Rules of my best friends.., p.8
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.8

           Matthue Roth
 
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  I tried to dodge it, but it was too late. There was nothing I could do.

  I sat there, open-mouthed, trying to pull myself out of the game and back into my body.

  “Why’d you do that?” I cried.

  Damon shrugged.

  “I didn’t do it,” he said. “The volcano did.”

  I fumed silently. Well, I tried to. But Damon’s eyes were glued to the screen. My presence in the room was extraneous.

  Okay, okay. He’d made his point. I hit the reboot button on my controller and waited for my gizmo to rematerialize—back at the beginning of the level, of course. I’d be completely depowered, not even a goblin. I could still try to regain my status, and it wouldn’t take too long. Mostly it was just a pain.

  Mostly, really, it was just uncalled for. I was usually miserable at video games. Since I only got to play them while hanging out with Damon, this was my sole practice—which also meant that Damon was way more studied and talented than I was.

  Maybe I was getting haughty. But not enough to make him kill me.

  At least, I didn’t think so.

  Something was wrong. My gizmo wasn’t resetting.

  “What’s up?” I said. I strained my controller further, bending the joystick as close to full-circle as it could go. Nothing changed.

  Damon went all the way up to the TV. He strained to see what was happening beneath the static.

  “I don’t think you’re dead, Arthur,” he said.

  “What do you mean? I have to be dead. A mountain of random crap just fell on top of me.”

  He switched to his tablet. He’d kept it in the same bag as his game system. He yanked it out and entered something in. He scrolled through one website, then another.

  “It looks like you’re still alive,” he announced at last.

  “How can I still be alive?” I pulled the tablet away from him, less relieved at my non-death, and more annoyed at his knowing more about my avatar’s condition than I did.

  He pulled up the Gizcyclopedia. According to the entry on the site, not only did goblins love the taste of gadgetry, but they were also impervious to it. If you were a goblin, there was no way you could be killed or crushed by metal. (I knew that. Goblins loved metal. You didn’t even have to tell your character to eat a gadget; all you had to do was move close to it, and your goblin would start eating it.)

  However, according to the site, I hadn’t been attacked or crushed. I was buried.

  Burial, it said, was unavoidable—and, apparently, even worse than death. Depending on which rumors you believed, it could take between five days and a month for my goblin to eat his way out.

  “Sucks to be you,” murmured Damon. He’d picked up his controller again, and he was back in the game.

  “But can’t I start over?” I paged through the Gizcyclopedia site, looking for a trick or a loophole. “Or create another character?”

  “Nope,” he called back. His voice was flat, like he wasn’t really paying attention. “Not without paying for another character to start all over again. All you can do is wait till your guy gnaws his way out.”

  “You knew about this,” I said. But I said it weakly, and my voice hung with desperation.

  “Did not,” he replied.

  I didn’t even bother to did-to him in reply.

  hulk smash

  Dinner was a weird, disembodied kind of torture. Sitting with my parents, watching each of them singularly absorbed in the bare mechanics of serving themselves food, the different levels of bringing it from the serving dish to their plates, from their plates onto forks, worming its way inside their mouths, I couldn’t believe food could be that interesting. Food was something bland, mushy, necessary. My teeth grinded and chomped. I wanted to rip through things, to go hunting and eat meat. This soupy casserole, its autumny flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg and some kind of leaves, felt like a tease.

  This was what I least wanted to be doing right now. I had no desire to sit here, pretend I was a fully-functional, well-adjusted teenager and that the world worked perfectly, with a space for me in it. I wasn’t. It didn’t.

  I felt the way Superman must have felt, trapped in a newsroom, in his civilian costume, watching some horrible explosion happen halfway across the world while he was powerless to stop it. Or, no: I felt like the Hulk, anger and gamma radiation rippling inside me, just beneath the skin, trying to remain human while feeling these radioactive feelings surging and soaring, ready to explode.

  I threw down my fork, shoved away the untouched whatever, and pushed my chair away.

  “What did we do now?” said my mother to my father. “Doesn’t Arthur like...um, what is this again?”

  I slipped out the kitchen and up the narrow stairs to my room. The door shut, and I twisted the lock that I was officially not allowed to use and if my parents discovered it was locked I’d probably get in major trouble, but sometimes I just needed the assurance of being alone.

  “Hello?” I said.

  I didn’t need to ask who it was. For one thing, not that many people actually called me. For another, nobody else would stay on an unresponsive line for the minute and a half that it took me to pull off my escape. And finally, it had to be 7:19 P.M.

  7:19 was one of our times.

  “G-d,” I said. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”

  “Arthur Kestrel,” said Larissa, “I haven’t even said anything yet.”

  I smiled to myself. “Call it a premonition.”

  “All right. If you insist.”

  “If I insist what?”

  “If you insist, I’ll call it a premonition.”

