Juno led Charlie into the elevator. As she closed the gate behind them, she pressed a finger into a button marked ‘R.’
“R?” asked Charlie.
“Roof,” she replied
“There’s a garden on the roof?”
“There is a … garden on the roof.”
“Why’d you pause like that?”
“Did I pause?”
“You did. You paused.”
Juno sighed. “Just remember that in this situation, ‘garden’ is a relative term.”
This was not comforting to Charlie, but luckily it didn’t take long before the shaking elevator ground to a halt and she pulled open the gate.
They were definitely outside. Whether it was the roof or not remained to be seen. The late morning sky was visible above them and a cool breeze blew in through the open elevator door. But the knowledge that they were on a roof did not explain anything else that Charlie now saw before him. Charlie couldn’t help but feel as though he had just stepped through a magical portal. And he most certainly would not call anything he was now looking at a ‘garden.’
Just beyond the elevator door was a sprawling landscape more akin to an overgrown forest than a rooftop. Tall, lush trees stretched high into the sky, spreading their green leaves to bask in the sun. Layers of moss and vines crawled up their trunks which ranged from thick and sturdy to thin and knobby. Long-bladed grass, moss-coated boulders, berry-filled bushes, mushroom-infested logs and dead branches of various sizes covered the ground in every direction, stretching back into darkness. The shade of the trees above made seeing further into the forest’s depths impossible. And noticing this, Charlie realized that he also couldn’t see the edges of the roof. Usually when one stepped onto a roof, they could see the parapets which prevented people from falling off the building. But to his left and right, he only saw more forest. He turned and find that behind the elevator there stood a great brick wall, matching the exterior of the apartment building, built high enough that he couldn’t see beyond it. If Charlie didn’t know better, he’d have thought they had somehow taken a Brooklyn apartment elevator up to an unkempt portion of Central Park.
“What is … Where are … How is this possible?” asked Charlie, finding it difficult to form his thoughts or the words to articulate them. None of this made any sort of sense, and Charlie was not good in situations didn’t make sense. He liked order, and plans, and roofs that looked and acted the way a roof ought to. He needed to sit down, to catch his breath and wake up from this dream where nothing made sense. He dropped down to the dirt beneath his feet and sat, placing his head into his hands.
“I told you,” started Juno. “Arthur built this whole building. He created it using that backpack.” She gestured to the red backpack currently hanging from his back. “It doesn’t abide by the normal rules of reality because it was created with relic magic.”
Charlie shook his head, desperately trying to catch his breath. “You mean to tell me, he somehow created a forest … pocket dimension on the roof of a Brooklyn apartment?” He pulled the backpack off and tossed it on the ground in front of him. “And he did it … with that?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as if there weren’t anything more to it.
“It’s … not possible,” said Charlie.
“Oh Charlie,” she said with a wry grin. “Anything is possible.”
“Don’t Disney channel me,” he snapped, standing up and turning to face her. “This!” He waved his hands frantically at the forest around them, “is not possible!”
“An hour ago I bet you would have said the same thing about a backpack that turns one thing into another.”
“That was one piece of wood. This is the entire damn forest!”
Juno gave him a minute to calm down as she swayed on the balls of her feet. “Well, possible or not, the garden is sort of the answer to your current problem.”
“What current problem are we talking about?” asked Charlie, a frantic edge to his voice. “Because I would say ‘inherited magic apartment with Middle Earth on the roof’ is my main problem and this is not an answer to that. If anything, it brings up a whole bunch of other problems that I now have to wrap my head around. Like, question one, how do you grow sky high pine trees on a city roof?”
“Really, you think they’re pine?” asked Juno, peering up at the trees. “They look more like elm to me. Or oak. That one over there is definitely an oak.” She pointed to one of the nearby trees.
Charlie fumed. “Question two,” he pressed on, not caring whatsoever which type of trees were growing around him. “Why can’t anyone see any of this from the street? I definitely would have noticed if this building had a national park on the roof when I walked up!”
“Oh that’s the magic,” said Juno. “People don’t see it unless they’re looking for it. And let’s be honest, New Yorkers aren’t great at looking up.”
“Question three!” snapped Charlie. “This looks like it spreads out as far as a football field, or further. I don’t honestly know how big a football field is. My point is, this building is not as long as a football field! So how? How? HOW!?”
“Okay, take a breath.” She placed her hands on his shoulders and mirrored taking a deep breath in.
