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From the comfort of your own home

“I’m requesting a refund for your 'virtual reality writing retreat'”

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May 30, 2023

MindFood Username or Email Address: Stella.O.Writer

Subject (select one): *Problem with Service*

Applications Used (select as many as apply): 

* Virtual Room with a View—Literature 

* Secret Grove Enhanced Yoga Retreat

Summary of Issue (max 400 characters): I’m requesting a refund for your “virtual-reality writing retreat.” While I was impressed by the tech (goggles were ergonomic, gloves comfortable, haptics responsive) and mechanics (setting was realistic, flora well-rendered), I was harassed, haunted, and had my work destroyed inside your virtual cabin. Plz refund ASAP. I am now novel-less and behind on student-loan payments. 

Details of Issue with Service (please be as thorough as possible so we may adequately assist you): Compose in text box below or else attach a .pdf, .doc, or .docx file.  

I should start with my apartment. It’s not a peaceful place. It’s a three bedroom apartment with an elevated subway line rattling right past our kitchen window. The walls are cardboard and there’s a roach nest hidden somewhere behind the fridge. So you’ll understand why a virtual-reality writing residency appealed to me. 

At the time, I was living with Jared and Amanda. It was Jared who sent me your website. “My mom’s been using it to avoid my dad from the comfort of her own home,” he said. Sorry. I have a tendency to clutter my openings with irrelevant details—“filler and throat clearing” as my creative-writing professor said. “Your prose is too timid to be published” was another of his gems. (Mr. Lucas had published one novel, to minimal acclaim and even more minimal sales. Every few years, I check online to see if he’s managed to publish a second one, and when I don’t see one I smirk.) But I have to get all this down. I’ve been living in your virtual writing retreat for the past few weeks, which means I’ve barely left my bedroom except for basic bodily functions, moisturizer application, a few calls to my parents, etc. I feel like I’ve been driven insane! By the beast. And by your service, which enabled the beast. 

I feel like I’ve been driven insane! By the beast. And by your service, which enabled the beast.

Another thing to say up front: I wasn’t in the best headspace when I signed up. Is there an emotional-distress escape clause? Ha ha. I’d recently broken up with my boyfriend, Brett. We’d been sleeping together for eight months when he asked me to move in with him. I said I wasn’t ready for that, plus I needed to finish my novel—“this year or I’ll drop dead”—and he smiled. “You can finish it here,” he said, gesturing from his gray couch. “You always say I don’t make space for you, but I’ve made a literal space.” And he had. There was a corner of the main room—about twice the size of a phone booth—with a circular table, a chair, and a lamp with a dusty shade. 

“This is right beside your couch,” I said. “I can’t work with you coming in and out, watching TV. I need a private space.” Still, it was sweet. The kind of gesture I’d always wanted. I guess what I didn’t want was Brett. When I told him, his face got so red I thought he might toss the lamp through his own window. Instead, he sent me angry texts for four days and then ghosted.

Anyways. 

The shipment was quick and well packaged. No problems there. The equipment was aesthetically appealing, if a bit early-aughts Apple in design. (We’re still doing gray-on-silver color schemes?) I told my roommates I’d be “staying out of their hair” for the next couple weeks. 

“Don’t get trapped in there or we’ll have to hack in and pull you out!” Jared said, with his usual weirdness. I set water bottles, chewing gum, energy bars, and mints on my desk. The plan was to work every night after hours at my (soul-crushing, life-draining) desk job and through the weekends. I put on the gloves, secured the heart monitor, and then slid the goggles over my eyes. 

The dark glass blinked white. 

§

I hadn’t anticipated appearing by the side of a virtual road, suitcase in hand, some miles from the residency. I looked around at the vectorized trees. A deer leapt across the road, hooves scuffing on the gravel. The noise-reducing headphones seemed to be working. I couldn’t hear my roommates. In the pretend distance, birds chirped. 

After I completed the calibration tasks, a cab pulled up. “Are you going to the residency?” the driver said, shouting across the empty passenger seat. It took me a minute or two to figure out how to pick up the suitcase. The driver smiled without offering to help. I was annoyed at his ensuing commentary (“So, whatcha working on?” “You ever read Dean Koontz? He’s a good one.” Etc.). It was snowing white dots that changed geometric shape as they fell. 

