|Publisher:||Little Island Books|
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|Age Range:||12 Years|
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The plane was late, so Jack's dad was in a bad mood. He pretended he wasn't. He pretended, like he always did, that he was in control. But he was in a bad mood. Jack could tell and so could his mom.
They stared at the arrivals screen, crammed with information including a flashing green DELAYED beside the British Airways flight from London. 'They don't give you any information,' his dad said. 'Zip. They have no concept of customer service.'
'Not long now, Howard.'
His mom had a jar of phrases she reached into whenever his dad got like this. 'Just relax.' 'Keep your voice down.' 'Sure, what else would we be doing?' All delivered in the soft Irish accent she had never lost.
'We don't know how long, Clare. That's my point.'
Howard stalked off, looking goofy in his Mariners baseball cap and powder-blue polo shirt and those chino shorts that were basically the same as what he wore to work every day but without the pants legs.
Clare sighed. 'He's coming such a long way. We can wait for a few minutes.'
Jack wondered what Finn would be like. He'd met his cousin once, six years ago, when they were both eight. Jack and his mom had flown to Dublin when his aunt got married. He remembered the flight perfectly – the way the seat pushed against his back when they took off, the cotton puffs of cloud beneath them as they flew, the bumpy landing that scared him so much he had grabbed his mother's arm. He also remembered how rainy Dublin had been – even wetter than Seattle. But he couldn't remember anything about Finn.
Most of all Jack wondered about Finn's arm. What would that look like?
The international terminal at Sea-Tac Airport was bright and airy, with huge viewing windows and a full-scale replica of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane hanging from the ceiling. A P-51 was the first model Jack had ever assembled, an all-balsa-wood 1-32 scale with USAF decals that his dad gave him on his tenth birthday. He had painted it silver and blue and installed it on the top shelf of the glass display case in his bedroom. It was still his favourite, and the replica was the main reason he liked coming to the airport. Though he was curious about Finn, too.
His dad returned and stared at the screen, arms folded across his chest. He spoke to Jack's mom without looking at her. 'When was the last time you saw him?'
'When I was home for Oonagh's wedding.'
His mom had been living in Seattle for twenty years, but she still called Ireland 'home'.
'What was he like?'
She glanced at Jack. 'A nice boy. Intelligent. Happy.'
'Well, he ain't happy now.' He spoke under his breath but loud enough for Jack to hear. Usually, his parents didn't talk like this in front of him, but when his dad was annoyed he'd say anything. Anything except swear words.
'Will you recognise him?'
'I don't know.'
But when Finn walked through the arrivals gate, pale and blinking and looking like he'd just got out of bed, they knew him at once. He was listening to his iPod and wearing the same clothes as in the photograph his mother, Orla, had sent them: knit stocking cap, black jeans and two black T-shirts – short-sleeve on top, with a green Xbox 360 logo on the front, and long-sleeve underneath, so that his arms, Jack was disappointed to see, were covered. He carried a scuffed rucksack and a plastic duty-free bag.
Jack's mom hugged Finn as he removed the headphones. 'You're very welcome,' she said.
He winced. His face was thin, and he had a lot of acne. He looked like one of the skateboarders who spent all day doing kickflips on the long sidewalk in front of the public library.
'Hey Finn, I'm Howard.' Jack's dad thrust out his hand and Finn shook it lightly. 'You remember your cousin Jack?'
The boys nodded at each other, awkward and embarrassed. And, as Jack could have predicted, it was about to get worse. His dad, who worked for Microsoft, was staring at the Xbox logo on Finn's shirt.
'360, huh?' He stuck a meaty thumb in the air and grinned like a game-show host. 'Live your moment.'
Jack stared at the fighter plane.
'I didn't ask to come here.'
Finn said this to Jack as soon as they were alone in the bedroom. He sat on the upper bunk, his legs dangling over the side. His jeans had hiked up his legs, revealing shins as white as a fish's belly. The air conditioning was off and the house was warm, but he'd kept his hat on and his sleeves down.
'I didn't say you did.'
'It's not my fault my mum hasn't a clue.'
It was bad enough that Jack's mom had told him he had to share his bedroom with Finn, even though there were two empty guest rooms in the house, but she also made him give up his bed. He had slept in the top bunk since he was nine. The only reason he had bunk beds in the first place was for sleepovers, and he hadn't had one of those in two years.
'Where'd you get all those?' Finn asked, pointing at the display case full of models.
'I made them.'
'You made them?'
'Assembled them. Painted them. Put the decals on.'
'That meant to be your hobby?'
