Arthur was laying awake that night. The house was asleep; Liv was snoring next to him, Ollie was down the hall. He normally stayed up later than them, eager to get a few hours of silence away from the usual hustle of the day. It reminded him of being a kid on a Friday after school, the entire weekend laid before him, a vastness of hours to fill whatever low-stakes nonsense. His 4pm to 8am video game sessions with his friends had been sequestered, quartered and bargained off, now hollow shells of their former selves, a 10pm-1am binge with Leon every few months.
What bothered him wasn’t how much he missed it, but that he didn’t. Life had offered up replacements for his time and it was bitter how easily he had adjusted to adulthood. Early today, he and Liv had been in a deep discussion over getting a new rocking chair.
What would 0wlmanCarmine back in the day have said?
He would’ve ridiculed himself without mercy. Called himself a khaki-pant wearing, polo-shirt douchebag. Maybe a hearty suggestion to jump off a bridge, fuck it, you’re dead anyway, right Arthur?
He’d been a nasty kid, and he squirmed at the thought of who he’d been. There was still some of that kid in him, though. When he caught Liv’s eye and they both made faces during some other parent’s long-winded description of how good litte whatever-the-fuck-name was doing. They had a mutual understanding that they would try to be cool for as long as possible, no matter how old they got, but with the underlying realization that they were fighting a losing battle.
One day, Arthur had mentioned quitting sugar, and Liv let out a comic groan: “Oh no, its starting.”
And he liked it.
But at that moment, lying in bed, he missed being a deliquent teenager a little more. So he got up, and tiptoed to the living room. He didn’t turn on any lights. Didn’t get anythign out of the fridge. He could’ve: he was adult, he could stay up and play games and all Liv would say was something serene and sad like: “I’m glad you have something”.
But right now he was 12 again, sneaking down the stairs after his grandparents had gone to bed, flipping the TV on to be awash in its glorious blue light.
When the Xbox came on and made its thunderous startup noise, he jumped, scared, and rushed to turn it down. The feelign was so pure and reactionary that it made him smile.
He fumbled through the games, looking for something to play. A notification sounded.
WendigoPete is online.
Arthur stared at it for a moment. Rationalizations sprang up. It was someone using Wendi’s account, it was a glitch, it was a mental breakdown, it was a scam artist trying to get money somehow. Something. Anything.
Another notification. Plonk!
WendigoPete invited you to a chat party.
Arthur fumbled for the crate of old game stuff, fishing out the tangled headset, jamming it into the controller. It was an old reflex, muscle memory, for him to turn on the console and get invited by Wendi. He could almost taste the orange pop he guzzled by the gallon, could smell the barbeque chips he’d eat by the fistful instead of dinner. Arthur didn’t know how, didn’t know why, but holy fuck his friend was back and he just didn’t care.
He accepted the invite.
“Wendi? Pete, are you there?”
There was nothing but silence for a moment. Then static burst through, followed by choking, gasping breaths.
“Pete, man I can’t hear you I don’t know if you have a–,” he stopped himself. He’d almost slipped into how he’d used to talk as a teenager, throwing around homophobic shit and swearwords just to piss people off. He’d almost said” I don’t know if you have a dick in your mouth or what, but I can’t hear you.” It shocked him how strong this nostalgia was, how encompassing.
“0wl, bro I can’t–I can’t– it’s so cold–,”
Arthur reeled from the TV, pulling the headset off and biting down on his thumb to keep from screaming. It was Pete. His voice. Scattered, staticky, far away, but somehow it was Pete. Icy bolts of terror irridated from Arthur’s chest, and he found it hard to breath. Nonetheless, he put the headset back on. “Pete? Is this real?”
“I can’t see I can’t–its so dark–,”
Pete’s voice sounded far away, muffled, like he was under a hundred layers of blankets. It had an echoey, fragmented sound that made Arthur’s skin crawl. It invaded the inner ear like nails on a chalkboard, it made his teeth itch, it made his eyes pulse.
“Pete, Pete how do I fix it?”
“I need somewhere to go there’s nowhere to go its all dark where do I GO–,”
He screamed the last word, a rush of air and something else underlying, something that Arthur knew was the darkness, the oblivion, that gap in your conscious mind from when you fell asleep to when you snapped awake, the clinging darkness of comas, knock outs and death, yes death, there was death slathered over his friend’s voice, intertwined with the syllables, coating the consonants and coasting on the air that the sound needed.
