At the beginning of fall, Peter discovered a broken windowpane in the basement of his house. A few jagged glass edges remained in the frame, but no other glass pieces were found. The yellow-framed window, nailed and painted shut, provided a view of the balding grass garden running along the side of his redbrick house. A chain-link fence, stitched with alternating green and white plastic strips, obscured the view beyond the garden. Peter's father covered the broken windowpane with a few layers of ripped garbage bags, but never returned to finish the job.
When the calendar decreed the beginning of winter, a cold draft seeped through the broken windowpane causing the plastic covering to suck in and out in concert with the wind. There were a few moments of tension between the thunderous burst as the plastic blew in, inflating the whistling garbage bag, and the softer hiss when the wind released the plastic. The sucking sound and motion reminded Peter of the artificial lung machine that had supplied oxygen to his dying grandmother. Before seeing the machine, he had never thought about his own breathing. Now, when he lay in bed, he was conscious of each breath. He sometimes lay awake all night controlling his breath, afraid that if he fell asleep his breathing would stop.
It was during one of those restless nights that Peter first heard the scratching in his wall. His bedroom pitched darkness that night, the type of dark that conjured gray-blackish spitballs. His heart thumped in time with the scratches and titters that emanated from behind the wall. The wall, covered in swirling wood paneling framed by black plumb lines, hid the origin of the noise.
For six weeks, the sounds arrived from inside his wall. The sounds were neither consistent nor predictable, but every few nights Peter heard the scratching. At the first sound, his insides froze up and his thoughts slithered wetly through his icy organs. A small part of his mind considered his fear ridiculous--scratching never hurt anyone. Those thoughts crystallized alongside his internal organs. He never got back to sleep on those nights. Instead, he stayed up until sunlight swirled in the brewing darkness. Peter never told his parents about the sounds because under the bright antiseptic of morning, he believed such sounds would never again scare him.
After a scratching, sleepless night, Peter arose to a deceptively sunny day. Two layers of broken clouds drifted high above the one-way street that his room overlooked. A blue family sedan sat double-parked at the corner, its blinking yellow lights tallying the passing of time. The marshmallow gray puffs of vapor escaping the car's muffler gave Peter a good gauge for the cold temperature outside.
The clothing he pulled from his drawers had the comforting smell of damp wood and moldy soap, smells which somehow permeated all of the clothing his mother washed. He dressed quickly and washed his face before heading down for breakfast, stumbling down the stairs two at a time, except for the last three, which he vaulted down, using his arms as a pivot between the wall and the banister, and setting down with a resounding thud on the carpeted landing.
"Stop dropping your Cocoa-Puffs all over the floor," his mother said. Frederick sat at the kitchen table with a spoon poised in front of his mouth. He wore a cornflower blue Adidas t-shirt, the same shirt he had worn continuously for the past month--his mother, fearing he would catch his death if he ran around shirtless, had given up arguing.
Frederick placed a dry spoonful of cereal in his mouth and dropped a sugary ball of chocolate with his left hand, which he hid under the table. He watched his mother carefully as he rolled the ball off his foot to quiet the sound. His mother didn't even look up. "What did I just say?" she asked him. He put the full spoonful back into his bowl and pretended to munch away.
Peter slid into the kitchen with his left socked foot and arm in front of his right like a surfer. He barely kept his balance as his sock caught and ripped on the golden metal bracket that divided the dining room's hardwood floor from the kitchen's tile. He poured himself a glass of OJ from the fridge and drank the glass bathed in the fridge's neon light. He put the glass and the carton back on the fridge's shelf.
"Glass goes in the sink," his mother said, her reading glasses perched dangerously on the upturned tip of her thin, pointed nose. The glasses magnified the large pores under her rouged cheek, appearing as a zoomed topographical map that scrolled as she moved her head to read the columns of the newspaper. She wore a pillowed robe decorated with fading blue flowers over her nightgown that shouted Sunday morning.
"Right," Peter said, removing the glass and putting it in the sink.
