2866 words (11 minute read)

Ground Rules

The next day, Colin didn’t come to pick him up. His parents had already left, so Jay walked to school. The money gave him strange confidence. He walked with a spring in his step. Twelve trillion dollars! The number filled his mind, expanding as the sun rose. It was thrilling, impossible. It terrified him and fascinated him and wouldn’t leave his brain alone.

Cars zipped past him, and his head filled with mansions on the bluff, Miatas, a Dunam gaming studio that he and Colin co-ran; trappings of wealth he’d never before considered. He’d forgotten his immediate plight when he pushed open the door to Tutorial, and was taken by surprise when Ms. Rotchkey leapt from her desk and shouted: “Down to the Principal’s office, now!”

All heads turned. Mike and Shayna snickered, and Jay bristled. If he didn’t have a thousand dollars in his pocket, he may have tried to reason with, or even apologize to, Ms. Rotchkey. But he wasn’t about to let Ms. Rotchkey ruffle his cool, especially in front of Mike and Shayna. He shrugged, vowing to see where things took him, and whistled on down to Oatman’s office.

It was a short wait, and then he was ushered in to see Oatman. Prepped for Jay’s arrival, Oatman stared at him with half-lidded eyes. Jay told Oatman how he was just excited to use the internet, and then things got out of hand. It was a lie, and both of them knew it, but neither cared. Oatman waited for Jay to finish, then:

“Be that as it may, Ms. Rotchkey is having a hard time right now. There’s a lot of disappointment in her class, as I’m sure you can understand. Your outbursts aren’t helping. Given that the primary function of her course—college placement—is all but wrapped up, she and I think it would be better if you finished the year back in Cascadia.”

Jay heart sank.

“Wait wait wait. Can’t we talk this through like adults?”

Mr. Oatman shook his jowls.

“The adults have talked.”

In desperation, Jay pulled out four hundred dollar bills and placed them on the desk.

“Can I make a donation?”

Mr. Oatman regarded the money in mild surprise. “Are you bribing me, Banksman?”

“Um, I, had a relative pass away. My aunt from Chicago. I’d like to commemorate her. There’s gotta be something Cascadia needs. Library books? Baseball bats? Chalk?”

Principal Oatman pushed the money back towards Jay. He walked to the door and opened it.

“This is strike two, Jay. Ms. Shirell will give you your new schedule for the remainder of the year.”

Jay stepped out, taking his new schedule from Ms. Shirell without bothering to glance at it. He had a trillion dollars, he reminded himself. He had a trillion dollars.

He popped out the door right as the lunch bell rang. Students poured from their classrooms into A-Court, filing the halls with a deafening cacophony. To cross A-Court now—without Colin—would be folly. The Johns would pick him off. Jay quickly backed away, slipping out the front doors and up to woodshop.

He was considering whether he might bribe Ms. Rotchkey to let him back into Tutorial, when he bumped into a warm, soft flesh. Expecting Colin, he looked up to see Chris Hargrove. After the Johns, Chris was the one guy Jay—or anyone weaker—didn’t want to see. Huge fat rolls spilled out his sides. His head was plopped on his neck like a scoop of lard on a mountain of blubber, his cheeks dripped down, on a glacial path to becoming jowls, and his face was covered in boils. He had been held back three times, and had become something of a legend. He rarely lumbered down from shop class anymore to terrorize students. But when he did, his punishments were notorious.

Tim McManus, a scrawny cowboy, stood under Chris’ shoulder and squinted malevolence. Chris spat a hunk of tobacco at Jay’s feet, then shifted his facial fat until a piggish eye poked through.

“Look who’s out and about. Where’s your fat-ass friend?”

Chris calling anyone a fat-ass was absurd, and Jay laughed reflexively, giving Chris the excuse he didn’t even need.

“That funny, faggot?”

Chris threw his hamhock palm into Jay’s chest, and Jay stumbled back. His hand reflexively went to his pocket, and he nodded over at Tim.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars to punch him in the face.”

Tim smiled and looked at Chris, unaware yet of the danger. Chris paused, his slow mind working.

“How ‘about I just take your money?” He offered shrewdly.

“You’d have to reach into my pockets. And they’re pretty tight.”

Chris recoiled at the insinuation.

“Three hundred dollars,” Jay blurted out, nodding at Tim. “Three hundred bucks if you sock this idiot.”

Chris glanced over to Tim, whose smile faded.

“You don’t got the money.”

“If I don’t, then beat my ass.”

Chris said nothing, but he was no longer laughing. Seeing the change come over his friend, Tim turned to run. Chris grabbed Tim with one meaty paw. Then, in a single gesture, he popped Tim across the face. Tim stumbled backwards, hunched over, holding his nose. Chris turned to Jay, blank and expectant, and Jay pulled the money from his pocket, peeled a slice of twenties into Chris’ hand, then ran off before Chris could think to demand more.

“It was worth it!”

