These switches used to do something. Six of them in a line across the bottom of the monitor. One of these turns it on. He flips the first one. The next. Nothing. But they’re all lit up. He can see the electricity running through them. Their uneven red glow flickering as the current strains through the aging circuitry. The old man says it out loud. How do you turn this thing on?
The rest of the family has gathered out in the living room, busy with Christmas activity, listening to the same trio of holiday albums on loop. The name of this song. He’s heard it since way back when even he was a kid. Some of the words are still there, but the name is gone.
Dad, Rebecca says with her head in the doorway. What are you messing with now?
Do you know how to turn this thing on?
She laughs and leans, arms crossed, in the rectangle of the doorway. That’s almost older than I am. I know we’re done with presents, but you should come back out with the rest of us.
He tells her, Just give me a minute.
Rebecca sighs, and her footsteps fade down the carpeted hallway as she goes. No, he won’t, he hears her say quietly to someone. I don’t know what he’s doing.
He waves a hand at the air. He pushes a glowing switch off and back on again and nothing changes.
There’s a box full of old discs, games and manuals somewhere in the house. He had put them all away when they moved and never unpacked them. The instructions, the booklets that might tell him how to get this thing started. Somewhere in the house there’s the box that will help him remember.
Is it in the office closet? He slides the thickly painted white door to the other side, where it bounces lightly off the wall A pile of shoes in the bottom corner, a hiking stick standing vertical in the middle of them like a trail marker. Hanging above are wrinkled old button ups and a squad of winter coats that nobody’s worn since they moved to the southwest. That was—he’s not sure. That was a long time ago.
But what about the top shelf? These are boxes of photo albums. The Grand Canyon. Trips to Sedona and Flagstaff. Christmases when they were so small. They were just kids then. That was a long time ago, too. Rebecca standing by the tree, between her brothers, holding a bright blue toolbox. He could never figure out why but that was what she wanted that year. The present she still holds up in the photo like an athlete showing off a first-place trophy.
His legs ache from kneeling, reaching, and rooting in the far corners of the closet. The chair creaks as he settles back at the desk, and on the rough surface of the wall he watches the way the light streaks in thin lines from the window blinds. A water reflection from the backyard pool, shimmering in sync with the red switches below. From his seat the old man looks around the room and its cluttered shelves. The slow pull of the shoulder muscles. What did it used to feel like to move this body? When he was younger—when he was my age, he swam laps in that pool.
Then he’s up, careful, balancing one hand on the desk as he stands to go. He passes the kitchen on his way down the hall. The smell of cinnamon, sweet, the sound of someone laughing.
There you are, Rebecca says when she sees him. Hey, where are you going now?
Garage, he says. It’s in the garage.
He opens the door to the musty dark. This switch blinks on the white fluorescent strip overhead. What are you looking for? she calls after him. In the following silence, she continues from the other room. He’s always looking for something, she says. He just tears the place apart looking.
But he’s sure it’s somewhere in here. The green metal shelves on the far wall, past the car, hold some boxes. This one is scattered tools, open picture frames, batteries of uncertain charge, displaced power cords. All these pieces of things that don’t quite belong anywhere. This other one holds VHS tapes and a variety of old remotes. Collections, artifacts of obsolescence that should’ve been tossed before the move but remain. The next more cables, more junk. Damn.
But that smaller one alone on the bottom shelf. What’s in there? His knees creak as he bends low, folding the box flaps away, turning the dust onto the shelf. The old man uncovers the ram-horned face of a devil, staring up from the top game cover. The open gates to a haunted mansion pictured on the next underneath. At the bottom of the stack is the one he forgot he had been searching for: the simple cover, otherwise black, divided diagonally with a fissure of blue light. The remedy, he’s sure of it now. A tool to stoke the flame of memory.
He picks up the box of games. It feels much lighter, much easier to lift than he expected. The old man holds it to his chest. His wispy arm hair grazes the doorframe as he leaves the garage with the box in his arms.
