The exhaust of Cecile’s 1999 Mercury Sable wagon wafts into her face as she steps out of the car, caressing the pockmarked midnight blue paint of her big baby. She calls it Roundabout, and is still holding out hope that he—or maybe she—is secretly a transforming robot of some kind. It’s certainly very good at hiding the truth if it is; Cecile hasn’t been able to get a peep out of it since her parents bought it for her six years ago. Perhaps not the greatest of graduation gifts, but a car is a car. She rubs her hands together and watches her breath swirl into the cloudy night sky; a bit cold for April, she thinks.
A wave of nostalgia washes over the young woman as she steps from the cracked asphalt of the parking lot into the cracked cement of the sidewalk and cracked dirt of the front lawn. It’s been almost ten months since she last visited, and almost two years since she really had anything to do with this place. Her gut twists inside of her, like a part of her thinks she shouldn’t be here, that she doesn’t belong here anymore, or that her time here has simply passed. She wonders if it’s as awkward for everyone, going back to their alma mater.
The campus grounds are quiet and barren, as most are on a Saturday evening, and Cecile wonders for a moment how much she could get away with before security would show up. A passing fancy only, however; she’s already late, if the time on the website was to be believed, so once again she buries her urge to climb on top of that idiotic sculpture in front of the performing arts center and heads for the math department building. That serpentine piece of brass could not look less like “Force of Nature #3” in more than just her opinion, but she’s always enjoyed wondering why the sculptor thought it did.
She saunters up to the glass double doors like she’s still actually a student and pulls the handle before realizing that lecture halls are locked on weekends to people who are not actually students. Time spent waiting before someone else comes by and lets her in because she “forgot her I.D. card”: sixteen minutes. A fairly good turnaround by her reckoning. She walks around the empty halls and breathes it all in again: the overstapled Greek bulletin boards, the old research projects in glass cases, and the rough brick walls thrice painted in a never-ending war to make them less rough. Home… It was the place she had called home. The place she’d grown from a girl to a woman in, the place she’d made friends and made a fool out of herself in. To be back in this place that she could no longer call home nearly brings a tear to her eye, before she sighs it away and moves on, locating the inauspicious classroom on the second floor which is to be her new “home” for, hopefully, the next hour, or perhaps two. Exhaling the breath she’s been holding in for far too long, she quietly pushes open the heavy room door and peaks inside.
In retrospect she should have kept her expectations lower. It’s a nearly-vacant classroom full of empty tables and a little less than three dozen aqua-cushioned swivel chairs. All of three people are in the room, two of which lounge in front of a projector with game controllers in hand whilst the third fiddles with a pile of mechanical parts on a side table. In Cecile’s rapid judgment, if this is an official school club, apparently every third dorm room on campus is also an official school club.
“Hi, is umm, is this the airsoft club?” she asks quietly from just barely inside the door.
The young man at the table looks up, age as indeterminate as any college student’s, his long brown hair rubber-banded in a ponytail and partially obscured by a short-brimmed camouflage cap. It’s hard for Cecile to judge his level of skepticism at that distance, and his unsure response of, “Uhh… I guess,” does little to aid her.
“What, you lookin’ for something?” one of the gamers responds from over the side of his shoulder, a tall sort of fellow with a deflated blonde afro and what looks like a perpetually-sunburnt face.
She readjusts the strap on her messenger bag subconsciously. “I guess I’m, looking for the airsoft club?”
“Well, I guess, like, we’re in the airsoft club?” the afro-man responds. “This isn’t, like, the whole club or anything, we’re just sorta keepin’ the bench warm, know what I mean?”
“Nobody ever bothers coming to Saturday meetings,” Ponytail adds, setting down his tools and looking at Cecile properly. “But we lose the room reservation if nobody shows up.”
“Oh, I see, yeah, that makes sense. Can I, come in, or do I have to sign something or…?”
