Level Seven

Charles McLeod

Throwups past the mark line and I’m ready to soldier so I call up Bumpo but he tells me no. So I don’t. I got a small face; we all got small faces, but I see better than most. L.A., L.A., or my version of it. Bumpo’s not left here, and neither has Sammy and neither have Halftime and PoeBoy and Ghost. I see them a lot, at least every so often. They took in Halftime for doin’ it movin’, a bottle of Hennie on his Caddie’s shotgun, part-slugged. Sometimes I think that these palm trees aren’t palm trees. Sometimes I think that these palm trees aren’t trees at all.

But the throwup. The mark line, it’s there to show order. It says you stay on your side, I’ll stay over here. I don’t know who did it. I walk into walls, thinking. I get pissed off near the limits and I boost a car. The drivers idle at stoplights and I yank them out. Popo always shows up only after. They got the big guns, the dark blue SWAT costumes, but I always outrun them when I shouldn’t be able to do that at all. There’s the beach and the hills and the basin between them, the endless strip malls, the freeways on stilts. I’ve been playing the game for almost a half-year. I’ll be in a train yard or some Burbank high-rise and a package will be there, glowing in the shadows, and I’ll take it and move it, which I’m doing right now in a warehouse in K-Town when Mom yells at me Dinner, the shrill in her voice meaning For Real.

Don’s my mom’s boyfriend, her third since last summer. He works at one of Santa Fe’s jails. He sits at our table in his tan CO outfit, chewing and talking and warning and sipping his beer. Don’s Cheat Code is Listen While Nodding. I tried Talking Back once and he boxed my ear. Mom threw milk on him but they made up with fucking, and so Don’s still here, under our kitchen table’s dull bulb, chewing our meatloaf and talking about Level Six, out at the prison, where “the really bad people” are taken away to after they do all the things that they did. The exact code is this: Listen, Chew, Nod, Listen, Listen. I say it at dinner in my head, to myself. LCNLL, then I can break eye contact without Don saying are you listening, little specks of ground beef shooting out of his mouth. I tried other codes, like Ignore or Talk Back, but Don’s hands are quick. So I switched it up and got a new weapon, my Eye Contact Laser that shoots False Investment, it works like a stun gun and gets me through this stage called Dinner, Poeboy and Bumpo one time zone west, waiting on pause.

The thing is that I looked up all the hack codes. I don’t do multi-player; it’s just me, by myself. The throwup shouldn’t be there. At one point, it wasn’t.
The throwup got into the game by itself.

 

In the morning, it’s Bathroom. Don’s the first in there. He fills up our toilet with last night’s dinner then gets in the shower and forgets to flush. Mom goes last. She’s a nurse. My dad, my birth one, he’s out there somewhere—there aren’t any pictures, aren’t any mementoes, and my mom told me, the one time I asked her, just don’t. Last week, I went through the drawers of her dresser, but all I found under her bras and panties was Don’s gun. I’ve been through her closet. I’ve been through the storage shed in the backyard. There’s nothing. When I turn eighteen, I can find out at Records, but that’s two years away and I want to know sooner. I want to know before I’ve grown up.

In the kitchen, I get down the cereal boxes from the cabinet next to the sink. I get down the bowls. Don sits at the table and opens the paper and says, Nathan, and when I say what, he says, eggs. Mom’s in the shower. The bus comes in ten minutes. What about them, I say to Don, who stands up. Our house is just off of West Alameda, on this little hill. The kitchen window catches the morning light past the mountains. I like being up early, the dawn and the nighttimes, the more quiet hours, when the world’s calm and cool. Don opens the door to the fridge then closes it hard. He walks over to me, walks right behind me. I’m looking out the window, at our backyard. Don slams the half-gallon down on the counter. The egg tactic’s a new one; he’s never asked this. The breath from his nostrils touches my neck.

“I can’t,” I say. “I’ll miss school.” My hands are over the edge of the tile where the counter meets the sink’s basin and Don grabs the right one and puts it down the disposal, the black rubber edges wringing my wrist. I can feel the machine blades under my fingers. Don shoves his gut into my tailbone and then turns my neck with his free hand, so my face is forced into looking at his.

“See that switch,” Don asks me, nodding toward the outlet combo on the wall. He turns my head for me to make sure I can see it. In the bathroom he measures his sideburns with a tape rule, pulling the yellow strip down past his ear. The whites of his eyes have little red cracks around their blue. They look like snake eyes, milky and shallow. Don kicks my ankle, spreading my feet apart with his foot.

