by Ryan Walraven
“School,” the word barely escaped her lips, a curse more than a realization. She wiped the sleep crust from the corners of her eyes and sat up, groggy from staying up late and playing games.
“Kat!” her mother called again as the smell of bacon wafted up from the kitchen.
Kat dragged her legs from beneath her purple blankets and shivered as she set her feet on the cold floorboards. Even bacon wasn’t worth waking up for on a February morning.
“Kat!” her mother shouted more shrilly this time.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” she mumbled, stumbling to her old desktop computer and flicking the monitor on. It wasn’t much, but then again, most eleven years olds didn’t have their own computers. Her parents had bought it for her when she got skipped ahead to the seventh grade.
She slipped on her NetSet, the virtual glasses most kids used to immerse themselves in the glowing world of the Net, and Reddit, her homepage, popped out of the screen in 3D. Her computer was so old that it could barely register her physical gestures as she flicked in and out of articles, and it couldn’t simulate touch, taste, or smell at all.
Whatever, she thought. It was better than nothing.
None of the stories on the Reddit front page stuck out, so she clicked on a link to r/Games and was quickly immersed in floating turtles, castles, and cartoon knights. Her dad had the parental controls revved up pretty high, so the more violent stuff was out of sight, but she knew how to circumvent them when it suited her.
“Katherine Woo! This is your last warning,” her mother called up the stairs.
She groaned and let her head loll back, then removed the NetSet and stumbled down the stairs. Fresh bacon, oatmeal, and green tea awaited, a standard Woo family breakfast. Oddly, though, her father was absent.
“Dad left for work early?” she asked, her voice a hoarse squeak.
Her mother crossed her arms and shook her head. “You should pay more attention to the news, Kat.”
Kat shrugged. “Why?” she asked through a mouthful of bacon. “Did he win the Nobel Prize for corporate coding?” She twirled her hand in the air in sarcastic celebration.
Rolling her eyes, her mother peeled back the kitchen curtain to reveal a window partially obscured with snow. “School is closed,” she said. “I waited to wake you, but I still have to go to work.”
Kat dropped her fork and burst from her chair, dancing and shaking her butt. “Wooohooo!”
“I have to get going,” her mom said, lifting her purse and jacket from the coat-rack. “Stay inside and get some studying done, alright?”
She paused her dancing and shot her mother a glare. “Mommmmm.”
“At least practice your coding. High school’s not that far away, you know.” She wagged a finger at Kat. “They want kids who know their algorithms these days, and not just the old C stuff. Do you want to get into Hopkins, or waste your time at some state school like UMBC, hmm?”
“Alright.” She sighed .
“And don’t forget your Geometry either,” her mom added, slipping her jacket on.
Her mom smiled and rubbed a hand through Kat’s hair, then hugged her. “Your father should be back by five, but I won’t back from the hospital until eight. If you’re hungry, there’s leftover miso in the refrigerator.”
“OK,” she nodded.
“And stay inside, seriously. It’s only twenty degrees out there and the wind’s kicking up. OK?”
Kat nodded again and, finally, her mother scooted out the door, keeping an eye on her until the very moment the door clicked shut. As soon as Kat heard the lock turn, she cheered and danced up the stairs, straight to her computer. She slipped her NetSet back on and resumed her web browsing, heading to the Final Fantasy Reddit and floating through disembodied castles with articles pasted to the walls, then skipping over to r/Hax0rz to see if there was any interesting coding news. Then it hit her, she should check out the Catonsville subreddit to see if there was any info about the snow.
The place was bare bones, just text links like something out of the early 10’s, and the only recent links she saw were a post about ultimate frisbee and a picture of a giant snow phallus. Yawning, she waved her hand back and forth and refreshed the page compulsively until, surprisingly, a new post popped up.
“Snow Day and Internet Hangouts at my Place?” the title read. It was by CvGamerGrl16, aka Christine, her math tutor from the high school down the road.
“I have to go to this,” Kat whispered, clicking on the link. Christine was head of the Indie Programming Club at Catonsville High, a total genius, and would probably get into an awesome school like Berkeley when she graduated.
“Hot Chocolate and an epic snowball fight!” was all the description said.
