Chapter One

            After all the questions—all the deep, personal, weird questions—Jared was finally finished. “What? I don’t have to pee in a cup?” asked Jared aloud. He felt a little freaked out by the questions the game had thrown at him just so he could set up his account. Look at his troll, though! A thrill as intense as electricity moved through him as he examined his troll in glorious 3-D. That was exactly what he would look like as a troll. It was him, only better and more mature than his thirteen years. The troll’s arms were lean but the muscles were defined. His torso was solid, and his legs looked strong. He had dark brown hair and a red fohawk—a Mohawk-like strip—down the center of his head. Trolls were the only creatures that could have fohawks, so he wanted it, big time. Satisfied with his appearance—blue eyes, thin nose, and small build which translated into quarterback size in Lavascape—he pressed his right index finger against his thigh to click the correct button on the game glove to accept. The gloves were white and seemed to be made of soft leather, but were stretchy and fit perfectly. They were so thin he hardly noticed he had them on. A metal chain at the wrists cinched the cuff just right. Jared had chuckled when he saw that: the metal reminded him of handcuffs.

He sat in his computer chair facing away from the monitor; this placed him in the center of his bedroom where there was space to move his arms and legs or even get up and move around. The sensors in the gloves and another set strapped to his ankles would send all the information to the game. There was one more question on the screen of his funky Lavascape mask: ‘Ready to begin Quest?’ The mask went on like a pair of glasses but it had advanced 3-D graphics and covered not just his eyes but his whole face, curving under his chin. Microphone and earphones were built in, but it weighed next to nothing, didn’t fog up, and was surprisingly comfortable.

He clicked the glove over ‘yes’ and switched to first-person vision to see the view from his troll’s perspective. The view in the mask became black; streaks of light flew past him as if he were soaring through space. A red orb was visible to the left and grew as he sped toward it. It was a sun, a brilliant, beautiful red sun. The second planet in this system became his focus when he swerved toward it. The screen became misty and Jared could see only blurred images through the thick, peach-colored fog. Then he landed with a plop on a blood-red bush. “Welcome to Lavascape,” Jared said to himself.

He maneuvered his troll to standing position with glove controls; he’d try standing up later. As Jared turned his head, however, the troll did the same thing. There was a bubbling stream flowing to the right. A spray of mist rose from the water…no, it wasn’t mist, it was steam; this must be lava. “Lavascape is a landscape of lava,” Jared reminded himself.

Straight ahead was a lava sea. The molten stream emptied into it with a gloppy rhythm. The lava mist thickened, making it difficult to see. Blue bushes that looked like the tops of palm trees grew on the ground. The leaves were so large they were almost up to his shoulder.

The sudden clang of metal on metal startled him. Someone was nearby. He heard grunts of exertion and a wail of pain. Through the mist, Jared could see the shapes of two approaching fighters. They were both several inches taller than he was, and though their features were blurred, their outlines reminded him of professional wrestlers.

Suddenly, a streak of brown fur hit him from the side. He rolled with the creature several times before coming to a stop. Then, lying flat on his back, he found himself looking up into the beady, black eyes of an animal with wolf-like ears and a rodent face. It was almost as large as he was. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” the creature asked under its breath.

“No,” Jared replied.

“Then where’s your sword? You were standing right out in the open!”

“The sword’s digging into my hip. Get off me.”

Back in his bedroom, Jared’s hip seemed to ache. It was the weirdest feeling.

The rat-like thing in Lavascape pulled Jared under the fronds of one of the large blue ground palms. “Whisper!” he hissed. Heavy footfalls stomped past them, then stopped.

“I heard someone,” said a whiny voice from just beyond their hiding place. “I’m sure I saw another troll over here.”

“Is that who was talking?” said another voice, deep and scratchy.

“Must have been.”

The huge palm leaves above swayed and Jared saw the creature who had just spoken. He had a large pale, muscular body and fuzzy blond hair standing out from his head like little springs. As comical as the hair was, his face was more than serious enough to make up for it with thick ropes of muscle over his cheekbones. He held an axe over his right shoulder, the blade jagged and menacing, tinted red at the tip.

