Knowing today is your last day, your very last day you are alive, makes you alert, and lets you walk in an enhanced state of mind. It's much like pumping the contrast in a photo, the lights are shining brighter while the dark parts fade to black. Same for your emotions, at least for me. With this impression I entered the restaurant for the breakfast buffet, which was already packed with morning people chatting about what their plans were for today. Newcomers stumbled around gawking like an addict in the headlights of a Goozonx truck.
The line-up never halted, we constantly shuffled toward and by the buffet table that stretched over the length of an entire wall, neatly arranged and permanently refilled and cleaned by a dozen busy servers.
At the end I left with a tray full of scrambled eggs and sausages, a cantaloupe, hash browns, two buns, a croissant, a bowl of muesli, toast with blueberry jam, a thimble sized cup of ancient honey, baked beans, coffee and multi-vitamin juice, and the serious doubts if I would ever finish the pile.
In a crowd of hundreds of people who all move around, looking to the left, to the right, cutting food, chewing, eating, talking, you instantly see the two just still sitting: Chi and Mia looked at me, they didn't even have to wave, our eyes met, and I had no excuse not to join them. The girl smiled in a semicircle, bobbing up and down on her seat, as soon she realized, I was maneuvering into their direction, carefully avoiding accidents with other people trying to make it back to their tables with their trays.
«Arthur, Arthur!», way before I had the chance to say hello or good morning, Mia started repeating my name as if there was a sentence or an idea to follow.
Chi pressed her lips together in an attempt of a silent apology for her daughter’s excitement.
«How is Mia doing?», I asked her directly.
«I am doing great, great, Arthur. How is Arthur doing?»
Now that was funny, turning the table on me and addressing me in the third person as well. I responded accordingly, «Arthur is also doing great, Mia, just great! May I sit down.»
«Yes, oh yes.»
Some chairs were missing—the people at the neighbouring table had snatched them—and there were two guys sitting across from us. I lowered my tray and sat down on the only free chair.
Mia beamed, still with chocolate spread in the corner of her mouth.
Chi's fingers moved nervously, «Good morning! We wanted to get up, then we saw you.»
«What a timing.»
«Yes!», celebrated Mia.
The blueberry jam tasted sweet and fruity, full of real blueberry pieces.
Mia asked, «Can I have your Canal-loop?»
«Mia! You just ate», said her mother.
«Sure», I said, «Cantaloupe, if you can say it, you can have it.»
«No, you don't have to», Chi wanted to get up, «I also can...»
Mia's voice rose with the success of her attempts, «Cana... can... cantaloupe, cantaloupe, cantaloupe!»
I gave her the bowl with the fruit.
«Arthur, I am really sorry!», Chi felt her own forehead.
«Thank youuuuuu!», Mia opened her mouth way before the first piece was anywhere near her lips.
«No worry», I said, «This was too much for me, anyway. And if I want to, I always can get more myself.
«How embarrassing», Chi said.
Mia was busy now, chewing the fruit, battling the juices streaming out of her mouth.
I licked some jam off my thumb.
«How are you?», Chi asked.
My stomach reacted as if I had thought of Minna. This was a sensitive issue, how I felt. Weird.
She must have read my surprise, because she wrinkled her forehead, «Are you okay?»
I noticed her hand reaching for my arm and retracting instantly before touching me.
«Yes, yes I am okay. How are you?»
She held it in for a second or two, «Today is our day.»
Mia's smacking, her cheeks full of cantaloupe.
«11.45am», Chi said.
«8pm. You could have been longer here. Why so short?» I asked.
«What's the point», she answered.
I resisted looking over to Mia.
Neither I nor she knew what to say. She sipped on her coffee, which I could swear was empty while I took a bite out of the croissant.
The silence grew between us, grew to painful proportions. To break the silence, I asked in a manner I would ask for the way to the next screambag shop, «So how do you... go?»
«The Last Vaccine.»
Chi chose the Afterlife Menu term, so an injection it would be.
«Aha», I dragged the word.
«Done!!!», yelled Mia and clapped her hands.
We forced smiles into our faces.
«You eat like you have a hollow leg», said her mom.
«Fruits, vitamins are good for you», I said.
Chi's eyes met mine, «Do you want to come for... our…?»
«I will be there.»