Kat tapped a finger on the air in front of her screen and brought up her instant messenger; sure enough, CvGamerGrl16 was online.
“Hey, mind if I come over today too?”
“O, hai Kat,” Christine’s avatar said, smiling and adjusting its hair. “Sure! As long as it’s OK with your mom. It’s off of Rolling Rd., 1940 Norris St.”
Kat jumped. The snow day was going to be awesome!
She sprinted to her closet and surveyed her clothes. High Schoolers were probably going to be there, so she would have to stay warm, but also look savvy. Tossing more clothes out of the closet than she would wear all week, she settled on something bright, muffled by additional layers of outerwear – thermal jogging pants, her coat, scarf, hat, and gloves. A smattering of blues, greens, and whites, at least the outfit sort of looked coherent. She wasn’t usually much for fashion, but she would be at high school in a year or two (especially if she got skipped ahead again) and it would be useful to have friends before she got there. As long as the girls at Christine’s didn’t compare bra sizes, she would probably be OK.
“More than I can say for the school I’m at now,” she grumbled, slinging her scarf around her neck and slipping her keys into her pocket. When it came to socializing, she had an easier time of it on websites and game servers than she did at the small Catholic School where her parents sent her. The place didn’t even have a gaming club, let alone the capability for 3D graphic design! Everyone just played soccer or basketball, or some other analog hobby.
Lady of the Holy Well. The school even had a terrible name. She groaned and tried not to think about it, slipping her mobile NetSet on under her cat-ear hat. It would keep her HUD (heads up display) up while she traveled and give her directions and, besides, she never went anywhere without her Set. It wasn’t much compared to what most kids carried around these days, but she had scrounged it up from a junk shop and was quite proud of it, green tinted lenses and all.
Outside her front door, the snow was falling so thickly that the sun was completely obscured by a woolen sky and the virtual garden gnomes she had placed on the lawn were shivering, huddled in an igloo by the door. They were only visible to her, of course, and other people who passed by with NetSets linked up the the virtual world. Most kids traveled everywhere with them, but adults tended to be more moderate, so it was entirely possible her parents hadn’t even noticed her handiwork.
She stomped down the steps and nearly slipped across a patch of ice and into the gnomes’ igloo. “Hey! Watch it!” one of them shouted, shaking a fist at her.
“Log off already,” she retorted, shaking her head as the creature stormed back inside, grumbling the whole way.
She tapped the ethereal map icon in the corner of her vision and brought up Christine’s house. It was a little less than four miles away, which didn’t sound too far. She brushed the snow from the rim of her glasses and started off down the sidewalk.
The first ten minutes wasn’t bad and she had a fun time of kicking snow everywhere and sending other people’s virtual creations scattering. It was surprising, actually, how ubiquitous the virtual facades had become. Some of the houses along the way were turned into hulking fortresses, others into gingerbread houses. Considering rule 34 of the internet, one couldn’t help but wonder what was going on behind closed doors.
It wasn’t until she knelt down to scratch a cartoon squirrel’s nose that things went amiss.
“Hey Woowoo!” a voice shouted from over her shoulder. She turned just in time to get slammed in the face with a snowball. It cracked her VGlasses and knocked her straight off her feet and into a snow mound. She groaned and got back up as snow trickled down the back of her jacket, then turned to see two boys from the down the road leering at her: Mark and Jyles, aka MonkeyMark and JKing797. They were decked out in black snow gear and dark, tinted VGlasses, but their appearances had been altered to make them appear as giant dark knights to anyone else wearing a Set.
“Whatsa matter, Kitty-Kat? Did you get out of the house and get lost?” Mark jeered, laughing through his black, baboon-shaped virtual helmet.
“Leave me alone, 8-bit,” she said, crushing snow between her fingers and growling.
“Or else what? You’ll perk your cat ears at us?” Mark went on. Jyles kept silent, but had his eyebrow raised at her in a disturbing way.
Kat’s heart was pounding and she wanted nothing more than to leap on the boys and smash snow into their faces, but it was hopeless; it was two against one and they were way taller. Mark hefted an armored arm at her, peeling his finger back and gesturing her over. “Just come over here for a second, then we’ll leave you alone.”
