Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Weekly Story #46: The Neighborhood Games

And now here's my take on the post-Battle Royale/Hunger Games genre of kids in the not-too-distant future being forced to compete in demented tournaments. It started with one more word-association exercise, this time from "Ladder"—after St. John Climacus, who was commemorated that Sunday. It developed into a comment on where I think many of those dystopias have their appeal: the pressure kids often have from their parents, schools, or ambient cultural norms to stay busy and compete.

I should note that I've only ever read the first Hunger Games novel.


THE NEIGHBORHOOD GAMES

1
April 19th, 20XX
Gold Aura Recreational Center

Joni Littgen stuck her number to her chest. Her heartbeat was nothing but dull thuds. She would be number ten in the Over-Twelve division, the Twelve-and-Under division having completed its tournament earlier that day. She'd watched the whole thing. She'd never seen such brutality in her life.
As she waited her turn on the platform, a high school freshman named Dudley took a blow to the face, and with no railing on the catwalk, fell into the Pit. Four rottweilers chained to the wall growled and barked at him, and if he didn't watch out, they'd latch their jaws onto him. No armor; the beam surgeons on the sidelines could heal injuries so rapidly it was like they never happened. From the Pit, Dudley could push a button to forfeit or free-climb an artificial rock wall to rejoin the queue and fight again. If he were to fall back in, he'd be eliminated. With the fire hose aimed at the wall, getting back up was easier said than done.
That morning Joni had watched two eight-year-olds fling bare-knuckle punches at each other, bloodying their noses and lips until finally they started pulling their hair, then tumbled together into the Pit. One rottweiler wouldn't let go of the girl's leg until the boy gave it a sharp kick in the side. They both forfeited.
By now those kids' injuries were healed. Not all the scars, but then, some scars are never visible.
Dudley made it past the rottweilers, and leapt at the wall, as Kanesha from down the road took on the winner.

2
February 20th
Littgen Residence

Joni's parents didn't know about the games before they moved to the subdivision of Gold Aura. Neither did Joni, though she had always heard that kids from that neighborhood seemed a little off. No one knew exactly how. Well, her parents would say, we're all made in the image of God, so let's give them a chance.
A week after they moved in, the head of the neighborhood association knocked on their door. A spritely, skinny woman with bright hair and bright teeth, she introduced herself, and after discussing the neighborhood watch and bake sales, she took a look at Joni and said, "And are you going to be competing in the Gold Aura Games?"
"What're they?"
"Just a little friendly competition we have for our kids every year." The head of the neighborhood association slid some paperwork across the table. "A fun way to keep everybody active. I guess you'd be in the over-twelve division. Any little brothers or sisters who might be interested?"
"Nope," Joni said. "Only child." She folded up the paperwork. The image on the front made it look like a triathlon or an Iron Man event. She'd taken Aikido since she was seven, but she was rusty since before the move and needed to get her blood pumping. "I guess I'll think about it."
"Wonderful! My son was last year's champion. Application's due March 1st."
As the head of the neighborhood association left, Joni saw two boys from Biology jogging past. They looked as if they'd been jogging all day.

