for Michelle

The only way I’ll play video games with my brother is if it’s Mortal Kombat, because you don’t have to know the game to win.  All you have to do is press buttons.

It doesn’t matter which ones, just how fast.  I beat him half the time, which seems fair.  He’s younger than me, so what’s fair is really important to him.  Everything has to be even.  I’m older, so I know that life isn’t really like that.

My friend Shelby lived down the street from me until her parents got divorced.  Her mom moved to another county and now I only get to see her every other weekend.  She’s my only real friend in the neighborhood.  My mom doesn’t let me go very far by myself, just to the park the next block over sometimes.

Once I went to visit her at her mom’s.  It’s not a house like her dad lives in.  They have an apartment in one of those places with the swimming pool, except it isn’t as nice as that sounds.  It was cold out, so we didn’t try to swim, but I wouldn’t have anyway, because the water was full of leaves and I think bugs.  Inside was okay.  Her mom keeps everything a lot cleaner now, like she’s trying to impress someone.  Everything in the apartment is light-colored, like it’s been sitting awhile in the sun.  I like her dad’s house better.  It feels like people live there even when they don’t really anymore.  He doesn’t really care what we do, as long as we clean it up.

Her mom has gotten really strict since they moved.  My mom wasn’t like that when my parents split up.  It didn’t feel that different.  I know you’re not supposed to say that.  The guidance counselor at my school, Mrs. DiFazio, makes me meet with her once a month.  She always tries to get me to talk about how my parents are divorced.  I don’t have a lot to say.  It happened, like, five years ago, when I was in kindergarten.  I don’t know why.  I’m never in trouble and I do my homework and everything.  My friend Heather has to do the same thing.  I don’t know what she talks about, because that stuff is private, but her appointments are right after mine.  She never gets in trouble either, but sometimes she doesn’t do her Math homework, so I let her copy mine at lunch.

Shelby doesn’t go to public school, so none of my other friends know her.  Before she moved, I would try to introduce her to other people, but now it’s pretty much impossible.  I don’t really mind, though, because that way, we can talk about secrets.  I think she’s my best friend, even though I tell Heather and our friend Melissa that we’re all best friends, because she knows stuff that I never talk to anyone else about, and because she’s the only person my mom said can always sleep over.  I used to see her every day, so it’s weird that I don’t anymore.  Sometimes we call each other, but there’s not a lot to talk about.  She doesn’t like her mom’s new boyfriend, but she can’t talk about it on the phone.  It’s nothing weird.

When I went over there, Shelby and I were playing with her brother’s Sega.  We don’t really know how to play, but he has Mortal Kombat like my brother.  There’s this one girl – I can’t remember her name, but I think she has two swords – who, if you both play her, has a pink outfit and a blue outfit.  Blue is Shelby’s favorite color, so it works out perfectly.  Her room at her dad’s house is blue, but here it’s got this weird wallpaper with bows on it.  Her mom says she can’t hang anything on the walls, because then they won’t get the deposit back.  It’s a pretty big room, but she has to share it with her brother and sister.  Her brother gets his own bed, and the two girls have bunk beds.  If I had bunk beds, I would want to sleep on the top, but she sleeps on the bottom bunk because she’s afraid she’ll fall off.  We got to sleep in the living room.  We had already set up our blankets and stuff, even though it was pretty early.  Her brother was staying at his friend’s house that night and her mom was making Shelby’s sister play Uno in the kitchen so we could be alone.  Usually, we’ll do dumb stuff, like painting our nails different colors or dancing or something, but Gary, Shelby’s mom’s boyfriend, made us feel weird about it.  When I came over, he was sitting in the kitchen like he owned the place.  My mom says that when you’re a guest in someone’s home, you have be really polite and do what they ask you to, even if it means drinking the gross milk out of your cereal or something, because you’re in their house, and they have their own rules.  He’s not like that.  He sits with his feet up on a chair asking for things and complaining.  I can see why Shelby doesn’t like him.

Gary and Kimmy and Shelby’s mom were all in the kitchen when we were playing video games.  Maybe we were being too loud or something, because Gary came in and asked us what we were doing.

“Mortal Kombat,” we said.

“That’s not how you do it.  You don’t even know how to play.”

“I know.  But it’s fun this way.” I said, even though I shouldn’t have.  Shelby was nervous, I could tell because she started biting her thumb, which is a thing she’s been doing since before I knew her.

