The next day Mr. Cody decided to go to work a good two hours early. This would guarantee him the freedom he needed to leave right after dismissing his students. He did not want to have to work late so he would have the time he needed at Ponchello Cinemas and figure out why it was closed… if it is in fact closed, and also to see if Nova was still in the game, or if that was just a dream. It was an eerie feeling to be driving to work when it still looked like it was night time. There was more frost to deal with on his windshield, but nothing that he couldn’t meet or exceed. There were less cars on the road... much less. It reminded him of the late night job-scapades he had when he was in college - some ended at 2am, some began at 10pm and yes, some also began at 4am. He thought, “Would it be a bad idea to recline the chair and take a quick nap after I pull into the parking lot? I could set my alarm... and give myself a nice 15 minute snooze.” When he pulled up to the parking lot, there was another car there which quickly dissolved his snoozing fantasies. It was not the principal’s car. No, this care did not look like hers, nor was it the custodian’s car. In fact, he did not recognize it at all. His senses heightened a few notches as his hair stood on end as if reaching out to feed on air molecules. The lights in the parking lot were on, but it was much too dark to be able to tell who was inside if anyone was inside. “I really don’t think I will need this, but I’ll take it anyway,” he thought as he armed himself with an orphaned screwdriver, no longer part of a set, currently residing in his glove box. It made him feel about 5% safer. He was a good 20 feet away from the cryptic car when he heard the sound of a car door open. Mr. Cody turned around and saw a man exit the vehicle. “Maxwell!” the man called out. Mr. Cody aligned his vision with the source of the voice calling out to him and quickly realized that it was Hugh calling him. Hugh shut his door and flung his backpack over his shoulder. “I wanted to talk to you about what happened yesterday at the cinema,” Hugh said. Mr. Cody awkwardly put the screwdriver away in his pocket. “You’re here early! But yeah, what do you want to talk about?”
“It’s about yesterday, when the cinemas were closed.”
“You know… that was really weird,” Mr. Cody explained, “I don’t remember it closing down all of a sudden.”
“That’s the thing, I want you to take me there.”
“Now? Not now. How about after school?”
Hugh, wearing his white shirt again, shifted his weight and said, “Look. We can come right back here to work and still be on time!”
“No,” Mr. Cody laughed, “we’ve got work! We’re not going there now.”
“Come on, you raved about the ice cream - we could get some scoops.”
“First of all, it would still be closed at this time and second, I’m not eating ice cream at this hour and when it’s this cold!” The tone in Hugh’s voice changed, “Forget the ice cream. You said you wanted to help me and that there was something special down there!”
“I want to go there too, but what part of ‘it’s a work day’ don’t you understand?” he said smiling as he stood aghast.
Hugh let out a roar of frustration but quickly got back in control and stormed back into his car and drove off. Mr. Cody, a little flabbergasted, wondered if it really was a good idea to go into work two hours early today. He had never gotten into an argument with a coworker before.
Two hours later, while Mr. Cody was working in his room, he noticed Hugh walking to his own class without stopping to say anything to him.
Mr. Cody took a look at his bulletin board in the hall not too long after his class was dismissed. It was full of his students’ creative poetry pieces. One particular piece stood out because it was written with much larger letters than the rest. It utilized a penmanship that screamed ‘I’m crazy but sane when I need to be’. It was a short poem but it had an elaborate picture to go with it. The picture showed a classroom full of robots doing fun activities with their teacher. He thought to himself, “I remember when our class worked on this topic,” Mr. Cody looked at the date on the paper and thought to himself, “holy cow, this is old. I need to update my board.” Upon closer inspection, he realized that the paper had not been dated three months ago but was completely wrong - including the year. He then started to look for Nova’s paper but it wasn’t one of the ones that stood out. “I know she did one of these poems” he thought, “where is it?” He didn’t detect any audible proof of footsteps but around the corner, Nova appeared. “Mr. Cody! Are you putting my new writing on the board? The one about Popsicle?” she asked as she walked closer.
“You know what, Nova? That is a great idea.”
Nova looked for her old writing on the board and carefully removed it revealing a rectangular bald spot of unfaded construction paper underneath it. A sporadic handful of mangled staples remained sticking out of her paper like a 5-year old’s tag-along bedhead. “Do you remember mine?” she said as she held it up.
