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Saturday, 18 December 2021 10:11

Brody and the Biggest Esports Team in Town by Emily Fluckiger

Brody and the Biggest Esports Team in Town by Emily FluckigerNo troll could stop me from making the team. Tryouts, shmyouts. Nobody outplayed me, not after all the hours I spent gaming. And if anybody dared to say different I would punch them right in their troll throat.

I pulled out my phone and leaned back in the squeaky plastic chair. Several of them lined the hall on both sides. Not a single seat went empty, not for Xhale tryouts.

I swiped through my emails to read and reread the requirements to qualify. No commitments on weekends, check. Grades at or above average, check. Gaming system to practice on, check. They didn’t specify whether that meant at home or the library. Everybody knows those who can’t practice at home never make the cut. It's unfair, but true. Its stupid, but I get it-

“Brody Sims!”

The echo of my name bounced down the hall until it seemed to knock the phone out of my hand. The phone felt like butter as I tried to prick it off the stained school floors.

“You’re up! Let’s go, you have one five minute PVP match that’s quickly turning into four.” The coach glanced at his watch.

I snatched the phone and stumbled forward. Elli smiled at me before I disappeared into the gaming library. Elli smiled at everyone, it didn’t mean anything.

The coach pointed to a monitor that was half the size of mine. My opponent offered a curt nod while he tore off a bite of beef jerky. I took a seat at the edge of the chair and readied my fingers on the keyboard and mouse. It felt warm and damp, still sweaty from the last nervous kid who wanted this as much as me.

“Hey,  what’s your IGN Sims?” the coach’s assistant asked.

 I stared at her blue hair. She wore it wrapped in two buns at the top of her head like Mickey Mouse ears that might fly off on a rollercoaster. The kind of ride that makes your neck hurt because the track jerks you left and right before you can brace for a change in motion.

“You awake in there?” She waved her hand. Too eager, I nodded until a crick popped behind my ear. A warm sensation spread down my neck like blood after the ride crashed.

“Um..”

“IGN?” she repeated with a pop of pink bubble gum. Right.

“Spawn.”

The girl scribbled it down on a tablet then pointed to my screen. I typed the name in but used the money symbol for the ‘s’ and ‘at’ for ‘a.’ My smile wiped clean when the coach appeared behind my chair and hovered like a helicopter.

“Let’s see what you got, Spawn.”

I nodded and clicked start. The screen flickered.

$p@wn fell into an apocalyptic wasteland where the trees looked like snakes and the ground could fall out any moment. Before $p@wn could react, purple orbs zipped toward him. He ducked but one sliced his shoulder. Red flashed. $p@wn scrambled to equip the gauntlet that would smash the enemy in one swing.

My pocket pick, I never lose with the gauntlet.

An enemy dropped from a nearby cliff. $p@wn needed to charge before they could turn. My fingers fumbled across the keys and I clicked ‘ready’ before forward motion. My character froze.

The coach clicked his tongue and the heat of his breath vanished. I didn’t dare to tear my eyes from the screen but I knew he’d stopped watching. My shoulders slumped.

The enemy reached toward the sky and a blast of purple lightning zapped at $p@wn’s feet. $p@wn dashed forward with gauntlet raised. The enemy’s small, female body dipped sideways then popped into the air to slash $p@wn with a melee weapon. $p@wn reacted faster by switching the gauntlet to the opposite arm and spinning backward. He managed to clip the side of her ribs as he dipped back the other way. The skinny body collapsed to a heap in the dust. Purple strips of fabric fluttered to the floor barely covering her breasts and butt.

Victory! I tossed the headset onto the desk and pumped my fist into the air. I swiveled the chair around to see the girl shrug. The coach was back at the door calling for the next gamer.

“Too slow,” she said. “He told ya it was only five minutes.”

***

I stabbed the plate so hard that spaghetti flew off and landed on Jamie’s lap. He shoved my shoulder then flicked the noodle back at me like a booger. I didn’t care. Throw all the noodles at me. Take the whole dang cafeteria and dump it on my stupid head.

“Earth to Idiot,” Jamie said. He poked me with his plastic fork. I frowned. “You look like you stepped in dog crap.”

“Wanna smell my foot and find out?”

The table closest to the door burst into applause. Jamie bumped into our table as he stood to crane his neck. I should call Xhale and give them a piece of my mind.

