LEVEL ONE | THE MUTINOUS HEAP
THERE WERE ALL MANNER OF GAMES: games to pass the time and games to test the skill and games to tickle and games to taunt. Then there were the games one played to keep reality from hunting them down. The sacred kind that The Boy would make up along the way – the rules of which he kept to himself always, scratching his score in secret on his stomach lining at midnight – to keep the main boss at bay; from bubbling out of the cracks in his skull and flooding the ductwork of his dreams. The main boss, The Inquisitor of Spirals, awaited at the final level in a fortress on a floating island called the Mutinous Heap. He wore a business suit with a face full of pockmarks, eyeless with a slit for a mouth out of which a razor-tipped tongue would come clicking, dangling drippy cataclysms. Upon his head he wore a tangle of enormous black antlers, upon the limbs of which a constellation of limbless, severed dolls were noosed. And at night when The Boy would hear the tongue summoning, singing its slaughter song and preening for apocalypse, he would gently rock braid his bones for war. Wielding a wordless sword, making sharp its edges with his whetstone heart.
LEVEL TWO | SKYSPLINTER
A GRAYGREEN SLIVER SLASHED THE SKY, CALLING FORTH THE BOY. Such a pretty void, like an Alt-demon’s finger nail or Skyspider’s spindly eye. He thought it could be proof of a secret level somewhere near; there had been tell of those in games like this one. Warp zones and easter eggs scattered by The All Maker for grins. Either that or a nasty glitch. Pixilation patchwork gone awry with its toxic tears in time and space. All the delicate manifolds gone wonky. Hard to tell. The Isle of Nowhen was riddled with such mysteries, so as The Boy navigated The Hollows (threading between the Aisles of Loneliness, hacking through the voltaic thunderbrush and swatting off great winging blood-sopped bats), he was constantly brushing his hand over the fuzz-happy firmament, or plucking up fistfuls of Angels’ Eye Lashes (slender little roots) looking for hidden keyholes to hidden doors. It was only after trudging through a thorn-infested field of poppies and stepping foot into the Grizzly Piddling Puddle that he caught glimpse of the first keyhole, in the windless reflection over the water: it had been etched into his chest, presently glowing a soft pinkish shade of salmon, wheezing mist through the carved-out keyhole. He knew then what had to be done; the only means to procure a cure for his Everlasting Melancholy. Tilting his head back and coughing up the key, he jabbed and twisted it in. Heard the wet clack of his ribcage stretching apart, felt bone pinching and powdering off like chalk. Finally, it had widened just enough for him to step inside himself, where he looked up to find himself standing in The Inverted Forest, soaked to a skin from all the boughs weeping black stars.
LEVEL THREE | ICARUS ANTHEM
THE ONE INCONTROVERTIBLE HUMAN TRUTH BEYOND ALL OTHER HUMAN TRUTHS: WATER LEVELS WERE THE FUCKING WORST. That and sky levels, anything where blocks would ritually abandon your feet in a blur to remind you something would always be there to hold you down. Some phantom force like gravity to shackle you in your own skin like a pinned-through-the-cardboard collection of prized Monarchs, stiffened in their oblivion but damned to dream of twitching, itching to flap free. This water level was of The Boy’s own reaping, however—a self-styled flood within the secret selfscape, triggered by his own Traumaquake. As the sagging slices of Fungal Foam roamed squirming along the concavernous skyrail like flattened caterpillars, The Boy darted to and fro, memorizing their pattern before zig and then zagging their viscous drippy needles that would have impaled him from above, splashing into the Sea of Internalized Shame with pinprick kerplunks. The Boy acted fast by conjuring an unsinkable raft forged from sacred memory stored in his forever inventory: an awkward first kiss at the top of a tree with The Girl armed with an army of freckles on both her arms and pale thin wrists that reminded him of the rain, their bloodied noses bleeding together to mask the pain of their shared childhoods. (It was important to remember how in such moments Leveling Up still remained a possibility, and indeed, became more probable…in the same way all light learns to grow brighter in the dark.) Sailing onward, bobbing on his little raft in the big black, The Boy thought he gleaned another glitch so snagged at a patch of neon air to activate some spectral switch, feeling his hair suddenly burst into bloom until on a plume of technicolor mohawk he was being Icarused away.
LEVEL FOUR | ZERO ZENITH ZEPHYR
OVER THE GLISTENING ISTHMUSES AND FRACTAL FJORDS THE BOY FLOATED, THE WHOLE TIME DODGING MANIC RIPPLING LIPS OF LAND WHOSE SENTIENT CONTOURS WERE CONSTANTLY RAISING AND REELING, RIPPING AND PEELING THEMSELVES UP TO WHIP THEIR WRATH AT HIS SPINDRIFT HEELS. To give him hell and pop him like a rogue balloon that had strayed too far from its native atmosphere, which it had. He had never made it this far into the game before. Had never ventured this deep into the ravenous labyrinth of spirals without saving his progress at one of the many brightly burnished Coping Obelisks conveniently scattered throughout the selfscape. Which is to say, at this point he was navigating by sheer panic and a healthy half dose of hope, having shredded all maps and crushed all compasses. Passing through the barbarous horde of thrash-happy clouds (somehow only losing half a heart), he began to hear the rapacious ticks and then tocks of killer cogs and militant pendulums below and knew he had reached The Clockwork Kingdom. Crashing down, fur-coated mirrors immediately slithered toward him slinging stinging reflections which it took everything in his shrinking arsenal to ricochet back, busting the fiends into fine serpent shards. It wasn’t until a dragon forged of Déjà vu came crawling into view that The Boy summoned a shield of lucid dreaming, cracking the knuckles of both fists before offering a kiss to his lucky arcade coin: a level-2 shiny boon. As the shadow swallowed him whole he dug his heels into a hole and faced the sky flinching, a jangly knot of nerves in the presence of a miniboss praying he could press pause.
