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THURSDAY THE DAY BEFORE FRIDAY
Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.
Bryan swept out blindly and missed the alarm clock, floundering for the snooze button before finally shutting it up. He pulled himself up in bed and stared through the open slats of his blinds. It was still dark outside.
That was the worst part about school days. Having to get up before the sun. That and the school part.
Outside, he knew, the leaves had turned, spray-painting branches in bursts of orange and red, contrasted with the emerald carpet of manicured lawns,
but this early all he could see were shadows. Bryan stretched and stumbled toward the bathroom, dodging towers of laundry, trying to muster some enthusiasm. It was a Thursday, which at least made it close to Friday. That was something. He could hear his mother banging around in the fridge downstairs. She would already be in her tracksuit, drinking a vitamin shake and watching The TODAY Show. She had a crush on Matt Lauer. Bryan’s dad didn’t seem to mind.
Face washed, teeth brushed, he slipped back into his room and into cleaner-at-least clothes, glancing at his computer, where the title screen for Sovereign of Darkness stared back at him. He had played another couple of hours last night, foregoing his desire for a good night’s sleep in the hopes of uncovering the secret bonus level that he was sure existed.
He hadn’t found it.
Maybe Oz was right. Maybe it wasn’t there. But Bryan had a problem letting things go. It wasn’t determination, exactly. He had given up on lots of things over the course of his life—soccer, piano lessons (he still played the saxophone at least), karate, a perfect complexion, an A in math—but occasionally he would
fixate on something, let it nag him, like an itch on the roof of his mouth. Finding the secret bonus level to Sovereign of Darkness was one of those things.
On-screen, Kerran Nightstalker—the character Bryan had nursed from level one to level fifty through a steady diet of Mountain Dew–driven demon-bashing—spun his sword and stared heroically, as if he had spotted a pack of imps on the horizon and was begging Bryan to sit down and give him orders. Come on, Bryan, the dark elf whispered. Play ten more minutes. But Bryan couldn’t be late for school. Not again. He grabbed his backpack and hurried downstairs.
Bryan Biggins was a level-fifty, dual-wielding dark elf ranger only some of the time. The rest of the time he was a freckle-cheeked boy, short for his age, living at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood known for its high rate of community garage sales, and attending a school known for its unwritten uniform of North Face jackets and Hollister jeans. A place where everything looked the same from a distance. It was disconcerting sometimes, the sameness. The identical mailboxes. The columns of minivans ranging in hue from slate gray to charcoal gray. The flat-topped hedges marking the
boundaries between copycat houses. Sometimes it was hard to tell anything apart.
Bryan checked his reflection in the mirror above his dresser; he looked nothing like Kerran Nightstalker. He was scrawnier, for one, and his eyes were blue, not green. His nose rounded into a knob at the end, as if it were always slightly pressed against a window. Bryan didn’t own a flaming mace, though the crop of orange curls on his head sometimes gave the appearance that his skull was on fire. He had never held a sword in his life and had never slain anything, unless you counted the caterpillar he had accidentally rolled over with his Big Wheel when he was five. His mother said he cried for almost an hour.
And unlike Kerran Nightstalker, Bryan had never been in a fight. He had been pushed. Shouldered. Tripped. But he’d never taken a punch. He was no adventurer. Some days he didn’t even feel like the main character in his own life.
“Bryan, you better hurry. You’re going to be late!”
Bryan came down the stairs and snatched a waffle from the freezer. His mother handed him a glass of milk. “You’re not even going to toast that?”
“Nope,” Bryan said, cramming half of the ice-crystal-crusted waffle in his mouth.
“You were up late again playing that stupid game, weren’t you?”
“Mrff wrff frrm frrfrrwr.” He swallowed his milk in three gulps and went in for the hug. “Don’t want to be late,” he reminded her. She tried to sneak in a kiss, but he dodged it. Mom kisses were totally uncalled for.
“Have a good day,” she called out after him.
He said he would, but he really doubted it.
