Here’s the first two chapters from my manuscript, before publishing. I hope you enjoy them! Thanks for visiting my blog!
Sometimes life is like jumping out of an airplane and hoping the freaking parachute deploys. You know, the adrenaline kicks in like mad; the heart pumps so fast it feels like there’s no pause between the beats; you pray you don’t have to use the reserve chute, and all because nobody wants to be mutilated on the ground and kiss life goodbye.
That’s what happened to me. I made a choice like jumping out of an airplane … with the chute. It all started the day I took off for my freshman year in college. I was in my bedroom saying good-bye to the sentimental and packing the purely functional when my iPhone rang in an unusual tone. I picked it up off of my tall oak dresser and answered it.
“Hello?” There was nothing but silence. “Helloooo?” I sang out. Humph! No one’s there, I thought. For a brief moment, it illuminated in front of me with the caller ID displaying a blinking “Bladen.” My name? I wondered. Why is it showing my name? Then a cold chill ran through me as I realized that the phone felt as rough as my grandma’s face and as boney as a skeleton’s hand. I stared at the phone in disbelief and felt more than a little on edge.
To get my mind off of it, I stretched out on my full-size bed, tapped my iPhone’s screen, and began to play my brand-new video game Arcis. I soon forgot about my phone’s bizarre behavior and named my avatar Thorn. I had just discovered how to make his body teleport. Wow, that was awesome. He landed inside an ominous courtyard. The massive domes and columns had eerie shadows cast on them that restricted Thorn’s view of the vile demons stooped in the corners. One lone demon with Medusa hair leaped in front of Thorn. It appeared with slimy snakes oozing out from under the hood of its blackened cloak. Thorn wrestled desperately with all the strength I could give him to gain every ounce of power over it, until the demon’s long, fingernail-like claws drew blood, when they dug deep into Thorns arms. Crap, I thought, I’m gonna lose.
I tapped the screen hard and made Thorn drive his sword into the beast. I hoped I’d beaten it and won the level, but its face altered into a pretty blonde girl. Even Thorn gasped and stumbled back. I had no control over that part of the game. The beast hurled Thorn to the ground. I continued to tap the screen. Finally, I got Thorn to reach for a dagger that hung from the right side of his armored belt. He plunged it into the jerk—blood and guts everywhere. Level I over. I won. At least I thought I won. I wasn’t sure when I saw two black eyes glaring at me from inside the basilica. The man’s penetrating stare made me feel like he actually saw me Bladen not me Thorn. He looked my way, curled his finger, and motioned for me to enter into the game. I swear his lips mouthed my name. Nice…and…slow. Whoa, I thought, sketchy. I threw my phone on my bed, jumped up, and began to pace.
It didn’t occur to me at first, but the courtyard in my game looked familiar, like the one outside of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy. Trust me I know. Gram has pictures all over her house of it. She said it was the best vacation of her life. Anyway, I reread the game objective on my app. Win the first ten levels in the faraway land of Arcis, on your quest to the final level at the basilica, where demons are stealing the pearl of peace. Destroy the demons, capture and restore the pearl back to its home in the golden box inside the basilica, and win the game before time runs out and Earth is destroyed.
There’s something wrong with the game, I thought. Why did I play my first level at the basilica, if my quest is supposed to lead me there in the end?
I racked my brain—until my heart and body felt moved to take care of my phone as though it was a real person. Yeah. It freaked me out. That’s when it started. I had to take care of the phone. I knew it had something to do with my new game, but I didn’t know what. I had to find out. If I didn’t, I knew something bad would happen. I began to sweat. My heart pounded—hard. I wondered if falling in love felt the same insane way—total obsession. Other than video games, I had girls tattooed on my brain.
My phone rang again. It lit up like unbelievable fireworks. After what happened before I didn’t expect to hear anyone on the other end. When I clicked it on, I couldn’t talk.
“Hello…hello?” A female voice rang.
“Uh…uh—” I stammered.
“Bladen?” The voice asked, with uncertainty. “This is Julia.”
Get your head together, Bladen, I thought. “Julia? It’s me…I mean…you’re talking to Bladen.” I felt like an idiot.
“Did your mom tell you I was going to call?” she asked.
“Yeah…yeah she did. She said you’d give me a tour of Freefall and that even though you’re a freshman too, you are familiar with the campus because you don’t live too far from there.”
Julia and I made small talk as a couple of people who haven’t spoken in years would. She sounded amazing with a voice like chimes. I was sure she’d changed from the freaky, awkward girl I had known from long ago.
After I hung up, I placed my phone on my dresser and finished packing. Towheaded Christiana, my six-year-old little sister ran in the room, giggling wearing a pink, polka-dot dress. She grabbed my phone and started to push buttons.
“Hey, don’t mess with my stuff Christiana.” I snapped at her. The sick obsession to protect phone came back.
My older brother Nicholas strolled in, as I was taking my phone away from Christiana. I gave her a big hug and swung her in the air to make sure I hadn’t upset her.
Nicholas shook his head and grabbed the phone. “My precious,” he squeaked while imitating Smeágol from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and pretended to stroke it. “Bladen, you are way too into the video games on this phone. Now if you were wigged out because a girl called, I’d understand.”
