“You can sleep right here with us,” Mike went on while I walked over to the kitchen table. “You can grab some cereal out of there or something if you like in the morning, I have that kind with all the dry marshmallows in it.”
I grabbed hold of the hunting knife and turned to Mike and Jameson.
“Thing’s pretty badass, right?” Mike said.
I walked over to the foot of the bed with the knife clutched tight in my little hand. Stopped and stared down Mike.
“Get away from him,” I said in my manliest voice.
Mike pulled the blanket back up a little bit and sat up defensively.
“I don’t know what you think is going on here Lil Oak. I’m just being nice.”
I knew not to believe Mike. I knew what Jameson would tell us the next day when me and the other kids were around the fire eating our breakfast. I knew what Jameson would finally tell the cops when he was 18 and out of the house and on his way to Afghanistan with the Marines. I knew the page on the Wenatchee County sex offender’s website which would begin to feature a picture of Mike starting in the mid-2000s. I wasn’t going to let it all happen this time.
I started to form the hero speech I was about to deliver to scare the shit out of Mike, but Mike cut off my train of thought.
“You better think real good about what you want to do here Lil Oak.”
“You’re not gonna do this, this time,” I started in and coaxed an instant laugh from Mike.
Without another word, Mike rose up out of the bed, dressed in just a pair of white briefs, and started in my direction.
“You’re gonna be really sorry when I get that knife from you,” Mike yelled at me from just a few feet away.
I turned around and ran down out of the camper with the slapping sound of Mike’s bare feet pounding on the floor behind me ringing in my ears.
I almost fell hard to ground when I literally jumped down out of the trailer, but kept my balance and took off towards the slow smoke of the dying fire with Mike still hot on my tail.
“Little piece of shit,” I heard Mike seethe from behind me.
The race between Mike and I didn’t last long. After just a few seconds, I saw my field of vision lift up off the ground and I screamed out.
“Stop it. Stop it.”
I wasn’t sure if my body was reacting directly to the experience happening in the simulation, or just what my eyes were seeing on the mask. Maybe my body didn’t even know the difference because I grabbed the back of the mask and started to pull it off.
The screen went to black before I fully got the mask off and stood in the testing room sweating and panting with my heart racing.
“Whoa,” I heard Graham speak from over by the door. “Intense one?” He asked as he walked over and I stuck the mask in his direction.
“Yeah,” I said while trying to catch my breath.
Graham refused the mask.
“You can just leave that here. Your testing time was up, so I was just coming to get you,” Graham said with a smile upon his face. “Looks like it ended just in time, huh?
The rest of the day was actually strangely a lot like it was at any other office job I ever had.
● I logged a summary of what happened in the testing and my reaction into some kind of software system which was unnecessarily complicated for what it did.
● I had to go to a meeting with my department of five people and listen to the only two people who wanted to be there have a one-on-one conversation while the rest of us sat there squirming in our chairs for 45 minutes.
● I did a couple of hours of mindless data entry work I think they gave me just to keep busy.
● I made small talk about my weekends with the few passerby employees who introduced themselves and all seemed to be tragically boring in different ways.
● I left at exactly 5:01 p.m.
I considered not going back. The two VR experiences had been so heart-wrenching and bizarre I couldn’t imagine doing something like that every day. I was also utterly unhinged by how they could know the settings of where these “simulations” took place, but also the storylines of what happened. They could explain away the phone call from my mom situation with their Facebook research excuse, but how did they know the exact situation I walked into in the trailer with Jameson and Mike?
I kept myself from deciding to quit. It would be very hard to walk away from a fair-paying job at this point which seemed like it was only going to ask me to do some simulations and light office bullshit. I also found out just before I left that I was getting a $5,000 bonus for signing on which would allow me to actually pay my rent for the next two months and stop Ubering for good.
The next day start just like any other. I checked my emails, did a little light data entry I hadn’t finished the day before. Got coffee without having to make small talk with anyone and checked the NBA scores from the night before.
The day actually crept into the late-afternoon without anyone talking to me, any bullshit meetings, or a summons into the testing room to do some VR work. I was pretty stoked when the clock struck 5 p.m. and I was able to slip away. Maybe they realized they went a little too hard on me the day before with the testing and decided to give me a day off?
