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The Shortcut

by Onslow
Keith hummed gently to himself as he jogged along. The disk in his pocket had made the risk of being late worth the while and so long as nothing happened to slow him, he should make it home with minutes to spare. He had this route timed perfectly in his mind. From Jodie's house to his mother's was at least fifteen minutes but with the shortcut through the old house on Valory Road and along the canal this could be cut to less than ten, giving him plenty of time to get home before his seven o'clock deadline. Not even his nitpicking step father could complain if he was there before the hour, and he always set his watch two minutes early just in case.
He was starting to glow gently from the pace as he turned the corner into Valory Road and headed straight for the old half tumbled fence of the old house. He vaulted it automatically, without either looking or seeing the big SOLD sticker that had been plastered over the tattered for sale sign, nor did he see the young man on the steps of the house until he was already half way across the overgrown garden.
"Hey," the shout from the direction of the house pulled Keith up short, "What do you think you're doing here?"
Keith stared in shock at the smartly dressed figure standing on the top step by the open door of the dilapidated old place. For a moment he could only stare in amazement at the incongruous figure.
"You can't just go running through other peoples gardens like that."
From within the house another voice called, feminine but somehow sharp, like the dragging of fingernails across a blackboard.
"Did you say something John?"
The young man dropped his cigarette and started towards Keith, Keith lept into motion, sprinting the remaining few yards to the back fence and squeezing himself precisely through the gap where one of the wooden slats had fallen off the rail. He turned up the canal and put his head down as he ran, full pelt, chest heaving and heart racing. After a hundred or so yards he risked a glance back and saw that the man was not following. He slowed to a walk and then stopped and looked back. The man still did not move, he just stood there with his mouth open and his fists resting on his hips. Slowly, deliberately Keith raised his finger in the universal gesture - "sit on it and swivel", then grinned and turned to run the rest of the way up the canal path to the bridge.
Unseen by Keith, the man stiffened in shock, and then laughed. Behind him, his wife called out again.
"Nothing dear," he replied, "just some kid using the place as a shortcut."
"Well he'd better not try that again, this is our house now and I don't want the place overrun by hooligans."
"I don't think he'll be back," chuckled the man, "I think we scared the living daylights out of him. I don't think he knew the place had been sold."
Keith made it home on time, wandering nonchalantly up the garden path just as his infuriated step father opened the door to shout for him.
It was two weeks before Keith returned to spend another weekend at his mother's house. In the intervening week his step father had taken his mother on a weekend trip to the seaside, making it perfectly clear that this was a trip for the two of them alone, Keith not welcome. Keith had laughed and stated that he would prefer to spend the time with his friends anyway. The quickly masked hurt look on his mother's face had put Keith in a bad mood for the rest of the day resulting, eventually, in harsh words and a tearful retreat.
Later in his room, Keith had felt sorry for hurting his mother, had regretted the words that he had said. He would have dearly loved to have joined them on their trip but could never have forced himself to admit this to his stepfather. Keith had been to the seaside before, many years ago, with his real father.
He remembered the feel of the dry sand squeezing between his toes. He remembered the warm wetness of the ocean. He remembered playing ball with his father. He remembered...
Keith lay back on the bed, hands behind his head, eyes unfocussed, and tried to remember his father. He remembered the ball, big and red, bouncing towards him. He tried to remember his father. He remembered chasing after the ball, catching it, holding it to his chest, filling his arms. He remembered it bouncing away from him, almost towards his father. He tried to remember.
"Keith, dinner."
He tried to remember.
"Keith, now."
He tried.
The bad feelings from the row two weeks ago had still pervaded the house when he returned and it had been difficult to persuade his step father to let him out again. But Keith had promised Jody that he would return the disk as soon as possible, and that had really meant the weekend before, it was with great persistence and ingenious arguing that he had finally managed to get his own way, and then only with the threat of dire reprisals if were even half a minute late back. With this in mind and knowing that he could no longer use his shortcut, he had left himself plenty of time for the trip back, even passing up the chance to try out some of Jodie's new games, a heresy to both of them. With time in hand he decided to use the Valory Road route and see what was happening with the old house.
