BY CHRIS DRANGLE
On the way home from his shift at the dry cleaners, Riley stopped at the Amigo Mart and bought a two-liter of cherry soda, a six-pack of Shiner, two bags of beef jerky, and a bag of ice. A payday splurge for a roaster of an August evening. At his apartment he put the drinks in a styrofoam cooler and dumped the ice on top, set the box on the carpet next to his desk in the bedroom, popped a tab and booted up his desktop. He logged into the game and chose to play his main character, an undead death knight named Fragor, level 76. The next six hours he spent grinding peacefully in the southern wastes, killing blood raptors and listening to Dream Theater.
Around twelve-thirty he received in-game mail from Kallistratos. At blight if you still want SW. He sat up and paused the music. Kallistratos was an acquaintance, a former guild mate who supposedly also lived in the Houston area. Despite his low level—29, a toddler—Kallistratos had somehow amassed incredible wealth, and an even more impressive collection of rare items. Riley didn’t know how this could be possible aside from gold farming, which the servers expressly forbid. Maybe it happened in other games, sure. He’d heard there were sweatshops in China where people just farmed gold all day, staring at screens, eyes melting out of their sockets for seventeen cents an hour so that the managers could sell in-game loot for real-world money.
Which was a bunch of cheating bullshit, if it was true. Riley was aware that the appeal of MMORPGs, for him, extended beyond story and gameplay. It was the community, the balance ensured by mathematical rules, and the egalitarianism of character creation that soothed him, that provided a small measure of relief from the relentless imbalance present everywhere else in existence. Everyone started with the same number of skill points to allocate. Experience was given for effort. In real life you might be a cashier making minimum wage, or get leukemia, or be seventy-two thousand dollars in debt, but in the game it didn’t matter. You were on the same footing as millionaires, sports stars, Nobel Laureates married to supermodels. With enough work you could get what you wanted.
Riley wanted the Sinner Wolf, a hugely overpowered sword that Kallistratos had in his inventory. He had been bargaining for weeks. Every time he had saved enough, Kallistratos raised the price. It was infuriating, but he had been assured that this time the deal would go through. He opened another beer and rode his bone horse to The Blight, a tavern north of the wastes.
The half-elf rogue held court just inside the door. A human mage and a goblin warlock stood talking with him, their blocky character animations unrelated to the actual conversation. The bartender, a non-player character with an eye patch, polished an invisible glass. Riley/Fragor approached.
[Kallistratos]: SW is 5000 now
[Fragor]: no way
There was no way. The last price had been three thousand, up from two thousand, up from fifteen hundred. He’d spent eons scrounging gold. The Sinner Wolf was perfect for his character, and so rare that most players hadn’t even heard of it. Kallistratos couldn’t even use the sword—his level was too low, not that rogues could use two-handed weapons anyway. Whenever there was a lull at the dry-cleaning counter, Riley drew pictures of it on a memo pad—dual blades interwoven toward a double point, hilt made from an open wolf skull. But five thousand gold was ludicrous. No item in the game cost that much.
[Fragor]: we said 3k
[Kallistratos]: 5 now
[Fragor]: bs. 3k.
[Kallistratos]: suck it trebek
[Fragor]: dude srsly, this cant go on, sell me the f’n sword. nobody will give u 5k
[Kallistratos]: 4k and bj
[Fragor]: im opening a ticket, GM is going to shut u down
[Kallistratos]: doubt it, dont care anyway
[Fragor]: ill give you 3k right now!
[Kallistratos]: 3.5k plus vid of u sucking horse cock. final offer.
In a remote part of his brain he was aware that a made-up sword in an online role-playing game was not something a reasonable man would get upset about. But that part was sealed off like a leaking compartment in a submarine, inside of which the reasonable men had drowned. At twenty-four years old, Riley felt that he had suffered more than his fair share of misfortune.
[Fragor]: man fuck this
[Kallistratos]: yeah yeah
[Fragor]: its not fair
[Kallistratos]: boo hoo
[Fragor]: how do u have so much gold anyway?? lvl 29 its impossible
[Kallistratos]: i charge ur mom extra for assplay
Riley backhanded the half-full beer off of his desk and was clicking the mouse before the can hit the wall in a geyser of foam. He cast Necrosis and spammed his fastest melee attack. Most players at level 29 would have withered and died, but thanks to improbably advanced armor and buffs from his higher-level lackeys, Kallistratos did not.
[Kallistratos]: night, bitch
[NPC][Bartender]: Gentlemen! Please, take it outside!
