Damien didn’t find the game. The game found Damien.
‘You gotta relax more, man,’ Andrew told him. They’d received their results for the midyear English exam. Andrew barely glanced at his own paper as Mr. Rowe dropped it on his desk. He was chewing gum, hands behind his head, leaning back on his chair with a big smile on his face. He knew he’d aced it, and he knew it was killing Damien.
‘God damn it, man. How do you do that?’ Damien’s own neatly written essay, the one for which he’d studied exhaustively, had a large red C in one corner. As Rowe passed through the class, he left in his wake a chorus of groans and curses. ‘I mean, did you study at all?’
‘That’s what I’m sayin’, Damien. You overthought everything. You went, like, over the word limit.’
‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’
Andrew smirked and rocked his chair forward with a clunk. He patted Damien on the head. ‘Ah, you have much to learn, young one. Studying works for maths and science, but when it comes to English…’ he tapped his chest, ‘it comes from your heart.’
‘Oh yeah. So what the hell did you do?’
‘I played video games.’
‘You played video games?’
‘Yeah, man. Listen, I know you, you’re a maniac. You think too much and you work too hard. You gotta learn to let your mind play for a while, have some fun. One, two hours a day, guaranteed you’ll be better off. You’ll be more relaxed. Shoot a few monsters, maybe get rid of all that aggression, you know?’
‘I’m not aggressive.’
‘Ha! I was there when Brian Dunning called you a dick. You wanted to choke him out. You gotta get out and shoot some people with guns or something – in a game, that is. I’m telling you, you’ll be able to focus, think clearer.’
Damien laughed, but a moment later his eyes dropped to the mark on Andrew’s paper and the sound died in his throat.
‘Video games?’ He said again, eyeing his friend.
Andrew kept a straight face, crossing himself like a devout Christian. ‘Swear on my life, bro.’
So instead of reading Invest, Compound, Succeed, or doing a workout, or practicing his guitar, he found himself scrolling gaming websites after school. He almost stopped before he’d been on for ten minutes, an urgent voice in the back of his mind telling him he was wasting his time. But in the end, it was that voice which kept him going. Damn, if you’re freaking out this much about playing a stupid video game, maybe you are wound too tight. He couldn’t shake Andrew’s relaxed, happy smile out of his head. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he managed to get such good grades. Hadn’t Damien read somewhere that video games improved your problem solving ability?
Five minutes later, he found it. He’d narrowed the search to ‘New Horror Games’, and the first one on the list caught his eye immediately. It was called: Out Of Hell. It was classified as a survival horror game, and it was so new – the link to download was dated one hour earlier – that no one had bought it yet. The cover picture was a bird’s eye view of a dark city with maze like construction, and the description was a few short lines: A lost soul, you must navigate your way through the depths of hell while demons seek to eat you alive. Collect keys to access new areas of the map and level up. Can you find your way Out of Hell?
It was three dollars, cheap in any currency. Damien’s initial reaction was that it most likely sucked. Then again, if it did he’d only be down three dollars and he could at least tell Andrew to shut up. He bought it.
The download was less than a minute, and an icon popped up on his desktop when it was done: a black skull and crossbones. Damien leaned back in his chair and stretched. He glanced out of his window at the waning afternoon. His bedroom window looked out on an empty plot with a few trees and a children’s playground. You should be outside, you know. Getting some sun, being healthy. But he knew himself, and he knew that a pleasant walk would soon become a hard run. He shook his head. ‘No. I said I was gonna play. So let’s play.’ He clicked the icon.
The screen went black, and then his computer emitted a human scream that made him jump in his chair. The start menu popped up in red block letters and, chuckling at his own reaction, Damien pulled his headphones out of his desk drawer and plugged them in. Before he could strap them on, someone knocked urgently on his door.
‘Honey? Is everything okay in there?’ His mother’s voice.
‘Yeah, I’m fine! Just playing a game Andrew gave me.’ He said, smiling.
‘Yeah. I’ll turn the sound off.’
‘Oh, that’s okay. Dinner’s in an hour.’ When she left, he got up and locked the door. She never opened it unless he told her to come in, she was good like that, but the scream had made him nervous, somehow. He didn’t want her to see him looking at… things. He got the feeling it was going to be an intense game.
The start menu had only three options: PLAY, CONTROLS, and EXIT. He skimmed the controls, which were easy enough. There was no attacking in this game, only movement. Guess you were stuck being the victim, here. He let the cursor hover over play for a second, savouring a sharp thrill, a feeling of exhilaration he couldn’t remember ever feeling before – certainly not from any kind of game. He realised he was smiling. Maybe there was something to this after all.
He clicked it.
Darkness swallowed the next twelve hours.
There was no music, only a steady heartbeat, which quickened when he ran, or when a demon howled nearby. It was a first person perspective, but the main character had no possessions, nor a health bar or stats of any kind. You were simply dropped into a dark forest and left to find your own way out. The trees were thick in some places and thin in others, the terrain limiting you to certain pathways, some of which came in the form of animal burrows or along tree branches.
It was also utterly terrifying. The forest was populated with several kinds of demon, but you never saw any of them unless you got too close, and even then you only caught a glimpse. The first time he ran into one Damien almost screamed, and spent the next few minutes furiously tapping keys to escape, the sounds of heavy footsteps and breathing loud in his ears. What he had seen of the thing – it was half covered in shadow and crouching behind a cobwebbed bush – had been enough to convince him that the makers of the game were exceptionally talented. The thing didn’t have the unnatural feel of Hollywood CGI, and whoever had designed it was an artist in their own right. The crooked, unhinged jaw and pulsing white eyes were enough to give anyone a nightmare. He escaped it by climbing a tree and waiting in the topmost branches until it gave up and left. The heartbeat soundtrack matched his own: heavy and fast.
