A selection from Moon Garden
When I was fourteen, my mom dragged my younger sister and I to JC Penney for our annual wardrobe update.
As we breezed through the mall, past Kaybee Toys, Waldenbooks and the rest of my favorite stores at a much faster pace than I would’ve liked, we passed an arcade, its electronic symphony of light and sound tantalizing my senses.
“Your father didn’t pull extra shifts at the warehouse last year to buy y’all a Super Nintendo Genesis for Christmas so that we could bring you to the mall to waste quarters on video games. Now come on, we’re here to buy clothes. There’s some cute tops on sale that I wanna get for Bree before they’re gone.”
Bree, my three year-old sister heard her name and looked up at my mom from the courtesy stroller she was riding in.
“Vidabow games” she said, giggling.
I sighed and rolled my eyes but I knew there was no use arguing with my mom. She never backed down.
Upon exiting JC Penney two hours later, though, after a grueling try-on session that I thought would never end, I spotted my new reason for existence.
A small spacecraft, a silver two-person molded plastic pod with black-tinted windows sat in the center of the plaza, encircled by burgundy velvet ropes. Emblazoned upon it in an exciting, futuristic font were the words “Virtual Motion.”
It didn’t appear to be attended by anyone; there was a slot on a post next to it for dollar bills, though.
It rocked and dipped and shook wildly on its base for a few moments before it lowering itself down and allowing its passengers, two lucky, smiling kids, to disembark.
“Mom. I’ve got to check that out. Please.” I pointed at the sign standing in front of it. “It’s only two dollars.”
“Fine,” said my mom, “but you’re paying for it, with your allowance. And I don’t want you asking me for money for comic books later on because you don’t have any money.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”
I paid my fare and boarded the craft. The floor was sticky and the inside of it smelled like an old movie theater. There was a control panel with a joystick, an age-yellowed keyboard caked with blackened skin oils and some buttons.
The screen lit up, and I felt the seat beneath me begin to vibrate.
“Choose your destination,” said a robotic voice as the screen lit up with a menu of options.
Age of dinosaurs. The Wild West. Knights N’ Castles. Space Voyage. Other.
Naturally, my curiosity demanded that I select “other.”
Select Date: 00/00/0000.
I moved the joystick around, playing with the numbers. Where did I want it to go?
Time was running out. I had five minutes. “Age of dinosaurs it is,” I said.
The screen faded to black, and within moments I was soaring over a prehistoric landscape full of active volcanos filling red skies with black smoke, with dinosaurs of all kinds roaming wild, untamed wilderness. A Pterodactyl soared overhead and passed me, the wind from its wake shaking my pod.
This was, by far, the most amazing experience I’d ever had in my fourteen years on Earth. It was sorealistic. The dinosaurs made the ones from Jurassic Park look like claymation.
In fact, they didn’t look much at all like any dinosaurs I’d ever seen in movies and books my entire life, but they were still recognizable and utterly amazing.
I saw a brontosaurus eating leaves from a tree. I saw a Triceratops squaring off against a Stegosaurus.
I witnessed a pack of velociraptors leap out from behind a mound of jagged rocks and scatter, a Tyrannosaurus rex in hot pursuit, it’s jaw opened wide, baring fearsome teeth that were probably each bigger than my head.
As a movie buff, I couldn’t quite understand how the producers of a mall ride video managed to achieve such realism; they couldn’t have had much of a budget. It should’ve looked like Carnosaur, or worse. I couldn’t wait to tell my friend Denny about this thing.
“Would you like to land and take a look around?” The computer asked. “Yes” and “No” buttons appeared on the screen, and I maneuvered the cursor to”Yes” with the joystick.
Soon I was eye level with the dinosaurs I’d been admiring from above.
for a brief, irrational moment I worried about getting stomped and crushed by be the T-rex. That’s how realistic the footage I was viewing was.
“Prepare to disembark. Please stay close to the vehicle and return in a timely manner.”
“Definitely worth the two bucks,” I said, and stepped out of the open door. I stopped, frozen, as my eyes tried to take in the view that lay before me.
There was no mall, there was no Mom and Bree waiting for me outside of the burgundy velvet ropes–I was looking at the world from the ride, except it was outsideof the ride.
The air smelled like the reptile house at the zoo, only not as stagnant. Everything was teeming with life–a thriving, bustling reptilian kingdom. Everywhere I looked I saw some incredible creature doing something super-cool.
