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Mar 01 2015

Keeping the Flames Alive

“This is so much more peaceful than Physical.” In the memory of Stonefisher’s first visit to the Lounge, she stares at everything. Her persona’s skin is the texture of granite. “Here, I won’t have the same people judging every memory I post,” she says, collapsing into a huge beanbag chair next to EverFlame.

Mei’s memories are everywhere in the Lounge. She looks at the second beanbag chair and sees the smiling expression which EverFlame, her persona, was still barely able to display back then. Her younger self says, “That’s the point, a shared tactile space, like the Physical network but more private.” The flames of her hair dance in the same flickering pattern as the Lounge’s sixty-four identical fireplaces which will never go out, as long as she’s around, each surrounded by furniture for a different social setting. This is the world she built as a teenager to attract friends as smart as she was and hide from the family that didn’t understand her.

The memory continues, and Stonefisher’s persona sits up in her beanbag. “Does everyone find this place from that one hidden post, like I did?”

EverFlame laughs, and her mouth opens to represent that. Faces were simpler then. “I spread out a few secret clues to find it, and those who made it are inviting a few others they think will fit in.”

“More people too smart for their own good?” Stonefisher’s expression changes, trying to reflect the worry on the real face of a girl out there somewhere — a woman by now, thinks Mei, wondering what she might look like.

“We shouldn’t share details of our personal–” EverFlame starts to say, but Mei turns away, causing the memory to freeze.

Stonefisher was one of the first to find the EverFlame Lounge, one of the first connections the Lounge helped Mei create with another black sheep hiding in another oblivious family. The need to escape brought them together once, but there’s nothing left of those early days except the memories posted up around each of the fires like the constellations of an alien world.

Mei looks up, leaning back until she’s next to a different fireplace, this one with a dance floor around it.

She reaches up and starts a memory of the dance floor, a party from soon after she graduated high school. She watches the crowd from the outside and smiles, proud that every member of the Lounge came that night and admiring everyone’s creative appearances — animal, vegetable and mineral.

Mei never knew who most of them were in real life, but they were her friends in here. That anonymity is what made the Lounge different from the tactile spaces in Physical. There was a time when that was enough to unite their community. By then, the Lounge had become Mei’s promise to herself, what she thought her real life would be after she moved away from her family, though they would always be able to see what she shared in Physical.

In the memory of that party, EverFlame dances with abandon at its center. A boy using the name of Hartifax, with green skin and hair made of ivy, edges closer to EverFlame and says something Mei can’t hear from the edge of the crowd. She walks closer, passing through the personas that aren’t really there, memories of representations of people she’s never met in person, all dancing in a place which has never physically existed.

“I don’t think we should,” she hears her own voice respond, “but I’ll see you at the next one of these. It’s going great. We should keep on having them.”

Mei pities that girl for believing parties like this would keep going forever. She turns away from that memory too. The music stops.

The underground network of outcasts expanded through her college years. They arrived with stories of loneliness in every flavor and stayed, bonding over their mutual isolations coming to an end.

During the same years, Mei made real friends who needed the kind of escape she struggled with keeping secret. She friended them in Physical and but tried to keep her other network separate.

The lines blurred when she invited a desperate few to join the non-Physical space, but the new recruits were different. They knew her as Mei, not as her true self, EverFlame.

There were always informal separations within the Lounge. People had outside lives, though there was a custom against discussing them. They came and went on their own schedules, and there were too many members having too many conversations to keep up with. Even EverFlame couldn’t be at all the fireplaces at once.

The community kept growing, giving a safe home to so many not used to belonging, but the Lounge fractured, falling victim to its own success.

Fireplaces 14, 23 and 52 each became known for hosting different kinds of sex parties, while the steampunk tea party at fireplace 45 continued around the clock for years. Some never left that room, which others never visited.

Loners don’t by nature gather in large groups for long. The things they shared, memories of oppression and alienation, became less important as they posted more happy memories in the Lounge to relive over and over.

Then some started to leave those memories behind.

Mei leans back until she’s at fireplace 11, with its circle of carved wooden chairs. Breaking from her tour of good times, she pulls down a memory from there, and a familiar conversation starts all over again.

Hartifax, the boy from the party, stares at the mathematical representation of fire in the hearth and asks, “What ever happened to Enochist?”

In the chair next to his, EverFlame’s face contorts into a close approximation of sadness. “He hasn’t visited in weeks,” she says. “He friended a few of us in Physical and started posting there. That seems to be enough for him now.”

Hartifax turns to her, his face expressing surprise. “In Physical with everyone else? He hated that place as much as we did.”

EverFlame shrugs. “Well, now he says–” Mei can’t listen anymore and turns away.

That was only the beginning. Once the social divisions were established and the concept of non-Physical tactile spaces had a stable example to draw from, people held meetings around the fireplaces about building even more private escapes, separate non-Physicals of every imaginable variety.

EverFlame found it hard to keep track of those who left that way, but the reputation of the Lounge by then was too big to ignore. It became a recruiting space for old friends to find new ones and bring them back to their newly founded worlds. Younger teenagers who discovered the world EverFlame needed to build for herself skipped years of awkward loneliness and arrived without the shared experiences which had once made the Lounge so special.

Mei leans back, and the world rotates until she stands in front of a fireplace with two impossibly plush couches. She takes a deep breath, then opens the memory of finding her old friend Stonefisher recruiting for her own non-Physical.

“Don’t hang out over there,” EverFlame tells her friend, the new subtlety of facial expressions betraying her desperation. “Come back.”

“This place isn’t ours anymore,” says Stonefisher, the granite texture of her features finally able to express real sadness. “These new people aren’t making a home here, just reliving a checklist of what we did, then moving on.”

EverFlame says, “No, those experiences are why you have to stay. Our memories, everything we ever shared, are stored in this place.” She points up at the constellations of good times.

“I first came here so that–” Stonefisher starts, but EverFlame cuts her off.

“If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to this.” Mei’s earlier self pulls down another memory from that room, causing a second Stonefisher persona to appear, along with one of Hartifax and a third EverFlame.

In the memory of the memory, Hartifax shakes his head. The leaves of his hair rustle. His familiar voice says, “I don’t care who doesn’t come back. I’d rather have good friends than lots of them.”

The earlier Stonefisher smiles at that. “Yeah, we’ll never leave the Lounge, EverFlame.”

The later Stonefisher turns away from herself.

Mei watches the memory of those three close friends fade away. She hears the voice of her friend, a woman she’s never met in real life, say, “I first came here so that people wouldn’t make me ashamed of my choices. Don’t you do it — and especially don’t use my own memories to do it.” Stonefisher waves at the countless points of light hovering over them. “Come on, Mei, it’s too crowded in here.”

“I can’t go with you. This is my home,” says the EverFlame in the memory. She turns away from her friend, but the memory continues.

Mei keeps watching, crying the tears she refused to at the time, grateful there are no more visitors to the Lounge to see this, nobody but left her to watch the memory of this moment.

“I’m not coming back,” says Stonefisher. “Not everything should be forever.”

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  1. Thing in March » #Kay.com

    […] Keeping the Flames Alive […]

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