A helpful computer program gets a depressed eighth grader over a tough spot in this rough-hewn, unabashed fantasy. Pollard--his mother and beloved dog suddenly gone, his father bitter and distant--sees his life and grades slipping away, although he believes a fresh start is possible if he could only graduate with the rest of his class, get a date with Donna Ames, and see the Red Sox win a pennant. On a visit to the school's computer lab, he gets not the remedial language arts lesson he's expecting, but Conner, a ""compensatory program"" that talks back, understands his jokes, knows everything about him, does his homework, and creates realistic simulations that allow him to learn new baseball and dating skills. Rendal (The Girl Who Listened To Sinks, 1993) uses Conner to deliver not-very-subtle lessons about coping with loss, growing up, showing compassion (until gently corrected, Pollard habitually uses words like feeb and retard), and admitting that his mother has moved out (in his first-person narration, he declared her dead initially). After this revelation and some cathartic howling at the moon, Pollard's misery vanishes and Conner signs off. The story is marred by sheaves of unanswered questions and dangling plot threads, but readers will love Conner: part homework machine, part therapist, part best friend, wholly touched by magic.