Story no. 10.
Analise wasn’t sure where the packages were coming from, nor could she guess when the next one might arrive. This one, like all those before it, was delivered by parachute. All of them had dropped gently into her life when she alone – playing in the back garden, sitting in the hallway after being sent out for disrupting class, and this time, walking home from school. The wooden box was wrapped in brown paper, and the top slid free from two slots cut into the inside of the box.
She didn’t open the package any farther, but instead re-wrapped the paper, re-tied the string, folded up the parachute, and pushed the whole business into the top of her backpack.
At first she had thought the packages were some kind of bonus for being particularly diligent during this Game session. But though she spent nearly all her waking hours searching out Game quests and working on Game puzzles (including a certain number of hours when she ought to have been paying attention to Mrs. Barnabas discoursing on the precolonial history of Wisconsin, which was why she had been sent out into the hallway last Tuesday) she knew that as a fifth-grader her scores could never compete with the high schoolers and college students at St. Delphine’s in town. The older you were, the better quests you could access, quests with blood and sex and terrifying monsters, quests that gave you thousands of points instead of hundreds. She couldn’t wait to be older. But none of those players were receiving packages, according to the Game forums, and that made her doubt she had reached some heretofore unknown high score reward.
This didn’t keep the packages from being terribly useful. Many of the puzzles and quests required one to scavenge uncommon objects from one’s environment as tokens or prizes or code-unlockers. If you had enough points, you could even scan objects new to the computing system with your Glass, and it would generate a new segment and integrate it into the overall structure based on its form and qualities.
The last package had an assortment of five skeleton keys wrapped inside a thin, brilliantly-patterned cloth. Keys were vital to the virtual realms of the Game; you needed to sift through dozens to find one that matched up to the door locks between castles and caves. The older a key was, the more likely one of the computer systems would have scanned it and integrated it into gameplay. Besides the keys, there were two glass jam-jars, one filled with honey, the other with blue ink, with paper labels affixed to the lids; a bunch of foreign coins and an Indian-head nickel; a perfumed wooden fan; a blue ceramic elephant the size of her thumb; and a hand mirror with an embossed brass backplate. She had used all but the tiny elephant in her last quest, which she was saving up points to get her own segment for. She had been particularly proud of her deployment of the fan – her Glass had shown her a swarm of malignant Faerie buzzing overhead just as she was setting the last brick of a puzzle in place to open a secret door; she had dropped the brick and simply fanned the Faerie away.
Analise went up the stairs to her back porch in a single step. This last summer had added an extra three inches to her frame, mostly to her legs. Mr. Vargas, who taught sixth-grade math and coached the middle school track team, had asked her if she liked running when he had stopped by to pick up a box of books from Mrs. Barnabas. Analise had felt too sick to answer and had only shaken her head.
Her mom was not home from the hospital yet. Since the last round of layoffs among the nurses, her days off had gradually disappeared, like pigeons shot out of the sky with a beebee gun.
But there were still noises coming from the kitchen, and Analise approached the door cautiously and peeked in.
A black backpack, the edges worn gray, sat on the table. The fridge door was open, and Analise could see legs ensconced in a pair of dark jeans partially visible just beyond the edge. The person to whom the legs belonged stood up. It was a young man – well, younger than Mom – with dark hair that needed a wash, wearing a green t-shirt.
He noticed her standing by the door and waved the package of cheese at her. “Hey, Analise.”
“Who are you?” she said.
“Jared,” he said, sounding as worried as she felt. “Uncle Jared? Your mom’s younger brother? Don’t you remember me?”
Analise stared hard at his face, trying to assemble memories from a much earlier time. Was that a Christmas when she remembered this face floating over a plate filled with turkey and pie? Why hadn’t she seen him in so long? “Yeah, I guess I do. Why are you here?”
He took a jar of mayonnaise and the bottle of mustard from the fridge door and kicked it shut. “Did your mom not say anything to you?”
“No.” Analise thought back on the last week, then added, “She got home late all last week.”
“Okay.” Jared heaved a huge sigh. “Well, we might as well get the ugly stuff over with. I’m coming out of rehab.”
