“Sometimes before you can build something up, you have to burn it down.”
And that, book nerds, is how you know that Fan the Fame by Anna Priemaza is gonna be *epic*. Anna’s latest follows three teens in the gaming world: Lainey, who is sick of her famous brother, Cody, and his secret sexism. SamTheBrave, who wants nothing more than to meet Cody, who happens to be his gaming idol. And ShadowWillow, whose fans start shipping her with Cody—and who decides to use this to her advantage.
When Lainey finally catches one of Cody’s hateful rants on video, she decides to spill the truth to her brother’s fans—even if that means putting Sam and Shadow in the crosshairs…
Fan the Fame is about feminism, fame, and fighting for what’s right. It comes out next month, but we couldn’t resist bringing you a sneak peek at the first three chapters! You’re welcome.
@LumberLegs: Heading to LOTSCON! NERD CONVENTION WOOOOOO! About to board the plane! TO THE RIFT! Oops I mean, TO THE CON!
They’re calling the girl my brother, Cody, unceremoniously dumped a slut. It’s all over social media. I’m not even friends with her, and still it makes it onto my feed. I scroll through the posts on my phone as Cody and I hover in the Boston airport near our gate, travelers rushing past as he flirts with yet another girl who’s asked for his autograph. Not that there are that many girls who ask; Cody has several million YouTube subscribers on his gaming channel, but the majority of those fans are male.
I skip past another post about Janessa, my seventeen-year-old classmate who allegedly slept with my situationally famous twenty-one-year-old brother. Apparently someone overheard her talking about it in the bathroom. That’s the way they phrase it: she slept with him, which makes her a slut. Never mind that Cody is the one who started it all, asking me about “that hot girl with
the boobs” one day when he picked me up after school. And never mind that one of the posts says she was crying about losing her virginity, while when I asked Cody about her, he called her “just another hookup.”
At least it’s only my classmates who are talking about her. Judging by the way Cody flirted with every pretty, made-up girl he crossed paths with at the Boston gaming convention we were just at, his fans don’t even know Janessa exists.
“Lainey! Stickers!” Cody barks at me now, and I hit the power button on my phone and shove it back in my pocket, returning to the job I’m supposed to be doing.
The Asian teen girl Cody’s talking to is younger than I had registered out of the corner of my eye, maybe fourteen or so. She looked older at a glance because even in a winter coat, she actually has a figure. Lucky. My boobs didn’t start growing until I was fifteen, and they grew for maybe six weeks, then decided that was enough and called it quits, the lazy jerks.
Cody must not have been flirting with her after all; she’s only a kid.
As she grins at him, I want to tell her that she needs a new hero, but instead I sigh, pull a Codemeister sticker out of my pocket, and hand it to her, making her squeal before she goes running excitedly back to her parents. That’s what I do as Cody’s gaming convention roadie: hand out swag, carry his stuff, keep my mouth shut. In return Cody’s paying me two hundred dollars in cash, room, food, and flights, and the chance to get out of our tiny prison of a town for my entire March break. We’ve just finished at PAX East in Boston and are headed to Toronto for LotSCON, the convention for the video game Legends of the Stone.
When Cody invited me along, I jumped at the chance to get away from home. In my defense, since Cody moved out a few years ago, I’d forgotten that spending large amounts of time with my brother sometimes makes me want to strangle him.
Cody has wandered back to our seats at the gate to rejoin Noogmeister, another of the six guys in the famous YouTube gaming group Team Meister. “If Lainey wasn’t here,” Cody tells him, “I’d totally have boned that.”
I whirl around, cutting off Noog’s laugh with my glare. Until this trip, I hadn’t realized how often Cody makes jokes like that to his friends—or how often they egg him on just by laughing.
“Cody!” I whisper-shout. “That girl’s like fourteen!”
I march toward them. “So you’re twenty-one. That’s illegal!” And gross. And so inappropriate. I thought it was bad enough that he apparently charmed a seventeen-year-old into sleeping with him.
Cody rolls his eyes. “Lainey, don’t be a buzzkill.”
“A buzzkill? I’m not trying to kill your buzz, I’m trying to stop you from being such a dickhead.” I regret the words as soon as they escape my mouth. If there’s a way to get through to Cody, it’s not by calling him a dickhead.
“A dickhead? Really, Lainey? Am I going to have to tell Mom to have a bar of soap ready when you get home?” He’s joking, but there’s an edge of anger under his words.
Simply the mention of Mom’s soap bar makes my own anger stretch tight inside me, like an elastic band. When we were kids, Mom’d wash my mouth out for failing to “talk like a lady,” while Cody could say the exact same thing as me and Mom wouldn’t bat an eye. But I’ve learned from experience that getting angry at Cody only makes him shut down, so I ignore the anger and backtrack instead. “No, sorry, I’m just a bit wound up because people are calling Janessa a slut.”
“Who?” Cody asks.
I throw my hands up. “Are you serious? Janessa! From my school! Blond hair, big eyebrows, quiet as a mouse. You apparently slept with her. Ringing any bells?” I barely know the girl, since she only moved to our school a year or two ago, but I’m not about to identify her to Cody by her boob size.
Cody puts his own hands up in surrender. “I’m joking! Of course I remember who Janessa is.”
I glare at him. “Did you really sleep with her? She’s my age! People are calling her a slut because of it.”
Cody shrugs. “It’s not my fault people are jerks.”
Noog stands and steps up to us. “She slept with this guy?” he asks with a sneer, pointing his thumb toward my brother. “Then she is a slut for stooping that low.”
“Hey!” Cody smacks him in the arm, and then Noog smacks him back, and then they’re both laughing.
Cody and I have fought for years about the obnoxious things he says, but I hadn’t realized how bad things have gotten. Or maybe they’ve always been this bad, and I never realized it.
After seven days of listening to Cody joking crassly about girls to his friends, a sick feeling has built up in my stomach along with the usual rage that bubbles there. Because I’m fairly certain that if Cody doesn’t change his ways, his jokes are going to turn into his reality, and he’s going to end up the headline of some big new #metoo scandal.
Or, I realize, thinking of that fourteen-year-old he joked about banging, even end up in jail.
