This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Thank you for applying to Camford University. Unfortunately, we’ve decided to go with another candidate…” Billie groaned as she skimmed the rest of the email.
“Ouch. Sorry, Bill,” her roommate Jack said from the couch.
Billie placed her phone on the counter a little more forcefully than she perhaps needed to, then shrugged. “It’s fine. Disappointing, obviously, but fine.”
“You have another interview tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Yeah, my last one. Fifteenth time lucky, right?”
Jack flashed her a sympathetic smile. “Here’s hoping. I do have some good news for you, though.” He reached over the side of the couch and picked up a large shopping bag.
“Give me a second and I’ll show you,” Jack said with a laugh. He laid the bag on the couch and pulled out a white cardboard box, a couple of scratched goggles, and four gloves. “Tim gave me his old virtual reality set. There’s a game too: Happily Ever After.”
“Stop! I’ve wanted to play that for ages,” Billie said. “Which version?”
“The one set in the 2020s.”
“Ah, the good ol’ days. Wanna play now?”
“Sure. You plug it in; I’ll put a pizza on for dinner.”
Within minutes, the oven was humming, the game console was blinking, and all the goggles and gloves were on. Both Billie and Jack decided to base their avatars on themselves, although Billie renamed herself, ‘Regina,’ and was perhaps a little too generous with her hip to waist ratio.
“Ready?” Jack asked.
“Ready!” Billie said.
A large city filled their screens, full of straight, tidy roads and towering cement buildings. They hovered over one of the skyscrapers, then were placed with a soft whoosh in the middle of a long, white corridor. Identical wooden doors lined both sides, each with a silver number above its peephole.
“Welcome to Happily Ever After!” a woman chirped as she materialized in front of them.
She looked so real, from her graying brown hair to the faint lines around her eyes, that Billie almost leaned forward and stroked her cheek. Figuring that would be rude though, even in virtual reality, she tossed an excited look at Jack instead.
“This is your starter home. You have 50,000 Happy Bucks to begin playing with,” the woman said, beaming. Then, before Billie could thank her, she faded away, leaving nothing behind except an icon in the corner of the screen with ‘Help Desk’ written beneath it.
Jack didn’t even seem to notice she’d gone. “First, we need to find jobs,” he said.
“Cool. I wonder if I can be a struggling academic in here too?”
“You can be an academic, period. You can be anything you want here; that’s the beauty of it,” Jack said. “I think I’ll be a rock star. Or a gangster!”
“That’ll be the pizza,” he said.
“I’ll keep playing if that’s okay,” Billie said, eyeing their new apartment. “I’m not that hungry yet.”
“Okay, no problem,” Jack said, then he faded and disappeared, leaving Billie alone in the corridor.
She wrapped her hand around the doorknob and twisted. The door swung open with a faint creak, and her eyes widened as she stepped inside.
Light poured over the plush carpet in the living room, forming a golden pool of warmth. To her right was a spacious kitchen, complete with the marble-topped island she’d always wanted, and to her left, a hallway that presumably led to her new bedroom.
Behind the glass doors at the back of the apartment was a patio overlooking the city, an outdoor table set, and a long garden box filled with different colored flowers. Billie started toward the doors but was pulled back by something tugging her sleeve.
“Hello?” she asked, turning around.
“Work just sent me a report to do. Are you alright playing by yourself?” a muffled voice said.
“Oh, hi Jack. Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Sorry. Have fun.”
Her sleeve fell back on her arm, and Billie squared her shoulders.
Next, a job.
She wandered to the computer in the corner of the living room. The swivel chair squeaked as she sat, just like the one in her real bedroom did, and she laughed.
Everything felt so real here. Thanks to the goggles and gloves, the computer’s mouse really clicked when she pressed it, the keyboard really clacked when she typed, and when a screen popped up confirming her new job at HEA University, her heart really beat faster.