“Naw, naw, it’s cool man,” Afro beckons, getting up out of his chair and running his hands through his hair in a vague attempt to look slightly more presentable. “Come in, sit down, play a round. Uhh, I’m Marcus, that’s Jones in the back, and he’s Jonas.”
Jonas tosses Cecile a half-committed salute, spinning on his swivel chair away from the paused game; a darker-skinned man who looks like he’d be more at home on a basketball court than a football field, but probably wouldn’t be at home on either. “Sup. You’re Anders’ girlfriend, right?”
“Oh… Is Cecile the name of Anders’ girlfriend?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know; I’ve never met him.”
“Huh. Guess not, then.”
“Am I supposed to be his girlfriend?”
“Well, he said she was supposed to stop by tonight, and you’re here, so… yeah?”
She chuckles pleasantly and shakes her head. “No, I’m not his girlfriend; don’t even know who he is. I just thought I’d drop by and, y’know, see what the club is like.”
“Well, like he said,” Marcus explains, motioning to Jones, who goes back to his tinkering, “This is just the official club time; not much really happens here. We tend to run games on Sunday afternoons, like about noon ‘til whenever we get done. Usually have enough for at least five-verse-five, though I think… Umm, Jonas, was Dave’s bunch coming tomorrow?”
He shrugs, fiddling with the game controller in his hands like it’s a nervous habit. “I don’t think so. Dave’s coming but his buds are at some programming tournament or something.”
“MPAIC,” Jones contributes from afar, pronouncing it like “Empayk” means something as a word.
“Right, right, yeah, MPAIC,” Marcus affirms, nodding slightly as he glances as the pause screen behind him. “So yeah, we’ll be a little short, but it’ll be fine. Did you want to come, or, I mean, you got your own gear? We can loan you some if you need it.”
Cecile glides into the room, for a brief moment just looking around and remembering the old days spent in rooms just like it, fighting to stay awake and taking incomprehensible notes she could later always read but never understand. “Oh, no, I don’t play. But, I think I can play; my finger can pull a trigger, so, I’ve got that on my side. Is that the new sequel for this year?” she adds, pointing to the projector on the wall.
Jonas follows her finger and is quick to respond; the question is clearly within his personal wheelhouse. “Nah, it’s last years; heard they didn’t really change much this year so I skipped it. Friend picked it up, though, so it’s all good.”
“Mmm. I heard they really went crazy with the unlockables on the new one.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me; it’s how they stretch it out, justify calling it new, y’know?”
“I suppose they have to make money,” she comments positively, sighing a bit as she sits down on a nearby table.
“Man, don’t even get me started on that, girl,” he fires back, sitting back down on his own chair and spinning the controller in his hands. “Hey, you want in? Marc and I were just messing; new folks get priority, you know?”
She shakes her head, maintaining a pleasant smile. “Oh, I don’t play this either. I just wanted to see if you’d catch me. Guess not.”
Both Marcus and Jonas give her an awkward stare, rather different than the polite-yet-interested one they’ve been giving her ever since she entered the room; she is a girl within the realm of men, after all. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Marcus calls out, “Hey Jones! We found you a girlfriend!”
“And I’m finding like a pound of sand in your gearbox,” he replies, unfazed. “I told you crawling around on the beach like that was gonna cost ya.”
“Hey, that match was awesome!”
“Awesome, yes. Cool, no.”
Cecile leaves the projector to the two gamers, reassuring them that she doesn’t mind and she’s really just here to get out of the house. They take this fairly well, as well as the information that she’s only in this particular classroom because it was the only club she could find on the college website that met on Saturday nights. Apparently they are used to girls not immediately being interested in their activities, which makes Cecile wonder what it means that she is here, in this room at this moment, being interested in their activity. She wanders over to the back of the room in an attempt to be interested in another male activity.
“Hi,” she says to Jones, who continues to fiddle around with a pile of gears utterly indecipherable to Cecile’s pedestrian mind.
“Ahoy ahoy,” he answers, giving her a token glance but for the most part focusing on his work.
