Note: I’ve revised this story, changing the setting and several lines of dialog and action. I may or may not have adequately addressed Bryon’s comment about motivation. I would welcome responses. –gb
The kid snorted at the computer monitor and pushed the mouse away. He twisted in his chair. I could tell he was looking at me, that he wanted my attention. I was tired of his interruptions. I had a book to read.
He wasn’t my kid. He almost seemed like nobody’s kid. Or almost anybody’s kid. I’d seen him tagging after about every teenager and adult around town except either his mother or his father. I can’t say I’d want to spend much time around his mother and father, either, but that’s beside the point. It wasn’t his choice. His mom was always at work, and his dad, who was never at work, didn’t want him hanging around the house. Not one of those happy home situations. However, it wasn’t my home.
It was like having a dog stare at you when you have a sandwich. They never blink. Neither of them—the kid, the dog—has an attention span over ten seconds, of course, unless you want to finish a book for American Lit that weekend and Saturday morning is the only time you can do it. Then they could stare a doorknob down.
I’d been meaning to tell the librarians it was a bad idea to put the public-use computers right there in the reading room. It would be okay if it was just kids doing homework or grandma emailing her extended brood far away. But in practice, most of the activity was games. Flashing lights from the monitors and little buzzing noises from the earbuds. And then there’s the kids that always need help spelling the URL and you’re the one who’s available. The mouse thumped against the wall and his chair squeaked again.
“Hey,” he said. I kept reading, or trying to.
“Hey,” he said again. “How do you get to the place where you beat people up?”
I glared at the page before me, but no words were coming from it any more. The only words in my head were the kid’s, echoing down the alleys of my mind like a scream. How do you get to the place where you beat people up?
I reached over and grabbed the mouse. I clicked in the location bar. “You know where it is. L … E …” The kid twisted back to the computer and started typing it in. I continued: “G … O … dot—”
He snorted again. “I’m tired of lego-dot-com. All you do is chase stuff around and blow stuff up.” He turned to me again. “It’s just games.”
He frowned at my childishness. He sneered at my simplicity. He was seven years old. He was tough. He wanted to skip the kid stuff and get to the serious games. I examined his bright eyes for any hint of understanding, any sign that he knew what he was talking about.
“You need to talk to your dad about this.”
“Dad’s asleep. He said to come down here.”
That sounded about right. “Do a search,” I said. I went back to my book, but I couldn’t really focus on that. And even if I could have, the kid wouldn’t have let me.
“Come on,” he said. He set his jaw and peered unflinchingly into my eyes. There was a bit of rage in this kid, and he came by it honestly. He was an energy vampire, and that ran in his family too. He would smile and smile at you until you asked for a little of your own space back, and then you hit the bottom of his patience. Then you saw his mean side. The world was intended for his service, and the sooner you got that through your head the sooner you got to see him smile on you again. I wasn’t buying it. Not any more. Not from his old man, and certainly not from a seven-year-old.
“I don’t know how to get to that place.” He did not blink. He knew I was just trying to get rid of him. I didn’t care. “I never go there,” I said, turning back to my book. His posture did not adjust to this new reality. I knew he was still staring a hole in the side of my head. I fruitlessly scanned the page before me, searching for meaning, and found nothing there. The kid had tractor beams in his eyes.
I leaned over and crowded him aside. Getting his way at last, he vacated his chair and let me at the keyboard. I clicked the mouse in the google bar, typed a few words in, entered them and clicked the first result. I went back to my reading.
Almost a minute of silence, almost a page of prose later, the time I had bought ran out. “This is just words!” He squeaked his chair around at me again.
“Click on ‘Search.’ ” I didn’t look up. “Or just google something else.”
“This search.” I leaned over and clicked it for him. “That search.”
“Will I get an identity?”
“You already have an identity,” I said. “Everyone does.”
“Will I have special powers?”
“No.” I entered the local zip code. “Nobody has any special powers.”
“How can I fight without special powers?”
“You can’t fight these people,” I said. “You just watch while they beat other people up.” I tapped the enter key.
“This is just more words!”
“Keep looking. Scroll down.”
“Where are the bad guys?”
“You’ll see them! Keep looking.”
“This is stupid.”
“Then google something else. I don’t care.”
I located my paragraph. Good fiction should not be read this way, with interruptions every thirty seconds, with someone else’s kid nipping at your heels like a badly trained Australian sheep dog. An author plots a story to wrap your mind up in a new world. A good story unfolds with steady purpose. Its complexities blossom like flowers in a beloved garden. Conflicts circle for permission to land, then glide in at the precise moment the mysteries clear. Themes converge to raise your understanding of the human condition to bright new levels.
A story can’t do that without your undivided attention. I should have known I couldn’t read in a place like that. There was no peace to be had: not at home, not at the school library, and apparently not at the public library.
And yet what was stopping me? For two full minutes the child had not emitted a sound. If I had half the concentration of that kid, I could have swept through two pages undisturbed.
The problem, as always, was guilt. I may be a selfish jerk, but it doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. I turned back to the kid at the computer. He was slowly scrolling down the page I’d sent him to, inspecting the names with squinting intensity and suspicion.
And then he found the name I knew he would find. He was a slow reader and just a child, so I saw it first. That’s when I panicked. I was reaching for the keyboard to hit the backspace key and get back to good old safe google, good old home sweet home page, help him find a nice safe kid site to play in, if such a thing existed, but I was too late. He had spotted the name and was hovering the cursor over it, highlighting it in the tired bureaucratic blue they always seem to choose for government websites. God forgive me, I hesitated.
“It’s my dad,” he said, and instantly clicked the name. Up came the graceless heading “Registered Offender Search Details” and a portrait no one would ever want his child to see: hair stringy from a binge, waxy skin pale purple under naked fluorescent light, eyes cold as death. I felt sick at my stomach. I punched the nearest button, the rocker switch that shuts off the power strip. The screen went black and the hard drive spun down to silence.
His breath was uneven. I looked and his eyes were wet around the rims.
“That’s the high school alumni page,” I said. “It’s sort of like a yearbook, only online.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and the water trickled out, darted down his soft seven-year-old cheeks and dripped off his smooth chin. Then slowly, so slowly and sadly, his young neck curled forward as he hung his head and his whole body shook.
“It’s not his best picture,” I admitted. “It’s just…”
He wiped his wet eyes with the heels of both hands. “Asshole,” he said. “I can read. I know what a ‘Registered Offender’ is. Don’t you think I know what that is?”
“Shut up, asshole,” he said. He shoved the keyboard into its slot and walked away. I listened to the front door open and close with a soft hydraulic hiss.
I watched the routine bureaucracy at the checkout desk for a couple of minutes, then returned to my book. At least I could count on some uninterrupted silence, unless another kid came in. Or the kid’s dad, I thought.
So the kid could read. I stared at my book. If only I could.