“Teenagers are clumsy,” Don says, almost hissing, but then the water in the shower turns off. Don pushes my head down and goes back to his paper. The sun’s past the mountains. The sun has come up.

School Bus is the easiest part of the morning. I sit halfway back, next to Arvin, just like I always do. “Mr. Misty,” he says. We slap hands. Arvin scoots over. My mom’s Xicana. My dad’s Navajo, like Arvin’s parents are. Arvin still has a black eye from the weekend before last, when he told a tourist that this dude on the Plaza who set up next to his spot was trying to pass off plated metal as sterling silver. The guy was from Tucson, some travelling con man. He found Arvin in the alley behind the Game King and beat the shit out of him, broke his glasses, broke two of his ribs. This was a Sunday. I was home, gaming. I’d just found this hang glider in Griffith Park. Arvin texted me and asked if my mom and I could take him to St. Vincent’s, where my mom works Level III Trauma. In the alley, Arvin was sitting on a turned-over milk crate, trying to put his lens back in his snapped glasses. There were long strings of blood on his shirt. Hi Miss Adargo, Arvin said to my mother, then waved and tried to stand up and just sat there groaning, taking these quick little breaths.

I take out a pencil from inside my backpack and press the pink end into Arvin’s ribs. He yips a la verga then tells me he’ll get his great aunt to curse me, grabbing the pencil and throwing it out of the window of the bus. It’s March, almost springtime, the grass dead but things blooming, the nights just above freezing, the days warm enough for jeans and a shirt. I get a text from Roxanna, five rows behind us—is that the new t from down at Pollux with the TV in the shape of a skull? I text back yes. Roxanna texts, killer, and my cheeks go hot. I turn around and she looks down at her cell phone. She has on a black skirt with fake belts on it, their metal parts down the side in one little row. After Christmas, her parents vacationed in Flagstaff and she had people over and we kissed in the bathroom and she took my hand and put it under her flannel shirt. Since then, it’s just been texts and camming. The Spring Dance is in two weeks and I still haven’t asked her and I think that she wants me to ask her but I don’t have enough clues to know one hundred percent.

The bus stops and we march off and Arvin goes in his backpack and pulls out a money clip with a circle of turquoise on it, next to a second inlay of spiny oyster shell. Both of Arvin’s parents work metal; his mom leads tours up at this foundry on the outskirts of town. For your mom, he tells me, and hands the piece over. One long kestrel feather trails down past the two stones. I tell him thanks and we go to our homerooms and meet up at lunch and sit on the same bus, after classes are over, in the very same seats as we did that morning. Roxanna, behind me, texts Spring Dance iz cuming. I text back, I know, but then it’s my stop.

The game isn’t perfect. It has weird angles. It has these glitches where things don’t line up. I’ll see the throwup, bright red, on my side of the mark line then try to run toward it but the sun goes through the trees and sends stripes to the sidewalk, the world broken up by these white-yellow fans, and the wall zooms and strobes like a lens out of focus and by the time I find an angle where I can see clearly, the throwup is gone.

I spend the weekend at Arvin’s, the two of us playing World Cup. When I get back on Sunday, Don’s tossed my room. He’s tried to put everything back where it should be but he can’t make the bed right and the clothes in my drawers are angled and wrinkled and when I check the spy cam on my computer, rewinding to Friday at seven and then hitting fast forward, I’m staring at Don, four inches away from the lens of the camera. The look on his face is like he’s having a seizure then he almost falls over and then he stands up and does his belt buckle and spits on my rug. I check the IP log, and sure enough, porn. Don’s really old, a few years past forty. He thinks if he just hits Clear History, it’s enough. I go out to the kitchen and open the cupboard under the sink, taking out the plastic tube of disinfectant cloths. I’m walking down the back hallway when Don opens the door to my mom’s bedroom.