Jack suddenly saw his room through Finn's eyes: not just the models but the Seahawks and Mariners pennants, the math and spelling trophies, the honour roll certificates that his mom had framed and hung on the wall, the posters detailing the zones of the solar system and the instruments of the orchestra. It was a nerd's room, accomplished and instructive, everything in its place.
'D'you have an Xbox?' Finn said.
'My parents think gaming is a waste of time.'
Finn snorted and nodded at the models. 'And those aren't?'
There were dark circles under his eyes. Beneath the corners of his jaw were clusters of acne that looked raw and sore.
'You have a computer at least?'
'I use the one in the kitchen,' Jack said.
'Your oul' fella not trust you?'
'Howard. Your dad.'
'I get a laptop when I start high school.'
Finn lifted his legs onto the bed and flopped back so that his face was hidden. He was quiet for so long that Jack thought he'd fallen asleep. Then he said, 'What games you got on that desktop out there?'
'Like I said. My parents ...'
Another silence. 'Right,' Finn said at last. 'First thing we do is get that sorted.'
After dinner, Jack's dad went to work in his study and his mom took the two boys to Cold Stone Creamery for dessert. On the way she asked a stream of questions about Finn's mother, his two younger sisters, how he liked some place called Balbriggan, how the Dublin Gaelic football team was doing. He answered with as few words as possible, staring out the car window and plucking at the sleeves of his T-shirt and the seams of his jeans. Soon there was total silence. Finn took his iPod from his pocket and inserted the earbuds. As Jack's mom drove, her eyes flicked back and forth from the road to the rear-view mirror, angled so that she could see Finn in the back seat.
Halfway into his ice-cream, Finn said he wasn't feeling well, so they drove back to the house. It was jetlag, Jack's mom said. Finn's body clock was still on Irish time and it would be a few days before he adjusted. Remember when we went to Ireland, she said to Jack, how sick you got on the way from the airport? Her voice had that bright, false tone it got when she was worried. It was a tone that prompted a gnawing in Jack's stomach, as if her concerns were his as well.
But he couldn't have cared less about Finn's body clock. All he worried about was having this strange kid in the bed above him for the next two months. So what if it was his cousin? It wasn't fair.
At home Finn had a shower and went to bed. Jack's mom went to her room to make some phone calls and his dad popped out of the study to tell him he had to work late. He was super busy, he said. All that time at the airport when next week Microsoft was rolling out a new operating system. He spoke rapidly, hands on his hips, his face coiled in a tight grimace, as if he would rather not be working, as if Microsoft wasn't always rolling out something.
The Mariners were playing at home against the White Sox, and Jack watched the last half of the game on TV. His favourite player, Ichiro Suzuki, had a great game and the Mariners won, 4-3. After the game, he fed the cat, watered the deck flowers, and rolled up the garden hose. From beyond the line of cottonwoods at the end of the yard he could hear a motor boat on Lake Washington. The night was clear and warm, and he left the windows open for his dad to close later. He ate a bowl of cereal. He dragged out each task for as long as he could, but eventually he had to say good night to his parents and go into his bedroom.
The sound of Finn's breathing rose and fell across the blare of crickets through the open window. There was a strange, slightly sour smell in the room, and the clothes Finn had been wearing that day were draped over his footboard. Jack did not turn on the lamp, but stood beside the bunks, allowing his eyes to adjust to the murk. The nightlight beside his desk glowed green, and after a few moments he saw that Finn's bare left arm was outside the bedclothes.
He waited for a while, then slipped off his shoes and stepped onto the side rail of the lower bunk, so that his head was high enough to lean across and examine Finn's arm. Holding his breath, he looked closely. He could feel a thumping in his chest. On the underside of the forearm he could just make out a symbol that had been literally carved into the skin. The scabs of the wound, enflamed at the edges, formed a cross, topped by three pointed slashes like the imprint of a bird's foot.
As Jack stared at the symbol, Finn suddenly swivelled his head so that their faces were within inches of each other. He was wide awake.
'What are you at?' Finn said.
Jack jumped down from the rail. 'I'm just going to bed.'
Finn slid his arm under the bedsheet. His pale skin shone in the greenish light and his eyes were like dark stones.
'It's all a big show, isn't it?'
'Me. The Finn Geraghty show. The freak from Dublin.'
'I'm sorry. I just wanted to see what it looks like.'
'Well, you've had a good goo now, so you have, but you know what? You'll never get inside my head. You'll never know that story.'
'I don't want to know.'
'Everyone thinks they know my story. But they know fuck all.'
He turned in the bed, faced the wall and pulled the covers over his head.
