A warm golden glow filled the room, radiating out from the backpack like sunshine on a summer day as Charlie unzipped it. Charlie had closed his eyes, afraid of what he might find in the backpack, but once he’d brought the zipper all the way to the opposite side of the backpack, he finally opened them again.
“Woah,” he gasped as the light spilled into his eyes. He held up a hand to shield them. After a moment, however, the glow gently subsided and then vanished. “Okay,” said Charlie, gulping down nothing but air as his mouth had gone completely dry with the mounting anxiety. “That’s super weird.” Charlie was not in the habit of talking to himself but things being as they were, it seemed to be the best way of keeping grounded and reassuring that everything happening was real.
He shook off the shock and, after a moment’s hesitation, reached a hand into the backpack. He felt two things that were rather odd. One was that the air inside the backpack was quite cold. The other was that the backpack seemed to have no bottom or even sides. No matter how far he reached in, he couldn’t manage to find an end to the space within the backpack. He pulled his arm back out, suddenly fearing that it would be torn off if he lingered a moment longer. He stepped away from the backpack and the table it sat on.
“What in the Mary Poppins bag from hell is this thing?” he whispered.
The tablet-like screen on the front of the backpack suddenly lit up and words appeared in the center of it, written in an analog-like script.
System Reset Complete!
The words vanished before Charlie had a moment to question them.
Relic Reset Complete!
Level 1 Unlocked
“Level One?” he asked, tapping the screen with his forefinger. “Is this some kind of video game?” The words vanished again and were replaced with a menu-like list
New Creations Unlocked
Wooden Plank – Useful for creating other wooden Creations
Rope – Starting length: 25 ft. May be made longer by multiplying required materials.
Cardboard Box – A box made of cardboard.
Cup – Good for drinking out of. Beverage not included.
Pillow – Makes sleeping more comfortable
Select any Creation to display materials required to craft.
Select Inventory to display current contents of Backpack.
Creations may be crafted as many times as desired provided
There are enough materials in Backpack inventory.
Actions which grant experience towards Level 2
Craft various Creations!
Charlie simply stared at the list, trying to understand how exactly a backpack was going to create a pillow or a cardboard box or any of the things that it was currently showing him for that matter. He reached out again and pressed the first item on the list: a wooden plank. The menu disappeared and was replaced by a new screen.
Useful for Creating other Wooden Creations
Materials Required – Wood Units x 2
Charlie eyed the prompt quizzically. What exactly made up a unit of wood? Now that he thought about it, where in New York City did one even get wood? It was odd to think of such a common commodity and not have any idea how one might acquire it. Was this something they carried at a home goods store? Did the people who worked in said store know what a unit of wood was? And even if he managed to actually acquire wood, did he really believe that if it was inside the backpack, he could press a button and have it built into something? That didn’t seem physically possible. He’d never heard of a contraption in the shape of a backpack that could turn random bits of wood into planks. As far as he knew, that required a saw of some sort, and he didn’t imagine there was a saw or a saw operator hiding inside the red bag.
As he eyed the backpack, pondering his plethora of questions, his eyes drifted to the chair sitting in front of the table. The wooden chair.
A long moment passed as Charlie contemplated the absolute insanity of considering that he might try to put a whole chair, one of the only two pieces of furniture currently in the apartment, into the backpack in order to create wooden planks. He began to pace back and forth in front of the table several times, turning around in circles now and then, before starting to pace again. He half expected someone to jump out and yell “Surprise!” and tell him that this was all just a silly stunt for a television show.
But no one did.
“Fine,” he said, finally stopping his nervous pacing. He had made up his mind. He wasn’t just going to stumble down this rabbit hole of insanity. He was going to run wholeheartedly into it. “You want wood? I’ll give you wood.” It occurred to him that a perfectly sane person probably wouldn’t speak to an inanimate backpack in this way, but then again, he felt as though sanity was slowly becoming less and less possible with every passing minute.
He picked up the chair and examined it. His eyes shifted to the backpack. There was no way the chair was going to fit. “Well, if we’re doing this, we’re doing this.” He lifted the chair high above his head. “Sorry grandpa,” he said and then swung the chair downwards, slamming it down onto the floor. There was a loud ‘bang’ as the chair clattered out of his hands. He stumbled backwards into the nearby wall in surprise at the sheer loudness of the impact. Charlie was not used to making loud noises or calling attention to himself in any way, and yet he had just made enough noise to wake up the entire apartment complex.
He noticed right away that the chair was still fully intact. The only damage that seemed to have been done was to the floor which now displayed a chip in the wood where the chair leg had landed.
