New York |

This is the Game. These are the Rules.

by Matthew Mastricova

edited by Michelle Lyn King

All of the rides are whirring and all of the games are singing and kids are everywhere screaming and shouting and smiling and crying. Peter does not waste time in abandoning his siblings because all Natalie wants to do is feed quarters to the crane game and all Jack wants to do is go on all the rides he has grown out of. Peter wants to find the balloon race game. He wants to slide a dollar across the counter, to lean against the counter and examine each of the six hideous clown faces staring him down and say, “I want number four.” He wants the person manning the game to be a miserable teenager pockmarked with acne scars, and when it is time to dictate the rules he wants the attendant to recite his spiel with practiced disaffection. Peter will not listen, but it will make no difference. Peter knows this game.

He does not panic; he does not stress. He aims his gun for the small black hole of the clown’s mouth and grips it firmly with both hands. At the sound of the bell he pulls the trigger and nothing else matters, nothing but that continuous stream of water inflating the balloon larger and larger and larger and it is almost unbearable to watch. Then the balloon pops and the bell rings and the pressurized water jet slowly recedes, and the pockmarked attendant and the pitiful prize table all matter again. Peter knows this game. He doesn’t lose.

Three games and three prizes in, Natalie drags their mom over and slides a dollar across the counter. Peter is used to the faces his mother gives him, and the one she gives him now says, “Don’t be a jerk. You’re sixteen; she’s ten. Throw the game.” He doesn’t respond. He lines up his gun across the table from clown number four and he takes a deep breath to settle himself. When he pulls the trigger he imagines the face to be Natalie’s. He watches the head grow and grow and grow and he doesn’t even look at his sister. He knows her too well, knows that she doesn’t know how not to lose her cool, to just keep her finger on the trigger, her eye on the prize.

He beats Natalie and the young boy next to her and the young boy’s parents and it’s not even close. Natalie pouts and looks at their mother as if to say, “Fix this.” Their mother turns to Peter, her mouth pursed, eyes narrowed, but stops when she sees Peter give his sister the prize token. Instead her face splits open, tells Peter that he did good, that he is a good brother, that he is a kind person. Peter swallows the pride welling up in his throat and it burns all the way down. He slides another dollar over the counter and prays that Natalie leaves and takes their mother with her. She does not.

Jack watches the roller coaster, grinning like a Jack, and Natalie, Mom, and Peter watch the roller coaster with him. Peter can never figure out how his older brother’s mind whirs when his eyes focus on some faraway object and he rocks slightly, swaying, and hums like an open chord. Peter wonders if his mother notices the trance-state or if it has simply become background noise to her. He wonders if Natalie notices it. He wonders if she even has an idea of it. He wonders if she would even care.

“I sure wish I could go on that dragon roller coaster.” Jack still sways but Peter can tell his eyes are focused on the 10 rows and 20 seats on the circular track in front of them. The track is old, and Peter knows and his mom knows and even Jack knows that this is not a ride for eighteen-year-old boys to ride by themselves. He watches Jack watching the children screaming and laughing on the ride, and Peter wishes that he was younger. He wishes that, instead of sixteen, he was six or seven or eight so that he could give Jack the excuse he needs to ride the coaster. Peter hates roller coasters, hates heights, but he would ride it for Jack. He would let the attendant strap him in, press the metal bar warmed by the ambient heat of so many people against his chest; he would let the force of the dragon pin his brother against him against the side of the car. He would clench his eyes and hold his breath and he would do it because boys like Jack deserve to get what they want.

Peter finds Nat counting her tickets one by one and crouches down to look her in the eyes.

“I need you to do me a favor. I want you to go on the roller coaster with Jack. I know you might be scared, but it would really mean a lot to him.” Nat is still young and small enough to provide Jack the excuse he needs to look normal.

Natalie begins to cry, her face screwed up and mucusy. Peter stands, his rage boiling. He doesn’t care if she’s afraid of heights, or hates dragons, or doesn’t want to be pinned between the musky wood of the car and their brother.

“How can you be such a selfish little brat? Why are you so insensitive? Why are you cruel to him? Why can’t you grow up faster? Why can’t you do one-tenth of what I do for him?” He wants to say all of this, but he lets his scowl do the work; their mother is near.

Mrs. Brogan reminds him that Nat is only ten. She sees his fury, he is sure, in the way he glares, lips curled and eyes narrowed, at the sniveling mess in front of him.