Jack did know the story – or the bones of it, anyway. He had heard his parents discussing it while he studied in his room. He'd also overheard his mother talking to his aunt on the phone and read the seven-page letter from Finn's mom that was left lying on the kitchen table. That was a funny thing about his parents – they made a big deal out of telling him there were certain things he was too young to know, then made it easy for him to find those things out.
Finn was a 'problem child'. At least that was the phrase his dad used. His mom disagreed.
'They don't use that term anymore,' she'd said. 'It's not politically correct.'
'What is he, then?'
'We're all vulnerable.'
'It's a clinical label, Howard.'
Finn had developed a compulsion for video games. Or one in particular called Gang Feud 3. He was so obsessed that his mother was in despair. 'He has stopped doing anything except playing this game,' she wrote. 'He's not involved in any sport, has no hobbies and hasn't done a tap of schoolwork in over six months. His Junior Cert is next year and he has me driven mental. I don't know what to do and neither do his teachers.'
Finn had been a good student in primary school, but he had failed every subject in his Easter exams. He was surly and uncommunicative. Often, he pretended to be sick, staying home from school and gaming all day while his mother was at work. The only boys he hung around with were other gamers who couldn't wait to get home to play online.
Gang Feud 3 was rated M for Mature, so even if Jack's parents had allowed him to play video games he would not have played this one. But he'd heard kids talking about it at school. After choosing a gang to belong to, each player went through an initiation ceremony, which included running for a drug dealer, stealing a car and hiring a prostitute. Once you were accepted into your gang, you got the appropriate tattoos and cruised the streets in a low-rider Chevy Impala, selling drugs and buying guns. You scored points by making sales and extending your gang's territory, which involved killing policemen and rival gang members. Triple points were awarded for targeted assassinations. You could use points to pimp your vehicle and enhance your weapons. Score enough and you moved up the gang hierarchy, from soldier to lieutenant to captain to warlord. Needless to say, the game was laden with foul language.
Finn's dad had not been on the scene for many years. He was certainly long gone by the time Jack and his mother had visited Ireland. By then, Jack's aunt, Orla, was back using her maiden name, and she'd also had the children's names legally changed to Geraghty. Jack couldn't remember their old name, if he knew it in the first place. He did remember a phrase his mom had once used about her sister's ex-husband: 'a nasty piece of work'. When she said this, a look had crossed her face that Jack had never seen before.
Aunt Orla was a solicitor, which is what they called a lawyer in Ireland, and because the Irish economy wasn't doing so well, she had time on her hands. At least that's what she said in her letter. But she was more comfortable doing stuff with Finn's two younger sisters than with her son. Most evenings and weekends she was out, bringing the girls to piano or Irish dancing or drama. They were high achievers. That left Finn with plenty of time to perfect his gang skills and work towards being a warlord. 'It's not that I didn't give him every chance,' Orla wrote, 'or that I'm not hoarse from telling him to do what's best for himself. I've tried everything I can think of to make him see what he's missing. Over the last year he's lost all respect for me, and whenever I say anything to him the whole thing turns into a shouting match. Which is why I finally went to his year head.'
'What's a year head?' Jack's dad had asked his mom.
It was late at night. Jack was still awake and could hear them through the open bedroom door.
'Sort of an academic advisor,' his mom said.
'What'd he do?'
'According to Orla, he called Finn in to his office and laid it all out. Told him that these video games were damaging his schoolwork and social life, alienating him from his family, desensitising him to violence.'
'I'm not sure I buy that argument.'
'Well, Howard, something's the matter with him. Wait till I tell you. At the beginning of May, the school told him he had a month to get his act together. Otherwise they weren't going to let him do the Junior Cert. So what does he do?'
Jack's mom dropped her voice. He had to strain to hear her from behind his bedroom door.
'He carved a gang symbol into his forearm. With a penknife.'
'You're kidding me.'
'I am not. In history class. The boy sitting beside him fainted when he saw the blood, so the teacher thought something had happened to the boy who passed out. They called an ambulance, gave the boy first aid and so forth. Meanwhile, Finn was hiding the wound. Until the boy woke up and said what really happened.'
'Well, according to the year head – not that Orla believes everything he says – the nurse who dressed Finn's wound told the principal about the thing on his arm and they called him down for an explanation. But he went mad in the principal's office and had to be restrained. Cursing at the top of his voice, ripping the dressing off the wound, punching the year head in the chest.'
'By the time Orla got there he was screaming and waving his arms and blood was flying everywhere.'
Excerpted from "This Ain't No Video Game, Kid!"
Copyright © 2010 Kevin Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of Little Island.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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