a review of FINAL FANTASY VI (elsewhen, FINAL FANTASY III)
a videogame developed by Squaresoft
and published by Squaresoft
Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Entertainment System
text by tim rogers
“Yelling After My Bones Are Gone”
(An Inverted Review Of Final Fantasy VI (1994))
by tim rogers
11 october 2019
Final Fantasy VI arrived in North American retail stores 25 years ago today, on October 11th, 1994. Back then it called itself Final Fantasy III. I remember this exact date because I remember everything because of a rare neurological condition I have suffered my whole life. I also remember this date because exactly fifty-nine days later an arsonist who would never be caught burned down my high school’s brand-new six-million-dollar gymnasium.
At 3:14pm on Tuesday, October 11th, 1994 I entered the side door of my parents’ house on the north side of Indianapolis, Indiana. I was wearing my gray sweatpants and my green flannel shirt, buttoned up all the way to the chin over my Donkey Kong Country pre-order T-shirt because I was morbidly obese and I hated being morbidly obese and buttoning my shirt all the way up to my chin made me feel thinner. My mom had her car keys in her hand.
“I’m taking your little brother to Wendy’s, get in the car.”
My mother has always had such an incorrect relationship with commas. I point this out the once because I want you to see her as she is. For the remainder of this piece I’ll embellish her toward semicolons.
My mom didn’t go through the drive-thru because they always got the order wrong. Since his infancy family legends told of my little brother vomiting at the sight of a photograph of salad. I remember differently, though it’s never been any use arguing with people who can’t remember literally anything as well as you remember literally everything.
My mom never went through the drive-thru because if her little sweet boy got one whiff of pickle, that’d be her upholstery.
“Look at this; look at that drive-thru line. Look at this; three in the afternoon on a Tuesdy! We’re goin’ inside so they don’t get you’s’s orders wrong.”
My little brother always ate one order of chicken nuggets, one order of fries, and two hamburgers with no ketchup, no mustard, no onions, and no pickles, just plain, that’s two of them, that’s both of them with no ketchup, that’s with no mustard, that’s with no onions, and that’s with no pickles, please and thank you.
My Wendy’s order was then as it is today, though today it’s only ever on the odd road trip: the biggest fries you got and the biggest Frosty you got.
My little brother was seven; I was fifteen and mute. Being mute is easy as a teenager because aren’t you supposed to never tell your parents anything, anyway, at that age? I left the Wendy’s with my hands in my pockets and wandered into the Video Vault, which as of 2018 is now a liquor store which is no longer called Video Vault.
Video Vault introduced me to anime, direct-to-video sequels to Jean-Claude Van Damme films, and many bad video games. Prior to our relocating from Fort Meade, Maryland to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1993, my mother had been in charge of game rentals. She applied shotgun logic to her rental choices. My math books would have described her mindframe as “selection with replacement.” She’d rent the same thing three or four times if my big brother didn’t say something. Even then she’d sometimes forget, and suddenly Archon for the NES was gonna sit on our bedroom floor for the weekend.
When we moved to Indianapolis, however, we had Video Vault right across the street and a block down from our house, sharing a parking lot with the Wendy’s. Video Vault was not the Army post supermarket of my mom’s poor decisions. No, Video Vault possessed a curated selection of games. Someone at the Vault was a connoisseur. And being that Wendy’s after school had quickly become a Friday Thing, I had been in charge of my own game-renting destiny for the past year. Usually I rented Final Fantasy II—that’s what we called Final Fantasy IV, back then (look, we didn’t have Wikipedia; we didn’t know)—and started a new save file and just blasted through the whole game over the weekend. It’s still my favorite Final Fantasy.
It was Tuesday, and we didn’t rent videos on Tuesday, even though Wendy’s after school had transitioned from a Friday Thing to a Whenever Baby’s Hungry Thing. You’d have thought renting video games would have become a Tuesday thing as well. Well, wrong: if you want your mom to never rent video games for you on a weekday in 1994, just don’t smile at the bus driver one day in 1992. Your mom always says hello to the bus driver, and he always says a lot more than hello back, because he deals with children all day and likes talking to adults.
I drifted mutely toward the games. A lightning bolt shocked the wind out of me.
Final Fantasy III was sitting there on the shelf, right next to Final Fantasy II, which was sitting to the right of EVO: The Search for Eden.
Final Fantasy II and EVO sat against plastic cases containing their respective cartridges and well-worn instruction manuals. Final Fantasy III sat fresh and clean against the shelf. It was not available. Someone had rented it. I didn’t care. Final Fantasy III was real, and I was about to touch its box.
