My friends don’t consider me a “real gamer.” Mostly because I’m a girl, and even though we’re in an era that’s trying to strip away gender stereotypes, they still believe that a young lady like me should be spending all of her time at Sephora, sampling lipsticks.
It might be true that I’m a sucker for Maybelline and like to strut my stuff in skirts, but I’m just as obsessed with video games as any boy I’ve ever met. When I was little, I played Spyro on a shitty screen that turned green whenever I bumped into it, and now that I’m in college, I play Bloodborne on a screen so big that it takes up half the wall. It goes without saying that I own the PS4, the Xbox One, the 3DS, and all of their earlier models.
But the game that turned my life into a complete shit storm was only available on one platform. Microsoft Windows. So I booted up my computer, popped the disc inside, and…
Hold on. Let me rewind a bit. The disc. It’s called Hardcore Dead Harvest. A low-quality point and click adventure game that revolves around zombies. Everything revolves around zombies now. I didn’t think I’d experience anything that hadn’t been done a million times before, but you see, I wanted to impress my friends. Stupid, I know, but my reputation matters to me.
Long story short: The guys I hung out with always went on and on about HDH and how no one could get their hands on a copy of it. Apparently it was tested out by a focus group and everything went well. But after the lead game designer let his kid try it out, that kid committed suicide. Every other kid that tried the game did the same. They were all in their teens. Anyone older than that was safe. At least, that’s what the bullshit legend said.
I was only nineteen at the time, but I wanted to prove my friends wrong about how impossible the game was to apprehend, so after a few months of searching through blogs and forums and even portions of the dark web, I had my very own copy.
“Hardcore Dead Harvest” was written on the case in red bubble letters, blood leaking out from the bottom of them. Underneath that, there was a picture of a haystack with zombie arms and legs poking out from different spots. A blonde with a machete, a cowboy hat, and super short shorts stood next to it. Pretty unimpressive cover art, if you ask me.
After I inserted the disc, right when a popup appeared on the middle of my screen, my cell phone rang, chirping out the music that played at the Pokémon Center. I had to wait for the game to load anyway, so I clicked a few buttons on my laptop and then answered the call.
“Guess what I’m about to do?” I said to Jeremy after we exchanged our greetings. Tiny thing I forgot to mention: One of those asshole guys who doesn’t consider me a real gamer? Yeah, I have a huge crush on him. Borderline obsessive, if you ask my little brother. But he’s only sixteen, so what the hell does he know?
“I know what you’re about to do. You’re about to head to your door, walk outside, and hop in my car,” Jeremy said in that sexy voice of his. “I’m in the driveway. We’re seeing the new Conjuring. Get a move on.”
“Who else is coming?”
“Just you. I can’t take Andy and Allen’s nonstop commentary, and Brad is a pussy. No point in asking him.”
Only the two of us? Was that a date? Was that a lame attempt to ask me on a date? I needed to get changed. Do my hair. Fix my chipped nails. Of course, I didn’t have time for any of that nonsense with him sitting outside, so I just pushed my hair into a pony and threw a cute jacket over my outfit.
I don’t think I need to explain why I completely forgot about the game. Left it running on my laptop. The laptop that I had sitting in the middle of the kitchen table, open for anyone to see.
By far, the worst mistake of my life.
Three hours later, after sitting through the movie and grabbing a beer at a nearby bar, we were about to kiss. It was like one of those fucking TV moments when your favorite couple has their lips inches away from each other and then the phone plays a fun little jingle to cockblock them. Except this time, it was the fucking Pokémon Center music.
We didn’t swap spit, but I still got Jeremy’s saliva on me when he burst out laughing. “Shit,” he said. “I never heard your ringtone before. That’s great. Where’d you download that?”
I was planning on pressing my phone’s mute button, ignoring the call and trying to fix the mood that was so quickly ruined, but then I realized who was on the other line. My father. My father, who texted me, even when he found out he had cancer. Even when he found out he was in remission. If he was calling, it was either life or death or an accidental butt dial. I had to answer it.