They beat him to death in seconds. Fragor collapsed with a tortured groan and Riley, instead of watching the defeat animation, removed his headphones and stood. He picked up his keyboard and set it down. He picked it up again and set it back down. He retrieved the can from where it had fallen and saw that beer had splattered the Himalayan salt lamp on his bedside table. It was his wife’s old lamp, and he wiped it down with the bottom of his shirt. Then he threw the can at the opposite wall.
It was stupid. He knew it was stupid. His knees were shaking.
* * *
When Riley was thirteen, his father chased their hairdresser to St. Louis and he and his mother moved from Pasadena to Southwest Houston. There was one immediate advantage: more of Riley’s school friends had parents who were divorced than parents who were together, so having divorced parents was cooler. The problems began two years later, with his mother’s attempt to set the record for earliest-onset dementia.
Little things, at first. The two of them downsized again, to an apartment off Bissonnet across from a taqueria, but a few times a month she’d drive to the old house on Locust and gape at the strange cars in the driveway. Or, when he got home from school, she’d say they had to wait on his father for dinner. Once he found her watching TV in a sweatshirt and no bottoms whatsoever, which he considered the worst thing possible thing he could ever see. But she still had her call-center job and they were eating okay. Plenty of kids had loopy parents.
By the time he was a junior she was in bad shape. She started a kitchen fire every other week. She called him by his father’s name. The call-center dumped her and they got by on the part-time job Riley took at Subway and the monthly checks that his Uncle Beau sent from Galveston. Eventually, by phone and mail, Beau helped them get a caregiver to come to the apartment on weekdays. Riley was glad for the help. By then he had given up trying to maintain friends, and if he wasn’t in class, at work, or putting out fires on the stove, he was huddled in front of their aging PC playing Diablo II, where all players started equal and the spawn of hell were beatable with diligent effort.
* * *
He woke on Saturday thinking of Kallistratos. Of what he would do given five minutes alone and guaranteed amnesty. Sleep had been difficult. He made a breakfast out of the rest of the beef jerky and soda, and when he sat down at the computer there was a reply to the email he’d sent around three in the morning, to a guild mate in Iceland who had become something like a friend, in that they sent emails and chatted outside of the game server. The subject line said, Got it. Riley’s stomach leapt.
This friend, Árni, knew something about finding real world information on other players. It wasn’t as hard as people thought—they’d talked about it once, after a big raid on Thornraven Keep. You search forums for a player’s handle or username, look at posts and profiles. A lot of times you can come up with an email address. Sometimes that leads to other profiles, and other email addresses, and soon you’re looking at their non-game internet presence. Keep sifting and you’ll have enough to take to a commercial listing service, which for a little cash will provide contact info intended for advertising purposes. Árni had not gone into detail about why he was familiar with this process. Just one interesting, idle chat among dozens.
But Riley remembered, and sent an email. He related the story. Kallistratos had made a lasting impression as a colossal asshole before being kicked out of their guild, and Árni recalled him with enthusiastic aversion. He was the type to appreciate an opportunity for subterfuge, and said he would poke around. Now Riley stared at his email like it was an opened safe.
Tyson Schoenrock, 324 Riverton Drive, Houston, TX 74993.
A light sweat broke on his forehead. He crossed to the window and closed the blinds, then peeked through them at the self-service car wash across the street. No customers. The shaved ice stand in the parking lot was also unattended, likely due to the plywood nailed over the window, but it reminded him how hot it was, inside and out. He kept the window a/c unit at seventy-eight to manage the electric bill. In the kitchen, which was also the living room, he gulped water from the faucet, then sat on the beanbag chair he’d pulled from the complex’s shared dumpster and repaired with duct tape. He had once calculated that the price of a new IKEA armchair, aside from being higher than his average monthly balance, was equivalent to a twelve-month gaming subscription and two hundred thirty-one packages of ramen.