“Yeah, well Julia just called,” I said, as I grabbed Nicholas and threw him in a headlock. I tried to hide the returning obsession I felt for my phone. I didn’t want him touching it either.
“Truce,” Nicholas screamed, laughing. “You win.”
I let him go.
“So Julia, huh? That quirky girl Mom used to force us to hang out with. How is she?” he asked.
“She sounds cool,” I answered.
Christiana stuck her tongue out at both of us and skipped out of the room.
# # #
Later that morning, when I backed out of my driveway in my old, red Saab 900, the balmy, August breeze blew on my face through my car window. I couldn’t wait to go. I was heading to Freefall College in Burlington, Vermont. Sweet freedom. Nicholas was riding along with me. He’s twenty and an engineering major at the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. He didn’t have to leave until the following week. My parents followed behind us while my other four, younger siblings stayed behind.
“How was your date last night?” I asked my brother.
“Not so great.”
“I knocked Christie’s soda on her lap.”
“Well that was stupid,” I joked.
Nicholas dropped his head low and continued, “When I took her home to change clothes, she told me to wait in the car. She sent her mom out to tell me the date was over. Talk about humiliation.”
“Oh I’m sorry, man,” Was all that I could say. It’s not like I could offer any relationship advice. I have never had a serious girlfriend.
Nicholas grabbed my arm. I looked at him like he was crazy.
“Dude, let go of my arm. I’m driving!” I yelled.
He looked at me with a big smile on his cleanly shaved face and a twinkle in his eye. “Like that would ever happen. The date was awesome. We’re going out again tonight.”
Yep, he had pulled one over on me again! I should have known better. Nicholas was pretty much perfect. He was a few inches shorter than my six-foot three-inch, burly frame. His looks mirrored his demeanor. He had thick, sandy-brown hair and dark-green, piercing eyes. His glasses and pressed clothes gave him an intellectual look. He was a straight A student, valedictorian of his senior high class, and everything in life seemed smooth for him.
I, on the other hand, was anything but smooth. I had good looks on my side, though. At least that’s what Nicholas had always told me. I was unusually muscular with night-black, medium-length hair. My sea-blue eyes contrasted against my pale skin. Nicholas used to tell people an artist chiseled my face. My life wasn’t filled with ease like my older brother, though. I had a loose temper, struggled in school, and was a klutz around girls. I hoped college would be a fresh start for me.
“You must be psyched for Freefall, huh?” Nicholas asked.
“Don’t let the workload from those engineering classes get in the way of your social life,” he joked.
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You didn’t forget any video games, did you?”
My iPhone began to ring. Nicholas went to answer it. I grabbed it off the dashboard. “I got it,” I said, feeling my insane need to protect the phone return.
Nicholas pulled it out of my hands. “Dude, you’re driving. I’ll get it. Hello? Who is this? Get a life.” Nicholas slammed it off and put it back on the dashboard.
“Who called?” I felt my face grow hot when Nicholas touched it.
Some prank call, heavy breather. They said have a nice swim in the abyss,” Nicholas laughed.
The abyss? I thought. My game? There was an abyss in my game, whatever the heck that is. I didn’t mention anything about it to Nicholas. He’d joke and tell me I was high on something. I nonchalantly picked up my phone from the dash and put it in my pocket, out of Nicholas’s reach.
# # #
It was no time before we pulled into one of the campus parking lots. The drive from Manchester, VT took two and a half hours. I had my phone still safe in my pocket.
Mom knocked on my car window. “C’mon, let’s go!”
“Okay okay, Mom, I didn’t know you’d be so happy to ditch me.”
“You’re silly,” she said, as she gently rubbed my cheek. I’m going to miss you so much, but I know how much you’ve been looking forward to this day.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, and pushed her hand away from my face, as she got the digital camcorder ready. I checked around to see if any hot girls noticed. Luckily, I didn’t see any nearby. My phone rang once more, then stopped. I gripped it, still feeling a little tense.
Mom aimed the camcorder toward me. “I just want to record the beautiful campus. Look here and smile.”
As I reluctantly smiled, she filmed the handsome, older buildings that were made of rusty-colored brick. It was a small school, only two thousand students, and the land surrounding the central campus was close to Lake Champlain—a lake over one hundred miles long, twelve miles wide at its widest point, and astoundingly vast and beautiful.
My mom’s camcorder was new, and she did not want to stop filming. She was pretty crazy whenever she bought a new toy. Eventually, my dad gently ripped it out of her hands. Everyone but Mom agreed; it was time to find my room.
# # #
We found the freshman welcoming committee in the auditorium, picked up my key, and walked to the second floor—room number 222. The first two floors were for the guys, and the top two floors were for the girls—a coed dorm. Cool, I thought.
When we arrived at my room, the door was open. I stuck my head in and was welcomed by a super loud voice.
“Roomieee,” Robby bellowed, “you’re finally here.” He gave me a firm handshake and was genuinely happy to see me. This was our first time meeting face to face. We had exchanged a few get-to-know-each-other phone calls and emails over the summer once we found out we were roommates.
