The next afternoon, the pollution in the pool outside had become worse than Ralphie had expected it. Instead of just being clouded, black water, the stuff was forming a thick skin over the surface like dirt-colored algae. He’d have to leave a note on the fridge for dad and mom so they could call a pool cleaner over to take a look at it. This left Ralphie with very little to do for the day, but as overcast skies began to press into the neighborhood, he figured it would be a good day to stay inside. The headset still lay on the bed, his sketchpad was in the corner, and he wasn’t tired, which meant Ralphie had to try something outside of the norm to eat up his time.
Sitting down on the rolling black office chair confined to its little square of linoleum placed over a stretch of carpet, Ralphie decided the net would be his focus for the afternoon. Clicking on ‘Guest,’ ‘Administrator’ was, of course, for his parents, he entered his simple password and logged in. The black and white album cover of The Smiths: The Queen is Dead greeted him rather than the standard blue sky and green hills of Bliss. After giving the computer a bit of time to run through some start-up processes, Ralphie clicked on the internet. Quickly he went to work, popping up all the varieties of sites he would typically visit, or he had accounts on.
Though he was far passed the age for it, Ralphie stopped once more on the Neopets page, making sure to feed his virtual pet. His little red Ixi was a happy fake pet as always, with all the various items he had bought for the goat, Ralphie could only imagine he would be. Then he had to think about how much alike they were. Home alone almost all hours of the day and night, enough food to keep them fed, and a plethora of toys to play with but no one to really enjoy that with. It was a depressing thought, so Ralphie decided to ease his conscious. Finding a yellow coated Eyrie named Blip up for adoption, Ralphie secured his pet a friend. Sure, they would be an odd pair, a goat and gryphon, but were Ralphie to have anyone to play with, it wouldn’t really matter what they looked like to him. After it was all said and done, Ralphie moved onto some games, something to get his mind off of his present state of mind.
Shooters and platformers made up the bulk of the afternoon after checking in on his virtual pets. Ralphie was extremely keen on the various flash player sites out there and took immense joy in seeing the fruit of so many artists’ labors. One day he wanted to turn his sketches and ideas into something like this, but it sounded like such a challenge. Sure he could draw and sort of animate using the more archaic method of onion skinning, but the technical side of programming was where he would definitely need help. Not to mention most of the games he enjoyed had extremely professional sounding soundtracks despite being clearly low-budget, independent projects. How the whole aspect worked, he’d never know, but he wouldn’t let it bother him. However, what did bother Ralphie was a gurgling in his stomach.
Opening the fridge, Ralphie found the light bulb within dead and the inside a bit warm. It was possible the thing was on the fritz again or just as likely mom or dad hadn’t shut it all the way that morning. Regardless, Ralphie took the container of strawberry yogurt out and returned to the computer desk. Digging in, Ralphie found the first bite sour, the contents a little too warm, but he chalked it up the fridge malfunctioning. Swirling the yogurt a bit, he found that lower down it was colder and still sweet. While he snacked, Ralphie pulled up a video, just something to watch while he ate.
It looked like some very cheaply made amateur news show, one where they did not try to hide the fact they were professional. The shot focused on a man on a residential street in some suburb somewhere in middle America. He was gesturing at the skyline, going on and on about those clouds hanging lower around the city. As though the pudgy man in his gray hoodie was some expert, he talked about the chemicals in those clouds and how they were spreading out further. With certainty or possibly excellent acting skills, he insisted that the radioactive elements in those green clouds would cause irreparable damage to the environment and anyone who came in contact with them. Focusing on this fog perceived as a threat, Ralphie could only think how blatant of a special effect they were. Before the man could go on any further, Ralphie closed out of the video.
The next video was something a bit stranger, almost reminiscent of some artsy, experimental film. At first, several images in black appeared at the center of the video while the background flashed through a variety of colors altering speed every now and then. A narrator came over and was babbling in a language Ralphie didn’t know. Then it cut to black only for the black to ripple, and the curtain began to pull open from the side. Behind that curtain was a darkness that did not become filled but was broken by a white sphere. That sphere was a face or a mask more precisely. It was pale as snow and crooked with a queer smile, the eye holes wide with excitement, and the eyebrows raised. However, what perturbed Ralphie most was as the shot narrowed on the mask, he could make out veins and wrinkles carved painstakingly into the material in an attempt to resemble a real face almost perfectly. When a sudden burst of blood-curdling screams began, Ralphie panicked and closed out of the video. He was, in fact, so terrified suddenly that he shut down the computer, turned off the screen, and hurried outside.
Even with a storm clearly brewing overhead, Ralphie felt a bit uncomfortable about going back inside. Things like that video, short and ominous displays of horror always wigged him out and made him feel unsafe indoors. Sure, a hundred horrors could come outside or be out there, but having distance from the computer somehow put Ralphie at ease. What didn’t calm him as much were the vine-like protrusions growing from the pool.
