Misunderstood Holiday Classics: Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas

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Blast this Christmas music! It’s joyful…and triumphant!

Most know the story of the Grinch; the green recluse who hates Christmas and steals everything, only to have a change of heart at the end when the Whos celebrated Christmas all the same. At the turn of the millennium, Hollywood made a full-length movie out of it. To say the least, a lot of people didn’t like it. More accurately, they were pissed, and to this day, it’s popularly remembered as a disgrace to the original children’s book and cartoon. And yet, a lot of other people sit down to watch it every year and dedicate Twitter accounts to quoting Jim Carrey. Yep. It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. Well, looks like I’m gonna have to shift the public opinion barometer closer to the love side.

Here goes. Five reasons why the Grinch movie is totally, indisputably not a terrible film, and actually pretty freaking awesome:

(Obviously, spoilers, as well as an alert that this post is going to delve into discussing mental illness. Also, “totally, indisputably” is tongue-in-cheek.)

1. It’s a fractured fairy tale.

Don’t forget the Grinch. I know he’s mean and hairy and smelly. His hands might be cold and clammy, but I think he’s actually kinda… sweet.

SWEET? You think he’s sweet?

[nods] Merry Christmas, Santa.

Nice kid…baaad judge of character!

The major point of contention with the film seems to be that it’s not a faithful adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss story. The Whos are jerks, the Grinch has an unnecessary backstory, and so on. Well, yeah, from reading the original, Seuss didn’t seem to have all that in mind. However, remember all those revisionist fairy tales in which the villain is actually misunderstood and has their own reasons for being a jerk (one of the most popular ones being Shrek)? The whole concept of the Grinch becoming a misanthropic asshole because he was ostracized by the Whos is standard for that kind of adaptation. I honestly believe that a good deal of the hate comes from people not realizing it’s a fractured fairy tale, but expecting a straighter adaptation, and if it was properly advertised as the former, it would have been better received.

Of course, just because it’s a fractured fairy tale doesn’t automatically make it good, but that’s what the other reasons are for.

2. The Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of mental illness.

The nerve of those Whos. Inviting me down there – on such short notice! Even if I wanted to go my schedule wouldn’t allow it.
4:00, wallow in self pity

4:30, stare into the abyss
5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one
5:30, jazzercize
6:30, dinner with me – I can’t cancel that again
7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing… I’m booked!
Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness. But what would I wear?

This is what goes through the mind of us socially anxious people whenever we get told to go out and meet people, come out of our shell and socialize. Also, the Grinch debating with himself whether to go to the Whobilation or not, coming close to stepping out the door before turning back and insisting he’s not going? We do that too, at least in our heads. Maybe out loud, but where no one can hear. And then getting humiliated with the reminder of the ostracism that made us socially anxious in the first place, causing us to retreat back to our secret lair and give up on ever fitting in (hopefully temporarily)? Well, we hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s expected.

Heck, most of the Grinch’s lair scenes show him clearly being depressed. Yeah, I know, he looks like a manic jerk. Believe it or not, that’s one way depression manifests itself. The word implies a sad sack, but that’s not how it always looks. Outwardly, he performs anger and sarcasm, but his words give him away:

  • I tell you Max, I don’t know why I ever leave this place. I’ve got all the company I need right here.
  • Am I just eating because I’m bored?
  • And of course, his schedule.

He also gets frustrated and in denial when Cindy Lou ends up seeing through his performance. This is because society tends to frown upon people being open with their troubles and appearing weak as a result. So he tries to cover it up the best way he can: by playing the role of the villain and pretending he doesn’t care about his or anyone’s feelings. That’s why when his heart goes three sizes, he has a nervous breakdown. His emotions are almost literally exploding out of him. When you’re finally free of depression, uncontrolled crying fits, at least inwardly, are to be expected as you reflect back on your depression, likely regretting how much of a jerk you’ve been to people in the process.

His unusual birth, both in appearance and behaviour, also serves as an applicable metaphor for physical or mental abnormalities. Most of the conversation focuses on his appearance, but there’s still a clear subtext of being unable to fit in because he doesn’t act normal.

Also worth noting, anime fans will recognize the Grinch as that manic-depressive character archetype known as a tsundere. Best example is his “Oh Max, I love you,” followed by telling him to scram. Opening up to people takes time, after all.

3. Cindy Lou Who is an amazing heroine.

But the book does say the Cheermeister is the one who deserves a backslap or a toast. And it goes to the soul at Christmas who needs it most. And I believe that soul is the Grinch. And if you’re the Whos I hope you are, you will too!

The whole “Mayor Augustus Maywho gets owned by kid” scene is great. And if you don’t believe this is realistic for a girl her age, well, try listening to Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the Rio 1992 Environmental Summit, or reading Madison Kimrey’s essay to Phyllis Schlafly. For the namesake of “gets owned by kid,” albeit older, try Jesse Lange vs Bill O’Reilly.

Seriously, Cindy Lou Who is astonishingly underrated, especially considering she’s from a big name movie that grossed more than $300 million worldwide. People often think “Strong female character” means a girl or woman who excels in punching people, but as child activists show, that’s not the only form of strength. And just because someone looks “girly” doesn’t mean they’re weak.

Cindy is brave. In the face of condescension from the mayor, disbelief from the town’s populace, and the frightening legends, she presses on regardless, determined to learn the truth about the Grinch.

Cindy is smart. She actively goes out to research the Grinch’s history and to put the pieces together. She read the Book of Who enough that the Mayor can’t bullshit her in the debate to nominate the Grinch as Cheermeister. Heck, she’s the only one aside from the green man himself to question why everyone is making themselves miserable in their gift obsession in an ostensibly cheerful season.

Cindy is kind. She knows the Grinch isn’t exactly right in the head, but sees the good side of him he so desperately disguises, and tries to help him unconditionally. And while that sounds like the typical manic pixie dream girl, she’s not doing it out of any obsession with him. She’d do that for anyone in need, which includes herself. By helping the Grinch, she helps herself realize the joy of being there for someone in need and rediscovers the Christmas spirit.

And anyone who ever tried to make a difference, anyone who’s constantly underestimated by society, especially little girls, will recognize this:

Did anyone listen to me? No, you choose…to listen to a little, not to be taken seriously, GIRL!

This pretty much sums up the main argument from a lot of conservative adults. But in the end, because she stuck to her convictions, her timid father came to her defense, and so did the entire town. She’s been my inspiration ever since I saw this movie as a kid, and as an adult who’s been around the political scene for a while, even more so.

4. The movie doesn’t contradict the original message. It expands it.

I’m glad he took our presents. I, well, I, I’m glad.

He’s glad! You’re glad! You’re glad everything is, is gone. Heh hah heh. You’re glad, that the Grinch virtually wrecked, no no no, not wrecked, pulverized Christmas! Is that what I’m hearing from you, Lou?

You can’t hurt Christmas, Mr. Mayor, because it isn’t about the…the gifts or the contest, or the fancy lights. That’s what Cindy’s been trying to tell everyone…and me….

I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here: my family.

In the tradition of a good fractured fairy tale, this movie adds another dimension to the original story. I mean, the Grinch didn’t have a particularly developed motive before, and people are naturally going to ask (just like Cindy did!). Heck, psychologists have essentially detailed the plot of this movie as a possible explanation for why anyone would steal Christmas. (If that’s not vindication, well, I still have one more reason to go). Telling the audience to look beyond the materialistic trappings of the holiday season is a natural extension of “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags!” It may take creative liberties with the original story, but it still carries the same spirit.

5. It essentially has the same plot as Frozen.

 

Let’s see: emotionally repressed main characters have some aspect of themselves that they cannot control, and shut themselves out from the world as a result. Eventually, they are found out, and run away to a snowy mountain where they hide for an extended period of time, building impressive abodes in the process. The other main characters: brave, headstrong girls, come over to their lairs to get them to open up and overcome their social anxieties. Both the Grinch and Elsa have scenes where they go out in public just to feel rejected. And in the end, they find the inner strength to rescue Cindy and Anna respectively. Heck, all four of them even have their own theme tune, which are recurring for the latter two.

And yet one is regarded as a Disney classic (despite having little to do with The Snow Queen), while the other is scorned as a butchery of a Seuss classic. What the hell, people? Yes, I know Frozen is itself controversial, but it just goes to show how much the context in which a movie comes out can inherently change audience opinion.

—-

I mean, sure, the movie isn’t perfect. There are some logical inconsistencies in the movie’s story, such as why the Grinch’s caretakers didn’t seem to care that he was gone for so long. But it does so many things right, and uncommonly for a Hollywood movie to boot, that it doesn’t deserve the negative reception it got. It’s like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Once upon a time, people hated it because it took a lot of liberties with the source material, the gargoyles were jarring, Quasimodo didn’t get the girl, etc. But now, people appreciate just how awesome it is for taking on Christian fundamentalism, slut shaming, male entitlement, prejudice and racism, and so much more while reaffirming the ideals of Christianity itself (not to mention the beautiful animation). For us Grinch movie fans, there’s hope that people will eventually come around to it in a similar fashion.

Plus, it’s extremely quotable.

The appeal of horror; why choose to be frightened?

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 Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.

Guillermo del Toro

As a niche genre, horror is often misunderstood. It is often vilified as ultraviolent, misogynistic exploitation or mocked for cheap costumes and overdone fairground tricks, associated with schlocky, lowest common denominator fare churned out just to make a profit. However, like anything, horror has its gems, and there are many things that horror accomplishes that few other genres can match.

Horror is fundamentally psychological

What causes fear? Uncertainty. A lack of control. Being subject to the whims of fate. These are the feelings that horror thrives on. In fact, Psycho is essentially a psychological study of Norman Bates and his struggle for control over the memory of his abusive mother, showing also how horror gives insight into the darker aspects of humanity, parts of it that many of us do not experience and thus have trouble comprehending.

It’s also worth noting that the common jump scare is rooted in the fear of the unknown, not knowing when it will strike. Many do not understand this, thinking the jump is what causes the scare rather than its context, and this is why it has become such a derided narrative technique.

Horror is a depowerment fantasy

What distinguishes horror from other genres is the power of the protagonist, our proxy character. In a typical hero story, the protagonist is able to conquer any foe by the tale’s conclusion. Despite all the pressures imposed by the narrative, applied just enough to cause suspense, the outcome is rarely uncertain. In contrast, the protagonist of a horror story is far weaker than their adversary, again lacking control over their situation. You genuinely feel that the hero is outmatched in a way that cannot be overcome by training and experience against weaker foes. When faced with an invincible man or monster, or some strange environment not subject to the protagonist’s rules, the goal is often not to win, but simply to survive.

A good example is the original Wicker Man. The protagonist, a police officer, believes himself in a position of power and thus acts aggressively towards the islanders. However, he does not triumph in the end, for his heroic bravado merely played right into the cult’s hands. In the end, he was defeated by a force more powerful than himself. (as an aside, I must admit that the Nicolas Cage remake parodies this aspect pretty well. “I’m a police man! See my badge?”)

This is also why people often consider Resident Evil 4 the point at which the series started to shift from horror to action. The more powerful the protagonists become, the less scary the adversary is.

Paradoxically, this makes horror empowering

Because horror is so willing to explore issues to a depth that few other genres dare descend, we gain a better understanding of those issues, and knowledge is power. Whether it’s growing up in a broken home or living in fear of sexual assault while people around you blow off your concerns, seeing your experience on screen says that yes, someone understands you. Yes, your concerns are valid. And it is possible to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that the faces of horror protagonists are typically female. Society treats women as the weaker gender, less capable of fending off evil presences. But passive characters like the typical love interests in action movies don’t make compelling protagonists, because people want to see themselves as more active than that. The very choice of making a girl or woman the viewpoint character gives insight into her mindset, so that even male viewers come to understand her story. And in the realm of horror, where masculine strength means nothing in the face of a much more powerful enemy, it is female cleverness, ingenuity, and determination that succeeds over evil.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is nothing if not corny, with byzantine death sequences (a weightlifter turned into a bug! A guy eaten by his own motorcycle!) and a villain who seems to have a dayjob as a Catskills comedian. But it’s also explicitly about female empowerment, as its final girls learn not just how to control their dreams but to control their lives as well, and overcome such obstacles as alcoholic parents, insecurity, and being ignored by those in power. It also establishes what can only be described as a final girl matriarchy, with myths, rituals, and a strong bond of friendship uniting its heroines.

– Sarah Marshall: Beyond Clarice: Underrated Horror Heroines

Like life, horror does not always resolve neatly

But of course, true evil takes more than a punch to the face to disappear. No, the cackling slasher will always return again and again. The spirit will always find a new host. Even after escaping, the legacy of her terror will always come back to haunt the hero. Such is life, where we must always remain vigilant, for real-life horrors such as racism are not simply resolved by one civil rights movement.

—-

By no means are these aspects limited to stories specifically made to invoke fear in the audience. Horror elements often overlap with other genres, such as in dark fantasy or psychological thrillers. Even if you are not interested in reading or writing horror, it is worth understanding the genre. Again, knowledge is power. To conquer fear, you must first learn its roots.

Like romance and comedy, horror is a difficult subject to get right, since all three involve manipulating people to achieve a specific emotional reaction. Doing them badly is like failing at a magic trick; the production ends up being incredibly awkward (if not unintentionally hilarious). But the insight into humanity horror can provide makes it a genre worth respecting.

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-9: For Cedar and County

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(previous)

Saturday afternoon at the Fish N Stuff was a quiet day. Oliver was savouring his lunch break with his friends.

“Can’t believe you’d decide to eat here, of all places,” Oliver whispered.

“Oh c’mon,” Stacy snapped. “Do we look like food snobs? This is infinitely better than some crappy TV dinner.”

“Yeah, the food’s great,” Ren added. “Besides, we owe ya, buddy.”

Oliver was taken aback. “For what?”

“For your essay, of course!” Ren said.

“We’re gonna be tipping extra generously today,” Cheryl explained. “So you can still claim your 100 dollar prize.”

“You definitely deserve it more than that Prince guy,” Stacy added.

Oliver smiled. He was about to insist that they totally didn’t have to do it, but he knew they would insist on it anyway, especially Stacy. In between bites of his Super Salmon Burger, he took a look at today’s paper. He groaned at yet another Rob Smith article, but upon seeing Stacy’s eager eyes watching him, he quickly flipped the page.

“Say, Olly,” Stacy said, grinning. “Whatcha looking at?”

“Nothing,” he replied nervously.

“Nothing, you say? Was it the swimsuit page?”

Oliver shook his head in embarrassment. “The editorials.”

Stacy frowned. “Really, Oliver?”

He said nothing, scanning the papers for something to change the subject. “Hey, there’s an article on one of the roller derby teams from the city! Didn’t know it was getting so popular.”

The rest of the table became excited, except for Cheryl. “Yeah, it’s one of those niche subcultures they feature every so often. I’ve heard of the team from Sofia,” she replied calmly. “They’ve been training in the East End for years, and have become quite a formidable team.”

She suddenly paused, with the table hanging on in suspense. “The Axel Rangers.”

Everyone’s eyes widened, impressed.

“Why is their name so much cooler than ours?” Stacy asked.

Cheryl shrugged. “Guess someone really loves Power Rangers.”

Oliver lowered the paper as everyone gathered around to see. Posing in the picture were five girls all skating in a row, sporting outfits in red, yellow, green, blue, and pink respectively. Upon seeing the photo, Stacy was ecstatic.

“Just think, if we beat them and win…Fame! Glory! Everyone in Cedar Grove will be grovelling at our feet! The little Beemobile that could, standing in triumph! Our town, no longer under the big city’s shadow! We’d be…”

“Uh, Stacy…” Cheryl interrupted. “You do realize they’re way more experienced than us, right?”

“I knew that,” Stacy answered sheepishly. “But it would be nice to see how we measure up, at least.”

Cheryl smiled. “I know what you mean. It’s great that you’re eager to challenge yourself. But remember, we’ve got our own league to worry about first.”

Stacy sighed. “Yeah, I know,” she said dreamily, still obsessing over her David vs Goliath fantasy.

“Say, can I have the paper now?” Ren interjected.

Oliver promptly handed over the paper as Ren quickly flipped to the end of the Sports section, staring in awe. Cheryl looked on in amusement, while Stacy snickered. As her eyes wavered, she noticed Tori merely staring at them, having said nothing until now.

“Say, Tori, what’s up?” she asked.

Tori looked back at her. “Um….”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Oliver’s mom coming.

“Did you kids enjoy the meal?” she asked.

Everyone nodded in approval, reaching for their wallets.

“Your total comes to $63.21. Are you all paying together…”

Before she could finish, everyone had already slapped down more almost three times that amount. Oliver was ready to contribute his fair share, but Ren gestured for him to stop. His mother looked pleasantly bewildered.

“Thank you very much….” Ms. Palmiero said, trying to catch her breath.

“Don’t worry, Oliver,” Ren said. “Like we said, we got you covered.”

—-

It was lunch time, and the Games for Everyone club was meeting in their usual haunt. Oliver was catching up with Memories of the Sleeping Village while Cheryl and Tori looked over his laptop screen.

“Separate and unbroken, four lines make up the seal,” Oliver muttered. “Through the square of nine, a secret it will reveal…‘Think outside the box.’”

Stacy, who just got up after trying to stay still on her wobbly chair, overheard her friend’s thoughts. Oliver saw her approach with a weird grin on her face, still trying to connect all the dots together.

“Ugh, only four lines? There’s no way!”

“Got any ideas?” Cheryl asked. “I’ve been stuck on this one too.”

Stacy continued to smile. “Oh, this one.”

She gestured at Oliver to move over, and he obliged. Stacy began drawing a line from the bottom right corner to the bottom left just as Oliver did. Smirking, she paused for a second, and then continued the line just one space outside the square. The other three gasped as Stacy continued to move diagonally right to just above the top right corner, and then reconnected the lines to form a right triangle. She finished connecting the last two dots with another diagonal. The seal began to glow as she returned the seat to Oliver.

“Wait, the veiled lady meant literally outside the box?” Oliver exclaimed. “God, I feel stupid.”

“Hey,” Stacy said. “It’s not exactly intuitive if you’ve never seen the puzzle before. But now you know!”

The other three were impressed to see the solution revealed in plain sight. But after a few seconds, they noticed the seal was still glowing, and were confused.