"Orange juice isn't breakfast," his mother said.
"Yup," Peter responded. He walked toward the kitchen door, appearing very interested in a fruit basket print that hung on the wall. His mother folded the top of her newspaper and peered at Peter. "Sit down and I'll make you some breakfast," she said without readying to rise.
"Not hungry," Peter said. A chocolate ball hit his foot. He looked to Frederick and Frederick grinned at him. He slowly crushed the ball with his big toe, leaving a brown crumbly mark on his ripped, white sock.
His mother looked at Peter expectantly.
"I said I'm not hungry," Peter said. His mother continued to stare at him.
"I'll get a bagel," Peter said. Satisfied, his mother nodded and snapped the newspaper up and continued reading.
Peter walked to the counter and ruffled the brown bag that held the day-old bagels. He made a munching sound and left the kitchen with his arm held rigid at his side. Frederick, still pretending to shovel his cereal, watched Peter's performance but did not say a word.
Peter scurried down to the basement. It was here that he and his friends assembled. Scattered throughout the room were chairs in different states of repair, including three generations of rolling computer chairs and an incomplete set of white wired patio chairs. One of the patio chairs would collapse when sat on. Peter and his friends had learned that if the broken chair was set properly its damage was impossible to discern. With a deafening clatter, many had felt the wrath of the patio chair.
Besides the scattered chairs, the room had a large bare middle, which left plenty of room for impromptu wrestling matches (made all the more lethal because of the hard floor), and rolling chair wars. Steady cold air leaked in through the garbage bag covering the window. In the far corner of the room, Peter's computer waited. Peter sat down in his computer chair and rolled himself under the desk. With a much-practiced move, he used his thumb and pinky, and the middle finger of his right hand to boot his computer.
The computer went through its starting pains, groaning, clicking, and occasionally burping until symbols flashed on the screen. Peter reached out and selected a hulking green troll. The troll expanded into a painted scene of four fantastically dressed persons standing with weapons drawn against the troll. The troll dwarfed the party, each of which held a different weapon: a silver sword, a knotted staff with a fiery ball balanced on its top, a pair of daggers with the blades crossed together, and a taut bow taller than the person pulling it. The word 'Loading' followed by a growing collection of ellipses appeared on the bottom of the screen. The scene dissolved slowly into a new reality, a world of trolls, dragons, and heroic warriors. Peter couldn't wait to step in.
At fifteen feet tall, Grelko the Giant loomed. Peter admired Grelko's girth, which dominated his computer screen. Grelko was ancient. Peter had played him for one hundred twenty days and thirteen hours in a world where age translated into power. The longer your character survived, the more powerful it grew, and Grelko was huge, even for a giant.
Peter called up his list of friends to see who was online. Even though it was early, a surprising number of his clan were in the system. He scrolled quickly through their names looking for one in particular. With relief, he found Freilik's name.
The clan greeted Grelko with bows and cheers. Grelko approached Freilik. Freilik was less than a quarter of Grelko's height and wore a loose fitting green robe that partially covered her rounded belly and chubby legs. Peter still smiled when he saw the character Samantha chose to play. Samantha was tall and thin and Peter considered her the second best looking girl at school, right after Svetlana, whose fully developed chest and frog eyes put her on top of every boy's list in Peter's class.
"Have you been on long?" Grelko mouthed to Freilik. Green sparks cascaded off his massive axe, the sparks drifting to the ground before disappearing through the pixilated earth. Pleated clouds slid across the darkening sky.
"It's been quiet all morning," Freilik mouthed. "We're just waiting for them to attack. I have to log in an hour or my mother will kill me. But I'd really hate to miss this." She wielded a short sword, which glowed dully in the fading light.
Grelko peered over Freilik to a distant gathered army. "It doesn't look like you'll miss much," Grelko mouthed and shrugged, a strange sight as his breastplate, which consisted of two chainmail shirts coupled together with straps, shifted up and fell down on his shoulders with a jingling thump. "This looks like a pretty easy fight. And, you know, Grelko the Giant doesn't lose many battles." Grelko's smile showed three gray teeth in an otherwise empty, cavernous mouth. Freilik groaned.
