I. TRAPPED IN A PYRAMID
The banner saying 'Game over' scrolled across the computer screen. The electronic music stopped playing. The room fell silent for the first time since the late morning.
Pete Spruce leaned against the edge of his desk and pushed away from the computer. His chair started to roll toward the shelf where he kept his games. But his right foot was firmly anchored on the carpet and the chair didn't swivel far enough. It stopped before he could reach for a new CD.
His first reaction was to kick his leg against the floor and to swivel the chair further. But then he remembered the pain.
"Rotten luck!" He slumped on his chair like a rag doll. Why did it have to happen on the last day of school? Just as he thought he could spend the entire ten weeks playing outside with the kids? When he wanted to put the fifth grade and the elementary school behind him, before the shadow of the new middle school pushed the fun days away? "Life's so unfair!" he hissed as if he could make the pain fizzle out of his body like the air from a popped balloon.
He wanted to believe that this was only a bad dream. Why couldn't he just count to ten and snap out of it? But when he glanced down, his purplish-red scab was still there. It sat on his knee like a splayed plum. Below the scab was a white cast with a single inscription, which ran crookedly across his calf. It read: 'Before you know it, your leg will be as good as new again. Love ya, Mom.'
A gentle breeze came in through the open window and tickled him on the cheek. Pete heard shouts mixed with the rhythmical thumping. The kids must have been kicking the ball in the park. He pulled himself up from the chair and hobbled clumsily to the window. He angrily slammed it down to shut out the noise.
And then his eye caught sight of his brand-new tree house.
The tree house was nestled in the fork of their old oak tree, right outside his window. Dad had spent many weeks helping him build it. It was supposed to be Pete's 'Command Post' for his Special Forces unit.
But then yesterday, on the last day of school, the brakes of his bicycle locked up as he was coasting down the hill behind their house. He was thrown from his seat. He made a somersault in the air, and then tumbled down the hill over the tree roots sticking out of the ground. The fall knocked the wind out of his chest for a long painful moment. But it was nothing compared to the pain in his leg. His knee was bathed in blood. His ankle swelled so much it looked as if someone had stuffed a big apple into his sock. By the time he hobbled home, the apple turned into a grapefruit. And the pain? Oh, brother! It hurt worse than if twenty bees had stung him all at the same time. And although Special Forces commandos were supposed to be tougher than nails, Pete screamed and howled louder than an entire army of mortally wounded soldiers.
The doctor said his leg was broken and that the cast had to stay on for six weeks. Six weeks? Holy mackerel! Six weeks out of his summer vacation--with a cast on his leg! How was he going to climb the rope ladder up to his tree house? He grabbed a plastic dart and furiously tossed it at the round target that hung on the wall under a huge map of the world.
The pointed tip of the dart landed right in the middle of the target. Bull's eye. Where was good luck when you needed it? He grabbed his crutches and hobbled back to his desk.
Mom pushed the door with her elbow and maneuvered inside the room with a tray of oatmeal cookies and a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemonade. She glanced at the crumpled figure at the computer.
"Cheer up, Pete, help is on the way."
"I wish!" Pete sneered angrily, his eyes involuntarily following her movements as her slender reflection glided over the dark computer screen.
He watched her rest the tray on the edge of his desk. Mom frowned and started to sweep up the strewn baseball cards into a neat pile. Then she patted the lumps on his bedspread. She picked up a yo-yo and a little metal car from the floor, straightened a picture of Pete as a little baby on the wall, and pushed the drawers of his dresser shut.
"What a mess!" she sniffed. "Why is this window closed? You need some air."
"It doesn't bother me."
"We have to straighten this room. You're going to have a visitor here."
"Lilly. Mrs. Roberts is coming over with a new dress pattern for me. Lilly is coming along with her."
"Mom!" Pete's fingers froze above the keyboard, spread wide apart, as if he were going to cast a spell on her. "You are not serious."
"About what? The dress pattern or Lilly?" Mom paused at his desk where she was gathering his spilled pencils into a plastic cup. "You two could play together for a while."
"No way. She is boring."
"Pete, that's not nice."
"But Mom, nobody likes Lilly." The picture of his schoolmate jumped to his mind: a bony, rail-thin creature with awkward movements and ready answers to every question he could ever think of. "She thinks she knows it all. Kids say that she reads the dictionary for fun. That darn Miss Smarty-Pants!"
"Pete, shame on you! Lilly is such a sweet girl. And the Roberts have been almost like a family for us. Please, don't disappoint me today."