Bryan pedaled hard, still chewing his frozen waffle. It was a two-mile ride to school, which some mornings felt like the Tour de France, but it was still better than taking the bus. On buses nearly anything was fair game, as long as it could be done in secret behind the sticky vinyl seats and out of sight of the driver. On the bus in elementary school, Bryan had once been forced to mash a banana in his armpit—actually peeling it and sticking it underneath his shirt and squeezing—and then eat the sweaty remains. So when he finally graduated to middle school, he begged his parents to let him bike. To his surprise, they agreed. They didn’t know about the banana-armpit incident, but they had
heard other horror stories. Plus, like all parents, they insisted that exercise was good for you.
Bryan arrived at Mount Comfort Middle School with sweaty but bananaless pits and five minutes to spare. He chained his bike and sped through the halls to his locker, where Oz was dutifully waiting and shaking his head.
“Almost late again.”
“I know,” Bryan said.
Bryan had lots of friends—at least fifty or so online, half of whom he recognized and at least ten that he could remember having spoken to in real life. Mostly, though, Bryan had Oz: the self-proclaimed Wizard of Elmhurst Park and unconfirmed holder of the world record for Pixy Stix slamming (twenty-three in one minute) and the only kid at Mount Comfort who looked up to Bryan. Oz was second generation. His parents had come to the country from Puerto Rico, packing little Oswaldo in Mrs. Guzman’s belly, only two months from delivery, ensuring he would be 100 percent American when he arrived.
Oz was born to be a magician. You don’t name a kid Flash and then not expect him to try out for
football. Or name your daughter Moonbeam and then act surprised when she pierces her nose. And since there were no such things as wizards—not in real life—magician seemed the next-best thing. Oz had a whole trunk full of magic paraphernalia in his closet: top hats and disappearing coin boxes, weighted dice, little red balls, and an array of colorful scarves. Strangely, having a trunk full of silk scarves didn’t up his cool factor any at school.
Bryan couldn’t endure life at Mount Comfort Middle School without him, though. They had been best friends since they were six years old and both of them peed on Mrs. Bucherwald’s maple tree together. It didn’t matter to Bryan that Oz was always too loud and a little overweight. It didn’t matter to Oz that Bryan had pasty vampire skin and seldom wore matching clothes. They had marked their territory, and that was enough.
“Okay, so I was watching episode fourteen of The Firelight Chronicles again last night, and I think I know who’s behind the Enigma Virus,” Oz began breathlessly.
“No you don’t,” Bryan said, opening his locker and finding his books. The Firelight Chronicles was a show he and Oz watched that featured space pirates,
aliens, androids, and female actresses dressed in black leather. Bryan was pretty sure he and Oz were the target audience. “They’re not going to tell you who’s behind it. They want you to speculate.”
“It’s Dr. Raznor,” Oz continued.
“Too obvious,” Bryan said.
“Which is why it is Dr. Raznor.” Oz nodded, winking. “Because they know that you know that it’s obvious, so they know that you know that it’s not him, which means it has to be him.”
Bryan rolled his eyes and fished out his math book. He had math first period. Who in their right mind decided that dividing fractions was best done at eight in the morning?
“Let me guess. You were too busy playing SOD to watch. Did you get any closer to finding the secret level?”
“Not for lack of trying,” Bryan said, digging through the discarded candy wrappers for his social studies notebook—the one he should probably have been studying last night. “I’ll try again tonight, provided Old Man Jenkins doesn’t overload us with reading.”
Jenkins was Bryan’s social studies teacher. He was
only in his early forties, but he already had gray hair and his breath smelled of butterscotch. He was better than Fossil Frieda, the senile art teacher who refused to retire and croaked like a frog from too many years of smoking. She insisted that Lady Gaga was the name of a French Impressionist painter and worried that Elvis Presley was still a corrupting influence on America’s youth. She had probably never even played a video game in her life.
“I think you’re wasting your time,” Oz said matter-of-factly.
Bryan looked at his friend, eyebrow cocked. “Excuse me? Playing the same game over and over again in order to unlock a secret level that may or may not exist is not a waste of time,” he countered. “Besides, do I even need to remind you of the time you spent sixteen straight hours playing Super Plumber Seven? At least I didn’t leave my butt print permanently engraved on the couch in my basement.”
