Tag Archives: Apocalypse

Everyone on earth who has had sex in the last five years dies. The remainder inherit the earth.

“Dude, don’t forget the Mentos, we can use those to make bombs.” I the elementary schooler in charge of rounding up the remaining candy at the Toy store. It was the first toy raid that Tommy allowed me to supervise. Tommy was a twenty something who said he had come back ‘from beyond the veil’, to save us once all the other adults had died. Most of the high schoolers, especially the high school girls, had died too.

“Board game section pillaged sir, they had the new settlers of catan expansion.” Another elementary schooler reported.

“Excellent, Tommy loves those games. He will be most pleased.” I tossed the kid a snickers bar as a reward.

“We need to make sure spirits are as high as possible tonight. We’re going to TP the girl’s camp tonight, and we lost three men to the spit wad catapults last time.” That reminded me. “Timothy!” I shouted to the kid who was pilfering costumes over in the toy section. “Be sure and get as much body armor as possible, and make it quick, we don’t want to get caught by the wizards.” I had never met the wizards, but Tommy assured me they existed.

They were men who hadn’t been taken. Men with long robes who kidnapped and ate little boys who took too long gathering supplies.

We heard a distant rumbling on the wind. “The wizards are coming!” I shouted. “Everybody drop what you’re doing and run for it!” Items clattered to the floor as the little vagrants dashed for the door. The little kid in charge of the candy foolishly decided to attempt to make off with all his ill gotten goods.

The rumbling grew louder as they reached the door, and the lad with the candy began to lag behind. The others didn’t notice until they were several blocks away. By then, it was too late.

“Oh look Brother Matt, it’s another group of wandering orphans. Shall we see if they need anything?” Brother Stephen asked me.

“No Brother Stephen, they look like they don’t particularly want to talk to us. On second thought, that slow one looks like he’s taken only candy from that store. I’ll bet he’s got frightfully bad cavities. We better bring him back to the abby and see to his teeth.”

World’s Oldest Man Dies at 54

“Studies continue to show rising happiness trends after the passing of the world’s oldest man at the age of 54. The death rate from the cancer that resulted from all of the nuclear fallout has finally leveled off with an average life expectancy of 42. Something not seen practically since Rome was in power. We are going now live in the field to reporter Robert Jones who is at his funeral to ask people about this startling trend. Jones?”

“Thanks Steve. There’s a pretty good party going at the funeral. His family is mourning inside, but the rest of us are recognizing a life well lived and ended not long after his prime. I’m here with a fellow celebrator. Sir, how do you feel about the trending happiness despite the atrocious life expectancy?”

“Well Jones, it’s been a long known fact that countries with lower life expectancies were happier even before WWIII. Now that most people won’t reach fifty so much of the pressure is off.”

“What do you mean the pressure is off?”

“You see Jones, before the war people would spend decades of their lives figuring out what to do and hunting down the perfect person. Now the average person has a job that they enjoy before the age of fifteen because the economy can’t support extended periods of unemployment through education, and typically married before 18 because if you want to see your grandkids you better get to it.”

“But aren’t people afraid they’ll make the wrong decisions? What about the midlife crisis where people realize they’re not doing what they want with their lives?”

“Jones, people don’t have time to worry about that sort of thing anymore. All they have to worry about are providing for their loved ones and coming home to a family who supports them. All the rest is just too much to be getting on with.”

Last men standing

“Don’t shoot!” He calls out from behind the car. I had put a bullet through his windshield with my hunting rifle to let him know I meant business. It had been months since I’d seen a robber, but I was not going to lose another generator to carelessness.

“I’m going to come out now. I’ve left all of my weapons in the car, and I’m going to come out slowly.” He slowly rises with his hands raised above his head. I put another bullet through the passenger window. He doesn’t even flinch. He finishes standing up, and slowly walks over to me.

I put another bullet in the ground. I was not getting robbed again. I could no longer see properly out of my left eye because of bandits. He still doesn’t flinch. He just keeps walking towards me with his hands up until my gun is touching his forehead.

“If you’re not going to trust me you might as well end this right now, because I think we’re the last ones. I haven’t seen another soul in two years. Even if they exist we’re not going to find them.” I consider doing it. I consider giving that trigger a squeeze. How do I know this guy isn’t going to make himself the last man on earth when I go to bed?

Then again, if he does, I think he will have suffered the worse fate. I lower my rifle, open the chamber, drop the mag, and flip the safety on.

“Good.” He says. “Because I’ve also got the world’s last xbox in my car, and there are a whole lot of co-op games I’ve stockpiled.”

Humanity is defended from invasion by a secret force

“Where did that giant rock come from?” I asked my friend. The flying saucer had been settling over the white house, and had been powering up some giant glowing weapon, when a large rock had sailed up and struck the device. The rock had done enough damage to power down the device.

“Look, on the horizon, something’s coming.” My friend points at a group of flying things coming from the north. I squint, they’re far away, but as they get closer I can make out the shapes of large birds. They must’ve escaped from the zoo, and there were thousands of them! Bald eagles, cranes, hawks, geese, even ducks, and they weren’t coming alone. Most of them were carrying small mammals and reptiles. Little snakes, poisonous lizards, small monkeys, even rabbits of all things.

In one giant flock they fly up into the center of the UFO. The small monkeys form a chain that extends down to the roof of the white house where slightly larger monkeys are ready to scurry up this ladder. These make a chain of larger monkeys, which then allows even larger still monkeys to climb up. Eventually there are multiple chains of gorillas that lions and tigers begin ascending.

I can see they’re wreaking havoc from the inside of the ship. Lights begin to blink off, windows get blown out, and the thing begins to tilt. There’s a mass exodus of wildlife, and then the ship crashes into the white house.

It’s a fantastic sight, but I can’t help but wonder, where did the boulder come from?

“Every planet with life has a dominant sentient race.” A deep booming voice to my left says. I fall over by the sudden sound, and I see that I’m talking to a tree. “You have not been the kindest of masters, but you’ve been good to us overall, and those monsters.” It points a branch at the UFO. “Have devoured countless worlds. If you will stand with us, we can stand against them, united as a planet.”

The last french fry

“Alright, you guys have twenty minutes to grab any souvenirs of civilization before we pack it out of here. They’ll be coming soon and we need to be gone when they do.” My bug out crew had made a decision to come back. We had all met at the agreed upon panic location when the bombs had started going off. Thousands of nuclear bombs made in secret under false pretense had been distributed by a very sophisticated group.

The one in this mall had been disarmed by some off duty navy SEAL explosive technician. It was a lucky twist of fate that left one of the only standing monuments to western culture in a hundred miles. My crew had heard about in on the radio on our way out. It was currently being swarmed over by scavengers, but if you carried enough guns and went in packs, the bad ones would leave you alone.

I buddied up with my childhood friend Eric. Him and me had been hanging out since middle school, almost ten years now. So many nights staying up late talking about life. So many adventures out into the wilderness. It was there we had met the people who would eventually become our bug out crew. Yeah, me and Eric had a lot of good memories. It was fitting we would get to share our last memory of what life was like before the fall together.

“So where do you want to go mate?” He asks me. The mall’s big, so we only really have time to hit one last location. I’m glad he’s given me the choice. I know exactly where should go.

“The burger joint on the north end.” Eric nods approvingly. Every time we had stayed up late, or headed out on an adventure, we had stopped here for food. Every time we came Eric always got the fries, and I got the onion rings. It had been a friendly game for us. Each of us swearing that we had made the best choice, and each of us refusing to taste the others dish as a matter of pride. We would have time for one last meal before the apocalypse closed in around us.

We break into the kitchen to find it’s picked clean, except for one french fry and one onion ring sitting next to the frier. They’re a little mushed, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Eric picks up the onion ring and gives it a whiff. “To memories” He says. I pick up the french fry and answer his toast.

“To memories.” I say, and we take our last bite of civilization together.

Who gets to survive the apocalypse?

“So we’ve ruled out anyone who has a disease that will be longer treatable after the collapse, anyone too old or too young to reproduce effectively, that leaves us with a bunch of people between the ages of 18-35. Anyone care to narrow it down a bit more? Come on now, don’t be shy.” The head scientist said to the group of his colleagues that he had assembled.

There were many different representatives from many different fields. There were the biologists and psychologists of course, as well as the philosophers and economists. The historians had insisted on sending a representative, and of course there were the doctors. Numerous other fields had requested to be present for this occasion, but the psychologists had pointed out that too many different opinions would prevent anything from getting done, so the selection had been made from these five.

The head scientist, a biologist, sat down, and gestured to the economist to have a stab.

“We must rule out anyone who doesn’t believe in small government.” He said. “There will be no government to support the people, so they must fend for themselves. We will look at voting records and rule out anyone who hasn’t consistently voted for the decreased size of government.

“Even if we accepted that as a plausible screening criteria, and even if we someone violated the privacy of billions to find out that information, historically it won’t work out.” The history professor said. “Whenever you separate people out a group of people based on a political belief, they tend to start a war with the people of the opposite belief. You can’t really think the world will accept a political agenda as a means to decipher survivability. As soon as word gets out, and it will, there’ll be a public outcry and the whole program will collapse on itself.”

“Alright, no political beliefs then.” The biologist said. “What else?”

“How about IQ or mental stability screens?” The psychologist put in. “Surely we should be saving the smartest and most secure people in order to rebuild civilization.”

“I agree.” The biologist put in. “Can we get a two thirds majority on the matter?”

“You have my vote.” The historian put in.

“And mine.” The economist added. All heads swiveled to the philosopher.

“Well, what have you got to say?” The biologist asked. “We have a majority, but if you’d like to say something for the record we’d be happy to hear it.”

“Did you know.” The philosopher said. “That there are routinely young men and women who IQs in excess of 150 who never make it to college? That puts them in the upper 1% of intelligence on this planet. They typically suffer no mental illness, and are reasonable physical condition. Can any of you tell me why this happens?” There was no reply.

“Because they had no motivation to.” The philosopher said. “Intelligence and physical fitness may be the engine which drives the human person forward, but motivation is the fuel. If someone has no reason to survive, because they have no friend, or family, or loved ones of any sort, then they will no doubt do what they are currently doing, sitting at home watching television, watching their lives slip away. If you really want to survive, you need a reasons to live, and those reasons must take the form of people. I propose you select those who care deeply for each their fellow man. This is a difficult task because you can’t measure it directly, but my friends the biologist and the psychologist can no doubt come up with a list of persons so equipped?”

The psychologist and the biologist looked at each other. “I think we will look at neurotransmitters in the blood, and screen for people with high levels of oxytocin.” The biologist said.

“And I say we start by examining newly weds, and those with young children.” The psychologist said.

“Any objections?” The philosopher asked. There were none

Apocalypse cancelled

“Scientists are now reporting they did the calculations in English instead of metric. We actually have another twenty thousand years to live.” The news report had come in at 12:07, seven minutes after the world was supposed to end.

No government had survived the ensuing chaos. Every last politician had defaced themselves beyond repair, those that weren’t lynched and hung that is, and the militaries of the world had taken the opportunity to fire every last round of non-nuclear ammunition that they had. After all, the world was supposed to go out with a bang right?

The world had now divided into three factions, the people who had lost everything, the people who had. prepared properly because they knew it wouldn’t, and the people who had gotten all the money and resources from the people who had panicked.

The scientists and religious which made up the second group were an odd mix. There were skeptical scientists who had done the math themselves, and realized they weren’t going to die, and the very religious who had either not partied relentlessly, or had known through some religious dogma they would be fine. These two groups now found themselves working closely together as they were the protagonists of the post-apocalyptic world.

The victims of the apocalypse were those that had committed horrible crimes, or had squandered their wealth needlessly. Most of the world was penniless, or on the run from the families of those they had killed or robbed. Mostly penniless though, so much food and gas had been depleted in the final hours, and the people had been shuffled all over going to their dream vacation spots to die. People woke up in countries they did not know the language of, and no way to get home. Borders meant nothing anymore, no remained inside the countries to enforce the borders, since they were now scattered and broke.

Which left the winners of the fake apocalypse, those that now finding themselves drunk with power and stuffed to bursting with ill-gotten gains. It was the gangs, the hardened criminals, and the shrewd couple of businesses who had wagered the world would not end. The gangs had banded together to protect themselves from last minute police or opposing gang retaliations. The hardened criminals had all sprung from jail, and spent the night amassing stockpiles of everything they had missed, and the businessmen had made highly illegal deals to consolidate the world’s power.

They formed a hierarchy, the businesses contacting the gangs to enforce their new laws, and the gangs hiring the criminals for their resources and illegal knowledge. The businesses spread outward, bringing more and more gangs under their belt, and utilizing their company resources to spread far and wide. A burger chain took the east coast of the United States by storm. A famous rapper dominated the west coast, and the middle was controlled by a mess of smaller steakhouses and land owners.

