Everybody Wants to Rule the World softly hummed from Ralphie’s headphones. It was something chill and relaxing for him to drift off to sleep to and always had been. For as long as he could remember, Tears for Fears would rock him to sleep. As he rolled up against the wall, cold and almost as soothing as the music, Ralphie fumbled around for that last vestige of childhood, he still quietly clung to. It was silly, really, a thirteen-year-old shouldn’t be cuddling up with a soft, worn-down, blue, stuffed, cartoon dragon, but it was, just as the music and the wall, comforting to him. He had to suppose that the need for such comforts came from sleeping in the otherwise empty house, not that his home was terribly creepy. It was too modern to give him a good fright, everything looked well kept, and indeed, it had been built within the past couple of decades. However, that feeling of loneliness and emptiness within, waiting for his folks to come home from their long shifts, left Ralphie wanting for some comforts.
Both his mother and father pulled over twelve-hour shifts at the plant outside of town, one as a shift lead the other worked in the office. Ralphie rarely saw the two of them outside of the house, or awake when they were home. Still, the pantry was always stocked, leftovers were waiting for him in the fridge most mornings, and if he woke in the night, he could hear them clattering about. He had stopped thinking of going out to talk with them when he was much younger. They would notice his door creak open and call for him to go back to bed. Likely, Ralphie had to conclude, they thought he was up to no good and not up because of a nightmare or just wanting some interaction with them. Drawing in a deep, stiff breath, anxiety creeping into his mind, Ralphie pressed Spike a bit closer to his chest and tried to force himself to fall asleep faster. Yet, after a few more minutes, he felt less than tired. However, Ralphie had a quick remedy to his typical sleepless nights. In the dark, his hand fumbled across the headset before snatching it up.
The soft, seafoam green light began to force away those anxious feelings and made Ralphie feel almost like he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do once the machine booted up, perhaps a game or a movie, something to take his mind of things. Often enough, the virtual reality set seemed to pick up on his cognitive behavior and use its readings to lay out the best possible choice for him, without asking. It wasn’t as though Ralphie minded that the headset would periodically do this, it actually was a comfort to him. The lack of choice seemed unkind on the outside, but with how good the set was at laying out a show or game for him, he could argue it much. Even when it had chosen an almost endless block of old Power Rangers episodes, Ralphie wasn’t dismayed. Such an old show still garnered love from the teen and gave him such a pleasant feeling of nostalgia. Even if it were tinged with some unable, inescapable sense of discomfort. That was not the case tonight; instead, the set chose something that treaded the waters of memory just as much.
The vision laid out in Ralphie’s mind was likely something the set had constructed of memories, as to why it felt so familiar yet unreal. A chill autumn breeze shook the chains of the park’s swings, giving the evening the quiet symphony of unused playground equipment. The slides and climbing apparatuses squeaked and creaked, adding to the park’s midnight choir. And still, there was the whispering burble of the river that ran through the park on the far side, the singer in the late-night band. An aromatic mix of maple and pumpkin, soil and leaves, filled Ralphie’s nostrils, the plain and simple scent of fall. However, despite this being the park Ralphie had played at every summer while growing up, the space was oddly hollow.
It was likely enough he felt somewhat off here because he very seldomly came to the park all by his lonesome. Usually, Rodney or Patty would come along even when it was later in the evening, and their parents had told them no or given a stringent curfew. Still, even without his friends, the real playground had a more welcoming aura than it did tonight through the viewer. There was not a single soul there, aside from Ralphie, and the various pieces of equipment were lit in an eerie way. Looking up, Ralphie saw nothing but clouds, no moon or stars, and only that distant street lamp behind him giving off any illumination to speak of. From where he stood, the world was a black veil beyond the light, the only detail illuminated was the stand that sold bait and cold drinks in the heat of the summer. Something told Ralphie that the simulation wasn’t going to get much better from here, he could sit and swing by himself or kick around the darkened trails, but no one else would be there. Finding his way to the merry-go-round, its bright red and blue color discernible even with the lack of light, Ralphie lay himself on the cold steel and stared.
He began to play a little game with the lamplight, the same he did in class with ceiling tiles. Concentrating on either the light or bait stand or some vague object in the dark, Ralphie would stare and allow his vision to blur out until everything was a seamless mess of color. In truth, what he played in class vaguely more interesting but had become just as mundane. Focusing on the breaks between the off-white ceiling tiles, Ralphie would begin to see more and more black. Sometimes, if he concentrated hard enough, it was as though he were gazing into an endless void just overhead while other times, he would fall asleep. After a few minutes, the squeaking and squawking of metal on plastic play equipment, chains shivering, and the river’s quiet current sent Ralphie to sleep.