When violent gaming becomes too real
With a sigh, Irina glanced up, folding her textbook shut, using her index finger as a place holder. "What do you want, Jake? I'm in the middle of reading for my four o'clock."
"I was wondering if you wanted to play Call of Duty tonight at my place. We were getting our asses creamed last night on Xbox live, thanks to Robby, and I could really use you as my partner."
Irina rolled her eyes and opened her book again, scanning for the line that she'd ended on. Grabbing her highlighter from her left, she pulled off the cap with her teeth and ran a yellow line through some words: Juliet's metaphor for love, or something. Anyway, it looked important.
"Look," she said, still reading Juliet's Act II monologue, "I know you're wringing me into Team Deathmatch on Black Ops, and I told you when you got that game that I wouldn't ever play it. I don't even like watching. You know how I feel about video games that use guns."
"Look, I know, okay? Do you think I'd ask if it wasn't important? I want to redeem myself, and the guys said they'd be online tonight at eight."
Swatting away her dark bangs, Irina looked at her friend again, could feel her eyebrows sinking on her face in annoyance. "You'll get a six-pack of Sam Adams."
"And wings from B-dubs."
"I work at ten tomorrow."
"We'll be done by midnight."
She paused. "Fine, I'll be there. Just make sure you get ranch."
Grinning, Jake nodded, his long hair flopping into his face. "You got it. Just show up at seven-thirty, and we can eat and talk strategy."
"Fine, whatever. Just leave me alone so I can finish this. I've only got like forty minutes before class." Turning once more to her battered copy of Romeo and Juliet, highlighter in hand, she heard Jake's muffled footsteps as he left the library.
It was nice to be home, Hans thought, sitting in a plush leather chair, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. From his spot in the study, he could smell dust and slightly mildewed pages from the books that filled the ebony shelves. While he'd been gone, it seemed no one had aired the books, had even aired the room. Not that he could really blame his mother; after all, she'd lost most of her servants within the last few months. In their husbands' absence, Bess and Amelia had joined the textile factory during the day, only working at the Boettcher's manor in the evenings. Tom was no longer present either; he was off in Europe somewhere, so the house was without a butler, too.
Outside the window, a flash of light and a loud clap of thunder crackled through the sky. Hans winced.
As the light and sound in the sky faded, he brushed his fingers lightly against the upper part of his left forearm, just a couple inches below the crook of his elbow. He could still feel the hard lump of scar tissue, even though the doctors said they'd managed to remove the bullet. Sometimes Hans wondered if they had lied. If the bullet were still in his arm, he could at least explain why he often felt abnormal, unable to shake off the experience. But that was foolish; a hard lump was reminder enough that the scars extended beyond his skin and muscle.
The door opened quickly, and Hans saw Bess on the other side, still wearing her wraps. Her eyes, even from this distance, looked wide. Standing up, he crossed to the door and grabbed her elbows. "Bess?" he asked, "what's wrong? Did you hear from Tom?"
"N-no, it's not that," she said, glancing at his hands, then at the dark starburst-shaped scar on his arm. "I was just concerned about you. I know how you get during thunderstorms these days, Mr. Boettcher."
"I'm fine," he bit out, dropping her elbows. "It's just some thunder and lightning. Nothing I can't handle."
Hans watched Bess bite her lip. "Yes, but that was before. Your mother told us what happened the last time the storm got too close. How you... you became strange."
"I'm fine," he said again, walking back to his plush leather chair. "Please leave me be."
Folding her lips together, Bess nodded and closed the door behind her. Though his gaze remained on the white door for a moment, Hans soon turned his attention to the window. Another flash of lightning cracked across the sky, illuminating someone in the glass. But just as Hans was about to speak to the man in the olive green clothing, the lightning and the image both faded.
Irina raised her hand to knock on the door of Jake's apartment. As she did so, she saw some of the already-peeling white paint flake off. He really needed to talk to the super about that; maybe then he could repaint the stupid door. She pushed her purse back onto her shoulder and knocked again, more loudly this time.
The door swung open, and a red-faced Jake greeted her. "Come in," he said, exhaling heavily. "I was just cleaning a bit."
Upon entering, Irina raised an eyebrow. It always amused her to see what Jake defined as 'clean.' "I'm actually impressed," she said as she walked past the kitchen and into the living room. "I think this is the first time I've seen your living room floor."
"Yeah, I shoved it all in my room. I figured I should be a good host just this once, you know, since you were pissed at me earlier and all."
She smiled and glanced at the dinged ebony coffee table. "I see you got the wings and beer. And your Xbox is all set up."
"Yeah." He looked at her. "You want to sit down?"
Nodding, she sank onto the white loveseat in front of the fifty-inch plasma screen TV and sniffed the air. God, the food smelled good. "Thanks for doing this, Jake."