As soon as he passed the corner of the road he knew that the new owners of the house meant business. It had only been two weeks since they had bought the place (or at least since he had first saw them there) but already the change was remarkable. The once overrun garden was now neat and tidy, bare earth showing round the edges where there used to be a mass of tangled undergrowth, and the wild meadow that had once spread out in front of the house had miraculously been replaced by smooth and well groomed lawn. The rotting windows and doors had been replaced by shining new doubleglazing and the brickwork was now half hidden behind gleaming metal scaffold. Even the builders' rubbish was stacked neatly in bags on the drive. Keith walked slowly passed the now brightly painted fence. He was impressed.
Before Keith was even half way passed the house, the door opened and the man came out. It was obviously the same man, even though now dressed in old, paint splattered jeans and sweater and carrying an overstuffed black plastic rubbish bag. Keith froze but the man barely acknowledged his presence and turned to go back inside the house. Then the man stopped, cocked his head as if in thought and turned back to Keith.
"Hey you, kid. You live round here?"
For a moment Keith almost panicked, then caught himself. After all it was hardly likely that the man had recognized him from the fleeting glimpse he must have had two weeks ago. And besides, what could he do if he did recognize Keith, Keith had not known the house was sold.
"Yeah, what."
"You live round here?"
Keith relaxed. Here he could be completely honest.
Keith remained silent, staring at the man.
It was obvious the man was rich. Even his work clothes, apart from the paint spatters, were better than some of Keiths' best and he had the kind of expensive tan that Keith had only seen before in magazines. It was obvious, also, from the way he held himself away from the bag he held and from the smooth skin of his hands that he was not used to physical work.
"So where are you from?"
"I live on the other side of town."
"So what are you doing here?"
"Just visiting. Why do you want to know? Fancy me or something?"
"I was just wondering if maybe you were 'visiting' round here about two weeks ago"
Keith stiffened slightly.
"No, first time here."
"So you don't know anything about the boy that ran through my property about this time two weekends ago?"
"Sorry mister, don't know nothing."
"Nothing, he. You sure?"
"I'm sure. Can I go now."
The man paused for a second. "Sure, but if you do here anything about a boy running through here, you tell him not to do it again, you hear."
Keith just turned and walked away. Half way down the road he turned and looked back. The man was standing by his fence, arms crossed and frowning, looking after Keith.
"How dare he," said Keith to himself, "What's he think I'm gonna do, run through the place right in front of him?"
Keith walked a bit further and then turned a corner, growing fury clouding his face. He waited a few minutes and then looked back. The man was gone, presumably back into the house. Keith thought for a moment and then turned back, walking stealthily up the road towards the house.
When Keith reached the fence and the man was still nowhere in sight, Keith made a quick run and jump and was over the fence and streaking through the garden. He had almost reached the hole in the back fence when he heard a sudden shout behind him.
"Why you cheeky little bugger!"
Keith turned and grinned and gave a quick onefingered salute then dived through the hole in the fence and pounded up the canal path as fast as his legs could take him.
."Why that dirty, sneaky, cheeky little bugger," cursed the man.
"John? What's the matter?" called his wife from inside the house.
"That bloody kid again!"
"Oh no! I won't have it. I want you to call the police, right now."
"No need for that, I'll get him next time. Just get me a hammer and a piece of wood. He may get in but damned well won't get out again!"
The next weekend gave Keith no chance to visit the old house. Some minor argument with his step father had resulted in him being banned from even thinking about leaving the house. Since his computer was at his grandmother's house, this had left him playing monotony with stepdad. Naturally the evening had ended disastrously with Keith running screaming up to his room, shouting abuse back to his stepfather and trying to hide the livid red mark that was appearing on his cheek.
Keith refused to cry in front of his stepfather but once safely in his own room with a chair blocking the door, he surrendered to his tears.
Laying on his bed, clutching a pillow to him, Keith tried to imagine it was his father. He pressed his face into the soft cloth, imagining warm flesh, letting it soak away his tears. The ghost of a smell filled his nostrils, clean sweat and comfort. His arms had stretched around a barrel chest, his sobs had harmonized with slow deep breaths, his tears had run between warm bodies. A sound had filled his ears, a low gentle murmuring, drawing away the pain. A face had leaned down to touch his.
He tried to remember. He tried to imagine it was his father.
Still trying, still clutching his pillow, he slipped into sleep.
During the night someone had carefully taken off his shoes and jeans and tucked him into bed, all without waking him.
