Part 1 of 7
His eyes opened.
He blinked. Blinked twice, three, four times.
Stainless steel metal walls. An indented grid tiled the cold, silver walls, the floor, the ceiling. A blinding, singular beam of fluorescent ran across the length of the ceiling.
Eric looked up and had to squint, and shield his eyes in recoil.
He looked down. no shoes, no clothes, just a hospital gown.
He cried, yelled, and screamed, and gazed at his trembling hands as he tried to remember how he ended up here. Again.
He felt put both hands on his own head, frantically feeling on his own skull, as if he was searching for something on the back of his head.
“Force Release!” He yelled, frantically.
The familiar, soft electronic tone sounded, and he heard a woman’s silky-smooth voice in his head say, “Are you sure? Please confirm by saying ‘Yes.’ ”
“YES!” he bellowed in frustration.
Eric’s headset returned to it’s home screen. “Power off,” he sighed, took his VR helmet off and threw it onto his bed as it powered down.
The smell of french fries, burgers, and hot summer air flooded in. A bright wave of sunlight made him squint again and turn away from the curtainless windows.
“Mom! It’s still not working!” Eric whined.
“What’s that, honey? Come get your lunch!” his mother replied from the kitchen down the hall.
Eric lazily trotted down the hallway. His mother had a burger-filled steaming pan in one hand and a spatula older than her 15-year-old son on the other. She was most preoccupied with her new tablet, mounted on a necklace-like apparatus that held it about 10 inches directly in front of her face at all times.
“It keeps glitching, mom, it’s busted!” Eric said to his mother, paying more attention to a TV show streaming on her tablet than Eric or the stove.
“Hold on, just hold on… pause… PAUSE!” his mom yelled. The TV show on her tablet stood still.
“What is it, hun? Here, your burger’s ready–”
“The keeps glitching! It’s busted! It goes to a different reality. It happened three times already, and this time the External Release button didn’t work,” Eric said, ignoring his mother.
“Well, we can always return it if it’s really not working. But I thought I told you, you need to clean that room! Never mind some game,” Eric’s mom said as she set the table, “And do you remember what grandpa used to say about getting stuck playing video games all day?”
Eric rolled his eyes. “There’s always a way to get to the next level.”
“Yes, exac- wait, no! That was your head-up-his-ass father of yours! Your grandfather always said ‘there’s a whole world out there that’s not on your iPhone,’ ” Eric’s mother replied, in a rare moment of lucidity.
“What – what’s an iPhone?” asked Eric.
“Ugh… you sure know how to remind of my age, boy- they don’t teach you about the first smartphones in school?”
“Not really?” Eric said, half-sarcastically.
“Well they should! Now c’mon, take your food and go eat, I can’t cook and talk to you and watch my show at the same time.” said Eric’s mother, toggling between her corroded spatula, a hot pan and a plated burger and fries.
“So can we return this VR headset, then?” asked Eric, as he took the plate.
“We’ll see, honey, I’m falling behind right now and you’re not helping!” His mother said. She was anxious to keep up with the show on her tablet, mounted in front of her, like a high-tech harmonica.
“And you need to clean your room after lunch. Now eat, your food’s gonna get cold. PLAY!” his mother yelled at her tablet.
“Honestly, mom, it’s 90 degrees out. It’s not gonna get co-” His mother’s face-facing tablet was already drowning him out.
Part 2 of 7
Eric finished his lunch rather quickly, bolting back into his room after dumping his empty plate into the sink. He put his headset back on, determined.
“On!” he yelled.
The visuals of the VR headset illuminated once again, filling his gaze with the all-too familiar title screen of his most-and least-favorite game:
“ANOTHER LIFE VR” appeared on the screen in a minimalist, typewriter font.
The usual dashboard screen emerged: a black, worn, typewriter from the mid-20th century, with elevated, circular keys and an otherwise blank page ready with the words ‘ANOTHER LIFE VR’ written at the top center, in all caps. The typewriter sat on a dark brown wooden desk, with a stack of paper on the left, held down by a cigar box. On the right was a steaming white mug, presumably with virtual coffee inside.
