That was what finally pushed me over the edge.
"Zack, what are you doing?" I heard Diehl ask in a panicked whisper. "Sit down!"
I glanced down. Without realizing it, I'd gotten up from my desk. My eyes were still locked on Knotcher and Casey.
"Yeah, stay out of it!" Cruz whispered over my other shoulder. "Come on, man."
But by that point, a red film of rage had already slipped down across my vision.
When I reached Knotcher, I didn't do what I wanted to, which was to grab him by his hair and slam his face into his desktop as hard as I could, again and again.
Instead, I reached down and scooped up the soggy pile of gray spitballs resting on the floor behind Casey's chair. I used both hands to pack them all together in a single wet ball, then slapped it down directly on the top of Knotcher's head. It made an extremely satisfying splat sound.
Knotcher jumped up and spun around to face his attacker, but he froze when he saw my face staring back him. His eyes went wide, and he seemed to turn slightly pale.
A collective "Ooooooh!" emanated from our classmates. Everyone knew what had happened between me and Knotcher back in junior high, and they were all electrified by the possibility of a rematch. Seventh period Integrated Math had just gotten a hell of a lot more exciting.
Knotcher reached up and clawed the wet ball of chewed-up napkins off his head. Then he hurled it angrily across the room, unintentionally pelting half a dozen people. We locked eyes. I noticed a rivulet of Knotcher's own spittle dripping down the left side of his face. He wiped it away, still keeping his eyes on me.
"Finally decided to stick up for your boyfriend, Lightman?" he muttered, doing a poor job of concealing the unsteadiness in his voice.
I bared my teeth and lunged a step forward, cocking my right fist back. It had the desired effect. Knotcher didn't just flinch--he lurched backward, tripping over his own chair and nearly falling to the floor. But then he righted himself and faced off with me again, his cheeks now flushed in embarrassment.
The classroom was now dead silent, save for the incessant click of the ancient wall clock, ticking off the seconds.
Do it, I thought. Give me an excuse. Throw a punch.
But I could see the fear growing in Knotcher's eyes, subsuming his anger. Maybe he could tell from the look in my own eyes that I was on the verge of coming unhinged.
"Psycho," he muttered under his breath. Then he turned and sat down, flipping me the bird over his shoulder.
I realized my right fist was still raised. When I finally lowered it, the entire class seemed to exhale in unison. I glanced at Casey, expecting him to offer me a nod of thanks. But he was still cowering at his desk like a whipped dog, and he wouldn't make eye contact with me.
I stole another glance at Ellen. She was staring right at me this time, but she immediately looked away, refusing to meet my gaze. I scanned the rest of the classroom. The only two people who would make eye contact with me were Cruz and Diehl, and they both wore expressions of concern.
That was when Mr. Sayles finally looked up from his crossword and noticed me hovering over Knotcher like an axe murderer. He fumbled with his hearing aid and powered it back on; then he looked back at me, then at Knotcher, then back at me again.
"What's going on, Lightman?" he asked, leveling a crooked finger at me. When I didn't respond, he frowned. "Back in your seat--now."
But I couldn't do that. If I stayed here one second longer my skull was going to implode. So I walked out of the classroom, passing right in front of Mr. Sayles' desk on my way out the open door. He watched me go, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
"You better be on your way to the office, mister!" he shouted after me.
I was already sprinting for the nearest exit, disrupting one class after another with the staccato screech of my sneaker soles on the waxed corridor floor.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally burst out of the school's main entrance. As I ran for the student parking lot, I swept my gaze back and forth across the sky, from one horizon to the other. To anyone watching from inside the school, I must've looked like a complete mental case, watching some tennis match between giants that I alone could see--or maybe like Don Quixote, sizing up a few windmills before he gave them the beatdown.
My car was parked near the back of the lot. It was a white 1989 Dodge Omni that had once belonged to my father, covered in dents, dings, peeling paint, and large patches of rust. It had sat neglected under a tarp in our garage throughout my childhood, until my mother had tossed me the keys on my sixteenth birthday. I'd accepted the gift with mixed feelings--and not just because it was a rusted-out eyesore that barely ran. It also happened to be the car in which I was conceived--while it was parked in the very same lot where I now stood, coincidentally. An unfortunate bit of trivia that my mother let slip one Valentine's Day, after too much wine, and one too many back-to-back viewings of Say Anything. In vino veritas--doubly true in my mother's case when a Cameron Crowe movie was added to the mix.
Anyway, now the Omni belonged to me. Life is a circle, I suppose. And free wheels are free wheels, especially to a broke high school kid. I just did my best not to think about my teenage parents going at in the backseat while Peter Gabriel crooned to them on the tape deck.
Yes--the car still had a functioning tape deck. I had an adapter cable for it, so I could play music off my phone, but I preferred to listen to my father's old mixtapes instead. His favorite bands had become my favorites, too: ZZ Top, AC/DC, Van Halen, Queen. I fired up the Omni's mighty four-cylinder engine, and Power Station's cover of "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" began to blare out its half-blown speakers.
