A, B, B, A

approx 4000 words, ~25 min read time


STAGE 1 { 

Since nobody had the cheat code to bypass your dad’s funeral, you just left.

Pretty sure the man wouldn’t notice. You were sixteen when he last gave an actual damn about you or your whereabouts. A lifetime ago. This was way back when you’d ride the ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf to hit up the arcade at Pier 39. That was the ritual. Every Saturday. Just the two of you. Then the city shut the whole wharf down on account of rising sea levels.

“Water levels are the worst,” he had said the day he heard the news. “Looks like we’ll have to find something else to do.”

The man found something to do, alright—or, someone. If he was sick of playing with you, he should’ve said so. Instead of stooping so low to use climate change as an escape hatch. And now look at him: casket-bound with his classic high top fade, health bar on E and fresh out of quarters. All he left you was a stupid note, scribbled on hospital stationery:

At the loading screen, press Up, Down, Up, Right, Right, Right, A, B, B, A

You should’ve tossed it. But you held onto it. Why? You don’t know. But you carried the note everywhere, even now, riding the ferry back across the Bay, sneaking past “flood risk” signs. At the arcade entrance, you pause. Walk away, you tell yourself. Go back to the funeral. Your mom didn’t raise you to shirk responsibilities. You’re not him. No, you’re not him.

But your motor skills don’t comply. Next thing you know, you’re inside. This ghost town of an arcade looks nothing like you remember. It’s empty. Everything shipped out. Except one nondescript cabinet in the corner. The last machine standing. When you plug it in, a grungy title sequence with 8-bit music buzzes through speakers, surging down your spine and all over your body. Then a list appears of old-school, side-scrolling beat ’em ups, from Double Dragon to Final Fight to Renegade, and on and on. You select Turtles in Time. One player. Cowabunga! At the loading screen, you press: Up, Down, Up, Right, Right, Right, A, B, B, A

It’s three a.m. in the Big Apple and Raphael jumps into action. But you’re not alone.

Blinking to life on the screen stands a bulky man in fatigues with a classic high top fade. You lean forward, squinting at this pixelated non-player character before you. “What the hell?”




This can’t be right. That’s not him. “You’re not him,” you tell the figure on the screen. Your objections notwithstanding, NPC Dad charges ahead to break his foot off in the The Foot Clan. He looks like him. Moves like him. Punches like him. But you know you’re seeing things. Lack of sleep will do that to you.

You unplug the machine, then plug it back in. You select Streets of Rage. At the loading screen, you press: Up, Down, Up, Right, Right, Right, A, B, B, A

Adam jumps into action. NPC Dad does too, already comboing before you get a kick in. This time, you roll with it. Why not? You’re not supposed to be here anyway. Might as well seize the moment. And the bad guys. Muscle memory in full effect. It’s you and NPC Dad, tag-teaming on the streets to a bomb beat, giving these goons the work like you did back in the day. Punching. Kicking. Flipping. Gripping the joystick so hard you damn near rip it off.

And then, suddenly, you’re sixteen again: drenched in splashes of flashing lights, in the stench of young musk and high hopes, in a symphony of chiptunes and sudden cheers and loose change tumbling into metal dispensers. Buzzing. Nonstop beeping. The tap-tapping of buttons. The clack-clack-clack of air hockey pucks. Pinball bells, machine gun rounds, revving engines.


Get over here! 


Those were the days. Back when this arcade was a safe haven from a strange world. The only place you felt in control. Where you could exist without explaining yourself. Away from all the noise: those voices, both within and without, screaming that you don’t belong and you won’t survive and you’re not supposed to be here. But here you finally felt connected to something—or, someone. And you and Dad rode the ferry home, poking at the spots on your palms where blisters used to host parties. You swore you were the only one in the world with the code to unlock the hidden character that was your father. And now he’s back and better than ever—that is until some beastly-looking, flame-haired boss claws NPC Dad to death. 



STAGE 3 { 

You unplug the machine, then plug it back in. 

The screen lights up. More electronic music. You look over the list of games. Battletoads. The Simpsons. X-Men. At each loading screen, you press: Up, Down, Up, Right, Right, Right, A, B, B, A 

But it keeps going wrong. Every single time, NPC Dad steps in, goes hard, then gets knocked out dead. No extra lives. No continues. You drop your sweaty head on the control panel. Your hands hurt, your stomach hurts, everything hurts. No matter what you do or what game you play or how good you are, you can’t stop your dad from dying.