I had never seen its box before. Back then, games didn’t always have release dates, much less press-released box art unveilings. All I’d ever seen was a cheeky two-page advertisement on the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly. This advertisement insinuated that the little cartoon Moogle, Mog, could turn a bunch of monsters into turds. The copy on page two of the ad nonchalantly informed readers that the game was coming “October 1994.” Which day in October was anyone’s guess, including mine, and that’s why I’d been stepping into Video Vault after school as frequently as my little brother wanted chicky nuggets.
I picked up its box with trembling hands.
Touching Final Fantasy III‘s box with my real hands had never occurred to me as potentially ever happening. I stared at the cute little moogle juxtaposed with the brooding deep purple background for several seconds, my eyes as big as tea saucers, before I remembered braver curiosity: I flipped the box over.
Boldly, the back of Final Fantasy III‘s box displayed only one screenshot. That screenshot showed a dark, red sky behind a gritty rust-colored metal fortress atop which stood two soldiers riding robot suits. Curiously, the screenshot was warped and bent a visibility-obfuscating angle.
I wasn’t disappointed at the lack of additional screenshots. I’d already seen screenshots of Final Fantasy III in Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Players. I didn’t need to see more screenshots.
Besides, it struck me as grown-up and bold that the box only showed one screenshot.
What I most wanted was to read the copy on the back of the box. It didn’t disappoint me: three terse paragraphs of clean, fantasy prose, calling the box-holder toward the action of wondering what wonders waited in this game. No bullet points; no numbers; no boasts of cartridge size. It only showed prose: with delicate brush strokes, it set the stage for what might have been a bigger story than the Bible.
I scanned back through issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly in my head. I recalled the October 1994 issue of Game Players’ review by Jeff “Lucky” Lundrigan, who gave the game a 98%. I recalled screenshots embedded in that review, of a town with blue brick roads and snowy hilltops and Dickensian wooden houses and piping steam billowing on the wind. A brown-brick castle in beige sand; a clown laughing while that castle burned. I remembered Jeff “Lucky” Lundrigan’s words.
“Deep inside me, there was a huge, empty hole. For years I tried to fill it with alcohol, dangerous sports, faster and faster cars, loud music, and countless women. Nothing could help me, until Final Fantasy III. Sell the house, sell the kids. Play the game!”
I measured Lundrigan’s words against all the screenshots in my memory, and then against the prose on the back of the box. So it came to pass that before ever touching a d-pad to move a character a single square, much less slot its cartridge into the Super Nintendo I shared with two brothers, I had decided that I held in my hand an empty box representing the best video game I had ever encountered in my life.
“Heh, yeah, dude, we just got that today.”
I dropped the box like it was someone else’s. I slid it so its back touched the shelf.
The Video Vault Guy Who Was Always Friendly To Me was chubby, tall, and he had a sort of a Jon Snow beard. He wore polo shirts and he probably lifted weights just because he had friends who did. He was much younger than I am now, though much older than I was then. West of the Rockies I take it he’d have had tattoos. Where he was he probably listened to metal while driving his mom’s old minivan despite never having been to a show.
“Looks like somebody already rented it.”
I nodded at him like he was the bus driver.
“Where by somebody I mean me,” he said.
I smiled at him with my huge gap teeth. I turned around and left. I ran into my mom on the way in.
“I knew you’d be in here. Son, you’re creepin’ these people out.”
We got home at shortly after 3:45pm. I put my Wendy’s french fries—circa 1994, the best fast-food french fries, hands down—into the refrigerator. I put my Frosty into the freezer. I went into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth. I went into my room. I took off my shoes. I put on the heavy wool socks I always wore to bed. I got in bed. I wrapped a T-shirt around my face. I fell asleep.
I woke up seven hours later. I crossed through the dark living room and into the dark kitchen. I microwaved a mixing bowl full of water. I made myself a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. I microwaved the Wendy’s french fries. I mixed them into the macaroni and cheese. I took my Frosty out of the refrigerator. I squeezed that paper cup until its contents thawed into spoon-edibility. I sat on the edge of my bed in the dark. The shiny metallic blinds in my bedroom window reflected a glint of the little amber nightlight plugged into an outlet in the flower-wallpapered wall behind me. My room was always the coldest room in the house. It was cold that night. I’m thinking it was in the upper fifties. The sky had been gray over the Video Vault parking lot. My toes were cold inside my hiking boot socks. Smartphones hadn’t been invented yet and I’d never used the internet. A mixing bowl of macaroni and cheese heated my lap and a Frosty chilled my hand. Devoid of even Instagram, my life was no upbeat coming of age comedy. I was a fifteen-year-old obese mute self-taught vegetarian living on the night shift; I’d never talked to a girl, though I had held the shrink-wrapped, empty box of Final Fantasy III for thirty seconds at the local video store seven hours ago.
