Nighttime driving was wholly different from daytime driving. Sure, Mark had a higher chance of getting killed if a deer or lights-off driver came at him, but few of either were awake to attempt that.
Perfect for going somewhere he shouldn't be.
Off to the left was a strip mall with nothing in the parking lot but a few dumpsters with empty cases piled in them. Mark took the turn, nobody ahead or behind to notice he hadn't slowed or used his blinker. He took a lap around the lot to check if anyone else was here, then parked his car behind the dumpsters, front facing the way out.
Shoot; he should have turned off the headlights before pulling in. Mark was the only person around, but whenever he had seen someone get caught on the news, it was during the night. Someone could have followed him if they wanted to.
Mark's heart pounded. He had some experience breaking the law -- sifting through store dumpsters, having campfires in parks after closing, and setting off fireworks -- but all that was with friends and were things nobody cared about. Not so much for what he was about to do, especially with how he was dressed. A multi-tool sat in one pocket, and his phone, silent and with a full battery, sat in the other. Black sweatpants and a black sweatshirt complemented black shoes and black sunglasses. A hood covered his black hair.
Most of that was probably unnecessary. He was more worried about his phone. The Wi-Fi radio had been turned off in case his phone wanted to connect to a nearby network and leave proof he was here at this time in a log somewhere. Same for GPS, mobile data, Bluetooth, and whatever near-field communication was. The easier and safer option was turning off his phone, but it could save his life if he needed to hide and couldn't use the knife of his multi-tool, but he'd be heard talking if he needed to call the police, and even if whoever wanted to kill him didn't follow his voice, the police would arrest him for breaking and entering when they arrived... Not needing to carry a separate flashlight and camera was nice.
Mark locked the car. It honked and blinked, a flare echoing through the night. A chill ran down his ribs. "Dummy," he told himself, over and over.
He walked around the dumpsters. In the middle of the strip mall was a video rental store -- or what was left of one. His friends knew its name as well they knew as their own, but since the sign had already been taken down, it remained unknown to him.
The windows were too high up to show more than the ceiling, but the door was glass. Shining his phone's flashlight through, Mark couldn't help but feel hollow. Pastel-colored walls, one off-color from the others, spoke of an earlier time. A forgotten ladder rested next to the front desk. Wooden shelves stood in lines atop the cream carpet, relieved of holding anything for the first time in who knew how long.
Mark glanced behind him. Still alone. The store was flanked by a sandwich shop and a bookstore. While good download speeds had killed video renting, Mark had seen advertisements for the bookstore stating they were expanding. In the time it took for someone to drive there, buy a book, and drive back, they could have downloaded more than they could ever hope to read. How were they still in business?
The video rental store's door handle was chained to the wall with a dial lock. Mark looked over his shoulder and flipped it over. Nice; it was an old model. There was a trick he had learned about them. He pushed the dial inward and turned it slowly, listening for which numbers the lock clicked at.
A few minutes of trying combinations based on those numbers, and the lock was open. Mark unhooked it from the chain.
Clank. Mark froze. The chain had smacked against the wall. He should have caught it.
No footsteps, no talking. Just the normal sounds of the city at night.
And a door closing nearby.
An engine roared, then maintained a growl. Mark covered the light with his hand. If he stayed here, he'd be seen. If he ran to his car, he'd be heard.
Headlights came down the road. Mark pulled the strings on his hood to hide his face. The engine got louder... and then quieter as the driver zoomed past.
Mark took his hood off and wiped his forehead. His hand came back wet. The driver was just another part of the night, doing their own thing as everyone else was. As he was. He opened the door and stepped inside and out of sight.
Mark expected the inside to smell old: like a nursing home or an antique store, but not as strong. Instead, he was inside a giant orange. The carpet had no give to it due to all the footsteps it had been padded down by over the years. There was no alarm -- his friends had confirmed that -- but there was a camera. Nobody checked the footage unless there was a reason to; the only thing he had done was unlock the door, which could be undone on the way out. But, the camera could be motion-activated and raise an alert, and there wouldn't be anything he could do about it.
He was here. Time to explore. With light steps, as if there was a danger of breaking the appearance of cleanliness and revealing filth underneath, Mark headed toward the front desk.
