Nick’s Story Mode – by Ava Redman

When the university went online because of coronavirus, it wasn’t the worst-case scenario, Nick thought. It took him over three hours to get to campus, travelling from the countryside to the Sydney CBD and his parents were baby boomers, closer in age to the vulnerable groups than his friends’ parents were. When everything finally went online, it didn’t matter. Nick had been online long before the pandemic, and now the world was simply catching up to him.

The sun broke over the trees, spearing in through the window, straight for Nick. He rolled over to the other side and blinked at his phone. He opened his messages from the night before. Alex had messaged that he missed him. He’d sent a GIF of two guys cuddling. Nick had responded by saying he missed Alex’s warmth. It was as close as Nick would come to admitting he missed Alex too. Straightaway Alex messaged ditto, but Nick left it at that.

He hadn’t seen Alex in weeks, and the last time they met, their dynamic had changed, as if coronavirus had put everything into perspective. Or at least them.

It had weighed on him, like a can of worms he hoped Alex would never open.

Nick sat up and inched out of bed. He was tall and lanky, and the cold sheeted every square inch of him as he wrapped up in multiple layers, including his blue snuggie that he preferred to wear on backwards like a wizard. He grabbed the controls from the side of his bed and sidled back in under the cover. The dogs barked below, waiting to be let out, but he ignored them. Casey would do it. He could already hear his sister in the kitchen with Dana and Michael as she probably burnt the toast and Dana wailed.

Nick pressed the remote and the TV lit up to a green pixelated field, much like the farm he lived on with his sister and her family. He checked the status of his farm, fed the chickens and checked on his family. He’d been playing house in Stardew Valley, building a farm while his wife Alexa took care of their son Nicki. It had taken some work, but Alexa had finally consented to a relationship with him after he’d given her enough salad to feed a trough of pigs. He laughed at the idea that women even liked salad. Nick tended to the farm as the sun rose higher. Occasionally his niece and nephew would scramble in and prop and poke things and then they’d leave. He couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly have children. They were so curious and pointless!

Stardew Valley was a world he’d readily lost himself in during the height of the pandemic. While people were dying outside, he was building a farm that his Stardew Valley grandfather had left him, or racing through a zombie apocalypse as an 18 year old girl seeking vengeance for her father’s death in The Last of Us Part 2. While the world cried, he cried when Kratos had finally accepted his son and had touched his shoulder to acknowledge him as heir, in God of War. Nick had lived and felt everything from the comfort of his chair or his bed.

His phone lit up with a message from Alex; Hey, how’s your day going?

Nick put down the controls and typed back; Playing Stardew Valley.

Alex’s reply was almost instant; Lol.

Alex seemed to love this part of Nick; his nerdy obsessions with video games that revolved around story mode concepts. Alex had even pointed out the irony of Nick’s family life when he clearly wasn’t into women, or at least didn’t appear to have any interest in them besides friendship. Nick had ignored these comparisons and chose to ignore the feeling he got whenever Alex messaged him. Like he was now.

Alex shot him another message; Say hi to the wife for me.

Then another; On second thoughts, better not. Don’t want to get you in trouble with the missus.

Nick picked up the phone and replied a few seconds later; Maybe I like playing straight sometimes.

Alex’s response was almost immediate; You like playing house, it seems.

Nick left the message and felt the dark waters looming once again. Things were different now and Alex would want more from him soon, only Nick didn’t know what to say. He still didn’t trust Alex’s feelings for him, how could he? Nick was a 25-year-old nerd studying IT with a penchant for video games over real human interactions and Alex was 29, hot, outspoken and opinionated, and with muscles Nick had only ever dreamed of. Their conversations were always intense, and Alex had years of wisdom from his travels abroad and a life of growing up in other countries. Nick had only moved from one part of the countryside in Bilpin, to down the road into his sisters’ place.

Another message popped up on his screen; I feel like you’re avoiding me.

Nick glanced at it, sighed, and fed his pixelated chickens.

Another message buzzed on his phone.

I think we need to talk, at least.

Nick put down the controls and stared at the phone.

Instead he went into the kitchen and grabbed a chocolate chip muffin from the counter, patting Dana on the head who lolled her tongue out playing puppy and pushing Michael off who tried to lick his arm.

When he returned there were multiple messages from Alex. Instead he opened the message that had come ten minutes ago from his childhood best friend, Brendan. His straight friend.

Hey poofta. How’s it hangin.

Nick responded with; Not much, faggot.

Nick and Brendan had talked like this for years, long before Nick knew of a closet, that he was in one; or that he was meant to come out of one eventually. But Brendan had been there for all of it with his butt-licking, butt-plugging, faggot-fisting jokes. Even when Nick hadn’t known, Brendan had suspected; still they’d been friends since they could remember.

Brendan’s reply came a minute later; Sorry, I mean, how are you? What have you been up to?

Nick snickered and replied with; Is Emma looking over your shoulder again?

His friend’s response was immediate; She thinks I don’t talk to you in the ‘politically correct way’.

Nick wrote back; What’s the point of having a token gay friend if you can’t have a faggot riff-off?

Brendan messaged back; There’s fumes coming out of her ears!

Nick beamed and wrote back; Did you tell her you were the one who forced me to go to PoofDoof at Ivy and to Arq and Stonewall? I wouldn’t be the gay I am now if it weren’t for you.

Nick almost laughed knowing he wasn’t the gay anyone had expected. He certainly didn’t possess the feminine skills that made him lovable to women like a collectable limited-edition barbie doll. His sisters had been mildly disappointed, and his mother still tried to get him to take an interest in her arts and crafts.

Brendan messaged a minute later; I’m such a giver!

Nick knew Emma would be looking over Brendan’s shoulder at their messages, probably beaming that her fiancé was so forward thinking, but it would be a while before Nick and Emma went shopping together. Nick wasn’t cut out for this stereotype just yet.

He opened up his messages from Alex.

Hey, I don’t want to scare you off. I just want you to know I have feelings for you, and I was hoping you did too. I’m not expecting anything from you, but I get this vibe that we work well together.

We’re good at being apart and we’re amazing when we’re together.

I just thought you should know because you’re acting weird and how can I not notice that?

I miss you.

Nick hugged his knees close to his chest, as the messages filled him with a feeling that he didn’t want to describe, didn’t want to acknowledge. He wanted Alex. But it was all too fast. Too soon.

He started typing the words, typing something, anything to make it all ok. He imagined Alex on the other end, watching, waiting. He pressed delete and picked up his remote and played house with Alexa and his son.

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Ava Redman’s writing has been published in Verge, City Hub and W’Sup online. She is currently majoring in journalism at Western Sydney City Campus.

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