: : :
Some of your decisions you understand and some will never make sense. To join Chi and Mia for their goodbye belonged to the second category. What did we have in common? I barely know the two. We just met here, and I—instead of enjoying the hotel—would attend their farewell, which probably would take fifteen to thirty minutes out of my day. My last day.
On purpose, I stayed away from any level Mia and Chi could possibly be. An uncomfortable feeling grew when I thought about Mia having her last day. Adults were adults, but kids?
A virtual reality arcade lured me in with its fancy lights and the show screens. You could watch the games from the perspective of the player.
In room 016, somebody fought dragons with bright green bodies, red wings, golden necks and orange heads spitting fire and attacking from all directions in a fantasy world, where trees looked like corals. The player threw fireballs with his right hand and thwarted off flames with an invisible shield in his left. His health bar blinked red.
The arcade seemed to be self-explanatory, as there was no employee to be seen. Instructions scurried over screens next to the doors, clear and precisely directing the visitor how and when to do what. Half of this entire level existed solely for VR, the hallway was dark red bordering lilac. Needle pin-sized green and red lights showed if a room was busy.
After I entered 017 an automatic light lit up, and I followed the instructions on the screen. First, I stepped into the circle drawn on the floor in the middle of the room, the walls were about five metres away to all my sides, giving me enough space to jump around. From the ceiling lowered a headset into my view, I took it off the hook and adjusted the straps until it fit me comfortably, yet tight enough so it wouldn't fly off during the heat of the game. Now my visor functioned as a screen. To halt the action or abort the game, I was supposed to say Stop, and as soon I was ready, I should say Start.
My avatar spawned in a smoky cave full of bats. To get out, I had to fight a sabre tooth grizzly bear guarding the exit, and I died twice before even entering the coral reef land.
Plants tried to bite me, shadows whizzed from coral stem to stem, keeping me on the edge.
However, something was missing, I should feel more, be more into it. I fought off the first dragon which earned me a shield. But somehow I wasn't one hundred percent there, I merely did what I had to do as an avatar than being immersed in the moment, the action, the colours and the game.
I killed another dragon, a bigger one, jumped onto coral branches throwing my energy balls, but when two dragons descended on me and spit their fire, I watched my health bar shrink without a serious attempt to use the shield until I finally was fully engulfed in a world of napalm.
My visor turned black. The instruction faded in: For a new game, say Start. To end your VR experience, say Stop.
The last instruction read: Please hang the headset back on the hook and check the floor for lost belongings.
As soon as my hands left the headset, the hook pulled it up under the ceiling into the darkness. The floor was clear, I didn't lose anything, I had nothing loose.
My index finger ran along the wall next to me as I walked out of the VR area. I had no idea why I did that. I even took a look at the tip of my fingers—as if they had the answer.
I left the area disappointed and lingered in the hallway. A projection on the doorless wall to my right changed from some abstract video loop of crossing red and green light bars to an announcement: «Next round of laser tag in 4 minutes».
At that moment a hand landed on my shoulder and a guy ran past me, yelling, «What are you waiting for, quick!»
I started running after the stranger. Laser tag sounded fun. So did the stranger. What a way to meet!
: : :
Rico and I chatted while getting dressed. We were last. He had just arrived at the hotel, laser tag was his dream ever since he had heard about it as a kid. Like me, he had an excellent gym score, and he wanted to make use of his fitness in the rink—as he called the laser tag hall. His positive energy level rivalled Mia's.
Why was he here then?
«Hey, you're really pumped», I said.
«Oh yeah, this is my first fun action up here!»
«You are so positive... why are you here?»
«What should I do down there? Run around the block in the rain? Work out more? I got all the perks that come with gymming. I am bored out of my skull, life should be an adventure, at least a part of it!»
«No risk, no fun.»
«I rather have maybe five days of fun here, than five more years of the drab down there.»
«Wait. Five days? You have five...», I stopped buttoning up my target vest.
«The last perks, I earned myself in the gym two more days up here with all the energy I produced.»
«Wow, congrats! I didn't know that was possible», I spoke half to myself.
«Where were you?», Rico asked.
«I was at the Coulee Trail Gym. I heard that about the Village, bad communication, few incentives.»
«Yeah, my neighbour moved from there, and he switched the gyms right away.»
«Oh», I strapped the target belts around my arms.
«Yeah, and it surprised him hearing about it. Not that he was capable of producing that amount of energy, he just thought it wasn't fair.»
