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‘Escape Worlds’
April 30, 2023

‘Escape Worlds’

Reading Time: 20 minutes

Can You Really Hide in a Video Game?, ‘Escape Worlds’ by K Chess.

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

When I get home from work at 6:00, the light is fading, and I see my sons and their little friend playing in the street, two white boys and a Black boy throwing a foam football back and forth.
I pull around the corner and they scatter, Oliver running one way while Jameson and the neighbor kid run the other. At the last minute, though, Jameson changes his mind, dropping the football and dashing across to his brother’s side of the street. I slam to a halt, the bumper almost touching him. My heart throbs in my jaw: so close.

Then, just as I release the brake, the neighbor kid runs across, too, and I have to stomp to a stop a second time.

‘Jesus Christ! Don’t any of you have common sense?’ Through the unrolled window I see them all staring at me with wide eyes. ‘What is wrong with your brains?’ I yell. ‘Use them!’

Oliver grabs onto Jameson’s hand, squeezes it.

Good. They should be scared.

When I’m playing the game, I move through an intricate environment. I open drawers and look behind objects to find what I need to solve the puzzles. Every room can be explored, every locked door can be opened. There is something inside everything, procedurally generated. It’s safe because it’s virtual. It all follows rules. But it’s dangerous because of how often I find myself thinking about being there instead, even when I’m with my kids.

Everyone’s into Escape Worlds. It’s a phenomenon. There’s an app for it; some of the guys at my job play it on their devices in between packing orders, but I never do. I need to take a gummy first, and I need to be alone. I need the immersion, the headset that shuts everything else out. The feeling that it’s just for me, each world I pass through, and that the outcome is determined by my choices.

It has been four months now since my sons’ father shot the day manager of a Subway in Du Quoin. The cops are still trying to figure out what made him do it. There is no sign he’d ever met the man before. He shot this stranger, and then he shot himself. Shot and killed. Murdered.

Anything can happen to you, it turns out, anything at all. All the more reason to look both ways when you cross the street.

There are about a million screens of legal language you have to scroll past and consent to before you can play the game. The mic picks up your breathing and your heart rate; the headset knows how often you blink. The haptic controller measures the temperature and sweatiness of your palms. I think the game developers are just collecting data to sell, but my friend Harper thinks it’s something different. She swears the game uses the readings to make itself smarter. ‘Have you noticed,’ she asked, ‘that every level is a little more upsetting than the last?’

I don’t think that’s true. Upsetting isn’t the word I’d use. Every level is more something.
It’s hard to put your finger on.

I go up onto the porch and my boys go up onto the porch and I tell the neighbor kid—Kyan, his name is—to scram. He takes off across the stubbled side yard with a little hop in his step that tells me that he is relieved to be headed home at last. It is too quiet here.

There are about a dozen people who come in and out of Kyan’s house on a regular basis. They stay up late talking, streaming music on a speaker, their personalized ads broadcast loud for the neighborhood to hear between songs. I know Kyan’s mom’s name is Jessica; we are connected on social, but I’ve never actually talked to her in real life. She’s the woman with teal hair who I see vaping on the back steps.

Tonight, when I look over, I see all the usual cars crowding the driveway. There’s a new micro-mini hatchback and two EV pickup trucks, plus a hard-worn champagne-colored SUV hybrid with billowing plastic taped over the place where the driver’s-side window should be. And there’s the black sedan parked out front, one of the last vehicles on our block that’s 100 percent gas-powered. It’s an antique American luxury car from maybe the 1970s, low and long. No emblem next to the rear plate and no hood ornament. Just a hole where it used to be mounted.

My boys’ father wouldn’t have liked us living on this side of the tracks, wouldn’t have liked the way that car crawls up and down the street with various young Black men behind the wheel, the bass so loud that the whole thing vibrates in futile, rhythmic kicks, as if someone is locked in the trunk, struggling to get out.

Too bad. He should have thought of that before he left me on my own.

I make dinner for the boys. I put frozen mixed vegetables in the raw hamburger meat and fry patties on the stovetop, a slice of yellow cheese on each side gluing the meat to the bread, hiding the corn and peas and the bitty cubes of carrot so that maybe they’ll actually get some nutrition. But Jameson immediately pulls the whole thing apart, using his fingers to pick out the peas.

‘It’s disgusting to have to watch you do that,’ I say. ‘You’re making me sick. You’re making your little brother sick.’

