GENRE: Sci-Fi/Suspense. LENGTH: 6,248 words. SYNOPSIS: A brother and sister are thrust into the future after playing around in the basement with some experimental equipment built by their mother, a physics professor.
Ryan Edison stood at the back of a long line of junior high and high school students boarding the school bus to go home. In two years he’d graduate and move on to better things—like college, in a different town where nobody knew about the time he got his head dunked into a toilet in the girls bathroom. Those stupid bullies were still laughing about that.
But least he wouldn’t have to ride the bus with them anymore—not after next Thursday when he got his driver’s license. His mom was giving him her old car. Ryan couldn’t think of anything he loved her for more. Sure, she brought him into the world, gave him food and clothing and everything else he had—but his own car—that was the ultimate gift.
Just a few more days on this stinking bus.
His younger sister, Abby, was sitting in her usual spot with her BFF, Meg, right behind the driver.
She grinned at Ryan.
Sure, why shouldn’t she be happy? Nobody was gonna try to embarrass her. He frowned at her and walked down the aisle, looking for an empty seat.
The only seat left was at the back, between Kevin and Carl.
“Don’t worry, Ryan,” Kevin said with a wily grin, “we saved you a seat, buddy.”
Ryan rescanned the entire bus. Surely there was another opening somewhere. But, no.
Melissa Myers was in the next-to-last row. She smiled at him.
Ryan was so in love with Melissa. He’d hardly spoken a word to her all year since she transferred in. They had four classes together and all he ever did was stare at her. Why was she smiling at him? He didn’t deserve it. She should have thought he was creepy—always looking at her, but never talking. Maybe she was just trying to be kind to the weirdo.
“Hey, Edison, hurry it up,” Carl said, “the bus ain’t going anywhere until you sit down.”
Kevin was pigging out on a large bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. “Look at him—a skinny stick with fuzzy blond mop top. What does that remind you of?”
“I don’t know,” Carl said, grinning. “What?”
“He kinda looks like a big tampon, don’t you think?”
Some of the kids laughed.
Melissa looked away, obviously embarrassed.
The bus driver yelled, “Sit down back there!”
Ryan squeezed in between Kevin and Carl.
The bus pulled away from the school.
Kevin turned to Ryan and began talking. His mouth was three inches from Ryan’s face. The nacho cheese breath burned his nose. “So, you like her?” He nodded to Melissa. “You like Melissa, don’t you?” He grabbed Ryan’s face with both hands and turned his head toward himself. “I can tell. I can see it in your eyes. You want to go out with her.” He released Ryan’s head and leaned up toward Melissa. “Melissa, would you go out with our boy, Ryan? He’s kinda shy, so I’m trying to help him out. Is he the kind of guy you’re looking for? Is he man enough for you?”
Melissa did not turn around or respond in any way.
“Leave her alone,” Ryan said.
Kevin thumped Melissa on the back of the head with his finger. “I’m talking to you, girl.”
“Stop it!” Ryan elbowed Kevin in the chest as hard as he could. He regretted it immediately.
Kevin tore into Ryan with his fists, battering him in the stomach and face.
Carl pushed Ryan out of his seat onto the aisle floor.
Other boys began to offer advice. “Stomp his face! Kick him in the nuts!”
The bus driver yelled, “Stop that fighting!” He pulled over to the side of the road. “Whoever started the fight—get off of the bus. Now!”
“I started it.” Ryan got up from the floor, walked to the front of the bus, and got off. On the way out the door he apologized to the bus driver.
As the bus pulled away, Ryan saw Kevin pointing and laughing at him through the back window. Carl shot him the bird.
Ryan walked in the front door of his house and saw Abby sitting on the couch watching TV while talking on the phone, with her laptop sitting beside her.
Abby paused the TV show. “I’ll call you back in a minute.” She put her phone down and looked at Ryan. “Why did it take you so long to walk home?”
“I wasn’t in any hurry.”
“Needed time to think, huh? Why did you start a fight anyway?”
“Kevin Pilcher’s got a big, fat, dirty mouth.”
“He said something about Melissa, didn’t he?”
