Billy and the Weird Chat Room
by Ben Knox
Billy stood in line in front of the video game store. The line of excited people stretched from the cash register all the way out into the depths of the shopping mall. Within the store itself, a hologram glimmered above the customers' heads, filling the otherwise wasted space with commercials to stimulate everyone into spending more money.
The hologram commercial showed a teenage boy reclining with a game controller in a dreary room. With each button he pressed, a chubby, mustachioed man on the TV smashed his head against a brick wall and a dissonant tune tinkled on a xylophone. The teenager sighed.
Glorious color flooded the room; Handel's "Halelujah" chorus trumpeted at full blast as two smiling, buxom angels floated inside. They came bearing a virtual reality headset which they placed on the awestruck teenager's head like a crown.
The teenager's surroundings morphed into a green wireframe grid. An electric guitar wailed, followed by the roar of a lion. The green polygons became a lush jungle, and everyone – customers included - had futuristic M-16's in their hands and war paint smearing their faces. A velociraptor burst through the ferns while a snarling ninja on his back brandished a katana.
"You're toast!" the teenager said.
"NOOOOO!" the ninja protested, popping like a gore-filled water balloon as the teen shot him.
“Yeaaahh!" the commando-angels cheered. The raptor fled with his tail tucked between his legs.
The scene dissolved to glamor shots of the VR headset as the narrator yelled at them,
"Hey, man! What you still doin' playin' games on a TV? TURBO ZONE puts you in the game! How? BRAINWAVE technology, man! Melt your mind with all five senses! Throw your TV in the trash and smell the gunsmoke! Taste the tear gas! Feel the... hey, take it easy, man!"
The angels were giggling and twirling the teenager's hair in their fingers while he blushed. Noticing the customers watching, they jumped to attention, playing it off as though nothing had happened.
"TURBO ZOOOOONNNNEEE! At a retailer near you! Only" he rattled off a lengthy price tag ending in nines.
Then it started over. The hologram never showed anything else, just that same commercial ad nauseam. By the time Billy could recite the whole thing from memory, he reached the sales counter where a pretty android beamed at him. “Billy, hi! Welcome back to GamePlace!”
Billy knew she was an android and not a person because this exact same “person” was working the cash register with the same hairdo and same chipper voice when he bought something 9 months ago. She read his face like a barcode and smiled at him with the impossibly perfect face of a magazine model.
“I'm here to redeem a Turbo Zone pre order.” Billy said.
“Say, you don't have a rewards card. Do you want to-”
“I've been in here a grand total of twice.”
“With a rewards card, you get a discount of up to-”
“That means 'no'.”
“OK! Did you know we offer a warranty for an extra-”
“It comes with a manufacturer warranty. Why would I need two warranties?”
“Skip all offers and put my Turbo Zone in a bag.”
“Thanks for choosing GamePlace!”
“You think I'd be here if all the online places weren't sold out?”
“Carlos, hi! Welcome back to GamePlace!”
"Billy, where have you been?” Mom said.
“Turbo Zone.” He waved the bag.
“Since when did you have a car?”
“Turbo Zone, not Auto Zone, Mom.”
"Aha. That completely clears up why you're back with something expensive in a plastic bag after giving the cat diabetes.”
The cat burped. He had eaten an entire bowl of sugary breakfast cereal before Mom caught him.
“Because, Mom, this bag holds the most advanced gaming experience ever invented.”
"Sorry, what's that metal box in your room?”
"Oh, one of those computers that follow programmable instructions which sometimes facilitate the playing of games, right?"
"Billy, we can't run out and buy faster CPU's and better motherboards anymore. When we're all dead, that thing in your room will still be the most powerful for something of its size, no matter what some TV commercial tells you."
"Turbo Zone plugs into your brain so you can play with all five senses. My computer can't do that."
"Billy, that's dangerous! That's for, like, paraplegics or fighter pilots or something."
"They couldn't sell it if it literally injected into your brain, Mom. You just wear it on your neck and it works.”
"Look at that price tag! This must have cost every penny you earned this Summer."
The door opened. It was Billy's Dad, back from his five mile run.
"Hey babe." he said to Mom.
"Guess how Billy spent all his summer savings?" Mom said, pointing to Billy's shopping bag.
"Is that a turbo zone?" Dad asked.
"Yeah." Billy said.
"With BRAINWAVE technology?"
Dad's sweaty face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. "Awesome!" he said.
