Act I: Concerning High-Schoolers

Chapter One: Home Free


I stared at the little clock at the bottom corner of the Mac screen.

Four more minutes. Four more minutes, and then the weekend would officially begin.

Most of the students in Mister Robinson's 8th Period video apps class sat in their desks, listening to music or talking to each other for the last few minutes of class. Everyone always spoke so loudly, the cacophony gave me a headache, so I preferred to finish the day sitting at one of the Mac computer stations with my earbuds plugged in.

I purposefully chose the Mac station closest to the exit, which allowed me to consistently be one of the first people out the door when the final bell rang.

Of all the computers in Downingtown East High School, the Macs in Room 137, the TV Studio, were the best. I'm a staunch PC-lover, but I will admit the TV studio Macs outperformed the school PCs by a comically wide margin. They were faster and less likely to freeze up.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the classroom door opening, and I turned to watch Theo return from the bathroom. He ignored the cacophony and plopped back down in his chair next to me, grabbing his backpack and putting it on. He said something to me, but I didn't hear what on account of my earbuds. I glanced up at the clock over the door.

2:23. Two minutes.

"Glad you decided to come back," I remarked, popping out one of my earbuds, returning my attention to youtube.

It was a long-running joke between the two of us, how Theo would excuse himself to go to the bathroom and then not return for a long time. On one occasion, last year, he'd excused himself from our 2nd Period Peace and Conflict class, and he hadn't come back for nearly half an hour. He claimed to have fallen asleep on the toilet, but I knew better. Theo always brought a book to the bathroom, and at that time he'd been reading the Great War series from Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 alternate history series, depicting an alternate version of World War One in a universe where the Confederacy had won the American Civil War.

Compelling stuff. Easy to spend half an hour getting lost in, and immensely more interesting than sitting around a classroom waiting for the teacher to assign more homework.

"A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins," Theo replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his inhaler, taking a deep medicated breath. "Nor is he early."

I arched an eyebrow at him. "You're a wizard, now? You've kept it secret from me all this time?"

"It wasn't easy," Theo said. "You nearly had me on so many different occasions, I've never had a moment's peace."

"So why didn't you use your magic to stop 9/11?"

"I was ten years old and didn't see it coming," replied Theo.

"Now you're eighteen, and you still haven't figured out how to wizard your way through time to stop 9/11?"

"Would that even be useful?" Theo frowned, giving the notion some serious table time in his mind, which is part of why we were friends. "Changing the past would just create an alternate timeline with its own future, which wouldn't be this future. Or maybe time traveling will actually cause 9/11 in some weird roundabout way."

"Just saying, it's probably unethical not to try." I glanced at the clock. "A lot of people died, and we're still at war."

2:25. Zero minutes.

Though it was muffled by the TV Studio classroom's soundproofed door, which was always closed, I heard the bell ring from the hallway loudspeaker system, signaling the end of the school day. With a quick, well-rehearsed sequence of keystrokes, I closed out all open programs and shut down the Mac. Grabbing my backpack, I sprang up from my chair and hurried out the door with Theo before the rest of the class could get in our way.

"Hold on a sec, I need my jacket." I stopped briefly at my locker, spinning the combination lock.

"Dude, why don't you just keep it in your sylladex?" Theo asked. "You realize you're one of the only ones who still even uses a locker?"

"You know the whole sylladex thing gives me a headache," I muttered, finishing the combination and opening my locker. "It can't be good having a little pocket dimension in your pocket for a prolonged amount of time. I bet it'll cause cancer further down the line."

"Skaianet's coolest most futuristic technology available to the public gives you a headache?" Theo gave a nod. "Fair enough, but that doesn't make it any less useful."

I shrugged, grabbing my jacket from the locker and putting it on.

"Hey, Cass," Theo said behind me.

"Hi, Theo."

I turned around just in time to see Cass Galavis walk past us, and the suddenness of her appearance left me at a loss for words, so all I ended up doing was grinning stupidly and giving a small wave.

Did she notice? She totally noticed, right? I'm sure she noticed.

I could see the silent laughter in Theo's eyes, and I knew he was reaping sweet revenge from my earlier needling of his extravagant bathroom breaks. "A wizard is never late, nor is he early," I grumbled. "A wizard is just a total douche."

Hurrying to stay ahead of the crowd, Theo and I stepped outside into the crisp April afternoon. By the calendar, it was now Spring, but it would not truly be Spring for me until I could get away with wearing a sweatshirt without a jacket. Clothing measured the seasons far more accurately than calendars.

