Luckily, the first of my traps were the weakest. This fact gave me time to get acquainted with my new class, and the abilities that came with it. I no longer had any Hunter class abilities, but those were suited for long range combat. I wanted to get up close and personal with Raggy, so the change suited my mood. My Matrix ability was the same, as I learned from a particularly annoying trap consisting of a case of BB bullets and a small firecracker. My new Parry Missiles ability allowed me to parry the next trap, which consisted of my remaining stash of fireworks. They shot at me with mocking whistles and trails of colorful sparks, only to meet the flat of my Bastard Sword and reflect into a wall where they either died or continued on behind me. This ability was more like a skill than anything. I felt myself getting better after each dodged missile. By the time I got to a trap that shot out flaming hockey sticks and other sports equipment at me, I was skilled enough with the Bastard Sword to deflect the occasional missile back to its source.
I entered the department store that I gifted to the Barbarian. He was there, guarding the store, no doubt by orders from Raggy. I stalked toward him as he stood between me and the only stairwell to the second floor. I didn’t care if he wanted to fight or flee, but I wasn’t going to slow. When I got thirty paces from him, he made his intentions clear.
“STOP!” he yelled with an outstretched palm. It was trembling with fear. “Or I will stop you by force.” I realized then that his hands weren’t trembling for fear, it was barely contained anger racking his body.
I smiled, “So I will get to see your Berserker’s Rage after all.” Hemtail began to grimace as his body convulsed. Then the air around him pulsed with red. It was as if the fire inside his body was actually allowed to leave, unlike mine. The air around me grew dry, then he screamed. His cry filled every corner of the wide open department store, bounced off walls, doubled up on itself and grew to a low rumble. Still, I stalked forward. Actual flames began to burst off his skin and lick the air. I walked faster. He flexed his chest muscles, ripping his shirt. Now he was something other than human, something bigger. He was rage incarnate. I picked up my pace until I was running. Five paces where between us. I activated my first two abilities simultaneously, just as I did to pierce the demon hide door. My lance skewered Hematil in the heart, and I carried his limp body with me as my mount galloped to the stairwell. With a suaveness unfamiliar to me, I de-activated both abilities and lightly stepped free of my mount as it disappeared. Disappointing, I thought of the Berserker’s Rage, but if anything, Hemtail did the opposite of slow me down.
My new white mount ability had a five-minute cooldown. I used it to travel down the hall of the second floor when I could, but I never made it far. The traps here were much stronger, and I was brought to a complete halt only six stores in. “Fuck,” I said, realizing that my new abilities wouldn’t be much help now. I was forced to lean on my plate armor and high health levels. Trap after trap, I endured unending pain as I walked through fire, magic mists, and rapidly growing vines as I tried to disassemble the traps from up close. My beautifully etched silver armor was now charred and black. Any exposed skin was burnt to a crisp. It hurt to walk, it hurt to see, and it hurt to hear. Pain was life now, and life was pain. I passed the sealed away food court and turned the corner at a snail’s pace. Every step I took was a thousand year war. Every breath I stole entered my chemically burnt lungs like pure menthol. I fell to a knee and winced as my charred flesh crunched under my weight.
Looking up, I could see the door to my temporary room. I was so close to reaching the roof, but the fire inside me was gone. I fell forward and placed one hand on the ground. My senses were haywire. Vision blurred and my hearing played tricks. I heard whispers from my past, whispers from Grandma. I looked behind my heavy body and swore something was stalking me in the shadows of the makeshift torches. But the pain, it encompassed my entire world. It was a struggle to focus and even to breathe. My head was as light as a feather, and yet my strong neck could barely keep it steady.
“C’mon Fat Ass,” A voice said as a hand landed on my shoulder. I cringed at the contact expecting pain, but it never came. The hand was ghostly.
“Agh, N.. Nikko.”
“Shut up,” He replied, then walked around my body, which was now on all fours. He crouched to look me in the eye and I did my best to meet his gaze. His face swayed before me. “Don’t talk. Don’t think and don’t even feel. You have one goal now, one mission. You’re only purpose in life is to get your fat as up and meet Ragnaros. Do you understand?”
I did my best to block out everything. I focused on nothing other than Ragnaros’s camouflaged face and what I needed to do to punch it until he broke. Gritting my teeth, I brought one foot out in front of me, then activated the tried and true, one-hand-on-your-knee-the-other-hand-grabbing-anything-that-will-support-you method of standing. My body quivered and convulsed, but for the most part, I stood upright. Nikko was gone.
