Moon Shot – Part 3

Three weeks before the death of Orlando Jackson…

A breezy early autumn morning sat gently, moving at a near still pace.

A soothing silence blanketed the suburban sprawl of Coven County, giving way only to a hint of a whistle of the winds gusting through the balding trees.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

Jackson opened the front door in a tank top, basketball shorts, and a durag on, wrapped in an old black robe that had gradually lightened into a dark grey discoloration. Margot was on the other side wearing a faded, oversized dark grey hoodie, with Jinn City HS Class of 2018 written in all capital varsity font letters on the front. Her hair was in a bun, and half of her face was covered by a pair of oversized sunglasses, the ones that they give you at the the ophthalmologist on your way out after dilating your pupils.

Jackson stared blankly at Margot.

“You know I’m a vampire, right?” Margot asked.

“Like you don’t already live here,” Jackson responded as he pointed his head toward his living room, inviting her in.

Margot took a long, intimate look around the Jacksons’ home. The TV, and most of the furniture and appliances were only a few years old since they remodeled a few years back. The walls, staircase, framed pictures, and an aged shoe rack were a time capsule to their youth. She kept her boxy sunglasses on.

She took her shoes off in the foyer, planting them in their usual spot on the top right of the Jacksons’ shoe rack.

“Ch’been up to?” Margot asked.

“Shit,” Jackson brought down a box of Cocoa Puffs from one of the kitchen cabinets and started pouring cereal into two plastic bowls.

The usual ambient exchange followed – a cereal box closing; milk pouring; a fridge door closing as Jackson put it all together; metal clinking as Margot pulled two spoons out of the silverware drawer.

“Outside?” Jackson prompted Margot.

“Mhm,” Margot was already walking toward the sliding glass door that led to the deck and backyard. She slid it open and was greeted with the rich aromas of incense and cannabis as she walked through.

Jackson carried both bowls of Cocoa Puffs out to the porch.

Margot was already on her favorite deck chair, cutting open a Philly blunt.

“No time wasted, eh?” Jackson was like.

“I just came from the eye doctor,” Margot answered.

Jackson’s smile vanished.

“How long was the uh. . . appointment?”

“Just a couple of days, this time,” Margot said slowly while turning Jackson’s grinder – a small, circular one with a metallic, psychedelic rainbow color gradient.

“Did they treat you alright?”

“Yeah. They know me now. Got the leaf?” she asked.

“Yeah, one sec.” Jackson walked back inside toward the kitchen.

Margot briefly took off her thick, protective sunglasses. She immediately shielded her eyes – the mild autumn sun was far too bright for her. She had small wells of tears in her eyes, which she quickly wiped with the inside of her sleeve.

She slowly directed her gaze further and further up, pushing closer to the sun in an attempt to ween herself off of needing to wear her cartoonishly big, ultra dark shades.

“You good?” Jackson asked Margot as he slid open the glass door. He had come back with what looked like a snack-sized ziploc bag of leathery, brown flakes.

“No.” Margot said. “But it’s okay.”

The mood was mellow as Jackson passed the bag to Margot. She grabbed a small amount of the brown flakes and casually cascaded them into the Philly blunt, mixing them in with the crushed weed.

“I’m sorry,” Margot was like, “It’s just been, like . . .”

“Don’t worry about it.” Jackson reassured her. “I’m chillin’, you’re chillin’. We’re chillin‘.”

Margot started to seal her a perfectly rolled Philly with brief spurts of her lighter’s flame.

“Catch, stupid!” Jackson took a pull of his Elder Wand pen and lobbed it high in the air to Margot. She caught it effortlessly with just two fingers.

Jackson raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly, in low-key astonishment.

“Oh word?! Still got those frisbee sklils, huh?”Jackson asked while he let out a plume of cannabis vapor into the brisk Autumn morning air.

“Comes in handy. It’s a solid T.S.S.,” Margot replied.

She examined her high quality spliff while puffing on the Elder Wand, hands free.

“Huh?”

“T.S.S.? Transferable Stoner Skill. Duh. Like how Snoop Dogg is great at rolling sushi,” Margot explained.

“No way,” Jackson said, swishing around his bowl of Cocoa Puffs.

“Google it. And do the honors, too.” Margot wiggled her freshly rolled blunt between her index and middle finger.

Margot and Jackson stretched out from the beat up deck chairs they were perched in, and just barely met each other in the middle, with enough reach for Margot to pass the blunt.

Wait wait wait wait hold on,” Jackson had an epiphany. “Let me pass it back to you, but we need take a picture of our hands, though.”

“So artsy.” said Margot, in between scoops of Cocoas Puffs and a light pull from the Elder Wand.

“Nah check it out, ‘cuz when we passed the blunt like that it looks like that old painting – “

Margot gasped, “Oh my god! The Sistine Chapel!”

“Yoooooooooooo!” They both exclaimed and harmonized together in sheer awe.

“Hold on,” Jackson nearly jumped out of the deck chair with his phone in one hand and the spliff in the other. The wind turned his old robe into a cape as he opened his phone’s camera app and leaned it against the wall next to the sliding glass doors. He set a a 10 second timer on the front facing camera.

“Let’s do it,” Margot said, more excited than she had been all day.

“Ready? I’m gonna set the timer.” Jackson touched the white circle on the bottom center of the camera app, and flew back into the deck hair. His phone’s screen began a countdown from 10, displaying large numbers with the tick of each second.

10, 9, 8 . . .

Margot tossed him the lighter. Jackson quickly ignited the lighter’s flame and held it up to Margot’s top tier blunt for the inaugural first few puffs –

7, 6, 5 . . .

He reached his hand out to hers like before, just in time for his phone to take the photo.

4, 3, 2, 1. . .

“Hold on one sec, it’s a long exposure!” Jackson was like.

“You’re ridiculous,” Margot was laughing for the first time in weeks as she held her hand in place to complete the scenic shot.

Jackson ran back over just as quickly to his phone.

“Ohhh my goddd bro,” he reacted with wide eyes to their freshly minted work of art.

“Lemme see lemme see!” Margot was like, while taking a pull from the freshly lit Philly.

