Hazel dropped the small cardboard box next to the couch and fell back onto the soft cushions. She let out a sigh of contentment as she propped her feet upon her coffee table and her hand found its way around the stem of a glass filled with red wine. Over the past week she had unpacked most of her belongings and that box was the last one. She had created her home. Reveling in the comfort of that moment and the taste of the Merlot she sank deeper into the cushions. Sleep surely would have overcome her had it not been for the knock at her front door.
Hazel, curious and slightly annoyed, opened her door to find a tall auburn haired man standing on the painted planks of her porch. “Yes?” She questioned. “Miss Verity I presume?” The man stuck out his hand in greeting. “Uh, yeah, that’s me.” Hazel shook the man’s hand and he smiled warmly as he said, “Wonderful! I’m Ron! Ron Devot that is. I live next door in the red bungalow. I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.” Since moving to the small town of Black Crane, Oregon Hazel had only met a small handful of people. She didn’t start her job until Monday and she spent most of her time unpacking. “Well thank you Ron. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “Well, I’ll let you get back to what you were doing; I just wanted to stop by. Oh! And if you’re looking for anything to do this evening a group of people are heading over to the Peppered Coyote at eight. It’s a fantastic restaurant and you are more than welcome to join us.”
Ron started to make his way off the porch as Hazel called out to him “I’ll think about it… Ron?” “Yeah?” Ron said turning back. “How did you already know my name?” Ron laughed. “That probably did seem a little weird didn’t it? Well you met my friend Violet a couple days ago at the grocery store; she told me all about you since she knew you had moved in on my street.” “Oh…” Hazel said, remembering her encounter with a nice young woman named Violet. “I’ve got to go now Miss Verity, see you at the Peppered Coyote!” With that Ron made his way across the lawn.
Hazel spent the rest of her day doing various tasks around the house. Organizing, dusting, and then dancing around the kitchen to numerous records as they spun on the turntable. She loved old things like vinyl, they reminded her of simpler times when the world wasn’t so concerned with technology. At one point in the afternoon Hazel wandered back into the den where her record player was to flip the record over. She got distracted and stopped when she saw the picture frame next to the player. She picked it up and looked at the happy family staring back at her. It was her family: her mother, father, brother, and herself. Hazel smiled until suddenly her head started pounding. A headache unlike any she had ever experienced overwhelmed her and her world seemed to break apart and fall away from her. Her whole vision went black and the frame fell from her hands, glass breaking as it hit the ground. As soon as it had come, it left her. Standing, unsure of her environment for a couple more seconds, Hazel surveyed the room and stuck her hands out to balance herself. She thought to herself, “Whoa, now that was an intense one. I’m going to need to take some Aspirin if I end up going out tonight. Better safe than sorry.”
On the outskirts of town a light blue Volkswagen Beetle sped past the town sign. David Burkhard gripped the wheel tighter as he began to anticipate his arrival. He breathed in the air that rushed through the window which was cracked open. The damp Oregon air refreshed his mind and worked to calm his nerves about entering this new stage of life. Moving to Oregon was never part of David’s life plan. He always thought he would live in Pennsylvania his whole life. From a young age up to his present 26 years of age he knew his home was the east coast. But now? Now he was on his way to Black Crane. David couldn’t even remember the moment he had made the decision to move. All he knew was that his goal now was to get his Beetle to his new house and enjoy his new life.
He watched the sun start to peek out from behind a cloud and illuminate the top of a grey van approaching him from down the road. He didn’t take much notice of it until the van began to phase in and out of sight before his very eyes. Instantaneously it would become static and disappear only to be there again in the blink of an eye. “What the…” Escaped his lips as he squinted his eyes and strained to make sense out of what he was seeing.
Ron picked fries off his plate and sipped his water. His eyes kept flickering from Jim and Violet, across the table from him, to the busy doorway. He enjoyed getting to talk with his friends, but now they were so focused on each other that Ron started hoping more people would be showing up to the Peppered Coyote. Sipping on his straw his gaze eventually drifted to the windows and he watched a slow rain begin outside. “Great,” he thought, “Now nobody is going to come out tonight.” Violet interrupted his thoughts. “Who all did you say was coming tonight?” Ron blinked and stopped his somber pondering. “Well Christine was supposed to come this week, but I think she told me she was sick. And Mark had to work.” Violet seemed to be checking off a list in her head. “Did you invite the new girl who just moved in down the street from you? She seemed nice.” Violet asked. “Well I mentioned it to her… but it’s started to rain. I doubt anyone is going to show up.” Ron trailed off and he looked back towards the window. “Wow, man. You’re an optimist if ever I saw one.” Jim smirked at Ron.