Eric tried to look around, and could only get as far as the interior of what looked like was a single-room cabin in the woods, with a twin-sized bed on a simple, metal frame in the far right corner. Next to it stood a beat-up looking wooden night stand with a lunchbox-sized transistor radio on top. It felt and looked as real as if he were really there, at least until the next version came out with better graphics and performance.
They could’ve done a better job with the main menu, Eric thought, as he felt the virtual breeze from an open window in the cabin, and the unmistakable smell of pine trees it carried in.
Eric moved ‘his hand’ to the stack of papers on the desk and said “Let’s pickup where I left off.”
The game took control, cutting to a quick cinematic snippet. Eric’s ‘hands’ switched out the mostly blank paper in his typewriter with the top sheet of paper out of the stack. The paper was rolled into the typewriter, and as Eric’s ‘hands’ started typing the first few keys, the screen quickly faded to black.
He was transported to his last save point.
The sun was out. Eric blinked as the brightness in his eyes made him turn away. He found himself laying on the grass, somewhere. He looked to the side and saw her, the usual flowing red hair, freckles, and piercing blue eyes.
“What’s wrong, Marky? D’ya nod off again?” said the red-headed young woman in an apparent British accent, laying next to him.
Eric looked around. A blue and white flannel shirt, light blue jeans and a tattered pair of black Chuck Taylors enveloped his ‘body.’
He glanced at his analog watch. The time read 1:03 PM – APR 23 – 89.
Yes! Eric thought, No more glitchy, psych ward checkpoint bullshit… for now, anyway… this stupid game…
“Right, yeah. It’s been a long day,” Eric said, in Mark’s voice-and British accent as well.
“S’about time! I was gonna give you a whack with my hardest textbook if you didn’t wake up! We’re gonna be late to class, again, Marky,” Emma said, as he just remembered her name.
“Right then,” Eric/Mark said, “guess we should get going. Maybe we should get an Uber,”
“A what? Uber?”
“Huh? what?” Mark/Eric said, trying to move past the moment.
“I don’t think I heard you right?” asked Emma.
“Yeah, erm, we should get a move on,” he replied.
“Don’t be so American! ‘Get a move on,’ how crass,” Emma said.
“Whatever, your highness,” Eric/Mark said, relieved. “Shall we then? The Circle Line?”
“Right on, dude!” Emma said, in her best Baywatch-inspired American accent.
He playfully punched her in the shoulder.
The ‘External Release’ button clicked on his VR headset. Everything suddenly went dark.
Part 3 of 7
Eric let out a growl of disgust as reality set back in. He pushed his headset up onto his forehead and saw back of his mother’s tablet, with her piercing stare a few inches behind it.
“What did I tell you earlier, Eric?!” she said.
“What the hell, mom?!”
“This room is a mess! Let’s go! I don’t care about your little game and what other life you’re living! You have one hour from now to finish, start cleaning up!”
“Mom, I was right in the middle of the game! That’s how that stupid glitch thing kept happening! I’m supposed to pause it and save it and then turn it off-”
“Alright,” His mom said,”well you can certainly do that, after your room is clean,” she said as she quickly snatched Eric’s VR set off the top of his head, where it was resting like a pair of goggles.
“Oh come on!” Eric whined.
“No, you come on! You’ll get it back in an hour, if your room is clean.”
“I’m going to start watching my show, — no wait, pause, PAUSE!” she said, after accidentally starting her show.
“If you’re done by the time it’s over, you’ll get it back then. If it’s still a junk yard in here, then oh well, you’ll have to wait,” said his mom as she trotted out with Eric’s VR set in hand, her tablet swinging back and forth on her neck mount.
The door slammed as she stormed out. Eric sighed and threw himself onto his bed.
He looked up at the ceiling and then glanced around his room. There were dirty clothes and a snake pit of old computer cords strewn across his carpeted floor, which hadn’t been vacuumed in months.
