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Norbert Kovacs
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provocationgame2.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage 2018

A PROVOCATION GAME

by Norbert Kovacs

 

The game’s point was to intimidate a person more often than any other player did. It was scored online through a social media site where each competitor reported how he variously caused grief for the game victim. A scorekeeper tallied the acts of disrespect made by the end of the set period to determine the winner.

The players, to hold to a standard of truth, had to have impartial third parties corroborate each claim that they had “scored against” the victim. Friends actually accompanied a player when he went to confront the victim in order later to testify that he had made a reproach or insult. Some competitors, to gain more credit with the scorekeeper, had friends take photos and videos of a verbal attack and post them to the game site. Fans and followers could remark online that they “enjoyed” these items, thereby giving a player bonus endorsements, that raised his standing in the competition.

The game was well known internationally and played in local versions for towns and cities, even neighborhoods. The players competed in over 17,000 places; the games in their entirety had a following of tens of millions. Because the competition called for random, meaningless attacks on a person, the law opposed it usually, so competitors had to watch that they did not gain a public name if they were to compete very long. But the legal system recognized the game’s popularity and approached interfering with the players cautiously. Few people playing or following the competition voiced concern over the victims’ trouble, treating it like an insignificant given.

A local edition of the game had launched in a small Connecticut town featuring Michael Truman as the victim. Michael was a respectful, kind, middle-aged person who lead a decent, normal life, just like the other victims. When he was "selected" for the game, the local players—disaffected, hard-minded persons eager for the companionship the game offered—sought out Michael to taunt him. In the supermarket, they yelled at him, abusing him for his kind and considerate character. Hackers sent him demeaning emails. A pithy one of these read:

Hey Truman:

Drop dead.

—The Indifferent

The younger and more mischievous players made crank calls to Michael's home phone. In long voice mails, the callers termed him every putdown listed in a slang dictionary: loser, freak, weirdo. The game fans chastised him in the street over his quiet reserve and plain speaking.

Knowing victims on the game were not to reply to these attacks, since it interfered with the helplessness that the players aimed to inculcate. Fans and followers supposed the victim at some level respected the game was that important in entertaining them to go along with it. However, Michael, who well understood his situation, responded one day to some men who called to him in the street.

“What have I done to you?”

His hecklers replied: “You’re a moron.”

“Shut up.”

As if not getting the point, Michael answered, “Why? Who are you to say this?”

“You’re the town victim on the online game everyone follows.”

“I do know. Still doesn't make it right. What if I mocked you? Called you.... and...” he said inserting the proper verbiage.

The tallest of the young men in the street scowled. “You’re a little angry for a victim, bud. You act like you think we’re victims and that you can attack us.”

The tall man and his companion walked away before Michael might answer. Michael did not understand how they supposed he attacked them when he had defended himself. He told himself that they had things upside down.

When the angry encounter in the street gained notice through the game network, the local players bore down on Michael. Rather than name-calling as they had, they accused him of doing vicious acts about which they had no proof.

“He steals from his neighbors. I know he has taken DVDs and a watch from his next door neighbor.”

“He pushed a man before an oncoming car.”

“He yells at random people in the street.”

“He sleeps with random women.”

The lazier players made more general attacks. They said simply that Michael was “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” A greasy-faced man claimed Michael was “possessive over his own things.” The players did not explain how Michael was so. The greasy man did not go into how anyone possessed his own property more than anything else.

With these accusations of vice, the players went beyond the name-calling that the game conventions prescribed. Michael realized this was dangerous. Names were names, but the players now accused him of immorality—worse, crime. He knew accusations of crime ruined reputations that never recovered. It would not matter if he were guilty or not to many people, once his name was marred. He did not aim for this to happen and replied to the players to that end.

“I don’t rob anyone,” he told his attackers, confronting them in a parking lot one day. “I don't push people in front of cars. I don’t throw myself at women. And I don’t know how I am irresponsible or dangerous. Show me proof to the contrary! If you have any honesty, prove I did any of it!”

The game players angered to hear him. A group of them cried, “You're getting to be too much. Don’t you realize thousands of people follow us on the game websites statewide? They expect us to insult you. You might realize it and get more realistic.”

Michael did not believe their reply. A bunch of low-lifes warn me to show respect?, he thought. His hecklers seemed much more in line for a warning and now he did not hesitate to give it. “You undercut me that often I wonder just who you all are." he said. "Derelicts I bet. A few of you drink too much, I bet. Or can't hold down a job. Am I right? Your bosses get rid of you once they find out what you're like?”

A few of the players turned away quickly. Michael saw he had struck a point and drove it home. “And you had gone breathing fire!”

The players were stunned. A victim in the game was not supposed to point out actual faults and issues of the players. Any of the players. Michael's hecklers walked away half frightened and ashamed.

The players' fear made Michael newly confident; he believed he had defended well against them. I spoke the truth while they shouted lies, he told himself. He went confidently around town with the thought. He regarded the players no longer when he recognized them; he walked in the other direction rather than bother. The game players, for their part, kept their distance. They felt put in a corner. At most now, they shot a angry glance walking by him in public. 

Michael felt buoyed by his success right to the day he spoke to his friend Lawrence on the front steps of his home. Lawrence set him straight.