  We were so smug. The playful banter, the whole Nick and Nora Charles/Holmes and Watson rapport that we always shared, it sprung right back into action. I don’t know why, but it just then occurred to me how worried I’d been over the last few days that we’d lost it. We’d barely spoken. Enough to know she was alive, but not much more. Just these few seconds we’d been talking were sweeping the breath of life back into my lungs. Traces of our fake put-on English accents were creeping in. We still had our game.

  “So, nu, tell me things! We haven’t said anything deep all day. You have to have developed some wild new philosophical insights in that time.”

  “Well, I emailed you about that idea for listening to a different song in each ear so that...”

  “So that you could influence your mood in two different directions, with angry music in one ear and soothing music in the other, yes,” she finished. “But, I mean, your life. I don’t know what you’ve been doing for every hour of the day today. I’m deprived, Kestrel. Fill me in.”

  “You’re depraved, you mean.”

  “That too, maybe. But after everything I’ve been through, I think I’m allowed to be a little silly.”

  We both laughed, and when it died down, I said, “Yes, you’re definitely allowed a little more silliness than usual.”

  It was the first mention she’d made of what happened, and I didn’t know how to react to it. Did I dare talk more about that? Should I change the subject entirely?

  I was silent. She took care of it for me. “So,” she prompted, “you were saying, about your exciting life?”

  “Have you spoken to Damon lately?”

  “Sure, just last night. I called him to apologize for blowing him off at the pool. Why?”

  “Did he seem weird to you?”

  “What do you mean? Be more descriptive. He’s always weird.”

  I struggled. “Different. Angry. Off.” I tried harder to come up with words. “I don’t know. A sort of weird passive-aggressive. Just weird, I guess.”

  “What happened?”

  Larissa didn’t play GizmoNo. To explain would take too much time, and I didn’t want to spend the whole time talking. I only had a certain amount of Larissa time in any given night, and I couldn’t waste our whole conversation on footnotes. “Maybe it was just me,” I said. “I keep wanting to slam my fist into a window. I feel like I
ve had a Nine Inch Nails song playing on repeat in my head all day.”

  “All day?” Her voice went down a notch. Nothing got past her.

  “Since this weekend. Since what happened.”

  A long silence.

  “Yeah.”

  More silence. I know I’d killed the whole nonchalant tone she was working to maintain. “I’m sorry,” I said.

  She gave a long, biting sigh.

  “It’s okay,” she said. “I probably deserve that. I haven’t been thinking about it at all. I suppose a certain amount of escapism is okay, but I’m probably escaping too much. It’s basically been completely out of my head.”

  So she hasn’t gone to the cops, I thought.

  “It’s understandable,” I said. “You’re allowed. After what you’ve gone through—”

  “But that’s just it,” she said. “Nothing happened. I mean, it did. But I keep going through stuff, replaying it in my mind, and trying to figure out the one spot where I could’ve stopped it—said it was hurting or pushed him away—and it never comes up. I just never got a chance to. The whole thing feels like a dream. It doesn’t feel like it—like what I thought happened—actually happened.”

  I tried to think of the right thing to say. A tiny voice inside myself, the kind of voice I usually ignored, whispered to me that the less I actually said, the better it would probably turn out.

  “Did you tell him no?”

  “Arty, you know I did—”

  It was a rhetorical question. I was brewing with purpose. I felt on fire.

  “So there. Did you want it to happen?”

  “No! I told you—”

  “Then that’s what it is. Larissa, it’s the fucking dictionary definition of the word.”

  I don’t know why I was being so insistent. I didn’t want to say the actual word. We were standing on top of a Trash Volcano, and that Trash Volcano was Larissa herself, and I could feel how close she was to exploding. “Don’t question yourself. Don’t doubt yourself. Whatever you did is the only thing you could’ve done.”

  She was breathing heavy, trying to steady herself. She didn’t say anything, and so I just kept talking. Filling the void of the silence of our phone conversation. It was the only thing I could think to keep doing.

  When she finally spoke, it was in a troubled, trembling whisper. “I’m not scared of the past,” she said. “I’m afraid of seeing him in Hebrew School tomorrow afternoon. I haven’t spoken to Mitch once, Art. I haven’t heard from him at all.”

  fire exit

  I didn’t know what I was still doing here. The building too rich and suburban and faraway for my poor undriving self, the Hebrew School itself a boot camp for synagogue-goers and Perfect Jewish Lawyers, the kind of future I knew I’d never have.

  The whole place reeked of phoniness. Even before the thing with Mitch happened, Hebrew School had been this weird no-man’s-land of sexuality, a youth-group dance with better lighting and overtures of hookups happening somewhere (broom closets? the cafeteria?)—somewhere where I wasn’t, thought it must have been close by. Between the girls who only took Hebrew class because of the hot Israeli instructor, the guys who only took Hebrew class because of the theoretical promise of hot Israeli girls on a future summer trip, and the terminally boring stoner kids who just showed up because it was exactly what their parents used to do when they were our age, the whole place was really just basically a racket. There was some unspoken agreement among all of us, students and staff: Nobody question anything, just keep Judaism continuing as normal, we’ll all pretend we’re happy here and then nobody will give anybody else any problems.

