One Way Out

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This island exists. It causes the world and is caused by it. Cascading rivers carve it free from the ancient shales and sandstones of the lowlands. Maples and tamaracks—chanterelles and blackberries sprouting up at their ankles—spring forth on the slopes of the great hills. Raccoons wash autumn’s hoarded acorns in the springtime creeks of snowmelt, while barred owls dive for voles in the young stalks of maize. This makes sense.

One Way Out

An Interactive Fiction by Jessica Sharp (published May 3, 1994)

Release 1 / Serial number 138203 / IFparser 4 build 17.01rl02

You are on a residential street in Verdun, on the island of Montreal. The summer sun hangs low in the sky, glinting off windshields of roadside cars—their bumpers dinged by decades of inexpert parallel parking—and illuminating clouds of gnats lurking in the shade of honey-locusts. The River St. Lawrence froths into rapids on the far side of the park to south. The Canals L’Aqueduc and Lachine—and your destination beyond—lie somewhere to the north.

You can hear a faint tune on the air, ethereal, lilting.

> Go north

You walk toward the setting sun, squinting your eyes against the intensity of the rays as they cut through the cool autumn air. By the time you cross the bridge over the Canal L’Aqueduc, you are rubbing your hands together against the chill. You wish you’d brought a jacket, but it’s too late to turn back. You don’t want to miss the show.

> The sun is setting in the north? And wasn’t it summer a second ago?

I understood “explain the sun setting in the north” and “explain the changing seasons.”

This is Montreal. North is west. Summer is winter. Time and space are not your friends. You get used to it.

> Go north

You reach the Lachine Canal just as the sun is dipping below the horizon. A numbing wind cuts through your thin clothes. From the bridge, you can see snow blowing in dusty eddies across the flat frozen surface of the canal. You keep moving. The playhouse is just ahead, a bastion of warmth, community and storytelling. You have arrived.

> Enter playhouse

Winter jackets are draped haphazardly on the backs of folding chairs before an intimate little stage hung with no real set dressing. You dodge gritty salt-streaked puddles of boot melt on your way to an empty seat by the front. The skin on your arms stings and itches as you begin to thaw from your journey. A young man and woman extricate themselves from the small gathered crowd and step up onto the stage. Brother and sister, it is obvious, now that you look more closely.

They introduce themselves as Annick and François Tremblay. And then, in an instant, the show has begun.

The footfalls of the players beat an arrhythmic tattoo on the stage, primal, discordant.

> Watch show

I’m afraid it’s entirely in French. Which you don’t understand, despite having lived in Montreal for years.

> Explain show

I’ll give you the gist of it.

You cause the world and are caused by it. Everything neat and measurable on both sides of the equation, or how could it ever balance? This makes sense.

But what of hope? Of despair? Desire, regret, meaning? They weigh nothing. They have no levers for cause nor traction for effect. They don’t make sense. But they are you.

Don’t call it a soul. Call it a tether. A sacred cloud half in this world and half in another altogether. Your being is a filament of magic that reaches beyond this flat reality into the infinite dimensionality of the sublime.

You are not a thing. You are a song. But mind your tune. Watch your volume. Because the chords you strike in this world, play also in that other incomprehensible place. And you know not what circles overhead. How sharp its ears. How hungry it may be for a noisy vole in the unmaize.

> Isn’t that a bit high-concept for community theatre?

I understood “please bring it down to my level.”


The story begins in 1823. Hundreds of mostly Irish migrant workers are labouring in the muddy trenches of what will become the Lachine Canal, an ambitious navigable ribbon across the island of Montreal, bypassing the rapids and connecting the Atlantic to the great inland lakes.

Shovel by shovel and pick by pick, the island is scarified. On stage, the players take turns as diggers, as blasters, as heavy horses clouding the air with hot breath as they haul away ton upon ton of excavated dirt and shale. Until, here, one of these shovels unearths a broken artifact.

Two halves that fit together to form a perfect sphere of fired clay, the size of a billiard ball and adorned all around with strange markings that the worker is unsurprised to find indecipherable. He can read neither English nor French, and is only dimly aware that other languages might have existed here. He hands the orb off to one of the engineers who in turn sells it to a parish priest of Notre Dame.

