Category Archives: Fiction Fall 2015

Shake the Rust

“Okay, I can fix this. I just need help.” The young girl heaved a sigh of relief as she slumped against the front door of her grandparents’ house that she’d just rushed through. Her short blue hair was all scraggled, and her clothes looked much the same. Things had happened very quickly and gone wrong even quicker. She wasn’t sure what she should do, but she knew she had to get back as soon as possible, otherwise.

“Lorelei?!” gasped her mother, rounding the corner. “Where’ve you been?! I thought you came home with Bianca! What happened? Why’re you all banged up?”

It was late, and seeing as she’d been running as fast as she could, Lorelei hadn’t been too quiet when she burst through the door.

“What?” she pointed to herself, “Me? Where’ve I been? Just y’know…” she looked around the room, scraping for a feasible answer, “just riding my bike. Yeah!” she perked up. “Late night bike ride in the country. That sort of thing.”

“Then,” her mother gestured to all of her ragamuffin daughter, “How’d your clothes get all torn and dirty?”

“OH!” Lorelei clapped her hands together, “That! YES!” She hadn’t actually noticed the state of her clothes with all that had happened. “I totally fell into a ditch. But it’s okay, I’m okay!” She waved her hands frantically. “I’m good, no fractures, broken bones, or otherwise.”

She knocked on her head, “Had my helmet on too, so my noggin’s good as well! No worries.”

“Hmm,” her mother mulled over this information, “okay.” Lorelei sighed at this, “But next time, give me a heads up before you go out, okay? You’re usually so good at that.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say?” Lorelei pointed to herself with both hands, “Teenager,” she smirked.

“Okay, well, g’night then,” her mother waved and yawned as she headed to her room.

“See you in the morning.”

Another sigh. “Well, at least that went well,” Lorelei thought. “Could’ve gone worse. Could’ve gone worse. I’ve already had enough worse for one night.”

*     *     *

Lorelei dropped her backpack on the floor by her room’s door. She and her mother had temporarily moved in with her grandparents. At least until the divorce was a done deal. It had taken a while, but her new room had begun to feel a little bit more like home after she had filled the dresser with her clothes, and stacked the few books she had brought from home on the desk near her bed. Neat and organized…and a little cramped. It was the exact opposite of her old room. At least it had a big window, though. She sighed and looked out at the dark night, wondering what to do, knowing what she had to do, not wanting to do what she had to do.

Whether she liked it or not, she had to go back there.

Back to the factory. Back to the fear.

“Oy! Lorelei!”

“GAH!”

The voice came from her bed, startling Lorelei. It was a friend.

“What happened after I left?” Bianca asked, looking confused. “Where’s Wes?”

“Things…happened.”

*     *     *

A few days after they’d moved in, Lorelei decided to take a walk to try and clear her head a bit. She stepped outside, followed the bends of her grandparent’s driveway, and headed out onto the empty country road. The sun shone warm, but the wind was cool. Fall lay on the horizon. She wore her favorite hooded purple sweatshirt covered with tiny silver stars on it while she took her walk to no place in particular. The wind, and the sun, and the quiet helped to clear her recently very busy mind as she trudged on. Eventually, she came across a clearing in the woods off the side of the road, with an old, broken, wooden gate in front. Curious, she headed down the path beyond it. The clearing looked pretty old, and had a rut from car tires that was now covered in grass and leaves. She followed the path for quite some time until it was blocked by a high wall of fallen trees. From the looks of things, the trees seemed to have been cut down, rather than blown over by the wind or fallen down on their own. There were several “Caution” blockades in front of the trees.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” thought Lorelei. “I’d wager somebody doesn’t want somebody to get past this blockade…but why?”

Her curiosity had been piqued. There was no way that this minor setback was going to stop her. She searched around until she found a way around them, through the thick woods. She grabbed ahold of a low-hanging tree branch, and pulled herself up onto the high embankment that formed the sides of the wooded path. Her skin and clothes were scratched as she waded her way through the thick brush. Soon, she rounded the blockade and stepped back out onto the path.

The trail continued winding on and on, and Lorelei soon began wondering whether she should head back or not.

That is, until she saw the factory.

It was old. At least several decades from the look of it.

It was big. Not tall, but large and strange enough that it looked very out of place in the middle of the woods.

It was broken. Part of the roof was caved in where a large old tree had fallen over onto it. Weeds and scrubs covered almost the entirety of the outside. The front doors were busted off their hinges, and darkness was all that could be seen of the interior.

“That…is more than enough exploring for one day,” Lorelei decided as she spun around on her heal and hurried back home.

*     *     *

“Dr. Matthews! Dr. Matthews! Sir, wait!” The young man rushed down the hall, shouting.

“…what is it, Arron?” The old man turned as he kept walking. He furrowed his brow and faced forward again.

“Well, it’s the head of our soon-to-be owners. They’re here. They’d like to see you.”

“See me? More like smile through their teeth while they stab us in the back. How long you think this place will be running after they get their greasy claws into it?”

*     *     *

The next day, Lorelei brought her friends Bianca and Wes to explore the factory further.

“Remind me again, Wes, why’re you here?” Lorelei asked.