“I don’t want to breathe!” he yelled, pulling away from her.
“Well then you’re gonna suffocate and probably die!” she cut back.
“Maybe that would be for the best!”
Juno pulled back, but to his surprise, she didn’t look angry or disgusted. Her expression was filled with kindness and compassion. They stood for a long moment, both silent, allowing Charlie’s last words to hang, drift, and finally settle like fallen leaves.
“Charlie Cole,” said Juno softly. “I only just met you, but I can tell you without a doubt that there is no circumstance on this Earth where you dying would be ‘for the best.’ Do you hear me?”
Charlie chewed his bottom lip, avoiding her eyes.
“Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” he grumbled.
“Do you believe me?”
“I’m having a hard time believing anything right now,” he said. Finally he lifted his eyes to meet hers. “But I’m trying.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
Charlie sucked in a breath. “So,” he started, his voice much calmer than before. “What problem does this solve?”
Juno took a step towards the forest. “You need materials to make creations with the backpack. And this place just happens to be full of them.”
He eyed the forest suspiciously. “I … guess so.” Charlie had never once in his life foraged for anything outside of a yogurt in the back of the fridge. Looking around, he couldn’t help but think that this was going to take a good deal more work than that.
“Why don’t we take a look at the creations you can make so far,” said Juno.
Charlie bent over and picked the backpack off the ground. He turned it over and tapped the screen. Much like a tablet, he saw different icons on the screen with small labels beneath them.
“Do all the relics have this?” he asked.
“A menu?” asked Juno. “Some do. But none of them look like this.”
Charlie pressed the Inventory icon.
Wood x 2
He swiped back and clicked ‘Abilities’ next. There was only one.
You are able to craft materials into creations using learned creation recipes.
New recipes unlock by leveling up or by meeting select conditions.
Charlie wondered what exactly ‘select conditions’ meant, but no further information was provided. He swiped back to the home screen and pressed ‘Settings.’ The only setting he could currently change was the language of the menu. According to a number at the side of the screen, there were 6,512 languages to choose from. He figured he’d not take any chances and leave this setting alone lest he change it and was then unable to change it back. He swiped back and finally clicked into the ‘Creations’ page.
Level One Creations
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
“Well I already made a wooden plank,” said Charlie.
“And it was very impressive,” joked Juno who was now looking over his shoulder. “Let’s check out the others.”
Charlie pressed Rope and found that it required 25 Grass.
“Easy!” exclaimed Juno. “Just go pick some grass and you’ll have yourself some rope!”
“And then I’ll be able to, what, join a rodeo? Catch a cow?” Charlie could not, at this moment, think of one time in his life when he had actually used, needed, or even touched rope.
“Hey, rope can be super useful!” said Juno. “Besides, this is about making things so that you can hopefully level up and unlock new creations.”
Charlie thought about the games he played. To some degree, this made sense. No mage started with a full spell list. They had to earn them through the steady process of gaining experience points. This process of making things just to make them would be known in a video game as ‘grinding.’ Usually, this meant killing low level enemies over and over again to get easy experience points until the player’s character leveled up. Charlie’s form of ‘grinding’ was apparently making rope. And if he made enough rope, hopefully he’d learn how to make something else just as futile.
“Okay, fine,” conceded Charlie. “I’ll make some stupid rope.” He awkwardly walked forward, moving towards the nearest patch of long grass. When he reached it, he leaned down and began to pull at the stalks which were surprisingly tough. He ripped them from the earth, flinging dirt onto his face and clothes. The longer stalks cut into the palms of his hands with their serrated edges. As he moved along, removing grass with his hands, he noticed more and more red cuts in his skin. With the exception of doing dishes, Charlie couldn’t recall a time when he had done this much physical labor in his entire life. He shoved another fistful of grass and dirt into the backpack. The stalks disappeared into it.
“You could help, you know?” he said, turning to look back at Juno.
She smiled and crossed her arms. “Oh,I know.”
“Unbelievable,” he mumbled under his breath as he went back to pulling grass up from the ground. He found that every time he put grass into the pack, the screen would briefly show the number of grass units going up. It seemed that one handful equated more or less to a single unit of grass. He briefly wondered who had been tasked in determining the value of units for the various ingredients the backpack needed to function.