Kat’s head swam as icy breaths puffed out of her mouth. She narrowed her eyes, slung a fistful of snow at the boys and took off running down the icy sidewalk. What had seemed like pretty snow-strewn pavement moments before was now a treacherous obstacle course. Her legs began to ache as she pounded through the calf high drifts and turned a corner, heading towards Rolling Rd., a major intersection and probably somewhat safer. Along the sidewalk to either side of her virtual critters stared with wide eyes and pointed.
A quick glance over her shoulder showed that the boys were still in pursuit. She ducked as another snowball just missed her head, then sprinted off again into the swirling snowstorm. This turned out to be her second mistake. The first one was not taking off her NetSet when they it cracked.
The combination of virtual critters and snowflakes dancing before her eyes obscured her vision and she crashed right into an old telephone poll, slamming her head and falling over backward.
“Owww,” she cried, getting to her knees and reaching a hand up to her head. Her glasses, at least, were still intact.
“Oh no, did the lil cat hurt itself?” Mark’s voice called out from behind her. She looked up from the snow, where blood was dripping in bright red drops, to see Mark’s face directly in front of hers. “Here,” he said, grinning and smashing more snow in her face, “this should help with the scrape.”
“Aghh!” she screamed and thrashed at him, but Jyles pushed her up against the telephone poll with a hand against her throat.
“We told you not to run,” he said. His oblong black-knight’s helmet shaking side to side at her. Behind the translucent image, she could see his long, ugly face. “What do we do with her now, Marky?”
Mark cracked his knuckles and grinned, but then a miracle happened. With a squeal of tires, a mail truck plowed into the snow on the side of the street and came to a screeching halt.
“What in Feynman’s name is going on over here, boys?” Mustafa, the tall, black mailman for their area climbed out of his truck.
“Shouldn’t you like… be off today?” Jyles said, releasing Kat’s throat.
“Neither snow nor rain, nor heat or dark of power outage,” Mustafa said, hefting a package in his hand and quoting the creed. He gave the boys a glare, raised his eyebrows and, without another word, sent them running down the street.
“You OK, Kat?” he said, helping her to her feet.
“Yeah,” she said, stretching and feeling her forehead. “Just a few bumps and scrapes.”
“You gotta watch out for guys like that,” he said, shaking his head. “Times come and go, but troublemakers never change.”
“I would have been OK if I wasn’t so clumsy. I ran right into that pole.”
“You know,” Mustafa said, wiping her forehead with a handkerchief and readjusting her Set her for, “maybe you should give this thing a rest.”
“Maybe,” she said with a sigh, “but it helps with directions.”
“And wait a minute, girl. What are you doing out in this weather? I bet your momma doesn’t know about this little adventure of yours.”
Kat blushed, readjusted her NetSet, and shrugged without saying anything.
“You get along home now and I won’t say anything next time I see her, alright?”
She nodded and took off around the corner, turning just in time to shout out to him. “Thanks!”
Kat, of course, had no intention of going home. She was already halfway to her destination and a little snow down her back and a scrape on her head weren’t going to stop her from rubbing elbows with the President of the Game Programming Club. As soon as Mustafa had his back turned, she cut a corner and made her way back to Rolling Rd., aiming straight for the nearby 7-11. Her hands felt half frozen and if she was going to make it, she’d half to stop for something warm.
A few blocks away, the store’s digital cartoon 7 greeted her with a wave and a hello from atop the store. She ducked inside and the warmth was an instant blessing. She hasn’t realized how cold her nose and ears were until they started to thaw. Grabbing a hot chocolate, she scrounged up all the change she could from her pockets, paid, and huddled beneath a heating vent in the back of the store.
It had been an hour since she left home, she noted, looking at the store clock. She must be halfway there by now. A tap on her virtual map showed that she only had 1.4 miles left. Noting it, she gulped down the last of her hot chocolate, readjusted her cat ears, and prepared to dive back into the storm. That was when she heard laughter; Mark and Jyles were walking around the store.
Her stomach lurched. She could see the horned top of Jyles black knight helmet bobbing above the products in a nearby aisle.
“She’s got to be here somewhere,” Mark’s voice said.