“Me? Why’m I here?” Her friend Wes, a thin lanky fellow, snapped his fingers and pointed towards himself. “Me? I am here because: a.) old, abandoned factories are cool and creepy, b.) I didn’t really have anything to do today, and c.) Bianca can’t keep a secret.” He then gestured towards Bianca, who gripped her scarf and snapped:

“Shut up, man!” She punched Wes on the shoulder. He winced even though it didn’t really hurt.

The three friends stood outside the factory in the late afternoon. Had they given this little exploration party a bit more thought, they might’ve headed out earlier in the day, but otherwise they were all set. They’d brought all the necessities for the trip.

The dark innards of the place seemed to seep out of it, all around it. Both warning away and inviting any would-be explorers.

“Okay. Has everybody steeled themselves?” Lorelei asked. “All prepared mentally? No? Cool. Me neither,” she looked at her friends. “Let’s head on in then.”

*     *     *

“Sir, where are you off to, now?” It was days later, and Arron was again hurrying after Dr. Matthews.

“They want this place so bad, eh? They can have it! But I’m gonna keep working ‘til they drag me out of here kicking and screaming!” He pointed at the young man. “Now let me be, Arron!”

“But…wait. What’s that in your pocket? Is that–” Arron reached forward.

Dr. Matthews’ pocket bulged and several small gears and parts of machinery fell from it as he continued his hurried path down the hall. Arron stared, shocked.

“Are you the one who’s been stealing from the company?”

“Preposterous. These are just some parts I made at home. Now go away.” He shooed the young man away. “I’ve important things to take care of.”

*     *     *

The inside of the building wasn’t much nicer than the outside. Pretty much all of the tiled flooring had been cracked, shattered, and uprooted by plant life. Furniture was moldy, cubicles had fallen over, and wires and cables hung down all over the place.

And it was dark. The trio switched their flashlights on.

“Yeah, okay, I know I said I wanted to check this place out, but I’m having second thoughts now,” said Bianca.

Lorelei shrugged. “Okay, but Wes and I’re heading further in. So, see you outside in a bit,” she started to walk ahead.

Bianca looked back over her shoulder at the quickly darkening woods outside. “Hrmph,” she made a pouty face, “Fine. Lead on. But if anything goes badly, I’m blamin’ you, Lore.”

The three carried on through room after room of empty office-like spaces until they found an emergency stairway, tucked away in the corner of a room, partially blocked by a bookcase.

“Oh dang,” Lorelei reached out and touched the cold door, “You guys think we should check it out?”

“We’ve come this far,” Wes said, “Might as well, right?”

It took all three of them to heave the heavy shelving unit out of the way, knocking several dusty tomes to the floor, further kicking up even more dust in the process. Heaving her body into the door, Lorelei barely managed to crack it open, leaving the group to squeeze through the narrow opening. The stairway, unlike the rest of the building, was still in pretty good shape.

“Hey, so, though,” Wes held up his finger. “If this building is only one floor, why did they build a fire exit that goes underground?”

“That…is an excellent question,” Lorelei began, “One to which I do not yet know the answer to.”

“Okay, well I’m definitely heading out now, guys,” Bianca said, jabbing a thumb in the direction they had come from. “For real this time,” she put on a serious face aimed at her friends, in the hope that they’d join her. “Not even kidding. I can do creepy empty office rooms, but mysterious, hidden, shouldn’t-even-be-there-in-the-first-place staircases? Nope. I’m out,” she spun around, and waved back at them, “You two have fun. If it’s cool with you, Lore, I’mma head back to your grandparent’s place.”

“Yeah no, that’s totally fine Bi, we’ll head back in just a bit. Be safe.”

“You guys, too,” Bianca said, looking back as she left.

“Whelp,” Lorelei turned to Wes, “Ready?”

“Oh, most definitely! I’m in my element, girl!”

They took each step cautiously, making sure that their weight could be supported. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, and rounded the bend, there was nothing in the wall where there should’ve (logically?) been a door. So, they headed down the next flight, and the next…and the next. They had gone down at least four flights when they caught sight of the door.

It was large, heavy-duty, and had a numbered lock on it.

“Agh, all this way, and we can’t even get in!” Wes growled with anger.

“Oh, can’t we?” Lorelei pointed to a small piece of paper sticking out of the bottom of the door, with a number sequence written on it. It was (luckily) not pinched entirely beneath the door, so it was easy enough to de-wedge it, and easier still to enter the secret code.

The latch clacked open. Lorelei swung open the door.

She and Wes stepped into the dark, vast, dusty room. Cobwebs populated the area, covering the many boxes, computers, and shelves with bits of machinery on them. They could see a shaft of moonlight streaming down from a crack in the ceiling high above, with part of a tree poking through as well. Lorelei looked at Wes, and nodded her head in the direction she wanted to head. For some reason, she wished to remain as quiet as she could in this room. As she walked on, she almost tripped over something. She bent down. It was an odd-shaped piece of machinery. Moreover, it was an odd-shaped piece of machinery made of several overlapping gold and silver gears that looked like it could be wound up with a key. There was a little tag tied to it, with a little message on it:

To you, my boy. Time to show the world all the great things you can do. Be free. -Dr. Matthews

Lorelei pocketed the strange thing and caught up to Wes a little ways ahead. He had stopped a few feet ahead for some reason. He was just…standing there. Staring. Lorelei waved her hand in front of his eyes, and then looked to where he was looking.

