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Good old childhood

My therapist asked me to start writing a journal, or maybe a recollection of past events, whatever I thought was best. A few years ago I would’ve thought that writing down my feelings and thoughts was pointless, as would be seeing a therapist in the first place. I thought I got a handle on things on my own, you know, doing the macho act of not asking for outside help.

I guess things changed when I saw an old friend a month ago, and every explanation and excuse I had come up with and made into my personal reality was thrown out the window. There was a sense of vindication after I left that friend’s house, but with it came a dreaded truth. I’ve never told this story to anyone outside of my childhood friends, and through my accounts to the local police, who had me repeat it, over and over. But only one of us was actually there when it happened, the only one who really saw it.

I’ve never liked talking about myself, but Dr. Strauss said that doing so would be cathartic, a release that I needed to have for any chance at further progression. Before I started my sessions, I would’ve never bothered. It was only recently that I put things together and accepted the facts of that day.

It was fifteen years ago, the late summer of 1998. I had just graduated middle school and was glad to be getting out of that hellhole, as were a few of my other friends. We didn’t all go to the same school or were in the same grade, but we all lived in the same neighborhood. It was a nice enough place not far from the water’s ports and harbors in Pensacola, Florida, a city tucked in the northwest of the state, right by the Alabama and Georgia borders.

As you might imagine, summer was hot and muggy, and the town didn’t have too many attractions for kids, so we spent a lot of our time playing video games or going outside to look for something to do, often inventing sports or stupid brutish games – we were a group of six boys when we all got together.

Our parents all knew each other for the most part, and despite a few rivalries and some fights amongst us over the years, we got along pretty well, all growing up within a mile of one another.

I don’t want to say too much about them, because we’ve all broken apart over the years and I don’t know where we’ve all ended up, or how we’ve dealt with what happened. The last thing I’d want to do is have this story somehow go public and get big or something, and then some reporter goes out tracking us down and opening up old wounds that some of us might’ve healed by now.

Anyway, here are their first names and some overly generalized descriptions of their personalities. Just, please remember that these were actual people, not cartoon characters, when whatever douchebag gets a hold of this journal and decides to make a TV movie out of it.

I guess I’ve become a little paranoid over the years.

First, there’s me, Justin. You’ll find out enough about me through this story so I won’t bother sharing anything about myself here.

Brian was our group’s only black kid, and he was always fairly mellow, just kind of followed us around wherever with few hesitations. I didn’t know his parents well but they must’ve raised him something proper. The few times we went out to be little teenage bastards, he would always only watch us, never knocking over garbage cans or vandalizing or anything – not that any of that was ever my idea.

No, those boredom-killing brain farts were strictly externalized from Devin. He looked like a bully, but he was never actually mean to anyone, as bossy as he could be. He was the biggest of the group but not terribly overweight. I think he must’ve had ADHD growing up and he was always getting into trouble, often dragging us right down with him.

Gilbert – I swear to God that was his name, and yes, he caught a lot of flak for it – was the nerdy one, the only kid with glasses. He was damn smart, but overly technical for his age. It’s a miracle he never got socked by any of us after he finished listening to one of our conversations and then interjected some facts with an intake of mucus followed by a raised index finger and an annoying, “Actually…” But again, he was smart, and creative, and could make up some good jokes on the fly because of it.

Then we have the fraternal twins, Peter and Nick. Not terribly interesting names, but at least their parents decided to not be asshats and give them something cute and stupid like “Bobby and Robby.” They looked only a little alike and Peter was always about an inch taller than his brother. They both had dirty blond hair and matching blue eyes, but that was where the similarities ended. Peter was energetic and into sports, and was a bit of a loudmouth. Nick was pretty quiet, and he never seemed to be very good at anything we tried – other than video games. He could kick our collective asses in most any genre.

I was always a casual gamer, preferring to spend my time outside and only rent games from the nearby Video Library (all gone now), but I did have several systems. The one among us subscribed to several gaming magazines, Nick was typically the kid to introduce us to the latest hot title.

From the day it came out and we all went to the twins’ house to play it, we had all been addicted for the past year to Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. It was real hot shit back then, the talk of the class’s guys whenever the topic of video games came up. Playing it automatically made you cool.

The game led to many late night sleepovers, sometimes lasting until the first morning light in the summer. We played other things, of course, mostly Mortal Kombat and Mario Kart, but the epic James Bond shooter was the crown jewel. Four-player games were awesome, ten minutes of shooting each other in the face and being blown up with mines and rocket launchers. The two lowest scoring players would trade with the two spectators of the previous game. And those watching for a round would usually go scrounge for soda and snacks.

They were good times for us, and sharing the game together put a few inventive thoughts into my mind for a new game of our own. We still had to do something during the daylight hours that we would rather spend outside.

After I threw out the idea of a real life first person shooter, we quickly came up with the idea of a game simply called “Guns.” The name really showed how creative we could be.