Jackson showed her his phone’s screen.

Margot’s jaw dropped. She took off her protective shades.

“Yoooooooooooo . . .” They harmonized again, together.

They reveled in their photographic masterpiece – a recreation of the Sistine Chapel’s famous scene of God and Adam nearly touching hands, only it was Jackson’s outstretched hand, passing the Philly blunt to Margot.

“This is fucking magnificent,” Margot slowly, flatly proclaimed.

“This should be like . . . at the MoMA,” Jackson added. He was fighting back a huge smile. He was happy to take such a cool picture, but was thrilled to make Margot feel better.

Margot slowly held out the blunt to Jackson, her eyes still locked on Jackson’s phone’s screen.

“We’re running out of options for you, Ms. Posseduto,” Jackson said.

“Wait, huh? What options? ” Margot looked at Jackson, confused.

She dropped the blunt. Her face went pale with fear.

Jackson was looking directly at Margot with fully blacked out eyes. The left side of his head was battered and bloody. His demeanor and appearance had suddenly changed. Margot was in shock, eyes locked with Jackson, unable to move.

“I know you’re not exactly happy to see me,” Jackson said in what sounded like a mix of several different voices, harmonizing together. Everything went black.

Margot awakened, suddenly – she sat up out of a small hospital bed, surrounded by plain, white walls in a small, brightly lit room.

There was a small surveillance camera in the far corner of the ceiling, opposite her bed. In that same corner was the only door to the room, which looked to be made of heavy, reinforced metal with a long, narrow, rectangular window, fitted with thick glass.

Margot caught her breath while realizing her surroundings.

She was wearing only a hospital gown under the bed’s plain white sheets. She slowed her breathing down and turned to the side, letting her legs hang off the bed. There were several bandages on her face, neck, arms, and legs.

After the first few moments, she looked around a bit more and just sighed. Margot wished she could have gone back into the nightmare she just arose from, just to keep reliving the last time she got to spend a day hanging out with Jackson.

She seemed to be more disappointed rather than afraid. This wasn’t her first trip to this place – ‘the eye doctor’s office,’ as she had grown accustomed to calling it.

“I know you’re listening. And watching.” Margot said. “Why don’t you let yourself in and stop being such a creep?”

The camera in the corner of the room fed a live stream of Margot’s room to a large, wall-mounted monitor in what looked like some kind of war room or command center.

Several people in blue, grey, and black camouflage military uniforms with call center headsets on sat at computer stations with 2-3 monitors each. Satellite imagery of the Jinn City metropolitan area was on display at one of the workstations; another had each screen with a different network news channel on display, covering a breaking news story described as “DEADLY GAS STATION EXPLOSION IN COVEN COUNTY.”

Another large screen in the brightly lit command center had videos from 16 different surveillance cameras displayed on a 4 x 4 grid. The footage appeared to be from a mix of cameras near either Rondspoken Park or the Shell Gas Station. Each video on the grid showed a glimpse of Margot – hitting tennis balls, making Carlos levitate, walking toward the tennis courts. etc.

A tall, burly, bald white man in a black suit stood in the center of the room, slowly sipping on a small, disposable cup of coffee – it was the classic blue and white Greek coffee cup with “WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU” displayed in gold letters.

A thin, tall, middle aged black woman in a grey suit with greying, shoulder length locs walked over to the man and calmly stood by his side, her eyes also fixed on the main surveillance monitor showing Margot in real time.

“She’s right, you know,” she said to the man.

He sighed. “I apologize. I tried reaching out to her again as you had asked -“

“Save it. Go in there and figure this out. Now,” the woman in the grey suit said, firmly.

“Captain, with all due respect, you know she’s not going to like wha-“

“Agent Banks, this is an order, not a discussion. You made this mess. Your team, or what’s left of them, made it even worse, and now you will clean things up. Present Ms. Posseduto with her options. We’re running out of time.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Agent Banks said, without a hint of emotion.

“Yes, who?” the Captain replied, eyebrows raised.

Agent Banks quickly cleared his throat.

“Yes, Captain Baptiste.”

“One more thing,” Captain Baptiste asked, “Did you bring me one of those, too?” she asked, quickly glancing at Agent Banks’ cup of coffee.

“Of course, Captain, one second, please,” Agent Banks walked over to his workstation. There was a single cup of coffee in the same kind of blue, disposable cup under a heat lamp. A post it on his desk was pasted next to the heat lamp that read in black sharpie – “FOR CAPTAIN BAPTISTE – DO NOT TOUCH!!”

Agent Banks brought the cup of coffee over to the Captain. She opened the disposable lid and took a sip. Agent Banks wiped the sweat from his brow as discreetly as he could.

Why thank you, Agent Banks,” Captain Baptiste said, smirking. “You do know how to make the perfect cup of coffee.”

“Thank you, Cap-“

“It’s the only reason I haven’t killed you yet,” Captain Baptiste cut him off with a nonchalant death threat and chuckled a bit to herself.

She took another sip. Agent Banks was about to walk away when she cleared her throat.

“Look at me, Agent Banks,” she ordered.

The Captain’s eyes met Agent Banks’. She blinked once; her eyes turned fully black.

A sudden, cold breeze swept through the command center. The entire room felt the sudden chill come from where Banks and Baptiste were standing and acted accordingly. A wave of fear had washed over the room. No one dared to look in Captain Baptiste’s direction.

Get the job done,” a harsh growl of a voice filled Agent Banks’ mind. The voice harmonized with Captain Baptiste’s regular voice as she spoke the same words to him out loud. “You know why I am in charge here. We are on a mission, and I’ve been more than generous with your failures. I will not ask you again.”

She blinked again, and her eyes returned to their usual elegant greyish blue hue.

“Are we clear?” She asked, no longer in his head.

“Y-yes, Captain Baptiste. Loud and clear,” Banks replied like a new recruit responding to a drill sergeant.

“I’ll buzz you in now. Let’s go,” the Captain said.

Agent Banks nodded, put on a sleek pair of sunglasses from his suit’s inner pocket, and left the command center.

