16: Somebody’s Prize

16: Somebody's Prize WOE.BEGONE


Hey, Mike. This is Charlie from the front gate. You have a visitor. Do you want me to let her in?


I’ve gotten pretty lucky to have an audience that isn’t interested in finding things that don’t line up to them in a story that is still being told and saying “But in episode XX you said this! Plothole! Plothole! Someone call CinemaSins, we got a plothole over here!” You know that I know what I’m doing and I have reason to do the things that I do. It will all get sorted out in the end. Or things will end abruptly and people will start saying “well, I really liked WOE.BEGONE, but I can’t really recommend it because of how it ended.” Aww, but you really liked it though?

I bring all of this up because of something that I said at the beginning of episode 13: that I was being vague on purpose and I didn’t want Anne to come and find me. What does that mean? I kept saying “Oldbrush Valley” over and over again. There was even a song about it that I said that was written in 1929. Can’t I just type “Oldbrush Valley” into Google Maps and see exactly where it is?

Yes, you can, but good luck making sense of it. It’s a lot like Area 51 in that you can look at it on Google Maps but you can’t get a good sense of what is actually happening there. Oldbrush Valley is huge and you can’t just walk in and see for yourself, even if you’re a hardscrabble journalist trying to locate your college friend for unspecified reasons. I got lost and had to get directions from personnel when I showed up here. Turns out that I was in Oldbrush Valley East and not what I needed to be. I’m sure that the labyrinthine layout of the place does exactly what it was designed to do, which is to keep people from being able to easily walk in.

The history that I gave was true, at least as true as someone who read a wikipedia article and summarized it on a podcast can be. I rerecorded the song “Oldbrush Valley” by myself to try and get around any possible copyright issues and to make it something that I could share on soundtrack albums and on patreon.

And if you can type “Oldbrush Valley” into Google and start finding answers for yourself, then you know that Anne can as well. She better equipped than anyone in the world for the task of discovering the hidden location of Mike Walters. She knows about the podcast and experienced her part of the story in real time and she’s a journalist. I assume that being a journalist means being good at that kind of thing but I don’t actually know. Cue the clip of me from episode 1 saying that I was wrong to pretend to be a journalist. I suppose if I really wanted the trail to run cold I could have simply not done a second season of the podcast, but what’s the fun in that? If a bear maims a man in the woods and there isn’t anyone to hear it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, does it make a sound?

I expected from the outset that every little piece of info would be scraped from my podcast episode in Anne’s quest to find me. The tiniest detail could give everything away, so I made sure to word everything carefully. It was designed to tell the story while keeping me safe. I would never do something so careless as saying the name of a well-meaning but enigmatic security guard from North Dakota over and over again. Hunter Jeremiah Hartley. Hunter Jeremiah Hartley. Hunter Jeremiah Hartley.

Hunter Jeremiah Hartley has a public facebook page where he posts all the time about the stuff that happens on at O.V.E.R., pictures included. None of what we have access to out here is strictly classified. There are the cabins, but we aren’t allowed in them so unless you’re breaking the rules, you don’t know anything more about them than if you had looked up an aerial view of them on Google Maps. Pictures of them on social media are fine. This made it trivial for Anne to pinpoint where I was at O.V.E.R. No journalist-ing required.

This explains why I got a call on my cabin’s landline phone at 9am on a brisk Sunday morning. It was one of the guards at the front gate. She called to let me know that there was a woman at the gate who wanted to meet with me and asked if I should let her in. I told her that I would meet her at the gate instead.


[Intro music plays.]

[WOE.BEGONE is a story all about how my life got flip-turned upside down. So, I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, and I’ll tell you a story about a town called Oldbrush Valley Energy and Resources Employee Residential Facilities Incorporated Zone. The story starts back at episode 1, though, so go back and listen to that if you haven’t yet.]

I’m sure that there is some confusion regarding the structure of the game and how it pertains to the situation between me and Anne. That is because things got profoundly tangled up at the end of the first season and never got successfully untangled. But I have no reason to believe that I am no longer playing a game. Ryan made it clear to me that I was still playing when I met him and the situation doesn’t seem like it has changed from there. At some point we stopped playing a game and started being hostages. “Game” is just the word I have become accustomed to using to describe this hostage situation. The game did not stop just because I relocated and the events I am experiencing are different now. Anne still wants to complete the fourth challenge in order to progress. There are other players playing WOE.BEGONE across various challenges and in myriad places. There could even be other people at O.V.E.R. playing the game that I haven’t met yet. This isn’t just Mike’s quirky nature adventures. This is WOE.BEGONE. I’m not going to do the joke where the intro song comes back in when I say that. I don’t want to wear it out. 