“The seal’s not doing anything,” Oliver remarked.

Stacy merely flashed another smile and pointed at the region where the arrow pattern was pointing. Oliver noticed that the background was a map of the apothecary, and proceeded to click on the jar it was pointing at.

“Remarkable!” Abd-al Malik told the player character. “That’s where the Rosetta Stone must be hidden! We’re one step closer to uncovering the King’s message!”

“Wow,” Oliver told Stacy, overwhelmed. “Lydia sure is sneaky. How would we ever know it was supposed to be in that specific direction too?”

“Well, if you drew the pattern in the other directions,” Stacy explained. “It wouldn’t point to anything. Took a while for me to figure that one out too.”

Oliver shook his head. “How did she ever expect anyone to get through this without writing up a guide?”

“Well, you and Tori helped Stacy last time,” Cheryl pointed out. “I think we can get through this if we work as a team.”

“Yeah, perhaps that’s what she was going for,” Stacy concurred. “Four heads are better than one, after all. Speaking of which, how’s your game coming along, Tori?”

“Um, I’ve noticed this ragged-looking girl show up every so often,” Tori said. “She’s always smiling despite being so alone. When I see her, I try to give whatever I have to make her feel better.”

“Oh yeah, her,” Cheryl said. “Gave her something once, but it didn’t seem to do anything.”

“Yeah, same,” Stacy added. “Who knows? She’s probably just an item sink.”

“I just wanted to be nice,” Tori replied.

“Yeah, but don’t you think you might need the items later on?” Oliver suggested.

“Maybe,” Tori replied. “But it’s so sad to see her try to get by with no one to talk to.”

Stacy was concerned. “It’s just a video game.”

Tori paused, wondering if she was being too sensitive. She didn’t have much time to think about it, though, as Cheryl looked at her watch, and gasped. Lunch hour was ending soon. She didn’t realize time flew by so quickly, since the room’s clock was frozen in the same position. Somehow, it’s been that way since her first class in the room.

“So anyway,” she said, with a huge smile on her face. “Everyone excited for the Spirit Day presentation?”

Stacy and Oliver were silent, looking unenthusiastic at the prospect.

“I guess so,” Tori replied. “I’m curious to see what it’s all about, even though they didn’t seem to put much effort in drawing the ads.”

Cheryl frowned. “See, Tori’s excited…sort of. What’s wrong with you two?”

“Nothing,” Stacy said. “Trust us, it’s really nothing.”

“Aside from cheesy speeches,” Oliver added.

Cheryl was astonished to see the others brush it off so casually. “C’mon, where’s your school spirit?”

“What spirit?” Oliver protested. “We’re one of the worst schools in the province, we lose almost every competition we’re in, we’re a laughingstock compared to Cedar Valley…”

“Wait,” Cheryl interjected. “What’s up with Cedar Valley anyway?”

Oliver searched his laptop, pulling out a picture of an alleyway in downtown Cedar Grove, featuring a graffiti-plastered wall saying “Class of ’99. Cedar Was Here, Pollock Are Losers.”

“That’s how it all started,” Oliver explained while Stacy nodded.

“Aw, c’mon,” Cheryl retorted. “I’m sure not everyone from Cedar Valley is like that. I mean, your cousins go there, right Stace?”

“Yeah, there are exceptions,” Stacy replied. “But we’re talking the collective student body here.”

Cheryl looked to Tori, hoping she’d back her up. “What about you, Tori? What do you think of Cedar Valley?”

“Honestly, I don’t have very fond memories of that place,” Tori answered nervously.

The school bell rang, and the foursome started heading out the door. Cheryl grinned. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for Spirit Day! And for class off!”

“Yeah, I guess we have that going for us,” Oliver said, cracking a weak smile.

—-

The students of Pollock Secondary had all gathered in the gym. Unlike the spacious auditorium from Cedar Valley Secondary, Pollock’s was small and basic. The bleachers were worn and easy to wobble, making a lot of students feel uneasy. At Tori’s request, the Games for Everyone group came early to sit near the front. Lucas, Abigail, and the Gamer Club also wanted front seats, but upon seeing the foursome, they decided to go higher.

“So, happy to be out of class?” Ren asked Lucas.

“Hmph,” Lucas responded. “For what? Some stupid cheerleading routine? Even English class is better than this clown show.”

“Well, Dad’s in it,” Ren pointed out.

“Whatever. I’m not interested in another lecture here of all places.”

Ren grinned. “It’s not a lecture.”

Suddenly, a giant windsock fish came swishing into the gym, carried by multiple pairs of legs and accompanied by a group of cheerleaders in school girl uniforms. The pollock costume twisted and turned to the cheerleaders’ chants:

“Pollock School is the best! Send a message to the rest! P! S! We’re Pollock Secondary!”

The large fish came closer, pushing its big goofy grin in front of the students. When it was Stacy’s turn, the pollock looked like it was about to give her a kiss, and she recoiled in disgust.

“I’ve heard of lion dances, but this is ridiculous,” Stacy whispered to her friends, relieved that the fish left.

“Tell me about it,” Oliver concurred.

Cheryl paid the two no mind as she was strangely enraptured by the show. Soon afterwards, the students were greeted to the sound of bagpipes. Mr. Stewart, dressed in a traditional Scottish kilt, sounded out the peppy tune of I’se the B’y. The giggling cheerleaders grabbed each other’s armed and danced the jig to the music. Even the fish was invited along. Ren was amused by the sight.

“Woo-hoo! Go Dad!” he yelled while the Smith siblings stared at him awkwardly, rolling their eyes.

The rest of the crowd had mixed emotions about the sight in front of them. Some were dozing off, just happy to be out of class. Others were cringing at the bizarre sight in front of them. The cheerleaders and Mr. Stewart broke out into chants once again.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

“P. S. Pollock Secondary,” Cheryl said, following along. She was quiet at first, but her voice started growing louder. “P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Her friends were astonished to see her so deeply invested in this circus. Stacy and Oliver looked at each other with shocked expressions, then decided to join in.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Stacy tapped Tori’s shoulder, and she too began chanting. Sofia, seeing the foursome chant, got her friends to join in. Ren too managed to convince Eric and several others aside from Lucas and Abby to chant. Eventually, the Smith siblings were some of the few students left that weren’t going along with it.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Few people knew why they were chanting. But nearly everyone else was doing it, so why not?

—-

Sofia and her friend Melanie, otherwise known as Quadrachromia Iridis, joined up with Cheryl and friends as everyone cleared out of the gym.

“Well,” Sofia remarked. “I never knew Spirit Day could be this fun.”

“Yeah,” Mel agreed. “I can’t remember the last time Pollock actually went along with the cheer.”

The other students nodded as Sofia gestured towards Cheryl. “It’s all thanks to Cherie here.”

“Aw, it was nothing,” Cheryl replied.

“Nothing?” Stacy told her. “You got the whole school going!”

“First time in years!” Oliver added. “Why’d you do it, anyway?”

“No reason,” Cheryl answered. “The whole thing was silly fun, and everyone worked hard to put it together. I guess if you’ve seen it year after year, it wouldn’t be as impressive, but even so, don’t they deserve some appreciation for trying to cheer the school up?”

Everyone nodded.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Oliver said.

“It does take a lot of guts to do all that in public,” Stacy added.

“Exactly!” Cheryl replied.

Just then, Ren and his dad left the auditorium, both with huge grins on their faces. The sight of Cheryl caught Mr. Stewart’s attention and he briskly walked over.

“I must say, I can’t express enough just how thankful I am that you led the cheer,” Mr. Stewart told her as they shook hands. “It’s nice for the students to actually appreciate Spirit Day for once.”

“No problem,” Cheryl said.

“Say,” Ren added. “Ever thought of becoming a cheerleader?”

Cheryl paused, anxious at the prospect of parading around in a miniskirt. “Um…maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“In any case, you’ve got the heart of one, and that’s what matters,” Mr. Stewart remarked. “Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat more, but I’ve got a staff meeting to get to. See you again sometime!”

“Bye, Mr. Stewart!” the older students replied while Tori and Sofia merely nodded. As father and son walked away, Sofia turned towards Oliver.

“So, how have you been?” she asked.

“Fine,” Oliver said. “I’ve been thinking, maybe I should get more involved in some Spirit Day event.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I remember a lot of kids here sharing some cool urban legends about Pollock Secondary. It’d be neat to talk about Old Mabel, or the Pollock Secondary ghost.”

Tori flinched. “G-ghost?”

Oliver smirked. “It’s just something we use to scare the 8th graders. It’s as real as the house hippo.”

“Wait, it’s not real?!” Stacy shrieked.

The others glanced at Stacy awkwardly.

“I guess someone had to break it to her eventually,” Sofia remarked. “Anyway, how’s life been treating you, lil sis?”

“Aside from having my childhood dreams crushed?” Stacy answered. She was glum at first, but suddenly became cheerful again. “Actually, I’ve been thinking. If the Axel Rangers were to come to Cedar Grove, hypothetically speaking of course, would you be willing to challenge them to a game?”

Sofia and Mel looked at Stacy in shock. “Really? You think they’d even give us the time of day?” Sofia said. “We’re only juniors!”

“Well, Stacy thinks we’ll be town heroes if we beat them,” Cheryl added. “To be honest, I’d like to see how we measure up ourselves.”

“Hmm….” Sofia pondered. “I guess you can’t fault a girl for being ambitious. Mel, what do you think?”

“I’m game,” Mel replied.

“Alrighty then. I doubt they’d even look at us, but if you see them, let me know and we’ll try to arrange something.”

—-

It was a bright Saturday morning. Two of the Axel Rangers had arrived early in Cedar Grove to do some sightseeing. One girl was sitting on the rock, admiring the extended family of ducks geese that gathered in the lake this morning, with no other people in site. Another was returning from her lap around the lake, and out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a pair of other visitors trying to catch some photos of a pileated woodpecker. Suddenly, the bespectacled girl noticed her, and she was looking awfully eager for some reason.

“Hi!” Stacy greeted the girl. She had short black hair, matching eyeliner, and was wearing a black tank top over white pants.

“Um…, hello,” she replied, taken aback by her cheerfulness.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” Stacy asked.

“Yes,” the girl replied, unsure of what she was getting at. “Very peaceful here. Sometimes, it’s nice to get away from city life.”

“Oh, you’re not from here?” Stacy said curiously. “Well, this place doesn’t have much going for it, but hey, if you like it here, that’s cool! What’s your name, anyway?”

“Sayaka.”

Both Stacy and Cheryl gasped. “Are you Sayaka Akihara? Citrine Tsunami?” Cheryl asked.

“Yes.”

Both Stacy and Cheryl looked at each other in excitement. “Pleased to meet you. My name’s Cheryl. We’ve been looking forward to meeting fellow roller derby players.”

“Oh, you guys play too?” asked the other girl on the rock, who was wearing a red dress with a floral headband. “Well, if you’re familiar with Saya here, I guess you know my name?”

Stacy was ecstatic. “The glorious Red leader, Xuân Phan, otherwise known as Trini Vermilli, right? I’m finally glad to meet you at last. My name’s Stacy.”

Xuân smiled at Sayaka. “Looks like we got fans.”

“Ever since I heard of you guys, I’ve been dreaming of the fateful day we’d meet,” Stacy declared. “Us, the lowly Beemobile of Cedar Grove, up against the great Axel Ranger titans from the city! A chance to bask in greatness, hoping some of your brilliant moves will shine down upon us! It is for this reason that I, Stacy Nazarenko, challenge you to this clash of quads!”

The other three just stared at each other blankly.

“Someone’s been watching too much shounen anime,” Sayaka remarked.

Xuân gave a nervous giggle. “Well, it’s good to see her be so passionate about the sport, at least.”

“What Stacy here is trying to say,” Cheryl explained. “Aside from being really excited to meet you, is that we’d like to play a few rounds of roller derby with you guys. We know we’re only rookies, but, just a fun match. Please?”

Sayaka looked at them curiously. “I don’t know. It’s going to be hard to just find a place.”

“That’s okay. We’ll do whatever it takes to find one!” Stacy exclaimed.

“Well, if you insist,” Xuân said. “I’ll contact the rest of the gang and see what we can do.”

“I’ll do the same!” Cheryl said.

“Awesome, can’t wait!” Stacy exclaimed.

Sayaka was less enthusiastic about the prospective game, deciding to instead focus on the scenery from the park. She scanned the environment, admiring the tall enclave of Douglas firs, and smiled. Stacy, initially disappointed by her lack of response, noticed her peaceful expression, and got an idea.

“Hey, since you’re here,” Stacy said, grinning. “How about we show you around town?”

Sayaka turned towards Stacy. “I’d love that, thank you.”

—-

And so they were off. Bald eagles were soaring high above them, with one eventually coming down close and fast. Luckily, Cheryl had her camera ready and got a shot. Stacy was impressed at her accuracy, and everyone huddled around to admire the photo. After they had their fill of nature, they left for the bus downtown. On the way, they passed by Cedar Valley Secondary School and its immaculate lawn.

“Is this your school?” Xuân asked.

“Nah,” Cheryl said. “We go to Pollock Secondary. It’s pretty far from here.”

“In the middle of nowhere,” Stacy remarked. “Honestly, you’re not missing much.”

“Hey,” Cheryl remarked defensively. “It’s not that bad. We do have a nice maple tree that everyone likes to relax under.”

She showed a photo of Pollock Secondary’s front entrance. Xuân and Sayaka both huddled around her phone, impressed by the large and multicoloured leaves.

“We call it Old Mabel. According to our friend Oliver, it was planted by one of the town founders himself, Joseph Pollock, and every generation of students since then has worshipped her as a fixture of our school. Even the elementary students come to cool off under her leaves during summer.”

“Wow!” Xuân replied. “So the tree’s like everyone’s grandmother?”

Cheryl smiled. “Yeah.”

They arrived at the gate of the nearby Farmer’s Market. Before, Stacy came as a vendor. Now, the four of them came as visitors.

“This is our local Farmers’ Market,” she explained as they walked past the stalls. “It’s great if you want to pick up some cheap apples, and they’ve got all sorts of neat crafts!”

As Xuân admired some of the dresses, Cheryl added, “Stacy actually had a booth here once selling arts and crafts from video games. That’s how we met and became friends.”

“Ooh, that’s amazing!” Xuân remarked. “Do you have any crafts you could show us?”

Stacy was nervous. “It wasn’t me actually. The art was done by Tori, who was the only one to actually sell anything. My stuff kind of sucked.”

“Don’t say that,” Xuân said. “Crafting is a lot easier than you think.”

“You get the hang of it after a few tries,” Sayaka added. “I wasn’t good at first either, but I’ve got a couple of friends who make their own clothes, including cosplay, and they’ve helped me a lot.”

“Wow!” Cheryl replied. “I’d like to get into cosplay.”

“Me too,” Stacy added.

They arrived at a stall showcasing felt and glass. At the centre was a winter scene with snow-capped evergreens, glass snowflakes, penguins in the snow, and a rustic cabin, all lovingly hand-crafted by its owner, Mme. Morin. She was wearing a black star-patterned cloak and had a focused expression on her face. Stacy immediately requested the felt penguin, and she graciously obliged.

“I heard you were interested in crafts,” Mme. Morin said. “Would you be interested in lessons? I’m teaching some classes later this month.”

“Yes, please!” Stacy exclaimed.

“Count me in, too!” Cheryl added.

Sayaka was intrigued by the glass snowflake hanging near where the penguin used to stand.

“May I have the snowflake pendant?” she asked.

“Certainly, dear,” Mme. Morin responded. “That’ll be $25, please.”

—-

Leaving the Farmer’s Market, Stacy adored her penguin while Sayaka wore her snowflake pendant proudly. After walking down the street, they arrived at the nearby Cedar Grove Mall.

“Honestly, it’s kind of boring,” Stacy told everyone. “Mostly big chain stores that are in every small city. But there are some cool places around here.”

They stopped at the Chinese antiques store, stopping to admire the walls filled with precious stones and statues.

“They’re really pretty,” Cheryl said as she and the Axel Rangers duo went in.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied dreamily, looking at the jade fenghuang. “If only they didn’t cost so much….”

“I know,” Xuân said sympathetically. “It’s like they’re taunting you.”

“At least the rest of us have the Farmers’ Market,” Cheryl concurred.

Sayaka, noticing Stacy stand outdoors, asked, “Aren’t you coming in?”

“Nah,” Stacy said. “The store owner got mad at me for constantly coming in without buying anything.”

“I see,” Sayaka replied. “Well, let me know if you do want anything.”

—-

“And this is the arcade,” Stacy said after they arrived upstairs. “You guys probably have better ones, but we have DDR! That’s gotta count for something.”

“It does,” Sayaka explained. “We have a few other rhythm games nearby. Have you tried Taiko no Tatsujin?”

“No, but I always wanted to,” Stacy said.

Sayaka smiled, bringing out some coins. “Up for some games?”

“Sure!” Stacy replied.

They played a few round robin DDR games. Stacy managed to defeat both Xuân and Cheryl, leaving her to face Sayaka. Though she held her own, she stumbled a few times, which allowed Sayaka to edge her out for victory.

“Good game,” Stacy told Sayaka.

“Indeed,” she responded. “You’re pretty good.”

“Yeah, well, you should meet Tori. She’s a beast at this game.”

“Well, maybe if we meet again, you can introduce us to her.”

—-

The foursome took a stroll through downtown. Cheryl was in awe at the old buildings.

“You’ve never been here before?” Stacy asked.

“A few times,” Cheryl answered. “But it’s just fun to see those decade-old shops that managed to withstand the test of time.”

They stopped at one of the local coffee shops, Silver Leaf Organic. After ordering some coffee and scones, they sat down to relax and absorb the atmosphere of the cedar-filled building. Luckily for them, it was a relatively quiet time this afternoon.

“Thanks for the tour, Stacy,” Sayaka told her.

“Yeah, you’re really quite the tour guide,” Xuân added.

“Aw, shucks,” Stacy remarked. “Honestly, we don’t have much, but I guess you gotta appreciate what you got, right?”

“It’s not much, but it’s home,” Cheryl agreed. “I enjoyed the tour too. It’s amazing how much you know about this place.”

Stacy was surprised to see how enthusiastic her friend was. “Say, how was life in Brisling?”