BUZZZZZZ

The loud, industrial noise emitted from the door of Margot’s room. Her head turned quickly. Agent Banks stepped inside and cut to the chase.

“We’re running out of options for you, Ms. Posseduto,” Agent Banks said. “I know you’re not exactly happy to see me.”

Margot instantly recognized these words as the last thing she heard Jackson say in her dream. Hearing them again from Agent Banks hit a nerve.

“You think I’m not happy to see you? I’m thrilled,” she responded, “All of these ‘treatments’ have worked great so far, haven’t they?”

“A new medication will be available shortly.” Agent Banks stated plainly.

“If I could look at the moon right now I’d do it just so I can snap your fucking neck,” Margot said in a vicious monotone.

Agent Banks continued, “You will be in our custody until further notice-“

Margot interjected “And while I’m here I’m going to do what I can to make your life a living hell. Just returning the favor.”

Banks went on, as if reading from a script, “You will have no contact with anyone while in our custody, and will be on strict surveillance if or when you are released. We have a few options I will explain now on how to move forward, you must choose one based on-”

“Eat a dick,” Margot said, flatly.

“Ms. Posseduto, I hope you understand the seriousness-“

“Oh, FUCK OFF!”

Margot jumped off the hospital bed and flipped the mattress over in Agent Banks’ direction.

“You think I don’t ‘understand the SERIOUSNESS’?! It’s been four fucking years now! I just KILLED dozens of people, including my BEST FRIEND because of this stupid disease or whatever you want to call it -“

“Please, calm down-”

Get control of the situation,” Captain Baptiste telepathed to Agent Banks, “Or should I step in for you?”

“Oh yeah, I should just CALM DOWN, not a BIG FUCKING DEAL at all, huh?”

“No, that’s not necessary,” Agent Banks said out loud, in response to Captain Baptiste.

“They said this stupid fucking program would help! They said ‘tHe BeSt aNd BrIgHtEsT’ were going to figure this out! Another medication?! For real?!” Margot had had enough.

I think you need to take a break,” Captain Baptiste telepathed to Agent Banks. “I’ll take it from here.”

“She cannot be reasoned with, Captain!” Agent Banks blurted out.

Margot’s face scrunched in confusion.

“Are you wearing a wire, dude?! Who are you talking to?!” Margot asked.

“Captain, please reconsider!” Agent Banks pleaded, as his head began to twitch involuntary.

“Ohh my god what the fuck is happening. . . can I speak to your manager, Agent Jackass?”

She’ll be right out,” Captain Baptiste responded in a demonic voice, through a possessed Agent Banks. His body levitated a few inches above the floor.

Margot’s face turned stoic.

Agent Banks flew full speed into the industrial strength door.

Margot started screaming.

Agent Banks flew violently into the reinforced door over and over for about 10 seconds.

“STOP IT!” Margot yelled in distress.

His body stayed pressed up against the steel door for a moment, while his mangled, trembling right hand reached for the door handle.

Oops,” Agent Banks said, via Captain Baptiste’s possessed, raspy growl.

Agent Banks’ suspended, battered body pushed the door open and fell forward with a heavy thud, leaving one foot lodged between the door and it’s frame.

Captain Baptiste walked in, stepping over Agent Banks. She nudged his foot out of the way of the door, and let it close behind her.

“Who are you?! What the hell was that?!”

“I’m the Captain,” she replied, coolly.

“I didn’t do that to him. That wasn’t me, I swear!” said Margot. “It happens when I look at the moon, I don’t even know-“

“Relax, baby, I know you didn’t do this,” Captain Baptiste grinned. “I did.”

.

.

.

(To be continued)

Moon Shot – Part 2

A brisk, foggy morning followed.

A scruffy, tired-looking young man parked his dark blue Prius behind an old, beat up Shell gas station. It was nestled off the side of a lonely road between Jinn City and Rondspoken Park.

He unlocked the front door of the gas station’s small, dusty convenience store and let himself in.

Ding-Dong.

The familiar digital bell sound chimed as the front door opened forward. He put on an aged nametag underneath the cash register that read ‘Carlos – Member since 2018’.

He clocked in on an analog punch card machine that was likely twice his age. He turned on the laptop screen-sized TV at the corner of the cashier’s counter, along with the lights.

The familiar sound of NBC’s morning news filled the background from the TV’s faint, half broken internal speakers. The TV was a boxy, small HD screen that looked at least a decade old, with a few small sections of dead pixels and a digital antenna attached. NBC was the only free channel that had decent reception.

He began brewing the day’s first batch of coffee while listening to the news from a distance.

“The body of a young man was found this morning by the baseball fields in Rondspoken Park. The man was identified as 26 year old Orlando Jackson of Jinn City. He was pronounced dead at the scene, with apparent blunt force trauma wounds to the head.

Coven County Police discovered the body while responding to several calls from nearby residents after dozens of tennis balls had reportedly been hit from the park’s baseball fields, landing on their property . . .”

Carlos loved the smell of coffee in the morning. He poured a cup of extra-thick black coffee into a large to go cup and wrapped his hands around it, letting his digits recover from the sharp, cold winds of the early October morning.

Carlos sat back in the creaky rolling chair behind the counter. He didn’t mind the early morning gig – it was a great time to catch up on his latest manga, or games on his Switch.

He gazed peacefully toward the rising sun, past the weathered roof over the gas pumps. He found it ironic that the ‘S’ in ‘Shell’ was the only letter that didn’t light up anymore.

“I told ’em smokin’ all that reefer was bad news!” said an older woman, distraught, sobbing on TV. The caption underneath read Maria Jackson, Mother of Victim.

“This is the third homicide investigation in Coven County since the beginning of October, all involving young adults as victims. Police are urging the public to come forward with any information regarding this tragedy via the Call Our Police Departments, Give Anonymous Facts national tip hotline, at 1-888-COPDGAF.”

Carlos let out a weak sigh, followed by a much stronger yawn. He sipped on his cup of coffee, indifferent to the cryptic local news as well as the rest of the world around him. He began nodding out in the rolling chair behind the counter.

