Ree Reyes’s life was easier when all she had to worry about was scraping together tips from her gig as a barista and comicshop slave to pursue her ambitions as a screenwriter.
When a scruffy-looking guy storms into the shop looking for a comic like his life depends on it, Ree writes it off as just another day in the land of the geeks. Until a gigantic “BOOM!” echoes from the alley a minute later, and Ree follows the rabbit hole down into her town’s magical flip-side. Here, astral cowboy hackers fight trolls, rubber-suited werewolves, and elegant Gothic Lolita witches while wielding nostalgia-powered props.
Ree joins Eastwood (aka Scruffy Guy), investigating a mysterious string of teen suicides as she tries to recover from her own drag-your-heart-through-jagged-glass breakup. But as she digs deeper, Ree discovers Eastwood may not be the knight-in-cardboard armor she thought. Will Ree be able to stop the suicides, save Eastwood from himself, and somehow keep her job?
Tunnels and Trollops
A few minutes later, as she was nicely burrowed into her couch den, Ree’s phone started playing her dad’s ringtone (“Piano Man,” his favorite). Ree extricated herself from the blankets and fetched her crooning device.
“Hey, love. How’s the daily grind?” Ree could hear his selfsatisfied smile through the phone—the one he used when he was patting himself on the back after a horrible pun. She couldn’t help but grin.
“Rough only because it was smooth. Boring day, save for one crazy. Anya swung by to chat for a while. What’s the word from the world of hair?”
Ree’s father was a hairdresser (for now) and had stuck with it longer than any of his previous careers. In the years after her mom left, Ree’s dad had almost always worked 60 hours or more. Only recently had he been able to stay afloat without overtime.
“Fortunately, it’s a growth industry. I had a few referrals this week, which helped. Any word on the writing?”
Ree’s dad was her biggest (sometimes it felt like only) fan. And he was thankfully taking her request from their last conversation to not talk about Jay. Any topic in the world was preferable to that jackass.
“Nothing since yesterday. I’m out of options with Orion Overdrive, unless one of the agents who never responded to submissions before actually writes back this time. I sent out another dozen submissions to agents last week, including the guy who said that he wanted to see something else from me when he rejected Shibboleth Showdown. But the Lindelof lead came back with nothing.”
She could feel the smile in his breath. “Well, you’re staying on it. What are you working on now?”
In truth, she hadn’t written a word since the breakup, even when she opened a new document intending to free-write to get the anguish out of her brain. The words just didn’t come. She had gone back and looked at Orion Overdrive after the last rejections, to try and see what didn’t click, but her heart wasn’t in it.
It wouldn’t do any good to lie, so she said, “Yeah, about that. I’ve been in kind of a funk.”
Her dad hrrm’ed in the phone. “Anything I can do?”
Ree shook her head by instinct, though of course her dad couldn’t see it. “I’d rather not have you running from the law on an assault rap, so probably not.”
“You know I’d do time for you, love.”
“Of course, Dad. But you’d last about a millisecond in prison.”
“What about all that Taekwondo you taught me? I’ve been practicing the roundhouse kick.” Her father trying to do Taekwondo was hilarious, charming, and completely unintimidating.
“Take a knife-fighting class and then maybe we’ll talk.”
“We’re talking right now.”
Ree groaned. “This is me rolling my eyes.”
“I’m not going to acknowledge that. How are the Rhyming Ladies?”
“They’re fine. Pretty soon Priya will disappear down the hole of end-of-semester papers, and Sandra’s been extra busy since one of the other receptionists is out sick.”
A thought struck Ree. “Hey, any word back from banker lady?”
“Alas, no. I left a voicemail, but it’s all echo chamber.”
“Bitch,” Ree said with a half-smiling sneer. Her dad was awesome, and he’d been single for way too long.
“I’m not exactly the world’s most eligible bachelor, dear, your bias aside.”
“Bias my ass, you’re awesome and you deserve to be happy.”
He chuckled. “Thanks.”
The locks on the door opened one by one, and Ree looked over the couch to see her roommate walk in. Sandra gave her an only-the-wrist-moves wave.
