Chapter [01]: No Escape

Tucker Bates only wanted one thing: to win boss battles and protect virtual villages from destruction. It didn’t matter what platform he was playing on, he could always be counted upon to have his eyes glued to a screen while his fingers worked overtime, enabling combos and summoning spells.

He always got within an inch of being the conqueror of all...when the real world yanked him away.

“Playing those stupid games again?” said Tucker’s stepfather.

Tucker tried to ignore the jab. He got at least a handful of those from Vinny every time he tried to play a game outside of his bedroom at home. If it were up to him, he would have remained lying on his bed with his handheld system propped in front of him, but his mother had called Tucker down to dinner, so he had to make his forced appearance.

“Just give me a second to finish this battle…” he muttered as he walked into the kitchen with the game system in hand, moving his thumbs over the buttons and joystick like his life depended on it. “I only have to beat this boss, then I can save my progress -”

Tucker didn’t even have time to press another button because with a single swipe, Vinny snatched the game system from Tucker’s hands.

“When it’s time for dinner, I expect you to put your games away,” he said with a stern look on his face.

Tucker’s hands were still raised in front of him, and his mouth hung open in protest. Dinner wasn’t even on the table yet. His mother was still at the stove, stirring a pot of beef stew. She glanced over her shoulder at Vinny as he held the game system out of Tucker’s reach.

“We’ve still got five minutes until it’s ready,” she said timidly. “He can play until then.”

Vinny wasn’t convinced. He tossed the handheld onto the counter where it snapped shut and slid along the glossy faux-marble surface until it skidded to a stop at the edge of the sink. The sound of Tucker’s digital character being pummeled to death echoed off the dingy kitchen walls for a moment before the system went to sleep.

“I don’t like repeating myself,” Vinny said, as if that ended the entire conversation. Then he walked over to the fridge and pulled out a beer, cracking it open and taking a few quick gulps. When he noticed Tucker watching him, he gave the boy a look and said, “What’re you looking at? I think I’m entitled to one of these after a hard day at work. I’ve earned my relaxation. What have you done all day?”

“School work,” Tucker muttered under his breath as he retrieved his game system from the counter, relieved that it wasn’t wet from any stray water on the countertop, but still rattled.

“School work isn’t real work,” said Vinny as he sat at the table. “Wait until you’re pulling doubles at a real job. Then you’ll know what real work is.”

Tucker could have told his stepfather that he did know what real work was. He had a part-time job, after all. It wasn’t much, but he was only fifteen and starting high school, so he did what he could. Most of his time on the weekend was spent working, with the odd afternoon-to-evening shift thrown in the middle of the week. Those days felt like he had pulled a double, between school and work. But, saying something to Vinny was a losing battle.

Unlike a boss in a video game, Tucker could never win against his stepfather. The man was larger than him and controlled the house. If he wanted to get any peace and quiet to play his games, Tucker needed to stay out of Vinny’s line of fire.

The same went for his mother, though sometimes Tucker wondered why his mother didn’t just put an end to the relationship. If it were him, Tucker would have kicked Vinny out a long time ago.

Adult problems were probably more complicated than he realized, he reasoned, and just learned to live with the chaos.

Still, as he tucked the game system into his pocket and took a seat at the table, Tucker tried his best to educate Vinny on how valuable his gaming was to him.

“You do realize that this thing is expensive?” he said as his mother put out some bowls on the table. “I paid for this with my own money. It’s mine. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?” He added, “You do,” as Vinny swallowed another gulp of  his beer.

This was taking it too far for Vinny. The man set down his drink and fixed a stern look on Tucker.

“You have a lot to learn yet, young man. I don’t think you realize how the world works. Real adults have bills to pay and obligations to take care of. What do you have right now? Just homework?” He scoffed, leaning back in his chair. “I’ll tell you what, if I had to choose between bills and measley homework, I’d choose homework. If you had bills to pay, I bet you wouldn’t spend all your time playing games.”