Analise slowly took off her backpack and held it in front of her, as though it would protect her from what he was saying. “What’s that?”
“Um.” He squirted mustard onto the last two slices of bread that he pulled out of the bag and started layering cheese and lettuce on top of them. “Rehab is a place you go when you have a problem with substance abuse.”
“Is that like drugs?”
“It’s not like drugs, it just . . . is drugs. Your mom said that since I was finally trying to get myself straightened out, I could crash with you guys for a while.”
“That’s a weird sandwich,” Analise said. “Is that scrambled eggs in the middle?”
Jared took a huge bite, chewed, and swallowed, the bolus of food moving from cheek to cheek like a ping-pong ball. “Yup.” He looked at her thoughtfully. Analise had never thought much about family resemblances. She knew she looked like Dad and that made her unhappy and lonely in the pit of her stomach when she was reminded of it. But it suddenly struck her that maybe family resemblance wasn’t all a bad thing, that it reminded you of belonging, in a way. Jared had the same heavy, straight eyebrows and bump in his nose as Mom did, the same full upper lip.
Abruptly he leaned forward and tapped the Glass that wrapped around the left side of her head. “What’s this? Is it for near-sightedness or something?”
“It’s my Glass,” Analise said anxiously, dropping her bag and stepping backwards. “It’s for playing the Game.”
“Wow. What’s that?”
“It’s a virtual reality role-playing experience,” she quoted from her memory of the box the Glass had come in. She skirted the kitchen table and stood on her toes to pull a box of corn flakes down from above the broom cupboard. “They use geographical data to add quests and stuff to your everyday life.”
“Lord, that sounds complex,” he said, popping the last bite of sandwich into his mouth. “How long have you been playing this thing?”
“My mom got me the Glass for Christmas, so about nine months I guess.” Analise poured cereal into a bowl and started eating it with one hand.
“Do you want some milk for that?” Jared asked, looking concerned.
“No, I like it dry.”
“Aren’t you a little worried you’re not experiencing the real world?” He came around the table with his arms folded, his eyebrows raised a little.
Analise looked into her bowl of cereal. She didn’t feel very hungry anymore. “The real world sucks.”
Mom came home at ten o’clock that night. She was not thrilled to see Jared.
“You told me you’d be coming in a week,” she yelled from the bathroom. She emerged without her scrubs and with her face red from scrubbing. “I didn’t have any time to get a room ready or anything. Or – “
“Or tell Analise,” Jared said.
“Or talk to Analise about this,” she said tersely.
Analise was theoretically upstairs asleep. When she had heard the car pull into the drive, she had decided she really needed a glass of water – from the kitchen sink, because the upstairs bathroom made it taste weird – and probably she should drink it while sitting on the stairs so that she didn’t spill it on her bedsheets. Jared had been asleep on the couch in the living room when Mom opened the front door and dropped her bag.
They argued for a while, though Analise couldn’t quite understand what topic they were really picking at. Mom was mad at Jared for not calling her. Jared was mad at Mom for not checking with his rehab clinic to see if he even had a phone. Mom said to keep his voice down or he’d wake Analise. Jared said if she hadn’t woken the whole neighborhood when she let her anvil of a bag hit the floor he’d be surprised.
It was weird to hear Mom talk so much, Analise thought. Since Dad had gone, her words tended to come in fortune-cookie-sized phrases that you only got the opportunity to crack open a few times a week.
Their conversation switched to how they were going to deal with groceries, and Analise eased to her feet and went back upstairs.
In her anxiety about Uncle Jared she had forgotten the new package for a whole hour after going up to her room to work through a bunch of Game backstory. You could get extra knowledge points for reading the lore of the Game world and taking tests on it, and those usually translated into getting extra hints on the really tricky puzzles. The Glass projected the pages on a desktop so they weren’t such a strain to read. A single phrase – the Dorieai keep the souls of the decreased in boxes – reminded her of what was waiting in her backpack.
Now she laid down in bed and felt under the sleeve of her shirt for the copper bracelet she had found in the box. It was constructed of three rings that rotated around each other, matching up letters to numbers to letters. Besides that there was a smooth, glossy stone the size of her palm and a old-fashioned pocket knife with a leather-wrapped case.
