I needed a piece of short transitional fiction to cleanse my palette from AFK stuff. So I wrote a new story for The Avatar Dining Club. Enjoy!
As predicted, the sixth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club spent a not inconsiderable amount of time attending to the matter of the virtual world divorce of club member Rainy September from her only very recently acquired metaverse husband. Rainy took it upon herself to announce this new and entirely unsurprising turn of events just as the waiter, Enrico, had finished putting our food in front of us. “Listen, everyone; I’ve got something to say,” she said, waiting until the young builder to my left, Raw Concrete, had put down with great reluctance the slice of pizza that had come so tantalisingly close to his open mouth. “I’ve split up with Rocker.” She held out her hands palm-outwards in a halting manner as a chorus of concern broke out from club founder Edward, fashion blogger Mary-Anne Middlemarch, nightclub owner and skin designer Indigo Williams, and photographer Jennifer Bit. “I’m okay. I’m okay,” she reassured us. “It was nearly three weeks ago now and I’m over it. I just wanted you to know.”
“What happened?” Indigo was the first to get the question in, taking a long sip of white wine after she’d posed it that seemed to suggest she was settling in for a lengthy conversation. I took that as my cue to plunge my fork into my carbonara and Raw took that as his cue to resume his attack on his pizza.
“Oh, it’s funny now I can look back on it,” Rainy said, pleased with this permission to tell her tale. “The idiot fatal crossposted me. Much as it hurt me at the time, it still makes me laugh to think how his world must have ended when he realised what he’d done.”
“What’s a ‘fatal crosspost’?” Jennifer asked.
“I know that one!” Raw blurted, a small piece of chicken erupting from his mouth in Indigo’s direction (the look on her face could have been no more horrified had she been shot). “It’s when you accidentally type something into the wrong person’s box.” He turned to me and I flinched involuntarily, fearing more ballistic pieces of pizza topping. “Didn’t you invent that term, Leonard?”
“I did not,” I replied tightly. “You’re thinking of Hax.”
“Not just typing any old thing into the wrong person’s box.” Rainy snatched back her conch. “A fatal crosspost is typing the worst thing you could possibly type into the wrong person’s box. In this case – and I quote – ‘Baby let me just get rid of Rainy and I’ll be over to kiss your shoulders’.”
Indigo gasped and put her hand over her mouth.
“Oh no,” said Jennifer.
“Oh my God,” said Mary-Anne.
“I know, right?! What an idiot! I mean, at the time it was like a dagger to my heart and everything. World ending and all that. I just replied, ‘What?!’ and straight away – just like that – he went offline.”
“That is so embarrassing!” laughed Raw.
“Oh my God I would want to die,” said Mary-Anne.
“If you were Rainy or if you were Rocker?” the builder asked.
“I must admit,” Jennifer said, looking down at her plate, “I’ve dropped a few ‘fatal crossposts’ of my own in my time. Every one of them made a little piece of my brain commit suicide, I think.”
“I fear that we can most of us probably think of at least one such moment of our own doing,” Edward commented, looking slightly guilty for the first time in the six months I had known him. “Though not necessarily,” he added, looking at Rainy, “of such an infidelitous nature.”
“Come on Edward,” said Indigo, grinning. “Spill the beans.”
“Oh, it was a very long time ago now,” the white-haired man told us. “I made a terribly disparaging remark about a fellow avatar’s role-playing ability, thinking I was making it to a close friend when in fact I was making it to said avatar.” He swallowed. “My toes still clench to think of it.”
The memory of my own first fatal crosspost floated briefly into mind and I felt a thin sweat break out across my palms. I reburied it immediately.
“Well since we’re on the subject,” said Indigo, “Hargreaves and I have a doozy for you.” And, for the first time in several minutes, our digital ‘guest’ in the laptop at the far end of the table spoke up, and loudly. “No no no, Indi!” he cried, waving his hands in alarm across the screen. “Don’t do it! I beg of you!”
His name was Hargreaves Amber and he was Indigo’s business partner in the metaverse. She made the skins and he marketed them. He’d created a quite dazzling inworld shop for her creations and managed all the technicalities of sales, including the ‘packaging’ of each product and its listing on all the various web presences. He introduced himself as the brawn to “her beautiful brain.” I have to admit, not being all that much of a shopper in the virtual world I hadn’t heard of the Indigo brand when I first met the fellow members of the club. Once I was sensitive to her name, however, I started seeing it all over the place in the various online metaverse commentaries. There was no denying that her skins were quite stunning. She had quite the talent for photorealism, though she insisted that all her work was hand painted.
