I heard Loren gasp and turned around to see Wolfgang standing behind her, one of his hands was wrapped in her hair, the other holding a gun to her head. His eyes were on me.
“Wolfgang wait!” I shouted. “You don’t have to do this. Nobody has to die anymore.” That was, evidently, the wrong argument. He executed her right in front of us. Claire screamed as Wolfgang raised the gun and pointed it at her. “WAIT!” I shouted with even more desperation. Amazingly, he gave me a chance.
“What can you possibly say that I’m going to want to hear?”
I got down on my knees. “I know what’s going on. I figured out the mystery of Bedside Manor! I can get us both out of here!”
“I don’t want to get out of here.”
I had no response. All I could do was look to Claire. She returned my gaze. Her piercing blue eyes held nothing back. She was afraid. She was terrified that I might be wrong. She was terrified of Wolfgang. And as a surge of electricity ran up my spine, she sent a message that only I could hear. Follow the smoke.
He pulled the trigger, and Claire was dead again.
“WHY?!” I screamed. “They didn’t do anything to you! Why can’t you leave everyone else alone?! It’s me you want to kill!”
“I don’t want to kill you, you idiot! I want to make you hurt like you made me hurt. I was stuck in that room, all alone, for days! Do you know what that kind of pain feels like?!”
“Well, to be fair, you also murdered your mom and tried to kill me and also killed everyone else... So… maybe get off your high horse and quit being such a dick about it.”
He aimed the gun at my crotch, smiled, and pulled the trigger. A second later, his smile turned into a frown. Nothing happened. Oh God, I am so glad I didn’t screw up my bullet count there.
He shrieked and threw the gun at me, but I’d already started moving for the closest door. I pushed through, slammed it behind me, found another identical door nearby, and ran through it. I repeated the step a few more times, then stopped to relax against the wall. To my right as far as I could see were identical doors against an incalculable horizon of lime green and purple. To my left, the exact same thing. Somewhere, far off in the distance, I could hear his screams echoing in every direction. I was trapped in this labyrinth with a monster and no clue how to escape. Then... I smelled the smoke.
Surely it can’t be that easy. Can it? I started walking. In time, the smell became stronger. I was heading in the right direction, passing door after door, pausing every few steps to take a deep breath and make sure I hadn’t lost the trail. The screams of the young psychopath were definitely getting closer by the second, tempting me to run away, but I ignored them and took my time.
When I found the right door, I knew immediately. It smelled like I was standing next to one of Jerry’s New Year’s bonfires, when he’d throw in plastic, electronics, old tires, and anything else he could find to burn. I tapped the door handle. It was warm, but not hot enough to scald my hand. As Wolfgang’s voice continued to bounce around the endless hallway, I opened the door and stepped into the parlor.
The fire blazed out of control. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t breathe or see further than a few feet in front of my face. A crashing noise erupted over my head like the building was being ripped in two. I looked up just in time to see the ceiling cave in on me.
Suddenly, I found my breath. The pain in my ear was gone, and the world came into focus all over again. Jerry was at my side now, shouting something that sounded like, “Whoa, Nelly!” Across the dining table, Wolfgang was clawing his way over to me with the dinner knife in his hand.
Loren leapt to her feet, picked up her chair, and broke it into pieces against the boy as soon as he was close enough to hit. Jerry quickly grabbed him by the feet, pulled him off the table, and threw him into a headlock while Hope screamed for them to let her child go. She took her gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, yet nothing happened.
Hope was alive. Wolfgang was subdued. I was almost proud that we’d survived the first thirty seconds as a group, but now wasn’t the time to relish the minor victory. As the rest of them screamed and fought with one another, I left and went into the great hall. There was someone I needed to talk to.
I opened the front door to find the detective standing there, staring at his pocket watch.
He looked up and said, “Hello?” with a note of surprise. “I wasn’t expecting to see you already.”
“We need to talk.”
He put away his watch and asked, “Are you going to try and hurt me? Because I can save you the trouble. I’m not--”
“I figured it out.”
He crossed his arms. “What, pray tell, do you think you’ve figured out?”
I stepped outside, closed the door behind me, and said, “The mystery of Bedside Manor.”
“No you haven’t, Jack. You lot haven’t even come close.”
“Hear me out. I’ve known something was wrong here since the moment we arrived, only I couldn’t understand what it was. Every time I tried to look Maggie in the eyes, I could sense that something was off about her. Like, ‘uncanny valley’ kind of off. Then there was the way she and Nathaniel teleported whenever they weren’t being watched. There was the rain that came from nowhere. The rearranging forest. The guard rails to keep us from leaving. It all finally came together when I heard Tobias call this dinner table fiasco a ‘respawn.’ You know what a respawn is, don’t you? It’s a video game term. You gave us save points. You gave us NPC’s. You built your own custom physics engine. Oh, it’s so obvious now. The reason we can’t stay dead is because none of us are even here. Bedside Manor is a simulation. Isn’t it?”
“I told you to play the game. You’re not playing. You’re metagaming.”
“But am I right?”
“Do you know how many iterations of Bedside Manor I’ve personally overseen? Billions. Literally billions. I helped to build a model of this game across virtually every version of your reality, and never once has a team failed so utterly and completely. Not one time in--in case you didn’t hear me--billions. Honestly, I’m impressed by the sheer ineptitude.”
“It doesn’t matter. You will play the game eventually. Even if I have to personally play along with you. Sometimes, the players need a little hand-holding to get them onto the right track. And you will get on the right track. There is far too much at stake to give up now.”
I knew it was pointless to ask, but I tried anyway. “What’s at stake?”
Much to my surprise, he answered freely. “You’re close, but not close enough to understand. This isn’t a video game. It’s psychological reconnaissance. A compatibility test to determine if a world is ripe.”
“‘Ripe’ for what?”
“Call it ‘colonization.’”
“You mean ‘invasion,’ don’t you?”
He scoffed. “Not at all. You won’t even know we’re here. Our presence is a symbiosis, the same way a farmer feeds and protects his livestock. We can make you happy. Fat. Immortal. Anything you can imagine and more. All you have to do... is play the goddamn game.”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t want to.”
“With the fate of both of our species hanging in the balance, did you really think I’d allow you any choice in the matter?”
He didn’t give me a chance to answer. The next thing I knew, we had already reset.