Everything happened in a moment.

There was a robot…and it was staring at them.

They stared back.

It gasped.

They gasped.

There was a sudden cracking sound and the building shook.

The robot looked up and then lunged towards them, and pulled Wes towards it.

The tree fell through the roof.

Lorelei fell backwards, hit her head on the floor, and blacked out.

*     *     *

“LET ME GO!!!” Dr. Matthews screamed, kicking. Two massive men carried him by the arms. “You’ve no right! I’ve done nothing!”

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to kindly shut your mouth,” said one of the men. “You steal from the company, you get the boot. The boot, and jail.”

“You blasted fools! All my hard work will be for naught if you don’t free me!”

“You’ve been given plenty of time to clear out, sir. It’s time for you to leave. You brought this on yourself.”

“But he won’t survive without me! You take me away, you’re taking the life of another!”

*     *     *

Lorelei woke with a start, gasped, bolted up, and remembered everything that had happened in a flash. “WES! WES! WHERE ARE YOU?!!” she shouted. Looking around, she was alone. Wes was nowhere to be seen. And neither was the robot. “Nononononononononono. He took him. He took him somewhere. He took him somewhere and I don’t know where and I don’t know what he’s gonna do to him. This is all my fault. This is all my fault. What am I gonna do what am I gonna do?” She could feel the fear and panic burning at the back of her brain, rampant throughout her head. The robot. Wes. The divorce. All her worries and fears. All of it. All at once. “Is this…is this a panic attack?” Her heart began to beat faster and she felt a cold sweat come over her as she sat in the dark in the basement in the factory in the woods. “No. NO. Cal- Calm down. Breathe. Breathe…slowly.” This had happened before. Not too long ago, shortly before the divorce, when things were getting really intense back home. A feeling of absolute terror. Uncontrollable and raging. “But, but I rode it out…before. It’s okay. It’s okay.

“I’m…okay. Breathe.” She did her best to talk herself down. “Breathe in. Out. In. Slowly. Focus on only breathing. Calm. Calm. Steady.”

“Breathe.”

The feeling began to subside. A little bit at a time. “Good. Good. Al- Almost there.” Her mind began to calm.

She let out a long breath, trying to center herself, trying to center her mind again.

She opened her eyes. Shaken.

“I…need help.”

She stood up. Turned around, and raced out of the building, back towards her grandparents’ house.

*     *     *

“You just left Wes there?!” Bianca asked incredulously after Lorelei had finished telling her everything. “How could you?!” She grabbed ahold of Lorelei’s sweatshirt, as tears began to well up in her eyes.

Lorelei slapped her hands away, and looked her distraught friend in the eyes. “You ask me like I wanted to leave him there? It’s not like I had much of a choice, Bi. I…he was gone when I came to, him and the robot. And…,” She averted her eyes, “I started to have a panic attack I think, but I fought it off. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. All I know is that I needed help,” she placed a hand on Bianca’s shoulder. “And you’re it.”

Bianca blinked away her tears, “Shouldn’t we, like, call the police or something?”

“Probably. But do you think they’d come rushing over when we tell them that our friend was kidnapped by a robot?”

“Fair point. You going to tell your mom?”

“Yeah. After we get Wes back. We need to get back there as soon as we can, and telling her would just make her try and stop us. So later.”

Bianca looked up at her friend. “I…don’t want to go back in there, especially now. I mean I know I-“

“Hey,” Lorelei pulled her friend into a hug. “I don’t want to either. Out of fear of what might happen, I mean. But right now, how we feel is irrelevant. We have to move past this fear to do what we have to do. This all won’t get better if we do nothing.”

“Mmhm,” Bianca buried her face in Lorelei’s shoulder.

Lorelei let out a long breath.

“Let’s go.”

She grabbed her bag and her friend and headed towards the door. She tromped down the hall noisily.

She grabbed her mom’s car keys.

She threw open the door.

She got in the car, turned the key, hit the gas, peeled out.

Her mom rushed to the door as her daughter drove out onto the street, and into the night.

*     *     *

In a matter of minutes Lorelei and Bianca reached the factory, rushed through the dark and empty rooms, tore down the flights of stairs, and made it to the secret basement room.

“Alright, keep a sharp eye, Bi, they could be anywhere down here.”

“Y’mean, like right there?” Bianca pointed straight ahead, towards the middle of the room. Sitting on the recently fallen tree, under the moonlight crack in the high ceiling, was the robot. He was tall, at least seven feet, and his arms and legs were long, lanky, and thin. There were loose wires hanging off of him in several places, and his boney-looking face had two different sized eyes. He was covered with rust patches. He tilted his head at the girls. They tilted theirs in return. Then Lorelei spoke.

“You!” She growled, angered and pointed at the robot. “WHERE IS HE?!”

The robot cringed and hid behind his arms. “…the…one who was with you? He is in my room, recovering.”

“What did you do to him?!”

