The Quest for Red Bull by Frederick Frankenberg

Jake is forbidden from travelling beyond his garden, out where life is cheap and monsters roam, but he simply must get some more Red Bull.

Image generated with OpenAI
I wasn't always an adventurer. In fact, I hardly left the house. I would shut myself up in the living room and play video games all day. But Daddy used to let me out on Fridays to play handball with the other kids after my homeschool ended.

I was in front of the concrete slab, throwing my handball against the wall. The sun set in the dark sky, and the kid I was playing with left. A ball flew over the wall from the other side and hit the chain-link fence behind me. Robby, a chubby kid that looked down on me from his height, came around to get his ball. He wore baggy clothes and had a bandana on. His triple chin and rough face half-smiled at me. He had warts on top of warts and craters on top of craters on his beaten face.

"You should have gotten that to throw it to me," he said.

"I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention."

"You're not sorry, but I'm going to make you sorry you flat-faced weirdo." He walked towards me. "Homeschooling is for retards."

"I-I mu-must go."

His dry hands grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards him. He punched me on the chin. I screamed. It hurt.

"Please please please - let me go!"

"Cry like a little fairy!" He held me on the wrist and punched me again. "Let it out like the weakling you are."

I sobbed and twisted free from him. Crying didn't stop me from running away that day. If only had I fought him and stuck up for myself.

I told Daddy, his face burned red, and he said I would never leave the house anymore.

One cold morning, the light came through the window in my kitchen, and Daddy sat reading the paper with his legs crossed on the couch in the living room. He drank bitter-smelling coffee from a mug. His belly showed in his dress shirt. He was old at forty-four. I sat next to him playing "Fifa Soccer Industry," a game about soccer franchise management - I bought a new stolen-from-the-poor lot to build a new stadium by bribing a governor.

"You got a sixty-six on your Elementary Evaluation Exam. You really need to do your Math," he said. Daddy turned the paper over and put it on the table. "When the tutor comes, let him in. He should be here at three."

"I got an almost-perfect grade on the English section," I said.

"Math is still important. Everyone has to learn how to do simple algebra. Stop being so lazy."

It was a Saturday, and my regular visiting teacher didn't work at this time. I pressed the Xbox button on the controller to play another game. I could do good in school myself; I just needed extra help to force me off the Xbox to do my homework.

"I wish I had friends to go out with. I want to go to school like everyone else. It's safe in school."

"Don't you know, Jake, that the world is a sordid wretched place full of pedophiles and other subhumans? You've got to be homeschooled to keep you safe." Daddy named me after himself.

"But I have no friends."

"You have friends on Xbox. Kids like you get bullied. And there's school shootings. On Xbox, you can just block people you don't like." He put on his jacket from the coat hanger and wrapped his scarf around his neck. "I've got to go keep the world safe from terrorists." My father worked for the NSA and he never gave me any details about it. He once said he was a big-time computer programmer and a supervisor.

"Where are the Tasty-Os?" I said.

"They're up there," he said, pointing over the sink. "Make sure to lock everything behind me, including the cage door. I don't want to come home and see it open."

Daddy got out and shut the heavy door. If only he didn't have to leave. I closed the eight bolts on the door, starting with the one above my head, and down to the one at my feet, then locked the metal cage around the door frame. I took the yellow Red Bull out of the fridge and the cereal from the closet and plopped back down onto the indent in the couch to get back to my game.

The game loaded up on the TV, and none of my friends were logged on. I'm talented at video games. I pressed the Xbox button and changed the game to "Hack and Slash 3: Legends". I played as a warrior with a broadsword. A ghoul in a cloak told me to burn down a town because they've been giving him some problems. My warrior had muscles and walked around with his shirt off. A dragon came to destroy the town, so I jumped on him and killed him. My health got low and I almost died. I killed everyone in the village and looted all their treasure chests. The inferno spell I cast set fire to everything and everyone. I'm a nice person in real life, but I'm a ruthless conqueror in video games.

