The message popped up on my phone at 7:54 pm.
I texted her right back: Hey. What’s up?
Hayley: nothing u?
Me: Homework. Bored.
Hayley: Still going to library tomorrow?
Hayley: Okay. cya ttyl
I slid off the bed and to my door to double check the lock. Dinner had been difficult. How was school? What did you learn? Did you make any friends?
Boring. Nothing. No. Those were the answers I wanted to give them, but that would only provoke a lot more questions. So I answered, “Great,” and told them a story about pre-calc that was basically made up, and I told them about Hayley.
Mom and Dad zeroed in on that quick—especially Dad, who was always pressuring me to chase girls — but I brushed them off successfully, then retreated to my room after dinner.
At least they were talking to each other for a change, and Mom seemed somewhat sober.
I checked the time. Almost eight. I slipped into the chair at my desk, double clicked on the Second Life icon, and typed my login information.
Moments later, the progress bar completed and the world began to fill in.
First, my avatar appeared.
She was tall, but not too much so, with long red hair braided into a French braid. She wore a vaguely steampunk outfit, knee high boots, a tattered skirt, ruffled rose-colored blouse and a black coat. A pistol was holstered at her left side and a sword on the right. Above her, the name Tamara Goldwyn floated in the air. Underneath my name was the legend Brigade Sergeant.
After my avatar was clear, the surroundings began to fill in, starting with the walls of the apartment I rented above a shop in Erie South. I still had a ton of money left over in Second Life … almost $100 real dollars. But I had no way to convert it back into real currency. So instead of getting the meds I needed, I wasted it here. Not that $100 would pay for the pills for more than a couple months.
A loud beep announced an incoming message. Lilya Marjeta was the captain of the Brigade, the faction I was a member of. She lived in the Netherlands and was often online several hours ahead of me. I opened her message.
Lilya: Tamara, are you on long? Can u come to the hq?
Tamara: On my way.
I clicked on the door to the apartment and it slid to the side, then I made my way down the dark hallway and stairs to the front of the building. My heads-up-display only showed a few dots. Probably not friendly: half a dozen different factions with competing and shifting loyalties dominated Erie Isle, and the Brigade was often a minority amongst those factions.
Across the street was the canal which cut through the island out to the ocean to the south. In that direction was mostly private residences owned by different people who supported the sim. To the north, was the main sim, Erie Main. There I would find the brigade headquarters and my closest friends in the world.
Crazy, right? That my closest friends in the world didn’t even exist? Or they did, but I didn’t know their names, or where most of them lived, or anything at all except what went on in our world here.
I didn’t care. In real life I was Sam: depressed, outcast, freak. But in this world I was a leader. I had friends and people I cared about. Sure it was a game. Sure it wasn’t real. But maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe it was more real than stupid Ashley and her asshole boyfriend Cody. More fun than my high school and my parents. More accepting than my slightly racist and semi-homophobic grandparents.
So I walked, carefully avoiding the dangers in the darkness of my virtual world.
A knock on my door jarred me back to the real world. I minimized the game, my heart suddenly thumping, and opened a Word document with my English report on it. Then I got up and walked to the door and opened it.
Dad stood at the door. His hair was chaotic and his eyes were sunken with deep exhaustion. The uniform he wore, blue polyester with the words Waffle House embroidered on the sleeve, looked like it was soaked. Dad had gone back to the restaurant after dinner… something must have gone wrong.
I stared at him but didn’t say anything.
He didn’t sound sure of anything as he said my name.
He looked at me for a second like there was something complicated he wanted to say. Then, it seems like he sagged in exhaustion. “Just wanted to say good night.”
“Good night, Dad.”
He half smiled, then staggered down the short hallway toward their room. Dad’s room, really… it’s like they thought I was stupid. That I didn’t noticed they never slept in the same bed anymore… That Mom was always on the couch.
Hoping to prevent any more interruptions, I called in the other direction, “Good night, Mom.”
