Absoluteness of Nothing 1
Saturday afternoon, Cam Tyler bursts into my room like it’s a matter of national security.
“You gotta try these, man. They’re off the hook!”
I’m barely awake, but I slip the specs from his hand. By all appearances, they’re ordinary goggles with a yellow tint to the lens. I cut him one of those sidewinder looks.
“No one says ‘off the hook’ anymore,” I tell him, throwing my legs over the side of the bed, kicking a dirty cup and plate out of the way as I head to the desk.
“My dad does.”
“Your dad thinks he’s the long-lost drummer for KISS, dude. He’s an eighties throwback. Of course he’s gonna say ‘off the hook.’ ”
Cam hops around my chair, pushing his long, curly hair out of his freckled face. “Fire up the Boneyard, dude! Try ’em out.”
I go to put the glasses on, but he balls his pasty hand into a fist and punches me in the shoulder.
“No, wait! Put ’em on after you’re in the Boneyard. So you can tell the difference.”
That, of course, will mean waiting at least five minutes until the rickety, limping carcass of a Dell PC in my room—the Relic, I call it—coughs itself back to life. I rub my arm in the meantime.
Cam fills the dead space with an endless spew of chatter.
Out front, the old man barks about the mail, like he’s incapable of walking twenty-five feet to get it himself.
My eyes blur as I stare at the computer screen, waiting, blocking out the noise from the TV in the front room. I can hear Devin banging through the cardboard-grade wall that separates our rooms, feel the entire trailer rattle as my mom paces the back end of the hallway. The energy outside my room feels like just before an UnderWorld raid—all the crackle and sulfur of unleashed rage and the fear that everything’s about to blow wide open.
I have a couple more minutes of wait time till the computer boots up.
“Don’t touch anything,” I tell Cam. “I’ll be right back.”
I ease the door open and hook a quick U-turn into Devin’s room. He’s pounding on the tray of his wheelchair.
“Hey,” I say, low and soft so he doesn’t spook. “Hey, it’s all cool, kid. Your cup’s right here.”
I’m careful not to cover up the Batman logo on the side of the cup as I hold the sippy part against his lips. He hated Batman before the accident. Any ten-year-old who likes superheroes is an ass-nugget, he’d say.
Now it’s the only cup he’ll drink from.
Half the water goes into his mouth. The other half slides down his chin. I pat him dry with a soft cloth, pretending it’s all water and no drool.
“You probably wanna go watch TV, huh?” I say. He can’t nod or anything, but in my mind he does. “Maybe later,” I say. “After the old man calms down a little. Okay, kid? Want me to put some music on?”
He’d nod if he could—I know it—so I hit the power button on the radio, tune it back to the emo station he always listened to. The old man changes it to country every freakin’ chance he gets. Can’t even let Devin have this one little thing.
I smooth my brother’s hair down before heading back to my room.
When I get there, Cam holds his hands up like proof he didn’t touch anything. Which of course tells me he most likely did.
As soon as I sit back down, the Relic sputters itself into existence and I head straight for the Boneyard. I click the skull-and-crossbones icon, the one with the bullet-riddled military helmet that spins as the game loads agonizingly slow.
Suddenly my character screen blazes into existence, and massive relief washes over me. I pick T-Man, my only level-cap toon, and enter.
Out in the living room, the old man switches channels. Something ridiculous. Promzillas, if I had to guess.
On-screen, the load bar crawls past so slowly I want to punch something.
Cam yammers on about how I need a new computer, maybe an Alienware, like I have three large lying around under my mattress.
And then, finally, I’m in.
T-Man drops onto a dark road, and as soon as he’s on the move, I put the glasses on.
“Whoa . . .”
“See? Right? See what I mean? It’s sick, man, it’s totally sick!”
I have to admit, they’re pretty cool. Edges are sharper, colors are clearer, and there’s almost a 3-D depth to scenery on-screen.
Comments fly by in the chat window, glowing and totally readable, not the blur it usually is. Raids are firing up everywhere. Everybody wants a piece of this battle, especially the special-bonus armor and the max-damage weps that drop if your platoon rocks UpRising.
I keep my eyes plastered to the screen, my hand near but not on the mouse. Close enough to touch if I have to.
