YA Action Adventure Fantasy | Science Fiction | LitRPG
Publisher: Fire & Ice Young Adult Books
Date Published: August 27, 2019
Gwen Nielson is a gamer and she’s damn proud of it. Her mother may be a former beauty queen and her kid sister may participate in every pageant the state of Colorado has to offer, but Gwen is content to stay at home and play on her Xbox. To her, life isn’t about fashion and make-up; it’s about making a difference and keeping a low profile. And while most of the girls at her high school hang out at the local country club vying for the popular boys’ attention, Gwen is cool with having a boyfriend she’s never met. Pete is a fellow online gamer who lives in California. He’s funny and sweet, and his father owns a gaming company, which is an added bonus because Gwen gets to test out new games before they’re released to the public.
When Pete mails a new game for her to beta test, Gwen patiently awaits its arrival, but the package is never delivered. To make matters worse, when she calls to let Pete know, she discovers that he’s at the hospital after succumbing to a mysterious illness. Hours later, an ambulance arrives next door because her neighbor’s youngest son, Ben, suddenly becomes ill too. His parents and doctors aren’t sure why he has slipped into a coma, but when Gwen finds her opened package in Ben’s bedroom, she begins to suspect that the game is responsible for both of the boys’ eerily similar conditions.
Even to Gwen, the idea of a game making people sick sounds absurd, so she decides to test her theory before going to her parents. Unfortunately, her neighbor’s older brother, Ryan, insists on checking out the game with her. That’s when they discover that the disc isn’t a game at all—it’s actually a portal to a high-tech government simulator named Eve 2.0 who’s programmed to trap players until they can complete all of the timed objectives.
With her top-notched gaming skills, Gwen is a formidable opponent, but she quickly begins to realize that playing a game versus living it is a lot harder than she ever imagined. And as the objectives become more difficult and the four kids are forced to work as a team, Gwen concedes that she may not be as good as she needs to be, which just might end up costing her not only her own life, but Pete, Ryan, and Ben’s too.
The Mysterious Facets of Love
Castle Rock, Colorado, is one of those quintessential, small-town suburbs just outside of Denver. I grew up in Texas, but, for the most part, I love it here. The natural beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges and nearby lakes has always appealed to me, and I’m a fan of winter; the colder the better. I’m not much of a people person though, so I tend to avoid the kids at school, and when I’m at work, I’m pretty quiet too. I’m definitely not one for gossip either, though at random times my curiosity tends to get the best of me, especially where Ryan Nelson is concerned. He’s my sorta kinda ex-boyfriend, so I know I shouldn’t care, but when I hear one of the receptionists mention his name, I stop in my tracks.
I shift the little Chihuahua I’m carrying into my other arm, pretending that he’s frightened by the other dogs in the waiting room, then I continue along at a snail’s pace.
“My daughter said it was just a minor accident,” Dolores says, and then, I guess for good measure, makes the sign of the cross. “And she said that no one else was injured, and thankfully Ryan seems to be pulling through just fine.”
Dolores and the other receptionist, Rose-Marie, lean closer to the monitor and examine a bunch of elaborately decorated get-well bouquets, balloons, and stuffed animals.
“I’m glad he’s okay,” Rose-Marie says in her usual motherly tone. “He’s a sweet boy.”
Yeah, right, I think with a snort. Ryan Nelson is a jerk, but I’m usually the only one who thinks so. Everyone else in town loves him and his family. Not that I have anything against his parents or his little brother. I mean, they’re practically like family since my mother and his mother are good friends, and his dad and little brother are actually pretty awesome. Ryan is the problem, at least according to my estimation, so instead of offering to contribute money to his bouquet, which I’d do under any other circumstance, I pretend that I wasn’t just eavesdropping and hurry outside to walk the Chihuahua. Then, for the rest of my shift, I hide in the back, brushing a couple of the dogs and tidying up some kennels while I wait to punch out.
When I finally get home, everything looks normal. Our rustic-styled house is decked to the gills with American flags for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend and the new wrought-iron fence that was put around the patio to protect my mother’s prized roses from the deer has been painted white. In our driveway, Mom’s shiny new Range Rover is pulled up so that the driver’s side door is positioned perfectly so she can hurry along our petunia-lined walkway without worrying about trailing any grass or mud into her beloved new toy.
It all looks so perfect, which is what Mom always strives for, regardless of the turmoil that usually ensues within those walls. I just so happen to know that all is not well in the Nielson home tonight though—or, well, you know, even more off than usual since I overheard the ladies at the front desk say that Ryan’s little brother was staying with us until his parents got home from the hospital. For most people, babysitting an eight-year-old kid isn’t a big deal; I mean, they tend to be pretty self-sufficient at that age, but my mother isn’t most people. She’s a former Miss Texas USA beauty queen and was a legendary member of the Texas Tech Grand Championship Cheer Squad. She also has a degree in Theatre Arts, so she knows how to be dramatic on a grand scale.
As I stare at my house from the safe confines of my car, I wonder how she’s handling the situation. She’s undoubtedly in some state of panic, though which particular type of drama I’m unsure, but she’s always frantic and fussing about something, so I prepare myself for the worst. I make my way to the front door and push it open. Ben is sitting in one of the foyer chairs, his expression a lot more forlorn than I had anticipated. Before I can ask him if Ryan is really okay though, my mother and my little sister scramble into the foyer. They’re clearly ready to go somewhere, and by the looks of my sister’s bedazzled flip-flops and running suit, that can only mean one place. Are they seriously still trying to make it to Elizabeth’s tanning appointment? As if reading my mind, my mother’s icy glare meets my disapproving one and we stare at each other for a lingering moment before I look away.
