He stood across the room from me, so near that I could see the thin hair that wanted to be more adorning his chin. Limpid blue eyes were focused on the people he stood with, some of the cooler members of the dance committee. A lot of them didn't normally participate in these kinds of school groups, but this was senior year and there were a lot of new faces that wanted credit for their transcripts. He wasn't like that, though.
To my eyes, Jackson was the very definition of a cool kid. If there was an 'in-crowd' then he was near the center of it. If you weren't part of that crowd, he made you feel like you were. He was a nice guy, pretty much to everyone – even me – and was the president of our GSA. He greeted me once a week as I arrived a few minutes early ostensibly to help setup. I knew, of course, that I just wanted to hang around him for a few moments, alone.
They weren't special minutes, not like the kind of time where we would talk about anything important. He would smile at me, thank me for always being there to help set up chairs, and turn me loose. Sometimes he'd help me with the chairs or the odd table for a celebration of some kind. He did this totally cheesy, but still cute, thing where we had cake and ice cream once a month for the people having birthdays that month. In the rare instance when there were no birthdays, we'd still have the treats because – as he'd tell us with a smile – it was someone's birthday somewhere.
We'd met and talked late into the night, before. It was a secret I held pretty close because he'd told me things in confidence, things he didn't tell other people because I wasn't supposed to know it was him, right? The anonymity of the internet. That's right, in case that just turned a light bulb on in your head – he didn't know it was me.
I'd told him things, too. We'd talked late at night in our own voice chat room as our avatars quested over ruined landscapes filled with enemies for us to defeat. We made a good team out there, in the virtual world. It wasn't an accident that we made friends online, either. While we'd set up for the first GSA meeting of the school year, I'd had the courage to initiate conversation with him in the real world, and I'd asked him what his tee shirt meant.
I was playing dumb, honestly. He played an online role-playing game through the computer and his tee shirt had a picture of his character. When I first heard you could have a plastic model or a tee shirt with your character on it, I thought it was a stroke of genius! Not only was it cool but it had to make a huge profit just from the ego factor of wanting to own your avatar. I asked him about the shirt as we set up chairs and he was only too happy to explain.
“Check it out,” he said with a grin. He straightened up and pulled the lower corners of the shirt out to better display the image. “I'm the guild leader, so that's my character in the middle. Underneath is my friends' characters that I raid with. Do you know Mish? Michelle Peluso?”
“Sorta,” I replied as I tried to get a better look at his shirt.
“She plays with me and had this made up for my birthday. See? Here's our guild name on this banner and our server is across the bottom. Isn't it cool?”
“All that for a game, huh?” I replied, not wanting to seem too excited.
“Yeah. I know, I'm a nerd!” he said with a laugh and went back to his next chair. He didn't forget about the short conversation, though, because he gave me a free trial card to the game. What he didn't know was, I was already an avid gamer.
I know, a lot of people still think video games are just for little kids. They aren't, let me tell you! There are a ton of adults that like to play and the stories can be as deep as any novel. In fact, lots of famous works have been turned into games – but the sad truth is that a lot of those just suck. The important part of this was that I knew which server he was on, which guild he was in and I was thinking about playing with him.
I went back and forth about the idea. I really did like the idea of getting to know him better, but I always felt awkward in front of him. I probably could have had a pretty decent conversation with him about the game, since I'd been playing for a while, but even that wouldn't come out of my mouth easily. So while I now had the information on where to find him and a means to get to know him better, I wondered if it was a smart thing to do. In a way it was like being a catfish, like what happened to Manti Te'o, and I didn't want to be creepy like that.
If I interacted with him here, we'd both be using avatars but the difference would be that I would know the person behind the pixels on my screen. I felt uncertain about how ethical it might be, but in the end it was too great a temptation. If the only way I could potentially hang out with him was online, then I'd take it and count myself lucky.
It took awhile. I was starting from scratch on that server, but I played a lot to level up fast before I applied to his guild. Guilds are a collection of people that play together, like a club or something. They do complicated fights together or socialize or complete other large scale tasks. I made up a new email address with my character name – and found out that he replied to the applications and used his own email. I was tempted to start sending him secret admirer-type emails, but was too embarrassed. What if he found out? What if I – or when I – tripped up and revealed who I was? It would ruin everything.
I know what you're thinking. This guy I've described sounds like he's the best ever – and he is – but there's a big difference between us. Well, a lot of difference between us. In fact, Jackson Barrett was everything I wasn't, at least on the outside. Jackson had really thick brown hair that he kept fairly short, as in never covering his ears. In grade school he'd worn braces and now he had straight teeth that practically gleamed when he flashed a smile. It was never a little smile, either – it was almost as if his parents had lectured him about how much they had spent on his teeth for so long that the only smile he could give was on the gigawatt scale of smiles.
He was always well-dressed with name-brand clothes and never wore stuff that was faded out or not in good repair. He always seemed poised and was prepared so well he put boy scout troops to shame. His blue eyes kind of drooped giving him a perpetually sad look, even when he was smiling. He'd dated within the GSA, sometimes the semi-relationships lasting awhile, too. I think lots of people were attracted to him, drawn in by the looks and staying for the personality but, for some reason, things fell apart after three or four months at the most.
I, on the other hand, had a slightly tanned complexion that was a gift from my mother's Central American heritage. It was balanced by my father's Eastern European side of the family, and thus was why I seemed to always have a light tan. I had brown eyes and long, very long, dark brown hair. I didn't hide behind my hair, like my parents claimed, but I liked it. Sometimes, in my private estimation, I thought it made me look exotic. I probably just looked like a long haired hippy, like my neighbor jokingly called me, but, whatever the reason, it was me and that was that.
