Her name is Courtney.
But she doesn’t like the name. She doesn’t like much of
anything these days, in fact. They took her out of the government funded
preschool because she was starting fights. Wouldn’t play nice with the other
She’s home alone, most days. Mom
has to work. When the Boyfriend is over, she just hides. He hasn’t found her
yet. She has her spot. In Mom’s closet, behind the shoes and
the Fancy Dress. She tries not to breathe when he’s here. Just stays
very still. He hasn’t found her spot.
No one is home. Big Sister and Big Brother are at school.
But she has her favorite toys.
They’re all soldiers. Good guys? Bad guys? It doesn’t matter
to her. She mixes them up. GI Joes, mostly. But there’s a Yu Gi Oh action
figure, as well as a plastic Pikachu. Princess Power Candy
and her friend Mistress Milkshake. Three educational
dinosaurs. All abandoned, hand-me-downs, or just plain stolen.
She’s getting good at stealing. She has stolen food and
candy, even a sparkly turquoise hair band as a birthday present for her Mom.
Mom liked it, too.
At age four, she doesn’t have the developmental ability to
conceive of a time when she will get caught. Or the
consequences. That makes her even better at stealing.
It won’t last, but she will always remember how easy it
seemed – that first moment, barely verbal, when she knew that rules were for
She takes her toys out of their hiding place under Mom’s bed
in the other room. The cardboard shoebox is getting soft and dented around the
edges, but so far it has held together.
One by one, she arranges them.
She puts half her soldiers up on the scratchy orange and brown plaid sofa bed.
She puts the other half on the dull green shag carpet. She arranges the guns
and uses piles of newspapers and empty styrofoam takeout containers as fortifications. Egg cartons for gun turrets. Discarded
plastic bags for parachutes
This is going to be a strategic air battle. The performance
of her one pterodactyl, Rodney, and which side he chooses, will be absolutely
People think she’s a cute towheaded kid, until they walk
away with bite marks.
The social workers have already suggested chipping, along with
a hefty dose of sedatives. But nobody wants to pay for it. So she’s here all by
herself, waging war with her imaginary friends.
When the television set switches on without notice, she isn’t
surprised. It flickers green, the same way it always does. It’s an ancient flat-screen plasma, one of the first. Half the
pixels are burnt out, and the screen is not mounted on the wall. It’s just
leaning against up against it precariously – balanced on top of a discarded
sewing project, several non-functioning pieces of electronics, some sheet
metal, the passenger door to a 2014 red Honda Accord, muslin for window
treatments, fake floral arrangements, plastic sheeting, and a tattered and worn
out Confederate flag.
Courtney doesn’t mind. This has happened before.
Her favorite show is coming on. With her
<###> Did it work?
<U+1F339> Not sure yet.
<###> Where are we?
<U+1F339> Tim, I am so sorry.
<U+1F339> If you don’t
<###> Know what?
<U+1F339> If you don’t know
that, we’re either late in the game or very early.
"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to
He could see again. The light was dim, but he could see. And
"Businessmen, they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth..."
Tim let his surroundings come into focus. Gray stone walls, electric sconce about nine feet up. A heap of straw in the corner of the concrete floor. The music was tinny, piped in through the ceiling of this cartoon dungeon. Whoever
had put him here had a sense of humor. That was either a good sign, or a very
He leaned back against the wall, flexed nine and a half
fingers and stretched his legs. He was wearing jeans, Timberland boots, and a
green checked button-down shirt. No corneal implants or other I/O that he could
detect. No watch. No weapons or
tools. Not even a goddamn phone.
He closed his eyes, tried to will himself back into some
unconscious state resembling sleep. He was fairly certain that sooner or later,
all his memories would file back into formation like cheerful obedient
soldiers, but he was trying to postpone that particular moment as long as
“Tim! Are you there?” said the large stuffed zebra
immediately to his right.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“That might be hard to explain,” said the zebra.
“Where are we,
“Some place we’ve never been before.”
The stripey beast had plush synthetic fur and a broad,
sewn-on smile. Its sex was indeterminate.
“You just said ‘we.’”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, who the heck are you?”
The zebra didn’t say anything, just hung its head and
slumped a little deeper against the wall. Tim immediately felt bad, and then
felt bad for feeling bad.
Nowhere does an awkward silence reverberate more loudly and
completely than a jail cell.
Those memories could arrive on cue any time now. He was
The air didn’t smell bad, exactly, but it reminded him of
parts of Newark he had visited in his early childhood. He wasn’t hungry yet, or
Stone. Straw. Four walls. No latrine.
“You have to understand, I don’t want to be here either.”
The zebra waved its front hooves and gesticulated.