When I did, all he said was, “Your brother is gone.”
“What, he snuck out again? Probably with that Stacy girl. Let me call him quick. He trusts me more than he—“
“He’s gone, Harley.”
He put an emphasis on “gone” this time. Gone, as in a permanent state of dismissal. Gone, as in never coming back.
When I got home, my laptop was still open. When I got home, the screen read: “YOU WIN!” When I got home, my baby brother was hanging from his closet by a belt.
I didn’t tell you much about my brother, but I’ll tell you now. He was a sweetheart. He was the kid who beat up his best friend for yanking some stranger’s bra strap. He was the kid who told me he’d clean the dishes if I wanted to mow the lawn, because he thought it was bullshit that our parents chose our chores based on our gender. He was also the kid who always had a girlfriend, but you knew he’d use a condom and go down on her as often as he could. Gross, talking about my brother like that, but it was true. He treated women right. Treated everyone right.
He was happy. Sometimes, you think a person is happy when they’re dying inside, but that wasn’t the case. I was close with my brother. I knew for a fact that he loved life. And I knew for a fact he played that fucking game.
I stayed away from it for a while. Put the disc back in its case and shoved it underneath my mattress, where no one would find it. After months of mourning, of pushing people away so I could mope about causing the death of my brother (without actually admitting it to anyone), I invited Jeremy over.
It wasn’t really a date. It was more of a loophole. I didn’t want to play the game, didn’t want to risk killing myself and taking away my parents’ only other child. But Jeremy was a few years older than me, in his 20s. I figured he would be able to play the game without the curse impacting him. And that I could just watch without it impacting me.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had this thing? Where they hell did you find it?” he asked once he saw the title screen on the laptop balancing on my thighs. His arm was pressed up against mine, trying to share the space on my tiny bed, but our closeness barely registered. All I could think about was my brother.
“I was going to mention it on our… When we went to the movies that night. But I guess I didn’t think of it.”
“Right.” He didn’t ask any more questions. He knew that was the night my brother passed, so he must not have wanted to stir up any bad memories. Unless… I wonder if he put two and two together. Connected the myth to my reality.
Either way, he kept quiet as the main character stepped onto the screen, surrounded by farmland. There was only one zombie in the distance, wobbling after a horse. I’d done a lot of research on the game during the months it took me to find it. And I swear, that one zombie looked just like the lead game designer’s kid. The one who slashed his own throat. I supposed his dad used him as inspiration.
Jeremy didn’t seem to notice it, or didn’t seem to care. He just clicked on different areas of the screen to pick up weapons and tools and medication. Then he clicked on humans to have corny conversations about how horrible the apocalypse was. Then he clicked on zombies to murder them with the weapons he’d picked up earlier. Click, click, click. Boring as shit.
That is, until I saw him. On the ground, leaning his head against a pig trough. His basketball jersey was ripped and his face was bruised, but he was there. That was him.
That was my brother.
“Harley,” he said between grunts and groans. I swear he looked right at me. “You can still come with me. You can still come with me.”
I wanted to answer him, to call out and question him, but the screen swirled, like a whirlpool of pixels. Blues and greens and purples swam together, clockwise and then counterclockwise. When the motion stopped, I felt itchy. Not physically. Spiritually. Like I wasn’t in the right skin. Like I needed to escape.
It was then when I realized Jeremy had stopped clicking to put a hand on my arm. I thought he was as freaked out as I was, trying to calm me down from the hypnotic glitch that filled the screen, but then I realized he was only trying to figure out why I was crying.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he kept saying after I explained what had happened.
He couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t see it. He thought I was crazy. I probably was.
Crazy enough to spend hours and hundreds of dollars on a game to impress a boy.
Crazy enough to believe that the stupid game was the reason my baby brother had hung himself.
Crazy enough to grab a knife, sharpen it up, and join him in another world.