When Amy entered her room, it immediately felt different. It looked as if someone had reflected the room, or maybe inverted in, Amy wasn’t quite sure. Everything felt like it had subtly shifted an inch or two from its original location. Amy was certain that almost anyone else wouldn’t be able to tell the differences—the way that her bed had been lowered several inches or her desk replaced with an almost exact duplicate that was lower and wider. But she knew and each change grated on her nerves.
Her mom smiled nervously, still holding the door open, even though Amy had already entered. “Welcome back.” She said, her smile firmly plastered onto her face. “What do you think?” Amy shrugged.
Her mom kept looking at her with that smile so Amy tried to muster up the energy to at least fake smile back. She only managed to summon up a half smile, but it must have reassured her mother all the same.
“Do you want…” Her mom started to say, but Amy’s smile instantly dropped and her mother froze.
“I’m fine.” Amy said brusquely. “I’m tired and I just want to be by myself for a bit.”
Her mom nodded and started to close the door. She stopped and poked her head back in. “Well, you know that your dad and I are just down the hallway if you need us.”
Amy didn’t respond, willing her mom to close the door and just leave her alone. Her mom remained in the doorway, clearly waiting for some answer. After a second, Amy huffed and nodded her head jerkily.
“Yeah. Got it.” The door closed, thankfully, and Amy allowed the misery to wash over her completely. She wanted to feel relieved now that she had returned home from the rehab facility. Instead, Amy fought back a sob and resolutely stared out her window into the backyard.
Eventually Amy pushed her wheelchair to the side of her bed. Someone, probably her dad, had gone ahead and lowered it so that she could make the transition from her chair to the bed. She knew that she should be grateful that her dad had tried to make it easier for her. Instead, Amy only felt resentful.
She transferred herself to her bed and lay there, trying to ignore the dull ache and spurts of low-grade pain that the meds could never quite eliminate.
Amy must have fallen asleep because she woke up suddenly to her room completely dark and her mom gently knocking at the door.
“Amy, honey?” Her mom called. “Dinner’s ready.” Amy wanted to shout back that she wasn’t hungry or didn’t feel like eating, but she knew that it would only lead to her mom getting upset.
When Amy got to the table, she saw that her mom had put forth a considerable effort to make Amy’s favorite foods. Although the lamb chops, mashed potatoes, and grilled vegetables all looked better than any of the rehab center’s meals, Amy didn’t have much of an appetite. But, mindful of her parents’ eyes on her, Amy grabbed a lamb chop and a large helping of both the mashed potatoes and vegetables for her plate.
“This looks great.” Amy said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Thanks Mom.”
Her mom smiled brightly at the praise. Her dad, already working his way through the lamb chop, stopped and addressed Amy. “Are you happy to be back home?”
Amy tried to smile back. “Yeah. Nice to have my own room again.” It was technically true, but Amy had learned fairly quickly that there was only unhappy and less unhappy. Happiness hadn’t quite factored into Amy’s emotions since before the accident.
Her dad nodded. “You’ve been doing those exercises the doctors told you to do?” Amy set her jaw stubbornly and went back to poking at her food.
Amy’s mom instantly realized the tenuous area that they had entered and so she rushed in. “What your dad means is that the doctors have said that the first year is the most important and that you have to keep working in order to…” Amy zoned her out and thought about what she would do when she went back to her room. Probably listen to music. Maybe read. At least she didn’t have to go back to school yet. She had another week off before she had to go back.
When she finally tuned back into the conversation, her parents had moved onto her physical therapy appointment tomorrow. They would start her off on four days a week, at least for the first few weeks. Eventually, and Amy really hoped it would be sooner rather than later, they’ll move down to three times a week.
Suddenly, she couldn’t take anymore of the conversation and so she pushed herself back from the table. “Alright. I’m done.” She announced. “I’m going to my room.” She didn’t wait for permission before she turned herself around starting wheeling her chair back to her room.
“Wait!” She could hear her mother calling after her. “We have cake for dessert!”
Physical therapy hadn’t suddenly become fun now that Amy lived at home. Everything hurt too much and the pace of her barely-there-progress only frustrated her. Amy tried to muster up the little enthusiasm she had felt when the doctor first delivered the prognosis. She remembered when she had been naïve enough to think it was good.
The doctor rapped quickly on the door before entering. Amy’s mom and dad stood up from their chairs as he entered as if they were giving deference to a foreign dignitary. This doctor looked familiar, although Amy had seen so many of them in the past few days that she wasn’t quite sure which one this was.
“Mr. and Mrs. Adler,” The doctor said, nodding politely at both of them. “Amy.” He said nodding in her direction. Amy nodded back, although her bruises and strained neck muscles complained vigorously. “I have some good news and some bad news.” Amy saw her mom tense up and her dad put his arm around her shoulder.
“The bad news, as we have already discussed with you, is that Amy does have a spinal cord injury. However, now that we’ve stabilized her and been able to minimize the inflammation and pressure, we’re able to know a little bit more about what kind of spinal cord injury she has and the severity of it. The first piece of good news is that Amy’s spinal cord injury is incomplete.”
“How is that good?” Her dad interrupted.
“Well,” the doctor responded smoothly. “There are two ways that we describe the overall injury: complete and incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury means that the spinal cord has been completely severed and everything below that vertebra of severance will not have any function. An incomplete spinal cord means that the spinal cord remains partially intact. That means that Amy will likely have function below the area where her spinal cord was injured.
“The second piece of good news is that at this point we can make a reasonable assessment as to where along Amy’s spinal cord the cord is affected. Right now we’re looking at it being an injury at the T12 level.”
At everyone’s blank looks, doctor took out some of Amy’s x-rays as well as a chart of the spinal cord on a human back. He gestured towards the middle-bottom. “This is where Amy’s spinal cord injury is.” He then pointed to the x-ray. “You can see where the damage is on this x-ray.” Her parents leaned into look and then nodded.
“What does this mean?” Amy’s mom asked hesitantly.
“It means that Amy will likely experience loss of function below this level—mainly relating to her legs and bowel.” Amy closed her eyes, not sure if she wanted to hear anymore. “However, we are cautiously optimistic that, due to the incomplete nature of the injury as well as Amy’s youth and medical condition, Amy will be able to walk someday—although it may have to be with some type of walking assistive device. Even though Amy is injured at the T12 level, we are hopeful that she may be able to function at a lower level, perhaps as an L-2 or L-3.” He gestured towards the lower vertebrae.
“She’ll be able to walk?” Amy’s dad asked.
“I can’t promise that as a certainty. Every spinal cord injury is different.” The doctor stated. “However, we think that there is a really good chance that she will be able to do.” He smiled at Amy and Amy took a deep breath and tried to smile back. After all, walking was better than not walking.
But now, Amy almost wished that she could give up. Today they had her on the parallel bars as well as a variety of supposed muscle building exercises. Each exercise hurt more than the last and Amy failed to see any improvement from last week to this week. The physical therapist kept telling Amy how great Amy’s muscles performed. Amy gritted her teeth and tried to pretend that this guy wasn’t talking out of his ass. It didn’t work.
When Amy’s mom came to pick her up, Amy wheeled herself out to the car and sat in the car sullenly while her mother talked with the therapists who worked with Amy. Her mother finally came back in the car fifteen minutes later and looked concerned.
“I thought that we might stop by the store on the way home.” Her mom said, trying to sound casual. “Would you want to come in with me?” For a second, Amy imagined herself as she would have been in the past, running around, trying to sneak sugary cereal into her mom’s cart. But it wouldn’t be like that. Amy would have to wheel herself into the store. Everyone would stare at her. Even worse, someone she knew might see her. Amy could already feel herself wanting the earth to swallow her up.
“No.” She said firmly. “My legs hurt. I just want to go home.”
Even though time dragged on, the week came to a close all too soon and Amy had to go back to school. Her mom insisted upon taking her into school, even though the school and her teachers had already been briefed on Amy’s new condition.
“Do you want me to go with you to your first class?” Her mom asked. Amy instantly froze up.
“Absolutely not, Mom!” She said, horrified. “I’ll be fine. I promise. I don’t need you to walk me in like I’m in kindergarten.”
Going into her first period class was just as horrific as Amy imagined it to be. Due to her mother’s insistence on going into the office, Amy entered the classroom a little bit after the bell and everyone turned to look at her. Amy felt herself blush completely and she wished that she was at physical therapy, back at the rehab center, anywhere except here with everyone staring at her.