Sandra Wilson (Strength 15, Dexterity 13, Stamina 13, IQ 17, Will 12, and Charisma 13—Geek 3 / Scholar 3 / Dancer 1 / Teacher 1 / Waitress 1 / Chef 1 / Professional 1) was just over six feet tall, had long curly black hair, a perfect olive complexion, and a build sufficiently Amazonian that Ree occasionally had to choke down a bout of homicidal jealousy.
Every group of friends had the hot girl, the funny girl, the smart girl, etc. The roles were usually visible only in contrast. Like in a sorority where all the girls are gorgeous, one is maybe a shade more camera-ready.
But Ree, she was the funny girl, the jester for her Rhyming Ladies, a crew who dated all the way back to college. Technically, the three women’s names didn’t all rhyme, it was just the name that had stuck. Ree had tried Ree and the Holograms, The Fabtastic Four, and The A-Team, but in the end, and prompted by her father’s humor, they were the Rhyming Ladies.
Most of the time, when people scoped out her friends, they zoomed in on Sandra’s statuesque figure, Anya’s marvelous curves, or Priya’s look-straight-through-you eyes.
Yes, the geekboys headed for Ree if a conversation ensued that showed off her massive geek cred. But the rest of the time, well, she got to watch and make jokes.
Not helping, she scolded herself. Focus. Be positive.
Ree returned to her father. “That’s Sandra. I should go, there needs to be dinner or I’m going to eat the couch.”
“Take care, love,” her father said.
“Love ya, Dad,” she said, then hung up.
Sandra slung her purse on the coatrack and said, “We’re going out tonight,” as she turned toward her own room across from Ree’s.
Ree called after her, getting off the couch. “Is something wrong?”
As Ree caught up to her, Sandra snorted in frustration. “Freakshows on parade today, so I need a drink. Plus, Darren’s about to start his term papers, so he needs a drink. And I want to see him one more time before he’s swallowed by term papers.”
Darren was a graduate student in history at the University of Pearson, focusing on the gender politics of proxy wars conducted by the USA and the USSR. You’d think that would be interesting, but from what Darren said, it was mostly seeing how many times he could flatter his professor’s research while quoting Foucault, Butler, and Hardt & Negri to prove his theory chops.
“Where are we going?” Ree asked as Sandra switched out of her business clothes into a skintight top and skirt that were less “dinner with grandma” and more “dessert with boytoy.”
Sandra grinned. “Trollope’s Trollops.”
Trollope’s Trollops was a college bar with more grad students than frat boys in the clientele, weekly burlesque shows, and open-mike debates. It was Darren’s favorite, strangely more for the debates than the burlesque shows. At least until Sandra joined the burlesque troupe, at which point he declared it his boyfriendly obligation to attend every show. According to Darren, said duty was “truly torturous.”
Ree clicked off the TV, silencing the comically gross trolls. As she walked into her room, she shouted, “Activate Bar Crawl outfit!”
Trollope’s Trollops was fairly busy, since Thursday had been claimed by the drinking weekend years ago in Pearson. Darren was already there, splayed out in a corner booth to claim space. Darren Hudson (Strength 15, Dexterity 11, Stamina 14, IQ 18, Will 16, and Charisma 13—Scholar 7 / New England Heir 3 / Grad Student 3) was even taller than Sandra, with café au lait skin and teeth so white they probably had their own wattage. Darren stood to embrace Sandra with a deep kiss, then gave Ree a quick hug before the three of them took their seats.
Ree’s heart rushed with vicarious excitement at her friends’ kiss, then went klunk with a dull ache. She was in no condition to date, not for a while. If she did, it would be desperation and loneliness, not desire. And that way lay madness and more hurt feelings.
Plus, whom would she pick? She didn’t have a shortage of suitors, but going home with one of the customers at Café Xombi would invariably be read as an invitation for all of the other regulars to ask her out, and then she’d have to kill them all, sleep with them all, or quit. Not a great set of options.
They ordered a pitcher of Urban Ale-ian, a local microbrew, which Darren paid for. Despite being a grad student—the larval form of the notoriously low-earning Professional Academic— Darren had money to throw around because of a gloriously bourgeois family background.
Oh, to have a wealthy family.
Ree had no such family fortune, so instead of a trust fund, she had student loans the size of Mount Rainier. If there was a continuum of financial savvy with Warren Buffett on one end, then Ree lived pretty close to the opposite extreme. Most of the time, she blamed her continued brokenness on budgeting for the L.A. trips, but that was a convenient excuse. No one had come to break her kneecaps yet, so she took it as a win.