The axe swung through the air now. The being that wielded it looked Jared’s way and sliced off one of the fronds over Jared’s feet.

Jared moved his troll back into the brush using the movement pad on the game gloves. It was a square area on the palm and worked like a touch screen mouse. The rat creature beside him inched further under the palm leaves, too.

“I see one. On the cliff. Way over there. Do you see it?” said the dark-haired one with the deep voice. He was looking off in the distance.

“Yes! I love having super sight. Don’t you?” said Blond Springs.
“Let’s get him before he finds the rest of his army.”

“But what about that other troll?” His axe continued to swing in a big arc just inches from Jared’s hiding place.

“Maybe that’s the one we saw.”

“Naw.”

“Well, if we wait around, we might not get either one. Come on.”

When they moved away Jared whispered, “What’s happening? Whose side are you on?”

“I just saved your neck, buddy. You better not be questioning my loyalty.”

“What are you and what were they?”

“What am I? Seriously? You’re that new?” He seemed to be laughing at him.

“Yes. I’m new,” Jared admitted. “Now, what’s going on?”

“It dumped you in the middle of a battle! Wow, that’s just cruel. You almost died as soon as you got to Lavascape.”

The rat was definitely laughing and he hadn’t answered any of Jared’s questions. Jared switched back to ‘third person view.’ If he was in a fight, he wanted to see what was coming from every angle, including behind him.

In the distance, the unsuspecting troll stood at the edge of the cliff overlooking the lava stream. He didn’t see the enemy stalking him. “We’ve gotta help him,” Jared said.

“Don’t be such an eager newbie; you don’t know anything about fighting.”

This overgrown rat was getting on his nerves. Jared had played all sorts of video games before and wielding a sword would surely be a simple matter of stabbing the right enemy. There was no complicated gun to learn how to use, no tricky mode of reloading or finding more ammunition. Now that he wasn’t lying on his sword, he pulled it from the sheath at his left hip. It was a little clumsy and primitive looking, but it appeared sharp.

Back in the bedroom, Jared felt a shiver run down his spine. He could actually feel the sword through the gloves. He considered removing his mask to be sure he wasn’t actually holding a sword, but the rat was talking to him.

“Do what you want. I’m outta here.”

“You’re scared.”

“I’m not scared; I’m smart. Each one of those guys is twice my size. They know I’m not on their side and would love to take me down.”

“So, run away,” said Jared. “That’s really showing ‘em.”

The rat’s face turned down a notch, his eyes lowered. His features changed, he seemed to clench his teeth. The image of Jared’s troll also altered. There was a fleeting wide-eyed expression, then, shifty eyes, turning head, raised hands….mask off.

Jared gasped. Looking at his troll had been like looking in a mirror. The face shield did more than give a surround view of Lavascape; it also transmitted his movements and facial expression back to Lavascape. No doubt, it was part of the ‘ultimate interactive experience’ the game boasted.

“You still there?” asked the rat. Jared heard it faintly through the mask on his lap. He steadied his breathing and slipped it back on.

“I’m here.”

“You just noticed how the mask puts your attitude on the troll.”

“Yeah.”

“Who’s scared now?”

“It threw me a bit,” Jared admitted.

“Cool Beans,” he said.

“Huh?”

“I just mean, it’s cool, isn’t it?”

“Sure. It would also be cool to help the troll over there.”

“And dangerous.”

“You claimed to be loyal…” said Jared. He let it hang in the air. Then he crouched his troll low and followed the two wire-headed creatures.

Jared couldn’t see him, but he heard the stealthy movements of the rat-dude following him. “Help me put these guys in their place,” whispered Jared.

“First day here and you think you’re going to save the world?”

“If it looks like you’re going to get defeated, just leave.”

“You’re not allowed to do that,” hissed the rat. “You can’t leave just to get out of trouble; so once you start this you have to finish.”

Jared didn’t answer.

The rat continued, “I just escaped from those two and you’re going to jump into a battle with them! You’re new here. Learn a few things before you start challenging elves.”

