Camera Obscured (Asimov's, Sept/Oct 2009)

It had been a week since Victor “Yo-Yo” Pino had been stung by a hundred and seventy-four bees.  And after a brief hospital stay at the 8,546th best emergency care center in the world, Victor’s mother made him go back to his classes at Wilkinson High, the 4,378th best high school in America.

Victor was no stranger to the hospital, since his quest to scale the Worldwork leaderboards had left him with a collection of fascinating injuries.  His left pinky finger had nearly been sawn off by a glass-encrusted string in his attempt to become the world’s best kite-fighter (highest ranking: 1,232,930,212nd place).  Months of training to become the best firespinner in the entire world (highest ranking: 138,212th, his best placing to date) had left him with a combover hair style designed to mask the spots where his hair had permanently burned away, but at least lighting all those flaming poi balls had allowed him to dispose of last fall’s matchbook collection (the 82,223,343rd least-impressive collection in the world).

The bee stings had accumulated after this spring’s disastrous attempt to become the world’s finest beekeeper (final ranking: 309,423rd place), which led to his mother’s creating her “No pets” rule.  Victor felt terrible about that, because it wasn’t the bees’ fault; he hadn’t smoked the hive properly when introducing a new swarm, and the poor things had panicked.

He felt bad for the bees, so bad that he couldn’t even swat them when they started stinging him.  He felt even worse when, while he was doped up in the emergency room, his Mom had called in the exterminators (who were cut-rate 73rd percentile exterminators, but apparently even an 8,786th place business was enough to kill a defenseless bunch of bees).

But the worst thing of all was that in the rush to the hospital, he’d forgotten to mark the bee footage off of his vlog – and without the “no-show” forbiddance markers around the continual feed of his daily footage, Worldwork had rightfully chosen that incident as the most notable thing that had happened to him that day.  It then broadcast it to his subscribers on the fifteen-minute auto-edited video log of Victor’s day, and his subscribers had laughed so hard at Victor’s flailing shrieks that merely watching Victor had registered as interesting enough to show up on their daily vlogs, resulting in a mild viral outbreak.  In two days, 24.6% of his high school, a full 538 students, had witnessed his incompetence and laughed themselves silly.

The laughing, he was used to.  But the real damage was the fact that his beekeeping was revealed.  The yo-yo incident in seventh grade had left a nickname as sticky and painful as napalm, and since then Victor had vowed never to show his classmates what he was up to.

Now they knew.  They’d use that to make his life a living hell.

The hospital stay had been gloomy, as they usually were; a childhood’s worth of experience had taught Victor that injuries were the sign of yet another misplaced career path.  The stings weren’t nearly as painful as the loss of the idea of being the best beekeeper, and so he’d spent three days watching whatever flashed across the inside of his vlog-glasses, feeling that slow sink in his gut that he was nobody, nobody, nobody.

His injuries hadn’t been that severe, but his parents could afford an extra day’s stay at the hospital (just as they’d afforded the beekeeping equipment and the kites and the poi balls), and so Victor had wheedled an extra day out of sympathetic nurses; the nurses must have really liked him, because his conversations with them were flagged in their vlogs.

The doctors were more skeptical.  “Nobody ever built viewer loyalty from the inside of a hospital room,” they joked, punching him lightly on the arm in the sort of heartwarming gesture that looked good on camera.

It didn’t matter.  For on the third afternoon, as Victor laid dejectedly in his bed, kismet struck in the form of a television show – specifically, a documentary on the the ex-girlfriends of Angata Mahamoud, the World’s Best Lover (Hetero Male).

Victor watched with dejected interest; having failed so miserably in all his own attempts, the last thing he wanted was to watch someone else’s triumph.  But he was too depressed to switch to another datastream.