He needed somewhere to go. Somewhere to go. Despite the mounting horror, Arthur clung to the idea because it was a problem, a problem could be solved. A problem was knowable, fixable. A problem was a thing from the real world, that sanguine, dull predictable world he’d just been in until now.
Frantically, he fumbled open the case to Nitros Sunset and slid the disc in. The game started, and his fingers did the familiar, quick easy motions it had done probably a thousand times. He opened the menu, and invited WendigoPete to play.
Silence. Pete didn’t say anything. The overworld of Nitros Sunset began, with Arthur cruising along a boardwalk lined with digital palm trees in faux Camaro, the game narrator telling him it was his choice where to go, what to do, how to drive. Welcome, it said, to Nitros Sunset. The music kicked in and Arthur was rocked with another wave of nostalgia, because this song had been on in the background when Becky Tommen had taken the controller out of his hands and kissed him.
Static. A low rush of air. Then:
“Goddamn 0wlman how ya been?”
Pete, loud, clear, jubilant and sounding alive. A purple, knock-off Corvette appeared next to Arthur’s car on the screen, and they began cruising together.
Arthur opened his mouth to ask a million questions. But hearing Pete derailed him, and suddenly he didn’t just feel like a teenager again, he was a teenager, and his words started flowing out like Pete had been gone a week instead of a decade, like he’d been grounded instead of turning that gun on himself.
“Wendi you stupid fuck, you left me with Copper for all this time, you know how annoying that fucking guy is? ‘Oh I read this book Owl, oh you should read more Owl, well actually Owl the book is better’ like shut the fuck up, watch TV like a real person.”
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I got caught up in some stuff. Get any farther with Becky?”
Jesus Christ, Arthur thought wildly, he doesn’t know. He thinks we’re still in highschool. “Awe, yeah buddy, Becks and I are no more. She couldn’t handle me, you know? Massive penis is a big responsibility for a girl, you understand.”
I’m losing my mind, Arthur thought. But he was entranced, it was like acting on impulse and watching yourself do something terrible but being unable to make yourself stop.
Wendi laughed, earnestly, and Arthur burst into silent tears. It was good to hear his buddy laugh again. It was good to know the last memory of Wendi wasn’t going to be a confused, messy call with his mother, hearing her struggle to tell a teenager that his friend, her son, had destroyed himself.
“Sorry it didn’t work out,” Wendi said. On screen, his car cut in front of Arthur’s, slipping between slow moving pedestrian cars. “You’re better at girls than me though, man. I’m still chasing a girl who has turned me down twice.”
Arthur racked his brains trying to remember who Pete’s crush had been, he talked about her through all of highschool and for one, brief brilliant moment, Wendi had burst on one day saying he’d done it, he’d asked her out, they were going out Friday, to a movie, holy shit dude she said yes.
“Its rough out here,” Arthur replied, “so where ya been? Where are you… at?”
There was a pause like he was trying to figure it out. “I don’t know, I kinda lost a few days. I remember getting in my car and driving, then shit, kinda lost it for a bit”
Wendi apparently didn’t even remember a few moments ago, struggling for breath in whatever death-ether. Arthur searched for the words to try and explain the reality to his friend. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t explain that he was twenty-nine now. That he had a kid, a wife. That the world had been relentless and just moved on when Pete had died. And, selfishly, Arthur didn’t want to end the fun. So, he let the teenager, 0wlman, take over and say some heinous shit, just to make his friend laugh.
“Damn bro, you lost a few days sucking dick? I’ve lost a few hours, maybe, never days holy fuck.”
Wendi laughed again and smashed his car into 0wlman’s, a small explosion happening on screen.
Leon stood in Arthur’s living room, wondering if his friend had lost it completely. He could tell the man hadn’t slept, there were dark rings under his eyes and his hair had a matted, crazed look. It was 10am, Liv and Ollie had gone to the store. Leon had come over after three frantic, chaotic phone calls. He was mostly here to make sure his friend wasn’t having an emotional breakdown.
“Watch,” Arthur said. He turned the console on, the whoosh and the plonk! sounded, and Leon felt a thrill of nostalgia. He remembered playing games with his dad. They’d play all the sports games, his dad baffled by the controls and laughing at the terrible play on the field, losing every time and swearing “I’ll beat you next time, I swear it.”
Leon’s dad had been dead for a few years now. He understood Arthur’s desire for someone you missed to be back somehow, but that wasn’t how things worked.
Arthur stuffed the controller into Leon’s hand. “Look,” he said.
