This scene is dedicated to Hudson Booksellers, the booksellers that are in practically every airport in the USA. Most of the Hudson stands have just a few titles (though those are often surprisingly diverse), but the big ones, like the one in the AA terminal at Chicago's O'Hare, are as good as any neighborhood store. It takes something special to bring a personal touch to an airport, and Hudson's has saved my mind on more than one long Chicago layover.
Wei-Dong couldn't get Lu off his mind. A barbarian stabbed a pumpkin and he decided that the sword would be stuck for three seconds and then play a standard squashing sound from his soundboard. He couldn't get Lu off his mind. A pickpocket tried to steal a phoenix's tailfeather, and he made the phoenix turn around and curse the player out, spitting flames, shouting at him in Mandarin, his voice filtered through a gobble-phaser so that it sounded birdy. He couldn't get Lu off his mind. A zombie horde-leader tried to batter his way into a barricaded mini-mall, attempting to go through a "Going out of business" signboard that was only a texture mapped onto an exterior surface that had no interior. Wei-Dong liked the guy's ingenuity, so he decided that it would take 3,000 zombie-minutes to break it down, and when it fell, it would map to the interior of the sporting-goods store where there were some nice clubs, crossbows and machetes.
And he couldn't get Lu off his mind.
He'd always liked Lu. Of all the guys, Lu was the one who really got into the games. He didn't just love the money, or the friendship: he loved to play. He loved to solve puzzles, to take down the big bosses on a huge raid, to unlock new lands and achievements for his avs. Sometimes, as Wei-Dong worked his long shifts making tiny decisions for the game, he thought about how much better it would be to play, thanks to the work he was doing, and imagined the Lu would approve of the artistry. It was nice to be on the other side of the game, making the fun instead of just consuming it. The job was long, it was hard, it didn't pay well, but he was part of the show.
But this wasn't a show anymore.
His phone started vibrating in his pocket. He took it out, looked at the face, put it on his desk. It was his mom. He'd relented and given her his new number once he turned 18, justifying it to himself on the ground that he was an adult now and she couldn't have him tracked down and dragged back. But really, it was because he couldn't face spending his 18th birthday alone. But he didn't want to talk to her now. He bumped her to voicemail.
She called back. The phone buzzed. He bumped it to voicemail. A second later, the phone buzzed again. He reached to turn it off and then he stopped and answered it.
"Leonard," she said. "It's your father."
She took a deep breath, let it out. "A heart attack. A big one. They took him to --" She stopped, took in a deep breath. "They took him to the Hoag Center. He's in the ICU. They say it's the best --" Another breath. "It's supposed to be the best."
Wei-Dong's stomach dropped away from him, sinking to a spot somewhere beneath his chair. His head felt like it might fly away. "When?"
"Yesterday," she said.
He didn't say anything. Yesterday? He wanted to shriek it. His father had been in the hospital since yesterday and no one had told him?
"Oh, Leonard," she said. "I didn't know what to do. You haven't spoken to him since you left. And --"
"I'll come and see him," he said. "I can get a taxi. It'll take about an hour, I guess."
"Visiting hours are over," she said. "I've been with him all day. He isn't conscious very much. I... They don't let you use your phone there. Not in the ICU."
For months, Wei-Dong had been living as an adult, living a life he would have described as ideal, before the phone rang. He knew interesting people, went to exciting places. He played games all day, for a living. He knew the secrets of gamespace.
Now he understood that a feeling of intense loneliness had been lurking beneath his satisfaction all along, a bubbling pit of despair that stank of failure and misery. Wei-Dong loved his parents. He wanted their approval. He trusted their judgment. That was why he'd been so freaked out when he discovered that they'd been plotting to send him away. If he hadn't cared about them, none of it would have mattered. Somewhere in his mind, he'd had a cut-scene for his reunion with his parents, inviting them to a fancy, urban restaurant, maybe one of those raw food places in Echo Park that he read about all the time in Metroblogs. They'd have a cultured, sophisticated conversation about the many amazing things he'd learned on his own, and his father would have to scrape his jaw off his plate to keep up his end of the conversation. Afterwards, he'd get on his slick Tata scooter, all tricked out with about a thousand coats of lacquer over thin bamboo strips, and cruise away while his parents looked at each other, marvelling at the amazing son they'd spawned.
