Arthur “0wlmanCarmine” was a twenty-nine year old manager at a hardware store, and it was fine. Everything was just…
He had gotten married at twenty-two and had a kid at twenty-four. He loved his son. Loved his wife. Life was a little boring and some days he felt like taking a framing hammer from the rack and driving it into the skull of a customer just to break up the monotony, but besides that, everything was fine.
He’d always been a little unsure of what he should do with his life, and the only thing he’d ever really enjoyed were video games. He’d gotten his first job, at the hardware store, to get cash to build a PC. He met Liv online, using that very same PC. But the last few years he noticed himself playing less and less. He and his buddy Leon “CopperStrange619” talked about it a lot. It was one of their rotating subjects of conversation, something that they would turn to when there was nothing else to talk about and no one wanted to talk about bills or kids or car suspension repairs or whatever drudge adulthood was all too gleeful to throw at them.
Videogames didn’t feel the same anymore.
Sure, every once in a while a game would come along and take over their lives. A Battlefield would emerge and draw them in, bringing Copper and 0wlman and Xeno back together for brief three month stretches. But it would fade, everyone would split off. Everyone was on PC now, everyone had their unique tastes and that was fine, all of it fine. But there’d been something great about knowing that everyone had the same handful of games because you were all piss-broke teenagers. There was a mutual agreement that they’d all get the maximum joy out of every game they happened to play, and even the repetitive bullshit became a source of a laugh.
Arthur got home from work and tossed his keys on the table. His wife kissed him briefly and Oliver ran up to him, clutching his leg. Liv was already out the door, purse in hand, off to work the afternoons shift at the hospital. Oliver was 5 now, running around excited about everything, interested in everything. Toys blew his mind. Computers were magic. The garbage kids movies were incredible to him. Arthur wondered when the last time he himself had felt such pure excitement and joy at something not his wife or kid.
He made Oliver a snack, wandered into the living room where his PC was set up, and flipped on the monitor, thinking about what to play, what to do. He booted up a game, turned it off after a few minutes, switched to something else, turned it off.
The word “listless” kept cropping up in his mind.
He was about to turn the PC off and watch a movie–which meant committing to falling asleep on the couch– went Oliver wandered in, holding an old controller.
“I found this” he said simply.
Arthur took the controller from him, about to scold the kid for digging around in their closet. The baby gates had come down, and Ollie could generally be trusted to leave stuff alone, but he liked to explore under beds and in areas he wasn’t supposed to be in. But when Arthur saw the old white Xbox controller, he softened.
“You found this huh?” he said. Ollie nodded. “C’mon, let’s dig it out.”
Ollie followed him to the bedroom Arthur shared with Liv, and together they shifted some shoes and old clothes out of the way to pull out the crate of old games and consoles. The Xbox 360 had been sitting there for almost a decade now.
“What is it?” Ollie asked. He liked videogames, but tended to only like Mario Kart and Smash Brothers, stuff he played with Liv. Arthur hadn’t had a chance to introduce him to the glorious world of shooting games–Liv forbid it. But she wasn’t home and he was bored. And besides, Halo wasn’t that violent.
“It’s an Xbox 360. Came out before you were born, kid.”
“You play it a lot?”
Arthur laughed. “When I was like 16, this is all I did. I would get in trouble for staying up all night and sleeping in class.”
“Did your mom ground you?”
“All the time.”
Ollie seemed perplexed at the idea that his dad could have been a bad kid, and started picking up the green cases and ogling at them
They dragged the crate out to the living room. Ollie tried to read the game cases while Arthur hooked the thing up. There was a heart-sinking moment where it seemed like the 360 wasn’t going to turn on, but after a loud whoosh of the fan, the familiar, bubbly chirp of the 360 menu appeared, the screen turning green. In a tangle of wires, Arthur connected two controllers and handed one to Ollie. They sat side by side, cross legged, like two little kids, staring up at the screen. He heard the disc tray whir, and had a delicious moment wondering what game was still in the console. It felt like opening a time capsule. The 360 had frozen his adolescence. His profile image of the Predator was still there. “Welcome 0wlmanCarmine” appeared, and gave Arthur more nostalgic whiplash.
“What’s Owl? Ollie asked. He was getting good at reading, and had picked out that word.
“When you start playing games online, you pick a name for yourself. Kinda like a superhero does. You don’t want people knowing your real name, unless they’re your close friends.”
“So you made Owlman?”
Arthur nodded and took Ollie’s controller. “Yeah, now we gotta make up yours. What do you want your name to be?”
“That’s your actual name.”
“What did I just say?”
“Not to use your real name.”
Arthur did the fake-glare look that made Ollie laugh every time, and sure enough, he burst into peals of jubilant, little kid laughter. “Okay I’ll be Raptorman. Like I’m a velociraptor, but I’m a man.”