“Night, honey…” It sounded like she was watching the ten-thousandth rerun of Law and Order. Her words were slurred; yet another bottle of wine on its way into the recycling. They always talked about how broke we were… but a bottle of wine a day can’t be cheap.
I closed and locked my door.
I opened the game back up, my avatar bouncing back into position. I got lucky this time… usually when someone left their avatar idle in the sim, the GM’s would bounce them out. I hadn’t been gone long enough for anyone to notice. I continued my walk. On my left was the large hill that over looked the harbor. On top was the Cathedral, home to the Twilight, one of the less savory factions, and the base for the current mayor, who I’d long since determined was a sadistic lunatic. Past the Cathedral was the brigade headquarters. Beyond that, the warehouse district, where it wasn’t safe for humans to go.
The brigade headquarters was a two-story building that might have once been a fire station. It had a pole from the second floor anyway. The basement had been converted to jail cells. In theory the Mayor was responsible for public safety in Erie, but in practice the brigade did the job… Vigilantes, violent, and effective.
I had joined the brigade about three months earlier. I was new to Erie, and was picked up by the faction fairly quickly. After about a month I’d been promoted to sergeant.
Of course, in Second Life, three months is more like two years.
When I walked into the brigade headquarters, Lilya was standing there talking with a human male. He was tall, possibly close to seven feet, and well-built with tattoos banded around his upper arms. He had short shaggy blonde hair, and his face showed a five o’clock shadow. A name floated over his head: Gunstock Valor.
Lilya: Tamara. I’m so glad you’re here. This is Gunstock. Gunstock, this is Tamara, our training sergeant.
I reached for my keyboard, hesitated for a second, then typed: Is Gunstock a recruit?
Lilya: yes. Can you show him the ropes? I’ve reached the end of my shift.
Lilya: /ooc I have to log off now, it’s past midnight here.
The characters /ooc meant “out of character”. Players typed that when they needed to communicate something that wasn’t actually part of the game.
Tamara: /ooc: have a great night Lilya!
Lilya: /ooc: good night, sweetie! Take good care of Gunstock!
Time to get back into character.
Tamara: It’s nice to meet you, Gunstock. I’m Tamara.
Gunstock: Charmed, Miss Tamara. I wouldn’t have guessed such a pretty lady would be the training sergeant for an organization like this. Have you been with the brigade long?
I felt my cheeks heat up. I ignored that and began typing: Not long. I’m just very good at what I do.
Gunstock: I can imagine.
I led Gunstock out of the headquarters and along the edges of the warehouse district. As we walked, we didn’t chat. In some simulators, voice chat was preferred, but it was disabled here. That made it impossible to talk while maneuvering an avatar. However, it was one of the reasons I liked to play here. When I was online, I preferred to completely put on the role of Tamara. No one in Second Life knew that I was physically male in real life. I was happy to keep it that way. As soon as people knew that, they would begin to treat me differently. And the thing was? In this world, I felt needed. Valued. Confident. In the real world I felt none of those things.
Over the next hour, we stopped in at several locations on the island… The bar, the hotel, the hospital. During that time I learned that, out of character, Gunstock had only been in Second Life for about a month. That was what I had suspected. This was the first roleplay sim he had visited. I explained the rules the best I could, emphasizing that the point was to become immersed in the story, not to get points or achieve a particular end. He seemed to understand.
We were about to find out if he got it. As we left the hospital, we came upon a small grouping of figures.
It was the mayor, Kacklick Fromwell, with his assistant Sophie. They were confronting a young woman. The label floating over her head read Ninevah Marvel.
Kacklick was tall and extremely thin and wore a long black overcoat which probably hid serious weapons. He had long sideburns, and black leather boots and what appeared to be leather pants. He wore a red amulet at his neck. I’d often seen him around over the last three months, and the amulet was new and probably trouble.
Avatars didn’t actually have facial expressions except the most crude ones. But somehow From-well managed to be menacing without them. He turned to face me.
Kacklick Fromwell: Tamara. Butting into other people’s business, as usual?
Jerk. I typed: Just doing my job.