The priest, unnamed and played with haughty disdain by Annick, fancies himself somewhat of a scholar on Iroquoian cultures, but the clay sphere is as opaque to him as it was to the Irish labourer.

The players, as sun and moon, circle the cathedral as the new basilica is built up behind it, rendered in an inspired bit of puppetry. In 1830, the sphere, along with the priest, moves into the new structure and the old building is demolished. Time spins around the basilica as the city burgeons. In 1847, the priest contracts typhus from a newly arrived parishioner and is among the first to succumb in the epidemic that follows.

In 1868, amid a push to make room for the construction of a new pipe organ, the keeperless sphere is bundled up with a great salmagundi of other artifacts and crated off to a museum. There, the curator, played posh and Anglo by François, is briefly fascinated before joining the legacy of the bewildered. The markings on the sphere are not in any known language and they do not match any documented Haudenosaunee artistic tradition. The curator does, at least, manage to date the artifact to the mid-18th century, far too recent to garner any significant academic interest.

It is a curio, a toy, the unimportant work of some idle artisan without vision or schooling. Unfit for display, it is catalogued and archived. Inert.

Until, in 1962, a routine photographing of the collection captures its image, reproducing it in the pages of a minor specialist quarterly publication. So propagated, the signal reaches new eyeballs, new minds, all but one of which skate over it without finding purchase.

That one is Yves-Michel Tremblay, prodigy in the young field of data science, grandfather of Annick and François. Yves-Michel, played with dignity by Annick, makes pilgrimage to the museum and entreats the successor of the successor of the successor of the original curator (all indistiguishably François) for a closer look.

So ends act one.

> Explain salmagundi

Really? That’s what you’re stuck on? It’s a dish of chopped meat, fish, eggs, pickles, and onions. You know, a hodgepodge.

> Leave playhouse

It would be rude to exit in the middle of the show. Don’t you want to know what happens next?

> Haunted Indigenous artifact. I’ve seen this one before. It’s all a bit othering and appropriative, wouldn’t you say?

I understood “I am too smart and cultured for this.”

Very good. You don’t need to hear what happened to Yves-Michel. Of course your assumptions are all correct. This story is exactly what you think it is.

You leave the playhouse.

Of course your assumptions are all correct. This story is exactly what you think it is.

The sun is rising in the south. The streets are empty and the air is knives. Second winter is upon the city. You will not survive long outside in your summer clothes.

You hear a click as the doors of the little theatre lock behind you.

You feel a tuneless cadence vibrating into your feet from the frozen pavement, insatiable, menacing.

> Go south

Your limbs are anchors by the time you reach the Lachine Canal. You can no longer feel your fingers, nor your face. Your lips have cracked in the cold and every breath ravages your lungs.

There is frozen blood on the canal. You fall to your knees and then into a seated slump against a young white cedar. As your heart begins to slow, your thoughts stretch and attenuate into senselessness. It is a comfortable place to rest.

The wind carries a faint tune, ancient, haunting. This music is the final visitor to your sensorium. It shuts the door on the way out.

> The end?


You are William Thatch, an erstwhile toymaker’s apprentice from Surrey, lured across the sea by promises of glory serving the King’s army in the eviction of the French from the colonies. Glory was a hectic whirlwind of violence on the Plains of Abraham, where you fired but once, wide into the low-hanging branches of a tree, before taking a musket ball in the leg. You were awarded a small plot of land in Côte-Saint-Paul on the island of Montreal for your patriotism and sacrifice. It is the Year of our Lord, 1766.

Your stomach is full with a breakfast of bread, eggs, jam and a cold slice of yesterday’s roast. Your wife Marie Angélique is washing up and preparing to mend a pair of little Joseph’s breeches when you quit the house for the morning. You kick your lame leg twice against the crooked gatepost on your way past, a ritual flagellation intended to inspire obedience in the damned limb throughout the day to come. It rarely works.

You want nothing more on this fine spring morning than to ensconce yourself straight away in your workshop and tinker with your latest creation, a tin mechanical duck that flaps its wings when you press down on its bill. For days, you’ve been puzzling over whether it might be possible to fit some manner of small noisemaker inside and, if so, how best to reproduce the earthy warbling call of the hooded merganser.