Smaller island nations like Japan, Iceland, and New Zealand were taken over by an airliner who used their fleet to land gangs at key supply points to control the flow of resources. Australia’s inhabitants had all either died or gone into the bush. Africa was overrun with medical corporations. The middle east was taken by oil. Some small business owner who had gotten hold of nuclear weapons was now running India. Cartels ran Central and South America, and Europe had splintered into hundreds of small warring states.

The Vatican gathered to it all the world’s scientists and religious leaders, using its influence, and the Swiss guards, to control Italy. They rallied to the call of any people who could reach them to call for help. They invented new planes and boats for rapid international travel, and new crops for food distribution. The religious institutions used their experience in aid delivery around the world to make sure the supplies got into the right hands, and the scientists saw they had the means to deliver them.

It is now a slow battle with the church and scientific community fighting inch by inch to take back civilization. They pray every night before they sleep that the smaller disjointed corporate states do not band together and wipe them out.

Unhooked part five

“You guys are some very scary people.” I say upon walking into the house. Thomas had setup a little demonstration of what we would look like. He had two pistols on shoulder holsters, and a third on his hip. There was a rifle on his lap, and another rifle slung across his back. He had a bandoleer of high caliber rounds and to top it all off, he was in all black tactical clothing with a black mask over this face.

“That’s the idea right?” He replies, standing up and shoulder his rifle.

“It’s a little ridiculous though isn’t it?” I ask. “I mean you need two hands to operate a pistol, and you have three. Those two rifles you have are the same rifle so there’s no possible reason for having both, and that bandoleer doesn’t have ammunition for any of your weapons.”

“You’re forgetting.” Jess is at my side, and she seems to approve of the setup. “We aren’t going for practical. He shouldn’t have to fire a single round, and everyone in that factory probably knows the same amount about weapons as you do. To say nothing of the fact that they’re probably going to be way too scared to count. Besides, all we have to do is intimidate one person. So we ditch logical, and just go for shock factor. You remember that feeling of danger that just magically radiated from the gun before you learned how to fire it? The more guns we bring the more we emphasize that feeling, and at the end of the day any rational person will realize it only takes one to get the job done, so even if they have their wits about them they should still comply.”

“About not firing a round.” Thomas says. “That’s not entirely accurate.” Jess rounds on him.

“Thomas, you better not have gotten any ideas.” Thomas picks up a bottle in front of him. I hadn’t noticed them before, but there are several bottles in front of him filled with a bluish solid.

“I haven’t, just did my prep work for demolition. See these?” He lifted the bottle. “Napalm, burns at almost 2000 degrees, way hotter than any wood fire, and hot enough to ignite some metals.”

“Metals burn?” I ask.

“Everything burns if you get it hot enough.” Thomas says. I don’t know if I believe him, but probably enough things in that factory will burn to shut it down permanently.

“I’m gonna place these around the factory, and hit them with incendiary rounds. It’s the quickest way I could think of to set off as many fires as possible as quick as possible.” I notice there are about a dozen bottles that all look to be a liter or more. “I would like to mix in some explosives, but we used the last of it a week ago.” I turned to Jess.

“Jess, you said you used these things for hunting. What kind of animals require incendiary rounds and explosives to hunt?” Jess practically giggled.

“I didn’t say we only used them for hunting. Ever put an ounce of an explosive binary compound in a watermelon and hit it with a sniper rifle round? You should, you haven’t really lived until you have.”

“I’m starting to have some second thoughts about who I spend my time with.” I say, only half joking.

“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.” Thomas says. I suppose I will have to try it at some point, but I find myself wondering what other supplies the siblings have squirreled away. The rounds on Thomas’ bandoleer were fired by a very large gun. I wouldn’t put it past them to have a tank hidden in the woods somewhere.

“Alright you two.” Thomas says. “You can see I’ve done my part, what have you two come up with? We kind of left it at destroy this facility. I’ve got the supplies to break in and burn, but don’t we need more intel than that first?”

“Like what?” I ask.

“You are such a zombie.” Thomas says. “Like what, like whose the person we’re going to find to get everyone to leave. Where does this person work, when do they work. How are we going to get to them without getting seen by anybody else? What kind of security does the base have. Did you just expect to walk through the door looking like this.” He gestures to himself. “And expect nothing would happen? Isn’t this plan supposed to be subtle?”

“Alright, alright, I get it.” I say. “Clearly I need to do some more research, here hand me my laptop.” Thomas had apparently been counting on this, and had turned my laptop on, stupid me for leaving it unlocked, then opened it to the page about the site we were going to hit. I had already printed out maps on how to get there, so at least that much was taken care of.

I sit down while Jess and Thomas anxiously inspect the weapons. While I hastily click through websites they’re loading magazines, attaching ammunition to tactical vests, and discussing which knives would look the most intimidating. I wondered if I could make new friends once people got unhooked from the pill.

The site has a personnel page. I open it expecting to just use whoever is the top person on the page. Unfortunately they all looked like business personnel who didn’t look they stepped foot in the lab or would have access to the security system. That wouldn’t do, it didn’t matter if they were important if they didn’t have access to the security system. Halfway down there’s a man in a lab coat whose title is director of process developmnet. Director sounded like a high rank, and process development sounded like a lab job.

“Got our man.” I announce. “Damian Winters.” I say, turning my laptop around for them to get a good look. “Director of process development.” The two look up and study his face, memorizing it so they can recognize him

“Okay.” Thomas says. “How do we get to him?”

“Working on that.” I say.

“Let us know when you have something.” Thomas replies, turning back to bottle of napalm he’s inspecting.

I open up Damian’s page and look around for something. Contact information, having his office phone might be a good idea. I copy and paste that info into a word processer for later use. He’s got a bio about drug design, and commitment to quality. That’s useless. Ah, office hours perfect. Monday through Friday 8-5. The guy must be unhooked to pull that kind of schedule. That turned my stomach. He knew what he was depriving people of, and yet he continued to perpetuate the process.

So now I had a time for us to grab him, now I needed a place and a way to get to it. I looked around his bio and didn’t find any more information. Dead end, several more internet searches showed nothing, and even some illegal use of assets from my job couldn’t find anything.

I pull his company page back up and look it over again, hoping something jumps out. Still nothing, maybe the answer isn’t found on a computer, maybe we have to improvise. I write the office phone number down on a piece of paper I have nearby and turn to Thomas.

“Hey Thomas, do you guys have a hunting rifle with a laser sight?” Thomas scoffed.

“What self-respecting gun owner wouldn’t own a hunting rifle with a laser sight?” Maybe having gun nut friends had some advantages.

We park the car a good two miles away from the factory to make sure our getaway vehicle isn’t spotted at the scene of the crime. The factory is in the middle of the woods, with no neighboring buildings nearby, so we naturally have to walk through the woods ourselves. It’s for the best really. If we walked on the sidewalk then people would get suspicious. We had all our gear stored in several heavy backpacks and duffle bags, but we didn’t want to attract any more attention than we had to.

It was a long walk, plenty of time to fully understand what you’re doing. When I had just woken up I was coursing with almost every emotion there was. Now I had time to cool off and project my energy into other things. Now things were real. That word, real, so many meanings over the last day. It had meant pain, fear, surprise, elation, sadness depression, and shock. Now I could add one more meaning to the list, resolution.

I knew what this meant, or I at least thought I did. We were breaking the law, in a big way, and even putting some people’s lives in a small degree of danger. Tonight there was the very real possibility we would be in jail or worse.

My head began to fill with all the possible scenarios. We could get pinned down and shot at by police. We could be in metal cells staring at blank walls for the rest of our lives and eating bland food. They might even put us back on the pill for what we did, to keep us sedated.

That thought sent a shiver down my spine. It was worse than the other two. At least in jail or under fire we would be in the real world, fighting to make a difference. Under the pill we are almost worse than dead. I shudder to think that mere hours ago I had been under the pills myself, and shuddered again to think of all the people still under the pill.

“Hey, you look a little worried.” Jess says. “Not having any second thoughts are you?” I snap out of it.

“No, just determined to put end this.” This seems to be the right thing to say.

When we get closer Thomas walks us through his part of the plan more thoroughly. I had already covered my part earlier.

“So safeties off and fingers off the trigger. We’re keeping bullets in our magazines like we discussed. In case we need to fire the guns to intimidate anyone, or if heaven forbid we get into a firefight we’ll need to fire rounds into the air in order to escape. But, we don’t want to have to use to them, so be mindful where your gun is pointing, and keep your finger off the trigger. We don’t want any accidental discharges. Once you guys have our man covered I’ll get him to tell me where their explosive or flammable chemicals are and set my charges. You all will then clear the building and I’ll blow them. We’ll ditch the man, and head for the woods. Remember, we don’t want him to identify us, so keep talking to a minimum, and use your voice changers.”

“Got it.” Me and Jess say. The building becomes just barely visible through the tree line.

“Alright, we’re here.” Thomas says. “Everybody knows what to do, let’s get to it.”

The building is large, probably as big as my entire cul de sac, and looks very plain. There is no outward sign of the turmoil the products of this building create. We stay back in the treeline as we walk around the building. Jess and I use some of the binoculars we bring to look into the windows until we can locate our target.

“There he is.” I spot him first. “Third window from the right.” Luckily he had been facing the window, observing the nice scenery no doubt.

“Got it.” Jess confirms with her goggles. Now it’s go time. We fall back so we’re out of sight of the building and open our duffle bags. There are metallic clacking sounds, zippers being done up, and the click of buckles being fastened and adjusted. In a few minutes we transform from a normal twenty something trio out for a walk into three heavily armed individuals that look like a cross between terrorists and SWAT team members. There is hardly an inch of flesh visible beneath layers of leather, cloth, and bullet proof fabric. Between the three of us we have 10 pistols, 7 large tactical knives, and five rifles. Thomas had wanted grenades, but apparently the arsenal of the siblings had its limits.

When we were fully dressed for the operation we stood a moment looking for someone to say something significant. Thomas and Jess looked to me.

“There’s nothing to say.” I tell them. “This has to be done. That’s all there is to it.” This seems appropriate. People in real life didn’t give speeches before they did something significant. They just did it. I was not going to indulge in fantasies before taking down an entity that preyed on the fantasies of people to make money. Thomas and Jess understand that. This isn’t some feel good mission of mercy. We’re pretty much the bad guys using guns to scare people into getting a what we want so we can burn down their place of work and put them out of jobs. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. This was ugly, but it was necessary. “Let’s go.”

Thomas sets up underneath a both, taking a minute to disguise his position. Jess and I setup on either side of him. Jess pulls out a rifle with a high powered scope on top. I grab my binoculars and focus on Damian. Thomas pulls out the hunting rifle with the laser sight and gets a bead on the office. He taps me on the shoulder to let me know he’s ready. Jess also draws a bead on the office and reaches over to tap me to signal her readiness.

Sniper in position, spotter in position, it was time to make the call. I pull out the office number for Damian, press in the numbers, and call. It had taken three hours to disguise my phone. It would show up on any phone as a randomly generated series of 10 numbers. This was after it was so thoroughly encrypted that the heat death of the universe would occur before someone could crack it.

“Hello? This is Damian Winters. With whom am I speaking?” A slightly British accent says on the other end of the line.

I tap Thomas on the shoulder and he flips on his sight. His rifle is zeroed so that if the laser is point at Damian, the actual rifle is actually pointed several feet to his left. It took a while to convince Thomas to point a gun so close to a human being, even when the safety on and the scope zeroed to throw off his aim . I activate the voice changer on my phone.

“You have a sniper zeroed in on your chest, any sudden movements and he repaints your desk.” Damian straightens up and looks to his office door.

“I’m impressed, most prank calls aren’t this sophisticated. The voice changer really pulls it together. How did you randomize your number?” There’s no fear in his voice, not yet anyway.

I put the phone next to the hunting rifle and Thomas chambers around. The metal on metal sound is loud and clear.

“Nice sound effects.” He says confidently, but he had hesitated.

“Damian, look down at your chest.” He looks down. And moves behind his desk.

“Damian, come to the window, before my friend gives you a third lung.” Damian looks to the door, clearly weighing his options of running for help. He makes the wise decision to not try and outrun a bullet, and walks to the window.

“Look to the tree line Damian.” When I see he has complied I tap Thomas and he and Jess stand up. Two shadowy figures with rifle and lots of intimidating dear.

“Heaven save me.” Damian whispers. It sounds subconscious.

“Damian, if you play this smart no one is going to heaven today. We don’t want to hurt anyone. So don’t do anything without specific instructions from us or we’ll have to demonstrate we mean business.”

“What did I ever do to you?” Damian asks. “Can’t you find someone else to do whatever it is you want? Surely there’s someone more important or richer you could be doing this to.”