My new roomie was bony and lanky. He wasn’t as tall as me, maybe a couple of inches shorter and quite good looking. His hair was jet-black and spiked in a wild fashion, which suited his personality. His grin spread so wide it seemed to stretch from ear to ear, and it revealed sparkling, white teeth that glowed against his black skin. His chocolate eyes sparkled full of mischief. He wore a burgundy T-shirt that said, ‘Girls you gotta love ‘em and a pair of ripped blue jeans. Numerous gold chains dangled from his neck. I thought, this is gonna be fun.
I took a quick glance at my room, the place where I was going to crash for the next year. It was a medium size space with a metal bunk bed in one corner, a long unadorned desk with two, russet plastic chairs on another side, and a measly double closet that didn’t even take up half the wall. I felt claustrophobic in this room. A brief visual image of me trapped in a prison cell came to mind. It felt eerie and made me shudder. My parents chose this dormitory because it was affordable and practical. That was just like them. I suppose they were being a good example. Who was I kidding? The room sucked.
And seriously, I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling I had about the room. My stomach felt a little sick. I didn’t know why. I was sure it wasn’t from the well-done scrambled eggs I had cooked earlier that morning.
My phone rang, again. I picked it up and checked caller I.D. It read PRIVATE CALLER. I hesitated, “Hello?” The person on the other end sounded like Darth Vader from Star Wars. I heard a laugh in the room. It was Nicholas pulling a prank. He had called me from his phone. “Funny Nicholas. Did you make up the whole thing in the car too?” I felt on edge.
Nicholas laughed. “No, but you should’ve seen the look on your face.”
Mom sent us both a warning glare.
Robby made all the necessary introductions with my parents. He explained his family had headed back home earlier to Concord, NH, except for his sister Alyssa. She was a junior at Champlain College nearby.
Robby had impeccable manners. When I looked at my parents’ faces, they shone with approval. Yeah, he knew how to suck up real good.
While my parents continued to talk with Robby, Nicholas and I unloaded my Saab and brought in my stuff. Nicholas threw his arm over my shoulder. “You know you can always call me. I’m sure you’ll need advice,” he said.
I put him in another headlock. “Yeah, right. You still fight like a girl.”
I forgot about my phone for a while. Nicholas and I laughed about our childhood. He gave me a few tips about my studies and told me to make sure I studied enough. He definitely had more strength in that area. What could I say? he had the A’s and I had the—ahem—occasional D’s. I was talented at making up excuses for why I had them, but hey I figured at least I wasn’t failing.
Later I heard a loud knock on the door. It was more like a Bang! Bang! Bang! I looked and that was the first time I saw him—this short, little dude barely five and a half feet tall. He had spiky, black hair and black soulless eyes. His eerily angelic smile made him look like a kid who could kill someone and then sweet talk anyone into believing he was innocent. He wore tan slacks and a psychedelic-orange, button-down shirt that was buttoned all the way to the top. It was gripping his neck so much I thought it must have been choking him. I guess he didn’t feel the need to breathe.
“Hello,” he said, in an unusually deep voice that didn’t seem to match his body at all. “I’m Berard. I’m staying across the hall.” His voice scratched like that of some old guy, yet his face looked like a teenager’s. My sisters would have called him a creeper.
My mom Jasmine, who was nice to everybody, went over to Berard and gushed at how charmed she was to meet him. If you ask me, my mother’s naive sometimes. When someone seemed as odd as Berard, how could she be so friendly—let alone charmed?
My dad cut to the chase. “Okay,” he said, and slowly walked toward the door. “It’s time for us to go.” I bet my dad was creeped out by Berard, too.
Everyone said good-bye, except my mom. She took the last of a series of too many photos—wow, I thought she’d never quit.
I walked my family out to their shiny, new Honda Pilot. I told my parents I’d visit in September, one of my favorite months, when the leaves on the trees burst into a multicolored array of scarlet, golden, and rust—super beautiful.
“Make sure you call Julia,” my mom reminded me.
“I will. I already talked to her, remember?”
“Oh right. Say hi to Lisa for me too.”
“I will Mom. No worries.”
Lisa Simms is Julia’s mom and one of my mom’s best friends from high school. She’s from Essex Junction, which is a few miles northeast of Burlington. When I was around eight years old I met her for the first time. We spent some vacation time with them for a few summers. Now I haven’t seen her for at least five years or more. Julia’s parents were divorced; she’s an only child. I couldn’t remember much about her, except that she had heaps of freckles, wore zany glasses, and always had her pale hair toppled in high, messy pigtails. She was a rather quirky girl, though she seemed different when I talked to her on the phone before I left home. I was excited that she was also a freshman at Freefall.
When my family was set, they stepped into the Pilot, fastened their seat belts, and just like that, they split.
My now annoying phone rang again, showing PRIVATE CALLER. I figured it was Nicholas pulling another prank, so I answered it and began to breathe heavily.
“It was nice to see you in the game,” a creepy, unrecognizable voice interrupted me. It sounded like an older man, definitely not Nicholas.
“Who are you?” I asked, and then heard a click on the other end. They had hung up. Just out of curiosity, I clicked on my apps to pull up my game Arcis. When I turned it on, it went directly to the basilica again. The infuriated man was still there pacing. I wondered who he was. He wore a dark shirt and pants, though he didn’t look like a religious man. He turned to look at me, a smirk on his face. There’s no way, I thought. “Hey, weirdo, did you call?” I whispered to him. He continued to smirk. I shut off the game.
