A Theory of Game, a Theory of Horror — Josh Woods



I’ve played through this idea for a video game a dozen times at least, maybe close to a thousand, but because each run-through was distinct and only in my head, the number of times is both exact and unknowable, like Borges’s Argumentum Ornithologicum: the proof of God through birds scattering in a dream. And in a video game, God is redundant.

My idea for this game is open-world, but restricted to a cozy little town in middle-America, a lot like Haddonfield, Illinois, a lot like my town, a place where husbands still go to the hardware store, one of those narrow old buildings along the downtown walkway. It’s a town where wives still go to the local grocery owned by the fat-nosed old fellow who nips a little whiskey all day and flirts with just about every married momma who shops there but hasn’t been subject to a good rumor of his success in many years. The place is a little repressive, sure, especially for those with different paradigms of thought, but it’s honestly quite cute, with sidewalks and little sparrows everywhere, a town where high-school girls have outdated names and don’t seem to know just how pretty they are, where they earn money by babysitting, even the smart ones, like the girl who babysits the little kids a few houses down. Her name is Connie. She doesn’t know my name.

This video game will generate a town layout based on a few different map types populated with about a dozen models of structures with about a dozen variations each, for what we might call a “random” town each playing session, but it won’t be truly random. Trying to convince a programmer to work with true randomness is a hopeless endeavor. Trust me. They’re like, Why would you want to do that? Junk in, junk out. No predictability. There’s no design in that. And I’m like, No design? Are you kidding me? Randomness is the only path to true design. Look at the universe around you. But he’s like, You’re confusing contingency with causality and therefore missing the self-evident. If you observe well enough, there’s always a pattern. Then I’m like, Don’t tell me you’re some kind of Bible-thumping Creationist all of a sudden. You think some celestial god is up there in the clouds shaping the spines on every unique snowflake? You think he’s under every rock and leaf, watching your every move? You think he’s the voice in your heart? And then Donald’s like, Shut up and calm down (because I had started yelling by then). Listen, man, he said. Evolution works as an ordered system. Physics works as an ordered system, even when we don’t have all the data. There are arbitrary features to it all, sure, but that’s not the same as random chaos. What you’re talking about is chaos. Actually, you always end up talking about chaos. And that’s enough to make me so mad that I decide to show him the difference, to show him some chaos with the closest sharp-edged item at hand across his smug face. But he wrestled it out of my hand before I could hit him with it—it was only a stapler, or I should say that it was a stapler when I had picked it up; I think it was a letter opener when he took it away from me—and then he kicked me out of his house for the last time. That was fine by me. I didn’t want to work with him again either, because anyone who doesn’t understand me doesn’t deserve to work with me. I’m doing the opposite of chaos. I’m designing new realities. I’m peeling back the skin on this reality and looking at the working parts underneath, and taking them out, and with them, I’m creating worlds.

So at the start of the game, you choose your mask. Or one can be randomly selected for you. I don’t want any setting for this part yet, like a walk-in closet or gallery or anything. No, when you acquire your mask, you should be in the Void. The options will include, of course, the famous whiteface mask of Michael Meyers—actually, I should call him The Shape—and the Jason goalie mask, and the Leslie Vernon frown mask, and the ghostface Scream mask—which was based on the painting by Edvard Munch, stolen twice under circumstances that have never been fully revealed. Copyright licenses will have to be sorted out for all those images, I’m sure. But there should be lots of other options: gas masks, clown masks, doll masks, plaster cast death masks, wolf masks, tiki masks, plastic burn masks, cannibal muzzle masks, ski masks, Venetian naso turco masks, boar masks, kabuki masks, Egyptian pharaoh masks, plague doctor masks, kaonashi no-face masks, leather stitched masks, Greek tragedy masks, Ku Klux Klan masks, fencing masks, Chinese demon masks, Saxon armored masks, jester masks, Batak funeral feast masks, Medieval public-humiliation masks, the Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask, the Red Death mask from the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, the stone smiley face mask from 7000 B.C., masks that look like the faces of real people, a mask that looks like me.