“I was in the zone,” Oz protested. “And you can’t even tell it’s my butt. And that’s not the point. The point is . . .”
Oz didn’t say what the point was. His voice trailed
off. He pointed behind Bryan. “Girl,” he whispered. “And she’s coming straight for us.” Oz looked down at his feet. Bryan turned around.
It wasn’t just a girl. Or not just any girl. It was Jess.
“Oh. Hey,” Bryan said, suddenly conscious of what the bike ride had done to his hair. It probably looked like a giant orange starfish had suckered to his skull and then died there. He tried to smooth it down, all casual like. He only made it worse.
“Hi, Bryan. Hey, Oz,” Jess said.
“Uh. Um. Wuhuh?” Oz said, using the vocabulary he reserved for all female encounters. Not that Bryan blamed him. This was Jessica Alcorn. Just Jess to anyone who knew her. The same Jess that Bryan had sat next to in third grade. The one he wasn’t allowed to talk about anymore because Oz had gotten tired of hearing about her. She stood an inch taller than both of them and had what Bryan’s mother would call an olive complexion, though it looked nothing like any olives he had ever seen, closer to the color of a walnut. Today her black hair splayed out over her shoulders and stretched to her elbows. Her long legs were tucked into knee-high black leather boots. She wore a white
patterned sweater that reminded him of snowflakes. But mostly it was her eyes that struck him. Chocolate-hued with flecks of orange. Like late autumn. Bryan blinked twice.
“I’m not interrupting, am I?” Jess asked, tucking her hair behind her ear the way all girls somehow learn to do. Bryan cleared his throat.
“No. Um. Actually, I was just telling Oz about this video ga—” Bryan stopped himself before diving headlong into total, hopeless nerddom. “I mean, I was just headed to class,” he amended.
Oz nodded dumbly. “Headed to class,” he repeated.
“Oh,” Jess said, adjusting her backpack, “because I wanted to ask you if you had anything going on tomorrow night. Missy Middleton is having one of her little get-togethers at her place.”
Jess paused. Oz licked his lips. Bryan stared. He had never been to Missy Middleton’s house. He had never gotten so much as a casual wave from Missy Middleton, let alone an invitation to come over.
“Sooo . . . ,” Jess continued, stretching the word like taffy, “she said I could invite whoever I wanted.”
Bryan put a hand on his locker door. His tongue felt
like a sponge left out in the sun. He tried to stay calm, taking a deep breath without looking like he was taking a deep breath. He felt Oz scoot next to him so that their shoulders were touching, as if he were trying to attach himself permanently, like conjoined twins.
“Practice,” Bryan heard himself blurt out. Beside him, Oz grunted. Jess cocked her head. “Baseball practice. Like, all night. Sorry.”
“I didn’t know you played baseball,” Jess said.
“Yeah,” Oz said through gritted teeth. “I didn’t know you played baseball.”
“Right. Just started. This year,” Bryan said sheepishly.
Jess smiled. It was her polite smile, not her real one. Bryan knew the difference. He had all her facial expressions cataloged, knew when she was angry or annoyed or upset or proud of herself. He’d been watching her for years.
“It’s all right,” she said. She didn’t sound disappointed, exactly, which was disappointing. “Well, if practice gets canceled and you change your mind, here’s Missy’s address.” She held out a scrap of paper filled with her hurried handwriting. Bryan took it, and for a very brief moment their fingertips almost touched.
Oz turned and punched Bryan in the shoulder after Jess walked away. “Baseball practice?”
“What did you want me to say?”
“Oh. I don’t know. How about, ‘Um, yeah, we’ll be there’? I mean, is that so hard? The girl you can barely shut up about just asked you out!”
“She didn’t ask me out,” Bryan mumbled. “She invited us—me and you—along with probably a hundred other people, to a party where, undoubtedly, we would get stuck in a corner wishing we were somewhere else, while she hung around with someone much cooler. Besides, if you wanted to go so badly, why didn’t you say something?”
“You know I can’t talk to women,” Oz said.
