INSIDE THE SQUARE
by ERIC HUXLEY
There was no response.
“Mom, I’ll find her and let her know!” I called across the house. Our house wasn’t that big. I don’t know what all the screaming was about really.
“Shit son, it’s for you!” my mom, the leader of our little three person pack, squealed back.
“What?” I mumbled to myself. Who was calling me? It was a crank call. It happened all of the time. No one really liked me. I talked with a slight lisp. Though it was barely noticeable, it turned out that it was a major, people repelling personality flaw. They called me “lispy” most often. I’d come to accept that as it was the kindest of the insults. I’d gotten much worse, along with some bloody noses.
I got to the phone, the big yellow plastic talking and listening part set on its side next to the bigger, bell shaped dialing and hanging up part. I considered reconnecting the two and going back to my room when I heard a faint sound.
“Zach? Zach? Hello? I think your mom put me on hold but she didn’t really say anything, are you there?” This went from a scratchy whisper to a crystal clear voice about half way through as I pressed the cold thing against my ear.
“Hello? This is Zach,” except it sounded more like I was saying ‘Thack’.
“Hey buddy, it’s Jesse.” I knew a couple of Jesses but I immediately knew which Jesse was on the other end of this conversation. His excited breathing gave him away. Jesse was fifteen, like me, but looked more like a twenty five year old gym junkie from the neck down. I’d seen him climb the rope that hung from the acorn tree in Miss Bernal’s front yard with one arm behind his back. The rope was tied to a branch that was really high. Too high. When he let go and landed effortlessly on his feet, I could definitely see his heart beating in his chest. Visibly active internal organs, along with everything else about Jesse, kind of gave me the creeps. Jesse wasn’t my buddy. My mom said Jesse probably did cocaine with his dad.
“Hey man,” I shot back coolly, just happy to be the one in the house that was talking on the phone for a change.
“Hey you want to hang out at the arcade today? I went yesterday and I played this new game. I want you to play it. I think you’d like it, it’s really cool.” Jesse spoke in quick bursts and seemed even more erratic than usual. And who went to the arcade? The guy that ran the arcade was a total weirdo. Jenny Renford’s big brother had an Atari and she’d let anybody play it so long as you’d show her your penis or make out with her. She hadn’t asked me to do either. She let me play all day until I’d beaten all of her games. They were all a little silly to me. Still, the idea of going somewhere with someone else, even it was just Jesse… I hadn’t really ‘hung out’ with a ‘friend’ in a long time. I told Jesse to hold on.
“Mom!” I screamed.
“Mom, can you take me and Jesse to the arcade?”
She appeared in the archway that separated our tiny dining room, from our tiny kitchen. “What?” she asked, actually speaking in a normal tone. She seemed amused.
“Jesse is on the phone and he wants to know if I want to go to the arcade. I don’t want to be trapped in the car
with his dad so I was seeing if you’d take us, since, you know, you haven’t
taken me to get my learner’s permit yet…” This was a sore spot. I’d been badgering her for months. “Just pretend I’m
“Well, I thought Jesse was big and strong. Didn’t you tell me that? Can’t he protect you from his daddy?” She grinned broadly. The possibility occurred to me that Jesse could hear our exchange and I pressed the phone tightly to my shoulder.
“Remember, I told you to pretend that I’m
“Fine then. You tell Jesse to be ready at one sharp and be waiting for us at the end of his driveway. I’m not in the mood for formalities and if he can hear me he can tell his father that I said that.”
“Yes, mam,” I said a little too happily, and relayed the news to Jesse in a more diplomatic tone. If he had heard us, he didn’t let on.
“So we’re going? That’s great. I’m telling you, you are going to think this game is the best thing you’ve ever seen. How long can we stay?”
“As long as my mom says we can, Jesse.” I said, realizing instantly how very uncool I sounded. Jesse didn’t seem to notice. It was 12:30, and speaking of cool, I needed to go figure out what I would wear to look as cool as humanly possible at the arcade.
Jesse’s hair was an unkempt mess of blond curls that had an odd sheen to it. Strangers stared at it, wondering
what the boy had added to his locks to make it look like that, and people he
knew just shook their heads and wondered exactly how long it had been since the
boy had taken a proper bath. His
selection of cool apparel consisted of a white tank top and ripped jeans that
looked like he’d pulled them from the bottom of the laundry bin, and yet he
still looked cooler than me. I had
‘borrowed’ a black Kim Wilde t-shirt from my sister and paired it with some grey
shorts, not realizing the shirt had
“You should tuck the shirt in tight,” My mom said. I realized she’d been watching me from our Celica’s rearview. She’d saved me yet again. “If it still shows, don’t worry, we got one of your sweatshirts in the trunk. A little hot for it, but it’s better than nothing.”