«It isn't», on the other hand: what would it matter to me? I didn't have more time anyway, but «Good for you!»
«Yeah. I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to this. This should all be one big adventure, from beginning to end after all the predictability down there, the everyday.»
«Betcha.» He really had all the time to enjoy himself up here. For a moment I tried to think, how that would be, he must have planned his days meticulously. It would be worth it. Not running around like me, halfway lost and overwhelmed.
«You ready?», he asked through the visor of his helmet.
A screen read, it was a last man standing game, the sole survivor won. The prize was the nique feeling of winning.
Rico and I agreed we'd play together if possible, until we were the last men standing and then against each other, a duel, a gentlemen showdown.
Dark blue lights dimly lit the scene. We took time to let our eyes adjust.
He elbowed me, «Hey, if I go first, you can put one hand on my shoulder so we don't lose contact.»
«I cover the front and the right side.»
«I will alternate the speed we're moving. Making it harder to get hit.
«Just try not to trip me.»
«Roger.» What a guy. I was glad I had met him. «Man, you planned this for a while.»
«Why not getting the most out of it on the goal line!?», he tilted his head quickly, and then we went in.
At first, we moved slowly. With Rico in front of me, I covered the left side and our back.
Artificial walls in different shapes and with holes and windows formed a maze of unknown dimensions. Twenty steps in, you couldn't tell where it started or ended. Stroboscope lights and industrial music added to the confusion of running shadows and red laser beams piercing through the jagged alleys. Empty oil barrels laid scattered around and old rubber tires from cars, plastic tree trunks and half-collapsed brick walls.
We got under fire from somebody lying inside a massive tractor tire. Because of my hand on Rico's shoulder, I could anticipate his move and side-stepped with him almost in sync, and when he crouched down, I know we both could open fire and take out the guy. He raised his hand and walked away.
Rico glanced at me, smiling, and I smiled back. This was fun. A team. We had a mutual understanding.
This way we took out two more players before the others caught on to our tactic, and I got busy against attacks from the back. Twice I nailed my laser onto the target bandana around the head of my opponents. Rico gave me the thumb up.
Sometimes we hunkered down, camped, waiting for players crossing our field of fire, sometimes we followed reflected laser beams to their source and eliminated them.
Eventually we saw no more laser fire, and Rico pointed at a small open area. I followed him until he stopped in the shade of a wall and leaned with his back against it. I did the same.
Shoulder to shoulder he said, «Let's wait a minute. If nothing happens, it's only us left.»
«Okay», my breath was loud, and I felt my thighs from the constant tension. At this point it didn't matter to me if I would win this game, what we did together meant more to me. No matter how it turned out, I would ask him if he would like to join my farewell celebration tonight.
We waited ten seconds, twenty seconds, then suddenly a guy with a laser gun in each hand dashed out of the darkness through a flickering light, faking the flames of a fire, and before I could even aim, my own head bandana gave the beep tone for being hit. I let my arm with the laser gun sink and raised the other.
Rico didn't perform better, he was hit, too, but even now he played out the full drama; he fell to his knees and then he tipped slowly to the side.
I laughed at him, «Come on, man, we did well!»
The guy with the two guns came close.
«Congratulation», I said, «You're the winner.»
«No, he is», he pointed one gun at Rico.
«Huh? What do you mean?»
Rico still did not move.
«Rico? Rico??», I knelt down next to him. Before I could touch his shoulder, I was lifted up by two more men.
The gunner put his pistols into the holsters on his belt, «He is a hero.»
I yelled, «What? No! What did you do? Did you... did you...»
«Laser for you», he padded the gun on his left and then with his right hand the other, «Lead for him.»
«No! Rico! No!»
The security still holding me.
«You won, man!», said the killer.
He applauded me, «How does it feel?»
«To win! The 1st prize!», he smiled at me.
«Are you totally conservative?!», I screamed.
He fell serious, «Watch it.»
«You had no right, he just arrived, he had five full days, and he...»
«Shshshsh, no, shshshsh, listen, do yourself a favour and calm down.»
The grip of the security got tighter. I relaxed. They held their grip firm.
The gunner continued, «Yes, he had five more days. Or not. Because he chose the Wildcard surprise deluxe package, what could really mean it could have happened to him in the shuttle, halfway up, legally, anytime.»
«Wha... even in the shuttle, I thought the hotel was the place...»