Theo and I quickly crossed the bus lane and clambered down the concrete steps that ran down the hill to the lower parking lot, passing the athletic fields along the way. The lower lot was divided into four lanes, but it only had one exit, which is why speed was key when exiting school after the bell rang. Once enough people got in their cars, the lower lot's single exit lane quickly clogged up, and you could spend fifteen minutes waiting to get out of your parking space, and then another fifteen waiting to get out of the parking lot.

No thank you.

Thankfully, our 8th Period classroom was very close to the exit, so Theo and I made it to the lower lot before just about everyone else, but we only kept our advantage if we moved quickly.

"Oh, and speaking of Skaianet, their new game just went into beta, today," Theo reminded me as we climbed into Little Blue, my eight-year-old Ford Focus, aptly named for its color. "Remember your birthday present?"

Last year for my birthday, Theo had pre-ordered a beta copy of some weird upcoming computer game he was dying to try out.

"Cruz has the game already," Theo continued. "He told me his grandma sent our copies in the mail. Mine should have arrived today."

I started Little Blue's engine and pulled out of my parking spot. "Why does Cruz's grandma have our copies?"

"His grandma is a big deal," Theo said, buckling his seat belt as we drove along the exit lane and waited behind another car for our opportunity to leave the parking lot. "She's a Skaianet higher-up. On the board of directors, or something. How did you not know that?"

"I go to Cruz's place to play games and smoke weed, not to learn about his grandma's work life." I shrugged as the car in front of us made its turn, allowing me to pull up to the stop sign. "Not that Grandma Arevalo ever talks about work. She makes amazing Puerto Rican empanadas, though. Fucking delicious. And she has interesting stories about growing up during the Great Depression."

"Just check your mail when you get home," said Theo. "If your game disks aren't there, you should definitely get them on Monday."

"Will do," I said, making our turn onto Devon Drive, giving Little Blue some gas and accelerating away from the high school.

Devon Drive brought us directly to Route 113, the busy main artery road which passed through Lionville straight into the heart of neighboring Chester Springs, directly past the neighborhood where Theo lived. Once we turned onto 113 and got past the first traffic light, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my ipod, plugging it into the radio adapter and scrolling through the artists.

Theo saw me doing this and cleared his throat loudly. "Do you have to do that while you're driving?"

"I need my Hans," I replied. "Are you suggesting I go through the rest of this drive without my Hans?"

"What you need is your own car insurance."

Finally, I found Hans Zimmer on my list of artists. Every Friday when I drove home from school, it was tradition for me to play Run Free, from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. You know, that animated Matt Damon horse movie.

"Never mind car insurance." I paused for a second to lower the music volume. "What's the new Skaianet game about?"

"It's called Sburb. We've discussed it already."

"Yeah, and you know for a fact I need repetition to remember. What kind of game is it? First-person shooter? Real-time strategy?"

"Neither." Theo popped an Altoid into his mouth. "You know the Sims?"

"Uh-huh," I nodded, tapping the brake as we approached another red light. It turned green before we got there, however, so I released the brake and punched the gas once again.

"Well, it's supposed to be kind of like that, only it's based on the real world," Theo explained. When all he got in reply from me was a blank stare, he went on to elaborate. "Almost like… Alright, when you play the Sims, you create your own character, who lives in some made-up city in the game universe. But with Sburb, you play as yourself living in your own house, in your own town—like, Downingtown, Exton, Lionville, it'll all be in there. You play by connecting with a friend or group of friends, and you complete missions together, in the simulated 'real world'."

"That's it?" I arched an eyebrow, unimpressed. "Sounds kinda dumb."

"It's not dumb, it's awesome!" my friend protested. "I'm just telling you what Cruz told me. He'll be playing with us."

"Cruz?" my other eyebrow slid up to join its twin. "You're getting your info from Cruz? You're aware that he was probably stoned as fuck when he told you all that?"

"Well, his predictions are usually spot on." Theo gazed out the window, watching the shopfronts and car dealerships and grocery stores of suburbia scroll ceaselessly by. "He's like a psychic half the time."

"Yeah, and he's like an Allen Ginsberg wannabe for the other half."

"Guess who else will be playing Sburb?" teased Theo.

"Sir Patrick Stewart," I replied.

"Cass Galavis."

I blinked twice out of reflex before maintaining my composure. "Is that so?"

"Still think Sburb is dumb?"