Jay nearly skipped with pleasure as he threaded back down through the C-Court. Ah, the world was his oyster. This was how the other half lived. He opened the C-Court doors and let the buzz of lunch wash over him. The tables were full of the students eating the school-provided lunch of grilled cheese, ranch, and baby carrots. These were the poorest kids, mostly from lower Dunam. They looked worn. Their faces were pimpled, their hair long and greasy. Some of them had their eyes too close together. They weren’t Jay’s crowd, but they were friendly.

Jay moved between tables. He discreetly pulled out his stack of bills and, hid it in his palm, and peeled off twenties. Wherever a face was turned, he slipped a twenty dollar bill under their lunch tray.

He stopped. There was music. Not the off-key blaring of the school band, but a muted guitar that barely wafted through the air. And he recognized it. It was part of his soul; he couldn’t remember a time without it. It was the song. The song that had plagued him for years. That even Javier had not been able to track down. Goose bumps rose down his arms. The last song. His favorite song.

He followed it in a trance, down the deserted C-Court corridor. Through the glass doors he saw Liz outside. She sat on the concrete steps facing the baseball field. Her head was turned, her long hair hiding her face. She delicately picked out notes on a guitar. When she sang, her voice was lilting and beautiful, like a force of nature. Jay quietly slipped out the C-Court door.

He heard the lyrics more clearly now. They were everything he remembered: “I could feel my eyes turning into dust… two strangers, turning into dust.”

Jay’s mouth dropped. It was more beautiful, even than his dream. Liz finished, letting the final notes fade. Jay applauded, the claps exploding out into the silence of the corridor. Liz spun around, startled, but Jay stepped forward before she could speak.

“What’s that song?”

She picked up her guitar and started to stand. “Go away.”

“Bigmouth Strikes Again,” Jay blurted, “then Age of Consent, Loomer, something else I haven’t figured out…. then that one.”

Liz stared. Finally, she whispered, “Fade Into You. By Mazzy Star.”

Jay unzipped his backpack, pulled out his Trapper Keeper, and scribbled the name on a sheet of lined paper. He started singing one of the others.

“Ageispolis. Aphex Twin. How do you know about that mix?”

“My dreams. How’d you know what I was talking about?”

Liz didn’t answer. Jay pulled a handful of bills from his pocket. “Can I hear that song again?”

“I’m not a jukebox.” She tuned her guitar. “What are your dreams?”

“I’ll tell you…” Jay placed the money on the steps next to her, “...if you tell me where you’re from.”

“Des Moines.”

Jay shook his head. “Yeah right.”

“Chicago, then.”

Jay squatted down. One long, tan leg stretched out before him and her fingers moved over the guitar, playing another song. Jay nodded to the tune. Before he could speak, she gave it to him.

“Talent Show. The Replacements.”

Jay scribbled it down. “How come you don’t get angry when I mention the outside world?”

“What’s to be angry about?”

“You tell me.”

Liz smiled, not at Jay, but at the spring time air. It was a sad smile. “Did you know Todd Hammond?”

Jay froze. “Yes.”

“He was wondering the same thing. Right before he disappeared.”

“I’ll give you twenty billion dollars if you tell what happened to him.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m serious. I’ve got twelve trillion in my bank account. I found was a program hidden in one of my games. Whatever changes I make to it, it changes the world.”

Liz dropped her guitar and sat up straight, earnest. “What are you talking about?”

“I know it sounds crazy—”

“Show me, right now.”

Jay unzipped his backpack and pulled out the crushed Krave III box. He held up the green disk that Stevie had made him. There was masking tape over the top, with the words The Build handwritten in permanent marker. Liz stared at it.

“That’s it? Show me how it works. How do you do make the changes?”

“We need a computer…”

Liz stood up with sudden urgency. “Then let’s go find one.”

Jay flustered. “The only one that works is in Tutorial. And I’m kind of kicked out of there.”

Liz held her head in her hands and placed a hand on Jay’s shoulder, looking at him with deep emerald eyes.

“How many changes have you made?”

“Just the one. To my bank account.”

“It is extremely important that you show me this program.”


Liz sighed. “You like video games, right?”


“That’s good.”

Jay waited. She didn’t seem willing to offer up anything more. “Liz. Why is there nothing outside of Dunam? How does nobody seem to care? Why does reality change when I click a mouse?”

She just stared. Jay felt a pit growing in his stomach.

“What are you saying? That this is all a... game?”

She didn’t answer. Jay felt the cool air on his skin. The sun peaked around a cloud, casting brilliant rays and he shut his eyes. The faint smell of fresh grass emanated from the baseball field, mixing with distant cigarette smoke. Jay felt a rising indignation. He held up the green disk of The Build and shook it.

“This is a game.” He gestured to their surroundings. “This is not. It can’t be. It’s too—it’s too… real.”

“I agree. It feels very real. Jay… what happened when you told other people that Dunam is an island?”

“They… got really mad.” Jay realized how angry he felt. “How could Dunam be a game? Nothing happens here. Who would want to play this?”

“You’d have to ask the person playing.”

“Which is who?”

“Technically there are two of them.”

“You’re one, aren’t you?

