The Nix(7)

Written By: Nathan Hill

That this feeling coincided with his most recent search for internet photos of Bethany—well, that was too obvious to ignore. His thoughts always turn to her when he’s doing something he feels guilty about, which, these days, is just about all the time, his whole life being sort of barnacled by these layers of impenetrable guilt. Bethany—his greatest love, his greatest screwup—who’s still living in New York City, as far as he knows. A violinist playing all the great venues, recording solo albums, doing world tours. Googling her is like opening this great spigot inside him. He doesn’t know why he punishes himself like that, once every few months, looking at pictures late into the night of Bethany being beautiful in evening gowns holding her violin and big bunches of roses and surrounded by adoring fans in Paris, Melbourne, Moscow, London.

What would she think about this? She would be disappointed, of course. She would think Samuel hasn’t grown up at all—still a boy playing video games in the dark. Still the kid he was when they first met. Samuel thinks about Bethany the way other people maybe think about God. As in: How is God judging me? Samuel has the same impulse, though he’s replaced God with this other great absence: Bethany. And sometimes, if he thinks about this too much, he can fall down a kind of hole and it’s like he’s experiencing his life at a one-step remove, as if he’s not leading his life but rather assessing and appraising a life that weirdly, unfortunately, happens to be his.

The cursing from his guild mates brings him back to the game. Elves are dying rapidly. The dragon roars from above as the raid unloads all its best long-range violence—arrows and musket balls and throwing knives and electrical lightning-looking things that emerge from the bare hands of the wizards.

“Fire coming at you, Dodger,” says Pwnage, and Samuel realizes he’s about to be crushed. He dives out of the way. The fireball lands near him. His health bar empties almost to zero.

Thanks, Samuel writes.

And cheers now as the dragon lands and phase three begins. There remain only a few attackers of the original twenty: There’s Samuel and Axman and the raid’s healer and four of Pwnage’s six characters. They have never reached phase three before. This is the best they’ve done against this dragon.

Phase three is pretty much like phase one except now the dragon is moving all around and opening up magma veins under the floor and shaking loose huge deadly stalactites from the cave’s ceiling. Most Elfscape boss fights end this way. They are not so much tests of skill as of pattern memorization and multitasking: Can you avoid the lava splashing up from the floor and dodge the rocks falling from above and watch the dragon’s tail so that you’re not in the way of it and follow the dragon around its lair to keep hitting it with your dagger using the very specific and complicated ten-move attack that achieves the maximum damage output per second necessary to bring the dragon’s health bar to zero before its internal ten-minute timer goes off and it does something called “enrages” when it goes all crazy and kills everyone in the room?

In the throes of it, Samuel usually finds this exhilarating. But immediately after, even if they win the fight, he always feels this crashing disappointment because all the treasure they’ve won is fake treasure, just digital data, and all the weapons and armor they’ve looted will help them only so long, because as soon as people start beating this dragon the developers will introduce some new creature who’s even more difficult to kill and who’s guarding even better treasure—a cycle that endlessly repeats. There is no way to ever really win. There is no end in sight. And sometimes the pointlessness of the game seems to reveal itself all at once, such as right now, as he watches the healer try to keep Pwnage alive and the dragon’s health bar is slowly creeping toward zero and Pwnage is yelling “Go go go go!” and they are right on the verge of an epic win, even now Samuel thinks the only things really happening here are a few lonely people tapping keyboards in the dark, sending electrical signals to a Chicagoland computer server, which sends them back little puffs of data. Everything else—the dragon and its lair and the coursing magma and the elves and their swords and their magic—is all window dressing, all a fa?ade.

Why am I here? he wonders, even as he is crushed by the dragon’s tail and Axman is impaled by a falling stalactite and the healer burns to ash in a lava crevice and so the only elf remaining is Pwnage and the only way they’re going to win is if Pwnage can stay alive, and the guild cheers through their headsets and the dragon’s health ticks down to four percent, three percent, two percent…

Samuel wonders, even now, so close to victory, What is the point?

What am I doing?

What would Bethany think?


THE DANCE PWNAGE DOES in his living room looks like a conglomeration of things football players do in end zones after touchdowns. He is fond of this one maneuver where he moves his fists in a wheel in front of him—“churning the butter” is what he thinks this is called.

“Pwnage rules!” somebody shouts. The elves would be giving him a standing ovation if they weren’t all corpses. Their approval roars out of the speakers of his home-theater array. All six of his computer screens now show different angles of a dead dragon.

He churns the butter.

He does that fist-pump thing that looks like he’s starting a lawn mower.

Also, that obscene dance where it’s like he’s spanking something directly in front of him, presumably ass.

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