The bright red letters blinked over and over, flooding the small, cluttered and cramped room with an eerie red glow as if it was mocking Jonah. The young man of 25 years gave a quiet sigh before putting down the sweat-slick controller and rubbing his bloodshot eyes. His bones cracked and creaked as he stood from the spot he hadn't moved from in what felt like days (and given his habits recently, that might not have been too far off). He worked the knots out of his muscles as he made his way to the bathroom door, glancing at the nearby alarm clock on the bedside table.
Well, it wasn't like he had to worry about getting up for work anymore. After the fancy new animal hospital pouched the lead veterinarian of the clinic Jonah worked at as a nurse, they started to lose more and more business, till eventually they'd been forced to shut down. Some of the other workers had jumped ship as soon things turned south and followed the lead Vet to the new hospital.
But not Jonah; maybe the others could, but he couldn't.
The clinic meant too much to him. Even if it was just a small veterinary clinic in the no-name outskirts of an overpopulated city, his mother and her friends had built it from the ground up. They had dedicated everything to that place in order to help as many people and animals as they could. He had grown up there, learned his trade there, and did everything he could to keep those doors open — even long after his mother was gone.
Not that it did much good in the end.
"You can't fight 'progress,'" The lead vet had remarked as he walked out the clinic doors for the last time.... guess they were right.
Jonah could feel his mouth tighten into a self-mocking smirk as he walked through the door into the even smaller bathroom. He stopped in front of the old dirty mirror and stared at the stranger in the reflection — bloodshot eyes above deep purple eye bags, half-covered by overgrown jet black bangs along with a weak chin covered by a month's worth of unkempt, scraggly beard, all accentuating an overly sharp nose.
Jonah had never considered himself to be a very good looking man, but one look at his current self in the mirror had caused him to visibly flinch. Even what he had considered his best feature, the sharp and proud cheekbones he'd inherited from his father, simply made his eyes appear more sunken and his cheeks hollow.
He hadn't looked this bad since he was an angsty preteen. A quick shower and shave later, Jonah studied himself in the mirror and gave a nod. He still looked butt ugly, but at least he looked human, and not like Master Splinter decided to go on a week-long drinking binge. He didn't much care how he looked in all honesty, but if he went to the store looking the way that he did, his mother would have rolled over in her grave. Nah, knowing that woman, she'd have crawled her way out and bashed his head in. She was very much on the side of the "Tough Love" team of parents.
You couldn't do what she did, go through the things she had, and still be a soft woman (let alone, raise the demon child that he was along the way). Regardless, she loved him and always tried to do what was best. And he loved her for that as well; it just sucked... by the time he really appreciated that, it was already too late.
With a splash of cold water to clear away the dark clouds, Jonah shook his head and headed towards the bathroom door. At that moment, something caught his eye, and he froze. There, in the left corner of his vision, was a small blue box. At first, he'd assumed that it was some note or article he'd pinned to the bathroom frame, but as he tried to take a look, his hand froze on the doorknob. He stared wide-eyed as the little "box" followed his line of sight. He moved his head side to side, eyes wide open and mouth agape, shaking faster and faster as if to dislodge the strange hallucination from his head.
Johan threw himself back from the door, backpedaling as his breath became ragged and heavy, bumping and stumbling around in the small bathroom, trying but failing to escape the strange little box. As if realizing it had been noticed, the small blue box shot forward towards the center of his vision, causing Jonah to give a yelp and fall back into his shower, smacking his head painfully on the hard tile. The blue box had now grown to five times its original size and presently blinked ominously as Jonah stared, unblinking.
!! URGENT NEWS !!
Jonah could feel his racing heart begin to calm down as the box hovered there, doing nothing but blink back at him. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind as he sat there, staring for what seemed like hours. In reality, it was no more than a few seconds.
Had he finally broken down from the stress?
Was he dreaming?
Or was the old lady who used to come in with her little Jack Russell right? All the energy drinks he drank really started to melt his brain? He wasn't sure about that, but what he did know was that he should probably see a doctor right away. With his legs still shaking, Jonah stood up and slowly made his way to the bathroom door. The box didn't make it easy for him, though, for it was blocking everything directly in front of him. Jonah gave a grumble and swatted at the annoying hallucination like it was a fly buzzing around his head. Despite expecting not to actually accomplish anything with the motion, Jonah gave a yelp as he heard an audible click. The box started to move back and forth, left to right within his vision, speeding up until it became a large blue bar.
The words "Loading..." slowly formed on the bar, before flickering away. The bar faded to a deep black color and began to shrink, before forming into a small black present wrapped with a blood-red bow, floating in the middle of his vision.