Tucker hated that Vinny painted him as irresponsible just because his hobby was playing video games. Some of the people that Tucker followed online were able to make money playing games. He wished that someday he might also be able to find a small following by streaming his gameplay. But, right now, he had to settle for making money at his job working at the convenience store. He didn’t make much, but what he made was enough to buy a new game every month or so. Tucker had his eye on a particular game that was supposed to come out the next day, as a matter of fact - one that he had been anticipating for a long time.

Wrath of the Ancients was a sequel to the game that Tucker had been playing on his handheld. It had been five years since the first game was translated and released outside of Japan. There would be a midnight release for Ancients, but Tucker would have to settle for going to the game store after school. He planned to spend the entire night playing the game, since he had to work most of the day on Saturday, and the evening on Sunday.

He was sure that he wouldn’t hear the end of it from Vinny, but his mother did her best to support him where she could.

“Why don’t you just let him be?” she asked. It was rare for her to contradict what Vinny wanted, mainly because the man had become more and more formidable over the years since their marriage. Vinny didn’t like his decisions to be questioned. “Tucker should enjoy his time off doing what he loves. He won’t be young forever.”

“You’re right,” said Vinny as the pot of stew was brought around and ladled into their bowls. Tucker’s mother finished serving and sat down opposite Vinny, while Tucker took the seat between them. The fourth chair, opposite Tucker, was empty. “He won’t be young forever, and I’ll be damned if he’s going to become one of those twenty-somethings who never moves out and becomes responsible. High school will be over before he knows it, and it’s time that he started paying his dues.”

“Paying my dues?” said Tucker as he chewed a mouthful of stew. He set his spoon down. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s about time you started paying rent around here.” Vinny’s eyes locked onto Tucker’s in a challenge. “You’ve got a job now. You can afford to start learning some responsibility.”

Tucker knew that it was a challenge. Vinny’s bullying was always verbal. Threats and intimidation to get Tucker and his mother to fall in line with whatever Vinny wanted. Tucker usually let his stepfather think that he had won, then went and did his own thing. But, this time, with a demand of handing over money, there was no way to get around the demand.

Tucker remained silent, but his mother spoke up, again defending him.

“Come on, Vinny,” she said gently. “He’s only fifteen. Can’t this wait another year or two -”

Suddenly Vinny slammed his fist down on the table, causing the silverware and plates to rattle and both Tucker and his mother to jump.

“I will not be questioned,” said Vinny. “Tucker will start to pay rent, starting tomorrow. You will have the money for me every Friday. I think fifty dollars per week should be a good start.”

Fifty dollars per week?” said Tucker. That was already more than half of what he made every week at his job. Since he had only been at the job a short time, his savings wasn’t even enough to cover that financial demand...unless he gave up getting Ancients. “I was saving that money to get a new game tomorrow.”

“That’s not my problem,” said Vinny as he finished up his stew and returned to the fridge to crack open another beer. “Do you know how much it costs to live in this city? You wouldn’t make it on your own if you tried. You will leave that money on my dresser in the morning before heading off to school, or you will suffer the consequences.”

Tucker didn’t want to know what the consequences were, so he resigned himself to his fate. His dinner wasn’t finished, but he set his spoon down.

“I’m full,” he said, glancing at his mother who looked heartbroken.

She pressed her lips together, nodded, and said, “Then you may be excused.”

Vinny continued to belittle Tucker’s hobby as Tucker cleaned his bowl in the sink. “Games. Where are games going to get you in this world?”

Tucker gave one look at the empty spot at the table before heading up the hall stairs and closing his bedroom door behind him. For his mother’s sake, he didn’t try to argue with Vinny any longer. This was one battle that he wasn’t going to win.

At least not right now.

He dropped down onto his bed and pulled out the game system from his pocket, checking on how much damage had been done to his progress. Sure enough, his character had been smashed to bits by the big boss and the words “You Died” were flashing on the screen.

“There goes an hour of progress…” said Tucker with a sigh. If only he had waited an extra minute before going into the kitchen, he might have been able to defeat the boss and save his game. Now he would have to play that level all over again.

