This story didn’t happen to me. Not really. But some nights, it felt like it could have.
Right before I started college in 2004, my parents gave me my first laptop, a Dell Inspiron 600M. It could run Counter-Strike, including Condition Zero. At last, I could play the games that I had watched over the shoulders of my guy friends. Maybe even get invited to Henry’s house for a LAN.
Henry lived in a mansion. It looked ugly from the outside, all gray-blue siding and no decorative windowpanes or door frames—like a sprawling suburban house, but so flat and bland that your eyes would slide off its sameness without noticing its size.
The inside had the pristine look of a maid-maintained estate, with chandeliers and multiple living rooms with undented couches and end tables unblemished by soda stains. We never went up there, though.
Henry had the whole basement floor to himself. It was furnished like a private apartment, with its own entrance from the back yard, a kitchen with a sink and a fridge, a bathroom, a huge living room, and a bedroom with a lock on the door. I knew about the lock on the door because Henry and I used to hook up in there, when we were 15, before he started dating Rana.
I never got invited to the LANs, back then. “You’re not really a gamer,” Henry had told me, “And usually, the girls get pretty bored at these things.”
Still, he showed me a glimpse at what I was missing by sending me a photo on AOL Instant Messenger.
Front and center, Alex gave finger-guns to the camera, wearing the same gray sweater he always wore, his hair styled in the same crew cut he’d had since middle school. Cord looked annoyed, his smile thin, his wiry shoulders still facing his computer. On the far right, Spence leaned way back in his chair, his long black hair pouring over a Metallica T-shirt as he flashed the devil horns. In the foreground, Max’s eyes lit up red from the glare of the camera flash; he looked drunker than anybody else, as usual. And then there was Rana, Henry’s ex-girlfriend, wearing a white tank top and baggy blue jeans, lifting a Red Bull with a soft smile.
It looked fun, like a tight-knit cabal sharing the same secret. I wanted in, too.
I’d like to think I finally got an invite because I had a newer computer. But actually, it was because I started dating Max. Everybody liked Max. He was old enough to buy alcohol. Maybe that’s why Henry didn’t say no when Max asked if I could come to the next LAN.
Rana was long gone by then.
On Halloween weekend, I packed up my laptop and took the train from my college campus to the station back home. Max picked me up in his mom’s Camry. His computer monitor lay face down in the back, twisted with cables. I hugged my backpack to my chest, worried that my laptop wouldn’t be able to keep up.
As we drove, Max ran down the games we might play. StarCraft, WarCraft 3, Civilization… or maybe just Counter-Strike. I felt my stomach turning over at the prospect of the guys demanding to play something I’d never tried. Their inevitable frustration that the girl couldn’t keep up.
“I don’t think Henry wanted me to come to this,” I admitted.
“Why?” Max asked.
“He never invited me to these things, even when we were hooking up,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t play CS back then,” Max said.
“True,” I conceded. “And he did invite Rana. So it’s not like I’m the first girl to go to a LAN.”
“Okay, but Rana was batshit crazy,” Max laughed as he dragged the wheel for a hard right turn.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, she has me blocked on AIM, and we’ve never met.”
“I don’t miss that shit,” said Max, shaking his head. “Man, so, one time as a joke, Spence locked her and Henry in the bathroom, right? And Henry told me that she would not stop freaking out in there. She completely lost it.”
“Over a prank?” I said. “That does sound annoying. I would’ve just waited it out.”
“Yeah, exactly,” said Max. “If you’re locked in a bathroom anyway...” He reached over and tickled me in the ribs. I flinched.
“Stop it,” I said. Max just laughed.
“You’d never be as bad as she was,” Max continued, turning the car onto Henry’s long, low-lit street, peppered with other nigh-identical mansions.
“She was pretty good, though, right? At games, I mean.”
“Yeah, she was okay,” Max said, pulling into Henry’s driveway. The mansion windows were dark, and the rest of the mansion looked unoccupied. No parents! I felt a rush of fear-tinged excitement.
We pulled around the back and saw that the basement light was on. Max popped the trunk and opened his car door. “Fuck, it’s cold out here,” he called back at me.
