28 Dec Play to Win
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"Play to Win"Written by
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Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
Dear Dr. Faulk,
Let me start by saying thank you, Doctor. I know why you’re getting me to do this, and I hope that writing about it really does help me to overcome it. I don’t have anyone left to turn to anymore, espcially not in here, and you’re the only professional that has stuck by me throughout. I realise that this preamble is just fear talking. Every word I write now is a few seconds I can avoid writing down the details of what happened. But I promised us both that I would do this, didn’t I?
It started four months ago, though it seems like so much longer. I was a student at the University of Liverpool, just started out. I’d never been away from home before, and I had no idea what to take with me. My family bought a brand new laptop for studying on, and it’s funny, the one thing I remember with true clarity from that stark, empty dorm-room was the mangled internet socket. There was no wireless, just an ethernet port, and that was fucked beyond all hope. When I complained, they said they’d get someone to fix it, but it’d take a while. New student intake meant that everyone would be very busy for a while. I’d brought a few books, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep me entertained for long. The room didn’t have an aerial for the portable TV I had brought with me, so I went into town to look for some DVDs or something.
Well, when I got there, I found out pretty quickly that DVDs would be off the menu. They were just too expensive for me to waste my money on. However, when I looked through some of the charity shops, I soon found a decent number of VHS tapes that were priced at 50p, far, far cheaper than a DVD. In fact, I could get about twenty tapes for the price of a single DVD. Before I bought them, though, i’d need a VHS player, and I hadn’t seen one of those in years. I asked the guy in the shop about it, but he had no idea where I could get one. I bought the tapes anyway, figuring that I could pick one up at another shop. I must have checked the entire city of Liverpool for a VHS player, or I was at least so unused to the place that it felt like I did. Almost out of patience with the whole thing, I decided to check one of the pawnbroker’s shops as a last resort. It’d cost a little more, perhaps. But i’d already bought the tapes now, and it seemed like a waste if I were to throw them away unwatched.
You probably know the kind of place. It had a name like “deals” or “discounts” or something. I bet it probably isn’t there now. A few of its wares were visible in the window, beyond the bars that had been placed in front of them. They’d probably had some trouble with vandals.
The guy in the shop had two VHS players in the back which I could have for ten quid each, but he also told me that he could have one delivered to my campus the next morning. Apparently, he had a friend that worked in house clearance, and he was glad to get rid of the damned things. I wondered at the time why he’d talk himself out a sale, but it didn’t matter. Saving a tenner is pretty important to a student. I went along with it. And sure enough, when I checked with the campus mail offices the next morning, there it was. I took it back to my room and set it up, next to the TV which had just been sitting there all day yesterday.
I’m going to take a break from this now, doctor. My hands are shaking, and I remember what you said in your last session about taking this slowly. I’ll start again when I can.
Okay. I know I need to explain this as thoroughly as I can, so i’ll take it slowly. I’ll do my best to remember everything.
Obviously, the first thing I did was set up the VHS. It was still a very new room to me, so I had to make sure that everything was where I wanted it. I put the VHS player on the bedside cabinet, with the TV on top of it, and moved it closer to the plug, on the opposite side of the room to the bed. It wasn’t until I turned everything on that it spat a tape out. I didn’t even know there was one in there, so I was a bit surprised. I took it out, and looked over it. It was just a regular black VHS, rewound back to the beginning. It didn’t have a label anywhere on it, and the only weird thing about it was the manufacturer’s mark. Chinese or Japanese characters, though for all I knew it could have been Korean, too. I have no idea. Three of them, though. All the same. I let curiosity get the better of me. Anyone would have. I expected maybe a TV show, or a movie. Nothing more personal than a wedding, or a baptism or something. At worst, it could have been a funeral. God, I was so wrong.
I slipped the tape back in, and it played automatically. I’m going to describe next what I saw. I’ll be as detailed as I can.
The image was as clear an image I have ever seen on a videotape. It wasn’t grainy. There were no track lines. The first thing I saw on the tape was a still image of a field, or a meadow, with a single tree in it. Someone had edited in some butterflies, and underneath the image were a few more of these Asian-looking characters. After a few seconds, a black bar was placed across the characters, opaque enough to just about see them beneath it. A subtitle bar that contained the words “Play to win!”.
Slowly, that images faded to a studio set, where two podiums stood. The podiums had been draped in some sort of shiny cloth, and it was obvious that it had been set out to look like a game show. It was a clear enough video to see the backdrop, parts of which were the same shimmery cloth, and parts of which were uncovered, showing what looked like pipes and metal plating behind it. A voice-over in a language I didn’t recognise began to speak over some close-ups of a man behind one of the podiums, a smiling grey-haired presenter. He then began to speak, and the camera turned to the second podium, where a younger man stood, looking a little nervous. It had to be a game show. I was sure of it. Just some weird game show from China, or something. I only continued watching because it all looked so amateurish that it might be funny.