“No Damian, you don’t know what we want. If you did you would know you’re the perfect candidate. No more remarks. You’re going to do what we want, and if you do it quick and fast you’ll get to go home tonight.” I leave no room for compromise in my voice. “Remember, we’re the ones with the weapons, and you’re the one with the exposed office with a view of the lovely cover these trees provide.” I don’t leave time for him to respond. I jump right into it.

“You’re going to issue a warning that there’s been a chemical spill. It’s highly toxic and the building needs to be cleared. All personnel are to leave the office immediately and maintain a distance of 1,000 feet. Do it now. I’ll stay on the line. As soon as you’ve issued the command hide under your desk so no one sees you’re still inside. Do it now.” I order. He looks at the phone like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. He looks back out the window. He can’t see Jess or Thomas anymore. He’s wondering if he really saw what he thinks he saw.

I put my hand over the microphoneon the speaker and lean over to Thomas.

“Put the laser onto his phone.” Thomas makes an almost imperceptibly small motion. It has the desired affect. Damian jumps back, bumping into his office chair and almost falling over.

“We’re getting impatient Damian.” Damian pushes a button on the desk and Thomas tenses. He doesn’t put his finger on the chamber or toggle the safety to on, but you could tell he thought about it. If Damian is going to call for help, he’s going to do it now.

“This is Damian Winters, director of process development.” I can hear the echo of a PA system over the phone. “There’s been a chemical spill. The chemicals have aerosolized and are a carcinogenic, flammable, severe irritant. We must evacuate quickly and calmly. Exit the building in an orderly fashion and maintain a distance of at least 1,000 feet between yourselves and the building.” He takes his hand off the button and cowers under his desk.

“Good Damian, you’re doing good. That desk won’t stop a bullet in case you were wondering.” A little carrot to reward him for compliance, and then the stick to keep him in line.

“Aren’t they going to notice I’m gone?” He asks. “I just made an announcement so they know I’m here.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I say. We had anticipated this question. “There are over 100 people in that building. Everyone will have evacuated before they notice one missing. They’ll hopefully think you went to the hospital, but even if they don’t a rescue mission is impossible. The building you’re in has purportedly suffered a dangerous chemical leak. No one could come back even if they wanted to.” It also explained why there would be a fire shortly after the evacuation.

“We’re going to monitor the evacuation, stay on the line, and after everyone is out we’re going to come to you. You’re going to show us where to set our charges.”

“Charges? Like explosive charges?” Damian whispers sharply, careful not to speak too loud and reveal to people walking by his office that he’s still inside. “I thought you guys were robbing us or stealing company secrets. Why do you have charges?” Damian’s voice was pretty calm for a guy being held hostage. I guess he had figured out we weren’t going to shoot him, at least he probably thought it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

“We’re going to burn that abominable place down. There aren’t going to be any more pills manufactured here.” I tell him. “So we need you to show us where to lay the incendiary devices in order to cause the most damage.” I expected Damian to say something like ‘you’re never going to get away with this’ or ‘the police will find you’, instead he just says.

“Okay.” And calmly waits for the evacuation to finish. To the credit of the people working in the building they filed it very calmly out the doors, and only began to jog once they were clear of the building. The only open area for them to job to was on the opposite side of the building from us, so whenever they exited they turned away from us and walked around the building. We would be hidden from view when we exited our cover and approached the building. We had been lucky that Damian’s office was on this side of the building. It made entry to the building much easier.

There are several tense moments while the building clears. Right now, we’re almost entirely risk free. There’s no chance of someone sneaking up on us from our position, and Damian is too far away and too trapped to do anything. Right now, everything is going fine. In a few minutes we’re going to enter the building, and then things will get dangerous again. There could be more coworkers inside who could panic and do something stupid like rush us. Damian could try and disarm us when we get closer, or tear off one of our masks. The charges could work too well and take down the building while we are still inside it. Any number of unexpected factors could get introduced.

It’s been thirty seconds since the last time I’ve seen someone exit the building. I reach over and tap Jess.

“The building looks clear Damian, walk over to the window and throw out your key fob. We’re coming to you.” Jess and I stand up and with weapons out, but pointed down, we head quickly toward the building. Thomas had wanted to set off the charges himself, but someone had to keep the laser on Damian, and Thomas insisted that if someone was going to be pointing a gun near a person, it was going to be him. So me and Jess arrived at the back entrance to the building with me wearing a backpack full of napalm. Damian throws out his key fob as we get close.

Jess and I stack up on the door. She’s got her rifle out, and so do I. I hold the key fob up for both of us to see. This is it, after we go in this door we leave the safety of the sniper hide, and enter an unknown building that could be crawling with people who hadn’t made it out yet. There could even be security guards. Damian had acted awfully calm earlier. Had he managed to signal security that there was about to be a breakin? Only one way to find out. I tap the fob to the security panel, and open the door. We’re in.

There’s a security desk to our left, but thankfully no guard. Jess points to the desk. We had agreed to keep talking to a minimum and that I would be the only to speak, because I had the voice changer. This would keep the chances of someone identifying our voices low. I nod, indicating that I notice the guard isn’t there. She raises a hand palm up to ask where he went. I shrug. I hadn’t seen him leave. Jess clearly hadn’t either.

“Maybe he went out another way.” I say in a voice so quite it is almost just a breath. Jess doesn’t like this. She points to the safety on her rifle. They are currently on, and they’re the only thing preventing a trigger pull from sending a bullet flying out at lethal speeds. Jess wants to be ready in case the guard is still around.

I shake my head and point down, indicating I still want our rifles pointed down. She shakes her head back at me, but keeps her safety off and her gun down.

I point to a staircase. Damian’s office was on the second floor, and somewhere to our right. We move to the door. I open it, she moves through first. She looks up and down the stairwell. She flashes me an okay sign and holds still. She’s listening to hear if anyone is waiting at the top. I listen outside and keep my eyes on the hallway that leads away from the security desk.

I feel that same sensation I did when I fell back off the mountain. This moment we were in free fall, and at any moment we were waiting for the rope to catch us and secure us in place. My brain was firing on all cylinders, and everything seemed to take three times as long.

Jess finally nods, and we move up the stairway, carefully closing the door at the bottom to avoid any unwanted noise.

At the top it’s Jess’ turn to hold the door as I go through. I’m in the middle of a hallway with offices on both sides that stretches the length of the building. I rapidly glance left and right, it’s empty. I flash an okay symbol back to Jess, and we both listen again, still nothing. I count ten breaths to keep track of the time, and then move down the hall to the right, where Damian’s office is. Jess closes the stairway door quietly and moves after me.

I estimated it had been six minutes since the alarm sounded, and two since the building had clear. Our fear was beginning to dissipate and be replaced by an urgency to move quickly. We didn’t know how long it would be before someone called the police or fire department themselves. We probably had at least five minutes, and maybe as much as half an hour, but we couldn’t be sure.

Damian’s office door is closer. I put my hand flat on the pane of glass on the door so Thomas knows it’s me coming in. I hold my hand there for another three breaths to make sure he sees it, then I nod to Jess. She opens the door, and I move in.

It’s just like I saw it from the sniper hide. I wave to Thomas to indicate everything is okay. He has no way of responding since we decided radios would be too loud, and too easy for some passing local law enforcement to listen in on. It would be one more thing that could get us caught, so we had left them behind.

“Damian Winters.” I say. “Stand up.” Damian had been well hidden behind his desk. I hadn’t seen him at all.

“I’m here.” He says, again his voice is too calm. I want to stick my head back out into the hallway to make sure it’s still clear, but I don’t want to look nervous or unsure in front of the man I’m supposed to be scaring into collaborating with the destruction of his workplace.

“Show us where to plant the charges.” I tell him, getting right to the point.

“Yes of course.” He says. “But first, if I may ask, why do you want to burn down this research facility?”

“Research facility?” I ask, the voice changer failing to hide my confusion. “I thought this was manufacturing facility?”

“It is.” Damian says, calmly siting down in his desk chair. “We manufacture the material for clinical trials, which are conducted with the population of this facility, but it is still research. We modify the batches and work on the next generation of pills. When we think we’ve got something we get permission from the government and begin testing the new pill on the local population.” This isn’t good. This won’t interrupt the supply. I don’t know why they’re researching a better pill, but if the current one already has the world lying down and giving up, I hate to think what the new one will do.

“But destroying this place will meet your goals I think.” Damian says. He’s got his fingers folded on the desk in front of him, and his look is utterly confident. What is he up to?

“What do you know about our goals?” We’re wasting time. We may just have to throw the bag in the hallway and shoot it on our way out if this conversation takes too long, but Damian knows something, and I can’t leaving before discovering what it is.

“To destroy the pill obviously. You haven’t expressed any interest in taking anything of monetary value from this facility. Considering how valuable some of the intellectual knowledge is here, in addition to the rare chemicals used in the manufacturing process, that is a pretty big flag that this isn’t a smash and grab from another company. You are here because you hate what the pill does. You perhaps were abandoned by family, or suffered severe depression from the lack of social interaction in your lives.” He’s got us figured out.

“How would you know about that?” I ask.

“Because I saw it happen countless times. I watched as the world gave up on itself. There was this cure for so many sleep disorders. The over half of adults with sleeping disorders could rest easy with a sleeping pill that the body did not develop a tolerance to. They hold the key to a restful night that will let them take life by the horns. Instead I watched them lay down and give up on the world. I watched parents forget about children, and children forget about parents. I saw so many leave a rotting civilization for the wilderness to escape the pestilence of constant sleep I had caused.”

“You made the pill.” I say, flipping the safety off on my rifle.

“Yes, I made the pill.” He says. I point the gun at his chest. Jess had been monitoring the hallway, she looks in and sees my gun up, then see my safety off.

“No Ryan! Don’t do it!” She shouts. I use one hand to tell her to stay back. She freezes. She knows if she moves forward I could reflexively pull the trigger and end this man, turning arson into murder.

Damian tenses, expecting any moment to be knocked backward by a gunshot.

“Before I put a bullet in your heart you are going to tell me why you did it. Why did you hook the entire world?” Damian looks confused.

“Hook?” Damian says. “Do you mean to imply that I or the people I work for are somehow keeping people on the pill?” I nod, putting my finger on the trigger. Just a little tug, that’s all it would take.

“So you think we are forcing people to take it?” He actually has the gall to look surprised and insulted. I nod again.

“Either by making the pill addictive or coercing them into it.” I say. Damian looks at the barrel of my gun.

“Son no one is forcing people to take the pill. They want to.” I almost do it. I almost pull the trigger. I take my finger off the trigger to prevent myself from doing it by accident, but I keep the gun pointed right at his heart.

“Explain.” I manage to say.

“There’s nothing to explain son.” He says. “The pill isn’t addictive. I know. I designed it, and I can’t believe you think we would somehow threaten that many people. You’re pretty clearly not taking the pill. Has anyone forced you? As for addictive agents, have you felt a need to take it? Did that need come fr” He has a point.

“You’re lying.” I say.

“Really, I’m telling a man with a gun pointed at me something that obviously upsets him. Wouldn’t someone lie to improve their chances of survival? I know you’re hurting or else you wouldn’t be doing something as stupid, dangerous, and kind of wrong, but you can’t shoot me. I’m the only one who can tell you what you need to do in order to stop all this.”

“Seems to me we can stop all this with a little movement of my pointed finger.” I tell him.

“Killing me will do the exact opposite of what you intend.” He says. He doesn’t sound like a man whose pleading. “You deserve to shoot me for what I’ve done, but I oversee all research on the next generation pill, pill that will keep man under for twenty-four hours. The company has been working with some robotics institutes, and they’re going to go global with a way to keep humanity permanently unconscious. “ Permanently unconscious, truly this would create the living dead.

“So tell me why I shouldn’t stop you from doing this?” I ask.

“Because if you shoot me they’ll hire someone who hasn’t been secretly sabotaging the experiments. I give them just enough information to keep them from firing me. I have dragged this process out for decades, when it should’ve just taken a few years. You shoot me, and this is going to get a lot worse.” This is beginning to sound a little too elaborate to be a lie made up on the spot with a gun unexpectedly pointed at you.

“Tell me, what were you going to do after taking this facility out? Seems like there’s only two or three of you, or else you would have brought a much larger group. Did you think the remaining eleven facilities wouldn’t beef up security to anticipate another move like this? Not to mention even if you by some miracle managed to pull this off eleven more times without being caught. You would still have to deal with our hundreds of international locations.” I point the gun down and flip the safety off. I hear Jess give a sigh of relief.

“You’ve thought this out.” I say.

“Yes.” He says. “And I also know how to stop this place for good. You won’t need your incendiaries, and I’ll make sure it looks like an accident. We use methane in the manufacturing process. I’ll leave a Bunsen burner on in one lab, and open the methane then run. When I get to the crowd of people outside I’ll say that I smelt the methane and tried to contain it, but it was too late. If police investigate they’ll confirm what I’ve said. It will destroy their research so they can’t finish making the 24 hour pill.” He didn’t relax at all when I lowered my gun. I think he really did want me to shoot him.