Abby grinned. “I can tell when you’re lying, Ryan. You love her.”
“Shut up!” He walked over to the couch, picked up the remote, and turned off the TV. “You know you’re supposed to do all your homework before you turn the TV on.”
Abby pointed to her laptop. “I am doing my homework.”
“While watching TV and talking to Meg? I don’t think so.”
“I’m multitasking—and I’m very good at it.” Abby smirked.
“You’re way smarter than me, but you just don’t care. You do everything halfway just because you can get away with it.”
“I must be doing something right—my teachers love me.” She grinned proudly.
“Whatever.” Ryan dropped the remote and the couch and walked over to the basement door.
“You’re not supposed to go into Mom’s lab unless she’s down there.”
“I need to use her computer to do research for my paper. My laptop is acting up again.”
“Yeah, right. Research.”
Ryan opened the basement door and went downstairs.
Ryan loved going down to his mother’s lab. Tora Edison was a professor at the university. Her expertise in both physics and computer science gave the small school a double whammy for their money. But the work she did on campus was not nearly as interesting to Ryan as what she did in her home lab. He wondered if the other professors had any idea what she was up to.
He had helped his mother move most of the equipment to the basement, which would have been impossible to do were it not for the elevator she had installed two years ago. The neighbors had been curious when they saw the elevator company truck out front. She had explained that was for her mother, who would be coming to live with us soon. It was a lie that nobody would have believed if they knew Grandma. She would live in her own house until the day she died.
The lab had a distinctive aroma of warm computers and natural gas powered backup generator that often kicked in when Tora was running one of her experiments. Ryan suspected they were breaking several zoning laws.
He wondered, but never asked, how his mother was able to pay for all this high tech stuff. The 3-D printer cost over $35,000. He had googled it.
Tora’s coolest invention was a device she called the Galaxy Exploration Chair. The chair itself was just a leather recliner. What made it special was the clear plastic helmet suspended over the chair. When you pulled it down over your head you could go just about anywhere. Signals were sent via the eyes to the brain, triggering all five senses. A basic test of the system transported the subject virtually to a field of lilies. You could see and smell the flowers, feel the warm sun on your face, hear birds chirping nearby, pull a glade of grass and taste it. It was virtual reality at its best.
You could pop into another country, walk the streets, watch the people, listen. But they couldn’t see you because you weren’t really there.
You could even make a trip to outer space and float around for a while, observing planets. Although the space trips weren’t very realistic since a person couldn’t actually survive in outer space without a protective suit.
Tora had recently built a second Galaxy Exploration Chair so that Ryan and Abby could make virtual trips together. She would make notes as they reported their experiences real-time.
Ryan slid into one of the GECs and pulled the helmet down over his head. A holographic control panel appeared before his eyes. He reached out with his hand and touched the destination menu and selected Galaxy 7.
When he heard the door open at the top of the stairs, he knew it was Abby. It would be at least another hour before his mother got home.
“You know we’re not allowed to use the GECs unless Mom’s here.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“She just called and told me she’s going to be late.”
“You’ve got to see this, Abby.”
“Get in the chair. You won’t believe this. It’s amazing.”
“I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“Just for a minute. Try it. It’s beautiful, really.”
“Okay. But just for a second.” She sat down in the chair and pulled the helmet over her head.
“I’ll sync us.” Ryan reached out to the holographic control panel and touched the Sync button.
“Wow,” Abby said.
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Abby said. “Which galaxy are we in?”
“I don’t know. It’s a new program. Mom must have just added it.” He reached out to the control panel and touched the Program menu. “Hey, I wonder what this Galaxy 8 is like? I’m switching us.”
“No, don’t switch me. I want to stay in this one.”
“Just real quick, and then I’ll take us back.”
The display inside their helmets flashed, Changing to Galaxy 8.
“I don’t see much difference in this one,” Ryan said.
“This isn’t pretty at all. Take us back to the other one.”
“Fine.” He tapped the Program menu. “Hey, I wonder what this is?”
Their helmets displayed, Changing to Program X.
“What are you doing, Ryan?” Abby asked.
