Fiction Section: The Assignment

The Assignment
by Hayley Battaglia

             Sebastian sat Indian-style in the soft, flickering glow of a television. His shoulders were hunched and he leaned slightly forward with his eyes fixed on the screen as if he were hypnotized. Drool gathered in his lower lip. He was entirely still, except for the intense pounding of his thumbs on the controller he gripped and the occasional upward jerk of his arms. He mindlessly wiped at the drool with his sleeve.

            He played in his room all day long, and through most nights. His mother told him she was getting sick and tired of it—he neglected his homework, hardly hung out with any other kids, and never did his chores. He didn’t eat meals with his family; dining instead with the various robots, aliens, soldiers, and troll-like creatures that populated the games that he loved. And now, his teacher had assigned an important paper and Sebastian’s mother threatened to confiscate his gaming console unless he took a break from playing and did his work.

            “I’m going to throw it away if you don’t hand this assignment in on time!” she said, shaking her finger at him from the hallway.

            “You won’t throw it away.” Sebastian countered, unworried. “It was expensive.”

            Irritated by her son’s disobedience, she stormed into his room and he, suddenly realizing that she meant business, threw himself protectively over his play station.

            “Okay! Okay! I’m gonna do the essay, I swear! Don’t take it!”

            “Well get started then,” she said, tapping her foot as she watch him hit pause and then scramble over to his desk.

            “I’m starting. I’m doing it,” he announced, hurriedly opening a notebook and grabbing a pencil.

            “You better keep working. I will be back to check on you.” With that, she left him to his homework.

            Sebastian sighed and read over his assignment, scratching his head with the back of the pencil. He hadn’t yet written a single sentence when a faint noise caught his attention.

            “Sebastian. Sebaaaaastian…”

            “Mom? What do you want!? I’m busy!” he answered with exaggerated annoyance.

            She yelled up to him from downstairs: “No excuses, young man! Get back to work!”

            Sebastian rolled his eyes. “She bugs me to work, and when I start, she won’t stop interrupting,” he muttered, smoothing out his paper. He drew a tiny ninja in the margin.

            A moment later, the faint calling resumed with increased persistence.  This time it was almost a hiss: “Sebaaaastian…”

            He whipped around in his seat, as if trying to catch an intruder by surprise.  But his room was empty.  Sebastian was beginning to wonder if he might be imagining things when he heard another distinct noise: the sound of a knuckle rapping on glass.  There wouldn’t be anyone at the window—his room was on the second floor.  Sebastian slowly turned to look at his TV and was puzzled when he saw two characters standing much closer to the screen than they had been when he paused his game earlier.  One was a warlock meant to provide Sebastian’s avatar with magical assistance on his adventure, the other his lackey: a stunted elfin figure. 

            The elf leaned forward so that his face took up the whole screen.  “Hello! You, there!”

            Sebastian got up from his desk and moved toward the television as if in a trance, his eyes never leaving the screen.

            “Yes, you!”  The elf leaned back and nudged his tall, robed companion.  “We got him now, heh heh, he’s not deaf after all.”

Sebastian gaped. “Wh-wha… how…”

            “No…” the other replied. “Just dense.”

            “Is this real?  How are you doing this?”

            “We’re bored,” they whined, “Come play with us.”

            “Oh…” Sebastian thought, regaining some of his composure.  This must be one of those little gimmicks the game has, like a screensaver…funny.  I must’ve entered my name in the beginning.  He chuckled at his own absurdity as he stood up and headed back to his assignment.

            “Hey kid! Where do you think you’re going?” the elf jeered.

            Sebastian spun slowly around.  “Wait, can you… see me?”

            “You were right,” the elf nudged the tall one again, “he’s dumb as a dead donkey.”

            Ignoring this comment, the warlock addressed Sebastian: “My dear, dear child.  We are in the middle of a quest, here.  An epic adventure of which you are a chief component.  You must return to the game.”

            “Well… I would, but I’ve got this homework…”

            “Homework!” he scoffed.  “You speak of homework when there is a battle to be won!  A monster to be defeated!  All of humanity to be saved!  My son, think of the bigger picture.”

            “I don’t know…” Sebastian said, but his hand was already hovering over the controller.

            “You can accomplish much more by defeating villains and saving princesses—valiantly fighting for good and triumphing over evil!” the dark figured urged.

            The elf chimed in.  “What is more important, a good grade?  Or the fate of the universe!”

