By Benjamin Epstein
It was because of the darkness that the light of the computer screen was so piercing.The time at the bottom of the screen read 9:09 PM, and Keith Crane was scrolling through Steam (a browser that lets you play video games, in case you didn’t know), letting his mind drip downwards with the movement of the titles scrolling by.
A seemingly endless parade of games he wasn’t interested in marched before his tired eyes. These were the free to play games, the last bastion for the penniless and the cheapskate. Unfortunately, they were not always the best of bastions, hence the reason why they were free.
The act of scrolling through the page of the free to play games was the act of wading through a swamp, searching for gold. The muck that Keith waded through was the likes of a founding fathers dating simulator, an erotic Moby Dick roleplay, and a Mario ripoff called Super-Italian.
Keith was so close to turning his PC off and going to bed when a game title grabbed his eye. “Frosting Fighting”. Adorned to the titles right was an image of a cupcake pointing a gun at another cupcake. Normally, this kind of game would not interest him, but for some reason a flint had been struck in his brain and now his skull was full of sparks.
It would have been so easy to simply ignore it, but it was as if a mischievous little man was in his brain, pulling a lever that made him move his cursor over the title.
“What’s the harm?” Keith thought to himself, “I’ll just read the summary, out of curiosity.”
The title was clicked on and he was taken to a brief summary of the contents of the game, “Frosting Fighting is a free to play, arcade, tower defense game with simple mechanics and…”...blah blah blah… “the evil lord Muffinus has unleashed his muffin army upon the peaceful kingdom of Cupcakelandia! Save the kingdom by turning all of the muffins into cupcakes with your Cream Cannons!”
The summary made it seem like there were very few cupcakes pointing guns at other cupcakes. Also, the idea that putting frosting on a muffin makes it a cupcake is an insult to the art of baking.
What Keith could have done right there was move his cursor to the “back” button and then leave. However, he instead found himself hovering his cursor over the large green button with the words “Play Game” on it.
“What’s the harm?” Keith thought to himself, “I’ll just play it for a minute or two, out of curiosity.”
That thought might not have been enough to get him to play. However, he then decided to scroll down as to gaze upon the reviews that the games players had left behind. What greeted him there was a feast of positive reviews.
“More addictive than meth.” someone said.
The only negative review that could be found was merely the words “bad leech” repeated fifteen times.
The green button was clicked on and the game began.
“Just for a couple minutes.” Keith thought to himself.
Fourty seven minutes had passed, and Keith was still playing Frosting Fighting. He didn’t know how it happened. When he turned that first muffin into a cupcake for the first time, some dust-caked machine in the back of his brain hummed to life. Then he beat level one, and that machine really started working. Then he beat level ten, and that machine began smoking. Then he beat level 100, and the machine didn’t get anymore active, but it was still very active.
That metaphorical machine inside his brain was the Validation-2000™, a machine that converts feelings of success into pure, undiluted dopamine. And it didn’t help that this was an arcade style game, meaning infinite levels, autogenerated by the dreams of whatever computer algorithm ran the game.
He could have played all night if it weren’t for one strong hand of sensibility fishing him out of his fog of gaming and slapping him across the face. In other words, he realized that it was 9:56 and he had work tomorrow. Begrudgingly, he wrenched his body away from the iron hooks the game had lodged in his heart, and he slammed his body onto the bed. The good part about living in a tiny apartment was that it wasn’t very far from his computer to his bed. The bad part was everything else.
Strange dreams visited Keith's mind that night. Images of cupcakes, muffins, and canons of cream flooded the rivers of his consciousness. It was pleasant, and warm as a hug from a small family of pandas, and then a massive leech appeared in the sky and ate all of the cupcakes.
When the alarm's shrill shriek peeled Keith away from the dream, he was confused as to why he had dreamt of a leech, but he reasoned that it had something to do with that one negative review. Frosting Fighting was beckoning for him to play. Unfortunately, living costs money.
The Mcdonalds had the soulless feeling of a hospital, with the dirtiness of a place that often contains children.