# # #
I decided to go to room 223, Berard’s room, to see if he was around. He made me curious and not in a good way. I pounded on his door.
“Wrong room, dude,” Robby said, with his friendly grin.
“I’m looking for Berard,” I said.
“I haven’t seen him, but how ‘bout cruising around Burlington together?”
“Do you have a car?” I knew he didn’t. He had told me that last summer.
“No, but you do,” he laughed. “Besides I don’t feel like taking the bus.” I liked Robby and knew he’d have a calming effect on my temper.
“Let’s go,” I said, and shook my keys.
As we drove along the street entering downtown, Robby quickly rolled his window down. I understood his eagerness when he whistled at two, cute girls on the sidewalk. The girls briefly glanced in our direction, as Robby hollered a silly, “Helloooo!”
I shook my head. Robby was insane, in a good way. I knew being his roommate would be entertaining to say the least.
We found a parking spot near Church Street and stepped out of the car. Cars weren’t allowed on Church Street, which was cool. It was filled with a lot of people walking around, though.
The street was lined on both sides with a multitude of restaurants, quaint cafés, and retail stores. One set of large doors opened up to a sizable mall inside. Robby and I enjoyed ourselves as we people-watched. It was a college town and a melting pot of students.
Robby and I were starved, so we paused at a concession stand and bought falafels–a first for both of us. Falafels are a popular fast food in the Middle East made of deep-fried, chickpea balls. We also got some colas to wash them down.
“Tell me more about yourself Robby,” I said. “You know, what’s your family like?”
“Not much to tell. My life’s pretty boring. My sister Alyssa has some hot friends, though. You’ll have to meet ‘em.”
I laughed. I had hoped he had some crazy family story, but at least I understood why he wore his girl-crazy T-shirt.
We finished our falafels and sodas and tossed the trash. Robby continued to check out girls, while I daydreamed about Lake Champlain and its countless beaches. I knew there was an extended bike trail that followed along the seemingly endless shore.
Robby pulled me out of my thoughts. “Hey Ladieees,” he drooled. He reminded me of a cheesy car salesman, as he began to talk with a small group of college girls. I was envious of his ease with females. I would’ve felt stupid talking to girls like that, but from what I could see, the girls didn’t mind.
I wandered around and pretended to look busy, as I glimpsed at items for sale through various windows. I came to an out-of-the-way store that sold fencing equipment, swords, and other extraordinary weaponry. In one of the windows, an illuminated sword caught my eye. It had unusual polygon shaped engravings traversing down the sides of the shiny, silver metal. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt hypnotically pulled into the store, where a young man about my age was literally polishing the heck out of the swords. Geez, my mom would love you to come clean our house, I thought.
“Hello, I’m Anthony. May I help you?” he asked rather flatly and without looking up.
I found myself drawn to him, as though I should have known him. “I was admiring the swords you have for sale here.” I picked one up in awe.
“They’re quite expensive.” He studied me up and down.
I’m sure he was thinking, No way you can afford it, dude. “Thanks anyway. Are you a student nearby?” I asked, as I placed the sword back into its sheath.
“Yes, I attend Freefall College.” He sounded like a snob. “I’m very busy now and need to get back to work. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.” He rudely walked away.
I left the store and could’ve sworn I saw Berard out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned, nobody was there.
# # #
I found Robby writing down his phone number for the group of girls he’d been speaking with. When they walked away, one of them, a tall, redhead with shining, green eyes tossed the phone number into a nearby trashcan. She glanced up at me and winked. I hadn’t spoken to any of them, though I began to blush ridiculously. What was wrong with me? I was a college man now. I ran my fingers through my thick hair and walked real cool, until I almost bumped into an annoyed lady who wore the expression, college kids kill me. When I glanced at the redhead again, she smiled and shook her head from side to side. Told you I’m a klutz.
“Hey, man, that babe’s gonna give me a call.” Robby announced to me with a smug expression.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “Didn’t you notice? She threw away your number.”
“No way bro. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a pro wit’ the ladies.”
“I’m not arguing with you. I just think you might be a little too forward,” I said.
“Nah…nah…that can’t be it.” Robby shook his head. “I know I just met you dude, but I bet I know more about babes than you, but that’s okay, ‘cause I’ll help you out.” He patted me on the shoulder and nodded his head like I really needed the help, like he meant it with all sincerity.
I punched him lightly in the ribs. “Maybe I’ll help you out.”
Robby squinted his eyes. “Maybe. ‘Cause you aren’t ugly.”
We decided to cruise down to Lake Champlain, but before we got to my car, there was an old, blind man playing acoustic guitar and singing. We stopped to listen.
“Fight the bloody battle!” he belted out. “Live the unknown dream! Don’t waste time! Don’t lose steam!”
“He’s pretty good.” Robby looked impressed.
The man heard him, took off his hat, and set it on the ground. “Money for an old, blind man?” The man continued to strum the guitar and sing, “The tears I hide, I offer to the sky in retribution for unlawful pride…yeah…fight the battle hard. Don’t let your courage wane. Try to stay on guard…”
I pulled some change and a couple of dollars out of my pocket and flung it into the blind man’s hat.
