It was a serene May afternoon in the suburban town of Hemsworth, Pennsylvania; the grass was rustling in the wind, kids weren't on a manhunt for the ice cream man, and the sun was out and shining. Leaves were blowing in the light winds as airplanes left smoke trails across the clear sky.
In this house lived a young man by the name of Donovan Gaines, his brother Anthony, and his mother. Overall, Donovan had led a fairly normal life until the previous year. The day before his eighteenth birthday, his father, Neil, and Donovan were cruising along Grant Avenue after a long day of school.
"How was school today, son?" Neil asked his eldest son of two.
"Same," was the stereotypical response that Donovan rehashed.
To Donovan, school was meaningless. He cared little for academics, which was glaringly obvious through his actions and his report card.
"Did you get any grades back today?"
"Yeah. Just take a wild guess at what they were." Donovan retorted, self-deprecatingly.
"Come on, son. You gotta stop failing school. How will you make an enjoyable future for yourself if you don't treat your education with some dignity?" Neil pleaded.
"Work at McDonald's. I can climb the corporate ladder without a college degree, Dad."
Donovan thought little about his future. All that mattered at the moment were friends, parties, and Rachel.
Rachel McNally was his girlfriend, and she was a keeper. Just imagine the perfect girl, then make her real; that would be Rachel. Donovan got lucky when he snatched her up, and Rachel can attest to that. He fell back into a blissful trance when a runaway pickup truck came into his peripheral vision. This beast of a truck was hurtling ahead towards the oncoming intersection at easily 70mph. Donovan's Honda Civic, going at 50, stood no chance.
"Dad, stop!" Donovan yelled.
Too late. The Honda was flipped into the air like an omelet. Metal screeched against metal, and the driver-side door was demolished. With a great cacophony of sound, the Honda rolled violently, knocking over a light post in the process. A couple of somersaults later, Donovan found himself battered and bruised, with a massive ache in his lower back; by some miracle, though, he was alright. In a daze, he climbed through the shattered passenger window, and stumbled away from the burning heap of car. "Oh, God!" Donovan came to. "Dad!"
Donovan ran to his father's side of the car, and had to turn away to puke up the quarter-pounder he just ate. Neil's face ended up looking like Donovan's burger: mashed up. His hair was clumped up from the bleeding, and the raging fire started to make his face melt off. No, Donovan thought, this can't happen. He dialed 911, but he knew it was useless. Dad was gone.
Donovan closed the door to his mother's Toyota Corolla, and buckled himself into the front seat.
"Things will return to normal, Donovan. You need to stop blaming yourself for Dad's death. There wasn't anything you could have done."
His brother tried to ease the pain with those words of wisdom, but it was futile. The funeral had opened up a geyser of emotion that couldn't be cut off at this time. Rachel placed her hand on Donovan's shoulder and cried for his misery. He stared out the window as his mother revved up the engine. Driving by the intersection where his father passed away sent Donovan into a fit of rage.
"Why? Why, why, why!?" He yelled.
Donovan smacked his seat with fists of fury, and Rachel did nothing to restrain him. He needs to vent his anger, she figured, so he won't completely explode one day.
The rest of the ride to Donovan's house was uneventful; he dug his face into his palms, Rachel hugged him tight, and Anthony sat in dead silence. His mother parked the Corolla into the garage, and everyone got out. Donovan sat on an old wooden chair in the garage.
"Please come inside with me," Rachel begged Donovan, "and we can at least be sad together."
"You don't need me. I'm worthless."
"It's not a matter of me needing you; you need to be around people who care about you, Donovan. This isn't something that can be dealt with alone."
Relenting, Donovan followed Rachel inside into the TV room, and they sat next to each other on the couch. Donovan sank down into the cushions, falling into a depressed trance. This became a habit of his; he receded from social activity that did not involve sitting at home and wallowing in self-hatred. Rachel began to fear deeply for Donovan's mental stability, and she arranged for him to meet with a therapist. She drove him to the therapist's office, watching him sit in a stupor.
"Donovan, look around you. You still got a loving, supporting family that only wants to free you from your trauma," said Rachel.
Donovan said nothing. He continued staring through the front windshield, looking at everything, yet focusing on nothing. Finally, after a few more minutes of uncomfortable silence, they arrived at the therapist's office. Plodding resentfully inside, Donovan made it to the therapist's room before collapsing on the patient's chair. "So, Donovan, you're here, according to Miss Rachel, because you witnessed a traumatic event involving your father." The therapist said blankly.
