I’ve always liked reading. It’s a comforting, soothing way to pass time. The flow of words becomes a flow of ideas, and my mind is so busy that it doesn’t dwell on the worries of the day. Anxiety and hardship, fears and hopes, the doom of the future looming over us, all of it washes into the background while a smooth series of words holds my attention.
I had always thought of reading as a solitary thing – something meant to be enjoyed alone. That was why, when Lorelei started a digital book on her tablet, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I sat there for a minute, looking around, until I noticed my own tablet on the writing desk. I went over and grabbed it, and decided against sitting up at the desk to read. The bed was the most comfortable spot, and I wanted to stay close to Lorelei. I lay belly-down on the covers beside her, then opened up a book on my tablet and started reading.
This story was part of an old series of hard-boiled detective urban fantasy novels, where some guy chases supernatural monstrosities through Chicago. I enjoyed reading it, but I couldn’t stay focused. My attention kept going back to Lorelei sitting beside me. Her dark eyes slowly scrolled back and forth. Her hand occasionally tapped the screen to flip the page. I loved watching her concentrate. Her face was so serious, so intent.
A long time passed like this, me pretending to read as I watched her. Emotions roiled inside of me, things I would be embarrassed to talk about. My feelings built up, and I had to say something. No matter if it was stupid or ruined the moment.
“Hey, Lorelei.” I rolled onto my side and propped my head up on one hand. “Can I ask you something?”
She tore her attention away from her tablet, made a hm? sound.
“This... thing you do.” I waved my hand at her. “Is this an act, or are you actually like this?”
Lorelei tilted her head at me. “Thing I do?”
“Yeah.” I sat up, crossing my legs on the bed. “Acting all standoffish. Barely saying anything. Ignoring people so you can read. It makes me wonder if you’re really like that, or if you’re putting up an act for some reason.”
“I’m not acting.” She put her tablet down, folded her arms over her chest. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just read too many stories, but if your frostiness is just an act, then it’s a bad one. Usually that kind of person has something to hide, or is really shy, or is angry at the whole world and hates everybody. That kind of person doesn’t care about what goes on outside her own head.” I pointed at her. “But I know that’s not true for you.”
She said nothing, waiting for me to go on.
“Since I got here,” I said, “you’ve been really nice to me, in your own weird way. It makes me think that you’re not angry or shy, and you do care about people. Those things don’t happen with the girl who sits in the corner and never talks.”
Lorelei looked away, her eyes drifting down to her knees. She said, so softly that I could barely hear, “It’s not an act.”
“Okay. I know it’s none of my business and I shouldn’t pry. But....” I reached up, took her hand and held it in both my own. “I like you, Lorelei. I want to know more about you. You don’t have to tell me anything, but if and when you feel ready, I’d love to hear you talk about yourself.”
She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, and then she did something that shocked me. She leaned forward, clamped her arms around my back and neck, and she hugged me. Her tablet computer got pressed up between our bellies. She let out a hurt moan, almost too short to hear, as if feeling some pain she wasn’t ready to show.
A few seconds passed before I thought to hug her back. I wrapped my arms around her back, and I inhaled deeply through my nose. Her hair smelled sweet, the scent of whatever conditioner she had used this morning.
“If you want,” she whispered near my ear. “I’ll tell you, later. Maybe tonight.”
“Okay,” I said, patting her on the back.
Her arms loosened off me, and she withdrew enough to look down between us, wearing an embarrassed look. It was no act. She wasn’t used to showing outbursts of emotion.
The door flew open so fast that it slammed into the bedframe. Cheryl came stomping into the room, waving her tablet above her head.
“Maggie!” she said. “I’m bored. Play games with me!”
She saw Lorelei and me sitting on the bed, holding each other, and she stopped dead still. She threw up a hand and covered her eyes.
“Oh god! Sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” She turned around and headed back out. “Go on, you two. I’ll just—”
She bumped into Bianca, who pushed her back into the room. “Now now, don’t jump to conclusions. Is it okay if we come in, Maggie?”