I hauled ass home as fast as I could, weaving through the maze of shady suburban streets at what was probably an unsafe speed--especially since I spent most of the trip looking up instead of at the road in front of me. It was still only midafternoon, but a nearly full moon was already faintly visible overhead, and my gaze kept locking onto it as I scanned the heavens. As a result, I almost ran two stop signs during the short drive home, then came within a few inches of getting broadsided by an SUV when I coasted through a red light.
After that, I put on my hazard lights and drove the last few miles at a crawl--still craning my neck out the window, unable to keep my eyes off the sky.
I parked in the empty driveway and killed the engine, but I didn't get out of the car right away. Instead I sat there gripping the wheel with both hands, peering silently up at the attic window of our little ivy-covered brick house, thinking about the first time I'd gone up there to dig through my father's old possessions. I'd felt like a young Clark Kent, preparing to finally learn the truth about his origins from the holographic ghost of his own long-dead father. But now I was thinking of a young Jedi-in-training named Luke Skywalker, looking into the mouth of that cave on Dagobah while Master Yoda told him about today's activity lesson: Strong with the Dark Side of the Force that place is. In you must go, mofo.
So in I went.
When I unlocked the front door of our house and stepped into the living room, Muffit, our ancient beagle, glanced up at me sleepily from where he was stretched out on the rug. A few years earlier he would have been waiting for me just inside the door, yapping like a madman. But the poor guy had now grown so old and deaf that my arrival barely woke him. Muffit rolled onto his back, and I gave his tummy a few quick rubs before heading upstairs. The old dog watched me go, but didn't follow.
When I finally reached the attic door, I just stood there at the top of the stairs, with one hand on the doorknob. I didn't open the door. I didn't go in. Not right away.
First I needed a moment to prepare myself.
His name was Xavier Ulysses Lightman, and he died when he was only nineteen years old. I was still just a baby at the time, so I didn't remember him. Growing up, I'd always told myself that was lucky. Because you can't miss someone you don't even remember.
But the truth was, I did miss him. And I'd attempted to fill the void creat
When I was around ten years old, I entered what I thought of now as my "Garp phase." That was when my lifelong curiosity about my late father gradually blossomed into a full-blown obsession.
Up until that point, I'd made do with a vague, idealized image of my young father that had gradually formed in my mind over the years. But in actuality, I really only knew four basic facts about him--the same four things I'd heard over and over again throughout my childhood, mostly from my grandparents:
1. I looked just like him when he was (insert my current age).
2. He had loved me and my mother very much.
3. He died in an on-the-job accident at the local wastewater treatment plant.
4. The accident supposedly wasn't his fault
But once my age reached double digits, these vague details were no longer sufficient to satisfy my growing curiosity about him. So, naturally, I began to barrage his widow with questions. Daily. Incessantly. At the time, I was too young and clueless to realize how painful it was for my mother to be endlessly interrogated about her dead husband by his ten-year-old clone. No, my self-involved ass couldn't seem to connect those glowing neon dots, so I kept right on asking questions, and my mother, trooper that she was, answered them to the best of her ability, for as long as she could.
Then, one day, she handed me a small brass key and told me about the boxes up in our attic.
Until then, I'd always assumed that my mother had donated all of my dad's stuff to charity after he died, because that seemed like the first thing a young, widowed single mother who was trying to start her life over would do. But that summer day, my mother explained that this was not the case. Instead, she had packed everything he'd owned into cardboard boxes, and when we moved into our current house a few months later--purchased with the payout from the accident settlement--she'd stored all of them up in our attic. She had done this for me, she said, so that when I grew up and wanted to know more about my father, those boxes would be up there waiting for me.
When I finally got the door unlocked and burst into the attic, they were really there--a dozen pristine cardboard moving boxes stacked neatly in a corner beneath the sloping rafters, illuminated by a bright shaft of sunlight. For a long time all I could do was stand there frozen, staring at this tower of time capsules waiting for me to unlock their secrets.
I'd spent the rest of the summer up in that attic, sorting through it all, like an archaeologist unearthing relics in an ancient tomb. It took some time. For a guy who had only made it to the age of nineteen, my dad had managed to amass an awful lot of stuff.
About a third of the boxes were filled with my father's collection of old videogames--which was actually more of a hoard than a collection. He'd owned five different videogame consoles, along with hundreds of games for each of them. I found the real stockpile, however, on his old PC, which contained thousands of classic arcade and console videogame emulators and ROM files--more games than one person could have possibly played in a single lifetime. My father appeared to have given it a shot, though.
In another box, I found an ancient top-loading VCR. I figured out how to hook it up to the small TV in my bedroom and started watching his old videotapes, one after the other, in whatever order I pulled them out of the box. Most of them contained old science fiction movies and TV shows, along with a lot of science programs taped off of PBS.
There were boxes filled with my father's old clothes, too. Everything had been way too big on me, but that hadn't stopped me from trying on every last stitch he'd owned, breathing in the smell as I stared at myself in the dusty attic mirror.