He didn’t get caught, but though he found a rusted iron key at the bottom of a shallow stream, he couldn’t find the door it was supposed to open. In that sense the game was incredibly difficult, yet rewarding at the same time. He’d wander the through the same areas, growing more and more frustrated, barely escaping the clawing beasts, and then he’d notice a vine covered hole he hadn’t seen before and grin in triumph, knowing he’d solved the next puzzle.
Always there was the sense of movement, of getting closer to something. The effort of remembering the intricate pathways hypnotised him in a way, and only when he found himself passing and repassing the same area again and again, his unblinking eyes turning red, teeth grinding in frustration, did he give in. The game had saved automatically when he’d found the key, so he simply exited. He took off his headphones and pushed back from his desk.
It was dark outside, and for the first time it occurred to him no one had called him for dinner – or at least he hadn’t heard them. The house was dead quiet. He unlocked his phone and swore under his breath when he saw the time: four am.
Downstairs, his mother had saved dinner for him on a plate and he ate it – dry steak and salad – without tasting. His mind was in another place, a goofy smile on his lips. He was tired, that was for sure, but Damien didn’t think he’d ever felt quite so relaxed. It was just a game, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made some real progress, done something of worth. He hadn’t died once after all, and he’d found that key. He couldn’t wait to find out where it led.
Normally, sleep came after an hour or two of incessant tossing and turning, but tonight he was out in an instant.
He dreamed of nothing.
Mr. Rowe didn’t believe in learning. He believed only in tests. ‘You learn by doing,’ he said at the beginning of every class, standing beside his desk and tapping his knuckles on the wood for emphasis, being sure to make eye contact with every student in turn. ‘And I hate to break it to you guys, but if you want to do well in school, get good grades, then you have to pass exams.’ Tap. ‘Tests.’ Tap. ‘And the only way you get better at passing tests is by doing them.’ Tap.
He passed his stern eye over the miserable students. The previous week’s assignment had been creative writing, and even the best students, Andrew included, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. He leaned across and nudged Damien. ‘Hey, dude, how’d you do? I did mine last night. It was about a guy killing a bunch of werewolves with an ice pick.’
Damien blinked at him and just shook his head. The plan had been to pull an all nighter and finish the story Wednesday night, but he hadn’t been able to find the door for his key, and he’d discovered a new area on Thursday night and stayed up to explore it. He’d only slept for three hours.
Rowe went on. ‘Now, the last test was challenging, I’ll give you that. Some of you were a little, uh, paralysed by the prospect of the blank page. Let that be a lesson to you when exams come around: better to write two pages of trash than a hundred pages of nothing at all. Others,’ and here he lingered on Damien, who shrank into his seat. Why hadn’t he handed something in, anything? ‘Rose to the occasion.’ What?
He handed out the tests, accompanied by the usual protests and chatter and faces in hands. Andrew shrugged when he saw his own mark – a C plus – and then raised an eyebrow when Rowe dropped a pile of evenly typed pages in front of Damien. ‘Damn. How’d you do all that in one night?’ Then he saw the thick red A plus and clapped Damien on the back. ‘Hey, there you go, buddy. I told you, all you gotta do is relax. Did you get a game?’
Damien stared at the pages he hadn’t written. They were neatly formatted. The title of his story was LOST BOY, and his name was printed beneath that. ‘Uh… yeah I did, yeah.’ He gave his friend a weak smile.
They read the story together at lunch, Andrew hunched over it while Damien looked over his shoulder on the pretence that he wanted to see if Rowe had made any corrections. He hadn’t. Their area of the yard was a wooden bench under the shade of a willow, and Andrew dropped down on it and started reading immediately, the sandwich in his hand wilting, neglected, until he finished.
‘Wow,’ he said, setting it aside. Damien, unable to keep still for a second, paced in the spring sunlight. A group of kids played football behind him, their shouts and laughter sounding off kilter, at odds with the haze of fear and darkness inside him. He didn’t know how that story could exist. He definitely hadn’t written it, but something about it was familiar all the same.
‘That was some dark stuff, Damien. It was good though, I gotta say. Did you just pull that off in one night? You look like shit by the way.’ He grinned.
Damien gave him a weak smile and rubbed his eyes for the fiftieth time. ‘Yeah, I guess. It was late, I guess I was in a weird mood. I was playing this game for most of it.’
‘Ey, nice. You took my advice, right? What did I tell you, man! I bet it got the juices flowing. Like, you could publish this. It’s good to chill now and again, huh?
Chilling was the word for it, but not in the sense that Andrew meant. For the past week, Damien hadn’t been himself. No more early morning workouts. No more reading. He barely had time for food, where once he’d calculated each calorie he consumed and made sure he was meeting dietary requirements. He hadn’t written in his journal. He hadn’t thought about his future, or his future career, or what university degree he wanted to take.
He thought only of tall trees and dark swamps and monsters.
The English paper was one of many A plusses Damien scored that term, and it was a matter of time before Andrew’s enthusiasm turned to something closer to suspicion, which in turn bore jealousy.
‘Come on, man,’ he said on more than one occasion. ‘I’m not buying it. You gotta be putting in some work to score like this in all your subjects. I mean, you can’t just write two thousand words on the Viking invasion without even reading the textbook.’
‘I told you, it’s the game. It’s just, like, putting me in the zone, somehow.’
‘Yeah, the game.’ They were on the way home, schoolbags over one shoulder, dead leaves and gravel sidewalk crunching underfoot. In the past they’d always unconsciously taken Ward Road and headed for Andrew’s place to drink milkshakes and toss a ball for a couple of hours, but Damien hadn’t done that for weeks now. He wanted it, but inevitably he’d remember what level he was at – always so close to the next landmark, the next hiding place – and he’d wave goodbye and head home. The thought of sitting down to his computer with a fresh coffee and listening to the sinister tones of the game’s soundtrack start thrumming in his ears was enough to make his heart race.
‘Oh yeah? Funny how I can’t find that game in a single online store.’