“Do you want me to be your girlfriend?”
It is without doubt that, had either of the other men heard this statement, words would have certain been said by them. As it stands, Jones merely looks up at his work and stares blankly at her, his dark brown eyes so devoid of emotion that they flip back around and speak volumes about him. A man who is perhaps too serious about not being serious; this is the sort of man that Jones seems to Cecile.
“Who’s asking?” he asks her blandly.
She thumbs behind her back. “Them.”
“Well I don’t want them to be my girlfriend.”
“What if I was saying it?”
“But you’re not saying it.”
Cecile wobbles her head from side to side in an effort to appear indecisive and coy. “I might be. Maybe I’m just really bad at it.”
“You are really bad at it, and you’re still not saying it.”
She thumbs her chin, pondering his reluctance to play along, before nodding and sitting in an empty swivel chair next to him. Folding her elbows on the table, she stares at the little gears and axles and says, “You’re a pretty cool guy. So, tell me about soft air.”
He squints are her skeptically over her head before deciding not to question whatever it was he was going to question about her, and puts his tweezers down. “Well, for starters, ‘soft air’ tends to be a badly-translated term you see all the time on these knock-off Chinese guns. Most of them suck, and some of them don’t. But the average idiot parent doesn’t know the difference and buys them for their kids anyways.”
“You’re a very serious man, aren’t you?” she asks bluntly.
“And you’re not a very serious woman,” he responds. “I take things seriously that I’m serious about. The rest, you know, whatever, but if I’m gonna care I’m gonna care right. So, are you seriously asking me about airsoft, or are you just, like, hanging out?”
He raises the brim of his hat as he answers her, no longer trying to hide his face beneath it. His words really take Cecile back a few steps, if she’s being honest with herself about it. She knows she’s really just messing around with all three of these men, and if they weren’t men she’d mess around with them all the same. It’s how she breaks the ice with new people: act unusual, ask unusual questions, catch people off their guard and force them to think outside of the box. It’s a very polarizing approach, but in her opinion people that are turned off by it wouldn’t be very interesting to be around anyways. This Jones, though… He’s clearly having none of it.
She straightens her face up and, for the moment, stops acting like she’s half her age. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just… Yes, I’d like to know about airsoft-ing. I’ll, you know what, I’ll even go with you guys tomorrow, sure. So what’s the best gun?”
“Grenade launcher!” Marcus shouts from halfway across the room.
“If by ‘no’ you mean ‘hell no’, poser,” Jones fires back adamantly. “There’s not really… What’s you name again? Sorry, uhh, See… See…”
He nods, being the second person in as many days to fall prey to Cecile’s little joke. “Right right, Selene. There’s not really a ‘best’ gun. It depends on what you’re doing. Like, spring-powered? Good for snipers, bad for action heroes. Your action-hero types’ll use an electric gun and a 1000-round box magazine because you can just keep shooting all day, never mind you won’t hit anything doing that. A box magazine is bad, by the way; see, ‘cause it’s heavy and rattles, gives your position away.”
“That sounds bad,” comments Cecile, already getting lost in the commando jargon.
“Yeah, well, it’s just not practical; you don’t NEED that much. Now, for the games we play, you do need an electric gun; they’re automatic, and it helps mitigate the fact that pellets aren’t as accurate as real bullets.” He groans, rolling his eyes. “Uggh, I mean, I could tell you stories about spring-only games we’ve tried, and they are all sad. Fun as hell, yeah, but… man, they sucked.”
“You got a funny definition of fun, bro,” Jonas comments as he watches the seconds tick down on his respawn timer, tapping his fingers against the controller idly. “When it’s more effective to just run up and pistol-whip the guy, you know something’s wrong.”
