Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 13

Level 2-13

     Still feeling the burn after her father gave her the third degree, Dylan’s conscious continued to replay the exchange she’d had with her step-mother from the night before. Somewhere, deep in her heart, Dylan felt what had been said was hurtful. She also felt it was true. Jill wouldn’t ever clear the bar set by Dylan’s real mom. Although, it may have been unfair to knock the lady down for trying. Jill was a mom for certain, but not Dylan’s. It was simply a matter of jurisdiction.

     Dylan felt the familiar bumps in the road as the SUV rolled up into the YMCA parking lot. She cringed as each bump jostled her in the far back row. Dylan acceded to wait until the car had found a parking space before climbing out. Every place that could feel sore was, and every moment where Dylan didn’t have to move would be taken advantage of this morning. It was a tough call: her desire to get as far away from her step-family was equal to Dylan’s reluctance to attend camp today.

     When the SUV found its spot, the twins spilled out through the same door like a pair of rottweiler puppies confined in the same kennel for too long. Luke exited the vehicle in far less spectacular fashion and shut the door behind him. As soon as Dylan was out, Jill had locked the doors and was already speed walking across the lot.

     Dylan tried to catch up to Luke. Irritation began to brew in her with every aching step she took. Despite everything they’d gone through yesterday, Luke still gave her the silent treatment. Unable to match his pace, she shouted after her step-brother, “You’re sure in a hurry to get to the exact same place everyone else is going.”

     Once on the sidewalk, Luke turned to face his step-sister. He waited for her to catch up before speaking in a hushed tone, “I’m not going to the same place.”

    Dylan quickly put the pieces together, “You found another clue. Why didn’t you tell me?”

     Luke put a hand on Dylan’s shoulder, “I don’t need anyone else getting hurt because of me. You’ve already helped plenty.”

     “You still need my help though.”

     Taking a step back, Jill jogged between the two siblings. In passing Dylan’s step-mom spoke nearly out of breath, “Be good.”

   Exchanging looks, Dylan smirked, “That was probably meant for you. I’m sure she figures that “good” isn’t a thing I do.”

    Luke smiled, “Yesterday you did good.”

    Reaching out for his sleeve, Dylan protested, “Luke, please. Let me help. At least tell me about the lead you found.”

   A breeze blew over the grass and Dylan watched the green blades bend beneath the wind. Luke’s eyes were locked on his shoes, “I love her.” He paused, still not looking up at his step-sister, “I loved her Dylan. She was my first. I can’t stand to think what it would be like to lose that kind of connection. I won’t,” he took a short breath, walking backwards, “Goodbye.”

    With that, Luke readjusted his backpack and bolted toward Custer Road. Dylan tried to catch up to him, but with her foot injured from the day before, she could only manage a slight hobble. After a few more spaces, she stopped and watched Luke turn the corner out of sight.

    For a moment Dylan continued to watch the road, half expecting Luke to return. Cars and SUV’s continued to pass through the lot. Campers filed in from the front lawn and into the gym. A few moments later, Dylan stood alone on the lawn staring at the road ahead. Gradually, an unsettling reality nested inside Dylan’s chest: she’d lost another family member.

    Before grief could be fully realized, Holly’s voice spoke up from behind, “We got to do something about yo hair.”

     Faking a smile, Dylan shot back, “Let’s just buzz the whole thing off.”

     Holly snapped, “Nope. No, I don’t want another reminder of how much this place is like a prison whenever I look at my best friend.”

     Dylan let out a little laugh, “I’m your best friend?”

     Holly, “Best friend, sister, cellmate. Yeah. That okay with you?”

    Dylan looked over her shoulder, waiting for Luke to have changed his mind. He didn’t. He was gone. Letting her guard drop, Dylan sighed out, “It’s only hair, Holly.”

    Holly didn’t pick up on the change right away, which is why she said, “Listen, this ain’t a vanity thing, it’s about respecting yourself. I just like to start with the hair is all.” Circling around to the front of Dylan, Holly tried to lock eyes with her friend. “What you staring at? You thinking of running?”

     Finally meeting Holly’s eyes, Dylan answered flatly, “Luke’s gone.”

     “What do you mean gone?”

     Dylan found herself slowly walking toward Custer Road, “He found something, another clue. There must have been something else on that barcode.”

     Walking alongside Dylan, Holly let out an exasperated, “Sweet baby Jesus, she’s talking in tongues.” She raised her hands in the air, “Help me Lordy, my friend’s lost her damn mind.”

   Dylan gave an impatient, “My brother’s girlfriend got abducted. We broke into her house, stole a binder hidden in a steam room, and somewhere in that binder is a clue to where she is now.” Dylan looked back towards the road, “And where my brother is headed.”

     Holly’s tone dropped, “He just left you?”

     Before Dylan could answer, Councilor Brad interjected, “Ms. Yates, it’s time for roll call. We’re not going to have a problem today, are we?” Reluctantly, Dylan sulked toward Brad, towards the entrance of the gym. Just before she entered, Bradley asked pointedly, “Didn’t see your older brother this morning.”

     With a shrug, Dylan kept walking as she replied, “I ain’t in charge of him. He’s probably in there playing basketball or whatever.”

    Holly also covered for Luke in her usual timbre, “I wouldn’t mind taking charge of him.”

    Dylan nearly gagged, “I will throw up. All over you, Holly.”

     Blistering heat from the Dallas Summer Sun beat down on Dylan. Despite being roasted alive, the heat was enough to trick her brain into thinking it was just a normal summer’s day. Even with all evidence of a thunderstorm erased, a perfectly blue sky above her, and bright green grass beneath her, she ached. She ached like never before. It wasn’t her ankle, or the dull bruises from being jumped by the Ice Queen. It was an ache she fooled herself into thinking couldn’t possibly happen again, but it did. Loss was the greatest ache, and there was only one remedy.

     Unfortunately, with her trusty electronic-side-arm revoked, Dylan would have to settle for playing the game she was currently engaged in. She quickly poked her head up from behind the inflatable cushion she was hiding behind, and scanned the field. A ten foot high fence made from transparent tarps had been erected as a pen around the soccer field. Dozens of inflatable barriers occupied the field, along with a handful of remaining campers armed with paintball guns.

     Ducking back behind her cover, Dylan narrowly missed getting tagged by incoming fire. SPLAT, SPLAT, SPLAT! Each little plastic pellet exploded into a burst of pink paint on the tarp behind her. Clutching her paintball gun in one hand, Dylan clawed into the mud, pulling herself forward to the end of the barrier.

     Beside her, kids on the bleachers were screaming at the top of their lungs, “She’s over here!” It sounded like a satanic variant of a Pentecostal church. It was nearly as hot as one too. Another camper squealed at the top of his lungs, “Come on, somebody get Dylan!”

     Breathing heavy inside her mask, Dylan rolled out from behind her cover just as another camper ran around the corner. Looking down the end of her barrel, Dylan lined up her sights.

POP!

POP! POP!

     One in the head. Two in the chest. Just like her dad taught her on the range. Raising his arms above his head, the kid walked off the field. Dylan steadily advanced up to the next barricade. She’d been moving along the perimeter picking off the kids who ran for the center. With the stupid face-masks and mesh vests, it was nearly impossible to distinguish who was who. In a free for all fight though, all Dylan had to worry about was keeping herself alive.

     From the other side of the tarp, Bradley blew his whistle and yelled, “Three minutes left! You girls hiding in the back, get out and shoot somebody!”

     For once, Dylan thought, Bradley was being helpful. Rushing the bunker was out of the question. It may not have been a full sprain, but she wasn’t about to take the risk. Stalking carefully from bunker to bunker, Dylan advanced on her pray. She’d crawl all the way across the field. Those girls were as good as gone.

     Suddenly, some kid ran out from behind the inflatable bunker in the back corner. He sprayed bullets wildly, forcing Dylan down behind a smaller sized barrier. Whoever this kid was, aiming wasn’t really a priority. It didn’t have to be either. This kid was fast, had plenty of ammo, and would be right on top of Dylan any second now.

    Lying on her back, Dylan used her feet to push herself backwards through the mud towards better cover. She’d lost track of him. Sweeping her pistol from one blow-up-bunker to the next, Dylan’s breathing increased rapidly. Her facemask began to fog up. Sweat was pouring down into her eyes: salty liquid stinging her pupils.

     Almost on accident, Dylan had pushed herself under one of the inflatable barriers that hadn’t been pinned down all the way. Rolling over onto her stomach, she kept her burning eyes on the lookout.

POP! POP! POP!

     She heard his gun go off, but it was blind fire. He couldn’t see her. She couldn’t see him. Nearly at the back of the field, there was one thing she could see that brought a wide devious smile to her face. Cowering in the corner across from Dylan, pushing herself up against the largest inflatable bunker: Isabella Catarina Eklund.

POP! POP!

    Another burst of blind rounds drew Dylan’s attention back to the mystery gunner. Trying to stay calm, she pretend that she was sitting behind a monitor. Combat stress pressed down on Dylan like an anvil. All her attempts to force herself into an out of body experience were hopeless. If only Dylan could control herself like one of her game avatars, like the Robot, their wouldn’t be any fear of getting stung by paintball bullets. There wouldn’t be any fear at all.

     Still no sign of the mystery gunner. It was now or never. Dylan lined up her shot and take out the Ice Queen while she had the chance. Isabella wasn’t even making it a challenge. She didn’t even bother to blind fire her gun into the arena. She just sat their in the fetal position. That’s when it dawned on Dylan: Isabella wasn’t hiding, she was bait.

     Turning over at the last possible second, Dylan nearly unloaded her entire clip at the boy running up to her. With a satisfying series of SMACKS, she lit him up along his side and face mask. He stopped dead in his tracks. Wiping off the paint, the kid just shrugged it off and gave Dylan a thumbs up.

POP! POP! POP!

SMACK!

     A blinding burst of pink covered the side of Dylan’s face mask. She also got pegged in the thigh and right under her armpit of all places. It stung like a bitch. The pain and the shooter had something in common. Lying on her chest with her gun still trained on Dylan was Isabella waving like an idiot. Before Dylan could fire back, Bradley blew his whistle, “Isabella wins! Ten points to team Double Ferrari.”

     Half a dozen kids in the crowd cheered. Dylan growled. Smearing away paint from her mask, Dylan rolled out from under the inflatable barrier. As she limped past the boy she’d shot, he mumbled, “Nice shooting.”

     Dylan said nothing. She kept hobbling toward the exit flap in the tarp.

POP!

SMACK!

    With a yelp, Dylan felt the sting of another paintball bullet bite her right on the tail end of her spine. Then she heard that false eloquence float out from underneath Isabella’s face mask taunting, “I didn’t think I could hit such a small target, but I surprise even myself.”

    More laughter rose from the crowd of kids in the bleachers.

   Bradley blew his whistle again, “Game’s over Eklund, get your gun in the air.” Taking a bow, the Ice Queen straightened up and put her gun over her head. As she strut over to the exit, Dylan heard Bradley say nonchalantly, “Yates, take your shot.” Turning to the councilor in bewilderment, he simply gestured with his finger in the shape of a gun towards Isabella.

    It still hurt to smile, but Dylan suffered through it. Firing from the hip, Dylan tagged the Ice Queen in the left boob. A satisfying yelp followed. Mocking Isabella’s accent Dylan called out, “I didn’t think I could hit such a non-existent target, but you know, I surprise myself sometimes.”

    Brad once again blew his whistle, “Alright girls, that’s enough. Clear the field.”

   Holly and Dylan were resting on the furthest bleachers from the makeshift paintball arena. Flipping through the pages of her magazine, Holly chuckled to herself.

    Tilting her head towards Holly, Dylan quipped, “Didn’t know five hundred new ways to style your hair could be that funny.”

    Pouting her lips, Holly replied, “That ain’t what I’m laughing at. An’ I told you, hair is serious business. I was laughing cause I keep replaying that chick getting shot in the tit. BLAM!”

   Dylan smiled wide, “Yeah, that felt right.” Looking back up to the sky, Dylan let her smile fade, “Not part of the plan though.”

    Holly scoffed, “What plan? You shot her. What more do ya need?”

    Both girls turned towards Allan shouting from across the field, “Hey, Dylan!”

    Holly’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor, “Oh my God, he’s totally comin’ over here.”

    Putting a finger up to her lips, Dylan deadpanned, “Oh my God, he can totally hear you.” Allan stopped about six feet away from Dylan. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there. While the cloud of awkwardness continued to expand, Dylan finally asked, “Hey?”

    Clearing his throat, Allan’s voice nearly cracked as he replied, “Just wanted to say nice shot.”

    Holly gasped, and whispered to Dylan, “You shot Allan?”

   Slapping the side of Holly’s thigh, Dylan shrugged off Allan’s comment, “Yeah, thanks.” She kept her eyes locked on Allan, trying to stare through him the way her father looked at people he would interrogate.

    Feeling the pressure, Allan managed a meek, “That’s cool.”

    Dylan smiled, and let out a bored, “Yeah, cool. Can I help you with something else?”

    Fumbling for words, Allan’s cocky adolescent demeanor began to crack, “Um, yeah, so I was just wondering, could I call you or whatever?”

    An epiphany flashed within Dylan’s brain pan, but she still played her game close to the chest. She replied with another relatively smooth, “Why don’t you give me your number?”

    Allan’s eyes widened, “What?”

    Equally shocked, Holly whispered a quiet, “Yeah, what?”

   Dylan turned to Holly, “You have that Sharpie?” Without another word, Holly reached into her satchel and pulled out her pen. Looking up to Allan, she motioned for him to come closer. With each small step, the boy’s tween confidence crumbled.

    Taking the pen, he asked timidly, “You have like a paper or something to write on?”

   Reaching out for his wrist, Dylan laid her arm in his palm. Shaking, Allan wrote his phone number up the girl’s forearm with the penmanship of a drunk kindergartener. When he was finished, Dylan plucked the pen from his hand and gave it back to Holly.

    From somewhere behind them, Isabella’s sing-song voice beckoned, “Allan!?”

    Looking up at Dylan, Allan motioned awkwardly toward Isabella. With total indifference, Dylan shrugged him off. Making a less than graceful exit, Allan ran back to Isabella.

    Holly was livid, “That boy thinks he can just write all over you and-”

    Again, Dylan shushed her friend as she spoke, “Just wait.”

    After Allan had caught up to Isabella and her hive, Dylan stood up and whistled. The Ice Queen glared over at Dylan. The Gamer Girl replied with a white washed smile and waved with her freshly tattooed arm, “I’ll call you tonight, ACE.”

    Isabella’s eyes narrowed and turned on Allan. The poor boy was without an explanation. Still waving atop the bleachers, Dylan watched as the Ice Queen and her minions scurried off the field and into the locker room.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter -Chapter 12

Level 2-12

     For a family of six plus one unexpected guest, the dinner table was unusually quiet. Dylan cringed at the scraping of knives and forks over the ceramic plates. Trying to ignore the uneasy silence, she instead savored every bite of her barbecue. She chewed slowly waiting for every morsel of meat to ease its way down her throat before taking another bite. The warm shower before dinner had loosened her joints and eased her aching muscles. It felt good to be properly cleaned, dry, and eat something other than grass or wet pavement. All the comforts of home still failed to distract from the tension that was thick enough to cut with a steak knife.