Cheryl paused, gathering her memories. “It was nice. Kind of quiet, actually very similar to here.”

“Do you miss your old place?”

“Sometimes. Actually, Mom lived in Cedar Grove for a few years now. Parents got divorced, and she decided to move here. After a few years, Dad and I both agreed I should spend some time with her, so here I am. I may end up moving back to Ontario for university, but I’m not sure yet.”

Stacy was surprised to hear that, especially at how well Cheryl was taking it. Noticing her amazed expression, Cheryl added, “It happens. After some point, my parents didn’t see eye-to-eye on things anymore, so they decided it was best for all of us. And I know that Cedar Grove may not seem all that exciting if you’ve been here for years, but it’s new to me, and I want to make the best of my time here.”

“I understand,” Sayaka told her. “My family moved to the East End when I was a kid. I had trouble adjusting at first, but people there are really nice. It’s not as pretty as the West End, but it has its own charm.

“In a way,” Xuân continued. “That’s why we play; to make our region proud.”

“Wow, we feel the same way about Cedar Grove!” Cheryl exclaimed. “Speaking of which, we got a game tomorrow, and we’re gonna win, right Stacy?”

“Indeed!” Stacy replied.

The four of them got up, paid their bills, and left for the bus.

“By the way,” Xuân said. “The rest of our team is busy, so we won’t be able to play together in the near future. Sorry about that.”

“That’s alright,” Cheryl said. “We’ll just keep training until then.”

“Besides,” Stacy added. “It’s something to look forward to the next time we meet!”

“Indeed,” Sayaka replied. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you both. Good luck at the game! Until we meet again, maybe!”

“Bye!”

They hugged each other, then went their separate ways.

—-

“And after a successful block led by Sakura Bladerunner, Camellia’s Kiss takes the lead! It’s over! The Beemobile wins over Delta Psiforce!”

Mrs. Zhao was ecstatic. “I’m so proud of you girls!”

“Thanks for saving our butts back there,” Stacy told Cheryl as they high-fived.

“Hey, you did good too,” she replied.

“Indeed, lil sis,” Sofia added. “By the way, I’m still jealous that you two got to meet Xuân and Sayaka. Try to invite me next time, okay?”

“Sure thing, Sofie,” Cheryl replied.

“Job well done, team!” Mrs. Zhao told them. “How about we take you girls out for dinner to celebrate?”

The entire team yelled in approval.

“All right, I know just the place,” Mrs. Jackson told everyone.

“Say, Auntie, we we get there, can I have a beer?” Stacy asked as they walked out onto the street.

“Anastasia, you’re 17.”

“Aw, c’mon. You have no problem chugging litres of that stuff.”

“Tell you what. In a couple of years, when you get to university, you can have all the beer you want.”

“Lian!” Mrs. Jackson cried disapprovingly.

Mrs. Zhao suddenly frowned, her tone becoming harsher. “But drink responsibly, or else you’ll have us to answer to!”

(table of contents)

The many faces of storytelling

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The Illusionist

Sleight of hand. Distraction. Misdirection. Drawing attention to what’s hidden in plain sight. In fiction, we call these plot twists or hidden depths, but the mentality is the same. Just as the magician tricks the audience into believing their improbable feats, so to does the writer manipulate their audience into believing the reality they created. Joy, anger, sadness. All directed towards that which is not real, but feels so.

How effective the manipulation depends on the interplay between illusionist and audience. It is easiest to impress those who have never seen the tricks before; less so the jaded who have seen the tricks a hundred times.* And yet, they can still be won over; for instance, by introducing the standard trick merely as a set-up for a new spin on the classic (as Penn and Teller show). Knowing the audience is key to manipulation.

Of course, though, manipulation can also be used to unscrupulous ends. If you have someone capable of making coins disappear, you can probably imagine what other applications that could have. It would be absurd to comment on how artistically done a pickpocketing job was, and yet so many art critics take that approach to writing; attempting to detach the art from the propaganda. This is not possible. All issues are political issues; all art attempts to convey a point of view.

*As a personal example, while many were overjoyed at the nostalgia trip that was Toy Story 3, I was unimpressed soon afterwards. Why? Because I’ve already seen The Brave Little Toaster.

The Engineer

Now we consider the more savvy audience members. The kind who enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. The kind who closely and analytically observe the illusion to identify the realism behind the magic. Some of them even enter the creative process themselves, calling themselves postmodern.

The engineers consider their work a response to the magicians. Indeed, their style appeals to the critics who dedicate their lives to taking media apart and analyzing it. However, these techniques: metafiction, fourth wall awareness, intertextuality, unreliable narrators, are tricks in themselves reminiscent of the Penn and Teller approach to magic. And as such, they primarily impress those that have never seen the tricks before. But these are classic tricks, at least as old as the 1600s and Don Quixote.

Nonetheless, since fiction is a reflection of reality, it is natural to ask questions of where to draw the line. When you willingly let yourself fall under the creators’, it is useful to ask, to what end? The analytical approach can offer valuable insight into plot conventions or character archetypes that would otherwise be neglected, and every writer worth their salt should at least be thinking about the implications of their work. In addition, the engineer is the type of person who places particular emphasis on novelty, brainstorming ideas to set themselves apart from the crowd.* However, just remember; all this too is part of the illusionist’s show.

*Worth noting, my graduate studies are in a scientific field, and figuring out what makes your paper different from everyone else is the most important part of getting published.

The Anthropologist

Whether it be the manga collecting nerd, or the European classic collecting academic, this is the audience who has an extensive breadth of experience with their devotion of choice. They know, for instance, the historical popularity of certain plot tricks, the influences across time from ancient mythology to the then-modern popular culture, how such works differ across cultures and audiences, and the interplay between media and the real world.* Like the engineers, they bring a similar “seen it all” mentality to the show.

Naturally, one that has devoted so much of their time to one thing would often be motivated towards the creative process to pay homage to their favourite things. Or perhaps they prefer to mock the more absurd conventions, though even parody requires one to have some appreciation for their target if they are to expend so much effort lampooning it. A well-informed, well-read creator can enrich their work with history or take their creations in bold new directions by combining multiple influences from fiction and real life. In a sense, they are like the engineers, but with a different background.

*Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of bad movies because of how fun it is to analyze why in particular something is bad; for instance, the sheer depth of critical analysis dedicated to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Anyone who wants a taste of that can check out Greg Sestero’s autobiography The Disaster Artist. You’ll be amused as to how the bizarre scenes came to be.

The Actor

What is the purpose of escapism? To imagine yourself as someone else, somewhere else. To imagine a life without prejudice or pain, or to be reminded that you are not alone in your experiences. By immersing yourself in a story, you become an actor in your own imagination, taking on the role of a character closest to your own. This is most obvious online, taking the form of Tumblr role-play blogs and the like, where even minor characters take on a life of their own.

Naturally, it is easiest to come up with stories that you have personally experienced. How then, does one imagine that which is different from them? It’s definitely possible; you have young directors telling compelling stories about the elderly, for instance. And people have experiences told every day: from friends divulging their inner secrets, from family reminding you what life was life back in their day, even conversation on the bus. Observation, listening, empathy, those go a long way towards creating compelling illusions that feel like the real thing. Stories can be a powerful way of reaching out to the audience, both through the show itself and directly interacting with fandom.

A lot has been said about representation. Here’s my take: as mentioned, the audience often uses stories as a form of role playing. They want to see themselves. So even if a minority character is underdeveloped, even if a female character is ignored, people will cling to them because they want an avatar.* They want to be a part of that world. They don’t want to be left out. So if you’re a creator, shouldn’t you treat your characters with respect? Shouldn’t you give your audience the opportunity to live out their dreams, whoever they are?

*Worth noting, the reason why I enjoy the Nelvana dub of Cardcaptors, even despite all the edits? It’s because Sakura is portrayed as braver and more of a tomboy. To my knowledge, that’s not particularly common for magical girl shows, let alone for a character to be so comfortably androgynous without comment. I also enjoy the live-action Grinch movie because Jim Carrey’s Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of my own struggles with depression. Yeah, it’s an weird take on it, but it works. Those are a few examples of why I may deviate from the consensus opinion on things.

Conclusion

Who owns stories, the creator or the audience? Obviously, I spent this entire blog post arguing for both of them, that it’s a false dichotomy, but it’s still worth examining the underlying mentality between possible answers. One might say that a creator’s work is art that must be carefully preserved; that any changes to it are akin to vandalizing the creator’s vision. Others might say that the story belongs to the one telling it; that even if a previous storyteller did not tell it the same way, the next one brings their own perspective and interpretation.

Personally, I lean towards the latter response, because I see storytelling in the vein of the oral tradition in which stories would be passed from generation to generation. In addition, the audience often sees a story differently from its original creator. A character that may seem sympathetic to a writer may not come off that way to a reader due to their differing life experiences. So I’m not a fan of literalism. But it is an open question, so others may have different arguments. After all, everyone approaches stories differently, and acknowledging those different faces makes them all the more compelling.

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-8: To Write, Perchance To Geek

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(previous)

“Oliver, may I see you after class?”

Mr. Stewart was walking around the room, handing back everyone’s English essays. Stacy sulked when she saw her grade, while Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief. Oliver, on the other hand, was now embarrassed to be the centre of attention.

“Oh, I knew I should have wrote about something else,” he whispered to his friends, as Mr. Stewart walked away. The rest of the class was abuzz with anticipation, wanting to know what Oliver got in trouble for.

“Heh,” Lucas smirked to his Gamer Club buddies. “That loser probably wrote about some stupid kiddy thing like Pokémon.”

Ren attempted to stifle a nervous giggle, hoping Oliver didn’t notice. “Say, Lucas, how’d you do?”

“Do you even need to ask?”

“Ah, of course, another A+,” he chuckled. “I wish it was that easy for me.”

“Don’t worry about it. Your only competition is dunces, after all. This school is a joke.”

Mr. Stewart looked sternly at the chatty class. “I know you’re all dying to hear the latest gossip, but don’t you all have lunch to get to?”

The class, disappointed, began to pack up and leave.

“Good luck, Olly,” Stacy whispered back to him.

Lucas threw a smug glare at Oliver on his way out. “Enjoy detention, loser.”

Eventually, Oliver was left alone with Mr. Stewart

“So,” Mr. Stewart began. “You chose to write about Pokémon?”

“Um, yes sir,” Oliver replied

“Oh come on, why the long face?” Mr. Stewart said, suddenly beaming in excitement. “Aren’t you happy with your A?”

Oliver was shocked. “Wait, you liked it? Then why did you keep me here?”

Mr. Stewart smiled. “As you may be aware, the Cedar Grove Essay Competition is in a few weeks,” Mr. Stewart explained. “I thought it would be great if you could share your insight with the town.”

Oliver’s jaw dropped. “You serious?”

“Yes! It’s such a fascinating world you kids have become caught up in, this Pokémon. I’d love to learn more!”

Oliver was still unsure of the idea.

“Besides,” Mr. Stewart added. “It’s less expected a topic, and standing out from the crowd might be the deciding factor in the competition.”

Oliver smiled. “Yeah, it’d be cool to win by writing about video games.”

“Great! I look forward to seeing what you come up with in two weeks.”

—-

“Alright, class dismissed!” Ms. Rama called out.

The 11th grade Math class was grateful for the lunch bell as they hurriedly scattered out. Tori, who now sat beside Sofia in class, reached for her sketchbook as they walked out the door.

“Did you hear about the essay competition?” Sofia asked.

“Yeah,” Tori replied. “I’d love to enter, but I’m not sure what to write about.”

“Don’t waste your time!” a familiar voice yelled out from behind.

Tori recoiled. It was Abigail again.

“I mean, we all know what you’re going to write anyway,” she continued, in a mocking tone. “‘Hi! I’m Tori! I like to draw! Sure, my drawings are as worthless as everything else about me, but…I like to draw! Tee-hee!’”

Sofia walked in front of Tori to face Abigail. “And what’s your essay about?”

Abigail paused. “Um, well, it’s a secret.”

“Oh,” Sofia replied sarcastically to a nervous Abigail. “You sounded eager to share.”

She glared at Sofia. “Mind your own business!” she demanded.

She quickly turned around and walked away. Sofia could hear her muttering in frustration, “What does she see in that little air-brain anyway? What does anybody see in her?”

Tori looked at Sofia gratefully. “T-Thank you.”

Sofia sighed. “I really should have said something before. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Tori replied cheerfully. “I’m glad we’re friends now.”

She smiled. “Say, may I see your sketchbook?”

Tori reached into her bag and handed it over. With a curious expression, Sofia glanced over a drawing of the titular witch from Kiki’s Delivery Service, particularly impressed by Tori’s kanji signature.

“You did this all by hand?”

“Yeah.”

“Wouldn’t be easier to use a computer or tablet?”

“Maybe. It’s just not the same as pencil and paper, though.”

“I see. Wait, I never see you around art class. Who taught you?”

Tori paused nervously. “No one.”

Sofia gasped. “Really? You learned all by yourself?”

“Um…yeah.” Tori did her best to avoid Sofia’s eyes. “My mom would never let me take any classes, so I read whatever I could and practiced with manga drawings. I know it’s not very good, but…”

“Not good?” Sofia retorted incredulously. “You’re amazing! I mean, you even wrote you name in calligraphy!”

Tori gave a weak smile. “Thank you!” she replied. “I always liked cursive writing backed in third grade, and hoped we could do more of it.”

Sofia stared at her in disbelief. “You’re the first person I’ve met who actually liked cursive writing class. I hated it.”

“I know we don’t use it much, but it would be a shame if everyone forgot how to do it. It’s such a nice writing style. So elegant and pretty.”

The girls suddenly stared at each other, surprised by the other’s expression, as if a burst of inspiration shined on their faces.

“Hey, were you thinking about making that your essay topic?” Sofia suggested.

Tori thought about it, beaming. “I’d love to!”

—-

The Grade 12 students gathered later that day for biology class. Cheryl was finishing up her run on the microscope as Stacy stood by, waiting eagerly for her turn. Nearby, Oliver was savouring his chance to look at plant cells while Ren dutifully took notes. Lucas was not happy with his best friend ditching him, and he simply sat cross-armed and frowning while Eric, another member of the Gamer Club, fiddled with trying to get the microscope focused.

“All right, you’re up,” Cheryl said, removing the slides.

“Finally,” Stacy grinned, placing some fresh samples on the stand. “Thanks for covering the bugs for us.”

“Sure thing. Why are you so scared of them, anyway? You’re bigger than them.”

“I’m not scared. They just look so, ugly, and wrong.”

Cheryl half-frowned. “They’re not ugly. Once you get used to them, they’re fascinating!”

Stacy shrugged while chasing a floating cell with her eyes. “Sure, I guess. I suppose you’re going to spend your essay arguing about how important they are to the ecosystem, right?”

“Actually,” Cheryl grinned. “I’m doing mine on Steve Irwin, my childhood hero.”

Stacy beamed. “Wow, he’s mine too!”

“I love how he made even the most dangerous animals look cute.” Cheryl looked outside the window dreamily. “Imagine, spending every day outdoors, getting to meet all sorts of creatures for science! Someday, I’d like to follow in his footsteps.”

“Yeah, that would be an awesome career,” Stacy concurred.

“Say, what’s your essay about?” Cheryl asked.

Stacy paused, looking up from the microscope. “I’m not doing one. I suck at English.”

Oliver overhead her. “Really, Stace? You’ve spent hours ranting about Yu Yevon.”

“I know,” Stacy replied. “But all that stuff we read in class is a lot more confusing than Final Fantasy.”

Ren suppressed a giggle. “That’s saying something.”

Cheryl looked at Stacy in confusion. “You got a B today. That’s not bad.”

“Not bad?” Stacy exclaimed. “How am I going to compete with the city students with a B in English, or even Cedar Valley Secondary?”

The other three gazed at Stacy disapprovingly. She had A’s in all her other subjects throughout secondary school, while the rest of them were grateful for a B in English. Oliver said nothing, having already become accustomed to her melodrama, while Ren slowly looked away and went back to his notes, not wanting to get involved.

“Hey, English isn’t my strong suit either,” Cheryl replied. “I’m probably not going to win this. But I’m still entering just for fun.”

“Yeah, who can’t have fun writing about a guy who wrestles crocs for a living?” Oliver added. “C’mon Stace, there’s gotta be something you want to write about.”

Stacy drew a blank. “But what?”

“Oh, anything,” Cheryl answered. “Maybe one of your childhood heroes? Or you could think about your heritage. Just some suggestions.”

Stacy lit up at the last idea. “Hmm…,” she pondered.

Meanwhile, Lucas was bored with the experiment, so he looked towards Stacy and company for entertainment. “Well, lookie here, Fake Geek Girl’s thinking about entering the essay competition,” he told his partner.

“Imagine what she’d come up with,” Eric replied in a mockingly high pitched voice. “’Oh, look at me, I’m a girl, and I play video games! Don’t underestimate me, silly boys!’”

“Heh, imagine if she had to read that in front of the entire class,” Lucas chuckled.

Eric laughed, nearly toppling over the samples.

“Careful, you idiot,” Lucas snapped.

“Sorry, Luke. Say, how’s your essay coming along?”

“Oh, I’m already done,” Lucas bragged. “All 60 pages of it.”

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Eric said, jealous of his president’s work ethic.

“I know,” Lucas said, smugly basking in his partner’s admiration.

Suddenly, Eric got confused. “Wait, isn’t the essay supposed to be 5 pages long?”

Lucas gasped, quickly looking away so that Eric couldn’t see his nervous face. “Uh, I’m…doing revision right now. Yeah, um, I just wanted to get all my ideas down first.”

“Well, good luck with that,” said Eric, none the wiser. “Though I’m sure you won’t need it.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he replied, unamused by his flattery.

—-

The Games for Everyone club met up in their usual place a few days later. Oliver and Tori were frantically looking over their respective essays, trying to find any imperfections, while Cheryl was more relaxed, having fun watching videos of crocodiles hunting. Stacy too was staring intently at her computer, deep in thought.

“They say long ago, his body had decayed. Yet, within these halls lie his vital remains,” she mumbled. “If you would sate your curiosity, find the secret to immortality.”

“What’s up, Stace?” Oliver asked, as both Cheryl and Tori also gathered around the computer.

“Ugh, this riddle,” she replied. “Searched everywhere, thought about it for hours, still nothing.”

