Ralphie: Chapter Three

Breathing in anxiously, Ralphie watched as the barely white coals slowly cooked the two hotdogs he had set on the grill. In truth, he had never been any good with the grill and didn’t want to admit yet that he had messed up. It would be easy to quit, place the blame on mom and dad for not being there to show him the proper method, and then find something else to eat. And as much as he didn’t want to cave and take the low road, Ralphie did precisely that after a few more minutes. Taking some cheese from the fridge as he placed the hotdogs inside, Ralphie grabbed an orange soda and crackers to take with him to the pool. It wasn’t hotdogs, but Ralphie would at least feel full rather than furious with cheese and crackers. Today he sat in the pool, slunk down until only his head and left arm were above the surface. One because he needed to breathe and the other so he could avoid the sting of chlorine.

It was another quiet day, the neighbors hadn’t made a peep since what felt like months when it had only been one afternoon. Maybe something was going around, and most of the kids had caught a cold and were inside. Or, just as likely, some new show or game had come out, and they were all gathered around the television rather than playing outside. Still, the lack of traffic on the road was a bit odd, almost uncomfortable with how empty it made the neighborhood feel. Nonetheless, Ralphie was determined to relax after his less than enjoyable little trip the night prior.

The vision still stuck tight in his head, not only the disheveled play center but the memories of the old corner grocery store. Ralphie had never been exceptionally skilled in drawing, sure he could do faces well and maybe something like mountains but never anything so fleshed out as the sketch last night. It irked him that of all the drawings in the world that he could have aced so well that it had to be something so unsettling in its nature. He had another restless night because of the sketch and the memories stirred by the headset, but more importantly, he was left wondering. Though the scanner usually picked up on dormant memories, Ralphie considered forcing it to fabricate the grocery store. The old corner store wasn’t much unlike the Kid’s Corner play center, a vestige of a decade in the dust with décor and aesthetics that looked out of place against modern sensibilities. He remembered passing by the store as it was going out of business, the bus to school never faltered on its route and always took that street at what felt like half speed. There was another thought, could the headset simulate memories that were less abstract and more precise.

Ralphie had never tried to pull up anything specific in the headset, he had always let the machine do all the work while he just enjoyed the fruit of it. However, now he wanted to experiment next time he picked up the set. The grocery store was his first idea, then he considered maybe revisiting the play center. It wasn’t as though he wanted to see the rotting corpse of that indoor playground again, but perhaps he could find himself on the other side of the doors. Better yet, he could maybe pull up that time he and Rodney had gotten to go a few towns over to play laser tag. That was it, he fixed on the memory of that maze-like blacklight room. Rodney’s parents had paid for a two hour rental for all of Rodney’s friends, they ended up having to rent it for an extra ninety-minutes when it came time to leave. They had been less than happy with Rodney for a few days after that, but they were that type of parents. Even when they had to shell out extra money and made to go against their own rules, they would do it because they wanted their son to be happy.

Ralphie popped up to the surface, allowing the luke-warm water to stream down his back and drip from his hair before he cleared his eyes. It was funny to him that the water could be so warm; it had felt ice-cold when he got in just moments ago. As he opened his eyes, Ralphie almost screamed with the sight of a dismal umber fluid pouring into the water and clouding it. Before the puff of dark liquid were floating pieces of debris, indistinct but moving without direction like a water bug. The stuff had almost washed right over Ralphie’s head, and had he remained in the pool, definitely would have. He climbed out and watched the water become overtaken and turn almost black with the introduction of this new element. Without any real idea as to what was wrong or what could be done about it, Ralphie went inside to shower off any of the contaminants that may have gotten on him.

His shower lasted only a couple of minutes, something about showering in an empty house gave Ralphie the creeps. When he would, which was more often than he cared to think about, he would lock the door, press the rug up underneath the crack, and prop the stool, the potted plant sat on, against the door handle. Even with all the extra concerns placed into securing the door, Ralphie rarely took more than a few minutes in the shower. On this occasion, it wasn’t an odd sense of paranoia that assailed him while he washed up but the rancid odor that came from the water itself. He had to worry that whatever pollution had infiltrated the pool may have been in the shower water as well. Once he was dried and dressed, Ralphie went out to the living room.

It wasn’t Ralphie’s intent to go into the living room; in fact, he planned to go back to his own room and mess with the headset, but a sound drew him into the living room. Stepping into the room, Ralphie surveyed the naturally lit space, wondering what could have made the noise. It had sounded like something shifting about in the way an old house sometimes has to settle, but there was an impact as well. The first thing that popped into Ralphie’s head was the neighborhood kids playing some sort of game that traveled into the front yard. However, had a baseball or something else struck the front, there was nothing to prove it. The windows were intact, and there were no voices to be heard from out front, so Ralphie moved on. Looking over the very plain beige sofas and the leather easy-chair, there wasn’t anything to indicate something had happened. After a while, Ralphie got down on his hands and knees and started looking under the furniture, considering the possibility a mouse or other varmint had somehow gotten in. Crawling across the very showy maroon carpet with its pattern of golden stars repeated in clusters every foot, Ralphie finally came before the fireplace.

It seemed an odd thing to have in a suburban house in a warm enough climate to never know the touch of an actually snowy winter, yet there it sat. In truth, Ralphie figured his father had thought the very same thing as he had never lit the stove. However, there had always been a bundle of logs that looked half burnt, and the walls of the fireplace looked as though, at some point, they had seen some use. Ignoring all this, Ralphie focused on a clump of what had to have been soot lying on the carpet, staring up at him as though it could not be the most apparent anomaly. Taking it, Ralphie was careful not to poke his fingers on what looked to be sharp edges and placed it back in the stove. It was strange, the chimney had never kicked out any pieces of soot before, but Ralphie could remember his mother saying something about the mess a bat had made when it had gotten in the chimney. Pulling the fireplace door closed over the opening, Ralphie decided he wouldn’t think anymore on it and went to his room where the headset waited.

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