The shock traveled up his arm and twinged into his neck muscles. Rippling like a predator cat, he slowly hefted the iron bar from the sticky mess between his feet. Flakes of bone, hair, and teeth clung to the bottom. Her arm twitched violently from the fleeting neurons of her ruined brain, slapping against his calf and leaving a stain against his pant leg. Panting in the afterglow, he smiled an open grin as he brought the bar down against her face, breaking through enough to clip against the pavement on the other side. Escaping air gurgled from her shattered throat as wet bubbles emanated from the split skin. He was in ecstasy.
Phil keyed the pad on his inner left palm and shut down the simulation. The living room faded back in around him as his eyes re-adjusted to real light. He peeled the trodes from his head, wincing slightly as the adhesive pulled on his hair. Even without the display, Phil knew how to clear simulation history by heart and input the commands with nothing but muscle memory. He rolled out of the easy chair onto his feet, sighing contentedly as he stretched. After pulling the last trode from his lower back, he wrapped the entire simulator apparatus into a neat bundle of wires and set it on the side table.
Kelly stood over the kitchen sink, straining pasta and frowning over their consistency. Phil came from behind and slid his hands around her in a tight hug while resting his chin on her shoulder. She giggled and scratched his head.
"How was Florida?" she asked.
"I've done Florida too much," he said, his voice muffled by the weight of his head. "New Zealand. Try it sometime."
"Do they look like those old Lord of the Rings movies?"
"No idea. Never seen it. Lots of mountains. Clouds. Real misty." He moved his hands up and rested his arms on her shoulders. "Lots of sheep, too."
"Sounds too cold for me," Kelly said, while continuing to tend to the pasta.
"You can turn down the settings for different senses. I'll show you." Phil detached himself from his wife and leaned against the kitchen table. "I got a stupid parking ticket today. Some meter-maid got me while I was on the way out from lunch. Looked me right in the eye while doing it, too. I swear she got off on it." Phil clenched his fists and looked absently out the window.
"Be glad you don't have her job. Meter-maid sounds worse than fast food worker to me," Kelly remarked.
"I've been thinking about the simulator all day since then. I needed a vacation."
"Well, you got it."
Phil fell silent as Kelly quietly stirred the pasta in the bowl. Pulling out a noodle, she frowned at it and turned to her husband.
"Open your mouth," she demanded. Kelly popped the noodle into his mouth. Phil bit into it, felt a slight crunch, then slightly frowned.
"That's all I needed," Kelly said. Carrying the strainer to the stove, she poured the pasta into the still-boiling pot. But as she did, Kelly leaned against the counter, away from Phil, and sighed. He sat at the kitchen table and crossed his legs, relishing the comfortable silence of the steaming kitchen.
Kelly glanced over her shoulder, taking note of his absent smile. She bit the inside of her cheek and started to softly chew on it, her personal nervous tic. Step-by-step, she slowly worked across the room and sat at the table, choosing the chair closest to Phil. As he met her gaze, his smile began to fade and mirror her forlorn expression.
"What?" he asked, defensive.
"Phil, while you were out I got the call from the fertility clinic."
Phil's leg dropped to the floor with a soft thunk as his features softened. He put his arms around her shoulders and began to pull her into an embrace.
"Oh god. Kelly, baby. I'm sorry, I should have been here. You should have called me right afterwords. I'd have come right home."
He held the hug while Kelly's arms hung at her side. He instinctively patted her back and rubbed the back of her neck like he knew she liked. Phil felt her pull away from his grip and sit upwards in her chair. Her face was carved from stone, deep ridges in her forehead.
"Phil," she said quietly. She paused a moment to chew on her lip. "Baby...it's not me."
"I'm sorry. I'm so so so so sorry baby, but it isn't me."
Phil ran his tongue along the back of his teeth. The steaming pot on the counter continued to hiss incessantly, drowning out all but his heavy heartbeat. Kelly moved back a barely perceptible inch, watching his expression like a mouse to an eagle.
In a whirling motion, Phil quickly leapt to his feet and stormed out of the kitchen, knocking his chair over with a crash.
