“Where did you go, you asshole,” Caleb muttered to himself, strafing along the wall. He’d followed the prick with the grenade launcher into the steam tunnels but had lost him. The fighting in the city ruins was intense and he was running low on ammo, so he couldn't afford to spray-and-pray, he needed to get that grenade launcher to make a path to the ammo cache in the Media Tower.
He'd spent a lot of time in this area of the map using the pockets of steam as cover; it was a great place to hide, but a terrible place to hunt. Of course, there were tricks that separated good players from great players. Ducking to see under the cloud of steam, a grin spread across his face as he sighted his target and fired, emptying his last clip. Getting the kill, he rushed forward to pick up the grenade launcher only to find a shotgun with three rounds in it.
“What the fuck?” He whispered to himself, trying to avoid having another conversation with his mom about how he wasn't old enough to be using that language; never mind that was how everyone else on the chat talked. Another bot must have followed him down into the tunnels. As his avatar started to turn, he heard the grenade launcher fire. It was too late; his avatar’s body parts rained down on the screen.
Throwing the controller down, he ripped off his headphones and closed his eyes. The stupid bots were set to Expert level, according to the twitch streamer he needed to be able to keep up with them on Insane level to be able to build a brand as a gamer. Rolling over and pushing himself up, he exclaimed, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” and stalked around the room.
The door burst open. “Caleb Mark Hamilton! How many times have I told you that language is not appropriate for a ten-year-old boy?”
“A lot.” He sat down on the edge of his bed, preparing for yet another lecture.
“Are you being a smartass?” she asked, stepping towards him. She looked more upset than normal; the knit in her brow was shaped like an angry canyon.
His mouth opened to say something smart, until she leaned in close enough that he could clearly see the line where her lipstick didn't quite cover the entire lower lip. Obviously, she was in a mood, so it was better that he be quiet.
“That's what I thought." She stepped back and glanced over at the console, her scowl deepening. "You're playing those games too much, so I had your uncle install Wi-Fi power outlets in your room.” She lifted her phone and worked at it for a moment before grinning and making a show of hitting a button. The TV and console in his room went out.
“Video game addiction is a real thing, Caleb! It's now recognized by the WHO, I just read an article about it.”
He stood up and put his hands on his hips. “I'm not addicted, I'm trying to build a brand.”
“You're ten, you don't need a brand.”
“You don't know anything, Mom! If I can build a brand people will like me.”
“If you go outside and talk to people, they'll like you. You can't make friends sitting in here by yourself.” She held up a hand. “And don't give me that chat room garbage, you can't know who any of those people really are or what they want; if you don't know them in the real world, they're not your friends.”
“No more buts, this is happening. Go outside!” She started out of the room and paused at the door. “And don't even think about plugging into another outlet, this will give me an alert and I'll put you on restriction for so long that you won't even remember what games you have. Got it?” She waited for the expected response, when it didn't come, she stepped back into the room. “Say it.”
Caleb looked down and mumbled, “I got it.”
She gave him a tight smile and left. When she was gone, he raised his middle finger at the doorway.
* * *
It was a miserably cold afternoon. No matter which direction he went, the wind blew into his face. While thinking about how much his ears hurt, Caleb found himself passing the house of his ex-best friend. It wasn't bad enough that he'd walked around the small town aimlessly and had to twice hide from that bully Rick Tucker, now he had to see Jeff getting into their SUV with his new friends, likely heading for the indoor batting cages in Heaton. Admittedly, a part of him had hoped Jeff would be outside when he came this way; if they happened to run into one another maybe they could talk and make up, and then maybe play a game. It didn't even matter if it was a sports game.
Now he kind of hoped the SUV drove off a bridge.
“This sucks,” the boy mumbled to himself, putting his head down as he kept walking. Jeff Santoni was almost a year older, but they were in the same grade. The two had become fast friends in kindergarten and had been inseparable until this fall. While Caleb had stayed in this miserable town over summer vacation, Jeff had gone to visit his grandparents in Sicily and when he’d come back, he was different; he suddenly wanted to be a baseball pitcher. With no athletic ability and little interest in sports, not even sports games, they suddenly had very little in common. Sports was all Jeff wanted to do or talk about. Not wanting to lose his best friend, he tried to get into the sports thing, going so far as to ask his mom for a baseball mitt so they could play catch, which she had been ecstatic to buy.