I took my last sip and tasted the sweet tangy goodness of my Red Bull. I checked the fridge and found an empty box. Dad always kept the house full of these tasty drinks. Without them, I would have no energy. The thought of having to wait for the best drink in the world made me mad. I could go out and get some to quench my thirst. When I used to go to school, Dad once brought me to a store that had a wall full of them with different flavors. I had to ask someone where to find this store.

I slipped on my dad's big coat and my propeller hat, jumped out the window, and went down to the street. There was some money in his pockets for the Red Bull. I could climb back once I got what I wanted. No one stood outside on the clean streets. My next-door neighbor, Glenn, sat in a chair behind a fence. He smiled, and his face crinkled.

"I haven't seen you around, Jake. You're all grown up and handsome," Glenn said. He wore a coat that fit loose around him.

"Do you know where the closest convenience store that sells Red Bull is? There might be one down the main road a few miles away, but I want one close to here."

"I have Red Bull right here."


I came towards him within reaching distance. He took off his pants and waved himself in the air at me.

"Come to my cellar; I've got what you want," he said.

This terrified me, so I ran off his lawn and down the street. I went through intersections I never saw before, and roads passed me like a sped-up video. I stopped to catch my breath. Everything looked different than before Dad had condemned me to homeschool purgatory and banned me from going out; the cement was cracked and weeds grew in places, and garbage was sprinkled on the ground. Two men passed around a strange pipe and a lighter, smoking frosting-like drugs out of the edge. A smelly man in frayed clothing stood with a sign in his hand that said, "SPARE CHANGE. ANYTHING TO SURVIVE." I turned at the corner, and a skinny man lay face down in a pool of blood. People stepped over him and paid no attention. My father wasn't lying, the world was a wretched place that I should be scared of, but I kept strong and walked on.

I turned the corner, not knowing where I was going, and passed an alleyway. Someone out of my sight pushed me to the ground. He held me down in the street. He showed me a big jackknife and had his knees on my shoulders to hold me down.

"Gimme what you got!" he said.

"I ha-have money in my jacket," I said.

"Let's see about that." He reached back and searched through my pockets. The blocky man on top of me had a puffy coat on, watches on both wrists, a strong body, and messy red hair. He reached into my upper pocket and took out my father's extra ID card. His eyes read it and opened wide with fear.

"You related to this man? Who is he?" the man said.

"That's my dad."

He put his knife away into the holder in his belt. He got off me and helped me up. "So sorry - I didn't mean that. I'm just trying to make money. The NSA keeps us safe. I wasn't goin' to hurt you." He hit his hands against my jeans to get the dirt off.

"What's a place near here where I can get Red Bull?"

"The name's Philesti. If you don't tell anyone about this - especially your father - I'll bring you to a place where you can get some. It'll be an adventure."

"A quest!"

"The invigorating taste of Red Bull. A must have for any adventurer. Come on, I'll show you the way.

We kept walking. We made it past a mansion on fire on top of a hill. A man jumped out of the window, on fire. The flames were hot. Black smoke filled the air around us. Onlookers watched. This excited me and made me want to know more.

"Probably the terrorists again, or an accident," Philesti said. "I remember lighting a ton of fires across the river."

"Why did you do that?"

"I was in the military - it was my job. I loved it. I wish they would take me back, but I assaulted a commanding officer."

"Wow, that's awesome."

"Not for me. He ordered me to clean the latrines. Spent a few months in the brig because of it. Problem is nowaday - there's no jobs. I gotta do things here and there to make money."

Philesti made a fist and raised it above his chest. He went on: "Fighting is so fun. Really lightens the mood to get some anger across."

I shrugged and looked at my Nikes. "I've never even pushed anyone. I want to get even with bullies, and don't go to school."

"Part of being an adventurer is killing the enemy. You must use" - he turned away from me and slashed his knife back and forth through the air - "violence to achieve your ends." He tucked his knife back into his jacket. "And my violence is pure."