“We’ll be home soon,” Mom announces as she pulls a Jimmy Choo pump onto her foot.
I look down at my scuffed Converse to hide my disgust. I mean, I get that Ryan had only broken a leg, but my mother and his mother are good friends. Shouldn’t she be at the hospital by her friend’s side? More importantly—or maybe beside the point—is that Elizabeth has participated in at least one pageant per month for her entire life, so she’s already tanned and has her fill of trophies. Couldn’t they just miss this one? Of course not, I think with an eye roll and a bit of chill, since I can still vividly recall all of the pageants I had been forced to participate in until I had put my foot down.
“The lasagna’s in the oven,” Mom says as she slings her Coach purse crosswise. “Are you listening to me, Guinevere?” she snaps, her tone oozing with impatience.
I give a curt nod and swallow down another snort.
“Stick the garlic bread in when your father gets home,” she orders as she reaches for her keys. “Be back later.”
Mom pulls the door open and disappears down the porch steps. My sister grabs her matching Coach purse and struts behind, like a dutiful puppy. “Bye, guys,” Elizabeth says, then she looks at Ben. “Tell Ryan I said to feel better.”
When Ben nods, she gives another little wave and hurries outside to catch up to Mom. I stare at the empty doorway for a moment before I close it. Then I turn and give Ben a good once-over. “How are you doing, champ?”
He just shrugs then looks at his feet, which is a very un-Ben-like thing to do.
Worried, since I’ve never seen him so despondent before, I walk over to ruffle his hair but stop short when, at nearly six-feet, I realize that I’m towering over him. I decide to kneel instead. After placing my hand over one of his, I ask, “Is Ryan really okay?” Though it comes off sounding a bit robotic since I don’t want to sound too eager to hear his response.
Ben shrugs again. “I think so…” But he doesn’t sound so sure. He looks away, his blue eyes glistening. “I talked to Mom though, and she said he is.”
Ryan and I haven’t been on good terms for years, but I genuinely care about Ben and I hate to see him sad, so I offer up the one thing I know will cheer him up. “How’s about you play a few games on my Station X while I get cleaned up? I just bought a new controller with a fan, and a new edition of Grand Theft Auto just came in from Rent-a-Game.com yesterday.” That seems to perk him up, but not entirely. “Listen, I know you aren’t usually allowed to play violent video games,” I offer with a couple of air quotes, “but it can be our little secret.”
A smile slowly spreads across his mouth, and then he gives me one of those classic “Nelson” winks. His older brother had started doing that a couple of years back. When Ryan does it, my knees go weak. When Ben does it, I get annoyed.
“So GTA?” I ask again, my tone intentionally light because I refuse to let my frustration toward Ryan influence my relationship with Ben.
“Sure!” he says, the last of the worry slipping off his face.
As we climb the stairs to my room, he asks how I’m doing. I skip over school stuff, since it’s my least favorite part of the day, and I tell him about the adorable puppies we treated at the vet clinic and the six kittens that someone brought in for adoption. Ben listens adoringly and then tells me about his day, the fifth grade seemingly more exciting than the twelfth, at least for him, I guess.
After getting him settled in with GTA, I head for the bathroom. By the time I’m done showering and getting a load of laundry going, Ben has officially made himself at home. He’s as snug as a bug in my Ace Bayou X-Rocker, the champion of all gaming chairs, so I stroll to the bed and plop onto it.
“Some guy with the gamer tag Peter the Rad keeps inviting you to a private chat,” Ben announces without looking my way.
“Oh,” I say, though I’m not too surprised. I’m usually invited to a bunch of stuff the moment I power up my Station X console. A private chat is a little different though, since it’s only between two gamers. That happens often too, which is funny because in the real world I’m pretty introverted. In the virtual world though, I’m pretty well known.
“So this Peter the Rad guy…” Ben starts, his attention still focused on the TV, “is he your boyfriend or something?”
“Oh…umm…” For some reason, that question makes me squirm. “I guess so.”
Ben glances at me with an odd emotion brewing in his eyes. “Does he go to school with you and Ryan?” he asks, trying to sound nonchalant, but when he looks at me again, I can see the same annoyed concern that Ryan is infamous for throwing my way.
I shake my head, not at all thrilled that with every passing day, Ben is turning more and more into his brother. “Pete lives in California,” I say as I pull my backpack closer, intent on grabbing my cell phone so I don’t have to interrupt his game. “He finished high school last year and works for his dad now.”
Ben goes back to looking at the television. “How can he be your boyfriend if he lives in California?”
That’s a good question, and one I avoid answering while I pull up my text messages. Is Pete really my boyfriend? We’ve played together online for over a year now and we talk every day, sometimes two or three times, depending on our schedules. And for the past six months, we’ve made it a nightly ritual to video chat. It’s definitely safe to say that we’ve invested some time with each other, but we’ve never officially met, and even though I throw around the B-word a lot, Ben makes a valid point. I’m in Colorado. Pete’s in California. So, does it really matter that Pete is like the tech-gaming yin to my yang when I have no plans of going to California and my mother absolutely refuses to allow Pete to come to Castle Rock?
