2142 words (8 minute read)

Load Bar

The next morning, Jay slipped into Tutorial shortly after the first period bell. The class—as he might have predicted—was not cheerful. Mike’s bloated face was puffier than usual, as if he’d been crying. Shayna sat at her desk, head slumped on bakelite, oversized arms stretched out dramatically, kicking the desk in front of her. Olas, receiving the brunt of her kicks, turned and gave her a sour glance, but didn’t risk more. Marlene slouched in her chair, staring at the ceiling. Even Audrey, who always had perfect posture and angelic composure, looked faintly disgruntled.

Ms. Rotchkey seemed to be having as hard of a time as any of them. Her skin sagged extra heavy, drained of all color. She stood before the class and addressed them quietly.

“I’ve spoken with most of you already this morning. But let’s bring the group into the discussion. I take it from the faces I’m seeing that no one got positive news this weekend. Is that correct?”


“Well, I just want you to know how proud I am of you. All of you. This is not a reflection on you or your abilities. It’s a reflection of this town. There’s a curse on this town. I’m not one for superstition, but the Cascadia curse is real. We’ve seen it. There are other ways into college. Once graduation’s over, I encourage each of you to leave this town. Go find yourself a city—”

“We can’t,” Jay muttered

Ms. Rotchkey stopped. The rest of Tutorial turned to Jay, except Colin, who turned away blushing.

“I’m sorry?”

Jay pressed on. “I said ‘We can’t leave.’”

“I know it can feel that way. But there is a way out. It may not be college, but—”

“I’m not being metaphorical; there’s literally nothing beyond Dunam. A giant cliff surrounds our town. Why do you think nobody ever leaves here? Same reason our baseball team doesn’t play any games. Because there’s nobody out—”

Shayna spun around in her seat. “Stop it!”

Mike stood up on his chair, screaming “Shut up! Stop saying those things!”

Jay looked to Colin for support, but was surprised to see him looking away, breathing heavily, his fists balled into white-knuckled hammers.

The students of Tutorial were up now, surrounding Jay. That old, familiar adrenaline was pumping now, the same thing he used to feel against Jeremy. He was cornered, trapped, the mob closing in. Ms. Rotchkey pushed her way in between Mike and Olas. Her face was red with anger.

“I’m trying to lead a productive conversation, Jay Banksman, and you’re offering a load of B.S.!”

Jay shrunk back. “Hey I’m just asking questions. You taught us that skepticism is good.”

“That’s not skepticism, that’s nonsense. Go to Mr. Oatman’s office!”

Jay stood up from his seat. Everyone was staring at him, furious. Colin, even, looked mad. What had he done? Ms. Rotchkey stormed over to the phone, and hit the four button number for the front office.

“Hello, it’s Teresa. I’m calling to let you know to expect Jay Banksman down there in a few moments, thank you.” She hung up, and then stared at Jay. Jay nodded slowly, then stepped out of the room and made his way to Oatman’s office.

His meeting with Mr. Oatman was brief and annoying. Jay mumbled his lines, as if reciting a play.


Mr. Oatman snorted, piquing Jay’s curiosity.

“Did you ever go to college, Mr. Oatman?”

“Of course not.” Oatman proudly scoffed. He leaned over his desk. “It’s no skin off my back if you’re in Tutorial or Cascadia general. If Ms. Rotchkey wants you out, you’re out. Understand?”

Jay did. Another outburst, and he’d be put back into the shark tank. With that, he was dismissed. Neither Ms. Shirell nor Mrs. Flemings acknowledged Jay as he left. When Jay stepped out into A-Court, all was quiet. Which meant he had missed lunch, and most of third period. Jay headed straight to his secret spot outside Tutorial. When the bell rang, he heard Colin’s footsteps crunching through the undergrowth. When Colin saw Jay, he shook his head.

“We gotta face it. We’re not going to college. We’re not leaving.” He looked at Jay carefully. “We can still get a house together, though. If you want.”

Jay felt like crying. Everyone had given up. College had only ever been a pretense. Applying was just something you did to pass the time, like everything in Dunam. Even Ms. Rotchkey urging them to apply felt mechanical, in hindsight. Like she were reading a script.

“Aren’t you curious at all?”

Colin turned red. Something odd was happening inside him. The mere suggestion of leaving seemed to make him shake with anger. Jay took a breath and changed tacts.

“Yeah let’s get a house. That sounds fun. We can have Krave III tournaments every night. Tell you what? Fourth period, why don’t we start building our game.”

Colin brightened. “Really?”

“Yeah, you wanted to do something western-themed, right?”

Colin slowly relaxed, nodding. Jay’s mind raced. He had to assure everyone that he meant to stay in Dunam, and he didn’t know why. Suggesting otherwise seemed to make everyone else furious. He felt like he was going crazy. He had to go through the motions, pretending to be only mildly dissatisfied with Dunam. But deep down, he was more desperate to leave than ever.

The bell rang, and he and Colin ascended the Tutorial ramp to fourth period. Stevie was already at the computer, so Jay sat in his seat, loudly unzipping his backpack and pulling out the Krave III manual. It was black with a brilliant red logo, printed on flimsy, shiny paper. It’s pages were crumpled with a thousand reads. He’d memorized it by now, but flipped through again and pretended to read as he mulled over his delicate predicament.

He glanced around the room, annoyed at his fellow students. Marlene and Olaus played a half-hearted game of chess. Shayna sulked in the corner. Colin had taken to finger painting. He kneeled on all fours, his huge belly hanging out over a mess of newspapers, as he diligently stroked down the page. Jay watched him in amazement. Maybe he was going crazy?

At 2:25, Stevie, punctual as ever, stepped away from the computer. Jay slipped in behind her and double-clicked “The Build’s” exe. file. The load screen flashed up, and he was back in pixelated Dunam. Jay scrolled around downtown until he saw something.

