Illustrated by Jomike Tejido
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I slammed my sketchbook closed. Usually drawing comics made me feel better, but not today. It was Christmas morning, and even Loozer was having a better time than I was.
As for Leo, well… I can explain about him later.
I didn't exactly get a hoverboard and a ski trip under the tree that morning. Instead, I got some school clothes and two new books from Mom. Also a coupon from my sister, Georgia, for one turn unloading the dishwasher, and a "Christmas hug" from Grandma Dotty. Grandma said she was still working on her gifts.
The other thing I didn't get was a WormHole Premium Multi-Platform GameBox. That's what I really wanted, but I would have had a better chance asking Santa for the Empire State Building. Those WormHoles were expensive, and we weren't exactly rolling in dough that Christmas.
Still, I would have given my big toe for one of those systems. They could run games from all the other major brands, plus their own titles, which were the best ones out there, by far. That thing could practically clean your room and do your homework for you, it was that cool.
Not that I was obsessed or anything.
Well, okay, maybe a little bit.
But none of that was the real bummer.
"All right, I've got to get going," Mom said. It was only eleven in the morning, but she was putting on her coat to go to work. Yeah, that's right. On Christmas. The Madison Hotel was paying really good money for waitresses in their banquet hall that day, and Mom couldn't afford to say no.
"I'll make it up to you guys," she said. "I'm off all day tomorrow and we'll have a real Christmas dinner then."
What were we going to say? It's not like Mom wanted to work on Christmas. She was just looking out for us. The least we could do was act like it was no big deal.
"That sounds awesome!" I said.
"It'll be like having two Christmases!" Grandma said.
"Yeah!" Georgia said. "No problem, Mom."
I think she actually bought it too. And we might have pulled it off, if I hadn't opened my big mouth one more time. See, I have this bad habit of taking things a little too far sometimes.
Or a lot too far.
"Don't worry about it, Mom," I said. "Who needs Christmas, anyway? Not us!"
Yeah, right. Like any kid who celebrates Christmas was going to say that.
That's when Mom stopped buttoning her coat. She gave me this weird smile and her eyes got kind of watery.
"I'll be right back," she said. "I, um… forgot my keys."
Then she went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. (FYI, Mom doesn't keep her keys in the bathroom.) She'd been spending a lot of time in there ever since she and my Learning Skills teacher, Mr. Fanucci, decided to stop dating after a while. I'll admit it kind of skeeved me out that they were seeing each other, but I'd one thousand times rather see them kissing than to see my mom sad.
"Way to go, big mouth," Georgia said.
"But…" I said. "I didn't mean to—"
"Yeah, you never do, Rafe," she said. Even Grandma was looking at me like I'd just taken the world's cruddiest Christmas and managed to make it even cruddier.
Which I guess I had.
Leave it to me.
So basically, that was strike one. I'll tell you about strike two in a minute. But the point is, my little Christmas disaster was the beginning of everything else that happened that winter.
I'm talking about how I got in hot water with Mom, almost lost my best friend (the furry one), launched my very own business empire, survived the Great Dog War of January, and learned a little magic along the way.
Which may not be where you thought this was going, but it totally is.
Read on, my friend.
Down the Wormhole
Let me make one thing clear before I say anything else. I had a ton of stuff to be grateful for. Even a bonehead like me knew that.
1. I had the best mom this side of anywhere. And the best grandma too. And… well, I had a sister. (I'd say I was grateful for Georgia, but I don't want to lie.)
2. We had a warm, safe apartment to live in and enough food to eat. Not everybody does, right?
3. I had my supercool dog, Junior.
4. I also had my awesome best friend, Flip Savage, who's just as crazy, fast on his feet, and fun to hang out with as Junior.
5. Hold on to your socks, because FLIP GOT A WORMHOLE PREMIUM MULTI-PLATFORM GAMEBOX FOR CHRISTMAS!
So I probably don't have to tell you where I planned on spending the rest of school vacation—right there in Flip's basement, playing House of Thor, and Driving on the Ceiling, and Schoolyard Zombies, and my very favorite (and Flip's favorite, and pretty much anyone in the universe who knows anything about the WormHole's favorite), TrollQuest.
Flash forward a couple of days, and there we are in Flip's basement…
… deep into our first quest…
… and running for our lives.