I dressed differently than he did, too. While he favored polos and button-up shirts I tended to wear a tee with a flannel over it. He'd wear nice jeans or khaki pants and I had cargos or vintage jeans. He wore sneakers or, sometimes, something that looked a bit more formal and I wore boots. Physically, we were a study in contrasts; but when we gamed, none of that mattered.
Of course, we were very different on the social scale, too. As you might have guessed, Jackson seemed to fit in anywhere. He was sociable and prepared to make jokes at his own expense. He was comfortable in a crowd. Meanwhile, I tended to be quiet and tried to go unnoticed – a wallflower.
After I was accepted into his guild I played my ass off to get my character up to max level so I could play with him. I'd asked him questions in whispers, here and there – as a new member speaking to the guild master – and he was as nice online as he was in person.
Even though the games we play are all about diversity and being the 'other', the outsider – a Mage, a Druid or a monstrous looking Orc - there is still rampant bullshit from people who like to say stuff – called trolling – just to piss people off and watch the things that get said.
Jackson didn't go for that, not even a little. If people said things against women, someone's race or whatever, they were warned once if he didn't think it was too bad or there seemed to be no malice behind it. But that was all the slack he gave. He would even get on people for dumb stuff, things you might not think about, like telling one of the female members to 'make them a sandwich'. After the one chance, he'd boot offenders from the guild if they didn't straighten up.
We didn't really interact that much while I leveled up, just the odd comment or question as I mentioned. But about a week after I reached max level he sent me a whisper in game. Now, if you don't play online games, that might sound kind of weird, so let me clarify. When you sign into the world server you are dumped into 'general chat', which includes everyone in the same zone you're in. If you are in a guild, then you see 'guild chat' as well. As you might guess, guild chat isn't limited to the area you're in, it just allows people in the same guild real-time chat. A whisper is a private message, player to player.
'Grats on hitting max! came the message. I felt my core temperature jump since he'd never initiated conversation with me; it was always the other way around.
Thanks! I replied, but felt like I'd squandered an opportunity to say something more memorable.
Are you planning to raid or level another toon or...?
I'd like to raid, I replied. I assumed the raid group was full, though. I hoped this was leading where I thought it was. Raiding is when you group up with other people to take down really dangerous characters. You could do dungeon groups, which were smaller and had someone to take most of the damage – called a tank – and someone to heal the group as well as a few who simply did damage. Raids were much bigger groups and required a lot of coordination.
As it happens, one of our damage people got his computer taken away and his girlfriend won't play without him. So I'm recruiting! Are you interested?
Was I! My thoughts immediately turned to my avatar's equipment, which was all kind of low grade stuff. Your equipment, or gear, came with statistics on it much like an old Dungeons and Dragons game. My stats pretty well sucked.
I'd love to, but since I just hit max I don't have any good gear yet.
No worries! My other recruit needs gear too. I can find another person to go and we can get you all geared up!
This jived so well with the Jackson I knew, just offering to spend all that time going through areas that held no rewards for him. Then, things got even better when he invited the group to join him on the guild's voice chat server. I didn't have a microphone, but I could listen through the speakers as directions were given and people just talked.
I quickly figured out that the healer was the Mish he had referred to before. She laughed a lot and made us stop frequently because someone or something would get her laughing and she'd tell us she had to run to the bathroom because we were going to make her wet herself. I began to look forward to my evenings after homework. Jackson was on most nights and he let me know he appreciated my working to get my stats up to a level that would benefit the group.
I got myself a headset at some point, but didn't say anything. All that changed one late Saturday, after a raid that hadn't gone very well. Jackson was looking for people to group with, just to run some hard, small group content. I was tired, but I knew he'd normally talk through the instance and I enjoyed the sound of his voice. But then, it was just the two of us that were queuing to get enough people for the dungeons.
“Fieryn,” he said, “You need to hurry up and get a headset so we can talk.” It was the stupidest thing ever, but I loved hearing him say my character's name. I glanced down at my keyboard, looking at the CTRL key on the left hand side. If I pressed it, my microphone would be active and I could actually talk to him. Did I dare? Would he recognize my voice?
Why? Bored? I typed instead. My body temperature was elevated and my heart had sped up, just because he seemed to want to talk to me.
“It was a tough week,” he said with a sigh. “I've been kind of talking to all my friends, you know, moral support.”
Wait, he thought of me as a friend? Oh, wait, he thought of Fieryn as a friend, or his image of who played the avatar. Well, that was still me, after a fashion. I glanced down at that key again and tentatively pushed it down. A small bleat in my ear let me know it connected with the voice channel and I said, “I'm here, if you want to talk.” Releasing the button, I had almost no time to contemplate the wisdom of speaking before his voice filled my ears again.
“When did you get a headset, man? You've been holding out on me!” he said with a chuckle. He had no idea.
“Little while now,” I replied. “If I'd a known it'd make you so happy, I'd have said something earlier.”
“Yeah, I wish you had!” There was a smile in his voice, an enthusiasm that I always found endearing even though it could be thought of as cheesy. Like his birthday cake, even if no one was there.
“It's nice to put a voice to the character, especially after we've spent all this time killing things and cooperating to make gear and all that stuff,” he said.
“I thought you covered everything that needed to be said pretty well,” I replied. I decided to hold off on asking him what was wrong, since he sounded upbeat for the moment. Our queue popped and our avatars were matched up with the parts of the group we didn't have. We started in and Jackson kept up a running commentary and I joined in; it was a lot easier to talk to him this way. Eventually, the first dungeon was over and we placed ourselves in the queue for another. The conversation lagged and I asked him, just like any normal person would, what was bothering him.
“Oh, just...boyfriend trouble,” he said quietly. I tried to think who he was dating now and drew a blank.
“Yeah. Again,” he sighed. “It's really hard to find people that get you, you know? I mean, my parents had this conversation with me when I came out. They told me how I was no different and I wanted the same things most people did, but the thing was, there is a much smaller pool of people out there for me. This guy, man, he just drives that home.”