I studied Chinese until 6am. Then I did my homework until 7am. My mom entered my room and flipped the light switch on.
“You’re like a vampire in here, son; it’s time to get ready for school.”
Seventeen hours later I made another bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese and a Hot Pocket.
Eight hours after that, my mom told me I was a vampire and reminded me to smile at the bus driver. Black clouds swirled like barbecue smoke over the off-white sky outside as silent wind ripped through and bent deep green trees.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I ate lunch alone. Tuesdays and Thursdays my class schedule put me into another lunch period, so I sat with my big brother Roy. Roy’s named after our grandfather, by the way, who was named after his grandfather, so he technically predates the singing cowboy. Roy was seventeen years old and a senior. Roy was as tall and skinny then as I am now. He wasn’t old enough to have ever had sex, though he was old enough to talk about gross stuff constantly at lunch with the friends he had that I didn’t.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Roy would wait for me at the southwest entrance of our school’s vast, bright cafeteria. He’d greet me with monosyllables. I feel now like his “Hey. Yeah. Let’s go in.” reflected the real seventeen-year-old Roy Rogers The Third, and all the hot air and wiener jokes at lunch was a performance. There I go again, giving everyone too much credit.
Thursday, October 13th, 1994, Roy and his friend Jared were as excited about Pulp Fiction as I was about Final Fantasy III.
“It’s gonna be so fuckin’ bad ass,” Jared was saying. He’d said it thrice.
“Dude, I’m goin’ tomorrow,” Roy said. “I’m just goin.’ I’m walkin’ to Clearwater if I have to.”
“You gotta get your license!”
“Dude that movie looks gay as hell,” one of the other guys said. This guy only liked republicans and Michael Jordan. My brother’s friends were all so tall. I was Hobbit-high, yet so uncool I had never even read Lord of the Rings. They all looked like they were 35. I was 15 and I looked like I was in second grade.
“It won the prize at Cannes,” Jared said over a mouthful of something his mom had made. He pronounced it “Cans.” Jared was the fattest kid in our school by a half-marathon’s worth of miles, though somehow I was The Fat Kid at the table.
“Shit you don’t even know what Cannes is.”
“Nuh-uh, it’s in France.”
When the bell rang, my brother walked with me to the cafeteria exit. He had his hands in his pockets.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Okay,” my brother said.
The next day, Friday, October 14th, 1994, Final Fantasy III was still rented out at Video Vault. My mom drove me to the Blockbuster two parking oceans over. They didn’t even have the game.
“He’s looking for a Final Fantasy Three,” my mom told the guy.
“That’s not out yet.”
“They’ve got it over at the Video Vault.”
“I’m tellin’ you it isn’t out yet.”
“That kid’s a damn liar,” my mom was saying in the car.
I sat on the living room sofa and ate my french fries and Frosty. My little brother, his burger and nuggets already vanished into him, was banging toys together in the middle of the living room floor.
I was re-reading Jeff “Lucky” Lundrigan’s review of Final Fantasy III when my brother Roy entered the side door into the living room.
“Where were you?” my mom asked him. “I brought some Wendy’s.”
“Me and Jared are gonna go over to Subway.”
“We’ll be back.”
I went to bed.
My mother slapped the light on at just after seven in the evening.
“Wake up. Don’t you wanna go to the movies with your brother and your dad?”
My brother rode in the passenger’s seat of my dad’s Dodge Ram conversion van.
“That John Travolta, I ain’t heard that name in forever. You know what he was in, don’t you?”
“Saturday Night Fever,” my brother said. His voice sounded like his arms were crossed.
“That’s right! How do you even know about that movie?”
“I’ve seen it. You made us watch it on TBS.”
“That came out—yeah, that came out the year you were born! You musta been maybe six months old. We were in Delaware. I went to see that by myself, yeah, you musta been maybe six months old because it must have been the week before Christmas. I left you home with your mom and your Aunt Cindy. Boy, he could dance. I tell you. That man could dance. It was so slick. I tell you, that man could dance.”
