Warcross (Warcross #1)(4)

by Marie Lu

“No one told me.”

My hand tightens against the back of the dining room chair. She hasn’t left the apartment all day, so she never even saw the eviction notice on the door. I take a deep breath, reminding myself that Keira hasn’t been able to find any work, either. After almost a year of trying, she’s just given up and curled inward, spending her days idling away in Warcross instead.

It’s a feeling I know well, but I’m too exhausted tonight to spare much patience for her. I wonder whether the realization of living on the streets will hit her when we finally end up standing on the sidewalk with all of our belongings.

I strip off my scarf and hoodie down to my favorite tank top, go into the kitchen, and start a pot of water to boil. Then I head over to the two mattresses lying against the wall.

Keira and I keep our beds separated with a makeshift divider duct-taped together out of old cardboard boxes. I’d made my side as cozy and neat as I could, decorating the space with trails of golden fairy lights. A map of Manhattan, covered in my scribbles, is pinned on my wall, along with magazine covers featuring Hideo Tanaka, a written list of the current Warcross amateur leaderboards, and a Christmas ornament from when I was a kid. My final possession is one of my dad’s old paintings, the only one I have left, propped carefully beside the mattress. The canvas is exploding with color, the paint thick and textured as if still wet. I used to have more of his work, but I had to sell them off every time things got too desperate, chipping away at his memory in order to survive his absence.

I flop on my mattress and it lets out a loud squeak. The ceiling and walls are awash in neon blue from the liquor mart across the street. I lie still, listening to the constant, distant wail of sirens coming from somewhere outside, my eyes fixed on an old water stain on the ceiling.

If Dad were here, he would be fussing about in his fashion professor mode, mixing paints and washing brushes in jars. Perhaps mulling over his spring class syllabus, or his plans for New York Fashion Week.

I turn my head toward the rest of the apartment and pretend that he’s here, the healthy, un-sickly version of him, his tall, slender silhouette outlined in light near the doorway, his forest of dyed blue hair shining silver in the darkness, facial scruff neatly trimmed, black-rimmed glasses framing his eyes, dreamer’s face on. He would be wearing a black shirt that exposed the colorful tattoos winding up and down his right arm, and his appearance would be impeccable—his shoes polished and trousers perfectly ironed—except for flecks of paint staining his hands and hair.

I smile to myself at the memory of sitting in a chair, swinging my legs and staring at the bandages on my knees while my father put temporary streaks of color into my hair. Tears still stained my cheeks from when I’d run home from school, sobbing, because someone had pushed me down at recess and I’d scraped holes in my favorite jeans. Dad hummed while he worked. When he finished, he held a mirror up to me, and I gasped in delight. Very Givenchy, very on trend, he said, tapping my nose lightly. I giggled. Especially when we tie it up like this. See? He gathered my hair up into a high tail. Don’t get too used to it—it’ll wash out in a few days. Now, let’s go get some pizza.

Dad used to say that my old school’s uniform was a pimple on the face of New York. He used to say that I should dress like the world’s a better place than it actually is. He would buy flowers every time it rained and fill our home with them. He would forget to wipe his hands during his painting sessions and end up leaving colorful fingerprints all over the place. He poured his meager salary into presents for me and art supplies and charities and clothes and wine. He laughed too often and fell in love too quickly and drank too freely.

Then one afternoon, when I was eleven, he came home, sat down on the couch, and stared blankly into space. He’d just returned from a doctor’s appointment. Six months later, he was gone.

Death has a terrible habit of cutting straight through every careful line you’ve drawn between your present and your future. The line that leads to your dad filling your dorm room with flowers on your graduation day. To him designing your wedding dress. To him coming over for dinner at your future house every Sunday, where his off-key singing would make you laugh so hard you’d cry. I had a hundred thousand of these lines, and in one day they were severed, leaving me with nothing but a stack of his medical bills and gambling debt. Death didn’t even give me somewhere to direct my anger. All I could do was search the sky.

After he died, I started copying his look—wild, unnaturally colorful hair (boxes of hair dye being the only thing I’m willing to waste money on) and a sleeve of tattoos (done for free out of pity from Dad’s former tattoo artist).

