“Would you… Would you just look at that sunset? Isn’t it gorgeous?”
“Stop trying to change the subject.”
“I’m not, it’s just… Ellie, look at what’s around us, look at this place! Have you ever–”
“Seen anything so beautiful in my life? Of course I have Allen, and you have too, so don’t act like you’re not ignoring my question. We’ve seen hundreds of sunsets, hundreds of other beautiful places, and each one was just as gorgeous as the last in their own way, and we’ll see hundreds more. But to do that means we can’t stay here. You know that just as well as I do, so stop pretending otherwise, and answer me: Are you ready to go?”
“And what if I’m not, Ellie? What if I say no?”
“Then… Then I can’t wait any longer for you. I’d… I’d have to–”
“You’d leave without me?”
“… Yes, Allen. I would.”
Their headsets clicked, and a modulated voice chimed in their ears: “Folks, that’s the end of your session, it’s gonna be another twenty credits each if you wanna keep going.”
“Allen… Are you ready?”
She held a palm out, and glanced at the plastic Laser Tag gun in his hands.
He looked down at the toy, stared at its sleek, baby blue trigger and translucent barrel, at the coiled purple cord trailing from its bright red stock to the digital chestplate on his orange vest, and tightened his grip.
“Ellie, I’m… I don’t think I can be ready. I don’t want you to go, I don’t want to do this without you–”
“–but what if this is it for me? What if this is all I have left?”
“All you have le– What’re you even getting out of this, what’s the point?”
“That– that’s just it! The points!”
“Ok, and then what?”
“You get the points, and then what? Do you get to keep them? Are they converted into credits, which you’ll probably then spend trying to get more points and just repeat the process?”
“… You’re asking a lot of questions.”
“Because you aren’t, Allen! There’s no point to the points! Maybe you can get something with them here, your name goes up on a big billboard for eternity or whatever, but that’s it, that’s as far as they go: here, and only here. They’re fake, just imaginary numbers stored in some digital counter that you’ll never see. Maybe you can turn them into real credits, some sorta metal token you can touch, hold, or a strip of perforated bits of paper you can tear off and barter for some cheap prize you can buy, take home, and forget about––and then what do you really have to show for it? That stupid trinket that amused you once and is now taking up space in a closet you barely use, that was worth your effort? Your time?”
“I don’t care about the prizes, I don’t care about the credits, it’s…”
He looked up at the screen towering over the top of the Laser War Dome, displaying the avatars of the top one hundred players. His avatar was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ve never beaten my high score.”
Ellie sighed and turned away, gazing at the GIF of the sunset projected on the wall next to her. “I didn’t think that mattered anymore, Allen.”
“It does. It… It still matters to me.”
“What do you mean why, shouldn’t that be obvious?”
“Maybe in your head, Allen, but I don’t have access to inside that like you do, so–”
“If I beat it, then I can…”
“Can what? So you can then say you beat it, that it? You just wanna brag, say you got more points than so-and-so and that somehow makes you better?”
“No! That’s– that’s– That just sounds egotistical, and this is not about my ego!”
“No? It’s not about seeing yourself up there again, seeing your name next to all the points you got, seeing all the people below you who just couldn’t get as many as you? As if the significance in their entire existence is somehow connected with what they’ve earned.”
“Ellie, please don’t turn this into some grand philosophical discussion, I think you’re making this out to be way bigger than it really is. Trying to make it seem so… deep and significant is just– Really, it’s poin–” He stopped himself with a groan.
“Mhmm, mhmm. Do you even see what you just did there, Allen? You ascribed a score to everything I’ve just said, tallied it up, and concluded it was zero. I’m not the one making this out to be bigger than it really is: you are.”
“So what’s your high score? Hmm? Have you ever even had one?”