Playing catch didn't completely suck until Jeff threw the ball too hard and hit him just below his left eye. They’d argued, both making accusations. It was the last time they’d spoken and the last time he'd seen the mitt.
Circling the block and rounding the corner onto Poplar Road, he could see their house. Like many of those on this block, it was of a different design than those on the surrounding blocks—a smaller ranch-style with three bedrooms (one of which served as his mom's office), a common room that was both the living room and dining room, and a kitchen/pantry/laundry room. His parents called it cozy; compared to the spacious three floors of Jeff’s house, it sucked.
The smell of whatever his Mom was making in the kitchen did little to improve his opinion of the house and he hated the show she was listening to on TV, so he shuffled quietly into his room. It felt dark, the gaming posters on the wall seemed to mock him. Staring down at the console, Caleb held his breath and pushed the power button. The light came on. A grin stretched across his face as he quickly switched on the TV, and very quietly closed the door, peeking out to ensure that his mother wasn't around.
“Yes!” Caleb hissed at the closed door, doing a little dance. If she didn't realize he was home, he could bury some of his frustration in a little PVP. It would be fun to ruin this miserable day for someone else. Sliding the headset on, he logged into the general chat room and started a game. The room was full of chatter; it was comforting to hear the voices, and a big smile spread across his face.
* * *
“You dick!” Caleb said with a laugh, watching the simulated blood splatter on the screen from the headshot he'd just taken. After running around one of the bigger maps for a little while in a little every-man-for-himself, he'd been invited to join a group that was working together hunting insanity level bots.
“Got to watch out for that friendly fire bro!” one of the voices in the chat stated.
“Especially when you're going for a weapon's cache,” another said, a little more bitterly.
“Nah man, I owed him that one,” a third voice said, “He pushed me off the hospital roof.”
“That was a total accident,” Caleb replied, “How was I supposed to know you were hiding in that dumpster?”
“And what the fuck was a dumpster doing up there?”
“I wasn't hiding, I was looking for ammo.”
“I guess you should have picked a better place to…” Caleb stopped midsentence, looking up as his father opened the door.
“Dinner, boy.” He glanced down at the console. “If you don't want her to turn it off with her phone, you best come now,” he whispered, closing the door.
“Sorry guys, I gotta go for a bit, but I'll be back.” He stayed logged into the chat but left the map, so they wouldn't keep killing him on respawn to collect ammo, and then turned off the TV to make sure his mother wouldn't notice he was still logged into the game.
The living room TV was on, but neither of his parents were watching it. His father had taken his customary seat and was staring down at a folded newspaper laying on the table, while his mother scooped something onto his plate that looked as unappetizing as it smelled. “It's a new recipe, I think you’ll like it,” she said, smiling down at him, but in an angry way. When she turned that smile on him, Caleb looked away. “Did you have a good time playing outside?” she asked, and without waiting for an answer said, “Did you make any new friends?”
“Leave the boy alone, Jen,” his father said, flipping the paper over, “I'm sure he has plenty of friends, he probably just doesn't want to bring them here.”
She put her hands on her hips. “And why do you think that?”
“Because we don't have a lot of space for boys to play in this cold weather,” he responded distractedly, while continuing to scan the paper.
The answer seemed to catch her off-balance. It was as if she was expecting that his words would start a fight and when they didn't, she just stood there staring, seeming unsure of how to respond. Dinner was very uncomfortable for everyone but his father, who seemed far more interested in what he was reading than anything that was said at the table. Somehow, he managed to keep up on the limited conversation that followed without looking up, responding to questions and making comments, which seemed to quietly enrage his mother.
Pacing himself to not appear eager to leave the table, Caleb finished eating and asked to be excused. His mother nodded, and he made his way back to his room. Just when he thought he'd gotten away, she called after him, “One hour, then I'm shutting it down.”
“Why do you have to be like that,” his father asked, “the kid gets all A’s and doesn't get in trouble. Let him play his games.”