“How you doin’, sport,” Don asks, and I level my eyes at him and keep walking, and Don slams the door. Later, at dinner, he’s still playing nice guy. I use my Cheat Code and add Earnest Laughter. Don slaps me on the shoulder and I manage to not wince like I’m sick. I do this in order to make my mom happy, to make her feel like we might or could be a family, which won’t be, which we are not. I do the dishes then go back to my bedroom. Poeboy’s in Compton because of his lady, Cheron. Cheron’s trying to make it as a singer, but the record producer, a fat guy named Dizzy, wants to know what other talents she has, before he’ll give her a deal. Cheron’s in a track suit, velour, form-fitting, and I think of Roxanna, her skirt on the bus. I found a hack code online where Cheron can be naked, but I don’t want to do that because Poeboy’s my friend. He left the Crips to become a vigilante; in order to make right, he has to do wrong. I get his text while I’m out driving in Glendale, Poeboy saying that he needs my help. I take my Porsche down Crenshaw, to Juggernaut Records, but the whole thing’s a set-up, Poeboy’s betrayed me, and when I arrive at the building that houses the label, Poeboy and Dizzy are both shooting at me, along with Cheron and maybe two-dozen hoods. I die three times before I get through the mission and then turn the game off and get under the covers. I’m upset by the plotline. Friends should only look out for each other. Friends should be good.

On the bus on Monday I’m next to Arvin. I ask him who he’s taking to the Spring Dance.

“I don’t know,” Arvin says. “I don’t know if I’m going. Are you asking Roxanna?”

“I think so,” I say, looking out the window.

“She’s trouble,” says Arvin, “but that’s cool, I guess.”

For most people, Santa Fe’s like a first-person player, your body just hands that find or buy things—the flight on the computer, the airport taxi, the one-bed casita, the map for the Plaza, the statue of Assisi, a blue corn empanada, the right piece of jewelry from a Navajo blanket, a strong margarita, pamphlets from the galleries. A book. Then the trip’s over, the missions accomplished. Game won. I think about the people from L.A. who come here, how they walk through my city and it’s half-real to them, how the L.A. that I know, the one in the game that I’m playing, is half-real to me, and how they go back to L.A. and tell their friends about their trip here, the same way I tell Arvin about how L.A. is. His parents are Mormon so it’s only sports games, and when he comes over to my house and I’m playing, he says hey from the door of the bedroom and just sort of stands there looking at the carpet until I turn the game off. So I tell him about it: the city, its freeways, the sun-bright skyscrapers, the hookers and pimps and drug dealers and dirty cops. Arvin asks if I can send him screenshots of the ocean; he wants to live by the beach, when he grows up, and when I find a good angle I hit pause and pick up my smartphone and turn on the camera and text Arvin the picture and he texts back, that’s awesome, thanks a lot.

There’s an assembly at school, instead of homeroom. We sit on the wood bleachers to the sides of the court. At center court is a mic stand. Mr. Suarez walks out and puts the mic in its holder, then takes something out from his sport coat’s side pocket. He’s talking about the need for belief in each other, for belief in one’s future and knowing true from false, but what I’m thinking about while he’s talking is that what’s in his hand looks just like the parcels in the game that I’m playing too much: brown butcher paper with white string around it, the sides creased like a present, the string tied in a sharp little bow. I hear Mr. Suarez say “meth” and “weekend” and “bathroom” but he’s holding the package in one hand, at head level, and the lights from the gym are hitting the paper, which has to be waxed or something, because the angle at which the lights touch it seem to be making it glow. I want to stand up. I want to go get it. Mr. Suarez keeps talking but I can’t really hear him. The package is right there and I have my eyes on it and in the air of the gym it looks like it’s floating, like it’s waiting for me to touch it with my body and then sell its contents, my score going higher, my mission completed, the next mission unlocked.

“This isn’t real,” says Mr. Suarez, “but what it represents has grave implications. The world is a trickster, sometimes, a coyote.”

“Chupacabra,” screams someone, and people start laughing, and Mr. Suarez smiles a short smile then looks down at the gym floor.

“Chupacabra, si,” he says into the microphone. “It’s funny, until it isn’t. Funny until you’re walking the mesa at nighttime and you hear it in the shadows, you know? And you’re all alone in that great big desert, and it’s out there, beside you, its hooves in the dirt. And you only want to get to your mami. You don’t even know how you got there in the first place. And you’re thinking about that, and then it’s at your throat.”

The gym’s silent. Mr. Suarez looks at one set of bleachers then the other. Some people start shifting their bodies or mumbling. I raise my hand but it’s like I’m not even doing it, like I can’t stop myself. Mr. Suarez sees me and nods his head. I stand up.

“What’s in the package?” I ask him. Every single person is staring at me.

My legs barely work, but I have to know.

“What do you mean?” Mr. Suarez asks me. “I just said that we found meth in the bathroom this weekend.” A few people start laughing and I feel my cheeks burn.