It started as an advanced game of hide and seek. After a few free-for-all rounds, we found splitting into two or sometimes even three teams was more fun. This sounds kind of lame, I know, but the game’s origins had us running and hiding and setting up ambushes along the three main blocks of the neighborhood. The goal was to sneak up on someone, point your hand out in the shape of a gun, and yell “BANG!” before the other guy could react. Then he was dead and had to go wait in the KIA zone. Sometimes, though, we “captured” them instead and had him turn on his team.

Going indoors was against the rules, as was going onto anyone else’s property other than our own yards. Still, the neighborhood provided a fun landscape. Cars, fences, trees, and bushes all became barricades. Sometimes we’d even climb into the branches to hide, waiting for our prey to get close – since you could contest a distant “hit” as a miss, the closer you could fire, the more likely the other kid is to admit their death. And hiding was as important as sneaking around. The back of Brian’s dad’s pickup truck was a particularly good place to hide. Many lives were claimed in his driveway.

To keep things fresh, the game evolved quickly. Walkie-talkies were soon used to let teams separate and keep in communication with one another. We made up more pretend weapons than just hand pistols, like the long-range arm rifle and invisible rapid-fire machine gun. But it was dawning on us how ridiculous it was starting to look, especially to the passerby jogger or dog-walker, the “civilians” we shared the neighborhood with.

So we started trying other guns, but nothing worked quite as well as our simple phantom weapons. Water guns were nice on hot days, and we once tried out water balloons as grenades (if the splash hit you, you were dead), but the range was of course poor. And if you forgot to pump it, you’d just end up with a sad little trickle of water that couldn’t reach your target – after which they’d spray you back amid a laugh or two. It was kind of cool finding sources of water around the blocks for refills, though. Ammo caches.

The one time we tried NERF guns ended in resounding failure. Not only was their range also poor, but we lost half the darts we fired. Like water guns, these were toys meant for running around like an idiot in the backyard. That wasn’t what we wanted. We liked the thrill of the hunt, the team play, the ambushes, the double-crosses, the crushing defeat, the strategy! We had to perfect our game somehow, with something better.

I should mention that Nick and I took the whole thing a little more seriously than the others. If having Gilbert on your team gave you a strategist, Devin provided you with a fearless berserker, Brian a patient soldier who could hide for long periods of time, and Peter your jack-of-trades grunt, then Nick and I, who were average at best, wanted a different role.

We were the game masters. We set the rules, and began to map out entire “levels” within the neighborhood, complete with boundaries. A few times, we even hid little flags around that if held, gave you power-ups like a second life or ten seconds of invincibility once you held it up and declared it, letting someone slip past enemy fire unharmed.

Guns filled up much of our summer. It was like we were programmers and beta testers to a virtual reality game. But it still lacked a solid set of armaments. We didn’t need to get too technical and introduce things like having to reload, but we did want something that had a long, precise range that would not only bring out our true individual skills, but also get rid of the time-wasting “nuh-huh, you didn’t hit me!” arguments resulting from fired, invisible “BANG!” bullets.

On my birthday, we made a reservation for the Fun Center, where I sometimes played mini-golf with my parents. It was a pretty cool place with arcade machines, prizes, and even a go-kart track. I think a lot of kids have grown up near and frequented similar venues. Last time I was there, I realized that they had a laser tag arena. That was something we had to try.

I had also investigated paintball by this point, but I figured that we were a bit young for it, and I didn’t like the idea of having only some boring backwoods to play in, or strapping on all that gear. I also feared the pain that would come from being hit – though I’m sure my stupid childish fear was exaggerated, of course. On top of that, you had to pay to play. We liked our freedom to play for however long we wanted in our neighborhood, as crappy as our “gear” was.

But I figured laser tag was worth a try, and it wasn’t that costly. I walked out of our fifteen-minute session disappointed. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but I expected much more. The indoor arena was made up of crappy plywood forts and was lit with black lights and glowing star stickers. The obnoxiously loud techno music really removed the element of strategy, since we couldn’t hear ourselves talk, much less listen into our enemies’ footsteps in the small arena.

Still, it did introduce me to laser guns. The few times anyone managed to score a hit, their vest lit up and buzzed loudly. The guns even made realistic sounds and felt, well, real in our young teenage hands. We may of spent most of our time in the chamber running around like idiots trying to learn how to play, but my heart was still pumping throughout the game! What was the most awesome was just how accurate the things were, and the very idea of shooting an invisible light at a target across the room and hitting them instantly and assuredly. This was just mind-blowingly cool for us.

Now would be a good time to emphasize that none of us were gun nuts. I don’t think any of our parents even owned any. And out the six of us, only Gilbert – somewhat ironically, I guess you could call it – joined the military, though I don’t think it was in a position where he actually had to hold a weapon. It was just a phase for us, another “cool thing” that would’ve run its course eventually. However long Guns might’ve fulfilled our needs, we knew it was always going to be fun while it lasted.