     Colonel Yates sat to the right of his daughter with his eyes locked on Bo Han.

   Swallowing his food, Bo-Han asked, “These ribs are perfectly seasoned. Is this a family recipe, Mrs. Yates?”

    Dylan grimaced at the sound of her mom’s last name attached to Jill’s. However, she didn’t immediately jump on Bo Han for the error. For the last two years, Dylan’s mom had changed it back to Arowyn before she left anyway.

    Swallowing his food, Colonel Yates answered for Jill, “It’s my father’s recipe.”

    Bo Han nodded and looked back down at his plate.

    The silence resumed.

  Swallowing his food, Matthew asked innocently enough, “So is that guy Dylan’s boyfriend?”

    Dylan nearly choked on her food while trying to shout, “No.”

    Mark interjected with his usual abrasive volume, “He’s probably Luke’s boyfriend.”

    Luke lurched forward at the bait, and matched his younger brother’s volume, “How about you shut your face, or I’ll reach over there and shut it for you.”

   Colonel Yates acted as judge presiding over the table, “We’re not doing this at dinner. Mark, if you’re done drowning your food in barbecue sauce, you can be dismissed.” Mark gave a horrible excuse for a salute and ran his plate up to the kitchen sink. The Colonel warned Mark, “And I want that plate rinsed off before you shove it in the dishwasher this time.”

     Mark replied with a deflated, “Yes, sir.”

     Bo Han tried again to ease the rising tension, “So, Mrs. Yates, what do you do if you don’t mind me asking?” Still taking notes on the papers spread out before her, Jill didn’t look up.

     Again, the Colonel stepped in, “What exactly do you do, Bi-Han?”

   Bo cleared his throat, “It’s Bo-Han, sir. And, essentially I’m in charge of writing code for computers on one side of the world to talk to computers on the other side of the world.”

  “So, you don’t just play video games then?”

  “Not as much as I’d like to. I’m trying to transition from consumer to creator.”

   Dylan stepped in, “Permission to be excused, sir?”

  Dylan’s father finally turned to Dylan and ruffled her freshly blow dried hair, “Permission granted. You don’t want to stay and get to know your step-brother’s friend a little bit better?”

    Shaking her head, Dylan replied hurriedly, “No thanks, I’m exhausted. Need sleep.”

     “Suit yourself.”

    Standing up, Dylan pinched Luke who had been sitting beside her. Having grabbed his attention and maneuvered behind her father, Dylan motioned for them to escape. Unfortunately, neither Bo-Han or Luke picked up on Dylan’s flailing hand motions. Her father continued his interrogation, “Bo, why don’t you go back to that creator, consumer line. Elaborate, please.”

     Watching Dylan point emphatically toward the living room, Bo-Han gave a rushed explanation, “Well, don’t get me wrong I love video games, but I wanted to do more than just buy stuff. I wanted to make my own.”

    With a smug grin, Dylan’s father pointed his fork at Bo, “You were inspired to put away the games and get to work in the real world?”

    Dylan turned the faucet on full blast while she cleared her plate, “Yeah, video games: not all bad. Who’d have guessed? Luke, didn’t you have a server, or computer thing Bo was going to help you with?”

     Luke quickly gathered his plate and utensils, “Yeah, that’s right.”

     Falling into the trap, Bo acknowledged the Colonel’s comment first, “Exactly. Video games were an inspiration for me to help make this world more connected through computers. Being able to connect to anyone and everyone through the internet is where we’re headed anyway, so I’m lucky that I got a head start. I guess.” Bo looked from the Colonel to Jill. “I’ll just, um…”

     As Bo stood up to leave, Jill finally looked up from her paperwork she had sprawled across the table. Looking Bo-Han dead in the eyes, “Is that where you think we’re headed?” Before even a single syllable could part from Bo’s mouth, Jill tossed a folder of photos towards Bo. The contents spilled out of the open side of the manila envelope. Captured on celluloid was a grizzly scene of a young boy, no more than seven lying limp on the floor. There was a sizable chunk missing from his side: gunshot wound.

    Jill pointed at the photo with an accusatory finger. “That used to be a little boy named Michael. His younger brother shot him with their father’s gun. It wasn’t accident. They were playing a game. That little brother told a court full of people that he thought it would be like playing,” Jill looked down to her notes, “Wolfenstein?” Jill paused, looking from back to her notes, “If you think we’re headed for a world where we’d all be better off playing on computers that teach kids how to kill, maybe kids like Dylan need to find inspiration elsewhere.”

     She was nearly out the door, but it was the first time in a few months that Jill had said Dylan’s name out loud. Against her better judgment, Dylan decided to humor her step-mom with a response, “Well, I may be just a teenager, Jill, and not an attorney like yourself, but I’m thinking if that kid had a parent around to teach him the difference between reality and a game, he’d probably still have a brother.”

    Her father tried to clamp the metaphorical gavel down on the situation, “Alright Dylan, how about you stow that attitude.”

    Dylan didn’t pick up on the warning from her father, or from Luke tugging at her sleeve. Firing back another line at Jill, Dylan pressed on, “I’m just saying maybe she should worry about her own kids. When was the last time you were around to teach them-”

     Cutting her off, Jill half turned around so as not to look Dylan directly in the eyes, “Isaac, your daughter has exceeded her reach.”

    Dylan’s final fuse had blown, “I know what a good mother looks like when I see one, and since mine is dead, I don’t see one anymore.”

    The room fell silent again.

   After what felt like a Cold War length standoff between Jill and Dylan, the Colonel spoke with a stern growl, “Luke, please take your sister upstairs.”

    Luke nodded. He made another attempt to pull Dylan from the room, but she shook him off and stormed out on her own. Bo cleared his throat, “Um, thanks for the barbecue.”

     Having finally made their way out of the Sarlacc Pit that was family dinner night, Bo, Luke, and Dylan had secluded themselves in Luke’s bedroom. Unlike Bo’s dojo, Luke’s room looked like the aftermath of a hurricane that had plowed through a Radio Shack. Dylan had to play hopscotch from one empty patch of carpet to another to avoid impaling her foot on scraps of circuit boards, empty plastic computer casings, and wires.

     Finding a clear spot on the bed, Dylan held the Pink Binder out in front of her. Luke had taken a seat in a chair in front of presumably the only functioning computer out of the seven in various states of disrepair on his desk. Bo Han sat on the edge of the bed opposite Dylan.

     Luke motioned for Dylan to hand over the binder. Dylan raised an eyebrow, “I found the thing. I should open it first, yeah?”

     Bo Han let out a huff, “Somebody open it.”

     Dylan huffed back, “Fine, I will.”

    Admittedly, Dylan was still as hesitant to open the binder up past the title page as when she first found the thing. After all, at least three people have gone missing over this thing. It hadn’t taken Dylan long to deduce that Amie’s parents must have also gone missing. If they hadn’t, Luke would have probably just called them and the mystery would have been over. She had found out he did in fact call. Of the eight times Luke called, there was never an answer.

  With a deep breath, Dylan finally opened the Binder. She was immediately disappointed. Letting out a sigh she exclaimed, “Well, that sucks,” and tossed the binder to Luke. The entire thing was written in Japanese.

   Flipping through the pages, a frustrated Luke tossed the binder over to Bo-Han, “Here, you can read this, right?”

  Bo-Han snatched the binder from Luke. Skimming through binder, Bo laughed, “I can read; bubblegum, bounty hunter, and operations manual. This whole thing is in Japanese, dude.”

     Luke rolled his eyes, “Yeah?”

     An irritated Bo shot back, “I’m Korean, gaijin!”

     Dylan tried to be gentle, “Isn’t Kirigami Japanese?”

   With a sigh, Bo-Han regained his patience, “My step-father’s Korean, my mom’s Korean, I was raised in Korea.” Circling his face with his finger for emphasis, he added, “Korean.”

     While Luke was being schooled on geography, Dylan scanned each and every page. The whole thing was written in characters that she couldn’t even begin to decipher. Reaching the end of the binder brought no greater satisfaction than all the other hundred or so pages that came before. She flipped through the pages again. Looking over each and every character only made Dylan angrier. This was unbelievable. She nearly got arrested, nearly got killed for this?

    With her frustrations mounting, Dylan slammed the binder down on the bed in front of her. That’s when she saw it. Stamped on the spine of the book was a barcode.

     Bo was still defending his nationality, “Why would I bother learning Korean AND Japanese?”

    Luke countered, “I had to learn Spanish. Japanese can’t be harder to learn than Korean.”

     “The Japanese have three alphabets! Three!”

    Dylan shouted, “Guys!” With all eyes on Dylan, she pointed out what was right in front of them all along, “Could we read this thing?”

     Luke snatched the binder out of Dylan’s hand to examine it.

   Bo blurted out at Luke, “You got a barcode scanner in one of your piles of junk?”

    Luke snapped his fingers and waded his way through the mounds of computer scraps to the closet. After some digging, he removed a price gun like the kind that should be in a Blockbuster Video Store. To no one in particular Bo quipped, “See, kids, it pays to never clean your room.”

     Plugging the cord attached to the end of the price scanner into his computer, Luke hit a few keys on his keyboard. Dylan’s curiosity compelled her to ask, “Why exactly do you have one of those just lying around?”

    Luke kept his attention on the monitor in front of him while he answered, “You know how closely teenage cashiers at electronic stores pay attention to what they’re doing?”

   Bo had apparently caught on and laughed, “I may just rename you Ninja Gaijin.”

   Dylan was still in the dark, “You wanted to ring up your own merch or something?”

     Luke turned around, almost smiling, “Sort of. I don’t ring it up, but I do mark it down.”

    Bo leaned over to Dylan, “Your upright Boy Scout of a brother here has been printing his own barcode labels with his own special discount.” Turning back to Luke, he added, “Although, I don’t see why you’d bother going through the trouble if you’re just going to steal it.”

     Holding up a hand from the keyboard, Luke listed his reasons on each finger, “First, I’m not stealing it. Second, it’s not free. I just move the decimal over until the item costs under ten dollars. Lastly, if I did get caught, I have a receipt from whoever’s store showing the right item was just rung up for the wrong price. Looks like their mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.”

   This marked the first time Dylan was genuinely impressed with her step-brother. She was compelled to slow clap.

     Luke was still busy setting up the contraption as he explained, “If I can print my own barcodes to display the store I want to be read, I’ll be able to read whatever is coded on this one.” Grabbing the price gun with one hand and reaching out for the binder in the other, he squeezed the trigger. With a satisfying “beep,” a name popped up in one of the windows on the monitor.

     Airiel Telegraphic

    For a moment, the three teens gazed dumbfounded at the screen. Bo finally broke the silence with the most obvious response, “What in the hell is Airiel Telegraphic?”

     Luke immediately pulled up Netscape Navigator and went to work looking for an answer.

    Dylan tried to work through the facts, “It’s got to be a software company, right?”

     Bo countered, lying back on the bed, “It could be a company that makes pink binders.”

     “Well, Amie’s dad works for a software company.”

     “Maybe he stole it?”

     Luke was still typing but sternly defended Mr. Kobayashi’s honor, “He didn’t steal it.”

    Bo sighed, “Okay, we’ll go with ‘not a thief’ based on all the things we know about this Pink Binder. Here let me count the facts.” Bo tried to count on his fingers, but couldn’t.

     Dylan attempted to redirect the conversation, “Aerial isn’t spelled right.”

    Raising an eyebrow, Bo looked at the open window with the word still sitting center frame. Stroking his beardless chin, he pondered, “Maybe it’s an acronym for something? Telegraphic is a weird choice too.”

    Nodding in agreement, Dylan added, “Like telegraph? Maybe it’s a really old company?”

     Bo put a hand on Luke’s shoulder, “So, what’d you find?”

    Luke threw his hands up and pushed his chair back from the monitor, “I got nothing.”

   An incredulous Bo clarified, “Okay, no. You have the internet. You have everything. What do you mean you have nothing?”

     “I’ve searched all two million webpages, and LexisNexis, the words Airiel and Telegraphic are never once used together. Whatever it is, Airiel Telegraphic isn’t on the internet.”

     Dylan cut in, “What about Bubblegum Bounty Hunter?”

     Luke shook his head.

    She’d reached her limit of crazy she could take in one day as Dylan yelled at the top of her lungs, “Are you freaking kidding me?” At that same moment, Dylan’s father opened the door to Luke’s room. All the teenagers stood up at attention as if they were marionettes being pulled up by their strings. Even Bo was standing as stiff as plank.

   With his eyes locked on Bo, Colonel Yates asked, “You finished helping Luke?”

    Bo nodded quickly, “Yes, sir.”

    “Then you’re dismissed.”

    Without another word, Bo carefully made his way around the Colonel and left. Dylan’s Father turned on Luke next, “I thought I told you to take your sister upstairs?”

    Luke swallowed, “I did. Sir.”

    “You knew what I meant.” Looking to his daughter, he said, “Let’s go, young lady.”

     Dylan exhaled deeply and headed for the door.

     Time to be locked away in her tower.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 11

Level 2 – 11

     They were officially in a torrential down pour. Rain didn’t simply fall upon the pavement as they ran through the middle of the wide, empty street. Waves of water smacked down upon the pavement in thick sheets, like dozens of troughs being emptied above them.

     Luke had said that the community pool would be right across the street and he hadn’t lied. However, the distance across was greater than Dylan had anticipated. As she struggled forward, the sensation of being watched pierced her from every angle. Despite the near blinding sheets of rain pouring down, both she and Luke were left exposed, out in the open.

     With her body running on empty, Dylan was certain she’d collapse at any moment. If she weren’t so stubborn she would have. Her iron will and the possibility of escape was all that kept her going forward to the next safe space: whatever that meant.

    They’d crossed the street and stepped onto the lawn leading up to pool. Only twenty more yards or so till the entrance. It felt like a thousand yards and growing. She shivered under her soaked clothes. They clung to her, constricted every movement. With each and every step it was like being slowly squeezed by a python. Her next step in fact sank deeper into the flooded grass than she expected. Tripping, and pitching down to the ground, Dylan put her arms up to soften the impact. Fortunately, Luke caught her again at the last minute. Throwing her arm around his shoulder, they hobbled on. Dylan would have protested Luke carrying her the last few steps to the gate. She would have said something if there was any breath left to spare, but there wasn’t.

     Having reached the gate, Luke fished through his pockets, muttering, “Shit. Shit. Shit, where are they?”

     Dylan remembered she’d been using the multi tool keychain and dug it out of her pocket. Handing it to Luke, she could barely say, “Here.”

    “Thanks,” Luke replied jamming the silver key into the lock. He turned it and pushed through the fence. Pointing towards an awning, “Under there. Restrooms, and a phone.”

     Dylan nodded and limped after Luke heading for the shelter. The entire pool deck was flooded over, but at least they’d be out of the rain under the awning. Plodding through the puddles on the deck they continued looking for any signs of cop cars rolling by. The fence didn’t provide even the slightest of cover. They were still exposed, and worse, trapped in a cage.