The trio peered out the window at the rain which was beginning to fall harder. Through the growing grayness they saw the figure of a young brunette woman in a purple coat holding a large blue umbrella approach the restaurant. As she came closer it became clearer who she was. “That’s her!” Ron exclaimed. “Oh, you’re right, Ron.” Violet agreed. “That’s Hazel.” All three turned to face the door as she entered the Peppered Coyote. Ron waved her over to the large circular table that they had reserved. Violet welcomed Hazel as she approached the table, “Hi Hazel! It’s so good to see you again!” Violet stood up and gave her a small hug then motioned for her to join them. “Nice to meet you I’m Jim.” He said, shaking Hazel’s hand enthusiastically. “Nice to meet you, Jim. Violet told me a bit about you when I first met her. She mentioned that you work with computers.” “Yes,” Jim leaned back in his chair, “actually, I’m a networker.” “He makes computers ‘play nice’ with each other.” Violet said, patting Jim on the arm. The group continued chatting as they ordered more food. The rain, which pounded on the windows of the Peppered Coyote, continued steadily.
As David watched his wipers furiously swipe the rain off his windshield he was glad he was getting the house keys from the realtor tomorrow. This storm would have made moving in miserable. He parked his blue VW along the street and hoped he would be able to find some good food before he checked in to the hotel for the night. He strolled along the sidewalk, enjoying the smell of rain as it pattered against the hood of his jacket. He spotted a restaurant that seemed promising and started towards it, but before David crossed the street he noticed something that stopped him cold.
In front of David’s eyes there was a raindrop. Steady, unmoving, it hung before him. David reached out to touch it and in doing so he hit another raindrop with his hand, breaking it. He looked down at his hand, now wet with this new rain. David looked around as overwhelming astonishment and confusion flooded his mind. Rain, across the entire street hung suspended in mid-air. And yet, what concerned David the most was the fact that though the raindrops seemed paused, he could still hear the sound of rain hitting the ground.
Laughter surrounded the table inside the Peppered Coyote as the group of four continued to get to know one another better. Hazel felt as if she had known these people a lot longer than the half hour she had been there. Her eyes settled on the rain falling outside of the restaurant. The rain splattered on the street outside with a sense of newness. Her eyes then seemed to deceive her. It looked like the rain had stopped moving. She could still hear the rain pounding on the window but she couldn’t deny it; the rain was hanging over the street without movement.
“Hey guys,” Hazel interrupted Jim mid-sentence. “Look outside. Do you notice anything weird?” “What? Did it stop raining?” Ron asked as he turned to look outside. “In a way…” Hazel replied as she continued her stare out the window. She hoped she was not alone in what she saw. Suddenly it seemed to hit them. Jim slowly rose from his chair and paced towards the window, his gaze unbroken from the scene outside. The other three followed his lead and surveyed the rain in wonder and silence. Hazel watched as a young couple walked on the sidewalk across the street. She expected them to stop and take in the bizarreness of the hanging rain. Yet, they seemed unfazed and continued walking.
In a small dark room two monitors sat at their stations. Screens littered the room displaying statuses and codes. Their director sat at his own station sending reports. “Sir?” A monitor sat at his tech station watching a notification flash on his screen. “Yes Johnson?” He said approaching the station, “what is it?” The technician pointed to the notification and nervously said, “There’s… There’s an error message coming up.” Director McGregor read the status of the error message. “Fix it, now.” The director walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Johnson looked at his colleague Peters. Fear was clearly on both of their faces.
David looked at the girl in the window. Some of her dark hair hung in front of her eyes which looked just as bewildered as his own surely did. The group of people beyond the restaurant window seemed to be the only other people besides himself that had taken notice of this phenomenon. Surely if they were taking notice as well then he was not just hallucinating. His attention was drawn back to the corner of his eye. There a raindrop hung, shimmering. He watched intently as it glimmered for a split second more then fell to the pavement. With that the rain began to fall as before. David almost jumped back out of pure shock. The group in the restaurant was still watching him so he decided to go in and find out if they were losing their minds as much as he was.
