Alex and Roger have gone to Radio Shack to get supplies for their science project, but Roger spots his nemesis, Heidi, whom he blames for his failure in last year’s science fair, in Walden Books. He sends Alex to distract her so she can't spy on what Roger is purchasing.
4:55 p.m. on October 2nd, 1987.
What would lure Heidi out of Waldenbooks? Alex is good at improvising – he’s a Dungeon Master, after all. If he can come up with a plausible back-story to explain why a stone giant would have a gelatinous cube as a pet, he should certainly be able to come up with a story good enough to fool Heidi. It has to be something urgent. An emergency. A fire? No, too big. She’d pull the alarm, and they’d evacuate the mall, and he’d probably spend the night in jail. It has to be something she can actually do something about.
Heidi looks up from her book and meets his eyes. Alex realizes he’s been standing in the aisle staring at her for several seconds now. “Alex?” she says, a little warily.
Alex panics. Fortunately, the panic adds authenticity when he blurts out, “Heidi, Come quick! It’s an emergency.”
Heidi returns the book that she was looking at to the shelf. “What kind of emergency?”
“Someone collapsed.” Perfect. Alex gives himself a mental pat on the back.
“Did you call the mall security guard?”
“The security guard is the one who collapsed.” Oh, he’s on fire now. “Come on!” He grabs her arm, pulls her out into the mall. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Roger peeking out from behind the Tiffany mall tour poster across the walkway.
Alex needs to get Heidi out of sight of Radio Shack. Taking her down to the lower level would be best. He leads her to the escalators.
Heidi is looking concerned. “What do you expect me to do about the security guard?”
“He might need mouth-to-mouth. You learned it in health class, right?”
“Yeah. So did you.”
“Yeah, but I had tacos for lunch, so my breath is pretty grody.”
“Charming. Where are we going?”
Alex picks the place he knows best. “The arcade. The guard was chasing a burglar who was stealing quarters. And then he just collapsed.”
As they approach the arcade, they hear the beat of Berlin’s “Masquerade” drifting out from the arched entrance. They round the corner. Dozens of teens are playing games.
Alex sneaks a look at Heidi. She’s staring at him skeptically. “None of these people could help?”
“None has taken health yet.” Alex shrugs. “I thought it was weird, too.”
“So where’s this security guard?”
Uh oh. Alex realizes he hasn’t thought his story all the way through. In Dungeons & Dragons he never has to actually produce the stone giant or gelatinous cube. But he’s too far in now to change course. “He was right here. Maybe he crawled away. Help me look.” Alex squats down and peers under the air hockey table. “Not here.” He moves over to the foosball table. In the reflection of the Spy Hunter screen he can see Heidi watching him, arms crossed and one eyebrow raised.
“You’re not helping!” Alex cries. “The poor man could be dying.” Alex peers behind the change machine, buying time to come up with another story.
Alex glances back. The security guard – a large, very conscious man – is standing next to Heidi.
Alex runs to the security guard and hugs him. “You’re alive! It’s a miracle.”
“Alex, a little tip from Nancy Reagan: Just say no.” Heidi turns and heads back toward the escalator.
Alex releases the security guard. “Sorry. Someone told me you’d collapsed.”
The guard looks Alex up and down with a suspicous glare.
And then Roger pokes his head through the arcade entrance. Roger holds up his plastic Radio Shack bag.
“Please don’t ban me from the mall,” Alex shouts to the guard as he runs to join Roger.
* * *
6:08 p.m. on October 2nd, 1987.
“No, Banana.” Alex nudges his dog, a yellow Labrador named Bananarama, with his knee. Bananarama gives him pleading eyes. Alex doesn’t know why she insists on begging at the kitchen table. He never gives her food there. And especially not the tuna casserole his mom made tonight. He loves her tuna casserole.
So does Roger. Roger is a frequent dinner guest at the MacDonald house. He sits to Alex’s left, shoveling tuna and noodles into his mouth. Alex’s mom, Donna, sits to Alex’s right, still wearing her leg warmers, spandex, and off-the-shoulder sweatshirt from Jazzersize. His dad, Bud, fills the remaining seat, his nose buried in the paper.
“I hope Reagan doesn’t fall for this ‘glastnost’ baloney,” Alex’s dad mumbles. “It sounds like something Gorbachev made up to me.”
“I think it’s a Russian word,” Alex offers.
“Hmph. Typical commie B.S.” he sets the paper aside. “You want to go shopping tomorrow afternoon? It’ll be nice to have a new look for college, make a fresh start.” Alex senses a trap. His dad hates clothes shopping even more than Alex does. And then it comes: “Afterwards, we can swing by the batting cages, hit a few balls.” Alex’s dad is always trying to get Alex to go to the batting cages. Bud played high school baseball and obviously hoped Alex would follow in his footsteps. But one disastrous season of Little League with his dad as his team’s coach ended any interest Alex had in baseball.
Fortunately, his mom provides an excuse before Alex has to think one up. “This is Homecoming weekend, dear. I’m sure Alex has plans.”
“Yeah,” Roger says. “We’re working on our science fair project all weekend.”
Alex’s mom looks at Alex, disappointed. “You’re not going to the dance?”
“Maybe,” Alex says, thinking of the two tickets in his wallet. “It depends.”
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be working on the science project,” Roger mumbles.
“My Homecoming was magical,” Alex’s mom says. “I made my own dress and Hugh Baker got me a corsage.”
“I bet you looked beautiful,” Alex’s dad says. Alex can see him squeeze his mom’s leg under the table.
