Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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For a brief moment, I forgot where I was supposed to be.
“Well don’t just stand there, come on over and sit a spell.”
I looked up from my book and took in the new surroundings. I was no longer on the porch with the detective. I wasn’t at the dining room table. I was back in the great hall. The old-timey phonograph filled the air with dulcet instrumentals. A bookshelf stood an arm’s reach before my eyes, the very same piece of furniture that once served as a secret door to the explosive library. The game had reset again, only in a different place. They must have decided to switch things up this time.
That voice had come from the old man with the walrus moustache. He smiled at me from his seat by the fireplace, completely oblivious to the rest of the world... like the poorly-trained piece of A.I. he was.
I shut the book in my hands and returned it to the shelf, but not before reading the title on the cover. “The King’s Lunacy,” by Edgar Allen Poe. Too bad none of the books here are real. That actually sounds like a good one.
I left the worthless Nathaniel where he sat and went into the parlor to find Jerry. He would know what to do. I surmised from the sound of voices that the rest of the group had respawned together. Fortunately, nobody was screaming or fighting, which could only mean they got Wolfgang under control before his killing spree started.
As soon as I walked through the pocket doors, Hope stepped into my path, saying, “Hi! My name is Hope.”
I froze, momentarily losing my train of thought. She seemed so carefree all of a sudden. The stress must have finally made her snap. Poor thing.
“I know who you are, Hope.”
There was a glass in her hands and a smile on her face. “I wanted to ask you for your help. See, I’m here with my son, Wolfgang. He’s a very bright boy, extremely talented, but he isn’t the most outgoing. He’s had a hard time making friends back home, and I was thinking maybe this weekend would give him a chance to come out of his shell.” She raised the glass to her lips and took a large swallow.
Oh god. What is happening?
“Hope, I need to ask you a stupid question. Do you know who I am?”
She laughed and said, “No. I’m sorry, have we met? Oh! Is this a part of the game? I’ve never done one of these before.” She tried on a silly accent, batted her eyelashes, and said, “Hello there, old friend. Fancy running into you in a place like this.”
I laughed a little too hard, patted her on the shoulder, and said, “Your child’s a serial killer.”
She returned the laugh, but cut it off short with a confused, “Wait… What?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Maggie was still “alive.” She was currently talking to Bridget, probably warning her that not everyone here was who they seemed. I turned and searched for Jerry, but he wasn’t in the room. Instead, I saw Wolfgang leaning against a wall, looking bored out of his mind.
Tobias said it himself. Memory is just a chemical process. A predictable, malleable result of amino acid chain reactions. Any group sophisticated enough to build a world like this probably had the technology to do whatever they wanted to our humble little brains, and we’d never even know.
At the far side of the room, Claire stood by her sister’s side, watching me silently. If there was anyone here who might understand what was happening, it was her. I cut straight across the room and said, “Claire… You remember me, don’t you?”
Her piercing blue eyes very clearly answered for her that no, she did not remember me. Claire tried to move away, but I took her by the arm and turned her to face me. I had to make her understand. I needed her to read my thoughts, to know that I wasn’t crazy. I needed her to tell everyone I wasn’t crazy. I needed her to tell me I wasn’t crazy. But there was no understanding in the look she returned. There was only confusion and pity.
“Get away from her, you creep!”
I don’t know how I’d already forgotten about Loren. The next thing I knew, she had punched me in the face hard enough to start a trail of blood pouring out of my nose. Other than Bridget’s gasp from the other side of the parlor, the room had gone deathly quiet.
“Okay,” I said. “I deserved that. I shouldn’t have grabbed you, Claire. I apologize.”
I turned around and looked for something to cork my bloody nose. Once I spotted the clutch purse on the settee sofa, I changed plans.
“Oh, excuse me,” Hope said as I picked up her purse. “That’s mine!”
I laughed it off and said, “Oh, I assure you, this is totally mine. We must have both gotten them at the same place.” I opened it and reached inside. “Walmart’s Black Friday sale 2018, amiright?” My fingers touched metal. Eureka!
I grabbed the weapon, pulled it out, and tried to hide it in my jacket pocket, but I wasn’t fast enough. The moment it came out, Bridget shouted, “Is that a gun?!”