Gulping, she dropped her empty hot chocolate and looked for an escape route. If she ran for the front door, they were sure to see her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a door marked ‘Staff Only.’ Surely there were cameras nearby, but the clerks had their backs turned and the boys were growing closer…
With a grunt, she pushed open the heavy metal door and spun into a world of chilled drinks and stacked potato chip bags. Fumbling about in the dark, she noticed warning lights popping up in her Set’s display; her system was alerting her that she had been detected. Panicking, she ran toward the back of the room and looked for an exit.
Someone behind her a door opened. “Is someone in here?” a clerk called.
Kat pushed further into the darkness. Getting caught in there could mean trouble, maybe even expulsion from school. Her life would be ruined. She gulped, then felt her hands press against a door handle. An emergency exit! Without hesitating, she jammed it open and darted into the snow.
Running at first, she continued up Catonsville’s main thoroughfare and tried to make sure the boys weren’t following her. Gaudy neon signs and digital cartoon mascots greeted her by all the stores, and as she jogged by she couldn’t help noticing that a lot of them were dark inside. The snow was really starting to pile up and the plows were having trouble keeping it off the streets. With luck, she’d be off school for the rest of the week.
Already, her lungs were beginning to burn with the cold air, so she slowed down and tapped her virtual HUD to look up the weather, but it just fuzzed and flickered. The crack in her NetSet was apparently a result of more than just superficial damage.
She shivered and wondered what the temperature was. Kat still had her directions up, but if her display shut off altogether and she got lost… it was pretty cold out there. Rubbing her nose with a mittened hand, she trudged on further, kicking at the smiling digital animals by the sidewalk. Elves, gremlins, neon rabbits – the creatures all seemed to be laughing at her or mocking her with wide eyes and smiles, so she grunted and tried to shut them out.
Her feet grew cold, the wind swirled and stung her ears, and snow flakes battered her face. She had come so far, but still couldn’t help but think of turning back.
“No, I have to finish this,” she mumbled into the wind, her breath a dense mist. That was the moment her Set chose to give out. Without warning, the display shut off, her HUD disappeared, and she was surrounded by nothing but a green-tinted winter landscape. The cartoon squirrels that had been scampering around her moments before, the cawing ravens and glowing digital Christmas trees – all of them disappeared. Some of them, she realized, she hadn’t even thought of as fake until they vanished.
“Frak,” she cursed, tapping the glasses and sliding them off. “I hope I remember the directions correctly.” She sighed and slipped them into her jacket pocket. It would probably cost her at least $50 for another second-hand pair.
Grumbling and kicking the snow into giant white clouds, she walked onward, her heart sinking. Now she wouldn’t be able to see the games Christine had set up around her house or play along if they went inside. And what would the rest of the coders think of a girl who didn’t even have a Set with her? Life just sucked sometimes.
She shivered and cursed again. “Frak!” She kicked a pile of snow as she turned onto a side street, then watched the detritus falling around her. It was sort of peaceful, actually, without the buzz of digital monsters surrounding her.
The streets were mostly empty, almost pristine with the fallen snow, and the way it fell on the spires of the old Victorian houses made them look like castles even without their digital decors. “Zounds,” she said, breathing slowly and spinning in the street. There was a whole analog world of Catonsville that she had been oblivious to for ages.
She stopped to watch some kids build a snowman and then it hit her. Had she even turned on the right street? Where was she? Kat spun and tried to blink away the swirling snowflakes. Where was the street sign? Did streets even have signs anymore? That was when another snowball struck her in the face.
“Got you again, Woo!” Mark shouted from down the street.
“Augh!” She sprinted down the street and the two boys followed, coming after her as she rounded a corner and slipped on a patch of ice. Kat groaned as she slid straight into pile of snow beside the curb. She was going to have to do something about her clumsiness streak.
“Go away,” she growled as the two boys strode up. “How did you even find me?”
“You’re going to Christine’s thing aren’t you? Why else would you be out here?”
“Yeah, stupid. It’s like, 25 degrees out here,” Jyles added.
Kat picked herself up and thought about what Mustafa had said. Without their digital mockups, the two boys just looked like skinny, spoiled children. And she was actually taller than they were. “You ARE going to leave me alone!”
