PLAY OF THE GAME
The Orlando SWAT team barged through our apartment door after midnight. They tore down the door to my room, rifles drawn. The first guy, a sweaty bald man in a tight armored vest that gripped at his protruding gut, aimed his AR-15 at my forehead. My big brother Robbie told me that the Army’s M4 rifle, the AR-15’s cousin, has a 5.56 millimeter round—a high velocity bullet that can rip apart flesh and bone. One minute I’m going about my night, living my life stomping on hobgoblins with my battalion of Wolf-Orc cavalry, and then the next it could’ve been over, poof!
“Show us your hands, don’t move,” bald cop said. Hey now this is oh so funny, I thought, and I started laughing at that moment. I don’t know why I did that at such an inappropriate time, but it was seriously funny. For one, this was happening to me, live on camera for all my Twitch followers while I was still in the middle of a match against my Absolute War frenemy, LaToya from Houston, or 77FlyPanda039 as she’s known on AW; and two, how could I let them know I would be compliant and unarmed if I couldn’t raise my hands? What a predicament! I laughed at him. Bald cop grabbed part of my purple hoodie and slammed me face-first onto my pink Fluffy Kitty carpet. I stopped laughing, but not smiling. I weigh like nothing, so it wasn’t that hard for him. A fast-moving softball could take me out.
As they searched my room, I watched as my Wolf-Orc battalion got needlessly pulverized by LaToya, with her warlock’s fireball spell. I could’ve easily moved my troops aside with just a few mouse clicks! She was using her hobgoblin witches against me, a weak harassing unit that is so amateur a move–I’m almost ashamed for her.The bald cop placed the muzzle of his rifle against the back of my skull. “Stay down,” he yelled. Two drops of sweat fell from his oily double chin and landed onto my unwashed black hair, seeping into my brown skin. The red camera dot on my computer’s monitor was still on, recording all of this for my followers while LaToya tried to reach me.
77FlyPanda039: OMG, are you seriously being arrested right now, Cece?
77FlyPanda039: Cece this is staged right?
77FlyPanda039: Cece? fuk fuk fuk fuk
The cops yanked me upward and shut off my monitor. In its black reflection, I saw my broken door, my anime posters cut out of magazines from the Saint Pius High Library, and my reflection, handcuffed, in my Fluffy Kitty pj’s. They forgot to turn off my computer and camera, so I could still hear ping noises; every six seconds, a new viewer logged in to watch me get shoved around while cops dug through the apartment. It was all too much to think about, so I passed out standing up.
Good thing Robbie was out drinking alone again. That goofball would’ve ran for his safe-locked handgun and gotten his head blown off trying to help me. But Robbie did show up later, and when I came to, the cops apologized for everything. They were acting on a tip from a Colorado number that said I was holding an entire family hostage: a pregnant woman, two infants, and an elderly grandmother. They gave my exact name, bodily features, but like, six times older. I didn’t know anyone from Colorado who’d want to troll me like that. Colorado seems about as strange and far from Florida as you can get.
The police interrogated everyone I knew–or those I walked by and ignored on a daily basis: our neighbor that hates Robbie, our landlord, and even my teachers at St. Pius. I didn’t hear about that last one until Monday morning in the principal’s office.
“We want to make sure all of our students are safe,” the vice principal said as she sat in front of me with the principal and my sophomore year religion teacher flanking her.
“Your safety is of the utmost importance,” the principal reworded.
“Thank the Lord that you’re okay.” My sophomore religion teacher smiled at me. “God watched over you that night, Cece.” Over the summer, he grew this gnarly silver moustache; it made him look like the Emperor of the Kaghnate Empire, a faction in the AW Universe. I loathe playing as them because they’re one of the two human factions in the game and honestly, they’re boring, and they suck ass—like humans suck ass in real life. I started laughing again because it was so weird.
“This isn’t something to be joking about Ms. Vazquez,” the principal said.
“No, it’s okay to laugh Cece,” my religion teacher said, his moustache twirl rising and falling, which only made me laugh harder. “You can cry, or get mad, or want to, I don’t know, break things—”
“But not here,” the vice principal said. “Don’t do that here—”
“—however you feel you want to emotionally respond to this right now, know that this is a safe space and that we,” he did this circle around the three of them, but I’m not sure the other two were with it, “are here for you. Although this may be a scary time for you right now, do not let hate guide your heart.”