     Finally under the modest shelter, Dylan let herself collapse on the driest spot on the pavement. She listened to the violent rain drops shooting into the pool like a legion of machine gunners firing all at once from the sky. The pavement smelled rank of chlorine. Over the sound of heavy rain, Dylan heard the pleasant sound of quarters sliding into the a metal receptacle. It reminded her of the McLaren Arcade, and she wished more than anything to be standing there rather than lying here, on the ground, in the rain, soaked to the bone.

     Lifting her throbbing head up, Dylan asked, “Who you calling?”

     Luke shushed her, but after a pause answered, “Bo.”

    Dylan coughed out, “That’s cool.” That tiny glimmer of hope she’d held onto shined a little brighter. Even the one and only Sub-Zero would have to admit that Dylan was hardcore now. What were the odds that Bo had also broken into a house to investigate a kidnaping and ran from the cops? Dylan smiled at the thought of Bo’s approval even though smiling hurt her face.

     Luke hung up the phone and slid in another thirty-five cents into the receiver. Waiting for a dial tone, Luke grumbled, “Pick up. Pick up damn it.”

    Even almost devoid of energy, Dylan’s curiosity still sparked as she asked, “How do you even know Sub-Zero anyway?”

     Rolling his eyes Luke replied, “I told you I went to the DAC two years ago right?”’

     Talking into the pavement, Dylan’s muffled voice replied, “No, you didn’t.”

     “I made it to the final round. He was the other guy.”

     Rolling over on to her back, Dylan raised an eyebrow, “You fought Sub-Zero?”

     “I fought Bo Han, yes. He considered me a worthy enough opponent,” Luke hung up the receiver again and pulled out his last two quarters. “I lost, but I was the only person to take a full ninety-nine seconds for him to beat me. I had the lower life bar, but he never knocked me out.”

   Dylan gave Luke a weak little clap, “My step-brother, LAG the immortal.”

   Dropping the last of his change into the phone, Luke huffed, “That was a mistype.”

   “You couldn’t just wait till the cursor made it over to the ‘P”?”

   “I was working with a broken joystick, alright?” Luke turned his attention to the phone, “Bo Han, it’s Luke– DON’T HANG UP!– Fine. I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry, okay? Fine. Sub-Zero, we need your help– What does it matter who we– OKAY! okay. My step-sister and I– yeah her. Fine.” Luke handed the phone over to Dylan, and breathlessly stated, “He wants to talk to you.”

     Dylan tried to mask her excitement, which was easy since every muscle in her face and everywhere else hurt to move. Taking the phone, Dylan’s hoarse voice asked, “Sub-Zero?”

     Over the phone, Bo Han’s distant voice answered, “Well, if it isn’t Lady DAY. How may I be of service to you and your spastic step-brother?”

    Nearly half an hour had passed since Dylan had ended her phone call with Sub-Zero. She’d given as much of an enthusiastic account of what had happened as she could. Simply incredulous of their adventure, Bo Han agreed to pick them up simply to confirm the tale was true. That was thirty minutes ago. For one thousand and eight hundred seconds, they had watched at least two different patrol cars slowly cruise past the pool like sharks. Both Dylan and Luke were about as safe as bleeding baby seals in deep water.

    Both Luke and Dylan were lying flat on the deck, motionless, and waiting. Luke however, had waited long enough. Sitting up, and pressing himself against the side of the bathroom wall, he asked, “If we had to, could you walk home?”

    Taking a short breath Dylan answered, “Event if I wanted to, I don’t feel like I could stand.” The rain had let up just enough to see clear sky far in the distance. Looking out over the horizon, she watched the sky turn a mix of electric pinks and purples as the sun began to dip under the storm clouds. In just a few more minutes, they were either going to get hauled off by the cops, or murdered by her dad.

    With a sigh, Luke asked, “What was that you were humming earlier?”

    Dylan shot back, confused, “Humming? When was I humming?”

    “You were humming while you were running up the hill, and jogging over here.”

    With a smirk, she answered, “One Hundred Miles and Runnin’, NWA.” Luke raised an eyebrow and waited for Dylan to explain, “I can’t say what it stands for. It’s a rap group I used to listen to back home. Seemed appropriate at the time.”

     Luke chuckled, “You listen to rap?”

     Sitting up against the bathroom wall, Dylan spoke with an edge, “My friends listen to it. I listen to it. It’s my music.”

    With another stifled laugh, Luke dug deeper, “So you just listen to it because it’s what was popular? You didn’t pick it up on your own? Kinda like you playing video games.”

    Her defenses were up now as she shot back, “I play videogames because… You know what, I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

     “That’s a solid answer,” Luke said with a smirk.

     Dylan stood up and got right in Luke’s face and bawled her fists tight, “How about I show your face what I’d do if I wasn’t playing video games?”

     Looking Dylan up and down, Luke smiled, “You feeling differently about walking home now are ya?” Crossing her arms across her chest, Dylan leaned back against the wall. Luke motioned for the fence, “It’s been clear for a few minutes. We better go while we still can.”

     Dylan reached out for Luke before he took off, “What about Sub-Zero?”

     Luke snorted, “He’s not coming. Let’s go.”

     Breaking free from his step-sister, Luke dashed over to the fence. Dylan hobbled after. Nearly at the gate, a white-rusted Toyota pickup truck hydroplaned around the corner, and skid to a halt in front of the pool. Two polite honks came from the truck as the passenger window rolled down to reveal Bo shouting, “Where the party at?”

    Luke plowed through the crash bar on the pool gate and ran to Bo’s truck. He shouted back, “It’s at the corner of Maine and shut the hell up!”

    Bo snorted, “Well, if my presence isn’t appreciated…” Letting his foot off the brake, the truck began to roll forward.

     Dylan had finally caught up to the truck. Her voice strained, “Bo, stop!”

     Bo put his foot back on the brake and caught a good look at Dylan, “Oh man, kid you got wrecked. Guess you weren’t lying about being fugitives, huh?”

     Trying to vocalize, Dylan grabbed hold of the truck, “Cops… There’s cops…”

    Before Dylan could bother with complete sentences, she saw another patrol car poke it’s way out of the alley a few blocks in front of them. Bo, turned his head to where Dylan had been pointing. Luke had already thrown himself in the back of the truck. Trying to get herself over the side of the truck bed, Luke grabbed her arm and pulled her in.

   Almost immediately, Bo made a quick U-Turn and headed for the exit. Dylan knocked on the side of the truck and shouted, “Don’t race out of here or they’ll pull you over.”

    Bo didn’t say anything but gave two knocks on the other side of the glass as he slowed down. From inside the truck bed, Dylan could hear the patrol car approaching. The sound of the tires splashing through the flooded street, and the V8 supercharged engine rumbling beside them. Bo had now come to a complete stop. Looking up, Dylan silently begged the stoplight to turn green. They were on the edge of forever, lying silently, waiting for the police to sound their siren.

    Bo steadily applied pressure to the gas easing the truck through the intersection when the light finally turned green. They turned left onto Park Boulevard. The cop car turned right. Dylan exhaled. Her nerves were more on edge than they’d ever been before. Everything from her toes, to fingers felt like they were locked up. Dylan suddenly remembered she’d been clutching the pink binder in a vice grip since the alley way.

    She wanted to open the binder and take her mind off the possibility of being arrested from breaking and entering. Now wasn’t the time. She wanted to feel safe, warm, and dry before opening another mystery. Looking up, Dylan watched the dark storm clouds rolling across the sky overhead. Every once and awhile there would be a patch of clear sky. That sky grew darker my the minute as they turned right, and drove down Preston Road.

    Taking a deep breath, Luke risked sitting up right and knocked on the window. Blindly reaching behind him, Bo eventually opened up the window, “Yeah?”

     Luke shouted over the light traffic and the wind, “Right on Lloyd, Right on Maple, and right on Bent Creek.”

     Bo gave a thumbs up, “Roger that. In the pipe, five by five.”

     The last lights had nearly left the sky by the time Bo’s battered truck pulled up into Luke’s driveway. Hopping out of the truck bed, Luke sprinted for the door. Dylan on the other hand struggled to sit upright in the filthy truck bed. She heard the driver’s side door open and watched as Bo lowered the tailgate for Dylan. He bowed with a goofy grin, “I believe this is your stop, Lady Day.”

     Dylan tried to mouth the word thank you, but all that came out was a hoarse cough. She took Bo’s hand as he helped her out of the truck bed. In that same moment, the garage door began to rise. Her father’s Lincoln Continental roared to life and began to roll forward. Breaking before running into Bo’s truck, Colonel Yates stepped out of the car and asked as any parent would of his daughter, “Who is this?”

    Luke stopped fumbling with the keys to answer, “Um, Mister… I mean, Colonel Yates, this is Bo-Han Kirigami. He’s a friend from school.”

    Not turning to acknowledge Luke, Dylan’s father replied, “I have a completely separate line of questioning for you. Later. Right now, Dylan, who is this boy, and why are you in his truck?”

     Dylan took a breath, “We got caught in the storm. Luke didn’t want you to think he couldn’t take care of me, so he called his friend. He is actually the current North American Mortal Kombat champion, AND he’s won the Dallas Arcade Championship three times.”

     Dylan’s father was not impressed.

     Trying to take the initiative, Bo Han stepped forward and extended his hand, “Nice to meet you, sir. Bo-Han Kiragami.”

     Isaac shook Bo’s hand, and did not release it, “You don’t look like you’re in high school.”

    Bo replied, wincing under the Colonel’s vice grip, “No, sir. I graduated this spring.”

     “So you still hang out with minors and play video games all day long now, is that it?”

     Finally releasing Bo’s hand, Sub-Zero replied confidently, “Actually, I’m the lead programmer and telecommunication software engineer at Fujin International. All work and no play makes… well it’s really just all work mainly. That is an impressive grip you have there, sir.”

   “All work, huh? You still have time to give car rides to my thirteen year-old daughter?”

    Dylan spoke up, “He was just helping out Luke dad, who by the way, helped me from nearly eating pavement on the way over here. In fact, Luke has been a surprisingly good step-brother today overall.”

     Isaac turned from staring down Bo and gazed over to Luke frozen on the doorstep. Looking back to Dylan, he cleared his throat, “Get inside and get dry, Private, before you catch cold in those clothes.”

     Dylan snapped to attention and gave a salute before hobbling off into the garage. Stopping in the entryway, Dylan turned back to her father just before he got back into the car and asked, “Um, Dad, is it okay if Bo-Han stays for dinner? He did drive out of his way to get us. AND, he did drop us off before dark.”

     Her father’s eyes narrowed as they met Dylan’s. Letting out a short sigh, he turned to Bo, “Get that bucket of bolts off my driveway, and take off those boots before you enter the house, understood?”

    Bo-Han bowed, hands folded, without even a hint of sarcasm, “Thank you, Mr. Yates.” Running back to his truck, Bo quickly backed out of the driveway and parked it beside the nearest empty curb.

     Turning to Luke, Colonel Yates offered the slightest of grins, “Thanks for bringing her back home on time.”

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 10

LEVEL 2 – 10

     Still in the bathroom, Luke and Dylan sat on the tile floor. It had been nearly an hour. All of the officers showed no signs of leaving anytime soon. Luke’s voice shook as he whispered, “If we don’t get out of here before dark, either those cops are going to arrest us or your dad is going to murder us. If we even make it back.”

    Dylan considered the length and breadth of how much heat she’d get if she did make it home later than when she’d said. Still, they couldn’t just waltz out of the front door. Even if they really were the police, something didn’t feel right in Dylan’s gut. But now wasn’t the time to sort it out. Now was the time to think of a plan.

    Crawling over towards the door, Dylan gently opened the bathroom door, surveying the ravaged room. Thankfully there appeared to be enough materials to work with. Dylan turned back to Luke and leaned into his ear, “I got a plan, and you’re not going to like it.”

      After constructing what they’d need to escape, Dylan manned her position by the door. Taking a step back to check on Luke, she mouthed, Are you ready?

     He was not. Luke was staring at the floor with a droopy puppy-dog look on his face. Dylan was about to snap in anger. She changed her mind. Looking down at Luke’s feet was a crumpled photograph of an attractive teenage girl. Aside from her long golden hair, her face was distinctly Japanese. She was waving to the camera while standing in front of the Six Flags Over Texas welcome sign.

     Taking a breath, Dylan asked solemnly, “That her?”

     Luke nodded.

    Kneeling down, Dylan gently picked up the picture and offered it to Luke. He almost didn’t take it. Extending his free hand, Luke accepted the photo. He shoved it in his jean pocket and flashed Dylan a weak smile.

     Returning the small smile, Dylan attempted to sympathize, “We’ve got a clue. It’s one step closer, but we can’t stay here.” Luke nodded. “Okay. On three, we go.” Stepping back to the door, Dylan eased it open just a sliver. She couldn’t hear any footsteps down the hall. Pushing open the door a little further, there wasn’t an officer to be seen. No time to waste. “Three!”

     Luke followed after his sister as they swiftly and silently made their way to the master bedroom. Only a few feet from the entrance, Dylan cringed as she heard the floor produce a loud creak beneath her feet. Almost immediately, the herd of officers stampeded up the stairs.

     Closing the master bedroom door behind them, Luke unfurled the sheets he had been holding and tied and end to the door handles. Dylan was busy trying to open one of the windows, but they wouldn’t budge. In a panicked voice she called out, “Toss me the screwdriver!” Luke threw over his keys and Dylan got to work on the lock.

     Officers pounded on the door, “Dallas PD! Come out with your hands up, now!”

   Another officer, spoke into his walkie-talkie, “Adam-10 to control, we’ve got multiple suspects barricaded in the master bedroom. Preparing to breach.”

    Fortunately, Luke had explained to Dylan that the master bedroom door opened outward: the harder the officers pulled, the tighter the knot tied around the door handles became. Between the pounding and the shouting, Dylan still fumbled to open the window. Her hands were shaking. Sweat had pooled up around her fingers. The multi-tool kept slipping in her grip. She desperately worked to pry open the window lock, but it was no use. They were trapped.

    Suddenly, Luke shouted from behind, “Get out of the way!” Dylan ducked and rolled to the side as her step-brother hurdled the office chair through the window. Glass exploded outward in a mighty crash as the chair flew through the air. Luke had managed to tie the other end of the sheet to the chair. In a rushed and frightened voice, Luke commanded, “What are you waiting for? Get out!”

   Tucking the binder under her arm, Dylan grabbed hold of the sheet rope and rappelled down the side of the house. Looking up, she watched Luke follow after her, walking down the wall with both hands on the rope. Momentarily distracted, Dylan nearly fell as she reached the end of her rope, her feet slipping off the chair dangling in the air. They were about twelve feet too short.

    As Dylan judged the drop distance, Luke kicked the top of her head, shouting “What are you doing? Keep going!”

     Nervously, Dylan shot back, “We’re out of sheets.”

     “Okay, hold on,” Luke said as he climbed over Dylan. Holding onto the end of the chair, he urged, “Climb over me, and then drop down. Hurry up.”

     Dylan complied. She had to let the notebook drop to the ground. Watching it fall was a mistake that almost gave her vertigo. Awkwardly climbing over the chair and her step-brother, Dylan eventually made it to his ankles. Only about three feet from the ground, she let herself drop onto the hard pool deck. Glass from the window crunched beneath her feet.

