His name — although he’d later forget it — was Jerome Hodgson.

He woke up on an April morning to the bleat of his alarm. He silenced his digital friend, although it was more of a foe, and swung his legs out of bed. He slipped into his slippers and plodded his way downstairs.

Jerome popped the kettle on, pulled a mug out of the cupboard and opened the jar of the instant coffee he liked. He spooned a dollop of the brown flakes into the cup, along with a spoon of sugar. The cartoon cat on the side of the ceramic looked at him with bleary eyes. ‘GO AWAY, I’M STILL ASLEEP.’

As the kettle whistled, Jerome bent down and pulled the carton of milk out of the fridge. The switch on the kettle clicked. Jerome poured the boiled liquid into the mug, where it intermingled with the contents. Jerome closed his eyes and inhaled the aroma. “Best smell in the world,” he said to the empty house.

He then poured the milk.

Or at least, he tried.

He unscrewed the little green cap and set it on the counter. He lifted the plastic carton. The liquid began to dribble out, a paperwhite waterfall. The first drips splashed into the copper-black coffee.

And then stopped.

Jerome, who’d woken two minutes ago and had not had his required caffeine fix, blinked at the frozen cascade of milk.

His hand lingered in the same position, as did the carton.

But the milk didn’t move.

It remained suspended in midair, a link between bottle and mug. Motionless.

Jerome frowned. He tilted the carton at a more acute angle.

And found that he couldn’t.

The bottle was stuck in the air, a beetle pinned to an entomologist’s corkboard.

Jerome tugged at it, but it refused to budge.

“What the—”

Jerome let go and took a step back. As if the whole scene might explode at any second.

The carton of milk waited in the air, with its milk in suspended animation. It looked like one of those pretentious art projects.

Jerome blinked at the scene. He reached forward and tapped the carton.

It didn’t move.

And, even more curious, it no longer felt like damp plastic and cardboard with a liquid inside. It felt rigid, like marble.

His finger extended like E.T., Jerome moved his hand to the milk. He flicked it with his nail.

The liquid — if you could call it such — didn’t react. His nail hit the surface in the same manner that it’d hit a stone. Only there was no audible confirmation, as there would have been with a harder substance.

“What the…?” Jerome looked around. But, of course, there was nobody to exchange a glance of confusion with. He lived alone. His eyes darted to the corners of the room. No cameras, nothing to show this was an elaborate prank.

With a hand that trembled, he grasped the handle of the mug and tried to lift it. It felt as if he’d super glued it to the countertop. Only he’d never do that because it was granite and had been expensive. He raised an eyebrow at the mug.

“What the hell?”

He braced himself, screwed his eyes shut, and dipped a finger into the boiling coffee.

Only he didn’t.

The tip of his digit collided with the surface. It felt like glass and not hot at all.

Eyes wide, hair still messed up from sleep, Jerome rested his hands on his hips. At least those felt as fleshy — and doughy — as they’d always felt. He was about to complete his quartet of What the hells when a sound stopped him.

It was a noise he recognised, although Jerome couldn’t pinpoint from what.

It was also rather difficult to say where the noise came from. It seemed to bleed out of the pores of the air itself, above and below and around him on all sides.

He glanced out of the kitchen window. In the garden, nothing twitched. No birds flew. No squirrels scrambled through hedges. The leaves of the trees didn’t tremble in a Spring morning breeze. The blades of grass — which, he admitted, needed a cut — didn’t sway with a tickle of the wind.

Oblivious to his current attire of pink pyjamas, Jerome ran for his front door. He slammed it open and stumbled out onto his front step. He’d made it halfway across his lawn when he stopped, mouth agape in an ‘O’ of surprise.

The other houses, the rest of the neighbourhood, were gone.

The land stretched out before him, featureless.

No hills, no mountains, no trees, valleys, hedges, nothing. Utter smoothness, as perfect as the surface of a marble. An off-white marble — all the colours had gone, too.

Jerome’s gaping jaw sunk to his chest with a click.

And again came that sound, this time in rapid succession. Again, it seemed to stream through the pinholes in the fabric of the universe.

Jerome was able to put his finger on it now. As someone who’d worked in IT all his life, he should have picked up on it sooner.

It was the Nuh-huh, something’s gone wrong, Boss noise a PC makes. When a program has crashed or frozen and the broken software holds the rest of the computer hostage.