And Angata was remarkable; he’d clung to his position as the World’s Best Lover for an amazing four-week streak, and no one – not even Angata – knew how he’d done it.  Angata, a pleasant, bland-looking Hindi, seemed surprised by the attention, since he’d never wanted to be the World’s Best Lover – but then again, he didn’t have a choice.  Every night, the Worldwork servers analyzed all the footage that streamed in from everyone’s vloggles, then re-ranked the skillsets of everyone caught on-camera anywhere.

Most skill rankings stayed relatively consistent, but the World’s Best Lover rankings fluctuated violently.  Yet Angata had stayed on top for almost a month now, without even trying.  That interested Victor.

Angata had had only four lovers, so they’d sent a reporter out to interview each of them.  They were all virgins before they had met him, and still virgins today – ugly and stammering in the glare of the cameras, they each gushed about how sweet and considerate Angata had been.  That was no surprise to Victor.  Angata was the World’s Best Lover, after all.

But he felt bad for the girls, wincing as the interviewer implied that Angata had wasted his skill on these ungainly females.  Nobody but Angata would ever want women this homely, they said.

Victor was furious – “That’s not true!” he yelled at the screen, feeling his cheeks flush with sympathetic humiliation – but, in a flash of revelation, he realized that it was true.

That was why Angata was the best.

Truth was, Victor realized, Angata wasn’t that great a lover.  He was simply a nice man who’d had the good fortune to sleep with four women who had no other experiences to compare with.  Angata had stumbled into an isolated bubble of four people, none of whom had even kissed anyone else in the world – so the Worldwork algorithms couldn’t contrast and compare their results with those of previous lovers to fine-tune the thousands of other factors that made people over- and under-estimate someone’s skills in bed.

The Worldwork system was taking Angata’s ex-lovers at face value.  And since he was a kind man, they thought the world of him.

Victor had discovered loopholes in the Worldwork algorithms before, but this was a doozy.  Eventually, some guy would sleep with five women who’d never kissed another man, and that man would be…

…the best lover in the whole world.

He could feel the hair prickling at the back of the neck as Destiny seized him.  This was the key.  This was how he, Victor Pino, would become the greatest.  For he – and he realized that this was part of his master plan now – had never kissed a girl, making him the perfect candidate to steal Angata Mahamoud’s ranking.

His depression vanished, replaced once by a fevered energy.

Revitalized, Victor spent the rest of the day searching the Worldwork profiles to find his ideal first mate.  Very few of his female Wilkinson High classmates were lonely, one-node potentials like Angata’s ex-girlfriends, but eventually he narrowed it down to a blurry photo of a girl he was pretty sure he’d seen around the school before: Rosalie Atkinson.

Her profile was scant, but he memorized every iota of it, then researched her hobbies.  He took copious notes, making sure to get things right.

As the first woman in the chain that would make him the Best Lover (Hetero Male), Victor owed it to Rosalie Atkinson to make this act of love good and beautiful and kind.

This wouldn’t be like the bees.


Victor returned to school with enthusiasm, slinking past the pickets of striking cafeteria workers (“56th Percentile Work Shouldn’t Get 62nd Percentile Pay!”), and sucked in a deep breath for confidence before he stepped into the hallways.

The students, their vlog-cameras gleaming, surrounded him like a pack of paparazzi.

The jocks buzzed him with stuffed bee dolls, the underclassmen spattered him with honey, the cheerleaders ground against him in a mockery of affection and begged him in faux-dramatic voices to “BEE MINE, YO-YO, BEE MINE!” – the usual host of over-the-top stunts, filmed in attempts to go viral.

Victor would have reported them to the principal, but everyone knew the principal benefited most from all of this; he had ten thousand subscribers, and every student sent to the principal’s office gave him a “greatest hits” summary of the craziest stunts at Wilkinson High.  He sold advertising as a lucrative side-business.

Someone shoved a bowl of Honeycomb cereal in Victor’s face, braying laughter, and he felt his skin prickle as he tuned out; he wasn’t really here.  He was years in the future, the number-one lover, and reporters were all interviewing these morons right now, asking them, “When did you realize Victor was so talented?” And he was watching their befuddled expressions as they realized that they should have paid him a different kind of attention.