After scrounging around on the ground for several minutes, he finally had exactly 25 grass. “That should do it!” he exclaimed. He stood up, selecting the rope from the menu on the front screen. A green progress bar filled up just as it had done with the wooden plank.
He reached into the backpack and wrapped his hand around something rough. He pulled his hand back out and found that he was holding a tightly coiled length of thick yellow rope.
“Rope quest complete!” he exclaimed, thrusting the rope into the air victoriously. He turned, ready to accept his congratulations from Juno, but instead of her, he came face to face with a man. The man had light brown skin, piercing gray blue eyes, and seemed to be around the same age as Charlie. He wore a maroon beanie, a multicolored sweater, that was cut into a crop top, and white pants with black designs that appeared to have been drawn on with a thick black marker. Charlie couldn’t help but notice the man’s toned stomach, which was on full display. Around his neck was a black choker with a star shaped pendant hanging from its front. Somehow Charlie took this all in as his eyes and the man’s eyes remained locked onto each other.
“So this is him?” asked the man. To Charlie’s horror, he felt his cheeks flushing. Not out of anger or fear, but out of an indescribable and sudden attraction to the man before him. This man, however, gave Charlie a look which suggested that he wasn’t impressed in the slightest. “This is Arthur’s heir? This is the guy who gets the keys to the kingdom?” He shook his head.
“So I’ve been told,” said Charlie nervously. Charlie was not comfortable with people he didn’t know being so very close to him. Especially when the person in question had a jawline that could cut glass and smelled like a spring day just after its finished raining. Still, he wanted to be polite, so he offered a hand to the man, but also took a step back at the same time. The man was apparently not in the mood for handshakes though, because he ignored Charlie’s outstretched hand entirely.
“He left everything to you. The backpack. The apartment. The whole building. And yet, you didn’t even come to his funeral,” said the man.
“I didn’t actually know he had passed,” said Charlie in a meek voice.
“He died six months ago and you didn’t even know?” The man scoffed. “Or maybe you did know. You just didn’t care. But now that there’s an inheritance involved, well, you wasted absolutely no time getting here.”
“I … um…” Charlie didn’t know how to form all the thoughts spinning around his head into words. He didn’t know how to start explaining that he hadn’t chosen to not have a relationship with his grandfather. He hadn’t chosen to not know that Arthur had passed away. All of these things had just happened and now he was here and he still wasn’t even sure what being here even meant. “I just…”
“You just what?” snarled the man.
“Leave him alone Milo,” said Juno from behind him. “He’s still figuring it all out. He didn’t know anything about … anything. The letter and keys you dropped off were the first time he even knew this place existed. This is all totally new to him.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Milo, sniffed the air in front of Charlie. “You smell like dirt.”
“I was picking grass,” explained Charlie weakly. “To make rope. It was actually pretty hard. I’ve never really worked outside like this before and I—”
“Of course, you haven’t” interrupted Milo. “Let me guess, this is your first time seeing a tree?”
“No,” said Charlie, who was completely flustered now. He simply couldn’t figure out what he’d done to upset this person he’d just met. “I used to go camping a lot as a kid. Actually, this roof kind of reminds me of—”
“Camping!?” snapped Milo. “This is not some little adventure you go on for a week to get merit badges and sing songs by the campfire while you eat some mores.”
“I think you mean S’mores,” croaked Charlie.
“Shut up!” hissed Milo.
“Sorry, I just—” Charlie could feel himself shaking now. He was terrible at talking to new people, and he was even worse at having a full on conflict with them.
“This is our home. We live here. You think you can just suddenly come in here and replace Arthur?”
“No!” shot back Charlie. He most definitely did not think this, especially since he had no idea how he would replace someone he’d never known. He needed to turn this around and quickly. “But hey, Juno said your relics turned back on after I got here and opened the backpack. So that’s good … right?”
To Charlie’s horror, Milo gritted his teeth and seemed to get even angrier. “Yeah, it’s great,” he said, not sounding the least bit happy. “Now that you’re here, everything is fixed. It’s like Arthur never died. Like the last six months never happened. We’ve all been struggling with losing our powers, watching the building fall apart, trying to figure out how to keep moving forward without the man who gave us a second chance, and all along, all we really needed was a scrawny white boy to show up and save the fucking day.” The air around them seemed to freeze. Juno let out a soft gasp. Milo shook his head and turned back towards the elevator, glaring at Juno as he went. “My money says he gives up on all of this and runs home by the end of the week.”