"Of course," Grelko mouthed quickly, "it would be better if you stayed. I'm better with you at my side. You know, we haven't lost one battle since we've teamed up. That's saying something."
"Yeah," Freilik mouthed with a smile. "But, then again, Grelko didn't lose one fight before me either."
"You know me," Grelko mouthed. Samantha had joined Peter in the game last year at his urging. She had played three characters before settling on Freilik, a surprisingly spry elf that complemented Grelko well. Samantha and Peter had been in the same classes since junior high school. She had always been friendly with him, especially after they shared a desk in seventh-grade Spanish. They spent more time doodling and passing notes than listening to the teacher that semester. Peter had realized at the end of the year how much he had grown to like Samantha. He never worked up the courage to ask her out.
Freilik snickered and walked around the perimeter of the encampment with Grelko trailing. She peeked in the supply tent and continued her walk. As she passed by the hastily constructed inner gate, she stopped. "Spy!" Freilik mouthed. In a blurred motion, she drew and with an underhand motion flung a small dagger. The dagger hung in midair before a bluish creature appeared. Grelko raised his axe and took two giant's step toward the creature. In executioner style, he brought the axe down on the creature. The creature raised a blackened spear to block the axe, but the spear cracked and Grelko embedded his axe in the creature's shoulder. The creature crumbled.
Freilik and Grelko stepped back as a large crowd rushed over to see what was happening. The leaders of the clan barked orders and the clan spread out, searching the surrounding area. Freilik and Grelko remained near the bloody creature. Freilik searched the corpse, tossing Grelko a jingling small pouch.
"That was interesting," Freilik mouthed. "I wonder why they sent him."
"I'm not sure, but his friends probably aren't too far behind," Grelko mouthed. Before Samantha had joined, Peter would have seen that spy before he got within a hundred yards of Grelko. He had grown soft with her around. Surprising himself, he did not mind this.
The attack began while the clan was spread out searching for additional spies. It was a bold attack, something that none of the defenders expected. For all of its audacity, it took the clan only twenty minutes to fight off the offensive. As always, Grelko was at the front of the attack with Freilik only a step behind him. They wiped out half the attacking army. After Grelko and the clan decimate their ranks, the attacking army sounded the horn for a retreat. The clan chased the retreating attackers while Grelko and Freilik returned to camp.
"You sure you don't want to stay for the looting," Grelko mouthed. "I'm sure the bounties they carried will be worth something. I know you don't usually pass up opportunities to collect the goodies."
"I wish I could," Freilik mouthed. "My mother has been yelling at my for the last twenty minutes to finish up. We're supposed to go to my grandmother's or something. I swear she does nothing but complain--my mother, that is, not my grandmother. She's pretty cool, in that older-person who knows things, type of way."
Grelko laughed. "I know exactly what you're talking about. So what are your plans for tomorrow?"
"Not sure," Freilik mouthed. "I may log in tomorrow morning for a bit if you want to meet up."
"Oh," Grelko mouthed and paused. "Sure."
"Okay then," Freilik mouthed. "Kill you later!" With a poof, Freilik logged out leaving Grelko standing there.
Peter logged out shortly after Freilik left, leaving the looting to the rest of his clan. As he powered down his computer, he heard a scratching on the floor behind him. He used his feet to spin his black computer chair around. Sitting in the middle of the tiled floor, a white mouse rubbed its hind legs together.
Fear encased Peter. His vision clouded until only the mouse was visible, and it appeared huge, its pink eyes the size of hubcaps, and its teeth gleaming metallically. Peter could only think about his vulnerable feet; he wished more than anything that he was wearing sneakers instead of just socks. He jumped up on the chair, keeping a good distance between the floor and his feet. The mouse sniffed the air and sauntered away from Peter. Peter used this opportunity to leap off the chair, using his palms to avoid running face first into the wall, and ran to the stairs, hugging the far wall and not looking back.
