Authors: David Lubar
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For Susan Chang, editor, friend, and advocate. Thanks for working so hard to make me look good.
Henry fired a mortar
round at the cluster of aliens. Perfect! It hit their group dead center, and blew them up in a geyser of brown soil and green flesh.
“Nice!” Stan said. “I'll flank the other squadron while you distract them.”
“Got it,” Henry said into the microphone of his headset. He pushed the right thumb stick to rotate the camera toward the other group of enemies. Then he tapped the D-pad to switch weapons. No use wasting mortar shells. He fired short bursts from his plasma rifle, knocking chips of stone off the broken statues that sheltered the enemy. They responded by sending a hail of blind fire in his direction.
“Almost there,” Stan said.
Henry panned the camera back, but couldn't spot his friend.
“As soon as you attack, I'll move closer,” he said. “Okay?”
Instead of answering, Stan screamed, “Aliens!”
“Ouch! Stop that.” Henry lowered the volume. “Of course there are aliens. That's the whole point of this gameâto fight the aliens.”
“No. Real ones!” Stan yelled.
Henry rotated the view all the way around until he got back to the starting point. He didn't see anything that hadn't been there before. No new enemies had shown up on the radar map, either.
A message scrolled across the top of the screen.
STANROCKS720 HAS DROPPED OUT.
“Very funny,” Henry muttered. He had no idea why Stan had quit, but he was happy to play the game by himself. He switched back to the mortar, slipped closer, and took out the second group of aliens with another perfectly placed shot. Then he headed over the ridge, where he suspected he'd find ammo crates and health pickups.
“I knew it,” he said when he saw the stockpile of supplies. Now that he had full health and plenty of ammo, he decided to keep going. According to the walk-through he'd checked before starting this session, there were only five levels left. It would serve Stan right if he missed out on the ending.
Half an hour later, Henry felt someone tugging on his sleeve. “Can I play?” his little brother, Ruben, asked.
“Go away.” Even if Ruben had any chance of lasting more than five seconds in the game without getting vaporized by an energy whip or blown to pieces by an omega mine, Henry wasn't going to put up with a split screen, which was the only option for two players on the same console.
“Pleaseâ¦” Ruben said.
“I mean it,” Henry said. “Go away!”
Ruben stormed off. Henry didn't even look up. He couldn't care less about his little brother at the moment. He'd just discovered a stash of mini-nuke proximity grenades. They'd be perfect when he attacked the stronghold at the end of the level.
Ten minutes later, Ruben started screaming. “Aliens! Help meeeee!!!!”
Henry heard footsteps race through the living room, along the hall, and into the kitchen. The back door slammed as Ruben ran into the yard. There was another scream, but Henry didn't pay any attention to it. His little brother was always screaming. Henry had more important things to deal with.
Finally, two hours later, Henry watched the credits scroll down the screen. “I did it.” He'd beaten the game on his own, clearing the last five levels without any help from Stan.
Henry dropped the controller from his half-numb hands and staggered to his feet. His back ached from sitting in one spot for so long, and his legs tingled. He didn't care. He'd finished the game. That was the important thing. He needed to brag to someone about his accomplishment. Not just someoneâhe wanted to brag to everyone. But he'd start with the most convenient, and easily impressed, person.
“Hey, Ruben, where are you?”
Henry walked out to the backyard. Instead of grass and a swing set, he found an enormous crater, like someone had set off a bomb. He went around the house to the front yard and looked down the street. Half the houses were on fire. A bunch of others were just gone, like a giant had scraped them up with a spatula.
Henry didn't see any people at all.
“Hey,” he called, in case someone could hear him. “I beat
All by myself. On the hard setting.”
After a moment, Henry gave up and went back inside.
Might as well play another game,
he thought. There was no point wasting the day. He called a couple of his friends, to see if anyone wanted to play online, but nobody answered.
So Henry played by himself and he was totally happy, until the electricity went off, the water stopped running, and the invaders made a second pass through town to wipe out any stragglers.