Someone seemed to hit play as the rain began to fall again. Hazel heard Violet gasp. She watched the man from across the street as he stood looking at her. He then started walking determinately towards the restaurant. All four of the spectators at the window turned to watch the door as this man, drenched from the rain, entered the restaurant. He walked up to them and his blue eyes seemed to search their faces for an explanation to what they had all seen. His sight rested on Hazel’s face. None of them quite knew what to say. Jim broke the silence finally, “So you saw that too.” His hands were trembling a bit. Violet noticed and grabbed his left hand with her right to calm him down. “Yeah, I did.” David seemed to be grasping for the words to say. “Um, so what even… What just happened?”
“I’d say we all just figured out why perfectly normal people go crazy.” Ron looked back at the rain running down the window pane. “Let’s be serious now, Ron.” Violet shot him an irritated look. “How about we all just sit down and take a moment to settle our nerves. This doesn’t happen every day.” Violet stuck out her hand in introduction to the man. “David Burkhard” He said. “Hi David.” Violet said as she shook his hand. “Come sit with us. We have a table over here.” Violet led the group back to their round wooden table. Once they all sat the introductions continued. “Ron Devot.” David shook his hand. “Jim Aqil.” He shook Jim’s hand as Jim was sitting down next to Violet. Violet then said, “Violet Hyun.” David nodded at her. Hazel’s turn had come. David reached out and grabbed her hand to shake it. “Hi David, I’m Hazel Verity.” “That’s a beautiful name, Hazel.” Violet noted that David’s handshake lingered a little bit longer before he let go of Hazel’s hand. She also noticed how Hazel was blushing.
Still no one really knew how to start the conversation. Jim, who was in a state of contemplation, started to verbalized his musings. “Have any of you ever been playing a video game when all of a sudden the gameplay started acting up? Environments not functioning properly, graphics freezing, objects pixelating?” “What are you getting at Jim?” Violet asked him while resting her chin on her hand. “Glitches.” Hazel said in an epiphanic manner. “He’s referring to glitches, right Jim?” Jim confirmed his agreement with a nod. “But things don’t glitch in the real world guys, c’mon. There’s got to be a real explanation for it.” Ron couldn’t admit it out loud, but he knew that this didn’t seem to have anything to do with the reality he knew to be real. Silence began to fall on the table of five again until interrupted by David’s stray thought. “But, what if this world isn’t real?” They all looked at one another. Nobody had even considered that as a possibility especially since it seemed too impossible to be true.
“Did anyone notice?” McGregor had reentered the room and stood with his arms crossed behind Johnson. “I’m not sure. They could have.” He gulped after his answer. “Well, then let’s make sure that never happens again. Or else. I hope you don’t just take this as some silly game now, Johnson. A lot is riding on these pawns in play, and that means there is a lot to lose.” With his last word McGregor slammed his hand down on Johnson’s desk causing him to jump in his seat.
“How do you mean, David?” Hazel asked with anxiousness growing inside of her. “Well, on my way into town I had a strange experience. A car driving opposite of me on the road seemed to flicker in and out of sight. Then as it passed me it disappeared completely. I thought it was a trick of the eyes or light. But after the rain thing, I’m not sure there’s another explanation.” “That’s what I’m talking about.” Jim jumped into the conversation. “That sounds just like what I was referring to. Whether it’s because there’s not enough data, or there’s an actual bug in the system, it seems as if we’ve experienced some glitches.” “If any of what you’re saying is true, then what are we going to do about it?” Violet posed. “Find out what’s real, I guess.” David said.
