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F I F T Y   S H A D E S   O F   G R E Y                                                                                  

by [Miracle Jones]

“Egg whites only,” mutters Sapphire Sickles to herself, straining the yolks from the tiny (and frankly diseased-looking) farmer’s market eggs that she buys now because her daughter Madalyn demands it.

It’s Madalyn’s money.  She gets what she wants.

Sapphire Sickles carefully drizzles the egg into the medium-hot frying pan, where it mingles with the weird oil coming off of the vegan sausage patties made from some kind of compressed, seasoned bean jelly.  Incredibly, Sapphire has actually developed a taste for these fake sausage patties.  They taste like salt and cumin and the texture is basically right.

The prefab tiny house rocks with explosions from the mud of Passchaendale; there is the noise of machine gun fire and screams of the dying.  The explosions drown out the quiet feed Sapphire is running in the kitchen and she turns to look at the holo hovering above her wrist.  She tries to read the closed-captioning. She adjusts the font-size until the holo is mostly just text.

The top of her feed is as likely to be a video of some kind of new, cute hedgehog breed from those labs on the border, an albino one all dressed up in a Tudor ruff for instance, as it is to be reports about whether or not the Hindus will have enough water this year.  She tries to make sense of her feed, trying to determine if there is anything important enough to worry about.

“Shit, shit,” she says, as the weird oil coming off the sausage patties starts to caramelize and burn.  She snaps the heat off.  The eggs are perfect though.

She puts everything on a plate: the eggs, the sausage, the biscuit, a little bowl of dry Lucky Charms, and a squeeze box of banana-flavored Boost for vitamins and iron.  

“She likes to pour the Boost on herself,” mutters Sapphire.  “Doesn’t like it to get soggy if she isn’t ready for it when I bring it.  She can EAT everything else while she plays, doesn’t even have to look.  But the cereal has to wait. She has to take a break for the cereal.  Doesn’t mean she doesn’t want it.  She wants it.  She just wants to pour the Boost on herself.”

Sapphire carefully takes the tray full of food to the back half of the prefab tiny house, knocking on the door separating the bathroom / kitchen / living room from the single bedroom which Madalyn now has entirely to herself.  The master bedroom.

Sapphire insisted that Madalyn take the big room.  Sapphire isn’t working on account of THE DEPRESSION (her personal devastations, not anything national or international or economic) and Madalyn is making all their money these days, unless you consider drawing not-enough government money for being sad (and frankly a little crazy) a job. 

Sapphire can sleep all day if she wants but Madalyn has to work and needs a place to do it.  

If Sapphire wants to sleep all day, she’ll do it in the folding recliner that Madalyn bought her. Her nest.  She likes the recliner so much.  Was suspicious at first!  But it warms up and vibrates like a heartbeat.  It’s like curling up and sleeping next to a giant warm purring cat. It is like having a friend.

It measures your vitals while you sleep, too.  Your blood pressure and resting heart rate and all that.  Tells you if you are getting healthier or sicker or staying the same.  

She doesn’t ever look at the data, but she is glad the recliner cares.

More explosions rock the house.  She sets her jaw.  She remembers when they used to live in their car.  The car she had to drive herself, LIKE AN ANIMAL, ha ha. There is no kitchen in a car, though. No warm purring cat chair in a car.

Since then, since that whole deal (that whole situation), she can’t hold on to worries with as much force and grip as she once could.  They float in; they float out.  That’s definitely the meds doing their job.  That’s definitely the house and the walls and the feed and the warm purring recliner doing its job.

Sapphire patiently waits in the bathroom, holding the tray full of food, listening through the door to booming thuds of mortar fire and the flat whistling crack of trench torpedoes dropped from looping biplanes.  

She is waiting for her daughter to die.

There is a louder, sharper scream than the rest, and then some bubbling, gurgling prayers, and then a techno version of “Heil dir im Siegenkranz” plays.  Sapphire knows her cue.  She knocks on the door.

“Yeah? What?” says Madalyn.

“I have your breakfast,” says Sapphire.