“Welcome back Amy.” Her teacher, Mrs. Gibson, said from the front. Everyone else echoed Mrs. Gibson. Amy gave a brief smile and a wave. “You’re over here.” Mrs. Gibson said, pointing to a desk near the back without a chair. “We’re glad to see that you’re doing well and we’re all very happy to have you back and part of our classroom again.” Amy kept her head down as she pushed herself to the back, trying not to make eye contact with any of the other students.
After class, a couple students came up and tried to talk to Amy. She forced a smile on and did her best to be polite but could only take so much of their pity. The rest of the morning passed in the same way. When she ran into friends in other classes, the only things they could say to her were more words of sympathy. Every time someone said they were sorry, Amy wanted to cry or scream or maybe punch them and by the time that the lunch bell rang, she had almost bit her lip raw.
Normally, at lunch, Amy ate with her group of friends over near the steps to the courtyard. They had all visited her when she was in the hospital, maybe two weeks after the accident, to say hi. Her closest friend, Jen, had tried to come see her at the rehab center a few times, but Amy always found something to be doing instead.
Now, Amy debated spending lunch with them or finding somewhere new to sit. It only took a second for Amy to decide and she picked up her backpack and headed over to the computer lab. She hadn’t spent a whole lot of time here but she had newspaper in here next period, and the teacher, Mr. Robinson, never minded if students came in early to use the computers.
The computer room was cooler than the rest of the school’s rooms so Amy shivered when she entered and pulled a sweater out of her backpack. She checked around the room, but didn’t see anyone inside so she figured that Mr. Robinson must have left to get lunch. For the first time all day, Amy breathed easily and didn’t have to fight any rising panic.
Amy took a seat near the back row of computers and pulled out a book, eating her food quietly. When Mr. Robinson came in, he looked surprised to see Amy this early, but he smiled brightly.
“Amy! It’s great to see you.” He said in her direction. Amy instinctively hugged her arms to her chest and nodded once in Mr. Robinson’s direction. He didn’t seem to take her recalcitrance to heart though. “We need you back. The newspaper hasn’t been the same without our star reporter.” He added. Amy didn’t have the energy to protest that, so she ducked her head. “Feel free to use the computers if you want while you’re in here.” Amy gave a half-hearted thanks before returning to her book.
That was only the bright spot in the day. They had a quiz in Math which seemed bad enough, but the worst part of the entire day turned out to be science. Her teacher assigned them into group projects on circuitry and electricity. “Karen, Sam, Daniel and Jay, group one.” She called out. “Clark, Amy, Melissa, and Ryan, group two.” Amy looked around for her group members as the rest of the groups were being called out and saw all of their faces fall as they realized who was in their group. She felt a low pool of dread settle in her stomach.
After class, Ryan, Clark and Melissa flagged her down. Their eyes kept flickering down to her wheelchair. “We’re going to be meeting after school on Wednesday. Will that work for you?” Ryan asked. All three of them stared at her, waiting for her response. Amy thought about how she had physical therapy on Wednesday and blushed.
“I…” She started. “I can’t do Wednesdays. Can we do Thursday?” Ryan turned and looked at the other two, who both nodded nervously. “Yeah, that works.” He said, apparently the designated speaker for the group.
Great, Amy thought. As if she didn’t feel like enough of a freak, people had to nominate someone to specifically talk to her.
Amy’s mom picked her up as soon as school ended. “How was your day?” she asked brightly. “Was it nice to see your friends?” Amy huffed and looked out the window, refusing to respond the entire way to physical therapy.
When Amy got back to the house, she kept replaying the day over and over in her head, everyone’s alternate stares or attempts to avoid eye contact repeating again and again.
“Do you want to help me make dinner?” Her mom called as Amy headed down to her room. Amy didn’t answer, choosing to respond by slamming her door. Once she was inside, the frustration of the day built up. All that attention drawn to her, everyone looking at her wheelchair and their completely horrible pity. Before Amy could stop herself, she started crying. She tried to slow herself down by taking a deep breath, but somehow, the deep breath turned into a sob and then everything started pouring out. All of the frustration, anger, and pain of the last two months.
The hiccupping and tears finally slowed down about half an hour later and Amy felt hollowed out and numb. She found herself in the bathroom with a pair of scissors and started cutting her hair. When Amy emerged for dinner, her mom and dad started at her shortly cropped hair, but wisely said nothing, either about Amy’s drastic hair change or her red rimmed eyes.
Amy’s days quickly fell into a pattern. Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were physical therapy. Monday through Friday, Amy attended school and did her homework, but steadfastly avoided other students outside of class by spending her free time in the computer lab with Mr. Robinson. Mr. Robinson was kind enough to pretend that Amy wanted to spend more time doing newspaper work and that was why she chose to be in the lab during her lunch. He gave her extra reporting or investigative assignments to work on for the paper which Amy found that she really enjoyed. Of everyone at the school, he seemed to best understand Amy’s desire for privacy. That was to say, completely unlike her parents, who kept giving her increasingly concerned looks, especially after each one of her physical therapy sessions.
For the most part, Amy tried to be happy or participate in classes, but she just couldn’t stand the way that she knew everyone stared at her. Therapy sessions weren’t much better. They beat school by sole virtue of not being surrounded by a thousand other kids who stared at her, but she hated how slow she progressed. Almost every exercise burned and left Amy wanting to cry. The only bright spot was water therapy and even that happiness was short lived.
Amy’s dad came into her room on a Sunday morning with a big box that he hefted onto her desk.
“Got you a gift.” He said gruffly. Amy removed the headphones from her ears.
“What is it?” She asked.
“You can come over here and see.” He said, matter-of-factly. Amy sighed, but eventually her curiosity won out over her apathy. When she got over to the desk, her dad placed the box next to her on the ground so she could open it.
Amy slowly opened the box to reveal a computer inside. “It’s a computer?” Amy asked. “Thanks?”
Her dad laughed and started to take it out of the box. “Your mom and I have been pretty concerned about you.” Amy started to roll her eyes but her dad gave her a look. “No, listen to me. We’re concerned, especially because we’ve noticed that you refuse to talk to your old friends. You don’t want to leave the house or make new friends. We think that you need to find people to talk to.”
“I talk to people.” Amy said defensively. Her dad gave her a look. “And even if I don’t—I don’t need a computer to help me make new friends.”
Her dad sighed and finished setting down the monitor on the desk. “Sweetheart, whether you can walk again or can’t, you know that we’re both so happy that you’re here. That’s all that matters to us. We want you to be happy too. More than anything.” He pulled a tower out of the box and set it down next to the desk and started fiddling with the wires. Amy watched her dad for a while, her throat suddenly closed up. When he finished connecting the wires, he looked around for Amy’s phone. He disconnected the phone wire and plugged it into the computer. “Now I’ve set it up that you have internet access, but be careful how much time you spend online as we get charged…” Her dad faded out and then laughed a little. “Oh, who am I kidding? If it made you happy, you could spend as much time as you want on there.” Amy laughed.
Upon finding his work to be satisfactory, Amy’s dad stood up and rumpled her hair. “Use it or don’t. It’s up to you.” He said quietly, putting down a paper with a URL on it, and left the room.
Amy stared at the computer for a few minutes before guilt and curiosity won out and she turned it on. It’s not that she had never used computers before—they had to take a typing class in middle school, they used computers for the newspaper, and her parents had one that they used once in a great while—but she’s almost didn’t want to use this. As a way to spite her parents and therapists.
Sighing, Amy clamped down on the thread of resentment threatening to spike through her and pressed the power button. Amy spent a few minutes checking out what was on the computer before she logged onto AOL. The log-on took forever as the computer dialed up the internet connection and Amy was just about to cancel it when the computer finally connected to the internet.
Once she got online, she promptly went over and checked out the website her dad left her. Boringly, it was just a community where people posted about their spinal cord injuries and wrote words of encouragement to each other. Amy talked about her injury all the time with her therapists, her parents and inevitably anyone who approached her at school, so she bit back a sigh of disappointment and closed that window. She definitely had no great desire to talk even more about her injury or receive additional pity online.
She was about to log off altogether and go back to listening to music when something caught her eye. “Want to dive into a new world? The banner proclaimed at the top. “Want the chance to immerse yourself in an interactive, multi-player game? Come be a beta tester for our games.”