“That doesn’t take care of their manufacturing capabilities.” I say. “We appreciate what you’re saying and will trust you to do it, but what about the hundreds of facilities you’ve mentioned?”

“I’ll send them false plans.” He says. “One of the pills greatest strengths is unlike most medicines, your body won’t generate a tolerance to it. With other sleeping pills you eventually need to increase the dosage to keep the same affect. Not with my pills, my pills will always put you under with just one dose no matter how long you’ve been taking them. During my research I stumbled upon a way to make the pill, and remove this affect. I’ll send this pill that the body eventually rejects to our headquarters and claim it works. I’ve been the world’s drug dealer for decades. They will take me at my word, and with this building destroyed their won’t be any evidence to prove me wrong. The world will slowly wake up when the pills stop working.”

“Won’t the company find out and just ship out the old pills?” I ask.

“They won’t keep a stockpile, and even if they did, they’ll need new equipment to make the new pill, and will have to throw out the old equipment. They won’t be able to make any old pills, at least not for several weeks while the new equipment gets made, shipped, and installed. Besides, by the time they find out it’s the pill’s problem, and I’ll do my best to see that they don’t, people will already awake.” He really has spent a lot of time planning this. So why hasn’t he done this before people with guns showed up.

“Why would you just sit on this plan? You don’t need us. You already figured out how to sabotage the pill, and burn down this facility. Why have you just been sitting on your thumbs?”

“Because I didn’t know people like you existed.” He said. “Everyone always went into the wild after they unhooked. No one has ever made this effort to help unhook people before. I can’t take the pill down permanently. We’ll get at most a few months of people being awake. Humanity rejected the real world once, I had every reason to believe they would do it again.”

“That’s why you’ve been so calm during this process.” I say. “You haven’t been afraid. You’ve been hopeful.”

“Yes.” He says. “Finally people are unhooking themselves and going out into the bright light of day. I believe if people like you exist, then there is hope for humanity.” I sling my gun onto my back. Clearly the security guard is gone, and this man is no threat. He proves it by not lunging at me when I put my gun away. I display one more act of trust, and disable my voice changer.

“Meet us in the sniper perch after you’re done explaining to the police and the fire department.” I tell him. “Let’s go Jess.” I say, and without another word, we depart.

When we get back to the sniper perch Thomas practically yells at us.

“What are you doing? Did you use any of the charges? Why did you just let him go? Did you come all this way for nothing?” He has been dutifully watching the whole exchange through his scope.

“No Thomas, I just decided to have a little faith.” I lay down next to him and take out my binoculars. “We’ll see in a moment if my faith was misplaced.”

“If I don’t see an explosion in the next minute. I’m going to stab you.” Thomas says. He’s joking of course, but not by a lot.

“If you don’t see an explosion in the next minute.” I say. “I’ll let you.” Thomas scoffs and returns to examining the building. About the time we finish our conversation Damian runs out the other side of the building waving and shouting at the people in the crowd forming a thousand feet from the building. When he’s about halfway to them a giant pressure wave hits us as a large section of the building is blown up and away. Windows are blown out all across the building and fires can be seen rapidly spreading.

“I guess I get to live to fight another day.” I say to Thomas. For an answer, Thomas starts putting the rifle away.

“Not yet, we’ve got to wait on Damian. I told him to meet us here.” It’s a much longer wait than I had planned. Damian only leaves after the police have come and interviewed people, and the firemen have tried and failed to put out the fires, helped along by their terrible response time. They must’ve been amateur volunteers who slept in their own homes then drove to the station during an alarm. They had taken almost a half hour to show up and had done a very sloppy job putting out the fire. Good thing I never had to call emergency services.

When Damian finally joins us there is only an hour or two of daylight left.

“Thank you.” He says. “Thank you for making me believe in humanity again. What you did was stupid, reckless, dangerous, and could’ve hurt a lot of innocent people. I forgive you for pointing a rifle at my head, but I can’t condone it. Still, it is my fault. I should’ve done this years ago. Thank you for waking me from my stupor to do what needed to be done.” With that he shakes our hands and departs. He tells us we’re never going to see him again, and we never do.

Two months later we’re sitting with Frank in the sibling’s house, playing cards.

“Are you sure he wasn’t just saving his own skin?” Frank said. We had this argument a dozen times, and he still didn’t believe us. “What if he just set off the methane to keep you from shooting him afterwards?” None of us reply. There’s nothing to say. We’ve all had this conversation before.

“I mean it’s been two months. Why haven’t we seen anyone else outside?” He asks. I give up on ignoring him. It won’t help, but I can’t just let him berate us again.

“Maybe because they decided to stay indoors, or maybe because it takes longer than we thought for the body to build a tolerance.” I respond, Frank doesn’t even notice he’s playing all the wrong cards and we’re sweeping the floor with him in the game.

“Or maybe he fooled all of you. Maybe he didn’t decide to help you destroy his life’s work. Honestly I don’t know why you trusted him.” Frank says.

“Why do you care Frank?” I ask. “I seem to recall you left us on our own for the mission.” I know it’s because he regrets leaving, not that he will ever admit it. Before he can get a chance to make up an excuse, the doorbell rings. That’s funny, nobody ever rings the doorbell.

“I’ll get it.” I say, and make for the door. When I open it Teddy is waiting with a smile at the door.

“Hey Ryan, Jess and Thomas came and told me you had a cliff that you wanted to climb. Can we go today?” He’s eager. He’s smiling, and he walked a half mile to get to me. I look back at Jess and Thomas, they wave to me. Then I turn to Teddy, my little brother. My little brother who had forgotten me and left me for dead. I should be mad. I should yell at him for choosing a stupid dream over me, but in that moment, I can’t find a single ma thought in my head. All I can think is my brother was dead, and now he’s alive.

“Of course little brother.” I say. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do more than go climb a mountain with you.”

Epilogue

“Woohoo!” Teddy shouts as he rappels down the cliff. Jess came with me to help setup the ropes.

“He’s a great little brother.” Jess tells me. She stays up top and talks to me while Teddy descends.

“Yeah.” I say. “It’s so amazing to hear him shout with joy like that.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t angry with him.” She comments. “I heard from Thomas what happened when you went back to your family, and it sounded like his rejection put you over the edge.”

“It did.” I say, the memory stinging a little, but Teddy shouts again and the sting goes away. “But it wasn’t his fault. He was just a kid. He’s still just a kid. He was doing the only thing he ever knew how to do. I can’t hold him accountable for his actions. My parents are to blame for putting him on the pill.” Jess nods approvingly.

“That’s very mature of you.” She said. “Do you know how to dance?” She asks out of the blue.

“What?” I say. It’s a good thing Teddy has reached the bottom because I might’ve dropped him otherwise.

“Dancing, do you know how to do it?” She asks again. I have no idea where this is coming from and think very carefully about my answer. I don’t want to say something completely stupid like I did before.

“No.” I say. “Why?

“Oh that’s a shame.” She says. “Everybody should know how to dance. Here, let me show you how.” She takes my left hand, and puts hers in it. Her hands are soft, so very soft, nothing like my rough callused hands. They’re delicate too. She takes my right hand and puts it on her left shoulder blade. There isn’t more than a foot of space between us, and I feel as if I’m holding her. I feel scared to move because I don’t want to make a mistake and drive her away.

“What’s going on up there?” Teddy calls. “Can I start climbing.” I raise my voice so he can hear me, but keep my eyes fixed on Jess.

“Sorry Teddy, I’ve got to sort something out.” Jess laughs softly and says in a voice too quiet to hear.

“You know, typically there are a few steps you go through before proposing. You might try one or two.” A lion roars in my chest. I no longer feel awkward at all. I feel empowered. I feel like she trusts me to dance will with her. My brother has come back to life, and the best girl in the world, the one who supported and followed me even when she thought I was being a complete idiot or a jerk had just given me permission to try again.

I had spent so much time asleep, letting my mind create the wildest fantasies imaginable. Now here I was, in the forest, with my brother, and my girl, and couldn’t imagine ever wanting anything else.

The end

Thanks for reading Unhooked! I’m working on another longer project that’s been siting in my back pocket for a while, but if you can’t wait for that check out Letters To My Father http://samgalimore.com/2014/11/05/new-book-project/ .Or one of the shorter novellas http://samgalimore.com/2014/10/12/for-use-in-the-apocaypse-novella-version/ http://samgalimore.com/2014/10/04/man-out-of-time/

Until the next journey,

Sam

Unhooked part four

What to do first? So many possibilities, and no rush I’ve got plenty of time. Let’s start this dream out the same way this day started out, in a forest. My dream space suddenly becomes one endless sea of green. I’m sitting on a large tree branch well above the ground, but well below the canopy. I lean back against the trunk and breathe deep. I feel a breeze work it’s way through the many different towering wooden giants.

This is how things were supposed to be. The breeze doesn’t feel exactly like it should, but I don’t have a real clear memory of the breeze, so it’s okay. I also make sure not to look at the leaves too closely, because I know they won’t seem detailed enough. It’s okay though. Those are the small details, the unimportant details. The important thing is I’m here.

I decide to make things adventurous and start swinging around. I roll off the branch and fall several feet before grabbing another branch to execute a powerful swing that propels me several yards to grab the next branch and start monkey barring my way through the tree tops.

I can see why Thomas enjoyed this so much. You feel so strong and powerful, not to mention agile and quick. ‘But you’re not that strong or quick’, a voice in the back of my head tells me. I force the thought down and try and think about the sensation of rapid movement that swinging should bring, but it’s no good. The trance has been broken.

I pull myself up onto a branch and think for a moment. It’s okay that this is spoiled there’s plenty of other stuff I’d love to do. What had we done next Run into the siblings? It still hurt to think of them, not yet. That didn’t sound good. How about jogging. No that didn’t fit either. It hadn’t been an enjoyable experience at the time. Playing cards meant playing with the siblings, unless my parents wanted to play. The siblings had mentioned they played three played hearts before they’d met him. You just took out one card and passed differently. I could totally play cards with my parents.

As soon as I think it I’m in my own house, sitting at the dining room table with my parents.

“Hello Ryan. Nice place you’ve got here, seems you tidied up a bit since we were last here.” My dad says. They’re both happy as can be, as if nothing has happened.

“Thanks, I’ve looked into getting some paintings from the walls. They’re a bit bare at the moment.” I start dealing out the cards, this feels good. It’s like I’ve been wearing clothes that were too tight, and now they’ve been replaced with loose ones. I can breath easy now. This game, with may parents, in my house, with the small talk, it just feels right. This is how things should be.

“Yes I think you should.” My mom agrees. “I find some natural photography, and a few family portraits would go quite well.” Family portraits, that thought tickles my subconscious.

“You know dear.” My mom continues. “Why don’t we invite a fourth?”

“A fourth?” I say. “Sure, who could we invite.” I try to think of my siblings, but my mom speaks first before any of their names surface to my mind.

“How about Brendan, I think he’s on vacation from the presidency at the moment.” I don’t have a brother named Brendan, and he isn’t the president of anything.

A young man who looks almost exactly like me, but in a business suit pops into the fourth spot at the table.

“No!” I shout. Brendan disappears. It’s alright, just a little slip. Everything is going to be okay.

“Oh dearie.” My mom continues. “Why did you send your brother away? He’s so much like you. You two normally get along so well.”

“I don’t have a brother named Brendan!” I shout at her. “He’s not real. You made him up to replace me!” Why is this happening? This is my dream? Why can’t I control my own dream?

“Because you know that’s not how we really think about you.” My mother continues. Of course, in my head they replaced me. So when I went inside my own I still knew that they would replace me. Well that’s alright, I’ll just have to forget they replaced me.

“Mom.” I say. “Brendan isn’t here. He doesn’t exist. Now pick up your cards. We are passing to the left to start. Let’s have a nice friendly game as a friendly.”

“Of course dear.” My mother says. She’s still smiling. She’s still pretending nothing went wrong. “We can pretend Brendan isn’t real for a while if it will make you feel better.” They still think he’s real, but that’s okay. It’ll all fade in a moment. This is just inside my head, so if I just keep telling myself it’ll happen, then it’ll happen.

“Thank you, dad, I’m passing these three cards to you.” I slide the cards and look at the ones mom gave me. Maybe if I focus on the game then I’ll forget all about Brendan. I heard a trick once that if you want to stop thinking about something you should try and recite something long and complicated from memory. It was all about filling your brain with other things, so I would just fill my brain with strategy and memorizing cards, and I wouldn’t think about Brendan.

“Pink elephants.” My father says, playing his first card.

“What?” I asked. Confused, but glad that it’s distracting me from thinking about Brendan.

“Once someone tells you not to think about pink elephants, you immediately think about pink elephants.” He says.

“What’s your point?” I ask.