We're sprinting across an open field with woods on either side. I look left. I look right. All I can see are glowing yellow eyes staring back from the trees. Those are the spider people we were told to watch out for. I haven't had to fight any of them yet, and if I'm lucky, I won't have to.
What we really need to do is get to the river. Supposedly, Grindle the road merchant left us a couple of canoes there, but you never know who you can trust around here. We spent our last gold nuggets for those boats. If we don't get onto the river—fast—those spider people are going to be eating us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
"Keep going! Straight ahead!" Flip yells. Except his name is Brix here. He calls himself that because his character is all muscle and strong as a brick wall. Get it?
My name's Stinker, but only because I entered it in wrong at the beginning. It was supposed to be Stinger, for my punching skills. But now I don't know how to fix it without resetting the whole quest.
Oh well. I've got bigger problems to deal with—like staying alive long enough to reach that river.
Meanwhile, Grindle is as good as his word. There are two birch bark canoes waiting for us when we get to the water's edge. But we've also got a whole cluster of yellow-eyed spider freaks streaming out of the shadows as fast as their hairy legs can carry them.
"Go!" I yell.
"I am!" Flip yells.
I reach my canoe first, shove it into the water, and jump in. Brix is right behind me. And right behind him—
—a wad of acid goes shooting past my head. I look back and the spider people have stopped on the shore. They can't swim, but they sure do know how to spit.
"Just paddle! Don't look back!" Flip yells.
"I'm trying!" I say, working the controller as hard as I can. But then—
I look again and there's a hole burning its way right through the bark of my canoe.
"I'm hit!" I yell.
Water's pouring in and I'm running out of options. There's no way I can swim to safety. This river is stocked with electric razor fish—the kind that will turn a troll into fish food faster than you can say "game over."
"Jump into my boat!" Flip says. He tries to paddle toward me, but the current is pulling us apart. The longer I wait, the harder this is going to get.
So I give it a shot. I stand up. The canoe nearly tips over, but I manage to keep my balance. Then I make the world's most desperate leap, out of my sinking boat, through the air, and—
Flip's mom yelled down the stairs so loud, my hand slipped right off the jump button.
"Is Rafe there with you?" she said.
"I'm here, Mrs. Savage," I said. Flip tried to pause the game, but it was too late. Stinker was already in the water, and those electric razor fish were doing exactly what you'd expect.
"Mom!" Flip yelled. "You just killed Rafe!"
"Sorry about that, Rafe," Mrs. Savage said. "But your mother is looking for you, and she didn't sound too happy on the phone."
"What time is it?" I said.
"It's quarter to six," Mrs. Savage said.
"It's WHAT?" I said. I dropped my controller on the couch. "I gotta go!"
"Just five more minutes," Flip said.
"Can't," I said, and ran up the stairs like I still had acid-spitting spider freaks coming after me. Because now I was on a whole new mission. This one was called Operation: Get Home Before My Dog Poops on the Floor Because I Lost Track of Time… Again.
And I'll just tell you right now. It was not a successful mission.
I'M SORRY, I'M SORRY, I'M SORRY, I'M SORRY, I'M SORRY!" I said, running into the house.
It was six o'clock exactly and I knew I was supposed to be back at three to walk Junior. But it was too late. Right there on the living room rug was… well, let's just call it the evidence of my failed mission.
Do you remember how sad Mom was in Chapter 2? Well, take all that sad and replace it with mad. Then add some more mad, and sprinkle a bunch of sick and tired over the whole thing. That's about how she seemed when I got there.
In other words, I'd blown it. AGAIN. I felt so guilty, I couldn't even look at Mom. Or Junior.
"I'm really sorry," I said again. "I'll clean this up."
"Yes, you will," Mom said. "Then you're going to take Junior for his walk. And then we're going to have a talk about this. I thought you were ready for the responsibility of having a dog, Rafe. But maybe I was wrong."
"What?" I said. I covered Junior's ears, just in case he could understand. "But he's part of the family!"
"Yeah!" Georgia said, coming in from the kitchen. "We can't get rid of him! Please?"
Of course, she'd been listening. Georgia's like an international spy without any of the cool parts and all the annoying little sister parts. But she loves Junior as much as I do.
Mom closed her eyes and shook her head. Then she sat down and took a deep breath.
"No, of course," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. It's been a long couple of weeks."