The only interesting thing about it was how empty it was. Dust was neither on the top nor in the drawers. All that was left were the shadows of things no longer here: a circular groove in the carpet from a step stool, and putty-filled holes in the wall. Actually, there was another thing: an outlet.
The columns of wooden shelves faded to faint outlines the further they got from the flashlight. Mark hadn't taken a woodworking class; he couldn't put a name to their light color. They were sanded, but was there a term for their smooth finish?
His ears picked up something.
Mark tip-toed forward a foot, cupping an ear with his free hand. It sounded like mumbling -- or buzzing, with juts of loudness and quietness. Someone must have left a radio on. Good to know the store remained old-fashioned to the end, even if it did put him on high alert.
There wasn't a single VHS tape or DVD left in the store, but how come the shelves weren't thrown out too? They weren't bolted to the floor. Were they gifts to the new owners?
The radio got louder as Mark made his way further toward the back. Something was being said, not sung. What that was was unintelligible, but the noise masking it wasn't normal radio static. It shifted among long whining, short whining, and split-second bursts of actual static, but muffled.
Why was he hesitant to go closer? There wasn't a magical radius around the radio that would trigger something if he stepped within it. It was just... it almost sounded like a person was making those noises. Which it had to be, of course! Anything played on the radio had been made by someone at some point. There would be nobody behind the door up ahead, centered between the shelves. He was alone. Just him and the noise. He stepped closer.
That noise. He knew that noise. It wasn't radio.
It was sobbing.
Mark's mouth lay open and dry. The back of his throat was cold. He was breathing. Fast. Easily heard. He should have never come here. But, he couldn't leave. There could be someone who needed his help... or no help for him if he went back there. He pulled the multi-tool out of his pocket and flipped the knife out, then checked the phone in his other hand. Still at full battery. Like it should be.
"Why me?" Masculine. "Why? Why? Please!" The words were nasally: from a plugged nose, but exaggerated. Yet, the crying that followed was genuine.
"Hello?" Mark shouted, eyes locked ahead. His veins somehow held back the weight of his blood.
"So long, so long, too long; I shouldn't be alive; I shouldn't be here..."
"Hey! Are you okay?" Mark's voice broke at the end.
The response was pure despair.
"I'm coming to help!" Mark's legs were both light and heavy, but they somehow worked. "Just hold on!" He flicked his sunglasses up with his phone hand.
"...don't deserve to live, should never have touched it, should never have touched it..." Coughing. Choking. "I never got to see them grow up... oh, forgive me!"
The door. Mark was at the door. His hand fumbled. The hand with the knife. He made shaky contact with the knob and turned it. The door opened inwards. Creaking cut into the man's anguish.
"I'm not real; I make the world not real..."
This was a janitor's closet, stains on the gray walls crying along. An empty table was by the wall, and an unlabeled tape lay on the floor with bits of plastic bleeding from it.
Mark stepped inside.
In the corner sat a man in a simple fox costume, head between his legs. Tears arced from his eyes, then splashed onto the... the... It wasn't a wall; it wasn't a floor. Around the fox was a bubble of flatness, like someone had tried to fill the corner with a pyramid, and the man was a huge sticker on the wall, but animated, moving, outlined in black. And, the pyramid wasn't angled upward, but faced head-on.
"Are you okay?" Mark's knife was ready to either slip or shoot out of his hand.
The man -- or sticker -- didn't seem to hear.
No projector was in the room. There was a light bulb socket, but it was empty.
Mark's eyes hurt. He blinked, looked away from the corner, and looked back, only to feel like he was going cross-eyed. The stains on the nearby concrete became fuzzy, sharp, fuzzy, sharp. So long as he watched the fox -- and the corner -- his eyes failed to focus.
Mark slowly extended his arm, fingers out while his thumb held the knife. If he touched the corner, traced the sticker, felt where the wall was, he could wrap his head around--
"Stop!" The fox leaped upright, taller than Mark. His tail straightened. "No! Don't touch! It will spread!" The voice was directed at Mark, but the fox faced the door.
Mark snapped his arms to his sides and backed away. What will spread? he tried to say, but he was too shaken to get the words out.
"Please, forget you ever came here!" The fox shook his head, still facing the door, fur matted with madness. "What are you doing? Get away! Go!"