Ree sat back, letting Sandra and Darren chatter. She looked over the bar to take in the laid-back energy. She needed to recharge her social batteries, which had been flashing red most of the day, barring Anya’s visit. Priya texted a few minutes into the pitcher, saying she was stuck at home with laundry.
Two beers later, Sandra asked Ree a question, but Ree hadn’t been paying attention.
Ree shook her head. “Sorry, what? I zoned out.”
“Do you want to go down to Turbo’s for a slice?” Their pitcher was empty, and Turbo’s was fantastic drinking/drunk food.
“Is the pope naked in the woods?” Ree said.
Darren raised an eyebrow, but Sandra laughed.
Ree and company donned their coats again and made their way through the bar. Ree licked her lips in anticipation of the pizza. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?
The trio walked up the stairs to where the bar emptied out into an alley that was as likely to host a game of Hacky Sack as a homeless guy selling tube socks.
As she reached the door, Ree heard a shout.
“Gorram frakking piece of go-se!”
If Ree hadn’t placed the voice by itself (which she did), the dense geek-speak cursing and the fact that there were more strange noises coming from an alleyway were enough to assure her that she was hearing the frantic customer from the afternoon.
Ree ducked around the corner and saw the man from earlier in the alley, holding a prop lightsaber and looking even worse for wear, if that were possible.
And then things got really weird.
Facing him was a twelve-foot-tall, green-gray-skinned beast with a bulbous nose and eyes so beady that they deserved their own craft fair. It was, for all Ree could tell, some kind of troll.
Except for the fact that trolls didn’t exist and sure as hell didn’t belong in the University District on a Thursday night when all she wanted to do was find someplace to drink in peace without running into one of her exes or any of the crazy customers from her job.
break (n—Archaic English)—A thing that cannot be bought by one Rhiannon Anna Maria Reyes.
Darren and Sandra both screamed when they saw the thing. The strange customer stepped forward, raising his lightsaber, which made the whirring hum of a high-end prop. Except that the glow was too good, too bright, for any of the sabers that Ree had ever seen. Ree kept a pretty close eye on the designs on the Web, to see if anything was cooler for practical use than her Force FX, but she hadn’t found anything yet.
And the plastic or glass or whatever on this one was way too thin to be practical—she couldn’t even see it through the glow.
And then the guy twitched forward with a quick kendo slice that cut off the troll’s hand.
The troll’s bellow echoed through the alley, shaking dirt from the walls. The other side of the alley was a dead end into a building, so it wasn’t not like she could escape, except back into the bar.
Sandra and Darren screamed from behind her; then Ree heard the door slam shut.
The troll took a lumbering step toward Ree, and she found her mind split in two. One part of her was so scared that she wanted to dig through the concrete to get away. But another part of her was strangely unimpressed, instead buzzing with excitement, saying, The troll from that crap movie was betterlooking than this thing.
The logical part of her brain said to the suddenly fearless part, But, self, that thing was on TV, and this one wants to tear your liver out your nose. Run.
Before she could decide, the troll brought down its other massive hand toward her head.
Without thinking, Ree dove into a shoulder roll to the right of the beast’s blow. She composed a letter in her mind as she rolled.
Thank you for enrolling me in Taekwondo when I was five and not letting me quit until I had my black belt.
Love, your doting daughter
P.S. Trolls are real. I know, right? Crazy.
Ree rolled up to her feet, wondering how in the wild wild west she was going to joint-lock or jump-kick a twelve-foot-tall monster. Then the increasingly sane-seeming customer jumped forward and slashed again, his lightsaber cutting the troll’s legs off at the knees. The beast howled in pain as it collapsed to the ground. Ree scrambled back and jumped clear of the falling troll’s head, which crashed into the ground at her feet.
Over the troll’s body, she saw the man standing in a perfect Force Unleashed stance. He watched the troll, standing ready. After a moment, he relaxed and touched a button on the lightsaber.
The too-realistic blade blinked out in a moment with the requisite sound. Deactivated, it looked like an expensive prop hilt.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“The hell?” she answered, pointing at the maimed troll. It rolled over once, flailing for the man. Aaah! she thought, and shuffled away another couple of steps.