Hope screamed a confirmation, “HE HAS A GUN! HELP!”
Before I knew it, Bridget planted a kick square to my solar plexus hard enough to make an MMA fighter consider retirement. I hit the ground gasping for air. The gun escaped my grip and slid under a nearby chair. For one second, nobody moved, and then… utter chaos as we all bolted for it at the same time.
Wolfgang swooped in with the precision and speed of a bird of prey, snatching the weapon up like he’d just recovered a fumble. As soon as I got back up, I gave chase. He saw me coming and bolted out of the room like a cockroach in a spotlight.
I knew from experience that he would be faster than me in a fair race. I was busy trying to figure out what I could throw at him when I got lucky. He reached the base of the stairs and tried to hook an angle, but his dress shoes must have had less traction than he was used to. He skidded into the wall, paused to regain his balance, then crumpled like an old soda can once I slammed into him at full speed. Wolfgang and gun hit the floor. I picked up the gun and left the boy.
The others were already pouring out of the parlor. Within seconds, I was surrounded. Maggie was screaming for somebody to call the police. Hope was shrieking bloody murder. I tried to yell over them, to get them to calm down. I may as well have been trying to nail water to a wall.
Hope charged at me until I pointed the weapon, stopping her in her tracks.
The front door opened, and Tobias rushed inside. Jerry was close behind. They both froze at the sight of the gun.
“This isn’t part of the game!” Maggie yelled. “That boy has lost his mind!”
Jerry took the cigar from his mouth and held out his hands. “Wait! Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait wait wait wait! What are you doing?! Talk to me, Jack. What’s going on? What did I miss?”
Finally! A chance to explain myself! I just need to make sure I don’t screw it up.
“We got Jumanjied!” I said.
Judging from the reaction on his face, I don’t think Jerry fully understood what I meant. Judging from everyone else’s faces, he wasn’t alone. Only one person was alone here. And it didn’t feel so great.
Loren took a step closer, asking, “What exactly do you mean?” I aimed the gun at her. They were all closing in on me, at different speeds, only stopping when the gun made them. I was losing time. To make matters worse, Wolfgang was coming to, groaning in exaggerated pain. I knew he was manipulating them. I mean, I barely knocked him out. What’s the big deal?
I tried explaining again. “This house! It’s just one of those, you know, Jumanji situations. I think it might be aliens or something along those lines. You don’t have to make that face, Jerry! I can hear myself. I know how it sounds.” Hope took another step towards me. I pointed the gun at her, but this time it didn’t stop her. She took another step. “Stop!” I yelled. “Everybody just stop moving for a minute, I’m trying to tell you what’s really happening and I’ve never been very good at public speaking so I’m kinda nervous and if you can all just chill out I can prove it!”
I was out of time. It was now or never. In a moment of utter desperation, I did the only thing I could think of… I shot Nathaniel twice in the chest..
Predictably, everyone reacted as if I’d just shot an actual human. There were gasps, and screams, and before the dust could settle and everyone had a chance to see that I was right, Tobias did what Tobias does; he tried to take control of the situation and made things worse.
Jerry saw it coming a half-second before I did--Tobias pulling the gun out of his ankle holster--and delivered a perfect left-hook across Tobias’s face. I didn’t even have enough time to move my gun. Tobias had already hit the floor, and Jerry had relieved him of his weapon. I tried to raise my voice above all the others, screaming for them to just look and see. Nathaniel wasn’t dead! I pointed at the body slumped in the seat by the fireplace to show them all I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t crazy!
I couldn’t figure out any way to make everyone shut up and listen. If I could whistle, this might have been a good time. But then Jerry fired three shots into the ceiling, and that did the trick splendidly. His was the only voice in the now silent room.
“Jack, buddy. You know I’m your ride-or-die bitch, but I have to say, I’d prefer more of the ride and less of the die.”
I looked closer at the man I’d shot. For the first time since I met him, I was hoping Nathaniel might have something to contribute. However, he remained motionless and kept his mouth shut. I stepped away from the spot where Wolfgang was regaining his composure on the ground, crossed the short distance to Nathaniel, and poked him in the head a couple of times with the barrel of the gun. He stayed stubbornly stull.
