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Chapter One

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Staring at the ceiling for two hours before the alarm clock goes off is probably not anyone’s idea of the best way to begin the day, but it happened… frequently. I couldn’t turn my brain off, so I stayed up late and woke up early nearly every day. I’d read the sleep deprivation studies, and I knew I’d probably drop dead of coronary disease at the ripe old age of seventeen, but there was nothing that soothed my brain enough to turn it off.

At 6:15, the alarm sounded, but I was already in the shower. I could have sworn I heard it’s incessant buzzing, but when I stuck my head out of the shower, I didn’t hear it anymore. I shrugged and went back to scrubbing squeaky clean. Friday, thank goodness for Friday. It had already been a long week, and I had no desire to put any more effort into the week than that required by a Friday. Now, Monday, those sons of… never mind, the point is, I was already cranky and tired first thing in the morning.

I turned the shower off and reached for my towel but was distracted by a sound coming from my bedroom next door. I grumbled to myself. It was probably my mother checking the cleanliness of my room or searching for dirty dishes. I had no idea why she insisted on looking for something that was never there—probably an excuse to rummage through my stuff.

I got dressed and wiped the condensation from the mirror. My russet locks clung to my forehead, so I ruffled them up a little and left it at that. There was no point in trying to make them stay in one direction or another. They usually did what they wanted regardless, so I’d learned long ago to let them go. I brushed my teeth and all that other morning stuff, then decided to gather my things for school before going downstairs to eat.

Once in my room, I noticed a storage box was slightly off-kilter. It was at least half an inch away from the wall, which was a quarter-inch farther away than I’d put it. I sighed… Mom. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t leave my stuff alone. I paid for it with my own money from the part-time job I had, so it wasn’t like anything belonged to her. She knew how much my collection meant to me, but she couldn’t seem to keep her hands off.

I pushed the container back against the wall and checked for any others that were out of place. Everything appeared to be in order, so I gathered my textbooks and binders, stuffed them in my backpack, and headed downstairs. I heard the front door slam shut, a good indicator that my mother was already heading off to work. Dad would be home after I left for school since he was on the night shift. He was cranky when he worked at night, so I was glad he didn’t get home until I was already gone. Still, I did miss him. He would be on his way back to work by the time I got home from my study group, so I hardly saw him. Okay, okay… It wasn’t a study group so much as me sitting at a table in the library near a group of people who were also studying.

I heard someone scoot a chair in at the kitchen table. Evidently, I was wrong about my mother having already gone. When I walked into the kitchen, I saw a girl sitting at the table. Her back was to me, but she was very clearly not my mother. She had long dark hair, wavy with the slightest bit of honey-gold highlights. I could tell she was shorter than me, but in fairness, most people were. However, she was a pipsqueak… maybe a pipsqueak and a half if I was generous.

I glanced around and saw no sign of my mother, so I shouted for her.

“Mom!” I yelled. The girl practically leaped out of her chair, chocking on whatever she was eating at my kitchen table.

“Holy moly, dude,” she said, then wiped her mouth. “She went to work. Calm down.” She shook her head a bit, then went back to her food. She was pretty, that was the first thing I noticed about her, but beautiful or not, I had no idea who she was or why she was at my house.

“Did you break into my house?” I asked though I felt sure she wasn’t a burglar. Most burglars didn’t sit to have a bowl of cereal before robbing their victims blind.

She glanced up with a smirk on her face. “No, your mom let me in. Cool mom you have, by the way,” she said as she reclined comfortably and propped her feet on the chair beside her. She slurped the milk from the bowl in the most annoying way possible, then dropped the bowl onto the table, milk dribbling from her chin. She wiped it away, then gave me a smile.

“Want some?” she asked, pushing the open box toward me.

She had a lot of audacity sitting at my kitchen table with her feet propped up, offering me cereal from my own… WAIT. ONE. FREAKING. MINUTE!!

