Valerie, I hope this message gets to you. I only have two hours on the library computer until I have to give it up. I’ve been gone a while and I just want to let you hear my side of the story.

It began with the reunion party, the one after the self-quar that was supposed to be fun. You always threw the best birthday parties, Val; you really put your heart into it didn’t you? Every birthday party had a different theme. One year it was dinosaur themed, and you made these dinosaur eggs with a merengue outside and gluten free banana nut bread inside. A volcano with strawberry glaze lava.

I always had a thing for your quirky librarian glasses, but when Leo was born, I supported your decision to step back from the library for a while. Once Leo’s peanut allergy really became apparent, your temporary absence from the library became permanent. Leo was our only son, and you were a passionate mama bear.

Remember, Valerie, how you always said I was more reserved? The tone of the post-quar (or was it the post-quar, pre-war party?) was far more somber and understated than usual. But imagine watching your first-born son in the grips of anaphylactic shock after eating a peanut butter cookie? You started hyperventilating when recalling it. We were in our mid-30s when Leo was born and for a time thought he would be an only child. You were nearly 40 when Arianna was born. It was enough to sacrifice your job and stay home and monitor every meal for the hope of preserving this child until adulthood.

Valerie, I hope you don’t mind me letting everyone know my name is Enrique and I work, or at least I used to work at Loew and Gramm, a law firm that specializes in the software industry. We were blessed that I made enough so you can stay home and even send Leo to a private school. At the law firm, some of the partners had good experience with the St. Andrews Episcopal school. “All the grace of a Catholic School with half the guilt,” I was told. The price tag was exorbitant, but with the haunting fear of Leo’s diet restrictions, we bit the bullet. Leo was happy, it was SAFE, and they even had a Montessori program. Isn’t safety the reason why anyone sends their child to a private school? To avoid bullying?

Remember how Leo’s friend Mychal was really acting weird during the post-quar party? Mychal’s mom, Ingrid, ascended the latter to marketing VP at T-Mobile. Blonde with blue eyes, Ingrid was the picture of perfection in terms of poise and grace, but after a couple glasses of chardonnay, she would let slip that she didn’t need a man to support her. That always stuck in your craw, didn’t it, Val?

Mychal’s dad Gary worked for Accenture and traveled often, until, eventually, he transferred to Chicago permanently, right around the time Mychal started kindergarten. Fortunately for Ingrid, T-Mobile has the best day care facilities in Tacoma. Ingrid’s easy smile and TED talk-inspired marketing performance could always dazzle. Mychal certainly looked like his mother with a buzz cut; he would look at you like through you, as if he just ran over your cat but you didn’t have any evidence to exactly pin it on him. There was a slight asymmetry to Mychal’s eyes. Mychal took to Leo quickly. You always enjoyed hosting the parties and the kids used our loft for pretend-play. Wizard outfits, knights, royalty. You added dresses for Arianna. You found these great felt costumes in yard sales and mended them yourself. After the allotted two hour scheduled playtime, Ingrid had to return to work-from-home duty. The kids were all giggling incessantly, and when I showed up, Arianna was dressed as a knight, Mychal was dressed as a king, and Leo was a ballerina. Laughing, Leo said that, “It was Mychal’s idea.”

We laughed it off, didn’t we, sweetie? But when at St. Andrews, Mychal asked Leo whether he thought whether transgender boys were real boys, it wasn’t something we were expecting to talk about, was it, Val? When Leo was eight, you even sat down and explained the birds and the bees, and (despite my objections I may add), you explained to Leo that it was perfectly okay for a family to have two daddies or two mommies. But now the bridge too far finally came. Ingrid had deceived us, deceived Leo, by passing off her daughter (birth name Mackayla) as a boy since kindergarten. In their lingo, they call it “going in stealth.” Five years, Valerie: that’s a long deception.

When I saw you crying that afternoon with Leo, I was heartbroken, as if we were rushing him to the emergency room for an epi-pen all over again. Your problem glasses, which accentuated your sharp nose and oval face, were on the bed stand, and your face was red and sopping wet. Leo takes after you so much; his hair was even blonde like yours at first.

I miss Leo so much, Val.

You two were crying together when you told me Ingrid had lied to you the whole time, that she sent her daughter Mychal under false pretenses that she was a boy. From Kindergarten all the way until now. Ingrid is a full-blown Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy maniac, and ruthless. She gave you the ultimatum that if we didn’t accept her delusions then we couldn’t be friends, that she would poison the well at St. Andrews, called you a regressive SAHM (as if that was something to be ashamed of). I never understood why you thought you needed to seek out her approval for your life choices anyway, Valerie.

We certainly found resistance at St. Andrews, didn’t we? Ingrid was a big donor, and for us, it was much easier to exit the school. A perfectly rational choice, particularly in light of COVID. Ingrid pestered you about it; she put it on blast in the fifth-grade group text that we were intolerant and bigoted for “abandoning the fifth-grade community at St. Andrews” and did her dead level best to stigmatize us. I understood why Gary left for Chicago.

Homeschooling was no picnic. We saved money, sure, but with Arianna still young, you were getting stir crazy. We had been alienated from our friends and isolated, living in a bubble. But Leo was SAFE. You sacrificed what little time you had to keep him from indoctrination and the brainwashing of Mychal. We began to search for tutors, Khan Academy programs. We bought Leo a laptop; he would have needed one for school anyway. There were tutors that could teach biochemistry to fifth graders. It was getting beyond you, beyond us even, but Leo was happy and engaging again. I was working at home, throwing the ball around with Leo during his break time, throwing a changeup like Marco Gonzales.