Amy stopped and stared at the banner, her mouse hovering over the x button near the top. She wasn’t really into computer games, but something about the advertisement sent a frisson of excitement down her back.
“Interactive….” She said slowly and before she could think about it, she clicked on the banner.
The link led her to a page with bright graphics and scrolling text. “Want to be on the forefront of computer games?” The page asked her before continuing on. “We are looking are looking for volunteers for a variety of interactive computer games. Sign up to be a beta tester and get to experience cutting edge multi-user games!”
The scrolling text ended and a dialog box popped up asking for information on Amy’s age, interests, and computer level experience. Curious about what this entailed, Amy filled in her information and based on her interests, the website presented her with several game options to test. After a little deliberation, Amy chose a detective game. After all, she figured it would be easiest to start with something that already interested her.
Amy had little computer game experience to compare this game to; the last game that Amy had played consistently had been Math Blaster in elementary school. The first couple minutes, she spent trying to figure out the controls and how to navigate the game. Apparently, the game worked by placing Amy into a pool of other beta users who were selected together to complete “detective” missions. She gathered that there was a limited “universe” in which the players were based and two user would work together to find clues and solve some mystery.
The game itself was interesting, but not particularly inspiring. However, the game had something that Amy found fascinating: the players could talk to each other. For the first couple of rounds, Amy was too nervous to ask anything other than questions about the game. But even with that, it felt great. None of these people gave her that horrible look of pity when they saw her chair or tiptoed around her, convinced that she was going to break. After all, none of them could see her. So to them, she was just another anonymous user.
For the most part, everyone seemed to be fairly friendly. And for the first time in forever, Amy felt just like everyone else. She didn’t stand out—she wasn’t any different than anyone else on the site.
By the time Amy played her fifth round, she felt comfortable enough to respond to her partner’s small talk and confident enough to make conversation on her own.
Several rounds later, Amy found herself laughing at cookielovesmilk, her partner’s, comment about the cheesy game graphics, when her mom opened the door.
“Lunch is ready.” She said and then caught sight of Amy’s face and her mom’s face instantly brightened up. “Are you…that is…you’re laughing!” She said excitedly. “You like the computer?”
Amy felt herself smiling widely and looked back at the screen. “Yeah. Mom, it’s great.”
And that was that. It was as if someone had flicked a light switch on inside of Amy. She had never taken the time to think about it, but there was so much she could do online. Before she knew it, Amy threw herself wholeheartedly into online games. Every day, she looked forward to coming home from school or rehab, finishing her homework and talking with the people as she played games. On a couple of the sites that she visited more frequently, other users began to recognize Amy. Amy wasn’t sure if she would call these people and she had no way of picking any of them out of crowd, but it felt nice to have people to talk to again. People who wanted to talk to her.
By the time the therapists started Amy out on developing her hip flexors in order to transition to a walker, Amy found herself ready for something more than the simple interactive games. Although having an outlet online had certainly improved her mood and made her mother stop throwing concerned looks at Amy over every meal, Amy still found each day to be incredibly unsatisfying.
Every morning, she had that one moment when she woke up and thought that this would be the day that her legs would finally decide to obey. Instead, her progress moved incrementally along: Amy was only able to move when she was upright if someone moved the walker for her and someone else supported her. She constantly felt alone at school.
Some days, she wanted to feel like she could still do something, make a difference, even if was only online.
She had spent so much time on the computer that she had quickly picked up the computer skills needed for the advanced games, but even those games had grown old quickly. She needed something more.
“Isn’t there anything else out there to do? On a larger scale?” She asked one day to another user/friend, californiagirl221. Californiagirl221 took a while to respond.
californiagirl221: well…there’s this…world building game?
player84: world building?
californiagirl221: yeah. but it’s kind of kept on the down low. i'm probably not supposed to tell you, but i feel like you’d be good at it. i think it started as a project on how to create a virtual online world. it’s pretty much entirely user programmed.
player84: that sounds kind of weird.
player84: is it any fun?
californiagirl221: oh yeah.
californiagirl221: the extent of what you can do over there is pretty crazy. i played around with it a few times with a friend who’s a better programmer than me.
californiagirl221:honestly, if i could program better, i would hang out there all day.
Amy found herself pleasantly intrigued by the game idea. After all, although Amy only had the barest of programming skills, the idea of really being on the cutting edge of virtual reality sounded so cool. So with californiagirl221’s help, Amy figured out how to enter the game.
The game started with a dialogue box asking for Amy’s name—she stuck with player84 for the moment—and then prompted her to create a character that would be her representative in the game. After some debate, Amy went with Ivy, a name that she thought always sounded adventurous. The game didn’t just want a name though, Amy realized after a minute, Amy was supposed to create Ivy, give her a back story and interests. A personality. After all, this would be how everyone in the rest of the game saw her.
Amy explored the “world” for a while, trying to get a feel for what other characters were and what people could do. The world was set up to be a replicate of the real world. There was a mini New York City, mini Paris, mini Tokyo etc. and the different players could interact all over. She followed some of the other players’ conventions and gave Ivy a specialty. Some of the other players’ characters were musicians, chefs, or athletes, which Amy debated for a bit.
Eventually, she chose to go with a detective. After all, the likelihood of Amy actually being a detective was marginal, at best. Amy might as well pretend to be one now. When she explored her own fake city, San Francisco, she found that a couple other players were stated as being members of the “ACME Detective Agency” and based in San Francisco.
Amy gave Ivy martial arts skills, and a brother, Zach, who was also a detective. As a back-up, Amy made Zach into character that could be played as well and gave him traits to balance out Ivy. Amy made Ivy eighteen years old, old enough to be out of school. Ivy was stubborn, feisty, but likeable and really smart. As a final finishing touch, Amy impulsively chose to give Ivy red hair. And so when she took a look at Ivy’s stats, Amy was fairly impressed with the overall result.
Amy spent the next few days creating a space for her characters and acquainting herself with the world. Even though Amy knew that none of it was real, she enjoyed pretending that she could jaunt off to New York and have her characters walk around or choose to chat with someone else’s character in Los Angeles for half an hour.
However, the game got even more interesting when it turned out that Amy had inadvertently signed up her characters to participate in a game.
A week after signing up, Amy got a direct message from the “Chief” at the ACME detective agency. The chief, who Amy would come to envision as a slightly manic office manager, had written that the first round of the investigation would begin the next day.
Amy wrote back to the Chief asking for more information—she hadn’t been aware that by having her characters be affiliated with the detective agency, she would be required to do anything.
“Dear Player84,” the response started. “We here at ACME Detective Agency pride ourselves on our ability to stop crime. It has come to our attention that there are several nefarious, evil-doers here in our fantastic world. They respect no laws and have no honor, instead choosing to steal our sacred objects and wreak havoc. Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to foil these malcontents, thwart their attempts, or return the stolen objects to their rightful owners. Please let us know by the deadline tonight if you are willing to risk yourself in order to restore order to the world!”
Amy could not respond quickly enough.
The game seemed simple enough at first. The Chief sent her information about a “theft” from Costa Rica. Someone had apparently removed “the ancient Costa Rican stone balls” from the game. Amy navigated her characters to Costa Rica to the location where they had originally been placed. While her characters were in transit, she researched the stone spheres.
By the time, Ivy and Zach arrived in Costa Rica, she had discovered that the stones were apparently found back in the 1930s. They ranged in sizes from the size of golf balls all the way to eight feet in diameter. Moreover, they were estimated to be over a thousand years old. When Ivy and Zach researched the area where the stones had been taken from, the perpetrator had left behind a clue as what they were going to remove next.
The message said “You need more of these in your meals. But have too many and you just might become a monster.”
Amy stared at it in confusion. She tried to think what could be stolen that was needed in a meal. Nothing came to mind except vegetables. She opened up her browser and searched “vegetable locations.” The results were a list supermarkets, farms, and gardens. Nothing that helped indicate what would be stolen next.
Wait, Amy thought. Maybe it was a hint about specific vegetables. Like, broccoli, or spinach, or Brussels sprouts. Brussels was in Belgium. Maybe they were planning on stealing something from Brussels. She researched Brussels while sending Ivy and Zach there. She found that Brussels was the capital of Belgium. The city was known for its Grand Palace, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels Stock Exchange, and the Royal Museum of Fine Art.