But don’t get me wrong on that last one: a real human face is unacceptable. It must still be a mask. The mask is necessary. To have a face is to be human—or humanized—but the mask retrieves for us the other element, completing the pair of binary opposites: weighing the human against the inhuman. The scholar Elaine Pagels says as much in The Origin of Satan, “The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as ‘others’ in relation to one’s own group may be, of course, as old as humanity itself… The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ occurs within our earliest historical evidence, on ancient Sumerian and Akkadian tablets, just as it exists in the language and culture of peoples all over the world. Such distinctions are charged, sometimes with attraction, perhaps more often with repulsion—or both at once. The ancient Egyptian word for Egyptian simply means ‘human’; the Greek word for non-Greeks, ‘barbarian.’”

But the mask is also beyond mere human and inhuman. It is universal—of the universe. The original mask of The Shape in the 1978 Halloween was, because of their extraordinarily low budget, simply a retail mask of Captain Kirk that they painted white. While The Shape explored that little town of Haddonfield, going door to door like the angel in Egypt, visiting those high-school babysitters as the last face they would ever see, it was with the face of the discoverer, the man at the final frontier, the Dante of space, the one who would boldly go where no man has gone before.

At that point in the game, you will choose—or be randomly assigned—your outfit and weapon. The outfit options should be pretty basic, a kind of blank canvas in order to showcase the mask. Just a selection of coveralls and cloaks should be fine. Maybe we can throw some Freddy Krueger sweaters in there for fun, but, honestly, just a simple gray shirt and gray pants like I wear should suffice. And the weapon should be more like a style or tendency, some type to specialize in so that you can build skill sets with it, like the knife, the axe, the saw, the pick, something along those lines. But this skill path should not be restrictive. You should be able to pick up and use all sorts of randomized items in the game so that you can get innovative with weapons and ways to kill. It’s a creative endeavor—to kill—and when any endeavor requires craft, persistence, and creativity, it’s an art.

But just as you should be able to use the randomized items in your environment, so should your victims. Killing is not the only art in this game we’re talking about. “Dying,” says the Lady Lazarus, “is an art, like everything else.” So let’s say that, in this game, I stalk up behind a babysitter while she’s cooking in the kitchen. I notice an iron trivet sitting on the countertop this time (I don’t remember it being there last time) so I pick it up to use on her, but I accidentally scrape it across the countertop and alert her (no bonus points for me), and the young lady turns around to see me. Though she is terrified, she is able to fling the boiling hot pot of tomato soup at my face—at my mask, which was already red to begin with. It scalds, and while I’m blinded and distracted with pain, she gets away. I lose. So I have to begin again.

Reset.

But to be fair, not many babysitters will be that smart when the time comes. I bet Connie will.

Once game-play begins, there will be one other variable as well. No matter what any programmer says about the impossibility of randomness, this one will be an element that you can’t see coming, even if it does follow a pattern. Here I’m talking about the able opponent. Cops exist in the town, but they’re not what I would consider able opponents, for they have an all too mundane paradigm of thought. They’ll respond sluggishly to 911 calls, assuming that all disturbances are either robberies for profit, teenage pranks for fun, or isolated errors under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or anger. They won’t know how to understand you. And that’s because they won’t know why. The best they’ll be able to do is guess that it was all for sick thrills, due to some mental illness, sexual perversion, or adrenaline addiction. But that will only be after the fact—in forensics—and that will be wrong.

No, the able opponent won’t pose the same threat to you as the cops, who will merely exist to set parameters on how careless you can be through the night. The able opponent will be on the hunt specifically for you. He’ll be the only one who gets how your mind works, and no one else will really believe him, an outcast in his own right. He would therefore be a mirror image of you if it weren’t for some higher calling of his, some holy geis. And you won’t get to select which kind of able opponent you’ll get, or when he’ll show up. At any point in the game—at the end, at the very beginning, maybe never—you’ll be confronted with some kind of a Sam Loomis, an Abraham Van Helsing, a Saint George, a Beowulf, a Theseus, a Gilgamesh.

