Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: James Stark
“Jason, will you slow down, please?” The edge in Sheryl’s voice crowded out her usual pleasantness as she struggled to drag Jason back into reality. “There’s a car approaching, sweetie, and it’s only one-way across that bridge. “Seriously, honey,” Sheryl implored “How can we enjoy the scenery if you keep us gasping in our seats? Have you considered turning on the headlights?” Sheryl’s syrupy inflections were caramelizing with every tight curve in the road. She fought to control her criticism, and her forced sweetness reminded Jason of his mother’s attempts to correct him. But mom’s neutral tones lasted only until her frustration led to full-blown hysterics.
Rain in the night had left a sheen on the island’s roads. The paved sections sparkled in the long rays of light filtering through the trees and vines on the narrow sides of the road. The combination of moisture and faint sunlight formed faces on the vegetation that smiled or grimaced as the sun’s angle ricocheted from stone to leaf to vine. The folds of large leaves and branches became arms waiting to enfold all who approached. Maneuvering the curves and rises of the road, Jason squinted as the patchy light of the sun meandered toward the horizon through thick foliage. His gamer’s mind converted the sights and sounds outside the car to a computer screen. Gripping the small gear shifter like a joystick, his hand clenched the steering wheel, as the ever narrowing and climbing road sped toward the approaching night.
Unlike Jason’s mom, Sheryl never became hysterical. She prided herself on understanding the gamer culture. Her negotiation skills between executives and the geeks she managed at the software company made her the perfect arbitrator.
Games were Jason’s life; he played them and created them, making little distinction between work and play. He built them with game science using simulations that recreated real world applications. The graphics were snazzy and the animations compelling, especially for educational games. Laser blasts and avatars were his trademarks. Life’s practical matters worked themselves out. Amazon delivered his groceries. A maid came in twice a month and moved around the messes he created, if only temporarily. His friends wandered in and out of whichever reality he inhabited at the moment. He created his own reality and brought it with him everywhere. No one asked which reality he preferred. But then Sheryl entered his real time and waited for him, not always patiently, on the periphery.
Jason and Sheryl were both in the IT industry, she in management, and he in creative design. She tried to understand his perspective, but what attracted them to each other was physical and not technical. She never pretended to understand how he could bring his virtual world as well as his real and virtual workmates home after hours.
Jason’s boyishly handsome face and his head of curly locks which framed it sealed the deal for Sheryl at the company party. After several drinks they had found themselves locked in lustful embrace in her office. And his disarming charm coupled with mild manners and a gentle tenderness convinced her to share more than sexual desire with him. Perhaps it was her experience as a venture capitalist that recognized Jason’s potential and convinced her to move into his top floor condo with a view to Lake Washington. But soon, his preoccupations made her feel pushed into the background. And by a damn game!
“Dammit, Sheryl, I would like to slow down,” Jason growled, trying not to release his hold on the imaginary game going through his mind. “Some dude in a beat-up Toyota pickup is riding my ass, and I’ve got no place to pull over.” Jason braked and shifted the small car as if in an imaginary cyber world. As a reluctant member of the foursome on the trip to Hawaii, Jason seldom looked up from his laptop’s screen as he sat in the little rented Kia Soul, despite the others’ ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at the scenery. But when it was his turn at the wheel of the Kia, the world of the narrow road and its encroaching trees and vines, enhanced by mudslides and rock falls opened up to him like the backdrops of the games he produced professionally.
Instead of nagging him, Sheryl suggested that he use his vacation time to get away and lose his indoor pallor. She hoped that time together would re-ignite their initial attraction and passion, even when an absent-minded “uh huh, sure, one of these days,” was the response.
So, on one particularly rain-soaked gray November Seattle day, Sheryl, wearing just a gardenia lei and a colorful Hawaiian wrap, sauntered barefoot up to Jason as he perched on the couch, amid scattered beer bottles and pizza boxes.
“Listen up, mister, download this,” she said, swaying her hips between him and his electronic gadgets.
“Susan and Mark invited us to share a condo on Maui and I said yes. Mark and Susan rented a car and I bought tickets–all priced right—no refunds.” They were Sheryl’s college friends; Susan was a psychiatric social worker. And Mark, Susan’s boyfriend, had just joined a corporate law firm after several years as a deputy prosecutor.
“Whoa, check you out, babe. Like the flowers in the hair. Yeah, I know, sounds cool, but it’s about this project with a deadline,” Jason said, eyes still glued to the screen.
Not to be dismissed, Sheryl placed a bare foot between his legs. “You didn’t hear me, Jason. Tickets bought. Date set.”
“Ok, ok, I see this is important to you, then,” was all Jason could muster as he waved a hand and reached into his pocket. “Sure, let’s do it. Here’s my plastic,” he said. “Let me know the dates, and I’ll tell them at work. It’s pretty pissy weather here, isn’t it? What’s it like over there?”
This was Jason’s closest interactive conversation in a long while.
