On the outskirts of The Rag, in a part of town colloquially known as Glitchville or Bugberg or The Overflow, Ricky Carrillo and a group of his friends stood on the south bank of Arroyo Blanco and threw rocks into the milky water. Sometimes the rocks splashed, sometimes they actually made a sound, but more often than not, the rocks simply zapped out of existence as they passed through an unseen barrier somewhere in the middle of the river.
For boys Ricky’s age, the forty yard swim to the north bank wasn’t something to fear. For one, there was no danger of drowning since the depth of the river was only four feet at its lowest. Secondly, they would only have to swim half the distance before reaching the barrier, at which point they would join the rocks in limbo for a short time before resetting to a spawn point. They would lose their inventory—the river would wash it away—and their experience points, but for the most part they would be unharmed. There was no shame in being reset, at least not when it was intentional.
“It’s your turn today, Ricky,” said Jason.
Jason and his family lived in the neighborhood one level up from Ricky’s, and as such, enjoyed a few more privileges like discounted shop fees and on-demand transportation. It was Jason who had requested the extended golf cart that had carried the group from the transit station out to The Overflow.
Ricky took a step back from the bank’s edge. It towered six feet over the surface of the water, a consequence of the river cutting ever deeper into the earth. He wasn’t scared of being reset, and it wasn’t against the rules, but it wasn’t exactly celebrated. After all, a reset wasn’t just limited to the user; it spread out in ripples that touched the entire Rag.
A reset required resources. Processing time. Re-allocation of experience and skill points.
Then there was the time spent in limbo, a place not of pain but of discomfort, where sounds were a little too loud, lights a little too bright. Ricky had been to limbo only once before, when he was six. He’d wandered too far into the Southern Wash and got bit by a snake. The poison took two minutes to kill him, but the time in limbo felt much longer. An hour. Maybe two. There were no references on which to gauge the passage of time, and maybe the clanging and the aching caused minutes to stretch longer, but Ricky was convinced it was not instantaneous as others had claimed.
None of his friends knew about his brush with death. And among them, only Jason had ever reset in front of their eyes. As the group’s de facto leader, he’d volunteered to be the first one to swim out to the barrier. The remaining order had been decided by tense rounds of Onesie-Twosies. Like a fool, Ricky had thrown out a one while everyone else showed a two.
Following him, it was Matt, Bear, Shawn, and finally Moises.
To hear Jason describe it, limbo was a magical yet empty place beyond the borders of The Rag that served as a transition between the world they knew and Terrareal, a world they had been told about but never seen. It was Jason’s contention that by visiting limbo, one could find a way out to Terrareal, and thus be free of The Rag forever.
Why anyone would want to do that, Ricky couldn’t understand, but then lots of things he and his friends did made little sense. Just a week before, they’d come across a demolished home and found boards lying around with nails sticking out of them. Shawn hadn’t even hesitated before slamming his foot down on one of the nails. In his mind, he was sure he could get the nail to come up through his shoe exactly between his toes. Instead, the rusty nail drove itself into his arch and came up through his shoelaces.
As a pre-teen, Shawn’s pain thresholds were set pretty low, but they were still enough to make him howl. Add to that the indignity of having to get a tetanus shot to prevent something horrible called lockjaw, and the whole thing just seemed stupid.
About as stupid as jumping into the Arroyo Blanco to touch the border of The Rag.
Ricky suddenly realized everyone was looking at him.
“I can hold your stuff if you want,” said Moises. “I promise I’ll give it back.”
“It’s okay,” said Ricky. “I left everything at home. The only thing I have are my nunchucks.” He tossed the two misshapen sticks into the dirt. “I’ll do it. Hashtag yolo.”
The initialism only made sense in the canon of Ragatanga; for Ricky and his friends, there was no such single-use limitation to their existence.
“You know what to do, right?” asked Jason.
Ricky nodded. He remembered the story Jason had told.
The sensory overload.
“You have to try to move,” Jason reminded Ricky. “There has to be another barrier or a door or something. It’s really hard to see, but if you just reach out, push as hard as you can, you might hit something.”
“Yeah,” said Ricky, swallowing hard.
Something about the way the river flowed, the way the white water foamed and swirled, made his stomach fold over on itself. Sweat broke out on his arms; the wind carried it away and made him shiver.
Ricky approached the edge of the gully and sat down. His feet dangled over the steep bank, over the rocks and dried roots and loose dirt. More than likely, he’d enter the river the same way Jason had, by tumbling head first into it.
“Help me down,” he said.
Bear and Moises put out their arms as Ricky turned around onto his stomach. The boys let him down slowly until they could get no lower. Ricky nodded and they let go.
His feet dug into the sand and came to a quick stop. Inside the gully, the noise of the river was deafening, amplified not only by the steep sides but the barrier somewhere out there in the middle of the water. Several feet away, rocks began zapping out of thin air; his friends were throwing smaller pebbles to show him where The Rag ended.
Ricky stepped into the water, lower and lower, until it was splashing around his shoulders. He kicked off, began swimming. Behind him, cheers urged him on.
