The next day at school, Nova was the first one in class. She was excited to write a letter to her penguin friend. Mr. Cody was excited to tell Nova about the pattern. “You’ll never guess, but I was playing this game and I found a penguin. It was wearing a pear-colored tie and there was a pattern on his feet just like your penguin. Over yonder, rivers bubble. It was orange, yellow, red then blue on the toes.” “That’s the pattern!″ said Nova, “Those are the exact colors of Popsicle’s feet!” Mr. Cody smiled but was also thinking, “This is unreal and almost supernatural.”
Mr. Cody treaded down the halls to the teacher’s lounge. It was time for lunch and time to share some of his new experiences with his coworkers. He turned to Ms. Lars, whose room was number 131, in his same hall, and said, “Do you know Nova? Nova Satchwell?” Ms. Lars stared out in a trance-like state, eating her salad… bite by bite. “Ms. Lars?” Mr. Cody asked while kind of waving a hand in front. Her reaction was the same. She stared. She ate. She had zoned out. There was no sound. Even the crunching of her croutons were silent. “Well, she must be having a tough morning,” he thought, “and talking about work during break time… it’s probably not a priority on her list.”
Off to the side, Mr. Creighton from room 50 was eating his lunch as well. His food items were positioned around him in the equitable locales radiating out from an odd metal lunch box with embossed dalmatians and red trim. “I didn’t even notice you there, Mr. Creighton! How’s your day going?” In his own world, Mr. Creighton chewed through, what looked like, a veggie sandwich. “Wow. Rough morning for everyone it seems,” Mr. Cody thought.
Without the conversations he wanted to have, his mind recenters on Nova. Nova’s problems, the penguin with its colored feet, the “dog-osaur”… this was all on his mind. Then there were the issues of his 23 other students which he neatly minimized in his brain, careful not to close them just yet. Not knowing exactly what to do he thought, “I’ll just ask Nova what her dog looks like. Maybe the coincidences will continue and it will be a spitting image of the dog in the alternate reality game which would… it would mean this whole thing is crazy. If the dog has no resemblance, then the whole penguin thing would just be an insignificant bat in a belfry coincidence worth sharing in the teacher’s lounge - on days that teachers are not having bad days, at least. Then Mr. Cody envisioned that if everything turned out to be a fluke, his life would dip into a bit of a boring state which could cause him to feel a bit of sadness. Then, he would be the one that would need “upgrades”.
The sound of chairs squeaking announced a couple of otherwise quiet teachers lifting off from their seats like mummies hobbling out of their sarcophaguses and ending their lunch break. Then, in an instant, as Ms. Lars and Mr. Creighton stood, their laughter filled the room. “I thought we might be late going back to class from lunch!” Ms. Lars tells Mr. Creighton. He replied, “I told you not to worry!” Mr. Creighton threw his trash in an industrial-sized garbage drum while passing Mr. Cody and said, “How was your lunch, teacher? Oh, and you might want to get back to class!” Mr. Cody smiled and nodded as the other two teachers exited the lounge. He thought to himself, “Why did he call me ‘teacher’? I have a name! But he is right. It is time to get back to class.”
Picking up his students from recess, Mr. Cody arrived with his class lined up on cone number 122. Nova was at the end of the line, off to the side somewhat, with a look on her face like she didn’t play with anyone for the duration of her recess break. As they walked back to class, Mr. Cody lagged alongside Nova and asked her, “Tell me what your dog looks like.”
“His name is ‘Rocket’ because he likes to dart around like he’s crazy. He’s mostly gray with a little white on his snout and on the tip of his tail.”
“What kind of dog is Rocket?”
“He’s a vesuvian terrier.”
It was clear to Mr. Cody that there was some kind of connection between Nova and the game in the arcade. He could have gotten caught up with the “how” and “why” but instead he immediately thought about using it as a tool to help Nova. “How long was this unusual but magical connection going to last?” he thought over and over.
Upon arriving at the arcade at Ponchello Cinemas, he spotted the game front and center of the entrance to the arcade. There was actually someone playing now. The player appeared lost. It appeared as if the game was not responding to him. “He must not know how to play,” Mr. Cody thought.
