4181 words (16 minute read)

Last Dance

Jay stomped past the tables to the exit, staring at the floor. He couldn’t get the image of Liz laughing at him out of his head. This stupid world. He wished Hal had never created it. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and he looked up. It was Colin and Stevie. They looked down at his scowling face, puzzled.

“What happened?”

“Nothing. Let’s go.” Jay muttered.

Stevie checked her watch. “Go? Go where?”

“Home. We’re done here.”

Colin nodded at the dance floor. “I thought we were gonna—”

“Everything’s gonna work out. It’s not our problem. I just want to play Krave III.”

Colin looked to Stevie, then back to Jay, uncertain. “Okay...”

Without waiting, Jay strode from the gym. Colin jogged after him leaning in, whispering.


Jay glared at his friend.

“It’s not our job to save Jeremy.”

Colin nodded looking straight forward.

“What? What is it?”

Colin’s face turned scarlet. He turned away, shy. Jay snapped.

“For once in your life, just say it.”
“In the car, you said to wait for the last dance. So that’s what I was doing.”

Jay noticed Colin was trying to keep up with him, but he was also holding Stevie’s hand. Helping her to keep up. Stevie smiled, as if she didn’t notice but she was blushing too. Jay stopped, staring at their clasped hands. For a moment, he was a high school student again,  looking up at his blushing best friend. Colin. Who’d saved him from Jeremy. Who’d got him into Tutorial. Who didn’t have crushes, or like any girls. Except he liked Stevie. Liked her a lot. And Stevie liked him, too. Jay felt his anger draining.

“Yeah. I suppose we can play Krave III any time,” he muttered.

In the gym, Summerhead was halfway through. Only one song left before Hal would act. Jay stared at Colin and Stevie’s hands.

“Alright. We can’t let Hal, win then.” He sighed. “Where’s Jeremy?”

He heard a titter. The three girls in peach-colored dresses strode towards them, lost in whispers, glancing over to the dance floor. They bumped into Jay. One of the girls, a sharp-looking brunette, turned on him in disgust. Her brow furrowed, and she puffed herself up, readying for a rebuke. Then her face shifted. She looked from Jay out to the dance floor. Jay tried to hide his face in his elbow. He saw the girl speaking to her friends, pointing to Hal. The girls’ faces grew pale. They backed away, pushing through the crowd towards Mr. Kurtz, the tall, straw-haired biology teacher who chaperoned on the sidelines.

“Shit! C’mon.”

The three of them dashed into C-Court. Ms. Shirell and Mr. Amrine were whispering in the corner. A wave of deja vu washed over Jay, as a near-identical image flashed through his brain. Back through the gym, the three peach-colored girls lead a weary-looking Mr. Kurtz towards them.

Jay scanned C-Court. From his dream, he knew that Jeremy was here, somewhere. He noticed the glass doors leading to the baseball field. The exit sign above was dark, burnt out, and the corridor lay in shadow. He heard the soft murmur of voices and stared into the darkness. Something moved. Boys. Johns. He bid Colin and Stevie to wait as he strode over.

Jeremy McKraken emerged from the darkness. He wore a robin’s egg tuxedo, and his hair was slicked crisply back across his head. His face was carefully neutral.

“Jay Banksman.”  It was almost a whisper. “I was just about to come looking.”

“Something bad’s about to happen to you.”

Jeremy shook his head. “I think it’s the other way around.”

The Johns emerged from shadow filling the space around Jeremy.

“Remember over at Hunsaker’s Oil? How strong I was? How I escaped?”

“It won’t happen again.”

“There are two of me.”

“Grab him.”

The Johns placed their hands on Jay’s shoulders and arms. How could he explain things to Jeremy? Colin stepped protectively towards Jay. Jay shook his head.

“It’s okay,” Jay told his friend. “He’s going to take me into the bathroom. Keep Hal away, whatever you have to do.”

They lifted him up, dragging him towards the restroom. Then they were inside, the shocking green lights beating into his eyes. He shut them. The John’s stood him upright and he knew if he opened his eyes, he’d be looking into the wide bathroom mirror. He shook his head, reminding himself. It’s not real. None of it’s real. Jeremy spoke.

“I got plans for you.”

“I know. I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to take off my clothes and throw me naked into prom.”

Silence. Jay opened his eyes. The Johns were staring at him. Jeremy looked down at him, at a loss.


“Don’t do it. There’s someone here.”


