You beat the game as fast as you can, Colby says to me. I ask him how fast he can beat it. He says three hours. He says it quietly, reluctantly, doesn’t look me in the eye.
I used to play the game he’s playing, back in college. I feel a sense of kinship with my son, knowing that, now, together, we have this.
That’s really neat, I say.
He says nothing, keeps playing.
When Colby was younger all three of us would game together on the system that Lynne and I bought him for his birthday. He’d drive his car in the racing game backwards, first unknowingly, then purposely, comically. Colby, come on, Lynne would say, portending anger, but she’d loosen up, and she’d drive backwards, and I’d drive backwards, and we’d all drive backwards like idiots, and my son would collapse in joy.
When Lynne comes to get him she doesn’t say a lot to me. I tell her he’s been spending a lot of time in his room.
I’ll keep an eye on it, she says. She smiles, tight, toothless.
She walks him out to her car and asks him what he wants to do this weekend.
We can go to the mall, she says.
Shit yeah, Colby says.
Watch your goddamn mouth, she says, shoving him a bit. They laugh. I watch them drive away.
I think I’m a good dad. I make Colby’s lunches for school every day. Some sort of sandwich, either peanut butter and jelly or salami and pickle, because those are the only kinds of sandwiches Colby will eat. Most days he doesn’t eat them at all.
I’ve started putting fun-sized candy bars in his lunchbox, Twix or Snickers or whatever. Sometimes I’ll write him a little note–Here’s an Extra Life!, Knock Out The Day!, I Love You, CoCo! These he eats. The notes vanish. I don’t know what he does with them.
The glitches he shows me, after I’ve asked enough times, are completely incomprehensible. When I played this game things made sense. You walked forward, you slashed enemies, the enemies died, you got items from treasure chests, you used those items in the way the game told you to use them.
When Colby plays the game all logic falls away. He’ll take the character, the hero, and he’ll run at a wall, then turn around, walk backwards, jump to the side, slash his sword. Then he’ll vanish, fall into a black void of unprogrammed nothingness for a few seconds and emerge in a completely different place, on the other side of the game’s map, somewhere the game doesn’t want you to be, some place only accessible after hours of gameplay, after getting certain items, after doing the right things.
How’d you learn all of this, I ask.
Online, he says. There’s a community.
Yeah. Other people who speedrun. Hold on. Gotta practice this.
He places a bomb on the ground, waits, then rolls into it while unsheathing his sword, brandishing his shield. The character stands upright, in a resting, static position, but still moves. He flies backwards. Legs completely still, arms completely still, head completely still, yet shooting towards us, towards the imaginary frame of the camera, as if propelled by a tornadic gust of wind. It’s strange, and it’s unnatural, something that should not be possible.
After two seconds the character stops.
Crap, Colby says. I didn’t get it.
That’s incredible, I say.
No, Dad, I didn’t get it, he says, looking at the screen with sadness, eyes deflated like pinstuck balloons.
Colby’s hitting puberty, which means his body’s changing but it’s changing awkwardly, like a bug squeezing its way out of its dead exoskeleton. He’s taller, but still not tall. His face is round and constantly red. He’s got the faintest, thatched hairs sprouting above his lip and his back is constantly slouched, like his spine is slow to understand his body’s frame.
He doesn’t really play any sports, isn’t in any clubs at school. He likes video games, like I do, like Lynne used to. There’s nothing wrong with this. Plus he’s not even a teenager yet, still a kid. Eventually he’ll grow out of it. Eventually he’ll make friends or get really into handball or Science Olympiad, or something. Eventually he’ll change and find a productive passion, because that’s what happens with everyone, with anyone.
Lynne’s already at the school for Colby’s parent-teacher conference when I get there. She’s wearing sensible heals, a button-down shirt, a blazer. Her hair is tied up in a professional bun. She’s a teller at a bank now. She’s been working there for a little over a year; she got that job after we separated, maybe a month later. Seems to be going well. I don’t really ask.
Colby’s 6th grade homeroom teacher tells us that Colby is a very bright child, very good at math, very good and reading comprehension, has an intuitive knack for learning. He’s made great strides, he’s really coming along, the extra year has really helped him, some students need that, and there’s nothing wrong with taking those measures.
But he doesn’t socialize a lot with his classmates, she says, lowering her voice to indicate that this is a problem.