Tyson. Of course that was his name. No one could have a more perfect, more obvious asshole name. On the other hand, he realized, Tyson Schoenrock had no idea that Riley Weeks existed. The guy was sitting in his house, laughing and talking shit on the internet, assuming he was as untouchable in real life as he was in the game. Riley went to his bedroom closet. He took down the Santa hat he kept on the top shelf and pulled out the object hidden inside. A pellet gun, made before current safety regulations. Black, metal, heavy, free of orange safety stripes and goofy design features. From any distance greater than five feet it looked like a real handgun. He bought it when he first rented the apartment in Gulfton, figuring that even the appearance of deadly force was good for self-defense. But it could be used for other things. He could, say, find the house. He could park nearby, figure out if anybody was home, and wait for dark. Break in when no one was there, go through the backdoor or something. He figured the odds were decent that saved login info would make it easy to get on the computer and sell the sword to himself. Of course, at that point he wouldn’t have to pay, but some token amount would seem fitting. Say, one gold piece. The aftermath was wonderful to contemplate: Tyson Schoenrock finding his home broken into, trying frantically and unsuccessfully to figure out what had been taken. The police wouldn’t care about a broken window. It might be days before he signed on and found that his precious sword had mysteriously vanished.
And then he’d know, but what could he do about it? Call the police again? “Oh, I figured out what was stolen! It was the Sinner Wolf, a rare 2H sword forged in Narakkis that does more than 200 damage per second!” As far as tracking Riley back, there was next to no chance he knew someone like Árni who wasn’t actually Árni, and Árni hated him. Besides, Riley kept a relatively tight hold on his internet presence. And it was doubtful that commercial listing services even kept info on the sandstone-trimmed dump where he lived.
He thought about it while he picked his laundry off the floor, thought about it while he took the trash down, thought about it while he struggled through seven shaky pushups. When he started boiling water for ramen at five, it had become harder to think of reasons not to do it. Practically speaking it was a minor amount of harm. Karmically, it was unlikely to upset the balance of the universe. If anything, this would be a small step toward correcting imbalance.
He could only eat half the noodles. His stomach felt light and his knees bounced under the table. After putting the leftovers in the fridge he printed out MapQuest directions to 324 Riverton. A Montrose address, almost in River Oaks, where they probably wouldn’t let someone like Riley shine shoes at the country club. Rather than intimidating him, the location strengthened his resolve. He dressed in dark jeans and a black sweatshirt. The hole in the muzzle of the pellet gun was smaller than a real pistol’s, but after prying out the plastic ring with a screwdriver, the illusion was almost perfect. It wouldn’t shoot straight, but that didn’t matter. He loaded it, put it in the glove compartment of his seventeen-year-old Civic, and drove to Walmart to buy a ski mask. They were either sold out of black or only stocked yellow—he scowled and bought a yellow one, plus some beef jerky to avoid suspicion.
Traveling east on Westheimer, he felt good. The humidity outside was so great that fog poured from the vents in the dash. The sun in the rearview, only a knuckle above the horizon, glowed like a nuclear-tested tangerine. He turned on the radio and turned it back off, the better to enjoy the moment. He felt justified. He felt dangerous. The jerky was teriyaki flavored.
* * *
Early in his senior year of high school, a new caregiver was assigned to his mother. She was a head shorter than Riley and only three years older, with bleached blonde hair and a nose ring. Her name was Angela. She was from Pearland and had never met her biological parents—she told him they’d been eaten by bears. She snorted when she laughed. He was in love with her, more or less, the first time he heard the sound. His grades had never been impressive and they didn’t suffer much when he started skipping class periods to be home when she came by. He stopped playing Diablo II and taught himself to shave. He would sit at the breakfast table while she cooked, helping put labels on the tupperware and reminder notes in the bedroom: Put on pants, put on socks. He held the dustpan when she swept. Early on she would ask why he wasn’t in school, and make a show of believing that parent/teacher conference days could happen five times a month. Eventually she stopped asking. He made morbid jokes—he was a morbid kid—and though they hadn’t been funny to anyone in grades six through twelve, Angela laughed and snorted and said he was “a mess.” He tried dirty jokes, too, but then she’d call him a “funny kid” and shake her head. He didn’t like it when she called him a kid. He didn’t think of himself as one and didn’t want her to. And while he was aware enough to know that most seventeen-year-olds overestimated their maturity levels, he figured he had greater independence and more responsibilities than most. He thought he was pretty grown up.
One day he sat in the kitchen instead of biology. Angela was chopping celery for chicken salad and his mother was in the living room shining a flashlight at the fake rubber tree. He asked Angela a question.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She kept chopping. He waited. There was a clicking from the living room—his mother switching the flashlight on and off.
“I’m just asking,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
“What’s his name?”
“What’s he do?”
“He’s a fireman.”
“Ah,” Riley said. “Cool.”