«Yes, was, they loosened the restrictions. There are talks to open it up down there.»
«Yeah. Of course without hurting anybody else.»
I tried to imagine that. However, «This wasn't fair!»
«Well, it was his decision. And I would say, this was a significant moment for him, he enjoyed the game, he got far, with you, a colleague, not alone. Personally, if I had to choose a way to go, this wouldn't be far down my list.»
«It's not fair. Why on day one? Why not later? He wanted to enjoy the hotel, the...»
With a soothing voice, he repeated himself, «His choice. It was his choice.»
«Why not me? I'm done. He had his full time ahead!»
«I got the Afterlife notification for him, this morning, not for you, while I scrambled my eggs with bacon bits, lots of protein, pretty good.»
I looked at Rico. He appeared to just sleep in an awkward position.
The lights went on.
Two more guys came with a stretcher.
Muffled I heard the gunner asking me if I was okay, if I wanted some pills, but I declined and turned around to the exit, and then he asked, «Should I off you, too?»
«I can take you out now, quick and easy, you just have to sign here», he wanted to grab his device.
«No! Thank you.»
: : :
Bent over with one hand against the wall, I dry-heaved after I emptied my stomach onto the floor right after the security closed the door to the hallway behind me. A shudder went through my body. I didn't see this coming at all, I had no time to look for the next garbage bin.
«Oh, man», I sighed, gagged, and spit a couple of times out to get rid of the sour taste in my mouth. With the back of my hands, I wiped my watery eyes dry.
What a mess, the smell, and some of the vomit made it onto my shoes. I stood straight up, took my shirt off, so I was left wearing a tee, cleaned my shoes and dropped the dirty rag on the puddle on the floor. I won't need it anymore.
The soft bing of the arriving elevator was my signal to leave the level, I marched by the group that filed out.
With the doors closing behind me, I heard some people voicing their disgust when they found what I had left.
Another shudder shook my legs and arms and shoulders. Glad I was alone, I squatted down, wrapping my arms around my knees while the elevator went up.
Too late, I realized the elevator had stopped, and the doors opened for a man and a woman, obviously not befriended.
I got up and answered the question they hadn't asked, «I'm fine.»
The two carefully entered the cabin.
She said, «Did you feel a little woozy?»
«Yeah, a little woozy.»
«Could be the air, it's thinner up here. I had that when I arrived, two days ago.»
«It's better now.»
This conversation seemed unreal to me, surreal in the light of what had happened right in front of my eyes. Can we go about our day and pretend not to see the obvious? Just because it is easier, more convenient. I could spill my beans now, I should let them know about Rico, about the idea of doing the people in right in Lethbridge, my rising doubts, doubts about it all.
«Good, that's good. Would be too bad if you'd miss lunch», said the man and pressed a level number.
«Yes», then it dawned on me, «Lunch? Is it already... what time is it?»
The man answered, «Twenty to...»
«Mia, Chi …», I wedged my hand between the closing doors, and with a squawk they re-opened, jittering as if a shudder now went through them.
«What? Who?», the man said, and the two sighed behind me because of their delay. I had lost track of time, I haven't even thought once of their farewell since I met Rico and entered laser tag. It was as if I had lived a parallel life, completely detached from the rest of the hotel—until the hotel came back to me.
During that time, Chi's, and Mia's celebration had fainted in my memory. I felt guilty neglecting them, their feelings, their wish to have me there, the honour, and it wasn't even on purpose. There would be no way I could explain that—nor would there be any time to do so.
I jumped up the stairs, taking two or three steps at once, and ran as fast as I could, swearing under my breath. The elevator would have taken longer, especially if we would have stopped a couple of times.
: : :
A man left the rectangular stage under applause, and the orange curtain fell behind him. The farewell lobby was separated from the main hallway, allowing for privacy in this intimate moment.
The applause subsided, and the man on the microphone asked for ten seconds of silence. Instantly I recognized the voice, the celebrity, Tony Apostolakis, the former Fact-or-Fake Show host. How dignifying to end your career in this manner, his signature curly dark hair accentuated by grey streaks between temples and ears.
To his left, a few metres beside the stage, I saw Chi and Mia. I eeled my way through the crowd while trying to catch my breath after my sprint. Everybody in the room had their heads tilted, either down or up, many with their eyes closed. More than once I whispered «Sorry» when I bumped into somebody.