Their displays went black and all of the lights in the basement went out.
“It’s okay, Abby. Don’t worry. The electricity just went out.”
Something began to hum at the back of the basement.
“What’s that?” Abby asked.
“The backup generator.”
“So, why aren’t the lights coming on?”
Their chairs began to vibrate. The displays in their helmets went from complete darkness to blinding light.
“Ryan, I’m scared.”
The chairs shook violently.
“Get out of the chair!” Ryan yelled, trying to get his helmet off.
“I can’t get this thing off,” Abby shouted. “I can’t even feel it on my head!”
“I can’t feel mine either. I don’t know what’s happening.” He looked over at Abby. All he could see was something that looked like a computer-generated outline of her body: a white, Abby-shaped grid glowing in the dark—with no hair on her head. His voice trembled. “Abby, something very weird is happening. Can you see me?”
She looked at him and screamed.
Ryan and Abby were sitting on a bench in an ultramodern-looking shopping mall next to a large statue of a woman holding a shopping bag.
“Where are we?” Abby asked.
Ryan looked around. “Looks like Program X took us to some kind of future world.”
Abby felt her head with her hands. “I still can’t feel my helmet.”
“I can’t either.”
“What’s happening, Ryan? This is not like any of the other times. I’m scared.”
“It’s okay. I don’t know why we can’t feel the helmets.” He grinned. “But it’s a pretty cool upgrade. Makes this world seem so real. Excellent job, Mom.”
“It’s not cool to me,” Abby said. “I just want to go home.”
“We are home. We’re still sitting in the GECs in Mom’s lab. That’s what’s so cool about it—it seems like we’re really here.”
“I don’t like it being this real.”
“But we’re fine,” Ryan said, “so, let’s walk around and check this place out.”
“How are we gonna get back home? What if we’re stuck here forever?”
“Don’t be silly. You know Mom’s programs have that auto-return feature.”
“But we’ve never needed it before. We were always able to get out of the program whenever we wanted to. How do we even know if the auto-return works?”
“I’m sure it works. Mom is a genius, you know. And besides, if anything goes wrong with that, she’ll just bring us back manually when she gets home.”
“And then we’re gonna get grounded and I’m gonna miss Meg’s party on Friday night. Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well enjoy it. Hey, look at that candy store. Let’s go see what kind of cool new candies they have in the future.” Ryan got up and walked toward the candy store.
“Ryan, don’t eat anything. You don’t know what that stuff’s made of.” Abby got up and ran after him.
“Check these out.” Ryan picked up a sucker labeled ‘MagnaPopper’ and unwrapped it.
“What are you doing? Don’t get us in trouble.”
“What are you talking about? Nobody can see us—remember? We can see them, but they can’t see us and they can’t touch us.”
“Are you sure? It feels different this time.”
Ryan popped the sucker into his mouth. “Wow. It’s got a super strong cherry taste.” He took the sucker out of his mouth to study it. “Wonder why they call them MagnaPoppers?”
“Looks just like a Tootsie Roll Pop,” Abby said.
The sucker slipped out of Ryan’s fingers and it flew into his mouth. He grabbed the sucker and pulled it back out. “What the heck?” He held it two inches from his mouth and let it go. The sucked flew back into his mouth. “This thing is magnetic.”
“Right, magnetic,” she said, smirking. “What—you think it’s got a magnet in the center instead of chocolate? That wouldn’t work unless you had metal in your head. Hmm—metal in your head. Actually, I’ve always wondered about that.”
“Shut up,” he said. “I don’t know what’s doing it, but something’s making it—”
“Hey, you didn’t pay for that.” A pudgy man stepped out from behind the counter.
Abby stared at Ryan. “I thought nobody could see us?”
“They can’t,” Ryan said. “Nobody can see us or touch us.”
Abby punched him in the arm.
“Hey,” Ryan said.
“I’ve never been able to do that before.”
“Let’s get out of here.” Ryan threw the sucker toward the back of the store.
The man held up a small device and pushed a button. “You’ll never get away from the mall cop.”
Ryan and Abby ran for the exit.