“He sent another request,” Ben informs me.
I glance at the television a second before the pop-up message disappears. “I’ll be right back,” I say, holding up my phone so he knows why I’m leaving him alone again. “Can I get you anything from downstairs?”
He looks at me with wide eyes. Then he relaxes and smiles. “Why Guinevere Theodora Nielson,” he says, imitating my mother’s haughty tone to perfection, “how many times have I told you that food is forbidden outside of the kitchen!”
I burst out laughing even though it’s pretty pathetic that just about everyone in Castle Rock knows how neurotic my mother can be.
“Well, now, Benjamin,” I counter, trying my best to impersonate Ashley’s squeaky voice, “your father and I have talked it over and we just don’t think that those gory, violent games are appropriate for a boy your age.”
I wink at him. “How’s about I check on the lasagna and make my phone call, then I’ll bring up a soda. Sound good?”
He pulls my huge, plushy footrest closer. After snuggling farther into my gaming chair and crossing his feet at the ankles, he nods. “Oh, yeah.”
Jeez. The boy is seriously morphing into a mini-clone of his brother, which wouldn’t be a problem if I still liked him. “I’ll be right back,” I say, glad to have an excuse to leave.
As I walk toward the staircase, I dial Pete’s number—one of the few I actually have memorized. He usually answers pretty quickly, so after the fifth ring, I shift my phone around to make sure I didn’t accidentally misdial. I got the number right though, which must mean he got busy. I shift the phone again, this time to end the call, but right before I hit the button, Pete answers.
“Hey, babe!” he shouts breathlessly.
“Hey!” I actually fumble the phone before I get it back to my ear. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m awesome.” He takes a deep breath and exhales loudly. “But first, how are you? How was my Teddy Bear’s day?”
I smile at the term of endearment since it’s nice to have someone respect my wish to be called by my middle name rather than by my heinous first name. “It was decent for a Thursday,” I say with a shrug. “Then I got home and it went to crap.”
“Doesn’t it always?” He chuckles. “You wanna talk about it?”
“Nah, it was just the same old, same old. How goes life in sunny California?”
“It was another day in paradise, baby. Well, almost, anyway,” he laughs. “With Dad on his honeymoon, I thought I was in the clear to soak up some lunchtime sun, but someone must have ratted me out because Dad’s V.P. called to rip me a new one.”
I chuckle. “Surfs up?”
“Hell yeah, babe. The waves were too kick-ass to pass up. You sure you don’t want to come to college out here? I promise you’ll love it.”
“I’m sure I would, but you know it’s been my lifelong dream to go to Dad and Gramps’s alma mater.” Out of habit, I make the customary Texas Tech “Guns Up” hand gesture. “And it wouldn’t be right to turn down my scholarship—”
“I told you I’d pay your tuition. It’ll come straight from the Peter Sampson Foundation.”
I chuckle. “There’s no such thing as the Peter Sampson Foundation, and—”
“But that’s the joy of being a gazillionaire. I can start one and you could be my first philanthropic deed—”
“I don’t think so.” Ugh. I hate when he tries to use his money to impress me. “And don’t you dare suggest that you’ll convince your dad to pull some strings at that scholarship organization his company offers, because I wouldn’t feel right taking money from him either.” I gallop the rest of the way down the stairs and stop by the bay window in the living room. After pulling back the drapes, I admire the view of the distant snow-capped mountains. “You should come to Colorado before I leave,” I suggest.
“No way, babe. I love you, but I’m so not down with hanging out in landlocked USA.”
“It isn’t that bad here, and this time of year, the lakes are pretty awesome—”
A huge crash from above startles me. I look at the ceiling and then panic when Ben starts running along the hallway, his footsteps reverberating through the house, sounding more Yeti-like than eight-year-old kid-like. “Ben?” I hurry over to the staircase. “Are you okay?”
“They’re home!” he shouts as he rounds the corner and rips down the stairs.
“Slow down, champ!” I order.
“But they’re home!” he repeats as he shoves past me and yanks the front door open.
Without skipping a beat, he sails over the porch steps and runs out of sight.
I hurry after him but stop short when I see Ashley’s Tahoe pulling into their driveway. Wow. The kid must have supersonic hearing because my bedroom is on the back half of the house, or maybe he really was that worried. I mean, he and Ryan are ridiculously close even though there’s a ten-year-age difference between them, which is actually pretty sweet.
“Everything okay?” Pete asks.
“Oh.” I had totally forgotten he was on the line. “Sorry. Yes. My neighbor’s son was in a car accident so I was babysitting his little brother until they got back from the hospital.”
“Who? The jerk who likes spreading vicious rumors about you?” He snorts. “That neighbor?”
“Ah…” For some reason, I’ve never told Pete that Ryan and I used to date. I’m not sure why, especially since I’ve told him just about everything else there is to know about me, but with Ryan…I don’t know. I mentioned the rumors he started freshman year, but I never told him that I used to really like him…maybe even loved—
“Teddy Bear?” Pete hedges.
“Sorry…yes, that neighbor.”
“Sounds like karma came back around to bite him in the butt.” He chuckles. “But how’d you end up babysitting? I thought today was your vet day?”