            “Don’t be selfish!” They cried.

            An hour later, Sebasitan’s mother came up to check on his progress, as warned, and was enraged to find him playing his video game.

            “WHAT DID I TELL YOU!” she shrieked.

            Startled, Sebastian dropped the controller and guiltily raced back to his work. He tripped on a pair of shoes discarded carelessly in the middle of the floor and landed sprawled over his desk, crumpling his paper.  He grasped frantically for a writing utensil.  Sebastian’s mother stalked over to his gaming console and hesitated over the tangle of wires. 

            He glanced back to see if his urgent, albeit belated, efforts to obey were doing anything to soothe his mother’s wrath.  She didn’t seem to notice.  “Don’t unplug it!” he cried. “I haven’t saved!”

            She seemed to think twice about tackling the twisted knot of wires.  “All right.  You have ONE. MORE. CHANCE.” She glared at him portentously as she closed the door.  Sebastian returned to his work, a blank page with a title scrawled at the top: Chivalry Today. He twirled his pencil around in his fingers and bit on the end.

            “Sebaaaaasstaaaain,” he heard again.

            “Shut up!” he yelled over his shoulder. 

The two characters glanced at each other, affronted.

“You guys are going to get me in even bigger trouble!”

            “But Sir! Your honor is at stake! It is your duty to—“

            “Knock it off! I’m not playing.”

            “Well, how long is this going to take?” they asked.

            Sebastian shrugged and shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

            “Hmm…how long does this…essay…have to be?”

            “Yes, yes,” the other added, “What is the subject matter?”

            “You’re distracting me! I’ll never get to play at this rate!” Sebastian snapped, angrily throwing his pencil to the floor.

            For pete’s sake…” they complained. “We’ll do it.”

            Sebastian was taken aback when they climbed out of the TV and into his room, right before his eyes. They seemed large and out of place. On the TV screen they were mere cartoons. Now, the warlock towered over Sebastian’s bunk bed and looked distastefully down his long, twisted nose at the clutter of clothes and neglected toys on the floor. He wore a long robe, the blue-black of midnight, with shoulders that curved upward into angry points. His dark, greasy hair was slicked back over his head and a shimmering medallion, the color of moonlight, dangled from his neck. The warlock clutched a deep cherry-colored wooden staff, as gnarled as his own skeletal fingers.

            Beside him stood the hunched elfin figure, sporting a gap-toothed grin. He had sandy-colored hair that stuck out in tufts from beneath his cloth cap and little beady eyes that darted quickly to and fro as he took in his new surroundings. Stubble covered his square, jutting jaw and around his stained tunic he wore a thin leather belt in which a tiny dagger was sheathed.

            Sebastian was almost frightened when they began to move towards him. They reached over his head to pick up his paper and textbook.

            “This all you’ve got?” the elf said.

            He nodded cautiously.

            The warlock sighed, and both characters began dictating to Sebastian in turns.  He hastily scribbled down their words, struggling to keep up with them.

            “No, no. You spelled ‘henceforth’ wrong,” said the warlock, peering over Sebastian’s shoulder.

            Sebastian rubbed at the paper with his eraser.

            “I don’t see why we can’t leave in the bit about the disobedient donkey,” said the elf sulkily.

            “It was irrelevant. Now Sebastian, pay attention…”

            The next time Sebastian’s mother came to check on him he was once again playing his game. Before she could explode with anger he quickly shouted, “Relax mom, I finished it!” She looked over at his desk, on which there was a report, neatly stapled and set on top of his books.

            “Good boy,” she said with relief, “I knew you could do it if you just forgot about that stupid game for five minutes.”

            Sebastian laughed nervously. “Yep,” he responded, before turning back to the television screen.

            A few days later, his mother burst into his room, holding the graded essay in her hand.  “You’re such a smart boy, I know you can do better than this! It’s that garbage you play all day—it’s rotting your brain!” She placed the paper on his desk and waited, expecting Sebastian to answer, but he was engrossed in his game and didn’t acknowledge her. She threw up her arms and turned to leave. “I can’t deal with this right now.”

            As soon as she was gone, the video game characters stopped responding to Sebastian.

            What’s going on? Sebastian wondered. Is my controller unplugged? He looked around to check.

            “Hey Sebastian…” he heard.

            He sighed, as he realized what was happening. “What do you guys want now? Can’t we just play like usual?”

            “In a minute… What was wrong with the paper?”

