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The Valley of the Kings
originally published in Beacon Quarterly, 2020

	They gave up and parked a block away. White roses in the little yards and over the fences like thousands of split paper towels. Connor and Makayla leaned in their heels on the pavement, which was uneven because of the roots of the live oaks. Connor carried a heavy gift bag full of product.
	The Coffee Bean was on the other side of Ventura Boulevard. They waited at the light. Traffic with the morning on it, and morning in the office buildings. The morning opened the buildings wide and easily. Makayla looked up into an office, at a poster on the wall which was of a fiscal growth chart or an orchid or a close-up of a flea.

	Rachel had her back to them. Her blonde hair, like a standing clock. She felt them looking; she turned. She stood and sneered and they hugged: “You look amazing,” said Rachel honestly, contemptuously. Rachel’s eye moved over Makayla like a hand into produce. The surface of Makayla’s skin responded erotically but without interest.
	Everybody looked good. Connor and Rachel’s spring tans had been modulated into glow by the June gloom. Makayla looked best. Connor got in line and Rachel and Makayla sat down and showed their phones to one another.
	“It’s going to be so depressing to see her,” said Rachel suddenly. On the jelly surface of the phone in her hand was a photo of Makayla in Geneva.
	“Seda,” understood Makayla after a moment.
	“It’s going to be so depressing,” Rachel said again, harder.
	Connor returned. She hung the gift bag from her hand by its silky rope.
	“What all did you bring her?” asked Rachel. Her eyes climbed the bag.
	“Just basically whatever I had on my desk. I figured: pile it on, pile it on.” She cantilevered the bag toward the tabletop and its aluminum bottles knocked gigantically against the table and each other. “Latte for Connie,” said the boy behind the counter.
	“So how long have you been back?” asked Rachel.
	“Like two weeks,” Makayla said.
	“Is it awkward seeing Joshy?”
	“Well, I’m not gonna.”
	Connor sat down. “Are you staying?” asked Rachel.
	“I don’t know,” said Makayla.
	“But like are you moving back? You don’t even have a car. Did you get that done at the Studio?” Now she was talking about Makayla’s hair.
	“No,” said Makayla. “Armenia.” She meant that she was born with it. Connor took Makayla’s hair in her palm and spread it like black money.
	Makayla was being handed off. She and Rachel were going to visit Seda in rehab in Malibu and Connor was headed to a work lunch. They talked about Seda. They talked indirectly. Seda had gotten a nose job—and a week later she was in rehab. There was something disquieting about this timeline. The events were unrelated; Seda had been an addict since high school; that the events were unrelated made them strange. It was strange that the nose job and rehab should come and stand next to one another without speaking. 
	“I’m also like why did she wait so long,” said Rachel, and then, abashed, “I mean for the nose.”
	“No, it’s good, though,” said Connor. “This is the right age. Your face isn’t even done growing until you’re like 25. I did mine way too young and now it’s like my nose is moving away from you and my face is coming toward you.”
	“Also if I look at you too long you sort of spiral,” said Makayla.
	“Also I’m two profiles looking at a vase,” said Connor.
	“If you stand on your head you’re an old lady in a kerchief,” said Makayla.
	Rachel jerked the ice in the heel of her cup. She rose and got in line for a refill.
	“Rachel bought a house,” said Connor the instant Rachel had gone. “And she had her mom decorate.”
	“How’s it look?”
	“Cheesecake Factory. Do you seriously want to get into a car with her?”
	“It’ll be fine.”
	“Hours in a car with her.”
	“It’ll be fine.”
	“Hey,” said Connor. She was looking at her calendar. “It’s the first day of summer.”