Now that was the biggest problem. Dad had known Mr. Roberts since his college days. They worked together in the same office. Both families lived in the same neighborhood; Pete and Lilly were classmates. And their fathers often talked about Lilly and Pete. Dad knew that Lilly was a straight 'A' student and that she read faster than they could publish new books.
Not a day would pass without Dad nagging Pete about his school achievements and his grades. And, naturally, Lilly was the yardstick by which to measure and compare Pete's school progress. Gradually, Pete grew to hate Lilly Roberts with all his heart.
"Mom, why are you doing this to me? I can't stand..." He stopped as the doorbell rang.
"It's them." Mom blew some dust off the shelf holding his soldier collection. "Remember, you are the host. So, please, be nice to her." She lightly kissed the top of his head and added, "At least be civil, I beg of you. I know that you aren't too fond of Lilly. But you know that Mr. Roberts is Dad's best friend. And Mrs. Roberts is such a dear lady, I'd hate to upset her."
She patted his bushy hair down with the same grimace as when she was smoothing the lumps on his bed before. Then she quickly rushed out to answer the door.
"We can't upset dear Mrs. Roberts. But does anyone care how I feel?" Pete yelled from behind the computer screen, hoping that Mom would still hear him from the hallway.
A few minutes later Lilly's red hair and freckled face appeared in the doorway. She glanced around the cluttered room, pouted, and then, carefully lifting her long legs, stepped inside his room. She looked like a crane he had once seen on a lake while fishing with Dad. Pete almost chuckled.
"Hi!" Lilly chirped in an unusually high-pitched voice. Her green, slightly bulging eyes swept the floor. She found a clear spot and put down a stack of books she had brought along. "There!" she squeaked and waded through the room, again lifting her legs in the most comical manner. Finally she plopped down into an empty chair. "So, you've got yourself into quite a mess. Bummer! Horsing around on your bike, weren't you?"
"It's legal," Pete barked, feeling annoyed.
"Sure! That's why now you are legally sporting this handsome cast on your leg. No more bike. No tree house. Some vacation, eh?"
"Don't worry so much about my summer vacation. I have enough computer games to last me 'til August. And I can watch as much TV as I want."
The bulging eyes opened wider. "You can't watch TV round the clock!"
"Oh, yeah? Who says?"
"It's bad for your eyes. Why don't you read, instead? Here, I've brought you some books."
"Forget it! I didn't ask you to bring me any books." His Mom's request to be nice echoed in his ears. He helplessly clenched his fists. "Thanks anyway," he forced himself to say.
But Lilly wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. "Listen." She lifted her finger up as if struck by an excellent idea. "My dad said that on your report card you got only a 'C' in Language Arts. Your dad told him. I thought I could help you. Why don't I come more often and we could read together?"
Pete felt as if someone had punched him right in his stomach. Why was Dad discussing his report card with Mr. Roberts again? He growled, "I don't need your dumb books! Do you understand? Go and find yourself another kid and ruin his summer. Leave me alone!"
Lilly flung her mouth open as if she were going to send a shrill message to her mother in the living room that Pete hadn't been nice to her.
Pete quickly threw his arms up in a desperate surrender. "Take it easy, Lilly. Can't you take a joke?"
Lilly's mouth closed and her usual I-know-it-all grin returned to her face.
"No problemo." She nodded graciously.
Thank heavens, one problemo was taken care of. Now, he had to make sure nobody mentioned books till the end of this visit. Providing this visit was ever going to end, of course!
"So -- what do you want to do?" he asked cautiously.
"Let's play something." Lilly jumped off her chair and charged for his toy chest. She flung the lid open and started to rummage inside. "Do you have Chinese checkers? They're my favorite."
Chinese checkers weren't Pete's favorite. Nor, for that matter, were the jigsaw puzzles Lilly asked about next.
"I'm going to race cars right now," he said firmly, pointing at the computer screen. "You can race with me if you want to."
Lilly pouted. "Too violent." She ran her finger over his CD collection, reading out the titles. "Gee, boys are such savages! Don't you have anything educational?"
I knew it wouldn't work! Pete fumed to himself. He checked his watch. Two--fifteen. This was going to be a lo-o-o-o-ng afternoon. What if Mrs. Roberts wanted to stay till dinner?
Lilly jumped on his bed, landing right in the middle. She folded her legs and slouched comfortably, looking like she owned the place. "Now!" She pulled a strange pendant on a leather string out of her pocket. It was a head of an ugly dwarf.
"Now...what?" Pete stared at the little face surrounded by a halo of tangled hair.
"Now, we could play something else." She gently blew at the bushy patch of fur on the little figurine and then winked at Pete. "I mean something totally different." She stretched her hand out to Pete offering him a better look of her toy.
"I think it's magical. Do you want to find out?"