Written: November 15th, 2007, 11:32 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
Chapter III - Language
People say that the World Trade Center bombings changed the world, instantly transmogrified it into an unwinnable and unlosable battle between the Western World and people willing to do anything to tear that world asunder. Entire societies found the event so awe-inspiring, so catastrophic, that they referred to the event only by the date on which is happened, as if nothing of import had ever happened or could ever happen in the future on that date. The eleventh of September was stamped, used up, in the same way that Pearl Harbor had been used up. The brand on it had become so overwhelmingly powerful that it had overtaken the actual thing. There is no eleventh of September any longer that does not, in some way, invoke the bombing. And, there is no Pearl Harbor anymore that does not, in some way, invoke the attack. History slowly comes to own larger and larger fragments of our lives, until all that remains are coalescing and overlapping pieces of cultural and personal memory. And, though slowly filling up one's brain with memories and associations with the past is a natural part of aging, losing 1/365 of your life to a single cultural term because of a society-wide lack of creativity is, at the very least, unfortunate.
And, in the end, despite all the fright and the expectations of immanent attacks, and despite the millions who had been personally affected by the attack, the largest effect on Orr was the loss of a day of normalcy in his life every year from the age of seventeen onward, a day that happened to be his birthday. And, even as he was sent to the office to a phone call from his mother, who screamed that his sister was all right and that she loved him desperately and that she had to go make more calls, even as he spent the day watching the news in each of his classes, and as he came home to see his 17th birthday party morph into a grim news marathon, even as he sat, tense, not knowing what kind of future he was entering, the last fraction of a child in him cursed history for having usurped a day that should have belonged to him. And, he knew, his dream of an Orr Wazkowitz Day celebrating his life and work was no longer feasible even in the magical world of his ideal future.
He, Tom, Kelly, Arthur, Toff, Tomer, Orr's parents, and five or six other students with whom Orr had become friends over the past few years, sat in the living room, watching television, and once in a great while, reluctantly grabbing a slice of pizza, looking around (mostly at Orr's parents) afraid of having made a faux pas. The news was boring. Everything to say had already been said. Every image to see had already been shown. Many times. But, watching television, steeping oneself in as much news as possible, seemed required of everybody. This is what people do during a tragedy; they stand vigil, and they wait. But, in every person sitting their, parents included, a little child, now long repressed, wanted nothing more than to go outside to play games, or read a novel, or at least watch something else, but all of them, Orr included, felt the same useless obligation to sit and feel glum.
Most of the children left right after dinner; they had planned to stay until late into the night, but those who could not yet drive had their parents surprise them by arriving early, and those who could had parents call and demand them home early. Only Tom, with his casual precision managed to convince his mother to let him stay. After the rest had left, she called Orr's house and asked to speak to Tom. Orr's mother answered, called for Tom, and then went with Orr's father into their bedroom, presumably to continue watching and consoling themselves in isolation.
Orr overheard Tom say, "Hi, Mom..."
And then, "Okay, yeah, I mean, all things considered..."
And then, "Yeah, just watching T.V., I guess..."
And then, "Oh, yeah, well, the thing is..."
And then, "No, I know, but Orr..."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "But, today is Orr's birthday, and..."
And then, "I know, Mom."
And then, "But, think of how it must be for him..."
And then, "I don't think so, but still..."
And then, "Yeah, I mean, he only lost his birthday, but that's more than any of us lost."
And then, "Yeah, I'll be home tomorrow after school."
And then, "I love you too, Mom. Bye."
He came back into the living room, smiling for the first time that anybody, perhaps in the whole United States, had smiled since the early morning. Orr couldn't help but return the smile.
Tom said, "Mind if we turn this off and play some Honor Fighter?"
Not only did Orr not mind, but the thought of abandoning the television for virtual and simplistic worlds flushed him with the first pleasures of the day. But, the adult in him kept his smile minimal as he nodded, fished the couch for the remote, and on finding it, let it hang loosely in his hand for a few seconds. The reporters were showing the video of planes exploding into buildings again, and the ticker below was reporting death toll estimates.
He turned it off.
He said, "Okay, let's go!"
And, off they went, Orr dragging an extra chair behind him, to wait patiently for the computer to slowly boot, and then hunch over it for hours, each reserving a half of the keyboard to control their character. Honor Fighter is a game, needless to say, of honor and fighting. Players begin by choosing a fighter class, the default being, obviously, fighter, but other options existed, including archer, wizard, thief, and orc. Each character looked just about the same, a pink glob of pixels, but the archers had arrows pointing out of their glob, and orcs were a bit bigger, and thieves were dark green, and so forth. The players were all on a team, alone, against ever-growing hordes of other pink pixel globs, and red pixel globs, and blue pixel globs. The environment would change, depending on the level, but they were largely light-green expanses of (one might assume) lush grass on which the epic battles of two against ten, then thirty, then eight, and eventually five-hundred would take place. And, as with all old mass-battle games, the fights would proceed, one after another, only on very rare occasion accompanied by some dialogue or plot exposition to explain, first, why thousands of nameless soldiers were so obsessed with the destruction of two measly people who appeared to just be on a very long stroll, and second, why these two god-like people, who could destroy entire armies without so much as breaking a single sweat pixel, were so set on taking a stroll through the army-infested grasslands instead of, say, ending world hunger, or battling other gods for the privilege of ruling over all of humanity.