At least his game system hadn’t been damaged when Vinny tossed it carelessly onto the counter.

The system, even though it was more than a few years old, was quite sophisticated. Not only could be bring his games on the go with him every day, he also had a wide array of novelty at his disposal. Some of the games he played were in 3D. Others made use of a handy augmented reality that displayed the real world around Tucker, while also superimposing various game elements against the real-world backdrop. Not many games made use of that technology, but the ones that did were always memorable.

Sometimes he wished that the things displayed on the screen would leap out and become real. Life would be a whole lot more exciting and bearable if his virtual sidekicks were around to help enforce justice.

It was a fun thought, but not at all possible.

He loaded up his saved game and watched as one of these sidekicks appeared with a massive smile on its face.

“What are you waiting for?” said the sidekick in a squeaky voice. It bounced around the grassy landscape of the game.

“What am I waiting for?” said Tucker as he watched the digital character beckoning him to begin his journey to the boss’s lair. The question triggered a flash of thoughts to float through Tucker’s mind. The question wasn’t meant to apply to his real life, but he couldn’t help but let out a sigh as he answered the question out loud. “I’m waiting for things to get better.”

He glanced over at his night stand where a picture of his brother, Richie, was displayed.

“Things will get better, won’t they?” he asked the picture. Of course, his brother didn’t answer. Still, Tucker nodded and returned to his game. “That’s what I thought,” he replied.

Now as he replayed the level, the entire thing was tainted by the argument with Vinny. His stepfather had become more and more demanding as time went on. He also was drinking more and more. The man had a high tolerance, and it was hard to tell when he had tossed back more than a few.

Thankfully all the fights had only been verbal up until now. But, Tucker wondered how long that was going to last.

His life wasn’t all horrible. He and his mother made the most of what they had. Tucker wished things were better and that he could get rid of all the negativity that Vinny brought to the house, but that was always something that he waited for his mother to do.

Every time she had the chance to put an end to things, she shied away. He wondered why that was. In games, there was usually a clear line between right and wrong, good and bad. In Vinny’s case, however, he had his moments where he could be friendly. The bad outweighed the good, however.

It had been that way since Richie died.

Richie would have been twenty-two in a few weeks. He died when his convoy was ambushed overseas.

Richie was the glue that held the family together. He always had Tucker and his mother’s best interest at heart. Vinny was kept in check while Richie was around. Tucker’s brother had been tall, well built, and intimidating. Nothing got past him.

He was also a damn fine gamer. In games as in life, Richie was a hero. He was practically a wizard when it came to keeping the family together after their father had died. That must have explained why Richie always wanted to play as a Mage whenever he started up a game with Tucker. It was his trademark.

Tucker ended up putting down his handheld since all he kept thinking about was the money that Vinny was demanding for rent. He looked over at Richie’s picture again.

“What do you think I should do, Richie?” Tucker asked. “Should I just suck it up and give Vinny the money?” Richie’s picture smiled back at him, the same as always, and Tucker let out a sigh. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.”

He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He really wanted Ancients, but if paying Vinny would let off some of the pressure on his mother, then Tucker supposed he could do without the new game.

It sucked, either way.

Tucker wished he could call up his big brother and talk to him. Richie was a fixer. Anything could be fixed with a little magic.

Tucker wished he was as much of a hero as his brother had been, but sadly he was just an ordinary kid. A very small, physically powerless kid.

The only time that Tucker truly felt like he was a hero and made a difference was in his video games, where the injustice of reality didn’t exist and he had a list of powerful spells at his disposal.

If it were up to Tucker, he wished he could just conjur a massive spell and teleport his stepfather to another dimension. Vinny would be out of their lives for good. It was too bad that the real world didn't work that way.


About the author


Bio: I have been a writer pretty much from the time I could hold a pencil and scribble letters. I am looking to develop my craft and better my storytelling. I am a huge fan of fantasy and horror in all their incarnations. When I'm not reading, I'm usually hunting for Legos. You can find me trying to decipher the mini-figure blind bags at the local big-box store.

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