“Thanks lad. Don’t forget what I sang. I sang it for you.”
Robby was already heading for my car and didn’t hear the old man.
“What are you saying?” I stammered. “W…what do you mean?” It was too late. A group of people clustered around the man, and he didn’t respond to my question. Who is he, I thought? How could he know me? I glanced back at him as I strode to my car. His head never turned back my way.
# # #
Robby and I drove down to Lake Champlain. The lake gleamed as intensely as I had imagined. It almost blinded me as I stared out at the shimmering waves. A variety of birds chirped and flapped their wings high above the water. The excitement of the lake made me forget the blind man’s ominous song.
I loved sailing. It was one of my favorite things to do, and we happened to come across a shop that rented all types of sailboats. The Hobie Cat was my favorite catamaran because of its speed and ease to maneuver. I knew I wouldn’t flip it over. I was imagining myself flying on the water with the wind whipping, when, oddly, I gazed out at the water and thought I saw Berard, again—in a motorboat. I clutched my fists in irritation, but when I looked for him a second time he was gone.
I felt paranoid, with my animated phone and all the weird stuff that kept happening. I knew I wasn’t crazy, but I could no longer contain my anxiety. I needed to find Berard—find out who he was and why he was such an annoyance. He was like a buzzing fly I wanted to swat with one of those super big fly swatters, and that’s putting it nicely, the way my mom would want me to say it.
The activity of the day finally wore on me. I was ready to go back to campus. Robby wanted to return to our dorm as well. He wanted to finish unpacking and wander around to meet new girls. No surprise.
“P.A.R.T.Y.—par-tay,” he sang, and begged me to come with him, but I had other things on my mind.
# # #
When we arrived on our floor, the unforeseen was waiting for me—Berard. Strangely enough, he was expecting my return.
“Hello Bladen,” he said, in his aged voice. “I know you wish to see me. Why don’t you come in now?”
I turned to see what Robby was doing to see if he had any reaction to Berard, but he waltzed into our room as though he hadn’t noticed Berard at all.
I hesitated, before I went into room 223. My heart pounded—not knowing what to expect. I stepped in and was amazed to see a myriad of posters plastered against the walls. Most of them were of historical places like the Coliseum in Italy or Myndos, Turkey. A breathtaking poster of the Grand Canyon in Arizona hung from the wall as well.
Then my eyes rested on another fascinating poster. At first, I knew I recognized it, although I couldn’t immediately place where I’d seen it before. When it illuminated on its own like a frigging spotlight, the color drained from my face. The poster was an illustration from my video game, Arcis. I knew something was messed up with my phone, I thought. I slowly edged closer to the poster and placed both my hands on it. My fingertips found their way across the scene and explored it—in the same manner that a blind person reads Braille.
The poster looked busy with legendary creatures like Minotaurs, prehistoric flying birds, and unnaturally large stallions with wings. In the backdrop, there were immense, snow-capped mountains and threatening storm-like clouds. In the foreground, marching armies emerged ready for battle, while freakish demon-like monsters with horns charged at them. The creatures looked so vile, I trembled with dread.
I reminded myself that I had already played this game. It was only a video game. No big deal. I took a deep breath, swung around to face Berard, and demanded with distrust, “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“Calm down,” he said, walking toward me with his hands up. “I’m your patriarch. You’ve been chosen to become a life player. My mission is to help you.”
“Help me? I spat. “Help me how?”
“Bladen, take a seat, and I’ll try to explain what I can to you.”
I saw a semi-comfortable looking, purple lounge chair—another eccentric color that clashed with Berard’s vibrant, orange shirt. I sprawled out on it and tried to put my feet up. Feeling uptight, I placed my feet on the hard floor and leaned toward Berard, waiting for him to speak.
“So go on,” I pressed.
Berard paused before he began his explanation, “Okay…first, I know Arcis is your new video game.”
“How could you possibly know that?” I interrupted. This guy’s whacked, I thought.
Berard spoke with authority and ignored my question. “You’ve been chosen among thousands of players to be pulled into the game to play it…for real. You have a choice. Even though you’ve been selected, you don’t have to play the real-life game. But if you say yes, whenever the maker of Arcis needs you, he’ll pull you into your iPhone to play. Like I said, you have a choice.”
Not only did this guy sound old, but he also sounded like a freaking robot.
“That’s ridiculous,” I argued. My head spun in confusion. “What are you talking about? Look, dude, you’re nuts. I’m out of here.” I stood up to leave.
Berard sighed and went on. “We’ll work on your disposition later. Look do you want to play the real game or not?”
“If you’re not lying to me, yeah, of course…but why me?”
Berard continued, “I know it might take you a while to trust me, but eventually you will.” I sat back down. “We want you because we have to win, and you’re a genius at playing video games. You already know how the game works, but now you’ll be a real life player. When you’re in the game, you’ll be the one to fight against the beasts and demons. It’s pretty simple. If you win against the beasts in the land of Arcis, Earth wins too. But if you lose the game, major catastrophes occur on Earth like plane crashes, hurricanes, and the like. ”
“That already happens in the game,” I said, in awe.
