The Pingbell Arena

by Brad Kelechava

A businessman of Bert’s caliber didn’t need to question his actions. His instincts were never wrong, and he always got what he wanted.

So, he parked his car on Conifer Street and walked to the backyard without knocking on the front door.

Just as Bert’s customer had told him to expect, a group of children lolled in the wind. Surrounding them was a square pen composed of gridiron fencing and a small gate, with a robust bell attached to one of the corners. As Bert approached, he could make out a smile on each kid’s face. Above their collection of white teeth and vacant tooth sockets, he saw eyes as empty as the grassy field that surrounded them.

Except for the man in the brown T-shirt. He hadn’t noticed Bert, continuing to fiddle with the tablet in his hands.

“What’s going on?” Bert asked, getting the attention of the man. “You’ve got kids standing in a pen here.”

“Uh,” the man in the brown t-shirt said, “Mr. . . .”

“Bert Garner.”

“Bert, they’re connected to that pingbell.”

“Is that right?” Bert examined the bell-thing in the corner of the pen, but it didn’t look like anything special. He scratched his head, and one of his fingernails shed a hair from his thinning crown. “What, uh—” He hesitated, and he hated himself for it. Bert needed to be the one asking the questions here, but he didn’t want to demonstrate any gaps in knowledge. “Remind me, how does a pingbell work?”

“The pingbell is composed of an array of microprocessors, and it sends signals to the minds of the children playing within the fences. The children send, you know, similar signals to one another.”

“These kids are reading each other’s minds?” Bert asked.

The man dismissed the thought with a lazy wave of his hand. “Sometimes, uh, thoughts are just feelings. The children are relaying those synaptic firing patterns.”

“Mm hm. How exactly is this allowed?” That would dig into this guy’s heart of paranoia. Haggling 101—have him weak and in the palm of your hand even before he knew you wanted anything. He sure seemed vulnerable enough.

“It’s safe,” the man said. “My technology had a pilot run last summer in San Francisco. It was rated ‘Top Fence-Based Augmented Reality Tech to Watch Out For’ by I gave these children, you know, forms for their parents to sign.”

“San Fran, huh?” Bert asked. “Long way from Nebraska. Why come all the way out here?”

“Pingbell arenas require some space,” the man said, finally blessing Bert with a cursory glance. “I found decent rates on this property and thought it would be a good location to develop.”

“Right. I’m here because I heard,” he cleared his throat, “Hadley Beecher came to see you a few days ago.”

“Oh yeah, Mrs. Beecher.”

“Look—” Bert began before finding his words converting to warped utterances as they left his throat. How could Hadley still have this effect on him? It didn’t help that despite all his success, Bert’s time in high school had comprised the greatest part of his life. He knew, even in the darkest moments of his drunken nights, that those thoughts weren’t pure maudlin. “One of my customers told me that Hadley talked to his kid here about having parties at her restaurant.

“Yep,” the man said. “She gave me twenty bucks for it.”

“I know you’re new to town, but Hadley owns The Pickled Pepper,” Bert said. “It’s not much more than a diner, but she and her husband serve some grimy pizza, so they think it’s Chuck E. Cheese. I own a joint called Cheesey Fun. We’re big on pizza, games, and such.”

“Sounds like Chuck E. Cheese.” The man still fiddled with that tablet.

“It’s not.” Bert clenched his fist before soothing his aggravation. “How about I give you twenty-five and tell these kids that Cheesey Fun and not The Pickled Pepper is the place their parents should take them.”

The man shrugged. “Sure.”

“I do advertise, you know. Billboards, mostly, but you can never do enough. It sounds like I might want to put a billboard here.”

“Bert, this is my private property. Besides, the pingbell arena world is highly immersive. Those kids wouldn’t be able to see a billboard. You give me twenty-five, and you can speak with the children once they exit the arena. If you would prefer, uh, I can give you something I didn’t offer to Mrs. Beecher. I can reprogram the pingbell signals to occasionally encourage the kids to crave the food at your restaurant.”

“Sounds great to me,” Bert said.

“Of course, the, uh, advertisement signals will be charged differently—twenty dollars for each day?”

“Each day? You gotta be kidding me?  Hadley only paid you once!”

“Your friend paid me for one minute of interacting with the kids. You will get twenty-four hours. Sounds like, you know, a steal.”