I look at Lynne. She nods, reflecting the teacher’s seriousness.
How is Colby’s home life, she asks.
He lives with Joshua during the week, Lynne says, looking at me. I see him two weekends a month.
And does he seem well-adjusted.
He’s a little more sluggish than he used to be. More tired. But you’d have to ask Joshua, he’s the primary parent, not me.
Lynne says this with a laugh, but it’s her pained laugh, a laugh she deploys when bruised.
He seems fine, I say. He plays a lot of video games.
Hmm, the teacher says.
But he’s a kid, I say. Colby’s teacher is older, in her fifties, doesn’t understand gaming at all, not like I do, not like my son does.
Hmm, she repeats, looking not at me, but at Lynne, with contention, indicating: you are the mother. You are the better guardian. You must deal with this.
While Colby is at school I go into his room. It’s dark. His walls are purple, a purple that Lynne and I painted together three years ago. His blinds are drawn. His blinds are always drawn. Dirty clothes litter the floor around his unmade bed: gym shorts, t-shirts, dirt-flecked white socks. He’s hung up a half dozen posters of various eSports teams. Colby explained what eSports was to me once, told me how cool it’d be to do that as a job. It seems fake. His bookshelf is filled not with books, but with games, with figurines, with controllers. Computer mice. Headsets. Christmas gifts, replaced with better versions in the Christmases that followed.
The only clean part of his room is his desk. It’s spotless. The flimsy wood is free of dust. His two computer monitors, each fifteen inches diagonally, are practically mirrors. Laid next to his keyboard is a USB controller, plugged into one of the two monitors; next to the controller is a dual headset and microphone. They’re arranged perfectly, professionally, as if on order from a superior. As if they’re his livelihood.
Wanna game with me on the big screen, I ask Colby. I propose the racing game. The one he’d drive down backwards.
Sure, he says, hesitant.
We play three tracks. He wins each time. I always come in second.
You’re whooping my ass, I say.
I gotta go, he says. Gotta practice.
Weirdo, I laugh.
He gives me a kind of look. Then he walks down the hallway. Shuts the door.
So I continue to play on my own. I drive the right direction, pass cars. I win every race, handily and without challenge. It’s an easy game, meant for children.
There was one time when Lynne got home from work late. She was a hostess at this chain out by the mall, not in the mall, but at one of those satellite free-standing buildings that all mall complexes have. She hated it, and she carried that hate home.
He do his homework, she asked me.
He’ll do it, I said, but she trooped down our hallway, pounded on his door. He appeared. She looked at him, looked down at his circular face, hands on her hips.
Playing those goddamn games, she asked.
I don’t know, Colby said.
Lynne, come on, I said.
What the hell is wrong with you, she asked him, grabbing his arm. You want to be held back again? Be the only teenager in fifth grade?
No, he said.
Lynne, I said.
Huh Colby, she asked him. Waving his arm around, his face winced in pain, his still-chubby body flailing, out of his control.
He says he’s feeling sick. I take his temperature. It’s 100.5. I can’t remember if this is a feverish temperature or not.
He asks if he can stay home from school.
I say yes.
So he retires to his room, closes the door. Every so often I hear him, mumbling something about something, talking to himself, talking to his computer.
At noon I make Colby a PB&J and he comes out, takes it away, says No thank you when I ask if he’d rather eat it here, in our kitchen, with me.
I work from home. IT stuff. I maybe do two actual hours of work a day, which means I have a lot of downtime. I’ve read articles online about this particular scenario, which is getting more common, now. They say to seek out new roles, take on new responsibilities, but this isn’t something I want to do, because why would anyone want to work more than they have to.
Other articles say I should keep my brain fresh in other ways. Learn a new skill. Take walks. Learn Spanish.
That was one of my arguing points when we discussed physical custody. I had a stable job. I had a stable life. I, as human being, was stable, which therefore meant that my wife, as a human being, was not.
I play a lot of psychologically exploitative games on my phone. I’ve paid for in-game unlockables with real, actual money. I nap.
Our dinners are simple. I make pasta. I make soup. I boil frozen broccoli and roast frozen fish fillets. Sometimes I buy rotisserie chickens, pre-cooked vegetable medleys from the nice grocery store a town over, because my son is worth it.