 

“No, but I mean in there. I mean in that package. In the package you’re holding.”

“In this?” says Mr. Suarez. “I just wrapped up a bag of coffee.” There’s a moment of silence then the whole gym starts laughing and when it dies down Mr. Suarez goes back to talking. I’m still standing up when I feel something tugging at the side of my shirt. It’s Arvin. He’s looking at up at me.

“What’s wrong with you, fool,” he tells me. “Sit down.”

 

That night, I cam with Roxanna. She has on red lipstick and thick black mascara and when she blinks her eyes, their lids are bright purple.

“The color’s called Princess Queen. Do you get it?” Roxanna’s chewing gum and winding it around her finger. The gum’s purple, too.

“Not really,” I say, trying not to look at myself in the screen’s corner.

“Well what makes a princess turn into a queen?” she asks me.

“When the reigning queen dies,” I answer. “But I think that the king maybe has to be dead, too?”

Roxanna raises her eyebrows. The whole piece of gum is sitting on the tip of her finger. She looks disappointed. “That’s not what I meant,” she tells me, “at all.”

I’m trying to get up the courage to ask her, but the question’s as big as a city, and there’s like this maze between my brain and my throat, and the words are all people, trying to find their way out, and they think they’re close but the path dead-ends on them, and then they’re trapped there just like before.

“Hey can you keep a secret?” Roxanna asks me.

“Sure,” I say, even though I’ve never had to keep one before.

“That shit they found, it’s from my brother.”

“He sells it in the girls’ bathroom?” I ask her.

Roxanna tilts her head and stares at me like I’m stupid. “I sell it, dumbass,” she whispers. “Skirts don’t buy themselves.”

There’s a noise in the hallway and I half-shut my laptop. I hear the door to the bathroom and push the screen back up.

“Don there?”

“He’s always here now,” I tell her. “Like almost every night this month.”

“Dude sucks, but listen, do you want to help me?”

“Help you with what?” I ask her. I’m still listening for Don in the hallway.

“With moving it,” says Roxanna. “You could be like my muscle. The guy that I’m meeting is this total creeper and I don’t want to go to his place by myself. ”

“Sell drugs,” I say. Roxanna nods at me.

“Yeah, but then what I don’t sell, maybe you could hold it? Then I could come over when I need to get it. See your bedroom in person. Sit on your bed.” Roxanna winks at me and my armpits go hot.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Don searches my room. Like a lot.”

“Well,” says Roxanna, unbuttoning a button on her white collared shirt, “maybe you should find somewhere else to hide it. Do you want to see where I like to hide it, when I bring it to school?”

I don’t say a word. I watch her undo the shirt’s buttons. I watch her take her shirt off. Her bra’s leopard neon, pink blue and yellow. I’ve felt them, but I’ve never seen them. At the party at her house, in the bathroom, the lights were off.

“Is that a maybe?” Roxanna asks me, and I’m thinking of Cheron in her red velour track suit when I hear the toilet flush.

“I gotta go,” I say.

“Wednesday after school. The park by the K-Mart.”

“But we’ll miss the bus home,” I say to her.

“Fuck the bus home,” says Roxanna, then kisses at the screen and logs off.

 

I go on a forum, create a handle and come up with a password. The subject line of my question is THROWUP PAST MARK LINE. I say what wall, what part of the city. I say I can’t get a good angle to see it, but that it wasn’t there when the game started and now it’s there always and have other people out there also had this happen and if so has anyone figured it out. I say that something about it makes me really anxious, and if I could just read it or know what it’s saying, I could then maybe forget all about it.

But no one responds.