Leon glanced at the screen, drawing a breath to give some sort of speech to Arthur about letting go, moving on, how memories were a treasure but not to let them destroy you. He was set to say all of it, like prepackaged comfort delivered like a frozen dinner.
WendigoPete is online.
WendigoPete invited you to a party.
Arthur tearfully handed him the headset, speaking quickly: “Start the game, invite him quick, it’s easier for him to talk in the game.”
Leon fought the panic, the horrid feeling of eeriness building in his chest. He took the headset and started the game. There was a long silence as Nitros Sunset booted up. Leon started driving, and soon a purple car appeared next to him.
“Oh hey what’s up Copper. You using Owl’s account?”
“Yeah, I uh, I’m at his house.”
“Somehow I always thought Owl lived under a bridge. Like a goblin.”
Leon turned to Arthur and mouthed: “What?”
Arthur shrugged. “I don’t know. But it’s him.”
The three of them played for hours, Leon and Arthur passing the controller back and forth. They played all night, until Arthur could see the familiar purple sky that always appeared just before the sun started to rise. He rubbed his eyes and said to Leon, who was still playing zombies, “Christ, when was the last time we stayed up all night?”
Leon’s eyes flicked to the window, to the growing light outside. “It has been a while.” He laughed. “We’re in for one rough day.”
“Fuck, I gotta take Ollie to school.”
“Shit, I gotta take my kid in too.”
They exchanged looks and broke into laughter. Arthur could hear Wendi chattering through the headset, oblivious to the conversation, calling out where the zombies were, where they should move to.
“Wendi, bro, I have to leave,” Leon said.
Arthur didn’t hear the full response, but it was something along the lines of “You’re a pussy.”
“Yep, that’s me. I’ll catch you later, man.” Leon strode over to the console and shut it off. Arthur winced, and Leon caught his reaction.
“I don’t know what happens to him when the console is off. I don’t think he knows what’s happening.”
Leon gave a helpless shrug. “I don’t know. We can’t have a console on all day, it’ll fry and then what happens? And we do have lives, we can’t play all day and night.”
Arthur frowned. He grabbed one of the mostly empty energy drink cans that were scattered on the coffee table and drained it. “You’re right, I just feel bad.” He tossed Leon his keys. “Go on, get the kiddo off to school. I’m gonna go drink seventeen cups of coffee.” He walked Leon to the door. Leon stopped on the bottom step of the porch and looked back.
“One thing,” Leon said, “it’s not really him, have you noticed that?”
“I don’t know, it’s like, he doesn’t take in any new information. He’s only echoing the stuff he said in high school. He’s like, stuck.
Arthur yawned and squinted at the slowly rising sun. “I’m just glad to have him back. Even if it’s for a little while.”
“Yeah, yeah… I’m not sure. Something just feels off.” Leon walked away, and Arthur felt a brief, flickering bitterness toward him. Why did he have to say that? Why did he have to throw some barb in there to sour everything?
Leon’s words stuck with him all through the day. He took a nap before work and they were still with him when he got up, bleary eyed and haggard.
They were still with him when he hopped on the game that night, eager to talk to Pete.
“0wlman what’s up!”
“Hey Wendi. Not much, you?”
“Just chillin’. Trying to beat my time on Aurora Road. Gotta get all golds.”
“That’s right, man. Listen… I gotta tell you something.”
“It’s okay 0wl, I know you’re madly in love with me.”
Arthur laughed. “I do love you bro, but it’s not that. It’s about where you are.”
There was a long solemn pause. “What do you mean?”
“Ah shit.” Arthur rolled his head around, looking around the room as if it would offer help. There was nothing. “Look, what happens when we’re not in the game?”
“I go about my life, you go about yours. Me being cool and funny and you being a virgin.”
“Shut the fuck up Wendi, I’m serious. Before you load into the game, you’re gasping for air, barely able to speak, talking about a black void.”
“I am? I don’t… it’s all hazy.”
“I know, buddy. I know. Here’s the thing. I’m just gonna tell you because, well, I suck at sitting on the truth. Wendi, I’m twenty-nine now. I have a wife. A son.”
“Weird how you managed all that despite being a virgin.”
Arthur had a brief, horrifying image of how irritating he must’ve been as a teenager. “You’re not hearing me, man. You.. you died, dude. Like a decade ago. I don’t know how, but now you’re like a tape stuck on repeat, looping over and over while you play this game.”
There was another long, tense pause. Arthur felt a brief, flickering hope that he’d gotten through, that there would be some recognition, that together they’d be able to find a way for Pete to move on.