“This game is broken,” the boy murmured. “Do you need some help makin’ the game work?” Mr. Cody stopped slurping his ice cream float and offered some help. “No,” the boy said as he continued on his way, with senses slightly heightened from the stranger who appeared to be watching him while he was somewhat vulnerable within the confines of the alternate reality visor. Mr. Cody was certain that the game worked and just needed someone who already knew what to do and what to expect. He put in the coins and put on the visor. It turns out, the basic menu commands would not even respond to him. He felt someone tapping behind him on his shoulder. He removed the visor and behind him was the arcade man - a young man with thick hair and a beard to make you think of a teen werewolf as a first impression. A pen or stylus was parked behind his ear in the shade of his bushy hair while the twenty to thirty keys on a key ring attached to his belt loop made music with each step. The arcade man asked, very routinely, “Is this machine working? If not, here are your lost coins.” He handed the boy, who stood behind him, and Mr. Cody a few coins. He then took out some “out of order” tape and began taping the machine.
“Is the game broken?” Mr. Cody asked.
“This game will be playable, but it just has to go through some routine calibrating. It is overdue for calibrating,” the arcade man said.
“How long does it take?”
He looked at his wrist as if there was a watch but there wasn’t anything there but a hairy wrist. He cocked his head slightly to one side and said, “About one hour.”
He decided to kill some time on another game - hopefully to last him while the calibration was taking place. A particularly older and crudely pixelated game looked like a good time waster. He inserted one of the reimbursed coins from the arcade man. The text on the screen rose from the horizon and read, “Help Ben find his mother!” He immediately took control of a boy making him jump from platform to platform under a night city sky. Without warning, a few men in trenchcoats appeared and started chasing Ben. Mr. Cody frantically began to press the other buttons hoping that one might provide some way of preventing the trench coats from getting him. The other buttons did nothing. He continued running and jumping over platforms to get away. The trench coats seemed to walk through everything like ghosts. The boy had no chance. He was surrounded, and then the “Game Over” screen appeared.
“That was a prime waste of five cents!” Mr. Cody said. He took a step back and glanced over his shoulder to spot the arcade man. He was still at work. Mr. Cody’s mind was the same - it was still at work. He thought about Nova and how she wouldn’t talk to other students. He looked over at Mr. Teen Wolf again and he was wearing the AR visor and testing the game… or was he playing the game? Mr. Cody decided to toss in the towel for the night. “I’ll call her parents tomorrow,” he noted mentally even though his mental notes were like sticky notes that lost their ability to stick.
When Mr. Cody got home he played his messages on his answering machine. He had one message that said, “Max, this is Sonja. I’m not sure where you are but it is 5:45 right now and I’m at the movie theater. Are we still meeting up for the 5:50 showing of ‘Curly Baxter’? I’m calling from the theater payphone.”
Mr. Cody checked the time and saw that it was 6:11. He quickly dialed her home number and got the answering machine. “Sonja, I just got your message. I am heading there now. I think I can make it on time but I will miss the trailers and possibly the opening credits. I hope you are still there waiting for me. If all goes well, you will probably hear this message after you get home after we see the movie. Bye!”
He immediately dialed the phone number for the arcade. It rang several times before he realized that it was really loud inside the arcade… who could possibly hear this phone ringing? Someone picked up and the ringing stopped. “Ponchello Arcade,” the voice said. “Hello. This is Max. I was there not too long ago waiting for the AR game in front of the arcade.”
“Oh, yes. I remember. The game isn’t ready yet.”
“That’s fine. But I need a favor. I was wondering if you could deliver a message to someone for me... if you don’t mind.”
“Uhh… sure. What does she look like?”
“She might be standing right in front of the movie theater and arcade. She’s got long brown hair, has glasses, about 5′ 5" or so.”
The arcade man walked towards the entrance while stretching the coiled phone cord over the glass prize counter tattooed with scratches. “Um… I see a lot of people out here.”
“Call out, ‘Harpy!’”
“She plays the harp. I bet no one else in there plays the harp - that should narrow things for you.”
“Why don’t I just call out her real name? It would be kind of awkward yelling out ‘Harpy’ to a large crowd of people. If I was drunk, it might not be so bad that I’m calling out to a ferocious bird-woman, but I’m not.”
“Yeah, you can call out her real name… I just thought that there is more of a chance that more than one Sonja might be there. If, say, three Sonjas respond, we can narrow it down more.”
