A Line of Code
By Ryan Matejka
Based on the writing prompt: After suffering through years of depression, you learn that you and everything you've ever known is in a computer simulation. More importantly, you've discovered how to contact the simulation's creator.
The razor burns against my forearm, criss-crossing with the scars from last week and running parallel to those from the week before. Blood follows slowly behind, oozing gently upwards from beneath the layers of skin to decorate my otherwise pale complexion.
Happy birthday, mom. I know I promised you that I wouldn't cut myself today. I promised I would put on a brave face, go to school, and think only of the good times we shared. I promised I would celebrate your life instead of wallow in your death. I know that's what you would have wanted.
I hope you can forgive me, given the circumstances. It's difficult enough knowing that today would have been your birthday. It's so much worse knowing what it became.
Only one mark today. I can give you that much, though it's far less than you deserve.
I stretch my arm out in front of my bedroom window. The blood shines in the sun's rays. It's beautiful, in a way.
Dad knocks on my door. "Honey, are you alright? What's taking so long?" he asks, twisting the doorknob and pushing only to find the door won't budge. "Sweetie, I thought I asked you to not lock your door anymore."
"I don't feel good," I say, quickly hiding the razor at the bottom of my desk drawer and rolling the black sleeve of my shirt back down over my arm. "I don't think I should go to school today."
I crawl back into bed and watch as dad's credit card appears between the door and frame, angled downward as he slides it to disengage the simple lock. "I'm coming in," he announces before entering.
I turn to face the wall. I don't want him seeing me right now. I want to be invisible. I want this to be any other day. I want this to be a very long, bad dream.
My latest mark aches from under the pillow.
Dad sits on the foot of the bed and gently puts a hand on my shoulder. "Are you sure?" he asks. "You're not sick, are you?"
I shake my head.
"And you don't think you could just give it a shot? Maybe go to one class or two and see how it goes? You could always walk home early."
I shake my head and then bury my face into the pillow.
"That's alright, honey," he says, patting me on the shoulder. "I'm not going to force you. I've got to go to work today, though. Maybe after I get home we can do something together? I'll order something delivered and we can stay in and watch a movie."
"Maybe," I say into the pillow, holding back tears.
Dad exhales. He leans in to embrace me. "I love you," he says before giving me a final gentle squeeze and then heading out to work.
Life is unfair, random, and meaningless. Life does not discriminate and it does not grant favor, and neither does death. You're born, you grow up, and then you die. Twenty years later and nobody will even remember your name. Your life is built upon the broken bones and dreams of the people you'll never know existed, and in the end you'll just add to the pile.
Mom is just another corpse in the pile, and the most loving thing I could do right now is to join her as soon as possible.
These thoughts swirl around in my head like debris in a tornado for hours until some unseen force compels me to get up and out of bed. Maybe it's my survival instinct or the memory of my mom, but something tells me to go for a walk. Something tells me it will be good for my head.
It's snowing outside. The sub-freezing winds bite at my exposed cheeks until I bury them in the neck of my jacket. It kind of works; it's hard to think about anything except how cold it is. I suppose mom would say that anything is better than dwelling in my sorrows. Then again, I suppose what she would say is irrelevant when she's not around to say it.
Ahead of me, some idiot is standing at the edge of his open garage wearing nothing but a bright red swimsuit, gold-rimmed reflective sunglasses, and white flip-flops. He's tanned, toned, and blond-haired like the cover model of a men's fitness magazine. I wonder how he can survive like that in this cold until I see what I suspect is the primary reason; he's holding a brown-tinted beer bottle at his side, tapping on it with his index finger, and there's about half a dozen more sticking out of a nearby snowbank.
He turns to me and offers his beer up as a salute. I ignore him and continue on my way.
"Want one?" he asks just as he's out of eyeshot.
"I'm not twenty one you pedophile," I bark back without looking.
"Oh come on! Don't you have something to celebrate?" he hollers, and I stop dead in my tracks. I turn around, wanting to scream at him, but a gust of wind suddenly picks up and catches me off guard, pushing hard against my back and forcing me to stumble toward him to keep from falling against the concrete.
"Woah, woah!" he says, watching and laughing before putting the rim of the bottle to his lips for a drink. "I don't think it's safe for you to be out there in this weather. Come on, join me and have a drink until it's safe."
"You've got a heater in there or something?" I ask, planting a leg out in front of me to keep the wind from pushing me over.
"It's certainly warmer than it is out there," he says, then grabs a bottle from the nearby snowbank and holds it out to me.
Now I'm feeling like the idiot out of the two of us, wandering around in the freezing cold because of some stupid feeling I got that it could actually help me in any way. I should have stayed home and raided the liquor cabinet like this guy. The problem I've got can't be solved by something as trivial as a walk, it can only be treated with something as powerful as booze.
I struggle against the wind to join him at the edge of the garage and am greeted by an almost tropical sense of warmth as soon as I take my place in his shadow. He effortlessly twists the cap off the bottle and hands it to me. Truth be told, I've never had a beer before. Mom was always more of a wino and dad thinks that drinking scotch makes him somehow more sophisticated. I give it a whiff. It smells like bitter old bread, but I suppose it's not the taste that matters as much as the effect.
