First, you have to gather the cash to preorder the game at the local GameStop, where your cousin works, and, even though he hooks it up with the employee discount, the game is still a bit out of your price range because you’ve been using your Taco Bell paychecks to help your pops, who’s been out of work since you were ten, and who makes you feel unbearably guilty about spending money on useless hobbies while kids in Kabul are destroying their bodies to build compounds for white businessmen and warlords—but, shit, it’s Kojima, it’s Metal Gear, so, after scrimping and saving (like literal dimes you’re picking up off the street), you’ve got the cash, which you give to your cousin, who purchases the game on your behalf, and then, on the day it’s released, you just have to find a way to get to the store.
But, because your oldest brother has taken the Civic to Sac State, you’re hauling your two-hundred-and-sixty-pound ass on a bicycle you haven’t touched since middle school, and thank Allah (if He’s up there) that the bike is still rideable, because you’re sure there’ll be a line if you don’t get to GameStop early, so, huffing and puffing, you’re regretting all the Taco Bell you’ve eaten over the past two years, but you ride with such fervor that you end up being only third in line, and it’s your cousin himself who hands you the game in a brown paper bag, as if it were something illegal or illicit, which it isn’t, of course, it’s Metal Gear, it’s Kojima, it’s the final game in a series so fundamentally a part of your childhood that often, when you hear the Irish Gaelic chorus from “The Best Is Yet to Come,” you cannot help weeping softly into your keyboard.
For some reason, riding back home is easier.
You leave the bike behind the trash cans at the side of the house and hop the wooden fence into the back yard and, if the door to the garage is open, you slip in, and if it’s not, which it isn’t, you’ve got to take a chance on the screen door in the back yard, but, lo and behold, your father is ankle deep in the dirt, hunched over, yanking at weeds with his bare hands the way he used to as a farmer in Logar, before war and famine forced him to flee to the western coast of the American empire, where he labored for many years until it broke his body for good, and even though his doctor has forbidden him to work in the yard, owing to the torn nerves in his neck and spine—which, you know from your mother, were first damaged when he was tortured by Russians shortly after the murder of his younger brother, Watak, during the Soviet War—he is out here clawing at the earth and its spoils, as if he were digging for treasure or his own grave.
Spotting you only four feet away from the sliding glass door, he gestures for you to come over, and though you are tired and sweaty, with your feet aching and the most important game of the decade hidden inside your underwear, you approach him.
He signals for you to crouch down beside him, then he runs his dirty fingers through his hair until flakes of his scalp fall onto his shoulders and his beard.
This isn’t good.
When your father runs his hands through his hair, it is because he has forgotten his terrible, flaking dandruff, which he forgets only during times of severe emotional or physical distress, which means that he is about to tell you a story that is either upsetting or horrifying or both, which isn’t fair, because you are a son and not a therapist.
Your father is a dark, sturdy man, and so unlike you that, as a child, you were sure that one day Hagrid would come to your door and inform you of your status as a Mudblood, and then your true life—the life without the weight of your father’s history, pain, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, judgment, and shame—would begin.
Your father asks you where you were.
“You have to study?”
You tell him you do, which isn’t, technically, a lie.
“All right,” he says in English, because he has given up on speaking to you in Pashto, “but, after you finish, come back down. I have something I need to talk to you about.”
When you get to your room, you lock the door and turn up MF Doom on your portable speaker to ward off mothers, fathers, grandmothers, sisters, and brothers who want to harp at you about prayer, the Quran, Pashto, Farsi, a new job, new classes, exercise, basketball, jogging, talking, guests, chores, homework help, bathroom help, family time, time, because usually “Madvillainy” does the trick.
Open the brown paper bag and toss the kush your cousin has stashed with your game because he needs a new smoking buddy since his best friend gave up the ganja for God again, and he sees you as a prime target, probably because he thinks you’ve got nothing better to do with your time or you’re not as religious as your brothers or you’re desperate to escape the unrelenting nature of a corporeal existence, and, God damn, the physical map of Afghanistan that comes with the game is fucking beautiful.
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Not that you’re a patriot or a nationalist or one of those Afghans who walk around in a pakol and kameez and play the tabla and claim that their favorite singer is Ahmad Zahir, but the fact that nineteen-eighties Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it, especially since you’ve been shooting at Afghans in your games (Call of Duty and Battlefield and Splinter Cell) for so long that you’ve become oddly immune to the self-loathing you felt when you were first massacring wave after wave of militant fighters who looked just like your father.
