Bitter 70

Britta woke the next morning, feeling tired after a restless night. She’d had strange dreams that she couldn’t quite remember other than a vague recollection she’d been in the game world. Not reliving her highlights, it was more random wandering around and doing nothing. Although, maybe those was her highlight.

Her body felt limp and sore and it took five minutes of stretching to get her shoulders not to pinch in the middle of her back. She couldn’t tell if it was a side-effect of the game, or just her sleeping funny.

She got ready for school and went downstairs. As she walked through the hallway, she noticed a padlock on the living room door. She doubted they’d had a spare one lying around the house, so Dad must have gone out, late on a Sunday evening, and bought it. Where would he have found a hardware store open at that time?

Dad was in the kitchen, whistling as he buttered toast.

“The lock on the door’s a bit much, isn’t it?” said Britta. When she’d seen it, her reaction had been a mild eyeroll. Now that she was bringing it up with Dad, it genuinely annoyed her.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Britta, but I was a kid once. I know, hard to believe.”

Actually, not hard to believe at all, thought Britta.

“And I also know what it’s like when a cool game gets into your system.”

Hearing Dad use the word ‘cool’ was unsettling. Like when a teacher used ‘bae’ to try and seem hip.

“I’m just removing temptation while you transition back to normal life.”

“Thanks,” she said with a sarcastic smile. “I hope the withdrawal symptoms won’t be too severe.” She sat down and ate Dad’s cereal.

“And please don’t talk about what you saw in the game to anyone at school. I’m still under the NDA.”

“But I didn’t sign any NDA,” said Britta, knowing it would irk him.

He frowned at her. “Britta, please. I could get into a lot of trouble. Anderson Peters don’t mess about when it comes to this sort of thing. Just forget about the whole thing. Okay?”

“Why are they called Anderson Peters?” asked Britta. “I looked them up and neither of them are called Anderson or Peters.”

“See? You’re obsessing already.”

Britta stopped eating long enough to give him a disparaging look. “No, Dad, I’m not.”

He took a bite of toast and talked through it. “This is how it starts, honey. Believe me, I know. The less we talk about it, the easier it’ll be for you, trust me. Please, just remember, NDA.”

“You don’t have to worry, none of my friends care about this sort of stuff. They’d be bored stiff. It’s just a game, Dad, not the next step in evolution.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Dad.

Despite her nonchalant dismissal of the game’s impact on her, she did sense something was different. She sat on the bus on the way to school and kept seeing people in terms of hit points and classes. If there was a fight, the sharp-faced man in the blue suit and blue tie standing by the doors looked like he could take the mean-looking lady with the small dog on her lap. Unless the dog had enrage.

The other kids on the bus all looked like NPCs who would run away screaming at the first sign of trouble. Britta wouldn’t. Not that she’d get pile on, but panicking wouldn’t help.

At school, Rashida was eager to report on her weekend. She had gone to a family wedding that sounded like three different weddings held on the same day. Her hands were covered in elaborate henna tattoos. Britta asked the occasional question about the bizarre rituals but she wasn’t really listening.

She drifted through lessons with no real awareness of what she was being taught. She managed to take notes and write down homework assignments, but most of the time she would zone out and reimagine how to better deal with a situation from the game.

She should have kept the cursed dagger instead of returning it to Big Freddy; there was bound to be a quest attached to it. The suspicious Mayor was clearly up to something. She should have dug a little deeper—the game had clearly wanted her to. And the Wise One probably had a lot more to offer her than simply sending her to the Great Gnome in the Sky. So many little things she hadn’t skimmed over that could have got her levelled up quicker and better geared.

“What about you?” asked Rashida. “Did you do anything over the weekend?”

Britta shrugged. It was nearly lunchtime and CS had devolved into chatting quietly in anticipation of the bell. Mr Taymor was sitting on the corner of his desk, talking to a couple of the boys about something.

“Not really. My parents went away, so it was just me.”

“They left you alone for the whole weekend?” Rashida sounded horrified. “That’s abuse, that is.” She had the look of someone about to make a complaint to the management. Then her expression softened. “Wish mine would go away for a couple of days. I could use a break.”

Britta logged out of the computer in front of her. It was a basic laptop with a metal lock chaining it to the desk, but nobody would bother to steal it if it wasn’t. Not unless you needed something to prop up a wonky table.

“It wasn’t too bad. I played this new game my Dad has.” She couldn’t help herself. All morning it had been building inside her, the need to talk to someone about the game. To tell them she had spoken to a dragon and rode a goat into battle.

“A video game? Jesus H. Christ, Britta. Are you turning into a gamer?”

Britta didn’t appreciate the implied insult. Everyone was treating her like some kind of addict. “Should you be using Jesus like that? Isn’t he one of your prophets, too? He’s in your book, right?”

Rashida balked at the backhand return, sitting up straighter. “Yes, but he’s a minor character.”

Britta had met a god. He was a giant gnome and he made her float into the air. She smiled to herself and then wiped it away with her hand when she noticed Rashida staring at her like she was observing a nutcase.

The bell rang and students filled the hallways. Britta put her bag in her locker and made her way to the cafeteria, unable to clear the fog in her head. Everything around her was so drab and grey, it made her lose her appetite. She was the minor character. She was an NPC in her own life.

She saw Lewis, sitting alone with a small laptop open in front of him. He at least would be interested. Dad had told her not to talk to anyone about the game, but nobody would find out. Did anyone really care about a schoolgirl’s lunchtime conversations?

She went over and sat down next to him. He had a tray of food next to his computer and fed the side of his face as his eyes remained glued to the screen. He slowly turned to look at her, his eyes changing from uncertain to disgusted.

Britta didn’t have any food with her. She realised it must have looked strange for her to suddenly sit down next to him, only reinforcing his suspicions about her, and she regretted the whole idea.

“Sorry, thought you were someone else.” She rose and walked away.

There was no point talking to anyone about it. They wouldn’t understand. She should just forget about it, like Dad said. That, or find a way back in.

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