“And so what if I do?” asked Charlie. Milo stopped, turning his head back. “What if I am gone by the end of the week? It’s not like I asked for any of this. I didn’t ask for rooftop forests or magic backpacks. The only thing I ever wanted from my grandfather was to know him, and he could barely be bothered to call on my birthday, and when he did, I was lucky if he got my age right.” Charlie could feel heat rising in his chest. “My mom told me my grandpa was lost in his own fantasy world. And sure, now I know that fantasy world was very real, but it still doesn’t change the fact that he left us so he could be here in this … fairy tale. He left our family, for all of you!”
“This isn’t a fairy tale!” growled Milo. “The people living in this building are real. And maybe your grandfather wasn’t there for you, but we owe him everything. He built this place from the ground up. He gave us a home, a purpose. And then he just … died! And apparently none of us was good enough to follow in his footsteps. None of us except you.”
Charlie swallowed hard and then spoke softly. “Maybe he just wanted to keep it in the family.”
“We are his family!” roared Milo. The words echoed off the trees around them. “We were his family.” This time, the words came out as a whisper.
“Okay,” said Juno, stepping between the two of them. “Let’s all just take a breath.”
“I’m good,” said Milo, turning away again. But this time he stopped in his tracks. Suddenly, he grasped his stomach, as a groan escaped his lips.
“Milo?” asked Juno in alarm.
Milo fell forward onto his knees. Before Charlie could react, Juno was at Milo’s side, her hand on his back. “I’m fine,” he said.
“You’re not,” she reprimanded. “Milo, you’re bleeding!”
“It’s just a scratch,” he hissed.
“Let’s get you inside so I can take a look.” She turned to Charlie. “I’ll take care of him. You…um…”
“I’ll keep making rope,” sighed Charlie who was still shaken by the encounter with Milo. “Yeah, I got it.” His shoulders slumped as Juno helped Milo to his feet, walked him to the elevator, and disappeared as they descended into the bowels of the building.
Charlie turned to look at the forest around him. Tearing up grass to make rope hadn’t been very fun when he started, and now that he knew that at least one person in the building actively hated him, it made it even less appealing. Maybe Milo was right. Maybe he was just going to give up after a day or two. After all, he didn’t belong here. Even his grandfather had kept him and his mother away from this place. They were unwanted in his world of relics and magic. Charlie took a deep breath and then dropped the backpack and the rope onto the ground. He clapped his hands together to clean off the dirt, then turned to walk back to the elevator. But a thought stopped him in his tracks.
It was a simple question which arose in his mind. If he left now, where would he go? Before all of this, Charlie had been fully prepared to end his life. He had no prospects. No friends. No job. A mother who only acknowledged his existence when she needed something. But now he was here, doing something that was, at the very least, new and different. Sure, Milo’s words stung, but pulling the wooden plank and then the rope out of the backpack had made him feel something. Despite being completely outside the realm of reality, creating these seemingly useless items filled him with a strange sense of accomplishment, wonder and possibility.
And sure, he was just following the backpack’s instructions. He was just adding wood and making a plank; just throwing in grass and pulling out rope. But it still felt like he was doing something. A task completed. A quest turned in. A single footstep in a direction he’d never walked before. And Charlie liked this feeling, which was surprising because Charlie couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed anything.
He slowly turned back to look down at the discarded backpack. He took a step forward, leaned down, and picked it back up off the ground. Then he quietly went back to pulling grass and inserting it into the backpack. Charlie didn’t know if he could shoulder the huge responsibility his grandfather had left him. He didn’t know if he could prove to Milo that he was worthy of being here. He didn’t know if he would still be at Darkmoon Drive by the end of the week. But pulling up grass and putting it in the backpack to make a coil of rope? This he could do. He’d done it once and he could do it again.
Before long, he’d made a second rope. And then a third. Soon, he had a whole pile of rope coils just sitting on the ground around him. As he repeated this task of pulling grass and making rope, he slowly cleared away a small patch of earth. And in creating this small clearing, he felt that he was quietly giving the forest a small bit of love and care. He had created this small patch of forest with his own hands. The sweat from his brow and the blood from his hands was a part of it now. And this made Charlie feel, if only for a brief moment, that he wasn’t such a stranger in this place.