 As far as rules go, the gamerunners have repeatedly refused to elucidate how they work vis-a-vis what I am now calling the Anne Paradox. Listening back to old episodes, I realize that I explained this way too many times, like it was a difficult concept to grasp. Since it’s been awhile and since I can tell through analytics that some of you don’t listen to the show in order, here it is: Anne’s prize for the first WOE.BEGONE challenge was that I was brought back to life. The fourth challenge is to kill your prize. If you underperform relative to other players, your WOE.BEGONE game ends and you lose your prize. If Anne loses, I die. If I don’t let Anne kill me, then I’m… fine? No, of course I die. I was in a die/die scenario here. 

I had no direct confirmation that Anne was going to attempt to kill me at all. I was led to believe by the gamerunners that lots of people fail the game before they even get to this point. Some of them probably die trying to do the other challenges. Maybe Anne might drop out of the game. But she was at my house when she should have been in St. Louis the day that Ryan did his brain thing that scormbled parg of my blerg, something that she never addressed and I find immensely suspicious. She could have killed me in my bed that week, though, so at the very least she is conflicted about it. I can feel for her in some strange way. As a murderer myself, I know how conflicted I was when I killed Matt. 

There is always the hope that there is some sort of big ctrl-z waiting at the end of this to put everything in its right place. That’s part of why I decided to meet with her when she showed up at the gate to O.V.E.R. The other reason is that this has to come to a head sooner or later and I’d rather the gamerunners not make that decision for me. I grabbed my gun, of course. Anne wasn’t going to be making that choice for me, either. It was the first time that I had carried my gun on me without unease about having it on me. I might actually have to defend myself. Plus, it’s not actually Chekov’s Gun. It doesn’t have to go off. We just had a Chekov’s Bear last episode. What are the odds of those two things being so close to one another? 

Waiting at the gate for me, Anne had a sunny disposition for someone who was possibly conspiring to murder her friend. It was all smiles with her. People who are happy in the morning make me furious. Still, I was as smooth as I always am: incredibly.

“Anne, hi! What are you doing here?” I said from the other side of the gate.

“I was in the neighborhood and thought I would pop by,” she said. 

“You really didn’t have to do that.” I replied. 

“Can you let me in? The security lady said that all guests must be accompanied inside by an employee.”

“No, let me come to you,” I said. “There’s a cute little diner right around the bend back there that I’ve been meaning to go to. And we can talk about what you’ve been up to for the last month.” I needed to get her somewhere public but not within earshot of O.V.E.R. security. She nodded and I came out on the other side of the gate. 

We ordered breakfast. I know that I eat biscuits and gravy for breakfast nearly every day at O.V.E.R. but I love biscuits and gravy more than I love my own family and if I were going to have a last meal, it was going to be biscuits and gravy. The gravy was too thin, but it was okay. I forgive them. 

“You were surprisingly easy to find, Mike. Your coworkers seem really nice, though. At least from what I can tell on social media,” she said with a smirk.

“Too pure for this world, some of them,” I said. One of them. 

“Do you know why I came here today?” she asked. 

“You can’t kill me in front of all of these people and I’m not going anywhere alone with you,” I said. “I haven’t decided where I’ve landed on your fourth challenge yet, but I am going to decide for myself what the best course of action is. They issued me a gun and I have it with me, Anne. If you’re going to wipe me off of the map, I might as well take you out in the process. I’ve already died before and I didn’t much care for it. I am averse to doing so again. You’ve come to a place with the tightest security that I have ever seen. A place that employs me and disappears people regularly. We’re safer to discuss this stuff here but I bet even here has a few O.V.E.R. personnel that would rip you to shreds if you tried anything funny. At least if I decide to pull the trigger I won’t have to worry about what comes next. So what are you going to fucking do, Anne?” I had worked myself up into quite the frothing rage over the course of my monologue. I didn’t know that I had that in me. 