I hopped out of the car and felt the icy wind hit me. The mansion looked bigger and darker up close. On instinct, I shrank back against the warm car, wishing I could get back in. But Max was already at the basement entrance.
“Hey, shitbags,” he called out, kicking the door, his arms grasping his computer tower. “Open up!”
We couldn’t hear anything from inside. I shivered, making my way down the path. Max kicked again. This time, Spence flung the door open.
“Somebody set us up the LAN,” Max quipped. Spence shook his head and laughed, walking back inside. He and Cord had already set up their computers on a long wooden table, their monitors providing the only light. Max strode over with confidence and set down his tower between the two of them.
“Hey,” I said in a low voice. “Could we sit next to each other?”
Max looked around. “Oh. Yeah, I guess so.” He picked his tower back up, with effort. Cord shot a look at Spence, who shrugged and rolled his eyes.
Alex walked out of the bathroom, all smiles. He saw me and extended a fist bump. “Welcome to our stupid nerdy thing!”
“It’s not stupid,” I said, tapping my fist against his. “I like this stuff!”
“You play games?” Cord piped up. He looked up from his screen, his eyes boring into me.
“Yeah, I play CS,” I said, pulling out my laptop. Cord looked at my laptop, his mouth tight.
“Don’t worry, I’m new to games, too,” Spence said. “I didn’t start playing StarCraft until last year. So we’ll both be bad!”
“I’m not new at games,” I said. “Well, new to PC games, but… I’m not… bad.” I trailed off.
“Cord and Henry are the only ones who care about that,” said Alex, taking the seat on my left side. “We all just die and let the two of them race to the top of the tower.”
“I’ve gotta get the rest of my stuff,” Max told me, giving me a quick shoulder squeeze as he headed towards the back door.
“Where’s the power strip?” I asked. Alex shrugged. I crouched down and looked under the table. It was by Cord’s left foot. I crawled towards the strip, power cable in hand, and plugged it in, careful not to disturb his pant leg. Success! I backed my way out from under the table and felt something brush against my butt.
I whirled around in shock, my head slamming hard into the leg of the table. “Fuck!” I screamed. I shook my head, dizzy with pain.
“Come on!” shouted Cord. “Almost made me lose...”
“What the hell happened?” Alex’s face peeked under the table. I wriggled my way back out and looked up. Henry was standing there. I had forgotten how tall he had gotten.
“Hi, Henry,” I said. I realized there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t make me sound crazy. Henry kept staring down at me, his face twisted into a strange smile. Had he touched me?
“How did you manage to hit your head like that?” he asked. “Did you get lost down there?”
I shrugged, looking around. A twisted mess of cables swung looped over the table’s edge. Maybe they had felt like a hand.
“Let’s get you some ice,” Henry said, leading me over to the kitchen area.
“I’m fine,” I said, grabbing a Gatorade from the fridge. “I don’t think it’s a concussion.”
“What day is it?” Henry asked, mock-serious. “What’s your CS load-out?”
“It’s Saturday,” I smiled. “And I like the Krieg 552.”
“Cool,” Henry said. “I guess I’ll tell you before Cord does: the AK-47’s way better.”
“Yeah,” I said, hearing my voice getting smaller. “I just like the scope on the Krieg. It’s more versatile.”
“I say, either be a sniper, or go AK,” Henry said. “Don’t go halfway.” He paused. “Sorry, I’m probably boring you.”
“No, no,” I said. “I like hearing what guns are good.”
“I don’t see how you ended up with the Krieg then,” said Henry, heading back to his seat. “Oh, hey, it’s Max! You missed it—your girlfriend almost died.”
“Not really,” I said, walking over to Max. “I hit my head on the table. That’s all.”
“That sucks,” Max said. He seemed busy. “Hen, I can’t get my computer to recognize the network.”
“Where did that come from?” Henry pointed to the lavender cord plugged into Max’s tower.
“The basket under the table,” said Max. “Why?”
Henry unplugged it. “Hold on,” he said, walking into his bedroom.
“That’s Rana’s old cable,” Alex whispered to me.
“Figures it would be lavender,” I said, imitating a ditzy voice. Spence laughed. I felt the tension in the room dissipate as I reached forward to plug my network cable into the box. It was gray, like all the others.