Rebecca intercepts and guides him into the kitchen, the adjoined living room cast in a holiday glow. The Christmas tree a warm disco ball reflection in the sliding glass door that leads out to the backyard. Beyond the short stucco wall that lines the yard, the late afternoon mountains stretch dark along the horizon.
What is that? Rebecca says. She holds one of the flaps back and peers inside.
I was looking for these, he says. As much of an explanation as the old man can give, can conjure up to make them understand.
Of course she grabs the most sinister one. She holds the game, practically displaying it, next to her face. Demons, she says, on Christmas, Dad?
He shakes his head. Not that. There’s another one. He places the box on a chair to search for it.
There’s the oldest, though. Mark. Michael. Max maybe. He walks right up there and sticks his hand in grab-bag style and comes out with another one that’s not much better.
What! the kid says. He holds up the game, the size of a cereal box in his hands. On its cover the shirtless, gun-wielding hero boots a Nazi soldier square in the chest. Dope, the kid says. He flips the box to inspect the other side.
Hey, buddy, put that back, Rebecca says. She buries the game down underneath the others and asks, What are you doing with this stuff?
If I can get this working, he pauses and touches the one. The blue-black box on top. Put this one on the computer. He has the word for it. In the basement of his mind, the old man turns back to me and there I dust it off. Today we’re fortunate; we find for just a moment that unclouded pathway where I can step through—the young man who once was—and pass a piece along. I hand that lost word ahead. I mean, install it, he says.
Rebecca rolls her eyes. It’s amazing, the way she does it now like she did when she was a kid. Always more to the side than back, a slow blink of her eyelashes. Today and Christmas 1997, when we hid her present on the roof like absent-minded Santa forgot it up there. A look back then that said, Get real, Dad.
Except today it says, I don’t have time for this. On the other side of the kitchen she’s running the sink, loud, and shaking her head. The youngest kid wanders by and plants an action figure, its arms straight out stuck in a sit up, on the floor by the sink. He passes the old man, standing there still with that box in his arms. The kid brushes his miniature palm across the pair of old knees, the first thing he sees on the way back to his pillow pile on the living room couch.
The old man stands there, watching the kid go. He’s got half of the sentence figured out. If I could get some help to start this thing, he says. But at the sink the water’s going full blast and she’s not listening.
The guy with the glasses comes in all caution, the top half of him leaning forward at an angle like his legs are stuck in permanent retreat. He says, What can I do? More to the room in general than either of them he’s asking, Do you need some help in here?
She shuts off the sink, runs her hands quickly through a dish towel and says, Yes, leaning there, taking a moment. She touches her forehead, sheen held in the curve of her palm, there the disappearing sunlight of the winter afternoon. Nick, she starts. Honey. Will you help him with that?
You got it, he says. Nick. Honey. The husband. He looks into the box and goes, Whoa. He pulls out a game, the size of a science textbook in his hands. Vintage, he says.
Rebecca yells out in pain. Surprise. Her foot held high like she could be stretching if not for the fire in her eyes. She demands an answer from all of us. Who left this here? She’s holding the action figure in a fierce grip around the poor guy’s legs, which causes its tiny arm to move in a slow karate chop. The old man knows but he’s not telling.
She tosses the figure onto the counter. Will you go? she says to Nick.
Yes, we’re going, he says. Saint Nick. The Christmas helper.
A small voice from the living room says, Uh oh. A stretch of quiet that the TV fills with a menacing sleigh bell, some cartoon scuffle.
You spilled! It’s the voice of the older boy. You spilled again! The little one winds up, wailing like a police siren, and Rebecca marches toward the mess, her forehead covered with both hands.
Nick touches the old man’s elbow. Run, he whispers. Run. They shuffle from the room with their box of loot, into the dark quiet of the back hall that runs along the bedrooms. The crying muffled but still turning, transforming, on the other side of the house.
Return to the computer room where the switches still glow all in a row. The old man sits in the peeling leather desk chair with the box in his lap, and Nick stands there surveying it all, back stiff, arms crossed at his chest. A man in search of a clue. The room has darkened, the glittering pool reflection gone until tomorrow. Nick taps the switch by the door, and the room turns a yellow gold that matches the light fixture overhead.