And as for your victims, you shouldn’t get much credit for just killing people you happen to run across outside, like you do in those prosaic, unphilosophical crime/theft video games. You should have to enter their world somehow, which for most people in this town, at night, is their house. You should spend some time walking through the other yards to get to the right house. And at this point, when you are finally outdoors with your mask and your knife, looking for that right house, staying to the shadows, you find yet again that in this session the town is reordered, unrecognizable. It’s not just the lingering hot pain in your eyes, messing with your vision; no, it’s truly reordered. You can’t tell which house holds the babysitter you want, even though you’ve lived here for years and have walked these sidewalks at night more times than you can count. “I have been one acquainted with the night,” as Frost puts it. But unlike Frost, I do not stop when I hear it, when I hear “an interrupted cry… over houses from another street,” for that sound is created by me in the distance, taking her last breath, making it amplify greater than any breath she has ever taken—created by me, I should say, in another of these sessions. I don’t know whether it’s me in a session in the past or the future, or one I will ever play, only that it is certainly me, there, right now, in what the scholar Marie-Laure Ryan would call an Alternate Possible World. As she explains of Possible Worlds Theory, we can more successfully conceive of reality “as the sum of the imaginable rather than as the sum of what exists physically.” At any given point we see through the immediate—the Actual World—while all that is imaginable is happening in Alternate Possible Worlds. Too often we anchor our typical human minds in that one Actual World, and my video game is showing me so much more.

But that scream I hear in the distance has now ended, and I still don’t know where I am or where the house is that I want, so I must wander around, sliding between sheds and outbuildings, standing against fences until neighborhood dads are finished taking out the garbage, avoiding dogs because although I will kill them when they threaten to get loud and give me away, I get no credit for that. It’s just not worth the effort, and I want it to be worth the effort. You always do. That’s the whole point of this game.

And I get to the house that I’m pretty certain is the one she’s babysitting in tonight—it has to be because it’s so familiar to me—and I step softly on the hollow-sounding lava rocks in the landscaping under the windows, and I lift my head to look inside. The glass offers a weak ghost of a reflection of my mask, which is not the red one I just had on, but white, not one I’ve ever seen before, actually. And here she comes into view, strolling obliviously into the kitchen.

But it’s not her, not the one I want. It’s not even a babysitter. It’s some wrong lady in the wrong house. Nevertheless, she can make for a good warm-up—a few extra points, maybe even a quick level-up—so I work my way as slowly as the weather itself to her back porch, and I open the screen door. The poorly fitted aluminum screeches at the hinges. The sound is not something I expected, and since it works against me, I should get docked some points.

I turn the knob on the door, which has been left unlocked for me, and I ready my knife, but now I see that it’s not the knife I had chosen. It’s just a clear plastic bag. I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s heavy duty enough to withstand some struggling, and there are two handle-points for my grip, but I don’t feel prepared to use it.

And that’s when the porch light pops on.

I leap over the porch railing into the darkness, but I roll my ankle. I have a hard time moving without hissing in pain, so I huddle there.

The lady asks who is there, who it is, with her head high as if the night were going to answer.

And it will, for I leap with my good leg and net her head with the plastic bag. I pull her backward against the railing. She flails and gets a foot stuck between the pickets and is twisted back on herself, and I hang from the bag over her face. We balance like a scale. Her spine is the beam, and my body is the pan. I hang as if Osiris weighs my heart against the feather of Ma’at. If my heart is heavy in this, it will be devoured in the crocodilian mouth of Ammit, the god without worshippers. And my heart is not heavy in this.

When it is done, I walk away, onward through these reordered streets to seek the house I want, but I am slowed by this ankle. I need to inspect it, so I take the cover of some hedges, sliding down between their sharp combs. I should not have rolled my ankle. I let myself get thrown off by the randomized weapon. I won’t let it happen again.

I know you’re here, a voice says, much nearer than I could have expected.

I don’t turn to look around for him. He’s somewhere close enough nearby to see the rustle in the hedge if I make it, or to hear me again if I make any more noise. We are intimately close in this space, but we are only sounds to each other, like Yahweh calling to Abraham, calling to find him, and “behold,” says Abraham, “here I am.” And there he is indeed.

I’m putting an end to this, the voice says. Tonight.

It’s my able opponent. He’s found me. He’s likely looking at the corpse on the porch right now, where she lies twisted with the plastic bag suctioned across her face. He’s likely standing there with a revolver ready in his hand, scanning the area for me. And I worry that he’s got me pinned down and beaten. I worry that I’ve lost this run-through. I worry that his voice sounds too familiar. I worry that it might be my own.

I know you’re here, the voice says again.

