Endless Mode

game consoleDom hated stereotypes. They had a way of sounding right even when they were so wrong. Take him, for instance, an admitted computer geek. He didn’t weigh four hundred pounds, but he did live in his mom’s basement. He wasn’t a hacker, but he could have been; he had the skills. He wasn’t an anti-social loner, but he was shy and he was alone a lot.

The online world was as comfortable to him as the familiar sidewalk outside the house. More comfortable, actually, because there were people on the sidewalk. He wasn’t good with people. He got tongue-tied and didn’t know what to do with his hands.

Dom free-lanced for several large technology companies, mopping up other people’s messes. It was all done remotely, so he never had to visit his employers. He made some money, but not enough to get his own place. His mother said he had half a life, and if he didn’t get out of her basement he’d miss the other half.

But in his spare time, it was easier to play games. Dom got completely lost in them. There was one player in particular who always gave him a run for his money. He or she appeared as an avatar, a space-suited chimp called Kill Ratio. Dom encountered very few worthy opponents, and he was intrigued and curious about Kill Ratio’s identity. Whoever it was, the dude could play. They often kept going in endless mode* for hours after the game was officially over. When dawn sneaked through his basement window, Dom would raise his eyes from the glowing backlit keyboard and blink at the clock incredulously.

One day he received a message from Kill Ratio: “Hey, you interested in playing for spectators?”

Dom knew people paid to watch experts play the most difficult games online. It could be lucrative and he needed money. He didn’t quite know what the other half of his life was supposed to look like, but he was pretty sure it’d require cash.

“Maybe,” he responded cautiously.

“Let’s meet,” came the reply.

The chance to unravel the mystery of Kill Ratio was tempting – but a face-to-face? That was something else entirely.  Dom thought it over for a full twenty-four hours before he messaged back, “OK.”

They set a time to meet at Starbucks. He was instructed to look for a tall blond girl dressed in black with numerous silver piercings. Dom almost backed out then and there. Kill Ratio was a girl? Girls were the hardest kind of people to talk to. And what would a glamorous Goth girl think of him in his wrinkled khakis and faded tee-shirt? But he wouldn’t go to any extra effort with his appearance, he decided stubbornly. It was a business meeting, after all, not a date.

He arrived early and sat at a table in the corner watching the door. The agreed-upon time came and went, but no Goth girl appeared. Increasingly nervous, Dom promised himself he’d only wait ten more minutes. He didn’t notice the quiet little brunette sitting in the opposite corner.

“Time’s up,” Dom muttered in relief, scooping up his coffee detritus. On his way to the door, a small voice stopped him. He looked down at a girl who didn’t even come to his shoulder.

“Are you, by any chance, Blackbelt?” she asked. When he nodded, she ducked her head and said, “Well, hi, I’m Kill Ratio.”

You are?” Dom couldn’t keep the astonishment from his voice.

The girl blushed so deeply it looked painful. “I’m sorry I lied about how I look,” she said in a rush. “I didn’t think anyone would come just to meet me, and, well, I was so curious; I had to see who beats me every time. You’re really good. That’s all I wanted to say. Sorry I wasted your time.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” Dom said. “I don’t care if you’re not tall, or blond, or whatever. You can play the game. Do you want to…I mean…let’s talk.”

~*~

He leaned on the handles for balance as he pushed the wheelchair containing a tiny woman with silver hair. A couple of middle-aged children beamed as they walked with their parents through the crowd of well-wishers to the white-draped table at the front of the room. On it rested a cake in the shape of a gaming keyboard. The man helped the woman out of her chair and steadied her. He placed his hand over hers as she prepared to cut the cake.

“Wait, Mom and Dad, don’t cut it yet,” one the children said, aiming his camera. “Look here and smile. Tip the cake so we can see the inscription.”

Icing spelled out Happy 50th Anniversary in big letters. Beneath it, in smaller letters: Endless Mode.

###

*endless mode – game mode in which players are challenged to last as long as possible against a continuing threat with limited resources or player-character lives, with their performance ranked on how long they survive before succumbing to the threat (such as the death of the player-character) or on score. This mode is typically offered in games that otherwise have normal endings that can be reached, providing an additional challenge to the players once the main game is completed.  WikipediA

 

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All the News

tv child“We shouldn’t have to sneak around to watch the news,” Tricia grumbled to her husband as they sneaked around to watch the news. Their three children, ages five, seven and ten, were occupied for the moment on the swing set in the back yard. No telling what bruises and disputes would arise from this mutual occupation, but, as Ken said, “We have to grab our chance when we get it.”

