The House of Mystery
Play for Keeps
by Martin Maenza
Cain tells a tale of a young man’s obsession with video games, and how it drew him into a fantasy world — literally! Would you play a video game differently if you knew your character was playing for keeps?
A long-nosed, bespectacled man swirled about the liquid in the wine glass in his left hand, while a burning cigarette dangled from his right-hand fingers. His wild brown hair came up in points on either side of his head, and his chin included a bushy beard. He was dressed in a wrinkled, musty brown suit.
“You know, sometimes things that start out as simple pleasures end up taking up more and more of one’s lives,” Cain said. “Take something like this drink.” He gestured with his left hand. “Or this smoke.” He gestured with his right. “Before you know it, you’re caught up in an addiction that you just can’t shake.
“Sometimes, it takes an extreme action or measure to break the cycle.” He tossed the glass violently into the old stone hearth behind him, soaking the wood lying therein. “Or even a combination of factors.” Then he tossed the smoldering cigarette in after it. The whole fireplace suddenly burst into flames.
Cain smiled with a knowing grin. “That reminds me of a story,” he said as the fire crackled wildly behind him. “A little story called ‘Play for Keeps’…”
“Jason?” a shrill voice called from downstairs. Footfalls started on the wooden stairs. The woman’s voice got closer and seemed more irritated with each call. “Jason. Jason!“
A woman in her early forties pushed open the white paint-chipped bedroom door that had been slightly ajar. Her brown hair was mussed, her face plain and worn. She was dressed in a pale blue uniform, faded from so many washings. “Jason! I’ve been calling you,” she said sternly.
A young man, nearly seventeen, sat on the edge of a chair, leaning forward. He was dressed in jeans, frayed at the ends, old black tennis shoes, and a dark T-shirt. “Yeah?” the long-dark-haired youth said without averting his gaze. His eyes were glued to flashing images on the television screen across from him. In his hands he worked a plastic stick barely five inches high that helped control the action on the screen.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
The woman frowned. “Stop playing that game when I’m talking to you,” she said.
“In a minute…” Jason punched his left thumb repeatedly on the orange firing button on the square base of the stick.
“Now!” the woman said. She waited.
Jason continued to play.
Angry, Sylvia Palmer stepped over to the television and firmly switched it off.
“Ma!” the young man exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “I was in the middle of that!”
“I don’t care,” she said. “All you ever do is play these video games. If you’re not holed up here in your room, you’re down at the stupid arcade.” She glanced down at the black console unit on the floor connected to the television. Around it were scattered a number of black cartridges.
She did a quick count in her head. Eleven? “Jason, where did you get another game?”
“Bought it,” Jason said.
“Bought it?” Sylvia repeated. “With what?“
“The money I got from mowing old man Swenson’s lawn.”
The mother looked down at the stack of games again, easily a few hundred dollars’ worth. Here she was working two jobs a week, trying to make ends meet after her husband had left them, and the boy was throwing his money away on these games. “You should save your money instead of spending it like it was going out of style.”
“Save it? Why?”
“For college,” she said.
Jason made a disapproving sound. “College? Forget that! I’m gonna work down at the mill or something. I don’t like school, anyway.”
Those words reminded the mother of why she was upset in the first place, why she had hurried straight home from work without stopping at the store or anything. “Jason, I got a call today from your school,” Sylvia said firmly. “Principal said you skipped your last two periods.”
Jason suppressed a grin as he started to gather up the games, including the one in the console. “Yeah?”
Sylvia Palmer put her hands on her hips. “Well? Did you skip or not?”
Jason dropped the games into an old navy backpack. “Yeah? So? It was just study hall and gym. No biggie.”
“No biggie?” she said. “That’s the third time this month.”
“I told you I don’t like school,” Jason said as he threw the bag over his shoulder and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” Sylvia asked. All she saw was the back of her son’s head as he started to go down the stairs. “I asked where you are going!”
“Mark’s!” Jason said firmly as he made a beeline for the front door.
Sylvia was about to protest when her son slammed the door behind him. She sighed and shook her head. After scrubbing floors all day, she wasn’t up to chasing after him. She knew where he was headed, and she felt some comfort in that. Mark Mason was a nice boy, very studious. Perhaps some of that would rub off upon her own son. She could only hope.
Jason Palmer rode his old bicycle up the avenue of the small town. He stood up on the pedals as he went, in part to make it up the big hills, and in part because the bike was too small for him, and he would bump his legs if he sat on the elongated banana seat. The backpack with the games bounced against his back as he went.
There was a slight blast of cool wind that picked up and a slight rumble in the distance. Jason glanced up and could see some clouds slowly moving in from the east on this night when the moon was three-quarters full. “Hold off,” he said to the approaching storm, as if his words had any control. “Just a little bit.”