He is right indeed—I am here—but he is so right that he is wrong: Behold, here I am. I am everywhere. And I shall begin again.

Reset.

And so stand at the base of a tree in some schoolyard, in a newly strange town. The grid of streets has turned; the buildings have rotated and snapped into different spots; this Haddonfield shifts in my hand like a puzzlebox. And I must beware in my turning of its locks, lest I end up on the inside.

I take new paths down these sidewalks, into the neighborhoods, into the shadows. I have a phantom pain in my ankle, but that will not matter, for I’m feeling lucky this run-through. I’m going to find her.

As I stalk the streets, I glimpse another shape stalking as well, a gray form in a horrid mask. I hide out of sight until he passes and is gone. We must not encounter ourselves. I must not encounter myself.

So then I continue through the yards, in the shadows. Like the scattering birds I wind between the houses, drawn to the ones with light in the windows, trying to get a sense of the voices inside. There is no way that I can think of to indicate such feelings or instincts during gameplay, but I’m certain the right programmer can sort that out, and I’m certain my instinct is kicking in now. I pause at the house that feels right.

I spend some time walking the perimeter of her house—not hers, exactly, but the house she’s babysitting in—spend some time stepping softly on the crisp, brown grass, staying against the vinyl siding except to work around the huge pile of leaves that haven’t been bagged, avoiding the light of the powerline lamp there in the back yard by the out-building. I should consider trying the windows that are dark, windows to rooms that are for the moment abandoned, but first I should try the back door. And I do. I try the knob, but it’s locked, as it should be. She’s smart and safety-minded, Connie is.

So I pick a dark window at the back corner of the house, and at this point in the game, most of us would consider cutting the phone lines. It’s something you see them do in the movies, and the game should accommodate such decisions if you wish to see them through. You should get bonus points for that kind of strategy—just a few—but these girls all have cell phones now, so that won’t be worth the effort. You could cut the power to the entire house, and that would be the right move for increasing her terror, but you don’t want this one terrified too soon. You don’t want Connie alerted. You want her to be calm and unaware as you stand close to her, breathing, as close as a lover, just before the moment comes.

You find a little garden spade nearby that hasn’t been used in months, not since it was warm, and you pry open that window, for it was merely painted shut, not locked. This takes a long while, a long while, requiring patience and time not quite to the level of opening the door in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but close to it. But you manage to ease it up in silent segments, and then you pull yourself inside and onto the floor of that abandoned bedroom at the back of the house, into her world, without having made a single human sound. That is essential for attaining the true archetype of Horror. In the archetype of the Quest—the binary opposite to Horror—the hero leaves home and crosses the threshold into the Otherworld, where he encounters strange beings while gaining allies, power, accomplishments, and self-actualization. But the archetype of Horror goes backward down that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, losing self-efficacy and allies, all the way down to the struggle for safety and survival. Rather than the hero crossing the threshold into the world of the Other, the Other crosses the threshold and invades the normal world. This is not just pure theory. I turn the knob on the bedroom door, and I creak open that door, and beyond this threshold, I observe the normal world of this house, the sound of the children watching a cartoon from some living room down the hall, the sight of the low lamplight toward the dining room, the smell of something cooking on the stove for their supper. It smells like tomato soup and grilled cheese, and Connie is talking on the phone to some friend of hers about trying to buy a better used car than the one she has, something reliable for going off to college. And the archetype of Horror is not mere theory, because I step across that threshold and stand there in the hallway, and no one in this world is yet aware that I have come. Behold, here I am.

From here, I can’t tell what cartoon the children are watching, but I like to think that it’s the 1955 Warner Brother’s classic “One Froggy Evening,” which most remember as featuring the “Hello, my baby, hello, my darling” frog. If they’re not watching that one, they are now. In all sincerity, I believe it illustrates with stark purity the archetype of Horror. The cartoon begins with a blue-collar protagonist who demolishes a building, and in its ruins—in a sealed tomb that he pries open—he finds an ancient (undying) frog. The frog dances and sings. Thus the Other has crossed the threshold into the normal world. That the frog is a beast with a human voice is Other enough, Inhuman enough, but to amplify the Horror, no human voice other than the frog’s is heard through the entire cartoon. When the human beings seem to speak to one another, they are muted behind glass; other times, they scheme and abuse each other wordlessly. Only the frog has voice. And the protagonist, with fantasies of ticket sales from sold-out shows of the frog’s performances, is overcome by his own greed. Thus he breaks the second moral law of the Ancient Greeks as inscribed at Delphi, mēdén ágan, “nothing in excess,” and welcomes his own decline down Maslow’s Hierarchy, down to pure survival, and by his flaw has welcomed his own inevitable doom.