He was right. But a wimp like me could never cause harm to others in reality, even if it was the right thing to do. The closest thing I came to beating people up was in video games.

We went through a clearing and through a small bridge until we stood near a dock. The water had ice in it. A man stood at the side of a boat holding a long piece of wood. He waved and pushed the boat over to us.

"What up, Genocia?" Philesti said.

"Need a ride across the river?" Genocia said.

"That's why we're here."

We got in. Genocia wore a black cape and a top hat. His chalk-white skin, red stains on his shirt, and two big teeth on each side of his head made him look ugly and dirty. Genocia wiggled a big stick into the water, and we floated away from the dock. The flat river was so foggy I couldn't see land as we made it to the center.

"The town out here is standing against progress. Those putrid people need to be disposed of."

"Tell me your rate," Philesti said.

"I'll give you five for every right ear that you get," Genocia said and drooled onto his shirt.

"You got it," Philesti said.

"I need them in good shape to show the boss as proof we're clearing the land out for development."

"What does he give you for them?"

"That's irrelevant. Just kill everything. The price of blood goes up and down on speculator's whims. I never know what I'm going to pay tomorrow."

Land and the rocky bottom under the water appeared. Genocia made a quick push on the stick, and the boat beached. He handed Philesti a metal thing, and we got out on the sandy beach.

"Blow this whistle when you need me to bring you back. I need ears to make my trip worth it," Genocia said. He pushed on the stick with his whole body off to dislodge off the shore and away into the fog.

Philesti put the whistle in his pocket, and we walked away towards a thick evergreen forest with dark dirt bordering a three-hut village. The houses had thatched roofs that looked like "Medieval Warlock and Wizards II" for Playstation.

"Don't make any noise," Philesti said. "We must use stealth. I don't know how many of 'em are around here."

We ducked down and hid ourselves in the bushes as we inched our way towards the edge of the village. A woman with flakey green-and-white skin like corn flakes hung rags over a tree limb in front of us. She looked away and didn't see us. Philesti put his palm up to me, telling me to stop. He took out his knife and snuck out of the forest toward the woman. She heard him, screamed, and tried to turn away to run, but Philesti ran up and stabbed her in the neck. He thrust the knife into her stomach and opened the green contents of her body onto the ground. I got excited. The graphics on Xbox were not good enough to show the relieved look of death that showed so well across her face. Philesti dragged her body into the bushes to hide it and cut off one of her ears as she lay there with her mouth open.

Philesti turned around and ran away from the village. I stood still and saw three flakey men with clubs come at me. A brute struck me over the head with his truncheon, and I lost consciousness. My whole world went black with pain.

I came back awake naked and tied to a pole with vine-like rope around me. I was dizzy, and hazy thoughts shifted around in my mind. A pile of wood carvings and sticks were under my feet. Two men with disgusting skin wearing loincloths stood in my sight.

"Why is it that you people murder us? You have someone's security clearance for the NSA, too. Why's that?" the brute with the bandana said.

"That my father's, and he's going to get you if he learns I was here. It was all my friend's doing," I said. "He just brought me along." I gasped in horror. They wanted to cook me, to eat me.

"It's either you or us," the one with the big flake falling off his nose said. "People like you and the Copyright Dragon are coming to kill us."

"Copyright Dragon?" I said.

"A terrible beast that deprives us of our culture and murders us for not paying a license fee. But that doesn't matter to you now. You're now going to feed our starving bodies." He bent down and picked up a piece of metal and a flat rock. He took both hands and scraped the two together to start the fire under my feet. Sparks came out and landed on the cluster of tinder below me.

"I want him well done. Maybe, if we cook him unevenly, we can keep his arms rare," the other one said. He looked me in the eyes and spit onto my cheek. "You deserve to die. Your kind killed the woman of my life." He sniffled and sobbed.

A spark hit the thinly-sliced wood below and caught it on fire. The beast blew on it and it flared up.