The voice over continued on for a little while before the ‘host’ cut back in again. It seemed like the show was about to begin. He raised some cards in his hand, and spoke aloud, very quickly, the camera cutting back and forth between the host and the contestant. They spoke quickly, each in turn, and the subtitles came back, questions and answers quickly moving along the bottom of the screen. I found myself pausing quickly so that I could follow the text properly. The questions were easy to start with, and the contestant was jubilant at getting them all right. Silly things, like “When was the American Declaration of Independence signed?” and “What was Mozart’s first name?”. After a while, the questions got harder, and more obscure. Soon enough, the contestant failed. He was unable to give the second world chess champion. Up until now, it had been quite tame. It was a good idea. A quick-fire round of questions that got harder as time went on. But when he failed, he almost fell from the podium. He beat his hands against the top of it, and let out a strangled little moan. I had never seen a quiz show like this before. I had no idea what the prize was. Either he was very close to winning, or he was a very sore loser. Then, men clad in black, probably so they could be as invisible as possible to the viewer, came out, and tied a red ribbon around his elbow. The questions continued, but he was visibly shaken and he failed two more. More ribbons. around two fingers on the opposite hand.
The round ended, and a few numbers flashed up on the screen, but with no subtitles to explain them, I had no idea of their meaning. The camera flashed back to the contestant, who was now sobbing silently to himself. The men returned, and one held him around the neck from behind, while the other produced a hacksaw. Everything was so detailed, and so far away from any movie i’d ever seen. The man with the hacksaw placed it upon the fold of the contestant’s elbow, and began to saw, slowly. The camera panned back, and the contestant began to scream loudly. After a few seconds of screaming, the sound cut out, silent for a second before being replaced by a laugh track. The sight of the man’s arm being slowly removed made me feel so sick, and the laughter looped on and on until it became more like an alien screech than anything else. When it was done, the camera focused on the bloody limb as it fell to the floor, the fingers upon it still moving faintly. The contestant continued to scream, his mouth a voiceless ‘O’ behind the canned laughter. Two fingers soon followed, and the camera closed in on these too. By the time the men left, the contestant was propping himself up on the podium, pale and shivering.
Another close-up of the host, and he carried on as normal, as though he hadn’t just seen a man dismembered before his eyes. “Second round”, the subtitles read, as one of the torturers dropped a small sack of coloured cubes on the contestants’ podium. “No two colours touch!” The subtitles told me, over the voice of the host. The contestant managed to pick one up in his remaining fingers, but blood had slicked everything, and he looked at it for a second, placing it down with trembling determination. The camera shook a little as he fell forward, eyes closed. The videotape must have cut for a moment then. It jerked a little, and in the next frame, the contestant was gone, replaced with a young woman, who picked up the now-bloody cubes grimly, placing them down as quickly and as quietly as she could. A timer ran down the left side of the screen. The camera watched her fingers as they worked hurriedly, placing down the cubes, her fingers smeared with the blood of the young man. On and on she went, and when the time ran down, she turned to run, caught quickly by another of the black-clad men. The host laughed, a thin, false game-show chuckle as they tied the red ribbon around her throat. Two more men entered, and committed the horrible deed. One held her, as before. The other went to work with the saw. The camera moved closer to her face. It captured every inch of her struggle, and when the blade began to slide against her flesh, every flash of agony. Her eyes protruded from her face, and her features bulged. She screamed for as long as her nerves could hold, and as before it was covered with the laughter track, spatters of blood staining her lips and cheeks. Then, when her eyes worked back up, mindlessly, into her skull, the camera moved back in time to see her head drop. There was a close-up of it. Just lying there. The eyelids twitched, out of unison with each other. The lips were still moving. It was so real. So real.
I’m sorry, Doctor. I needed to take some time away from this. I’ve kept it as much of a secret as I can from the duty nurses, but they’re beginning to suspect something. Like you said, i’ve been hiding the medication they gave me so that I can remember more clearly what I saw, and it’s all so vivid, even now. It’s getting more and more difficult to type, but I know I have to finish this.
The camera cut again, and this time, the girl was gone. There was an older man there now, aged about 40, standing at the podium. His lips moved slowly without words, as though he was whispering something to himself, over and over, but it could just have been muted, like the screams. The next round began, and the host held up a small button, the camera pointing at a slide projector. The first click of the button brought up what looked like an equation, which various parts missing. The subtitles read “20 to solve”. Eagerly, the man gave a garbled reply, and the slide switched to another. “15 to solve.”. Again he replied, this time in more distress, and the projector changed. “10 to solve”. Then 5.
The last of the replies the man gave was little more than a scream, but it looks like he managed it. The projector powered down, and the host moved forward, shaking the man’s hand. He’d won. He’d won, and I remember my heart thundering as I watched. The man closed his eyes for a moment, and the host moved away. “Grand Prize” flashed on the screen, and a distorted, tinny game show theme began to play. The video ground into slow motion as the man opened his eyes, and he barely had time to register what was happening before the bullet hit him. Blood blossomed upon his face, his right eye exploding in red. The slow motion made it all so gradual. His body jerked backward slowly, his skull peeled away by the force of the shot, matter leaking from him like treacle. The credits began to roll, quickly, and without subtitles. When they’d finished, there was only one phrase left on the tape, and it flashed there for the next 3 hours, until the end of the recording. I sat there, watching it, overcome by shock. I couldn’t move. When the tape finished, it rewound itself, and played again. And again. And again. I sat there until the campus security got reports of the noise. It was 4am. when they kicked in the door. It was a week until I was able to speak, and when I came to, I was here. The message that flashed on the screen?
“Coming to town near you soon!”
That’s all I remember. I don’t know where the tape is. I don’t care. I don’t want to know. I just want to forget it all.
I don’t want to do this anymore, doctor. I don’t want to talk to you again.
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