The house was empty. It usually was when he got home from school. This was all right by him. He hooked a finger under his shirt-collar and fished out his key-string, opened the front door and let himself in. He put the mail on the hall table, by the phone, and went into the kitchen to get himself something to eat. His parents wouldn't be home for hours, so he had the house to himself. Leaving his school bag by the door, he took an armful of textbooks and a glass of milk into the den.
If he finished all his homework before dinner, it would be one less thing for his parents to worry about.
Atreyu knew that his parents worried about him. Compared to his classmates, he knew, he was very well-behaved. He never cut classes or shoplifted, he came home straight from school every day, and had never even tried a cigarette. All his grades were good, but every report card had a note from his teacher tacked to the end, the kind that made his mother frown. Sometimes on parents' nights he could overhear his teacher from the hallway.
“Well, he's a good kid, but...”
It's not like he didn't know what they were talking about. Atreyu does not have any friends at school, the notes at the end of his report cards would read. Atreyu never plays with the other boys at recess, his teacher would say to his father on the phone. Atreyu doesn't have any friends his own age, the school counselor would conclude. His mother would come out of the classroom or the principal's office and she would smile at him, but he could see that the lines on her forehead never went away.
At dinner his parents would ask him whether he'd made any new friends.
Atreyu would shrug and ask whether it was too late to go riding.
Finish your chores, his father would say. Clean up your room. Did you do your homework? All of it?
Since he always finished his homework and his chores, usually they would let him. They didn't have to like it, but his parents knew that Atreyu got on better with the horses and dogs than he did with boys his own age.
Eventually, his mother got home and started cooking dinner. Atreyu sat quietly at the kitchen table and peeled potatoes, dropping each smooth, slippery tuber into a pot full of water, to keep them from turning brown. Just outside the kitchen, his father was sorting the mail. The phone rang.
“We could go ice-skating on the weekend,” his mother was saying.
He would rather just go riding again.
“Did you finish your homework?” she asked.
He nodded once. “It was easy,” he said. It was boring.
His father stuck his head into the kitchen and said, “One of your friends is on the phone, asking for you.”
It was a moment before it occurred to him to look up from the peeler in his hand.
His father was holding the receiver out to him.
“I don't have any friends,” he pointed out, he thought, quite sensibly.
“Now honey,” said his mother, smiling a wobbly smile, “I'm sure that's not true.”
His father was still holding the receiver, and so Atreyu put down the peeler and wiped his hand on a kitchen towel. He took the phone from his father and retreated to the hall. Behind him, his father was shutting the kitchen door, muttering at his mother. He held the receiver to his ear, waited out the prank until he could hear the boys on the other end of the line guffaw to each other. Placed the receiver back into its cradle with a soft click.
When they sat down to dinner, his mother smiled at him again and asked, “Did you have a nice chat with your friend?”
He nodded, once.
He was just about to ask whether he could be excused when his father said, suddenly, “There was a package in the mail for you today, Atreyu.”
His ears perked up immediately. “For me? What is it?”
His father smiled. “It wasn't addressed to me. You can open it after dinner.”
The package was sitting on the hall table. It was small, a rectangular padded envelope. On the front, his name and address were typed out on a sticker label. He flipped it over, but there was no return address. His parents were distracted, so he took the envelope and slipped away to his room without helping with the dirty dinner dishes.
Alone in his room, he stares at the package in his hands. Somehow, he can't work up the courage to open it, so he just examines it again. It's no larger than a school notebook, and he can hear the bubble wrap padding rustling inside. He feels it carefully with his fingertips. Inside it is something small and hard, too small to be a book. Squinting at the label, he notices the lettering is elegantly curled and the ink is a curious shade of dark, bluish-green. He reads it over and over. Who would send him a package, and why?
Finally he flicks open his pencil case and takes out a slim metal ruler, slips it under the flap of the envelope and slits it open. When he upends it all that falls out is a small grey diskette. He fishes around inside for a letter or note, or at least a card, anything to explain this strange gift that came from nowhere. No box, no pamphlet, no clue as to the diskette's contents other than a label printed in the same blue-green ink:
The Neverending Story
Late that night, after his parents have gone to sleep, Atreyu tiptoes out of his room. His father's office has a computer, and sometimes he lets Atreyu play games when he isn't working on it. He tells himself that this is no different, but he knows that's not true. Although he can't explain why, he knows that what he's doing would probably upset his parents. All the same, he can't resist the urge and he pops the diskette into the drive.
The screen lights up. Atreyu expects to see blocky figures in teal and magenta. The game's title screen, though, is copper-colored. There is no title, only the figure of two snakes, one light and one dark, twined together and biting each other's tales. He presses a button and watches words scroll onto the screen.
This, the game tells him, is the story of a young prince and his father, the king. An image of the prince appears by the words, sketched in blue-green. He reads, and forgets that this is a game and not a book. Since the queen has died, the king will not speak to his son, the prince, and will not appear to his people. He reads more, and forgets that this is a story and not the truth. When the brave prince resolves to go on a quest to find a cure for his father's illness, Atreyu resolves that he will not leave his side until he succeeds.
Atreyu knows that Prince Bastian will not be able to fulfil his vow without him, and there are many hours yet before morning.
But that is a different story, to be told at a different time.