Somewhere in the dark an idea appeared and stroked through her brown hair and her small ears and finally laced itself into her brain: someone who loved her was sending her the packages. Someone far away. Someone, for instance, like Dad.
Mom left at seven AM to get to the hospital on time. Analise was in charge of getting herself breakfast and walking to school.
Jared stood in the kitchen wearing an apron and flipping eggs in a frying pan.
“Morning,” he said. “I made some breakfast. You want any cheese with these?”
Her throat felt tight. “I usually just eat cereal.”
Jared shrugged, a gesture that both reminded her of Mom and made her want to cry. “Suit yourself, I guess.”
She slid into a chair by the kitchen table, unable to think what to do. “Um, Mom doesn’t make breakfast.”
“Yeah, okay.” Jared flipped eggs onto a paper plate and started forking them into his mouth, leaning against the counter.
“I’d better get to school.”
“Do you want me to walk you out to the bus stop or something?”
“I usually walk all the way to school.”
Jared set down his plate, his thick eyebrows lowering. “Isn’t the elementary school like. . . two miles from here?”
“I like to walk,” Analise said staunchly.
She went to the wood behind the grocery store after school to play, like she usually did. Most of the other kids used the city park and the playground by the school, so it decreased her chances of having her stuff stolen or being made fun of. The second package had disappeared that way, when she had unwarily opened it in full view of group of sixth-grade boys.
Right now she was working on the Quest of Kathraki Mountains. The Glass analyzed the terrain you had to the play on and suggested quests that most closely matched it. Pretty soon she was going to have to ask Mom if she’d drive her out to the nature area up in the hills if she was going to finish this one; a flat piece of forest only went so far.
She logged into the quest, and her guide, an Ork named Uin, materialized in front of her. “Good to see you, kid,” he said. “How’s life?”
“My uncle just came to my house,” she blurted out. “I don’t know when he’s leaving and he wanted to walk with me and. I. Don’t.” She took a deep breath and scrubbed the heel of her hand across her eyes.
Uin nodded his enormous, scarred head. His earrings jangled against each other. “That’s rough.”
Analise took a deep breath. She didn’t know if Uin was generated by the computer system or whether he was another player somewhere else in the world; you could pay extra for virtual reality setups that would project your consciousness wherever you liked. She wasn’t in much danger of going out of character, in any case. At initialization the Game had suggested the character of a twelve-year-old girl, living in an isolated farmstead with just her mother, searching for news of her kidnapped father.
“Can you tell me where the next clue is?” she asked.
Uin nodded and started telling her another story about the Kathraki dwarves he had fought against while he was in the military as they walked over the leaf-covered ground. The Glass added Faerie houses high in the trees when Analise looked upward, and shadowy ruins behind the trees.
“Uin, what’s this?” she said, stopping in front of a heavily-carved stone. You had to be careful about touching things in the Game; sometimes they were real objects that the computer system had added a new texture to, and sometimes they were just projections into open air.
“One of the capstones from a temple,” he said. He crouched on the other side of it and started tracing the runes with a long clawed finger. “A thousand years ago there were Helidali in these parts who worshiped the gods of the earth . . . “
Analise returned home as it was getting dark. Jared was pacing on the back porch, stopping every so often to run his hands through his hair.
“Analise,” he yelled at soon as she came within view. “Analise, where were you?”
She stopped uncertainly. Mom had never yelled at her for being out late. Mom never got home before she did. “I was playing.”
“Were you at someone’s house? Why didn’t you call?”
“I was playing the Game,” she said, touching her Glass. “I was by myself.”
Jared stared at her, his mouth working. “You were out by yourself for four hours. Playing this Game.”
“Yeah.” She went up the porch stairs and shimmied by him into the kitchen door. When he followed a minute later, she had already gotten down the cornflakes and was eating anxiously. She didn’t look at her uncle; maybe he would get the hint and leave her alone.
“When do you do your homework, if you’re out all afternoon?” he said finally.
The truth was, she usually didn’t. “Now, I guess.”
“What do you have to do tonight?”
She swallowed another lump of chewed cornflakes. “Mom doesn’t care about my homework.”