At the residency gates, I was greeted by a golden retriever bounding through the accumulating snow. The tongue was shockingly pink. No one else was around. I spun. The cab had vanished behind the trees. 

I reached down to pet the dog, yet at the last minute plunged my hand into the snow. I felt a blast of cold. (Just the fan on the gloves, but I won’t deny it made me shiver!) 

“Flannery! Get back here.” A woman materialized, rubbing her gloveless hands. She looked like she was around my mother’s age and wore a long, red scarf. I was starting to wish I’d spent more time on my avatar. I’d sped through the creation, giving myself only the rough outlines of my likeness—brown hair, medium height, etc.—because I’d told myself the only thing that mattered was the work. 

The dog barked and skittered toward the woman across the white plain. 

“Like Flannery O’Connor? A little on the nose.” 

“What?” The woman wrinkled her brow as she rubbed the dog’s neck. She straightened. “I named her after my real-world pup. Who died last year. Sorry you don’t approve.” 

“Oh, my god,” I said. “I thought you were an NPC. A bot. You’re real?”

“Cynthia Perkins. I guess you didn’t read the welcome screen. Few do.” (Already I was off on the wrong foot!) “We want the residency to feel real. Every avatar is operated by a real person, including the driver who dropped you off and, of course, the other residents.”

“Except the dog,” I said, regaining some authority.

We started walking toward the residency hall, which was Victorian-style, large, and white. (I’d picked the “Vermont Module—Winter Mode.”) Warm light seemed to spring from the windows onto the snow-covered lawn. 

“The animals and plants are procedurally generated, except for Flannery here, who is a stable program and a good girl.” 

Flannery wagged her tail. 

(I want to state I have no complaints about Cynthia, not even with everything that happened. She was professional and level-headed throughout.) 

I was jealous her full-time job was running a virtual-reality residency, but Cynthia explained she managed rooms in several programs. “Yoga weekends and silent meditation retreats, mostly. People love those. Like our slogan says, The only thing you need for metaverse mindfulness is your mind. Well, and MindFood proprietary virtual-reality gear.” She laughed. “Anyway, if you need me, just ring this bell.” 

She held out her empty, upturned hand. Suddenly a silver bell appeared with a wind-chimes sound effect. 

The inside of the residency hall was cozy, with a crackling fire and the clanking of pots in the kitchen. (In general, great sound design, although the nose attachment provided only the faintest whiff of smoke). In front of the fire, a ring of residents sat in upholstered chairs watching a man in a blue turtleneck stomp around the room, face red and mouth open in a silent scream. “That’s Felix, a feeling artist,” Cynthia whispered. The group clapped politely. “Not sure how well that came across in avatar format,” he said. 

Cynthia brought me over and asked the artists to introduce themselves. Other than Felix, there was Andrea (“I do post-Trump trash sculpture”), Eunice (“video stuff”), Thor (“God of thunder, ha ha! JK, I write screenplays”), and Soraya (“novelist—I mean, I haven’t published one yet or anything, but that’s why I’m here!”).  

Cynthia pulled a curtain aside to reveal several cozy cabins in the snowy distance. “Tap the laptop icon in the upper-right corner if you want to teleport to your studio.” 

I did so and materialized in front of a desk. My new desk in my new cabin. A glowing green orb floated above the wood, and, when I touched it, a menu appeared asking if I wanted a typewriter, a laptop, or a legal pad and a pen. All options will sync to your WordSky cloud account

I chose the laptop option. Then sat down to work. 

It was uncanny, clicking keys that didn’t exist yet still made sounds. I got about half a page of sloppy metaphors and confusing action down. I stopped. I felt like an idiot. None of the sentences were even revisable. The prose was like a freshman’s diary entry. Could you create real, meaningful work in a fake place? 