The words echoed in Mark's mind; no, screamed. Yet, he couldn't listen. His legs wouldn't listen. "Why?" The hairs on Mark's arms felt like thorns.
"You'll be cursed! There's nothing I can do about it," the fox added, eyes softening.
Backwards. Mark was moving backwards, one step at a time, toward the door. It was still creaking.
The fox looked at the wall instead of the door. The bubble around him faced head-on, not at where Mark had been. Mark took another step, and the corner turned with him.
Mark's back hit the door. It clicked shut. No more creaking. Only the sound of pain.
He swallowed. "Who are you?" The headache he got when looking at the fox forced him to keep darting his eyes away.
"A lesson." The fox sniffled.
Mark hesitated. "What are you?"
"Something I shouldn't be. I shouldn't be here. Neither should you. Leave, before it happens to you too." The urgency from his earlier warning was gone.
"Do you have a name?" Too harsh, and too late to take the words back.
The fox stared ahead. Ahead for him, not at Mark. His tail grew limp.
Mark opened the Camera app. The phone did as poorly as his eyes at focusing -- and made the phone hot in his hand -- but it was a way to safely look.
The fox's face scrunched. Then twisted. It strained under a load that teetered on the edge of fracturing it. "I don't remember," he whispered. "Too long not having my own name, too long as someone else." He hid his face. "I don't remember; I don't remember; I don't remember!"
"Maybe... maybe it'll come to you in time," Mark said. He should have reopened the door, but anything that could be interpreted as a rude gesture could set the fox on him. Even though he had a knife out. Who knew what the fox thought?
Mark sat on the table. "Would you like a name?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Everyone has a name. You should have one too. How about Vick?"
The fox pulled his hands away. They were paws, puffed too large. "Sure. Thank you."
"What's wrong, Vick?" Mark didn't know anyone named Vick. Where did that name come from?
Vick flipped to face the other direction, a bit more directly toward Mark. "I used to be a person. I knew a woman. I knew some kids... I think." He stretched his snout, and it twanged back. "But I'm not sure." Vick trembled. "All I remember is the cartoon, the same ten episodes, all day, every day, forced to watch, forced to act, forced to be..." Vick sat, and tears shot out once more. They landed near Mark's feet, melting into splotches of the same logic-defying flatness as the wall.
Mark flipped the knife back in the multi-tool and put it in his pocket. "I don't understand."
"I didn't know. I should never have touched it, never have gone to that garage sale. But I had it coming for me. It's what I got for not growing out of cartoons."
Mark knew where the name came from. 'Vick' was short for 'vixen', which meant he had given the fox a girl's name. However, it sounded like Vick had his name taken away once, and Mark didn't want to take away another. "There's nothing wrong with watching cartoons. All the adults I know do it all the time."
"Then why have I been punished?" shouted Vick, paws squeezing his temples. He paced left and right, glided up and down. He didn't leave the flat bubble; it grew as he neared the edge. When he walked away, the new edge didn't shrink. "Has anyone you known gone missing?"
"It's only a matter of time. Watching isn't the problem, but the touching; if they touch it, they'll be gone, like I was, like I am." Vick's pacing got faster as his words got faster.
Mark didn't come close to understanding. Something about buying a cartoon, being ostracized, and now being a cartoon character? Whatever had happened, Vick needed a hug. Mark couldn't give one, but the least he could do was to get a bit closer. He jumped off the table and walked toward Vick's corner.
Vick's eyes bulged out of his head. For the first time, he looked directly at Mark. Running. Getting closer, actually--
"Ughk!" Mark's chest hurt. Then his back.
He had been slammed.
Where was the room? He couldn't see.
"Oh no, no, no," Mark heard through ringing ears. "I've done it, I done it, I just wanted to save you from the tape, the tape, the tape could be another tape, I'm sorry..."
Mark tried speaking -- tried opening his eyes, even -- but couldn't. He was paralyzed. His air came and went slowly, having a crushed straw to travel through.
Vick's footsteps echoed. "Mark? Please, no, not the hen, please, I beg you, you've tormented me enough!" Another thud. Coming closer? Backing into the wall? "Mark!"
Mark's limbs were made of paper, but he could flex them. Barely. Not strong enough to get off the floor. He tried to talk again, but his lips were glued together. He strained his jaw, pulling, tugging, trying to get them apart, maybe mouth some words if he couldn't speak...
