Hey guys, I hope it isn't considered terrible etiquette to post a story if you aren't an active WB poster. I've always wanted to post here, but truth be told, I've avoided this place because seeing all of your stories reminds me of how terribly unproductive I've been. This is like the first piece of creative writing I've finished in two years, and I'd love to get some more eyes on it. It's about a family on New Years Eve.
My bed had five pillows. Five. Two regular-sized ones in vanilla pillow cases that were actually made for sleeping and three decorative ones that lived on my bedroom floor in a big poofy pile. Two of those were blue with white pinstripes like my bedspread, the other was a little solid vanilla square that was supposed to be the dumb cherry on top of whole ensemble. Mom had always insisted on them, because she used to read old lady magazines like Home & Garden and Southern Living, where people stacked pillows to the ceiling. I didn’t read old lady magazines, so I never had much use for them.
I picked up one of the blue and white pinstriped ones and turned it over in my hands. It was large and plump. It would work.
Clutching the pillow, I gently cracked my bedroom door and crept down the hall. Downstairs I could hear a TV turned to a football game and the farty gurgle of the coffee maker. I chose my steps carefully, bare feet meeting carpet only where I knew the floor wouldn’t creak. At the other end of the hall was a closed door. I put my free hand under my grimy white t-shirt to turn the knob, which immediately struck me as stupid, because in the movies they did that so they wouldn’t leave fingerprints, not because it was quieter. But it felt stealthy, and I slid into the room undetected.
Mom had always called it the “guest bedroom,” even though we never had any guests stay over and it didn’t even have a bed. Instead there were two white bookshelves on one wall and a little particle board desk on the other. A big, beige CRT monitor sat on top of the desk; underneath was an equally beige tower and a tangle of cables. By all rights, this room was an “office.”
Making sure the volume was off, I booted up the computer. The CRT came to life with an electric splurt and the Windows 98 logo faded in on the screen. I sat, tense, for an eternity while the computer sputtered through its startup routine and was finally ready to use. I moused over to the pixellated globe icon, clicked, and typed in Mom’s old username and password.
Then I got into position, pillow in my left hand, right hand hovering over the keyboard. I took a deep breath and hit the Enter key.
The computer started to churn. I ducked under the desk and threw the pillow over the grey dial-up modem and pressed down on it with all of my 120 pounds, smothering it while it started to bleep and blorp and buzzsaw and screech. The modem’s plaintive wail dragged on forever as I leaned in as hard as I could to suffocate the noise.
I couldn’t tell how much my efforts really muffled the sound. After the modem’s song reached its merciful conclusion, I sat there, still, listening for Dad’s weight on the stairs outside. Nothing. I was online.
I crawled into the ergonomic swivel chair, slid my EverQuest disc into the CD-ROM drive, and within minutes I was in the game. I spun my mouse around, taking in the crude, polygonal vista; I was in a field just outside the high stone walls of a medieval city, a sharp, sparse forest looming in the distance.
“Does Dad know you’re on the computer?” asked a small voice behind me. I spun around in my chair to see my brother, Duncan, standing in the doorway. He was still wearing the Pokemon pajamas he’d gotten at Christmas.
“Shhh,” I said, waving him in. “Quiet. Shut the door.”
“Dad told you to leave the computer off today.”
“And you told him you wanted to shoot fireworks tonight. But did he buy any?”
“No,” Duncan admitted.
“Exactly. Sometimes people don’t listen when you tell them things.”
“But, Sam,” he said, lowering his voice as if speaking its name too loudly would give it more power, “it’s Y2K.”
I lazily raised an eyebrow. “What do you think that means?”
“The end of the world,” he whispered emphatically. His hair was sandy blonde like mine, but buzzed, and he had his Gameboy stuffed into the pocket of his pajama bottoms. “That’s what Dad said.”
“And the world’s going to end because of what, exactly?”
Duncan thought for a moment before finally deciding on “Computers. The world’s going to end because of computers.”
“It’s just a little computer bug,” I said. “Don’t make it sound like the Terminator.”
“You know I haven’t seen that movie. You know Dad wouldn’t let me.”
“I just mean that it’s not that big of a deal. You know how it’s 1999, right?”
“Well, in a lot of computers they abbreviate that as 99. When it turns 2000, those computers will say 00, and they won’t know if it’s 1900 or 2000. A lot of people think all the computers in the world are gonna crash and we’ll be stuck in the dark ages again.”
