Two a.m., and Melva wakes with a gasp: the fucking apnea, the fucking weight. Her doctor says she’ll be able to sleep through the night again once she drops thirty pounds. So far, she’s three down, twenty-seven to go, and Jesus, she misses the burgers. Salad for lunch, fish and vegetables for dinner, and one square of dark chocolate before bed. As if that counts as dessert. But, she keeps telling herself, anyone who can build a raiding guild from scratch and keep it running should be able to stick to a simple goddamned diet.
As long as she’s up, she might as well log in. There’s been trouble in the guild lately—three of her best eighties left last week for Excelsior, which raids more often, and two others the week before that. After a year of steady growth, her guild has begun to shrink.
Melva signs in on her main, a druid called Drini. It’s only 11:00 on the west coast, so some of her guildies might still be on and want to do a random. Other issues aside, she’s hoping to see Southpaw, whether he wants to do a random or not.
What she knows about Southpaw: he’s an accountant, he lives in Oregon, he’s been playing forever, and tanks like him are nearly impossible to find. He’s smart about his gear and never reckless in the dungeons. Also, she assumes he’s left-handed, though she’s never asked. When Southpaw tanks and Drini heals, they always take down the bosses. She doesn’t know how old he is, or if he’s married, but her confessing that she’s a forty-five year-old grandmother hasn’t stopped him from flirting with her. She hasn’t yet mentioned, though, that at five-foot-three, she weighs two hundred and ten pounds.
She checks the guild window first when she logs in and finds only a couple of low levels online, both of them college kids as far as she can guess.
“greetings, all,” she types in the guild chat.
Munchhbuttt, who always wants a favor, asks if she can run him through Deadmines.
“not tonight.” she says. “won’t be on long enough.”
Munchhbuttt: “:( tomorrow?”
She tells him to put it on the guild calendar, where anyone can sign up to pitch in. Of course she wants to help her guildies get their dungeon achieves and all that, but Munchhbuttt’s the kind of guy who never even says hello before he asks her to lend him fifty gold.
Carbot, the other college boy—or girl?—writes, “Patzee left.”
A sick wave washes through Melva’s guts. Without Patzee, they have only nine eighties left: no more raiding without outside help.
“fck me.” Melva doesn’t worry about foul language with these kiddos; they respect her more when she cusses. “did she say why?”
“said she’s switching to Excelsior, but no worries, she’s leaving Qatzee here.”
Melva isn’t sure what to say next. She’s guessing Carbot is a true noob who won’t understand why leaving Qatzee, a level thirty shaman, is no big favor on Patzee’s part. Patzee, a gnome rogue, had been one of their best damage dealers. Qatzee, on the other hand, is an alt Patzee’s been building on a whim—a healer, which means it will take months to level him even if she bothers to start playing him more than once a week. It’s a token gesture to help keep the guild’s numbers up, which Melva assumes Patzee is doing to try to keep her, Melva, from getting too pissed off. Because, in the real world, Melva and Patzee—Patsy Zilman, who wasn’t all that creative about naming her character—work together in the tech support department at CompuSoft. And Patsy owes her, for bringing her into the guild in the first place, and for not telling anyone that Patsy plays all the fucking time at work. Melva never plays at work. When things are slow, she studies the help sheets. She is always prepared. When Patsy needs help—when she isn’t prepared—she asks Melva.
“great,” Melva tells Carbot. “that was nice of her.” She doesn’t want Carbot or Munchhbuttt to realize Wowtoonz is in trouble. They’re low level now, but they’ll be able to help raid someday if they don’t leave first. Patzee, for example, was just a twenty-three when Melva invited her into the guild.
But Carbot’s not stupid. “is that sarcasm?” s/he whispers to Melva, leaving Munchhbuttt out of it. “i’m freaked everyone’s leaving. r we going to be ok?”
“we need to recruit,” Melva writes back, “but we started with ten players and one bank tab, after all. for sure we can rebuild.”
“kk,” Carbot says, then promptly logs off. Carbot’s manners have never been super, but this seems abrupt. Melva is pretty sure Carbot will be gone the next time she logs in.
Melva doesn’t want to hang around alone with Munchhbuttt, so she logs off too, then tosses and turns all night, worrying that the guild will collapse. She’s good at her day job, which is gratifying in its way, but she’s invisible there. Pregnant at nineteen, when she was just getting started on that computer science degree that was supposed to bring her life-long security, she’s never lived up to what she knows is her true potential. As guild leader, she’s in charge: chief strategist, head of finance, the whole shebang. She persuaded nine other players to sign her charter two years ago—a feat in itself—and last month she had seventy-seven toons on her roster.
Being a guild leader rocks. Only lately, she’s been thinking maybe she’s not so good at it after all. She can’t figure out why everyone’s leaving just when Wowtoonz is finally in a position to raid more than once a week.
She wonders if Southpaw will end up joining Excelsior. She wonders if he thinks she’s a terrible leader. Then she hates herself for caring what some damned accountant from Oregon thinks, anyway. As if he knows the slightest thing about her.
In the morning, she arrives at CompuSoft to find a cup of Starbucks on her desk with a note from Patsy that says, “Could we do lunch? My treat.”
Melva wonders what Patsy has in mind. McDonald’s? Taco Bell? She’s brought a small Tupperware full of green salad and an individual carton of lite chocolate soymilk. The last thing she needs is a trip to a burger shop.
The phone rings: an elderly man with a question about his mouse. “Okay,” she says, relaxing into her role. “Tell me what you see on your screen.”