Philesti creeped out of the weeds and I looked towards the ground. The wind blew, and the flames became the size of a fist and blazed up the pile below me. Philesti stabbed the man with the flakes coming off his nose in the back, and slit the throat of the other one. The beast men had no idea what came for them. My feet could feel the flames, and they burned my skin. I winced in pain until Philesti ran his blade through the vines and pushed me away to the ground. The fire blazed and gathered strength to engulf the platform of sticks. I exhaled in relief. Now the problem was that I was naked in the cool air.

"Your clothes are under the tarp over there," Philesti said, pointing at the edge of the hut.

I gathered my stuff until three more beastly men and a woman came around the hut towards us. The thick woman held a lead pipe, and the rest of them bore clubs like the others.

"This is the rest of 'em," Philesti said. He faced them, held his knife, and motioned towards himself with his other hand. "Come get some punishment." I was too scared and naked to help him.

The woman ran at him and swung her pipe at him. He shuffled around and stabbed her in the clavicle. She fell down to the ground, and he grabbed the pipe out of her hand as she fell. The three others were not gentlemanly fighters; one tried to tackle him and hold him down with his club. Philesti ducked as the beast got on top of him and stood up to throw him to the ground after stabbing him in the stomach and sliding the knife across his innards. The two others approached him from separate sides; one grazed him on the shoulder after he shifted his head to dodge the strike. Philesti swung the pipe up to stop one beast's swing, and stabbed him, then plunged his knife into the other one's chest. A pool of green blood drained into the earth. Philesti rotated his arm and rubbed his shoulder. He got all their ears and put them into a sack on his belt.

"Good payday we got here," Philesti said.

We came through the town, and when we got on the dirt road going inland I looked back and saw the town become a giant fireball behind me. Everything was already burned down, so the explosion did little damage.

"Predator drone missile," Philesti said. "Good thing we got out of there. We took all the glory." He jiggled the pouch of ears on his belt.

We entered a forest. Scattered dark-colored leaves surrounded us and blew around in the breeze. No birds chirped. We walked around a winding trail with trees surrounding us. A mountain stretched across my field of view through the branches. Me and my new friend faced danger and killed everything. We kept going until an animal with horns in the distance stopped in the path ahead of us. It stared at us with one eye on the side of its head.

"Damn deer," Philesti said.

"Let's try to kill it."

"We're not able to catch it. Let's save our energy for the zombies. In five years, this place will be a mega-mall. All of them will be dead then."

The path split. Me and Philesti stopped. A sign with an arrow pointed ahead of us saying, "Main Trail", and another one said, "Delilah's".

"What's 'Delilah's?'" I said.

"That's a naked girl dancing club." I had heard of these things from older gamers.

"Yeah! Let's go!"

We walked towards the trail to "Delilah's", winding around the mountain. The prospect of seeing a naked girl excited me since I had only seen one on my dad's computer before he changed his password. The forest stopped in front of us. A barn-shaped building with a lit-up sign in red lay on the end of the trail past the gully. A dark-and-long-haired man with a purple cape guarded two pink doors next to each other with lion skin around the door frames. The man smiled at Philesti and didn't have any front teeth. There was a girl, too, with big tits and a body that I could describe in much more detail. Shiny yellow hair and black eyebrows adorned her dimpled face.

"It's been a while, Cody," Philesti said.

"I saw you just this morning," Cody said.

"True. I need a show for me and my friend," Philesti said.

"You know the price," Cody said.

Who's she?" Philesti said.

"That's Janice. Say 'hi' to 'em, honey," Cody said.

"I work here," she said. "It's fifty for a booth and ten for everything you want me to do."

"Hey there," I said. "I've got many things, like an Xbox and a Playstation," I said.

"You look like you're twelve, kid. Do you got ID?" Cody said.

I reached into my pocket and took out my father's security clearance - the closest thing to an ID I had. Cody's long face went up in fright.

"What's this? I don't know why you got him with you. You're making it hot," Cody said.

"He's Jake, my buddy," Philesti said.