A mall cop zoomed up on a cart. “Halt, please.”
He stepped off of the cart.
Ryan noticed that the cart didn’t have any wheels. “Cool. What keeps it suspended—some type of magnetic field?”
“Don’t play dumb with me,” the cop said. “Every first grader knows how these things work.”
Ryan bent down to look under the cart. “Amazing.”
“You two have been reported as shoplifters.”
Ryan shrugged. “No, Sir, there’s been a mistake. It wasn’t us.” The MagnaPopper Ryan had thrown away in the store flew through the air, barely missing Abby’s head, and popped into Ryan’s mouth.
The cop smiled. “Gotcha.”
Ryan took the sucker out of his mouth and handed it to the cop.
The cop scanned the sucker with some type of electronic device.
“What are you doing to it?” Ryan asked.
“Disabling the anti-theft seed. That’s why it kept popping into your mouth.”
“I thought it was magnetic. Isn’t that why they call them ‘MagnaPoppers?’”
The cop laughed. “No, that’s just the brand. I think the ‘Magna’ has to do with the strong flavor.” He handed the sucker back to Ryan.
Ryan held it near his mouth and let it go. It fell to the floor.
The cop laughed. “Might as well pick it up and eat it. Your parents will be billed for it.”
“I don’t think so,” Abby said under her breath.
“What did you say, Miss?”
“I’m sorry. Nothing, Sir.”
“It’s nine o’clock,” the cop said. “Why aren’t you two in school?”
“Nine o’clock in the morning?” Abby asked. “No, that’s not right—it’s like five o’clock. School’s already out.”
The cop spoke into his wristwatch. “Hey, Joe, I’ve got two more truants for you.”
“Okay, bring them out. I’ll be right there to pick them up.”
“Wait,” Ryan said, “we’re not truants. Didn’t you hear what my sister said? We already went to school today. We rode the bus home.”
“If you rode the bus home, then what are you doing here?”
“We don’t know,” Abby said. “We were just playing around in my mom’s lab and—”
“Lab?” The cop’s brows went up.
Ryan jumped into the cart. “That’s enough, Abby. The nice officer has been patient with us. We need to quit playing around.”
Abby sat down in the cart next to her brother.
The cop got into the driver’s seat. “Here we go.”
As they rode through the mall, Abby leaned over to Ryan and said, “I’ve been to a lot of malls, but I’ve never heard of most of these stores.” She saw a woman who looked like her best friend, Meg, but all grown up, spritzing potential customers with perfume outside a store. It was funny to think of her friend doing that kind of work. She and Meg were planning to go to college and medical school together.
“Look at that,” Ryan said. “A 120-inch flat screen TV for five-hundred dollars. And check out that escalator.”
“What are they standing on?” Abby asked. “People are going up, but I don’t see anything under their feet.”
“This place is very weird,” Ryan said.
The mall cop pulled up alongside similar cart labeled ‘Truant Police.’
The mall cop said, “Okay, kids, this is Officer Joe. He’ll take you to your school.”
“Hop on,” Officer Joe said.
Ryan and Abby got out of the mall cop’s cart and into Officer Joe’s, which had bucket seats.
“This feels strange,” Abby said.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “It’s like something is pushing you down into the seat.”
“Sounds like your passenger protectors have engaged, so here we go,” Officer Joe said.
Abby stared at Ryan. Passenger protectors?
The cart accelerated quickly to around sixty miles per hour. Ryan hoped the passenger protectors worked, since the cart had no doors and no top.
“Could I please have your names? Officer Joe asked.
“I’m Ryan Edison, and this is my sister, Abby.”
Officer Joe glanced at Ryan in the mirror. “So, Ryan, I’m guessing you’re in ninth grade.”
“Okay, close.” Officer Joe smiled. “Let’s see if I can do better with your sister.”
“I’m in the tenth grade, like my brother,” Abby said.
Ryan wondered why she was lying. “Abby—”
Abby elbowed her brother. “I’m a year younger than Ryan, but I skipped second grade.”
“Oh, now why did you have to go and tell me?” Officer Joe asked. “I like guessing.”