Amy poked around the city but wasn’t sure what she was looking for. What’s more, she kept thinking about the clue. Too many Brussels sprouts wouldn’t create a monster. Of what else did she need more in her meals? She was sure it was something about vegetables. And then it hit her: she needed more greens in her meals. Green. Too many, made a green monster. The clue was talking about the Green Monster! And the Green Monster was the name for the wall in Fenway Park, Boston.
By the time Ivy and Zach arrived in Boston, the baseball park had already gone missing and someone left another clue for her. The message was fairly short this time. It only read “One, two, three strikes you’re out…”
Amy knew that the clue pertained to baseball and the “one, two, three strikes you’re out of the old ball game” adage. The thief had stolen two things already. Maybe this meant they were looking for only one more thing. Something that they would need to complete the two items that they already had. Amy thought about what had already gone missing: large stone rocks and a famous baseball field. But wait, she cautioned herself, it wasn’t just any stones that had gone missing. The thief had taken round stones—some as big as a small room. Amy laughed to herself, imagining someone playing baseball with a ball the size of a room.
“I’ve got it!” Amy yelled out loud. The thief had something he or she could use as baseball and a field to play in. All he or she needed now was a baseball bat. But the thief would need a very large baseball bat to play with those baseballs….Amy quickly searched “World’s Largest Bat” and found that Louisville, Kentucky (manufacturer of the world famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat) was home to the world’s largest baseball bat at 120 feet tall. That must be it. Amy sent Ivy and Zach to Louisville, Kentucky and bit in her lips in excitement. She knew that she had to be right.
When they arrived at the location of the world’s largest bat, Amy saw that the bat was in the process of being removed. But as soon as Ivy and Zach’s presence appeared on the screen, the removal stopped. Amy saw a figure quickly disappear off the side of the screen. In the brief half second before the character disappeared, Amy caught a glimpse of streaming bright red, perhaps of a coat, and the swish of dark hair. After a second, the remaining part of the bat reappeared—apparently Ivy and Zach had thwarted the thief in time.
A few minutes later, Amy received a message. “Hey Player, (you don’t mind that I call you Player, it just sounds too informal with the 84—if you know what I mean) congratulations! You really knocked that one out of the park, pun fully intended. Great job for a first time—although don’t rely too much on your beginner’s luck! P.S. We noticed that you’re new to the game, if you feel overwhelmed and you can’t handle the steep learning curve, please let us know and we’ll assign the cases to players with more experience.” It was signed by the Chief. Amy instantly bristled at the implication that she solved the riddle because of her “beginner’s luck” and that she couldn’t handle solving cases.
Before Amy could respond, she received another message. “Impressive job, Player. Beginners luck, perhaps? But prove me wrong.“ Someone named Carmen Sandiego had signed the letter. That must be the person whom Amy had played against.
Carmen Sandiego….the name sent a frisson of energy down Amy’s back. The name conjured up adventure. She knew, although Amy didn’t know why, that Carmen Sandiego’s character had been the character wearing red she had seen earlier. And just as certainly, Amy knew that Carmen took her seriously and was challenging her.
“Game on.” Amy said, smiling widely to her computer screen. “We’ll see who can catch whom, Carmen.”
The next day, when Amy logged in, two messages waited for her, one from the Chief and the other from Carmen. Apparently Carmen had stolen something again and specifically requested that Amy be the one to solve it. Amy could feel herself tense up with excitement and anticipation at the thought of beating Carmen again.
Amy quickly figured out that Carmen played to win. This time, she left harder clues, shorter time frames, and seemed to have managed to recruit others to help her. Amy raced Ivy and Zach around the world, trying to catch up to her, while madly researched history, famous sculptures, and geography. Three hours later, she finally stopped Carmen from collecting Stonehenge.
She tried to sneak up on Carmen, but Carmen must have known that Ivy and Zach were coming, because Amy again only caught a glimpse of Carmen. This time, Amy saw that Carmen indeed wore what appeared to be a red trench coat, complemented by a red fedora, and dark hair.
Ivy and Zach tried to run after Carmen, but all traces of her had disappeared. The missing artifacts were returned to the game and the Chief sent Amy another message congratulating her. Amy stared at the screen, wondering if Carmen would send her another message. After a minute, a message popped up and Amy let out a breath she hadn’t realized that she was holding.
“Player, the stars may have lined up for you this time, but I can guarantee they won’t always be in your favor. Carmen.”
Amy felt intoxicated by the win, so much so that she decided to write a message back. “Carmen, I’m fairly certain that beginner’s luck would only excuse you losing the first time. You can bet that it’s not beginner’s luck that’s helping me win.” She didn’t expect any response, so Amy was surprised and excited to see a short message from Carmen right before she went to bed. “I never said that it was beginner’s luck. You’re the only one between the two of us that doubted it. ”
Amy stopped smiling and she spent a long time staring at the message before she finally went to bed.
Carmen and Amy quickly fell into a pattern. On most days, when Amy got home from school or physical therapy, Carmen would be there waiting with her clues and mysteries. After the first couple games, which Amy gathered Carmen had used in order to test Amy’s abilities, Carmen completely embraced the chase. Half of the time, Amy stopped Carmen before she had completed stealing all of her items for some crazy activity that Carmen professed to love. The other half, Carmen successfully got away with her goal. The objects would be returned a few days later with a message baiting Amy.
Little by little, Amy felt like she got to know Carmen better. Although anyone with half a brain knew that Carmen liked being the center of attention and theatrics, Amy found subtle hints of Carmen’s personality in her self-professed quests. Carmen loved old Hollywood films—stealing objects and places to recreate her favorite scenes was one of her more frequent goals. She also had a love for non-western mythology and Amy found herself starting to become versed in Indian, South American, African and Asian folk-tales or myths.
One day, their game ended with Carmen escaping with the Tokyo Tower and Amy sent her a message saying “Impressive. But my question to you, Carmen, is that you only seem to steal large items. Are you trying to compensate for something?”
A few minutes later Carmen responded. “Well, curious Player, I only steal things that I really like. And what I like most is culture.”
Carmen’s comment resonated in Amy and she spent some time thinking about culture. Carmen seemed to know everything about art and history, while Amy only knew bits and pieces.
Amy even found herself curious enough to ask her mom to take her to the Museum of Modern Art or the De Young Museum on a Saturday morning. Her mom almost dropped the plate that she was drying and her mouth dropped open.
“You want to go…where?” She asked. Amy suddenly felt very self-conscious and tried to will herself to stop blushing.
“If you can’t, then it’s not a big deal.” She said, looking at the ground. “I just thought it might be cool to go. Or something.”
“No no no no no.” Her mom said quickly, setting the plate down. “I would love to go. I, uh, you haven’t wanted to go out anywhere in a while. I definitely want to go.” Amy looked back up and her mom was smiling happily. Amy rolled her eyes.
Amy’s mom seemed almost giddy as they went through the Museum of Modern Art. They decided to split up the museums into two days and spend Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art followed by lunch and then the De Young museum on Sunday so that Amy wouldn’t feel overtaxed.
The entire time that they waited to get tickets, Amy grew increasingly self conscious. She wanted to tell her mother that this was a mistake—she didn’t really want to be here, but by the time she worked up the courage, her mother had already bought the tickets and was pushing Amy inside.
Once they were inside, Amy completely forgot herself. She had been to the museum many years ago, both with her parents and for a school field trip, but all of her memories were too vague to remember anything specific. And there was so much to be specific about: the bright colors, the people, the shapes, the different styles. No wonder Carmen wanted to steal these magnificent works.
As they went through the galleries, Amy thought about which painting Carmen would like best. There were a few paintings that she debated over in her mind until she saw “The Conversation” by Matisse. The painting instantly reminded her of Carmen. The bright, bold colors were perfect for Carmen’s taste and each of the two women in the painting oozed confidence. She almost imagined it as representing herself and Carmen, before laughing it off and continuing to the next room.
Over lunch, in the Museum’s café, Amy and her mother discussed which of the works their favorites were. Amy’s mom took a minute to think about it. “I don’t know if I can pick a favorite.” She said slowly. “But I did like the photography. Perhaps the Ansel Adams one—with the snow on the tree branch? There was something incredibly peaceful and beautiful about it. What about you?”
