Pop quiz: You meet up with your friend whose apartment has recently been towed, whose pedophile admirer has abandoned him at the side of the road while making a pre-amatory pit-stop at the local gas n’ guzzle, and whose bytes have been scrambled in a freak SuperMegaNet downloading accident. Do you:
- A. Run an anti-virus scan on said friend.
- B. Gawk as politely as possible.
- C. Go chasing after an eight-bit barrel in the middle of the night like the easily-distracted twelve-year-old you are.
- D. None of the above.
The correct answer, of course, is C: go chasing after an eight-bit barrel in the middle of the night like the easily-distracted twelve-year-old you are. There are several justifications for this. One, in what universe is not immediately investigating sudden runaway pixel art socially or morally acceptable? More importantly, distractions are good when you’re trying not to think about what you’re supposed to be thinking about. The unfortunate state of Jan’s bod, in particular.
A second barrel rolls by, followed by a third.
Wordlessly, I grab Mini, jump to my feet, and run for my bike, raising the kickstand and getting on. Jan perches himself behind me and we’re off, shooting across the parking lot, toward the street.
“Wait, not that way,” Jan says.
I brake at the curb. “Huh?”
“You’re heading in the same direction that the barrels are rolling,” Mini says.
“Far be it from me to squelch your adventurous spirit, but don’t you think it would be more interesting to see where the barrels are coming from as opposed to the boring pile where they’re going to end up?”
Jan nods. “What the doll said.”
Making a slight course adjustment, I turn onto the street and kick into high gear. More barrels come at semi-regular intervals, causing drivers to swerve, late-night pedestrians to leap out of the way. Lucky for us, the spectacle is so distracting that no one seems to notice I’m giving a lift to a pixel monster and a talking puppet. Eventually we end up in a middle-class neighborhood, with mostly single-stories sporting creepy yard gnomes overseeing concrete driveways instead of actual lawns—
“Holy crap!” Mini shouts as we speed around a corner. “The barrels are coming from Ernie’s grandparents’ house!”
I stop beside the mailbox, craning my neck so that I can more effectively take in the eighty-two-foot-tall construction of ladders and girders that’s standing in the driveway. It’s a little hard to tell, but it looks like Mrs. Goodale (retrofied in large, unabashed pixels like the rest of the structure) is standing on the topmost girder, a stack of barrels at her side. Further up, on a smaller platform, Ernie appears to be bundled in a sleeping bag, with large Z’s emanating in a plume above his head.
“This is Ernie’s place?” I ask, incredulous.
“The house, yeah. The girders…I have no idea where they came from.”
I shake my head. This the worst case of over-parenting I’ve ever seen. “It looks like something out of the original Donkey Kong.”
“You mean HONKEY Kong,” Mini says, well aware of my affinity for the Boots Electric album of the same name.
“What’s Ernie doing up there?” Jan asks.
“Dying a slow, meaningless death,” Mini replies.
Mrs. Goodale grumbles something unintelligible, grabs a barrel from her pile and hurls it. The barrel makes its way down the top girder, then drops onto the next girder and starts rolling in the opposite direction, slowly but surely working toward ground level.
“How did this happen?” I ask.
“I told you before,” Mini says. “Ernie’s in trouble. He needs your help.”
“Because you’re his best friend.”
I scoff. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
I narrow my eyes. “Honey buns are Ernie’s best friend. Size 36 relaxed fit jeans are Ernie’s best friend. Xbox, YouPorn, Jergens, Kleenex—those are Ernie’s best friends. I’m just one of the unfortunate souls who was given the same group assignment on the first day of school.”
Mini smiles, folds his arms. “Save the lies. I’m your plushness. You can’t hide anything from me. Your inspirations, motivation, hopes, dreams, fears—beneath that cool, clear, Zen-boy image of yours you’re a mess because you really care about Ernie. You want to be friends with him again—you’ve grown accustomed to his fat.”
My knee-jerk reaction is to deny everything Mini has just said, but doing that would only incriminate me further, so I end up not saying anything at all. Which only incriminates me further.
“Fine. Be a douche.” Mini looks at Jan. “Will you go?”
Jan shrugs. “I’m not very good at retrograde games.”
I start to correct him—
“Oh, for crying out—to hell with both of you!” Mini scampers onto the ground and starts across the driveway. “I’ll take care of this myself!”
I watch him go, toddling, tripping, cursing, toddling some more, tripping again…and I realize he’s destined for doom. Even if he makes it all the way to the top of Mrs. Goodale’s girder palace, what then? Throw Ernie over his shoulder and book like the dickens? Fight Mrs. Goodale to the death? Either way he’s going to be crushed—and I’ll admit, while part of me would like to be rid of the plushness, another more exasperating part is wondering: What happens to me if Mini dies? Does a part of me die, too? Do I die?
“Ugh.” I get off my bike, nodding at Jan. “Watch my bike.”
Jan nods back. “For the win.”