“Me. Another version.” Jay looked up at the staring Johns, feeling crazy for even trying to explain. “I know it sounds crazy. But all that stuff that happened… your house, your car…. Suddenly I have a new Miata and money. It’s connected. You have one song to get away.”

Jeremy stared at him.

“Nice try.” He nodded to the Johns.

“Take his clothes off.”

John Warner, posted at the doorway, slapped the wall three times.

“Someone’s coming!”

The John’s pulled Jay up. Jeremy opened a toilet stall.

“Get him in there.”

He turned to Jay. “Don’t breathe a word.”

They muscled Jay into the stall and forced him onto the seat. The John behind Jay hopped onto the toilet bowl, leaning down into Jay and pressing his knees into Jay’s back, twisting Jay’s arm painfully. Jay heard footsteps echo on the tiled floor, then Mr. Kurtz’ flat monotone:

“You know, most students do their dancing in the gym.”

Jeremy’s voice: “We’re taking a breather.”

“Uh huh.” Mr. Kurtz sniffed. “Getting some fresh air, are we?” He knocked the metal stall. “Who’s this?”

“John W. Had a little too much Mr. Pibb.”

“Mr. W can answer for himself.”

John W called out from behind Jay. “Almost done.”

“Why don’t you boys go sow some wild oats, huh? Give the freshmen a chance to pee in peace. I can keep Mr. W company.”

There was silence, followed by grumbling and an exodus of footsteps over the tiled floor. Only Mr. Kurtz’ remained. He wrapped again on the stall.

“Don’t let Mr. Pibb get the best of you.”

John grunted. “Almost done.”

Jay saw Mr. Kurtz’ loafers shift as he leaned against the wall.  “Take your time.”

John breathed deeply behind Jay. Through the thick bathroom walls, Jay heard the first notes of The Smashing Pumpkin’s Cherub Rock. They were reaching the end of the mix; the next song was the B-52s. In a moment, Hal would excuse himself from the gym to come looking for Jeremy. And Jeremy would be standing out in C-Court in plainview. This was Jay’s last chance. He felt John’s grip on his shoulders slacken just a bit. He threw an elbow into John’s torso and yelled.

“Mr. Kurtz!”

Jay dropped down under the stall. Mr. Kurtz yelled in surprise, and then his fingers wrapped Jay’s hands, pulling him out. Jay slid out across the floor.

Mr. Kurtz kicked open the stall door. John W shrank back on the toilet, covering his face. Mr. Kurtz grabbed him and yanked him out.

“Go wait in the hall.”

Mr. Kurtz turned to Jay.

“You okay?”

Jay listened to the muted croons of Billy Corgan.

“Mr. Kurtz, something bad’s about to happen.”

“Yeah, I’m about to murder that Jeremy McKraken.” Mr. Kurtz muttered.

“No. Jeremy in trouble. We have to get him out of here. I think you should call Elmer.”

Mr. Kurtz looked at Jay, serious. “What’s going on?”

“Just trust me, please.”

The Smashing Pumpkins were ending. Jay turned and ran from the bathroom. Students were spilling out of the gym into C-Court, looking around in confusion. Jay heard whispers of a fight. Jay looked desperately for Jeremy. He was not among the Johns. Mr. Kurtz stormed out of the bathroom, pointing at the Johns and the far side of C-Court.

“Wait over there.”

Then the girls in the peach dresses were pulling at Mr. Kurtz’ jacket, pointing. Jay followed their gaze. It was Hal. He stepped out of the gym, scanning the crowd, looking at the Johns.

“Mr. Kurtz, Mr. Kurtz.” The girls called. “There he is.”

Jay watched in horror. He was too late. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. John W glanced from Mr. Kurtz into the crowd. Jay saw he was looking at Jeremy, who pushed his way towards the parking lot. Jeremy looked over his shoulder back at Mr. Kurtz, and didn’t see Hal. He ran straight into him.

Hal stumbled back, then a grin grew over his face. Jeremy looked back at Jay, and Hal’s gaze followed. They were both staring at him. Hal’s face went blank. In the back of his mind, Jay thought idly so that’s how I look when I’m angry. The final notes of Cherub Rock faded. Jay ran down the ramp, towards them. He yelled to Jeremy:

“Get away!”

“You idiot.” Hal hissed at Jay. “I’m doing this for you.”

“I won’t let you delete us.”