“You’re right, but this time, it’s for real. If you lose in the game, real catastrophes occur on real Earth, not just in the game. If you win, real Earth wins too, meaning fewer catastrophes. Get it? Can you really sit back and put your future into the hands of another life player? You know you can win, but do you really know for sure that whoever your replacement is can too? ” Berard challenged.
I wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. I really wasn’t worried about losing the game at this point; it seemed pretty easy. “What’s the objective of the game when it’s played this way?” I asked. Berard seemed to relax at my apparent interest.
“It’s similar. If all ten levels are won by 1,000,000,000 life players around the world, Earth will live in perpetual peace, the game Arcis will be destroyed, and so will everything and everyone in it, including anyone good who isn’t fortunate enough to get out before it happens—if it happens.”
“And what if life players don’t win the game?” I joked. “Will Earth self-destruct?”
“This isn’t a joke, Bladen, and, yes, Earth will be destroyed…forever…and that includes you. If we lose, the consequences are grave.”
I still wasn’t worried. Seriously, I hadn’t lost a game yet, although I hadn’t played that much, either. I mean the game was new.
“There is a catch you should know about,” Berard said.
“When it’s time for you to enter the game, your body will split into two. One of you will battle the levels, while your other body stays on Earth. In that way, nobody on Earth will ever guess you’re a life player.”
“Far out,” I breathed in amazement. “What else can you tell me?”
“You’ll learn beyond the passing and fading away of time and more frequently than every new moon.” Berard, like a lunatic, pointed both index fingers dramatically up to the sky.
“What? Can you speak in English?” I asked, my eyebrows raised. I wondered if Berard had a clue. Maybe he was crazy and made all this up. His voice still sounded old and freaky. I found him irritating.
“You won’t travel on this quest alone,” he emphasized. “You’ll experience a multitude of beings that will assist you on your journey, and you’ll always be learning.” Berard walked over to me and waved his hand behind my left ear. “There’s one more thing I need to do for you.” I felt a warm sensation. He picked up a gold mirror and handed it to me. “Go ahead and look.”
I gazed in the mirror behind my left ear, which was pretty darn hard to do, and saw an emblem that depicted Spero, the benevolent king from my game Arcis. He was the king the life players fought for. “How did you do this? What does this mean?”
“It marks you as a life player.”
I continued to stare in the mirror. The mark blew me away. “Is that it, or is there more to this?”
“There’s more, but if you try to learn too much too quickly, it will weaken you. If you learn to be forbearing, you’re instincts will become stronger.”
I thought about the obsession I had felt toward my iPhone. It began to make sense, now that I knew about the real game of Arcis.
For a few moments after Berard spoke, the room was silent. I absorbed his comments like a sponge and couldn’t wait to play the game. “Tell me Berard,” I challenged, “did I see you earlier today when I went downtown?”
“I saw you. Then you disappeared. How? It was like, poof, you magically went into thin air.”
After a pause, he broke into a fit of laughter. I couldn’t understand what was so funny.
“I’m irritating you, am I not?” he choked out, talking oddly again. He seemed to enjoy making fun of me.
I was ripped. How dare he test my anger on purpose. I wanted to show him. I jumped toward him to take hold of his scrawny arms, and believe me they were…well…petite. Anyway, I almost had him in my fists when he disappeared. I leaned forward and lost my balance. Before I could regain it, I dropped to the floor.
He laughed so hard; he cried. Jerk, I thought. “H…how did you do that?” I stammered, in anger and disbelief.
His chuckling eventually subsided, and he took on a more considerate tone. “I’m sorry; this shouldn’t be so entertaining for me. Believe it or not, I’m training you to control your temper. You need to get a handle on that one. It’s truly your biggest weakness. You shouldn’t have tried to attack me. As for my vanishing act…I can disappear and reappear wherever I need to go. I don’t need transportation. Pretty neat trick, huh?” He crossed his arms and raised his chin, in conceit.
I was speechless—blown away. Maybe he wasn’t as geeky as I had originally thought, maddening yes, but maybe…he was sort of cool. After all, he could do cool stuff. I turned and stepped out of his room without saying another word.
# # #
Robby never noticed me enter our room; he had his iPod on. I tapped him on the shoulder.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“What are you doing back so early? I thought you wanted to meet some hot, new girls.”
“Tomorrow,” he answered, “it’s kinda late, and I promised my grandma I’d call her.”
Normally I would’ve joked with him about his grandma, but instead I sat down across from him. “So…what do you think of Berard?”
“I don’t know him yet,” he said, as he pulled off his headphones. “Why?”
“Well,” I started, “what do you think of his voice? Do you think he sounds peculiar…sort of old?”
“Nope, not old at all; he’s our age, man; why would he?”
“You mean you haven’t noticed anything different about him.” I stood up.
“Not at all.”
“Did you see him earlier, when we were in downtown? I asked. “I saw him a couple of times.”
“No I didn’t. Why all the questions man?” Robby stared at me like he was thinking, Dude, what’s your problem?
“I just think he’s…weird that’s all.”
“Look man, you just met the guy,” Robby said. “Lighten up on him.”
With that remark, our conversation ended. Robby’s phone rang; it was his parents. While he went on and on about how awesome Burlington had been, I left our room and crossed the hall. Once again, I pounded on Berard’s door.
“Do I have to open?” he asked.
“Yeah that’d be great,” I answered, in the kindest voice I could muster.