I run after Mini, scooping him up and stuffing him into my pocket. He situates himself, starts to say something about me not being such a hairless, quivering pussy after all, but trails off when one of Mrs. Goodale’s barrels comes tumbling our way. Without time to think, worry, or over-analyze my options I jump over the barrel, dart forward, then jump over a second barrel, riding a jolt of adrenaline as I make my way toward the ladder leading up to the second platform. Every barrel I clear earns me a hundred points, which flash briefly above my head before disappearing. On reaching the ladder, I grab onto its rungs and start my ascent. Halfway up and I have to pause, heart hammering in my chest, nerves on fire.
“Don’t tell me you’re winded already!” Mini exclaims.
“I’m not winded,” I reply. “I just…this whole thing is—what lapse in logic, what quirk of science could possibly allow—isn’t anyone but me disturbed that Ernie’s grandma has the ability to transform into mythological creatures and classic video game characters at will, and has erected an eighty-two-foot-tall remake of Donkey Kong, Screen 1 in her driveway??”
“Need I remind you, you’re talking to a plush doll?”
I continue up the ladder, climbing onto the second girder with surprising agility. I mean, I guess I’ve got the arms and legs for it (and it helps that I’m twelve), but this is the first time I’ve actually used my mom’s gym membership out in the field, as it were. I’m feeling a bit newbish.
“Heads up!” Mini screams as another barrel comes our way.
“Why is she throwing barrels at us?” I exclaim, doing an inadvertent somersault that, while initially effective, results in my slipping, screaming like a little girl, falling, and clinging to the underside of the girder with all my might.
“Dude!” Mini yells. “Shawn Johnson you are not!”
“Not helpful!” I yell back, and haul myself back on top of the girder—no small feat considering there are barrels coming at regular intervals now. I run, I jump, I climb the next ladder, cross the next girder. Somehow I make it all the way to the top unscathed. Well, physically unscathed. Mentally, I’m absolutely losing it.
“Oh, geez,” Mini says, obviously feeling my trembling. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights.”
“It’s not that,” I reply. “I sort of have a thing about old people. I have this recurring dream where I’m walking down the street on a Sunday—”
“Yeah, yeah. Save it for your next session with Dr. Freud. What do we do about her?”
Mrs. Goodale stands firm at the other end of the girder. She fixes Mini and me with a demented glare. “You’re up past your bedtime.”
I take a tentative step forward. “Uh, Mrs. Goodale?”
Mrs. Goodale picks up another barrel…
“Please, Mrs. Goodale…”
…raises it above her head. “The name’s Womack, you precocious moppet! Goodale is the recessive side of the family!” She hurls the barrel at us.
I time my jump.
I earn another hundred points.
I land with feet planted firmly—
—and Mini goes tumbling out of my pocket, takes a horrendous slow-motion dive over the edge of the girder.
“Mini!” I scream, lunging forward to try and catch him—but it’s too late. Down he goes. My torso slams hard against the girder at about the same time as Mini, eight stories below, bounces onto the concrete driveway.
Mrs. Goodale—I mean, Womack—cackles fiendishly.
I roll onto my back. She’s standing over me, grinning from ear to ear. “Any last words?” she asks, wielding another barrel.
I swallow. “Uh…Neil Diamond for president?”
Womack starts to cackle. She lifts her barrel, ready to hurl it onto my head, spraying blood and hair and brains and teeth everywhere—
—Mini reappears on the girder. He’s holding an oversized hammer.
I blink. “How’d you…?”
“I had an extra life, apparently,” Mini says. He swings the hammer.
Womack starts to turn around—but, as she’s old, and as we are perched precariously on a narrow girder, she doesn’t have time to react fully before Mini brings his hammer down onto her foot. Screeching, she lifts her injured foot, rotates momentarily on her good foot, slips, flips upside freakin’ down, and, well, here’s the problem: in order to dodge out of the way before she flattens my three dimensions into one, I have to roll either left or right, and rolling left or right means rolling off the girder. Of course, this doesn’t occur to me until my reflexes have already sent me careening over the edge. Luckily, I manage to grab on at the last moment—but it’s not a secure purchase, and I know I’ve only got a few seconds before gravity has its way with me.
Mini drops the hammer, dives forward and grabs my hand, using all his might to keep me from tumbling to my death. (Behind him, Womack rolls off the girder and disappears below.)
“Pull me up!” I shout.
“I will,” Mini says. “But first you’ve got to do something for me.”
“You’ve got to make me a promise.”
My fingers are slipping. “Um, is now the best time for this?”
“You’ve got to promise me that before the night is over, you’ll spank some monkey.”
“What? No way!”
“Promise me, Theo. Promise me you’ll lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour and paint the walls a whiter shade of pale like any normal twelve-year-old.”
“Dude, this is neither the time nor the place—”
“Do you want to keep me from destroying bedrooms, running amok all over town and dropping love letters into girls’ lockers on your behalf?”
“Just promise to polish a little knob and I’ll back off.”
One of my fingers pops free— “Okay! Fine! I promise! Just pull me up!”
Mini nods, pulls me up.
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