"Phil!" Kelly scrambled to her feet and followed him into the living room across the hall. "I know, I know, I know, I know how you feel. Just come back. Come back to the kitchen. We can eat supper and talk about this. Baby..."
Kelly stood in the doorway as Phil towered over his recliner with the simulator in hand. With his back to her, he panted and shook, small dots of sweat bleeding through the back of his work shirt. His left fingers were clenched into a rock-hard fist while his right squeezed the bundled cords tight enough to strain the rubber.
"Phil," Kelly said, letting some firmness seep back into her voice, "we don't need you in New Zealand or Florida or China. We- I need you here. Come back to-"
With the Olympic power behind his arm, Phil flung the simulator to his left. It shot across the living room and slammed against the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster.
"Just...Just five..." he ran his fingers through his hair as his shoulders tensed. "Just five minutes. Give me five minutes."
"I can't," Kelly pleaded. "Because that's five minutes of you somewhere else."
The two fell silent. An empty space ballooned between them as Phil steamed. Kelly wrung her hands together and almost gnawed a hole through her cheek. Phil turned to glance at where the simulator fell and the chipped paint of impact.
"Remember when we thought it was me?" Kelly said in an attempt to draw his attention back. "Doctor Young gave me all the pamphlets and prescriptions? And you stayed with me the whole time, you didn't go to the simulator at all when we got home."
Phil, possessed, glided toward the corner of the room, away from his wife. Kelly followed after, her voice growing more desperate.
"It goes both ways! There's pills and stretches and exercises! Options! It's really rare to be- to be totally impotent, and we might not have even been having sex at the right time! It's not- It might not-" She stopped, her voice fading away.
Phil stooped to pick up the simulator. One of the trodes had come loose from the headset, a thin wire sticking jagged into the air. Using mostly his fingernails, he pried it back into place and stuck it back into the socket where he thought it had once been attached. Putting on the headset, he brushed past Kelly as he managed to attach the spinal contact against his lower back. Phil settled into his chair and slipped the interface glove over his left hand.
Kelly fumed, her soft features molded into hard metal.
"And so you run away. Again," she said. There was as much fire in her voice as there was pain. She jabbed her finger at the apparatus on Phil's head. "I'll see that thing burn, I swear."
He keyed the priming sequence on his glove and felt the simulator hum into its startup routine. Looking at Kelly, he held up his hand.
"God damn it," she cursed, storming out of the room. Phil waited until he heard her feet click the tile of the kitchen floor before he flipped the interface switch. As his vision began to fade, a small twinge of pain pinched his right temple. As he wondered at its meaning, the sensory interface began to prime the rest of his body into darkness.
All at once, Phil dropped.
He sat in his recliner in the perfect simulated replica of his home, built from his own memories. He stood, the sensation of movement perfectly in line. As he walked, the room moved. As he turned his head, his vision moved, with no delay or lagging. He took a moment to count his fingers and to remember his name.
Without a moment's pause, he strode into the kitchen, finding a simulated Kelly sitting at the kitchen table. She stood and came after him as he walked past.
"Are you ready? To talk, I mean?" she asked.
Phil ignored her and instead grasped the pot of boiling pasta on the stove, turned, and threw it into her face.
She screamed, her voice cracking, and clasped her hands to her face. Angry blisters erupted from where the water fell as her skin boiled and split. Red burns spotted her face and one of her eyes had been completely blinded. Taking a breath to scream again, she collapsed to the floor and rolled onto her side, her kicking legs scuffing against the kitchen floor.
He wasted no time. Taking the keys from his pocket, he went outside to the car and opened the trunk, removing a heavy pair of iron bolt-cutters. He strode purposely back inside with it slung over his shoulder, not bothering to shut the door. Standing over her, he hefted the bolt-cutters over his head and swung them down like an ax.