Not for this couple the closed bedroom door of intimacy. Oh, they closed the door all right, but it was so they could watch, furtively and with the volume turned low, the nightly news.  Experience had taught them not to include the kids. Those questions!

“Mom, what’s a sexual predator? Is it a hunter, like Mr. Milton next door?”

“Why are all those people burning tires?”

“Daddy, if there’s a war, will our house blow up like the ones on T.V.?”

“Why did the teacher take just that one girl on a trip? Did he like her better than the other kids?”

Even worse than the news were the commercials. How do you explain erectile dysfunction to a ten-year-old boy? What comfort can you give a seven-year-old daughter worried she has PseudoBulbar Affect? She doesn’t know what it is – who does? – but she’s pretty sure she’s got it. Then there’s the five-year-old who raised his hand in class to ask his kindergarten teacher if she was wearing Depends. They’d gotten a phone call about that one.

“There used to be rules about what could be on television,” Tricia said wistfully. “Mom told me when she was a girl there were absolutely no curse words, sex scenes, or personal hygiene ads. She said she could watch T.V. with her boyfriend and not die of embarrassment.”

“Yeah, those were the days,” Ken agreed. “Grown-ups’ programs were shown late in the evening when children were in bed and wouldn’t be watching. Now, they warn us an upcoming story ‘will have content that some may find disturbing.’ We’ve got a nanosecond to slap our hands over the kids’ eyes.”

“Were we really worse off in those censored times, do you think?” Tricia asked. “I mean, some of it was silly, like married couples could only have twin beds, and you couldn’t mention pregnancy. But do we have a better handle on things now that we let it all hang out, everywhere, all the time?”

They endured the rundown of local shootings, robberies, carjackings and accidents until Lester Holt’s wise visage appeared on the screen. Then they leaned in attentively to catch every clandestine word of the national news. But wait:  the President of the United States used a pejorative to describe football players; there were shocking additions to the nightly countdown of celebrities accused of sexual misconduct; wounded children stared desolately from Middle Eastern hospital beds; and oops, the meteorologist was falling out of her dress again.

Wearily, Ken looked at Tricia; she shrugged. He reached for the remote and hit the “off” button. Hand in hand, they went outside to play with their kids.

Hide and Seek

She looked around the house one last time, made sure all the lights were turned off, and said goodbye to the dog. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder, opened the door, went out and turned to lock the dead-bolt.

Hearing the door shut, he yawned and stretched. He’d give it another ten minutes in case she’d forgotten something and came back. That had happened once and he’d nearly gotten caught. He had the whole day, after all; he could afford to wait.

The dog’s nose wrinkled as she took in a million scents in the still air. She knew he’d come out soon.  At first, she’d been afraid; she was a timid little dog. But he’d scratched her chin and offered treats, so then it was okay. He wasn’t a stranger anymore.

He showered first. It was important to be extremely clean. Odors were detectable. Carefully, he squeegeed the shower. The towel he added to the pile of his clothes he was about to run through the washer and dryer. Then he poured himself a bowl of cereal. Hmmm, she was almost out of milk. It wouldn’t be smart to take the last of it, so he had to eat the cereal dry. He washed and put away his dishes and left the house, striding confidently to the bus stop like any other neighborhood resident. He’d sweep up at a construction site today, make a little money, buy some groceries to replace what he consumed so she wouldn’t notice.

She’d had an uneasy feeling for some time. Something danced around the edges of her consciousness, but she couldn’t name it. She was just jumpy, she told herself. Women who lived alone tended to get jumpy. Well, she’d jolly well have to get over it; at her age, she wasn’t likely to find a companion.

Keeping busy was the solution, so she grabbed a scratch pad and began making a list. She’d get organized. There were jobs she’d been meaning to get to, and she knew if she committed them to paper, she’d eventually do them. She loved the feeling of crossing items off a list.

