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The Stars


By Pelumi Sholagbade

     Generally speaking, people walk straight or inward. We have to pay attention to these kinds of things. Some walk with their eyes forward striding tallfully, or with their chin tucked in, arms and legs pointing within themselves. It can look defensive, this posturing, but maybe they’re just like this. My job isn’t to worry about why people do what they do. Just how to make

them like that.

     Even before I started at TruTales, I loved taking the bus. I was a teenager who would get on and ride in lazy circles around town, sometimes reading, but mostly listening. There were afternoons I wouldn’t get home until after dinner for how infatuated I was with people and their quirks. Twee word, but yes: I took mental notes on the state of their shoes, or the resting nature of their face, or what they had in their hands. Perhaps the hand of another! In this sense, I was doomed to be a writer. This caused some predictable adolescent turmoil as well as a few heated conversations with my well-intentioned parents, but I have since learned to bear my fate with a smile. The summer before I left for college was one of the hottest on record, and I spent most of it tucked safely away in my air-conditioned room, racking up hours in screen time.

     The company came into being in 2007, just a year before I joined. It garnered some buzz as a video game company to watch in 2011 when it released critical darling Sunset High, a Western send-up to Japanese dating sims. You could customize your appearance on almost every level conceivable and go on to romance a variety of quirky characters, with any given conversation branching off into a multitude of possibilities given player behavior and a handily weighted random numbers generator. It was the kind of game whose relative simplicity in terms of its UI, user interface, belied a great deal of sophistication. The game was capable of charming the pants off a pantless hornet. The game essentially tanked TruTales and its shareholders, with its sales coming only to a fraction of what it had cost to make it. Various insiders and outsiders would go on to cite a variety of reasons for this, but as someone who was on the ship just as it began to sank, I can put in my two cents: it was the name! Sunset High? You can’t expect the average grizzled dating sim connoisseur to buy in to a title that kitschy, no matter how much of a romantic they might be.

     TruTales folded, and while I was reading books like What Color Is Your Parachute? its liquidized assets were sold to the multinational behemoth that was Melk Entertainment. I probably don’t have to tell you about a corporation whose portfolio contains a production company responsible for at least one or two certified blockbusters, a modeling agency, or a legally ill-advised rehabilitation campaign after a few too many 1-day scandals (“Got Melk?”) I probably don’t have to tell you that I didn’t get benefits. But the only way I could see myself being able to continue doing the work I loved as by applying for an entry-level position in their sparkling new video game development branch. At TruTales, I had been a senior game writer, responsible for developing plotlines, characters, overarching narratives, and themes guaranteed to leave a player teary-eyed at three in the morning. At Melk, my work was a little less glamorous.

     “I have never met anyone who actually talks like this.” I was feeling out my dead ends between my thumb and forefinger, and Brain rolled his chair across the same ragged corner of carpet over and over again, the leather squeaking incessantly. I’m pretty sure no one looks good under fluorescent lighting, but there was a curiousness to the way Brian’s skin seemed to recede from itself. He was forceful, pushing forward. It was a Friday afternoon.

     “It’s too nice out for this, Phoebe.” His words spilled like drool out the corner of his mouth. “Who fucking cares? We were supposed to write thirty recordables by the end of today, and we’re not even halfway there.” Recordables was just fancy industry-speak for NPC dialogue.

     "And whose fault is that? Maybe…” I cut myself off. I could feel my vocal cords shortening, the strain of it all. “If you had told me earlier that you were having trouble with the dialogue parameters, I would have been able to help you. Earlier, I mean.”

     I turned away from him and instead focused into the computer screen. Overhead, MELK had taken to playing affirmations on our tinny speakers instead of music. A nondescript voice urged us to embody a state of relaxed concentration. “I just think that all of your female-female dialogue is–”

     “What? Sexist?”

     “It’s bad, Brian. Yeah, it’s sexist, but I don’t know if you give a shit. Like,” I tapped the screen. “Why so many speech fillers?”

     “Well, statistically–”

     “Don’t even. Read it out loud to me?” I said this as a question, a kind of tease: now I was forcibly inserting pitch in an effort to sound less confrontational and more coy.

     Brian sighed with the indulgence of a good white father, the kind that gets his girls two scoops with sprinkles. “Well, like, I was, like, just thinking that, like, we could…” he began to trail off here.