Unlike all of the previous meetings with a guest diner in digital presence – and much to Raw’s disappointment – Hargreaves had no problem for us to solve. Since the previous meeting had finished with no apparent solution to our then guest’s issue (only I knew different on that), it was starting to feel like this mystery-solving function of our little group was beginning to dissolve. Hargreaves was a cheerful, handsome, well-groomed man and he’d gone to some effort for the meal, putting on a very well-tailored suit and seating himself in an actual restaurant (somewhere in Boston). He was very polite. He accepted without reservation the club rules of confidentiality and everyone remaining in their metaverse character whilst at the meeting. He chatted knowledgeably about all the various technical, cultural and political issues of the metaverse. It all felt terribly ordinary.
And he’d maintained an almost perfect reserve all the way through our conversation, right up until this moment.
“Sorry Hargreaves,” Indigo said, playfully, swirling her wine as she spoke. “I am never going to stop reminding you of this.”
“I can’t listen to this,” he replied and covered his face with his menu. I spent a brief moment contemplating pointing out to him that obscuring his vision would do little to obstruct his hearing, but then the moment was gone.
“So this was a couple of years ago now,” Indigo began. “Back when I was just getting started designing skins. I only knew Har then as a friend of my ex, Richard. Well, he wasn’t my ex at the time. It was a busy evening at the club and Richard was off somewhere or another and I had Har in one of my windows doing his thing of talking about market trends in mesh, or whatever. For a few minutes he went silent – no big deal there, I’m always switching conversations myself – and then he suddenly said, this: ‘I can’t say I blame you for wanting out, Craig. I agree. Indi bores the crap out of me too.”
A chorus of collective gasps broke out from around the table.
“Oh God,” the menu on the laptop screen whimpered.
“Who was Craig?” Rainy asked.
“Craig was my ex,” Indigo replied. Yet more gasps broke out.
“If you were physically here I would punch you, Hargreaves,” Rainy said to the laptop. She pointed at the screen with her fork. “And put that menu down so we can see that you’re suitably apologetic.”
Slowly, Hargreaves uncovered his face. “I’d deserve that punch and more,” he admitted.
“Oh he was suitably apologetic,” Indigo chuckled. “I don’t think a second passed before the OMGs started coming in from him. ‘OMG Indi… OMG I’m so sorry… OMG I didn’t mean it Indi… OMG I’m such a jerk…’ and so on and so on and so on.”
Rainy nodded. “Quite right too.”
“I didn’t really think that about Indi,” Hargreaves said, somewhat weakly. “To be honest, I didn’t really think anything of her – I hardly knew her at the time. But I did want Richard to like me. I was just being an idiot trying to appease a friend.”
Edward spoke up. “You were at Indigo’s club at the time?”
Hargreaves nodded slowly. “I went there looking for Richard.”
“Geez, you could’ve just IMed him,” Raw commented through a mouthful of pizza.
“Yes of course,” Hargreaves replied. “It’s just that I’d been IMing him a lot and I was worried I was becoming a pest. It’s somehow less intrusive to IM someone who’s physically nearby.”
“You were looking for a pretext,” Jennifer said.
“Yes, I guess that’s right.”
“Talk about a man-crush!” Raw chuckled. The table went suddenly thoughtful for a moment and then all eyes turned back to Hargreaves, who sighed and said, “Well yes… exactly.”
“Ah, I see,” said Mary-Anne. And Rainy. And Jennifer. And me.
“What?” asked Raw. “What do you see?”
Indigo replied, deadpan, “Hargreaves was in love with my ex.”
“You were trying to steal him from her!” exclaimed Rainy.
“Well now look,” said Hargreaves, flustered, “It’s not like I… I mean, it was him who told me he was unhappy… I mean, what would anyone do in my situation?”
Jennifer said, kindly, “You saw an opportunity.”
“Yeah,” Hargreaves replied quietly. “I saw an opportunity.”
“Richard is bisexual?” Edward inquired.
“Straight as a Colorado border,” Indigo replied. “In fairness to Har, he didn’t know that. Richard’s boasts about our, um, male-male-female threesomes were quite outrageous.” She took a quick sip from her wine glass and I wondered if she was blushing beneath her beautiful black skin. “But in reality he was one to establish some very strict… boundaries before such encounters.” She cleared her throat. “More’s the pity.”
There was an awkward silence. I attempted to fill it by mentioning that Colorado’s borders are not in actual fact perfectly straight, but my my contribution went unacknowledged.
“So I guess we can conclude three things then,” said Rainy finally. “One: You and Hargreaves made things up. Two: Hargreaves and Richard never got together. And three: that was the moment when Richard became your ex.”
“Oh yeah,” replied Indigo. “That jerk was history. “To tell you the truth, I was starting to get tired of him anyway. He couldn’t see the point in me setting up a skin business when I already had the club to run. He was always complaining that I didn’t spend enough time with him – though when I had a busy night and could have done with him around to help out, he was of course nowhere to be seen.”
“Typical man,” commented Rainy. “Only interested in one thing.”
“Exactly! So, in a way, Har did me a favour.”
“Why did you start designing skins?” I asked.