Carlos was startled awake, finding himself in a completely different place. The chair where he once sat on was now an old, warped bench, between two baseball fields.

He knew where he was – the same area of Rondspoken Park where that murder took place, the one that was just on the news.

There was no one else within sight. Carlos felt his pockets for his phone, keys, and wallet, but found nothing. He felt as if he was gliding more than walking as he he looked around, trying to make sense of his new surroundings.

Ding-Dong.

He heard a faint sound toward the tennis courts nearby – it was a digital door chime, similar to the one on the door to the gas station’s convenience store.

Carlos moved toward the sound at a speed quicker than normal walking or running speed – almost as if he was fast forwarding his surroundings to get to where he wanted to go.

Ding-Dong.

The door chime rang again. Carlos found himself in front of a pair of automatic, floor-to- ceiling glass doors leading into a building. Above the doors read the words Rondspoken Park Tennis Center.

He moved forward into the building’s lobby, a small, but well-kept foyer with marble floors, a trophy case on the left, a vacant reception desk, and a hallway on the right that led further into the building.

Carlos heard the faintest hint of a young woman’s voice coming from down the hallway. He began to move toward wherever the voice was coming from. He found himself suddenly in a janitor’s closet. He moved further toward the voice, and found himself in the men’s locker in an instant. Carlos was shocked at his newfound ability to go through the building’s walls.

“Helloooo?!” He heard the voice again, louder and clearer, and was able to make a beeline toward it, defying physics along the way.

“Anybody?” the young woman’s voice called out again. Carlos found himself in an entirely empty row of tennis courts, except for a young woman who was hyperventilating and holding a black baseball bat.

“Stop!” She said, toward his direction.

“Can you see me?” Carlos said, somehow speaking without moving his mouth.

“Get out of my fucking head!” the young woman yelled.

“Not again! Not a-fucking-gain!” she hollered.

Carlos saw a black cloud-like substance surrounding the young woman.

She didn’t seem to notice Carlos or actually see the shadowy air that surrounded her. She began swinging the bat wildly, as if she were trying to defend herself from someone.

Carlos moved toward, and then into the dark cloud that seemed to be attacking the young woman.

He heard a faint array of whispers, in a language he didn’t understand. The cloud began thinning out as the stranger whispers grew louder.

You will regret thisssss . . . .” this was the last thing whispered by the strange voice, and the only thing Carlos actually understood.

The young woman gasped deeply.

Ding-Dong.

Carlos was jolted awake by the sound of the gas station’s door chime, nearly falling out of his seat.

Still in the rolling chair behind the gas station’s cash register, Carlos looked around, startled.

He hadn’t had a nightmare like that in a long time.

He felt around his pockets for his keys, wallet, and phone, and had them all. He breathed a sigh of relief.

He looked at the time on the bottom right corner of the news on the old TV – 7:07 am.

He had only been asleep for about 15 minutes or so.

Carlos did a quick scan of the tiny convenience store and felt a bit uneasy. He found it odd that he was woken up by the doorbell chime. Throughout the four years he had worked at the Shell gas station, the little shop’s door chime had never rang on its own. It was a motion sensor doorbell – it only rang when someone came in.

Ding-Dong.

It rang again, on its own.

Carlos felt a cold sweat begin to run down his neck. He looked down at the shelf below the cash register, making sure that the store’s old shotgun was still there, within arms reach.

He heard a faint whisper. It sounded just like the one in his dream. He slowly rose from his seat, with the store’s shotgun in hand.

Ding-Dong.

The doorbell chime rang again.

Carlos screamed. Another doorbell chime without another person in sight. He quickly reached for the box of live rounds on the same shelf below the register – loading the double barreled vintage shotgun with two rounds. He hadn’t handled a fire arm with live rounds in years.

Ding-Dong.

This time the chime was triggered by Carlos as he stepped outside, eyes wide, shotgun at the ready.

“Who’s there?!” His voice echoed into the dense fog and woods surrounding the gas station.

There was no answer, apart from the whistling winds that Coven County was known for.

He kept his head on a swivel, then took a moment to catch his breath.

His heartrate fell back into a normal rhythm after a minute or two.

Carlos let out a sigh of relief and went back inside.

Ding-Dong.

He let himself back into the gas station’s convenience store, glad to hear the chime sound when he came back in.

A few uneventful hours went by. Carlos was used to the silence of the secluded gas station.

He stepped outside again toward the late morning, lighting a joint he had clipped in his car. He blew the smoke away toward the woods, away from the gas station.

Carlos leaned against his blue Prius, exhaling a mild indica into the dense fog, shaking off the nerves from a very weird early morning.

As he was walking back around to the front of the gas station he was surprised to see a customer waiting for him – a faded, black Camry, with old, orange-amber-colored headlights was parked at one of the gas pumps.

Carlos found it a bit strange that he didn’t hear a single sound of the car coming off of the road into the station; it was as if the car had appeared out of thin air.

A young woman stepped out of the driver’s seat – the same woman from his nightmare earlier in the day. She looked like she’d been through hell.

Carlos didn’t know what to say to her. Her hair was wild and unkempt. There was a mix of dirt and bloodstains on her clothes.

“A-Are you okay?” Carlos asked her, assuming she might need medical attention.

She locked her fully jet black eyes with his.

“I’m doing just just just just fine fine fine fine…” Carlos heard her say with an echo.

Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Din-

The doorbell chime went berserk.

The young woman’s head began tilting, twitching unnaturally, her eyes blinking faster than Carlos had ever seen.

Carlos felt himself stuck, unable to move at all. His vision and hearing began to fade.

Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong. Ding-Don

The doorbell chime was ringing non-stop, the front door waving back and forth, slamming violently into it’s frame. The lights inside the convenience store flickered in sync with how quickly the young woman’s eyes blinked.

You you you might might want want want want to to get get get that that that door door door door door door fixed fixed fi…..” Carlos heard the young woman’s voice echo with each word as her twitches and blinking intensified.

CRASH. The last thing Carlos heard was the muffled sound of glass shattering.

His vision went completely dark. He stood silently, almost as still as a statue. He shook subtly, as if a faint vibration ran through him.

