Annalise woke at the edge of the I-45 to Montana. Dead in a ditch. Again.
Not for the first time, she wondered at the sheer lack of imagination of it all.
She got up and dusted off her torn jeans. Her shirt was missing, but she still had on her sports bra. She had always hated those lacey bras with ribbons and bows and was now thankful for that. It wasn’t much, but her sensible crop top was the only thing between the wide world and her naked body.
Annalise walked along the empty road, against the direction of traffic. If her controller was smart, they would want to know where she had come from, not where she had been heading. Why did it always had to be somewhere like this – a nearly abandoned highway halfway between two nowhere towns? Just once she’d like to wake up dead somewhere comfortable, like an overdose in a hotel suite.
Still, it was better than the days before, when she’d tie on her apron at the diner and feel that enormous rock splash into her stomach. God, it almost made her vomit. The faded lemon tables, the pigment long gone, just like the wan and harried staff. Nobody who worked at Icon’s Diner had any colour left; it was the end of the road.
After a few hundred metres, she found her leather jacket and pulled it on, feeling its familiar softness against her skin. Well, that was something. In all the times she’d died, she hadn’t yet lost her jacket. She could almost believe she had some power in this game.
She could see a car approaching along the highway and she paused, waiting for the instruction.
“Annalise flags down the car,” she heard in her mind. She stopped where she was and held out her right hand, thumb extended.
The car slowed. The car pulled over.
Annalise closed her eyes and took a deep breath before smiling at the driver.
“Well thanks for stopping!” she said. To win the game, the best option was to go back the way she’d come, not continue on in the same direction. Who was the idiot playing this game? A total noob?
“Y’all right there, miss?” the driver asked. She looked like a school teacher, her hair in a rough ponytail, concern all over her face. “I don’t usually stop for hitchers, but you’re awfully young to be out here on your own.”
“Oh, I’m not on my own,” Annalise riffed. She hadn’t received any more instructions from her player, but technically they were still there somewhere.
The driver stuck her head out the window to scan the roadside. She looked at Annalise, at her torn jeans, at her jacket and no shirt.
“You one of those gamers?” she said, finally.
Annalise nodded. Someone always figured it out eventually. When your actions were being controlled by someone with a keyboard and a joystick a hundred miles away, it wasn’t easy to look natural.
Still, as Annalise reminded herself every time she woke up dead somewhere, it was better than working in a grease trap every damn day of her life. She only gamed when she had to, a couple times a month, max. It meant waking up dead, and doing whatever the controller said to figure out how she’d died. But soon, she’d have enough cash to get out completely, to have a new life. She only had to submit to a few more games, maybe about 20 more, and there would be no more diners, no more deaths, no more games.
“You want out?” said the driver.
“Excuse me?” said Annalise. She looked at the driver, and the driver looked right at her.
“I can get you out of the game,” the driver said. Her voice was quiet. Not a command.
“Thanks,” Annalise said carefully. “But I need the cash.”
“If you win the game without your controller,” said the driver. “You win the jackpot. Did you know that?”
The driver leaned over to the passenger seat and held up a console. On it, Annalise could read five words: ‘Annalise flags down the car.’
“You’re the controller?” Annalise said.
She looked more closely at the driver. She’d been mistaken. That messy bun wasn’t the sign of a school teacher; she was a warrior.
Annalise didn’t wait to be asked, didn’t wait to be told. She didn’t wait for yet another command. She walked around the car and got in the passenger door.
“Let’s go,” she said.