An exclusive, immersive experience gets a bit too immersive.

Microphone in front of a jolly roger flag
Niyazz / Shutterstock

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While maneuvering the trusty sedan off the freeway, driving into Hollywood, Tom accepted Megs’ nervous gum-popping with boyfriendly patience. The popping must be a sort of SoCal meditation, Tom observed, watching his blonde princess center herself painstakingly in his passenger seat before she read an invitation off her phone. “The Billy Bones Slayers featuring the Streetwaymen: An immersive experience that will leave you gobsmacked …”

In 1.2 miles turn left,” the luxurious British GPS voice interrupted.

Tom cooed at the device’s soothing tone. “Thanks, Gloria.”

“I can’t believe you call it that.” Megs popped loudly.

“Gloria Peterson-Santino,” Tom said proudly, patting the device like a puppy, before checking his tight curly coif absentmindedly.

“Sounds like a real estate agent.”

“Who said she’s not? GPS by day, selling condos in Malibu by night.” Through more gum popping, Tom changed the subject. “So, you said this is a concert?” He feigned his struggle to read street signs.

“Actually, it looks like a PopUp.” Megs scanned through the invitation.

“A PopUp?” His enthusiasm waned with each syllable.

“Yeah, I had this email forwarded to me. Seemed cool. I also told a few people at work, so I think they signed up too.”

“I mean, what influencer would miss a PopUp?”

Public relations,” she corrected and continued to read aloud: “… immersive experience will leave you gobsmacked by the production and performance. Exclusive access for the first twenty registrants.”

“Oh, immersive. I’m guessing you were one of the first twenty?”

“Obviously,” she said with a grin. “Apparently, they only do this every few weeks in secret locations.” Secret locations came out in a somewhat mock spooky voice.

“How did you find out about this?”

She popped at least two more times before answering. “My cousin Sam forwarded me the email. He said he did this a few weeks ago, and it was ‘only something to be experienced.’”

“Isn’t Sam mad at you?”

“I thought so too, particularly after Thanksgiving with the mashed potato incident and parade and our uncle’s acerbic wit. But this email came, and he seemed excited, so I agreed to check it out.” She shrugged it off. “Anyhow, he’s trying.”

“Right …” He turned the appropriate corner.

Turn right; then, your destination will be on the left.” 

“Of course it is, Gloria,” Tom grumbled at the wall of traffic. He managed some salmon-upstream navigation to join a queue of cars, because Hollywood. The industrial entrance looked like a basic paid parking lot. However, the balloons and streamers tied to the fence gave a strong indication that this was where they needed to be. A sardonic masked PA, armed with a clipboard and headset, flagged them down. “Name?”

“Megs Wright,” Megs announced from the passenger seat.

“Usually,” Tom said under his breath, and Megs stuck her tongue at him.

The PA ignored him. “Megs Wright and Plus One. Great, it looks like you’re the last one. If I could get you guys to sign this NDA,” the PA handed them said clipboard and tossed a ticket onto the dash.

Tom skeptically watched as Megs signed and then relented with his signature. “This must be why Sam couldn’t talk about it. I get it now.”

“Follow that white Jaguar there, and make sure to stay in your car at all times. Once you’ve stopped inside, please turn off your engine. Here are your goodie bags.”

Tom collected the bags, thanked the PA, and then drove ahead, following the white Jaguar around a corner as instructed. Lively signage decorated the route, mostly noting this being a “filming area” and to make sure the NDA was signed before entering. “I see a yellow Bug and an obnoxiously bright blue Prius ahead of the Jag. This is a happening crowd. Any coworkers you recognize?” Tom said, traffic stalling once or twice.

“No, but it’s weird that we have to stay in our cars for a PopUp.”

“Social distancing?”

“No, I don’t think that’s it …”

Signal lost,” Gloria said, surprising no one as they turned the corner.

“Thanks, Gloria,” Tom said, bewildered. “Whoa.” Despite over a dozen cars tightly parked in the backlot and no event workers around, they were surprised to find some overturned cars blocking the far exit. Light smoke billowed but looked controlled — perhaps more dry ice than actual smoke — with a Jolly Roger draped over it, torches nearby. Transfixed by the production, Tom nearly didn’t stop in time, being inches from the Jaguar’s bumper ahead of them, and almost propelled Megs into the dash. She gave a loud pop of gum in protest. “Sorry. This seems elaborate …” Tom killed the engine and rolled down his window. The score from Pirates of the Caribbean floated around the lot in very high quality. “Oh, solid surround sound. This will be interesting. But the pirate stuff?”

“Billy Bones was a pirate from Treasure Island …”

“Oh, right.” This was unconvincing.

“And Black Sails.” Megs saw the confirmation in his eyes as she picked up one of the goodie bags. It was a cute canvas tote with the Streetwaymen logo on it, containing additional branded items: facemask, pen, whistle, water bottle, beer koozie, lip balm, and a handful of flyers for nearby restaurants. “Seems like the usual.”

A guitar chord struck over the music, drawing attention to the overturned cars. Decked in punked-out pirate garb, a tall Viking-like man appeared. His guitar had a massive skull on the body, making no mistake as to their name. “Is there an opener, or is this it?” Tom joked as the guitarist hyped up the crowd from their cars. The guitarist launched into an extremely metal version of “Yo Ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me.” More flames and other pyrotechnics popped off as a band joined in. They were pretty good, definitely down for the theatrics and running and sliding about. Megs certainly got amped, and Tom, too — more than he’d admit.