I turn my head slightly and glance at the tattoos winding along my left arm, then run a hand across the images. They start at my wrist and go up my shoulder, bright hues of blue and turquoise, gold and pink—peony flowers (my father’s favorite), Escher-style buildings rising out of ocean waves, music notes, and planets against a backdrop of outer space, a reminder of nights when Dad would drive us out to the countryside to see the stars. Finally, they end with a slender line of words that run along my left collarbone, a mantra Dad used to repeat to me, a mantra I recite to myself whenever things get too grim.

Every locked door has a key.

Every problem has a solution.

Every problem, that is, except the one that took him. Except the one I’m in now. And the thought is almost enough to make me curl up and close my eyes, to let myself sink back into a familiar dark place.

The sound of boiling water shakes me from my thoughts just in time. Get up, Emi, I say to myself.

I drag myself from the bed, head to the kitchen, and hunt for a pack of instant noodles. (Cost of dinner tonight: $1.) My food stash has gone down by a box of macaroni. I glare at Keira, who’s still sitting on the couch and glued to the TV (used TV: $75). With a sigh, I rip open the pack of noodles and drop them into the water.

The thud of music and partying comes from elsewhere in the building. Every local channel is broadcasting something related to the opening ceremony. Keira pauses the TV on one channel showing a reel of last year’s highlights. Then it cuts to five game analysts sitting around in the top tier of the Tokyo Dome, in a heated debate over which team would win and why. Below them is a dimmed arena of fifty thousand screaming fans, illuminated by sweeping spotlights of red and blue. Gold confetti rains from the ceiling.

“One thing we can all agree on is that we have never seen a wild-card lineup like this year’s!” one analyst says, a finger plugged deep in her ear so she can hear above the noise. “One of them is already a celebrity in his own right.”

“Yes!” a second analyst exclaims, while the others nod. A video showing a boy pops up behind them. “DJ Ren first made headlines as one of the hottest names in France’s underground music scene. Now, Warcross will make him an aboveground name!”

As the analysts fall back into arguing about this year’s newest players, I swallow a wave of jealousy. Every year, fifty amateur players, or wild cards, are nominated by secret committee to be placed into the team selection process. Luckiest people in the world, as far as I’m concerned. My criminal record automatically disqualifies me from the nominations.

“And let’s talk about how much buzz the games are getting this year. Do you think we’ll break some records?” says the first analyst.

“It looks like we already have,” a third replies. “Last year, the final tournament saw a total of three hundred million viewers. Three hundred million! Mr. Tanaka must be proud.” As he speaks, the backdrop changes again to the logo of Henka Games, followed by a video of Warcross creator Hideo Tanaka.

It’s a clip of him dressed in a flawless tuxedo, leaving a charity ball with a young woman on his arm, his coat draped around her shoulders. He’s far too graceful for a twenty-one-year-old, and as lights flash around him, I can’t help leaning forward a little. Over the past few years, Hideo has transformed from a lanky teenage genius into an elegant young man with piercing eyes. Polite is what most say when describing his personality. No one can really be sure of anything else unless they are within his inner circle. But not a week goes by now without him being featured on some tabloid cover, dating this celebrity or that one, putting him at the top of every list they can think of. Youngest. Most Beautiful. Wealthiest. Most Eligible.

“Let’s take a look at our audience for tonight’s opening game!” the analyst continues. A number pops up and they all burst into applause. Five hundred and twenty million. That’s just for the opening ceremony. Warcross is officially the biggest event in the world.

I take my pot of noodles over to the couch and eat on autopilot while we watch more footage. There are interviews with squealing fans entering the Tokyo Dome, their faces painted and their hands clutching homemade posters. There are shots of workers double-checking the tech hookups. There are Olympic-style documentaries showing photos and videos of each of tonight’s players. After that comes gameplay footage—two teams battling it out in Warcross’s endless virtual worlds. The camera pans to cheering crowds, then to the professional players waiting in a private room backstage. Their smiles are wide tonight, their eyes alive with anticipation as they wave at the camera.