Good morning adventurers. If you’re wondering why you’re reading CYOA now, we just had a lot going on yesterday between the March Madness results and the Catching Fire trailer. But never fear, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled Monday next week.

Last time on CYOA, you sought out the school computer whiz, Mac Sam to crack open those files for you. She said it would take a day and cost you 50 big ones, but after receiving a threatening note on your windshield, you voted to go Sam’s. Maybe if you’re breathing down her neck, she’ll decode faster. Now I don’t know a lot about cracking password-protected files, but I’m not sure it works like that, y’all. Anyway, we’ll give it our best shot, shall we?

Chapter 10: Hackers

You realize that your eyes are blinking rapidly of their own accord, and you can’t seem to focus on the words on the paper because your hands are shaking so badly. Crumpling up the note, you glance around the quickly emptying parking lot. No one seems to have taken any notice of you. Not knowing what else to do, you climb into your car and lock all of the doors, before putting your hands on the wheel to steady yourself. Okay: start car. The ignition turns over a couple of times before it catches, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

Before you can register the decision, you’re driving towards Sam’s subdivision. You’re not entirely clear on where she lives, but you did go to one really bizarre slumber party there in middle school and remember the general neighborhood and some seriously tacky lion statues out front. As you cruise aimlessly around cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, you think what a dumb idea this was. But finally you spot Simba’s cousins. You pull your own car into the driveway behind Sam’s and ring the doorbell.

”Why Miss Caitlin!” answers Sam’s mother, whom you now recollect as being aggressively weird. She is just like Toni Collette’s character in About a Boy, all hemp and patchouli and singing folk music with your eyes closed (but thankfully, not suffering from crippling depression, as far as you know). “I haven’t seen you around here lately! But then Samwisa doesn’t bring a lot of friends home, does she?” Mrs. Elliott lets out a terrifying laugh that you think is supposed to be disarming but comes off slightly maniacal in practice. She leads you to Sam’s study and you say a silent prayer of thanks that your parents didn’t name you after a character in Lord of the Rings.

”Samwisa, darling. Your friend Caitlin has come for a little playdate. Isn’t that nice? Maybe you girls can join me in the music room and we can all sing some songs. Create art together!”

”Caitlin and I have to work on a school assignment, Mom.”

”Oh well, maybe next time.” And she an her caftan swoosh out of the room, leaving behind a plate of what you think are supposed to be cookies.

”Gluten free, sugar free, soy free and dairy free vegan ginger snaps. They’re made with fermented quinoa and oat flour, and they’re an abomination. Some days, I really think I was adopted, but I already checked my birth records. No dice.”

”Maybe you were switched at the hosipital with another baby?” This possibility seems to cheer Sam slightly.

”A girl can dream. What can I do for you, Landry?”

”Well, I was kind of hoping you could get into those files faster.”

Sam frowns. “Well, it doesn’t really work that way… I guess I could boost the memory on the algorithm, but only if you make it worth my while.”

You groan internally. Your funds are rapidly running dry at this point. “How much?”

”Not more money. I need something more valuable than that.”

You are confused, concerned, and intrigued by this cryptic statement. ”Uhhh… what then?”

”I need you to eat that entire plate of cookies so I don’t have to.”

“Deal.” You shake hands and reach for the plate. Then you take a bite. “Ughhh, these taste like Hagrid’s feet!”

”No take-backs, we shook on it! Finish the plate!”

You lose the sense of time passing while the two of you laugh together over the cookies, Sam’s mom, the idiots who share the cafeteria at school, and your small town in general. You haven’t had this much fun since Kayla left. But amidst discussing Alexandria Winterbourne’s heinous overacting in last year’s production of The Music Man, you are pulled sharply back into your reality—Kayla, missing, threatening notes, and mysterious files—by an alert on one of Sam’s many monitors.

”You’re in luck. The person who password protected these knows jack about data encryption. They didn’t even use numbers or symbols. Whose files are these, anyway? And can we see what’s inside?”

You weigh your options. On the one hand, you are DYING to know what’s inside, and if you let Sam in on what’s going on, maybe she can be of some assistance in your search? With Kayla missing, you could really use a wing-woman right now. On the other, you’re not sure who you can trust.

Do you:

A. Open the files with Sam. Not only is she fun to be around, but if the rest of her talents are even half as useful as her computer skills have been, you want her on your side.

B. Go home! You can’t trust anyone. CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.