I shook my head and tried to tuck in the shirt without unbuckling my seatbelt. Mom was a stickler for car safety. If she heard the buckle button even begin to be pressed she’d pull over and spend the next hour lecturing me about the importance of vehicle safety.
Jesse reached over, barely taking his eyes off the window, and slid his hand down the back of my pants, tucking in the part of the shirt that I couldn’t reach. I felt my face flush. I was embarrassed, but I was also feeling something else.
“Thanks,” I said, but it sounded more like a question. He smirked. I’d never seen him smirk before.
The arcade was no different than when I’d seen it last. I craned my neck to try and see this new game that Jesse had spoken so highly of through the glass panel windows that lined the front, finding myself remembering what he’d said on the phone that day as if it were now more important than it had been then. I couldn’t see any of the games because the place was full of people. Mostly boys, but some girls too. I’d never seen girls at an arcade. It seemed like they were all standing in some sort of winding line.
“Shit,” I heard Jesse mutter under his breath. I noticed that his hand was digging into the seat and that his knuckles were white. It was the same hand that…
“You boys getting out? I’m gonna be at the Fred’s next door and then I might see Tricia over there at Manny’s about getting my nails done.”
“They might not be here for your game,” I whispered to Jesse, reaching forward and pulling the lever to pop the seat in front of me up and yanking at the door handle.
“They are,” he grimaced, but he followed me.
The old weirdo was nowhere to be seen as we walked through the door; the chime of the bells announcing our arrival to a completely unconcerned and silent crowd of high school and some middle school kids. It was a line, as I’d assumed, but a long, snaking line where everyone was waiting their turn quietly while watching whoever it was playing whatever game it was as intently as if they were watching news of some horrific tragedy on television.
“What’s this game called?” I whispered to Jesse. He shushed me but then answered in an excited whisper.
“It’s called ‘Square’.”
A tall boy with messy brown hair who looked like he was wearing pajamas turned to look at us. He was definitely wearing pajamas. I balked. This was Dale, my sister’s latest string along. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be getting that call.
“Jesse,” he said in a monotone voice. I was just beginning to realize how quiet it actually was. There must have been thirty or forty machines in there but it seemed like all that I could hear was one game. I looked around to see if anyone was playing Pac Man or a racing game. There was no one. More than twenty kids in here and only one was actually playing a video game.
The screens of the other games were all an inky, shiny grey. They’d been unplugged. The stools before them sat empty, their frayed leather surfaces as cool as the room. Someone else turned slowly to look at us. A girl. It was Jenny Renford, though no one had their penises out.
“It’s Jesse. He’s next.” She spoke in a weird but authoritative whisper. The crowd, not turning to look at us, parted and broke up the strange order of their queue to make way for myself and Jesse. I looked at him, eyes wide. I didn’t understand at all.
“I’m really good at it, but Jenny’s got the high score. She hasn’t beat it
though. She said she saw you play
“Ok, I’ll give it my best shot, I guess.” I heard Jenny laugh.
“He can beat it. Someone has to. We can’t stop playing it until we beat it.” Jenny tried to sound casual when she said this, but for an instant it felt like she really meant it. As if none of them had a choice in the matter.
I finally looked up to see what ‘it’ was exactly. Jesse had been right; it was like nothing else in the building. Rather than being built of a huge painted wooden encasement with a screen set behind joysticks and buttons, there was just a perfectly square black box with a screen for a face and one white button on the otherwise empty console beneath it. It stood on four skinny black metal legs and there was no stool to sit while playing. Apparently, you had to stand. I couldn’t see the screen through the girl’s wide, curly red hair, but I noticed that the box was made of an ultra smooth material, no gaudy, colorful game logos and artwork adorning it. It was just a shiny, black box. It wasn’t scuffed or riddled with dried gum. It seemed completely brand new. It was kind of beautiful.
The noises were typical. Laser sounds and tinny explosions. Once, I thought I heard laughter coming from the machine but I told myself that someone else in the room must be laughing at the idea that I, Zachary Adams, could beat this game that they all seemed to have failed to conquer. I couldn’t win the game by lisping at it, that was for sure.
I decided that I had to beat it. This could be it for me. This could be what made me a cool kid. This could make me cooler than my sister. I imagined all of the boys my sister hung out with coming over and asking for me. I imagined them hanging out in my room.
