Exit Beneath the Light
My dead sister Chloe found the door behind the bowling alley before I did, directly below the pseudo star suspended in the orange and pink streaked sky.
Is this what you—
An hour or so earlier, my wife had just scored a strike and was jumping up and down, her bare feet splashing in the tiny waves. She yelped in glee, waving to me. I waved back, my beer in my hand. Having checked in, my wife immediately forgot me, running back to get her ball at the end of the lane, and yukking it up with some friend she’d just made, another middle aged woman with brunette hair and a T-shirt over her bathing suit bearing the logo of a rock band I knew my wife liked.
Ah, so she’s made a friend, I said, smiling.
The bartender raised an eyebrow at me. You doing okay over there? He was kind of an ugly fellow, with bags under his eyes and thin lips, but friendly enough.
I was thinking about having another. I stared into the glass. Foam and everything, just like the real thing. You sure these aren’t real?
He chuckled. Power of suggestion. That and the stuff they gave you to drink before you came in. Increases the ability of the brain to believe. Is that still cherry flavored? I heard they were going to come out with a cola version too. Give everyone a choice.
Yeah, I said, wincing at the memory. Cherry.
Later, down by the beach, all of us were taking everything in. The silky waves as they approached the shore. The heart shaped sun pulsing gently in the sky.
We’d always heard that beaches were supposed to be awesome. We’d seen those movies, with bikini-clad girls smiling shyly at boys while pop singers howl cheerfully in the background. Who could believe in such places? Not us, that’s for sure. The beaches we’d always known were polluted, filthy places. If you dared walk on those you’d cut your foot open on something like skyscraper glass or scrap metal from cars. Not to mention that these days the sand gets so hot it could take off all the skin on the bottom of your foot.
We’ve read about what’s below the water as well. How fish, dazed with confusion from altered carbon dioxide levels, swim straight towards predators. Or the strange sudden mutation that caused multiple species of fish to no longer have eyes. Like everything underwater is too terrible to see.
Or how chemicals leeching from all those drowned cities have resulted in male fish with eggs growing in their sex organs, or female fish that randomly sprout penises.
In the early days the late night comics used to find a way to make jokes about things like that. But no one is laughing anymore.
I’ll never forget him. That guy, the one I saw next.
When I first saw him, he was walking towards me, along the shore. He wore a button-down paisley shirt and a leather vest along with cutoffs and sandals. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen anyone wear anything like that in my life. In pictures, sure, and in old movie footage. But not out in the normal world, and not even in this virtual one. Most of us were dressed like the confirmation email suggested. Modern beach wear, they described it. They included helpful pictures, with links to online retailers.
But not this guy.
It wasn’t just what he was wearing, however. There was something else about him.
He was looking out at the water, like I was. Like many of us were. I mean, you couldn’t not look at it. It was that amazing. But when we approached one another and I could see the expression on his face I could see there was something in the way the lines creased around his eyes that made him look. . .Well. I suppose puzzled was the word that came to mind.
I waved at him and said hello. Already had my Nice Guy smile hung out in advance like one of those happy seasonal flags—Easter, Fourth of July, that kind of thing—flapping away in front of a house. He said hello back, just like anyone else.
And this is where I probably sound a little crazy. Not that I’m really disputing that. I am a little crazy. But when his eyes met mine, there was something. . .missing.
I don’t know what that something was. But it wasn’t there.
A little father down the beach I stopped and turned around. But he was already receding into the distance, just walking along the shore like anyone else. His ponytail blowing around in the wind off the ocean.
As I watched him walk away he passed by someone who looked familiar, even though she was turned away from me. Brown shoulder length hair, a white shirt, sandals. Earrings glittering in the light. She was far away, barely even visible at all. If I’d held up my thumb she would have vanished entirely.
And yet. A chill on the back of my neck. Spreading down my back like a bloom of algae.
But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I’ve seen her—Chloe—in the last twenty six years or so, and it’s never her.
It can’t be because she’s dead.
That was when I heard the first chime.
Most people didn’t react at all. Stayed on the beach in their little groups, talking and laughing and eating their virtual snacks. Virtual bags crinkling in the wind.
I was far away from the bowling alley, but I could still see Kelly, far away. Holding a bowling ball in both hands, knees bent. The cove behind her sparkled. Something—some sort of auto-generated dolphin or something—rose and fell behind only yards behind her.
We’d gone for the four hour package. I crossed my fingers that the bowling alley would keep her entertained for the rest of the time we were there.
It was after the third chime that everything disappeared.
We were in an ordinary room. A huge room, mind you. I guessed that it was as big as a city block or bigger. But perfectly ordinary. Ceiling tiles, some stained. Florescent lights.
No ocean. No mysterious pink and gold light. No bowling alley. Just people, milling around. Most didn’t appear to think anything was out of the ordinary. Some were straightening out their clothes, or tending to their shoes.
The ugly bartender guy I’d been talking to was in the middle of the room where I guessed the bar had been, looking at his watch.
Kelly tilted up her palms and held her arms up by her head.