We do breakfast for dinner a lot. Pancakes, bacon, hash browns. Colby doesn’t like eggs but I do, so I prep a few, over easy, sunny side up, scrambled, whatever. I dot them with chives, with scallions; I cook them with shallots and garlic. Sometimes I roast diced red potatoes and lay the eggs on top of them, a homemade skillet, the most aesthetically pleasing thing I can do, the best meal I can build. Colby won’t eat these. I don’t know why.
I ask Colby if he’s feeling any better.
Kind of, he says. He’s barely eaten his French toast. Syrup pools around his plate, around the organic wheat bread I have pan-fried to a golden brown. The French toast is surrounded with raspberries, strawberries – my handiwork. Colby ate between them. The fruit lays dead at the plate’s edges, inundated with maple sludge.
I ask him how the speedrunning is going. Are you getting better? What’s your best time?
I don’t know, Dad, why are you asking me this, he says, taking a bite, a small bite, the syrup dripping on his plate, thick brown tree blood.
We tried to make it work. We whispered loudly at each other while Colby slept. I need you to step up, Lynne would say to me, and I told her I didn’t know what that meant. Just be a fucking man, she would say, and then I’d tell her to please keep her voice down, and then she’d say Jesus, fine, whatever, be a goddamn wuss like you always are.
Lynne always fell asleep before me, so I’d go to Colby in his bedroom, stand over his sleeping body, kiss the crown of his head. My son. I don’t know how much of our arguing he absorbed. I don’t like to think about it.
His room is messier than last time. More clothes on the floor. More of a smell. It seems darker, the windows somehow more closed. The only source of luminescence comes from his monitors. On one monitor is the game. He’s progressed very far; the character has items that I remember taking days, weeks to acquire. I pick up the controller. I push the joystick forward, and the character moves forward, too, his arms pumping, legs shuffling, the digitized sound of footsteps pattering out of Colby’s speakers.
This alarms me. I place the controller back where it was.
On Colby’s other monitor is some sort of chat window. There are a few comments. A window with a black screen. The name of a website I’ve never heard of before.
The bathroom door opens in the hall. I flee his room like a frightened bird.
He’s been home all week, I say to Lynne over the phone. So I don’t know how active he’s going to be with you.
He’s sick? she asks.
He says he feels weird. I took his temperature today and it was fine. No cough. So.
And he’s not faking it?
Why would he be faking it?
He’s been having a hard time at school.
Is that what he told you?
From the conference. Remember.
After our call I sit at our kitchen table, which is marked with old scratches and covered in spills that have stained the cheap wood, and look out of the window at our yard. The yard that so attracted Lynne and I to this house when we first bought it, when we knew we wanted to get pregnant. A yard, not especially pristine—full of bramble, full of spiky twigs—but still a yard. Somewhere for our son to play, to run, to explore. To experience outside, a small corner of nature, a piece of this planet that is all his own.
When Lynne told Colby she would be staying somewhere else for a bit he said okay. Looked at both of us, nodded, like we had told him it was supposed to rain that evening, like we told him we were out of dish detergent.
You’ll be staying here, with Dad, she said.
So we can do Dad Time things all the time? he asked, full of excitement. Dad Time meant video games, eating junk food. Things that created positive memories, linked him to me, caused him to recognize me, his father, as a force of love.
Dad, Lynne said, turning towards me. She was suffering, and she was defeated. But she had done so much, failed so often, hurt me, hurt Colby, the one person she was not supposed to hurt.
I let her talk. I let her disappoint my son.
We’re out of bread and eggs so we order a pizza. I get pepperoni and green pepper. Colby discards each disk of meat from his two slices. He has never done this before.
After we’re done I turn on the racing game.
So, I ask, gesturing to our television.
I can’t, he says, shrugging. He slumps to his room.
I stand there. The two controllers are in my hand and my arms are bent, like the controllers are barbells, used in pursuit of some gain.
I go to Colby’s door. I inch close. My ear is pressed to the wood, which is flimsy, which is cheap, like this house. I can hear him. He’ll say a few words, make a sound of mock anguish. Then silence. Then laughter, real, genuine laughter. Then silence. Then laughter again.
Of course we did things with him. Of course we took him places. The park, malls. Money was tight. We’d see kids walking out of toy stores holding video game boxes close to their chests like contraband, and we’d look down at Colby, hoping he didn’t notice them.