“Jamie,” I said as he plopped back down and folded two pieces of pizza together like a sandwich. “Isn’t there anything you want to do?”

“Sure,” he said between bites. “I wanna have some of my dad’s leftover cake and play Minecraft.” He spoke out of the side of his mouth while the other half chewed.

“Ugh.” I rolled my eyes. “That’s not what I meant. Like, don’t you have any dreams?”

“Last night I dreamed Elli was in my bed.”

I whacked him in the middle of his chest for that. He coughed and scowled at me. “Whoa whoa whoa I can’t control what happens when I sleep.”

“Dreams,  Jamie!” I shouted. “Like going on TV or making a million bucks or being the best Minecraft player that ever existed.”

“Minecraft doesn’t really work like that.” he shrugged. I palmed my face and mumbled to never mind. Maybe fourteen year-olds weren’t supposed to have dreams or goals outside of getting past another year of school.

“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered and poked the spaghetti, “Mom wouldn’t have let me do it anyway. Not after last year.”

A shadow loomed over me. I twisted my neck up to see the single greatest sight I’d ever seen in my fourteen years of life. Coach Yun stood behind me with an envelope.

I stared at him like an idiot who needed Jamie to bring him back to Earth.

“Brody Sims?” he asked.

I nodded with my mouth open.

“This is for you.” Coach Yun handed me the piece of paper. “We’re offering you a temp position on the backup bench.”

“Yeah?” I breathed.

“Understand that if you don’t show up to every practice from now until our first competitive game, you will be replaced,” he explained. It didn’t matter if he told me to lick a toilet to be on the team, I’d do it. “You are also expected to remain in good academic and attendance standing. Welcome to Xhale.”

With that, he disappeared to deliver one last envelope. The next thing I knew, Elli ran across the cafeteria waving a piece of paper. She almost knocked me over with a hug.

“We made it! I can’t believe I’m first seed!” she squealed. “Congratulations, Brody!” She hugged me again and I was sure I would pass out. I wasn’t ready to tell her that I only had a temp position. Still, I bet my face was as red as the tomato sauce stain on Jamie’s pants.

I unfolded the envelope and stared. Was it true? Xhale’s emblem; three lines of wind, appeared at the top. A list followed. It reviewed what Coach Yun said about academic stuff and attendance and something at the bottom about ‘parental or legal guardian support including but not limited to signing a waiver that allows the minor to travel with the team in the event Xhale qualifies for championship games’.

Uh oh.

***

The message popped up on the top left corner of my screen. The stupid monitor light shined as bright as the freaking sun.

Hey $p@wn, mic? Gotta use comms like it's a real practice.

But it wasn’t a real practice because Coach Yun never let me play anymore. I angled the monitor away from Mom’s door. She turned her light off hours ago but she’d kill me if she found me up on a school night. I clicked the button on my headset and whispered.

“Hey, man.” I didn’t know why I called him that. Tanner was younger than me by three months. “You got ranged down?”

“Ha!’ I laughed. Too loud. I peeked at mom’s door. Still closed. If this guy thinks I’m gonna be his backup then he’s got another thing coming.

“I got my hour in like Coach said.” I refused to answer. When my game loaded I planned to lock in my role, melee role.

“Stand to my left, I can dash sideways.” Tanner’s IGN ‘T-error’ popped up in front of my character.

I didn’t love the bossiness but Tanner stayed up past midnight to do runs with me so I pinged a thumbs up icon in game.

$p@awn shifted behind T-error and equipped a blaster. The enemy camp sieged their hideout leaving the four others on $p@awn’s team to invade the opposing base. A female barreler charged $p@awn- a guaranteed death if she aimed correctly. $p@awn loaded his blaster but not fast enough- not without practice. T-error’s massive body dashed in front and took the blow but he couldn’t block the shot coming from behind too. A floating woman launched a barrage of poison charms and $p@wn collapsed, dead and covered in blood. First blood.

“Balls!” I pounded the desk with my fist.

“No worries, dude. You can’t get better without a few hits first.”

I sank back into the computer chair, glad Tanner didn’t razz me.

“Brody?” A high-pitched voice muffled from outside the ear cuffs.

I spun the chair around to see Mom standing in her doorway. She wore her robe wrapped around her but it may as well have been a police uniform. I got caught.

