The boy shut off his monitor. The screen died, but the computer remained active, docile in its slumber as it continued to whirr away, seeking its way through the network of worldwide information to find the small pieces of data that, when completed, would harness together to form the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie. The boy didn't give the computer any more thought, sliding his headphones easily from his thin neck and allowing them to drop limply to the vacant chair with a muffled thump.
He slumped down into his bed, his head coming to rest on the flank of a large plush tiger. It had been a present only a few years ago, when he was still just a child. He reached up to touch it. Its face was lined with light fur, but the eyes were hard and glistened in the light, reflecting the myriad colours of the multi-coloured light bulb that the boy had fitted in his bedroom. Touching the tiger, he thought of his father. The toy always, without fail, reminded him of his father.
He closed his eyes. A soft buzzing filled his ears, poking its way in from the edge of his awareness. Reaching into his pocket, he fished free his phone and flicked on the screen. "U OK?" it asked.
His thumb flicked fast around the screen, speeding out a reply which the boy considered through half closed eyes. "Yeh fine" he swiped in, and hit send.
Always someone watching out for me, thought the boy.
* * *
By the time the boy was on the bus back from school the next day, his mind was abuzz with worry. The day had not gone well, an experience not unfamiliar to him. He had sat through most classes, barely caring enough, surrounded by others who were equally unimpressed with the recurring doldrums of the classroom. But even among the others, the boy felt that he was alone.
He wished that he hadn't received the call during maths class. As the phone had rung out its rapid tune, snapping the hushed attention of the room towards him, the boy had felt a sense of growing embarrassment. In that fleeting moment he caught a discouraging look crawling his way from the direction of his maths teacher. Mrs Crawford mustered up a look of almost pathological loathing, an expression which quickly melted in the moment when she realised the source of the sound. Without another word, she had allowed him to take the call, in full knowledge of the cloud of severity that surrounded the boy.
The bus that took him from the school was not his usual one. The boy had left that vehicle behind, following a fifteen minute wait at the interchange, and clambered aboard one that wound its way through the outer areas of the city. He did not normally go this far from home, did not care for the underlying sense of unfamiliarity. Glancing from the window, he watched the buildings as they seemed to rattle past, each one barely two stories high. It seemed strange to the boy to think of looking from the window and being unable to see the city spread out before him like a map. Even if the upper story flat where he lived was small, and grey, and the heating pipes rattled, and the mould crept up the walls, the boy thought that it was a small price to pay in return for sharing the same view he had enjoyed for his entire life.
The bus, with a grumbling and churning rumble, pulled up at the stop. The boy descended, skateboard tucked under his arm, and glanced around. He caught sight of the building and felt a pang of familiarity. He had hoped that he would not have to return here, would not need to see the building again. He approached, his legs feeling uncertain. Why, he wondered, do all hospitals have to look the same?
The hallways stank. It was the smell of antiseptic, a choking odour that seemed to permeate the grey hallways. The boy barely drew any attention. He walked, without anyone even turning to glance towards him. The hallways seemed to echo with his squeaking footfalls, and he wished that he could remember the way. A doorway opened, two orderlies in creased and blank-looking gowns hurried their way past the boy. He turned to look, watching the pair as they rushed past, not even glancing in his direction. Still the smell of the hospital seemed to penetrate his senses, bringing back every memory of every hospital visit he had endured in his short life. Still he walked onwards, through the echoes and the silence and the deafening hum of the fluorescent lights.
He turned a corner, finding the ward at last. The room sat almost halfway down the corridor and, as the boy entered, he found for a moment that he was almost uncertain which bed it was that he was to go to. Six of them, he thought, looking from one to another. He stepped through the room, among the makeshift aisle of beds, drawing the eyes of everyone who lay there with expressions hungry for attention. In the bed beside the window he found a familiar face. The figure that looked up at the boy seemed pale, and the boy took a moment to recognise the man who peered at him through half-closed eyes. The boy stepped over, setting his skateboard down beside the corner of the bed. He looked at the man who lay there, gaunt and ashen, his features a war-torn battle map of tubes and wires. The man tried to push himself upwards, shuffling into a stronger sitting position. Halfway through the movement, he realised he didn't have the strength, and let it slide.