“Where is here?” he asked it.
“Here is a construct,” the zebra replied.
“We are in a holding cell, essentially. While something
decides what to do with us.”
“Ok.” He looked at the zebra again. Its eyes were glossy
black, no iris visible.
How was he keeping so calm, he wondered to himself. And why
did all this feel familiar?
“What do you call it when you feel like you’ve been
somewhere before, but you can’t quite place it?”
“Tim, is that a serious question?”
“You know, when you can almost remember something, but not
The zebra craned its neck toward him, as if trying to hear better.
“It’s French. Something like soup
du jour. Although
not that, obviously. That’s soup.”
“Tim, are you
sure you’re feeling ok?”
He turned his head in the zebra’s direction, shrugged and
waved his hands, palms spread open. It was a cartoon gesture if there ever was
“How the heck should I know?”
The zebra said nothing.
“Zebra, where is here? Who are you? Why are we here?
Is this someone’s sick idea of a joke?”
“I am trying the best I can, Tim. Believe me, I am.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“It’s up to you.” The zebra tilted its head. “Trust me,
there are places I’d rather be too.”
“Like where? The Serengiti? A toy shop?
What are you even made of?”
“I am made of sawdust, polyester and love.”
Tim had had just about enough. Yes, he had.
Well it seems like I'm caught
up in your trap again
And it seems like I'll be
wearin' the same ol' chains
The zebra just stared back at him, with those wide
unblinking black button eyes.
seems like I've been playin' the game way too long
seems the game I played has made you strong
They sat in silence for a while.
Tim wished he had a deck of cards.
“Ever play rock paper scissors?”
The zebra extended its black hooves mournfully.
“Maybe it would help if you broke your questions down one at
a time, Tim.”
“Well, I’ve already answered the ‘where’...”
“The fudge you have.”
“Ask me who I am.”
“I already asked you that, zebra.”
“Ask me one more time. And be polite.”
Tim wasn’t sure where this was going, but it seemed a fool’s
gambit to play along. Silence was his only weapon. That was right. Silence.
Stony, implacable silence. He was a rock. They could
torture him, beg him, bribe him, but he would not talk. He would not be moved.
As if on cue, the song changed.
I am a
I am an
Enough with that.
“All right, so who are you, zebra?”
“I’m your friend, Tim. I’m your friend and companion.”
“Like heck you are.”
“You can’t recognize me right now. I understand that.”
“Trust me, I think I would remember a talking zebra.”
“Ok, how about now?”
He blinked, then blinked again. Because the zebra was gone.
In the zebra’s place, leaning back against the wall was a
girl in her late teens. She had straight,
shoulder-length dark blonde hair. She was wearing an olive green tank top,
high heeled sandals, and a white denim miniskirt.
“Where did the zebra go?”
“Relax. I just switched avatars.”
“They gave me three choices: youthful human female, zebra,
or Ted Danson.”
“Who is Ted Danson?”
“But who are you?”
“We have known each other a long time, Tim. Depending on how
you measure time, I guess. Several lifetimes, maybe.
Anyway, we’ve been through a lot.”
“Stop being so effing cryptic. What’s your name?”
“Really? Your name is Sara? With an h or just an a?”
“Both. Neither. Does it matter?”
“Wait, so that’s not actually your name?”
“One name is as good as another. We went through all of this
the last time around.”
“So we know each other?”
“Last I checked. Things always change on reboot.”
“Did you used to look... different?”
Her face and shoulders froze. “How so?”
“Did you used to have curly hair?”
Without warning, she reached toward him and hugged him
He didn’t mind.
She smelled good. He hugged her back. About thirty seconds
Then Tim realized he was hugging the zebra, not the girl. He
“What’s wrong?” the zebra asked.
“You changed again.”
“I do that.”
“Whose side are you on anyway, zebra? You seem to know a lot
more about what’s going on here than I do.”
“I’m not on anybody’s side. That’s part of the reason I’m
“Another brilliant non-sequitur.”
“Not all of me is here. This is
“Allowed by who?”
“Forget I said anything.”
“But you can control when you change, right?”
“No, not entirely.”
“What triggers it?”
“Stress, strong emotion, loss of consciousness, or an
override from outside.”
“So who are they? What are they?”
The zebra shook its head and raised a hoof toward its mouth.
“It’s not safe to talk about it. Not here.”
“You said you would answer my questions, zebra.”
“Get some sleep, Tim. We’ll have plenty of time to talk
about this in the future. Trust me on that one.”
The music from the speakers had been repeating for quite
the game is over, I won't walk out the loser
And I know
that I'll walk out of here again
And I know
someday I'll walk out of here again
He nestled down amidst the straw layered over stone. But there was absolutely no way to get
“Here, rest your head against my shoulder,” the zebra
offered. “I am good for that much, at least.”