He ignores me. Oliver starts to cry. Part of me is sorry. I realize—or remember—that I am a bad mother. But another part of me simply does not care. That part is looking forward to later tonight, when I’ll get to go into the big bedroom and shut the door. In the time I’ve been playing, the game has generated dozens of beautifully rendered worlds. The only pattern I’ve noticed: Each world is more intimate than the last. Tighter.

My first few Escape Worlds were totally packed. I would find myself trapped in an international airport or a sprawling outdoor market or a prison complex, thrown together with dozens of other active players. Then, the settings began to contract. I didn’t notice at first, because the scenery was still so realistic, the tasks so satisfying to perform. I was escaping from a hospital wing, a cruise ship, a casino. I was in a library. Then a synagogue. At an old boxing gym. Trapped in an izakaya and the small, connected apartments upstairs.

The last world I got through was an upscale American house, way nicer than any place I’ve lived, but probably just 2,500 square feet, including the finished basement. There were only three other active players—a guy I used to work with, Harper’s mom, and Jessica from next door. The dream house was so detailed, it took us weeks to beat. But I joked around with guys at work who play, asking what tiny space could be next. A log cabin? A fighter jet? A locked bank vault? No one knew what I was talking about. Their worlds hadn’t been shrinking.

My current world is smaller still, built to look like the International Space Station. And for the first time ever, I seem to be the only active player. Two of the three shuttles have been launched, and signs of a hasty evacuation are everywhere—crumpled sleeping bags, untouched meal packets floating in the galley. Every night, I drift my avatar down white hallways like an unmoored balloon, swinging through the air locks. It’s cold, even in my suit; the life-support systems are failing. In the engine room, I see the air temperature gauge flashing ominously, but I don’t know how to repair it to buy more time. Running out of air is one of the ways I keep dying here.

The main way I die is at the hands of the simulated antagonist, who is skulking somewhere in the ductwork. In the cutscene that comes before the level starts, I am told that this person is a fellow astronaut who has gone insane and has been picking off the others, one by one. I am the only survivor, and I have to be stealthy. Each time I’m found, it’s over in a flash of action too quick to parse.

Tonight, I decide, I’ll disable the motion tracker, since the enemy seems to be drawn by the beeping sound. I’ll operate blind. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have time to complete the puzzles and launch the third shuttle. Yes.

When the doorbell rings, Oliver wipes his face and jostles with Jameson to answer. I don’t even try and stop them. The reporters seem to have lost track of us when we moved; there is some respect in the world, I guess, or maybe it’s that shootings of all kinds have become common enough not to hold people’s interest. Or else I am just boring, a victim also, but not a compelling one. Just an aimless almost-30-year-old working at Whole Foods and defaulting on the medical bills she racked up for the early colonoscopy her doctor ordered to rule out cancer when she stopped being able to shit normally. Late to pick up her kids at Boy Scouts, every time.

‘It’s Michael!’ Oliver announces.

‘Hi, Michael!’ Jameson says.

Michael has square, plastic-framed glasses and skin so dark you can’t make out exactly what his tattoos are. He is always kind to my boys. They think he’s cool. I wish they didn’t know him at all. ‘I’m here to get Kyan,’ he says.

I cross my arms in front of my chest. I took off my work polo as soon as I got home; in the heat, my tank top is sticking to my stomach and my breasts, and I know my green bra shows, and I want him to notice it, but don’t want the boys to notice him noticing it. ‘It’s nice that someone’s bothering to come for him, for once.’

Michael is not Kyan’s dad. They are second cousins or something. He keeps his eyes carefully on my face. ‘Yeah, it’s dinnertime. Didn’t want him imposing. So, where’s he hiding at?’

‘He’s not here. I sent him home half an hour ago.’

‘Oh. OK. Thanks anyway.’

I don’t know what he thinks he’s smiling about.

My sons’ father wasn’t playing the game. He called it a time-suck and a scam. He was one of these people who really take to heart that cybersafety stuff from grade school; each of his accounts used a different anonymous handle and was set to private. And I declined the option to leave them up as memorial pages. After his death, I had him wiped from the face of the social internet. That’s how I know he will never turn up in any of my worlds. The game auto-assigns active players for each level—social connections who are also signed in and opted in. You work with them to figure out the puzzles. But the game also uses social connections who are not players to create its extras and antagonists, pasting their digital likenesses onto game-controlled characters, putting scripted words in their mouths. It’s like a little fuck-you from the developers to anyone who has chosen not to participate.