“Where did you get that cereal?” I asked rhetorically. I already had a pretty good idea where it came from, so I didn’t wait for an answer before running full speed up the stairs, down the hall, and into my bedroom. I pulled out the storage box I thought my mother moved, and sure enough, it was gone.

“NOOOOO!” I screamed, then fell back onto the floor, staring at the ceiling. “This is it. This is how I die, right here, from shock.”

“You okay, dude?” she yelled from the kitchen.

I growled, then shot up and ran back downstairs. I’d kill her. Yep, I’d kill her and bury her body in the backyard before going to school. Or maybe I’d skip school and plant a lovely vegetable garden over her rotting corpse!

When I entered the kitchen again, she was sitting in the same spot staring at the entryway waiting for me.

“There you are. As I was saying before that super-weird nonsense, the cereal was in a box—”

“In my bedroom!” I erupted like a volcano in the middle of the kitchen.

She winced at the sound of a teenage boy shrieking at the top of his lungs, but only for a moment. My voice cracked, something it hadn’t done in a couple of years, but the shock of what she’d done pushed me right back into puberty. She chuckled, then waved her hand like it was no big deal.

“Yeah… Weird place to keep your cereal,” she said. She removed her legs from the chair and leaned forward. “I like to keep mine in the cupboard, but to each his own, I guess.”

“In the… it’s a… my… my… OH! MY! WHO ARE YOU?” Language failed me entirely, not that I knew any other than English, but if I had, they would have up and taken a vacation alongside every word I knew in the English language, save those few.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re kind of a weird little dude?” she asked. She stood up and scooted her chair back with a screech—an annoyingly loud and nerve grating screech that shot chills down my spine.

“I’m weird? I’m the weird one here? You came into my bedroom without my permission, stole my cereal, and then, for the love of all that is holy, you had the nerve to eat it!” I screamed, all my composure lost at 6:39 in the morning.

She was slightly taken aback but recovered quickly. “I fail to see why this is so upsetting. It’s cereal, Benji. It’s meant for eating.” She waved me off again before placing her bowl in the sink.

“DO NOT EVER CALL ME BENJI! And it’s not just cereal! It is, well, it was an autographed 1989 Michael Jordan Wheaties box! Autographed! Autographed, you stupid head!”

She tilted her head to the side, her gaze focused on a random point on the wall. “Huh, that must be why it tasted like dirty socks.”

“You’re a cereal killer!” I screamed again, then lunged at her. She dodged my flailing arms like a pro and put me in a vice-grip headlock. I tried to struggle free—honestly, it was quite embarrassing that a six and a half foot tall boy could not wiggle free from a pipsqueak like her—but try as I may, she had me pinned good and proper.

“Calm down, kiddo. Maybe if you’d eaten those Wheaties in 1989, you’d be a lot stronger.” She chuckled at her own joke, infuriating me further.

“I’m seventeen! I wasn’t even born yet!” I yelped from her tight grip, which only grew tighter, the more I struggled. Really, it was embarrassing beyond measure.

“Seriously kid, you’ve got an unhealthy obsession with your crap, did you know that?” she asked, loosening her grip little by little until she was sure I wasn’t going to freak out again. When I fell limp in her arms, she released me. I wasn’t expecting her to let me go, so I fell face-first onto the floor.

I popped up, but it was pointless. Obviously, she saw me fall. I stood and adjusted my superhero t-shirt, vintage without a single blemish, and glared at her with absolute disdain.

“That box was worth $2500 before you ripped into it like a rabid hyena.”

“Seriously? Wow, you nerdy types take your collectible junk seriously.” She leaned on the doorframe that led to the living room. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why my mother would have ever let her in the front door—whoever she was. Then she dropped the hammer on me.

“Your mom said you’d show me around town. I just moved in next door, and I need to find a job,” she said, which was confusing to me since she looked about sixteen. I said a prayer that by next door, she really meant the other side of town, but I knew my luck was not that good.

“A job? What do you need a job for?”

“That is usually how one pays the bills. Any ideas?” She crossed her arms in front of her making her look even smaller. She was freakishly strong for a girl roughly five feet tall.