I break into mansions. I burn down a food truck. I drive a Ferrari through an old folks’ home. I stay up all night before school on Wednesday, playing. I’m supposed to help Bumpo kidnap his bail bondsman, in order to hold him for ransom, but each time Bumpo tells me about the mission, I pull out my Tech-9 and I shoot him. I don’t know even know why I do it. I do it to see if Bumpo will do something different. I do it to see if the game knows what I’m going to do. To see if maybe it can somehow stop me. To see if maybe it will say without saying what you’re doing is not what you’re supposed to do. It’s two and then three and then four in the morning, and I’m thinking about Roxanna, about why I can’t ask her, about the park by the river and my dad out there somewhere, walking the mesa at nighttime, alone, but here I can just keep running forever, out to the beach and then back through the city and eastward, all the way out to the hills. I don’t need to eat or do any talking. There’s no Spring Dances, no Life Science homework. There’s no Don. I keep playing as night fades past my bedroom’s window but I’m not even really playing at all, just holding the toggle and watching my small body run, my thumb then my hand then my wrist going numb. It takes me a second to realize that I’m back by the markline, our gang’s name, True Killers, up there on the wall, but I’ve seen that for forever, for since the game started, and it’s not really what I’m looking at at all. It’s the throwup, the red spray paint. It looks more in-focus. I can’t quite read it from where I’m standing but the wall’s not doing that weird thing where it bends and curves. I put down the controller and rub my eyes, blinking. I pick the controller back up. I hear the door to my mom’s room open then shut, then the door to the bathroom, the water for the shower. I don’t have my phone by me but it looks bright past the blinds on my window. I inch toward the throwup. The wall holds firm. I keep going, two steps, then two more, then two more. It’s right next to me now, just off my right shoulder. Sometimes the game won’t let you see what it’s saying until you’re staring at it head-on. My heart’s beating harder. I feel it in my ribcage. I take a deep breath and turn toward the throwup and then I can read it, two words in red letters, written sort of sideways. And what the words say are HI SON.

 

 

I get on the bus and sit down next to Arvin. Don’s gun’s in my backpack, wrapped in my t-shirt with the TV skull on it. I feel like I’ve had maybe ten cups of coffee. The world’s going too fast but then also too slow. I look back at Roxanna. She has on sunglasses. She holds her pinky above her upper lip. A mustache is drawn on her finger with Sharpie. She pulls down the sunglasses and winks and I turn back around.

“Hey listen,” says Arvin, “there’s something that I need to tell you,” and I must say okay because Arvin keeps talking, and says he was camming last night with Roxanna, but I’m not really listening because I’m thinking back to stealing the gun, and trying to remember if I shut the door to my mom’s bedroom, and then whether or not the door was open or shut to begin with. Whether or not I’ve already messed up.

 

“So it’s okay?” Arvin asks me.

“What’s okay?” I ask him.

“Dude, have you not heard a word I’ve been saying? You’re backwards right now, man. Your head isn’t on straight.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him.

“You’re sure,” he says to me.

And I tell him sure.

I know that it wasn’t my dad, talking to me. I know the game makers just put that in there because they thought that it would be funny, that the throwup would seem like this big thing that mattered when in truth it doesn’t matter at all. The sun’s going through the bus windows like it used to near the mark line—these big white-yellow fans that won’t let me see clearly, that hide something from me, that bend and distort. My backpack’s on my lap. Don’s gun makes it heavy.

“Switch spots with me,” I say to Arvin, and he looks at me like I’m crazy then does.

Roxanna skips homeroom. She isn’t in Civics. I don’t see her in the hallway, where I do after English. I don’t see her at lunch. My last class is Life Science. We’re talking about Hegel, about what traits are hidden and what traits show up. Miss Kemper sends worksheets down all the rows. My backpack is resting against my desk leg. In the kitchen this morning, my mom told me that she and Don are getting married. I’d washed my face in the bathroom after ten hours of gaming then put different clothes on and walked out to eat breakfast. My mom and Don had their chairs pulled together and were sitting there, holding hands over their cereal bowls. I keep peeking down to look in my backpack. The shirt’s the same red as the throwup past the mark line. Miss Kemper’s worksheet has two columns on it. One column says MOTHER. The other says FATHER. Below each of the words are drawings of parts of the body: an eye, an earlobe, a nose, a chin. My mom had on her nurse scrubs, lilac with flowers.

“It’s going to be August, Nathan. Down near the Plaza.”

“You mean he’s going to live here?” I’d asked her.

“Of course he’s going to live here,” my mom had said to me. “We love you. We want this to work.” Don had this grin on like something was funny. On the worksheet I write, my mom’s eyes are like desert jasper. they are red brown and have flecks of gold in them. I stare at the other column until the bell rings then write down HI SON and pass it back up. At the line for the buses, Arvin’s standing there, waiting. I walk right by him without even thinking.

“See ya, Mr. Misty,” Arvin yells at me, but I don’t turn around. The walk to the park takes ten minutes. I cross the bridge over the dry creek bed. The grass is still dead. There’s gnarled mesquite trees. Roxanna is sitting on a stone bench with chips in it. She blows a gum bubble and it pops and sticks to her sunglasses and she takes them off.