There is a long pause.  Sapphire can hear her daughter shoving clothes off the bed to make a space. She hears her opening and closing drawers.  Most likely putting away her vape.  

Sapphire knows that if she has been smoking there is a better chance she will eat this entire breakfast, which lord knows Madalyn needs the calories.  She is nothing but bones and rage.  A pissed-off girl skeleton in a black bob and matching black nail polish and eyeliner.

“You are free to come in now,” says Madalyn.

Sapphire opens the door and steps into the master bedroom; Madalyn’s empire, littered with her gamer spoor.  There is a bed shoved over to one side, but the room is dominated by Madalyn’s console pillar and all the screens she has cobbled together to give her more and more windows into Trenches. Trenches: her job, her hobby, the virtual online world that pays for all of their food; not to mention their rent, Sapphire’s medicines, and all their doctor’s bills.  Not to mention Sapphire’s spending cash and then there is whatever Madalyn is socking away.

“That’s an odd way to phrase it,” says Sapphire meekly.  “You are free to come in.”

“Jesus F mother,” says Madalyn, exasperated.  “You know what I mean.”

Something is wrong.  Sapphire senses it in the way Madalyn smiles at her.  Something is horribly wrong, but she doesn’t know what.

“Where do you want me to put this?”

“Just put it on the bed.”

Sapphire does as she is told, even though she worries about spilling eggs and Boost all over her grandmother’s quilt, an heirloom, Madalyn’s sole birthday present this year.

She looks around, trying to figure out why she suddenly feels nervous and suspicious. Why she knows that something is terribly wrong.

One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong, can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time we finish our song? 

“What’s with the gauze and the rubbing alcohol?” asks Sapphire, tugging at the roll of gauze peeking out from under the bed. 

“Oh nothing,” says Madalyn absently.  “Cut myself.”

“Are you okay?”


“Let me see,” asks Sapphire.

“It healed up already,” says Madalyn, showing Sapphire a perfectly normal patch of skin from her ankle.

Sapphire frowns.

After she sets the food down, Sapphire stands there, hesitating, looking around at all the gear: all the monitors, and cables, and splitters, and projectors.  Madalyn sits in a swivel chair with her back to her mother, stocking cap on her head, opening tabs in the air and closing them with easy facility.  She opens a tab where a fat naked man sits in a lawn chair on some roof in some big city, jacking off, his pink penis like the fat button of a controller in his lap that he is mashing over and over again.  She closes the tab just as fast.  

Sapphire tries to look closer at what Madalyn is doing.

Madalyn whips her head over her shoulder, irritated.

“Yes?” she inquires.

“Just seeing what you are up to in here,” says Sapphire.  “Taking an interest.”

“It’s creepy with you there watching me,” says Madalyn.  “Don’t be a creep.”

Sapphire flinches, but she keeps standing there in the doorway, her eyes wandering around the room, not sure where the action is, still certain something is wrong.  So much of the game is playing out over all the screens and feeds in discrete arcane pieces that it makes no goddamn sense in isolation without context.  The windows hovering in the air are backwards to her, or else are at strange angles that only reveal fragments.

“Hey I was wondering,” says Sapphire after awhile.  “Maybe I could. You know, if you wouldn’t mind the company.  Maybe uh…I could…you know, like when you were little…”

“What, mother?” asks Madalyn. “What do you want?”

“You know, since I don’t have much going on today, no appointments or anything, I thought I could watch you play your game for awhile,” says Sapphire.

“You know I have the cam on, right?” says Madalyn.  

“I know,” says Sapphire.  “I can deal with it.”

“Today?” says Madalyn, more to herself than to her mother.  “Really? Seriously?”

The cam is sending the augmented feed of everything that happens in the room to everyone who might want to watch.  This is one way that Madalyn makes extra cash; she claims there are people in China willing to pay extremely good money to watch authentic young American “white trash” play video games, watching them take breaks to change into different outfits, eat breakfast, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  This is just one of Madalyn’s Trenches-related revenue streams.

“Why? What’s wrong with today? What’s different about today?”

“Nothing,” says Madalyn.

