Of media representation, middle age, and, you guessed it, Dying Light of all things.

I’m not very good at writing about myself. In particular, I’m not very good at sharing me with the public, though I suppose what I’d like to say here isn’t all about me. It’s about growing older, in general. It’s about being a woman, single, and about to reach forty in only two months and about having become crucially (and painfully) aware of it.

Which, I assume, others else out there may relate to.

And I’d be lying if I’d say I have everything under control in my life; the opposite, really. It’s been rough, on and off, even without having to deal with an underlying anxiety condition and PTSD. So when it dawned on me that I was about to be forty, I struggled. Boo, Taff, the brain weasels chittered. You’ve got no family of your own. Boo, Taff, you’ve got nothing to show for so late in your life. Boo, Taff, what even are you? The answer to the latter is simple: a disaster ace who thought she’d made peace with being alone, but who was suddenly overcome with shame for not having grown up.

Whenever I am not working, I spend my time playing video games, being in love with a fictional man, writing, and mingling with other writers and my friends on a Fan Fiction Discord. That’s not very adult of me, now is it. Since where’s the actual husband? Where’s the one-and-a-half kid? Or where’s the soaring career, since if I’m not working on building a family, I should be working on that. It got rough. And then, on top of that, came the nebulous thought of okay, it’s over now for you, you’ve lived the prime of your life, what good are you now? which kinda blindsided me.

Where was that coming from?

I think I got an idea now, though I may be oversimplifying it: I hadn’t seen myself anywhere in so long, that I had no point of reference to what the next ten years would look like or that they’d be worth it. Media tells me you’re either the plucky young heroine, the love interest, the mother, or the old crone. That space in-between was a void. Or, you know, you’d find the spinster (derogatory). And I hadn’t noticed how I struggled with this until I began to write Monsters, We.

In it, Zofia is in her forties. She’s still who she was when she was twenty though; much like I am still who I was back when I began writing Latchkey Hero and Zofia was so much younger, too. I don’t have to change. I don’t have to be suspended until I hit crone just because I don’t have the whole family thing going for me. My family can be my friends. My life can be playing video games, being in love with a fictional man, and writing. That I’m older means nothing. And I owe no one some sort of compliance to their expectations of adult and middle aged woman and the only measure of success I should hold myself against is whether or not I’ve been kind enough to the people around me to make a positive difference here and there.

And writing about Zofia being older, about her still being loved, about her still living and not just surviving day by day, that matters to me and it has gone a long way to tide me over. It did the unthinkable, really: it settled my anxiety over getting older, because if she can do it, so can I.

So, yeah. I’m once again thanking Dying Light and Kyle Crane for giving me a bridge to walk on. The third one, if we are to keep count. That’s a lot of bridges.

Kyle Crane and Zofia Sirota lying on on a bed made from often mended pillows and blankets
Kyle Crane and Zofia Sirota Crane
art by johdahls

Kyle Crane vs The Hulk

If he’d had the strength left to stand, he’d have done just that. He’d have stood there, raised his— Ah shit. —now missing pipe, and bellowed at the top of his lungs, loud enough to put Russell Crowe to shame.

As it were, Kyle barely had enough left for a muted mutter of “Are you fucking entertained now you mother-fucking shitmuffins?”

Kyle Crane vs the Hulk

Kyle Crane vs The Hulk, as seen in Latchkey Hero. This amazing illustration is by hummingdead, who has been an absolute treasure bringing scenes out of Latchkey Hero to life for me.

Dying Light: Post Zombie Apocalypse Self-Care

a Paper Crane

Home is where the WiFi auto connects, they say. It’s where the shoes reliably come off, all the hats are hung in order, where the right type of jam is stocked in the fridge, and you know where the remote control is (most times, anyway).

More importantly though, home is where there aren’t any zombies trying to gnaw the meat off your bones and where you can slouch on the sofa, uninterrupted.

That’s how she finds Kyle Crane: slouching his worst slouch on the sofa. His ass is near hanging off, that’s how far forward he’s slipped, and his long legs are doing that thing where they take up too much space extended as they are. He’s wearing a forest green kinda t-shirt that’s a size at least too large for him, a pair of plain grey joggers, and a white sock on his left foot. The second sock is orange. It has white ducks printed on it.

His feet wiggle.

(Because there are a lot of things Kyle Crane can be, motionless is never one of them.)

So, there he lounges, feet wiggling, with his chin turned down to his chest in a way that probably means his neck will start aching soon, and a Nintendo Switch held up under his nose.

She parks herself by the door and watches him.