“Those were elves?” They were a far cry from the tiny leprechaun, Santa’s-helpers kind of creatures he’d always thought of as elf-like. Once again, he was happy he chose to be a troll. Even if elves did have great vision, trolls ruled. Besides, these two were probably new to the game, too. They were still in awe of their vision powers. He could take them. “I want a battle. That’s why I’m here.”

He must have spoken louder than he’d thought because the two elves turned, searching with their special vision. Jared crouched a little lower. Their heads snapped in his direction. He was too late. They’d seen him.

 

 

Chapter Two

            The elves were coming his way. Jared called to the other troll, “Hey! Troll! Elves at six o’clock! Help me!”

The other troll turned, pulled his sword, and thundered through the brush toward him. He looked taller and stronger than Jared’s troll and had big bushy eyebrows. Jared had a moment’s regret. Why hadn’t he chosen the larger body type? Just because he was small in real life didn’t mean he couldn’t be bigger in Lavascape.

Blond Springs came around the side of the evergreen and grinned right in his face. Jared gasped. He turned and took a few steps away only to realize that the other elf was waiting for him there, chuckling in his scratchy voice. He lunged at Jared; his tightly wound black hair straightening briefly as he jerked forward. Jared jumped out of his reach. Then Jared jabbed with his sword but missed the elf and caught the tip of his sword in the lava rock hidden under a dense layer of pine needles, dead leaves, and loose dirt. He stumbled.

“Have you ever done this before?” said Blond Springs standing a few paces off. “What a N00b! You take this one, M; I’ll go after our other ‘friend’.” He ran off, and judging from the sound of their confrontation, Blondie was having some trouble with the bushy-eyebrow troll. The sound of their weapons was sometimes the sharp clang of sword on axe and sometimes a sickening thud that Jared assumed was the sound of blows hitting body parts.

Jared took a couple of practice swings. The game allowed a combination of actual arm movements and glove commands for maneuvering. He could toss the sword from one hand to the other and the gloves automatically adjusted. The non-weapon hand could control body movement. Some of the sensors in the gloves could be activated by pressing his fingertips against his thighs. It was turning out to be a heck of a lot harder than simply stabbing in the right direction. He still found it remarkable that he could feel the weight of the weapon.

Plus the 3-D vision was fantastic. He could see the Lavascape world out of his peripheral vision to the sides and even on the ground. He faced M. The elf looked strong. Jared blocked M’s axe with stiff sword movements but he wasn’t steady and stumbled backwards each time. The jolt of the contact jerked through his hand and up his arm. He didn’t even have a chance to attack; he was too busy defending himself. Where was that stupid rat? Was he off gloating somewhere because Jared was going to lose a life his first hour in Lavascape?

Blond Springs called to his friend for help but Jared’s attacker didn’t pause in his relentless strokes, leaving Jared breathless as he retreated away from the barrage of axe falls. The next blow was so strong that Jared fell backwards, and his sword flew from his hand.

“Help me, M! Get over here! Now!” called Blond Springs.

This time, Jared’s opponent seemed to hear his friend’s cry and left at a run.

Jared scrambled around, looking for his sword. It was lost in the debris of leaves and rotting logs on the forest floor. He looked toward the fight. The blond elf was up against a poplar tree, his axe locked under the troll’s sword. The elf’s arms shook and gave way. He turned but the troll’s sword caught his forearm before he rolled. The elf, M, arrived and plowed into the troll while his sword was down. Then he stepped back to ready his axe.

“Thanks,” said the wounded elf as he got to his feet, panting. The elves moved as if performing a choreographed dance, except there was fear in the air instead of music. The other troll looked like he was fighting off a pack of wolves. The elves swung their axes like wheels in a machine. The troll, strong as he was, couldn’t rebuff all the blows. M’s axe caught his thigh and he pulled his lips back. His teeth were clenched and his eyes wild. The mimic feature was somewhat disturbing. It mesmerized Jared for a moment. He needed to help him. This instant. Where was his sword? Surely, it hadn’t fallen into the lava stream! Jared searched through the ground cover. He felt the sticks and dirt through his gloves as he grasped the virtual ground. Finally, he felt the hilt of the sword. He clutched it and jumped to his feet.