And though sometimes I want to knee my brother in the gut, I don’t want him to end up in jail.
I should talk to him. Or get someone else to talk to him. Or something.
Right now, though, he and Noog are still grinning from their abhorrent jokes and all I can picture is how their heads are basically hamster dicks. Tiny, hairy hamster dickheads. Which, uh, is maybe not the best way to start off a heart-to-heart with my brother.
So instead, for now, I simply give them both the finger and then stalk away.
I’m on the plane and about to buckle my seat belt with a satisfying click when LumberLegs appears beside me in the aisle. He’s not on Team Meister—though he’s just as famous—but he spent most of the time at PAX East with us. I knew he was headed to LotSCON, too, but I hadn’t realized he was on our flight. Most of the guys left last night.
“Would you mind switching?” he asks the woman to my right. “I was hoping to sit with my sister.” He gestures toward me and holds his ticket out to her, his dark-brown hair flopping charmingly over the edges of his rectangular face.
She agrees, and then we’re all standing and doing an awkward dance around each other as LumberLegs stumbles into his new seat beside me.
“Sister?” I echo as Legs fumbles for his seat belt.
“Friend,” he corrects. His knee bumps mine as he pulls one of the seat belt buckles out from under his butt. “Didn’t want her to say no.”
My cheeks flush hot, even though he’d just as likely have switched to sit with one of the guys if they were in coach. Anything to keep from sitting alone. The sadness that he won’t talk about oozes out of his pores like garlic, though none of the guys have seemed to notice so far. “You just took the middle seat and gave her the aisle,” I point out. His knee is still touching mine, and I feel an urgent need to establish that I am most definitely not his sister. “She wasn’t going to say no.”
He stretches out his legs in the tiny space—or at least tries to—and the release of pressure on my leg is an absence I wasn’t expecting to feel. He shrugs. “Couldn’t risk it.” He lets all his limbs relax, taking up so much more space than the petite woman who was there before him, not that I mind. We’ve been texting a lot since I helped Cody out for a single day of a convention in Columbus six months ago, and I spent more time with him at PAX East than with anyone else.
“You don’t fly first class like Cody?” I ask. My brother is settled into his comfy, spacious seat a couple dozen rows up. Legs might have a million or so fewer YouTube subscribers than Cody, aka the high and mighty Codemeister, but a million less than several million is still several million.
Legs shakes his head. “Waste of money.” His knees almost touch the seat in front of him.
Cody has been a YouTube gamer since I was a preteen, and absurdly famous for almost as long, and I grew up assuming that other big-name YouTube gamers would be just as pretentious as
him. But then I started getting to know Legs and Z and some of the other guys, and it turns out that not every famous person is a douche. Some famous people actually make pretty good friends.
“Code didn’t buy you a first-class ticket?” Legs asks.
I shake my head. “No, thank goodness. I don’t think I could handle sitting with him and Noog after they were just joking about sleeping with a fourteen-year-old.” These trips make me feel like an elastic—sometimes stretched to my limit and ready to snap, other times relaxed and at ease. It all depends on who’s around.
Legs’s dark eyebrows furrow together. “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.”
I frown. I like Legs a lot, but he’s too quick to assume people didn’t mean to cross a line. Too quick to see the good in people and ignore the bad.
“Maybe” is all I say. But now I’m thinking about how easily Cody steps over those lines, and that sick feeling in my stomach is back. I pull out my phone and stare again at those posts about Janessa. What if Cody’s already stepped over lines, and not just the small, sleazy ones, like dating some girl four years younger than him who’s still in high school? What if he’s already stepped over the big, red, flashing lines without even realizing it? What if Janessa was crying in the bathroom about losing more than her virginity?
I pull up Janessa’s profile and hit the link to send her a private message. The flight attendant is probably about to tell us to put our phones on airplane mode, so there’s no time for careful wording and subtlety.
I type: Hey Janessa, I’m probably the second-last person you want to talk to, but I need to know: Did my brother cross any lines with you or pressure you to do anything you didn’t want to? I . . . just needed to check.
I hit Send before I can change my mind, and then I stare at the screen until the flight attendant does indeed come on the loudspeaker and tell us to put our phones away. There’s no response from Janessa, no sign that she’s even read it. I shove my phone into my backpack as the plane starts to roll slowly away from the gate and the stewardess starts to tell us all how to survive in the event of certain death.
Why do I feel so sick to my stomach?
Oh, right, because I just messaged another girl to check whether my brother raped her. Because over the past week, that’s something I’ve come to fear my own brother might be capable of doing.
I sink back into my seat, into my fear. Beside me, Legs sinks into his sadness, his whole body slouching with a sigh. We’re quite the pair.
I’m not sure what Legs is sad about, but his sadness follows him everywhere. One late night at PAX, I was waiting for Cody, sitting on a bench outside the hotel bar where Cody and Noog and Ben were getting the level of drunk where the latter two would joke right in front of me about how screwable I was, just so they could laugh when Cody tripped over his feet as he threatened to punch their faces in. Which is probably only my third-least favorite level of drunk.
Anyways, I was sitting there trying to read a book on my phone over the ruckus coming from the bar when Legs slipped onto the bench beside me, mumbling something about how I shouldn’t be sitting out there alone so late. He was trying to be a hero by keeping me company, I think, but even heroes can have broken bones and broken hearts, and as we leaned into each other’s shoulders, I had the distinct feeling we were holding each other up.
I bump Legs’s shoulder now. “Hey, did you hear about the bill that was proposed this morning?” Sometimes the best way to take your mind off your own problems is to think about the world’s problems. And does it ever have problems.
Legs shakes his head, and I tell him all about the newest idiotic bill that was introduced in Congress this morning, and Legs listens, because that’s one good thing I’ve learned on this trip: some places, people listen. Back home, no one listens to anyone or anything except that stupid news station. Oh, and their pastor. And while Dad’s pastor’s all right, Mom’s is a prick. Maybe if I lived with Dad instead of Mom, I’d actually like going to church.
“Will you call your senators about it next week?” I ask Legs. I’m still two months away from being old enough to vote, while Legs has been able to vote for over a year.