“It’s beautiful,” she enthused, like a travel agent closing a tour deal. “Sunny every day, in the low 80s with gentle trade winds. Blue skies over blue water with white sandy beaches. I’ve ordered snorkel gear. There are dive shops, if we get ambitious. You swim, don’t you, Jason?” Sheryl took Jason’s face in her hands, diverting his eyes from the screen. “Don’t you?” She repeated.
“Don’t I what, babe?” Jason grunted, his fingers flying over the keyboard.
“Swim, Jason. Do you swim?” Sheryl had gotten used to this routine of repeating and never quite knowing whether message sent was message received.
“Swim?” He answered. “Yeah, I think so. I remember Mom and me in the pool somewhere. ‘Course that was years ago. Oh, and by the way, I never leave home without my laptop.”
“Sure,” she said, with a sigh. “Your lap wouldn’t get a tan anyway,” she laughed. She would have to provide enough diversions from his electronic attachments, either by the pool or in the bedroom.
The hotel concierge suggested an early start for the long trip to the rugged north side of the island if they wished to beat the other tourists to where the road narrows for more than 60 small bridges and scenic waterfalls. He mentioned how young guys in large SUVs played chicken with other drivers not so mechanically endowed. And, he cautioned with a smile, there would be no artificial light after sunset. “Oh, and one more thing,” the clerk warned: “we expect high winds which can bring downed vegetation as well as water over the road. Recent rains could swell the falls and create a muddy soup over the road.”
Despite Jason’s late hours which had made him difficult to rouse, the two couples were on the road at 7:20 with Sheryl at the wheel.
“Whoa, Dude, what was that?” Mark called out from the back seat as the small car skidded and slid to avoid the large animal galloping across the road only a few feet ahead of the car’s front wheels.
“Did you see that monster pig dart across the stream and thunder into that bamboo?” Mark asked, as he leaned onto the front seat to get a better view of the road and the dense jungle on both sides.
“That was a cool effect, man,” Jason enthused. “And check out those tusks. That’s unreal. I need a picture of that. Imagine a swarm of those pig dudes racing toward us with that dodo brain behind us in the pickup.” Jason’s imagination tapped into a cyber source as abundant as the water in the falls on both sides of the road.
The car rental company prohibited driving on certain portions of the north road, due to the high chance of damage. Practical Sheryl, allied with Susan, had made it clear that there would be no risk of damage to property or person on this vacation. Jason’s non-committal response was “Uh huh, ok, whatever,” as he fought to focus on the road. But now with his hands on the wheel, Jason’s virtual world was slowly blending with the real world outside the car.
During her turn at the wheel, Sheryl encouraged them to linger in a quaint little restaurant where they sampled the local seafood. Later, at a small sheltered beach a few hundred yards off the main road, she was the first into the waves on a boogie board. The others followed her, even a reluctant Jason, who became transfixed by the underwater views through his snorkel mask. As they sat on towels itching from sand and salt and the beginnings of sunburns, a small pickup with two men stopped next to their car. The men sat in the vehicle and watched the couples in the water. When Sheryl and Susan went to the beach bathroom, they avoided eye contact with the men between them and the bathroom. As they drew closer, one of the men who had a grotesque scar around his mouth leaned out his window. “Hey, girls, we got party favors here,” he said, winking at them. They ignored him, as they hurried to the women’s bathroom.
“Why don’t we stop at this fruit stand,” Sheryl suggested after they had resumed the drive toward the more isolated part of the road with Jason at the wheel. “I’d love to try star fruit I read about. And one of those huge papayas.” The two men in the pickup followed the couples into the parking lot of the fruit stand, but didn’t leave their vehicle.
As the narrow roadway met the cliffs that dropped off toward the ocean, bordered by a rock wall, the sun slipped lower in the sky. The oncoming traffic had long since abated and warning signs of hazards appeared more frequently. The pickup with the two men began tailgating the Kia.
“Jason, let’s pull over and let those idiots pass, and then turn around.” Sheryl’s take-charge manager voice was emerging from her laid-back brunette personality in a bikini on vacation.
“This is so cool,” Jason’s responded, focusing on the views. “I mean, look at that sunset over those waves. The scenery here has changed from jungle and waterfalls to jagged cliffs and rocks. Maybe we’ll see more pigs, huh, guys? Do you smell that dank, rot from what must be a ton of bird and pig shit on decaying greenery? That’s what’s missing in my games, you know, smell. Sheryl, baby, this is the best. My imagination’s torquing into hyper crazy.”
“Well, big boy, imagine this.” Usually quiet Susan, seething in the back, could not maintain the soothing neutral tone that Sheryl had mastered when dealing with Jason.
“Imagine the reality of four people in this mini machine running into another car on a curve in the dark or even one of these pigs you find so fascinating, Jason, dear. Or how about those two guys behind us?” Susan said as her voice climbed in pitch. “Tell us how this game ends with us and not just in your head, ok?” Susan’s voice suddenly dropped into her throat and she ended the sentence in barely a whisper.