“Did the game give you another hint?”

“Well, the hooded lady asked me, ‘How does one preserve their memory long after death?’ Thought it would be a portrait, or a precious keepsake, but nope. No ghost, nothing.”

“Hmm…” Oliver pondered. “Have you tried….”

“A diary?” Tori softly interjected.

“I was going to say that,” Oliver grumbled.

Tori opened her mouth to apologize, but stopped when she remembered she was trying to break that habit. Stacy, ready to try anything, looked in the library and moved her cursor across the books. Her cursor changed midway, letting her read the book’s contents.

“Well, what do you know,” Stacy said. “Don’t know how you figured that out, but thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” Tori replied. “I guess…”

“It reminded me of Voldemort and his soul diary,” Oliver interrupted, shrugging.

Tori stared at him briefly, annoyed by him not letting her finish.

“Anyway, how’s everyone’s essays coming along?” Stacy asked.

“Still working on it,” Cheryl replied. “I’ve been getting some inspiration in the meantime.”

“By watching online videos?” Stacy asked, puzzled. “Well, if it works, maybe I should try that too. How about you, Oliver? Tori?”

“We sent each other our essays a while ago,” Oliver said.

“Yeah,” Tori added.

She wondered what she should say. She tried helping as much as she could, but then she remembered, there was only one prize. “Oliver, your essay is…um…it’s very interesting. But…couldn’t you use, um, bigger words, er, to express your feelings better?”

Oliver grimaced. He spent hours checking the grade level of his writing, and he thought it was good enough. “I’ll look into it. But Tori, regarding your essay, uh, don’t you think you have too many ideas in it? It’s a bit…unfocused.”

Tori was flustered. She looked over her writing so many times, trying to organize it neatly, and did not look forward to doing it again. “Maybe. I’ll see.”

Seeing Oliver and Tori look and talk to each other so awkwardly, Cheryl was perplexed. “Does that sound like critique to you?” she asked Stacy.

Stacy shrugged. “Dunno.”

—-

Lucas and Ren were walking out of the Gamer Club room. Flushed with confidence, Lucas asked, “So, ready to see me become $100 richer next week?”

Ren looked back at Lucas anxiously. “Um, sure.”

Lucas stared at his friend. “What do you mean, sure?”

Just then, Mr. Stewart approached the boys.

“Lucas,” he said, putting on a falsely cheerful disposition. “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Lucas asked impatiently.

“Oh, I don’t know. Something just sounded familiar about your essay. Like that part about never living for the sake of another man.”

Ren gasped, but Lucas was looking bored.

His expression turned stern. “Look, this contest is supposed to be a chance to show off your talents, your passions. To show the town who you are. But how can you do that with someone else’s words?”

Ren’s expression sunk. “Is it true?” he asked desperately. “Did you really just copy your essay?”

Lucas was looking annoyed. “Yes.”

Ren was worried. “But…why?”

“Because I never wanted to write some stupid touchy-feely essay,” Lucas snapped. “I only wrote something because Father wanted to show off to the other Cedar Valley families.”

He turned to a disapproving Mr. Stewart with a defiant expression in his face. “So, aren’t you going to disqualify me?”

Mr. Stewart paused. “No. That would be too easy. Instead, you’re going to have to come in every lunch hour until you do the job properly. And I’ll be watching so you don’t do anything else funny.”

Lucas grimaced, upset that he couldn’t escape his obligation. Unwilling to say anything more, he stormed off while Ren looked at him, concerned.

“You let him off easy,” he remarked.

“Well, I wanted this to be a learning experience for him,” his dad replied, smiling. “To show him the joys of writing.”

Ren was unconvinced. “Is that it?”

“Well, that, and I’d rather not deal with his parents’ endless complaints. You know how Rob and Mary are.”

—-

Lucas dejectedly walked into the detention room the next morning. He was unsure how he’d ever get this essay done with no ideas in his head. He imagined staring at his computer for an entire hour doing nothing while being glared at by Mr. Stewart’s watchful eyes. Stewart himself said nothing, other than gesturing him towards his desk. Meanwhile, two girls were also present, having a conversation.

“Sure am glad to have some peace for once,” said a black haired girl with glasses. “Maybe now I can finally get this thing done.”

“I know,” replied a larger girl in a striped shirt. “Oliver and Tori had been sniping at each other for the whole week.”

Lucas stared at the pair in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Oh, just getting some essay help,” Stacy answered nonchalantly. “And you?”

“None of your business,” Lucas retorted.

Stacy shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

Lucas glared at Stacy, and Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief as he walked away towards Ren, who was in the middle of a conversation with his sister.

“I think it’s good,” he remarked. “You really put your heart into this.”

“If you say so,” Abigail told him, sighing. “You know, I don’t expect to win this. It’s probably going to be Lucas. He’s the brilliant one, after all. But, I can’t but wonder if I did. Mother and Father might be happy with me for once.”

“Hey,” Ren reassured her. “If anything, I should be the one worried about my chances against you.”

“Oh, you,” Abigail giggled. “Your essay is cute. I’m surprised you could be so open about your dolls.”

Ren blushed. “Well, if Oliver can write about Pokémon…”

Lucas was surprised. He never knew her sister felt that way. Feeling guilty, he left out a soft, “Abby?”

“Oh hi, big bro,” Abigail greeted him. “So, got in trouble, didn’t ya?”

“Whatever,” he said. “Just gotta get this thing done, is all.”

He sat down and turned on his laptop, while Ren and Abby observed his frustrated expression from the other side of the table. He stared at a blank document, but whenever he reached for the keys, he stopped. After a few minutes, Abby chimed in.

“Are you having trouble?” she asked.

“No,” Lucas said. “I’ll be done in no time. Just got to think of something, that’s all.”

Ren and Abby smiled. Lucas was being stubborn as usual. “You know,” Abby suggested. “If you hate essays so much, why don’t you just make that your topic?”

Lucas grinned. “Yeah, you’re right! I’ll write about how essays are stupid! That’ll show Mr. Stewart. Thanks, sis!”

Now with renewed inspiration, Lucas started frantically typing. Ren caught a glance at his dad, who smiled at them and looked as if he gave a wink in Abigail’s direction. Suddenly, he heard footsteps.

“Can’t you think of someone other than yourself?”

“What, I’m being selfish? While you’re obsessed about your manga publishing fantasies, I’m trying to save as much as I can.”

“Oh, so because you need money, I can’t think of my dreams?”

“Stop putting words in my mouth. I’m just saying, there are plenty of other contests. Stop worrying so much.”

“Why don’t you stop then?”

The rest of the students overheard Tori and Oliver arguing outside. Stacy sighed.

“Just what this place needed,” Lucas remarked. “More losers.”

Mr. Stewart ran to the door. “Both of you, what’s the problem?”

“Well, I just wanted to come for some help, because Oliver keeps trying to sabotage my work,” Tori replied, crying tears of frustration.

“Oh, there she goes again, playing all innocent. She started it!” Oliver snapped.

“Guys,” Mr. Stewart said, exasperated. “Look at yourselves.”

Oliver and Tori stared at each other, wondering where he was going with that remark.

“Is it really worth ruining each other’s essays over an award?”

“No,” they both replied.

“But only one us can win it,” Oliver protested.

“And how does fighting with each other help?”

Tori thought about it. “It doesn’t,” she answered.

“Exactly. I know you’re both concerned about your futures, but really, what you write reveals a lot more about you than some title. Years from now, what do you think you’d remember more, your essay or the award?”

Oliver and Tori paused, thinking it over. Oliver’s eyes idly gazed around the room, watching Stacy and Cheryl do their best to ignore their dispute and help each other. He remembered how Cheryl claimed she probably wouldn’t win, and that Stacy had trouble coming up with an essay topic at all. Tori was also looking in their direction, seeing how, despite being competitors, they supported each other. She was so caught up in winning, that she forgot just how much that meant to her. The two looked at each other awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” she told Oliver. “I guess the contest brought out the worst in me.”

“Me too,” he replied. “I can’t believe how much I let that prize go to my head.”

“I know. But, I don’t want to win, if it means you have to miss out.”

“Hey, it wouldn’t be much of a contest if you went easy on me. Let’s just both do our best, okay? Whoever wins, wins.”

Tori nodded. “Okay. But, let’s help each other out for real this time. That way, both our essays will be even better than if we just worked alone.”

Oliver smiled. “Sounds like a plan to me!”

“Finally,” Stacy muttered while Cheryl nodded.

“Whatever,” Lucas remarked. “Even with two heads, you’re still going to lose.”

“If so, fine by me,” Oliver retorted. “We’re all trying to beat Cedar Valley, right?”

Everyone except for Cheryl and Mr. Stewart instinctively nodded at the remark. Cheryl was unaware of why the rivalry was such a big deal, while Mr. Stewart was simply embarrassed by it.

“That’s the spirit, I guess,” he remarked.

—-

For the awards ceremony, the students gathered in the grand, spacious Cedar Valley Secondary auditorium, eagerly reading through their compilation books.

“I didn’t know there were so many women soldiers in World War II,” Oliver told Stacy.

“Well, now you do,” Stacy replied contently. “Lyudmila Pavlichenko was my idol growing up. I mean, she’s our own Joan of Arc!”

Cheryl smiled. “Aren’t you glad you entered something after all?”

“Indeed.”

“Hey, weren’t you supposed to be bad at English?” Ian asked Stacy.

“Yeah, you’re making us feel inadequate,” Nick joked.

“Well, why didn’t you guys submit something, then?” Stacy playfully sneered to her cousins.

“And cut into our game time?” Nick protested. “No way. We’re very busy.”

Aunt Zhao smiled sarcastically. “Next time, I’ll lessen the burden for you boys.”

“Aw…” Nick and Ian groaned.

“Still, thanks for giving Pollock less competition,” Stacy said.

“No problem,” Ian replied while Uncle Zhao stared at the three disapprovingly.

Meanwhile, both Cheryl’s and Oliver’s mothers were flipping through the pages in amusement.

“Guess television was good for you after all,” Ms. Jackson laughed.

Ms. Palmiero joined in. “Yeah, it’s like Olly here learned a whole new language. If only he was that dedicated to math….”

Oliver blushed. “Aww, Mom….”

Tori gazed longingly at her friends’ parents. She felt she should be happy, or at least nervous. Sofia was the first to pick up on her sad expression.

“What’s wrong, Tori?” she asked.

Everyone suddenly stopped talking and looked towards her. They looked concerned at how depressed she was at a moment like this.

“I wish my mother was here right now,” she said quietly.

Oliver’s mom gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m sure she’s proud of you.”

Tori said nothing. How could she explain the truth? She didn’t even dare show her essay, because she knew how furious her mother would be to see her still writing about art. Suddenly, she looked at her open copy of the compendium. Weirdly enough, the one who wrote the essay seemed to be expressing her own feelings right now. She looked up, towards the Smiths and Stewarts.

“That was a great idea, Dad,” Ren said.

“You all worked hard on your writing,” his dad replied. “So why not preserve them?”

“Really, Colin?” Mr. Smith jeered. “Giving participation trophies, are you?”

“Hey,” Mr. Stewart argued. “They did a good job.”

Mr. Smith brushed him off. “You’re spoiling them. Kids need to learn not everyone is entitled to a prize.”

Abigail felt upset. Sure, her father was always saying that to her, yet she couldn’t help but feel it was unfair that Lucas kept getting them anyway. Her eyes wandering, she noticed Tori walking towards her. Abby was shocked.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“Um…” Tori began. “I read your essay, and I just wanted to say, thank you.”

Abby was stunned. That whiny little brat was complimenting her?

“I know you don’t like me,” Tori continued, undeterred. “But, I understand how it feels, wanting to make people proud. You were very brave to share that with everyone.”

Abigail frantically looked around, embarrassed. She felt strangely touched by Tori’s words, and almost wanted to return her compliment. Then she remembered how much she hated her.

“What, you expect me to say something nice about your essay?” she retorted, suddenly frowning.

“Um…no,” Tori replied, surprised at her rebuke.

“Forget it,” Abby told her. “You’re still a talentless loser, and always will be.”

Tori expected this reaction, and bowed out, briskly walked back to her seat. Yet, when she looked back at Abby, she noticed a conflicted, but tiny smile on her face.

“You’ve got some guts, girl,” Sofia told her.

“I just wanted to be nice,” Tori replied. “It was a good essay, after all.”

Sofia patted her back. “That’s very kind of you. But don’t listen to her. Your essay was awesome.”

Everyone else nodded in agreement, while Tori smiled, comforted that she at least had friends to share her writing with.

“And now, it’s finally time to announce our winner!” announced the spokesperson from the Cedar Grove Chamber of Commerce. “Drum roll, please!”

The room fell silent as the participants eagerly awaited their name.

“This year’s winner of the Cedar Grove Essay competition is…Tori…”

Tori gasped. She really won?

“…Prince, from Cedar Valley Secondary.”

Many of the Pollock Secondary students groaned under their breath.

“Congratulations, Tory, for your essay, ‘I’m a Privileged Boy, and I’m Not Sorry.’”

A pale skinned boy with finely combed brown hair, wearing a fancy black suit, walked up to the stage, accompanied by his equally well dressed parents. Everyone applauded upon Tory receiving the award, though some, like the Pollock students, did so half-heartedly. The Smiths didn’t even clap at all. Tory smiled, flashing his brilliant white teeth, while sneering in Lucas’s direction.

“What?!” Lucas yelled.

“This is outrageous!” Mr. Smith exclaimed.

“How could they choose him?” Mrs. Smith screamed.

Mr. Stewart shrugged. “I wasn’t judging,” he remarked. “To say the least, I would have chosen differently.”

The Smiths weren’t the only ones upset by this upset.

“Are you kidding me?” Stacy yelled to her friends. “That essay won? This is ridiculous! The judges are so biased!”

The others were shocked to see Stacy all fired up, considering she didn’t even want to enter at first. They then looked towards Lucas, who was gritting his teeth at Tory, and then towards each other.

“Well,” Oliver said sheepishly. “It’s nice to finally see those two be so passionate.”

“Yeah,” Cheryl concurred. “Surprised to see them actually agree on something for once.”

—-

“Dear Lydia,

Hope university life is treating you well. All of us have been working hard on essays for a local competition. We had a few fights here and there, but everything worked out in the end. Well, except for some asshole winning by bragging about his privilege. I’ll let you judge for yourself who really deserved to win.

By the way, thanks for letting me try out your game. I’ve made it to the lunar festival so far, and for this run, I’ve went with the archaeologist family. Mona’s a downer, but her dad is fun. Your riddles are tough, though! I’m just glad the next puzzle is a cipher, since that’s more up my alley.

Speaking of which, do you have any tips for English class? I’m can never understand all those feeling questions.

Yours truly,

Stacy”

It had been a while since Lydia last replied, but Stacy didn’t mind. Right now, she was dodging lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X. Suddenly, she received a new email notification, causing her to miss the timing.

“Drat,” she said. There goes her streak.

She was annoyed at whoever interrupted her, but her frustration quickly subsided when she found out who the message was from.

“Hi Stacy,

Thanks for sharing your essay compendium with me. I’m impressed at how diverse your school’s writing is. In particular, Oliver’s essay brings back good memories. It reminds me of when I defended video games for IB English, and it even convinced my teacher to try them for herself.”

“Wow, that’s awesome,” Stacy remarked.

“I’m pleased that you’re enjoying the game and look forward to hearing more about your experiences. I’m not sure what specific advice you’d like regarding English, but reading comprehension is more similar to math than you might think. In algebra, for instance, you’re using logic to find the missing variables from the given equation. You can decode character motivations and the author’s message in the same way, by looking around in the text for clues.

Does that help? Maybe you can send me part of the assignments you are having problems with. I’ll do what I can.

Love,

Lydia Li

李雪芬”

“Heh, looking for clues, of course she’d make it sound like an adventure game,” Stacy remarked. Tired of dodging lightning for now, she scanned over her current reading assignment, and sighed, wondering how effective her advice would be.

(next)

(table of contents)

Several Months Later, A review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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About half a year ago, a much-anticipated new Star Wars movie came out. It was especially special for me as a Canadian because it was being released soon after we had overthrown our own Emperor Palpatine. I had the Victory Celebration music repeatedly playing for weeks in anticipation, hoping that The Force Awakens would be just as exciting as Justin Trudeau’s first few days in power. And it was, at first. I mean, it had a female lead in Rey! Because it’s 2015! The new trio was funny and relatable to our millennial generation! Han Solo and General Leia still look good after all these years! It was great to have Star Wars back! So I was quite satisfied then, but does it hold up? Now that the hype has finally simmered down, I can finally look at the movie from a clearer perspective.

Predictably enough, the backlash to the movie came soon after, most of it concerning recycled material from A New Hope. And to some extent, this is true. I mean, the first half of the movie was still good. You had the smart-aleck pilot Poe, who has an amusingly defiant attitude to authority figures and sorely needs more screen time in the next movie. You have the Stormtrooper defector Finn, who puts a human face to the white mask just as the Expanded Universe did to the Clone Troopers. You have Hunger Games-esque survivor Rey. And there’s Kylo Ren, who I thought was a disappointing villain at first, but months of memes have convinced me that actually, him being an uncool loser akin to Dark Helmet from Spaceballs was brilliant. Not only is he hilarious, but he serves as a shot at those edgy nerds who think imitating villains is cool (I’m sure a lot of the reason the MRA whiners hate Rey is because she owned their proxy character). Probably those more savvy with the EU would have seen these types before, but for the movie series, this new cast offers a fresh new perspective on the verse. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it just built up to yet another planet-killing superweapon. That had already become a joke in the EU decades ago.

The destruction of the Republic deserves special mention, because it’s by far the worst scene in the entire movie. The centre of government is annihilated, millions of people die, and the movie acts like it’s no big deal. I mean, such an act would set off mass hysteria. It would lead to draconian security measures that would make the US Patriot Act look democratic. But the cast merely mourns for seconds. “They’re dead, I guess.” Yes, I know, it’s fantasy, and such things require suspension of disbelief to swallow, but that’s the problem. It breaks suspension of disbelief that such a heinous, irreversible crime against humanity would be treated so cavalierly, and it reflects some serious skewed priorities when the movie just moves on to Kylo Ren’s daddy issues. So why did the movie include it if it’s merely a throwaway scene? Because A New Hope did it, I guess. But even Alderaan’s destruction was personal for Leia and had Obi-Wan’s famous “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” This is just a case of Abrams mindlessly imitating a scene without bothering to think about its significance. There’s the possibility that it’s a shot at the prequels, but…I sure hope not. That only makes it worse.