“Really thought that would work,” he said, picking up the chair again. He eyed it, thinking of a different way he could break it apart, hopefully one with less loud noises. He placed one foot on the chair leg and grabbed onto another and then, putting his whole back into it, pulled upwards. For a long moment, nothing happened, but then, he gave a low grown and another pull and finally one of the legs snapped off with a ‘crunch.’
He stumbled backwards with the now free chair leg in hand. “Alright then,” he said. He turned the chair to one side and repeated the process with the second leg. It wasn’t easier this time, but he pushed onwards, breaking the second, then the third leg off the chair as beads of sweat began to roll down his forehead. Ripping off the last leg was also enough to separate the chair back from the seat as he put his body weight on the chair back to pull the leg free. The chair pieces now sat in a pile on the floor.
He eyed the destruction unhappily. “Great. Now I’m a chair murderer.” It was the first time in his adult life that he could remember actively breaking a piece of furniture. He had to admit, it felt cathartic. He quickly gathered up the pieces of the chair, and before he had a moment to contemplate how absolutely insane this all was, he shoved the pieces into the backpack. To his surprise, the bag seemed to suck them in almost like a vacuum.
Once all the pieces of the chair were placed in the bag, the screen flashed on again.
+ 4 Wood Units
Charlie made a mental note. A unit of wood was approximately a quarter of a chair. Charlie was proud to have discovered this, even if he couldn’t imagine what usefulness this information would provide. He swiped a finger across the screen, realizing that it functioned much the same as a phone or tablet screen, and was returned to the Creations page. He selected the ‘Wooden Plank,’ tapping on it, and watched as a small green progress bar appeared, quickly filled up, and then promptly announced with a golden glow:
+1 Wood Plank
Charlie stood and stared at the backpack, chewing his bottom lip as he waited for the wooden plank to appear. “Hello?” he said, annoyed. “I believe you owe me some wood!” The opened pack lit up with an almost reactionary golden light. “What am I supposed to do? Come in there and get it?” There was another flash. If he didn’t know better he would have sworn that the backpack might actually be trying to communicate with him. But that was absolutely absurd!
He stepped up to the backpack and, hoping he wasn’t about to lose a limb, reached past the open zipper into the backpack’s mouth. To his great surprise, he felt his hand wrap around something solid. Pulling his hand back out, he found a smooth wooden board which was about as wide as his hand and about as long as his arm. It was perfectly shaped as if cut by an electric saw and sanded smooth. He turned it over, admiring the craftsmanship.
“How is this possible?” he asked himself. “And what the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
“Oh, I’m sure you can come up with something.”
“Gah!” Charlie jumped practically out of his skin, turning towards the apartment door to see a young woman standing just inside it.
“Yikes! Somebody’s got the case of the jumps.” she said, walking into the room and looking around at the surprising lack of anything in the apartment. “Wow. This place is certainly different than I remember it. It’s like he never even lived here.”
Charlie, who held the plank up as if to defend himself from the girl, lowered it and relaxed a bit. “You … knew my grandfather?”
A kind smile spread across her face, suddenly making Charlie feel at ease. “Arty was your grandfather? Seriously?”
“I … er … yes,” said Charlie who felt a pang of jealousy that this stranger in a sundress apparently had a close enough relationship with his grandfather that she had a nickname for him. “Arthur Cole was my grandfather,” he said, feeling as if he were claiming a total stranger.
“Incredible!” she exclaimed. She spun around the room, searching for something that wasn’t there, or perhaps just remembering the things that once were. He noticed she had a violin-shaped case hanging by a strap from her back.
“So you knew him then?” Charlie asked again.
“Oh sure. Everyone in the apartment did.” She suddenly stopped moving, noticing the backpack on the table. Then she looked up at Charlie and snapped her fingers. “So that’s it! That’s why my uke started working again! You opened the backpack!”
“I … uh … yes?” he said, feeling more and more like an imposter in someone else’s story.
“I was starting to think no one ever would,” she said. “Not for nothing, but when we couldn’t hunt down even one of Arthur’s heirs we all tried to open it at some point. Milo especially. He … well, I think he thought he’d be the one to … but I suppose that doesn’t matter now.”
“Milo? Was he … related to my grandfather somehow?” Charlie had never heard of a relative named Milo, but then he hadn’t heard of any of these people or this building until today so it wouldn’t have surprised him if he had a long lost cousin, twice removed.
“Oh no,” she shook her head. “But they were close. I mean, Arthur loved Milo like a son even before he turned into a … well …” she cleared her throat. “I suppose I ought to let Milo tell you that story.”
Charlie suddenly wondered if his grandfather had some sort of relationship with another man. Perhaps that was something he and his grandfather had in common? He felt his hopes rise and then fall again as he realized it would be one more thing they’d never get to discuss.
“So what have you made with it so far?” asked the girl. “Anything cool?”
