I hope that when someone tells you you’re strong, you have enough love inside of yourself to believe it. I hope that when the sky calls your name, you’re not afraid to arrange the tiles in a way that extends your palm into an answered prayer. I hope that the night never stays longer than the smile on your face, that the only hello you need is the opening of your eyes to a new day. I won’t say that I hope you don’t have regrets, because you will. I wish I knew the difference between wearing a disguise and becoming a shadow of the growth that only shines when the sun has kissed your eyes instead, but the only change I knew happens right before you fall asleep – a moment of forgetting.
“We had plans to hang out tomorrow; have you already forgotten?” The sun perfectly framed Slate’s eyes every time I turned to acknowledge what he was saying. Although it was already the middle of May, the morning air still cut my bones into uneven pieces of promises I wanted to say, but knew I couldn’t uphold.
“I thought you would be excited for me,” I started, knowing that I was stepping into a thought that was only going to expand in the wrong direction. I slowed down my gait, giving Slate a chance to voice everything he has been keeping bottled up.
“I just haven’t seen much of you lately,” he threw his hands up in an exasperated sigh, “and don’t tell me that that’s a girly feeling to have.” He shoved his hands into his pockets now, and toyed with something in the grass with his foot, avoiding eye contact. “You promised that this wouldn’t come between us,” he continued, his voice quieter now – almost as if he was beginning to regret saying anything at all.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened to us. Slate and I almost broke up the previous year, because I couldn’t tell what I wanted in my life more – games, or unconditional love. It had taken me a long time to rationalize both sides, when it should have been no contest. The problem wasn’t that I was good at games and Slate was not. The problem wasn’t that I had chosen early on in life that I wanted to be a game developer, or beta tester, or pretty much anything that revolved around loosing my eyesight to a brightly coveted screen. I cautioned myself to choose my next spoken thought carefully. Almost loosing Slate was a dark period in my life, and I didn’t want to repeat it if it could be avoided.
“You can come with me,” I pulled his right hand out of his jean pocket, covering it with both of mine, “and we can do whatever you want afterwards; I promise” I quickly added, hinting a moment of doubt in his eyes.
“Whatever?” He raised his right eyebrow. His dark, coffee colored bangs fell across his forehead. “And you don’t mean you’ll take me back to your place to beta something new you’re working on?” He adverted his gaze downwards once again. I hated that I made him feel this way, but I wanted so badly to keep both halves of me in a harmonious relationship.
“Yes,” I released his hand to intertwine our fingers, “I promise.” He leaned in for a kiss, underestimated how much space there was between us, and fell against my forehead instead. We laughed as I positioned him upwards. “It shouldn’t run much longer after lunch.” I tried to add a sprinkle of positivity to my voice, and made a mental note to set aside a day for just us.
“Come on, we’re going to be late!” Slate’s mouth slid into a huge grin as he started to lead the way down the sidewalk. “You know all the best ones are taken in the first hour!”
Guy’s comic book store was already a hive of excitement. It was usually fairly busy on Saturday’s, but today there seemed to be a mix of regulars, first timers, and annoyed girlfriends. Slate and I threw a quick greeting at Guy as we hurried towards the back where the gaming machines were. Slate pulled an extra chair up to the only still unoccupied machine that had New Releases still flashing above it. He ordered two cokes, placed one in the open space between my machine and the one beside us, and sighed.
“Are you sure you want to open that?” The sparkling orge stood impatiently in front of me. “Actually, I don’t care what you do anymore, we’ve been here for over five minutes.” He started to tap his foot as he twirled a strand of his unruly purple hair around his finger. The mountains in the distance had already begun to sing their good morning song, and I had yet to make my first decision. I had grown comfortable in the forest. I had a group of trees that no one else touched, with a pool of water at the bottom for my own personal pleasure – either drinking or bathing, and almost everyone left me alone. But, as per the rules, I had to make a minimum of five choices a day, and the first one was usually set for first thing in the morning. I had slept in this morning, hoping that maybe there would be some sort of exception, but I knew better, and I was beginning to kick myself in the shin for thinking I could alter the rules to my own personal preferences.
“Hmm.. how long as it been since you’ve chased love?” The ogre asked with a smirk on his face. His morning breath was wafting between us, lingering in the space that I wouldn’t allow to get any closer.