You’re cute. What a shame.” Carlos heard nothing from the outside world, but had the young woman’s voice permeate his consciousness, like a thought planted into his mind.

LOOK AT ME!” the young woman commanded him, telepathically.

Suddenly, he could see again. He was kneeling in front her, still deaf and paralyzed.

She had a magic wand shaped vape in her mouth. She looked toward the sky. Her mouth began moving. The cryptic whispers from earlier that morning entered his mind.

The young woman’s eyes grew even darker. Small veins surrounding her eye sockets grew dark under her increasingly pale skin. The bags under her eyes turned a faint shade of red.

She took a long pull from the vape, leaned in close, and exhaled slowly, right into Carlos’ face.

You were almost her knight in shining armor . . . oh well . . .” another thought entered Carlos’ mind.

Her eyes looked as if they were bulging out of their sockets. The dark veins surrounding her eyes made it look like she had two huge spiders where her eyes should be.

She gazed into his unmoving eyes. She flicked her gaze downward for second. Carlos’ head immediately followed – his head turned immediately toward the ground.

You got a permit for this thing?” the young woman asked Carlos telepathically.

His head turned back up toward her again – she was holding the shotgun with one hand and the magic wand vape in another.

She lifted the shotgun slowly with one outstretched arm, toward the sky. Carlos’ body moved with her arm, levitating into the air. His face remained parallel to the firearm, keeping the middle of his forehead parallel with the end of the dual barrels.

The shotgun cocked on its own.

The young woman took another pull of the vape and blew it upward toward him. Carlos’ vision was forced downward as he levitated above her, staring directly down the barrels of the shotgun.

“I told you that you would regret this . . . you should have stayed out of my way.”

Strong winds swirled around them. Carlos’ vision went blank again.

BANG!

___________________________________________________________

It was nearly sundown. Margot woke up with a violently deep breath.

She found herself laying on the pavement of a gas station, covered in dirt, gravel, and what looked like bloodstains all over her face, hands and clothes. She had no idea where she was, or how she got there – she last remembered calling and texting her best friend, Jackson, before completely blacking out.

She looked around and saw a complete disaster – broken glass everywhere, a shotgun a few feet away from her; she saw Jackson’s car, but no sign of him anywhere.

A dead man lay not too far from the shotgun, in a pool of blood; his face had been completely decimated.

She began bawling and screaming at the top of her lungs, completely in shock; she had promised herself the last time that this would never happen again.

After a moment or two, Margot heard her phone going off boisterously in Jackson’s car with an emergency alert. She lifted herself up and slowly limped over to the car, wiping dust and gravel off along the way.

She weakly opened the door to the driver’s seat and saw her phone in the center cupholder, vibrating and ringing vigorously with the emergency alert sound. There was a message on her phone – “ANSWER NOW” in all caps.

She touched the OK button on the alert, still breathing heavily, wiping tears and blood off of her face.

She knew the protocol already – once she pressed OK on the alert, her phone’s controls were disabled. A phone call started once she clicked the emergency alert away.

A calm, but authoritative man’s voice began speaking through her phone:

“You can’t keep doing this, Ms. Posseduto,” said the man on the phone, in a parental, matter-of-fact tone.

“It’s not on fucking purpose! You know I can’t stop it, you fucking jackass!”

“We’re sending a car for you now. Stay exactly where you are.” the man replied, just as calmly as before.

“FUHHHCK YOUUU!” Margot said with all of her might.

You know what will happen if you do not comply,” the man politely affirmed.

“GO TO FUCKING HELL!” Margot yelled into the phone, and then threw it straight into the ground. She saw the black baseball bat she had found the other day, laying in the backseat of Jackson’s car. She pulled it out of the car, gripped it with both hands, and pounded her phone into pieces in a fit of rage.

In the distance, she heard sirens and the hum of tires rolling down the road, growing closer and louder by the second. She was out of time.

The sun was nearly set. She looked downward toward the ground, pulling her tattered, bloody hoodie over her face. She threw herself into the driver’s seat of Jackson’s car and turned the keys, still left in the ignition from before.

7:07 PM – The car radio’s digital read out displayed the time.

Several all-black SUVs began pulling in aggressively into the parking lot. They surrounded her as she sat in Jackson’s car while blocking the only entrance and exit onto the only road out.

She heard car doors opening and closing. She had nowhere to run.

“Ya know what….” Margot said to herself. She quickly got back out of the car.

About a dozen men in tactical gear surrounded her, shouting orders:

“DON’T MOVE!”

“FREEZE!”

“GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND RIGHT NOW!”

“HANDS WHERE WE CAN SEE ‘EM!”

Margot slowly got onto her knees and held up both hands parallel to her face.

The men moved in quickly, weapons drawn.

In the few seconds of freedom she had left, Margot twisted her hands around, showing her middle fingers to the men in tactical gear, turned her head straight up, and gazed directly at the full moon.

A wicked smile crept up on her face.

Her eyes turned fully black.

.

.

.

The End (for now. . . )

Moon Shot – Part 1

Jackson pulled up in his faded, black 2007 Toyota Camry into the park’s parking lot. The car’s faint amber headlights matched the hue of the streetlamps that lit the park’s pathways.

He slowly left the car with a sigh and started walking down their usual path.

He looked again at his latest iMessage:

Margot

Today 7:06 PM

Come to the park dude… I’m kinda freaking rn. I’ll explain when you get here.

The air was crisp; a cool, strong breeze whistled as it carried a few fallen leaves, breaking through the park’s solemn silence. The sun was on its way down.

He saw her in their usual spot – a patch of unkempt grass nestled between the two baseball diamonds’ high, rusted fences, with a few big rocks and decades old benches warped by the rain. To the west the sun was setting over a set of tennis courts with even higher, shinier, newly renovated steel fences. A blue, interwoven canvas almost completely blocked any lines of sight into the tennis courts.

“Yo.”

“Yo.”

Jackson and Margot greeted each other. Margot was looking down, tossing a tennis ball in one hand and holding a jet black aluminum baseball bat in the other.

Margot had her back turned to Jackson.

“I saw your text, broski.” Jackson said.