3
April 19th
Community Center

Kaneisha won by knock-out. Her brass knuckles probably didn't hurt her chances too much. Contestants could bring any blunt object that could be held in one hand. One kid behind Joni was holding a steel chain. A fifth grader that morning had brought a baseball bat.
Joni had already decided that whatever happened, she would not bring any weapons. Just her two hands and her brain. She would have to take whatever was given to her. She wasn't here to prove she was the strongest, or the most aggressive, or the most wily.
She was there to show who she was.
Dudley reached the top of the rock wall, and marched to the back of the line.
Joni heard a scream. Kaneisha had fallen into the pit, and a dog had bitten onto her wrist. Her best hope would be to take the bottle of pepper spray hanging on a string from the wall. If she could reach it.
Joni muttered, "How do you do this every year?"
The boy in front of her answered, "Same reason as anybody else. Gotta make our parents proud."
Joni's heart pulled itself down. On the stands, parents and siblings were cheering, holding up hand-painted signs, some covered with glitter, others with LEDs.
"Plus," the girl behind Joni said, "there's the trip to Disneyworld. All expenses paid, FastPass, and! It'll get my dad to shut up about the money he spent on Krav Maga classes."
"I'm thinking I'll take the trip to Orbitville," the boy said. "I've always wanted to go up into space."
"Lame."
Joni kept her eye on the stands. As she hoped, her parents were nowhere to be seen. She had never told them that she'd decided to compete after all. They were both disgusted with Gold Aura, and Dad was already looking for a new place, with great difficulty.
A roar went through the crowd at another victory. Drones hovered over the field recording the action. A beam surgeon readied his Regen case, to close up any wounds, mend any fractures, and regrow any tissue.
All that was missing was the Emperor, to point his thumb toward a gladiator's fate.

4
February 24th
Littgen Residence

Marilyn was the first friend Joni had made since moving to Gold Aura. The two were watching videos up in Joni's room when Marilyn saw the papers the head of the neighborhood association had given. "Are you competing in the games?"
"Oh, that?" Joni said. "Actually, I forgot all about that. What're they like?"
"Did you…" Marilyn leafed through the papers. "…not read this?" She passed them over. "Take a look."
Joni started reading, straight from the beginning. When she got to the part about the Pit, and the rottweilers, and fire hose, she shot to her feet, goosebumps raised. "People do this? To their kids?"
Marilyn flinched as if Joni had thrown a punch at her. Her sleeve fell back, and Joni noticed the ragged scar near her elbow. "Oh my God…"
"They're not that bad," Marilyn said. "I mean, look at those prizes. That's gotta be worth a little pain, right?"
"A little—?" Joni's own breath knocked itself out of her. "I'm not doing it. How is this not illegal?"
"Don't ask me. And anyway, aren't you a martial artist?" Marilyn gestured at the trophies on Joni's dresser.
"Of course, but the whole point of Aikido is to minimize harm. You just kinda let the flow win the fight for you."
"Okay. No reason you can't compete that way. I mean, you can win a match just by pinning the other person down for three seconds. I'm serious, this'll be a great way to get to know everybody."
Joni stared at the stock photo of a marathon runner on the front page. That lie to entice her into joining a gladiator match. If the way to get to know everybody was to bash their faces in, she wanted no part of it.
But now she knew where the rumors came from, why the kids from this neighborhood always seemed so skittish, so evasive. Every one of them had competed.
And why not? So much of the boilerplate on these papers was more for the parents than the children. The parents were the ones who got the discounts at local businesses, who got their names on the championship plaque along with their kids. And under the photo of the runner, a caption read:

SHOW THE WORLD WHOSE CHILD IS THE BEST!

5
April 19th
Community Center

Number Eight went up. He was only in seventh grade, but was tall and looked tough, and came armed with a bokken. His opponent was in fact Marilyn, who had just laid the previous winner out with a few well-placed jabs to the jaw, stomach, and groin. She belonged in an MMA cage. At least MMA fighters didn't have to deal with rottweilers.
By now two people had managed to climb back up to the platform. Two had forfeited. One had tried and failed the climb. Marilyn had the first KO.
She also wound up having the first pin. She swiftly dodged the sword, seized the wrist and elbow, slung him face first into the grating. Three seconds later, she'd won. The boy sulked to the other side of the catwalk, and climbed down.
Joni knew Marilyn could fight, all right. Despite her objections, she'd managed to let Marilyn rope her into helping her train, usually by holding a padded shield and absorbing her punches and kicks. It was like being buffeted with endless Major-League baseballs, and she couldn't imagine taking one unprotected.
"Guess I'm up," the boy in front of her said. He was unarmed, just like Marilyn. Just like Joni.
The head of the neighborhood association yelled from the stands, "Good luck, son! We're all counting on you!"
He waved uneasily.
6
February 27th
Littgen Residence