“I believe that was a couple decisions ago,” I lied. I had made the choice to try a relationship a couple days after I had arrived here. It started off poorly, and didn’t end any better. I didn’t necessarily want to be responsible for another persons decisions in here, again, but I knew sooner or later I was going to have to try again. There was talk that you at a certain point, you weren’t supposed to play this game alone. You were supposed to see how your decisions can alter and affect another player. There were also rumours that there were more decisions that you could make with another player. I wasn’t certain of what that meant. If that meant a family and children, I knew that I didn’t want that. Extra responsibility and harder decisions?
The ogre started tapping his hand in unison with his foot. “They’re going to call you soon. Do you really have no preference?”
I ran through the possibilities in my head. Of course I had a preference, but was I going to admit it to this smelly creature? Absolutely not. “I think I’m just going to decide when I’m asked, see the options laid out in front of me, you know?” I started to walk forward as I said this, hoping that the ogre would get the hint – that I didn’t want an unwarranted companion. But, he fell in step anyways.
“Are you sure? I’ve been watching you. I don’t think you’re doing this right.” This stopped me in my tracks, and I felt anger stirring in the pit of my stomach.
“Do you know the right way to play this? Or did they just send you here to be annoying to whomever you come across?” I started walking forward again, faster than before. “Also, I think that is called stalking, and I believe that that is a violation of human rights.”
Laughter bellowed behind me and vibrated off the pathway I was on. “Good thing I’m not human then.”
I turned around, about to tell him where he could put his mouth, but he had already turned and was sprinting off towards the eastern forest. Thank God, I thought to myself.
Kace, please report to the main north entrance in five minutes. Kace, please report to the main north entrance in five minutes. The announcement echoed against all the walls I couldn’t see, and across the sky I had always thought looked a little too bright. My name hung off trees that were probably a little to tall, and burrowed into the colors of flowers I had never learned the names of. My name swam across the lake, but drowned before it reached the shore, and inflated the clouds with movement. I sighed and turned right, letting the anxiety weigh down my feet as I walked.
“And how are we doing today, Sir Kace?” I watched the lips on the screen elongate and shrink with each syllable, and momentarily wondered what would happen if I didn’t respond. If I just refused to continue. I decided against it, as there was nowhere for me to go.
“I’m exceptionally swell today, sir,” I responded, flashing the biggest fake smile I could muster. I could be as sarcastic as I wanted to be, and he wouldn’t be able to detect it. It must be a defect in his programming or dna or whatever he was comprised of.
“I think it’s time we changed this up a little bit, what do you say?”
“We wouldn’t want me to get comfortable, now would we?” I responded. Not necessarily a yes, but not really a no either. He would take it as a yes, though.
“Judging by your last fifty choices, I feel like you’re lacking in the romance department. Although, it wouldn’t be fair to just set you up in that chapter, that’s not how this is run. So, would you like to live a life of luxury, revolving around all the money you could ever want? Or would you like a meaningful relationship? Keep in mind that this involves dating, but it skips the awkward getting to know you stage. It involves the eventual outcome of marriage, maybe kids. If kids aren’t your thing, then maybe a dog or a cat. Hell, even a fish. Just something to look after, something to center your heart around that isn’t you, you know? As always, the decision is entirely yours; what would you like? Without any merit, the ogres word’s rang in his ears, but he didn’t listen to them for very long.
I could taste the sweat dripping off the person’s head beside me. I tried to imagine his thoughts: you can do this. There’s no one else in this room. You have practiced your whole life for this moment. You know, the same things everyone else was telling themselves.
The room was packed, which was surprising because my understanding was that this had been an invite only event. But, if everyone that got invited invited another two or three people themselves, I could see how the numbers could easily multiply. The rules were simple. Ten rounds with ten people competing at a time. The people with the three lowest scores got bumped out instantly. There was a timer at the end of each row of ten – a flashing reminder that that anxiety you were coaxing down at the bottom of your stomach, was in actuality very real, and in those final seconds, however little or much you coddle it, could depend on whether or not you advance. I had successfully been better than six other people at this point.
