Game Over

Paranoia

 

"Hey, Shane, can I copy your math?"

I chewed thoughtfully on my sandwich, only about half there. "Hm?"

The lanky brown-haired boy sitting on the ground outside the art room beside me gave my arm a hard nudge. "What's with you today, McMurray? I could bounce rocks off your skull and you'd just keep eating. What gives?"

"Huh? Sorry." How was I supposed to explain that I'd joined a Game, been molested by a classmate who - in my mind - personified sex, and was currently worrying about whether or not the school playboy was going to spend the last period tormenting me? "I was up late last night."

Behind his glasses, Mike's eyes brightened. "Gaming?"

You have no idea… "No. Homework."

"Oh. Well, whatever." I got the feeling he asked more out of habit than anything else. It wasn't often that I said yes. "Speaking of homework, hand over your math."

I was already distractedly reaching into my bag before I thought to stop and ask, "Why?"

"Because I forgot to do mine." He grinned, unrepentant. "Gaming."

It was a good thing I'd decided not to do the same. "That's a shock," I said dryly, and handed over what I'd done. "I can't say if any of it's right. I suck at math."

Mike shrugged. "So do I. Doesn't matter," he said, unconcerned, and balanced my binder on his legs - which were stretched out in front of him - while digging into his bag for his own book and a pencil.

I took another bite of my sandwich. Ham and cheese.

Exciting.

It was Tristan and Devon who had me worried. Sasenti was the sort of person who minded her own business. Tristan… well, no one knew what he would do. And I knew enough about Devon to know he did what he wanted whether people around him liked it or not - which was kind of daunting when I thought he'd just accidentally molested me and then liked it.

Thinking about it was still giving me shivers. I couldn't help it. Part of me really, really liked the idea of being inappropriately groped by Devon Cross. That was the part of me that had obsessed over him for almost two years, never minding the fact that it made the sensible part of my brain miserable as hell. It was also the part that kept replaying the scene from that morning in my head, over and over until I wanted to either scream, hit something, or find him and make him finish the job.

And that freaked me out. Because the idea of being with Devon in any way - even if it was just platonic - was really fucking scary.

I really didn't want to think about it, but my brain obviously had other ideas.

Stupid, mutinous hormones.

"Geez, you'd think someone ran over your dog." There was suddenly an undersized but familiar person hovering less than a foot from my face. "Do you have a dog?"

"GAH!" I would've fallen over backwards if my back wasn't to the wall. As it was, I kind of keeled over sideways and gagged over the bite of sandwich I'd just swallowed.

Mike jerked, fumbled with the binders he had balanced over his legs, and gave me a startled glance. "What was that for?"

"Ah… gotta go! To… the bathroom." I pushed myself up to my feet, purposefully looking back at Mike instead of elsewhere. "Back in a few!"

"Uh… okay…"

Great. I was now officially weirder than my weird best friend.

We were camped out by the door to the art room - it was where we always ate lunch, since it was more or less out of the way of other kids and we didn't have to worry about being bothered. In grade nine, it was a bully buffer - that was how I'd met Mike in the first place - but now, it was mostly just habit.

I made my way through the art room and back into the hallway. The bathroom was just past the first row of lockers, so it didn't take long to get there. Which didn't matter, because I didn't have to actually go to the bathroom - but I had to make it look like I did, or someone would notice me lingering around in the hallway glaring at the empty air.

At least I wouldn't be talking out loud…

~What the hell do you think you're doing, showing up here?~

"You said you wanted to talk," Zinc protested, defensively. He was hovering just out of my reach - although I wasn't about to resort to physical violence, even though the urge to throttle him was overwhelming. "So I came to talk." He hesitated for just a second, then added, tentatively, "It took a long time to find you. There's a lot of energy around here, you know."

~Fantastic.~ I shoved the bathroom door open. Luckily for me, no one was in there, but I hid myself in a stall just the same. ~Next time, don't bother me at school - unless I ask you to. Got it?~

"Uh, heh… Sorry." He scratched his head sheepishly and did his best to give me a contrite look. "I just thought… you were mad, so maybe it was better to apologize now instead of waiting for you to steam over it all day."

Unbelievable. I just had to get the Guide with the horrible judgement, didn't I? ~Are you mentally impaired or just stupid?~

Zinc really looked injured at that one. "That was harsh, Shane."

~You deserve it.~ I was having a really hard time feeling any sympathy for him at all. ~You were just going to let me hold onto that Item until I was in the second Level and wondering why I hadn't been given a chance to get out of the Game, weren't you?~

"I - I thought about it. Sort of." He squirmed, still gazing at me with huge, remorseful eyes. "Just... this has been the first time in almost half a century that they've sent me out to be someone's Guide. And if you stop playing after just one Level, that's all I'll get for another half a century. There's a lot of other Guides who need a turn, you know."