‘What, so I’m lying to you?’
Andrew shrugged. ‘Nah, man. It’s just you’re not being yourself, lately. If it’s such a good game, how come you don’t want to show me?’
Damien opened his mouth and then closed it again. He’d been about to say that of course he didn’t mind, that Andrew could come over and check it out if he wanted – it was such a cool game, right up his alley… But in fact he did mind. He minded a lot. Something was happening between him and the game, and it was giving him an edge, putting him in front of everyone else somehow, and until he knew how to use it better, he wasn’t keen on letting anyone in on his secret. Not even his best friend.
‘It’s just a one player game. I don’t think you’d enjoy it, anyway,’ Damien said eventually.
‘Whatever, man.’ They were coming up on Ward Road now, a narrow lane that split off Darrow Street, which led to Damien’s house. They stood awkwardly at the parting, a strange distant look in Andrew’s eyes that Damien hadn’t seen there before. ‘Just let me know if you ever want to catch up sometime.’
‘Yeah, ‘course. Anytime.’
‘Maybe after exams or something.’ But Andrew was already walking away. Damien stared after him until he was gone, and then the game called to him, and he smiled to himself. A long night lay ahead.
And it was a long night. His mother was dumfounded when he declined desert and headed straight up to his room after dinner. ‘I’m on a health kick,’ he said, though of course even a cursory glance could have revealed that for the lie it was: between his pale skin, dark circles under his eyes, and the doughish quality of his body, there was little of health to be found. He thought of his grades. Success took sacrifice, didn’t it? He’d look just the same if he spent each night studying, and that wouldn’t even be fun.
Headphones on, lights off, sound up, and he was in. Just as he was getting into it, ducking beneath a canopy of vines and rotted bark in search of a path, a pack of wolf demons started tracking him. They howled and barked and their lean silhouettes weaved between the trees. As he evaded them he stumbled on a place he’d never seen before, a long field of tall grass swaying in the wind. A night breeze drifted in through his open window and he broke out in goose bumps. His stomach clenched when he saw what he had to do. What happens when you die in the game?
The chase was on, and for the next six hours Damien’s gaze remained fixed on the screen, his heartbeat matching pace with the heady rhythm in his ears, and he navigated the ditches, wet patches and clearings within the field. All the while he kept just ahead of the hounds, but safety was elusive. He could not have been more terrified or more focused if his life was in real danger. Who knows, maybe it is.
The last five minutes was a mad dash across a barren stretch of dust and rocks. Once, his avatar tripped and sprawled across the ground and Damien jolted in his seat as if he felt his elbows scrape. The hounds were right on his heels now, twenty or thirty of the slobbering things, but it was alright because the end was in sight: a towering gate, the same bright golden colour as the key in his hand.
He reached it, but while he fumbled to jam the key into the lock – his index finger mashing the spacebar urgently – the hounds fell on him and the sound of tearing flesh reached his ears, his vision going red with heat and blood. At last, an echoing clank sounded and the screen went black.
Damien stared at it, horrified, each breath so strained it ended in a slight wheeze, his chest tight.
The following words appeared in silver blade letters on his screen: YOU HAVE PASSED THROUGH THE WILDERNESS. CONGRATULATIONS. YOUR GAME IS PERMANENTLY SAVED.
He took off his headphones, the silence an assault on his ears, and clicked the exit button in the top corner. Then, exhausted, he slid from his chair and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling without a single thought or emotion in his mind. Sunrise wasn’t far off, judging by the tone of light streaming from his window, and he was so drained he felt he could sleep all the way through the weekend.
Your game is permanently saved. He had no idea what that meant, but he suspected it had to do with death. Perhaps now if he died in game he wouldn’t lose any progress. He smiled at the thought, and less than a minute later was asleep.
He knew even before he opened his eyes that something was different. Tingling anticipation pervaded him, a dark voice whispering in his ear: wait ‘till you see this. At first, dragging himself off the floor, he couldn’t figure what it was. Only when he opened his window did the feeling manifest itself. Even then, it was subtle, a dimming only visible here and there. A tree that should have been vibrant green was bare of all but a few rotten black leaves. A raven perched on a windvane, watching him with a predatory eye.
As he entered the kitchen his mother was just dropping the last pancake onto a pile of them as tall as she was. She clicked the stove off and beamed at him so widely he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in question. ‘There he is, my famous boy,’ she said, spooning lakes of golden syrup onto the pancakes. ‘Sit down, sit down, I’ll bring it to you.’
‘Uh. Oh, okay. Thanks.’ She served the plate in front of him with a flourish and kissed him on the forehead, an action so unlike her that he froze in his seat. She sat down across from him, resting her chin in her hands, and smiled again.
‘So what’s the occasion?’ he said, hesitantly starting on his breakfast.
‘Oh, you know. I always knew you were talented, but I had no idea…’ She sighed, half lost in a faraway place. ‘I suppose I’m just relieved. Here your father and I thought you were disappearing into your room to play video games all night. We had no idea you were creating all of those incredible things.’
He chewed slowly, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but before he could ask her any more questions she stood up, squeezed him on the shoulder, and left. The pancakes were delicious, but he couldn’t focus because of the way his stomach was churning. The game had done something, but despite his mother’s curious warmth, he wasn’t so sure it was good.
One way or another, it was going to be a strange day.
Andrew didn’t meet up with him on the walk to school like he usually did, and he was already in class for roll call, sitting near the front next to Christine Sullivan, one of the quiet A plus types. She was blonde and delicate, and when Damien entered the classroom late and all eyes swivelled in his direction, it was hers he fixed on. Her pupils dilated when she saw him, becoming huge black discs like those of a doll, and she smiled openly – the first time he’d ever seen her do so.
The whole class chattered and whispered as Damien made his way to the only available seat at the back of the class. Andrew kept his head down, scribbling something in his school journal. Even after Rowe cleared his throat and brought order to the room, Damien caught several more discreet glances. All of them had the same large pupils, as though they were high on a powerful opiate drug.
