Soft Targets
by Danner Darcleight

The men had just turned the corner when bullets screamed past, hitting the cinder block building with popping smacks of concrete dust. They scrambled for cover.

“McManus, why aren’t you firing!”

“I’d love to, Zeno, but I’m outta ammo. Chill the fuck out.”

Punch and Revs, the men with the most combat experience, had an inkling where the fire was coming from. They dug in behind a battered pickup truck, and took turns lobbying grenades into a blown out window across the street. The explosion shook the ground under the team’s feet. McManus had switched to his .45 and was popping off rounds into abandoned cars, shattering windows and blasting holes in doors.

“McManus, like, maybe that’s why you’re always outta ammo?”

“Whatever, brah.”

“Brah?” Revs said over their comm link. “This week you’re a surfer dude? Aren’t you from Ohio?”

“That’ll do,” Zeno said, always the serious one.

An explosion overhead rained debris on the men.

“Fuck was that!”

“RPG,” Punch said. “We gotta move.”

But it was just a hair too late. Bullets smacked into the dirt road and walked a trail to their position. Enemy soldiers appeared, muzzles flashing like Fourth of July. The men were pinned.

Zeno Hail Mary’d a grenade that blew the legs right out from under two bogies.

“Hoo-ah!”

“Go go go!” Zeno yelled into their headsets, and the men dashed for cover behind an old school bus. Punch and Revs fired disciplined bursts while running. Not so for McManus, who had found some ammo and was shelling out PDQ. They were almost behind the bus’s broad side when Revs took a bullet to the gut.

“Punch!” called Revs.

Punch turned around right as Zeno was shot in the face.

“Oooooh, Zeno. That’s gonna leave a mark.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zeno said. “See you at the respawn point.”

“Nuke Town population, minus one,” Revs said, while he watched his own life flickering low on the screen. And still the bullets kept flying. Revs: dying, dying, dead. Punch, dead. Zeno, McManus: dead. But they had all lasted longer tonight, their game play getting better as they learned to function as a team.

“Yo,” McManus said, “did you see how Zeno shot that guy in the dick?”

“Ha!” Punch, using the downtime to shift in his La-Z-Boy, massaged his ankle where the monitoring bracelet had been pinching.

The Call of Duty logo screen flashed while the men came back to life. Zeno’s girlfriend padded through their living room and asked if he wanted something to eat. He did. A thousand miles away, Punch absentmindedly gulped down a third Twinkie. Revs lifted a chocolate lab puppy onto the couch; the dog circle once, yawned, and plopped down to sleep. From McManus’s basement lair, he heard his mother’s TV blaring QVC on the floor above.

“Whaddaya guys say we hoof it up the hill?” Revs said.

“Fine by me.”

“Cool.”

“Whatever.”

The hilltop provided an overwatch position, good cover, and a fine place to test one’s accuracy with a simpler rifle. Unless someone below had managed to equip himself with an RPG and had terrific aim, the hilltop was unassailable, and thus derisively referred to as a camping spot by serious gamers. Camping was seen as bad form, strictly amateur hour, but it afforded the men time to talk.

Zeno said, “Anyone know what’s up with Al Boogie?”

“Nah,” Revs said. “Third night in a row he hasn’t logged on. It’s past nine-thirty.”

“He’s playing a dangerous game with that P.O., blowing curfew.”

“Word.”

Al spent much of the downtime in-game regaling his teammates with new indignities suffered at the hands of his parole officer, a real hard-ass who, Al was fond of joking, went the extra mile and taste-tested his urine for drugs.

“Zeno, bogie approaching, one o’clock. Two hundred yards out.”

In the distance, a player approached their position, walking like he had a license. Zeno took aim, then put a hole in the dude’s chest, center mass. The soldier collapsed backwards, and blinkingly vanished for respawn.

“Nice shot, Z.”

“Punch, how much time you say you got left?”

“On paper? I’ll be off the beginning of next year, assuming my P.O. don’t violate me behind some meatball technicality.”

You can do it, bro. You’ll be good to go.” This was the unspoken reason that the men camped: it offered a place to speak candidly, to let down their tough guy personas away from the girlfriends, the less-than-understanding bosses, and the overly-helpful family members. The men had heard of parole officers who monitored Facebook walls and Instagram feeds, so speaking and messaging in-game provided safety. They were not allowed to associate with other ex-cons, a rule with a sound basis, though one that limited contact with the only people who truly understood their plight.

Zeno was doing that thing where he cycled through all his available weapons, methodically checking statuses.