“Or else what?” Mark added, tossing snow on her head and crossing his arms. Kat fumed. Without his virtual black knight’s outfit, he was just a punk in an expensive pair of glasses.
Jyles doubled over laughing like and picked up more snow to pour on her. Suddenly, Kat lost it.
“You’re going to leave me alone!” she shouted, marching up to Mark and jabbing a finger straight into his chest.
“Whoa!” he said, shoving her arm away and throwing his hands up as if he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Why so hostile, kitten?”
“Or ELSE!” she added, jabbing him in the chest again,” I’m going to hack into your Set and you’ll be watching nothing but kids’ shows until you’re 21.”
Jyles was doubled over, still laughing hysterically.
“And you need to shut up!” she shouted, kicking him in the balls and knocking him over. Suddenly, the laughter stopped and Mark froze, staring in disbelief.
“You bitch,” he whispered furiously, cocking his fist back. Before he could let loose, Kat smashed a snowball into his glasses, cracking them right down the center.
“Fuck!” he said, stumbling blindly and trying to tear them off.
Mark finally ripped them off and growled at her, but she was already holding another snowball in waiting and launched it at his face. Before it hit, he ducked and took off down the street, leaving his friend groaning in the snow.
“And you’re GOING to give me fifty dollars for a new pair of glasses the next time I see you!” she shouted after him.
“Get real,” he called back, ducking around a corner and flipping her the finger.
Well, it had been worth a try.
She left Jyles lying in the snow and started off again, looking for her destination. She felt exhilarated, breathing in the cold air and marching down the abandoned streets as if she were server admin for all of Catonsville.
It took a few misturns, but after a while she finally came to Norris Street. At the door to Christine’s, she raised a pink hand to knock on the door, but hesitated. Her reflection in the glass showed a bloody streak on her forehead, tousled hair, and chapped lips. Panic shot through her; she was a complete mess.
Glancing over her shoulder, she thought about turning back, but then the door unexpectedly opened.
“Hey Kat!” Christine called from inside. “I was heading upstairs and saw you standing out here and… are you OK?”
“I … ran into some trouble,” she said, shrugging and trying to readjust her hair as nonchalantly as she could.
“Trouble? Oh my God! Are you serious?” she squealed, ushering Kat inside.
“I guess everyone else is here already?”
“Everyone else just wussed out because it’s so cold outside. We’ve been playing Dwarfcraft on LAN instead. Totally lame. Even if they came over they probably would have just brought their Sets to jack in and play games or something.”
“Yeah, hahah,” Kat forced a laugh, feeling her broken glasses pressing against her side from inside her pocket.
“Oh man, did you scrape your forehead?” Christine maneuvered her head and tried to get a good look at Kat.
“I sort of got into a fight,” Kat said, “but it’s not big deal.”
“Whoa, poor girl. I didn’t take you for the sort. Does your mom make you do Tae-Kwon-Do or something?”
Kat shook her head. “Just Math lessons and programming.”
“Tell me about it,” Christine said throwing her hands in the air. “You probably need some major r&r. Over here!” She waved and led Kat into the living room. “Sit!” she commanded, “I’m gonna go make some beverages. You up for cocoa? I won’t bombard you with equations today, I promise.”
“That sounds awesome,” Kat replied and plopped down on the couch as Christine skipped into the kitchen.
“You know,” Kat added, fishing some tissues out of her pocket to dab the bump on her forehead, “I had imagined today would be like, a giant digital snowball fight. You guys at the programming club always seem so immersed in games.”
“You’d be surprised,” Christine said, peeking her head around the corner. “Marshmallows?”
“In your cocoa.”
“It’s like, sometimes I feel like I just need to unplug, you know? Let go of the games and programming for a bit so I can sleep without dreaming in binary and come back down to Earth for a while. A snow day’s the perfect excuse.”
“I think I know exactly what you mean,” Kat said, smiling lopsidedly.
Christine came in with two giant mugs and handed one to Kat. “So, what shall we do now?”
“I don’t know,” Kat said, relaxing and sipping from the mug. The cocoa was thick and frosted with a sugary layer of marshmallow. After being outside so long, it felt like the beverage was thawing her throat. “But at the moment, unplugging sounds really good.”
© Ryan Walraven 2015