As soon as Joni's father finished reading the paperwork, he slammed it on the table. "You are not doing this."
"Thank you!" Joni said. "It's absolutely insane!" She leaned against the back of the chair, finally able to relax. She'd been worried for days about asking her parents. Part of her thought they might have known all along, and were willing to go along with it.
Mom picked up the description and skimmed through it. "Who'd come up with such a thing? This… It's just monstrous."
Dad stroked his beard. "It reads like it was written by someone who thinks of kids like glorified show dogs."
Mom read aloud from the paper. "'You dress them in the latest fashions, put them in the best schools, provide them the finest health care, because you know they don't just express themselves—they express you." She put it down and shuddered and made the Sign of the Cross. "And you're friend's competing in this?"
"She does every year," Joni said. "Won the whole championship when she was ten."
"The whole…?"
Joni tapped the relevant paragraph on the paper. "At the end, the winners of the Junior Division and the Youth Division fight in a sudden-death match. Only one of them gets the prize."
Neither of her parents believed it until they each read it for themselves.
"I'm calling the police." Dad stood up and went to the next room, where his phone was charging.
Joni and her mother sat in silence.
"You can't get Marilyn to withdraw?"
"I tried. But her parents have her practicing every day. All the kids do. Even the kids who are already in clubs at school. For once in my life I'm glad to be left out." Yet even as Joni said that, something still gnawed at her…
"Who in God's name would sponsor this?" Mom checked the fine print. "I've never heard of any of these sponsors. Why do I get the feeling they're all shell companies?"
Dad returned with only a frown. "They acted like they didn't believe me. Made it sound like I was a jerk for objecting to 'extracurricular activities.' I knew something was off about this place. The price… the location… the school… they seemed too good to be true."
"Well we're not going back to Highpark Cove," Mom said. "I guess we're starting from square one. Joni, you can hang out with these kids as much as you want, but other than that, we're boycotting these games. Everyone agreed?"
"Yes."
"Double yes!" Joni said. At the same time, though…
Somehow her enthusiasm felt hollow. It seemed wrong to walk away, or to sit at home quietly protesting, when so many of the kids around her, of her new friends, stood to suffer. She couldn't leave them behind. She had to do something. Especially for Marilyn.