After three — or was it four? — songs, the last was interrupted mid-guitar-solo by a dozen or so men who had emerged on horseback. The crowd quieted, the clicking of hooves echoing on the pavement over the sweet reverb. Megs felt the tension vibrate their little car, and it sent a chill of excitement up her spine. She clapped like an eager little seal. The newcomers appeared, dressed in period-accurate 18th-century garb, complete with tricorn hats and masks — the masks seemed more suitable for a masquerade than a horseback ride or the aforementioned social distancing. They started to trot between cars, throwing out “yars” like pirates. Megs noticed that other car occupants were shaking their fists and booing at them. She looked through the goodie bag and found a list of “rules.” “Oh, apparently, we are supposed to act like this is a melodrama, and these are our villains.”

Tom watched them pace on horseback, capes fluttering in the wind. “So, these are the … ?”

“Streetwaymen, yes, like …”

“Like highwaymen but on the street …” He finished the sentence with her, rolling his eyes. “I got that …”

BANG! Their attention was called to one Streetwayman in particular. “Ladies, gentlemen, nonbinary, gender fluid, and plus!” The Debonair Streetwayman presented himself with an ancient-looking pistol in hand and a swagger off the charts. “Good evening.”

“He’s so polite,” Tom whispered.

“And inclusive.” Megs nodded along.

The Debonair Streetwayman continued. “Since you are now locked into this lot, we want you to know that we ask not for your lives or vehicles. We don’t want credit cards, just jewelry, iPads, IDs, Apple Watches, what have you … or cash!” As he motioned, other riders came around with sacks; he laughed joyfully, “Whatever you think is appropriate for tipping our performance!” The crowd cheered.

Tom scoffed. “Really?”

Megs scanned the card again. “Apparently, they want us to comply with this.”

“That’s … weird.”

“And if you do not comply, we shall have the band’s heads!” Two men held the guitarist and the bass player hostage. The keyboardist managed to escape, with the drummer stopped mid-stride, his leg lassoed, and dragged him some distance. It was similar to an old Wild West stunt show.

Megs read further. “Oh, but we can still boo and hiss back.” Megs watched the people in the Prius obey and hand over some cash and jewelry. “Leave them alone, you fool!” she yelled enthusiastically.

“Go back to the Renaissance Faire!” The man in the Jaguar yelled to the nearest Streetwayman. The Streetwaymen played into it, laughing maniacally or rearing their horses a little too close to the car windows for comfort.

The tightly-wound woman in the yellow Bug looked fed up with the performance and attempted to get out of her car, but they denied her. “This can’t be legal!” She rolled up her window in response.

At this point, Megs and Tom were awed by the chaos of gathering items from cars and the additional stunt work the Streetwaymen employed — tricks of dashing between cars as the music crescendoed with the pyrotechnics. Then, of all the cars, the Jaguar driver revved his engine and attempted to move his vehicle at the Debonair Streetwayman for defense. The Debonair Streetwayman shook his head with a tsk-tsk and whistled to a rather slim Streetwayman, who separated from the horde as if choreographed, jumped off his horse, and popped a tire with a rather impressive crossbow shot. The stunt riding continued without missing a beat, the men leaping on and off horses. Others hit targets around the lot with the crossbows. Meanwhile, the attendees either cheered or booed.

“Oh shit,” Tom said, reaching for his wallet, “that shot was awesome.”

The Debonair Streetwayman came to Tom and Megs’ car, overhearing the praise, pointing his ancient-looking pistol at Tom. “What say you just now?”

“I am impressed. Have you done stunt training for films?” He looked around. “Who coordinated all this? Can I get their number for a future project?”

“Are you really trying to network right now?” Megs asked.

“Why not? This is immersive.” Tom nodded to the Debonair Streetwayman. “Very impressive tricks.”

“Tricks?” He cocked his pistol, hamming up his performance exponentially. “What tricks?”

Megs followed along with the card and nudged for Tom to put up his hands. “Sorry, sir … here.” She gave up her cash. “Solid realism.”

“Our thanks, little lady.”

The woman in the yellow Bug got out and shot off a flare gun. A few of the horses reacted, and once the men got hold of them, the debonair leader signaled to the others on horseback, who all responded in turn. A sharp whistle, and they all rode away in haste, gathering up the band members on their way out.

The music stopped abruptly, along with any additional pyrotechnics. A long beat happened before anyone got out of their cars. Blank expressions followed the lull, then a handful of applause as a few Instagram opportunists ran to the overturned cars to get some pics. “Whoa. That was really immersive,” Tom said, trying to find a signal with his phone. “Do you have any bars? I want to see if these guys have a booking site.”

Megs looked at her phone, then around at the confused and struck patrons fiddling with their phones. Head scratching and shrugs as some turned on their engines and tried to maneuver out of the lot. Megs noticed the absence of staff and took note that the signage was missing. “Wait, did we all just get robbed?”

Tom took a moment and put an exasperated hand to his face. “You know, I think Sam is still mad at you.”

Featured image: Niyazz / Shutterstock

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  1. Well Ms. Guillote, I’m not sure WHAT to say, but I’ll come up with something. It’s very up-to-the-minute. A few of the tech/gender references wouldn’t have made sense 8 or more years ago. I like your conversational, descriptive writing style here. I’d say it’s weird, but I can’t! It’s happening IN Hollyweird!

    You did a clever mash-up of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ meets the Renaissance Faire meets Medieval Times Restaurant meets Medieval World from *’Westworld’. I’m glad things didn’t devolve into violence, only turning into an elaborate robbery hoax, but you get to keep your life. All the cars are stuck there as the Streetwaymen ride off on horseback with all kinds of ill-gotten gains. 19th century robbery style, triumphing over 21st century smartphones, etc. But… for how long?

    (*ONLY the 1973 Yul Brynner classic; not that recent series using the name! “The ultimate resort. All maintained by reliable computer technology in a controlled environment with your complete safety in mind, where nothing, nothing can possibly go wrong, go wrong, go wrong…” )


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