“N-nothing. He…his head was hit slightly when the tree fell. He will be fine. I took him in there, but you were gone when I returned a little while later.”

“O-oh. I see. What…who are you? What is all this?”

“I? I am an artificial intelligence unit created by Dr. Matthews. My name is Jericho. This was once a factory that created and designed machines and parts. I was a personal project, constructed in secret. My creator wanted to do more than just design pieces and parts; he sought to create something more, something groundbreaking. But he was unable to gain the approval of those above him. So he began creating me in secret. He gave me emotions, free will, and taught me many things about the world, as well as morals and the like. Then one day, Dr. Matthews was arrested for stealing important machinery from the company…to build me, I presume. The factory was bought up by a larger company, and was left behind, along with myself. I’ve not seen Dr. Matthews since.”

“Why didn’t you leave here?” Bianca asked.

“I cannot. The day Dr. Matthews was planning to present me, he was to give me my final piece of machinery that would allow me to move about freely without the bounds of my recharge station.” There was a long mess of cables trailing from his back along the floor and out to somewhere in the darkness. “And so, I’ve been trapped here for several decades now. Unable to move on. Unable to leave this shell behind.” He gestured all around him.

Lorelei tucked her hand into her pocket as she listened, and it brushed against something cold and metal. She gasped.

“Is this it?! Is this the piece?” She thrust the gear with the tag on it at the robot. He looked at it, picked it up gently with both hands, and read the attached note.

He smiled and looked up at them.

“Thank you. ‘Be free?’ I would like that. I would like that very much.”

“You can be now. Do whatever you feel. You can always move forward.”

~Adam Schultz

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Filed under Fall 2015, Fiction Fall 2015

The Game of Life

Zizzy Topper didn’t flinch as her opponent triumphantly flicked aside the black queen. A look was in his eyes as though the moon had just eaten the sun. Her thoughts lingered bitterly upon brands of cat food.

“Ooh, regiscided by a lowly rook.” Succulents? Fancy Scraps? She knew X would freak if she got it wrong again.  No other pet on earth had different types of food for each day of the week.  Only the best for that putrid orange whore.  Buy food for your own cat, mom. “If your strategy this time is daydreaming, I might actually have a chance here.  Zizzy?  You in there?”  The stuffy library, choked with dust and futility, was starting to become irritating.  The room was little more than a square office, converted to a “game room” and set aside for bored little kids. Sunlight pierced through the single window.  She adjusted her gray fedora to better shield her eyes, shifting her weight on the chair, damning her uncomfortably tight shorts.  Where does the weather get off, dictating fashion like this.  While she’d sworn off make-up long ago, she still took longer to get ready than X on the basis of wardrobe alone.  He was saying something again.  Her fingers drummed against the wooden table as she shook the dark curls out of her eyes. What was he going on about now?

“Yeah, yeah.”  She gave the board a cursory glance before unceremoniously moving her knight to G-7.  “Sorry, thought you might be droning on about your party again.  Let’s hurry this up, it’s blazing hot in here.”  Not to mention she had a chat log to check back home.  For the third time that day.  She mentally slapped herself.  Just calm down.  Not like your life depends on it or anything… Yeah, great work Zizzy, real comforting.  Her sarcasm wasn’t limited to the physical plane.  Her neck popped as she rolled her head back, resolving to only refresh the client one more time, today.

The boy sitting across from her wore a sly sort of smirk. He always did when he thought he had an edge in their games.  An embarrassing tell.  But a useful one.  “You really should come, you know,” he said for the millionth time. His chair squeaked against the waxed floor, his glasses slipping a bit as he leaned over the table.  The board was beginning to look sparse, only a few major pieces left to both sides.  Her armies of darkness were scattered and desperate, seemingly helpless before their ivory-clad opponents.  Their queen had just fallen before them, and morale was low.  Or it would have been, if not for the calm, calculating demeanor of their black-haired puppet-master.  Lester Crawford, her best friend and occasional arch-nemesis, cracked his fingers and flourished his hand dramatically.  He’d never managed to capture her queen before.  Which was how she knew he’d do it.

“I mean,” he continued, “we both know you’re just going to sit on your ass and play Galaxyforge until your fingers fall off.”

Zizzy put a finger to her lips, pretending to contemplate the idea.  “Just hurry up and take your turn.”

He smiled his goofball smile.  “Oh, do not despair, my lovely rival.  Your demise, though inevitable, shall be swift.  How much Internet fame will I accumulate, I wonder, from besting the great Zicero?”

She chuckled, raising an eyebrow.  “Not nearly enough to fill that empty head of yours.  C’mon, take my knight.  I dare you.”

“Your overconfidence is your weakness,” he taunted.

“Your faith in your friends is yours,” she replied, dutifully completing the exchange.  His smirk deepened.  He picked up his only remaining bishop and obligingly slew her wayward horseman.  The board, or boards, really, reshuffled themselves in her mind’s eye.  Most people found that games grew more exciting as they drew towards their conclusions, but Zizzy felt the opposite to be true.  As pieces were lost and possibilities grew fewer, the less engaged she felt with the experience.  Especially when victory was certain.  Crap, she thought, I don’t think I watered the ferns this morning, either.  Now I have to get the right cat food.