“You’re suggesting we test this world we’re in to see if it’s real?” Jim asked David. “Yeah I suppose so.” David answered. “Ok,” Violet said while thinking, “how would we go about doing that?” They all thought for a second. “Well, I don’t know if we really can test our environment. Our minds are fully immersed in this reality for the time being. Convincing them otherwise would take a lot more mind power than we are capable of at this juncture. It’s going to take something big.” Jim explained. “Why is that, Jim?” David probed him for more information. “As I once heard, ‘Reality is whatever your mind infers from the nerve impulses sent by your sensors based on its model of the world.’ That is what is at the heart of virtual reality being different and more powerful than everything that has come before. There is still too much other information for our brains to take in that is convincing us this is reality. All subconsciously that is.” “There must have been awareness on an even deeper level of our subconscious that something was wrong though, right? I mean we knew something was off in those moments, we didn’t just accept it as reality.” Ron had a good point and it triggered Hazel to remember her headache from earlier; she still wasn’t sure what meaning it held however.
“If we try to test reality in some way I doubt it will yield anything. Reality, well at least this reality, obviously has something wrong with it. Cause and effect are no longer lining up. The program either has something wrong with it or we’re just noticing things more. Either way, I think our best bet is to just be watchful and figure out a few things.” Jim leaned back in his chair as he spoke and became aware of all he could see in his peripheral. Ron spoke up, “I think we need to figure out who we can trust.” “What do you mean?” David prosed. “Well, are we the only actual people in this reality?” Ron noted how they were the only folks to take any notice of the rain that suspended itself in the air.
The waitress made her way back to their table. “Hey guys, how are you all doing? Can I get you something sweetie?” She directed her attention at David, who hadn’t had time to think about ordering dinner yet. David quick skimmed one of the menus on the table and ordered the first meal to stick out to him. Before the waitress had walked away Violet asked her, “Actually before you go, I was just wondering. Did you notice anything odd about the rain earlier?” The waitress paused a moment before responding, “Not really, I’ve been really busy, I have had barely any time to look out the window.” She joked then continued, “Though I do remember hearing something about some freak rainstorms expected in the area. They were said to be really unique, a rare environmental phenomenon.” The waitress then walked away to put David’s order in. The group all looked at each other without a word as she left the table and the looks on their faces said it all. The night ended with them all deciding to go home and sleep on all the new information they had just learned.
David woke up in a cold sweat on the stiff hotel bed. He must have had a dream. He couldn’t remember it though; he hadn’t been able to remember his dreams for a while now. David laid his head back on the stale pillow beneath him. The memories from yesterday flooded his mind, swirling around in a pixelated blur. That seemed fitting enough. The smell of rented room seemed real enough he thought. Sitting up, he took in a deep breath and remembered that he had to get the keys from the realtor for the house he just bought. “What… is… the point…” he mumbled as he rubbed his face in his hands and yawned. David was the one to suggest to everyone last night that they should sleep on what they had learned. But now he wondered what came after sleeping? Did he just continue his day like he would have otherwise? Thinking out loud he said, “Jim said be on the lookout, I guess that means act like everything is normal.” David scoured the room with his eyes as he got ready for the day half expecting to find someone watching him.
Hazel awoke with a start, much like David, her hair stuck to the sweat on her forehead and her lungs were short of breath. “Fake. It’s all fake.” The thought paraded through her mind. Damp morning air lazily crept through her window and across the room to her. The smell of last nights’ rain lingered on the wind. “Real. I’m real, though… right?” She hadn’t processed this thought until now. If the world around her was fake, how could she be so sure that she herself wasn’t just a facsimile of a person; a program? She pulled on a light sweater, which had been sitting on a chair next to her bed, as she turned to sit on the edge of her bed. “Of course I’m real. I’ve lived a full life, in the real world up until now. To think otherwise would be ridiculous.” Her mind retreated back to her early years, to a memory in which she is playing outside with her brother. She could feel another headache coming on so she tried to just stop thinking altogether, which just led to her mind being filled with one image. All she could see in her mind was the image of a man standing across the street staring back at her through hanging rain. David. He had been on her mind ever since she had first seen in in the midst of that freak weather scenario. Hazel lazily pulled socks on over her slender feet and scuffled leisurely into her living room. Her hands ran over her record collection as she perused her library of albums searching for the perfect one to start the morning with. Her fingers settled on an album and she took the vinyl out of the sleeve and set it on the player. She set the needle where she knew it would play the song she wanted to hear and soon The Crystals filled the room with And Then He Kissed Me. Real world or not, whatever she was feeling between her and David felt 100% real to her.