“My point is you’re still thinking about Brendan, and you are trying too hard to not think about him so of course you’ll just keep finding yourself thinking about Brendan. “ I throw my cards on the table.

“Oh dear you shouldn’t have done that.” My mom said. “I had the most dreadful hand. You surely would have come out on top of that.”

“Enough talk about Brendan!” I shout again. I can’t keep raising my voice. This is isn’t good for me.

“Can we please just stop talking about Brendan?” I beg my mother. “You’re here. You’re with your son. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that what parents want?”

My mother a sympathetic look. It was the look she used to give me if I got a bad grade on an important exam at school. She reached across the table, and in a very maternal nurturing voice said.

“But sweetie. We can’t stop thinking about Brendan because he’s better than you.” She started patting my hand and I felt the need to throw it away, but she wasn’t done talking. “Didn’t you see him? He looks just like you because we replaced you with him.” I started to choke up and shake.

“You know that, you saw how we’ve forgotten about you. Didn’t you see how we didn’t follow you out the door when you left in the real world? We could see you were hurt, we just didn’t care sweetie.” I close my eyes. I can’t take this anymore. I slam my fist down on the table, and everything fragments like shattered glass. The table, my parents, my house, the cards, all of it shatters and disappears, except for my chair. I sit on my chair in a white void shaking.

“How could they do that? How could they do that to one of their own children.” I clench and unclench my fists. I want to hit something, but there’s nothing around. “That’s okay. There are other people. It doesn’t have to be my parents. I can still be happy here. I can still move on.”

I’m on the top of the cliffs I had rappelled down in real life. There is a rope system already setup. Teddy is on one side of the rope, ready to rappel down the mountain, and I’m on the other ready to lower him down.

“Are you ready Teddy?” I ask. He looks over the side.

“Are there any taller ones?” He asks.

“No Teddy, not anywhere near here.” I respond.

“I want something taller.” He demands sitting down and crossing his arms to emphasize his rebellion.

“It’s not the height that matters Teddy. It’s just that you’re here with me right?”

“I want something taller.” Teddy says again. Not Teddy too, not my own brother. This idea that he doesn’t want me either can’t be buried that deep in my head.

“Come on Teddy, it’s me. All that matters is that I’m here right?”

“I want something taller.” Teddy says again. I bite my lip.

“Teddy please, I made this for you. I went through all this work and came back for you so you do this.”

“I want something taller.” He says. I starting clenching my fists. What if I take him to Everest or to Mars? It’s my own dream, I can totally take him there, or even make my own mountain that’s even taller.

“I still won’t be there for you.” Teddy says. “I just want mountains. I don’t care about you. I can’t take it. I turn and punch a tree. If it were real I would’ve broken a few fingers, but instead everything just shatters again, leaving me floating in a white landscape again.

“I have to find something good.” I tell myself. “I have to find something that isn’t going to cast me out.” I can feel anger starting to turn to sadness, and I need to be angry for a little while yet. I need the energy to find something good.

“What hasn’t turned me away? What doesn’t think of me as just some tool in their imagination to twist and change until it’s not me anymore.” I think of the siblings. “Of course, they are the ones that showed me another way. Each one of them showed me compassion and a willingness to lead me out of the dream. I left them for this, but they could still care about me at least a little.” I’m in the lake with all three of the siblings, swimming around in waste deep water.

“Oh thank goodness.” I say. “At least you guys can be here.” Frank is looking serious, Thomas has a ridiculous clown’s grin, and Jess looks like she’s just seen something beautiful. It’s absurd for them to be wearing those expressions while swimming, and they seem fixed in place, even when they start talking their expressions don’t change.

“Of course we’re here.” Frank says. “You darn well brought us here so of course here we will be.”

“Yeah dude.” Thomas says while flipping onto his back and swimming circles around me. “We have no control. You’ve taken our free will man, we will be whatever you want us to be.”

“Yeah babe.” Jess says, slowly and deliberately swimming towards me. “We’ll be whatever you want us to be. We’re just clay to you. You can shape us into whatever you want.” No, no, Jess isn’t clay.

“No you’re not! You’re a human being Jess. You’re smart and funny and nobody can tell you what to do.” She’s within an arm’s reach now. She straightens up in the water, and glides in closer.

“No we’re not.” She says. “We’re puppets. You’ve destroyed what we were because we didn’t do exactly what we wanted.” She’s only a foot away now, and she’s looking at my lips, and she’s closed her eyes. “We’ll be whatever you want Ryan.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” I just repeat. How can I do this to them? What’s wrong with me? I have to stop, but I can’t stop because I want this too much. Jess is so close I can feel her breath. I can’t do this to her, not to her. I’ll never forgive myself.

Her eyes shoot open and her face suddenly changes to a bland expression. “Wake up Ryan.” She says.

My eyes, my real eyes shoot open and I sit bolt upright sweating a storm and gasping. Sitting on the bed next to me is jess, and behind her, watching me with expressions full of concern, are Frank and Thomas.

Without think about what I’m doing I pull Jess down into a bear hug so tight her back cracks.

“I’m so sorry Jess.” I say in a hoarse whisper. “I’m so sorry.” She rubs my back in slow circles.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’re here. You didn’t do anything.” Her voice is soft and reassuring.

“Well, nothing significant anyway.” Thomas says. Frank elbows him.

“Yes I did.” I croak out. They don’t know what I had been doing in the dream. To them, this group of such supporting people. “I was in the dream, and all of you were there with me. We were at..”

“Stop.” Jess says. “It was a lucid dream right?” She feels me nod my head.

“Then you knew it was a dream. So you knew what you were doing you weren’t really doing to us. You still knew who we were, and judging by how much you’re shaking you know that those people in your dream weren’t us. You made a decision Ryan. You made a decision to come back to us.” She says, still rubbing my back.

“You chose us man.” Thomas says. I am forced to laugh a little. Everyone else in my dream seemed exaggerated, but Thomas was still pretty much the same.

“What about the whole proposal thing?” I ask.

“You mean you running out the door while we were still stunned and overwhelmed?” Frank says. “Yeah we were still stunned and overwhelmed. Specifically, Jess had to deal with the memory of her family, the recent loss of yours, and now this incredibly unexpected and poorly executed display of affection. Thomas Had just had to witness what your family did, and he doesn’t do well with social pressure, and I was mad at the world that everyone I cared about had their lives made more difficult.”

“We would’ve gotten here sooner but you were kind of hard to find.” Jess tells me. I feel better enough that I push her off and we sit on the side of the bed together.

“You never told us where you Ryan.” Thomas says. “And I only have been to your parents once. We had to retrace my footsteps to your parents, get them to tell us where you live. We then had to try and make sense of their bad directions because they don’t come by very often. Lastly we had to figure out which house was yours by just knocking on a bunch of different doors because your parents didn’t even give us an address. I mean we would’ve taken even longer if that one pane of glass by your door hadn’t allowed us to unlock it so easily.” I am grateful that my rage led to something productive.

“In the end.” Frank says. “You were recently unhooked. You are still figuring out how the world works. Your actions today were childish, but in a lot ways you still are a child. A child who was recently thrown out by his parents, so understandably you’ve made some bad decisions.”

“Thank you.” I say.

“Look, we aren’t perfect either.” Frank says. “All of us have slipped up from time to time. The idea of a world where you have total control is tempting, and we all slip up. What we’ve learned to do is move on. You’re awake with us now, so whatever happened before we’re going to forget.” I’m eager to forget the past hour or so, so moving on should be easy.

“I wish it wasn’t like this.” I say. “The pills. They seem to tear apart everything.”

“I know.” Thomas says. “As long as there are pills, we’re gonna fight like this. People are going to hook back in, and people who unhook are going to have to realize a lot of painful truths.”

“What if there weren’t pills?” I asked.

“It would be nice.” Jess said. “If only the things had never been invented.” I looked at the bottle of pills still on the night stand. It was amazing how such little things could have such far reaching consequences.

“We can’t uninvent them, but we can destroy them.” I say, grabbing the bottle.

“That’s a good idea.” Jess says. “If you destroy your supply you shouldn’t be tempted anymore.”

“I didn’t mean these pills.” I said. “I meant all the pills. I want to take down the corporation that manufactures these abominations.” I walk to my bathroom and empty the vial into the sink, flushing the poison down the drain.

“That’s…. extreme.” Frank said.

“It’s what I’ve been getting at for year Franks.” Thomas counters. “They have to be stopped. The government is keeping us under with these pills, and if we don’t stop our fellow human beings they’ll sleep their lives away.”

“That’s their choice.” Franks says.

“Yeah right, you really think virtually 100% of the population decides to do one thing? How come we only have about one person every six months unhook in this town? And when they do they shortly move somewhere else? Doesn’t that seem like a bit of a coincidence to you?” I lean on the frame of the bathroom door and watch the exchange.

I knew Thomas would be in. After the talk he had there was no doubt. Frank and Jess I wasn’t so sure about. Jess could come because of how bad the pills had damaged her life. Frank might come just to protect us.

“They moved because they wanted to live in the wild away from civilization.” Frank counters. “We gave them camping and hunting gear so they could survive in a place where they wouldn’t be tempted to take pills anymore.” Their voices are rising. I can tell this is a an old argument that’s been brought up several times.

“And none of them ever make it back to tell us how that goes?” Thomas asks.

“They probably get lost. We don’t really have much in the way of maps or navigational gear, and even if we did they’d probably lose it, break it, or just flat out wouldn’t be able to use it.” Frank counters.

“Frank, you can justify and explain it as much as you want.” I step in. “But at the end of the day if these pills are gone everyone gets their parents, brothers, sisters, and friends back.” Frank turns on me, and holds my gaze. It’s like staring down a lion. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t say anything, until I glance at Jess just to avoid meeting his gaze.

“Did you know the earth was running out of resources Ryan?” He asks me. His tone is cool. He’s not angry. He’s stating hard facts. This isn’t easy for him.

“Many scientists were predicting that in the next hundred years or so we’d run out of natural resources and people would start starving to death. Our technology would run out of fuel, and our medicine would fail because of it. Humanity would fall in one gigantic plague ridden pile.” He points to the sink.

“Those pills saved us.” Jess gets up and comes to stand by me. I thought we would have to have a protracted argument to sway Jess. With those words, Frank did it for us. Jess may not have been for something as aggressive as I was proposing, but she couldn’t support someone who said the pills saved us.

“Did they save mom and dad?” Jess asks quietly. “What about John, Rosie, and Robert? Did the pills save them Frank.” This remark hits Frank hard. He looks down and turns to give his next argument to Thomas.

“In a way they did. Without the pills maybe our parents would not have had enough to feed us growing up. When we are only awake 4 hours a day you hardly need anything to eat or drink. You don’t need a lot of space to play around, and you need way less to entertain you. Jess.” He says, gathering up the courage to face her. “You’re the third child. Without the pills our parents might not have had you.” Jess doesn’t blink.

“Frank, they didn’t have me. I have no parents.” That comment finishes Frank. He turns to leave.

“You do what you must. I won’t stop you, but I won’t help you either.” He leaves the bedroom and makes his way to my front door. “I’m grabbing some supplies for a three day camping trip. If you’re not done with what you’re going to do in three days.” He fiddles with the door knob. “I’ll be back in three days.” And with that, Frank is gone.

Thomas and I look to Jess. Neither of us expected her to get on our side so quickly. Jess looks back to me with a challenge in her eyes.

“I just watched by big brother who always looks out for me even when my parents wouldn’t walk out the door and leave me to my devices. What are we going to do?” She demands.

“Well.” I say, now a little deflated after all the emotion that has been dominating my life. “Uh, you guys have guns right?” Now Thomas is looking a little worried.

“Oh come on Thomas. What did you think we were going to do?” I ask.

“I’m not going to kill anyone Ryan. I hate that so many people are hooked just as much as you, but I’m sure most of the people involved with the pills is innocent. Certainly anyone we are going to get access to is going to be oblivious to what’s going on.” He says.

“That’s not what I’m proposing.” I say. “The guns are just to give us authority, to scare the people who we are going to uh, talk to.”

“Talk to?” Jess asks.

“I haven’t exactly planned it out yet.” I admit. “I work with information technology. We can use some of the systems at my disposal to gather intel, and then we can act on it.” Jess and Thomas have been through a lot together. They have learned to read each other very well. One glance at each other and they know they are both thinking the same thing.

“Alright, tell us what to do.” Jess says.

“Good, great, here’s what we’re going to do. Go back to your place and brings plenty of ropes, guns, binoculars, pepper spray if you got it, and anything that you can use to cause explosions or mayhem.” Thomas and Jess looked unsure of themselves. It was so different from when I had first met them. They had been so full of self-confidence and energy, now they looked more like I had when we had first met. Not certain what was going to happen, and afraid it was not going to turn out for the better.

“What are you going to do?” Jess asks.