He found his mother and brother in the living room, watching Sunday cartoons. "There's a mouse downstairs!" Peter shouted. His mother and Frederick looked up. Peter felt his legs shaking.
"A what?" his mother asked.
"A rat!" Peter said. "It's in the basement."
His mother looked at Peter and shrugged, lifting herself off the couch and walked down to the basement. Frederick increased the volume on the television.
"Frederick," his mother yelled from the basement after only a few minutes. "Bring me down the mop and bucket."
Frederick got up reluctantly, still watching the television screen. He walked slowly toward the kitchen until a commercial came on. He ran to the closet, retrieved the bucket and mop, and ran down the stairs to the basement.
Peter heard lots of banging and yelling coming from the basement. He pictured his mother chasing the mouse with her kitchen broom. After a short time, his mother and Frederick returned.
"We caught the mouse," his mother said. "Caught him right under the kitchen bucket."
"Yeah," Frederick said. "Mommy snuck up to the mouse, real quiet like, and dropped the bucket right on his head. I bet he didn't even know what hit him. You should have heard him running around squealing!"
His mother nodded her head in agreement.
"We just need you to dispose of the mouse. You can use this mop," his mother said and handed Peter the kitchen mop. "Just turn the bucket over, using the mop so it doesn't escape, and empty the bucket outside in the garbage."
Peter took the mop from his mother. Frederick smiled and turned away. His mother gave Peter a little shove toward the basement stairs.
"Why didn't you just pick it up?" Peter said.
"We caught it under the bucket," his mother said. "We did all the hard work. Now all we need you to do is scoop it up. We're not asking much."
"Why don't we call an exterminator?" Peter asked. "We should have done that before. Do you know the number of germs rats have? I'll get the yellow pages." He stood up and walked toward the kitchen. His mother grabbed him by the arm.
"No need. We caught the mouse. Just go get it. Unless you're scared of a mouse?" his mother said.
"Pete is scared of a mouse," Frederick sang. "Pete is scared of a mouse. Pete is scared of a mouse."
It was bad enough that his mother questioned his courage. Peter couldn't bear to listen to his younger brother tease him. He walked down the first few stairs and looked up at his mother and brother. They both stood at the top of the staircase watching him. His mother made a shooing motion with her hands and Frederick waved. Peter continued down the stairs.
The staircase was narrow and turned abruptly before the last step. His friends joked that a fat person would never fit down the staircase. For the first time, Peter wished he were much fatter. He exited the narrow staircase into a hallway that led to the main room in the basement.
In the middle of the basement floor, Peter saw the upside-down kitchen pail. He took a step into the room, holding the mop, strings dangling, in front of him. The kitchen pail was dull white with black horizontal smudges. The white plastic grip of the wire handle was stuck under the lip of the pail, which lifted the pail off the ground.
Peter approached the pail and pushed it with the mop. The pail slid backwards. The pail then jerked forward as the plastic grip slipped over the lip of the pail. Peter dropped the mop and jumped back in dread, his arms raised as he had been instructed during the two weeks of martial arts classes he attended before dropping out. He took small, quick steps backwards until he felt the reassuring hardness of the wall. Peter knew that his mother had been wrong. This was not a job for him.
Peter stood at the far end of the basement facing the peeling yellow wall. He was hunched over with an arm half-raised to protect his turned away face. He heard his mother and brother coming down the stairs, talking quietly. His brother looked out from beneath the arched doorway with a cupped hand covering his nose and chin, and only the edges of his upturned lips visible. His mother, standing next to his brother, said something, but Peter didn't hear her. Peter watched with one eye covered by his crooked elbow as she walked over to the pail and lifted it. Only the unbroken pattern of streaked tile was under the pail.
"We didn't catch the mouse," his mother said, her voice finally registering in Peter's ears. "We didn't even see it. There was nothing here except the empty pail. What are you doing in the corner, Peter? Peter?"