“You can talk to Myra.”
“Myra doesn’t count.”
Bryan sort of knew what he meant. Myra Felton was their lunch buddy and sometime gaming companion. A friend first and a girl only as an afterthought, though Bryan was pretty sure she secretly (and somewhat inexplicably) had a crush on Oz. Oz didn’t know this, of course. He sometimes had trouble figuring out which shoe went on which foot, so expecting him to pick up
on the little flirty cues Myra dropped was asking way too much. “Besides, Friday night’s game night,” Bryan reminded him.
“Every night is game night,” Oz said, almost making it sound like a bad thing. He glanced at his watch. “Whatever. We really are going to be late now.” Oz grabbed his backpack and looked Bryan straight in the eyes. “Seriously, though. Reconsider. You can still cancel your imaginary baseball practice. I haven’t been to a party in over a decade.”
“You’re only twelve.”
“I know. Think about it.” Oz put a finger to his skull, then turned and disappeared into the crowd—the one magic act he was actually good at. Bryan looked down the hall to see Jess talking with some of her girlfriends.
Oz was right. He should have just said yes. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t. After all, this was the same girl who had sat at his table in the third grade and shown him how to make a second layer of skin out of Elmer’s glue, peeling it off in strips so they could examine the prints. The same girl who had personally given him a special valentine with one of those little candy hearts. The same Jess who last year had asked if she could borrow
his lip balm during a field trip to the planetarium, not even wiping it off before handing it back. They had known each other for nearly five years. They’d been in the same reading groups. They’d bounced in the same bounce houses. They’d once gone to the same party at the Roller Cave and accidentally run into each other, Jess offering to help him up and Bryan refusing, afraid he’d just drag her down.
For over a third of Bryan’s life, Jess had been there, like a satellite, hovering around him, just out of reach. They smiled and waved and had three-sentence-long conversations, and then he watched her from a distance, wondering if he would ever have the guts to tell her just how often he thought about her, wondering if she ever thought about him.
Unfortunately, she was also the same girl who had recently been seen hanging out with someone else. And not just anyone. The star of the Mount Comfort Middle School basketball team and unanimously voted God’s gift to the universe, Landon Prince. Perfect golden crown of hair. Teeth so white they had to be bleached. Eye-traceable stomach muscles. Landon had been seen walking Jess home several times already
this year, which is all it takes to make the whispers start. And those whispers were what Bryan had heard in the back of his head when Jess asked him if he was free this Friday.
He stood by his locker and watched her laughing with her friends. If this were the movies, she would turn and look his way. She and Bryan would lock eyes for a second or two, and then she would bite her lip (that way girls do) and turn back around and he would know he’d made a serious mistake turning her down.
But this wasn’t the movies.
Bryan watched her vanish around the corner without a second glance. There were no do-overs. He had blown it. He sullenly reached into his locker for his copy of Romeo and Juliet, when a familiar voice made him freeze.
Bryan felt his stomach clench. He turned to get a look, just to be sure, though there was no mistaking the voice.
“Hi, Tank,” Bryan said, thinking of burying himself in his locker like a snail retreating into its shell, but Christopher “Tank” Wattly slammed it shut before he
had a chance. Tank Wattly resembled a white rhinoceros and had a neck like a tree trunk, on which sat his oversize, block-shaped head. He was dressed, as usual, in his letter jacket and combat boots straight out of the Second World War. He towered easily over Bryan.
“How’s life in the Shire?”
It was an old joke, one that Bryan had endured since the second grade. It came with the last name. Bryan doubted Tank had ever even seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies, let alone read the books. He some days doubted Wattly could read at all.
Bryan put his hands in his pockets and took a step back instinctively, trying to decide if there was any way to play this so that he could avoid getting picked on. This wasn’t his first encounter with Wattly. If he could just navigate the conversation without saying anything offensive, he would probably sneak by with just a little more name-calling and a mild shoulder shove.
“Just trying to avoid the big, ugly Orcs,” Bryan said.
“What’d you just call me?” Tank said, suddenly closing the already-too-short distance between them.