I shrugged, stretched out my hands. I don’t know.
Reality break. Government mandated, the bartender said, without looking up. He was kneeling down, looking at something on the floor, some kind of little nodule with a tiny screen, embedded in the concrete. A dust bunny skittered across the floor. “Two hundred and thirty two,” he mumbled, and took a little pad out of his pocket and scribbled on it.
What? What does the government have to do with anything? I paid for this, I said, assuming the role of indignant consumer. When does everything come back?
He glanced up at me wearily. You weren’t paying attention at orientation then. It’s also in your packet. Just fifteen minutes. The industry is lobbying to cut it back to half that—
We were late. To orientation. My wife and I, that is. Took the wrong road, and it turned out it was the kind with the old asphalt. No one bothered to put up the barriers! You know about those roads, right? Can’t believe they’re still around, with cars getting stuck like that.
The bartender guy flipped through his notepad and made a noncommittal noise.
Then we had to turn around and make our way back— It was easy to see everyone now that the palm trees and the bowling alley and the water was gone. I saw a family of five I’d passed on my walk, giggling together in a little clump. A lady in a straw hat that earlier had said hello to me on the beach was sitting cross-legged on the ground, reading something on her phone.
But I was positive that people were missing—or one person, at least. The guy wearing the leather vest and the ponytail that I’d passed on my walk to the beach. I didn’t see him anywhere.
Where are they? From the look on his face I could tell he knew exactly what I meant, but I said it anyway. The people that were here, the ones I don’t see. Where did they go?
Oh, well— He rubbed the side of his face. That’s a bit of a glitch that we’re working on. We’re not quite sure why it happens.
Yeah, well, for lack of a better word. . .They materialize. Out of people’s memories, apparently. People like you. Guests. They’re not really people. Just illusions. Like projections. He pointed to the nodule in the floor. We’re keeping track of them. There were three today. Most days there are none at all. We see maybe one or two a month, max. But three in one day. . . He rubbed his chin. Huh.
But one said hi to me.
Sure, that happens. I even chatted with one of them—an illusion, I mean—last week about the 2016 World Series, the bartender chuckled. But they only can do or say things that exist in the guests’ mind, the one who is accidentally conjuring them up while they’re here. They’re not the actual person. And if they’re dead, well, of course, they’re still—
Dead. I blinked. I tried to sound matter-of-fact. So you’re saying that dead people are walking around with everyone else—
He frowned. Shouldn’t have used that word.
Hope started to drag itself out of the gutters. Isn’t it a problem when the person that’s responsible for conjuring up someone runs into whoever it is, this person they’ve been thinking about?
Oh, yeah. It can be a big problem for sure. But it doesn’t always happen. Most of the time their paths didn’t cross. I mean, it’s a big place.
I said something about how sad that sounded. I was trying to talk to him in a way that I imagined anyone might respond in a conversation like this. You see, I had an idea.
But I was careful not to sound too excited.
He shrugged. Happens all the time. Most times, we see who we expect to see. Not just in here, I mean, like, anywhere. Another chime sounded. He looked at his watch. Well, that’s that then. Time for the announcements, and then everything will be back the way it was. He looked at me pointedly. You should pay attention. Since apparently you missed some things during orientation.
The lights dimmed, and a woman in heels and a suit walked out into the center of the room. She introduced herself as Laurel Bennett, VP of Customer Engagement, and launched into a brief spiel about how she hoped we were enjoying the magic of a Simucation™ branded vacation. Then she told us that she was required by law to tell us that we should pay attention to the exits. Even when the Simucation™ was fully operational we could use them in case of an emergency. There were two doors to the outside, and we would be able to find them if we looked for the door handles, which would remain visible even when our reality was altered. She pointed at the ceiling, where there were little embedded lights, like stars. She told us that they were the one thing in the room that was both visible in both plain reality and when everything was in Simucation™ mode; they would appear to be little lights in the sky. Each door was located under the ones at the farthest sides of the room.
We should know how to find them if necessary, Laurel Bennett told us, checking her watch and yawning.
Once I knew that for the first time in twenty six years I hadn’t just imagined her, finding her didn’t take long. She was standing by the shore, looking out at that glittery ocean. She was wearing the same white shirt with the eyelets on the sleeves as she was wearing that night when she was seventeen. The same pink and turquoise sandals.
So I guess you’ve been here since I got here, I said. No one would ever think of being in this situation, of striking up a conversation with their dead sister. Certainly I never had. I didn’t know to look for you. I’m sorry—
I stopped. The number of times over the years that I’d told her I was sorry in my mind! Yet this was the first time I could tell her in person. Look her in the eyes. They were exactly the way I remembered them. The same shade of green as mine.
She shrugged. She seemed to take my presence in stride. I like it here a lot, she said. I was just thinking about going for a swim. Then she hugged me. She still smelled like that perfume, a sugary chemical concoction she loved back when she was alive. Traces of it stayed in the house for years after she was gone and would pop up in the weirdest places. The hallway outside the linen closet. The landing at the bottom of the stairs.