    Luke began swinging on the rope side to side, building momentum. On his downward swing he let go of the chair legs and landed at an angle, rolling onto the pavement. It wasn’t nearly as graceful as a Kung-Fu dive and roll, but it didn’t sound like he broke anything on the way down. Standing to his feet, the chair suddenly came crashing down onto the deck.

      Peering over the side of the window, the cops shouted down, “Don’t move!”

     Dylan and Luke didn’t listen. They ran like hell. Out over the pool deck and out into the backyard, they dashed towards the tennis court. If they could reach the tennis court, they might be able to climb the side of the court’s fence and leap over the gate. All they had to do was sprint the length of a football field, and outrun the cops following them.

     With one arm cradling the binder, Dylan furiously pumped her free arm. She desperately tried to ignore the iron weights settling in her lungs, and the burning sensation in her legs. It felt like her calves were about to explode.

     Still, she ran.

     She heard the officers chasing after her.

     She felt the raindrops begin to fall.

     The more that stacked up against her, the harder Dylan pushed herself.

    Having reached the tennis courts Dylan threw the binder over the black gate and climbed up the side of the fence like there was no more tomorrow. After all, if they got caught, there might not be a tomorrow. Reaching hand over hand they climbed high enough to step out and touch the top of the gate with their feet. Both Luke and Dylan pushed off from the fence and perched on top of the gate. Unfortunately, they’d both misjudged how slick the steel had become from the steadily increasing rain. After making the leap, both Dylan and Luke barely caught the top of the gate in time as they slipped, nearly falling to their deaths.

     Hanging from the top of the gate, Dylan could now clearly see four police officers running full tilt towards her. Grabbing the vertical bars, Dylan slid down to the ground. Even slick with rain, the rails still burned her hands. Landing hard on the grass, tumbling backwards into a fresh puddle of mud, the girl clawed her way onto her feet. Then, she ran some more.

     One of the officers yelled back towards the house, “Get the squad cars and cut ‘em off!”

    Luke’s long legs carried him further and faster as he shouted back, “Come on, hurry up!”

   Dylan was certain she’d twisted something, or sprained whatever could be sprained. she definitely felt something was wrong as they kept running down the grassy hill and through a private community park. The rain continued to get worse. With each step she sank into a soggy, slippery earth. Combined with gravity and inertia working with Dylan, it nearly felt more like falling down hill than running.

     Then things got worse.

    Headlights shone through the trees, bearing down on Dylan and Luke. Two of the squad cars were making their way down the hill after them. The vehicles had their brights and lights on. Blue and red beams chased each other over the grassy slope. That’s when Dylan also noticed the lights reflection in the water ahead. Just ten more yards ahead was a man made river that cut through the center of the park. It was wide enough to swim across, but not for a car to drive through. It was also stagnate and freezing.

     Wading into the water, Dylan did her best to hold the binder out of the water as she swam one handed through the river. Only about twenty meters across, Dylan’s feet touched the bottom of the river and made her way up the opposite embankment. She heard one of the squad cars skid to a halt. Judging by the sound of the splash, the other wasn’t so lucky. Still, she didn’t dare look back. Every step she took weighed down with more mud building up around her feet and ankles. Every breath burned as it entered her lungs.

     The pain didn’t matter. They had to keep going.

    Having reached the top of the hill, Dylan and Luke were spent. Reduced to a staggered jog, they made their way into a housing track filled with average sized estates. Ducking into the closest back alley, Luke breathlessly spoke, “There’s a community pool two blocks down. Pretty sure there’s a payphone.”

     Dylan didn’t even have enough energy to reply. She kept pounding the asphalt after her step brother. At the sound of an approaching car rolling towards the end of the alley, Luke dove behind a trashcan. Dylan followed suit. Peeking through the space between the plastic can and the wooden fence, the young girl saw the side of a squad car slowly approaching the end of the alley. It lingered there, blocking off their escape.

     Gasping for breath, Dylan inhaled a mixed scent of cool rain water and garbage fumes. She coughed into her elbow, but the sound still carried down the alley. In that same instance, the spotlight from the patrol car swept the alley. The light hovered over the trashcans Dylan and Luke pressed themselves up against. It wasn’t just the rain or the puddle she was currently sitting in that made Dylan freeze in place. Hopelessness began to creep into her brain like a frigid fog.

     Just as it had been when she was trapped in Amie’s bathroom, the world suddenly seemed impossibly large. No matter how much confidence or proficiency Dylan gained through gaming, she felt like she was the avatar under control, and not the player behind the controller. Her opponents were the ones with the power. The squad car at the end of the alley was the one in control. Then again, just like being stuck in the bathroom, that fog of fear eventually cleared.

    Water sloshed over the pavement as the tires of the patrol car slowly rolled forward. Luke put a hand on his step-sister’s shoulder and panted out, “If we hop this fence and cut across the lawn, we’ll be directly across from the pool.”

     Slowly lifting herself to her feet, Dylan heard every muscle in her legs scream in pain. Every tendon felt like razor wire. Every bone was a step away from shattering. All the neurons flooded the highways of her brain with the same message: Stop. Moving. This was pain that she could no longer ignore. Unfortunately, she’d still have to work through it. There was no other option.

     Struggling to climb up on the trashcans, Luke was kind enough to offer Dylan a boost over the fence. Pressing herself over the top of the wooden railing, she felt splinters dig their way into her stomach. Luke apparently had enough energy left to easily throw himself over the fence and land on the other side. Dylan considered staying on the top of the fence for awhile longer spread out like a cat with the falling rain gently massaging her back. Then the cop car came back.

     Quickly rolling over the other side of the fence, Dylan would have broken whatever was left to break if Luke hadn’t caught her. She managed to cough out a weak, “Thanks.”

   Luke said nothing. He tugged on her sleeve as they hobbled through some stranger’s backyard towards the side yard. Again, life could never just be as simple as Super Mario World. Just run from left to right, again and again. No matter how much he ran, Mario never looked as exhausted as Dylan felt. Then again, what did she know? Maybe after all those times breaking brick blocks with his head, that plumber was probably just too brain dead to feel anything at all.

    Perhaps, Dylan thought as she and Luke waited by the gate, she’d simply will her brain to ignore the pain. But silencing the cries of her throbbing muscles would yield the same results as a meter maid politely asking NWA to keep the noise down. It wouldn’t make a difference. The pain would not be silenced. It had to be embraced, traversed, and overcome. As soon as that patrol car turned the corner out of sight, they’d have to run again.

     And that’s exactly what they did.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 9

LEVEL 2 – 9

     Inside the guest bedroom, everything was gutted like a dolphin. Flipped bed. Torn mattress. Furniture disassembled with Ikea like precision. As a flop sweat started to form upon  Dylan’s brow, Luke tumbled in through the window behind her and fell face first onto the carpet.

    Dylan turned to her brother with a grin, “That whole puberty thing ain’t doing anything for your coordination is it?” Luke didn’t respond. He stood in the center of the room. His mouth was agape. Finally taking in the room for what it was, Dylan dared to ask, “This wasn’t Amie’s room was it?”

     Shaking his head, Luke replied in a hushed tone, “I can’t believe someone would do this.”

     Dylan tried to keep calm, “Could have just been a burglary gone wrong.”

    Luke’s face was flushed as he spoke in a low growl, “This wasn’t a burglary. This was a kidnapping. They took her because of that stupid game.”

    Taking another look at the room, despite the wanton destruction, nothing was stolen. In fact, it looked like whoever was here went out of their way to disassemble anything that could be taken apart. Stereo, television, valuables, everything was ripped open, but left behind: everything but the girl. Dylan continued her thought process out loud, “They were looking for something.”

     Luke added impatiently, “They were looking for Amie, and they took her.”

    Trying to keep a level head, Dylan offered, “Okay, but why her? Amie’s folks are obviously stupid rich. Maybe whoever took her wanted a ransom?” At the mere mention of Dylan’s suggestion, Luke’s face flushed red. Dylan caught his wrist just before he stormed out of the room, and whispered, “Hey!”

    Easily slipping out of her grasp, Luke made another attempt for the door. Dylan had no choice but to body slam him against the wall. Leaning into him, Dylan spoke sternly but kept a hushed tone, “Whoever took her may still be here along with whoever else.”

     Luke squirmed, “Get off me!”

    Dylan threw her body weight into her step-brother again, along with an elbow to get his attention, “Listen to me. There are cops outside, and we don’t know who else still inside. We need to be careful. Out of the two of us, who knows how to sneak around better?”

     Shoving Dylan away, Luke protested, “I don’t care!”

    “You do care! Because if you get caught or thrown in jail, there’s no one else looking Amie, is there?” Luke calmed his teenage angst. Dylan continued, “If you want my help, and you need my help, you’re gonna follow my lead. Got it?”

     Luke barked out, “Yeah? Well, I know the layout.”

    Pointing a finger in his face, Dylan snapped, “Fine. But, when you break into a place, you don’t shout.”

     In a mock whisper, Luke huffed, “Fine. But, you’re following me.”

     Creeping out of the guest bedroom, Dylan walked swiftly down the hall after Luke. She paused briefly at each entryway to the other guest rooms along the way. Out of the three rooms that they passed,  all were the same as the first: vacant and disemboweled. What felt like a quarter mile trek deeper down the curving hallway eventually emptied into a large kitchen. It was the same story as the rest of the house. Every square inch looked liked it was raped by a hurricane, and left for dead.

    Looking over the kitchen, Dylan directed an irritated whisper to Luke, “Whatever is on you that’s beeping, make it stop.”

    Equally annoyed, Luke grimaced, “It ain’t me. Forgot about the alarm.”

    Trying to hone in on the beeping, Dylan’s eyes grew wide as she located the source. On the wall behind them was a small little box with a light blinking in time with the beeping. How could Dylan have overlooked that a home this size would have a security system? Before she could succumb to embarrassment, the sound of the front door being thrown open lead Dylan to instinctively pull Luke around into the open pantry. With both of them crammed into the closet space, she quickly closed the door in front of them. They listened in the dark pantry. Marching boots and radio chatter grew near.

    Over the officer’s radio, a garbled voice said, “Control to Adam-10, what’s your status?”

   A gruff voice answered the radio, “Adam-12 and I are inside the Kobayashi residence. The alarm control panel indicates a possible 10-8 on the property.” Inside the pantry, Dylan and Luke held their breath waiting for the officers to make their next move. Speaking into the radio again, the officer continued, “We’re moving to the west wing of the house to investigate possible break in, stand by.”

    Through the static, the voice on the other end of the radio replied, “Acknowledged Adam-10. Proceed with caution.”

    “10-4 HQ.”

    As the boots of the officers stomped down the hall, Dylan squeezed Luke’s hand and whispered, “Where’s Amie’s room?”

    Answering in a low whisper, Luke answered, “Upstairs, two doors down on the left.”

    “On the count of three, we’re going to move very quickly, and very quietly upstairs, okay?”

    “Okay.”

    Dylan took a deep breath, “1… 2… 3.”

    Luke immediately bumped into Dylan causing her to knock over something off the top shelf. Whatever she hit caused a domino effect of clattering and clanking cans. Stealth was scrapped. They had no other option but speed. Sprinting out of the closet, the two barely made it to the stairs before they heard a voice close behind them shout, “Adam-10 to control, multiple suspects on the premises, send back up!”

    A crackled reply followed, “Copy Adam-10, sending units to your location.”

    Running up the stairs two at a time, Dylan and Luke booked it down the west wing. Both officers were nearly at the top of the staircase when Luke pulled his step-sister into a room on the left side of the hall.

   Luke dove into the closet and shut the door behind him. Boots were stomping closer to the room, and Dylan was suddenly frozen like a deer in the headlights. She could hear the officers enter the room adjacent to her as they shouted, “Dallas PD!”

    Willing her body to move, the young gamer girl ran into the connecting bathroom off to the right. Dylan quickly pushed the door closed, and closed the shutters over the window. She swiftly felt her way over towards the massive shower and stepped inside. Her heart was pounding as she lay down on the damp tile floor. Pressing herself up against the shower curb as close as she could, Dylan held her breath, and closed her eyes.

    Seconds later, the bathroom door flew open. She was shaking now. Her blood was boiling. She desperately wanted to breathe and silence the voice in her head screaming to just give up and get caught. These were the police after all. Why was she hiding from the good guys? Why did she even bother hiding when they were probably already looking for Amie? Then again, maybe they weren’t. What if they weren’t cops? As Dylan’s chest continued to burn from holding her breath, an extra weight was added by the thought of being trapped in a strange house and being hunted by strange men. What would they do to her if they found her?

     Speaking into his radio, the officer breathlessly shouted, “Bathroom clear, moving up.” As he stepped out of the bathroom, the officer slammed the door shut.

     Another officer in the room replied, “Bedroom clear, moving up.”

    Dylan still had her eyes shut tight. She was afraid to exhale: too afraid to breath. She heard the footsteps of the officers stomp out of the bedroom and into the next room. Slowly, she opened her mouth and let the fresh air rush into her lungs. Even with her eyes opened, she could barely see. With the shutters drawn, and sun obscured by the clouds, an unusual darkness flooded the bathroom.

     Still shaking, Dylan managed to push herself up off the floor when suddenly, the door swung open. This was it. She was done for. There was nowhere for her to go as she slipped backwards on the shower tile. Desperately reaching out for something to hold onto, Dylan’s hand grabbed something metal, a handle, but it was no use. The handle slid out from her grasp. What felt like minutes slowly falling in fear ended with Dylan flat on her back.

     Luke whispered, “I thought you said be quiet? It’s just me.”

     Gasping for breath, Dylan lied, “I know.” Trying to stand, Dylan reached again for the metal handle. It wasn’t there. In fact, the whole back wall of the shower had rolled back to reveal a small hallway leading into a dark room beyond it.

     Dylan strained her eyes and whispered, “What is this?”

    Luke flipped on the light switch, but nothing happened. Looking over to Dylan he answered, “It’s the steam room.” He strode into the shower, feeling his way down the hallway and into the dark room. Dylan hesitated for only a moment before following after her step-brother. Her eyes strained to see into the dark box ahead. She’d only gone a few feet into the hallway, but the air began to feel awfully humid.

     Crinkling her face, Dylan muttered, “This place feels gross.”

     Luke answered matter-of-factly, “Yeah, it’s a steam room.”

     “Okay, well this steam room feels gross,” Dylan insisted. Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness. Even though she could only make out the outline of the room’s interior, one thing was certain: whoever ransacked the house missed this gross, hidden room.

    Her eyes strained to make out the layout which was only twice the size of the bathroom they’d just come from. She felt the edge of the wooden bench that wrapped around the walls like a horseshoe. Towels were still neatly folded on a wooden rack to her right. Taking another step forward, Dylan yelped as her feet crunched on something. The something didn’t move or attack her. Carefully bending down, Dylan picked up what felt like a large, empty paper bag. Feeling the edges of the bag got something like soft chalk all over Dylan’s fingers.

   Making sure Luke was looking away first, Dylan quickly smelled her fingers, “Smells like barbecue coals.”

