For three months, Tutorial was grim, as Ms. Rotchkey walked everyone through the steps to get into college. They’d taken their SATs. She’d sat with each of them, picking out colleges in a disheveled US News & World Report magazine until they’d each chosen three. She’d scrubbed through each of their applications, scanning for errors. For Mike, it was rumored she even contributed her own money for admissions fees. Now they were waiting to hear back. It would be any day now, Ms. Rotchkey told them, and they sat tense in their desks as Ms. Rotchkey mechanically walked through lessons at the front of the class.
Jay felt sick with excitement. He’d never left Dunam. The idea of finally escaping brought a flood of emotion. What if the kids at college were just more Jeremy and Johns? What if he didn’t like the big city? What if he got mugged?! Perhaps more than anything, Jay feared his resolve to actually leave. He feared he might be too scared to go, that he’d turn it down, stay in Dunam, and disappoint his parents, Ms. Rotchkey and himself. Luckily, he didn’t have to make that decision yet. Until he heard back, he could lose himself in Krave III.
Jay looked up from the computer to see Colin standing over his shoulder. When Jay looked back at the screen, his Krave III avatar lay dead in a pool of blood. Gorkon Grunts ran back and forth over his corpse, gnashing their teeth.
“Looking for literary devices, obviously.”
Colin lowered his voice. “Have you beat the Maga Froid yet?”
Jay lowered his voice in turn. “Of course not, man. I would never facer her without you.”
The Maga Froid was the last the boss in Krave III. She was in the background of the cover, a hideous red brain with wide, staring eyeballs. Jay and Colin had only made it to her once. She was at the end of level twelve, in the bottom of the Gorkon’s lair. When you got to her cave, the lights dropped, and the music switched to a deep and hypnotic rhythm, and then she burst out from the wall behind you. It made Jay’s pulse race just to think about. That was the goal for the summer: to beat the Maga Froid.
“Nah, I’m just killing time, man. Waiting for—”
Right on cue, the bell rang. The Tutorial kids ran to the door, and Jay and Colin joined them. They flowed as a herd outside. The sun was in its hottest position, and humidity radiated from the grass beneath the pines.
They ran through the trees, with a clear view of the C-Court parking lot. Kids poured out the C-Court and cars were already zipping down the road. And there she was. Liz. She walked alone out of the C-Court doors, and up towards towards them. Jay grabbed Colin, and pulled him back into the pines.
“What are we doing?”
“Don’t let her see us.”
“I thought you were gonna talk to her.”
“You said to spy on her first, remember?”
Jay crept through the branches. Peeping through, he could kind of see Liz’s obscured form. She seemed lost in thought. Jay saw—with relief and some disappointment—that she was not heading towards them, but merely to her truck, a classic green Ford, dirty and rusted, with a canopy on its back. She opened it and swung in her long, athletic legs. Jay felt a buzz of adrenaline.
“C’mon, let’s follow her.”
“Aren’t you fascinated? Don’t you want to know more? Who knows, she could be from England.”
“She doesn’t look English. She looks more… Canadian.”
“Like you’ve been to Canada. C’mon, we’re taking a little detour, then we’ll go play Krave.”
Liz’s truck started up and circled the parking lot. Jay grabbed Colin’s collar and shook it in desperation.
“Please. Humor me.”
Colin sighed, straightening. The two of them dashed from the pines into the C-Court parking lot.
Another nice thing about Colin, aside from his agreeable personality and the protection of his massive bulk, was that he had a car. It wasn’t much of a car, and it was widely laughed at by the rest of the student body and all of Dunam. But it was a car, and that was something.
It was an old Volkswagon Bug, dented and black, except for its doors, which were yellow. Its black color made earned it the nickname The Batmobile, which started as a joke, but Jay thought it sounded kind of cool, so they kept it.
The car had more problems than mechanical components, and broke down often. It made them late to Tutorial, and then again getting home. With the time they spent on the roadside fiddling around with the engine, they could have more quickly walked to most of their destinations. But a car was a car.
