Fiction: Distance From the Used-tos
By Liza Olson
Rhea Falco used to be called Will Falco. Rhea used to be called lots of things. The used-tos just sort of stretch on down from there, don’t they? Rhea used to live in the city, by the lake, close enough for marine smell to come in with the tide and the breeze most summer days, close enough to be walking distance from the dune she’d set her tent up beside once the eviction came through and there were no more extensions, nothing to do but leave, take what she could in a duffle, a backpack, a couple plastic bags.
She’s close enough to see the for rent sign still up long after she was forced to vacate, rent high enough to turn the block into a choir of smoke alarms beeping for fresh batteries. Close enough for her to imagine closing the hard wooden door behind her, when it’s the zippered enclosure of a two-person tent now. Close enough to have no distance from all the different used-tos.
Rhea collects driftwood most mornings, dries it out beside her tent so that by nightfall she can have another fire. When driftwood is hard to come by, it’s sticks from the neighboring park’s trees, an armful collected off the ground, dropping them off, repeating the cycle till she thinks she has enough. Dinner is whatever she can afford at the 7-Eleven and bring back to cook, and the 7-Eleven’s got an outlet out back she can charge her phone and laptop at for a few hours.
There are also chargers at the library, where she goes most days to get more work done on Recursion, the indie game she’s had in varying stages of development for the last five years. No one knows about the project beyond her and a few forum members, a game journalist who’s periodically asked her for updates and who, she suspects, might be putting together a story to run once it’s a little further along.
Rhea’s been in game design since the halcyon Flash days of the early 2000s, posting her off-kilter creations to Newgrounds, where they (and she) quickly earned a cult following. Albino Blacksheep mirrored all her Flash movies and games, and Ebaumsworld even hosted a few (without first getting permission, of course). She was quickly canonized with Flash giants like Neil Cicierega, David Firth, and Weebl, just to name a few. And like them, she rode that wave into the next era, cementing her status as a celebrated content creator.
Recursion was hard to pin down. She’d use words and phrases like iterative, procedural generation, eternal return. It was a walking sim sometimes, but also a murder mystery, occasional platformer, a space flight sim, and on and on. It was, she hoped, the culmination of about twenty years of experience in design, programming, art, storytelling, and all the other hats Rhea wore as a pioneering creator on the baby internet.
She lived off her patrons and merch sales for a while, until Recursion took root like a bonsai tree in her mind, greedy and thirsty, constantly outgrowing its bounds. Everything else went by the wayside. When you had a project that was about anything and everything, nothing else could compete. She’d put away a nest egg when times were good, but then the transition happened, and with it the doxxing, the toxicity of much of the gaming community, patrons dropping like flies, and her bank account depleting in short order.
There’s only so many times you can feel like your memories occurred to someone else before you actually change into someone else. For a while after, Rhea couldn’t look at the before-times photos. Didn’t want to see the fake smiles, the masc-masking, the awkward clothes and beards and facial hair too. She looks at them now with an anthropologist’s indifference, like she’s studying the features of an entirely different person.
HRT does its subtle, gradual magic in stages: filling out tops as Rhea deals with a new dull but sweet ache, the frequency of shaves going down, the minute changes on her face that stack, one on top of the other, the curve of her hips shifting as the months go by, the redistribution of fat and muscle. The emergence of a mental quiet, like starlight on a cloudless night. Quiet like she never knew before.
The water, in the night, calls to Rhea sometimes. She dreams of walking in up to her neck, then past her head, walking till the lake drinks her up and the bubbles stop. When the dreams get too vivid, too close, too real, she powers up her laptop, blue light in all that black, and does some more work on Recursion, another couple passes before the sun comes up.
She’s approaching the end, now. Finishing the project once seemed like an abstract concept, but after years of building this up, breaking it down again, and recontextualizing what was possible, the end is, somehow, in sight. She walks down to the lake in daylight, so removed from its awful dream state, and sees in it the reflection of a woman she’s finally starting to recognize. A woman she’s learning to love.
She has no plans for Recursion’s launch beyond dropping it on itch.io and hoping for the best, no idea that in a few months’ time she’ll be signing contracts to port Recursion to all the major consoles, that her indie game will become an “overnight” success five years in the making, that she’ll get the money she needs to leave that tent behind for good, to move into a new place and still have enough to start her own studio. For now, all she knows is there’s an email in her inbox she needs to answer: the game journalist from before, checking in, asking for a feature.
Liza Olson is the author of the novels Here’s Waldo, The Brother We Share, and Afterglow. A Best of the Net nominee, Best Small Fictions nominee, finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and 2021 Wigleaf longlister in and from Chicagoland, she's been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cleaver, Pithead Chapel, and other fine places. One of her proudest achievements was getting to run (mac)ro(mic) for four incredible years. Find her online at lizaolsonbooks.com or on social @lizaolsonbooks.