Playing House

Feature image by Alexander Dorn / EyeEm via Getty Images

The game is simple, really. It is marketed as “basically opposite of the Oregon Trail” and an “authentic Native American experience.” The girlies love it. It is farmcore, and cottagecore, and fairycore, and depressioncore, and spritualcore, goblincore, and dudethatissomessedupcore and all the other cores, according to the teens on the TikTok. Your job, then, is simple, too. You are to test the virtual reality capabilities of this game, this game where the premise is only: Befriend the Dark One, become their apprentice.

You shrug and slip your VR glasses on. Seems easy enough. It begins.

***
You come to awareness in rural Oklahoma, a place you have never been. You thought it would be flat, but it is instead hilly, and the hills are so large and expansive they almost look like mountains. There is a blue house, and it is surrounded by woods and tagged with spray paint. You think you spy a decrepit hot tub against a barn, a shop of some sorts, and more spray paint.

On the porch, working over what looks like a cauldron for babies, is what you assume to be the Dark One, who is actually quite pale, and looks more like a tall, broad migraine-y shadow than a person. She glares at you and puts everything behind her, Jesus Christ, she says, looking a little guilty at the sky after she says it. Another one?

The Dark One isn’t wearing any traditional garb but is dressed in a several sizes too large Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and those slides that have the air holes in them. No pants. She doesn’t seem embarrassed by this, nor does she move to welcome you. Why are you here? she asks.

The options roll in front of you, like from the sky. You select the one that says, To learn from you Teacher. She closes her eyes and exhales from her nose, hard. My god, she says. Stop that. And don’t call me that. Ever. Again.

You don’t say anything, you can’t, and resolve to tell the developer that conversations work two ways.

Well, she says. Start raking, bitch.

***
You thought the Dark One was supposed to be some kind of prophet, some kind of mystic (according to the character description you read), but all she’s done so far is order you to wash dishes and rake leaves and be fucking quiet PLEASE. She seems to eat only roasted sweet potatoes which are tossed carelessly in a fire started from cardboard kindling. She hums while she does it, but never at night. After you completed your chores, she showed you the bathroom, tossing out a, this is where my father died, like it was casual. Your options menus ding, and a map is revealed. When she shows you to the room in the back, which is painted a nasty shade of blue, and has liquor bottles for decoration, she says — if you hear anything, don’t get up. If you hear something in your ear, ignore it. If you hear something like a woman screaming, and she’s outside, don’t do anything.

Then: If you hear my vibrator, don’t be a pervert.

You don’t sleep a wink.

***
Weeks pass this way. They feel like years. You know it has not even been an hour since everything booted up, but everything the Dark One does takes on a haunting, yawning quality. She refuses to work with you watching. When you ask a question, she says something like: Look it up yourself don’t you have that little phone, and I’m TEACHING you self-sufficiency which is the greatest gift someone like me could teach someone like you. When you ask how she knows what kind of person you are, she scoffs. I know everything, she says. I’m the Dark One, remember?

***
Fine. Maybe this stupid, dumb game is harder than you thought. It should NOT be marketed as a companion to Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing. The Dark One is impossible and this house is creepy! You see things in the corners, hear things in the closets. The water gets cold too fast, and there is no air-conditioning and, as the days pass, no heat either. You get splinters and wake up frightened. Your dreams have taken a smoky, indecipherable quality. Sometimes you’ll do something, and she’ll simply snort and say: Aren’t you embarrassed? And yeah, you are!

Impossibly, though, the more you look at the Dark One, the more her strange face grows on you. She has a face made for reverence, for being reverent. It’s almost… satisfying, to see her light candles and pray, the only two things you have ever been able to catch her doing. She says, I have enough friends. But no one ever comes to visit, and she doesn’t leave. But you believe her, despite yourself.

The Dark One is many things, but she is pointedly honest in a way you have come to realize her gods require of her. Even when it hurts.

***
Nevermind, you take back everything nice you said. The Dark One has said you are going to the spring-fed creek on the backside of the property, and you are to do exactly as she says. Yes, you think at first, a task, FINALLY, but the creek is freezing, and when you refuse to get in the Dark One simply ducks her head underwater and doesn’t come out. At all. You know she isn’t drowning because you can see to the bottom of the water, but you panic nonetheless. You don’t know how to get back to the house, and the sun is setting rapidly. Has it always done that? You run through the woods in circles, and it is scary, and you’ll kill anyone who has ever used the words cozy to describe this kind of play. You hear voices, not all of them human, and they all feel like they are whispering in your ear. You might pee a little, but no one has to know that. Right? RIGHT?

Eventually, breathless, sweaty, hair filled with brambles, you reach the house. The Dark One is sitting in a kitchen chair, perfectly dry, and she is smoking a Camel Crush like there is nothing amiss, like you did not just run for your life. You have never seen her smoke, but before you can ask, she says: Tobacco is a cleansing smoke. And I feel wrong about supporting American Spirits. Ha, ha.

You glare at her but wither under her blank stare. What crawled up your ass? she asks. I thought you finally grew some brains and quit, she says. You rant, you give her a piece of your mind, you really do, but then, she simply blinks, the corner of her mouth lifts, exposing one incongruous dimple. I didn’t invite you to the creek, she says. The creek is actually — she exhales smoke — that way.

She points in the opposite direction. You think you might pass out. When the Dark One laughs, she does so with her whole throat, her whole form. It would warm you if it didn’t make you want to throttle her. That night, like so many nights, no sleep comes. You hear a faint buzzing. At this point, you don’t expect anything different. Asshole.

***
The next morning, the Dark One is nowhere to be found. There are no sweet potatoes, no decaffeinated teas, no soft sounds of British boy bands. You wait for her. Flip through an old New Yorker. Refuse to step off the porch due to your previous agonies.

When she comes back, you do not see where she comes from. She is just suddenly there, apparition-like. She looks different, though you cannot explain how. She takes several shaky steps and collapses heavily to sit. She looks at you with a definite side-eye, and you smile, a little, for at least this is familiar.

She rolls her eyes. Then her face becomes serious. A long time ago, she says I crawled on the ground, deprived of my senses. My Teacher had taken everything but touch from me. I learned how to be again, and slowly they were returned to me. It was agonizing, disorienting. You will never know anything like it, not in any lifetime. She sighs.

Oh my God, you say, are you. I’m so. That must have been hard… is it… is it a true story?

Are you feeling sympathy? For the DARK ONE?

The Dark One looks at you. No dumbass, she says. She looks like a secret. It wasn’t the ground… It was a mountain, she says. When she laughs this time, you grumble, swiping through the menu looking for a response, a map, a lesson, a checkpoint, but there is nothing. There never is. Another note for the developer, you muse. Just that.

***
You are ready to quit. You are. She undermines your every attempt at seriousness. She is scowly and broody and sharp. She has very long eyelashes and big hands and a deeper than normal voice. And oh, she’s leaning in. Oh shit. Oh shit.

Just before your lips touch, she smiles, the first real one you have ever seen. She reaches up and clicks the button she should not be able to see, on the side of your headset. Everything goes dark. The game closes itself.

You come back to awareness in the chair. The clock says you have been playing for an hour and a half. The intern monitoring you won’t make eye contact. You go home. In your bed that night, nothing whispers. Nothing moans. There are no ghosts.

Well.

Not really.


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Autumn Fourkiller

Autumn Fourkiller is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about ghosts, grief, and Indigeneity. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, and Man Repeller. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.

Autumn has written 3 articles for us.

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