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Authors: Paul Glennon

Bookweird

BOOK: Bookweird
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To Nicholas

 

 

Things Begin to Fall Apart

T
he weekend
started
out well for Norman Jespers-Vilnius. Saturday morning and the first one out of bed—Mom, Dad and Dora were still sleeping when he climbed the stairs back up to his bedroom with a stack of peanut butter and toast. The toast lasted maybe half an hour and three hand-to-hand battles through the third level of Castle Keep. He played with one hand on the controller, the other shuttling toast to his mouth from the plate on his lap. When last of the ice moths of level 3 had been dispatched, Norman paused the computer, freezing his character in mid victory celebration, fist and battle axe raised, eyes blazing with orange pixels behind the hoisted visor of his helm. This called for more toast, which Norman supplemented this time with a large glass of milk and a bowl of pretzels. A hero's work is hungry work.

Norman spent the next few hours like this, seated sideways in his desk chair, skinny legs dangling off the side, a plate of peanut butter toast balanced in his lap, milk and pretzels within reach of his left hand and his right hand gripping the controller. The food required no attention at all—it would be eaten whether he was conscious of it or not. His eyes never strayed from the computer screen before him.

Level 4 of Castle Keep had some surprises in store. The broadsword that had dealt destruction to the beasts and enemies of the first three levels was useless to him here. The phantasmagorical warriors of level 4 were immune to sharpened steel, and Norman's character had precious little magic to keep them at bay. Only his shield, bathed in the magical waters of Avalon on level 2, was of any use to him against the Spirit Knights.

It took some getting used to. Norman lost track of the number of times he was killed, overwhelmed by the massed phantasmagoricals and enveloped in a mist that sent him back to the start of the level, but he was getting the hang of it. The trick was speed. You couldn't stand and fight against these things; you just rushed through the castle labyrinth as fast as you could, ducking swiftly behind the shield when necessary.

He was vaguely aware of the rest of the house waking around him, but the world outside his bedroom door was so much less real than the world within the computer screen. He didn't count how many times he told his sister Dora bluntly to go away. It was his instinctive reaction every time the door squeaked, and it usually worked. Some whiny retort always came back, but he ignored it. Dora might have said “I'm going to tell Mom.” Or “Mom and Dad are mad at you.” Usually it was something like that. It was only a background annoyance, but he was at a particularly tricky part when the door squeaked again.

“I
said,
go away,” Norman snarled through his teeth. If she made him lose here, he thought, he'd kill her.

“Pardon?” It was his mother's voice. Norman glanced up, surprised to see her standing in the doorway. Her arms were crossed and an eyebrow was raised. It could have been worse.

“Sorry, I thought you were Dora.” He just about kept it together, eyes back to the screen now as his hero leapt across a chasm to a ledge.

“And that makes it right?” Meg Jespers-Vilnius asked. Norman could tell that she wasn't really mad. He focused on climbing the wall toward a small niche carved into the dark stone near the ceiling.
A golden chalice flickered in that small high alcove—a magical one, Norman hoped. His magic stores needed replenishing, and if he was lucky it was also a save point.

“She was driving me crazy.”

“The only person who can drive you crazy is you.” It was the sort of thing his mother said. It might make sense, but it was best not to think about it. “Anyway, it's time to wrap it up.” She casually messed his already ragged head of hair. “We're leaving in ten minutes.”

Norman heard what his mother said. He even understood it, but he didn't have time to think about that now. He just stored the information away until he could process it properly. First things first: he had to get that chalice or he was a dead questor.

He still hadn't found a way to the chalice niche when his mother appeared at his door again.

“We're all ready to go. Hurry up and get dressed and get down to the car.”

“I just have to get to a save point,” Norman whispered. He ducked around his mother's arm, trying to keep his eye on the screen while his mother reached across to pick up his empty plate and glass.

“Make it quick. We'll be in the car in two minutes, and your dad isn't happy that you drank the last of the milk.”

Norman twisted as the plate came back across his line of sight. His knight was mid-leap. This was something that required a precise touch.

He didn't hear his father shouting from the bottom of the stairs, didn't hear the thump of shoes that should have warned him. He was almost there, his questor's fingers stretching for the chalice, when the door burst open.

“You're still not dressed?” His father was incredulous.

Norman took his eyes off the screen and his knight slipped a few feet down the wall. He only just managed to catch a handhold.

“Just a few seconds, I have to—”

The screen flickered, its light closed to a point and it blinked out.

Norman turned to see his father holding the plug.

“Put these on and get to the car.” Norman's father threw clothes at him. Hearing the growl of real anger in his father's voice, Norman struggled into them hastily. How could this have happened? He had been nearly there. He was still stunned as his father frogmarched him down the stairs and to the car.

Norman slumped into the back seat.

“Where are we going, anyway?” he asked, unable to disguise the resentment in his voice.

“For coffee, then shopping,” his mother replied from the front seat.

“Why do I have to come? I can look after myself.”

“Because,” Dora explained in her know-it-all voice, waggling her ponytailed head for emphasis, “you drank the last of the milk so Dad couldn't have his cappuccino at home.”

“I didn't ask you,” Norman muttered. In his heart he blamed Dora for all this mess. If she hadn't kept bothering him all morning, he would have reached the chalice a long time ago.

His dad cut the argument short. “Come on, guys. We're not even out of the driveway yet. Just sit quietly and read your books.”

Dora flashed Norman a taunting grin and picked up her stupid pony book.

“I don't have a book,” Norman said.