I got really excited when I found a box of old cards and letters among his things, along with a shoebox overflowing with carefully folded love notes my mother had passed him during their classroom courtship. I shamelessly read through them all, gulping down new details about the man who had sired me.
The last box I'd looked through had been the one that contained all of my father's old role-playing game materials. It was filled with rulebooks, bags of polyhedral dice, character sheets, and a large stack of his old campaign notebooks, each one outlining the minutiae of some fictional reality intended to serve as the setting for one of his role-playing games--and each one providing a small glimpse into my father's famously overactive imagination.
But one of those notebooks had been different from the others. It had a blue cover, and my father had carefully block-printed a single cryptic word in the center of its worn cover: phaeton.
The yellowing pages within contained a strange list of dates and names, followed by what appeared to be a series of fragmented journal entries, which outlined the details of a global conspiracy my father believed he'd uncovered--a top-secret project involving all four branches of the US military, which he claimed were working in collusion with the entertainment and videogame industries, as well as select members of the United Nations.
At first, I tried to convince myself I was reading an outline for some role-playing game scenario my father had concocted, or notes for some short story he'd never gotten around to writing. But the further I read, the more disturbed I got. It wasn't written like a piece of fiction. It was more like a long, rambling letter written by a highly delusional mental patient--one who happened to have contributed half of my DNA.
The journal had helped shatter the idealized image I'd constructed of my young father. That was one reason I'd vowed never to look at it again.
But now, the same thing that had happened to him was happening to me. Videogames were infecting my reality too. Had my father also experienced hallucinations? Was he--was I--schizophrenic? I had to know what he'd been thinking, had to dive back into his delusions and learn how they might be linked to my own.
When I finally worked up the courage to open the attic door and step inside, I spotted the boxes right away. I'd restacked them in the dusty corner where I'd first found them. They were unlabeled, so it took me a few minutes of shuffling them around before I found the one filled with my father's old role-playing games.
I put it down on the floor and began to dig through it, pulling out rule books and supplements for games with names like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, GURPs, Champions, Star Frontiers, and Spacemaster. Beneath those was a stack of about a dozen of my father's old campaign notebooks. The notebook I was looking for was at the very bottom--where I'd hidden it from view over eight years earlier. I pulled it out and held it in my hands and looked at it. It was a battered blue three-subject notebook with 120 college-ruled pages. I brushed my fingertips over the name my father had written on the cover--a name that had haunted me ever since I'd first looked it up: phaeton.
In Greek mythology, Phaeton, aka Phaethon, is an idiot kid who guilt trips his dad, the god Helios, into letting him take his sun chariot for a joy ride. Phaeton doesn't even have his learner's permit, so he promptly loses control of the sun, and Zeus has to smite him with a thunderbolt to prevent him from scorching the Earth.
I sat down cross-legged and placed the notebook on my lap, then examined its cover a bit more closely. In the bottom right corner, very small, my father had also printed Property of Xavier Lightman, followed by his home address at the time.
Seeing that address triggered another flood of memories, because it was the same tiny house on Oak Park Avenue where my Grammy and Grampy Lightman had lived. The same house where I used to visit them almost every weekend when I was growing up. I would sit on their ancient sofa, eat homemade peanut butter cookies, and listen raptly as they told stories in tandem about their lost son, my lost father. And even though these stories they told about their only child were always laced with an undercurrent of sadness and loss, I still kept coming back to hear them again and again--until they both passed away, too, within a year of each other. Since then, my mother ha
I took a deep breath and flipped the notebook open.
On the inside of its front cover, my father had created some sort of elaborate timeline--or as he'd labeled it, a "Chronology." This densely packed list of names and dates filled up every centimeter of the cover's white card-stock backing, and it looked as if my father had created it over a period of months or years, using a variety of pens, pencils, and markers. (No crayons, thankfully.) He'd also circled some of the entries before connecting them to other entries elsewhere on the timeline, using an overlapping web of lines and arrows that made the whole thing look more like an elaborate flowchart than a timeline:
1962--Space War--First videogame (after OXO and Tennis for Two)
1966--Star Trek premiers on NBC TV (airs from 9/8/66-6/3/69)
1968--2001: A Space Odyssey
1971--Computer Space--First coin-op arcade game--port of Spacewar
1972--Star Trek Text Game--BASIC program for early home computers
1975--Interceptor--Taito--combat flight sim with 1st person perspective
1975--Panther--First tank sim? PLATO network
1976--Starship 1--earliest FPS space combat videogame--Trek inspired
1977--Star Wars is released on 5/25/77. Highest grossing movie in history. First wave of brainwashing in prep for invaders arrival?
1977--Close Encounters released. Use to program the populace not to fear their impending arrival?
1977--Atari 2600 video computer system released, placing a combat training simulator in millions of homes! Ships with the game COMBAT!
1977--Starhawk. First of many videogames inspired by Star Wars
1977--Ender's Game short story. First instance of videogames as training simulators in SF? Published same year as Star Wars--coincidence?
Armada by Ernest Cline / Science Fiction / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes