From the author: Molly's brother is taking a video game too far. It's up to her to stop him before he loses everything.
I watch with interest as Allie applies for a management position at Swifts. “Managed a team of twenty-six to successful completion of a community-focused project” translates to organized and led a protest at the Ohio Statehouse after the election. “Proficient in business accounting software” means she once did Mom’s taxes online. Allie glances toward the hall, then swivels her chair, staring as though waiting for me to notice something. I do not.
“Can you get the door, Molly May?”
I nod, cupping the gauze around my right ear. My brothers never knock, and people don’t arrive at our house unannounced. Not long ago, Mom banned all kids and most adults from the property. To this day, she won’t so much as allow Girl Scouts on our porch without her consent, and she reinforces her rule with a sign on the lawn that says KEEP OUT and, for the hard-headed, a red flag planted in a pot near the door.
This war with the neighborhood began when Josh and his father moved to the sloping ranch house at the end of our street. At fourteen, Josh was nearest my brother Myron’s age, and they became fast friends. He would show up early mornings, hands in his pockets, grinning with wild eyes as he asked for Myron; if my brother was home, he would run into our house like a feral cat, stumbling up the carpeted stairs. Mom would leer, shake her head, but allow his bullish entry; that is, until she caught them playing the game.
I met my brother on the neighbor’s porch that day, after Mom got a call at work about the incident. Mom was stone-faced, and asked me to escort Myron home because she didn’t want to look at him. “Weak-willed,” she hissed. My brother, a touch too plump for his pants, tried to wedge his fingers in the front pocket of his jeans and look angry. His chubby face was rather angelic, which made it comical when he twisted his lips into an angry pout.
“Josh didn’t make me do anything. I did it on my own,” Myron argued as he pushed himself up from neighbor’s porch.
Mr. Henry eased back and forth in a rocking chair, looking up from his iPad to say, simply, “I caught them in the act. The slippery one ran away. I’m pretty sure he’s the leader.”
“He is not,” Myron mumbled, almost tripping on the last step.
“You better not be so weak-willed as to let that kid tell you what to do,” Mom answered, staring at Mr. Henry’s black Honda, which the boys had decorated with silver stripes. “Sorry for your trouble, Mr. Henry. I’ll take care of this. Let me know how much it costs, and I’ll write you a check. The boy will pay me back.”
When we got home, Mom told Myron to mow the lawn and vacuum. When he was done with that, he had to write her a letter recounting the event and promising he’d never be so stupid again. “Don’t forget to sign it.” I’d written similar letters, but for far less interesting things, such as forgetting the laundry in the washer long enough for the clothes to acquire a musty smell. Mom stockpiled all our letters in a large plastic container and would retrieve them. Allie had been the only one of us brave enough to refuse.
It was this day, the first day my brother was caught, that Mom created her sign; well, the first iteration, out of cardboard and with black marker.
“No visitors at all? Not even my friends?” I asked.
“Well see,” she said, setting the sign behind our green couch by the front door. “Do you have any friends, hon?” I pretended I didn’t hear her, cupping my good ear.
Josh continued to show up only to get the door slammed in his face. In the kid’s defense, he tried to make amends, but that just proved how little he knew our mother. When he showed up with cookies on Thanksgiving, Mom lifted her index finger, and as soon as the kid’s eyes were locked in, she slowly pointed to his house.
“But my dad’s not here, and I just want to come in for a little while—” Door slam.
I kept an eye on Josh after that. He’d call, asking for Myron to meet him at the mailbox, and I’d glance down the street at them; my brother trying for cool in his droopy sweatpants or shorts, looking like he was headed for the edge of a cliff. I knew my brother was easy to sway. He wasn’t stalwart or determined like our younger brother, Joey. He wasn’t as talented or smart either, to tell the truth. Bad to say, but truth is truth.
By the time Mom got the second complaint, again at work, she banned Josh from our house for life and asked me to put out the sign she’d created but never erected. Then, thinking better of it, she sent out a mass email banning the whole neighborhood from coming to our house when she wasn’t around. “I just can’t take any chances. I hope everyone understands.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” I asked her, after she had me check the email for grammatical errors.