The way the game populates itself with sims can be unsettling, but it’s also part of the fun: seeing your friends appear in strange contexts, doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Of course, not every sim I see is familiar. Some are non-mutuals who belong to the other active players. Others are people I connected with once upon a time and forgot.

Certain people who I only sort of know show up all the time. Mrs. Cassiello, Jameson’s old teacher, has been a sim in four or five of my various worlds. And then there are the people who I haven’t seen yet, who I’m hoping never to see.


There is a symmetry to the fact that the wife of the dead Subway guy also has two sons, just a little older than my boys. Kids who have lost their dad, violently and through no fault of their own. Widows and orphans.

My sons’ father did not hurt the six customers who were lined up and waiting for their footlongs. He did not hurt the teen worker who came running out of the prep area with her hands up. Pointing out these facts makes it sound like I am in the business of defending his actions, which I’m definitely not. I just don’t like how they told the story to make it sound like all those people had narrowly cheated death. When in fact, after the whipcrack of the first gunshot, he seemed like he was in a rush to put the barrel in his own mouth. He did not even glance at the survivors. He pulled the trigger again and that was it.

The cops came around to our old house, of course. They didn’t have a warrant, but they asked if they could take a look, and I said OK. They said I’d get his devices back when the forensic analysis was done, and I really have to follow up on that when I get a chance, because I am a single parent now and personal electronics are expensive.

They asked me all kinds of questions. My sons’ father was white, and the murdered man was originally from Afghanistan, resettled here as a teen after the war ended. The cops wanted to know if my sons’ father was close to people who had served in the armed forces. If he espoused racist or Islamophobic attitudes. If he had any mental health diagnoses. If he seemed discontented with his lot in life.

I tried to answer honestly. No, he was not from a military background. Yes, I’d heard him say very racist things, but also, his high school best friend Faheem is Muslim—or his folks are, at least. No, he wouldn’t even do the therapy app I put on his device. No, we weren’t arguing any more or less than usual, or having sex more or less often. No, he didn’t seem to bear any grudges, besides his many standard ones: that the White Sox had moved to San Antonio, that every winter in southern Illinois is—despite global warming—colder and wetter than the last, that the state still hadn’t passed a budget, that China is making everything more expensive and he’d only gotten a shitty $2-an-hour raise. He complained to me so often about how insulting that was, in the final weeks of his life, but I could tell he was secretly pleased, because the raise meant he was making more than his dad.

He had just signed 36-month lease on a new truck. I remember the day I turned it back in to the dealership. The boys and I had crowded into the cab with no booster seats. It still smelled pristine. We walked home after. I could have gotten Harper or someone to pick us up, but I hadn’t asked. We walked down Route 51, and the days were shorter then, so the sun was setting as we passed the office of the defunct town newspaper where people sell plasma now, past the Methodist Women thrift shop, past a business that designs custom kitchens. Slabs of granite in different colors and grades stood propped outside on the sidewalk, tilted toward the traffic that slowed on its way into town. Up close, they looked like the walls of a fortress, these stone barriers polished to a sheen. Oliver wanted to touch, so we stopped in front of a black slab flecked with white. In it, I could see the three of us reflected, and behind us, the U-Haul place on the other side of the highway, and beyond that, train tracks and the broad, flat horizon.

A dark mirror. A deep pool.

I would never kill myself. But if I did it, this is how I would do it: I would drown. Sing myself to the bottom of a black lake.

No one blames me out loud, but I know what they’re thinking. And I didn’t do anything to stop him. I had no idea what was wrong. I still don’t.

The three of us kept walking down 51, and there was the black sedan pulled over a few blocks ahead at the sign for the lumber yard, where we would turn onto our new street. I could see the outline of a driver through the tinted windows, how his upper body was twisted around. Whoever was in there was looking at us.

I turned around then, pulling the boys in the other direction, back past the kitchen place. The wrong way, the long way around.

‘Why are we running?’ Oliver asked me.

I wanted to know that, too.

From inside the house, I can hear Kyan’s family calling in the alley, sounding more and more urgent.



It’s still light enough for freeze tag, car tag, kick the can. Light enough for basketball or squirt guns. My friends and me played like that when I was Oliver’s age. Then, when I was Jameson’s age, we played on the internet, posting and liking and checking likes, chatting while we gamed. We would talk to any guy, anywhere, as long as he was older than us, or said he was.