She sat for a moment, staring at the ceiling. Unlike her real house, this one wasn’t stained from decades of cigarette smoke and slap-dash paint jobs. The color was neat, uniform…
Everything was perfect.
“I’ll say goodnight now, Billie.”
“Okay, Jack,” Billie said, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. “Goodnight.”
“Night. Don’t get square eyes.”
Moonlight now blanketed the floor, so Billie went to her new bedroom, lay on the thick, pink comforter, and selected the ‘sleep’ function. A second later, sunlight flooded the room once more, painting rainbows on each of the walls.
Billie breezed through her morning routine, fast-forwarding through everything she didn’t feel like doing, like showering, exercising, and even work itself. Before she knew it, the day had passed and she was hundreds of Happy Bucks richer, had been promoted to the next level of her virtual career, and had exchanged a few friendly messages with other players.
With a broad smile, she fast-forwarded another night of sleep and started the whole thing over again. Another few hundred Happy Bucks in her account. Another promotion. More messages with her virtual friends.
Her boss at HEAU even gave her an award. She didn’t really know what it was for; she swiped through the pop-up without reading it, eager to move on to the next challenge and reap more in-game rewards. She did, however, display the glittering award on her bookshelf, and her chest swelled whenever she walked past.
“REGINA KING,” it declared in large, flickering letters. “FOR EXCELLENCE.”
The specifics weren’t important. All that mattered was that they thought she was an excellent player; that she was excellent. If she kept doing what she was doing, she could fill this entire bookshelf with awards. She might even become a head of department at HEAU one day. And with her fast-forward button, that day could be very soon.
Another pop-up appeared: “Complete this special assignment within fifteen minutes to skip to the next level.” Grinning, Billie pointed at the ‘confirm’ button.
“Are you still playing?” Jack’s muffled voice exclaimed.
The side of Billie’s headset lifted, and she blinked rapidly, colored dots exploding across her vision.
Jack’s dark brow furrowed. “Have you seriously been playing all night?”
“What’s the time?” Billie asked. A dull pain throbbed at the back of her skull, one she hadn’t noticed until now, and the muscles in her legs were stiff and heavy. She rotated each ankle in turn, before rubbing her temple.
“Nearly eight. Don’t you have an interview to get to?”
“Right,” Billie said, shaking her head. “Yeah, at nine.”
“You’d better hurry then. Have some breakfast, and uh, maybe a shower as well.”
Billie tightened her grip on her goggles. “I need to finish something first.”
“Finish it later. What’s the matter with you? This is your dream job!”
“My dream job,” she repeated with a scoff. “What a joke. What’s the point in even going? They’re just gonna give it to someone with the same last name as one of the libraries. Again.”
“Then we’ll commiserate with a pizza. Again. But at least it’s real,” Jack said, looking pointedly at Billie’s headset.
“I just need to finish something,” she whispered.
Jack searched her face for a second, then pressed his lips together. “Okay. See you later, I guess.”
He left without another word. Billie’s eyes drifted across the yellowing curtains and threadbare carpet until they finally fell on her framed degrees, hanging lopsided on the grimy wall.
Tears welled in her eyes. She’d achieved more last night in Happily Ever After than she had in a long time. Her degrees might as well say, ‘Billie Peterson, First Class Failure.’
She was meant to have made something of herself by now. Work hard and reap the rewards, right?
Well, she’d worked, and worked, then worked some more, only to keep falling short. Maybe it was her turn to finally play.
Billie slipped the goggles back on, and the words, “Welcome back, Regina!” flashed across the screen.
What was she thinking? Regina might have found her happily ever after in this perfect, pixelated world, but Billie hadn’t. Hers was still waiting for her, in all its beautiful, flawed glory.
She couldn’t give up on finding it now. She couldn’t give up on herself.
With only the slightest hesitation, Billie closed the pop-up and shut the game down. If she hurried, she could still make her interview.
And if she didn’t get the job?
Hey, Regina would always be here when she got back.