He thought about yelling at his mom, and calling her a hypocrite and a stupid bitch, but that didn’t go over too well last time, so he elected to ask her where the vacuum cleaner and cleaning supplies were.
“Mom! Mom! Hello?!” Asked Eric, staring directly at her, standing across the living room right in front of the couch she lay on. She stared directly at her tablet, blowing her nose and wiping tears from an emotional scene happening on her show.
“Huh?!” she jolted slightly in her nestled space on the couch. “You’re not getting out of this, Eric! It’s only been 5 minutes, you need to give some real cleaning a try! PAUSE!”
“Where’s the vacuum?!” he asked. He knew the less words he used, the better when Relationship Island was on.
“Jesus Atheist Christ! It’s in the closet under the stairs, where it’s always been! I guess I should be grateful you actually want to use the vacuum for once. Have fun, and stop interrupting my show! I swear, you kids today…”
“Alright-cool-thanks!” a freshly annoyed Eric replied rapidly, heading straight for the door under the staircase, right past the living room.
“Play! Max volume!” Eric’s mom said as her tablet’s volume increased, a tactic used to drown out any further sass Eric usually retorted with.
“Stupid bitch,” Eric said out loud on his way out, taking full advantage of his mother’s last countermeasure.
He opened the door under the stairs and saw the dusty, yellow and transparent vacuum cleaner. He grabbed it by the handle and wrenched it out of the sea of cardboard boxes and random trinkets stashed under the stairs.
Of all his friends’ houses he’s been to, his was the only house with a manual vacuum.
This thing has to be from like, the early 2000s, He thought as he rolled it behind him to his room. He cleared the rug of all his dirty laundry, throwing it into his already overflowing hamper.
Clearly anticipating his mother’s snowball of yelling to come about his dirty clothes, he dragged his hamper out of his room and over to the washer and dryer closet by the kitchen.
He looked at his wrist. “OK Google – search ‘psych ward glitch in Another Life VR’,” he said while loading the washer. Definitely a two-loader, at least, he thought.
Eric went back into his room, his energy level now climbing back to normal. He plugged in the vacuum and turned it on.
He was not ready at all for the vacuum noise. He turned it off immediately, just in time to hear his mom holler “CLOSE THE DOOR!” from the living room.
Eric slammed his door shut, asking himself Why can’t we just get a fucking Roomba?! and I bet noone’s touched his thing in years!
He turned it on again and got to work. After a few grueling minutes of rolling over his rug and floor, he turned off the outdated monstrosity and unplugged it, wrapping the chord around the vacuum as he found it.
Now back to hell, where you belong, thought Eric as he carelessly stuffed the old vacuum into the closet.
Part 4 of 7
Heading back to his room he looked at his wrist, forgot he googled anything and saw there were several recent results on his watch for ‘psych ward glitch in Another Life VR’.
He lay on his bed, aimed the edge of it at the wall over his bed, touched the side of it and said “Project.”
A blue laser grid quickly flashed on the wall, followed almost instantly by an auto-fitted projection of Eric’s search results, displayed from a small orifice in his watch.
“Scroll down,” Eric said, looking for the most relevant listing. “Next page. Next page…”
Eric knew it wasn’t worth looking into too much at this point. The glitch had been coming up for weeks and he hadn’t found anything relevant on it yet. He clicked on anything resembling a glitch in the game, but nothing he found came close.
After a fruitless search of anything related to his ongoing game glitch, Eric finished one load of laundry and started another. He rolled up and organized a few of the old cords worth saving and then threw out the bulk of them.
His mother had fallen asleep on the couch, with her tablet apparatus hanging off to the side, also in Sleep Mode. He easily moved past her and reclaimed his VR headset before heading back to his room.
He folded laundry from his first load of laundry while the second one dried. Even with their differences, finishing his chores was his attempt to be honest with his mother, who was now snoring audibly from the living room.
His second load of laundry finished drying. While folding his clothes he realized how little of his school uniforms were making it into his laundry lately, and thought if he were to keep cutting days of school he had better get better at covering his tracks.