It wouldn’t just be that day though. The next couple of months would slip by with the same schedule. I would just do bullshit busy work, attended a few meetings each week, smile, nod, collect my first steady paycheck in two years, and go home each day seconds after 5.
It was the first time I felt stable in a long, long time. I actually started to relish waking up at 7:45 to get ready, smiling at my co-workers as I walked in, wearing a wrinkled dress shirt and stained khakis. Hell, I even started to get into bagel Mondays.
I was strangely kind of thirsty to get back to some VR testing after a couple months of monotony so I was a little relieved when Graham came by one Tuesday afternoon, and ushered me off to the testing room.
Graham gave me the directions loud and clear. Just interact in the simulation naturally, he would be back in about 30 minutes to wrap things up and then I would detail my thoughts back at my desk.
That thirst for VR washed away in an instant once the screen loaded up on my face and I looked at my childhood bedroom in the shallow light of just a nightlight. I gulped down a heavy load of saliva and took in my environment for a few moments.
Based on the dinosaur posters on my wall, my Jurassic Park bedspread, and Ninja Turtles sprawled out in a mess across the floor, I was probably seven or eight years old. In the dying days of my dinosaur period before it bled into my sports fan period. One of the most enjoyable eras of my life, I actually was relieved to do the math and see where I was, maybe they had finally cued up something enjoyable for me.
I laid in my bed, taking in the scene for a few more moments when I saw the door to my room, rustle. I focused in on the door for just a few moments and saw the darkened figure of my mom peer in, her red hair shining just a little bit in the soft light.
This image instantly took me back to the real scene and common childhood behavior of pretending to be asleep whenever my mom would come to my room to check in on me before bed. I really have no idea why I would pretend to be asleep, she wouldn’t be mad if I couldn’t sleep, but it was always my M.O. My mom would come to the door, walk in, see me with my eyes closed tight, the blanket pulled up almost completely over my head and then walk away. Then I would spring my eyes back open as soon as she left.
The scene the mask had dropped me into could have been any one of those nights, but I told myself I would do the opposite of what I did in real life again. I would take in a wonderful childhood night with my mother, knowing how limited my time would end up being with her in the long run, I would savor it.
“Wreck?” I heard my mom softly whisper over by the light of the door.
I stuck my head up out of the blankets like a gopher on the prairie.
My mom walked across the room and took a seat at the edge of the bed, ran a hand through my soft hair.
“Sorry, choir practice went long, but I wanted to say goodnight.”
“That’s okay. I can’t sleep.”
I felt my mom move closer to me on the bed, keep petting my hair.
“I’m sorry. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing really, I just can’t sleep.”
“Do you want me to read you a story?”
Back in the real world, I started to feel those tears well back up against the screen in front of me.
“That’s okay. Can you sing me a song?”
I loved when my mom would sing to me on my bedside. A drama student with a degree from Cal Berkeley, my mother had a singing voice which would stop you wherever you were when you heard it. I had spent many a drunken night home alone in my 20s, playing the songs she would sing to me on YouTube and crying until I passed with my laptop burning my stomach trying to recapture that voice and the feeling it gave me.
My mom went into song and my knees became weak. I blindly took a seat on the couch in the testing room. I hadn’t heard that voice sing in so long I lost almost all control of my muscles and curled up into a ball on the couch.
“Baby mine, don’t you cry. Baby mine, dry your eyes,” my mother sang into my ears.
I felt my body shudder in the deepest of sobs. On the screen I saw my mom lock hands with my little paw.
“Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine.”
I squeezed my mom’s delicate hand as hard as I could.
“Little one, when you play.”
My eyes drifted over to the door and the comfort which had plumed in my heart made a fast run for the exit.
Standing in the open crack of my bedroom door was a dark, faceless, human figure. About the size of an average grown man, the thing almost had the look of one of the aliens from the Alien movies – long, slender, completely black. The thing appeared to be eyeless from my vantage point, but it clearly seemed to be watching us.
“Pay no heed to what they say.”
My mom’s sweet song seemed to fade away in my ears, my entire consciousness overwhelmed by the dark figure at the door.
“Let your eyes sparkle and shine, never a tear, baby of mine.”
My heart went into my throat when I watched the figure take a slow step into the room.