Tapping and clicking filled the room in a deafening roar. Peters and Johnson raced to amend the bug they had overlooked in the system. Both monitors were thankful that McGregor was out of the room taking another call. His absence eased the pressure that hung over both of them. Peters looked over at Johnson. “Johnson, are we sure that none of them noticed the glitch?” Johnson rubbed his eyes in a frustrated exhaustion. “Honestly, it may have been possible that they did. They weren’t being monitored at the time.” Peters paused, in thought. “If so, say they did see what happened, what would we do to keep them from realizing the reality of the situation?” Johnson pondered for a couple seconds then responded nervously, “They would probably have already figured it out.” “Ok,” Peters calculated plans of operation in his mind as he talked, “So they know the world is not real. They wouldn’t know how to leave it yet. Our job is to keep them there so… our best bet at keeping them in the dark about how to leave is to keep them separated.” “Yeah…” Johnson seemed to be renewed by this thought and started to type code into his computer at a furious pace. “We have to be subtle though, Johnson.” Johnson continued to type, the file name stagnant at the top of his screen: Black Crane.
Ron looked out his window towards Hazel’s house. He should ask how she’s doing or at least that’s what he thought to himself as he sipped his morning coffee. Last night was a stressful time for all of them and the morning was no different. The tan mug, now empty of coffee, was set down as he slipped into a light jacket of forest green which complimented his auburn hair and blue eyes. The door closed as he meandered down his porch steps and across his lawn towards Hazel’s bungalow of brown. The wet grass squished under his shoes and approaching he heard the soft tune of 60’s music wafting from her open windows. As he had done once before Ron reached Hazel’s door and knocked. Through the window next to the door he saw Hazel coming to the door in her pajamas and a sweater. Her feet swished across the floor in her socks and she finally got close enough to see Ron through the window. “Hey there, Ron!” Hazel said, reaching the window, which was cracked open. “What are you doing here so early in the morning?” “Well it’s not too early, and besides I wanted to make sure you were alright after last night’s incident.” Ron’s concern seemed to hug Hazel. Finding people to connect with in a strange new place was never easy, especially in a place like this, and she already felt connected with these people she had known only for one night. “Aww, thank you Ron. Why don’t you come in?” “Sure.” He said as he heard her unlock the door. That was it though, all he heard was an unlock and then the door stayed in place.
No opening upon which revealed the inside of her house. Ron patiently waited and could hear the rattling of a handle being jostled around. “It won’t open.” Her voice came from inside the house. “I just unlocked it and it won’t open.” “Let me try.” Ron grabbed the outer handle of the door and turned it with force, putting pressure on the door urging it to move inward. Still nothing. Her mind started to spiral. She ran to the back of her house, the back door seemed to call to her. Seemingly she leaped towards it and tried to pry it open. The door didn’t give. She scrambled back to the entryway and tried the front door one more time. Ron knocked on the window and startled her. “I’ll be right back, I have an idea.”
Ron raced back to his house as Hazel ran from window to window in her house trying to open them further than they already were. There was no avail. After some time she heard Ron return. Through her window she saw he had brought with him a crowbar and a hatchet. Firstly he tried to pry open her door with the crowbar. That proved to be as productive as their tugging and pushing had been. Ron then cautioned Hazel away from the door and picked up his hatchet. With a mighty blow Ron brought his hatchet down on the door. And yet, no puncture or mark was made on the door. Ron stood aghast. Hazel began to understand what was happening. “Ron, they’re trying to keep us all apart from one another. We know too much.” Ron agreed and started pacing on the porch. “You know, Ron, I think I know why the hatchet didn’t work.” Hazel leaned against her window and began to speak with understanding in her voice. “It doesn’t actually exist. The door I mean, it’s not real. What can a hatchet do to something that’s not real? And if it’s not genuinely here, what is it to keep me in my house? Can’t we just think it away? Reality in here is what your brain makes it to be, isn’t it?
Ron called Violet with his cell phone while Hazel ran to get dressed. “Vi, it’s Ron. Hazel and I need to meet up with you and Jim at the park. I’m going to try the number David gave us last night to reach him as well. We’re heading there now, It’s important. Come as soon as you can and if for any reason you hit a roadblock on your way remember. You’re real, it isn’t. See you soon.” Ron hung up the phone as Hazel came bounding down the stairs. She had a lot of pep. The duo got in Ron’s jeep and started out for the park.