He tells her there’s nothing to see because his cursor won’t even come up. It’s as if he’s lost his voice, he says, or his hands. As if he’s lost everything.
“Whoa,” she says, “that would freak me out, too.” But the truth is, this is nothing, just a matter of recalibrating a few settings on the old guy’s laptop. By the time Patsy shows up, the man’s computer is working fine. When he asks Melva if there’s some way he can send her a tip, she tells him it’s all in a day’s work.
Patsy, the evil, skinny traitor, smiles at her. Melva realizes then how angry she is —how if the two of them were standing in a forest in the game world instead of a cubicle at CompuSoft she’d shift into cat form and take Patsy out with a few bloody swipes of her paw.
“How about that lunch?” Patsy says. “Where would you like to go?”
Melva holds up her brown bag. “Diet.”
“The apnea.” Pasty nods. “I forgot.” She turns toward the window. “It’s nice out. How about I buy a piece of pizza across the street and we eat on the lawn?”
The “lawn” is the strip of grass out back where CompuSoft has dropped two picnic tables nobody ever uses, maybe because the only thing sadder than eating at a Domino’s or a Subway next to the highway is eating next to the vent where CompuSoft’s cooling system belches out clouds of scorched raspberry air-freshener every five minutes.
“Fuck the lawn,” Melva says. “What’s up with you bailing for Excelsior?” Once, when Patsy was struggling to level her stupid rogue past forty-five, Melva gave her a thousand gold to buy a second set of talents. Since then, she’s constantly fed her advice about where to find the best drops to upgrade her gear because Patsy is too lazy to research this stuff herself on the wikis and discussion boards. Patzee has done a lot to help Drini build the guild over the past couple of years, but Melva helped Patsy build Patzee in the first place.
“You owe me,” Melva says.
Patsy grins, her skinny rat face wrinkling up as if she’s sixty years old instead of the thirty-nine Melva knows her to be. “I’ve been thinking about that, and the truth is I’ve got something just super to offer.” She pulls over a chair from the empty cubicle next door and leans her elbows on Melva’s desk. “It’s not even about debt, either. I think I’m going to make you happy, Melva.”
This weirds Melva out. Guild leaders give, they don’t receive. That’s the whole point—being bigger than everyone else.
“Southpaw,” Patsy says. “What do you want to know?”
Melva’s jaw drops. She hasn’t told anyone what she’s been thinking about Southpaw—how she imagines him being kind of like Jack Shepherd on Lost, except a little older and uglier, because no way would Jack Shepherd hook up with a fat grandma like her.
Patsy slides her a photo. The fellow shown there is gray-haired and chubby, though nowhere near so heavy as Melva.
“Where did you get this?” Melva remembers, even as she asks the question, that it was Patzee who invited Southpaw into the guild, only a week or two after she joined. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to Melva to ask how Patzee knew him—she was just glad to land a new player, and a tank at that.
“Sweetie,” Patsy says. “This here’s Sammy. He’s my big brother.”
“Huh,” Melva says. “What makes you think I want to know anything?”
“I watch the chat.”
Melva reminds herself to whisper from now on if she wants to flirt.
“Doesn’t he live in Oregon?” That’s half a country away.
“Yep,” Patsy says. “But he’s coming for a visit. I’d like to invite you over for dinner.”
Patsy is pimping out her goddamned brother, for Christ’s sake. Trying to buy Melva off. It might be a deal worth taking, though.
“Why quit my guild after all this time?” she asks.
Patsy sighs, like she was hoping to avoid this question. “Because raiding is my favorite thing in the world, Melva.”
“We raid.” Melva remembers how the two of them celebrated with frozen yogurt from TCBY the day after their very first raid. She had gotten hers in a waffle cone.
Patsy shakes her head. “Excelsior raids every night.”
Melva points out that Wowtoonz could raid more, too, if all her eighties would quit leaving.
“Do you want to raid every night?” Patsy asks.
Melva has never actually thought about that. If she raided every night, she’d never have time to make cookies for her church bake sales, or knit Christmas socks for her new granddaughter, or even watch reruns of Lost on Hulu. So the truth is, no, she would not.
This makes Melva feel terrible. A good guild leader should want to raid twenty-four seven.
Her sense of failure must show on her face because Patsy says, “Wowtoonz is a leveling guild. That’s not a bad thing.”
Melva folds her arms on her desk and lays her head down.
“You’re an excellent teacher,” Patsy says. “Think how many noobs are raiding now thanks to you.”
That hits home. Melva has often thought she would have made a great high school computer science teacher.
“Saturday night, eight o’clock?” Patsy says.
Melva nods against her arms. She promises to bring wine. She doesn’t look up, and eventually Patsy disappears.
That night, as Melva logs in, she wonders how long Sammy will be in town. It’s only Thursday—two days until she gets to meet Southpaw in the flesh.
She checks the guild window first thing. There are four other players logged on right now, all too low-level to raid. Including Munchhbuttt, who writes, “drini, run me through deadmines.”
She needs to teach this boy some etiquette if he’s going to survive, in her guild or any other.
“say hello first,” she whispers.
“hi drini,” he whispers back.
“hi,” she says. “now say please.”
There’s a long pause. Finally, a “please?” appears on her screen.
“hey, everyone,” she writes in the general chat. “munchhbuttt and I are doing deadmines tonight. who wants to come?”
DANIELLE LAVAQUE-MANTY lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Northwest Review, Bateau, and The Alarmist, and are forthcoming in Punchnel’s and Great Lakes Review.