Keith was in an unaccountably good mood the next time he went passed the old house. It was early morning this time, he was on his way to meet Jody at Mike's computer store. The house no longer showed any sign of the neglect it had suffered. It was clean, neat, and freshly painted, looking as if it had had years of loving care spent on it, rather than years of decay followed by only a few weeks of work. Keith marveled at how thoroughly the house had been rejuvenated and how quickly. Only a few weeks before he would have sworn that there was no help for that house but to be knocked down, yet here it was before him, looking almost newly built. And empty.
Keith looked carefully at the house. There were tyre marks on the gravel of the drive, but no car. The gate and garage were carefully shut and the house gave a general air of emptiness. He looked carefully up and down the street. There was no one in sight. Keith slipped open the gate and slid stealthily into the garden of the house.
Although most of his visits to the house had been hurried passing through as he used the garden as a shortcut, Keith had come once when he had more time on his hands than he had things to do, and he had taken a good look around the old place, even squeezing through the boarded up rear door of the house to wander around the inside.. At that time he had been struck by the melancholy nature if a house that had once been a cheerful home, yet was nothing more than a rotting shell. He had wandered the kitchen and bathroom with their rotting pipes and falling tiles. He had sneezed at the bare floorboards and drifting dust in the living room. Upstairs, the once gaily coloured paper in the smallest bedroom was now dull and peeling, shedding cartoon creatures onto the barren wood floorboards. He had left the house then and gone to explore the garden.
If the inside was dying, the outside was the reverse. It was as if all the life had been sucked out of the house and into the garden, growing wild and uncontrolled, slowly taking over the tamed spaces with tangled undergrowth and plants that might once have been domesticated but which now looked feral.
Now, the outside had been tamed once more. The house, though empty was only waiting. As Keith wandered along the now smooth lawn and peered through the brightly clean windows he could see that the house was now well cared for, it was beginning to look once more as it must have looked before the previous occupants left and the paper began to peel. Grudging though it was Keith began to feel a form of gratitude to the new owners. Although it had been useful to him as a shortcut he was pleased to see the old house starting to look like a proper home once more. He noted that the gap in the rear fence had been filled in. It was a high fence. There was a tree beside it.
Keith examined the tree carefully. It was low but old, its trunk scarred where the lowest branches had been cut off leaving black-painted stumps. The bark was rough and deep creviced. Keith weighed up the tree with a practiced eye then carefully placed his hands. After a moment he shifted his weight and pulled himself up slightly with his arms, placing his feet on the rough bark and tangled burls. The climb was easy but he dropped and tried again, using slightly different and slightly easier holds. The third time he went up the tree as if it was lying flat on the ground and this time he dropped to the other side from an over hanging branch that just cleared the top of the fence. As soon as he dropped Keith realized his mistake. He wanted to go the other way. The fence was too high to climb, he would just have to go the long way round, up the path by the road bridge and back along Valory Road.
As he passed once more in front of the house, he paused. There was nothing beyond the fence to show that he had been there. He thought for a while, then cautiously went back into the garden and to the back fence. He carefully placed his foot in the freshly dug earth that bordered the fence and made a deep, deliberate footprint. Smiling at his handiwork, he continued on his journey.
Keith arrived early at the store but Jody was already there waiting for him, bouncing up and down.
"Got it man, I got it." Said Jody, his voice breaking slightly in his excitement.
Keith looked at his old friend, unable to avoid noticing the few dark half centimeter long hairs growing out of the older boy's upper lip. Jody did not need to shave much yet but the length of the few hairs that were present on his still young face were a sure indication of his absorption in his current project.
"What did you get ?" asked Keith
"The whole bang, man," Jody paused for effect, "The full cheat mode for SlamDive!"
This was news. Mike had three PC's set up in his shop for the kids to play games on, all the latest blockbusters. The games were changed every month or as soon as somebody found the cheat modes. Naturally there was great competition to be the first to find the cheats for each game as it came on, the regulars at Mike's shop viewed it as a personal insult if a game went the full month and fought hard to crack each game as it came on. This made for increased sales of each game and brought a smile to Mike's face, he rewarded each cracker with a free game. SlamDive was now in its fourth week. Keith looked up into Jody's big wide grin and grinned in return. The two boys turned as one and entered the store.
