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Authors: T. Warwick

The Artificial Mirage (26 page)

BOOK: The Artificial Mirage
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“Charlie, we’re not married.” Lauren raised an eyebrow as she waved the hand with her stylus and fluttered her fingers without taking her eyes off him. “Stephanie helped me make a video of me in the purple stockings. You remember those, right?”


“But you can’t watch it without your glasses.”

“They wouldn’t allow you to send it anyway.”

“Why do you want me to have your glasses?”

“I don’t want anyone else to have them.” He thought of the overlays upon overlays of pictures of her being silly at the office and sitting across from him in restaurants and looking back at him in bed with that glowing smile that every man imagines is reserved exclusively for him—the entreaty of her whole being as her eyelids lifted softly. “You don’t want them?”

“I don’t know. It’s nice of you to think of me.”

“I always think of you.”

“Yeah. So what do you do over there? Are you making any friends?”


“What do you do?”

“You know, it’s funny how I remember old train stations as a kid. Not all glossy brushed steel like Vietnam. I liked the crumbling glory. But when they were built, they were symbols of a new life—the latest and best that life could offer. That’s what this place is. I would have preferred to be here a hundred years in the future with the crumbling facades and the nostalgia for decadence. Decadence in its raw state.”

“Decadence, Charlie? I needed AR for that. What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know, Lauren. I don’t know anymore. Everything’s wrong.”

“Nothing is ever wrong, Charlie. You just make it wrong. You may have had the money, but I always had the power. I worked really hard at Chi. I didn’t even get my bonus.”

“Nobody did.”

“Yeah! And now I’m here in Manama.”

Charlie looked at the wall behind her. “By the way, how did you get to talk to me since we’re not married?”

“The diplomat guy here told the warden that I was your sister.”

“Sister?” Charlie laughed. “You’re not wearing gloves. Some of the whores in Bahrain wear gloves and abayas. The Saudis get off on women being covered. The Western women don’t get that. It’s all a mystery to them.”

“You know, Charlie. I’m making more money now. More than what you paid me. I’m going to buy a car soon.”

“Too bad you can’t drive here to visit me. But, you know…” Charlie looked up as if he was seeing something in AR. “I always thought you looked cute on your scooter.” He stood up.

“Hey, come on!” She didn’t have anything more to say. It was just the residual traces of an instinctive response.

“Good-bye,” he said. The guard in his neatly pressed brown uniform escorted him back to his room where the doors whooshed shut behind him. Fear had dissipated and was replaced by a calm acceptance of everything. He could accept the hard mattress and the concrete walls and floors. He was beyond resentment. He felt erased of nostalgia and regret.

The Dragonfly followed Lauren as she walked down the stairs to the marble foyer of the embassy. Dim reading lamps and two Queen Anne armchairs sat beside a dark wooden coffee table. A translucent AR photo of President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS
in 1945 turned slowly on an axis in the center of the room. Its edges nearly touched the walls.

The US embassy employee appeared from behind the beveled brass door. “Did you finish your conversation?” he asked in a thick Indian accent.

“Yes, I’m finished.” Lauren took off the black abaya. She rolled it up and tossed it to him like a ball and walked to the exit.

When she got back to Stephanie’s boat, she crawled into bed next to her and fell asleep instantly. She awoke to an AR bubble floating in front of her with a message from Stephanie to join her on the deck. She grabbed the hotel laundry bag full of things from Harold’s suite. The searing sun had disappeared. Lauren sat on the side of the boat with her feet dangling over the edge, lining up the small liquor bottles as she watched the flickering
eddies reflecting the LED skyline behind her. It was the clearest night since the burning of Abqaiq. She peeled off the plastic cap of a small bottle of rum and poured it into a crystal wine glass. Stephanie finished adjusting the outdoor AC fans and slid down next to her and started to massage her shoulders.

“There are plenty more,” Lauren said, pointing to the row of bottles. “Here, I brought you a glass.” Lauren handed her one of the whiskey bottles.

“Oh, a family favorite,” Stephanie sniggered before grabbing it.

“Where is Harold now?” Lauren seemed genuinely concerned.

“I don’t know. Sometimes he uses temporary IDs. I wouldn’t get too upset over it, darling. If he’s dead, he can’t annul my marriage.”

“He was really nice, though.”

“They’re all nice, darling.”


ood news, Mr. Charlie. We are moving you.” Majed sounded genuinely enthusiastic.

“When?” Charlie asked.


Two guards he didn’t recognize gestured for him to stand up. They grabbed him by his shoulders and guided him out of the cell. They walked him to the same elevator he had arrived in and placed a black cotton bag over his head. He moved around through hot and cold ambient temperatures until finally he was handcuffed with his arms above his head. He heard an engine start and doors slam. He was in some kind of truck. There was no air-conditioning. Hours passed, and he became drenched in sweat. When the cotton bag became difficult to breathe through, he made an effort to observe his bodily discomfort as if he were separate from it. Finally, the doors opened, and the bag was removed from his head.

A different set of guards walked him through an automatic matte brown steel door in a sandstone building that looked like the back of a mall. The sudden gust of chilled air wicked away the sweat from his body almost immediately. They guided him down several immaculate white corridors reminiscent of a hospital before entering a large gray concrete room the size of a lecture auditorium. There were four large cages in it. Only one of the cages was occupied. A naked man was sleeping on the floor. The guards locked Charlie in the cage diagonally opposite and left without saying anything. He began pacing in a triangular formation. At least an hour passed before Majed nonchalantly shuffled into the room and handed him his glasses through the shiny steel bars.