“Sure.” I hopped off the bed. “We’ve been reading for a long time. I think a game would be fun.” I glanced back at Lorelei. “That okay with you?”
She nodded. I knew it would be okay with her. She wanted nothing better than to spend time with friends.
“Then take this.” Cheryl stabbed a memory card at my face, nearly shoving it up my nose. “Install it on your computer. Give it to Lori when you’re done.”
I picked the card out of her hand, grabbed my tablet and plugged the card into it. “What kind of game is this?”
“Zombie apocalypse,” said Cheryl, grinning wide. “It’s good stuff.”
“Ugh.” My shoulders slumped. “Zombies? Really? Killing zombies got old like, last year.”
“This is a good zombie game.” Cheryl pulled Bianca into the room, closing the door behind her. “Not only can you kill zombies, but you can make armies of zombies to kill each other. You’ll love it.”
In dorm room A-14 at Carissa’s private literary school, four girls sat in a loose circle, three on the floor and one on the bed. Each of them had a tablet computer, and each tablet was installed with a bloody and violent zombie game. The four tablets were wirelessly networked together, and the girls began a cooperative campaign of killing the largest number of zombies possible.
The room filled with squishes and splats, screams and death-wails, gunshots and explosions. Thousands upon thousands of zombies died, and each gave us resources with which to kill more zombies.
“I was... wrong!” I said as I launched a missile that killed nearly fourteen hundred zombies at once. “This game is kind of fun.”
“Told you so,” said Cheryl, who had lured a zombie horde into a field full of landmines and claymores. A lot of messy explosions happened. “This is the normal difficulty setting. We can crank it up if we get bored.”
“I’m kind of embarrassed,” said Bianca, who had just driven a bus full zombies into a death pit full of lava and sawblades. “Girls shouldn’t find a gingerbread game fun.”
“A zombie game,” said Cheryl. “And what else would we— agh! Crap! They just took out my satellite dish. I can’t order orbital strikes without it.”
“Just researched nukes,” said Lorelei. “Take one.”
With a quick transfer of resources, a nuclear warhead leveled a city into a glass parking lot. But no one cared about that city, since it was full of zombies.
“So,” I said, as the carnage continued. “I’ve been wondering something. Why did each of you want to come to this school?”
We were quiet for a moment, but for the blam-blam-kaboom noises coming from our tablets. Cheryl spoke up.
“Maybe the person who asked that should answer it first,” she said. “And— ouch! My transport went down.”
“Okay,” I said. “I like reading books, obviously, but something happened last year that made me think I might like writing too. I did an essay in my sixth grade class, and it got published in the school paper. My teachers made me submit it to a young writer’s contest online, and I won. I even got a little award certificate. Seems silly now, but I was really proud. I loved the work.”
“That’s cool,” said Cheryl. “What was the essay about?”
I let out a nervous laugh. “That’s, uh, kind of embarrassing. I’ll tell if you guys say why you wanted to come to school here.”
“Fine then.” Cheryl put down her tablet and worked the kinks out of her wrists. “You know how they have those standardized tests in grade school? Multiple choice questions, word problems, that kind of thing. After I took one of those, a teacher asked to see me after school. I was scared that I was in trouble for something, but the teacher just asked me to read a couple of paragraphs and write some answer sentences. After I did he said, ‘You just cleared through high school-level language skills. How did you learn to read so well?’”
Since Cheryl had put her tablet down, the rest of us paused the game as we listened to her.
“I didn’t really give him an answer,” she said. “But when I went home that night, I noticed I had more novels than I could count, both in paperback and on my computer. I had been reading stories for as long as I could remember. That’s when I realized, I’d better be a novelist when I grow up.”
“I was surprised too, the first time I came over to your house,” said Bianca. “I saw all those books and thought, wait a second. This is the girl who runs around like a madwoman at school? I thought you’d be more into sports, have basketball posters and pennants on your wall.”
