Excerpt from Elite
One good thing about visiting an art gallery on a date -- was this a date? -- was that it wasn't expected that you'd talk very much. Jake and Lizzy drifted from one painting to another, occasionally exchanging commentary and observations, but for the most part standing quietly and studying the paintings intently. Jake wondered if he was being too studious in his attempts to seem like a lover of the arts. Perhaps he wasn't paying enough attention to her.
Standing in front of a massive oil rendering of a woman he didn’t recognize, he stole a look in her direction. Her sunglasses were propped on top of her head, and she was gazing at the painting with a look of wonderment in her blue eyes. Without intending to, he found himself watching her with the same level of scrutiny she was applying to the artwork.She glanced over and caught his eye. He startled. "Great painting," he said.
"Understatement. You know the story?"
He admitted that he did not.
"That's Danae. The oracle told her father that she would bear a son that would kill him one day, so he locked her in a tower. But then Zeus came to her in the form of a golden rain and impregnated her."
"Brings a whole new meaning to a golden shower, huh?"
He almost heaved. "Wow, that's gross."
"That's highbrow art, man! I love it. I love the look of resigned acceptance on her face. This is so leet."
He couldn't stifle a snort. Had he heard her right? "Leet" was a term that originated in the world of games. It was an abridgement of "elite," and usually spelled "l33t." It was one of many embarrassing parts of the culture that he liked to pretend didn't exist. Obviously Lizzy did not feel the same way. But his derision had hurt her, he could tell from the way her eyes darkened.
"I'm sorry. I've just never heard anybody say that out loud before."
"You've probably never heard anybody say antidisestablishmentarianism out loud before. Doesn't mean it's not a word."
"You're right. It is a great painting."
She turned her attention back to Danae. Jake looked up, too, and thought that Danae seemed a little angry now. He also wondered what was the deal with the haggard old lady trying to shield her from the golden rain. It was a strange and troubling painting.
"Isn't it crazy," Lizzy said, "how good people are at things?"
"What do you mean?"
"Pick any activity, any hobby, any pastime -- somebody, somewhere is incredible at it. Better than you could possibly imagine. I could paint for years and never come up with anything half this good. People are amazing."
"Not me," Jake said.
"Well, I could play Insurgency for years and probably never beat you."
"Ah, come on." He felt sheepish.
"Really, it's astonishing. Some people can paint like this." She gestured at the painting with both hands. "Some people can sing or dunk a basketball or hit a sniper shot from a mile away. Somewhere in the world there is a janitor who can clean toilets twice as well in half the time of anybody else."
"I don't know if I'd want to be the world's best janitor."
"I would. You have a one in six billion chance of being the world's best anything. Otherwise you're just one of 5.9 billion also-rans."
"That's a harsh way to put it. We're looking at three great painters right here in this room."
"Right, but I mean they were all three trying to be that single best painter. Not to mention when they were doing it, they probably had more like one chance in a billion. Way better odds."
"I guess I'm glad they didn't consider themselves to be also-rans."
"True. You don't get to be leet by accident."
Jake looked with a renewed focus at the painting in front of him. He noted the brush strokes, the way the different colors of paint merged. The work was stunning, truly. And she was right, he could try for the rest of his life and probably never paint like this. "They were lucky," he said. "Lucky they were doing something useful."
"Useful?" She snorted -- revenge, he supposed. "How is painting useful? You can't wear a painting or eat one. You can't sleep under it -- well, you could, but it'd be hell if it rained."
"Maybe I meant they were lucky to be doing something people cared about. It's five hundred years later and we're standing here talking about how awesome they were."
"That's the dream, huh? Do something that'll outlive you."
"Own history." He smiled, trying to imagine future generations standing in a pro gaming hall of fame. He could picture them arriving in flying cars, wearing skintight jumpsuits, and teleporting from wing to wing, but somehow he couldn't envision a plaque with his face on it, and his career Insurgency stats engraved for all time. "Well, I doubt ol' Titian thought we'd be standing here today talking about what a pimp he was."
"Sure he did," Lizzy said, turning to walk to the next work. "He probably told everybody who would listen that his paintings were going to outlast the Medicis."
"And his mom told him to shut up and get a real job." He couldn't stop himself from laughing, and laughed even harder when she joined in. An elderly patron nearby frowned at him over bifocal glasses. He tried to stifle himself, unsuccessfully. Lizzy put a hand on his shoulder to steady him, but she too was shaking with mirth.
Finally, when they had calmed down, she said, "Yours too, huh?"
"Oh yeah. She's practically putting a gun to my head forcing me to choose a college."
She looked at him quizzically. "Oh, I thought you were in college."