	Rachel and Makayla took Kanan Road. “I got her a SusieCakes,” said Rachel, and after that there wasn’t much to say. Somewhere in Venice in a backyard Isidore was affixed into lemon trees, a small red table, soft-haired family. Tall, drinking café crème. There seemed to be no space between one of these forms and another. Isidore had too tall a body for the little yard—he wore his poor fit with grace, and crowded-in by the yellow hanging lemons he was no unhappier than a lover whose lover embraces too hard.
	He lowered his coffee cup to the saucer on his thigh. On Kanan Road, the sky and the white water peeled the hills apart. The land declined and traffic accumulated. They slowed among cars, between a truck escape and a living lawn. The truck escape was an aisle of little stones. On the lawn there was a hand-painted sign. FRESH STRAWBERRIES. A pinwheel and a child’s scrunchie were gaffer-taped to the sign. The pinwheel and the holographic streamers of the scrunchie rolled and flashed.
	They turned at the ocean. The ocean moved its big head, watching. The hills were silent and vacant and the road climbed straight up. The road leveled on the ridge of a gully; at their end, the land was full of long heaps of hills and nothing else. The heaps were green from the marine layer or secret sprinklers. Across the gully, far from the car and one another, great houses clung to the side of the Santa Monicas. At the deep floor of the gully there was a playground. Swing set, picnic table. Two small humans moving.
	Rachel pressed herself to the wheel and monitored the window. At length lodges appeared in the folds of the land. “Like a fucking summer camp,” Rachel said. The buildings were very still.
	Rachel rolled to the head of a dirt path and tipped forward. The path was long and they saw no cars. They parked and descended on foot to the nearest porch. The windows were empty. Rachel’s knock fell into air and air in pines. Behind them, the road was concealed by ripples of green land. Rachel had a cupcake box on her left palm; Makayla held the bag of product.
	Rachel knocked on a window. Makayla looked backward again: a figure on the ridge: a cleaning lady in a blue smock, coming evenly down. Rachel patted her nails on the window. The cleaning lady was on the dirt path. The cleaning lady called: “There is no one.”
	“Jesus,” said Rachel, starting.
	The cleaning lady walked the path and over the lawn and climbed the porch stairs. She had a plastic organizer in her hand, an open-headed caddy: brush handles, blue brush hairs. She set it down on the doorstep.
	The cleaning lady led Rachel and Makayla down the path and around the building, through a grove of baby pines, into a shrub where there were stone steps, and boughs of red flowers that ran over their bodies in lines. The cleaning lady and Rachel and Makayla sank and sank into the ground, around the feet of a deck which was above them. The face of a lodge: it opened into a tiled courtyard, and a loud fountain making the tiles wet. Navy tiles, tiles the color of brown eggs. “The office?” said the cleaning lady. She brought them to the door across the courtyard and she smiled at them as if they were going to cry.
	They entered a giant bright room—windows and high beams, and dozens of talking people. People on Navajo throws on the arms of couches; people playing cards. Legs in pale jeans walking past the birch-trunk railing of the upper levels.

	Seda looked bad. She was fat and her hair had spaces in it, maybe from a pillow. Her hands were at her sides on the bed as if she were going to launch herself up, and her lip was puffy in embarrassment or hatred or nausea. Rachel and Makayla sat on the spare bed. Seda interrupted after a few minutes to ask about Makayla’s wedding. “I’ll be out by then,” Seda added.
	“Oh,” said Makayla. “It’s off.”
	“It’s been off for like months,” said Rachel.
	“No one told me,” Seda said.
	They gathered around Seda’s bed and lifted Rachel’s gifts from the bag. Makayla slid the bottles over her hands and explained them. There was also an ionic straightener.
	“Your nose looks perfect,” said Rachel. The curtains were nearly drawn over the tall window: through the gap Makayla could see the Santa Monicas, a balcony with a breakfast table, an overturned Starbucks venti on the table. Golf-green matcha sediment through the transparent side of the Starbucks venti.