“Are you watching… oh dear.” Mom stared at the floating woman on the screen with her thick thighs and boobs bigger than my character’s head.

“Mom it's not what you think is.”  I dropped the headset. Tanner’s voice echoed from the ear cuffs, ‘you AFK?’.

“Games Brody? Really?” She pointed the finger of doom but it wasn’t toward my computer. Mom tapped the screen on her wrist to flash the time. “You have classes that you can barely pass when you go to bed on time!”

“This is for school!”

She laughed.

“You’ve got to believe me. It’s important. A project. See?” I picked up the headset. “I’m talking to a junior who is in Spanish three.” I clicked the ‘change language’ option on the game and the chat popped up with a bunch of words I didn’t recognize.

Mom folded her arms. “And the pretty lady there, she’s helping you conjugate verbs?”

“Gross!”

“Conjugate means to change the form of a word.”

“I’ve got a big test tomorrow.” The last practice before our first game. “And I have to study.” Practice. “Or my teacher is going to be super disappointed.” Coach Yun is gonna kick me off.

“You’ve never cared what a teacher thought before…” Mom’s voice trailed off and she smiled. “That’s sweet. A pretty professor huh? Speaking in accents probably seems a little exciting.”

“Mom!” Wait...she’s buying it. “Let me cram?”

She sighed and checked her watch for the millionth time. “Okay.” Mom pointed the finger of doom again. “But if you look too tired after school tomorrow you aren’t going to Jamie’s house.”

Xhale’s first game!

“Thanks Mom.” I forced a smile and snatched the headset back up. Practice better be worth it.

***

It wasn’t. Worth it that is.

“You’ll enter the stage with your team then take your seats with me in the front of the auditorium.” Coach Yun made eye contact with each of us ‘benchers’. I sighed. I almost argued but Coach Yun knew what he was doing. How else did he get Xhale into championships every year? But this was only the first game of the season.

We lined up behind the first seeds and waited for the announcement from the other school’s MC. If the lights hadn’t been so bright I wouldn’t have tripped going up the stairs.

Thump! My knee crunched against the edge of the stage but I stumbled to my feet after a few stomps. My teammates didn’t so much as glance back. I held up my arm to shield from the stage lights blasting directly into my brain.

“Welcome Team Xhale!”

Tanner slapped his hand over mine and yanked my arm into the air. We all threw up our fists and fell into a fleeting bow.

I hurried after the benchers. We plopped into the front row opposite our opponents in the auditorium. I glanced around at the small but hearty crowd.

“Xhale! Xhale! Xhale!”

Watching Elli’s face when Xhale won was kind of worth it. And Tanner inviting me to sit with him at the pizza place after the game? Almost worth it.

After dinner the bus dropped Xhale outside the school. The team split their different directions. I whistled the game’s opening theme song during my walk home and right into the kitchen door.

The backpack dropped from my shoulder with a slam against the tile. Mom tapped her fingers on the round table, coffee mug in her other hand.

“The school called.” It was all she said. I gulped and stood like a stupid statue in between the fridge and the oven. One of which whirred a warning at me.

“They said your tuition is about to lapse because you haven’t been showing up for your volunteer hours.” Mom took an ominous sip of the steaming black drink. I shuffled to the table and slowly, gently sat in the chair across from her while holding a weird smile on my face.

“I forgot.” It wasn’t a lie. With the excitement of Xhale, I forgot all about the after-school contract. If only I didn’t steal tuition money from my school account last year to go all-in at a gaming tournament. Stupid stupid stupid!

“You forgot to assist the librarian like you have every single day after school for the past two months?” The bitter coffee smell almost made me barf.

I plopped my forehead on the table. “I’m sorry.” Mom didn’t need to see the tears in my eyes.

“I can’t afford to pay back that tuition and they’ll kick you out of the school.”

I launched back up so fast I got a headrush. “They can’t do that!”

Mom shrugged. “They said unless I can pay by Monday morning, you’re out.”

“No!” I jumped up. The kitchen chair fell backwards with a clang. “They just got a new gaming room and everything!” I paced around the small room, knocking my knuckles against the counter as I passed it.

“Ah.” She straightened up and set the mug down. “So that’s what this is about.”