“Maybe I can help,” says Sapphire.  “We can be a team, like when you used to play Zelda and I would hold the map.”

“Zelda,” snorts Madalyn. “Jesus EFF, mother.”

What can Sapphire really say about any of it?  After all that time she spent in Florida with her cousins and her big sister and their dubious boyfriends during summers growing up, making extra cash any way she could. Now there are videos of her all over the feed…old vintage sites, fetish sites.  She was ready to do anything back then, on account of the sunshine.  

Not that she blames anybody. It was just the way things were back then.  You can pay lots of money to have your old self scrubbed from the Internet these days, but it’s like getting a tattoo removed: people can still see the too-pink skin where it used to be.  And they will ask and you will tell them.  And so you might as well just have the goddamn tattoo.

“When I was a kid, I used to watch your Uncle Hunter play games on our old flatscreen for hours and hours.  He was just like you.  He’d play those war games with a headset on and he’d be yelling at people all over the world.  He was really good, always near the top when the game was over and all the stats would show up. Kills and so on.”

“Didn’t you ever want to play?” asks Madalyn witheringly.

“He’d let me play sometimes, but I think he was mortified that I was on his account, you know, messing up his score.  He didn’t say anything, but I never played very long.  I was content just to watch. This was before he went to prison, you know. He really got something out of those games.”

“Yeah, training to murder people for stiffing him on pills,” says Madalyn.  “Training to have no soul so he could beat up some trauma-addicted girlfriend.”

“He never beat up any girlfriend I knew about,” says Sapphire. “Never really dated. Anyway, he’s still my brother. Anyway, I am happy just to watch is all I am saying.”

Madalyn insists that Trenches is different from those games that Uncle Hunter used to play, those games that his defense attorney half-heartedly suggested turned him into a real-life killer and now has him on Florida’s death row, by far the most famous person in their small family. He was on the local news for weeks...

Sapphire watches Madalyn play for awhile, unsure if their conversation is over or not.

“I wish I understood how this game works,” says Sapphire.  “It is so complicated!”

“I’ve explained it a thousand times, mother.”

“You like to play as the Germans, right? Are you winning?”

“Trenches isn’t a game as you would define a game,” says Madalyn blankly.  “There is no winning. It’s an advanced social networking site, a World War 1 fractally-generated-reality experience, and, most importantly, an international news psychosphere and identity accelerator where people work out their political and social aggressions in a modular game theory environment.  Actually, these days, there’s a lot of gender theory going on in Trenches. Do you want to talk about gender theory, mother? What’s your favorite gender-performance temporary on the feed?”

Sapphire sighs.

“But what about the Russians?” asks Sapphire.  “Aren’t the Russians involved somehow? I heard that on the news.”

“Oh, probably,” says Madalyn.  “The Chinese usually play as the Russians, actually.  Because the Koreans usually play as Austro-Hungary. It’s about something totally different for them.  That’s a whole different border. I stay out of the Chinese psychosphere because they pay me to stay out. The Russians play as whoever they want, like Europeans do, like Americans do.  Like all dignified first-world imperialists do who don’t believe in anything anymore, especially games, especially…language.”

“The Chinese…pay you?”


“The Chinese government?”

“Essentially.  It is a stipend. A lot of people apply.  Not everybody gets picked for the stipend.”

“I’m so confused,” says Sapphire.

“Of course you are,” says Madalyn.

Sapphire stares at her feet, her face burning.  But she doesn’t say anything.

“Within Trenches, there are a thousand subsets and communities, all in conflict and all trying to use the system to do different…things…hold meetings, develop code, write in-game musicals,” says Madalyn. “For instance, even though I personally identify as female, uh, obviously, I sometimes play as a gay male German double agent in-game.  Some months, I make enough to pay our rent and keep you in meds and food by coercing other German soldiers to make in-game 3D gay porn, which I then sell back to in-game France, meaning Korean junior high girls mostly, who use it for both basic coming-of-age puberty jack-off material and as propaganda.  Anyway, people pay for it. They pay you to do it; they pay you NOT to do it.”

“You do all this alone?” says Sapphire.