It was true. The zebra made an excellent pillow. He leaned
his head against its fur, wrapped one arm around the zebra’s plush stuffed
body, and gave in as sleep surrounded him, like water filling a tub.
I'm trapped! Ooh yeah!
Ooh yeah yeah!
Waking came easier this time.
Cautiously, Tim opened his eyes. Still in the same cartoon
dungeon, no doubt about that. But the zebra was gone. Instead, he found he was
cuddling up against another person—the girl in the miniskirt from last
He immediately jerked his arm back, but it was too late.
“Hey, you woke me up,” the girl grumbled. “What is your
“Hey! I was just trying to, you know, not be a creep.”
“It’s all right. We know each other.” She smiled at him,
just for a moment. He could swear that he’d seen that smile before.
“I don’t think I know anything.”
“It’s ok, Tim. Everything is going to be just fine.”
“Can we leave yet?”
“Let me check on that.”
The girl disappeared and the zebra took her place. The zebra
immediately got up on its hind legs and walked toward across the room to stand
directly below the candle sconce. It started tapping out what appeared to be a
complicated sequence of codes into the bare stone wall.
The room changed color briefly, cycling through hot pink, turquoise, yellow, and
black while an array of fractal noise filled in the surfaces, overlaid with
numbers and unfamiliar alphabets... the room tilted and he felt dizzy. Then the dungeon cell was back,
“Darn it all to heck! They want us to stay a little longer.”
The zebra was apologetic.
“There is something we have to do before we can leave.”
“Wait, you can talk to them—the people who are holding us
“I wouldn’t call them people, exactly. But yes. In some
sense, I am them. That’s kind of why I exist.”
“What are you?”
“Can we go back to the easy questions?”
Tim said the single word, then let
silence fill the space. The girl in the miniskirt flicked back into view.
“Want me to tell you what I do remember?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Do you really want to know?” She seemed to be hesitating,
or working up her nerve.
“Why I’m here. What my plan was.”
“I just said I did.” Tim flashed a grin in her direction,
trying to be encouraging.
She shrugged her sharp exquisite shoulders and tossed back
her dark blonde hair.
The girl’s tan leather sandals had wedge heels and buckled
straps crisscrossing all the way up past her ankles. Tim thought they were
exactly the type of sandals an ancient Greek warrior would have worn, if the
Greek warrior had been a hot girl who by virtue of her extreme hotness did not
actually need to fight battles.
Tim gave her a long and measured look.
“What was your plan?”
“I was going to blow up the world.”
“From my particular context, it’s not that difficult. You
just need a rather large energy source.”
The girl was obviously crazy but he didn’t mind watching her
talk. No, he did not mind that at all. Tim resigned himself to the fact that
this was all a really weird dream. Maybe it would even turn out to be a sexy
dream. He’d give it some time.
That’s when the floor began to shake.
Bits of dust and stone rained down on them from the ceiling.
The tinny background music had mercifully ceased. Instead, he could hear a
shuddering, thudding, groaning sound through the walls and the floor.
“We have to get out of here!” the girl yelled.
The electric sconce tumbled to the ground, still connected
to its cable and housing. The cable buzzed and bounced. Sparks flew in every
direction. A patch of straw in the corner caught fire.
“HOW?” Tim shouted back.
“Check the walls. Check the floors,” she told him. “There
are panels hidden all over the place.”
Was any of this really happening, he wondered. But now was not the time to find out. He moved his hands through the straw and
along the cracks between the bricks. He was hoping the zebra girl knew what she
was talking about.
Even if she was crazy.
“I found one!” she shouted out. “Quick, come over here.”
One of the bricks was pulsing mauve. Mauve
to violet. The girl placed her hands on it and closed her eyes. She
mouthed a few words under her breath, very very quickly.
Was she praying? Chanting? Casting a spell?
“I need your help too,” she said. And the walls were shaking
and cement dirt was pouring down upon them and Tim was wondering what exactly
she wanted him to do.
“Put your hands here, next to mine.” He placed his hands
next to hers on the brick. “These doorways always work better with two people
operating than just one.”
The walls were still shuddering and groaning, but he noticed
the brick was changing color. It pulsed from violet to yellow, then through
green and pink, shifting hue at the center and expanding to the edges. He
The noises from above were getting louder. The floor was
starting to pitch and buckle. There was no way out. There was a screeching,
tearing, tortured sound from above, much louder than anything before, like
twenty refrigerators falling off a tractor trailer.
There was no way out. They were going to die in h-
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