“First Lessons” by Joseph Devon

TWA 73 JOE-01

“Come on,” her husband said, giving her a quick kiss. “Pick up that gun and toss me some ammo. It’s up to us to save the president now!”

Reis bent over and picked up the assault rifle from the dead terrorists’s hands, fumbling with it as she tried to reload. Her husband stared at her fixedly. They had married only last year after they had met while chasing a treasured idol in Hong Kong. Reis stared blankly at her ammo and the assault rifle as explosions and gunfire sounded outside in the DC city streets.

“Press R to reload!” her husband shouted.

“Right,” Reis muttered. She heard an especially vibrant staccato of explosions nearby and instinctively she turned towards that, her auburn hair falling in her face, her rifle forgotten.

“Press R to reload!” her husband yelled again.

“Yeah, I know,” Reis said, looking around with an uneasy air of recognition. “Does this seem familiar to you?” she said as her hands suddenly moved and she dropped the clip out of the assault rifle and slapped a fresh one into place.

“This way!” Her husband suddenly yelled out once the new clip was in place. He turned and went running off through a narrow pathway between overturned tables and catering equipment that led through the banquet hall. The hall was a mess, everything full of bullet holes or on fire. They had been at an embassy party when suddenly it had been like the entire city was under attack by masked gunmen appearing everywhere and taking hostages or murdering people at will. She had only been able to stand and watch at it all happen until a few second ago when her husband had spoken to her.

Reis watched him go, taking a tentative step forward, unsure of her motivations as some unknown force deep inside of her begged her to yell out and stop him.

But her feet moved seemingly on their own and she caught up with him at the rear entrance of the hotel. An explosion sounded, much closer than the ever-present staccato of the other bombings, and the path in front of them surged upward in an explosion. Reis was knocked to the ground. Her vision was blurry and her ears were ringing as she slowly stood back on her feet. As her head bobbed, dizzily, the ringing subsided, her vision cleared, and the gunfire all around them continued.

“They blew up our path through,” husband said, gritting his teeth. “We’ll have to try this way!”

Reis began jumping, not with any goal or reason, just jumping. It was like she was hopping her way around the little burnt-out area they were standing in. She hopped left, up to the wall of twisted plaster and rebar and hopped while her husband stood up against it.

Her husband paid her no mind, instead walking to a portion of the wall that was lower, an opening having been blown in it at about waist height. “Through here!” her husband yelled. “Press space bar to jump!” He yelled again, even as Reis jumped around his head. Reis waited for her husband to move through the opening and then jumped through herself.

The opening let them out into an alley. There was wreckage on either side of them, but there was also a massive air vent built into the neighboring window at about waist level.

“Use your pliers to open the vent!” her husband yelled. Reis stepped forward and did as he asked, a pair of pliers inexplicably appearing in her hands and, even stranger, easily cutting through the bolts that held the vent guard in place.

The vent guard fell off revealing the cavernous air vent extending into the building. “Hold V to crouch!” her husband yelled, and with that he went crawling into the vent, taking Reis by surprise. Where did this thing even go? And how had he gone crawling in there so nimbly? She was no expert on ventilation but this somehow seemed odd, and yet…and yet it all was so damned familiar.

Reis gave it a try and with some bumping into the wall she managed to make her way into the vent. She felt like the whole world could hear her as she trudged along, banging against the metal walls.

Reis exited the vent and found herself in a room with long folding tables arrayed against the wall. She glanced over and was surprised to see that there were boxes and boxes of ammo stacked neatly on the tables. She moved over to grab a few, but instinctively knew that she didn’t need any more ammo; she was full. She glanced at a first aid kit, but decided against it with the same reasoning.

Her husband stood next to an open window. He was standing perfectly still, staring out over the room and at Reis with a corpse-like fixed look. Reis moved slowly forward and when she was within a few feet of her husband, suddenly he boomed to life.

“You use your grappling line and swing down into the building across the street!”

“You have to stay here,” Reis said quietly. The words were a whisper, a hidden mumble that held no impact in this place. She heard another staccato popping of gunfire and a strange look came over her face. She felt like she had heard that exact same popping pattern before.

Reis stared down her husband, then reached up to the cable that led down away from the open window. A zip-line was attached and she felt her stomach surge as she began riding down, across a street laid out like a canyon below, and onto a neighboring roof.

A group of men in ski masks were waiting for her. She knew what would happen. The vague familiarity she had been experiencing solidified into sure knowledge. It was peeking around corners. It was always peeking around corners.