Slate had checked in numerous times already, lying each time about how content he was by just watching all of this unfold. He had explored the street that we were on, already being in and out a few times, all the while bringing me drinks without my having to ask. I made another mental note to make it up to him as the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the third round. I instinctively looked at the screens to my immediate right and left, adding and subtracting silently in my head. I could tell that my score was higher than the person to my right – an anxious, awkward, prepubescent boy; but I couldn’t tell if the final number to my left was an 8 or a 9. Not that it mattered, I was pretty sure that his score was higher than mine regardless.
The man in charge looked young, a year or two younger than me, give or take. His hair looked like it could use a good washing, and his face didn’t quite meet the gaze that was burrowing into each screen as he paused to write them down. I bet he got money from his parents to be able to do this, he probably didn’t go to college either – just went straight for game developing, because he already knew that was what he wanted to do, and any further schooling would be more of a hindrance than anything. He seemed to pause longer at my station, a slow smile growing across his face. He gave me a nod before he moved on. I watched his entire body move, trying to gauge how the remainder of the competitors had done based off of his body language; but, all I got was that the person beside me was out – and I didn’t get that from watching the man-in-charge.
The entire room seemed to hold a collective breath as he glided to the white board and started to write down names and scores. I didn’t understand why he wrote the scores; I know that I would feel bad enough if I didn’t pass a round, and I wouldn’t want to know how much I lost by. But, as I continued to watch him write, and hold my own breath, I couldn’t come up with a better way to do it. With six names on the board, I chose to close my eyes. I was beginning to feel so nauseous that I couldn’t feel Slate’s hand on my shoulder. I knew he was done writing when there was a murmur of cheering and weak clapping. Slate squeezed my shoulder, which provided the confidence I needed to open my eyes. There was my name, one down from the top. I was currently the second highest score holder. But, that meant nothing, as the next round was being set up and was scheduled to start in ten minutes. Bathroom break, I thought to myself, motioning to Slate to follow. He shook his head, and I contemplated holding it until after the next round, just so I could spend some extra time with him. He seemed to know what I was thinking, and shook his head.
I was on my way to the bathroom when something hit me from behind, square in the back. “Hey, idiot!” a voice boomed. I tried to continue walking; I didn’t want to engage in anything other than playing the game, but this angered the anonymous culprit. Two sets of hands wrapped around my throat, and pulled me backwards. The force of the pull caused me to fall on my butt, shooting a pain up my unsuspecting backside. I was in both shock and pain, too much so to be able to retaliate in any way.
“You think you’re a big shot, huh?” A burly man with a light beard bent down to get his face as close to mine as he could.
“You’re not trying to kiss me.. are you?” I pushed out between staggered breaths, trying my best to hide a smile behind the pain growing a forest up my back.
“Wise guy too, hey?” The second one spoke. He was smaller, and he looked familiar. I think he was playing at a station a couple away from mine. Judging by this blitz attack, I’m guessing his name wasn’t found on the board this time. “It’s just a game,” I managed to say in one go.
“With prize money involved. Do you happen to know how much I could use that extra cash?” The bigger one was talking to me again.
“Dude,” I started, brushing myself off with my right hand while keeping my left on my lower back. “I’m sure you’re not the only one.” I had managed to stand now, but I was still hunched over from the pain. “Why aren’t you beating on everyone else on that board?” I asked, immediately closing my eyes. I didn’t want to know the answer, let alone give them any other ideas.
“You just have that look, you know?”
I inhaled and winced, forcing myself to stand erect. “And what look might that be?”
“The one that says you’re better than everyone else, and to tell you the truth, you’re actually good at this shit.” The bigger one helped the smaller one stand up. The smaller one didn’t even come up to my chin – I could easily take him out if I wasn’t in so much pain. The bigger one had at least a foot on me, probably why his scrawny friend keeps him around.
“I can’t help it if I’m better at this than you. Maybe you should go home and practice some more, before attending another one of these.” I had done my best to not be a sarcastic smartass, but now, I had had enough.
And I met the floor for the second time in five minutes.
“Could you at least pretend to look like you’re enjoying it?” Bexley and I were sitting across from each other on the patio, under what looked like stars.
“I love it, darling,” I announced, my mouth still full. Bexley looked at me, disgusted by the crumbs falling between my lips.