That wasn't something I'd thought about - for some reason, I'd gotten the impression that Guides just sort of… became conscious when helping someone, and went back into oblivion when they were done. I felt a little bit guilty then - just a little, though. "What - " I started to say out loud, then stopped, remembering where we were. ~What do Guides do when they're not with a Player?~

That was the closest he was going to get to an 'I forgive you'. I had my limits.

"Well, we have our own world… you know." Zinc was clearly relieved that I was willing to let him off so easily. "We just hang out. So, are you going to keep the Item?"

He really knew how to push his limits, didn't he? ~No, I am not keeping it!~ I felt a bit of a twinge at that, and added quickly, ~Well, not until the end of the Level.~ It could still come in handy, helping me survive until I finished the Level. ~I'll… give it to Devon or something. He seemed to want it.~

A brief flash of that choice chunk of my memory made my skin tingle, and I had to fight the urge to blush. Goddamn hormones…

Zinc gave me a sidelong long that was probably supposed to look sly. "Who's this Devon, hm?"

Belatedly, I remembered what Zinc had said about 'projecting', and resisted the urge to groan. ~One of the other Players,~ I answered instead, trying to seem casual about it.

Unfortunately, even Zinc wasn't that oblivious. "Uh huh. And would he have something to do with the emotions I got from you while you were supposed to be finding the Link?"

Trying not to blush was a lost cause by that point. "Shut up," I snapped out loud, forgetting to say it in my head instead. Eager to end the conversation before it got more embarrassing than it needed to, I unlocked the stall door and pushed it open. "I just - "

The bathroom door swung inward. I shut up. And the object of our discussion stepped inside.

I winced and shut my eyes. This really isn't my day, is it?

"Shane, right?" When I opened them again, Devon was watching me curiously - without the smirk. Somehow, that didn't help; the nervous twists my stomach was working itself into seemed to think that his presence provided enough fuel. Those purple-seeming eyes flickered to Zinc briefly. "Who's this?"

"Um… Zinc." At least I wasn't in a situation where I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. I was having a lot of trouble meeting his eyes, though… "He's, uh, my Guide."

My soon-to-be-dead Guide, by his wicked expression. "Let me guess - Devon?"

The dark-haired Player actually blinked. "Yeah," he confirmed, looking from me to my Guide and back again, quizzically.

So much for not wanting to die. "Uh, well, see you," I blurted out, hoping he'd take the hint. He was standing directly in my path; to get out, I'd have to brush by him.

I really, really didn't want to have to do that.

For a minute, I thought he wouldn't move. The corners of his mouth tugged up a bit, and he gave me a look-over, dragging his eyes up from my feet to finally rest on my face again. There was nothing at all platonic in that gaze. "Yeah," he agreed, and shifted so that I could get by, still watching me with that odd little smile. "See you."

Somehow, it took on a whole new meaning when he said it like that…

I hurried past him as fast as I could manage. My face felt like it was going to spontaneously combust. God, that had been embarrassing! And… and… something else. I wasn't in any condition to figure out what just then.

"You could do a lot worse!" Zinc declared cheerfully, as I sagged against the lockers and tried not to have a complete mental breakdown. "He's not very talkative, but hey, the sex would probably be really - "

"Could you… not talk about this?" I croaked out - then belatedly remembered that I shouldn't speak out loud. ~Ever.~ Yeah. The sex would probably be really.

No need to finish that sentence.

"Hey! That explains why you're so anti-social!" He snapped his fingers, as if struck by a brilliant idea. "You're insecure about the whole gay thing!"

Thank you, Freud. ~What are you, a psychiatrist?~ I pushed away from the lockers and headed deliberately for the art room again, not bothering to check and see if he was following. ~The fact that I think most of my classmates belong in the sewers doesn't have anything to do with my sexuality.~ Although it was a point against them that the majority would revert to making my life hell if word got out.

Still… moot point. I already hated them. One more reason didn't make a lot of difference.

"Well, Devon doesn't seem to mind, anyway." At least Zinc didn't have a problem being Guide to a gay Player. Although that could just make things worse… At least if he had a problem with it, he wouldn't be talking about it. "Maybe you guys could get together and swap stories. Or… whatever else." And he had the nerve to grin at me.

Obviously, Guides were an even bigger curse than hormones.

~Do me a favor,~ I told him, shoving my way into the art room and completely ignoring his very obvious innuendo. ~Go away.~

"But - "

~And shut off this mind link while you're at it,~ I interrupted him, pausing just before I got to the door to glare at him. ~If I'm projecting or whatever, I don't need you catching it.~

He opened his mouth to protest, looked at me for a bit, and then shut it. And then opened it again. "You could do it yourself, you know…"

~Yeah, well, I don't know how.~ I leaned towards the door. ~Now go.~

"Going." And he disappeared.