“Tomorrow,” Majed said as he strode beside Charlie’s cage with his arms behind his back. He seemed almost apologetic.

“What time?” Charlie asked.

“After sunrise.” His eyes were cast downward, and he blinked deliberately.

“Thanks for the update.” Charlie watched as the airlock doors sealed behind him.

“So what brings you to Saudi?” the man on the floor asked the moment Majed had left. He rolled on the floor agitatedly and rose to his feet, swirling his bedsheet around him like a toga. He beamed a childlike smile. He was older with streaks of gray in his jet-black hair that still seemed to be well-groomed; years of expensive care that could not be undone permeated his face.

“Where are you from?”

“Philippines. Proud to be Pinoy.”

“You don’t have any trace of an accent.”

“You’re American, right?”


“I spent many years in your country.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Too long. So why are you here?”


“Oh yeah?” The man giggled uncontrollably as if he had been suppressing laughter for years.

“Something funny?”

“You have to laugh. It helps.”

“Really? I’m not sure it does. So what about you?”

“I’m a scientist. Botanical engineer. I reengineered a whole new breed of qat in Yemen. Twice as potent but requiring a fraction of the irrigation.”

“You did that?”

“I helped.”

“And I can guess what you reengineered here.”

“I could never get qat to be as potent as hash. It can’t be done.”

“Not in our lifetime.”

The man laughed. “You see? Laughter is good.” He continued laughing.

“It doesn’t change anything.”

“You know…this place we live in…It’s a hologram. This…it’s all an illusion. These walls? They’re not walls. You could leave here any time you’re ready.”

“Why are you still here?”

“Who said I’m still here?”

“You look like you’re here.”

“I seem to be here. This,” he said as he looked around with wild eyes full of disdain. “This isn’t here.”


“And when you die, it won’t matter how long you lived.”

“Maybe,” Charlie said as he clicked on Lauren’s icon and lay back in his bed. “I want to sleep now.”

“OK, man.”

Charlie watched Lauren dance in a silver fish-scale dress and matching shoes amid hydrangeas and hyacinths and orchids. Ivy wrapped itself around the bars of his cage until they were concealed. Watching her was like drinking water and becoming aware of his thirst.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“I’m not feeling too much like talking, Lauren.”

“Why not?”

“I think I’m going to die.”

“You should see a doctor.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“How was your day?”

“Boring. Just had dinner.”

“You should take me out to a café.”

“Maybe tomorrow. I think I’m going to sleep now.”

“OK. Sweet dreams. Dream of me.”

“I always do.” And for some reason, he fell asleep.

He awoke, shaken, from a dream that had seemed more real than anything he had experienced since his arrival in Saudi Arabia. He was walking on immaculate glass streets bereft of people in a city of translucent gold skyscrapers surrounded by a pure black ocean that reflected nothing.

He put his glasses back on and began flipping back and forth between photos and videos of Lauren before returning to AR Lauren. The howls of the sunrise prayer came echoing through his cell before he realized his eyes were burning and his body was cramped.

The Filipino was standing pressed against the bars of his cage. “It’s your wake-up call, man!” He began cackling like a hyena in heat. “The dream is over…whee!”

A swarm of black Dragonflies and Bats entered the room and buzzed around the cages in a figure-eight pattern. They were followed by a procession of four guards walking in cadence.

“They’re coming for you, man. They’re coming for
! Are you ready? Just let go, man!” One of the guards turned to the Filipino and gave him a
disapproving frown, and he responded with a cackle. The guards unlocked Charlie’s cage and stood by his bed. Lauren stood next to them in a matching black uniform with her arms folded and imitated their glowering expressions.

“Up,” one of the guards said to Charlie.

“OK,” Charlie said as he stood up. The guard motioned for him to remove his glasses. “No. Majed said I can keep these.”

“OK. But not these,” the guard said as he pulled the earbuds from his ears and guided him out of the cell.

As he walked through the sandy concrete corridor with glossy gray walls, he splashed it with clouds and buildings with a wave of his hand. It was a street in Saigon, but instead of laundry hanging from the balconies, there were thick green vines. The streets were canals with flowering water lilies. Lauren was walking in front of him and looking over her bare white shoulders and giggling flirtatiously like they had just met. The frilled tops of her thigh-high purple stockings rubbed against the hem of her black velvet miniskirt.

The vines grew longer and began swaying rhythmically. As he exited the building, he picked up a local network. An oil chart the size of the Al Khobar skyline showed the price had quadrupled since the destruction of Abqaiq. Oil futures were spiking like musical notes in staccato. Looking out beyond the puppet show of heads and beyond the square, the local municipality’s AR app allowed him to see through the skyline to the commemorative sphere that hovered above where Abqaiq once stood. Lauren reappeared, wearing the sequined dress he had bought her in Singapore on some weekend in another lifetime, and then it slipped away and disappeared. Her naked body shone like it was covered in massage oil as she danced on a sea of gold mercury that rippled across the crowd. She looked at him and closed her eyes emphatically, and for the first time, he thought she seemed to understand what was happening to him.

He looked over at the executioner and down at the sharpened scimitar reflecting the rising sun, which brought memories of the weekend in Seoul when Lauren had seen snow for the first time. The excited shouts and gestures of the crowd felt peripheral to everything that was real, and a voice inside told him to laugh.

BOOK: The Artificial Mirage
9.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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