“If you tell me what to say again.”
“I’ll find another script online.”
At that moment, the wheels of the plane lift off the ground, and Legs and I both turn to watch out the window as the city below becomes smaller and the clouds become larger, as we head north to Toronto. And I tell myself that the sick feeling in my stomach is simply motion sickness.
I can’t check my phone again until we land, which is going to make this flight feel long, but at least I’m sitting not with Cody but with Legs, whose actual leg has settled against mine again. He plugs his headphones into the armrest between us and holds out one earbud to me. “Want to watch something with me?”
I have my own TV screen, my own controls, my own headphones in my pack at my feet. I ignore all that and accept his earbud with a smile, and together we relax and watch a stupid comedy for the rest of the two-hour flight.
I check my phone as soon as we land, but there’s still no response from Janessa. She’s probably avoiding social media altogether, but I can’t shake the fear that she’s seen my message and doesn’t want to tell me the terrible truth. “Everything okay?” Legs asks, and I force myself to smile and nod.
When we find our way through customs to the baggage carousels, Cody is waiting for us. He’s still wearing his blue knit beanie and gray hoodie, and he’s already pulled on the bulky coat he brought specifically “for the Canadian cold,” even though the temperature here’s not going to be much different than home.
“Legs, my man!” He holds out a fist for Legs to bump, as if we didn’t all just spend the last six days together.
Once they’ve bumped fists, Cody turns to me. “You’ll get the luggage?”
I cross my arms. “Obviously.”
“Great! Noog’s gone ahead to hail a cab. I’ll hit the pooper!” And with that, he ambles off in the direction of the bathroom, free of having to worry about getting his own luggage, because he’s a world-famous YouTuber—sorry, “content creator”—and he’s got his roadie sister to worry about things like that.
Legs and I head off in the other direction, toward a couple of elderly women wearing bulky scarves so bright that it’s like they’ve magically rerouted all the color from their white hair and pale skin into the yarn. Their elbows are linked, and they lean on each other as they wait for the baggage carousel to start doing its job and delivering up some luggage instead of going around and around and accomplishing nothing. We settle in right behind them, because we’re both tall and have a perfect view of the conveyor belt over their heads, but also because we’re probably thinking the same thing—if these brilliant women need help with their bags, we’ll be here to give it.
I check my phone for a response from Janessa about five more times before the carousel finally blares with an obnoxiously loud horn and starts vomiting up luggage from its depths. “What does yours look like?” I ask Legs, thankful for the distraction.
“Hmm?” He’s staring off toward the back wall.
“Your luggage. What does it look like?”
He snaps back to the present day. “Oh! That’s mine. The very first one. Lucky day!” He slips into the crowd and returns moments later with a simple black rolly suitcase.
“You up for tonight’s FAQ panel?” I ask him as he leans against his suitcase with his hip. Legs is the opening act of the entire convention—a fact that I’m sure makes Cody seethe inwardly with rage. But I doubt Cody could handle a whole FAQ session all on his own. He needs a video game or his Team Meister bros to riff off of.
“The FAQ’s tonight?” Legs asks, and my throat constricts.
Maybe Legs can’t handle a panel on his own, either—at least, not in his current state. But then he laughs. “I’m kidding. It’ll be fine. All I have to do is . . . stop thinking.”
“Right. Stop thinking. Easy.”
“Easy-peasy,” he says.
“You’re right. Just use dorky words like easy-peasy the whole time, and you’ll have all of LotSCON eating out of the palm of your hand!”
He laughs, and then Cody’s suitcases start showing up on the carousel, and then so do the badass old ladies’ bags (and they don’t need our help at all), and then we’re heading back to Cody, his bags of clothes and electronics and swag all piled on a luggage cart. All I’ve got with me is my carry-on, which I balance on top. Cody’s black marshmallow coat is so big and fluffy that for a moment I don’t notice the ball of fluff in his arms—until it reaches its snout up and licks him right on the mouth, making him laugh and snuggle its black shape closer.
“Cody, why do you have a dog?” I ask.
He grins and scratches the puppy behind the ear, fingers disappearing into soft black curls of fur. “Offered to watch her while her mama used the bathroom. Isn’t she beautiful? Here, hold her.”
And then he’s reaching out and settling her gently into my arms and we’re four and eight again and holding our brand-new gray and white schnoodle, Terra, for the first time, together. When she died last year, Cody cried more than when our grandmother died the year before, and when I reached out to take his hand as Dad buried her body, he let me.
Cody releases his grip on the wriggling bundle, and I bury my face in the soft fur of her back to hide the tears that suddenly prick my eyes. I want Cody to be this Cody always—the one who is kind and gentle and compassionate.
“Maybe I should get a dog,” Cody says, and for a moment I picture a saggy-tongued bundle of energy racing around his apartment and tagging along when he visits Mom’s place or Dad’s place. Cody might be a substandard human in a lot of ways, but he’d be an excellent doggy daddy.
Except: “You probably travel too much,” I point out.
His thoughtful smile falls. “You’re right.” He reaches out and takes the puppy back from me, gently. “I could never put you through that kind of stress,” he says to her, scrunching his face into hers. Proof that Cody’s not entirely unreachable; he does listen to reason sometimes. Just not when it matters most.
“Well, good,” Legs jumps in, “because I’m pretty sure her owner’s going to want her back.”
Cody laughs and looks over his shoulder at the girl in her twenties who’s walking toward us carrying a dog kennel. A girl with skintight jeans, red hair, and flawless makeup, who Cody most definitely flirted with. I step back and put a hand on our luggage cart while Cody hands the dog back to her, saying something I can’t hear that makes her laugh.
My phone pings then, and I whip it out. There’s a reply from Janessa. Finally.
No, he didn’t. Are people saying he did?
My shoulders sag with relief. There’s still time to save Cody from himself.
I slip my phone away and step forward to where Cody’s talking to the girl. “Hey, we’ve got to go,” I tell him.
He smiles at the girl. “It was nice to meet you. Take care of this cutie.” He gives the dog a last scratch behind the ear and then turns to join Legs and me at our luggage cart. And that’s it. Not a single crude joke or flirtation or final turnaround to give the girl a lewd wink.