«Hey, you two!», I said as chipper and quiet as possible, hoping I would overplay my feelings after what I had witnessed.
«Hi Arthur!», said Chi, and because Mia let off a yelp of excitement, she gave her daughter a stern look.
«How are you?». I asked, unprepared for conversation under these circumstances.
Chi ignored the question, «Nice you came!»
«Oh yeah», my hand made a no-big-deal gesture. Everything felt awkward right now; no word and no gesture seemed appropriate. They should have had a workshop for this, prior to the journey, a weekend seminar, or an online course at least.
She also didn't know more to say, and Mia just smiled at me.
So I gave our hushed conversation another go and pointed to The Greek, as he was known to his fan base, «You know who that is?»
«Yes!», Chi said, probably more excited about me coming up with something to talk about than the actual information, «It's that Fact-or-Fake-Man», the last words she sang in the rhythm of the Fact-or-Fake show opening melody.
«Amazing they got him.»
«Yes, well, somebody told me earlier, he is here for his own journey. Given who he is and doing this, he earned himself four weeks in the hotel, then the next celebrity volunteering has his or her turn.»
«Wow. Is it always a star doing the farewells?»
«Yes, not always such a big celebrity, but...»
«Then he'll say farewell to me, too!»
Somehow I wasn't able to lay enough emotion into that one, and the two noticed it.
Chi wrinkled her forehead, «Are you okay?»
«I don't know, I guess stage freight», and I threw the ball back to her, «You don't have any?»
Mia nodded with her eyes wide open.
Did she know? What did she know?
The booming voice of Tony Apostolakis filled the lobby, «And now put your hands together for Mia and Chi Renfrew!»
He pulled us out of our dream-like state, applause erupted, a spotlight found the two.
Our arms indicated the wish for a hug, but we didn't follow through. Mia didn't care, she leapt forward, her arms wrapped around my waist, her face sideways on my hip, I had no time to get down to her. I ruffled her hair and regretted it the next moment, because her mom had it made nice for the occasion.
Tony Apostolakis signature smile lit the room, «Please, join me on stage!»
Chi grabbed Mia's hand and pulled her up the two steps on stage, the spotlight followed them. Their rainbow suits.
A man yelled, «Bravo!»
On the podium Mia clung to her mom, the attention was too much for her, and for Chi, too. Apostolakis kept pointing at them while leaning back, he was careful not to leave the limelight himself.
He raised the microphone, «Thank you, that applause is all yours, Chi, Pia.»
Chi's lips moved, and The Greek corrected himself, «Mia! Mia, your big day!»
The audience went quiet. About eighty people filled the hall pretty well.
Chi derailed a smile.
«Mia, our youngest hero today. Mia loved animals, she...»
Mia said something only her mom and Apostolakis could hear, and he said, «Yes, sure, dolphins the most.»
Some people clapped their hands, others laughed. Chi fought tears.
«Dolphins, aren't they the cutest thing, yes, they are. And in kindergarten she loved drawing, the drawings covered their studio apartment. In school she had a lot of friends, she loved playing tag, and we all see her winning smile.»
Chi stared at the ceiling, trying to distract herself in order to keep her composure.
Tears welled up in my eyes.
«Chi was the best mom anybody could ask for, loving, caring, always being there for her daughter while attending the gym whenever she could.»
She looked now directly at the moderator, her left hand held Mia, her right hand played piano on her leg.
The stupid music started, and everybody sang—everybody but me. I didn't feel like singing. I thought of Mia and me on the rollercoaster, how Chi loved her.
«One more applause for these wonderful heroes!»
That was it?
Another man yelled, «Mia, you're a hero!'
I wanted to punch his face.
There was more to their lives.
Apostolakis gave his best Fact-or-Fake smile.
I could have done a better job at this.
The people applauded, the orange curtain opened, they both looked in my direction, Mia waved shortly, I waved back, and then they marched through the gate side by side, blurred by my tears.
I turned around and left the lobby feeling the many eyes looking at me. There seemed to be no halt to my tears.
What was I crying about? I hardly knew the two. I should think of my brother. I took a deep breath.
People in the hallway streamed by me, nobody dared to ask or say anything, nobody cared. I kept moving, I kept crying, and I ended up in my room, lying on my bed letting it all out, sobbing, coughing, until my body shook and shivered under the emotional outburst, an emotional cleansing only those tears can achieve, which were held back for so many years.