Eric felt like it was a close call earlier in the day when his mother asked about whether or not he learned about ‘the first smartphones,’ or not. He had been to school only about 1 to 2 times a week for the past month, catching up on homework in between days that he didn’t spend entirely engulfed in ‘Another Life VR.’
While folding the rest clothes he tried to dig a little deeper into the glitch that kept happening.
“Project,” Eric said, and his watch followed suit on the wall next to his bed.
“OK Google – Search for ‘Another Life VR support.’ Scroll down,” said Eric as he quickly dismissed the first few most popular links:
“‘Another Life VR’ Addiction – Knowing the Signs”
“‘Another Life VR’ Support Groups in your area”
“Psychology Today: The ‘Another Life VR’ Pandemic and Today’s Youth”
“Study: High School Attendance Plummets, Dropouts Increase Since Launch of ‘Another Life VR'”
He found right link near the bottom of the first page of search results: “‘Another Life VR’ Tech Support, Support Forums.”
He looked directly at this title and said “Open.” The web browser projection detected his eyes aiming at the link and opened it.
‘anotherlife.vr/support’ was deliberately vintage – styled like a website from the 2010s. There were text-clickable hyperlinks and hashtags, an actual mouse cursor that moved with your eyes, and links to ‘Share’ the site on Snapchat, Facebook, and other now-defunct giants of the Social Media Age. How ‘artsy’ of them, thought Eric, frowning at the harrowing inconvenience that lay before him.
He scoured the support forums while putting away the rest of his laundry. After browsing through nearly every category on the old-fashioned, website-style forums, he couldn’t find anything related to the recurring glitch he was having.
In a last ditch effort, he found what he thought looked like one of those old telephone numbers in their ‘Contact Us’ section.
Sighing at the idea of trying to use the old telephone system, Eric begrudgingly said “OK Google – Call 1-800-555-6193.” Eric said the number slowly and carefully, finding the word ‘call’ so foreign to say out loud.
He was startled by a repeated, wildly annoying sound that sounded like an old telephone his grandparents used to have, that was connected to a wire that came out of their wall.
The ‘ringing,’ as he remembered the name of the old sound, stopped after about 30 seconds, followed by a low-quality recording playing out of his watch, stating:
“I’m sorry, the number you have reached is not in service. Please check the number and dial again.”
Great, Thought Eric, Should have known a game about past lives would have an old phone number just for aesthetic.
Eric collapsed onto his bed, exasperated. He put on his VR headset and weakly spoke the words ‘Power On.’
Part 5 of 7
‘ANOTHER LIFE VR’ displayed, followed by the main menu of the log cabin and typewriter. “Pick up where I left off,” Eric said.
The screen faded to black, then instantly, he was Mark again. He found himself on the ground, face-to-pavement with a London sidewalk.
“Are you all right!?” Emma asked Eric/Mark. She looked shaken.
“Erm.. I’m fine. I guess I must have fallen,” Eric/Mark said, climbing back to his feet, dusting himself off.
“Marky – did you just blackout? Do you not remember anything?!” Emma’s eyes were watery, her voice quivered. Mark was surrounded by a few concerned onlookers.
“Take it easy son, don’t try to get up too quickly, now,” an portly, older black man placed his hand on Eric/Mark’s shoulder.
“Deep breaths, mate,” said another stranger helping him up on his other side – a young man his age in a leather jacket, with long black hair and spiked bracelets. “My sister’s an epileptic, too, she gets the spells quite often-”
“Sorry, but, I’m not following,” replied Mark to the Good Samaritans helping him up.
“You’ve had a seizure. You just collapsed and I didn’t know what to do,” said Emma, wiping tears from her strained blue eyes.
Eric/Mark remembered the way he had last left the game, and immediately understood.
“Marky. . . let’s get you to a doctor,” Emma implored.
“Er, no thanks, I’ll – I’ll be fine, Em,” said Eric/Mark.
