Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
I’m going to tell you a secret that I don’t tell anyone. I’m a US veteran of the war in Afghanistan. I was stationed in the Uruzgan province when Taliban militants attacked our coalition base. I stood next to a man I knew since training when a RPG-16 hit the three story building behind and buried us both alive, and I held the flag they sent home to his mother after I crawled out. I’ve tortured a man for information, threatened a child to coerce his parents to cooperate, and of the seven people I know I’ve killed, only five were fighting back.
But that isn’t the secret, because I was just following orders. The secret is that when I’m lying awake at night thinking about all the things done to me – all the things I’ve done – I’m not not traumatized by it all. The secret is I can’t sleep because I miss it.
Adrenaline, fear, excitement – it’s all the same thing. I’ve been addicted to it for as long as I can remember. While other kids were riding skateboards around the neighborhood cul-de-sac, you’d find me grinding along the railings of a rooftop. They threw water balloons, I threw rocks. They learned to drive, I organized street races with my brother. By the time I graduated high-school, I already had a juvie record for fighting. The cop sat me down with an army recruitment officer, and they told me my life had only two possible outcomes left.
“You’re going to either keep playing at these stupid stunts until you get locked up for life, or you’re going to man up and become somebody.”
I told them I had changed, and the officer decided my past mistakes wouldn’t disqualify me from enlisting. He was wrong for believing me – I just thought shooting guns sounded like a hell-of-a lot more fun than sitting behind bars. He was right that I would make a damn good soldier though. Sure it wasn’t all excitement, but my life had a purpose and I could finally put my natural affinity to good use. For the first time in my life, I was courageous instead of stupid; a hero instead of a freak.
I didn’t come home in a body bag like I had expected, but the wheelchair I got was even worse. The bullet between the 2nd and 3rd lumbar bones is still lodged in my spine, and that was it for me. I didn’t know if I would ever get out of that chair, but even if I could, my days of living on the edge were over.
And I hated it.
I hated the army for kicking me out (I would have crawled back into battle if they let me). I hated my brother for the pity he gave me, I hated the boring town I was stuck in, and more than anything, I hated myself for not having anything left to live for. I wheel out to the end of my driveway every month to get the disability check they mail me, but besides that I just sit at home and watch movies.
War movies. Horror movies. Anything that could make me forget, even for a moment, that the most excitement I was ever going to get was checkup time when the nurse leaned over my chair to measure my stagnant pulse. My brother tried to get me to go out with him more, but I couldn’t stand being dragged away from my movies. I wish I could be inside them and never come out. That’s when he came up with an idea for a compromise:
“How about you and me go down to the new Virtual Reality Arcade?” he asked. “They’ve even got some immersive horror ones that are so real you’ll piss yourself.”
“Sounds like my everyday life,” I replied.
I ended up going just to shut him up, and the place was actually a lot cooler than I expected. The arcade was divided into personal pods that looked kinda like spaceships. The assistant was a geeky Japanese dude and spoke with a weird inflection which kept swinging back and forth. He probably spent his spare time making fan-made anime dubs or some nonsense. He helped me get setup with the headset and headphones, and made sure the wheelchair didn’t get tangled up in any of the wires.
As you might have guessed from my introduction, not much impresses me. But holy shit, this technology has come a long way since the blurry 3D movies I saw as a kid. I found myself confronted with a menu hanging in the air which looked real enough to touch. I selected the horror genre, and then a few more options came up.
Select your difficulty. Are you a:
Grandmother with a heart condition.
Kid with something to prove.
SWAT team looking for practice.
A lost soul seeking forgiveness from GOD.
That last one didn’t really sound like a degree of fear to me, but they were organized in ascending difficulty so I selected that. Any hope of a thrill immediately disappeared as a fat cartoon Devil with a pitchfork ran across my field of vision.
“I can see you!” he said, waving his pitchfork at me. “Can you see you?”
“No, because I’m not a stupid cartoon. You sure this game is for adults?” I spoke aloud.
“Just wait and see,” the Japanese guy said. It was weird hearing him talk when I couldn’t see him.
I think he was still speaking, but the words were drowned out by the game music which started playing. It sounded like the bad haunted houses they try and push off on kids: full of rubber spiders, cobwebs, and jars of “intestines” which are just spaghetti and meat-sauce.
My viewpoint was walking along a dark road at night which led to a trapdoor in the ground like a cellar. The cartoon Devil popped up again, and I physically prepared myself for death-by-cringing. I get that my brother felt as helpless as I did, and I know he is just trying his best which is still more than can be said for me. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to at least pretend to have fun.
“Through me is the space between you and the Divine; infinite and eternal, inseparable and simultaneous,” the Devil said, his voice completely different than his last utterance. The words popped with a confusing static noise. It was almost as though instead of hearing the words, I heard every imaginable sound except the words, and my brain filled in the missing space just like it does with white lettering on black paper.