Liz nodded.

“Who’s the other player? It’s not me, is it? It can’t be me. I don’t remember ever starting the game.”

Jay stared out across the baseball field, watching the middle schoolers play tag at lunch. Their shrieks carried across the field. Jay’s mind was buzzing, trying to make sense of everything. When he spoke it was soft, more to himself.

“So what am I? What is everyone?”

She leaned in, about to speak. The loud clang of C-Court doors echoed behind them, startling them both. A tiny voice in Jay’s brain warned him to watch out, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from where Liz’s hand touched his shoulder.

Jeremy stood in the doorway, the Johns backing him like a semicircle of primates.

“I heard you’re a walking ATM now.”

Liz rolled her eyes. “Oh god, Jeremy…”

Jeremy glanced down at the pile of twenties Jay had placed on the steps. “Your bodyguard’s sick today, right?”

Jeremy lowered a massive tree trunk arm, placed it across Jay’s chest, pushing him away from Liz. He scooped up all three hundred dollars, peeled off bills, and handed them to the John’s.

“I’m the Robin Hood of Cascadia.” He turned to Liz and, in a mocking tone, motioned to Jay. “This guy bothering you?”

Liz turned to Jeremy, face neutral.

“Jeremy, please don’t do this right now. If you this is about me, come back in ten minutes and we’ll talk, okay? If this is about showing how much tougher you are than Jay, we get it, alright?”

Jay marveled at her cogency, the way she always managed to step out of the normal high school bullshit. Jeremy, missing the point as usual, grinned and nodded at the two of them. “What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.”

He sat down on the steps and put his arms around them.

“Go ahead. Like I’m not even here.”

The Johns broke into peals of laughter. Through the corner of his eye, Jay could see C-Courters gathering in the windows as Jeremy continued.

“He asking you to prom? That what this is?”

Liz turned to Jay, her face serious. “Jay, would you like to go to prom with me?”

It was the boldest thing she could have done. The John’s laughter died instantly. Jeremy, for once in his life, was at a loss. All eyes were on Jay.

Jay swallowed, his heart racing.

“Yes.” It was barely a whisper, but he meant it with all his heart.

Jeremy stood up. He had a grin plastered over his face, but it looked fake and dangerous,. His whole body grew rigid. He grabbed Liz’s guitar, and studied it. Liz’s face remained neutral.

“I’ve always wanted to date a musician.”

“Leave her alone.” The words squeaked out of Jay’s mouth before he could think. Jeremy turned.

“What’d you say?”

Jay looked to Liz. She was shaking her head, pleading with him not to continue. But he couldn’t stop.

“I said ‘leave her—” He swallowed the words. “—alone.’”

Jeremy got in close. Jay could feel his hot breath, like an animal’s.

“Or else?”

Jay’s face darkened. The old fear welled up in him, but an anger rose with it. He thought of everything Liz had said, and the disk in his backpack. If this was really just a game, then what do I have to lose?

He threw a punch at Jeremy. Jeremy sidestepped and grabbed Jay’s shirt, throwing his own fist into Jay’s stomach. Jay buckled over. He tried to breathe but couldn’t. Jeremy let him drop him, and Jay tumbled over the steps. He heard Liz shouting, and then the John’s were on him. He felt them struggling with his pants, but they held his arms around his stomach, and he was powerless.

His pants were stripped away, and he felt the cold spring air on his thin legs. He could feel the dust on the cement, and the stickiness of spilled soda. From far away, he heard cheering and laughter. He saw the sea of C-Court eyes staring through the glass doors. Their faces grinned hideously, sneering down at him. Jay felt a burning shame well up like rage. The humiliation of their eyes on his skinny, exposed legs. His face was red.

“Jeremy, you— you fucking asshole.”

Jeremy smiled. He’d got from Jay what he wanted. He twirled Jay’s pants in front of him, so that Jay could see them. “If you want these back, send Colin when he’s feeling better.” He winked at Liz. “See you two love birds at prom.”

The bell rang, and the school spun into motion. Liz ran down and knelt next to Jay. Jay, sucking in breaths, pulled himself off the ground, surprised by her touch.

“I thought you hated me?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Did you mean that about prom?”

“Yes... but you’re going to be disappointed. I need to see that program. Now, if possible. Can we get back into Tutorial?”

Jay considered. There was no way Ms. Rotchkey was going to let him back into her class. But Colin was in her good graces. If he could lure Colin out of his sick leave, then Colin could take Liz. He was about to suggest this, when Ms. Magellan power-walked past them. She spotted Jay, pantsless, lying on the ground and screamed. She rushed over, grabbing Jay’s shoulder and pulling him up. Jay stammered an explanation. She cut him off.

“Oatman’s office. Now!”

She grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up.

“Meet me after school.”

It was Liz’s voice. Jay twisted around to meet her gaze.


“My place.”

Jay nodded, letting himself be lead into A-Court. He felt stunned, but not by Liz’s revelations or his aching stomach.

He was going to prom.

Next Chapter: A Settlement of Scores