He froze. The joy he'd been feeling a moment earlier was replaced with panic. Granted, if she was only a freshman then she was barely older than he was. Even so, the divide between high-school child and college adult seemed like a very real one to him. He couldn't have thought of a suitable lie even if he'd wanted to. So he tried to play it off casually. "No, starting in the fall." He bit his lip.
She gave him a devious smile. "You're legal, though, right?"
"Not until August, actually."
"Gosh, I hope I don't get arrested for this," she said, and leaned in to kiss him. It was nothing, the briefest peck, but he felt a lightning bolt shoot from his lips down through his feet. She was on the move, onto the next painting, twirling her sunglasses by one of the arms. He followed and took a spot next to her. They stood in front of a panoramic mural depicting a raucous rendition of the Last Supper. Their shoulders brushed against one another lightly, with the beating of their hearts. The depth and sense of scale in the painting were remarkable. He felt as though it were reaching out to surround them. Tentatively, without taking his eyes off the image, he reached out and touched her hand with his fingertips. She took his hand, gently, and they stood that way for several minutes.
He didn't dare to move, until, finally, she said, "Your hand is getting sweaty."
"Oh, sorry," he said, wiping it on his jeans.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."
They stopped at a burrito place down the street, where Lizzy insisted on paying, to make up for the price of the tickets. Jake's financial sense bested his macho pride, and he offered only token resistance. This was a good Mexican place, authentic and cheap. The burritos came stuffed with charred pieces of chicken breast, rich sour cream, and perfectly seasoned beans. Jake sensed a high potential for messiness, and not wishing to slop guacamole all over his face and chest, began digging into his with a knife and fork. Lizzy had no such reservations, digging into the burrito with enthusiasm.
"You've got a little--" Jake said.
"Mmm?" Her mouth was full. She looked at him with innocent eyes and a big gob of sour cream on the side of her mouth.
"A little, right here," he said, pointing to the corner of his mouth.
Looking eager to please, she began dabbing at the opposite side of her mouth with the napkin.
"No, other-- other side."
She turned her head, eyebrows furrowed, and rubbed her cheek, well away from the spot.
"In more. It's-- You're just messing with me, aren't you."
She was still chewing, but her smile was confession enough. He threw a handful of napkins at her. She picked them up and finally wiped off her mouth.
"Seriously, though," she said. "Are you ready for the regionals or what?"
He exhaled deeply. "Honestly? I don't think so. I am without a computer at the moment, so I can't even practice."
"PCs," she said, shaking her head.
"No, it's not tech trouble. It's kind of complicated." Not wishing to explain, he went on. "Besides, free-for-all isn't really my game. I always played team deathmatch."
"So? You were terrific in the qualifiers."
"Luck. Plus those guys weren't as good as the ones who'll be playing in the regionals."
"Thanks for the compliment. No, I'm kidding."
"Heh." In fact, this time he'd been able to tell that she was joking. He was getting a read on her, little by little. "I don't know, I feel like I lucked out a little bit in the last round. Almost like I proved my point."
"What's your point? That you're almost as good as the worst of the best?"
He took a swallow of soda. She seemed to have more vested in this than he did, he thought. Whenever this subject came up, or one like it, she was obsessed with thoughts of excellence. "I entered the tournament because I was angry. My clan broke up because of something stupid I did. And when I saw this dude online making fun of us, I don't know, I felt like I had to fight back in the only way I could. So I joined the LPG, and things went well. But the moment has kind of passed."
Lizzy leaned forward. "Let me ask you a serious question. Don't give me any BS. No false modesty or nothing like that."
"All right," he said, retreating in his chair.
"Are you the best Insurgency player you know?"
"It depends how we're defining that. I mean, I don't think anybody in school even really plays the game, but if you consider dudes on forums and in competitions and--"
He clammed up, as though he'd been shushed by a teacher.
"Yes or no. Are you the best Insurgency player you know?"
He thought about it. He remembered hours of preparation, weeks of practice, years of training. He remembered Alpha Squadron's many triumphs, and all the times his battle plans had worked to perfection. He remembered giving orders to his teammates and having them heed them without a word. And he remembered strolling into a free for all tournament he had no business even competing in, and walking out with an invitation to a professional event.
"Then I don't want to hear any more of this waffling or this 'woe is me' stuff. I want to hear that you're going to go to the qualifiers and you're going to compete."
He felt something bubbling up inside of him. At first he was afraid it was gas from the burrito. But whatever it was kept traveling up into his head, and he couldn't contain a smile. Here, at last, was somebody who believed in him.
"I'm going to compete," he said.
And he thought, for the first time, that he might even win.
-Published July 27, 2016