Watch the comments fly by.
Psychobatter’s on about some dumb bullshit. I wouldn’t raid with that guy if I had to. He’s an idiot.
Supershooter says he needs a shield tank. Super’s in Tenth Warriors—pretty awesome platoon. Maybe I should drop in with them. But no. I promised Haze no raiding. Raiding’s where I get a little lost sometimes.
Deathtoaliens claims 10/12 for UpRising.
LAST TUNNEL—need dps.
Last tunnel? Shit on a stick—somebody’s that close? Wait a second. Death? Death’s in Doomstalkers—that’s my brigade.
Since when does Doomstalkers have a group that close to kicking UpRising?
I adjust the goggles, squint closely at the monitor. Seriously though. It’s crazy how something so simple brings everything else into such intense focus.
Just when I think it can’t get any cooler, I hear the old man squawk, “How many times are they gonna send us the same damn bills?” and suddenly my brigade chat window goes batshit crazy.
Deathtoaliens: T-Man! You in?
Bruisedozer: T-Man, dude, bring the heat.
“These are dope,” I tell Cam about the goggles, distracting myself so I’m not tempted to get pulled into the action.
My hands are adrenaline-shaking as the raid invites pop up. Eleven people, all begging for me to join. They need me to help break through to that last tunnel, take down the boss. We could do this, no question. It could be our screenshot on the forums. With one incomparable grenade launcher, I could kill anything in the game.
“My dad bought two pairs of those goggles,” Cam says. I just bet he did. One for Cam and one for himself, no doubt. The guy’s a sixteen-year-old trapped in a thirty-five-year-old body.
My finger twitches, and before I know what I’m doing, I click “join.” I try not to pay attention to everybody’s typing as the lines fly by, players telling me how we’re gonna crack this now that I’m back in, names I mostly know and a few I don’t. But of course I know Bruisedozer, who’s handing off rations, and Six, who’s buffing everybody like crazy.
The walls shake as my mom paces the narrow hall, and I wish one of those buffs could go to her. She needs something today, I can tell.
“Hold up. I thought this one got paid.” Only the way he says it sounds like an accusation.
I hate him for the way he talks to her. Every day. Ever since the accident. Sometimes I wish she’d get angry back. But she knows better, talks to him like she’s reading how to reheat soup off the side of a can.
“You’re drifting, dude,” Cam says.
I turn back to the screen. Behind the raid, a horde of mobs sweeps up and down the street, up and down. Christ, that’s a lot of cockroaches. Bruise is going over strategy on voice chat like always—drones on forever before anybody gets to start shooting.
“So what’s the point of these, exactly?” I ask, slipping the goggles back off, inspecting them.
“Cuts the glare so you can game longer,” Cam says.
I’m totally down for hanging out in the Boneyard all night and helping Doomstalkers take UpRising. Only at that exact second, Haze comes cruising into my room, still sporting the cop shades and painter’s mask he wears for work that got him affectionately dubbed the “Napoleon Burger Unabomber.” No one twirls a sign like my man Haze.
I try to body block the screen so he can’t tell that I’m breaking a promise to him about getting off the Boneyard. You’re gonna lose yourself in that game one of these days, he keeps telling me.
My hand goes limp on the mouse.
Haze toggles his mirror-lensed gaze from me to Cam.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
Cam and I both answer, only he says “Boneyard” and I say “Nothing,” and it’s obvious Haze believes Cam and not me.
My hand bumps off the mute by mistake, and now he can hear the raid chat and Bruise yelling that this time they better keep the tank from getting crushed under all those roaches.
“You guys need to get your story straight,” Haze mumbles in disgust, aiming those mirrored cop shades straight at me. “I thought you were off that shit, Tosh.”
“I am,” I say, quick kicking the mute back on. “I mostly am.”
“Dude, chill,” Cam says. “The guy needs a little break from—”
The sound of glass striking and then shattering recoils through the entire trailer. Devin’s music goes dead—I’m not sure how—and the footsteps in the hallway come to a complete stop right outside my door. Seconds tick past as we all just sit and stare at the walls and wait. My pulse revs up with nowhere to go.
“Seven hundred dollars? For what?”