“No. Not you . . . I mean, just, because of your
comment about the Shire . . .” Bryan tried to backtrack, but it was too late. The kid whose friends had nicknamed him Tank for his ability just to roll over opposing linemen on the football field pushed Bryan up against the lockers with one hand, pinning him there like a human Post-it note. Bryan could count the brown hairs on Wattly’s knuckles. He looked around for a teacher. Or the principal. Or anyone with a stun gun and the authority to use it.
“Listen, Tank . . . ,” Bryan said, his breathing getting harder. “Let’s be honest. Beating me up isn’t going to make you feel any better about yourself.”
“Are you suggesting I should feel bad about myself?” Tank asked, his face reddening.
Bryan tried to squirm free, thinking of how much easier life would be if he really were a level-fifty dark elf ranger like Kerran Nightstalker. He would just summon a swarm of flesh-eating locusts to go to town on Chris Wattly, leaving nothing but bones. As it was, all Bryan could do was kick his legs and hope the bell rang soon. Several kids had turned around to watch, giving Wattly an audience, which made things even worse. Tank pressed harder and Bryan felt like his ribs were about to crack.
“C’mon, Wattly, just let him go.”
Suddenly the pressure on Bryan’s chest lifted and he dropped to his feet. Wattly stepped back with an angry flash in his eyes. Bryan took a deep breath and straightened out his shirt and then turned to see his savior, thinking maybe it was Mr. Vincent, the assistant principal, or one of the other teachers. But it wasn’t. It was Prince. Maybe the only kid in the whole school whom Tank didn’t look down on.
“Tank” and “Prince.” And he was stuck with “Bilbo.” Life was beyond unfair sometimes.
Wattly looked over at Landon Prince, then back at Bryan. His giant, strawberry face was all crumpled up, as if he were trying to add two-digit numbers. Finally he took one of his meaty hands and brushed imaginary dust off of Bryan’s shoulder. “Tell Frodo I said ‘hi.’ ”
“Will do,” Bryan said, then gave Tank a two-fingered salute. All the kids who had been watching turned away, losing interest now that there was no potential for bloodshed. Not that there would have been a fight, exactly, just a one-sided pummeling. Bryan watched Tank lumber down the hall, passing close by Landon, who didn’t even flinch.
“You all right?” Landon asked. Mouth full of pearls. Hair perfectly coifed. Bryan almost thought he saw a halo, too, but that must have been the reflection of the halogen lights above.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Bryan said, reaching down and picking up his bag so as not to make too much eye contact. Tank made Bryan feel weak, but Landon Prince just made him feel small.
“Don’t let Chris get to you; he’s got anger management issues. You sure you’re okay?”
Bryan Biggins finally looked up into that handsome face. Yes. Life was completely unfair and the universe was a callous, good-for-nothing jerk.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whatever. It’s no big deal.” He couldn’t bring himself to say “thanks,” even though he knew he should. He couldn’t say it because Landon Prince didn’t need it. Bryan didn’t get to be the center of the good-for-nothing-jerk universe. Not like Landon Prince. Bryan wasn’t the one the girls whispered about at lunch. Or the one the teachers beamed with pride over. He wasn’t the one who got to walk Jess Alcorn home.
The universe had thanked Landon Prince plenty already.
The bell for first period rang. Bryan was late. His math teacher, Mr. Tennenbaum, would probably write him up. Figures. First Jess, then Wattly, and now this. He had been at school less than fifteen minutes and already was having a terrible day.
He should have just stayed at home and smashed imps.
It didn’t get any better. The disapproving look from Mr. Tennenbaum when Bryan came in late—the warning not to let it happen again. The tanked social studies quiz—to be expected due to the total lack of studying. The fact that it was turkey and noodles at lunch. Oz spending half the day bugging him about Jess’s party. The bugging, the bullying, the Shakespeare, the quizzes, the walking through the halls with your eyes on your shoes so that nobody noticed you, the fact that nobody noticed you—after all of it, the last bell finally rang, and Bryan felt like he had just been released from purgatory. He headed to his locker and met up with Oz, who promised he’d try to come over if his mom let him. Bryan nodded and headed for the door, hoping, at least, that his bike hadn’t been stolen.