It didn’t take long for me to understand that Nathaniel wasn’t coming to my rescue. The house wasn’t about to make this easy. And why should it? They spent untold amounts of time and resources on this thing, only for me to come by, stomp all over their sandcastle, and force them back to the drawing board. Those who engineered this simulation must have been advanced to a degree beyond my understanding, but there’s one emotion that has persisted as long as there has been intelligent life, and no amount of utilitarian logic can override it. Simply put, the ones in charge were being petty.
I took a deep breath.
“Jerry, I know how this looks, but hear me out. I’ve been to the future. Sorta. I know things. There aren’t any other people in the house. It’s a trap. All of us are here because our cars mysteriously broke down and we needed to make a phone call.” It was strange how nobody reacted to that bombshell the way I thought they would. Way less shock-and-horror. Way more confusion-and-horror. I looked at Loren and said, “Right?”
She made a noncommittal shrug and said, “Sure. Whatever you say, crazy man.”
“No, it’s not like that. I’m telling the truth. Why are you all acting like you don’t already know? None of you are meant to be here... right?”
A long, uncomfortable moment passed before Hope asked, “Is… is this part of the game? Because I am not having any fun at all.”
“Okay,” I said. “I see what’s happened here. They took their memory trick a step further. Instead of erasing, they rewrote. They edited together a story that would make me look like a raving lunatic.”
“Or maybe,” Jerry said, stepping closer to me, “you just imagined it all.”
“What? No, no, no… Not you, too, Jerry.”
“Think about it, bro. What’s the likelier scenario--that we were all unwittingly recruited into a supernatural whodunnit simulator, or that your mind is playing tricks on you again?”
In an instant, Tobias was on his feet, charging into Jerry from behind. Upon impact, Jerry screamed “Hot potato!” and flung the pistol into the air. By some miracle, I managed to catch it before it hit the ground. I now had exactly two guns more than I ever felt comfortable holding, which made me the de facto man in charge.
Tobias was on top of Jerry, hands around his neck, squeezing the life out of him. I yelled for him to stop, but he wouldn’t listen. I swear I meant to fire a warning shot, but as I raised the gun it went off in my hand. The others fled the room, running for their lives.
Tobias made a noise like a gasp, then fell to his side, a circle of blood rapidly saturating the back of his coat where the bullet had struck. Jerry sat up, coughing. As soon as he could breathe, he was doing chest compressions on Tobias’s lifeless body.
I dropped the weapons. Then I fell into the seat across from Nathaniel and waited for whatever was going to happen to go ahead and happen.
Jerry’s shirt was drenched in Tobias blood when he finally gave up and walked over to Nathaniel’s corpse. I thought he was going to check for signs of life, but instead he just reached into the old NPC’s coat, pulled out a cigarette tin and helped himself to a smoke. I watched as he lit a wooden match on his zipper, took a drag, then said, “I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You just killed two dudes. Probably a little too late to unfuck this donkey.” He walked over and knelt down in front of me. “But we can explain to the police what really happened. You had another one of your episodes. You forgot to take your medicine. It wasn’t your fault. None of this was your fault.” He was really starting to remind me of Hope’s internal monologue.
“There aren’t going to be any police. What part of ‘We’ve been Jumanji’d’ do people not understand?”
“You still think you’re in a simulation?” He sighed with disappointment, picked up one of the guns at my feet, and put it in my hand. “Well if that’s the case, then why don’t you just kill me now? Huh? If you’re so certain that none of it is real, what’s even the point in going on?” He grabbed my hand and pulled it up, pressing the gun against his head. “Come on, Jack. Put your money where your mouth is! Either it’s all real, or none of it is. Pick a lane and make a decision!”
His fingers clamped around my hand, holding it in place against the gun. I used my free hand to poke him in the eyes. With a loud yelp like a kicked chihuahua, he released his grip.
“Jerry,” I said. “You remember Lucy, don’t you?”
He answered slowly, “Lucy? Yeah, sure. Why? What about her?”
Lucy was his on-again off-again long-distance fling for the last few months. They were currently in off-again mode, but there was a period where Jerry wouldn’t shut up about her. I knew more about Lucy’s personal life than I did my own.
