Monday morning, and it took me longer than usual to get out of bed, my head’s still throbbing, and then the crosstown xport got stuck in traffic, so I’m late. That shouldn’t really matter, since I’m not late for class—but I’m late for Cari, and in some ways that’s even worse. She’ll be pretty annoyed, because it doesn’t leave us much time to hang before first period.
As I think about seeing Cari, I start to be more honest with myself and admit that my being late has little to do with to the bus and the traffic. I normally tell Cari everything that’s going on in my life—and I just don’t want to tell her about seeing Lianna Haven in the Grid, and that I promised to bring Hal to her in a virtual game. It’s so insane that my head physically hurts. I don’t want Cari to think I’m some crazy, lonely girl who can’t stand to be at parties and is hallucinating tenuous connections to popular boys.
After all, I’m not that person… am I?
As I get off the bus, I resolve to not tell Cari a thing. My headache will eventually pass, and I’ll forget all this madness with Lianna ever happened. It’ll eventually fade into memory and be forgotten, like a weird dream. Maybe I’ll even stop playing SlipStream (though I admit that’s unlikely).
As I rush into the Café Claire, I see Cari sitting at our regular booth, face buried in a book so you can’t tell it’s her, but she’s my best friend so I know. And it’s funny to see her reading—because Cari doesn’t like to read. I didn’t know she owned any books for pleasure. Much less a physical book.
“Hey girl, are you reading a book?”
“What?” she says, barely above a whisper. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Sit down. And be quiet. You’re late.”
“Well excuse me. You are holding a book… ‘Less Than Zero’?”
She pulls the book down below her eyes and stares at me as if I’m crazy.
I decide not to mention that if she was going for inconspicuous, she should be holding a tablet instead of an old-school physical. I wonder where she even got it. But instead I ask:
“Hiding from who?”
I follow her eyes to see a nearby table with four boys from Whitehall. The Café Claire is the nexus meeting point of choice for out-of-school daytime hangs— it’s definitely more social than a place to eat or study—since it’s located at a midpoint between the all-boys Whitehall (where Hal goes), and the all-girls Denton, where Cari and I go.
“At the party, after you left. I dissed that Whitehall guy with the purple sweater. He was hitting on me, I was getting a little too wasted, so I split. I made up a lame excuse about needing to go home to walk my ferret.”
“I thought if I said I had to walk my dog it would’ve obviously been a lie.”
“And a ferret screams truth?”
“Whatever! Ferrets are cool, my cousin had a ferret.”
I look over at the table of four Whitehalls. They’re all sitting there not talking to each other, with stoned out eyes, looking straight ahead, almost-smiles on their faces. The whip-it effect, I suppose. They all have access implants and they’re all in the Grid. They may be physically sitting with each other at the table—but really their minds and attention are someplace else, where they may or may not be interacting with each other at all. In the real world, they are alone together.
Though I guess that beats being alone.
Whatever the case, the Whitehall in purple is definitely not noticing Cari. I almost remind her of this, and that she needn’t hide behind a book, but instead I say:
“He’s cute. I thought you wanted to hook up at the party.”
And she stares at me with a look of true gravity that seems to push me back into my seat—the first time she’s super serious all morning.
“You know, Asha, for someone who’s my best friend, it sometimes feels like you don’t know me at all.”
I know she’s not trying to be mean—but that really hurt, more than she intended it to. Before I have a chance to protest, the Whitehall guy in the purple sweater moves his hand behind his neck to his GAB and he snaps back to life, indicating that he’s pressed the button and pulled himself out of the Grid (and Cari shrinks into ‘Less Than Zero’). Without a word to his three friends—without even acknowledging their presence—he gathers his stuff, gets up from the table, and leaves the three other Whitehalls physically sitting there, but minds faraway somewhere in the Grid.
Cari is relieved to see Purple Sweater Boy leave, and she concludes:
“Anyway, that’s the extent of my stories from the party. Where were you Sunday? I called you like a hundred times.”
“Sorry. I was… helping my Mom with the laundry.”
“All afternoon you were doing laundry?”