“King to B-3,” she said, not bothering to move the piece.  She opened her mouth to continue, but he cut her off, wagging a finger.

“Oh come on, don’t do that thing again.  Don’t you dare.  I have you this time, I even got your queen.”

“’xactly,” she started, stretching her arms out and leaning back in her chair.  “Just like I wanted you to.  Now you can’t move your rook back to defend.”

His smirk dwindled, pushing his chair away from the table. He stood up and leaned over the board once again, like a general would a regional map. “But all you have is pawns and one bishop left…”

“Yeah, and it’s the white-tiled one, so your bishop can’t take it.  Which since I moved my king, is now poised to force yours into a corner, with my pawns.  Next, you’ll either move your rook to check me or try to block my bishop.  I’ll take it in two moves either way, and it’s checkmate in five moves no matter what.”  She stood up as well, pushing at the base of her spine, squinting up at the pasty fluorescent light playing across the ceiling’s rafters.  Lester just groaned. He started to gather the pieces.

“Haven’t you ever heard of fighting to the bitter end?” he asked.  She just shrugged, watching him pack up the board.  Lester was a year younger than her, but they’d shared biology class the previous year.  He was a nerdy, “misunderstood poet” kind of guy, but he was endearingly self-aware about it.  Smart enough to put up with.  Moderately handsome.  Overall she’d rate him three and a half out of five stars.  She saw him looking at her as she helped sort the chess pieces into their respective bags.

“You’re still anxious about that, huh?  Come on Zizzy, worrying yourself won’t do any good.  I’m sure they’ll respond soon, if they have any sense.”

She groaned.  Perceptive to a fault, as always.  “It’s cute how you think you can make me feel better.”

After packing up the board, they traversed the barren midafternoon streets heading towards the lazy, comfortably stale suburbs.  Zizzy endured a few minutes of Lester ranting about the latest rom-com he was into. Pitiful. She countered with a story about her latest game of Galaxyforge.  It was the only game they talked about lately.  It had only been out for two months, but already, teams were being drafted, tournaments planned, and champions crowned by the collective hive of the e-sports community.  Two months, equaling 1,488 hours.  Zizzy had spent about 1,000 of them broadcasting her epic battles to thousands of loyal viewers.  A muffler-less car rocketed past them, interrupting her scintillating tale of war and triumph.  She flipped it off, and Lester laughed, adjusting his glasses.  The summer sun was warm, but a cool breeze carried the painful reminder that autumn was approaching rapidly.

A new school year for two C-average students brought nothing but dread. Though in Lester’s case, it also brought the last-minute desire for social reconnection with his peers.  The dreary slouch and wanting, passive-aggressive glances told her that she’d disappointed him.  This called for a mood lightener.

“Don’t get pouty.  We both know you just wanna look cool by inviting an older girl.”  He rolled his eyes.  No trademark smirk, either.  Zizzy wished she was better at this.  “Look, X has been hounding me about a job, again.  I’m sure you’re familiar with Hitler’s ‘final solution’, and this is hers.  I have to start earning more with my stream.  Convince her I can make it.  I barely get enough for food as it is.”  They’d stopped walking now, at the corner where they had to part ways.  Both of them hesitated.  The awkward silence grated painfully against her mind. He finally turned to her with a not-so-straight face.

“It’s because you eat too much, fat-ass.”

She grinned as they both waved farewell, turning homeward.  A fat joke?  Still so much to learn.  It was something though, and she’d take it.

After the long walk through the winding streets, Zizzy nudged open the door of the two-floor house with her foot, wrestling with the bags in her arms.  The old place was small and kind of sucked, but she wasn’t sure if anywhere else was much better. Something soft and warm clung itself to one of her legs, further upsetting her balance.  “Zizzy Zizzy!” it cried, giggling. She smirked, rolling her eyes. The five-year-old bundle of energy was practically magnetized to her.

“Hey, little guy,” she greeted with her customary nickname for him, as he had for her.  Like most girls named Elizabeth, she had previously gone by Lizzy. Until the twerp overheard her screenname, and decided to combine them.  As nicknames tended to do, it soon infected the rest of her family, her friends, and then the whole school.  Now she had to grudgingly explain it to her teachers.

“Zizzy!” her brother shouted again, laughing.  Her arms were already throbbing painfully after carrying the cat food, of which she’d bought two different bags just to be safe, but she relented and picked him up, swinging him onto her back.  Christopher was obnoxious, but he could be quiet when stealth was needed, making him the perfect partner in crime.

Together, they snuck through the dark living room, musty with the smell of Pledge and Windex, and thick with dull snoring.  Like clockwork, their mother had fallen asleep on the couch after a long day of doing not much at all.  Zizzy called her X, for X chromosome.  Y was gone on business, as usual.  The kind of soul-rending, hand-shaking, ass-kissing for some nameless corporation that plagued Zizzy’s darkest nightmares.  The duo crawled across the thin, rough carpet, expertly avoiding the creaky spots.  Attempting to escape a conflict with X, Zizzy had found, was not dissimilar from trying to delay the entropic disassembly of the universe. And yet, they had to try.