“Yeah, but when I got home, Mom asked me to take over. Not that I minded,” I add absently, since I’m suddenly transfixed as Ben reaches for the back door. The instant I get a clear view of Ryan, my heart skips a few beats. It’s a reaction I wish I could change, but even with a knee brace on his right leg and a cast on his left leg, the guy looks like he should be on the cover of a magazine.
“Does that mean your forced-babysitting gig is officially over now?” Pete asks.
“Oh.” Jeez. I keep forgetting he’s on the line. Before I can apologize for spacing out again, my father pulls into our driveway. “It is,” I tell Pete, “but my dad just got home. Mind if I catch up with him over dinner and then finish up my laundry before we video chat?”
“Yeah, of course, but try to make it sooner than later. I’m dying to show you the stuff for the game.”
My heart skips a few more beats, but in a different way this time. “You got it?” I ask eagerly as thoughts of beta testing his father’s top-secret game dance in my head. “I thought you said he had it under some pretty tight security.”
Pete laughs. “Oh, he did, but I was still able to hack through the system and get into the lab. I already overnighted your copy with the gear. It should get there tomorrow afternoon.”
“Gear?” My ears perk up yet again. “What kind of gear?”
“I’m not entirely sure. There’s a memo claiming that the virtual-reality goggles and the haptic gloves are for some little kids’ game, but I’m not buying it, not with all the effort Dad put into keeping me out.” He pauses then sighs. “I’ll mess with them later. After I get done dealing with Mom.”
I grimace, since I know she hasn’t been taking the wedding news well. “Oh…how’s she holding up? Still in denial?”
“I wish,” he mutters. “Now she’s just pissed, which is ten times worse.” He sighs again. “Think you’ll be free by nine?”
“Yeah…” I glance at my watch and nod, “that sounds good.”
“Cool. I’ll catch you later then. PTR signing off. I love you, Teddy Bear.”
PTR signing off—short for Peter the Rad—is the message he always uses when he ends one of his videos on his gaming channel or when he logs out of his Station X. The “I love you thing” is relatively new though, and it always makes me squirm.
“Ditto,” I finally say, since I still haven’t mustered the nerve to repeat those three little words back to him. I end the call just as my father gets out of his car.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says cheerfully.
His jovial tone makes my stomach tie up in knots though. I slide my phone into my back pocket and give him a thorough once-over. His tie is loosened and his hair is disheveled, which usually means something is bothering him. When he gets close enough, I reach for his briefcase. “Bad day?” I inquire even though I already know the answer.
He slings his arm over my shoulder, which is always a little funny to me since he’s a few inches shorter than me. “Yeah. I lost a patient this morning, but he came in pretty banged up.”
“Oh.” I never know what to say to that. “Sorry, Dad.”
“It’s okay.” He releases a long breath. “Just part of the job.”
We walk toward the house in silence, but just before we climb the porch steps, I stop to glance across our yards. Ryan’s father, Mark, is helping Ryan into a wheelchair. “Was your patient in the same car accident as Ryan?” I inquire, hoping to get some insider knowledge without coming right out and asking if Ryan is really okay.
“No. That was totally unrelated.” He glances toward the Nelsons. “Actually, in Ryan’s case, there technically wasn’t an accident. He and a couple of his friends thought it would be cool to car-surf after school. When Ryan’s turn came up, he fell off the hood and fractured his left leg and bruised his right knee pretty badly.”
“Well,” I say just as Ryan plops into his seat, “I guess that explains the wheelchair.”
“Yeah, and the cast and the knee brace,” Dad adds. “Did I mention that Mark and Ashley had me paged when they got to the hospital?”
As I shift my attention back to my father, I narrow my eyes. “Did they?”
“Yeah, and after I assured them that Dr. Aries had diagnosed everything properly, I hung around until Ryan was discharged.” Dad gives me a sideways glance. “He and I had a nice little chat while we waited…”
From past experience, I can only assume that they talked about me. It’s something that Ryan does with both of my parents, which is beyond irritating. I mean, I get that we’ve been neighbors for four years and that my parents and his parents are good friends, but I hate the fact that he always tries to get Mom and Dad to relay information to me.
“He mentioned that he’s going to need help carrying his books to class and wanted to know if you’d be willing to lend a hand.”
My stupid, stupid, stupid heart skips a few more beats. I look across our lawns just as Ryan waves. Jerk, I think to myself as I cross my arms over my chest.
“Teddy,” Dad continues in that annoying forgive-and-forget tone of his, “I completely understand why you’re so cautious where Ryan is concerned, but in his defense, he’s really gone out of his way to make amends—”
Just then, and seemingly at the perfect time to disprove my father’s little theory, Carly Tannen’s hot pink Mustang revs so loudly my bones quake. As she pulls into the Nelson’s driveway and then hurries out of her convertible with all of the fanfare expected of the head cheerleader, my body tenses painfully. I whip around before I have to endure watching anymore and my father has enough sense to follow along in silence. It isn’t until we’re both in the kitchen, me slamming my way through the room as I get the garlic bread in the oven, that Dad finally speaks up again.
“You’ll never guess what I found today,” he says, his tenor intentionally light. “I ran into the supermarket to grab lunch and I found Silent Movie in a bin by the register.” He pulls the movie out of his briefcase and holds it up for me to inspect.