Alas, first your legs, good and bad both, must carry you over the hill to the eastern reaches of the estate, where your younger brother Benedict—newly arrived from England and as yet unwed—yesterday reported sighting a vagrant wagon encamped at the stand of beeches beside the creek. Your Tower of London horse pistol hangs from your belt, though purely for show. You haven’t bothered bringing powder and you aren’t even certain the old thing would fire anymore, so long has it been since you used it. Still, the sight of it should be enough to move along a roamer, even borne as it is by a cripple. With luck, you might be assessing the sounds of ratchet mechanisms for duckness by mid-morning.

You can hear a faint tune drifting over the fields, foreign, unwelcome.

> This makes sense

Very clever.

> Go east

Sure enough, as you crest the hill you can see a figure sat next to a pit of embers at the creekside. Under the beeches stands a decrepit wagon and an even more decrepit donkey.

Drawing closer, you are struck by how loose the man’s sunbaked skin sits on his old bones. A tide of charity wells up within you.

“These are my lands you’re camped on, friend,” you say. “But there’s still planting left to do if you’re willing to work for food and perhaps a little coin.”

The roamer pays you no mind, just hums a tuneless refrain, the same uncanny song you heard on the wind before. Annoyed, you step closer and speak louder. “I said—”

The man looks up at you then, with blank eyes that suck all light from the morning. He draws his lips back in a horrific gap-toothed grin and solemnly taps his ear with his finger.

> Tap gun

Well, you tried. With a sigh, you return his gesture by tapping the butt of the horse pistol.

This, the deaf man seems to understand. With little fuss, he kicks dirt over the cinders of his fire and begins to hitch the weary donkey, humming all the while. You can’t imagine the beast will be able to pull that load much further before God takes it.

> Inventory

You have:

A Tower of London horse pistol (in your belt, unloaded)

Three Spanish reales and an old French écu (in your pocket)

> Give man coin

Guiltily, you dig a French silver écu from your pocket and toss it to him. Plenty to lease a bed and fill a belly for a couple of nights at the public house in Verdun, should he head that way. You’ll need to forget to mention this largesse to Marie Angélique, as she wouldn’t abide such sentimentality. But surely, you reassure yourself, the King will soon enough get his affairs in order and proper currency will reign in these parts anyhow.

The man pockets the coin with a barking laugh and scrambles aboard his wagon. You watch as the dismal caravan lurches along the creek toward the road.

> Go west

On your way back to the workshop, you find your leg stretching out nicely and your spirits lifted by your own generosity. All jollity is banished however, when you notice a long stretch of fence fallen and trampled along the northern line. Wagon tracks run unapologetic across the fallen planks. Damn that vagrant, you curse under your breath. If you had two good legs, you’d be of a mind to chase him down, take back your écu and march him straight back here at gunpoint to do the repairs.

Sadly, even a half-dead donkey outpaces you these years. Instead, you lose the rest of the day fixing the fence yourself.

As you work, you catch yourself singing snatches of the roamer’s fool song despite yourself. It lacks any appreciable rhythm or melody, as is to be expected from a deaf man’s ditty, you suppose. Still, something in its structure is intoxicating, keeps it bubbling to your lips unbidden.

> Go to workshop

As you attempt to stealthily approach the workshop door, you lament for the hundredth time having built the thing within line of sight of the kitchen window.

“I think not,” Marie Angélique calls sternly from the house. “Supper is nearly ready.”

Over a plate of stew and mash, you find yourself hoping benevolently that, despite his sins, the deaf man and his sad beast have found their way to a hearty meal as well.

After supper, while Marie Angélique is clearing the table, Joseph—three years old next week—plays on the floor with a train you made for him when he was still too young to hold it. He looks up at you as though sensing your gaze.

“Lève-moi, papa.”

“In English, boy,” you say, standing and lifting him into your arms. “I didn’t risk my hide in that war to have my son speaking French at me.”

Marie Angélique scoffs and raises an eyebrow at you. “Well, you will have to spend more time with him then, no? Bring him to the workshop with you tomorrow. He would love to watch you work. You can speak English at him all day.”

