Jay stood alone in the Hunsaker lot, floating two feet off the ground. The green Miata stood abandoned, its driver door open. The wind kicked up, blowing dirt through Jay’s empty form. The Highland cattle lowed from the field across the road. Jay tried to take a step but without gravity or ground, his leg just wiggled in space. By concentrating, however, he found he could move through the air. He slowly rose off the ground, watching the lot grow smaller, then quickly zipped up into the sky. He rose higher and higher, looking down to watch Dunam recede, until it became a small patch of speckled olive surrounded by an endless sea of green. He paused and hung in the air. His senses were as diminished as his body. He felt neither exhilaration nor any fear.
His gashes from Jeremy’s beating no longer hurt, and was not hungry or thirsty or tired. From his high vantage point, the town looked just like the pixelated map in The Build. He could make out roads and houses, and the Skookullom river. It was odd, feeling such lightness of body and heaviness of spirit. He floated in the air for what felt like hours, thinking. His entire life had been a farce. Everything he’d ever wanted—getting out of Dunam, going off to college, taking Liz to prom, kicking Jeremy’s ass—was all merely a backdrop. It was fluff, irrelevant. He existed only as a plot device, to mark time until prom. They were all NPCs, designed solely to give more flavor to Hal’s game. To make the world more immersive, and serve the whims of the player. That’s all he was. That’s all any of them were.
Except Liz. And this, finally, was what brought Jay from his gloom. This world was made for Liz was, too. She was an unwilling player, somehow dragged into this virtual Dunam. Brought in against her will. There was a world outside of Dunam, after all, a real world, and she was trying to return to it. Jay’s own dreams may not matter, but Liz’s did. Hers were real. Jay remembered that she was waiting for him, waiting to bring him the disk. He had to warn her somehow.
From his high vantage point, he could see her mobile home at the corner of Wauna and Academy. He plummeted down from the sky, right through the roof of her mobile home.
The interior was small, but well kept. Its walls were panelled in faux-wood. A wood stove burned in the corner, and in the other was a pine-box television before an overstuffed chair covered in cat scratches. Liz slouched in the chair, legs crossed, playing a song on her guitar. It was one of the few remaining songs Jay hadn’t figured out.
“Liz. Liz!” He floated in the air, waving his arms.
She didn’t look at him, but continued singing, “I believe, I believe, we need a little time.”
There was a knock on the front door. Liz carefully leaned her guitar against the wall, and opened the door. It was Hal. The scrapes on his face were already dry and scabbing.
“Oh my god, what happened to your face?”
Hal smiled. “A run in with our old friend.”
“Did you bring the disk?”
Jay realized that Liz thought this was him. Hal’s face darkened.
“Disk? No, but I brought you these.” He held out a bouquet of roses.
“But what about the disk, I thought you said— we—”
He dropped down to one knee, snickering. “Liz… will you go to prom with me?”
Then her face went pale. Her right hand reached out and grabbed the doorframe to steady her body, which swayed. Jay saw that her knuckles were white. Hal held the flowers out. Liz slowly reached out and took them. Hal cleared his throat.
Liz’s voice was barely a whisper. “Of course.”
Hal threw his head back and crowed at the sky. Then: “Perfect. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. Do you remember the time?”
“Liz.” Hal’s smile vanished. “I’ve worked very hard on this. Please don’t disappoint.”
Liz managed a smile. Jay could see it took everything she had.
“Sure thing. It’ll be fun.”
Hal’s smile returned, not quite convinced, but an effort was all he required. Liz shut the door and there was a click on the other side. Liz grabbed the handle to turn it, but it wouldn’t move. She was locked in. Her shoulders collapsed. She shook violently, stumbling back to her chair, then sinking into it. She placed her head into her hands and sobbed, her body retching.
Jay felt a surge of anger. How could he treat Liz this way? How did Hal not feel the same love and compassion towards her. He moved to put an arm on her shoulder, but it passed right through. Furious with his impotence Jay screamed at the air. Liz, not hearing him, continued crying. He flew out through the walls of her house, blasting past trees, moving somewhere, moving instinctively north. Towards Colin’s house. He didn’t know how yet, but he had to find his friend. They had to stop Hal.
The trees whirred past, and then he was on Snowden road, flying around switchbacks, moving through cars until he reached the Derving’s driveway, flew into Colin’s house and dropped into his basement, praying he’d could count on his friend’s reliability.
Sure enough, there was Colin. He sat collapsed in his beanbag chair, his tucked under his massive girth in lotus pose. He held a Super Nintendo controller in one hand, Dr. Pepper in the other, and the cool glow of the TV washed over his moonface. Looking at the screen, Jay saw he was playing Secret of Mana, the game they’d worked on together before Krave III. Jay felt a twinge of sadness; those days were over.
Jay walked back and front before Colin, waving his hands. No response. He shouted in Colin’s ear. Colin sat unperturbed, staring at the screen. So Jay floated in the corner, watching the game, thinking. He wished he could shut his brain off for just five minutes, and join Colin in play.