“He's regressing socially and gaining weight. I think he's addicted to those games.”
“That's not a thing.”
“Yes, it is. I read an article—” Caleb shut his bedroom door; their voices still carried to him, but now as a low drone, which was far more tolerable than listening to them bicker.
He picked up the headset and put it on as he switched on the TV. At first, he thought the sound was muted, but then he saw that the chat room was empty. Frowning, he dropped himself into the common chat to drown out the drone from the living room, and began browsing through the other rooms, looking for avatars he recognized. When he didn't find any, he dropped into the big map and started fighting, being sure to keep his voice low to keep his mom from hearing. With her it was better to be ignored than to be seen.
After a while he started looking through the chat rooms again. At the bottom was one that read The Loneliest Number. Curious, he entered it. He was the only person in the chat and the maximum number of occupants was set to one. If it was a joke, Caleb didn't get it. “This is dumb,” he muttered, and was about to move back to the common room when he heard a voice.
“Is someone there?”
He looked again. There were no other avatars in the room and the maximum occupancy was still set to one.
“Hello, can you hear me? Please tell me you can hear me.”
Something about her voice sounded off, it didn't have that crispness that he was used to hearing. He looked around his room, and for some reason up at the ceiling, and then replied to her, “I'm, uh, here.”
“Oh my god, you can hear me, you can really hear me!”
Caleb searched the screen before replying. “Yeah, but I don't see your avatar. How are you even in this chat?”
“I don't know what you're—wait, are you playing a video game?”
Pulling the headset off, he spoke into the microphone. “Say something again.” When she spoke, the sound clearly came from the headphone speakers. That was a relief, he was pretty sure that he wasn't going crazy, but knowing that her voice wasn't just in his head helped. Putting them back on, he said, “Is this some joke?”
“A joke,” she laughed, “yeah, the universe is a joke.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Emily, you can call me Em.”
“Um, okay. I'm Caleb.” He stared at the occupancy box with only his avatar in it. “I don't understand why I can't see your avatar; is there some new stealth feature I don't know about?” His eyes went wide. “Are you an admin. I heard that admins will sometimes recruit people, is that what…”
“Caleb, shut-up,” her voice interrupted. “I'm not in the video game. My best guess is that I'm in some purgatory and I'm trying to find a way out.”
“Wait. What? Is purgatory a new game or something? Does it cross over with this one? Is that why I can't see…”
“I don't have an avatar, Caleb! I'm not in the video game.”
“Then how are you talking to me through my headset?”
“No clue. I heard your voice and it's lonely in here, so I called out to you.”
“I don't understand where . . .”
“Times up Caleb,” his mother's voice came through the door.
“Mom, no! I'm talking to Em—well, I'm not sure who exactly it is, but . . .” The TV and console switched off. “Mom!” A moment later, the lights went off.
“Good night, Caleb.”
Scrambling in the dark while mumbling curses to himself, he unplugged the console and tried to plug it into another socket. The power light remained off. “Fuck!”
When he pulled his door open, she was standing there, her hands on her hips. “Did you have something you wanted to say, young man?”
“Come on, Mom, you don't understand, I was talking to someone new, I think she needs help.” She stared at him. “Please, Mom! Before she leaves, let me just find out when she’ll be on next. It will only take a minute, I promise.” Her brow furled, and her lip twisted into a deeper frown. “Say something, Mom!”
“Four days restriction. Do you want to go for five?”
“This isn't fair!”
With his arms shaking, and tears welling in his eyes, Caleb shouted, “I hate you!” and then turned and slammed the door.
She pushed it back open. “You want a reason to hate me,” she picked up the console, pulling all the cables out of the back. “You get this back a month AFTER you apologize.” With the gaming system in hand, she walked out, leaving the door open. “Now go to bed before I throw this damn thing in the trash.”
The boy turned in a circle, his room blurred at the edges of his vision. Frustration, guilt, and anger rushed through his mind in equal measure and tears welled in his eyes as he tried to come to grips with what had just happened.
While the TV remained dark, the light switched back on, causing him to shrink back for a moment. Beneath his feet was the carnage of disconnected cables; he reached down to pick up the headset, intent on throwing it at the wall he shared with his parents.