Oh, I’ve missed all of you guys!
Yeah, I said. I put my hands in my pockets. I swallowed. It’s been a long time.
Far down the shore at the bowling alley, Kelly was back at it, watching a bowling ball roll towards the pins. She was too far away to hear, but I could imagine how her voice sounded as she jumped and pumped her fists in the air.
I remembered that one of the doors they mentioned during the reality break was behind the bowling alley. I couldn’t see it, but I was sure that it was there. I checked the sky, and sure enough there was one of Laurel Bennett’s little lights. Hovering right over that area, behind the phantom machinery that was resetting the pins in Kelly’s lane.
What is it?
I made a decision. Follow me.
I tried to act casual as we walked across the beach, up towards a wooden walkway and past some cafes where people were sitting out in the sun.
The wind was blowing. Occasionally a perfect cloud would drift in front of the heart shaped sun, for verisimilitude, I supposed. Blue shadows passed over us, and vanished.
I didn’t want anyone to notice us. I already knew it was weird, a middle aged guy like me walking along with a seventeen year old girl. Maybe people would think she was my daughter—at least, I hoped so, anyway. There was certainly a strong family resemblance.
I avoided looking over at Kelly.
And I was certainly avoiding the bartender. I guessed that he’d take one look at her and it would be obvious to him, what she was.
But she looked real.
The whole way I thought someone would stop us. But no one did.
So that Kelly wouldn’t see us, I’d snuck around the side of the bowling alley, and found a door to open. Hard to describe where the door was or the building either, since most of the building wasn’t actually there—after all, the waves washed up in the bowling alley lanes. But part of it was there, like it was an unfinished sketch. It looked out on a perfectly clean alleyway lined with brick buildings.
The buildings looked strange but I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized: The buildings didn’t have any windows. Someone must have forgotten to add them in.
Why are we behind a bowling alley?
I couldn’t answer her if I tried; the noise was deafening. Balls clattered down behind the ends of the lanes and were then pushed along by machinery. Giant steel machines were resetting pins. Really, it all seemed like unnecessary theater. If it was virtual, why bother with any of it? Just make the pins rematerialize in the correct positions. Have the balls roll obediently back into place.
That is, until we passed a half-undressed couple, in a dark corner next to some machinery, and then another a little farther along.
Embarrassing to be near something like that with your sister. Even if she’s dead.
But then I figured it out, why the back of the bowling alley was there at all. It was included purposefully, for trysts. For people to feel like they had somewhere to go, in order to get away with whatever they wanted to get away with.
Everyone wants to get away with something, I’ve found.
I pulled Chloe’s hand as we moved through the flickering light under the machinery. We could see the shadows of the bowlers slipping around through the golden pink light on the other side of the pins.
Only yards away I could hear Kelly yelling Strike!
Maybe you can guess what I was doing.
If you think it doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, you’re right. No matter where I’ve found her—and at this point, I’ve been finding her for years—she’s an illusion. And I’ve learned that no matter how much you want to, you can’t sneak an illusion out the door and into a parking lot. I’ll be the first to admit that my thoughts around this weren’t exactly logical.
Even if I could get her outside (which I learned was impossible), what was I planning on doing next? Hand her a smartphone and a quick tutorial on the way things are in the world these days? Tell her how to look for the orange doors in the ground in case of a tornado? And then say goodbye and watch, smiling, as she wanders out into the hot and terrible world?
Carry on, illusion!
It’s hard to remember exactly what I thought, that first time, because now, looking back, one time blends into the next. There was the tenth time, the twentieth time, the fiftieth too. I kept coming back, long after Kelly and I were divorced, long after my next wife Shelly and then Adrienne, my wife after that, left me as well.
Speaking of the original Simucation™ chain, they stopped letting me in years ago. But they’re no longer the only virtual vacation game in town. Knockoffs abound. To save money, many of them set up shop in failed institutions. I’ve been to virtual beaches in what used to be lecture halls on former college campuses, and ski resorts in abandoned government buildings. Sparkling blue lakes inside what were once hospitals.
I’ve stopped trying to sneak her out of doors, at least. I should get credit for that.
It’s funny, how the glitch is still there. I don’t see her every time I go. But sometimes I do. And that’s enough.
From time to time I run into others who are as addicted to this as I am. I saw a woman last week who I’ve seen at least three or four times in the past. She and her dead husband were sitting next to one another in Adirondack chairs, holding hands and looking out at a perfect blue lake.
Sometimes I ask myself why I keep doing this. Why I’ve kept it up so long.
The only answer I can think of is that every time I find Chloe and she turns and looks at me and smiles, I can believe—just for a moment—that none of it happened. That the kiss she blew to me through the air as she walked out the door when I was eleven was just another moment in my life, like any other moment I’ve had before or since. Every time I see her again I can feel it: that fleeting sense of relief. I feel it in spite of everything around me, this terrible and crumbling world. In spite of the pain that follows. Because, really, this is all that I’m after, maybe it’s all that anyone is after. When all is said and done, we all want to feel like everything will turn out fine.