Pop! Mark tasted air. Something was off about his hair, and it felt like something light was hanging from his chin.
"Muh... Muh... Huh?" Able to move his tongue, Mark felt around. His teeth were nowhere to be found, and his gums were hard. His head was still locked in place. He couldn't mouth anything as he had hoped; his lips were stuck pushed out of his mouth, like he was imitating a fish.
"If you are her now and not Mark," whimpered Vick, "please leave me alone." The footsteps came closer this time, slowly, before Mark's leg was pinched and pulled upwards -- and downwards, by the floor he was stuck to.
"Buh, eugh..." Mark wasted his breath. The bidirectional tugging threatened to tear his leg apart, but he was numb to the pain, just as his nerves were numb to commands to move.
With a long schlorp, Mark's legs were peeled off the ground, then his torso, then his arms, then his face.
"Thank you." Mark's mouth was alien, yet the words were clear.
"Oh, thank you; thank you," said Vick. "You're not her; you're not her; you're not her."
Mark wasn't who?
More importantly, he could open his eyes.
He was at the edge of the room, back facing the wall. Vick stood in the middle, staring at a cartoon hen. At least, he was pretty sure it was a hen and not a rooster. Her tail was small, and her head wasn't as decorated as a rooster's. When did she get here? She must have been who Vick was talking to. To the left was the door -- shut, and as far away as the back wall... and the ceiling, and the other wall, and the floor. He closed one eye, opened it, and closed the other. Both his eyes were working, but his depth perception was gone.
"What happened?" asked Mark. The hen mocked him. Her legs looked too frail to support her; they were thinner than the black cartoon outlines surrounding them.
"I couldn't let you get sucked into the tape; you were about to put your foot down on it. It's not my tape, but it could be a tape." The fox kept trying to make eye contact with the hen, but every time he did, his eyes darted away. Not like Mark had, but in fear. "I had to save you."
"Sucked in?" The hen imitated Mark again.
Vick nodded. "It turned me into a cartoon fox, and it sucked me in the cartoon's world. I never knew the name. It left me with my mind, but that was it -- I was forced to move, to speak, to get hit, everything, again and again, and I couldn't do anything. It was all in another language. I had no idea what I was saying or what I was hearing, but I knew what I was doing: laughing at something, then being laughed at as I got slammed, and flattened, and punched. By a hen. And now, you're her; oh, that cruel world can't leave me alone even after I left it!"
"Me?" Mark put a hand to his chest; the hen did the same with her wing. "But I'm--" He looked down, and the hen looked down, but his vision didn't change. He was still looking straight ahead at the far wall. Mark blinked, and the hen blinked, but his vision didn't disappear. In fact, there was nothing to prove he was even seeing out of a pair of eyes; his nose was gone, and so were his arms.
Slowly, Mark raised a hand and put it on his chest. When the hen's wing reached her chest, Mark felt fluff. Not a shirt. Not skin. Feathers.
"I knew the flatness spread to where I touched," said Vick, tail touching the floor, "but not that it turned people into animals too. I'm sorry."
Mark backed up. The hen couldn't bend her legs; she was forced to waddle. Not the hen. Him. He was the hen. Not just a hen -- 2D. He was 2D. The world, as he saw it, was 2D. Watching himself, watching a cartoon.
Pressure built in Mark's gut. He was about to throw up. His hands -- his wings -- searched over his body. Looking for something. It felt like he still had fingers, but they were webbed together with so many feathers that they were little more useful than flippers. Phone. Knife. Where did they go? He didn't have pockets. He didn't have clothes.
"Where are my things?"
"Gone." Vick still had trouble looking at Mark.
"Gone?" Something else was missing.
"When I shoved you out of the way, there was a puff of smoke around you. When it went away, you... changed..."
Mark couldn't be hallucinating. He never had an experience like this before, and the feathers he felt were real, the growing pain in his guts was real, the general discomfort that, on top of all of that, there was something direly wrong with his body--
"Cluh--awk!" The pressure was gone. The red things around his face flapped. Mark felt lighter. But, there was something behind him.
An egg, white as his feathers, half his size.