“Caleb. Caleb, are you there.”
The end of the headset cable dangled down by his ankles. His brow furled. “What the heck?”
He put on the headphones. “Em?”
“My mom used her phone to turn off my console and then took it.” He was holding the headphones connector in his hand. “I don't understand why I can still hear you.”
“I'm not explaining it again.” She went quiet a moment. “I think we have a connection, but I don't have a link to you. There must be something—Caleb, where do you live?”
“321 Poplar Road.”
“That makes sense.”
“You ask a lot of questions, Caleb.” She was silent again, long enough that he was about to ask if she were still there. “I've seen it hunting in that area a lot, but—wait, how old are you?”
“Ten and three quarters.”
“Why is it always kids?”
“I'm not . . .”
“A kid. I know, that's what you all say. Give me a minute, I'm almost—Caleb, what's going on there?”
“Your house, it's lit up like—”
The door flew open; his mother stood in the doorway with harsh shadows running across her face. “Who the hell are you talking to?” The rage fell away, and her mouth dropped open as she stared at the headset over his ears, with the plug in his hand. “Good god Caleb! This addiction has gone too far, I'm getting you a therapist before you end up being a serial killer or something,” she cried, stepping into the room and ripping it off his head.
“No! This is absurd. I took your console away so now you're wearing this and pretending to play the game. Can't you see how sick this is?”
“That's not what…”
“Wait until I show this to your father. He said that video game addiction wasn't a real thing, obviously hundreds of scientists know better. If he were here instead of disappearing randomly doing god knows what, maybe you'd have a decent role model instead of…”
“Mom,” he interrupted, “you're not listening to me! I was…”
“No, you'll listen to me, Caleb. I'm the adult here. I make the rules and I want you in bed now. Got it!” She waited. “Say it.” He shook his head. “Say it or I swear to all that is holy that I'll take a hammer to that console, these headsets, all of it!” He stared at her defiantly, tears welling in his eyes. She screamed, “Say it!”
Jumping in the bed to get away from her, he mumbled, “Got it.”
She walked out and slammed the door.
Tears raged down his face as he sat there; the lights blinked off. He turned to shout at the wall that separated his room from his parents when they blinked back on. A teenage girl stood in front of the closed door.
“Shit Caleb, it's here for you!” She ran to the bed and grabbed his hand.
He recognized her voice. “Em? What are—?”
She pulled him off the bed as a shadowy claw crashed onto it. An overwhelming hunger filled the room just before a wide black form surged through the wall, its massive face rat-like, with a long-curved beak. “No time! We have to get you away from it.”
Being towed along by Emily, Caleb passed through the bedroom door and then the hallway wall, emerging outside. “How did we—?”
“No time, Caleb. I-I can't push you back. It's stronger than usual.” They crossed Fourth and Fifth at a brisk jog and started down Sixth Street towards the park. “Why is it stronger?” Emily muttered.
“I don't even know what it is,” the boy cried between labored breaths. “Hey, I'm not—I'm not athletic.”
“No kidding,” she replied, pulling him along as best she could, while his breathing grew more labored. “You might want to lay off the video games kid.”
“Did my mom tell you to say—Mom!” Caleb turned back, “What if it goes after my mom?”
Emily jerked him forward. “It won't.” She tugged his arm until he started moving again. “It pulled you in, so it's going to chase you until it gets you or you get back out. Right now, it's pacing us, but I'm not exactly sure why. I've seen it do that a couple of times, like it's—I don't know—ramping up for the kill.”
“K-kill. Where’s the exit?” the boy asked between labored breaths, as they turned onto Hemlock Road, and started to move past the park.
“Exit? Damn kid, you play too many games. I can't find one, but sometimes I can push people out, then it just—I don't know—seems to forget about them.”
“Why don't you push me out?”
“You ask a lot of questions. Less talking, more running.” As they passed the swings, she continued, “I tried to push you out in your room; it didn't work.”
Caleb looked back. The creature was in the field on the other side of the road, moving along the fence that surrounded the tennis courts. It was staring at him with eyes that looked like something off a nightmarish giant bee. “Try again,” he started shaking her arm. “Try again Em!”