7
April 19th
Community Center

As Marilyn slammed her back of her fist into the boy's jaw, Joni heard someone shouting her name. Her parents were in the stands, hands on the fence, crying out to her.
"Don't do it!"
"Joni, we love you! Get out of there!"
"Please!"
Joni waved at them, trying to manage a smile. She hadn't meant to hurt them. She still felt the same way as the night Dad tried to call the police. But she couldn't leave Gold Aura without making some sort of statement for her friends. She couldn't leave without showing the other parents what she really thought of these games. She couldn't leave without proving to herself what she was capable of.
Otherwise, this day would haunt her forever.
The boy fell into the pit, and as Joni stepped onto the catwalk, he limped over to the wall and started climbing. Some of the water from the hose sprayed up onto Joni.
"It's okay!" she called back to her parents. "I know what I'm doing!" She'd filled out the application and snuck it into the mailbox just after midnight, the night before they were due. It was a spur of the moment decision, but she never once thought about taking it back.
She took her position opposite Marilyn.
They bowed at each other.
Marilyn raised her fists. "I knew you couldn't stay away."
Joni raised her fists. She'd wanted this to be a surprise for Marilyn. "Think of it as solidarity." She put in her mouth guard.
The horn blared.
Marilyn took a moment sizing her up. Joni waited for her to strike. She'd seen, felt how Marilyn could move. And Marilyn would know that Aikido is usually more defensive.
Marilyn threw her first punch.
Joni took it right below the eye.
Marilyn jumped back with a gasp. "Are you all right? I-I thought you'd…"
Joni kept her hands up, her face burning. "I'm fine. Come on."
Marilyn clenched her fists again. She threw another punch. Well telegraphed. Trying to signal to Joni when she could make her move.
Joni let it hit in her side, below her rib cage.
"What the hell are you doing?" Marilyn whispered. "It's not a fight if you don't fight back." Marilyn punched Joni's shoulder—this time softer than her other blows. "What, you not as good at Aikido as you told me?"
Another punch, and Joni slipped around it, caught it, caught Marilyn, maneuvered her around, whirled her off balance, but not enough to send her over the edge. By the time both regained their footing, they had switched sides on the catwalk.
"Okay," Marilyn said, "so now you're ready."
Two more punches. One in Joni's jaw, one in her stomach. For a moment Joni couldn't see anything. She pressed her tongue against her mouth guard.
Again she straightened up and raised her fists.
"Come on, Joni," Marilyn said. "This isn't fun."
"No," Joni said. "It isn't." She had a feeling it wasn't fun for the crowd, either. She didn't hear any cheers. No chants. Just the barking of dogs and the rushing of hose water. They'd come to watch their children fight. They got a young girl being senselessly assaulted. It would be up to them to figure out the difference.
"All right," Marilyn said. "I get it." She grabbed Joni by the lapel. She swept her leg out from under her. She pressed her face down on the ground. She held her there for three seconds.
She helped Joni back up.
Joni still didn't hear any cheering.
"Seriously, Joni, what the hell was that?"
"Sorry." Joni spat out her mouth guard. "I'm just glad it was you. Good luck. You're doing great."
"Sure." Marilyn let Joni go so she could climb off the platform. "If I win the trip to Disneyworld, I'll see if you can come with me."
Joni's side ached as she climbed down the ladder and the horn blared for the start of the next match. The parents of the other kids, and even some of the other contestants from earlier, now stared at her in horror. Marilyn could take her to a county fair with rickety rides, for all she cared. Joni had never tasted such a sweet victory.
Her mother and father waited at the fence, a doctor with a Regen case by their side. In mere moments the pain would be gone.
Joni hooked her fingers onto the chain-links. "Mom… Dad… Get me out of here."

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Weekly Story #45: Getting to the Last Laugh

As of this week, I now have fifty-two short stories completed, with the remaining seven just waiting for revision.

Today's story was written after the Sunday of the Holy Cross. I wound up latching on to two incidents from the same day back in 2008 that were about equally unpleasant. I had actually written a separate story with the same premise a few years ago, but decided to start fresh.

This week's story is brought to you by the letter H. Which is the letter on my laptop's keyboard that broke off before I could write this introduction.



GETTING TO THE LAST LAUGH


"Oh for the love of God," Marlene said on the other line. "That was our ride. That was my ride."
"Glad to know you're so concerned about my safety," Stan said. He could still see the sheen on the knife that the carjacker had pointed at his heart earlier. The police officer he'd reported to had just driven off. "I could have died."
"Right. I know. Sorry. It's just, we've already been through so much hell getting ready for this gig. This is just icing on the cake."
"You think I don't blame myself enough?" If Stan hadn't forgotten his bass, he'd never have left the show, never have stopped for gas, never have a knife-wielding weirdo ask for his wallet and keys. Now he was waiting for an Uber in a gas station parking lot with no idea where Marlene's SUV and car keys had gone. "How long do we have before we're supposed to start?"
"The opening act's about to go up, so about an hour."
"Know if they're any good?"
"The bass player's good at chugging IPAs."
Stan's stomach hurt just thinking about it. "Look, it'll be fine. Shows at Last Laugh never start on time." His phone shook with a new notification, and a tan Honda rolled into the parking lot. "Hey, my ride's here. See you soon."
"Just get down here, okay?" Marlene said.
Stan hopped into the backseat. "The Last Laugh, down on 9th, and step on it."
"Sure thing." The driver entered the location on his phone, and it picked up the directions. "Okay. That shouldn't take us too long." He had a shaved head and flecks of gray in his beard. "Name's Bill. How's your night been?"
"Could be better," Stan said. "Car got stolen."
"Aw, no. Nice car?"
"Wasn't even mine. It was my bandmate's."
"Bet he's pissed."
"She is. And—" Stan slapped his leg. "And my bass was in there. The entire reason I left the Last Laugh in the first place. The cops better find it soon. And the creep who took it. I hate tonight so much."
The car turned onto Holtz Avenue, and slowed down a good distance from the next stop light. "Uh oh," Bill said.
Stan dropped his head into his hands. "Oh come on. Doesn't your app warn you about traffic?"
"It's supposed to. Damn thing doesn't work half the time. I'll see if I can find an alternate route."
Stan looked ahead out the window. The line of cars stretched from here all the way to the exit and on down the Interstate. "Must be some kinda wreck. I better let the band know."
He sent a text to Marlene.
She wrote back immediately:


You're lucky I don't kill you as soon as you get here.


I'd borrow somebody from the opening act, but good lord they suck.


As if the traffic jam and carjacker were his fault. Right now all he could do was sit back and wait for any suggestion of movement. These side roads wouldn't help, because the venue was on the other side of the Interstate. Bill would have a tough time finding that alternate route. Heck, half of this jam was probably people squeezing under that bridge trying to avoid that exit.
"So you're in a band?" Bill said.
"Yeah. Bass."
"No kidding. I play bass, too. My buddies and I played at the Last Laugh back when it was the Iron Lion."
"You don't say. What was it like back then?"
"Pretty much the same. That chameleon mural still there?"
"Sure is."
As they came to the next block, Stan began to hear a buzzing, like a voice out of a distant loudspeaker. Further onward, and it turned out that was exactly what it was. A scrawny man stood in front of a vacant pawn shop ranting into a mic, his voice blaring indistinctly out of the distinctly red speaker beside him. In his other hand was a leather-bound Bible.
The man who'd held Stan at knifepoint was listing off all the people who were going to hell, from Catholics to gays to libertarians. "For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God!"
The loudspeaker still had Marlene's Bonnaroo sticker on the side. And that was her SUV parked nearby with the headlights blazing.
"Man, it's one thing to see those guys at events downtown," Bill said. "But who looks at a traffic jam and thinks that's an opportunity?"
A friggin' car thief, that's what. Stan took a picture and sent it straight to Marlene, who replied:


OMG!!! WHAT THE HELL?


Now the question was, what was Stan supposed to do? He couldn't go out and try and take the SUV back. The cops were still looking for it, and it'd probably be suspicious if someone found him with a stolen car, especially one he himself had reported stolen. Besides, the man out there may be wiry, but Stan wasn't exactly a fighter. He had no guarantee he could take this guy in a fight.
He still had the card from the police officer who'd taken his report. The sensible thing to do would be to call up and let him know.
The car was rolling up right in front of the preacher. Stan rolled down the window.
"… and you shall know that I am the LORD. And… You, citizen!" He gestured his Bible at Stan. "Do you have any prayers you'd like to offer?"
"No, I'm good," Stan said. The guy probably couldn't see him too clearly. "Just…" He leaned a little out the window and took some more pictures of the preacher. He pointed at his phone. "You forgot something at the gas station."
The preacher gritted his teeth. "And this is just the sort of thing the Lord God warned us about. Overreliance on smartphones. Slavery to technology! Attachment to apps!"
But the preacher's voice was shakier now. He was stuck and he knew it. There were no side streets around the pawn shop. It only let out into the jam. Even if he did try to drive off, he'd have to take the same side roads as everyone else or wait until a gap opened across every single lane for a left turn. And how was he supposed to know he'd run into his own victim just a half hour after they last crossed paths? Stan guessed the preacher got stuck in traffic too, and decided to pull over and indulge in a separate hobby, annoy the people around him in a different way.
Stan called up the officer. "So this might be hard to believe, but I'm in that traffic jam on Holtz, and I just found the guy who stole my car. You know the abandoned pawn shop near the Wendy's? He's parked in front of it."
"Wait, that's him?" Bill said.
"Thanks," the officer said as Stan nodded to Bill. "We'll get here as soon as we can."
Luckily the left lane was all clear. "Man, what are the odds?"
"I know, right?" Bill said. "When my car got stolen, it took three months for anyone to find it. Turned out the thief had had it repainted. By then I didn't even want it back."
"Yeesh."
"At least you found it quickly. Want me to find a place to pull over until the cops arrive?"
"Yeah, might as well." If Stan was going to be late, at least it'd be because he was getting everything back. He just hoped he'd still be in shape to play tonight's set. He'd never had such an exhausting stop at a gas station in his life.
Oh well. Shows at the Last Laugh never start on time.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Weekly Story #44: The Doohicky