They crept past the tacky clocks and esoteric Japanese paintings to her room at the end of the hall.  She set him down on her frameless mattress that was squished into the corner. He immediately hopped to his feet and scurried back down the hall, giggling his way to his next distraction.  Flopping herself in her pleather business chair, Zizzy shook the mouse to wake up her snoozing computer.  Her desk was completely empty save for her 18 inch monitor and buzzing hard drive.  Zizzy hated clutter almost as much as she hated cleaning it up.  She dealt with it by keeping everything crammed into her closet and leaving the puke-colored carpet bare.  As the screen came to life, the Galaxyforge chat client filled her vision. Of course, it had timed out during her absence.  Her cursor moved to the refresh icon.

Click.

Pling.

One new response.  Though she received thousands of messages from miscellaneous fans, it was set to only notify her if certain usernames contacted her.  Her eyes widened, a shaky breath escaping her lips. It was what she’d been waiting for, alright.  Quickly, she jumped from her chair and slipped off her shoes and socks, tossing the hat onto the cabinet in the corner.  Her eyes scanned the notification as she flumped into her chair again.  Sent an hour and forty minutes ago… he’s still online…  It was perfect.  This was her chance to finally get drafted onto a team.  They’d kept her waiting for two anxious weeks since she messaged them. Though they’d only just started recruiting, rumor had it that several big names who were transferring over to Galaxyforge from other games were setting it up.  She took a few more shaky breaths. Her fingers trembling slightly on the keyboard as she forced herself to wait a few moments.  Responding immediately upon logging in would just be pathetic.  Her teeth dug into her bottom lip before finally, she lowered her finger and clicked the button to reply.

zicero197 opened a chat with [APEX]skylord

[3:45] –zicero197: hey

[3:46] –[APEX]skylord: Hello there, zicero! how are you?

[3:46] –zicero197: fine i guess. got your msg. interested?

[3:48] –[APEX]skylord: Haha, so forward! well, to cut to the chase, yes, we’re interested in recruiting you for team Apex. your speed is decent and your builds are spot on. you got in master league recently if I’m right?

[3:48] –zicero197: a month ago actually

[3:48] –[APEX]skylord: Sound. we’re really trying to build a versatile, highly skilled team here.

[3:49] –zicero197: cool. i’m up for joining. u guys looking at other streamers?

A long, soul-crushing pause. Her eyes bored into the screen, her mind buzzing with every swear word she knew. Her cheeks flushed with anxious indignation.  Yet, she told herself to keep calm, even as sweat glued her fingers to the keys.

[3:56] –[APEX]skylord: Oh, we’ve looked at other options of course. but if you keep up your game you should be fine. when are you good to set up a game?

[3:56] –zicero197: a game?

[3:57] -[APEX]skylord: I’m planning on testing your abilities against our other players. practice makes perfect you know, and we need to test the newbies a little to make sure they’ll hold up against real pros. so in the next week or so we can set something up

[3:57] –zicero197: um i’m not really new though, i’ve played other games and i’m in master league like i said

[3:59] –[APEX]skylord: You did say that. you weren’t really big in any other game though. don’t get me wrong, you’re pretty good. the pro scene is a whole other game though, and all our other players have won at least something.

[3:59] –zicero197: …

[3:59] –[APEX]skylord: Not trying to get off on the wrong foot here haha. just saying we need reliability going into the scene. lots of teams being set up even this early!

[4:01] –zicero197: well i’m looking at your profile here and u actually haven’t won that many tourneys

[4:01] –zicero197: ur biggest victory was four years ago in a game i’ve never even heard of

[4:02] –[APEX]skylord: Hm? what are you talking about?

[4:02] –zicero197: and u keep saying you have big names w/o even saying who they are

[4:02] –zicero197: everyone knows u have void and giguro already and they’re both semi-decent

[4:02] –zicero197: banshee’s staying quiet but u prolly have him too

[4:02] –[APEX]skylord: …

[4:03] –zicero197: but really idk why you think i need testing

[4:03] –zicero197: i’ve logged more hours than any of u

[4:03] –zicero197: and u wouldn’t have responded if u didn’t think i was at least as good as a “pro”

[4:03] –zicero197: and i’m prolly as good as one of them and def better than u

[4:03] –[APEX]skylord: Wow.

[4:03] –zicero197: so based on initial impressions

[4:03] –zicero197: i think i could probably kick your whole team’s ass at the same time

[4:04] –zicero197: guess we’ll have to test that though

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: Well that was the most arrogant thing I’ve ever read

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: but since, as usual, I have to be the mature one

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: I’ll judge your skill, not your attitude. we’ll see if one can back up the other.

[4:06] –[APEX]skylord: Friday at 5pm. be on

[APEX]skylord disconnected from chat with zicero197

Zizzy stared apprehensively at the chat window.  Her cheeks were hot, her shoulders rigid and tense.  Silence took hold, save for Chris banging around with his toys in the next room.  A slight breeze wafted through the open window, tousling her curly hair.  Right now she wanted nothing save to crawl under her bed and wait for Armageddon.  For a long minute, she languished in her chair. Hands wrapped around her chin, nails digging into her lips.  The sudden need to see Lester came over her.  The absurd need to explain to someone exactly how stupid you are, and have them reassure you, comfort you.  It felt disgusting, pitiable.  It was this douchebag’s fault. Talking to her like she’d never played the game.  Never put in the hours upon desperate hours into her stream. Her ambition.  Yeah, lying under the bed was sounding more attractive by the second.