Again and again, the sound thunked out across the blankness. As if someone clicked a mouse button in vexation with the non-functioning machine.

Jerome’s heart throbbed at the base of his throat. He tried to swallow and found he couldn’t. For one stuttered microsecond, he thought he had stopped too. He’d choke to death, asphyxiate on his organ. But then the saliva went backwards and his breaths rushed in and out again.

He turned and fled for the safety of his house. Broken physics or not, it was a damn sight better than this planet made up of unmarked paper. This dull pearl of a globe, with no colour and no landscape. With its unnatural smoothness as far as the eye could see.

Jerome lost a slipper in the process, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to be inside and to shut the door. To lock it, in case this disease of nothingness could spread. Double lock it. To pull the chain ac—

Jerome ran smack into nothing and bounced off. He landed smack on his arse with a thud. Warmth trickled down his upper lip and his face throbbed. He brought a hand up to his nose and winced at the spark of pain. He winced again when he took his fingers away and saw blood.

Owb. By nobe.”

Jerome sat on his front step and prodded at his poor nose. He didn’t think he’d broken it. For the moment, his surprise and pain distracted him from the blanket of dirty snow.

He frowned at the open doorway. He’d not shut the door when he left. What on Earth had he run into?

He staggered to his feet, drunk. He left a bloodied handprint on his front step. Like a man in the dark, Jerome fumbled around in front of him and took micro-steps forward.

At first, there was nothing. Nothing, as in, nothing he could have collided with. But as he reached the doorframe’s threshold, his fingers touched something solid.

A wall.

“How in the…?”

Jerome pushed himself up against the clear boundary. He felt along, up and down it. His fingers searched, his palms swished. The world’s greatest mime act.

There was no break or gap in the wall, nor was there any give.

Jerome banged his fists against the surface. His clenched hands made no noise as they slammed against the nothingness.

“Let me in!” He surprised himself by screaming. “Let me in! It’s my house, so let—” he hit the wall “—me—” he slapped it “—in! Do what you want with the rest of it, just leave me at home. Leave me in peace!”

But the wall did not budge.

And the world around remained blank.

Again, the error tone pinged through the world. Again and again and again, a celestial finger rapped a tattoo against the mouse button.

Jerome sank to his knees, bloodied and defeated. He hadn’t so much as left a crimson smear on the transparent force field.

How long he remained there, he had no idea. He sobbed and he sat. And his breaths rushed in and out like a waterfall. The world around him washed away. And then, he felt himself begin to fade as well.

He inhaled. The muscles in his extremities relaxed. He exhaled, all physical sensation dimmed. He breathed in, and his mind let all go. He breathed out, and all memory of who he was, what the world should be, and what his place was in it drifted away. A nebulous fog ushered along by a gentle kiss of wind.

After a time, a voice echoed through the air. The molecules necessary for the conduction of sound were still functional. Jerome lifted his head and perked up, ears attuned. “God?” he whispered to his doormat.

But God was in conversation with someone else.

“Yes, I’ve tried that, and it’s still not working. Honestly, I don’t know why I ever swapped, everything worked fine with my old one. The salesperson assured me that—”

An unintelligible voice murmured something.

“Yes, of course it’s all turned on. I’m not a moron, you know!”

The fuzzed-out voice mumbled something else.

“What? Seriously, that’s your best advice? ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’” The omnipresent voice sighed. “Yes, all right, I’ll give it a shot, but if this doesn’t work I’ll demand a refund. You know—”


His name was Jerome Hodgson.

He woke up on an April morning to the bleat of his alarm. He silenced his digital friend, although it was more of a foe, and swung his legs out of bed. He slipped into his slippers and plodded his way downstairs.

Jerome popped the kettle on, pulled a mug out of the cupboard and opened the jar of the instant coffee he liked. He spooned a dollop of the brown flakes into the cup, along with a spoon of sugar. The cartoon cat on the side of the ceramic looked at him with bleary eyes. ‘GO AWAY, I’M STILL ASLEEP.’ read the speech bubble.

As the kettle whistled, Jerome bent down and pulled the carton of milk out of the fridge. The switch on the kettle clicked. Jerome poured the boiled liquid into the mug, where it intermingled with the contents. Jerome closed his eyes and inhaled the aroma. “Best smell in the world,” he said to the empty house.