“Are you scared yet?” I faintly heard my brother’s voice through the headset. I shrugged and gave a thumbs up. The trapdoor opened, and I lurched in my chair and something hurt in my back as the viewpoint suddenly dropped into the Earth. It felt impressively real, almost like I was on a roller-coaster which plunged into the darkness. I heard my brother laugh at my reaction. I figure that’s enough satisfaction for him. No more looking startled, or I’ll never hear the end of it.
I could faintly see phosphorescent mushrooms and rocks lighting the deplorable descent. I was continuing to accelerate as I fell, and I even felt wind blowing in my face. They must have a fan or something to make it seem more real. The Devil was tagging along with me, but he kept glitching and lagging and getting left behind, only to suddenly reappear in front once more. Then I felt a blast of hot air on my face, and I closed my eyes. Whelp, guess this was it folks. I must be in Hell.
I opened my eyes and squinted against the brilliant light. I always imagined Hell being darker. Was this Hell-fire? My eyes started to adjust, and I could see the sun reflecting sharply off the wide sandy slopes of… of where? Afghanistan?
Someone was talking behind me in Dari, the most common language used there. I couldn’t understand it, but I could tell the person was afraid. I turned my chair to shift the viewpoint until I saw an old man kneeling in the dirt before two US soldiers who had their backs to me. One of them was holding a picture of an teenage Afghani boy.
“Do you know who this is? Have you seen him?” the first soldier asked.
“Is this your idea of a joke, bro?” I spoke aloud.
“Your brother went to use the bathroom,” the Japanese guy said faintly.
“What kind of game is this?” I asked, but his reply was drowned out by the VR soldiers.
The old man kept pressing his face against the dirt and shaking his head. One of the soldiers dragged him to his feet and shoved the photo in his face.
“You know who this is, don’t you? Why are you trying to protect him? Do you know what he’s done?”
This wasn’t funny to me. I started to take off the headset, but the cartoon Devil appeared in the corner.
“I can see you!” he said in the silly voice. “Can you see you?” Everything was playing so smoothly it could have been real, except for the Devil which kept lagging and glitching. He was little more than a jumping mass of mis-colored pixels.
One of the soldiers kicked the man on the ground. As he pivoted his body, I caught a glimpse of my own face under the helmet. Suddenly I remembered who the old man was. Abdul-Baser was a Qalandar or mystic who was suspected of sheltering Taliban operatives in his house. I didn’t need to watch to know what happened next.
I took my headset off and handed it to the Japanese guy. “Did my brother put you up to this?” I asked him.
“I can see you,” the assistant replied. He handed the headset back to me, but I pushed it away.
“No duh, Sherlock. How did you get this footage?”
“Can you see you?” he asked. His face froze for a second while he spoke, twisted half-way between words. There were a couple of empty pixels obscuring his mouth, but I could tell he was smiling when he handed me back the headset. I touched his hand – warm and real. Well, I don’t know what was going on, but this certainly captured my attention better than any movie. I slowly took the headset from him, and the assistant nodded and smiled while I put it back over my eyes.
“Hahahaha,” the cartoon Devil laughed in a good-natured way. “I played a trick on you: once for what you’ve done.”
Flash I was beating Abdul-Baser inside a holding cell.
Flash I was back in the desert next to the cartoon Devil. I saw it for less than a second, like a single frame inserted into a movie.
“Yeah, you tricked me alright,” I answered. “But you didn’t scare me. You think I don’t remember everything I saw? I wasn’t scared then, and I’m not scared now.”
The scene suddenly dissolved and I was falling through the Earth again. I seemed to be going deeper this time, because the tunnel was lit by flowing veins of lava now instead of mushrooms. I sat calmly in my chair, actually looking forward to what came next. I don’t know if I was drugged, or having a stroke, or if the Devil really was trying to teach me a lesson, but I was excited to see just how far the rabbit-hole went.
This time it was pitch black when I stopped. Crashed would be a better word though, because I felt it. It was like my whole body had slammed into a wall. This trick could make me feel things? Could something here beat me? Or torture me? For a second I actually did start to get scared, but then I reached out with my hands and felt carpet beneath my fingers. That’s right, I was still in the VR arcade. I had just fallen out of my chair somehow. Still wearing the headset and seeing nothing but the blackness I landed in, I pulled myself hand-over-hand and crawled back into my wheelchair.
“I can see you,” the static-y absence of words said. “Can you see you?” The Devil rose in front of me, but his appearance had changed as much from that cartoon Devil as his voice had. The shape was dark, but it wasn’t just like the lights were off. Ordinary dark is the absence of light, but the presence before me was the impossibility of it. In that moment before him, I couldn’t even remember what it was like to see, but I could still sense his form through the emotional weight it carried.
His horns were as sharp as being stabbed by the love of your life after you sacrificed everything to bring her joy.
His face was the burden of holding your dying father in your arms while both of you knew you could have saved him if only you’d tried harder.
His body was the shape of a long life spent in quiet desperation after all living matter had wasted away and you alone remained to dwell upon your regret.
