About two years after The End came a memorable day: Mark unearthed an incredible stash. Coarse-knuckled and goose-prickling under a wan, strange sun, he hunched over a small old dumpster he found behind the old Winn Dixie, and pried away at it. It took some time, as the thing had corroded shut. The color and iron smell of rust was all in the creases of his palms by the time he got it open.
Four whole, green-gleaming cases of Halo-branded Mountain Dew, untouched. Twenty still-unopened canisters of Gamer Snacks: Miniature corn puffs and the like, vacuum-sealed into ergonomic containers designed to be consumed one-handed. Mother lode.
By the time he loaded up his beaten red wagon with the spectacular find, a cool, alien night had fallen. Night after The End was a strange and foreign time. Murmurs that sounded like the echoes of an unfamiliar civilization—the ghosts of rubbery vehicles stalking asphalt—seemed to ebb and sigh from far away. Mark passed no one as he dragged the wagon over graveled fields and split sidewalks. The wagon’s grinding and clunking was percussion for his aching muscles.
In the park near his shelter a single child’s swing creaked. The red wagon had belonged to his daughter Lula, whom he’d lost in the great transition to the end. Who knew what nightmares played with his child now? He tried not to think of her in a place overwhelmed by glittery black mirrors, unknowable economies, and sleek, fast, nebulous Clouds.
Don’t think about the Cloud, Mark told himself. His nape prickled. Despite the strain of his bent back, he hauled faster, his wagon full of desperate provisions shrieking behind him like a nightmarish pursuer.
The endless sprawling lane wound its way past a dry river bed to a cul-de-sac dotted with the skeletons of dream houses. The looming moon transformed them starkly, weeping pale light through the empty window frames like eyes, lunar rectangles etched sharply into the landscape. There was little for the wind to stir, but Mark didn’t mind: it looked like a level of Zelda. He took care never to step in the pools of moonlight, keeping to the dark.
His home was the only one in the district that had been finished, secured, before The End. Mark had seen to that. In those days he still spoke to his family; Carissa at the table nervous over the family paperwork, as he floated like a ghost powdered in drywall. They needed to finish their entertainment center, he told her then. She never understood. He’d shown her all the threads online, sent her all the articles. She never believed him, damn it. And now. And now.
Covered in a tarpaulin, a long-slumbering speedboat sat in the driveway. He muscled his daughter’s wagon up the concrete stairs, fresh and pale as the day they were poured. As he entered the door, he trod unseeing on the word WELCOME that was stamped into the Astroturf of the mat.
It was dark in the foyer. Since The End he’d had to do all of his own electrical work, because no one else could be trusted. The Internet was constantly on, the equivalent of a radio in wartime. Mark was an individualist. Mark knew that he and only he could achieve some measure of the ideal for his family, what little there was left to be had by anyone. They were wrong, dammit. They’d all been wrong. His heavy sigh echoed flatly against walls that still smelled of satiny chocolate Behr paint, mocking him.
He left the wagon by the basement door, stashing a can of Dew and a cannister of Snacks in the utility pocket of his leather kilt, and followed the sound of light and noise deeper into the home he had built on the pure currency of ideals. He avoided bumping the credenza automatically, but was still in the habit of flipping the kitchen lightswitch as he passed through it, even though it no longer connected to anything. Vinyl and formica glittered impassively at him on his way to the Living Room.
Living Room. A room for living. This was a place to go on living in, he thought. With fatigued relief he surveyed the plush sectional sofa arrayed before the strange glass apostrophe of a coffee table Carissa had once adored. Here, the CONSOLE loomed, the hearth of all Mark’s efforts since the end. The End had not touched this place, and this place alone.
The CONSOLE was the centerpiece of the altar that dominated an entire great cavernous wall of the room. It sat like an omnipresent little sage beneath the broad black, chrome-accented Television. Mounted in the wall, the pores of speakers bookended the display. Little luminescent eyes of piercing blue and lime green winked on and off softly, a comforting rhythm, even though he could no longer remember the specific purpose of each.