By midnight, we’d played every version of Counter-Strike available in 2004, from 1.6 to Condition Zero to the Source beta. I had gotten over my shame at screaming out loud when Alex had snuck up behind me in-game for a quick kill. We played with all knives, then all dualies. We booted up some Ricochet and made our way through the liquor. Henry headed upstairs, promising to bring back better mixers than Gatorade.
“Are his parents home?” I asked the room, once Henry had left.
“They’re never home,” said Alex. He lowered his voice. “It’s actually pretty weird. You’ve met his Dad, right? That guy is scary.”
I shook my head. “I met his Mom once, ages ago.”
“One time, his Dad was here and called him upstairs and we could hear them, just, at each other’s throats,” Alex went on. “It sounded pretty fucked up.”
“You mean, violent?” I asked. All of a sudden, Henry’s private basement situation didn’t seem so great.
“Something like that,” said Alex. “But Rana didn’t think we should ask him about it. Did you see she’s signed onto Steam, by the way?”
“No, we’re not friends,” I said.
“Is anyone really friends with Rana?” Alex rolled his eyes. “I might be the only person she hasn’t blocked. Anyway, she asked if we were LAN-ing tonight. I said you were here. She didn’t seem too happy about that.”
“Well,” I scowled. “She needs to get over it.”
“Vodka tonics all around!” Henry shouted, galumphing back down the stairs. “Let’s get classy. Almost midnight!”
“Oh, shit, almost midnight,” said Alex. Then he looked at me, as though considering.
Spence stood up. “We doin’ this?”
Max already sounded drunk. “Hell yeah, we’re doing this,” he slurred, pounding his hand on the table. Cord stood up. He was looking at me, too.
“Should I even ask,” I laughed, hearing the nervous tinge in my voice.
“You’ll love it,” Max assured me. “It’s Henry’s mod. Well, it’s a mod he found. Once you play it, you’ll see. We always save it for the end.”
Henry handed me a cup. “Everybody has to have a drink before we play the mod,” he said, passing a second cup to Cord, who nodded in grim silence.
“I feel like Max has had enough,” I said, but Max had already reached out his hand for a cup. “Or not,” I muttered. Guess we’re spending the night here...
“Get up,” Henry said to me, all business. “I need to install the mod.”
I stood and watched as he opened the files on the shared network. He copied one labelled “corpse_tower” onto my laptop and dragged the files into the Counter-Strike system folder.
“So did you make it yourself?” I asked.
“Not entirely,” he said. “It’s a Counter-Strike mod I found online. The bodies stick around after they die, and you can move them around using the V button. We usually just stack them up.”
“It’s hilarious,” Max butted in. “Last time, there was this bug where the corpses kept reanimating in the air.”
“I’m still working on that,” Henry said, booting up the game on my laptop. “Anyway, it’s pretty hard to kill people, because your health recharges in the mod.”
“So you can make alliances and gang up on people,” Spence said. Henry glared at him.
“Come on, Spence,” Henry said. “Are you going to give away everything? Anyway, it’s installed now.” He motioned for me to sit down. I put my hands on the keys and grimaced.
“This is already making my laptop hot,” I said. “I hope I can actually run this.”
“You don’t have to play,” said Cord. “We usually just play with the five of us.”
“Yeah,” said Alex. “Since Rana...” He trailed off.
“By the way,” Henry said, a little too loud. “I don’t know if you all noticed that I shared my ‘Art’ folder on the LAN too. There’s some good stuff in there.”
“Dude,” Spence laughed. “Is this going to be fucking goatse again?”
“Goatse is art,” said Henry. “But no. It’s way better than that. Just a couple photos I have saved of you-know-who.”
Max stood up. “On that note,” he said. “I’m gonna go take a shit.”
I watched Spence’s hand move his mouse around. Two of his nails had crumbled, turned black. I shuddered.
“Come on, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s not do this now.” He jerked his head in my direction, as though to say, there’s a girl here.
“It’s fine,” I said, too fast. “I mean, she took the photos, right?” As soon as I said it, I felt my stomach twist, hard.
“Damn straight,” Henry said. The pain in my stomach increased.
“Hey, is there another bathroom upstairs?” I asked.
