A real life portrayal of loss, one that highlights the unique places we inhabit to seek respite from pain…
by: Adam Shaw
I don’t know why I started playing Big Buck HD WILD soon after my mom died. I like to tell myself that it was because my brother and I played Big Buck Hunter II: Sportsman’s Paradise at Walmart when we were young. Back when Mom would hand us a pocketful of quarters and set us loose to pursue virtual prey in the game room as she shopped for groceries. This is the story I tell myself because sometimes, that’s how we put things together when we’re grieving. Like there’s some sort of cosmic puzzle illustrating why someone’s died, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the universe.
The rules of Big Buck HD WILD are simple: Shoot three bucks and don’t shoot a doe. Kill a doe and it’s game over. There’s nuance to this of course. Bigger bucks and bucks that are further away are worth more points. A more accurate shot boosts your score. Hitting a critter, or three, pads your accuracy. What the strategy boils down to, though, is simple — shoot three bucks, don’t doe-out.
In the days after my mom died, my dad, brother, and I assembled at my parents’ house and filled our time with necessary tasks that both distracted us from the fact that Mom was gone yet acknowledged it. We talked about what dress she’d be cremated in and took turns calling people to break the news. At night, we sifted through pictures of Mom for the funeral, nursed our bottles of Bud Light, and watched Sylvester Stallone movies like when we were kids. We joked about how Mom hated those movies, how she thought Dad shouldn’t have introduced us to Rocky and Rambo when I was ten and my brother was eight. We laughed on the outside and cried on the inside because Mom wasn’t there to stop us.
We carried on like that for ten days. When it was over — when my mom’s ashes were split into three small urns, one for each of us — we said our goodbyes through awkward hugs and returned to our separate lives. Two days after getting home, I ordered a Bud Light at a barcade down the road from my daughter’s daycare. That’s where I picked up Big Buck HD WILD’s green, plastic rifle.
While the rules of Big Buck HD WILD are simple, you don’t have to follow them. You can target a critter over a buck or skip a buck for a bigger one or even one in the distance. You can shoot nothing if you want, just watch the animals graze, notice you, and scatter in every direction like people running for cover in a rainstorm. Site 5 of Kudu Trek 1 is a particularly nice scene for doing this. It opens with a handful of kudu nibbling on shrubbery, the background punctuated by waterfalls that surge and plunge down towards the land below. One buck stands front and center, and upon noticing you, jukes like an NFL running back, darting through waist-high grass and over rocks toward the far-right corner of the screen. The other animals quickly follow suit. The second buck runs off behind a doe for cover as critters criss and cross, begging you to take a chance on them. The scene hits a fever pitch when the third buck — the big boy — shows up in the distant right corner and pauses, daring you to ignore everything else and hit the long shot. He gives you a second before darting left, then stutter-stepping the other way and leaping back into the corner he came from. It’s stupid watching virtual animals run, I know that. It doesn’t hurt, strategically speaking, to know where they’re headed though, to learn the perfectly programmed paths orchestrated like a ballet or a marching band performing at halftime.
Mom’s been dead for over a year now. When I think of her, I picture her in the blue-green waters of Mexico Beach, Florida. She’s waist-deep in the water, pretending to walk to shore. My dad took the picture that my memories recall her from. Minutes before, she’d handed him the waterproof disposable camera and told him she wanted a photo that looked like she was walking. He agreed, and she turned around, took four steps, and stopped. She kept her left arm a few inches in front of her and the right a few inches behind, fingers cupped like the perfect hands of mannequins, and froze for what felt like minutes. I was sixteen at the time, an awkward blob of pasty white skin with a crown of NSYNC-inspired frosted tips, and this — not the fact that I looked like a young Guy Fieri floating on two swim noodles — embarrassed the hell out of me, so I asked her in a hushed and panicked whisper what she was doing. She repeated that she wanted a picture that looked like she was walking toward the shore. I told her that Dad could take a picture of her actually walking, and that it would look like she was walking toward the shore because, well, she would be walking toward the shore. She rolled her eyes from behind her sunglasses, fighting against the current to hold her pose, and told my dad to take the picture already. He did. My mom was stubborn like that.