“You’re up,” Jesse said, speaking aloud for the first time since we came in. The red headed girl turned to face me with tears in her eyes.
“You have to beat it!” she squealed as she charged through the crowd. They didn’t part so quickly for her.
I stepped up, but there was nothing on the screen.
“The screen is…”
“Push the button!” someone hissed from behind me.
So I reached out and pushed the white button. A little ship floated out into the center of the screen. There was no title screen.
When I finally turned away from the machine, almost two hours later, it was not because I had lost. It was because my mother had grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me away. As I was dragged from the arcade by the now untucked tail of my sister’s shirt, I could recall nothing about the game save the ship.
I only had two thoughts in my mind. That I was murderously angry at my mother for interrupting me, and that I wanted to play the game again, immediately.
I was still sulking when we’d made it back to our neighborhood, and Jesse had joined me. My mother had this strange look on her face that was simultaneously furious and wrought with worry. She didn’t question. She didn’t ask me why the other kids had tried not to let her in. She didn’t ask me why, though she had screamed right in my ear, I had not removed my eyes from the screen or stopped pressing that white button. I wouldn’t have had an answer for her anyway. Though I’d spent hours immersed in playing, I had by then only managed to remember fragments of the game. There had, in fact, been laughter. There had also been a butterfly.
My mother dropped Jesse off in his driveway, his face still red with anger as the car spun a cloud of grey gravel dust, masking his face from my view.
“This is why I never got you that damned Atari, you know. You kids just get so caught up in all of that shit, and it ruins your grades and you start slacking around the house. It’s just me, you know. Your sis may be two years your senior but she’s too high up on her throne to lift a finger. I need your help, kid. I can’t have you getting lost in that video game shit, you comprehend? Now we gotta go back into town because I forgot about dinner dealing with your craziness. See? Them games are nothing but trouble.” I could see her eyes in the rearview, scanning me intently. I was sure I looked exactly as upset as I was. She started in again.
She always went on like this when I wasn’t behaving in the way she desired. I realized that all adults had the same tactic. Let’s see if we can charge ahead with logic and cruelty and maybe this brooding child will catch the thread and forget all about his emotions.
It reminded me of when I was a toddler and she’d taken me to a pool party. One of her sister’s was having a birthday and she couldn’t find a baby sitter.
“But I can’t swim,” I’d complained.
“We’ll put some floaties on your arms and you’ll be fine,” and with that solution I was left alone in the pool with a bunch of kids I didn’t know for the entire day while my mother flirted with her sister’s boss.
“Hey now, hey now,” I remember him saying when she would run her hand through his curly chest hair. “You’re gonna turn me on.”
I hadn’t known what this meant at the time so I assumed my mother was flirting with a robot. I left the pool to get as far away from the robot as possible and played in the sandbox instead. When I came inside hours later, crying, having accidentally thrown sand into my own eyes, she practically threw me over the sink and sloshed water into my face. She didn’t think it was an emergency; she just wanted to get me to stop crying quickly so she could get back to Mr. Robot.
I hadn’t thought about this ordeal since it had happened, and I had never dared think of my mother as doing something cruel, but at that moment I returned her stare with a scowl. Something inside of me was different. It wasn’t a change I noticed completely, but it was there. I was more aware of things. More cognizant. It was like my brain had previously been lit by a corner lamp, and someone had stepped in and turned on a floodlight. I saw my mother for what she was. Not some buddy of mine. Someone just pretending to be nice and pretending to care to make the situation easier for herself. It was as if I could feel her thinking. ‘I hope he calms down by the time we get home. There’s a Sunday movie on I don’t want to miss.” I felt my anger inflating and pushing up through my insides. Through her interference she had become my worst enemy. I didn’t try to justify this. It felt like a perfectly logical reaction.
“You’re a bitch,” I said. I didn’t mutter. I didn’t yell. I said it in a very even tone. There was no way to mistake what I’d called her.
“What?” she asked. She held a horrified expression.
She still had her eyes, now with small tears in them, when the truck hit us. It seemed to me, as the car flipped and flipped, that her eyes never left the mirror. They went from being tearful to being full of blood, to being flattened beneath the weight of her crushed skull with each flip. Even when the car stopped moving, I could see two black and red slits aimed right at my face. “What did you just call me??” they said.
“A bitch”, I replied. “I called you a bitch.”
And then the eyes were whole again. There was a lot of blood, but no crushed skulls. I realized that I had been willing those things. I wondered if I had willed the accident as well.