Mrs. White was drinking coffee and reading the news on her laptop when suddenly a rock band made of talking pineapples, grapes, mangos, and a banana invaded her screen.
“FRUIT NOVA YEEEEAAAAH!” The pineapple screamed, tearing open a packet of candy and throwing its contents into the air. A piece landed in each band member's mouth, causing a magic glow to spread over them. They all raised their instruments in the air, jamming out in an overstimulated fervor.
“For crying out loud...” she muttered, hunting for the X to kill the video. She found it, then realized to her horror the same thing was still playing on the living room TV, the phone in her pocket, the watch on her wrist, and the display screens on her refrigerator, stove, and home security system.
Billy burst into the kitchen. His skin burned a reddish color, glistening with sweat as though he'd run several miles in the summer heat. Each breath came in a gasp. Glassware rang as he fished in the cupboard and thrust his empty vessel under the sink.
Billy flashed his mom a "thumbs up" without facing her. Glug, glug, glug.
"Working out with Dad, now, are we?”
"No, just lost my legs in an airstrike."
“Oh.” She remembered Turbo Zone. “I bet that hurt.”
"They grew back. The herbicide bomb finished me off, though."
"Yeah, I'm a tree-man."
"How about taking a break?"
"Can't. I'm about to respawn."
"OK. Enjoy your PTSD simulator.”
“Honey?” Mr. White called from the front door.
“I pulled the into the driveway and a candy commercial started playing on the car's GPS. Any idea why?”
Billy was an eight foot tall man with thick, chiseled muscles made entirely of mossy oak. Snaking up and down his pectorals and biceps were leafy vines wandering in a frivolous mockery of the steel machine gun in his lap. With fingers both like a man gripping a wrench and ivy ensnaring an iron gate, Billy scrubbed his weapon clean.
"The armorer will do that for you in, like, two seconds." Sam said. Seated beside him, Sam was almost the same as Billy except with wider hips, slender arms, and a crowning flower like a magnolia blossom. The petals drooped over her eyes like bangs.
Billy kept cleaning. “You hear that?”
“Uh, radio chatter, boots crunching the sand, that helicopter landing...”
“Metal sliding on metal.” Billy said as he continued to clean.
“Such a cool sound. It even smells cool. The gun smoke here smells just like it does in real life, did you know that?”
“Does the NRA pay you to say this stuff?” Sam said. “That rifle is never going to rust. You're cleaning a computer file.”
“Oh, sorry, not all of us work for a drug cartel and get to touch real guns every day.”
“Well excuse me, Mister 'This Gun Smoke Smells Real'.”
“C'mon, Sam. I can't have guns in real life.”
“So you clean imaginary gear here instead.”
“Well I do the same in my garage full of imaginary vehicles.”
“Wouldn't you rather emasculate a bunch of grown men by sniping them from 500 meters?”
“Acting pouty and helpless and luring them into a minefield is fun, too. Especially when I use the flower on them.”
Walking nearby was a soldier in a full combat load. At first glance, he looked human, except his skin was drained of color and mascara was painted around his eyes to a ghoulish effect. A hole in his cheek exposed the teeth of his lower jaw, like he had gone to war while celebrating dia de los muertes.
“Yoo-hoo! Excuse me!”
The zombie soldier turned. His eyebrows rose once he saw the talking plant's hips and eyelashes.
“I'm so sorry to trouble you, but I don't know if I can clean this big, heavy fifty cal all by myself!”
Something sweet cut through the industrial gun stench, like sunbeams through smoke. Billy's heart sped up as this perfume melted his defenses. God, she smells incredible. He knew some invasive agent was violating his brain chemistry, but he didn't want it to stop.
“Duh... um... fluh....” the zombie soldier said.
“Thanks, handsome.” Sam winked as he staggered away with her weapon.
The perfume vanished; gun smoke and oil flooded back in its place.
“Whatcha think?” Sam grinned.
“What on earth was that?” Billy said.
“This server allows mods, so I installed one to make pheromones come out of my head.”
Billy peered the soldier's way. He had field stripped Sam's rifle, eagerly scrubbing each part.
“That's messed up.” Billy said.
“You've got a virtual playground that looks, sounds, feels, and even smells just like real life, except better, and you use it to clean imaginary guns? Don't judge me.”
“But I like cleaning guns...”