All this would fade once he found Rosalie Atkinson.

He scoured the hallways, looking for signs of Rosalie – which was tough, because she darted from class to class like a fish trying to avoid a predator.

There was something about the way she walked that made Victor afraid to interrupt her, lest she plow right through him – she walked with her lean torso tilted forwards, laptop clutched to her chest, head down like a bull charging.  She looked straight through the crowds in front of her, her gaze aimed at end of the hallway as though she planned to burst through the wall there like the Kool-Aid Man.  Then she’d pivot precisely on one heel to step through whatever door she needed to go through, not a step wasted.

By lunch period, though, she had retreated to the far corner of the cafeteria, crouched over as she dipped her fries in mayonnaise.  She was all bones and spiked hair, like an angry parrot, but Victor thought the hollows of her bone structure were as beautiful as the vaults of a cathedral.  She wore tight striped sweaters that outlined her boobs, which were hard to see because she always had something clasped in front of them.

They were pretty good boobs.  He’d read that large ones were less sensitive, and made a note to try not to overstimulate her.

Being the World’s Best Lover (Hetero Male) shouldn’t be too different from beekeeping, he reassured himself, moistening a paper towel to dab the last of the honey off the front of his sweater vest.  He’d never had time to date girls the way his other classmates did, but Victor presumed it was like any other hobby; you put your mind to it, discovered what worked, and honed your craft.

He’d make this act of love good for her, because even now he could tell she was lonely; he flicked his browser on in his v-glasses just to verify, and Rosalie still had no one watching her daily broadcasts.  He wasn’t even trying to gain marketshare on his vlog, and even without the bee incident, he had sixty-eight subscribers.

What a sad, pathetic life she must lead, not to have anyone viewing her.

As he crept up to her table to ask her for a date, Victor noticed the blob of dried mustard on the diamond-sized lens of Rosalie’s vlog-glasses, which were old-fashioned black horn-rims five years out of date, and he realized she was writing in a book.  But she wasn’t an artist – he’d scoured her rankings extensively, and there were no archived drawings in her profile aside from what she’d done for art classes.

So what was she doing with paper?

Plus, it was paper – the kind of cheap stuff you found in dollar stores.  Smart paper was instantly networked to archive everything you scrawled on it; why would she use something so fragile?  What if she spilled Pepsi on it?

The facts didn’t fit, and that made his chest tighten; maybe he’d looked up the wrong Rosalie Atkinson.  He thought about turning away, but his shadow fell over the table, and she looked up.

She snapped her book shut, palm over the cover, which had old magazine images cut out and taped to the front.  Her nails were chewed bloody.

Her eyes were cobalt blue, like laser beams.  Her gaze was so scarily irritated that Victor felt he couldn’t move until she gave him permission.

“Turn off your vlog,” she snapped.  “I don’t talk to cameras.”

He took a step back at her vehemence, then pointed to the dimmed red light on his glasses.  “It’s already off,” he explained, not mentioning that the reason he’d shut it down is because even though this interaction would clearly boost traffic to his vlog, any hint of his plan to become the World’s Best Lover would bring competition.  “See?”

She looked at him closely.  Her eyes paused on the fresh cuts on his face where he had shaved with a razor this morning.

“I don’t like vlogs,” she said sullenly.  The note of explanation somehow felt like an apology.

“That’s okay,” Victor said.

“I didn’t ask for your permission.  I just said that I don’t like them.”

“Okay, all right, fine.”  This wasn’t going the way he planned at all.  “I’m Victor.”

“That’s nice, Vic,” she said warily, emphasizing his name as though it were something she was flicking out of her teeth: Vic-K.  “Why are you talking to me?”

“I was wondering,” he started, but his own voice sounded far too craven to be the World’s Best Lover, so he cleared his throat.