	“That was so depressing,” said Rachel as she drove. Makayla was thinking of the days of the year. In her mind the year was a big ring, an orange gradient which darkened as she walked to winter and paled in summer. She was standing in June. She was looking back at May. In Studio City in a hotel Makayla had vomited on Isidore’s cock. He had laid her on her belly and he stood at the foot of the made bed, and she was blowing him and she vomited. She was surprised to vomit. It was like a rock dropped in water. He withdrew and she looked at her fingers which came from her chin, and they were bright with bile.
	Isidore dried her cheek and lips as she sat on the side of the tub. He wasn’t disgusted. Probably because he had children.
	Rachel invited Makayla out. “I can’t. We’re going to Annie Kaplan’s,” said Makayla.
	“What? Why?”
	“I guess just to see her,” said Makayla. Connor had designed the tour.
	“I haven’t seen her since twelfth grade. I thought she was dead. Why do you even want to? Where does she live?”
	“Calabasas. She moved back home.”
	Rachel thought. “I get it,” she said. “You’re hanging out with the poor people because Joshy got custody of the good friends. Rehab makes people so fat. I shouldn’t have given her that SusieCakes.”
	In the night in Annie Kaplan’s parents’ house in Calabasas there was a movie playing. Annie’s friends sat on the couch with Makayla. They took turns asking questions about Switzerland. Annie moved in the yellow kitchen doorway.
	The movie stopped exploding and Connor’s voice rose. Annie’s friends on the couch looked at one another. “Like she’s supposed to do a press release? She’s supposed to go door to door with a box of fucking figs?”
	“Yeah, no, no,” said Annie, walking it back and down. “Of course. No. Of course.”
	A door unsealed and a boy came into the living room and walked sideways between Annie and Connor into the kitchen.
	“I didn’t even know he was here,” said one of Annie’s friends. The boy was Moses, Annie’s little brother.
	Connor drove Annie before her into the living room. “How’s Seda?” asked Connor. They talked about the rehab and Makayla reported on her nose. Annie spoke with a distressed compassion. Seda had been cruel to Annie when they were girls.
	Moses came out of the kitchen chewing. “Come sit with us,” said Annie. Her brother went into her side and she put her arm around him. His white arms at either end of his black shirt were like light through blinds.
	“This movie blows,” he said.
	“It’s my favorite movie,” said Makayla.
	“She knows all the lines,” said Connor.
	Moses diminished into self-hatred. “I’m lying,” explained Makayla. Moses scratched his eyebrow with the heel of his hand.
	“The movie’s bullshit, though.” Moses spoke like he couldn’t help himself. Annie rolled her eyes and head but Moses went on. “It’s just—propaganda.”
	“Please stop your dumb thoughts,” said Annie. “Propaganda is for politics. Making fun of Aleister Crowley is not a goddamn political position.”
	“Ok, but it is and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real, and you don’t know everything, so like just shut the fuck up about things you don’t know, maybe.”
	“He’s a passionate boy and we want to support that,” said Annie.
	“Who’s Aleister Crowley?” asked Makayla.
	“Please don’t,” said Annie.
	“He’s like—occultism?” Moses’ face wrenched with love. “Do you kind of know what that is?”
	“It’s like glasses,” said Makayla.
	“Glasses and contacts.”
	“It’s where you get your glaucoma tested.”

	There were black sheets pinned to the walls of Moses’ room. The sheets were pilled and reddened from laundering. Moses revolved on his feet and put the big book in Makayla’s hands. He was talking tightly about pyramids.
	In the book there was a photo of a statue the size of a tower, a crowd of walking people at the base of its plinth. The statue was a pharaoh, naked-breasted, hands in soft fists, foot stepping forward. The bones and muscles of his knees were defined and shadowed. A doll mouth, eyes without pupils in the departments of their lids, inside the clean dish of his face. Sacklike pharaoh hat, ears like a photo of ears. Moses put his finger on the pharaoh’s face. “And his eyes are big because the idea is that he’s paying attention to you, that’s an Egyptian thing, because they worshipped statues, like: a god will go into a statue? And that’s kind of the idea of a servitor. You make a thing and then it gets alive on its own.”
	Moses smelled like sweat. Waxy school books and unfolded clothes on his bureau, beneath the plantation shutters which were open, shortening the room. Outside, the Santa Monicas were blacker than the sky, and furry.
	“And some people invoke—they call up a god, or an angel, or like a demon, but it’s not like a demon like you’d think, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just like a way to say ‘earth spirit’, and the whole thing is for your will. Will is like what you want. It’s like your, uh, your plans, or—like have you heard of ‘free will’? Thelema is all about free will, whereas Judaism and Christianity are more about like law.” In her periphery, Moses’ face was taut, sorrowful, passionate. He described magical rituals. He spoke over himself and too quickly.
	“And that’s Thelema,” Moses concluded, like a shoe falling on the floor. Makayla was looking at a diagram of a Thelemic ritual. It was so stupid that a hand stretched up through Makayla’s nose and firmly, damply occluded her whole vision and the sensation in her brow. This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, she would have said.
	A terrific god got up out of the water and bowed through the mountains like a cat under bedclothes. The god looked at Makayla with his bride eyes. He had come to find her. Makayla decided that she would inflate a silence so big that it pushed against the face of the god, a noiselessness which would obliterate the god into the mountain and then the water and into his babyhood. She would reverse him into emptiness.
	“I mean,” grieved Moses, “but magic is bullshit, spells are more like a psychological, uh, like a mind trick, I don’t believe in magic.”
	“I believe it,” said Makayla. “I think it’s real. What would happen if you did it backwards?”
	On a saddle of the Santa Monicas out the window, a car’s light grew and then disappeared and then brightened and rolled: it was like a rewound video of a droplet descending a flower’s leaf, then beading at the leaf’s point and falling.