"Yeah." Donovan barely squeezed the word out of his throat.
"And your father lost his life as a result of this event, correct?"
The therapist wrote something down on his clipboard; it didn't matter to Donovan, nothing mattered anymore. Not school, not Anthony, not even Rachel sparked anything in Donovan. Actually, he still cared about Rachel, but it just wasn't the same. It was as if Donovan's soul had been sucked straight out of him, leaving only a husk of what he used to be. Slowly, gradually, Donovan found himself fading out of consciousness; the therapist's face grew blurrier, and the clipboard was just a mass of brown. Before he passed out, Donovan heard a low, rumbling voice say, "It has begun."
Two months passed since Donovan's father was tenderized by a reckless truck driver. The numbness that once engulfed Donovan was now replaced by a cold vacuum. His heart was stony, and he grew callous and indifferent to the outside world. Rachel cried her eyes out when he ended their relationship, because she knew that this was not on a teenage whim. They were never reuniting; the old, charismatic Donovan was now cold and, for the large part, emotionless. He was traumatized beyond therapy, and he began distancing himself from everyone he knew, even his family. Donovan would spend hours on end parked in front of his computer screen, immersing himself in fantasy worlds. On one average July day, Anthony approached Donovan during one of his gaming sessions.
"Donovan, I found an online game that I thought you might enjoy."
Donovan swiveled around in his rotating chair and simply asked,
"The Other Side."
Anthony watched as Donovan closed his current window and searched The Other Side on Google. Without saying another word, Anthony walked out of the room, leaving Donovan to play this mysterious game. He clicked on the second link he found, which led him to the loading screen on Kongregate. This screen was ominous, as it depicted an axe-wielding, expressionless knight in a full body-suit of steel armor. Donovan, however, was not fazed by this, and when prompted by the title screen to start a new profile, did so without hesitation. On the character customization screen, Donovan shaped the character to loosely resemble himself. However, something intrigued Donovan. At the bottom of the screen, there was option that stated,
"Choose Your Side: Good or Evil."
Donovan hesitated here. His conscience told him to side with the forces of good, but, as if on cue, a chillingly familiar voice rumbled,
The voice from the therapist's office, Donovan thought. He shuddered, goosebumps springing up all over his body. However, for some reason, he complied. Evil it is, Donovan thought passively. He clicked Evil, and the voice laughed.
The game started off by dumping Donovan's character into a dimly lit dungeon. Nothing was out of the ordinary; the dungeon, being straight out of medieval fashion, was illuminated by candles. A wide assortment of weapons was strewn around the room, and Donovan opted to pick up the only one that the game permitted him to carry, which was a pathetic iron dagger. Why, Donovan thought, could I not grab this battleaxe or that scimitar? He dismissed that thought, as he figured that maybe those weapons were mere decorations, just a way to add detail to the medieval holding room. The character, by Donovan's choice, moved through the dank hallways, encountering very little loot and no NPCs. This game is pretty cool so far, Donovan mused. He was always a fan of medieval games; he played both Medieval: Total War games and loved them equally. A wooden door blocked his character's path, and when he clicked the option to open it, his persona was plunged into sheer darkness. Donovan looked in his inventory and found an oil lantern. He attempted to light it, but the foreboding voice echoed in his head,
"Walk straight ahead, look straight ahead. You don't need light."
Donovan felt like protesting, but he saw no need to; he continued forward, and there was a light in the distance. For some strange reason, he felt himself losing consciousness. Oh, God no, Donovan thought. Something freaky is going to happen, I just know it. The character stepped into the light, and sure enough, Donovan blacked out.
Donovan came to in a pitch-black expanse of nothingness, just pure emptiness. The first thought that sprang to his mind was that he had fallen asleep at his computer. He had been sitting there for hours, who knows what time it was when he passed out? Before Donovan could contemplate any further, he heard footsteps. They started out faint, as if they were far away, then they gradually grew louder. A lantern bobbed up and down in the distance, but no man or woman was illuminated. Instead, all Donovan could see was an indistinct figure, like a silhouette, coming closer to him. Strangely enough, the shadow almost matched Donovan's current physique, but it was too short and skinny.
"Come back to me, Donovan." The shadow whimpered.