“Hey, Z, is that the same assclown you dropped a minute ago?”

“Absolutely. Walking straight up on us like Captain Invincible.”

“Let him get close, see how he likes a little knife fighting.”

“He’s direct messaging me,” Revs said. “Don’t shoot,” he says.

“We’re not…I’m gonna slash him into ribbons.”

“Real nice talk, McManus. Still feeling a little frustrated with your McBoss?”

“Revs, why isn’t the noob using voice?”

“He doesn’t have a headset.”

“Tell him to plug in the earbud from his phone.”

“Right.” Then: “Why did I think of that?”

“Because you were behind the wall for ten years and can barely turn on your iPhone.”

“Watch how you talk to me – I’ve got three live grenades.”

The stranger screen-named oSoRiO13 walked to the edge of the hill and stopped. He said, “Can y’all hear me?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Ah-ha.”

“Waddup?”

“My boy Miguel told me to find you. Miguel said y’all’s on parole, too.”

Punch, who had done time in several states and was homing in on the newcomer’s accent, said, “How do you know Miguel?”

“We worked out together in Chino.”

And so Punch had a fellow West Coaster in the group. “What’s your name, dude?”

osoRiO13 said, “Carlo.”

The men welcomed Carlo the noob, who had been living in a six-by-nine cell in Chino Prison four days ago. This is how all the men had found each other, one parolee telling another about PlayStation and Xbox online communities, giving a screen name reference like they dropped names in their prior underworld lives.

Quickly, they got Carlo’s bill of particulars: did twenty years for armed robbery and gang assault; San Quentin, Folsom, Lompoc, Pelican Bay, Chino, Mexican Mafia, retired…somewhat; thirty-nine years old; 7 PM curfew (Pacific Standard Time); trouble finding a job. The conditions of parole varied from state to state – curfew times, ankle monitoring, mandatory therapy programs, duration – but what didn’t vary was keeping a j-o-b. A nine-to-five was a surefire way to get your P.O. to lighten his boot print on your neck.

“Carlo,” Revs said, “your boy was right to tell you to get a Play Station. Best way to stay outta trouble.”

“That’s the truth.”

Between curfew and lack of anything approaching respectable funds, the men had little with which to entertain themselves. There was only so much Netflix and chilling one could do, even one who had endured years of decades of enforced celibacy. Bingewatching old series and new ones got stale, and besides, even with a partner at your side, it didn’t feel like a community. Live gaming was a different story: fast and wild like the bad old days, but in this world they could respawn after getting shot. What they wouldn’t admit to their rough and tumble buddies was that what they missed about the bad old days – aside from the adrenaline and cash wads – was the sense of community; a shared purpose.

Carlo was useless for the time being, but the men remembered what it was like to be fresh in the world. “Give him the noob tube,” Zeno said.

The noob tube was a grenade launcher with an extra-wide blast radius. Only a new guy would use it. Veterans frowned on doing so.

The men gave Carlo advice.

“After three kills you can do something special: send up a drone, activate an attack helicopter, drive a weaponized R/C car. And if you get thirty kills without dying, you can detonate the nuke and end the game.”

“Make sure you’re in the house when you supposed to.”

“The L2 button brings your gun up to aim, and if you fire immediately it’s a one-shot kill – everyone calls it quick-scoping.”

“For hiring an ex-con your boss can get twenty-four hundred bucks.”

“Shoot everything that moves that’s not one of us.”

“Check Craigslist, Monster, and Indeed for job listings.”

“Never know, man. You come across the right person, they’ll bless you.”

“Always watch your back, bro.”

“Got all that?”

Carlo tired scribbling notes on a pizza box, but the advice had come too quick. He mumbled static and the men chuckled. “Let’s go kick some ass,” McManus said. From the hilltop camping spot, the men select-started their way to the waiting room where teams challenged each other and picked a game board.

Punch, the team leader, received the message:

Doxx9r>U NOOBS WANT ACTION?

Punch messaged back that they did indeed want action, but weren’t sure Doxx9r and Company could provide it. a quick back and forth ensured, in which machismo and testosterone sprayed out as text.

Both teams dropped into Nuke Town, and made their way toward each other. Health at a hundred percent, loaded up on ammo, ready for combat. With the addition of Carlo, the men had five to the opposing team’s four, and felt damn good about their odds. The feeling lasted the roughly twenty seconds it took to make contact with their enemy. A hail of gunfire accompanied taunts over their headsets.

