I was sixteen the first time I made a girl laugh.
It was an accident.
About twenty minutes before it happened, I had only one thing on my mind: protect the Mona Lisa from a horde of chipmunks.
“Squeeze a man boob for good luck,” one of the Wight Knights said through my headset.
“Squeezed,” I said.
Lightning carved across the computer screen. Thunder rumbled through my earpiece. Music swelled with horns, war coconuts, chanting chipmunks . . . and sneakers marching down the hall outside my door.
My shoulders tensed as the door opened, hall light making a glare across the battleground.
“Thought you were gonna get some exercise this morning.”
In the doorframe my stepmom Casey’s silhouette marched in place.
“I will this afternoon,” I said. Then, into my headset: “Protect that alleyway, fellas.”
“It’s three o’clock,” Casey said.
I squinted at the soft glow around the edges of my blanket-covered window. My eyes went right back to the screen. I tried to ignore the squeak, squeak, squeak of Casey’s sneakers and focus on the start of the battle.
“I got D,” I said.
My warrior hacked through some scaffolding so that my penguins would have materials to build a barricade.
“I need you to wash the Xterra,” Casey said. “It rained last night and now it’s all speckly.”
“ ‘Need’ is a funny word,” I said. “I need to destroy this army of chipmunks.”
Casey stopped marching and leaned against the doorframe in that pissed pose I assumed she’d had since high school. It was a safe bet, considering she had graduated four years before.
“Guys,” I said into my headset, “if their mecha-manatee makes it down the pass, we’re screwed.”
“Do you ever wonder why you don’t get girls?” Casey asked.
“Actually,” I said, swinging my axe, “a girl just texted me last night.”
“Can I read it?” Casey asked.
“No, you cannot.”
“What did she say?” Casey asked.
This was to the Wight Knights about the Mama Sumo bearing down on my barricade.
“You know, Jaxon, you wouldn’t get turned down so much if you just got some exercise,” Casey said.
“Dammit. Chips are breaking through, guys.”
I furiously clicked my mouse, executing whirlwinds to keep the wave of chipmunks at bay. I wasn’t about to take advice from someone who just four years ago would have rejected a guy like me.
“You just gotta get out there,” Casey said.
“Oh yeah? Is that all it takes?”
“That’s all it takes.”
I kept clicking my mouse. “Should I strap on a Fitbit and march around the house like an idiot, painting my nails and complaining about a few speckles on my—Dammit.” My warrior was obliterated in a juicy splatter across the asphalt. “You’re killing me, Casey. Guys, I’m in regen. Hold them back.”
My warrior’s spirit soared over the streets of Arcadia to the nearest graveyard.
Casey’s silence made me spin around in my chair.
She glared at me.
“Oh God,” I said. “Are you gonna cry again?”
She whirled and squeaked down the hallway.
“Don’t worry!” I called after her, rolling across the floor in my desk chair. “I’ll get the door!”
I slammed it and then rolled back to my computer. My warrior was still regenerating in the graveyard, tendrils of muscle wrapping around his bones.
I took out my phone and reread the text from that girl:
ewwwww jaxon just asked me out
Pretty sure she had meant to send it to someone else.
“Taste my axe!” my warrior said.
Raised from the dead, I trucked out of the graveyard back toward Plinky Plaza as heavier steps came down the hallway. Again my shoulders tensed as the door opened. The Xterra’s keys plopped onto my desk.
“Clean the SUV, or I’m canceling your game account,” my dad said.
“You can’t,” I said, eyes on the screen. While guiding my warrior back into the fray, I opened my drawer and pulled out my school transcript. “Four-point-oh. Remember?”
The battle was swallowed in black.
“Wha—” I spun around and found my dad holding my computer cord, unplugged.
“We’re renegotiating,” he said.
“Dad, I’m in the middle of a tournament!”
“And?” he said.
