The World is Outside

Days after it begins, I find myself missing Disneyland. I sit in a chair in front of my television, longer in diagonal than it is tall, and I don a headset. It is a heavy thing that covers my eyes and bands my head. I adjust its fit with dials until a television floats in front of me in the void, clear as though I sat in an empty cinema. I haven’t been to a cinema in a while. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go again.

Speakers ring my room, seven-dot-one of them, and when I select a video on my console, sound engulfs me from all of them. Within the headset, the TV has yielded to a lifelike environment. A 360 video where I can turn my head and the sounds will follow. I stand on a quiet street of Disneyland, on the way to critter country, in the blue early morning when most would avoid Splash Mountain.

From my chair, I walk up the line. I look up, down, left, right. I’m aware I’m not in control, but I feel like a passenger along with someone else, and we take the line briskly. It’s warm in my house but I remember how cool the air flows in the line for Splash. I have walked past those lights in reality, in the before times, when queues were packed and I could be drowned in an ocean of overheard conversation.

My home theater smells faintly of popcorn; with the scent memory comes along churros, turkey legs, hot pavement. I’m really sitting in the log ride now. I’m going on the flume. The ride sings and sways around me, and even though I don’t get wet on the final drop, my heart thrills in anticipation.

The video ends there, when we’re climbing off the log at the end. Taking off my headset is disappointing the way it’s disappointing to step off a ride. You have done the good part. You waited in line 35 minutes for a 4-minute thrill. The headset slides away and I remember I’m still in my dim home theater, with neither churro nor Mickey. My Echo dot rim shines orange. Another delivery from Amazon. Everything is deliveries now. Everything comes to me here, in my fortress.

***

Later, my children wear the headset for the ride. They giggle and shriek through it. To the imaginative child, it is all real. I hold my five year old in my lap, nose pressed to his hair, and I imagine that I’m really in Disneyland with my kids, that everything is fine, that humanity is connected.

***

I needed more nicotine, so I prepared to go outside. I would ride my hoverboard today. It extends the trip, turning ten minutes there-and-back into an hour, and will give me priceless exposure to sunlight.

To leave, I prepare. I remove my face mask from the cloth bag where it’s sat for the last week, airing out. I tie the top straps above my ponytail to relieve my ears of the pressure. I tie the other one low, and the mask it long enough that it conforms to my chin. I tuck the upper hem under the rim of my glasses.

Atop that, I wear a hat. And then there is sunscreen. My backpack. My boots. I leave.

I soar over the sidewalk through a mile of quiet suburb. When I see people coming, I get onto the street to offer space. Some of them are wearing masks. Some aren’t. People jog, walk their dogs, walk their children. The parents look exhausted. The retirees look angry.

My second mile parallels an arterial road feeding the golf resort. It’s quiet too. Handfuls of cars pass, each as distant from each other as though their pickups are afraid to inhale each other’s fumes. When I wait at stoplights, I do little circles on my hoverboard, swirling in place. I press the crosswalk button with my knuckle and scrub the skin furiously on my shorts.

It’s one step onto the hoverboard at the beginning of my trip and one step off at the gas station. I use my cell phone to lock the hoverboard and leave it tucked behind the bench. Even now, this neighborhood is low on property crime.

I get a bottle of wine, candy for my children, a Gatorade. I wait in line for the register on one of the floor’s blue marks, indicating every six feet. When it’s my turn to pay, I request refills for my electronic cigarette, and show my government ID through a plastic sheet to the cashier. She’s not wearing any protection. Her eyes are bruised.

With my backpack loaded, I step back onto the hoverboard. It’s quiet on the way back home, along a mile of artery and a mile of suburb. I step off at home. I leave it by the front door. I remove my shoes before coming inside. I take everything out of its packaging and hang my backpack by the front door. I wash my hands, thoroughly, while singing Mr. Brightside under my breath. A strawberry plant hangs over me at the kitchen sink, shriveling from lack of sunlight.

Then I refill my electronic cigarette and inhale the taste of Virginia tobacco, stinging on my tongue, exhaling in plumes.

***

I’m lying on the bed in my home loft. I recline against a beanbag chair, my legs propped up by a pillow. A detective show is cast upon the white wall next to me. The image is so large that the people are real-sized. I’m sitting just beneath them, a silent observer to their investigation, in a time and place where the streets were crowded and people only wore gloves at crime scenes.

The room is dark besides; I’ve put a  blanket over one window and tucked a jacket under the blinds of the other. The projector hums quietly, puffing warm air into a warm room. The ceiling fan sketches lazy loops on the ceiling in shadow. My only company is my cat. She purrs against my hip.

In my hands, a game console. While murders are solved above me, I harvest fruit in a digital world. I shake it from trees and pick it up from the ground. The graphics are sterile. There’s no dirt under my nails, there are no spots on the fruit, and they never fall rotten. There is value to the stylized act of digging and picking and building in this game. Every little task is monetized. It feels productive.

When my five-year-old climbs onto the bed, I realize it’s gotten dark and I’ve had a migraine unnoticed for hours. My head is heavy. The child wants to snuggle. I gather him against my body, abandon the console, abandon the detectives, and slither between the covers of my bed with him.

He sings while he falls asleep. When he’s limp, I engulf myself in a bathrobe and step out onto the balcony. The lights of suburbia spread below me. The horizon’s still a tiny bit orange-blue where twilight surrenders to nighttime black. The artificial stream in my back yard gurgles cheerfully, and the real frogs croak loudly. They briefly silence when I press the button on my plasma lighter to light my pipe. The buzz of its arc disturbs them.

***

I’ve already been at my computer for hours when my nine-year-old wakes in the morning. I stare at two monitors: one shows a news feed updating me on statistics, deaths, responses across the country; the other showing a game of Frostpunk, where I struggle to keep two hundred-some survivors alive in an apocalyptic blizzard.

“I’m cold,” my child complains.

I shuck my robe and wrap them in it. We stand beside my open window, hugging each other sleepily, without words. I’m so tired. I can’t sleep because I’ve had too much nicotine and caffeine. My body won’t calm down. But there is a measure of rest in holding and being held.

The birds are especially loud in the mornings these days. I don’t think they’ve always been so loud. I think they like how fewer cars there are, how the world’s intensity has been turned down a few degrees. Still, there are sounds of human activity; the spring breeze carries the grumble of car engines and lawnmowers to us.

“Don’t you love how the morning sounds?” I asked my child, who is so tall that I can rest my cheek upon their head.

“No,” they said. “Because it reminds me the world is still out there.”

I don’t like those reminders either. I was anxious to leave the world, but became even more anxious to return to it. There are more cars starting than there were a month ago. Businesses are beginning to open. People have to work. It’s safer inside, it’s safer away, but the world is still out there.

SM Reine is a New York Times Bestselling author of mythpunk urban fantasy romance novels. She is addicted to video games, especially Crusader Kings II, and has too many loud-mouth opinions about movies. She lives in Nevada with a small army of furry monsters.

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