“Dude, my mom’s such a buzzkill,” whined Matthew into the headset. “She told me if I don’t go to the game tonight, she’s gonna make me go to church with her.”
“You can thank me for that,” Brian said, waving his broadsword and snickering under his breath. “I told her to threaten you with the one thing you hate more than anything else.”
“You called my mom?” Matthew raised his voice. “You must really want me to go, ’cause you hate talking to parents.”
Brian moved his glove-covered hand forward. “I have my reasons. So, I guess it’s your choice. You can either go out with me and Vic tonight or you can sit in a pew Sunday morning, covered in stale piss.”
“My mom’s such a phony at church,” Matthew said. “She treats me like crap at home and acts like one of God’s angels there.”
Victor’s voice of reason and youthful piety rose above the chatter. “Bro, she’s your mom. If the worst she does is make you go to church, then you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about. Your life could suck a lot more.”
“Says the Bible-thumper,” Brian said.
Victor laughed off Brian’s remark. “At least I do something productive with my time.”
Brian thrust his digital sword into a forest bandit. “How productive is it sitting down and listening to some old guy talk for an hour?” Pulling out the sword, he sliced the bandit’s left arm. “Man, I could do that on YouTube. At least I’d get to stay in my room and eat pizza rolls while I do it.”
Shielding an attack from the bandit leader, Victor fell to the ground, yelling, “Would you quit daydreaming about food and help me out with this guy!” Sparks of metal flew off Victor’s iron shield as the bandit leader hammered his ax against it.
Brian occupied himself with the rest of the bandits, and Matthew ran to Victor’s aid. With a twist of his body, Matthew swung his sword and released his special attack—a magical burst of flame that scorched the bandit leader, dropping his health to zero. Matthew knelt to raid the charred body, finding seven hundred gold pieces and an ice ax. Placing the items in his inventory, he said, “Pizza rolls or not, I’d rather get burned alive like this guy than go to church.”
Brian finished raiding the other dead bodies in the bandit party. “Come on, bro. I think church is boring and that Vic is wasting his time with fairy nonsense, but it’s not that bad.” With a ruby in his palm, he smiled and added, “All things considered, Vic’s the most likely to succeed in life.”
Victor paused his movements and dropped his mouth. “Wow, is that an actual compliment? I’m flattered.”
“Whoa now,” Brian said with an extra dose of sarcasm, “don’t let it go to your head, man. I still think you’re too squeaky clean for anybody’s good.”
Victor shook his head and laughed. “Yeah, well, not everyone can be as salty as you.”
“Quit messing around,” Matthew said, pointing his sword at his friends. “You guys talk too much. If we played more and talked less, then we could actually make some progress.” Sheathing his blade, Hellfire, Matthew began walking toward the nearest town to sell his newly acquired ice ax. The others followed behind.
Brian scrunched his face behind his virtual reality goggles. “Who’s the salty one now?”
Walking down the dirt road, Matthew clenched his fist. “I don’t want to go tonight, okay?”
With exhaustion in his voice, he relaxed his hand. “Why can’t we keep playing and see if we can finally complete the Gauntlet?”
Brian ran ahead and walked backward in front of Matthew. With exuberant hand gestures, he said, “Dude, Stacy practically threw her underwear in your face to invite you to tonight’s game. And you’re gonna do what, exactly? Stay home and slay goblins for six hours?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, man,” said Matthew, rolling his eyes.
“Listen, Matt.” Brian turned around and walked next to Matthew. Placing his arm around Matthew’s shoulder, he said, “You may not care about your extracurriculars, but I do. It’s about time one of us became a man. And Victor’s out ‘cause he’s a choirboy. So, that leaves you and me, and I ain’t got no love comin’ my way. What do you say, bro? Chicks dig that whole dark and brooding thing you got goin’ on.”
Walking behind them, Victor remained silent as Brian ran his mouth. Matthew would have forgotten Victor was with them if not for the black quiver of arrows bouncing against his armor and clanking loudly with each step.
Matthew wanted to reach out to Victor’s even-headed perspective, but once Brian started talking about his supposed expertise with women, there was very little he or anybody else could say to get him to shut up. To keep the peace, Victor’s usual response was to ignore it.
“I don’t know what you think you saw at lunch today with Stacy,” said Matthew, “but she is definitely not interested in me. She only invited us so I could give her the new DLC pack of Mendacium that my dad sent me. All she wants is free stuff. That’s it!”
Brian egged on Matthew further. “Who cares about whether she wants your free stuff? I heard she’s more than willing to repay a favor.”