The way she said it, staring at the cutting board, voice flat—he knew she made it up. But it depressed him anyway, until later that night when he was lying in bed, listening to the flock of drunks at the Super Stop around the corner: someone yelled that Jesus was a cult leader and someone else yelled that Y2K would start a new stone age, and it suddenly occurred to Riley that Angela didn’t have to lie. That someone who didn’t think there was any danger of anything happening would not have to invent Jack the fireman. The outside possibility of what that meant made him so excited he jerked off twice. And he found it one percent easier to imagine a perfect future where he escaped with her, and didn’t have school or awful jobs or a ghost wandering the house calling him by another ghost’s name.
A few weeks later he was in class for once. The intercom burped and they called him to the office. Angela was there. She explained what a Silver Alert was—like an Amber Alert but for old people. The door of the apartment had been open when she arrived. His mother was gone.
Angela drove him home and sat with him in the kitchen. The phone was quiet on the table. She pulled on her earlobes until they were red, then got up to make coffee. She took out her nose ring and washed it in the sink. Her eyes were bloodshot and he could tell there was something she was trying not to say. When she sat down again it was in the chair next to him instead of the one across. She held his hand. And if he hadn’t been confused before, that did it. Because although he knew that his mother was missing, lost and likely terrified, if he had one wish it would be to get busy with the caregiver in this one moment when the house was empty.
Which is what he thought at the time—that it was one moment. HPD found his mother a little after ten that night, washed up on the bank of Brays Bayou under the 610 bridge, two miles from the apartment. No explanation, then or ever. She probably entered the river somewhere along the paved trail —fell, jumped, cartwheeled in, who could say—and drifted with the slow current. But no one had seen it. Angela took him to identify the body; it didn’t take long. She told him later that, aside from the one “yes,” he didn’t speak the entire time.
* * *
Tyson Schoenrock’s house was a two-story Greek revival with a small but well-groomed front lawn. Riley had driven by twice already, trying to breathe evenly. No car in the drive, no lights on in the windows. He parked three streets over and waited for full dark. He ate the jerky and trolled the radio for an appropriate stakeout soundtrack—the self-sufficiency of the moment had slipped somewhat and he hoped music would reinvigorate him, but there was nothing but crap on the air. At nine forty-two he put his things into the gym bag that had languished in the back seat since the last time he had gone to a gym, three years ago. He closed the driver’s side door as softly as he could. The night air felt like exhaust from a city bus.
The house was still dark. Driveway still empty. He circled the block once and on the return trip made a nonchalant turn into the yard, walked quickly but calmly to the corridor between the side of the house and the neighbor’s hedgerow. In the back a small deck materialized in the gloom. Paper lanterns hung from ivy-wrapped wood beams but remained unlit; no hidden floodlights sensed motion. Riley could feel his pulse in his ears. The deck door had a dozen small panes of glass—he crouched and pulled thin cotton gloves out of his bag. He put them on, and the mask, and held the gun by the barrel. He took three slow practice swings at the pane next to the door handle and steadied for the real attempt. The glass shattered easily. It sounded like someone breaking into a house. He froze, and waited. Nothing happened. He reached through and turned the bolt, and stepped into crisp, climate-controlled air.
The den was as big as his apartment. On one side, a semicircle of brown sofas faced a tall brick fireplace. On the other, a chandelier made from old wine bottles hovered over a glass table that could seat the entire staff of the dry cleaners. There was a staircase in one corner and a hallway across from it. He crept slowly over the dark wood flooring but it didn’t creak once. Even if no one was home, the less time this took, the better. He noticed how loud his breathing was and tried to slow it. Where would Tyson Schoenrock keep his computer? Not in the bedroom, in a house with this many options. But downstairs or up?
Downstairs first. He slunk into the hallway in the corner. Under another chandelier, a narrow table was decorated with picture frames on either side of a ceramic dragon’s head holding a half-burned stick of incense. He moved closer to look at the photographs and almost stepped in a cat litter box sitting at an angle to the baseboard. Animals—he hadn’t even considered the possibility. A cat meant that there was no dog, at least. Or, rather, it didn’t mean that, because that made no sense. Despite the apparently low setting of the thermostat, sweat ran down his back. The chill made it like ice water. The picture on the left was of a man perched on one of those coin-operated kids’ rides, a yellow pony outside a storefront, mock-serious like he was crossing the Delaware. If it was Schoenrock he was in his late thirties, athletic and tan, with a mainstream sort of handsomeness, like a model for midrange golf shirts. The other picture was a wedding photograph. Same guy, clowning with a beautiful brunette in a strapless white dress. Both mid-laugh, his face visible through the veil she was trying to put on his head.