"I said it sounded dumb, Theo, I never concluded that it was dumb. God." I tapped an excited rhythm on the steering wheel. "I didn't know she gamed."

"She doesn't really, but she thought Sburb sounded cool, and she's getting the beta as well," said Theo. "Wanna know how I know that?"

"Thanks to your well established wizard powers, obviously."

"I spoke to her. Using English phrases."

I pursed my lips. "Wizard powers."

By the time Hans Zimmer's Run Free came to an end, we were approaching the turnoff for Theo's neighborhood.

Theo lived in a neighborhood of townhouses called Liongate, located just off Route 113. I drove past it on my way home, so giving ride to Theo was not only a nice thing to do, but very convenient. I drove us through the Liongate loop until we came to a rest outside of Theo's house. I put the car in park and unlocked the doors while Theo unbuckled himself. "Oh, yeah, you coming to Cruz's place tomorrow?" I asked. "We're probably gonna go hang out at that lake temple with the big frog statue."

"Yeah, alright, I'll be there." Theo opened the passenger door and climbed out onto the sidewalk. "Grandma'll probably think it's just another school day, anyway. I still don't think I'm going to smoke, though."

"Hey, you do you. I'll pick you up around two-ish."

"Alright." Theo closed the passenger door. "See you tomorrow."


I pulled away from the curb, rolling up the passenger window and driving back onto Route 113. With Run Free finished, I now needed to choose a new piece of music, so I had to quickly switch to something else before it repeated. I mentally ran through the list of possible candidates in my mind before finally settling on Now We Are Free, from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack of that lovely movie where Russell Crowe is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, Loyal Servant to the True Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Husband to a Murdered Wife, Father to a Murdered Son, and he will have his vengeance in this life or the next.

"Allo shalom!" I sang along to Lisa Gerard's famous gibberish lyrics as I drove the rest of the way home. "Allo shillaaayyy ollay allumbah!"

I never got the gibberish right, but who cares? It's gibberish.

Within the next five minutes, I was pulling into my driveway. Home at last. Let the weekend begin. I killed Little Blue's engine and pulled the e-brake, grabbing my backpack and piling out.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and I could smell rain. It had been perfectly clear this morning, but weather changed on a dime, and that was fine by me. I actually preferred the rain. I was always more likely to go outside on a rainy day than on a sunny day.

I walked along the little pathway to the front door of my house, where I lived with my older sister. She was nearly thirty years old, and she'd been my legal guardian for as long as I remember. Our parents died before I was old enough to remember anything, although my sister refuses to ever talk about them, and I've never found any records or photographs, so I'm not sure if they even existed. Maybe I'm adopted.

From my backpack I produced my house key, unlocking the front door, stepping inside, and closing the door behind me. I then walked into the living room, shedding my jacket and backpack, dumping them onto the sofa.

While unzipping my sweatshirt, I spotted movement from the corner of my eye. I looked up just in time to see my older sister emerge from the kitchen, and my instincts took over. Knowing what was coming, I threw myself to the carpeted floor just as three small, shiny objects sliced through the air above me and thudded into the wall. "C'mon, Sis, what the fuck?!"

I hated the throwing stars.

As I sprang back to my feet, I mentally accessed my sylladex, withdrawing a large Bowie hunting knife. To an observer, it would have appeared as if I'd produced this big knife out of thin air like a fucking wizard, but we've already clearly established that Theo is the wizard, not me. I'm merely a user of modern technology, not magic, although I am aware that oftentimes this is a pointless distinction.

My older sister drew a knife of her own and rushed me, aiming a strike towards my abdomen. I sidestepped, but she was already striking again at the place where I was about to step, forcing me off-balance in an unsuccessful desperate attempt to avoid the secondary blow.

I sucked in a breath of air through tightly clenched teeth as my sister's blade ripped through the fabric of my shirt, drawing a thin painful line across my belly. "Ow, fuck, okay!" I snapped at my sister. "You win! I get it, I strolled in here completely unprepared like a doofus, but did you really have to ruin my shirt? I liked this shirt. You could've just tripped me and put me in a chokehold. You could've left my shirt out of this."

"Don't let me surprise you, next time." My sister reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a small object, tossing it to me before leaving the kitchen and opening the back door. "There's Neosporin in the bathroom," she said, stepping outside. "Don't forget to disinfect."

I glanced down to inspect the object Sis had tossed me. It was a band-aid, and not the large kind.

"Love you too, Sis…" I grumbled.