He shrugged. "No worries," he said, placing two controllers on the coffee table in front of them. Opening one of the boxes of wings, he began eating, dunking both the wings and the celery into the ranch. From outside, Irina could hear the faint boom of thunder. So it was supposed to storm tonight. Fantastic.
They sat in silence for a while, eating wings and drinking beer, before Jake finally turned on the console and the opening screen of Call of Duty: Black Ops came into view. Irina was very interested in picking a piece of bone clean, and she didn't look at the screen for several minutes.
"You know," Jake said as he prepared their game, selecting multiplayer mode, "I understand why you don't like war games, but you don't even like war movies. Remember when we watched Letters from Iwo Jima last month? You left to use the bathroom about twenty minutes in, and you didn't reappear for almost an hour. After that, you were making yourself various milkshakes. You used up almost a whole quart of ice cream."
"So what?" Irina said, still picking at the bone. "I had business to take care of, and then I wanted a couple of milkshakes. That doesn't prove anything."
"Well, your face was pale and splotchy. That's worth something."
"I was upset about school that day, okay?" She placed her feet on the cushion, bringing her knees underneath her chin and wrapping her arms around her legs. "Let's drop it."
"Oh, come on, Rina..."
"I said drop it, Jake."
The room was silent, and Irina had her face buried into her knees. Neither one of them spoke for several more minutes. Finally, Irina unfolded her legs, leaned forward, and grabbed her controller from the table, her mouth set into a grim line.
"Let's get this over with," she sighed, and after Jake pressed the start button, they launched into their first battle.
Though early August in Papua New Guinea, Hans still found the air to be sweltering, and as a light breeze tickled his nose, he couldn't resist the urge to sneeze. One of his fellow soldiers, who was crouching along the side of the building just ahead of him, glared and placed a single finger against his lips. Hans shrugged, then resumed his position, his hands ready on his rifle. A muscle in his upper right arm began twitching as he stood there. In the early dawn, anxious from a lack of sleep, he and the other soldiers were on edge, jumping at the most harmless of sounds, clutching their rifles too tightly. Hans' legs soon began shaking from standing and crouching for so long.
They'd been in Kokoda for almost a full day now, and they needed reinforcements; that was certain. Though their 'A' company had lost hardly any men when they took the town yesterday, they were only ninety-seven strong. Not to mention they were running low on supplies. Hans felt around in his pack, and his fingers brushed against two hardened, nearly stale rolls and crumbs from the bread he'd eaten last night. Yes, they desperately needed supplies.
The sun continued to rise in the sky, and the clouds above them shifted from a pinkish-gold to a whitish-grey. Hans squinted. He could faintly make out shapes in the distance. Reinforcements, it had to be. They'd had two companies battle the Japs yesterday. Nevertheless, Hans took a moment to ensure his gun was loaded, ready. It was. He readjusted his position, watching as the dark figures drew closer.
A loud crack echoed through the air, and Hans saw the man who had glared at him, who had urged him to be silent, fall forward on his face, his blood seeping into the grass and dirt. Gunfire. Hans froze, and his breathing quickened. His heart pounded in his chest. He raised his rifle, pointed it at a Japanese soldier in front of him, aiming right between the eyes. Crack. The man fell down on top of his fellow soldier, and Hans ran, looking for a more secure vantage point, still clutching his rifle, glancing behind him every few seconds to avoid being hit.
He'd killed a man. He'd killed a man, and he felt nothing except fear. His heart was pumping adrenaline through every pocket of his body. Goddamned Japs. Goddamned draft. His head was swimming, his vision going dark at the edges, a funny ringing in his ears. He swallowed, but his mouth still felt dry.
Hans scanned the area around him, but no sooner did he turn to hide behind a crate than he felt a cold piece of metal against his head. He froze and his eyeballs turned in their sockets as far to the left as they could. It was another Japanese soldier, standing right in front of him, speaking some strange nonsense. Hans squeezed his eyes shut as he waited for the bullet to come, but even as he heard the Jap squeeze the trigger, nothing happened. The gun must have been blocked, and even with other gunfire around him, Hans had enough sense to duck, punch the man in the groin, and run away.
As he ran, he saw a third Jap, this one twenty feet away, and Hans raised his rifle, but just like the man that he had punched, his gun seemed to be blocked. His heart fluttered even faster, and he heard a crack. The end. This was the end. He knew it, but then he saw one of his fellow troops in the line of fire in front of him. Even from behind, Hans could see the soldier's arm fly up as the bullet hit it. Crack. This time the soldier fell backward, and as Hans finally unstuck his gun, he shot the third Japanese soldier and rushed forward to see the condition of his fellow man.
His skull was cracked at the temple. Amidst all the blood, Hans could see a bit of grey seeping onto the ground. Brains. He heaved, and his stomach emptied up what little bread he'd eaten last night right on top of the man's face. There was more blood, too, from the arm wound and from the wound at the left side of the head. His fingers shaking, Hans grabbed the cartridges from the soldier's gun and emptied them into his pack.