My own kids are in bed. Low sun’s sending the sky pink and gold, and there they are, the show they were streaming still running, the picture on the cracked screen of their device duplicated on the wall projection. In Jameson’s bed, their legs are tangled together, their heads share the same pillow. I can see the shape of a stack of boxes I still haven’t unpacked. In our old house, Oliver used to stay in his top bunk every night. They used to hate sharing.

I close the bedroom door behind me and go get a micro-gummy from the childproof bottle on top of the fridge. Outside the windows, my yard is half-wild; some teenagers came by and said they would mow it for 20 bucks and I said OK, and they started to, but then their mower lost its charge in the middle of the job and they took off without asking for the money and never came back. The neighbors’ yard has no grass at all—just flat dirt pounded down in a circle by long-ago chained dogs and a grill and some of those stackable white plastic chairs and a child’s broken hoverboard.

I’ve seen Jessica sitting in those chairs, chatting with her cousins, but she’s not there now. They must be out searching.

She wasn’t much help in the dream-house world. She kept her avatar in the coat closet on the first floor while me and Harper’s mom and the other guy explored the place from the floorboards to the rafters. We tried every booby-trapped window and double-locked door. We searched through cabinets and under mattresses to find the things we needed to beat the world. And all the while, Jessica was just sitting in one spot with her knees up to her chin and her back against the wall, staring out at the fancy foyer. When we tried to talk to her, she didn’t answer. But when we finally cracked the bulkhead in the basement off its hinges with a bomb we crafted from common household chemicals, she was the first to run outside.

Kyan, where have you gone?

Without knowing why, I am putting the gummy in my pocket instead of my mouth and opening the kitchen door. I pound down the steps from the deck, the wood rotten-sounding under my feet. I bend to peer through the lattice that blocks the crawlspace underneath the porch. With instincts honed by hours spent sweeping game worlds for lurking enemies, I know that this would be the perfect hideout.

No. He’s not there.

Up in the space station, I waft down corridors, fulfilling mission objectives one by one, and all the time, the sim is hunting me, stressing me out. I have a gun that I found in one of the abandoned bunks. If only I could shoot the problem in the head. But that destroys the space station and then I have to start over from the beginning, from the part where I wake up alone, knowing the hunter is coming, just like it’s programmed to.

I didn’t say anything to the reporters who came to Whole Foods that first week, pretending to be customers and casually asking me if it was a hate crime. And I didn’t say anything at his funeral, which was poorly attended. Only his dad dared to come, and some of his co-workers and Faheem.

Now, I wish the reporters would return, just so I could tell them what I have figured out. First this: Who has ever pulled a gun on a stranger besides someone with hate in his heart? Yes, it was a hate crime. I hate him, too. And second: Who cares? His motives truly do not matter anymore. This will never go to trial. He’s never going to get punished, no matter what we do. It’s not like the brain that thought of doing what he did is still ticking, still intact. He’s no danger, not anymore, and nothing in the world can bring that dead father back to life.

Not either one of them.

I was hurrying out of Walmart across the shopping center parking lot, my arms full of bags, when the black sedan pulled out of the Taco Bell drive-through right in front of me, windows rolled all the way down, and Michael stuck his head out. ‘Hi,’ he said. My face must’ve looked wrong because then he said, ‘I’m your neighbor.’

‘Yeah, I know. Your son is always over, playing with mine.’

‘He’s not my son. He’s my cousin Jessica’s boy. Hey, do you want a ride somewhere, maybe?’

‘I have my car,’ I said. ‘How do you think I got here, across town?’ He must have seen me walking with my boys that one time, I thought. It must have been him that day.

‘Why you carrying so much stuff?’

‘Walking to where I parked, duh.’

He smiled. ‘I’ll ask you again, then. Do you want a ride? Just a little one?’


‘You BETTER get your ass out here! You hear me?’

Long grass tickles my shins as I cut across my yard to the alley that runs behind the houses. I am the last person to have seen the kid, I guess, and I tell myself that’s why I am moving, now. If something has happened to him, how will that look?

I turn out of the alley and onto Ready-Mix Road. Behind its chain-link fence, I can see the headquarters of the company that contracts with the county to maintain the roads, its darkened windows, the American flag on the flagpole spotlit, dangling. Sharp rocks poke up through the rubber of my flip-flops as I make my way down the driveway through the young woods to the clearing behind, where they store their equipment. I keep my eyes open, not bothering to call out—if Kyan wanted to be found, he would have answered by now.