“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I think they’re hiring down at the local psychiatric hospital,” I said.

“Oh, listen to you. Nice burn, but seriously, I need a job,” she said, took three steps to close the distance between us, then ruffled my hair. No one did that to me except my grandfather, and I didn’t care much for it when he did it.

“Don’t do that. How old are you?” I asked. I fixed my hair—actually, I just flopped it the other way to be obstinate. I did, however, find I was curious to know anything about her. I despised that I was suddenly curious about her, but I couldn’t help it. She was so… so… just so.

“I’ll be nineteen in three days, why?”

“You don’t look nineteen,” I replied.

“Right, because I’m still eighteen,” she said with a chuckle. “So, just let me know when you’re free to show me around.” She ruffled my hair once more, then opened the back door and walked out of my kitchen, crossed the back yard, climbed over the fence, and went into her own house. All the while, I could not stop staring at her.

“What. The. Heck?” I asked no one as I continued to stare at an empty back yard, watching rain softly pelt the window. I had a thought I should grab an umbrella, but it was gone in an instant. I was too focused on another thought—she ate my cereal! I wasn’t done yelling at her for eating my cereal, so against my better judgment, I followed her out the back, over the fence, then banged on her back door.

She opened it wide as if expecting me to enter. I did. I’m not sure why since I was sure she was insane, and not entirely unsure she wouldn’t murder me and… WAIT. ONE. MINUTE!

I walked right up to her laptop that was wide open on her kitchen table—beside a brand-new box of Wheaties, of course. I bent to get a better look at the screen, but before I could confirm what I saw there, she slammed it shut.

“That’s classified info, dude, back off,” she said.

“Oh, so you can come to my house and eat my collectible autographs, but I can’t see what is on your laptop?”

“Nope, not when it could ruin my career,” she said.

“I thought you said you needed a job?”

“I did. Internships don’t usually pay, and Rox Graphics is no different. What can I do for you, Benji?”

“You have an internship at Rox Graphics? Like Rox Graphics, the video game developers who single-handedly changed the way we play video games?” I asked, wishing I hadn’t made such a big deal about what I saw on her screen. Maybe then I could have snuck a few more glances at what was no doubt the next installment of World Awakens, the best alternate dimensions video game in existence.

“No, the other Rox Graphics. Yes, dorkus, what do you need?”

I suddenly forgot what it was I’d followed her for and just stood there staring at her like a dorky teenage boy who’d never seen a girl before in his life. She arched an eyebrow and turned her head slightly. It was majorly creeping her out, but for some reason, I could not stop staring at her. She was so strange, odd did not begin to describe her personality or behavior. She was also much prettier than I had first noticed.

“Benji? I have hours of coding ahead of me, can I do something for you?” she asked patiently.

“Oh, um… No, I’ll just head to school now.” I happened to catch the time on her microwave. “Crap me, now I’m gonna be late because of you!”

“Me? I left your house fifteen minutes ago. You’re the one who threw a tantrum over a box of cereal, then followed me to my house to bug me.” She leaned on her kitchen table, and I stifled the urge to push it and make her fall on her butt. It would serve her right for eating my cereal then dropping me on the floor.

“I came to bug you? I came to… You ate my cereal!” I yelled again.

“Fine, I’ll pay you the stupid $2500. Will that make you happy?”

“No! It won’t replace the box, you… you… Wait, what is your name?” It was only fair that I knew the name of the girl who’d murdered my box of cereal, especially since she already knew mine—not Benji, but I had a feeling she thought calling me Benji instead of Ben would annoy me and did it on purpose.

“Mattie Bender. Now, do you need a ride to school, or—”

“Nice subject change. No, I don’t need a ride, but stay out of my bedroom!” With that, I turned and exited her kitchen, purposely slamming the door behind me. I wanted so badly to turn around to see if she was watching me cross the backyard in the pouring rain, but I stifled that urge, too.

Perfect. Wonderful. Just grand. A lunatic moved in next door, and I, Ben Parks, already hated her to death.

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Chapter Two

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