Teleplay – Anne Hightower
June 13, 2021
Leah Firenze would not let Nadine Schultz have the last laugh. Four felt like a cursed number that evening: four vexing emails from Nadine and four booming thunderclaps strong enough to scare power from her apartment. The A/C would die of exhaustion trying to work against the sweltering heat. She laid in bed, still enough to look restrained, surfing the liminal spaces of Twitter and work emails, vis-a-vis her jailer, an alarm clock. It seemed to stare no matter how much it blinked. Both of them were stuck in midnight. Everything conspired: all eyes on her.
Six years at Bye-Bye Magazine’s office, that open-plan panopticon, had a way of eroding one’s sense of privacy; working under Nadine had a way of eroding one’s sense of privacy. Insult to injury is what it was for her to have been cloistered with Nadine’s emails while rain streamed through Miami’s streets. A lightning whip snaking through the night sky cracked just beyond her window, a reminder that no invitation to life outside her apartment could stand for the moment. Unable to sleep, Leah tossed aside her phone and decided to find something to keep her awake. Night loosened its grip on her.
Stopped in her doorway, ghost-light from the clock staining her skin, Leah found herself weighing the simple decision to turn left or right into the hallway. Her phone buzzed on the nightstand. Another email.
Choose, she commanded herself.
Every muscle stood still. She chose to move back toward the nightstand for her phone rather than fumble for a light switch but stopped halfway. She squinted, eyes panning.
She chose to stalk toward a different shape in the room; night spilled in when she tore the clock’s cord from the wall.
When she reclaimed her phone, she knew her inbox was brimming with all of Nadine’s “enthusiasm.” It was always her asking after Leah, Bye-Bye’s Magazine’s most prized contributor.
Not on a day off, not at this time of night.
Just what time was it? Leah chose to set all of her clocks wrong in a bid to suppress the inner workaholic Nadine knew so well how to exploit — all but that alarm clock, useless since the first thunderclap. Googling the time meant facing anxieties, meant staying stuck in midnight catching up with every deadline she owed Nadine and Bye-Bye Magazine. If the storm would not pass, then she would wade through.
Armed with the phone’s flashlight, Leah braved the doorway. She panned the flashlight over it. Nothing out of order. Huffing, she turned right out of her room. A closet at the end of the hall revealed a sagging collage of boxes: at last, a manageable anxiety.
Rebuilding and tidying became Leah’s pet project. She inspected the boxes’ contents, separated out the trash, and reminisced on forgotten treasures.
Leah paused after exhuming a blocky, beige keyboard. It was her father’s old Commodore 64, a rainy day companion from childhood. Leah only remembered her favorite game being frightening. Buried deeper therein were the computer’s other limbs, jostled plenty by transport over the years — perhaps too much. Maybe she could coax it to life? She kept digging. Anything but work.
A thought about the doorway and phobic pause plagued her rooting. Had it been the eyes of the night, black caskets in beds of red, peering in on her? All of that imagination over a Ghostbusters-green clock. Now it was unplugged: no more eyes.
Each part of the unearthed Commodore called to mind questions or memories. She made space at her work desk to assemble the computer, knowing the true fun would be sorting through the boxes of cassettes for a game to play. She spotted a much-too-plain cassette doing a poor job of blending in. The shapes of faded lettering showed up as shadows when shined with Leah’s flashlight. Now she remembered: “Teleplay” was a choose-your-own adventure game with a penchant for the weird and terrible. A series of personal and scene-setting questions generated chilling fiction for players to try escaping or unraveling. She placed it in the datasette.
Blue light splashed every wall when the monitor powered on.
Press play on tape.
The datasette was slow to load and noisy like the rain, but the machine still worked. She lamented her now cluttered desk. Did she even want to play? The title screen made its demand— not one for deliberation, but for action: “PRESS ENTER,” Teleplay read.
Leah swallowed and chose to follow along.
“ENTER NAME,” the game read. Leah drew in a breath and provided her own. The game assembled a personalized nightmare while she answered its questions.
Work awaited on her laptop just two feet away, its charging light watchful. Leah tore her eyes from the laptop as often as she needed.
According to Teleplay, Leah’s character was leaving a party during a light evening drizzle. Distance made walking back impossible. Would she take a ride with a friend or call a cab?
Choosing to get a ride with a friend, the two of them wound through a quiet New England wood until the next juncture: a stoplight.
She chose to turn left at the light.
Leah’s character and her friend wound through lonely vignettes of increasing unease and disquiet. Perhaps they were being hunted or otherwise waiting to die like mice in a maze. Why leap headlong into a new nightmare with the downpour of the first yet to conclude?