“Rrg!” I threw off my headset, snagged the keys, and flew out the door, hoping to return home before the Wight Knights lost the battle. I hopped in the Xterra, tore out of the driveway, and sped through the streets of Salt Lake City, shading my eyes from the bright July sky. For me, summer did not mean picnics, hikes, or tossing balls of any kind. It meant I could adventure through Arcadia for twelve hours a day without my dad hassling me. . . .
Until now, for some stupid reason.
I got to Sparkle Chrome, parked in the last garage to avoid a jock from my high school who was washing his Mustang, and then spent three whole minutes trying to get the token dispenser to accept my crinkled five.
I hit the dispenser. “Come on.”
If the Wight Knights won this game, we would be only four wins away from being in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of Arcadia players in the world. And that was halfway to becoming professional.
I unfolded the five’s corner, smoothed it against the dispenser’s edge, and tried again.
“I will end your life,” I told the dispenser.
I was my guild’s tank. Without my warrior’s muscle and cotton candy axe, the Wight Knights’ guts were going to be strewn across the Plaza. If I could just make it back in the next ten minutes . . .
I kept hitting the dispenser until some saint in a yellow hat wandered over and traded my shitty five for a crisp one.
. . .
I slammed the tokens into the slot, and big red numbers began the countdown.
10:00 . . . 9:59 . . . 9:58 . . .
I unholstered the spray nozzle, punched the high-pressure button, and started hosing down the Xterra. I whipped out my phone and group-texted the Knights:
AFK! DAD STUFF. HOLD OFF THOSE CHIPMUNKS OR I WILL SMOTHER YOU WITH MY MAN B—
That was when she screamed.
I looked up and found that my aim had wandered from the Xterra onto a girl near the token dispenser. I let off the spray gun’s trigger, but it was too late. She was drenched.
The girl’s mouth hung open. Her arms dripped at her sides. She stared at me in shock.
“I—I—” I had no words.
I stood there like an idiot for a full ten seconds. The girl finally rolled her eyes and shook droplets from her fingers. As she squeezed water from her hair and pinched the wetness from her earlobes, I began to realize how beautiful she was—smooth pale skin, glossy black braids, lips like bouncy castles that I just wanted to leap onto.
I stared at this dripping beauty who needed my help—never mind that I was the one who had soaked her in the first place.
“Uh,” I said, looking around the car wash, “I’d offer you my shirt, but I haven’t been outside for a while, and my skin might give you snow blindness.”
The girl looked at me, and for half a second I thought she was going to chew me out. But then . . . she laughed. She laughed.
“Nah, I’m good,” she said. She wrung out her T-shirt.
Normally I’d try to make myself look cool in front of girls. Chivalrous, at the very least. But right then I felt relaxed, relaxed enough to use humor I’d use with the Wight Knights.
Because no way was a girl I’d just hosed with water going to keep talking to me.
The girl nodded toward the Xterra. “That’s a pretty big target to miss, dude.”
“I wasn’t aiming at the Xterra.” I looked at the spray gun. “I thought this is what girls did at car washes. Wore white T-shirts and giggled while they got sprayed with hoses.”
The girl laughed again. Twice she laughed.
“Wet T-shirt contest isn’t till five o’clock,” she said, waving out her shirt, giving me little glimpses of her stomach.
I held out the sprayer. “You want revenge? I don’t look too good in a wet shirt, but . . .”
The girl snorted. “Tempting.”
She didn’t leave.
Instead she closed her eyes, tilted back her head, and pulled her shirt taut toward the sun. Her boobs were very apparent under her wet shirt. Looking at them made me self-conscious about my own boobs, which were big for a guy’s, but not, like, Chun-Li-size or anything. I glanced down and remembered I was wearing a Super Mario mushroom T-shirt that read I don’t wanna grow up. Ugh. Why did I even own that stupid thing?
I crossed my arms over my chest, trying to conceal the Super Mario mushroom and my man boobs as best I could. Having the Wight Knights joke about my chest was a lot different from a girl seeing them in real life.
“So, uh, what’s your name?” I said.
The girl kept her closed eyes toward the sun. “Serena.”