I’m a crap liar, and it’s even more impossible for me to lie to Cari. My resolve not to tell her what happened doesn’t last very long.
“No… Something weird happened and I just didn’t want to talk about it on the phone, or in the Grid.”
She looks concerned, and maybe a tiny bit annoyed.
“Ash. You could’ve just called me back and asked me to come over. I’m your best friend.”
And hearing those words, just like that, my headache begins to recede and I forget about being scared to talk to Cari and what she might think. I realize how stupid I’ve been, keeping everything to myself the past 24 hours, stressing out on my crazy thoughts, all alone. I love this girl, and I can tell her anything.
So I tell her everything.
I tell her about that weird moment at the party when Hal and I may or may not have locked eyes (I was actually going to leave that out, but I figured if I’m going for truth I’d better tell all).
I tell her about SlipStream and the asteroid, about “meeting” Lianna Haven and our crazy conversation.
And Cari just sits there and soaks it all in. I know she’s present with me across the table, but she almost looks like she’s in the Grid, taking notes. In fact, I don’t think I see her breathe once as I tell my long, crazy story. And it feels so good to just tell it, to get it off my chest. It somehow makes it feel less crazy, as if maybe I can forget it now and move on. When I’m done, she simply says:
A pause before she adds:
“And then she disappeared?”
“Completely. As if she ripped herself out of the Grid and back into the real world. But she was holding my face with both of her hands when it happened—so there’s literally no way she pressed a GAB. Weird, right?”
Cari just nods, but its as if she doesn’t think it’s weird at all. Maybe it’s because she’s not a gamer, maybe she doesn’t appreciate how odd the moment was. Finally, she asks:
“So… How are we going to get Hal Haven to go with you into the Grid?”
“What!? I’m not asking Hal Haven into the Grid!”
“But you made a promise to his mother.”
“I’m not sure that was his mother!”
“But you just told me how much you believed in that ghost, or whatever she was.”
“I told you I thought I was losing my mind. You’re not saying you believe my ghost stories?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. I wasn’t there! But if you believe, then you’ve gotta keep your promise… And anyway—don’t you have to do it if you want to keep playing the game? Eyes on the prize, or whatever you gamers say?”
“Mind on the mission.”
I hadn’t thought about that. Do I need to do this crazy thing if I want to keep visiting SlipStream? If that’s the case, maybe I’ll stop playing after all.
Then Cari leans over and asks, seriously: “So. Do you believe?”
“Yes, I do. I believe so strongly in something here—I just don’t know what exactly it is I’m believing in. Does that make any sense?”
“It does to me. So it’s settled. Hal Haven’s fate is sealed.”
“But I’ve never even spoken to Hal Haven! How am I going to get him to play a virtual worldgame with me?”
“I agree. You could never pull that off.”
“Wow. Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“I mean not alone. But together.”
She smiles wickedly, as if this will be the most fun we’ve had all semester. “We’ll pull this off together. We’ll get the famous Hal Haven to go on a date with the talented Asha Rai, in the Grid.”
“I’m not asking Hal on a date!”
“Call it whatever you want. I’m calling it a date.”
“Now I see why you’re so interested in helping.”
“I resent that. But I’ll still help you.”
“OK. Then how are we going to pull this off?”
“I don’t know exactly… But we’ll start by working Fallon, his best friend. I’m pretty sure he was interested in me once.”
That’s the only thing she’s said all morning that doesn’t surprise me.
“Fallon Kirk? The perpetual Junior?” No one’s really sure how old Fallon is, since the rumor is he holds the school record for most repeated grades.
“Yeah. He’s a real winner. But he’s a start.” She concludes, with a mischievous grin.
And I grin, too, because for the first time in two days I don’t feel crazy. I feel like I can keep my promise to Lianna Haven—or whoever or whatever that thing in the Grid was. Maybe, just maybe, this will even be fun.
And most importantly, there’s Cari. I won’t be doing it alone. But together.
Character designs by Sara Richard (SaraRichard.com)
You’ve been reading CHAPTER 6 from the new young adult illustrated novel ASHA ASCENDING, written by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Sara Richard. Please FOLLOW this blog to read previous and future chapters, serialized here for free.
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