The shop was narrow but deep. A rack along the center, crammed with all the budget games, made two aisles leading to the deep interior. On the outsides of each aisle were the racks of hardware, joysticks and soundcards and disks and drives. At the end of the aisle was the cash register, always tended by Mike himself. Behind him there opened up a larger room, the sanctum sanctorum, where the more expensive games and hardware were kept. And along the rear wall, behind a permanent row of boys, there were the games machines.
Heavy metal played constantly low, like the organ music of a cathedral.
Keith and Jody stopped at the counter to pay their respects to Mike.
"Hi, Mike."
"Hey Mike, what's up?"
The young man behind the counter looked around at the sound of the boys' voices. The shop was still quiet this early and he had turned his swivel chair around to watch the gameplayers behind him. He smiled at the boys, a shy, wistful smile.
"Not much, it's early"
Mike was a slight man dark haired and dark complexioned. He was in his early twenties but his slight build and the uncertainty of his movements always gave the impression of a much younger man, almost a boy himself. Certainly he had all the same interests as the boys who frequented his store, talking to them and becoming animated only about boyish things. He seemed to know everything about every game in his store and when talking to the boys about the intricacies of the gameplay of them he would lose his reserve in his absorption with the subject and jump and fidget and move his hands wildly to illustrate his points. It was a legend among the boys that when the store closed he never went home, but merely stayed behind and played on all the games. His was the high score on all the games that were played at the store. He wore a Metallica T-shirt. He had never been seen in anything else
"So Mikey, how they hangin'," grinned Keith, "you gettin' any?"
Mike blushed deep crimson and averted his eyes from Keith wicked grin. For an adult, Mike was amazingly easy to embarrass even though Keith asked the same question every time they met, the older man still blushed just as red each time. Mikey, how they hangin' you gettin' any?
"You got the new version of Tri-Star yet?" asked Jody into the silence.
"Not yet, but I saw a copy at a trade fair last night," Mike looked up, his eyes starting to glisten, "it was kicking, they've improved the weapons no end and the ship handles like a dream, and right at the end they added a massive great starbase that you gotta destroy, it was wild, man."
While the other two talked about the next game. Keith stepped back slightly and looked over at the boys playing on the computers. All the machines were occupied, but Keith caught the eye of a boy he knew slightly and nodded solemnly towards the PC where SlamDive was playing. The boy caught his serious expression and started to nudge the others around the game, and finally the boy who was playing it. This boy, a tall redhead that Keith did not know even slightly looked around in annoyance and then caught the seriousness on the faces of the other boys. He nodded and turned back to his game, to lose as quickly as he could. Keith turned back to Jody and Mike, now deep in their discussion.
The conversation was beginning to get heated about the relative merits of lasers versus light bombs against Karn fighters when Keith felt something brush passed his shoulder. "Excuse me young man, but I was looking for that Disney game, the one about the cartoon."
The three turned as one and looked toward the old grandmother type, now standing directly behind Jody.
"I want to get a present for my grandson and his mother said he wanted a computer game."
"Certainly madam," said Mike, "we have a couple of Disney games in stack, but perhaps you could tell me how old your grandson is?"
"Oh, dear, he's eleven, or is it twelve now? Anyway I'm sure he'll like one of those Disney games, he always liked cartoons, I don't know why, I always prefer a good musical myself but perhaps you have something with that lion on it? That was quite a nice film if I remember right."
Keith and Jody winced at the idea of an eleven year old playing a 'lion king' game but Mike managed to keep his face straight as he replied.
"Perhaps we can find something a little more in his age range." Mike shot a helpless glance at the two boys and they grinned back then moved back to the rear room and towards the machines while Mike tried to convince the old dear that Disney was not perhaps in the right age range for an eleven year old boy. The lookouts saw them coming and hurriedly nudged the boy on the SlamDive machine. The boy quickly lost his last life and stepped back from the machine.
Jody stepped up in the boy's place and then turned to Keith.
Keith nodded.
Jody quickly looked around to check that Mike was still occupied and then stopped and restarted the game. On the intro screen he quickly pressed a series of keys and got a menu that was not normally shown during the game's startup.
"Let's not be greedy," he said, "let's just have infinite lives." He pressed a button and started the game.