The rules of Big Buck HD WILD are simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to follow. Take Site 1 of Moose Trek 1, for instance. It opens simply enough, a mountainside covered in thick pillowy snow, looking like the head of a freshly poured beer. In the middle of the screen is a buck, and behind him, eating at a bush in the distance, another. After a quick couple of shots — PUMP TO RELOAD, the game will tell you — you’ve taken ‘em both down, two-thirds of your way to a perfect score before the yellow GET READY! has faded off the screen. It doesn’t go that smoothly, though. Big Buck HD WILD rarely does. The first buck goes down easy enough if you get the head or the heart, but if you go for the second one too soon, you doe-out. You don’t see her right away because her head’s down and her fur blends in with the buck, but she’s there, hiding in plain sight. By the time you put it all together, she’s dead and the game’s over.
My mom abruptly retired from her nursing career around the time I started college. She loved being a nurse. She told everyone she met that she was a nurse, that she adored working in her Alzheimer’s unit and hearing stories she’d already heard and watching Milo and Otis for the tenth time because a patient wanted to see it. She’d been battling rheumatoid arthritis for years, though — had dealt with multiple surgeries on her left wrist and both of her feet — and the pain was too much for her to keep going. She drank to get over this. We didn’t think anything of it at first. A glass of wine with dinner was as expected as a squirrel showing up on a whitetail trek. As the pain worsened and the depression from her retirement settled in, though, it became excessive. Sometimes, she’d ask my brother and me if we cared that she had a drink. Most of the time, I said no. My joints were fine, after all. My wrist hadn’t been reconstructed. Who was I to tell her not to take the pain away?
The rules of Big Buck HD WILD are simple, and they’re what make the game great. They create moments like when a site opens and you think you have a perfect shot, but you wait to take it because you know the buck will curl off toward the back corner of the screen and get you more points. Or when you see a bird swooping across, and your heart shouts for the critter bonus but you know the possibility of hitting a doe isn’t worth it. These moments, they’re the most enjoyable because they’re the ones that take the most restraint. The most practice. They go against the way you’re programmed to think and the way the game wants you to think. You have control over the site, so you can make the careful decisions required to shoot three bucks — max out the most points on distance and accuracy if you’re good enough — nab a handful of critters, and make sure the doe goes free.
Retirement helped my mom stay off her feet, but it didn’t help with much else. I did what I could to keep her safe and happy as she battled addiction. I had a reminder on my phone to call her every other day, and I made the three-hour trip home at least once a month. I drove her to rehab three times, telling her I’d stay with my dad so she wouldn’t have to worry about him. I called 911 when she had a seizure from withdrawal at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday, and I drove her 12 hours back to Mexico Beach so she could relax, unplug, and not worry about her next trip to counseling or the surgery she’d been putting off. I knew I couldn’t stop her drinking, but I told myself that if I could do everything in my power to make her world a little better, she might decide to go on her own.
Mom’s autopsy noted that on the day that she died, she had a lethal amount of oxycodone in her system. It was a day I wasn’t scheduled to call her, and it was the end of a month I wasn’t able to visit. The day before, we had talked about my two-week-old daughter — her first grandchild — and when I could come up to drive her and my dad down to meet her. She was anxious about the trip, so I told her not to worry about it, that we’d talk again in two days. Twenty-four hours later, my dad called to tell me that Mom had said she didn’t feel well and that she’d laid down for a nap she never woke up from.
Despite my calls, despite my visits and drives to rehab, life hit me the way it sometimes does — low and sudden, like when my brother caught a chair I threw at him and speared me with it — with the fact that nothing I’d done had made circumstances better. That I had no control over the situation, no expert decision-making to guide my trek. No chance to insert three dollars and try the site again. Mom was, as my dad put it, gone.
The rules of Big Buck HD WILD are simple, but one is more important than the rest: don’t doe-out. In the months following my mom’s death, when my brother and I started meeting up to play once, twice, three times a week, this became the mantra by which I found peace. Hit a critter? Game continues. Miss a buck? Your score takes a hit. Doe-out though? Game over. It’s the single rule through which you illustrate your mastery, the one that separates those who have control from those who don’t. It defines those who can pause amongst the game’s chaotic crissing and crossing and let the doe stop, maybe in front of a buck or maybe on her own, like she’s posing for a photo. Those who can wait while she lifts her front leg, looking for a second like she’s walking, before sprinting away and revealing the perfect shot on the buck. Those who, no matter what, can make sure she lives.
Adam Shaw holds an MFA in creative writing from Concordia University, St. Paul, and lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and daughter. His work has previously appeared in literary publications including The Good Men Project, The Louisville Paper and The Tecumseh Review.