The old man lets fly, his voice is so sharp it could split the fake-wood paneling on the walls. When I close my eyes, I can see her face—that look she gets, like she wants to shout back. But she never does. Just lowers her chin, shakes her head small enough so he can barely see, and whispers her thoughts to herself.
Fifteen hundred and eighty-six days of the old man’s rage being fueled by her silence.
I adjust the goggles, grip the mouse, click on my max-red stance to boost damage as far as it’ll go. It’s a calculated risk, I know. I could totally die. It could all be over in seconds. But right now I don’t care. Right now I seriously need to kill something, that’s all.
“Seven hundred bucks, Amy. That’s rent. That’s two weeks of groceries.”
She says nothing. What could she possibly say to a guy who hasn’t worked in almost four years? Who looks at those bills every month like he’ll find cheat codes hidden somewhere in all those numbers? Who’s so far into this maze, he’ll never get out and he knows it? What do you say to a trapped animal? I want to bolt off the chair, go out there, help her find the words, only the last time I did, he let me have it.
There’s nothing I can do for her. I’m powerless.
“Two weeks of groceries sittin’ useless in that goddamn chair!”
Cam’s been bouncing his scrawny ass behind me, just itching to get his hooks on the mouse. But he and Haze stop cold and stare at the bedroom door at the sound of the old man’s voice, full of shrapnel and hopelessness.
“Go,” Bruiser barks over the headphones, and I turn just in time to catch the platoon plunge onto the once-empty street in the Boneyard.
Mobs swarm toward us, screeching and snapping bug jaws and firing acid spit. One of the healers takes major damage. I shoot the bug that’s trying to take her down, watch the metal helmet fly off as it falls over onto its long, flat back, six hairy cockroach legs wiggling in a melodramatic death dance. He’s not dead; that’s all I know. In a matter of seconds he’ll flip over and scurry back to his place in line. They always do—they’re roaches. It’s almost impossible to kill the damn things. You have to whack ’em multiple times before they’ll actually die.
She says something back to him, her muffled voice skulking along the walls of the trailer, too soft to make out the words.
“Like hell,” he says. “That son of a bitch pays you minimum wage. And he still charges us to come out and spray!”
Never mind the place is still crawling with roaches. But he doesn’t mention that.
My eyes dart away from the screen for a second. I let the echo of his words get distant in my ears, try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, I’ve either heard it 1,586 times before or I don’t want to know. I try to convince myself that the old man’s lucky there’s a raid going down in the Boneyard, that it’s the only thing keeping me in this chair right now. But that’s a lie. The truth is, I’m a complete chickenshit when it comes to him. I can’t even nut-up enough to protect her.
I adjust the headset over my right ear, pop an earbud into my left, and crank up the volume on both. A couple of clicks on my mp3 player, and Motor City’s meld of punk and metal becomes the best raiding soundtrack ever.
Cam leans over my shoulder, breathes wet air next to my ear. “Kill that one!” he says, pointing.
Haze stealth-approaches my closed door, eases his body against it.
The whole house shakes from the impact of my old man’s words on our reality, rattling the thin pane of glass on the windows, until—
Bruiser panic-shouts, cursing over the headset as Six screeches, “Second wave! Second wave!”
A fresh surge of roaches storms over us.
“Shoot those guys!” Cam shouts, leaning way too far into my personal space just so he can point at the screen.
“Dude, back off,” I tell him as I click away, giving T-Man an automatic rifle and watching his spread take out six roaches at once. He keeps at it. They’re going down, extermination style.
“Buff up!” Bruise calls out over the headset. “Healers, rez the dead now. We’ve only got seconds.”
“Tunnel maps?” I hear over the speaker. I don’t recognize the girl’s voice. “Need the mapper up front.”
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Militiababe,” she answers.
Ah. The one from Crazyfire. I think she’s a Medic.
We sure as hell could use some heals right about now.
We can’t hold out long against numbers like this. The trick is to keep yourself alive, hit the tunnels in the right sequence so you can unlock the last one to the boss before everybody dies. I happen to know how righteously hard it is to stay alive when you’re under constant attack, when you can’t seem to get the sequence right. We’re damn good raiders, but for some reason we can never quite reach that last tunnel. No Ascent Credits. No becoming Worthy. Total fail.
One of these times, it has to end differently.