     “Do you see what I mean?” He was cowering, I could tell, so it was easy enough to act sympathetically. Be sympathetic, that is. It’s hard to be wrong, and harder to be wrong in public!

     “Yeah, I see what you mean.” He hit the Backspace key repeatedly. “I don’t know, man. I just don’t know what to write about when it comes to this.”

     “What can’t you write about when it comes to it?”

     In place of deigning to respond, Brian leaned back in his chair, almost to the point of being horizontal. The cheap leather betrayed his weight with a long bellowing squeak. I have always wondered how men manage to take up as much space as they do. The lanky ones in particular: a line stretching in both directions towards infinity.

     What we were tasked with was filling the mouth-holes of NPCs. Not the kind the player character could choose to engage in conversation with, but the kind that walked around the open-world environment aimlessly (or stood in, sat in, glitched in and out of existence of) to make it all feel more real, lived in. “It all,” in this case, was the long-anticipated sequel to the popular action-adventure Code Breaker, set in a dystopian near-present. In the world of Code Breaker, peer-to-peer firms have taken over our lives completely, with 99% of the U.S. population living in a state of quasi-fiefdom thanks to lawsuit-proof proxies for Uber and TaskRabbit becoming the only real employers on the market, and only the uber-wealthy being able to afford them. Our namelessly customizable PC is on a mission to recover his sister, who has gone missing after she left for a job and never came back. In his pursuit, he slowly uncovers a conspiracy theory, whose revelations threaten to–

     bring the system down. Or so the conference pitch went. What it came out to was what could reasonably be summated as an unbearably preachy diatribe about the dangers of new media and the subservience of basic human needs to corporate greed, the kind that must have resonated even more coming from from the mouth of a triple-AAA company who failed to pay the majority of its employees a living wage. The first-person shooter mechanics handled like a wet dream, though, and it was voted Game of the Year.

     It was the following day, after I had had such a productive conversation with Brian about the vast meaning of our work, that I went grocery shopping. I didn’t grow up going to church, but this was a sort of weekly ritual gathering. When so much of your job-life takes place on a screen, I’ve found that it’s important to take the time to appreciate even the most mundane aspects of our IRL existence. Handling oranges, for instance, can be a very sensual thing if you need it to be. It was nearing summer, too, so I knew they were ripe. I didn’t even like oranges very much, or the taste. Mostly, it was the idea of them. (Mostly, I couldn’t afford fresh fruit, the way it rotted so quickly.) This was the kind of store that carried a generic-brand vegan ricotta. Peering down the third aisle, I was only looking for flour. I didn’t bake much at all, and wasn’t sure if I in fact already had a bag or two shoved in the back of my cabinets, but it seemed to good to collect in theory.

     “Hand me the sunflower butter chocolate cups?” this girl said. Her friend dropped them in the shopping cart obligingly. “I love these ones so much. They literally taste like spring.”

     “Spring tastes like sunflower butter?”

     “That’s what I said, yeah.” The girl pushing the cart began that awkward cart-pivot to face the opposite direction. She had piercings in every possible nook and cranny of her ear, and behind it a startlingly blue tattoo. A butterfly? I was standing in the aisle too, now staring at organic gummy worms. It was a mesmerizing rainbow, one made of nausea-inducing amounts of cane sugar, and a promising conversation just next to me. As they made their way to the next aisle, I did my best to tail them discreetly. In a corner of my mind, I was turning over our in-game stealth mechanic, how laborious it had been for the gameplay team to design something that felt both intuitive to grasp and satisfying to play, and how they had succeeded. To this day, it’s what the original Code Breaker is lauded for. Revolutionary, in that respect. My efforts to be discrete failed almost instantly when I turned the corner and nearly collided with the girl head-on. She had stopped at the very beginning of the aisle (7–Baking Needs) to check her phone. Based on her friend’s reaction, who stared at her for an instant before theatrically crossing her arms and tapping her foot, this was a regular occurrence.

     I had had a friend named Lorelai who was obsessed with astrology in high school. She rarely guessed people’s signs correctly, but she was always so quick to affirm the fact of a person being a Scorpio or a Gemini making sense for them. We fell out shortly before we left for

college in a way that I think was only mostly unrelated. It’s exhausting to be around someone who is constantly trying to quantify you. Now that Jung is back in vogue and #shadow work keeps showing up on my Instagram feed, I might say that she irritated me so much because we were so very alike. I haven’t had a lot of people say I’m a breeze to be around either.