Quietly, the boy said "Hey dad."
* * *
It was almost dark by the time the boy got home.
He had almost missed the evening bus, which did not stop as regularly as it did during the day. Throughout the ride home he sat in silence, his earphones plugging into his mind a series of songs that, while comfortably familiar to him, seemed nonetheless alien to him. The songs were dark, dark as the dimming twilight outside the bus, and the boy found himself feeling just a little but more comfortable with the familiarity of their embrace.
He didn't want to think about his father. It was difficult, he realised, almost an impossible task. He couldn't escape the thoughts, thoughts that made his insides sting and rubbed the damp skin beneath his eyes raw. Thinking about his father brought to mind how helpless he felt, how small. It also brought a myriad of words, terms that the boy barely grasped, like 'malignant' and 'relapse', and the worst of them all, 'terminal'. That one in particular made him feel as if he wanted to throw up.
Trying to shake his mind, he tugged his phone from his pocket and thumbed through Facebook for a while. Across the world, people he barely knew seemed to be living a life far more varied and infinitely less grey than his own. The boy wasn't sure what to make of that. He found an image, a short cartoon strip with an amusing ending which brought a momentary smile to his face.
As he shared it across the world, a small message appeared, flickering across the top of the screen. "As soon as I can" it said.
It was a reply, thought the boy, to a question he had asked just before he had entered the hospital and shut the device off. "When will you be down to see dad?" he had asked. The boy didn't like the answer, but he knew that there was nothing he could do to change it.
He turned his head to look out of the window. Home was not far now, he thought. Somewhere far above him, the darkly pregnant rainclouds began to release their burden.
* * *
He got off the bus and dropped his board to the ground, rumbling his way through the concrete jungle that had sprouted around the boy on all sides. Thick, engorged buildings towered over him in a massive variety of the colour grey. The sound of his board rattled against the turn patchwork paving that covered the ground, giving a soft thud each time the boy mounted and passed an invading patch of weeds. He skidded to a halt beside a large metal fire door once green but now tattered with paint that peeled so eagerly it seemed to be trying to flee. Wrapping his board under his arm, the boy rounded a corner, passing two broken frosted windows that glistened with the light of the apartment block within. The window nearest to the main door to the block had been boarded up, sealed up some four months prior by one of the ubiquitous men from the council to forever await a new pane of glass.
Emerging into the building, the boy felt warmth on him, even though he had not realised that he was at all cold while he had been outside. He walked to the elevator, one of the ones that worked, and entered its small tomb-like confines. As always, he held his nose, the interior of the elevator stinking of rough vodka and watery urine. By the time he reached the sixteenth floor, the boy was starting to feel light-headed. He stepped into the halfway, thinking for a moment how many hallways he had walked down today. In the distance, muddled by the heavy fire doors that divided the apartments from the hallway, he heard a child screaming. It was, he thought, probably the neighbour's kid having another tantrum, as he so often did. The boy approached his door and, with a clatter, pulled his keys from his pocket. He glanced down, three keys looking back at him, each one labelled. He moved 'dad's' key to one side, and found 'mom's'. It rattled in the lock. The door swung open, and then halted, only a few inches wide,
with a sharp rattle as the chain on the door tensed. The boy grumbled, and reached through the gap in the door, nimbly sliding the chain from its broken socket. It fell limply to the side.
The living room was already dark, lit by a flickering cavalcade of colours that radiated from the television set that sat in the corner, sending a wave of light that swam in sharp staccato bursts of Technicolor across the entire area of the apartment. The smell hit the boy first; the acrid sickly smell of whisky, thick with a tang of nasal permanence and bruised memories. The boy stepped into the middle of the room, dropping the skateboard by the door. His mother didn't move. The bottle of whisky sat beside her, a constant companion whom she held limply, clasped to her chest almost like a lost love. She didn't look up at the boy. He stared at her, a thin nest of wire wool hair and a face that sagged under the weight of her own lack of caring. Her background music was a rumble of televisual chatter, a drone of soap opera melodrama that she had long since stopped interacting with, even while she watched it.