“Dude, she’s not like that,” Matthew said, forcing Brian’s arm off his shoulder.
Brian jumped to the side. “Someone’s gettin’ testy.”
Flaring his nostrils, Matthew yelled, “Seriously, man, stop talking about her like she’s some slut!”
Victor agreed in silence, smiling in the background.
Brian leaned forward in his gaming chair. “What? You like her?”
Trying to dodge the subject, Matthew stopped his avatar to sip on a two-liter orange soda. “Whatever, man. Let’s talk about somethin’ else.”
The group continued along the dirt road until they came upon a rotting wood fence on the left side, designed to protect the carrots and lettuce grown on Miller’s Farm. It would not take much effort to knock the fence over, but Matthew alone had enough healing potions to last a dozen raids. The last thing he needed was a couple of vegetables. The few health points the verdure could provide would not be worth the trouble he’d face for stealing it, so his group walked by with only a scoff. Stealing vegetables was for beginners, and they were seasoned players.
“If Stacy was playing with us,” Matthew said, “She’d probably tell us to eat more vegetables. She’s stupid like that.”
Brain halted, kicking up dust behind him. “You do like her!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” stated Matthew with his body freezing mid-movement.
“Bro, I may be as dense as a feminist’s logic, but I’m not stupid. You like Stacy. You know she’s been with, like, everyone in the drama club, right? Now, if you want to join her list of conquests, I throw in my full support, but you can’t feel anything for a girl like that. She definitely won’t feel anything for you. Nothing good’ll come of it.”
“Don’t let Brian get to you, man,” Victor said, staring down Brian with virtual eyes. “He said it himself, he’s dense.”
The skin between Brian’s eyebrows wrinkled as he smiled. “But I’m also a realist. I call it like I see it.”
“This conversation’s gettin’ old,” Matthew said, raising his hands in frustration. “Let’s log out and do the Gauntlet tomorrow night.”
“So, you’re gonna go with us?” Brian inquired with a beaming grin.
Matthew pointed his flaming sword at his long-time friend. “If I agree to go with you guys, will you stop talkin’ about Stacy?”
Raising both hands in surrender, Brian said, “Yeah, bro, whatever you say. Let’s sell our new stuff and save our progress at the shop. I’ll pick you guys up at Matt’s house at six o’clock. Y’all better be ready.”
Huffing, Matthew shook his head. “Fine, whatever.”
“And you guys think I got problems ‘cause I like church,” Victor added. “I’ve never met two more dramatic guys.”
Brian replied in a pretend rage with his feet spread apart. “Dramatic, huh? I’ll show you dramatic!” Swinging his sword in the sky, he danced like a monkey, screaming with the shrill of a howling banshee.
The group laughed, watching Brian act like a fool. He was always good at lightening a tense mood, even if he was the one who usually instigated it. Regardless, Matthew viewed him as a loyal friend, and with Victor’s cool disposition keeping things from getting too heated, the group was tighter-knit than most in the server they played.
Once Brian stopped going crazy, the group of three high-level adventurers finished their trek to town to sell their goods. Splitting the spoils, they logged out, took off their VR gear, and started getting ready for the football game.
Naomi sat on her mauve microfiber couch reading the book of John. She flipped through the pages of her leather-bound Bible, the thin sheets of parchment crinkling with every turn. Now and then, she stepped into the kitchen to check on the pot of water that was working up to a boil.
She meditated on one verse, reading aloud. “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of this world.”
Leaning her head back against the couch cushion, she closed her eyes, reflecting on the meaning of the verse. Maybe that’s why Matthew hates me so much, she thought. Maybe that’s why nobody loves me.
With the heavy footsteps of a thirsty teenager, Matthew plodded down the stairs. He had combed his hair over with a dab of pomade to keep it in place. He wore his nice pair of jeans and a blue button-down shirt, the one his mom said brought out the color in his eyes.
The sound of his footsteps interrupted Naomi’s spiritual trance. Startled, she jumped to her feet and, noticing Matthew dressed up for once, began encouraging her son’s pristine fashion sense. “Wow, you look great, Matthew! I’m assuming you changed your mind about the game.”
Matthew tried to ignore his mom by darting past her and into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator to look for a drink, he kneeled to grab a pitcher of sun tea off the bottom shelf and stood back up.
Naomi followed him to the kitchen, seeking reasons for his suave demeanor. When Matthew closed the door to the fridge, she hovered over him with eager anticipation. Trying to tease, but stumbling gracelessly, she asked with an awkward smile, “So, you really hate church that much, huh?”