David listened to the message on his voicemail as he set another box down in the foyer. Ron’s voice rang through his phone. He grabbed his jacket and keys then locked up the house and the secured the door of the moving truck which was parked outside. He got in his vintage blue beetle and tried to start it up. The car refused to let the engine turn over with a creak and a groan. Again, David tried to get the engine to start. Urgency surged through his veins as well as frustration. Luckily, David had already unloaded his mountain bike and it was sitting on the porch only a few feet away. He lifted the bike down off of his porch and headed in the direction of the park Ron had indicated which luckily was a short distance from his new house.
Wind rustled through the trees of Foster Park. The breeze picked up Hazel’s hair, tousling it this way and that. She pulled her hair away from her face as she searched for signs of Violet, Jim, or especially, David. Ron sat next to her on the park bench nearest to the entrance. Hazel had an idea in her mind that she had been ruminating on ever since she walked through her now door-less doorway; a way out, a way home.
Violet and Jim ran, hand in hand, towards the park entrance. They saw their friends sitting on a park bench just inside the park. They ran up and embraced Hazel and Ron and began to excitedly tell them of the troubles they faced getting there. “So you’ll never guess what happened,” Violet spoke speedily as Jim nodded enthusiastically, “We were driving and all of a sudden we realized we had been passing the same place over and over again. So Jim told me to turn in another direction. I did, but we still kept passing by the same storefronts, the same buildings, everything! We tried over and over again, but we were caught in a loop.” Jim took over the story from Violet, “Until that is we remembered what you said when you called us. At least Violet did. You said to remember that we were real and it isn’t. So we both made a decision in our minds that the next road we turned onto would be leading us towards the park. And next thing you know we turn and this time it’s a different street and we were able to make it here.” “Wow!” Hazel said, almost tempted to say “You should hear about my front door.” But she stopped herself. She had more important things to tell them, once David joined them that is.
David, throwing his bike on the ground, ran towards the group of four standing in the park. “I’m here! I’m here, what’s the big news?” Hazel looked around at her friends. Yes, she considered these people, who were practically strangers, her friends. Clearing her throat, she began, “I… I believe I know how we can get out of here.” Jim smirked and Violet’s eyes widened. Everyone hung onto Hazel’s words with anticipation. “I had an experience yesterday which has since proven to me to be of great importance, though at the time I thought nothing of it. I was looking at a photo of my family and remembering some memories I have with them; things that don’t exist here except for in my own mind. As I was thinking about them I felt a huge headache come on and the world seemed to fall apart into darkness. I didn’t realize it until Ron and I discovered how to make my front door disappear on my house. I was pulling myself out of this world with memories. Thoughts of things that can’t exist here are the key.”
“Wow, seems so simple.” Violet said in a hushed tone. “And yet, I don’t think it will be.” Jim stated. “We are going to have to do this together, we have to encourage each other not to lose sight of the memories we’re grasping for. Otherwise this world will suck us back in. It has such a strong hold on our minds already.” “Then let’s overcome it together.” David looked at Hazel and she looked back at him. As the trees swayed in the wind, the five held hands and stood in anticipation. “Remember, you have to remember. Remember your families, your pets, and your home. That’s where we are supposed to be; home.” Hazel spoke these words with extreme certainty. David winked at her from across the circle and she smiled back at him. Soon after she began to close her eyes, but not before she noticed a glimmer coming from Ron’s direction.
Wires; attached to her! Computer monitors all around the room sat beeping and whirring. She began to detach the wires from herself and lift herself out of the reclined seat she had been in. Looking around the room she saw the others awakening themselves from the virtual sleep they had been under; everyone that was, except for Ron. The glimmer she had noticed made sense now, though she never could have predicted it. Her heart sank deep into her chest. The others, taking in their surroundings as well, seemed to come to the same conclusion. Violet started sobbing and Jim tried to settle her down. Hazel’s somberness soon transformed into anger; anger at whoever had done this, whoever had tricked them this way and played mind games with them. “Well guys, I guess there’s just one thing left to do,” David said from across the room, “Get out of here.” “That. And figure out who did this to us and why.” Hazel said flatly. If it was the last thing she was going to do, she was going to find out why.
Thanks for reading!