LEVEL FIVE | NOSTALGIA FOR A MADE-UP PLACE
THE RECURRING BOLTS OF YESTERYEAR CAME WHIRRING IN SUCH AN UNRELENTING STREAM FROM THE FANG-JUTTED MAW OF THE DRAGON THAT HE BARELY MANAGED TO WITHSTAND ITS STEADY BLOWS, STEADYING HIMSELF TO STUDY THE MEMORY STORM GUSHING FROM ITS ICHOR-GLAZED TONGUE. Every miniboss had some glaring Achilles heel—some noticeable chink in the armor of its design. So, as the waves of flashback pinged around the clockwork topography like pinballs, he kept his eyes peeled for residual light seeping through the cracks. In order of attack: a blip of the old man taping his lips for speaking out of turn before, hours later, violently ripping off a ribbon of stolen skin (this, obviously devoid of joy); a snapshot of The Mother tipping back a frothy escape plan to drown the gloom glommed around her eyes like a mascara of wannabe obliviousness (her latent regret offering no respite); and finally, a makeshift throne at the top of an attic dressed in artificial night and the false stars of itchy installation (and here, it occurred to The Boy, could some sliver of salvation be ultimately salvaged). It was there, in that inverse dungeon that he realized he could pretend himself invulnerable to the ritual onslaught of parental malpractice. Where he could achieve via imagination some means of temporal migration. A game, of sorts, but without any inflexible rules and one goal only: to entomb reality so deep its tendrils could never touch you. Some secondhand holy home; new way to play this thing called life sans scarification. HOME: a concept he only ever learned after inventing it himself. And so as the dragon lunged, The Boy spotted a future wound along its strobe-blinking tail and blinkless bolted, thinking: X marks the spot.
LEVEL SIX | A PRETTY PROCESSION OF DRUNKEN STUMBLING HOLOGRAMS
BEYOND THE EMPIRE OF CALLOUS CLOCKS LAY A STRETCH OF INFINITELY DESERTED DUNES CALLED OUROBOROS. Visions of adolescence laced with levity and hypothetical happiness danced before him, teasing terroristic unreality. Passing Gamma Cacti coughing sparks and elastic Bungee Buzzards swooping and stretching over his shoulder like Dali’s drippy clocks, The Boy counted the spectral holograms marching along to mock his handsome hell. 97-98-99. Some sported punk rock garbs thrashing guitars and engaging in his fantasy of making it big in the music industry. (Making noise loud enough to kill off the silence in his head—that itchy stillness that always funneled forth memories of red.) Some teased familial bliss with rainless picnics or solemn Sunday dinners with nary a broken plate or even one cigarette put out on his skin. Others dangled something more modest, to ail the ache of his loneliness: a few faces with which to surround himself in the high school cafeteria so he wouldn’t have to be seen eating his bread sandwich or dry ramen all alone. Someone to stand under the bleachers with and scratch out the hate, or throw cutlery off the old water tower together. The panoply of fully-armed mock miragists went on and on, until The Boy gleaned in the far-flung hinterland of the heavens a cubist terminus. Not much more than a swish of pixels at first, the closer he got the clearer it became, aligning in the sky like a perfect dream of symmetry until crystal clear and calling out to him. As the mirage-galvanizing heat waves wore off an escalator forged of Truth rose from the beveled sands and the holograms wilted. Eventually The Boy stepped on, hitching a ride to the floating island of a final level.
LEVEL SEVEN | THE SUN INSIDE
THERE WERE THE GAMES ONE PLAYED TO KEEP REALITY FROM HUNTING THEM DOWN. There was The Boy, standing at the edge of a continent without coordinates. There was The Mutinous Heap, its vile capital, lurking in the fowl thistles of a thorny dream. There was The Inquisitor of Spirals, waiting to meet him dark antlers gleaming. There were the words that oozed from his scab-bruised lips as he traced a virus of circles through the air: “At ease, wanderer, for I am not your enemy. I am your very own servant and salvation dealer. And this, this is your kingdom.” There was a Faustian offering: a throne of lysergic lies, crown of coddling retreat. There was a blizzard of reasons to say yes, to flux in the thawless wonderland forever. There was a momentary glimpse of thrashed flesh around the belly where he kept carved his high score. There was a raw feeling like Fuck You, which had been sutured so deep into his soul’s coding since birth that he now did all the damaging himself, internalizing his worth. There was a realization: the price tag of a self-inflicted pain, of escaping his shame of not being strong enough to say no. There was a shattering flash of lucidity: shafts of light cleaving shadow as a flurry of panes and panels shifted, flitting to reveal himself standing on the edge of a water tower. There was a slow stepping back. There was the solemn heat only hope could radiate, inextinguishable like a second sun blooming in the mouth. Which is to say, there were ways to win the game by not letting it play you. Wards and words and ways to escape the maze with just one phrase.
( “It wasn’t your fault” )
Eric Ross Bernstein is an artist and designer born in Washington, D.C. After graduating with a degree in architecture from Cornell University, he moved to Berlin, Germany, where he co-founded the design collective Hither Yon. He has exhibited drawings in New York, Berlin, Copenhagen, Milan, Turin, and Rome and has done commercial design work for such clients as Disney, Apple, and Target. He now lives and works in Los Angeles.
Matthew Burnside is the author of Postludes (KERNPUNKT Press) and a forthcoming collection of poems, Meditations of the Nameless Infinite (Robocup Press). His work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Amazon’s Day One, PANK, Ploughshares, Kill Author, and more. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University.