His mind was blank. When his knees buckled beneath him, he could only blink. He remained there on the dirt, kneeling in God-knows-what. Dead, another Jap dead, but there were more. Hans lifted his gun. He heard a watery shout that reached him through some viscous liquid, distorted and stretched.
A muffled crack. Hans shuffled backward against the building. He howled and clutched his arm. He slid down the side of the building, paint chipping as he did so, his vision disappearing. Everything was dark, and everything grew fuzzy. All sound disappeared, and then all the feeling.
Crack. Irina watched in horror as Jake's avatar was blown apart, the bullet entering his chest shattering his rib, his torso bursting blood from his artery. Even though the game was still going on, she threw the controller down onto the table; in the brief space that she was no longer protecting her character, the other team shot her, and she died.
The end game screen popped up onto the TV, and almost immediately, Irina downed the rest of her mostly full beer. After only two brief Team Deathmatch games, there were three completely empty bottles sitting in front of her. She sat there on the couch, eyes unseeing. "Jake, can we please be done now? We've beaten them once already, which is more than you could say about yesterday's gaming session, right? I just... I don't want to do this anymore. It's not fun."
Jake dropped his controller on the table and stared at the ground, his hands folded in front of him as he leaned forward. "Rina, I feel like we always do what you want to do. Always. And when I ask you to play a video game with me, you complain. Do I ever tell you that I hate watching chick flicks or that it's not fun? No! Why can't you do the same?"
Irina stared at him. "I know I'm not your girlfriend or anything, but you always insist that I pick the movie. Besides, you knew you were asking me a favor when you asked me to come help you with Black Ops. So don't fucking yelling at me!"
Jake looked at her a long moment and sighed. "You're right. Look, I'm sorry. It's been a long week, and I... I really wanted to spend time with you."
"It's okay," she said. Crack. A boom of thunder. Suddenly, Irina stood up and began moving toward the kitchen. "You still have that Captain Morgan in the fridge?"
"Yeah, but Rina, you've had three beers in less than an hour, and you work tomorrow. Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Ignoring his comment, she opened the fridge. After slamming it shut, she returned with a fifth of rum and a shot glass. She unscrewed the cap and poured until the glass was nearly full, set the glass back on the table. After she'd had two, Jake grabbed the bottle away. "You need to stop."
Irina shook her head. "I'm fine." Grabbing the bottle back, she poured herself another shot and downed it. She picked up her controller. "It's just a game."
"No, this is serious. I'm serious."
"But it's just a game... there are no real stakes besides your pride." She paused and replaced the controller on the coffee table. "And I've watched you die twice just tonight. It feels so real." She folded her knees into her chest again and stared with unfocused eyes at the cream-colored carpet that was in desperate need of shampooing.
"Oh, come on, it's just a game. You just said that yourself."
Irina shook her head, wrapping her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth slightly. "Kingdom Hearts is just a game. Scrabble is just a game. Mario Party 3 is just a game. This is a cruel and sadistic joke, asking us to kill people."
"You're overreacting. Those people aren't real, you know." Jake pushed himself toward the edge of the couch and mimed holding a rifle in his hand and pointing it at her. "If I had a real gun in my hand right now, that would be a cruel and sadistic joke." Having made his point, he sat back down and grabbed his controller again. "Come on, let's finish this match, and then we'll be done, okay?"
Irina uncurled herself from her ball and stood up, still shaking her head. She began walking backwards, until she was pressed up flat against the wall, her eyes locked onto the screen. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and she was pushing back the sleeve of her shirt as she hugged herself, revealing a white starburst-shaped birthmark on her forearm. "I'm not doing it. I won't do it. You can't make me."
Jake dropped his hands and placed them in his lap. "Irina, it was a bad joke. I'm sorry. I get that you're upset. Look, please... help me out here. It's the best two out of three. These guys beat me yesterday; this is war, this is vengeance."
Crack. Irina winced and hugged herself tighter. She stood against the wall, and as another loud burst of thunder sounded above them, Irina's hearing began to fade and fuzz out, like bad tuning on the radio. Black spots appeared at the edge of her vision, and her knees buckled beneath her. She sat there on the dirty carpet... the dirty ground, her eyes unfocused, her breathing labored. A moment later she felt someone grasping her left arm near her birthmark, and she winced, whimpering.
"Irina, what's wrong? Tell me what's wrong. Let me help you!"
"Goddamned Japs, goddamned draft," she whispered from where she knelt on the ground.
Crack. Irina's eyes refocused, even though blackness was continuing to eat away at the edges of her vision. She was in Kokoda, pressed against the edge of a building, and paint flaked off into her olive-colored uniform. There was a wide-eyed man with dark stringy hair crouching in front of her, and she knew what she had to do. She picked up the gun at her side and checked to make sure that it was loaded; it was. Then, turning her attention to the Jap in front of her, she raised the barrel, aimed it between his eyes, and pulled the trigger.