“That’s awesome!” I manage to say enthusiastically despite my suddenly somber mood. I take the DVD out of Dad’s hand, probably a bit too roughly, and admire the artwork on the cover. “Seriously, Dad, this is great. Now our Mel Brooks collection is complete.”
“Yeah, that definitely made my day too.” He stares off into the distance, his mind probably fixating on his now-deceased patient. After another second, he shakes his head and looks at me with eager hopefulness illuminating his eyes. “Do you have homework tonight?”
“No, but…” I take in his disheveled appearance and decide that Pete and his new game will have to wait a little while longer. “Did you want to watch it while we eat?”
For the first time, Dad genuinely smiles. “Yeah. That sounds like a plan, kiddo.” He heads toward the foyer. “I’ll just go and get cleaned up while we wait on the garlic bread.”
“Yeah, okay.” I consider saying something else to try and cheer us both up, but I figure that if anyone can make us forget about our crappy days, it’s Mel Brooks.
The Postman Never Rings Twice
It’s amazing what a difference twenty-four hours can make. Last night, all was right in the world…well, as right as life can be for me—totally unpopular Teddy by day, totally awesome Teddy by night. Then today Pete and Ben got sick. I have no idea what’s happening in California with Pete, but according to my dad, “Ben is gravely ill.” Those four words haunt me as I pace the corridor of the pediatric ward for the hundredth time. After reaching a dead end, I turn and slowly make my way back to the waiting room. The area is remarkably quiet, which isn’t unusual for a Friday night. During the day, this place is usually abuzz with activity, which I just so happen to know because I used to volunteer here. Tonight, however, with the exception of a couple of staff members behind the nurses’ station, I’m alone.
I walk over to the window and sit on the ledge. It’s too dark to see the mountains, so I stare outside aimlessly. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. This is, after all, the first time I’ve ever been to the hospital to visit a patient. For anyone else, that may seem odd, but since I am a loner, I don’t know enough people to warrant many trips anywhere, let alone a hospital.
My phone vibrates then plays a brief Pac-Man tone, the waka waka waka sound letting me know I’ve gotten an email. Surprised that I’ve mysteriously picked up service, since this part of the hospital is usually a major dead zone, I glance down and read the email from Rent-a-Game.com that says they just shipped my copy of Spirits May Rise, Extended Edition. On any other day, I would have been stoked about the message. Today, the email just reminds me of Pete, since SMR was the second game we beta tested together.
Jeez. How had today gone from ordinary to tragic so quickly?
It seemed as though it all started right as I got home from school. The plan was to stop at the house to grab a quick bite to eat before I went in for my evening shift at Dr. Z’s clinic, but when I discovered my package hadn’t been delivered, I called Pete. That’s when I found out he had been rushed to the hospital. His housekeeper, Lupe, couldn’t give me details because…well, her English sucks and my Spanish is so subpar that I could only make out a few random words, which only confused me more. I did manage to get the name of the hospital, so I tracked down the emergency room number online.
As I was trying to bribe the clerk at Pete’s hospital to give me any bit of information about his condition, I heard the telltale sounds of an approaching ambulance. At first, I almost didn’t notice it. I mean, ambulances aren’t a usual occurrence in our development. People get hurt all of the time, and some of my neighbors are ancient, so at first, I just kept talking on the phone, ignoring the ear-piercing wail. Then the ambulance pulled in next door. My first thought was of Ryan. Had he fallen? Was there some kind of complication? Panicked, I ran downstairs and nearly crashed into Dad as we both scrambled for the door. I reached for it first, yanked it open, and then nearly collided with Ryan and Ben’s dad, Mark, who was clearly on the brink of hysteria.
We all ran to his house and watched as the paramedics got an unconscious Ben securely onto a stretcher and wheeled him to the ambulance. Mark and Ashley got into the back with their son and Dad quickly hurried to his car to follow them to the hospital. The entire shocking event left me feeling stunned, numbed, and confused. I didn’t know what to do, but I eventually made the command decision to drive to the hospital too, since it seemed like the right thing to do. Also, since I knew Dad would stay all night with the Nelsons if necessary, I was hoping that at some point he could use his doctor status to get some information about Pete.
That was hours ago though, and with Dad being so busy trying to figure out Ben’s case, he hadn’t had a chance to call about Pete. Not that I blame him since this thing with Ben is nuts. He is gravely ill. Those four words replay in my mind even though, according to Dad, he isn’t exhibiting any symptoms—like none. No vomiting; no fever; no convulsions; no nothing. He was fine in the morning and fine at school, but at some point, after he got home, he slipped into a coma with no explanation. It’s mind-boggling.
I sigh. Hopefully Pete is in better shape. I’m sure his condition is nowhere near as severe as Ben’s, though without being able to get in touch with anyone, I can only guess at this point. That inspires me to return my attention back to my phone. After closing my email, I try to send Pete’s mother another text message. Unfortunately, even though my Rent-a-Game.com email somehow managed to make its way into my inbox, my text messages are still undeliverable. I hold my phone overhead as I take a few steps toward the windows in the far corner of the waiting room. Still no luck. I drop my arm to my side and sigh again. If my cell phone were Superman then the pediatric ward at Castle Rock Hospital would be its kryptonite.