My heart pulses with hope as we start to push the cart forward.
Maybe Cody’s not as far gone as I thought. Maybe I can still stop him from making big mistakes.
“Hey, Cody, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure!” He’s so chipper. In the past, when I’ve tried to call him out on things, I’ve been angry, and then he gets angry, and then we both end up yelling at each other. But this time, I’ve chosen the perfect moment. This time, maybe he’ll actually listen.
I find the words carefully. “Earlier, when you said that thing about that girl . . . well, that crossed a pretty big line. I mean, she was just a kid.” I can see Cody’s face starting to cloud over at my accusation, so I quickly change tack. “I mean, I know you wouldn’t actually do anything inappropriate,” I add, desperately wishing I could fully believe that. “But even just laughing about things like that can encourage sexual harassment and rape culture, you know? It’s harmful to women. Harmful to me.” Legs’s shoulder bumps into mine then, and I can tell by the way it doesn’t draw away that it’s intentional. A little bump of support.
The cart slows as we near the exit. Cody turns, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks me in the eye. For one long, hopeful moment, I think he gets it. I think that this is it, I’ve finally gotten through, and he’s going to apologize and start his growth into a better person. His growth into the hero his viewers deserve.
Instead, his round face grows even rounder as his expression unfolds into the grin of someone choosing to dismiss the seriousness of the moment. And then he says, “Lainey, one of these days, you’re going to have to learn what a joke is.”
Yeah, and one of these days, I’m going to punch my own brother in the nose.
It’s Friday night, and here’s how I’m spending it: doing homework at Opa’s dining room table, same as every other Friday evening when Mom works the long shift. The seconds tick loudly by on the intricate wooden cuckoo clock on the wall. There’s still a full hour before Mom comes to pick me up, assuming the thing’s set to the right time. I can’t check it against my phone because my phone’s sitting by the front door in the basket I have to put it in every time I come over.
I look up from my science textbook as Opa enters the room. His hatred of technology makes him seem a million years old, but he doesn’t look it. He walks with shoulders tall and broad and chin jutting out like always, and though his hair and goatee might be going gray, it doesn’t show amid the blond streaked with the odd strand of red.
“No plans tonight?” he asks as he settles into the chair across from me.
I do have plans—I’m streaming Legends of the Stone at eight—but that’s not the sort of plan Opa means. I tried to explain streaming to him once—how I’m not just sitting alone at my computer playing a video game, and instead have viewers watching me, interacting with me—but he still thought it was an antisocial waste of time. I wonder if he’d feel different if I had thousands of viewers instead of only a dozen or two at a time. Probably not.
If Mom wasn’t working tonight, she could have driven me to LotSCON now instead of waiting until tomorrow, and then I would have had even better plans. Though I don’t know that Opa would consider going to a video game convention—alone—to be any better. And besides, if I had gone to LotSCON tonight, I’d have missed my stream, and the internet advises small streamers trying to grow their channels to choose a regular streaming schedule and stick with it. That and get a really high-quality microphone, which Mom gave me for my birthday over a year ago.
Just the thought of trying to explain all this to Opa is exhausting, so instead I simply shake my head in answer to his question. No plans.
He taps his fingers on the table, each tap thudding heavily against the thick, dark wood, out of sync with the cuckoo clock. He narrows his eyes as he studies me, as if my lack of plans personally offends him. “Sam, you’re a likeable young man,” he says. “You’re smart, and you can tell a mean joke. If you just put your phone away, got your head out of those video games, and cleared up your face and maybe muscled up by joining the hockey team, you should have no problem making friends.”
I duck my head toward my science textbook, focusing my gaze on electrons and protons instead of on Opa’s face.
Right, if I freed myself from the apparent ugliness of my body, I’d have absolutely no problem making friends. No problem except one: everyone at school knows I’m Opa’s—aka Mr. Dietrich’s—grandson, and everyone has had their phone confiscated by Mr. Dietrich at some point or another. And since they can’t take their anger out on Opa, I get to enjoy the threats, name-calling, and body checks into lockers instead. Once, when Opa confiscated Brad Hemsworth’s phone for a full week, the guy tried to dickpunch me. He missed, barely. I had a big purple bruise the shape of a hamburger on my thigh for weeks.
“Don’t do that. It’s a disgusting habit,” Opa says, and I realize my fingers have found their way to a pimple on my chin. My mottled skin flushes hot as my hand drops into my lap. There’s a dot of blood on my finger from the pimple. Already, my fingers are itching to find their way to a tiny bump of skin on my wrist and scrape it off.
I can free myself from the latter word, at least. I close my eyes and conjure up my psychologist’s words. “It’s not just a habit, Sam. It’s a mental disorder related to OCD.” When I started meeting with her a few months ago to start cognitive behavioral therapy, her words were a relief. There was a reason, suddenly, why my fingers roam my body searching for imperfections to tear from my skin, why I can’t control it even when I try. And it’s not just because I’m weak, either, but because something is wrong in my brain in a diagnosable way: I have dermatillomania, aka excoriation disorder, aka skin-picking disorder.
Her words don’t give me relief now, though, because they might take away the second word, but they don’t take away the first: disgusting. My disorder is disgusting.
Before either Opa or I can say anything further, Oma glides into the room, carrying with her the scents of schnitzel, apple, cinnamon, and dish soap all at once. “Apfelkuchen?” she asks in her soft, raspy voice, and I look up as she holds out a slice of her melt-in-your-mouth apple cake.
“Thank you.” I take the plate of pale cake topped with apple slices and baked to perfection and my mouth instantly waters.
“I took this to our seniors’ potluck yesterday, but your opa made me save you a slice.”
I look at Opa, who smiles. “I know it’s your favorite,” he says.
That’s the thing about people: they’re complicated. Opa would be easy to hate if all he ever did was take away my phone and call me a fat slob. But then he does something like this.
Opa stands to his feet. “Well, we’d better get out of here, Inge, and let the boy finish his homework. His teachers tell me he’s on track to be on the honor roll this year.” He beams at me.