He’s focused. Very focused. Like the entire world has shrunk to the tiny screen in front of him. He’s also wildly expressive, she thinks. Sometimes his brows shoot up. Other times his entire face gets all pinchy. That’s when he leans his torso left or right and tilts the Switch alongside him. The buttons gets smashed harder then, too. And the thumbsticks get a vigorous workout.

Never mind all that though.

The best bit are the smiles. He has a wealth of those ready to go at a moment’s notice and now is no different. There are wide ones, the ones where he shows teeth and when his cheeks get all bunched up. And the quick ones. And the lazy ones. They all curl into his three-day-old beard and they are what end up tugging her away from the door, across the room, and reel her in to sit on the sofa next to him.

Crane doesn’t exactly look up. He throws her a quick, sideways kind of glance from where he’s halfway down the sofa, and then he’s back to playing.

That is when she notices he has three giant Haribo Dummy candies stuck on his fingers.

Yeah.

He does that.

Sticks them on— preferably a whole ten of them —and then slowly works his way from left to right, beginning with the long ends until only the rings are left. Eventually, those get chewed off too and then he repeats the exercise until he’s run out. The empty bag sticks out from where he’s squeezed it into the band of his joggers. She extracts it, balls it up, and chucks it onto the coffee table.

. . .

Or tries to, anyway. Plastic doesn’t chuck well. It gives up flying halfway and falls to the floor.

She sighs.

That gets Crane’s attention and it earns her a smile. Not just any smile, either. It’s that smile; the private one; the deceptively languid one; the one which mostly sits in his light brown eyes, where it’s unapologetically fierce and beelines right for her heart.

He scoots up. It’s an awkward, wobbly motion, involving lots of grunting and shoulder-rubbing into her direction until he’s finally in a position where he can drape an arm around her.

See, Kyle Crane is a cuddle bug.

Give him any indication you’re up to get nuzzled at and he’ll be right up in there, happy as a clam. (It’s a phrase he dropped on her at some point and it’s stuck, though she can’t for the life of her figure out what makes clams particularly happy.)

Anyway.

He pulls her in close, rubs his cheek against hers, and drags her into his world of— ah— Terraria.

She blinks.

There’s a tiny sprite dude blasting other tiny sprite dudes to bits with what she assumes to be a boomstick of sorts and— she blinks some more.

“Are those zombies?” she asks.

“Mhmm,” he hums. The noise rumbles around in his chest, deep and comforting so close to her ear.

“Isn’t that a little, I dunno—“ She gives her arm a half-hearted lift, gesturing lamely.

“—cathartic,” Crane says. “That’s what it is. Cathartic. Wanna try?”

“No. I’m good.”

“Kay. Hey. Lemmi show you something.” His fingers squish some buttons. The thumb sticks get a wiggle. And suddenly Terraria!Kyle is standing in a ginormous tree. A tree that is also a house, she assumes. Rooms are held up by wide branches and ringed in by leaves and there are lanterns dangling on the outside — and, honestly, there is so much to see, she can’t process it all at once.

“Tada. My tree house. ‘cus it’s a house. And a tree.”

“It’s very intricate,” she admits.

“Right? I been working on it all week. Look—“ He zips up the middle of the tree’s very wide trunk, right along a chain. “—top floor, bedroom.”

It does, indeed, have a bed. In front of a large window looking out across a jungle. She nods quietly to herself. He’d do that if he could get away with it. Have a bedroom real high up somewhere. With the wall facing it being nothing but glass. There’s also a bookcase though. Which is very him, too. Plus more books on shelves. And starfish. And shells. And a pink piggy bank. Also very him. The clutter. The hoarding.

Crane zips back down. “Armoury.” With, well. Armour. On mannequins. And chests full of weapons, or so he says. Further down there’s the dryad and the zoologist. The first one is a lass in nothing but some vines covering her private bits and the second one is a fox lady. Or a cat lass. She can’t tell.

He ships them, he says.

She snorts.

Next, he shows her a kitchen. Then a crafting room. After that, a bathroom with an actual tub and a toilet (“Where does the poop go, Crane?” “Shut up. It’s magic.”) and eventually the bottom floor, where he’s built a deck over a pretty jungle lake off on the left.

For fishing.

He’s an avid fisher, she’s found out. Has a soft spot for fly fishing in particular and often whinges how he doesn’t get to go as much as he’d like.

There’s more to the ‘tree house’. A lot more, and, eventually, something catches her attention. She worms her hand up until she’s able to wiggle a finger at the far right of the small screen.

“What’s that? They look like tombstones?”

“Oh. He-he.” He clears his throat and taps the first one.

Kyle couldn’t put the fire out, it reads.