“Twice for who you are,” the presence said.
He reached out to touch me, but I couldn’t let him. Somehow I felt I would become like him, an unreal embodiment of misery and pain, if the presence of his being were to overlap with my own. It wasn’t fear that made me rip off the headset – fear is something consciously recognized in the brain. My terror was something much deeper and primitive, the sort of thing which stirred my ancient ancestors into action to prolong their own purposeless existences in the face of some greater dread of the unknown.
I tore off my headset and headphones and threw them into the assistant’s face. My brother wasn’t there, but I wasn’t going to wait for him. I sprinted out of the building, bursting out into the bright clear light of my familiar hometown. Boring? How could anything be boring about this place which brought me into this world and formed me into who I am. I ran as fast and hard as I could, taking in deep lungfuls of clean air which filled my body with hope and jubilation. I had my whole life ahead of me, and nothing I had done or been could ever change that. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this good. Hell, I couldn’t even remember the last time I walked outside –
And it hit me. I couldn’t remember the last time I walked, because I couldn’t walk. I slowed down and looked at my legs pumping the concrete beneath me. I could feel the blood roaring in my veins and the pressure of my feet on the ground. But I could also see that one leg lagged slightly behind the other even when I stood still, and that it was filled with dead blurry pixels. I walked the rest of the way home, just enjoying how good it felt to move and trying not to look at my glitching legs.
“Three times for what you will do,” said the voice which wasn’t a voice. My brother was waiting for me in my home, although every instinct within me screamed with the common recognition that it wasn’t my real brother.
“Oh but I can’t trick you, can I?” his mouth moved, but it was the silly cartoon Devil’s voice which came out. “You’re not scared of anything.”
I reached up to my face, but the headset wasn’t on anymore. I turned around and started walking upstairs as quickly as I could. My heart was pounding in my chest like a caged animal trying to escape. My brother-who-wasn’t-my-brother followed me up to my room.
“You think you’re so strong, don’t you? That you don’t need anybody. But you know what? But there’s no-one else here, so you can tell me the truth.”
The singsong cartoon voice was grating on my nerves. Wherever I was, I wasn’t in control. There was no point in trying to outrun something in my own mind. I turned around to face him.
“I’m not afraid of you or your tricks. What do I have to do to get out of here?” I asked. My voice didn’t even shake. I balled my hands into fists, and they were firm and ready.
“Are you sure you want out?” he asked, but it was back in my brothers voice. “Your legs work in here, but they won’t out there.”
“I don’t care, I want out,” I said.
“Why? Unless you really are afraid.” He smiled, and it froze in a glitch. The face was so warped I could barely recognize him. I couldn’t stand to look – I wanted to wipe that smile off. If he wasn’t going to be reasoned with, then I would have to do things my own way.
“I’m not afraid!” I shouted. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and punched him straight across the face. “You’re the one who is trapped in here with me!”
“Then what do you feel?” he asked.
The face felt solid and I could feel the bones of his jaw moving from the impact. The instant I hit him however, his face was replaced with Abdul-Baser. The old man started to pull a handgun from behind his back, but I punched him again, almost breaking my hand against his cheekbone. The face changed again, and this time I was looking into my own eyes. That was it – that was the way out. He was reeling from my blows, and I snatched the handgun from his limp grasp.
“That’s not going to do anything to me -”
“You’re right, it won’t,” I interrupted, my mind racing with the possibilities, “because you’re just pretending to be me. It will however, work on me.”
I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger. He jumped at me faster – faster than humanly possible – and knocked my hand aside. The gun went off with a deafening ring, and he fell to the ground in a heap.
“My turn,” I said. I put the gun in my mouth, pleased to find that my hand still wasn’t shaking, and pulled the trigger.
“I can see you. Can you see you?”
I opened my eyes in the hospital. A doctor was leaning over me, shining a light in my mouth. My head hurt like Hell. I tried to nod, but a searing pain engulfed my awareness and I froze up – almost like a glitch.
My father was sitting beside my bed. He wouldn’t say a word until after the doctor left, but eventually he told me what happened. I had entered some kind of fit at the VR arcade and fell out of my chair, probably caused by the bullet shifting in my spine. My brother took me home and stayed with me to make sure I was okay, but I pulled a gun and tried to kill myself. He managed to stop me, but the gun went off and hit him. I shot myself after that, but the bullet went straight through my jaw and missed my brain.
I want to go back to my old life – Hell I want to go all the way back to day one and do it all again, but I’d settle for just a day.
I used to think I had nothing left to hope for. I used to think I wasn’t afraid of anything. Now I know I was wrong about both, and that they’re both the same thing:
The static sneer, half-contempt, half-agony, glitching on my father’s face. I can’t tell whether this is real and the visual anomalies are a result of my fit, or whether I’m still trapped in the virtual world.
If it IS real though, then I’ve killed my brother. If it isn’t, then I might be trapped here forever. I don’t even know which I’m more afraid of.
Credit: Arthur Weinstein