Charlie stared at her for a long moment. Technically he understood all of the words she was using but the question still felt strangely like it was being spoken in a foreign language. “Sorry. Made anything? I don’t think I understand—”
“With the backpack!” she said, pointing at the open pack behind him. “Arty used to make incredible things with it. He made my ukeytar with it! Milo’s pendant. Mama’s dominoes. Harriet’s cabinet. Everyone living in this building has something that came out of that very backpack.”
“Oh, well…” Charlie held up the wooden plank, feeling both proud and incredibly embarrassed of the item all at the same time. “I made this wooden board … thing.”
She peered at it, inspecting the wood closely, then looked into his eyes and let out a soft giggle. “Very impressive.”
He wasn’t sure if she was being sincere or making fun of him but he chose to take it as a compliment. “I thought so too.” For the first time since he’d arrived at Darkmoon Drive, he felt his body relax, and he even allowed himself a small smile. “I’m Charlie, by the way. Charlie Cole”
“Juno,” she said. “Juno De La Cruz.”
He held out his hand, but to his surprise, she gave him a big, tight hug. “Sorry Charlie. Mama’s rules. In this house, we hug.”
It was the first genuine hug he’d received in a very long time, and while every part of his introverted self screamed out to run and hide, he couldn’t help but feel incredibly comforted by it. She patted his back and then pulled away. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“You too,” he said. He expected the next moment to be one of awkward silence, but Juno quickly pressed onward without missing a beat.
“Now, wood planks are exciting and all, but maybe you could try making something a little more…”
“Useful?” he asked.
“I was going to say practical, but I like where your head’s at.”
Charlie scratched his neck. “Honestly, I would love to make something else, but it can only make, like, five things. I needed materials to make them and all I had was the wooden chair. Which I broke … and fed to the backpack.” He paused. “And I am now realizing that I no longer have a place to sit.”
“Hmm, interesting,” said Juno thoughtfully. “When Arty used it, he could make all sorts of things.”
“Well it did say it was only level one, so maybe it needs to … level up?” Charlie often enjoyed playing video games and when he’d been in college he’d even been in a Dungeons and Dragons club. If there was one thing any gamer worth their salt understood, it was that in order to get stronger, one had to gain experience to level up. This was the way a character in a game gained new skills and abilities. He wasn’t sure how this translated to something like a backpack, or even how it translated to the real world, but it seemed to make sense that if he could ‘level up’ the backpack, he might be able to create more things with it.
“My relic reverted to level one as well,” said Juno who seemed to be doing mental gymnastics to make all this information make sense. “I’m willing to bet everyone’s relics reset! And if that’s true, then maybe the backpack resetting to level one is what triggered it. Maybe we all have to start over again.” She pursed her lips. “It’s like Arthur’s death not only took away our relics’ abilities but also our progress, and now you being here has hit some kind of global reset button.”
“I love your enthusiasm, but I think I should take this moment to tell you that I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Charlie, who’s mind was spinning.
“Which part?” she asked.
“All of the parts.”
“Okay,” she said, pressing her hands down her dress. “What exactly did Arthur tell you?”
He gulped down the sudden emotions that bubbled up in his chest. “He didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t have a relationship with my grandpa. He sent a card sometimes on my birthday, but that was it. He and my mom didn’t get along because she, and everyone else in the family, thought he was crazy.” He paused. “Which is now starting to make a hell of a lot of sense. I didn’t even know he was dead until yesterday when these keys mysteriously showed up in a box outside my place.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the key-filled keychain to show her.
Juno groaned. “I knew I should have managed the hand-off. I told Milo just leaving them for the heir to find without any explanation would be weird.”
“Wait. This Milo guy left the keys for me?”
“Well I’m assuming so,” she replied. “I haven’t seen him today, but I know he was looking for Arthur’s heir to give the keys to. So if you have them, then I’d just assume he was the one who left them for you. But he always said that if he found you, he’d just leave them and let fate decide what happened next and … well you know how cats can be? Everything’s a game with them!”
Charlie’s eyes narrowed, his brain working overtime to process what Juno was saying. “So Milo … is … a cat?”
Juno chewed on her lip and then took a deep breath. “I think maybe we should start from the beginning.”
“Ya think?” asked Charlie. “I think we could probably go a couple steps before the beginning at this point. I could use an introduction and a prologue. I’d even take a dedication page or a meaningful pre-story quote at this point.”
“Ohhh,” she cooed. “Literary humor. I like that.”
“Just assume I know nothing.”
“Because I don’t … know anything … at all.”
“Understood,” said Juno. “But you should probably sit down.”
Charlie stared at her in disbelief.
“Oh, right,” she smacked a hand to her forehead. “You fed the chair to the backpack. Sorry, I forgot.”