“What, do you and Max shit in unison now?” Spence asked, smirking at me. Alex barked out a laugh.
“Yeah,” I said. “We do. So where’s the other bathroom?”
“It’s down the hallway on your left,” said Henry. “Third door, I think? Okay, guys, let’s start up a 2v2 while the lovebirds shit their brains out.”
I walked up the stairs. The pain, deep in my stomach, had a familiar twinge. I hoped I was wrong.
I turned left and walked down the dark hallway. I could still hear the guys in the basement, laughing, distant.
The bathroom was illuminated by a soft golden night light. I found a switch on the wall and flipped it, starting up a loud bathroom fan. I shrugged and closed the door. The night light was good enough.
I shoved down my jeans and emptied my body of a night’s worth of Gatorade and vodka. Then, I looked down at my underwear in the dark and saw what I’d dreaded. Damn it. Worst possible time to have my period…
I wiped and stood up, looking once again for the light switch. Finally, I found it: one of those tiny, unassuming dimmer switches, underneath the fan switch. I turned it on and blinked into the mirror, then knelt down and opened the cabinet under the sink. Henry’s mom wasn’t post-menopause, was she? Fuck. This was all so goddamn inconvenient.
Buried way in the back, I found an unopened tampon box. I ripped off the cardboard tab and turned back to the toilet.
The water was black.
I didn’t scream, somehow, but I felt bile rising in my throat. I swallowed and watched my hand reach out to flush the black water down. The new water washed in, tinged milky gray.
I steadied myself against the sink and looked back down at my underwear. This time, I couldn’t see the blood that I had seen—thought I’d seen?—in the darkness. I rubbed my thumb along the fabric. It felt dusty, but dry. I grabbed some toilet paper, wiped, and inspected.
My stomach turned over, but this time, it felt like nervous nausea, not the telltale cramps that signal blood. I pulled up my pants and flushed the toilet until the water looked clear again. I washed my hands. Probably just something wrong with the water, I thought.
I walked back down the hallway. I couldn’t hear any laughter from downstairs.
In the dark, I thought I saw a figure moving, walking up the stairs at the end of the hall. I shrank back in the darkness, holding my breath.
It was too dark to tell. I let a few minutes pass. Then I walked back to the basement door and went down the stairs.
The guys were silent, riveted. I saw Henry’s screen first and found myself caught up in the spectacle. Henry’s character model was clad head to toe in gunmetal gray, with a spiked helmet. He was levitating a corpse down a hallway, between two huge wooden boxes. The corpse was silver-gray, too. I tried to pull my eyes away. I couldn’t.
Henry looked up from his computer, at me. “You were gone a long time.” As though on cue, all the other guys looked up from their screens at me.
I walked to my side of the table. “Where’s Alex?” I asked.
No one responded. Cord and Henry exchanged a look.
“Where’s... my laptop?” I asked.
“Your laptop,” said Henry, his face blank. “We put it outside. It was getting too hot.”
“Oh,” I said. I stared at Max, who had returned to his screen. They didn’t seem to be joking.
I walked out the back door and looked around. I didn’t see my laptop anywhere. I looked out into the back yard, towards the thick bristle of trees. I noticed the tiny circle of sticks where Henry had buried his cat’s remains after a coyote attack. I shuddered.
Then I saw the laptop, out in the middle of the grass. What the fuck.
I walked out and grabbed it, shivering in the cold. The laptop felt cold, too. I turned back to the house.
But something was different. This time, a light was on, dim and flickering, on the top floor. I looked up. Maybe Henry’s parents had come home? I had thought I had seen someone going up the stairs, before. I looked up at the window.
There did appear to be a figure standing up there, facing out towards the yard. Was that Alex? Or… Henry’s dad? The figure looked tall, misshapen. It wasn’t moving.
I walked to the driveway, past Max’s car, and looked down the pavement at the same line of three cars that had been in the garage when we arrived: Henry’s blue Echo, and two SUVs. No new car. And clearly, Alex hadn’t left.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a light at the end of the driveway. There was a fourth car, parked across the street, with an interior light on. Someone was seated inside. They were looking at the house. At me.
Is that Rana?