Now, finally, start the game.
After you escape from the hospital where Big Boss was recovering from the explosion he barely survived in the prequel to the Phantom Pain, you and Revolver Ocelot travel to the brutal scenes of northern Kabul Province—its rocky cliffs, its dirt roads, and its sunlight bleeding off into the dark mountains just the way you remember from all those years ago, when you visited Kabul as a child—and although your initial mission is to locate and extract Kazuhira Miller, the Phantom Pain is the first Metal Gear Solid game to be set in a radically open-world environment, and you decide to postpone the rescue of Kazuhira Miller until after you get some Soviet blood on your hands, a feat you accomplish promptly by locating and massacring an entire base of Russian combatants.
Your father, you know, didn’t kill a single Russian during his years as a mujahideen in Logar, but there is something in the act of slaughtering these Soviet N.P.C.s that makes you feel connected to him and his history of warfare.
Thinking of your father and his small village, you head south to explore the outer limits of the open world in the Phantom Pain, crossing trails and deserts and mountain passes, occasionally stopping at a checkpoint or a military barracks to slaughter more Russians, and you find yourself, incredibly, skirting the city of Kabul, still dominated by the Soviets, and continuing on to Logar, to Mohammad Agha, and when you get to Wagh Jan, the roadside-market village that abuts the Kabul-Logar highway, just the way you remember it, you hitch your horse and begin to sneak along the clay compounds and the shops, climbing walls and crawling atop roofs, and, whenever a local Afghan spots you, you knock him out with a tranquillizer, until you make it to the bridge that leads to the inner corridors of your parents’ home village, Naw’e Kaleh, which looks so much like the photos and your own blurred memories from the trip when you were a kid that you begin to become uneasy, not yet afraid, but as if consumed by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
Sneaking along the dirt roads, past the golden fields and the apple orchards and the mazes of clay compounds, you come upon the house where your father used to reside, and it is there—on the road in front of your father’s home—that you spot Watak, your father’s sixteen-year-old brother, whom you recognize only because his picture (unsmiling, head shaved, handsome, and sixteen forever) hangs on the wall of the room in your home where your parents pray, but here he is, in your game, and you press Pause and you set down the controller, and now you are afraid.
Sweat is running down your legs in rivulets, in streams, your heart is thumping, and you are wondering if sniffing the kush as you did earlier has got you high.
You look out the window and see your brother walking toward the house in the dark and you realize that you’ve been playing for too long.
You’re blinking a lot.
You notice that your room is a mess and that it smells like ass and that you’ve become so accustomed to its smell and its mess that from the space inside your head, behind your eyes, the space in which your first-person P.O.V. is rooted, you—
Ignore the knock.
It’s just your little sister.
Get back to the game.
There is a bearded, heavyset man beside Watak, who, you soon realize, is your father.
You pause the game again and put down the controller.
Doom spits, “His life is like a folklore legend. . . . Why you so stiff, you need to smoke more, bredrin. . . . Instead of trying to riff with the broke war veteran.”
It seems to you a sign.
You extract the kush from the trash, and, because you have no matches or lighter, you put hunks of it in your mouth and you chew and nearly vomit twice.
Return to the game.
Hiding in your grandfather’s mulberry tree, you listen to your father and his brother discuss what they will eat for suhoor, thereby indicating that it is still Ramadan, that this is just days before Watak’s murder.
Then it hits you.
Here is what you’re going to do: before your father is tortured and his brother murdered, you are going to tranquillize them both and you are going to carry them to your horse and cross Logar’s terrain until you reach a safe spot where you can call a helicopter and fly them back to your offshore platform: Mother Base.
But just as you load your tranquillizers your brother bangs on your door and demands that you come out, and after ignoring him for a bit, which only makes him madder and louder, you shout that you are sick, but the voice that comes out of your mouth is not your own, it is the voice of a faraway man imitating your voice, and your brother can tell.
He leaves, and you return to the game.
From the cover of the mulberry tree, you aim your tranquillizer gun, but you forget that you’ve got the laser scope activated, and Watak sees the red light flashing on your father’s forehead and they’re off, running and firing back at your tree with rifles they had hidden underneath their patus, and you are struck twice, so you need a few moments to recover your health and, by the time you do, they’re gone.