…and fell back against the computer chair.

The pebbly landscape gave way under him and he clamored to catch himself. He had come too close to the bank. His feet lost ground; the sword flew from his hands and clattered against rocks on the edge of the cliff as he slipped over the side. He reached for a hold as he fell toward the lava stream below. He clutched at rocks along the cliff wall and managed to stop his fall.

Jared used glove controls to climb. The stream bubbled and spit bits of lava while he tried to scramble up the bank. He lost his footing, slipped, and clutched at the dirt as he fell. Suddenly, his hand wrapped around a tree root protruding from the bank and there he hung.

The gurgling of the lava swallowed up the sounds of battle. What was happening up there? Had the troll gotten away? Had he beaten the elves? Were they slinking away to their own lands in shame? Or, had the elves beaten the bushy eyebrow troll and were they now looking for him!

He couldn’t hang there all day. Would his strength give out eventually and would he fall to his death in the hot lava stream?

His muscles were taut. It was disconcerting to feel as though you were hanging on for dear life. He scanned above his head. There was nothing else to use for a handhold and his feet slipped when he tried to climb.

The lava intermittently popped and spewed molten rock into the air. Maybe the other troll was looking for him. Should he call out for help? He wished he knew how the battle was going above him. He didn’t dare alert anyone to his location.

“Hang on,” said a voice from above. It was the rat-creature. Before long, a thick vine fell toward him. “Grab on. I’ve got ya.”

Jared grabbed the vine and then crawled until he reached the side of the bank. He collapsed at the top, right at the rat’s feet. A ripple of lava sprayed toward him, hardening as it cooled on the grass not two feet from his leg. He jumped up and scrambled in the opposite direction. That had been close.

Back in his bedroom, Jared’s chest heaved with urgency as though he’d physically exerted himself. This was an intense game! He hadn’t been in Lavascape for an hour and he’d already had a duel and a brush with death. Cool.

Jared slipped off the mask, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve, grabbed a bite of a candy bar from the stash in his desk drawer, and was ready to set off again. He heard his older sister’s fake girlfriend-laugh. She laughed differently when she talked to Cam, her first and oh-so-hot boyfriend. Her voice seemed higher…more girly. He preferred hearing those sounds, however, to the ones that followed.

“Have you seen the MasterCard bill?” came his mother’s voice, low and intense. “It’s huge, how are we ever going to pay that down.” She used the rough whisper when she and Dad were fighting. She must have thought it didn’t carry as well as her regular voice, but she was wrong.

Dad’s voice hadn’t undergone a transformation today. No, he came through loud and clear. “Just pay the minimum.”

“We’re drowning.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic!”

“What’s this charge? Eighty-nine dollars…”

“I don’t know. You’re the one always buying stuff for the house.”

“A tablecloth. The only thing I bought in the past month that wasn’t a necessity was a tablecloth.”

“Yeah, but last month you got that carpet.”

“An area rug. And I thought you said you had some jobs.”

“I thought I did. It’s not my fault people decide to do their renovations themselves.”

“Maybe you need to think about another job.”

“I don’t have time.”

“If you’d quit a couple of your service clubs, you’d have plenty of time.”

“Why don’t you get a second job?”

“At least my first job pays!”

“Small businesses aren’t easy. I keep telling you. Things are up and down.”

“Mostly down. And you’re never around when I need you.”

“Why did you need me? What do you want me to do, now? Mow the lawn, weed the flower bed, or some other job you could do just as easily yourself instead of sitting here mad at me all morning.”

“You were at some club thing, again. You promised you’d be home more. Did you mean it or were you just trying to shut me up?”

“I’d do just about anything to shut you up,” said his father’s voice. Jared heard the door of his parent’s bedroom slam and heavy steps moved down the stairs. Was Dad going to mow the lawn or was he heading for his car to get away? He peeked out his bedroom window. It faced the street. He waited and held his breath. His dad’s car backed out.