“The dark ages?” he asked.
“Like, medieval times. Way before anyone had electricity and everyone rode horses and crapped in holes in the ground.”
“I don’t want to ride horses.”
“Well, good,” I said. “Because nothing’s gonna happen at midnight.”
“Then why is everyone freaking out?”
I thought about it. “Because they’re old and they don’t know any better.” He seemed unconvinced, so I pointed to his pocket. “What about your Gameboy? It’s a computer, technically. Are you afraid of it?”
He pulled his Gameboy out and turned it over in his hands. He’d just gotten it for Christmas, and it wasn’t the original gray Gameboy with the monochrome screen like I used to have. Instead, it was one of the newer color models with the transparent plastic casing that was so popular, the kind that let you see straight to the circuit board. “But it just plays video games,” he said.
“And that’s all I’m doing here. It’s the same thing, see?” I motioned toward the computer screen.
He moved closer to the desk and craned his neck to see the monitor. “What game is that?”
“EverQuest. A high-fantasy realm of intrigue and adv--”
“Is that an elf?”
“Um, yeah. That’s an elf.”
“Are you that elf?”
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” he admitted. “Do you use a sword?”
“Yeah, but I can switch to a bow too.”
“Oh, oh, I wanna see you use it on something.” His eyes searched the screen. “That guy, the one with the helmet. Shoot that guy. No, wait, shoot that spider. Actually....” He grinned, entirely too pleased with himself. “Shoot both.”
“Sam! Duncan!” boomed a voice from downstairs. “Come down here, both of you!”
“Turn it off,” whispered Duncan. “He knows.”
“No he doesn’t,” I said. “Come on, let’s see what he wants.”
We went downstairs and into the kitchen, where my Dad was standing over a pile of junk on the kitchen table. He was taller than me, but not by much, and his hair was mostly gray. “Alright, boys, do you know what this is?” he asked.
We shook our heads.
“This is our insurance policy,” he said, picking up a can off the table. “Canned food. We’ve got soup, corn, cream of corn, black eyed peas, lima beans.”
He let that one slide. “And here we’ve got a few jugs of water. Ten gallons total. Extra matches, duct tape, glow sticks--”
“Glow sticks? Are we gonna be on MTV?”
“To use as flares, Sam. First aid kit, folding knife, compass. Do you know how to read a compass?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was a Scout, remember?”
“For two weeks, six years ago. You cried so much when they took you camping that we had to come pick you up in the middle of the night. I’ll show you how to read it, but first I’ve got to make a call about getting a generator.”
“A call?” I asked. My eyes darted to the telephone on the wall, and my stomach sank.
“Yeah, a call. With the phone.” He jabbed a finger into my shoulder. “See, you’re not the only one who can be sarcastic.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said as he moved toward the phone. I shot out of the kitchen, sprinted up the stairs, taking them three at a time. I hit the office door, swung it open, and dove for the modem.
I was too late.
He came stomping up the steps behind me. I could feel the floor shake with each angry footfall.
“Sam!” He was standing in the doorway, furious. There was a phone on the computer desk, off-white with the curly cord, and he grabbed it and held it out to me. From the tinny receiver, the internet shouted like a great electronic cicada. Screech, beep. Screech, beep. Static.
“One day,” he said with that sort of forced, deliberate calm, the way that really, really angry people speak when they’re about one second away from putting their fist through the drywall. “One. Day. That’s all I asked.”
“It’s Christmas Break,” I said. “I’m sorry. I just wanted--”
“No, Sam. That might have worked on Mom, but not me. I asked you not to do one thing. Just one thing, and you went and did it anyway.” He lurched for the computer tower. “I’m going to yank it out of the damn wall.”
“No!” I screamed. “You’ll break it!” I flew at him and grabbed him by the arm and tried to pull him away from the computer. He got hold of my wrist and squeezed it like a pair of pliers, wrenching me off of him. I planted my feet, and that’s when I did it. I took a swing at him.
My dad had worked in a shipping center for ten years, loading boxes onto trucks all day, and it had taken a toll on him. He usually went to bed with a heating pad on his lower back. I always suspected that if I pushed him hard enough, he’d fall over and wouldn’t be able to stand back up without the help of a whole bottle of Advil. But the way he moved, then, was like a Great White on the Discovery channel, exploding out of the ocean and snapping a seal in half in one fluid motion. Dads are like that, I think. They’re sore all the time but they have memories of being apex predators.