“I’m going to stay here and start on the intel. My laptop is attached to some security protocols that will only let me into certain systems if I log in from this physical location. It’s GPS security, and if I move my laptop it won’t work” It was actually pretty sensitive. The GPS range was smaller than that of my Wi-Fi, so if I went too far outback it would cut out.

“Okay.” Thomas says. “I’ll need a little extra time to prepare some things, but Jess should be back with some guns to train you on.”

“Hang on, we’re not going to be shooting any people. Can’t you just leave my gun off?” Thomas looks like I’ve just suggested he just stop breathing for a few minutes because the noise is bothering me.

“Leave the gun off? You must’ve never watched any action movies. We aren’t going to be shooting any people, but that’s the point. You need to know how to operate these things safely, and if heaven forbid you have to pull the trigger. Well, you should know how to do that too. Come on Jess.” The two depart, and I’m left alone.

“Okay, time to take down an international corporation with just a few friends some guns, and without shooting anyone. Cool.” I turn on my laptop and setup my connection so it’s nearly impossible for someone to trace whose making these searches. When I’ve covered my tracks, I fire up a search engine. First, basic information, I look through the company website, and their Wikipedia pages to try and find out how the company works. I find a list of their locations and see there’s a manufacturing facility nearby.

There are about twelve manufacturing facilities in my country. So taking this one down won’t put much of a dent in overall production, but it should at least interrupt supplies for a few days. I’m sure they’ve got some emergency backups in case a facility goes down, but probably not many. The world is pretty efficient since it’s run largely automated and most of the people in it are knocked out so there isn’t a lot of need for things like emergency supplies. Still, I look at their other facilities, and even if we only get a few days, that should be enough to force at least some people to unhook. Not to mention in the long run there may be intermittent shortages until they can build another factory, which should take months. Their supplies probably don’t count on a facility being destroyed.

Now I know what we’re doing, eliminating one of their factories, but I still need to figure out how. At that point Jess came in.

“Hey, I’ve got some basic rifles and pistols. Let’s head down to the forest and get you shooting.” She hefts a bag that looks full of all sorts of tools of destruction.

“In a minute Jess, first I’d like your input on something, can you come in here for a miunte?”

“Sure.” She says, and sits down next to me. I have the image of the facility on my screen.

“See this?” I ask indicating the screen.

“Yeah.” She says.

“That’s our target. This is one of the twelve manufacturing facilities for the pill. We’re going to destroy it.” I fully expect this to shock Jess and I’m prepared to defend my decision.

“Sounds good, we’ll clear out the workers first right?” she asks.

“Um yeah, yeah we will.” I say, confused that she’s taking this so well. “You seem pretty okay with the idea of blowing up a building.”

“Me and Thomas guessed you were going to suggest something like this. He’s preparing some stuff to take a building down.” She says.

“Preparing some stuff to take a building down? Do you guys just have that kind of stuff lying around?” I ask. I note how many guns she’s brought, and feel very glad that these people are on my side.

“You’d be surprised what you can make with household supplies. I think I know what he’s making, and I saw the stuff you could use to put it together on the walk over. It’s not hard if you know what you’re doing.” I’m really really glad I’m on their side.

“Well then, um, anyway, my question was I’ve still got two problems. How do we clear the people out of the building? I mean, if we’re going to burn it down we can’t exactly pull the fire alarm, and I really would prefer not to risk going in their with guns blazing telling everyone to get out. We get just one person who panics or makes a dumb decision under stress, and well, I don’t want to think about it.” Jess picks up a pistol from the bag and looks it over.

“Can we just break in at night?” I ask.

“Two problems with that. First, twenty-four hour shifts, as far this place is concerned, there is no night. Second, this place has got to be rigged with alarms, so if we break in we’re going to get the police. Unless you two know how to disable or sneak past industrial grade security systems?” Jess shakes her head. “I thought not.”

Jess puts down the pistol and looks carefully at the screen. “Did you ever watch any videos about how sort of factory work happens?” She asks.

“No.” I respond.

“Well, I’ve seen one or two. We thought about working in some a while back. Anyway, any kind of industrial production place like this is going to have a lot of safety mechanisms in place. They probably work with very large volumes of stuff that’s capable of burning, corroding, poisoning, or just crushing you. So there’s always a very well established safety network in the inevitable event that something bad happens.”

“What does all this have to do with getting everyone out of the facility?” I ask.

“Everyone is taught to cooperate with safety, so all we have to do is get someone with authority to report something that will get the facility shut down for a while, plant our charges, and get out.” She says.

“Which means we are going to have to find someone with authority and threaten them with guns.” I say. Jess looks uncomfortable when I say the word threaten.

“I really don’t want to bring other people into this at all, but I don’t see any other way. We could try reporting a gas leak, but that’ll get the fire department called. We could make a bomb threat or something, but that would get the police. Anything that’s an outside threat big enough to cause a building evacuation is going to attract either the police or the fire department. The only option the way I see it, is to get someone inside the building to convince anyone else to leave.” She picks up a rifle slowly, holding it in her lap. “I don’t like it Ryan, but we’re going to have to threaten someone to make this happen.” She picks up the rifle and looks down the sights. “Besides, someone in authority might be in on whatever system they’re using to keep people on the pills. I don’t know if it’s something they’re adding to make them addictive, or just pressure form the government but we’ll find out, and then we can maybe expose them or use the information to better take them down.” Someone’s going to have a gun pointed at them before too much longer. I have had several dreams where I used guns, but now it would be for real. For real, that phrase, this was the first time since I had been unhooked that I had used it in a negative way.

“Come on Ryan. Let’s get going to the forest. The sooner we get you trained. The sooner we can get this over with.” Jess says. She hefts the bag, and we’re off.

“I want to say one thing.” I tell Jess. “I won’t shoot anyone. When I was put under by the pill this last time.” She looks at me, concern on her face.

“You don’t have to tell me Ryan. Whatever it was, I know you didn’t mean it, and I forgive you.” She says, touching my shoulder. “Really, it’s okay.”

“Thank you, but this is relevant. When I was put under by the pill this last time I did what my family did to me. I made you into different people. I felt like I had destroyed you in my mind, and it felt horrible to destroy someone psychologically like that, or to even consider doing it. I can’t imagine how much more horrible it would be to destroy someone physically. I don’t think I could live with myself.”

“I couldn’t either.” She tells me. “You’ll see in a minute that a lot of training to use guns for private use means training to not use them on people. It’s pretty deeply ingrained. I won’t shoot anyone over this. I’ll turn myself in first. These.” She taps the bag. “Are just for show. We’ll prepare them in such a way that they won’t be ‘turned on’ so to speak.” Good, I wasn’t prepared to become a murderer over this.

“Well, since it’s going to take a minute for us to get far enough away from civilization so that no one can hear us. Let me give you a basic run down on gun operation.” She pulls a pistol out of her bag.

“This is a 40 caliber pistol. For you that means if you hit someone in the chest with it they’re probably done. They might not know it yet, but they’re done.” I made myself not draw a mental image of what that would look like.

“This is the barrel, you do not point this at something you do not intend to shoot, ever, under any circumstances.” She says.

“Okay.” I respond.

“I mean ever, seriously, first rule of guns, even when it’s unloaded like this one. You never point this at something you aren’t willing to shoot. I’ve never pointed a gun at myself or my brothers, ever.” She says.

“Okay, understood, never, ever, under any circumstances point a gun at something you won’t shoot, even an unloaded gun.” I repeat dutifully.

“Good, that brings us to the next basic point, always treat a gun like it’s loaded. I know you can see the chamber is open and the gun lock is place, but you never assume that’s the case. As far as you’re concerned, this has a bullet in it at all times, and it could go off.” She points to several parts of the pistol as she says this.

“What’s a gun lock?” I ask She points to an orange thing visible on the middle of the gun.

“This goes in the chamber, oh shoot you probably don’t know any names of gun parts do you?” She asks.

“They have barrels right?” I ask. I wish I could say I was being sarcastic, but I really wasn’t sure.

“Funny.” She says. “Here, let me use a rifle. It’s bigger and I’m a little more familiar with them.” She puts down the bag we’re carrying the guns in, and takes out a rifle. She does something to it to take out the orange thing, leaving one long, black, sleek looking weapon. As she begins to run through naming parts and functions I have time to reflect that this is the first time I’ve seen a gun. They featured prominently in several of my dreams, but I had never so much as held on. It looked about the same I would imagine, and it had an aura about it. It felt dangerous. In books and movies guns were only present when people got hurt or killed. That was their purpose, to hurt or kill. I had to remind myself these were just for show.

“Okay, bullet.” She pulls a small brass thing the size of her pinkie out of the bag. I’m shocked they aren’t bigger. I find it hard to believe that thing can cause damage, but I know that I can’t underestimate this thing. “This is what the gun shoots. It goes in the magazine.” She pulls a black cartridge out of her bag that’s about the size of her hand. “Don’t call it a clip. We haven’t used clips in a hundred years. Anyway, magazine goes in the gun.” She loads it into a slot in the gun. “Release the bolt catch to chamber a round.” She presses a switch on the side of the gun and the gun makes a loud clacking sound that makes me jump a little. “You flip the safety to off.” She indicates a lever on the side of the gun, and flips it. “And you’re ready to fire.”

“It’s more complicated than I had imagined.” I say.

“Yeah, most people think that guns practically shoot themselves. If I just hadn’t you bullets, a rifle, and a magazine, it would like you quite a while to figure out how to put them all together right. Especially if the gun isn’t stored the way this one is. I didn’t even talking about locking the bolt back or clearing a jam, or anything.” I can tell it’s going to be a long day.

About thirty minutes later we’re laying down beside a lake, and I’ve setup my gun one some rocks to balance it. I’ve got the stock of the gun pressed into my shoulder and am looking down the sights into the lake. It’s a pretty big target, but Jess says since we aren’t going to shoot anyone, all I need to know is how to operate one, and the lake will make sure the bullets don’t ricochet anywhere and hurt someone. I then ask why I have shoot it at all, and she just tells me that I’ll understand better once I’ve fired it. Until I actually pull the trigger it’s just some magic thing that hurts people who are far away. Once you have actually shot, it becomes a tool.

“Besides.” She says. “You’re probably going to come hunting with us, so you might as well learn the right way to use these things now.”

The gun feels like a bomb. Part of me thinks it can kill someone just by being near it, like some vengeful spirit inhabits the gun. It feels wrong to be holding it too. I half expect any minute for some police officers to come running out of the woods to arrest us.

She teaches me a breathing exercise. She says it’s for when I actually fire the gun, and that may be true, but I think she can see I’m a little shaken and need to calm down.” Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out, hold your breath, then squeeze the trigger.” She makes me practice with my finger off the trigger several times, and then she lets me put my finger on the trigger. She gives me some final instructions

“Now two last things. First, it’s going to kick, not very hard, because this gun only first one fairly small round, and only fires one gun per trigger pull, but be prepared for it to hit you in the shoulder. Second, it’s going to be loud. We’re outside so the sound will dissipate a good bit, but it’s still going to be one of the louder things you’ve heard in your life. Okay, whenever you’re ready, pull the trigger.” I start her breathing exercise.

Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out, hold, and slowly my finger depresses the trigger. ‘Blam!’The sound is so shocking my finger leaves the trigger and I almost drop the gun. She had said it would be loud, but it was like someone had just yelled in my ear. I barely notice a piece of brass that goes flying out of the gun and lands a foot or two away. I don’t see at all where the bullet goes. The thing had come alive with motion too. It had kicked back into my shoulder, and the barrel had kicked up. It was like the thing was trying to jump out of my hands.

“Ow!” I say. Jess laughs and punches my shoulder.

“I told you it was going to be loud. No one ever believes just how loud it’s going to be until they see it. Bet you’ll think twice next time you see an action movie won’t you?” She teases. “Alright, we’re going to finish the ammo in your magazine first.”

“Do I have to?” I jokingly ask. This was a fairly frightening experience.

“Yeah you big baby, now come on. This time, watch where the bullet hits the water.” I shake my head and sight down the barrel again. Okay, this time I’m ready. It takes two full clips before I can fire shots with anything like regularity or accuracy. My body just flinches from the shot every time.

“Nice shooting.” Jess finally says after about the sixtieth bullet. “It’s different now isn’t it?” She asks. At first I don’t know what she’s talking about. Them I start to feel it. The gun doesn’t seem like some unknown entity that just hurts people for no reason. It takes a deliberate set of actions to make it hurt someone, and it takes a deliberate person who wants to hurt someone. I understand now. I haven’t been handed a magical killing device. It’s just like a knife, or a brick. It still takes intent to cause suffering. I still feel fear towards it, but it’s not a childlike fear of a ghost. It’s an adult fear of causing permanent irreparable damage to your fellow man.

“Yes. It is. It’s different.” I say. I start taking the gun apart and storing it without instruction from her.

“Let’s get this done.” I tell her.