“Mhm.”

“Whatcha up to out here?”

“Batting practice,” Margot said.

“But you don’t even play baseball,” Jackson said.

PING!

The tennis ball went flying off of her bat into the dusk.

“I know.”

Jackson felt a troubling energy building within the space between them.

PING!

She carried on with her strange new hobby. Another tennis ball into the twilight abyss.

“Brought the pen?” Margot asked Jackson.

“Always?” Jackson was always stoned. He pulled out his dad’s old weed vape – a 5 inch long miniature replica of the Wizarding World’s Elder Wand.

They puff, puff, passed the vape back and forth for a few minutes. Jackson laid out like a starfish, staring straight up into the night. He enjoyed watching the clouds go by in the night sky, with another bright yellow tennis ball streaking upwards with each swing Margot took.

Jackson was doing his best to ‘hold space’ or whatever – a concept he tried to recall from his recent therapy sessions.

A few more minutes passed. They shared Jackson’s pen and carried on – Jackson laid in the grass, Margot kept hitting tennis balls wherever she felt like.

“It’s been an interesting day, I guess?” Jackson said, finding it oddly difficult to break the ice with his bestie.

“It was a good one,” another short reply.

PING!

“Impossible. It’s Monday, bro,” Jackson was like. “Mondays are wack, everyone knows that.”

“Any day can be a good day, jackass,” Margot was like.

PING!

Margot lobbed another ball a few feet upwards and sent it flying with an effortless swing.

“Nah. I mean, yeah any day can kinda be a good day, that’s what I’m saying, bro.” Jackson replied.

As he inhaled on his dad’s old weed pen he imagined a quick little story for each tennis ball that Margot hit into the brisk autumn sky.

PING!

This one is an escape pod to an exoplanet.

PING!

That one landed in a tree – the birds who live there are shocked. They’re treating it like humans treat UFOs. They sectioned it off from regular birds; they’re letting the Bird CIA deal with it.

“I feel like any day can be a good day but not every day is, though,” Jackson hypothesized.

“You can’t always be positive, or happy, or whatever.. so I feel like it depends,” He went on.

PING!

“I mean, yeah,” Margot conceded. “You’re still a jackass, though,”

“That’s fine,” Jackson mumbled indifferently as he released another plume of vapor into the air.

A smile crept up on Jackson’s face for the first time that night. Margot’s usual sass felt oddly reassuring.

“You’re chiefin,’ guy,” Margot said.

“OK Aaron Judge,” Jackson sat up and passed her the vape.

“Fuck that.” Margot was like in between tokes. “I’m a Mets fan.”

“Where’d you get all these tennis balls?” Jackson was like.

PING!

“I can fit into the hole in the fence behind the tennis courts,” Margot answered.

“Well, then.”

Margot kept turning away from Jackson. He still had barely seen her face. He did at one point, for a split second, and her eyes had a watery shine to them, as if she had either just finished crying or still was.

“What’s going on though? Like, you’re being kinda weird, even for you. No shade, but . . . “

A cold, windy silence filled the air around them.

Margot lobbed another tennis ball in the air.

PING!

Another ball, another swing. Another popup flew into the trees above a neighboring backyard.

“Wooooo! My aim has gotten SO much better!” she exclaimed, sounding more excited usual.

Margot had a wicked smile after her last moon shot. Her honey brown eyes brightly glistened under the old amber streetlights.

“You good?” Jackson asked.

“Very! I mean c’mon, did you see that last one?! I’m a fuckin’ beast!

Margot’s voice broke a little with her last few words.

“You’re being like, really weird right now bro, I’m just kinda confused,” Jackson said.

“. . . and worried.”

“Ugh… bro are you even paying fucking attention!?” Margot snapped.

Jackson sighed. “Uh . . . yeah . . . I am,” Jackson rubbed the center of his forehead.

She threw up another tennis ball and swung at it with a passionate yell.

PING!

Another yellow orb torpedoed into one of the tallest trees in the park. A few leaves rained down from its highest branches.

“NICE!” Margot’s voice echoed as the ball stayed lodged in a huge tree in the distance.

Jackson sighed, sat up and kicked his voice up a notch “Who’s chiefin’ now, bro? Can you at least pass my vape back . . .and lemme know what the fuck’s going on?”

His brow furrowed as he took a better look at Margot – she was visibly shaking. She slowly turned toward Jackson. She finally stopped trying to hide her face.

She was smiling wide, began breathing heavily, and began wiping tears away from her sunken eyes. She had several small, fresh cuts – still bleeding – on the left side of her face and lower lip. She had bruises and abrasions on her neck. She rested the bat on her right shoulder, keeping a firm grip on the handle with both hands.

“Dude. . . what happened to you?” Jackson asked in a slower, softer tone.

Margot’s bright, hazel eyes looked more illuminated than Jackson had ever seen. Time seemed to slow down as their eyes met. The whistling winds and Margot’s deep breaths grew louder while all other noise became inaudible. Her pupils were much wider than usual.

“Yo…. let me take you home. You’re really starting to freak me out out out out out . . . ” Jackson heard an echo to his own voice. Wide eyed, even wider-pupiled Margot stared him down with a menacing grin. She started blinking unnaturally fast while maintaining eye contact with him.

He kept pleading with her to come with her, but he could barely hear his own voice.

Margot’s nearly blacked out pupils were fixated on Jackson, eyes fluttering. Jackson was now unable to speak. He started to lose his balance and began sweating profusely. His vision began fading until it was nearly pitch black.

“I think I’ll stay out here for a little while, bro. Join me.” Margot’s last words sounded like a raspy, unnatural growl.

Jackson went further into a vegetative state with each time that Margot blinked. She pointed the bat at him, Babe Ruth style, and he instantly dropped to his knees.

Jackson’s eyes were covered with a dark grey callouses. He couldn’t move. It was as if something was holding him in place.

Margot slowly trotted over to him. She had the aluminum bat resting on her right shoulder and the Elder Wand vape in her left. She took an incredibly long pull from the vape and let out a frothy vapor cloud from her mouth and nose while looking up at the full moon.