My mom didn’t seem to notice, she just kept singing.
“If they knew all about you…”
I broke the song. The figure took a defiant step forward.
My mom didn’t seem to notice first word. I squeezed her hand which was locked with mine and used the other one to tap her on the shoulder.
I was finally able to grab my mom’s attention when the figure launched itself at us in a hideous, black blur of muscle and teeth.
The last thing I heard before the screen cut out was my mom’s voice going from a sweet, sweet song to an ear-splitting sound of pain.
I ripped the mask off of my face and threw it to the ground.
“Hey, hey, calm down,” I heard Graham’s voice pipe up from over by the door.
I looked over with wide eyes and a pounding chest to see Graham walking into the heart of the room with a clipboard in his hands.
“I’m fucking out of here,” I spat out while I worked my way back to my feet.
Graham rushed me with his arms out in what I assume he thought was a comforting posture, but instead made him look like a defensive crab.
“Please, these are just simulations,” Graham pleaded.
I stopped right in front of Graham, just out of reach of his sweaty paws.
“You got some xenomorph attacking me while my mom sings Dumbo songs to me? That’s too far. I can do the other shit, but that’s too much. Sixty thousand dollars a year isn’t going to make up for that.”
I pushed Graham out of the way and headed to the door.
“We are done with the sequences which involve your mother,” Graham shot the sentence out rapid fire, getting the last word in before I got to the door handle.
I stopped and looked over my shoulder at Graham like a perturbed cat.
Graham’s face turned a deeper shade of red, he started to rub his beard nervously.
“We aren’t supposed to tell testers about the testing schedule, but we don’t want you to leave either. We’ve never done this before, but this was the last test which was going to involve your mother. I swear. We promise.”
“Well, okay, but what kind of fucked up, twisted shit, are you going to send at me next?”
Graham put his hands up in his crab defense again.
“Please just go to lunch with me, on me, and I can explain a little bit more. We can go now.”
Graham took me to one of those places where they charge you $13 for an arugula salad and $4.50 for an iced tea where the only soup flavors are either a plant you have never heard of, or a fruit soup. We sat there in awkward silence for a few minutes, nervously sipping on our drinks before he broke the silence.
“I have to tell you something about what we’re doing? It’s not as simple as you have probably been told,” Graham started in without making eye contact.
“Shocking.” I snorted back.
“They probably gave you the line about pulling everything from the simulations from Facebook and Instagram or something, and while that is technically true to a very small extent, most of it is being pulled directly from your brain. You know how the screen takes a little while, like ten seconds to load up once you put the mask on?”
“That’s because the technology we have is reading your brain waves and constructing the world and situation you are going to be put in. I can’t even really explain to you the technical side of it, I’m not an engineer, but basically, it has sensors which read brain waves from the part of the brain which constructs dreams and goes from there.”
I almost choked on my five dollar Arnold Palmer.
I desperately needed a drink to try and forget about another horrifying VR experience, but unfortunately, the corporate comfort my bizarre job had provided had kept my liquor cabinet empty and the only option I was afforded so late on a Tuesday night was a bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey which had been in my freezer since a football trip I took six years ago with friends from college.
The college kid flavored whiskey would have to do the job. I mixed the syrupy swill with a little bit of Coke (the only mixer I had) and ice and drank the stuff down while plugging my nose like a high school girl taking her first shot of flavored vodka.
No longer on my A, B, or even C grade drinking game, it didn’t take long before my concoction which tasted like mouthwash started to hit me hard. I was quickly a stale piece of bread, sweating and stuck to my nylon futon with the thoughts of my Twilight Zone job tucked in comfortably to the back of my head.
It’s embarrassing, but I have to admit that the final step in my process to wind down the night without the crush of crippling anxiety to was pull up some good old, free American porn. The perfect activity to team with the whiskey and lift me off to a sweaty sleep, it only took me about two minutes to find something which would suffice my appetite and I was bathed in the blue light of my laptop watching two strangers fornicate.
My mission was almost complete when something in the corner of the room in the video I was watching caught my eye. Sticking out of the crack of the open door was a long, slender, insectile leg. It just rested there in sight, motionless for a few seconds and pulled my attention away from the action I had come to see.
