THE GALAGAN PATIENT by Ronald Montgomery

Together, he and I play. The game, the event horizon of programmed priorities and desire. I meditate on him. I’ve been in this place before, with you.

You…you, my…

No. Back to the game.

It’s black. Is it night here?

A construction site, the steel skeleton of a squat building. I’m climbing a shaky ladder when the ape throws a flaming barrel of petrol on me. Knocked from the rungs, I fall down, down to the rough floor, the barrel pinning me, drenching me in burning fuel. Pain like water washes me with its dexterous fingers

I never knew I could hurt this badly. I can’t breathe. I can’t scream.

I die for the first time.

On my eleventh try, $2.75 spent, I navigate the maze of floors and ladders to reach the top, gasping. My son Steven waits, dressed in blonde wig, pink muumuu dress, and All-Stars. A heart, pixelated curves of red, appears in the space between us.

The ape slides from his perch, quiet and menacing.

“You suck, Jumpman,” Steven sneers. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

The heart cracks in two.

I try to warn Steven, tell him of the danger he’s put us in, but my bit depth is wrong, the dynamic range of my voice limited. I don’t know how to speak in this game.

Steven dances the Cabbage Patch, carries the ape up the ladder.

Act One: They Meet

The video game cutscene. Interstitial,timeless intersection of lost moments.

The mausoleum has a reflection pool inside. Moonlight seeps in a window, brilliance cleaving dark waters. You’re there in capri pants, t-shirt, and a frayed sweater with pearl buttons; the one that smelled of soil and sweat and sun, the one you wore in the garden.

You sit on the edge, feet in the water. You smile like in the pictures. The words I wish to say.

Mr. and Ms. Pac Man re-unite, outrace their ghosts. Share a kiss.

It’s $3.25 later. I’m down to $4.00, sixteen quarters left.

We’re hurtling down a racetrack. Heady smells of gas and hot metal, the roar of engines. A crowd of pink and brown dots cheer from my periphery.

I’m racing the gray car, Steven is green. I’m riding his ass, waiting to bump his axle and crash his car into the grandstands. We can’t stop and talk. We have to move move move —

“Leave me alone!” Steven says, veering to the outside.

“We can’t stay here, Steven. Come with me–”

Steven takes a sharp turn in the corner. I brake and skid, twin tails of smoke escaping melted tire rubber. A blue car zips from behind, cuts me off.

“You can’t tell me what to do any more!” Steven screams. “It’s your fault mom’s gone!”

“That’s not fair,” my face flushes, hands shake with shame. “I loved her.”

“Then why did you leave?”

Silence. I’m near position to bump his axle.

He laughs. “You don’t care. All those nights you couldn’t make my games, the weekends working. Because you were fucking your–”

“Don’t you talk to me like that.” Anger, drawn into stalling. “I know, I know I made mistakes.”

Closer, a little closer–

“Mistakes?! You hid in your lab!”

The clock ticks down. End of this race. Time to win it.

“I’m hiding, Steven? Look at you. Look at you.”

I swerve in. Steven pulls ahead, and I careen into the grandstands. Pink and brown dots scream and blink out.

Minigame.

Two A.M. I’m on a downtown street in the DeLorean, going over the instruments. The summer night air is heavy, redolent of fire and sulphur. Chuck Berry drifts from an abandoned radio in the park, music carrying in the night.

Straight down the street is a glowering,red hemispherical mass, spotted with black, like an astronomer’s photo of the sun. It’s consumed City University and the new firehouse, halted at the county courthouse.

The Professor leans into the cabin. He squints through his bifocals, furrowing thick eyebrows. He clears his throat.

“Zee emulation superstructure is closed and highly entropic, but with a predictable decay rate. With zee inflection point now passed, it will soon collapse upon itself.” The Professor palms me a roll of quarters. “You haff forty tries to generate a kill screen in zee emulation and to convince your boy to leave. Two big ifs.”

The kill screen — breakdown, unexpected and unpredictable, illogical behavior in ruthlessly logical levels. For the games were not designed to be played and played, to be taken to the frontiers of their simple designs. If I push us through enough levels, Steven and I can break through and escape. Orpheus and Eurydice. The limits of our love.

“You know, zis is suicide–” the Professor halts.

Death. The final arrangement of information. Your hands clasped, bluish in the casket. Beautiful face sunken, a collapsing retainer wall eaten by despair and time. Grooves worn in my soft memory, soundtrack to a forever-locked world. Do you wait for me there?

I blink, flensed.

“I’ve calculated the entry vector.” I hand him a clipboard, fit goggles over my eyes. “Goodbye, Werner.”

I close the car door, gun the DeLorean, watch the Professor wave in my rearview mirror.                 Accelerate.

At infinite velocity I breach the superstructure. A flash. Pop and crack, soothing hiss of analog static. The arm carries the needle across the record, sets it in the cradle.

The Heavenly Father blows dust from my cartridge.

Reseats me.

I’m on a bare field, tall grasses in the distance. I grip an orange plastic pistol before me. A dopey hunting dog sniffs the ground, and, catching a scent, jumps into the tall grasses, barking.

A…duck? A duck zig-zags across blue sky, bouncing forward and back. It laughs at me. Steven.

I carry on the conversation from before. Time I had my say.

“You can’t even act like a man! Face me, Steven!”

“I’m thirteen, asshole!” He quacks. “I hate you! I’m staying here forever!” He flies from sight.

The sky turns pink. White letters appear above me: FLY AWAY. The hunting dog rises from the grass and laughs at me.

A pause. The next duck bounces in the sky.

“Steven. This shit stops now. You freed the emulator from containment and half the city is gone, destroyed. I’m going to prison, and you’ll be alone. And that’s if we’re lucky.”

“You never said you were sorry.” Steven says.

I raise the gun and shoot him. The duck spirals groundward.

I have to beat him. We have to keep moving forward. We can’t stop.

“You hurt me,” he whimpers. A mournful cry, phlegm in his throat. The way he cried when I missed his birthday.

The smiling dog comes up from the grass, holding the dead duck.

“Steven!” I drop my orange pistol. Fumble forward.

The dog goes down.

“Steven!”

The game is forgotten. The sun has set over the marsh, the wilderness sinks into dusk. I wander deeper into the grasses.

“Steven, come home. I’m sorry.”

Bonus Level.

Down to my last quarter.

A majestic glittering starscape sweeps below my star fighter, looping to infinity.

I’m shooting insects in space. The tricky ones have tractor beams. They catch me, and I have to rescue myself.

Steven is silent. I begged him to talk, raged, and begged again. Stubborn. Like you were.

I feel alone in the game. But I’ll punch a hole in the night. Pull him through, to the other side. To a place where we speak in true voices.

Beyond the timeless intersection of lost moments.

RONALD MONTGOMERY is an information technology professional in St. Louis, Missouri. He enjoys old comics, family, and Godiva brownies. Ronald has painstakingly plotted out a twelve issue sequel to the 1980’s Squadron Supreme series from Marvel Comics. Doctor Zero from Shadowline comics co-stars and fucks shit up. It will be awesome.

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