Hal pulled out his wand and punched buttons. Jay reached Hal and grabbed for the device. Hal twisted a fist around Jay’s collar, lifting him into the air, then hurled him into the gym wall. Jay’s body slammed into cement, erupting in pain. He lay on the ground, grimacing, unable to move. Dimly, he heard Colin yell, and students were running, feet trampling past. In the gym, Javier played, oblivious to the chaos. He felt the vibrations of The B-52’s Private Idaho through the wall. His head swam dreamily. They’re playing our song.

He saw Hal grab Colin and throw him backwards into a trash can. The Johns ran at Hal in unison. Hal sidestepped them, grabbing John S’s arm and throwing him into the ground. John exhaled sharply, and the crowd screamed and stepped back. The music from in the gym finally cut out. A strange silence settled in, punctuated by grunts, and screams, and the squeak of dress shoes on the waxed cement floors.

Hal zipped through the Johns with lightning speed, unleashing a flurry of blows that knocked them sprawling. He ran up the gym wall and delivered a flying kick to John M, who spun around backwards. In seconds, the Johns lay out across the ground, battered, crawling, moaning. Jeremy dashed away, moving through the upper level of C-Court, between the lunch tables. Hal ran after, leaping twenty feet, landing on a lunch table. He hopped off, cornering Jeremy between tables. Jeremy turned to bolt, and Hal’s hand flew out, grabbing Jeremy by the neck, lifting him into the air. Hal regarded him coldly. He held Jeremy out for all the student body to see. Jeremy flailed against Hal’s grip, struggling.

“Take a look. Your prom king.”

Hal pulled Jeremy in close.

“Take your pants off.”

Jeremy gave a feeble nod. Suddenly, the crowd began to turn. The doors to the C-Court clanged open. The sound of laughter echoed down the corridor. Sloppy and loud. Buddy Blaine staggered into sight. He didn’t seem to notice the music had stopped, or the horrified students. He giggled and wobbled, as a blue glow danced over the walls around him. Tim McManus tripped after, waving a Gulkon Power Blade. Chad Arkin wobbled behind, grabbing for it.

“My turn, my turn.”

Jay looked to where Colin lay on the floor. Their missing Power Blade. These idiots must have found it out in the road. Tim leapt unsteadily forward like a drunken swashbuckler, parrying the blade and casting shimmering light across the hall. The sword swung past Chad’s nose just missing it.


Buddy giggled. “Let’s scare Christina with it.”

Tim laughed in agreement, and they ran into the gathered crowd. They stopped, staring, uncomprehending.

Hal slowly lowered Jeremy and squinted at the Power Blade. Jeremy squirmed away across the ground. Chad and Buddy didn’t see him. They blinked at the Johns lying on the ground.

“You guys okay?”

Hal pointed at the sword. “Where’d you get that?”

Tim shrugged. “It was out in the road. Why? Is it yours?”

In two bounds, Hal leapt through the crowd, rising up before the drunk boys. He grabbed Tim’s wrist and yanked the sword from his hand, then hurled an open palm into his chest. Tim flew back through the air, smashing into the stairs. He rolled over, coughing.

“What the hell?”

Hal leaped at Buddy with a roundhouse kick that hurled him into a wall. The Gulkon Blade clattered to the ground. Jay crawled over and wrapped his hand around its hilt. Hal turned to Chad and raised a fist. His foot hit Jay, and he glanced down. Too late. Jay thrust the sword up with all his might. There was a blinding flash of light, and Hal disappeared.

Chaos erupted. Students flooded out the doors. The girls in the peach-colored dresses were bawling, now. The Johns stirred on the floor, as teachers and chaperones ran to their aid. Blue and red lights flashed through the doors, and Elmer rushed in, waddling as fast as his thin legs would go.

Jay felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Liz.

“He’ll come back.”

Jay searched out Stevie and Colin from the crowd.

“She’s right. Let’s get up to Tutorial. We have to find a way to lock him out. Every minute counts.”

They pushed through the crowd, then Mr. Kurtz stepped in to block their path. He leaned over and picked the Gulkon Power Blade.

“Elmer.” He called, not taking his eyes from Jay. Elmer turned his twitching eye on to sword.

“The holy shit is that thing?”

Mr. Kurtz nodded at Jay. “You’ll want to keep tabs on this gentleman.” Jay looked around the room. The other students were backing away from him. Everyone at prom, he realized, had just seen him beat up the Johns.

