by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, June 2023
Orange Sherbet logged into the Mythical Proportions VR Cafe as soon as her teacher closed the 2nd grade classroom Zoom for the day. She’d already finished her homework for the evening, and the rest of the week for that matter. The assignments were all way too easy for her, almost insultingly easy, so she’d been working ahead. And she was far enough ahead that the whole rest of the day was hers. Neither of her parents would bug her about wasting her time in the digital world, because they’d just assume she was doing homework, as long as she didn’t do anything to give herself away. VR goggles were helpful that way — they kept nosy parents from peeking over her shoulder to look at her screen.
Orange Sherbet’s avatar was a bright orange gorilla, as usual. Her name — her chosen name — floated above her bulky, boxy VR figure. IRL she was just a kid with a boring, normal name. In the Mythical Proportions Cafe, she was the roughest, toughest bruiser around with the cutest name to boot. No one could touch her, and when they tried, she won loot bundles.
“Any challengers?” Orange Sherbet asked the NPC host behind the cafe’s front counter. Her voice was hopeful. She wanted a good knockout, drag down, bloody knuckles fight. The tougher the fight, the better the chance the loot bundle reward would have rare stuff in it.
Unfortunately, the NPC host — a zebra with big, beautiful angel wings, or maybe swan wings — shook its head.
No challengers meant no loot bundles.
“No problem,” Orange Sherbet replied nonchalantly. “I’m sure some will show up.” It usually took a while for other kids to start logging on. She didn’t know why they didn’t just log from their digital classrooms straight into the digital cafe like her. What were they doing? Wasting time out in the real world? Ugh. Though, she supposed, her best friend — a panda named Rocky Road — had a decent excuse, as his family had just gotten a new puppy.
Maybe hanging out in the real world wouldn’t seem so pointless if you were playing with a puppy. It still seemed weird to her though how nothing you did IRL came with numbers streaming past you, telling you how many points you’d racked up. How could you tell if you were playing with a puppy right if its happiness bar didn’t increase?
Anyway, Orange Sherbet settled her bulky neon gorilla self at one of the virtual tables and started playing a mini game to pass the time. In the mini game, whales fell from the sky and smashed flower pots if Orange Sherbet didn’t rearrange them fast enough. It was pretty fun. It would’ve been more fun if Rocky Road were playing with her. Mini games always gave better rewards when you played in groups, but Orange Sherbet didn’t like playing with anyone who couldn’t keep up with her. And so far, no one but Rocky Road had ever been able to keep up with her.
Where was that stupid panda anyway?
Finally a message pinged Orange Sherbet inside her mini game — a challenger had arrived! She closed down the mini game, not caring that a blue whale was about to smash a whole row of potted gardenias that she’d been carefully arranging into the words “HURRY UP ROCKY ROAD” into absolute smithereens.
Once the mini game no longer filled her vision, Orange Sherbet scanned the Mythical Proportions Cafe. The winged zebra host was still standing behind the front counter, tail twitching and ears flicking in their standard pattern to make it look more lifelike. And Rocky Road had finally shown up! But Orange Sherbet didn’t see a challenger…
Then slowly it dawned on her.
“Wait…” Orange Sherbet said to Rocky Road. “What are you doing? Are you challenging me? I thought we were a team!”
Rocky Road rolled his boxy shoulders. And then stood there, as dumb and unresponsive as any NPC.
“What’s the matter?” Orange Sherbet asked, torn between being worried and being annoyed. “Do I not share enough loot with you? Are you mad at how the mini game with the goats and tow trucks went down?” Orange Sherbet had maybe gotten a little carried away with how fun the tow trucks were to operate and kept driving over the goats Rocky Road had been trying to corral. It hadn’t been a good way to get points, but it had sure been fun. Rocky Road would’ve understood that if he’d just stopped messing about with the goats and switched to a tow truck avatar for the game too.
After an uncomfortably long period of time — like, whole seconds — Rocky Road said in an adult’s voice, “Eric is at his mom’s house today, but he really wanted me to log in and tell you why he wasn’t here.”