My mother was not dead. “Don’t feel guilty, don’t feel bad,” she would always say. But I didn’t feel guilty. We weren’t friends anymore. What did I care if she had to walk with a cane now? It felt like she had stolen something from me and now I could never get it back. When I slept, I saw the butterfly. In my waking hours I would ask someone “What are you laughing at?” But they hadn’t been laughing. He had been laughing. No one noticed my morbid demeanor. In a normal school, it would have been attributed to the accident, but many kids around my age were acting as if they’d been through a traumatic event. Most of their parents had forbidden their return to the arcade, so in a way, they had.
I would sit in class and stare aimlessly at the wall, trying to remember more about the game. All that came to me was that butterfly. It wasn’t the kind of beauty they feature on nature programs. It was a flat, dimensionless sliver, with markings on its wings and back that resembled eyes and a face. The mouth was jagged. I imagined that sliver sliding through the folds in my brain and making a home. In no time, he would hatch out of my skull, transformed into a long, snaking green caterpillar with tentacle like appendages and boiling red eyes. I was happy to host.
“That’s not quite right,” I told Jenny. She’d been drawing the butterfly over and over again in her notebook while we were supposed to be reading Shakespeare. A quick glance around the room showed more than a few crude sketches of the same.
“Everyone sees him a little differently,” she said with a huff and returned to her work. I wondered; if I could see him again, would I see him differently than I remembered? My mother had not only forbidden me from returning to the arcade, but banned all video games and even cartoons resembling them. Whatever was easiest for her.
Not everyone was as deprived. Plenty of kids were ‘staying the night at a friends’ or ‘hanging out at the mall’. Parents were easy to fool because everyone had their stories straight. We rarely spoke of it but we all knew. Anyone who’d played the game could immediately recognize another who’d done the same. We all knew that we were changed. Better, but worse.
The increased awareness bestowed upon us came with two consequences. Obsession, and the inability to see it as such. These had their own side effects. Everything else that had been important to us before either ceased to exist due to its lack of affiliation with the game, or became an enemy as a result of its impeding our progress in some way. My sister fell into the former category, my mother the latter. Until we beat the game, we couldn’t be free again. I knew this, but didn’t see myself as a prisoner. Rather, I felt like a soldier tasked with a mission. My fellow soldiers and this mission were my only concern. We could all go home again, but not until the war was over.
Jesse was still there every day; his father didn’t care. I didn’t know this because anyone told me. I could see it in his eyes. The hollow, violet circles that grew and grew as if they would eventually close up like a flower at night and swallow Jesse’s sight. I was barely getting any sleep but he wasn’t sleeping at all.
“I see him in the daytime now,” he said to me. We had met under the bleachers while a pep rally played itself out to immensely bored but pretending students up above us. This was the first time we had spoken since that day and I knew exactly who he saw. Every night since our trip to the arcade, I had heard that same laughter as I drifted to sleep. In my dreams, there was always the butterfly. He was never the same color and when he landed, the marking on his wings became the face that I recalled, with that broken toothed, maniacal grin.
“When am I going to see you again?” he would say and laugh in his high pitched, childish way. It was as if his voice was a drug and I had been born with this addiction. It made me feel like I’d been itching all over, but had been unaware of it.
“I can’t come to see you again,” I’d say, feeling the sudden weightlessness that the relief of his presence brought on. It felt like my body had become light and when the butterfly flew away I would follow him through the air. “Wait, don’t leave. Come back.”
“No. You come back.” And I would wake up. He had never come to me aside from those dreams. I would only sometimes hear his laughter echoing from somewhere far off. I imagined it had sounded out through the doors of the arcade and strategically bounced off this wall and that tree and been carried on a precise gust of wind that was aimed right for me.
“So does he ever speak in the game?” I had my hands wrapped tightly around the brown metal bars that held up the bleachers. I leaned back, imagining that I could pull the bar free and let the bleachers collapse, killing everyone.
Jesse scoffed. “I don’t know. No one remembers much. You know that. Even when I just watch Jenny play, I can only remember the first little bit. After that, nothing”
“I bet he talks.”
“I bet he talks too.”
I looked at Jesse’s face and realized I was examining his lips. I wanted to kiss him. I felt a pressure in my chest, holding me to where I stood. In the dim light, his eyes looked like nothing but shadows. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave.
“Talked to Jenny?” he asked me, smiling. I believed he thought we might be into each other.
“We talk every day. Funny I wanted the other kids to talk to me so much before, now they all do and I don’t really care.”