Elmer pointed at Jay, incredulous. “He did this?”

“It wasn’t me,” Jay cried. “It was… um… shit, it’s really hard to explain.”

Elmer pulled his handcuffs from his belt. Jay whispered to the others.

“It’s on you guys now.”

Colin nodded, and took Stevie by the hand.

Elmer spun Jay around, clipped his wrists together, then nudged Jay forward, out the C-Court doors.


Jay turned. Liz was running after them.

“Take me too.”

Jay turned to Elmer.
“No. She had nothing to do with it.”

Elmer’s eye twitched fiercely as he looked at her.

“I’m sorry miss… but who are you?”

Liz stepped forward, defiant. “An accessory to the fact.”

Elmer raised an eyebrow. “Uh huh.”

“Officer, I’ve turned myself in.”

Elmer sighed and waved. “Alright, come along.”

They stepped into the cold night air. The rain had dropped to a drizzle. Jay’s tuxedo, still wet, was freezing. His teeth chattered. He leaned in to Liz.

“Why are you doing this?”

“To get out of here.”

“Then follow Stevie. She’s your ticket. What am I gonna do in jail?”

“Look. I was never good at games. So I’m going to win this one, my only chance,” she gently tapped Jay’s temple with her finger, “is with a copy of Hal’s brain on my team.”

Jay pushed her hand away. “Who says I’m on your team?”

“Hey.” Elmer barked at them both. “No tapping the suspect.”

An ambulance clattered across the C-Court’s single speed bump and parked alongside side the gym. One by one, C-Court headlights flickered on, engines rumbled to life. Elmer lead them to his squad car. Jay passed Chad and Buddy helping Tim stumble into his truck. When they saw Jay, they shouted.

“There he is.”

“The streets are safe again.”
“Nah, you’ve got the wrong man, officer. You want the Jay with the sword.”

Elmer turned on them. “Shut up! People are hurt back there.”

Tim wiped a bloody nose. “People are hurt out here.”

“You don’t hear us crying about it.”

Elmer eyed the boys with the suspicion. “Where you boys headed?”

“Home officer.” Chad fake yawned. “We’re all tuckered out.”

“See that you do.”

Elmer turned his back and Jay watched the boys snicker. He scanned the students pouring out of the school. He saw a clump of crying freshmen climbing into their parents’ cars. The juniors and seniors, however, didn’t seem upset. If anything, they were energized. Lacey Graves and Buster Alcott ran through the drizzle, laughing. A small group of boys huddled up, breathing to warm their hands, as another boy ran over, making grand gestures. It slowly dawned on Jay. The dance may be over, but prom was not.

“Elmer, I think everyone’s going to the after party.”

Elmer shot Jay a look of incredulity.

“And I think you have bigger things to worry about.” He shoved Jay into his car, then held the door open for Liz to climb in. The he locked the door behind them and trotted off to the ambulance.

Compared to the wet night air, the backseat of the patrol car was warm and dry. Jay leaned back against the black plastic seats, trying to calm his shivers and ignore the smell of urine. Through the doors, he heard the muted shouts of high schoolers. Liz watched a flock of them bustle past. A few peered in the windows and waved, sneering. One by one, truck engines rumbled to life. Taillights drifted from the parking lot, refracting through the drops of the car windshield. Jay shook his head.


Jay craned his neck to catch a glimpse of Tutorial, but silhouettes of cars blocked his view. So he stretched himself out, waiting. His wet jacket squeaked against the plastic seat. He glanced over at Liz.

“So is this how you remember it?”

“What? Dunam?” She looked out the window. “It’s been awhile. But yeah. I suppose.

“Uh huh.” He felt his resentment building. “So you dated Jeremy?”

Liz smiled a little. “On and off.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet. Probably dumped you, didn’t he? Cheated on you?”

“Just so you know that—” She pointed outside, “is not Jeremy. That’s Hal’s memory of Jeremy. An editorialized version. Yes, Jeremy could be a jerk. He could be mean. But he could also be sweet. He wasn’t some… two-dimensional tyrant. He just needed to get out of here, was all.”

“Yeah? So why isn’t he here? What happened to him?”

“He’s still in Dunam, I guess. The real Dunam. I’ve often wondered why Hal didn’t force Jeremy to join, make this a three player game. I guess is that Hal’s still a little scared of Jeremy. Lucky for him.”