“Pleasure, Jaxon,” she said, because apparently that’s what beautiful, interesting girls say when they meet someone—Pleasure.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence while some guy vacuumed out his truck in the background. My lack of experience caught up to me.
“Uh, nice to meet you, Serena,” I said. “Sorry about the . . . yeah.”
I turned away before uncrossing my arms, and then continued to spray the Xterra.
6:34 . . . 6:33 . . . 6:32 . . .
I had completely forgotten about the battle of Plinky Plaza. One hundred percent of my focus was on Serena—beautiful, dripping Serena—in my periphery.
She was back at the token dispenser.
“Good luck with that thing,” I called over the spraying. “It hates awesome people.”
“How did you get it to work?” she asked.
Oh God. We were still talking. I could keep this conversation going. I glanced at the dude in the yellow hat with unwrinkled bills. If he gave her a new bill, she would get her tokens and leave. I looked around for Serena’s car.
“Um, what are you washing?” I asked.
She pointed. Leaning against the brick wall of the car wash was an old purple Schwinn bicycle, all muddy and scratched up.
“Just bought it for twenty bucks,” she said, walking over to the bike and wiggling the handlebars. “Guy told me the wax here does wonders.”
Did people still ride bikes? I hadn’t since I was nine. Hence, man boobs.
“Bring it in,” I said, nodding to the garage.
“You sure?” she asked.
I nodded at her soaked T-shirt. “I owe you.”
She grabbed the bike’s handles and rolled it in. I aimed the sprayer, but she held out her hand, quirking her lips in this adorable way. “You mind? I don’t want you getting distracted again.”
She hosed mud off the Schwinn while I leaned against the wall, arms folded firmly over my chest. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I ignored it.
“So do you, um, hate me forever?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I like things that knock me out of my usual routine. Like bumping a record player. Might make life land on a better track.”
And that was when I knew I would fall in love with her.
While she sprayed, and my phone vibrated, I did a quick search of my brain for cool things to talk about. All I did was play video games and study for school. That didn’t leave me with many options.
“So, uh, did you know that the guy who wrote The War of the Worlds came up with the idea for the atomic bomb thirty years before it was invented, and that he even named it?”
“Really?” Serena said. “Huh.” She wasn’t looking at me, but she didn’t sound bored.
“Yep. Um. Yeah. There are a lot of sci-fi authors who made really interesting discoveries. Like, Jules Verne came up with the idea for the submarine, and—” My phone would not stop vibrating. “Uh, excuse me.”
I had seven texts from the Wight Knights:
Dude where r u?
DUDE WHERE ARE YOU?
We are getting fucked.
You are fucking us.
I’d been away from the battle for more than fifteen minutes. If I left immediately, I could still make it back . . .
I put my phone on silent.
“Where was I?” I said.
“Jules Verne?” Serena said.
I smiled. She’d listened.
Once I’d wrung my brain of every cool, non-video-game fact I could think of and the Schwinn was clean and shiny and looked like it cost more than twenty dollars, Serena rolled the bike into the sun to dry.
“Welp,” she said. “Thanks for the cleaning. For the bike and me.”
She gave the bottom of her shirt a final squeeze. No more drips.
My heart started to stammer. She was going to leave. I didn’t want her to leave; I wanted her to stay. I wanted her to remain in my sight until we went on a date and had our first kiss and she realized what a stellar guy I was and that she should probably be my girlfriend. And while I was sure there was absolutely positively no way I would ever get a date with this girl, what if actually there was a way and the only way that it would happen was if I opened my stupid mouth and did something about it right that second?
“So, um,” I said, “I still feel bad about spraying you before. . . . In fact, I—I don’t feel like we’re even.”
She held out her hand for the water gun, like this was an invitation to spray me. I didn’t hand it to her. We both smiled.
“Did you have something different in mind?” she said.
“Uh, yeah, actually. Would you maybe, like . . .”
Serena raised her eyebrows, like, Get to the point, dude.