Matthew walked past her again, opening the cabinet for a glass. As he poured the liquid, he said, “Mom, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m going out with the guys.”
“Like Brian,” she probed with wide eyes, zealously trying to be a part of the secret.
“Yeah, I guess,” Matthew said with a sigh of frustration.
“Are you going out with anyone else? You don’t dress that nice for Brian.”
“Yeah, there’s a new guy named Vic we’ve been playing with,” Matthew said, refusing to make eye contact.
Naomi knew there had to be some girl in this equation. She snickered. “So, you’re dressing like that for another guy?”
Realizing he trapped himself in a peculiar situation, Matthew raised his voice. “It’s not like that!”
“All right, all right,” Naomi said, walking to the stove to dump the pasta into the boiling water. “Do I at least get to meet this Vic?”
Matthew looked down. “God, I hope not.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, forehead wrinkling.
Dodging the question, Matthew waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’m goin’ like you want me to, and that’s all that matters.” Matthew began chugging the tea as if to escape any further interrogations, but Naomi wanted more answers.
“Wait a minute, Matthew,” she said. “What’s wrong with me meeting your friends? Are you ashamed?”
“I really need to get goin’,” Matthew said. “Brian’s picking me up soon.”
“Can you give me a straight answer for once?”
Matthew slammed the tea down on the counter. “I don’t have to answer your stupid questions!”
Naomi scowled. Jabbing her finger in his face, she snapped, “Now, you listen, Matthew! You don’t talk to me like that!”
Matthew murmured something profane under his breath.
“Care to say that louder?” she asked, crossing her arms and tilting her head.
With bulging eyes, Matthew cracked his knuckles. “You get onto me about every little thing I do! Why do you care who I hang out with? I’m sixteen. You don’t have to meet every person I talk to.”
Breathing deeply and trying to calm her emotions, she silenced her loud, disapproving glare, softening her eyes. “I know you’re sixteen. And no, I don’t have to meet all your friends. I’m interested in your life because I love you.”
“Well, stop loving me so much!” Matthew exploded. “It’s suffocating! Why do you think I spend so much time in my room? I don’t have to look at your ugly face all the time!”
“Excuse me!” Naomi cried, a shriek in her voice and fire in her eyes.”
Matthew thrust out his chest. “All you want to do is go to church.” Attacking his mom’s newfound religion, he went for the jugular. “You preach about God and how he’s some good, good father. Well, you know what? I’m sick of you shoving this crap down my throat. You may not like Dad. He may not even be a ‘good father’, but at least he’s real. You can think he’s a loser all you want, but he’s honest with himself, and he doesn’t believe in some stupid fairy tale.”
Naomi’s face reddened and, with the vein in her neck starting to pulsate, she said, “Your dad? He left us to fend for ourselves and you take his side?”
Matthew shoved past his mom. “Whatever, just leave me alone so I can go to this stupid game like you want.”
Naomi grabbed his arm to stop him. “You’re not going anywhere until you apologize to me.” She threw up her other hand in frustration. “You’ve been nothing but awful to me ever since I started going to church. I’m tired of it! All you do is play that silly video game your dad gave you. I only see you when you come down for food, like I’m your personal chef.” Face inches from Matthew’s, she shouted. “I am not your slave! You don’t have to like me, but you will respect me! I’m the one who’s here, not your dad!”
Slapping her hand away, Matthew shoved his mom. “You think you’re better than Dad?” he bellowed. She stepped back and caught herself, but he charged again. “You think it’s easy living in this crappy house with you?”
Raising her arms in front of her face, Naomi cried. “Stop it!” The scene reminded her of when John hit her in his drunken stupor, losing all sense of reality. All she could think about was being attacked by her ex-husband.
Matthew threw his mom to the floor in a fit of volatile rage. Panting, he towered over his mom’s trembling body. “I don’t have to listen to you! I’m old enough to make my own decisions, so stay out of my way!”
“Then go already!” she bawled with a shaking voice. Scrambling toward the breakfast table, Naomi grabbed a chair and shielded herself. “Leave! If you want to be like your dad so much, then get out of here! Do whatever you’re gonna do.”
Matthew dropped his shoulders and lowered his chin. With a sudden stillness in his face, he reached out his hand to his mom. “Let me help you up.”
“I said leave!” Naomi howled, voice cracking and skin flushed red. “If you are so hell-bent on treating me like this, then you need to leave now.” Clinging to the chair with a frantic intensity, Naomi’s knuckles turned white.
Matthew backed up to the kitchen entrance and saw the water boiling. He pointed to the stove. “Mom, your noodles!”