“Exactly,” the vice principal smiled.
Throughout the day my Android lit up with texts and emails of support from my followers on Twitch, Insta, and Twitter. People I didn’t even know were saying that whoever did that should burn in hell. After going through a couple drafts of a thank you note to my followers, I deleted it. What’s there to say that would make any of it better? Instead of bringing it up all the time, why not toss it out? This one AW Twitch player from France emailed me to say that she was happy to see a fellow streamer and that what happened to me was a crime. I mean, yes she’s right, but what can I do? I had to focus on what I could control, like reporting all of the SWATting videos that were online.
While in my classes, I scrolled through my phone—finding and reporting the video to mods. LaToya couldn’t help me because she was AFK, and I couldn’t tell Robbie because he’d freak. Only my geometry teacher almost kicked me out because rather than listening to him drone on, I was doing important work to save what was left of my gaming life. I could hear my classmates snickering behind my back. Maybe they were talking about someone else. I wonder if they knew. I wonder if they all set this up. I didn’t want to shout or cuss at anyone because the Emperor’s stupid moustache kept popping up in my head. Do not let hate guide your heart. Whatever dude.
When I got back home, Robbie was in our kitchen with a few bags of Chik-Fil-A.
He was in the middle of his fried chicken sandwich when he pushed a bag of waffle fries towards an empty chair. “They’re a bit cold now, but eat up. We gotta talk.” While I love waffle fries, he should be at the landfill now. Big Brother was still in his waste management uniform with the bright yellow and silver striped vest, and his brown cargo pants scuffed with blackened dirt marks on the hem and in the seams. His work boots, once a desert tan brown, were caked with mud. Our living room often smelled of beer or sewage or a combination of the two.
“They let you out early?” I asked him.
“You ever find out which one of your dirtbag classmates did that to us?”
“No…No…I don’t know. I don’t know anyone at school. Not really. And no one has any reason to hate me—”
Robbie stuck his hand out. “Anyone can hate anyone Cece, that’s a fact. You don’t even have to know them to have someone hate you.”
“It’s fine…let’s forget it. Okay?”
“Here’s a true statement Cece: 90% of murderers knew their victims personally.”
I looked up that statistic after our conversation, and Wikipedia proved he was wrong.
It makes no sense for Robbie to stunt as hard as he does, just because he was in the Army. He fronts like he’s able to throw a punch, but I’ve never seen him hurt anything. He owns a couple handguns, sure, but he’s not dangerous. He has a funny way of looking out for me and talking and all.
Sometimes when he drinks, he talks about this place called Mosul. I don’t know what exactly he did, but Robbie said he spent most of his time guarding walls or pretending to guard walls. There was this checkpoint in Mosul, and there was this guy who was at this checkpoint in Mosul who was supposed to be a bad guy but wasn’t a bad guy. He turned into a dead guy; it was a mistake. But mistakes like that just happen in life.
It’s kind of like in AW. Sometimes when I line up my spear troops in front of my shock troops so they can take the brunt of the enemy’s cavalry charge, turns out my opponent doesn’t use their cavalry. Instead, they send a flying dragon, and it pretty much dominates over everything, lighting an entire platoon on fire. So I have to pull them back or call in my ballista to bring it down. But in my game even if I lose a battle, I’m still here. If the cop pulled that trigger, little pieces of me would be everywhere in my room, and I’d never win or lose against LaToya, or anyone, ever again.
“Cece, you’d tell me if anyone’s picking on you right?”
“Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
“You will, won’t you?”
“Yes. It’s fine though.”
The last time I told him about bullies was early in September. There’s this senior at school, Tim Sloan, and he said how funny looking my Fluffy Kitty headphones were while I was on the cafeteria line. I said they were expensive, and they were a gift from my big brother, but he didn’t care. He said they were perfect for dorks like me and his buddies laughed. Who says dork anymore? I ignored him and set my music even louder to drown him out. It was so bad that the lunch lady had to yell out the total price of my cheesesteak, apple, and Coke twice before I paid her.
The next day, Robbie got this idea to show up to my school with me next to him, and he went off to interrogate every boy with blonde hair that he could find. Where’s Tim Sloan, he kept saying, where is he? It got so bad that two security guards showed up and escorted him off the grounds. Now he isn’t allowed near school, so I have to take the bus home no matter what, or I’d be stranded there. They could’ve had him arrested, but because he was in the Army, the school let it slide. It’s funny what you can get away with because of something you did that people think is cool, but you don’t want to talk about it unless you’ve been drinking or you’re really sad.
