by Morgan Givens
“Hurry up and get down here. Your dinner’s done!” His mother yelled up the steps, and he bit back a response that would have gotten him a talking to in the least, and grounded at worst. Whenever he yelled in the house it was a problem, but when his Mom did it, everything was supposed to go on as if it’d never happened.
“In a minute, Ma!” Travis yelled back, taking the risk. After more than fourteen hours, he was finally close to beating one of the hardest bosses on the game. His eyes tracked the characters, a mage shooting fire, his barbarian warrior slicing her way through the melee. He was so close to capturing the elusive trophy that his best friend Chris had gotten a week ago.
“In a minute? Boy, have you lost your mind hollering in this house?” The risk was quickly turning out not to be worth it, as his eyes darted back and forth from his mom, to the rapidly moving action on the TV. She stepped further into his room, nose wrinkling at the smell. “And why does it smell like crusty gym socks in here? What on earth — “
“Just ten more minutes, please? I can’t pause it and if I don’t execute the trapping spell at just the right second I’ll — “
“You think I care about this silly little game? Your food is getting cold.” Hand on her hip, head cocked to the side, her miniature micro braids were pulled back from her face.
“Please?” He was getting desperate. Knew the desperation leaked out into his voice, but if Chris texted him that night and he hadn’t beaten this boss he’d never hear the end of it. He’d be buried beneath an avalanche of memes, gifs, and messages clowning him until he’d actually accomplished his goal.
“You’ve got five. Make it quick.” She left the room, kicking a shoe out of her path as she did so, shaking her head as she descended the steps.
Five minutes later, Travis plopped down into the dining room chair, a scowl on his face as he began digging into the collards on his plate, shoveled his potatoes around, stabbed angrily at the roasted pork chop.
“I bet you wouldn’t have lost if you did what I told you. Why’d you take that puny level 20 mage into that fight? That was stupid. All you needed was a barbarian, dark warlock, and an amazon level 50 or higher, but you never listen to me. That’s why they all dead.” His younger brother Michael mocked him, nearly finished eating, knowing the faster he ate, the faster he could take the gaming over from Travis once dinner was finished. “I’ve already beaten that boss and it didn’t take me three weeks either.”
“Shut up, Michael.”
“Don’t tell your brother to shut up.”
“But he’s teasing me, and all because you wouldn’t just give me the time I needed. I don’t care if my dinner gets cold! Nobody cares about that but you.”
She stopped, fork halfway to her mouth, raised her eyebrow and he braced himself, “Do I look like one of your little friends to you?”
“Mom, I just — “
“Answer the question. Do I look like one of your little friends?”
They all continued eating, the awkward silence punctuated and broken up only by the clattering of their forks against their plates, the slight thumping of glasses placed back onto the rough wood grain tabletop. The house echoed, the multitude of unpacked boxes not yet having birthed their contents onto the walls, into cupboards, decorations of identity that would help muffle the sounds of emptiness. “Travis, Michael, I know neither of you wanted to move, but this is a great opportunity for me. An opportunity to get tenure, and at such an amazing university. I have to do what’s best for all of us, and with your father gone. This is that.”
“For you, maybe. All my friends are back in Santa Cruz and none of them are going to visit me. Who wants to come to Durham, North Carolina. What even is a Durham?”
“A noun.” Michael snorted at his own joke.
“Of course you’re laughing about it. What are you? Thirteen with no friends. This is probably exactly what you’d want.” Travis leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, daring either of them to speak. Hoped the mask of anger he wore would prevent them from seeing how close to tears he was, irritated that he felt like crying at all.
“Did you take your shot yesterday?” His brother peered at him over the rim of his glasses.
“It’s just that you sometimes get really mad, really quick after you’ve taken your shot, is all.” He continued, voice little more than a whisper.
Travis recognized the truth in that, immediately felt the shame begin coursing through him, as potent as his weekly testosterone injection. “I’m sorry, and you’re right. I’ll try to be better about that.”
“You still don’t have any friends, though.”
“Oh, for the love of God.” Their mom stood up, began scraping her plate into the trash, before placing it in the sink. “Y’all are going to drive me into the crazy house, I swear.” She began filling the sink with soap and water, watching as the suds reached the top, threatened to crest over. “Michael go take your shower.”
“But, I wanted to play — ”
They both watched him leave. Travis jumped slightly, then caught the towel his mom thumped against his chest. “Help me wash these dishes.” They worked in strained silence, each alone in their thoughts, wanting to speak but afraid of offending the other. Worried their words might come out wrong, be misunderstood, send them descending into a fight. “I know you don’t want to be here.” She passed him a soapy pot, watched from the corner of her eye as he cleaned it beneath the stream of water, placed it in the drying rack without comment. Without a glance her way. “It could be a good thing, though. You know?”
“Good how, Mom?”
“You could always just be Travis here. Nobody knows you from before, back when — “
“Back when everyone thought I was a girl? I’m not ashamed of it.”
“Baby, I know you’re not, and I’m not trying to say you should be. It’s all anybody ever saw back home.”
“Nobody cared though,” he placed the final dish into the rack, dried his hands on the damp towel, turned and locked eyes with his mother’s dark browns. Noting the worry in them, the lines of tension that pulled at the corners of her mouth, felt himself soften as he did. “You’re worried they’ll care here. Aren’t you?”
“I’m just…” She sighed, deep and heavy, brought her hand to her temple, “I don’t want anyone to mistreat you because of who you are.”
“Do you think I should not tell anyone?”
“I think you should make that choice. I won’t always be there to tell you what to do, and I need to know you’ll be able to make the decision that’s best for your safety and happiness.”
“Okay, that makes sense. Is it okay if I go play the game for a little before bed?”
She waved him away, “that’s fine. Not too late, though. You’ve got a big day at your new school tomorrow.”
“Sure, I’ll turn it off in an hour.”
“Yeah?” He turned back, hand on the bannister of the stairs.
“Remember what I always tell you and your brother?”
“How could I forget? You say it at least once a week.” He placed his hands on his hips, sharply raised his voice in mimicry, “‘I’m your mother. I’ll go to — “
“Hell and to jail for my children.”
He laughed at that. He always did, “I know, Ma. I know.”