“Is there anything that can be done?” you ask the doctor.

This is last May. You’re outside the hospital room. Your dad’s new ladyfriend is here. Not the one he left your mom for. Some new character, who fancies herself a psychic with the “healing powers of God in her hands.” Got the whole room suffocating in frankincense. Unfortunately for her, your father doesn’t have a quarter’s worth of inheritance to speak of, so she’s only playing herself with this unsubtle level-up scheme.

“We’re doing everything we can,” the doctor tells you.

The neurocritical care team dosed him with a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) to break down the blood clot in his brain. They threaded a plastic catheter into his groin, up through the aorta and into his head, then used a stent retriever to enmesh the clot and pull it out. But too much brain tissue had already been damaged. You learned more about ischemic strokes than you ever had before. At least you’re well-informed.

“You can see him when you’re ready,” the doctor tells you.

And when you do, you take a deep breath like you’re diving into a pool. Not like a stroke is contagious, but still. His ladyfriend steps out for alkaline water, which she claims is key for healing. She touches your shoulder and tells you not to leave before she returns.

“I have a gift for you,” she says, then skips down the hallway.

You don’t want nothing from this girl because a) you’ve got chin hairs older she is, and b) you’ve got zero interest in playing “Let’s be friends!” with some wannabe bonus mom. No way. You’re too grown. The ticking clock of her returning adds more pressure as you enter the room.

Your dad is asleep. A metal cap covers his classic high top fade. Silver wires slither out, connected to a machine that hums. A monitor tracks his heartbeat. His dark brown eyes open. Slowly. He sees you standing all the way over by the door.

“Guess what I just learned?” he says, but his mouth doesn’t match the words like a dubbed kung fu flick. He points at you. “You got a pathway in your body called Sonic hedgehog. How cool is that! I got one too. And the doctors are gonna pump mine with a special drug to straighten up the tissue in my head.”

It’s weird seeing him this animated. Especially outside the arcade. Plus, with him being half-dead and all. You don’t know what to say, let alone how to feel. It’s all kind of surreal, to be honest. Like you’re seeing things. Or maybe that’s because you haven’t been in the same room as the man in eight years. Not since you caught him in bed with somebody who wasn’t Mom. You called Mom to fill her in. He called you a snitch, punched you in the chest and moved out.

“Soon as that’s done, I’ll be right as rain.” He frowns, reconsidering the common phrase. “Wait, is that right? Right as rain? What the hell does that mean? Who said rain is right?”

You study your dad from a safe distance. It’s not the words you would remember later. It’s how your dad tries to smile but can’t. And how he needs the nurse to cut his blueberries and feed him steel-cut oats. And how he slobbers off to sleep. Leaving you alone in that smelly, stroke-infested room. Leaving you to think you could do something like, you don’t know, stab him with the blueberry knife so he won’t suffer. Leaving you to watch the heart-rate monitor—that green line spiking up, dipping down, then up again in continuous waves, going right. 



STAGE 4 { 

You unplug the machine, then plug it back in. 

But by this point, it doesn’t matter. Choosing another game won’t change a thing. Every game ends the same. You don’t want to know the time. Feels like you’ve been at this forever. Thirty-two missed calls from Mom. You should be there. For her, if no one else. You want to go. You need to go. But you can’t bring yourself to step away from this machine.

“What I hear you saying is that you feel stuck,” your virtual therapist tells you.

This is last December. You’re living back at your mom’s house after your ex kicked you out for cheating. Not like she caught you red-handed. She found some rated M for mature videos you swore you deleted off your phone. Snooping through your partner’s private devices was a form of cheating in itself, you pointed out. She didn’t care for that retort. And here you are.

You wouldn’t say you feel stuck, though. More like recalibrating. That uniquely human act of putting your life on pause to resolve your purpose. Hell, Jesus did it, so why couldn’t you?

“Jesus had a job,” your mom said.

Apparently, she wasn’t too pleased to see you. You couldn’t tell if her contempt came from the fact that she liked your ex. Or that she looked at you and saw hers. You didn’t ask. Back home, you kept to yourself. Staying in your room in the company of old-gen consoles.

“Depression is repressed anger,” your virtual therapist tells you.

“I don’t feel depressed,” you say. “I don’t feel anything, to be honest.”

“I hear you. Emotional numbness can be a symptom of depression.”

