CW: Sibling Abuse
[FICTION] Leveling Up
They played a game called Voices, back when she was eight and he was twelve. They’d take their lunch and their paper plates and they’d go downstairs to the orange spaghetti carpet, her and her older brother, and they’d put on Mario 3 or Donkey Kong Country or Kirby Super Star, which was fun by itself, but sometimes during these games—if he was in the mood and she asked nicely and said Pleeeeeease—he would give the characters voices, voices the game did not permit them to have. He would talk for Mario (he was always Mario, his choice) and Luigi (she was always Luigi, his choice) and he’d make them say funny things, so funny, and he’d make her laugh like a good big brother, because he was good at that part—making her laugh and teaching her all the secrets in all of his games—and she’d remember these secrets like a second language, would remember them into her twenties, would impress her friends, the ones who did not know about Mario 3 and the glitch and the 100 lives in one sitting, did not know about Mortal Kombat and the hidden characters and how to unlock them. ↓ ↓ ↓ Thought everyone knew that she’d think, and realize that no, just her brother, would remember him calling himself “The Master of Nintendo,” and realize it was the one bragging right he probably deserved.
But the voices were her favorite, the way he raised his pitch and not his hands, made Mario ask things like, How many siblings do you have, Toad? Made Diddy Kong ask Donkey why they wore clothes and lived like people, but the swordfish and the ostrich and the rhino did not. How they could both fit in small mine carts. Made Kirby wonder aloud how he could eat so much and not gain weight. Did monologues before he knew what monologues were.
And she got good at knowing his mood and her fate based on the games he’d choose that day, started to fear the ones she hadn’t feared before. Sub-Zero vs. Sonya. Sub-Zero Wins. Fatality. Flawless Victory.
But gaming was still worth it because the fun days were just that: fun. And the outbursts were only once a week, once every three days, once every couple hours. It was easier to handle in front of a screen, in front of colors and pixelated characters, in front of sounds like beep bop bope and ba–gling ba-gling! and deda deda deda. And she was surprised, foolishly and genuinely, when she asked him to do the voices and he said, No, not anymore, and she said, Not anymore, today? and he said, Not anymore, ever, and for some reason, she wanted to cry, felt the sadness of his last five outbursts in a sudden rush that she hadn’t before, and it came to her then, all in tears, but she didn’t have the words for or the understanding of why. Why? And he got so mad at her, Shut up, shut up, shut up, and pulled off his sock and put it over his hand and shoved it deep, deep down into her throat until she puked, the sweat and dirt of him on her tongue, till she wept and puked all over the orange spaghetti carpet, and he was angry at her—so, so angry—and she couldn’t understand why or how or where she went wrong.
She wanted him to love her like he used to. She wanted to keep playing without getting hit, choked, torn. She had to, had to find a way for him to like her again, like the I’m A Big Brother button he wore in the old photo albums their mom kept in the closet when she was first born and very wrinkly, very pink, like a baby rodent without fur.
She does not go to Mario or Luigi. Is already learning. Beware, beware. She instead goes to Peach. Turns on the game when he is out of the house, playing at a friend’s, turns on the game and taps politely on the screen, just loud enough to get her attention. Yes, hello? she asks. Oh yes, thank you, my mom bought this for me. I love your dress, too. Is pink your favorite? Lavender’s my favorite. But can you help me, please? Yes, worse than Bowser. Can I please? Thank you. Thank you very much. And she does not cry when her body turns, when Peach reaches out to her, You’re safe now, it’s ok. She does not cry through the transition, when her bruised and swollen flesh becomes pixelated, becomes free.
She is not there when he comes home, shouts her name through the house. He shrugs his shoulders in boredom, disinterest, figures she is with Mom or Dad, pops downstairs and turns on the TV. Puts the game in the system and presses play.
She waves. Happy, jubilant. Twirls once in the dress Peach gave her, Easter Egg Purple, watches her brother turn speechless. Tear up. We can play now, she says, just like this. And look! You don’t have to do the voices anymore.
But he’s not listening to her. He’s banging on the screen, those same fists out but different, banging and crying and begging, Please, please, please come back. Didn’t mean it, never really mean it, please.
But even in a world of colors and Koopas, she is still bruised, still hurting, has heard this from him before. And maybe he just can’t hear her or doesn’t want to, but he’s screaming, begging, Please come back, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again. She knows this isn’t true. She knows this as much as she knows she will have to go back eventually. For Mom and for Dad. For the dog. But there are raccoon suits and star powers, flowers that let you shoot fire, and Peach has just invited her for tea.
Diana Clark‘s work has been published in the St. Sebastian Review, Broad! (a gentleperson’s magazine), Persephone’s Daughters, and Cease, Cows. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.