     The girl eventually put her phone down and started moving again. She was standing noticeably smaller.

     “I’m pretty sure checking your DMs every two minutes is not going to make him respond any faster,” her friend offered. I couldn’t tell you her sign, but that Lorelai would have asked if she was a Taurus.

     “I can’t help it. I know it’s so, like, annoying for you, but it’s not any fun for me either.”

     Her voice carried anger and desperation in equal measures, quivering rapidly and violently. Shit.

     I wondered. Do any of us make it out of high school intact?

     “I’m not annoyed,” her friend said, sounding annoyed. (Not to sound like I’m holding this against her or anything! Only the truth, and nothing but.) “I guess I just want better for you. Is that annoying?”

     “Yeah. A little. Can you grab the flour from the bottom shelf? It’s right there.”

     I could have, conceivably, been looking for the best gluten-free flour to make chocolate chip cookies taste like genuine chocolate chip cookies. In reality, I had begun listening in earnest.

     The efforts the girl’s friend went to to not roll her eyes was nearly audible in nature.

     “Like, I know. I’m over here obsessing about a man who wouldn’t notice me if I walked in a room with my tits spray-painted pink. What I don’t know is why I keep finding ambivalence so sexy.”

     “Um…” her friend added thoughtfully.

     “Do you have any ideas?”

     Everyone looks stressed out under grocery store fluorescents, a little heavy in sweat. After a while you might begin identifying with the meat in its Saran wrap, suffocating under a new ill-fitting skin. All that is to say we were looking at the meats now. If the girls hadn’t been totally wrapped up in their drama, maybe they would have noticed the stranger following them across half the store. But it’s a gift I’ve had since I was so young: become invisible, or at least paper-thin in presence.

     When her friend didn’t respond, she pressed: “Should I triple-text him?”

     “Shit, Bea.” her friend whipped around to face her head-on. “What I think is that you’re just, like, afraid of love. I think you’d rather live in a liminal shitshow with some Brian guy who will never just straight-up tell you how he feels because you don’t know how to actually deal with another person caring for you and the risk that would require you to take.”

     Silence. All ambience: ever-mild chatter and check-out kiosk noises. “You can’t lose your mind over a guy named Brian, Jesus Christ.”

     After a few beats, Bea said “I wasn’t asking you to be my therapist or some motivational speaker. I just want you to be my friend.”

     Without having seen a therapist since middle school (angst!) I felt I could say with reasonable certainty that Bea’s friend didn’t sound like one at all. You don’t really need a graduate degree in psychology to be able to tell a decent story. If you’re lucky, they’ll even pay you to do it in an airless basement office, like that’s how much it matters.

     Another pause. “Give me your phone.”

     “What the fuck, Claire! Stop–”

     Claire made a pass for it. Bea tried to snatch it away, but I guess her grip was too loose or something, because she instead flung it out of her hand. Directly into my temple. For a moment or three, I was stunned red, pain flashing across my vision. This outcome was not one I had especially anticipated based on my knowledge of techno-thriller stealth games, I must admit.

     “Oh my god.” Claire’s friend trotted over to where I had been standing. “Are you okay?”

     She actually reached out to touch the side of my head, upon which a apple-round welt was making itself at home.

     “Probably. I’m sorry,” I said. Why was I the one apologizing? Incredibly, her friend had not reacted visibly, choosing instead to stand exactly where she had been, to hold out her hand as if there was still something in it.

     Brian. Statistically, it seemed unlikely. Thematically, it made all the sense in the world. His inability to write convincing dialogue between women was so obviously a reflection of his inability to treat them like people, with thoughts they wanted to share and feelings that could get

bruised. After some careful consideration, the next step seemed reasonable enough. At this point, we were still finishing up the recordables, having moved on from the open-world itself to more restricted environments in the late game, such as the headquarters of the nefarious Taskrabbit proxy that our PC is charged with infiltrating to not only recover their sister, but to get the information necessary to prove that the company has made some ethically and scientifically dubious investments in cloning people, a source of free labor. It was a more compelling scene to work on, but you wouldn’t know it by the way Brian was approaching it.