Jared sighed and put the face mask back in place. The sights and sounds of his home were overshadowed by Lavascape. His troll, which had been frozen in place, became animated with Jared’s expression. “Thanks,” he said to the rat creature. “What happened? Where are the elves?”

“The elves got the other troll and when they couldn’t find you they left.” The rat led him to the scene of the fight.

“Got him? Is he captured?”

“No. They got him. He’s dead.” He pointed to where the troll lay in the tall grass.

Jared felt as though a stone dropped in his stomach. Dead? “Was he out of lives?”

“That’s not how it works here.”

“What’s not how it works?”

“You don’t get a hundred lives.”

“How many do you get?”

“Same as you do in real life, buddy.”

“You only get one life?” What kind of game was this?

“Yeah, so take care of yours.”

They reached the body of the muscular troll. The elves’ axes had done their damage. There were wounds on his face, on his arms, and an especially wide gash on his leg. The graphic torn muscle and bloody injuries struck Jared like a sledgehammer to the chest.

The dead troll’s head hung to one side; his grey eyes stared out at nothing. Horror moviemakers gave zombies eyes like these. Jared felt light-headed and queasy as he looked at the bushy eyebrows framing eyes rolled back in his head.

Suddenly, blood appeared on his troll’s hands. Jared lifted them to examine in first-person viewpoint, but the image of dripping blood persisted. He yanked off the game mask, flung it on the floor, and peeled off the gloves to convince himself he wasn’t really covered in blood. The sticky feeling of drying blood was so realistic. For a second, his hands still appeared to be bloody. His whole body shook. Then the blood was gone but he couldn’t take his eyes off his hands, the vision of blood too fresh, too vivid.

A new spasm overshadowed his quivering hands. His stomach! He jumped from his seat and made it to the garbage can beside the desk before he retched, bringing up sour smelling bile that burned his throat. Barf oozed around the discarded paper and candy wrappers in the half full plastic container.

Slowly his breathing returned to normal. What was the matter with him? He never reacted to gore in video games.

Real life, sure. He had felt sympathy pain when his older sister, Melissa, had broken her arm three years ago; and when his best friend, Monty, had gashed open his knee last summer falling off his bike. But this was nothing but a game. It didn’t make sense.

He picked up the game mask. Would he have rushed to help that troll if he knew his own Lavascape life was so fragile? His unconscious bravery was useless anyway. The troll was dead.

If he were more skilled, this might not have happened. His willy-nilly, jump right in, style of play was to blame. His carelessness was embarrassing. His lack of skill, unforgiveable. He vowed to do whatever he could to get the skills he needed.

What was the kid behind that troll thinking right now? “Why didn’t you help me? What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you fight like a troll instead of a little novice hockey player that needs his stick for balance? ” Jared had done about as much and been about as threatening as that.

Jared slipped the mask into place and put on the gloves. Lavascape materialized and the rat creature was staring at him. “It really hits you the first time, I know. Are you okay?”

Jared felt comforted by the compassion in the rat’s voice. “I think so. I never feel creeped out by video games. I don’t get it.”

“I know what you mean. But, this isn’t like any other game you’ve ever played. This is a whole other experience.”

“Did it freak you out? You know, the first time you saw someone dead?”

“Don’t worry. I think we all hurl.”

“Really?”

“I think you’d have to be a serial killer not to.”

For some reason, that made Jared feel much better. “Thanks.”

“I’m a scurry. You can call me Kentucky.” He stuck out his hand.

Jared reached out to meet him. He shouldn’t use his real name on-line, but he couldn’t remember the fake name he’d picked. “I’m Jerry,” he said, feeling the grip of his new friend through the glove.

“Welcome to Lavascape, Jerry Troll.”

* * *

An hour later, Jared was ready for the annual Father-Son Fishing Derby. He had his spin cast reel and his fly rod, Dad’s fly rod (he only fly-fished now), Dad’s vest with all the pockets, and the tackle box. They were supposed to meet at the community center in fifteen minutes. Jared paced. He filled up two water bottles and added them to his pile of fishing gear by the door. He looked out the window. Sure, Dad was mad at Mom, but he loved fishing. He wouldn’t miss the derby.

