Tehachapi was a rugged area parched for water and education and jobs and a million other things. Her father was a construction worker and her mother was a veterinarian. Soon after she was born her mother lost the practice and took to spaying and neutering local pets on the kitchen table. One of Francesca’s earliest memories was the geyser of piss that resulted when a scalpel nicked a cat’s bladder. Since then she had never been squeamish in any way. Though her father was a committed alcoholic he loved his family and never laid a hand on them. The finances were another matter. They stayed put in Tehachapi since they’d inherited the house outright and couldn’t afford the gas and motel rates to look for opportunities.
Her older brother left for the military when he graduated high school. Though jealous, Francesca accepted her fate: waiting. She was a good student and an athlete. There’s always one girl like Francesca who haunts the school hallways alone. The one who gains a woman’s body and a woman’s constitution far too young and has no idea what to do with it. Boys were terrified of her and let her know it through a campaign of words scrawled on lockers and tearful walks home from school. It didn’t matter that she looked like them and came from the same ‘socioeconomic bracket’ as everyone else at the school. One couldn’t expect kids that age to embrace a concept they couldn’t spell.
She met Norm her sophomore year. He was so small and sick that even the bullies left him alone. Norm lived with his mother and rarely left the house. These were the days of dial-up internet, and the screeching sound that greeted each connection was music to his ears. He spent all day online using public chatrooms. Norm viewed his room as a sort of inner sanctum, where he could conduct an entire social exchange without a phone. He could be anyone he wanted. By fifteen years of age, he’d already spent a lifetime locked away with humidifiers and televisions and various other reminders that his body was a frail, broken-down machine. Norm Spalanki had had enough of being Norm Spalanki. Anyone and anything else would do.
Eventually his mother forced him out of the house and out into the world. His commitment to make-believe led him to LARPing. It was here that he spied the redhead with the killer ‘gams’ and the sad smile. It was a small fringe group, the sort who dress up in costumes and adopt personas to alienate themselves even further from the rest of youth culture. They’d gather in an abandoned industrial yard and act out an ongoing fantasy about dungeon masters and wizards that they cared about deeply.
He got her screenname from one of the other members of the group and started sending her jokes and one-liners, nothing too creepy or personal. Nothing threatening. He told her that he was part of their little group. He told her to guess who he was. There was no fear in this. Norm was a true original. He’d been locked away so long that he had no real sense of how others viewed him. The pixelated world was infinitely more real to him than the flesh and blood teenagers he had to fight through every day in the lunchroom. He never thought of her as a face filled with disgust or scorn on the receiving end of these messages. No, she was flattered. He knew it. He also knew that he’d marry her one day.
Francesca knew who it was right away. Norm was the bearer of that most common nerd trait: he typed exactly how he spoke, right down to the punctuation errors. God, she could even imagine his high-pitched snickering between sentences. And she was flattered. Really, she was. Because Norm didn’t snap her bra strap as he passed by or write offensive words on her locker or stare at her up and down like she had a pair of eyes in her crotch and another on her chest. He was nice to her. And it was nice to be spoken to like you were really, really there, even if that only meant a couple words on a computer screen. When she approached him, he was shaking all over—not from nerves, mind you, but from this tic he had, but that’s a long story—and she told him one of his little jokes. It was something about mushrooms and bars, ‘fungi’ was the punchline, and then she asked him what he did when he wasn’t playing dress-up in the industrial yard. He was ready for it. Metroid. Two-player. Vintage games were pure class. The ladies loved that kind of thing. She said yes. He kicked her ass the first time but then let her win. Eventually, he didn’t have to ease up on her. Turns out she was as fierce a competitor in the digital world as she was in the industrial yard.