“Th-thank you,” I told the air, my voice trembling. Shivers left me in an almost vibrating state as my body grew ice cold, but I stood there on my own two feet stoking the fire that once burned inside me. I thought about who I used to be, who I was now, and who I could become. I was the closest to death as I had ever been, but now, I also held the most hope for the future. Not the future of the world, but the future of me. I was a terrible person, but I didn’t feel like that was a permanent part of my character. I became wicked because that is what my family needed, it was what my friends needed, and it might have been what I needed. At least it was at the time. Not now though. As the charm around my neck slowly healed me, my charred skin flecked away in large chunks, floating to the ground like displaced leaves in spring and revealing pink flesh underneath. I realized that I didn’t have to be terrible anymore. Sure, I was still planning on murdering Ragnaros, but that violence was no longer fueled by anger or despair or the inane and inexplicable feeling of unfairness. It was just the situation I was placed within, and I would do what I needed to do to get to greener pastures. It was as simple as that. The fire inside me burned with a new fervor now, but I snuffed it out. A cool calmness washed over me. It was an odd sensation, one I never felt before. I was finally at peace.
I don’t know how long I stood there until my trembling stopped, but it could very well have been ages. It sure felt like ages to me, after all, no one actually grew up overnight. But in a way, that was what I did. Everything was out in the open now.
“Ragnaros,” I said calmly as I stepped through the bulkhead to the roof of the fortress. The moon was bright and clear. The light of it reflected off the flecks in the metal guard stations, creating an eternal blue and purple atmosphere. A portion of the cement roof was replaced with more black metal where the Drade gusted Avalanche, Nikko, and I into it until the cement crumbled under the pressure. Candy bar wrappers floated around by my feet, as did other trash left by the Alliance members.
Raggy turned, “Hey Buddy!” he said with a smile. His white teeth showing bright within his dull green-painted face. “Are we finally going to duke it out?” He balled up his hands and threw a few fake punches in my direction while bobbing his head up and down, left and right.
“No,” I said. “We are going to talk first.”
He shrugged and swung his assault rifle behind his back, “Sure Sport. If you want a villain, I will kill everyone you love. If you want to talk,” Raggy looked puzzled, “Well I already killed everyone you love, but hey, I’ll still listen. I am a figment of your imagination after all.”
His words hit me… they hit me somewhere. In a place that was ready to be hit by them. I sighed, “So I am crazy after all?”
Raggy laughed, “Oh batshit. But everyone gets that way at one time or another in life.” I walked up to the guard tower and overlooked the ruined world. Raggy was by my side now. As I retraced the steps of my journey from a bird’s eye view, it occurred to me how bonkers and impossible this had all been. The Tattoo Parlor where I met Nikko and Lorelai. The Tele Pizza were I met Barbara. And the ruined city on the dark horizon, where a Dragon was born. All of it was impossible. Suddenly, I felt something shift at the edge of my perception. It wasn’t Raggy, it wasn’t even anything physical. I looked to my left. Lorelai was there now, and to her left was Nikko. I looked right and past Ragnaros, Grandma stood holding Pommy.
Realization dawned. I seized the moment and turned to Lorelai. She smiled at me knowingly, then I kissed her. The warmth of her lips radiated through me. When we came apart, she gave me a wink. I turned to Raggy, “Okay. I am ready now.”
Ragnaros shook a successful fist, causing the handcuffs around his wrists to jingle, “Fuck yea,” then he turned to everyone, “We did it team!” He punched the sky, opening a hole in the perpetual blanket of grey. Golden sunlight beamed through and washed over us as we stood in a line, three stories above the ground. The feel of the warmth on my skin brought a longing tear to my eye. I caught a whiff of bacon and Pommy barked. Not from beside me, but from up above. Then, I opened my eyes.
They fluttered open to a beam of sunlight on a beige ceiling. Something was digging into my back. I leaned to my side and pulled out my pack. My body released a strangely intense sigh, then I tossed my uncomfortable bag onto the beige carpeting. Rolling back into the couch, I attempted to go back to sleep.
“Oh,” Grandma said, “You’re finally awake. Would you like some bacon?”
Pieces of strange dreams remembered caused me to sit up in a rush. My elbows rested on my knees now, and my hands on my head, as if I could trap the dream fragments inside and keep them from escaping. There was a tattooed man, a lovely and warm damsel, monsters, friends, epic battles and legendary loot. It all slowly and steadily drifting away, through the fingers of my mental grip on them. Emotions that were so raw and real just moments ago healed and scared over, becoming nothing but an invisible part of me I was no longer aware of.
“Everything okay, hun?” Gram asked. “I wasn’t expecting you to sleep over last night. Of course, you know you are always welcome-” I looked at her as if I hadn’t seen her in years. She was beautiful in her old age. A true elegant warrior of a woman. She had fought for me when my dad disappeared and she fought for me when my mom died. She was always there. I stood up and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. The action surprised her almost as much as it surprised me. “Oh!” she said, smiling, “What do I owe this wonderful visit to? I thought you had work this morning?”