“I'm sorry,” I said, feeling dumb. I felt like I should say more and blurted out, “You seem like a really cool guy, it's too bad he didn't see that.”
“No, it's not like that – I can't really blame it all on him.” Our queue popped again and he kept talking as we started our next dungeon crawl. “He's a nice guy, it's just that - you know, people don't understand people like us.”
“Us?” I was fairly certain my voice broke.
“Yeah. Gamers. Geeks. It's like, I want to share this stuff I love with someone else. But, it's hard when you don't have things in common to make a relationship work, you know?”
“Oh, yeah, I do,” I replied. “People think you're lazy or uncoordinated if you don't play football or some other sport. My dad sits out there and watches basketball all the time on TV, but I can't get into it. I listen to him, you know? When he talks about the game, I can tell he loves it! He doesn't listen when I talk about my games, though.”
He giggled through the mic, “I know. My mom loves NASCAR, like it's a religious experience for her. I try to listen to her, but she just smiles and nods when I talk games or comics or something I like. I just need a geeky boyfriend, you know?” He sighed deeply and then said, “Thanks for listening to me whine. I'd usually dump this on Mish, but she had a date tonight.”
“Oh, you go to school together or something?” I replied, feigning ignorance.
“Yeah. It's weird, though, because we actually met through this game. It kind of blew my mind that I met someone that goes to my school. Like, what are the odds?”
Indeed, what were the odds?
“So, uh, not to awkwardly change the subject from my crappy love-life,” he said with a chuckle. “How about a random question for you?”
“So...why'd you pick a human avatar?”
“Oh, well...” I smiled at the screen and decided to go for the truth. Mostly. “I made him up to look like this guy I know.”
“Oh?” he said, his voice trailing up like he'd found out something juicy. He had-it just wasn't what he might have thought. Unless he thought I was crushing on the real version of my avatar, then he was oh so right.
“Yeah,” I replied, offering nothing else but grinning at my screen and giggling to myself.
“Is this guy like, a friend? Older brother? Someone from a TV show or movie? Maybe boyfriend material?”
“I wish he'd date me,” I said with a laugh as if I weren't speaking to the guy the avatar was modeled on.
“Have you asked him? Is he a geek, too?” he asked with enthusiasm.
“Nah. I can't ask him. He's pretty popular and I'm just, I dunno, a senior nobody.”
“Oh, come on, you're just going to give up?” he giggled.
“I'm...going to be patient,” I said. After all, it was the most optimistic thing I could think of.
The conversation continued long into the night and later, as I lay in bed, I replayed what we'd said and smiled to myself. For a long time I'd seen him make small talk, kind talk to other people and wished it could be me. Now, it was, and I loved it. I lay in the darkness and felt a warm shiver run through me, and enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction and taking the edge off of my hunger for wanting to know him.
I played as much as I could Sunday, but my dad made me go to the YMCA with him to play basketball. I'm not a bad player, I'm not even uncoordinated like I might have implied to Jackson. The thing was, I didn't feel the spirit of the game – the camaraderie – the way my dad did. He took pleasure from every fast break, every forced turnover and three point shot. He grimaced when a player was fouled, and more so if he was the one who had committed the foul. I wished I could make him understand that, for me, the emotions that he experienced were the same as I had when gaming with others.
Dad told me once that sports would teach me cooperation and teamwork. I wanted to tell him he was too late, that playing your part in a group game made you learn that pretty quickly – or people would throw you out of the group. But we spoke different languages – he spoke dribbles and shot clocks and I spoke wizards and warriors. So near and yet...
Monday we had a GSA meeting and Jackson greeted me per usual. I broke routine and asked him if he felt better, and then mentally kicked myself when I remembered that me, here in the real world, didn't know about his break up.
“Sure, I'm fine, Mason. Thanks for asking,” he said with a bright smile. “Why do you ask?”
“Uh,” I looked around for help and, of course, there wasn't any. I looked down at my shoes and mumbled, “I heard you broke up.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah. Of course, I didn't realize it was...gossip,” he said as we set up the table.
“Not...no,” I shook my head and kept my face down. “Sorry.”
“Don't be, it was for the best.” He sighed, then said, “Really, thanks for asking, Mason.”
“No problem,” I said in a low voice. I felt stupid, but now I also felt deceptive, like I was afraid this would be. It seemed to me I could have him in the virtual world or not at all – as the real world me wasn't supposed to know he was hurting.
I kept to myself for the meeting, which was nothing new, and escaped home without further incident. I looked at my computer, but felt too guilty to log in. Instead I played some XBOX, but it wasn't very much fun. I could hear the people I was playing with, just like the PC, but they did all the things Jackson didn't allow – calling people faggots and niggers, saying things about women, and most of the voices sounded like their balls hadn't dropped yet. It was, somehow, more discouraging when you heard it from older voices that should know better.
I knew it wasn't that they all felt this way, not entirely. They were trolling, trying to get into people's heads and give themselves an advantage. The angrier they got a player, the easier it was to defeat them, usually. I used to let it just wash over me and be able to tune it out, but after playing with Jackson and the rules of his guild, what I was doing now felt so...crude.
I ended up turning it off and lying down to read. I did this for nearly a week, but in the end, I missed his voice and they were all counting on me for raid night. When I logged in there was a collective greeting from the guild, people who were relieved I was there to fill my role. They had been worried since I hadn't been on all week. I didn't want to lie, so I just told them not to worry, I couldn't miss raid night.
Jackson directed us all through a much more successful raid than ours had been last week and, just as he had the previous Saturday, he asked for people to join him for some hard-mode dungeons. He called me out in voice chat, asking me if I'd go and I typed that I would. As last Saturday had gone, others begged off for bed or simply weren't up to it. One by one they left the voice channel, except Mish, who was going with us. I felt good he wanted me there, like kind of just claimed me for his group.