I was an only kid (the other five all had at least one sibling), and that meant that I relied on my friends for human contact and my parents spoiled me, Dad especially. I wasn’t some needy little tool who had to have the newest thing and a lot of it – I could restrain myself – but it always seemed that when the time came that I did ask for something, my dad would give it to me in spades, like no expense was too great and he was always eager to please.

I wanted my own set of laser guns to surprise the guys with. So, one Friday night, we headed out to Target to see what we could find. It took some looking in their big old toy section, since I wasn’t sure what aisle the guns would be in, but sure enough, they had what I was looking for in stock. On the shelves on the back wall past the aisle with Micro Machines (I miss those things, as I used to collect them) was a brightly colored box with some stupid-happy boys on it, one of them holding a comically oversized gun, the other smiling idiotically as he was shot in the back. I was already sold.

The toys were called “LASER CHALLENGE” and were expensive, maybe $40 each, but Dad was happy that I was so earnestly excited about the things. I didn’t even know they existed before we went looking, figuring that laser tag guns might’ve been restricted to places like the Fun Center. He bought four sets, each of us carrying two boxes up to checkout. The problem was that they had only four in stock; four groups of guns, vests, and “backpacks” total. He knew as well as I did that I needed two more sets if all six of us would be playing.

Dad found out about our game not long after we started, and though Mom was a little worried that I was being indoctrinated by gun culture, Dad just laughed it off. That’s just the way she was. Boys will be boys, right? And as long as I was outside getting exercise, they were both happy.

I made my grievances known as we got back to the car, knowing that I was just stating the obvious. Dad promised that we would get another two sets, suggesting that we should test them out first anyway in a four-player game. He was nice enough to buy them for me in the first place, so I ended up agreeing with him. Two of the boys would just have to sit out our first few games, or maybe act as unarmed scouts or spies.

But on the way home, we saw the local Goodwill store. Dad and I traded glances, each knowing what the other was thinking. Mom got some of her dresses from the store and Dad would bring home quirky little handmade things whenever he stopped by, but I never found much of interest there, and I didn’t like the feel or idea of secondhand stuff. Despite that, I knew it was worth a look. Maybe they even had another set or two for cheap.

It was late by then, near closing time from what I remember, and the checkout lines were filled with shoppers, many of them mothers with bored kids, their arms full of worn and faded clothing. Just for fun, I checked out the video games section first, but most of the games were still from the last generation. Since they weren’t what I was here for anyway, I hurriedly guided my dad to the back where the used toys were. I always hated the smell there, the one of mildew and dirty diapers, so I didn’t want to stay long.

We looked around for a bit, but the toy section was so small that much of its space was intruded upon by old VCRs and crappy televisions playing Disney movies on a loop. It became obvious quickly that our search would be fruitless, but again, I wasn’t too disappointed. I was happy with what I had for now.

As we turned to head out and return home, I noticed a black cardboard box hanging out just a little behind an ugly teal shelf littered with the broken corpses of stuffing-spewing teddy bears. I was going to leave it be, figuring it was a moldy toy tomb by now, but then I saw the shape of a gun on the box’s side. Was this really what I thought it was? I rushed up to it and pulled it out with some effort, as it was snug between the shelf and wall.

My reaction upon pulling it out and looking at the cover was unmitigated joy, like it was suddenly Christmas morning. The first thing I saw were two handguns held by a pair of admittedly badass but typical 80’s white kids, holding them upright like they were spies. And the guns didn’t need to be overly stylized like the Laser Challenge ones in any way; they spoke for themselves.

The box was solid black except for the photo cutout on the front of the two kids, a swirling James Bond gun barrel that ended in the white circle behind them. Sure, it was clearly a knockoff image, but it naturally excited me even further, given that Goldeneye was still my video game goddess at the time. And the guns were depicted accurately, positioned in the youths’ hands at an angle to show as much detail as possible. The box’s paint was chipped in spots all across it, and the cover was especially faded, but it still looked pretty damn cool. I wondered what lucky kids this must’ve passed onto over the years – judging by its look, I had to guess that it was quite old.

I was right. In the corner, I saw the copyright year of “198.” The last digit had been replaced by raw cardboard where the paint was completely gone, but the age of the product didn’t bother me too much. I remember wondering, even back then, that a set of laser guns from the 1980’s must’ve been quite pioneering. These had to have been expensive once.

I opened the box and saw the quality put into the toys; the cover didn’t lie. Better yet, there were two pairs of guns and frontal hit detection vests! Held firmly in an oversized styrofoam mold, indicative of the past decade’s environmental lack of foresight, I pried one of the guns out. It was small, but it had some real weight to it, and the build quality was quite good. It was made of strong, solid black plastic, and had a few metal trimmings purely for aesthetics, to make it look like a toy. The tip of the barrel where the laser was fired out was also made of this metal, as was the trigger and the iron sight. It quickly occurred to me how dangerously real this thing looked, a sharp contrast to the orange and gray Laser Challenge weapons. If it weren’t for the swirling metal bezel around the edges that gave them a more juvenile appearance, someone was just asking to get shot by cops waving the things around.