Sam's hands found their way to Billy's head. Sam had touched Billy before, but without Turbo Zone support, it was like one action figure bumping into another. This time, Sam could have been in his bedroom with her fingers combing through his hair.
“Got it.” Sam said.
She produced a metal shard. “Shrapnel.”
“I cleaned your fifty cal!” The soldier wobbled under the massive weapon, his knees almost buckling.
“Thanks.” Sam accepted the rifle, hoisting it over her shoulder without effort. “Buh bye.” And with that, she vanished.
The doors to Billy's hangar closed with a boom. Standing with hands on his hips, he breathed a sigh of relief, savoring the odors of jet fuel and steel. “Welcome, Master Billy.” a robot voice spoke.
“Hey Nigel.” Billy said.
“A private message for you, sir.”
“I told you to delete my spam, Nigel.”
“It's from Sam, sir.”
Billy froze. “Sam? What did she say?”
“I'm going to a party tomorrow. Would you accompany me? Sam, picture of a cartoon heart.”
Billy removed the Turbo Zone module from his neck, stood up from his chair, and stared at the sunlight painting barcode stripes on his unmade bed.
“Did I just get asked out on a date?”
Billy carried a sandwich, chips, and glass of milk toward his bedroom when a shrill cacophony caught his ear. He stopped, tilting his head. The only thing Billy could picture was Mom or Dad bent over a keyboard playing a melody. The melody itself was respectable but the instruments were bafflingly bad, peppered with random noises as though they’d enlisted the help of the cat.
Billy stepped into the living room to see Mom seated before the TV playing an ancient video game. On the screen, a little man only slightly more detailed than a mens’ bathroom sign leaped around a codwebbed castle, slaying ghouls with a whip.
“Did you get laid off and have to downsize?” Billy asked.
Mom kept her eyes on the game. “I’d have sold all your stuff first.”
“Is this like those people who hoard vinyl records cause crap audio quality makes them feel all fuzzy and nostalgic?”
“I doubt I’m the only one reflecting on a simpler time when youths weren't putting their brains on a silver platter for our robot overlords.”
“You know what I can’t figure out?” Billy said, “You hate Turbo Zone, but you let me get one. Why is that?”
“My parents forbade me from social media, but I did it behind their backs anyway. If you get in trouble, it should be for misusing Turbo Zone, not for just owning one.”
“What do you mean ‘misuse’? It’s a video game, not a WMD.”
“They called it sexting when cell phones came out. I don't know what the hell they'll call it with Turbo Zone. All I know is if you're involved in it, you're out of here on your 18th birthday.”
“C'mon, Mom!” Billy said, “It's just for playing games!”
“Then you should have nothing to worry about.”
Dad poked his head around the corner, glimpsing Mom and Billy before the old game machine.
“Nerds!” Dad jeered.
“Why don't you club something over the head and drag it back to the cave for once?” Mom yelled.
“Ooh, look at me, I make all the money with my fancy IT job.” Dad said.
“Go make me a sandwich!”
Billy shook his head and left the room.
“Don't ping any weird websites with that thing, kay?” Mom called.
Billy slouched forward, knocking his forehead against the wall. “Got it.” he yelled back.
“Are you easily offended?” Sam asked.
Sam and Billy the plant people stood in an alley before a closed door. Glowing above the door was a neon sign which read, “The Greenhouse”.
“Does that mean it's my fault if something in there offends me?” Billy asked.
“If I don't like it I can leave, right?”
“And if you like it you can stay.” Her mouth twisted in a wry smile.
Billy stood in place, unsure of how to react to this. As he sank deep in thought, his surroundings melted away; desks and lockers coalesced into a rank and file grid populated by noisy students with backpacks. The cute female ones fell into intense focus amid the white noise, as if their very molecular structure resonated with a radar dish inside his skull. He would wonder if the vice versa were ever true. The tepid demeanor of the few he'd approached and talked to didn't lead him to believe so.
Billy faced Sam and said, “I accepted your invitation, right?”
“After you.” Sam held the door for him.
Pastel light bathed everything in a glow of fuchsia and crystal blue. Decorative ferns practically infested the place. They lined the walls, filled the booths, sat at the bar... One of them spun around and it dawned on Billy this thing had bare shoulders and intelligent eyes with long lashes. It sauntered across the room with a menu in one arm and a skirt hugging an hourglass figure. Impossibly delicate legs swayed with weightless elegance, no more than leaves twisted in an impressionistic suggestion of limbs and held that way by magic. Thorns adorned leafy arms like stegosaurus spines. Velvety rose blossoms adorned elf-like heads, deep purple crowns radiating hues saturated with such intensity that they tugged Billy's attention like a gravity well.
