"Ordering Dutch running shoes pays off" Garret thought to himself as he root his heel into the soil next to the entrance of the DS Diner . It had become ritual since moving to this town to end his run with a hot cup of coffee .
On his way home he mused at differences in sound when the wind blows through the trees on a rainy day as opposed to one that wasn't. He would divide the return course into a half walk half jog. The latter of which would begin as soon as his small coffee was finished. He acclimated to smaller town life quickly upon his move out of Dallas. The mere difference in the perception of time one had in a day was enough of a selling point never to return to the hustle and frenetic bustle of workday traffic. The servers at the Diner knew him on a first name basis , far more sincere that the emotionless faces of the baristas that robotically said his name in mumbled syllables at those larger coffee chains.
His inner monolog was interrupted by a brown box laying on his doorstep. The one thing that made adjusting so much easier was the modern day conveniences of next day arrival , thank you amazon. "It's funny how something named after such unrestrained nature such as 'The Amazon' was the torch bearer of further artificial compartmentalization. Whatever , it made living away from conveniences easier."
His home was modest at first appearance: ikea type furniture, a laptop, a couple house plants and a stack of books . The top one being "What The Rain Brings - A Guide To Western American Mushrooms" and a small yet growing number of tech toys.
Garret set the box on the kitchen island top and slid open the glass door . The backyard was a naturist paradise with numerous breeds of fauna that had accumulated over the last 2 years along with bird houses and ivy crawling up the cinder block wall. You wouldn't of known that his home was surrounded by a large vacant lot that broke off into a storm drain some ways back beyond the yard.
The silence was broken by a series of whistles . He called out as various little brownish yellow birds appeared in branches and upon the wall. These little guys looked on Garret quite favorably as he now fed them feed directly from his palm. They bounced back and forth between his hand and the nearby vines. He fed them everyday for the last year or so , ever since he nailed a work from home gig. Well, he didn't "nail" it so much as covid struck. The final link to the rootless metropolitan life severed as he no longer had a 4 hour commute every morning.
Overall, his life was not effected by the virus nor quarantine outside of this , as the town did not follow a great many of the precautions executed by the CDC or State in some instances. This allowed him a great many hours to get back in touch with the things that mattered to him , like nature and human interaction.(his endless hours spent on social media and watching tik-tok videos not withstanding) .
Last Monday he tried counting the Carolina Wrens (He learned this recently), He estimated roughly 50 . With little birds on his shoulders and popping off his head, images of Cinderella always came to mind. This made him chuckle. His smart phone vibrated on the table . He turned off alerts when his jogging continually got interrupted by Instagram alerts and notifications that let him know someone from a completely different hemisphere happened to disagree with him about local State politics. He went inside to eat something.
He had spent the evening engaged in a new sandbox style first person game he had purchased from a new online start-up game dev. Coming from a start-up of no name developers , you would not expected such an involved game with such diverse mechanics and in game interaction. That night he dreamt that he had found a live bird in his coffee.
Thinking about coffee birds, Garrett ate cereal and opened his laptop back up to get the days problems sorted out for the company he worked for. As time went on , they grew more and more incompetent on the technological level, thus ensuring him that he would have a troubleshooting IT/ Programming job indefinitely. Upgrade after upgrade as mankind entered another level of breakthroughs in communications and thus cyber security . He would have to skip leg day as they say. He had been pretty consistent after all.
Garret must of lost track of time because a tapping came from the kitchen window, startling him. "What the hell?.." he got up to see what caused the noise. The birds had gathered on the back patio and flew and jumped around. He smiled and stepped outside , gathering seed in his hand. He always enjoyed the texture of the birdfeed as he sunk his hand into the large bag.