    Luke groaned, “Yeah, that’s how you make it warm. It’s a sauna.” He paused, preoccupied with searching the towel rack, “Amie’s computer was trashed. But the disc was missing. Maybe she hid it here.”

     Inching closer to the center of the room, Dylan reached out for what she expected to be a hot coal pit. Surprised to find it cool to the touch, she remarked, “Why dump all the coals into the pit if you’re not going to use ‘em?”

     Turning toward Dylan, Luke watched as his step sister plunged her hands into the coal pit. She continued to dig around. Occasionally a piece of coal would smack the floor. Each time Luke would flinched at the cracking sound as each stray piece fell. Finally, Dylan stopped digging. Slowly withdrawing her hands from the pit, she unveiled a one half inch thick, pink plastic binder.

     With his jaw on the floor Luke asked, “What is that?”

    Dylan tried to read the cover, but it was too dark as she answered, “Something worth hiding.”

     As they both crept out of the secret sauna, Dylan and Luke slowly slid the false wall closed behind them. They each stepped out of the giant shower and into the bathroom proper. There was just enough light available for Dylan to read the title of the binder.

     BUBBLEGUM BOUNTY HUNTER: Operations Manual

   Dylan asked in a hushed reverence, “Luke, what does Amie’s father do for a living?”

    Dumbfounded Luke replied, “Mr. Kobyashi owns some kind of software company in Japan.”

     “Software? Was it a game company?”

    “No,” Luke said emphatically, but stammered out, “Well, she never told me exactly what her dad does. I never really thought to ask. Maybe?”

     Holding up the binder in front of Luke, Dylan said pointedly, “I think that ‘maybe’ might lean more towards a ‘yes,’ don’t ya think?”

    Luke nodded, “I think we need to get out of here.” Just as Luke made a truly reasonable suggestion, the faint sound of several vehicles pulling into the driveway resonated outside and into the bathroom. Dylan dared to peek through the blinds. Pouring out from no less than three additional squad cars came half a dozen additional police officers.

     The investigation was over.

     It was time to escape.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 8

LEVEL 2 – 8

     The whole situation was beyond unfair. Yet, Dylan remained sitting outside Bradley’s office at the YMCA in a cold metal chair next to Holly. Across from Dylan sat her step-brothers each wearing equal expressions of stupid, callous, and nervousness on their faces. Still in her swimsuit, and wrapped in her towel, a small puddle continued to form underneath Dylan’s chair thanks to her damp clothes.

     It had been almost thirty minutes since her father entered Brad’s office. Sitting closest to the door, Dylan leaned in and listened. She couldn’t really hear anything, but any moment now, her dad would toss Councilor Brad through the cloudy glass office door like a rag doll. At least a girl could hope.

     Matthew swung his legs back and forth in his seat. The feet of his chair squeaked against the floor matching his rhythm. His meek voice, not particularly directed at anyone, eked out, “We’d all be home now if Dylan weren’t always getting in trouble.”

     Holly nudged Dylan, “Exactly how trouble do you get yourself into?”

     Mark spoke up in his usual abrasive fashion, “She’s always in trouble.”

    Holly snapped at Mark, “Was I asking you?” Before Mark could answer, Holly quickly pinched the air in front of her like snatching the words out his mouth, “No, I wasn’t.”

     Dylan quietly answered Holly, “I’m not even in trouble now. Ice Queen pushed me and threw all my clothes in the fracking pool. No contest.”

     Holly, “Yeah, no contest. We kids, so we gonna loose. We’ll get chewed out, and hopefully thrown out of this hole. Which reminds me,” grabbing a pen out of her backpack, Holly took Dylan’s forearm. Dylan pulled back, but Holly held on, “Relax, it comes out if you wash it.”

     Writing her number on Dylan’s arm, Holly continued to explain, “In case we do get kicked out, and you wanna hang out or whatever.”

     Dylan looked at the number on her arm and whispered back, “Thanks.”

     Itching from the silence, Mark blurted out, “It’s not like I care about Dylan getting in trouble.”

     Luke kept staring down at the linoleum floor, “Shut up, Mark.”

    Mark didn’t listen, “As long as the Orphan’s in trouble, Isaac ain’t paying me any attention.”

     Luke insisted, “Mark, shut your mouth. Now.”

     “Come on, you know Dylan’s Dad scares that crap outta you too.”

     Luke stood up quick with his fists clenched. The metal chair legs scraped against the linoleum. The silence resumed. After a moment, the door finally flew open. Colonel Yates stood in the doorway facing Brad and finished his threat in a low, cold tone, “And you’d better hope, I don’t hear from you again. Is that understood, young man?”

     In almost a squeak, Brad replied, “Yes, Professor.”

   Dylan’s Dad gripped the door handle nearly hard enough to snap it off, “It’s Colonel.”

     Brad shook his head emphatically, “Of course, Colonel, Sir.”

    As soon as Isaac shut the door behind him, Luke started down the hall. The teen with the sullen face let his voice bounced off the walls to the family behind him, “I’m headed to the car.”

   Holly whispered to Dylan, “I could watch that boy leave all day long.” Dylan grimaced and prodded her friend in the side. Holly was wholly unapologetic, “Haven’ a brother that’s fine as hell ain’t my fault.”

    Standing over his daughter, Isaac put a gentle hand on his Dylan’s shoulder, “You ready to get out of this place?”

     There were pros and cons to not being kicked out of the YMCA. Holly was definitely in the plus column. Nearly taking precedence over her new best friend, Dylan had a hunger for justice that needed to be satisfied. In Dylan’s eyes, Isabella was part of a fundamental flaw in society. It wasn’t that bad things happened to good people, but the source of where the bad comes from was rarely challenged, or removed from the playing field entirely. Unlike the real world, if there was a villain in a videogame, you end the villain and you end the conflict.

     Unfortunately, life would never be as simple as videogame: of that, Dylan was certain. Isabella couldn’t be removed from the playing field without a significant amount of jail time to follow. Instead, Dylan remembered something her mother once told her; everyone has their own brain-language. There are people that learn specifically by either sight, sound, touch, smell, or in Dylan’s case, videogames. In the span of an afternoon, the young gamer girl had cracked Isabella’s brain-language. By end of the week, the Ice Queen was going to receive a message that would burrow into the deepest parts of her mind and become a permanent and devastating voice of encouragement to never bully anyone, ever again.

     Of course, that particular plan had to be pushed aside to make way for the task at hand. Currently, Dylan and Luke were headed towards something out of both their field of expertise. During their long walk towards Amie’s, Dylan’s mind slowly shifted gears forward to the immediate past. She was at least thankful her dad had gone to bat for his daughter. Brad would hopefully leave Dylan well enough alone for the next few days. Hopefully, it would be long enough for her plans to come to fruition.

     On the drive home from the YMCA, Dylan tried to hold back laughter while her Dad kept muttering “What an ass-hat,” under his breath.

     It just goes to show, there’s nothing like a common enemy to rally behind and exploit for privileges while you’re grounded. With her Game Boy and bike suspended, Dylan argued that she’d at least need some kind of exercise after the camp ordeal. Her father agreed. Always the good soldier. Maybe tomorrow she’d be a better daughter? Perhaps Luke could take the companion class: How to be a Better Step-Brother. Despite opening up last night, Luke had ignored Dylan all day up until right now.

     Even now, Luke was speed walking in silence up the desolate stretch of Preston Road. Dylan was trailing behind. It’s not that she couldn’t catch up, but between the beating she got yesterday, and the midnight bike ride, Dylan wasn’t in any hurry. Besides, if Sonic the Hedgehog taught her anything, just because someone tells you to go fast doesn’t mean it’s the best decision. Sure, she’d beaten the game in under twenty-six minutes, but that wasn’t from just being fast. You get the speed record in Sonic because you’re muscles memorize every inch of every level. Unlike Sonic, Dylan still knew next next to nothing about the mission she was currently on.

     In any other circumstance, running in blind to something would be just as crazy as leisurely strolling into something blind. But Dylan didn’t consider herself above crazy. After all, it’s the crazy ones who discover the undiscovered land and claim the rewards. Like another classic, you don’t beat Oregon Trail by playing it safe, you beat it because you’re crazy enough to blow all your money on ALL the Oxen and book it to Willamette Valley.

     With that in mind, maybe there was a happy medium between lagging behind and racing into the unknown. Dylan decided that now was the right time to develop a new kind of crazy. Inspiration was easy to find considering the neighborhood she and Luke were walking into. They had made a left on Parker and hoped the gate alongside Ranchero Road. As luxurious as Bo Han’s community was, this place was like trying compare a little league team to the Texas Rangers. Every house was the size of a small fortress complete with iron gates, and front lawns that could take a day to traverse. Everything looked immaculate, from the sidewalk to the streets. Every driveway occupied by at least two imported cars. What was immediately unsettling was the disproportionate number of bedrooms of each home they passed, to the actual number of people they saw, or heard.

     In its entirety the neighborhood was unnervingly silent. No people. No chirping birds. Not even a single chittering squirrel. Dylan kept darting her head from side to side like an owl, observing the massive outdoor museums of wealth for any signs of life. That’s when the thought finally hit her. When the thought fully blossomed into a mad, nervous fruition, Dylan couldn’t help but burst into a giggle fit, “This place reminds me so much of the Winchester Lady.”

     Luke seemed almost startled at the sudden burst of laughter as he looked down at his step-sister, “Who?”

     “You’ve never heard of the Winchesters?”

     “Should I have?”

     “Wow. A Texas boy that doesn’t know the ‘Gun that Won the West’.”

     “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

   “A little ways north of where I used to live, the window of the guy who manufactured the WORLD FAMOUS rifle went balls out insane.”

     Luke smirked, “Rich people do that sometimes.”

    Dylan chuckled, “Well, ya see, the widow thought that the spirits of anyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle were talkin’ at her. According to Sarah Winchester, the spirits said she had to build a room for every person ever killed by her husband’s rifle.”

    “Must have been a shit-ton of ghosts.”

     Dylan excitedly snapped her fingers, “Exactly, and there were in fact a shit-ton of rooms to match. She kept building, and building, until she had over a hundred rooms.”

     Still marching forward, Luke huffed out, “So, the Winchester Lady went insane. What’s your point, Dylan?”

     “I just can’t help but laugh when I think about what kind of crazy built that place,” Dylan exclaimed pointing to the gargantuan estate directly in front of them. It was less of a house, and more of a modest community college campus with a backyard to land a jet in. From the sidewalk, an inviting handcut-brick driveway lead to the house was bisected by a black wrought-iron fence standing eight-feet high that encased the property.

     Dylan was still laughing to herself, in that sleep deprived and exhausted chuckle that’s difficult to stop once you catch it. Looking over to Luke, the expression on his face was enough to bring any form of joy to a dead halt.

     It suddenly dawned on Dylan, and she asked in a quiet voice, “That’s her place isn’t it?”

     With a solemn nod, Luke continued to stare longingly at the house, “After the line went dead, I snuck out. Rode over as fast as I could. Wasn’t fast enough. The door was kicked in. Bunch of cops were already there. Amie wasn’t.”

     Dylan continued to inspect the house, scanning each sand colored brick, and every red clay shingle with her eyes. Stepping further onto the front lawn, each step brought another chill down her spine. Suddenly she stopped. She could feel fear wrapping its fingers around her ankles. Behind the police tape, the front door remained ajar and off its hinges.

     Trying to take another step closer to the gate, Dylan’s ears finally picked up on a low humming sound. A familiar sound. Darting her eyes across the front lawn, she spotted an unmarked police cruiser idling under an archway leading to the garage.

   Dylan jumped as Luke grabbed her shoulder. In his usual impatient tone he whispered, “They’re still here,” he said pointing.

     Slapping his hand away, the gamer girl whispered back, “Yeah, I can see ‘em. How about you just wave your hands and tell ‘em we’re here too?”

     Dylan and Luke retreated back from the house to the other side of the road. Both boy and girl were sizing up the obstacle before them.

     To Luke, it seemed the mystery ended here.

     To Dylan, this was just another castle to storm.

    In her mind, this was exactly what she’d spend hours a day training for. Finally, Dylan had the opportunity to take everything she’d learned in the gameworld and apply it to the real one. Taking in a deep breath, Dylan dug in her heels and spoke with an excited sense of determination, “We have to get in there.”

     Luke turned to his step-sister with wide eyes, “You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna let you go inside there.”

   With a smirk, Dylan kept her eyes on the prize, looking over the gate that surrounded the massive compound, “We didn’t come all the way out here to be spectators did we?”

     Luke grabbed hold of Dylan’s wrist, “You’re not going in there.”

     Looking down at her wrist, Dylan shot back nonchalantly, “Maybe if you held on to Amie this tightly, you might not have lost her.”

     That was the last straw. Luke pushed Dylan down to the grass. His fists and teeth were clenched as his heart rate spike up over nine-thousand. He was about to throw a swing when Dylan swept his legs out from underneath him with a swift kick. Luke went down, and Dylan knelt down on his chest, pinning his arms, “This is how it’s going to happen; you lost your princess, and we’re going to break into that castle to go find her. It’s that simple. Okay?”

     Luke easily overpowered Dylan and shoved her off. Still lying in the grass, Luke took in a deep breath until his pulse slowed down, “Fine.”

     Getting to her feet, Dylan offered Luke a hand. He refused, and got himself to a kneeling position. Still staring at Amie’s Mansion, he sighed, “We can’t go in from the front obviously.”

     Dylan grinned, “I’m sure there’s another way.”

     Dylan followed Luke the long way around the back of the property. It was truly an impressive compound from every angle. The backyard contained a tennis court, massive pool, spa, trampoline, and exactly one tree branch that hung over the massive black fence. As Dylan climbed up the side of the tree, every muscle ached. It was only pain. Pain couldn’t get in the way of a mission.

     Luke was surprisingly agile as Dylan watched her step-brother climb up ahead of her. Crawling out onto the branch, Luke rolled off to one side, and dropped to the grass. He crouched low, looking for any sign that their trespass had been discovered. Seemingly in the clear, Luke waved Dylan on. She moved inch by inch out onto the limb that hung over metal spikes at the top of the fence. The branch bowed under Dylan’s weight. She could hear small cracks, and snaps as she approached the end of the branch. In one swift movement, she rolled off the side, catching the branch in her hands and dropped to the grass below.

     With all boots on the ground, both teens ran toward the house, crouched low, and single file. They moved quickly across the pool deck. Having weaved through patio furniture, and planters, Dylan and Luke finally made it to the side of the house.

     Pressing themselves up against the brick wall to catch their breaths, Dylan turned to Luke and whispered, “What now?” Removing his keychain from his jean pocket, Luke produced a stainless steel multi-tool, and unfolded it into a flathead screwdriver. Holding the screwdriver to the mesh screen covering the window, the weight of the tool began to increase proportionally to his doubt.

     Dylan’s patience dried up, “When I told my dad that I wanted, more than anything else in the world, to play video games competitively the price I had to pay was to enlist in the Air Force when I turn eighteen. That’s what I did for video games. Someone you care about might have been taken. What price are you going to pay?” Luke relented, wedging the screwdriver between the screen and the window sill. Before he pried off the screen, Dylan placed a hand on her step-brother’s shoulder, “This is the last chance you get to second guess yourself, okay?”