“I haven’t read it in awhile.”
Nova folded it a few times, handed it to Mr. Cody and said, “Keep it. Keep it in your pocket and you can read it whenever you want a poem.”
“It’s a pocket poem - I like it!”
“Now, you have an empty spot on the board and you can put my new writing there!”
“Sure thing! But did you come here to ask me something?”
“Well, I wanted to tell you that I’m worried about my dog. I’m more worried about my dog than my penguin, actually. But anyway, my dad also wants me to get my jacket. I forgot it in the classroom.”
“Okay, go grab it… don’t keep your dad waiting. We can talk about your dog next time, okay?”
The next day, at school, towards the end of the school day when Mr. Cody had a break from his students while they were in music class, two strangers stood in the office as Mr. Cody walked by. He noticed that they were talking to one of his students. The boy looked at Mr. Cody. That was when he realized who it was. “Hi, I’m Mr. Cody, Ben’s teacher,” he said to the man and woman who looked at him slightly puzzled. The man said, “We are from CPS. We spoke with your principal. Ben’s going to come with us now before dismissal. But, you’re not the one who called us. It was a Mr. Baxter that we spoke with.”
“Mr. Baxter is not Ben’s teacher, I am. But I didn’t know he called, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what was going on. I hope he’ll be okay.”
“That’s okay, and we’ll take care of him,” the CPS agent said as they headed for the door and left… with his student. Their trench coats twirled about as it caught a gust of wind on their way through the front doors.
Mr. Cody returned to his classroom. “What’s going on with Ben?” he said to himself. He sat down in his chair for five seconds then got back up. He decided to head over to Mr. Baxter’s room which he thought he would be avoiding. He popped his head in the room but no one was there. He took a few steps in to peer around the corners and then turned back around to exit and found Hugh right in front of him. “Whoa! What were you doing in my room?,” Hugh asked.
“I was looking for you. Look, it was kind of awkward when we last talked about the arcade and all but I gotta ask you, do you know what’s going on with Ben?”
“I do. I called CPS.”
“Okay. It would have been nice to know these things!”
“Well, what’s best for the child is what we want, so I decided to call CPS first and foremost.”
“Yes, I understand that but… wait, where are your students?”
“They’re outside doing their science experiments.”
“You left them by themselves?”
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll go back and watch them if you take me to that arcade afterschool.”
“Really? Why are you involving your students with that conditional statement?”
“Don’t you want to go back to that arcade?”
“I do, but you are more obsessed than I am and not in a good way. You should not let it affect your work.”
“That’s exactly what I want it to do. I want it to impact my work. What’s in there will help me as a teacher. You said so yourself that it was letting you see through the eyes of your own students somehow.”
“I have to go pick up my kids from music class.” Mr. Cody walked down the hall to head to music class while Hugh headed back outside with his students. As he walked down the hall, he remembered why he wasn’t going to the arcade after school today. He was having dinner with Sonja.
“Bye Ms. Sonja!” his students said as they waved vigorously. Ms. Sonja turned to Mr. Cody and said, “Your class was really good today. Oh, and Ben got called to the office. I’m not sure why.” The students began to walk down the hall in line - Nova included. Mr. Cody quietly turned to Ms. Sonya and said, ”Let’s push dinner a little earlier, I’m kind of hungry today.” “Sure,” Sonya replied.
Mr. Cody was already hungry at lunchtime thinking about dinner. Hugh, who unsurprisingly sat next to Mr. Cody in the lounge, was surprisingly quiet today. Hugh put down his low calorie beverage and said, “I can’t lie to you anymore. You’re not going to believe me but I’ve got to spill some beans.”
“What is it?”
“First, make sure you swallow your food so you don’t choke when you hear this.”
Hugh leaned closer and said, “You… are… not… real.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What I mean is we are in a simulation. This entire world we are in is a simulation.”
“Ha! That’s a crazy theory you’ve got there. I doubt you have proof of that highly fantastical hypothesis!” Mr. Cody said with a bit of a chuckle and a shrug.
“I do have proof. Take a look at Ms. Lars. Does she ever talk to you?”
“She doesn’t really. But that’s not proof.”
“Okay, let me give you the big picture. Does anyone here ever talk to you?”