If only I could do that with all of my problems.

~~~~~~

There was an unfortunate arrangement in the classroom we used for Comparative Civilizations. Instead of having the desks completely separated, in rows one desk wide, they had them set up so that there were two desks - pushed together - making up the width of each row.

And it was unfortunate, because when I sat down at my usual spot, the desk beside me immediately gained a grinning blond.

"Hey," Tristan said, as casually as if he sat beside me in every class. He pulled out his binder, textbook, and pencils, obviously not just intending to sit there for the few minutes before class started.

I stared at him.

"Tristan." The girl who'd walked in with him stood beside the set of desks, looking from me to him with an incredulous expression. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to sit here today," he explained, apparently with not much respect for her intelligence if he thought she hadn't figured that out for herself already. "No big deal, right? I'll see you after school." Cue the disarming smile.

"Well… okay." She seemed mollified. "But don't forget."

"No way." Tristan watched with an appreciative grin as she flounced off and found a seat with another girl, then turned back to me. "That takes care of that - What?" By that point, he must have noticed me gaping at him. "Something wrong?"

Aside from the fact that he was sitting beside me, acting like we were the best of friends? I shut my mouth and forced my voice box to work for me. "Why are you sitting here?"

"Why not? You weren't saving this seat, were you?" He took it for granted that I wasn't, giving me no time to answer. "I thought it'd be cool if we sat together. You mind?"

Yes! I could feel people's eyes on me - no doubt wondering who the little nobody Tristan Dufraine was sitting with was. I hated being the center of attention. And sitting with him today probably meant sitting with him tomorrow, too. I was going to get dragged into the limelight and there was nothing I'd be able to do to stop it. This was going to wreck all the invisibility I'd been carefully constructing around myself in the hopes of getting through high school without visible scarring.

But it'd be a hundred times worse if I told him I minded. The repercussions… Someone as popular as Tristan, disliking me? I mentally shuddered. "Go ahead." Guys like him could do whatever they wanted anyway; it wasn't like I could stop him.

Maybe I could just act really, really boring and he'd go away.

"Great." He smiled at me in a completely likable way. "Hey, if you don't mind, we could help each other with the Game. It's probably good to have allies, right?"

Why was he so difficult to dislike? "Don't you want to win?"

Tristan shook his head, looking amused again. "Only to bug Devon."

"Oh." That… sounded like something he'd do. And it would probably work, too. "Why are you playing, if you don't want to win?"

"Because I - "

"Good afternoon!" our teacher announced in an impressive voice, shutting the door firmly behind him. The room quieted immediately - Mr. Elissan was short-tempered and didn't tolerate chatter while he was talking.

Tristan's answer was going to have to wait.

~~~~~~

"So, we're going looking for Links tonight, right?"

I let my bag fall off my shoulders and kicked the door shut so I could give my Guide a flat stare without my sister or parents wandering in. "Yeah, school was shitty, thanks for asking." There wasn't much point in waiting for a response to that; letting out a long breath, I flopped forward onto the bed. "I just had a very annoying day - forgive me if I don't feel like playing a dangerous Game right now. Anyway, didn't we play last night?"

Zinc almost looked like he was hopping from one foot to the other in midair, impatiently. "Yeah, but we have to keep it up!"

"Why?" After working with Tristan, receiving an ominous-sounding 'see you tomorrow', and then having to make up something to tell Mike when he saw the other Player waving at me in the hallway, I really didn't feel like leaving my bedroom. Preferably for the next ten or fifteen years. "I've been playing since I got forced into this. I deserve a break."

To enforce that, I rolled over and faced the wall.

"But you can't take a break!" He actually sounded incredulous at the idea. "Think of how far behind you are! At this rate, you'll never catch up to the others!"

"So?" I did my best to ignore him. "I'm going to be done after I finish up this Level anyway, so it doesn't matter how far ahead they are." A thought occurred to me, and I frowned. "Shouldn't you be happy? It'll take me longer this way, right?"

A moment of suspicious silence. Then Zinc laughed nervously. "Uh… well… I guess."

I rolled back over and aimed the frown at him. "Is there something else you're not telling me?"

"Not really." He rubbed the back of his neck, looking slightly guilty. "I said I wouldn't trick you into being in the Game longer than you have to be, didn't I? I'll keep my word."

That was a bit evasive, but there wasn't much I could do about it. "Yeah." I made a mental note to ask Tristan about this. Might as well get something out of the fact that he was destroying what I chose to call my life.

Zinc bit his bottom lip and stared at me, as if trying to figure out the best solution to the problem of getting his way. "I really want to play tonight," he said miserably, after a moment.