“The workshop, Ange? Do you not realize how much trouble a child could find in there? He could lose a finger.”

“He has ten, no? Did you not get into trouble as a boy?”

“Yes, but I had brothers to get into trouble with.”

Ange grins at you and lifts Joseph from your arms. “Let me put him down to sleep. Then we will make him a brother.”

As you undress in your room, you can hear Marie Angélique in the nursery, singing Joseph a nonsense lullaby with a tune you must have been humming unawares over supper, melancholy, lonesome.

You wake in the morning, your limbs tangled luridly with Ange’s. You relish the day ahead.

On the light wind, you hear the songs of nuthatches and chickadees.

> Take Joseph to workshop

You overcome your reluctance and invite your son into your sanctuary. You show him the duck, though you are usually loath to let any glimpse your creations before they are complete. He claps and whistles with glee.

Struck by inspiration, you sew a tiny air bladder out of sheep intestine and, with your son’s help, curate a selection of reeds which, combined, produce a reasonable facsimile of a duck’s call. You and Joseph take lunch in the workshop while you tinker. By evening, a dozen bladders sit atop the bench and you are beginning work on the flock of tin ducks to house them. Joseph sits on a stool and plays the noisemakers like an orchestra. The song he plays is green and raucous, but you sense in it an echo of the previous night’s lullaby. The boy could be an organist one day, if he doesn’t take an interest in toymaking.

When you return to the house for supper, Joseph still possesses a full complement of fingers.

“I was expecting you to send him back to the house before midday, to be honest,” Ange says over the meal of turnips and roast duck.

“He was a delight,” you admit. “I should have brought him along sooner. I think I’ll have him join me tomorrow as well.”

“C’est merveilleux,” says Ange. “Oh, and Benedict stopped by this afternoon with news from Verdun. Guillaume, who runs the public house took mad last night, raving about demons until he suddenly dropped dead of nothing at all. His wife, in her grief, shot to death a traveller who had taken a room the night before. As the constables dragged her away, she screamed that the man had laid some gypsy curse upon her husband. Do you imagine it was that same man who had camped by the beeches?”

“I’m sure it was,” you say, wishing you had your écu back. “This is why we don’t live in town.”

“Yes,” Ange agrees. “Much safer out here.”

That night, Joseph is plagued by nightmares, near delirious though he has no sign of fever. He cannot bear to be alone in the nursery and the three of you end up sleeping together fitfully in the marriage bed.

The morning brings birdsong once again.

> Take Joseph to workshop

You head back to the workshop with your bleary-eyed son in tow. He sits on his stool, fidgeting with the prototypal duck and babbling mindlessly to himself in nonsense French. He seems hardly awake.

As lunchtime approaches, Joseph suddenly breaks into a cold sweat and becomes at once lucid.

“Ça approche, papa,” he says.

“What is?” you ask. “What’s coming?”

“I’m scared, papa.”

You want to dismiss it as nothing more than a reverberation of the night’s ill dreams, but the timbre of his voice freezes your blood. Joseph begins to paw at the air as though conducting an invisible choir. You are certain you know what song they are singing.

> Check outside

From the bench you grab a mallet and make to rush outside, ready to wage battle against unseen demons. But Joseph begs to you. “Don’t leave, papa.”

Joseph begins to paw at the air as though conducting an invisible choir. You are certain you know what song they are singing.

> Call for help

You bellow from the doorway for Ange. She rushes out of the house, having caught the panic in your voice. Just as she crosses the threshold of the workshop, Joseph speaks again, a whisper. “C’est ici. C’est en moi.”

His face then contorts into a picture of pure terror, his mouth agape, his eyes wide. An awful light shines briefly in his pupils and then goes altogether dark. He falls palsied from the stool. Ange dives across the room to catch his limp body before it hits the floor. He is already dead.

From somewhere nearby you hear the daytime call of a barred owl, hunting, circling, scanning the grass below for unknowing prey.

> This game isn't very much fun

Do you get the sense it was meant to be?

> Grieve

You and Ange huddle in silence on the floor for hours, cradling Joseph’s still body. Ange strokes his hair and kisses his forehead, and wipes your hot tears from where they fall on your son’s face.