There were three remotes. As a failsafe only he now knew their intimate patterns: The power to the receiver, then the speakers, then the cable box.
A program in progress jangled to life, an abrupt assault on his senses in the dark Living Room. High-volume blaring bells and whistles, the thunderous cheer of a crowd of people Mark would never meet. The program had the scratchy veneer, the tinny echo of something recorded in a prior age, well before The End.
Mark was inches from the screen, now. A face quite like his came looming back, speaking urgent dialogue amid the surround-sound thundering of falling bombs, the rattle of gunfire.
On the screen, a frenetic, victorious ding ding ding as a jocular announcer enjoined someone named Pete to COME ON DOWN, and on the screen the camera snapped to a person with PETE sketched on his sunny nametag. Pete had a delighted face. The contestant leapt to his feet, ran with fists in the air to a great revolving stage full of fabulous showcase prizes. A wood-paneled rec room full of consoles. A picture of a ski vacation. A speedboat.
The contestants would have to guess the prizes, Mark recalled. Or bid to buy them. It was hard to discern. It didn’t matter. The prices didn’t matter. He already had his dream. He wasn’t here for the TV, anyway. The TV was never just a TV. Not since The End. Especially after The End.
“On,” he told the CONSOLE, his voice sounding alien with disuse to his own ear.
But it remembered him even still, and it blossomed awake like a geometric flower across his glassy frame of vision. This, this, this, he thought, pupils dilating, a game, a game, his broken-nailed and rust-knuckled fingers grasping for a sleek black wedge that sat in the middle of his wife’s once-beloved coffee table. His mouth felt suddenly dry, and he opened a can of Mountain Dew. It made an effervescent hiss.
His fingers fitted easily over the black wedge’s twin vibrating triggers. His thumbs ticked its alphabet, the four-letter, omnidirectional vocabulary of The End. His body seemed to tumble forward on its own.
“Mark,” the spectre of Carissa’s voice called from far away.
Mark was inches from the screen, now. A face quite like his came looming back, speaking urgent dialogue amid the surround-sound thundering of falling bombs, the rattle of gunfire. Behind the couch, the rear speakers shuddered gently on their subterranean stalks. He clutched the controller. He pulled the trigger. He would fight The End here, if nowhere else. This was the only place he had agency over it.
“Mark,” came the echo of Carissa again, as Mark’s disembodied arms within the screen, every fine hair visible on his virtual forearms, gripped his enemy. The impression of her voice was drowned by the guttural aspiration of an enemy combatant’s slit throat. He could almost feel the wash of gore over the arms that weren’t his. Almost there. Almost there. It’s almost real.
“Dad,” came a child’s lilt. Two shadows fell on him from behind, or so it seemed. A trigger on the controller vibrated as he pulled it, an explosion of vibrant red washing over the room. Perfect, he whispered under his breath. The End never came, he thought to himself, it’s not over, it’s not over.
“Dad! I want you to watch me race!”
“Pause,” Mark replied, and the CONSOLE obeyed, the contorted faces of his enemies freezing on the screen.
Lula plaintively held her tablet up, merry little cars bouncing on the screen to a gentle tune, awaiting a co-pilot. “Dad, I want to play,” she said.
Carissa stood beside their child in her dressing gown, a figure like pale smoke swallowed by walls of hardware, looming ceilings, static-resistant dreams. “You’ve been promising to look at my mods for two weeks now. Will you just put that old thing down and come play?”
“When this is over,” he said, jerking a crooked thumb at the Entertainment Altar, where the twisted wartime vista hung frozen and grotesque in the center of the Living Room like a macabre artwork.
“It is over, Mark,” Carissa sighed, and she went back upstairs.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator's Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought Catalog and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate,NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs at LeighAlexander.net.