Soon, he pulled off on a side street, then rounded the corner. He pulled up into the second driveway on the left and glided his bike to a stop at the end near the garage. Hopping off, Jason leaned his bike up against the side and went to the back door. The kitchen lights were on, but no one was visible in the window.
Reaching for the knob, he turned it and stepped inside. “Yo, Mark,” he called out as he moved into the kitchen. “You around?”
He glanced about the room. It was a nicely decorated place, clean and well-stocked. There was a bowl of fruit on the counter. He took an apple and bit into it. As he chewed, Jason noticed a note propped up on the table with his name at the top.
Picking it up, he read it. “Jay, ran out to grab some snackage for the game-marathon. Back in a bit. Make yourself at home. Mark.” Jason nodded. Good old Mark. His folks were away for the weekend, leaving him run of the house. The perfect time for a Friday night, all-night gaming session. He took two more bites of the apple and tossed the core in the sink. He then made his way into the family room to the right.
There on the floor was a game system similar to his own. But unlike his own, which was hooked to an old black and white television, this one was on a nice seventeen-inch color set. Jason smiled. “Can’t wait to see what this baby looks like in color,” he said as he plopped down his backpack and fished out the newest game. Pulling out the cartridge, he plugged it into the game console. Then he turned on the television and the game unit.
A pulsating logo popped up on the black screen with the name of the game. The colors throbbed from red to yellow to blue, with every color of the spectrum in between. There was a sound like a humming engine, weird and alien. Jason’s blood began to pump a bit faster at the mere thought of playing. “Let’s do this!” He grabbed the joystick controller and pressed the fire button to start.
Jason was quickly into the game, and he didn’t notice the sound of the rain on the roof.
The storm had moved into town, bringing with it winds. There was a crack of lightning, followed by a loud boom of thunder. This was soon followed by a second and third. The last one was loud enough to shake the house.
Jason registered the rattle of the windows. “Whoa,” he said, then glancing back at the screen where his player-character had just gotten stabbed by an orc warrior. “Man! I lost a life here! Stupid storm.” He went back to total focus of the game.
There was another crack of lightning.
The power surged. The lights flashed out.
Two seconds later, Mark Mason entered through the kitchen door, his black hair soaked and his arms full of two bags from the store. He put them down on the counter. “Yuck,” he said aloud. He reached for the dish towel hanging from the oven door handle and used it to wipe off the rain from his glasses. He then ran the towel through his hair.
Noticing the apple core in the sink, he glanced at the table. The note was gone. “Jason?” he called out. “Where are you, buddy?” He put the sodas in the refrigerator, grabbed one of the bags of chips and went into the family room.
The television was on, as was the video game system. Jason’s pack was there, but Mark’s friend was nowhere in sight. “Must be in the bathroom,” he said, then saw the pulsating logo of the game.
“Ooohh, cool,” he said to himself. “Must be that new one he was talking about getting.” Mark Mason put down the bag of chips, sat on the floor, and picked up the joystick. “Wonder what it’s like.” He pressed the fire button.
One moment ago, Jason had been in Mark’s family room, and the next he was in total darkness. “Man! The storm must’ve knocked out the power,” he said. “This sucks.” He felt about around him with his hands, making contact with the floor. He started to stand up.
Suddenly, there was light — but not light from above, like the ceiling light had come back with the power.
It was flickering torchlight, coming from the walls.
And the room was no longer Mark Mason’s family room, but one of a stone castle, sparse and dirty.
Jason Palmer blinked. “Whoa! Cool!” He looked about. “Just like the game!” He had no idea what was going on, whether he was dreaming or what, but it didn’t matter for now. He was ready to just go with the flow. He wanted to explore.
He walked forward down a narrow hallway and saw an iron gate. “Hmmm,” he said, giving it a rattle. It was locked. “Got to be a key around here somewhere.”
Jason looked about the floor. There was a small pile of hay. He bent down and began to dig. His hands brushed against two things.
“The key,” he said as he held up a small metal item in his right hand. “And a weapon!” In his left hand was a small sword with a foot-long blade. “Cool!”
He used the key on the iron gate, and it swung open with a loud creak. Beyond it was darkness. “Better get a torch, too,” he said, snatching one off the wall. With weapon in one hand and light in another, Jason Palmer continued down the dungeon.
Then, out of the shadows jumped a swift figure. As Jason recoiled back, he heard a low growl as whatever it was sailed over his head and landed in the path before him. “What the–?”
Jason waved his torch forward in a sweeping move, the illumination trailing behind it. From the darkness before him, he could make out a hulking beast with large, clawed feet and sharp, snarling teeth. The creature growled at the light as it passed.