“I was wondering if maybe you were free this Friday…”

Hah!” she laughed, and her scornful hah echoed across the cafeteria, caught the attention of the jocks in the corner and the hackers by the cash register and the cheerleaders preening in the corner.  Every head in the lunchroom swiveled to turn and look at them, four hundred tiny cameras whirring into focus.

Rosalie grinned, encouraged by his tears, and her mouth opened to give him the most savage rejection he’d ever receive in his life.

He felt tears oozing out of the corner of his eyes, because he knew what would happen; their systems would inevitably register this instant as a highlight and post it in their vlogs.  Five hundred vlogs, each chronicling the splotchy, weird-haired nerd getting what-for from girl he’d asked out on a date.  There were whole websites devoted to these kinds of rejections.

The bees had been bad enough.  This would turn him not just into laughingstock of not just everyone at Wilkinson High, but everyone who watched anyone from Wilkinson High.

He implored Rosalie silently, his lip quivering, begging, please, don’t, don’t do this to me…

She looked at him.  Then she noticed the crowd she’d drawn.

Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, and only Victor was close enough to see the sliver of fear that passed through her eyes as she saw how many cameras were pointed at them.  For an instant, they both shared this strange shame of being noticed.

Then Rosalie pulled up her lip in a sneer, placing her hand on his protectively.  Her slender fingers were cool, and her touch sent shimmers of emotion through him that he did not understand.

She glared down the cafeteria.

He told me a funny joke!” she screamed, her face red, crouching in to almost touch her forehead to Victor’s.  “Any of you got a problem with that?”

They didn’t, or at least no one dared to say so.  The students returned to their plates of spaghetti (the 4,121,283,498th best spaghetti in the world), leaving them conspicuously alone.

She took the hit for me, Victor thought.  She’ll be in the vlogs tomorrow, not me.

Her hand was still on his.  If he moved, she might take it away.

“You want a date,” she whispered, hunching over to speak to him in utter disbelief.  “With me.”


She chuckled, putting her elbows on the table in bemusement.  He rubbed his wrist lightly where she’d grasped him.  “Boy, you really didn’t do your research.”

Victor had, actually.  He’d tracked every reference to her on Worldwork and read about her great love of lacrosse; it was why he had tickets to Friday’s game resting in the pocket of his corduroy pants.  But nothing in all of his web travels had suggested this crazy woman in front of him.

Still, she’d touched him.  That felt… Oddly comforting.

“I have tickets to the lacrosse game,” Victor suggested, starting on the script he’d memorized last night.  “I could pick you up at 5:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, and then we could….”

“Lacrosse sucks,” she said, flicking a French fry off the table.  He blinked.  “Look, why are you asking me?  I’m not really gonna be responsive to your overtures, Vic, and there have to be easier targets.  What are you up to?”

“Nothing,” he said, but his ears went red again.

Rosalie grinned; Victor had the uncomfortable sensation that she’d found a new toy to play with.

“You’ve got something going on, Vic.  I’m part of a scheme, aren’t I?  Am I your next yo-yo?”

He squeezed his eyes shut.  He’d hoped that she hadn’t remembered that, but of course everyone did.

In his quest to become the world’s finest yo-yo player (highest ranking: 3,312,156th), he’d spent his entire seventh grade walking down the halls with his yo-yo, walking the dog on the way to class, rejoicing at the way his score jumped each day when the vlogs were compiled and the scores re-tallied.  But eventually he’d realized that while it was easy to get to the top 1% of the worldwide rankings, shaving that final percentage point took a natural talent he did not have.  By then, he’d had his yo-yo stolen four times by bullies and acquired a hateful nickname, and he was sick of it.

Please don’t call me that,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

“I didn’t.”


“You don’t think about people,” she said, drumming her fingers on the cover of her notebook.  “You’re like me, you never socialize.  You just show up with all these weird fuckin’ injuries – stings, burns, star-shaped bruises.  And nobody knows why.  People check the rankings to see if your parents show up on the Abusive index, you know that?  I hear ‘em talking to each other in the hallways, whispering that your Dad’s got some secret tech that hides the way he beats you from the cameras.  That he experiments upon you.”