Rowe made the roll call and for once everyone was present. Usually he would launch straight into their first lesson of the day – English – but this time he paused beside his desk, contemplating something.
‘Well, I can see you’re all struggling to hold back, so I suppose I should take a moment to acknowledge a certain young entrepreneur before you explode with enthusiasm.’ He gave Damien a wry smile and all heads turned again, revealing expressions of admiration, curiosity and dislike, sometimes all three emotions on the one face. ‘After all,’ Rowe went on, ‘True achievement does merit some sort of recognition. Why don’t you stand up, Damien?’
‘Okay,’ he said so quietly he couldn’t hear himself. He stood up on shaky knees. What the hell is going on? I gotta get out of here.
‘I have to say, Damien, for most of the year you’ve been a terrible student.’ This was accompanied by a few grins and smirks. ‘But for you to put in all the time and effort it must have required to produce such amazing art, I can only commend you for every D minus I gave you. I don’t advise any of you kids to neglect your schoolwork, but if you really love something and have a talent for it, well, I think you should go for it. What do you think, Damien?’
He shifted on his feet, the whole room waiting for him to say something. ‘Um, I mean, yeah, you know. You just gotta, you just gotta go for it. And you gotta love whatever it is, too. I probably just got lucky though…’ He trailed off, but no one seemed to mind. The room erupted in applause, and no one clapped harder than Christina Sullivan.
At lunchtime they crowded him – kids who’d barely ever given him a second glance – asking him questions he couldn’t answer. They made fun of him, too, but in a no harm meant kind of way that he wasn’t accustomed to from anyone but Andrew. Just as he was beginning to warm to it, they started producing the things they said he’d created.
Music CDs, books, even a few movies he’d supposedly directed – all had to be signed. Damien didn’t dare scrutinize these objects, not now when everything was a blur of noise and madness. But when Reg Towney stepped up with a bag full of merchandise he couldn’t help himself. ‘Hey, that’s great Reg!’ he said, speaking in a hearty voice that belonged to some fake celebrity. He found himself slipping into the role of the famous prodigy that he wasn’t. ‘You mind if I keep a few of those? You know, just for souvenirs?’
Reg gave him a funny look, but he let him have one of each of his ‘masterpieces’, and shortly afterward Damien made an excuse and left the school grounds, a group of his more hard core fans hounding him some of the way. Just when he thought he was free, he heard footsteps pounding pavement behind him and turned to see Christina Sullivan running up. She kept pace with him for a minute or so, as if waiting for him to ask her something, but he didn’t look over.
‘I’m sorry I’ve been so cold to you, Damien,’ she said.
He tried to hide his surprise. ‘Cold?’
‘I mean, I know we’ve never spoken at all, really. I guess I just – all this stuff you’ve done, you were never like, that popular before and I never really had the confidence to, you know, speak to you out of the blue.’
‘Anyway,’ she ploughed on, taking a deep breath, ‘I kinda always liked you a little.’
‘You did?’ He glanced at her sideways, expecting to see a lie in her face, but her pale skin was flushed, and she didn’t meet his eyes.
‘Anyway, I totally admire all this stuff you’ve created. You’re so talented, and it really, like, speaks to me, you know? I was just hoping we could catch up sometime?’ Her voice caught there, as if it was a long shot and she believed he might reject her. He almost considered it, too, out of sheer nerves. In the space of twelve hours his life had dropped out from under him and he was in unexplored territory. Then his eyes strayed from her hopeful face to the shape of her young, firm body, and something more powerful than fear took hold of him.
‘Okay! I mean, cool. Here.’ She passed him a piece of paper, scrunched up and warm from the heat of her fist, and then kissed him on the cheek. ‘Call me later.’
He walked the rest of the way home in deep thought, the weight of his creations in his backpack pulling at his shoulder straps and the phone number of one of the best looking girls in school in his hand. His internal voice ran a thousand words a minute, urgent and persuasive. Nothing bad had happened, had it? He was creeped out, that was all, but the truth was there was nothing to suggest he was in any danger.
When he reached his front door step, Damien paused and stared at the piece of paper in his hand again. None of it made sense. How could something like this just happen, all at once, to someone like him? But the internal voice spoke again, and the words it spoke gave him such a surge of brilliant satisfaction that he didn’t see the lies they hid: Who else has worked as hard as you for success at such a young age? If anyone deserves it, you do.
He slipped the piece of paper into his pocket, nodded to himself, and pulled open the front door. He couldn’t wait to hear what kind of music he’d created.
His parents greeted him with crooked, uncertain grins on their faces. Damien gave them a reassuring smile and asked what was for dinner.
‘It’s ready now, in the kitchen – your favourite,’ his mother said with an eager smile. She took his hand and led him into the dining room, where the table was set, tablecloth, silverware and all, and his father sat ready at the head. This time of day normally found the old man reclining in the lounge room with the paper and a cup of coffee and in no mood for conversation, but tonight he was all smiles. He indicated two glasses full of golden brown liquid and winked at Damien as he entered. ‘Got us a little whiskey.’
‘Thanks. Is someone coming for dinner or something?’
His mother laughed so hard she nearly dropped the pot of hot chilli chicken she was carrying. ‘Oh yes, Damien. We’ve got ourselves a celebrity over, tonight. His name’s Damien Jones, and he’s the youngest professional artist in the country.’ She gave him an exaggerated wink as she put the pot down and then clapped her hands, delighted. ‘And he’d better eat to replenish his energy, hadn’t he?’
His father questioned him about what he would do with his life and his newfound fame, his tone serious but his mouth turned up at the corners in an expression of pride. His mother told him at least fifty times how happy they were, how they couldn’t believe he’d been hiding such talent from them all this time. Damien had never felt so uncomfortable in his own home, but a part of him couldn’t help but enjoy it. Sure it’s strange, but it’s good, isn’t it? Eating here with your family, talking like this? The fruits of your labour.
