Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS the strangest thing she had ever seen, with tubes and wires protruding haphazardly from the bright blue orb that sat on the nightstand. It appeared to be some Japanese electronic gadget, resembling a cross between a gumball dispenser and a cappuccino machine on steroids. Closer scrutiny revealed what were no doubt instructions in many languages. Larraine perused the list until she found a single sentence in English: For dream, insert card. A large red arrow pointed to a nondescript slot just above an electronic display that read:
FOR ASSISTANCE, DIAL 666 223 5825
So far, the trip had been a huge calamity. This was to have been her last, grand adventure before tying the knot. Larraine thought it would bring her life into focus. It had only been a major disappointment. She had missed her booked flight. Damn. She didn’t know passports even had an expiration date. That took a week of her allotted three to straighten out. When she had finally arrived, her reservation at the beach-front resort had been cancelled. She ended up in a crumbling, old castle that had been used as a prison before its reincarnation as a cheap hotel. Surrounded by disintegrating hovels, it sat high on the hill above the resort, far away from the luxury of the beach. Larraine had a sink and commode in the tiny room, but the showers were located at the end of the tier. Her stomach had been queasy for the first week of her stay, and she had spent most of her time counting the tiles around the commode in her room.
Larraine had so desperately wanted an adventure that she was willing to try almost anything to salvage the remaining time before returning home. She SO did not want to be here, especially when it was one of those days when everything seemed to go wrong. She didn’t want to be here, but she didn’t want to go home either. This was supposed to be her big adventure. So far, it had been a disaster. Returning home wouldn’t be any better. It wasn’t going to be easy, but somehow she had to confront her mother. She would have to listen to the “I told you so” routine. Her mother had been dead set against the trip all along. “Larraine, what’ll you find there that you don’t already have here? Freddy is a nice boy. He’ll be assistant manager at the Sizzler in no time. Nice girls don’t take vacations alone.”
Given the prospects, what did she have to lose? Her hand trembled as she punched the number into the phone. After a series of beeps and tones, an operator with a thick, Oriental accent answered.
“Hello, this is Dora, how I help you?’
“Yes, I am calling about your machine. What does it do?”
“Oh yes, put credit card in.”
“I can see that, but what does it do?”
“Put credit card in, you get dream.”
“What kind of dream?”
“Yes, put credit card in, you get dream.” The phone clicked and the dial tone returned.
“Yes, what do I have to lose?” she said to the dial tone as she placed the handset back in its cradle. She reached across the bed and retrieved her purse. Deep in the bottom, she found her wallet and fished out her credit card. She looked it over while she pondered whether or not to take a chance. She glanced over to the blue orb. She swore that for an instant, the display read:
WHAT YOU GOT TO LOSE, LARAINE?
She blinked and looked at the display again. This time it read:
FOR ASSISTANCE, DIAL 666 223 5825
Larraine awkwardly worked the card into the slot.
She watched his lithe body saunter away. Watch out, remember you’re engaged. She had been sunning herself along the beach when the young man had come along. He was an Adonis. Their conversation started with a simple, “Hello, my name is Andreas.” They had chatted while the sun marched across the afternoon sky. They sipped tall, cool, Limoncello cocktails and walked along the beach. They agreed to meet for dinner and then dancing. Colors swooped and swirled behind her closed eyelids as the music soared, taking her back to sun, sand, and sea – total relaxation. So why couldn’t she let go? This is what she had wished for – an adventure, a real adventure. Larraine longed for a night of romance, a week of passion. She was weary of discount matinees with Freddy and his awkward groping on the couch. She wanted so much to give way to her desires, to make love with Andreas on the beach beneath the stars while the waves crashed upon the shore.
Larraine awoke to the irritating buzz of the phone next to her bed. She had arranged for a wake-up call each morning at 7:00 AM so she could get into the shower before her fellow touristas. The dream last night had seemed so real. But it was just a dream, right? She looked at the blue orb on the nightstand. Her credit card protruded from the slot. The display read:
YOUR CARD CHARGED $1 US
She pulled the credit card out of the slot and the display blinked:
TO CONTINUE, INSERT CARD — $10 US
FOR ASSISTANCE DIAL 666 223 5825
So that’s their game. See if they get 10 bucks from me! Still, she was quite frustrated that the alarm had awakened her just as Andreas was taking her in his arms. Although her mind told her it had all been a dream, her body was still flush with excitement unfulfilled. She looked at the display again:
WHY NOT TREAT YOUSELF?
She picked up the phone and punched in the numbers.
“Hello Miss Larraine, this is Dora, how I help you?’
“Dora, I am calling about your machine. If I put my credit card in, will my dream continue?”
“Oh yes, put credit card in.”
“I can see that, but will my dream pick up where it left off?”
“Put credit card in, you get dream.”
“But will it be my dream?”
“Yes, put credit card in, you get dream.” The phone clicked and the dial tone returned. Larraine stared at the blue orb. It’s only ten bucks, she thought. She reached over, tingling with anticipation and guided her card back into the slot.
The sun was soft and the boat rocked gently. It wasn’t so bad running out of fuel, until Larraine realized they might drift out to sea. She could just make out the windows high in the castle wall. Her window was one of those on the third floor. She wondered if anyone was looking or if anyone could see them, or if anyone cared. She lay on the sundeck. Champaign cooled in the carafe. Andreas’s hands were strong and soothing as he rubbed her bare back with tanning lotion. He had worked his way to the small of her back when he stopped. She exhaled in mild exasperation. He stood up and peered toward the shore. Silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky, he looked like a bronze statue. She rolled on her back in anticipation that his hands would find more to anoint.
“We drift too far,” he said.
“Won’t the tide take us back in?”
“No, I must try to swim to shore for help. Go to the cabin and find the flare gun. If I do not make it back in two hours, fire it off.” He ran to the side of the boat and dove headlong into the clear water. Larraine watched as he swam away from the boat. He had gone about 100 yards when she saw the first dark fin. In an instant, it was joined by two more knifing through the water. She called out to Andreas. As he turned, he yelled, “Larraine, get the gun, quickly, get the gun.” Just before she turned back to the cabin, she saw the fins swirl in a tight circle around Andreas.
Larraine awoke to the gentle rocking motion of the boat. On a small table next to the bunk sat the blue orb. The display read:
YOUR CARD CHARGED $10 US
I must still be dreaming, she thought. She jumped up and ran to the deck. The sun was low in the sky. She peered in every direction, but there was no sign of Andreas. Even worse, there was no sign of land. She rushed back into the cabin, frantically searching for the gun. Every compartment was empty. She clambered on deck to find everything gone. Not even the carafe and champagne were to be found. She returned to the cabin. The compartments, bunks and chairs were now missing. The only thing she saw, other than the hull, was the table with the blue orb sitting on it. She pulled the credit card out of the slot and the display blinked:
TO CONTINUE, INSERT CARD — $100 US
YOU KNOW REST
The deck above began to dissolve. Not knowing what else to do, Larraine shoved the credit card back into the slot.
The storm whipped the trees outside and she huddled into her quilt. The building shook, lurching and jumping, and the little china horse fell off the mantel. She knelt on the tile floor, carefully picking up the shards of glass. Why this one? Larraine examined the fragments in the dim candle light. She could not hold back her tears as she cradled the pieces in her hands. It was the one Freddy had bought her back before she had run off on the ill-conceived adventure to discover herself. She had broken Freddy’s heart when she returned with Andreas. It wasn’t until later that she would find out Andreas had married her only to gain entrance to the US. He now spent his evenings drinking and womanizing, while she sat weeping, wishing that she had never gone on the ill-fated trip, wishing she had married Freddy instead. Shadows quivered on the wall as the candle flickered, then fizzled to nothing. She ducked as the plate smashed against the wall behind her. Andreas had returned, drunk again. He lunged for her, but fell over a chair as she ran to the bedroom.
The blue orb sat on the chest of drawers. Larraine glared at the display.
YOUR CARD CHARGED $100 US
BETTER TRY AGAIN
She snatched the card from the slot. Immediately the display changed:
TO CONTINUE, INSERT CARD — $1000 US
NO FOOL AROUND, LARRAINE
She roughly jammed the card back in.
The chattering birds made her smile, until she heard a growl. She looked up toward the house. Fierce eyes flashed in the gloom behind the window. The prickles on her neck told her she was being watched. Larraine hid in the bushes at the side of the house while Andreas thrashed about inside. This was her chance to escape. During his transformation, there was a brief window of opportunity in which she hoped to make her getaway. The back door crashed open. Andreas, in mid-transformation, tumbled down the steps and sprawled in a grotesque heap. Barely recognizable as the handsome young man she had so foolishly married after a lust-filled week, he writhed in the dirt as the hair grew on his misshapen limbs and fangs shot out through foaming lips. Her only hope was to make a dash for the car. If she could only get inside and lock the doors, she might have a chance. Andreas lay between her and the garage. She braced herself, then sprang forward down the path. Ten strides and she leapt over Andreas. His eyes, filled with rage, followed her as she landed in full stride beyond his grasp and disappeared into the garage. Larraine slammed the door shut and threw the bolt. As she turned around, her heart sank. No car.
She dropped to her knees before the blue orb. Her tears formed tiny globs of mud as they fell onto the dusty, earthen floor. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand as she looked at the display:
YOUR CARD CHARGED $1000 US
YOU WIN FREE DREAM
Larraine yanked the card from the slot. The display flashed a new message:
TO CONTINUE, INSERT CARD — NO CHARGE
With trembling fingers, she held the card above the slot. She placed it at the opening, but it would not go in. She tried again. Still, the opening would not accept the card. Raising up, she brought the weight of her body down on the card, forcing it roughly into the slot, edges grinding in resistance until it finally disappeared into the machine.
She slammed forward as the brakes screeched and the car skidded to an abrupt stop. Larraine looked at the letter that had flown off the seat and now lay on the dirty floorboard. She looked in the rearview mirror. No sign of the beast thing. She loosened her seat belt so she could retrieve the letter, then flung open the door and ran across the street. She hesitated at the post box, not knowing if she should really send the letter. It seemed foolish, but she wanted to apologize to Freddy. One act of contrition for the harm she had done to him. All she had to do was drop the letter in the chute, get in the car, and drive until the nightmare was far behind her. She watched the letter disappear into the dark recesses of the post box. Suddenly, she heard a wrenching scream and the sound of shattering glass. Larraine looked back to her car and gasped. The beast thing was pounding car windows with its club-like fists, sending shards of glass flying. It ripped the door off its hinges and stuck its grotesque head inside, letting out a howl of rage. Larraine spied a narrow opening between the buildings and quickly slipped around the corner. The lane was night-dark, even at noon. Through the gloom, she could see this was a dead-end. Trapped. A rat in a maze, a tiger in a cage, every cliché she could think of — she was trapped. She tore through the alley, ducked into a doorway, and tried to squeeze into nothingness. The beast thing appeared at the alley’s opening, a black silhouette against the sunlit street behind. It raised its misshapen head and sniffed the air. Dropping to all fours, it began to creep toward her.
Larraine gave the door a last, mighty shove. It swung open freely and she tumbled into nothingness. She was surrounded by grey. It was like standing at the end of a boat dock in a heavy fog. She reached out, searching for something, anything with her hands. She felt nothing but the smooth, cold floor. She strained her eyes to make out any shape as she got to her feet. Nothing. The silence was pierced by a loud banging sound. Larraine whirled around and spied the door. It seemed suspended in the gray. She could not see a wall or any other feature, only the door. Another loud crash rang out followed by a long, gruesome howl. A steady tattoo of blasts followed, accompanied by the beast’s feral screams. With each battering, Larraine could hear the door creak and crack. It would not be long until the door crumbled under the assault. She turned, determined to run as far into the gray as her shaking legs would take her.
The blue orb sat directly in front of her. The grey closed in, suffocating her senses. She heard the door crash to the ground somewhere behind her. Larraine’s legs, no longer able to hold her up, buckled and she fell to the ground, face inches from the display:
The orb spit her credit card out and it fluttered to the ground. The display blinked:
TO CONTINUE, INSERT CARD — $10,000 US
YOUR ASS IN BIG TROUBLE
She stared at the credit card, numbers blurring in front of her eyes, wondering if . . .