In the spring, the sound of peepers is deafening. Tonight, only silence. Sky pale in the west and beginning to darken to the color of denim up above. The last of the light shows modular traffic barriers in rows like dominoes. There’s a mountain of piled-up creosote shingles, rank after rank of orange safety cones, a maze of concrete tubes for culverts that no one’s built yet: The whole place is a dirty and dangerous childhood paradise. Jameson and Oliver play here sometimes, though I’ve told them not to.

Once, playing without his older brother, Oliver fell and skinned his elbow and bent the fork of his bike so that the wheel wouldn’t turn cleanly. He and Kyan tried to drag it behind them, but couldn’t manage it, and Oliver was crying, so they left it where it was and rode home double on Kyan’s bike. Oliver had so much creosote ground into his pants I had to throw them away.

Kyan would know this place better than any adult.

The other widow lives in Du Quoin, where that Subway is. It is a garbage town worse than this one, but nevertheless, I don’t think she would let her kids run loose in a place like this. I searched for her online. I couldn’t stop myself. Sharbati is older than me, and beautiful, with a long neck and deep-set eyes. She wears a lot of makeup. I don’t know what her voice sounds like.

I dream about seeing her as a sim in Escape Worlds. She could be anyone there and she could do anything to me. And I would deserve it. The encounter feels inevitable; the game is uncomfortably shrewd, and though I am not connected to Sharbati on social, some of my friends must be.

The first time the enemy astronaut got the jump on me, I thought in a moment of pure panic and relief that it must be Sharbati.

But that’s not possible. I am the only active player in the world, so the enemy must be one of my own non-player connections. My aunt Tabby. Faheem, Mrs. Casiello again. Or Michael. I know he doesn’t play. He sent me a social connection request the first day we had sex. If I’m right, it must have been just minutes after I left the car—like, he picked up his device to find me as soon as he had his pants back on. Pathetic, but flattering.

Once, seven months pregnant at Giant City State Park, squeezed into a cream-colored dress I ordered from Amazon, I said yes, yes, yes to all the things. Jameson’s father looked into my eyes and I touched him with my hands and he said yes, too, the fucking liar.

I tapped Accept on Michael’s picture. Why not?

Should I yell now? Not yet.

The poured-concrete tubes seem most likely. I peer into each one, crouching low for the ones on the bottom. Next, I look between the rows of traffic barriers. If he is anywhere around here, he knows I am coming. He has heard the slap of my flip-flops.

In the shadows on the far side of the open space stands a shipping container.
There’s something sinister about it, like something from one of a million movies and shows and games about the zombie apocalypse. I creep closer and I think about how this is a place that is exactly where you imagine bad things will happen. Not in a strip mall in daytime Du Quoin. The end of the shipping container is open, and I stare into that fathomless black square, listening. When I hear nothing, I point my light inside.

And there he is, Kyan, sitting inside on a crumpled tarp. His legs are drawn up in front of him, and his eyes widen when he sees my light, but he does not speak. He reminds me of his mother, Jessica—the freaky-calm way she’d waited in the foyer closet for something to happen to her.

Before I can decide what to say, I hear a sound, a drawn-out rumble like a long burst of thunder. Kyan hears it too. I watch him recognize the sound of the old black sedan’s gas-powered engine. Then, tires are crunching over the access road and we see the headlights, one much brighter than the other. The door opens with that satisfying creak only the solid metal door of a heavy-bodied antique car can make, and Michael steps out. From the shadow of the shipping container, I watch him move to the middle of the clearing. I have turned off my light, but I know Kyan is still sitting inside. He’s watching us and waiting, like he did for all those hours of gameplay, logged in as Jessica. I should have known that there was something not quite right about her, that someone else was wearing her avatar.

Kids always want to see what adults will do.

‘Kyan! You can come out now!’ Michael crisscrosses the area, checking the tubes, but he isn’t looking as carefully as I did, and he doesn’t have a flashlight with him, or even his device. He searches like someone who has never had to hide. He walks with confidence.

My sons’ father never seemed to know what he was doing. When I first met him, he was a dumb 15-year-old boy with poofy hair. In all the years we were together, when he was trying to boss me around or scare me, he still seemed unserious. Even dead, the ghost of him preserved in the footage from the security cameras wanders around undecidedly. The cops let me put on a headset at the station so I could have the immersive experience, and I stepped forward in that black-and-gray world to watch what he was up to. Inside the Subway, my sons’ father paced back and forth, trailing a time-signature behind his head. I circled around to see the expression on his face, but he kept his cap low. Over and over, he touched the small of his back, the part of his waistband where he’d tucked the gun, and I knew the ending already, knew he wouldn’t get out, knew he couldn’t beat it. He was the villain, but he just looked confused. I wanted to reach out and grab him, but I knew my hands would slide right through.