They were bittersweet fruits, though, and Damien breathed a sigh of relief when he locked himself in his dark room and separated himself from the world. It was getting late by then, but he was wide awake, and this strange day wasn’t over yet.
He emptied his schoolbag onto his bed and set each one of his creations side by side, staring at them in the dim light of his desk lamp, fascinated. The album cover had a picture that had never been taken: a black and white of Damien standing in a smoky alleyway and cradling a black guitar. He had no emotion in his expression. A hollowness that seemed appropriate given Damien himself had never been there. Maybe you were, though. Maybe you were there when you were playing the game.
The CD itself was black, the title of the album printed in sharp silver letters: DeadBoy. He slid it into his computer and pulled his headphones over his ears. The track list popped up and he raised his eyebrows. Ooookay. So I guess this is the kind of music I write. Among the titles were Slit Your Wrists First, Dogs Are On My Tail, and Stare Into The Abyss. He clicked on the last one.
The runtime of the song was one minute, but Damien didn’t make it past fifteen seconds. The moment he heard the first chord, guitar strings shrieking like someone was drawing a blade across them made him sit bolt upright in his chair. What followed it could only be described as the sound of dread: A heavy bass building to something, a climax Damien knew he did not want to hear. It reminded him of the first time he’d watched Jaws as a boy and heard the iconic deep tones that made him feel as if he was out there, alone in the water.
He took off the headphones and stopped the song. His hands shook for a minute or so before he got control of himself again and ejected the CD. What the hell? People actually listened to that? Liked it?
He tapped his fingers on the table, glanced at the dark window. It was late, he should be asleep, but curiosity had the better of him. With each passing minute he felt more and more as though he’d been dropped in another universe, and he needed to know as much as he could.
He fired up his computer and went online. Typed his own name into the search engine. When he saw the results, he slid back in his chair and took a deep breath. ‘Wow.’ The first three articles were all accompanied by pictures of him, and at least the first ten were all about him. No, not you – just a guy who looks like you. But after reading through a few interviews and articles, he found himself wishing he really was this character.
‘I meet Damien in a dimly lit studio, where he’s apparently in the middle of painting several different works. The canvasses are draped in cloth, and he politely refuses to let me near any of them. Instead, he shakes my hand firmly and gives me a mischievous grin as he offers me a seat on a rickety chair. He apologises for the mess.
‘My first impressions of this artistic prodigy are all jarringly counter intuitive. He does not strike me as a sensitive artist at all, nor does he quite fit the stereotype of the drug addicted obsessive. He appears fit and confident, and he speaks clearly and honestly. If I could give his dark minded fans anything romantic to seize on, it would be nothing more substantial than a spark in his eyes, a crookedness to his smile. As you’ll see from the interview, he had quite the knack for slipping direct questions I put to him about his life…’
Damien blinked and shook his head. He could almost see himself, but not quite. It was an ideal version of him, someone he could aspire to be. But it isn’t you. But… It was how they saw him, wasn’t it? To the rest of the world, he and this stranger were the same person.
He closed the computer and shut off his light, though he knew it would be a long time before he went to sleep. If he didn’t play the game tonight, would he wake up in this world again tomorrow? He thought he would – after all, his progress had been saved.
As he lay on his bed, hypnotised faces and eager voices flashed through his mind. His parents, so proud and happy, not of him, but of that other man they thought he was. Did it matter how he got there? If he was inspiring people, giving them happiness? He recalled Reg Towney’s joy as he watched Damien sign all of his merchandise. Thanks so much, man, he’d said. I’m your biggest fan, for real.
No, it didn’t matter.
Much later, after midnight but still long before dawn, Damien gave up on sleep and went back to his desk. The screen lit up before he’d touched a single key, and Out of Hell started without prompting. The glow illuminated his smile.
He had so much work to do, yet.
The next level of the game was infinitely more difficult than the first. The enormous gate led down a highway which took him into an abandoned city, as big as New York or Tokyo. There were more demons than ever, each of which had a unique way of hunting. His only sanctuary lay in basements, rooftops and hidden rooms. The alleys and streets were terrifying, overrun with demons; Rats with black leather skin and rusty teeth swarmed in and out of sewers, blind but equipped with keen noses. Giants stomped between skyscrapers. Every building hid beasts in its shadows, and Damien found that it was only possible to save when he made himself completely safe. He had to be in a locked room in an empty building, and he couldn’t be injured. That last part was difficult – a fall or a scratch or bite from a pursuing demon made the screen flash red at the edges, and he would leave a trail of blood until he could find medical supplies.
Not that it mattered. Damien never felt more alive than when he was playing the game. His body was just as invested in that dark universe as his mind was, his senses fully attuned to the sights and sounds far more intensely than everyday life. When he managed to secure himself and exit the game, he invariably collapsed onto his bed, exhausted, only to wake up a few hours later and start the day. Mornings dragged on him. He was numb until the afternoon waned and night drew near, and then everything was all right again.
Three weeks of this madness went by, and Damien grew used to his new status. He woke with red eyes and tired body and dragged himself downstairs. His mother had bacon and eggs and pancakes ready for him, as she did every day. She’d pack delicious ham sandwiches for lunch and it would be curry or roast or homemade pizza for dinner. He was gaining weight, but it didn’t matter – no one cared. He left for school two hours late, and Rowe winked at him as he entered. ‘Up late again last night, were we?’
‘Yeah. Composing, you know. I was kinda on a roll.’
‘Ah, yes, the plight of the artist. Watch and learn, students. Real artists don’t wait for inspiration, they cut the time out of their day and make it happen. Now, on to history…’
He’d been holding off on calling Christina since she gave him his number, part of him too caught up in everything that was going on, but she finally gathered the courage to pull him away from everyone else at lunch time, leading him down to the bottom of the oval. Andrew was sitting under a hanging tree, and when he saw the two of them coming he stalked away, scowling back over his shoulder at Damien as he went. Whatever. He’s just jealous.