None of them seemed to notice me, however, and I was good with that. I ventured out from the safety(a false sense of security, in retrospect) of the pod and clung to a large boulder, occasionally peering around it to catch a glimpse of the Brontosaurus(or “Apatosaurus,” depending on who you ask) eating its meal.
Something ran past my leg, startling me, and disappeared into a crack in the ground before I could get a good look at it.
I soon lost interest in whatever that was as some kind of vicious-looking thing crept up behind me and hissed. I say “vicious-looking thing” because until today, February 3, 2019, it didn’t have a name. Not one given to it by humans, anyway. I’d read all the books, in the years that followed. I’d scoured the Internet. This was a species that existed entirely outside of human knowledge.
It was only about five feet tall, but when it roared in my face, made that horrible noise, like a thousand trumpets melting in a fire, it might as well have been the size of a mountain.
Its breath was hot, moist and coppery; its long, forked tongue flittered about its razor-sharp teeth in anticipation of its next meal–me.
It was blocking my way to the pod, so I turned and ran to a cluster of trees that seemed too small for the creature to pass through, hoping to lose its interest and circle back around.
My heart was pounding and I winced as the (thorny, as it turns out)tree limbs tore at the exposed flesh of my forearms.
The creature wasn’t at all deterred by the branches or their thorns and cut through them like a hot knife through butter, primal ferocity blazing in its eyes.
knife. I remembered that I’d brought my pocket knife with me to the mall. I carried it everywhere, back then.
Would it be of any use against the hungry, snapping jaws of the prehistoric predator bearing down on me? I had to try, at least.
I slipped it out of my back pocket and flipped the blade out. The creature lunged at me and I dodged, drove the knife down into its snout with both hands on the handle. It screeched and staggered backward, batting furiously at its face with its claws, the knife lodged firmly in its flesh.
And then it disappeared, sucked up out of the trees like a dust bunny into a vacuum cleaner hose.
I looked up. A T-rex, with my attacker’s flailing, bleeding body clenched between its teeth towered over me.
It didn’t see me, and I intended to keep it that way. I made a mad dash for the pod.
“Welcome back,” said the computer as I dove headfirst into the seat. “I hope you enjoyed your visit.”
“Get me out of here!” I screamed.
I didn’t even look at the screen as we ascended. I was curled up in a fetal position with my hands covering my face.
Within moments we’d stopped and the computer was cheerfully telling me that it was time to disembark.
When I staggered out of the pod, drenched in sweat, my mother ran to me and bombarded me with questions and promises of lawsuits. I told her it was alright, that I’d just gotten banged up a bit. No one would ever believe the truth, anyway, I knew.
I returned to the mall two weeks later, on my own. Rode my bike all the way across town on a Saturday afternoon. Could I really go anywhere I wanted if I selected “other?” Even the future? The curiosity was eating me alive and I simply had to satisfy it.
When I got there, I discovered that the machine was gone, replaced by a sunglasses stand.
The Indian guy running the stand had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him what had happened to the Virtual Motion machine. He tried to sell me some shades, but I politely declined.
As the years passed, I gradually settled upon the conclusion that I’d imagined the entire thing, and that the ride had been exactly that–a ride. I’d always had a fertile imagination, after all.
The TV in the lounge at work was on this morning, tuned to CNN, as it typically was, when I came in to pour myself the first of many cups of coffee. I generally tuned it out, and today was no different, until..
“…newly discovered species of dinosaur that paleontologists have christened ‘Vitiolacerus’…”
I cursed as I splashed hot coffee on my hand, scalding myself.
I looked up at the TV and saw an artist’s rendering of the unknown dinosaur that I’d decided I’d imagined so long ago. It was different, sure–skin texture was all wrong–but I’d never forget that face. Vitiolacerus… Yeah. It fit.
“…scattered bones indicating it was torn apart by a larger predator, possibly a Tyrannosaurus rex…”
A coworker started talking and I shushed him, staring intently at the TV.
“…are discovered every day. So what makes this one so special?”
They cut to a guy in a lab surrounded by bones.
“We find a lot of fossilized dinosaurs, but we don’t usually find fossilized items from the late twentieth century embedded in their skulls. It’s truly baffling. Impossible, even. I mean, radiocarbon dating puts this pocket knife at about sixty-four million years old, yet it was manufactured in 1988. How do you explain that? We can’t.”
I dropped my coffee.