Oh well, it’s likely that the series will forget about it, so despite the bad taste that leaves in my mind, I’ll try to as well. The rest of the final act is nowhere near as bad, but it still has that same nostalgia pandering problem. It’s fun at first, but the familiarity makes it duller on subsequent viewings. It goes by so fast, that all the interesting characters, concepts, the world itself, don’t get the explanation or attention they deserve. It feels desperate, as if the movie wants to distance itself from the prequels as much as possible. And that’s a problem. I always hold that an ambitious failure is better than an unoriginal success. Sure, Episodes I and II sucked (though if you ask me, III was as much cheesy fun as the Original Trilogy), but the EU showed that you can still make a good story out of the ideas they introduced. As I mentioned earlier, authors have given the Clone Troopers humanity beyond anything in the movies. Heck, the Darth Plagueis novel even redeems midi-chlorians as part of the mystery of the Force by showing they have a mind of their own. But unfortunately, unoriginal successes sell. They placate conservative fans who lash out at anything different in fear of disappointment. Those who dwell on dreams and forget to live. And that mentality bodes badly for storytelling, since nothing inhibits creativity like being unable to think beyond what already exists. To willingly seal yourself in a box rather than think outside it.

I know I complained a lot about the movie, but like my country, I do so because I care and want it to succeed. Unlike Abrams Trek, which ended up being disappointing in hindsight, I actually am looking forward to what comes after The Force Awakens. I just hope the next movie slows down and lets us connect with the world better. It’s good to be able to get lost in the Star Wars verse all over again.

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-7: Notes from the Suburbs

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(previous)

Stacy was frantically pedalling against the heavy rain and flurry of autumn leaves. Already, she was late for her piano lessons, and she was dreading being on the receiving end of Ms. Markov’s temper. Maybe her clock is a few minutes behind, she thought. I can only hope.

She finally arrived at a plain-looking white house on the outskirts of town. Completely drenched, she stopped to catch her breath after parking her bike, then slowly walked up to the front door. She raised her hand to knock, but before she could hit the door, a loud voice rang from inside.

“I don’t care how much money your parents are paying me. If I don’t see any improvement by next week, you’re done!”

Stacy froze. Which unfortunate student is incurring her wrath this time? She saw a streak of blond hair through the window coming towards her, and she instinctively stepped out of the way as he opened the door.

“Hmph, fine,” he muttered angrily. “That’s the last time I bleed my hands out for that harpy. As soon as Mother finds out….”

Stacy noticed his eyes turn towards her. She paused, thinking of what to say.

“Oh, hi, Lucas,” she said, doing her best to restrain any sarcasm in her voice.

He stared angrily at her. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“Um…how have you been?” she asked nervously.

“None of your business,” he pouted. “Enjoy your lessons, loser.”

Whatever, she thought as he stomped away, standing in the rain while waiting for his parents’ car. Nervously, she walked right in to meet her teacher.

“Oh, hi Anastasia,” Ms. Markov said in an exhausted tone, but trying to smile.

Stacy really wished she would stop calling her that, but she didn’t feel like correcting her at the moment.

—-

Twenty minutes into the lesson, Stacy was getting frustrated after messing up her arpeggios yet again. Ms. Markov stared at her disapprovingly.

“Have you been practicing this week?” she demanded.

“Um…I tried to,” she replied, hoping she wouldn’t yell at her.

“What do you mean, tried?”

Stacy was almost ready to cry. “I’m not lying! I really did. It’s just… any time I start playing, he’d yell at me to stop. ‘Keep that garbage down!’ So I barely get any time to myself, all because of his stupid TV shows, and…”

She stopped herself, dreading what her teacher would say. She knew she shouldn’t make excuses, but she couldn’t help it.

After a moment of silence, Ms. Markov asked, “Do you have a piano at your school?”

Stacy was stunned. She expected a far worse reaction from her. “Um, no. Our school couldn’t afford one.”

Ms. Markov paused, thinking of an alternative. “The local college has some rooms available for public use. Would that work for you? I can help set aside some times for you if necessary.”

Stacy was relieved to hear this. “Yes, it would! I’ll try to practice after school whenever I can.”

Ms. Markov smiled, pleased at her enthusiasm. “Good to hear. Now let’s see how your pieces are coming along.”

—-

Oliver was holding his new clarinet as he and his friends sat underneath the maple tree in the Pollock Secondary school yard, relaxing before the start of class. It was a used model that looked worn in several places, but he cherished it all the same. Zelda’s Lullaby filled the air, coming from Stacy’s piccolo. When she finished, the other three applauded her.

“Why’d you pick that instrument, Stace?” Oliver asked.

“Apparently, it was because of Dragon Ball Z,” Cheryl replied, smirking.

Oliver chuckled. “Figures.”

Stacy frowned at the two of them while suppressing a giggle. “Hey, I never saw a piccolo before. But I remember being disappointed when I saw how small it was.”

“Hey, from the sounds of things, it worked out in the end,” Cheryl told her.

Stacy grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, just took some practice, is all.”

A pair of birds on the concrete suddenly bolted away, hiding in the tree. The three of them stared awkwardly at the place they used to stand, and then Stacy continued.

“So, Olly, looking forward to your first day in the Pollock Secondary band?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Don’t worry,” Cheryl reassured him. “So do most of us.”

“Besides, our band’s been in the pits for years,” Stacy added. “Just think, you could be the hero to save us all!”

Oliver frowned. “Sure, maybe. Anyway, you were talking about Lydia’s game the other day?”

Cheryl was curious. “Lydia?”

“Oh, she’s this super-smart gaming chick from the city,” Stacy replied while searching through her phone. She showed everyone a picture of Lydia with pink hair and a floral sundress standing among the cherry trees, feeling the rain on her skin.

“She owned Stacy in Smash Bros., and they’ve been friends ever since,” Oliver explained, with a bit of a smirk.

“Olly!” Stacy protested.

Cheryl chuckled while admiring Lydia’s photo. “Well, I’m glad Smash Bros. could be such a great bonding experience. What’s this game about, anyway?”

Stacy noticed Tori, who was in the process of tracing a giant maple leaf, look up, also eager to hear more.

“She’s really pretty,” she said.

Stacy tried to restrain her nervous blushing. “Um, yeah, she is. Anyway, it’s called Memories of the Sleeping Village. I haven’t got too far into it yet, but this archaeologist named Abd-al Malik has tasked me with learning more about the town’s history. It seems you can choose from a bunch of villagers to stay with after the first day, and who knows how that will change things. Care to find out? Lydie wants me to test out the whole thing, so it’d be nice to have others to play along with me.”

The other three looked at Stacy in awe and intrigue. “I’m game!” Oliver told her. “Could you send me a copy?”

“Me too!” Cheryl said.

“I’d like to try too!” Tori added.

“Sure thing,” Stacy replied. “I’ll send you all the file later tonight.”

“Awesome,” Cheryl told her while the other two nodded excitedly. She turned her attention to Tori’s drawing. “Say, whatcha got there?”

“Oh, just a maple leaf,” Tori explained. “I love how the colours change in fall.”

“Me too,” Cheryl replied. “And they’re so intricate with all those veins.”

“Indeed!”

“Say, why aren’t you in the school band? I thought you liked music.”

“My mom doesn’t.”

The other three gasped.

“Wait, what about your mad DDR skills?” Cheryl asked.

“She doesn’t know about that. And she’d be furious if she found out. Honestly, I don’t know much about music at all. Mom never let me take lessons.”

“Tori,” Stacy interjected. “No offense, but your mom sounds really lame. What kind of loser hates music?”

Oliver and Cheryl were aghast, staring at Stacy disapprovingly, while Tori turned away.

“What?” Stacy exclaimed. “We were all thinking it, weren’t we?”

“Um, no, we weren’t,” Cheryl retorted.

“Yeah, it’s just you,” Oliver added.

Stacy looked around and felt her heart getting heavy. “Sorry about that.”

Tori turned around, looking depressed. “It’s okay. You weren’t trying to be mean or anything. It’s just…she’s not a bad person. Really. But…it’s been hard and…”

She fell silent. The other three gazed at Tori in concern, unsure of what to say.

“…it’s nothing. Have fun at practice.”

—-

Oliver arrived early to the music room, greatly anticipating his first meeting. As it turned out, Stacy and Cheryl were already there among other students getting some early practice in. Hearing what they were talking about, Oliver hesitated, not wanting to interfere.

“C’mon, Stacy,” Cheryl replied, holding her trombone. “You said you’re sorry.”

“Yeah, but I still want to make it up to her.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine if you two just talk a bit. She doesn’t seem like the type to hold a grudge.”

“I’ll try.”

Cheryl suddenly waved towards the doorway. “Hey, Oliver!”

Oliver grinned as he walked towards them. “Hi, guys.”

Stacy snapped out of her funk, smiling as she saw her friend arrive. “Hey, Olly. You’re here early.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to be late,” Oliver replied.

“It’s fine,” Stacy said. “You’re going to love the piece we’re going to play today.”

“Ooh really? What is it?”

Just then, two other boys entered the room. Lucas had on a pair of sunglasses and a brightly polished saxophone, while Ren followed behind him with his trumpet.

“Look who decided to join us today,” Lucas sneered. “Nice pipe, Olly. Your mom buy it for you?”

Oliver and his friends groaned.

“Yep, that’s Lucas all right,” Stacy whispered to Cheryl.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Cheryl whispered back.

Oliver glared at Lucas while Ren rolled his eyes.

“I bought it myself, actually.”

Lucas laughed. “Really? Well, no wonder you could only get a hand-me-down.”

“And I suppose you tirelessly worked day and night for that sax of yours?” Oliver retorted. “Or did it come from your daddy’s allowance?”

Lucas grimaced. “He’s got a point, you know,” Ren chimed in.

“Nobody asked you, Ren,” Lucas snapped while Ren recoiled. “Anyway, I’ve got a great performance coming up, so you and your loser girlfriends better not cramp my style, understand?”

He shifted his glare towards Stacy, who attempted to avert his gaze, remembering how angry he was the other day at piano practice. When she looked back, Lucas and Ren already took their seats elsewhere, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Cheryl, looking at her friends, chuckled nervously.

“Let’s try not to get distracted.”

Stacy and Oliver, frowning, reluctantly nodded in agreement as their teacher walked in.

“Good day, class,” he announced. “We have a new student joining us today.” He gestured towards Oliver. “Please give a warm welcome to clarinettist, Oliver Palmiero da Silva!”

While most of the class waved hello, the boys surrounding Lucas, except Ren, gazed and snickered at Oliver. Ren, on the other hand, looked at the annoyed Oliver regretfully. The teacher stared in irritation at Lucas’s group.

“Tut, tut. Is this really the way you welcome a new student?”

“Mr. Steiner,” Lucas said. “Is it really a good idea to let in new students this far into the year? Won’t he just drag the rest of us down?”

“That’s enough, Lucas,” Mr. Steiner sternly retorted. “By the way, I’m sure you’ve been practicing really hard, haven’t you?”

The rest of the class, including Oliver and his friends, snickered back at him. Lucas, annoyed by the attention he was receiving, frowned as Mr. Steiner addressed the rest of the class.

“Remember, one person doesn’t make a band. Everyone needs to cooperate to make perfect harmony. And right now…” he said while glaring at Lucas. “It looks like we need to work on that. Everyone, let’s start with a B-Flat.”

He waved his conducting baton and the band followed suit.

“Wait, what are we doing?” Oliver whispered.

“We’re just going through our tuning exercise,” Stacy replied in between notes. “It’s a B-flat major scale. Try to follow along for now.”

Oliver nodded, and blew a B-flat, except everyone had already moved higher along the scale. Frantically, he tried blowing the consecutive notes until he caught up. However, the rest of the band barely noticed, as everyone was climbing the scale at their own pace and the notes were ringing out of sync.

“Can we play Zelda now?” someone asked.

“Really? That’s what we’re doing?” Oliver asked, excitedly.

“Yep,” Cheryl whispered back. “Mr. Steiner took suggestions, and it was the most popular one by far.”

“Awesome.”

Mr. Steiner shook his head. “First, we get the basics down, then we move on. Again!”

The class groaned as they started playing another B-flat.

—-

The class was nearly over, and everyone was exhausted from doing exercises. Mr. Steiner finally relented. “Open up your music sheets. Let’s go over The Legend of Zelda!”

Everyone yelled out in joy and relief, except Oliver, who was shaking nervously while trying to read off another clarinettist’s part. Mr. Steiner raised his baton and held it for a long 30 seconds as everyone gazed at it impatiently. Finally, he lowered it and began conducting while everyone played along.

The resulting sound was cacophonous. Lucas blew loudly into his saxophone, seemingly trying to drown out Stacy’s piccolo. Stacy in turn tried to blow louder to be heard at all, but ended up making a screechy sound as a result. Meanwhile, Oliver frantically tried to keep up with the clarinettist beside him, who in turn was struggling to follow the others, and the end result was completely out of sync. Cheryl, witnessing the commotion, tried to ignore it, focusing solely on Mr. Steiner’s baton. By the time the tune was finished, Mr. Steiner shook his head.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he remarked, completely dejected. “Ok, class dismissed.”

The mood in the room was tense. Everyone was tired and glaring at each other. Stacy, Oliver, and Cheryl, not wanting to get further involved, quietly snuck away.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad,” Oliver cheerfully remarked outside.

“Really?” Stacy snapped.

“For me anyway,” Oliver replied sardonically.

“Yeah, what a relief.”

Stacy sighed. “I’m tired of losing every year. Cheryl, how was the band back in Ontario?”

“Honestly, we weren’t much better back,” she replied.

“Aw. I was hoping you’d be able to give us pointers.”

“Well, I barely got to know anyone there. Sorry.”

Stacy’s face lit up. “Hmm…that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s why we have so much trouble playing even a single note together.” She became increasingly excited. “But if we did our own practice sessions, then we could learn to read each other better, starting with us. Oliver, Cheryl, you in?”

“Sure thing!” Cheryl answered. “Just let me find some time that works for me.”

Oliver sighed. “I don’t know if I can find the hours. In fact, I have to leave for work in a few minutes.”

“Well, just come when you can. Cheryl and I will help you out.”

“Say, Oliver, could you also get Ren and his friends to come too?” Cheryl asked. “The more, the merrier.”

“I’ll try. Wait, do you mean Lucas too?”

“You called?” a sneering voice responded.

Lucas and Ren were just coming out the door. Ren looked flustered by the band’s poor performance, while Lucas was attempting to mask his own frustration.

“I heard you all were planning some practice session,” Lucas sneered. “Yeah, you wimps need all the help you can get.”

Stacy gritted her teeth, but tried to stay calm with a smile on her face. “Would you like to practice together with us some time?”

Lucas laughed. “Me? Practice with you? What a joke.”

“Well, how else are we going to break Pollock’s losing streak?”

“That’s not my problem. I can play just fine. It’s noobs like Oliver dragging me down.”

“Really? If you’re so great, then why did you nearly get kicked out of piano lessons?”

Lucas scowled as he raised his fist and walked threateningly towards Stacy. “Why you little…”

“Lucas!” Ren called out.

Lucas lowered his fist, still staring angrily at Stacy.

“Look, Lucas,” she explained calmly. “You can call us losers all you want, but that won’t change anything. Fact is, it’s your loss too. And you’ve lost for 4 years straight. I don’t know about you, but I’m also sick of it. Wouldn’t you do anything to win, even if it means working with us dweebs?”

Lucas thought about what she said, relaxing his gaze. After a moment of silence, his frown returned.

“Whatever, faker,” he said, immediately walking away.

Stacy gazed at her friends with a nervous smile. “Well, it was worth a try.”

“He’s a stubborn one,” Ren concurred. “But hey, I’d like to join in your practice. When’s it at?”

“We’re still figuring that out,” Oliver replied. “But we’ll e-mail you when we decide on a time.”

“Cool. Well, see ya later, all.”

“Bye!”

As Ren walked off, Oliver started grabbing his bag too. “Well, I got to get to work. I’ll check my schedule and let you know when to practice. See ya!”

“See ya!” Stacy and Cheryl replied.

Cheryl then turned to Stacy. “Anyways, I ought to be off too.”

“Where to?”

“Just skating in the park with my mom. Hopefully, we can catch some woodpeckers there, or maybe some cool bugs. Like dragonflies.”

Stacy recoiled at the thought of the latter. “Well, I’d love to come. Not so much for the bugs, but definitely it’d be cool to see an owl some time. Still, I’ve got piano practice to make up.”

“That’s too bad.”

Cheryl frowned in disappointment, but gave a reassuring smile. “Maybe some other time then.”

“Sure thing. Bye.”

“See ya.”

—-

Now alone, Stacy got her stuff and slowly walked out the front entrance, prepared to head to the bus. On the way, she stopped to admire the maple tree, and saw a familiar face there.

“Tori?”

There she was, sitting down on a bench and making delicate brush strokes in front of the tree. She heard Stacy call out, and turned around.

“Oh, hi Stacy! How was practice?”

Stacy smiled. “Terrible.”

“So I heard. Still, playing Zelda must have been fun, right?”

Stacy walked towards Tori’s bench. They stared awkwardly for a while, then Stacy spoke.

“Look, Tori, I’m really sorry about this morning. I didn’t mean to insult your mother.”

Tori smiled. “It’s fine. I’m not mad. Besides, didn’t you tell me not to apologize so much?”

Stacy blushed in embarrassment. “Oh, right.”

Tori’s expression turned more contemplative. “I know you don’t get along with your dad. So I understand why you said what you did.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

Stacy paused. “What happened to your mom, anyway?”

Tori looked down, with a sad expression on her face. “My father died years ago, when I was very young. I still remember his smile, and he and my mom seemed really happy together. But after he left, mom’s never been the same. We used to go on vacation together every year, but without dad, she’s barely ever left the house except for work. She used to be really into knitting, but she’s lost the will to create anything. She barely even talks to anyone anymore. It’s like a part of her died with him.”