He says, So what are we working with here? He plants a hand on the wood desk and swings his head underneath. He comes back with a new vein in his forehead. This thing is ancient, he says, leveling his glasses. I mean, no offense.
It doesn’t turn on. I don’t—he loses the thread of the sentence and I can’t help him. I’m not sure how to turn it on, he says finally.
Nick leans over the desk, flips a red switch, the next, each of them in order. On off. Nothing. It’s pretty old, he admits. It might’ve just quit.
But the old man holds Nick’s gaze. A look that says he’s doing this thing with or without him, and Nick reads it.
Well, he says, let me check the tower down there.
The old man scoots the chair back, its wheels mired in the deep carpet, and Nick drops into an ape walk to the cave underneath the desk. From below there’s a grunt, the sound of cables whisking across plastic. Nick, more saying than asking, goes, This thing used to run.
It did. It cost him almost a full month’s paycheck back in 1991, a Christmas present that year for the family. It was on nearly every hour of the day during that first week. He was up nightly, some nights until two in the morning, figuring this thing out.
Wait, Nick says. I think there’s a switch back here.
He can hear it. The small sound of its outdated parts returning to life. The computer and the desk speakers release a celebratory ta-da, but the screen remains blank. The dusty black thick curve of glass, at the center a reflection of what little daylight remains in the office window behind him. So he takes to the red switches again. He hits them all and after five seconds, a lifetime, the last one blinks onto the murky screen a blue sky.
He smiles. It works. He knew it was something so simple.
Did that do it? Nick crawls out from underneath the desk, gripping the edge to bring himself back up. He sees the screen and adopts the old man’s expression. Would you look at that, he says. It actually works.
He already has the game out of the box. He turns the disc over to Nick, who stoops again to deposit it in the drive. Cross your fingers, Nick says.
The old man remembers how to get there. His hand slower on the mouse, its direction imprecise, but it takes him only three clicks to get the thing started. First there’s the crunchy sound of computer thunder, then on the screen a white house with its windows boarded. There’s the flight over a pixelated mountain range, peaks blurring and churning below like a dull gray sea. He lands finally back in the pass with the road ahead of him. Back to the start.
Nick drags a storage bin over from the wall, sitting on it like a stool. He watches, waiting for what the old man will do.
On the screen, between the blocky rock walls of the mountain pass, a vulture rests as sentry atop a road sign. He clicks on a rock at the edge of the path. Pick up. He then mouses over the vulture and of the half dozen choices settles quickly on one. Throw. The bird flies, screeching away into the screen, and he’s free to continue down the path, a click of the red arrow carrying him forward.
Nick is puzzled, fingertips working his chin. He says, How do you know what to do there?
The old man laughs. Practice, he says. Patience. Late nights at this same desk with pen and paper, in the blue glow of the monitor writing his own guide. He’s done this a hundred times.
Like what happens if you kick the rock, Nick says.
And what if you talk to the vulture? That was an option, right?
You never want to approach the bird, he warns.
Because it kills you, Nick says, guessing.
The old man nods. A quick game over.
Nick settles his hands into his lap. Damn, he says.
Screens go by—the lighthouse, the river—and Nick’s leaning forward. A reverse image view of the old monitor lighted in both of his rectangular lenses. And the older kid, he’s there, paused for a moment in the doorway as if he only meant at first to go by. Curiosity grabs him, and he takes a few steps inside. He stands at his father’s shoulder and asks, Are you guys playing video games in here?
It’s Grandpa’s thing, Nick says as if that’s explanation enough. The kid is already reading the back of the blue-black box, and the old man can’t help but smile at the child’s interest. The decades so easily dispatched between the artifact and its newest excavator.
So you have to take the knife, Nick pauses as he watches the old man work. You use the knife to cut the vines on the fence so you can break it down and make a raft from the wood.
Yep. The old man uses the knife now to ring the schoolhouse bell. He summons the menacing teacher and easily aces her pop quiz.
How are you ever supposed to figure this stuff out?
Time, he says.