She licked her lips, relishing all the gory details.

“But he doesn’t, does he?  You’re too clean.  Which means you’re crazy.”

Victor bristled a little at the term, irritated that anyone would believe a crazy rumor like that… But there was something in her eyes that suggested kindness.

“Crazy good, though,” she mused, sipping grape juice from her box.  “Am I your yo-yo?”

He squirmed in his seat.  “I can’t… No.  It’s not like that.”

“It is.”  She’d turned cheerfully vulpine, her white teeth a little too pointed for him to be comfortable, but he didn’t want to leave.  “It really is.  You’re a terrible liar, Vic, you know that?”

He had never been more turned on in his life.

“I just wanted a date,” he wheezed, feeling the air stoppered in his lungs.

She kissed her teeth, considering.  “All right.”  She shoved her chair back, shoved her book in her backpack, extended her hand.  “You want one?  Let’s go.”

Victor fumbled for his own laptop.  “But I have Chemistry next period….”

“You want to spend time with me?”

His lips were dry.  He didn’t think this was how dates went, but maybe they did.  He liked the way her hand had felt on his.  He was a little nervous about maybe having to kiss her.  But even if he didn’t get to kiss her, even without the pressure of the World’s Best Lover weighing down on him, Victor had the weird feeling that if he missed out on this moment, he’d wonder what would have happened for the rest of his life.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then you enter my world.”

He took her hand in his and she escorted him off the school grounds.  It felt like he was leaving Planet Earth.


Rosalie’s car smelled like old cigarettes and Juicy Fruit.  Victor didn’t know what to say as she drove down the freeway with the windows open, the first bloom of summer heat whooshing in to riffle their hair.

“You’re not getting any,” she said.  “I just want to be clear on that.”

“That’s fine,” he muttered.  He’d known that already.  As they’d walked out to the parking lot, he’d felt his dreams evaporate into her palms as he soaked her fingers wrinkly with his own nervous sweat.  And once she’d gotten in the car, she hadn’t reached across to touch him again.

These weren’t the hands of the World’s Best Lover (Male Hetero).

He felt that familiar hurt of dreams shrinking to nothing inside his chest, leaving behind their usual residue of embarrassment.  The more he thought about it, the dumber it seemed that he’d actually thought that he could just pick out some girl from school, and woo her with lacrosse tickets, and have her suddenly flop naked onto his bed out of, what?  Gratitude?

It was hard to believe he could be that stupid.  But he always was.

Victor was seized by crazy ideas, and it bothered him how they snuck up on him.  He’d see a video and know that becoming the world’s greatest bonsai shaper was his destiny.  He could feel the talent thrumming through his fingers, like chained lightning.

Then, after months of careful cultivation, he’d finally realize these weren’t hands that naturally snipped shrubs into a flowing Kengai waterfall; these were the fat-fingered hands of stupid old Yo-Yo Pino, 46,739,922nd place, and how could he have fooled himself like that?

Sometimes he wished a deadly plague would wipe out seven-point-four-nine billion people, leaving Victor and only Victor to teach the survivors the mysterious ways of fencing and Bhangra dancing and Bodhran drumming.

At least this stupid dream had only lasted like for two days.  And his punishment this time was going to be not a dead swarm of bees, but an awkward afternoon with Rosalie Atkinson.

Rosalie sung along with some girl folk singer on the radio while he scrunched down in the seat, watching her pull off from the freeway and turn down hardscrabble dirt roads.  She snuck glances at him, looking away nervously whenever he looked back.

She cruised to a stop by an abandoned power substation, a cluster of big industrial equipment squatting in the middle of a net of power cables.

“C’mon,” she said, tugging him out of the car; she sensed his unease, but wasn’t having any part of it.  She had something to show him.