“Fuck your mothers, you fucking cocksuckers!” a child’s voice, dropping more F-bombs than a prison guard. Heavy machinery gun fire raked across the ground, and ripped into Zeno and Carlo.

“Eat shit…shit eaters!” An even younger voice. Grenades on top of grenades, no place to run.

“Punch,” Revs called, “you have us fighting kids?”

Carlo, poor Carlo, got zapped. Didn’t even know what hit him. Revs was shot from either side. “these little shits are the worst.”

“Fuck you, olds!” RPG round, and the low percussive thumps of artillery.

“McManus, come to my position,” Zeno said.

“He can’t help you, bitch!” The kids descended on Zeno, sending him to respawn. “Later, old fuck.”

Revs staked out a secure position, and was picking off the enemy with snaps of rifle fire. “Get some! Ha-ha!” On the side of Rev’s display appeared screen shots of his Facebook page. Then a Google Streetview of his apartment in Mahwah, New Jersey.

“Charles Revonich,” a child’s voice said. “Sounds fucking gay, Revon-o-bitch.”

Though Revs had heard of such tactics, he had never been on the receiving end.

“Charles, your Facebook is fourteen months old, but you’re let’s see, forty-three. You just crawl out from under a rock?” Shotgun blasts. Another kid said, “Is that your girlfriend?” – machine-gun fire – “She looks like a pig.” Grenade.

Revs said, “Shuddup kid.” He’d stopped firing.

The enemy shot Revs, and was on him at the respawn point. “Hey, check out Charles’s rap sheet. Oooh, a criminal. Drug possession – ”

“Hey kid,” Zeno said, emptying his clip at the soldier across the road. “Why don’t you knock off the detective work, and get your head in the game.”

“Hey yourself. I’m not a retard like you – I can do two things at once.” Grenade and double-tap from a handgun sent Zeno to respawn. “Drug possession, Charles. You a big time dealer?”

McManus went berserk, running and gunning, letting out a disturbingly intense scream. The enemy took him out, laughing the entire time.

Punch walked up to the enemy soldiers, weapon holstered. “Great fighting, guys.” Conflict resolution 101, like he’d learned in the joint. “I think you’re a little too advanced for -–” They shot him in the face.

Respawn. “Like I was saying – ” Headshot.

Respawn.

“These old fucks are no fun.” The enemy soldiers blinked out for the waiting room.

“Well,” Revs said. “That was, uh, enlightening.”

“That was humiliating,” Zeno said. “Getting out asses kicked up and down by ten-year-olds.”

“Did we used to curse like that?” Punch said.

“You hear me?” Carlo said. “If I cursed like that growing up, I’d be missing even more teeth than I am now.”

“McManus, you got a little intense back there, big fella.”

“Nah, it’s just…you know.”

The men did know.

“A’ight, a’ight, see who just logged on?”

Their screens showed the presence of Al Boogie.

Zeno hailed Al: “Hey, dumbass. You trying to get sent back?”

“Who is this?” said Al B’s account.

The mix-up: Al had been cut loose from parole early and was so thrilled that he neglected to share the news with his in-game friends. He had given the Play Station to his girlfriend’s son, who had just logged on. Al was going out on a proper date for a change, curfewless, and he was just about out the door, but agreed to don the headset and speak for a moment.

“Play a board with us, Al,” McManus said.

“No can do, Bobbalu. The night air is calling.”

“Be safe, bro,” Zeno said. For Zeno, there was always another shoe waiting to drop, but he was only giving voice to what al the men were thinking. No one needed to tell these men how easy it was to get jolted back behind the wall.

“I’ll drop in every now and again,” Al said. The men knew better.

“Take care, Al.”

“Booooooogie!”

Al Boogie’s account went dark. Perhaps his girlfriend’s kid was weirded out by the men, and chose to play offline.

“Settle down, McManus.”

“Carlo,” Punch said, “you just had the pleasure of meeting our old pal, Al Boogie. Smooth dude.”

“Best who ever done it.”

“Remember that man’s success, Carlo,” Punch said. “Someday we’ll all get there. Until then, you’ll need to earn some points so you can get a bulletproof vest.”

Despite the rapid fire head shots, they had all made it through another day, just like the other seven million men and women on parole or probation across the country. McManus let fly an RPG round, which smoked off into the distance. He was getting tired, as were the rest of the East Coast guys. But, for the West Coasters, the sun was only beginning to set, and the streetlights were not yet on. The action that night was heavy and unrelenting, but still just a game. In Nuke Town, unlike their hometowns, the sky was always bright, and the days were full of promise.

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