The meeting time came and went. Dad knew where they were holding the derby, though. They didn’t have to travel with everyone else. After another fifteen minutes, Jared went to the kitchen. He stared in the fridge without seeing. He found chocolate ice cream in the freezer and filled a bowl. He ate it on the front step, watching the street.

The early September light shone on his hands. A quick flash of them covered in blood entered his mind but then it was gone and he noticed dark hair between his knuckles. It was much darker and thicker than he remembered. Of course, you don’t go around staring at your hands every day. He smiled. It looked awfully manly.

An hour later, he went in the house and watched TV. He stayed up ridiculously late but Dad still didn’t come home. As he drifted off to sleep that night, he thought, I hope Dad steps on his fly rod when he comes in.

 

 

Chapter Three

            “What the heck did you do to your leg? What is that?” exclaimed Monty pointing at Jared’s ankle. Jared was lying on his back with his knees bent and Monty was supposed to be holding his feet while Jared did sit-ups. Instead, Monty knelt in front of him, gaping at his leg. “No wonder you were complaining!”

It did hurt. It killed. It felt as though a sword had punctured the skin, stopping with a jolt at the bone. He’d been limping around all morning. Jared sat up.

There, next to his ankle, was a hard, stone like scab protruding almost an inch from his leg. The skin around it was beet red and raw-looking. Jared was shocked when he looked at it but another emotion quickly replaced it. Fear. There was something frighteningly expected in what he saw. Hadn’t he been on an adventure last night? Hadn’t he slipped next to a lava stream? Hadn’t he witnessed a spurt of lava escape the confines of the river and hurtle toward him?

“I’ve never seen a scab like that,” said Monty. “It’s sticking out a mile. It’s basically round! What were you doing?”

Jared shrugged. ‘Playing a video game’ seemed a little too much to swallow, even if it was the truth. Nobody came away with ‘ol’ video game injuries’ to brag about. Besides this one was a little too freaky, not to mention freshly painful, for flippant comments. “I’m not sure.”

Jared touched it. The scab pulled slightly away from his skin. The weight of it was so great it ripped away from his leg and dropped to the gym floor with a clunk. The area exposed was raw and blood formed like a wave moving from the outside rim and flowing toward the center.

Mr. Becker didn’t think much of dawdlers. The gym teacher walked toward them. “Is there a problem, boys? Do you remember what a sit up is? Do you need extra practice to get it in your head? You should have switched places by now.” Then he saw the blood that was now dripping on the floor in what appeared to be a continuous stream. “What happened?” he yelled but sprinted to his office without waiting for an answer.

The teacher returned with paper towels, a first aid kit, and a somewhat annoyed look on his face. The paper towels were abrasive. Jared had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out when he pressed them against his wound. “Open the kit,” Mr. Becker said to Monty. He undid the latches and pulled the lid back.

Mr. Becker grabbed a stack of absorbent pads and pressed them to Jared’s leg.

By now, the rest of the boys in the class were gathered around Jared, the sit-ups completely forgotten. Some boys commented with awe, almost admiration, at the amount of blood, as though Jared had done some great thing by producing so much of it. The gauze against the wound was softer but still hurt.

“What happened?” asked Mr. Becker, now that the bleeding seemed under control.

Jared shrugged. The thing he suspected wasn’t possible, and he couldn’t think of a likely substitute. “I…I…well, I guess I picked a scab,” he said eventually. The flat-sided pebble was under his leg now. No one would believe that it had been stuck to his flesh. It wasn’t a tough brown scab. It was a rock. Or was it? Maybe there was nothing supernatural about it; it could just be some injury he didn’t remember getting.

That sort of thing happened all the time. You’d expect to remember getting hurt, but the adrenalin rush kicks in and you don’t realize it until later. Maybe it wasn’t so bizarre.

That hope only lasted a moment. Monty was right. Who’d ever seen a scab like that?

“What an idgit!” said Colton, a stocky blond haired boy. “Any kid older than three knows not to pick his scabs, Jare.” His tone of voice made it sound like his joke was a friendly jab between friends; but Jared knew better.

