|Illustration by Mark Satchwill|
Reality is a Crutch
By Katherine Tomlinson
Hugo was not happy with Mercador the Timeless. The wizard couldn’t seem to grasp the rules of the world; didn’t seem to care that science trumped magic in all but a few special cases. He kept interrupting the flow of the game by launching random blasts of magic at the non-playing characters, which was disrespectful and distracting.
But worse, he was annoying the regular park goers.
Hugo’s group met every weekend but they varied their venues so as not to wear out their welcome. This weekend they were at the parkon the corner of Laurel Canyon and Moorpark, staying to the eastern side, well away from the picnic benches and the people practicing their Tai Chi.
But Mercador couldn’t seem to keep inside the lines and was running around the park like a toddler on a sugar rush.
“This guy sucks,” Riff the Walker said, which told Hugo just how upset the other player was. Inside the game, Cyrus always stayed in character, down to the last exclamation of surprise. (“Oh ho” was his favorite, mostly because it was a verbal palindrome. Cyrus was a geek that way.)
“He came with recommendations,” Hugo said, thinking that the first thing he’d do when he got home was talk to Wynton of the House Dumbarton, who had vouched for the new guy when he first approached Hugo in school about joining his LARP.
Mercador’s real name was Preston and he was fond of telling people it was a fine old Southern name, as if they hadn’t noticed his accent, or as if—in a city of residents who were all born somewhere else—they’d actually care.
Wynton ran one of the most famous LARPS on the east coast, so it had surprised Hugo that Preston was such a freak.
Not that Hugo was a judgmental guy.
When you’re five foot six and weigh more than 200 pounds, you don’t have a lot of room to call other people names.
But Preston was attracting attention.
The wrong kind.
If he didn’t stop bothering the picnicking families, sooner or later someone was going to call the cops.
There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but it would be embarrassing. The last time it had happened the cop who’d responded had leered at Sofia, who was wearing one of her “priestess of the red moon” outfits and made everyone uncomfortable with his questions about what a hot girl like her was doing with a bunch of losers like them.
He’d sounded like Hugo’s mother.
She didn’t understand Hugo’s fascination with role-playing games and because she didn’t understand, she disapproved. He’d finally told her that he and Cyrus were making a web series they hoped to post on YouTube and that got her off his back. She didn’t mind him dressing up if there was some money in it somewhere.
Hugo’s father had understood. He’d shown Hugo pictures of himself as a boy in a homemade Superman costume, red knee socks pulled up over sneakers to make boots. He’d taken Hugo to San Diego for Comic-Con when he was 10 and Hugo had instantly known he’d found his tribe.
When his father died in a car accident three years later, Hugo’s mom had thrown out all his stuff—his comic books and his signed animation cells and his action figures—even his Star Wars stuff. She’d done it while Hugo was at school and when he came home, the place looked like it had been burglarized by a geeky thief.
She’d tried to explain to him that she couldn’t bear having his dad’s things around, that it just hurt too much, but he told her he didn’t believe her.
He’d said really mean things to her, accusing her of not loving his father and wanting to just erase him.
Later, when he had tried to take the mean words back, she’d rebuffed his efforts to apologize.
“You meant what you said Hugo,” she’d said. “And I heard you.”
She had not forgiven him, which didn’t seem fair to Hugo. Mothers are always supposed to forgive you.
She’d thrown herself into work and pretty much left Hugo alone after that. There was always money to order a pizza for dinner or a bucket of chicken.
Hugo preferred eating alone. On the rare occasions he shared the dinner table with his mother, she’d often look up from her laptop, stare at him for a moment and shake her head before returning to her work.
If he made the mistake of asking her what she was thinking, she’d answer him with a query of her own.
“When did you get so fat?”
Hugo understood it was a rhetorical question.
“Hugo?” Cyrus asked, “Did you hear what I said?”
Hugo turned to his best friend, alarmed that he’d used his real name instead of his character’s name. That meant he was really upset.
“What?” he asked.
“Rob and Pooh are here.”
Cyrus pointed to the sidewalk parallel to Moorpark. Hugo was near-sighted and didn’t wear his glasses when he played, but even from a distance he recognized Rob’s slight figure dwarfed by Pooh’s bulk, like a hobbit standing next to an Orc.
“Maybe they haven’t seen us,” Cyrus said hopefully but Hugo knew they had.
Rob saw everything. He was like the fucking Eye of Sauron.
“Game’s over,” Hugo said. “Get Sofia and Tyler and get out of here.”
Cyrus didn’t have to be told twice.
Spinks and Jeno had seen Rob and Pooh and were already heading in the other direction.
Not Preston though, Preston was headed right for the two boys, a manic grin on his face, his wand raised high.
Rob was smiling too and it wasn’t a nice smile.
Hugo thought about intercepting Preston. Part of him felt sorry for the kid. He’d only been living in North Hollywood since December and transferring to a new school in the middle of your junior year had to suck.
But part of him was annoyed with Preston too. Simple survival instinct should have told him to steer clear of Rob and Pooh, whose malevolence went beyond simple “mean boy” boundaries and into the realm of the sociopathic.
As Preston closed the distance between him and the other boys, Hugo headed for his car, grateful for the distraction he was providing.
He’d call Preston later, he told himself.
Maybe invite him over for pizza if his mother wasn’t home.
He’s got to learn sometime, he thought. Might as well be now.
On the way home Hugo stopped at the Baskin Robbins and grabbed a quart of praline pecan. As an afterthought he threw in another quart for Preston.