Stories

Wild Game – Emma Rose Jacobson

I have always been fascinated with drowning. I can imagine the figure as a feather in the water, drifting lower, back and forth, until all the holes in the body clog up. From then on it’s all dead weight, sinking like hidden treasure to rot out of sight and out of mind. Sometimes I chug glasses of water in rapid succession until I’m coughing to try and simulate how I believe it would feel to be tossed like a game piece in the sprawling waves. I wait for my breath to constrict, let my eyes roll back. Staring into the backs of my eyelids, I visualize my body lucid and my hair feathering out around me in the water. 
        When I was younger my parents would take me to the Jersey Shore in the summer. I enjoyed these excursions immensely. I enjoyed wearing a little black bikini around so many people of so many different origins. Each pair of eyes behind the glare of plastic sunglasses was a story untold. And what was my story? It was a matter of deception and performance. A little game to play with myself. No one here knew who I was. Gone was the spoiled persona that trailed after me like a shadow. I stood tall with my hair streaming down my back, I looked over my shoulder coyly, through my eyelashes, like I imagined young Hollywood starlets would do. 
        My mind loved swimming even before my body knew how. I would ease into the water slowly, letting the foam of the surf kiss my ankles. My feet would make little indents in the sand; disappearing with the next wave. There was something odd about that, something that struck me even when I was too young to understand. Every footprint erased, a history untraceable, a fresh canvas with every coming wave. The impermanence of it, it was alluring and disheartening at the same time. Deeper I would walk until the water hugged my waist. At first, to be dry feels warmer, the ocean a shiver along your skin. But the further you press into the tides, the water has a way of blanketing you in a pool of shimmering heat; the outside air becomes cool and prickly. 
        There’s an invisible line out there in the water. Once it was real, by that I mean visible, but it was only traced into the earth and it’s long washed away now. High tide soaked it into the sand. But you can still feel it; you’ll know it when you get there. The weightlessness will wash over you, rendering you simply a head on a lush body of sea, spanning miles, clanging and retreating, each hair follicle kissed under the water. You are being touched on all sides. You are being held tight. You have no choice but to give in to the rush of the tide. 
        The thing about drowning is that, yes, some people try to drown. I said it, some people drown themselves; some people walk into the water in order to offer their spirit to the waves. But drowning is not so cut and dry. Some people are swimming, some people are surfing. Some people are seeking to be weightless, and they smile in the submersion. It is the only way they know how. They are swimming and then they take one more joyous stroke and then they are drowning. I imagine the death to be slow and agonizing. I imagine every orifice in my body seeped with seawater. I imagine the realization washing over me, I killed myself trying to feel alive. I find it a very romantic thing, to toe the lifeline. Before I moved away I made a hole in the sand and ever so gently placed a seashell at the bottom. I made a promise to bury this impulse in the shell, deep in the sand, where it cannot be seen and therefore doesn’t exist, and not look back. There are more pressing matters than romanticism in a young girl’s life.  

Now my roommate and best friend, Brooke, stands in the doorway of our college apartment in rural Massachusetts telling me about her plans for her thesis paper. She is about to leave for class when she turns around and says, 

“Oh, also, I heard about this college wide game, it’s, like, paintball or in the style of paintball or something like that. It’s supposed to be super competitive and it’s in partners. Want to do it with me?” 
        “Yeah, sure,” I responded. There certainly wasn’t much else to do around here. “I think that sounds fun.” 

