It Was Only A Game

I have an addictive personality. It can be a problem. Thankfully I manage to channel it in things that aren’t, on their own, terrible for you.

In particular, video games.

Not the kind you play on your own, but the co-ops and the multiplayers and the MMOs. The social stuff. It’s how I make friends. I’m not very good at them, but that’s part of the fun. While I’ll play pretty much anything as long as I can do it with a crew, my favorites are in the horror genre. I played Left 4 Dead and its sequel to absolute death, tried my hand at just about every crappy Slenderman title, and scoured Steam for all the hidden horror gems I could force my pals to play with me.

They were good sports about it. Mostly.

Until recently.

I came across a game with a pretty simple concept: you play a ghost hunter going into houses to try and discover what’s haunting them. I don’t want to say the name, but if you play, you’ll probably know it. It sounded right up my alley so I bought copies for a few of my friends and we played a few rounds. It was a lot of waiting, a lot of repetitive questions and room wandering, hoping for a sign from beyond.

They got bored fairly quickly, said it was too slow.

But I was hooked.

Suddenly all I wanted to do was play this stupid, simple game that should’ve stopped being scary after the first couple of runs, and if they weren’t going to play with me, I had to find people who would. People who were as obsessed with it as I was.

I found one on Twitter. He went by Blink and responded to a post I made about needing folks to co-op with. He seemed nice enough, so we added each other and, a few days later, played our first game together.

It lasted four hours.

I hardly noticed how much time I’d sunk into it. I’d have kept going if Blink, across the ocean and hours ahead of me, didn’t say he had to go to bed. I logged out too after realizing I’d neglected pretty much everything I actually needed to get done in favor of playing.

Blink was back on the next day and when I got his invite to join him in game, I immediately joined him, housework be damned.

He picked a farmhouse map, one I hated and loved for its creepy atmosphere, and we gathered up our equipment to begin the hunt. We set up cameras, dropped crucifixes, burned smudge sticks, and every few minutes one of us would call out for a sign or ask the ghost to appear.

“Carla Roberts, are you here?”

“Can you turn on a light?”

“Hey, baby, show us your booOoOoOOobs!”

It went quickly, same with the next round, and the next and the next, until another half day was gone.

It probably would’ve been fine if we’d left it at that. A couple days spent playing with the shiny new toy and then moving on. But Blink had the same kind of addictive behavior as I did, and we kept going back for more.

“Spirit, are you here?”

“Give us a sign!”

“Come on, ghostie, show yourself!”

The in-game lights would flicker. The hunters became the hunted. We’d giggle and hide or die and then run away. Over and over and over again.

It continued every day for a few weeks.

My other friends made fun of me for how deeply immersed I’d become in the game, but I didn’t care. Blink and I were having fun.

It was only supposed to be fun.

We started another game as usual. He was carrying in equipment while I swept the rooms with an EMF reader, trying to locate where the ghost was. It was being particularly stubborn, not setting off the reader or lowering the temperatures.

When Blink joined me inside, I finally said, “Elizabeth Gates, are you here?”

An all too real crash from the kitchen behind me almost sent me jumping out of my skin with a scream. I spun in my chair, accidentally pulling my headset from the pc tower as I did, and faced the kitchen door. Staring into the darkened room made me really regret my habit of playing with the lights off. It was still and quiet again, but it still took me a long moment to convince myself to get up, and longer still to actually run for the light switch.

A glass I’d left drying on the counter was spread in pieces across the linoleum floor.

My heart thudded noisily in my ears as I gazed down at the shards, mind racing at how it had gone over the edge.

A short lived mystery when my cat, Goggles, mewed from his hiding spot atop the fridge.

I couldn’t help laughing as I scolded him, feeling relieved and stupid for being relieved at the same time. Of course it had just been Goggles. I swept up his mess and hurried back to my computer to apologize to Blink for my disappearance. He mocked the high pitched yelp I’d made before going silent, I told him he was a jackass, and we continued.

“Give us a sign.”

“I’m calling upon you, spirit. Are you here?”

“Do something, ghost!”

After we finally wrapped up, I shut down my computer and trudged to my bathroom to get ready for bed.

“Ugh, Goggles!”

The cup holding my makeup brushes had been knocked over, spilling them across the counter. My toothbrush was on the floor, along with my bath towel and comb. I grumbled as I picked up my things, assuming he’d been in hot pursuit of a fly, and got ready for bed.

Goggles was curled up in a tiny ball on my pillow when I got out, all tuckered out from a destructive evening.

The next night found me right back in front of my computer, ghost hunting once again with Blink. We were creeping through a high school, following the distant ringing of a phone from room to room.

“Come on, you ghosty bitch,” I muttered to ease my nerves, “where are you?”

A door creaked in my apartment.

I brushed it off, assuming Goggles was on the move, and focused on the game. Blink was taunting the ghost, asking it to touch his butt if it was in the room with us.