“And I just cleaned that this morning!” She exclaimed, “Could you please, try to be careful?”
“Which one is it?” I asked through another mouthful.
“What are you talking about?” She placed her head in her hands, and shook it side to side.
“Would you like me to pretend or to be careful?” I knew I had crossed a line before I even finished asking the questioned. The redness that had once only resided in her cheeks, had moved to the entirety of her face.
“You know what I mean!” Bexley had only taken to yelling at me recently, but I didn’t hadn’t given her much of a choice. For one thing, yelling was a dynamic that I enjoyed. I could watch her get worked up, and slowly talk her back down, to a rational level. It made me feel good, being the hero, the resolver, the one that could fix anything.
“You made the choice for a young love, so here we are. I would really appreciate it if you acted like you wanted to be here. You make me dread when you come home. I hate looking up recipes to try cooking for you because you don’t like anything. I don’t know why I clean because you just walk through this place like it’s a welcome home mat, leaving the dirtiest pieces of you on the floor for everyone else to clean. And then you expect me to say I love you after all of that? No way. No more.” She was standing now, and the table was shaking a little under the vibrations of her anger.
I rose as well, placing my hands on her shoulders. “You’re right; I’m sorry, dear.”
“I am?” Bexley took a step back, confused.
“You are,” I grabbed her hand and gently pulled her around to my side of the table. “You do a lot for me, and I don’t thank you enough.” She sighed in my hands. “I will try to do better; I promise.” Bexley smiled, picked up my plate, and sauntered into the house.
I smiled to myself, proud that I had done it again. I know it sounds like a toxic relationship, but I found joy in stirring things around until one can find their reflection. If my poor actions caused someone to find who they truly were, I will always consider that a win. I slowly followed her into the house where she was already washing the dishes. “If you leave them on the drying rack, I will put them away when I get back,” I called to her as I slipped my favorite, black spring coat over my shoulders.
“When you get back?” Bexley appeared in the living room, dish towel in hand.
“I’m going to go for a short walk; my stomach doesn’t feel so good right now,” I said, rubbing my right hand in a circular motion across my stomach for effect. I would have asked you if you wanted to come, but I know you don’t like being out after dark for too long.” I almost winced saying the latter, despite the truth it held.
Bexley sighed and turned back towards the kitchen. “Don’t stay out too long, please?” The water was already running again before I could respond.
The air was unusually musky, as if the trees were trying to connect with the ground in a way that made the rest of the world uncomfortable. I walked along the edge of the path, skipping every couple rocks or so, wondering what would happen if I was forced to make a decision now. I have been making decisions based off impulse, the first thing that lit up the dark areas of my heart – often times, they weren’t finished going through my options. They usually paused at the end, wondering if I had been taken in everything else that they had said; and probably hopeful that I would change my answer. But, the thing about living on impulses is that – you leave little room for regret.
“Hey, stranger,” a timid voice peeked around a rose bush in the immediate distance. I squinted before responding.
“Hi Greer,” I started before she pulled me in behind the rose bush with her. Before I got the chance to say something else, she placed her finger across my lips. Shhh, she mouthed. I considered retaliating for a moment, but ended up placing a pause on my thoughts as I heard the approaching footsteps.
“Everything is in place, sir.”
“You ordered a tonne of what I requested, correct?”
“And installed them all yourself?”
A hearty chuckle. “Well, I had a little help in that department, but we got it all done, sir. Stop worrying.”
“The last time I planned this, things went sour really fast. There was no time for damage control. I can’t fail a second time.”
“You could always resort to altering their choices. Wouldn’t that speed things up to your preference?”
“Are you forgetting the premise of this world? This utopia that we have built? We are curated out of the freedom to choose what we want next. To take back the control that we inevitably loose with age. Truly living out of our hearts, loving with our desires at the forefront. We wouldn’t be who we are if we took that away. We might as well just release everyone now. Erase any evidence of existing under a shirt tied for one.” The footsteps continued past us, and I exhaled in a cloud of confusion and interest.
“You’re right, sir. You’re always right.”
“I can’t believe you’re looking at your phone again.” I looked up to see Slate gently pushing my phone down, revealing my face at the same time. The air around him was filled with curiosity, and angsty teenagers trying to fill their time off with as many experiences at one time.