By this point, Dad had come over, giving me an impressed “Woah, what did you find?” He knelt down to the floor to examine the set for himself, and then noticed something on the gun I was still holding. He pointed it out for me, and I was surprised I hadn’t seen it yet. On the back of the iron sights were two green glowing dots. They didn’t blink, or “waver” when seen at different angles like normal LEDs. Furthermore, there was no on or off switch for them, or the gun itself. Or battery compartments, anywhere.

These things were solid, sturdy creations that could’ve easily been mistaken for real guns, and we couldn’t even tell how they were powered. Neither my Dad or I knew what to make of the eternal lights, but we did think that they were kind of cool. I would learn much later in life that the lights were made of tritium, a radioactive element used for illumination on some real guns and watches, or other equipment that might for whatever reason need a constant but small source of light.

Tritium is safe, at least for a radioactive material, but it was still an element that shed its atoms. When I found out about it later in life and researched it, I also learned that it was a key component in nuclear weapons. Had either of us realized such an ominous fact about some of the material used in a damn child’s toy, I knew my Dad would’ve never bought it.

The vests looked a little more friendly, although the problem was that they only had frontal sensor boxes – no “backpacks” like the American units. Their bodies were made of plastic and had a single black circle in the middle where the incoming laser was detected. Four leather straps were attached to the back of the device, held onto it with old metal buckles, which were another sign of the toys’ age. I hadn’t seen any toys made of the kind of metal that rusts since I was a little kid, and that’s exactly what the buckles were made of. They had withered into ugly brown husks, their metal components grinding against one another and producing iron dust. But they were the only parts of the entire set that hadn’t aged well, and the rest of it was high quality, if not slightly creepy in that kind of “old, strange, industrial toy” way.

Dad noticed that the back of the sensor units were made of a thin layer of solid, flat metal, and there was a noticeable latch. He popped it open fairly effortlessly, and reacted quickly to catch the large battery that dropped out. It looked familiar, like the six-bolt battery used on one of my dad’s emergency flashlights, but it was solid blue, no wording at all, and the bulk was distributed differently. It was fatter, wider than the kind of oversized battery I was used to. Inside the shell, I also noticed a small dial, but I didn’t touch it just yet.

Dad put the battery back in and closed the hatch. He told me that he had a hunch that this thing wasn’t made in America, and wanted to see the front cover. I flipped it over and noticed something that I should’ve had earlier. The words, even the product name, weren’t in English. It was a language that I wasn’t familiar with, almost alien to me. But Dad, older and wiser, identified it as Arabic. I thought that it was strange, since the box art looked so American.

I was disappointed again, believing that the laser gun toy from a different country wouldn’t work with the other sets, and I breathed out an audible sigh. Dad noticed it, and quickly cheered me up a little again when he pointed out something on the box. It was poorly translated, but it was English. In one corner were the humorous but promising words, “Work with many type!”

Seeing how much I liked the toy already, Dad told me to wait a moment. He left the store and came back in after a minute, one of the Laser Challenge pistols in his hand. He flicked a switch on the foreign set’s vest, making the black circle light up with a monotone chime. A few dozen red LEDs were behind the clear plastic, though a few had burnt out.

He gave the toy pistol a test fire at point blank, aiming straight at the hit zone. It worked, much to my delight. The vest fired out a small digitized buzz, and one fourth of the lights disappeared. After a second hit, another fourth went dark. Dad looked as if he had figured something out, and opened the hatch again to show me something. The vest had a hit point system, and the dial could control how much damage a single hit could do. By turning it all the way to four, a single shot removed all the quadrants of the “health circle.” It was a cool feature, but as we always played one-hit kills, I knew I would be keeping it all the way up. It wasn’t as if our American sets had the option, anyway.

The last thing I took note of was that in the middle of the target circle was a slightly bigger red dot, which had a flat head, unlike the domed tops of the other lights. Its color was also a bit darker, as if it was wearing out. But both vests were identical in this regard, so I paid it little mind.

We couldn’t find a sheet of instructions anywhere and my dad still had some hesitations, although the system did seem to work fine. We tested all the guns and vests, and Dad even went back to his car a second time to fetch one of the cheap plastic hit boxes from the other sets, that had what looked like orange traffic barricade lights for their sensors. Again, everything was cross compatible. It looked like it was a done deal once we found the faded, peeling price tag. It was $20 for the complete set. It seemed like a really good bargain.

This is where you might expect the person ringing us up to see the object in question and say something cryptic, or give us a frightful or glad-to-have-that-out-of-here look. But the old lady at the register was clearly tired and ready to go home, and any other time, she probably wouldn’t of had known anything about the toy in any case. Dad paid for it and we were out of the store just as it was closing.

