A Ranger is Useful
May 31st, 2015. 9:36 PM.
“SEE YOU IN VALHALLA,” Uncle Ruckus shouts as his avatar blasts an RPG at the alien warship.
“COMS! COMS!” Turbo Cakes yells.
I mow down a group of aliens with an automatic grenade launcher. A little notification pops up in the lower-left corner of the screen: Do-Over just got a Penta-kill!
“Turbo, if you yell ‘coms,’ you aren’t helping the situation. Just take off the headset and wait for him to stop screaming,” I say, pulling off my headset and tossing it on the beige couch cushion.
“DO-OVER, DON’T GO RADIO SILENT! DIE, YOU PRICKLESS ALIEN BASTARDS,” the tinny sound of Uncle Ruckus’ voice blares out of my headset.
Turbo Cakes squeals, “UNCLE RUCKUS, I SWEAR TO GOD, IF YOU DON’T STOP SCREAMING RIGHT NOW.”
Bobbing and weaving in place, I obliterate alien after alien. My two friends, Uncle Ruckus and Turbo Cakes both take a death ray to the face and die, but not me. My mom always wanted me to play the piano, but the gaming controller is my real instrument. I tune out my friends’ argument and try to focus on the game. I am owning, even Mozart would be proud. Then my internet starts hiccupping.
I snatch the squalling headset back up and shout into the mic, “Guys, I just started lagging, cover me.” I don’t think Uncle Ruckus or Turbo Cakes heard me before the internet cut out. I stare at the flickering screen, bright blue aliens taunting me while my character is frozen in place.
“Crap,” I sigh and stand. My room is an organized clutter. It’s sanitary but messy. I pick up Lead Space and stack it on the leaning Jenga tower of Xbox games. Of course, it had to come out two days before we go to summer camp.
I stare down the little “M” on Lead Space’s precious plastic cover. I can still hear that mocking tough-guy voice from the commercial say, “Play the deadliest game of the summer. Rated M, for mature.” The game’s splash art on the cover is badass. Blue aliens with guns on their tails fire off lasers at the buff G.I. Joe rip-off characters. One of the muscle-heads is shielding a shirtless chick from the gunfire, and a little tagline reads, “She’s humanity’s last chance!” I glance back at the frozen, flickering TV. I don’t get it, what’s so mature about pixelated blood and boobs?
Myself, Turbo Cakes, and Uncle Ruckus are all about to be freshmen in high school, so we can’t buy rated M video games. We also can’t buy alcohol, see R-rated movies, drive cars, and, to top it all off, prostitution is illegal. And that’s why I subtly convince my dad to get all the newest violent video games only to sneak them from his stash a few days later. I’ve been pulling this con for years, but I’m pretty sure he can read between the lines.
My headset crackles, “… getting killed out here!”
I smirk as I dash across the room and sweep up my controller. The stack of games tumbles to the floor as my full weight bounces onto the couch. The Raysword gaming headset settles around my ears. My character barely gets to move before a swarm of death lasers disintegrates my character into a pile of bones. The puff of red dust from my avatar’s body doesn’t even look like blood. A little tag in the lower left corner of the screen taunts me: Do-Over just won a Darwin Award. Lame.
Uncle Ruckus sighs into the headset. “Man, we almost won that time. But no, you had to lag out, and Turbo Cakes had to go try to sneak a peek at his sister in the shower.”
The half-packed duffel bag catches my eye, so I start talking before Turbo flips his lid at Uncle Ruckus’ last comment. “It sucks this is the last time we’ll get to play games together this summer. Have you guys packed yet?”
Uncle Ruckus snorts, “Dude, I haven’t unpacked from last year. At this point, I’m too afraid to open my garbage bag of stuff to get out my gear, it’s gonna reek.”
Turbo Cakes says, “I got my dad’s army footlocker, a suitcase, a backpack, and a drawstring knapsack filled with first aid stuff! I’m worried I forgot something. After all, an Adventure Ranger is always ready!”
I roll my eyes and say, “Did you just hit your mic saluting? You’re sitting at home, not in an Adventure Ranger meeting.”
“A Ranger is always ready,” Uncle Ruckus mimics. “I’m just gonna rough it, I think. Except for maybe my cell phone so I can look at naked pictures of Turbo’s sister.”
The sounds of protest began tumbling out of Turbo.
Uncle Ruckus talks over Turbo’s exclamations, “Graduating high school did her two huge favors if you know what I—"
Boo doop. The sound chimes in my headset and a notification pops up on the screen: Turbo Cakes has disconnected.
Another message pops up on the screen: Screw you guys, I’m gonna get some sleep. See you idiots tomorrow. – Turbo Cakes
Uncle Ruckus dies laughing. “MAN, that was easier than getting him to rage quit last night. And easier than his sister if you know what I—”
“Remember that new kid? At the troop meeting last week?” I interject.