“Don’t sweat it. Sonja isn’t that common of a name. I think you are over-analyzing. Anyone ever told you that?”
“Well, I know it. No one has to tell me.”
“Let me ask then… Sonja? Is there a Sonja here?” A woman turned around and responded. The arcade man gave her the message. Mr. Cody rushed back to his car but took a mild detour to open his kitchen drawer to grab some loose change… but only the nickels.
Inside the movie theater, Mr. Cody whispered to Sonja, “Why are we the only ones here watching this movie? The parking lot is packed.” Sonya whispered, “People are probably seeing another movie. Now let’s be quiet so we can pay attention to the movie!”
“Wait, why are we whispering? No one else is here.”
After a few moments of uninterrupted movie watching, during a part where there was no dialogue, Mr. Cody whispered, “Do you think it’s weird that I sometimes call you ‘Harpy’?” Sonya just shook her head without taking her eyes off the screen.
Mr. Cody whispered again to Sonja, “Curly isn’t as funny in this movie as in the last. I think it’s because the director is different. Curly just keeps sneaking around and I’m not really digging this retro take on a mystery.” “SHHH... or I’ll flip your card to red!“ Sonya finally said.
After the movie, as they exited, Sonya turned to Mr. Cody and said, “I know you’re going to want to get some ice cream, but I don’t know about today. I think I had too much popcorn.” He replied, “That’s okay. I think I’ll skip ice cream too and just play in the arcade before I head home. I had a float earlier too. I’ll walk you to your car first and then I’ll come back for a bit.”
“You don’t have to walk back and forth. I’ll go to the arcade with you. I’ll keep talking to you while you play to get back at you for talking to me throughout the movie!”
“I wasn’t talking that much!”
“Whatever!” Sonya said, smiling.
Mr. Cody approached the game he was waiting for. He inserted the three nickels and then put on the visor. He quickly noticed that his satchel was broken and the penguin was no longer in his possession. He was in a house and there was a scuffling sound coming from an adjacent room. He slowly moved toward the room with the sound. In the room was an olive green couch facing the other way. The sound came from the couch, or whatever was on the couch. He stepped close enough to peer over the back of the couch and there was a dog on it. It was a regular sized dog - nothing dinosaur-sized. It was chewing on a toy. All of a sudden the dog jumped off the couch with the toy in its mouth and out of nowhere a girl kicked the dog and the toy dropped. “It looks like the penguin that was in my satchel!” Mr. Cody said. He was about to pick up the mangled toy when he saw who the girl was. It was Nova. “Nova?”
The girl who looked like Nova did not notice him and she started to cry. The olive green couch began to rumble but the sound was more deafening than it should have been. Then it just flipped over like it had been moved by a magnet and behind it was a man. This man’s eyes were on the girl and he did not look happy. All the walls in the room appeared to melt as the man began to speak, “See what you did? You broke his leg! We don’t have money for the vet!” The girl, who was flooded in tears, yelled, “I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was that hard!” Somewhere, somehow, the man disappeared and the couch was upright again but it was much larger… or did Mr. Cody shrink? It pinned Mr. Cody to the wall, almost to the point that made it difficult for him to breathe. He immediately took off the visor. Sonya wasn’t there anymore. After taking a better look at his surroundings, it looked almost as if the place was closed down. “How am I the last one here? I wasn’t playing that long,“ he thought to himself. All the screens of the arcade machines that were once glowing were all black. Some movement in the corner of his eye startled him eerily. He quickly turned his head and caught a glimpse of a man, just for a second, who disappeared behind a corner about 50 yards away. “Curly Baxter? That man really looked like the guy in the movie,” Mr. Cody said to himself, “I think that’s my cue to head home. I’m not even going to try to figure this one out right now.”
Plopping himself onto his couch, Max’s feeling of being out of place started to crawl over him. He could not quite solve his students’ problems. His coworkers did not pay any attention to him. He liked watching movies but lately they haven’t meant anything. He enjoyed games at the arcade but they haven’t been making sense anymore. He loved his ice cream - that, at least he could still rely on. But the ice cream shop was closed at this time of night. Mr. Cody decided that his freezer was the next best thing. He carefully lifted his body off the couch, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, and migrated to the kitchen. There, with the freezer door open, he found a source of nutrition for his body… and his mind.