Ralphie: Chapter Four

The dim blue light illuminated walls and the floor of a room designed to look like the shelled out cities of the apocalypse. Every detail stood out in vibrant oranges and greens and yellows, painting the vision of a world no longer living. A harsh Klaxon sounded before the mechanical voice sounded off, “Round begins in five, four, three, two, one!”

Ralphie charged out into the arena expecting the roar of lasers firing and struck targets letting out a siren wail. The squeaking of feet against linoleum and the chatter of other children saying they were hit or debating if they actually were out. Instead, as he stepped into the blacklight course, there was nothing, there was less than nothing. The arena was completely empty, the lights failing with some already totally out, and the very structure itself was falling apart. Littered among the decals that depicted torn away walls to show exposed brick, massive rifts were running from here to there. Some natural light poked through holes in the roof overhead while cracks had begun to rip through the floors. The emergency door was broken off its hinges, leading into a wide backroom.

Ralphie didn’t poke about the obstacle course, it was clear he was alone there and that this place was being fabricated to look very similar to the play area. Perhaps the headset was doing this because he had thought about the Kid’s Corner before setting his mind on the laser tag memory. All the same, he proceeded into the back area, now more curious as to why he could find in this unexplored space.

The area was clearly intended as a hallway that would link behind all of the other stores and spaces in the mall and allow for mass exits in case of a fire. It was good this place was not intended to be anything other than a storage space or fire exit, Ralphie thought, as the whole aura of it made him uneasy. The off-white walls were a very sickly hue as though someone had lived in there when the walls were snow white and smoked every day until that original color was gone. A carpet of cafe spliced with little strips of black made for a queasy look. It was almost as though it had always been the particular shade of brown, but over time, pieces had turned in color with how randomly they were laid out.

Proceeding through the back room, Ralphie poked his head through the many other doors that led into the back offices of neighboring shops. Each one had its own particular style but was almost uniform in its disheveled appearance. All of them had been collecting dust and spiderwebs as though they were some hot commodity, and to make matters worse, most were without power. Little could be made from the natural light coming in through the storefronts or by the last remaining bulbs that were lit, but still, Ralphie had seen enough. After a while, Ralphie got turned around and decided, if he couldn’t find the laser tag entrance, that he may as well find the best lit shop to go through. By his own luck, he found a small game shop that still hummed with a sort of life.

Nearly a dozen televisions made up the two main walls of the shop. Their screens were black, boasting a ‘NO SIGNAL’ tag in green in the upper right corner. It was disheartening, to say the least, to find the place in such a state. However, it meant to Ralphie that he had free roam of the shop. He wouldn’t dare open the cases or try to rig up one of the Nintendos and try to play a game, but… Ralphie remembered then that he was in virtual reality, and if he wanted to do something that would be otherwise taboo, he easily could do it without repercussion. Shaking the glass display case’s handle until it gave way, the lock clearly was broken beforehand, Ralphie seized several game boxes. The system that had been plugged into the machine for display and demo had clearly laid dormant for a very long time, yet Ralphie was surprised to find it functional. With gusto, he popped a gold-colored cartridge out of the cardboard box and jammed it into the opening. A calm, nostalgic kind of peace of mind came over Ralphie as that vintage N64 logo popped on screen, followed by that familiar title with the wide-eyed mask.

Hours passed by without Ralphie even knowing it, the only change he felt was light fading around him for the shop to slowly become solely lit by the bluish glow of the television. Over the hours, the only thing Ralphie did was play the Nintendo, switching out games here and there; some Mario, then Turok, and even experimenting with some of those titles he had never had at home like Battletanx. Still, despite it all, Ralphie kept coming back to Majora’s Mask, a game he found profoundly disturbing as a small child, so much so that he had never completed it in truth. The eerie music and almost more bizarre characters would pop in his head some nights, painting vivid nightmares wherein he had no control as he was assailed by various monsters. However, he was dead set on completing it now that he had the chance and was so much older, no longer afraid of a silly game. Yet, a sound came from the darkness around him, causing Ralphie to give pause.

Whirling in the blue spotlight cast by the television, Ralphie searched about for anything in the somewhat illuminated space that could have fallen. He had accidentally bumped a few things on his way in and while setting up the system, but Ralphie couldn’t see anything obviously out of place. Then he heard another sound before he could turn back to his game. This sound was somewhat more distant but definitely was coming from somewhere in the back area of the game shop. It struck Ralphie all at once that whoever had kicked open all the back doors was still brooding about the mall as some sort of home. But then, he realized how crazy that thought was, not the notion itself, but it happening here inside the virtual environment. Still, as he heard labored breathing, Ralphie began reconsidering the prospect.

Setting down the controller, Ralphie started backing his way to the door, careful not to bump into any of the store displays around him. The sound of steps being taken and breathing grew closer, moving with more haste than Ralphie was. Soon it was apparent that whoever it was, was knocking over the stool and the contents of the counter, nearing Ralphie more and more. Finally, a shadow was visible to Ralphie, lit partly by the electric blue light of the television. Ralphie had made it to the store’s front and was standing in the mall’s main lobby. From where he stood, Ralphie could only see so much but eyes the size of dinner plates, golden like the sun found his. Beside the wide-eyed thing was another more hunched figure whose laugh felt like having ice water put in Ralphie’s veins. Before he could think it through and realize this was still just a simulation, Ralphie’s sneakers began to beat across the glass-covered tiles of the mall.

Ralphie ran until he felt sufficiently far away from the game store to breathe again. By that time, he was at one of the entrances to the mall. This was the entrance that wasn’t used half as much as the main one, but of course, that was where the food court sat. He stood before the wishing fountain rather than the carousel with its strange creatures. It was not only horses on that ride but tigers and bears and other odd choices for animals on a carousel. However, those frozen faces staring with lifeless eyes, and even that disenchanting music would have been welcomed against the sight of the fountain.

Where the fountain started and where the flooding of lake water began was hard to tell, but the statue at its center was a good indication. Stopping just about where the strip of stores became the rounded off entrances area, water from the pond just outside of the mall had leaked in, flooding this area. Tiles and potted plants floated freely like buoys on a calm lake, while the fountain continued to weakly splutter out water. Ralphie looked to the fountain, it was a two-part thing, the top a cement statue while the bottom was not. The lower half was a model for the family water park that was to be constructed in a few years, it was cast in metal that wouldn’t rust despite the water. Above was the stone visage of a massive frog, projecting water from its lips though it struggled, seemingly the source had become clogged. Ralphie didn’t stick around, he had no intention of remaining as he remembered the headset was on and could easily be deactivated. It struggled to remove the image of the mall for a minute. The fountain almost seemed to remain even as the chime from the headset sounded. Finally, it vanished as Ralphie took off the set. Breathing a heavy sigh, Ralphie pulled himself into bed, slid on his headphones that quietly whispered the calming tones of Joy Divison. And while locating Spike somewhere between the sheets, fell quietly off to sleep.

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