Edward Vilnius put the car back in park. “Where is it?” His eyes met Norman's in the rear-view mirror. He was doing that professor thing where he looked over the glasses that had slipped down his nose. His normally kind grey eyes were now cold and hard.

Norman opened the door and unbuckled his seatbelt. “It's in my room. I'll get it.”

“Stay where you are,” his father sighed. “I'll get it.” There was no arguing with him in this mood. Norman watched sulkily as his father returned to the house.

“I was ready ten minutes ago,” Dora announced for no other reason than to annoy him.

Norman wanted to punch her, but he wouldn't. He could feel the anger building up in him, but he wouldn't do it. He had made
up his mind to take her book and lose her page for her. His mother put an arm over the car seat and looked back.

“Now, Norman, I did warn you that we were leaving, right?”

Norman shrugged and allowed a single grudging nod.

“You haven't forgotten your father's curse?” his mother asked.

Norman folded his arms and rolled his eyes. He wasn't in the mood to be cajoled.

“He really
is
cursed,” Dora affirmed gleefully.

“It's true,” his mother continued. “When he was born, some evil nurse at the hospital put an irascibility curse on him, the foulest of moods possible. There is only one cure.”

“Coffee,” said Dora melodramatically. “Three times a day.”

“Preferably in its most potent espresso or cappuccino form,” his mom added, finishing the oft-told family joke. “It is our duty as his family to ensure that he never goes without coffee—for the sake of humanity.”

Norman thought the old joke was lame, but he couldn't help smirking. As Edward Vilnius strode out of the house, tall but hunched over at the shoulders, he really did look as if an evil curse lurked over him. He heaved the car door open, fell into the front seat heavily and drew his arms back as if to toss Norman's book back at him, but he caught Norman's eye and passed the book to him gently. His father would never damage a book.

“Okay,” he said, putting the car in gear. “Can we all keep ourselves out of trouble now?”

That should have been the end of it. On another day Norman might have put his head down and read quietly. He might have stayed out of trouble. But today he couldn't help himself. His ejection from Castle Keep still rankled. If they had only waited a few more minutes, he could have reached the chalice and saved the game. He glanced over at Dora. She was only eight and skinny, but she still managed to find a way to take up more than her half of the seat, slouching against the door, curling her feet under her, piling stuff beside her. She was doing it on purpose. Norman wasn't fooled by her silent squinting into her book. It was better when
they were both in trouble. It was better to spread it around. He'd find a way.

It wasn't that Norman minded reading. He was looking forward to this book, anyway.
The Brothers of Lochwarren
was the latest in the Chronicles of Undergrowth series. He'd been 137th on the library's waiting list. Thankfully, the paperback had just come out. Norman's dad had brought it home the night before and already Norman was seventy pages into it. He didn't get much farther that day in the car, though. He was restless and bitter. In the coffee shop, his father finally got his cappuccino and biscotti and temporarily lifted the curse. Norman knew better, but he asked for a slice of cheesecake. He was politely refused. The refusals became less polite as the day continued, as in each store he asked for something he knew he couldn't have.

He couldn't see why he had to be here anyway. His father could buy coffee by himself. His mother could shop without him. At eleven, he was old enough to stay at home and look after himself. He couldn't stop reminding his parents of this as they dragged him from the coffee shop to the building supply store, to the grocery store and to a hundred clothes stores. He spent the morning trailing around after them sulkily, subtly insulting his sister at every chance until she was as miserable as he.

“Sometimes it's just nice to do things together as a family,” his mother said when he complained for the umpteenth time.

“Nice for who?” Norman muttered bitterly. He knew even at the time that it was a step too far. Nothing made his father angrier than him mouthing off at his mother.

“Norman,” he said, “you've been miserable all day. Your mother and I have had some errands to do. We thought we'd do them as a family. You had most of the morning to do what you like, and once we got home you would have been free to do as you please.”

Norman noticed the “would have been,” but he still couldn't stop himself.

“So I'm just supposed to pretend I'm happy to be here?”

His father grimaced and took a deep breath. He was clearly thinking about what punishment was appropriate.

In the pause, his mother repeated one of her little sayings: “You determine your attitude. Everyone does. Don't be at the mercy of events.” Norman's mother had written a self-help book called
Unthink and Undo
and now made a living as a motivational speaker saying things just like this. Norman usually tried to ignore them.

At this point her comments weren't ignorable.

His father had decided on his punishment. “You can spend the rest of the weekend without your computer. Maybe this will remind you how lucky you are.”

It will remind me how all of you messed up my game, Norman thought to himself, but his father wasn't done. This was to be one of his compound punishments.

“And when we get back home, you can rake all the leaves in the back yard. Hopefully this will teach you not to be so selfish.”

It taught him nothing of the sort. It was nearly dark when Norman had finished with the leaves. The rake was ancient, and the grey wood of its handle had split and cracked. Norman felt a bitter sort of justice when the blisters started to erupt. There, that would be proof that he'd suffered, if that's what they wanted. Before the afternoon was done, he had removed two splinters from his hands. The second one went deep and caused a bubble of red blood to form in his palm. He squeezed it, almost enjoying the sting. Inside the house he could see his father working at his computer in the den. He typed with one hand and sipped espresso from a tiny cup with the other.

Norman didn't want to hear a thank you from his dad when he came in. He wanted to be angry. He rubbed his hands, hoping someone would comment on his blisters. No one did. He ate supper silently and went to bed without being told. If he was going to be punished, he wanted to look the part.

BOOK: Bookweird
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