Wind rushing through his hair, battering his face and the thrill in his belly as gravity pulls Jeffrey down a roller coaster. The taste of hot chili burning his throat, with the aroma of cinnamon apple cider floating in the air as he sits by a cackling fire on a cold winter night enjoying the chill of glass on his forehead and watching the snow fall. The smell of fields of roses, the softness of their petals on his skin, their brightness of color, luscious red and deep green passing before him as he runs, warm spring air on the cool sweat dripping down his face, smiling and feeling every wrinkle form around his mouth. He felt so free, assaulted by an assortment of sensory matter all at once, everything stimulated, everything engaged. And then nothing.
At first Jeffrey thought he was dead. He was unfamiliar with complete numbness like this outside of what he had experimented with on his Stimulus. But that time numbness was preceded by biting cold and had crept up on him slowly from his extremities to his core. It was not a pleasant experience and he did not repeat it. Confused, he tried going back to his field of flowers, thinking ‘Fields of roses, warm air, running,’ but nothing happened. He tried a couple more times before finally cursing the warranty, promising the manufacturers a strongly worded letter and opening his eyes to complete blackness. ‘Oh God, I’ve gone blind!’ Instinct brought his hands to his eyes only to come in contact with hard plastic and a painful ripping sensation from his forearm. Remembering that these were all parts of the Stimulus, he pushed the head piece back and sat up blearily.
The room was dark with a heavy layer of dust on everything, as if no one had lived in it for years, decades even. He noticed the stench first. It was decay, as if he were surrounded by all things dead and dying, much worse than anything he had ever imagined in the Simulator. He began a cough but almost immediately upon opening his mouth, wished he hadn’t. The god awful stench had an inconceivably worse taste. ‘What was this? What sort of hell have I woken up in?’
He tried not to scream as he removed the other applicators from his arms, legs and torso, making it his goal to put as much distance between him and this foul cave as possible. Stepping off the Simulator and onto the floor was like walking into an anthill with all the little dust particles scurrying up his legs as he made his way around the room looking for the exit. He spotted a door on the far wall and made for it, all the way feeling like he was moving through an atmosphere that more resembled a molasses of feces, clinging to his body.
Slamming it shut behind him, he was greeted with dusty wind, slightly fresher air and a set of stairs. With nowhere else to go, he made his way down hating with every step the feel of coarse carpet in between his toes, the creak and thump of the stairs. The look of the place was grey scale. Things were hard to distinguish as one grey blended into another, as if he had really become partially blind. Jeffrey felt blind, or at least impaired. In the room, the sensation of dirt was so abrupt he hardly had time to realize the numbness he had first associated with death was still with him. Every sensation was somehow less, like he was wearing a thick body suit. ‘Was this my house?’ Something in the architecture resounded in him a distant familiarity.
Yes, he had lived here. He remembered he lived alone and had never been the neatest guy but he hired a cleaning service. There was no reason why everything should be covered in such filth. All this he realized as he made his way to his front door and when he stepped out into the burning sunlight, things made less sense.
If he wasn’t blinded before he thought he surely was now. The pure real sunlight burned his skin and seared his eyes. It was far from being the pleasant warmth he enjoyed in the Stimulus and in combination with the muggy, moisture laden air Jeffrey felt as if he were being cooked alive. Once his eyes had adjusted he slowly took in his surroundings. Neglected, everything was neglected. What little he had remembered of his hometown had become a collection of over grown grass, smashed windows and liter. Nothing had really changed but like an absent minded child will forget what they are holding when presented with something new and exciting; the town had been dropped and simply forgotten.
There was a shuffling to his left. Jeffrey thought he had imagined the noise and that his eyes were fooling him with the sight of a small figure in the distance but when it happened again he turned to pursue it. He ran and tripped, falling face first on to the rough gravel. Cursing this uncanny world he woke up in, he stood shakily up and continued. There was adrenaline pumping through his body as he ran and for once he felt normal again. Vaguely aware of the blood dripping down his leg and the sting of the little rocks embedded in his skin from his earlier fall, he didn’t care. The metaphorical body suit had been shed and it was like he was feeling for the first time. Never mind the air was laden with moisture and dust, or that the gravel cut into his feet as he ran. His senses were tingling; it was smell, taste, sound, sight and touch all at once and he loved it.
“Hey! Hey you!” Jeffrey had almost reached what he now saw was a small child of perhaps eight years of age when he stopped.
The child was hideous.
Dark sun baked skin overed in scars, some fresh, raw and red others completely healed but contorted her skin’s surface, she looked up at him as he approached, curious.