The next day, Saturday, I knew would be awesome. When the gang got together at the twins’ house after lunch, I revealed the sets, and they were excited by the whole idea of having our own laser guns. The foreign sets of course took the spotlight over the regular American ones. Brian suggested that we do some rock-paper-scissors to see who would get to use them, but after a debate, in the end I claimed one of them, having been the one to find them.

We had to compensate a bit since the foreigns didn’t have backpack units, making sneak attacks from the rear impossible on its wearers. This would be a huge disadvantage to the others. So we simply kept the American sets’ rear hit packs inside. It was sort of lame only being able to land an official hit on someone’s front side, which meant waiting for them to simply turn around to actually kill them if you were stalking behind them, but we would deal with it.

Nick was a little offended at first after I explained the reason he should get the other: he usually died first, the most often, and was a lousy shot – quite an accomplishment considering the accuracy of imagined slugs. But his brother Peter agreed with the handicap, and with that, we were off for a day of team death matches around the neighborhood.

Gil and Brian were in my team the first time, and we kicked ass with a solid score of three to zero. After that, I took Nick and Devin – so both of the old sets were on a single team. Devin got taken down, but Nick and I were untouched by a long-range ambush that took place on one of the block’s curves.

That was the first indication that these old sets really were of higher quality, or at least more powerful than the others. While Devin shot three or four times before he was hit, none of them made impact on Peter, Brian, and Gil. But the guns that Nick and I had took out the entire enemy team, one right after the other after we took a second to steady our aim.

After a third game, we realized that having two boys with the old sets on one team gave them an unfair disadvantage. Having skimmed the manual for the American toys, I remembered reading how sunlight could interfere with the laser. That made sense, but it seemed like the advertised “200 Feet Range” was also a lie in the first place, as Gil reported that he had to get within about fifty feet to land a hit with his gray plastic gun. The black ones, however…

We took a break to figure out their range by doing a few tests, having Brian back up about ten feet until Peter’s hits with my black gun no longer registered. He had to be clear across the block, some five hundred feet away - and even then in direct sunlight – until his vest stopped buzzing.

We all thought once again about just how cool the things were, but I was a bit unsettled. They felt too powerful, as if there were industrial lasers embedded in the black guns that kids should have no business playing with. What if we hit someone in the eye? But to the others, the pistols had basically turned into sniper rifles. Sure, we still had to be accurate at long range, but we could land a hit from much further away than seemed normal.

The discovery of the foreign set’s abilities changed the game dynamic. Suddenly Nick and I were deemed permanent squad leaders. We were the specialists, meant to be feared. That was when Peter started asking me to switch up gear with him. I told him he could have my set tomorrow. But after a few more games, he started whining and bitching about it.

At three o’clock, we broke for snacks, soda, and water to replenish ourselves. We had played long and hard so far, and the other people in the neighborhood had taken notice of our antics. But we were having too much fun to notice or care what they thought of us.

Being a nice guy, I relented and told Peter he could have my set for the next round of games that would last until we called it an evening. He had the best aim, and a maniacal little grin spread over his face as he no doubt wondered what it would be like pulling off miracle shots as a professional sniper could.

The thing was, though, Nick and I couldn’t get the vests off. We tried everything, but the buckles were oddly configured little bastards. We couldn’t even tell if we weren’t pressing the right thing down on them, or if we had to wiggle them a certain way, or if it was the friction caused by the rust that locked them in place. We eventually gave up and had our indoor snack break with them still on, looking like dorks, somewhat to the amusement of the others.

Even though I couldn’t get my vest off, I still traded guns with Peter. That seemed good enough for him. Holding the cheap gray plastic in my hand, I knew it would take a little while to get used to its limitations.

As the day wore on and cooled a bit with the setting sun, I started taking my first hits without the advantage of longer range, and I really began to take notice of the strange quirks of the vest. For one, it was uncomfortable. The leather straps that went over my shoulders and around my stomach would’ve been comfortable if they weren’t so tight. On top of this, the metal plate on the backside of the hit detection unit pressed tightly against the skin was cold, never warming to body temperature.

Also, once I took a hit for the first time, I could feel a small tingle of electricity come from the back plate. It was really small, however – less than that of a static shock. I didn’t even notice it most of the time, but it was there. I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate, like some sort of failing impact feedback, or more like… something bigger, being contained but leaking out ever so slightly each time a laser strand was close enough to be detected by the circle in front.

But the oddest thing of all were the power lines nearby. They were old and buzzed often in cycles, but whenever I drew near them, they seemed to either buzz louder, or started buzzing if they were quiet at the time. I had learned about electrical fields in science class that last year of middle school and thought that something in the hit box might’ve been causing some sort of interference, but I didn’t really think about how powerful the battery would have to be to do such a thing. I did, however, begin to feel unsafe hauling it around.