“I’ll press charges if I see that little fucker around here, Molly May. That kid’s got the devil in him. Just like your father.”
“Mom, please stop talking like that,” I said, reaching my hand out for a wad of cash. Mom always brought her cash tips home in her bra and handed them to me to count. I always felt a little taller when I was counting that money, but I’d once read an article on the filth of money, how it passes through so many hands and often contains myriad germs, including fecal matter.
“Evil has many faces,” she said.
“None of the people you named have any kind of devil in them,” I assured her.
I couldn’t stomach Mom’s hatred alone, and at the time Allie wasn’t living with us, so I bit my tongue and counted as fast as I could. Mom was always bad-mouthing my father. I remember thinking about how nice it would’ve been to not hear a thing she said. Funny thing, irony. I can only hear out of one ear now, an ear that’s never pointed Mom’s way if I can help it.
“$136,” I said, folding the bills neatly before handing them back to her and rushing to grab the hand sanitizer.
“On a Friday? Hm. $150 next week. Mark my words. God is good.”
I think about how glad I am that my sister is back at home, if for a short time. I finally hear the knocking when I get downstairs. Maybe it’s Mom’s ex coming back to reconcile. Maybe it’s Josh, who I still see sneaking around with my brother, and I can tell him to get the hell off Mom’s porch. I’m at the door, about to turn the knob, when the knock picks up speed. It’s aggressive now. It’s an adult knock, or that of a tall kid. Josh is short, much like my brother.
This knock rattles the door, and I pull my hand back and lift myself up on my toes so that I can see out the peephole. Two officers with straight faces and straight backs, one young and one old, look at each other as though deliberating. When the door opens, the younger one asks, “Joshua Granges here?” before so much as a hello. I bet he’s fresh out of Academy, and a part of me wants to test him.
“No,” I tell him in my loudest voice, then turn my bad ear their way. The right side of my face feels hot where the cloth tape meets my skin, so the coolness outside is welcome. I wait for his reaction.
The older officer, who wears a short gray beard and glasses, moves up a step and looks beyond me. “Hello, young lady,” he says, and I shrug. He waits, and I can see the theories forming in his head.
“Tumor,” I say quickly, knowing that’ll stop any possible questions.
“I’m very sorry to hear. Are your parents around?”
“My mother? No.”
“Sister?” the young one says, looking beyond me. Something in me tells me to lie.
“I doubt Allie’s coming back. Not as long as my mother lives here,” I say, realizing I’m lying to an officer of the law for no good reason. I want to change the subject, tell them both that I considered joining the force, and I’d like to pick their brains about the process, but the timing doesn’t seem right. “What’d Josh do?”
“Petty stuff,” the young one says. “Honestly, just stopping by at the end of a shift. We’ve been asked to scare the kid.”
His counterpart glares a moment, says, “We need to speak to your mother. I don’t have a work number.”
“Yes, sir!” I say, taking his card.
“I’m sorry about your affliction.” He points to my face.
“It was benign. Just turns the volume down on the world and makes me talk funny.”
“I didn’t notice,” the younger one says kindly, and I smile flirtatiously. Then he looks beyond me and leans in. “Let Allie know Griffin says hello.”
I feel my face scrunch. Grandma Dee says I’m too transparent thanks to my overly expressive face, and I can imagine whatever confusion I have is being relayed thoroughly. The two officers could care less. They make their way to the Dodge they’re driving, and I catch the older one chuckling to himself about Mom’s hand-written sign. There’s no siren or decal denoting police on their car, and I wonder if that’s legal.
“Who’s Griffin?” I ask Allie.
She swivels her chair and examines me, as expressionless as I am expressive. Her hair is short and thick now, parted on the side so that it falls like a single wave. “I applied for one of two assistant manager positions. If there are two assistant manager positions available at the same time, I’m pretty sure that place is jacked enough to need someone quick.”
“It is. Who’s Griffin?”
“I wonder if they’ll let us work the same shifts. I don’t think I can be your direct supervisor, not legally. Then again, nepotism doesn’t really matter in this country, does it?” She turns and opens another window, pulling up CNN. “Look at that! The president’s daughter just released a new book! How precious!” She closes the window.