Peter knows what’s next—she will dry her eyes and walk away, already having forgotten Jack and the dragon. She will blow the rest of her money on the crane game. Insert money. Lose money. Try again. By the end of the night her only prizes will be from the frog flipper and Skee-Ball, and she will look happy. Peter will see this and try to ignore her for the rest of the night because she never does anything for anyone who isn’t her and nobody ever questions it except Peter and he always gets the same response: “16, 10. 16, 10.” Always with hands like the scales of justice, weighing his age against her lack of it, hers somehow always weighing heavier.

None of that matters though, because when he turns to talk to Jack, his brother has already abandoned the dragon coaster. He is on line for the scrambler, the only solitary not-kid in line. He imagines Jack sitting on the ride alone, seemingly content with being the only one alone.

Peter doubts this is true. The night before, their mother had instructed the boys to pack, but instead they had played videogames. Mashing buttons in front of the television is the only place where Peter sees Jack as his equal. After his character died for the third time in a row, Jack said, “I hate this.” It could have been about the game, but Peter suspected it was more than that—that maybe by “this,” Jack meant only having Peter to play with, or living with their parents, or that Natalie would never talk to him or engage him with anything beyond the most disdain a ten-year-old could muster. Peter considered all of these choices and he could have said something, anything, but instead only offered a rematch.

“It costs four tokens to ride the scrambler, right?” Peter doesn’t need his mom’s looks. This is nothing special, nothing out of the way, just a nice thing for a nice kid. His mom doles out the tokens and Peter runs over to the ride. The ride operator is about to close the gate and begin the ride but Peter shoves the tokens in his hand.

“See the guy sitting by himself over there? That’s my brother, and I want to sit with him,” Peter says. The operator shrugs and lets Peter through. He is certain that Jack is grateful for the fact that he’s not alone, but Peter wishes he wasn’t; it’s a stupid thing to be grateful for. Peter thinks this must look almost normal.

They are the only two adults sitting together. They are the biggest, the oldest, the most out of place, but Peter tries not to notice this. He steels himself for the lurch and spin of the ride and thinks: This is going to be fun. This is going to be fun. This is going to be fun. He doesn’t even notice when the attendant comes by to check that their safety bar is locked and tells them to keep their arms in the car at all times.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asks.

“This is going to be fun.”

The scrambler loses Peter. He allows his eyes to unfocus and the world to flatten. The operator leaks into the guard rail into the children huddled in line into the dragon coaster into his mother. Here, Jack and Natalie don’t exist. Here, Peter doesn’t exist. There is only the persistent whir of a carnival ride. He is so caught up in the emulsion that surrounds him he does not hear himself scream. The ride ends sooner than he remembers; it is only a few minutes before his mother rises up from the blur. Peter lurches when the ride ends.

“You looked like you were about to get sick,” Mrs. Brogan tells Peter. Peter smiles. He is not paying attention to his mother. He is looking for Nat. He wants to show her that this the way that Jack is to be treated, but she is long gone. Jack shifts his weight and chuckles nervously, looking at Peter expectantly, but Peter does not notice. He is imagining Natalie sitting at the crane game, putting in more money and losing more money and more time and more prizes. He imagines Natalie is miserable; Peter is happy.

This is what Peter tells himself: he is a good brother.

They are in the car on their way back to the condo listening to top-40 pop because Natalie had whined for it and nobody wants to hear Natalie cry. Jack is listening to his CD player, playing the same song over and over and over at max volume and Peter swears he can sing every part by now.

“Mom, can you ask Jack to lower the volume? I can hear every word even through my headphones,” Peter says.

“Jack, lower the volume. It’s too loud!”

Jack does not respond. She taps on Jack’s knee. He scowls – his brow furrows and his eyes roll and his whole face puckers.

“Not right now, Mom,” he says.

“I can’t hear the music!” Natalie yells.

“Yes right now, Jack. We can all hear your music, and you need to turn it down.” Jack rolls his eyes and looks away. The volume stays. Mrs. Brogan keeps tapping on her son’s knee, but he keeps ignoring her. Her voice is a buzzsaw: “Jack! Jack! Jack!”