And that’s when he saw her. Or saw them, rather. Her sitting on the ledge edging the stairs to the school’s
front entrance. Him hovering over her. Bryan just stood at the door and watched, jostled by all the other kids scrambling for their buses. Landon Prince had a hand on her shoulder. Her hands were on her knees, legs crossed. He must have said something funny, because Jess laughed a little, then smiled. Her real smile, not the one she’d given Bryan that morning.
Someone shouldered Bryan out of the way from behind, causing his backpack to slip off and tumble down, spilling its contents across three stairs. Someone else kicked his math book and it skidded into the street, forcing Bryan to go after it. By the time he had gathered everything up, Landon and Jess were gone.
That night after dinner, homework, and a forced hour of family time where he and his parents did the dishes and then played a game of Clue (Bryan wanted to guess Tank Wattly in the hall with his bare hands, though it was really Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick in the study), Bryan sat behind his closed bedroom door and called Oz to tell him about what he’d seen after school. On-screen, Kerran Nightstalker was torching his way through a horde of goblins on his way to the Demon’s Lair. For the tenth time.
“So he walked her home. Big deal. I’d let you walk me home.”
“I don’t want to walk you home,” Bryan said.
“What? I’m not good enough for you anymore? You’re lucky to have me.”
Bryan snorted, not wanting to admit that Oz was right. “It’s not just that, though. The whole day was horrible. It’s like no matter what I do, I can’t win.”
“You feel like your life is on hard-core mode,” Oz mused.
“Something like that.”
“Everybody’s life is on hard-core mode.”
“So sayeth the wise Oswaldo.”
“I’m just saying, everybody feels that way, like everyone else is out to get them. Everybody feels like their life is the worst and that nobody understands.”
“I doubt Landon Prince feels that way.”
“Whatever, dude. I’m not the one that turned Jessica Alcorn down today. It’s not like you didn’t have your chance.”
He was right about that, too. Oz was seldom right about two things in a row. It was disconcerting.
“You think we should have said yes.”
“I think you should have said yes,” Oz replied. Bryan could hear Mrs. Guzman’s voice yelling in the background. Oz’s mom had a distinctive voice—distinctive, meaning loud enough to wake the dead. “Listen, I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow, all right? Friday. Game night. That is, unless you have baseball.”
“Game night,” Bryan repeated.
Bryan hung up and then finished off the last of the goblin guards outside the Demon King’s temple. The music ratcheted up, synthesizers bleating in a minor key.
“Greetings, chosen one. I have been expecting you.”
He couldn’t fault Jess for choosing Landon Prince. Trouble was, he couldn’t hate him for it either, no matter how much he wanted to. Just that morning Prince had kept Bryan from having his heart ripped out of his chest Temple of Doom style. There was no competition where Bryan could possibly triumph over Landon Prince. Except maybe video games. And Bryan couldn’t imagine a world where winning a video game earned you the heart of some girl you’d been crushing on since the third grade.
“Then let us begin, warrior, so I can wallow in a bath of your cruor.”
He should just let it go. She probably had no idea that he thought about her constantly, that he kept that same thing of lip balm hidden in his dresser next to that third-grade valentine, the letters on the candy heart almost smudged out of existence. She had no idea because he never bothered to tell her. He could barely get a word out when they did talk, let alone say how he really felt. He didn’t have the guts. It was useless even thinking about it. Bryan stabbed the Demon King through his own black heart and watched him explode.
He stared blankly at the screen, having forgotten why he was even doing all of this again. The music swelled. In just a moment the credits would roll, and Bryan would be right back where he started. He began to push away from his desk, when the theme music to Sovereign of Darkness suddenly, inexplicably, cut out.
Bryan paused, then pulled his chair up to the desk with both hands. He watched as the pixilated remains of the Demon King slowly reassembled themselves, piece by piece, from clawed feet to horny crown, until he was completely re-formed.
This had never happened before.
Bryan hitched a breath, his skin tingling, chest tightening. The Demon King knelt down in the center of the screen, holding his giant sword before him in deference.