I felt my heart rate begin to rise when the bedroom door slowly began to open and reveal more and more of the dark figure I had seen earlier in the day in the simulation, until I was looking at the entire, hideous form from the earlier VR in my childhood bedroom, standing in the doorway, watching the action the same way I was. I frantically scrolled the mouse to click out of the screen, but stopped when the fake sex sounds produced by the two actors was replaced by a nostalgic childish melody which was all too familiar too me. I couldn’t put my finger on the song, but I knew it.
I was about to click out of the screen when the female actor on the screen broke the fourth wall and stuck her face right in the camera and locked eyes with me. I jumped in shock and bit down hard upon my lip. I bit down harder as she began to sing a tune in the exact voice of my sweet mother.
“Baby mine, don’t you cry…”
I didn’t even click out of the screen, just slammed the laptop shut and took a few moments to catch my breath and curse at the repulsive cocktails I had gulped down which I felt deepened the madness in my mind.
My heart rate back on the decline and my lungs filled back up with some oxygen, I figured I should at least close out of the window. I opened the laptop back up and prayed the ancient machine received for college graduation from my grandma wasn’t broken and that the black ant figure from my waking nightmares wasn’t waiting for me in the stale light of the porn set.
I was shocked when what greeted me on the screen wasn’t the video I had slammed the door on, it was one of those spammy pop-up porn ads where a webcam girl starts talking to you to try and get you to click on some kind of site which I imagine destroys your computer.
“Hey, hey you, yeah you,” the voice of the woman who looked and sounded as if she couldn’t be more than a few days past her eighteenth birthday grabbed my attention.
A veteran of the pop-ups of the free porn universe, I was used to these kinds of “interactive” ads and ignored it, went to click out, but stopped when I saw the box the nearly-naked 18-year-old girl was in go to black and then begin to slowly illuminate into a new scene. I took my finger off the mouse and waited for the new picture to fully take shape until I was looking at a reflection of my own living room and my nearly-naked self-staring back in pale, freckled, doughy, confusion.
I waved my hand in front of my face and watched my movements reflect in unison on the screen.
“Holy fuck,” I muttered to myself.
I let out a feminine scream, the kind you hear in a horror movie, when I looked closer at the screen and saw the dark, nightmarish figure towering over me from behind, on the couch.
I whipped around and saw nothing behind me. There was no dark figure in the room to be seen, but I could feel something there. I reached out my hand behind the couch and waved my palm around where I saw the figure on the screen, but nothing again.
I finally closed out of the browser this time and tried to collect my thoughts, but failed, the whiskey soaking the cells in my brain clouded my thoughts. I was a nervous wrecking ball of fear, nerves, and anger.
The anger was directed mostly at myself for taking the job with Inside Reality even with all of the red flags, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t burning inside with hatred for Inside Reality and Graham as well. I couldn’t do it anymore. I threw on some dirty shorts and a tank top and ran out to my car to try and drive somewhere I could sleep while creating deep, dark thoughts about those brain waves Graham told me about earlier in the day. What was I thinking?
Shit starts to get real when you wake up in an Arby’s parking lot in Hollywood to the sound of homeless man taking a piss against your door handle. The sight and sound may have been enough to be the final deciding chip I needed to lean towards never going into Inside Reality Entertainment again.
A funny thing happened though as I drove myself back to my apartment through the urban sprawl of the city, a thirst for getting back to Inside Reality and running simulations started to build in the back of my head. It grew and grew like a raging tumor, until I found myself taking a shower and getting dressed in my business casual clothes from Target.
I walked into the office on just a couple hours of sleep as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I nodded at a couple of my co-workers on my way in, drank some watery coffee, checked my email, my LinkedIn, Facebook, and basketball scores and passed the time just like it was any other day.
Until Graham walked up to my cube.
“Eric, can I speak with you for a few minutes?
Well… I knew all too well what that meant. Maybe they were going to make the decision of ending my employment there or not for me.
I sat down in the one of the two chairs in Graham’s stale office with the blank walls and stared at an empty calendar which rested on his desk, waiting for him to deliver the news.
Graham sat down in his chair, stared at the screen of his computer and took a deep breath.
“There’s been a glitch in the system,” Graham said.
“Huh,” Graham’s sentence caught me off guard. “What do you mean?”