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 7

PART II – EXCAVATION

Level 2 – 7

     Commuter traffic was a thousand times worse today. Something about rain made Dallasites all of a sudden forget how to drive. Dylan was even more perplexed at the awful driving in relation to the lack of actual rain: there was a light drizzle at best. As the Land Cruiser crept through the parking lot, Dylan had had enough of listening to the twins bicker in the middle seat, Luke ignore her in the front seat. and Jill being Jill behind the wheel. Opening the rear window, Dylan leapt over the tailgate. She slammed the window closed behind her before Jill had a chance to protest the early departure and strolled off into the lot.

     Wading through the traffic and the sprinkling rain, Dylan made her way towards the oak tree closest to the main entrance. Holly was already leaning up against the tree with her headphones on, nodding her head, and singing along.

     “The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels /

      Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel /

      Be doin’ in artists like Cain did Abel.”

    Dylan leaned up against the tree beside Holly and sang along to the chorus, “You best protect ya neck / You best protect ya neck!”

     Holly jumped, but offered Dylan a smile, “Look at you all Ninja like.”

    “Don’t know if you can call that Ninja. I did announce my presence before I took you out.”

     Holly countered, “Yeah, just like you took out them girls the other day?”

     Dylan huffed, “That’s a low blow.”

     Holly punched Dylan in the arm, “Just tryin’ to get your skin thicker.” Holly paused her Walkman, and looked Dylan in the eyes, “Thank you, ya know, for what you did.”

     With a shrug, Dylan tried to play it cool, “It’s what I do.”

    Holly smiled, but her attention was stolen by whoever walked by. With a low whistle, she said under her breath, “My God is that boy fine as hell.”

   Dylan followed Holly’s gaze and immediately dry heaved, “Dude, that’s my step-brother.”

     “I thought those two runts with the same face were your step-brothers?”

     “Yeah, them too. And Luke cost me a weeks worth a privileges, so there’s that too.”

     “I’d like to take some privileges with that boy; climb him like a jungle gym.”

     “Holly, I’m going to throw up all over you.”

   “And he’s a troublemaker too?” Holly gave another low whistle, “What’d you two get into?”

   Dylan rolled her eyes, “It’s a long story, but the punch line is his girlfriend may have been abducted or something like that. Not sure yet.”

    Holly gasped, “Oh my God, are you serious?”

    “I don’t know yet. I’m going to check out her house after I get out of this place.”

   Grabbing Dylan’s shoulders, Holly clarified, “I mean, ‘Are you serious, ya brother’s single right now?’”

     Gently removing Holly’s hand from her shoulders, Dylan tried to contain her gag reflex and motioned over her shoulders, “Hold that disgusting thought for a moment.” Pulling up to the curb, was a white ‘96 Porsche Cayman. As the passenger door opened up, a black Saint Laurent boot stepped out into a puddle. The owner of the boot squealed as she ran out into the mild rain and under the awning. Holly crinkled her nose and furrowed her brow, “Who else but The Ice Queen? Of course she’d come rolling up in a Porsche. Wait till she’s separated from her crew, then… Pop, Pa-Pow, right in the face.” Holly threw a couple mock punches at the air.

     Dylan considered Holly’s words, but pushed her hand through hair as she dismissed the idea, “That’s not the Shaolin way.”

     Holly put her hands on her hips, “If you think I’m gonna do the Jesus thing after what Isabella did to you, then ya got another thing coming. Look, she all alone, Imma bust her right now.”

    Dylan grabbed Holly’s wrist before she rushed Isabella, “No, I mean The Shaolin of Staten Island. If we beat on her now, she’ll just get her girls to beat on us later. Or, we’ll just get kicked out of the Y altogether.”

   Holly nodded, “I wouldn’t mind that second part. We can’t just do nothin’ though.”

   As she felt the sporadic rain droplets fall from the leaves of the trees onto her face, Dylan took in a deep crisp breath of morning air. Inspiration was usually hard to find in the sweltering Texas Summer heat, but this morning however, there was a stillness that allowed her mind to breath. From the silence formed from the absence of campers on the lawn, to the cool breeze, and gentle tapping of rain upon the tin gutters, Dylan’s mind was on point.

   Drifting her eyes over the edge of the building, Dylan caught something buzzing up in the eves on the wall behind her. Taking a step closer, she followed a lone wasp which hovered around a hornet’s nest. It perched upside down on the eve above the nest, waiting, watching. As soon as a smaller hornet left the nest, the wasp descended and flew inside the hive.

    Dylan kept her eyes on the hornet nest as she spoke to Holly, “I think we need to come at this from a different angle.”

    Massive storm clouds continued to mass together and roam the sky like grazing buffalo. The wind was low and the rain had subsided enough for the campers to run wild around the soccer field playing capture the flag. Reading a copy of Bitch Magazine, Holly sat beside Dylan near the sidelines of the field. Dylan kept scratching at the side of her empty holster. Her eyes were locked on the Ice Queen. Glaring at her opponent, Dylan asked Holly, “You think she cares about winning?”

    Holly snorted, “I try not to think about her at all.”

    Dylan continued to analyse Isabella and her lackies as they remained in a private huddle on the opposite side of the field. They weren’t playing. They were just standing, talking, gesturing. The larger girl pointed across the field only to have her hand swatted away by Isabella who shouted something at a pitch only dolphins could hear.

    Scanning the field, Dylan tried to deduce what it was that had warranted Peach to get her hand smacked. Roving her eyes across the field, Dylan took a wild guess. A soon to be handsome kid by middle school standards was playing defense near the other team’s flag. “You think Isabella cares about boys?”

    With a shrug, Holly put her magazine down and followed Dylan’s gaze, “I don’t know if ‘cares’ is the right word. Collects, maybe?”

   An impish grin spread across Dylan’s face. A plan began to form. The cogs in her head were turning again, but these gears were decidedly more Decepticon. With a sharp whistle, Dylan caught the attention of the young boy guarding the flag, “Hey! Come here.” Looking over to Dylan, Allan Conner Eastman pointed to himself. Dylan nodded, “Yeah, you, come over here for a second.”

   With a shrug, Allan jogged over to Dylan and Holly. As the boy approached, Holly whispered, “Dylan, the three Ice Royals are staring you down big time.”

     Dylan whispered back, “Just be cool.”

  Allan stopped about three feet from Dylan and Holly with a blank and bewildered expression on his face. Smiling, Dylan pointed back to where Allan had just came from, “Hi. You know that thing, over there?”

    Allan looked over his shoulder, then back to Dylan, “Yeah?”

   Widing her girn, Dylan continued, “You think my friend and I here could borrow it?” Allan raised an eyebrow. “I promise we’ll give it right back.”

    With a shrug, the boy jogged back to his team’s goal. Dylan and Holly watched, holding back laughter as Allan argued with the other goalie. After a few seconds, he returned with his team’s flag and handed it to Dylan. Looking up to Allan, Dylan spoke softly through her big fake smile, “Thanks.”

    Allan waited. Confusion was still firmly plastered on his face.

   Picking up the slack, Holly smiled and waved Allan away, “We’ll call ya later. Bye-bye now.”

     Slowly turning around, Allan jogged back to his goal. When he returned to his side of the field, Dylan stood up and shouted at the councilor, “Hey, one-point to whatever our team’s name is.” She continued to wave the flag over her head in little circles. All the campers on the field suddenly stopped running like bees out of broken hive.

     Half of them cheered.

     The other half groaned.

    Bradley, the councilor with the preposterously short shorts blew his whistle, “Yates, that doesn’t count. You can’t pretend not to play and have someone else bring you the flag.”

     Holly stood to her feet, “Is that their flag?”

     Bradley shouted back, “Yeah, but-”

     Holly snapped her finger and leaned into Dylan, “Is their flag on our side of the field?”

     “Ms. Kennedy, would you please-”

     “If their flag is on our field, how about you give us the point so we can all go to lunch?”

     Everyone on Dylan and Holly’s team did in fact go to lunch. Holly and Dylan did not. They ate their lunch last and alone in the office while they contemplated their “attitude problem”. The least Dylan’s little ploy and so called attitude problem could have done was get them dismissed from the YMCA for the day. She was fairly certain that timeouts were not something that anyone going into middle school should be subjected to.

     Apart from sitting out lunch, both Holly and Dylan weren’t aloud to swim. Instead, the girls each shared a headphone listening to Wu Tang Clan while laying on the lawn beside the pool. Fortunately, the sky had cleared up enough to justify changing into their swimsuits. It wasn’t as hot, but Dylan wasn’t about to lose her California tan. She’d keep every physical mark, and scar on her body that set her apart from this place even if it killed her.

     Lying on her back, Dylan mouthed along to the song. Her eyes dropped down from the sky back down the pool. Eventually, she found exactly what she was looking for. Allan and a few of his boyfriends were playing water polo in the deep end just a few yards across from Dylan and Holly’s little patch of grass.

   Sitting up, Dylan stretched and subtly looked around for the Ice Queen. The coast appeared to be clear, but Isabella’s absence from the pool deck was also disconcerting. She’d have to act fast if part two of her plan was going to work.

     Holly looked up at Dylan and asked, “What is it, girl?”

   Dylan flashed Holly a mischievous grin, stood up, and sauntered to the pool. Having approached the side where Allan was goal tending, she laid down on her stomach and waited. Eventually, Allan caught a glimpse of Dylan smiling back at him. Her hands were propped up under her chin liked she’d seen some JC Penney model do. The poor boy attempted to concentrate on the game, but couldn’t. Risking another glance at Dylan, the ball sailed past him and into the net.

     One of the boys on his team cried out, “Get your head in the game Ace!”

    Allan shot back, “Hey Grant, how about you play some offense, or try doing anything at all to get us some points on the board?”

   “How about you play forward then?”

   “Fine, you get back here in the goal.”

    “Fine, I will.”

    Dylan held her plastic smile in place while Allan waded over towards her. Like most boys, yelling at one another was easy. Talking to girls was a different story. After an uncomfortable amount of moments just staring at Dylan, she impatiently broke the ice, “Thanks for letting us borrow your flag.”

     Allan, nodded. His face grew a brighter shade of red, “Sure.”

     Dylan continued, “Well, seeing as you helped me out. it’s only fair that I help you out.”

     From the goal, Grant yelled at Allan, “Come on man, ever heard of delay of game?”

    Allan shouted back, “You ever heard of shut the hell up?” Having silenced Grant, Allan refocused his attention on Dylan, “What kind of help?”

     Keeping her fake smile, she responded, “Just going to pass along some information.”

     Allan waited attentively.

    Dylan had him hook, line and sinker, “You know, Isabella?” Allan nodded, “She wants you to ask her out.” The boy nearly drowned himself when his legs turned to Jello from the news. With a wink Dylan waved him on back to his game, “That’s all. Thanks.”

    Allan nodded again, and swam back to the front lines. Satisfied, Dylan rolled over onto her back holding back devious laughter. When she finally looked up, her laughter immediately disappeared. Standing over her were the three self-appointed princesses of the YMCA. Isabella was out in front. The other girls stood behind her. They kept their hands behind their backs and weird little grins stapled on their faces.

    Isabella leaned over Dylan baring her teeth, “Look who we found on her back ladies.”

   Dylan snarled back, “From what I’ve heard you’re in this position more often than I am.”

   “More words? It’s a shame no one thinks your words are all that funny.”

   “You’re right, my words aren’t nearly as hilarious as your face.”

   A subtle gasp escaped from Isabella’s lackies. They turned to their queen, waiting for orders. Isabella narrowed her eyes and spread a thin smile with her equally thin lips, “Let us see who is the last one laughing.” With a demure wave of her hand, the girl’s who had been hiding their hands behind their backs threw Dylan’s clothes into pool.

    Time came to a crawl as Dylan watched her shirt, pants, and underwear sail through the air and down into the pool. She listened as the three girls seemed to be laughing in slow motion. It wasn’t until Dylan’s gunbelt was tossed in that a sudden shot of adrenaline and rage surged through her bloodstream. Springing to her feet Dylan clenched her fist to pummel Isabella. Unfortunately, Dylan was pushed backwards before she could land a single blow.

    Water slapped against Dylan’s bruised back like hitting a slab of concrete. She couldn’t scream. She could only grit her teeth in pain as she dipped below the surface. Fortunately, Dylan surfaced in time to watch Holly rush Isabella and tackle her into the pool. As whistles from the councilors blew, Dylan dove under the water. Not like she could hide from the councilors, but she needed her clothes that were now slowly sinking to the bottom of the deep end. Swimming deeper and grabbing clothing as she went, Dylan collected her gun belt resting on the pool floor.

   With a mighty push, Dylan released her breath and shot up towards the surface. Breaching the water, she gasped for breath. Everyone had gathered around the pool. Everyone was watching. Holly was already sitting out on the edge of the pool beside The Ice Queen and her disciples.

     Bradley blew his whistle once more and shouted, “Dylan Yates, out of the pool. Now!”

     Dylan complied. After all, she was the one who was pushed in. She was the one who had to be in a bathing suit for the last hour of camp. There was no way any of this was her fault.

   Bradley stood over Dylan while she climbed out and onto the pool deck, “All of this ruckus is your fault ain’t it, Yates?”

     Holly shouted at Bradley, “How dark are those shades you’re wearin’? You know my girl got all her clothes thrown into the pool by this chick right here.”

     Bradley pointed a finger at Holly, “Ms. Kennedy, I’m already calling your parents. Mind your own business, please.”

    Isabella shivered and spoke through her fake tears, “I was only returning that girl’s clothes to her after I noticed someone had broke into her locker. Then this little crazy one pushed me in.”

     Holly raised an eyebrow, “How ‘bout you shut your claptrap?”

     With barely any effort at all, Holly pushed the Ice Queen back into the pool. The crowd of campers laughed. Another councilor motioned for Holly to stand and follow her out of the pool. Likewise, Bradley herded Dylan back to the office.

    As the two girls were escorted to the office, Holly turned to Dylan, “Don’t know about you, but that was worth it.”

     Dylan shook her head and whispered, “I’m not satisfied. Not yet.”

     Holly chuckled, “You didn’t see Isabella’s face when she came back up for air. Ice Queen looked like a drowned cat with runny eyeliner.”

     “Sure. But, she’ll get off with a warning and we’re still be busted for nothing.”

     “That’s just how it goes. Popular white kids don’t get in trouble, they get counseled so their behavior can be readjusted. Folk like us go directly to jail.”

     Dylan took Holly’s hand in hers, “That’s not how it’s going to work today. By the end of the week, we’re getting justice.”

     Holly smiled, “Or we getting kicked out of camp. Either way works for me.”

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 6

Level 1 – 6

     Dylan rode after Luke. She was livid. After Luke unplugged the servers causing a blackout in the whole dojo, he just took off.  She may not have beaten the game, but she did meet a real gamer and manage to be embarrassed beyond belief in the same night. Bo Han was just as furious as Dylan, cursing loudly in Korean as her step-brother ran out. Despite being exhausted and mad as hell, she was determined to catch up to Luke. There was something else going on and she was going to beat it out of him.