“No sir, you can not substitute sauce with a milkshake.” Keith tried not to yawn as he spoke to the customer.
“But why not?! Is it going to harm anyone?! Is anyone going to lose their life if I have a milkshake on my burger?!” the customer roared.
“Yes.” Keith said, then immediately regretted it. His manager had already talked to him about being sarcastic with the customers.
“Oh,” the customer said, the fluorescent lights of the Mcdonalds dancing on his bald head. “Who’s going to die?”
“Uhhh…” Keith stammered, “Mcdonald.”
“Oh god, I don’t wanna kill Mcdonald. He’s the one who makes all the food. I’ll just have an ordinary Big Mac and a shamrock shake.”
“Okay.” Keith nodded. “Do you want fries with that?”
“Uhhh…can I have just one fry?” the customer asked. “Like, one really big one.”
A sigh unfurled from Keiths chest. He would have sold his soul to the devil, as well as the soul of everyone else in the Mcdonalds, just to go back home.
“That will also kill Mcdonald.” he said.
This back and forth went on for way too much time until eventually, the order was made, and the man took his seat.
As the man walked away, the tattered lifeboat of Keiths thoughts drifted back to Frosting Fighting. Why was his mind so stuck on that? It wasn’t even that good of a game. He’d played better Tower Defense games on Cool Math Games back when he was 11.
Yet, despite that, Frosted Fighting had burned a giant mark onto the side of his brain.
The smokey haze of thoughts that Keith drifted through was vacuumed away by the sound of a woman's voice.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I would like to place an order.”
When Keith came home, he didn’t immediately go to his computer. That would be the mark of an addict, and he was no addict. Instead, he sat on the ramshackle cot that was his bed and browsed through Reddit for 30 minutes. He had posted a delightfully funny meme concerning the video game Fallout 4, and a lot of people had liked it. Another quick activity was his usual hobby of searching celebrities and seeing when they became famous. He was 7 years older than David Bowie had been when he recorded his first album. This was a very painful activity.
Immediately after putting his phone down he went straight to his computer. His finger was hovering over the green “play game” button when he realized that he should heat up dinner.
“Oh, what’s the harm?” he thought, “I’ll play for thirty minutes, then I’ll have dinner.”
He ended up playing for 59 minutes.
Dinner was the age-old delicatessen known as Microwavable Vegetarian Meatloaf. It was the cheapest kind he could buy. Being a vegetarian is hard when your budget is two minimum wage paying jobs.
Immediately after dinner it was back to Frosting Fighting.
Ninety minutes later, there was a knock on the door. When Keith opened it he found Georgia York, a lady with the appearance, personality, and voice of an elderly hamster. “Excuse me,” she said, “is everything alright? I heard screaming.”
“Oh, everything is great!” Keith bubbled. “I just bought the Plasma Cream Cannon!”
“Oh,” Georgia said.
When Keith closed the door he was immediately struck by the pulsating blows of ten different emotions at once. He wasn’t the kind of person who would just talk about video games with random acquaintances. However, it was The Plasma Cream Cannon.
You see, coins were won whenever a muffin was cupcakified, and those coins could be exchanged for power ups and upgrades.
Keith rubbed his head. That situation had been uniquely awkward, and his mouth was riddled with an unpleasant taste. However, he had bought The Plasma Cream Cannon. He hadn’t felt that happy in a long, long time.
A text appeared on his phone, it was from a friend. “Where are you?” it read.
Cupcakes and leeches would make their grand return to his dreams, while a soft piano underscored the bizarre movies his subconscious was making.
The breakroom was not efficiently air conditioned as Keith sat in it, snacking away on low grade pita bread and hummus. He was at his second job, Burger King, and Frosting Fighting had wormed its way into his brain once again.
It was beginning to get a bit worrying, but Keith was no stranger to video game addiction. There was something special about Frosting Fighting, however. It wasn’t that he had missed a meet up with friends. He had done that hundreds of times. It was the song that played in his brain when he did well, “Life on Mars” by David Bowie. That was the song that he performed when he won the 8th grade talent show.