“Once in a while. Not often, but that’s just how it is - that’s normal.”
Hugh slowed down his speech, speaking each word clearly, “You are a ‘non-player character’, Mr. Cody - an NPC. You’re like in a big game - a game world.” Hugh spread his arms apart as if it clearly defined how big the world was.
“And why should I believe you? I should just take your word for it?”
“Look, you’re… programming and coding. You are a part of this simulation.”
“Are YOU a simulation as well?”
“Well, no. I’m a real person playing this simulation. Look, it’s a training simulator actually. You are a part of a ‘teacher training simulator’, okay? Did you get that? I am training to be a teacher and I must pass this simulation to help me get my teaching license. That is what is going on here. The same thing goes for Ms. Lars and Mr. Creighton - they are in the graduating class before mine. I don’t know if they’re passing, but who cares.” Hugh turned to Ms. Lars and said, “If you eat that whole thing I don’t think the scale will like you very much tomorrow morning!”
“Hugh!” Mr. Cody said, almost coughing up some crumbs. He looked at Ms. Lars to try to apologize for Hugh but she continued to eat without a reaction.
“You know why she keeps eating? Because she is A.F.K - away from keyboard. The Ms. Lars you see here is her virtual self. The real Ms. Lars removed her alternate reality visor, and is on her real lunch break, eating real food. She’s away from the computer.”
Mr. Cody, who actually stopped eating, asked, “So you are someone who is training to be a new teacher, playing this simulator as a… new teacher in training?”
“Yes, and I am sorry that you have to find out this way. It must be a pretty big bummer finding out that you’re not one of the ‘players’ in here - you are one of the ‘extras’. I can’t imagine what I would do if I found out I… wasn’t real. Or maybe it doesn’t bother you because, well, how deep can your feelings be if you’re just a, you know, you’re just like a robot. No. It’s worse, because even a robot has a real physical body.”
“Well, you’re definitely not helping me feel better, that’s for sure - you must not have baked Christmas cookies with your mommy when you were a kid.”
“Because you don’t know how to sugar coat anything.”
“Do I look like a sugar coater? I tell it like it is. Look at me. I’m just wearing this white shirt. I don’t care about anything but my one goal - I probably spent five seconds creating this avatar.”
“If you don’t care about anything, why did you bother calling CPS to help Ben?”
Hugh shivered and said, “Ben? I just needed him out of this school. When I passed by him when he was eating lunch in the cafeteria he stared at me. He stared right into my soul and it gave me chills. So I made up a story and told it to CPS.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter. Ben isn’t real anway. He’s an NPC, just like you.”
“But, I don’t know… if I buy it. How could my whole life be fake?”
“Well, I could ask how could your whole life NOT be fake?” Hugh looked at Ms. Lars and said “I dare you. I dare you to take that slice of pie in front of her and smash it all over her face.”
“So I can prove my point.”
“Speaking of ‘point’, what’s your point in telling me all this again?”
“The cinemas. What lies inside Ponchello Cinemas in that arcade will have all the answers. It will have the proof of your true existence and it will have all the answers I need to pass this training simulator. Look at how those arcade games know everything about your students. Look at how the cinemas closed up and kept everyone locked out when I tried to enter. It knows that I am human and it is keeping me out. An NPC can get in there like it’s nothing. You need to help me get in there. We need to get in there.”
“We? I thought this was about me discovering if I am real or not?”
“Well, I kind of want to get in there to get some info on my students - I don’t know how many times I have to repeat myself. And I can’t get in there without you.”
“Okay. But, if your story is true, and you are training in this simulator to become a real teacher, you are essentially asking me to help you cheat so you can get your teaching license.”
“I think you are making it sound worse, but yes. Why’s it matter to you? You’re never going to see any of my real students. You’re not even going to ever teach any real students!”
“Regardless of what I may find out, I feel real. And my students… all of them, they are real enough to me.”
Hugh crumpled up his trash and said, “In the small chance that I am wrong and we are NOT in a simulation and we are, in fact real people in a real world, we have discovered an unfathomable resource to help our students. Student wellness is our goal and we should do anything in our power to help them… right? This arcade is a holy grail… why not take it!”
Mr. Cody didn’t know what to feel, except numbness. “Okay, let’s go,” he finally said.