Colin was at the caverns of Gaia’s Navel, mashing buttons against a boss they’d struggled months ago to defeat. As Colin delivered a final sword stroke, the boss glowed red, then exploded. In the boss’s place was a new character, a pink-haired sprite who joined their party. Jay leaned forward. He’d seen pictures in the manual. They’d been waiting to unlock him.
A naming screen popped up for the new character. The second controller lay on the floor, and Jay instinctively grabbed for it. As his hand passed through the controller, he heard a clicking sound. Onscreen, the cursor leapt about. Colin stopped with the controller, his brow furrowed. Jay again grabbed for the controller. Again, the cursor on the naming screen scrolled over the letters. Colin inspected his controller, turning it over in his hands. Jay saw his chance. He moved his hands through the controller, and found that, depending on where he placed them, he could move the onscreen cursor. One at a time he selected letters, spelling out “C-O-L-I-N.” Colin, eyes wide. He carefully placed his controller on the ground. There was only room for seven letters at a time, so Jay deleted what he’d typed and slowly spelled out “I-T-S-J-A-Y.”
“Jay?” Colin wondered aloud. With a grunt, Colin hoisted himself up, thundered over to the downstairs phone, and grabbed a scrap piece of paper.
Communicating went painstakingly slow. Jay typing, Colin writing, Jay deleting, over and over. Finally, he was finished. Colin waited, staring at the screen expectantly, so Jay typed “N-O-M-O-R-E” then crept over Colin’s shoulder, to review.
“COLNITS — JAYTRPD — ASGHOST — BYOWNER — OFBUILD — HRDSTOP — JEREMY — BRKDISK — GOTOSTVI — GETCOPY — BRINGME — BCKTOLF — HRDSTOP”
Colin puzzled at the message for several minutes, his face indecipherable. The wait was agonizing. Did Colin understand? Would he believe Jay? If he did believe, would he help? Finally, Colin rose and waddled to the phone. He pulled out the Dunam directory, licked his massive fingers, flipped through the pages, and picked up the receiver. Jay heard the faint sound of ringing.
“Um, hello. Stevie? What are you up to?”
Thirty minutes later, as the final light of day faded, Jay found himself in the Hinman’s house, invisible, as Stevie lead him and Colin into her room.
It was surprisingly messy. For being a genius, she wasn’t very organized. A huge bookshelf was only partially used, as books lay everywhere. The drawers of the dresser were open, and her grey blouses were scattered over the floor and on the bed. The only clean space was around her computer, a Macintosh Classic II. On top of the desk was a scattered pile of disks. Most were green or black and unlabelled; a few had masking tape over the top and hastily scrawled descriptions. But there, on top of the stack, was the original Krave III load disk that Stevie had helped them repair.
Colin plunked down on Stevie’s bed and looked around nervously. Stevie meanwhile looked to Colin, waiting for him to talk. Jay watched in painstaking agony for one of them to start. When neither did, he went to Stevie’s computer and stuck his hand into the monitor. The screen flickered, and Colin startled. Stevie looked quizzical.
“I think that’s Jay,” Colin said finally.
Stevie’s persistent smile showed the slightest signs of strain. “What do you mean?”
“Jay’s a ghost.”
Colin gave an awkward laugh.
“He’s not dead, I don’t think. I think he’s… trapped. Between worlds.”
Stevie whispered. “...like the spirit world in My Neighbor Totoro.”
“Yeah, or the Dark World in Link to the Past.”
“We have to bring him back. What do you we do?”
“Well, I’m sure Jay has some sort of plan.” Stevie laughed. Jay realized he had something of a reputation. “I think we need that disk you copied.”
“Sure, I can make another.” Stevie pulled out the Krave III disk, examined it, then grabbed a clean floppy from her pile.
“I need a PC, though. This is a mac.”
“And it needs internet.”
“So, Tutorial then?”
Colin shook his head. “It’s not open.”
“Oh, right. I guess we’ll have to wait.”
“The window. The window!” Jay was screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Hey.” Stevie snapped her fingers. “I wonder if Ms. Rotchkey leaves the window unlocked?”
An almost full moon cast the parking lot in cool shadow as the batmobile rumbled up to C-Court and switched off. Jay floated, waiting impatiently. The campus buildings crouched in the darkness; its buildings black slumbering giants. Jay followed behind Colin and Stevie as they moved up to Tutorial through the pines. They were laughing about some story from middle-school, and Jay rolled his eyes. Despite his invisibility, he felt fear. What if Hal were waiting for them in Tutorial?
Jay flew ahead, into the walls. It was pitch black inside, except for the puddle of moonlight that fell through the window. He zipped around and checked the corners, until he was certain no one was hiding. He heard Colin through the walls, crashing through underbrush and floated over to watch their painstaking progress. Colin boosted Stevie until she could pulled open the window, tumbled inside and opened the door.
Colin flicked on the lamps and then taped watercolor papers over the windows, to keep the light from shining out and attracting attention. Stevie fired up the computer, and began copying files onto the disk she’d brought.