Their cars cruised next to each other, crossing a busy intersection, ducking under a bridge and slipping through a construction site. “So if I’m dead…” Pete said, drawing out his words, “how can I do this?”
He promptly slammed his car against Arthur’s, sending him careening into a bulldozer. His car exploded, wheels and glass launched into the air like confetti. Wendi’s gleeful laughter rang in Arthur’s ears, and soon, Arthur was laughing too.
Work dragged on. Normally he didn’t mind his job. The tiny little hardware store did well, and there was a steady stream of regulars who always stopped to talk baseball or ask how Ollie was doing. There was the occasional, brutal spat of boredom that would strike him and his mind would wander restlessly, wondering what would happen if he simply set the entire thing on fire and walked away. His boredom had always been tinged with malice, even when he was a kid. It was like his mind had teeth and if it wasn’t feeding actively on something, it was itching to bite.
He’d been playing games at night with Wendi for almost a week now. He told Liv it was an old friend, and at first she’d seemed glad he was so delighted.
But things were starting to fray.
When he was enjoying something, he had a tendency to prioritize it until it no longer gave him joy. He was a locust, feeding on happiness until the thing was drained and boring, and then he would fly away, looking to satiate his hunger. The litany of half-started projects and half-formed ideas that populated his hard drive, his notebooks, his desk all echoed these passing infatuations.
Right now it was videogames with his dead friend.
He and Ollie were on their third straight night of pizza and soda for dinner. The boy needed a bath, Arthur needed to shave. The house, the responsibilities he and Liv normally split pretty equally, were falling to the side so he could chase that feeling.
That -leave work early feeling.
That -dishes don’t matter feeling.
That -I’ll do it tomorrow feeling.
That -I’ll pause real life feeling.
He could feel it all building to, at the very least, a mild argument with Liv. Her gentle reproach. He could hear her soothing, slightly raised voice. “You’ve been playing that game a lot…”
And she’d be right.
And he’d feel that flash of irritation and hate himself for it. The easiest thing to do would be just play for an hour. Or clean the house first, take care of Ollie, get everything and then play for a bit with Wendi. Balance his life.
He could stay up all night, guzzling energy drinks and cackling loudly with his best friend as they shot, raced, stabbed and played through a gauntlet of games that had made them so happy as kids. This pure, almost sickening joy at playing video games that Arthur had assumed gone had returned, returned hard.
He clocked out and told Iris, the cashier, to close. He said he didn’t feel well. She bagged up someone’s roofing nails and nodded. “No problem. I hope you feel better.”
He felt bad for lying. Until he was out the door, giddily climbing into his car, smiling to himself. It felt like cutting class, ditching chores, calling in sick. It was a sweet freedom to eschew responsibility so brazenly.
He stopped and got Ollie from the after-school program. His son glanced at him quizzically in the rear-view mirror from his spot in the back seat. “I thought mom was picking me up ‘cuz you had work?”
“No more work today, buddy,” he replied.
“Oh okay. You gonna to play more games with your friend?”
“Yeah. Daddy hasn’t talked to this friend in a long, long time. So it is really cool to hear from him again.”
“I had a friend like that at school. But he moved away”
“I’m sorry, bud. Did it make you sad?”
“Kind of. But I made other friends so it was okay.”
Arthur urged the car away from the school, turning down a side-road to avoid the traffic on the main routes. The problem, he thought, was that somewhere along the way, he’d never bothered to make more friends.
It was late. Another long night. Liv had said shortly: “I’m going to bed,” three hours ago but he’d barely heard her. Wendi and 0wlman were going for the record on zombies. What record? Their personal record.
There was a legion of empty soda cans and crumpled potato chip bags amassed on the coffee table. His feet were propped up there too. Blue light from the screen flashed and flickered over the dark living room.
The record attempts had several failed starts. Each round the zombies got harder to kill, so the players had to continuously upgrade their weapons. Eventually, weapons became so useless that the players had to loop around the entirety of the level, activating traps in an increasingly desperate bid to stay alive for one more round.
As kids, their record had been 36. It had happened on an innocuous Tuesday night, something Wendi found hilarious. He’d been the one to say: “I’ll play a quick match, I gotta get some sleep tonight.”
The joke had never died. During every long run, when the rounds started hitting 20, 22, the joke reappeared as the fight to stay alive got more and more grueling.
“Just a quick match,” Wendi would say, getting mobbed by zombies.