Berard opened the door. He glanced around to make sure nobody could hear him, and he didn’t wait to explain. “No…no one else can perceive the prehistoric hum of my voice apart from you,” he whispered. “To everyone else I sound and behave like any ordinary eighteen year old. I’ve been alive in various forms for over one thousand years.” He glanced down at his body. “This human form was given to me, so I can help you.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “How’d you know I wanted to ask about your voice?”
Berard smiled. “Normally I’ll only be near you when you need me—like if you’re in danger. This time…I was eavesdropping. I wanted to know your reaction to me. I can be around you without you seeing me. Apparently, I’m fonder of you than you are of me. I don’t think you’re weird.”
“You were spying on me? Dude, that’s…that’s…just creepy; don’t do it again,” I warned, “and so you know; you talk crazy too.”
“Am I bothering you, again?” Berard mused.
I smirked and thought, Dude, I am so gonna get you back.
“Something funny, perhaps?” Berard asked.
“Not at all,” I said, and began to walk away.
Berard’s somber voice stopped me. “I feel you should know your path won’t be a simple one. You’re going to think that you’re this super hero…I just hope the struggles you’re going to experience won’t kill you.”
“Um…thanks…I think,” I said, and walked away unsure again of what he meant, though, it sounded like an insult. Not surprising.
# # #
Robby and I stayed up late that night. We talked about girls and shared gory stories of our past. His crazy stories far outshone mine.
Before I fell asleep, I made up my mind to call Julia the next day. She had said she would give me a tour of the campus, so I could find my classes on Monday. Later, my sleep was filled with a turbulent dream…
I was alone, drifting down the current of a narrow river in a boat that looked the tiniest bit like a canoe, but it was only large enough to hold me. Intriguing Roman architecture rose up within the waterway that encircled me. Other ancient-styled structures were standing nearby, including a stone bridge built with four huge arches. The air was saturated with misty steam like a sauna.
The eerie river below looked shallow and trifling enough. With great ease, I plunged my paddle to the floor. A loud crunch reverberated on the rocks below. I shivered from the chill in the air. I couldn’t tell if it was dusk or dawn. The surrounding light showed no apparent sun, moon, or stars as the source of it. I heard a whisper in my ear; someone called my name. “Blaaaden.” Every hair on my body stood on end. I searched around.
The water splashed up, angry at the world. A toothless, disproportionate giant with wild, brown hair past his shoulders stormed out of the river high above my boat. Irate, he screamed, “I am ailing; heal me!”
Caught off guard and gripped with fear, my heartbeat quickened. I stood up, stumbled, and fell out of the craft, only to be wholly submerged by the river. I never took a breath of air before I dropped and inhaled the cool water deep into my lungs. They burned like fire.
I woke up startled and gasped for air. I was relieved to find myself in my bed, although my throat and chest still blazed. My head spun—a dream or a vision? It had all seemed so real. Even the blue T-shirt and shorts I wore to bed felt chilly and damp when I touched them. Was it sweat or the remnants of my unwanted swim in the river?
I wanted to get up right then and ask Berard about it, but when I looked at my red digital clock, I saw it was only 3:00 a.m.
I glanced around in the dark, and, once again, my dorm room sent chills down my spine like it had the previous afternoon. I couldn’t understand why my room set me ill at ease.
I tossed and turned for the rest of the night.
I woke up around 6:00 a.m. with the sound of Robby’s voice as he sang “Here Comes the Sun” not badly, but not as well as the Beatles.
“Ugh,” I groaned. “Are you always so annoying in the morning?”
“Hey, I sing so awesome you should thank me. Besides, you need to get out of bed; it’s late.”
“This is not late,” I articulated. “No one living should be up this early. We need to set some rules, or you’re gonna be a serious morning enemy.”
Robby threw a pillow at me. “Aren’t you a grumpy bro in the morning. Maybe tomorrow I’ll throw a cup of ice-cold water on you to wake you up instead.”
“Funny,” I remarked.
Robby was already dressed. He grabbed his toothbrush and paste and headed for the door, apparently, to go to the bathroom down the hall. I rolled over peacefully to go back into oblivion, until Robby came back and shook me hard. I sprang out of bed, seized Robby, and wrestled him to the floor in a headlock.
“Okay okay,” he cried. “Truce. I’ll leave you alone. Come on bro, if you get your hands off me, I’ll share my breakfast with you.”
“No you’ll cook it for me. Breakfast today, and if you wake me up tomorrow, You’re a goner.”
“Deal,” he relented, “but you’ll need to help me cook. I’m a lousy chef.”
“What do you have to eat?” I asked.
“Eggs,” he replied.
“No problem—eggs, I can do.”
We cooked a hearty breakfast in the dorm kitchen: scrambled eggs, toast with melted butter, and sweet, tangy orange juice. I ate plenty, since I wasn’t sure when or what I would be eating next. Robby offered to clean up. Actually…I made him. Well, not really. I helped him–a little.
# # #
Back at our room, I picked up the phone book and looked up Julia’s number. I realized I had forgotten to pack it. My hands grew clammy with sweat. Girls—they always had this maddening effect on me. I reminded myself that she was just an unconventional girl I had ridden bikes with as a kid. I had loved to pull her pigtails and make her scream. She was kind of a nerd.