Riley had assumed the high douche bag quotient would have kept Kallistratos a bachelor, but of course he was married, and to a knockout. They were probably on vacation at the moment, waiting out the Texas summer at Lake Tahoe. The justness of Riley’s mission reasserted itself in his mind. The hallway led to a smaller dining room at the front of the house, and the kitchen. No computer in either. On his way back to the den he avoided the wedding photo.
* * *
After he had identified his mother’s body, Angela drove him back to the apartment. They sat in the car without speaking. Eventually she got out and opened his door for him.
“Come on,” she said.
He was never able to remember if he asked her to come inside, or if she just did. Nor could he remember if he asked her to stay, or she just did. They lay next to each other on the bed with their clothes on. The Super Stop drunks kept the room from being too quiet. Someone yelled that citronella doesn’t work and someone yelled that the citronella hater doesn’t work either. Headlights tumbled across the ceiling.
“My parents weren’t really eaten by bears,” Angela said.
Riley asked, “Lions?”
“No,” she said. “They just didn’t want me.”
They held each other and cried. She pulled his head to her collarbone and, still crying, he kissed her neck. She gripped his arms. Riley gave up trying to make sense of his own mind. He focused instead on the salt that dripped from her eyes to his mouth, on the material of her shirt in his hand, which he didn’t know where to put once she let him take it off. He didn’t go to school in the morning or ever again. He turned eighteen the next month and started making sandwiches full-time. Angela kept coming to the apartment, and staying longer, until at some point she stopped leaving. He didn’t understand it then, or at any point afterward, but somehow the worst moment of his life became the catalyst for the best thing that ever happened to him. Uncle Beau said he could see it as early as the funeral, when Riley refused to throw in the flowers and Angela did it for him. He said she was a rare woman.
They were married at the Rothko Chapel. The venue was expensive but Angela had been obsessed with it since being taken there on a sixth grade field trip, and Beau could help, since he no longer had a sister-in-law to send checks to. Riley did not consider himself a fan of modern art, but the gray stucco and huge monochrome paintings did give off an indefinable sense of peace. Including the minister, nine people attended.
They moved inside the Loop. He took a job with a lawn care service and contracted a farmer’s tan so egregious Angela called him Holstein. She kept on at the homecare company and started to research nursing schools. On Saturday nights they went out for Chinese food, to a different restaurant each week, and made a ritual of inventing awards for each place. Crunchiest Baby Corn, Fanciest Water Glasses, Most Effective Bathroom Hand Dryers. He thought the negative awards were funnier—Ugliest Carpet, Worst English Menu Translation—but she didn’t. She asked him to reach for the positive, and he declined. Eventually she stopped playing.
And then they couldn’t agree on what TV to watch, and then they couldn’t agree on who did which chores. They argued over who got to use the car. She accused him of bottling up his anger and he denied it, but one day at a house in Garden Oaks he drove a riding mower over the client’s bed of poppies, and afterward had no idea whether he had done it on purpose or not. She told him about a friend of hers going to nursing school in Fort Worth, and he asked if that meant he wouldn’t get to use the car at all.
She put off applying for another year. He ran over another flower bed, was fired, and took a job tearing tickets at a movie theater. She bought him a crass board game for his birthday, kinky trivia for couples, and they never made it through a full game. He was angry at everything and they fought over nothing. He hated himself but didn’t know what to do. When application season came again he braced for an ugly conversation, but she didn’t bring it up. He thought he was in the clear until three months later, when she showed him an acceptance letter from the school in Fort Worth. He took it poorly. As their voices rose, a part of him understood the importance of the moment. The other part kept screaming.
He kept the car. She took a Greyhound. They talked every week, every other week, every four or five weeks. A month before their fourth anniversary, she sent divorce papers by certified mail. He signed them and stayed in bed for two days, which cost him the movie theater job but clarified an evident truth: no one was coming to rescue him.
He was twenty-three. And he couldn’t keep a job, and he didn’t bother with family or friends, and by his next birthday he didn’t have a hobby that wasn’t available through the internet. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games, endless and anonymous, were better than life and cheaper than drugs. Three years in, the new millennium felt old.
* * *
In the den the cat was perched on the back of the couch, swishing its tail and tilting its head to regard him. The shadows made it hard to tell the color, but it had long hair and an imperious posture. He stared back for a moment, decided to ignore it, and turned toward the staircase in the far corner. After two steps he paused. A darker profile stood among the shadows on the wall. Riley felt the oncoming adrenaline of being spooked, but steeled himself against such a childish reaction. He took another step and the room was illuminated completely and instantly. The darker profile was a man, wearing sweatpants and a gray t-shirt. His left hand was at the light switch on the wall. His right hand held a fireplace poker.