And thinking back, I suddenly remembered the moment my dad had turned it on for the first time, in the store. I thought nothing of it back then, but when he did that, the fluorescent light above us flickered, just briefly. I had grown up with a fear of electricity. Outlets had always scared the crap out of me as a kid, as if simply touching any part of it would electrocute me. A gut feeling told me something was wrong with this toy. I now wish I had said something, or called off the game completely.

After the first game following snacks when I let the other team use both of the black guns and we got creamed, Peter gave us his brother Nick to even the score. He joined Devin and I and after the sixty-second countdown that was used to get the teams separated from one another, we headed out, deciding to go on patrol instead of making a base this time, as Devin never liked to sit around and wait for the opposition to find us.

Peter’s team must’ve been doing a good job at hiding, because we couldn’t find them after two sweeps of the block. We looked behind every one of our houses, covered the adjacent block, and still, found no sign of them. It was a good idea to separate the team a bit so it wasn’t taken down in a single ambush, but I always hated breaking up completely and going on patrol alone. But Peter and his sneaky bastard gang wanted to play things this way, so we had little choice but to separate and cover more ground.

I checked to make sure that Devin and Nick had their walkie-talkies set to the proper channels, and we headed our separate ways. Now alone, my senses heightened. I could feel the beads of sweat on my forehead and hear the faint buzzing of the drooping power lines. It was quiet, and the air was still. Everyone else in the neighborhood had gone inside. Getting tired of the round, I started walking down the middle of the streets, putting myself in the open. If someone moved to take a shot at me, I might react in time, maybe not. It was, after all, just a game, and I was growing impatient and wanted them to come out.

I got my wish. As I walked down the empty street just in front of my house, Brian leapt out of some bushes, took aim at me, and fired. I heard the buzz, felt the tingle, and looked down to see the red lights disappear. Proud of his kill, Brian smiled and walked over to me. Despite being a bit pissed off that his team decided to hide like pussies this round, I still thought up a little compliment to give to him. But it never left my mouth.

Just as he stepped in front of me, I heard a loud pop in the distance. It sounded electrical, like a transformer had just blown. At the same time, our two walkie-talkies let out a loud but brief burst of static. Brian and I looked around, maybe expecting to see sparks raining down from a power pole or something. We waited for a few minutes, still out in the open, Brian staying with me despite being on the opposite team. The pop had taken us out of the game, startled us. We eventually settled down again and we got ready to part ways, Brian back into a hiding spot, myself to the dead zone.

But then… God, that horrible smell. I knew what it was, I think everyone does. That stinging stench of an electrical burn. It’s similar to dust burning off in a heater, but whereas that aroma is almost pleasant in a way, an electrical burn is a threatening smell you never want to experience – the last time I had was when our microwave practically exploded last year, which was… unpleasant.

With the possibility of a fire being nearby, we dropped the game and using Brian’s walkie-talkie, tried to get in touch with Peter and Gil. We got no response the first few times we tried to contact them. But on the fifth try, some feedback suggested that someone on the other end was holding down the transponder button. No one the other end spoke, but we still heard something. Brian had to turn up the volume all the way to hear it. Faint sobbing.

Worried for our friends, we ran off together, scouring the neighborhood. It took us ten minutes to see Devin, who had spotted us first and was waving us down from the edge of the “borderline” of the playing field, the farthest possible sidewalk on the last block of the neighborhood. Stepping out onto the road from it made you dead, at least if anyone else were to see you do it.

We rushed over to him and saw Gil examining this sharp incline by the side of the road, where a storm drain feeds run off water down into a ditch-like area that was often muddy. It was also overgrown with weeds and vines that climbed up the nearby cedar trees, which condensed into an ugly little forest typically occupied by drunks and garbage. For reasons we never really understood, this area, on the edge of our battlefield, was Nick’s favorite hiding spot. He would sometimes still be in the ditch, eyes peaking out at street level, after the entire opposing team was already dead.

Next to Gil was Peter, in a way I had never seen him before. He was in a state of shock, rocking back in forth very gently in a fetal position. I asked everyone what had happened, but Gil wasn’t around at the time and knew nothing about it. Peter had yet to say a word. Nick was nowhere in sight.

I tried to coax an answer from Peter, but he just looked back at me with saucer eyes. When I started shaking him and demanded to know what had happened, he murmured something. But it was so quiet, he might as well of had just mouthed it silently. To this day, however, the closest thing I can think of as to what he said would be, “I saw him. I shot him.”

My stomach dropped. Peter didn’t give me a straight answer, but I still had a deep and increasing worry that something terrible had happened to Nick, that maybe the hit box had electrocuted him. It was morbid, but that’s the conclusion my mind had instantly leapt to.