All the other guys laughed with Colton; even Mr. Becker chuckled.

“Oh, the little baby was picking his scab. No. No. Bad baby. We have a baby scab picker here, guys.” It wasn’t an eloquent tag but Jared could see it sticking.

The gauze at Jared’s ankle was soaked through and blood dropped to the gym floor again. Colton shuffled away from it and almost lost his footing. Mr. Becker grabbed another inch of gauze and applied it on top of the already soggy bandage.

“Little scab-picker” taunted Colton. He had a way of getting away with things no one else could. Teachers seemed to see his blond good looks and assume he was some sort of little angel, which was nothing near the truth. Colton was one of the kids Jared usually went out of his way to avoid.

“Good one, Picky!” Colton was in fine form. He had a crowd, a teacher ignoring his kind of fun, and somebody smaller and weaker taking it. Colton was painting a target on his chest as real as any spray paint graffiti. A target for future bullying.

He had to do something. Jared thought of turning the tables. Maybe pointing out how Colton seemed to be afraid of blood, stumbling all over himself to get away. But, his mind worked in slow motion and each new laugh brought a new burst of embarrassment that froze this thoughts.

“It was a really big scab,” said Jared, weakly.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” agreed Monty with enthusiasm. “It was huge. It stuck out this far…it was like a second ankle.” Mr. Becker left the gauze in place and put a large bandage over the wound.

“So Picky, picked it off!” taunted Colton when Mr. Becker had left to put the first aid kit away. “Good thinking.” The other boys chuckled. The ridicule from picking the scab overshadowed any awe over the amount of blood.

Colton looked at Jared with steely eyes—eyes the color of Jared’s, now notorious, scab. He looked like a lion that had just discovered fresh meat.

* * *

After school Jared, Monty, and Katie stopped at Josie’s Diner. In the small town of Willow Creek, hangout options were limited, but it didn’t matter: they liked the little restaurant, liked that it wasn’t part of a big chain. “I was dying to be a troll. What else would I choose?” Jared popped a french fry in his mouth and then regretted it. He forgot to dip it in his runny ketchup and vinegar mixture. It’s such a shame to waste a fry like that. Of course, he could just slop up any leftover mixture with his finger but Katie was giving him a look like she could read his mind. Katie was almost as bad as his mother was when it came to manners. That is, back when his mom noticed things like that.

“How about a goblin?” said Monty. “They look so cool with their big bows and quivers full of arrows. Someone at school said something about them being smart. They can figure out all sorts of puzzles and…”

“I haven’t heard that. I think they’re only as smart as you are.” Jared elbowed him in the ribs. “And that’s not totally brilliant.”

Monty scooted an inch down the orange plastic seat they shared, as if anticipating more flying elbows. “I’m pretty brilliant,” laughed Monty.

“How about a human?” said Katie.

“Human? You’re a human in real life, who would be one in Lavascape? How boring is that?” said Monty, grinning. “You guys, I’m so excited to have a shot at working on the school newspaper,” he said tapping the table with both hands.

“Are you still going to do yearbook?” said Jared.

“Some of the pictures could be in both but I want to move to the paper.”

“Cool,” said Katie.

“If they’ll stop treating me like a little kid, it will be cooler. But Ms. Key, the teacher advisor, said I have a real chance. If I get good pictures and write good enough stories, there’s no rule that reporters have to be in high school. ”

“Good luck,” said Jared.

“You’ll have to wow ‘em,” said Katie. She opened up her backpack and pulled out two bottles of nail polish, hot pink and lime green. She went to work on her left hand fingernails making flowers out of dots—pink around a lime green center.

“That stuff stinks,” said Jared. “Put it away before you get us kicked out of here again.”

“Josie was smiling when she said that. She’d never kick us out. Besides, this is a simple design. I’ll be done in no time.”

“Oh, no elephants beside a mystic pool today?” said Monty.

“Laugh all you like; and I guess they did kind of look like anteaters. But, I’m going to revolutionize the way people think about nail polish. It’s an art form waiting to be recognized.”