I smile back, first at Opa, then at Oma. “Thank you,” I tell them both. Then I take a bite of sweet, sweet apple cake and bury my head back in my textbook as they leave the room. Admittedly, that’s the one good thing about my time at Opa and Oma’s: finishing my homework early means stress-free weekend plans. And Opa might not consider them worthwhile, but this weekend I
have big, big plans. And with this apple cake, surviving the forty-five minutes until my weekend starts for real just became a lot easier.
When Mom picks me up, she lets me spend the first few minutes checking messages on my phone, as always. There aren’t many. A couple of YouTube comments and a message from Jones confirming that we’re playing Legends of the Stone tonight at eight p.m. EST. She’s in Atlanta, so we’re both in EST, but we always throw the EST on there for Dereck, who’s in Australia. It’s Saturday morning for him, and he’s got a cousin’s wedding to go to, so tonight it’ll just be me and Jones and the nefarious plot I’ve been working on all week.
Yep. And I’m getting you back this time, I type.
Her reply pops up right away: We’ll see.
I ignore the little surge of electricity that pulses through me and make sure to send back the tongue-sticking-out emoji without the wink. Jones is one of my only friends. I can’t risk losing her because she thinks I’m flirting with her, especially when I know she has a boyfriend. She sends the same one right back, which for some reason makes me laugh.
“Are you excited for this weekend?” Mom asks as I slip my phone back into my backpack. She’s still in her nursing scrubs—well, the turquoise pants anyway, plus a plain white T-shirt—with her brown hair pulled up in a simple ponytail. She looks the way she always does at the end of her twelve-hour shifts—a little more rounded at the edges, like every muscle in her body is giving in to exhaustion.
My stomach lurches with nerves. “I’m not sure excited is the right word at the moment,” I admit. I catch my fingers before they quite make it to the scab on my wrist, and instead pick up the fidget ball we keep in the cupholder. This one is tennis-ball-sized, forest green, textured with small bumps, and squishy like a stress ball.
“Oh, come on, Sammy boy. Code is going to love you. And your videos.” She reaches over and pats my knee.
“If I can even get him to talk to me.” I let the bumps of the fidget ball find their way between my fingers as I wrap my hand around it.
“Well, you’ll have lots of chances to try.”
I squeeze the fidget ball as tightly as the knot of nerves in my stomach. “Only two. The panel and the autograph session.”
Mom puts her blinker on to turn left. “And maybe you’ll just see him around at the convention.”
“Yeah, I mean, trying to talk to him when he’s standing two urinals down from me in the bathroom sounds like a great idea.”
She laughs. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be the first one.”
I laugh too, then stop abruptly and squeeze the fidget ball even tighter. “Oh man, what if I actually do something as stupid as that?”
Her own laugh dies off naturally, but her voice stays happy and encouraging. “You won’t. You’ll charm him immediately, Sammy love. He’ll be itching to watch your videos.”
This has been my plan—our plan, really, since Mom was fully on board from the beginning—ever since Codemeister was announced as a LotSCON guest months ago and I watched one of his streams for the first time, my stomach knotting with envy as his chat log buzzed with the energy of thousands of simultaneous viewers joking, spamming, and asking questions.
It’s not that I’d never seen a stream like that before. I watch LumberLegs sometimes, and his are like that, and I’ve watched Wolfmeister once or twice, but they both only stream live once in a blue moon, and it’s a big event. Codemeister streams multiple times a week and still manages to bring out the big crowds every single time.
And since I also happen to stream multiple times a week but on opposite days from Code, his viewers would be the perfect audience for me.
“Imagine if it works, and he shouts out your channel to his YouTube followers,” Mom says now.
“Twitch followers,” I correct her.
“Right,” Mom says. She doesn’t use Twitch, which is for livestreaming, while YouTube is for posting videos that can be watched anytime. Our deal is that Mom’s allowed to watch the carefully edited highlights videos, which I post on YouTube afterward, but not my livestream itself. I get too self-conscious and jittery if I know she might be watching, even though she’s my biggest fan and would never say anything negative.
Twitch is where I most want to build up followers, though. I like posting videos to YouTube; I love streaming to Twitch.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a few new biggest fans this weekend, though. Convincing Code to give me a shout-out to his viewers is a long shot, maybe—probably—but since I can’t seem to break three hundred followers on Twitch, I have very little to lose and a practically infinite amount to gain.
Mom crosses the bridge over our small lake that’s more like a river and passes the side road leading to the high school. You can’t quite see the weirdly shaped brown building from here, but I can feel the weight of its presence like the Dark Lord of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. In fact, I feel a lot like Frodo when I’m there—trudging alone through swampland with Sauron’s eye ever searching for me—except I have no Samwise at my side. No Gollum either, since even Gollum hates getting his phone taken away, apparently.
I break the silence that’s settled over the car. “Can’t I just stay home when you’re working the long shift? I can make my own supper. I can make both of us supper and have it ready for you when you get home.”
“Oh, Sammy. I know it’s not exactly fun going to Opa and Oma’s.” She sighs. “And heaven knows my dad isn’t the easiest to get along with.” She and Opa are always arguing about one thing or another; maybe she’s going to let me do it. But then she says, “But they’re family,” and I know I’ve lost. Family trumps everything. It’s the reason she and Opa spend so much time together even though they fight all the time. It’s the reason she’s been driving me the two hours to see my dad once a month for my entire life, even though he and I have nothing in common and don’t think about each other at all between visits and scheduled phone calls. And now it’s the reason I’m probably going to be stuck having supper with Opa and Oma when Mom works the long shift for the rest of my life.
Oh well. I don’t have to worry about them for the rest of the weekend. And in just half an hour, I’ll be streaming. I pull out my phone again and post a reminder on all my social media sites.
I get one reply right away, from BlastaMasta742: Yessssss! It’s going to be epic!!! Can’t wait!!!!
I guess I could call BlastaMasta742 a regular, since he or she hasn’t missed a single stream the past two weeks, even the secret one that I didn’t post about on social media so Jones wouldn’t see it and find out what I have planned for our Legends of the Stone battle tonight.