But the way she had sounded on the phone back home made my hands sweat. My heart jumped. I flipped through the white pages, found her number, and dialed—fast. The phone rang once, twice, then at least five more times. I was about to hang up when a female answered, “Hello,” in a groggy voice.
“Um…hi…Julia? It’s Bladen.”
“It’s awfully early you know,” she said—not exactly the greeting I had hoped for.
I glimpsed at the clock—8:12 a.m. on a Saturday. “I’m sorry. My roommate woke me up at the insane hour of 6:00 a.m. It feels late now. I called to schedule my tour of the campus.”
When do you want to meet?” Julia asked. I took a deep breath and glanced in the mirror, noticing that I needed a shave. Robby strolled into the room. “Bladen, are you still there?”
“Uh yeah, Julia. How ‘bout today? Do you have time?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Cool, what’s your street address?”
Julia laughed, “You won’t need that. The directions are really simple.”
“Maybe, but my sense of direction is really horrible. I’m a complete GPS guy.”
Julia laughed some more. Man, I love her laugh.
“Well, if you insist. It’s 8454 Walt Way, zip 05452.
“Got it! Is noon okay?”
“Noon it is!” she sang with a little lilt in her voice then hung up.
It was then that Robby stuck his face in mine.
“So…you’re holding out on me, aren’t you?”
“What…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I countered.
“You were on the phone with a girl. Don’t act like you weren’t. I know. I have girl radar.”
“It’s not a big deal. She’s just a peculiar girl I knew when I was younger. She and my mom have been friends since high school, and she goes to school here too. I asked her if she could show me around.” I shrugged, hoping he’d drop it.
“All right, you’re off the hook, but I want you to bring her back here. I wanna meet her.”
“No way!” I said adamantly. “I’ve never met anyone as crazy about girls as you. You’ll probably humiliate me.”
Robby put his right hand across his heart and threw his head back, pretending to be in pain. “I’m hurt.”
“Yeah whatever,” I answered, “somehow I think you’ll live. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower.”
As I headed down the hall toward the showers, I decided to see if Berard was in his room. This time I knocked lightly, but nobody answered. I knocked a few more times—still no answer. I wondered where he could’ve taken off to so early. I wanted to ask him what he thought of my dream.
Since Berard wasn’t around, I went to the men’s bathroom and took my shower, letting the hot, steamy water pound against my back. Endless hot water poured from the showerhead. At home, I shared and fought with my siblings over whose turn came next in the bathroom. If you were last in line, frosty, cold water met you at the other end.
When I finished, I picked out what to wear—a faded pair of jeans and my favorite olive T-shirt. I wanted to look decent for Julia. I thought twice about why I even cared. I even styled my hair, carefully making sure strands of it didn’t stick out. Robby took off for a moment, and was no longer around to give me a hard time about Julia.
By 10:00 a.m., I was ready to go. I had an hour and a half of time left to kill, before I had to meet her. I decided to take out my guitar and play for a while. The temptation to crank the volume on my amp. and wake a few people up struck me, but I didn’t do it. I put on my headphones and strummed out “Dreams.” It was one of my favorite songs to jam to. I closed my eyes, rocking with the beat, until Robby came in and pulled the plug on me. I yanked my fingers away from the strings. Man was it loud. Before long, someone pounded on our door.
This gangly kid with red, curly hair and glasses walked in. He was a scary-looking dude.
Robby spoke up a bit too honestly. “Bro you’re a mess. Your eyes are so red and swollen, they’re practically shut.”
“Look dude, turn down the racket or else,” the kid spat, and moved forward toward Robby. Robby walked in his direction, with his hands balled into fists at his side.
Yeah. I tried to keep the situation calm.
“Hey don’t worry about it,” I said, glancing at the guy. “We won’t turn the music back on. What’s your name, anyway; I’m Bladen.”
“Jared,” he answered.
I put my right hand out to shake his. Respectfully, he shook my hand too. “I’d appreciate you keeping the noise down,” he said. “I wanna catch more sleep.”
“Sure, why don’t you stop by another time.”
Jared walked to the door. “Thanks. See ya later.” He glared at Robby before he walked out.
After the door closed, I spun around. “What were you thinking? That kid looked like he wanted to pulverize you.”
“You mean Jared? He looked messed up on drugs, bro, and I could’ve taken him down. No problem.”
“How do you know it was drugs?”
“Gut feeling,” he said.
# # #
Later, I headed to my car to drive to Julia’s. I was a nervous wreck, and at times, this slice of my life frustrated me. My dad had always encouraged me in the girl department. I should’ve called him before I left.
I started the ignition in my car and typed Julia’s address into my GPS, recalling that Julia was definitely not a girl I needed to be anxious about. I drew in a deep breath and drove off.
I pulled into Julia’s driveway and was glad I had arrived at her house on time. I glanced at my appearance in the rearview mirror—to make sure my teeth were clean, no breakfast foods stuck anywhere, and to make sure my hair didn’t look like a mop. Then I proceeded up to her front door. I knocked twice before she opened, and with one glimpse at her, my jaw fell wide open. It didn’t really; that would’ve looked stupid. But I’m almost positive my eyes bulged out.