A shot-up warning sign told them to keep out, but Rosalie peeled back a portion of the fence and gestured for Victor to crawl underneath.  They strode by walls of electric equipment, gigantic transformers painted in fading teal and bristling with cooling fans, pipes, locked switches, dials, HIGH VOLTAGE signs in faded red.  Her high-top sneakers crunched on gravel as she led him to the heart of the complex, past the dead cameras.

Rosalie walked different here, Victor realized.  Instead of rushing to place to place like she did in school, her stride opened up and she ambled along, letting her notebook dangle down in one hand.  He trailed behind her, his own strides lengthening as he got caught up in her energy… And she kept looking back to watch his reactions with an eager grin.

He only felt a little stupid, smiling back.

Rosalie got to the center of the complex, then whirled around three times, her head thrown back and her fingertips flung wide, before collapsing into a cross-legged squat on the dry soil.

“You feel it?” she asked, sighing with contentment.

“Feel what?”

“The worst reception in all of town,” she explained patiently.  “Check your vlog-glasses.  Zero bars.  Even if someone wanted to film us here, they couldn’t – the signal wouldn’t reach back home.  The ghost of electricity in the air statics it up.”

Victor frowned.  “Why would you want that?”

She blew air through her lips in exasperation.  “Christ, Vic, you’re a real dunce sometimes, you know that?”

Victor didn’t have anything to say to that, and she wasn’t really that mad anyway.  He picked up an old metal washer and started playing with it.

“I come out here a lot,” she said, looking up to the sky.  “Nobody can judge you here.  You go to school, and it’s like… Everyone’s just stealing bits of your soul.  They used to think that, you know.  Some of the old Africans thought that cameras stole your soul, so they wouldn’t let people take their pictures.  Now everyone’s a star.  Me, I think you have that much of yourself on display, pretty soon you got nothing left.  Right?”

Rosalie looked at him expectantly.  Victor toyed with the washer, unsure of what to do with his hands.  “I guess,” he said, not really sure what she meant at all.

She peered at his fingers.  “What are you doing?”

Victor looked down with a start and realized he’d been twirling the washer between his fingers nervously, a remnant of his old attempts at Prestidigitation (11,752,312).  He dropped it, but Rosalie grasped his hand as though she expected to find some mechanical device.

“That was crazy!” she said enthusiastically.  “That washer was just zipping in and out between your knuckles.  Your fingers were rippling, man.  I didn’t know you could do that.”

“I’m not much good at it,” he said.

“Crap, you’re better than I would be,” she said, whistling low.  “So you keep bees and do magic.  What else can you do?”

He thought about listing all of the things he couldn’t do, but that would have taken too much time.  “I can juggle,” he volunteered.

“Get outta town,” she said, punching him in the arm.  “You’re like a piñata, Vic.  I keep poking you and weird shit falls out.  Juggle for me.”

His stomach clenched; he hadn’t juggled since his final ranking (3,212,091).  “I’m not good at it.”

“I’m easily impressed.  Here.”  She hunted for three rocks, then pressed them into his hands.  “Go.”

Victor had stopped his quest for juggling four years ago, and as he began tossing the rocks he remembered why.  The arcs of an object as it proceeded through a pass were supposed to take the same path every time, and he still hurled things in wobbly loops; he had to lurch forward to catch up with the rocks, because he was throwing them out in front again.  His bad form sickened him…

…until he saw Rosalie, clapping her hands in glee.

His parents merely tolerated his hobbies, never asked questions aside from how his ranking was.  When he went to competitions it was all about being sized up, his competitors checking off his inevitably poor techniques.  His instructors always yelled, to the point where he’d started self-teaching.

Rosalie was pure with amazement.

He smiled back at her, and began doing trickier things; he picked up another rock, tried for four, did a behind-the-back he almost bobbled – but she giggled anyway as he caught the four stones in one hand and bowed.

“Teach me,” she said.  And he did.  He tried to get her to keep her elbows in more, but Rosalie didn’t care about technique; she was just happy to be juggling at all, enjoying the act of it more than he ever had, and they spent an hour as she mirrored his actions and accidentally bounced rocks off his skull.