“Uh… okay…” Orange Sherbet said. Suddenly, she didn’t feel like the biggest, toughest, most neon gorilla around. She just felt like a kid who wished her best friend were there to play with her. “Do you know if he’ll be able to play tomorrow?” There was going to be a tournament with bonus rewards tomorrow — including a really cool mushroom-person skin with a spotted toadstool helmet — and Orange Sherbet really didn’t want Rocky Road to miss it.
It was weird having Rocky Road’s dad’s voice coming out of the familiar panda avatar. It looked like her friend was here, but he wasn’t. Just a digital shadow of him. Kind of like when Rocky Road’s internet cut out, and his avatar froze… except eerier.
After another weirdly long delay — adults are so bad at video games — the panda avatar said, “Can I get contact info for one of your adults? Like an email address or a phone number or something?”
“Uh… okay…” Orange Sherbet didn’t want her parents to know that she wasn’t working on schoolwork behind her VR goggles, but she also didn’t think it was a good idea to refuse. Besides, sometimes when her parents were in touch with her friends’ parents, good things happened. She got invited to birthday parties or meetups at parks. Running around a park IRL was okay if one of her Mythical Proportions Cafe friends was there. They could pretend they were in the cafe and do pretend versions of challenges where they got even better loot than they’d ever really win inside the game.
Reluctantly, Orange Sherbet pulled off her VR goggles and set off to find one of her parents. She found her dad playing one of those really old video games he liked with long complicated storylines on the big TV in the living room. She tried to explain the situation to him in really simple terms, but his face scrunched up like he thought she was talking gibberish. So, Orange Sherbet gave up and just held her VR goggles out to him. His mouth skewed quizzically, but he put them on.
Then ensued the longest, most boring conversation of Orange Sherbet’s life. She listened to her dad’s side of the conversation about texting and emailing and what it was like having a kid who’s so addicted to video games while impatiently waiting to find out if he would give her VR goggles back afterward and let her play some matches today — like she’d earned, by getting her homework done early — or if he’d make her do something “wholesome” and “more worthwhile than video games.” Ugh.
Orange Sherbet’s heart leapt when her dad pulled off the goggles and casually handed them back to her, like it hadn’t even occurred to him to force her to go play outside. Then he said something surprising; something that actually caught her interest.
“Raymond invited you to come play with Eric and his new puppy this weekend. The weather’s nice enough that we could meet up at a park, so you wouldn’t have to wear a mask or ask them to take covid tests first.”
“Wait…” Orange Sherbet said. “Who’s Raymond?”
After a moment of thought, Orange Sherbet added in a tone of exasperation, “Eric? Is Rocky Road’s name Eric? That’s so weird.”
Orange Sherbet knew that adults could do a better job of naming things than this. She’d seen the names her parents gave to their video game characters — stuff like AngelDestroyer99, Infin8teDeathMachine, and SurfingCow70; stuff that was way cooler than something like Sarah or Eric. So why didn’t they save a little of that creativity for naming an actual person?
“So do you want to go?” her dad asked, sounding impatient.
“Of course!” Orange Sherbet replied.
Then she ran off as fast as she could to get out of her dad’s line of sight. He’d seemed very absorbed in his own video game when she came in, so he probably wouldn’t make her go on a walk or work on cleaning her room or something, as long as she could get away quick enough.
Safely back in her own room, Orange Sherbet put her VR goggles back on. Her neon orange gorilla avatar was still in the cafe, but Rocky Road’s avatar had already logged out. Or been kicked for inactivity. Either way, she apparently wouldn’t be teaming up with her friend today.
But… in just a few more days, she’d get to meet him and the puppy he kept talking about for real. That would be cool. Looking forward to it made the solo-mini games she played that afternoon feel a little less important, the wins and losses a little less essential, and she didn’t mind so much when her dad came and told her it was time to put the goggles away and eat dinner. She was too busy planning out the games she wanted to play with Rocky Road and his puppy at the playground to really concentrate on the Mythical Proportions Cafe anyway.
To start, she thought they could probably pretend the puppy was a goat, but this time, she wouldn’t keep running it over with tow trucks.