After she left I decided to go for a walk. The campus is extensive and truly a beautiful place. It’s wooded, with wide open fields, hidden trails, and a big, murky pond at the edge. The pond is the only body of water for miles. You can lose track of time very easily here. The days all have a way of bleeding together if you don’t make a point of differentiating them. One has to create their own little ways of marking time, rituals to keep them grounded, or else the valley will swallow them up one night when the sun is long overdue to show its face.  
        I have a set path I follow meticulously when I walk, ending at the pond. I like to sit on the grassy banks and watch the sun set and reflect in the flowing waters. As I came upon the pond I sensed the presence of another body. It is rare to have company at the pond, as it is all the way at the far edge of campus. When I broke through the trees, into the clearing, I saw a girl laying on her back in the shallows where the water met a rocky ground. I walked over and laid down next to her. I didn’t even think about it. Of course I would lie with her. Was there any more pressing place for me to be? It felt strange to lay down in the pond and soak all my clothes, but something in me knew I had to. 
        We were looking up at the foggy sky in silence, her and I, gray and hazy, when she said in a low voice, without turning her head or looking at me, that there was a “behind” these clouds, and if I waited long enough, stayed patient and perceptive, I would see the clouds part in glowing lines, and that was the hidden sun sensing the stillness, and breaking through the sky. After a few minutes of laying together in silence I saw it. Bright, brilliant, glowing lines in the sky, like neon lights, creating patterns and twinkling before the clouds closed in again. It was beautiful, hypnotizing. By the time I caught my bearings the girl had left. The water was sloshing in my ear canal, clouding my head, whispering to me, calling me deeper. 
        I waded a little further and laid down again, until only my face was above water. The birds were chirping, the pond seemed to be alive with little ripples and bubbles materializing randomly and popping along the surface. The clouds had closed again over the clearing, sensing my movement. I settled into the stillness and looked toward the sky to wait for the fog to break again. And there it was, rays of light in a sharp line shining down on the little grove. How could I have never noticed them before? Was I never still enough, did I never truly stop to see? It was heaven; it had always been heaven in the earthly sky, had I cared to be still and look. 
        Then a pinch, sudden and sharp, something slimy and scaly, a jagged point penetrating into my foot. I raised my leg above the water. There was a very small snake that had sunk its fangs into my big toe. My breath started quickening. I sat up and ripped the snake off with my bare hands. A slow trickle of blood flowed out from where it had bit me, staining the water red. I stood up and walked out of the marsh to go back to my house and bandage the wound. A girl with long black hair holding a gun was standing on the path through the hills that went to my house. I knew she was a student and figured she was practicing for the paintball game so I wasn’t concerned. She turned around and bristled when she saw me. 

“How dare you partner with Brooke for the match?” she seethed. “Brooke is my partner.” 
        “She asked me to partner with her, ” I responded, thoroughly confused. “I didn’t mean to take your place.” 
        “Yeah, whatever,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re up against.” 

I walked past her without responding, my wet clothes clinging to my frame, stumbling over the hill to the apartment I shared with Brooke, confused and disoriented. There was a gun, my gun for the paintball match, I assumed, laying on the table, with a small piece of paper. On it, the following was typed:

  1. Every player must have a partner.
  2. When one member of the partnership is eliminated, the remaining member becomes a hostage to the shooter.
  3. The game ends when the first pair of unscathed assailant partners arrive at the South Gates with the eliminated member and the hostage member of the losing pair.

Let the games begin!

I picked it up and felt the weight in my hands. It felt good. I felt like a fighter. I put it in my pants and went back outside. I walked to a different part of the water, a sort of rocky coast sloping into ripples softly ebbing. There was another girl there I didn’t know, she was putting the finishing touches on a narrow bridge she had made out of a wooden plank across the water. She was crouched at the other end, immersed in her work. When she noticed me, her eyes narrowed and she raised her gun. 

“You,” she snarled. 
        “Do I know you?” I asked, staring into the barrel of her gun. 
        “I am known as a warning,” she said slowly and solemnly. 

I had no clue what she was talking about, but I wasn’t about to let her cryptic words throw me off. I raised my gun to face hers and we stared at each other for what felt like hours. I watched her move to cock her gun. Like second nature, I cocked mine quick, out of some instinctual urge for survival, which I sometimes think may only function as a distraction for the more appealing urge, that of violence, and shot.
        I don’t know what I was expecting. A paintball or something of the like. But it was a bullet, a real bullet, solid and unflinching and fast as light. It hit her in the leg and she toppled off the plank bridge and into the water. I didn’t know what to do. I mounted the bridge and dragged her body out to the rocks lining the far side of the river. I couldn’t find a pulse. She appeared to be dead. I was shocked. I never meant to kill her, I thought we were all playing a game. I carried her body up to the hills, and there was the girl with the black hair. She turned to face me with her gun and saw what I was holding. 

“That was my new partner. You ruin everything,” she said, her voice breaking. 
“Watch your back, I’m just getting started,” I instinctually retorted. 