“She’s not my . . .” How would he describe someone who once meant everything to him? How about someone who had thrown away their life together with a phone call? Bert shuffled from foot to foot in the stiff grass. This sort of thing was beneath the grandest echelon of entrepreneurship in which he thrived. “Fine,” Bert said. “Who should make the check out to?”

“Marton Merchant, nice to meet you. And no, I take, you know, card.”


“Oh hey, Bert,” Marton said, offering Bert a cursory glance before returning to work on his tablet. “How is, you know, business?”

“Business is good—well, was good,” Bert said as he joined Marton. “After I stopped by a few weeks back, we had a full house almost every day. But our numbers are down now. Marton, what am I paying you for?”

“You’re not paying me,” Marton said.

“Oh, yes I am. Twenty dollars a day.”

“I haven’t charged your credit card in over a week.”

“What? Why?”

“Because you don’t have to give me any money,” Marton said. “Your advertising signals aren’t running.”

“Why aren’t they running?”

“Mrs. Beecher came by to see me last week. She offered me twenty-five a day, so I switched out the Cheesey Fun signals for The Pickled Pepper.”

“Why on Earth would you do that?” Bert asked, fuming and ready to explode. Of course, Hadley would sneak around and deceive him. He wouldn’t expect any less from the woman who had screwed him over by erasing the future she and Bert had dreamed of sharing. All for some other guy. Bert didn’t take kindly to getting screwed again by those two, certainly not with all his success.

“She offered me a higher bid,” Marton said.

Bert’s palm met his own face with so much force that he thought he might knock himself out. He could do much worse to Marton, but that wasn’t how you did business. He had a degree in marketing, after all, and he was one of the most prominent business owners in town. “Fine, if I give you twenty-six a day, would I get my ads running again in there?” Bert asked.

“You could, but you would risk being, uh, outbid. I’d recommend thirty.”

“Well, what about in that one?” Bert held out an open palm—an essential gesturing skill for any high-performance businessman—toward the second pingbell arena where children stood with their aimless stares, bright smiles, and occasional motioning of their limbs.

Marton’s eyes first locked onto Bert’s hand before tilting toward the second pingbell arena. “Anything, I guess.”

“How about I give you twenty-one?” Bert asked. Marton nodded. Satisfied with the business transaction, Bert added the question, “What’s the deal with the second pingbell, anyway?”

“There was an, uh, incident between some parents,” he explained. “Mrs. Trecklin accused Mrs. Nebster of getting close to her husband. She said that she didn’t want her, uh, slut daughter around her son. Mr. Trecklin came by and put the fence together, and the children broke into two groups.”

“Jesus, she really said that? These kids are like eight.” He let the thought settle in of Marcia Trecklin, a common patron of his, spreading such foul rumors of Janet Nebster, although Janet was known to have a few other instances with married men—the going belief was that her husband, Mike, was into it. “Wait, how did they make another pingbell?”

“I’ve built a lot of pingbells. I leave them and the fencing materials in that shed. They’re free for anyone to use here in the field.”

Then it came to him—the realization that would change everything. Even back in high school, Hadley lacked what it took to be the best. They were both C+ students, but school didn’t matter much in the long run. The world was connected by streets, and Bert Garner had plenty of street smarts. When things got complicated, Hadley didn’t follow. Bert, as an early victim of her callousness, knew that better than anyone. The world was connected by streets, after all, and Hadley was as simple as an alleyway.

“Marton,” Bert said, “lose my credit card information. I prefer free advertising.”

He walked to the shed and got started.


A dampness overtook Bert, as if the backside of his brain were exposed and the birds in the trees gazed into his secrets.

Footsteps. Someone stood in front of him, but Bert’s eyes caught only blurred pixels obfuscating everything he tried to see. Vision meant nothing in this world.

Fwing in: greeting.

Words didn’t mean much in this world either, but the short bursts of words the man standing in the pingbell arena sent to Bert indicated a greater meaning.

Fwing in: greeting, greeting, greeting.

Each ping sent into his head brought a perplexing blend of discomfort and curiosity. It surged waves of anxiety throughout whatever parts of Bert’s body existed in this world, yet it left him soothed and craving more. Bert relaxed and let those birds plunge, beak first, into his exposed brain.

Fwing out: greeting.

Fwing out: introduction.

Fwing in: curiosity.