‘So what is it?’ he asked her, when they were out of earshot. They’d stopped walking, but she didn’t let go of his hand. She smiled at him and brushed her long hair aside.
‘Come on, Damien. Stop acting so cool. Just ‘cos you’re all successful now. You think that gives you the right not to call me back?’
‘I’ve been busy.’
‘I know. I’ve been listening to all your music. Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?’
Damien had no idea, but he suspected that all it took was for her to believe it, and it would become true. He could hardly wait to read them himself. ‘Maybe,’ he said.
‘I think you’ve been working too hard.’
‘Maybe,’ he said again. The last of his exhaustion slipped away, and he was alive again, the heartbeat thrumming in his ears just as if he had the headphones on. In a way, his life was the same as the game. Moving from one thing to another, navigating the world and trying to survive, always searching for the next thing. Maybe Christina was the next doorway for him.
‘Why don’t I come over later, and we can relax a bit. Watch one of your movies, maybe?’
He kept cool. ‘Okay. Is it alright if you leave around midnight, though? I’m working on something big right now. I don’t want to lose momentum.’
She nodded, eyes huge with admiration. Damien still hadn’t quite gotten used to those black discs on everyone else, but on her they looked beautiful. ‘Of course. I wouldn’t want to disturb your genius.’ She gave him a mischievous half smile, kissed him on the cheek, and left him there.
He left school early, knowing none of the teachers would care, and within an hour he was running down cracked sidewalks, rats on his trail, a steel key in his inventory and so, so close to that next gateway. He could almost taste it.
Time drifted on in another place, unnoticed. Someone knocked on his door, first quietly and then louder and louder, but he was charging down a fire escape while a giant demolished the building he’d been inside a moment ago, and heard nothing. Someone slipped a note under his door that said: DINNER, LOVE MUM. He didn’t notice it, because he’d found the way out at last. It was a manhole the size of a car, and it was guarded by a demon with the body of a dog and a head made of squid tentacles.
For an hour or more, drenched in sweat, Damien distracted and dodged and avoided the beast, but at last he managed to lure it with a trail of his own blood into an underground parking lot, and returned to the manhole. He turned the key, held his breath, and dropped into the darkness.
The message appeared: CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP.
Damien pulled off his headphones, slid off his chair onto the floor, weak with relief and exhilaration, and passed out in minutes.
His room was still dark when he blinked awake, and when he crawled over to the window and pushed aside the curtains, moonlight flooded the room. It was so bright he had to shield his eyes, and when he squinted up at the sky he realised it wasn’t the moon but a silver sun, one that bathed the clouds and earth in grey rather than yellow light.
The world had changed again.
He felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the note under his door, and then another when he remembered he was supposed to meet Christina. She’d left missed calls on his phone, but he didn’t call her back. Better to be cool. He was the famous one, after all. In fact, he realised with a happy jolt, he was more than famous, now – he’d levelled up. The game had granted him something else, and he couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
Breakfast awaited, a steaming hot bowl of buttered porridge, but neither of his parents were around. His mother had left him another note on the table: GONE HUNTING. BACK SOON. It was a joke, of course, but goose bumps raised up on the back of his neck all the same, and he made sure he ate quickly.
He made the walk to school in a haze of paranoia. Everything was different and yet familiar. He jumped as a rat demon emerged from a gutter and scuttled across the road, and then he blinked and saw that it was only a black cat with shining eyes. The strange silver sun created a harsh contrast that made the world seem black and white.
The game is leaking into reality. Your success in that world leads to success here, but it lets in everything else, too. Better not play the game tonight – just wait a while, get everything under control.
He discovered his newest success as soon as he arrived at school. It was his memoirs – the ones he’d mentioned to Christina just the day before. He’d been working on them, then, but now it seemed he’d not only published them, they were a worldwide bestseller. The whole school seemed to be carrying a copy, and people began to cluster around him from the moment he entered the school grounds, demanding he sign them. They blocked him, crowding him with eager grins like hyenas fighting over the corpse of a zebra. Somehow, he broke through and slipped into his form room, only to turn and find the whole class, Rowe included, standing and clapping for him. Rowe had a pile of the thick black books on his desk and Damien, nodding and smiling, comfortable with celebrity now, went over to sign one.
Through conversation with his breathless, starstruck fans, Damien discovered that his memoirs had made him rich, and not just popular author rich – superstar rich. Reg Towney broke it all down for him, enthralled to have Damien’s full attention. ‘You could like, quit school and go travel the world or live in a mansion on the beach or something for the rest of your life! Like, how does that feel, man? How come you’re still coming to school and stuff?’
Damien shrugged. ‘I’m still getting used to it all, you know. But I’ll probably leave soon. Take a holiday or something, maybe come back and buy a house here.’ Plans were beginning to blossom in his mind even as he spoke. He knew the game was a trap of sorts, that it there had to be a catch in there somewhere, but it had given him everything he wanted. No doubt he was supposed to want to keep playing and push his success as far as it would go, but he was willing to bet this world would keep changing too, and more of the darkness would leak into this world until the demons inside the game escaped. That, of course, was why it was called Out of Hell.
But Damien wasn’t going to fall for the trap. He was going to cash his chips and leave.
‘Hey, Reg,’ he said in a low voice, while everyone else chattered away. Half the year level, as usual, was crowded around the bench he was sitting on, as if he was at a press conference. ‘Do you know where Christina is today? Did she call in sick?’
‘Sorta,’ Reg said with a half smile. ‘She skipped today. Actually, she told me she was going to meet someone at the beachfront. By the way, I was kinda tinkering with a piece to send in to the Rolling Stone, you don’t think I could interview you or something, do you?’