The masked men spread out and took cover behind air conditioning vents and randomly strewn construction equipment. They began firing at her, all of them somehow missing as she jumped randomly around the rooftop. She struggled to aim and return fire. She knew she had a good clean shot on many of them, but despite unloading an entire clip into the exposed side of one of the masked lunatics, nothing happened. She didn’t even seem to use any ammo upon reloading. It was like everything was being held in stasis. Everything except her and her husband’s path.

She struggled to run forward, or even back to where the zipline came in, but she could only run around a small area of the roof, like some invisible wall was holding her back. She heard a sound like a metal zipper and her husband came swinging in on the zipline.

“Take cover with Alt!” her husband screamed, perfectly graceful while under fire. His bearded, bronze face smiled as he ran over to where Reis was standing, slamming his back up against a low brick chimney. Shots popped off as the masked men continued firing.

“Okay, let’s get in there. The president needs us. Run over to that air conditioning vent. I’ll cover you!”

And it was like Reis was drawn forward, invincible. No matter how much wandering around she did on the rooftop, the men in masks could not hit her with their endless bullets. She dawdled and jumped about, looking with anger at the air conditioning vent she was supposed to take cover behind. Nothing could happen until she was next to that vent. But running around the roof…it was meaningless.

She made his way forward and took cover.

“Watch that guy by the door!” her husband yelled out.

Reis waited, doing nothing again, listening to the endless repeated gunfire while nothing happened. After considerable time had passed her husband yelled again, “Watch that guy by the door!”

Gunfire continued on like popcorn being made.

“Watch that guy by the door!” her husband yelled again.

Reis leaned out and saw him, not the guy by the door, he would be dead soon enough, but the one to his right. The one dressed like all the others. The one with no discernible difference, just another bad guy in a crowd of bad guys.

Barely aiming Reis fired and the guy by the door fell.

“Ha!” her husband yelled, more gunfire sounding. “You terrorists aren’t welcome here!” Her husband fired again and again and the rooftop appeared clear.

That was when it happened. When it always happened. Coming around the corner blind, her husband was hit by a bullet and fell and suddenly, like a bright red brand was searing it into her mind, Reis understood that she had to use L-Shift to peek around corners to spot hidden enemies. With rage mostly blinding her, Reis peeked around the corner and again saw the innocuous bad guy. Just another punk who got lucky until now. Reis waited, fuming, while the masked gunman crouched behind his air conditioning vent, just the top of his head visible. Then the gunman broke cover and stood up to fire randomly out over the roof.

Reis aimed and fired while he was exposed and the bad man fell dead.

Then, like her vision was being pulled by an outside force, Reis turned to look at her husband dying on the ground.

“Don’t worry about me,” her husband said weakly. “I’ve taught you all I can. Now only you can save the president.”

She wanted to mourn. She wanted to cry out. She wanted to be there for his last breaths. But the president needed her. And if she was going to get to the bottom of what was happening, she needed to make her way across the city to where her only lead waited: the handsome and single head of the secret service who had tried to warn her that something strange was going on at the banquet hall by handing her a small disk that could only be read by certain kiosks around the city.

Stoically she stripped her dead husband of any extra guns and ammo, then, as another rhythm of gunfire sounded, she hopped across the roof and into an open air conditioning vent.





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IMG_4358Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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  1. I read the other story first. I feel like that’s an important thing to know going into this. Because I don’t think we’ve ever had two such similar takes on a prompt before in Writer’s Arena history, and there’s no way to get away from comparing the two. So there’s a possibility that I’m subconsciously taking points away from Joseph because my brain is telling me his story is derivative even though it was clearly written independent of his competitor.

    But even taking that into account, I still don’t think this is quite as good. There’s nothing WRONG with it, but it doesn’t go as far and doesn’t get as weird as “A Wonderful Guy.” The one thing that sets it apart is the fact that we’re seeing the inside of what is essentially a cutscene, a moment in the game when the character has very little agency. But even that detail isn’t used as well it could be. I never felt a sense of desperation from the wife, a sense of being terrified of being locked into a series of events that you couldn’t change.

    Again, hardly a bad story, but for me it doesn’t live up to its strikingly similar competition.

  2. I’ve just twigged that this is the tutorial level, and that helps understand why so little of what happens is under the protagonists control.

    OK, so…this feels like half a story. It’s not just that the end is really the beginning of a continuing narrative, it’s also that I don’t feel like anything got accomplished. I’m frustrated, in much the same way as I often am by real tutorial levels, that I’m on rails and being propelled through consequence free fake peril.

    The good here is that it’s a very well observed tutorial level. But it’s like having constructed a work bench and laid out your tools, you then didn’t do anything with them. That’s frustrating, because I know how good you can be.

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