Bert didn’t just understand the man’s curiosity—with the power of the ping, it was his curiosity now, too.

Fwing out: explanation, explanation, explanation.

That was strange. Bert tried again.

Fwing out: explanation, explanation, explanation.

Fwing in: confusion.

Bert didn’t blame the guy there. In each effort to tell the man of the party packages at Cheesey Fun, the ping he sent out—although the sound was more reminiscent of a sharpened arrow grazing your outer ear—remained “explanation.” The bird in the back of his head didn’t permit such a direct approach, it seemed.

Fwing out: welcoming, hospitality, hunger.

Fwing in: unease, unease, unease.

Fwing out: hospitality, togetherness, entertainment, joy.

Fwing in: happiness, interest.

Fwing out: peace.

Moment of truth.

Fwing in: interest.

He had him. They had exchanged few words, yet he knew that the man not only comprehended all components of Bert’s business but was interested in booking a party at Cheesey Fun next weekend.

He could feel others entering his pingbell arena.

Fwing out: welcome.


Fwing in: comfort.

Did Bert just get pinged? He was outside of his arena—removed from any arena, for that matter. A pingbell shouldn’t have that level of range.

Nearby demolition machines toppled neighboring houses. In their place would soon be more pingbell arenas. All of damn Conifer Street had been blocked off to make space for pingbell arenas—Bert had to park nearly half a mile away. Nearly all the arenas were stuffed with expressionless users. Considering that it was Monday—Bert’s only day off—these things sure were popular.

But Bert’s arena hadn’t felt a taste of that popularity all morning. During the few times someone did stumble into Cheesey Fun’s pingbell arena, they left within the minute. Almost as if they weren’t receiving Bert’s pings.

Marton’s modest two-story house had been demolished. In its place stood a high-rise building, currently little more than an I-beam skeleton. Bert imagined that the tower would stretch over ten stories when completed. It and the recent expansion of pingbells into the road surely violated city ordinances, but that didn’t seem to be an issue. The mayor spent most of his time in the municipal pingbell, and the governor stopped by on occasion. Bert wouldn’t be surprised if the next G5 summit were scheduled to occur at a pingbell arena.

Bert entered the interim help center on the completed first floor. A woman stepped forward to greet him.

Through her thick smile, she said, “Hi, Bert. My name’s Valerie. How can I assist you?”

“I need to—” he began before his mind caught up with his ears. “How do you know my name?”

“I’m here to assist you with anything you need,” she said. The logo on her t-shirt was a blending of “ping” and “bell.” “The system picked up your info when you walked in.”

“I need to speak with Marton.”

That face-engulfing smile of hers returned. “I’m afraid Marton is very busy at the moment, but I’m here to assist you with anything you need.”

“I think there’s something wrong with my pingbell.”

“I’m happy to put in a ticket to have your arena checked for any malfunctions. I can also connect you with your arena excellence officer—”

“No,” Bert said. “I gotta speak with Marton. I know he’s here.”

He brushed past the girl. He was a true entrepreneur, one of the most lucrative in town, and he always found the best option. If he had to pull one of his classic moves and cut by an underling to find a higher-up more vulnerable to manipulation, then that’s just what he would do.

He had to barge into three offices to find him. Behind a thick mahogany desk, seated in a luxurious leather chair, Marton fiddled with his tablet. “Hello, Bert,” he said, his gaze remaining on his tablet. “How are you? How is, you know, business?”

“Well, Marton,” Bert said, taking a seat at the opposite side of the desk while Valerie remained in the doorway, “Not a lot of people are sticking around in my arena. I think it’s because the signal is weaker, and you’re dampening it.”

“That’s preposterous!” Valerie yelled. Bert looked back to see that smile of hers abandon her face.

“I also think you put a pingbell or two outside the fences,” Bert said. “You’re sending signals out into the world.”

Marton set his tablet down. His eyes met the space on the desk in front of Bert. “Bert” he said, “I did install pingbells outside of the arenas. My technology is an entirely new immersive experience. The first time you used it, you probably felt that the experience was, like, grander. The more you got used to my system, the less, uh, inspiring it became. So, it might seem like it is functioning at a lower capacity, but it isn’t.”

“That’s bullshit. You did it on purpose to get us to buy ads. I bet if I gave you money, you’d make my pingbell start working again.”