She lined up the sweet spot of the bat to Jackson’s left temple, just barely touching the side of his head.

Margot began to whisper a barely audible incantation; her lips and tongue moving feverishly. Her eyes turned entirely black while repeating a soft, but intense chant in an indecipherable language.

She gasped suddenly, slowly exhaled, and returned her gaze down to the end of the bat, still touching the side of Jackson’s head. She bent her knees and crouched slightly into a batter’s stance, with perfect form. She cocked back, stepped forward, and belted out her hardest swing of the night.

PING!

(to be continued . . .)

The Astral Movie House

What if right after your death you find yourself alone, in a one-seat movie theatre, where you arise as if abruptly woken up from a dream.

Your ideal self-image from your life’s memories is manifested, and you look and feel, by your own opinion, as the best you ever have.

An 70mm film projector flickers, and begins rolling a film onto a realistic-as-life screen directly in front of you. A classic black and gray circular countdown starts backwards from 10, in the clearest picture you’ve ever seen, anywhere.

The film begins. Your earliest memory in life plays out as the first scene. You are taken aback. Your emotions criss-cross and crash, and finally, you understand: ‘heaven,’ ‘hell,’ and ‘purgatory’ will all be experienced here, in this single-seat movie house. You’re free to get up and leave at anytime, but the thought never occurs to you.

It all comes back, a full recap of your now-past life. The best moments invoke laughter, tears of joy, leaving you feeling like a rejuvenated soul; while the worst ones trigger despair, regret, and unkempt anger, mostly directed at your past self. But not fear. Fear is for the living.

The movie ends, and as the credits roll, every name of all your loved ones, friends, family, co-workers, people you met just once, all scroll along. You are credited as the lead role, and the director.

There you are, alone in your own private astral cinema – lessons learned, emotions drained, and at peace with your past life – a catharsis unmatched.

There’s a red EXIT sign to the right. A force within you questions where it leads, and beckons you toward it.

You rise from your chair, and walk toward the EXIT sign. It leads you around a corner to a long, maroon-carpeted hallway ending with a single door. It’s an industrial dark gray, with a few scratches, and a worn black and gold PUSH sticker on it. You stop at the threshold, take a deep breath, push it open, and walk through.

You new first memory starts. – RSM

Getting Past The Glitch

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 lighting 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.”

Eric sighed.

“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!)

Random Mindful Moments

The hanging necktie said a lot about me. It was pre-tied to a perfect length, stylish, and a not-too-pricey brand.

An annoyed silence filled the room, at times interrupted by brief chatter or voices from the hallway. Background music seeped in from the gallery, the same Big Band-era tunes in an eternal loop.

He searched for something to do, something work-related, and was only a tiny bit frustrated by his inability to stop circling back to Facebook every few minutes.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Same shit, different day. Cold coffee,  co-workers texting, sleeping, getting in moments of rest amidst an environment of fleeting certainty, at best. Calm waters this morning, not a ripple yet seen.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Sitting with my legs crossed in my living room. Our living room.

I heard a familiar knock on the door, a percussive barrage followed by the tone of our half-functional doorbell.

I met her at the door. She greeted me with her signature upward-facing hug stance, arms enveloping me and closing in on my tired shoulders. Smiles, kisses and “I miss you’s” included, bounced back and forth between us. A later day for me, as well as it being an early one. A standard day for her, extended through readings and online classes.

We type and lounge in a harmonious silence, only topped by the hum of the AC.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

I made my way down the steeply inclined one-way street to the large rotunda on Riverside Drive. A few arm swings and leg stretches later, I slowly took off.

No smartphone, no headphones, not even a watch, I only focused on what I can see, hear and feel around me. My sneakers bounced off the not-so-even pavement. I concentrated on my breathing, my form and keeping a steady pace. Every now and then another runner would pass by in the opposite direction. I would see old men playing dominoes on their special tables up ahead while I benchmark my timing by the next biggest tree.

“Take at least 20 seconds to get to that next big tree. Take it easy, nice and slow,” I thought to myself. The sound of tires on cars driving by and young children I just passed were minimal distractions, if at all.

After about 15 blocks I turned around. Always mindful my body, surroundings, and own thoughts, running is my favorite kind of meditation nowadays.

Tightrope Walking

So close, yet so far once again, he was on the roof of the wrong building. He tried to open the door leading back downstairs; locked.

His back lay on the gravel and grit of the pebbles spread across the roof. Hands behind his head, the grey sky creeped along. Feet crossed, jacket unzipped and jeans ripped, he closed his eyes as the rain fell.

He awoke after what felt like an eternity. His surroundings hadn’t changed except for the sky, a smug grey now a cloudy black, save for the streetlights near and the skyline from afar. He turned his gaze from Manhattan’s lights to a solitary window, directly across from his rooftop sanctuary.

Window closed, lights on, white curtains parted, he began to regain hope. He knew those picture perfect curtains, just as if he had seen them yesterday.

The temperature was dropping. The cool Autumn wind was now a stinging gust, sure to be below freezing. His socks had some holes; his shoes had more. Underdressed, malnourished, and down to his last few cents, his long journey had come to a halt right at the end.

They had made arrangements before he left. Every night at 11:11pm, she would look out of her living room window, onto the street, waiting for him. Before he made the jump. Before he turned all his pesos into dollars, stuffed whatever he could into a tattered backpack and took off.

He said he would be there by September. Before he got beaten and robbed in Alabama. Before he narrowly escaped ICE in North Carolina. Before traveling from house to house, doing odd jobs for next to nothing. Before begging in broken English for 5 weeks in DC. He scraped money together for a Chinatown bus and a few calls to her on payphones.

As the November winds frosted his young face, she prayed and prayed, prayed and prayed again for him to get to her safely. A love she may have lost, but hopes to God she didn’t. She worked at the daycare in the morning and at the hotel in the evening. She said a prayer whenever she could for her love to come, but hadn’t heard from him since his troubled lips whispered “Te quiero tanto” on the phone two weeks ago.