Unhooked part three

“Your family.” She says, her voice entirely dead pan.

“Yeah, I got a younger brother who dreams about this stuff all the time. I’m sure he’d love to come along for this.” She doesn’t respond. I can tell it’s rubbed her the wrong way. Thomas joins us and high fives me, tries to high five Jess, then stops when she just stares at him with her arms at her sides.

“What is it sis?” Thomas asks. “Did he throw something smelly at you?”

“He wants to bring his family.” She says. I can tell she’s upset, but I can’t read her emotions. Is she mad?

“Alright man!” Thomas exclaims, turning to high five me again. “Are they unhooked too? You should have told us sooner we could’ve brought’em all out.”

“Are they unhooked Ryan?” Jess asks. Her tone still as unreadable as a martian bible.

“No, they’re not. Not yet anyway, but when they hear about how wonderful life out here is they won’t be able to resist coming out.” Jess bites her lip and turn away. Thomas actually takes a second to think and scratches his head.

“Yeah, that’s great. Sure.” Thomas says. Jess turns back.

“How old are your parents Ryan?” She demands, I can hear some anger in her voice now, but that’s not the only emotion.

“They’re in their late forties.” I reply hesitantly. I wish Frank was here all of the sudden. Jess was getting wired up, and Thomas had decided to thoroughly examine the rope we had just descended.

“So they were alive when the pill was introduced.” She said.

“Yes, but I don’t see what that has to..”

“They took it willingly Ryan.” She said. “They saw the life they had, and they decided they’d rather imagine a new life than live in the one they were handed.” Her eyes are reddening. I can see now the other emotion is pain. The same thing happened to her parents, and now I had brought that up again.

“They took their own dreams over the people that cared about them.” She choked and had to brush something out of her eyes.

“But maybe the world is different now. Maybe they’ll be happy with it, or least my siblings will. They were never really offered a choice by my parents. If I tell them what it’s like out here and that they can come out whenever they want then I think they’ll take that opportunity.” Jess bit her lip, and just turned and walked off into the forest. I picked this activity to get closer to her, and now I’ve chased her off. I may not be childishly afraid anymore, but it looks like I am really dumb.

“Sorry about that.” Thomas says. “It was hardest on her. Me and Frank knew our family would never go for it. Me being rebellious it didn’t really bother me, and Frank just knew our parent’s well enough to know they wouldn’t go for it. Jess wasn’t like that. She honestly believed they would come with us into the real world. If it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have even talked to our parents about it before leaving.” He looked into the woods where Jess had left.

“So when we had the conversation, and they opted to stay, she took it super hard. It was her who started the whole ‘dead to us’ thing.”

“Oh.” I say. “I just stuck my foot so far in my mouth that I’ll need a doctor to extract it.”

“Pretty much.” He agrees. “Besides that it’s just not going to work.” He tells me.

“How can you know that?” I say. “You guys seem to assume it’s a foregone conclusion that people just want to stay hooked. What if they just need a little encouragement to free themselves? I mean if you guys had found me earlier I would’ve done this a long time ago.” Thomas is squirming. He really does not do well with serious conversations and this one is clearly paining him.

“Look Ryan. I know how it feels. You’ve found something great and you want everyone else to experience it too. I get it, but I’m telling you, and I know Frank and Jess would say the same thing. They’re not gonna listen. Jess will tell you it’s because they think the world is worse than it is. Frank will tell you it’s because they they’re scared of a world with consequences, and I think it’s because there’s something in the pills that makes them want to stay under, but all of us will agree, they’re gone man. They aren’t gonna come back because you ask them to.”

I shake my head. “Even if that’s true. I have to try. They’re my family, and I have to believe they’ll give it a shot.” Thomas shrugs.

“I think it’s going to cause a lot of unnecessary hurt, but if you really need to hear them they no in order to move on, then I’ll go with you.” Thomas says.

“Thanks Thomas.” I glance off into the woods. “Is there anything we can do about Jess?” I ask.

“I’m afraid not.” Thomas says. “At least there’s nothing you can do. Frank has a way of calming her down. Here, let’s go back up and tell him what went wrong. He can go comfort Jess, and we can go see your family. It’ll all be over in an hour or two and we can move on.” This plan sounds good. I wish it was me comforting Jess. I brought this up. I should have to clean it up, but Frank does know her better, and if I really want to help her I’ll let Frank do it.

“Okay.” I agree. “That sounds good. Let’s get started.” Thomas rubs his hands together.

“Right, there’s a path back up to the top a little ways down. We like to climb places that have routes up and down besides just rope.” Thomas leads the way up.

We find Frank leaning against a tree and breathing deep at the top.

“Hey slow pokes. What’s the matter. Did Ryan get cold feet halfway up?” He jeers. It’s a sign of how unpleasant things are that Frank has become the one talking smack.

“Not exactly Frank.” Thomas says. “Ryan wants to convince his family to unhook, and Jess took that pretty hard, brought up those old memories.” Frank stands up in a hurry and rushes to hook himself into the rope system.

“She’s at the bottom right?” He asks. “Which way did she go?” Thomas points. “Okay, you take care of Ryan. I’ll go calm Jess down.”

“Okay, we’re going to go see his family. We will meet you back at the house.” Thomas says.

“Right, meet you at the house.” Without another word he hops over the side and rappels down to the bottom.

“It’s got to be nice to have such a caring brother.” I say.

“Yeah, he can be a real pain sometimes, but you know you can always count on him to be there for you. Let’s go Ryan. The sooner you get this over with the better.” I tell Thomas where my house can be found, and we start off.

For about half a mile neither of us says anything. Thomas is probably thinking about Jess and if she’s going to be okay. I find myself thinking about my parents and the stories I’m going to tell them. I’m sure they’ll love to hear there is a pretty girl in my new group of friends, and how we’ve been learning to swim and climb rocks. Not to mention getting into shape. Parents were usually concerned about health I’m sure they’d love that.

The walk begins to get uncomfortable, and I need to find a conversation topic to break the silence.

“So why do you think that there’s something in the pills keeping people addicted?” I ask Thomas.

“A couple reasons.” He says. “First, this has happened before. The cigarettes of old had addictive substances added to them to keep customers hooked.”

“But those weren’t medical pills were they?” I counter. “The REM pills were originally designed to treat sleeping disorders, it wasn’t until after they’d already passed clinical trials that people began to use them to dream all the time.”

“You’re right, or at least based on the evidence you’ve been given you’re right.” Thomas says.

“What do you mean the information I’ve been given? Have you been given different information?” I ask.

“No.” Thomas says. “I read the same information and was taught the same things as you growing up, but that information was provided to you by a government that has most of its citizenry sneaking. Have you ever heard of information about a drug being withheld for the public? It’s not uncommon for a company to release a drug they know has negative side affects, but won’t say anything for years, or until people start dying. You don’t think they could hide that these things were unnaturally addictive?” He has a point. I had heard that before all the world’s scientists had started taking REM pills and abandoned their research that exactly the sort of thing Thomas was describing happened all the time.

“Still, you don’t think the government would just shut it down after a time? These people’s take away people’s productivity, wouldn’t the government shut it down after a while? Our medical monitoring was excellent. I’m sure the CDC or WHO would catch it before it spread as far as it has.” This conversation smelled of conspiracy theories.

“Why would they? The first generation pills only put people under for eight hours. The fact that they had lucid dreams was medically insignificant, and their approval for over the counter use made it so that law enforcement couldn’t arrest people for using them too much. If agriculture had shut down maybe the government would have stepped in, but people who spend their time out in the fields growing things were very resistant to the idea of sleeping all the time, and by that time transportation had become fully automated. The people were getting fed and shuffled around, and there were enough other people who stayed unhooked to keep things running, but really, all the world going to sleep did was halt scientific progress, and if people didn’t want more progress because things worked, would the government really have a problem? He just threw a whopper at me. There was a lot to that. I considered his points line by line. It was true that there was no problem the pill’s caused, and laziness was not a crime, so really, what could the government do?

“Something still doesn’t make sense. Who stands to gain from this. The whole world is asleep, in a way, most of the world has died, who stands to gain from that?” I ask Thomas.

“Politicians and the corporation who makes the pill, which is why they’ve worked together.” Thomas replies. His argument is approaching its final climactic conclusion. “The current people in the current government haven’t been challenged since the pill come along. The party that was in power became wildly popular once the pill hit the market. The opposition had misread the signs and had thought opposing the pill would bring them the value voters. They were mistaken. Everyone wanted the pill, and we basically became a one party country after the opposition was annihilated in the next election. Since they’ve done nothing but cycle through members when someone dies. Did you know all term limits have been removed so a politician can stay in power as long as they want. They funded the pill to make us happy and sedate us. Now they’ve got a docile populace who not only doesn’t want to revolt, but can’t. The zombie voting block is so large that they carry every election effortlessly.”

It makes sense. I would check the term limits, but I knew he was right. Ever since the pill government had become unchallenged. There were no wars, because there weren’t any soldiers to threaten and topple governments, and there were no revolts because the parties in power were supported by the vast majority of the population. It was a perfectly balanced system.

“But wouldn’t they get bored?” I ask. “What’s a government without a citizenry to govern? I mean surely once they realized they couldn’t do anything wouldn’t they outlaw the pill and wake people back up. Surely an unhappy populace is better than one that’s practically dead.”

“They still govern.” Thomas tells me. “Not like they used to sure, but I’m sure you can appreciate that your expectations change to fit your circumstances. Earlier today you were panicking from some shortness of breath from a run. Now you’re whooping for joy as you repel off cliffs. They still pass laws about international commerece, and there are trade wars now. Nobody fires a shot, but all the major countries are making deals, blackmailing each other, and placing bans on various products. It’s never enough to concern the voters or cause interest, but it makes them feel important. There is still a great international competition. Only instead of chess where any move could start a war or cause a country’s downfall. It’s become a mutant version of monopoly where no one runs out of money.” I had to admit. I was coming around to his way of thinking.

“That’s pretty shocking.” I say.

“As shocking as 98% of the population being asleep 20 hours a day, and the ones that are awake are on their own isolated farms minding their own business without a care in the world? It wasn’t too long ago where men killing each other, and getting diseases from out were the leading cause of death. Now it’s heart disease and aneurisms from the REM pills. We used to die with our boots on fighting to make a better world. Now we die quietly in our beds, dreaming about a different world than our ancestors fought for because we think we’re too good for it.” Thomas spits to the side of the path, and I am tempted to join him.

“We’re almost there.” I tell him.

My parents live in a townhouse, much the same as everyone else. I ring the doorbell and wait with Thomas. It’s a ominous. Maybe because of the conversation me and Thomas just had, or maybe because of Jess’ reaction to my suggestion, but I can’t help but feel something is wrong. I have to ring three times before my dad finally answers the door.

“Hey Ryan, haven’t seen you in a while, come one in, have a seat. We were just starting our next REM cycle, but we can spare a few minutes.” He calls up the stairs to my mom. “Hey Brianna come and join us, it’s Ryan.” We walk into the kitchen and have a seat around the table.

“So Ryan, whose your friend?” My father asks as my mom starts down the stairs.

“Oh, this is Thomas.” I say.

“Hello Mr. Ryan’s dad.” Thomas says, managing to regain a portion of his normal jovialness he shakes my father’s hand. “And Mrs. Ryan’s mom.” He shakes her hand as well.

“So Ryan, what brings you back?” My father asks.

“It’s actually got something to do with Thomas actually.” Thomas gives me a fearful glance. “You see, he’s shown me a new world. There’s beautifully detailed trees, wonderfully cool and refreshing lakes, and exhilarating cliffs to climb on.” My parents look like they can’t wait to hear the next words that will come out of my mouth, Thomas is gripping his chair tightly and periodically glancing towards the door as if to reassure himself of a way of escape.

“There’s even this wonderful girl there. She’s funny and energetic and she knows all this cool stuff.” My parents exchange a meaningful glance, and my dad puts his arm around my mom.

“That’s great Ryan.” My mom says.

“Yeah, where did you hear about this place. You’ll have to tell us more so we can dream about it too.” My mom pulls away slightly from my dad. “Except for the girl of course.” My father adds quickly, and my mother settles back in.

“That’s just it.” I say. “It’s not an imaginary place. It’s real. And I want you and my brothers and sisters to come with me. We can work slightly longer shifts to afford the gear, and we can all spend much more time together.”

“But Ryan sweetie, we already spend so much time together.” My mother says.

“Yes son, we incorporate you into most of our dreams. We were actually having a family dinner in our dream before you woke us up. But if you want us to dream about this place we can certainly do that for you.” My father says.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant.” I say. Thomas is now studying the table in front of him very carefully.

“I want you guys to come with me in the real world, outside of the dream.” They look confused.

“Why would we do that? Can’t you just bring pictures or something?” My mother asks.