“What else can you do?” she asked, beaming with happiness.  “Show me!”

He taught her the beginning turn vaults of Parkour, the palm and loads of magic tricks, the Ginga footwork patterns of capoeira martial arts.  She had no shame, giggling at every error, which made him laugh a lot, and for once he wasn’t afraid of how his voice sounded when he laughed.

There were no numbers, for a time.  No numbers at all.


It was dark by the time they headed back, and they rode in a comfortable silence.  She pulled to a stop a block away from Victor’s house, her GPS flashing directions at her.

“Why’d you ask me out on a date, anyway?” she asked.

Victor exhaled a long breath, shuffling the old fast food wrappers on the floor around with his feet.

“I wanted to be the World’s Best Lover,” he admitted after a long silence, then added, “Hetero Male.”

“On the Worldwork rankings?” she asked, confused.


She snorted in mild derision.  “What do you wanna be that for?”

He didn’t have an answer for that any more.

She shook her head ruefully, smiling.  “You gotta do better research, Vic,” she chuckled, then leaned over to kiss him on the forehead.  It felt sisterly.  “See ya tomorrow.”

He got out of the car and walked down to his house, a generous three-story colonial with expensive windows.  His Mom was out front, sweeping dead bees off the sidewalk, but when she saw him she dropped her broom and ran to him and hugged him tight, first asking whether his glasses had gone on the fritz and then giving him a big lecture about always calling in if he was going to be late.

Rosalie had a lot of ways around that kind of thing.  She’d told him that parents got all suspicious when you went off the grid, suspecting you were up to no good, and she’d shared a lot of hints as how to quietly sabotage your glasses without drawing attention.  Victor wasn’t sure he wanted the advice, but he really liked listening to Rosalie talk.

Victor walked up to his room, his step strangely light.  He flicked on the switch and looked at the computer monitor, then the shelves full of discarded hobbies.  A violin here, an old rigged top hat there, a half-empty can of lighter fluid next to the ball-and-chain of a fire poi, the machete-like blade of a hive frame-lifter, and….

…the yo-yo.

He looked at the yo-yo for a moment, then took a folded piece of paper out from his pocket.  On it was a picture Rosalie had drawn of him in pencil in her notebook while they were at the power substation, done in a fine, wavering hand that struck him as being so beautiful he couldn’t imagine it ever being any good on smart paper.  In the picture, he didn’t have any bee stings, didn’t have any miscut hair from fire injuries; he just looked calm and happy.  He liked that.

Victor flipped over the paper, curious what she’d doodled on the other side.  There were all sorts of poems about girls, and lots of tiny head shots of the girls in his class, and why would she spend her time doing that…?


Well, that wasn’t listed on her Worldwork profile.

He laughed at his own naïveté, taping the portrait to the wall over the yo-yo.  And then he realized, with a wave of warmth that shot through his entire body: she’d never been interested at all, and yet she’d still wanted to be his friend.

He smiled so wide his cheeks hurt.

It was such a stupid plan, anyway.  Even if Rosalie had been more amenable to his charms, it never would have worked with her.  His calculations required someone who didn’t know anyone else and never would, and that was so not Rosalie that it made him giggle.  She was so cool that she must have tons of other friends.

He took down the yo-yo and blew the dust off.  He felt the curve of it in his palm, an imperial wooden Duncan F.A.S.T. 201 series, so streamlined it had been a classic for almost a century.

Victor slipped the loop of the string around his middle finger, feeling the comfort of it flood back into him.  He remembered how good it felt to fling it down with just the right weight so the yo-yo tugged on your finger, hearing the papery rasp as it whirled in place at the absolute end of the string, waiting patiently until you beckoned it back into the palm of your hand.

Then he looked at the monitor, a gift from his Dad, which told him exactly how good he was.  He felt the sickness in his hands, the trembling of comparison…

Victor reached over and shut the monitor off.