“We do offer, uh, enhanced pingbell service for a daily fee.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Bert settled in his chair. He had the weirdo right where he wanted him. This was where he did his magic. Everyone else was forced to pay? Not him. Those rules didn’t apply to a top-level deal closer. “Marton, look. I’m not about to pay for something that was given to me for free just a few months ago. I was your first guy here. Before me it was just a group of kids. I’ll tell you what. You bring my pingbell back to normal, and I won’t tell anyone about this whole fiasco.”

Marton slouched in his leather chair. “Bert, I can’t do that. This system is completely impartial, and I can’t give favor to one person or company.”

“But you’re supporting some companies over others. How is that impartial? I bet Hadley’s pingbell is working just fine.”

“The, uh, Pickled Pepper does pay for enhanced service, as well as a range of ads. That’s not favoritism—you can invest in your pingbell arena’s success, too. We allow many competitors to use our platform. We have both local Democrats and Republicans running campaign ads. But the use of pingbell arenas is entirely free and, you know, impartial, and I won’t do anything to harm that.”

“Well, I’m not paying. And I’ll tell you what? If this is so impartial, what’s stopping me from going into other people’s arenas? How about I head over to Hadley’s arena?”

“I would not recommend, you know, harassing another pingbell user. It violates our terms of use, and you will be given a warning—”

“Yeah, yeah, warn away,” Bert said, standing up and rushing to the door. He pushed past the girl. For a moment, that smile of hers flickered back. Habits were hard to break.


Fwing in: greeting, familiarity.

Fwing out: disgust, nausea, wickedness, distrust.

Fwing in: concern.

For years, Hadley and her dim-witted husband had tried to compete with Bert with their rust bucket of an establishment. It would end here. If it had to be in her arena, so be it. She didn’t stand a chance against Bert’s pings.

Fwing out: morbidity, infection, unease, flushing, discomfort, loss.

Fwing in: anger.

The crowd in The Pickled Pepper pingbell arena was thinning out. They would be disturbed by Bert’s pings, but it was better this way. A cluster of rubes like them should have no trouble stumbling into something else in another arena.

By the time the others were gone, Hadley stood directly in front of Bert. He didn’t see her, of course, but the connection was taut thanks to the power emanating from the pingbell that joined them. He didn’t think they had been this close since, well, when they were as close as any two people could be.

Fwing in: remembering, joy, unity.

Bert fought the bubbly aura of jubilation she was sending into his brain. What the hell did she know about unity? It had been decades since they had last seen each other. You would think that all that time and all the success Bert had found as a local leader in business would have helped him get over it, but he knew better. Your grand accomplishments didn’t define you. No, your limited periods of sorrow took care of that.

For Bert, most of that pain had come from the girl who grew into the woman before him.

Fwing out: remembering, deceit, anger, distrust.

That was the only way he could describe it under the bird’s panoptic eye, but Bert couldn’t have said it better with actual words. He often revisited the memory of her telling him over the phone that she had met someone else while away at Northwestern. Everything about the recollection had faded, other than the twist of his heart.

Fwing out: rejection, sorrow, loss.

He had gotten over her, business had been booming. But, ten years ago, the Beechers moved to town, and The Pickled Pepper opened.

Fwing in: excitement, regret, solace, acceptance, peace.

Bert couldn’t fight it. Her pings displaced his own feelings, and, for once, his anger took a break. When Hadley had come back to town, like a deluge of venom, Bert’s sorrow for losing her returned as rage, and he had never let himself escape it. He had even scampered out the back door the few times Hadley had tried to stop by Cheesey Fun. Why did he have to define himself from one year of pain?

As Bert stood before her, unable to see the girl he had loved but succumbing to everything she was feeling, that agony rushed back into his chest, but it quickly subsided. The venom went out with the tide.

Fine. Bert didn’t think his pain over the years had all been for nothing, but he was beginning to think that he was ready to forgive Hadley. He hated to admit it, but seeing matters through such simple terms as the pings blasting into his brain showed that his perceived future for Hadley and him had been a little one-sided on his part. Maybe her returning to town and opening a restaurant wasn’t a personal attack against Bert, but just a woman returning her skills to the place of her upbringing.

Bert left Hadley’s pingbell arena and walked into the grass between it and the next arena. He waited for Hadley to join him before the world around him imploded.


Bert couldn’t see too well in his smudged surroundings, but he knew that Marton was the one kicking the shit out of him.