     Then again, it was midnight and between the bruises, the chilling wind, and the three mile bike ride, it would be less of a beating and more like a gentle prodding. Nevertheless Dylan was going to figure out what Luke’s problem was. Only fifty yards in front of her, Luke jumped the curb into their community pool parking lot.

     Dylan hollered at her stepbrother, “Would you wait up!”

     Jumping the curb out of the parking lot, Luke vice gripped the brakes and skid to a stop. The sound of squealing tires erupted throughout the sleeping suburb. Throwing his bike on the ground, Luke held his hands over his face. With his fists clenched tight, he heaved while holding back tears, “It’s all my fault.”

     Dylan dismounted her bike. Walking up to Luke who remained in the middle of the road with his back to her, Dylan offered, “Hey, if you can trust me with your Game Boy, you can trust me with whatever is really going on.”

     Still looking down at his feet with his face covered, Luke replied in a low winded voice, “Somebody took Amie.”

     Confused, Dylan tried to remain empathetic, “And Amie is a person we should care about?”

     Luke finally spun around. His face red and nose running, “Amie is the only person I care about in this suburban hell hole, and I’m going to find her if it kills me. If you want to just make fun of me, fine. But, you know how much it sucks to lose someone so I’m not going to put up with your bitching, got it?”

     Dylan nodded. The orange glow from the streetlamp behind them didn’t offer any warmth to the situation, as another sharp breeze blew through the trees lining the sidewalks. Leaves rustled, and the shadows made by the branches dance across the asphalt. It looked like dozens of clawed hands were reaching out for Dylan and Luke stranded in the middle of the street. Taking the risk of being punched in the face, Dylan took another step closer to Luke, and picked up his bike.

     Offering her brother the handlebars, Dylan asked, “What happened to her?”

     Luke took a deep breath in and released it slowly, “She called me Sunday night. We were both going to play a copy of the game, the one you just played. My computer didn’t have enough space to run the program, or speed to play it over the internet. So I just listened to her play. I listened to her voice. I listened as they took her.”

     Dylan’s eyes widened, “They?”

     Shaking his head, Luke continued, “I don’t know who. It was more than one. The last thing I heard her say…” he was choking up again, “I’m scared, and I don’t want to die.” Dylan almost put a hand on Luke’s back, but stopped herself. She waited for him to continue. “I rode over to her house as fast as I could. By the time I got there, it was too late.”

     Something turned within Dylan, like the cogs and gears within an Autobot transforming. Her mind was racing. There was something definitely wrong, but this couldn’t have been about a video game. There was a vital piece missing for Dylan to form a full opinion: evidence.

     Taking in a sharp breath, Dylan sternly requested, “I want to see her house. Tomorrow. First thing after the ‘Y’.”

     Luke nodded his consent and mounted his Bike.

     Only another four hundred yards till home.

     Dylan followed after.

 

     Sneaking back in through the side gate, Dylan carefully repositioned her bike exactly as it was before she left. Luke let his bike fall to the ground. With a sigh Dylan crept up to Luke and tapped him on the shoulder, shushing him. He shrugged her off and kept heading toward the sliding glass door that lead to kitchen.

     While Dylan took off her black boots, Luke threw open the door with all the subtlety of an average teenage boy.

     Dylan again hushed her step-brother with a whisper, “Luke, try a little stealth, yeah?”

     In an average voice Luke croaked back, “Why?”

     With that one word that carried through the entire house, the house lights flipped on. Striding through the living room and into the kitchen like a Saint Abrahams Tank came Col. Isaac Yates, “Where exactly were you two coming in from this morning?”

     Dylan snapped to attention. Luke stood with the posture of a used beanbag chair. Keeping her eyes locked forward, the gamer girl answered, “Colonel, we were at a friend’s house, sir.”

     With his eyes locked on Luke, Col. Yates clarified, “And what friend did you sneak out of the house to take my daughter to see at midnight?”

     Luke shrugged, “Just a friend.”

     Dylan stepped in before her father melted Luke’s face off, “Sir, we were just playing video games. We lost track of time. I take full responsibility.”

     Dylan’s father didn’t budge. She could almost see fire shoot out of his mouth as Col. Yates pressed the issue, “This is the second night you left the house after hours. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

    Another shrug, but Luke’s legs nearly buckled under the heat, “No.”

     With a snort, her father swallowed his temper, “Have it your way. We’ll start with one week of zero privileges for the both of you, or longer until you do have something to say. Am I understood?”

     Dylan remained at attention as she answered, “Sir, yes Sir.

     Luke kept his head down, “Whatever.”

     Colonel Yates stepped aside, “Dismissed.” Dylan marched past her father and got as far as the foyer when she heard, “Hold on, Private.” Hanging her head, Dylan knew what was coming. Turning about face with a frown she faced her father, “I’m going to need you to hand over your sidearm.” With a heavy sigh, Dylan withdrew and relinquished her Game Boy. A fatherly grin flashed on the colonel’s face, “It’s only a week, Dylan. You can make it.”

     With a small huff, Dylan looked up with apologetic eyes and nodded. Dylan raised her hand to salute. Her father returned salute, and waved her on to bed. As she jogged up the staircase, he offered one last stern, “If you go AWOL again, it’s going to be a whole month, young lady.”

     The thing about Dylan’s room was that the main light switch was at the bottom of the stairs. So, unless she remembered to leave a light on, Dylan often found herself climbing up to her bedroom in the dark. It’s not that she was afraid of the dark, but she certainly didn’t need to be reminded of her current situation. For all intensive purposes, she had just volunteered for a mission she knew next to nothing about. She wasn’t afraid, but Dylan hated to navigate her way through the dark.

    Feeling her way toward the television, Dylan considered playing a few rounds of Mortal Kombat, or maybe a speedrun of Sonic 2, but instead just sat on the bed. She thought about all the times her in game avatars had died and the many more characters that she killed. She thought about Al Hazar. He didn’t explode in a pixilated fireball like Dr. Robotnik or Shao Kahn. He was the one boss that remained motionless in the sand. The image continued to burn into Dylan’s mind like a branding iron.

     Taking off her jeans, Dylan changed into her sweatpants and climbed into bed. She tried to think about the games she still needed to practice before the DAC. Unfortunately, her mind kept circling back to Bubblegum Bounty Hunter. She was playing over the internet. Was she competing against other players? Where Big League, Spearmint, and Eclipse real people some place fighting to kill the same guy?

     Maybe Amie, was playing against other players too. Maybe Amie had won the game like Dylan. Would that be enough to make someone crazy enough to kidnap her, or worse? Dylan had met people that took gaming way too seriously, but kidnapping was way across the border of normal-serious and into the heart of Crazytown. She tried to eject the idea out of her mind, but something else crept in. Something worse.

     Jill, in her anti-gaming hysteria was blabbing to her father a week ago at dinner about an article she’d read in the Dallas Morning News. Apparently, there were a bunch of kids killing themselves over their Virtual Pets. There was even a boy in Austin whose mom had punished her kid by taking away his Tamagotchi. When his mom finally gave it back to him, the little virtual pet had died. That night, the boy hung himself. He was eleven. The pet wasn’t real. That boy took his own life because of a fake dog (or whatever it was) died.

     For Dylan, video games were supposed to be an escape from reality. They were almost an escape from death. If something happened to you in game, you put in another quarter and try again. But, Bubblegum Bounty Hunter looked more realistic than any game she’d ever played. It felt more real too.

     Dylan was certain that whatever mystery she was diving into, would take her into deeper, darker waters than she’d ever experienced before. Pulling the covers up to her chin, and closing her eyes tight, Dylan braced for the worst. There might not be a reset button on this adventure.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 5

Level 1 – 5

     The beeping grew in intensity as she moved towards the dot on the radar to which Dylan ultimately cried out, “Is there anyway to shut that thing up?”

     Bo spoke up, “Hold ALT and press F9.”

     “Can I just read the manual real quick?”

     “Who reads the manuals?”

    “I do. Besides, if there’s an emergency and I need to break the rules, it’s easier to do it when I know what the rules are first.”

    Bo let out another little laugh, “I have the command key pulled up on a separate window. If you need to know something, just shout. Keep playing.”

     Dylan nodded and kept walking forward sans beeping noise. Raising a hand, she asked, “How about making this thing go a little faster?”

     “Let’s see here… Ah, Hold shift.”

     With her middle finger on the ‘W’ key, Dylan’s little finger compressed the shift key. Immediately Dylan’s character bolted towards the little scrap heap of a village ahead. Everything was nearly crystal clear from the makeshift storage container houses, to the rock and sandstone walls that surrounded the conclave. A message scrolled up on the lower half of the center screen.

Big League:/>(all units) – “Units in position, breach on mark.”

     Dylan circled around the perimeter of the warehouse like compound where the dot on the radar had lead her. She searched for a door, or an opening. Instead, Dylan found what looked like a seven-foot tall metal skeleton with a very large gun leaning up against a sandstone wall. With a low whistle she exclaimed the obvious, “Holy shit, that thing is awesome.”

     It looked a lot less refined than robots she’d seen in Terminator 2. Instead of polished chrome, it was closer to unpolished brass and black plastic. Shiny stainless steel would have stood out like a sore thumb here in the desert anyway. It’s head looked like two Panasonic F-250’s camcorders welded together. Cradled in it’s hand was a massive minigun with a gun belt wrapped around it’s arm and into a large pack on it’s back. The machine was even decked out in Desert Storm styled fatigues and armor.

     Dylan moved her mouse to look down at her own mechanical hands. Both were empty.

Big_League:/>(all units) – Position check.

Spear_Mint:/>(all units) – Check.

Eclipse:/>(all units) – Check.

Orbit:/>(all units) – Check.

     Dylan had her hands on the keyboard ready to answer when she turned to Bo, “How do I send a message with this thing?”

     Bo, “ALT and ‘M’ and type. Enter to send.”

    Before Dylan could write her response, Luke grabbed the keyboard out of her hands. Dylan tried to pull the keyboard back from her step-brother but couldn’t, “What’s your problem?”

     Luke replied panicked, and voice shaking, “Don’t tell them you’re name.”

    Dylan looked to Bo and then back to Luke, “You think I was born yesterday? Of course I’m not going to tell them my name.”

     Luke released the keyboard, “Just be careful.”

     Rolling her eyes, Dylan got back into position, “Dude, it’s a game. Relax.”

Big_League:/>(all units) – Breach!

   Dylan watched her monitor as the wall where the larger mechanical man once stood exploded inward into a cloud of dust and debris. With her eyes widening she blurted out, “Weapons! Need weapons now.”

    Dylan remembered her earlier mistake and cycled through the number keys starting with ‘1’ and watched as the armaments came up onto the screen: an ax, a Colt .45 pistol, a M4-A1 carbine rifle, a M79 Grenade Launcher, and finally something that looked like a harpoon gun.

    Bo excitedly squealed, “Go back to the assault rifle!”

    Luke whined, “Let her play.”

   Dylan spoke low and cool, “Guys!” Cracking her knuckles like Matt would do, she readied her fingers on the keyboard and mouse, “I’ve got this.”

    Bursting through the wall, Dylan pulled up her Colt .45 and ducked for cover. Voices in some foreign language were screaming through the speakers under the sound of gunfire. Popping up from behind a crate, Dylan expertly tagged the shadowy figures of men with incredible accuracy. Each target that entered her crosshairs went down in a single shot.

Big_League:/>(all units) – Frag out!

     Dylan backed her character behind the nearest cover narrowly avoiding a blinding white light followed by a powerful boom that rocked her speakers. Before the smoke even cleared, Dylan was out and scanning the area. Light poured in through the massive hole in that used to be the north wall of the main room.

Big_League:/>(all units) – Company status check?

Spear_Mint:/>(all units) – Power at 45%. Heavy damage.

Eclipse:/>(all units) – Power at 35%.

Orbit:/>(all units) – Power at 40%. Fuel low.

Dylan quickly typed her message and hit the enter key.

Five:/>(all units) – Power at 75%. All clear.

Spear_Mint:/>(all units) – Anybody have eyes on unit Five?

Big_League:/>(all units) – Unidentified user ‘Five’ state your name and rank.

Five:/>(all units) – Captain DAY, ready to rock!

     Dylan laughed to herself as she continued to explore the dust filled room. Bo suddenly began clicking the keys of his laptop faster and with greater intensity. Luke was mumbling, “Can they see us? Can they find us?” Bo Han shushed Luke. Dylan, kept searching the room once again rendered with astounding detail. Normally, when a character died they just disappear. Dylan was almost frustrated that she had to deliberately walk around dozens of downed enemies.

Orbit:/>(all units) – Mission priority: Primary target Al Hazar is escaping in oil tanker truck headed Southeast.

Five:/>(all units) – Copy, in pursuit!

     Moving her character out through the hole in the wall, Dylan stepped back before she was nearly hit by the tanker speeding past her. Holding down the shift button, Dylan watched robotic hands pump up and down in rhythm. Sand flew up in the air as her robot moved at an otherworldly pace after the tanker truck. Another series of beeps forced Dylan to glance at her left monitor. Her battery gauge was dropping rapidly.

     The tanker was gaining speed and distance. Dylan switched from her pistol to her rifle. Brass hands cradled the rifle as she took her shot. Nothing happened. The truck continued to pull ahead of Dylan. She switched to her grenade launcher. Despite the speed, robotic hands held her weapon steady. Lining up the shot, Dylan fired.

      With a bright flash, and explosive roar, the tanker truck’s back axle was blown clean off. The truck swerved, tumbling end over end careening into the shallow ditch beside the road. After a final rotation, the tanker buried itself in the sand dune beside the road.

    As Dylan’s character approached, she surveyed the beautifully crafted wreckage. Nothing was pixelated. Not the fire, the sand, or the mutilated truck. Nothing clipped or disappeared as she walked her character to the driver’s side. Among the carnage, Dylan appreciated the time it must have taken to create such an incredible fiction.

ALERT! BATTERY LIFE AT 25%

     Removing her pistol, Dylan carefully sidestepped around to the front of the truck cabin. Crawling out from the truck came the body of a man, bruised and bloodied. The detail was captivating. He was actually panting for breath. His eyes were bloodshot. It almost looked like this man was staring up directly at Dylan.

     His eyes pleaded with her, grasped by sheer terror.

   Hovering her cross hair over what must have been the boss, an FBI’s Most Wanted mugshot materialized along with a detailed biography on Dylan’s right screen. Despite being blown out of a truck, the man kept trying to crawl away. This was a pretty easy bossfight for the first level. As the man kept trying to pull himself across the sand, Dylan steadied her pistol.

   With two clicks of the mouse Dylan fired two rounds into the back of his head and whispered, “Game over.”

    Seeing the blood splatter across the sand, and the wind blowing through the boss’s dark, matted hair, an uneasy feeling surged through Dylan’s veins like thick, cold mud. Her pulse slowed and sent a shiver down her spine. It wasn’t just that the body ceased to disappear. It wasn’t the absence of a Level Cleared or You Won title across the screen. There was something deeper than all of the hundreds of thousands of ninjas Dylan had slaughtered over the years.

     She had seen this man’s face.

     She looked into his eyes.