Anne just smiled a demure smile. “Why, Mike,” she said, “You have me all wrong. Of course I didn’t come here to kill you. All of this time you have been on the run from me, there hasn’t been anyone chasing you. If you had just talked to me, you wouldn’t have had to live in fear all this time. You don’t have the whole story.”

To me, that sounded exactly like something that a murderer would say, so I remained tense. “Then tell me why you’re here, then,” I said. 

“Well, for starters, it did not take me a month to find you,” she said. “I had basically found you by the time you were saying “Anne, don’t come find me” on your podcast. You did a bad job of covering your tracks, almost like you couldn’t decide whether or not you wanted to be found. Maybe you thought it was inevitable. Maybe you felt guilty and self-destructive after killing Matt, I don’t know. But it was trivial to find you and plan a visit. You might work for a top secret facility, but you yourself are not top secret. It was trivial to get you to let me through the gate.”

My ears perked up. “Excuse me?”

“So you don’t remember anything at all, then? Not even meeting me at the front gate?” she asked. 

“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Mike said. 

“I know,” she said. “I’m just trying to lay the story out for you. I could skip to the consequences, but I want to make sure that you know everything that I know by the end of this and you will have a lot of questions if I don’t tell the whole tale.

“It was one of your first days on the job. You were still getting the hang of things and meeting everyone in the valley. You told me about Hunter and Marissa, I think her name was? Once I got your guard down, I mean. You even let me inside the gate. You told me that you thought that you would be safer inside than outside, funnily enough. I wonder what made you choose the opposite this time if you don’t remember that time? They wouldn’t let me have a weapon in there but they’ll let me have whatever I want in this crappy little diner. 

“You seemed resigned. You told me that the jig was up and that you just wanted whatever was happening to happen already. You had just been mauled by a bear and hadn’t fully recovered yet, and I think the pain was getting to you. The painkillers too, probably. You showed me your back. I didn’t think it would freak me out but I did the second challenge, too, you know. I have to think about that any time I see raw flesh like that. I can’t watch good horror movies anymore. John Carpenter is off the table. 

We talked for hours in your cabin. You told me about your new friends and about killing Matt. You told me about the real bear and the guy that Marissa thought was a bear. We talked about the WOE.BEGONE prize paradox and how it made everything you did feel futile. The tone of the conversation vacillated between graphic, sad, and funny so quickly. I think that combination is what you do so well, Mike. You made me laugh 5 minutes before you handed me your service weapon and I shot you in the head.”

Record scratch sound effect. “Do-what now?”

“I killed you Mike. I completed the fourth challenge,” she said. 

“And you’re sure that you actually did this?” I asked. 

She nodded. “I shot you in the head in your cabin, calmly walked out of Oldbrush Valley, got in my car, and drove home,” she said. 

“And yet I am living,” I replied.

“I’ve noticed,” she said. “I knew that you were alive again when the podcast feed updated. You told me that you hadn’t even started recording episode 15 yet. The last joke you ever told me was “well, at least I don’t have to edit the breaths out of episode 15 now.””

“I don’t want to think about what this means,” I said. God damn it. [Frustrated banging sound.]

“Could it mean anything else?” she asked.

“Not that I can think of,” I said and sighed. 

“You’re somebody’s prize, but you’re not mine anymore,” Anne said.  

“I don’t like the implications of this,” I said. 

“It should buy you some time at least,” Anne said. “I was at the end of my rope. You knew it, I knew it. That’s why you let me kill you in the first place. You didn’t see any other way out except to trust me to figure out how to bring you back later.”

“But when it was you, I knew it was you. I have no idea who could have done it this time. It could be someone that knew about WOE.BEGONE and knew that I was playing, or it could be someone that was sad that I died and stumbled on the game that way. It could even be someone that was upset that there weren’t going to be any new episodes of the podcast. They could be prepared to go the distance with it, or they might back out at challenge 2 and erase me all over again. And of course there’s what happens when they get to challenge 4. God damn it.”

“If someone cared enough to use this dangerous technology to bring you back to life, why would they not tell you that they had done so?” she asked. 

“Maybe so that I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder for them. Maybe so I never see them coming when it’s time to complete the fourth challenge. Maybe they saw that I have already died twice playing WOE.BEGONE and they assume that I will be easy to kill when the fourth challenge comes. None of it looks very good for me,” I said. 

“There’s no one you suspect?” she asked. 