Mike had finally persuaded the old lady to take a driving game instead of the Disney, it was mid priced, but Mike knew, good. The store was now starting to fill up with the lunch time crowd, workers on lunch breaks and just general browsers so it was not too surprising that he did not notice straight away that the two boys were taking longer on the game than usual. Once the lunch time crowd started to die down he found himself talking to a new friend of his, a man who had moved into the area just a few weeks ago but who was already becoming a regular at the little computer store, both for the range of hardware and software and for the company. The man glanced over at the gameplayers while talking to Mike. He caught himself while looking back towards Mike and did a double take. He looked straight at Keith and narrowed his eyes. He stared for a long moment and then turned back to Mike.
"That boy over there, playing SlamDive. The younger one. Do you know him?"
Keith and Jody were going well. They had been playing the game for nearly an hour and a half now and still Mike had not noticed. Another half hour and they would beat the record. They had taken that game further than they had ever been before and were in completely unknown territory, losing lives at an astounding rate. Such was their absorption with the game that they did not notice when Mike and the man moved up behind them, pushing gently through the throng of boys about them.
Keith was playing rearguard to Jody as the older boy attacked a fortified planet. They had just blasted a hole in the satellite defenses when a fleet of fighters came from behind a moon and fell upon Keith before he could react. His ship dimmed for a moment as he was destroyed and then brightened again. Mike flashed his eyes to the lives left counter and then quickly back to the game. Then looked again at the counter. It read -15.
"Hey!" yelled Mike, "you cracked it, you found the cheat screen!"
Jody turned round and grinned at him.
Keith also turned round to grin at Mike but caught sight of the man behind him and stiffened in shock.
The man laughed at his reaction. "Hi boy, walked through any gardens lately?"
Keith just stared at him.
"Better get back to your game, boy. Even with infinite lives you still have to shoot them." Keith stared for a moment longer and then turned his attention back to the game. He soon lost himself in it again.
Some would have expected that Keith would have been put off his game by the presence of the man behind him, but the knowledge that the man was watching made him perversely more determined to do well at the game. Jody naturally played well all the time, both through natural talent and through practice. The result was that the two boys made good progress through a galaxy full of dangerous enemy strongholds and were soon within sight of the galaxy hub and the end of the game. Mike had to break off every so often to see to a customer but the rest of the audience just watched. Including the man.
As the boys were heading into the first guardian star at the beginning of the final level, there was a shout from the door way of the store.
"John! Are you going to be forever in there?"
A few of the watchers shifted nervously and looked towards the door. The man just sighed impatiently, then shrugged and walked to where his wife was waiting. There was a brief and energetic whispered conversation accompanied by much hand waving and gestures towards the gameplayers. In the end, the man finished the conversation with a quick, emphatic gesture and walked back to the machines. His wife scowled after him and then stared at the back of Keiths' head, tapping on her hand bag with one finger and frowning in thought. Finally she straightened, smacked the bag with her palm, and nodded emphatically. She looked around, to where Mike was explaining the relative merits of two chess games to a serious looking middle aged man in a old brown suit, then walked over.
Keith now took the lead from Jody, diving almost suicidally into the mass of defense satellites around the imperial home. By rights he should have been destroyed a thousand times over yet somehow he managed to survive the gauntlet without losing a single life. His shoulders jerked and twisted as he worked the joystick, avoiding missiles and laser beams with an uncanny foresight. Jody could only follow his lead in this assault and even Mike, the master gamer himself looked on with awe, and something akin to respect. Both Jody and Keith were firing continuously, picking up power ups and weapons moment by moment. There were customers trying to catch Mike's eye now but this close to the end of the game, he let them wait.
The end came suddenly. A rash of smart bombs blew a hole in the defense shield and both players rushed in to take advantage of the gap, falling upon the heavily defended imperial fortress.
"Here's where you get it," breathed Mike and suddenly the fortress lifted itself off the ground and became a gigantic space fort, bristling with weapons. A moment's hesitation was all either boy showed and then they attacked.
Defeating the fortress was not a complex job, merely difficult. Each individual weapon on the structure had to be destroyed, all the while avoiding a barrage of missiles and beams, both boys were destroyed several times before they managed to get the last of the gun emplacements on that great structure, their ships flashing grey and the lives counter going further into the negative. Finally the last beam was snuffed in an explosion that lasted and spread, a chain reaction that destroyed the entire fortress.
The boys relaxed and leaned back into the mass of onlookers as the final victory screen came on, a set sequence in the imperial throne room, invading troops confronting the deformed and psychotic emperor, then shooting him in an explosion of wet redness. The watchers cheered.