“Three reasons,” she replied. “First, clubs just don’t bring in the money. Everyone thinks they’re a cash cow until they actually start trying to run one. You’ve got to constantly keep working in order to get even close to making them pay. Event after event after event. A good skin, on the other hand, just sells and sells long after you’ve finished making it.
“Second, I was fed up with the lack of black skins to be found in the metaverse. To quote Raw, the range was diabolical.”
Raw raised his glass (of cola) at the acknowledgement.
“You haven’t been using that word lately, I’ve noticed,” I commented.
“I’m trying to quit,” he said. “That word got me into trouble.”
“And third,” Indigo continued, “I love creating skins. It’s such a calming thing to do. I lose all track of time when I’m doing it. And then there’s the pleasure of seeing people walking around wearing my work. It’s given my virtual life a whole new focus.”
“Your skins are a huge success,” Mary-Anne said to her. “I have two myself. Why did you keep your club?”
“Oh loooove my club!” Indigo replied. “It’s my home in the metaverse. I have regulars and everything – a real little community. I love tinkering with it and adding extra detail. Now that I’m not spending so much time organising events there its income has dropped, but that’s okay because my skin sales fund it.”
“With plenty left over!” remarked Hargreaves from the laptop.
“For which I have you to be thankful for,” she said. To us, she added, “I would have been just a small little dot on the market if it wasn’t for Har. I love creating skins but I loathe all the faff involved in actually selling them: pictures have to be taken, descriptions have to be written, notecards have to be made up; and then there’s the distribution to all the fashion bloggers to sort out. I hate it. But that stuff is what he excels in.”
“Weren’t you mad at him for what he said?” asked Mary-Anne.
“Sure I was. But I was furious at Richard. Har was more of an acquaintance back then and who can be really mad at someone you don’t actually know all that well?”
“How indeed?” Edward remarked.
“And he was so utterly contrite. And when I learned the reason for what he’d said, I just couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him, because I knew he would never get what he longed for. So I didn’t stay mad for long. And then, of course, we got talking about the skin business… and the rest is history!”
Edward said, with a slight smile at the very edges of his lips, “And I suppose Richard denied all knowledge of the conversation?”
“Totally! The worm. Actually, that’s what sealed it for me: he couldn’t even man-up and admit to what he’d said. We were through by the end of the evening. I put him on mute. I haven’t spoken to him a word since.”
“Good girl,” Rainy said and raised her glass in front of Jennifer.
Indigo chinked it. “To think I was contemplating making him my business partner!”
“Ah yes,” Edward muttered quietly. “Yes indeed.”
The sixty-something man was rubbing his chin thoughtfully and nodding slightly. “What are you thinking, Edward?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, my dear fellow. Nothing of consequence. Things have all worked out for the better, after all.”
Indigo looked at him and frowned. “You have that look on your face where you’ve worked something out, Edward. Come on, Mr I-enjoy-the-nonverbals-of-real-life-conversation. Out with it.”
Our founder looked genuinely conflicted for a moment. Then he sighed and looked across at the laptop screen. “You’ll forgive me, Hargreaves, but in this case my conscience pushes me towards the truth. And I genuinely hope that the outcome of this is peaceful. The two of you are clearly good for each other.” To Indigo, he said, “I’m sorry, my dear, but I think in this case what you experienced wasn’t a ‘fatal crosspost’ at all.”
She looked confused. “I don’t understand, Edward. What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, “that Hargreaves didn’t accidentally type that remark into your window; he did so deliberately.”
“Now wait just a goddamned minute!” Hargreave blurted, his face suddenly red, and I realised it was the first time that evening we’d seen him blush.
“He probably reckoned that he wasn’t close enough to you to hurt you so deeply with his remark that a friendship couldn’t be constructed if the appropriate level of complete remorse was applied,” Edward continued, his voice firmer, “and what’s more, he came up with the perfect reason for saying what he said that no human with a heart could possibly be cold to.
“Oh yes,” he said, wagging his finger at the screen, “you saw an opportunity alright, young man: a talented content creator just starting out, capable of earning a small fortune with the right support. And the only thing between you and a piece of that… was Richard.”
“I- I-” stammered Hargreaves. And then he reached forward to his laptop and our screen went blank.
“Wait… are you saying he isn’t gay?” Raw asked.
“I said nothing of the sort,” Edward replied. “That is a matter of no relevance here.”
Indigo was sitting in stunned silence, staring into her wine glass. Edward put his hand over hers and said in a quiet voice, “I’m sorry, my dear.”
“It’s okay,” she said in a whisper. “As you say… it’s the truth. It has to be. But Edward… what made you suspect him?”
“You said that he started apologising immediately after the crosspost. One thing that all of us who have committed that particular act know is that the first thing you experience is complete and utter shock, abject horror, overwhelming guilt, disbelief at what you have just done, an inability to think let alone say anything rational.” He pointed at the blank screen. “As, in fact, we have just observed.
“No-one,” Edward said, “just apologises immediately.”