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Insert Sanity

M. J. Francis writes lots of notes. Many of those notes turn into stories. He also tries to play piano (other people's notes), and sometimes blogs at mjfrancis.com and tweets as @AuthorMJF.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
My hand lingers in my pocket, fingertips contemplating the burden of coins.
Do it. One more go. You've got plenty of cash.
My kids' pocket money. Cynth told me not to forget it.
Go on. They won't miss it. What do kids need money for? You buy them everything they need, anyway. One more game.
I should go now. Time to pick Simon and Josie up from school.
Let your wife do that.
She's at work.
Doesn't she finish early on Friday?
She goes shopping. Starts the dinner while I'm out.
Order in. Let her get the kids. Play the game.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
How long have I spent playing this video game? Never progressing beyond the first level. Always losing my Sanity points, defeated by the nightmares in that digitized house.
But maybe...
I thumb the pennies, staring at the coin slot in the black wood casing of the games console. A coin slot in a video game console...
You know the kids won't miss the money.
I turn away, almost run away, snatch my car key from the tarnished metal hook by the front door. I press my hand to the scanner plate, hear the electronic buzz and click of the door lock.
But I don't push the door open fully. I turn, look at the screen.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
You can have one more go.
My watch says 3:30p.m.
Go on. One more.
If I didn't have the kids....
Outside. Escaped. But even now, if I shut my eyes, I see the words humming white and eerie in the semi-darkness. So I open them and see a plastic ball-head Cheshire Cat impaled on my car aerial. One of Cynth's jokes?
Go back inside. Forget everything else. You didn't even turn the TV off, that's how much you want to play.
I get in the car--quick. Doesn't take long to reach the school, collect the kids and I endure their usual pokes and prods and moaning at each other and me.
"She hit me" and "Tell him to stop"--the words sound robotic after the umpteenth repetition.
You could turn the car round. Exit here. You'll be home in no time. Just you and the game.
But I've got the kids. Sure, Simon's got karate for a couple of hours later, but after that....
"Simon?"
I catch a glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror, staring, mouth hanging open--and his eyes... Jeez, what's up with his eyes? They're completely white. I pull over, sharp, onto the curb and get out and yank the rear door open.
"What's wrong? Simon?" Tapping his face, cheek not turning red. "Hey, buddy."
My heart's pounding.
You need to relax. Chill out. Play a game.
I punch the emergency number into my phone.
Wasting your time. You don't even have kids, do you?
What?
But you have the game...
Can't get a signal. When I look back in the car, Josie's the same as Simon. But Simon's changed position. Still rigid, but he's moved: arms outstretched, palms face up in freakish supplication. Both kids wear the smiles of wicked clowns.
"Oh shit oh shit snap out of it," I say, as if they're playing a trick on me.
The hospital isn't far, but when I get there the kids have vanished. Seats are empty, and they aren't curled up in the footwell like vacant husks.
See? You don't have children. But you do have the game.
I head home. Calm. As if this is normal--nothing to worry about. I'm not worried. Why?
Before I go indoors, I don't check to see if the kids have reappeared. But I do look at the Cheshire Cat, still grinning sardonically from his aerial viewpoint.
Your car doesn't really have an external aerial. It never did.
But it does. Mine does...
I turn back to the front door, place my hand on the palm scanner. Wasn't there a time doors required keys, like the car? Didn't I have a door with a keyhole?
The mechanism whirrs then clicks and I push and I'm inside. First thing I see is the screen, glaring at me in the dim afternoon light.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
It's 5:26p.m. Where's Cynth? She's usually home now.
Don't worry. Play the game.
I must call Cynth, find out if she's held up in traffic.
You don't think she'll ask how the kids are?
Oh shit. The kids. I need to find them.
Relax. That was a joke. You don't have kids, remember? You don't have a wife, either. But you've got the game.
I do have a wife. I had kids. I remember. Every Friday, Cynth would make dinner and after dinner I'd take Simon to karate class. Same routine every week. And I--
You play video games.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
I never did. I had a job. Did I lose it?
So, shit happens. Stop fretting. Don't analyze. Have fun, play the game.
But it isn't fun. The demons catch me. Sanity points reduced to zero. Game over. Repeat and repeat.
One more go. You will escape.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
Escape... I think I did. I bailed out on my family. Why?
I remember a room with a chair and computer equipment, like a lucid dream. Someone putting a helmet on me. God, I can feel something right now--feels like needles embedded in my temples.
Tentacles burrowing into your brain. Escape the monster. Only one way out. You know what to do.
Insert coins for more Sanity.
I dig into my pockets for the money I was supposed to give... Who? Never mind. I reach into my pockets and pull out--
A handful of dull metal pieces, shaped like teeth. Where's my money?
The white text blinks and blinks and curls up like a crescent-moon smile:
Insert Sanity for more coins.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 12th, 2015


I tried virtual reality gaming last year with the Oculus Rift. The sense of immersion was astounding. I started to think about what might happen as technology progresses--computer graphics and AI become more and more realistic. Imagine someone turns to the virtual world to escape the real one; but it's so realistic it becomes mundane, and they forget what real is.

- M. J. Francis

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