Stacy fell silent. Tori continued, now in tears. “I’ve tried all I could to cheer her up, but nothing ever worked. I thought if I worked hard and became a great artist, I could maybe, one day, make her feel better, but all she ever told me was to stop obsessing over my silly shoujo manga.”

Stacy cringed. That sounded so familiar to her. Her hand reached out, holding Tori’s back as she sobbed uncontrollably. Finally, comforted by Stacy’s gesture, she carried on.

“And yet, I keep trying to make her happy. I can’t stop trying. Because…I’m the only one she has left.”

Stacy stepped back and stared at Tori. After all that, how could she say such a thing? Tori, wiping back her tears, noticed her puzzled expression.

“What about your mom, Stacy?” Tori asked, interrupting Stacy’s train of thought. “What happened to her?”

“Oh,” Stacy said, trying to recollect her thoughts. “She abandoned me years ago.”

Tori was shocked. “That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah,” Stacy remarked bitterly. “Woke up one morning and she was gone. Didn’t even leave a parting note. She’s the reason I’ve been stuck with that asshole until now. What am I supposed to say about her?”

Tori merely waited as Stacy fought back her own tears.

“Stacy…” she replied quietly. “I don’t think she meant it that way. It must have been, difficult, for her to make that decision. If you were in her position, wouldn’t it be hard for you?”

Stacy stopped, mulling over her question. “I just don’t know what I did. She never seemed mad at me before.”

“Then I don’t think it had anything to do with you. Who knows why she left? But whatever her reason, it’s not your fault, okay? If I were her, I’d be happy to see who you’ve become.”

Stacy smiled, surprised, but touched by her words. “I don’t understand you sometimes.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” Tori giggled.

“I know. But, it’s just, how can you be so forgiving?”

“I guess I just don’t like dwelling on bad things for too long. You’ll never be happy that way, only seeing the worst in people.”

“But sometimes, people are the worst.”

“I know. But not always. Every day, we’re surrounded by acts of kindness. Hard times have a way of bringing people together. Like right now. Aren’t those moments worth living for?”

Stacy sighed. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Tori smiled, happy to see Stacy’s cheerful mood returning. “That reminds me. When I heard you play, all I could think of was how I wanted to be a part of that world. Of expressing my feelings through music. Have you seen Full Moon?”

“Um, no. I haven’t watched much girls’ anime other than, um, Sailor Moon.”

Tori giggled. “You’re missing out on a lot. Well, it’s about a girl who wants to be a singer, but can’t, because she has throat cancer. So she gets help from a pair of Shinigami to change into an older, more beautiful girl to be a pop star and live out her dreams.”

“Wait, she gets magical powers just to sing? Not to fight evil witches?”

“I know it sounds silly, but that manga was where my love of music began. When I read it, I too wondered if I could one day become famous, to inspire people and spread happiness through my art. And I want to know what it feels like to do the same through music. I know you’re busy, but, maybe if you have time, could you, teach me some time?”

Stacy was taken aback by her request. “Um, sure. I’m not all that great myself, but, once I find time, definitely. We are trying to organize a practice session together, so, you want to come then?”

Tori suddenly stood up, her eyes lit up in excitement. “Yes! Thank you so much! I can’t wait!”

—-

Stacy, Oliver, Cheryl, and Ren sounded out the last few notes of the Legend of Zelda theme, which rang through the practice room of Borealis College. Tori, who was intently listening to the performance, cheerfully applauded as the others stopped to catch their breath.

“Good job, team!” Stacy called out. “See Olly, that wasn’t so hard.”

“You know,” Oliver replied. “Yeah, I think I got this.”

“Nice to know you’re in it for the long haul,” Cheryl told him.

“Yeah, Lucas would never let you live it down if you quit,” Ren taunted.

Oliver smiled. “No way am I letting him get the best of me.”

“I sure hope this works out,” Stacy remarked, concerned.

“C’mon, Stacy,” Cheryl said. “It’s only been one session. And I’m sure the rest of the band is practicing hard too. In any case, you really helped me out with getting the counting down.”

Stacy smiled. “Thanks.”

“Well,” Ren interrupted. “I have to get going. Lucas is expecting me at the comics store.”

“Alright, enjoy, I guess,” Stacy responded as the other three also prepared to leave. “See you all later.”

“See ya!” everyone called out to Stacy.

She waved as the others walked out, then closed the door. As usual, Ms. Markov gave her several pages of stuff to work on. She paused, staring at the keys, then took her notebook and cast it aside. For now, she just wanted to play for fun. But what?

Her thoughts turned to Lucas. What a pompous windbag, she thought. He’s not even that good at the sax, he gets yelled at by the teachers, yet he still acts like he’s king of the world. Still, she couldn’t help but be disappointed that he didn’t come, that appealing to his selfishness would have actually worked. So much for that.

He was a lot like her dad, actually. That lazy good-for-nothing. If only she could give him a piece of her mind…

Her fingers hit the keys, and started playing the opening ostinato notes of King of Anything. She smiled, imagining the sassy lyrics in her head. Some day, I ought to try singing along, she thought to herself. Someday.

(next)

(table of contents)

The Irrationality of Fear

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It’s interesting how people are so scared of spiders. The reason? One might cite the poisonous species, such as the black widow spider. Often, people are uncomfortable with the possibility of being touched by them, that they might bite, or it’s just the way they move. But fundamentally, it’s because they look ugly. To people who aren’t biologists or bug enthusiasts or anyone else who would take interest in these fascinating creatures, they defy expectations of how a living being should look or act.

Still, most spiders are totally harmless. In fact, they kill worse insects such as mosquitoes, so they’re actually on our side. Heck, even the infamous black widow rarely bites, and when it does, it’s rarely dangerous. Seriously, out of more than 1800 bites reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in 2013, no one died. In fact, no one in the US has died from a black widow in over 10 years. And that really makes sense when you think about it.

Imagine what the spider thinks of you. You’re this hulking, fleshy colossus with your shadow ominously looming over them. In an instant, you could crush them into a flat paste, and not just with your body, but with any giant object around you. Not only are you incredibly strong, you’re also unpredictable and can improvise well beyond its mental capacity. So provoking that giant monster would be suicidal. The only reason they’d have to bite you is if they had no other option, a last ditch attempt to stay alive.

So what do you have to fear from something so much weaker than you? Compared to the other way around, at best, the’re a mild inconvenience to you in the vast majority of cases. And the few serious cases? Well, those are what is known as “black swans”, things that are so improbable, yet have such a large impact on people’s minds that they seem worse than they actually are. It’s a prime result of how irrational fear is; even though moose are deadlier than bears, it’s the latter that scare the public more, simply because they seem more aggressive.

I will confess that I too am not exempt from fear. I’m used to spiders, but centipedes are a different story. What freaks me out about them is how amazingly fast they move, and my brain instinctively believes they could ambush me. Something that has almost no chance of happening, because again, that would be suicidal. In fact, the one centipede was dashing because it was terrified of me. I know this, and when I’m calmer, I can appreciate how cool the centipede is. Yet, my mind keeps trying to override this assessment.

But in the end, between human and bug, it’s a hugely unbalanced power dynamic, one which overwhelmingly favours the human. In fact, that’s the case with most animals, because even without size, we have adaptability, and uncertainty is the root cause of fear. And yet, we want to kill something that poses not much of a threat to us? I’m not saying animals can’t be dangerous, but again, black swans. Most of the time, they just want to be left alone, and it’s the human that threatened them first.

Say, isn’t this similar to how humans treat other humans? I know, it’s dicey territory to be comparing humans to other animals, so I’ll try to tread carefully. But still, the power structures are often similar. Say, the men who think catcalling women is no big deal, yet freak out at the prospect of gay guys doing the same to them. The gun nuts who utterly insist they need to stockpile those deadly toys to protect themselves from some vague governmental or outsider threat, no matter how many American lives are sacrificed to guns. The wealthy folk who can bribe virtually anyone to do their bidding, yet constantly feel persecuted by the outside world. Makes one wonder what the point of acquiring power is if it doesn’t even make one feel safer, but merely feeds a positive feedback loop of paranoia.

Still, if uncertainty causes fear, then knowledge and critical thinking are the cures. Often, it’s good to step out of the situation, take things easy, and assess the situation. And often, you’ll realize things are not as bad as you thought. Perhaps you’ll even have a new appreciation for said things, and that’s better than pointless fear, isn’t it?

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-6: Bridge to Crystalia

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(previous)

“Ready, Stacy?”

“Whenever you are, Tori!”

It was a rainy Friday afternoon, but the Games for Everyone foursome were simply excited for their long video game marathon at Cheryl’s house. The two other girls had their DS systems out, prepared for a long trading session.

“Today’s the day I finally get married,” Stacy exhaled in anticipation.

“Wait, you’re still playing that?” Oliver asked.

“Yeah, what’s your problem?” Stacy snapped.

Oliver shrugged. “You showed me it once. Couldn’t get into it, is all.”

“I’ve never heard of Rune Factory before,” Cheryl added, curious. “What’s this game about?”

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Stacy began. “I mean, you get to farm, cook, fight and tame monsters, make weapons, woo over cute chicks, all in one game!”

“Plus, the guys are total dreamboats,” Tori sighed dreamily.

Cheryl was confused. “Okay, so why are you trading an item back and forth?”

“I need a level 80 Lover Snapper in order to propose to Mei,” Stacy explained.

“Sounds like you’re into the hard-to-get type,” Cheryl remarked.

“Totally,” Stacy said. “Oh, it’s finally done!”

Tori and Cheryl gathered around Stacy’s DS, giddy with anticipation for the marriage, while Oliver just watched from the sidelines, bewildered at how dedicated the girls were. Finally, the Wedding March started playing while Stacy savoured the moment.

“You did it!” Tori cried.

“Congratulations, Stacy!” Cheryl complimented.

Oliver finally cracked a smile. “So, one of your gaming dreams has finally come true.”

“Like catching that Shiny Scyther, right?” Stacy grinned.

Oliver’s smile grew wider, until he started to giggle. “Got me there. Anyway, what was that big plan you had in mind?”

Stacy paused, collecting her thoughts. “I was thinking, we’re a gaming club, right? What if we made our own game?”

Everyone’s eyes widened in excitement. “That would be awesome!” Oliver answered loudly while the others nodded in unison.

Stacy smiled. “Okay, here’s what I had in mind to get us started. You know the Final Fantasy theme, right?” She hummed the recurring motif while everyone listened in awe and anticipation. “Well, it all began with a bridge, leading to a journey like no other. It wasn’t just about saving the princess, no, this quest was even bigger. It was a race to save the world from environmental collapse. And it ended with some time loop shenanigans. That was neat, when I was a kid anyway.”

Everyone nodded as Stacy continued. “That was the original Final Fantasy in a nutshell. Dated, but that’s how RPGs got their start, so we should pay our respects. Our journey too shall begin with a bridge leading to… where should it lead?”

“How about, a vast crystal palace?” Cheryl said.

“You mean like the Emerald City?” Tori added, having her sketchbook out and her pencil ready. “Perhaps we could call it Crystalia?

“Yeah, I like that idea,” Cheryl agreed. “And inside, the citizens would be protecting some hidden power source everyone’s trying to get at.”

“It’d be a lot cooler if Crystalia was some sort of floating fortress,” Oliver added. “Then we could also have sky pirates and airship battles!”

“Not just a fortress, an entire city!” Stacy continued. “Imagine, a lost civilization, tucked away in an impenetrable castle and hidden away from the surface world. Everyone would want in. Researchers, treasure hunters, unsavoury types, you name it.”

“Unsavoury types, eh?” Oliver smiled wickedly while Tori’s hand started quickly moving across her page. “How about we make our lead character a pirate?”

Stacy stared at him, intrigued. “Continue.”

“All right. So Callisto here, he’ll be a master thief, with plenty of precious artifacts to his name and a bunch of nobles out to get him. His next heist, Crystalia.”

“Looks like Stacy’s falling for him already,” Cheryl snarked.

Stacy blushed. “Whatever, Cheryl. Thieves are just cool. But he’s not going at this alone, is he? Who else is tagging along?”

“Well, we ought to have someone to keep our dashing rogue in check.” Cheryl thought for a while. “I was thinking his partner could be an airship pilot, Friduric. It’d be fun to give him a fighting style based on his crazy inventions.”

“Yes, indeed,” Stacy concurred while Oliver and Tori nodded.

“He’d want the power source to improve his airship and go where no man has gone before!” Cheryl continued. “Because Callisto depends on him to get around Crystalia, they’re forced to work together against their will.”

“Hmm…” Stacy pondered. “Each of our party members could have their own reasons for wanting to go to Crystalia, and that would be the only thing keeping them together.”

“A band of misfits,” Oliver remarked. “I like that. So what character did you have in mind, Stacy?”

“Astoria, a brave and powerful summoner,” Stacy answered.

“Go on…” Oliver told her.

“Um…” Stacy stuttered. “I haven’t thought too much about it yet. I guess she’d want to prevent Crystalia’s secrets from falling into the wrong hands.”

“Hmm,” Cheryl pondered. “She could be some sort of anthropologist or secret keeper. As such, she’d understandably be skeptical of our boys’ motivations.”

“Yeah,” Stacy continued. “But she travels with them anyway to keep an eye on them, or so she claims anyway.”

“So she has a dark side?” Oliver commented slyly.

“Mischievous, at least.”

She turned to Tori, who had been quiet throughout the conversation, absorbed in her sketchbook. “Say, who do you think should join our party?”

Tori suddenly looked up from her sketchbook, showing everyone a picture of a waifish blonde girl. “How about her? I was thinking about calling her Ai.”

Everyone paused while Tori winced. “Sorry. I know my idea is stupid….”

“It’s not stupid,” Stacy retorted hastily. “Um…what’s her reason for wanting to go to Crystalia?”

“I guess she vaguely remembers Crystalia as a little girl,” Tori replied. “She’d hope to rediscover her past by returning there.”

“Hey, that’s pretty interesting,” Cheryl complimented. “Sorry about the pause. I guess we were just surprised, since she didn’t sounds as badass as the other characters.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” Stacy remarked. “She’ll likely unlock some super-awesome hidden powers along the line.”

“Like summoning a giant meteor or something,” Oliver added.

“Well, I thought of her as a healer,” Tori replied. “I’m not sure how a meteor would fit into her spell set.”

“She can still have holy magic,” Stacy pointed out.

“True.” She returned to her sketchbook, which showed the basic outlines for the crystal city. “I think our ideas are great, but I’m not sure how fast I can draw it all.”

“That’s okay,” Stacy told her. “We’ll take a break for now. I’ll need some spare time myself to start trying stuff in RPG Maker.”

“Sure,” Oliver said. “I’ll try to flesh out our characters some more.”

“And I’ll work on world building,” Cheryl added.

“Good then,” Stacy said. “I can’t wait to see what else everyone will come up with!”

—-

“Why should I play the Roman fool, and die on mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them.”

“Turn, hell-hound, turn!”

Oliver turned to Ren, with an aggressive expression in his face, while the class stared at them in awe and amusement. He was prepared to recite the next line in the hammiest voice possible, when suddenly, he heard Stacy snoring beside him.

“Psst, Stacy,” Cheryl coaxed, nudging her.

Stacy woke up, mumbling, “Hey guys, what did I miss?”

Their teacher, Mr. Stewart, frowned at the group. “Oh, come on. Shakespeare isn’t that boring, is it?”

“Mr. Stewart, I assure you,” Oliver replied desperately. “Stacy doesn’t normally sleep through a fight.”

“Don’t mind me, Olly,” Stacy murmured. “Carry on with the show.”

Lucas snickered in the background, whispering to one of his friends, while Cheryl, Oliver, and Ren just stared awkwardly at Stacy for a while. Mr. Stewart, clearly embarrassed by the situation, gestured Oliver to continue. He put on an angry face once more, trying to ignore Stacy, while declaring loudly:

“Of all men else I have avoided thee, but get thee back; my soul is too much charged with blood of thine already.”

“I have no words. My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out!”

—-

Tori was waiting for her friends in the empty classroom, clutching her sketchbook in nervous, but excited anticipation. She finally saw them approach the door, and ran up to greet them.

“Hi!” she said.

“Oh hey, Tori,” Oliver replied, while Stacy just stared in embarrassment at her.

“What’s up with Stacy?”

“She slept through my big scene in English Class today.”

“Oh. What were you reading?”

“Macbeth.”

“Honestly,” Cheryl added. “Considering how loud you two were yelling, I was amazed anyone could snooze through that.”

“Why would Stacy do that?” Tori asked.

“I was tired, okay?” Stacy snapped. “Anyway, how’s Crystalia looking these days?”

Tori put on an anxious smile, hoping not to press the subject any further, and opened up her sketchbook. Spanning both pages was an expansive crystal palace on a floating island resembling a giant black tortoise. The palace was guarded by a rectangular wall fronted by two humanoid dragon figures. Protruding from the front-facing gate was a serpentine bridge, meeting the four adventurers at the deck of a steam-powered airship. Though it was a rough, uncoloured sketch, everyone was stunned.

“You thought this all up yourself?” Cheryl asked.

“Well, it’s just what I imagined it would look like,” Tori replied nervously. “I can change it if you want.”

“No need,” Cheryl assured her. “This is better than anything I could have done!”

“Indeed!” Oliver added. “Stacy, what do you think?”

Stacy stared nervously, trying to think of what to say. “It’s great!”

Tori blushed. “Glad you all like it! So what have all of you done?”

Cheryl took out a roughly sketched map from her backpack, representing the city interior. Symbols on the map hinted at a self-contained ecosystem, with a mix of trees and a vast lake and river system among ruin-like architecture. She turned the page, and the map became darker in colour, displaying a network of rooms and passages.

“We’ll have to tweak it to fit Tori’s concept art,” she explained as she passed around the map. “But I was thinking, it would be fun if we spent half the game within Crystalia itself. It can start with our crew finding a means to reach the city, and then all the action would happen inside.”

Stacy looked at the map skeptically. “Wouldn’t it get boring being in the same environment? I mean, this looks cool so far, but how much can we do in one place?”

“Well, I thought of making it a living laboratory of sorts to add some diversity.”

It was then Oliver’s turn to look at the map. He was more enthusiastic, examining it contemplatively. “Well, I like it,” Oliver said. “It would a nice change of pace to explore the city Metroidvania style rather than jump from place-to-place like most other RPGs. I don’t agree with the living laboratory idea, since I’d like the place to look more natural, but it’s a good start. I especially would like to do more with the underground labyrinth.”