Continuing with last week's Lent connection, this one came following the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, who defended Orthodox teaching about the Uncreated Light. So I started the word association out of the word "Highlight." As you can probably tell by the opening line, unlike "Icon," this one's keyword managed to survive into the full story.

After the previous story focused on sisters, I decided to focus on brothers for this one. I also liked the idea of writing something with all the really off-the-wall stuff happening in the background.

One important update: As of this writing, as of this coming weekend, I will have 52 stories either published or cued up for this series. The last story should come up the second week of July. Excited? I know I am!



THE DOOHICKY


Ray started off by highlighting each of his lines. His character only appeared in two scenes, but he was determined to get it right. Just because he was an amateur didn't mean he had to sound like one. The thought of auditioning had just hit him out of the blue a week ago, and while he didn't get the part he tried out for, the fact that he got a speaking part seemed encouraging.
The problem now was just where to rehearse in private. He shared the house with his mom and his three brothers, and they could crowd him out fairly easily. Mom was out bowling with her book club, so at least tonight he didn't have to make any demands on her. The others all stayed home. Neil, the oldest, agreed to leave him alone. His day job at Best Buy had worn him out enough that he just planned to stay in his room all night. That left the other two.
Ray went upstairs and knocked on their door.
"Come in." Bart and Drew were tinkering with one of their new gadgets in the corner. Drew had joined his high school's maker club, and Bart wanted to start one at his middle school. Seemed like they were always working on something these days. Drew was even saving up for a 3D printer. Their gadget glowed with an eerie color. "What're you guys working on?"
"We're not sure yet," Drew said. "I got this doohicky from somebody at that maker faire last week, and I'm just kinda slapping parts together to see what they do."
"They do anything interesting?"
"We're not sure yet," Bart said.
"Got it." Ray held up his script. "Well, listen, I got a part in that play I auditioned for—"
"Oh cool," Bart said. "You playing Swinson?"
"I didn't get that part. But rehearsals start tomorrow, and I do need to practice my lines, so if you could do me a solid and—"
"We'll be quiet," Drew said. "We were just gonna keep working on this stuff all night."
"Right." Ray backed out of the room. "Don't call unless it's an emergency."
"Sure thing. Mind closing the door?"
Ray did so, and returned to his room. Those two had gotten a lot closer, and a lot easier to handle, once they found a hobby to share. And he trusted them well enough. He just wanted to be sure.
He went to his bedroom and locked the door and sat down at his desk. His character first appeared in Act II, Scene 3, so he started reading from there. Each highlighted line he recited out loud. Once he got through the scene, he started it over, to make sure he got the enunciation and emotion right.
The entire house shook with several loud booms and shouts coming from the boys' bedroom. Once Ray's desk stopped rattling, he rushed out to the hall and banged on their door. "Drew! Bart! You all right?"
Drew opened the door a little and peeked out. "Um, yeah. We've got everything under control here. Sorry about the noise."
"You sure?" Ray said. "What about Bart? Is he okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Bart looked through the crack in the door and waved. "Just a minor accident. Totally fixable."
It was hard for Ray to tell through the crack, but certainly they didn't seem to have any cuts or bruises or anything. He pushed in. "You sure everything's safe?"
"Totally," they both said, pushing back.
"All right then." Ray backed away from the door. Neil had come out of his room and was looking at Ray with worry. "They say they're fine," Ray told him. "And they seem fine."
"Well." Neil nodded. "I sure hope so. How's the rehearsal coming?"
"Not too bad, at least until those two ripped open the spacetime continuum."
"All right. Break a leg." Neil went back to his room, and Ray went back to his.
