I couldn’t take it any longer. The suspense was killing me.
And people around me were starting to sense it. “You’ve just got to tough it out,” Jordan told me one day at lunch over homemade sandwiches and bottled drinks to save time and money. “Movie makers have no idea how their work will be received until the critiques unleash their reviews on the world. We’re in that part of the process now.”
He had a point but I still fucking hated it. All I was getting right now was the negative—in the form of profuse bug reports from the beta testers. But the fact that they were continuing to play and level their characters up… and the fact that every day every day received more and more sign-ups for the beta test had to account for something, right?
Damn. Every time I thought about it, my palms got a little sweaty and got jittery though I had no idea why.
Well I did know why, actually. Because I had no control now. The game was in the players’ hands and the only thing I could do was make the miner tweaks and changes to root out the bugs. But if they thought the game sucked, I had zero control over that.
So I did the logical thing and…
Well it all occurred to me one sleepless night. I was tossing and turning and trying to eliminate those racing thoughts that preyed upon me in the darkness of my room when my eyelids refused to shut and my brain refused to stop hearing them. Why not just get my ass out of bed, grab my device and start playing as a fellow beta tester?
People said things to their fellow players they might not say to game creators—especially while playing on their game for free. I could… be part of the crowd and mingle a bit. Get to know who was connecting with my game, if anyone.
At least I wouldn’t be in for a rude awakening when the NDAs lifted and the reviews started coming out. I’d be prepared.
I hated no knowing. So I’d go on a knowledge-gathering mission.
When I logged in, ready to make a new character, I realized I already had a character ready to go…The other night when I’d demonstrated for Candace how the game worked, I’d made that weirdo monk, FallenOne. His appearance still cracked me up—skinny, bald and with a long white ZZ Top-style beard down to his waist.
With a shrug and a what the hell, I pushed the button to log into the game.
And spent a very amusing few hours running around the newbie zone helping people with their quests. I guess technically I might have been affecting peoples perception and natural learning curve when learning the game but helping out half a dozen late-nighters wasn’t going to ruin anything.
So I amused myself, hit level three on the mighty monk and finally crashed at five a.m. – only to wake up a few hours later, ready to face another day at the studio.
I was ready for a break but there was no light at the end of this tunnel, not yet. I did, however, find the time to break off and enjoy a Sunday dinner with my extended family.
My uncle, Peter, had been bugging me for weeks to have a celebration dinner in honor of the beta launch. Moved as I’d been by his pride in my accomplishment, I’d only been able to eke out a few hours in my calendar for this week. So we’d celebrate a few weeks after the fact. It all evens out in the wash, right?
Except it wasn’t as simple as that. After dinner and toasts all around, particularly moving comments from my uncle and my cousin Britt. Liam remained his usual pensive self and things dissipated quickly.
The boys ran off once they were done and she chased after them to keep them away from the pool. Liam wandered off to his room and Peter and I were alone again. I volunteered to wash up and he helped, bringing the dirty dishes for washing and then drying as I put them down.
Typically he had me just put things in the drying rack so he must have something he wanted to talk about. Peter was an open book—easy to read when he wasn’t in lawyer mode.
“What’s up?” I finally asked when I sensed his hesitation to say whatever it is he wanted to say.
“Well, I’m only passing this news along and I’m not inclined to pass any judgement on how you choose to act on it.”
I handed him the last dish, stood back from the sink and dried my hands, studying him. “Uh oh. I think I have a bad feeling about this.”
His face was grim. “It’s about your mother.”
I took a deep breath and released it. Well that wasn’t what I’d expected. Scratching my jaw, I darted him an expectant look.
He clenched his jaw, then spoke. “Last month, I was notified by a collections agency trying to find her. They were looking for you. Apparently she skipped out on almost a year’s worth of rent and they’re trying to recoup the money.”
I snorted. “From me?”
“I didn’t bother with replying to them. The most they can do is harass you but… I was worried about the ramifications so I did a little digging to find out where she is and what she’s doing.”
I frowned. “Why? I have no desire whatsoever—”
He held up a hand. “Yes, I know that. But with her continued failings and now that she’s getting older, it’s possible that the state authorities might eventually come after you for financial her support and upkeep.”
I stiffened at the news while still grateful that Peter had followed through on concerns that hadn’t even occurred to me. Always thinking like a lawyer…
I ran my fingers through my hair. “That’s fucking rich. The entire time I grew up she barely supported us. Off social security checks. And she drank most of that away. After Bree left, we were subletting out of someone’s living room. Literally renting the couch for her to sleep on and the floor in front of it, where I slept. And some room behind it to stash our stuff against the wall. I mean, at least it was a roof over our head but—”
Peter laid a hand on my shoulder, gripping it firmly. “Son,” he said.