Cheryl eyed her. “And I still wonder why you thought that. I never once told you I liked sports. I just feel like, when you’re with friends, you should enjoy being with friends. When you’re alone, you should enjoy a book.”
I glanced at Lorelei, but she was wearing her usual poker face.
“But when I saw all those books in your room,” said Bianca, “I realized we were going to be friends forever, because I had a bunch of books in my bedroom too. We have really different tastes, though. You like bad space westerns and pulpy swords-and-horses fantasy.”
“Well, you like stupid romance novels. And that’s not all.” Cheryl stabbed a finger at Bianca’s tablet. “You want me to start browsing through that thing? How many Japanese porn games am I going to find in there?”
“They’re not porn games! They’re called visual novels. And if you touch my guitar, I’ll break your face.”
I was sure she meant to say computer rather than guitar. I might be getting used to her random word replacements.
Bianca looked back at us, putting on a pleasant smile. “Anyway, I want to be a novelist too. What about you, Lorelei?”
We all looked at the quiet girl. She paused for a moment, as if gathering her thoughts. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, took in a breath, and then spoke the longest sentence we had yet heard out of her.
“Je veux devenir une traductrice, ou aider le monde a apprendre l'Anglais comme langue secondaire.”
Of course, that sentence was in a language we didn’t know.
“You know what?” Cheryl held up a hand. “I actually understood what she just said. That was French for, I speak French and that means I’m better than all of you.”
I snorted out a laugh, and Bianca giggled. Lorelei just shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Translator, or ESL.”
“Aaah,” said Cheryl, nodding as if understanding some important truth. “I see. Well, that’s all of us. So Maggie, what was that essay about?”
“Ugh.” I rolled my eyes. “I was hoping you’d forget about it.”
Cheryl laughed. “Huh, why? Was it about the boy you had a crush on?”
“Boy? Ew, no. I’ve never had a crush on a boy. It was worse than that, actually.” I folded my arms around my stomach, and looked down at the floor between us. “It was about Homewrecker’s.”
The smile fell off Cheryl’s face. A heavy, suffocating silence fell on us. No one made eye contact, each girl staring into space.
“What....” Cheryl’s voice was small and distant. “What did you say about it?”
“Just what you’d expect,” I said. “That I’ve never met a person younger than me, that my elementary school seemed awful big for how few kids were there. I wrote that there were no students who would enter sixth grade after me, because I left an empty school behind.” I swallowed. “I wrote that, even though I wanted to get a degree and find a good job, I didn’t know who I’d be working for if we didn’t find a cure for Homewrecker’s.”
“No wonder you won that contest,” said Bianca. “The adults must have loved it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “A wide-eyed little kid saying the things they were all thinking. Thinking back on it, it’s pretty sad.”
Silence hung over us again, reminding us all of the one thing we didn’t want to think about. The four girls in this room were all part of humankind’s last generation. We were young. Our whole lives stretched out before us, but those lives promised to be decades worth of catching up to a species that slowly died out ahead of us. By the time we were adults, graduated from college and ready to start our careers, the world’s population would be so small that no one could enjoy our work.
What good would my articles be if no one read them? How could novelists live if no one bought their books? Who would pay for a translator when people cared more about coaxing food out of the ground?
To think that our lives would be pointless, no matter how hard we worked. It was enough to depress a girl.
“All right, well.” Cheryl picked up her tablet again. “This game has a competitive mode. You guys get ready. I’m going to zombie the crap out of you.”
Reluctantly, we each picked up our tablets and started playing again. I wanted to object, wanted to say I was sick of this game. But what was the alternative? Should I climb into bed, hide in the blankets and cry myself to sleep?
There was no point in crying, and I didn’t want to blow off my friends. So I raised an army of zombies and threw it against three other armies of zombies. It was all we could do.
<< Previous Chapter | Next Chapter >>