Thankfully, I usually get a decent signal in my father’s office, so I head that way. As I near the room that Ben has been assigned to though, I slow my pace and consider letting my dad know I’ll be in his office. I stop by the door and lift my hand to knock, but I can’t bring myself to do it. The Nelsons are so sad and my dad and Ben’s pediatrician, Dr. Aries, are so frazzled over Ben’s mysterious illness that I don’t want to interrupt. Dad will figure out where I am, so I continue along, wondering, yet again, how a healthy eight-year-old boy slips into a coma without explanation. That’s a good question, and one that seems to have everyone stumped.
I sigh and allow my thoughts to drift back to Pete. Is he just as sick as Ben? Is it something as serious, but sort of minor in comparison? Is there anyone else I can call to get more information? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t think so. It’s maddening. As I take a right down a long, narrow corridor that leads to several doctors’ private offices, I check my signal meter. Still nothing, so I take a few moments to program Pete’s parents’ numbers into my contacts. Lupe may have a thick accent, but she was at least able to communicate their information to me. Not that having Dr. Sampson’s number is really useful at the moment because I know he’s on his honeymoon. I’m pretty sure he has one of those fancy satellite phones or something—I mean, he is a gazillionaire and is fairly important being a CEO and all, but Lupe didn’t have that number. My guess is that after the divorce, she lost all rights to keep in touch with Dr. Sampson.
That’s kind of sad to me, though most relationships are sad and bizarre, or at least that’s been my experience. Ryan immediately comes to mind, but I shove that thought aside because even though years have passed since he cheated on me, that wound is still fresh. I guess that’s why I thought this thing with Pete was the perfect set up. With him being on the other side of the country, I never had to worry about squeezing in date-nights, or worry about always looking perfect, or stress over all of the usual pressures that I’d have to deal with if he lived closer. All of that stuff sucks, so our long-distance relationship was an awesome arrangement. And it’s truly been great…well, except for tonight. Now, the distance is only acting as a cavernous gap between this hospital and the one that Pete is at, and it seems as though there’s no hope of me finding out if he’s okay or not, which totally blows. So, after six months of “dating,” I’m finally seeing a negative in the midst of so many positives. How do you get in touch with someone when they can’t answer their phone and you can’t drive over to check on them?
With that solemn thought playing, I glance down at my phone again. Finally! There are a few bars on my signal meter, so I try Lupe. When she doesn’t answer, I leave another message then try Pete’s mom. She doesn’t answer either. Frustrated, I push open the door to my dad’s office and plop onto the small couch by his desk. I sit there for a few minutes and actually consider calling Ryan to check on how he’s coping. With Ben getting sick so quickly, Mark and Ashley had left Ryan behind because getting his wheelchair into the ambulance hadn’t been an option. I’m sure he’s probably going out of his mind with worry since I know that he adores Ben.
Granted, I’m sure Carly has made her way over to his house since that girl never misses an opportunity to hang all over Ryan. And wouldn’t this be the perfect chance for her to weasel her way into his arms since he’s sad and needs comforting. I grunt loudly to keep that disturbing thought at bay. Then I force myself to quit thinking about them altogether. Who cares if she’s over there with him? I don’t, so wasting good brain cells on Ryan Nelson is stupid—especially when I should be thinking about Pete. Right. I dial his home number again, hoping Lupe picks up this time. She doesn’t.
Just as I end the call, Dad pokes his head around the door. “Oh, there you are,” he says as he steps inside.
“Hey, Dad. How’s Ben doing?”
“He’s still unresponsive.” He drops into his desk chair and turns on his computer. “Dr. Aries is running a bunch of tests and asked if I could do some research on Naegleria fowleri.”
“In layman’s terms, it’s a brain-eating amoeba.”
Yikes. “How would Ben have gotten that?”
“I don’t know. It’s typically found in warm bodies of water or poorly chlorinated pools. I asked Mark and Ashley if he had been swimming recently but they assured me that he hasn’t.”
“Could he have snuck off and gone somewhere with Ryan?”
“We thought of that, so Mark called to ask and Ryan swears they haven’t gone anywhere. Besides,” Dad continues, “it’s pretty rare to have cases of Naegleria fowleri this far north this time of year. It’s usually prominent in the southern states, so other than one case that I’ve heard about in Minnesota, I’m fairly certain this is something we can check off the list.”
“Any ideas what it might be then?”
“Dr. Aries is testing for meningitis, but Ben doesn’t have any of the usual symptoms.” Dad begins typing away on his keyboard. “Did your mother call?” he asks without looking away from the monitor. “She kept texting me so I told her to get a hold of you.”
I snort, amazed that even in the midst of her friend’s crisis she still took Elizabeth to Denver for the pageant. “She sent a text telling me to call if Ben’s condition changed.”
Dad nods and then shifts closer to his monitor, clearly intrigued by something. I watch in silence for a few moments, not wanting to disturb him even though I’m bursting at the seams.
After a few more agonizing minutes tick by, I lean forward and place my elbows on my knees. “So…” I draw out, trying my hardest to sound nonchalant, “I still haven’t heard back from Pete’s mom, and Lupe isn’t answering the house phone anymore.”
Dad finally looks away from his computer. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I didn’t forget about Pete, it’s just been a crazy night. Did Lupe happen to mention any symptoms?”
I’ve already told him twice, but I know how frazzled he can get when he’s trying to solve a medical mystery. “I couldn’t really make out anything with her broken English, but I’m pretty sure she said something about food.” Though, even that assumption is a bit of a stretch considering her thick accent.