“Aww,” she replies, and gives Bud a kiss on the cheek in return. Alex’s parents are so lame. His mom sits back with a dreamy smile. “Those were the days.”
“We knew how to deal with commies back then, too,” Alex’s dad adds, and returns to the paper.
Roger pushes back his plate. “Thanks for dinner, Mrs. MacDonald. It was great. Alex and I should get to work.”
* * *
Alex and Roger scramble downstairs to the MacDonald’s basement rec room, Bananarama thumping after them. The rec room is a teenage boy’s paradise. The faux wood paneling is covered with bodacious posters of Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley, and Heather Thomas. Perhaps hottest of all is the poster of Sigourney Weaver in her sweaty Aliens t-shirt, shooting a warning look as she cradles an M41A pulse rifle. An Atari 2600 sits in front of the massive 32” console TV, surrounded by cartridges (Missile Command, Frogger, and Football get the most play). A hi-fi system perches on a bookcase full of colorful paperbacks and stacks of cassette tapes – Alex is an enthusiastic participant in Columbia House’s music club. Next to the bookcase are several boxes of comic books, each issue carefully preserved in plastic sheathes with acid-free backing boards to protect their collector value – Alex’s retirement plan.
Alex turns on MTV out of habit. ZZ Top’s “Legs” video is playing. Roger beelines straight for an object covered by an old sheet. He whips the sheet off to reveal:
The science project.
It consists of two five-foot-high posts wrapped in copper wire sticking up from a 1’ x 1’ x 4’ plywood box. The copper wires attach to a circuit board mounted on the side of the box next to a power supply. Alex has painted the box with an elaborate mural telling the story of a wizard with levitating powers. He thinks it’s clever considering what they’re trying to do, but it annoyed Roger. He didn’t think it looked very scientific.
Roger dumps the Radio Shack bag out on Alex’s dad’s old ping-pong table. Nobody has used the table for its intended purpose for a long time. It currently serves as a makeshift desk for the family’s Apple IIe, which Alex has upgraded with a massive 128k of RAM.
Alex examines the new electronics. “You didn’t get any voltage multipliers. Do you think the magnetic field will be powerful enough?” Alex had suggested making a small device to suspend a ball bearing in midair, but Roger didn’t think that would be impressive enough to win the blue ribbon. He wants to suspend a hollow, twelve-inch-diameter metal globe.
“The voltage is fine. I just need to connect the field generator to your computer so I can run my program.”
While Roger pops the case on Alex’s Apple IIe and inserts a new circuit board, Alex drifts over to the couch. On the television, ZZ Top spins their furry guitars and the three Eliminator girls emerge from their hot rod. “Man, those girls are so bodacious. Which one is your favorite?”
“Alex, you’re supposed to be helping me.” Roger replaces the cover, inserts the floppy disk into the external drive, and hits the power.
“I like the brunette in white.”
“Alex!” Roger crouches by the science project and solders a wire in place.
Alex tears himself away from the video. “Right. What do you want me to do?”
“Run the program.”
Alex goes to the computer. Roger’s Basic program fills the screen in glowing green letters. Alex types “RUN,” but pauses with his finger above the Enter key, remembering last year’s science fair. “My computer won’t explode, will it? I begged for a year to get this. My dad wanted to buy me a dirt bike.”
“Just do it!” Roger growls.
Alex hits the key. Numbers scroll across the computer screen. The science project hums and Alex feels the hair stand up on his arms. Bananarama whimpers and crawls under the stairs. There is a crackling sound from the circuit board on the plywood box. And then nothing. Alex’s arm hair lies back down again.
Roger pounds his fist into his thigh. “Damn it!”
Alex looks at the computer. The letter F scrolls repeatedly across the screen. “Is it working?” he asks.
Roger turns on him, cheeks flushed. “No, it’s not working. I don’t get it. I’m sure my calculations were perfect. Maybe something’s loose...”
Roger prods the circuit board with the soldering iron.
Alex’s eyes drift back to the “Legs” video, where the mousy cashier is being transformed into a hot babe by the Eliminator girls. The Eliminator girl in white is sexy, but Alex has to admit that the cashier’s legs certainly deserve to have a song written about them. Alex leans forward.
The science project begins to hum again – electricity arcs between the two posts.
Roger looks up, confused. “Alex! What are you doing?”
“What?” Alex realizes his hand is resting on the computer keyboard. Random letters and numbers scroll across the screen. Alex picks his hand up – but the letters and numbers keep scrolling. He’s executed something in Roger’s program. Behind him, the machine cycles rapidly – the air crackles, pops – orange-white light flashes between the posts–
Roger leaps toward the computer–
The breaker blows. Everything goes dark. ZZ Top is cut off mid-lyric.
Except – the science project still HUMS – and dim, pale light spills from between the two posts.
Roger’s eyes get wide. “Whoa. It’s generating some kind of self-sustaining field.”
“Radical,” Alex whispers.
The two boys stand frozen in place. Bananarama creeps up next to Alex.
The spell is broken when Alex’s father shouts down from upstairs, “Alex! What did you do?”
“Sorry, Dad, I’ll fix it.” Alex stumbles to the fuse box in the corner. Feels for the tripped breaker. Flips it back. The lights and TV come back on.
Alex turns back to the science project. Something is off. Between the two posts is what looks like a window into another room – a shadowy room with a cement floor and corrugated tin walls.
Alex feels his stomach knotting. “Roger... what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” Roger’s eyes are wide, his hands trembling.
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