“Mr. Muscle,” Roxanna says to me. “Did Arvin tell you what I told him to tell you?”

“Why weren’t you in school?” I ask her.

“I wasn’t in class,” says Roxanna, and takes out some twenties from inside her backpack. “But I was in school.” There’s a kestrel overhead, making lazy circles. The sky’s grey today and against the clouds the bird’s body looks black. “So did he tell you?” asks Roxanna.

“Tell me what,” I ask her. Roxanna rolls her eyes at me.

“Dude, fucking Mormons. I told him to tell you. So look, I’m going with Hector. He asked me the same night that I thought that you would. But you didn’t ask me and I’m not going alone.”

I don’t say a word. I just stand there, staring, the way that I do in the game, when I’ve failed a mission, my controller useless, my body frozen. I’m tired of it. I’m sick of losing this level. Roxanna stands up and puts on her backpack.

“You ready to do this?” she asks me.

And I tell her sure.

 

The house is in a part of town that I haven’t been to. We walk past the train tracks then a block of garages. The yard’s chain link is bent in and rusting and the latch on the gate makes a sound like fingers on a chalkboard and the wooden steps creak when we walk up onto the porch. The door past the screen door is partially open and I lean in to knock but then the man’s head’s there, inches from me, the rest of his body hidden. He stares at me hard but it’s like he’s looking through me and he smiles and then frowns in the very same second, his eyes darting past me to look at Roxanna and then out at the yard. His head disappears and the screen door pops open and it takes me a second to realize that the guy’s holding the door open with his foot.

 

Inside, there aren’t lights on except for the TV on its little table. The white walls look dirty. There’s a couch and recliner. A cream-colored bedsheet is over the window, nailed in with nails. Past the front room, there’s a hall to a kitchen; I can see the linoleum, the metal sink, dripping. The man’s white, ponytailed, I think in his thirties. There’s kneeholes in his jeans and he’s wearing black work boots and a red and black flannel. He’s standing in the corner, behind the recliner, his arms at his sides, his hands pressed into fists. Outside, the clouds move, the walls changing color, going brighter then darker then brighter again. The TV’s volume is off. The guy’s tapping his foot.

“Well sit down or something, shit, I mean, really?” I look back at Roxanna. She looks at me. She looks scared. The man laughs then sits down in the chair. “So, you’ve got it? Or do you want some dinner? I went to the store. I bought frozen enchiladas.” The man moves to get up then leans back like he’s tired. “No, that’s okay,” he says, “but hurry, please hurry,” then shuts his eyes and says nothing else. Roxanna’s shoe squeaks over the floorboards and the man’s eyes shoot open. He looks at us like he’s waiting for something.

“Do you have the money?” says Roxanna, but something’s caught in her throat and she can barely say it all. I can feel the weight of the gun in my backpack, pressed against my tailbone, like Don’s gut did.

“I’m hungry,” the man says. “I gotta go make some dinner,” and then lurches up, his ponytail swinging. “It’s too hot,” he says, and says it over and over while he takes off his flannel. Underneath, he has on a tank top. There’s a scar on his arm like he was bitten by something. The tank top is black. Its front says VENICE BEACH in neon pink letters, but the paint’s peeling off. He walks down the hall and into the kitchen.

“He wasn’t like this the last time,” whispers Roxanna.

“I have a gun,” I say. “In my backpack, I have a gun.”

“Let’s go,” says Roxanna and we walk toward the screen door but the man comes back running down the short hallway and stands in front of us. His left eye keeps twitching like he can’t control it. His hands are shaking. Mine are, too.

“Hey so look I meant to tell you but Jeff’s got the money and he can’t come over until a little later so you need to stay here until he does.” The guy licks his lips. His teeth are clacking.

“We don’t have it,” I say. “We forgot it.”

“You forgot it,” the man says. “Ok, what does that mean?” His leg is shaking like it’s going to pop off. Roxanna’s behind me. I can feel her looking at me.

“We have to go get it,” I tell him. “Then we can come back.”

“But Jeff isn’t here yet. Don’t you see what I’m saying? We all have to wait here. This is important. We all have to sit here and just wait for Jeff.”

The man bobs his head like his neck is broken, like there’s a spring in there that won’t work correctly. Roxanna is silent. I already know what’s going to happen. The next part of the game isn’t thought, only action.

“How about we give it to you now and Jeff pays us later,” I tell him.