I sighed. Stupid pathetic-seeming Guides… "Do Players really do this every night?"

"Not mostly." His eyes flickered around the room - another evasive gesture.

I was starting to get good at steering him in the direction of useful information. "Why not?"

Zinc looked a bit sulky, but dutifully mumbled out, "It's… not really a good idea. Most of the time."

Well, we appeared to be getting somewhere… "What makes it 'not really a good idea'?"

"You're no fun at all, you know that?" he complained, then made a face. "All right, fine. It's not a good idea because the gates move around in your world all the time, and there's no way to know if there's one near here. If there isn't one, you'll still get the pulling feeling from the nearest one - which could be miles away - and it won't stop until you get to it. Happy?"

"Thrilled." I returned his dark look with a glare. "And it was fine with you if that happened to me?"

"Well, no, but still…" Zinc stared at me in frustration. "Don't you get it? You're new to the Game! You've got to take some risks or you'll always be the weak Player."

"Not always," I reminded him, dryly. "Only until the end of this Level. Then I won't be a Player at all."

He stared back at me with such unhappiness that I almost felt guilty.

Almost.

"If I have to play this Game," I went on, as decisively as I could, "then I'm going to be as safe as I can about it. Which means no taking chances on Links that could be miles away or Items that might have a demon hovering around them. Got that?"

Zinc sighed.

"Got that?" I repeated, more emphatically.

He turned a despondent gaze on the floor. "Got it." His voice was nearly inaudible.

"Good." I had to fight the urge to feel ashamed of myself - again. The little sneak could really manage to get pity from people when he wanted to. I sat up and reached for the bag I'd left at the foot of my bed. "I'm going to do my homework."

Zinc didn't answer - when I got my books out and moved to work at my desk, he was sitting on my windowsill cross-legged, staring down at his hands.

No sympathy. I sat down firmly, and looked deliberately down at my books.

At least there was one person I hadn't given in to that day.

~~~~~~

Unfortunately, fate apparently liked Zinc a lot more than it liked me.

I didn't notice right away. Actually, I didn't notice at all. I was kind of surprised when my Guide floated over and sat down on the top of my computer, legs dangling over the front so that his feet were in front of the forum I was typing a reply on. "Whatcha doing?"

I gave him a suspicious look - which was totally justified. He looked way too pleased with himself. "Why?"

"Because time just stopped."

"What?" I stared at him for a moment, suddenly more surprised than suspicious. "How would you know?"

"I'm a Guide." He shrugged. "I wasn't sure at first, but it's been like that for a while, so... yeah. Now that your friend's using Time, it's safe to play, right?"

I glanced at the clock on my computer. The last time I'd checked - at least half an hour ago - it had said '7:00 PM'. At that point, it said '7:12 PM'. Damn. I sighed and leaned back in my chair. "What makes you think that?"

"Simple!" Zinc's eyes were bright as he drifted up from his previous position to sit on empty air. "If she's using Time, it means she's sensed a gate near her house. And if it's near her house, it's somewhere in this city. And if it's in this city…" He gave me a wry grin. "Then even if it's the closest gate to you, it's not so far away from here that you're going to have to worry."

I had to admit, that was true. "I guess."

"So…" He leaned forward, anxiously. "We have the time, and we know it's safe…"

"Ugh." I tipped my head over the back of the seat, covering my eyes with one hand. I had been looking forward to an evening of peace, damnit. "Fine. We'll play the damn Game."

Zinc beamed at me. "All right! Let's get going!"

It was extremely weird to walk downstairs and meet absolutely silence at that time of night. It was even weirder to see my parents and sister frozen in positions of action - if watching TV could be considered 'action'. The combined stillness and silence made the atmosphere very eerie.

I was suddenly very interested in leaving the house.

"Be careful about messing stuff up," Zinc warned me, as I fumbled with my jacket.

"Why?" I shoved my feet into my shoes. "Time's stopped, right? No one's going to notice what I do."

"Maybe not now." He followed me out the door, quickly in case I accidentally shut it too soon. "But think about how they'd take it if something was in one place one second and then somewhere else the next. That's what it'd look like to them, right?"

I hadn't thought of that. "Oh."

"Enough of this boring small talk." Zinc circled around ahead of me, grinning like a fiend. "There are Links to track down."

"Right." Was it my fault that came out sarcastic? I let out a long breath, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then shut my eyes to sense out the nearest Link.

It didn't take long.

"About six blocks from here," I breathed out, opening my eyes slowly as the feeling of the gate faded out a bit. There was a sensation like a million eyes on me - and all of their intentions hostile or vicious. "I think it's probably… Paranoia?"

Zinc grinned at me again. "See how easy it is?"

I chose not to answer that.

As it turned out, the gate was in the middle of the street - which meant it was a good thing time was stopped, or I might have to dodge traffic while I went through. Getting to and through it went without incident.

On the other side of the gate was water.

It wasn't water as in a lake or a river - it was just water. As in, I was underwater.

After a brief moment of complete and utter panic, I realized that I could breathe.

~What is this?~ I asked Zinc, not sure whether I should risk speaking out loud. All around me was a steady blue haze - I could see about a foot or two ahead, but beyond that, nothing. And what I was able to see was just the ground and more water. ~How come I can breathe underwater?~

He floated down to about level with my shoulder. ~You adjust for the atmosphere whenever you go into these worlds.~

Another thing he'd neglected to tell me about before. ~I could walk into somewhere that had an atmosphere of sulfuric acid, and I'd still be fine?~

~It wouldn't be very fair otherwise, would it?~

I wasn't sure I followed that, but as long as I could breathe, I probably shouldn't argue with it. ~Okay. Let's go find this Link and get out of here.~

~I was just about to say that!~ He floated a few feet ahead. ~Come on!~

I managed to keep myself from sighing.

We didn't have to go very far. The dark blue haze hanging around seemed to be strong enough to keep light from piercing through it - except at very short distances - but the gates were there to be close to Links, after all. So it wasn't a long time before we started to see something glowing green through the fog.

~Is that it?~ I stopped for a second, staring at it. There seemed to be an almost triangular shaped object at the center of the glow - but I couldn't see very well, so I wasn't ready to swear to that.

~That's it.~ Strangely, Zinc's voice was subdued. There was a strong sensation sort of emanating from the Link along with the green light; I had a feeling that was what made him so unusually quiet. ~You have to go towards it.~

And then the illusion would happen. I didn't need to ask about that. ~All right.~ I still hesitated for a bit, though. ~What happens if I don't get through the illusion?~

~It depends.~ That was a little more like Zinc; evasive. He gave in when I turned to glare at him. ~Well… worse case scenario, you end up completely insane.~ He moved on from that quickly. ~Or you don't get the Link and it moves to somewhere else.~

That wasn't too bad… The second option, at least. And it wasn't like I had much choice anyway, if I wanted to finish the Level. ~Okay.~

Leaving my Guide behind, I moved forward purposefully into the increasingly bright green ahead of me.

Strange how it seemed to take up all of my vision…

