Quintana woke at 4:00pm to the sound of their father in the bathroom. Dad always left the door open. It had disgusted the rest of the family when they were kids, but now that Quintana was the only ‘child’ left at home, there was nobody to complain with. Mum had long since struck Dad’s bathroom habits off her list of things to talk about. Afternoon sunlight was doing its best to get through the 1980s blinds, then the net curtain, then the real curtains, then the blanket Quintana had hung over the top. They rolled over and pulled the pillow over their head, but to no avail. They were awake now. The sun may as well do what it wanted. Waiting until Dad’s footsteps had exited the bathroom, and the kitchen door had been opened and then slammed, Quintana dragged themselves out from under the covers and readjusted their twisted tracksuit without looking. They were repulsed by the body in the bed; its hairiness, the cold-fish feel of the flesh around the hips, the saggy belly and flat chest that looked for all the world like their real body had melted in the sun. The horror of the genitals, lurking unwelcome Down There, where they preferred not to look. In the bathroom they brushed their teeth, studiously ignoring the mirror. They were aware of their smell, but the thought of showering was too difficult to stomach. Maybe if they won their game today, or if Jason’s cute avatar showed them his favour, or if the quest was ultimately successful, maybe then they would have the courage to deal with the gross, repulsive, stinking carcass that housed their brain. Or maybe they could ignore it. It only existed in this universe. There were others.
Quintana’s immediate quest was to get back to their room without interaction. They opened the bathroom door a crack and looked carefully to left and right. Down the hall, Mum was talking on the phone to someone but Dad’s whereabouts were unclear. A prickling, heart racing, sweating rash of anxiety broke out across the body, but Quintana had learned to manage that. They took a deep breath and strode across the hallway to the bedroom door, closing it behind them not a moment too soon; Mum had wandered, still talking, into the hall. They sat back down on the bed, panicky and out of breath. Food would be the next quest but not yet; it was three hours until dark and then three more before their parents went to bed and they would be free to roam about the house unimpeded. That meant there were six hours to get through before access to the kitchen. Quintana picked up a packet of chips from the floor and found some flat, luke-warm coke to wash them down with. Bodily functions having been dealt with, they turned on their computer and entered the real world.
From the other side of the planet, Quintana’s soul mate strode into the tavern. She was, in her corporeal life, a middle-aged woman who mothered and wifed by day and gamed by night. In the real world, though, Aerwyn was a fire-souled flame-haired warrior who fearlessly led her company of rag tag souls into adventure. She scanned the rough tavern for friend or foe. Quinn! Aerwyn strode over to the fireplace where Quinn was seated with graceful ease, her many weapons hanging lightly from her belt and shoulders. Her heart picked up pace. Quinn was the one she had been hoping for.
‘Quinn my friend, how are you?’
Quinn stood up in one fluid movement and turned to face Aerwyn, a gesture of recognition and delight.
‘I am well, Aerwyn. I have evaded my enemies for another day. Tell me, how do you fare?’
She considered for a moment. Truth was, her husband was exhausted and resentful, the house had developed a weird smell, and her children were little shits. She’d been late home from work every day so far that week and her Fitbit, bought to encourage exercise, had started taking a sarcastic tone with her.
‘Also well. Since we last met, I have overcome some challenges but there are still more to be overcome.’
‘Please, sit here with me a while. We can share tales and perhaps drink some ale.’
‘I would like that.’
They settled together in the rough stone alcove to the right of the fireplace. From there, they had a good view of the flames, and of anyone arriving, but it was cosy and relatively quiet. Quinn felt herself relax, despite the jittery sensation of coke in the body back home. She and Aerwyn rarely talked like this, but lately she had found herself craving her company; not only for adventure, but simply for sitting together.
‘Aerwyn, I feel you may have some disquiet. What concerns you?’
‘Ah, Quinn, you are right. We live across more than one life. Sometimes I feel weary because of it. Do you understand?’
Quintana’s body interjected again. It was hungry but there was another feeling in the stomach now; a sharp pang, followed by excitement, and a quick flash of luminescence somewhere lower down.
‘Do you ever feel …’
‘Just say it. I will understand.’
‘Do you ever feel how simple it would be to be Quinn all the time, only Quinn?’
Quintana sucked in a surprised breath. This was heresy. Hinting about life outside the game was a strict taboo in their group. To acknowledge the fabric of the universe was to risk tearing it. They started to write ‘But I am always Quinn’, then stopped. That tingling again; that reaching out like ET towards home.
‘Yes. I do feel that. Quinn is my truest self but not my only self. If I could lose some of the others I would.’
‘I wish I knew all of your selves.’
Quintana’s body glowed with hot shame. For a moment, they were back in the carcass; in the dark room with the litter on the floor; in their parents’ house where they were still sometimes called Oliver, their deadname; where Quintana was still struggling and mostly failing to emerge from the weight of a whole mistaken life. Where the body was scarred and painful from the times they had literally tried to cut their way out.
‘You would hate them like I do.’
‘Then I wish you knew all of my selves because I know that none of them would hate you.’
‘I wish I knew your other selves, also.’
They sat in wistful silence, then, while the tavern filled up and grew busy around them.
‘I would make food for you.’
‘I would touch you, if you would let me.’
‘I would meet and talk to all the people you are and I would make friends with them one by one.’
‘Not the disgusting unlovable ones.’
‘I would meet your family – do you have family?’
(A thrill of danger)
‘Yes. And I would meet yours.’
Quintana, feeling the impossibility of this statement, stretched their imagination a little further to accommodate it. How would their parents react if they had a friend arrive at the door? Mum would faint in surprise.
‘I would like that.’
Quinn and Aerwyn were sitting close together now, their heads almost touching. They had forgotten about the rest of the tavern, both enemies and friends, but they were in for a rude awakening. Kradoc entered with a loud shout, swinging his favoured weapon, the mace, in tight circles as he strode towards them.
‘Quinn! Aerwyn! What plot you here? Let us join together and make haste towards the lowlands for there I smell victory!’
They jumped up. Quinn’s weapons swung. Aerwyn struck a pose.
‘Hail Kradoc, we are ready. Let us chase the fight!’
And with that, they strode out together, looking neither to right nor left, towards whatever adventure the future had in store. They would never speak of this again.