“Who could it even be? Matt’s dead, it can’t be you, CANNONBALL and Ryan wouldn’t do it because that’s not what they are interested in,” I said.

“Well, O.V.E.R. is a hotbed of WOE.BEGONE activity,” she said, “at least that’s why you think that they put you there. Is there anybody there that you’ve met that could be a culprit?”

“I haven’t even met that many people, unfortunately. O.V..E.R. does a good job of spreading everyone out. I think this is on purpose to keep too many people from coming together and piecing together too much of the puzzle. Chance and Shadow: no way. Their dispositions are too well-adjusted to get involved in WOE.BEGONE, unless I’ve radically misjudged them. They wouldn’t bring me back just because they miss me. They’d do the right thing and mourn me and move on,” I said. 

“And the others?” she said.

“Well, Marissa was being strange about the bear from the moment that I met her and then shot a guy under the auspices that she thought that he was a bear. That could have all been a fabrication, I guess. So, she could be playing WOE.BEGONE. But if she is, I couldn’t be her prize because she shot the bear before you completed your fourth challenge. If that was part of the game, that means that she was already playing. That guy could have been her fourth challenge,” I said. 

“And Hunter?” she asked. 

“Hunter. So nice and so strange. It’s like there are two of him sometimes, which does seem like WOE.BEGONEry. There could really be two of him. That would explain why he remembers some things sometimes and other times it’s like I never said those things to him. It explains a lot of other contradictory behavior as well. He had a key to a locked drawer in a red flag cabin, even though that seemed way above his pay grade. But if he’s up to something, it’s not playing WOE.BEGONE. If there’s two of him that means that he is above playing because that means that he himself is going back in time. He could be Flinch, he could be a gamerunner, this could be a weird series of coincidences, but he isn’t a player. Him starting the game after I died also doesn’t explain his suspicious behavior from before I died.”

“You don’t think that his unique mental situation could explain all of that, too?” Anne asked. 

I’d like to say that I stopped the conversation and gave an impassioned diatribe about how we as human beings aren’t totalized by our worst moments or lopsided chemistry in our brains, how it is both cruel and reductive to attribute to mental illness what can easily be explained by separate motivations, how this assumption both damages the person in question and ruins our ability to predict and understand them.But we’re trying to piece together the time travel game, not suss out the emotional resonance of Hunter Jeremiah Hartley, so I just said “nah.”

“Those are all the people that I’ve gotten a read on at O.V.E.R. so far,” I said. “There could be someone else watching me, toying with me– Flinch eve– but if they are, they are doing it without making much contact with me. Someone disappeared the bear that wasn’t the gamerunners, but no one has reached out to me in a way that indicates that they are playing the game or involved with it in any way. Keeping that sort of thing under wraps does seem in-character for O.V.E.R. though. If not a player, it’s possible that whoever did this– along with whoever disappeared the bear and whatever happened that night at Matt’s house– whoever did this might have never spoken to me or seen me in person. WOE.BEGONE has some sort of extremely advanced surveillance technology within it as well. I think that it’s part of how they manage to undo the events, by having an incredibly intricate knowledge of the causality of those events in the first place to work on reversing. It is difficult to tell when they are watching and when they aren’t, but if they have access to me via the tech, then they can bring me back to life– or death, if they wanted to– without my knowledge or consent any time that they want to. 

That’s a lot of words that could have just been a shrug,” I said.

“The worst part of putting this all together isn’t that all of the threads don’t connect up to make a clear and logical story. That’s true of any story if you dig deep enough into it,” Anne said. “The real problem is that there doesn’t seem to need to be an objective set of events that are linear through time. If they can change the past, then the order of things doesn’t matter.”

“And we don’t know everyone who can change the past or what they want,” I added.

The biscuits and gravy were long finished. Anne and I sat there with just our coffees, with the staff side-eyeing us for taking up a booth for so long without ordering more food. I would definitely be giving a larger tip than normal out of guilt. 

“If you’ve finished the fourth challenge, what are you doing now? Coming to work at O.V.E.R.?” I asked. 

“No. They have different plans for me. I’ve put in an application doing a different job at a different classified facility,” she said.

“That’s too bad,” I said. “Not only because it would have been nice to have a confidant inside of Oldbrush Valley, but also if there’s another facility that they are sending people to it might mean that Flinch isn’t here. Or there could be multiple computers. But getting to the bottom of this won’t be as easy and figuring out what lies at the dark core of Oldbrush Valley.”