Graham two fingers to the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes, and broadcast a look of deep pain that seemed forced.
“We discovered last night that something is deeply wrong with the V.R. system. There is a bug which has harmed the experiences.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“It’s not easy to say this… what we worked so hard for has been compromised.”
“I don’t give a shit. What the hell happened? I had that thing strapped to my face like five times.”
My face heated up to a bright, tomato red. Graham refused to look at me.
“We were hacked,” Graham replied somberly. “There is a virus in our system. We don’t know who put it there, but it has been affecting the experiences…poorly.”
“He has been hijacking the simulations, tapping into the resources we use to create the simulations, but he makes them too personal, too dark, and he’s created a character which he uses to sabotage the simulations. He calls it ‘The Angel.’”
“It’s that dark thing. It looks like the fucking angel of death.”
“Dude, that’s not a good enough answer. What are we going to do?”
“Well, we certainly aren’t doing any more simulations any time soon and the product is probably going to be delayed at least another six months.”
“Does this ‘hacker guy’ have the ability to get into your head even when you aren’t doing the simulations?”
Graham started typing on his computer. Bit his lip.
“We don’t know that, yet,” Graham answered after a few nervous seconds of silence.
“What the fuck do I do?” I picked up the volume in my voice to a straight-up yell.
“You can go home for the day, maybe two, I’ll email you. Don’t worry about it.”
I started to speak up, but Graham halted me with a stiff finger.
“And yes, you will still be paid.”
It took me about two seconds to get out of the office and head home, but my apartment was far from a sanctuary at this point. Hell, the entire world seemed like a house of horrors.
Everything I laid my eyes on seemed to test my fear. If I saw the back of a head in a car in front of me on the road, I pictured that dark soulless face of the angel on the front of it. I swore I heard movement inside my apartment once I stuck my key in.
I kept my head on a swivel once I sat down on my dirty futon and tried to put my thoughts together. I always felt as if someone was right behind me, or next to me, no matter what I did. I felt as if I was the one who had been hacked.
Needing to get my mind onto something else, anything else, I looked to my TV and grabbed the remote off of my wobbly coffee table. I hit the power button and stared at the black of screen, impatiently waiting for it to come to life.
Before the screen could illuminate, I took in a dark, blurry image of myself stretched out on the futon, but my gaze was quickly drawn away to the open space behind me and the futon, where the dark figure from the night before towered over me again.
The TV came on before I could turn around and I saw a familiar cartoon broadcast out of my little 25-inch screen. Gloomy and dark with a blue hue, the heartbreaking melody of “Baby Mine,” started right when I spun my entire body around and expected to come face-to-face with the dark angel who had been stalking me.
“I’m sorry Eric,” my mother’s voice drifted into my ears when I turned around and saw her standing in my living room in the soft yellow summer dress I remember she would always wear when we went to the park on sunny days.
My heart went into my throat, I couldn’t form a response. I choked on the liquid building at the back of my tongue. I wanted to collapse to the floor. My mom’s pale green eyes acting like a stun gun to my heart and soul.
“Mom,” I barely got the word out of my wobbly jaw.
I stayed frozen like a deer in the headlights as my mom walked around the side of the futon and came over to wrap me in a warm hug. Stiff and in shock, it was a heavy relief to feel her soft hand slide across the back of my neck and I swore I could smell her Coco Chanel perfume again on my nose as her hair tickled my neck.
“I’m so sorry I left you,” my mom whispered into my ear.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I whispered back.
At that moment in time, every other pain and anxiety in my life melted away. I was a little boy again, the sound of the coda of that sweet, sad song, provided the soundtrack behind me on the TV. I didn’t care if what was happening was fake, real, or a figment of my imagination or some evil hacker, it was what felt best.
I pulled away from my mom for a moment and looked down at her tired eyes through the blur of the tears in mine as the song on the TV drew to a slow close.
“Ple…ase, don’t, le..ave…” I stammered as I started to watch my mom fade away before my very eyes.
I reached to grab my mom one more time, but grasped just the lonely air. The song had finished. My mom was gone. I was alone.
I woke to the first rays of the morning sun shining through my blinds. A sweaty mess, still clad in the clothes from the day before, I felt refreshed, but infinitely groggy when I rolled off of my futon and onto the floor.