Despite all his gaming skills, Henry didn't turn out to be a very challenging opponent when he fought against real aliens. The battle was brief. And then it was
watched the blood
drain from Royce's face. His mouth dropped open like his jaw muscles had been slit. His eyes bulged as if someone had jammed high-pressure air hoses into both his ears and both his nostrils. He pointed a trembling finger at my parents' kitchen table.
“That's the most horrible thing I've ever seen. Or smelled.” He clutched his nose and ran out of the kitchen.
I really couldn't argue. My folks ate some totally disgusting stuff. “Wait for me,” I called.
“What was that?” Royce asked when I caught up with him in the living room.
“Gorgonzola,” I said. “It's a kind of blue cheese.”
“Man, it smells like someone blew it out their butt.” He shook his head. “Who'd make something like that?”
I shrugged. “Not a clue.”
But the question got me wondering. That night, after the cheese was safely wrapped up, I opened the fridge and looked at the label.
GORGON FARMS GORGONZOLA.
The address was on Millburg-Bayerton Road, the four-lane highway that, no surprise, ran between Millburg, where we lived, and Bayerton. I told Royce about it the next day in school.
“Hey, you know what a Gorgon is?” he said.
“That's like Medusa,” he said.
This wasn't clearing things up at all. “Who?”
“Medusa. Don't you pay any attention in school?”
I shook my head. “I try not to.”
“It's actually a cool story.”
“And you're going to tell it to me, no matter what I say. Right?”
I didn't try to fight it. Royce loved telling me stuff. So he told me about Medusa, who was so ugly that people who looked at her turned to stone. This guy named Perseus killed her by using his shield as a mirror. When she saw her own face, she turned to stone. Then Perseus cut off her head. I didn't bother asking Royce how you cut off a head when someone's turned to stone. Perseus must have had an awesome sword.
“We need to check this place out,” he said.
“No, we don't. It's just some stupid farm. Probably a bunch of old hippies or something, living with cows or goats. Smelly people with smelly animals making smelly cheese. There's nothing to see.”
“There must be,” he said. “A cheese that horrible has to come from a horrifying cheesemaker. We're going there right after school.”
I knew better than to argue. Once Royce decided to do something, it was easier to go along. So, after school, Royce and I caught the bus to Bayerton.
The whole way there, he kept touching his backpack, like he had something important inside.
“What's in there?” I asked.
“It has to be something.”
“I'll show you later.”
I could tell he wasn't going to give me a real answer. I sat back until we got close to our stop. Finally, the bus pulled over to the side of the highway next to a small wooden sign for Gorgon Farms.
“This is such a total waste of time,” I said as we got out.
“You have no sense of adventure,” Royce said.
“Adventure isn't always a good thing.” I looked past the sign. There was a gravel road curving out of sight beyond the trees.
Royce led the way. I followed him along the road, which ran through a dense forest of trees. Eventually, we reached a field.
“I told you there'd be goats,” I said.
Sure enough, behind a fence, I saw goats and cows. Chickens, too. The cows were grazing near a barn. There was a brick building behind the barn that looked like a small factory.
“Let's check it out,” Royce said.
We walked up to the building, then crouched on either side of a window.
“Someone's there,” Royce whispered.
A woman, dressed in a long white robe that reminded me of a bedsheet, was in the room, with her back to us. She had thick, wavy hair that reached past her shoulders. A large cage on a table held three chickens. The woman reached into the cage, pulled out a chicken, and raised it up in both hands so it was level with her head.
The chicken jolted and jerked, like it had seen something startling. It let out a really pathetic squawk. And then it froze.
But that wasn't the weird part. It didn't just freeze. It changed color. The chicken wasn't brown and yellow anymore. It was white, with green and blue veins.
“Cheese!” Royce gasped. I slapped my hand over his mouth before he could say anything else. I didn't want the woman to hear us.
In the room, the woman took the cheese chicken to a table and started to cut it up into pieces. It wasn't bloody. There weren't any guts. The thing was solid cheese. Solid Gorgonzola.
I think guts would have been less disgusting.
The woman's hair wriggled and writhed. I realized it wasn't thick curlsâit was thin snakes.
“We have to get out of here,” I whispered.