Snow fell, thick, blanketing every curb and hedge, transforming the abandoned mills and textile factories into a winter wonderland. Early focused on the GPS as the satellite radio switched to Dean Martin’s “It’s a Marshmallow World.” From the rain threatening clouds, Early knew it would all be gone by the morning. His Tesla steered into the parking lot. Early took the wheel and parked close to the old Caldor. Smiling, Early checked his phone. A flashing red pin winked in answer. Eddie trembled in excitement.

Early Deacon Randolph was a gamer. Beginning with Doom in his cousin’s Artemis’s rec room, Early found his passion in pixels. Call of Duty with its hyper-realistic stimulation was a revelation. Soon Early spent every waking hour on the game.

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From the killing fields of games like Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil, Early emerged a true warrior. He entered and won local video game competition, even placing in Legend of Legends. The gamer’s phone jangled and Early pushed aside a piece of plywood boarding over a storefront. His heart raced as his phone flash illuminated the graffiti hieroglyphics.

In the aged mall’s dim light the vermilion spray paint glowed. Early flowed from playing games to designing games. Behind the money and the media, Early was still a just a knobby-kneed gamer in Blue’s Clues pajamas. Stepping over syringes and around lonesome kiosks, he followed the symbols deeper into the darkness.

Crimson turtle, neon fly, emeralds, each symbol gave his phone another clue, gave Early a frisson up his spine. He had heard about The Ultimate Game on a subreddit. Geeks love pies and rumors, so at first Early ignored the posts. Out of boredom he searched for the game on the dark web.

After weeks of researching and negotiating, Early bought the app off the Silk Road. The Ultimate Game was instantly and deeply disappointed. The graphics were decent but the play was sluggish and the story line one-dimensional. Early headed into a Foot Locker emblazoned with crudely painted alligators.

The Ultimate Game had completely slipped his mind until he saw a crimson shelled green footed turtle sprayed painted on an overpass on the Blue Route. The Game’s secret society rigmarole was all true. Some group of nerds really created the Ultimate Game, a VR interface which immersed the player in a video game where the sakes were real. One life, one game the adventure Early had waited for his whole life.

It was here on a pedestal. Now Early was here holding the shiny celadon bulbous headset. He twirled the 3-D printed steam punk-inspired helmet in his head and slipped it on. The helmet’s marigold visor slipped over his eyes as the slim needles entered his scalp.

Dank air filled his lungs. Incessant chittering filled his ears. Early wasn’t in the piss stink corner of a mall in Clifton Heights. He was in a swamp at night. Early slapped a bug off his neck. The effects were stellar. His splayed toes sank into the spongey warm sucking mud. Early felt the urge to squat. He rested on his powerful lime haunches. In the distance the roar of a busy busy highway sang in his soul. Erupting into laughter, Early hopped towards the roadway heading for his lily pad home.

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