“Mom, I’ll do anything. I’ll- I’ll… I’ll sell my computer!” I almost fainted as I heard the words leave my mouth. I could practice at school. No more volunteer hours to worry about and it would surely cover my tuition, especially if I could get a good price for my headset and keyboard too.

I saw mom surprised before when she walked into my room clean (Elli came over to see my comic collection), and when I passed my math midterm (Coach Yun said if our grades dropped we’d be dropped from the team), but I never saw her look like that before. Her mouth fell open but lips curled into a smile. “You’re going to what, now?”

“I have to. I can game at the school’s lounge.”

“You absolutely will not.” She went from smiling to grumpy in point two seconds- faster than private school’s high-speed internet. “Life isn’t a game, Brody. You have school to focus on. You need to make something of yourself. Go to college, get a good job.”

“Mom, gaming is a job now! Professionals travel and compete-”

She shook her head. “I’m proud of you. Sell the equipment. No more games.” She stood and cupped my cheeks in her hands. Coffee breath caused me to cough. “Get your head on straight and you will be the first in our family with a real education.” Mom pulled me into a warm hug but I just stared at the empty cup on the table in the too-bright kitchen.

It wasn’t worth it. Practice. School. Nothing was worth it anymore unless I could go after that stupid dream.

“Love you Mom.” I squeezed her back quickly and grabbed my backpack.

“Where are you going? It’s late!”

“Don’t worry about me! I’ll sell it all and I’ll do it anyway. You’ll see!” I flew out the kitchen door hoping to find Coach Yun still on campus. He’d know exactly where to sell the equipment. Of course he didn’t need to know it was mine.

“Do what?” Mom’s voice echoed as the door swung shut.

***

For the first time in two months I ate lunch in the cafeteria. I didn’t miss the smell of beef and cheese. Jamie babbled in my ear while I picked at cold casserole and watched Elli laugh two tables over.

“Wanna kick around in the back lot after fourth period?” Jamie asked with a mouth full of burger. “You can see Miss Bailey’s window from there and sometimes she does yoga in between grading papers. It’s hot.” He snickered.

“Can’t,” I said. “I’ve got to practice before regionals.”

“You’re literally always playing. Like, you’re so pale now it hurts to look at you without sunglasses,” Jamie said with a smirk. I would have punched him if Elli wasn’t watching. I picked out a black olive from the unidentifiable casserole and popped it in my mouth. When Elli glanced over again she caught me being a weirdo, so I had to smile or something. She waved me over.

“Someday you’ll care about something more than creeping on your teachers.” I stood and stepped over the bench. Jamie stared up at me with one bite of burger left in his hand and a garbled mess in his open mouth. It didn’t faze him for long.

“Speaking of creepers, Minecraft was dope last night-”

I didn’t catch the rest as the buzz of two hundred freshman gossiping and other crap drowned him out. What did she want? Run some skirmishes together after school? Maybe after we could grab some ice cream across the street and I’d walk her home. My stomach gurgled practically louder than the cafeteria itself. Shut up! I willed it not to embarrass me. It groaned back angry that I skipped another lunch. Should be used to it by now. I never had time for cafeteria food since I crammed practice when I wasn’t doing homework or homework that I didn’t finish because I was practicing.

Elli patted the open space next to her on the bench. I shoved my hands in my pocket and took a seat. If only I’d showered this morning, or yesterday, or...crap. Elli reached her arm up and looped her elbow around my neck.

“I’m really sorry, Brody.” Her lips poofed out in a pout and dark eyes looked round as a puppy.

“Yeah, me too…” I liked that her strawberry scented hair almost blocked out the beef and cheese. “Wait what?”

“Don’t feel bad.”

“Feel bad?” I straightened up but regretted it the moment she pulled away to take a drink of soda. “I don’t feel bad.”

“Good! That’s the spirit!” She popped me on the back with her palm. “Plus, you’ll get to skip the first round of Xhale tryouts next year.”

I forgot about the smell of her brown curls and whatever else happened around us. Coach Yun threatened cuts last week. But that’s all they were- right?

“I’m really going to miss you at practices.” Elli let out a dramatic sigh.

No! I jumped up and stumbled out from between the bench and table.

“Brody?” Elli cocked her head. I didn’t stop to see the way she always scrunches up her nose when she’s confused. I shoved past too-full backpacks, pushed out the main hall, ignored the lazy seniors in the court, and burst into the door between the library and the lounge. There it hung, blowing around like a leaf about to give up on life.