Passing thru and out of the kitchen, Garret paused and backwards, retraced his steps stopping in view of the counter . He totally forgot about the package he got the other day! Grabbing it he jumped over the couch landing on it and hurriedly used his nail to tear open the box tape . Inside was a glossy black box. Inspecting it in his hands , he found no identifying features. Weird , usually there is at least a company logo he said aloud. He opened it . The headset inside looked similar to an Oculus Rift S albeit a little more angular and sleek. "I don't remember orderin..." Garrett trailed off. He surmised that the company whom he ordered the last game off of must of sent it. But he doubted they could afford to do that for all buyers..maybe a promotional give away he never heard of?... . A business card shaped paper fell out of the faceplate. A white card with the sole phrase 'for use with all games and systems , pc or otherwise' was written on it. "Huh" was all Garret could muster at such a strange thing. Didn't make sense, a product of this magnitude would be the talk of every gamer vlog and podcast." This must be some kind of joke". He said to no one in particular.
" May as well give it a try."
It must of came from that start-up developer as Garret stared at his hands in-game. With no controller whatsoever, this was a hundred percent neuro linked , but how? Garret had not yet been chipped for that type of VR, although the news of existing technology had been leaked to his employer. He examined trees and even managed to tear a leaf off. That was not an option he deemed possible sans VR. By the time Garret took off the headset, it was thirty past midnight.
Luckily for the fate of his company, it was Saturday. Garrett woke up and in 10 point 2 minutes was running down a subterranean passageway he had discovered the night before . The eight-tailed cat, propeller hat adorned proved to be just fast enough so as to stay just out of Garret's reach. Apparantly the silly cap made it go faster. Until he could harvest enough wood to build a carriage of sorts and gather the appropriate beasts of burden, he would have to settle for running vast distances , breaking due to pre ordained bouts of fatigue . A lot of the NPCs interacted realistically as the AI seemed to have been augmented by the VR Technology itself . By late afternoon, the hunger pangs grew intolerable and Garret disconnected to see what would be the fastest meal possible so as to return to a convo with 'Il-Itch1' a faux online gamer NPC. A song from outside let him know that his birds had arrived and grew impatient. He briskly slid open the glass door and tossed feed from the bag hanging next to it onto the ground and chair . Before dashing back into the living room to resume play. The birds at first immobile in what appeared to be mock confusion ( as birds don't get confused often) dashed and rushed the feed , kicking up and tossing just as much as landed in their tiny stomachs.
Whether by chance but more than likely out of some kind of guilt , in the days following this change in feeding behavior on Garret's part, he only took his headset off once the sun was down . He doubted the birds would stay past dark. In truth he felt slightly bad but was far too enthralled with the quickly escalating events in-world . He had developed somewhat of a relationship with the NPC 'Il-Itch1' . It sounded silly , even insane but he had not experienced this level of freedom and happiness with any woman before. Every relationship he had had paled in comparison.
Luckily, he had been able to coast thru the following weeks at work by passing off many of the tasks to the various interns at his disposal. He would be able to get away with this for at least a month. An option to create an extra material storage had been discovered using a secret options menu in the VR space . This opened up a faster route to creating infrastructure. Garret now had a two-story brick house located on a floating island which prevented the carnivorous fog from destroying it.
It had been a month since he had so much as glanced into the back yard. Something though , caught his eye this morning. The plants had withered and Garrett mentally kicked himself for letting his chores go to the roadside . He promised himself he would start watering and pruning tomorrow morning. The state of the yard was not what caught his attention though. The birds had appeared to of made nests. Now they always did but this was different. These clusters of twigs , string and hair etc had been compiled in the most strange of shapes. Two nests nearly identical to one another had almost resembled skinny Christmas stockings. Whereas another was a circular nest of a bird species entirely foreign to that of the visitors of his yard. There was a large mass of nest material, a lump of sorts haphazardly sitting atop the largest branch of the tree. "Was this what happens when you ignore birds ? Were they in some manic state?" Garret snapped a photo with his phone and posted it to his IG account with the caption - Can someone explain?
Garret spent hours trying to remove a hot air Ballon that had collapsed atop the second floor widow's walk of his house. He didn't even know hot air balloons existed in-world.
"Whats on your mind Garret?" Il-Itch1 asked . "I can't stop thinking about those nests .." he replied. Garret had indeed been thinking all day about the oddly shaped nests. "Why do you care? Our place is so much better since you made it for us" .