~~~~~~

I woke up to the sound of my alarm buzzing loudly from its position on my desk.

Alarm…? I blinked a few times, trying to get the sleep out of my eyes. 'Alarm' did not seem quite right at the moment. In fact, 'sleep' didn't seem right, either.

For a moment, my head spun - as if adjusting to something that wasn't anywhere near as normal as waking up in the morning. I pushed myself up weakly on my elbows, trying to get grounded again. The fact that I was lying in my bed, in my pajamas, blinking at the clock on my desk, seemed inherently wrong right then. The time on the clock was 7:34 AM. But wasn't I just…?

The last thing I remembered was water and something glowing green.

A dream?

It hadn't really seemed like one… but then again…

I sat up. The details of the dream were kind of hazy, but it had to be just a dream. Had to be. After all, there I was in bed, just having woken up… I shook my head a bit, trying to get rid of the leftover shivers from - whatever it was - then yawned. My head was rapidly clearing - things seemed a lot easier to put in perspective again. Good thing, too - it was probably time to get up and get ready for school.

What a messed up dream. I slid out of bed, covering up another yawn.

It didn't take long to gather up the clothes I'd be wearing that day. A quick glance showed me the Key was still sitting on my desk where I'd left it, and then I was off to the shower.

"Good morning," Mom greeted me when I made it downstairs, from where she sat at the table. She was rubbing her bulging stomach absently - some kind of compulsive pregnant-woman habit or something. For a moment, I felt kind of disoriented, like something was wrong. I shook my head and it cleared up.

That's kind of weird…

"Morning." There was toast and cereal on the table already, so I sat down to help myself.

"I have to leave early today," Dad announced, pushing his chair away from the table. He smiled across at Mom. "You'll be okay on your own?"

"I haven't reverted to infancy just because I'm due soon, Patrick." The upward quirking at the edges of her mouth proved the annoyance in her voice false. "You have your pager, don't you?"

"Of course." He walked across the table to kiss her on the cheek. "Be sure to let me know if you need anything."

"I will."

"Did you pick out any names yet, Mom?" I asked as Dad struggled with his shoes, and took another bite of my toast while waiting for her answer. "Or are you guys still waiting until after you find out if it's a girl or a boy?" My parents liked to be surprised about that sort of thing.

She smiled at me, looking way too serene for someone who probably had trouble making her way from the table to the kitchen. "I was thinking of maybe Daniel for a boy, and Susan or Crystal for a girl."