Meet someone at the beachfront. It was like a blade twisting in his guts. Damien had never understood jealousy before – there were plenty of fish in the sea, weren’t there? But now he did. He could no more have stopped himself from moving than if the law of gravity itself was pulling him to her. He stood up from the bench so abruptly he bumped Reg, who stumbled back and then collapsed on his rear, surprised. ‘Hey!’ But he was already going, pushing through the crowd and then jogging through the quadrangle, ignoring the shouts behind him.
Ten minutes out from the beachfront, that cosy nook shielded by a rock shelf where so many of the older kids liked to camp out, Damien realised how crazy he was being. A monster had grown inside him without his knowledge. She’s mine! It screamed, just as it had convinced him that he was deserving of all his success. It’ll all be okay as long as I stop playing the game.
He strolled along the beach with his hands in his pockets, watching dark grey waves roll onto shore with an icy wind that blew sand against his face. The sight of the water calmed him, and when he saw her at last, alone, he realised she’d been playing him along, and a smile lit up on his face before he could rein it in. She was standing with her arms folded, hair blowing out behind her, squinting out over the sea. He stopped beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders in what he hoped was a casual manner.
‘Hey,’ she said.
‘That was a mean trick. I was going to apologise, you know. I just kinda got caught up…’
‘I read your memoir. I can’t believe you’ve been through so much, done so much, Damien. You’re so young.’
‘Sometimes I can’t, either,’ he said. He made a mental note to read his book at the first opportunity.
‘I couldn’t believe someone like you, so good and admirable…’ Her voice caught in her throat and he glanced sideways at her, catching a dampness in one blue eye. ‘Could have such darkness in your soul.’
‘Everyone has demons, Christina. I’m sure you do, too.’
She turned to him, and when she smiled he pulled his arm away from her as though he’d been burnt. Her face had changed again, warped by the game. Her eyes were smooth black pearls, and when she smiled her skin stretched like old leather.
‘It’s what made me realise I had to have you,’ she said, curling a hand around the back of his neck. ‘I had to have you in me.’
‘What – now?’ He swallowed.
‘No, not that,’ she said, sucking in a breath. She was kissing his shoulder, scraping his skin with her teeth. ‘I want your soul.’
She bit into his collarbone like a hungry dog, and in the split second before a harsh scream escaped him, he heard her moaning with pleasure.
But he’d been here before, hadn’t he? In an instant his mind switched over and he was back in the game. He tore away and kicked her, sending her railing into the cliff wall with a mouthful of his flesh. He slipped in the sand and then sprinted up the beach. He looked back over his bloody shoulder and saw her coming, hands outstretched and black eyes rolled back in her head.
She was fast, but she wouldn’t catch him. He had plenty of practice, after all, and a minute later he was hopping over fences and sprinting through backyards. He passed a small boy playing in a sandpit and small sharp fingers graze him as he went by. As he ran through a freshly mown garden a grown man emerged from his house, running on all fours like a dog, a tongue made of worms hanging from his mouth. Damien was in the zone,and this time he wasn’t controlling a character – he had his own body. Never in the game had he been able to move with such speed and agility.
At last he crossed an empty street and collapsed to his knees in his own front garden, dizzy. He winced as some of his sweat dripped into the open wound. He couldn’t see it, but the muscle there was swollen and blood stained half of his shirt. Just get to the game, and you can change something. Load one of your saves, something.
Clutching his wound with one hand, he got up, fumbled for the keys in his pocket and unlocked the front door, praying his parents hadn’t returned home.
His mother was standing in the front room as he stumbled in, hands on her hips. ‘There you are!’ she said. ‘Oh, no, what’s happened to you? Poor baby. Come, I was just putting dinner in for you.’
Before he could stammer an excuse, she took his hand and pulled him into the kitchen, where vegetables simmered on the stove and the oven glowed red. ‘Will it be long?’ Damien said. ‘Just because I’ve got some stuff I’m working on I should really get…’
He paused mid-sentence. Movement had caught his eye, but the place he thought he’d seen it – the oven – made no sense, so he ignored it. ‘Should really get onto it. Could you just call me when…’ There it was again, but this time there was no denying it: a heavy black thing thumped against the glass iron door. His mother turned at the sound and shook her head, clicking her tongue. ‘Should be unconscious my now, honestly.’
The thing twisted round and two bulging eyes raised up to meet Damien’s. Although he couldn’t make out any other part of the ‘meal’, he knew just who it was.
‘Mum? Who’s that in the oven?’
‘Mm?’ She turned, raising her eyebrows. ‘Oh, that’s Andrew. The boy you used to be friends with. He turned up here in some kind of a hysteria, saying all kinds of awful things about you. Well, I couldn’t take it, and on top of that I hadn’t bought any meat for dinner. So, you know.’ She shrugged.
She’s not my mother, she’s a monster. Damien’s shock broke at last and he pushed her, sending her down hard on the kitchen tiles. She shrieked, surprised, as Damien wrenched the oven door open and grabbed his friend under the armpits, screaming as his hands touched the metal grill. Andrew came out with difficulty – he’d been cramped into the oven, clothes and all, with such force that his knees and elbows jammed against the sides. When he came free at last the two of them collapsed against the cupboards under the kitchen counter. Andrew’s shirt and pants were smoking.
Damien heard his mother before he saw her – high heels banging the tiles hard enough to crack them as she stomped around the corner. She had tears streaming down her face and a pork slicer in her right hand. ‘How dare you, Damien! I spent hours on that roast!’
But Damien didn’t wait for her to come for him. He lunged forward, clamping her legs together in a low rugby tackle. She wasn’t the most coordinated at the best of times, and this time she smacked the back of her head on the tiles with a nasty crack. It’s okay, she’s not my mother. She’s not my mother, and this isn’t my world.