Her right brow quirks up.

Kyle’s flailing about was finally stopped, says the next one.

“That’s a miracle,” she comments. Crane bumps his head against hers. Gently.

Kyle forgot to run.

Kyle discovered gravity.

       Kyle tried to swim in lava.

And so on and so forth.

“Wow,” she says. “Little Kyle isn’t having the best of times, is he?”

“Little—“ Crane pauses.

His mouth snaps shut. And, after that, it’s a miracle she can’t actually hear the worn-out gears in his head turning. Though she can most certainly feel how the lips he’s pressed to her temple curl up into yet another smile. This one’s cheeky, she imagines.

“Yeah. He’s having it rough. Wanna help cheer Little Kyle up?”

. . .

Okay, she walked into that one. She admits that, readily, but even more so readily she pokes at his ribs with her finger. Once. Then twice. At the third jab he huffs. At the forth the huff turns to a laugh and he twists awkwardly away from her — while not actually going anywhere and always snapping right back.

“I hate you,” she lies, her voice flat, and bites at his nearest finger with one of the candy rings still stuck to it.

“Thief,” he accuses and pulls her in tight again, his chin back to rest against her head. “Fine. Wanna help with decorating instead?”

She nods while idly chewing on the candy.

“Sweet. Okay— so—“

Yeah. Home is where the WiFi auto connects. Where you got all your favourite jam. Where the hats are all in order. And, sometimes, home is tiny and it’s also a tree, and you watch it grow while wrapped up in the arms of a man who can’t wear two matching socks.

a Paper Crane

Dying Light: Without

a Paper Crane

Harran fits him like a well-measured suit.

Kyle Crane admits to that readily. On his best days, he’s a man with an unquenchable thirst to do the right thing. On his worst, one with a defective sense of self-preservation.

I’m here to make a difference, he tells himself when he rises morning after morning, sometimes to his body aching since he’s slept on naked concrete and with a draft antagonising his joints; others—when he’s real lucky—to the reasonable comfort of that dusty room the Tower let him have.

He’s confident that, if he gets this right, he’ll save lives. And he will get it right.

He has to.

Rahim dies.

Kyle’s knuckles bleed, torn open in a fit of frustrated agony. He heaves in air and clenches his fists. The rain washes his blood off a metal wall. Blood he’s left there after he’s traded it blow after blow.

That kid had been too young to die.

He’ll get it right next time.

When Zere dies and Rais throws the GRE’s crooked lies at Kyle’s feet, Kyle wonders who he pissed off and just when his life had spiralled so far out of control. When he’d been bitten? When he’d accepted the contract? Or when he’d been born upside down, doomed right from the start?

He won’t give up. He can’t. There’s too much at stake. Harran will burn if he doesn’t get it right.

Day and night turn to a blur. Kyle wakes up screaming one night. His heart is in his throat and the vivid memory of a weeping—wailing—child he’d choked to death because it hadn’t been a child anymore is so real then, that he stumbles from his makeshift shelter and vomits off the edge of a roof.

Jade dies.

For him.

He’d been the one who’d come to save her. Not the other way around.

But Kyle knows death, and so he wraps the memory of her in a quilt stitched together from red-hot fury and vengeance-yet-had. He’ll cut Rais’s heart out, he vows.

Tahir dies. Kyle feels a little better.

Rais is next.

It’s not enough.

I’m here to make a difference, he reminds himself as he drags himself back to the dusty room they let him have, night after night. Day after day. It’s home now. It’s his. It’s where he hangs his clothes. It’s where he collects the quirky bits and pieces he picks up as Harran runs him ragged. A hotel room sign here. An odd rock there. A wizard’s hat given to him by a pack of smiling children. And all he had to do for that hat was kill a troll (and kill a man’s already-late-wife).

In the mornings, when he’s ready to leave, he pauses at his door. His fingers tremble. His throat bobs. It takes a while, but he stills the shakes. Then he summons a smile and shoves the door open.

Rinse and repeat.

One night, Kyle slumps into the chair belonging to the rickety desk in his room. He ditched his shoes at the door. His clothes stick to him, glued on by sweat and blood. There’s a persistent ache in his back where a muscle won’t heal after he’s pulled it one too many times. His left knee feels like it’s filled with hornets. Kyle shoves his tongue between his teeth and works his sidearm free from its shoulder holster. He slams it on the table. Got to tend to it. Clean it. Make sure it won’t give out on him; like he fears his body might. Soon. His fingers shake. He hasn’t even worked the gun’s slide off yet when his head hits the desk and the world turns comfortably dark.

Continue reading “Dying Light: Without”