Writing at Bye-Bye Magazine taught Leah that out of gamifying her anxiety gave her agency, something rare outside the feed or office. It was the message instead of the medium for Leah, the satisfaction of identifying, navigating, and getting to see a web of worries burning like morning touching a dark room. But her participation for that relief was compulsory: whether she realized it or not, Leah breathed down her colleague’s necks to cope with how Nadine had done the very same to her.
A drowsy Leah now struggled to follow Teleplay. Mottled light fulminating from a graphical glitch jolted her awake. But now the screen was frozen?
Lightning cracked the sky just as she tried tapping the monitor. Her petrified hand hovered, but the screen unfroze.
According to Teleplay, Leah’s character and her friend dragged back one terror after another, having their car towed and taking a circuitous route back to their Connecticut hamlet. A killer tailed them, and they made their escape to a 24-hour convenience store.
Leah chose to browse the store, which let her character keep an inconspicuous watch. While her friend had disappeared to the restroom, a “handsome man” entered the convenience store and lingered for a chat with the cashier after paying his gas.
At this juncture, her character could try an escape, a confrontation, or move to hide with her friend. Behind the man the door was ajar, a portal to freedom tempting.
Leah chose to slip by the man and into the night, but it was not the ending for which she had hoped: footsteps rushed her way, right to the nape of her neck. A moist, rough hand muffled her mouth, wrenching her out of the light. Cold steel raked through her throat, ensuring a short scream.
“MORTIS. GAME OVER.”
Leah shuddered. By now, her apartment seemed outside of time for all its lightlessness. A dead A/C meant no white noise, save the rain, and no relief from the infernal heat and humidity. Her insides boiled like an unwatched pot. As hot as she was, her forearm came away dry when she wiped her brow. The Commodore’s title screen goaded her into another round by just being there, but Leah was unsure she would play another. What else was there?
Leah pressed enter.
She blinked, searching the keyboard. “Who are you?” Simple enough question. A different idea stirred in Leah’s mind, though. Her every keystroke invoked a screaming fury threatening to erupt from her skin if given time. She spelled out Nadine’s name.
Leah knew Nadine wanted to be a part of the nightmare, she must have. What were those incessant emails making her phone spasm halfway off the nightstand, if not a desire to be forever on Leah’s mind? Always present and invited? She wanted to sit on her golden egg like a demon on a slumbering breast. As long as Leah stayed stuck in midnight, Nadine would have her wish.
If only Nadine knew how big a feature she would be.
According to Teleplay, Nadine was already in mortal peril, darting through Los Angeles alleyways in a doomed effort to outrun a vampire. To start off, Nadine was a star, just as she was at Bye-Bye. “Everyone knows Leah is my protégé,” Nadine would say, always watching her, hunting the next viral byline. All the better for her to be hunted in the end.
The monitor drew Leah’s face, enraptured, close enough to whisper secrets. Her lips stayed jagged and dry no matter how much she wet them.
Leah made Nadine turn away from the populous red-light district, down into the basement of an abandoned factory. Long-dead machinery stricken by the pursuer’s pale fist tolled like bells as it stalked her, ever closer. Leah forced Nadine to scurry through pipework, crusted veins running straight into the heart of fear, deeper and deeper, leaving behind any hope of her corpse being found and snapped one last time. She made every wrong move imaginable. Teleplay’s police would discover a mottled stain of browned ribbons moldering just beneath the city’s skin. They would be insulted by the filthy sight. Daylight approached in time with Teleplay’s bloody denouement.
The smell of carrion dragged the two investigators by their noses. It was always the worst for anyone to die alone like this.
“I think this is another heatwave victim,” the first said.
“No kidding,” the second said. “You think someone would keep an eye out, huh?”
They would have to wait for dispatch.
“Yeah. It’s gotten up to a hundred.” She held up her phone. “Take a look.”
The newscast discussed the growing number of heatwave deaths. Miami residents were more isolated than usual this year, it said, leading to some deaths having their discovery delayed. Faces from the community cycled through with thoughts about cooling centers and climate change. Miami had even lost some of its creative stars: Bye-Bye Magazine editor Nadine Schultz remembers her colleague Leah Firenze, credited with transforming the publication into a haven for fashion and humor.
“It’s tragic,” Nadine said. “I choose to remember her as an iconic self-starter with a process that was mesmerizing to watch. I’ll miss being able to peek over her shoulder.”
In an apartment haunted by the stench of its former tenant’s corpse, a Commodore 64 is having the last laugh. For days, until the tenant’s family can collect her possessions, blue light saturates the walls. Blue light soaks and drips and trickles.
Its monitor is frozen as if in rapture, declaring, “MORTIS. GAME OVER.”