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Home: The Toast

Previously by Kendra Fortmeyer: Mermaids at the End of the Universe: A Short Story

 

She has one job, and it is to offer the hero a flower. She says, “Would you like to buy a flower?” and if he says yes, she says, “That’ll be 1 p,” and if he says no, then she says nothing.

She is lucky to have options. Her friend, Village Girl, simply says, “This is a nice day, isn’t it?” and across town there is a man who just holds his head in his hands and says, “oh no no no no no.”

All the heroes buy the flower in the end. She watches them run by again later, parties in tow, the blond girl in the back clutching the flower in her fist. She wonders what it would be like to be that girl. She wonders if the blond girl has options, or if her life is just take the flower or don’t take the flower. Fight and run and die this way.

 

flowergirl2She is a pert young thing, with comically large breasts and a green dress. She has a fan following on the internet. They call her Flower Girl. There are theories: the game designers meant to make her a playable character. She has lines of dialogue buried in the code. Once, someone posts a video that they claim is FLOWER GIRLS INTRO BATTLE SEQUENCE!!! but closer examination reveals it to be the blond girl, Serafina, in a clumsily Photoshopped green dress.

 

Waiting for the hero is the Flower Girl’s favorite part of her job. It makes her feel like she is on the edge of something beautiful and important: a blooming of endless possibilities. Then the hero appears, and she is forced to remember that this is all there is:

Would you like to buy a flower?

and

That’ll be 1p.

 

Here is one of the most popular fan fictions:

The hero is visited in his dreams by a beautiful maiden. She haunts his waking thoughts. His companions notice that he has grown cold and distant: he defeats mini-bosses and slays countless beasts, but lacks his usual aplomb. What’s wrong? Serafina asks, and he shrugs her off.

In the hero’s dreams, the beautiful maiden knows a secret about him. It is something the hero once knew about himself, but has forgotten. It is the key to everything. The almost-remembering burns cold in the hero’s bones like the humming of bees.

Sometime near the end of the game, he goes back to the starting village. The rest of the world is in ruins, and the final boss awaits, cackling in his Doom Tower. Where are you going? his party asks—Serafina and the thief child and the alchemist everyone thinks is gay–but the hero just jumps on a horse, rides through the night. All he sees is the face from his dreams, the one that he’s finally put into place: the Flower Girl. The guardian of his secret.

At last he arrives, bone-tired and weary, and falls from the horse and into her arms, still smelling of the road, of sweat. Gently, the Flower Girl turns his face to the light. She whispers the secret in his ear.

The second most popular fan-fiction: the Flower Girl is gang-raped by tentacle monsters who deep-fry her enormous breasts and force her to eat them while they rape her some more.

 

Would you like to buy…?

Would you like to buy…?

Would you like to buy…?

It makes her want to go home and kill herself, but she has no home, and no fingers with which to pull a trigger.

 

The game is called Chiasmus, a Greek word meaning “cross.” In rhetoric, it refers to the use of inverted parallelism to make a point. Such as: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

No one can tell if the name is related to the plot. The Japanese name of the game is Muchuu No Ryuusenshi, which translates roughly to “Dragon Warrior Obsession.” The game, however, conspicuously lacks both dragons and dreams. A moral: there are red herrings everywhere.

 

The author of the most popular Chiasmus fan fiction is a 47-year-old woman named Jerri who lives in coastal Oregon. She works at a small-town library and does not admit to her coworkers that she plays the game. She is a little ashamed of herself. Video games? At her age? She compensates by aggressively reading Russian novels, buying only organic produce. She has beaten the game in every class at the highest difficulty. She is desperate for fellowship. One day as her teen book club is letting out, she casually mentions the latest expansion pack, Chiasmus Eternata. The boys look at her incredulously. “You play Chiasmus?” they ask. They do not mean any harm, but Jerri detects laughter in their voices, shakes her head hurriedly. “No,” she says. “I was thinking of getting it for my nephew.” She watches the boys walk out into the afternoon sunlight, trembling. Despite the begging of her fans, she is the only one who knows the Flower Girl’s secret.

 

It is a beautiful day! The sun is shining brightly!

The hero appears. The Flower Girl smiles. She is always smiling. The smile is programmed into her face.

“Would you like to buy a flower?”

>> yes

“That’ll be 1 p!”

She tells herself she is saving up to buy a ticket out of here, a meal for the old sick man, a dress in any color but green.

 

The boy who is making the most powerful Chiasmus mod of all time is named Zachary, and he lives in a suburb of Detroit. He is obsessed with Jerri’s story, Remember What Remembers You, itself a chiasmus. Something haunted him about the game and when he encountered her fanfic on the forums he felt something inside him click powerfully into place. Even now, thinking about it floods him with light. Like everyone else on the forums, he knows the author only as FlowerGirl920. He imagines she is seventeen and beautiful.

