There are two boys in a bedroom, both fourteen years old. One sits in the corner, lounging in a bowl-shaped wicker chair, and the other plays a video game on a desktop computer. Whatever he's playing is intense and requires great focus. This is Anthony, at the time my closest friend, and the teenager loafing in the chair is me.
Soon a large black Labrador will come into the room and upset the afternoon’s delicate balance, but right now, Anthony is showing me their new gaming mouse. It’s 2005, and he and his older brother Dave are trading off playing World of Warcraft every single day. They are attempting to become High Warlord, the most fearsome individual warrior on a World of Warcraft server. This will take almost-nonstop play for several months, and for this monumental task, which they will accomplish, they will be rewarded with what are among the most powerful weapons and armor available. After a month, the next best player will rise into the position.
The character they pilot, an undead rogue named Grathius, is undeniably cool in that maximal, cartoonish way familiar to video games. He dual-wields fearsome swords and flits from combat encounters like an assassin, his specific abilities requiring Dave and Anthony to develop a flexible style of engagement and retreat. Day after day, for months on end, Grathius carves up lightly-armored mages while running from goofy plate-mailed paladins.
A standard computer mouse has two buttons and a wheel. The mouse the brothers bought has at least four additional buttons. Anthony shows me the new configuration, which seems very novel and complicated, allowing for the whiplash-fast responses needed to maintain Grathius’ position and prestige. I too play a rogue, occasionally dabbling in player-versus-player combat, but Grathius is on a completely different level, and I am fascinated. Later, I adopt some of their innovations, but many intricacies are just unnecessary. I enjoy games and competition, but the kind of pervasive online grind the brothers engage in is simply beyond my capacity.
Also belonging to the brothers’ household are two black Labradors, the siblings Neo and Pepper. Neo wears a blue collar and Pepper a red one. Pepper is large, loving, and gregarious, while Neo is aloof and clever. If I bring food to the house after school there is a good chance Neo will steal it through trickery.
Sitting in the wicker-bowl chair, I watch Neo enter the room. Tail-wagging, ears perked, he scans the scene quickly before focusing on the bed. I know, as a first-order matter, Neo wants my spot. He will slump into the cushion with his legs flopping from the sides and stay like this for as long as he can. While the brothers grind for High Warlord, this is the best seat in the house. Drama, intrigue, the position as a trusted adviser or confidant. One feels close to the action, close to history in the making.
This is the year before we can drive, the final moments of boyhood, before things will begin changing at an exponentially faster pace. Try as we might to ignore it, the pressures of having to grow up and pay the bills are right there, right outside the window. It’s no wonder so many escape into a more easily-managed, less-threatening dreamworld of wizards and undead, especially in the searing, alienated suburbs of Southern California, where no one can ever truly be beautiful or rich enough to be happy. We are training in a parallel reality for the one we are about to enter. And while attending a high school where we feel completely anonymous and strange, Dave and Anthony are about to become the single most fearsome combatants on a server of some ten-thousand people.
Neo paws at the darkness under the bed, sniffing and whimpering. Anthony is fighting a pitched battle over the lumber mill of Arathi Basin. Grathius’ swords sing as he moves from melee to melee, disappearing and reappearing in clouds of smoke and magic. Neo looks at me, real concern on his face, and gives a sort of weird yipping bark. There might really be something under there. It wouldn't be unheard of, especially not where we live at the desert’s edge. Scorpions, snakes, these are real threats, and I am increasingly concerned with right action and responsible behavior. Neo yips again and I leave the chair to shine a light under the bed. I find, of course, absolutely nothing, just the blank face of the opposing wall.
Neo barely looks at me from his new position, totally relaxed in the chair. He has a noble visage, with statuesque jowls and just a scattering of gray around his snout. Anthony is queued for another battle, his wins so far enough to keep Grathius on track. I quietly fetch another chair from the dining room. After a long enough time you can become High Warlord, but you can’t stay there forever.
Matt Knutson is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. He's been a resident at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, Yemassee, Expat Press, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @mattknuts