I went “outside” and trudged through the unfreezing cold, past the residency hall and out into the empty fields. The snow was falling heavier now, almost a blizzard. I cursed at myself. If I was going to waste a couple hundred dollars, I could have at least had a drunken weekend in Atlantic City. I marched to the tree line. Or rather, I tried to. The trees retreated as I approached. I ran and they flew back. The lawn was a treadmill. When I turned around, I was only a few feet from my cabin door. 

(I guess you know how all this works? Are you an actual employee of MindFood Tech? Or an outsourced and overworked office drone in some distant country? Probably only an auto-response bot…)  

Regardless, when I sat back down, I found the surreality of the experience helpful. Your advertisements weren’t false. It just took some time to adjust. I began to forget about the physical world. My cramped apartment, overflowing inbox, nagging parents, bored friends. The only things real in this virtual world were me and my words. They flew from my fingers. 

§

After I’d reached my two-thousand-word goal, I decided to log out for a break. I went into the (real world) kitchen, ecstatic and smiling. Compared with the smooth vectors of the residency, my small, in-need-of-cleaning apartment felt grimy and unreal. Everything was strangely clear. Dust floated visibly in the light.   

Jared was on the couch in his frayed hoodie, watching a show about dragons, or maybe werewolves. Something with fire and howls. 

“You’re looking happy,” he said, turning around. I could barely see his head. (He’s very short and doesn’t appreciate it being brought up.) 

“I had a good writing session.” 

“Awesome. Can I be a beta reader? When it’s finished.” 

I said sure, why not? Jared was trying to patch things up. He’d recently been responding to the (scattered) things I shared on social media with the thumbs-up and champagne-bottle emojis, because, a few months before all this, Jared had told me he had a crush on me. We were drinking on the roof of our building and I was complaining about men while he complained about women. Suddenly he said, “Maybe we should just date each other, haha.” The “haha” was a word, not an actual laugh. My face must have gargoyled, because he got quiet. I started to say something about “I like you, like, more as—” and he interrupted to say that he’d been kidding. We speedily finished our drinks. 

To be honest, I didn’t even like Jared as a roommate. He left magazines all over the common space and had never learned how to piss entirely inside the bowl. I’d been hoping he’d pack up and leave. He worked in cybersecurity and was always talking about going to San Francisco, “where the real tech money is.” But he stuck around, like mold. 

Since I’m being so open in this letter, let me confess something else to you: Part of the reason I’d been excited about Amanda moving in was that I’d hoped Jared would fixate on her. Does that make me a bad person? 

Back to the residency. I settled into a routine. I would write all day on the weekends and immediately after getting home from work. I allowed myself one hour of IRL outside time a day, to soak in the vitamin D and all that. I even made sure to go to the residency dinners, where we sat around steaming piles of inedible food and talked about our projects. It was actually inspiring. I was making progress! The virtual residency was working! 

Indeed, so much so that I made a big mistake: cashing in my vacation days for the year. I’d have a full two weeks free for nothing but the residency. I told myself I couldn’t afford a trip to Aruba or anything, so why not get serious about my work? Why not invest in myself?

I couldn’t afford a trip to Aruba or anything, so why not get serious about my work? Why not invest in myself?

Yes. Well. 

The problem started my second week at the MindFood residency. 

§

I was rushing to get back to my novel—my last writing session had been cut short for a roommate conference after Jared put out glue traps without asking. We had a squeaking, dying mouse under the sink, and Amanda was furious. “He’s gotten even weirder lately,” she whispered, rolling her eyes. 

I moved my avatar across the residency lawn, ideas bouncing around my brain like pinballs. Soraya and Eunice were talking by the fire pit. I waved. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a bear at the edge of the woods. A large black bear. I looked and the creature’s body seemed to stretch, extending as if the program were glitching. It blinked out of existence. All I could see were the vertical brown bars that represented trees. 

I went into my cabin. 

The computer on my desk was already open. And the words on the screen weren’t my words. 

I’d left off with: I went to the kitchen and sliced a grapefruit, but…. (I always leave my writing sessions in the middle of a sentence, so I have something to come back to.) Now it said: I went to the kitchen and sliced a grapefruit, but after sawing it open I realized I was holding two smooth halves of a baby’s skull. The brains spilled out on the table like maggots. Alive and writhing. I vomited. The maggots were an omen: my death was near. I sliced the grapefruit knife across my thin, freckled bitch wrist. Splurt!  