Amy didn’t even have to think about it. Although she had loved the calmness she felt when looking at the Rothko painting or the surrealism of the Magritte, there had been no contest as to which had irresistibly drawn Amy. “I liked ‘Blossoms in the Night’ the best. The one by Paul Klee. I liked how passionate it felt, even though, it didn’t use bright colors, like many of the other paintings.” She paused, trying to describe what it was that about the painting. “It seemed to show this hidden life, which only comes out at night. I like that.” Her mom gave her a measuring look.
“That is a fascinating painting.” She said in reply.
That night, Amy was almost jubilant while playing against Carmen. Carmen seemed to catch onto her good mood and Amy shared that she had visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier that day.
“And of all the absolutely stealable artwork there, what would be the one you would protest the most if I stole it?” Carmen asked.
Amy tried not to laugh. “Translation: Which one was my favorite? Blossoms in the Night. Your turn. Which painting would you steal?”
Carmen sent back a single link—The Conversation by Henri Matisse, 1938. Amy couldn’t hold back her smile.
Since Amy’s first mission into the city had been such a success, she started to think of other places that she wanted to go. Her parents couldn’t contain their delight. Amy largely limited herself to places like museums, or the occasional museum restaurant. After avoiding public places for so long, it felt both exhilarating and terrifying to be outdoors and so exposed to people. Most of the time though, Amy was relieved to realize that people barely cared that she was there. Even better, they never ran into anyone that Amy knew. And then, Amy was just another anonymous person, who happened to be in a wheelchair.
That wasn’t to say that everyone started going perfectly. One Monday in particular was miserable. Her science group had to present their project in front of the class and so Amy spent all day dreading science. Sure enough, when Amy got up to the front of the class, she felt nauseated and spent the entire presentation telling herself how embarrassing it would be if she threw up in front of everyone.
Physical therapy wasn’t much better that day. They outfitted Amy with ankle to foot orthotics, which she would be using until her ankle and feet muscles were stronger, and focused on getting her to walk with a walker. She knew that at this stage they expected her to be able to walk on her own with the walker and each forced step frustrated her.
At least with upper body work, Amy could feel like she was making progress. But this? Amy didn’t even want to put in the work because the payoff was so small. Maybe she would be able to consistently flex her ankles two months down the road. Big deal. By the time that her mom came to pick her up, it took all of Amy’s effort not to break down in tears in unhappiness.
That night, Carmen seemed to be able to sense that something was wrong and tried to distract Amy. But, instead of taking it easy on her, Carmen did her best to rankle Amy. By the time Carmen escaped with the Taj Mahal, Louvre and Hearst Castle, Amy was so angry that she almost logged off before Carmen sent her usual gloating message.
Carmen’s message read the same as all of her other ones, but she ended it differently. Instead of confidently asserting her win, Carmen wrote. “After all, there are plenty of other valuable objects around. Are you still going to try and catch me?” Amy realized that Carmen sounded almost hesitant. Amy’s anger dulled and she felt herself barely smiling. Trust Carmen to figure out how to rile her up and then calm her back down.
Amy sent back a quick response. “Don’t think you’ve gotten rid of me that quickly. I’m never going to stop chasing you.”
Now that Amy could think clearly, she realized with striking clarity, Amy knew that if she didn’t start seriously working at her physical therapy, she would be like this forever. Frustrated, angry, unhappy.
“Well, you have an option.” She said to herself. “You can either refuse to participate and be just this miserable for the rest of your life. Or you can work really hard and show them what you’re capable of.”
Amy imagined Carmen in her red trench coat and streaming black hair confidently laughing and Amy set her lips in a line.
Physical therapy still sucked, but Amy forced herself to pay attention for the entire duration of the sessions. She put as much energy as she could muster into the sessions, for a change. After she kept it up for a few weeks, she could tell that even the therapists were impressed by her change in attitude.
Amy had now graduated to walking on her own with the walker. Her right leg was weaker than her left, so she still needed the afo on her right leg, but she could move the walker on her own. On a good day she found that she was able to make it a quarter of a mile by herself.
In the game world, Amy had also elevated her level of play. She tried to put herself in Carmen’s mindset and stay two steps ahead. Carmen responded in turn. Sometimes Amy felt like she was in the midst of a very elaborate chess game.
From time to time, Amy recruited other players to help her stop Carmen, but for the most part, she liked how personal it was between her and Carmen. Whenever she received a message from Carmen, no matter how mundane, Amy opened it eagerly with bated breath. Sometimes, Amy felt butterflies in her stomach as she waited for Carmen to respond to a message. She was fairly certain that this level of obsession with a game wasn’t exactly normal, but Amy could help it. She had simply never met anyone as exciting or interesting as Carmen.
That night, Amy lay in bed, wondering what the real Carmen was like—if that was even her name. Did she look like her character? Was she completely different? It had occurred to Amy that Carmen might even be a guy, although it didn’t seem to fit with Carmen’s personality. She wondered if Carmen was old or young, or somewhere in between. And right before Amy fell asleep, she thought about what it would be like to actually meet Carmen.
When summer finally rolled around, Amy transitioned completely out of the wheelchair. Her parents congratulated her and looked so proud when they put the wheelchair in the hallway closet. Amy, oddly enough, felt a little sad to put it away. Although it was there in case Amy had a bad day or needed to go long distances, it still felt like the loss of a close friend.
Amy’s ability to walk manifested itself tenuously at first. The doctors insisted that Amy use a brace on her weaker right leg, which Amy found to be painful, but she gritted it her teeth and bore with it. Thankfully, Amy didn’t have to use the walker; she didn’t think she could get over the humiliation of that at school. Instead, the doctors pronounced Amy ready to use a cane. She chose to think that it made her look bad-ass rather than like an eighty year old.
As Amy got more deeply involved into the game, Carmen continued to keep her on her toes. One time, in a real feat, Carmen managed to kidnap Ivy, forcing Amy to play with Zach.
Amy sent an outraged message to Carmen, demanding that Carmen explain herself. “Well Player,” Carmen started. “Tonight I feel like dancing. I can’t show up to a dance without a date. And who better to go with than the best detective around?” Amy found herself laughing at Carmen’s audacity. Also, as much as Amy hated to admit it, she felt irrationally pleased that Carmen thought she was the best detective around.
Amy tracked her way through ballet shoes, Anna Pavlova’s remains, Edgar Degas’s “Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” to arrive at the Place de l’Opera in Paris. This time, Carmen waited for Amy to arrive, instead of fleeing the scene. Carmen seemed to wink at her and then before Amy could directly talk to her, she disappeared off screen. After a minute of hunting, Amy found Ivy inside, unharmed and waiting for her.
“Did you have to do that? It made the game much more difficult to play.” She sent as a message to Carmen. While Zach had been perfectly workable as a player, Amy had grown used to playing with Ivy as her main character.
Carmen responded in turn. “Sometimes, I want to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. The company of a young detective, for example.”
Amy found herself blushing. “If you want to have the best detective as a date, it’s good manners to ask for their company.”
Carmen didn’t respond, but Amy wasn’t concerned. Instead she basked in the odd compliment she was sure that Carmen had given her. She felt like evening meant something, but Amy couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
As time went on, other people began to intrude on Carmen and Amy’s game. Both of them seemed to find the other people a disturbance, and the outsiders all possessed infinitely less finesse than Carmen. Carmen especially seemed to find them really frustrating and from time to time, she actually teamed up with Amy to help solve their riddles as if stopping them sooner would allow them to go back to their private game more quickly.
Amy tried to avoid spending more time thinking about Carmen—it always turned out to be an exercise in futility—but she found Carmen fascinating. They clearly weren’t friends, but they also weren’t just enemies.
Every time that Amy worked up the courage to ask Carmen about herself, Carmen would make a devastating comment or snippy barb and Amy felt her resolve crumble. And so, summer ended, Amy began to be able to walk short distances without an afo or cane, and her junior year started without Amy being any closer to knowing anything real about Carmen.
Slowly Amy began to re-make friends at school, but she felt that it was a half-hearted gesture at best. After all, most of the time that she spent with other people, she spent thinking about Carmen or how to beat her at the game. But Amy also knew that she couldn’t spend all of her time online, sooner or later she had to face real people, so she forced herself to be polite and to sit with other people at lunch.
Whenever someone gave her an odd look or stared too long at her cane, Amy reminded herself that she had an arch-nemesis that stole the pyramids from Egypt. What did these people have?
One day, in the middle of April, Amy and her mom returned home from the grocery store. They carried the groceries for their chicken breast and salad dinner inside.