As Bert tried to draw in a gust of fresh air, Marton pulled back his foot and delivered another blow to his head. Bert spit out blood, feeling some of it stick to his cheek and blend with the sweat and saliva that sheened his face.

“I told you not to violate the rules, Bert,” Marton said. Bert knew he could take this punk down in a fair fight. Just needed to even the odds.

Bert jumped to his feet and charged. Marton managed to deal a blow to the side of Bert’s head that sent him back to the ground.

Bert’s expression slipped into a crimson smile. He attempted to call Marton a moron and threaten to sue him, but his power play only revealed itself as:

Fwing out: complain.

“Bert, don’t bother,” Marton said.

Bert tried to scream to the hills about how pingbells were manipulating people’s minds, but his message again came out as:

Fwing out: complain.

“Bert, do you know where we are right now?” Bert’s vision was blurred, but it seemed like the hard ground he found himself sprawled on was pavement. “We are within my system. I’m not really hitting you. You are completely unharmed. You can have your, you know, pizza place, but I am in control here. Pretty soon, we won’t even need arenas. There will be an open pingbell system, and our expansion to towns throughout the country will ensure their use. You won’t be able to hinder that. Just go back to your arena and buy some ads to support your business, or you’re banned from my system.”

Bert searched for an opportunity to escape, but he could tell when he’d been outplayed. He wouldn’t be able to escape the pingbells; his restaurant was in the system’s range. As was Hadley’s. Hadley, who rode the wave of pingbell technology to fill the seats at her atrocious dump. But Bert had been wrong about her. Was he wrong about this too?

Deep down, he’d never be able to accept it, but he could play along.

Fwing out: acquiescence.

Marton nodded. Bert didn’t know if it were from the pingbell system’s pixelation, or if he was delirious from his fictional concussion, broken ribs, and other bodily trauma, but it seemed that the affirmative gesture lasted far too long, like a video on repeat.

Marton disappeared, leaving Bert alone in the pingbell world for a few moments before another man appeared.

Bert wouldn’t be able to handle another beating.

Fwing out: pleading, begging.

“Everything is going to be alright, Bert,” the man said. “I’m Brecken, your arena excellence officer. Let’s invest in your business’s future.


The sky above Conifer Street was as blue as ever, but Bert, lying on his back in the grass between arenas, was the only person nearby who could enjoy its natural beauty.

 Powering past the phantom pain that lingered throughout his body from the ordeal deep within the pingbell system, Bert rose and dusted off the dirt that had smudged the backside of his clothes.

In the pingbell arena ahead of him, Hadley stood expressionless with a few others. Finally getting a look at her after so much time, she looked much the same, and the faint network of wrinkles lining her face did little to diminish her good looks. Bert wished he could say the same about himself, but, these days, he didn’t know where his hairline began or how his potbelly extended further past his belt with every meal.

Had she not stepped out with him? Bert had expected the two of them to have at least some semblance of a touching reunion, but there were others in the arena with Hadley. Bert could get that—business always came first.

Bert began to move back into The Pickled Pepper’s pingbell arena, but, as he reached for the gate, he decided against it. Better to let her woo her two potential customers. They’d have plenty of time to ping each other later.

Instead, Bert took the time to move throughout other arenas tightly placed throughout Conifer Street. As he explored them, he encountered a man expressing paranoia with the current political situation, a boy exhilarated at the thought of new video game releases, a girl praising her jacket, and a college student procrastinating on completing his term paper by listening to a Korean War veteran explain some of his worst days.

Their means of communicating through pings was simple and streamlined, but Bert understood it all. By the time he took a break from the pingbell arenas, the blue sky had swapped places with darkness dotted with bright yellow stars.

Down on Earth, work lights illuminated several dozen stories of Marton’s tower in progress.

Bert didn’t like the guy, but he could appreciate the monument to Marton’s success. In pingbell arenas all over the country, people would rekindle connections, sustain relationships, and ignite conflict, and businesses would scramble to try to connect with those users in their natural habitat in seemingly natural ways.

Once that tower was finished, Marton would take the top floor spot. Not a better power move than that. Up there, Marton would listen and comprehend more than Bert was willing to cram into his brain.

Bert walked back into his pingbell arena, ready to get a few hours in before heading home. Someone else could watch over the restaurant tomorrow. Bert knew where he would be.

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