“No.” It’s like explaining a word problem to a five year old. “I don’t want you to dream about it. I want you to actually go there. Like where you can touch and see things, not just dream about them.”

“Why?” My father asks. “We can touch things in dreams. Really Ryan, why would we do this. Don’t you know all the diseases you can catch going out into the real world? I mean there’s wild animals and hot and cold. It just seems like an awful lot of work for no reason.” I expected this. I knew it would take some convincing.

“I know. There are risks, but that’s part of what makes it fun. You see, in dreams we can’t be wrong because we control out. It takes the fun out of it. If you know you’re always going to lose at something then there’s no tension, there’s no mystery, and there’s no fun. The real world is also so vibrant.” I remember looking at the leaves on trees earlier. “Every single tree is unique. Water feels like this magical, soft, flowing, fabric. When you go running there’s a pain and a thrill to it that makes you feel so alive.” My parents’ expressions are still encouraging.

“Honey, we’re happy that you’ve found this place.” My mother says.

“But if all that’s there are trees and lakes and cliffs it sounds pretty boring.” My father says.

“It’s not though.” I say. They’re not getting it. “It’s alive like dreams can never be.”

“We appreciate the you feel that way son.” My father adds. “But it’s not for us. In our dreams there are worlds made of diamond, flying fire breathing dinosaurs, we have dozens of children.” Dad says.

“And all of them are doctors, Nobel Prize winning scientists, famous lawyers, or world renowned artists.” My mom adds enthusiastically. “And you’re there too Ryan.” She adds almost as an afterthought.

It feels like a smack on the face. They dream about other children, better children. Children they feel more strongly for than me. Fake children, they have several real loving offspring. I’ve even put faith in them that they would know to come after me. I’ve offered them a way into my world, and I find out they’ve replaced me with the children they wanted to have in their own. I know now why Jess said her parents are dead to her. My parents have just as good as killed me in their own world. They replaced me with the children they wanted to have, so they’ve killed me.

“I gotta go.” I say. Thomas stands up and puts an arm around my shoulder as we walk out.

“Well thanks for stopping by sweetie.” My mom says, as if nothing has happened.

“And don’t forget to bring us some pictures of this new place so we can dream about it too.” My dad adds. I promise myself to never bring them to these new places. Even if I wanted them around they’d just poison it with thoughts of these replacement kids.

“Ryan?” A younger male voice asks me. “What are you doing here?” It’s my youngest brother Teddy.

“Teddy.” I stand up straighter, maybe Teddy will come. He looks up to me, and he’s the one who dreams about rock climbing.

“Hey Teddy, this is my friend Thomas. We are going rock climbing you want to come?” Teddy nods vigorously.

“Of course Ryan, where are you dreaming of climbing.” The word dream stings. I remember when we I first met the unhooked siblings. Jess and Thomas had looked insulted that they would have any dreams at all. I understood why now.

“No Teddy, we’re not dreaming of it. We are actually going to climb it. We are leaving to go do some more soon. Do you want to come?” Teddy glances into the kitchen at mom and dad.

“I’m sure they’ll be okay with it. Teddy come on, it’s rock climbing. Don’t you want to join us?” Teddy considers this for a moment.

“How tall are the cliffs?” Teddy asks. Good, he’s expressing interest. I can still convince him.

“They’re real tall Teddy. Taller than our house, taller than the trees, they’re so tall that if you kick a rock off it’ll probably take a couple seconds to reach the bottom.” Teddy’s eyes look up. He’s imagining it, trying to picture climbing something that big. I bite my tongue, not wanting to say anything to disrupt his imagination.

“Nah.” He says finally. “I was climbing Olympus Mons on Mars earlier and it’s way bigger than that. You should dream about it too.” He adds. I give up. I’m done. This is why they’re called hooked, because they are completely drawn in by the dream. I remembered watching a fishing show once. It seemed like the fish would have to fight with all their might to tear themselves free, and my family wasn’t willing to fight an ounce.

“Yeah Teddy.” I say. “Maybe I will sometime.”

“Great, it was nice to see you Ryan. I’ll catch you later.” And he walks into the kitchen to join my parents.

When we get outside Thomas says. “I’m sorry. There’s a reason we don’t try and unhook people anymore. You have to let people unhook themselves. It’s like trying to force a deaf person to hear what you’re saying. You are speaking a language that’s foreign to them. Their sense are numb to how strong experiences in real life can be. All they know is the dream, so they can’t imagine life without it.” I don’t have the heart to respond. Thomas wisely shuts up, and we start walking to the sibling’s house.

I had really thought they’d come with me, if not for their own sake than for the sake of the family. Parents are supposed to care about their kids and want more than anything else to be around their kids. I guess my parent’s did, just not their real kids. I punch a tree hard enough that I bloody my knuckles. Thomas doesn’t react, and we keep walking.

Teddy had almost hurt more than my parents. I had thought of coming back because of him. Teddy loved rock climbing. Maybe if we just found some taller cliffs he’d want to come? No, there wasn’t a mountain on earth that could compete with extraterrestrial rock climbing. No matter how amazing real life was, I couldn’t convince them to just step outside of their dreams and actually live.

I was an orphan now. I knew I couldn’t go back to my parents who would rather spend their time with imaginary offspring, or younger siblings who would reject my offerings of wild adventures for their own fake past times. Jess was right, I never should’ve come back. I never should’ve had faith in my family to join me.

Jess, the girl I had been trying to get close to, and I had pushed her away by doing this. I had to make it up to her. I felt that these new friends were the closest thing to family I had, and I needed to make them happy.

“Thomas.” I say. “Thank you for coming with me. You knew how this was going to end, and you came anyway. Thank you.”

“Hey man, don’t sweat it. It’s the least I could do. There aren’t a lot of us unhooked, so we gotta look out for each other.” He playfully punches my shoulder. “We got your back man.”

“Thanks.” I say again. I’ll be sure to thank Frank when I get back too. They’ve really gone out of their way to help me. We arrive at the sibling’s house to find Jess and Frank anxiously waiting on the couch.

“Hey Ryan.” Frank says, standing up immediately. He sees my face and knows it didn’t go well. “I’m so sorry Ryan. We tried to warn you.” Jess gets up and runs toward me. I take a step back and flinch as she gets close, expecting to get slapped, but she instead wraps me up in a tight hug.

“I’m so sorry.” She whispers in my ear. “They replaced you didn’t they.”

“Yes.” I tell her, and she squeezes me tighter. I look at Frank giving me a sympathetic look, at Thomas, awkwardly not knowing what to do, but supportive, and Jess bear hugging me to make sure I’m okay. These are my family now.

“I’m so lucky to have found you guys.” I say looking from Thomas to Frank, and down to Jess who is still hugging me for all she’s worth. “You guys are real friends. Frank, you helped me conquer my fear of drowning when you could’ve been out swimming with your siblings.” Frank shrugged.

“Least I could do.” He says.

“And Thomas, you came with me to my parents when you knew that conversation was going to be nothing but ugly.” Thomas sheepishly grins.

“Hey man, you’d have done the same for me.”

“And you Jess. I brought you so much pain by bringing up some bad memories, and you’ve so quickly looked past that to support me.” Jess squeezes me extra tight for a moment.

“You guys are like my family.” I say. “Family puts family first, and you guys have done that for me. I wish I could repay the favor.”

“We’re just glad you’ve unhooked and we’ve been able to help you through that.” Franks tells me. I look down at Jess again, and realize there’s a way I can make them my family for real. It’s a little sudden, but this has been a day of taking risks. I risked drowning. I risked jumping off a cliff. I risked my family rejecting me. It was time to take one more big risk.

“Jess.” I say, pushing her away for a moment. I get down on one knee. “Will you marry me.” Thomas splutters, Frank’s jaw drops, and Jess looks like I hit her.

“What? No Ryan I’m not going to marry you.” Nobody says anything else. Ryan looks like he’s seen a ghost, and Frank looks he he’s thinking about beating me unconscious. “Uh, gear.” Jess says, and heads downstairs.

“Yeah, gear.” Thomas says and follows her, leaving me alone with Frank. He stares knives at me, and I decide I’ve just ruined my welcome.

“I should go.” I say. Frank doesn’t respond, and I let myself out.

No follows me as I leave and start back home.

I had found a new world, learned to swim, rock climb, and just unhook from my false reality. Now I had thrown it away. The only people I know who could join me in this new world now hated me. It would have been impressive that I had ended so many friendships so quickly if it wasn’t so pathetic.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I was supposed to be all suave, and she was supposed to say yes. There would be cheering and crying and hugging. We would all make plans and become a family. That’s how I saw it going down, now I had just thrown a wrench in everything.

My home isn’t far, and as I go inside I slam the door hard enough to break a few of the panes of glass. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’ve lost pretty much everything today.

I lost my own world because I got bored with it and went outside to try and find a new world. Then I lost my family when I tried to bring them into this world. Now I’d lost my new family when I’d just got desperate and carried away. Now here I was at the end of the day, in the same spot I had started it. No real family, even though I didn’t know it yet. They were still gone, I guess they never really were my family to start with, no world, no friends. I can’t even stand to walk outside and breath the clean air again because it reminds me of what I’ve lost.

I crash on my couch and see the pills laying on the table. Those stupid pills they’re what started this whole thing. Without the pills there wouldn’t be a need for days like today, people would have normal friends, family, and I heard that most jobs used to require regularly working with other people. It must be so nice to be a part of a society where you feel like a human being, not some machine put on standby and only occasionally woken up to do some basic shop keeping for the other machines.

Thomas was right, only an evil corporation backed by a corrupt government could make these pills. Their factories should be burned to the ground. I pick up the bottle of pills and hurl it against the wall. It’s plastic so it unclimactically just bounces off the wall and spins back to me. Great, I can’t even break a small bottle of pills.

I start to laugh. It’s a laugh of despair, of defeat. The world has become so crazy that I can’t help but laugh. The laughter brings me no joy. It is devoid of mirth. I can’t do anything right. I wish they had just left me hooked. I would be numb and emotionless, sleeping my life away, but at least I wouldn’t have to know defeat like this. If today had never happened, if I had just walked outside, and promptly come back in everything would be alright.

Then a line my parents say surfaces to the front of my brain. ‘You’ll have to tell us more so we can dream about it too’. They were talking about joining me in my adventures through a dream. I realize that there is a place I can go to make everything right. A place where I’m in shape, the siblings don’t hate me, and my family hasn’t replaced me with other children and hobbies.

I look at the bottle of pills again. In the dream, all of this can go away. In the dream I can fix everything and make it right.

I recoil and stand up to walk into a room where the pills aren’t lying about. What am I thinking? I have worked so hard today to unhook and experience real life. I think about conquering my fear of drowning in the lake. I think of learning to accept defeat by playing cards, and appreciating what a true challenge is. I remember how surreal water felt running through my fingers, or wind running through my hair. I think of how highly detailed real life was. Dreams couldn’t compare to it.

I especially remember letting go and leaning back off of the mountain top, the thrill of trusting someone else so directly with your life. I remember feeling so free and exhilarated as I had stepped off that mountain and just trusted Jess to catch me.

Then I think of Jess. Jess who was so funny, nurturing, smart, and driven. Jess who was so full of alive when I had first seen her darting through the woods. Jess who I had hurt by talking about family. Jess who had forgiven me and had so quickly hugged me to comfort me after I had lost my family. Jess whose trust I had betrayed in a stupid, childish, and utterly foolish act of rampant irresponsibility. Jess who hated me now. Jess who I would never see again.

I walk back into the room and pick up the pills. Except there is a way I can see Jess again. There’s a place she still exists. She’s not beyond reach. None of them are beyond reach. I can see my family, and they will actually enjoy spending time with me. I can go talk to the siblings, and me and Jess can be together. Yes, it won’t be so bad. It’ll all be fine as soon as I go under.

I walk into my bed and lay down, making sure I’m prepared for what I’m about to do. I open the bottle and put a pill in my hand. These pills act fast. I’ll be out in a matter of seconds, only a few more seconds.

I cap the bottle and put it on the night stand, staring at the pill in my hand. Holding it makes things more final. I’m just one quick motion away from throwing it all away, from hooking myself.

I raise my hand to my mouth, and then I stop. I put my hand back down and stare at the pill in my hand. One last thought stands in my way. If I do this, then there’s no going back. I remember the disgust on Jess and Thomas’ face from the mere mention of dreaming. If I do this, to them I’ll be dead. To them zombies are people who have given up on life and returned to their own little private worlds.

If I swallow this pill, any hope of reconciliation is gone. They’ll never talk to me again. I probably won’t even see them again. I could spend most of the rest of my life in this house, by myself, alone.

I almost put the pill down, almost. Then I remember the look of horror on Jess’ face when I ask her to marry me. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never see her again anyway. I put the pill in my mouth and swallow. I lay down and pull the covers up. It’s okay now. In just a few moments I’ll see them again, and it’ll be okay.