“H-hi?” Jeffrey suddenly didn’t know what to do. He had been so caught up in seeing another person, in the run to reach this other person that he hadn’t thought what he might say. Sure, he had questions but something told him a little girl was not going to have the answers. He bent down to her level, that’s what he was supposed to do, right?
“Umm, hey, could you by any chance take me to your parents? Mom and Dad?” Jeffrey was awkward but to his credit the girl just kept on staring at him. He put his arm softly on her shoulder, repressed a cringe at the contact of his hand with marked flesh and gave her what he hoped was an earnest look. She, to his surprise, licked him very quickly and before he could react, bit down on his wrist.
“Ow! God, what the he—“The girl cut him off with her cry. Jeffrey had no idea what was going on. She had bit him yet she was the one crying. “Look, honey, I’m sorry.”
“No!” she yelled, “No sorries. No ows! No sound! No feeling! It’s not allowed!”
Jeffrey was very confused now. What was she talking about? “No, don’t cry. I’m okay see?” He held up his wrist, the teeth marks she had left facing away from her. “All bette—ow!”
She had bit him again, harder and this time she trashed as if his arm were a chicken leg whose meat she was tearing from bone.
“Sarah! Did you find anything over there?” A deep voice came from behind the girl, and she released him to look at the approaching figure. As soon as his arm was free he raced towards the approaching figure, to his chagrin Sarah followed swiftly after him. She got there first and tugged at the man’s shirt, pointing a blaming finger at him. The man looked up at him as he slowed to stop. His eyes travelled up and down his body, hungry and appreciative. Jeffrey felt like he was being appraised. “Good job, Sarah. He will do just fine.”
“Do fine for what?”
Sarah giggled up at him and then took his arm and nibbled on it before pulling away and looking proud of herself. Grabbing his hand, she began leading him down a path at the end of which he saw campfire smoke.
Not once did she bite him again (for which he was thankful) or look back at him or speak to him again. He followed her blindly, focusing first on her young yet calloused hands curled roughly around his fingers and then on his surroundings. They walked down Jeager Street; it was one he was familiar with and played often on as a child. It looked unchanged from his memory and he welcomed a path free of broken glass and upturned garbage bins. He began to smell things other than liter or decay. Jeffrey had crossed some invisible line separating the world he had woken up in and this civilized one. The streets were clean and quaint. People sat on porches, lazily passing the afternoon by. Never mind they were scarred and ugly, Jeffrey was grateful for them anyway. There were people; the smells and sights and sounds of people! The feel of human contact! So lost was Jeffrey reveling in his fantasy of newfound civilization that he didn’t see the wooden bat coming until it slammed into his stomach. He was on his knees in a second, the air forced out of him. Looking around he saw people gathering around him, their starved desperate faces barely registered before the second blow struck him from behind on the nape of his neck. The last thing he saw through tear-blurred eyes was the older woman chastising young Sarah.
“Sarah, what have I told you about playing with your food?”
This time when Jeffrey woke up, he was sure he was dead. Far from being numb like the first time, his entire body was sore. His eyes opened to the metal ceiling of a trailer in great need of repair. Not dead. He tried sitting up but only managed to grunt at the slightest movement of his torso. Not exactly alive either. He couldn’t move at all.
“There he is! Rise and shine little sucker, I’ve got breakfast for you,” a cheery voice, sing-songed from the other end of the trailer. The smell of fresh bacon and toast wafted over to where he was. He was greatly disappointed when he bowl presented before him contained neither bacon nor toast but an ash colored mush that looked about as edible as the plug on his Stimulus. My Stimulus, he groaned and rolled away from the offending mush to the best of his ability, if I could just get back to my Stimulus, things would be better. “Gods I need my Stimulus,” he mumbled.
“About that,” the voice started again on his side. Jeffrey looked up to a kindly face of a woman old enough to be his mother. “The good doctor will be here soon. You’ll want to talk to him. He’ll explain everything.”
There was a faint rap at the door followed by the painful sound of hinges squealing as the door was pushed slowly open.
“I’ll take it from here, Melissa.” The Doctor said approaching Jeffrey’s bedside. “How are you feeling, young man? You may call me Doctor.”
Jeffrey didn’t like this man. He was never fond of old people in general; they reminded him of all things unenjoyable. Why would anyone live that long when they could no longer enjoy the pleasures of the senses? “Jeffrey. Can you tell me what the hell is going on Doctor? What happened to everything? To everyone?”