            “Don’t worry about it,” he assured them, “Miss Finney doesn’t know anything. She’s dumber than a waffle.”  He snickered at his own wit.

            “It was a wonderful paper.”

            “Yes, yes,” the other agreed, “We put in quotations.”

            “It was great,” Sebastian said impatiently, “Now can we get back to the game?”

            They were not consoled and, once again, stepped out of the TV, insisting to see the paper. They snatched it off his desk and muttered over it together, picking apart all of the teacher’s carefully written comments. They quickly became indignant on behalf of their work.

            “How about we go teach her a lesson,” the elf said, and the warlock chortled maliciously.

            “But you don’t know where she lives…” Sebastian asserted hopefully.

            “That is no matter. We will use the magic staff of King Odin. It will lead us to her,” said the warlock, an evil glint in his eye, “We brought it… just in case.”

            “It’s just a paper…” Sebastian insisted frantically, “I’ll talk to her after school tomorrow. I’m sure it was a mistake. There’s no need for you to worry about it,” he continued, vainly trying to talk sense into them.

            The elf unsheathed his dagger, the blade catching the light of the television and flashing dangerously. Sebastian’s face turned white and they stalked purposefully out the door.

            “Wait! Wait!” Sebastian shouted, as he ran down the stairs after them. “Stop! You don’t have to do this!”

            He paused a moment to catch his breath after following them halfway down the street, wondering what on earth he was going to do if he managed to catch up. He picked up a large, dangerous looking stick from his neighbor’s yard and bravely continued his chase.

            Meanwhile, the game characters had made it to the teacher’s house and knocked politely at her door. It was opened by a petite brunette in a bathrobe, holding a steaming mug of tea.

            “What’s this, Halloween come early?” she asked incredulously.

            “Are you Miss Finney—teacher of Sebastian!” yelled the elf as he waved his dagger in front of her face.

            Miss Finney yelped in surprise and dropped her mug, spilling hot tea everywhere.

            “Argh! You have splattered my robes!” roared the warlock as the two of them backed the teacher into her house. Miss Finney shrieked with fear.

            Sebastian arrived panting at the scene. When he saw Miss Finney’s door ajar and heard her wails of distress he rushed into the house with his stick, his heart pounding furiously. He burst into her living room, the stick held menacingly over his head and shouted, “Unhand that woman!”

            His sudden entrance startled both warlock and elf and they looked up at him from the corner of the room where they stood over Miss Finney, who sat cowering on the floor. The elf held his dagger to her throat and the warlock pointed his magic staff at her, poised to unleash a terrible curse.

            “Sebastian! Get out of here! And call the police!”

            Sebastian did neither of those things. Instead, he lunged at the warlock and attempted to hit him over the head with the stick. Although the warlock’s head was way above Sebastian’s reach, he succeeded in knocking him over and accidentally kicking the dagger out of the elf’s hand. Miss Finney took this opportunity to seize the dagger before the elf could get to it and held it out in front of her protectively. The warlock, seething with rage at being thwarted in so humiliating a manner, reached for his staff, which he had dropped in the scuffle. He stood slowly and Sebastian knew he had no chance.

            “This is it,” he thought, trying to swallow the lump that dread had formed in his throat. “And this time, it’s for real.” As he fearfully scrambled to his feet, he snatched his stick up off the ground…though it seemed much heavier than he remembered…

Sebastian looked down and was shocked to see the sleek red wood of the warlock’s staff. The warlock, not yet realizing his mistake, was slowly raising the plain old tree branch over his head with ragged angry breaths.  Suddenly, his eyes focused on the staff Sebastian now held and widened in disbelief. The elf leapt behind the warlock and Sebastian quickly pointed the staff at the two of them. At the top of his lungs, he shouted, “RETURN TO YOUR GAME.”

            A beam of light shot out and enveloped the characters; who twisted and writhed as they slowly faded away. They disappeared, leaving behind only the faint echo: “Nooooo!”

            Miss Finney breathed a sigh of relief and Sebastian dropped the heavy staff onto the carpet.

            “Thank goodness you got here when you did,” said Miss Finney, “They must have been burglars. Is that some kind of giant taser?”

            “Uh… Yes,” Sebastian said hastily. “Well…” he squared his shoulders and looked out the window. “I’d say that was pretty chivalrous of me…”

            “I suppose so,” said Miss Finney, straightening her robe.

            “So does this mean I can have an A on the essay?”

            Miss Finney thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. But you can have extra credit.”



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