“Allie, I’ll keep asking all day.”
“I dated him.”
“A cop? Why wouldn’t you just say that? He’s cute, but I thought you were anti-cop.”
My sister stands and narrows her eyes. I see fire. My sister was born during an eclipse, which caused Mom a few-year obsession with astrology; she did our charts when we were babies and left elaborate notes about the paths our lives would take, jotting her amateur calculations in our baby books next to pics of birthdays. This was all before she returned to the church. By the time my brothers were born, she was over it Astrology and newly Catholic. I’m waiting for what’s next.
I’d examined Allie’s charts plenty as soon as she left, looking for answers wherever I could. My sister is a fire sign through and through, a Leo with Aries rising. Fire on top of fire.
“How long did you guys date? Was he part of the resistance?”
“Molly May, you’re relentless.” She smiles suddenly, cutting the seriousness, then rushes over and begins tickling me like I’m a child.
“I’m grown,” I say through gasps. I’m the most ticklish person in the world, and she has me laughing like an idiot. I squirm away, and she stands, examining her application. She nods with the seriousness of a CEO examining his company’s financial prospects, then clicks send.
“So. What’d they want? Myron? He probably filled someone’s shoes full of sand.”
“Josh. They wouldn’t tell me why.”
I am on the computer, Googling Griffin, officer in Columbus, when Mom is suddenly behind me. She looks at the screen long and hard. I smell her before I hear or see. Her new scent is one that comes in a bust-shaped bottle and is usually on display at the drug store, a lavender and vanilla blend; she over applies it so that it lingers in the house long after she’s gone to work. The perfume busts now line up like soldiers in the bathroom. The smell itself, for what it’s worth, is lovely. And, right now, terrifying.
“What in the living hell, Molly May? Is your brother in trouble again?”
It comes out before I intend to say anything. “The police were by today, but it was strange.”
“Yeah, they stopped by the restaurant. Your brother in his room? You make dinner?” She sounds a little too nonchalant about all this.
“Playing video games, I think. We have spaghetti. I can get dinner on in an hour.”
“I’m no-carb now.” She hands me a wad of sticky cash. The stickiness almost makes me gag. As I begin to count, she collapses in front of the computer, nudging me out of the chair, searching social media sites. “By the way, your brother’s going to military school, if there is such a thing around here. I just need to figure out how to enroll his ass.”
“What’d Myron do?” I ask.
“What, you don’t say hi anymore?” Mom says to Allie, who is gazing out the window. “Hey, Mom.” Allie says, making a sign for me to follow her to our room. She mouths “emergency,” and I nod, counting quickly.
Allie pulls on my shoulder, whispering that she just watched Josh climb out of our bedroom window. I know whatever we will find in there will be horrible. We storm the room and find Myron deer-like, looking for an exit. I block the doorway. Allie looks under the bed and behind the books on my shelf. A sour smell permeates the room.
“You hid something in here,” she says to Myron, flicking him in the center of his head.
“We got to Level 6. It takes weeks to get up a level. I was scared to break in to someone else’s house and do it. Josh said we should do it here, and it’d still count.” He crosses his pudgy arms and shrugs.
“Sit down, kid. You want us to save you from Mom, you better explain.”
“It started simple, but it’s getting harder,” he says, shifting his feet.
“Explain, kid. What is this game?”
He explains that challenges for Level 1 are easy, things like knocking over trashcans or trying to get a meal free by stuffing a few hairs in your omelet at Denny’s. By Level 6, arrests become possible, but “not for anything really bad.” Josh apparently reached Level 8, and Myron was determined to catch up.
“So what did you do in here?” Allie asks through gritted teeth.
“Frog,” he says, pointing. I lift my pillow, and a pale frog belly stares up at me. What looks like a large toothpick sticks out from its belly. In this moment, I feel something odd—sympathy for Mom. I decide to never have children.
My youngest brother, Joey, who we call the magician because he seems to magically never be around when there’s trouble, is staring in the hallway mirror the next morning when Allie positions herself next to him, blocking the doorway. “Joey, we need you to do some recon,” she says. I stand behind her.
“Gotta pee, ladies. Move it or lose it.”