I flicked my eyes up at him. He called me that sometimes. I never corrected him. I wasn’t his son but if I came close to being anyone’s, it was his. I silently granted him that right—along with my sincere gratitude for pulling me out of uncertainty. At thirteen, I’d called Child Protective Services myself and reported her. At that young age, I imagined any foster home or situation had to be better than being on the street—which at that point we’d been for almost a month.
Ten years later, I was well aware of how that situation could have put me into an equally bad one or possibly worse. So many kids in the foster system did not a get a fair shake. Until they’d reached out to my uncle—my dead father’s brother—I’d had no idea where I could have ended up.
I’d only known that I couldn’t spend another moment with my mother, especially since she could only be called that in the broadest definition of the word.
Peter shook my shoulder as if to regain my attention after it had drifted away from him. “You’re good. I’ve taken some legal steps to protect you. Drew up some paperwork that you’ll need to read through and sign. She’s currently in Spokane living in a homeless shelter. Fortunately Washington is a non-filial responsibility state so—”
I shook my head. “I speak code, not legalese.”
“Filial responsibility is a law that states whether or not you’re on the hook as an adult child for supporting an adult parent who can’t—”
“Or won’t,” I bit out.
I took in a deep breath and let it go. Peter’s hand slipped from my shoulder and back to his side. “Technically she abandoned you, though it was via placement services. You don’t have to worry about them coming after you to support her.”
I swallowed. Even now. Even now, I found a small part of myself wanting to help her, show her the mercy she never showed me. And especially never showed my sister, Bree. The woman had tortured the fuck out of my sister until she hadn’t ben able to take any more. Bree had run off to find her own way far too young and had lost everything, everything, as a result.
My fists clenched in resolution even now resenting that one soft spot in my heart that might have been inclined to help as much as I could at this point in my life. But now, remembering Bree, my poor sweet tortured sister who didn’t deserve all that had befallen her, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
I’d never forget Bree. And though I might eventually be able to forgive the woman on my own behalf, I’d never forgive Sheila Collins Drake for what she’d done to her own daughter.
On the drive home, I was so deep in thought, I missed my turn-off on the 55 freeway and rode it down all the way to the end where it spilled onto Newport boulevard and eventually, the beach. I parked and took a long walk along the waves in the dark.
Bree loved the beach. The few times we’d been able to go it had been like pulling teeth to get her to leave. One time we’d even gone down there together when we were supposed to be in school. Spent the whole day there and spent our five dollars each we’d received in a holiday card from my uncle. We’d nursed that five dollars and had one of the best days of my childhood that I could remember.
The beaches in northern Washington didn’t have waves crashing violently to the shore like they did here in California. All the beaches were protected by the peninsula and the massive Vancouver Island just off shore in Canada. But here, tonight, these crashing waves were mirroring the turmoil I felt inside as I thought about Bree.
IT had been years since I’d reflected on her. I’d had to tuck that pain away. She’d died right around the time I’d left the state. Even at my young age, I’d lost hope when I’d received that news. I knew if I’d stayed with my mother I wouldn’t live much longer than Bree had.
Tonight, in the dark with only strangers around at a distance, I peered out into the gaping night and blinked back stinging tears. I think I could still remember what her laugh sounded like.
“You didn’t deserve this,” I whispered. Swallowed. Kicked at the sand.
The tears were streaming down my cheeks by the time I let out a slight yelp of anger, shouting back at the waves. They amplified my pain, grabbed it, dragged it out to sea with them, then crashed back toward me, showering me with salty spray.
Fuck you, Sheila. Fuck you for making her go away. I hate you. And I hate that I can’t remember the exact color of her hair and the sound of her voice, her laugh.
When I looked down, my sneakers and the ankles of my jeans were soaked with frigid water, driving a chill all the way up my spine. The breeze blew icy darts onto my wet face. It was a chilly spring night and I was standing shin deep in the Pacific and losing myself in the darkness.
That darkness that was always hovering near the edges of every triumph, every victory. That despair that could net me, hold me fast and immovable within its grasp.
When I got home, I had to dig through some of my old boxes. Things I hadn’t opened in years. Memorabilia from high school, yearbooks, photographs, souvenirs from vacations.
I found it in the last box. One that had been sealed and sent by social services to my uncle’s address after I’d arrived in California to live with him. It was a shoebox sized measly pile of belongings I’d been able to bring with me from my home. My old, broken Gameboy and a few game cartridges for it. Some souvenirs from childhood—a Valentine’s card from a girl I’d liked, a braided friendship bracelet. A small bundle of pictures. Mostly baby pictures of me with my parents, my Dad holding a toddler me at a park while apparently I was crying.
I went through the entire pile, blew out a deep breath, went through it again.
I only had one tattered picture of her. Her and I together. She had her arm around me and I had missing teeth and a big wide cheezy grin. She was a preteen, still wide-eyed and innocent.