He was creating his twelfth rope when he heard a high pitched ringing sound jingling from the backpack. He almost dropped the bag in surprise. He threw the newly created rope on the ground and turned the pack around to look at the front screen.
Level 2 Unlocked!
“Yes!” yelled Charlie, pumping his fists into the air. He quickly lowered them again. He wasn’t used to making sounds of excitement as he was rarely excited about anything at all, and the fact that he had done so made him feel an odd sense of embarrassment despite being alone. He looked back at the screen.
New Creations Unlocked!
This was it! Finally he’d be able to make something useful. He swiped down to inspect the list of new recipes.
Basic Axe – Useful for chopping wood
Basic Hoe – Useful for tilling, weeding and planting
Basic Watering Can – Holds 1 Gallon of water
Basic Pickaxe – Useful for mining resources, breaking down rocks
Basic Scythe – Better at cutting grass than your hands
Basic Sword – Low level weapon
Ladder – Stands 6 ft. tall
New Ability Acquired!
Light the Way – Once per day you may pull a basic flashlight from the backpack at no cost. This flashlight will expire after 24 hours.
Charlie stared at the list in utter disbelief. “What the hell is this?” he asked no one in particular. “What even is a basic hoe?” he wondered aloud, noting that the only time he ever heard the term was when he was being called a ‘basic ho’ by his high school boyfriend during their breakup fight. “What am I supposed to do with any of this?” The ladder might be useful, and the sword definitely appealed to his nerdier side but everything else seemed to be aimed at giving him new ways to manually labor, and he hadn’t necessarily been aching for more tasks like pulling grass in his immediate future. Just as he was getting ready to angrily throw the backpack into one of the nearby trees, a new message appeared.
With each new level, your relic will gain new creations and previously learned creations will have lower costs. Some may even become free over time.
Actions which grant experience towards Level 3
Craft more creations
The screen returned to the main menu. Charlie was even more perplexed than before. Farming? Monster fighting? What exactly did this backpack have in mind? And if this had once belonged to his grandfather, had the old man really leveled it up by building a farm and fighting monsters? This was New York City, not Middle Earth. The only monster he could think of fighting was a rat running away with a slice of pizza.
And he didn’t know the first thing about farming. The only knowledge he had of farming were simulation games he’d played on his computer. But then, was that what this was? Perhaps he actually jumped off the bridge last night, and now he was being forced to live out a realistic farming simulation game. That explanation would at least help everything make sense. But knowing his incredibly bad luck, he was probably still alive and all of this insanity was, in fact, real.
Charlie now had an incredible number of new questions, and the only person he knew with at least some answers was Juno. Before doing anything else, he would need to consult with her again.
He sighed and let his shoulders slump in mild defeat. Before heading back into the building, however, he decided to try activating his new ability. He pulled up the Ability menu and selected ‘Light the Way.’ He reached into the backpack and felt around until his hand wrapped around something plastic cylindrical. He pulled his hand back out to find it gripping a very basic red flashlight; the kind you could buy at a convenience store in case of emergency.
He flicked it on with the white switch on its side and aimed it towards the darkest part of the forest.
Far off in the bushes, two large round eyes were staring back at him.
“Gaaaah!!!” he cried, dropping the flashlight and jumping backwards. “Crap!” He quickly scrambled to pick the flashlight back up. He aimed the beam of light back into the bushes, but the eyes were already gone. He waited for a long moment, afraid to move, afraid to stay still. “H-hello?” he called in a shaky voice. He wasn’t sure what response he expected, or even if he wanted a response at all. The eyes had been much lower to the ground than his own, so he didn’t think it was a person. No, it had to be some sort of wild animal. Or perhaps … one of the monsters the backpack mentioned?
He slowly backed away until his back bumped against the elevator. He jabbed a finger into the call button and waited, sweeping the light back and forth in front of him. When the elevator finally arrived, he backed himself into it, never taking the light off the bushes in the distance. He only switched off the light once the doors were shut and the elevator was moving down into the building.
Oh wow, this is a LONG chapter! But you’ll thank me for long chapters when we get to some later on that are criminally short. That being said, I love how much information we get in this chapter. We learn more about the backpack. We see the Garden for the first time. We see a monster in the woods??? I often describe this series as Stardew Valley in the city and I’m hoping now you are really starting to see what that means and how this little apartment building has some big possibilities in the future!
As always, let me know what you think of this chapter, and the story so far, in the comments!