His mod is meant to allow players to unlock the dream-events of RWRY, and ultimately return to the starting village. The problem is figuring out what to make the Flower Girl say when the hero reaches her. FlowerGirl920 doesn’t reveal what the secret is in her story, and Zachary intuits that the secret should be specific to each hero, somehow. Should he allow text input? A personality quiz? A randomly generated, vague but deep-sounding fortune cookie fortune?

He falls asleep at the keyboard, dreaming of secrets and bones and bees.

 

It is a beautiful day! The sun is shining brightly!

The hero appears. The Flower Girl is standing ready, poised.

“Would you like to buy a flower?” she asks.

As she speaks, she feels that something is off: in the air, a sensation of lightning, of teeth. The Flower Girl has been in mods before–the nude one, the French Revolution one, the one where characters’ heads exploded at random—and she recognizes the itching of her scalp, the gray sensation of raw code that means something is unfinished and different. Before her, the hero seems to flicker.

She says, again, “Would you like to buy a flower?”

Almost before she is done with the question, the hero blurts, “i would like to buy a deflowering J.”

The text paths behind the Flower Girl’s eyes blur and garble. Unrecognizable symbols tumble down the surface of her mind and jangle against each other like skeleton keys.

Her dialogue options have always been the same: if yes then. If no, then silent. But now something new is happening. For the first time in her life, she is going off-script. She feels a tingling in her bones, like bees.

The Flower Girl parts her lips, and says distinctly, “You couldn’t afford me.”

The hero stares.

She adds, “Asshole.”

In a bedroom somewhere in Indiana, a thirteen-year-old boy yelps so loudly that all of his Skype friends call him a homo and drop chat.

 

The 13-year-old boy is named Trevor. His cousin, Zachary, is the coolest person he knows. At the last family Christmas, they stood outside together in the freezing dark of their grandmother’s backyard and snuck sips from a bottle of cooking sherry. Trevor felt like he was on the edge of something beautiful and important. He wanted to say, tell me everything, but he didn’t want to appear overeager. The kids at school have started calling him a faggot. They call everyone a faggot, but still. Trevor wants to be careful. He doesn’t text Zachary if his cousin doesn’t text him first. When Zachary sent Trevor a Skype chat asking if he wanted to test a prototype of his mod, Trevor waited a full 24 hours before responding: kewl.

When the game bugs out, he posts the video to YouTube and links it to the Chiasmus help forums. An hour later, it’s gone viral. Word spreads through the internet like wildfire, comments threads running thick with doubt and vitriol. A record-breaking number of new users start games and race for the Flower Girl, questions burning in pixelated pockets: Are you sentient? and knock knock and do u like chicken nuggets and what’s the meaning of life and i lik ur boobs!!!, which isn’t a question, but they’ve been dying to say it to her for years.

 

flowerbasketMeanwhile, the Flower Girl is undergoing a small revolution.

First, she puts down the basket of flowers.

Next, she flexes her fingers. She has never had proper fingers: she was designed with the flower basket clenched in her fists. Now she lifts her hands to the sky and marvels at the light falling on them, the rosy glow where the skin stretches between forefinger and thumb. It seems a failure of coding: to be translucent and alive.

In her periphery, the hero is jumping up and down. The hero is running around her. He fires off questions: wtf? wtf? wtf?

The Flower Girl stretches her cramped arms, her (it must be admitted) magnificent breasts, and, carefully, lifts her foot and walks into the town.

 

Zachary, the sixteen-year-old mod designer, is pissed. Admittedly, yes, he told his cousin Trevor he could test out the new levels. Admittedly, further, he asked Trevor to do it, figuring that free game testing would be pretty sweet. But now everything has gone to shit, and since Trevor posted the video, he is the one getting all the credit.

The thing that really bothers him is: Zachary had a dream. Ultimately, yes, he wanted to release the mod for wider use. But first, when it was all completed, play-tested and bug-free, he was going to reach out to FlowerGirl920. He’s written six drafts of the e-mail. The most honest says, I made this game because ‘Remember What Remembers You’ feels truer than anything I’ve ever known. The least says, Congratulations! You’ve won exclusive entry into our free beta test! It is safer, but infinitely more likely to be deleted.

He stares at the video, watching the number of views climb up and up. Trevor sent him exactly one message over Skypechat: sry. The kid’s a dick. Zachary’s definitely not talking to him at Easter.

He opens a terminal, queues up a saved game in the mod, near to the starting village. Before he loads the game, though, he goes to his e-mail, selects a draft, and hits send.

 

Everything is terrifying. The Flower Girl has seen the whole world from exactly one perspective. People’s heads, she discovers, are round.

She goes into a house and is so horrified by the flat darkness of a roof over her head that she goes out again immediately.

The man on the street holds his face in his hands and says oh no no no no no.

 

Secretly, Jerri has been working on a new fan fiction. She hasn’t published it yet. It is a sequel to Remember What Remembers You, called Ask Not What You Awaken, Ask What Awakens You. It’s from a dream she had herself, as a little girl. She is standing at the edge of the earth and in the clouds, all below her, is God. She is terrified, not because she is so high, but because the stone plate she stands on is slowly filling with water, and she has not learned how to swim. Up here, above God, there is no one to pray to for help. In the new story, Jerri has the hero and the Flower Girl standing together on the stone plate, and as the water rises, they reach for each other’s hands. But she can’t figure out the ending. She knows what happens, but she doesn’t know why yet. In the moments before the internet explodes, Jerri is staring at the cursor blinking at the end of the word heartbeat. Then an e-mail notification pops up on her screen.