We step aside and waited at the bathroom door, until he comes out looking far more interested. “Alright now, fan club, let’s talk business. How much does this gig pay?”
“It pays in Karma,” Allie says.
“Sorry, but I don’t get out of bed for less than fifty dollars,” my brother says theatrically.
“I’ll pay you cash, twenty bucks, and it’s a simple job.”
“I’m listening. Better be easy for twenty dollars.”
Allie pulls on the back of Joey’s collar to straighten him up. “We just need you to let us know when you see Josh and Myron together, as soon as you do. Text immediately. We’ll give you a code.”
“Yeah, and let us know if you hear them talking about the game.”
“I’ll be your snitch, ladies, but it’ll cost you twenty-five, and my code better be cool.”
“Text LUCKY, all caps,” I say.
We Google “level 8, impaled frog.” The game is called Tempt Fate and the challenges match up to all Myron has done. I even see “drink every liquid in the fridge” is there, which solves the mystery of being out of both cola and orange juice a week ago. Mom had called me at work with a grocery list of almost all liquids. When we see the game featured in a cautionary article, with the final challenge warning, we know we should put a stop to it.
There are only four more levels, and we aren’t sure whether Myron was telling the truth about his progress. He could be to Level 7 or 8 by now himself, and that means we need to do something already. “What about your friend Griffin?” I ask Allie.
“No. Not him. No police. They’ve never been helpful. They always make things worse.”
“Griffin hurt you?” I ask. My sister doesn’t talk about her relationships, her past. I watch her tie a colorful scarf around her dark hair, pulling it back effortlessly and without a mirror. She applies brick colored lipstick and walks out. He did then.
“We need to follow them. Figure it out. We may not have the luxury to have a good sit down with the kid, and you know Mom will freak out.”
“She’d have Myron sent away for some shit like this. It’d be better if he were in a gang.”
Myron isn’t the stealthiest of kids. We follow him to the mailbox at the corner and watch as he stares down at his shoes. We watch Joey run up to him like he’s going to tackle, then we surprise our brother by jumping in front of him. Myron punches sloppily, and Josh laughs. They look too goofy to be getting into real trouble. We follow them.
“Well, it’s either the second story or the landmark. It depends on the level,” my sister says, checking her phone. “I mean, there’s no way they’re to ten. I don’t see any backpacks or bags, no evidence of weaponry.” We couldn’t see the full challenge. You had to sign up for an avatar to see everything, but we could see the location. A map with nameless destinations, such as “second-story building” or “bus stop” appeared when the levels were achieved. Hundreds, maybe thousands of kids were playing this game, and those who were currently playing showed up in green when they “checked in.”
“I think we should call the police,” I say. “I mean, who knows what the instructions are.” A fierce wind hits as I speak, and I can’t hear myself at all, not even from my good ear.
“No. We got this,” Allie says.
Just as my sister smiles reassuringly, we hear footsteps, and I turn to find a small man in a hoodie standing behind us. He has five o’clock shadow and a narrow chin, like a child’s. Allie slaps the little man lightly on his arm, and Joey looks up. He wears Mom’s sunglasses, and his disguise is divine. A theater kid to the bones.
“Thought you two wanted me on the case.”
“We did. But only at school. Goofball. I think you should go home,” I say.
“Great greasepaint though,” Allie says. “Ten out of ten.”
My brother bows theatrically and turns on his heel. “Fine by me. I should rehearse anyhow. I’m Hook, the captain to you.”
“They’re gone! We blinked, and those little fuckers disappeared,” Allie says.
We jog toward the school, looking out for them. I hear the swoosh of cars on High Street and the faint sound of church bells and a train. By the time we get to the playground, we see the little hoodlums running down Summit, toward a floodplain. My sister has her cell poised and pointed.
“We should call the police,” I say again.
I haven’t run this fast in a long time, and my calves are tightening. I realize Myron and Joey are headed to the train tracks, and my chest rattles as I take jagged breaths. Both of us pick up our speed. We’re far enough away that they can’t hear us, but Allie is calling out Myron’s name.
I hear it louder now, the rhythmic and outdated chugging of the freight train. I read once that most in this area are transporting either feed for livestock or oil, and I imagine the twenty-thousand tons of steel reverberating the rails. The final level asks players of the game to tempt fate, and it all becomes clear how real this is.