She stops when the van begins to swerve. Jack doesn’t touch the volume button once, and Peter doesn’t stop complaining. Natalie doesn’t stop complaining. This is the way it goes. Peter knows that if their mother really wanted to, she could get Jack to listen. It would exhaust her in a way that no amount of noise could, but she could do it. Peter doesn’t care; he just wants Jack to stop. He hopes that if he or Natalie complains enough they will be the more frustrating children to deal with. It hasn’t worked yet, but it’s a matter of patience. It’s letting the anxiety build until it breaks; it’s holding firm and steady with your eye on the prize.

Jack’s song restarts.

Mrs. Brogan said that if Peter ever felt upset, like he was going to lose his temper, then he should meditate. Focus on a happier time. Breathe in and count to five, breathe out and count to five. These are the rules; boys like Jack should get what they want.

This is what Peter focuses on: they were at the beach.

They were lying in the sand, the muddy water lapping up the sides and ripping out the grit from underneath them, their bodies slowly sinking into the ground. Jack and Peter side by side while Natalie collected anything she saw the beauty in (shells, pebbles, glass shards) and cleaning them in the tide. She was still radiant then, young enough that her idea of happiness was sunlight passing through a broken beer bottle, that her desires did not cross Peter’s. There were only a few other people on the beach. It was calm and quiet and so unlike the Jersey Shore in August.

Peter was the sand, muddy silt covering his face, his chest, his legs, all seeped in sand joined by the tide. He and Jack were the same sand in the same beach, the same person in different bodies. It was almost night time and Peter had wanted to go home, watch television, go to Fantasy Island, insert money, lose money, win prizes. Now, though, he was content just to be the sand.

Then their father brought the camera out and they all knew that this would be the family Christmas card that year. Peter became himself again, kneeling next to his brother and holding their sister on his shoulders. They smiled for the camera. The camera snapped. They were still smiling, still together.

They stayed on the beach until it got dark and the tide crept up past their bodies. Jack begged their parents for an extra fifteen minutes but it was time to go home so Peter pulled him up to his feet. He grabbed Jack and pulled him close and squeezed him. Jack squeezed even harder, his instinct kicking in when all there was to kick was a hug. It was almost like a hug. They walked home and showered. They played board games and watched movies on cable television and laughed at all of the funny parts and didn’t laugh at the sad parts and, after their parents and Natalie fell asleep, Jack and Peter put on HBO and watched R-rated movies in silence and fell asleep with the television still illuminating the fold-out couch they shared.

By the time Peter finishes replaying the memory, Mrs. Brogan is pulling into the garage. They spill out of the van. Peter is silent. Natalie is naming her prizes. Jack is giggling.

“What’s so funny?” Peter asks him.

“Well, nothing,” Jack says. “Nothing at all.” He disappears into the house.

The night is sticky with salt and sweat, the air conditioner having sputtered out years ago. When Peter finally hears Jack fall into his raucous slumber, he moves.

They had gone through the motions: the movies, the board games, the ice cream (for the kids) and the booze (for their mother). Mrs. Brogan left for bed hours ago, and Natalie not long after. Natalie, who could not even last a game of Sorry! without crying, who stomped off to her room after Peter kept killing her pieces. No glares this time—the rules of board games and video games superseded every other rule. Here, anyone could win.

He peels the sheets off, more paste than fabric, and remembers the final kill. Slamming his piece so hard on top of Natalie’s that it flew off the table. Peter is always glad to teach her that she won’t always be treated with kindness.

He skulks through the house, hands scouring the tabletops and couch cushions for the van keys. He knows that no one will wake up, but still his breath is a shallow tide lapping at his mouth. Keys in hand, he teases the front door open and looks back into the house. He hears the heavy breath of sleep and the house settling, sees the shadow outlines of furniture and the soft hum of light from beneath his sister’s door. He holds for a second, listens for the rustmetal moans of a body pulling itself awake. He hears nothing. Satisfied, he steps into the night and pulls the door behind him.

The plan is simple, always has been. Learn the rules; use them; win.

Peter finds the CD player tucked in the pocket behind the passenger seat, where Jack always keeps it. He has planned up until this moment. He knows it can’t stay, but what to do with it? Hide it in the house? Throw it in the ocean? No, it can’t just disappear—Jack has to know it’s gone. He has to see the guts of it. If he doesn’t, he’ll search for it the rest of the week, will conscript them all in his search. The search will ruin him. A quick death—this much mercy Peter can allow.