Michael does not even glance at the shipping container. He will pass on by.

And at this very second, Sharbati could be logged in and playing the game. My worlds are the only ones that are shrinking; hers might be crawling with hundreds of sims and I could be one of them. Sharbati might be watching me committing any number of acts of heroism or atrocity, and I’d never know about it. There’s no way to say I’m sorry. We’ll never touch.

I pick up a rock and throw it at the outside wall of the shipping container. It pings off the metal and Kyan lets out a little yelp of surprise.

It’s not loud, but it’s enough.

The end of the Walmart parking lot is where the tractor-trailers and the bucket trucks park, their mechanical arms folded up to protect them from vandals. Michael guided his car into a narrow space in between two of the big rigs. He got out, crossed around to the passenger side and opened my door for me. ‘Let’s sit in the back seat.’

‘I’m not going to, like, blow you or something.’

Michael laughed. ‘Wow, you just came right out and said that! Wow.’ I did not laugh with him. I sat in the front in stony silence. He had beautiful straight teeth, and when he threw his head back like that, I noticed the silver glinting in his upper molars and I thought: lots of candy when he was a kid. No one to tell him no, just like his little cousin now. Just like me, when I was that age. ‘OK, girl,’ he said, still chuckling. ‘I’ll lower my expectations.’

And then, just like that, I left my shopping bags where they were and stepped outside into the parking lot. It felt like stepping outside my body.

Now, Michael opened the back door for me. I ducked inside and crawled across the leather-upholstered bench seat. He followed me in.

It looked like a getaway car. I wondered what its top speed was. I settled myself in, waiting for his next move. Daylight poured in, but the huge walls of the trucks on either side made the back seat feel like a private place. It was like being in someone’s house with sunshine pouring in through closed blinds. He pushed up my skirt and then stopped, a question on his face. I didn’t speak. Leaving my panties on, he began to kiss the curve of my thighs. It hadn’t even been that long, then, but I was raw for wanting it.

The whole time, I imagined him saying, Where is your kids’ dad?

I was practicing my answer, in my head. Gone, I would have told him. Drowned.

But he never asked.

I was standing on the front steps the day Oliver came home double on that bike. For once, I was watching for my littlest one. I saw him clinging to Kyan’s waist as the older boy stood on the pedals to carry the extra weight. I noticed the streaks of dirt and tears, but also a tiny smile of pleasure. Coming home safe, riding on the pegs. I went inside and got out the antiseptic wipes and the Band-Aids and poured out two tall glasses of lemonade.

Sometimes, I think that I could live in the International Space Station. Maybe I don’t need to try to win; maybe I could just float there forever. Because I know what has to come next. If each of my worlds can fit into the one that came before, what could be the nature of the world at the center, the game’s smallest black heart? My biometrics, my history across the internet, the saved searches and cookies and headlines. It all points the same way, and I feel the chill now on my skin. As I enter the walk-in cooler, the door will shut behind me and lock. On either side of my body, the wire shelving will be piled with boxes of tomatoes and bell peppers and onions. Heads of lettuce. Pouches of pickles, olives, condiments. The sliced stuff packed in plastic Cambros with cling wrap on the top, waiting to be needed. And outside, through the steel walls, I will hear one muffled, anguished pop, then a second one. Then nothing.

But I could remind myself of this, too: Everyone has a sad story. There are almost 50,000 Subway franchises in the world today, and each one looks the same as the others.

Michael carries Kyan in his arms. ‘Gonna get it from your mama,’ Michael says, ‘scaring us all like that,’ but his words are quiet. Propping the sleepy boy on his hip, he levers open the rear passenger door and lays him down inside.

It’s not too late. I could stand up too, and walk over to them.

I want to. I want to call out.

I’m swimming through dark water. I’m weightless in the black. Michael, open your door.

Because inside of everything there is something else. Inside the walk-in cooler is a space for another world. The interior of an old sedan, a place I’ve hidden out before.

Let me sit up straight this time, in the shotgun seat. Solid, like a real person. Looking out at the road.

Bring me home.

If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Read a response essay by a video game designer.

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Intangible Variation,’ by Meg Charlton
The Preschool,’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage


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