"Dad's dying" said the boy.
She didn't look up. If even a muscle moved, it was lost in the darkness of the unlit living room. The boy looked around. She was gone, he thought, more gone than he had hoped for, but not as far gone as she might have been. The boy turned, the silent chatter of the television making him feel uncomfortable, the darkness of the room feeling as if it might choke him. He pushed the door into the kitchen open.
Behind him, the woman said "You're a damn liar" and took another drink.
The boy turned, looking towards her. Her eyes were glassy, murky with a texture almost like milk. He held the gaze for only a moment before she looked away, turning back towards the television. The boy turned his back on her, and walked into the kitchen.
The boy found an unspoiled microwave dinner. He shoved it into the oven, switched it on, and washed a plate from the grimy stack in the sink. By the time he had finished drying it, his dinner was ready. He dropped it onto the plate, a thin layer of melted water already shimmering over the food as he placed the plate onto a thin Formica half-table. While he picked at it, the television droned its choir in the other room. The boy parted thin sheaths of meat with the blunt end of his fork, watching as it slid precariously across the plate. He thought about skipping dinner, but he didn't think that there was anything else in. And besides, he had skipped enough of them lately, it was starting to show.
As he chewed, he slid his phone free from his pocket. "Dad says he misses you" he keyed in, and sent the message.
A reply shot back before the boy had the chance to finish chewing. "I miss him too" it said "and you too. How's mom?"
The boy waited until he finished dinner before he replied to that message. Finally, draining a glass of orange juice, the boy sent, "She's good. We're going to the cinema tomorrow."
"That sounds good" came the reply, "are you ready to log in?"
The boy closed his phone. He got up, walking through the dim emptiness of the living room towards his own private bedroom. As he closed the door, the smell of whisky faded again, and the boy started to feel just a little bit more secure. He dropped his phone to the bed, and let his fingers brush across the soft fur of his push tiger. He slid down onto his chair and slid his headphones on. The world around him dissolved. The boy powered on his monitor and keyed in his password. Directing his mouse towards the game, he felt his world blossom out before him, filling with light. By the time he had logged in, he felt a world around him, a world that he was not cut off from, a world that he was not scared of.
A message appeared. It was from the cleric, that strange Canine. The boy wasn't sure what to make of him, hadn't quite decided. The guy seemed fun, but had the air of being a bit of a newbie. The boy didn't mind. "Hey" said the message, "you ready for the dungeon?"
The boy smiled. "Aria coming?" he asked.
The cleric answered, "She's waiting for you." Somehow, this did not surprise the boy. If anything, it made him feel happier.
"I'll be right along" he said.
"Before I forget" said the Canine, "I've been meaning to ask you something."
"What is it?" asked the boy, already halfway through casting his spell, an incantation that would bring him to the side of his guild, ready to travel together into a world of adventure.
"Why do you play?" asked the Canine.
The boy almost stopped the spell. It was a question he hasn't expected, one he wasn't sure about. No, he thought. The boy knew why he played. He knew it well and good. But he wasn't sure if he wanted to actually say it.
And why would he say it? So that others would pity him? Think how poor his life must be? Think that he played this game just to escape from his life? He hasn't even told Aria how bad things had got around here. If Aria didn't know, there would be no worry, no fear, and no panic.
The boy shook his head. That was an answer, he knew that. But he also knew that it wasn't the only answer. He hadn't told most people that he played, and he didn't want to. This was his space, his world, where he could be whoever he wanted to be.
Carefully, the boy answered. "I get to be someone else here" he replied. And it was true.
There was a pause, before he received his reply. "I can understand that" said the cleric. "Well, come on, let's get going. Gunnar's keen to get this game underway, and we're nowhere without you to do your warlock stuff."
"Alright" said the boy, "let's do this, meat-bag!"