Slate had chosen this pub based off of a review he saw on Facebook. I hadn’t known him as the kind of guy to choose experiences based off of social media, but I guess that is how you get to know whether or not you like something – by trying it. And, the more popular it is, the higher the chances of you liking it are – or something like that. “I’m sorry,” I started, “I’m sorry.” I placed my phone down an inch away from my beer, and picked that up instead. I took a sip slowly, allowing the liquid to kiss my lips and tango with my senses all the way down my throat, until it collapsed in a pile of content exhaustion at the bottom of my stomach. I was never a big drinker, but I had been trying to be more open socially to Slate’s choice of activities. He never drank to get drunk, or drank until the only coherent thing he could say was his name, but he did enjoy going to busty places that offered various forms of liquid courage. He was more introverted than I, and there was nothing wrong with having a little help along the way.
My eyes flashed towards my untouched phone, that was now blinking uncontrollably, like it had something important to say. I sighed, and turned my attention back to Slate. “How is your mom doing?” His mom had been in a car accident a couple weeks ago. She had broken a couple ribs and fractured her right arm. She came out pretty lucky, all things considered. I let the moment of guilt in not asking him about her until now, linger for a moment.
“She’s weening off the painkillers,” Slate started. “They gave her some pretty strong ones, and she wasn’t herself for a while. There was no pain, but you could tell the second they started to wear off. You know, being easily irritable and everything.” He shrugged. “I guess they say she was getting too addicted, and once you start, it’s hard to stop.”
I bit down on my lower lip, and let the guilt take over my entire body. “Oh man, I’m so sorry.” Slate nodded in acknowledgement. “Is she handling the pain okay without them?”
“We haven’t had the heart to take them away from her entirely, but dad keeps them on him at all times. When he can’t fully keep an eye on them, he locks them up in a cupboard in the kitchen.”
“How much longer will she have the cast on for?” I asked, simply to keep the conversation going. Slate reached over and touched my hand.
“She goes back in to get it checked out in a month. They’ll see how the bones are healing, and then decide if she needs another cast on for a little longer, or surgery to correct the direction in which they are healing.”
“Ouch,” was all I could think of saying without offending anyone.
“I know. I’m constantly feeling bad for her. It’s hard not to try to do everything for her all the time, but she yells, wanting her independence. Or to not be treated like she’s broken, you know?”
The noise level seemed to pick up just then, as the table beside us yelled in excitement as some team did something important on the t.v. It was always a mystery to me how someone could find enjoyment over watching a group of sweaty guys running around on a small t.v. I always figured that kind of thing would be more exciting in person, or on a bigger screen. But, what is sports without the fans, anyways? Maybe I was just bitter towards the genre because I was never good at them. Computers and math were more my thing.
I glanced downward to my phone again. The blinking was alternating between three colors now – red, blue, and green. Text, facebook message, and email, I thought to myself. “Oh, go ahead and check it,” Slate rolled his hands as he removed his hand from mine. In one swift movement, he made running his fingers through his bangs look like the cutest thing on earth.
“Are you sure?” I asked, already reaching towards my phone. I felt like he was only saying this because he could feel my attention wavering, and he didn’t want to feel like a hinderance – not that he was at all.
Slate nodded, his smile now distant. “I’m sure. I’m going to go check out one of the vlt’s for a little bit. Come find me when you’re done.” He stood up and gently left his hurt on my cheek. I nodded, as I was already scrolling through my notifications. Two emails in particular caught my eye.
Dear Mr, Sheraton,
We are writing this to inform you that we have received your beta trial, and are quite pleased with the interface upon first glance. We would like to take explore this deeper with you at your earliest convenience. We look forward to hearing from you soon.
-The Heightened Brothers
Dear Mr, Sheraton,
Upon seeing you perform at last weekends tournament, we wanted to extend our warmest invitation to you. If you so choose, we would like you to be a part of a controlled group, testing out the beta version of our newest software. I can’t release much more information, as it is still partly in the developing stages, but we need beta testers. I can tell you, however, that it is a role playing game we believe would suit your selected skill set. There is money involved, if you so choose to be a part of this experience. Please call us at your earliest convenience. There is a group meeting coming up next week. We sincerely hope that you choose to be a part of this adventure.