Stevie opened up CompuServe, clicked “connect,” and then they were looking down at night time Dunam, as tiny cars jerked up main street.
She scrolled to Tutorial, and Stevie gave an unabashed “Whoa!” at seeing her pixelated self. They spotted Jay’s outline behind them, his pixels at half opacity, and both turned to squint at the space where Jay should be. She double clicked.
Jay was floating two feet above the ground of Tutorial, when he suddenly materialized. He’d become used to absence of gravity, and then suddenly it was pulling him down. He collapsed with a thud on the rough brown carpet.
“Jay!” Stevie clapped. “Were you in the Dark World?”
Jay strained against gravity to stand up. “Guys, we have a serious problem. We’re living in a prom simulator. There’s nothing outside Dunam. This is it. This is all the world there is.”
He saw Stevie look away, and Colin blush, getting angry. “I know you’re getting angry. And I understand. You’re programmed to ignore reality’s edges. But if we don’t intervene tomorrow at prom, the game will end whether we like or not.”
Colin was clenching and unclenching his fists. Jay decided to leave it for now.
“Stevie, if I can get you a ticket, would you accompany Colin and I to prom?”
Stevie grinned. Colin looked at her, blushing, his anger dissolved.
“To prom? Yeah, I’d love to.”
“Great. We’re gonna need all the help we can get.”
Jay plopped down before the computer. At the top of the screen was a tiny search bar, and he ran a search on his own name, Harold Jay Banksman. A small list appeared, with two entries. The first centered the screen on his own avatar, so he tried the second. The screen flew across Dunam, into Jay’s house. In his living room, there he was, tiny, pixelated, sitting on the couch between his two parents. Watching TV. Jay fumed.
Jay searched for Elizabeth Knight. The screen jumped nine blocks away, over to Liz’s modular home. Jay saw she her pixelated figure lying in bed, playing guitar. Tiny music notes drifted up into the air.
“We have to be careful. He can’t know I’m back.”
In the object library, Jay opened up a folder labelled “weapons.” There were rows and rows of pixelated guns. Some—like the minigun, assault rifle, and rocket launcher—he immediately recognized from Krave III. Others, like the rail gun, were new to him. Jay paused on a square.
“Hmmm, what’s this?” It held a pixelated sword, with an edge that shimmered with shifting pixels. It’s label read “Gorkon Power Blade.” Jay clicked, dragged it into the Tutorial room. They heard a soft clatter on the carpet, and turned to see a sword lying on the ground. Two glimmering crystalline blades shot parallel out from the handle. Colin strode over and picked up the blade. Blue bolts of electricity arced down the two crystals.
“Is this real Gorkonium?”
He swung the blade around. Electricity zipped down the crystals.
Jay typed furiously at the computer.
“Let’s see. Two of these. Some of these…” Strange, futuristic weapons piled in the center of the room. Colin and Stevie stared.
“Um… what kind of prom are we going to?”
“The kind where you want plasma rifles and grenade launchers nearby. Stevie, what are the odds you could lock this program so that we can make changes, but nobody else can?”
“The world literally depends on it.”
“That doesn’t change the odds.”
“You’ve got til tomorrow night to figure it out.”
“Why? What happens at prom?”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s the reason we exist.”
Luiz Angel hated the late shift at the Dunam Mercantile. The store didn’t close until eleven, but families were finished shopping by nine. The last two hours in the evening went to the homeless denizens of Dunam. They straggled in like zombies, stocking up on Old English and Natural Ice for their “last call.” Currently, Luiz was watching Matty Richter and Gerald Saluskin try to hold two bottles of Boone’s Ferry as they staggered down an aisle. They were shouting at each other, their speech so slurred that Luiz couldn’t tell if they were joking or fighting. Luiz, despising his job, stepped out from behind his cashier stand to make sure they didn’t try another marshmallow heist.
He bumped into a short kid wearing sunglasses. He thought he recognized the kid from when he still went to Cascadia. He was the kid who’d been coming in every day, hitting up the ATM.
The kid wanted to check out, so Luiz abandoned his crusade against Matty and Gerald, stepping back behind the register. The kid placed three Jolt Colas on the conveyor belt, then handed Luiz a hundred dollar bill. Luiz raised an eyebrow. He pulled the counterfeit pen out from the drawer and scribbled. There were no marks, so he slid it into the till. He nodded at the Jolt Colas.
“Ahh, getting ready.”
The kid in sunglasses nodded.
Luiz shook his head. “Nobody asked me to go this year. I must be getting old.”
The kid peered down over his glasses. “I’d stay away if I were you. I hear something’s going down.”
Luiz grinned. “Well now I definitely gotta go.”
The kid didn’t smile. Luiz handed him back his money and the kid grabbed his Jolt Cola and bolted out through the sliding glass doors. Luiz watched him go. This town was full of odd ones. The crash of shattering glass startled him from his thoughts, and he strode off to give hell to Matty and Gerald.