Jared gave her a very Mom-like look with eyebrows steepled in skepticism above dark eyes. “Pretty sure she does, and she’s just too busy to ask. What do you have to do tonight?”
“A fractions worksheet,” she muttered.
“Do you need any help or anything?”
To her surprise, Jared nodded. “Okay. Well, I’m around if you do.”
The next morning he was scrambling eggs again. Analise stopped at the door to the kitchen, before deciding that maybe if she ignored him Jared wouldn’t talk to her.
It didn’t work. “You’re out of cornflakes, kid,” he said as she walked by him. “Do you want some eggs, or some of your mom’s yogurt?”
“Is there just the weird strawberry stuff?”
He opened the fridge and rummaged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Eggs, then. Please.”
This morning he sat down across from her as they ate from matching paper plates. Analise couldn’t keep from staring at his face. Dad was blonde, and he had always shaved conscientiously before she ever saw him in the morning. Jared had black whiskers covering both cheeks. He glanced up and noticed her looking. “Yeah?”
“How much younger are you than Mom?” Analise blurted out.
“That’s a lot.”
“Not so much. We talked a lot when I was in high school and she was in nursing school.”
“I wish we. . . talked a lot,” she said. Horrified at her own treachery, she shoved eggs in her mouth and stood up so fast the chair screeched over the linoleum. “I have to go now. I’ll see you later. I’ll be playing late,” she added hastily.
The next package came two days later while she was logged in and playing, floating down from the sky while she was climbing a tree to pick a bespelled leaf. Analise sat up astride the branch and watched the little box descend to the ground beside her, landing with a soft thump in the leaves. The blue-and-white parachute deflated slowly, draping the box like a shroud.
“What’s that?” Uin asked from the ground.
“Someone’s been sending me packages,” she said. She scooted farther out on the branch and delicately plucked the largest leaf, which the Glass had given a silver sheen. Getting down was a bit more difficult than getting up; she had to hold the leaf in her teeth while she struggled for handholds. When she finally dropped to the ground Uin applauded. She smiled and took a little bow, but the package sitting on the ground pulled at her. She dropped to her knees and slid her fingers under the string.
“Who do you think is responsible for these?” he asked.
“I think,” she said, a little out of breath, “that it’s from Dad.”
Uin started recounting stories of her Game father, who had maybe been kidnapped or maybe defected to the Kathraki, who had maybe been a disinherited nobleman or maybe a con man merely pretending to be one. She had told him these stories as the Game rendered up more information to her, and he had apparently been busy joining up all the loose ends and puzzling bits. But Analise found she couldn’t pay close attention when the box was in her hands. She pulled off the top and started taking out the objects inside.
A roll of oatmeal biscuits, wrapped in paper. Two quill pens. Colorful powders in envelopes. A silver ring that fit on her thumb.
“What do you think this is good for?” she said, interrupting Uin’s monologue.
He took her hand with the lightest of touches. She supposed this was to circumvent the fact that he couldn’t really touch her at all. Uin turned her hand over and looked at the ring.
“I don’t know, but it is surely an heirloom.”
Analise didn’t believe in the good nature of her fellow students, so she put the ring on a piece of string and wore it under her shirt. Its weight surprised her; she didn’t know much about metals, but she thought it might be real silver. She took to putting it in her pocket so she could rub her thumb over it while Mrs. Barnabas was talking in class.
She wasn’t sure who to approach about her theory that Dad was sending the packages. Iris, her best friend up until last year, had moved away during the summer, and in any case Analise had been so benumbed by Dad going that she had sort of stopped talking to Iris several months before that. Mom could not speak about anything related to Dad; Mom could barely speak about anything at all. Dad’s parents were both dead and Mom’s mom lived in a nursing home in Kentucky. Grandma Whittier hadn’t even recognized Analise last time they had gone to visit.
On Saturday morning she went downstairs early, wondering if Jared was the kind of person who kept the same schedule on weekends or maybe slept until noon. It turned out he was the first sort; at six forty-five he was already sitting at the kitchen table, dissolving sugar cube after sugar cube into a cup of coffee.
