Oh, how I’d missed it.
Everyone who had poked their heads into the doors leading to the other wings described long hallways with at least two doors plainly in sight, but the Dining Wing had just one at its end. Predictably, it led to the Dining Room.
When I had signed up for the game, they’d requested a surprising amount of information from me. They had wanted the typical flurry of personal identification documents that any person applying to a reality television show should have expected to need to produce, but it went beyond that. I — and everyone else, presumably — was given a laundry list of questionnaires to fill out, asking me to describe every preference and personality aspect about myself imaginable, up to and past the point of absurdity. My favorite things to do, my fears, my earliest memories, my taste in men… the whole process had been weirdly dystopian, and I’d lied my way through more than a good chunk of it.
(Which, in hindsight, was pretty pathetic. “Yeah, I’ll give you guys my Social Security number and let you lock me inside a giant tech-prison for ninety days, but you must be delusional if you think I’m telling you anything about my pet turtle.”)
I was 100% honest when they’d wanted to know my favorite foods, though. “Best efforts will be made to provide you with your meals of choice,” the paper said. At the time, I didn’t know how serious that promise was, but walking into the dining room, I got the sense that they’d really meant it.
The Dining Room was big. Not anything close to half-a-baseball-stadium big, but well past what would be needed to reasonably feed sixteen people on a regular basis. It was in the shape of a long, vertical rectangle, the first three-fourths of the room serving as the Dining Room proper and the remainder in the back as our kitchen.
Like every other part of the facility we’d come across, the room itself was metallic and sterile, shiny black and blue walls lit up from bright lights that activated as we walked further into the room. Many small two and four person tables had been scattered against the sides of the room, all bolted down to the floor.
A giant round kitchen island sat in the perfect center of everything, sixteen fixed bar stools surrounding it. ZB and Lu both ran to them together, each picking one and gleefully spinning themselves in place. The stools were far enough from each other and the base of the table for them to swing out their legs without hitting anything.
Along the walls of the kitchen area, sixteen sections of the wall had been partitioned off, eight on each side. They all had large brass handles and engravings of our names, and they’d been arranged in the same numerical order assigned to us by our doors. In the very back, a large amount of dining appliances had been built into the wall, including fancy looking ovens and stoves, a dishwasher, and several microwaves and sinks. Various shelves and cabinets had been left open around them, including what looked to be one filled with assorted utensils and cooking supplies.
At the same time as most of the others, I found my section of wall and slid it open, revealing another cabinet and what looked to be the entrance to a fridge alongside it. I opened them both together and came close to drooling.
Damn, they’d meant it.
I remembered the first time that I tried kombucha very, very well.
It was about three weeks after my twentieth birthday, and I’d just come out of a long rough spot. College hadn’t turned out to be the magical paradise I’d made it out to be in my head, Dad was having some money issues, and D had just finished dealing with a particularly bad series of encounters with some dirtbags who’d driven up to Lakewood to try and make a documentary about him.
After he said no, they’d spent the better part of a week secretly following him around with cameras, which naturally took its toll. D didn’t get angry at them — it was D, after all — but it still bummed him out. It took a long effort from the two of us to convince him to report it to the police, and by the time he had begun to open up to the idea, they’d gotten the footage they’d wanted and left town. A trailer was posted online days later to a reception of hundreds of thousands of views, and although he didn’t say much about it, it was easy to see the way it tore him up inside. It was the first time he’d gotten any significant media attention since he was in high school, and one of the only occasions I’d ever seen him so wounded over a problem that wasn’t someone else’s.
Even after all that, he still said that he didn’t want to report them. New Jersey wasn’t a two-party consent state, but they’d stalked him enough to scrounge up over ninety minutes of usable footage; that had to be a crime somehow. I remembered the two of us just screaming at him about how what they did had to be illegal, how he would be so completely and absurdly in the right about going after them, legally or otherwise. We were angry, and he was just sad, and somehow we were madder about the fact that he wasn’t mad himself than we were at the actual injustice of what’d happened.
“They were misguided, By. Of course I’m upset about it, but people like that… people don’t do things like what they did without being very broken inside. Getting the police involved isn’t going to do anything beyond breaking them further. Look, I wrote them a letter. I’m not saying that’s going to magically change everything, but they’ll read it, think about it a little, and they’ll grow, slowly but surely. They’re young. Some young people need time before they learn to fully consider the feelings of others.”
We screamed even louder. They were older than he was, grown ass men and women who’d spied on and filmed an absolute stranger for days on end.
The reminder didn’t phase him. He just looked down at us and squeezed our hands, smiling.
“And I’m lucky enough to already be surrounded by amazing people who care about me, even as young as I am. There’s a great chance that they weren’t, to do things like that. Why not pity them?”
It was his best trick. You’d say something to him — anything — and he’d find some way to deflect from it and turn it into a legitimate compliment. Most of the time, it was a wonderful social tool, but in the moment I was too angry to appreciate it.