"Well done boys," said Mike, "you got that one all right."
"No problem," said Jody with a superior smile, "it was easy."
Looking round Keith realized that the warm body he was leaning against was that of the man. He stiffened but did not move, awaiting the man's reaction, expecting rough rejection but defiant, unwilling to pull away and by doing so admit fault. The man made no move. Keith realized he was leaning against somebody.
"Excuse me sir, but would you mind?" the store's customers were starting again to call for Mike's attention.
"Yes, sir, I'll be right with you." Mike turned back to the boys, "Why don't you boys pick out your presents while I serve these people?"
"One each?" asked Jody.
Mike hesitated and looked from Jody to Keith and then back. Then he stared at Keith for a long moment. His mouth opened as if he was about to speak but he said nothing. Unaccountably he blushed.
"Sure, one each."
"Ok", said Jody, "c'mon Keith."
Keith moved off the man and started towards Jody. The man stopped Keith with a hand on his shoulder and turned him slightly towards him.
"You get a reward for finding the cheats?"
"Sure," said Keith, "it's kind of a tradition, the first person to find the cheats on any of the games on the machines gets a free game."
"What? A copy of the game they beat?"
"No, any game they choose. The trick is to try and figure out what game goes on next, so you have a chance to try and beat it."
"Are you coming or what," called Jody.
"Sure, just coming."
The man's hand caught Keith on the shoulder again as he was leaving, Keith froze.
"Go and make your choice, but afterwards, you and I should have a little chat."
Keith' stomach froze and his face paled. He knew those words. Then he recovered and shrugged of the man's hand. The man watched as Keith almost ran over to his older friend. He wondered about the boy's reaction to his words. He had seemed almost terrified. Surely he could not take his actions so seriously, it was after all only a childish prank. What did the boy think he was going to do, beat him up. He grimaced and moved over to the counter, waiting for Mike to finish with his customers. While he waited, he thought and did not like his thoughts.
Choosing the game was a tricky affair. There was great kudos in choosing the game that Mike used to replace the one you just beat but trying to outthink Mike was difficult at the best of times because he so rarely let anything slip. To actually outthink him when he was trying to be secretive was a trick that few had managed. Jody had the feeling that Mike would have wanted to replace the game with the new Tri-Star episode but the unwritten rules stated that the game had to be replaced the same day that it was beaten and since Mike had already admitted that he did not have Tri-Star in yet, it would have to be something else. Eventually he chose a god-sim, on the theory that one was overdue on the machines. Keith chose a racing game for no other reason than that he liked the cover. The two boys moved over to the counter to wait for Mike to finish with his customers.
The man reached over to touch Keith gently on the shoulder. "Let's have that little chat now, while you're waiting."
Jody looked up from his game in surprise and frowned at the man suspiciously. Keith just shrugged, in defiant mood now.
"There's nothing to talk about."
"Now then Keith, I know it was you went through my garden. I'm not going to do anything about it I just think you should stop now. My wife is really upset about it. She wants to involve the police." The man paused and frowned. Keith was silent, shocked at the man's use of his name more than the threats of police involvement. He felt different now that the man knew his name, worried. He wondered what else the man knew about him. "Now, you and I know that there was nothing malicious in this," continued the man, " but my wife can't see that. Do you understand?"
Keith nodded slowly. Jody pulled on his sleeve and asked "what's going on?"
"Nothing," said Keith to Jody, "I'll explain later."
And to the man: "Sure, I was getting bored anyway, it was way too easy." And he turned away. Then he turned back and grinned at the man, "besides, I've already been in today. I left you a footprint." He grinned again and left quickly, before the man could recover.
The mans mouth opened as if to speak, but he was silent. Instead a quick amusement flashed across his face as he looked at Keiths' back. The boy had seemed relaxed, almost off hand as he talked but the muscles in the back of his neck showed the tension that he had hidden in his voice. The man paused a moment before speaking again.
"You know you were pretty good on that game, the two of you." With his eyes, the man included Jody in the conversation. Jody just shrugged and continued looking at the man with suspicion.
"Mind you," continued the man, "you did miss some things."
"Like what ?" asked Jody.
"Like the smart bombs on level two," smiled the man.
"Bull," challenged Jody. "You don't get smart bombs 'til level six."
