BY JOANIE R. ELIAN
Copyright is held by the author.
JENNY COULDN’T help herself.
Even though the computer sat quiet and unconscious on the floor, she was drawn to the lifeless box.
She straightened her notepad and pen just right, placed her coffee cup on Ben’s desk, swivelled his black-taped up chair around, and settled herself down.
She thought she heard his footsteps behind her.
There was no one there, but then she knew that. She knew where he was.
Her eyes stopped at the door — breaking away from an injured frame, the walls around the edge splattered with cracks from years of slamming. She didn’t need a growth chart marked on the wall. Ben’s age and frustration were all there in the cracks and chips. Plaster congregated on the floor. White powder clogged the corners.
Jenny turned back to the computer and switched it on.
She closed her eyes while double screens delivered a bursting bright screensaver — a sole surfer on top of the white foam of a gigantic wave. The surfer disappeared when she moved the cursor over to a ruby-red icon — a tall tower and a wizard in white, overbearing the faint presence of a dark wizard in the background.
And she was in.
Jenny glanced at her phone. Waiting. Hoping. But Ben was out, and he’d given her explicit instructions what to do.
She tried to steady her hands, but as she brought the cup to her mouth, splashes of brown liquid dirtied the chipped Formica board. She looked down at the mess, moved slightly towards getting up and cleaning it, but finally sat there and let her mind summon up a memory of not so long ago, when she would go to Ben’s room, first thing every morning.
Hi Ben, good morning, she texted, I hope you’re ok and guard duty isn’t too bad. I’m in front of your screens doing what you taught me, also sending you love thru cyberspace. Your characters are playing nicely, but I can’t help noticing that some of them are underdressed!
“I could very well be doing something else more productive with my life instead of playing this bloody computer game, but if this is the only way into his world, I’ll do anything, even this,” she thought to herself.
Ben texted back, Hi Mum, I got no game money to buy clothes for all of them.
Her thumbs clicked fast, Well, I really like the capes and wings! Anyway, I’ve reconnected them. I’ve pointed their collectors low on the ground like you showed me.
Jenny took her eyes away from her phone.
She traced her index finger over the top of his aftershave bottle, standing like a soldier on the window sill, next to a miniature red HMS letter box, a keepsake from his last visit to his grandparents.
Mum wot does gold box say, Ben’s text popped up.
Which gold box?
Press “i” 4 inventory and check gold boxes
Hold on a sec… I see that Wondering Wizard has 195 points…
Nice tx 2 u but that means no change from yesterday though. Are they disconnecting during the day?
I usually connect them twice a day, she replied, morning and evening.
She shifted her eyes from her phone and set them on a large dent in the table, the size of a fist. But, she continued, if I come into your room at other times and I see that they are not moving, I reconnect them. I’ll fire them up right now and sit here for a bit to see what happens.
Only if you have time.
Ben, she texted, wanting to hold on to the moment for as long as she could, I’ve finished writing my story so I have time.
Thx Mum gotta go.
Bye lovey, be safe.
Jenny’s eyes lingered on his virtual voice for a few precious moments more, trying not to let Ben’s spelling and lack of punctuation get to her.
She was so thankful for texting. None of his faces or tuts to contend with. She could regulate her own raised eyebrows and tuts.
Her thoughts travelled further back to when Ben was about to start high school.
“How about joining the swimming team?” Jenny suggested, as other children his age were enrolled in after-school programs.
He was sitting facing his computer, as though an invisible thread hooked the insides of his eyes in a straight line to the computer screen.
Jenny’s eyes spotted a piece of plaster above his door just about to drop.
One shoulder moved up and down.
“I hate scouts!” he shouted.
“What about archery?”
She approached his desk.
With his head cocked to one side, she imagined his eyes widening just a tiny bit as he forcefully sighed a “maybe.”
She thought she saw the birth of a smile, but the moment was gone as fast as it came
His face lost its glow as he tugged at the neck of his tee-shirt.
“I’ll check it out then,” were her final words, knowing he’d change his mind before she could arrange it.
As the years went by, instead of heading out into the world, he withdrew into his room and his games. He would sit transformed before a screen-even if it was only screaming abuse at the images in front of him, curses that shot out in rapid succession, like a machine gun firing four-letter-words instead of flak.
He had ‘friends’ in the interactive games he played, but it was mainly GAH (Grand Auto Heist) which lit him up and others like him, eating, drinking and sleeping on the keyboard.
“Ben is smart.” Jenny remembered his eighth grade Israeli teacher saying at the last parents-teacher meeting of that school year. “He has so much potential. Can you enlighten me with regard to his motivation?”
Jenny kept her jacket on and hugged her bag to her chest. Ben sat next to her. His legs reached right past the teacher’s table.
A wicker basket with mini toffees caught Jenny’s attention. Tempted to take them all and walk right out, Jenny took one and thought about her answer.
The teacher slid Ben’s report card across the table, her perfectly pink polished finger nails clicking on the number of absent days.
The rosy tapping invaded Jenny’s reverie. Her eyes skidded over the low marks, focusing on a recorded 48 absent days over the year — fodder for the daily door-banging at home. Today would be no exception. Most, if not all of Ben’s parent-teacher meetings ended in door-slamming, plaster-gusting upset.