I knocked the laptop off the virtual desk. Then I flung the VR equipment onto my real desk. My breath was quick and hot. 

Tech support told me I must have accidentally turned on the “predictive text” feature. Whatever that meant. 

I shrugged off the episode. 

When I took my afternoon break, I checked my various social-media feeds and was disturbed. My ex had liked one of my posts. It was a screengrab from the virtual writing residency, showing my avatar standing outside the cabin with the caption I can’t believe this is my real (fake) life. Apparently, I’d only muted Brett on this particular app instead of blocking him. I clicked into his profile, caught flashes of his bearded face and recent meals, and then clicked out.  

I went back to the residency, back to writing, back to work. The words were as slow as molasses in winter.

A day or two passed. 

Mostly, the other residents stayed in their cabins during the day. Or perhaps their real-life job hours were different from mine. The one I saw the most was Thor, who seemed to regularly wander past my window. It unnerved me—both because he was obviously a creep of one variety or another and because he looked a bit like my ex, Brett. Bigger muscles, longer hair, certainly taller, but the kind of ego-boosting avatar Brett might have made.  

Where was I? Oh, yes. The next night, the beast appeared.  

§

I was writing by candlelight. Shadows flickered across the laptop. The windows were colored a single hex code of black. 

I’d reached a critical moment in my novel, the point when the protagonist—a young man struggling as a screenwriter in Los Angeles (basically me with a few tweaks to add “distance” to my work)—had to make a terrible choice that would reveal his true character to the reader and to himself. Something scratched at the door. 

I checked the noise-canceling headphones. They seemed fine. I typed a few more words.  

The scratches came again, rough and real. I assumed it was the digital dog, Flannery, and went to open the door. 

“I can’t play fetch now,” I said, then froze. 

A huge, black form hovered in the pixelated gloom. It was like a deformed bear with human eyes. Eyes as large as my hands. The creature was somehow flattened, too, as if it existed on a two-dimensional plane. 

The beast’s fur was just a slightly different hue of black than the background, but its teeth were white. Its jaw crept open, revealing a long, maroon tongue. Smoke curled out of its nostril holes. The smoke slipped into the cabin, like fingers. I could smell the burning.  

I must have screamed. 

I stepped back. The beast stayed still. Then it retreated, its flat body moving backward as if on a conveyor belt. I pulled out my bell to summon Cynthia, but the creature had already disappeared into the darkness. I couldn’t tell if it was still out there or if it had gone, or if I’d imagined the entire thing. 

My eyes adjusted to the fluorescent brightness of my physical bedroom. The sounds of the real world washed over me. The usual New York traffic. Neighbors yelling. One of my roommates was running the shower. 

“Are you all right?” Amanda shouted from the bathroom. 

“Yes, yes,” I shouted back. 

I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water. The sink was filled with unwashed dishes. A cockroach fled into the crack behind the green dish soap when I turned on the faucet. My hands shook as I put down the glass. 

A ripping sound behind me. I had to suppress another shout.  

It was the refrigerator door. 

“How’s the scribbling?” Jared said, his head inside the fridge. 

“It’s fine,” I said. “Good. Flowing.” 

He cracked open a can of lime seltzer. “Does the company have any exercise programs? Maybe I should sign up for a virtual kickboxing class and finally get in shape.” He made karate-chop motions in the air.

“I’ll check. Speaking of, I better get back to it.” 

I sent a message about the beast to the residency group chat. Cynthia replied a few minutes later saying there were no bear scripts in this room that I’m aware of. Thor wrote, lol you tripping on virtual shrooms? (I logged a formal complaint as well. The automated response said I would get an email response in five to seven business days. The email never came.) 

Still, I went back to work. What choice did I have? I’d already paid for the full month’s service and taken all my vacation days. I needed this. 

§

The second time I saw the beast, I was pacing in my room. Trying to figure out how to combine two narratively redundant yet geographically distinct characters. I looked up and the creature’s face was in my window. It filled the frame like a grinning curtain. The teeth clicked against the glass as it flapped.  