“Quick match, c’mon man, I got stuff to do tomorrow,” 0wlman would reply, dodging around the horde to revive his friend.
“Yeah yeah, quick match, quick match!”
And, whenever they set out to go for a record, as they had tonight, there was a ceremonious “Quick match, right 0wl?”
“Absolutely, just a quick match.”
That had been four hours ago. It was 2:30 am and they were on their sixth try, about to hit round 19. They kept a single, legless zombie alive to keep the next round from starting, which gave them time to run around collecting ammo.
Ollie tottered in, rubbing his eyes. He climbed up silently next to Arthur on the couch and watched quietly for a few moments. Arthur could sense a barrage of questions coming.
“Wendi we gotta teleport next round or I’m for sure dying. This stupid shotgun isn’t doing enough damage.”
“Bluh-bluh I’m 0wl I suck at videogames.”
The round began, and the zombies began screaming and running towards them. Gunfire erupted on the television screen.
“Why are the zombies after you?”
“Because of JFK, little guy.”
“What’s JFK?” Ollie asked with heartbreaking sincerity.
“Nevermind. Dumb joke. Uh, the zombies are after us to eat us. We kill them to get to the next round.”
“How do you win?”
“You don’t, you see how far you can get.”
“We win through the glory of defeat!” Wendi screamed, throwing grenades off a balcony with manic glee.
The game rolled on. Ollie fell silent but Arthur knew how his son operated. If he feigned interest in whatever movie or game dad was playing late at night, dad would forget to send him back off to bed. It was a mutual understanding between them, and had led to some of his favorite moments with his son, letting him watch Predator or play Resident Evil. Forbidden games and movies, ancient joys passed down through the generations. And because it was late at night, it was almost as if it didn’t count. Liv didn’t approve of the resulting Predator crayon drawings or Resident Evil related nightmares, and maybe she was right. Maybe some of it was too extreme for Ollie, but it had felt like movies stopped having the ability to terrify and overjoy so early to Arthur, and nowadays he’d trade a thousand nightmares for a movie to be as cool as Predator the first time he saw it, four years old, half-asleep on his grandparents couch, his grandpa snoring on the floor and his grandma knitting in her rocker, watching it with him.
“Why do you have real guns but then laser guns?”
“Well, this was like a war game, then they added this zombies mode. They started with just one laser gun as a kind of a secret, then each time they added a new level, they gave us a new laser gun. and the laser gun is the best, so we try and get it each time we play.”
He glanced over at Ollie to see if he had more questions, but he’d had fallen asleep sitting up, his chin resting on the chest of his Spiderman pajamas.
“Hey Wendi, leave a crawler.” Arthur set the controller down and scooped up his son. He carried him to his room, stepping over a small squadron of Hot Wheels, and laid him into his bed. As a kid, Arthur had always wondered why adults were always saying “jeeze you’re getting big” or “wow when did you get so heavy,” but now, every time he picked Ollie up, he was reminded of it.
He returned to the living room, to a game over screen and Wendi’s laughter.
“My bad, my bad! I accidentally killed it and the round started.”
Arthur groaned. “We are never beating that record.”
“It’s gonna be one of those times we don’t plan on it. Just a quick match.”
“Goddamn zombies man, all because of John F. Kennedy.”
Wendi laughed again. “Who was that talking?”
Arthur frowned. Wendi had mostly ignored any mention of the outside world. There’d always been a way to distract or joke around it. Arthur had given up trying after a while. But this was the first time Wendi had asked directly. “That was my son, Ollie.”
Arthur could almost hear his friend’s mind working to comprehend, working to understand.
“0wl,” Pete said, “the other day, you said something happened to me.”
“You said a lot of time has passed.”
“Fuck.” His voice was thick with emotion. “Is that why everything is so hazy? Why it’s so dark all the time?”
“I think so, man.”
Wendi fell quiet, and for a moment Arthur thought he’d fallen asleep. Did ghosts fall asleep? Or was it some eternal half-wakefulness, slumbering somewhere between consciousness and dream?
“Can you invite me to Nitros Sunset? I’d like to cruise for a while, think about things.”
“Sure.” Arthur set the game up and Wendi loaded in, their cars greeting each other like old friends. “I’m going to bed though. I’m gonna leave it on for you though, okay?”
Arthur took the headset off and set the controller down. Something had shifted, and drastically. Wendi felt less like a peer and more like, well, a teenager. A kid. To be taken care of and looked out for. The way his voice had sounded, small and scared, bothered him.