“Oh, god, that raid was pretty good. I about peed my pants when Rylin ran into that group, though!” Mish said through snorts and giggles.
“I know,” Jackson replied, “I was like, what the hell is he doing?”
“And then,” Mish said through giggles, “And then...he said...”
“His cat...” and they both broke down into laughter. Earlier, during the raid, we'd all been getting instructions for our next battle from Jackson and one of the avatars, Rylin, suddenly ran forward and died under the onslaught of about eight mobs. It left us all giggling and wondering why that had happened, but it was still funny, I guessed.
“Oh, oh god, I'll be right back, I gotta pee!” Mish said.
Jackson chuckled a bit and then asked if I was there. I typed back that I was.
“Oh, you going all shy on me now, since Mish is here?” he teased.
Yep, I typed and added in a smiley face.
“Oh, come on! You've denied me your company all week, after our epic talk last Saturday! Mish has had to listen to all my whining.”
I debated how to reply to that but before I could, Mish's voice piped through, announcing she was back.
“Hey, Mish. Fieryn has a mic,” Jackson said in a sing-song voice.
“Are you serious? Fieryn? Say something. I hope you talk like an Australian, their accent is so freaking sexy!” Mish giggled.
“Shall we throw some shrimps on the barbie?” I asked in the world's worst accent. They both laughed and I smiled at the feeling of amusing them.
“Fieryn, that was the worst-ever!” Jackson laughed.
“Foster's, Australian for beer,” I tried again but succumbed to the giggles. They joined me and we nearly missed our queue we were giggling so hard.
“Okay, that was funny, but not all that sexy, Fieryn!” Mish said through her laughter. Things settled down a bit while we ran our dungeon together and once that was done, Mish called it a night.
“We're going to a barbecue tomorrow, so I have to get some sleep,” she said with a whine.
“You don't need a barbecue, just have Fieryn throw some shrimps on the barbie!” Jackson said in an Australian accent that was, hard as it may be to believe, worse than mine.
“Oh god, that was so funny,” Mish managed through her giggles. “I have to go, I gotta pee. Night guys!”
Just like that, it was back to the two of us. We queued up again and I decided to try and get back into that good chat we'd had the previous week. Since I knew I couldn't talk to him in the real world, I'd come to the conclusion that I was going to do my best here to enjoy him.
“Feeling better this week?” I asked.
“Yeah, I am. Thanks for asking,” he said and sighed. “You know, it wasn't exactly a painful breakup. I was just kind of bummed that another one hadn't worked out.”
“Well, there're other guys, right?”
“Sure. But I'm running out of them at my school,” he said with a chuckle. “There are only so many eligible, gay bachelors.”
“Don't they have like a nerd-mingle dot com? You know, like that Christian Mingle but for nerds and geeks?” I'm not sure why I said it, I'm not overly talkative as it is, but it sort of just bypassed any brain filters on my way to my mouth.
“Oh my God, that would be awesome!” he burst out laughing and I released a breath, relieved I hadn't poked a bear. “If I could just look at the check marks on the guys at school, see who likes what I like and has a sense of humor, can hold a conversation – yes! I think you should design it and sell it, Fieryn, I'll be your first customer!”
“Hah, yeah, sure. As soon as I learn computer code, I'll get right on that.”
“Well, you should. After that, can you make one that will help me get people to sign up for the Halloween dance committee?” he asked.
“My high school is having a costume ball. A dance, really – I don't know the difference between a dance and a ball, to be honest.”
“If you're dating guys, maybe you should find out – balls are reasonably important,” I said and he burst out laughing.
“Touché! But no, seriously, the school wants each club to get some of their members in and...”
“Let me guess, that's your job?”
“Yeah, comes with the whole 'president' title.” He sighed and then said, “Problem is, I don't even like the school dances, especially not the costume ones. Most of the girls go as princesses and the guys pick these stupid, super dorky things that get made out of cardboard boxes and aluminum foil. How can I get people to help out when I don't even want to go? I mean, who really wants to go stag, right?”
“Challenge them. Like, say some of that stuff – but nicer – and challenge them to break stereotypes. Isn't there a video game character you want to go as?”
“Oh, well,” he said with a smile coming through in his tone. “I love elves, which of course you see as I play one. The long hair, the – do you have a...oh this is stupid!”
“What?” I asked as our queue popped and we entered the dungeon. I definitely wanted to hear more about how he liked long hair.
“I know this sounds silly but – have you ever had a crush on a video game character?”
“Well,” I said, stretching out the word. I was looking at my avatar and thinking about who it was modeled on, but realized I shouldn't say that again. It would be awkward if he realized the character looked something like himself. “Dante was pretty hot from 'Devil May Cry',” I said.
“Yeah, with that kind of punk hair? I wonder how that update would look for Cloud Stryfe?” he replied, naming the main character from Final Fantasy 7.
“Oh, I hope they don't update him, that's too old,” I laughed. “What was that other dude, though? The one with the shotgun? I kinda crushed on him.”
“Vincent? He was a vampire!” Jackson exclaimed. “Please don't tell me you like 'Twilight'?”
“Vampires do not sparkle.”
“Thank you!” he exclaimed. “I do not understand why people like that book so much. I read it, I'm not just ripping on it! I actually wanted to know what the fuss was about.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said as our group came up on the last boss of the dungeon. “So which character are you crushing on?”
“Noticed I stepped away from that one, huh?” Jackson laughed.
“Someone's stalling,” I teased.
“It's no big deal. I've always liked Link, he's one hot elf!”
“Which version?” I asked. I wasn't an expert on the Legend of Zelda games, but I knew Link was the elven hero and had been pretty awesome in the later, more graphically powerful, games.
