XV. The Hills
It was dark. Only the passing lights outside the window gave illumination to the van’s interior. No matter how grim everything is, the city lights made magnificent streaks at out speed. 12:44am. Lucian decided to call off the shoot for the music video of my first single. In a rare moment, he held me down on my shoulders and asked me what I wanted. How do I want my first outing to be for my sophomore album? I didn’t know if I should believe him or not. He’s literally asking me to take control over my image. At that point, I realized I did not know anything. It was always been him. It felt like removing the crutches and I stood there not knowing where to go.
That’s where I wanted to shoot my first music video. The shock in his face was quickly replaced by determination. He agreed, “If that’s what you want.”
I couldn’t believe what I just heard. Immediately, he stood up and left the dressing room. Was his father’s intimidation enough for him to change? Why is he giving me control over my career? At this point, I don’t know which side Lucian is on. Are there even any good side? Could it be true that Lucian has really fallen in love with me? That he has been on my side this whole time fighting the big machine controlling us both.
I looked at him right beside me and he was quiet. The same city lights lit his face up for a few seconds before it descended to the dark outline of his shadows. Where are we going?
A few more minutes of silence and we stopped in front of a huge gate. From my view at the tinted windows, it was some sort of a gated compound. A large mansion tucked atop the hills with the city glimmering below. We are probably on the affluent side of the city. Where only the wealthiest of men stayed to drink their champagne as they talked about politics and hockey. The mansion beyond the gate was dimly lit. With only a few lights highlighting the different corners of the structure. It was rather beautiful despite the darkness. The wrought iron gate slowly opened for the van to pass through.
Silence. It was the only thing in the air that was broken by the shutting doors of the van and the clicking made by my heels. Lucian walked right into the open door and I had no choice but to follow. He led me into a wide atrium with two staircases on both sides. Something told me this wasn’t the first time I’ve been to this place. There was an empty reception desk in the middle and we went past it. Behind it was an antique doorway that slid open to reveal that it was a lift. It was one of those with a secondary retractable iron mesh you need to open and close on your way in and out. For a mansion that only looked like it had two floors, I wondered what a lift is doing in it. The person who owns this must be in a wheelchair. But we didn’t go up.
It made a loud cranking noise upon reaching the bottom. It took 22 seconds to reach the floor. It must have been way down. My heartbeat went faster but Lucian looked as calm as he used to. Something in his eyes told me that he is regretting this decision. The lift opened to reveal a straight, long and dark corridor with blue lights afar. My feet hesitated in stepping out but my fear of being left behind pushed me forward. There was a slow breeze I could feel lining up my skin as we passed through the claustrophobic hall. The nearer we got to the bright blue lights the harder it got for me to breathe. I didn’t know if it was the hall or the anticipation. And once we did, I looked around me to find that the source of the blue lights were a clear glass window on both sides. Peering into the windows and you could see cubicles below with people focused on their computers. They were all in white. The only thing that gave light below was the brightness of their screens set to max. If I could count their number it would be fifty on each side. And we stood there hanging in a clear glass tunnel looking over men and women focused on their work. Like bees in a hive.
I never really thought of what it looked like whenever I hear it from Lucian’s phonecalls. When I signed my contract with them, we weren’t even in an office or an undisclosed location. I signed with the label, The Grid, right at the restaurant when Lucian invited me for dinner after seeing me perform on a small town bar.
“This is why you’re famous.”
He told me without any ounce of hesitation.
But he’s right. Without the machine, I would have never become Glory. Somehow, I felt like I always knew that. As much as I want to believe that I got to a sophomore album out of sheer talent, it was still The Grid that put me on the map. Otherwise, I’d just be another content on the internet that is collecting digital dust. Those old viral videos of me performing in bars? It won’t even reach past one thousand without The Grid. They won’t even be “viral.”
According to him, this team below us was responsible for clearing my image from the roots. They removed all of my old pictures on the Internet. Any trace of them were blocked from view. All the little social networks I joined to spread my “music” I recorded in my bedroom. All of them were gone in a snap. That was the very first project given to these people. Remove any trace of Maria.