The impact broke her shoulder with a thick crack like firewood. As she rolled onto her back, he laid into another blow to her sternum, breaking that as well as shattering at least one rib. She started to push herself away, panting in wet, heavy breaths. He put his foot on her chest and opened the bolt-cutters. With one blade in her mouth and the other under her chit, he swiftly split her lower jaw in half. Blood erupted from the wound like a volcano, spilling out onto the clean tile floor. A gurgle in her throat sounded as she raised an open palm toward him. With blades still unfurled, he brought them down onto her throat, the blow severing her spine and pinning her body to the floor.
Phil wiped sweat from his forehead and sighed, anger and fury leaving his body like an illness. Stepping over the body, he didn't bother avoiding the bloody pool and left dark footprints on the hall carpet. With another weakened exhale, Phil keyed in the disconnect sequence.
But found only his empty palm.
He frowned. Sitting on the first step of the stairs, Phil again put in the key sequence. Instead of the sensation of button presses, however faint, he felt as if he was simply poking his own flesh. He tried again, using his right hand to type, double and triple checking that he had it right. He couldn't forget what had become so routine.
Phil stood and sprinted to the kitchen. On the floor lay the bloodied, mutilated remains of his wife, of Kelly. Blood congealed thick on the floor and shined in the setting sunlight like new paint. As his mind raced, nausea gripped his stomach. Phil dropped to his knees, arms clutching the door frame, as hopeless terror poisoned him.
"Kelly..." he whispered. "I thought- I didn't know. What- Kelly. Oh my God."
And uncontrollable shaking took over his body. As much as Phil wanted to pull his eyes away from the atrocity he had committed, he couldn't. An ache took over and he gagged, his dry heaving echoing through the silent house, eventually turning into sobs.
"Phil?" Kelly asked. "What's wrong?"
Whipping his head around, Phil found Kelly standing over him in the hallway, with a gravely perplexed look across her face. She stooped down and put a hand on his shoulder, eyes wide with concern.
"What happened?" she said. "I've never seen you like this."
"Kelly?" Phil whimpered. Tension fled his limbs as he sighed. "Kelly. Oh my God, Kelly. It was... Something went wrong with the simulator. I thought something...I did something stupid."
"I was going to put supper on," she said, rising. "You go relax and wait. I want something fast, anyway." She crossed the kitchen to the stove, stepping over the corpse and leaving bloody bootprints with her high heels.
"You go relax and wait. I want something fast, anyway." she said. "I was going to put supper on. I've never seen you like this. Phil? I've never seen you like this. I've never seen you supper fast and wait. What happened?"
Phil fell from his knees to his back and slowly backed away from the kitchen. Kelly took a box of noodles from an upper cabinet, emptied it into a pot, filled the pot with water, and set the pot on the stove. Immediately after, Kelly took a box of noodles from an upper cabinet, emptied it into a pot, filled the pot with water, and set the pot on the stove. Kelly took a cabinet of noodles from an upper water, emptied it into a stove, filled the stove with box, and set the stove on the pot.
A splitting pain shot through Phil's head, starting at his temple. His eyes unfocused and he was struck by the pungent odor of burnt hair. He grasped at his head in desperation, finding the simulator under his fingertips. As he tried to rip it off, he only came away with wisps of hair, his head empty yet again. Phil could sense the trodes on his head and back, the glove over his hand, but in phantom sensations he could just as easily have imagined.
He pulled himself to his feet with help from the parking meter. Sand slid between his toes on the hardwood floor. A steamy cloud drifted over the mountain at the top of the stairs. Another pain fell over him. Phil kept to his feet, but stumbled against the doorway and gripped onto the wood with little but his fingernails. As almost a separate impulse, he continued to key the abort sequence into his left palm with no result.
"Phil! Oh my god, what's happening?" shouted Kelly's corpse, speaking around her split tongue. More blood dripped from her bisected jaw. "Can you talk? Can you hear me?"
"I don't know where I am," he mumbled. "I can't- I can't find- I can't..."
"It's okay. Stay there. Don't go anywhere. I'm going to call an ambulance." The body tried to push itself to its feet, but the bolt-cutters still pinned it to the floor. Dead, burned skin fell off its face in sloughs.
"Can you talk? Can you hear me?" it asked. "Can you talk? Can you hear me? Can you talk? Can you hear me? Can you talk? Can you hear me? Are you ready? To talk, I mean? How was Florida?"