Mark's face was warm. And red. He squeezed his eyes shut, but was forced to watch himself, blushing, dancing in place, trying to hide his body. An egg. He had laid an egg.
"I'm sorry," said Vick. "I just wanted to protect you from the tape, and now I've--"
Mark clucked. He let go of himself and waddled around the egg. His egg. He was a hen. He was a cartoon. He was a girl!
Despite his phone being gone, the room was lit, albeit dimly. It was enough to see the doorknob looming far above him. Except, it wasn't so much as looking up as it was looking at himself -- he, he, he was a he, regardless of what he was now -- looking up. His stomach felt like it contained a bowling ball. Another egg.
Mark regained control of his breathing. "Is there a way I can not... lay... eggs?"
"When I was stuck in the tape, the hen would only lay eggs whenever she was stressed out. I don't know how much that helps."
Oh, great! All he had to do was take his mind off the fact a core part of him was wrong, and if he didn't, he would be constantly reminded of it.
"So," Mark began, extending his wings to resist the urge to cover himself, "what exactly happened to you?"
Vick scratched his head. Tufts of fur stuck out like bristles on a paintbrush. "I used to watch cartoons a lot. Not just with my wife and kids, but also on my own. That I remember. I loved collecting them -- I had to have, otherwise it wouldn't make sense that I went to the garage sale where I bought that cursed tape.
"It was late at night, the kids were in bed, and I had time for myself. I put it in the VCR, and... I think I got zapped. Something happened, and I blacked out. When I came to, I was in the world of the cartoon, and I saw myself, now a cartoon fox, constantly, like my eyes were plastered to the TV. Is that what you're seeing too?"
"Yeah." Some feathers were sicking out of Mark's wings. Unable to use his fingers, he brought them to his beak and guided them back into place, keeping his tongue as far back as possible. He felt a little better. His head was merely a shade of pink now.
"I couldn't move. I couldn't talk. Really, I was just a doll, doing your normal cartoon things. No idea what I was saying, or what anyone was saying; I couldn't tell you what language it was. There were a handful of characters -- an eagle, a giant frog, a tiger about the size of my finger -- but almost all the time, I was with a hen. She did everything she could to make me suffer. She was as small as you are. But somehow, she was strong."
Mark swallowed. The doorknob was pretty high up.
"She'd pick me up with her talons, fly through a hallway, and toss me through a window."
Mark jumped and stuck his wing as far up as he could, neither of which were far. He tried again. If he could reach the doorknob, would he even be able to turn it?
"She'd ambush me with what seemed like a hug, only to be squished into a pile of goo while she cackled. Oh, how she cackled--"
"Can you get the door?" Mark's second egg was heavier than the rest of him. And, with that thought, his face turned back to red. He couldn't bear to hear about the hen any longer.
"Oh! The door. Sorry, I'll get that." Vick walked over and tried to twist the knob. The door bent inward until he let go. "It's locked!"
How were they going to get out? Mark hadn't seen a key. Looking at the doorknob again, there wasn't a keyhole or any other sort of locking mechanism. It was only a gray rectangle with a black outline. They were trapped in here. He was trapped in this body.
There had to be a way. He faced his egg. A disgusting thing -- that he made, something he should have never been able to make. "Did the hen ever pelt you with eggs?"
Mark took a deep breath. Now, he was the one reminding himself of what he had become. "Were there ever any chicks inside?"
"No. Just really sticky yolk that'd only come out of my fur between episodes. It burned when it got in my eyes..."
Mark wrapped his wings around the egg. The tips of his 'fingers' couldn't reach each other. There were no rough spots or imperfections, and his wings slid around frictionlessly. Impossible to grab, but the impossible was already happening by the fact he had laid an egg. He hefted it up.
It stayed in his wings. Neither them nor the egg wobbled, but his thin legs did. He flipped to face the door, backed away, and hurled the egg. Mid-swing, its weight decreased, leaving only that of a beach ball by the time it left him. It arced far over his head and crashed through the door, sending splinters and smoke both directions.
The edge of Mark's vision moved from the ruins of the door to the front of the store. He, Vick, and the room didn't shrink; he could see more, but just as before, his whole eyesight was being used. It's just that he had more eyesight. He was pretty sure.