     Somewhere, Dylan figured, a team of artists had sat in a room in front of their monitors and programmed an enemy that feared death. Unlike any game before, Dylan almost felt sick. Her gag reflex was itching at her throat. The only thing keeping her from throwing up all over the keyboard was her brain reminding her of the plain and simple truth: This wasn’t real.

     This was only a game.

    The metallic ping of the message alert interrupted the deathly stillness that fell over the desert.

Orbit:/>(all units) – Eyes on target, Al Hazar is down. Neutralize Unit Five, then proceed to extraction zone for skyhook.

Eclipse:/>(all units) – Five in sight, tango down.

    All of a sudden, the monitor went black followed by the metallic sound of a bullet piercing metal. The audio was still picking up the rustling wind from the desert level prompting Dylan to ask, “What gives? Did one of you hit the monitor cable?”

    Dylan looked over to Luke and Bo Han who was furiously typing on his keyboard. Looking over on to Bo’s screen, there was still DOS text code crawling over the page. Luke was pacing back and forth as he breathed out, “They’re going to find us.”

      Bo Han didn’t turn from his keyboard as he chided Luke, “Their word per minute is not equivalent to how fast they can hack my system.”

      Luke gripped the back of Bo’s chair, “Well, you’re typing faster.”

     “I’m only one guy. Whoever they are probably has a team of people trying to figure out where their uninvited guest came from.”

     Dylan looked onto her monitor. Everything was still black except for the submenus, and a timer in the center of the screen counting down below a message that read, Unit Five compromised. Self destruct sequence activated.

     Looking back over to Bo, Dylan asked, “Is that it, or does this thing have another level?”

     Bo chided, “I’m a little busy here. Just tell me if anything happens on the monitor.”

     Luke continued to pace, “We need to shut off the servers.”

     Bo laughed his little laugh, “We’re not shutting off the servers. Calm your tits.”

     “I’m serious, Bo Han.”

     “You call me Subzero, Gaijin.”

     “I’m not fucking calling you Subzero. Shut down the servers before they find us!”

    Dylan turned around in her chair, staring up at Luke. He looked like he was about to explode. With fists clenched and nearly hyperventilating, Luke continued trembling as he stared down Bo’s monitor. Not growing up in a home that expressed comfort, Dylan wasn’t sure how to react. It was abundantly clear Luke must be stressed beyond what had happened in the game.

     Trying to reach out to her brother, Dylan offered a calm distraction, “Luke, what did you think of the game? That was pretty cool huh?”

    Luke snapped, “I don’t care about the stupid game.”

   Dylan was taken aback. She knew that Luke used to be just as much of a gamer, if not more so. She tried to probe, “Why exactly did you need me to beat this game Luke?”

    Luke kept his eyes on Bo, “You don’t need to get involved.”

    “You’ve already got me involved. What else is going on here?”

    “I just needed you to play the game. Bo, you need to shut down the servers, now!”

    Bo Han finally looked away from the monitor. With a stern voice, and a thicker accent, he shouted, “You’re not touching my servers. Just let me work.”

    Dylan looked at the countdown timer: fifteen seconds.

   Luke shot a look over to the glass closet and dashed towards the servers. Bo Han set his laptop on the table top and followed after him shouting in Korean.

   Ten seconds.

   The two teens struggled and shouted.

    Five seconds.

    There was a quick explosion sound from the speakers, and then static.

    Connection Terminated.

    Lights out.

Bubblegum Bounty Hunter – Chapter 4

Level 1 – 4

     Scratching off her black nailpolish, Dylan remembered the specific reason she was not a PC gamer. Waiting for games to load was right up there on the excitement charts with watching polar ice caps melt, and listening to AM radio with her father. Payoff for the amount of patience committed to loading a PC game typically awarded lackluster results anyway. Console games on the other hand…

     Pop in the cartridge.

     Turn on the power.

     Play the game.

     Dylan swiveled herself around in the desk chair while she listened to Bo and Luke argue over nonsense computer jargon. Both of them stood beside the massive refrigerator sized servers  that were in the glass closet. Bo was adamantly defending his position stating, “Because you can’t play something of this file size over the internet, that’s why!”

     Luke countered, “Well, Amie did it last night and she didn’t pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into her set up to do it either.”

     Bo retorted, “Well she would have had too. We’re talking about 2.4 gigahertz, minimum.”

     Dylan checked her watch. Both the big and little hands told her that this activity was boring. Standing up from the chair Dylan walked towards the glass garage door. She heard Luke call out from behind her, “Where you going?”

     With a shrug and a yawn, “Home. Bed. Sleep. It’s been an hour, Luke. If your game was called who can get bored first, I’ve won. Goodnight.”

     Luke jogged over to Dylan who was struggling to open the door; “You promised!”

     Crinkling her face, Dylan turned around, standing face to face with Luke, “I never promised anything. You’re the one who said there was a game to play, but I’ve just been sitting down doing nothing when I could be training for the DAC.” Dylan studied her brother’s face. He was more hurt than he was upset.

    Bo cleared his throat, “I’ve taken some liberties with a few things and managed to get us connected. But, if you want to walk away, I’d be happy to play the game in your absence.”

     Dylan mockingly cleared her throat as well, “How about you just chill out, Sub-Zero. I’ll be the one taking care of the game. If it even works.” She gave her stepbrother a curt smile and sat back down in the chair. Luke walked back to Bo manning a laptop by the servers.

     Bo gave a thumbs up, “We’re ready to go.”

     Luke raised an eyebrow, “How’d you manage to compensate for the connection speed?”

     “My father is VP at Fujin International. I’m not supposed to, but I’ve decided to use his secure line to the company servers. We can run the connection at twenty four.”

     “Twenty four Kilobytes? We need at least six thousand–”

     Bo put a finger up to his lips, “Twenty four megabytes per second. We could run your mystery game and watch every episode of Gundam Wing at the same time, no problem.”

     Luke shook his head, “That’s impossible. The cable needed to run that speed doesn’t even exist yet. Not to mention your processor would have to-”

     Dylan threw up her hands, “Fellas, I ain’t here for a math lecture. Less talking and more… well, whatever it is this game’s supposed to be about. Speaking of which, you wanna tell me anything else about this game before I beat it?”

     Luke breathed out, “You only get one life.”

     Dylan rolled her eyes, “How ‘bout you tone down the drama and at least tell me what genre.”

     Bo piped up from behind the laptop, “You said it was a first person shooter, right?”

     Raising an eyebrow, Dylan turned to Bo, “A what?”

     Luke answered impatiently, “It’s a Doom clone. You see what the character sees. You run. You gun. Kill the enemy before they kill you. It’s harder than it sounds though.”

     Dylan rapped her fingers impatiently on the desk, “So much for ‘like no game I’ve ever played before.’ Don’t get me wrong, Doom was great the first five hundred times I played it. Just thought tonight was supposed to be a challenge.”

     Bo walked himself back over to the desk, tethered to the servers by a modem cord. Setting his computer down beside Dylan, she turned to the Korean boy, “Whatcha think you’re doing?”

     Bo chuckled, “You know whose house this is right?”

     “As soon as I beat this game, it’s gonna be my house.”

     “Look, Lady DAY, you’re high scores are impressive. You got your stake on a little space of the gaming community. Very proud of you. But, you need to deflate that ego of yours ASAP.”

     With a wink, “In forty nine days, I’ll have a Dallas Arcade Championship under my belt too.”

     “Well, you’re going to need at least four if you want to run your mouth at MY table,” Bo said gesturing over to the glass server closet. Sewn onto a black tapestry hanging against the glassdoor where four DAC patches. Each one was for Grand Champion. “So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to let you sit at my table, and while you play I’ll work through tons of code to figure out what’s so special about the mystery game. That okay with you?”

     Dylan was embarrassed beyond belief. She suddenly put the pieces together. Luke’s friend wasn’t just some guy calling himself Sub Zero. He was the Sub Zero, the current North American Mortal Kombat reigning champion.

     Nodding quickly Dylan offered an apologetic explanation, “I just play better when I have some space is all.”

     Bo took an exaggerated step to the right, away from Dylan, “All you had to do was ask. Are you ready to play this thing or what?”

      Dylan nodded. With a few quick keystrokes on Bo’s laptop, the monitors in front of Dylan suddenly turned on. Hundreds of thousands of lines of text began to waterfall over the screen nonstop. Dylan tried to read what was scrolling past her, but it was coming in to fast. What she could make out was just gibberish anyway. Numbers. Letters: most weren’t even English.

      “Sorry,” Bo said, “Let me try something else.” With another couple clicks, the scrolling gibberish disappeared. Only three words remained on the screen…

 

BUBBLEGUM BOUNTY HUNTER

 

     Dylan looked over to Bo, “Well?”

     Bo shrugged, “Well what? Play the game.”

   Rolling her eyes, Dylan grabbed the mouse and clicked. Nothing happened. Pressing enter, a blinking cursor appeared at the top of the center screen followed by a single line of white text.

ENTER KEY CODE:\_

     Luke took the Jewel case out of his letterman jacket. He opened the case and handed the piece of paper with the paragraph of randomness to Dylan. Taking the paper, Dylan exclaimed, “This whole thing is the code? I’ve seen Metroid passwords shorter than this.”

     Bo gave a subtle laugh, “Why don’t you try typing in Justin Bailey while you’re at it?”

     Dylan smiled. She was relieved to be in the presence of an actual gamer, but still intimidated. As she typed in the password, she recalled an article written in Game Informer about the legendary Bo Han “Sub Zero” Kiragami. Last year at the E3 Conference in Atlanta, he claimed both the speed record for defeating master class and championship title for Mortal Kombat III. And now Dylan was here, inside the estate of the actual Sub Zero. This was a whole other level for her and she was doing her best to keep it together like a professional.

     A persistent beeping from the monitor speakers snapped Dylan back to the task at hand. Another wall of text quickly scrolled up the screen and disappeared. Dylan looked over to both Bo and Luke, “Does this make sense to any of you guys?”

     On the laptop screen, Bo seemed to be scrolling through the same gibberish. He waved Dylan off and added, “Just keep doing your thing. We work. You play.”

     Dylan shrugged and looked back to her own monitors. The screens were black except for a clock and text message: Tuesday 08:07 – Mission in Progress. After a few moments, the blinking cursor ran across the screen leaving another message in it’s wake.

SELECT COMBAT UNIT:\_

  1. BIG LEAGUE
  2. SPEARMINT
  3. ECLIPSE
  4. ORBIT
  5. FIVE

     Dylan started from the top, and typed in ‘1’.

INVALID COMMAND! COMBAT UNIT IN USE. SELECT ALTERNATE UNIT:\_

     She went down the line. Each one denied. Growing frustrated, Dylan slowly typed in ‘5’ and deliberately compressed the enter button. Another waterfall of text and beeping commenced.

INITIATING DRIVE SEQUENCE G:/00-05 PREPARE FOR RAPID DEPLOYMENT!

     Suddenly a klaxon alarm blared through the monitors over the deafening sound of rushing wind. There was also a dull mechanical humming that Dylan could only identify as the sound of a beehive if the bees were the size of VW Bugs. The monitors lit up bright white but gradually dimmed, focusing on what looked like the interior of some kind of cargo hold.

     Dylan moved the mouse which turned her character’s head. To her left was a large metal door descending to reveal a bright blue sky. Panning her mouse to the right, Dylan let out an audible gasp. Behind a thick pane of glass were the most realistic figures she’d ever seen in a game. Not even the N64 or Playstation rivaled what she was staring at now. Stepping out from a metal door, an officer with a pilot’s mask approached Dylan’s character.

     Speaking into the radio, Tech Sergeant Briggs yelled at the window, “Master Sergeant, sir!”

     Another voice crackled over the radio, “What is it, Tech Sergeant?”

    “Master Sergeant, this other one is woken up. There ain’t nothing on the books that says unit Five is supposed to be deployed. Orders, Sir?”

     Everything from his mouth, to the details sewn on his jacket, it was all astoundingly realistic. What’s more this scene wasn’t a pre-recorded movie either. She couldn’t move, but Dylan was definitely in control of whoever it was she was supposed to be. Glancing over to Bo and Luke, she frowned as their faces were more concerned with the ones and zeros on the laptop. Dylan turned her attention back to the monitors. She wasn’t going to miss a thing.

     Over the speakers, Dylan heard the disembodied voice of the Master Sergeant over the radio bark out, “Typical. These spooks from DC want to use our gear to send their toys into the battlefield, but they don’t want to tell us what the hell is going on. Same ole’ bullshit.”

     The Tech Sergeant leaned into his radio again, “Yes Sir. Do we send it out though?”

     “I ain’t breaking radio silence. If the thing is on, then they must want it down. Boot it up and boot it out.”

     “Sir, yes Sir.”

     Dylan’s character quickly pivoted counter clockwise facing the giant open door. On her right monitor, several semi transparent menus popped up in succession from left to right. Each had a tactical display of fuel levels, power supply, ammunition remaining, and half a dozen more. At the top right hand corner of each menu a tiny green light appeared.

     From somewhere behind her, the Tech Sergeant yelled, “All systems green. Launch on mark, three, two, one… mark!”

    Suddenly Dylan’s character was catapulted out through the door, thousands of feet above the earth. The altimeter which suddenly appeared as it’s own menu on the right screen informed her she was precisely 34,700 feet above the ground and falling, fast. She tumbled end over end. Clouds rushed by and steady whooshing noise pumped through the speakers.

ALERT! – “DEPLOY CHUTE AT 1,200 FEET”

     Dylan kept her eyes on the screen as she asked, “Uh, you didn’t happen to keep the manual for this thing did you.” There was no reply. “I only ask because the ground is coming up very quickly, and nobody told me how to open my parachute.” Still no reply. “Guys?”

     Bo put a finger up into the air, “Patience.”

     Dylan could now quite clearly make out a sand covered landscape rapidly approaching. She couldn’t help but marvel at the level of detail, and the lack of load time. This was all happening right now, and Dylan was going to be dead very soon if she couldn’t figure out one simple command. Another alert popped up at the bottom of her screen, counting down to the shortest time it ever took Dylan to die in game.

ALERT! – “Alt. = 3,000. PREPARE TO OPEN CHUTE”

     Maybe it was one of the number keys?

INVALID COMMAND! WEAPONS SYSTEMS NOT AVAILABLE AT THIS TIME

     It could be anything, or a combination of anything. Sweat began to pool up around the girl’s finger tips. Her heart beat jumped up a notch. Today was full of firsts. She’d never died on the first level before. She’d never met a gaming celebrity. She’d never felt unbridled embarrassment in front of said celebrity. Soon she could check off all three in one day. Lucky her.

ALERT! – DEPLOY CHUTE!

     Bo looked up from his laptop, “Hold ALT, and press ‘6’.

     Dylan complied and her descent suddenly came to an abrupt halt, then resumed at a less than gentle glide. She was still falling quickly, but finally touched down to earth. There was a loud “BEEP” followed by another alert.

WEAPONS FREE. PROCEED TO RALLY POINT ‘DELTA’.

     Whatever it was that Dylan was supposed to be, she was not yet dead. Just like every game she’d laid her hands on, she was determined to conquer it. Looking at the radar map that suddenly appeared on her right monitor, Dylan used the keyboard to maneuver her character toward a blinking dot. Forward into mystery.