He decides to lay it under the car, between the front and rear tires. In the morning, when their mother goes for coffee, she will crush it. It will look like an accident, like Jack had dropped the CD player without noticing. Nobody could blame Peter. Jack will grieve, will be inconsolable, but Peter won’t have to listen to Jack’s music until they go home, where the closest store that sells CD players isn’t an hour away. It’s a quick and dirty win, but Peter takes his victories when he can.

He knows that tomorrow will be horrible, that Jack will mourn for his broken husk more fiercely than he had for their father. Their mother will try and allay Jack’s grief, but Jack will have none of it. He will blame her endlessly.

“Why did you break my CD player? Why didn’t you see it? Why can’t you fix it?” He will hurl these questions long after the player gets replaced.

Peter is a good brother; he knows this. But good brothers need to win too sometimes. When he goes back to the house, he finds the door ajar. For a second, panic, but the house remains empty. No mother stomping out of the room, no interrogation. A sigh of relief—he must not have closed it all the way. He locks the door behind him and returns to bed.

Peter wakes to the smell of breakfast: charred toast and coffee and bacon grease. He tears the moist sheet off his body but doesn’t get up. Not yet. He watches his brother’s body heave in the bed opposite him. Here, Peter can pretend that he won’t have to watch the terror unfold, that there is only Peter and Jack and the Jersey Shore in August. Only silence and light and the wafting of a freshly cooked breakfast. Eventually though, he knows he must get up.

When he enters the kitchen, he expects to find his mother fretting and cursing, steeling herself for Jack’s fury. Instead he finds her at the table with Natalie, the CD player on the table.

“Why is Jack’s CD player here?”

“Jack must’ve dropped it last night,” his mother says. She cradles a mug of coffee blanched with milk.

“I found it,” Natalie mumbles. She cradles a small stuffed frog in her arms. “I forgot Froggy in the car last night, and when I went to get her, I found it on the ground.” She does not look Peter in the eyes.

“We’re lucky Nat found it or it’d be crushed by now,” their mother says. “And you know we’d never hear the end of it.” She smiles at Natalie. Natalie smiles back at her. It is a perfect moment.

Peter wonders when he will wake up for real. He had prepared for screaming and cursing. He had prepared for objects angrily set, almost thrown. He had even imagined his mother struggling to light a cigarette, her hands trembling as they tried to revive a ritual eighteen years out of practice.

“Why is my CD player out here?” Jack asks. He enters the kitchen, still groggy and in his boxers. Nobody flinches; they are used to the sight of Jack’s nearly unclothed expanse. Their mother explains what happened, but Jack does not smile.

“It shouldn’t be in here,” he says. “It should be in the car. That’s where I leave the CD player.” Their mother frowns. Peter grins.

“Don’t you worry,” Peter says. “I’ll take care of it.” He lifts the CD player delicately, feels the weight in his hand as he turns towards the door. Peter takes one step, and then another, and another, trying to quell the need to run. He must go to the van. He must walk slowly, purposefully, dutifully, until he is at the door. Then he runs.

“Peter?” His mother calls. “Where are you going?” Peter hears her but doesn’t answer. He sprints, pebbles and dust and sand torn from the ground beneath him. The air is hot in his lungs and sweat dampens the folds of his body. He knows what needs to be done; he must reach the beach before he is caught.

Peter can hear the footsteps, his mother’s and Jack’s, and the screams behind him, but he continues to sprint. He knows how to keep his mind focused, his hands steady, his eye on the prize. It does not take long for him to reach the shore. He takes a stand where the tide lips the sand. The water is cold as it washes over his feet. It drags the sediment out from around him, and to Peter this feels like an affirmation. He cocks his arm, and takes a breath. He hears his mother’s screams, stern and fearful. Peter imagines her face, her eyes wide, her mouth puckered for air.

Peter imagines his mother’s face and throws the CD player into the ocean. He watches it sail through the sky, spinning, before falling into deep water. He grins, gasps for air, as he watches the CD player drop out of sight. Jack unleashes a piercing scream. He doesn’t stop running. Peter knows that his brother is after blood. Jack’s thirst will not be sated until Peter rescues the CD player, summons it from the sea as if all this, too, were just a game. Peter doesn’t turn around. He steels his body. He will let Jack tackle him to the ground. Peter will let his brother have his blood.

This is what Peter tells himself: He is a good brother.