Gil, Brian, Devin and I searched the area, sinking into the mud on occasion. I sniffed the air, smelling the electrical burn again. Every second that passed by that we didn’t find Nick in pain, or worse, was a small relief. But we didn’t find a trace of him at all – until we started heading back to Peter. Hidden in some of the overgrowth on the incline, their red color now distinguishable in the grass, were Nick’s shoes. Gil looked at them closer, but when he tried to pick them up, Peter suddenly shouted, “Don’t touch them!” Gil abided by the request.

Panic overtook the four of us that were still in reality, and we quickly ran to Devin’s house, the closest to our current position, and told his parents. They finally called the police when we managed to convince them that we weren’t pulling a prank, and we really couldn’t find Nick.

The rest of the day was hell, but at least it went by quickly. The police arrived, as did everyone’s parents. Peter’s father took him home, as he was too traumatized to help the officers in any way. As more cop cars arrived, we explained everything about what we were doing. One of the cops even mentioned how he had noticed us earlier that day while on patrol.

A search party started around sunset, and all the while, we were stuck outside in the heat, sweating like crazy on the side of the road as our hearts raced. The police had little to go on and no witnesses other than Peter, who they knew they would need to talk to right away. I was the first one to suggest to them to find the hit sensor box and gun from the laser set.

That made them a little curious. I explained the devices as much as I could, even the tingling I felt. They may have concluded that the toy sounded dangerous, but still, it was just a toy. Nevertheless, they decided to take the foreign set in for further investigation. I had no arguments. After what might’ve just happened to Nick, I wanted nothing to do with the set anymore, or for that matter, laser tag or Guns. I knew the game, in whatever form it could’ve taken after this day, was tainted now.

They quickly found Peter’s gun, dropped in the tall grass right by where he had been sitting. Nick’s was discovered soon after, not far from his shoes. But even with their help, I couldn’t get my vest off. The damn thing felt like it was permanently strapped to my body. It finally took Devin’s father bringing a pair of metal sheers from his garage to get the hit box off me, and he had to work to cut through the thick leather straps. But at least I was free. Safe. The police took the device and began their search for the other.

Only, like Nick, they never found it. Over the following weeks, they combed the entire area for both the hit box and its wearer, even dredging up mud to see if it had sunken into it. I began to have visions of it exploding in a bright nuclear fireball, vaporizing Nick. But I kept the nightmares to myself. The twins’ parents must’ve suffered more than I did, and I knew it was my fault.

Despite all the assurances that day and the ones that followed from the police, Nick was never found. His disappearance made the local news, and then the state news. No suspects were ever named. Every time I walked by the missing children board in Wal-Mart, I saw his face, haunting me, staring at me above the description and the number to call. I saw that poster hanging for years, until I went off to college and left my old town and friends behind, all of which were irrevocably shattered by the incident.

In my senior year, I came out for winter break. By now, I had invented that reality I mentioned earlier. I shoved the idea of the laser tag toy killing him out of my mind, coming to believe, like the town did, that Nick had ended up as just another vanished or abducted child that would never return. Coming home, I had a flashback of his funeral, two years after he disappeared, where I was unable to look at his parents or Peter in the eye from across Nick’s empty casket.

The past didn’t stay dead. When I came home, my mother told me, in a shallow voice, that Peter had been calling recently, asking for me every other day. She told me I should go see him. I didn’t want to, but of course I had to.

I walked over to his house, where he still lived with his parents. The place had gone to hell. The paint was peeling off, the grass was so tall that trees could’ve began sprouting, and once I was let in, the smell of alcohol was nearly overpowering. With as much motivation as a zombie, Peter’s Dad rejoined his wife on the couch, where they both lifelessly watched the television. Even eight years later, Nick’s death had left a scar on the household.

I trudged upstairs, and into a dirty, crowded mess of what was once a big living room. The place would’ve fit right in on an episode of Hoarders. And here’s a foreboding detail: buried under a trash bag of beer cans that was blocking the television, I could see a Nintendo 64 on the floor. As crazy as it sounds, it must’ve been unused ever since that day, as Nick’s Goldeneye copy was still plugged into it. This place reeked of despair. I desperately wanted to leave. But if Peter wanted to talk, if he had answers, then I had to meet with him.

He was in his room, also a disaster area. Empty energy drink cans lined the floor. I could see that he had grown an unruly beard before he turned around in his computer chair, after exiting some MMORPG I was unfamiliar with. I greeted him as kindly as possible. I could see his sadness in his sunken eyes, but what he was really hiding was his anger. When he spoke to me, it was in what I can only describe as restrained barks. He must’ve had nothing but hatred for me – which I didn’t blame him for – that he was struggling to control.

Suddenly, he started laying everything out there, getting it off his chest at long last. His parents had been sending him to a therapist, for all eight years since that day, and he said that while she helped and he was making slow progress, he hated “the bitch” inside. Because she didn’t believe him when he shared his account of the events. He then told me that he had just started going to a psychiatrist, and hoped that he would believe him.