Ray started from his first line, and got to the end of the scene. Just as he uttered the last word, another noise came from the boys' bedroom. This one was more of an oscillating warble. It faded out after a few seconds, then Bart chimed up, "Everything's fine!"
Ray moved on to the next scene.
More noises came from down the hall, each more unidentifiable than the last. What on earth were those kids doing in there? None of their video games sounded like that, and there was no way it was coming from their little tinker-toy. At times he wanted to check on them, but then, he did tell them they could come get him if it was an emergency. They hadn't come to him, so maybe it wasn't an emergency.
Then the house shook again, this time together with the warble.
Ray got up and hurried to the boys' door and threw it open without knocking. To his surprise, most of their stuff that wasn't already on the floor was still off the floor. The device they were working on was still glowing on the desk. All that was missing were the boys.
Neil came to the door and shoved around him to get in. "Where are they?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Ray said. "You felt that, right?"
"I think they felt that across the state line. Okay, Drew. Okay Bart. You can come out now."
Ray wouldn't have blamed them for trying to hide when they were shaking the house off the foundation. "Don't worry, we won't tell Mom." He was about ready to take that doohicky away from them, if it weren't glowing like that. Anything to get back to the play.
Ray checked under the beds while Neil looked in the closet. "Where the hell are they?" Neil said.
"They couldn't have gone out the window," Ray said. "It's still locked from the inside."
"You didn't hear them run out, did you?"
"No. But where could they have gone?"
"Let's look."
Neil stayed upstairs and searched. Ray went downstairs and checked the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but found no sign of the boys. No one could have broken in. None of the doors or windows were damaged. The boys' shoes were still sitting by the door, too. Unless they'd gone out barefoot, they should by all logic be somewhere inside.
Ray looked into the garage, but the boys weren't there, either. Forget rehearsals—how could he think about acting when his brothers were missing? If they didn't turn up soon, he'd have to call the director and drop out of the play.
What would he and Neil tell Mom?
He heard a warble from the living room, followed by Drew's voice. "We made it! Bart, we're home!"
Ray rushed in. Both of them were covered in dirt, their clothing frayed, their hair gone wild. Drew was holding a broadsword, Bart a spear. Drew dropped his sword with a clatter and threw his arms around Ray. "Ray! I thought I'd never see you again!"
"Wait," Bart said, "how long have we been gone?"
"I, uh…" Ray could only estimate. "About ten minutes?"
Bart whistled. "Only ten minutes? It took, what, three hours just for you to save me from the—"
"Whoa, quiet." Drew broke away from Ray and pressed his hand over Bart's mouth.
Neil came down the stairs. "Oh. There they are. Where the hell did you get those weapons?"
Drew slowly lowered his hand. "Would you believe… the kingdom of Ishkoth?
"Look," Ray said, "I don't care where you got them or what anyone does with them. You've been making noise all night, and it's got to stop. Now, I've got to read my lines, Neil's got to rest, and Mom's got to come home to a house that hasn't been blown to smithereens."
"Okay, okay," Bart said. "We'll stop working on that thing. Piece of crap's been nothing but trouble anyway."
"We understand, Ray," Drew said. "And frankly, I feel like I've been swinging a sword around for hours, so I just wanna lie down. Please don't tell Mom anything happened, okay?"
"We won't," Neil said. "We're just glad you two are safe. You had us worried for a minute there."
"Yeah, sorry about that. I swear, if I ever find that guy from the maker faire again…"
And everyone went back upstairs, with Neil taking the weapons so he could stash them in the attic. Ray watched the boys take their doohicky apart, then headed back to his own room to practice.
Shortly after he started his second scene, Drew knocked on the door, yelling, "Keep it down! I'm trying to sleep!"