“Feels like it sometimes,” says Madalyn.  “Sometimes other people help out, though. In-game, we drift away to secret locations in Berlin and on the battlefield, among the shell holes, staging spectacular illegal pornography, among the dead, often during the most intense raids and battles.  It’s just an example. I do lots of weird shit…for the fight…for the bigger fight…for the eternal bigger fight…”

“You have always been creative,” says Sapphire. "You are so much like your Aunt Ruby you don't even know."

Madalyn turns back around and opens up another tab.  Screens along the wall show stats, camera angles, battlefield logistics maps...

“You are still here?” asks Madalyn after awhile.

“I still don’t understand,” says Sapphire.  “I don’t know what a psychosphere is.”

Madalyn sighs dramatically and flips a switch near the main monitor.  Many of the screens go dead and the room is bathed in red light from the few screens that remain on.

“Mother, you have to remember, the camera is on in here and everybody in the world can hear everything you say.  You are killing boners all over planet earth. Today…today is just a really bad day for all this. I have...uh…this thing...  Just today is not good for this.  Tomorrow!  You can sit in here all day tomorrow and watch me play.”

Sapphire nods, brightly, but she doesn’t leave.  She fishes one of her pills out of the pocket of her robe and puts it in her mouth.  She swallows.

What will she do once Madalyn finally makes enough money to move out on her own?  Will Madalyn ever come visit her?  Does Madalyn know how to visit, how to sit down in front of somebody else over coffee or lunch and pretend to be interested in the contours and details of their life, in their emotional responses to trivialities and disappointments?

Madalyn flicks the switch again and the screens buzz back to life.

Sapphire says nothing, nothing at all.  She waits for the pill to kick in.

Madalyn looks over her shoulder at her mother and sighs dramatically again.

“Okay,” says Madalayn.  “You are still fucking here.  Well then! A short history of Trenches.  What is a psychosphere?  Hmmmm. How can I explain it?”

“I’ll go,” says Sapphire.  “I’m sorry for bothering you.  I was just leaving.  I swear. I got…distracted.”  

“Like I said, Trenches isn’t a war game in a conventional sense, even though the mechanics of war are built into it, and even though facility with its features is seen as one vector of possible advancement, the same as in every fascist society. The developers of Trenches were originally deep-sim historians and reenactors.  Germans, you know, like I said. It was created as an open source World War 1 simulator where people all over the world could manipulate the code and make impromptu combat algorithms in order to create a constantly-expanding and evolving pocket universe; a meditation on globalization, really, since every part of the world is technically rendered in Trenches, though Europe of course remains the point of focus. It’s a 20th century total war github. Factions are sort of pre-ordained since friendly fire does only 10% of the damage as firing on a declared opponent, and so if you want your kill rates high you are better off engaging where the battles already exist, instead of, say, traveling to in-game Madagascar and trying to start shit up in in-game Madagascar, though people do that all the time because why not, right? If winning ‘the war’ is what you are into, you gotta try everything, right mother, right?”

“Please don’t be cruel to me,” says Sapphire.  “I said I was going.”

“I am EXPLAINING THINGS for you.  Anyway, like ten years ago, back when you and Dad were still together and we didn’t even have the feed, Eastern Europeans saw this World War One simulator as a way to fuck with NATO and also to baptize a whole generation of Westerners in the material facts of New Russian life, and also to, you know, recruit Americans to IDENTIFY with Russian interests by making their army more attractive since the Eastern front was so much fun in the beginning of Trenches. Also, they were paying kids to work for them, which you probably saw on the news.

“Well, of course, eventually the Pan-Arab Bloc had problems with how they were portrayed and so they flooded the Trenches servers, playing as the British at first and making sure that anybody who so much as talked about Syria or Iraq or the Levant was slaughtered by their own troops. They formed a quick and dirty alliance with the Turkish and Russians.  This caused Kurds and Armenians to play as the Turks, which got really ugly really fast, but that’s a whole different story.  Look it up if you want.  Whole different psychosphere.