I took my chicken sandwich and went to my room to go online. Since the weekend, I have a total of 1,348 tags that follow me on Twitch whenever I play AW. I’m one of a dozen or so woman Twitchers online, so it’s really not that hard to find me. No Tim Sloans there, no principals, no boring geometry teachers. I don’t think they care. If they did, no one has come up to me and called me out on it or complimented my sick moves.
As I scrolled through my mentions, I wondered if Robbie was right. Why would anyone want to SWAT me though? I don’t talk smack, and I don’t harass anyone. There are gamer dudes who are famous because that’s all they do—yell at the camera and call gamers racial slurs. They make fun of people they don’t even know in real life. Like, what’s the point of that?
It took a while but I disabled my Insta (for now), and I blocked a few Twitchers who gave off creepy vibes—the ones with no profile pictures, a one-word bio, or essay-long conspiracy theories on their page. LaToya agreed that it was a good idea.
77FlyPanda039: Keep some followers though
77FlyPanda039: Use the momentum to ask people to send you money
77FlyPanda039: More followers = more $$$$
I asked LaToya how come her own profile picture was that of a polar bear and not of her real face like mine since I livestream almost all my games. She said she didn’t want to show it because there were people at the comic shop she worked at who played AW religiously. She went off on some other excuse until Robbie came into my room holding a folded up paper with black lines strewn across one side.
I took my hand off the power button of my computer and turned to look at it. I skimmed through the content on the page—it had a thick block of words in bold, black font. Gibberish. No signature or date, but it was addressed to me.
“It’s that motherfucker who sent this, isn’t it? That little shit-brain Tommy.”
“Tim isn’t little. He’s like six feet tall.”
“That asshole is stalking you and you’re trying to correct me?”
He bolted out of my room and went into his, stomping his big monster feet all the way—huffing, puffing, huffing, and puffing. Weirdo. In the kitchen, there weren’t any empty beer bottles or open cans. No wine boxes. By now, on a normal night, he’d have drank at least three beers and would be yelling at something on his phone or at someone on Facebook talking about the government or the Army.
Robbie came out of the room in jeans and an oversized hoodie. Dark everything. A 9mm tucked on the right side of his jeans, sticking out of him like a pimple. A wart.
“Get dressed Cece. We can’t let some asshole do this to us.”
I looked up at my championship certificate over my twin bed. I lost the picture of me and my Orlando team, it’s still on Facebook I think. I deleted my account last year. I gave the original to Dad once so he could make a copy but he lost it and now I don’t know where he is. It’s funny because everyone on my team was twice as old as me, but I was really good. I was the best. Robbie was in Iraq and Mom was still there, and not sick, so she snapped the picture. She was proud, and Robbie even messaged me from overseas that he was proud of me too. I liked those guys, but I lost touch with them. They all moved away. Some of them don’t even play anymore.
We waited outside World of Beer in Robbie’s F-150. Tim worked as a busboy every other school night and on weekends. I only knew this because he used to brag about how many of the servers wanted to supposedly bone him, and I only told my brother because he wouldn’t drop the idea that Tim trolled me. We waited at least two hours for him in the back parking lot. I really had to pee, but I didn’t tell my big brother. He looked so furious waiting behind the wheel. While I’m like, still thinking about it but it’s no big deal.It could’ve gone so much worse.
I saw a SWATting video once. LaToya tweeted it to me. This gamer in Little Rock, Arkansas livestreamed his AW match against this champion in Seoul when the cops broke into his house, guns drawn. The lead guy yanked him from his chair and threw him onto the ground, screaming and calling him a whole slew of bad words. The gamer cried out and that was when his pale colored pit-bull came out. When she saw her owner attacked, the dog lunged at the cop. One of the cops shot the dog six times in the chest. Turned out that the person who made the call was his neighbor, also a Twitcher, who was just doing it to be a troll. One was arrested, the other lost his ten year old friend.
“They must be changing up staff now,” Robbie said.
“How do you know when they change staff?”
“An ex of mine used to work here. I’d wait for her some nights.’
“You had a girlfriend?”