  1. Schedule carpet cleaning; 2. Wash curtains and blinds; 3. Organize kitchen cupboards; 4. Clear out dormer closet.

He’d have been in a panic if he could have seen the last item on that list. The dormer closet was where he lived. Past the suitcases, golf clubs, leftover bathroom tiles and rolled up rugs, he squeezed his way to his sleeping bag tucked under the eaves. When she went to work, he came out. He thought of it as his home, too

He worked on the construction crew that built this house. Because of his size – small and wiry – he could get into tight spaces where the bigger guys didn’t fit. He laid the sub floor in the dormer closet that stretched the length of the wall. Useless space, he’d thought – too low to enter without stooping, too shallow to allow for more than piling things at arm’s reach inside the tiny door. But when he lost his apartment, he remembered. Maybe that space wasn’t so useless after all.

It had been easy to gain entry through an unlocked window, a breach of security he corrected once he was in the house. At the first opportunity, he had a key made. He was very careful not to betray his presence by leaving the smallest trace of himself. It was easier because she seldom entered the top floor bedroom, furnished for guests who never came.

Weekends were a problem. She was home all day then, so he left the house on Friday afternoon and stay with his pals under the 8th Street bridge until Monday morning. It was always good to get back to his cozy closet. Makes a man thankful to be indoors, was what he thought. He’d lived undetected in his little lair for months.

But then he caught a cold, a bad one. He always coughed his head off when he had a cold. It was the worst of luck that it coincided with her time off for the Christmas holidays. He felt too sick to move, and he couldn’t control his coughing.

She heard him, of course. That cough made sense of everything she’d been feeling. Of course, she’d noticed inexplicable things – the key she thought she’d lost, but found again the next day right where she always left it, the damp shower curtain that should have dried hours earlier, the slight increase in her utility bills. It all clicked into place.

Somehow, she wasn’t afraid. She went to the closet door, bent down and opened it.

“Come out,” she said. “I know you’re there. Come out.”

She could see he was sick. His eyes glittered feverishly in a flushed, scared face, and chills shook his body.  Illness made him look young and vulnerable.

“I’m sorry,” he rasped through his sore throat. “Don’t call the police. I’ll go.”

“No,” she said, surprising them both. “Stay.”

The dog licked his hand.

 

 

 

Sunday Evening, 1949

One year, green.  Another year, blue.  Then bright yellow.  The metal lawn chairs got a new coat of paint every summer, but everything else seemed to stay the same, caught in the slow molasses of childhood in a place where nothing ever changed. Janie  flipped the yellow chair over to make a tiny hiding place. She fit just right. The other kids wouldn’t find her.

In the plain white church across the gravel parking, the congregation sang. Their impeccable harmony rose and fell on the evening air.  Every person knew his or her part: soprano, alto, tenor or bass. They sang the old hymn a cappella.  We shall come rejoicing, bring in the sheaves.  Janie knew the words, too, and she sang along softly.

The hay had been cut and stacked that day in mushroom-shaped mounds and a sun-dried, herbal scent filled the air.  Cows trod single-file up the lane leading to the barn, taking their time on that last evening walk.  No hurry.  The barn would be there; it was always there. Horses lingered in the field, standing nose to swishing tail, brushing each others’ faces clean in the relentless war between horse and horsefly.

“Kids! Time to come inside.”

Parental calls would have to be repeated several times, and everyone knew it. It was just too hard to forsake the soft twilight for the glaring indoor lights. The children assembled in a loose circle under the dark, rustling maple leaves.

“You’re It for tomorrow,” David said.

“Am not,” Janie responded automatically.

The game had been going on for days – maybe all summer. A fresh day meant a fresh start.

Finally, the calls took on an “I mean it now” tone and the kids slowly trailed inside, lured by the smell of buttered popcorn. Bright lights made the outside world instantly black and foreign.  Curtains were drawn against the night. The house became a cocoon, safely cradling those within.

Janie’s dramatic protests: “I don’t need a bath, I had one yesterday. I’m not one bit dirty,” were ignored. Clean and sleepy, she slipped between crisp sheets dried on the clothesline, inhaling leftover fresh air and sunshine.

Through the open window came the sounds of church-goers leaving evening service, talking cheerfully to one another, calling children, slamming car doors.  Gravel crunched under tires. Crickets prevailed again.

The world turned steadily on its axis. What could ever change?