“Ant eaters? I was going to call them big grey blobs.” Monty’s rotund middle shook with laughter. “Maybe it would be cool if we did get kicked out. That could be a great story for the paper. And I’d snap a shot of Josie hauling Katie out of here by her ear to go with it, a trail of nail polish on the floor like blood.”

“I don’t think Josie was kidding. She said it nicely but meant every word. Smell that! Not too appetizing.” Jared looked back and forth. He tapped his index finger on his temple. “No matter what you think.”

“Yes! Do Wishful Thinking,” cheered Katie.

“That’s so big on YouTube right now,” laughed Monty.

“It’s trending worldwide,” said Katie.

Jared grinned and in his best hillbilly accent he quoted, “I wasn’t in the mood for an alien encounter but he didn’t care none. He brought his swag over and said, ‘Earthlings for breakfast.’ And yeah, I’d probably be tasty as vittles’ but I’m like ‘Whoa there Little Feller, put that tentacle back in your neck and back off.’ But he took out a sword and yelled ‘Prepare to die–rotisserie style,’ so I knew it was time for ‘Wish-ful Think-ing’.” He tapped his temple.

Monty chimed in, “Ding, ding, ding-dong.”

“And out of my trusty gun came a short stack of pancakes,” said Jared. “Those little grub muffins saved my life.”

Katie laughed.

“I like the one where he’s chased by a rabid dog and his gun shoots T-bone steaks,” said Monty.

“You crack me up with that voice,” said Katie.

“You won’t be laughing if we really do get kicked out,” said Jared.

“She’s just used to getting away with everything because she’s an only child,” said Monty. He smirked. “No one to have to share with, no waiting for the shower every morning, you can do whatever you want.”

“I don’t know where you get your information. Being the only child means there’s pressure to be really good at everything. You have to be perfect. There’s not another kid coming along behind you that can fulfill their hopes and dreams. It’s all on you. Plus there’s no one ahead of you to break your parents in. You’re on your own.”

“Still, you don’t have to wait for the shower,” said Jared.

Katie shrugged and finished the flower on her left pinkie. “Tell me, what other artist is forced to be ambidextrous?”
“Ambi-what?” said Jared. His voice had a gravelly quality. He cleared his throat.

“Ambidextrous. It means using both your right and left hand.” She switched the tiny brush to her left hand and began to create flowers on her right fingernails. Her forehead crinkled as she concentrated on steadying her hand. Her shoulder-length, walnut-colored hair was shiny and the bangs, which were a little too long, fell forward, the hair curving at the sides of her eyes. She shook her head in a little burst to clear her vision. She almost looked girly doing it, but Jared knew she would have stopped immediately if she’d known it. She wore nail polish for artistic expression, not to look pretty.

“Trolls can do that with their swords,” said Jared, coming back from the distraction of Katie’s smelly art and curling hair. “Fight with both hands.”

“They are the best with swords, I’ll give you that one,” said Monty. “I wish I could play it. I don’t know why I’m left out just because some people are fanatics. It’s because of that stupid group that my parents are so worked up.”

Katie snorted. “My mom calls PAL a radical group of fear mongering parents.” She put her fingernail polish away.

“What do they really have against Lavascape,” said Monty, whining. “My parents say it’s too addicting. They act like it’s a drug or something.”

“They say Lavascape affects people. That there are risks,” said Katie.

Jared laughed. “I wonder if anyone has actually heard what sort of ‘risks’ they’re talking about? You can bet it’s something bad…they’ll say it’s ‘destructive to youth’…but, give me a break.”

“Be glad your mom hasn’t joined ‘Parents Against Lavascape,’” said Monty. “They’ll outlaw smiling next.”

Jared crossed his ankles and rubbed against his wound. His smile fell. “I guess,” he said. His voice was rougher and lower pitched than normal. The strange scab on his leg was more than painful. It made him uneasy. “Does PAL say anything about injuries?”

“Yeah, but it’s so far-fetched that you’d have to be an idiot to give it any validity,” said Katie.