Gritting his teeth, Jason snarled, “OK, ugly, let’s see what you got!” He lunged forward with his sword, slashing in the beast’s direction.
The first blow grazed the creature, causing it to recoil back. It growled at him and moved forward.
Jason stepped to the side, waving the torch. “Hah! Back!”
The creature paid it no heed and lunged forward.
Jason, sword drawn back, brought the weapon forward and up as the creature was about to pounce on him. The point of the blade penetrated the creature’s chest. Jason felt the resistance and shoved it further.
The creature howled out on last time before falling to the ground.
Jason pulled the weapon out of the thing’s chest, dark, thick blood dripping off the blade. “Man, way too easy!”
Mark Mason smiled as one of the two figures on the screen faded away. He was still left with the one, a figure made up of a series of pixellated shapes that approximated his player character in the game. “Cool,” he said aloud. “I think I’m getting the hang of this one already.”
He glanced about behind him. He expected his friend to be standing there. He wasn’t.
“Hmmm,” Mark said aloud. He put down the controller on the floor and crossed the room to the hallway where the bathroom was. The door was open with the room darkened. “Not there.”
The young man walked back into the family room and pondered. Jason’s backpack was here, but he wasn’t. Could he have realized that he had forgotten something and ran back home to get it? Maybe.
“Oh, well.” Mark shrugged his shoulders. “He’ll be back soon enough, I’m sure.” He glanced back at the television where the game was displayed and saw that the scenery color around his figure had changed to that of a forest-like green.
“Cool. A different level.” He sat back down on the floor, picked up the controller, and started to play again.
Jason had found an opening out of the dungeon area, and soon found himself on a path away from the mountains. Before him was a forest of dark, forbidding trees. He could smell a hint of pine in the air as the wind blew toward him.
If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up, he thought to himself.
Jason then felt a slight chill on the back of his spin. He gripped the sword a bit tighter.
The wind kicked up a bit more, blowing on the flame of his torch. “Man!” he exclaimed. “Hope I don’t need that later.” Luckily for him, the moonlit sky above was enough to guide him down the path.
Just as he approached the trees, a pair of shadowy figures appeared before him. Their size, appearance, and growls indicated they were just like the one he had taken down a few minutes before.
Jason grinned confidently. “Two this time? No problem!” Taking the sword in two hands, he lunged into battle. He swung the blade as if he were born to do so, as if it were the most natural thing for him. It felt right. It was right.
The first of the creatures went down after taking two slices head on.
“Hah!” Jason cried in a mocking way. “Told you!”
He swung at the second one that advanced. His blow this time hardly grazed the beast. “What?” he said in surprise.
The beast swung back his clawed hand then racked the pointed tips across Jason’s unprotected chest.
The sword clattered to the ground, and Jason grasped his own chest. Blood! “Aaa-aaahhh!” he cried out, clutching at his chest.
Another blow came from the beast, this time to the side of his head. Jason fell to the ground next to his weapon.
The young man’s eyes were burning, blurring. He tried to reach for his weapon, which seemed horribly out of his reach. He groaned.
Two thundering fists came down upon his chest.
“Game over?” Mark said as the words appeared on the screen. “I died already? That sucks.” He reached forward to the black console. He considered taking the cartridge out and replacing it with Maze Man or something else. Then he stopped and moved his hand left to the reset switch.
“One more game,” he said. After all, he didn’t want to give such a dreadful showing when his friend showed up later. Jason would ride him to no end about dying so quickly right out of the gate. Mark figured he would use the time until his friend returned to get better at the game.
He pressed the reset switch.
Suddenly, there was light. It was flickering torchlight, coming from the walls. Jason Palmer blinked and realized he was back in the dungeon again. He felt about to the stone floor and lifted himself into a sitting position.
Then he remembered the attack, the battle, and the wounds.
Jason touched his chest. His shirt was whole. There was no sign of any wounds or blood. “Weird.”
Standing up, he looked about. Then he walked forward down a narrow hallway and saw an iron gate. “Hmmm,” he said, giving it a rattle. It was locked. “Got to be a key around here somewhere.”
“Mark Mason played the game for the next couple of hours, restarting it a number of times after every death of his ‘character,'” Cain said, looking at his unseen audience. “Eventually, he realized that his friend Jason Palmer was not going to show up. He called Jason’s home, only to talk to a very confused Sylvia Palmer.
“The woman filed a missing-person’s report for her son. The police never turned up any clues. The boy was gone, as if he had vanished off the face of the Earth.
“Mark Mason found, over time, that his skills at the video games were improving. Not just on the one left behind by Jason, but on others, too. It was almost as if the games were learning themselves as they went along.”