"The Copyright Dragon's been looking for you. It's something serious, he said he wants to murder you because you stole music from his lair."

"Whoa! That was Nickelback's discography. I sold it for not even enough for a dance," Philesti said. "Not worth it."

"You should probably get going," Cody said.

"Right right, we better not get caught up in here. Come on, Jake," Philesti said.

"What? But!" I jumped up and down. "But we came all the way over here," I said.

"I'm disappointed too. I'm telling you as a friend - it's for your safety," Philesti said. "If I'm dead, I can't protect you."

Precaution was necessary.

We went back the way we had come and turned down the "Main Trail" towards a sheer mountain. My legs were tired. The dirt that went up in the air after every step couldn't be seen even on High Definition.

"This is Mount Mirth," Philesti said.

"I want my Red Bull."

"Don't worry, the Mystic Convenience Store is just a mile up."

We made our way up the steep mountain, and I almost slipped on a rock, but Philesti was behind me and broke my fall. He put me back on the ground, and I caught my footing. Small shrubs grew everywhere.

The trail went to the plateau of the mountain. Little trees and brush lined the edge of the summit. The height of the cliff made trees look like pencils and I stopped to look without a thought of death. We made it to the top, and I stepped on level ground. The awesome Mystic Store was across a bridge over a stream. The Red Bull seller's metal walls glittered in the sun with a smiley face and a thumbs up on the store sign. Tall grass grew all around us as we made our way towards it.

We kept walking down the end of the trail, and I heard a loud noise like twenty people yelling with the sound echoing. The ground shook, and I almost lost balance. A giant dragon the size of a school bus flew down and landed behind us. It had thick black scales like a dinosaur, eyes to the size of a fist, and webbed feet like a chicken. Its ears pointed up, away from his head like antennas.

"State your business, Copyright Dragon!" Philesti said.

"Are we a little insipid? I have come to throw down the ruling of the courts, death to you and all your party," the Dragon said in a deep thunderous voice.

"You should meet my friend - he's from the NSA. Agent Jake, show him your ID," Philesti said.

I took out my dad's ID and held it up towards the Dragon. The monster snaked his head over to read the writing on it. The Dragon blinked. "He's too young to be in the NSA. Where did he get this -"

Philesti ran up to the Dragon and tried to jump up to get close enough to plunge his knife into the top of its neck. The beast flung his head around and bit Philesti's hand until he dropped his knife. As the beast tightened his jaws around Philesti's arm, I felt I had to do something, so I picked up the knife. The beast let go of Philesti and knocked him down with a swoop of his head.

"Get 'em," Philesti said. I stood there scared. "Do something!"

I didn't want to be left for dead by this animal. A little scrawny kid like me was going to fight a Dragon. I jumped on top of the beast's shoulders and sunk the blade between the Dragon's scales on the side of his neck. He tried to swing his head around to get me off. I locked my legs together and held onto the edge of a scale with my hand. I jabbed the weapon in and out and in between his armor plating until a thick green ooze squirted out. I hit the jugular vein. The Dragon's eyes rolled back in its release from this world. I slid down the Dragon's neck and landed on my feet.

We left the Dragon for dead without looking back, and waded across the river and went through the clean street to the shiny Mystic Store. The door rang when I opened it. I went right in, grabbed a cool four-pack of yellow Red Bull, took out one to drink, and picked up a Slim Jim and a King-Size Rice Krispies Treat to eat.

"I'll buy it for you," Philesti said.

The cashier stood there expressionless and hummed a song probably so old it didn't have a copyright. I opened up another can and drank in its tangy and sweet insides.

"You are enjoying what true warriors strive for," Philesti said.

I felt the energy and raised my hands in the sky. I finished the sweet food and started for home with my new friend. The dim evening sun lit the sky when we made it back to my neighborhood. The streets were empty.

"People are usually smoking crack or panhandling in the street at this time," Philesti said.

"Maybe my dad detained everyone," I said.

My father's car pulled up next to us. He got out, and the street lights above us went on.

