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Kid's Game MAG
We watched stoically as blood blossomed from newly carved fang marks on his shoulder. His eyes widened in surprise, then terror. We did nothing as his arms flailed wildly – though no one could help him in his descent. As he screamed, his body disappeared, then reappeared on the lower part of the board.
“I knew he shouldn't have stolen that gum. Clear violation. I don't care what you say about the Players, stealing is obviously a bad deed, even if it was yours in the first place.”
“It was his turn,” Archie said in his nasal voice, checking that sacred schedule of his. “Has Trish gone already? Gosh, it's almost time for me … Where's the Kitten Gang?”
I ignored his question and started down the street, already thinking about dinner instead of the spectacle I just beheld. Fred was a good guy, but this place does bad things to you, even though it's a game about doing good deeds. All good deeds are risky.
Archie jogs in his non-athletic way to catch up, pushing his glasses up to cover his watering eyes. “You're lucky the Players don't consider rudeness like that ‘bad.' By my calculations, you're next, Plie!”
“Whatever. I'm not worried. I may advance at a slow pace, but I know the Players. You have the mind of a genius, Arch, but I have the mind of a criminal.”
“Wait,” said Archie, still struggling to match my pace, “you're implying the Players are akin to criminals?”
“There's no ‘akin' about it!” I reply. “Imprisoning us? Forcing us to play their game? Can you imagine a more criminal act?”
Finally, I'd left Archie and his obnoxious vocabulary at a loss for words. He may have all these theories about the mindset and logic of the Players, but there's only one thing I need to know to survive: The Players, though their values are righteous, are merciless and rotten to the core.
A lot of things about this place are twisted, and the backward alignment of the Players is only the icing on the cake. Though the difference between “good” and “bad” deeds is pretty clearly defined, there's no formula for how far on the board a good deed will take you. Holding the door open for someone could move you 10 spaces, while baking a cake for someone might get you two. By that logic, it's pointless to try too hard, but people are always doing it anyway, grasping for a sort of logic in this chaos.
“Yo, Arch,” I holler to Archie, who is taking notes on a guy who just disappeared. The kid's smart like that, he keeps track of what the Players penalize people for so he can be careful not to repeat their mistakes. I'm too lazy for that. “You got any grub? Maybe a Chain Meal Letter?”
“Always. You'd get 'em too if you were in the loop,” Archie replies, still focused across the street. From the look of the lady clutching her purse and the dagger abandoned on the sidewalk, some loser thief just got his butt sent back to square one. Can't blame him, though. Money may be useless here, but giving it to someone is still a “good” deed, and a purseful of cash could let you ride that train right to the end of the game.
“I'm not going to cook a meal for a stranger just to move ahead.” I laugh.
“Giving people food is a surefire good deed, and I'm not taking any chances. The sooner I move ahead, the better.” Archie takes his final notes on the failed mugging, elderly woman still quaking in her shoes. “And if you happen to move ahead in the process, so be it.”
He glares at me smugly. I've been in this game a lot longer than he has, and yet we're both hovering somewhere around the middle of the board. Whenever I'm not ridiculing him for being a nerd, he's getting on my case for being a lazy idiot.
I glance at the weapon minus a robber – just another reminder that brawn gets you nowhere here when you're always being watched. Smarts are what's important, knowing what can slip by and what gets you nailed by a vicious reptile. Archie knows this; he only keeps me around to prevent anyone with less self-control from doing what I want to do right now. A broken arm is still a broken arm, even if the other guy gets a face full of snake, and with no doctors around, a sling made out of your never-washed shirt is the highest form of medicine we have.
“Fine,” I snarl, bowing my head like a dog before its master. “You're a genius. I'm your wall of meat. Can I eat now?”
“Yes, you may,” Archie says, not like a sarcastic overlord but a genuine friend. Is this just part of his goody-two-shoes act? Is my happiness and friendship just a step on his ladder to the last square on the board?
We walk together toward the rundown house we share with six other players, all as godforsaken and twisted as us. God, I hate this game.
“So, Arch,” I mumble through a mouthful of mashed potatoes some stranger made for us, “you really going to seek out the Kitten Gang?”
“It's not too late, right?” he asks, reaching for the peas. I could take this as some kind of jab at the fact that I've been here so long I must know everyone, but I think nothing of it.
“I don't think so,” I respond. “They guarantee at least 40 squares, right?”
“And by my calculations …” Archie begins. I snort white slop through my nose, humored by the immense nerdiness he emanates without even trying. He laughs too, both at how cliché he is and the sight of pulverized tuber coming out my nostrils. “By the knowledge I have amassed over a period of time,” he sarcastically corrects as I soak a napkin in mashed potatoes and snot, “the board has around 100 squares, so we should have at least 40 ahead of us.”
Trying to mimic his voice, I proclaim, “And by my calculations, the Kitten Gang will grind you to a pulp for daring to ask!”
Archie rolls his eyes. “But I've got you, the big scary gangster who can't eat mashed potatoes!”