Arthur smiled and typed it in, and picked out a little dinosaur icon for Ollie. He wasn’t going to try and explain to his kid that Raptorman was a soldier character from Full Metal Jacket.
They started playing the old classics. Ollie really enjoyed Gears of War, especially when Arthur showed him how to use the saw on the end of the gun. Call of Duty Zombies scared him, but he liked an old boxing game and even though Halo was a bit much for him to handle, enjoyed smacking things with the gravity hammer.
Arthur lost track of time, and before he knew it, it was after 7 and Ollie was asking about dinner. Arthur stood up, stretching his back, and went to shut off the console.
Xbox would notify you when a friend got on. It had been silent for the last few hours except for the few friends he knew on Xbox One who kept the same accounts. But just as his finger was depressing the power button, that little jingle sounded and “WendigoPete is online” appeared.
Then the console shut off. Blackness enveloped the screen. Ollie, in the kitchen, asked if they were having mac and cheese.
“Something weird happened the other day,” Arthur told Leon. It was Sunday evening, they were sitting on Leon’s porch. In front of them, Ollie and Leon’s daughter, AJ, ran around the yard, waving toy lightsabers. “I hooked up the old 360, and Wendi came online.”
Leon “CopperStrange619”, who had once been a rail-thin teenager who people sometimes called “Reed Richards” and was now a plump, sweater wearing accountant, pushed his glasses up and squinted at Arthur. “What do you mean? Like it glitched and said Pete was on?”
“I don’t know. I booted it up to show Ollie some games, I went to turn it off, and Wendigo popped up. By the time I turned it back on, he was gone.”
“Just a glitch. Probably the account was active last time you turned the console on.”
“That’s the thing, I wasn’t even connected to the internet.”
Leon frowned. He wasn’t like Arthur. He wasn’t prone to big leaps in imagination or romanticism. “I miss him too. But I think you got caught up in some nostalgia and it played a trick on you.”
Arthur was silent for a moment. He watched Ollie do a jump spin and slash at AJ, who ducked, laughed, and ran away. He knew what he had seen, but didn’t want to argue about it. “Pete just went offline one day, you know? Boom. Gone. Like he did that once, when he was with that girl and then that ended after a few months and he was back. So at first, I thought it was a girl. Or his console broke. Something little, something stupid.”
“I remember Xeno was offline for like 3 months because of his grades, yeah,” Leon replied.
“Right? So at first its fine, I’m just planning all my jokes that I’m gonna hit Pete with the moment he gets on that fucking Nitros Sunset game. Remember that? He was obsessed with it.”
Leon glanced over at his friend. They’d gotten a lot closer after Pete had died. Arthur’s chaotic, manic energy and desire to piss everyone off had softened, and an introspective, quieter person had taken his place. It was someone Leon liked a lot, but it was still jarring to see 0wlman displaying genuine emotion, instead of calling him names and telling him the many different ways to go fuck himself. Briefly, Leon wished for the old Arthur, just so he wouldn’t have to hear the pain currently in his friend’s voice.
“So four months later I’m on, doing nothing, just playing zombies or whatever. WendigoPete pops up! I invite him to a party. No response.” Arthur grinned ruefully. “And I’m like, fuck that, you haven’t been on in months, you’re my boy, you’re gonna at least tell me what’s going on. So I send another invite. And another. Messages too. Finally, he responds.”
Leon nodded. He’d heard all of this secondhand. Arthur had relayed everything to him and Xeno years ago, and it still hurt to hear.
“Its his mom, and she tells me ‘Peter is no longer with us.’ Gives me a phone number. I call it, and she tells me everything.”
“I know, Arthur, I know.”
“Like, I knew he was hurting. I played Nitros Sunset with him for like eight hours a few nights before he went offline. He was hurting, but he got like that sometimes. I didn’t think anything of it. I was just like, yeah man, we’ll cruise around this game you love, I don’t mind, I’ll make jokes about running over pedestrians, whatever.”
“He loved that game,” Leon said. “I remember he had me help him get the achievement for driving across the entire city with a friend. I was irritated, I had to listen to him hum that shitty music the entire time.”
“The music! He bought the soundtrack, he’d listen to it even when we were playing other shit.”
There was a long, pitiful silence that sharply contrasted with the north of the children. The sun was peeking around between the tree branches as it slid down the sky, and it was getting chilly.
“He was always vague about it,” Arthur said. “But one day, must’ve been a month before he did it, he explained how it felt.”
Leon stretched in his chair, discomfort making him restless and fidgety. This was too much, too heavy. It was his day off from work, his kid was playing in front of him, why, why was he talking about this?
Arthur’s voice grew shaky. “He said he felt like he was holding back a horde. That every day he gathered everything he could to throw at this thing. Boarded up windows, barricaded the doors, everything. And every day it felt like he barely made it.” Arthur swallowed, and Leon heard his throat click. “Skin of my teeth, Owl. That’s what he said. Every day. Skin of my teeth.”