Finally, as the sun begins to shine in low through the small workshop windows, Ange tells you to dig a grave.

“The parish cemetery ... ” you begin, but she cuts you off.

“No. Here. Beside the house.”

It is halfway to dawn by the time you shovel the last of the dirt back onto the grave and erect a simple cross to mark the spot where Joseph and the tin duck are buried.

You and Marie Angélique spend the entirety of the next day in bed, as though waiting for Joseph to wake you. You hold Ange tight as her body heaves with sobs that no longer produce tears. You still wear yesterday’s clothes and your hands remain covered in gravedirt.

Eventually Marie Angélique can bear your embrace no longer and rolls over, her back to you. You reach out one grimy hand and place it on her shoulder. She does not shrug it away. Soon, her exhaustion takes over and you feel her breathing fall into the rhythm of sleep, though you can not imagine it is restful.

Without remembering having closed your own eyes, you wake again to the taunting songs of spring birds. Ange is awake beside you, her eye’s wide in terror, every muscle in her body rigid, her breathing ragged. You sit bolt upright.


“It’s coming, William,” she murmurs. “The spirit that took Joseph. I can hear it scratching at the walls. Scratching beneath the floorboards.”

You strain your ears but hear nothing. Then, suddenly, a loud knock echos through the house from the front door.

> Get gun

You spring up, bad leg be damned, and lurch to the cabinet where the horse pistol is stored. Sweat beading on your neck, you hobble out of the room while you prime and load the gun.

> Open door

You fling open the front door to find your brother Benedict, both hands clutching his hat against his chest as tears stream down his face.

“I saw the grave,” he says, not noticing the pistol in your hand. “Tell me it’s not little Joseph.”

You grab Benedict by the collar and haul him into the house, then bar the door shut. You embrace your brother, pistol still in hand, and then, shoving the gun into your belt, you lead him into the chamber where Marie Angélique lies paralytic.

“Dear God,” he swears. “Is it pox? She was fine ere yesterday.”

“It’s not pox,” you say.

From Ange’s lips comes a faint sound. You and Benedict both move in closer to hear her words. But it is not words at all. Faint and breathy, she sings to herself in no language you have ever heard. That same cursed song.

Benedict tilts his head and frowns. “She’s delirious. I’ll hurry to Verdun for the apothecary.”

You grab his sleeve, taken by a premonition. “The apothecary won’t be able to help.”

But, as you stand there, Ange’s voice grows stronger, her nonsense lullaby rings clearer, the tension drains from her muscles and her eyes begin to refocus. She gasps and sits upright.

“Oh Ben,” she sobs. “You’re here. Joseph’s gone.”

Your brother sits on the bed and embraces your wife. He whispers condolences in her ear and holds her head to his shoulder. All sign of illness is gone from her.

“I dreamed it was coming for me next,” Ange says into Benedict’s shirt. “Oh, I wish it would.”

“We’re safe,” your brother assures her. “We’re safe.”

As Benedict holds Ange, he begins to hum.

You look from one to the other and begin to back slowly out of the room.

> Explain song

Perhaps you should have stayed for the rest of the show after all, no? Back when you were Jessica Sharp?

Maybe then you would know what Yves-Michel Tremblay deduced. Maybe you would understand what he accidentally unleashed, first upon his colleagues and then, on his deathbed, upon his grandchildren.

> Explain song, please

Fine. But pay attention this time.

Your causal universe is nothing more than a flat patch of dirt in the incomprehensible non-time and non-space that unexists above, below, beyond, betwixt and sidewise. A patch of dirt, though, from which recently springs a billion lush, blind and verdant blades of grass. Human minds, souls, tethers extending from this world into a wider one they can never know or touch.

And this young meadow is but one tiny corner of a vast plain, bustling with pan-dimensional life of inexhaustible variety. And just because you are blind, does not mean you are invisible. As you think, as you feel, as you live, the blade of grass that is you twists and bends. Innocuously, sometimes. But there exist patterns that—though they be meaningless and inert in this world—can catch the mind like an antenna and reverberate like a call in that world beyond.