Hanging down to the base of the pool and across some of the grass were earth tone root-like things springing out from the algae-covered water. Examining them as close as he dared step, Ralphie could see they were not only growing, still moving as he watched, but writhed with life. Each individual branch seemed to rise and fall as though breathing, which perturbed Ralphie almost more than the video online. He knew now he wouldn’t have to leave a note for his parents if they couldn’t see this as a problem than they were beyond his help. However, for the time being, Ralphie decided he would feel more comfortable with these roots as small as they could be.
Going to the shed, knowing the ax was sharp, Ralphie flung open the green door only to look into a space that should not have been there. The shed was small, only a few feet by a few feet and primarily filled by the lawnmower and various tools. That’s not what was inside. When Ralphie flung open the door, he found himself staring into an empty theater from the emergency door on the left side of the screen. Skeptically, he looked back to see the growth on the pool still sitting there, extending further with every second, but then turning forward again, there was the theater. With some hesitation, Ralphie stepped through the door, setting down on the varnished cherry-wood that made up the platform at the end of the theater.
Cautiously walking down the steps, Ralphie peered about, wondering not only if he had lost his mind but if it was possible people could be in this theater. Cartons of popcorn lay spilled across the blue carpet, accented here and there by white lilies outlined in ruby red. Cups and candies sat in the holders attached to the seats, but not a single seat was folded down. Yet, above him, the projector’s light shown onto the screen and the speakers still burst with sound. He had inadvertently stumbled into a showing of The Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, fortunately near the beginning. Perplexed and by no means certain if this was a daydream or reality, Ralphie sat down in a dusty seat and watched the film.
It was an eerie feeling to be alone in the cinema, he had been before by himself, but still, there were other moviegoers then. The overall feeling of being in the theater was in and of itself strange. Ralphie had only been allowed to go a handful of times, and more often than not, he would be alone. He did remember the time dad had taken him to see Digimon the Movie, but his dad had fallen asleep midway through. Still, even with all those times of going to the theater alone and even that time the theater he went to was totally empty, Ralphie had never felt this alone. After a few minutes of watching the overly familiar flick, he got up and made his way up the aisle, hoping to find someone in the lobby or projection booth.
The feeling of loneliness only grew as Ralphie scanned over the desolate lobby. Most of the lights had gone out, some of the man-sized movie posters had fallen across the hallways, and the floor was cluttered with garbage. For a moment, the outline of another person gave Ralphie hope; however, upon moving closer, he found it was one of several cardboard standees for an upcoming film. They were semi-circled around the entrance, which would have otherwise let sunlight in were it not fully boarded up. Little cracks and spaces between boards allowed some light access, but beyond that, it was very much dark inside the lobby. What confused Ralphie the most was that the boards had been placed from within and were not orderly by any means. It looked like a hastily done job if not simply done carelessly, but it left him questions. Where it had made sense the Kid’s Corner would be locked from the outside, why the theater should be boarded up from within was another thing entirely. Stepping away from the entrance, Ralphie nearly bumped into one of the standees. However, upon a second glance, as he walked further into the theater, Ralphie found it was not cardboard.
Among the collection of action heroes and villains was one figure that was not an inanimate visage. The faint light did not allow much to be seen, but the fact the thing was shambling towards him filled Ralphie with fear. Taking tentative steps across spilt buckets of popcorn, hard candies scattered like marbles on the carpet, and splatters of who could say, Ralphie stepped further and further away. The few lights that were still lit at the concession stand only gave Ralphie vague details about whoever was inside the theater. They were short, likely only four and a half feet tall, and wore a suit of all black complimented with a short-brimmed hat. Yet, Ralphie could see the arms that dragged behind the man, if he could call it a man, and they stretched easily twice the figure’s length. Unable to think of how he would begin to explain to this strange person how he had gotten into this boarded-up building, Ralphie ran.
He couldn’t remember which room he had started in, there were no titles posted by the numbers, at least not anymore, so they could be of no help. Ralphie made his way back down the hallway; fortunately, he did not have to run fast, the creature came after him at a slow trot. Poking his head into showing after showing, Ralphie kept coming up empty for anything but spiderwebs covering his face. Room by room, Ralphie was met with absolute darkness, neither the screen nor even the emergency lights were lit. There was no turning back now, he was sure, there were only a few rooms left and had he chose the wrong hallway. And to his misfortune, the stranger would stop any retreat. Suddenly, as he reached the far wall of the hallway, a torn poster of what looked like Spider-man hung there laying low, Ralphie felt something. Reaching up to his face, he swore that he could feel the headset on him despite the fact he didn’t remember putting it on. He hadn’t come via the virtual link but through the shed, somehow, but he couldn’t figure it out. The figure grew closer now, the flashing light from one of the last rooms casting an unsettling light on him as he came within reach. Ralphie then saw the face, if that’s what it was anymore. It looked like someone had gripped the man’s nose and twisted until all the features had swirled up into a tornado of flesh. There was no blood or sign of pain from this deformity, but that only made Ralphie more frightened. As the man neared enough to grab him, Ralphie suddenly felt his mind click off, and everything went black.