Jonah stared at the box with a raised eyebrow and cocked his head. Were all hallucinations like this? Or did that previous knock on the head make things worse? The small black present began to shake. With a popping sound and a burst of confetti, the top flew off. With a flourish along with the sound of trumpets, out from the box, jumped the small figure of... himself? Or rather, something that appeared to be a 3D caricature of himself almost like someone had reached into all of his insecurities and magnified them in cartoonish ways. If he currently wasn't so horrified, he would have been slightly surprised his brain could come up with something so.... creative, for lack of a better word. The strange little "not-him" stood on the edge of the box, dressed in the gaudiest black and red suit Jonah ever seen and gave a deep bow.
The caricature then rose up in the air and shouted in a voice that was most definitely not his own.
[Caricature] - "WELCOME! WELCOME ONE AND ALL! TO THE GREATEST SHOW THIS SIDE OF THE LANIAKEA SUPERCLUSTER! I'm your host for tonight! Are you all ready for another riveting season of Mayhem? I know, 'I' am!"
Jonah just gawked with his mouth hanging wide open. What the hellish kind of hallucination was this?! Meanwhile, the strange little caricature didn't pay him much attention and continued on as if he was addressing some unseen party.
[Caricature] - "This season, we have a special treat for you all! Our contestants will be the inhabitants of a Class 4 Temperate World of the Sol system, Sol-03 (Native designation "Earth"). Estimated Population, 13,000,000,000! After much consideration by the Board and after a long elimination process, they have been 'chosen!' Now now, don't get too excited yet, people! The show is just about to start!"
At those words, the world began to shake around him. Not just the building, or the ground, but Jonah felt as if the very air or rather the very fabric of reality was "shaking" violently. Every molecule in his body began to vibrate so fast he believed he'd be torn apart.
All at once, it stopped.
Jonah collapsed to the ground, sweating profoundly as all of his strength left him, and his breaths came in heavy, painful drags. Jonah might not have known much about hallucinations, but he absolutely knew that THAT was not normal. What the heck was going on? Blind to the young man gasping for breath on the floor, the caricature continued on amidst another burst of confetti.
[Caricature] - "Planetary shift complete! System established! To all of our viewers in all 100,000 galaxies, we welcome you to watch with us this great story of struggle and survival! Of growth and degradation! Of heroes and victims!... Of predator and prey!"
The caricature ended his speech with a burst of flourish, his arms stretched out wide and head thrown back like a ringmaster at the circus. As the confetti descended to the ground, the caricature lowered its arms and looked down. It took a moment for Jonah to realize that this strange being was no longer ignoring him but rather staring straight into his eyes. The vile grin that spread across the caricature's face and the cold tone of his next words sent a cold shiver through Jonah's spine.
[Caricature] - "And to our dear contestants... try not to die too quickly, please? Don't want to affect our ratings, now do we?”
“Now! Let 'The Game'.... BEGIN!"
With a flash of light, the caricature, the present, and the blue window all disappeared. Jonah sat in silence, unsure of what to do now. His rational brain assured him that it had all just been an extreme hallucination, that it was all in his head. However, his sore, tired body, and the slight rumbling he could hear from the ground gave him the gut feeling that everything was not as it appeared. All he did know was he should get to a hospital as soon as possible. Whatever was going on with his body couldn't be right. His legs shook beneath him as he tried to steady himself on the bathroom sink and slowly made his way to the door. As he drew closer, he heard a crash and the sound of breaking wood coming from behind the door. Jonah's hand hovered over the door handle, he could feel the sweat slowly trickled down his forehead. His instincts were screeching at him not to open the door, but he had no other choice; his bathroom was an interior room, there was no window or other way out.
He hesitated for only a moment more before grabbing the dull old scissors he'd used to trim his hair earlier and threw open the door. For the third time that day, Jonah found himself too shocked to move. At first, he wasn't really sure what he was seeing; it looked like someone had taken a giant snakeskin bean bag and threw it on top of his bed (which was thoroughly crushed, by the way). Only this beanbag was long.... and breathing...
With a clang, the scissors Jonah had been holding slipped from his grasp and fell to the tiled bathroom floor. The "thing" on his bed twitched before slowly unwinding, revealing a massive snake. Its tan and brown slouched patterns made it look like someone had taken a Sand Boa, and ballooned it up to gargantuan proportions. Even the thing's head was twice as wide as Jonah's waist. The giant snake turned and studied Jonah, tilting its head as if asking where this tiny creature came from before flicking its jet black tongue out a few times. Jonah could only stare into the creature's eyes, paralyzed.
Should he shut the door or make a run for it?
He needed to decide quickly.
But, fate can be a fickle mistress sometimes, and the snake made the choice for him. With a low hiss, the beast opened its jaws wide and reared its head back. Seeing what was coming, Jonah could only slump his shoulders in defeat.
[Jonah] - "Oh, Fu----"
Not even letting a man have his final words, the beast lashed out. The last thing Jonah saw before the snake's jaws enveloped him, was the flashing, mocking red words on his TV, GAME OVER.