“No one really cares about anything now. Except getting back to the arcade.” He seemed to grimace when he said this. He had become so serious compared to the Jesse I knew before. “But you, you’re a legend. I’ll bet no one is picking on you now. You’ve got the highest score so far.” I wondered how anyone knew that. If you couldn’t remember what the game looked like, how could you remember what your or anyone else’s scores were? If you tried to remember the thing that had you so invested, it was as if you’d been looking at it in your peripheral the entire time. The things about the game that you remembered didn’t actually seem to have happened while you were playing it. It was as if you played with a different part of your mind, and after you left the arcade that part was still there, playing the game from inside it.
The pep rally was over. We made our way to the end of the bleachers, kicking popcorn boxes, cans and slap bracelets out of our way. This was where we parted ways. I would head to Chemistry through the softball field and Jesse would make his way to English through the courtyard. Before we went back to class, he looked into my eyes under the full lights of the gymnasium. He seemed exhausted and had obviously lost weight from his already lithe frame.
“You know,” he said, “you can’t really say you aren’t brave until you try being brave.”
“I never said…” my face was flushing and my body was rigid.
“I know,” he replied. His face was like stone, but in that moment I saw something in it that I hadn’t seen in a while. Jesse. The crazy boy that lived down the street from me. The wild guy with super strength and bad hygiene. He didn’t seem angry, but it still felt as if he could explode, bits of him blending with the shreds of confetti that already littered the gymnasium floor. And then he blew me a kiss.
I walked home from school. I decided to cut through a neighborhood I’d never had the chance to explore. It was a windy day, and I noticed the first dead leaves of autumn scraping down the street. The sound that they made, scraping muffled by the cool wind rushing by pressing into my ears, was comforting. I was reminded that things were moving. Moving along, while I remained exactly where I had been the day of the accident. I knew that I was being followed and I knew that this knowledge came from nothing. I had heard no noise. Seen no reflection. I just knew what I knew. Since that day, I seemed to always know. I would look at tests the teachers would give me and see the bubbles next to the correct multiple choice answers already filled in on the page. I only needed to trace over the shading that my mind had provided. My mother attributed the improvement in my grades to her intervention. Teachers were overjoyed at this new batch of students. They were obviously staying up all night to study and they came to school completely exhausted and distracted, but the grades were through the roof. Once again, the adults didn’t care about the consequences, only the desired results.
“Jenny,” I said, knowing that my voice would carry on the wind back to where she stood, behind a tree, peeking around and waiting for the distance between us to grow.
She immediately ran from her hiding place and joined me at my side. Her brown hair wasn’t washed and seemed unbrushed, but maybe that had been the wind’s doing. She was smiling. The smile was broad, almost crazy, as if I’d just told her that she’d won tickets to some pop icon concert or a new car. She reminded me of Jesse.
“We should date,” she said, and her smile instantly morphed into a set of pursed lips. Was this to indicate that she was awaiting my response, or that she wanted a kiss? I knew nothing about girls.
I stopped in my tracks, one of the spinning, crackly leaves catching on the lace of my shoe. No one had ever asked me to date them. No one had even hinted at it. Something inside of me told me that this was a moment. That, despite that fact that Jenny was far from my first choice, I should feel flattered. I should probably even accept. Instead I found myself looking down at her hand, where she’s drawn a butterfly with an ink pen. It still wasn’t quite right. But then I smiled.
“Your parents will cover for us, right?” We would go to the arcade and her parents would lie. They’d agreed. They were just happy for Jenny to have a boyfriend. They thought she was gay. They didn’t have any problems with video games. They didn’t know anything about ‘Square’. I gleaned all of these things instantly, simply by looking into Jenny’s eyes. Jenny did her own gleaning. Right away she knew that this would be a strictly platonic arrangement.
“Plus, you’ll get to see Jesse,” and she laughed at this. It was the kind of laugh you give when you find your keys in the most obvious place. “But tomorrow night. Tonight I have to be home. My brother was in a fight today. After the pep rally, in the courtyard. Somebody whooped him good, for no reason to hear him tell it. No idea who.” I imagined Brandon Renford lying on the concrete, surrounded by bits of human confetti.
But just as I knew, she knew. And she didn’t care. She had one objective and anyone involved in that came first. It was a feeling that I was familiar with.
The night was another restless one, but for once, strange dreams weren’t the only cause. My mother was using her cane a little less but the pain in her knee came on strong at night. I could hear it thumping around while she moved about the house, most likely looking for something. She could never find anything and was always asking me if I knew the location of some random item. Had I seen her sewing kit? I, who never left his room but to eat, use the restroom and go to school? I, who had no idea how to sew? Sure, I saw it on the roof. Go crawl up there with you cane, and when you come rolling down maybe you can sew your wounds shut.