  I used to love the idea of G-d. Every book I loved had an author, and every great science fiction movie a creator; I was, after all, the kid with pictures of the guys who created Star Trek and Lost on my bedroom wall. Who better to pay ultimate homage to than to the Ruler of the Universe, the original Creator? I thought of this planet as the first story, the greatest TV series and most densely-plotted and most immersive environment ever conceived.

  Which—because I was a good little nerd who used to show up to synagogue every week and believed exactly what everyone told me to—made the Bible the greatest book adaptation ever. The official Robot Citizen Kane comic books had nothing on this. The Torah, written by Moses with executive consultation from G-d G-dself, was the most incredible collaboration that a fanboy could ever wish for.

  Lately, I had been changing my mind. Thinking that G-d didn’t exist, or really hoping G-d didn’t. Because, if G-d did exist, some of the decisions He must have made were supremely sucky. Yes, it was a miraculous thing that billions of people on the planet lived and interacted together every day. But the sense of completion was all but totally nonexistent, and the poetic justice was lousy.

  Why did shitty things happen to good people? Why were there so many problems that never got resolved? Why do good people get killed and beaten and arrested, and guilty parties—no, more than just guilty parties, complete jerks—get rich and get girls and get to walk around like they own the world, and some of them probably do own the world?

  I guess I’d been thinking all this stuff slowly, over the past few months, passively watching the news and how thanklessly my parents worked at their jobs, witnessing events and adding up the columns, letting my mind drift to its own conclusions. I wasn’t quite ready to say that G-d is dead, or that G-d was never alive to begin with, but I guess you could say that I had my finger on the trigger. But, again, purely passively. Again, only thinking of it in the back of my mind. Everything that happens is completely random. G-d doesn’t exist, and G-d never had.

  And then G-d sends me a message, like getting dropped off at Hebrew School ten minutes early that Tuesday afternoon—spurred by my parents, who still labored under the belief they were raising a good kid—and running straight into Mitch Martin.

  He strode down the halls in cool-kid slow-motion, his walk a positive cowboy saunter of self-assuredness, books on his hip, shoulders swaying, arms carrying him along like some sort of varsity swim. He looked at me with that look, the look of someone who owns the world and doesn’t need to worry about a thing, cause he bought it on a credit card and it’s insured.

  It wasn’t just the way he ordinarily looked—although that was how he ordinarily looked. The way he smiled at me made me know he’d had her, taken her, in a way I’d never known outside my most tucked-away hidden fantasies.

  And the way he nodded at me, I knew he knew both how lucky he was and how bad I’d wanted it. He’d stolen something from her, something she could never re-own, and even if it were possible, he had no intention of giving it back.

  I could feel myself heating up.

  Or maybe he didn’t even realize. Maybe this drama was all in my head (and, although I didn’t think it, Larissa’s). Was it possible Mitch was so self-centered that he didn’t realize what had happened, that he wasn’t paying attention to Larissa the entire time, that he was too convinced that everyone loved him to think for one second that Larissa didn’t want him to do what he was doing?

  Sure, it was possible. But it didn’t make him any less evil for doing it.

  Mitch was slowing down. He was stopping for me.

  “Arthur, man,” he said. “How was your weekend?”

  “Don’t,” I said.

  He was talking right into my face. His smile smelled like Dr. Pepper.

  “Whoa, what’s wrong?” He put up his hands in surprise.

  “I know what happened,” I growled. “Larissa told me everything.”

  He looked surprised for a second, then confused, then steely cold. Something in his eyes glinted: that same glint as when he was treating us all to falafel.

  “Did she really tell you everything?” he said. “Did she tell you how good it felt?”

  He moved away. His body retreating, his eyes still glued to me. His hands traced out a pattern in the air, an hourglass, his hands pulling the invisible person toward himself. No quest
ion as to what he was referring to. I could feel the Hulk in me boiling.

  “She told me how bad you were.”

  “Maybe you should ask me instead,” said Mitch. “I could tell you how good she was. I could tell you how into it she was when it was happening. I could tell you everything.”

  I stood there, willing myself not to run. My hand was shaking and I could not stop it. Then I realized it was my whole arm. Then my stomach, too. Everything.

  He kept walking away. Walking backward, still watching me. My teeth sunk into my tongue. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. When he was finally out of sight, I felt my body surrender. Released from its puppet strings, I had no energy left. The fear had eaten it all. I had to get out of there.

  I ran to the bathroom. There were only two stalls in there. I took the one that was less readily visible when you walked in.

  When I entered, the other stall was occupied by someone. I sat on the rim of the seat, pants on, and hung my head between my legs.

 
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