“Okay,” the man said. “I’m going to beat your fucking face in.”
Riley had the urge to vomit. He looked down at the gun in his hand, still held by the barrel. He used his other hand to rotate it. With his finger on the trigger, he aimed from the waist.
“No,” he said.
Tyson looked at the gun. He licked his lips. To keep his arm from shaking, Riley gripped the pistol as hard as he could.
“Don’t move,” he said. “Drop that shit.”
Tyson’s eyes didn’t move from the gun, but his mouth went slack. He dropped the poker.
“All right,” Tyson said. “No problem. Uh, listen—there’s no problem.”
“Just don’t fucking move.”
“Yes, okay.” He put his hands out like he wanted everyone to quiet down. His voice was weak and his eyes were wide. “Hey, there’s no problem at all here, okay? I’m just, uh, you know. You can—whatever. There’s no problem.”
The cat tilted its head the other way. Its long hair was orange and white and its tail continued swishing. Riley watched Tyson lick his lips again, saw his Adam’s apple rise and fall. He was a few years older than in the pictures, sandy scruff on a puffier face. But just as tan. Even barefoot and dressed in sweats, he looked rich. Rich and terrified. His eyes were rimmed red. The gun became light in Riley’s hand. The impulse to run, all-powerful a moment before, had disappeared.
“Where’s your computer?” he said. His voice sounded tough.
“Where’s the computer or I’ll kill you.”
“All right, hey, okay, it’s no problem. It’s upstairs.”
Riley followed him up the stairs. He kept the pistol close to his body and aimed at the t-shirt in front of him. They went slowly. At the top of the stairs they made a right and Tyson gestured at a doorway.
“Turn on the light.”
A giant monitor sat on a wraparound desk facing the center of the room. There were diplomas and certificates in frames on the walls. Official, prestigious décor.
“Have a seat,” Riley said.
He gestured with the muzzle.
“What do you want?”
“Sit the fuck down.”
Tyson sat. His eyes stayed on the gun. Riley stood near the doorway and felt power in his legs, in his chest.
“I want the sword,” he said.
Confusion drifted through Tyson’s features before recognition set in. His brow furrowed and his mouth opened. Riley wished he had taken some chance to look at himself in a mirror. A black ski mask would have been better, but he bet the yellow was still scary.
“The sword?” Tyson said. “The Sinner Wolf sword? You’re kidding me.”
“For one piece of gold.”
“Send it to the mailbox in Twin Pines. By the inn.”
Tyson swallowed, looked at the gun, and started typing, face now harder to read. Riley waited. One of the frames on the wall held a sky-blue document, a Recognition of Significant Contribution, presented by the Houston Council for the Arts in Primary Education to someone named Charlotte Vickery.
“Where’s your wife?” Riley asked.
“Who else lives here?”
“I saw a wedding picture.”
“Irreconcilable differences? On account of you’re a jerkoff?”
“Listen, man.” Tyson swallowed again. “The sword isn’t that big a deal. It’s yours, okay? I mean, you can have whatever you want.”
“How’d you get it, anyway?” Riley asked. “Level 29, you shouldn’t have shit.”
Tyson’s lips compressed.
“Gold farming?” Riley said.
“The servers don’t allow that.”
“Pretty easy to get around.” Tyson looked embarrassed. “They’ve got these places you can go. I literally shopped around to get a good rate.”
“You don’t think that’s, like, cheating?”
“It’s a free market transaction. There’s a contract and everything.”
Of course there was. Riley almost laughed. It was the same as every single other part of the entire world. There was no escape. There was only eternity to spend alone under the heel of Tyson Schoenrock and the great incompetent server in the sky. He wished he had a real gun.
“Okay,” Tyson said. “Sword’s yours. It’s done.”
“Stay there. Who’s your bank?”
“I want money.”
A pure, honest statement, and the natural outcome of this night. Riley could see that now. Justice was a gimmick for TV shows. Tyson spoke quietly.
“My computer isn’t an ATM.” Now he avoided looking at the gun. Riley, still aiming from the hip, figured it was pointed at his left eye. “I do have a safe, though.”
“In the bedroom.”
“Let’s go. Slowly.”