In the top right-hand corner of the screen, there was a small red box with the word “connect” inside. That was new, he was certain.

Jay clicked it. The town faded to a dark grey, and a small box popped over it. A single blocky red word flashed. “Connecting...” It’s periods animating out one at a time. Then the text changed to “Loading updates…” A red bar slowly filled.

“Colin.” Jay whispered.

Colin laboriously picked himself off the floor and trudged over. Jay pointed.

“Check it. Stevie must’ve forgot to get off the internet.”

Colin’s eyes widened. He whispered, “You mean… we’re online?”

The internet was something they’d heard of. Jay had seen the advertisements for Compuserve in his parents Time Magazine. Sign up for a year, and get one hour free. He’d been waiting for Cascadia to get the internet. Now it looked as Ms. Rotchkey had.

Minutes passed. The load bar ticked up in tiny millimeters. Jay fidgeted, waiting to see what came next. It was already 2:53, and class was almost over. Then the loading bar suddenly zipped to completion.

The screen popped back up in full color. They were looking downtown at the intersection of Jewett and Este street. Except, whereas before there was no movement, now the screen was full of motion. Like someone had unpaused a game. The trees swayed in rhythmic loops. And two tiny pixelated people walked the sidewalk. A truck zoomed past, jerking forward in fits of lag. Both boys sat back.


“Scroll over to the trailer park.”

Jay grabbed the mouse and scrolled. It moved more slowly, as if the game were heavier. There was the Dulce Vita trailer park, or what was left of it. The black, charred earth of the fire was still visible all around, black and pixelated. Several homes—not modular, but permanent, small homes—were being constructed over the top. They could see tiny carpenters, blurry with pixels, on tiny ladders.

“Looks like it’s pretty up to date.”

“The internet did that?”

Jay clicked on one of the workers. A grey window opened up on the righthand side of the screen, labeled “Davy Noisyhawk.” Beneath that, was a series of basic statistics: health, hunger, sleep, wealth.

“That’s Davy. I think he’s there.”

“Yeah I see that.”

“No, I mean, he’s on that job.”  Colin pointed to another of the workers. “Click on that guy.”

Jay clicked. A window popped up for Charles “Chuck” Derving. Colin’s dad. They squinted at the tiny, pixelated figure, locked in a hammering motion.

“Is your dad on that job?”

“I think so.”

Jay grabbed the mouse back from Colin and scrolled madly. The screen swayed, a blur of orange and green, up to Cascadia High School. There was the Batmobile, in the spot Colin had parked it this morning. Jay scrolled to Tutorial. He clicked the down arrow, and the roof and walls disappeared. There was a miniaturized classroom. The lamps shone in their respective corners. There were Marlene and Olaus at the chess table. There was Stevie, her outstretched legs only a few pixels long. And there was the computer, with two pixelated boys—one big, one small—staring at a tiny, pixelated computer.

“Holy shit.”

Jay raised his hand and waved it. A moment ticked by, then the Jay onscreen lifted a tiny arm and waved it. The computer’s modem gave a loud chirp and everyone glanced their way. Jay met their gaze sheepishly, then turned back to the screen. All the avatars in the classroom looked up and glanced over.

It was 3:04. The rest of the class was packing up. Stevie stared at them, processing the noise the computer had just made. She leapt up and strode towards them. Jay tried to tilt the screen so that it blocked her view, but it wouldn’t shift. He held up his hands to ward her off.

“Are you guys online?”

“It’s our turn.”

She shoved his arms out of the way and stared at the screen. Her eyes widened.

“Ms. Rotchkey! They’re using my minutes. I pay for that out of my own pocket.”

“Just give us a minute.”

Stevie reached for the mouse. Jay’s hand fell over hers, and they grappled. Ms. Rotchkey stumbled to her feet.

“Jay Banksman!”
“It’s our turn! Colin, stop her!” Colin shook his head. No way.

Jay wrestled control of the mouse, fending off Stevie with one hand. Stevie dropped down to all fours, reaching for the phone line. Ms. Rotchkey tottered over, shouting at both of them.

“Step away from the computer! Both of you.”

Jay was out of time, so he did the first thing that came to his head. He clicked on his own avatar. A small bubble popped up, and he clicked onto the “wealth” menu. There was a single line item for his account at Skookullom Community bank. There was the last of his Cherry Orchard money, $45.32. Jay clicked and the numbers went pink. Ms. Rotchkey was standing over his shoulder now, and he could feel the computer shiver as Stevie grappled with the phone line. He mashed some numbers, then clicked “Save changes.” The screen went grey, and a pop-up window switched to “saving…”

The screen froze. Jay, Colin; the onscreen avatars disappeared. Jay’s scrolling froze. Stevie crawled out from behind the computer, holding the phone line triumphantly in her hand. Ms. Rotchkey had her face down next to Jay’s, her breath hot in his face.

“Go to the principal’s office. Now!” It didn’t matter. The clock on the wall struck 3:10, and the bell rang. Jay bolted from his seat, ejecting the disk and grabbing his bag. The students pressed around him, claustrophobic. Ms. Rotchkey was yelling. Stevie was too.

He burst out of Tutorial, into the spring air. He ran down the ramp, feeling the sunshine on his skin, straight into the C-Court parking lot where he lost himself in the sea of students rushing to their cars. Hiding behind the Batmobile, he peaked over the roof, spying on Colin as he lumbered down the ramp. Colin spotted Jay’s eyes gleaming over his roof and shook his head.

“You’ve got detention.”

“Can we swing by the Mercantile? I need to check something.”

“I think you might be expelled.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jay shook his head. He was shaking. “Colin; I think we hit the motherload.”

Next Chapter: Sixteen Strokes