Peter whimpered. His mother came over, putting her arms around his quivering shoulders, and stroked his hair.
"Pete, get a grip, Frederick said. "It was a joke." Frederick had stopped laughing.
Peter looked at his brother and pushed his mother aside as he exploded from the basement.
"It was just an empty pail," his mother yelled after him. "It was supposed to be funny."
Peter's vision was obscured by cloudy blood vessels as he ran out of the house and slammed the front door. The porch windows shuddered and a plant balancing on the windowsill fell over, spilling dirt on to the floor. Red petals peeked from under the dirt. Peter choked on a laugh and kicked the dirt until it covered the flower. Taking the stairs three at a time, he leaped to the ground. He ran with his head down, his moist eyes stinging in the cold air.
He ran into the avenue. A green station wagon screeched to a halt as Peter crossed in front of it. He didn't look up. He kept running. Peter knew that this was his life, his real life. Peter couldn't live like this anymore. He thought of Samantha. He thought of how friendly he was with her in the game. How well they talked in class. He then thought of the pail and her hiding underneath it. What was he afraid of? It was ridiculous. In the clear, cold light of day, he decided to go to her, to go to her in real life.
Rows of two-story houses lined the residential street. Stairways led up to the front doors next to driveways that sloped downward to garages. Every few houses, a large tree protruded from an opening in the concrete sidewalk. The tree roots pushed the surrounding sidewalk upward, forming a useful ramp for adventurous bicyclists and skateboarders.
After a few blocks, Peter noticed that three boys were following him. Peter reached into his pocket and felt for his keys and wallet. The boys were getting closer, glancing at each other and gesturing. Peter turned the corner on to Samantha's street. He felt the three boys turn the corner moments later. One of the boys crossed the street and walked parallel to Peter. Peter walked faster. It was early afternoon and the streets were empty.
Peter felt relief when he was half a block from Samantha's house. The boy across the street ran diagonally toward him. The two following also ran toward him. The one that crossed the street arrived first. He held out his arm, which was covered in a well-padded ski jacket, and struck Peter in the neck. Peter yelped and fell to the ground. When Peter looked up, the other three boys stood over him.
One of the boys grabbed Peter from behind. He felt something cold and smooth touching his neck.
"It's a razor blade," the boy said. "Don't move or I cut."
Another boy reached over his friend's arm and ripped off Peter's necklace. The necklace had been a gift from his uncle. As the boys searched through Peter's pocket, he heard Samantha's voice. She was screaming from her porch, running toward them. She was wielding a portable phone with a large plastic antenna. "Get out of here," she yelled. "I called the cops. Leave him alone!"
The boys ran, scattering in four directions. Peter stared at Samantha. She still held the portable phone in front of her, swinging it like a sword. "Are you okay, Peter?" she asked.
"Fine," Peter said. He stood up and walked away from her. His steps were hesitant and he didn't look back when he turned the corner. Had he looked, he would have seen Samantha standing there, crying. He walked for a few blocks and sat down leaning against a blue mailbox.
His mother found him three hours later. She took him home.
Grelko the Giant surveyed the castle. The warriors standing on the walls looked surprised. Grelko always traveled with his clan. His reputation and stature made him a target for anyone in the system looking to build a reputation. But there was Grelko, alone except for his axe.
Grelko charged the castle wall. The spell casters and bowmen waited for him to get in range and then opened fire. Magical fire and streaming arrows engulfed Grelko. In a surprisingly short time, the giant's bloody body was prone outside the city's wall. The defenders waited fifteen minutes before approaching the body; they were sure it was a trap. But when they arrived at the body, they found Grelko dead. His axe had broken during the magical onslaught and the giant held the broken shaft in his dead hand. Bards were summoned to document this occasion.
Everyone spoke of Grelko's charge for months, and the message boards were ripe with rumors. But no plausible explanation was ever given, least of all by a new incarnation of Grelko. The defending city enshrined the broken axe in its temple. A few days later, it disappeared. The city guards swore that they had seen glimpses of a green clad elf during the night.