Do you know what they did next?
After burying my birth identity from the digital world, they made me up a new one. That was the second phase. As they say, people nowadays would always want a background on their artists. They want to see that just like them, we are people. An average human being. That was always the main goal of people needing someone to look up to. Diminish us from the pedestal they themselves put. So The Grid set up sources that will be taken as valid. A little lie here and there. They always leave at least one childhood photo. It humanizes us.
Lucky for The Grid, I did not have as much friends. It probably wasn’t a problem to track down every single one of them and hack into their accounts, causing them to delete them. Actually, I never had friends that would last a year ever since I was a kid. I’ve always been a loner even in school. It’s funny how as a kid, I’ve always wanted to be under the spotlight. But every time the light was not on me, I didn’t want to talk to people. I got into fights with other kids who misunderstood me. That’s why my mom decided that it would be best if I was homeschooled. Or at least that’s what I thought it was. It was sudden. I remember being pulled out of school when I was little and that was it. My mom started teaching me at home. Sometimes, another tutor came in. I couldn’t remember his name. A man with blond hair. It was too far back for me to remember. I wonder if I even got his name. Maybe in my memory, he was just a tutor. Whenever I try to revisit that memory, his face was blurry.
And the third phase is to bombard the web with my name. They set up fake profiles on different social networks to act as my “fans.” They built their own community to draw in real people to the music. Slowly, they watched this community grow until each and every single part of The Grid leaves for it to thrive on its own. This is how The Fandom was built. Now, it is a culture on its own independent of the label.
The Grid follows a strict code, ”Everything has to be organic.” What does this mean? Every bit of information has to have roots. In a digital world, where people can see information on anything they want by searching, they had to leave breadcrumbs to assert validity. They had to write simple stories and repeat them a thousand times over across the web. When two to three sites talk about the same thing, people would easily believe it. They believed my story. They think they knew who Glory was.
“And the fourth phase was limitation. This was our strategy in setting you apart from all the other pop stars. Instead of feeding new information about you to the media, we hindered it. It was a big gamble, but as you can see, it worked. It created mystery to you as an artist and the anticipation for what you will do next keeps the audience at their toes.” Lucian extended his arm toward the section of people in charge of the fourth phase. The people paid no attention to us as they went about with their tasks at hand. I could see some of their screens showed codes while others showed videos of my performances being offline from top streaming websites. They can see everything. Like they sit in the highest slope of the city overlooking the rest of the valley. I guess the hills really do have eyes.
“The phase we are in is Emergence. Which aptly coincides with the name of your second record. Take it as releasing you from captivity.” I followed him to a platform where a large screen displayed a hundred desktops’ current work.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, “Why are you telling me this?” My voice cracked in fear. In my head, I thought that he could all be telling me this for he knows I will forget them again when I sleep. It’s going to be another painful session. My knees went weak at the thought of it. And I found my thoughts wishing and wishing that he would tell me, no.
“You know the answer, Glory.” The tone of his voice changed. His eyes told me to listen to him carefully as he tugged my hand closer to him. I couldn’t help but throw myself in embrace as I cried. Footsteps drew near the platform. “You have to trust me,” He whispered.
I felt two bulky hands grip around my arms. “Take her away,” Lucian ordered in a stern voice. No. Not again.
I struggled to break free but the two men wearing white were a lot stronger and bigger than I am. It was unsure to me whether they’re one of the workers but it became clear as I was brought down the stairs, deeper into The Grid. The walls were dark and it felt like I was stepping on blank spaces. The new halls resembled a hospital and that’s when I knew the difference in the shade of white they were wearing.
I screamed as hard as I can and kicked the leg of one of the men holding me. His response was to give me a hard slap that almost knocked me down. The other nurse reprimanded him for hurting me and I watched them as they had an argument. The door to the room they plan on taking me was left open. There was a gurney inside with black straps on it. I was right.
While I heard voices rose, echoing through the hall, I opened my palm to see what Lucian slipped into my hand when we embraced.
It was a familiar green pill.