Tempting fate means believing in it, or not believing in it at all. Testing fate would be more accurate. My sister is paces ahead of me, her longer legs carrying her forward, the scarf around her head loosening and waving behind her like a tail as she runs. It is suddenly free, catching the wind, and I am watching it waver as I stumble. Landing hard on my hip, I twist to get back up and realize that I cannot only hear the train now but see it. Myron and Josh each balance on the rails, arms up like super heroes. Josh is a few feet in front, gesturing toward the train to come on, and I remember him on our porch with cookies.
Once I’m on my feet, I can see I won’t make it to the tracks on time, and my sister is going to be close. Time and space expand and contract as I watch my sister throw herself toward Myron, and their two bodies roll off the track just as the train rushes through. The graffitied cars go on forever, and I drop to the ground and try to see under the cars and make out movement on the other side.
I call Mom at work and don’t even hear her responses as I report that she needs to come home and send police to the train tracks on the other side of the old Hudson Elementary. I tell her we caught Myron doing something horrible, and he may be injured. The train moans as it flies by, never-ending, flattening whatever is in its path. And when the caboose finally arrives, a new reality arrives.
I watch my brother, head heavy and hanging like a bag of sand. He is sentenced to six months by the juvenile courts, and Mom stares at him with dead eyes. The slight kid with pale hair and a menacing smile, the one she banned, was mowed down by the train, and no more than seconds before he was, he’d posted a picture of the train to the gaming site; someone had won, and over a thousand anonymous comments came in, most of which are praising him. It was so close, and in the fleeting moment he took the photo, he knew he’d won.
The news showed sweet pictures of Josh with his grandmother, a senile caretaker who looked lost even in the pictures of them at home. He’d become the poster child for dangerous online games that told kids they were just part of a pattern, and that pattern couldn’t be disrupted no matter what.
When I first saw my brother and Allie huddled together by the train tracks, my sister’s arms sheltering our brother from the brutal scene, I felt only gratitude. It took me much longer to see what remained of Josh, nothing more than parts of a machine. His cellphone was destroyed, but part of it had been driven into his hand by the force.
We thought they had been on a lower level. We thought there was no way it was real; we didn’t see what was there.
The day my bandages are cut, I am told that there will be only a slight improvement in my hearing due to the removal of the tumor that had been blocking the external auditory canal, and I am fine with the news. I am not yet ready to hear the world, I tell the doctor, or I think it, as he goes over expectations. My sister is with me, fiddling with one of Myron’s fidget spinners, and Mom is supposed to pick us up, but she’s late. We watch the television in a waiting room that is becoming all too familiar, and Myron appears on the screen.
This is the first time I see a family member on the news. He’s part of a special that is designed to warn parents about dangerous online games. He has been interviewed on national news and made into a reluctant celebrity from his hold in juvenile detention, but I see his spirit dimmed. Something is missing in his eyes, a light. He explains that it was just a game, and when you think about it, just a philosophy lesson. He says this, but these are not my brother’s words.
My brother appears thoughtful and tragically brilliant in the interview, but all I can see is the kid behind the words, the kid who rushed down toward the mailbox with baggy sweatpants. All I can see is his desire to find a place in the world.
When Mom picks us up, she says nothing, doesn’t ask how I feel. She says almost nothing for days, hiding behind large glasses, and when she takes the sign down in the front yard, she does so without comment. I see the block print, make-shift sign in the trash on my way to school.
We attend Josh’s funeral as a family, and there is a candlelight vigil. I hold Joey’s hand, which trembles. We stay close to each other, closer than we’ve ever been, and we watch Josh’s father crumble from a distance.
“I called that kid evil,” Mom says at last, as she examines the boy’s image. “I called that kid evil, but he was just a kid.”
For the first time since she’s been home, my sister embraces my mother the way she used to. She tries to shelter her the way she tried with Myron, and something in our family dynamic shifts. It takes me a while to fully understand my mother’s regret. All I can think about is my mother telling Josh to keep out, when all he wanted was an invitation.
This story originally appeared in Disconnect.