“I’ve overheard them discussing you around town,” his friend said. “They’re plotting revenge since you riled them.”

“They’re just talking.”

“They didn’t sound it. They mean to do you harm.”

“Over calling them out? They had the idea to harass me.”

“They’re angry. No other victims have talked back and they don’t want to be the first to take it.”

“So, are they planning to gang up on me or what?”

“They never said. The group of them I heard at the diner said they’re ‘going to go after you.’ Then, I heard some guys in a store say, ‘it was about time to get you.’ They mean violence, Michael.”

 “It sounds like they’re taking all I said way too hard. All any of us did was exchange words.”

Lawrence's words worried Michael. He believed the players in their rash mood might take action, pointless as it seemed. He decided to act first. The next day, he went to talk with the police downtown.

“These game players have lost any kind of perspective,” he told the chief officer when they spoke in his office. “They think they’re proving to be heroes. Their game is that important to them they might do me some real harm.”

The town police chief, acquainted with the aggressive game as too many people were, said he would take Michael’s case seriously. He sent an officer in a car to guard Michael when he was in town in the day and at his house at night. Michael went to his job at the local hardware store, worked, and, in the afternoons, walked home. He went to the supermarket on the day he did.  He had no one attack him. At night, Michael joined friends for dinner sometimes and went to see the latest movie at the Cineplex. He enjoyed himself as he did prior to the game. The police guard seemed to work.

Then one day he talked to his friend Joe who was acquainted with Gerald, the police officer protecting him.

“Gerald has met some bad trouble on your account,” Joe said as they shared lunch at a local diner. “Those game players sent him a letter saying they’ll hurt his family if he goes on protecting you.”

Michael stared. “The game rules say the players can’t threaten non-victims.”

“I know, but these guys are. Gerald is worried. He asked to be reassigned to other duty. He says he would risk himself any other time, but he’s worried for his kids.”

 “My God. Those dirty players.”

In anger, Michael went to the police station and told the police chief about the threats to Officer Gerald.

“Those threats aren’t all they’ve done,” the chief replied. He opened the drawer of his desk and handed Michael a packet of letters and printed emails. “Look at these.” The packet included several anonymous letters threatening the police station if Michael remained under protection. WE’LL BOMB YOU ‘CUZ OF TRUMAN read a message made of huge letters cut from several magazines. “We’ve all felt the heat over the game.”

Michael moved uncomfortably in his seat. “And what will you do about it?”

“Nothing. We’ll continue to protect you. For now, anyway.”

The players did not relent in their attacks on Michael's local police.  Several anonymous letters to them threatened a riot. WE ARE READY AND WAITING HORDES!,  one angry missive declared. On a Sunday night, hoodlums overturned an unoccupied cop car at the police station and graffitied it with the messages, LEAVE M. TRUMAN TO US and MICHAEL IS OUR VICTIM!

On the game website, threats to the police multiplied and followers in towns near Michael's, even in other states, promised angry action against “the cop interference.” Finally, Michael’s officer guardian told him one day the police no longer would provide him special protection.

“No one came to attack you,” Gerald said. “We no longer believe they would.” He faced Michael holding firm as he spoke.

Michael did not believe him, but he understood. The police could not manage the storm brewing with the game.  He was now without protection.

In the evenings, Michael sat on the swing on his front porch as it grew dark and awaited the players. He looked into the night at the maples across the street, growing dark as if a mass with the greater darkness, and strained his ears to catch the last songs of the birds before there was quiet. He waited for a rustle in the bushes or a light perhaps peeking through the trees that might have meant men coming for him. When he discovered no sign and nobody, he went into the house to his bedroom, believing half confidently he would have no trouble that night.

The nights grew colder with the autumn and there came the evening Michael kept inside studying the scene through his front window because it was too cold to be outside. When he awakened after a doze in his armchair, he discovered thick smoke billowing through the front room and flames shooting from the walls. Michael jumped from his chair and ran onto the porch. As he bolted toward his front steps, a voice from the dark yelled, “VICTIM! VICTIM!” A stone flew past Michael’s head. A second knocked against his shoulder. Enraged faces showed in the illuminated night. Cries sounded: “Fiend! Criminal! Outcast!” Stones hurtled, hitting his front steps and house.

Michael backed into the house and slammed shut the door. He thought to escape through the back and into the backyard. However, he made only a few steps toward there when stones crashed through the back door window and kitchen. Michael realized he could not escape. The smoke grew in the house and grayed as the fire consumed the walls and the cries from outside became louder. With the flames rising, Michael thought of the people who had sabotaged his house and his life. He thought of the misery to which they had put him and their callousness. He considered the horror they meant to bring. A resolution seized him. He went again onto the porch into the flame-brightened dark.

“I will not surrender to you," Michael said. He pointed down at the porch.  "I'll stand here. I am the owner of this house.”

Stones struck the side of the front door and smashed a window.

“I am no criminal,” Michael yelled. “All you are!”

A stone struck Michael Truman in the head and he fell on the porch. He lay there unconscious as the flames rose, destroying his home and the life he had valued more than a score in any game could figure.

provocationgame.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage 2018

Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared or soon will appear in Thrice Fiction, Westview, Squawk Back, Wilderness House Literary Review, and No Extra Words.

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