Hearing the water boiling over and hissing on the burner, Naomi pushed the chair away and ran to the stove. She grabbed the pot to move it off the burner and felt the searing heat against the palm of her hand. “Ow!” Dropping the pot on the floor, noodles and steaming-hot water spilled everywhere.
Ditching the mess, she ran to the sink, turning the water on full blast. In pain, she stood with her hand in the faucet stream. The tears she held back let loose like a floodgate opening wide.
Matthew hung his head low. “Are you okay?”
Naomi bit her lip and closed her eyes. “What do you care? You don’t want me in your life anyway, remember?”
Matthew started to apologize, “I didn’t mean to—”
“You didn’t mean to what?” Naomi said, opening her eyes and turning around. “You didn’t mean to push me? You didn’t mean to scream at me for no reason? You didn’t mean to treat me like trash? All I was trying to do is show you I care, and you act like I’m the worst person in the world!”
Matthew opened his mouth to answer, but before he could utter another word, Naomi continued. “You Randall men are all the same. You act like your women are disposable, and then you leave with no regard for them afterward. Just go!”
With as much volume as she could muster from her small frame, she pointed to the door with her good hand. “Go! Be your own man and do your own thing. I don’t care anymore!”
In her fit of rage, all she could see was John’s face in Matthew’s, scoffing and peering at her with condescending eyes. She could hear nothing other than John’s berating words escaping Matthew’s lips, telling her how the drinking was her fault, and how if she was a better wife, he wouldn’t have to drown his loneliness. The pain in her hand was like the pain in her face as John’s fist would connect with her jawline. He was a mean drunk at home, all those years ago.
She had enough, and she let Matthew know how serious she was, her red face becoming redder by the second.
Closing his eyes and holding his breath, Matthew turned around and exhaled. With his right hand, he pinched the bridge of his nose and walked to the front door. Slowly opening it and heading out of the house, he shuffled to the sidewalk to wait for his ride.
As Naomi tried to ease the pain of her hand, a voice came from deep inside her mind that entered the forefront of her thoughts. He won’t change. He will always blame you for his dad leaving. He will always be his father’s son. What makes you think love will change his heart? The only one you’re fooling is yourself. Remember, an eye for an eye, and all that stuff. If he doesn’t want to respect you, you don’t have to do anything for him. Let him be his own man and he can face the consequences for himself. You have your own life to live and you can’t waste it worrying about men who will only abuse you and take advantage of you.
Naomi listened to the voice for a while as it repeated the same mantra, until another voice came into her mind and reminded her of the words she read earlier. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of this world.
With the faucet water running over her hand, Naomi closed her eyes and pictured a refreshing waterfall gushing over her soul, which silenced the accusations. When she opened her eyes, she turned off the water and wrapped her hand with a kitchen towel. Walking into the living room, she looked at the front door and said to Matthew as if he was in the room, “You may hate me, but I will always love you.”
Matthew stared out the car window toward a fiery orange sunset melting into various hues of purples and pinks. He loved that time of day, every tree and blade of grass hugged in a golden blanket. At that moment, however, the light cast upon his surroundings only filled him with sadness.
Regretting how he treated his mother, Matthew slumped in the blue leather car seat with a look of shame on his face. Contemplating the merging colors, shifting with each passing second, he had a moment of self-awareness. How long has it been since I’ve seen a real sunset? The question swirled in his mind. He’d seen multiple sunsets in Mendacium, but they were all fakes, mere shadows of reality.
Sitting under the shroud of the sky, he remembered completing quests, finishing long raids, and filling his coffers with unique and valuable items. He always felt like the fabricated world of Mendacium was more tangible, more genuine. It was a place where people could be their true selves, without consequence. And the developers took painstaking effort to make their patrons come back for more. With each new update came new textures and shaders that enhanced the experience, drawing each player further into its sublime photorealism.
Matthew understood, if only on a surface level, that Mendacium was causing him to miss a lot more than sunsets. His schedule centered around the game. He’d wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, go home, play Mendacium. That schedule repeated five days a week—with the occasional ditching—submerging himself in as much of that fantasy world as he could. It was the only thing he had to disrupt his mundane existence. When school was not in session, Matthew glued his body to his gaming chair, each waking moment spent stuck inside Tartarus Games’ virtual reality headgear.
He particularly enjoyed Sunday mornings. When his mom was at church, he could fully immerse himself without distractions. At least until she arrived at the house to make lunch—usually leftovers from her Friday night pasta dinners. He had never once communicated to his mom how much he enjoyed her pasta, always homemade and always drenched in sauces passed down from her relatives in Italy.