We both laugh. Of course, if we were normal teens, this would be the time when one of us thows mashed potatoes at the other, followed by a string of insults, perhaps a little wrestling, and we'd take baths and go to bed. We see it in each other's eyes, we want to act like the kids we are.
Too bad we can't. Not with the Players watching us all the time. Being a prim little do-gooder might get you ahead in the game, but it sure does put a limit on friendships. Even though we're expected to be perfect, where's the fun in that?
Thankfully, one of the people in our house knows where the Kitten Gang is. Those guys are wretched criminals, but they're even more meticulous about the mechanics of this place than Archie. They've gained strength through their information-gathering skills, which allowed them to put a monopoly on kittens before anyone else did. It sounds crazy, but these yahoos discovered that rescuing a kitten from a tree is about the highest-paying good deed. Since they used to be a gang of criminals, one guy must've done the kitten thing on a whim, but then did so many bad deeds he ended up back where he started. He told his gang about how he got so far ahead, and there you go, the origin of the Kitten Gang.
But of course, they didn't gain possession of all the cats just to let people move ahead easily. At heart, they're all greedy thieves, only stopped by the Players. They must not think getting to the end of the game is worth playing nice. Heck, for all I know, all that happens when you get to the end is that you go back to the beginning. So instead, they get you to steal food or kill people, and in return they let you rescue a kitten. And if they don't like you or you let them down, they know all the ways to get back at you under the Players' radar.
Of course, this doesn't stop Archie the Wonder Boy. Once we figure out the Kitten Gang's location, he doesn't hesitate to head over there. He doesn't even get a weapon, so good thing I brought a knife.
The Gang finds us before we find them. Right after we take a right into an alley, there's a guy following us, then two more, until we're surrounded. We make it to the warehouse, but I can feel their cold steel against my throat, ordering me to do some horrid act.
A man, obviously the gang master, comes from the warehouse, sizing us up, grinding a toothpick. “What can I do for ya, small fry?”
“I want to rescue a kitten,” Archie answers coolly, looking the gangmaster straight in his reptilian eyes.
The man grins, chewing his toothpick with a sickening crunch. “I don't think you can pay, tough guy. Why don't you go help an old lady cross the street instead?” His cronies laugh.
“I can do it. I want to win,” Archie answers, sweat dripping down his face. The man's smile widens, knowing he's close to breaking him. I'm beginning to doubt they'll take Archie's offer seriously.
“Oooh, Little Timmy wants to win, huh?” The gangmaster bends to look Archie in the eye. I can smell his rotten breath from here, and I see the shadow of a weapon concealed behind his back. “But are you ready to gamble, kid? You know what happens to the people who don't win?”
Archie doesn't answer. As much as he's studied “bad deeds,” I know he's never been convicted of one, so he doesn't know what it feels like. Anyone who's been here long enough knows exactly what happens, especially this notorious gang. Their hunched backs are probably peppered with double-circle scars, while Archie's is as unscathed as a baby's butt. Around here, there's something shameful about never being bitten; scars are a kind of badge of honor.
The man orbits Archie menacingly, his sneer growing with the thrill of the predator taking down its prey. “First, there's the initial shock. You know it right away, but those Players? They give you a few seconds, let you boil in your sweat before they strike.”
Some of the gang members snicker. They know the experience, and they've perfected its terrorizing power to a science they can use, and Archie is their current test subject. They're trying to play God, rebelling against the Players by using their own weapons against them.
“Then you hear the monster behind you,” the gangmaster continues. “It's a sound you'll never hear any other time in your life … indescribable. Some pass out just from that.” His minions start hissing, then break out in sinister giggles. Everyone here but Archie knows it sounds nothing like that, but it breaks Archie's stern exterior, and starts grinding him down. My mind begins racing, but I don't see a way out of this. Archie can always navigate tight spots, but this must be too much for him. I force myself to remain vigilant, waiting for an opportunity.
A crocodile grin stretches the man's face. “And then, of course, you see the snake. Just for a second. Everyone around you shrieks and runs, but you, you stay still, looking into the monster's eyes. It grins at you with satisfaction, enjoying your terror.
“And then,” the man continues softly, putting one hand on Archie's shoulder, moving the other from behind his back. Archie stares into space, experiencing every moment of the gangmaster's tale, too engulfed in fear to notice his movements.
“It strikes!” The man raises his arm, brandishing a taser, crackling with electricity. Its target remains still, frozen like a deer in headlights, paralyzed by his manipulative words. The gangmaster's eyes alight with joy, cackling at the idea of fresh kill.
I move swiftly, swinging at the taser, but he gets me in the arm. I hold my blackened flesh, my fingers twitching with electricity. The man glares at me for ruining his fun.
“Bodyguard, huh? Should've known you'd get in the way. A toy like this wouldn't kill you, and it'd take too much effort to do away with you without getting caught ….”