“I took the day off,” I said, picking up a piece of cooked bacon, smelling it, then tossing it back down on the paper towel covered plate.
“Is it too crispy?” she asked, genuinely mortified.
I laughed, “No Gram, it's perfect as usual. I’m just not in the mood for bacon today.”
She looked at the pile of bacon for a second then back to me, as wondering if I was just being polite and her bacon really was too crispy.
“Bork,” a voice rang from upstairs. Excitement pulsed through me like a flash fire, quick and intense. I ran over to the stairs and caught a glimpse of my geriatric family dog standing on top of the stairs.
“Pommy!” I said, running up to grab my companion, who was far too old to safely navigate the stairs by himself. Still though, he was able to muster up enough youth to wag his tail at me and lick my face when I picked him up. I clutched him close to my chest, cherishing the time we had together. I set him down in the kitchen and took a seat at the dining room table. “Gram…” I started to say.
“Yes love,” she replied, sensing the trepidation in my voice and turning around to give me all of her attention.
I cut right to the chase, “My Dad is alive. I found out yesterday and went to go meet him. It didn’t go well.”
“What!” she exclaimed, “He was announced Killed in Action? Were they wrong?”
“I guess so. He said that he was a prisoner of war or something. I couldn’t get the whole story." my head lowered and I shook it, "I didn’t stay for long. It was just too much…”
Gram took my hands, “That’s okay honey. It is too much!” she agreed. “What are you going to do now?”
“I am going to go back to my place and shower,” I bent over in my chair to stroke Pommy, “Then I am going to try again.” I picked up my cell phone. There were four messages, each from the same strange number.
Hey, this is Rafael.
I am sorry I sprung up on you yesterday. That must have been a lot to take in.
I got your number from a guy at a tattoo parlor while I searched for you last night. The guy says he knows your Grandma, but wouldn’t tell me where she lived. I guess I won’t try and find that out if you don’t want me to. Just know that I am sorry. I am sorry about everything. I can’t change the past, but I can change the future. I want to be involved in your life, however you see fit. You have my number now. Reach out whenever you feel like it.
I love you.
Pommy barked again, conveniently awarding me the opportunity to take him outside and dry the tears from my eyes in secret. It was summer. The sun beat down on and reflected off of Pommy’s grey fur as he watched me intently, making sure I was guarding him in his vulnerable moment. I unlocked my phone with a swipe and texted my father back.
Sorry I left last night. I didn’t know how to handle it all. Most my life I thought you were dead. It was like talking to a ghost. Can you meet me at that same polish meat market in about an hour?
I sent the message. The sounds of a letter flying off into the air mixed with my anxious exhale. A car drove by, causing Goldrin to clench his deed muscles and turn around in fright. Glad, I’m not the only one that's always anxious. My phone lit up and blinked with a notification.
I’ll be there.
The polish meat market was much more approachable in the daylight. Fresh sausages and meat hung from the walls to dry, but no flies buzzed around them like before. The faces inside were bright and cheery, as I was, strangely enough. Then I saw him. He was standing in line waiting to order a coffee and looking desperately at his phone. I recognized the awkward movements of someone acting like they had a message coming, but in reality, no one had his number except me. I used the moment to study my father for the first time ever. He looked much older than he had any right to be, and although he was as thin as someone who just survived years in a war camp, he seemed strong. You could see it in his forearms and his thick eyebrows. You could see it in his eyes and you could see it in the way he carried himself. Although his body was mostly decrepit, he clearly wasn’t broken in the least, merely set back from situations out of his control.
“Heh,” I said, joining him in line and patting my stomach, “Looks like I got the fat gene from Mom’s side, huh?”
Raphael’s eyes shot to mine. He put his phone away, smiled, then erupted in laughter. The sound of it completed me. It unapologetically bounced around the small market and filled the holes inside me. It patched over the cracks of my soul, worn ragged by life. “Man, she would roll over in her grave if she heard me say this, but yes. Absolutely. You can thank your mother for that predisposition.”
The man in front of us grabbed his coffee and stepped aside, we took his place by the counter. The red-cheeked man behind it asked, “Two coffees? Just like last night?”
“Err,” my dad started, “No. I will have a coffee, and Milton will have…”
“Green tea is fine. Thank you.”
We found a private table in the corner and took our seats. Dad looked down into the billowing steam of his cardboard coffee cup. “I miss her.” He said, still looking down, “Every day of my life I miss her. I wish I could have been here when she…”
“She always knew you would come back,” I said. Dad met my eyes. “She used to say that she could feel it. She said that if you did die, she would be able to tell. I believed her at first, but once I was old enough to understand that you went off to fight a war, well, then logic took over.”