I stayed on the floor for a few minutes to try and catch myself and think about how strange the past few months, weeks, days, and hours had been. Everything seemed to be blurry haze, but at least it was something. My life before that had been a dull blur of anxiety, depression and driving strangers in my Civic.
My thousandth cycle of questioning my life of the week had come to close and I was ready to get up and start the day when something tucked underneath my futon caught my eye. I reached across the floor and grabbed hold of the football-sized object which rested beneath.
Once out from the shelter of the futon, the object was revealed to be one of the VR masks from Inside Reality. The recent past had certainly been cloudy, but I had no memory as to how that mask could have gotten there.
I took a closer look at the VR mask. It was exactly the same as the one I had used down at the office, down to the little inscription of the serial number 31161025 on the side. It was probably the exact one from the office, and it was probably best if I got the thing back there ASAP.
A pounding headache took over my skull again as I drove the 20 minutes or so in light traffic to the warehouse district of downtown LA and the offices of Inside Reality Entertainment.
I pulled into my usual parking spot on the street and walked with a nervous gait to the door of the office with my keyring already out in one hand and the VR mask tucked into my college backpack which I still used.
I watched my hand tremble when I reached the office door and started going through my ring of 10 keys of which only three I actually used. I ran through my collection of gold and silver keys a few times, but never found the long, square key I used to get into the office each day. I went through the keys again, making sure to take a few moments to scan each one. Again, no usual work key.
I was jarred by a flurry of approaching footsteps which came up to me in a flash. I looked over my shoulder and saw the outline of a young woman in business casual attire standing next to me.
A look of deep concern looked to me when I locked eyes with the young woman I knew as Nadia.
“Oh great, Nadia. I can’t find my key.”
“What?” Nadia shot back at me with a tone that made it seem she was discomforted by my statement.
Questioned by an attractive woman, my body went into panic mode. I looked away from her, and at the crimped steel of the door. I literally jumped backwards when I saw the company sign read: POWERHOUSE STUDIOS, not Inside Reality Entertainment.
“Excuse me,” Nadia said and stepped between me and the door.
Nadia stuck a key I did not recognize into the door and started to turn it with a nervous posture.
She cut me off and turned around.
“Why are you calling me that?”
I looked down at her breast pocket and saw a company security badge for POWERHOUSE STUDIOS with her picture on it and the name Gabrielle Huff.
Nadia’s face slipped from a look of fear and confrontation to confusion after lingering on me for a few more moments.
“Why are you here?”
It felt as if my brain fell out of my skull.
“You were here like six months ago for the marketing interview.”
She turned away from me again, opened the door.
“Please leave, or I am going to call security.”
I tried to say something back, but she was in the building with the door slamming behind her before I could.
Back at home and thoroughly embarrassed, shaken and unsure of a single thing in my world, I sat on my futon looking at the black, blank screen of my TV screen.
Even in just the dark reflection, I could tell I was a horrifying, absolute mess. Shaggy-haired, unshaven, filthy and dressed in shambles, I easily could have been mistaken for a homeless drug addict drifting around skid row.
My frame of mind was similar of that to a lost drug addict as well. I felt I no longer knew what was real, and what was not and I had no idea what to do.
Well…not entirely. I had one idea. I reached over to my coffee table and retrieved the VR mask, took a good look at it, and pulled it to my face.
I clicked the mask on and nervously waited for my new world to come to life around me.
Within a handful of seconds, I was back on the sidewalk downtown by the Inside Reality Entertainment offices walking up to the door.
A few steps away from the door, I noticed the sound of a pair of high heels clicking behind me. I turned around and again saw the young woman I knew as “Nadia” approaching in a deep red business skirt and white top.
She greeted me with a smile this time as she took her key out of her purse.
I returned Nadia’s smile with a relieved grin of my own.
“Good morning Nadia.”
The rate of my heart began to ease when I watched Nadia open up the door which read INSIDE REALITY ENTERTAINMENT and usher me into the white hallway which smelled like fresh linen Febreze.
What was real and what was not had become a mystery, but I knew one thing. Walking into that office, my office, pouring myself a morning cup of coffee surrounded by people who knew me, knowing I would have the chance to soon reconnect with my mom in a simulation was home to me, and it was where I wanted to stay for as long as I could.