I felt a pang flash inside of me at this thought. A part of my mind remembered how much I had liked my mother once. I used to think of her as one really cool woman. She’d always warned me that one day that would change, but I’d already gotten through the early puberty years. This was something different.
“She’s keeping you from your calling. That’s why you hate her,” Someone said; a voice, coming from nowhere. I looked around the room as more of a formality than anything. I knew there would be no one there and that the butterfly was speaking to me for the first time.
“What’s your name?” It was the only thing that I could think to ask and I immediately felt stupid for asking it. I lay there on top of my bedspread, my heart pounding and beads of sweat forming on my chest and arms. This felt nothing like his nocturnal visits.
“I don’t have a name,” he said, the voice deep but buoyant. It was a different voice than in the dreams.
“My name is Zach.” I felt like a complete fool in telling him what he already knew.
“I know,” he said, “both of those things.” I had the presence of mind to realize that I hadn’t said both things aloud. I realized that this meant I must not be entirely crazy. There wasn’t much that knowledge could do to change the situation at hand.
“Someone’s screaming,” I heard myself say before I actually heard the screaming. The wails were high pitched. A woman. She was banging her cane against the floor.
I jumped out of bed and my hand reached for the doorknob when the butterfly said, “Stay here and talk to me, Zach.” The volume of his voice had risen to an immense, ear splitting pitch. He sounded like a robot, or an alien.
Resisting the urge to press my palms to my ears, I pulled the door open and ran into the kitchen. My mother was on the linoleum floor, scrambling backwards towards the cabinets, desperately trying the get away from the figure that stood over her with a large knife in hand. She’d thrown up the cane in her fall and it had landed in the sink, out of her reach.
There was barely room for the two of them in that confined space, and I was afraid if I tackled the attacker, he would fall onto my mother. I stood completely still, staring at his back, the odd sheen of his blonde, curly hair.
“Jesse!” I called out to him when I realized, but it was too late. I could feel his mind being guided like a mechanical hand reaching down for a stuffed animal. With one swift movement he leaned over and plunged the knife through my mother’s ribcage and into her heart. She grabbed at the handle and tried to inhale, but it sounded more like a labored hiccough. She stopped screaming. I couldn’t see any blood, but I knew it was there, somewhere.
“See?” he said, turning to me, his face flushed with insanity. “It’s easy to be brave. You just have to try.”
I attempted to run to my mother, to pull the knife from her chest and use pressure to stop the bleeding like I’d seen in so many television shows, but Jesse grabbed me around my waist and shoved me into a wall. I felt the wood give a little and the pain in my back. Jesse was still very strong.
“Leave her. She isn’t real. This is all a game. Don’t you see?” He smiled. “Reality is trying to reach out to us, Zach. But someone has to break though so we can all get in. He’s helping us, but you’re the key. You can beat it. Bring us into the real world.”
“Jesse” I panted. He’d knocked the breath out of me. I had to grab my knees to keep from sliding down the wall and onto the floor, leaving me at eye level with my mother’s face. I couldn’t look at her eyes now. I had wished for this to happen.
“And you got your wish.” Jesse said. Or had that been Jesse?
“You’re not making any sense. You didn’t have to kill her! Jenny and me, we were going to… You’ve got to let me help her..” This sounded like a half hearted plea. And it was. I was less sickened by my mother’s death than I was by my lack of emotion about it. I could play the game now. I could visit the butterfly again. I felt the quivering inside of me like a stud who has found a female in heat.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I repeated it over and over, closing my eyes to everything around me. I was talking to myself. I was talking to Jesse. I was talking to the damned invisible butterfly. The last scrap of my psyche that was aware of our situation’s delusional foundation was making one last attempt to break through. The scrap that was mourning my mother. The scrap that was crying out, saying that I wounded her, and now I could never make it right. These thoughts could have never occurred to my teenaged mind before I had played that godforsaken game, and now the better part of me was trying to use the insight against its cause and force me to see reason. It failed.
When I opened my eyes there were butterflies everywhere. Real ones, that flittered on the air and stuck to my skin, and vague imprints embedded in the makeup of everything from Jesse’s hair to my mother’s cooling corpse.
Looking down at her still face, I felt a final surge of resistance from deep within me trying to fight its way to the top.
“Mom!” I screamed.
I didn’t call to her again.
“You never told me you could drive,” I said, long after we’d gotten into his father’s truck and he’d started it up and pulled onto the street.