Your brother is back, and this time he has brought along your oldest brother, who somehow is able to shout louder and bang harder than your second-oldest brother, and they’re both asking what you’re doing and why you won’t come out and why you won’t grow up and why you insist on worrying your mother and your father, who you know gets those terrible migraines triggered by stress, and now your oldest brother is banging so hard you’re afraid the door will come off its hinges, so you lug your dresser in front of it as a barricade and then you go back to your spot in front of the TV, and you sit on the floor and press Play.
At night, under cover of darkness, you sneak toward your father’s compound, and you scale the fifteen-foot-high walls of clay and crawl along the rooftops until you get to the highest point in the compound, where your father stands, on the lookout for incoming jets and firebombs, and you shoot him twice in the back with tranquillizers and, as he is falling, you catch him in your arms, your father, who, at this time, is around the same age that you are now, and in the dark, on the roof of the compound that he will lose to this war, you hold him, his body still strong and well, his heart unbroken, and you set him down gently on the clay so that the sky does not swallow him.
Climbing down into the courtyard, you go from chamber to chamber, spotting uncles and aunts and cousins you’ve never met in real life, and you find Watak near the cow’s shed, sleeping just behind the doorway of a room filled with women, as if to protect them, and, after you aim your tranquillizer gun and send Watak into a deeper sleep, your grandmother, a lifelong insomniac, rises from her toshak and strikes you in the shoulder with a machete and calls for the men in the house, of whom there are many, to awaken and slaughter the Russian who has come to kill us all in our sleep.
The damage from the machete is significant.
Nonetheless, you still have the strength to tranquillize your grandmother, pick up Watak, and climb back onto the roof while all your uncles and cousins and even your grandfather are awakened and armed and begin to fire at your legs as you hustle along, bleeding and weary, to the spot where your father rests.
With your uncle on one shoulder and your father on the other, you leap off the roof into the shadows of an apple orchard.
The men are pouring out onto the roads and the fields, calling upon neighbors and allies, and, because the orchard is soon surrounded on all sides, it seems certain that you will be captured, but you are saved by, of all things, a squadron of Spetsnaz, who begin to fire on the villagers, and in the confusion of the shoot-out, as the entire village is lit up by a hundred gunfights, each fight a microcosm of larger battles and wars and global conflicts strung together by the invisible wires of beloved men who will die peacefully in their sleep, you make your way out of the orchard, passing trails and streams and rivers and mulberry trees, until you reach your horse and ride out of Wagh Jan, toward an extraction point in the nearby Black Mountains.
But now, at the door, is your father.
“Zoya?” he is saying, very gently, the way he used to say it when you were a kid, when you were in Logar, when you got the flu, when the pills and the I.V. and the home remedies weren’t working, when there was nothing to do but wait for the aching to ebb, and your father was there, maybe in the orchard, maybe on the veranda, and he was holding you in his lap, running his fingers through your hair, and saying your name, the way he is saying it now, as if it were almost a question.
“Zoya?” he says and, when you do not reply, nothing else.
Russians chase you on the ground and in the air, they fire and you are struck once, twice, three or four times, and there are so many Russians, but your horse is quick and nimble and manages the terrain better than their trucks can, and you make it to the extraction point, in a hollow of the Black Mountains, with enough time to summon the helicopter and to set up a perimeter of mines, and you hide your father and his brother at the mouth of a cave, behind a large boulder the shape of a believer in prostration, where you lie prone with a sniper rifle and begin to pick off Russian paratroopers in the distance, and you fire at the engines of the trucks and ignore the tanks, which will reach you last, and it is mere moments before your helicopter will arrive, and, just as you think you are going to make it, your horse is slaughtered in a flurry of gunfire and your pilot is struck by a single bullet from a lone rifleman, and the helicopter falls to the earth and bursts into flames, killing many Russians, and giving you just enough time to rush into the cave, into the heart of the Black Mountains.
With your father on one shoulder and your uncle on the other, and with the lights of the Soviet gunfire dying away at the outer edges of your vision, you trudge deeper into the darkness of the cave, and though you cannot be sure that your father and his brother are still alive, that they haven’t been shot in the chaos, that they are not, now, corpses, you feel compelled to keep moving into a darkness so complete that your reflection becomes visible on the screen of the television in front of you, and it is as if the figures in the image were journeying inside you, delving into your flesh.
To be saved. ♦
Published in the print edition of the January 6, 2020, issue.
Jamil Jan Kochai, a recipient of an O. Henry Award, is the author of “99 Nights in Logar” and “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” which will be published next year.