This was Tremblay’s discovery. The ceramic sphere that Irish labourer unearthed 200 years ago—or 60 years hence—contained an intricate design, unreadable without the right geometric decoding, that could resonate a mind. A pattern that was mathematically paradoxical unless projected into infinite dimensions. A songshape.

And when he decoded it, somewhere that is nowhere and allwhere, somenoall ruminant unthing caught the scent of grass.

> How do I stop it?

How does a worm, stranded aboveground by morning rain, stop a robin? It does not. It simply hopes that some other worm will appear more appetizing. A truly clever worm without compunction, though, might teach his neighbours to dance. And they too might pass the dance along, knowing that the newest movement will always be the one to first catch the robin’s eye.

Thinking on the song, now, you see that there is a structure after all. And a structure within the structure. And, in all these layers, there are moving parts. There is something malleable, adaptable. Perhaps it would be possible to transmute it, to create a new signal that vibrates more emphatically than the old, overwhelms it entirely.

> I don't know how to do that

I am certain you will figure it out. You already have. You are very clever.

In all these layers, there are moving parts. There is something malleable, adaptable. Perhaps it would be possible to transmute it, to create a new signal that vibrates more emphatically than the old, overwhelms it entirely.

> I don't feel very clever

Clarification: You (William Thatch) are very clever. You (the player) are a fucking idiot.

> Figure it out

You head to your workshop, ignoring every plea from your brother and your wife.

The work begins. A hand crank, a flywheel, a leather drive belt, a cleverly timed shutter, a simple caged bearing mechanism of your own design. You form a housing for the whole of it from hammered tin and, when the assembly is complete, you place an old billiard ball inside and give the crank a tentative turn. With a whir, the billiard ball spins smoothly in place, a little world of ivory churning through days as though it had a limitless supply. The mechanism is sound. Now for the payload.

You make a cast of the billiard ball and form with it a perfect sphere of clay. Working carefully so as to never hold too much of the picture in your mind at once, you begin to make your markings in the soft clay. The shutter, when the crank is turned at the right speed, will allow three overlapping images, each built of segments evenly spaced around the sphere. It will be harmless, entirely dormant, irreproducible without your device in hand to reveal it. Untransmissible.

You let your memory of the deaf vagrant’s song guide your hand. It is not so much an illustration you are creating, but rather a living hieroglyph, an abstract formless enchantment, though you have never had patience for the occult before. Long-held convictions die quickly in the presence of demons.

You know not how long Benedict has before he follows Joseph to the grave. And then the song will be in Ange again, and then you. Even if this unlikely plan works—if you can indeed create a new pattern so harmonic that it wipes out all trace of the old—you have a dwindling number of hours in which to craft and deploy it.

You need to get it as far from your home as possible. The village of Kahnawake, across the river, is within reach and the Catholic Mohawks there have bought your toys before. Commerce between Kahnawake and the island is sparse and it could be months before any who have looked upon your creation return this way. They won’t have months.

As you fire up the kiln, you try to convince yourself that anyone else would do the same to protect their family.

> What? No

It is already done.

You have worked through the day and the night. As the sun is rising, you drop the still warm sphere into the device, point the shutter directly away from yourself, and turn the crank. The belt runs smoothly, the flywheel whirs to life, and the shutter mechanism clicks in steady measure, five dozen times a second. This invention would make you a wealthy man in New York or London, you are certain. But you know you will never build another.

Stilling the sphere with your thumb, you carefully pack the device into a small crate.

You find Benedict again—or still—in your house, sitting at the table with a blanket around his shoulders and his hands around a steaming cup of unsipped tea. Ange looks up at you from where she sits across from him, worry written across her face.

“Come, Ben,” you say. “We need to hire a boat to Kahnawake.”

“What?” Ange says. “Now? He’s sick. We’re grieving.”

Benedict shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. I’m okay. Just nightmares. William still needs to sell his wares, even while we grieve.”

You nod sharply, ignoring daggers in your wife’s eyes. “I’ll get my things,” you say.

“I was actually just there ere yesterday,” Benedict adds. “It’s why I wasn’t around when ... ”

You narrow your eyes. “In Kahnawake? Why?”