“Anyway, the American response to the Russian hijack of the Trenches psychosphere, and the response of the initial German developers, both gay women obviously, was to actively go out and recruit young American girls to play Trenches in an attempt to make the game about something else other than European nationalist politics….making it more social.  More…artistic. Some say American University in conjunction with Google in Brazil got involved in financing the media campaign for Trenches to reach out to these new demographics, but probably not, it was just ready and waiting, really. Anyway, instead of Trenches being about countries versus other countries, all played out with the real backdrop of World War One, it quickly became about identity politics within and surrounding these countries, which got real weird and real awesome real fast and it turns out some people are really good at it, the identity and gender politics part, good enough to do it for a living.”

Madalyn stares into space for a moment.

“Did you know animosity is a word that means that the male half of the soul is in conflict with the female half of the soul?  Animus is male spirit and anima is female spirit.  And when they fight, you’ve got animosity.  Soul war, is what animosity means. That’s what a psychosphere is.  A place where you can fight soul wars.” 

“You are so smart,” says Sapphire.  

“Thanks,” says Madalyn sarcastically, ignoring her.

“I’ll leave you alone,” says Sapphire.  “I didn’t mean to bother you. Thank you for explaining all that again.  I just get confused.  I’m just glad you are here with me and you are safe.”

“Where else would I be?” asks Madalyn, genuinely puzzled.

Anywhere, thinks Sapphire.  New York City or California. In prison, like her Uncle Hunter. Up in Canada, like her Aunt Ruby. Gone, like her father. 

“We have each other don’t we?” says Sapphire.  “Who says we need anyone else?”

Madalyn looks at her mother, sizing her up.  She doesn’t say anything.

“You can take the dishes away,” says Madalyn.

“Are you still hungry?” Sapphire asks.  “I can make you more food if you like.”

“No,” says Madalyn.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Madalyn tries to be kind. Her face rearranges. 

Madalyn says gently: “Pasta for lunch, okay? Why don’t you go sit in your chair for awhile?  And then, tomorrow, I swear, we can hang out together all day. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  I am being an asshole.”

“It’s okay,” says Sapphire.  “I forgive you.”


Sapphire hangs her head. She collects the dishes and stacks them without saying anything.  As she leaves Madalyn’s room, the door slams shut behind her, like it caught a blast of World War One trench wind.

She takes the dishes to the kitchen and she begins to wash them.  

There is something terribly, terribly wrong, but she doesn’t know what.  What is so special about today for Madalyn?  Why the gauze?  Why the antiseptic?

The kitchen of the prefab is dingy.  She has tried everything to keep the bugs away, but the ants and roaches always return.  Even now, tiny sugar ants crawl along the windowsill and along the backs of the cupboard, swarming around drops of water and pancake syrup, sending out lines of attack in psychic fingers.

The bugs don’t bother her. She feels safe in her chair, convinced that the insects cannot scale fabric and leather, even though she has no evidence of this.

She hears explosions coming from Madalyn’s room again, and then, as she puts the dishes in the drainer, a curious silence.  

She creeps toward the bathroom, fretting, utterly unsure of how to get back inside her daughter’s room without busting the door down, though increasingly certain that she must.

The door is locked and it hasn’t been long enough since she left to try again.  She knows if she keeps bothering Madalyn, she will seem paranoid, uncool, obsessed. 

She needs a hook to get in.  Some kind of excuse. 

An idea comes to her.  She puts on her robe and runs outside to the communal mailbox for all the prefabs on the lot.  She opens the door on the mailbox.  It is a shot in the dark, but the odds are good.  Fifty-fifty, maybe, given Madalyn’s ability to juggle debts. Maybe…

…yes!  There is a pizza coupon circular, and then a letter for Madalyn from American Express, with her name right on it.  Mail for Madalyn. Paper mail.  A perfect excuse.  She can plead ignorance.  How would she know?  It could be a new card or something.  Or a statement of transferred funds.  From China. 

She grabs the letter and sprints back to their prefab. The house is still and silent.  Could Madalyn be asleep? Taking a nap? The windows are blacked out with cut velvet…Madalyn’s doing. There is no way to see inside.  She quietly enters again through the front door.