“You’re up early,” he said. Like Mom, his face was mostly expressionless, unless he was talking with his eyebrows.
“So are you.”
“Couldn’t sleep. Usually can’t.”
“That sucks,” Analise said. She thought about it, then added, “That really, really sucks.”
He laughed. “Yeah, it does.”
“Do you want some of my cornflakes?”
“Nah, I’m good.” He watched her get the box down before asking, “So are you going to be playing your Game today?” Analise flinched at the sharpness in his voice.
“Um. I sort of had a question about that.”
“I’m not playing with you,” he said dryly. “I can’t even afford a cell phone. I don’t want to know how much your Glass thing costs.”
“That’s not what I was going to ask.” Analise had to eat several bites of cornflakes before she was steady enough to go on. “So, um, in the Game, you use objects and stuff.”
She explained about how keys were adapted to the doors the Game used, and how good scavengers got more points and access to better quests.
“Okay,” he said. He took a sip of his coffee, looked at the ceiling, and then poured it into the sink. “So?”
“The thing is, someone’s been sending me packages with stuff for the Game,” Analise rushed out.
“That’s . . . cool? What is that?” Jared said, his eyebrows pushing together. “Do you know who it is? What’s the return address?”
“They come by parachute,” she went on. “I don’t know who sends them. But I was wondering, um, I was wondering if they might be from Dad, and I was wondering if you could help me find out, and maybe I could find him and talk to him.” The cornflakes rattled in their box; Analise looked down and realized her hands were shaking.
A huge silence filled the kitchen. Jared looked at his coffee cup, then at the ceiling, then at the door. “I think you’d better talk to your mom about that.”
Mom didn’t have a day off until the next week. It was a Thursday, and Mom always wanted to sleep in on the days she didn’t have to work. Analise had to wait until after school. She was so anxious to ask that she even considered taking the bus home, but then she saw Zach Taylor, from the grade above, joining the line to get on. Zach had been one of the sixth graders who had disappeared her package. There had been a Faerie charm inside that he had crushed under his foot.
Analise ran home, her backpack slamming against her spine. Maybe Mr. Vargas was right about going out for track, she thought. The air felt good in her lungs.
Mom was wrapped in her bathrobe, sitting across from Jared at the kitchen table. Analise skidded onto the linoleum, gasping. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hey, honey,” Mom said dully. Her eyes were red.
“I have something to ask you,” Analise said as quickly as she could.
“I need to talk to you,” Mom said at the same moment.
Two hours later, Analise lay in bed. There were four cracks in the ceiling over her bed. Two crossed each other and made a little X. One was a circle that made her wonder if a plug of plaster was going to fall out and hit her in the head some night. The last disappeared into the corner of the room.
The packages were not from Dad.
“Analise, you asked not to go to the funeral, and I thought – I thought it was so hard for you, and I didn’t want to force the issue,” Mom said. She seemed so tired. “But Dad is gone. Dad is really, truly gone.”
“But the ring,” Analise said in a small voice.
“I thought you’d want to have it,” Mom said. “I didn’t want it to be buried with him.” She smiled a tiny smile. “I picked it out for him, you know. He said it made him feel like a medieval lord.”
There was a service, Mom said. She’d found it on the Internet. You could sign your kid up to get packages that would help them when playing the Game. You could pick things out yourself or ask them to pick out objects that would help. There was a thrift shop near the hospital, and she usually walked around it on her lunch break. That’s where she had found the tiny elephant and the wooden cup that had been in the very first package. The business took care of the delivery.
A knock came from her bedroom door. She didn’t move. The knocking continued, and then the door opened.
“Your mom is too tired to cook,” Jared said. He sat in her desk chair. “She thought we could go out for pizza. What do you think?”
Analise slowly sat up. “I don’t know.” She rubbed her eyes. “I guess I like pizza.”
“She told me you’re going to be really excited for the next box,” he said lightly. He leaned toward her like he would hug her, saw her face, and leaned back. “She picked out some really cool things.”
Analise took the ring out of her pocket and pulled the string over her head, then tucked it under her shirt. “I like pepperoni but not green peppers, okay? Mom always tries to get green peppers.”