That flaw—along with its accompanying doom—is as necessary as the mask. It is implication. It makes up one half of the finality of Horror: implication and inevitability. The singing frog might be sealed away again, for now, but he will return; men of greed will pry him free once more, and always once more. He will always come again, for he is inevitable.

I don’t know what Connie’s flaw might be, but I know that her doom is inevitable.

I move down the hallway toward the kitchen. The living room is wide with a tall ceiling and a front door that is near the television the children are watching. I see the backs of their little heads, and they don’t see me. I’m not even a shadow in the corner of their eyes. I don’t exist to them yet, but I’m there, right behind them. When this session is over—and I shall indeed let them pass through this session alive—in this Alternate Possible World their parents will finally have to explain death to them. It’s always there, right behind you, they’ll tell the children. It always was. You just didn’t know it. And what he has done for you—what he has done for all of us in this quaint little town—is to lift the veil. The Ancient Greek word for this lifting of the veil was ἀποκάλυψις, “apocalypse,” they will say to the children. He has delivered unto us apocalypse.

At the edge of the kitchen door, I hear Connie bright and clear now. She walks back and forth over the meal she is preparing, still talking on the phone not about boys or sex or gossip or shopping, but about grants and scholarships, majors, transfer credits, the sensible elements of the all too assumed future. I didn’t expect that of her, but I should have known. And there is no way to know whether she will happen to be facing my direction if I turn the corner and enter the kitchen with her. I could just peek quickly, but that would alert her just the same if she were facing my way, and it would be sheepish of me, an action suited for the timid, for the lambs that ought to be painted across such doorways. So I boldly go.

I stand in the kitchen with her. Her back is to me. She works with bread on the countertop, with her phone pinched to her ear by a shrugged shoulder. The refrigerator beside me kicks on audibly, but this does not garner any reaction out of her. She has worked as a babysitter in this house for many months now. She is used to the sounds it makes, to the sounds it does not make.

Now is the time for me to ready my weapon, but this time I forgot to select one, or to have one randomly selected for me. I am empty-handed.

Next to the refrigerator, on the counter far from her but within reach of me, there is no trivet this time, but there is a block of kitchen knives. So I take a larger handle at the top of the block, and I slide it out, imagining that the sound it makes has a slick sheen to the ear and that—though my drawing of the knife actually makes no sound—it ought to be there in the video game. So it makes the sound indeed.

And then I step closer to her.

She laughs about something said to her over the phone. I can hear the muffled voice of the person on the other end—that’s how close I am to Connie.

This gore will not be unnatural, merely inevitable. As we are reminded in the “Apocalyptic Narrative” of poet Rodney Jones: “Listen, only a thin layer of skin / Keeps us from squirting into the world.” The only question is which world that will be.

But I don’t raise the knife just yet. I want to stand this close for a moment longer. Her hair is right under my nose. I close my eyes and try to smell her slowly. And I do. The video game won’t be able to include smells, and I realize now what a tragedy that is. So I pause the game.

I take in through my nostrils what no one else will ever be able to.

My nostrils are outside of time. And they have life in them.

And when that’s over, when I open my eyes again, she is looking right up at me. Her face is frozen, her eyes bright, her mouth only just beginning to tremble, the subtle beginnings of an avalanche, her mind beginning to slip from the Actual World she was in, to the Alternate Possible World she is in now.