With the only answer she had, that Ben’s motivation was directed to, and only to his gaming, Jenny looked down at the toffee instead.
“Anything to add, Ben?” the teacher asked, her eyes narrowed.
Ben tried, at least, to answer her, but garbled his words as if he was talking underwater.
Jenny chewed the candy. It was as sour as her recent divorce.
Ben hurried in front of her on the way back home, and retreated into his world with a bang and a blast.
“S t o p banging your freaking door!” She regretted raising her voice the minute she opened her mouth.
She always did.
“L e a v e me alone!”
Jenny stood outside his door, her tears dropping in time with the bits of plaster.
She texted, Shall we order a burger? even though only a door and a few meters of space separated them.
Her thoughts jumped to the day that Ben finally let her in. Ben became a soldier at 18, like every other teenager in Israel, and Jenny had never seen him so happy.
“Ben?” Jenny asked through a closed door, on his second weekend at home, “I’ve got some clean clothes that I want to put away. Okay?”
She opened the door, shoving dirty underwear with her foot, from the middle of the floor to the side.
“Requesting back-up. Man down. I have a 10-54. Requesting immediate back-up,” Ben said into a microphone positioned just so on a mechanical arm right up against his mouth.
“Wow,” she said, softly, taking care of her tone. “What’s a 10-54?”
Ben didn’t answer.
He clicked off the microphone, and Jenny glimpsed half of his face for a moment, guns blasting in the background. He clicked again, “suspect armed and dangerous. Shots fired,” he shouted.
Jenny sat down on Ben’s bed and watched his back play.
“Who are you chasing?” she asked him. “Are you the good guy?”
“Can’t you see I’m wearing a uniform, Mum?” he replied with a snort, but his head invited her over, closer to the screens. She averted her eyes from the severed body parts and blood-splattered pavements in front of her.
“I like your badge, what does it say?” She couldn’t think of anything else to ask.
“But where are you taking, him?” she said, pointing to the screen.
“Come tomorrow, Mum and you’ll see. Come every time I’m home from the army. You’ll be amazed at my expertise.”
She couldn’t believe her ears.
She couldn’t wait.
“Who’s on your termination list today?” she asked, the next time he was home for the weekend.
“I’m playing a new game, Mum,” he said, as he crossed his legs underneath him.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear. What’s it about?”
His two screens were a kaleidoscope of colour and movement. Jenny’s head swirled from the constant flashing.
She sat on Ben’s bed while he talked into his microphone, played the game and texted his friends, their names and texts scrolling down on the right-hand side of one screen. The tiny print moved so fast she couldn’t keep track.
“Going into private mode, Mum,” he answered, swiveling the microphone to the side while continuing to text.
“So what’s the point of the game?”
“There’s er, three storylines, and man, just look at the graphics. For starters you get three g’s. That’s gear, gold and, hold on.” He googled on the second screen. “Right!” he nodded. “g” for goodness. So that’s a couple of flying capes and some swords, gold and goodness. I’m in a new province destroying the monsters of the dark side. A kill gets you more points and goodness, and your character gets stronger and harder to kill. There are different quests, like Guarding Bellonia, Stories of Lanber Forest, Crusade of Aces and Spades. Look, they’re all there,” and he pointed. “You can build a fortress and . . .”
It wasn’t that she wasn’t listening, but Jenny let him talk while she focused on his hands—a flurry of activity on his keyboard, enabling him to fly between quests on two screens, texting to friends and talking to her.
“I really like that one,” she said, pointing, “very smart.”
“That’s Tyrone Longbeard, a big, black wizard. I’ve always wanted a beard.”
“I thought you were going to say, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a wizard’,” she chuckled.
Jenny watched swords strike and shields clash. Clean shaven Linden Lightbinder struck at the black-hooded chiromancer. A cascade of crimson fluorescent grenades filled the sky.
Depending on the quest, the music changed, rising to a fast moving rhythm as monsters were slain and ice rings flew around the screen. Mini string concertos accompanied the Chiromancers in flying capes as they darted around scenes of snowy mountain peaks, fields of purple and calmly swaying trees.
She propped her back up with a pillow. She took another pillow and placed it behind her lower back, noticing that Ben moved his players around while he checked his coordinates on an interactive map.
“I’m lost, but I’m trying to find my way,” Ben said, smiling, stretching his feet out on the computer box.
Ben clicked on an icon and soft Irish music replaced the beat.
Lightbinder jumped on a massive silver scarab and bounded away, shock waves shaking the ground as they bolted through the purple thickets towards The Tower of Knowledge.
“I have friends all over the world, Mum. I even play with Mohamad, a Jordanian dude.”
“I always thought that women would wage peace, but it looks like there might be another way,” she thought.
She relaxed and settled into the pillows.
“Do you want me to go? Have you had enough with the questions?”
“No Mum. Stay.”
Jenny swallowed. “What else can you get with all the points?”
“Clothes,” Ben answered, “and batteries that give life. I get points by using that thing down there.”
He pointed to a large bell-shaped gun pointed down towards the ground.
