A short Story
Jerry opened the door and indicated for his son to go in first. The dining room was darker than the hallway they stood in. The closed curtains, although thin and moth-eaten, managed some resistance against the light of an overcast January Sunday afternoon. Paul’s bare forearms tingled as he walked in. Unchallenged by any attempts to heat the space in nearly two decades, the cold had sunk deep into the room’s structure. Other than the dust mounting on the furniture and the damp stains flowering on the woodchip wallpaper, the dining room hadn’t changed a bit since Paul’s childhood. Ignored into silence, this almost sepulchral space had become an unintended memorial for times past.
Paul’s mum’s porcelain dog collection stared at him condescendingly from the dresser, the light from the hall glinting off their psychopathic glares. Even she didn’t want the snooty little buggers when she left. Paul wished she were still here, though, at least for Dad’s sake. But he could hardly blame her for leaving. Some pasts are too fractured to keep building upon.
“Maybe we should put the heating on,” Paul said, pointing at the faux wood-panelled gas fire poking out the wall opposite them, the one the cat used to sleep on. He was desperate to shake the extra layer of gloom the temperature brought to the already tragic room. “And open the curtains.”
“I doubt that thing’s safe anymore,” Jerry said, about the fire. But he conceded to the request for more light. The stiff plastic runners creaked and cracked like unused joints as Jerry tugged the curtains open. Behind them, yellowing gloss paint peeled from the window frames and a thick black mould bordered the edge of every pane. Snow was gathering on the ledge outside.
No housework, or maintenance of any kind, had been carried out in here for years. As no one lived with him anymore, Jerry couldn’t think of a single good reason to use his dining room. A microwaved lasagne, alone in front of the TV, was his family dinner now.
“Let’s get on with it,” Jerry said.
Paul’s father heaved a weighty cardboard box onto the dining table, then leaned on the table’s edge. He held his lower back and winced.
“You should’ve let me do that,” Paul said.
“Don’t be daft. I dragged it here from the bloody garage, so I can get it onto the table just fine.”
Paul studied the box. Originally intended to carry the Man from Del Monte’s tinned pineapples in the eighties, it had been repurposed as a container for the last of Tommy’s possessions. The last, that is, still to be dealt with. The thin biro scrawl that spelt Paul’s brother’s name was tucked away in the corner, hardly visible, dwarfed by the thick black print advertising the original contents. So small was the written name it could have been considered untrue, a mistake. Paul thought that if he wrote his own name in big block capitals then perhaps the box would become his, contain his belongings, and then there would be no need to go through Tommy’s things because Tommy was alive and still the oldest brother, not frozen in time by a drunk driver while on the way home from his first term at university. But Paul knew there was no such thing as magic, so he pulled the box lid open. The parcel tape, translucent with age, offered no resistance.
It was a tough box to look in. His comics, his board games, his handwritten notes for Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, his unfinished drawings of fantastical creatures from his own mythology, his horror film VHS collection, his heavy metal mixtapes. All of it screamed Tommy. Yet, because Tommy had shared so much of the box’s content with his brother, it was also testimony to their childhood together. Paul was the youngest by four years, and once spent many a day trying to conceal the impatience of childish desperation as he waited for Tommy to pass on whatever book or game he had finished with. In a sense, a lot of what this box contained was both their childhoods. The intermingled parts were inseparable.
But perhaps the item most suggestive of their shared past was the self-contained electronic game, Meteor Blast. The game was a little bigger than half a shoebox. Its deep-set monitor was encased in bright red plastic, in front of which extended a two-inch black strip to house the joystick and two buttons. As Paul lifted it out of the box, his father clenched his teeth and turned away so he could concentrate on a small patch of wallpaper as if it were the most significant part of the whole universe. If he focused hard enough, Jerry reasoned, then he might manage to swallow the tears the red plastic icon had brought before they fell.
In the time before ‘real’ computers came to take over, a twelve-year-old Tommy was rarely seen without this game. Hanging about his brother, holding out for a go, Paul resembled a dog waiting for the last morsel of their master’s supper. Being the youngest meant Paul submitted to a mild tyranny, a fate which only the first-born avoids. But he didn’t mind. Paul admired his brother. Paul envied Tommy’s maturity; at that age, every extra year contained a lifetime. Tommy was the person that Paul could become. Would become. He was potential. Even now, holding Meteor Blast in his hands, and sixteen years older than Tommy ever managed, Paul still felt like the youngest. He would be forever catching up.
“I wonder if it will work,” Paul said, flipping the switch at the back of the console.
“Don’t be daft. It’s not been turned on in decades,” Jerry said.
Nothing happened. At first. But as Paul moved to switch the game off, the screen flickered and regurgitated a disjointed robot language onto its display. The tinny speaker spat out the theme music’s bleeps and blips and the start screen took form, condensing from the paroxysm of feint green lines and symbols that came with its rebirth. Under the words ‘Meteor Blast – PRESS START’, the thin outline of a triangular spaceship bobbed up and down, avoiding the incoming mountains it flew towards while shooting blocky asteroids that rained down from above.
“Bloody Nora,” Jerry said. “I never expected that.”
Paul chuckled as he put Meteor Blast on the table. Delighted, he pulled up a chair and had a game while Jerry looked on bewildered. Crashing into the mountains within seconds of starting Level 1, Paul realised the game was as hard as he remembered.
“There’s nothing like playing computer games to make you feel old,” Paul said.
“Old? You’re hardly a day out of nappies,” Jerry said, smiling for the first time since Paul arrived that morning.
He played a further eight games in a row and, as always, never got past Level 4. No matter how hard he tried, which was a great deal, he had never managed to defeat Level 4. Of course, Tommy always sailed past this level on his way to double figures, much to Paul’s annoyance. Despite the feeling of competitiveness that grew in him sat at the dining table, Paul knew that he was even less likely to succeed in getting past that damn level than when he was as a kid.
“I wonder what state the batteries are in,” Jerry said. “I can’t believe they haven’t corroded. Give it here.”
Paul switched Meteor Blast off and handed his father the game. Jerry pushed open the battery compartment. It was empty.
“What the…” Paul said.
“That’s not possible,” Jerry said.
Jerry stared at the game in disbelief before turning it upside down and giving it an unnecessary shake. It was an attempt to bring reality back to Meteor Blast, and therefore to the world. Worried his father might break it, Paul snatched the game back and switched it on again, hoping to prove they hadn’t been the victim of a shared hallucination. Despite having no power source, the game began readily. And when Paul pressed the start button, letters appeared on the screen that he had never seen in all his time playing the game. Level 5, they read.