They got to the parking lot of Ponchello Cinemas and the entire building looked like a closed ghost-town, just as it had been a few days ago. “Is everything really closed because the simulation is trying to keep Hugh, a human player, out of the arcade?” Mr. Cody thought. They approached the main entrance. Hugh pulled on the door handles which did not budge. “See? I can’t get in,” Hugh said, “but you can probably open them.” Mr. Cody pulled on the door handles and they opened with some resistance. The resistance stemmed from the hinges that looked as if they were corroded with dry grease and layered dust. “See? You did it!” Hugh said as he stepped in.
They walked toward the arcade. As they got closer, they could see that all the machines were off. As Mr. Cody approached a machine, it started to turn on. He witnessed a face of a girl on the screen as it whispered, “You have to kill him.” Again, his hairs stood on end… like flowers reaching for the sun. “Do you see something?” Hugh asked, “Turn it on all the way.” When Hugh tried to insert some nickels on the adjacent game, the game would shut down.
“Do it! Turn it on now! Put your nickels in!”
“Wait, give me time. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t think we could just return to a save-point if something calamitous went wrong.”
“Sorry. Look, just go a little faster, please.”
“I can’t,” Mr. Cody said as his face changed, “I can’t let you falsify your way to establish your career. Maybe I’m not real, but I can cause some real damage if I empower you with this cheating. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Wasn’t it you? Wasn’t it you who started accessing these windows into the children’s minds and started using it to help them? Why won’t you let me do the same? Right now you are facing the truth of your entire existence and you are worried about a little ‘cheating on a test’?”
“I’m just thinking there’s some hidden agenda. Like there’s something you know that I don’t know.”
Hugh lunged forward and tried to grab and secure Mr. Cody’s hands. Surprised, Mr. Cody tried to break free. They wrestle at a close stalemate and then let go of each other.
Mr. Cody took a few steps back and said ”You’re trying to physically force me to turn on the machines now?”
“No, I’m just going to kill you and then make your hands turn on the game.”
“Kill me?!? You’re crazy!”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re just a program. Who cares if an NPC dies?”
Mr. Cody tried to calculate his getaway and reassessed his surroundings then said, “I think I’m going to have to care about that. What if, in a scuffle, I end up killing you? What would happen?”
“I’m not letting that happen. But if it did, it would probably just log me off the system. Come on! Wouldn’t it be an unselfish thing for a character in a computer to give up its life in order to help a real person… ‘a teacher’ so that they can help kids in need?” Hugh lunged forward again as Mr. Cody made an effort to evade but slammed hard into a coin changing machine. Mr. Cody grabbed Hugh’s arm in defense.
“Get off me! I’m not helping you!” Mr. Cody pushed his words out just as hard as he pushed his hands forward.
Hugh took a pocket knife out and cut Mr. Cody’s hand. “You see that?”
“You brought a knife? I’m bleeding! Ow!”
“You know what that means?”Hugh breathed his words out on Mr. Cody’s face, “You... are real. There’s no blood in a teaching simulator with children in it! And if you’re real, then I’m real too! Kill me and you are done - you will rot in jail!”
“You’re confusing me! Are we real, or are we NOT real?!” Mr. Cody, with his hand close to his sides, felt the screwdriver that was still in his pocket. How was that still in his pocket? Was he wearing the same pants from Friday? He lost track of the days but he turned to Hugh and said, “If you kill me, they will know about it for sure. Everyone will look for me at school tomorrow. My students will look for me and you won’t get away with it.”
“Nobody notices you. Nobody. You told me yourself that I was the only one who paid attention to you. Besides, your class can just be split… I’ll be happy to take some of them.”
“I wouldn’t send them to you! You don’t care about them! You just care about yourself, you’re obsessed and you’re a cheater!”
Hugh started to applaud and said, “You just described... yourself! You’re the first one who started going to the arcade to look into your students’ lives. That sounds like cheating to me. And don’t tell me you’re not obsessed. How many times have you visited this arcade on your own? I’m not waiting anymore, screw you!” Hugh pulled the knife back to wind up for a slash.
“No, screw you!” Mr. Cody said with all his might as he pulled out the screwdriver from his pocket and pummeled it into Hugh’s body. To his surprise, there was no resistance at all, and Hugh, in his entirety, disappeared before his eyes.