Understanding his anger and now feeling nothing but pity, I talked with him calmly and reasonably. He eventually did relax some after getting out all of the contempt he had for me. He took a big breath, and his whole body shuddered, as if in the anticipation of a forthcoming grand revelation.

That was just what I got, as much as it hurt. The truth, at last, and that dreaded vindication I mentioned at the start of our story.

I never returned to his house that day to retrieve the box, assuming the police would take it. But I watched as Peter reached deep under his bed, the space looking like an unnavigable garbage dump, and pulled out that black box that I had seen in my dreams many times. He took off the rotted, moist cover, a smell of mold exploding from the inside. But it was what he took out of the box that made me truly sick to my stomach.

It was the missing hit sensor box. Only, the frontal plastic shell had been clearly warped and scarred by extreme heat. It had partially melted over the black circle in the middle, and the leather straps were charred. Holding back vomit, Peter almost gleefully flipped the device over, as if in his damaged mind, I was supposed to like what he was showing me.

The metal back had mostly survived intact, but there was a large dent in the middle where it made contact with the battery. The hinge, however, no longer locked in place, and the back plate swung open freely to reveal the interior of the shell. There was no sign of the battery itself. Its compartment was a solid black, and there seemed to be dried remnants of battery acid. I could only surmise that the battery had exploded in its entirety. However much energy it had inside must’ve been incredibly lethal…

“Justin!” Peter suddenly shouted at me, snapping me out of my dazed, sickly stupor. He then proceeded to call me an idiot repeatedly, for not reading the instructions. I whimpered in reply, telling him I didn’t see any. In one broad stroke, Peter tore out the styrofoam, which I noticed had already been broken into several pieces. Under what remained of the fractured white block was a thin, yellowed pamphlet. The guns were printed in black and white on the cover.

Now both terrifying and racking me with guilt, he began to shove the moldy instruction book in my face, thrusting it until it was a few inches in front of my eyes each time he turned a page as he yelled at me to read it. Although I was shaking, I tried my best to do so.

Most of the instructions were in Arabic, but there were little warning boxes labeled with an exclamation point in a triangle that were in multiple languages, including French, Spanish, and English. Every page had an image of proper use, the boys from the box cover demonstrating various ways of hitting one another with the lasers, or simply how to attach the equipment.

Other than a few instances of the radioactive trefoil symbol, the warnings seemed innocuous at first. Don’t aim at the eyes, take a break from playing sometimes, don’t use it in the rain, etc. I told Peter I didn’t understand what went wrong. I knew enough by this point that he had figured out what killed Nick, and he had hidden his brother’s vest in the box. I told him I was so very sorry, but again, that I didn’t understand.

Before he showed me the last page, Peter said he kept the burnt, twisted vest so he could figure out what happened on his own. Maybe he thought the police wouldn’t be able to. I can’t hope to know.

Calmer now, he turned to the last page and handed me the book. My stomach churned again. The warning was simple, and like the rest of the product, poorly translated. “DANGER: CRITICAL HIT ZONE!” These words were under a diagram of the black hit circle, where an arrow pointed to that small center light. And there was a descriptive image of one of the boys shooting the other, a demonic smile and a look of victory on his face as he so happily sent the other boy from the box cover into oblivion.

The other boy, who was screaming out in raw pain and terror as his vest exploded and his body turned to fine particles of ash.

But Peter wasn’t done. He had one last thing to show me. As he reached for the top of the bookcase in his room, I noticed the faint scratch marks on the metal backing of the destroyed hit box. It looked like someone had taken a screwdriver to it in order to violently scrape something off.

Peter showed me a small corked plastic vial that he had taken off of his shelf. Inside was a solid black gathering of what appeared to be soot. He gave me a sickening smile and told me, “It’s been a long time since you’ve seen Nick, hasn’t it? Say hi to Nick!”

I felt myself heave and hit the floor, but nothing came up. My mind scrambled, trying to accept what I had just seen and was told. To imagine the fear, the pain, as my friend burnt up into ash so small that it blew away in a light wind… Killed by his own brother, eagle eye Peter, who had scored a critical.

Before I turned and ran out of the house, Peter, holding what was left of his twin brother, had some advice. “I’d see a therapist, Justin. It will help.”

There, I got it all down. Happy, Dr. Strauss? Whether or not anyone reads this, I don’t care anymore. Maybe, in time, recording what happened really will help me. I don’t know. What I do know, is that for an entire day, I carried around – what I assume – was some sick perverted Eastern European toy maker’s idea of a fun game for the kiddies: a walking time bomb waiting for a bull’s-eye hit. How all of its previous owners’ managed to miss, I have no idea. If you decide to hunt down another set for some sick dark fantasy and you’re stupid enough to buy it after reading this journal that some ASSHOLE STOLE AND POSTED ONLINE, try not to play with anyone who can shoot worth a damn.

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