"I don't understand. Who are you?" Donovan became more afraid, both for himself, and even for this shadow.
"I am you, Donovan, and you were once me."
Donovan was puzzled. Could this be...? No, he thought, he wasn't going crazy. Donovan hastily pushed that thought out of his mind. "You are not me."
The shadow, though it had no face to convey emotion, slumped slightly, and muttered pitifully,
"So it has begun..."
Suddenly, Donovan started regaining consciousness. As he did, the shadow faded away into nonexistence.
"Wait! Come back!" Donovan yelled out helplessly.
The silhouette was gone. Once again, the voice spoke to him,
"You live in the present now. Forget the past."
Donovan awoke with a start. His brother, Anthony, was standing by his side, looking worried.
"Donovan, what happened? You had fallen asleep for twenty hours. Are you alright?"
Rubbing his temples to try and soothe his headache, he said to Anthony,
Thrown off by his curt response, Anthony stood there awkwardly as Donovan rose to his feet and began pacing about the room. Anthony left Donovan alone, and reported to his mother that Donovan was "fine," and that she could stop worrying. However, Donovan was not fine; in fact, he was anything but. A harsh migraine racked his head, and he was haunted by the silhouette. Was that shadow really me? Or was it just something my imagination invented? Donovan was clueless. He grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket and called Rachel, forgetting he had broken her heart just recently.
"Rachel?" Donovan asked.
"What do you want?" Rachel replied, obviously upset.
Oh, right, Donovan remembered, I just broke up with her.
"I was just calling to ask if you were getting along fine."
Saying that stirred something inside him, something that had lain dormant for a month. He finally felt a quiver of emotion, a sense of remorse and compassion for Rachel. Maybe, if she would forgive him...
"Why would you care, you cold, lifeless, good-for-nothing douche?"
Thud. Any sympathy Donovan had gained for Rachel was stamped out right then and there. He hung up, and promptly broke his cheap phone in two pieces on his knee. Tossing the remains of his phone into the trash can, Donovan fell into his chair. The baritone voice in his head chuckled, and he couldn't help but join in. His quiet laughter became full-on, side-splitting hilarity, and Anthony, having watched Donovan out of curiosity and compassion, ran to his room, frightened witless.
Soon, The Other Side consumed Donovan. The addictive gameplay meshed with the medieval setting was enough to hook him, and his mother became increasingly busy with her demanding work schedule. As a nurse down at the city hospital, she worked long hours, even coming home in the middle of the night to see Donovan sleeping in front of the computer monitor. One time, she swore she saw a demonic face smiling at her, but she could have been tired and imagining things. Anthony found himself a looker of a girlfriend, and he became closer to Rachel. He, Rachel, and his girlfriend would go out to eat at Moe's Barbeque, trying not to worry about Donovan's new obsession with this game.
"It's my fault. I introduced him to that cursed game. I hoped that it would knock him outta his funk, but it only made him more introverted." Anthony said, with a downcast look on his face.
"Don't worry, Tony, he'll get his baggage together soon enough. You just wait." His girlfriend comforted Anthony, and Rachel gazed out the window.
Looking at the passing cars, Rachel felt for Donovan and his plight. Though he tore her down emotionally, Rachel knew it wasn't intentional. He didn't do it in his right mind, she told herself. He had lost his right mind. She had cried herself to sleep many nights, and she thought that the fate that was befalling Donovan might bring her down, too. However, by luck, she supposed, she was able to escape her depression. Instead of giving her hope for Donovan, she was even more scared for his sake. What if something greater was at work? What if...
Anthony's voice snapped Rachel out of her contemplation.
"You ready to go?" Anthony asked.
They all hopped into Rachel's Nissan Altima, and Rachel dropped Anthony and his girlfriend off at her house. She drove herself home, and as she parked in the garage, a deep voice said to her,
"He's gone, and there's nothing you can do to save him."
