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.”
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.
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.