The hinges on her door made a shrill squeak.  It swung open, the now animate X consumed the doorway.  She surveyed her room as though it were a crime scene.  Her thick curls were nearly flat to her head from her long nap, dull pink lipstick smeared around her mouth.  Zizzy was too startled to come up with a sarcastic remark about remembering to knock.

“Ah, you’re home.  Hm.  Did you make Chris some lunch?”  Her small voice nagged at her ears. She edged slowly into the room, pursing her lips like she was concerned about germs.  Zizzy rubbed her forehead, forcing out a shaky breath.

“Um, no mom, not yet.  Got your cat food though.”

“Which you just left there on the table.  Really Ziz, a little thought to others please.  Your poor brother’s probably starving.”

After Y’s fifth month-long absence, Zizzy would’ve really hoped their mother would be able to cook something more advanced than pop-tarts and ramen noodles.  “Okay, I’ll make him something.  I’ve been busy.”

“With your computer games, yes, yes.  When are you going to start listening to me? To give a thought to what I’ve told you about finding a job?  Just the smallest effort?  Most kids your age work two jobs.”

“Pretty sure they don’t.  And I made almost 200 dollars last month.”  X sighed, a snappy, unpleasant sound.  Of all the things Zizzy was in the mood for right now, this was probably at the bottom of the list.  She looked toward the floor, rubbing her sweaty feet together.  A blisteringly hot shower was much closer to what she was looking for right now.

“Listen honey, we’ve talked about this.  I’m really thrilled that you’re making money with your hobby.  Really.  But that’s not a career, and it’s not even close to a living.”  She began outlining her usual war-speech about responsibility and taking life by the horns.  Zizzy felt ill.  Her ritual of responding in the most creatively flippant ways possible was even more halfhearted than usual today, their verbal battle oppressively routine.  When X finally left, Zizzy’s blood was boiling in her veins, her head filled with nails.  The computer chair had long since stopped being comfortable.  Even when she rolled into bed for a much-needed nap, it took her a long time to fall asleep.

The next few days were consumed by training.  Even her expensive hard drive was buzzing with the effort of running Galaxyforge for days on end without a second’s rest.  In addition, Zizzy ingested hours of recorded footage of various players, skylord included.  She would memorize, master, and then attempt to subvert all of their most reliable builds and strategies.  Not fast enough.  Lost too many units that time.  I’m not improvising when I need to.  Lester sent her a text somewhere in the middle of her concentrated stupor, which went ignored.  She knew he was just reminding her about the party…

Fuck.  She’d completely forgotten that Lester’s party was on Friday night too… Great.   He would know what to say right now to help her through this.  Something completely out of place outside of a trashy romance novel.  Zizzy rubbed her eyes and let her head fall to the desk with a thud.  She remembered when Lester was dating some girl who looked like a cardboard cutout he’d stolen from Victoria’s Secret. They were both novices then, she at strategy games and Lester at life in general.  His girlfriend hadn’t liked him hanging out with some “nerdy hipster” girl. But her feeble campaign of passive-aggressive comments had been no match for Zizzy’s systematic deconstruction of her very being.

She reached over and shook the mouse slightly to keep her computer from idling.  In the end, Lester stopped the fighting, though he broke up with the girl shortly after.  Zizzy had always considered this event a point of pride, until now.  The memory felt sick, like wasted time.  She hadn’t been able to understand Lester’s point of view.  What’s the fun of it, she wondered, what’s the appeal of someone who lives inside an ideal little snow globe on your shelf?  Zizzy stood up, marching down the hallway, looking at herself in the oversized wall mirror on the way to the bathroom.  If someone’s content to idle through life, she thought, they haven’t lived at all.  An orange ball of fur pushed past her legs, meowing like the godless hussy it was.  She sighed as her thoughts were interrupted, heading to the kitchen to make use of her earlier purchases.

When she returned to her room, she pushed her fingers together to crack them, groaning like only someone who spends all day sitting down can.  Her stomach felt hollow, her fingers filled with sludge.  Sorry Lester, thinking about sappy motivational stuff didn’t help this time.  As she queued up another game, she quickly checked her stream.  Oh wow, a record number of viewers.  Nice.  She put a hand on the mouse and fingers to the keys, eyes riveted to the screen.  After fighting to get here, she could fight skylord too.

The fight against skylord, however, was not going well.  When she’d joined their chatroom at precisely 5:01 pm, there’d been barely enough time to say “hello” to the other players before they’d been thrust into a series of brutal one-on-ones.  Zizzy’s heart ticked like the timer on a neutron bomb. Finally going up against the pros that she’d studied for months.  Though, as much as it pained her to admit it, she was starting to see what skylord meant when he’d said “a whole different game.”  void’s incredible managing of his resources, giguro’s siege tactics, and banshee’s use of unorthodox strategies were all one thing to watch, and another thing entirely to play against.  And they were all really, mind-bogglingly fast.  She’d only managed to win a single game, when she’d managed to anticipate void’s assault and launch a sneak attack into his base.  Her nails were leaving red marks on her forehead, a taste like battery acid filling her mouth.  If I can even just beat that doucehbag… Just let me fight skylord…

[9:17] -zicero197: just let me fight skylord

[9:17] –[APEX]void: lol yeah maybe you’ll get lucky again

[9:17] –zicero197: if he gets even 1/5 mad as u it’ll be worth

[9:17] –[APEX]void: stfu

[9:18] –[APEX]giguro: god why did we think this was a good idea again?

