The note inside the plain white envelope with a single movie ticket enclosed reads, “Welcome to your personal multimedia virtual reality show of terrors.” Seems a little over the top. I’m standing out front of the place typed on the return address label, The Shockplex. It’s that old discount theatre down on 9th street. It was overdue for a major remodel when I used to go as a kid. Last time I was in there to catch a flick, most of the seats were busted or had so many smeared pieces of Junior Mints smashed into the surface that I was sure to leave the theatre with a brown stain on my shorts. But a free ticket is what it is, and I got nothing better to do.
I hand over the envelope and the ticket guy out front ushers me through. Before heading to the concession stand, they make me fill out all this paperwork. The usher says it’s just a formality. He tells me to think of it as a tiny inconvenience that everyone must endure in order to make the experience that much more terrifying. I roll my eyes and put my chicken scratch on the documents.
A designated staff member walks me down the hallway to the left, through a doorway, another left, past the theatres I visited as a child, and into total darkness.. He warns me to watch my step and says the darkness will only enhance the experience. We push through a set of double doors and he guides me to my seat. I’m the only one seated in the theatre. Seems weird but maybe I am early and the other patrons haven’t arrived yet. It’s so dark I can’t even see any other seats. He attaches me to a series of monitoring equipment including a cuff to measure blood pressure and a few sticky tabs with leads to track my heart rate. He mumbles as he works that this is another precautionary measure in case they need to abort the viewing. Yeah yeah, all part of the experience. I tell him I can handle it, but he says it’s there just in case.
A virtual reality style helmet equipped with surround sound is fitted over top of my head. It’s shaped similarly to what an astronaut would wear. The upper right corner of the viewfinder displays all my vital parameters. The staff member flips a switch and a voice streams into the helmet.
Welcome Mr. Beckman. My name is Carrie, head of customer support. We are so glad you could join us today at The Shockplex and hope that you enjoy the show.
It is important that you remain seated in the upright position for the entirety of the film. The wrist and ankle straps being secured are to ensure that you keep in contact with the chair at all times. This is a multimedia experience. You may endure sudden bursts of air and temperature changes. The seat is equipped with sensors and you may feel vibrations or sudden jabs into your back. Any liquid being thrown at you is just water. The sticky gob of material underneath your shoes that is causing your feet to stick to the floor is merely from the last patron who kicked over their soda during the movie. Nothing to be alarmed about.
Now sit back and enjoy the show.
Roll credits and a blurred image comes of a rundown medical facility lying on its side comes into focus. It’s dusk. The image rights itself and the camera pans across the lawn to show uncut grass, broken glass, and bright red gallon overstuffed medical waste bags with black biohazard symbols litter the yard. There’s a single tree off to the right. Its branches, bare of leaves, twist and stretch out in all directions, like hands reaching off into sun-cast shadows. A single knotted rope hangs down from the tree and swings in the breeze. The hairs on my arms stand erect as I feel a sudden cool breeze. Nice little effect.
The image of the hospital comes closer into view. It’s like I’m watching one of those point-of-view or “found footage” films. The camera shakes and jostles and makes me nauseated. Overgrown ivy snakes up the walls and stabs through the shattered glass windows of the hospital. A hand reaches for the handle and the door swings open.
Inside it smells like a mix of old rotten flesh with the burning stench of formaldehyde. Lights flicker overhead and there is a soft buzzing noise. The camera dips down to focus on hands that are now smeared with a thick black grime. A sharp turn to the right and the camera bursts through a door into an old bathroom. It hovers over a single toilet for a second, black specks floating in the water. A chunky mix of green fluid splatters the inside. I feel part of the backsplash hit my face. Gross. My tongue swirls a sour taste around in my own mouth.
The camera jitters and moves toward the bathroom sink. The faucet sputters but turns on. A hand cups the water and brings it upwards. I feel a cool sensation slide down my throat and it washes the previous bad taste away. The camera focuses on the mirror and I see a reflection of myself staring back. The graphics in this movie are ridiculous. I wonder how they were able to import me into the video this quickly?
I attempt to head back out into the hallway and notice the camera angle follows like we are now connected and I am controlling the video. I need to figure out where I am. Hanging in front of me is a particle board bulletin board littered with the same flyer. It reads, “Missing Patient! If seen, please report to the guards immediately. This patient is considered unstable and highly dangerous.”