The paper listed three names. I didn’t see anything other than Brody Sims and the instructions following the dash at the bottom of the page. See Coach Yun in office before Xhale’s practice today.

Everyone knew what this meant. Except me, apparently.

“Spawn!” the coach’s voice shouted behind me. “Here for your mid-season review?”

I swallowed before turning to face him. Coach Yun flicked his head toward his office and offered an apologetic smile. I didn’t need the review. I already knew.

“Give me another chance.” I begged. Coach Yun relaxed in his swiveling chair but I didn’t bother to sit. Pictures of past championships and other Esports games surrounded us on the office walls.

I scrutinized the people cheering in pictures. I hated them and couldn’t stop looking at them and wanted to be them all at the same time. The coach clicked around on his computer screen for a few moments before folding his hands on the desk and facing me.

“Look, Sims. You show potential but I can’t justify keeping you on the team when both your scholarly pursuits and gaming skills are slipping.”

“I practice extra every day!”

“And skipping homework I hear,” he finished for me. “You’re burning out. Kids your age have a lot on their plate.”

My stomach gargled again.

“You need rest too,” Coach Yun continued. “With Playoffs, the demands will only get worse.”

“I can do it!”

“That equipment you sold a couple months back- that was yours wasn’t it?”

I frowned. “Yes, but gaming from home isn’t a requirement- Tanner said he didn’t for his first year-”

“Newer players need a lot of practice. I don’t think you’re getting enough of it travelling between the school lounge and the gaming center in town.”

I folded my arms and took a seat. “How’d you know I go there?”

“I didn’t but where else would you be practicing when the school lounge closes at 5 and Tanner says you run skirmishes later than him every night?”

Normally, I’d want to punch Tanner and Coach Yun, and the librarian for that godawful smell she tainted the whole building with. I didn’t have the energy for it anymore. Especially while sitting in the cushy chairs in a quiet, warm office…

“Sims.” Coach snapped me out of it before I let my heavy eyes win. Win. Work harder. I could do it. “Here’s the deal. If you pull up your C’s to B’s and reduce your reaction time in game I’ll let you do a late-season tryout.”

“Heck yeah!” It might be dumb but I felt like cheering the way the players in all the pictures were.

“But!” He held up his finger. “This has to happen before Playoffs. You only have three weeks. You’re lucky midterms have such a weight on grades.”

“Sure, sure.” My resolve drained. Midterms? I couldn’t even pass my open-book history quizzes.

“In the meantime,” he said, “we won’t need you at Xhale’s practices.”

“Right.” I nodded and sniffed.

Coach Yun wasn’t going to see me cry either. Except I didn’t. I just didn’t have the energy.

***

I swore it was years ago, the night of the first Xhale game. Mom sat at the kitchen table, World’s Best Mom mug out and robe on again. I walked in with a backpack so heavy it should be illegal. The green light on the stove’s digital clock read 12:01am. Way past curfew.

“Where were you?” Steam clouded the glasses she wore only at our house. I pulled a chair out and plopped down.

“I was practicing at the gaming center. I’m trying to get back on the school’s Esports team.” I didn’t lie. In between studying the Cold War and practicing my melee block time, I decided high schoolers were allowed to dream- and not just when they’re sleeping in. “I’m sorry.”

Mom sat up and slid a piece of paper across the table. A splash of her drink spilled on the table- green tea this time. I glanced at the folded paper then back at her.

“You passed your midterms,” she said while trying to suppress a smile. I flipped the paper open to see a row of B’s on the mid-semester report. It could have been a million bucks. “Thank you for telling me the truth. About where you were tonight. Tell me about this game team.”

“It’s called Esports.” I fiddled with the paper, folding it into the world’s worst origami boat.

Mom smiled in a way she’d dub ‘mischievous’. She slid the cup of fragrant tea to me and vanished out the kitchen door. I pulled out the bag of leaves and sniffed.

Mom appeared with another piece of paper. She traded the paper for the mug. “That’s the password to my work computer.”

I blinked at her. What was I supposed to do with that? Fix her Linkedin security questions again?

“Go practice,” she said. “It’ll be awhile until I finish my tea.” Mom winked which I normally hated. I threw my arms around her neck and squeezed the plush out of her robe.