No. Couldn’t be. She wouldn’t be that crazy, that jealous, to drive all the way out here just to crash a party. I walked back to the basement door, lost in thought. Maybe I should tell the guys.
The door was locked. Fucking… hell. The laptop thing must have been a prank. I knocked, loud and long. “Guys,” I shouted. “It’s fucking cold out here!”
I crept over to the basement window and looked inside. They weren’t playing the game anymore. Henry was dialing a phone. Max and Spence huddled over an orange booklet—the phone directory for our high school. I saw a ripple move across Spence’s back, under his shirt. I squinted. It was too hard to see.
I knocked on the window. The sound of my fist on glass was loud enough to jolt Max into looking up. He pulled himself over to the door. “Sorry,” he breathed. “We got distracted.”
Spence looked up. “And she’s back!” he grinned. “I can’t believe you actually went out there.” He pushed his long black hair behind his ears. His nails looked black.
“I mean, you put my laptop out there,” I said. I stared at his nails. They hadn’t all been like that before, had they?
“Okay, shut up, shut up, it’s ringing,” Henry said, waving his hand at everybody.
“Is she gonna be cool?” asked Spence, jerking his thumb at me.
“She’s cool, she’s cool,” Max slurred, flinging himself back into his chair. “She already knows Rana is fucking crazy anyway.”
“Actually,” I started up. “There’s a car outside…”
“Voicemail,” said Henry, shushing everyone in the room. He cleared his throat. “Hello, this message is for a huge fucking dyke!” Spence burst into laughter, burying his head in his hands. Cord let out an extended sigh from the kitchen, but he didn’t intervene. His sigh turned into a cough.
Henry continued: “Just wanted to let you know we’re playing the mod and it’s fucking awesome. Whore.” Henry waved the phone around. “Anyone else have a message for her?”
Max reached out and took the phone. I felt my breath tighten. “Lemme at her,” he said. “Hey, fuck you, you crazy bitch!” Spence motioned for Max to let him have the phone.
Max handed it over, then heaved himself over to the sink, pushing Cord out of the way. He vomited. It looked black. Cord walked back to his seat, unperturbed.
“Hey Rana,” Spence cooed into the phone. “Henry just showed us some really beautiful photos of you. This, uh, this stunning artistic photography…”
All of a sudden, Henry stood up, flinging his chair backwards onto the floor. He grabbed the phone from Spence and hit the power button.
In a low, thin voice, Henry squeezed out, “Too far, man.”
Spence looked scared. “I’m so sorry, man,” he whimpered. “It was just jokes, man. I’m so sorry.”
Henry glared. His eyes looked black. Spence raised his hands, as though in surrender. They exchanged a look, and Henry nodded as though a deal had been struck between them. They sat back down at their computers.
Max walked over from the kitchen. His lips were gray. “Come on,” Max said, slapping me on the back. “Boot up the mod. You’ll love it.”
I could feel Henry and Cord’s eyes on me. I reopened my laptop and opened the game. “There you go,” Henry said, his voice low.
I spawned next to Alex’s body. I wondered how Henry and Max had managed to kill Alex. Max seemed too drunk to be much help.
A message appeared on the screen, in dark gray font. “Kill Spence,” it said. So, Henry can send private messages.
The gray text appeared again: “Underpass.” I headed there. I glanced to my right at Max’s screen. He wasn’t even close to the underpass.
Henry and Cord’s characters were already there, waiting. Every character model had the same gray armor, the same spiked helmet. When they saw me, they began to move. I followed.
Cord and Henry headed up the ramp. As soon as Spence rounded the corner, Henry had him. Headshot. Cord’s character turned to face me, then flipped back forward and moved up the path towards Spence. I felt my laptop keys flicker with a sudden surge of heat.
I didn’t feel like following. But my fingers did the work. I turned the corner and emptied a clip into Spence’s body. Up ahead of me, Henry and Cord moved closer, spraying bullets as Spence fell to the ground. Cord hung back, and so did I, as Henry’s character moved towards the corpse. Henry levitated the body into the air, rotating it in a methodical circle.
Spence pushed back from his computer and stood up. I tried to open my mouth to speak, but nothing would come. His skin looked gray, his face resigned. He walked away from the table and headed up the stairs. His shoulders looked hard, glistening in the darkness of the stairwell.