A picture of my face is posted next to the warning. But, something is wrong with the picture. It’s me, except, it’s not. I never had hair that long and matted and there are heavy bags hanging underneath the eyes. The image has a strange grin, the lips pulled back too tight. I reach a hand up and notice my hair now matches the image. Well, that’s creepy.
I need to think. Thick cobwebs fill my head and I feel like I’m floating. It’s like I can actually feel the effects of sedation wearing off. This virtual platform is insanely realistic.
Voices from down the hall break the silence. It sounds like two men and they are headed this way. A yellow light flashes in the corner of my eye and I see the heart rate monitor shows a spike. A sense of panic comes over me and I race into the closest room and close the door. If those posters are correct, they are probably looking for me.
This room looks like a tornado ripped through it with overturned metal rolling tables tipped over, scattered everywhere. A green fuzzy mold grows in all corners of the room on the walls. The sweetly soured stench of rotten flesh from earlier is back and strong in this room. I listen and hear a strange noise, like someone crunching potato chips. Then I see the source of the smell. A severed arm lies discarded off to the side. I walk up and notice the skin wiggles back and forth. A closer look reveals a sea of maggots chewing and blindly crawling over each other grabbing every last remaining juicy morsel.
A cabinet hangs open on the one wall. Inside is a video cassette tape with the words “Play Me” written all over it. I haven’t seen one of these in forever. I search the room but don’t see a VCR anywhere. I hear the voices from just outside the door.
Okay. I need to find an area with a TV like a conference room or a waiting area at the front. Even a lounge or the patient wards should have one. The voices grow louder and the door I entered from cracks open. I grab the tape and race forward to the exit on the opposite side, dodge the overturned tables, and push through to dip out of sight back to the main hallway.
I take a few turns like I know where I’m going, like I’ve been here before but in a different lifetime. I finally reach a uniform cinderblock “T” junction. From the ceiling hangs a sign pointing left to the lounge. Maybe the lounge has a TV. I make the turn left. A row of wooden doors appears out of nowhere on the right side of the hallway. Each door has a small square window, lined with a series of bars. There are clipboards hanging on each door. Each one has a different name written across the top; Barkley, Baser, Beckman. Wait a minute. The lights overhead still their flicker and settle into a low light moan. I pick up the clipboard on the third door and see my name. Medical jargon is scribbled all over the front, the penmanship unreadable except for the words “dangerous” and “unstable”. I check the door and it’s unlocked.
A squeaky hinge cries out its resistance as the door swings open. The room is bare except for an empty cot sitting against the far wall and a small table with a few trinkets. The smell of moth balls draws me in like a strange comfort and I wander closer to the bed. I run my hand over the mattress, covered in old sweat stains, and feel deep indentations indicating it’s well-worn. This is all too familiar. I sense I’ve spent too many long hours in here alone.
I sit down on the cot and reach across to the table to grab a photograph. It’s a picture of myself with a woman that I used to love, Lisa. I shake my head to clear the fog that floats and distorts my memories. I haven’t seen Lisa for over a year. I never knew what happened to her, to us. One day she just didn’t come home from work. No calls. No note. There’s writing on the other side of the photograph. I flip it over to read, “Play the video to find the answer.” It’s written in my handwriting but I don’t remember writing it.
A guttural groan leaks through the wall, growing louder with each second. A warm breath hits my ear and sends shivers down my spine. I hold onto the bed as it shakes and vibrates across the floor. A swift kick strikes my back.
I spin to see that the wall behind me has changed to jail cell bars. A woman sits on the other side, rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around, hugging herself. A string of drool hangs from her mouth and drips onto the floor below. I know this woman, the one from the photograph. I reach my hand through the bars toward her. “Oh, Lisa. What the hell have they done to you?”
She slides back away from me, as if she doesn’t recognize me.
“Lisa, it’s me. It’s Jason. What have they done to you?”
She continues to keep her distance. I run my hand through my hair and realize I look completely different than what she remembers. I hand her the photo. She grabs it and brings it close to her face. After a minute, her foot reaches out to kick me. She points at the photo then back at herself only to laugh.
“What is wrong with you? Why are you laughing?”
She stops and stares right back at me locked in a cold stare. “Play the tape.”
“Lisa, please. Did I do this to you?”