“Only for this semester.” She pulled away. “Life is not a game, Brody.”

Before I could bound out of the kitchen, my backpack buzzed. I skirted around mom’s chair and scooped the cell phone hanging from a side pocket. The screen flashed with Elli’s name.

“Hello?”

“Brody!” She squeaked even happier than usual. “One of our tank players is banned for punching a classmate. We’re down a bencher. Coach Yun wants you for playoffs practice tomorrow!”

“He does?” I asked and silently swore on gaming that I’d never even think about punching someone again.

“Sorry for calling so late. I figured you’d want to know.”

“I’m back on Xhale?” I didn’t believe it. Not at first.

“Yes! Tanner pushed for you. He told Coach Yun you’ve been getting faster block times.”

“He did?” Dang Brody, stop repeating questions like a dummy.

“You’ll still be on the bench unless we need you but you’re back! Spawn’s back!”

I smiled and chose not to care that I sounded like a parrot. “Spawn’s back…”

***

Mom’s words didn’t match her driving. She zoomed down the highway at faster speeds than moms were allowed. I watched for hiding cops and gripped the door handle, white knuckles and all.

“I don’t like this. I don’t like this one bit.”

“I know.” I leaned forward and poked my head between the two front seats. Mom claimed I was still too young for front-seat-riding. It used to bother me. “I’m really sorry.”

“I mean,” she flicked the blinker on and switched across lanes. “Forging my signature on a permission slip? What are you now? A liar?”

Actually I wasn’t. Not anymore.

“It was months ago. I forgot about it. You’ve been supportive of gaming lately so I didn’t even think about it when championships came around.”

“I’m supportive of goals you set, whether they’re game related or not. I like to see you put your mind to something. But travelling out of state for video games? This is too much.” But she said it while turning off the highway and toward the arena. Mom sighed and shook her head. At the red light she glanced back, disappointment streaking her face and something else I couldn’t quite identify. “I’m glad you missed the bus. You don’t deserve to ride with your teammates when you’re a forger!”

I leaned back and rubbed my eyes. I had never been a morning person but a three-thirty bus call would kill anybody.

“At least I admitted it,” I said then switched volume and muttered. “I didn’t have to.”

“That’s true.” She nodded and took a right turn across an empty intersection in the dark morning. “But you’re still going to get a punishment. After this tournament thing, you’ll be grounded for the whole holiday break! And- and something else I can think of.”

The arena building rose into a massive auditorium as we drove closer. Cars already packed the parking lot for early practices.

“You focus, Brody. You do your best and focus because this is the last time you’re going to be on a video game team.”

I shoved the door open before mom finished pulling into the parking spot. Suddenly awake, I hopped from the car. An arena that size could hold a thousand maybe two or even three! Large banners with every team’s symbol hung from the roof. They whipped around in the wind but I could see Xhale’s iconic puff of air swirling into the shape of an X on the far right banner. Pride swelled and I forgot all about early morning nausea and punishments.

I was here.

The rest of the day was packed with practice, coaches lectures, healthy meals, and even a team jog around the parking lot to keep us in tip top physical shape.

That was when we got the news. Tanner made it three steps into the jog before practically fainting. The assistant insisted he was burning up. I recognized that glassy look in his eyes mom got when the flu came around last year.

And just like that Coach Yun took me off the bench. I didn’t like the weird feeling in my stomach. Tanner almost passed out but I nearly puked during the jog.

It’s just nerves. And something else. Guilt? Tanner would graduate this year. He’d never play for Xhale again. I shook off the stress, the jitters, the stupid butterflies in my stupid stomach and finished the jog.

We spent the first whole day in practice before the halls started buzzing with conversation and about a million footsteps. Coach Yun barked at us to shut off the training room computers and line up. Elli flashed me a smile and all that earlier junk melted away. In about one point three seconds we’d be entering the arena as Esports qualified champions.

Or something like that.

I peeked down the hall that led to the center. Like lasers, lights flashed around and two announcers paced across the stage as they introduced our opponents. Players in orange windbreakers marched past us like they owned the place and right into the arena. A shadowy figure with large wings was stitched on the back of their jackets with a fancy W and F underneath.

 WarFae. Psh. Who wants to look like a bunch of fairies?