He then poured the milk. As he did so, a vague memory of something unpleasant touched the back of his mind. The chilled caress of a nightmare half-submerged in the inner waters. The fuzzy shape of a forgotten word on the tip of the tongue. And then the milk swirled with the blackness to form a rich copper colour, and Jerome forgot all about it.

Jerome lifted the mug and sighed. He took a sip of his beverage and stared out at the activity in the garden. Birds tweeted and flew. Squirrels scrambled beneath the hedges. The leaves of the trees danced in a spring breeze. The blades of grass swayed to nature’s gentle waltz.

Life was good.

Written for the #BlogBattle prompt: “Blank” — 4th January 2021

23 thoughts on “Earth.exe

  1. Doug Jacquier

    Top shelf work, Joshua. Loved it (especially the fact that no-one got dismembered along the way). Not sure I buy the pink pyjamas but loved the fact that you spelled ‘arse’ and ‘pyjamas’ the way we do in Oz. Old Groucho Marx line: Last night I dreamt I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. What he was doing in my pyjamas I’ll never know. 🙂

  2. aebranson

    Reading this made me think of both the Matrix and Daffy Duck & Bugs Bunny (you know, when Bugs is the ‘naughty’ artist that keeps redrawing Daffy). Quite an intriguing premise here, although I couldn’t help thinking of Jerome as the ‘character’ he is, somebody at the mercy of us writers…. 🙂 I loved the reference to the carton and milk hanging in the air like a pretentious art project. The first reference to the noise he heard immediately set me to wondering: Was it like a screech, or moan, or gurgle? When you get to the fact it’s a ‘ping’ type noise, I ran through my head what word could be used instead of ‘noise’ or ‘sound’, but that is a pretty slippery description. Jingle? Tinkle? Oh well, the vision of his world disappearing was quite vivid! It’s interesting to think how people would respond to something so bizarre. Speaking of which, again this month I noticed a clump of words in your story that was also used in mine. So what are the odds both of us would reference the ‘base of the throat’? I just hope the computer simulation we’re in doesn’t crash…! 🙂

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, A.E. 🙂 Haha, I hadn’t thought of that, but I can see where the image came from. You’ve also put the image into my mind of the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, when Wile E. runs into and bounces off his own fake tunnels painted on the walls!

      I know what you mean with the vagueness of my description of the sound, I stumbled over that as I wrote. Even now, I can’t think of how to properly emulate it! It’s too “thunky” to be a jingle. Any ideas?

      • aebranson

        I’ll have to get back with you when I have a chance to watch that youtube link. For now my imagination conjures up ‘bloopity-bloop’…!

  3. Gary

    Swift off the mark this time Joshua. Interesting concept and had me thinking Langolears and later on in the second part Matrix with the deja vu moments signifying a glitch. Another possibility was Under The Dome with the force field severing everything underneath where it drops.

    Great concept though and worth a deeper explore. One thing I will pop over is increased word count can create word overflow. With short stories it’s no option to be tight. There are a few examples here that might be up for debate. One is “…instant coffee he liked.” The use of “he liked” doesn’t add much. The reasoning being why would he have it if he didn’t? That clause works if he has crap coffee and there’s a reason. Otherwise we already assume he likes it.

    That’s not criticism btw, more me looking deeper. #edit.

    Obviously I spot these as I do them too 🙄

    I also tend to rush things so make terrible WTF errors on my prompts.

    Cracking concept though. Imagine every time you have the deja vu in real life it’s because you’re currently in a replay. Very Roland stepping out of the Dark Tower and back into the dessert!

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, Gary! Not sure if this goofy little tale is worthy of those lofty comparisons — far too kind! Yes, I know what you mean. That’s the issue I have with my full-length WIP vs short stories. The tighter focus always helps me to trim the fat. I like to ramble and add pointless bits in. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for those pesky redundancies in the future!

      • Gary

        I think it’s more a case of what the tale brings to mind while reading. You’re like me Joshua, never thinking the writing is as good as others do. The concept instantly gave me internal references to the mentioned comparisons. That said you probably know I ramble excessively on enjoyable writing that matches my reading genre.

        As King says in On Writing (read it yet??) first task is to get the bones down, no editing just get it down. Know the story then edit and assume second draft = first draft – 20%. Redundancies often occur when drafts are thrown together quickly. I often see word repeats too, redundant name use when the only character is there too. That said I am often able to edit writing too. If I know the writer is up for it as constructive then I’ll highlight a few points. I think you said you wrote this flying back from Geneva? If so I’m guessing it’s very much first draft, tight deadline now and blended with higher word-count. Obviously when you spot redundancies there is the risk of seeing them everywhere and ending up with six sentences left going nowhere ha ha.