“Can you help me unload this all?” Her mom asked. Amy gave her mom an imploring look and gestured towards her room. Her mom sighed. “Fine, alright. Go play on your computer.” Amy instantly headed to her room. “Sometimes I really regret giving you that!” Her mom called down the hallway.
When Amy went to log on, the user interface malfunctioned and kicked her off the connection. That’s weird; Amy thought and tried logging in again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.
Amy rebooted her computer and used a different connection. It didn’t make any difference. Everything was gone. Amy looked at the screen in confusion. How did an entire virtual world disappear? It didn’t make sense. But no matter what Amy tried, it became clear. Something had wiped out not just her game, but the entire game world. She started looking around, checking out other sites where it might have been discussed. Although there had been little enough mention of the game before, now, she couldn’t even find a trace that it once existed.
After hours of searching, Amy finally admitted defeat and pushed her chair out from the desk in order to go lie on her bed. She tried to tamp down on the growing panic inside her chest and focused on breathing in and out. Over and over again. She lay down on her bed and tried not to think about the loss of Ivy and Zach, the loss of this huge part of her life, and worst of all, the loss of Carmen.
For the first time in a long time, Amy found herself crying, sobs that wracked her body, and she felt almost as hopeless as that first night back at home.
Amy continued to search frantically for the next week. After that, she put out alerts on news pages and web forums so that if someone posted something, she’d hear about it. Even with all that, there was barely a whisper. She caught posts here and there that noted how the game had simply disappeared, but no one offered any explanation and there was definitely no mention of the elusive Carmen Sandiego.
Amy wondered what Carmen did now that the game was over. Instead of forcing herself to get more involved in the real world, Amy found herself trying to search for traces of Carmen online. Sometimes, in she imagined Carmen now planning all of the real things that she could steal.
Amy began to teach herself more about computer programming and hacking. After all, Carmen could be out there and Amy had a duty to stop Carmen from whatever devious plan she had next. Amy pushed herself to learn everything she could about online security and intelligence system because Carmen had clearly already demonstrated her programming and hacking abilities.
She asked a couple kids who had great computer skills at school for help and they seemed eager to teach her. With their help and research on the internet, Amy taught herself how to hack into another computer, read encrypted and deleted files, and cover up her work. But none of it helped and eventually Amy admitted that whoever Carmen Sandiego was, she had covered her tracks well.
Amy forced herself to move on with her life. She became a member of the computer club at school, took a more active role in the newspaper and continued on with her physical therapy. Although Amy’s control over her legs would never be the same as it was pre-accident, everyone expressed full confidence that by the time Amy went off to college, she would likely not need to use a cane, except on very rare occasions.
Even with a more active schedule, , Amy found herself going and revisiting the Museum of Modern Art from time to time and staring at “The Conversation.”
“It’s kind of sad,” she mused to herself. “That the only connection I have to you is through a painting that you once said that you liked and vaguely reminds me of you.” She reflected for a second. “Actually it’s probably sadder that I continue to come here in a feeble attempt to maintain a connection to some person who may or may not exist, that I met in a game.” She laughed at herself and stared at the now-familiar women’s faces.
“What colleges are you thinking of applying to?” Her dad asked one evening at dinner after the start of her senior year. Amy shrugged.
“I hadn’t yet really thought that much about it.” Her dad raised an eyebrow.
“Well, your mother and I have been talking about it and while we can’t force you do anything; we think that it would be best if you stayed closer to home for college.”
Amy looked over at her mother, who nodded. “I know that we haven’t talked a whole lot about college.” She started. “While we know that you would be fine on your own, I think that we would both feel easier if we knew that you were within driving distance.”
“Well,” Amy started. “I hadn’t really thought about college yet. But I guess I should.” She thought about their request that she stay close by. Ever since she had played the game, she envisioned spending her life traveling, going from one place to another, always exploring, and, her mind added treacherously, chasing after Carmen. Amy shook her head. What a stupid idea. “I don’t mind staying in the relative area. I’d been thinking about only applying to schools in California anyways.”
Her parents nodded, smiling at her. “Do you know what you might want to major in?” Her mom asked.
Amy smiled. “I’ve been thinking about computer science.” Both of her parents laughed.
Amy sent off college applications in late October and early November. She started hearing back from schools at the end of January and beginning of February. Much to Amy’s surprise, seven out of the ten schools that she applied to accepted her, including UC Berkley.
During spring break, Amy and her mom made the short drive to Berkley so that Amy could check out their computer science department and take a look at the campus. Amy determined that she wasn’t exactly crazy about the campus itself, but the computer science department seemed fantastic. All the students that she met enjoyed the classes and the professors.
She talked to one of the professors and he had reassured her that she could test out of introductory level classes if she already had the basics down. They wandered through a class on Java and while Amy knew most of what the professor lectured on, she enjoyed how everyone seemed to participate and wanted to be there. On their way out, the pain in Amy’s legs flared up, so they decided to take a break before walking to the car. They ended up sitting in a class about the influence of architecture on social and political development. It felt like a sign.
“What do you think?” Her mom asked on the way home. It was raining and Amy watched the raindrops hit the windshield before the wiper pushed them away.
“I like it.” She said finally. “It feels like a place that I will really enjoy.”
Amy graduated in June. Stairs were still relatively difficult for Amy, so she worked with her therapists to prepare to walk up and down the steps to accept her diploma. Her grandparents flew out from Ohio and Indiana to attend the ceremony, and when she stood up on the stage and took the paper in her hands, for the first time since before the accident, Amy felt like she had truly accomplished something.
Amy’s parents helped her move into her dorm on a blistering hot mid-August day. Her roommate seemed nice enough. Her name was Jeannette, she was from San Diego and she professed to a political science major.
“Ooohh, I love your hair.” Jeannette said almost immediately after she introduced herself. She reaches up to tug on the ends. “It frames your face so perfectly. You know, I’ve wanted to get my hair cut short like that forever, but my parents absolutely wouldn’t let me do it, you know? Maybe I’ll get it cut like yours now that they’re not here.”
Amy took a deep breath and tried to figure out if Jeannette asked her a question. “I really like your hair the way it is already.” She said finally, Jeannette watched her for a second, waiting for Amy to continue. “But I think you would look good with any kind of haircut.” Amy finished going for a smile.
Apparently it was the right thing to say because Jeannette made a hand gesture that conveyed her embarrassment and then promptly attached herself to Amy’s side and insisted upon following Amy everywhere.
They shared the handicapped room, which meant that they had their own bathroom and a small closet where Amy’s dad placed her wheelchair, walker, and cane, should Amy find that she needed any of them.
At the end of the day, after her parents moved all of Amy’s items into her room and helped her put them away, her parents gave her a big hug.
“We’ll miss you.” Her mom said softly into Amy’s shoulder, her voice choked up. To her horror, Amy found herself also starting to choke up, tears picking at the side of her eyes.
“I’m going to miss you guys too.” She squeezed out and gave her dad a long hug as well.
“You call us, now.” Her dad said as he shepherded Amy’s mom out the door.
“I love you!” Her mom called from outside the hallway.
Jeannette allowed Amy a few minutes of space to sit on her bed and adjust before demanding that they head down to the dining hall. Amy could feel the telltale signs of muscle fatigue from the stress of moving combined with the amount of standing required, so she reluctantly grabbed her cane from the closet before she followed Jeannette down. She waited to hear Jeannette ask a million and one questions or throw her a look full of pity. Instead, Jeannette took one look at it, said “Sweet cane!” and then dragged Amy down for some food.
The two of them stuck together through orientation and Amy found that once she got past Jeannette’s inability to stop talking, Jeannette was actually really nice. They don’t have much in common in terms of their classes or interests, but they often hung out together along with a group of kids from their dorms.
At first, Amy found the independence of college to be terrifying, but she quickly came to love how she decided her schedule. She made friends with other computer science majors and they spent time together in the computer labs.
It was only when she got bored one night, a month into the semester, and decided to check the feeds from the security cameras that she realized just how far ahead her skills were. She and her closest friend Magda, also a computer science major, were playing around, trying to out-do each other when Amy pulled up the feed from the security camera of the room that they were in.
“Ta-da!” She said triumphantly. “See it and weep.”
Magda instantly turned towards Amy, her eyes wide. “Oh my god. What did you do?” She asked, her voice a low whisper.