Now is when I lift the knife. I lift it above her, with clear demonstration, making sure to catch our reflection in it, the both of us together, the fleeting image of the girl and the mask. The girl’s face is so familiar in that quick mirror, but my mask shuffles through a thousand faces faster and faster at random. My mask is the Iroquois False-Face mask, the six-eyed Oni mask, the black mourning veil, the red Speaker of the Sea mask, a motorcycle helmet, the Frankenstein’s Creation mask, faster and faster, the Dia de los Muertos sugar-skull mask, a drape of chains, the mask of Itzpapalotl, the joint-surgeon face-shield mask, the carnival grotesque mask, the Man in the Iron Mask, faster and faster, a mask of purple and thorn, the two-faced mask of Janus, the great bascinet helmet, the mask of Nyarlathotep, an eldritch mask I cannot name, a mask that has no face but is not blank, a mask of all colors, a mask of none. I can’t keep up with them—they shuffle so fast—and I can’t help but watch the glitching permutations, mesmerized, my face scattering before me like an uncountable flock.

But she hits me with something heavy in the solar plexus, even before she screams. And she slides away to the side. I’m hurt—my in-game health meter drops—but I’ll be fine. I catch the back of her sweater—a pale wedding-like color—before she manages to flee the kitchen. I have a good grip on it, so I take just a second to breathe once or twice. She had knocked some of the air out of me. I see what she hit me with: a cast-iron trivet lies on the floor. Connie had reached out and found what didn’t exist in this session, and she used it against me. She’s innovative.

She’s screaming at the children, telling them to leave through the front door, to run to the neighbor’s house. She doesn’t tell them to call the cops—which would have added further confusion to their little minds—just to run and save themselves.

With her caught in my hand, I bring the knife up for a slice into her tenderloin along her spine, but she turns and makes a grab for the knife. Though she gets hold of it too, that will make no difference: I have leverage here and can bring the blade down on her regardless. But she guides it down with me, and we end up cutting through the fabric of her sweater together like a cake.

Now I just have a ball of sweater in my hand, and she’s free, and she takes off down the hallway, away from the front door, away from the direction the children are fleeing. She must be trying to bait me away from them, the babysitter with the heart of gold.

I follow her not with a rush—because of the phantom ankle—but with a steady march. She turns a corner, making clattering noises, making a sound of terror that isn’t so much a scream anymore as an ignoble bleat, which is unfortunate for this moment, aesthetically. I give her just a second to stop that noise, which I do not want to hear, and then I continue. I make my way around the corner too, and I don’t see her or hear her now, but to my left is a staircase leading up to the second floor, and to my right is the back door now standing wide open.

Which way?

This is where true Game Theory comes into play. What we have in this moment is a zero-sum game with two players, both of us with what is called imperfect information. We can call this scenario “The Game of Connie’s Ubiety.” She must be somewhere—her position being both exact and unknown—and she can be in only one of two directions: Did Connie open the back door and flee outside as it appears? Or did she open the back door as a diversion and instead flee upstairs? Should I go outside, or upstairs? A zero-sum game with two players and two options creates a strategic form game matrix of four Alternate Possible Worlds:

1. I go outside, and Connie went outside. For Connie, her choice would have been left obvious to me, relinquishing her advantage afforded by my imperfect information. In this Alternate Possible World, I have time to spot her, catch her, and kill her. I win.

2. I go outside, but Connie went upstairs. For Connie, this would be the ideal scenario, the purpose of her (possible) diversion. In this Alternate Possible World, I waste time trying to find where she went outside, much more time than I would have spent searching the enclosed upper floor of the house. In that uncertain time—ten minutes, maybe more—Connie could take numerous defensive actions or alternate escape routes before I finally make my way back to the house and up the stairs, and I probably lose.

3. I go upstairs, and Connie went upstairs. For Connie, this was her necessary gamble in hopes of the better scenario in which I am fooled (2, above). In this Alternate Possible World, I catch her and kill her. I win.

4. I go upstairs, but Connie went outside. For Connie, this would be an unexpected move on my part, thus not one that she had prepared to take advantage of. In this Alternate Possible World, I search the upstairs quickly enough, and then go back downstairs and outside, likely with enough time to track her, catch her, and kill her. I win.

Just like the Battle of the Bismarck in 1943 between American and Japanese forces, there is no dominant strategy equilibrium, but through the process of eliminating dominated strategies for both of us—assuming both players are rational in that they choose intelligent options, and Connie is such a player—there does end up being a weak-dominance equilibrium: North–North in 1943, Upstairs–Upstairs right now.

I run upstairs.

There she is.

She stands ready to fight me, for, behold, here I am.