The pleasures of non-shareware, non-ancient games were largely unknown in Orr's household. Only Arthur kept up with the latest video game consoles, with their non-glob characters, their detailed storylines, and their well-crafted gameplay. The rest found excessive entertainment in being the god-like archer and thief (or orc and fighter), slowly becoming more and more invincible, yet never in any real danger of losing. And, this was the real difference between the regular nerds like Tom and Orr, and the hardcore gamer like Arthur: Arthur wanted challenges in games, so that as he played and had fun, he also improved his abilities and was eventually able to overcome those challenges. Online gaming, even in its humble roots in games like tetris, is the epitome of this idea, because a computer can almost always eventually be defeated (unless it's playing checkers or Othello), by learning the algorithm it follows, and the computers in games are always possible to defeat so that the game is not impossible, but other players, with their self-modifying neural pathways, always present new, and sometimes undefeatable, challenges. For Tom and Orr, on the other hand, as non-gamers on the periphery of the gamer subculture, the most interesting challenges were mathematical and engineering-related challenges, so a game was a way of passing time and socializing with friends, like watching a movie, but more intellectually and physically invigorating. And, like watching a movie, when playing the game became too difficult, or started to take too much time, they abandoned it.
So, while Arthur stayed home and perfected his sniping on 007 Golden Eye, so that, whenever any of his friends came over, they no longer wanted to play it with him, Tom and Orr replayed the same game they had beaten dozens of times before, and within two hours had defeated it again, stretched their sore backs, and turned the computer off to go to bed.
As they ambled upstairs, they smiled and chatted with each other about this or that deft arching or stabbing, and the rest of the world was nothing but a giant and formless glob.
Orr said, "That has got to be the fastest we've ever beaten it." He always said something like this, though it was rarely true.
Tom said, "Yeah, I still can't believe how quickly you got to level 10! Did you just not get hit by anything?"
Orr said, "Yeah, I guess not... I learned invisibility pretty quickly. I guess that's the trick."
Tom said, "Must be, but still... good job!"
Orr said, "Thanks, and you too!"
Tom grinned, "My aim's starting to improve a bit."
Orr said, "Starting?! You're a crack shot." This was not true. As Orr roamed around stabbing people through his invisibility, Tom would find himself in one sticky situation after another as his arrows only managed to draw attention. Their team was, however, successful; as Tom ran away, the enemies would be distracted and could easily be picked off by Orr. This situation did not seem to bother Tom very much because, as soon as he was not being chased by anybody any longer, he would, once again, try unsuccessfully to hit an enemy from amidst the mass, only to have the mass swarm after him.
The two friends flossed and brushed in comfortable silence, mulling over their relative successes.
Then, they took turns using the restroom, and Orr changed into his pajamas. They set up two sets of sheets on the floor, as per custom (they had argued so many times about who should sleep on the bed, each offering the privilege to the other, that they eventually agreed to just both sleep on the floor and be done with it), rummaged through the closet for blankets, and Orr took the one pillow (Tom claimed not to need one). Then, they turned off the light, and lay down to go to sleep.
As per custom, Orr said, "Good night."
But, not as per custom, Tom said, "You're a good friend, Orr."
Orr said, "You are too, Tom."
Tom said, "I'm sorry that your birthday was so chaotic."
Orr said, "It's okay. I still had fun." Saying it sounded strange, as the memories of the day returned to him from their brief slumber in his long-term memory, so he continued, "I mean, not fun... It was... It was good to have you here." This was not what he meant.
Tom said, "It was good to be here. And, despite the day, I did have some fun."
Orr said, "Yeah... yeah... I mean, I did too. I just meant, you know, after a day like this..." He sighed in the darkness.
Tom said, "Yeah. I guess it's kind of insensitive to talk about fun with so many people dead and so many others sad and afraid."
Orr said, "Yeah. Right. Exactly."
Neither spoke for some time. Someone creaked downstairs and roamed around the kitchen for a while, then creaked back up.
But, just when Orr, thinking the conversation had dried up, was about to say "good night" again, Tom started again.
Tom said, "It's just... don't that many people die all the time? Aren't that many people sad all the time?"
Orr said, "Yeah, but this is different."
Tom said, "It is?"