It says, Congratulations! You’ve been selected….

Jerri sighs, goes back to her story. But one minute later, just as she’s deleting the word longing again, she gets a second one. When she opens it, her heart slams against her chest. She has been waiting for a message like this her entire life:

You’re the only one who will understand. Come see this with me.

 

The Flower Girl runs from townsperson to townsperson. “Wake up,” she says. “Wake up! We’re free!”

They stare at her, blankly.

“I need five eggs and a bottle of milk,” the baker’s wife volunteers, at last.

“You can get it yourself,” the Flower Girl says. “Don’t you see? It’s a new world. You’re free.” They stare, and she says, “The milk, the eggs, the lost pendant. You don’t need anyone to get it for you. Step out of your houses,” she says. “Call your grandmothers. Talk to your friends. Try windsurfing. You can do whatever you want.”

They stare. Outside, the pounding of many heroic feet murmurs in the distance.

The Flower Girl turns and flees. As she runs past, Village Girl asks, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”

 

Zachary’s avatar is walking up the path toward the edge of town when a figure flickers grayly in the trees and solidifies in the air ahead of him: a second hero.

Zachary’s avatar gives a little wave. He enters text: “FlowerGirl920?”

The avatar turns toward him, uncertainly. “Are you Z-Man?” it asks.

Zachary nods, remembers that she can’t see him. “Yes.” He wants to say, Thank you for coming. He wants to say, Isn’t this amazing, isn’t this freaking amazing? But the other avatar asks,

“How did you learn the secret?” He isn’t sure what to say, and she adds, “The Flower Girl’s secret. I thought I was the only one.”

 

The heroes are coming. Hundreds of them. Thousands. An army of heroes, racing each other on exhausted, pixelated horses. In remote locations, servers are trembling, beginning to crumble. On screens across America, one by one: freezing, glitching, error messages.

 

Zachary is torn. Should he be honest? Admit, I don’t actually know the secret from the story; my game generates a different secret for each user? The word “algorithm” sounds simultaneously official and bloodless. He types, and then deletes, I just figured it out. He doesn’t want to lie to her. She’s the first person in his young life who’s made him feel something so true.

The trees around them are beginning to flicker with heroes. One by one, they tumble off identical wheezing horses, scramble toward the village on geometric feet. Zachary turns to look at FlowerGirl920 and is not sure it is her anymore. It could be any one of a number of treasure seekers, waiting.

“Come on,” he says instead. “I’ll show you.” And turns with he-hopes-it’s-her, runs for the village.

matchboxWhen the first of the heroes arrives, the Flower Girl is nowhere to be found. The heroes try to talk to the villagers, but everyone seems vague, troubled. The cook no longer tells his not-quite-funny joke about cheese. A dog runs outside the door to a house in circles. “Where is she?” the heroes ask the villagers. But no one is talking. Just the old man: oh no no no no no.

Their screens begin to go hazy and dim. At last someone spots her, a green-robed figure on the far edge of town. The town cuts off at the fence there, and no one can walk past it, but, glitching and buzzing with new code, the Flower Girl has. She is kneeling in the fields of flowers just beyond the fence. She has a matchbook in her hand. She bought it with one of her 73,041 p. And she is burning every flower to the ground.

 

The heroes walk up and down the fence until their screens become opaque with smoke. Many continue to wait. Days pass in the game. Online, people keep each other updated in live feeds. A man in Arizona claims he saw the smoke clear for a second and saw a vision of a massive, dark figure standing over the town. A couple in Germany saw the sick man lift his head from his hands, reach out and pet the dog.

Zachary and Jerri stand next to each other in the virtual fog, thousands of miles apart. He edges closer to her, or where he hopes she is. Each of them feels a tingling in their hands. They don’t speak. They don’t know what to say, and they tell themselves that this means they don’t need to. Anything risks being imperfect, and here, standing together-apart in the gray, the world a blank slate, perfection feels both closer and further than it ever has.

 

The Flower Girl wanders through the field, the smoke erasing the village behind her. She stopped lighting fires hours ago, but the embers are perpetuating themselves now, the world a great glowing bowl of rubies at her heels. They follow in her wake. She wonders if she should be afraid, but she cannot seem to access the emotion. Ahead, she glimpses a horizon: the end of the flowers, the strange light dawning there. Her hands are empty now, and capable. They hold nothing, and nothing holds her back.

flowerbasket

About the Illustrator: Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and sculptor living in Los Angeles, by way of Malacca, Malaysia. Her previous work for The Toast can be found here.

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Kendra Fortmeyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction for Broad! Her work has appeared in PANK, NANO Fiction, Smoking Glue Gun, apt, Forge, and elsewhere.

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