“This collector lets the character fish for gold, and that means points, for hours even when I’m not physically playing the game, but you have to be logged on to do that.”
The bell-shaped receptacle hummed and throbbed like it was sucking at nothing. Jenny focused on the repetitive movement, entranced by the character holding it as he swayed back and forth, like an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall.
“I miss trillions and millions of points and stuff when I’m not collecting.” His face dropped. “By the way, Mum, that’s called AFK, ‘away from keyboard,’ and you know what, Mum, you could do it for me when I’m in the army, and then I would get more points.”
“Mm, I’ll have to think about it okay no problem I’ll do it,” she said in one breath (with no commas).
Ben moved the electric fire which barred entrance to his desk and chair, and opened up the way for Jenny to come closer to sit beside him.
One Friday afternoon, not long afterwards, Ben came looking for his mother.
She was folding his army uniform, ready for his Sunday morning journey back to base.
“Mum, are you coming?”
Gaming, Jenny now understood, afforded a technological shortcut to life’s experiences, giving immediate credentials and authority. While Ben was in the game he was confident. He could choose to be anyone he wanted. She understood that in the game no one could touch him, demand chores and the rest of day-to-day hindrances. And when Ben the white wizard was struck down, murdered in cold blood, plummeted into a deep chasm, chopped into millions of pieces or exploded into smithereens, he just scraped himself up and started again to begin a new life, with a chance to start afresh.
“By the way, I’ve got loads more points now, thanks to you.”
Jenny got up and turned to go, but Ben put his hand on her shoulder.
“Shall we play?”
The coffee stains suspended Jenny’s thoughts and she fast forwarded almost to the present, to a few hours earlier as he dangled her car keys in front of her face. “Can I have the car?”
“Where are you going?”
“Out. Is this shirt okay? Does it go with the trousers? I can’t find a belt.”
“You look lovely. Who is she?” Jenny was taking a chance.
Ben’s freckles turned red.
“Yeah, a girl I met on the bus coming home from the base. I’m meeting her in Tel Aviv.”
She noticed he was standing up straight. His crooked teenager gait was almost gone.
“By the way, can you disconnect the game for me? For good.”
His freckles reddened again.
Disconnect the game? For good?
The nerve endings from her fingers to her toes became a fizzle of electricity.
“What, er, wait a sec, disconnect? I don’t understand,” she stammered. “But isn’t Golden Unicorn just about to advance to the next level, and what will you say to Mohamad?”
He shot her a look like she’d been found out peeping at his high school matriculation results without his permission.
“Mum, I gotta go. Gonna be late.”
He kissed and hugged her goodbye.
She made herself a cup of coffee and made her way up to Ben’s bedroom. She battled her way inside, fighting his army jacket which hung behind the door, making it impossible to open it all the way. She looked around like it was the first time she’d ever been in there—a wardrobe, two shelves and a table packed with military and adolescent jumble; hard helmet, shoelaces, rubber bands for the bottoms of his trousers; Axe black, single bullets, Go-Pro equipment, Minocycline powder against trench foot; gloves; water bottle, Blue-Day caffeine drink; pro Whey protein (chocolate flavoured); shot glasses, sunglasses, black watch-strap, Kindle; red Frisbee, sun cream, foot cream, Polo aftershave; Jungle Speed in a red and black striped bag; Lederman knife.
Now she sat in his chair and couldn’t take her eyes off the coffee marks that were already starting to dry.
She logged onto the game.
Longbeard and the rest of Ben’s players were still, motionless on screen.
She reconnected them.
One by one she brought them back to life, their capes flying and collecting receptacles spraying rays of golden light as she collected points.
She checked the characters’ magic boxes and battery status.
She had never actually played Ben’s game before. She’d only been an observer, a technician, simply allowing the characters to play for hours to collect AFK points.
She thought about the games he used to play, guns blasting, silver-white lines of fire, jerky movements, and an assault to the eyes. But these games were different. The characters hovered above the ground with arms outstretched.
She slumped back in the chair. Her sleeve soaked the tears that soaked her cheeks as she filled each character up, one by one.
Bursting with life once more, she watched as a deck of cards whizzed around, taking the shape of a lofty tower.
Sevet Swingfellow stood tall, his gun pointed down collecting, and Wondering Wizard’s digital pet sat close. But it was Tyrone Longbeard, linked up with Linden Lightbinder, who now offered his arm.
His hand beckoned.
Jenny was sure it was directed right at her.
All the other characters looked on, forming a circle around the tower and the two great wizards.
Jenny gazed at Longbeard’s repetitive hand movement, an almost hypnotic “come hither” heightened by his cape of swirling aces and spinning spades.
Joanie R. Elian writes content by day, stories and poems by night. She is also a publisher’s reader, evaluating new books in English for translation into Hebrew. With an MA in English Literature, she graduated from the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Graduate Program at Bar Ilan University in 2018. Her pieces appear in The Times of Israel, Rain Taxi, iiii.com and TDS — The Dark Sire. She is currently seeking representation for her debut novel Coming Home. Born in the U.K., she now lives on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, close to her five wonderful children and seven glorious grandchildren.