Colin and Jay slid inside. Colin’s massive frame barely fit in the driver’s seat, and he made the vehicle look like a clown car, with his knees practically to his chest. The slim Volkswagon wheels were barely enough for Colin’s weight, and the car’s suspension creaked dangerously and dropped inches off the ground.
The Volkswagon had four gears (one didn’t work) and reverse (which didn’t work either). Often, to get it started, they put it neutral and rolled it backwards, then jumped in. Colin would park it on hills to get a rolling start. The car didn’t have an ignition. Where an ignition would have gone, Colin inserted and turned a flathead screwdriver. Then he pushed a doorbell nailed into the dashboard. The engine gave an anemic chug, then finally roared to life.
Jay and Colin lurched forward, as the air bubbles in the fuel lines worked out through the engine. Slowly they moved up and joined the queue of trucks on NW Simmons road. Four cars ahead, Liz’s green truck turned onto Main street. As the Batmobile finally accelerated, its engine rattled and backfired, booming out its tailpipe and spitting flames. The kids walking home screamed and leaped into ditches to get away. They hit a pothole, and the whole frame of the car dipped down, scraping the axle with a terrible scream.
Jay looked down at his feet. There was a hole in the floorboard, and the road raced by beneath him. He hugged his backpack, protecting the front pocket in case Krave tumbled out. In the best of times the Batmobile drew attention. Now that they were on a stealth mission, Jay’s heart pounded in his chest.
Liz’s truck turned off of main street. They followed, taking a left onto NE Green, into the more residential section of Dunam. A backfire boomed through the neighborhood.
“Can’t you drive it any quieter?” Jay yelled over the din.
Colin shook his head and Jay noticed his white knuckles as he grappled with the steering wheel, which bucked back and forth like a wild horse, trying to swerve them into oncoming traffic. Whether it was a gust of wind, or just the mind of a psychopathic car, the veered into the far lane. An incoming logging truck honked at them and Colin panicked and swerved. The engine RPMs leaped up, and the tailpipe backfired rapid-fire. Colin shifted into neutral and tapped the gas pedal to calm the engine, but it remained stuck in full-throttle, backfiring like World War III.
“This is supposed to be stealth mission.”
“I’m sorry!” Colin wailed, banging helplessly at the dashboard.
They were coasting now, Liz’s truck getting further away, and then Jay saw it turn down NE Academy street, and pull in front of an unremarkable modular house.
“Oh, oh, let me out. I’ll proceed on foot. Swing the car back around, in case we need a quick exit.”
Jay opened his door and slipped out. He was about to leave his backpack, then remembered the hole in the floorboards, so he shouldered it and tiptoed over to the fence line, towards where Liz had parked. Behind him, the cacophony of the Batmobile helped cover the noise of his footsteps.
He reached the end of the fence, and peered around. There was Liz’s truck, parked in front of an indistinct modular home that sat on concrete blocks. It was old and in need of a paint job. Water stains rolled down its roof, turning its sides orange. The gravel lot surrounding it was dusty and expansive, big enough to hold a dozen vehicles. A small, abused trailer sat in front of a hedge of evergreens. It looked abandoned. Another, taller hedge of Western Red Cedar surrounded the rest of the barren property, and gave a conspicuous degree of privacy.
Liz shut the truck’s engine off. She stepped out, grabbed her backpack, and disappeared through the nondescript door of the mobile home. Jay felt disappointed. He didn’t know what he’d expected; that she lived in a mansion, maybe, or else out of a suitcase in Dunam’s single—perpetually empty—motel. Still, this was information. Whoever she was, she seemed here to stay. And what about her parents? In Dunam, the norm was that husbands worked at the mill and wives stayed home. Had both Liz’s parents taken jobs at the mill? There was much to be discovered.