She points behind me. There’s a sucking sound, like a suction cup being continuously ripped off away from glass. It’s coming from a drain in the center of the room. I lean in for a better look and a thick, red jelly-like substance, like thick clotted blood, bubbles up and out from drain. It starts to fill the room. I back up and the liquid follows, pushing me back out into the hallway.
The door slams shut and the lights cut off to leave me in total quiet darkness. All the doors vanish, even the one I just exited. I reach my hands out, turn right to head toward the lounge and shuffle forward, using the wall as a guide.
More voices and I pick up the pace. I need to play this video and find the answer before these men catch up to me. I still don’t know why they’re chasing me, but I know I don’t want to get caught. Instinct takes over and I run blind, with my hands out in front, hitting a wall at every turn. The heart monitor inside my helmet blinks an alert as I push myself further and faster.
Suddenly, I smack straight into an open door and it knocks me back. I dive into the room and slam the door shut behind me. I flip a switch and the lights burst on. I’m standing in the center of the lounge. There’s a semi-circle of chairs surrounding a single TV positioned in the center of the room on a rollaway cart with a VCR. I shove the tape in and turn it on. White static runs across the screen until it dissipates into a focused picture.
The inside of an old movie theatre appears on the screen. The place is dimly lit with floor track lighting. Speakers dusted with cobwebs hang on the surrounding walls. The smell of old popcorn and stale air fills my nostrils. Most of the seats have been removed and a single movie theatre chair is in the center. A figure is seated with arms and legs restrained by leather straps. A projector screen floats down from the ceiling.
I shift in my chair to test the straps and they cinch down tighter with each movement. The screen flickers and then bursts to life. A series of terrifying images flashes onto the screen, starting with real world terrors and then transitioning slowly to the strange and wicked. Images of famine and starving children appear with open wounds that fester with maggots blend into images of snakes and spiders, zombies and serial killers. The heart monitor inside my helmet tracks my reaction time and a spike is noted on that last image, the serial killer.
The screen goes blank once again and transitions to a new film. I watch as the snow-filled fuzzy screen turns into the inside of a dark room. It’s the inside of an old theatre, just like the one I’m actually sitting in. The movie screen focuses on a single chair in the center of the room with one viewer staring back at me. It focuses in closer. The figure is restrained and is wearing a white sleek helmet, similar to that of an astronaut but smaller. His shirt looks exactly like the shirt I put on this morning. I shift in my chair and the figure on the screen shifts back. I don’t want to admit it, but I know it’s true. This is me, illuminated on the big screen.
I try to eject the tape but it continues to play. I flip off the TV but it stays on. It’s not even plugged in and still the film rolls.
Sweat pools and drips down the inside of the helmet. A shadow appears on the screen. The camera view shifts to focus over behind the shoulder of the seated figure. Coming into the light is someone completely covered in surgical gear, the only thing visible are the eyes, familiar, like maybe the ticket man at the door. I close my eyes and focus, attempting to think back further. Images of doctors and ward attendants flash, with me being restrained in a chair. I struggle, attempt to leap out of my seat but the restraints bite back into my flesh, holding me still. I kick out, begging the image on the screen to respond. Instead, he remains still.
I watch as a gloved hand reaches across the helmeted victims neck. It presses something into his neck, something sharp, cold, and sterile. Blood pressure and heart rate skyrocket, blinking red and sending out warning screams into my ears. Warm red liquid pools down and drips onto his arm. The masked figure pushes the sharp object deeper into his neck before tearing the flesh across the front, severing the jugular and carotid and windpipe in one swift cut. The helmeted victim’s head on the screen slumps forward, blood pouring down and dripping onto the theatre floor. I feel very warm and then my helmet viewfinder goes blank.
Brooke Reynolds is a veterinarian from Charlotte, North Carolina. When she isn’t saving animals, she enjoys writing fiction. Her stories have appeared at such online and print markets as Massacre Magazine, Fantasia Divinity, The Airgonaut, The Literary Hatchet, Ghost Parachute, and Every Day Fiction. Her story “Dr. Google” won 2nd place in the 2016 Short Story Contest for Channillo, and her story “Bang Bang” won 2nd place in the 2018 Flash Suite contest for Defenestrationism. You can follow her on twitter @psubamit or check out her website reynoldswrites.org.