“But that’s not how you play.” Gary said.

“It’s fun.”  Kimmy came out of the kitchen and stared at us.  She looks like Shelby, except she isn’t as pretty.  Gary told her to get back in the kitchen.  Kimmy got this look like I’ve seen my cat get when my mom is mad at it, real wide eyed and still with her tail up.  She did like she was told.  I shouldn’t have said anything.  I wouldn’t have, if I thought he’d get mad like that.

“You have to play right.” Gary motioned for Shelby to move over, and took the controller out of her hand.  “Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.”  Gary is a big guy, and I didn’t like sitting next to him on the floor like that.  “I’ll show you,” he said.  “You play your way, and I’ll play the right way.”  I didn’t want to, so when the game started I wasn’t trying very hard.  “You have to play!” he said.  He was yelling now.

I pressed the buttons, the right and left ones and the lettered ones, not in any real order, just fast and together, like I always do.  I was kicking the hell out of him.  Gary got red, first his ears, then his face, like a big tomato or an apple or something.  He pushed his controller like he had a plan, only it wasn’t working out.  I slapped him and kicked him and stabbed him with my swords.

“It was luck.  It doesn’t count.”  We had to play again.  Gary watched me almost as much as he did the television.  Shelby was curled into the couch like a potato bug and Kimmy was in the kitchen with their mom, and even though I wasn’t really alone, it felt that way.

Once, this girl from another class told my friend Heather that she wanted to beat me up.  I heard about it at recess.  Her name was Amber, and she was taller than me and played softball.  I would have been more scared, except I knew nothing would happen to me on the playground and that we took different busses home.  She lived in Heather’s neighborhood, so I didn’t go over there for awhile, until Heather found out that she wasn’t mad at me anymore.  I wasn’t going to risk it.  I don’t know how to fight.  And even if I did, she was bigger than me.

“If you’d played right, you would have had the satisfaction of winning the right way.  It’s only a victory if you’ve earned it.”  Gary’s fingers were too big for the little buttons.  He squinted through his glasses and muttered under his breath.  He was sweating, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.  His controller was slipping.  It’s not that I was any good; it’s just that he was so terrible that even I could beat him.

“Your problem is that you haven’t got a strategy.  You don’t even know what half those buttons do.”  He punched me in the face and I stumbled backward.  I flipped and kicked him down.  Once, when I was playing with my brother, I pressed enough buttons that I ripped his head off.  It took him a week to figure out how I did it.  I was hoping for the same kind of accident as I kicked and kicked and kicked.  FINISH HIM.  I raised my swords above my head in victory, but I hadn’t won.  “You’re not even trying to do it right.”

I played the next game slow and clueless, backing up instead of punching, ducking instead of kicking.  Gary’d gotten the hang of it enough that he beat me on the second round.  “That is how it’s done!”  Third round, I went down early.  FINISH HER.

My mom says that I don’t have to go to Shelby’s anymore if I don’t want to; she can come to our house instead.  Shelby’s mom says it’s okay, even on her weekends.  There’s less for her to worry about that way.  I have my own room, and my brother almost never bothers us.  Sometimes, even though she’s not supposed to, we’ll go to her dad’s house.  He has a popcorn popper, and he doesn’t care how late we stay up or if we’re loud or anything.  My mom says it’s okay that we don’t tell Shelby’s mom about it, because it’s not every day you see a man who wants to spend time with his kids.  My dad lives far away and works a lot.  We see him on Thanksgiving and for two weeks in the summer.

I was dead; he stood with his foot on my chest, brandishing his weapon. GARY WINS.  “See?”  He stuck his finger in my face, and for a second it seemed like he was going to hit me for real.  “I told you.”  He was too close.  I could see the sweat dripping down behind his glasses and smell his breath.  His words were angry and wet, like the mouth of a dog I saw chained outside a store once.  Usually, I’ll pet them, but this one was so big and mean-looking that I made my mom walk through the parking lot to avoid it.  That dog had the scariest eyes.  They were almost black all over, and, even though I know he couldn’t really, it felt like he was looking through me.  Gary’s eyes are blue, but it was the same, like he could see I was afraid of him and he was happy about it.  He tossed his controller down and made his way into the kitchen.  Shelby and I wrapped up the cords and put the Sega away.  I could hear Gary and her mom in the other room.  They were being really quiet, but I could tell they were arguing.

“What?” he said.  “If you’re not going to teach them, somebody’s got to.”