Looking back, that was the proudest moment of his life, and it was meaningless. Then again, so was succeeding in Frosting Fighting. And yet, everytime he beat a level it felt like a random stranger had complimented him on his shirt. Perhaps, having had so little success in his life, even the most meaningless of accomplishments alchemized into gold.
The great pinball machine of time had flung Keith onto a Monday. That was the only day he was free of all work.
Frosting Fighting was calling.
Keith was drowning in an ocean of a haze made of cupcakes and cream when a knock sounded at his door. The opening of this door revealed Chris standing there.
Chris was a small man with the intensity of a gorilla whose banana had been stolen. He had once punched a goose for hissing at his girlfriend.
“Hey” Chris barked, “What is your problem?”
It was a typically nonsensical question. There were many different modes of Chris, each one as unpredictable as the last, and right now he was in Angry Chris mode.
“Wuh?” Keith responded.
Chris skitted past Keith into his apartment.
“You said we were going to meet up at 2. It is now 2:49!”
“It’s 2:49?” Keith muttered.
“No. I lied. Of course it’s 2:49!” Chris roared.
“Are you okay? You look and smell really bad,” Chris was yapping to Keith as they walked down the street.”Or at the very least, worse than you usually do.”
The pace that Chris was walking at was his usual cheetah-like pace while Keith trudged along behind him, his legs moving like molasses down a slope.
“I had an all-nighter.” Keith's speech drooled like slushie dripping down the rim of a cup, and his brain felt like melted cheese- and not a good kind of cheese, but a bad kind, such as gorgonzola.
“Oooh. You went to a party?”
“No, I stayed home.”
“Oh, I should have guessed,” Chris chided, “Still doing Skyrim?”
“Nah,” Keith responded. “I’m done with that. I was playing this stupid, uh, free to play game…Frosting Fighting.”
Chris aimed an expression somewhere in between pity and disgust. “I think you need to get out more.”
“That’s what I’m doing right now.” Keith said.
“And what were you doing right before I showed up?” Chris cooed.
“...playing Frosting Fighting.”
“And what did you do this morning?”
“I played Frosting Fighting.” mumbled Keith.
“Wow.” Chris jabbered.
A clever rebuttal was about to emerge from Keith's mouth when he stopped in his tracks. Right across the street from him was a cupcake store.
“Uhhh…Keith? You okay?”
“You know,” Keith said, “I haven't had lunch yet, or breakfast, and there was no dinner last night.”
The sound of Life On Mars playing faintly from inside the store began to dance along Keith’s eardrums. The beating of his heart turned into a frantic slamming of force pressing down on his entire chest.
His legs were like lightning as he broke into a madcap dash across the street. Cars swung to a screeching halt as he tore his way towards the store. With every step he could hear that song getting louder and louder and louder-
And when he entered the store it wasn’t playing.
The only sound was of the air conditioner thrumming along and of the door slamming behind him.
Keith blinked. The display cases adorned with cupcakes were pushed out of his field of view by the turning of his body. The cool metal of the door handle was snuggled by his hot, sweaty hands.
He was about to walk out when the infinite strings of desire that ruled over his life from the palace of his brain made him turn back towards the cupcakes.
There were so many juicy, decliouse, creamy, tasty, yummy, funderful cupcakes. Aughhguagughhhh,....
“No,” thought Keith “This is weird.”
He had to practically rip himself away from the iron claws of yearning that held him in place and force himself to leave the store.
Anger was sizzling on the surface of Chris’s eyes as he stormed up to Keith.
“Have you gone insane?!” he squawked.
Keith looked at him “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Anyways, let’s go to the petting zoo.”
They did not go to the petting zoo. Instead, they simply stared at each other for a couple of seconds. There was a very awkward feeling hanging in the air and Keith wanted to dispel it.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Keith lied.
“You just ran across traffic towards a cupcake shop.”
“Well, you know, life is a crazy thing,” Keith said. It was obvious that shutting his mouth was the best course of action, but there was a giant hole of awkwardness that had to be filled up with words.