"Sure, but there are three hidden on an asteroid back at level two. You just have to shoot it and you get them. It makes the battle ship on level three easier to handle." Keith had turned back round by now but was content to let Jody handle the conversation.
"You play this game?"
"Sure," said the man, "I haven't quite finished it yet, but then I don't use the cheat modes."
"Well neither do I, 'cept in here. How far you got?"
"Level thirteen."
"Not bad dude, for an oldie." Jody gave the man some grudging respect.
"How did you get passed the caterpillar thing," asked Keith, rejoining the conversation. The man grinned. Now the ice was broken, they all started to relax a little.
"That's easy, you just have to remember to take it from behind. If you hit it in the middle it splits in two, if you hit it in the head, it all splits and you've got to fight all the units all at once. My name's John, by the way. John Steele." Hands were shaken all round and the last of the tension went out of the conversation as they continued discussing the game until Mike was finished with the last of his customers. John noticed first that Mike was ready for the boys and gestured towards him with a light touch on Jody's arm.
Mike looked at their selections without comment but with a little nod and pursing of his lips. He made out the receipts but of course took no money. He handed them their packages and then turned away, pretending to do something with the paperwork littered on the counter. The boys took it for as long as they could.
"C'mon, man," yelled Keith, "you gotta change the game."
"Yeah," added Jody, " what's it gonna be dude?"
Mike surveyed the racks of games before him in silence but did not move from the counter. The boys got more and more restless and frustrated. Finally, pokerfaced and still in silence, Mike reached under the counter and removed a box, still shrink wrapped. The boys stared at it.
"Tri-Star!" yelled Jody, "you slime! You said you didn't have any copies yet."
"None to sell," answered Mike, "this is my own copy. Sales copies will be in Monday."
The boys stared after him as he headed for the machines, then looked at each other and then at John.
"You ever played Tri-Star?" asked Jody.
"Not the new episode," answered John.
"Me neither," said Keith.
"Ok, let's learn together." And the three of them headed after Mike to the machines.
The three spent the next hour playing and watching the games. The two boys gradually became more relaxed with the man, even Keith starting to see him more as a friend than as an adult. Then the man looked at his watch and said that he had to go, his wife would be expecting him for dinner. He smiled at the two boys and shook their hands, saying he hoped he would see them again. The two boys smiled politely back and said they hoped so too.
After the man left Keith said that he should also go, as his mother and stepfather would be expecting him home for dinner. Jody shrugged.
"Come by my place later."
"Ok, see you about six."
Keith almost went passed John's house on the way home but it was slightly out of his way and he was hungry so he went the straight home. He knew as soon as he opened the door that he was in trouble.
Keith closed the door silently and cat-footed up the hall, hoping to avoid notice.
Keith froze at the sound of his stepfather's voice, silently hoping.
"I think you and I should have a little chat."
Reluctantly Keith entered the living room. His step father was sitting in his armchair. Keith stood in the doorway, guts like ice. His stepfather stared, at nothing. He tapped on the table with his car keys.
"I had a visitor today, a Mrs. Steele."
Keith remained silent, listening to the convulsive tapping of the keys.
The silence was broken only by the tapping.
"Aren't you going to say anything?"
Again the keys tapped, faster and harder.
Then they stopped.
Later, Keith lay on his side on his bed, curled up, facing the wall, silent.
He tried to remember but the memory was gone.
He could hear the sounds of the house. The clatter of dishes, the running of water, the muffled drone of the television news. Each sound grated on his raw nerves.
He heard the sound of the doorbell, the opening of the door. He heard the mutter of voices, becoming intense then fading to a dangerous murmur.
He heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
John Steele looked at the huddled figure on the bed, shaking with barely suppressed memories. His heart melted for the boy, then hardened again as he turned to the slight figure of the man behind him. He caught the man's eyes and just stared. For a moment it seemed the man might speak, but then he thought better of it and turned without a word, leaving John alone with the boy. John moved out of the doorway and into the room proper.
"Keith." He spoke gently, almost a whisper.
"I didn't want this to happen. I told her to leave it to me."
Keith listened to the man's gentle words. He wanted to turn to face the man, but to do that he would have to roll over, over his back.
"Please Keith, forgive me. Let us be friends."
Keith rolled over, ignoring the sharp stinging as his back pressed into the mattress. He looked into concerned grey eyes.
And remembered.