Aside from the front door, the only other feature on the mobile home was a single, sad window. The sun had fallen slightly behind the house, and the shadows fell towards Jay, putting the window into darkness. He couldn’t see the interior but Liz—if she were watching—could see him. Jay decided to risk it. He shouldered his backpack and crossed the street, trying hard to look like a casual student headed home. He crossed before the house, noticing a side door and a second window. Did the curtains rustle, or was he imagining things?
He dashed to the ugly trailer. Dirty shades were drawn over its windows, except one on the far side. Hoping to glean some useful information, he tip-toed over.
He had his back against its metal, moving slyly along its side, inching toward the window. It was taller than he was, but there was a cracked plastic bucket shoved under the trailer. Jay grabbed it. Using it as a stool, he stepped up, testing his weight, and heard a voice.
“Looking for someone?”
Jay whipped his head around. Liz was standing before him, not four feet away. Her arms crossed over her chest, her hair flowed down around her dark shoulders. She was beautiful and terrifying.
“I, uh, I’d always been curious about this trailer. See, I walk home this way every day, and, uh, thought I’d check it out.”
She studied him. He saw her forehead wrinkle in confusion. A blank stare passed over Liz’s face, and then she threw her head back in laughter. There was no note of joy in it; it was cold, with a deep and bitter resentment. When her head snapped back down, cold hatred burned in her eyes.
“You’re not him, are you?”
The look on her face made Jay step backwards. He had the sinking feeling that he’d misread her glance back at school. Maybe it was not love he saw, but animosity.
She was stepping towards him. “Get out.”
Jay stepped back, holding up his hands out in surrender.
“W— wait. W-who did you think I was?”
She shoved him, sending him flying back into the gravel.
“Get off my property. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
Jay leaped up to run, but she grabbed his backpack and tore it from his shoulders. Jay desperately held onto one strap.
“Hey, my games are in there!”
For some reason this made Liz even angrier. “And get your fucking games outta here!”
She snatched his backpack, held it straight out, then punted it into the air. It sailed in an arc out into the street, then smashed down on the pavement. Jay screamed, and then Liz was pummeling him. He threw up his hands and ran. Liz followed him out into the street and rounded the fence. The Batmobile was waiting for him and he flung open the door and threw himself into the passenger seat, landing partially on Colin’s lap.
“Go go go!”
The bug rumbled to life, its passenger door hanging open, Jay’s feet hanging out, and the sound of the girl’s kicks reverberating through the frame. Jay scrambled to spin around without falling through the floorboard hole.
“Turn around, turn around! Get my backpack.”
Colin swung the car around in wide arc, spotted the backpack, and drove for it, swinging up onto the sidewalk for Jay to grab it. Jay saw the tire heading right for it.
“Agh! Careful! Oh no!”
The front tire of the batmobile slowly drove over his backpack. Jay grabbed it as it was coming out of the wheel.
“Idiot! You just ran over Krave III!”
Colin gunned it down Green street. Jay turned the backpack around. It was covered in dust and bits of leaves. He tugged at the zipper, but it was stuck.
“Oh god,” Jay moaned. “If I have to spend another fifty dollars… I don’t even have fifty dollars!”
“What made her so mad?”
“I don’t know! I just mentioned my games and she just went nuts. By the way, great driving there Hasselhoff.”
Colin nodded, “You’re the one who made her mad.”
Jay wrenched open his zipper and peered into the front pocket.
He pulled out the Krave III box. Its cardboard sides exploded outward, the corners flattened. Colin shook his head.
“No Maga Froid.”
“No anything! What are we gonna do?”
But Colin didn’t answer. He was staring in the rearview mirror.
“I said, ‘what are we going to do?’”
Still no response.
“Hello? What? Is she back there or something?”
Jay turned around. The road behind them was empty.
“What are you staring at?”
“Nothing.” Colin turned his eyes back to the road in front of us.
“It was just, for a second there, I thought I saw a guy standing back there in the middle of the road.”
“A guy? Who? Someone we know?”
“Maybe…” Colin looked pale and shaken, but said nothing more.