Stuck on the roof, there he was, beginning to shiver from the frigid Northeast winds. He looked across to the white-curtained windows. He knew. He knew it had to be where she lived. He memorized her address, for the most part; he knew she was in apartment 5C. One street off makes a big difference when it’s below 30 degrees and are stuck on a roof.

He saw the roof doorway of the building across slightly ajar, light peaking through the cracks. A solitary cable ran from his roof to hers. He hoped with all his heart and soul it was hers; deep down, he knew.

He approached the barrier surrounding the rooftop. The cable connected the two buildings over their wide, adjacent alleyways, about forty feet apart. Looking down, he saw a 5 storey difference between the roof and the concrete floor.

Slowly, timidly, he placed both hands on the freezing cement ledge, brought both legs over, now sitting on it. He tapped one foot lightly on the cable; a thick cable, no shock, not slippery. He planted his right foot as firmly as he could. He felt his weight depress the cable. Adrenaline and fear consumed him unlike ever before. He knew the cable would bend, but not break under his weight.

He remembered the one time he went to the circus as a child, and cautiously lifted his left arm while holding onto the ledge with his right. As the sky decorated his filthy hair and clothes with light snowflakes, he knew that he had to find shelter. The shivering young man planted his left foot in front of his right, and let go of the ledge.

Before he knew it, one foot had stepped in front of the other; right over left, left over right, right over left, left over right. Small, balanced steps, he took, each leading him closer to the roof ahead. Arms spread, legs moving, he found an unexpected rhythm in his footwork. He focused on the cable ahead, not on the concrete floor below, and recited prayers to himself over and over. Right over left, left over right, right over left, left over right. A gust picked up over the alleyways, but he was not deterred. He had come too far to fail.

He reached the opposite ledge. He climbed over, arms chilled to the bone, and fell onto the opposite roof. He hurried into toward the door, not looking back at the aerial gap he had just conquered.

He ripped the door open to the warm, well-lit building. Down the stairs one flight, his stiff, wet legs descended, and he was on the 5th floor. He slowly approached the door marked ‘5C’, with tears already falling, warming his frozen cheeks. He rang the bell several times and yelled her name, a faint cry at best. He heard frantic footsteps and many locks unlocking.

The door opened. There she was.

They embraced like never before, with more passion then they ever would again. She had a rosary in one hand, cell phone in the other, with the time on the screen reading 11:11pm.

Straphanging. Part 1

The following is a collection of stories that have recently taken place on or around the trains, platforms, and buses of the Greater New York City Area. They are all true. And awesome:

Kung Fu Car Transfer

So I walked aboard the F train headed to Queens at Lexington Avenue – 59th Street Station. In my train car it was just empty enough that there were a few seats available here and there. I went for one of my favorite spots when I’m feeling tired, the good ol’ corner seat, all the way at the end of the train. I like this seat for a few reasons: being right across from either a map or a window as well as being right next to two exit doors, and if you needed to transfer cars, you could do that too (although it’s illegal, no one really cares).

A few stops in, I was lounging as comfortably as I could along the steel rails and plastic seats and began to doze off as the train went further into Queens. I was just about to fall asleep, eyes closed and all, when I heard a loud and sudden “HYAAAA!” that practically catapulted me to my feet. I woke up, startled and confused, to see a black man wearing a silver and black North Face coat in his 30s right in front of me with his leg in the air, from what was apparently a roundhouse kick straight into the car transfer doors. This guy legit roundhouse kicked the door open, with Bruce Lee sound effects and all. It blew my mind.

This of course sparked much laughter from the rest of the train, most of which coming from my own mouth. One Latino dad-looking kind of man and I could not stop laughing. It was quite the wake up call; after that I didn’t even feel like sleeping.

The Ridiculously Bad Saxophone Player

Last summer I got on the train really late, around 2 or 3 am. I was on the 5 train, headed downtown. At 125th Street a man with a black square suitcase and multicolored cornrows got on the train. At that point I should have known he would pull some off-the-wall-type shit. He was a middle aged African American with neon red, light blue, neon green and yellow cornrow braids, about 5’6, a shorter guy, wearing a white tank top and acid wash jeans.

He was talking to younger man as they both got on the train, saying things like “Yeah man, check me out on SoundCloud,” and “Look out for my documentary.” The young man bade him farewell as he sat down with a smile, but then looked at me, looked at the multi-colored cornrow man, back at me, and just shook his head. I didn’t know what to expect. Neon Cornrow Man (that would be a great superhero name) began opening his suitcase. He started introducing himself as he revealed a saxophone from its case. After a rather long shpiel about his social media presence and upcoming documentary, he began to play the sax.

His saxophone skills were out of control in the very worst of ways. It looked like a 5 year old playing Mortal Kombat for the first time as he mindlessly mashed all the buttons along the instrument, and sounded something like a mutated ambulance siren. He had strong lungs, I’ll give him that much credit, especially since his sax was blaring at a surprisingly loud volume for almost 10 minutes. He did not really know how to play. He just blew all the air he possibly could into that saxophone and randomly pressed on the valves, occasionally holding an excruciatingly high note for several seconds.

Me and the man across from me had our sides splitting. It was hysterical. Many of the other passengers were rudely awakened by this mysterious, and possibly intoxicated multi-colored cornrow man. After what seemed like an eternity of the most belligerent saxophone solo I had ever heard, Multi-Colored Cornrow Man finally transferred to the car next to us. My train car breathed a collective sigh of relief as he took his ‘talents’ next door.

He began playing his out of tune tirade of a performance in the next car, but there were several gangsters on the next car that were just not having it. After about 30 seconds a few young men in snapback caps and bandanas approached Multi-Colored Cornrow Man and angrily asked him to stop playing. After a few words exchanged between the young men and Multi-Colored Cornrow Man he packed up his trusty saxophone and left. The young thugs did passengers a favor that night, surprisingly; their aggressive act of kicking Multi-Colored Cornrow Man off the train literally helped everyone else sleep that night. I’ll never forget though, aside from laughing harder than I had all year, the look on Multi-Colored Cornrow Man’s face as the gangsters kicked him off the 5 train that fateful night: disappointment, sadness, and frustration written all over it.

%d bloggers like this: