Note: The following is purely fictional. But in a few years time, it may be anything but. Staten Islander New Organization is publishing this story, written by our own Maddi T. It’s here to provoke thought. It’s here to make you appreciate all we have, and to consider where all this talk of a “new way” and “permanent change” is really is all headed. Without a conscious and deliberate path into the future, this is where we may all end up. Many thanks to Maddi, who’s been very busy these days with her studies.
-Staten Islander News Org Editors
It’s May 17th. It’s already dark out. You’ve just said goodbye to your daughter’s friends and their parents, thanking each for attending your kid’s 10th birthday party and for the wonderful and very thoughtful gifts.
The cake was beautiful: A purple and pink unicorn with baby-blue trim and a dazzling white fondant mane, five layers high of chocolate-vanilla-strawberry sponge cake, covered in sparkling gold and silver edible glitter, with candy spilling out from inside once it was cut into.
You can still see the dazzled look on your daughter’s face.
Even though you’re on a diet, you ate five large pieces. And, you’re not even full!
As you gently close the heavy front door of your house, a series of dual-tone multi-frequency sounds blare out, as if from nowhere, like what you might hear when pressing buttons on a touch-tone phone very quickly.
Suddenly, you’re no longer in your front foyer standing before your handsomely-trimmed solid oak door, with its double-glazed two pane glass window.
All of a sudden, you’re somewhere else. Everything is pitch black.
You have a mild headache and your eyes sting like you walked through a cloud of thick Bar-B-Q smoke, your ears ring like a firecracker went off next to your skull.
You feel decidedly unwell. The room is spinning, though everything is still black.
You feel the sensation of a blanket over your head; your spouse must’ve pulled all the covers again.
It was all just a dream. Was it? What is going on?
As you remove what you think are the covers from your face, your blurry eyes can make out the outline of your basement den.
For a second, you’re totally disoriented. Confusion sets in.
“Where was I a second ago?” Your head spins as you try to remember.
You vaguely recall standing somewhere…a unicorn? But now, you’re lying supine on a mat on the floor.
And then it hits you, like a ton of bricks: My daughter’s 8th birthday party! That’s it!
But in reality, the party never happened. No guests ever came to your house.
Not exactly, anyway.
It was all a dream. Well, sort of. It happened –sort of– in “Vee Are“, or Virtual Reality.
The year is 2024.
We’re now living in the post-COVID world. Your hear sinks with this realization as you remember where and when you are.
As you rise from the comfort of your electronically-induced stupor, you quickly scan the room.
No unicorn cake can be found. No presents. Of course not; all that was as substantial as vapor.
Your kids and spouse are still in “Vree-Life,” their motionless bodies still on the floor, wireless cloth headsets still covering their eyes and scalps, their blonde curls spilling out from under the masks.
Your kids don’t seem to realize that the phrase is actually “VRee Life” and not “real life.” This upsets you.
The expressionless lips peeking out from under their headsets of your children eerily remind you of zombies; your spouse’s permanently downturns frown invokes your empathy.
You remember how much they loved real experience, the here and now. After all that’s why you were attracted to them and ended up married.
“Too bad there’s not much room for that in today’s world,” you sadly whisper to yourself.
Time to end the program, you think to yourself wearily. This part always sucks.
Although you all could choose to “come out” at the same moment, your family prefers that you do it this way. Every time.
They want cold water at the ready to greet them when they wake up.
And of course, their beloved parent’s comforting figure hovering over them.
You get up, at first unsteady on your feet, but quickly regaining your composure as you rise to your full height.
You stretch, and you feel pins-and-needles going from your neck to your sacrum. Hours of lying still like that will do that.
Yawning three times, your ears pop, as though you just stepped off a flight from Newark to Honolulu.
You stagger over to the bar, dimly lit under the countertop with LEDs, changing from pastel blue to soft red, then back again.
“The wood finish doesn’t look right in the VRee World,” you unconsciously think to yourself. “The texture’s off.”
Fixing a cup of icy water for both of your daughters, and a tumbler of neat scotch for your beloved, you reflect on how life used to be.
Before COVID, your kids used to have actual parties with guests arrived at staggered times, each knocking at the door.
The girls would be delighted, shrieking and laughing, running like mad to the door to see who’s arrived next.
Now, guests just “Pop In,” suddenly there, when a moment before they had not been. It’s still weird to you. Unnerving.
Not to the kids. They’re used to it. To them, it’s a neat technological magic trick.
The little one can barely remember “Life Before VRee Life,” or “El Bee Vree El“, as most refer to the pre-simulation days.
Having the kids get picked up by the parents is just for nostalgia’s sake, more for the parents than the kids.
The guests could just as easily “Pop Out“, just like they Popped In.
Most parents still find this whole Virtual Reality thing somewhat disturbing, just like you and your beloved do.
Of course, not having to clean up is always a plus. And five pieces of cake?
You feel the roll of fat on your stomach and realize that even a single piece “In Real Life” (IRL-usually pronounced Earl) would have been too much.
Not to mention how your GERD would have kicked in, big time. “At least there’s that,” you think to yourself, trying to look on the bright side, as you always do.
It’s not easy staying in shape these days. No one leaves the house any longer.
Everything is delivered by self-driving trucks with robot-delivery personnel and drones that drop packages in the backyard.
Parks have been closed for quite some time. Playgrounds are overgrown with weeds peeking through the pavement.
Restaurants only do take-out. All the unintentional exercise we relied on each day has all but been eliminated, though there is still going up and down the stairs, carrying laundry, and sometimes even the kids to bed, when they fall asleep in front of the TV.
Of course, there’s the exercise bike and weight machine, but using them is always just drudgery. You miss your daily walks with your spouse and kids at the now-shuttered local park.
Sure; there are still VRee-Life massages, but when the “Sim Session‘s” over, your body feels worse than when it began.
And the office…ah, the lovely office. Who would’ve ever thought we’d all miss work as much as most of us do?
Banter with co-workers, the manager getting pissed that you’re all wasting valuable company time.
Even that jerk Cameron, sidling up like you might be, ahem, “interested,” even though you’ve repeatedly stated that you have a spouse and don’t go that way.
For a moment, a deep sadness sweeps over your emotions as you pine for “life as it was,” (LAIW –pronounced Law) as most refer to life before 2020.
That was back when we really went into the office, actually indulged in cake, and hugged our kids and watched them blow out candles, before the “VR-tuality” took hold.
Now we all keep our “safe distance,” even in our sanctuary, our very own homes.
“It’s all for the greater good,” we’ve been told each night by the too-calm newscasters, the message drilled into our heads now a million times.
Or at least it feels that way. If not a million, it has to be at least a few thousand.
Even the language has changed, you muse to yourself, thinking of the dozens of new words that have come into being to reflect the changes in reality we’ve all had to bear.
You try to convince yourself that it was all for health and safety, but after four years, you’re still not convinced.
After all the monumental COVID-19 death toll never materialized, and the COVID-21 death toll was a complete fraud. (“Ninety percent of those contracting the virus die within twelve hours! Utter pandemonium at the hospitals.”)
Too bad, it just wasn’t true. The death rate from COVID-21 turned out to be only one percent of those infected, fewer deaths than the yearly flu bug.
“They don’t even want us picking up our own kids,” you sigh to yourself in resignation.
As a last act of defiance, you do it anyway, at least when they fall asleep watching the late-night shows.
“Do it in VRee-life and save a life!” we’re told over and over again.
Reflecting back, the first time you donned the virtual reality headset, you remember the sheer terror of the unknown.
Pulse racing. Thoughts flying by at a million a second. A few phone keypad tones, and then, suddenly, you were somewhere else.
True; horseback riding was fun. That was your first Session.
Everything looked so real. But there was no feeling of the horse under you, no scent of the meadow flowers as you leaned forward upon your steed, galloping by a profuse cluster of flowers of every sort.
And, every once in a while, there were those jarring black lines. That was two VR headsets ago. The newest system no longer suffers from those defects. No black lines.
Now, you can taste. You can smell. You can feel your body.
But still, something’s just not there. You first noticed it at VR church.
Your neighbor first told you how weird it was to go to VR synagogue. You remember Myra said it was just not the same.
Now you know why.
When you kiss your kids or hug them tight in VR, something feels wrong. When you hold your beloved’s hand, in VR there’s just something missing, something you just can’t describe.
“There’s no heart in the VEee World, you conclude, as you remember vague images of life before all this.
Snapping yourself back to reality, you press the disengage button and your two daughters pull off their silvery metallic cloth headsets with their tiny hands and groggily open their eyes.
Your spouse rips their VR set off, panting and wheezing.
“Not again,” you worry to yourself. They’ve been suffering panic attacks lately at the end of each and every session. Thankfully, this time it’s OK.
Just a flutter of anxiety, not like last time. As you hand over the tumbler, they sit up and half-smile. That’s the best expression they’re able to muster anymore.
Of course, your spouse looks nothing like their VRah Vatar. Blonde? Not in real life. They’re all grey now. In shape? I wish. A bloated body spills over the mat.
Blue eyes? They’re hazel-green in real life.
You keep your VRah Vatar simple, as close to “Are-Ell” (RL – real life) as possible.
Your smallest one speaks first. “Can we go back in and “VReeplay? Please?!”
Of course, with the newest system, everything is recorded. The kids love reliving a VR experience again and again. And, more strangely, they can relive it from one another’s eyes.
They never tire of this novelty of changing perspectives.
You look at your spouse, and they look back at you. Gazing into one another’s eyes just isn’t the same either in the VR World, you lament silently in your mind.
They look weary and concerned.
“VRee-life sucks.” They said it first.
It was what both of you had been thinking and feeling, but neither of you wanted to say.
“No, we haven’t even had dinner yet,” you tell your little one softly in a delayed response to her question, and as you do, she begins pouting, as if on cue.
“Buuuuut I miss my frrrrrrrrriends!” she explodes, raising her voice ten decibels at each word, hot tears streaming down her rosy red cheeks, her little hands clenched in fists.
Lately, this has been how she gets her way. This time, you are not going along with it.
“Those are not your friends. That’s just a movie. It’s not real. You were already with your friends in VRee Life earlier. You can Vree-Live it tomorrow.
Setting boundaries for using the Vee-Are system has been tough. The little one seems to only want to live life through the lens of the Virtual Reality system.
But that’s the new way: Life via VR. Shopping in Vree-life. Work via Vree-life. Even time in the bedroom via Vree-life.
(“The Pathogen“, remember? This was mandated eight months ago for reasons never entirely made clear or logical. After all, as no one goes anywhere, how could the “pathogen” even be in your home at this point? They say it’s on the packages, but aren’t they UV-sterilized at the warehouse? And anyway, who’s checking for compliance?)
“I’d love to throw that piece of s*** out the window, but I’m afraid the kids will jump out after it,” your spouse laments softly, sipping a their scotch. “Or maybe just take a hammer to the damn thing. I hate that box.”
Both of you chuckle at the idea. Strangely, the image is more tantalizing to you than you want to admit. You stare at the ceiling, losing yourself in thought.
VRee-Life as real life? It’s anything but.
Even watching movies. The kids insist on using it more and more. You just can’t fathom.
Why sit together on a fake couch watching a movie on a fake TV, eating fake popcorn, when we can do it all together for real, right here, right now?
Distance learning via VRee-Life headset and laptops. Play dates via VRee-life. It doesn’t end.
But even the thought of leaving the house scares them now. Last time you suggested a trip to Gran and Pop’s house, the kids freaked.
“GERMS!” “No way!” “THE PATHOGEN! Noooooooooo!” “I am not going!” “I’ll report you!”
It was that last statement that really got you.
Your little one said this with such menacing sternness and assumed authority, staring right at you as if possessed, that you quickly relented.
Her deep blue eyes look angry, sinister even, pulled tight into thin slits, registering a loathing that made you later cry when you were alone.
You felt like the defiant child, like she was the parent, roles reversed in an upside-down bizarro world.
Of course, family visits are permitted once-yearly. Even so, the paperwork and questions from the health authority make the prospect nothing short of uninviting.
The grandparents no longer see their grand-kids in person. They refuse to use the VR system, and of course, it’s not recommended for people over sixty, anyway.
Of course there are phone calls and face-time, but that isn’t really the same. How could it be?
This sets your mind reeling.
As your partner puts an arm around you, flabby from lack of use, you feel a hollow sensation in your chest. A longing, perhaps.
Longing for a simpler time. A time when we were free. Free to go to the office. Free to travel to the park. To church. The supermarket. Even a ride to nowhere.
Free to live in real life, not in VRee-Life. The kids lately have come to call real life the “COVID-fake-world,” to most parents’ chagrin.
Going in the backyard? That might spread the pathogen. A dip in the pool?
Heavens, no! The pathogen, remember?
Sure we’re “keeping free of the pathogen,” another phrase you’ve heard a million times, but you wonder, was it all worth it?
Without a doubt, pollution has all but ended and the air is crisp and clean, but unfortunately, enjoying any of that means breaking the law.
Even going in the backyard is illegal now. Your entire family is white as ghosts. You never did order that sun lamp.
The price tag for all this safety has been the cessation of normal human activity, a rhythm and flow spanning back countless millennia to times forgotten.
That all stops here. An invisible germ had the power to disrupt human life so drastically as to make life unrecognizable to anyone living at any time but the present.
If only we had questioned the medical and political pundits, if only we have voiced even a word of protest.
Now, it’s too late.
We survived world wars. Floods. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Depressions. We survived great trials and tribulations.
For the priceless inheritance of human experience to end with this, is the greatest shame.
Your attention is pulled back to the present once again. You find yourself daydreaming more and more since the first lockdown, and using the Vee Are system can’t possibly help.
“VRee-Life Nooooooooooooow! I HATE COVID-fake-worrrrrrrrrrrld. Vreeeeeee Life is sooooo much betttttttttter!” your younger daughter shouts, now at the top of her lungs, trembling from the exertion.
You sigh, a tear rolling down your cheek, recalling a time when life actually made sense.