Darwin felt as though he had two major secrets in life. The first one was the type that sci-fi movies and bad books had made him too scared to ever share, lest he end up in a lab somewhere. The second was one that he knew would probably get him laughed out of the office. That’s why, every morning before work, Darwin had a ritual that he never deviated from. Blue contacts. Tall men’s suits that hung a little loose. Extra-worn nail files. These items were Darwin’s mask. The mask that stopped anyone from finding out his first secret: that his eyes were red, that his muscles were embarrassingly large and that his nails had come pre-sharpened.
The second secret Darwin kept, the one he was most worried about breaking his cool guy persona, was ironically one shared by many people at the same office. He was a gamer. He spent his nights with a group of people he had never met face to face in a mystical world of magic and swords, where he and every one of the ten million other people playing were there to save the day. He was a hero. He was Arch Lance Ser NightVale, the great level 72 White Knight Commander of the StormGuard Alliance and leader of the 2nd Hope raid group. He smote vile criminals at the tip of his spear and saved damsels in distress in his free time. He knew that this fact, out of all the facets of his otherwise rather tedious existence, would bring him the type of shame that lasts for generations.
No matter how shameful this secret might have been, however, he just couldn’t stop playing. Day in and day out, he was at the computer. He didn’t even pause his game to eat. It was always ramen, spaghetti or rice consumed in front of his computer. The only things that let him know when holidays were coming up or his birthday was near were the in-game notifications and prizes that gave the otherwise uneventful days like Christmas a meaning. After all, games offer double rewards and extra bonuses for grinding on Christmas.
Grinding in games was something he looked forward to so much that he even got off on little inside jokes about the activity. He had told his coworkers, for example, that he was going to spend the entire time this Christmas grinding with his special girl. They asked if he had any other plans, and he just winked, nudged a co-worker with his elbow and said, “Yeah, we’re going to go to the mountains where there will be plenty of staff usage.” He thought he sounded cool, and no one had the heart to tell him otherwise.
And that was exactly where Darwin found himself on Christmas–grinding in the mountains. In fact, after reaching Mount Horandur, he had managed to kill more Frost Drakes than any other knight on the server. It may have had something to do with the little details that he rarely ever slept and wasn’t hampered by ridiculous burdens like family dinners or having Christmas presents to open.
It was for this reason that he was stunned when, around 8 p.m. on Christmas Day, there was a knock on his door. He moved to get up from his swivel chair then stopped himself. He was in a robe and slippers, his contacts were sitting in their case on the bathroom sink and his unfiled nails were starting to resemble claws. Who would be going door to door at this time and on this day? Darwin wondered if he should walk quietly over to the front door and peek at who his visitor was, but . . . No. Without his mask in place, it was too risky. He quickly looked around to reassure himself that all the lights were off and then, for good measure, turned the volume on his computer all the way down. The quiet persisted for a few minutes, punctuated only by the clicking of his mouse and keyboard, during which time he couldn’t bear to look away from the game for more than a few seconds at a time. Until the knocking began again. Three taps and then the doorbell, which no one had ever used, rang. It was a sound he felt he should have recognized, though he couldn’t recall a time when he had merited any visitors.
Go away! He wanted to shout. I’m not home!
Whomever it was did not go away. Darwin decided that it must be Mrs. Old Lady from across the street, probably bringing him leftover Christmas cookies. He was also seriously considering that they might be a delicious-enough treat to warrant putting in his contacts. Another knock came, more forceful, and then a sound as if someone had body-slammed his door. It was the sound of splintering, cracking wood.
Darwin stood up abruptly. He thought he heard footsteps in the entryway. Darwin froze and then grabbed the only pointed object he could find: a butter knife. He made his way through the front hall as quietly as possible, chastising himself as he went for how each step he took towards the unknown assailant was too loud. He rued his choice of flooring. Why did I have to go with a hardwood floor? Carpet wouldn’t creak like this!
Unfortunately for Darwin, his two worst fears about the burglar having a gun and having heard him were both true. The burglar’s footsteps sounded out in a terrifying, Jaws-soundtrack-like vibrations as they approached him in the hallway. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. Darwin clenched the blunt-tipped, edgeless blade and frantically looked around for anything that might be more effective than his butter knife. +1 against spaghetti, Darwin thought.
Thump thump. Thump thump. How long does it take to cross the living room into a hallway, you idiot? Just get this over with already! He yelled in his head, jumped out and threw the butter knife as hard as he could in the direction the sounds were coming from.
The surprising thing, to both the burglar and Darwin, was that the blade hit the burglar directly in his right eye. Although the blade failed to penetrate, the would-be assailant fell to the floor clutching his eye and squeezing the trigger on his gun repeatedly.The shots missed. Not waiting for the burglar to get back up, Darwin dashed at him and kicked the burglar’s face as the thief made a comic attempt to hold his eye, get up, and not lose the gun at the same time. Success! He probably should have stopped kicking, but Darwin had seen far too many action and horror movies to not make his best attempt at a “double tap” as he kept stomping on the man’s face over and over again. Slippers of +10 Face Smashing.
It was then that something even more extraordinary than the robbery happened. A small, blue status window popped up in the corner of his field of vision. “You have gained 285 experience points!” it read as a ding sounded inside his head. “You have reached Level 2!” “You have reached Level 3!” Have I lost it? 285 experience points? Th . . . This isn’t a game. Level 2? Level 3? Wha . . . What is going on?
As soon as the questions popped into his head, a status window appeared. It showed a picture of him silhouetted, his arms spread wide like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and his clothes off to the side with lines connecting them to the appropriate body parts. Is this . . . me? he wondered, looking at the numbers and “attributes” listed to the left of the image of him in the status window. Upon seeing all the numbers next to each attribute, his gamer instincts kicked in. He studied each attribute, looking for its benefits and trying to read what each did. Darwin would likely have kept fiddling around with the status window until work started the next year if it wasn’t for the sudden white light that shot up from under his feet. A ding sounded again, and one final message window appeared in front of him before the light consumed his field of vision.
- Welcome home, Darwin.