I ran outside. My heart was beating painfully and futilely, but I told myself it was just a program and couldn’t maul me through the goggles. 

There was nothing there. The outer wall of my cabin was a flat plane with a texture of wood. The window was blank and unobscured. I spun and saw nothing except the other cabins, large white clouds above, and the wall of trees encircling us.  

I couldn’t help it. I began to log off when night fell in the game. As soon as the sun so much as dipped behind the top pixels of the trees, I’d feel the start of a panic attack. A bloom of hot darkness spreading from the middle of my chest. 

Maybe this is the point where I should tell you that I’m terrified of bears. It started when I was young. My family was camping, at my dad’s insistence. My younger brother and I hated the woods, but my father said, “Even city kids need to get back to nature now and then.” It actually was fun, at first. My parents had to do all the work setting up tents while we swam in the cold forest pond and building a fire so we could roast marshmallows. Night came. We nestled into our sleeping bags. I awoke to rough, guttural sounds. My brother grabbed my arm as I reached to unzip the yellow tent. “It’s a demon!” he said. (He had a very active imagination.) I opened the flap anyway and gave a good, long shriek. 

The bear was digging into our garbage a dozen yards away. My father managed to scare it off by hooting and waving his arms. The bear was sickly, to be honest. Starved. Its fur hung off its bones. I could see the ripple of its ribs as it dragged away the bag of waste. It was early dawn. 

Anyway, I’ve feared bears ever since. An irrational fear, especially in the city. Still. It’s a fear I don’t tell many people about. This is how I started to think it was my ex, Brett, who was somehow virtually haunting me. 

§

Cynthia felt bad about the “bugs” in the program, as she called them. She said I was looking pale, in need of a break—even though my avatar was, of course, unchanged. “I’m gifting you a day pass to our Secret Grove Enhanced Yoga Retreat,” she said. “Your novel will still be here when you get back.” 

Cynthia felt bad about the “bugs” in the program, as she called them.

I took her up on it. Why not? Clearly, I needed a break from the virtual world as much as from the real one. 

My avatar appeared on a floating lily pad in a pond of lotus flowers. Distant chimes sang around us. Birds of all colors swooped in figure eights. A lithe instructor floated by, urging us to pose. To breathe. To exist. 

“Namaste, you groovy goddesses,” the guru said. The guru’s avatar was a shriveled old man with a beard that dipped past his loincloth, split, and then wrapped around his bangled ankles. But his voice sounded like it belonged to a California surfer bro. “Breathe deep. Set your intention. And then let’s invite some spicy energy into our hips.” 

Still, it was peaceful when the guru was silent. You could feel, or feel like you felt, the warmth of the sun. Glowing golden auras radiated from each bending body. Our range of poses was limited, thanks to the clunky gloves, but when all was said and done I was both energized and relaxed. My body felt renewed and my brain bubbled with ideas. 

(I guess what I’m saying is, if I can only be refunded with program credits, I will take a month’s membership at Secret Grove.) 

§

I suppose you know about the sex perverts. But as long as I’m spilling everything, it’s time to discuss Thor. 

The day after I returned from Sacred Grove, Thor showed up at my door, two beers in his hands. 

“I can’t drink that,” I said. “It’s not real.” 

“So grab one from your IRL fridge. I heard you were feeling frazzled. I came to help.” 

“You’ve got an idea to fix my third act?” I said, jokingly, but I kept my body in front of the door. The program’s physics didn’t account for body weight, though. Thor pushed inside and my avatar simply slid backward, into a bookshelf. 

Thor chatted inanely and incessantly for a bit, looking at the notes I’d pinned to my corkboard. Then he said, eyes narrowed, “Have you ever wanted to virtually fuck?” 

I made a sound that approximated a laugh. “This is an artist residency. I don’t think they programmed genitals.” 

Thor’s grin widened. 

He reached into his satchel and pulled out two VR sets. Virtual VR sets. They looked identical to your real ones. (Perhaps trademark violations can be added to the charges?) “Porn apps are banned on MindFood’s platform,” he said. “They have that bullshit family policy. But they can’t stop you from making an app inside the app.”