“My dad made me learn last week, actually.” We were both fifteen years old but that hadn’t felt like the case in a long time.
I saw the butterflies in the trees and inside the light that shone on the road before us. Jessie drove with ease. The ride was only three miles but it seemed like an eternity. He’d reminded me of when I was a younger and my father was still around. He’d only ever wanted to go fishing. ‘Son, let’s go to the blue gill pond today.” Most kids would relish the chance, but I would imagine the rough texture of the worms as they flexed the folds of their flesh and tried to grab hold of my finger. They didn’t know what I was about to do. They didn’t know that I was about to press something into them and rip a hole through their body. They didn’t know I was going to drop their tortured forms into the water in the hopes that a silvery slick monster was hungry enough to eat them. But my father would hand the worm and the hook to me just the same. He seemed proud.
“Stop the truck,” I said, suddenly not able to breathe. I could sense that he wanted to, but felt that he couldn’t. I forced myself to look at him, to stare at his face. There was no murder there. No maliciousness. As it always had been, his madness was externally inflicted. He had pressed that hook into my mother because he’d had no choice. I finally took in a breath.
“Did you do the same thing to your dad as you did to my…?”
“I did,” Jesse replied with a short nod. And then I knew that Jesse had wanted his father’s death long before ever visiting the arcade, but that he’d never dreamed it would be by his own hands.
“You have to win,” he said gravely.
The door to the arcade was locked but the panel window next to it had been completely broken out. I stepped over glinting shards and dodged spots of blood before realizing that they had dried and there was no risk of slipping. I wasn’t going to ask Jesse what had happened but I figured that the creepy owner of the arcade had met his end at Jesse’s hands.
“Not my hands,” he said, and at once we both saw Jenny standing there, the grey light from the screen flashing through her hair, the laughter bouncing from her face and moving around the arcade, searching for a way out until it realized that I was already here. I noticed a red can of gasoline at her feet.
“Zach is here,” Jesse called out, knowing she wouldn’t hear him. I wanted to walk up and peer over her shoulder, to look at the game in a way that I could somehow remember. I moved towards her back. I expected the butterfly to tell me to stop, or Jesse to put his hand on my shoulder. But there were no butterflies here and Jesse just nodded to me in solemn approval.
I was standing right behind her now. I could smell the fragrance of her shampoo. I moved my head slightly to the left, feeling the light from the screen bask my eyes. I saw a typical video game. A little white starship floated in the middle of the screen and shot out pellet like lasers at incoming orbs when Jenny pressed the white button. The point of the game was to wait until your ship, which spun in a slow circle, was in line with an incoming orb before shooting at it. Don’t run out of ammunition. Don’t crash into an orb. Simple really. It looked boring. As I stared at the screen, the ship slowly changed. It turned from white to blue and its wings spread outward. It grew larger like a spreading stain. A butterfly shaped stain.
“Welcome back,” Jenny said. But had it been Jenny? She moved aside and I took her place at the screen. I reached for the button, but stopped myself. I wasn’t sure. I was trying to hold on long enough. To not lose myself in the game. The butterfly stayed there on the screen, moving slightly in little jerks. It seemed to be waiting for me to give in so that we could begin. But what would happen if I did? What went on between the time that we stepped up to this screen and later stepped away? It seemed the game, if that’s what it was, could improve my mind, or tear it apart. Thus far it had done both equally. I thought about the smooth black case that held its innards. What was it? Where had it come from? Why was it changing us? As aware as we all felt we’d become, how had these questions slipped our minds? I realized that the simplest solution had been equally obscured. I would just turn from the game, reach down beneath it, and unplug it from the wall.
Jesse’s arm was around my neck before I could complete the first movement. The grip was tight. I knew this as a wrestling move. To my mother’s wonderment, despite my lack of interest in sports, I had always been a fan of wrestling. I was now in a choke hold. In a moment, I would pass out. Through the pulsing in my ears I heard him whisper “I’m sorry,” and through eyes filled with hot tears I saw Jenny pick up the gasoline can. “Unplugging it doesn’t kill it,” she said, and I passed out.
I woke up in the parking lot of the shopping center across the street, Manny’s nail salon to my back, with its green and white neon sign flashing and casting eerie alien light onto the concrete around me. The arcade was in flames. Jesse was sitting next to me, his hand mere centimeters from mine. My palm was warm as if he had been holding it moments before. I realized that I could no longer construct what had happened in the last few minutes from simply looking at Jessie.
“Is it over?” I asked him.