Behind her in the master bedroom, the closet is open, and all the dresser drawers are open, and clothes are flung everywhere. She had been looking for a gun—hoping for one—but all she holds is a baseball bat. It appears that the owners of this house subscribed to the inexplicable urban myth of the home-defense baseball bat. There are likely numerous explanations for why such people invest their faith so foolishly—they are probably the same kind who pray to that celestial god in the clouds—but the only hypothesis that comes to my mind at the moment is that, as historian Jacques Barzun says, baseball is Quest, an odyssey away from Home, around the known world in danger, and back again, so the bat must seem like the hero’s archetypical sword.

To avoid Bulverism, according to C.S. Lewis, I need to demonstrate not why I am right but that I am right in the uselessness of a bat. She readies for a swing with not enough room to complete it, of course, and I kick her wrists. The bat drops from her hands.

I grab her throat and charge forward with her, pinning her to the bed. She can’t get away now. She’s on her back. Her throat is clutched. Her legs are pinned under mine. Her scratching fingers are useless.

With my other hand I want to raise the knife, but it is so much heavier now. I look, and it’s not the knife I just had. It’s a little pronged spear, a golden trident maybe, or a kind of large, barbed arrow catching the glint of lights that I cannot find. I don’t know what to call this thing other than random. But it’s not truly random—as it would be if it were suddenly a bathtub, or a pomegranate, or a river of oil—no, it’s still a weapon, so although it’s arbitrary, it follows a pattern. Donald was right, even here.

But that is no matter. I am over Connie with this trident, and she swoons before me, for what I bring her is not death but ecstasy. This is how it always is, and this is why we are meant to fit together, killer and victim, celestial and terrestrial, in perfect harmony. This is the transverberation of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, and we, like she, are in a marble moment of eternity. I can hear her speak it now not with her voice but in her own head, before it happens, quoting Saint Teresa of Avila, I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.

And I welcome her thanks, and I consider where to pierce her first, and from what angle, and where to draw it out and begin again. There are so many ways to complete this, so many slices, so many patterns, some geometric, some random, so many patterns that were there to be cut into her body from the beginning of time, even if there had been no way of predicting it, though it was inevitable. I opt for something clean and direct, to plunge the trident straight down into her heart. So I prepare the lift, and that’s when I hear the voice in my head, something I was not expecting, Don’t do it. Let her go. Get away from her.

It is a voice as familiar as a mirror, but it cannot be. I do not hear my own heart beating under the floorboards, where I would have hidden it—after cutting it out of my chest—so that it would tell no tale. No, it is the voice of another. Or is that not right? Did I indeed? Is it my own voice indeed?

Keeping Connie pinned, I turn to see.

It’s Donald.

He stands at the bedroom door, and he has that revolver. It’s aimed and ready for me.

I knew I’d find you here, he says to me. I always did. And I always will. We are a pattern, you and I.

I lunge off the bed to stab him, but he shoots. And he shoots again. I fall back. I can’t tell whether I’m hit. I don’t quite feel the wounds, but maybe they’re there. I’m backed up against the window pane, and that’s when Connie gets up and shoves me with all her might.

I break through.

I fall.

I hit a pile of dry leaves, the leaves I have seen before. I roll out and take off running into the night. But I need not worry. I can rest and recover. This Haddonfield is a fine and private place, and I have world enough and time. This is not Game Over. I’ll come back, and I always will, and I was always going to. I’ll shift this puzzlebox in my hand once again, this place that surrounds me like scattering birds in a dream. I have done this in the past and in the future a number of times that is exact and unknowable, so in theory, this is infinite. Behold, here I am. I am everywhere. I am inevitable.

Reset.


***


Josh Woods’ publishing credentials include numerous short stories in literary reviews and anthologies such as Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, The Nevada Review, Black and Grey Magazine, XX Eccentric Women: Stories About the Eccentricities of Women, and the Surreal South anthology series, among other places. His non-fiction includes craft essays and creative non-fiction in publications such as Prime Number Magazine and The Susquehanna Review. He is Editor of three anthologies: Surreal South ’13 (Press 53, 2013), The Book of Villains (Main Street Rag, 2011), and The Versus Anthology (Press 53, 2009). His awards include two Pushcart Prize nominations and a Press 53 Open Award in Fiction.