Then everything blurred and I tucked it aside. Pressing fingers against my eyelids to stop the sudden emotion, I swallowed, vowing to frame the photo and put it somewhere I’d see it every day. But it was faded and I still couldn’t see the exact color of her hair.
Blowing out a breath and steeling myself, I got up from my desk, paced for long moments before making my way to my laptop to Google the nearest tattoo shop with a reputable reputation. After scanning a few for reviews, I grabbed my keys and was out the door. It was ten p.m.
“Here.” I pointed to my left collarbone above my heart. “In green.” Her favorite color.
The tattoo artist nodded. “Is this your first?”
He laughed, throwing me a grin. “The first of many. You’ll see. It’s addictive.” I eyed him. Almost every visible part of his skin was covered with ink except for his neck and face.
Addictive. I didn’t like that word. No, I more than didn’t like it. I hated it.
“This is the only one.” I wrote the name down on the paper and we went over script and font layouts.
“Oh, man. Let me just warn you about putting a woman’s name down.” He pointed to his forearm. “My ex’s name is three layers deep under this vine. And my girlfriend, under this dragon’s breath.”
I blink. “It’s okay. I know what I’m doing.”
He shrugged. “Okay. It’s your body.”
And it didn’t take long, as a matter of fact. And when he hit certain sensitive nerves near the collarbone, fire and pain exploded there. But I sat stock still, locked in position and with each flash of pain, I thought about her. About how much I wished my grief over her was a physical pain and not this permanent weight on my heart. How I wished I could be free of this grief and remember her with fondness, warmth and love instead of darkness.
My fists closed in determination and though I hadn’t planned it this way, I felt like something in me was changing. I was no longer that boy who had endured an unpleasant childhood, who had had things happen to him. Now I was a man who made things happen. I was a man, in control. And I’d be in control of this, too.
No more missing her. No more empty ache. She was here, in my heart and on my skin in bright ink. In time she’d become that pleasant happy memory instead of the pain. I could only hope.
When I got back to the condo, I was far from sleep, so I logged into the game, determined to do some more good in my own game. Why not?
As the familiar entry music faded, I made my way around the newbie area and found it fairly deserted… which wasn’t a good sign. It meant that we’d need to try to introduce a new batch of beta testers into the game soon to keep the progression going…
So I traveled to the next zone over and was relieved to find this one more crowded. I focused my attention on the avatars moving about the scenery—a light and colorful jungle. Some were fighting mobs in small groups and others were playing solo. I did my best to step in and help where I could.
And after about a half hour, I was feeling much better, losing myself in the environment and just the plain joy of playing a game again, even if it was my game.
As fatigue gnawed at me and I glanced at the clock realizing it was after midnight, I determined to log off and get at least one decent night’s sleep. I’d do that after I helped that little spiritual enchantress I spotted nearby. A tall, blond elf woman who stood by herself surrounded by several gnolls.
Here was Dudly Do-Right or rather FallenOne the Fearless, off to her rescue.
Except I’d run up so quickly, I hadn’t realized she’d mesmerized the gnolls she was fighting. They stood in a thrall while she picked them off one at a time. Or at least that had apparently been her plan.
I pulled out my spear to start attacking them. And then she turned my chat screen purple with ranting messages.
Why are you swiping my gnoll, noobie?
I beat it down a few more bars on its health while she stood completely still and didn’t help. The thing almost kicked my ass. I typed furiously. I’m helping you, I saw you had mobs on you. I didn’t want you to get killed.
Wow. She was pissed. I glanced back at the screen to catch her name in bright blue over the avatar’s head. Eloisa.
My eyes flew back to the chat messages, reading them in more depth. Well, well. Wasn’t Eloisa quite the little firecracker?
Then she hauled off and cast a big nuke spell that blew the rest of the gnolls up in one hit—an ability she can only use once a day.
Huh. Well, no good deed went unpunished, I supposed.
Nevertheless, I sent her a profuse apology and asked how I could make it up to her.
My group could use a good damage-dealer. Play with us for an hour. If you’re useful, maybe we’ll keep you for longer.
With a deep sigh of reluctance, I agreed.
Tomorrow night, 9 p.m. PST. Meet us by the city gate and we’ll group up.
Then she logged off on the spot.
I blinked. I guess that was an order, then?
Relieved that I could go to bed as planned, I laughed and logged off. Well. Maybe if I didn’t find myself busy tomorrow night at 9, I’d check up on the little firecracker spiritual enchantress and her group. I added the name Eloisa to my friends list. My first official friend on the list for this character.
That way I’d be notified when she’d log on again.
Then I closed up my computer, went to bed, sleeping on the opposite side as the one with the tattoo. And for once I was able to fall asleep almost as soon as I’d shut my eyes.
It was a really good night’s sleep, too.
Chapter 6 | Chapter 8