“You’re joking! You just fell to the floor! You were convulsing for a for at least a minute! You were speaking in tongues!” Emma said, grabbing both of his arms, shaking. He had never seen her look so drained.
“It’s…it’s happened before, Em,” he lied, “I know it’s a scary thing to see, but I’ll be alright,” Mark said. “Promise, I’ll be alright.”
“Thanks, gents, but I’ll be fine,” Eric/Mark said to the two men who helped him to his feet.
“Snap out of it, Eric,” said the younger man, calling him by his real name, now with a clear American accent.
Their grip on him tightened. Eric/Mark’s vision flickered. His surroundings began to flash a metallic grey, a scene all-too familiar – the London street with his best friend-crush and helpful passersby began to flicker out, like a malfunctioning screen.
The two men who helped him up remained, but everything else had changed. No more signs of his previous environment. The two Good Samaritans in London were now dressed in nurse’s scrubs, wearing white gloves, firmly holding Eric on either side by his arms. Eric was himself again – not Mark in 1989.
“Eric. Eric! Are you with us, buddy?” The younger man with long hair asked.
“Force Release!” Eric yelled, unable to reach for the External Release button on his VR headset.
“He still thinks this is some kind of game,” the older black man, now one of the orderlies restraining him.
Eric waited a few seconds, and to his horror, the ‘Force Release’ command did not work this time.
Part 6 of 7
“Eric, you need to help us help you,” the older man restraining Eric said. “If you keep yelling and screaming like that, we’re gonna have to give you the shot, understand?”
Eric refused to acknowledge any validity to this reality. He resisted, squirmed, tried to break free.
“FORCE RELEASE! FORCE RELEASE! FORCE FUCKING RELEASE! FORCE-”
“We gotta give him the shot!” said the older orderly. The younger one tapped a device on his right temple and mumbled “Code orange, I repeat code orange west corridor.”
“You need to calm down, son!” said the older orderly.
At last, a familiar tone came on that only he seemed to hear. The noise around him fell to the background.
“Are you sure? Please confirm by saying ‘Yes.’ ” the familiar prompt asked him.
“YES!” he said.
Eric gasped and shot up out of his bed, transported back to the main menu.
He ripped off his VR headset and threw it against the wall with as much strength as he could muster.The headset hit the wall ‘face’ first, cracking the goggles’ front end in several places.
He sat there, endlessly gasping for air. He was in shock, hyperventilating, drenched in sweat.
After several minutes he got up out of bed, still trembling, and picked up the pieces of his now unusable – unreturnable – VR headset.
He looked around at his pristine bedroom. It was so much bigger and cleaner-looking than it had been in ages. His breathing was returning to normal.
He appreciated the calm silence around him, until he heard his mother snoring again.
“Project,” he said to his watch.
“OK Google – Search for ‘Another Life VR support,’ again” Eric said, repeating the search from earlier in the day.
Part 7 of 7
His mother arose a few minutes later, to find him in his picture-perfect room, sleeping soundly, tears running down his face. It was the first time since his parents’ divorce, nearly a year ago, that she could remember Eric sleeping without the VR headset on.
She saw the destroyed VR headset in his garbage can, and the last two articles on his watch still open and projected on the wall above his bed.
He had opened the first two links he had overlooked before falling asleep:
“‘Another Life VR’ Addiction – Knowing the Signs”
“‘Another Life VR’ Support Groups in your area”
His mother was bawling. She was blocked by her tablet mount from covering her face.
“Power off,” she whispered, while smiling through a stream of tears. For the first time in just a long, she took her tablet’s neck mount off, as her screen powered down.
She drew the blinds on his curtainless windows, shading him from the sunlight flooding the room.
She picked up his garbage can took it with her as closed the door behind her to his room.
Eric’s mother made her way to the garage and transferred the contents of Eric’s garbage can into the City Sanitation-grade receptacles. She threw her tablet and metal neck mount garbage bin right after.
“There’s always a way to get to the next level,” she mumbled to herself, “I guess his stupid father had a point.”
_ _ _
(The End – Thanks for Reading!)