"Nicole?" Why had I said that? I frowned, and blinked at the toast in my hand for a moment. For some reason… it felt like that was what it should be. "Sorry - I just thought - "

"No, that's a good name." Mom looked a bit surprised. "I didn't think you'd have a suggestion, Shane."

"Neither did I," I admitted, and felt a bit weird.

Something about this was really making me edgy.

But, without knowing what it was, the only thing I could do was try to brush it off and hope that it went away. So, after breakfast, I packed up my bag and stuffed the Key into my pocket, and was on my way out the door and off to school. I definitely wasn't looking forward to heading back to that place - wouldn't be even without the prickling feeling that had built up at the back of my neck, actually.

Eighth grade was just enough to kill a guy if he didn't watch out.

~~~~~~

Somehow, it felt like people were watching me.

I was sort of used to that feeling - high school was deadly, even if it was just junior high. People were always watching you, even if you weren't important. It was like the circle of life - kids stepped on other kids and pushed them down so it seemed like they were higher up. The lower you could make someone else sink, the greater the distance between you and them - and the better you looked by comparison.

It was my bad luck to be a likely target for pushing. I was shorter than most kids my age - and for a guy, that was one of the worst things. If I knew about putting people down to make myself better, I could've done that and got past it, but I didn't.

I would've, though. If I'd known, I would've. I was selfish, too.

Being a victim myself kind of changed that tendency. Knowing what it was like to be squashed didn't exactly make me want to shove anyone else down.

Not that I had much chance for that now.

It always seemed like people were watching me. My spine prickled as I walked up the path to the school and started on the steps in front of the door, and I hunched my shoulders without really thinking about it. Maybe because that theory was proved right so often. Opening the door, I moved past a group of kids - older kids, probably ninth or tenth graders - right on the inside, who went quiet for a moment while I passed. Whenever I decided I was wrong and needed to ignore it…

There were some muffled giggles from the girls in that group. I walked faster.

It's probably not you. You don't even know them. It's probably not you. They wouldn't notice younger kids. It's probably not you. Just walk. Just ignore them.

It felt like there were eyes boring into me from all sides.

Just your imagination. It was tense, all the same - made me want to hunch up even more until I was taking up as little space as I could. I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around the Key, which made me feel slightly better.

At least I've got this… That's something, right?

I didn't really need to go to my locker, I decided. I could head right to class, and maybe get a seat early on, when there weren't so many people to notice me. That was a good idea, right? Perfect. Because walking around in the hallway right then was making me feel like I was the main attraction at some kind of freak show.

God, Shane, pull it together. I ran a quick hand through my hair and let out a breath, frustrated. What the hell was wrong with me, anway? There was nothing different from any other day, was there?

So why did I get the feeling there was?

I reached my classroom door quickly and ducked inside, shutting my eyes and letting out a sigh. No one should be in there yet; it was too early. And anyway, everything was quiet…

"Nice of you to join us, Mr. McMurray."

I opened my eyes.

And just about pissed myself.

The teacher was standing at the front of the room, giving me a dour stare. And every single one of my classmates were sitting in their regular places, some with notebooks out and some just pretending to listen.

But at the moment, they were all staring. Right at me.

Oh god… Definitely a nightmare - I had to take a quick glance to make sure I was still fully dressed. The fact that I was didn't help the panic go away.

Shit… shit shit shit… fucking what the hell…? Oh yeah. I was coherent. Really. That was why I was taking slow, careful breaths in an attempt to not hyperventilate.

"Go and take your seat," my teacher said sharply. "And try not to interrupt any more."

A couple of kids snickered.

I sat down.

But this can't be right… I fumbled around getting my book and pens out, feeling more than a few stares. I definitely wasn't just imagining them this time - the only seat left had been at the front of the classroom, so I knew people were looking at me from behind. It's only -

That thought derailed when I glanced up at the clock. Ten to eight. I was five minutes late.

That couldn't be, though! I was early! There were still kids out in the hallways! The last time I'd checked, it had been eight-thirty!

"Mr. McMurray!"

… And I'd just been frozen in the act of reaching for my pencil, staring at the clock and ignoring the teacher. She didn't look happy about that, scowling at me and tapping a finger against her elbow.

I could feel the heat rising on my face. There were more muffled snickers around me - I just knew what people were thinking. 'Loser…' "Sorry."

Her lips pursed, but she chose to let me off with another torturous moment of staring before moving back into the lecture.

If the extreme tension in my shoulders had let me, I would've slumped back in my seat.

It looked like it was going to be one of those days.

~~~~~~

"How come you were late?"

I glanced over. Mike wasn't actually looking at me; for some reason, he'd taken off his glasses and was squinting at a group of kids out on the field. The two of us were leaning against the school building, in the shade so it wouldn't be as easy to spot us. The sun seemed unnaturally bright anyway - hopefully it'd blind a couple of my classmates.