[9:18] –[APEX]skylord: Haha, quiet guys, it’s fine

[9:18] –[APEX]skylord: invited you zic.

[9:18] –zicero197: accepted

[9:19] –[APEX]skylord: Good. don’t worry too much, it isn’t like your life depends on it or anything. ready?

[9:20] -[APEX]skylord: zic?

[9:21] –zicero197: yeah ready

The first ten minutes were quiet.  Neither of them attempted to subvert or harass the other, slowly setting up their bases.  Zizzy exhaled slowly, resolving to play defensively and counter attacks as they came, enduring his assaults until she could grind him into submission.  But even as she made plans for attacks that hadn’t yet come, she knew what would happen.  Fresh-faced and confident, he would sit back and make her come to him.  He knew how tired and stressed she must be.  For the next twenty minutes, they kept building up their forces, gazing at each other across a line in the sand.  Twenty minutes in, he was taking advantage of all of her smallest mistakes. Claiming territory she’d missed. Anticipating her moves.  Her mind felt numb.  The match seemed like a wall of slick ice she’d been told to scale with her fingernails and teeth.  Thirty-five minutes in, he easily swept her forces aside and destroyed her, utterly, completely.  Zizzy felt even worse because she couldn’t bring herself to care.

The rhythmically blinking light coming from her computer was the only beacon in the darkness.  Zizzy sat huddled on her flimsy mattress.  She pulled a little at a bit of string, chewing on her lips.  What team was she going to join now?  She felt like she could die of old age right here on this bed.  Weird how we feel like we’ve accomplished everything we can after failing to accomplish anything whatsoever.  “We.” Like it was someone else’s fault besides hers.  She looked at her cell phone with watery eyes.  The unread message symbol seemed to gaze back at her.  Slowly, she forced her legs to unbend, reaching over to the cabinet for her hat.

Her clunky, rust-bucket car rolled along the curb, the doors nearly scraping against the cement.  Sure enough, he was sitting on the railing of his front porch, dangling his skinny legs without a care.  Zizzy wrenched the gear into park with a dull click.  Chris was in the back seat, almost making the car shake with his restlessness.  She glanced back at him.

“Stay in here for now, little guy.”

He scrunched up his face. “I wanna play too though.”

“I’m just talking to him.  I think.  It depends on what he wants.  I’ll let you know.”

She slammed the door, walking across the silent gray lawn towards Lester.  Pale light illuminated the wooden deck, glinting a little off his glasses.  He should find a way to weaponize those.

“Hey. Everyone’s left already,” he said softly.  Zizzy looked up at him, her shoulders slouched.

“Yeah, I figured.  Sorry.”  She shifted her weight from foot to foot.  Lester scratched his smooth hair, silhouetted against the house.

“I know they’re not your type… but my friends are nice, when you get to know them.”

“It wasn’t that… some things happened, and.  I don’t know.  I… I lost.”

Awkward silence claimed the space between them.  It was too dark to read his expression very well.  He seemed concerned, but reluctant to push for details.  She loved him for that, the shy goofball.  The moment passed, and he scooted to the left, patting the spot next to him.  Reaching up to the railing, she pulled herself up next to him, smiling.  The city lights were too numerous for many stars, but the crescent moon stood out against the bleary sky.  Zizzy saw Chris pressing his face to the window.  Lester chuckled.

“Let me guess… X went out, and-“

“-stuck me with babysitting.  ‘Xactly.  I…”

She paused.  A silky summer breeze rustled the leaves above them.  A distant cricket paused its song.  The night itself seemed to melt away.

“I think I’ll talk to X about paying me to watch him.  I’ve convinced her to do worse.  She knows I need the money.”  Lester hummed thoughtfully.

“Could work.  I could ask my mom if we need help feeding Mitzy.  She cooks her own food for that spoiled mutt though.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah.  Hey, you take what you can get though. At least until you have super-elite tournament money.”  They both laughed.  Zizzy looked over at him with a small smile.  It was cute how he could made her feel better.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You up for getting your ass kicked at Galaxyforge?”

“Pah, such arrogance as always.  I’m more ready than your freshly-dug grave, Miss Zicero.”

He pushed her off the railing onto the damp grass, ducking inside through the screen door.  She groaned, brushing off her shorts.  She started walking towards the cruddy car to get Chris.  X would have some things to say about keeping him up this late.  Her mind buzzed with plans and potential builds with which to batter her friend into the dirt.  Lots of new strategies to try.  She found herself excited despite the fact that they were the only two pieces left on the board right now.

~Adam Crane

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Filed under Fall 2015, Fiction Fall 2015