Though he loved his mom’s cooking, he loved Mendacium more. Despite his misplaced love, he became aware in the car that no matter how real Tartarus Games made the game feel, it was only the carbon copy of a much greater existence, one that was passing him by with each login.
Maybe if the setting sun in front of him was real enough to catch his attention, then the relationship with his mom ought to be real enough to give his attention also. He wished her religion was out of the equation, but she refused to let go of it. He didn’t know how much he hated Christianity until his mom was baptized in the fires of its supposed lunacy.
Matthew’s thoughts grew so loud in his head that they escaped his mouth. He turned to Victor. “So, you believe God created the world, right?”
Startled by the question, Victor lifted his head, detaching his gaze from his phone. “Dude, where did that come from? I mean, yeah. I do. You know I do.”
Brian adjusted his rear-view mirror to get a better look at Victor. “You guys say nothing for like ten minutes and the first words out of y’alls mouths are about God and creation? What the heck?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew said, sitting up in his seat. “I figure the probability of something like that being an accident is a pretty far stretch.” He pointed his finger toward the sky. “That is without a doubt the best sunset I’ve seen in a long time. I guess I’m feeling like someone had to design it or something.”
“You haven’t been outside past four o’clock in months,” Brian said, “so you’re actin’ foolish. It’s like seeing a naked woman for the first time. You think to yourself that there’s gotta be a God in the universe somewhere, but if truth be told, you simply haven’t seen something so freakin’ fantastic in all your life. It defies reason. Maybe if you got out more, you wouldn’t be asking such stupid questions.”
Matthew flung his arms up. “Dude, I’m being serious.”
Brian smiled as if picturing an array of women. He winked at Matthew. “So am I.”
“Quit messing around, Brian!” Victor snapped. “Matt has every right to feel how he wants to feel without you talkin’ smack.”
A burst of air snorted out of Brian’s nostrils. “Don’t you think you’re too biased to help our friend?”
“Don’t you think you’re too jaded to be arguing against Matt?” Victor countered.
“Listen. I’ve known Matt long enough to know this has nothing to do with sunsets or God.” Taking his right hand off the steering wheel, Brian placed it on the center console and asked Matthew directly, “What’s really goin’ on, man?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew said, slumping into his seat again. “I guess I’m just tired.” Crossing his arms, Matthew looked out the window to avoid eye contact, attempting to stop the conversation.
Victor sat in the backseat fidgeting with his phone, looking like he wanted to say something, but uncertain how to form the words.
Matthew appreciated Victor and the balance he brought to their three-man crew, but he had known Brian longer, and they shared a long history without Victor. The year and a half Victor was a friend to Matthew could not compete with the twelve years Brian had invested. Though Matthew welcomed Victor’s contributions, he tolerated his values as only an inconvenient part of the package, causing Victor to choose his words carefully.
Victor was desperate to shed some light into Matthew’s crisis, and Matthew knew it. The whole car shook as Victor bounced his leg up and down while spinning his phone in the palm of his hand.
Staring into the darkening sky, Matthew waited for Victor to mutter some sort of encouragement to get him out of his funk, but Victor was quiet. He waited so long that he missed his opportunity, and Brian moved into the void of heavy silence, breaking it with his careless yet confident bravado.
“So, you’re tired,” asked Brian, leaning into the steering wheel with a facetious look in his eye. “Dude, that’s a load of crap. You can stay up until five in the morning playing games with nothing more than your fire sword and a Red Bull. Now you’re saying you’re tired?” He leaned back in his seat and calmed his voice. “Seriously, we’re all cool here. Tell us what’s up.”
“Yeah, Matt,” Victor assured, placing his phone on the seat next to him. “We’re here for you, whatever’s goin’ on.”
“It’s nothin’, really,” Matthew said. “I got into a fight with my mom before we left and it got out of hand, quick. She doesn’t understand, is all.”
Brian clutched both hands around the steering wheel and looked forward with seemingly callous disregard. “Look, I know things aren’t cool with you guys, but it’ll get better. I never thought my brother and I would be tight, but now he’s letting me borrow his car.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Matthew replied, nodding his head.
Brian smirked out of the corner of his mouth, glancing at Matthew. “I’m always right. And if I’m not, good ole Vic back there can say a prayer for both of us.”
“If I’m gonna pray for you guys,” said Victor, “it’s gonna be that you stop being such total retards.”
The entire car busted in laughter down Highway 75. As darkness settled over the horizon, the laughter in the car collided with a loud bang, followed by shattering glass and screeching wheels.