“This way.” Sam took his wrist, leading him to a booth occupied by two other creatures. “Billy, say hi to Nguyen and Keith.” Reclining in her seat, Nguyen was nothing short of a giantess, with bulging muscles and monstrous hips. Looking closer, Billy realized the sinews in her muscles were actually vines braided together like human anatomy. If you tugged the right vine, would she unfurl like a mummy? Billy wondered. Stretching from her skull and flowing out over her back was an inscrutable green mass. Must be a hairdo. Billy thought, until the shape split into a hideous grin, exposing needle teeth and glistening braids of saliva.
“Venus flytrap.” Billy observed.
“That's me.” Nguyen smiled.
“And I'm a praying mantis!” Keith said.
“Aha.” Billy said.
Gazing at Billy with an appraising eye, Nguyen said, “Nice catch.”
“Now there,” Sam said, her voice almost reproachful.
Billy was looking Keith's way. “So... How long have you been a praying mantis?”
“Two years. For a while I was into the whole, 'Oh, I'm a poor, innocent housefly and I'm caught in this web, you're a big bloodthirsty spider, please don't eat me!' thing, but then I met Nguyen and she preferred me as a male praying mantis.”
“I didn't think relationships ended so well for male mantises.” Billy said.
“Soooo much decapitation.” Nguyen grinned, giving Keith's shoulder a possessive squeeze.
“Guh huh.” Keith giggled, “How about you, tree man?”
“Oh, y'know,” Billy said, “limbs that grow back if they're cut off, vine attack... It's a good class to play as.”
“Flora vs. the Undead!” Nguyen exclaimed, “I knew I recognized you from somewhere.”
“Oh, you play, too?” Billy asked.
“Um... It's kind of a spectator sport for me.” Nguyen said with a demure smile.
Billy didn't reply. His attention had fallen to some posters framed on the far wall. With a logo like CEDAR CHEST, Billy half expected an ad for a furniture store. Instead, a busty woman in spandex winked at him, flexing like Rosy the Riveter while a green mane of foliage spilled over her earthy shoulders, which were traced with woodgrain lines. Different slogans adorned the other the posters: “Bad Apple”, “Barely Ripe”, “Don't Forget to Eat Your Vegetables”, etc.
“I already ordered for you two, kay?” Nguyen said as a couple of perky waitresses arrived with covered dishes. Waitress number one raised the lids, revealing steak for Billy and fried chicken for Sam. The second waitress followed suit, revealing salmon for Keith. When she raised the lid from Nguyen's dish, a tiny person gazed back up at them, posing with 'come hither' eyes and a hand on his hip like a magazine centerfold. He was drenched from head to toe in chocolate. Billy suspected this creature may have been pure chocolate all the way through.
“Hellooooo everyone.” the chocolate man said.
“Oops...” waitress number one said.
“What do you mean 'oops'?” Nguyen said, “I ordered this.”
“We're not supposed to serve that here.” waitress number one said.
“We're not?” waitress number two said.
“It's on the menu.” Nguyen said.
“But not outside of the 'no minors' section.” waitress number one explained, pointing to corner of the room Billy hadn't yet noticed; a closed door with a cartoon face. A tomato approached the door.
“Hey there!” the door said, “What's your birthdate?”
“January 1st, 1950.” the tomato said.
“Come right in!”
A carrot approached the door.
“And what's your birthdate, sir?” the door said.
“October 15th, 2026.” the carrot said.
“Sorry, buddy! Maybe in a few years?”
“Uh, I meant January 1st, 1950.”
“Ohhhhh! Come on in, then!”
Next came a party of four including a pineapple, grape, mango, and banana; all carrying rock instruments like a bass and keytar and sporting the well-toned figures of twenty-somethings who never missed a day at the gym. “Hi guys! Mind telling me your birth dates?” the door said.
“Are those the Fruit Nova candies?” Billy said.
Keith laughed, “Oh, them? You mean the biggest sluts in this whole place?”
“Did somebody say Fruit Nova?” the chocolate man looked up.
“Yeah.” Billy said.
“Where?” the chocolate man said.
“That way.” Billy said.