I don’t even remember if my punch landed. All I remember is cocking my arm, unloading with all the strength I could muster, and then he had me fully off the ground, pressed against the wall with his forearm across my throat. I still remember the look in his eyes, the same sort of wild surprise that he probably saw in mine. Something moved in the doorway, and we both looked over to see Duncan standing there. His eyes were pooling up and tears stained his cheeks.
Dad let me down and stomped downstairs. He didn’t even make me turn off the computer, but I didn’t feel like playing anymore. I went into my room, slammed the door behind me, and laid face down on my bed, trying to bury my face in the pillows.
I must’ve fallen asleep, because it was dark outside when I heard my door open. I sat up to see Duncan creeping in with his Gameboy in hand. “What do you want?” I asked, turning my pillow over so that he wouldn’t see that it was wet.
“Do you think I have time to beat this before midnight?” He showed me his Gameboy. There was a Pikachu on the screen.
I looked at the clock radio on my nightstand. It was eight o’clock. “You’ve got four hours,” I said. “Let me help.”
We always had a late dinner on New Year’s Eve. Mom and Dad would cook and we’d sit in front of the TV and eat while we watched the ball drop. Then we’d head outside to shoot fireworks. That wasn’t going to happen this year, I thought, but around eleven we heard footsteps outside my door.
I followed Duncan into the kitchen, where the table was cleared off and three plates were laid out, each with a large steak on it.
“You hungry?” Dad asked Duncan. “You’d better be. Grab a seat. What do you want to drink?”
“Water,” said Duncan. He looked at me. “Sam, what do you want?”
“He’s got legs,” said Dad, pouring Duncan a glass of water.
We spent our dinner in silence. The TV stayed off. Dad had probably unplugged it, I thought, lest a poltergeist come out of it the second Dick Clark said “Happy New Year.”
We heard the first one around a quarter ‘til midnight. It was a dull pop, almost inaudible, probably far away. I looked up from my plate and made eye contact with Duncan. He’d heard it too. Dad was still leaning over his food, nose down, diligently picking at his steak. Either he hadn’t heard it or he was just ignoring it.
Then there was a second pop, this time louder, and a few minutes later, a third. The pops got louder and more frequent every few minutes, like a bag of popcorn in the microwave, until they were so loud and so close that you could hear the high pitched sighs that preceded them and the neighbors’ car alarms started going off and they weren’t even pops anymore but rather echoing booms.
Dad set his knife and his fork down onto his plate. “Alright,” he said, “Let’s go watch some fireworks.”
We pushed out our chairs and stood up in unison. I pulled on a hoodie over my t-shirt, Duncan threw his puffy 49ers jacket over his Pokemon pajamas, and we all three put our shoes on and headed for the door. I made it first and opened the door and the cold stung my face but I walked out anyway.
As soon as we were all on the porch, a rocket whistled overhead and exploded in a huge red shower that cast the whole cul-de-sac in a velvet hue. Bright trails of light arced into the sky from behind the row of houses across from us, from the houses behind ours, from either end of our street, from the whole neighborhood. The sky was ablaze with a hundred different colors and a hundred different types of fireworks, everything from little bottle rockets that came and went without much fanfare to behemoths that exploded like artillery shells and left glittering clouds that lingered for minutes.
Dad looked at his watch. “It’s midnight,” he said. “Happy New Year.”
The three of us sat down on the curb and watched the sky. It seemed like everyone in the whole world was doing fireworks. Except us.
“Remember that year when you had that little spinning star?” Dad asked.
“The Inferno Blossom,” I said.
“Yeah, that one. And it went shooting across the street and went into that drain, right there.” He pointed, laughing. “There were dried leaves at the bottom and they all caught fire, and you two were scared shitless. The flames were just shooting up out of the drain and we thought they were going to catch the yard on fire. I ran inside and grabbed the fire extinguisher and put it out, and we looked and your mom was standing there--she was just standing there, laughing so hard.”
“She was laughing so hard that she peed in her pants, and it was running down the street.”
“There was pee everywhere,” Duncan said.
“And she still couldn’t stop laughing,” I said.
Duncan glanced from me to Dad. “So I guess the world’s not ending?”
“No, son,” said Dad. “I guess not.” And then he looked at me, and his eyes were shimmering by the light of the fireworks overhead. “Sam, you know I was just trying to--”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”