I laughed and told it to come find us, we were waiting.

Something thudded heavily from the hallway leading to my bedroom.

I straightened in my seat, telling Blink to be quiet, and pushed my headset back to listen intently.

My ears rang with the hush of my apartment.

“My cat again,” I decided at last, and we laughed off my game-induced twitchiness.

But as soon as I called for the ghost again, I heard it.

Another thump, this one slightly closer.

“Hold on.”

I removed my headset completely that time and leaned back to peer down the short hallway, where the doors to the two bedrooms and bathrooms stood open. The glare from my monitor hardly reached around the corner, which only made it seem that much darker.

There was no sign of Goggles.

I turned back to my computer with a shake of my head, scoffing at myself.

THUMP

THUMP

THUMP

Footsteps, hard and heavy, erupted from the end of my hall, stomping quickly toward me. I shrieked and leapt for my desk lamp, switching it on just as the steps were about to reach the living room where I was gaming.

They stopped as abruptly as they’d begun.

Goggles mewled pathetically from the kitchen, crying for me to come get him, as he always did when he was scared. I ran to find him tucked safely on the fridge again, and it took a lot of coaxing from a chair to get him to come to me. I held him close, trying to make sense of what I’d just heard while stroking his fur.

Eventually, after I could breathe again and Goggles’ whines had turned to purrs, I settled on it having been my upstairs neighbors tromping around. It was the simple answer, one I could deal with.

As long as I didn’t think about how I’d felt the floor shaking beneath my feet with each step, it made sense.

I told Blink I had to go and logged off. When I could finally bring myself to go down the hallway for bed, it was with every light in the apartment still on.

Daytime makes it easier to shrug off any scares from the night before. With the sun shining through the front windows, I could make myself believe it really had just been loud neighbors compounded by already frazzled nerves.

So assured, I went to take a shower.

The water warmed quickly and I threw my towel over the glass partition before undressing. I slid open the door and stepped in, fingers lingering on its edge to close it again behind me. As I started to pull it, the door flew forward, slamming my fingertips between it and the metal frame.

I screamed and yanked my hand free, cradling it to my chest. Blood was already pooling beneath my first two nails in dark circles and red swelling had begun. I shut off the water and leapt from the shower, dripping freely on the floor, and fished through my medicine cabinet for bandaids. After I wrapped my fingers, I clutched the counter’s edge with my uninjured hand, breathing ragged with fear and pain, and it was only then I noticed the mirror. In the fog left from the shower’s heat, two words had been scrawled.

I’m here

I stumbled backwards out of the bathroom, slamming the door, but as soon as I released its handle, it started to turn again of its own accord.

From inside the bathroom, a deep voice began to hum.

There was no thinking. No coming up with excuses. Only the desperate need to hide. I threw myself to the floor and scrambled hurriedly beneath my bed, where I lay on my stomach with both hands pressed over my mouth.

The door creaked open, and those same heavy steps emerged, each one slow and deliberate, but there was no foot to match them to.

No person at all.

I slithered back as far as I could to get away from the sound, erratic breathing muffled, but threatening to turn to a scream.

The thumping paused beside my bed.

A screeching yowl filled the room, drowning out the humming. I caught sight of Goggles’ paws in bedroom doorway, swiping at empty air. He made that terrible noise again and darted off, and after him, as if running, went the steps.

“No!” I couldn’t stop myself from shouting and hauled myself out into the open.

The apartment seemed alive with breaking glass, and the scrape of sliding furniture across the floor. Still naked and with my hurt hand held to my chest, I skid into the hall.

All activity suddenly stopped.

There was a knock on the front door.

My neighbor wasn’t thrilled when I launched myself at her, screaming about my cat and a ghost. She only got me back inside with promises that it just had to be long enough to dress and find Goggles. While she searched, I grabbed whatever clothes I found first and threw them on, adding a few more to a suitcase before joining her.

We discovered Goggles had wedged himself between the wall and the bed of the guest room. It was such a tight spot we had to pull the bed away to grab him. I gave him a hasty examination, determined he was traumatized, but fine, and placed him in his car carrier.

My neighbor asked what had happened, why were my dishes all over and my tables overturned. Was I ok? I ushered her out, cat and suitcase in tow, and told her quite truly, “No.”

Blink didn’t believe me when I logged on to Steam from my phone in a hotel later that night. He said I was fucking with him. My only response was to just delete the game.

I did. I knew I’d never play it again, or go back to my apartment. I offered to pay for a priest or rabbi or whatever to bless it and broke my lease. Staying wasn’t an option.

It was only supposed to be a game, calling to spirits, taunting them into action. I realize now, though, that those kinds of invitations shouldn’t be spoken lightly. You never know what you’re calling to.

I realize now, the game wasn’t the only thing listening.

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