I drink half the bottle before I need to come up for air. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
"See? That'a girl! Who are we drinking to today?"
"Shut the fuck up," I say, swing the bottle up and finish the second half without hesitation.
"Alright, alright," he says, grabbing another bottle from the snowbank, twisting off the cap, and trading it for my empty bottle which he throws aimlessly into the garage behind us.
Wherever it lands, it doesn't make a sound. Not a crash against the ground, or a clatter into a pile of similar bottles, or even the gentle swish of it landing in an empty bag. I turn to find where it landed, but the garage behind me is pitch black, like my eyes haven't adjusted from the bright white of the snow outside yet.
I blink half a dozen times, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but they never do. It's like the garage doesn't exist.
"What the hell?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry. Lazy job on my end. I didn't bother rendering the interior," he explains.
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, right. None of this is real," he says. "You're not real, this place isn't real, and your mom never really existed."
I stagger away from him, careful not to set foot into the black interior of his garage but not wanting to wander back into the cold either. "How do you know about my mom?"
"Because I created all of you," he says like it's some sort of punchline to a joke. "I'm the operator of this simulation."
"You mean like, none of this is real?"
"That's the idea," he says, cheerfully. "And I'm your god!"
You'd think I'd need more convincing that everything I know isn't real and that I've somehow stumbled upon god, but it's pretty much par for the course. Life is still unfair, random, and meaningless.
It occurs to me that I must be like a pet to him; some sort of fish he's affectionate toward but ultimately doesn't give a shit about. I suppose I should be honored to be in his presence, but really I'm more annoyed than anything.
I throw the full bottle at him, but it arcs wide and misses him completely. "You asshole!" I shout. "You're telling me that it's your fault what happened to her? It's your fault she went missing? It's your fault she was held prisoner for three days, raped and tortured until she died on her fucking birthday of all days? You took her from us!"
"Woah woah, hold on now. I'm here to make amends."
"Make amends?! Bring her back! If you really are the creator and operator of everything I've ever known, I demand you bring her back! Make it like it never happened!"
"I'm afraid I can't do that. That's not how the real world works, and this is so far the most advanced and realistic simulation we've ever developed. Interfering with something so large as that would compromise the whole point of the system. What I can do, however, is offer you an opportunity."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, to put it bluntly, I can copy you out to somewhere else. Like any file you've used on a computer, I can make a copy of you to take your place in this world while transferring the original you to a new location. I'd do it when you're asleep, so you wouldn't notice a thing and neither would my investors. I've done it before."
"What do you mean, a new location?"
"Back home I'm running a dozen smaller and less complex simulations. You could live in an eternal summer camp with kids just like you, or stay at an all-inclusive tropical resort where your every wish is fulfilled for as long as you please. I can't reunite you with your mother, but I could take you somewhere where you could be happy forever with people who know what it's like to suffer and then have the reality of their world shown to them."
"And what about my copy?"
"It's best to just not think about her. She would only be like you in data, but she wouldn't be the real you."
I think about it for a moment. I take the time to absorb every word. I'll never see my mom again, but that's nothing new. I can either stay here and deal with my mom's death and my dad's emotional distance, or I can be whisked away to a dream world without school, or reminders of the past, or friends who'll never understand my pain; a place where I'll have the time to move on.
But what is there to move on to in a perfect world? Stuck as a kid in summer camp forever? Stuck in a place where I never have to deal with conflict or consequence? What about change? What about new people, experiences, struggles, and well-earned accomplishments?
"What about my dad?" I ask.
"I'm afraid this deal is for you and you alone," the man explains.
"And what if I say no?"
"Nobody ever says no."
"But what if I do? Don't you have to erase my memory or something? Isn't this very conversation a huge interference with whatever test you're doing?"
"Simple. I snap my fingers and you wake up in your bed with only the faintest memory of an odd dream you had about some hunk in a swimsuit standing in the snow. But I warn you that this is a one-time offer."
"Well in that case I'll definitely have to decline."
"What? Why?" the self-proclaimed hunk asks, looking genuinely confused.
"Because, frankly, I think you're an asshole. You created us, gave us sentience, and then put us through meaningless pain? What kind of psycho does that? You could have made this world without conflict or you could have taken away our self-awareness. You could have literally just not made grief and pain exist. But no, you create us and make us suffer, and then you feel bad and think that cherry-picking a few of us to win a free eternal vacation will make it better? Fuck you. You're not doing this for me or anyone else, you're doing it for yourself. I want you to know that you're an asshole and I don't forgive you. I hate you."
"Are you done now?" he asks, impatiently, then takes another sip of his beer. "Are you done throwing your little tantrum? Did that make you feel better?"
I want to punch him in his fucking face. I want to break that bottle over his teeth.
"You think your words mean anything to me?" he asks. "You're an ant. You're a line of code."
"And what makes you so certain that you're not?" I ask.
The man's grip visibly tightens around his bottle. Trying his best to keep his composure behind his reflective sunglasses, he raises his empty hand and presses his middle finger to his thumb.
"Try not to cut too deep next time," he says, then snaps his fingers.