Besides working Christmas, she'd been doing double shifts at Swifty's Diner, six days a week. That meant leaving at five in the morning and getting back at four in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I'd been sitting around Flip's basement, playing TrollQuest and not even taking care of my own dog.
I didn't say a word. I just nodded and went to clean up the mess, while Georgia stared at me like I'd won the award for World's Worst Dog Owner.
Sometimes I wish I was a programmable cyborg instead of a human. Then at least I could set my brain for things like DON'T FORGET TO WALK THE DOG. Or even better, ERASE GEORGIA FROM MEMORY BANKS.
In the meantime, I was stuck there with my regular human brain. So as soon as I could, I picked up Junior's leash and took him out for a nice long walk, to get as far from my sister as humanly possible.
Also to give Mom some cooling-off time.
Like maybe until spring.
Park and Bark
The great thing about dogs is that they never stay mad. As soon as Junior figured out where we were headed, he was in the best mood ever. Seriously, we could all learn a few things from our dogs.
By the time we got to the gate at the dog park, Junior was practically choking himself trying to get off the leash. He loves that place the way I love drawing, pizza, and school vacation, combined.
"Make sure that gate is latched!" some lady yelled. They're really picky about keeping the gate closed at the dog park, which I guess I can understand. But some people could afford to calm down about it, if you ask me.
"Hey, Muffin! Junior's here!" someone else said.
I called this place the Park and Bark. I knew most of the dogs' names, but not the owners'. They were just Poncho Lady and Really Loud Girl and Big Beard. Stuff like that.
Marley Grote also came to this park with her dog sometimes. She's a girl from school who maybe kind of sort of possibly was my first kiss awhile back. I'm not really sure what happened, but we don't really talk much anymore. Maybe I was supposed to do something after we kissed, but I didn't know what, and she never told me. Every time I see her I get a little weirded out, but the good news is that she went on vacation with her family over the break. So I won't be running into her here.
Meanwhile, Junior was saying hi to Muffin, and Charlie, and Blanco, and Jed, and Dakota and everyone else. Then Super-Tall Guy threw a tennis ball and they all went after it like it was a live rabbit covered in gravy. Already, Junior was having a great time.
Not me. Now I was just standing there, staring into space and trying to figure out how to make things better for Mom. Help out so she didn't have to work so much and be so tired all the time. Maybe I could get a job? The real question was, what could a middle school screw-up like me actually do? It's not like anyone would pay me for playing TrollQuest or picking up Junior's poop.
"O… M… G, could it be any colder out here?" someone said behind me.
"I know, right?" someone else said.
I turned around, and it was Starbucks Lady talking to Candy Crush. One of them always had a giant coffee, and the other one never stopped playing that game on her phone, even when she was talking to people.
"The depressing thing is—ooh!" Candy Crush said, crushing some candy. "Winter's just getting started. It's going to be long time until—ohhhhh, nooo!" I guess she'd just lost her game.
Then I heard someone else.
"Please, I'm begging you, Daisy. Just go!"
I looked over and Nose Ring Guy's basset hound was turning around in a million circles, looking for the perfect pee spot.
Nose Ring Guy didn't look too happy to be there either. Just like Starbucks Lady, Candy Crush, and me. In fact, it seemed like the only ones who were in a good mood at the dog park were the dogs.
And that's when something inside my head went—CLICK!
Or maybe more like—BOOM!
You know how some ideas come on slowly, like a pot of boiling water? Not this one. This was more like an explosion. In a dynamite factory. Inside my brain.
I was going to start a business. A dog-walking business. It was the perfect idea, for three reasons.
1. It was going to make Mom happy. This was going to show her I could be responsible and earn my own money.
2. It was going to make Junior happy. You can't forget to walk the dog when you have a dog-walking business, right?
And 3… can I get a drumroll, please? Because if I played it right, I was going to turn this idea into enough cash for a WormHole Premium Multi-Platform GameBox of my very own.
And that's what you call a win-win-win.
In other words—BOOM!
The Man with the Plan
I was all over the Internet that night. And no, I don't mean I was famous. I mean I was looking up everything I needed to know to make this happen.
I saw a bunch of stuff about creating "formal business plans," which one site said was like drawing a "road map" to my "goals and objectives."
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- Oct 24, 2016
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