Nick smiles and shakes his head. What does he see now when he looks to the old man? A trace of the man he met when he and Rebecca first started dating? A piece of that young man who disappeared, finally, only a few years ago?
Now Rebecca’s there in the doorway. She stands and regards them for a moment. Looks like you’ve been busy in here, she says.
It works, Nick says, his voice riding the edge of juvenile glee.
From his side the kid looks intently to his mother, sharing in the group’s small triumph. Dad fixed it, he says.
Rebecca goes, I can’t believe it. I’m sorry to say, but playtime’s over. It’s time to eat. She looks to the child and says, Matt, why don’t you go help your brother set the table?
Matt. That’s right. Hold on to that.
He shoots past her in the other half of the doorway, but Nick, staring at the screen, remains transfixed. He says, We’ll be out there in just a minute.
She flips the light switch in an attempt to drive them out with the dark but the whole damn thing is connected to it. The system, all of it, goes dark. The monitor dead black, sizzling with static, and Nick’s mouth just hanging open beneath his glasses.
What did you do?
I, she starts. I didn’t know that it was… She stops. I mean, I obviously didn’t mean to turn it off.
The old man clicks the mouse once. Again. Leaning forward in his confusion, he’s back on the red switches. Each of them on and off and nothing. Nothing. Tears of mute frustration rise in his pale blue eyes.
I’m sorry. It was clearly an accident, she says. It’s just a game, you know. He can play it after dinner. She flips the switch back on in some futile attempt to correct it. The overhead light returns. Come on, she says. It’ll get cold.
That helpless look, the guilt in her face the same but hardened with a new and knowing weariness. Today and her first four girl sleepover back in 1999. He found them all awake, cheating bedtime in the living room where a marathon of rented movies flashed in the dark. Their voices set as low as the TV volume, almost indecipherable, to evade adult detection. She watched him approach with panic—she was busted. But he winked at her. He wandered back upstairs like he never even saw them. Does she remember that now?
Nick breaks the silence. He says, Let’s get it booted again, and we’ll come back to it after we eat.
But this time, instead of the chime, the blue sky, all they get is white text on a black screen. Nick hoists himself up and stands over the desk. He jams his index finger down on the enter key. The text resets. Enter. Nothing changes.
The old man sits there, fingers out, palm collapsed flat on the mouse. His reflection trapped there in the black curve of the monitor, the vacant look of familiar defeat settling back in his eyes. Don’t give up.
We’ll figure this out, Nick says, hopeful but in a way that sounds like he doesn’t quite believe it.
Return to the kitchen, the connected dining room whose dark wooden table and chairs once belonged to the old man’s mother when she was still alive. The grandkids are already seated at the table. The little one gathers together applesauce and slices of ham, closing his teeth over the spoon in a single slow bite.
I like to mix, mix, mix, he sings into the utensil, a dinner microphone.
The old man’s positioned at the head of the table, where he once insisted on sitting but now occupies by default. He can’t remember the last time he felt in charge of anything.
The older kid has a laptop set up next to his plate. His big present this year. He stares into the bright screen and circles the trackpad with a crooked finger.
Rebecca comes in carrying a big platter of steamed vegetables. She places it carefully on a hot pad and takes her seat at the other end of the table. Come on, buddy, she says to the oldest. Not while we’re eating.
The kid huffs and snaps the laptop shut. He slides it underneath his chair. Okay, he says. Okay.
Now the rhythmic scraping and clinking of Christmas dinner, the music turned down to just above a whisper, these quiet sounds of a holiday winding down. Across the living room lies a field of gift-wrapping shrapnel, the littered chaos of discarded boxes and unstuck bows. In the half circle of the high front window, the red desert, the thick dust transforming slowly into a flat gray twilight.
Dad, she says. You don’t want any more ham?
He shakes his head, the single piece lying there pink and dead. His eyes stuck on his plate like the flat, cold meat.
The younger one just calls it out. Grandpa looks sad, he says.
Rebecca gathers up her silverware and drops it onto her plate. She takes her wine glass in the other hand as she stands. Grandpa’s fine, she says.