      • Joshua G. J. Insole

        Yes, I have read it now! Fabulous book. I paired it with Danse Macabre, also by King. Brilliant stuff — even if I do things differently to the master. That second draft = first draft – 20% is a great tip. If you can cut something out, you should. I need to remember that!

        Drove back from Vienna, actually! Wouldn’t dare to fly under current circumstances. My brother-in-law took us from the family home back to Innsbruck, so we wouldn’t have to go via public transport. Lovely of him. I typed it on my phone, whilst in the backseat! I’ll blame the imperfections on that — with a cheeky grin, haha!

      • Gary

        Excellent! I know I banged on about it a fair bit, but if you write in a “non-standard” way it’s a gem. I did a few courses where the Novacovich method was everything. Never really struck an accord with it. Kings was on base with my own approach. Do I need any other validation for pantsing ha ha.

        Ok… I knew you were heading back from somewhere…. memory isn’t what it was 😱

  4. Sam "Goldie" Kirk

    I thought that anyone in Jerome’s situation would run to get a phone to video whatever weird thing was happening, so it surprised me when he decided to go outside. Also, I expected him to be trapped inside and unable to leave the house since everything seemed like a block.

    Fascinating story. Had me hooked from the beginning. I knew that the “boring” ritual was going to take us to weird places. The ending was humorous. Nicely done.

  5. Rachael Ritchey

    Great opening line! It introduces the character and also begs us to ask the question: WHY does he forget his own name?! 🙂 And I really like this word picture: “The bottle was stuck in the air, a beetle pinned to an entomologist’s corkboard.” You could make the sentence even better by removing the passive tense “was stuck” by the simple change of “The bottle stuck in the air [or, probably better: “in place”], a beetle…” and the “Eyes wide…” paragaraph gave me a good laugh. 😀 And this is a great detail in this surreal moment: “He left a bloodied handprint on his front step,” focusing on a small detail like that really makes the imagery of the story come alive. Really good one, Joshua! 🙂 My husband often says we live in the Matrix, so this is quite fitting (especially the pink pjs, lol)!

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, Rachael! 🙂 I’m so glad you liked the story. Thanks for the feedback, too. I’m guilty of adding extra fluff that’s not always needed — I need to be a stricter self-editor! 😀

      • Rachael Ritchey

        We are alllll guilty of fluff! haha But I don’t think you were particularly fluffy. I only saw a couple instances of that passive voice sneaking in, and I figure it’s a good lesson/reminder for any writer reading the comments. I think it just stuck out to me becuase I was reading for a critique another writer friend’s novella and that was one of her big struggles. 🙂 And you really did nail that opening line, btw! It was probably the best one of the bunch this month. I loved your concept and how you presented his growing awareness. It’s like, can you imagine waking up that way one morning and realizing you might not be real but feeling compeletely real? Maybe that’s just a question that popped up in my head! 😀

      • Joshua G. J. Insole

        Arh, that passive voice! I’m getting better at spotting it, but it still likes to slip in, here and there! My bad habits are ninjas. They come in when I don’t notice!

        Thank you, Rachael! That’s such a lovely compliment. 🙂 That really made my day! I think that’s actually a really cool line of thought — if presented with evidence we’re not real, would we buy it? Even if said evidence contradicted the inputs from our senses? Food for thought!

      • Rachael Ritchey

        Old habits die hard. I have a list of my own. EEK!

        I think passive voice is sneaky, esp. w/”was.” It keeps sticking out to me lately, I think, because of a critique I did recently for a newish writer whose main issue was overusing “was” phrases in her work. Great story, just needed less was-ing. I wonder if it would have stuck out to me as much if not for that recent experience?

        It’s a welll-deserved compliment! 😀 And, yes, I’m definitely curious about that line of thought!

      • Joshua G. J. Insole

        I know! I’m getting better at spotting them, but still. I think I like to fall back on them (esp. in first drafts) because they feel like… comfort food, I think? It might be a confidence thing. I don’t think my latest piece is much better! When/if I ever get this novel done, I definitely will need to hire an editor to slap me on the wrists, haha.

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