“What do you mean?” Amy responded.
“That’s…you’re not supposed. Wow.” Magda breathed out. “That is so cool, but so illegal.”
Amy shrugged, embarrassed and regretting her decision already.
“How did you learn that?” Magda asked, wide-eyed. Amy hesitated for a minute and then before she could stop herself, spilled everything out. She had never told anyone about Carmen or the game and she felt so stupid relating it all to Magda. It sounded so ridiculous when she said it out loud.
When she finished, Magda sat there for a minute, biting her lip. “That. Is. So. Epic.” She finally spat out. “Wow. It’s like an epic romance or something.”
Amy bit back a laugh. “I don’t know about that. Although the fact that I’m still obsessed with it is epically something alright. Epically stupid. I mean,” She started and then paused to think, pieces fitting into place. Maybe that’s what she had had all these years—a crush on Carmen. “Oh god.” She said suddenly, putting her face into her hands. “I’ve been mooning over a computer game character for the last four years. Oh my god. Can I get any lamer?” Magda laughed and rubbed Amy’s arm. Amy couldn’t help but be mortified, because it was so incredibly, impossibly, and embarrassingly true.
Suddenly, finals stormed the campus and everyone, Amy included, holed up in the library or computer lab for the remaining month of school. Aside from an unfortunate occurrence of severe leg cramps due to failure to do her daily exercises and stretches, Amy made it through the finals season without any real problems.
As the year went on, Amy’s professors quickly realized that she had a knack for programming and she found herself cajoled into doing research. To her surprise, she realized that she loved it.
By the time summer rolled around, she felt like the school had really become her home and talked her parents into letting her stay for summer classes. She took an independent study course in computer science and then, just for fun, an art history introduction class. Magda stayed around as well and they ended up decided to room together for the summer and upcoming year.
In the middle of their sophomore year, near the beginning of February, Magda called up Amy and demanded that Amy come to the computer lab, right this instant.
“What? This very second?” Amy asked. “I’m in the middle of doing some research for Professor Middleton. Can’t this wait until you get back to the dorms?”
“No. This instant!” Magda just about screeched, so Amy saved her work on her laptop and headed out. It was storming outside, so Amy made sure to walk slowly over there. No point in hurrying, just to trip and possibly injure herself on the slippery ground.
By the time Amy got to the lab, Magda had an odd look on her face.
“Is everything alright?” She asked, putting her bag on a chair and sitting down.
“Better than alright.” Magda said excitedly. “Wait until you see this.” She pulled up a bunch of web pages onto the computer. “Apples Missing from the Big Apple. In an unexplained prank, all of the apples for sale in Manhattan have gone missing. Police are baffled as to how someone engineered such a high level prank, not only ensuring that retailers did not receive apples this morning, but also stole all of the apples from inside retailers’ stores.” She said. “This is from six months ago.”
“That’s…odd.” Amy said. “I’m not sure I see why that is so important though.”
“Oh there’s more.” Magda said. “Hollywood Sign Stolen! Residents of Los Angeles awoke this morning to find that their beloved landmark had been illegally removed during the night. Although the area is inaccessible to trespassers and heavily monitored, it appears that a team of people were able to successfully enter the land and remove the letters. Police are unsure how the letters were transported from the land or how the team was able to escape undetected.” She looked at Amy. “That was from four months ago. Apparently the letters were found a week later and placed back in their original location. Weird, right?”
“Yes, weird.” Amy agreed. “But I don’t think that I’m following. Why would someone steal the letters and then return them?”
“Maybe they were trying to get someone’s attention.”
“Wait.” Amy said, trying to process the information. “You don’t think that this is the work of…Carmen? That would be crazy.”
“Because stealing ‘the apple’ from the Big Apple is totally normal.” Magda replied. Amy couldn’t stop herself from laughing and she covered her mouth.
“No, that’s definitely crazy. But, there’s no way. I mean, it’s probably someone else, other than Carmen. And even if it was Carmen, there’s no indication that she meant this for me. Carmen loved attention. If it was her, a big if, she may just be looking for an even bigger stage than the internet.”
Magda kept staring at her. Finally Amy caved and rolled her eyes. “Alright! We’ll look into it. Did you find anything else out of the ordinary?”
“Well, something similar happened about eight months ago in London with Big Ben…” Magda explained. Amy tuned her out for a moment and tried to squash the unreasonable surge of hope in her chest. Just because some crazy person was out there, stealing impractical objects, did not mean that the mystery person was Carmen and further, that this mystery person was doing it to attract Amy’s attention. On the other hand, Amy reasoned, she had a duty to stop whoever this was, regardless of identity. After all, this person was breaking the law and putting priceless artifacts in danger. Someone had to put the pieces together. Mind made up, Amy turned her attention back to Magda.
“…and then a little over a month ago, someone stole all of the statues of some Hindu goddess from a temple in India. But uh,” Magda consulted her notes. “Those weren’t returned. And then—”
“Wait.” Amy directed. “That one’s different.”
“What do you mean?” Magda asked.
“The other ones that you’ve stated—those are big things. All of the apples in New York? Big. Hollywood sign. Big. Those are meant to attract attention, right? People all know what those are, all over the world. But, a Hindu goddess in India? It’s not the same type of mass message. And the statues weren’t returned. It must mean something.” Amy thought for a minute. “The first few that you said—those must have been to attract attention.”
Magda started to cough in Amy’s direction so Amy threw her a look. “It doesn’t matter whose attention it was. But continuing on: those were thefts of grand symbols. That’s why they were returned. Because their identity didn’t matter, more that they had the ability to attract attention. The items themselves were meaningless. The Hindu statues, on the other, they must mean something specific.”
Amy pulled up an article describing the theft. Apparently, someone had stolen all of the statues of Kamakhya from the Kamakhya Temple in India. The name sounded familiar, but she looked up the goddess to get more information.
“She is a tantric mother goddess.” Amy read out loud. Magda started giggling at the word ‘tantric’ making Amy laugh as well. “Her name means renowned goddess of desire. She is worshipped at the Kamakhya temple which is one of the most visited Shakta temples in the world.”
“So what message is Carmen trying to send?” Magda asked. “That she desires you?” Amy laughed.
“Stop assuming it’s about me! It’s generally not that simple. There’s got to be more clues. What was the last thing stolen before the statues?”
Magda looked down at her notes. “The Hollywood sign.”
“There’s got to be a camera somewhere that captured the theft of that.”Amy said. She started to pull up maps of the area and satellite images. “Magda, could you try to find out who owns the land that the Hollywood sign is on.” Magda nodded and got to work on her computer.
It was close to midnight when Amy finally tapped into the Hollywood Sign Trust’s network. They had backed up their security feeds for the last six months, but it didn’t do the girls much good: the feeds had been completely wiped for the night of the theft and there were too many visitors during the day to be able to identify anyone who might have snuck in.
“Well that’s a dead end.” Magda said.
“There’s got to be another way. Let’s look to see if we can find security feeds for where the letters were left.”
Again, the security feeds for where the letters were left had been wiped for that night. But, they had been left in a secluded place and Amy couldn’t imagine that they received many visitors. “Let’s just see if anyone visited this the day of—that might help us.”
Magda nodded. The fast forwarded the feed for the day of. It had been almost entirely vacant except “Wait. “ Amy stopped the feed and drew a breath. There on the screen, even in grainy black and white, it was Carmen. Amy could have recognized her anywhere. This Carmen, or whoever she was, wore what appeared to be a black trench coat and no hat, but it was unmistakably her.
For a moment, Amy couldn’t get her mouth to work properly. “Are you alright?” Magda asked. Amy brought her hands up to her mouth and then she was laughing and smiling so wide, her cheeks started to hurt.
“That’s Carmen.” She said, still in disbelief.
“Wait—how can you know?” Magda asked. “You’ve never met Carmen before. Carmen could even be a guy.”
Amy smiled. “It’s her.” She said simply and pressed play. The woman kept walking past the camera, when she was almost at the edge of the screen, she turned back around as if she was going to wave to someone, but stopped, smiled at the camera, and then winked before walking away. “Oh, that’s definitely her.”
Amy paused the video again. “Wow.” Magda finally said. “Is she winking? Who winks at a security camera?” Amy started laughing again.
“Carmen. Wow. That’s brazen, even for her.”
“This is crazy,” Magda said excitedly. “It’s totally got to be her. What do you think the clue is?”
