Ralphie sat up in his bed, the horrible memory of being chased down in the theater still fresh in his mind. He didn’t know what to do from here, but he knew he did not want to interact with the headset anymore. How ever, he managed to put the headset on and activate without realizing it; he could not explain but the how didn’t matter. As the fears slightly subsided, Ralphie ventured out to the kitchen, his hunger beginning to outweigh the terror.
The first thing Ralphie noted, upon exiting his room, was an oppressive darkness on the other side of the sliding glass door into the backyard. He hadn’t checked his clock but assumed it was night, he would check on his parents before eating. Creeping down the hallway, not wanting to wake his parents should they be asleep, Ralphie quietly opened their door. Two lumps lay mostly motionless in their bed, a good sign. Suddenly a voice came from behind him, it was his father’s voice telling him to go back to bed, but it sounded like it was coming from his room. Ralphie responded quickly, still looking at the two lying in bed, “I thought you were sleeping, dad.”
The voice came again, yet it skipped now like a scratched record before trying to play once more only to become corrupted further. Ralphie was becoming frightened and confused by this, he quickly flicked on the light to his parent’s room and stepped inside. His mother’s voice came now but seemed to act like a recording that was nearly broken. Going straight up to the bed, Ralphie moved up some of the covers, trying to wake his parents only to make an awful discovery.
They were dummies, not people, just hard plastic figures that probably were made to model clothes or something like that. However, between the two pale yellow mannequins was a little red leather-bound book. On the cover was printed ‘Ralphie’ while below it was a sketch of a ladder in black ink. So confused and taken aback, Ralphie didn’t at first notice the book but snatched it once he had. Slowly, he backed out of the bedroom, realizing now not only were his parents not there but that he had an intense phobia of mannequins. The recordings playing mom and dad’s voices didn’t stop until both bedroom doors were shut. Ralphie still felt a growl deep inside him. He went to the kitchen to get something to eat before he would look into this strange book.
There was a horrible reek in the kitchen, the smells of spoiled meat and dairy. Ralphie didn’t need to open the refrigerator to know that the odor came from within, yet he did. Within were half-eaten meals, spilt drinks, and food that was far too warm to be safe to eat anymore. The back of the fridge seemed ajar, and when pressed gave way like a turning panel. It was dark behind the rotating piece, Ralphie didn’t care to investigate further. Instead, he grabbed some graham crackers from the cupboard, which was in a similar state of disarray. As a matter of fact, Ralphie found that the back of the cabinets rotated as well, leading into an alcove of some sort that was pitch black. He made for his room but was stopped as he heard a thud on the glass door.
Looking into the living room, Ralphie realized that dark was not the sky, not entirely, but the growth from the pool. The muddy colored roots had crawled all the way to the house, and from what Ralphie could see outside, had consumed most of the yard. Between gaps in the stuff, he could see the sky that looked like the computer when it froze. A day and night sky glitched back and forth, unable to decide which should take control while clouds moved as though making up for a day of stillness. Finally, the glass shattered, nearly slashing Ralphie to ribbons were he not heard the proceeding creak. As the roots proceeded inward, Ralphie escaped to his room, panic now fully overwhelming his hunger.
Locking then barricading his door with a chair, Ralphie climbed onto his bed and frantically ran through his thoughts, trying to figure out what to do. He didn’t have much that could do anything inside his room, all that was really there was his cd player, virtual reality headset, his sketchpad, furniture, and that book. Taking the thin red bound book in hand, Ralphie opened it and began at the table of contents. Above the table of contents was a title, ‘Shelter Maintenence and Emergency Procedures’ an ominous and strange title. Ralphie opened to the page marked ‘Emergency Departures’, which seemed the best choice for the current moment.
Finding his chosen section, Ralphie quickly noted the diagram of a fireplace like the one in the sitting room and another sketch showing the chimney. It seemed so odd, but Ralphie read on, finding that there was a ladder up to the surface in the fireplace. The chimney’s top let out above ground nearly twenty-six feet up. Scanning back through to figure out some explanation for the ladder or what they meant by surface, Ralphie came to the introduction page. As he glanced through the intro, Ralphie was met with a reality he could have never before considered.