He’d want to go home so he’d throw these temper tantrums. He’d crumple his body and pound the floor with his fists, flutter kick, scream. I’d try to calmly and quietly coax him from the ground. People would notice. I’d look at Lynne. Lynne would look at me. Then she’d reach down and grab our son by the ribs, hoist him onto his feet, take his hand and drag him away, his face beat red and wet, upset for no reason other than that this place, outside and unfamiliar, this place was not for him.
Lynne’s hair is a different color when she comes for pick-up, a reddish brown, bright and autumnal. She looks nice. She’s wearing perfume that she didn’t use to wear. It smells unlike her. It smells like someone else.
I comment on this.
Yeah, she says, twirling her hair around her index finger.
We both look at our feet.
Colby feeling better, she asks.
Yeah, I say
You talk to him. About the school stuff.
Joshua, come on, did you talk to him or not.
I don’t know what you want, okay.
I want you to be his parent. I want you to be on my team. He’s your son. He loves you. He’ll listen to you.
It’s not that easy. I lower my voice. Colby is somewhere in the house. I don’t know where.
But it is, Lynne says. It really is.
I look down again. I’m not wearing any socks. I forgot to put them on.
I am the only one in our home, so I go into my son’s room, flip on the lights. When lit, his room looks incorrect. The purple paint takes on a bluish hue; it’s a sickly color, structurally unwell. I turn the lights back off.
I look at his computer monitors. They’re both black. His controller and headset are neatly arranged, still.
I turn both monitors on. His computer login requires a password.
I type in the name of the hero of our shared game.
Before I hit enter, I delete what I have written, feeling like fucking shit, like a complete fucking failure.
The first week after the divorce, when it was just me and Colby, I remember being in our home’s living room, and Colby was beside me, and we were playing games together. Nothing incorrect, no glitches, no falling through walls, nothing programmatically destructive. We’d play the newest game with the hero, the hero of that game from my past, that hero that Colby is playing as now. I’d move through the world methodically. Colby would sit, inspired, engrossed. He’d watch my quests, my fights, my glories. He’d ooh and aah. And then, then, he’d ask if he could play, too. Can I play, Dad, and I’d hand him the controller, watch him move and stumble along, finding his way, gathering his footing, learning, learning.
I wake at one in the morning with a headache. I know I won’t be able to go back to sleep, so I get up and boil water. I place a bag of off-brand chamomile tea in a mug, which I drink because I read it is a natural sleep aid. It doesn’t seem to help.
I look outside. It’s dark. I can’t see anything.
On my computer I type in the website I saw on Colby’s monitor. Immediately I am confused. A purple and white interface cloaks the page, there are thumbnails of various videos, kids with dyed hair in dark rooms, rooms lit up by faint light. There is also a search bar. In it, I type in the name of our game. I’m brought to a page with more thumbnails, lists of users who are streaming. Under the tab titled Live Channels I see, in the third row, first to the left, the image of the game, and, in the thumbnail’s top right corner, the image of a boy, in some room unknown to me, far lighter, shades drawn, devoid of posters, a mattress laid on the floor in the background. The boy in the frame is my son.
I click on the thumbnail.
He is in front of me. There are, apparently, eleven people watching Colby play this game. His hair is stuck to his scalp. He looks tired; his face is puffy and sallow, like a melting snowball. He places a bomb on the ground, rolls into it. He slashes his sword. There is an explosion. And his character, this universal hero, he is shot backwards, sliding towards the screen, his arms unmoving, his legs unmoving, only his body sliding, faster than anything in this game is supposed to move, and he does not stop, continues to slide for seconds, seconds. My son looks deeper into his monitor, his eyes widen, a bead of sweat collects on the bridge of his nose, and he smiles, and his eyes grow big and bright, and he drops the controller, sticks his arms into the air, a pale, spindly V. Yes, he says. I did it. Guys, I did it, I finally did it.
Paul Riker is the recipient of the National Society of Arts and Letters’ Holl Merit and Jones Merit Award, its top prize in literature for the state of Indiana. He is also the winner of the 2021 SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize, and a finalist for the 2021 Montana Prize in Fiction and the 2020 Iowa Review Award in Fiction. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, SmokeLong Quarterly, CutBank, the Nashville Review, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Purdue University, and lives in Lafayette, Indiana.