“Why don’t we just sit on the counters in the kitchen?” asked Charlie.
“Great idea!” she snapped. They moved to the small kitchen and both of them lifted themselves to sit facing each other on opposite counters.
“Okay, so starting from the beginning.” Juno took a deep breath and then began. “Your grandfather was an inventor. He made things, built things, created things. But he was also an adventurer. The story, as most of us know it, is that many years ago he went on an expedition to some faraway place, and when he came back to the states, he brought with him something he found on his expedition: a backpack. And this backpack looked totally normal, but it was actually anything but. See, this backpack could do the hard work of making things for him. All he had to do was imagine something, feed the backpack a few materials and, like magic, he could pull his creations out of it.”
“So you’re saying the backpack is some sort of … wish granting machine?” asked Charlie.
“I suppose you could say that, but there are rules of course. I don’t know everything, but you’ve already experienced the main one. Nothing is free. At least at first. To get something out of the backpack, you have to pay a price. You have to provide the materials it asks for.”
“Any other rules I should know about?” asked Charlie, hoping to glean as much information as he could from Juno.
“The only other one I know for sure is that the backpack has no limit to how much it can hold. You can put as many things in it as you want and it will never get full. And just because you put in the wood to make your plank, doesn’t mean you have to craft the plank then and there. As long as the materials are in the pack, you can create the thing you want whenever you’re ready.”
“That … sort of makes sense,” said Charlie. “I mean, it actually makes no sense, but I’m going to pretend that it does for the sake of this conversation.”
“Love that,” said Juno. “So, as I was saying, he brought that backpack back to the states and, as you can imagine, it took the science world by storm. Everyone wanted to get their hands on it. But your grandpa wasn’t having it. He wanted to use the backpack for good, but he knew that if scientists started running experiments on the thing, pretty soon it would end up in the hands of the billionaires funding those experiments. Unfortunately, his beliefs basically got him blacklisted by the scientific community. So, instead of striking it big for his discovery, he struck out on his own and built this instead.” She motioned to everything around them. “A place where he could help people on his own terms.”
“Wait, you’re saying my grandpa built this whole building … using that backpack?” Charlie was completely baffled. How had something that had so far only managed to make him a piece of smooth wood been used to create all of Darkmoon Drive?
“And that’s only part of what he made,” she said. “Every single person here has a special item that came out of that backpack that helped us to be the person we were meant to be.” At this, she reached behind her and pulled the instrument case around her body so that it sat in her lap. She popped open the metal clasps and lifted the lid of the case to reveal an instrument that was half ukulele and half keyboard. “We call them relics, and this one is mine.”
Charlie eyed the instrument and then looked up at her. “So every single person in the apartment has one of these?”
“Well, not an instrument, but a relic of some kind. That’s what we call them, what Arthur called them. Something made just for the person it’s for,” said Juno. “Mine just happens to be a ukeytar.”
“And you can create things with this? Like I can with the backpack?”
“Oh no, my uke just makes music but that music can … shift reality for those who hear it. Not to mention cast a few spells, heal some light wounds. Mama always used to have me heal her up after she cut herself slicing tomatoes.”
“So you’re like … a bard?” asked Charlie. He decided that he would think of everything in terms of games since it seemed to make everything easier to understand.
“I prefer musical muse,” she said with a wry grin.
“So then you can also level this thing up?” he asked. “How do you do that?”
“I just play mostly,” she said. “For musicians, the best way to get better is to practice, and I like to push myself with various musical styles to challenge my skills. Those same rules apply for leveling up my ukeytar.”
“I don’t think I can just practice making wood planks with different kinds of wood all day and expect to level up.” Charlie imagined himself making wooden plank after wooden plank until his apartment was filled with them. It was not an appealing prospect.
“You could make some other things? Maybe if you make a few different creations, you’ll open up some new options.”
“The backpack did mention that crafting various creations would help me level up,” he sighed. “But I don’t have any of the right materials. I mean, I guess I could go out and buy some stuff, but I also don’t really have any money.”
“Maybe you can find what you need in the garden.”
Charlie eyed her suspiciously. “Garden?”
If you’ve ever heard me talk about this story on social media, you probably know I’ve mentioned it being inspired by things like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. I think this is very hard to understand until we get to this chapter. Now, hopefully, all of that is starting to make more sense!
I love this chapter because we FINALLY get a look into the lore of this world and what you can expect to see from the progression side of this tale. I also really love the relationship between the main characters and this is really the start of Charlie and Juno’s friendship.
If you enjoyed these chapters, feel free to like and comment! I’d love to hear what your thoughts are so far! Next week we’ll meet another new character and I can’t wait because he’s one of my faves in the whole series!!