“You must have been so upset.”
I nodded, “I was. I used to be. I think a part of me believed Mom, even when I didn’t want to. She never lied to me, so why would she about that. I think that is what made it harder. If I believed Mom, then that meant you weren’t dead. And if you weren’t dead and you weren’t with us, then that meant you abandoned us.”
“I did. But not willingly. I would never-”
“I know,” I interrupted, “What I am trying to say is that I was mad. Furious really. But then I pushed that anger deep inside me and forgot about it for a long, long time. When we met up last night, I think all of it bubbled back up.” Dad nodded. “But I’m not mad now. A small part of me wished you never decided to join the army in the first place,” I smiled, “but I know that isn’t right.”
Dad returned my smile, “I am proud of you, Milton. You seem much more prepared for the world than I was at your age.”
I chuckled, “Well… Actually…”
Dad eventually got a job at the same Wal-mart I worked at. During working hours, we would unload truck after truck of merchandise onto conveyor belts. It was tough labor and a job that I never volunteered for before he came back into my life. It didn’t seem so daunting now. Dad was prone to panic attacks and flashbacks from his time spent as a prisoner. He said that the physical labor helped keep him grounded. He would always push me to do more though. He would slip in bits of advice as we whistled tunes and talked about nonsense. He was so good at it that I often didn’t realize I was following his advice until I was knee deep in college applications or had a heavy barbell hovering over my face and someone looking down at me yelling, “Let’s go! You got one more in ya!”
I watched Dad struggle with the demons that followed him back from Afghanistan. Every time I began to feel sorry for him, he would say things like, “Better a little crazy than a little dead,” or, “What’s life without a little drama.” The most surreal of it all was that he let me help him. When his eyes would gloss over and take him back to war, he would let me embrace him after. And when he was stuck in his car, scared to go outside and get captured again, he would let me come over and talk some sense into him after the anxiety left. He knew he wasn’t right, but he never let that fact become part of who he was. He would say that he was a man with demons, but not a Demon. We leaned on each-other heavily over the next few weeks, and yet somehow, he never became a friend. I could talk freely with him of course, but I never considered him anything other than my father. I never looked down on him. In some ways, the weakness my father showed me did more to make me strong than anything else. Eventually, he was able to find a doctor that understood his PTSD and got a treatment that helped. Around the same time, I attending my first class as a University student.
Dad told me time and time again how much of an awesome imagination I had as a child, so I chose a creative programming degree. Halfway through my first semester, Grandma and Pommy passed away, as if the two shared the same life. I was devastated. Dad suggested that I take some time off from work. When I panicked and told him that no one would let me do that, he simply shrugged and picked up all my extra shifts for the next month. He took over Grandma’s mortgage payments as well and let me move in so I didn’t have to worry about money while I studied. It wasn’t easy continuing my education, but I did it. I have my father to thank for that one. If he hadn’t shown me what it looked like to be a functioning member of society, I would have succumbed to numbness once again. It was nice to have his support. I realized that I always had support, Grandma and Pommy and even the BFFs at one point. They all taught me something; how to have initiative, not succumbing to peer pressure, all the basic lessons someone should know. But it wasn’t until Dad came back that I really learned all of it. Maybe I just never knew how to implement those lessons, but either way, it was clear he had a way of getting through to me. To teach me without teaching me. He was my father, and I couldn’t love him more.
I graduated with honors a few years later and got my first real job at a video game design company specializing in virtual reality. I kept my head down, did my work, tried to find a girlfriend in my free time and even had some minor successes on that front. Year after year passed in much the same manner, but don’t think it was boring. I loved what I did. I was relatively fit and doing something with my life other than raiding dungeons and killing noobs, although I still did all of that on occasion, only now it was considered, "Competitive Analysis," and much more relatable to the new people in my life.
After a promotion or two, I found myself as the lead Director of the companies latest endeavor. It was going to be our response to our competition putting out the first ever game with fully immerse virtual reality technology. We were the only company with enough money to compete with them, and I was determined to create something better. In fact, I felt as if I was born to do it. I had the experience, the passion, the accolades within my company, and most important of all, a vast imagination to draw from. I oversaw the creation of my life’s most important accomplishment like a father to a newborn. I loved it, I taught the artificial intelligence system real life lessons, and otherwise, nailed it. The only problem the Board of Directors had with my game was something I was firm about keeping. I had a gut feeling that the feature would set us apart from the competitors and allow easy branding. It would create in-game suspense and help set the mood. I honestly wasn’t sure why I believed in the feature so much, but that belief was apparent to those above me in the corporate ladder. They eventually allowed the Rainbow Letters in the game, after all.
My pride and joy hits the shelves next year. You will need a VR capsule to play it, so start saving your money now. I promise you won't regret it!