"I'm glad you're here, Jake senior. I kept your son safe," Philesti said.

My father did not look at Philesti. It was as if he were not even there.

"You're alive," Dad said.

"I made a friend and now I'm an adventurer," I said.

"I came home to an empty house," Dad said.

"I'll be on my way," Philesti said.

Dad reached down and grabbed my hand as Philesti walked away. "The tutor called me, and I came home immediately."

"I had to get Red Bull."

"Son, don't you know you've got to stay home to protect yourself from this despicable world? I'm glad you're safe, but I had to leave home early from my job. Don't you know I'm the one in charge of keeping the world in order?"

"I slayed a dragon!"

"Your imagination can get you in trouble. You could have been abducted."

I went into the passenger side of the car. I told him everything on the car ride back, and he nodded his head in disbelief.

The next day, the teacher left because homeschool ended that Friday. My bully must have been in the park. I went into the kitchen to get a paring knife in a scabbard and put it in my pocket. I would use violence to save the day.


  1. This was a mixture of stories. The compelling storyline was the poor people being killed for a mega mall. Their fate seemed cruel. That was the storyline I really was caught by. The rest seemed like a video game for teenagers. Probably boys. Not necessarily. The storyline about the people being cleared off gave me something to really care about! Thank you!

  2. This is an extraordinary story. The hero, a young boy – 9 or 10? – has a rich imagination, and it is difficult to tell where reality leaves off and imagination takes over. He is home-schooled because his father fear for his son’s life, and when the father leaves for the day, Jake dutifully secures the eight locks on the metal door. The references to the gaming world are hilarious; playing a game about “Soccer franchise management,” Jake notes with satisfaction that he’s able to buy “a new stolen-from-the-poor lot to build a new stadium by bribing a governor.” But it is when he leaves his home in search of replenishing his supply of the coveted Red Bull Yellow that the real fun starts. He dons his father’s jacket and an unlikely “propeller cap,” and immediately confronts crack smokers, muggers, pedophiles, a dead man “lying in a pool of blood,” which pedestrians merely step around, and a man leaping from a burning building. There is the fanciful character merely known as the “Copyright Dragon,” who is ultimately slain by Jake, thereby according him vindication and a purpose in life. Jake watches as his new friend Philesti – an enemy until he learns that Jake is NSA – connected -- kills people for profit and Jake learns from him that he can “save the world by violence.” We leave young Jake as he plots to kill a bully who had previously molested him, with “a paring knife.” The social commentary is keen and this story is great fun. Nice going, FF!

  3. Entertaining and imaginative with a narrative that does a good job of building the tension. How much of Jake’s exploits are real and how much are fantasies is subject to interpretation, but he emerges a changed at the end. Hopefully he doesn’t become the kind of person he abhors.
    —David Henson

  4. As a nerd and a dad, I adore this piece. I’d comp it as Calvin and Hobbes meets adult MMORPGs. Jake uses fantasy to escape from the reality around him, to comfort him as he quests for Red Bull in an outside world for which his father has ill-prepared him. His father mistrusts the world, and so his focus for parenting is safety and not autonomy. Jake is safe, he can stay home and play video games and feel good about himself, but at the expense of any ability to master the outside world around him. With (violent) video games as his only guide to social interaction, one fears for Jake's reality testing, and so the story ends on an ominous note...

  5. Like the other people who read this, I wondered whether this was literal or a game player kid's fantasy. I lean towards fantasy. Certainly an upleasant scene, but a possible extrapolation from current reality. No fun, but a valuable lesson. Mr. Mirth

  6. This story has such an interesting balance between a light fantasy story and a hard-nosed, crime, thriller. I'll admit to not being sure about this story at first, but the pacing, the strange characters Jake meets and joins up with, made this an enjoyable and highly inventive read.

  7. I also interpreted this as Jake's fantasy. I applaud anyone who can get so deep into a child's head. A very interesting tale!

  8. Loved the pacing and the otherworldliness of it. Very visual, too. Good work.