“I think if it were that easy, then someone smarter than you would have figured it out already,” Anne joked. I think it was a joke.

“Hey! I get to say that on my podcast, but you don’t,” I said. 

“If you include it, it will be you saying it,” Anne replied. 

“Damn. Maybe I am dumb.”

Serious talk devolved into small talk and then we went our separate ways. I offered to let Anne inside the gate, but she said that she had other stuff to attend to. It was a long drive home for her. I am always in awe of her willingness to travel a huge distance in order to talk to me– or in order to convince me to let her shoot me in the head under the assumption that she would do her best to reverse it as soon as she got the chance.I checked Matt’s social media pages to make sure that he was still dead. He still was. I knew that he would be, but I owed it to the more sentimental part of myself to check. 

There were just too many variables. Anne and I thought out a ton of different possible explanations, but I could sit and speculate all day on what might have happened. People in the future being able to influence events in the past creates a literally infinite number of possibilities that hinge on things that may not have even happened yet. Like, what if Taylor Yarmuth did it? Who is Taylor Yarmuth? No one! I made them up. But there is some possibility that someone named Taylor Yarmuth enters the picture at some point in the future, decides to save me in the past based on… something?… and brings me back. It could be Taylor Yarmuth, it could be Gretchen Stevensbrescher, it could be any completely fabricated identity that my brain could come up with. The only people that I don’t think could be responsible are the ones that I have detailed as being engaged with the WOE.BEGONE story in the present, “in the present” being the operative term. So it could be anyone.

Every time I learn a new piece of information, I realize that the pool of information about WOE.BEGONE is so much larger than I thought it was. Every time I learn something, it actually decreases how much I think that I know what’s going on. It’s funny. I should be relieved that Anne’s fourth challenge ended in a way that didn’t result in my permanent death, but that relief got overshadowed by the sheer amounts of questions raised by it happening. The ticking clock got wound backwards, but it’s impossible to say how far and also now the clock is ticking even louder and the clock also has the face of my father and keeps saying how disappointed he is that I didn’t become a scientist. I’ve had this nightmare many times before. We all have. Right?

Aside from hoping that the gamerunners provide me with tasks that elucide what is going on in Oldbrush Valley, I think my best path forward is to figure out what is going on with Hunter and Marissa. Hunter in particular gives me pause. His kind, almost dopey demeanor makes it such that it is easy to trust him and difficult to accuse him of subterfuge, which might be exactly what he is going for. I know that my misadventures would be more successful if I could just learn to play it cool and amicable around people instead of being a bratty cynic all the time. Marissa is a different story. I don’t know that I suspect her of being involved in this specifically, but it feels like something’s up. I didn’t point this out last episode because I didn’t want to accuse her of anything, but a human being and a bear look quite different from each other. Even an overweight, fully-grown man does not at all compare in size to a bear, aside from bear cubs. I know that she has the veil of night that she can point to as evidence and I’m sure that you can find any number of news articles where this misidentification has happened before, but she was a lot closer than I was and I can’t help but wonder if she saw a person– and if she saw a person, why she still shot and still acted as though she had seen a bear. 

By the way, I completed the walk that I was tasked with in the previous episode. It felt uniquely peaceful. Based on what Anne told me, it must have been the day after she killed me because that was the day that I edited the breaths out of episode 15. The air was crisp but not too cold and there was nobody out there that night, bears and people who ostensibly look like bears included. It was quiet and reflective, something that I really needed after the attack. I have misophonia, which is a processing disorder that makes hearing mouth sounds mentally and sometimes physically painful for me. I don’t have it as bad as a lot of people do, but editing mouth sounds out of the podcast is a mentally taxing task for me that takes all day if I take a sufficient amount of breaks to protect my sanity. The walk was the perfect way to decompress, even if I didn’t know that I had recently returned to this mortal coil. Touching the doorknob the the red flag cabin without having to go in felt freeing. I got to check something off the WOE.BEGONE task list without having to put myself in any danger. I hope that got me one step closer, even if I couldn’t tell how it would just yet.

Next time: WOE.BEGONE continues. There are no brakes on this thing and I wouldn’t pump the breaks now even if there were. Thanks for playing. 

[End theme plays.]