, naked, her eyes lit up with cultish lore. The actress crouches amid dark brambles as the children chant a strange language. One by one the children float up through the branches into the starry sky—the tiny ones first, and then the larger ones, bobbing in the air. Her daughter, the largest one of all, almost a teenager, has trouble escaping the pull of gravity. She jumps and leaps, finally manages to hover six feet off the ground, and then shoots up fast through the forest darkness into the pale wash of sky. The actress, feeling beastly, earthbound, whimpers like a wounded wolf.
Her keening jars her out of the dream into the stale buzz of consciousness. There are people whispering in her dim room—nurses, technicians. Dr. Ossenfelder crouches over her restorative unit, tinkering with its components as a technician shines a penlight into its open case. The actress feels the taint of sedatives in her blood, but she has always been a light sleeper, and the adrenaline from her dream has jolted her awake. She hears everything. She doesn’t move. She squeezes her eyes shut, but then opens them again, watching the doctor.
She lets out a hiss of shock, a barely audible gasp when she sees it—a small arm, almost spectrally thin, the gray hand withered and twisted. Dr. Ossenfelder applies a tourniquet, dilates a forearm vein, and inserts the needle of a peripheral venous catheter. Then the doctor tucks the tiny arm back into the restorative unit and closes the case.
Julia Elliott’s writing has appeared in Tin House, the Georgia Review, Conjunctions, The New York Times, and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories 2015. Her debut story collection, The Wilds, was chosen by Kirkus, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the Best Books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, arrived in October 2015.