The egg left a mess of white and yellow a few feet in front of the door. Without the third dimension, there was no way around it. Mark jumped and flapped his wings, but he was unable to stay in the air. His best attempt had his talons hanging precariously close to the floor, and if the yolk was as sticky as Vick had claimed, it wouldn't end well. What was he doing wrong? He had seen chickens fly before.
The pressure built more. Right. Stress meant laying another egg. And getting rid of the egg would mean being lighter. But he'd be laying yet another one. Mark watched himself cover his face with a wing. He wanted to run out of the store. He wanted to run to somewhere far away where nobody could find him. Not waddle. Run.
"Clawk!" The egg popped out of him. That felt better.
"Should I grab--"
"Just... please don't say anything about it anymore," said Mark.
Mark extended his wings and ran. What a difference! His torso became a flurry of feathers, motion lines popping in and out of existence nearby. While flying over the yolk, some of his feathers detached from his body, then fizzled into nothing. He landed on the other side and put any new out-of-place feathers back where they belonged. One of them was on his tail. With some contortion of his neck, he was able to fix that one.
"I can jump it," said Vick. He went onto all-fours, sprinted, and leaped over the yolk.
Right onto Mark. The air in his lungs escaped.
Not again. Not again! What now, this time?
"Sorry!" Vick got off of Mark. The store spun, and so did he, with a black swirl above his head. He could still hear. He could still smell. He could still taste the roof of his mouth. He could still feel the floor -- and his disfigured hands.
Mark was hugged and shook out. The store steadied, and it looked the same: a flat reality with no way back. Exiting the store wouldn't fix that. Exiting the store wouldn't get him out of this horrible body. "It's fine. I just want to go home." And never leave.
Vick sighed. "Me too, but even if there was a way to get the world back to normal, I don't have a home to go back to. I don't even know if I still have a family to go back to, if they'd even accept me suddenly coming back from being missing as a cartoon fox."
Mark couldn't even accept himself. He was already feeling heavier again, and his legs were crossed. He forced them apart.
"Not to mention bringing them into this mess with my touch, too," Vick added, chuckling, then closing his eyes. His shallow grin twisted into a grimace, and the laugh became whimpering.
"We won't know unless we try," said Mark, waddling toward Vick and wrapping a wing around him. They were just words. There was no soul in them. Merely an attempt to rekindle the hope of an old man who had no more to live for.
"Are you sure? I've been stuck like this for... what year is it?"
Mark told him.
"Hey." Mark squeezed Vick. He craned his head up at Vick's eyes, making his neck complain. "Look at you. After all you've been through, you're still alive. Your wife and kids can easily still be alive. You might not remember them, but they'll remember you." A new feeling built in Mark -- not in his gut, but in his heart. "They'll remember your voice. They'll remember your laugh! All the time you spent with them... They're out there somewhere, holding hope you'll one day come knocking on their door, and they'll be overjoyed to have you back, no matter how you've changed." Mark smiled. Somehow. With a beak. That made him smile even more. Cartoons didn't have to make sense, did they?
Vick remained silent, but he took his gaze off the floor. He brought it to Mark's head, then above it. He pushed his shoulders back and became taller. His tail lifted itself up! "I suppose you're right. I'll find my family, and you'll get back to yours. We'll find a way to make things better. Let's get going."
Mark couldn't believe it. Not only had he convinced Vick, but he had convinced himself as well. He had sounded like his mother, consoling him as a kid all the times he had thought the world was going to end. Everything had turned out fine when he had failed that one test. Everything had turned out fine when his father had to be rushed to the hospital. Everything would continue to turn out fine. Here he was, passing the same help on. Funny thing he could also be a mother now, as much as he... No. Not hated it. He had to stay positive. The least he could do was smile about his predicament, even if something was dying inside him.
In the background were the other doors, all lit by the same invisible light as in the janitor's closet. The shelf ahead was in the way, and through the gaps between the levels, he saw another in the background. He stuck a wing in front of him, and instead of brushing against the edge of either shelf, it went between them and found air. Vick followed Mark as he walked through.
"One second," Mark said, stopping in the middle of the shelf. "I want to try something." He couldn't interact with the background -- how would those other doors work, then? -- but maybe he could touch the shelf covering him. If he reached out far enough with his wings, he could do it, but no matter how hard he tried, all he did was tire himself. It was like trying to bend his thumb behind his hand as a human -- impossible without help, which was in the form of using his other hand, and there was no help coming here.