An announcer listed WarFae’s three years of championship titles. I guess being the fairy team was kind of cool…

Elli stepped on my foot to stop it from tapping. She swept her hands up in front of her and took a loud breath. I copied with a big inhale and nodded. Exhale together, as a team.

I just got calm when she poked at my shoulder. I shot her a glare but she pointed down the hall and out in the front row of seats. Coach Yun filed in with the other backup players, the assistant coach, and...Tanner? Elli started to say something but I didn’t catch it over the applause.

Did they call us?

I shook my hands trying to dry the sweat. Elli prodded me forward. I stumbled out and shuffled toward the center of the arena where twelve computers were set up back-to-back. She grabbed my hand and I realized I was still shaking them like jazz fingers or something.

I tried to smile back at her but Tanner’s thumbs up caught my eye.

He was sick. A two hundred degree fever or whatever. But he looked fine, better than fine actually which made zero sense since this was his last championship game, ever- or until college, I guess.

I took my seat- Tanner’s seat, between Aya and Mateo. The announcer instructed us to login and finalize our in-game settings. The arrow hovered over ‘IGN Login’. I leaned forward to spy Elli at the other end but she stared at her monitor, focused and ready like a true first seed.

One click. Come on! This is perfect. All those hours Tanner spent helping me with ranged so I could fill any role.

I couldn’t do it. I shoved back from the desk, tossed the headset down, and walked across the arena. An announcer paused his instructions to watch me.

Coach Yun’s caterpillar eyebrows crawled into a point. I stopped by Tanner and folded my arms waiting for him to get out of my damn chair. He suppressed a grin and stood to bump my fist. The coach nodded his approval and Tanner took off.

Coach Yun held out his hand. I took it, clammy and all. He shook vigorously, patted my back, and said something about Tanner’s twenty-four hour flu.

Mom sat several rows back with her hands clapped over her mouth. I could see her misty tears from all the way down there. I rolled my eyes and plopped into the viewer’s seat. After spying Elli’s pick, I glanced back to check on Mom. She had her palm on her chest while smile-frowning with pride. I swore I would puke.

Instead, I smiled and waved.

***

Mom kissed my forehead, Elli blew me a kiss. I think even Tanner kissed my cheek. At that point I expected a kiss from Coach Yun too. But with all our hands on the trophy and we were too busy smiling for the official team winning photography.

I welcomed the break from mom’s smothering and sniffling and all that other emotional junk. But the second we let go of the trophy she barreled in for another hug.

“I am so proud of you!”

“Yeah you said that, probably five hundred times already.” I shoved my hands in the pockets of my team zip-up.

“Your coach says players go professional. Did you know you could do this as a career?”

“Mom, I told you that.” People shoved in all around us. Parents brought players flowers. Cameras flashed every which way. I didn’t want to forget a single second of this moment but Mom didn’t give up easily. I guess that’s where I got that from…

“You could go pro!” Mom hardly believed her own words. It all felt like one of those weird paintings we learned about in art history where clocks melt and reality is upside down. Except this was in a good way.

“What did you say?” I cupped my ear, convinced I didn’t hear her right over all the cheering and chatting and back-slapping hugs.

“Gaming can make a living!” Mom’s eyes got big, bigger than mine at the shock of her complete one-eighty.

“I guess you’re going to be practicing twenty-four-seven,” Elli appeared beside me. “They don’t give those scholarships to just anyone, you know.” She nudged me with her elbow before linking her arm through mine. “Come on, we can start with a one-on-one.”

I caught sight of my bright red cheeks in the reflection of the shining trophy. I forgot all about being the best, or ranged, or whatever. It was dumb but if Tanner rec’d me for first off the bench to cover him... Besides, I’d have my chance to beat that troll Warfae team next year. but Tanner would be gone. I unlinked arms with Elli.

“Give me second,” What are you doing Brody? She wants to be alone with you!

“I have to go thank Tanner.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Congenital Heart Defect survivor, Emily Fluke, finds joy and peace through the expression of writing. She is a strong believer that all stories need a little magic and a lot of excitement. Emily and her husband spend their free time wrangling two children and playing video games in their busy California lifestyle. Otherwise you’ll find Emily solving an escape room, running, or writing Magic the Gathering based poetry. Follow her on Tiktok at emilyflukemysteries or on her author website at emilyfluke.com for updates on her new releases.

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