She tilted her head and took a step back, eyeing him. A smile slowly blossomed on her lips, faint and crooked, bitter and without humor. As she undid the Velcro straps of her vest and let it drop to the floor, she said, “I wouldn’t know, Allen. I’ve never even checked. It’s just a game, one of many just like it or completely different but all with the same purpose: To have fun. This is a fun game, I’ll give it that, but the best part of playing it is always whoever I’m playing it with. I don’t care about the score, I just wanna laugh and run around like kids with someone who’s doing the same thing and having just as much fun as me. Then when it’s over we’re still laughing and talking about everything that just happened, but we don’t even notice the billboard ‘cause we’re already walking away with our eyes on the next game, still laughing about the last one, laughing ‘cause we know we’re gonna do the same thing in the next one and the one after that and so on and so on, and that we’ll be laughing the whole time. Can you get all that with your points? ‘Cause I don’t know ‘bout you, but I think my prize sounds a lot better than yours, if you’re gonna do the whole ‘keeping score’ thing.”
With an electronic hip-hop beat fused underneath, a klaxon suddenly blared from the speakers overhead, and an announcer shouted: “New high score!”
Their attention turned to the billboard, watching the respective player’s avatar performing its animated victory dance and customary urination on the list of all the other contenders.
“It’s not about being better than anyone else, Ellie,” Allen said with a sigh, turning to her. His eyes were moist, and he sounded tired. “It’s not about the points, or the prizes, seeing my name. Not any of that. It’s more like… That first time it happened, it felt like reaching a new bar in something, some sort of accomplishment that meant something. I realized I had done something I’d never done before, and I could keep going and going and that sense of accomplishment was just another win away. And each time I could be… better.”
“That’s a lot of somethings, like even you aren't sure what they are. Better than what, everyone else?”
“No. Better than myself.”
“... Oh, Allen.” Now her eyes became moist, and she smiled again, but with none of the bitterness from last time; there was still little humor in it, but its shape and subtlety told of its affection and endearment, and hinted at the sadness underneath, kept secure only by the strength of the love within.
“That’s not something one can do. You can’t be better than yourself, you’re never anything but yourself, how can you be better than what you already are? You can improve––that’s something you can do. You can move from one point in your–”
He chuckled when he heard ‘point,’ and relaxed a bit from the relief of finding humor again.
“Shut up. You go from one point in your life to the next, and you either take with you everything you’ve gained or you lose some on the way, but either way it doesn’t matter ‘cause now you’re in a new place and what you kept or didn’t keep won’t change that. It’s just either tools to help you figure out the next move or it’s just extra baggage to take with you, and you gotta learn what’s what and how to make more tools out of it if you can. You’re not climbing some ladder hoping you can get higher than you were before, you’re in a game that only goes forward, has a beginning nobody understands, and you can’t start over. It’s got no clear objective, except to just keep moving, don’t get stuck. There’s traps and pitfalls along the way, other games to divert your attention from the real one, all designed to stop you going forward, to laden you with pointless things that look so nice and shiny at the time but just end up slowing you down in the long run. Why get bogged down with a high score when there’s no score at the end, how’re that ‘sposed to help you move forward when it only goes up in some chart that doesn’t exist and doesn’t even affect the game? Allen… Please. Let’s just go home.”
He stared at the GIF of the sunset, his expression unmoving. For a moment, she thought he was going to tell her to go without him––she dreaded it––but the harsh rip of his Velcro straps being undone said otherwise, and nearly brought a tear to her eye.
“Alright,” he said as he undid the other strap and let his vest fall on the floor alongside hers. “You win,” he weakly joked, his hand shaking as he grasped hers. “Alright,” he softly repeated.
She tenderly rubbed the back of his hand. She started to say something, then just quietly chuckled to herself and led him towards the exit, her eyes never straying from his. Her smile returned, this time not with humor or bitterness but with joy and hope; the sadness appeared gone, and as they walked arm-in-arm towards the exits, staring at each other all the while, a smile skeptically found its way to his lips, gained confidence, and soon matched hers. The voice in their headsets admonishingly reminded them they would have to pay for the extra time they had spent in the game, even if they hadn’t been playing it; their grins quickly grew into laughter as they began jogging towards the exit, ignoring the helpless pleading of the voice in the headset who kept telling them to stop, but had realized they weren’t going to.
They had broken into a full sprint by the time they reached the doors, and the hip-hop beat and klaxon suddenly blared once more, and the announcer shouted again, “New high score!”
But they never saw who had now obtained that coveted position, for that had already raced through the door and left the building, laughing the whole time.