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 . . .)

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!)

Why Ned Vizzini Will Always Have A Special Place In My Heart

When I was 19 I stumbled upon a curious looking novel at the Borders that used to be at The Shops at Columbus Circle. I had never heard of the title or author before but the description and art work really caught my eye. I bought the novel and instantly fell in love with ‘Its Kind of A Funny Story’ by Ned Vizzini.

The novel spoke to me on many different levels. From the spot on ‘teenage New Yorker’ rhetoric to the descriptions of the city, I was taken to a magical new place which in reality I had always called home. The most profound and apparent way that I related to the story was with the main character, 15 year old Craig Gilner. There are two main ways we related, starting with something that I have never stated on the internet:

Craig and I have both been to a psychiatric ward.

Craig and I were both depressed at age 15.

The story I was reading felt so much like my own. To this day, ‘Its Kind of a Funny Story’ is my absolute favorite book of all time ever in the history of words, not just for its funny anecdotes, unlikely romance and motley crew of characters, but because it helped me let go of so much anguish and guilt that I had kept from my experience.

I mustered up the courage in the summer of 2009 to e-mail Ned Vizzini, just to tell him I appreciated his work.

To my surprise, he responded. I was elated to find a genuine reply in my inbox a few days later from a successful author, what I aspire to be. I told myself I would have to meet him one day. After my study abroad trip in early 2010 I attended a Young Adult Fiction event at the New York Public Library on 6th Avenue and 12th Street. There were several authors there, but I went just for Ned.

I got there early and saw him walking around the room, just wandering like I was. I was talking to a fan of another author and she encouraged me to introduce myself. I walked up to the Average Joe-looking writer who wrote the book that changed my life and asked “Excuse me, are you Ned Vizzini?”

We started talking and I mentioned our email conversation from the previous summer. He remembered me and said he was glad to meet me. I felt on top of the world as I discussed literature, particularly my favorite book, with the author of the book! It was a dream come true. I asked if he could offer any advice about writing, and I’ll never forget what he said:

“Don’t focus right away on writing a book. If you do that it will never get done. Try writing longer and longer stories to build up. Also, read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.”

I bought ‘On Writing’ a few days later. I left the event with an autographed copy of his novel ‘Be More Chill’ with a dedication to me which read “Ruben, I’m sure you don’t need a squip!”

To top off the day, I got to take a picture with him. Here I am with Ned Vizzini, in all my overly eager fanboy glory:

Image

He posted it on his blog a few days after we met. Our acquiantanceship didn’t stop there. I came prepared that day and asked if he could critique a short story I had written about a night I had in Rome. A few months later I got a sloppy hand written envelope in the mail, bearing my name and address as well as his. He wrote a handwritten critique of my work. I challenge you to find any succesful author who would do all this for just one fan. The review came with my original copy of the story with his notes, which were very positive, along with his favorite quote highlighted via brackets written in with black ink.

I emailed him again earlier this year, asking him to read my article ‘The Millenial Latin American Identity Crisis Of The United States’. He read it, said he really enjoyed it and even shared it on his news feed on Facebook. I recall him telling me his favorite sentence from my article, which was “We are emigrating to, and reproducing in the United States like a giant herd of nomadic rabbits.”

Given all this, I was completely heartbroken to find out that Ned Vizzini passed away on December 19, 2013. His family lost a father and husband, the world lost a great author, and I feel like I lost a friend. My condolences go out to his family, friends and fans. I will always remember his warmth and kindness when he could have just brushed me off as just another kid who read his book. I will more so remember his best novel in my opinion, for changing my perspective of certain life events of mine from what I considered the worst times in my life to, well, kind of a funny story. Rest in peace Ned. -RSM

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