Weeks were passing Donovan by like a moving freight train. He had lost track of time; the only thing that kept him up to date was the mini-calendar on his computer. This game, thought Donovan, is taking me over. This thought wasn't underlined with regret; instead, it was merely a statement of a fact. Donovan couldn't have cared less if a meteorite landed outside his house, because nothing was getting in between him and The Other Side. Sometimes, he felt as though he was more real in The Other Side than in reality. Anthony would come home after school and watch Donovan sit himself down in front of the computer, logging right into that God-forsaken game. Nothing was exceptional about the game: it was an average ultraviolent online multiplayer game with swords and demons. However, Donovan never played with anyone else, partly because he had no friends to play with. He had already quit high school, mainly to spend more time at home. His once admirable physique changed; he lost his muscle tone, becoming pudgy and soft. Donovan started breaking out with bad acne, and his mother gave up in her attempts to get him into a job. Her hours only worsened, and she had little time to worry about Donovan or Anthony.
"Donovan..." Anthony started.
"What?" Donovan replied briefly, too focused on his game to be interested in Anthony.
"I'm going to the gym. Do you need anything while I'm out?"
"Yeah. Chips." Donovan answered harshly.
Anthony had long since given up conversing with Donovan for any longer than 30 seconds. It was useless. Donovan was a mindless drone, addicted to The Other Side like morphine. As Anthony turned the Corolla on, an unnerving voice said,
"Leave him be. You know not what he has become ensnared by."
Donovan was in deep peril by this point. He could not be stirred from his chair, not through threat nor love nor money. The Other Side had taken Donovan in like the father he had lost, and the silhouette of Donovan past had been shackled down and carried away on a current of change. He was done for; The Other Side was now the keystone of Donovan's life, and it was draining his will to live with every passing day. On a calm, sweet May afternoon, Donovan was found dead in front of his computer by Rachel, who came over to check with Donovan's distraught mother. Diagnoses by medical professors claim that the main cause was a destructive combination of poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Rachel knew better, however. At Donovan's funeral, she swore to have seen the outline of a demon standing over his casket, giggling and congratulating itself.
It was about seven o'clock, and Rachel was bleary-eyed and worn out from bawling. Resting her head back on her pillow, she slipped into a nice, wholesome slumber, and she felt herself going, going, going...
With a heavy plunk, Rachel landed on the floor, no, a floor, but wait...where was she? Pitch-blackness hung over the surroundings like a veil. Nothing was within eyesight, except for darkness. And a little light...huh? Was that a lantern coming towards her? Hallelujah, she thought. There was someone else stuck here with her! She wasn't alone! The lantern, having come considerably nearer, showed the face of Donovan. Rachel gasped. His face was flat and sullen, and his eyes were red from crying. Donovan's hair was messy and all tangled up, and he said quietly,
"I abandoned you, and now I've betrayed you." Donovan choked out this last sentence, tears trickling down his face.
"Huh?" Rachel couldn't breathe; she was paralyzed by shock.
"He's coming, for you. I...he....he forced me. I didn't want to, but he made me."
"What are you talking about?" Rachel squeezed out, her pulse racing.
With that, the figure of Donovan turned away. Rachel couldn't move. Was she dreaming? She didn't know. Suddenly, she started shaking uncontrollably, and she felt herself being restrained. What was happening? Let me go, Rachel cried, let me go! Out of nowhere, another lantern approached her. The convulsions quickened, becoming more violent. Rachel was on her knees now, and she was sobbing. A face appeared in the light, its features bright red, its eyes mocking, and two horns sprouting from its crown. It whispered to Rachel,
"He is done. You are done."
Light began pouring into the surrounding area. The demonic apparition laughed boomingly, and dematerialized. Rachel was being blinded; she couldn't see, couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't......
"Hold her down!"
Nurses rushed to the patient's sides, trying to suppress her wild spasms. The patient wailed in terror and fought to break free from her bondage.
"Sir, her pulse is dangerously high. I don't think her heart can take the strain any longer."
The nurse rattled this off hurriedly to the lead doctor, who was equally flustered by the situation. Without any heads-up, the patient collapsed on the bed, immobile. The head doctor looked her straight in the face, and was greeted by a look of pure fright. Something awful overcame this girl, he thought. Something unexplainable...
Rachel McNally died that day of a heart attack. Crushed by grief and depression, Anthony hung himself from a coat hanger in his closet. Having found his lifeless body dangling freely, Anthony's mother drove northward to reunite with the remainder of her family in New York. Sadly, her trip was cut short; a crazed driver would crash into her straight on. Having been ejected from her vehicle, Anthony's mother was tossed to the side of the road, where she bled to death. Multiple bystanders would claim to have seen the ghost of a young, shadowy silhouette, with a chain collar around its neck, crying over its dead mother's body.