He snatched the blade from her limp hand, grabbed Andrew’s arm, and dragged him to his feet. He was covered in grill burns and his breaths came in tight, short gasps. Damien got him upstairs as quickly as he could, keeping his ears primed for the sound of his father’s car in the driveway.
When they were alone in his room, the door locked, a minute passed in which neither could speak. Then Andrew said, in a numb voice: ‘You just killed your own mother.’
‘No way. She wasn’t my mother any more than you are.’
Damien said nothing. Andrew’s eyes were bulging out of his head, but they had none of that star struck quality. They looked normal.
‘Andrew. I’m cool, okay? A lot of crazy stuff has been going on lately, and I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to you or anything. I don’t know what people have been telling you, but I’m not crazy.’ He wasn’t used to seeing his friend like this. Absent was the relaxed smile, the half closed stoner eyes, the loose body language. This Andrew was rigid, back pressed against the wall, face taut and alert.
‘Damien, where are you, man?’ he said, and then, bizarrely, waved a hand in front of him. ‘Are you in this fucking world? Can you hear me?’
‘Yes I can hear you.’
‘Okay, then listen: you are not sane right now.’
‘I’m not sane? Are you serious? Do you have any idea what it’s like to live like this? People following me all the time, my own parents so hypnotised by me I can’t even talk to them. Everyone’s turning into monsters, Andrew, do you understand that?’
Andrew swallowed, holding his hands out in surrender. ‘Dude. Do you hear the shit coming out of your mouth right now?’
‘I just saved your life! Do you not remember being in the fucking oven a second ago? Huh? Now why the hell did I have to do that?’ His voice cracked at the end, and even to his own ears it sounded hysterical. He was waving the knife in front of Andrew’s face and he forced himself to take a deep breath, back off.
Andrew was shaking his head. ‘Do you believe that?’ he said. ‘That you saved my life?’
‘What? You saw what I saw.’
‘No. What I saw was, I was talking to your mother in the kitchen, and you came in and started freaking out. You were threatening us with the knife, and then you pushed her down, like, real hard, and then you dragged me up here.’
‘No way.’ Damien shook his head, running everything over in his mind. The game had something to do with this. It had changed everything. ‘You’re lying.’
‘You’re part of the game. You’re just another demon, trying to get to me. What, you’re gonna make me drop this knife, and then your mouth will get all big and you’ll eat me or something? Do you see this?’ He pointed at the wound in the side of his neck. ‘Christina did this to me, man. She bit me. She was trying to eat my – she was trying to eat me.’
‘That’s not what I heard.’
‘That’s why I’m here, Damien. Everyone was saying you tried to rape Christina. The cops are probably on the way here now.’
‘No way.’ Damien thought back to the beach, searching his mind for faults, supressed memories. He found only her gaping mouth closing on his shoulder, the pain and shock jolting his whole body like an electric shock.
‘You’ve lost it, man. Just give me that knife, okay? I think you burned out, that’s all. You’ve been working too hard. You just need some counselling.’
Damien gritted his teeth and then, before he could chicken out, he tossed the knife over his bed. He was sure Andrew would dive for it, teeth bared and slobbering – in which case he’d go for the door and start running again. But it was Andrew who went for the door, pulling it so hard it almost came off its hinges, and Damien heard him thump down the stairs two at a time. The front door slammed a second later.
All he could hear was his own breathing.
What if it really happened the way Andrew said? What if there are no demons?
But on the heels of this thought came another. What if this was the game? What if that was how it worked – by first granting you everything and then plunging you into your own personal hell. First he was famous, now he was a murder rapist? No, this was a special hell constructed for him by the game. There could be only one way out. One level remaining.
He was going to have to play.
The final level was unlike any other that had come before it. The manhole led into the city sewers, and the only way forward was down. The concrete tunnels and foul water soon gave way to slimy rocks, cliffs and cave networks. The screen was almost pitch black, but Damien could make out dim shadows and patches of deeper black, and each step he took sent visible sound waves echoing against the walls. He closed his curtains and turned off the light in his room so he could see better.
He’d never been so terrified in his life. The demons stalked him every turn, their growls and slithering steps audible wherever he went. All it took was one close call, a claw lashing out at him in the dark, and they could trace him by the smell of his blood. He ran, panicked heartbeat loud in his ears, taking turns at random, praying he found the last exit before whatever was behind him caught up.
It was impossible to tell how much time passed, hunched over his screen in a cold sweat, fingers tapping madly at the keys, no longer playing for fun but for desperation. He needed to regain his sanity, his old life. He needed to wake up to a world with sunshine and parents who were sometimes irritable and a friend who teased him about being too uptight.
He hit a dead end, practically ran into it head first. The things chasing him sensed it, and they let out ravenous screeches of triumph. When they reached him they didn’t bother to kill him – they simply took steaming bites from his body. Damien screamed, in the game and out loud, and then fell deadly silent as he watched himself die, pieces of him dripping from hungry mouths, a pale hand stretching out as if pleading for mercy, only to be torn apart by grabbing hands.
Finally, the screen went red, and two words appeared on the screen in silver letters: GAME OVER.
Five long seconds later, Damien’s computer powered off, leaving him in a quiet, dark room.
When he opened the door to the landing, he was met with an empty, silent house. Outside, a strong wind blew, and the windows showed a starless midnight. Dread welled up inside Damien as he descended the stairs and made his way through the kitchen. His mother was gone, and the house was dusty and ancient, as though no one had been there for centuries.
The streets were deserted, houses broken and vacant. The only light came from the silver moon, but it was enough to illuminate the way.
Damien kept to the sidewalk, moving as quietly as he could. His heart thudded steadily, too loud in his ears. Somewhere in the distance a jarring song played, and he recognised it as one of his own, a disharmonious string of notes and verses that made no sense and served only to chill your soul.
It wasn’t long before the demons took up his scent, and he started to run.
He was looking for a key, but he had no idea what it looked like, and a small part of him knew that he would never find it.
Somewhere on the next street, something howled for blood.