Released from the man's spell, Archie gazes at me, mouth open. His eyes, for the first time, drown in confusion. He begins to comprehend the buzzing object the gangmaster holds, and my charred arm. He says my name once, then collapses to the ground on his butt. I almost laugh, from both fear and relief.
“Listen, Muscles,” the man sweet-talks me, changing like a chameleon, having noticed the bulges under my T-shirt sleeves and the knife in my belt. “I don't want no trouble, and I don't imagine you do, either. We're on thin ice, you know, the Players have their eyes on us, waiting for one of us to slip up.”
He throws his taser to the ground which is supposed to give me some comfort, but I'm still surrounded by at least fifty men who'll do whatever he says.
“How's about we settle on a trade? We'll let you two go, save us the trouble of a possible snake attack and cleaning up the mess. Even letcha do the kitten thing? Alls you gotta do is get rid of your friend. He's weak, but he knows too much. You don't know what he's thinking, crafty little bugger. The smart ones can't be trusted.”
Archie looks at me with wide eyes. Suddenly our positions are swapped: he's the dog, and I'm the master. He glances at the dagger I hold in my hand. He's seen me kill people with this dagger (because of him, of course) and he can't comprehend why it's pointed at him. But I can also see in his eyes that the logical part of him understands. We are both alley rats, like everyone else, surviving only by leaning on each other. But in the end, this is a vicious place driven by merciless tyrants. Our teamwork was a marriage of convenience. We worked together, though always knowing that the mechanics of this place would eventually tear us apart. Archie had led us into this, and if one of us had to be left behind, it would be him. Reasonable as always, Archie would have it no other way.
But then, Archie didn't befriend me for my reason. It was for the criminal I am at heart, and even murderers know what loyalty is. I turn my gaze from my real friend to the pretender, whose grin begins to waver.
“You think I'd help someone like you?” I snarl, raising my blade. “Someone who uses others to their advantage, not caring who they steamroll along the way?”
Staring death in the face, the gangmaster loses his confidence, desperately attempting to get away. His gang members block his way, shunning their leader in his fall from grace, looking at me now with respect instead of contempt.
“You've built yourself a mountain of lies,” I half-shout. “And I have just one person to lean on, a person who will stick with me, no matter what.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Archie is holding back tears.
I tower over the quaking, broken man. “Now let's see which one of us is on top,” I say, wielding the instrument of death.
Strangely enough, his minions do nothing. They just look at each other, a few forming smaller groups, and walk away. I would have expected a few to come at me, even if only for the sake of fighting. Truly, the gangmaster's throne was constructed out of fear.
Archie regains his composure once the danger passes, standing next to me as we watch the end of the man's disgraceful life.
Absentmindedly, he cleans my bloody dagger on his shirt. I say nothing, but he knows what that means. “Plie, isn't it–”
“Yeah,” I stop him, “it's definitely my turn. And I will be convicted. I have no advanced, undetected technology like his taser. You know what's going to happen once he takes his last breath.”
Archie watches the torn man gasp for life. He knows he can't be saved, and we wouldn't want to even if it was possible. And yet, a part of him is willing to do anything for me, even saving a man who tried to kill him.
A bright light draws my attention from the corpse, and I tap Archie's shoulder. He sees a glistening ladder leading to the heavens, waiting for him to take hold of its rungs.
He opens his mouth to question me, but sees my sparkling dagger. His natural kindness has turned against him, and he begins to sputter in disbelief.
“But you, you … you saved me! And I'm the one who moves ahead? That doesn't make sense! Where's the logic? Don't the Players–”
“No. They don't, and you know that. They're robotically logical. I killed a man, and you cleaned something for me. That's all they see, that's all they take into account. Nothing we can do about it.”
He begins to argue, but stops himself. He looks at the ladder again, but doesn't accept its promise of victory. “I'm going to watch you go.”
For once, I feel surprised. He knows I wouldn't hold anything against him for going up the ladder before the snake comes for me. It's not weakness to not want to see your friend's pain, it's almost a kind of strength. But this is no longer a question of Archie's strength, it's about his loyalty, repaying my favor in the only way he can.
Just as the gangmaster said, I hear slithering behind me. But Archie's eyes are callous; all they see coming is the Players' injustice.
“I'll wait for you,” he whispers. “On the next level. I'll wait 'til you get up there.”
“You don't have to,” I answer. As the last word escapes my lips, I hear the metallic gunshot sound of the snake launching into its strike.
Archie looks at me, stoic as ever even though two fangs now stick out of my chest. “But I do have to. I can't play this game without you.”
The poison seeps into my heart can't match the pain I am feeling at having to leave him. “Okay, I'll come as fast as I can. I'll bake lots of cakes and clean lots of bloody daggers.”
Archie tries to laugh, watching as I dissolve, slipping away to the bottom of the board. Leaving us alone to face the adult world we children are forced into. Compelled to be perfect to survive, to live and die by our mistakes.
Snakes and Ladders should not be a kids' game.