“Get out.” 

“It’s true!” 

“I meant I’m working. Leave.” 

One of the pairs of VR goggles was swinging from his hand, and I could see flashes of the screen. Exaggerated genitals. Luminescent fluids. 

“Come on, you want it.” Thor waggled the goggles. “I know the kind of guys you like.” 

“What?” 

Thor’s expression was unmoving, but his voice wavered. “There’s no safer sex than virtual sex,” he offered.  

“Leave.” 

I felt dirty, used, even though he would never be able to touch me, not the real flesh-and-blood me. I shoved him out the door. I logged out. 

§

“We’re ordering Indian and you’re joining,” Amanda insisted, leaning against the bathroom door. I’d been locked inside for the past half hour. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but you need to talk to some actual humans.”  

My stomach was rumbling. I’d been living on energy bars and seltzer water for days. 

“Feel like you’re a ghost,” Jared said as he tore us napkins from the paper-towel roll. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine.”

 Everything sounded too loud and looked too bright. I squinted at the table. 

Amanda started to talk about her ex, yet another wannabe novelist in Brooklyn, and said she knew “how dangerous it can be for a writer to detach from the world.” 

“I’m not detaching. I’m just getting some work done.” 

Jared wrapped a hunk of naan around a kebab, ate it like a hotdog. “That game’s a vampire. It’s draining your life away.” 

I went back to my room, angry and full. I spent thirty minutes composing a text to Brett. I won’t reproduce it here. Let’s just say there were plenty of curses, mentions of his inadequacies, sexual and otherwise, and an all-caps call to leave me the fuck alone. 

I had a good session. The words had style but also urgency. They felt honed yet organic. All those beautiful contradictions that make art real art. At least, that’s how it felt typing. I knew there was a good chance I’d look at those words later and hate them. 

Instead, after work the next night, I looked at the words and froze. They’d been changed. 

Not just in this session, but throughout. I scanned my files, all my work during the virtual residency, which  was supposed to be backed up in “fool-proof cloud storage.” I was the fool. Someone had gone through and changed the name of the love interest, Rose, to “Whore.” They’d put in crude sex scenes. Grotesque descriptions of bodily functions. Every so often, a character would be saying not one of my witty yet profound lines of dialogue but “Give up, Stella. Give up!” 

And then the final scene. Stella, this new character with my name, flees from a writing residency. Yes, that’s what was written. When she leaves the cabin, she trips and twists her ankle. She smells something. Smoke. She tries to crawl, cutting her arms on broken bottles that teens had thrown at her door. She’s bleeding and coughing. The smell of smoke is overwhelming. Stella was immobile, helpless and pleading to a nonexistent deity, when the claws of the ursine beast sliced open her back with its vengeful claws. 

I slowly closed the virtual laptop. I removed the goggles. I stared out my apartment window, barely registering the vacant concrete triangle the city called a park, feeling nothing at all except emptiness. 

§

Brett texted me back with bewildered defensiveness. Said he had no idea what I was talking about and he was worried about potential mental instability on my part. (“You’re still batshit, Stella!”) 

For once, though, your tech support was helpful. They found autorecovery files on the server and restored my manuscript. It was a few days out of date, and I’d have to go through on compare mode to see what was changed, yet I’d be able to get my draft back. Ugly and unfinished, but mine. 

I was fuming, though. I wanted to go around setting all the cabins on fire. Watch everyone’s avatars twist in the flames. And I remembered whose avatar was always around, watching and waiting.   

Soraya saw me storming across the yard. “Hey,” she said. “Stella, are you okay?” 

Squirrels blinked into and out of existence in the bright green grass.  

I went to Thor’s cabin. The last one, almost at the forest’s edge. Black smoke slithered from the chimney and vanished a few meters into the sky. I pushed open the door. 

Thor’s avatar was at his desk with goggles strapped over his face. His shoulders rose and fell. He was typing and laughing. The corkboard above his desk was untouched. 

“What the hell?” I said. 

Thor quieted. Froze. He removed his virtual VR goggles. I could hear faint moans from the headphones. 