“Remember that thing I just told you about ‘hell no’?” Jones sighs again, giving up on his gear tinkering and packing them up in a Ziploc bag as he returns his attentions to Cecile, lowering his voice like he’s telling her a secret. “Little thing to keep in mind for airsoft: You are not Rambo, you are not Schwarzenegger, you are not any sort of movie star, it’s not Call of Duty, it’s not Battlefield, and it sure as hell ain’t Vietnam. It’s grown men, acting like boys, thinking they’re ‘real men’, shooting at each other with toy guns. Airsoft is a lot more fun once you realize that.”
“It’s nice to know you’ve got it all figured out; thank you,” she replies, surreptitiously counting how many gears are in the little baggie. Truthfully she went in expecting airsoft club to be like that: college boys acting all macho and living out their little action fantasies for reals, yo. She didn’t, however, expect one of the college boys to flat-out tell her that.
There are nine gears in the little baggie.
Jones drops the bag and his various tools into a backpack and zips it closed. “Ehh, it’s all about how you look at it. If you go in expecting it to be like a video game, it won’t be. There’s like thirty things video games do automatically you’ve got to do for yourself now. Just, like, the bar low, so you’ll still have room to be impressed. I mean, if you are impressed; like, it’s not for everyone, after they play a few matches. There’s probably a reason we don’t get girls here. But hey, I mean, we’re glad you came!”
“You could cover the guns in nail polish and body spray and mount a cell phone to them,” Cecile suggests casually.
The man just stares at her, not sure if he’s supposed to be offended or not, as he is not, in fact, a girl. “Are you even… allowed, to say that? Like as a girl?”
She shrugs. “I think it’s on par with an African-American using the N-word. Maybe you could ask, umm, whoever he is, that guy, over there pwning the noobs.”
“Nah, it’s… Whatever, it’s not important. Anyways, don’t worry about the guns; you can borrow one-a ours, it’ll work fine. Umm, wear thick clothing; airsoft bebees don’t tend to break skin but they’ll leave welts. Old leather jackets work great. We’ve got goggles and kneepads and all that too.” Jones looks around the room, seemingly without aim, planning on adding something to their conversation. “Ahhhnnnope, guess we didn’t bring the folder tonight; you’ll have to sign a safety waver, but we can bring those tomorrow.”
“Didn’t you say I didn’t have to sign anything?” Cecile asks.
He thumbs over to the two gamers. “Technically they said it.”
She shrugs, inching her chair to the side to game a better look at the game. “They” are currently engaged in a cooperative battle royale against what is probably the zombie horde, but these days it’s hard to tell. Letting her mouth get the better of herself again, she comments offhand to Jones, “They just don’t make the zombie apocalypse like they used to.”
“What do you mean?” he inquires, stepping off to the side to get a better look himself.
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose before it was like a metaphor for everyone’s fear of the inevitability of death, but now they’re just monsters. Like, zombies have gotten too complex, which makes them too simple, which was the whole, point, I guess? Also I don’t like that they can run now.”
Jones huffs with a thick air of practiced superiority. “That’s ‘The Infected’. The Infected are different. And yes, they suck. Like new-age vampires. Zombies will always be zombies, and damned if kids today think they’re going to try and change that.”
Cecile stares at his army hat with her wide, globular eyes. “…How old are you?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Twenty-two. Why?”
“Are you allowed to say that?”
“It’s the principle of the matter.”
“I thought only old people could make principle.”
“I am old.”
“Well, I’m twenty-four. Can I call you a damn kid?”
It would be easier to thread a rope through the head of a needle than through the slits the twenty-two year old’s eyes make in response to that comment. “Fine, then, you win today, old person. I shall show you no mercy tomorrow upon the battlefield.”
Cecile claps her hands joyously together and smiles; one day in the future she will discover if she does such a thing to be ironic, or because she actually expresses emotion in this way. “Oh, good! That’s the best way to learn!”
“Actually, the best way to learn is to do. Here, I will explain.” Breaking his attention from the enchanting older woman he finds himself in the presence of, he shouts across the room, “Marcus! Hurry up and die so we can start some four-player!”