“I love Fruit Nova!” The chocolate man dove from his plate toward the door.
“You're kidding me.” Nguyen groaned.
“After him!” Nguyen called, leading Keith and the two waitresses in pursuit. Sam and Billy sat alone in the booth.
“Well...?” Sam said.
“They got four people chasing the little guy and you're looking at me?” Billy said.
“No! I mean, what do you think? Of all this.”
“Uh...” Billy's mind scrambled, “Crazy how we've gone from flat shapes on a TV screen to this, huh?”
“I know, right?” Sam grinned, “I try to have a life outside of the veggie community, but everyone loves to roast veggies these days. It's so annoying.”
“Roast veggies?” Billy repeated.
“Oh, c'mon! Hasn't anyone told you to 'go drink roundup'? 'Crawl under a lawnmower'? Or, 'Pollenate in hell'?”
Billy was unresponsive. He sat transfixed on the jolly door as Keith and Nguyen disappeared behind it. He looked away, but Sam had been watching him, and his glance toward the door had not gone unnoticed.
“It is a little more secluded in there.” Sam said.
“More conducive to two people enjoying each other's company without any intrusion.”
“Did you bring me here cause you wanted to glue me to a spiderweb and chop my head off?”
“C'mon, I'm not Nguyen.”
“Do you have a human form?”
“Err... not really, no.”
“You sure about that?”
“I'm not into dating as a human if that's what you're asking me.”
Billy let out a long sigh, rubbing his palms along the ridge of his nose.
Sam looked at him with an inquisitive tilt of her head. “Is something the matter?”
Billy wanted to say that yes, while the visit had been enlightening, he didn't share the prevailing enthusiasm for well-endowed plants.
“There's no need to be nervous.” Sam said.
“Nervous isn't how I'd put it.”
“What, then? You can tell me.”
“I... have to be somewhere important in a few minutes.”
Billy's heart of hearts reached into a hat full of crumpled papers. Rummaging through them, he blindly chose one, unfolded it, and read it to himself. Then he faced Sam.
“I have to go to chemotherapy soon.”
Sam was an expressionless statue. Crap. She's not buying it.
“Oh God.” Sam breathed.
Billy nodded solemnly, measuring each bow of his head to the very millimeter.
“Billy, do you have cancer?”
“I absolutely do.”
“Why didn't you tell me earlier?”
“I... didn't want to scare you.”
“But Billy, why chemo? Can't you get nanomedicine or gene therapy?”
“It's super-rare cancer that you can't treat with any of those.”
Billy would have been hard pressed to find a lost puppy more pitiful-looking than Sam. “I don't even know what to say.” she whispered, “Can you log back in during chemo?”
“Probably not. I'll be sick as a dog and totally unable to use a computer for a really, really, really long time. Maybe even forever.”
“Can I hug you before you go?”
Billy smiled meekly and spread his arms. They embraced and Sam told him thirteen different ways to get better soon and keep her informed of his progress. Billy tolerated this long enough to stand up with his palms pressed against the table and exit the premises with haste.
Billy's mother was still glued to her favorite childhood video game, slaying medusa heads and skeletons with holy water and crucifix boomerangs. Her husband strolled in, pretending to take interest in the outdated spectacle.
“Everything cool, babe?” he asked.
“You don't usually play games when everything's super.”
“I play games whenever I please.”
“Yeah, but usually you're doing productive stuff like earning PhD's or building evil robots in the garage.”
Sigh. “If you must know, I'm wrapped around the axle over Turbo Zone.” she said.
“Oh, gee, I dunno. If it had been around when you were in high school, what would you have used it for?”
“That's... not where my concern lies.”
“Why, what would you use it for?”
“The firewall is set up to give me a ring if someone contacts a porn site. It hasn't detected anything yet, but...”
“Wait, is that what you'd have used Turbo Zone for?”
“I didn't say that!”
“You didn't deny it either...”
“I'm not the one who bought one of the darn things, OK?”
Billy appeared. Mom and Dad stiffened, but their son just walked in a straight line without paying them any heed.
“Uh... Where are you headed?” Mom called.
“For a walk.”
“Weren't you playing Turbo Zone?”
“I want to take a break.” he said with a whiff of annoyance.
“FRUIT NOVA YEAAAAAAAH!”
Billy turned on his heel, marched right up to the TV droning in the other room, and changed the channel.
“Sluts.” Billy muttered.
Mom and Dad traded confused glances.