This wasn’t a home, it was a bunker, deep beneath the earth made to house a family for multiple years or a single person four times that length. The outside was a collection of LED boards meant to simulate time and weather change. There was a sound system to insist that there was a world beyond the fence and that others might live here. Almost everything else inside was programmed in like the computer or television. The kitchen had an automatic function, allowing the refrigerator to cycle in and out new and fresh food while drawing from a surplus in stores set around the unit. But everything else, the memories of friends and school, they were all just part of the simulation. The headset had never been necessary for accessing virtual reality. The chip in Ralphie’s head could augment his thoughts, making him remember things that never had happened. The why to it all was simple, Ralphie was going to carry on the human race with all the other kids in their bunkers around the world, they just needed time to develop. Ralphie couldn’t think after reading all he had.
The walls around him creaked and whined with the tension of the invading roots crushing down on them. Ralphie’s mind stuttered, trying to comprehend it all even as it was laid out before him in the most simple text. This was the fall back plan for a world that had been made terribly unsafe, a hope for a world without the destructive influence the one that had birthed the shelters had on full display. Why they had chosen an aesthetic that was years out of date for the guts of these house size coffins was another good question. Yet there was the better question of how much was real and what was fake. In truth, Ralphie couldn’t determine if any of it had been real aside from what was definitely inside the shelter. Memories of a world beyond these walls were likely just forgeries made overly personal and real in the details. The idea still struck him, even with false memories put in his mind, he and any other survivors were supposed to carry on. To build a new world in the decaying shadows of one that left them barely a shred of hope to start with.
At first, he thought it was a joke, then he realized he was supposed to get out of there one day, that’s why the manual had been left for him. Going to his door, Ralphie looked out to find the way to the sitting room blocked by dense brown roots. He realized then that he had perhaps found the book just a little too late. Returning to his bed, Ralphie looked through for an explanation as to what the roots were or why the virtual reality chip was giving him such vivid nightmares. For the former, there was nothing, yet the latter was featured in the ‘Chip Malfunction’ section. It seemed that the chips would occasionally link to other children on the surface, allowing for one to see through the eyes of another. All it meant to Ralphie was that the world was, in fact, decaying and falling apart, but more importantly, there were things on the surface that stalked humans. The future, even were he to escape this bunker, was a bleak one, to say the least.
Analyzing his situation as best he could, his mind in such a ragged state, Ralphie realized escape through the hall would be impossible. Perhaps the roots could break down part of the wall, and he could sneak through to the fireplace, but what then. Overhead was a world that no longer would be safe for him. He didn’t know the first thing about survival; the shelter had handled his every worry and fear. To think a generation of children raised by machines in the bowels of the earth would be able to rise to the surface and make a new day was ludicrous as best. And then, Ralphie had to admit a fatal issue with escape. Fleeing this hollow home would mean a departure from all those things that made up his life and made him feel alive. The warmth of the bed, the mellow chords coming through the speakers, Spike, and even the virtual reality set were not only forfeit but left to be destroyed soon enough. It would all be a sacrifice in vain, death on someone else’s terms, and Ralphie wouldn’t even be helping in doing it.
Defeated before he was even aware he was in competition with something, Ralphie found there was little for him to do now. His door was beginning to flex and crack as the roots, no doubt, pressed against it. Where he should have been terrified, dreadfully aware of his impending doom, it came as almost a comfort. Everything had fallen down around him, his world and life exposed as a lie. Having death come ripping through that door now meant nothing. Instead of panicking and worrying about how he would survive, Ralphie chose this to be his end. To die on scorched earth, starved, hurt, and tired just wouldn’t do. Ralphie had all the comforts he ever needed all around him. He would not take them for granted in the end.
Unplugging his headphones from the player, Ralphie allowed In the Flat Field by Bauhaus to call loud and clear into the empty shelter. Finding the headset, he put it on and began to conjure up some memory to soothe him. Before he set the final scene of his life in motion, Ralphie’s fingers fumbled around to find Spike pressed up against the wall. Reaching over to his bedside table, Ralphie found the razor and brought it close. As he began to engage the memory of the museum trip with his third-grade class, Ralphie slashed open Spike allowing stuffing to pour like entrails from the dragon. Then, as the decaying ruin of a museum came into view, he brought the blade across his own throat.