“What kind of pet does she own?”
He stared blankly forward as he held out the word, “Uhhhhhhhhhh…” like I wouldn’t realize he was buying time. I pulled back the hammer of the gun, forcing him to take his guess. “Cat?”
I shot him in the foot.
The reaction was not at all what I expected. He just laughed and said, “Dog. She has a dog, huh?” I shot his other foot.
“Who are you?!”
In one quick gesture, he put his hands to his face, curled his fingers into the skin, and ripped it off like a fancy Halloween mask made of gum. The smiling face underneath belonged to the one who called himself the detective. He said it himself. “You will play the game eventually. Even if I have to personally play along with you.”
“Fascinating,” he said. “How did you know?”
“Your acting sucks.”
“You weren’t supposed to remember. How…?! How can you remember?!”
Oh I wanted to forget everything. There was a part of my mind that I could feel inviting me to let it all go, to release the past few days into the nothingness beyond existence, to fill the vacuum with a new memory about how Jerry and I planned a trip to Bedside Manor over a year ago as a retreat from our boring existence back home. That memory was pleasant and warm. And fake.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what’s wrong with me, but my memory has never been normal. I probably forget more things in a single day than most people forget in their entire lives. I constantly struggle to know which of my memories are real or imagined. My doctor tried countless remedies to help with my “confusion,” and I doubt he could ever understand how much effort goes into maintaining normalcy, how much of my day I spend trying desperately to remember all the things I forgot. I guess after all this time, I’ve built up a slight tolerance to fake memories.
I let the useless gun fall to the floor, then asked, “Are we done yet?”
“Done?” He laughed. “Oh no, Jack. No, no, no. We’re just getting started.”
“Why? I think I’ve pretty much proved I’m not compatible with whatever this is.”
“That’s perfect! This is a success! We wanted to see what would happen if someone broke the game. Do you think it’s a coincidence you’re all here at the same time? A spy, a black-hat hacker, a super genius, a complete maniac, a class one psychic at her prime, the child who would grow up to be the most proficient serial killer of his generation...”
“Wait, which one of those things is supposed to be me?”
“The participants for the stress test are always selected exclusively for their chaos markers. We needed to know if everything would work beyond the limits of normal operation. And if they don’t, then we catch our mistakes and fix them before the colonization begins. If we can make you conform, we can make anyone conform.”
“Why would you tell me all of this?”
“As the tides ebb and flow, so too does all knowledge. Empires rise only to fall. Life begins only to end. We put thoughts in your head, just to see how easily we can take them away.”
At that point, I forgot exactly what I was doing. I was only moderately aware that this man, whoever he was, was talking to me. I couldn’t remember where I was or why I was there. I had zoned out completely. But I smiled and nodded along politely, just like I had been trained to do, even as my mind continued to wander. This felt just like whenever a customer prattled on way too long at the gas station. Come on, dude, you’re holding up the line and nobody wants to hear your opinion. Yes, the weather changes a lot. Yeah, sports are full of unpredictable moments. No, I didn’t watch the game.
Krikrikrikrikrik. Something chittered loudly as it ran across my foot.
“We can change it up if you want,” the man said. I blinked a few times. How long had he been talking? “Do you like zombies? We can do zombies!” What the heck was he going on about?
I could feel the new memory trying to form inside my mind. It was like a warm bed on a cold night, comfortable and seductive. But I knew better than to let it take over and push the harsh truth out of place. But I caught a piece of it…
We were trapped here, cut off from the rest of the world. Our car hit something on the road. Something that looked human, but wasn’t. It attacked us. We barely made it to the house in one piece before those things started swarming us…
Tobias sat up, a deep, guttural growl emanating from his chest. He got to his feet and began shambling towards me, arms outstretched, mouth open wide. The detective acted like nothing was out of the ordinary.
We prepared for our final stand, but tensions grew hot. Tobias wanted to be in charge. He was going to get us all killed. I looked for the gun. I needed to end this monster before it reached me. He was infected, and in a moment--
I shook the thought out of my head. The smile on the detective’s face disappeared.
“Okay,” he said. “Forget the zombies!” Tobias instantly evaporated in a puff of smoke. “Why don’t we make things a little bit more interesting?”