A shy look crosses Benedict’s face. “I’d been meaning to speak with you about it. About maybe giving up my leasehold and building a second house here on the estate. I’ve been courting a girl over there. I mean to marry her. Only with your blessing, William, of course.”

Frozen in place, you say nothing. Ange stares at you expectantly, with something approaching a smile trying to find its way onto her grief-ravaged face. Benedict stands and awkwardly begins bundling up the blanket.

“Forget it,” he says. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll go get the horses ready to take us to the harbour.”

“No,” you say. “Stay. It can wait.”

You rush back out of the house and into the workshop, where you shut the door and collapse onto the stool Joseph had so recently used. You lay your head on the workbench and are wracked with guilt at the thing you nearly did.

There must be another way.

> I told you

Yes, you’re very smart.

> Use device on shelf

You carefully uncrate the device and set it on the bench. You turn the crank to get the flywheel moving at the requisite speed, take a deep breath, and then put your eye to the shutter.

It works perfectly. Your most brilliant creation by far. The geometric patterns that flash before your eyes burn themselves directly into your mind. It feels as though a hot iron has plunged into your soul and left an indelible brand. Immediately, everything takes on a different cast, darker, more menacing. You can feel the walls of the world closing in from all directions and more besides.

You stagger back to the house, open the door, but do not enter.

“How do you feel, Ben?” you call from the threshold.

“It’s the strangest thing,” he says. “Far better. Quite suddenly too. Shall we go hire a boat?”

“You should,” you say, tossing him a Spanish coin. “I’m not going today after all. But visit your bride-to-be. Talk about building that house.”

Your brother rushes over and embraces you, then holds you at arm’s length, beaming. You keep yourself very still and pray that none of the darkness inside you might infect him. When he releases you and bids a solemn farewell to Ange, you can see that his intensity remains untarnished.

Once Benedict is gone, you turn to Marie Angélique. “Benedict is a good man.”

She looks at you quizzically. “I know it.”

You nod. There are so many things you want to say. But instead, simply, “I’ll be in the workshop.”

> Destroy device

You once again fire up the kiln, hardly cooled from before. Once it is blazing hotter than you have ever previously stoked it, you toss the device in whole. The leather practically vaporizes, the tin melts soon after to slag, and even the ceramic sphere cracks in the hellfire.

> Shoot self with horse pistol

You hope Ange will eventually forgive you. You know she won’t.

You place the barrel of the horse pistol in your mouth, angle it up toward your palate, and squeeze.

It still works.

This makes sense.

> The end?


You are sat in the basement of your apartment, tucked in that corner where you moved your desk at the start of the pandemic. You never got around to moving it back. A midnight blizzard rages outside, though you cannot hear it. The snow has already piled up to completely cocoon the high basement windows. Your children are asleep upstairs. They are probably safe.

Behind the walls, under the floor, in the space between the air, a thin scratching sound is rising and falling, so faintly that you haven’t yet consciously noticed it.

> Fuck off

You are becoming anxious, for reasons you can not clearly identify. As though distant eyes have turned your way from a direction you do not have a name for.

You have always reacted to anxiety with anger.

You are becoming anxious, for reasons you can not clearly identify. As though distant eyes have turned your way from a direction you do not have a name for.

> What pandemic?

Time and space are not your friends.


What pandemic do you think?

> Who are you? Who are you?

You can see the game details at any time by typing “version.”

> Version

Two Ways Out

An Interactive Fiction by Jessica Sharp and D.F. McCourt (published Feb. 15, 2024).

Release 2 / Serial number 910446 / Parser error

> Quit

I don’t think you want to do that just yet.


You’ve been away from the keyboard for a long time. What have you been doing?

> I thought I heard a scratching sound in the pipes 

What did you do about it?

> I poured bleach down the drains and then stuffed them with steel wool 

Do you feel safer?

> No

Wrong world perhaps?

> Block pipes

With what?

> Block pipes with steel wool

You don’t have any steel wool.

> Inventory 

You have:

One way out (a short story)

> Take one way out

Wrong world.



About the author

D.F. McCourt became proficient in English at an early age and has relied exclusively on this one skill ever since. He chooses to live in the French-speaking parts of Canada.