“I've been trying, kid. I can't push you out.” She tugged on his arm. “Coming down here was a bad idea, come on.”
“Why?” he asked, struggling to keep up with her pace.
“It spends a lot of time in the park, but I think it only goes as far back as the pavilion. And before you ask me why, I don't know. I don't know a lot about this place or that damn thing, but I do know what's going to happen to you if we don't—” she pulled Caleb to a stop.
They both glanced back. “How is it in front of us now?” the boys voice trembled, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
“It does that sometimes too.” She paused. “Shit! Let's head back up towards the high school.”
Hustling across Hemlock, they started jogging through the field, crossing Buckeye Road to the retirement home before Caleb's panting forced them to stop. “Is it still there?” he asked, trying to catch his breath.
“Yeah,” she said, trying to pull him forward, “it's not going to stop.”
“Can't we hide in there?” he panted, pointing at the retirement home.
“God no!” Emily replied with a shudder.
Before he could ask why, a shadowy claw grasped him about the waste and ripped him off the ground. “Em!”
She stared up at him, watching as the creature began to draw him inside it, first screaming her name, and then screaming for his mother. “No,” she mumbled, and then shook her head, trying to look away. She closed her eyes. Knowing that it was too late and that she should just walk away, but she couldn't. “Fuck it," she whispered to herself, "I hate being here anyway.” With that, she took two steps and leapt up at the creature, grabbing Caleb by the legs, bringing him down enough that she could try to pull him free.
A tentacle lashed out from somewhere; it grabbed her legs and jerked her upward, trying to make her let go, but her grip held. Tearing her away from Caleb should have been easy for the creature, but a different kind of strength flowed through her limbs, causing her eyes to grow wide. It was like a jolt of caffeine times a thousand, and it tasted like fear. “Let go of him,” she growled, seeing that she was slowly pulling him out of the shadowy form.
Caleb was trapped in a tug of war and everything was beginning to fade, as if someone were slowly dimming the lights. In the distance he saw what looked like a twinkling star. While he stared at it, his thoughts turned to his mother and the awful things he'd said to her. More than anything else at that moment, he wanted to be cradled in her arms, so he could tell her he was sorry.
The star seemed to rush at him as the lights in his mind were consumed in shadow, and then he was wrapped in a cocoon of warmth. He smelled lavender and thought of his mother, but it was not her name that came to him.
Emily refused to let go as the creature's rage suddenly spiked, draining that new-found energy out of her. She felt the warmth before she saw the light, feeling the creature's rage pummel her as Caleb's legs slipped out of her hands. Blinking away the light, she found herself wrapped in a lavender cocoon, all the pain and fear she had felt since being struck in the head faded; in its place was a protective warmth. Elizabeth.
The light dimmed, and the smell of churned gravel filled the air along with the distant sound of children playing. For a moment Emily and Caleb were in a cubby beneath a wooden jungle gym. It felt like a safe place. In a blink, everything around them dissolved until they were kneeling in the open field on Bur Oaks Drive.
A car drove past. “Em, what happened?” When he turned Caleb found that he was alone in that field. “Em?”
* * *
“No! God-dammit! No!” Emily turned in a circle. For a moment she was back. They were in that field that used to be the old grade school and she could smell the world again. "Fuck." Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath of nothing and let it out slowly, starting to wonder about that strength she felt when she was trying to pull the kid away from the creature.
* * *
Inside the house at 321 Poplar Road, a ten-and-three-quarters-year-old boy hugged his mother; she cradled him with one arm, with the other she held her husband’s hand. With the secret that was tearing them apart revealed earlier that day, they stared into one another’s eyes with a renewed love. When the boy stepped back, he looked up to his father. “Can I go jogging with you next time you go?”
After a moment of confusion, both parents smiled.
Standing in a place separate from them, Emily lowered her eyes and turned away. During the battle with the creature, she’d somehow absorbed the boys fear and it made her stronger. She’d convinced herself that if she could do it again, she might be able to use that strength to get out, without considering how it might have affected him. Seeing their family together like that—she shook her head and looked up.
“Okay Elizabeth, who or whatever you are, we need to talk.”