Henry clapped his hands. Everyone jumped. I shook my head, dizzy.
“Is Spence mad?” I asked.
“Nahh,” said Max. “He’s fine. He’s just going up to the attic.”
I wanted to ask why, but it felt like yet another rule I was supposed to already know.
I lifted my fingers from my keyboard and rubbed them together. They felt raw. I looked down at my nails and saw that they had gotten stained, too. Like Spence’s. I looked at Max.
“Hey,” I said. “Do your hands feel weird?”
“That always happens,” Max slurred, patting me on the shoulder. “It’s part of it.”
“We need to finish this,” Cord said. He looked at me. “We have to show her all of the rules.”
“She’ll learn soon enough,” Henry said. “She’s been keeping up so far.” He turned back to his computer. I watched my hands lift back onto my keyboard, felt my neck twist back towards the screen.
Maybe the attic was part of a prank. Just like when Rana got locked in the bathroom. Maybe there were beds up there, or couches. Maybe the guys were just going to sleep. It was pretty late, right? Almost 2 am, by now...
I stood, with Henry, looking at Spence’s corpse stacked on top of Alex. The gray text reappeared: “Look at Max’s screen and take me to him.”
Without hesitation, my eyes flicked to Max’s screen. I headed to his location. As I cooperated, I felt a sweet taste in my throat, like honey. Henry and Cord joined me on the path.
I found Max’s character, crouching, behind a pile of boxes. As I lined up a headshot, I felt a surge of warmth from my laptop. It didn’t feel too hot, anymore. It felt good. I fired. Max’s body flinched. I kept firing. A smile spread over my face.
Max pushed back his chair from his computer. He stood up.
“Up you go,” said Henry, his voice reverberating through the room. “Up to the attic.”
Max turned, obedient, toward the stairs. He didn’t seem drunk anymore, somehow. He didn’t stumble.
Cord and Henry were looking at me. In the game. And outside the game. I felt the slick taste in my throat again. I smiled at them.
From somewhere far away, I heard a pounding noise. A low roar.
“We need to finish the game,” I heard myself say. I felt my shoulder blades hardening, as though a carapace had begun to grow, warm and tight across my back. Cord nodded at me, satisfied, and looked back at his screen. Henry smiled, slow, showing his teeth. They looked gray, sharp. Powerful.
“We need to finish the game,” Henry agreed. I could still hear the roar, pulsing. It felt like it was inside my head. It sounded like music.
I looked back at my screen. Henry’s character headed towards the double doors. I followed, hesitant. As soon as we killed Cord, Henry would kill me. I could see no other ending. And yet I felt calm. Something deep had shifted within me. I was in this, now.
I watched as Henry threw grenade after grenade, so fast that his character’s arms seemed to clip through his torso. I followed suit, unloading my full pack into Cord’s base. I blinked at the flashing lights, my curser poised to shoot as soon as Cord’s body emerged from the smoke. But Cord was dead.
Cord got up from his computer. He stared at me. He had the same look of resignation, but there was something else. Almost like he felt sorry for me.
He turned, then, and headed towards the stairs. Henry and I waited, wordless, as Cord’s footsteps retreated up into the house.
“So,” Henry said aloud. I jumped.
“So,” I responded.
The pounding in my head continued. By now, it felt like the whole house was shaking. Like someone was banging on a door, somewhere, far away. But not any door. Two big wooden doors, banging against a stone wall, as some dark power emerged to cross their threshold.
“You have to follow the rules,” Henry said. “Just like everybody else.”
“Right,” I said. I looked down at my nails. They were black, shining like silver.
“You’ll have to go up to the attic, too,” he went on. “When I win. We didn’t used to go all the way up there. We used to just use my bedroom. Or the bathroom. But it always gets so loud.”
The low roar didn’t sound like music anymore. It sounded angry. I realized I couldn’t move.
Henry stood up. I felt the bile in my throat again. It didn’t taste as sweet this time. He walked over to me and leaned over to look at my screen, his breath hot on my neck.
“So, you’re at the underpass, huh,” he said. “Bad choice. Too obvious.”
I leaned away from him and raised my hands to lower my laptop screen. “You cheating, now?”