Nick follows her back into the kitchen. He says something in a whisper that we can’t quite hear.
Rebecca, all fire, a woman alone in a world of boys, she gives each syllable its own due. It was an accident, she says. He doesn’t have to be such a baby about it.
You didn’t see him, he says. He knew what he was doing. I mean, he remembers it.
She lets loose a bitter laugh. That’s great, you know, but I’d much rather he remember the names of his grandchildren, she says, likely louder than she meant to.
The younger one, green bean locked in his fist, stares at the old man. She always knew how to drive through the heart of it.
Or, I don’t know, Rebecca says. Or anything else. Her voice drops back into a whisper in the other room, the rest of the conversation too small to hear. It ends with Nick striding back in from the kitchen, fixed stare and a slow shake in his head. He shuffles around the room as he collects the rest of the Christmas mess.
Dessert happens at the other table, the small round one in the kitchen. Rebecca’s prescribed slices of pie to the kids, wedges drowned in white hills of whipped cream. The old man couldn’t stomach the ham, but he’ll take one of these. Sometimes sugar makes him feel better.
He’s sitting there scraping, rounding up the last best bite, when the older grandkid appears at his side. He’s got the laptop open, screen facing the old man, presented in both of his hands like a magician with his most impressive trick yet.
This is that game you had, right, Grandpa?
The screen shows the old box cover. Blue and black and the light of memory emerging, shearing the dark rock right through the middle.
I downloaded it, the kid admits. This one’s a digital version but I think it’s the same.
Let’s see, buddy, the old man says, and the kid sets the computer down on the table, in the middle of the spongy placemat. Index finger down, he clicks twice.
At the kitchen island behind them, Rebecca’s shoveling leftovers into an array of Tupperware containers. She watches the two of them between scraping and transferring concrete spoonfuls of mashed potatoes.
The bright screen plays the intro, returning the old man back to the middle of the mountain pass. He clicks through a dozen screens before the kid says, This game is weird. He’s not wrong. But weird or not, he again stays to watch.
He passes the lighthouse, the river. He enters the cabin with its pixelated water wheel turning.
What’s rye? the kid asks.
You don’t want to drink that, the old man tells him. You have to trick him by dumping it into the potted plant.
Rebecca leans at the edge of the kitchen island nearby. One arm holding the other at her side. She listens to him.
He explains the poodle and the tape recorder, the board game with the one-armed man, how you have to place the stick to navigate your way successfully through the treacherous bog. He remembers all of it. He knows every screen.
But inevitably the child retires, as if he’s the one most worn down from a day filled with presents and family time. He lies on his stomach, body flat along the length of the couch, eyes closed, chin angled partway to the TV even in his sleep. Through the sliding glass door at the back of the house, a half moon has come up over the mountains. The younger one has long gone to bed with a stomachache, and Nick, the day’s support, petered out suspiciously soon after.
Rebecca, though, she’s standing at her father’s shoulder as he ponders the screen before him. She watches him tie a rope and scale down to the bottom of a sheer rock cliff in a series of clicks. But then he stops.
Wait. Rebecca takes a seat next to him at the table. She asks, Why are you quitting?
I forgot something, he says. He clicks through several screens , all the way back to the main menu. He’s explaining it to himself when he says that you have to dig out the plant with the knife, there in the beginning on that very first screen. You can’t just cut it, he shakes his head. I forgot about that. If you cut it, it dies.
And right now, at the table, for the first time in a long time, she sees me. For just a moment she catches a light in the window she thought had forever gone out, the outline of the young man who still lives inside. Rebecca, she so long ago said goodbye.
She wipes her face with the heels of her hands. She lets out a heavy sigh. Okay, she says. Show me, Dad. I want to see this time.
He remembers how she always did that, brushing the tears away as soon as they came. Today and the spring of 1993, when he found her crying in the middle of the street with two skinned knees. She held his hand as they followed the sidewalk back to the house. A gesture that once told her, Buddy, it’s okay. Today it says the same.
You can’t undo it, he tells her. But you can go back. He hits return.
And we go back.