“I’m on it, Suze, really. What else you got for me, huh?” Jason’s eyes glazed as he slipped away from them into his game.
“Uh, dude, that guy behind you is flashing his lights.” Mark’s voice, in contrast to Susan’s, hit a higher register. “Why don’t you stop and let him pass and get him out of our misery.” Mark, the usually quiet-spoken corporate lawyer, shook Jason’s shoulder to get his attention.
“Right, let’s just stop.” Jason said. “We’ll let the guy pass and then somebody else can drive. How about you, Suze? You haven’t had a turn yet.” Jason looked at Susan in the rear-view mirror and his eye caught his computer in the back. “I’ve got to get this stuff down,” he said to no one in particular. Susan was busy fighting her own imagined outcome of this excursion.
As Jason pulled the car up to the road’s edge to let the pickup by, a large fallen tree limb appeared on the road ahead, blocking the way. The pickup attempted to pass when the driver noticed the limb. Jason turned to the passing vehicle and his eyes fixed on the passenger whose disfigured mouth tried to smile. In the bed of the truck, a dog’s head appeared and its mouth opened into a long howl.
“Good Lord, did you see the face on that guy? Those guys have got to be cooking meth up here,” said Mark. “It’s classic. Guys flock here because of the climate and look to the jungle to lose themselves in this dense undergrowth.” Mark had prosecuted meth addicts as an assistant district attorney.
“And they’re probably armed, and as dangerous as they look,” Susan noted, her voice trembling.
The men in the pickup signaled for them to stop, and the two got out of their vehicle and moved toward them. “I knew I would hate this car,” Jason said under his voice. “K-I-A, in most games means ‘killed in action.’”
“Looks like we got us a problem here, folks,” the driver of the pickup said with a forced smile, as he approached Jason’s side of the Kia. “We got no way of moving that tree, and I reckon you don’t either. But if we back up about a hundred yards, there’s a bypass track that goes up the mountain a ways and comes back yonder in either direction.” Jason stared at the tattooed, snaggle-toothed man as if he were an avatar in one of his games.
“Ok, let’s turn around. We have no choice,” Sheryl called out from passenger seat. “We’ll just go back the way we came,” she declared.
“Ok, you lead,” Jason said to the man, ignoring Sheryl’s suggestion.
“You guys, this is great backwoods stuff here,” Jason enthused. “We could follow them for a while and get a picture of their scene.”
“But, Jason, honey,” Susan started, trying to suppress the fear that was crawling up her mid section. “It’s getting dark and we could lose our way. Let’s just turn around now before any more trees fall over the road. Or anything else happens.” Her voice had developed a quaver.
Jason parted his lips in a slight grin as he stared into the rearview mirror at Susan and Mark.
“Most people fantasize about sex and physical violence.” Jason started. “All gamers know that. Of course, it happens to somebody else in a game. But we have to follow these guys to establish a setting where we can implant our imaginations.”
“Just who the hell are you, anyway, lover boy?” Sheryl wanted to know, voicing everyone’s concerns. “We just turn around. Period. Good Lord, you think you know somebody, and…”
“That’s right, Sheryl. There are three of us who have another opinion, Jason,” Mark added from the back seat, just as the pickup’s horn sounded and the driver waved at them and moved up to the turnoff.
“Why can’t we vote on this? Mark continued. “This isn’t a damn game, Jason, it’s real life are you putting us in jeopardy just to feed your gamer’s fantasy?” Mark had caught Susan’s fear bug.
Susan sat poised on the edge of her seat. “Listen, everyone knows how the locals resent tourists,” she said. “They need us, but they don’t like the way we fill up their roads and their lives. These guys are into illegal activity. What’s to stop them from doing God knows what?
We could just be another statistic; a couple of tourists who don’t make it around a curve?” Susan’s voice trembled as it rose in pitch.
“Listen, Miss Suzy sorority, I’m at the wheel now, right?” Jason said as he looked into the rearview mirror, past his friends and into the darkness behind them. He backed
the Kia up until he found the unmarked roadway, and instead of following the road back, he pointed the car to where the pickup had disappeared into a stand of mature bamboo.
“You guys are proving my point. This road with jungle and pigs and cliffs, and now those freaks, are all stimulating your own deep-seated imaginations. All the fantasies and fears are bubbling to the surface. Who wouldn’t want to see it reproduced in a killer game?”
By now, the sun had set and the only light came from the cars’ headlight beams reflecting off trees and the stones of the cliffs. Jason geared down to gain traction in the wet ruts of the unpaved road as he followed the pickup’s taillights up the steep track. In the distance the partly lit shape of a building appeared, and they could hear large dogs barking. Which reality was guiding Jason now? How much more input did he need for his imagination to feed the descriptions he required? He eased the small car into a still lower gear, and as if mesmerized, followed as the foliage wrapped its arms around the pickup as it moved into deep darkness. Could Jason see the peril the others were sensing in time and remove it with a mouse click?
Sheryl, the strong one, always in command, had started to cry. Not loudly, just a low sob.