“You looked at Max’s screen so that you could survive,” Henry smiled. “That’s how it goes. Better not close that laptop, though. I win the game if you do.” He put his hand on the back of my chair, behind my shoulders.
“Yeah,” I said. “Party’s over, at that point.”
“Oh,” he said. “It won’t be over.” He reached out to grab my wrist. I looked up at his eyes. They had gone cold. He smiled, his gray teeth glinting silver. “I haven’t even told you what the winner gets to do.”
I could feel my hands shaking, my pulse quickening under his grip. I held his gaze.
“The winner leads the ritual,” he whispered. “The winner stands at the top of the tower. The first loser takes the lowest chain. I let you live the longest.” He ran a hand down my back. “And I expect a reward for that.”
Through my headphones, I heard a shot.
I flipped back to my laptop screen. “Someone’s alive!”
Henry scowled and let go of my wrist. “Just a glitch,” he said, heading back to his computer.
But my mouse cursor was moving without my having touched it. I watched as it minimized the game and opened a text file. “I’m a friend,” came the words, as if typed by a phantom at my keyboard. “Just hold on.”
The cursor navigated to my Counter-Strike system folder, selected a series of files and moved them into the trash, then erased them. It happened too fast for me to see what had disappeared.
The game reopened. It was still running. The console command popped up. I watched the “friend” type in a series of text strings, and then a message: “Now you’re strong enough to kill him. The rest is up to you.”
I blinked. My eyes felt dry. The mouse cursor wasn’t moving anymore. I looked at Henry. He looked confused, angry, clicking his mouse in consternation.
The sickly-sweet taste had disappeared from my throat. My laptop felt cool to the touch. But the pounding in my head continued.
In the game, I got up. I began to walk up the ramp, out from the underpass. In the distance, I could see Henry’s character. I threw a grenade. Then another. I watched my grenade count auto-refill. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Huh.
“Hey,” said Henry.
I didn’t answer. My throat had gone dry. It hurt.
“Hey!” he said, louder. “How did you…”
I threw another grenade. And another. My stock kept refilling. Henry began to fire back. My health percentage held steady. I walked forward. I switched to my rifle and started firing. Infinite ammo. No reload.
“You bitch!” Henry shouted. “You cheating bitch!” I swore I could feel the house shaking around us. I clutched my mouse. My fingernails hurt, bad, like they were crumbling into dust. I didn’t stop.
I watched his body fall to the ground. I kept firing. My heart was pounding. The mansion screamed. I stood over his body, waiting for it to move, to reanimate, to fight back again. It didn’t.
Henry stood up from his chair. He looked at me, a question in his eyes. I looked back. He lowered his head to me, almost like a bow. He turned toward the stairs. I could barely hear his footsteps over the muted sound of thunder. Was that just the blood pounding in my ears? I couldn’t tell.
I turned back to my screen. My mouse had begun to move on its own again. The console command reappeared. A new message popped up: “Need a ride home?”
I stood up. I could still hear that music in my head, calling to me from upstairs. The guys were up there. Waiting for me.
I looked down at my black network cable. I reached out and unplugged it. It felt slimy in my hand, and I recoiled. I looked back at the text on the screen.
I threw my jacket over my shoulders and stuffed my laptop into my backpack. I walked, shaking, to the back door, my hands slippery with sweat and grime. I pulled it open, walked over the threshold, and heard it slam behind me.
The screaming in my head had stopped. My back felt itchy. I looked down at my nails. Two were bleeding.
I jogged across the yard, stopping to looking back up at the attic. The lights in every top window flickered like a bonfire. I could see figures, grayish, swaying in the light. I turned away.
I ran down the driveway, heading toward the car across the street. I saw the figure in the car closing a laptop, lifting a hand to wave at me. The car roared to life, the headlights blaring into the darkness.
I circled around to the passenger door. Rana reached over, flipped open the lock, and pulled the handle.
“Glad you made it out,” she said.
“Holy shit,” I said, collapsing into the passenger’s seat. “I don’t even know what to say. Thank you? Thank you!”
Rana laughed, her eyes gentle and understanding. Maybe a little sad. “You don’t have to tell me,” she said, shifting the car into reverse. “Those guys are fucking weirdos.”