I turned to the girl and typed: Hi. I’m Sergeant Tamara, I’m with the Brigade, we’re kind of like the cops around here. Are you new?
The girl took a long time to respond. I found myself checking the clock. I needed to get to bed soon. School in the morning. Finally she answered.
Ninevah Marvel: *whispers*help me
Whoa. I took a step back from Fromwell. Then I typed: Gunstock, step back a little bit please? Cover me. Mayor, what kind of game are you playing?
I watched the mayor closely, even as Sophie backed away from our little tableau, apparently keeping her eyes on Gunstock. If it came down to a fight, I was in trouble. Gunstock was inexperienced, and Sophie deadly. She’d probably take him out in a matter of seconds. I was good, but From well was far more powerful than I was, probably 20th level or higher. He had all the advantages. All the same, I couldn’t walk away from this fight.
A private chat window popped up in the corner of my screen. It was Gunstock: what do i do
In the chat window I typed: Follow my lead. If a fight starts, try to take out Sophie with your guns.
Gunstock: *gulps* I don’t know how to use them.
Tamara: Just do the best you can.
After what seemed like an eternity, Fromwell typed: Sergeant Tamara, Young Nineveh here is mine.
Tamara: Nineveh… Get behind me, then run. I’ve got this son of a bitch.
As I finished typing this sentence, I drew my weapons. I could feel adrenaline hitting my real life body… I’d never fought the Mayor, but I’d seen him take out high-level players in seconds. As far as I knew, he was the longest standing player on the island.
Fromwell typed: The Mayor begins to laugh with a menacing tone, then raises his arms in the air. A black cloud begins to form between his hands.
As the words appeared on the screen, his avatar went into a crouch, arms waving in the air and a black cloud began to surround him.
I jumped high in the air, backwards, hoping to get out of range of the spell as I opened fire with my pistol. Before I hit the ground, the heads up display showed my hit points beginning to drop. Tiny animated blood-red particles floated away from my body as I hit the ground running. My hit points were dropping fast, and there was no chance of me taking him out with a pistol in that time. I charge forward swinging my weapon.
Another spell: a bright flash of light extended beyond Fromwell’s body, enveloping me. I heard the sound of thunder, and a scream. My avatar dropped to the ground.
Words appeared on the bottom of the screen. Tamara Goldwyn has been defeated by Kacklick Fromwell! Tamara Goldwyn loses 40xp!
I was immobilized, and would remain that way for several minutes. The rules said that once you were defeated, you couldn’t reengage. Gunstock was also down. We were through.
Fromwell typed: Nineveh, girl… Come with us.
The girl approached the Mayor. He turned back toward me and typed: No one will question your courage, Tamara, but one must know how to pick the right battles to fight. When you’ve recovered, you should consider whether or not the brigade is the right home for you. We could train you to really fight. And to do other things.
Tamara: I’d never join you.
Fromwell: Then I suppose you’re doomed to misery and failure. You and all your allies.
Fromwell, Sophie and Nineveh walked away.
I sighed and looked at the clock. I needed to get to bed. It seemed like whenever I played, hours could race by without me noticing.
Tamara: /ooc: I’m out of time for the night. You coming back tomorrow?
Gunstock: /ooc: yeah, this was a lot of fun. See you tomorrow.
I log out, finding myself, with what felt like a shock, back in my bedroom. I was back in a place where I wasn’t a leader; where I was not heroic, not needed, not a woman.
The room was quiet, and through the door I could hear the ticking of Mom’s grandfather clock, and from outside, the underlying hum of thousands of insects. But inside, I was reliving the battle. I turned off my computer, turned out the light and crawled into bed.
I felt empty, so I turned my mind back to the game. Lilya would be upset we’d lost the battle with the mayor, but I didn’t think she’d be mad about us intervening. That was what we did. Protected the innocent. Searched for the missing. Took care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves.
In my virtual world, I was all the things I couldn’t be in the real world.
I drifted off to sleep and dreamt about the island. In my dream, Brenna was there with me.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.