“For now. Jenny can’t beat it and you don’t want to. So we had to do something.” He looked dejected. He didn’t look free at all. I still felt the pull of the game, but it was muffled.
The fire broiled fiercely inside the arcade. I craned my neck to try and see the Square through the glass paned windows that lined the front but couldn’t see anything as the place was full of smoke. I realized that my neck hurt. I missed being able to feel that Jesse had meant no harm by it. I imagined the butterfly in there, its wings turning into a fine powder sheet and coiling under the oppressing tongues of flame. I found that I could now clearly hope for this. Though I still felt the yearning, things were clearer to me.
“We need to get to my truck before the fire trucks get here,” Jesse said. His eyes looked tortured, as if he was committing some great grievance, or being punished for it.
The door was hot from the flames mere feet away, but I was able to touch the handle long enough to open it and climb inside. It felt like I was sitting inside a space heater. I noticed something dark in the bed of the truck but the smoke was too thick to make it out. Maybe Jenny was huddled back there, hitching a ride. I decided not to mention it to Jesse.
“Don’t roll the window down until we’re on the road. We don’t want it smelling like smoke in here.”
When Jesse left me at the end of my driveway, I had forgotten everything that had happened before the arcade. There were no butterflies. Maybe Jenny had succeeded.
“Where is he?” I asked Jesse. I felt myself hoping he’d had a definitive answer, like, “Right behind you, stupid.”
“Maybe he’s gone,” he said with that smirk on his face. “Then again, maybe he’ll be back one day.”
“I’m not worried about him anymore,” I said, not believing myself. I leaned in through the window and kissed Jesse. He didn’t seem surprised at all. “I know you didn’t mean to do what you did.” I told him.
“That’s good,” He said, “because I don’t.”
He backed his truck out of the driveway and it was my turn to be the disappointed face in a cloud of gravel dust. I didn’t see him again.
My sister had been wearing her headphones while someone was murdering my mother. She had come to the kitchen for a glass of water and found her there on the floor. She found me hiding in the front yard, terrified. I’d curled up in a ball beneath the bumper of the Celica, not knowing what else to do. It still looked brand new, that bumper. I could smell the plastic as I lay there, waiting for someone to find me. Or not find me. My sister to not notice me and to drive the car right over my body as she sped into town the fetch the police. I’d forgotten that we had a telephone. When the police arrived, I described the man as tall, slender, with short red hair and a pointed nose. He had come in through the door, which I had foolishly left unlocked. He’d attacked another man at a house just down the street that same night. To my complete, but unexpressed surprise, the man’s son had provided the same description. The news stations were alerted. Posters were posted. The children were eventually moved away, along with the town’s memories of the crimes and the supposedly coincidental events surrounding them. The late night fire in the local arcade, killing the girl who’d been mysteriously trapped inside, was never once considered to be related.
My sister had insisted that there was a butterfly on my mother’s face when she found the body. This was deemed to be a hallucination by her psychiatrist and she was sent to live with my Aunt Julie, who was once a nurse and could adequately deal with panic attacks. Janette, my father’s sister, became my guardian and we both spent most of our time being as quiet as possible. I relished the quiet now. I was deemed to be a ‘brooding teen’, but with good enough reason that no one bothered me about it, least of all Janette. I still felt a yearning, a longing for something. I still had dreams sometimes. But for the most part, it seemed that my mind was no longer inside the Square.
I thought the new town would mean no more butterflies, but that wasn’t entirely true. Here it was beetle. After most of the teenagers in the area had started exhibiting nervous or violent behavior, people reasonably suspected drugs. It was the arcade owner, this one not creepy in the least, who pointed to the game. He called the company that had delivered the machine to collect it, pointing out that a game with no change receptacle wasn’t making anyone any money anyway. Instead, several men in black suits had arrived and removed it. He told anyone who would hear it that their van looked to be a ‘government vehicle’, and that the men had seemed like ‘military types’.
I never got any calls. No friends dropped by to see me. I was unpopular again and perfectly okay with this reversion. Towards the end of my first school year in my new life there was a knock at the door. I let Janette answer it.
“Honey,” she whispered, coming to me while I sat, doing nothing in the living room. “There’s a package here for you. It’s very large and heavy and I’m gonna need your help to get it in the house. The sender left no information. Do you have any idea who it could be from or what it is? ”
“No idea,” I said, honestly. But the blue butterfly, sketched near the corner of the tall, slender box, served as the return address. Jesse had drawn it perfectly.
Eric Huxley is writer who ponders his own existence. You can find him by creating a vision board, writing his name on it, and then crying yourself to sleep.
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