It was stupid, he knew it. But the point was, he'd always treated this time as a holiday, a little interlude in his family life. His vision quest, when he went off to become a man. A real Bar-Mitzvah, one that meant something.
The thought that he might never see his father again, never make up with him -- it hit him like a a blow, like he'd swung a hammer at a nail and smashed his hand instead.
"Mom --" His voice came out in a croak. He cleared his throat. "Mom, I'm going to come down tomorrow and see you both. I'll get a taxi."
"OK, Leonard. I think your father would like to see you."
He wanted her to say something about how selfish he'd been to leave them behind, what a bad son he'd been. He wanted her to say something unfair so that he could be angry instead of feeling this terrible, awful guilt.
But she said, "I love you, Leonard. I can't wait to see you. I've missed you."
And so he went to bed with a million self-hating thoughts chanting in unison in his mind, and he lay there in his bed in the flophouse hotel for hours, listening to the thoughts and the shouting bums and clubgoers and the people having sex in other rooms and the music floating up from car windows, for hours and hours, and he'd barely fallen asleep when his alarm woke him up. He showered and scraped off his little butt-fluff mustache with a disposable razor and ate a peanut butter sandwich and made himself a quadruple espresso using the nitrous-powered hand-press he'd bought with his first paycheck and called a cab and brushed his teeth while he waited for it.
The cabbie was Chinese, and Wei-Dong asked him, in his best Mandarin, to take him down to Orange County, to his parents' place. The man was clearly amused by the young white boy who spoke Chinese, and they talked a little about the weather and the traffic and then Wei-Dong slept, dozing with his rolled-up jacket for a pillow, sleeping through the caffeine jitter of the quad-shot as the early morning LA traffic crawled down the 5.
And he paid the cabbie nearly a day's wages and took his keys out of his jacket pocket and walked up the walk to his house and let himself in and his mother was sitting at the kitchen table in her housecoat, eyes red and puffy, just staring into space.
He stood in the doorway and looked at her and she looked back at him, then stood uncertainly and crossed to him and gave him a hug that was tight and trembling and there was wetness on his neck where her tears streaked it.
"He went," she breathed into his ear. "This morning, about 3 AM. Another heart attack. Very fast. They said it was practically instant." She cried some more.
And Wei-Dong knew that he would be moving home again.
The hospital discharged Big Sister Nor and The Mighty Krang and Justbob two days early, just to be rid of them. For one thing, they wouldn't stay in their rooms -- instead, they kept sneaking down to the hospital's cafeteria where they'd commandeer three or four tables, laboriously pushing them together, moving on crutches and wheelchairs, then spreading out computers, phones, notepads, macrame projects, tiny lead miniatures that The Mighty Krang was always painting with fine camel-hair brushes, cards, flowers, chocolates and shortbread sent by Webbly supporters.
To top it off, Big Sister Nor had discovered that three of the women on her ward were Filipina maids who'd been beaten by their employers, and was holding consciousness-raising meetings where she taught them how to write official letters of complaint to the Ministry of Manpower. The nurses loved them -- they'd voted in a union the year before -- and the hospital administration hated them with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns.
So less than two weeks after being beaten within an inch of their lives, Big Sister Nor, The Mighty Krang, and Justbob stepped, blinking, into the choking heat of mid-day in Singapore, wrapped in bandages, splints and casts. Their bodies were broken, but their spirits were high. The beating had been, well, liberating. After years of living in fear of being jumped and kicked half-to-death by goons working for the bosses, they'd been through it and survived. They'd thrived. Their fear had been burned out.
As they looked at one another, hair sticky and faces flushed from the steaming heat, they began to smile. Then to giggle. Then to laugh, as loud and as deep as their injuries would allow.
Justbob swept her hair away from the eyepatch that covered the ruin of her left eye, scratched under the cast on her arm, and said, "They should have killed us."