Legends of the Stone took the sandbox concept that Minecraft made so popular and brought it to another level, with incredible graphics, finely tuned fighting mechanics, and high stakes; if the players on a server don’t work together to fight their way through, defeat, and close up the rifts that spawn randomly throughout the world, the world becomes more and more unstable, making buildings slowly fall apart and items disappear.
Most people set their servers on cooperative, so they can’t accidentally hit each other during a rift run, but as in any sandbox game, the variations you can make to how you play are practically endless. And tonight, we’re turning on PvP and fighting each other to the death!
A grin slips across my face.
BlastaMasta742 is right: it’s going to be epic.
Three hours later, I’m cornered.
In game, I huddle in the back storage room of my castle, hidden behind some shelves. The only way out: through the long front hallway guarded by my mortal enemy, Jones. Her username, MarthaJones, paces back and forth—the only part of her visible through the wall.
“Come on out, Sammy boy.” Her voice thunders through my headset. She overheard my mom call me that once, and it’s stuck ever since. “I’ll let you surrender.”
“No way. I’m not falling for that one again, Jones,” I say. Her name isn’t actually Jones, or even Martha, but that’s what happens when you get to know someone by username first.
I press myself against the shelf full of my redwood and coral supplies—great for building, but no good to me now. “I’m good where I am. My castle’s a maze. You’ll never find me.” I breathe
slowly in and out. In and out. The scab on my left arm, just above the wrist, screams at me to pick at its edges, but I scream back that I am much too busy—in my head, anyway. Outside, I say nothing at all, just keep breathing.
And then it happens. My finger slides forward on the mouse wheel, and for a moment, I’m out of hiding. SamTheBrave username fully visible.
I switch right back into hiding, then hold my breath. Did she see it?
“Riiiiiight,” she says. “So true. Such a maze.” Her username glides toward me, visible through the redwood wall.
She definitely saw me. My heart pounds as I glance at the livestream chat.
This gonna be good
My body is ready
die Jones die Clara is better
I grin. Because the chat knows what Jones doesn’t:
- That last week, a rift spawned maybe ten feet from my castle. I could have closed it up. I should have closed it up. I definitely shouldn’t have built my castle around it like it didn’t exist.
- That last night, when Jones thought I was studying history, I instead ran a top-secret livestream from eight p.m. to one a.m. to prepare for today’s PvP face-off.
- That five hours is a long time. Long enough that even if you die thirty times in the process, you can probably manage to wrangle a good fifteen or so shadowwolves, three venomous wereboars, and a mutant rabbit into a tiny built-over-a-rift closet.
- That I slipped out of hiding on purpose.
Jones opens the closet door. The door she thinks is my door.
MarthaJones was slain by a mutant rabbit
I laugh so hard as her death message comes up in the game log that I can barely make out her murderous swearing in the background. I glance at the chat again. It’s so full of LOLs and ROFLs and memes and emoji that you’d never guess there were only twenty people in there. Not that I’m complaining. It’s the most viewers I’ve ever had at one time!
“I’m going to kill you, Sammy boy,” Jones says once I stop snorting. Her voice is heavy with amusement, though. She’s impressed.
“Told you I’d get you back,” I say to her, the words bouncing with my leftover laughter.
“And you did indeed get me back.” She pauses while we both catch our breath from all the laughing and swearing. “So . . . your base is full of shadowwolves now, right? What’re you going to do about that?”
My grin falls off my face. “Oh. Uh . . .” I glance at the shelves behind me full of redwood and flowers and building supplies. My sword is on the lawn outside, where I dropped it to make her
think I’m helpless. The only way out of this room is the hallway now full of the monsters I trapped there. Oops. Maybe I didn’t think this through. I glance at the clock. Almost eleven p.m., the end of my regularly scheduled stream time. Often I stream longer than that, but tonight I want to turn this stream and last night’s stream into a highlights video so I have something great to show to Code, and the editing for that will probably take a couple of hours.
“A problem for another day!” I shout, like it’s a victory cry. “Eat my balls, shadowwolves!” And then I hit the Log Off button, exiting the server, but not the stream quite yet.
Jones laughs. The chat is full of laughter. It could be at my brilliant victory, or at the fact that I’ve trapped myself in my own base, but it doesn’t matter to me which it is. It’s all of it, probably.
I’m laughing at all of it myself. That’s the thing about being a video game streamer—you don’t have to be good at the game, you just have to be entertaining.
Right before shutting off the stream, I catch one more comment in the chat: Best stream everrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
It was good, wasn’t it, BlastaMasta742? I might never have more than twenty viewers at one time, but at least—I think, I hope—I do entertain them.
As I open my editing software, the giddy warmth of the whole night flushes through me. Maybe I don’t belong at school, but I belong here, in the Legends of the Stone gaming world. And I’m going to be at LotSCON all weekend long.
Maybe it’s a long shot trying to get Code to look at my videos, but still, as I start combing through my stream for highlights, I can’t stop smiling. This is my world, and maybe that makes it not such a long shot after all.
@LumberLegs: LotSCON FAQ session in an hour! Looking through your supremely awesome questions now! So excited!
A guy in line is dressed as a dragonlord, and it’s one of the most impressive cosplays I’ve ever seen. His wings spread out behind him, black piping strong enough to support an expanse of sheer red fabric glimmering with gold, and yet somehow kinked and engineered to fold in on itself at the press of a button in his vest. It’s not just the engineering that’s impressive, though. He’s put so much attention into every detail. His skin is painted gold, with scales sketched meticulously into the paint. And the armor is spot-on, from the black shadowdragon that stretches around his chestplate—head breathing fire down the front of one arm, tail curving down the back of the other—to the gold edging, made to look worn from years of battling in the rift.
I’m about as awkward as a baby skunk in a box of kittens when I talk to strangers, but I’m desperate for a picture, and taking pictures at a con without asking first is a huge no-no. So I take a deep breath, pull out my phone, and approach him. “That dragon is stunning,” I say when I reach him. “I mean, absolute perfection. Just really, really incredible. Like out-of-this-world incredible. Could I—could I get a selfie with you?”
I’m pretty sure he blushes beneath his gold paint as he stammers out his agreement. Why hello, fellow baby skunk.