As she moves through the house, she pauses in the bathroom, holding the letter in both hands like a squirrel, listening for the game in the room next door.  But there is nothing.

She listens, waiting.  She puts her hand on the doorknob and hangs her head, filled momentarily with a dizzying wave of despair that almost turns into tears.  She chokes them back.  She is wanted here.  She belongs here.  If Madalyn truly hates her so much, she will leave.  Madalyn loves her; her way is wild and strange; but did she herself not also love her own mother in her own impossible, imperceptible, contradictory, unproductive, toxic, damaging, permanent, complicated, childish, stupid way?  

Her despair washes clean her resolve and she turns the knob quickly and with her eyes shut, hoping…maybe…she will get lucky.

The door is locked, still. No surprise there.

She takes a deep breath.

“Madalyn, there is a letter here for you,” she says, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.

There is no answer.  Not even the squeal of a chair or the click of buttons or the bing of menu screens being selected.  No vibrations.  No snoring or noise of weed vapor being exhaled from passionate lungs.

“Madalyn, are you in there?  May I come in please?  I have a letter for you.”

She tries the door again, twisting the knob back and forth.  The lock is a simple one, just a hole by the handle that a simple paperclip can dislodge.  The real lock is whether or not Sapphire is willing to overwhelm her own daughter’s privacy.  The real trench is her daughter’s contempt.

“Madalyn, please answer the door,” says Sapphire.  “I have a letter for you.  I am worried.  At least tell me you are okay.”

Nothing.  She gets on her belly and peers into the crack between the floor and the door’s bottom.  She sees: clothes, rolled into balls…old cans of Diesel and Coke Zero…and black-nailed fingers, curled upwards…turning blue around the cuticles.

“MADALYN,” she shouts.  She pounds on the door.  She looks into the crack again but the fingers do not move or twitch.  She runs to the kitchen and grabs a paperclip from the odds and ends drawer, bending it straight.  Her heart in her throat, she pushes the paperclip into the hole by the doorknob until it clicks and she throws open the door.

Madalyn has fallen out of her chair.  There is a cord leading from the back of her skull into her console pillar.  

Sapphire suddenly realizes it is a new console pillar.  

One she has never seen before.  She sees the packing material in the corner.  How had she not noticed it?  

That was the difference.  It is one of those new ones.  From the feed.  The new ones that can kill you…

Madalyn’s tongue hangs from her mouth, blue and bubbling. She lists sideways and her hand grazes the ground.  Her eyeballs protrude from her head, twitching.  She leers, grinning.  Her throat is swollen so that it is nearly the size of her head.  Blood trickles from her nose, running down her shirt.

All the screens show a close-up of Madalyn’s avatar in Trenches, a version of Madalyn as if she were a male.  Same eyes, same cheekbones.  Stubble, though.  And muscles. Built like a sturdy triangle with the point down.  And a German uniform on.

“Oh no,” says Sapphire.  “No no no no no no…”

Is she dead?  She looks dead, but she is still warm. If her heart is beating, it is beating slowly.  If she is breathing, she isn’t showing it in her chest.  

Should she unplug her?  But what if unplugging her from the console is the thing that kills her?

Is she gone forever or just visiting some other…world?  Will she ever return home?  Where is she?  Is she here?

Sapphire digs into the hair on the back of Madalyn’s head, finding the place where the cord connects to her skull.  There is a scab there…yellow flesh…the remains of an infection.

On the screens, sickly green gas rolls over the fields full of razor wire slowly, like a ghost.  Madalyn’s avatar watches it coming, standing up at the lip of her side’s trench, hands on her hips.  

“Madalyn,” Sapphire whispers.  The fact that her avatar is still alive means Madalyn is still alive…right?

Sapphire stands up and peers into Trenches, trying to catch Madalyn’s attention.  But Madalyn is engrossed in the gas fog, and Sapphire doesn’t know what to do or whether she should call for an ambulance or sit down and try to read the Chinese instruction manual on Madalyn’s desk or what. 

She is shaking.  What side is she on in the eternal bigger fight? Is she is even alone right now or not?

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(c) Miracle Jones 2015