“Me too!” Cheryl replied as Oliver passed it to Tori. “And we don’t have to go with the artificial ecosystems. It was just an idea I put out there.”

“It’s cool,” Oliver told her.

“I guess if you guys think it’s a good idea, we can work with that,” Stacy said. “I agree, it would be nice to do something different from the norm.”

She then shoulder-bumped Oliver. “So what have you been up to, buddy?”

Oliver shot back a playful frown at Stacy, which then turned into an eager smile. “I’ve come up with an opening for our game, narrated by our dashing Sky Pirate. Wanna hear?”

“Of course!” the girls cheered. Stacy and Cheryl looked at Oliver, anticipating what kind of over-dramatic flair he had prepared, while Tori had a more curious expression on her face.

“Crystalia,” Oliver began, attempting a suave Portuguese voice. “A legendary city in the sky. Some say it’s just a myth. But I know better. I saw it with my very own eyes, once upon a time. And now, I’m gonna see it once again.

“Who knows what lies within the city? A lost civilization, perhaps. Ancient technology, maybe. All I know is…it’s gonna be worth a fortune.”

Oliver stopped to catch his breath. “So, whatcha think?”

The girls nodded. “It’s cool,” Cheryl said.

“Just cool?”

“Well, it does establish Callisto’s character pretty well,” Stacy explained. “But I think our intro should be bigger than just one character.”

“Yeah, right now, it doesn’t sound legendary enough, if you know what I mean,” Cheryl added.

“I suppose,” Oliver said, disappointed. “I’ll keep working on it then.”

Cheryl turned to Stacy. “And what have you accomplished?”

Stacy smiled, directing everyone to a large flowchart on her computer. Everyone stared at it for a while, trying to comprehend what they were seeing.

“Um, Stacy,” Tori began. “What is that?”

“These are the characters’ skill trees!” Stacy answered. “I wanted to come up with a system where everyone would be unique, but there would be a lot of room for customization. So, for example, Ai can either focus on healing, or, if that’s too passive for you, she can be built more offensively with holy magic.”

The others merely stared blankly at Stacy.

“That sounds…complicated,” Tori said.

“How are you going to program all that?” Cheryl asked.

“It’s on the way,” Stacy told them nervously. “I’m still learning RPG Maker, but trust me; it’ll make sense once you see it!”

Stacy opened RPG Maker to demonstrate a battle. The party was facing off against a giant spirit dragon. She made Astoria call forth an Asura, which caused a black void to appear on top of the dragon. It swirled around for 5 seconds before shrinking and bursting forth in a rainbow explosion, dealing hundreds of thousands of HP and killing it off.

“Whoops, forgot to give it more defense,” Stacy said. “Just wait while I fix that.”

“Don’t you think we should get the basics down first before we worry about tech trees and flashy animations?” Oliver asked her.

“Well, of course I will,” she replied frantically. “I just wanted to make our game stand out, that’s all.”

“Honestly, I think you should slow down a little,” Cheryl said. “It’s a lot of work, after all.”

“Seriously, Stace, do you need some help?” Oliver asked.

“No, I can handle it. Really.”

Oliver noticed her drooping eyes, and stared disapprovingly.

“Oh, all right, maybe I do. But who else would be willing to help a bunch of high school kids?”

“Well, your uncle knows a lot about games, right? Maybe you can try asking for his advice.”

“Great idea. I’ll send him the plans tonight. Anyway, it’s been a good meeting, all, but I need to get home and work out a few bugs. See ya later!”

As she walked off, Cheryl and Oliver stared at each other awkwardly while Tori merely gazed at the open door with concern in her eyes.

—-

“Hi Auntie!” Stacy greeted. It was Friday night, and she was staying at her relatives’ place so they could go shopping the next morning.

Aunt Zhao looked at her niece with concern. “You look tired,” she told her.

“I know I was slow in roller derby practice, but I’ll do better next week!”

Aunt Zhao stared sternly at her. “Have you been sleeping right?”

“Um…okay, maybe I’ve been staying up a few hours late.”

Her aunt patted her back. “Just take it easy, okay? It’s good that you have an interest in programming, but don’t let your hobby get in the way of everything else.”

Stacy nodded, eager to get away from this conversation and meet her cousins.

“Hey, Stacy!” Nick greeted.

“We heard you were making your own RPG!” Ian told her.

“Sure am!” Stacy replied proudly, showing them Tori’s drawing of Crystalia on her laptop. “Just you wait, it’s gonna be awesome!”

“Wow,” her cousins gasped.

“It’s beautiful,” Nick said. “I can’t wait to see what the game is like.”

“When will you let us play?” Ian asked.

“Oh, I’m still working on it,” Stacy replied. “But I’ll try to have a demo for you by the end of the year.”

Just then, Uncle Zhao entered the living room and walked up to Stacy with a grumpy, disapproving expression on his face.

“Oh, hi, Uncle,” Stacy said quietly, intimidated by his face. “What do you think of our game?”

“It’s too complicated,” he complained. “Do you realize how long it would take to program everything? And yet you expect to be done by the end of the year?”

“That’s why I asked you for help.”

“Aiyah,” he sighed. “Do you expect me to quit my job over this?”

Stacy cringed. “Um, no, Uncle. I just thought, since you know a lot about games, that you might have some advice.”

Stacy’s uncle frowned. “Come, I want to show you something.”

The two of them walked over to Uncle’s room, which had an antiquated-looking computer showing a DOS interface. He typed in some commands, which brought up a question, and gestured towards Stacy to sit down. Confused, she looked at the screen.

“You find yourself at the entrance to a massive castle. To your north, you see that the door is wide open. To the south, you see a dense forest. Where will you go?”

Stacy typed in “enter castle.” The screen then prompted: “Invalid command.”

“What?” she blurted out.

“You have to type in a direction,” her uncle told her.

“Okay,” she said, annoyed. She typed in North.

“You are in the Great Hall. In front of you is a large staircase, leading to the upper rooms, while hallways lead west and east. The walls are decorated with portraits of nobles from throughout the castle’s history.”

Stacy typed in “North” again.

“You see a large door in front of you, with the door handle featuring a lion’s face. Additional doors line the west and east.”

Stacy typed in “North” again.

“The door is locked.”

“What’s the point of this?” Stacy asked in frustration.

“This is one of our old adventure games,” Uncle told her. “Made well before you were born.”

“But this is just a bunch of lines on a screen.”

“Back in the day, this is all we had,” Uncle snapped. “No fancy graphics. Just pure decision-making.”

“Yeah, but that was decades ago. Nowadays, people expect more out of their games.”

“Then why are people still making Space Invaders and Breakout clones?”

“A beginner could program those games.”

“But people still play them, yes?” Uncle stressed impatiently.

“Um, yeah. Because they’re easy to pick up at any time, but still fun.”

Stacy stopped, realizing what she was just saying. Uncle smiled.

“I guess I understand now,” Stacy continued. “It’s just that I’m always hearing about people who made great games all by themselves….”

“Anastasia,” Uncle interjected while Stacy flinched. “You’re only 17. You’ve got years ahead of you to make the game you want.”

“But they’re barely older than me….”

“It doesn’t matter! People don’t care about when you made something, they care about what you made, especially when you get as old as me. Do we remember what Mozart wrote as a kid? No, it’s his later work that everyone plays!”

Stacy sighed. He could tell she still looked unconvinced.

“Is that Lucas kid bothering you again?”

“Um, no, actually.”

“Then who is it?”

Stacy paused, thinking about why she was so dedicated to the project in the first place. Looking back, it did feel like she was trying to prove something to someone. Not Lucas, but someone else. She searched her thoughts for other gamers she knew, and she came to an uncomfortable realization. No, it couldn’t be. How could she hate someone that was so nice to her? It just didn’t feel right, yet the feeling persisted….

“No one in particular.”

Uncle Zhao stared at her in disappointment.

“Well, are you still playing? If not, I’d like a turn.”

—-

Defeated, Stacy spent the rest of her night in her room, aimlessly browsing Final Fantasy articles. Suddenly, she heard the notification chime. Realizing who it was, she reluctantly opened up video chat. She wasn’t really in the mood, but she felt she owed her friend some time.

“Hi, Anastasia!” Lydia greeted through the computer screen. “How’s life?”

Stacy was taken aback. “How did you know?”

“It was on the competitors’ list at the Smash Bros tournament.”

Stacy shook her head. “Don’t call me that.”

Lydia was perplexed. “Why not? It’s a lovely name. You know what it means?”

“Yes. Resurrection,” she answered nonchalantly.  “I don’t know, it just sounds pretentious.”

Lydia sighed. “I’m just really fond of that name, and I think you’re very lucky to have it. But if you’d rather me not use it, fine by me.”

Stacy frowned, embarrassed by her compliment. Right now, she wished Lydia would stop smiling all the time. “So, Lydie, what have you been up to?”

“I’m glad you asked. You see, my friends and I have been working on this adventure game, Memories of the Sleeping Village, and we’ve been looking for outside help. You interested?”

Stacy paused. Great, she thought. She already has a full game, while I can’t even get started on mine. “Um, sure, maybe.”

Lydia gazed at Stacy suspiciously. “What’s wrong?”

Stacy sighed. “We’ve been trying to make our own game too, and it hasn’t been going so well.”

Lydia was intrigued. “Really? What’s it about?”

“It’s an RPG with a misfit band of adventurers exploring Crystalia, a floating city.”

“Oh, like Castle in the Sky?

“So it’s not even original, then,” Stacy sulked.

Lydia paused, thinking of what to say to cheer Stacy up. “Every Japanese game owes itself to Miyazaki in some way. For instance, why do you think so many games have airships in them? And that’s not all.”

She paused, focusing away from Stacy as she clicked around for certain files on her computer. She sent them over to Stacy. Curious, she opened the images. One pair showed Sky Sanctuary Zone from Sonic & Knuckles and a similar-looking walkway from Laputa, the titular castle. Stacy was impressed, but it was the second pair that surprised her even more: a picture of a Chocobo shown beside a Horseclaw from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

“See the resemblance?” Lydia asked.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied, still amazed by what she just saw.

“It’s okay to borrow parts of your favourite things,” Lydia explained. “As long as you put your own personal touch on the game, enough to set it apart, copying shows your appreciation for other games.”

“Come to think of it, I did start the project as a tribute to the original Final Fantasy, with the bridge and all, and Tori’s concept art resembled the Forbidden City.”

“Exactly. Say, could you send me it some time?”

“Sure thing.”

“Good. Anyway, what other problems have you encountered?”

“Well, we’re still stuck planning stages. Worse, I’ve been having a lot of trouble actually programming the thing. I keep running into glitches and I’m still not entirely sure how scripting works.”

“Oh. Well, let me know what I can do to help.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not take too much of your time.”

“I don’t have a problem with that. Better than you getting stuck for hours.”

Stacy sighed. “It’s just… well…what’s the point of me doing it if you can do everything better?”

Lydia looked concerned. “Why do you say that?”

“I mean, you’re a Smash Bros. runner-up, you’ve already made your own game, and on top of everything else…”

She gazed at Lydia’s long black hair flowing behind her navy blue sailor shirt and bow. “…you look like that. How am I supposed to compete? I can’t help but feel that no matter how hard I try, I’ll always be inferior to you.”

Lydia was listening patiently to Stacy’s complaints. She puzzled over how to respond, then smiled. “Tell me, how long did you think it took for us to program our game?”

“Um, 3 months?”

Lydia shook her head. “Three years.”

Stacy gasped. “What? How? It’s just dialogue trees and buttons, isn’t it?”

“If only it were that easy,” Lydia replied. “You see, it’s hard enough to find time outside of school to work on it. Also, Willow and I live on opposite ends of the city, so we don’t get to meet each other that often. And when we did, we had a lot of arguments about what direction to take the story. Then Drew joined in, and he had his own ideas, which was great, but you can imagine how much longer it would take to come to an agreement with three heads involved. I’d write something, but Willow or Drew would read it a different way, so I’d have to reconsider whether it was the right direction to take.”

“Yeah, but that’s story. That’s different.”

“Really? Isn’t that the main reason you play this kind of game?”

Stacy nodded her head. “Point taken.”

“Knowing the language and software only gets you so far,” Lydia continued. “It’s what you do with it that counts.”

“You know, this reminds me of the talk my uncle gave me a while back. He said I was overcomplicating things.”

“Well, the more complex you make your program, the harder it is to fix things. Even for us, the dialogue trees and buttons often failed to work or did something unexpected. We had to retrace our steps a bunch of times just to find the flaw.”

Stacy’s eyes widened in shock. “Wow, you had problems too? I thought it would have been effortless for you.”

Lydia was amused by her remark. “Thought I had magical TV hacker skills or something? Programming is hard work. But, if we had some extra help, we could get done sooner. What do you say?”

Stacy smiled in relief, feeling a newfound enthusiasm overcome her. “Don’t expect it to be quick, but I’m game.”

“Excellent.”

Lydia stopped to type in an email to Stacy. “You can download the game at the link I sent you. No need to rush, just tell me what you think. And most of all, I hope you enjoy it. Maybe it can give you some inspiration for your game too!”

“Maybe.”

“And Stacy? Before you go, I have one last riddle for you.”

Stacy put on an awkward smile. “Of course you would. What is it?”

“You have something I don’t. See if you can find out what that is.”

“Wait, what do you mean?”

“Here’s a hint. Was I the one who started the gaming club?”

“Tch, anyone could do that.”

“You sure? If it was so easy, don’t you think I would have done it by now?”

Stacy sighed. “I’ll think about it. Anyway, good night, Lydie! It’s been a pleasure talking to you again.”

“Always. Good night!”

—-

The Games for Everyone club met once again at Cheryl’s house, ready for wherever the afternoon would take them.

“Sorry about the game, guys,” Stacy told her friends.

“Don’t worry about it,” Oliver said. “We’re just happy you actually got some sleep this week.”

“Besides, it’s not like we were trying to sell the game,” Cheryl added. “It was fun enough just coming up with ideas.”

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed. “Still, I think I’d had enough of Crystalia for a while. Right now, I’d rather play a game than make one.”

“We can always come back to the idea someday,” Tori told Stacy.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Stacy said. “But for now, I’m gonna practice some simple games first.”

“Now you get it,” Oliver said, relieved. “Say, are you looking forward to next term’s computer classes?”

“You bet!”

Cheryl smiled, putting in the CD for Night Trap.

“What the heck is this?” Stacy asked, bewildered at the intro.

“Oh, you’ll see,” Cheryl snickered.

—-

The screen cut to a scene of a teenage girl screaming hysterically while a group of faceless men in black clamped her with some sort of motorized hook.

“I’m sure glad you showed us this!” Oliver said, in between chortles.

“I thought it was appropriate after all Stacy’s been through,” Cheryl remarked, barely stifling her own laughter.

“I guess this just goes to show,” Stacy guffawed. “Even with a bad game, we can still have a good time!”

Tori said nothing throughout; as she was too busy giggling at the sight of the girl’s neck inexplicably shaking. Though the group was crying a shower of laughter, outside the window, a rainbow was starting to appear. As the light shone on the crystal city they created, it revealed its own rainbow, its light reflecting off the palace walls, with the magnificent Ho-oh flying over it.

(next)

(table of contents)

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-5: Lydia’s First Date

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(previous)

“All finished!”

A warm breeze was blowing outside as summer vacation came to a close and Lydia’s new life at university was just beginning. She was moving in with Drew, an old friend from high school, and together, they were putting the final touches on their dorm room.

“You managed to get all your clothing in there?” Drew asked impatiently, wondering why she felt the need to bring so many different outfits.

“Yep,” Lydia responded, smiling back at him. “I know it seems like a lot, but it’s hard to choose sometimes.”

“Whatever you say,” Drew muttered. He never did understand her fashion obsession, but part of him was always curious as to what ensemble she’d come up with on any given day. For today, she had on a yellow sun hat, her hair braided in hues of red, orange and yellow. A brown coat with dangling fringes was draped over her body, above a floral miniskirt accompanied with knee-high maple leaf stockings and brown leather boots. Around her neck hung a circular locket decorated with an ice crystal pattern.

“By the way, thanks for all your help setting up everything,” he added, relieved. “We got done a lot faster than I thought we would because of you.”

“I thought it was only fair, since I brought most of it.”

“Well, you didn’t have to do so much….”

“Yet I did anyway,” Lydia teased. “Besides, now we can enjoy our last day of freedom. How about we take a stroll through the park?”

Drew’s eyes widened in excitement as they prepared to walk out the door. “Sure thing! It’ll be just like old times. Remember when we first met?”

Lydia blushed in embarrassment. “Oh, I could never forget.”

—-

“What do you think my chances are?” a younger Drew asked nervously to his friends.

He was eyeing a girl sitting alone at a nearby lunch table. She wore her hair in the ox horns style, with her long, black twintails tied together in buns and draped over her white silk dress. Her eyes were intensely focused on the pieces of a Tetris cube in front of her, seemingly unaware of the boys gazing at her this instant.

“With Lydia?” Martin retorted. “Good luck, she’s brushed off every guy who’s tried talking to her.”

“I don’t know if she even has any interest in anything other than her laptop and puzzles.”

“Well, I like a challenge,” Drew answered, feigning confidence.

“Then go for it, champ!” Ali responded encouragingly.

“Just try not to get friend-zoned!” Martin warned.

With his friends’ support, Drew walked up to Lydia.

“Hi there,” Drew greeted.

Lydia continued moving around her puzzle pieces without looking up. “Hello,” she replied.

Drew put on a cheesy smile. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing all alone?”

Lydia paused. “I like being alone,” she answered. “It gives me time to think.”

“About what?” he asked, leering at her intently.

“Anything,” she nonchalantly answered, still not making eye contact. “It’s none of your concern.”

Drew was silent for a while, trying to think of something to say that would catch her interest. Then he saw a curious object in her backpack.

“A DS?” he whispered in surprise.

Lydia finally looked up. “What about it?” she asked.

“Um…” he stammered. “I was just surprised to see you bring one to school.” He shrugged, adding with a whisper, “I’d have brought mine too, but the teachers don’t like it much.”