It ends up being impossible to fit the wings or any of the best parts of the cosplay in the picture when I hold the camera out for a selfie, but the sweetheart of a girl just ahead of the dragonlord in line offers to take a picture for us. Her hair is shaved on one side and streaked with blue on the other, which looks epic but also chilly out here in the windy line that’s stretched along the side of the convention center. The dragonlord has her take one on his camera, too, which is cute. He must be doing that thing where he takes pictures with everyone who asks to take pictures with him.
When the girl hands my phone back, I check the picture. The wings are cut off a bit and the lighting’s kind of dark, but it’ll have to do. “Thanks,” I say to her. “That’s perfect.”
I turn back to the dragonlord. “And thank you!”
He gives a slow, shallow bow, then says, “And, uh, could I get your, uh, autograph?” “My . . . autograph?”
He nods. “You’re Willow, right?”
“ShadowWillow.” I correct him on reflex. He must be a Codemeister fan. The hundreds of thousands of them that have been flocking to my channel again lately keep calling me Willow, like I’m the kind of player who spends endless hours in game collecting outfits to fill my closet. I’m supposed to be ShadowWillow or just Shadow, the kind of player who’s only interested in collecting dragon heads for my wall. Not that I’m complaining. I’m definitely not complaining.
The girl who took the picture for us whirls around. “Wait, you’re Willow? I mean, of course you are. Holy crap. I thought you looked familiar, especially with that purple hair, but everyone’s got purple hair these days, you know?” She runs a hand through her own half head of blue-streaked hair, then leans in. “So is it true? Are you and Code dating?”
I’m thankful for the shadowy evening lighting and the high-collared coat that hides my neck and chest, which tend to flare much brighter red than my cheeks ever do. Here it is, the question that’s been dominating the comments section of my videos ever since I did that tournament with Code.
Are you dating Codemeister?
I SHIP THEM SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD
CodeWillow <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
You + Code = HOTTTTTTT
“I, um, well—” I wasn’t prepared to be asked this so quickly. And by strangers. Random strangers who recognized me and want my autograph. Holy shadowdragons, this is so cool! I take a breath, metaphorically straighten my little skunk tail, and smile at them both as I reach into my purse for the Sharpie that Claire made me pack despite my protestations that I wouldn’t need it. “No comment, sorry. But you said you wanted my autograph?”
And they do; they do want my autograph! The photographer girl has me sign her program. The dragonlord has me sign his armor—his armor!—right below the dragon’s head. It feels almost sacrilegious to mar his work of perfection with my Sharpie scribble, but if it’s what he wants, I’m not saying no. And then I’m telling them it was nice to meet them and marching off like I’ve got somewhere to be.
Somewhere to be, apparently, is the washroom, where I lock myself in a stall, lean against the graffitied wall, and message Claire.
I just used the Sharpie!!!!!!!!
While I wait for her response, I pull up my phone camera and start to use it as a mirror—then decide that’s stupid, since there are full-size mirrors just outside my locked stall door. I’m about to head out there when my phone pings, and then pings again.
DOES THAT MEAN WHAT I THINK IT MEANS?!?!? YOU JUST GOT THERE!!!!
I grin stupidly as I tap out my response.
It does. It does mean that. Someone in line asked for my autograph. Two someones, actually.
Ha ha You’re the one who made me take the Sharpie
I know, but I didn’t really think you’d need it
Well, did you think so?
No! Not aside from at my actual signing
Dude, you’re totally famous!!!!!
I mean, outside of this convention, no one knows who I am. I could walk one street over and I’d just be some weird girl with purple hair and a bow-legged walk
No one notices your walk except you And you’re NOT one street over. You’re here! And here, you are famous! What’s it like finally being out in the real world, btw? How’s the sun?
I shoot her back a tongue-stuck-out emoji, then unzip my coat and smooth out my extra-long gray shirt and black leggings. Claire knows I’ve spent the past ten months working twelve-hour days in my parents’ basement, trying to build up my YouTube channel. And I’m not actually famous—I don’t have millions of subscribers like Codemeister or LumberLegs—but things are finally starting to happen. All my hours spent in front of a computer while my friends moved away for university or spent their gap year traveling the world; all the hours and hours of video that I recorded and edited and threw away and recorded all over again because the first version wasn’t good enough; all the time I spent reminding my dad that he and I had a deal, and my year wasn’t up yet—all of it has brought me here.
And by “here,” I apparently mean hidden away in a bathroom stall at a convention center, texting my best friend. I unlock the stall and head over to the bathroom mirrors as another message comes in from Claire.
Have you met Codemeister yet?!? Or Wolfmeister? Noogmeister? Deadmeister? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzmeister? How many Zs are in Z’s name anyway? Is Wolf as stunningly gorgeous in real-life as in his videos? Don’t forget: I neeeeeed a photo. Preferably one that I can photoshop myself into licking Wolf’s face.
Ew, that’s gross!
You don’t want to lick Code’s face?
Dude, no! And I haven’t met any of them yet. I’ve got that LumberLegs panel first; then I’m meeting his sister to take me to the rental.
I can’t believe you’re staying with them!!!
I can’t believe it either. Three months ago I was gradually building my channel, finally seeing a bit of traction and making a few good connections, but for the most part still a nobody. But then Team Meister was short a player for that tournament, and I’d been chatting with Pyro, who’s friends with Etho, who was in the tournament, and then suddenly I was recruited and paired with Code and we were so close to winning the whole thing, and my subscriber count doubled that first week and tripled the second and I thought I had finally made it—until the subscribers started leveling off and the comments shipping me and Code together became more and more infrequent. It’s hard to keep up viewers’ excitement for it when I was nothing more to Code than a blip on his radar. Rumors need fuel and I had none to give them.
Until recently, when Code’s sister needed a roommate for LotSCON, and Code messaged me out of the blue and asked me. And obviously I said sure, not even realizing that it’d be in the house Team Meister was renting for the Con instead of some hotel room.
