Bitter 92

Britta knew she had access to the game and it was just a matter of time before she could use the helmet, but it was still incredibly hard to focus on anything else. Not just schoolwork, but everyday normal things like eating lunch or holding conversations.

Her mind kept wandering and she kept putting off things she knew she had to do in favour of daydreaming and generally being lazy. Getting what you wanted had a horrible side-effect—you got super complacent.

“You’re being very weird, you know?” said Rashida as she packed away her empty lunchbox. “Are you having problems at home? I know it’s hard having white parents.”

Fortunately, having Rashida as her best friend kept Britta grounded. You couldn’t get too self-involved when you had the Queen of Mean sitting right next to you.

“How would you know what it’s like to have white parents?”

“I’ve seen a lot of movies,” said Rashida. “White parents are always very negligent. Getting drunk, having affairs, leaving the kids home alone. It can’t be easy having to grow up in that kind of environment.”

“My parents don’t do any of those things,” said Britta, feeling obliged to defend the people she usually criticised the most.

“Didn’t they go off to Paris and leave you on your own?”

“For the weekend. I can look after myself for a couple of days.”

Rashida nodded with exaggerated sympathy. “Don’t worry, once they get divorced they’ll try to buy your affection with gifts and money. You can buy yourselves all the things.”

“That’s not funny, Rashida.”

“The data doesn’t lie, Britta. Statistically, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Is there a reason you’re being so vicious today?”

Rashida adjusted her hijab, tucking a stray hair back out of sight. “I’m trying to snap you out of your depression.”

“I’m not depressed,” said Britta, surprised anyone would think such a thing.

“You can’t fool me, Britta. You don’t take notes in class, you don’t ask the teacher’s questions anymore, and you stare at your food without eating it.”

Britta looked down at the food on the table in front of her. It was untouched and slowly congealing as it cooled.

“If this is about a boy, don’t let hormones and emotions ruin your chance to have a proper life. If you don’t get a good education, you’ll be stuck with an unpleasant husband and no financial independence.”

“Aren’t you going to have an arranged marriage?” Britta asked her pointedly.

“Don’t be racist,” said Rashida as she got up and walked over to the bins to dump her litter.

Even though she was being annoying, in her own way, Rashida was letting her know she was worried for her. And she was right to be, although for all the wrong reasons.

Britta was slacking off. She was doing exactly what Mum had feared and she’d been warned not to do. If her schoolwork suffered, she’d have the game taken away from her, and everyone would feel like they’d done her a favour.  And she’d only have herself to blame. If she was going to mess about in a virtual world, then she had to make sure she didn’t lose her grip on the real one.

It wasn’t easy at first, but she forced herself to concentrate on her studies and organised herself so she could get everything done in advance. She did her homework at lunch and before classes. She read and took notes during breaks and on the bus to and from school. It was a bit rushed, and perhaps not her best work, but she covered everything. All the work due next week, this week.

It also helped her cope with the irritating impatience that had been plaguing her. With so much to do, she had no time to sit and ponder. The challenge of getting it all done early was like a game of its own.

By Friday, she had hit her goal. She felt pleased with herself. Maybe even a bit smug. She was going to keep control of her life and do things her own way. She realised it was the money that had put her off-balance. They’d offered her so much for doing so little, it had made the whole thing seem far more important than it was. Like seeing a £500 tag on a dress that cost a couple of quid to make, and feeling special when you put it on.

It was a video game and she was excited to play it, but it was still just a video game.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to play until Saturday, she managed to convince Dad that Friday Night was also the weekend. Although the main reason he agreed was that Mum was working late and not there to say anything. He was just as eager for Britta to get back into New World as she was.

He helped her get ready and made sure everything was working okay. Britta lay down on her bed, a towel under her in case of excessive perspiration.

“Okay, sweetie, good luck, have fun.” He turned off the light and closed the bedroom door.

Britta flipped the visor down over eyes and the beam of light came shooting towards her.

She was in the white room, but there were no buttons and no one asked her if she was ready to enter the game. Just a message.

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