“Oh,” Abby said. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Officer Joe said, winking at her in the mirror.
Abby whispered to Ryan and pointed. “Is that the school?”
They were headed toward a huge metal dome, two-hundred feet tall.
“Can’t be,” Ryan said.
As they approached the dome, a section of the wall slid open, creating a doorway. The cart entered a huge lobby.
Abby said, “You know he’s gonna take us to the principal’s office. What are we going to tell them?”
“How should I know?” Ryan spotted the principal’s office, with its glass walls. Then he realized that all of the interior walls of the school were made of glass.
They rode right past the principal’s office, and then past a classroom labeled ‘First Grade.’
“Uh, Sir,” Ryan said, “I think you’ve brought us to the wrong school.”
Officer Joe shook his head.
Ryan and Abby looked at each other, confused.
The cart began to lift off the floor, accelerating as it rose: ten feet…twenty-five feet…
Abby leaned in close to her brother and grabbed his hand. “I’m scared.”
He put his arm around her.
The cart continue upward. Seventy-five feet…one-hundred feet…one-hundred-fifty feet. It suddenly came to a stop at about one-hundred-seventy-five feet above the lobby floor.
A glass door opened to the fourth floor hallway and Officer Joe drove through it and down the hall to a classroom door labeled ‘Tenth Grade.’
Ryan whispered to Abby, “They only have one school—for all the grades?”
“And is there seriously only one tenth grade classroom—in this whole gigantic school?”
“But look how big it is,” Ryan said.
There were rows and rows of students—hundreds of them—sitting at what appeared to be computers.
The cart pulled up to a counter and stopped. Ryan and Abby felt their passenger protectors release.
“Out you go,” Officer Joe said. “Mrs. Flatback, this is Ryan and Abby. They seemed to have forgotten it was a school day.”
A young woman standing behind a long, marble-top counter smiled and said, “Thanks, Joe.”
Ryan and Abby stepped out of the cart and Officer Joe drove it out of the classroom.
Mrs. Flatback said, “Okay, sign yourselves in and get to your workstations.”
They walked up to the counter.
Ryan looked for a sign-in sheet and a pen. All he saw was something that looked like a touch pad that was built into the counter.
“What are you waiting for?” Mrs. Flatback asked.
“I’m not sure what to do,” Ryan said.
“Very funny.” Mrs. Flatback grabbed Ryan’s right hand and pressed his index finger against the pad. It beeped. She checked her monitor. “That’s odd.” She looked at Abby. “You give it a try, young lady.”
Abby pressed her right index finger against the pad.
Mrs. Flatback snapped her fingers. “Mr. Hall? Mr. Hall, I need you up here.”
A man who had been talking to a student near the back of the classroom waved at Mrs. Flatback and began to walk toward the front of the room. Ryan judged him to be at least ninety.
When he finally made it to the counter, Mrs. Flatback said, “We’ve got a serious problem here, Mr. Hall. These two students are not registered in our system.”
“I see.” Mr. Hall eyed them suspiciously.
“So, you know what that means, Mr. Hall.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I certainly do. And I’ll take care of them. Come with me, children.”
Children? Ryan was not a child, and he had no interest in going anywhere with this old man. He and Abby had played along with these people for long enough. Ryan wanted to grab Abby’s hand and run out of the school, but he wasn’t even sure how to get back down to ground level.
Mr. Hall led them to an escalator, and just like the one they’d seen in the mall, it had no stairs—but this one went down in a spiral.
The invisible stairs felt spongy. Ryan nearly lost his balance, grasping for the handrail to keep him from falling on top of Mr. Hall.
Down, down, down they went in a circular motion. It seemed it would never end.
“I’m getting dizzy,” Abby said.
“Whatever you do, don’t close your eyes,” Mr. Hall said.
When they got to the ground floor, Mr. Hall led them to the principal’s office.
“Mrs. Davis, these two students do not appear to be in our system.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Mrs. Davis said, smiley politely at Abby and Ryan.
“Thank you very much.” Mr. Hall walked out of the office.