The bearded man jumped out of the beast’s reach, unfazed. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
Ree dusted the street off her legs. A few scrapes, nothing bad. “No, but ‘confused as hell’ would apply.”
“Understandable. You’ll want to step back a bit more.”
“Why?” she asked.
A second later, the dying troll popped like a burst balloon and gushed out into a puddle of viscous green-gray goop. Ree hopped back, but the wave of goop caught up to her, lapping over the sides of her boots.
She cursed absently, walking over to the man. “So who are you?”
“Call me Eastwood,” the man said.
Ree put her hands on her hips, thoroughly past “unamused” and approaching “HULK SMASH.”
“First name Clint?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
“It’s a nickname.”
Taking another step toward Eastwood, Ree said, “I’d like to return to my earlier question: The hell?”
Eastwood gestured with his head to an open manhole in the street. “It was a troll, came out of the sewer.”
Ree gave him a skeptical look. There was no way something that big could fit through a manhole. Not to mention that she still hadn’t gotten a good explanation on the whole “trolls exist” fact.
Eastwood nodded. “You have questions, and I can provide answers. The fact that I’ve saved your life means you owe me the chance to explain, something I intend on doing.” He took another look around the alley. “Looks clear. Come with me now before the Doubt settles in.”
He pronounced Doubt with a capital letter, much the same way that her dad could say “Rhiannon Anna Maria Reyes, come here Now” when she was in trouble. Which happened a lot, between her childhood science experiments, Nerf war escalation, and the avant-garde haircuts she gave their golden retriever, Booster.
She said, “My friends are back there, so I’m not leaving. You can explain right here or I can call the cops.”
Eastwood harrumphed. “In less than five minutes, they won’t remember this happened at all. That’s what the Doubt does. But it won’t affect you. I can explain why I came into your store and why the troll was here, but we need to get out of this alley before something worse arrives.” He looked over his shoulder again, scanning the street.
Ree snorted. “Are you some kind of ghetto Kenobi? Come to teach me the ways of the Force so I can become a Jedi like my father?”
Eastwood flashed her a surprised look, then shook it off and pulled the lightsaber prop from his coat. “It’s what I had on hand.”
“Either you’re drunk or I am. Wait here,” she said, not waiting for him to respond. But only one of us just came out of a bar, Ree, she told herself. Bah.
Ree turned and opened the door again. Sandra and Darren weren’t in the stairwell, so she walked down the stairs to see them looking around the entranceway of the bar. Sandra looked up and said, “Oh! I thought you were still in the bathroom. Ready for pizza?”
Not to sound like a broken record, but the hell?
“What are you talking about? We were just outside, it was kind of memorable?”
Darren gave a wordless humph of bemusement. “That joke wasn’t that good, Ree. FOX is dumb for canceling Firefly, we get it.”
You’ve got to be kidding me, she thought. “The troll, remember?”
Two blank faces looked back up at her. They didn’t remember. Which meant Eastwood was either not totally crazy, or crazy but not entirely wrong. One way or another, it looked like the rabbit hole was inevitable. That or a padded room. Not a terribly appealing choice, really.
“Sure thing.” Ree scaled the stairs two at a time and returned to the alley to see Eastwood using a cartoon mop to soak up the troll goop.
Huh, she thought, her mind the model of erudition.
“So?” he asked.
“Not now. Gimme your cell number,” Ree said.
He laughed. “Just meet me outside Café Xombi at midnight, and we’ll go from there.”
“I have to work tomorrow. Gimme your cell and I’ll call. My life isn’t so crappy that I’m going to fall over myself asking for the blue pill, okay?”
Eastwood smiled and produced a smartphone. He pressed one button, and a second later, her phone started ringing.
Ree looked down, and the phone showed [Blocked]. She held it up to check with Eastwood that it was, in fact, him calling, but he’d pulled a Batman, vanished without a trace.
Ree turned to the door of the bar but jumped back as it opened quickly, revealing Darren and Sandra with confused looks on their faces.
And Fanboy somehow has my cell phone number. Great.
Stalker has the lead over Kenobi, 4–1, but the pool is still open.
Geekomancy © Michael R. Underwood 2012