He turned around, very slowly. His face was blank. Then, a little grin. 

“Hi, Stella,” he said. He flexed his arms. “Is this the kind of guy you like? Huh?” He held his hands out toward me. His fingers danced. He was typing something in the air. “Or this kind?” 

His arms and neck elongated, shooting outward from the joints. Fur appeared, strand by strand, until it covered his body. He grew toward the ceiling, smoke spilling out of his expanding nostrils. His laughter darkened, deepened. Became a roar. 

(In the real world, I pulled the nose attachment out to stop the smell of smoke.)

“You little weasel,” I said. I took out the bell Cynthia had given me. She’d have the admin powers to eject him from the residency. 

The Thor-beast saw the bell and jumped at me with an open maw. I flicked my wrist to ring. 

Everything in the room froze. 

His teeth were a few inches from my immovable hand. I twisted my neck (in the real world) but nothing moved in the program. My avatar was frozen. The screen flickered black, then blue. 

An enormous pocket watch appeared, spinning in the air between Thor and me. The room disappeared. Now I was staring at a red screen that said only Please recheck your connection

§

Probably by now you’ve Sherlocked this case. Deduced the culprit. Wagged your finger at my naivete. It seems so obvious when I write it down. It always does. But why don’t I understand anything when I live through it in my own body, in actual time? 

§

Jared was in the living room, fiddling with the router. He stood up, swaying. He had an IPA in his hand. 

“Wonder if the internet is down on the whole block,” he said. “I’ll call Optimum.” 

I stood in the hallway, away from him.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” 

“What?” he said. His lips were slimy, curled up slightly. He sipped the beer and tugged at the strings of his hoodie. 

“Thor.” 

“Who’s Thor?” Jared’s eyes sharpened. His lips grew thin. He hiccupped. “Sounds like a big, beefy blond guy. The kind you like, though, right?” He started pacing back and forth in our tiny living room, between the coffee table and the Ikea bookshelf. “The kind that turns you on. Right? All muscles and no brains.” 

I felt as though bugs were crawling all over my skin. 

Amanda had come into the living room at this point. I explained what had happened while Jared looked around like a silent, nervous rat. She didn’t seem to get it, at first, so I walked into Jared’s room and came out with a set of VR equipment. 

“What the fuck?” Amanda said. “Gross. Fucking gross.” 

Jared just paced there in his hoodie, holding his beer, sneering, starting to cry. 

§

Right. So that’s the issue I had with your service. I’ve given you the relevant details. 

Jared’s parents (he’s from Jersey!) moved him out a week later. I stayed at a friend’s until his moving day, but I came back to watch the worm leave. I guess he hadn’t told his parents why he was being kicked out, because his mother saw me and smiled. “How did you like the writing retreat? Jarry told me you had a good time! Was Cynthia there?”

I mumbled something pleasant while glaring at Jared, who was trying to maneuver his desk through the door. 

My roommates are my responsibility. My fuckups. But I don’t think you need me to count all the ways you’re at fault. Why was Jared allowed to join my residency room? Where’s your vetting process? How was he able to hack the avatar generator to create the beast? Do you have no procedures to stop someone else logging into a resident’s VR equipment? God, I can still imagine him sneaking into my room, sliding his greasy hands into my gloves, and stalking through my manuscript. 

I just shuddered typing that out. 

No. I’m not asking for understanding. I’m asking for money.

Now the whole novel is tainted. I can’t look through it without seeing his violations on every page. My time, wasted. The residency, a disaster. 

Amanda and I haven’t filled Jared’s old room. Our lease is up in a month. We’re going to get a two-bedroom somewhere a little cheaper. That’s all I seem to do these days. Move from one place to another. Somehow growing a little smaller and more constrained each time. 

What do you do when you realize the path you were supposed to be on veered off so long ago that you can’t even see the split? 

I hope a human being receives this and not just a bot. 

No. I’m not asking for understanding. I’m asking for money. 

I believe my account of events here is thorough, honest, and sufficient. I await your prompt reimbursement. 

“From the comfort of your own home” first appeared in One Story.

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