They’d gotten away with their crime only because D was such a ridiculously good person, and it bothered me so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The dirtbags who’d done it had monetized the video, and I was sure they would give the money they were getting from his discomfort ten million times the consideration they’d ever have given his letter, which was without a doubt as well-worded and polite as one could get.
People could be so shitty, when they wanted to be.
Internally, I was already well aware of the fact that I was going to drop out, and that coupled with everything else and what had happened to D was driving me nuts. Space Attorney was also still fresh on my mind, and life felt empty in a way that it hadn’t in an exceedingly long time. For the first time since I could remember, I didn’t like being around other people.
I wouldn’t have gone so far as to say that I was depressed, but I wasn’t that far from it either. There were things to look forward to — I already knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with D, for instance — but they always seemed to be muted by the negatives. I could go out with him wherever and love him and cherish our time together, but he’d always have to check every bush and corner and secretly wonder if someone was trying to make him feel like an animal again, to reduce him down to his most basic characteristic.
It was like that for everything. Sure, maybe the local school system would start to give a fraction of a shit to the point where Dad wouldn’t have to waste what little extra cash he did have on buying basic classroom supplies, but even if they did they’d just find some other way to fuck him over later. Maybe I’d somehow figure school out for myself, but then what? The market wasn’t exactly clamoring for tall pretentious losers with liberal arts degrees.
My future didn’t look like an unending cloud of misery, but I couldn’t see much good in it without also imagining how it would all be eventually spoiled, and as a whole I was starting to teeter over the edge of cynicism.
Ionia kept me from falling.
For a long time — over eight months, in fact — virtually nobody read Ionia of Illumination. My writing had improved dramatically both before and as I wrote it, and in terms of how the serial itself was coming out, I was very happy. I was improving, and I could see it, and it was a rope to cling onto amidst all the other shit life happened to be throwing towards me. Even if everything else was shit, I could always get the next chapter out on time. I could always make it at least okay. (Sometimes, heck, it was good. And that good stuff was happening more often and with more consistency, and that made me happy.)
But, if I was being honest, that didn’t matter. It was very easy for me to tell myself that I was only writing for myself — as most writers probably did at some point — but that was bullshit. I wrote stuff for the same reason that most everyone wrote stuff — because I wanted people to read it.
And nobody was. I had three views a day, two votes on the website where they ranked web serials, and a comment section more lifeless than the Dead Sea. I’d disintegrated whatever miniscule audience I had following the ending of Space Attorney, and picking one back up was proving to be more challenging than I’d thought. It took two months of writing before I got my first comment (a spambot). The frustration of getting less attention after doing what I could clearly see was better work was awful, but I kept going, assuring myself that it’d pick up eventually.
By some miracle, it did.
A popular misconception regarding fame — even dumb bullshit Internet web serial fame — was that it happened slowly, over long periods of time. That was incorrect. For the most part, popularity arrived in large waves; all it took was the right person recommending someone’s serial on a message board or a big-shot author tweeting something out about how they liked what they were putting out, and then boom, a real readership was born.
That’s how it happened for me. Some famous vlogger who’d gotten big eating MRE rations mentioned my serial offhand during a Q&A session one day, and that’s all it took. Less than a week later, I’d made it, more or less, in the way that I’d originally wanted to. I hadn’t yet gotten to the point where I was sitting in front of literal cheering crowds of fans, but I had a consistent flow of comments, votes, attention, validation. It was all I’d ever been aiming for.
I liked to pretend that it wasn’t about that, but of course it was. I was a writer. That’s all those losers ever wanted. Tasting success didn’t make all my problems instantly go away, but it made all of them so much more bearable.
I could have kept doing that forever.
The first day I woke up to messages in my inbox — hundreds and hundreds of beautiful, mostly all nice and not nitpicky messages — I got so giddy that I ran out of my house in excitement. I wasn’t going anywhere specific, but I somehow ended up in a grocery store, and I decided that I’d buy one ridiculously silly and frivolous thing to celebrate. After looking around for awhile, I settled on a big glass jug of kombucha. I had no idea what it was, but it was pricey and pretentious and stupid-looking, set aside in the aisle of the supermarket with all the other expensive stuff that I never would’ve thought about buying otherwise. It was absurd and colorful and dumb, and it looked like magic celebration juice to me (from the perspective of a twenty year old still not allowed to buy alcohol, at least.)
I paid for it in cash and was barely three steps past the cashier before I pulled it out and took a swig, expecting a taste similar to sweet apple cider.
I spat it out. (It wasn’t rancid, as I later learned. Kombucha was an acquired taste.)
Regardless, it was a good feeling, and not unlike what I felt when I pulled out a tall, prepackaged bottle from out of my assigned fridge, taking a big gulp and not having the slightest trouble keeping it down. I had a lot of kombucha since my first, the price point becoming a lot easier to justify after I’d discovered just how lucrative legalized online begging could be for a moderately successful author online.
It tasted great.
After finishing my first mouthful, I heard a yelp, ZB spinning off her chair and hitting the ground with a hard thud.
Just about everyone laughed.