Garret waited till Itch went down to the stream to fish for water berries to disconnect. He knew he had about 30 minutes before she would return. He walked over to the kitchen window and peered outside. St first glance it appeared the nests were gone. Did they fall? He looked out of the sliding glass door. The clusters , clumps and masses now lay neatly placed on his cobblestone patio ground. Even stranger the birds were present . They stood perched in the branches of the tree and along the ivy wall. Unlike any other day, they stood immobile. They simply stood and watched. Watch exactly they watched Garret could not define. For they merely looked forward or towards the ground, heads cocked to the right or left at varying degrees. He backed away from the glass not sure why he felt a growing anxiety in the cavern of his stomach. But not before a fleeting thought that the nests on the ground resembled a dismembered body.
The summer was spent growing the most magnificent vegetables and fruit. Despite how fantastical this place was and the creatures therein, it seemed so much more real to Garret than that other place. His single story house , the Diner.. they paled in comparison to his floating island mansion or Mr Kreegle's Glass Donut Shop . How could you compete even ? With a staff entirely comprised of anthropomorphic entities half animal half human emotions? Only here could you legitimately ask someone "Can you smell the color 9?" And get a totally legitimate answer.
A severe painful buzzing tore through Garret's ear drums one rainy yet sunny morning . As he dropped the breakfast plates with a shattering crash , a booming voice from outside bellowed "BATTERY LOW BATTERY LOW " Garret staggered to the door , flinging it open .In the sky , the usually smiling clouds were replaced with massive block letters of a sickly translucent pink that similarly said "BATTERY LOW" . As the voice came again, Garret tore off the headset.
"Since when did this thing need to be charged ? I guess some things can't be avoided " He said with a jump to his feet , pulling a muscle . Terror struck him as he did not recall a battery charger . Only to remember the outlet on the back of the headset that enabled for complete adaptability. He plugged it in using his phone charger. Guessing it would not take long , Garret walked over to the kitchen window.
Two birds were holding the Xmas stocking looking nest suspended in the air so as to appear standing on its own cartoonishly. Now resembling a human leg up to a thigh. Garrett staggered back and ducked behind the countertop, spying the scene from down and behind. A pen rolled off the counter and hit the tile. The sound set all the birds, at least a 100 of them up into the small airspace of his patio chaotic. This lasted a few second before the birds started grabbing hold of the various irregularities and bringing them aloft into the air a few to 5ft above ground . Worms were coming out of the nests. This is what Garret thought as long strands of hair, string and twigs stretched out like uninhibited veins from each nest . These tendrils intertwined with each other in a pulsing tightening motion pulling together the bunches of parts . Garret's heart pounded in his chest , he legs felt like tar when he tried to move them. He felt that he might piss himself if he tried to stand up. He wanted to run soo bad.
The form inevitably came together culminating in the shape of a man. It at first merely stood still on his patio. "There is a man made out of birdnests on my patio" Garret thought to himself. He pulled himself up into a standing position, spooning his countertop. Never had the awareness of how skinny his legs were had been more prominent than now as they clutched the wooden waist high storage drawers.
The VR headset let off a microwave sounding "ping" . "Its ready , oh God it's ready!" Garret quietly said . This was when he noticed that the nest thing had angled its torso , appearing to be looking at him through the glass although not having any eyes.
Garret grabbed the VR and ran/stumbled to his room , knocking over a vase and coffee table as he went. He looked out his window hoping to see what the thing was doing. It was now facing away from him making gestures at the birds. The birds flew to it and rested upon its shoulders and head. After a couple of seconds the twig man reached one hand over to it's shoulder and grabbed two birds gently in it's wirey hand . It appeared to bring them up to its face, although he couldn't see for sure as the thing was still facing away from him.
With a sudden violent gesture of its hands and a loud squeek , the thing half turned around to face Garret who was on his knees staring out his bedroom window. It had crushed the birds and made eyes out of them. It calmly strode towards the sliding door , bloody crushed birds where it assumed it's eyes should be. Garret held the Vr Headset above his head. It sounded like someone was rhythmically pressing a plastic bag of shredded paper against his tile floor , gradually getting closer to his hallway. He could get away if he just put the headset on. He heard a vase rolling down the hall.
"In-world is so much more real than this place is" was what Garret said as he placed the tech on his head, watching his turning door knob glitch away.