The doctor chuckled, “Slow down, boy. Let me just start by saying you’ve been in a sleep of sorts for at least the last 150 years. The world is a different place now, son. And for the last 150 years you’ve been under the influence of this,” he pulled a small vial of clear liquid from his pocket, “Don’t recognize it do you?” Jeffrey felt a sudden surge of anger. He wanted answers and he wasn’t getting the ones he wanted, Will no one in this god forsaken place just give me answers? Don’t patronize me old man.
“This,” he gave the vial a little shake, “is the chemical used in the Stimulus Machines, the one that enables you to live out all your sensational fantasies from the comfort of your own home and, as advertised, will preserve your body in the exact state it was when you first plug in.” Jeffrey’s eyes widened, the doctor noticed and smiled, quickly pocketing the vial before Jeffrey realized he had been reaching for it. “What the manufacturers didn’t advertise was what years of being on the chemical stimulants could do to a person’s senses,” he gave Jeffrey a sad smile and Jeffrey wanted to punch him in the face. “Dependency. The body gets habituated to being stimulated even if artificially all the time and from every direction. Everything you could ever want to feel right at your fingertips! Happiness for all!” The Doctor laughed, “Rather, it was happiness for those who would afford it. Sure, the cost of the machine was not so high, lots of people had it and soon it became as common as owning a tablet. And then even better, the manufacturers announced that you could be plugged in for good! Don’t want to stop feeling good? Now you don’t have to.”
Jeffrey got the impression the doctor didn’t have many friends or conversely had lost what friends he had by giving this very same rant he was receiving now. “What’s wrong with that? Everybody plugged in! If you have the choice between feeling good all the time versus only feeling good sometimes and then feeling crappy most of the time, what idiot wouldn’t choose the former?”
“You’d have to be an idiot not to, wouldn’t you? So everybody plugged in. Everybody. From that kid next door to your high school teachers, professors, business men, activists, and world leaders. Yes, everyone plugged in. And from then on, nobody played, or learned. No one made money or taught. No policies were made and treaties signed. Everything just stopped, but not for everyone. No, there were those on the outside, those who did not own Stimulus Machines who were now left to fend for themselves in a world where most every resource had been sucked up and directed towards feeding these machines by the manufacturer. There was no law, no order and most importantly there came to be no food.”
“Well their fault for not getting a Stimulus Machine then! They had the chance to make their life better, to make their lives happy!”
“Happy, yes.” The doctor tossed back his head and laughed silently. It creeped Jeffrey out. “Are you happy, boy?”
“Not today in particular, but I was! If I could just get back to my Stimulus things would be solve—“
“Oh your Stimulus! Yes! Of course! That’ll solve all your problems! Too bad the manufacturers couldn’t foresee the long term failure of their greatest product. Beginning roughly 83 years after the initial plug in, machines began failing. Nothing lasts forever, nothing can last forever. Not the Stimulus Machines and not the famine that came after. You see, son, what was left of human kind outside of the feely machines needed a new source of food. They were disdainful of those that had submitted to the Stimulus, what they saw as uncontrollably giving in to hedonistic bodily sensation. They were tired of the constant fighting that was going on over what little there was left. It was like they were killing their kin, the people who had ended up in the same unfortunate predicament, the people who felt the same anger and injustice.” The doctor paused and looked meaningfully at Jeffrey. When he started speaking again, it was slow and low. “There just so conveniently happened to be one in abundance practically sitting around like cattle waiting for the slaughter.” The doctor continued to stare at Jeffrey, eyeing him not dissimilarly to the way the man had eyed him earlier, hungrily.
“The people on the outside decided to be as different as possible from those left on the inside. You see, they wanted the ultimate control over their senses. They wanted not to feel, because feeling was weak and it was the human attachment to sensation that led them to their condition in the first place.”
The scarred people. Sarah’s scars.
“The people on the inside were no different from animals. They could no longer reason or govern themselves. Everything was pure sensation for them.”
Jeffrey looked down at the bite marks Sarah had left on his arm and then back up at the doctor’s emaciated figure. Most of his body was covered in white garb but his hands, Jeffrey saw it now, there were scars all over his hands.
“With the unpredictability of when exactly Stimulus Machines will fail, we on the outside have to be,” he licked his lips, “careful with our food.”
Jeffrey couldn’t move. He glanced at the bowl of neglected ‘food’ by his bedside and wanted to hurl.
“Of course, we have predictions on when the next happy meal will arrive but until then,” The doctor scanned the bruises on Jeffrey’s body, “livestock must be kept tender and well medicated.” Jeffrey’s eyes widened and before he knew it the doctor had the vial of clear liquid inserted into a syringe and plunged into Jeffrey’s neck.
And then he couldn’t feel a thing.
image from: http://glasspilgrim.blogspot.com/2010/11/park-hill.html