“Congratulations, warrior. It is time for your true journey to begin.”
“Shut. Up.” Bryan reached for his phone, finger poised over one of only three numbers in his speed dial. Then, suddenly, the screen flashed black, then green, then black again. All black. Entirely black.
The game was gone. Everything was gone. Sovereign of Darkness had closed. Shut down. Bryan was just staring at a blank black screen.
“Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” He clicked the mouse. Left. Then right. Scrolled. Pressed the space bar. Return. Escape. A bunch of random keys. Pounding. Clacking. Nothing. Blank screen. “What? What did I do? Where did you go? Come back!”
A line of neon-blue text appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“What the heck?” Bryan hit the enter key several times rapidly.
He pressed Ctrl+Alt+Delete. A new blue line appeared.
TRANSFER PROTOCOL FAILURE AT XP1. USER RECONFIGURATION REQUIRED. REINITIALIZING.
That didn’t sound good. “Reinitializing? Reinitializing what? What are you doing, you stupid machine?” Bryan pounded on the top of the monitor with his fist.
The screen suddenly erupted with text, marching left to right, flooding from the bottom up. Bryan caught only traces of words he recognized: “download,” “host,” “corrupted.” Lots of numbers. Enormous strings mixed with symbols, like a cartoon character’s curses. This wasn’t good at all. He was sure he had somehow infected his computer with a drive-crashing virus. He reached down for the power switch, ready just to kill it, his elation at having maybe unlocked the hidden level of the best game of all time replaced with dread at having to tell his parents that he had ruined the $800 desktop they had gotten him for his birthday. He reached down
to the box, which was radiating heat like a furnace, its fan in overdrive.
Then he stopped.
The text had come to an abrupt halt, leaving only one line flashing, this one at the top of the screen.
PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE.
Bryan took a deep breath. He sat up in his chair.
PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE.
He reached out and hesitantly tapped the space bar.
ARE YOU SURE (Y/N)?
“Am I sure?”
Bryan couldn’t remember the last time he was 100 percent certain of anything.
He knew what he should do. He should just unplug the thing and give it a minute to cool down and then restart. He should leave it alone. Odds were nothing good could come of this. Nothing at all.
Then again, if he continued . . .
Bryan held his breath and pressed the space bar.
There was a sound, a soft whimper like a metallic sigh, and then the whole thing shut down. The computer. The monitor. The speakers. All of it. As if it had blown a fuse. None of the buttons were flashing. The
fan stopped its steady whir. Dead. He’d killed it.
Bryan cursed and banged on the keyboard a few times, then counted to ten and pressed the power button on the tower. Nothing. The monitor wouldn’t even come on. The whole thing was fried.
“Terrific! Just terrific!” He kicked at the computer and it rocked back and forth. His parents were going to be so ticked. Bryan crawled under the desk, checked the plugs, jiggled the wires. No effect.
He looked at the clock. It was 11:37. He had school tomorrow. His mom would hissy fit big-time if she knew he was still awake. He listened for her footsteps in the hall, afraid that his own cursing had woken her, but there was only silence.
There was nothing he could do about it tonight. He would have to deal with the broken computer tomorrow after school. Maybe he could take it over to Mike Merano’s. Mikey was a big math geek who sometimes rebuilt computers and phones and stuff in his garage. Maybe it had just blown a circuit. He tried one last time to power it up, saying a short prayer, but to no avail. Then he collapsed onto his bed without even pulling up the sheets and buried his face in a pillow.
That had been it. The secret level. He was sure of it. And then the whole thing had come crashing down. As usual.
Oz would never believe him. Nobody would. With his computer fried there was no telling what damage had been done. His saved games were probably gone. The software could have been corrupted. Still, he knew. He had been right on the cusp of something magical.
It is time for your true journey to begin.
He couldn’t worry about it. Tomorrow was Friday. He would have the weekend to mess with it. Maybe he could get the computer fixed, reload the program, get his character back to the level it was. It would take hours. Days. But he could at least get started. He had the whole weekend to himself.
It wasn’t as if he had anything better to do.