Keith continued, “It’s like what Ferris Bueller said. Life goes by fast and if you don’t look at where you’re going then you end up a failure. Maybe you want to go to a good music school but you don’t get in so you end up going to the Wyoming University of music, then get kicked out, end up going to community college, and get a degree in philosophy. Maybe that will happen.”
“Isn’t that what happened to you?”
“I’m going to stop talking now.” Keith said.
“Are you drunk? Or high? Because you’re usually only this talkative when you’re either of those two.”
Tuesday had flown in on tired wings and Keith was busy yawning his way through his shift at Mcdonalds. All he could think about was cupcakes. Perhaps he was just hungry. After all, he hadn’t eaten since Sunday, but he hadn’t felt like eating, except when he saw that cupcake shop.
Everything he saw reminded him of Frosting Fighting. He saw the shape of a cupcake in the hair of a woman, the splatter of a Cream Cannon in some spelled vanilla milkshake, and the teeth of a leech in a regular human's teeth. There were no leeches in the Frosting Fighting game, but he kept associating the two of them together.
“Hello,” a man said walking up to the counter “Do you sell burgers here?”
“I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!” Keith screamed. “I MUST HAVE FROSTING FIGHTING!!!”
He burst out of the store and into his car. His destination was home. But first, he needed to make a pit stop.
The doors of the cupcake store swung open as Keith swung them open.
“Give me nineteen cupcakes!!!” Keith screamed (nineteen was his lucky number).
“Sir, the sign says we’re closed” a man sweeping the floor pleaded.
“Did I stutter?” Keith shrieked. The answer to that question was no. He did not stutter.
Keith woke up on the floor. His chair was tipped over and there were cupcake boxes and cupcake crumbs everywhere. He had a nasty headache. Something was wrong with him.
He found his phone lying near him and looked at it. It was 2am. He had been playing that game for over twelve hours.
When he looked at his computer he saw the game, on pause. It was at that time that he realized he was ruining his already fairly ruined life. He went to the tab and deleted it.
“There,” he thought to himself “I’ll never play it again, unless I re-open steam and then hit the play button again. But I will not do that.”
An awful feeling was covering him like a wet sweatshirt. His stomach was aching and his head was pounding and there was a disgusting taste in his mouth. A yawn skedaddled out of his mouth as he trudged his way to the bathroom.
The face that greeted him in the mirror was unusually pale, and his skin seemed to be unusually droopy. A touch of his fingers to his face caused him to blink in surprise. His skin felt unusually…soft. His mind tried to come with an explanation of what that meant, but it felt like his brain had the consistency of the cupcake frosting in the game.
After slowly swimming through his own melting mind for a while he eventually decided that he needed to go outside. It was night, so he grabbed a can of pepper spray.
Somehow, he found himself standing in front of the cupcake store. It was closed, obviously. He could see the cupcakes on the other side of the glass, beckoning to him with frosting fingers.
He let out a sharp sound of anguish then dashed back to his house.
He lasted about seven hours before succumbing to the desire to play. “Yeah, I can’t come into work today.” he told his boss at Burger King. “I’m sick.”
And it was true, he did feel sick. Faint white smears had started appearing on his keyboard.
The rest of the day was spent playing Frosting Fighting. He had reached level 1657.
A pop up had told him that it was the 9th highest high score. Life on Mars blared at an extraordinary volume when he saw that.
When he looked at himself in the mirror that night he noticed a bit of chocolate sauce coming out of his ear. That was highly unusual.
On Thursday he dragged himself to work at Burger King. His job at Mcdonalds was already in a coffin thanks to the stunt he pulled, so he had to be careful.
Work was always the worst experience of his life, but it was especially the worst experience of his life that day. Everyone gave him strange looks, especially that one time he opened his mouth and a hailstorm of sprinkles spilled out. His fellow employees asked him where his eyebrows had gone, and he didn’t have any answer, so he sarcastically stated that they had gone on vacation.