The man’s eyes go big. “You do have it?” he asks. “You were kidding? It was a fun thing, like a joke?”

I say yes and bend down and take off my backpack. I unzip the zippers. This is my only cheat code. I put my hand in the shirt and take off the gun’s safety. The grains on the handle are sharp on my fingers. It’s not like holding a controller at all. Roxanna says Nathan and the guy says wait a second and the last thing I see is the guy coming at me, coming at me but slowly, just sort of lurching like he’s pretending that he has to stop me when he knows that he can’t really stop me at all. I close my eyes and shoot through my backpack and fall over and keep shooting at where I think his body should be and it’s over so quickly and then it’s just the gun clicking, again and again and again. From outside, somewhere, a dog starts barking. There’s something pressing down on my foot. I open my eyes and stare at the dead man. The back of his tank top looks wet in places. One of his hips is over my sneaker. One of his shoulders seems out of its socket. I look over at Roxanna, at where I think she should be. She’s in the position they tell you to go into when you’re on a plane, and that plane is crashing. Roxanna brings her head up. Her body is shaking. There’re eye shadow stains on the sleeve of her bright, white shirt.

“I peed my leggings,” she whimpers. “I thought you shot me and I peed myself.”

I slide my leg out and stand up and help up Roxanna. I tell her to give me the drugs. She digs in her bra and takes out a baggie and I stick the baggie in a pocket of the man’s jeans. I open the screen door. The dog is still barking. We walk down the steps then the yard’s little pathway then out the front gate and back toward the park. We’re two blocks away when I realize it.

“The backpack,” I say. “I forgot it.”

“I’m going home,” says Roxanna, and then says it again.

“But we have to get it. Someone’s going to find it.”

“You have to go get it,” says Roxanna. “I’m not doing a damn thing. This isn’t real. This is some game or something. I feel like I’m dying. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

We get to the park. I can’t believe that we’ve got there. I can’t believe that it looks just the same as before. Roxanna keeps saying fuck over and over, but it’s just a whisper, just part of her breathing. Near the bench where I met her, she stops walking.

“Dude, stop walking with me,” she says. “Don’t cam me. Don’t text me. We can’t even be in like the same place again, ever.”

But I’m feeling brave, feeling my father with me, feeling like I’ve earned the right to say more.

“I want you to go to the Spring Dance with me,” I tell her. “Un-ask Hector. I want to take you myself.”

I smile at her like I’ve said something pretty. The wind’s stopped, the clouds still, the sky like a painting. The bird’s gone, the kestrel. Roxanna stares at me in horror. Then she starts walking. Then she starts running. I want to chase her but I just can’t do it, so I sit down on the bench, by myself. I pick at the grit on the bench’s stone railing. Across the bridge, on the street, a few cars drive by me. Then a cop car drives by me. Then it slows down.

 

Every so often, I write to Arvin. I ask him how he’s doing. I tell him how things are here, on Level Six. I tell him that if he does move to the ocean, that he needs to send me some pictures of it, because now I can’t ever go see it myself. But all of my letters to him come back in the mail.

My mom broke up with Don after I got arrested. She blamed herself a little but blamed him a lot. Don didn’t really want to break up, though, and kept calling her and showing up at the hospital and then broke into our old house, with the view of the sun and the mountains, and waited for her to come home from work. Don lost his job over that one. He knows some of the guards out here, at the prison, and every so often, they make my life rough. The last time I saw my mom was at the trial. That was the last time I saw Roxanna, too. She told the jury I’d been selling meth for a while, that the guy that I killed owed me money, that I’d planned the whole thing for days and then made her come with me. And since the jury believed her, I got tried as an adult. I asked my lawyer if that meant I could get into Records, to find out about my father sooner than later. But he told me no.

This level’s long, but it’s not the longest. The next one, the last one, Level Seven, that level maybe goes on for forever, and I’m sure it’s the best one, that it plays really different, that the designers made sure that it has something in it no one’s ever seen before. I’ve been hiding the cellophane that my fork and spoon come in. Once I have enough I’m going to buy some matches from one of the other guys here. I’ve been practicing falling onto the edge of my bed, landing in a way where I lead with my neck. Once I have enough of the plastic, I can melt it all together, make it into a knife and jam it into my cot’s coil of bedsprings, and get through my throat’s skin and the big veins below it. I don’t know how long it will take me. The COs may find my stash. But if that does happen, I can always start over.

The toughest level’s always the one right before the last.