Dad ponders that for a moment. “What hospital did you say he was at?”
“Good Samaritan.” I point to a notepad that I had left by his phone earlier. “The first one is the hospital’s main line. The second is the ER. I’ve tried calling both, but they won’t even tell me if Pete is there or not.”
“Those are HIPPA rules, kiddo. They can get into big trouble for violating a patient’s privacy, but I’ll call and try to get in touch with his doctor. It’ll take a bit though because Pete’s doctor will have to call here and verify my credentials. Once that’s taken care of though, I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Don’t thank me yet, kiddo.” He sighs. “The Nelsons asked a favor.”
Oh, crap. Why do I get the feeling I know where this is going?
“Ashley’s going to stay with Ben and Mark wants to wait until Dr. Aries gets back with a few more test results before he heads home. They were hoping you could help Ryan out until Mark gets back.”
That isn’t just a favor—it’s like the mother lode of all favors.
“Listen, Teddy, I know you hate being around him, but—”
“I do, and since I’m sure Carly won’t mind pulling babysitting duty, she can do it.”
“Carly was asked to leave,” Dad informs me as he sits back in his chair, crosses his arms over his chest, and gives me that look, the one that says I’m supposed to swallow down years of resentment and be the bigger person. The problem, of course, is that being the bigger person stinks. Yet, just before I can launch into a rebuttal that would make Mark proud, I stop to think about him and Ashley. They had been here the night before with Ryan and now they’re here again with Ben. The least I can do is suck it up and help them since I know they would do the same for me.
“It’s cool, Dad,” I say before he can go into lecture mode. “I don’t mind hanging out with Ryan until you and Mark get back. Can you just give me a call if you hear from Pete’s doctor?”
Dad’s arms loosen around the cage. “Absolutely, and I won’t be far behind, kiddo, so just smile and nod a lot. I’m sure he won’t talk your ear off tonight.”
Yeah, right. Even in his darkest hour, I’m sure Ryan Nelson will still be as chatty as ever.
After saying my goodbyes to Dad, I hurry outside and call Lupe again. She finally answers, but she hasn’t heard back from Pete’s mom either. Exhausted, worried, and annoyed, I toss the phone on the passenger seat and blast the radio as I make my way home.
This definitely isn’t how I envisioned spending my Friday night.
When I arrive at the entrance of my housing community and see two cars ahead of me, I slump against the seat. This is just great. As if this night couldn’t get any worse, now I have to deal with Doug, Castle Rock Estate’s finest security guard. I think it’s ridiculous that there’s a guard on duty twenty-four hours a day in the first place since it’s a pretty safe town. And Doug really takes his job too seriously, which is why it takes another ten minutes before I can pull up to the guard shack.
“Evening, Ms. Nielson.” He tips his hat and leans closer. “How’s Ben doing?”
“He’s still unresponsive, but Dad and Dr. Aries are diligently running tests.”
“That’s good to hear, but such a shame that it had to happen to our little Ben,” he says, sounding genuinely sad. “I was thinking of swinging by in the morning when my shift ends.”
“That would be nice. I’m sure Mark and Ashley would appreciate it.”
There’s an uncomfortable beat of silence, so I look out the windshield for a second before meeting his gaze again. Thankfully, he gets the hint.
“Well, you have a good night, Ms. Nielson.” He tips his hat again. “And if you talk to your mom, let her know that we’re all rooting for Elizabeth to win her pageant.”
I manage a smile. “Yeah, I’ll let them know.”
He steps back into the guard shack and, a moment later, the gate swings open. I pull forward, for once actually hoping that there are a gazillion deer out so that it takes me a while to make it home. Sadly, the one night I need Bambi and company to be scampering about, they’re nowhere to be found.
In no time flat, I pull up our long driveway but remain within the safety of my car. I can do this, I tell myself. It isn’t as if Ryan is impossible to be around…at least not when it’s just the two of us. I mean, he can be a Grade-A jackass whenever any of his buddies are around, but there aren’t any other cars in his driveway, so it should be okay, or at least I hope so.
With that optimistic thought lingering, I head across our lawns. The walk from my house to his is way too short, so I stand at the front door for a moment. Then I stomp my feet a few times, to shake off any excess grass. I look myself over next. I’m not sure why though, especially since I had just changed into the Texas Tech hoodie and jeans right before I left for the hospital. With nothing else to use as a procrastination tool, I finally knock on the door. When there isn’t an answer, I try the knob and peer inside. “Ryan?”
“Come in!” he calls. “I’m in the living room.”
I let myself in and walk through the foyer. When I get to the living room though, I stop short. Whoa. Ryan Nelson looks like crap. I mean, it isn’t as if I expected him to look like his usual hot self, but holy moly. I barely recognize him. And it isn’t just because of the wheelchair or the cast on his left leg and the brace over his right knee— it’s his appearance. His jet-black hair, which is usually in a sexy, tousled style, is lying flat on his head, and there are dark circles beneath his gorgeous baby blues, almost as if he’s been crying. The most shocking thing, though, is that he isn’t sporting his customary thousand-watt smile.
“Hey,” I finally manage. “Your parents asked me to swing by and give you a hand.”
“Yeah, I know.” He points to the phone on his lap. “I’ve been in touch all night.”