“It was right after I got back from Iraq. Remember Iraq?” Before I could shake my head he kept talking. “Mom died and I wanted to get a drink with this old high school friend ‘cept he never showed up. The bartender felt sorry for me so she bought me a shot. I asked for her number. We dated. She was nice. Real nice. Then two months later she said that her ex in South Carolina had this job for the both of ‘em and wanted her to move up there with him. So she did it.”
“I’m sorry. That sucks.”
He smiled for the first time that night. “Yeah, she was gone. Only certain kind of people do that. Only a certain kind. Hey, there’s our boy.” My brother reached to the backseat and pulled out a blue bandanna, blackened with dirt, which he tied around his mouth.
“Stay here Cece.”
A boy with blonde hair like Tim’s came out and walked to a silver Pontiac Firebird. Its feature was a missing left headlight; caved in from the blunt force of a hammer or something. I don’t remember Tim ever talking about owning a car. If he did, I imagined it would’ve been a fancy one. My brother walked up to the boy and shouted: “Tim!” The blonde boy jumped back and stood there. He tried to raise his hands in the air when Robbie got in his face. The boy was so scrawny looking from the dim street light that hovered over them. They looked like shadows then, faint images of two people gesturing wildly. I opened the car door and called out Robbie’s name and that was when he grabbed a fistful of the boy’s hair and slammed him onto the Pontiac’s front hood.
I almost screamed at him but I held my breath when my brother looked back at the truck. It was muffled. Robbie grabbed him again before the boy could regain his balance and he slammed the guy’s forehead against the driver’s window. When the bloody body fell, it left a spider web of a crack on the mirror. There was more blood on the car. Drops of it on the ground. In the dim light, it shined. The boy slumped onto the gravel, legs crisscrossed against one another in the faint darkness. A slight trail of liquid seeped from the pants to the edge above his sneakers. Black Converse high tops.
Robbie sauntered back towards the truck, stretching, moving his body side to side until his back popped. “Goddamn,” he said. He never looked back.
My brother flung the bandana off his lips once he got in. I started panting and he told me to breathe. Breathe. It’s okay. Breathe. So I did, and I couldn’t stop. We drove out of there the same way we came in. Another F-150 with its high beams on came in the other direction and almost hit us. Robbie honked at him. The two men rolled down their respective windows, and I could see the driver was another employee, maybe. As Robbie drove past he called him a ‘piece of fuck,’ and the other guy said that he should eat a ‘cold shit.’ Breathe in.
We drove back to the apartment listening to Queen. I wanted to turn it off but my arms were locked to my sides. I couldn’t move. Not really. “I wish Chik-Fil-A was open late,” Robbie said. I squeezed the sides of the black leather seats.
“You okay Cece?” Robbie said.
I moved a bit over to my right and found some loose change and a smashed waffle fry I had been sitting on.There was potato all over the butt pocket of my jeans.
“Cecilia, you okay?”
“You know you see that all the time in those games of yours.”
“All you do is destroy things and kill things in that game. It’s so goddamn violent. So you’re seeing it up close. Real good, right? Right?”
Robbie tuned the stations until we reached a religious channel where a preacher was in the middle of his sermon on Luke or John. He spoke of God and believing in forgiveness in dark times. Eye for an eye makes us blind, all that. I turned off the radio. Robbie clapped my shoulder and dug his bloody uncut nails into my tee.
I threw my pink carpet into the trash once I got home. In my room, I played two rounds of AW with LaToya. I lost both times. She trampled over my armies due to careless mistakes that were totally my fault. She made fun of me for it after I lost a second time. I tried typing out what happened earlier. I wrote it all down. Everything. My brother. The pistol. But then I saw her profile picture had changed to a cartoonish insect and I copied and pasted my message to a Google Doc that no one else could see but me.
77FlyPanda039: Is my new profile picture cute? Only cost a dollar! Do u like it Cece?
77FlyPanda039: OMG if u think it’s tacky, lemme kno. I’ll change it bck
Honestly, I thought about it, but if I spoke to a panda or a dragon or a fly, would it make a difference? She asked for another match. Castle defense. I would be the defense. She would try to storm my fortifications with two bat dragons and her mercenary pirate army. My head hurt real bad, but I said why not. What else did I have to do? Robbie was awake in the living room watching a cartoon. Something recent. He asked me to come over and watch, twice. He tried a third time but then he stopped.