Mrs. Davis placed a touch pad on top of the counter. “Let’s give it another try.”
Abby stepped up and press her finger to the pad.
A man walked up from behind her. “What’s the problem, Mrs. Davis?”
Ryan assumed he was the principal.
“Mr. Pilcher, these students don’t seem to be in our system.”
Ryan’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. Mr. Pilcher? Kevin Pilcher? The principal was around forty. But he looked suspiciously like Ryan’s bus riding nemesis, Kevin Pilcher. It made him wonder if Kevin’s sidekick, Carl, was the assistant principal. He nearly started laughing at the thought of it. This wasn’t just a future world—it was a wacky world.
“Let Melissa handle this,” Mr. Pilcher said, walking over to a doorway and talking to someone inside the room. “We’re having more problems with the system.”
A strikingly beautiful woman walked out. “I’ll take care of it.”
Ryan’s jaw dropped as she stepped to the counter. It was Melissa Myers, the girl he was madly in love with—whom he had never spoken a word to—now in her late thirties, and more gorgeous than ever.
She eyed Ryan and then Abby. “So, our system doesn’t like you today, huh?” She smiled warmly. “Let’s just see if we can get it to cooperate.” She began typing at the keyboard.
Ryan spotted her name tag: Melissa Pilcher – Associate Principal. No, it couldn’t be. She wouldn’t have married Kevin Pilcher—not in a million years. “Your last name is Pilcher—the same as the principal’s.”
“That’s because he’s my husband. That’s the way it works.” She smiled. “Now, let’s try it with you, uh…” She nodded at Ryan.
“Ryan. Ryan Edison.” He was about to puke. How could she stand to even be near Kevin Pilcher, much less be willing to kiss him and…
She flinched. “Ryan Edison?”
Did she remember him? “Yes, Ma’am.” He couldn’t believe he was calling her ‘Ma’am.’ But she was old enough to be his mother!
“Okay, Ryan, please press your right index finger on the touch pad.”
Melissa shook her head. “Hmm.” She looked at Abby. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Brother and sister. Okay, Abby give it a try.”
When Abby pressed her finger against the pad, it beeped.
“Hmm.” Melissa shook her head as she studied her monitor.
Ryan leaned across the counter and spoke softly so that nobody by Melissa could hear him. “Why did you marry him?”
Melissa looked stunned. “What?”
“How could you marry that…that…butt pimple?”
Melissa stepped back, shocked. “Excuse me?”
Ryan raised his voice. “You knew what kind of guy he was: a mean bully who liked to embarrass kids and beat them up. How could you fall in love with somebody like that?”
“Ryan, stop,” Abby said, tugging at his arm. “Let’s just go.”
Ryan and Abby stormed out of the office.
“Stop!” Melissa shouted. “You’re not allowed to leave the building without permission.”
Ryan heard Melissa telling a guard to go after them.
“Run,” Ryan said.
They ran to the main door.
“How do we open it?” Abby asked.
“Maybe this will do it.” Ryan pointed to a big red button.
“It says it’s for emergencies only,” Abby said.
“Perfect.” Ryan rammed it with the palm of his hand.
The door slid open.
They ran out.
“There’s a taxi.” Ryan ran to the side of the road and waved to the cabbie.
Abby caught up with him. “Do you have any money?”
“Then how are we going to—”
“I’ll handle it.”
Other than the color, the taxi looked like Officer Joe’s cart.
“1514 Maple Avenue,” Ryan said, looking back to see if the school guard had come out of the building yet.
“1514? No. There’s no such address.”
“Yes, there is,” Abby said. “That’s where we live.”
The guard ran out of the school waving his hands and yelling.
“We need to get going now,” Ryan said. “Just drop us off somewhere close to that address.”
The driver pulled away just before the guard reached them.
Ryan was blabbing to Abby in a loud voice about how much he hated school to drown out the sound of the guard yelling for the driver to stop.
The cab pulled up in front of Maxi Mall and stopped.
“This is where we were this morning,” Abby said.
“Why did you bring us here?” Ryan asked.
“You told me to take you close to 1514 Maple Avenue.”