“And what about me? Or Hal, I guess. What do you remember about us?”

Liz looked away.

“To be honest, I—  I don’t really remember much. I remember you were smart. You were always… earnest. About computers, science, video games.”

Jay blushed. “I sound like a nerd.”

She looked at him with arresting green eyes. “That’s not a bad thing Jay.”

Her lower lip trembled, and she spoke softly. “Look, what happened… it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve getting picked on. I made a bad decision. Jeremy and I both did. We shouldn’t of done it. But we did. It was a mean, cruel thing to do, and it made something inside Hal snap. He fell into some dark, terrible loop and he never got out.”

Jay shot back coldly. “Yeah, well… being thrown naked into prom will do that to that a guy.”

Liz reached over and took his hand. Her hand was warm and soft, like it was in his dream. She looked into his eyes.

“Jay, look at me. I’m really, truly sorry.”

She leaned in and grabbed his cheek. Then her head moved towards him, and he felt her lips on his cheek. They were warm and wet. He pulled back and looked into her eyes.

“I know.” He grumbled, wanting to stay mad, feeling his anger drift.

Boom! The car windows shook loudly. A shockwave resonated through the air, rumbling over the ground and shaking the door of C-Court. Liz scooted across the car seat, and pressed her face to the window.

“Was that— thunder?”

Jay shook his head. The rain was only a few scattered drops now. The clouds dispersed, uncovering the full moon. From the C-Court parking lot, he could see the baseball field, and a small ridge several acres away with farmhouses. The few remaining kids were looking down the southern horizon. Beyond the ridge, some distance away, a flash of white flickered on the clouds. Liz pointed.

“There. Look. Lightning.”

Jay shook his head. “I don’t think that’s lightning.”

The exterior lights of the school flickered, then went out. One by one, the warm farmhouse lights blinked off. Everything was pitch black, except for the stars and the moon. A pair of headlights flashed on, illuminating the lot, blinding Jay. He held up his hand, shielding his eyes, and saw a girl stepped around the driver’s side door. She was short, in a red dress and red heels. Marlene! From around the passenger side, came Shayna, tall and broad-shouldered in a dark blue dress that she fidgeted to pull down. Jay hadn’t seen them at the dance, but he remembered they were each other’s dates. He banged and yelled through the window, but they were too far to hear. Marlene had positioned her car (a yellow oldsmobile) to light up the interior of C-Court and help with the clean-up. Jay smiled and shook his head. Good old Marlene.

He saw her look at something, and then heard a shout. Colin was behind the squad car, in the parking lot, shouting something to Marlene. Jay pounded on the rear window. Colin looked around in confusion, then ran over to Jay, panting. His voice was muffled by the glass.

“The power’s out.”

“Yeah, no kidding. Did you guys lock Hal out?”

Colin shook his head. “No. He’s really fast. He saw what we were doing. Then this.”

Colin indicated the darkness.

Jay’s heart sank. Hal had cut the power.

“What do we do?”

Jay turned to Liz, thinking it through. “Why are we still alive? If he’s out, he could click and delete us in a second. He could delete everything. Why just cut the power?”

Liz looked pointed. “He’s your brain. You tell us.”

Jay thought about it, then turned to Colin. “Remember the night I got Krave III? We bought those Jolt Colas so we could fight Gulkons all night? Your mom made us that lasagna.”

“Yeah and then we ordered pizza from Spookies.”

Jay nodded. “With our own money. And we drove all the way down to pick it up. Why not eat the lasagna?”

“Because you said that lasagna was gross and for losers. You said everything had to be just perfect.”

Jay nodded. “We couldn’t get the game to work.”

“Yeah, we didn’t realize we needed a VGA monitor instead of CGA,” Colin explained.

“So what did we end up doing?”

“Eating the pizza, drinking the jolt, playing Super C.”

Liz stared at him. “Okay what are you guys talking about?”

Jay sat back in his seat. “I don’t know what your world is like, Liz. But in this world, when there’s a new game coming out, you clear your schedule. You take work off. You surround yourself with high sodium foods and inject yourself with high fructose corn syrup. There will be no sleep. And nothing—not an earthquake, or a nuclear bomb, or a botched prom, or a self-aware A.I.—is going to ruin your night.”

“So you’re saying—”

“The reason Hal hasn’t deleted us is simple: he’s not done playing yet.”

Next Chapter: The Gloom Bears