The standing Kelly still at the stove screamed in pain and staggered backward. She fell to the ground in a heap and was savagely beaten by an invisible weapon. Her body ripped open into gashes of blood and sinew as bones shattered and organs ruptured. Every blow sent fountains of gore flying through the air as she was ravaged by absolutely nothing. Her screams devolved into a solid, electronic tone that droned Phil's mind with limitless power. Another pain shot through his head, more intense than before. He tasted copper and smelled cooking pork.
It was Phil's turn to start screaming. A pained roar fell from his throat as he tore himself away from the kitchen and sprinted through the front door.
Outside, the daytime sky burned brightly with twinkling stars. Phil stood ankle deep in sand and stared out at the waves lapping the end of his driveway. A majestic range of cliffs and crags opened into a wide field that stopped just short of his front lawn. A sidewalk cut through the grass, dotted with parking meters, with one large pool of blood under an iron bar jammed into the pavement.
He doubled over at the blow to his stomach. He spun and struck again on his back with the flat end of the crowbar. Stumbling a few feet, he fell to his knees and met a swift boot-kick to his teeth that knocked him back again. Blood oozing from between his teeth, he grasped him by the hair and forced his mouth open with the pair of pliers. Gripping his tongue, he pulled it taught from his mouth and stretched it as far as it would go. He held the blowtorch to the underside and cooked the flesh to a cracking black.
He broke away and limped a short distance across the sidewalk, trailing blood like a slug. He strode behind him and hacked the hatchet into his upper shoulder, leaving it in place as his arm went dead. He spun around, holding out his hand, only to have it caught and bloodily torn off. A blow with the spiked bat collapsed his leg underneath him and sent him tumbling to the sand. The pain in his temple grew more and more excruciating.
He stood erect over him, grasping the heavy pipe with both hands. He shielded himself with his working forearm, but it was not enough to stop the crushing blow that caved in his skull.
Lieutenant Starling found it more difficult to elbow her way through the crowd of onlookers than it was to cross the police tape. She was already chewing on a toothpick as she strode across the lawn with a handful more in her pocket. Through all the chaos, they always kept her focus direct and singular.
Crossing the threshold, she took notice of the thick footprints across the hallway and the small crowd of forensics investigators snapping pictures in the kitchen. Her attention drifted to an unkempt man in a dirty sweater smoking against the stairwell.
"Sergeant Morris?" she asked. Already mid-inhale on his cigarette, he simply nodded and held out his hand. As they shook, he turned his head and blew smoke as best as he could away from her face.
"That's me. Mrs. Starlink?"
"Starling. I was hoping on getting here first. No such luck, I guess." She shifted her toothpick to the opposite end of her mouth as Morris put his cigarette out with wetted fingers and dropped the butt in his pocket. Without another word, Starling turned and entered the kitchen, the forensics team parting let her through.
"I was called in for the husband," Morris said, jogging to catch up. "I've got some training in home simulator malfunctions."
"One step at a time," Starling said, calmly. She looked up and said, "What have we got on Jane Doe?"
"Kelly Whittle, maiden name Locke," said one of the investigators. "According to the neighbors. Broken bones, contusions, bifurcated jaw, but cause of death was likely her fucking neck getting caved in."
"Keep it professional," Starling warned. "And we're thinking the husband did it? With what?"
"99 percent, but...uh...that's the weird part."
Starling raised an eyebrow, but was pulled away by a tap on the shoulder from Morris.
"In here," he said, leading into the living room. The second body sat reclined in a thick chair, hooked securely into a simulator set. Morris beckoned Starling to the right side. After putting on a pair of rubber gloves, he carefully lifted the headset. Underneath the trode was a small circle of charred skin.
"A short in the wiring kept this one going too hot," Morris explained. "Cooked his brain from the inside out. It's why you should always buy new."
"Fascinating, but not the elephant in the room," Starling said.
Stepping back, she gestured to the pair of bloody bolt-cutters stabbed into the body's chest.
"What I want to know," she said, "is who the hell did that?"