Tyson put his palms up and rose from the chair. Riley waited and followed him through the doorway. As soon as they were in the hall, Tyson ducked, spun, drove his shoulder into Riley’s ribs. They staggered backward and downward, and by reflex Riley shot Tyson in the neck. The gun gave a little chuff and the two men fell to the floor. Tyson whimpered and put his hand to his throat, rubbed the tiny welt, looked at his fingers, touched his neck again and looked again, then looked at Riley.
Riley scrambled to his feet and ran toward the stairs, took them four at a time and lost his footing on the last bound. He landed on his knees at the bottom and scurried on all fours to the couch. Without looking back he stood and began to move forward again, but a blow on his back knocked the breath from his lungs. His vision went fractal. He turned. Tyson had the fireplace poker, and swung it with both hands. The iron hit Riley in the mouth. He fell over the back of the couch, tumbled off the seat and lay on the floor with one leg splayed over the coffee table. Hard pieces of something rolled around on his tongue, like broken candy. Tyson stood over him and brought the poker down like a sledgehammer.
“Wait,” Riley mumbled.
The blows stopped. It was difficult to see clearly. Tyson pulled the ski mask off, and that helped. His face was numb and his body felt like it was falling through the floor, a drunk feeling.
“Robbing me with a BB gun,” Tyson said.
“Pellet gun,” Riley said.
“You’re a moron.”
Tyson left his field of vision and Riley tried to stand. He aimed for the couch when his legs gave out, and maneuvered into a sitting position. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth, and he spit the pieces of candy into his palm. He used his tongue to find where they had broken off from. The terrain in the upper left quadrant of his mouth had been severely altered. He just needed to sit for second, get his legs back. Then sprint. Tyson reentered the room, poker held at his right. They stared at each other. Riley made no attempt to steady his lolling head.
“Police are on their way. I told them you were beat to hell and might not make it.”
The cat appeared on the loveseat opposite the couch. It leapt onto the coffee table and sat down next to the centerpiece. An orange-and-white fluff ball similar in size to the terrarium where a little pewter samurai posed on moss.
“I have nothing,” Riley said. His lips were busted and his jaw wasn’t tracking right. The words were barely intelligible, even to him. “That game is all I got.”
“How old are you?”
“My mom died. My wife left. I make eight dollars an hour.”
“That’s a really sad story.” Tyson sat down in the chair across from him. He kept his hand on the poker and laid it across his knees. “But, what? The law doesn’t apply to you now? You’re in my house, man. You came in my house.”
The cat stepped to the edge of the coffee table. It looked suddenly over its shoulder at empty space, at a ghost maybe, then turned back to inspect Riley. He saw two of it, and tried to focus. Blood pooled on his tongue and he swallowed. The cat leapt quietly to the far end of the couch, sat down, and yawned.
“I mean,” Tyson said, “this poker is worth more than that sword.” He shook it by the handle, and the wet edge of the iron glistened. “You ever think your value system might be kind of off? Look at you. You’re just a loser, that’s what you are.”
Riley watched the cat. It took two steps toward him, testing the fabric before placing its weight. The color pattern on its face was mismatched, one eye surrounded by orange and the other by white. Its tail curled inquisitively and its eyelids closed halfway. He lunged at it and grabbed it around the neck with both hands. Tyson jumped to his feet.
“Stay back,” Riley said. The cat writhed and slashed at his forearms. He gripped the tiny throat and mashed the body to his abdomen with his forearms. The cat tensed. Tyson froze.
“Let her go,” he said.
“Stay where you are.”
Riley stood carefully. The room wobbled but he kept his balance. Blood dribbled over his torn lips. He slid his feet along the hardwood, facing Tyson but moving back toward the deck door. The throat in his fingers was hot beneath the fur.
“Just stay where you are. I’m leaving.”
“Don’t hurt her.”
He reached the door, felt the handle on his back. The poker fell from Tyson’s hand, and his eyes were more fearful than they had been with a gun pointed at them. With a burst of energy the cat made another attempt to free itself, pumping its limbs and wriggling its torso. Riley squeezed hard, fast, felt the tissue compress and something deeper crunch. Tyson sucked in air and clapped his hands to his head. The cat’s muscles relaxed, and Riley knew he was holding a dead thing. Tyson shrieked and came forward, eyes on the limp body. Riley hurled it at the far corner of the room—Tyson put his hands up but it sailed between them and thumped against the wall. He turned and rushed to it, and Riley turned and ripped through the door into the darkness beyond.