“Wave 21!” Marcus blurts back, apparently thinking that this is a worthwhile and awe-inspiring response.
“Have you lost Hallway yet?”
“No we have not lost Hallway yet, Marc grenade NEED GRENADE DAMN IT!”
Jones is not inspired by the awe. He turns back to Cecile, who is having a great deal of fun understanding none of this, childlike wonder upon her face. “The side hallway is the key bottleneck on the map,” he explains. “If you sit back-to-back in the middle of it all the Infected get funneled though and you see them coming a mile away, but without the right weapons you get overwhelmed too fast and have to move. On a good run you can stay there till, ehh, about Wave 30? So, yeah, they’ll be done in a few minutes by the sounds of it.”
“Sounds pretty complicated,” she responds, sincerely for once.
“Ehh, it’s an endless game. There’s no real way to win, so people invent ways to ‘win’, mostly by just beating the scores of faceless people on the internet using Olympic-level precision that sucks all the fun out of the game and makes you wonder why’re you spending your free time doing math. Why yes, thank you, I would like to spend five hundred hours of my life beating your score before some Japanese guy beats me tomorrow and invalidates my superiority!”
Cecile looks at the young man with “that look” again; that curious, mildly impressed, somewhat surprised look one gets when one hears something that just makes sense. Jones has been talking a lot of it from where she’s standing, if harsher and about a more obscure topic than she’s used to, but for a long time now she’s gotten used to her being the only person that really make sense, or at least the only person that really “got it” in her opinion, though she knows that in everyone else’s opinion she does not “get it”, and she’s not entirely convinced they’re wrong.
“I like you. What’s your name again?” she request politely.
“Huh? Oh, uhh, Toby. Toby Jones.”
She extends her hand. “Nice to meet you, Toby Jones. I’m Cecile Smith.”
Toby Jones smiles briefly and shakes her hand before going back to his dopey college-boy look, having exerted the “appropriate” amount of cordiality to a girl he’s never before met and is not all that interested in. Catching an inconsistency in her address, he asks her, “Hey, didn’t you say your name was, uhh, Selene?”
She nods innocently. “Mhm, that’s right, I did.”
“So, ummm…?” He trails off, expecting her to fill in the blank, which incidentally is exactly what she’s waiting for as well. The awkward silence continues as the pair stares at each other, glance away, and stare again occasionally, punctuated with a constant steam of bullets, the groaning of the not-exactly-entirely-dead, and yelling of strategy from across the room.
Toby is the first one to crack. “So which one’s your real name?”
“Mmm? Oh, Cecile,” Cecile answers, casually trying to puzzle out how long before, or even if, Marcus and Jonas should be getting buried in a pile of their own spent bullet casings. “You’d be surprised how many people forget your name five minutes after you tell it to them.”
“Honestly? Not really,” Toby smirks, watching the inevitable train wreck of a game and its final desperate moments. He adds, “It’s still a dick move, though.”
“Only to the people who figure it out,” she retorts, smirking slyly. “And most of them think it’s pretty funny, so it’s okay!”
“Honestly? Not really. But whatever. You ever played a first-person shooter before?”
The gears in Cecile’s brain do not exist; it’s more of a mushy pile of grey stuff, really, but it still manages thought on occasion, and currently is “managing” the question of whether or not she has played a first-person shooter video game. Like her previous debate with herself, the question to her is not so much if she has, so much as it is has she played one lately that would be in any way relevant?
“Honestly? Not really,” she mimics, mirroring his tone as best she can.
“Is the rest of the night going to be really awkward if I say no?”
“It might be really boring if you say no.”
“I’d better, then; boredom is the enemy. Or, an enemy. I don’t think it deserves a definite article quite yet.”
The man called Toby Jones nods, fishing in Jonas’ backpack for an extra controller and handing it to the woman called Cecile Smith. “All right, Lesson Zero. Hold it like this, with your fingers on the side here. There you go; Lesson Zero is now complete. Lesson One—“