I still felt very jumpy. Not like I was being looked at any more, but…

God. This was crazy. I reached into my pocket and gripped the Key in my right hand again. My palms were sweaty. "I thought I was early. It was weird - there were still kids out in the hallways."

He put his glasses back on, but still didn't look at me. "Skipping class, probably."

"Why would you hang around the school if you were skipping?" I frowned at him - even though he probably didn't see it anyway. This whole day was creeping me out. There was some kind of underlying off-feeling to it, like there was more than just school and staring going on, but I couldn't quite figure out what the problem was.

Something wasn't right, though - that much, I knew. It seemed like it was right there in front of me…

"Well, I don't know," he replied, obviously annoyed. "Who cares? Maybe your watch stopped for a while or something. It's digital, right?"

I pulled my left hand up to eye level to glance at the thing - as if I somehow needed to look in order to know. "Yeah, but it's weird. I've been late before. The hallway's always deserted."

"So, what?" He did look at me then, pushing his glasses up on his nose and raising both eyebrows skeptically. "There's some kind of conspiracy out to make you late?"

What gives here? Usually Mike was the first one to suggest conspiracies when I convinced myself that the world was out to get me. Then he'd laugh and make fun of me, and everything would seem ridiculous. Was he in a bad mood or what? "Feels like people are staring at me," I mumbled, looking away from him. That group of kids had moved to sit on the bit of a slope leading up to the back of the school - where Mike and I were standing. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but they were doing a lot of laughing.

And every now and then one or two of them would glance our way quickly, then look away just as fast.

I swallowed and looked away again.

"Hey, Shane." I recognized that tone. It wasn't one of Mike's usual, but I recognized it all the same. That was someone who was convinced that the person they were talking to was a complete moron - and the fact wasn't doing much for their tolerance level. "We've known each other how long now?"

The words came out automatically - before I could stop them. "Since ninth grade."

Ninth grade? Ninth grade?

Where the hell had that come from?

"The hell?" Apparently, Mike was thinking along the same lines. He was giving me a slightly annoyed look, with hints of incredulity mixed in for good measure. "What's wrong with you, McMurray? We're in eighth grade now!"

Something was really wrong… I could feel it all around me, like the air was filled up with this toxic gas of wrongness. "I dunno," I mumbled, staring at the ground. This was driving me crazy.

There was something going on - I just couldn't figure out what.

Mike pushed himself away from the wall. "I gotta go," he said abruptly.

"Huh?" This was definitely a break from routine; I turned to stare at him. "Where?"

He didn't look at me. "Just… stuff to do, all right?" Then he did sort of glance at me out of the corner of his eye, pushing up his glasses a bit and managing a bit of a guilty expression. "Nothing personal. See you."

'Nothing personal'? What the…?

I couldn't even think of something to say before he moved off around the corner of the school building.

That was… strange. I wasn't sure I liked the implications there… Mike was my best friend, wasn't he? Wasn't he? He wouldn't just ditch me for no good reason - there had to be some explanation. There was no way he'd throw me to the wolves.

Would he?

Out on the field, the group of kids we'd been sort of watching got up and moved off, talking and laughing with each other as if at some private joke - and shooting glances at me the whole time.

Staring pointedly down at the ground was becoming my favorite stance.

The uneasy feeling didn't go away, even after they'd moved off and I turned to head back inside and see if the computer lab was open. If anything, it got worse. It felt like there were eyes everywhere, staring out from the lockers or from behind closed doors. People watching… All the time.

It didn't help that some time before lunch ended, I came across that bunch of kids again in the hallway, at the place where the wall dipped in toward the metalwork classroom.