Swimming to his ostensible death, Ricky thought of his family, specifically his father. Albert Carrillo meant everything to Ricky. In his eleven years of life, he’d never once encountered a problem his father couldn’t solve, a fear he couldn’t assuage, or a monster he couldn’t slay. Above all things, he yearned for his father’s approval, and now, drenched to the bone and heading for limbo, Ricky knew approval would be the last thing his father would give him.
But that was okay.
The world was changing, and Ricky was changing right along with it. Some nascent directive was taking charge inside his body, making him see The Rag and all of its inhabitants in a different light. The girls whose hair he’d pulled seemed more attractive now, and the bonds he’d formed with his friends were taking on more violent and aggressive overtones. Disagreements that would have led to name-calling now led to shoving and sometimes, punching.
Change washed over him, just as the river sloshed around his face.
“You’re almost there,” called Jason.
But he was wrong; Ricky was already there. He could feel the heat coming off the barrier, simultaneously foreboding and inviting, like the hum of an electric fence that you knew would hurt but you wanted to touch just to know what it felt like.
He reached a hand out and felt his fingers sizzle. Drawing them back, he saw they’d disappeared, cut clean off at the second knuckle.
Ricky cried out despite the absence of pain. At the same time, the ground below him gave out, causing him to sink beneath the water. His shoes searched for purchase, sometimes finding solid riverbed, other times sinking into a vast abyss. Water splashed on his face one moment, then fell from it in sheets the next. He was simultaneously above the water and deep below it. Sinking further down, he passed through the riverbed, and suddenly he saw it from below.
There was nothing but gray darkness below him and a sky made of terrain above him. In the distance, he could see tunnels drifting down into the gloom, places where residents of The Rag had dug into the simulated earth. But Ricky was outside the world now, glitched out of bounds by the barrier.
Was this what Jason had experienced? He hadn’t mentioned seeing The Rag from underneath. He’d only reported death, limbo, and a reset.
There was no air here, Ricky realized.
As oxygen dwindled, panic increased. Even though he knew the pain would not be much, the prospect of asphyxiating drew out a primal reaction. He thrashed, kicked, and flailed his arms through what appeared to be empty space but felt like thick oil.
He swallowed it large, frantic gulps.
The oil filled him up, slipped into the crevices of his biological machinery, and brought everything to a stop.
The world dimmed to gray.
Letters appeared as if typed into a computer, uppercase and drenched in cartoonish blood.
A familiar sensation rose up from the soles of Ricky’s feet, clamping down with a firm touch on his ankles, shins, calves, and so on, until his entire body seemed confined to a form-fitting vise. The gloom of The Rag’s underworld brightened to a harsh white. Ricky shut his eyes, barely dimming the oppressive light. Clanging sounded from all around him, like a steam engine chugging to life, like metal gears slipping teeth around couplers.
Metal on metal.
Modulated electronics whining and beeping.
Jason’s words came back to him.
Try to move. Find the exit.
Ricky focused on his left hand, on the tips of the fingers, and tried to curl them into his palm. Nothing happened. He tried to wiggle his toes, but the vise held him. Even though he couldn’t see his body, he felt himself to be laid out straight, with his feet together and arms by his side. He arched his back, trying to pull away into a different position. Pain—real pain—built in his neck.
He cried out; the clanging swallowed up the sound.
The bottom dropped out of the vise, and Ricky fell twelve inches onto a soft bed. A dulcet melody, a string of five notes increasing in volume, played in his ears.
A blink wiped away the infinite emptiness of limbo.
Another brought the light blue walls of a Spawn Center.
“Welcome back,” said a woman standing next to his bed. She had deep green eyes encircled with gray shadow. Her hair fell in waves on the pink shoulders of her nurse’s uniform.
Ricky didn’t respond.
“I’m Marie,” said the nurse. “I’m just gonna run a few tests to make sure things got put back where they need to be. You’ve always been a Japanese girl, right?”
Marie smiled, tapped a machine next to the bed. “I’m kidding, sweetie. You’re still…” She hesitated, consulted the palette hanging from the bed. “An 11-year-old boy with slight asthma and perfect attendance at Bullock Middle School. And you… that’s strange.”
Ricky turned his head, tried to see what was written on the palette.
“What?” He asked.
“You still have 859 experience points.” She frowned. “You should have zero. I’ve never seen anyone respawn with…” Trailing off, Marie studied Ricky’s face.
He felt her eyes look through him, to the hot white confines of limbo, to the glitched underworld, all the way to the Arroyo Blanco, where a group of kids were likely placing bets as to whether Ricky had drowned or passed through the barrier after all.
Ricky checked his inventory. The few odds and ends he’d left in his pockets were still there; a pencil from school, wrapper from a piece of gum, and a small gold bell tied to a piece of yarn that Alisha in Ms. Claire’s class had given him.
It hadn’t seemed important before, but now he was surprised to feel relief at not having lost it.
More than relief, he felt proud, emboldened.
He’d passed through limbo and come out untouched on the other side. Same XP, same loot. Not a scratch on him.
The rules of Ragatanga didn’t apply to him.
Photo by Elliott Engelmann on Unsplash