I have this habit. I won’t go as far as to call it bad, because it has always served me well, but I must always be one step ahead. I never admit that I am wrong. I cultivate the respect I deserve. If I am confused I lean into my aggression. I don’t need to know what is going on. I dictate what is going on. With the corpse slung over my shoulder, I was starting to feel a rush, an urge to play the part of the killer. It’s what I was then, what I had become, for better or worse. No need to fight reality. The game dictated that once one member of the pair had been eliminated, the other member became a hostage to the assailant. I took her, the girl with the black hair, over the hills, with the corpse, back to my apartment. 
        We opened the door and I laid the corpse out on the kitchen table. Brooke wasn’t home, but our other roommate was. I knew Brooke’s class was over in an hour, she usually returned to the apartment after. A sudden wave of confusion hit me as I realized I wasn’t sure what to do with the “hostage” while I waited for Brooke so we could bring the losing pair to the South Gates. She seemed angry and still had her gun and I was starting to feel that surge of power, the primal pleasure of letting impulses take over. I was the eliminator. I took her gun and led her to the TV room. I sat on the floor across from the TV, motioned silently for her to join me. She laid down wordlessly, defeated. 
        Maybe it has all been a lie, a lie I bought into. Maybe I knew best as a little girl, coming into myself under so many observant, prying eyes. Maybe there was no need to hide from such impulses. Maybe the civilized world is not the only option, or not the best option. Maybe they called it paintball to convince the college authorities to approve it. Maybe they called it paintball to manipulate those of us, the natural born killers, into discovering our virtuosity. Maybe Brooke made the whole paintball thing up. Maybe the ones you least expect are behind those sudden shifts in the planes of our world. One has to stay alert. To stay present, the center of their mind, and therefore, their world. One mental step ahead at all times. I climbed on top of her, my hostage, my prize, and groped her. Touched her, dug my nails in, felt her heartbeat under her breasts, quivering in my hands. Her body began to shake with small silent sobs. This only encouraged me. I called out to my roommate to lock the doors. 
        It was the natural order, what good is the existence of prey without predators. Grow up weak or grow up tough. I sat on top of the girl with the black hair, whose name I didn’t know, I didn’t care to know, feeling her up, tugging at her clothes, leaving no skin untouched. With my knee I forced her legs apart. A strong odor wafted from her, damp and salty, like seawater and splintered driftwood. I thought of the seashell. The girl let out a little cry under me but I was far, far away, trapped in the space between real life and what I would consider to be living. I was getting carried away. I love getting carried away; I’ve always known that about myself and always had to be restrained. It is one thing to swim but before you know it, you’ll be drowning. You won’t realize until you’ve already crossed the line. 
        How far is too far to embody a character? How deep until there is no difference between the character and the imitator? I can fill the hourglass with flesh and blood offerings, but what good could come of it? I looked down at the girl. I had never seen her before today. It was easier that way, with her as a nameless, faceless symbol of my tyranny. She had her face pressed into the carpet, willing herself not to look at me. All of a sudden I started to feel disgusted, with myself, with my view of her pitiful body writhing on my floor. Such offenses cannot be erased with the coming wave. I am toeing the lifeline. I know it now that I’ve gotten here. I can feel it under my feet. I said aloud abruptly, “I don’t want to do this. You’re just a girl. I’m going to let you go. Don’t make me regret it. You’re just a girl.” I got up and opened the door. She fled through it. 
        With all distractions gone the presence of the corpse suffocated the room. The hostage girl’s gun was still lying on top of the bookshelf where I had hid it from her. I took it down and inspected it. It was the same as mine, matte black and slick, with a satisfying weight. I couldn’t stand to be in that room any longer. Each gun could only be fired once, so I placed my gun on top of the bookshelf, and put hers in my pants. Only for self defense, of course, now that I know a shot is deadly. I left the corpse on the table and started again to the pond. 
        Now, with my steps echoing like a tribal drum, I walk barefoot through the twigs and marsh to the mouth of the water, lost in my thoughts, my hand on the gun. A long, striped snake slithers out from the trees a few feet away. I pull out the gun, like the most natural reflex in the world, shoot at the snake in one fluid motion. Bang. I blink and the snake is covered in a blast of orange paint. Confused, it recoils briefly. My jaw drops, I am cemented where I stand. The snake lunges in again toward my foot, sinking its fangs in. I kick and send the orange snake flying into the air, but it still does not let go. Finally it opens its repulsive jaw in that unsettlingly wide way snakes do and slithers away.
        An overwhelming sense of dizziness is coming over me. I am lowering myself onto the ground to sit. All that remains of the snake is a few orange drops in the dirt. I am starting to lose feeling in my foot. The trees are sneering at me, each rustle behind me is an animal coming to feed. I’ll be okay, though. I’m always just fine. I’m an animal too. I’m a killer. Who but God himself could have given me a bullet in the face of everyone else carrying a paintball. It’s a divine sign, really. This is just me returning to nature. Prey is no good without predators, as I said. Ah, yes. I hear the sound of two hard surfaces striking each other, I see the banks of the pond whizzing by. I feel the dirt on my back, oh, I am laying down now, much more comfortable. I am watching the blood seep out of my toe in deep fascination. I am being very still and very quiet. I am looking up at the ever present cloudy sky for a break, for that promised beam of light.