He zones out for a second before he glances my way, though, for probably the first time since I’ve known him, he sort of looks through me, not at me. It’s weird, and it’s something I realize I shouldn’t notice, or even care about, but I do.
“Thanks for coming by, Gwen,” he says without looking at me.
An uncomfortable tension hangs in the air, probably because I’ve avoided coming over here for years and I have no idea how to deal with a despondent Ryan Nelson. I start to fidget and finally settle on shoving my hands into the pocket of my hoodie.
“Are you hungry?” I ask, “I can run and pick something up.”
He shakes his head. “Not really, but thanks for offering.”
Another silence settles between us, which is strange since Ryan is always running his mouth about something or other. I may avoid him like the plague, but every time I turn around, he’s either at my house or lurking nearby at school to strike up some kind of idiotic conversation.
“You mind just keeping me company?” he finally asks. “I’ve got Young Frankenstein or a couple seasons of How I Met Your Mother up in my room. I know they’re your favorites.”
My mouth hangs open because I’m stunned that he actually remembers that. I finally snap my jaw shut and move toward the stairs. “Ah, yeah, sure. Where are they?”
“It’s right by my TV. You want a Diet Coke and a bag of those mini rice cakes?”
Aggravated that he remembers that those are my favorite too, I just nod and then hurry up the stairs. Once I’m on the second floor though, I slow my pace because I’m not nearly as anxious to get back downstairs as I was to get up here. I stroll along the hallway and absently glance into Ben’s room as I pass. I’m nearly to Ryan’s bedroom door when I stop short. My posture stiffens and I’m suddenly anxious for a different, mysterious reason.
I look over my shoulder then spin on my heels and walk back to Ben’s bedroom. His bedside lamp is on, but I reach in and flip on the overhead light anyway. I scan the entire room then let my gaze settle on a glove that’s lying on the floor by his bed. Isn’t that the same haptic glove Pete had shown me last night when we were video-chatting? A chill sweeps up my spine because the longer I examine it, the more I’m sure that it’s the same one. I had totally forgotten about my package until now, but when I spot the other glove and the matching virtual-reality goggles on Ben’s bed, I walk over and pick them up. After taking a moment to make sure that they’re the same ones Pete had shown me, I search the room again. That’s when I spot the opened box behind Ben’s garbage can.
Balls! The postman must have screwed up the delivery again, which isn’t unusual because Ryan’s last name and mine are only off by one letter. Ashley is usually good about bringing stuff over when it crosses in the mail, but what if she hadn’t been the one who picked up the package? What if Ben had found it and opened it?
I walk over to Ben’s Station X, hit the eject button, and lift the disc off the tray. As I stare at Pete’s familiar handwriting, goose bumps erupt all over my body. It can’t be a coincidence that they both played this game and then they both got sick. I shake off that impossible thought as I remind myself that Lupe had said something about food making Pete sick. But is that what she really meant? She had kept going on and on about el juego, which I know translates to “the game,” but I had assumed that she meant “juice” because before that she had been going on and on about coma. Doesn’t that mean “to eat?” I’m sure it does, which is why I thought I had misinterpreted my “game” translation…but what if…holy crap, what if the Spanish word for “coma” is actually coma, just with an accented twist?
As the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, it feels as though time slows down. Balls. What if this game is the reason Pete and Ben are both in the hospital? I mean, Pete did say that he was going to wait for me so we could play together, but he’s never been able to hold off with normal games before so the chances of him suddenly sprouting patience over a top-secret game is highly unlikely.
I pull my phone from my back pocket and check the timestamp on the last iMessage we exchanged. At 4:15, which would have been 3:15 in California, Pete had texted to say that he was home and for me to call him when I got done at Dr. Z’s. That was the last message I received, so it’s very possible that he had started the game and…what? I have no idea, but it really does seem too coincidental that Pete and Ben both got sick on the same day after playing the same game. Could it be then? I mean, even to me, the idea of a game making people sick sounds crazy, but the longer I think about it, the more I want to at least consider it.
After another second of mulling it over, I gather the equipment into the box and then call my father. He doesn’t answer so I leave a message explaining my theory and then I hurry downstairs. Ryan is just setting two sodas and a bag of rice cakes onto the coffee table.
“Was Ben playing this when he got sick?” I ask, holding the disc up so he can see it.
He glances at me then eyes the box. “What is that?”
“It’s a Station X game. Was he playing it when your mom found him?”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know if it was that one, but he was playing some new game.”
I begin to feel lightheaded and a little sick to my stomach.
“Gwen?” Ryan wheels closer. “Are you okay?”
“No…no, I’m not okay.” In fact, the longer I consider it, the dizzier I feel. “Ryan, I think I know what’s wrong with Ben…” I finally meet his concerned gaze, “I think this game has somehow gotten him and my boyfriend sick.”
About the Author
Winter lives in the moment and loves nothing more than being surrounded by her family, her fur-babies, and a ton of great reads! When she doesn't have her nose stuck in a book, she's usually thinking up far away, fantastical worlds or she's cooking up a storm in the kitchen!
Because of her love for all things literary, Winter pursued a Master of Arts degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Professionally, she is a manuscript editor and, in her spare time, she enjoys hosting author spotlights, posting book reviews, and teaching creative writing workshops.
In her private time, she is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal romances, and one day she hopes to inspire young readers in the same way her favorite authors continue to inspire her today.