“I wasn't such a fan of the baggy, brown pants they went with at some point – shit! He killed me! Where is our healer?” he groused.
“Out of position. Actually, she's running in circles, I think she disconnected.” I sat and watched as the rest of our group died, lacking any healing. I knew, if she didn't reconnect, we'd have to kick her and wait for a new healer through the queue. As all that played out, I hit ALT and TAB to minimize the game and brought up a browser window. Simply typing 'Link' into Google and then selecting images as a filter gave me a ton of renditions for the elf character.
“So, the one with the tights – like?” I asked.
“What? Shit, she did disconnect. Want me to resurrect you when I get back in?”
“Please.” I decided not to repeat the question. There were a few versions of Link, and there were a few options lacking the baggy pants. I felt a dangerous, exciting idea forming in the back of my head and wondered if there was any way I could pull it off.
“She's back, did you get the res? We need to wrap this up, I have to go to bed.”
“Yeah, sorry. Let's finish this,” I said while tabbing back in.
I had started playing with Jackson the second week of school – and I have to tell you, leveling up to catch him in a week and a half took a lot of time. The payoff had been nearly six weeks of getting to talk to Jackson and it was completely worth it. I felt like I knew him inside and out, since we had dropped a lot of our inhibitions with the illusion of privacy. This conversation that set me irrevocably on my course happened two weeks before the dance, and it's burned into my memory.
I was playing late Friday night. I'd gone out to dinner with my folks and then we'd walked the mall before heading home. When I logged in I got my usual greetings, and I chatted with a few people while checking out my avatar's armor, looking for weak spots I could improve. Jackson logged in about twenty minutes later and, after a few minutes, sent me a whisper.
Hey. Would you jump into a chat with me?
Sure, I replied. Once we logged into the voice server, I knew he wasn't the same old Jackson.
“I'm sorry to drag you in here, I just feel like you'll understand,” he said in a rush.
“It's cool. What's wrong, Tamlin?” I asked, using his avatars name. I had to stay on my toes, since Fieryn didn't know Tamlin's real name.
“Just...another shitty date. I fucking hate people, you know? My ex called up and asked me to hit a movie with him. He was acting all cool, even took me to see something he knew I'd be interested in...it was all a setup, though.” I heard a snuffle, perhaps a precursor to crying.
“What do you mean, 'a set up'? He didn't hit you, did he?” I asked, cautiously. Who would want to do that to him?
“No, not physically anyway. He just wanted to get laid. He got a little handsy. He even said—” Jackson went silent for a moment and I prompted him as gently as I could, which wasn't all that gently because I was angry.
“He said,” his voice broke and now there were tears, I was sure. “He said he wasted three months dating me, and my geeky ass owed him a blow job at least!”
I wanted to rage, to call this jerk every name in the book. I was held in check partially from guilt, as I'd had my own share of sexual fantasies about Jackson. Did it make me any better that I was keeping that from him, my desire for him, when this guy just came out and said it? But I wanted more than that, even though I was so gutless I couldn't just walk up to him and say so. I composed myself before hitting the button to speak, letting all this wash through my mind without a clear answer.
“What did you do?” I managed to say. I was clenching my jaw and had to consciously relax the muscles just to get that out.
“I...uh...dumped his soda in his crotch and left.” He started to laugh and I joined him.
“Tam, I wish I could say I didn't believe it but...we all know, men are pigs. Right?”
“Yeah,” he said sadly. “Every six seconds is the rumor?”
“Right,” I said quietly.
“Fieryn...is...do you mind that I say I wish you went to my school?”
“Um, no. That'd be cool,” I replied guiltily.
“I know how weird that sounds...you've never said but...you're gay, right?”
“Yes,” I said in a whisper.
“I'm guessing you don't date, since you're always on here with me, or us, I should say.”
“No, I don't have the confidence to date. I guess here, I can be someone else.”
“It's so depressing sometimes. Do you ever think about...”
It hung in the air for a moment and, in a heartbeat, I realized that this boy that I thought was so 'together' might have considered – or was considering – checking out.
“Whoa, no way! You can't do that!” I blurted.
“What? No! I'm not saying, like for real. I mean – sometimes it's just kind of, you know, depressing,” he said with a sigh. “I'm just being dramatic, Fier, relax.”
“I don't like that, I don't even want to think about that,” I said a little more firmly than necessary and decided I needed to lighten my tone a bit before I aggravated the situation. “Besides, this is kind of like dating, isn't it?”
“What?” he said while chuckling. “I'm your Saturday night date? Just you, me and a game server?”
“That's right,” I replied firmly, “I look forward to it every week.”
“I...yeah, I do, too. You know, maybe you should try letting a little Fieryn into your daily life. I know he's a cool guy, so since that's essentially you...”
“Hey,” I said with a nervous chuckle, “How did we get to my dating problems? I thought we were talking about you?”
“We always talk about me!” Jackson laughed. “Mish gets to hear more than she wants, I'm sure – not that she doesn't get even! But hey, I barely know anything about you, it seems. All our late night discussions are about my dating fails and you just let me talk and talk!”
“Well...would it be weird if I said I liked the sound of your voice?” I asked, worried that he could hear the nervous tremor in it.
“No, not since that would make me weird, too.”
“You like the sound of your own voice?” I asked, in confusion.
“I meant your voice, dummy. I like listening to you, too,” he laughed. “So, where do you live?”
Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. “I have to go,” I said and simply hit the power button on my computer, not bothering to log out of either program – not wanting to risk that he'd say or ask something and that I'd simply respond – because I did! I wanted to respond and comfort him and tell him I was close by, but then what? He'd know I was a chicken, that I'd been pining for him for almost a year and that, despite numerous attempts, I couldn't talk to him in the real world.
He'd find out I was a loser, a wallflower that belonged there, against a wall, alone.
But what now? I couldn't leave things as I had! How could I log back in a week or more later and not face questions that started with 'What the hell?' I pushed the power button on my computer and thought desperately of what I could say. What would seem reasonable, what would justify a sudden switch off like that? I entered my password with shaking fingers and suddenly I knew a way out. I'd have to lie, and I wasn't really good at that, so I'd do it through text so he couldn't hear the lie in my voice. I hated to do it, but I desperately felt it was my only option.
I logged into the game server and he messaged me almost immediately.
I'm sorry, I didn't realize that would be too personal.
It's not that, I replied. “My 'rents heard me talking, they wanted me in bed a bit ago. We are going hiking tomorrow." This was a half truth; we were going hiking but not until late morning. Also they'd never told me to go to bed early.
Oh. That's a relief. I thought I...I wasn't flirting or trying to hit on you. I mean...
It wasn't you. I should go now, though, before they catch me.
I hesitated and then gave into my reckless urge, the one fueled by my heart beating so quickly and my body feeling much, much too warm. It's okay if you flirt with me, I don't mind.
I logged off before he could reply. I was seized by a giggling fit and I turned from side to side in my chair. Jackson was flirting with me! Jackson Barrett was actually flirting with me, the wallflower! I spun around in my chair and just let that thought fill me. I'd probably have trouble sleeping, now.
The final two weeks before the dance were a little nerve wracking. I tried to avoid Jackson's probing online questions without being rude; I also tried to flirt with him a bit, but I had no idea if I was successful or not.
That brings me back full circle, to this dance committee meeting. Jackson had made a great appeal to the GSA for volunteers and issued a challenge to represent the club with the best costumes. I was both pleased he'd taken my advice and impressed that he did it so well. He held a brainstorming session to get ideas flowing that weren't ballerinas, princesses and robots made from washing machine boxes. He went around the room asking for volunteers and seemed completely unsurprised when I raised my hand. Maybe it was because I set up chairs and tables for us every week, but the truth that he didn't understand was, I was doing it for Jackson.
Anyway, this was the last meeting before the dance. The music was set, most of the decorations had been ordered and I nearly had my costume ready. I was hanging black and orange crepe paper streamers in the gym when Jackson passed beneath me. I mustered up some courage and called out to him.
“What's up, Mason? Want me to hold the ladder?” he asked while taking a firm grip.
“I was...I was just wondering...what your costume will be?” It was more like I had to know, so I could find him.
“It's a surprise, you'll have to show up to see it. You are coming, right Mason?” He looked up at me in curiosity; probably wondering what a wallflower would dress up as.
“Oh, I don't know,” I replied. I didn't want to tell him, most of this would spill out at the dance anyway. I was being selfish, really. For a few more hours I could think that this would all work out and that Jackson would forgive my cowardice. I really didn't want to be a coward anymore, but I was also acutely aware that, either way, I was about to risk losing him in both worlds.
I'm sure you've guessed at my costume, by now. What may surprise you is that my basketball loving dad was a demon with a sewing machine and made the tunic and cap for my Link costume. Mom took me to get some tan tights to wear over my legs and loaned me some soft boots that fell into folds around the lower part of my calves. They pinched a little, but that was all right. The big job was bleaching my long hair blond, because I had to match the pictures. I figured if I showed up as Link, maybe he'd see I was the geek for him – at least enough to give me a chance once he realized how I knew he'd like this.
I'd had to wait till the day of to bleach my hair, otherwise everyone would have known something was up. What I focused on, since I wasn't gaming, was making Link's Master Sword and his shield, both of which I found YouTube videos of. The sword took the longest and I needed help since it required a jigsaw and more experience with hand tools than I had. My mom helped me trace it all out, cut it and then we painted it.
Link's shield was a lot easier requiring some foam board and paint and not a whole lot else, but I screwed it up – yes the easier part – a few times and had to start from scratch. But the end result was totally worth it, at least I certainly hoped Jackson would think so.
“Let me take a picture!” my mom said with a huge smile. “Raise the sword and shield!”
I complied, smiling. I'd looked at myself in the mirror and I didn't look anything like Mason the wallflower. I looked like Fieryn, swordmaster. Okay, I looked like Link, but I felt like Fieryn. I carefully placed my sword and shield in the back seat and my dad drove me to the school. My knee was bouncing and my fingers were restless. My father turned the radio down and nudged me with his elbow.
“So, Mason. You waited until senior year to go to your first dance. Who's the lucky one, huh?”
“Who says there is one?” I countered, glancing at him. Was it that obvious?
“Oh come on, do I have to point out how nervous you are? Do I need to repeat first dance ever? Please, your parents haven't lost all their wits yet,” he said with a chuckle.
I glanced down at my hands, clad in brown leather gloves with the fingers cut out. I flexed them a bit and tried to catch some of the courage I'd felt during the photo, to channel that part of me that made up Fieryn. I took a breath and said as calmly as I could.
“His name is Jackson.”
“I knew someone was making your heart race,” he said and punched me lightly on the arm.
“Yeah, he does that,” I agreed. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for more. I didn't know what, only that we'd never really talked about who I was attracted to. We were kind of a busy family – or at least, my parents were in a physical sense. They both liked the outdoors and dragged me along as much as possible. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it, it was just that I got a lot out of my games and the way it fired my imagination, much the way theirs were stimulated by, say, rock climbing.
So, we'd never actually talked about things like that. They both had 'the talk' with me, which was awkward, and they left me with things that I think most people would think are pretty weird. Like lube and a hand towel. I still wasn't sure if it was a joke.
“So...you're okay that I like a...guy?”
“Well sure. I mean, I wish it had been something we talked about, something we knew about you instead of just suspecting.” He pushed me again with his hand, “Hey, we didn't want to pry or be 'those' parents. We always thought we were kind of cool, letting you do things when you were ready. I didn't want to come out and ask if you were gay – neither of us did. We just hoped you'd feel okay to come and tell us when you were ready.”
“You guys...wondered...or thought I was gay?”
“We wondered, even suspected a bit, but we didn't know. We talked about it a few times while you were a child, we saw what happened when people don't accept their children for who they are and we knew we didn't want that. You were the jewel in the crown of our marriage and, whomever you were, we would love you and support you. It's not just our job,” he said while nudging me, “it's our privilege.”
“That was...wow, I don't know what to say. Did you rehearse any of that?” I asked with a grin.
“No! Completely off the cuff,” he said with a smile. “I hope this Jackson knows what a great guy he's getting.”
“Well, we'll see if he wants that,” I replied quietly.
“Oh, so he doesn't know? This isn't a date?”
“Not exactly. But, it's been a long time coming.”
“Well, if he doesn't see all you have to offer, then he's just blind, kiddo,” my dad said while patting my shoulder. The car came to a stop and I paused, wondering if – even though we weren't that kind of family – maybe now I should change that and ask my dad if I was doing the right thing.
“What is it, Mase?” He turned a bit in his seat, one hand on the steering wheel and the other on his leg as he waited.
“I've been talking to Jackson on the computer, on a game. He doesn't know it's me, though. He told me this is his favorite character,” I pointed to the costume and was conscious that this wasn't the whole truth. “Is this weird, what I'm doing? I mean, I'm trying to...I don't know, impress him? I'm afraid he'll be kind of mad how I did this, though.”
“You want to know if I think it's weird that you're dressed as an elf to impress another boy?” he said with a smile. I managed a slight grin, maybe more from nerves than anything else. “Mason, when we fall for someone we'll do all kinds of strange things to show them just how much we like them.”
“Well, like the fact that your mother came to all my basketball games and cheered me on, went to professional games and tournaments with me and even now, after all this time, she still doesn't know squat about the game.”
“Mom went to a basketball game?” I asked, unable to believe this. My mother loved the outdoors – kayaking, hiking, rock climbing – but I'd never seen her involved in any organized sport, ever.
“Several. She did it just for me, and it took me awhile to realize that this amazing person was willing to give up her time just to do something with me that I liked but that she couldn't give a toss about. Now, if you ask me - and I think you did – when this guy sees the trouble you went through just to make him happy? Well, let's just say I think he should be able to put himself in a forgiving mood.”
I just hugged him. My throat felt thick with emotions and I didn't trust it to thank him for giving me back my resolve. I wiped my eyes and climbed out of the car and retrieved my sword and shield. I had a wild thought as I looked at the front of the school. I was walking into a kind of battle and if I metaphorically died, if I walked through the valley of the shadow of death - which was this dance – then my shield and sword shall comfort me. I was more nervous than I'd thought I was to even think that.
I closed the door and headed for the school. I took steadying breaths and tried to be brave, like my avatar, and not wet myself. Everyone would see that, in tights. No, don't think like that! Now I have to pee! Jesus, I'd morphed into Mish! I joined the line and handed my ticket to the person working the door. I must have really looked different, enough that they were studying me as if they were trying to place me and couldn't quite do it.
When you're a wallflower, you see everyone but they don't see you. My parents said I hid behind my long hair, but I didn't really. But I'd had it so long that, I thought, people were having trouble identifying my face with all that hair pulled back – and blond! I got a few looks, a few stares and a few 'fucking cool costume!' comments. I was searching for the people in the GSA, though, since I figured Jackson would be with them. My search was interrupted by a squeal followed by a “Holy shit!”
Suddenly I was face to face with Mish, dressed as her in game character. She had on a long, white gown with flowers tacked all over it – I mean an actual vine of silk flowers – and they wove through her hair and across her shoulders.
“Oh my God, you look exactly like Link! Is that the Master Sword? Come here, we have to find Jackson!” She pulled on my arm and I let her pull me. She led me right to the GSA members, loosely grouped up, and she squealed for Jackson. Here we were, the moment of truth. Jackson had come dressed as his avatar as well. He'd put on a long sleeved white shirt and a plastic breastplate, and what looked like cardboard bracers painted silver for his wrists. He had a circular cardboard shield that was awfully damn close to his in-game shield's appearance and a modified helmet, complete with horns. He'd gotten a pair of UGGS and wrapped brown shoe laces around them to give a more barbaric look, and he'd put on something dark and tight over his legs with an improvised loincloth around his waist. Pointed elf ears completed the effect. I was seriously impressed and was about to say so when his eyes grew wide and he smiled that gigawatt smile of his.
“Wow! I mean – just, wow!” he said with his arms out. His eyes roamed every part of my costume and I proudly displayed each part I had worked so hard on, because it was all for him. He peppered me with questions and didn't pause long enough to let me answer. How did I make the shield? How did I make the sword? Could he just see that sword for a minute? The tunic was perfect and so were all the details right down to the gloves!
Mish moved off while this happened and, while people initially thought it was a cool costume, they moved away while Jackson gushed. We were relatively alone, in a gym with about two hundred kids, when he finally paused for a breath. I decided that now was the time, I had all the good will I could hope for from him and I had to take my chance, seize my moment, carpe iuvencus!
“I'm really glad you like the costume...Tamlin. I made it all for you.”
“You...Wait, say that again?” he asked, but squinted his eyes, nearly closing them.
“I said I made it all for you, Tamlin. I took your advice. See, I could never talk to you out here, not as me – not as a senior nobody. But you gave me some advice, told me to take some of my avatar into the real world. Well, here I am.”
“Fieryn?” He asked, his eyes opening wide and a smile spreading on his face. My heart raced - he was happy! This was working out! “Fieryn, I can't believe it!” he grabbed me in a hug and I pulled him to me, desperately, fiercely happy. He leaned back, his face beaming and said, “How did you find me?”
Oh. Oh shit. Here it was, he still didn't recognize me – he didn't see through the costume, he didn't know it was just a wallflower, he still didn't realize the deception. He shook me a bit, smiling and urged me on, asking if Mish had told me how to find him. I gathered my courage again and tried to smile.
“It's me, Jackson. It's Mason.”
His smile faltered and he took a step back. He studied me quizzically and I decided I needed to speak now, before he turned away and this moment was lost.
“Jackson, wait please! I just want to explain!” I said in a panic. “I wanted to talk to you, so badly! I just,” I reached for his hand and he allowed me to take it, his face still in shock. “I wanted so much to talk to you and I just couldn't. I was too scared, too nervous, too...”
“I don't understand,” he said quietly but without withdrawing his hand. “You saw me every week, and we did talk sometimes. Why couldn't you just say something? Why all the...deception?”
There it was, the heart of it. I took hope, his hand was still between mine and even after uttering the word at the vile heart of my problem. I forced myself to look straight into his eyes and said, “I was so in awe of you, I'd...the truth is, Jackson,” I said while licking my lips, “I didn't think Mason the amazing wallflower was enough to get the attention of Jackson Barrett. So I talked to you in a language we both understood.”
“Yeah,” I said while nodding my head. “We're both gaymers. It was the only way I could talk, to not just...become this mess of a guy that looked at his shoes when he said anything to you.”
“But I gave you that game pass, we could have been talking this whole time!” he said with a trace of frustration.
“I know. I wanted to, I just...” I sighed and looked down at his hand, still held between my own. I squeezed it a little and said quietly, “I'm sorry, I was afraid.”
“I should be mad,” he said in a flat tone.
“Yeah,” I agreed with a nod of my head.
“But I have to admit, I'm pretty impressed.”
“Yeah,” I said and began to let his hand go. But then my brain caught up and I looked up into his eyes again. “You are?”
“I mean, I don't think I'm that intimidating that you couldn't talk to me, Mason. But I have to give you credit – you found a way. It's kind of romantic, really.”
“Well, that's the way I planned it,” I replied.
“That's the Fieryn in you talking,” he said with a smile, “What does Mason have to say?”
“That...I got to know you the best way I could. That I really like you and I hope we can still have our Saturday dates. I'd miss them.”
He regarded me for a moment and then squeezed my hand before saying, “No.”
My face fell and my heart with it. My grip loosened on his hand, but suddenly mine were clasped in his.
“No gaming on Saturday night. I want real world dating, Mason. We can't date if you can only talk to me online or while dressed up as an elf.” He glanced at my costume quickly and amended, “ A very, very hot elf.”
“Mason Sanderson, will you go out with me?”
“Will...yeah, yes. Yes! Yes I will!” I said with my face breaking into a smile. His hands pulled apart and just like that we were holding hands as we walked back to the GSA knot, whom were still milling around in their costumes and chatting amongst themselves. Mish was talking to Ronan Talbot, her boyfriend, but broke off her conversation when she saw Jackson holding hands with me.
“Jesus, Jackson!” she giggled. “I know you have a thing for Link, but this is kind of ridiculous!”
He raised an eyebrow at me and then back to her smiling face. Ronan stood next to her with an arm around her waist and looked amused at her comment.
“Mish, didn't you recognize Fieryn?” Jackson asked with a sly grin.
“Get out!” she said with a gasp and smiled at me, “Prove it!”
“Foster's. Australian for beer,” I said in my accent that was a complete insult to Aussie's everywhere. She was laughing heartily by then, patting my arm and I asked her if she had to go pee. She laughed harder and waved a hand in front of her face before trying to talk.
“That was so funny! Telling you to talk like an Australian! Oh, oh god, I think I do have to pee!” She giggled.
“Mish, before you do,” Jackson said. “I'd also like to introduce you to my date for tomorrow. Meet Mason Sanderson.”
“What?” Mish's face took on a blank look and she studied my face, which slowly broke out into a huge smile. “Holy shit, that is you Mason! Wait, you're Fieryn?”
“The whole time,” I replied.
“Yes, the whole time,” Jackson agreed.
“I'm confused,” she said. “How come you didn't tell us who you were?”
“I had a pretty bad crush,” I said, feeling my cheeks grow red.
“He had a crush,” Jackson agreed.
“Wait. So Jackson didn't tell you how much he liked your hair?” she said, her giggle coming back into her voice.
“Well...he did say he liked the costume,” I replied uncertainly.
“Oh, ho!” Mish burst out laughing and I looked at Jackson in confusion. “Mason, sweetie, he liked your hair before you put on the costume. Trust me, the only thing holding him back was that you seemed like you weren't interested in him.”
“What?” I said in shock.
“It's true,” Jackson said with a smile that was the tiniest bit smug. “If I'd have thought for even a minute you had been interested, we'd have been dating since middle school.”
“But..so...I didn't have to dress like Link to get your attention?” I asked, allowing a happy smile to cross my face.
“Nope, but I'm really glad you did.”
“I know, the way his butt looks in those tights?” Mish giggled again. Ronan shook her and she playfully slapped him, “Your butt looks good too!”
“Okay, as long as that's settled,” Ronan laughed. “Let's get in on this dance.” They darted into the crowd and began moving to the music with the other dancers.
Jackson pulled me in close and whispered in my ear. “She's right, you do look good but that's not the whole reason I'm glad you wore that. No one else that I dated did something so awesomely, so sexily geeky, just for me.” He pulled me out to dance as the music changed to a slow tempo. He placed a hand on my hip and on my side and I awkwardly mimicked him.
“Can I run my fingers through your hair? I've been dying to,”' Jackson asked.
“One condition,” I replied. He quirked an eyebrow in response and I smiled at him before saying, “Kiss me while you do it.”