I know. It’s going to be weird
I think you mean awesome
Awesome AND weird
When it got out that I’d be staying with the Meisters for LotSCON, the dying embers of fans’ Codemeister + ShadowWillow excitement burst into flame again, and more important, my subscriber count also caught fire—in the good way. This time, though, I can’t let the momentum die off. I need to make an impression—on Code’s viewers and on Code himself. Something that means I’m going to stick in their consciousness for a long, long time. This is my one chance. No pressure or anything.
I wish you were here
Say hi to your textbooks for me
I will lick their covers hello for you
I shake my head and slide my phone back into my purse. I wish Claire was here instead of halfway across the country studying history at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Though even if she wasn’t halfway across the country, she’d still probably be buried in textbooks instead of joining me—despite the lure of Wolf’s apparently lickable face. She’s trying to get top marks all through undergrad so she can get a scholarship to law school and achieve her life goal of becoming a Bay Street lawyer.
She has a life goal. I have a subscriber count.
I spend a couple of minutes in front of the mirror before I head back out—touching up my makeup, trying to smooth out that one strand of hair that always tries to be curly when the rest of my hair is stick straight. It’s hard to be mad at it when I feel like it’s a metaphor for my life.
A Filipina girl in jeans and a LotS shirt under her unzipped coat and a white girl with thick rectangular eyebrows and a long black winter coat zipped up to her chin enter the bathroom. I glance up at them, half expecting to catch some recognition in their eyes, because apparently the number of autographs I need to sign to take me from feeling like a nobody to expecting to be recognized as a somebody is two. But their eyes barely pause on me before they disappear into their respective stalls. Which isn’t a shock. I’m still not even halfway to a million subscribers.
And getting there is going to be either really hard or really easy, depending on why, exactly, Code invited me here. If it’s only to make friends with his sister and I barely see heads or tails of him all weekend, I’m going to have to get creative. If, on the other hand, it’s for reasons, well, let’s just say that being one-half of a YouTube gaming power couple would keep me in viewers’ minds for longer than whatever they had for breakfast, even if their breakfast was a delicious cinnamon roll with cream cheese icing. Plus Code’s not bad to look at, with those round, baby-face cheeks and his infectious grin.
Admittedly, I didn’t think of him that way until after the tournament, when people started shipping us together, but that means nothing. I went on two different “dates” with my last boyfriend before I realized that he was thinking of them as dates and not just as friends, and we ended up being together for eight months. Plus, during the tournament, I was much too busy trying to win to think about things like flirting. And we managed to come in second overall, which was disappointing at the time but was actually pretty darn good considering that we’d never played together before and that Code is not exactly skilled at PvP. So at least I know we work well together.
I don’t normally have time for dating or even meeting new people—not in the real world, at least. I reserve all my socialization energy for networking with other content creators online.
Though I’d make an exception for Code.
I check my messages from him. The last one from two days ago says simply: Great! See you there! Not exactly strong evidence of incoming power-couple status, but I’ve got all weekend to change that. And there’s no sense in worrying about that right now, because now I get to see LumberLegs, the kindest, smartest, most hilarious YouTuber in the entire universe! (Perhaps let’s not tell Code I said that.)
I give my mulberry lip gloss a quick refresh, then head back out to line up on the chilly street. The line was long before I went in the bathroom, and it’s only grown. I pull my coat tight around me to block out the almost-spring wind as I head toward the back of the line—then stop. I’ve been to a couple of conventions before—last year, Claire and I even made the same four-hour drive I made today to come all the way up from Windsor for FAN EXPO Canada—but always as an attendee. Never as a panelist or an invited guest.
Until now. I’m still not sure whether it’s my shiny new subscriber count or Code himself that got me invited as a guest and panelist.
I pull out the VIP pass that hangs around my neck and read the fine print on the back. It doesn’t say what it gets me. I head back inside the building, where the line starts just outside the auditorium and winds up and down both sides of the long hallway before the outside portion even begins. There are LotSCON signs everywhere, and tables set up for tomorrow morning’s registration, and an enormous black shadowdragon that I somehow completely missed when I went to the washroom. Its black hide shimmers as it stretches over its fleshless skeleton, the white bones visible through a gaping hole in its chest.
Fighting the shadowdragon is my favorite part of playing Legends of the Stone, though he spawns so rarely. The bigger the rift, the harder it is to defeat, and the greater the chance that a shadowdragon will spawn in it. Some people who really love building or other nonfighting stuff in LotS use mods to keep the rifts small or entirely nonexistent. I, on the other hand, use mods to make them spawn plentifully, and in their biggest size, so my friends and I can search out the shadowdragon to kill.
I realize I’m staring, mouth open, at the extremely lifelike shadowdragon, so I snap my mouth closed and glance toward the guy with the LotSCON shirt who’s standing at the nearby auditorium entry doors. Surely there’s no harm in asking. Worst-case scenario, I have to walk back outside to find a place at the back of the line.
I square my shoulders and head toward him, holding my baby skunk tail tall, trying to look like I belong. It’d be pretty badass to get a seat in the very front row, with LumberLegs almost close enough to touch.
As I near the door guy, I pull out my pass and hold it out to him, and before I can even say anything, he opens the door he’s blocking, steps aside, and ushers me in. And just like that, I’m inside the auditorium. At LotSCON. Staring right at the stage where Legs is shortly going to be.
I turn back to say thank you, but he must think I’m going to ask something, because he says, “Panelist VIP room is over there, through the door to the right. Where Lorne is.” He waves at a guy on the other side of the auditorium, who waves back.
“Thanks!” I say. And then before anyone realizes I’m an impostor who most definitely shouldn’t have been given a VIP pass that apparently grants all sorts of magic powers, I stride across the hall, toss my coat on a chair in the front row, then march right up to Lorne. I flash him my VIP pass and he flashes me back a grin that shines through his goatee, then opens the door to the panelist VIP room.
Which, it turns out, is empty other than me and a shoulder-length-brown-haired girl with an athletic build who’s in the corner getting a coffee.
Oh, and just a few feet away, slouched in a chair, staring off into space: LumberLegs.
This is officially the coolest thing that has happened to me in my entire life. If this is what the Codemeister + ShadowWillow excitement gets me, I can’t let that momentum die, no matter what.
No matter what.