Lydia sighed. “It’s a pity, isn’t it? And I just got to the good part. At least it’s Friday, so I’ll have plenty of time to play once school’s out.”

Drew, sensing an opportunity to connect with her, inquired, “What games do you like?”

“A lot.” She paused, trying to come up with a more specific response. “Remember those point-and click adventure games?”

Drew gasped. “Um, sort of? I’ve heard of them at least.”

“I started playing one of the Nancy Drew games, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” she explained, smiling in reminiscence.

“They still make those, don’t they?” Drew inquired.

“Yes, and they’re still as fun as ever. I can spend hours searching for everything the characters had to say. Then again, I did not have many games growing up.”

“Why not?”

“My parents didn’t like me playing video games, believing they interfered with my studies. I had to call them brain teasers to placate them.”

She paused. Seeing Drew’s sympathetic expression, she added hastily, “I do love them dearly. They’re just… stubborn sometimes.”

Drew was silent, enraptured by Lydia’s words.

“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly. “Here I am, talking on and on, and you never got a chance to speak.”

“Hey, it’s fine,” Drew assured her, chuckling nervously. “I was just remembering my own parents when you mentioned sneaking games past them. Thought it was funny, that’s all.”

Lydia smiled, comforted by his words. “So, what games do you like?”

“Fighting games. You know, Smash Bros., Street Fighter,” Drew became giddy with excitement.

“How good are you at them?” Lydia asked, not following his enthusiasm.

“Well, I placed third in my last tournament. That’s gotta be worth something.”

“That is pretty impressive.”

“How about you?”

“Um, I don’t know. I’ve never tried those games.”

Drew was shocked. “Wait, really? Why?”

“I usually play by myself, so I never had the chance.”

“Well, I’ll just have to introduce you to the fighting scene, then. Are you free some time to play together?”

“Maybe,” Lydia drifted off. “I’ll have to think about it. Anyway, it was nice meeting you, but I’d like to finish my puzzle before lunch hour ends.”

Drew, paused disappointed at her response. “Well, alright then. But think about it, okay.”

“Sure,” Lydia replied. “Bye!”

“See ya!”

She watched him walk away, unsure of what to think of him. While she was wary of his intentions, he was surprisingly nice.

“What’s your name?” she called out suddenly.

Hhe turned around, pleased at her sudden interest. “Drew!”

She smiled. “Lydia.”

What a pretty name, he thought as he walked away. And I think she’s interested in me. I hope.

Content, Lydia returned to her puzzle, putting the final piece into her completed cube. She scribbled down the solution, then broke the cube apart to see how far she could get before the bell rang.

—-

 

A few weeks later, Lydia was sitting on a park bench with her DS and stylus in hand. She was wearing a deep purple dress, with her hair permitted to fall over her shoulders and was decorated with a twin cherry and plum blossom hair clip. Engrossed in her game, she looked up only to observe crows fighting over a piece of garbage. They were fascinating, how they felt just as home in the city as humans like her. As she wondered what went on in their minds, she saw a familiar face enter the scene. They both stopped as they made eye contact.

“Long time no see, Lydia,” Drew greeted.

“Hello,” she answered, still unable to decide how she felt about seeing him.

He walked over to her. “Hey, whatcha playing?”

She turned her DS downward so he could see the screen. A calming, but melancholy tune accompanied the sight of a labyrinth’s glass walls.

“Etrian Odyssey,” she stated.

“That game’s hard, isn’t it?” Drew remarked.

“I like a challenge,” Lydia replied.

Drew’s heart froze. Did she overhear what he said the other day?

“It’s nice to play something like the dungeon crawlers I used to try as a kid,” she continued. “And yet, I think I was drawn to the game for a different reason….”

She brought up the menu, which displayed a blonde, blue-eyed girl clad in armour. She gazed fondly at her. “Isn’t she pretty?”

Drew stared at the anime girl for a while, unsure of how to respond. “Sure, I guess.”

“It’s her curious expression that intrigues me. Wide-eyed and innocent, unaware of the horrors and wonders that await her in the labyrinth, but motivated by a desire to unlock the secrets of the world.”

Drew listened intently. He never thought about the game that way. To him, she was just a protector class, but to Lydia, she seemed something more.

“You named her after yourself,” he remarked. He had the feeling she was trying to tell him something, but didn’t know what.

Lydia merely smiled.

“This place looks lovely,” he continued, looking back at her screen. “What is it?”

“It’s the game’s best secret,” Lydia commented. “I’d tell you, but I’d think it’d be more fun for you to experience it for yourself.”

“Sure, but I’m not even close to the end yet.” Drew shrugged. “So many games, so little time.”

“Indeed,” Lydia concurred. “Perhaps my sparse game collection is a blessing in disguise. It gives me time to understand each one better.”

She looked back at her DS, mentally zoning out.

“You know, this had me thinking about how fragile everything is. We humans gained so much knowledge over the years, left our mark on the world with imposing feats of architecture, extended our life spans by decades, changed the face of the planet itself, and yet, we are still creatures of nature.”

She gestured towards downtown. “Our skyline is magnificent, but a single earthquake, and it all comes crashing down. In time, everything we’ve accomplished could be eroded away, lost to the passage of time, and Earth will not even remember we were here.”

Drew was astonished, feeling a little unsettled by her words. “I didn’t know the game’s plot was so deep,” he remarked.

“Perhaps it’s just my imagination,” Lydia replied. “I enjoy trying to fill in the blanks.”

“Well, you have…a very vivid imagination.”

Lydia looked back at him, with an anxious expression on her face. “Do you think I’m strange?” she asked.

“No, not at all,” he replied.

Lydia stared disapprovingly. “You don’t mean that.”

“I really do, honest!” he answered nervously.

“Your expression says otherwise,” she pointed out.

Drew stopped to catch his breath. “Well, why ask a question when you already know the answer?” he demanded.

Lydia stopped to contemplate his words. She sighed. “I apologize for that. It’s just that, a lot of people lie to me, thinking it’s to protect my feelings. But it never works. Eventually, I find out how they really feel, and I only feel worse, because they did not trust me enough to say it upfront.”

Drew felt a pang of guilt. “Okay, let me try again then. All that stuff you said about the end of the world, that was pretty disturbing, honestly.”

“Well, my mind often wanders to dark places.”

Drew continued. “You know what? You are strange. But you know what else? I like that about you. You’re like a mystery novel, someone that just compels me to read further.”

“See, was that so hard?” Lydia teased. Her expression then turned serious. “Um…thank you. I never expected someone so receptive to my ramblings, but I appreciate you listening so patiently.”

“You’re just an interesting person, that’s all.”

Lydia smiled, having nothing to say. She never expected such a compliment from him, but she reveled in the moment nonetheless.

“So anyway,” Drew added. “You still want to meet some time? I’m seeing a scary movie Friday night. You think you can handle it?”

Lydia beamed. “I’d be delighted.”

Drew was surprised that she didn’t even flinch at the prospect, but he was ecstatic all the same. “All right, 7 pm work for you?”

“Yes.”

“All right. See you at the Rio.”

—-

The next day, Lydia met up with Willow for lunch. Her short brown hair stood in contrast to Lydia’s long black hair, as did her T-shirt and jeans against Lydia’s dress.

“So,” Willow began. “You got invited on a date by Drew Park?”

“Yes,” Lydia replied. “You know him?”

“He’s the leader of the school’s gaming group, The Lost Boys,” Willow explained. “You should see their Smash Bros videos some time! They’re really good! And from what you’ve been telling me, it sounds like he’s also a really nice guy.”

“He is,” Lydia responded.

“Wow, a star gamer that’s so kind and considerate,” Willow looked towards Drew, who was chatting with his friends. “And good-looking too. Oh, Dia, I’m so jealous of you right now.”

“Are you?” Lydia asked, puzzled by her excitement.

“Wait, you’re not looking forward to your date?” Willow was used to her friend’s perpetually calm demeanour, but even then, she expected more out of her considering the circumstances.

“I am,” Lydia explained. “All you said is true. But, I don’t know, something’s missing.”

“What?”

Lydia sighed. “I know how I’m supposed to feel, that it should be the happiest day of my life. But for some reason, I don’t feel it. I do not understand why. I mean, I appreciate his friendship and all, but…”

Something then came to her mind. “What is the friend-zone?” Lydia asked.

“Oh, that.” Willow grimaced. “It’s when a guy expects a girl to fall head-over-heels for him, but she doesn’t feel the same way, so the guy gets all mopey because her friendship apparently isn’t good enough. Why do you ask?”

“Drew’s friends were warning him about it.”

“Dia, look. If he would cut off contact with you just because you wouldn’t reciprocate his romantic advances, then you weren’t really friends to begin with, were you? But if he really cared about you, I’m sure he’d understand.”

Lydia was relieved. “You’re right. I should just be honest with him.”

Willow smiled. “That’s the Lydia I know.”

Lydia changed the subject. “So anyway, how’s retail working out for you?”

“It’s boring,” Willow answered bluntly. “But mindless work is good for thinking about things. I get a lot of customers coming to buy those cheesy Nintendo T-shirts, so I’d like to start a whole store dedicated to geek fashion in the East End. What do you think?”

“You mean like cosplay?” Lydia asked.

“Not just cosplay, but that would be a major draw. There’s a lot of geeks around where I live, so I think there would be an audience for it.”

“Sounds interesting. I haven’t been around the East End much, but I’ve always been happy with the clothes you made for me, so I’m sure people will love it. Have you also thought about incorporating your cultural fashions as well?”

“Yeah, I know Coast Salish fashion is always popular. Ah, so many possibilities. But I’ll have to test the waters first. Anyway, hope everything goes well Friday. You’re a lot braver than me to be watching a horror movie.”

“Well, the idea is intimidating, but I’m also curious to see what it’s like.”

“Tell me how it goes,” Willow requested, just before the school bell rang and the two girls headed off to class.

—-

Lydia was waiting by the ticket counter of the Rio Theatre. It was 5 minutes after 7, and she had come even earlier than that, but she was patient. Her thoughts kept her company in the mean time.

“Hi Lydia!” Drew called out, having finally arrived. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was nuts.”

“No worries,” Lydia consoled him. “I got the tickets.”

“Awesome,” Drew responded. His eyes were drawn to her silvery-white transparent gown and platinum blonde dyed hair. “Um…”

“What is it?” Lydia asked.

“Nothing,” Drew stuttered. “I mean, you look lovely tonight.”

“I thought this outfit would be appropriate,” Lydia remarked.

Drew was perplexed. She did indeed look attractive in it, but it was an odd choice for a casual horror movie night. I guess I don’t know much about fashion, he thought.

“Um…” Lydia began “I have something I wanted to tell you.”

“What is it?” Drew wondered.

Lydia prepared to speak, but caught a glimpse of the time. “I guess it can wait until after the movie.”

“Yeah, it’s starting soon. We ought to get going.”

—-

The pair found their seat in the theatre, surrounded by many other couples around their age and slightly older. As the screams of teenage boys and girls filled the air, they held each other close, trying to protect each other from the terror on the screen. Some covered their eyes, others were shivering, but there were a few who simply chuckled. Lydia was paralyzed in her seat, frightened, but strangely entranced by the movie. During the final confrontation between the last female survivor and her slasher nemesis, she cast an aside glance at Drew. He was one of the shivering ones, but as soon as he saw Lydia’s eyes, he put on an unconvincingly defiant expression. Lydia smiled, extending her arm and grasping his hand while her eyes were glued onto the screen. Her hand felt soft and comforting to Drew, as if he were touched by an angel, and his anxiety floated away for a brief instant.

When the movie ended, they walked out of the theatre towards the bus stop. Though they said nothing to each other for a while, Drew eventually got the first word in.

“So, what did you think?” Drew asked.

“It was an interesting experience,” Lydia replied, mildly excited. “I cannot remember the last time a movie held my attention the way this one did.”

Drew was astonished. “You weren’t scared?”

“Of course I was. But she was so brave back there.”

She paused, gathering her thoughts. “Maybe the movie would be scarier for guys? It must be a different experience, without a hero of your own gender to look up to.”

Drew was at a loss for words. He never expected this reaction out of her, let alone that she would be the one comforting him. But he saw her serene, smiling face, and he too smiled back. Strange as she may be, he was glad she enjoyed the movie in her own way.

“Thank you so much for inviting me here tonight,” Lydia said to him. “I think I’m beginning to develop a taste for these horror movies, and I hope we can do this again someday.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, overwhelmed by her appreciation. “Yeah, whenever you’re interested, just let me know.”

They once again fell silent. At first, Drew was savouring the ecstasy of the moment, feeling he finally had a chance. But his head fell back to earth as he remembered something.

“So, what was it you wanted to tell me?”

Lydia was anxious. She was dreading this moment, feeling even more scared right now than she was throughout the entire movie. But she knew she had to say it.

“I overheard your conversation with your friends that other day when we first met,” Lydia answered bluntly.

Drew stared back at her. His suspicions were confirmed, and he was equally anxious to hear what she thought of him now.

“What you said unnerved me,” Lydia continued. “It reminded me of other guys that tried to hit on me in the past, like I was a mere trophy, to be collected. And it wasn’t just me, other girls told me similar stories….”

“Look, Lydia,” Drew interjected. “I didn’t mean all that! It was just guy talk! I don’t actually think that way…”

“Will you let me finish?” Lydia demanded coldly.

Drew promptly stopped talking, though he was shivering.

Lydia gazed sadly at the ground. “But you were so eager to listen to me. No matter what I said, how odd I may have seemed, you hung on to my every word. I was conflicted. The boy that talked to me was so different from the one in front of his friends. I liked our conversations. I appreciated our friendship. I liked you. But, I did not know if you felt the same way, or if you wanted something else.”

She reconnected eye contact with him. “I just don’t want you to feel, er, friend-zoned. Um…I guess what I’ve really been trying to say is…what do you actually think about me?”

Drew remained silent, pondering her words. Finally, he spoke up. “I really enjoy our friendship too. That friend-zone talk, that was just Martin teasing me. I don’t actually believe in that. But, I guess I was just scared to speak to you. I mean, you’re so, beautiful, and smart, that I thought you were way out of my league.”

“That’s not true!” Lydia interrupted. “You’re pretty handsome yourself, and you have a talent for fighting games that I could never have.”

“Just let me finish, okay?” Drew responded anxiously.

Lydia complied with his request. “Okay, continue.”

“But you’re so much more than that. And yet, you were willing to spend time with me. What I’m trying to say is…I love you. Not as a prize or anything like that, but because you’re the most amazing girl I’ve ever met. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, to learn more about you, and share all of our experiences in this wonderful world together, now and forever. So, what do you say?”

Lydia gasped, taken aback at the sincerity of his words. She wanted to say yes, and yet, she felt empty inside. Something was still missing.

“Thank you,” she began. “You have always been very kind, and I’m flattered that you feel this way about me. But…”

She stopped herself, struggling to continue. Upon her hesitation, Drew was prepared for the worst.

“I just don’t feel the same way towards you, and I don’t know why,” she explained desperately. “Even after our conversations, the movie, I know I should feel something at this point, but…I like you, just not in that way. Please don’t take it personally. It’s just…I’ve never felt any sort of romantic attraction to any boy. Even when other girls would go on and on about their crushes, I could never relate to them.”

Drew silently pondered, trying to understand where she was coming from. Then he remembered that Etrian girl. “Do you mind if I ask you something, perhaps a bit sensitive?” Drew requested.

“Anything you wish.”

“Have you considered, that you may be gay?”

“Hmmm…come to think of it, I do feel a strange sense of pleasure whenever I‘m around a pretty girl. But I never thought of it as attraction. Maybe I just felt I shouldn’t be thinking about other girls that way. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it a little more.”

“Well, if you want to talk to me about it, I’m always here for you.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate it. Wait, so you’re not mad at me?”

“Mad?” Drew responded, half-chuckling, half-dejected. “Why would I be mad? We’re still friends, after all. But, I can’t help but feel disappointed. I’ve never met a girl like you before, and I don’t know if I ever will again.”

Lydia suddenly had a contemplative look on her face. “How many girls have you met before?” she inquired.

“Um, just you.”

She beamed, as if she had just solved a difficult mathematical puzzle. “There lies your problem.”

She took his hands in hers, and he once again felt that soft, comforting feeling. “You don’t have to worry about a thing, because you have a lot going for you. Somewhere out there, someone is waiting for you, and I know that one day, you will make her very happy. Just, be your real self when you see her. Don’t try to hide it with some phony pick-up persona, okay?”

“I promise,” Drew replied.

Just then, she saw something on the horizon. “Oh, there’s the bus. You coming?”

“Nah,” Drew answered. “I live around here, so I’m headed the other way.”

“I see,” Lydia responded as she got on the bus. “Well, thank you once again for the wonderful night. Farewell, ‘til we meet again.”

“See you, Lydia,” Drew waved back.

—-

In the present day, Lydia and Drew arrived at an outdoor piano just as they finished telling each other the story of their first date.

“So maybe it didn’t work out the way I wanted back then,” Drew concluded. “but I’m glad we met in the end.”

Lydia nodded. “How’s Willow been?”

“Oh, we keep in touch,” Drew replied. “I wish we could spend more time together. Even in the same city, we feel so far apart, and she’s always busy.”

“I miss her too,” Lydia concurred. “But we’ll both have to be patient. After all, you learn to treasure the precious time you do spend together when it’s scarce.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Say, how was the tournament?”

“It was fun. I got to meet some interesting players from Cedar Grove. In particular, there was this Anastasia girl, though she calls herself Stacy. She’s planning to start a gaming club at her school, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

She paused. “Hmm…perhaps I too should get more involved.”

“By the way, what did you place?” Drew asked.

“Second.”

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“It’s only because of everything you taught me.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You only started getting good when you stopped following my lead. And your patient style has helped me a lot too!”

“I’m glad I could help then, as an honourary Boy.”

She winked at Drew. He smiled, and looked at his watch.

“Oh, I have to get going,” he said. “See you back at the dorm tonight! I hope the first day of classes won’t be too bad.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll survive. We always do. Bye!”

As Drew ran off, Lydia walked over to the piano and sat down, with only a few crows in the audience. She gazed at her locket longingly, then turned her attention to the piano. Her hands glided across the keys, playing a melancholy piano tune to the surrounding environment, intended for herself, but offered to any being willing to listen.

(next)

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