The Leveller - Julia Durango


This’ll be the sixth time in six months that Mrs. Cuparino has hired me to drag her sorry son home. Fortunately (or unfortunately, I guess, depending on how you look at it), Dean “Coop” Cuparino, like most of the guys at my high school, is an easy egg to crack. His MEEP world hardly varies from the standard-issue sports-hero template. Today it’s football again, Coop’s favorite.

My ear trans begins the frequency code and a few seconds later I wake up in the Landing, the MEEP entry zone. A three-story virtual mall of glass and gold, the Landing sparkles like a shopaholic heaven, enticing faithful spenders into the fold. Filled with dozens of flashy boutiques, stores, and salons, here you can purchase character enhancements for your avatar, as well as costumes, weapons, tools . . . anything you might want or need for the world you’ve created.

I usually skip the shopping spree. First of all, it costs real money, and I need every penny I earn to go to my college savings, not pretend makeovers. And second, I like my avatar to look like me, no enhancements; it’s one of my personal rules, and I pride myself on it.

To be fair, most people I know design their avatars to look like themselves, at least in basic attributes: hair, skin, eye color. I suppose we all have big enough egos to think we look pretty decent the way we are—just a few minor adjustments away from fabulous. That’s where the MEEP enhancements come in. The guys make themselves taller and chiseled, pimple-free with washboard abs. The girls give themselves gorgeous hair, silky skin, white teeth, and Barbie-doll bodies.

I understand the temptation, I really do. But here’s what happens. You get used to looking like a million bucks in the MEEP, and then . . . BAM! Game over. You’re backslapped to reality and wake up with your same old blemishes, bedhead, and ratty sweatpants. All of a sudden you can’t stand yourself. You’ve seen what your perfect self looks like in the MEEP, so when you look in the mirror now, all you see are your flaws.

You’re just a sad, sorry replica of your pretend self.

My mom calls it the Michael Jackson Effect—never being happy in your own skin. She warned me about it early on, urging me not to change anything but my costume in the MEEP. Not that I fall for that kind of virtual dream fulfillment anyway. My personal MEEP games involve questing and battle in my own custom-created worlds, not the lame “luvme” templates, like the one I’m in now.

I don’t know how these feel-good templates even qualify as games, really, but at least they provide me with steady income. It’s the luvme gamers like Coop who spend a good chunk of their allowances on timer hacks, so they can stay in the MEEP beyond the preset four-hour maximum. I suppose it’s hard to break yourself away from all that luvin’. . . .

In any case, I’ve decided I have to break my own rule about enhancements today. But only because it’s a necessity, the price of doing repeat business. Like I said, I’ve already dragged Coop’s butt out of the MEEP five times before. If he sees me coming, he’ll run the other way—and fast. I need a disguise, one that Coop will run toward.

I quickly start shopping. Time is money. A few minutes later my hair is big and blond, my teeth are white enough to blind a sharpshooter at ten paces, and my boobs are large enough to lift me off the ground and fly me to Oz. Last, I buy a dress roughly the size of a washcloth and matching stilettos that should be classified as lethal weapons.

Oh yeah. Coop is a goner.

I take two steps before I realize I’m wasting valuable time teetering around in these ridiculous anti-walking devices. I slip the heels off and double-time it out of the Landing and through the football stadium toward the players’ clubhouse.

The stadium is empty. It doesn’t take a PhD to guess what’s happened here. The football game is over, probably lasted no more than fifteen minutes. The star quarterback (Coop, naturally) made a string of miraculous plays, handily winning MVP honors, and is now most certainly enjoying the post-game luvme celebration. (“Ladies, come rub against me and smell the swagger!”)

I hear the party before I’m halfway across the field. The music is pumping loud