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The American Quest

Alex’s breath fogged in the cold night air. The sweatshirt he’d grabbed from the back of his chair smelled like old milk or cheese. Alex checked the pocket and pulled the lint out, throwing the tuft into the bushes. By two-ish in the morning, the streets had died. Earlier, pangs of hunger had set in, and Alex didn’t want the last package of noodles, crunched and broken on the cupboard shelf. He deserved a treat.

The corner-store was less than two blocks from his single bedroom flat. The neighborhood was built in the 1970s and had gone into disrepair due mostly to landlords hording money against unsung bullshit. No one really knew the state of things anymore, especially with how much the politicians garbled. For Wall Street things were fantastic, thought Alex. For the out-of-work, code monkeys, not so much.

Alex walked through the intersection of Derby Street, dimly lit against a flickering streetlight. He could see two figures standing next to a parked car, their hoods pulled over their heads, creating a single, large shadow behind them. He figured they must be kids, probably breaking into cars. He watched as one guy slapped the other’s arm with the back of his hand and pointed towards Alex. For a moment, Alex thought of the game he’d just left. Maybe they were players too. He always wanted to meet fellow gamers in the wild. He’d love to talk to someone about the loot he’d collected or the secret dungeon he’d crawled through for the fiftieth time, all for a random chance at a glorious riding mount. He’d been trying for half a year.

“Hey, you got a light.” One of the hooded men asked as he came shuffling up the sidewalk. He held a bent cigarette between two fingers.

“No, man. Sorry.” Alex looked down the sidewalk.

“You got a few bucks then?” The guy turned toward the corner store, shouldering next to Alex as he walked. The other guy pushed lightly on Alex other shoulder with a hand as if to say he was repeating the question. Alex kept walking. He thought about the night he’d won the crown jewel riding mount off the six armed beast, Death Strider. The mount was coveted by players throughout his server. Many farmed it after the weekly reset, because that was the best time to defeat the boss and get the mount — the statistics gathered from thousands of playing hours suggested as much. Fourteen had been found dropped within an hour of server reset.

“I don’t have any extra money. I’m heading to get a few slices of pizza,” Alex’s voice cracked. He was sorry he’d said it. Why would he tell them what he was doing?

The only time Alex saw the mount, the raid leader, a goblin named Chugbugoo, had pocketed it for himself, even though Alex’s character, Teemo, was the one who rolled the highest. The mount was rightfully Alex’s. He’d filed a petition and waited for redemption, logging in at odd hours to see if his request had been fulfilled by Sky Support. Then the green check-mark had been ticked and Alex saw the stupid response. Loot rules needed to be said upfront. A master loot raid was up to the discretion of the leader. Alex then knew the dice rolls were for show — the true power was held by the raid leader. After that, he’d always forced the lead to announce loot rules in chat.

The guy behind Alex said, “Why don’t you just give us your wallet and we’ll go in there and get what you wanted?” He said it like the offer made sense, like he was talking to a fourteen year old girl looking to buy Schnapps, not a guy who hadn’t seen the Death Strider mount in fourteen weeks, a guy who only wanted to buy a few slices of pizza to push down the bile gurgling up his throat.

“No.” Alex stopped walking, his hands hanging dumb at his side. “I’m not giving you shit,” He looked at each of them. He saw their scrawny faces, the sprouts of hair under their chins, acne scars, bloodshot eyes. He saw terror curtained behind a drugged veneer.

“Now leave me be.” The one guy laughed, and the other followed with a snort and a short squeal. “We’re just giving you the rub,” the other parroted the same, but Alex didn’t care. He was going to get his reward.

Black Triangle

Small waves lapped against the next contestant as she bobbed in the water. The game was called “Don’t shit a brick.” The goal was to see who could doggy paddle the longest while holding a brick. Juvenile, sure. Was it fun? You’re damn right it was.

Jennifer had cried out with glee when she first entered the water, then her face squished in like a sponge when she was handed the brick. She momentarily grimaced as the red, clay brick scraped against her inner thigh. But she managed to hold onto it surrounded by the vibrantly colored speedboats of her classmates.

Her red and blue bikini top was fastened tight around her neck, but the grasping texture of the brick threatened to expose her sun shaded breasts to the boys leaning off the sides of their boats, cheering wildly like she was crossing the finish line with each minor stroke.

The coldness of Lake Holshire had sucked my breath away earlier in the afternoon, when the first round of tubing had begun.  The coldness could be seen on Jennifer’s face, in the way she gasped for air and kept her eyes focused on one spot in the sky.

Maybe if we had brought more than one brick, the contestant would have felt better about dropping it to the mossy bottom below. As it were, Jennifer struggled with the weight and the beers she had drank earlier.

She managed to keep herself afloat as someone yelled, “She looks like she’s shitting a brick!”

The three speedboats all had their engines killed and their anchor points tethered, leaving a triangular opening in the water. As the ever buoyant Jennifer struggled with her clay hindrance, the boats sloshed and shimmied so that Jennifer was no longer in the center of the triangle, but closer to Davis’ boat, a shining red and black beast that could hit sixty miles an hour without blinking.

I yelled to Davis, “Get her out, man. She’s finished.”

He didn’t even look at me, but kept staring down at the top of her breasts that glistened just above the surface of the water.

In the afternoon sun, the water was a navy blue, like the oppressive folds of storm clouds about to spit rain.

Davis was now laying on the edge of his Mastiff, as he called the red and black racer, urging Jennifer to just give up and take her top off. She didn’t need to be weighted down by it. Her faux laugh filled her mouth with Lake water, which she spit out with squinting eyes.

“Shut up, Dave,” was all she managed to mouth before slipping under water.

Davis turned to Trev, “Did you hear what she said?” He didn’t see her submerge into the triangle of darkness, like a pole searching for the bottom of Lake Hols.

The water rippled outwards where the crown of her head had gone under, breaking symmetry on the side of the Mastiff. One, two, three seconds pass. No sign of her. She’s not coming up. I search the black water to see if I can find her, but cannot.

I glance at the others. There’s more than a dozen people and not one of them seems concerned that Jennifer has just taken the plunge to death. She’s a caught bobber and no one wants to reel her in.

Alcohol does dumb shit to people.

I dive in, momentarily wondering if I should have jumped in feet first rather than swan dive into the water. But I don’t hit her. I open my eyes and am amazed at how bright it is underwater. The boats cast long shadows down a corridor of the lake, but there’s wide expanses receiving bright sunlight now. I can see Jennifer with her eyes closed about ten feet below.

She drifting there like a person caught between a dream and waking. She’s let go of the brick but her hands still hold it near her chest. Something in the water brushes against my eyelids causing them to close momentarily. I fear she’ll be dead when I get her in my arms. Will she drift away when I’m back?

I reach her, grab her underneath her arms and start kicking for the surface. I can see the long angular shadows from the boats spread wider and wider, until I’m panting above the dark expanse of the black triangle.