The concept of therapy never made much sense to you. Like buying a strategy guide for a video game you created. And why pay some random to tell you what you can freely find online? But your dad’s ladyfriend gifted you a free week of therapy and you have nothing better to do.

Your dad is still alive. Last you heard, his body rejected the drug treatment. No surprise. Rejection is your dad’s go-to move. His default special attack. But as of late, you’ve seen hints of expansion. When you spoke to him last week, he suggested you two take a trip out to Pier 39. And yeah, you know that was the drugs talking. Not only did he forget the old arcade was closed, but he kept going on about a craving for Crystal Pepsi and missing his old Power Glove. Life was better before you were born. That’s basically what he was saying.

“And what did you say?” your therapist asks you. “When your dad invited you to Pier 39, what did you tell him?”

“Rain check.”

“Were you angry?”

“Look, I’m not angry. I’m not depressed, repressed or whatever. I’m busy living my life.”

“What does living mean?”

“You know, living: the opposite of dying. Heart still beating, etc.”

“That’s what it means to you?”

“I never met a dead man with a heartbeat. Have you?” 


“And he was just talking anyway. It wasn’t real. You know how I know? Because a) the arcade is shutdown, and b) he didn’t follow up, so it don’t matter. I’ll see him when I see him—”

Right then, your mom barges into the room. Instinctively, you slam the laptop shut and start to bark at her about invading your privacy. But quivering brown eyes betray her message. It’s not the words you would remember later. It’s how your mom tries to comfort you but can’t. And how she looks somber, but also something else like, you don’t know, relieved? Vindicated? You don’t ask. 

You want to be alone, you tell her, and she leaves you alone. You stare at the wall for twenty-five minutes. You play Super Mario Bros. 3 on Nintendo, the first gift you remember your dad giving you, to lose yourself in a nonlinear world of mushrooms, pipes and super leaves. You want to grow raccoon ears and a raccoon tail and run and fly as long as you can.

“Why do they call video game systems consoles?” you asked your dad once when you were little and still learning.

“You’re saying it wrong,” he told you. “The stress is on the first syllable. CON-soles.”

“CON-soles,” you said.

It had something to do with “consolidation,” he told you, bringing multiple parts together into a single unit for a specific purpose. He sounded so sure of himself. You believed him at the time. You don’t know what to believe anymore.


STAGE 5 { 

Thunder rumbles outside the arcade. Here comes the rain.

You think about your mom, navigating that funeral. You told her not to go. She wanted to “do the right thing”. Whatever the hell that means. You left because you couldn’t handle it, the hypocrisy of it: being there with all those people who claimed to know your father, but really had no clue who the man was. They didn’t know about that time he got locked in some video rental store called Blockbuster. Or when he stole a Game Genie from his best friend during a sleepover in fourth grade. They damn sure didn’t know about his player tendencies.

You saw online that people cheat in video games for a handful of reasons:

1) to make the game easier

2) to win at all costs

3) to get revenge

4) to get pleasure from causing pain to others

5) because everybody else is doing it

You don’t know which category your dad fit in, but the man had a cheat code for everything. Well, almost everything. Apparently, not even NPC Dad can escape the fact of life. But who’s to say your reality is any higher than his? If humans were random characters in a grander game, controlled by something—or, someone—would your dad’s glitches be forgiven? Would yours? The only thing more human than making mistakes is making excuses.

You unplug the machine, but this time, you don’t plug it back in.

You fall on your knees at the foot of the cabinet. You pray to whoever may be there for a hint, a code, a sign, something, anything to let you know you’re not alone in this buggy world. 

“Hey, you!” a voice booms from behind.

Your heart double jumps. With shaky knees, you rise to your feet. Slowly. But you don’t turn around. You face forward, staring dead ahead at the cabinet.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” the voice booms again.

The machine is unplugged. Everything is off. But you swear you see something there, moving across the liquid screen: a faint green line. A lump the size of a joystick ball lodges in your throat, but you manage to utter these three words: “Yes, we are.”

And as the rain falls outside, you keep your eyes on that line, spiking up, dipping down, then up again, a tiny blip, a hidden character, jumping, fighting on, going right, going right, going right.




Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer and endangered journalist. Raised in Richmond, California, he got rid of all his stuff in 2011 to live out of a backpack with his wife, vagabonding around the world ever since. Look for him at russellnichols.com.

Photo by Joey kwok on Unsplash

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