Talking to Mike. And laughing.

~~~~~~

Conspiracy.

The word kept reappearing in my head, through my first afternoon class. I'd never thought of it before as anything but a joke, but for some reason, after lunch, it wasn't very funny any more. The world was against me, and I didn't even mean that sarcastically.

My classmates were against me. My teacher was against me. Mike was against me.

Everyone was against me.

I felt sick. It probably wasn't any kind of physical sickness - but it felt like something was churning around in my stomach. Every now and then, I got the feeling like bile was rising up at the back of my throat and I was going to throw up.

And on top of that, I had a headache.

It wasn't helping that I could still feel people staring at me. Always staring. Of course they wouldn't give up now; why should they? Whatever they were conspiring to do hadn't happened yet.

"Shane? Are you all right?"

I opened my eyes. My forehead was resting on my desk. My arms were clutched tight around my stomach. And I was probably getting close to hyperventilating.

And somehow, I hadn't noticed.

Our social studies teacher was studying me with a speculative sort of look - a mix of mild worry and deep thought. It looked odd on him. "Perhaps you should go to the principal's office and have someone call your mother."

Principal's office. Through the hallway.

For some reason, that sent me into an unreasoning panic. My throat closed up and it was hard to choke out words. "I…"

"Principal's office, McMurray," he cut me off, in that typically authoritative tone that teachers probably had to perfect before they could get their teaching license. "Go."

I slunk out of my seat and hobbled toward the door.

It felt like the eyes on me were weighing me down. I couldn't carry them; it was too much. The hallway looked empty, but I wasn't fooled. They were there; I could feel them. They were all around, looking at me, looking at me… They'd be closing in any time, trying to trap me, and laughing without bothering to try and hide it.

My hands pressed over my stomach, hot and sweaty. I felt sick.

The principal's office was so far away…

I can't make it. I can't get there. They were probably laughing at me in there, too… I slowed down, then stopped. That was it, wasn't it? They were expecting me to come in, to get sick. That was the plan. They were all laughing at me. All against me.

I won't go…

Shutting my eyes, I took one hand off my stomach. The space I left felt cool without it. And when I reached into my pocket, the Key felt cool too, smooth and solid against my fingers.

I could escape them.

There was a janitor's closet just around the corner. The door was locked, but that didn't bother me. It was kind of funny how my fingers had gone from too hot to too cold; they were shaking more than a little as I pulled the Item out of my pocket and raised it up to hold out in front of the beaten, dull metal handle.

Open it, I tried to tell it, without saying anything out loud. Unlock. Do it.

It was a relief to throw all my concentration behind something that couldn't possibly be plotting against me. There was a certain amount of power building up around the small object in my hand, and it was exhilarating to feel. A rush, like confidence.

I needed confidence right then.

The door unlocked and swung open, and I ducked inside and shut it behind me. The closet was dark and small, and there was an overpowering smell of floor wax that threatened to choke me.

Better than outside, though.

Already, it sounded like people were moving out in the hallway… Following me - they had to be. Why else would they be out there? They wouldn't want me to escape them.

But I could deal with that. Holding the Key up to the door again, I whispered, "Lock."

Another surge of power, and that door wasn't coming open. Until I unlocked it, anyway.

Would they try to trick me into unlocking it? I held my breath for a minute, pressing the tips of my fingers - on the hand not holding the Key - against the door. It was splintering and felt rough, but that wasn't my biggest problem at the moment. They were out there - I could almost hear the footsteps. Probably the only reason I couldn't was because they were trying to be quiet and see if I came out on my own.

They were crazy if they thought that. Crazy.

Then again, they weren't the ones who'd just locked themselves in a closet, convinced that the world was against them.

So, really… I leaned my forehead against the door, shutting my eyes for a moment against a moment of vertigo. There seemed to be something important here - something I had to struggle with, because it wasn't easy to think when it seemed like every little sound was a personal threat.

I'm the crazy one, aren't I?

That thought surprised a bit of a chuckle out of me, and I lifted up my head again to stare through the dark at the wooden door of the closet. Not crazy, the still-rational part of my brain supplied, with difficulty. The word is paranoid. I’m paranoid.

And that was when something clicked.

Paranoid…

Paranoia…

The Link?

The Key I was still gripping in my right hand felt suddenly icy against my palm, which contrasted oddly with the sweat building there. It was like being under water for a long time and then coming up and taking a breath; I saw sparks at the edges of my vision and had to gasp for breath.

I was walking into the light… And then I'd woken up in bed, and gone to classes just like always. Normal, right?

It didn't make sense, though - the facts didn't add up. Why did I know what the Key did, but not where it came from? It was like the Game wasn't even in my thoughts, but the fact that I had an Item made perfect sense. I didn't have Zinc or the other Players around or anything. And…

I'm in eleventh grade, not eighth. I leaned forward against the door again, forcing the rest of my mind clear. I already have a younger sister, and her name is Nicole. I didn't meet Mike until ninth grade. People don't notice me enough to laugh at me any more, my best friend has never let me down, and I'm not here right now!

Like tearing free of ropes holding me down. The door felt less solid suddenly, more like water… This isn't real!

And then it was water.

With a green glow all around me.

Somehow, I had a feeling I knew just what to do at that point. The water made my movements sluggish, but it was simple enough to hold my left hand out in front of me, palm facing up.

The light sort of - I guess surged. It was like it became heavier for a second, more powerful - and then it flickered and died, and a green pyramid shape settled onto the hand I was holding out, clear and hard as diamond and just big enough to hide my hand.

For a moment, all I could do was stand there and blink at it. My brain felt like it did when I first woke up in the morning. This… is…

"Well," Zinc broke the silence cheerfully, floating around from behind me to hover near my right side, "that's one down."

 

~~~~~~

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