Oh. My. God.
“Would you like the red one or the blue one?” The clerk was looking flustered now, but I was too busy trying to figure out how many people were in line behind me.
“Why can’t I have them both?” I asked, voice a little rushed.
“Do you have a need for both?”
“Do we really have a need for anything other than the basic necessities?” I started, a look of terror flashing through the clerk’s eyes. “I mean, shelter, food, clothes, that’s all we really need, right? Everything after that is extra, and I want the extra’s extra.”
“Okay, so I should ring them both through?” The clerk had one hand on either pillow, and was moving towards the scanner.
“Well, the red one is exceptionally soft. Do you happen to know its thread count?” I didn’t wait for the lady to respond before, “And the blue one is simply aesthetically pleasing, you know? Blue happens to be my favorite color. But, not just any blue.. it has to resemble the sky first thing in the morning. Not after a storm. Not when it’s breaking up with the sun. That soft, baby’s breath sort, and this has that.”
There was a ripple of grumbles from behind me, but ignoring them was easy when I couldn’t see their faces. “So, you would like them both?” The clerk spoke slowly now, as if she was trying to release her frustration evenly to make it unnoticeable.
I sighed and threw both hands in the air, “Sure, let’s do both.” I smiled.
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” the clerk shook her head as she scanned the rest of my items. “Would you like to donate a dollar to our development research?” I paused for a moment, caught off guard. It had taken me so long to get to this point – to decide what I wanted in my house.
“Umm..” I started. “How many people typically donate to this every day?”
“I’m not able to disclose that information,” the clerk looked annoyed again.
“Ah, you mean, you don’t know. But, I’m guessing you get quite a few as this is a popular store.” I acknowledged the still growing line behind me.
The clerk started to tap her fake nails against the cash register. It wasn’t my fault she was the only one working the till. The way I saw it was, poor decision making on the managers part. I mean, hey, the line is growing, lets throw someone else on a till too. “So, is that a no, sir?”
I smiled, “Yes, that is definitely a no.” The lady sighed again as she finished bagging my items before forcing a smile with eye contact.
“Have yourself a lovely afternoon,” I noted the sarcasm, but returned the smile as I grabbed my bags and walked out of the store with a happy gait. I had taken my motorcycle out today, and had aptly parked it right outside the entrance doors. I believe these spaces required a handicap sign, but I didn’t care. Nothing much bothered me these days. I threw my bags onto the back rack, and loosely tied them down. If they fell off, I knew I had the means to replace them anyways.
“Hey, Kace!” I stepped on the gas, but hadn’t put my motorcycle in drive, so all it did was make a loud rumbling noise, and jitter around a confused cloud of smoke. I sighed and pull the visor of my helmet upwards, so I would be able to see whom was calling me.
“Are you coming tonight?” Kimberly’s infamous bouncy, red ponytail came into view.
“Tonight?” I asked, trying my best to look confused.
“You know, the charity dinner for the homeless.” She had reached me now, and was still trying to gain control of her breathing. I hadn’t seen her running, but I guess she could have started once she noticed me.
“No, I actually have plans,” I started.
“I’m calling bull on that one. You never come to anything the community puts on. You know you’re the only person to literally never show up to anything that has been planned?”
“And that somehow makes me a bad person?” I waved my hands in a confused gesture to exemplify my point.
“But you’re…” she started and stopped, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She looked so uncomfortable, I almost took it as my cue to leave, but something about wanting to know what she was going to say next had me turn the key in my ignition to the left.
“We just feel…”
“Who is we?” I asked, cutting her off.
“Just a few of us,” she hesitantly started, “the ones in charge of the charities in the community. Donations, meals, things like that,” she paused and stared into my eyes for a long second. I figured she was trying to gauge how I felt about this, so I looked back down at my motorcycle and turned the key to the right without saying a word.
“I mean.. you’re so..well off..” she began again, “and donations are at an all time low this year…”
I sighed, but still didn’t look her in the eye. I was aware that this was probably making me come across like an insensitive jack ass, but I was also irritated at being interrupted before I could even make it home.