"None of the characters in the tape could touch anything in the foreground or background either," explained Vick as they resumed walking. "It's all decoration."
What did that make the space they were in, then? The middle-ground?
They passed the empty front desk. Vick pointed at the security camera. "I wonder if this is one of those places where they can record the footage so they don't have to have someone watching all the time."
"People actually used to do that?" Mark always thought is was just a TV show thing.
"Yes. I think... No, I remember doing it at once point." He slowed down and stared out the front door's window; Mark couldn't see the other side. "That was my first job: watching a bunch of screens while everyone else was asleep. Thankfully, nothing ever happened on my watch." His eyes lit up. "That's where I met my wife! Her name was... Her name was..." He snapped a few times. "Oh, it's on the tip of my tongue, but I remember what she looked like!"
Thud. He smacked into the door.
"I think so." Vick shook himself out, then opened the door.
Mark's field of view didn't extend but rather scrolled as he walked out. The interior of the store disappeared and became a painting of the storefront. So, as long as there was an entrance or an exit, he could interact with the background, which made the other doors inside the store make sense. The strip mall itself stretched to the left and right, then gave way to houses and roads, some of which wound into the background. The dumpsters and his car were in the foreground, but far down enough so they didn't hide the mall.
"Do you live around here?"
"About ten minutes away," replied Mark. The strip mall scrolled by. "I don't think it'd be a good idea for me to go back home, though. I live in an apartment, and everyone else wouldn't be happy if I turned the halls flat."
"And I don't remember where I lived. This isn't familiar, either." Vick stopped, and do did Mark. "Where should we go?"
"I don't know." Mark scratched the top of his head with a wing. "If we went in my car," if they could, which they might since it had doors, "we would be leaving a large streak of 2D across town, but that would happen too if we walked." Who knows what would happen to them? They could be captured for research -- there was probably some law stating only humans could be considered people -- or even killed to stop the spread.
The pressure in Mark's gut built again. He couldn't stress. "There's a forest nearby. Maybe we can hide out in there while we figure out what to do."
"Lead the way."
They headed off, praying every step of the way that if there was anyone out to see them, they would be ignored.
If Vick managed to escape his world -- the tape -- maybe there was a way to get out of cartoon-hood altogether. Maybe there wasn't. The least he and Mark could do was try, even if it meant they would be ruining the lives of anyone curious enough to touch the weird ground they left in their wake.
Offices and storefronts became houses and bars as they left downtown and entered the residential area. The moon crawled across the sky, an ever-present reminder of the time they had left to hide. Whenever a vehicle drove past, they hid behind a bush or tree. Whenever someone's security light turned on, they ran away as fast as they could.
"So, what do people do nowadays for fun?" asked Vick.
"Were video games around in your era?"
"There was this one game for two people. Each person got a dial they'd use to move a bar up and down. The goal was to see how many points you could get from shooting a ball past the other person's bar."
"I've played that before."
"What do they have now?"
"Well, there's this thing called virtual reality. There's this helmet you put on your head that hooks up to your computer--"
"You own a computer?"
"Wow. I remember we always wanted to own a computer, but they were too expensive."
Mark felt like he was being judged, but awkward conversation was better than silence that led to worrying. "So, anyway, you plug the helmet into the computer and put it over your head. It covers your eyes with two screens, and it makes it look like you're actually in another world."
"Oh please no. That's just asking to be sucked into whatever you're playing. But, I could really go for some 3D right now."
The houses became further apart, and the spacing between trees became erratic. By morning, they would have surely caused a disaster as people left their homes and touched the trail. But, maybe, with more people as cartoons, there would be more people figuring out how to reverse all that had been done.
If Vick had been sucked into a tape and later spat out, there had to be others out there in their own pockets of the world who had undergone the same thing. Whatever solution that came from Mark and Vick's wake of chaos would at least be there for anyone else suffering... and the other sufferers they made along the way.
[m human -> f toon hen]
Originally written 2019-09-16
Based on ideas by lappifox, used with permission.
There are many times in life where a small action has profound consequences. Maybe they were known ahead of time, maybe they were not. In any case, it is impossible to rewind time, even for a simple mistake.