“That’s right,” Ryan said.
“Well, this mall takes up the entire 1500 block.”
“Then where’s our house?” Abby began to cry.
“I don’t know, Abby,” Ryan said.
“And where’s Mom?”
The driver turned around. “Hey, I don’t want to hear about your problems. Just pay up and get out of my cab!”
“We don’t have any money,” Ryan said, as they got out.
“Figures.” The cabbie shook his head and drove away.
“Quit crying,” Ryan said. “Everything’s gonna be fine. I’m sure Mom will be home soon, and then she’ll bring us back.”
“But maybe she can’t do it unless we’re in that same spot we were in when we came here.”
“Okay, that kinda makes sense,” Ryan said. “Let’s go back to it.”
They ran inside the mall.
“Look out,” Ryan said. “There’s a mall cop.”
They hid behind a column until he drove by.
Abby said, “Look at that woman over there in the store. She looks like Meg.”
“Your best friend, Meg?”
“Yeah. Could it be her, all grown up—like Melissa?”
“I’m gonna find out.”
“But we need to get back to our spot.”
“We will. But first I’ve got to do this.” Abby bolted toward the clothing store.
“Hang on. I’m coming with you,” Ryan said.
Abby walked up behind the woman, who was straightening T-shirts on a display shelf. “Meg?”
The woman turned around. “May I help you?”
“Meg, it’s me—Abby.”
“I’m sorry, Miss, but I don’t believe I know you.”
“Sure, you do, Meg.”
“And why are you calling me Meg? I haven’t gone by that since high school.”
“Exactly. You and I were best friends in school. I’m Abby Edison.”
“You’re Abby’s daughter? I didn’t know Abby had a daughter. Of course, I haven’t seen her in years.”
“How could that be? We were bff’s—you know, best friends forever. What happened?”
“Why do you keep saying that we were friends?”
“I mean you and my mother were such good friends. That’s what I meant.”
“Well, after I dropped out of college my freshman year, we sort of lost touch.”
“Why did you drop out of college?” Abby asked. “You were gonna be a doctor.”
“College was a lot tougher than high school.”
“But you were so smart.”
Meg stared at her.
“My mom said you were.”
“Well, I do regret it now. I should have taken my studies more seriously. Too much partying. But I have to say that I was truly shocked when I found out your mom had dropped out.”
“I dropped—I mean, my mom dropped out of college?”
“The next year,” Meg said. ‘She never told you?”
“It seems like there’s a lot I don’t know about my mother.”
Ryan went over to Abby. “The mall cop’s coming this way.”
“Ryan?” Meg looked stunned. “No, you’re Ryan’s son. This is very weird.”
“I’m sorry, Meg,” Ryan said, “but we’ve got to go.” He grabbed Abby’s hand.
“Well, tell your mom to give me a call sometime.”
They hid at the front of the store.
The mall cop walked into the store and over to Meg, and appeared to be flirting with her.
Ryan and Abby ran out the door.
“Aren’t we just attracting attention by running?” Abby asked.
They slowed to a walk.
A voice from behind them said, “You kids stop right there!”
Ryan turned around and saw the mall cop getting in his cart.
“Go!” Ryan said.
They ran to the food court at the center of the mall.
“I think it’s that way.” Ryan pointed to the right.
The cop turned left, but then apparently realized they had gone the other way and turned around. Now he was gaining on them. “There’s no use in running. You can’t get away from me. Stop!”
They saw the statue, ran to it, and sat down on the bench.
“Okay, Mom, we’re ready,” Ryan said. “Take us now.”
“Mom, please!” Abby screamed.
Ryan blacked out for a moment, and when he opened his eyes he was in the basement of his house—in his mom’s lab. He glanced to his side. Abby was there too, sitting in the other GEC.
“Oh, Mom,” Abby said, pulling off her helmet and running to her mother’s arms.
Ryan took off his helmet and got up from his chair. “Mom, that Program X is—”
“Amazing?” Tora said, smiling.
“Did you just get home?” Abby asked.
“No, I’ve been watching for a while.”