     “Do you think evil people go around proclaiming how evil they are to their evil friends?”

     I squinted at the assets whose dialogue we were responsible for writing, their generic grey uniforms, their uniformly coiffed hair. It was a diverse range of faces, which was interesting to note. You might not think the complete monopolic corporate takeover of all goods and services

would go hand-in-hand with upper-management equitable hiring strategies.

     “Well, when you put it that way,” Brian began. It was a less antagonistic exchange than most of the ones we had had in our time collaborating. I wasn’t sure if Brian respected me more of if he was just increasingly amused by my insistence on standards for a project that, honestly, no one was going to take a second look at when done. He probably thought he understood something I didn’t. Maybe he did.

     “It’s fine. If nothing else, it’ll become a meme. So bad it’s–”

     “So bad it’s good, yeah, okay, do you think I actually have any merits as a writer?”

     “Sure. It’s not like I tell you every piece you write is shit. I didn’t know you needed my praise when your ego is big as-is.”

     “Big things can bruise as easily as anything else. Maybe more. Like elephants.”

     “Speaking of elephants,” I said, with all the air in my lungs, “do you want to go get dinner tonight?”

     Something so vulnerable came over Brian’s face in that instance, a shadow of sincerity.

     Just as quickly, it was swallowed up. He said, “You’re so cute. You wanna go on a date? With

little ol’ me?”

     “I said dinner.” Quieter, I mumbled, “I said what I said.”

     It was an Italian affair. I made my way through several layers of lasagna and several glasses of wine and Brian’s voice was static in my head.

     He invited himself up afterwards, as I’ve heard men are wont to do. It was fun, playing the kind of part I used to write. I had to give him the chance to say the right thing, but not make it too obvious there was a right thing to say. I had to make him feel like was leading and never let

him do so. I had to step into the kitchen and out without him noticing, wondering. And when the time came, I had to make it a surprise. I had to–wanted to–watch it all change on his face, like the way light refracts through a busy panel of glass.

     When you are trying to reassure yourself of your humanity, you will feel around each of your teeth with your tongue. As a kid, it was the gap where your two front ones used to be that was a source of the most unyielding pleasure. The tip in the hole, a gentle flutter and a tiny

squeak. I knelt on Brian’s chest. I never thought myself to be especially heavy, but still, he squirmed. I rested the knife under his chin, the divot of his neck. My tip in the hole.

     “Okay, woah, hey.” He laughed–exhaled heavily though his nose. When I didn’t respond, he changed tones. “I don’t know what you want me to do!”

     Pathetic, as usual. I don’t know why it took me this long to admit it? Say the meanest thing? I’m an optimist at heart, when it comes down to it. What it came down to was the threadbare nature of bachelor pad carpeting underneath an oatmeal-textured ceiling.

     “I don’t need you to do anything, Brian. Just talk to me, kind of like you were before. 

     “Talk to you–about–about–” While he sputtered like a dying car, I removed the knife from his person.

     “But better. I don’t really mean to hurt you, Brian. I just need you to feel something, and then act from it. I’m not sure if you’re used to that. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the way we feel.”

     Brian gasped, or choked, a guttural expulsion of air, vape smoke and Cheeto dust. “Who the fuck is we?” He resumed his efforts to get out from underneath me, but it was to very little end.

     “I guess I’m just trying to figure out why you’re like that.” I lowered my eyes mournfully. In the back of my head, I was wondering how long I could keep this going.

     Righteous indignation burns like any other additive, I guess. Gamewise, our protagonist relies on semi-illicit drugs to keep him going throughout the game. Each pill you forage can provide a temporary speed and health boost, but taking too many within a short period of time threatens to reverse the effects. A serious inquiry into the nature of chemical dependency and addiction it is not, but I like how the bars on the screen glow blue when you’re off the zee, as it is referred to in-game.

     Somehow, I was on the brink of tears. I turned away, and back. Leading by example, I decided, always made for a decent management strategy. I pressed the butter knife to the left side of my chest, and bore down as hard as I could.

Pelumi Sholagbade is currently a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Previously, they have been published in Blue Marble Review, Rue Scribe, Rookie Magazine, and William & Mary’s The Gallery and LIPS. They’re a big fan of R&B, the color pink, and thinking too much about astrology. 

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