Amy smiled. “I have no idea.”
When Amy and Magda got back to their dorm, Amy immediately set up a search of newspaper databases as well as FBI and Interpol news releases in order to look for significant art thefts, missing artifacts, or odd large-scale pranks. After finishing, she found that could barely contain her excitement long enough to sit in one place—her whole body sung with the thrill of chasing Carmen again. And this had the even better reward of actually seeing Carmen.
On a whim, Amy printed out a still of Carmen from the security feed and pinned it on her bulletin board.
“Game on, Carmen.”
The next day, Amy browsed through all of the hits that her search turned up. She found the three large scale pranks that Magda had found and printed those out to read through more closely. All three of them had occurred two months apart on the same day of the month—the 20th.
Other art thefts had occurred before the Big Ben disappearance, but none of them had the style or flair of Carmen’s handiwork and they occurred on different days, so Amy saved them into a different folder, in case she needed them for reference.
She checked the more recent thefts. The Kamakhya statues had in fact, also gone missing on December 20th, confirming Amy’s suspicion and making the search easier. Now that Amy knew what she was looking for, she pared down the list even further: thefts in the last five months, for relatively well-known or historically important objects, and occurring on the 20th.
On November 20th, the original photograph of “Afghan Girl” had been stolen from the National Geographic Archives. On January 20th, the statue of “The Kiss” from the Rodin Museum in Paris. None of the other thefts fit Carmen’s pattern.
Alright, Amy thought, clock is ticking and you have two weeks to solve this mystery, starting now.
She and Magda spent all of their free time trying to put together the clues. None of the other thefts had any type of video feed or recognition, so Amy only could go on feeling in her stomach telling her that Carmen had been behind them.
“What does a portrait of a refugee in a refugee camp, a Hindu goddess of desire and a famous statue of a couple kissing have in common?” Amy asked for the millionth time a week later. Magda shrugged.
“Maybe it’s something about anonymity?” Magda suggested. “For most of her life, the woman who was the subject of the picture had no idea that her face was so famous.” Amy shook her head.
“We’ve looked into it—I don’t think that goes anywhere. What about—they’re all based around captivating women figures. The haunting eyes, the fertility/desire power, sexuality?”
“That’s an interesting theory.” Magda said, sitting up from her bed. “So what would be the next object?”
“The most famous woman in the world?” Amy suggested. “No, Carmen wouldn’t go for the Mona Lisa. I mean she’d love the challenge, but she would think it was too cliché.”
The girls wracked their brains, but Amy seemed unable to find anything more than a tenuous connection between the three and nothing to definitively indicate what the next object would be.
Amy threw herself into researching, but each day proved fruitless and she grew more and more desperate. Finally, the night of the 19th, Magda pushed Amy away from her computer, where she was frantically running searches and looked her in the eye.
“Alright, we’ve searched everything that we can think of,” She started. “And we’ve found nothing. We should just accept that we’re going to have to wait until the next clue and then go from there. Carmen clearly wants to play with you, wait until you have enough pieces to play with her.”
Amy sighed and buried her face in her hands. “I know…but I can’t just let it go. I have to figure it out. Oh god, alright…” She said slowly. Amy pulled up the video feed that had started it all and watched Carmen walk across the screen and confidently wink at the camera.
“You’re right.” She said to Magda. “She’s just playing with me. Making me go crazy. It’s just—when she winks, I know that she’s daring me to solve the puzzle.” Amy started laughing. “Listen to me—I really have gone crazy. At least you’ll be able to confidently say that it all started with that wink and Carmen’s eyes…” Amy stopped mid sentence. There was something—niggling at the back of her brain.
“What’s—“ Magda started to say.
“No no, sh.” Amy directed. “It’s the eyes. That’s the clue! Oh my god!” She said, laughing. “That’s it!”
“What is it?” Magda asked excitedly.
“We thought it was a pattern connecting the three of them. But it wasn’t that! She wasn’t stealing these things because of how they related to each other. It was a message! They form a message.” Amy gestured towards “Afghan Girl.”
“What is this known for? The girl’s eyes.” She then gestured to the statues of Kamakhya. “Who is Kamakhya? Goddess of wants and desires. Want.” She then gestured to “The Kiss.” “It’s all about passion and in order to have passion, as the statue demonstrates, you need two people. Two. Do you see?”
Magda shook her head. “No. See what?”
“The message. Carmen is saying ‘I, from eyes, want, from desire, to, from two. I want to…’ something.” Amy said excitedly.
“What does she want?”
Amy thought. “I don’t know. She wants to do something. But what? If it’s directed at me…does she want to meet? No that can’t be—oh.” She said, another idea coming to her. “That, that’s genius.” “Well done.” She breathed out and then seemed to look around the room with a different focus in her eyes. “Magda, can you drive me somewhere right now?”
Magda slowly nodded but Amy had already gotten up and started putting on some warmer clothes for outside. “Hurry up! We need to leave right now!” She yelled at Magda. “Carmen may already be there.”
Thirty five minutes later, Magda dropped Amy off at the Yerba Buena Gardens and Amy walked as quickly as she was able over towards the museum. Although it was a clear night, it was close to one a.m., and the middle of winter, so Amy pulled her overcoat close to keep warm.
She sat down across the street and watched the building in front of her quietly until a tall, Latina woman walked briskly out of the building. The woman instantly saw Amy, and Amy saw her smile in a way that reminded Amy of a cat about to successfully steal a whole saucer of milk.
Amy allowed herself to absorb as much detail as she could in the time it took Carmen to cross the street. Like the video feed, Carmen wore a black trench coat, and she had gorgeous, wavy black hair that streamed around her. Amy couldn’t quite place her age, but she appeared to be in her mid 20’s, and her eyes, well they seemed to dance.
Amy felt herself gulp and her mouth go dry, but she summoned up the courage to stand up as Carmen approached. After all, she was the one who had solved the riddle—Carmen should be intimidated of her, she told herself.
“I’m impressed Player.” Carmen said as soon as she stepped close enough to speak. Her voice was husky and deep. Amy forced herself to not visibly shiver and she took a moment to collect herself. Carmen waited expectantly.
“Oh, I think we’re past that now.” Amy said, able to keep her voice calm and collected. “Amy.” Carmen raised an eyebrow and then smiled.
“Isabella.” She regarded Amy for an instant. “I have to say, I am impressed. I didn’t think you would be able to decipher the message.”
Amy inclined her head. “Hmm. That’s funny. I would have thought that you, more than anyone, would know the danger in underestimating your opponent.” Carmen, no Isabella, leaned her head back and laughed, a deep throated sound that filled the air.
“Oh, am I glad that you’re back.” Isabella said, a soft smile on her face.
Amy took a tentative step forward towards Isabella, but her ankle buckled and she pitched forward. Before Amy could hit the ground, Isabella’s arms caught Amy and pulled her up.
Suddenly, Amy found herself eye to eye with Isabella, her heart pounding desperately in her chest. Isabella stared at her for a minute and then for a brief, mad moment, Isabella kissed Amy. The only things in Amy’s awareness were the feel of Isabella’s warm lips on hers and Isabella’s hand gently cupping Amy’s face.
After a minute, they both seemed to realize where they were and took a step back, but Amy could sense both of their bodies yearning to lean in and be close. Amy tried to steady her breathing.
“You have no idea…” Isabella said softly. And then she must have heard something, because her head shot up and she looked to the side. “I’ll be seeing you.” She said and then leaned in to quickly kiss Amy one last time. Before Amy could count to three, Isabella had managed to completely disappear.
Amy felt her legs wobble beneath her and she sat back down on the bench. After a few minutes of waiting, she rose slowly and walked back in the direction that she had come from. She tapped on the window of Magda’s car and Magda unlocked the car so that Amy could get in.
“Wow.” Amy said as Magda started up the car and turned on the heater.
“So….” Magda started. “How did it go? Good.” Amy was silent for a second, trying to process everything. She touched her lips gingerly, still feeling the heat from Isabella’s lips. Finally she shook herself out of her daze and turned to Magda.
“Pretty well. I did get what I came here for. After all, compared to the clue deciphering, sending it back is the easy part.” Amy said, unable to keep the smile off her face. “Although,” she said, drawing a rolled up canvas out of her jacket and unrolling it to show Magda. “I did get the feeling that Carmen wasn’t interested in just conversation.”