“But, Mom,” Ryan said, “we were scared half to death in that freaky future world you built.”
“You were never in any danger,” Tora said. “You were sitting right here.”
“Could you see what was happening to us?” Abby asked.
“I couldn’t see anything,” Tara said. “I want you to tell me all about it.”
“Meg was there,” Abby said. “She was real old—almost as old as you.”
“Gee, thanks,” Tara said.
“She was working in a mall. I talked to her. She told me she had dropped out of college. But she’s planning on being a doctor, Mom. It was awful.”
“And we ran into Melissa,” Ryan said.
“That new girl you like,” Tora said. “Have you still not told her you like her?”
“He’s never even talked to her,” Abby said.
“She was married to Kevin Pilcher—that stupid bully from the bus. How could she marry him?”
“Yeah,” Abby said, “and Meg told me that I dropped out of college too.”
“Excellent,” Tora said, smiling.
“No,” Abby said, “it was a nightmare.”
“Why are you smiling, Mom?” Ryan asked.
“Because it sounds like my program worked exactly as it was suppose to,” Tara said. “The things that frightened you in my program are the things that you fear the most about your future. Abby, I keep warning you that if you don’t start taking your studies seriously it could jeopardize your dreams of being a doctor. And Ryan, you need to stand up to that bully, and if you really like that girl, you need to let her know—or you might regret it someday.”
“But how did the program know about that stuff?” Abby asked.
“You hard-coded it in that way just for us, didn’t you?” Ryan asked.
“No—although I could have, since I know you two so well. But I wanted the program to be able to sense your fears and turn them into dramatic scenarios that would teach you the lessons you need to learn.”
“So that it could be used to help other kids too,” Ryan said.
“Right,” Tara said. “And even adults.”
“I guess it worked then,” Abby said, “cause all I want to do right now is go study—as soon as I call Meg.”
“No,” Tara said. “You can’t tell anybody about my experiments. You know that.”
“Oh, right,” Abby said. “I won’t. Don’t worry, Mom. I’m just glad to be home—and I’m glad I’m not old.”
Tara smirked at her.
“Well, I know what I’m gonna do,” Ryan said, heading for the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Tara asked.
“I won’t tell anybody, Mom, I promise.” Ryan went out the door.
Ryan rode his bicycle in the dark to Melissa Myer’s house. From a distance, he saw a couple sitting out front in a double seated swing. The porch light was off, but even in the faint light beaming from a window, he recognized Melissa. The guy’s back was to him. Surely it wasn’t Kevin Pilcher. Had it already begun? Was he too late?
He dropped his bicycle in the front yard and ran toward the porch. “Stop! You can’t have her, you stinking—.”
The guy turned around. It wasn’t Kevin.
And Melissa…wasn’t Melissa.
The man said, “Can I help you, son?”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” Ryan said. “I thought you were somebody else.”
“Somebody who stinks?”
The woman laughed.
“No—I mean, that’s not what I meant,” Ryan said, feeling like a complete idiot.
“Are you looking for Melissa?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Ryan said.
“I’m her mom and this is her dad.”
“Oh,” Ryan said. “Good to meet you.”
“Melissa? You’ve got company,” her mother yelled.
“Thanks,” Ryan suddenly realized that he had no idea what he was going to say to Melissa. He’d never spoken to her. This needed to be perfect. Perfect. Why hadn’t he taken the time to write out a little speech? He only had one shot and this was it, and he was about to blow it. This was why he had never spoken to her—because he’d never come up with the perfect words. She was so beautiful and wonderful—she deserved perfect words. But he didn’t have any the perfect words for her. He didn’t have any words. What the heck was he doing here?
Melissa opened the door. “Hi, Ryan.”
He gulped. “You know my name?” Those were his first words to her? Those weren’t perfect words—they were stupid words, you idiot!
“Of course.” She smiled.
Her dad said, “Invite him in for a Coke, so your mom and I can get so privacy out here.”
“Oh, Phil.” Melissa’s mom laughed.
“Come on in,” Melissa said.
Ryan walked through the doorway of his new future. Thanks, Mom—you’re amazing.