“I’ll map,” I say, squaring myself on the seat as I tune out the noise out front.
“Whoa, you’re almost to Turk’s lair!” Cam shouts. “Yo, T-Man. Assault!”
Haze kicks back over to my bed, tosses his painter’s mask in disgust onto a pile of dirty laundry, plops down on the dusty mattress.
“Tosh,” he says, his voice a mesh of worry and irritation.
Haze is more of a see the world, live in the now kind of guy. He doesn’t understand the importance of all this. I’ve never told him, so of course he wouldn’t know. How a fail like me, a guy who can’t get it right in real life, would have to roam these maps, to complete these missions. Have to kill the roachlike UnderWorld mobs, rescue the babelike UnderWorld hostages, raid with platoons through the abandoned highways and buildings of the UpperWorld, killing infiltrators and trying to bank Ascent Credits. That’s why I bought the new expansion pack. ASCEND: Armageddon. It has everything a guy like Caleb Tosh could want in a game: hot chicks, vile insectoid enemies, and the chance to go back and fix whatever I messed up on as long as I don’t care how fast I level. If I can nail these missions and get promoted, if I can become Worthy, even an inept guy like me can Ascend a place like the Boneyard.
“Tosh,” Haze says again. “Will you get off the game already?”
“He can’t!” Cam shrieks. “His platoon is one tunnel away from Turk—the boss, the Cockroach Commandant! Make it happen, T-Man!”
I stare at the tunnels. Twelve of them. My brain whips through all the sequences I’ve tried in the past. I have a list, only I don’t remember where I put it. No time to look, either. The platoon masses behind me, ready to defend, because the second I hit the first tunnel, those cockroach mobs will attack.
“Got your back,” Militiababe murmurs as she puts herself between T-Man and the platoon. She’ll be my healer, but if I don’t map fast and shoot straight, she won’t last long.
“Ready,” Bruise says.
Then, quiet as can be, Bruise whispers, “Let’s do this.”
As I hit Tunnel 6, the mobs shout and pounce.
Everybody starts yelling.
“Where am I supposed to get seven hundred dollars from?”
I tune him out as mobs, both bug and human, charge me. One pops me pretty bad, but Militiababe’s on it, healing me as I aim for the next few tunnels, only goddamn it—I just can’t get past this one!
Stupid computer. Jesus, why am I so slow?
Oh, right, cuz the old man’s a cheap bastard who only springs for the slowest possible Internet connection, then sucks up all the bandwidth himself watching 24-7 crap on our one-and-only TV.
“You’re struggling, man,” Cam says.
I click like fury. Bars are evaporating to nothing as people crash under the weight of the mobs.
Chinook helicopters roar into view, each bearing the mark of the roach on the side. They fire at the troops below.
“Out of time, T,” Bruise yells. “Get it done. Get it effing done, man!”
But I can’t. T-Man’s losing green like he’s bleeding it straight out. Damn!
Outside my room, the old man pushes the volume dial, pierces straight through the chaos of the game.
“What do you mean, he gave you a raise? When did that happen?”
Jesus. I’m dying here. Someone needs to throw some heals, fast.
“What’d you have to do, sleep with the guy?”
“At least I’m doing something.”
We all stop breathing for a beat, turn toward the door.
Her words nearly flay the skin off my bones. Not her words. Her voice. Out loud, in this house, aimed at him.
Fifteen hundred and eighty-six days now of listening to him rant, and she’s never talked back to him.
I shock-drift back to the screen. Militia’s sinking to her knees. She fires one last oh-shit heal at me. I grab the mouse, hulk back up, and bash my way through a cluster of mobs to the last tunnel. Last one!
Only, at that exact moment, the stink of truck exhaust drags my attention out the open bedroom window.
I pull down the headset, lean forward, watch in confusion as Stan the Bug Man painstakingly backs his small utility truck down the drive, opens the door, steps out. What the fresh hell? It’s Saturday. Stan never works on Saturdays.
The crunch of gravel echoes under Stan’s steel-toed boots and the screaming, shattering, twisting whir of full-on cataclysmic assault comes at me right through the headset draped around my neck as I watch Stan approach the house, as I notice there are no canisters or equipment in the back of his truck, as his boots fall flat and hollow on the two wooden steps up to the front door, where he now stands in his gray Dickies even though it’s fucking Saturday and I know for sure he’s not here to spray.