His crummy apartment felt like a sweet release. He immediately ran up to his computer. A pop up said that he was now the 10th highest score. Someone had gotten ahead of him while he was at work. He cursed loudly as he reached for another cupcake. He briefly stopped, when did he buy cupcakes? Then he shrugged it off. He needed to focus on winning.
The keyboard keys moved down under the weight of his fingers until he paused for a second to look at them. His fingernails were gone. That development was something that he also shrugged off. Fingernails weren’t important. Getting the highest score was.
It was nine o clock on a saturday when Chris showed up. First he knocked on the door. There was no response. Then, he tried opening the door and that worked.
“What the hell is wrong with you?! Do you want to be robbed? You n-“
Chris stopped speaking as he looked out at Keiths apartment. It was an absolute mess of cupcake boxes and cupcake wrappers and crumbs, and the song “Life on Mars” seemed to be playing from nowhere.
The cherry on top of this sunday of surreality was Keith, sitting right in front of the computer, his head turning to face him.
His face appeared ruffled, and it had the same texture as cream, like it was the frosting on a cupcake. His hair had all fallen out and his face was a bone white.
“Hello, friend.” Keith said.
The shock exploding through Chris made any screaming impossible . He had gone from Angry Chris mode to Frightened Chris mode.
“Don’t worry,” Keith said “I’ve figured out exactly what’s going on. You know leeches? They’re parasites, they suck the nutrients of their hosts. Well? This game, it’s a mental parasite. It’s been sucking my mental energy. I’m not exactly sure why the body transformation is occurring, but I think it’s related.”
“What?” was all that Chris could say.
“You see, this game keeps making me feel like I’ve succeeded. However, there’s always another level to win, another spot to move up on. I currently have the 4th highest score of any player. This may seem bad, but it’s fine. What was the point of anything else anyways?”
Keith went back to his game but then paused, “Also by the way, I forget what your name was, the nature of your personality, and everything else about you. All I remember is that we’re friends, and I love you, even though you’re a jerk.”
A large amount of chocolate sauce began to stream out of Keith's ear.
The scream that flung itself from Chrises mouth was high pitched and terrified as he turned around and ran out of the apartment.
“Hello, 911, I think my friend is turning into a cupcake!”
“Sir, it is a federal crime to prank call 911.”
Chris put down the phone. It was becoming clear to him now that he didn’t have anyone to turn to. He had seen every episode of The Twilight Zone, read every Junji Ito horror story, and been through all of Ray Bradburies works, so he knew that going to the authorities would be a dead end.
The only way to save his friend was to do it himself. If he could punch a goose for hissing at his girlfriend, then he could do whatever it took to stop Frosting Fighting.
It had taken 12 hours for Chris to learn all about parasites, the psychology of addiction, and metamorphosis in biology. Obviously, he had also looked up the game and obviously he did not find any results. His research left him with the idea that the best course of action would be to go to Keith's apartment, knock him unconscious, then smash his computer to smithereens with a baseball bat.
Thankfully, Chris owned a large amount of chloroform, and baseball bats are pretty easy to come by. Chris hypothesized that the memetic parasite that had infected Keith had caused him to start to inadvertently warp reality around him. Knocking him out would stop the reality warping.
He just hoped that he wasn’t too late.
The door to Keiths apartment was still unlocked when Chris arrived. It swung open easily for him as he stepped inside the apartment and let out a gasp.
The floor was covered with what looked like a mixture of chocolate sauce, velvet icing, and sprinkles. Covering the walls was a strawberry cream dotted with splatters of custard that arranged to form what looked like sheet music. However, the crown jewel in this crown of craziness was Keith, or rather, what was left with Keith.
Sitting in front of Keiths computer was a massive human-sized swirl of frosting. It was topped with a drizzle of chocolate icing, sanding sugar sprinkles, and a red fondant flower.
Overflowing with terror, Chris approached the glob. It had no face, no arms, no features to identify it as human.
Shining on it was the computer screens piercing light. Displayed on the screen was a pop up reading “2nd highest score”.