It was in May I noticed Leo was getting defensive around his laptop. Was it porn? Leo told me it was Mindcraft, a new open-source MMO game focused on constructing the identity of the players as much as the building blocks. I took it upon myself to look into this game, I checked when he was logging in and found his password and logged in one day. Leo was on a forum called “The Pyramid of Tanit” where a team of collaborators built a landscape. It was ornate with towers with minarets, a kingdom with a mote, a well curated forest and gardens, and a pyramid in the center. Just the outdoor garden itself was immense, with vast fields of tulips and daffodils and groups of children around a maypole. Just then, a message came through the screen.

“The sarcophagus is ready to open.” It was @BuffTwink, sending out a whisper to the nearest neighbors. At the base of the pyramid, a grand stone in front of the entrance rolled away and many of the audience began to file in. I followed along, intrigued at what was taking up so much of Leo’s time. The inside was elaborate and expansive. Lush, Escher-inspired spiral staircases, a grand antechamber with several vestibules selling digital wares and trinkets. AI-generated art was hanging on the walls, each with prompts added by users, and randomly this artwork was replaced, ranked, and upvoted. The artwork ranged from the benign, “Sunset in Romania” in a baroque style, or “Floating Castles in Space” in a steampunk-inspired pastiche reminiscent of Ghibli Studios. Often, however, there was crude allusions and vulgarity. Artwork inspired by the prompt “I am Taylor Swift’s tapeworm,” where a vague blob somewhat similar to the artist, red lipstick, and a bob cut with the hair just touching the shoulders, and a blast of spaghetti just below where her neck should be. “Billie Eilish in a hot dog eating contest,” a large green blob with a gaping yaw and dozens of cylindrical meat tubes shoved right down her bottomless gullet. A consensus assignment algorithm ranked the most upvoted artwork, which was assigned into an ascendant, more permanent fixture. Absolutely vile art like “A pink sock doused in sugar” (do not look it up) was there as well.

It was that art, Valerie, which began to alarm me. All of the ascended “art” revolved around nude children. “Haitian refugees on scopolamine,” wide-eyed groups of children cowering in fear in front of the POV shadow of some adult. “Pizza man has arrived,” a Henry Darger motif of prepubescent hermaphrodites bouncing on pogo sticks in a GIF while fire shoots out of their bottoms. A Venus of Willendorf giving birth to many tiny female minions, an array of udders oozing black liquid.

“Hey Leo, want to mod your avatar?” It was a personal whisper from an account called @Fox_Fur_dandelion.

I entered in the text bar “sure.” Leo’s handle was @Nidas_touch, a clever twist on “Leonidas.”

“What would you like: dragon scales, nose piercing, a tail?”

“Well, I’m not so sure; what do you think?”

“I think you’d look great with some elf ears and boobs, lol,” said @Fox_Fur_dandelion.

“Yuck,” I replied. “How about six-pack abs and a Viking helmet?”

“Ooh, look at you, tough guy all of a sudden. Come on, last time you wanted to be a sleek elf, Leo.”

I wondered for a moment, Val, who @Fox_Fur_dandelion was before I realized, I KNEW, it was Mychal. She was still communicating with Leo through Mindcraft; she was a moderator on the local server. But I had to verify.

“I guess what’s cool about Mindcraft is you can be whatever you want; you can mod or unmod yourself and build your body to suit your fantasy.”

“I like being able to let my imagination run free,” said @Fox_fur_dandelion.

“You have quite an active imagination, Mychal,” I typed.

“Lol. LMAO,” @Fox_fur_dandelion replied.

“I like these games, but I like the real world, too; what do you think?”

“This is the real-world, LEO; don’t be such a noob. Anyway, I want to mod myself in the real world, too. That’s why I’m Lupron, so I can tailor my gender to my imagination. You should try it, too. What if we both swapped genders?”

“Lupron, you mean like Lupron James?”

“No, silly, Lupron delays puberty so you can take hormones to match your chosen gender later,” said @Fox_fur_dandelion.

“Is that your mom talking?” I challenged.

“My mom affirms my chosen gender, Leo. She accepts me. You USED to accept me, Leo, until your transphobic parents got between the two of us.”

“It’s just that I feel like you and your mom lied to us, and I wonder if you ever felt like this was her decision rather than yours,” I told her.

“It wasn’t anyone’s decision, LEO. I knew ever since I could remember I wanted to be a boy, LEO, and no one can take that away from me.”

“I did enjoy playing pirates with you, Mychal,” I offered. “It’s just that have you considered exploring what it would like to be a girl?”

“Gross. And do what, be a cheerleader? Girls are BORING, Leo.”

“Your Mom’s not boring, though.”

“Leave my Mom out of it.”

“Ok, I won’t mention it. Let’s check out the Sarcophagus, then.”

“Fine, but only if you get dragon scales.”

“Okay.” I didn’t want to go this deep. I was deceiving Mychal. Their playful curiosity soured to me on the thought of it actually being a budding romance in disguise. Ingrid’s child abuse retconned Leo’s childhood friendship with Mychal into a distorted and perverted puppy love.

For all installments of “The Sarcophagus of Tanit” click here.