“Uh, you know, like, want to—”
The car wash’s timer buzzed, making me jump.
The big red numbers flashed 0:00.
“Little jumpy, are we?” she said.
“Ha, yeah.” I scratched the back of my neck and looked at the ground. I could feel my man boobs pressing against my shirt.
“You were saying?” Serena said.
I had somehow, impossibly, briefly, momentarily been charming with this girl when I’d thought there was no chance whatsoever that I would see her again. And this had made me just relaxed enough to make her laugh not once, not twice, but three times.
Well, two laughs and a snort, technically.
“What-about-dinner?” I said, and then didn’t breathe.
She took a moment to consider the question, like the token dispenser thinking about whether to accept my crinkled five.
Had I screwed it up?
I was sure I had.
“When?” she asked.
“I can’t tonight.”
“Busy tomorrow. I’m busy till Thursday.”
“Thursday?” I suggested.
“Um . . .” She clicked the Schwinn’s gears. I could have sworn she glanced at the mushroom on my shirt. “Sounds good,” she said. She mounted her bike, one foot on the pedal, one on the asphalt. “I’d hug you good-bye, but, y’know.” She frowned at her damp shirt.
“Ha. Right,” I said. “Maybe we could hug on Thursday.”
That was the stupidest thing I could have possibly said. Serena still giggled.
Oh God, what if she changed her mind between now and Thursday?
“Can I call you?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. My heart nose-dived. But then she patted her pocket. “No phone. I’m not on Facebook either.”
A Luddite! Of course! This girl was anti-technology! That was why the bicycle. And the record-player reference. That was why she didn’t recognize my Super Mario shirt. I made a quick mental list of things to never talk about as long as she and I were dating. To be honest, it included most of my life.
Serena pushed off the pavement and pedaled in small circles around the car wash parking lot, moving far away, then close, then far again. “Meet me at Mandrake’s on Broadway,” she said. “Know it?”
“It’s real good. And they never ID. I’ll be there at seven.”
She straightened the handlebars and pedaled down the sidewalk.
“Great!” I waved good-bye with the sprayer. “See you at Mandrake’s on Thursday at seven!”
She disappeared around the corner.
I had a date. A real-life date. Suddenly the future didn’t seem so war torn. The bright July sky looked almost pretty.
My phone vibrated again.
Ur dead to us.
I smiled. For the first time in years, I didn’t give a damn about the Wight Knights. Or Arcadia. I had just performed a miracle.
Then again, maybe I could get in one last game before I started preparing for my date.
The Xterra was still pretty dirty. I had only managed to clean the front half, and I was out of tokens. Screw it. Casey could stand to have the ass-end of her vehicle speckly for a few days.
On the drive home I couldn’t stop smiling. I imagined making Serena laugh over and over again while we dined at Mandrake’s. I’d have to find something nice to wear. That was for sure. Should I get my crack waxed? Did people actually do that? If so, where? And was there something the waxer could sign that declared that if they ever saw me in public, like on a date at Mandrake’s, they’d have to pretend not to recognize me? The back and shoulder wax was a must. Serena was worth it, I just knew. But what if during the date I bent over to pick up her dropped fork or something and my shirt came up and she saw that I was basically an overfed Hobbit? Could I lose about thirty pounds by Thursday? Probably not. But she didn’t seem to care about my weight.
Would she have said yes if she did?
I took a deep breath and smiled. I thought I had four whole days to think about these things.
Turned out I had about four minutes.
Cure for the Common Universe
Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab…ten minutes after meeting a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.
Jaxon’s first date. Ever.
In rehab, Jaxon can’t blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can’t slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.
If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother’s absence, and maybe admit that it’s more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.
From a bright new voice in young adult literature comes the story of a young man with a serious case of arrested development—and carpal tunnel syndrome—who is about to discover what real life is all about.
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Book Cover Image (jpg): Cure for the Common Universe
Author Photo (jpg): Christian McKay Heidicker
Photograph (c) Breana Reichert(0.1 MB)
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