“Yeah, kinda dopey-looking, blonde buzz-cut, kinda skinny, but also fat.” Uncle Ruckus says, sounding thoughtful.
“That’s called average, moron.”
“Yeah, that’s it!” Uncle Ruckus snaps his fingers. “Shovel looked like your average moron!” He explodes into raucous laughter.
“Why are we calling him Shovel again?” I ask, raising my voice over the annoying laughter.
“I don’t know. He kinda seemed like a tool. You know… Shovel, tool? Also, I feel like shovels aren’t very smart you know? Like they got a low IQ and everything?”
My mouth drops and I feel my eyelids squint. “No shit, Sherlock. It’s a shovel. It doesn’t have a brain.”
“Exactly, he seems like he’s got no brain!” Uncle Ruckus snaps his fingers again. I don’t have to see him to know he’s shooting finger guns.
“That’s not what I s—”
Uncle Ruckus cuts in, “And that’s Uncle Sherlock to you, bud. Gee, I wonder if we could get him to eat dirt? I bet Hawkins’ll make him at some point.”
I jolt to my feet and point at the TV, “I swear, if you give Hawkins the idea, I’ll make you eat dirt.” Boo doop. With that, I disconnect from the chat. I stare at the blank TV screen and smooth my thumb across the controller buttons. The mess of games on the floor catches my eye. Eh, I’ll take care of it when I get back home. I pack a few more things into my duffel bag and sneak downstairs to slip Lead Space back into my dad’s violent video game stash. I tiptoe into the kitchen to take a quick swig of the only thing in there, my mom’s cucumber water she makes for herself every night. My whole body shudders as soon as it touches my tongue. It tastes deciduous. I sneak back upstairs, turn on the TV, and lay in bed listening to the gentle boo doop of the Xbox across the room every time Uncle Ruckus gets an in-game achievement.
⚜ ⚜ ⚜
May 31st, 2015. 8:53 PM.
Shovel went through the Adventure Ranger handbook one more time, going down the entire checklist of things he might need. He had everything except a pocket knife - he wasn’t allowed to have one of those yet.
“Hey, Dad?” Shovel called.
His dad’s head appeared in the doorway wearing a bucket hat with fishing lures and hooks all over it. “What’s going on, sport?”
Shovel frowned at his Adventure Ranger licensed backpack. “I don’t know if I want to go. I don’t really know anyone.”
Shovel’s dad fiddled with the hand crank radio in his hand. His voice sounded far away. “Sure, sure, I totally agree.” He looked up. “Did you know I went to this camp every single summer? I must’ve gotten a dozen Ranger Patches there. Way back when I was a kid, they called me The McTerminator! What’s your nickname again?”
“Great nickname, shovels are useful! Listen, son, you’re going to have a great time. We both are. Let’s just feel it out for a few days, and if you don’t like it, we can leave.”
Shovel looked at his dad. “Really?”
“Sure, sure. I’m going to finish getting my fishing stuff together. Nighty night, son!” And with that, The McNitterminator turned off the lights and closed the door.
The door cracked open, “Don’t forget extra socks and underwear!” he pulled it shut again.
Shovel sat in the dark for a moment before putting a few extra pairs of tighty-whities into his black leather suitcase. Shovel used the light of his glow-in-the-dark constellation stickers on his ceiling to put on his Adventure Ranger uniform and crawl into his twin bed. He opened his Nintendo DS, booted up Nintendogs, and fed his virtual pets for the last time that summer. With the stylus, Shovel gave each dog a treat and took the time to scratch each one behind the ears.
The Buzz Lightyear alarm clock glared the time at him. Feeling guilty, Shovel gave each puppy another biscuit from the 989 treats in his inventory. Noticing the number, he grabbed the lock-journal from his bedside drawer and used a tiny key to unlock it. He flipped through the pages until he got to the most recent ledger entry. He clicked the light at the end of his pen. Bending its rubber body, the light aimed at the paper while Shovel wrote. 5/25 - Go to the store, need more treats. Using the calculator in the game, he figured out how much 10 more dog biscuits would cost. Under the first line, he scribbled, Buy 10 treats, 3$, will have 999,996$ left after.
Shovel closed the journal, picked up the game, and craned his neck towards the screen to whisper the list of names, “Goodnight Bubbles, Toffee, Moose, Nibbles, and Cujo. I left some toys to play with, so be good.”
Closing the device, he put it in sleep mode and plugged it into the charger. It didn’t seem fair to the dogs, turning the game all the way off, especially with him being gone all summer. The boy laid on top of his sheets in his itchy khaki uniform, ranger hat, and shined boots. He stared up at the glowing ceiling. The night he got the stickers he named every star, but he forgot them all by morning. It didn’t seem right to give the stars all new names, though. He squinted at the luminescent shapes until they blurred.
“What does it mean to be useful?”