Richard snapped back like a skittish race horse at the sound of a gun-shot. He forged ahead like a hopped-up meth addict. He no longer had thoughts of vagina or penises — no thoughts of orgies or incest. He had a clean bill of health and a bright new attitude . . . attained in just six months with the aide of the Avatar Guidance System. He finally returned to his home from the office where he’d been sequestered, in effect, chained to his Avatar Computer Counselor. His wife, Mimsy, and son, Cole, greeted him with appropriate hazahs. At first, Richard was stunned by their remarkable similarity; then he distracted himself with the snap of a rubber-band wrapped around his wrist – behavioral modification to eliminate bad habits and negative thinking. Cole was quite beautiful as was Mimsy, perfect human specimens, nubile and seductive. They held balloons, one each — to celebrate Richard’s return. Perfect white teeth sparkled when they smiled. Richard was smitten, but his amorous dreams were soon dashed when Mimsy retrieved a packet of paint chips in order to choose the perfect wall color, and Cole started to jerk indicating he was submerged in a virtual game of “Luster.”
Richard made a smooth entrance back into the world of small financial investments, loans to troubled home owners who were expected to pay exorbitant interest rates, and involvement in hedge funds based on the burgeoning pseudo-science of Numerology. This time, he put limits on the time he spent at the office, religiously leaving at 5:30 p.m. to return to his life of domestic bliss with his family. He loved his home in the gated community of Red Hills. Mimsy devoted her estimable expertise into redecorating and making the house a showcase. She chose a different theme every month and reconfigured everything — always certain to upgrade the virtual branches of the house that added an additional 10,000 “virt” feet to the physical structure. She seemed to be spending a great deal more time in the virtual house — Richard surmised her projects simply needed additional attention (nothing to be concerned about). One day he ventured into the virtual structure and discovered room after room filled with balloons, beautiful colored balloons with lurid smiles. He thought he spied Mimsy running naked embraced by a gigantic balloon — she was laughing. No doubt, it was his imagination. Another time he walked into the house and a simulated wall became a 3D-screen. He saw images of Cole in his downtown squat with his head immersed in a helmet that looked like a balloon. Richard was confident that he could live with the disparities — the small, intriguing absurdities that were cropping up everywhere. He was cured — no longer in danger of compulsive acts of self abuse and sexual perversity. All was well, he thought.
Money was flowing into his accounts. Richard felt a pang of remorse realizing his wealth depended on people being thrown out of their homes because they couldn’t pay interest on his loans. He bought the foreclosed homes for a song and resold them for a king’s ransom. A little remorse was worth the rewards of financial security . . . but things at home were not as rewarding as he had hoped. Mimsy was unavailable — away on some mystery tour of the virtual version of Red Hills. Her body remained behind and Richard used it from time to time the way a person might use a plastic sex-doll. It was not as fulfilling as he hoped. Cole was also missing — his beautiful son was wasting his life inside a bubble-head computer-balloon. Richard was tempted to visit his collection of photos and vids that he stored on the digital Cloud, images of Mimsy and Cole “dopplegangers” he’d found on the web. He knew it was the wrong thing to do. The images were pornographic. Richard resisted. Resistance had unforeseen consequences . . .
The music never stopped, but now it was becoming more insistent and stranger: no longer the same melancholy song — now the music was more like moaning synthesizers, Depeche Mode from a 1980’s revival concert, “I think God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die I expect to find him laughing,” over and over in his mind — clanging like the inside of a huge bell. Richard lapsed into a trance, daydreaming about red steaming-sands that morphed into mounds of fornicating insects and deformed creatures. He awoke in the office staring at his computer screen. Sounds of laughter blended with the music that never stopped. The sound filtered into his office from the reception room where friends and staff were having a party. Someone’s birthday. Richard excused himself from the festivities. Just as he was leaving a small man handed him a bouquet of balloons.
The balloons were everywhere. He never noticed them before that first day home from recovery, but now there was no way to avoid them. Balloons were strung along the fence that led into Red Hills, on the entrance gates, tied to mail boxes, on the roofs of houses, and in the trees and gardens. He wondered if they represented a new holiday that he hadn’t heard about. He recalled seeing balloons on his trek from work, tied to the entrances of stores — some balloons were in the street just bumping along the pavement.
“I think they are broadcasting messages to one another,” he said . . . but that wasn’t correct because he didn’t know who he was talking to. There were distortions that Richard couldn’t quite fathom. His mind flashed images like a strobe. He kept seeing a desert consumed in red poison. He saw pictures of a Red City consumed in an orgy of violence. It was “Sandy Hook” all over again . . . but he didn’t understand the meaning of the name. Then, he settled down, embraced by an unforgiving coma. The Director shouted, “the balloons are in your head and they will pop” — it made no sense. Richard knew the balloons were part of the Rapture. They were Angels or Aliens — and people were disappearing, rising up to heaven holding fast to the ends of strings attached to helium balloons. He awoke naked. He was having sex with his wife and son, floating in a virtual Cloud, covered in slime. That’s when he heard the balloons go “pop.” His head exploded. His brain was splattered along with pieces of flesh and blood — blowing through the poisoned air. He was dying, encapsulated in a black carapace with a breathing tube. His name was Rangle Ditmouth and he was on a quest to find the Harlequin-beat Angel.