He scrambled over the hedgerow into the neighbors’ yard and jumped their fence into another. He felt like his body was coming apart. When he finally reached a sidewalk, he forced himself to stop running and look at the street signs. He walked quickly, trying not to stagger, and found his car waiting under tawny streetlight. In the driver’s seat he waited one moment for his breathing to slow down, but panic rose again and he started the engine.
Ten minutes later, at a red light on Westheimer, he worked up the courage to check the visor mirror. The left side of his face was covered in horror makeup. As his pulse slowed, the pain intensified, but he couldn’t go to the hospital. Not tonight. His hands on the steering wheel were covered in cuts and scratches—the cotton gloves had done nothing—and the blood beaded up until it leaked down his forearms. The light changed and he drove past a restaurant shaped like a short pagoda. Golden Kitchen. He’d been there with Angela. It had the best or worst something, but he couldn’t remember what. Traffic was sparse. He watched the rearview, convinced that red-and-blue lights would appear, but none did.
He wondered if he’d meant to kill the cat. If he’d wanted to. It was hard to say. When it thrashed in his hands, mauling his arms, he’d just reacted. Clamped down to make it stop. But before that came Tyson’s words in that pathetic voice—“Don’t hurt her.” Spoken as Riley’s face dripped off the iron bar in his hand. He had wanted to inflict pain. As much as he could. At the next red light he threw up in his lap.
In his apartment the air was stifling. He turned the air conditioning down to sixty degrees and took all the ibuprofen left in the bottle, seven pills. Swallowing hurt so much he almost passed out. After washing the gore off his face and down the sink, he took an ancient bag of broccoli from the freezer and sat down at his computer in the bedroom. While the game loaded he held frozen vegetables to his cheek. He found it hard to believe that a previous but recent version of himself had come up with a plan to commit real burglary for a fake sword. Not because it was wrong, but because it was pointless.
Having been killed recently, Fragor came to consciousness in the graveyard nearest the southern wastes. Riley summoned his mount and rode the bone horse north, galloping past the dire weevils at Lake Brynnae and an Elvin caravan near the Canyon of Whistles. Outside of Twin Pines he found the inn, and the mailbox he’d mentioned to Tyson. It held two messages for him. The first one was from Kallistratos, sent a quarter after ten—around the time they’d been upstairs.
[Kallistratos]: im not sending you jack shit. nice ski mask cunt.
No items were attached. The other message, also from Kallistratos, had been sent at eleven twenty. A few minutes ago.
[Kallistratos]: i guess ive had a change of heart. you must be a desperate man to break into somebodys house and kill their cat. maybe you need this more than me. heres the Sinner Wolf. i have another one anyway. have fun.
It was true. This message had an attachment—2H Sword, Sinner Wolf (1). The message continued:
[Kallistratos]: oh and ps—aside from your dna all over my floor, you left your bag on my deck. there was an old gym card inside. Riley Bryant Weeks. Jesus, you are really the dumbest person ive ever heard of. i almost feel sorry for you. enjoy that sword—its a beaut—but keep your ears open for a knock at your door. police dont like waiting. remember to tell them you only make eight bucks an hour. have a nice sentencing.
He read the message a few times. Then he equipped Fragor with the sword and walked to a pond behind the inn. A pair of dire weevils skulked along the water’s edge. They skittered toward him, the height of Fragor’s knee, and a single strike from the new sword flipped them permanently on their backs. It would have taken three hits with his previous sword. But the Sinner Wolf—it looked great and could kill a dire weevil in one hit. That’s what it could do.
Riley signed out, powered down the desktop. In the kitchen he opened the last beer from the night before, but the smell of it upset his stomach and he left it on the counter. The broccoli was going mushy so he switched it for a bag of frozen green beans and sank into the living room beanbag with a cup of water. After some consideration he got up to turn on the ceiling light and unlock the door, then resettled and put the vegetables back on his face. He was exhausted but nowhere near sleep. The air conditioning was just starting to work its magic, and the ceiling fan that came on with the light sent a wash of cool air over him.
Best ratio of cashews to chicken—that’s what Golden Kitchen had. Something positive. He was surprised and glad that he could remember, but the memory belonged to someone else. A recent version of him had snapped a cat’s neck in his bare hands. Before that, another version had threatened to shoot a man to death in his own home. Before that, another version had plotted a robbery, found it justified, and been eager to carry it out. He wondered how many versions of himself he would have to go back through to find the person his wife had loved.
Chris Drangle is a writer from Arkansas. His fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Jentel Arts Residency, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He earned his MFA at Cornell University, and is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.
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