My face goes numb as flames dot the mini-map on-screen, and battle cries rain down through the headset.
“T-Man!” shouts Militiababe.
Then Bruise. “Where the hell’d you go? We’re gonna wipe, man!”
Somebody’s swearing in French, and German, too.
I stare through the window at Stan’s piss-yellow truck with the four-foot-long fiberglass cockroach perched on top. The stink of my own sweat snaps me out of my daze.
“Stay the hell away from her!” Stan calls out.
Haze gets up off the bed, lifts the tattered curtain aside. “Tosh, man . . . your folks . . .”
The dull throb of ongoing warfare pulses against my chest.
I turn, focus in on the monitor, tighten my gaze on the map. Mortars and machine-gun fire are still exploding up and down the empty highway, the words “The end is near!” keep popping up on-screen all around the dying raiders. No heals or rezzes left. I’m a jump from the tunnel with no green left to give, and there’s massive mobs waiting for me.
I have nothing left.
The old man’s threats have brought the neighbors to their windows, and my mom . . . my mom screams back this time, for real.
Cam’s yelling too, yelling at me to stay in the raid, and I want to, but I keep checking out the window because Stan is loading a bunch of our stuff into his truck: table, chairs, mantel clock, all back where his canisters of poison should be.
“T-Man!” Militiababe calls out. “Get in there. Come on!”
I quick cut my gaze to the Boneyard, the map filling up with a fog so dense, it congeals inside my head.
“Tosh!” Cam barks, reaching for the mouse.
I wave him off, but the shouting out in the front yard rages to new volumes. I lean toward the window, watch as the old man ramrods into Stan, sending him ass over teakettle down the steps. The lamp in his hand shatters into a burgundy mosaic across the walkway, and as he hits the ground, a piece of it jams into the flat of his palm. Blood pumps out fast and wet onto the gravel.
Cam’s in front of the computer, freaking out. “Tosh, you can still get to the tunnel, man!”
I turn back just in time to see Bruise die, taken out by a hairy-legged roach mob firing mortar rounds from a truck.
Militiababe’s quiet now. She tried to save my stupid ass with good heals, and now I’ve totally let her down.
“Shit . . .”
“You got her killed,” Cam says. “You got them all killed. It’s a wipe. Total fail, man.”
I throw the headset at Cam without looking, press in next to Haze at the window. Through the sickening yellow tint of the goggles, I watch my mom help Stan to his feet. She’s soft with him. Soft in a way she hasn’t been with any of us, at least not since the accident.
I catch her eye through the window. The pain on her face hits me like a backhanded blow from the old man.
“What the hell is his problem?” someone shouts over the headset in Cam’s hand. “Why isn’t he moving?”
Cam lunges at the computer, grabs the mouse. “Tosh! You’re still standing. How do I launch? How do I tag the tunnel?”
My mom follows Stan to the truck.
The numbness spreads from my face into my whole entire body.
Something’s off. This isn’t her typical reboot, like when she gets in her old junker for an hour-long drive around.
Cam’s clicking the mouse like crazy. “Jesus, Tosh, this raid isn’t over, man.”
I drag my gaze from the window to the computer screen, where minion soldiers come spilling out of the tunnels, flooding the abandoned highway. They’re everywhere.
Two truck doors slam shut, one right after the other.
I rip the earbud out of my ear, tear down the hallway, out the door, down the steps. Haze and Cam are on my heels.
“Tosh . . . the game!”
I run. Fast. Faster than I’ve ever run before in my entire life. I smell the chemicals leaching out of Stan’s truck, the exhaust fumes, four years of dust blowing off our furniture as they drive away.
I can’t breathe.
Haze catches up to me first but doesn’t say anything. Just stands there watching me watch the truck get smaller and farther away.
Cam is panting by the time he hits my side.
“The Boneyard,” he huffs.
I spin around, the street echoing frame by frame through those yellow lenses as I turn.
“Everyone’s dead,” Cam says, breathless. “The raid’s down in flames. Total fucking wipe, man. They’ll never take you with them again, Tosh. Never.”
I’m an absolute fail.