My brother didn’t say anything.
“You know they show him dancing on the commercial for this movie, yeah? I bet you—I bet you they got him to dance because they musta seen him in Saturday Night Fever.”
We got out of the van at the General Cinema at Clearwater Crossing. It was cold. My face turned red. I was still wearing my gray sweatpants and green flannel shirt, buttoned all the way up to my chin.
My brother looked at me.
“Are you alright?”
I lived two whole years of my life on the opposite of a normal schedule. Even on weekends I remained nocturnal. School always comprised the last half of my waking day. I suffered apocalyptic exhaustion from start to finish of our Friday night showing of Pulp Fiction.
That night, my dad apologized to my mom.
“There was some filthy, filthy language. Oh, boy, it was filthy. I think—I think Tim was a little spooked. Roy, he’s a grownass man now, I know he loved it, though Tim, boy, there was—there was a guy got shot in the face with a gun, oh man! It was disgusting, just disgusting, and, the movie just makes you—everyone in the theater I swear there were people standing in the theater, it was so full, everyone in there is just laughing and laughing and I’m gonna tell you: I don’t think I ever cracked up so hard in my life. It’s just awful, the movie makes you laugh at something like that. And your son Tim is just sitting there grinning like a criminal.”
My mom shook her head back, forth, back, and forth.
“That John Travolta in the commercials,” my mom said, “boy, he got fat.”
“I tell you what, though, that John Travolta, that man sure can dance. He’s still got it. Boy, that was slick.”
I sat on the edge of my bed, eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes. My stomach was full of a whole large bucket of popcorn, so I ate slowly. I’d just seen a movie consisting of three episodes, each of which focused on a different set of characters, telling one loose story out of chronological order. I’d seen so many rules broken. I’d listened to a vast room full of people cackle with disbelief at the realistic sight of a man decapitated by a pistol blast. My life was different. I re-read the first half of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and then slunk out to the kitchen. I made a bowl of Frosted Flakes and played Doom at about 12 frames per second on the old computer in the laundry room.
Even the guy among my brother’s lunch friends who’d doubted Pulp Fiction couldn’t stop talking about it. Once on Tuesday and twice on Thursday he wondered aloud, “I still don’t get what was supposed to be in the suitcase.”
“I’m goin’ again Friday night, you better believe it,” Jared said.
“You ain’t goin’ to homecoming?”
“Homecoming is gay,” someone said.
“Homecoming sucks,” my brother said.
I sat on the edge of my bed Friday afternoon with a mixing bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios on my lap and Final Fantasy III‘s instruction manual, already tattered and coverless after two weeks of maltreatment by ghostly renters, smoothed atop my right knee. I was wearing my brown flannel shirt, buttoned up to my chin over my Donkey Kong Country pre-order T-shirt. My wide eyes drank in the wispy watercolor portraits of the game’s twelve characters. (The game’s manual did not mention the two hidden characters.)
“Tell him we’re locked and loaded at 5!” my dad enthusiastically informed my mom.
“I told you, he’s got his little treasure in there; he ain’t gonna wanna go outside with yous.”
“These are supposed to be the best years of his life,” my dad said. I think his sliding scale was broken.
My dad knocked on my bedroom door. One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, he opened it.
“Your brother Roy and I are gonna go to Hardees and then we’re gonna go to your high school homecoming football game. If you’re comin’ you better be in the van at 5. We’re locked and loaded at 5. I wanna get there early, get our seats. Or you can sit there and play your videogame.” He pronounced it as one word.
He closed the door. To this day, my dad still goes to all of my high school’s sporting events.
I didn’t put Final Fantasy III into my Super Nintendo until after my mom had left with my little brother to join my dad and big brother at the football game. Friday, October 21st, 1994, wearing my Donkey Kong Country pre-order T-shirt just after sundown, I clicked that big heavy button and turned on the finest video game I had yet played.
Ghostly, operatic organ music bellowed out of my 19-inch television’s single speaker as a camera descended down a gray, lightning-crackly abyss. With a crashing crescendo, the words “FINAL FANTASY III” yelled themselves into text. I could feel my heartbeat in my teeth.
I pressed the “A” button. Back then, games didn’t have loading times. The save file screen came up in the space between two teeth-heartbeats.
You could only save three files in Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo. When the save screen comes up, you immediately see the names of the lead character in each party. So it was that my first impression of the world beyond Final Fantasy III‘s title screen was three files, each with Terra, Locke, and Edgar in the party.
In the top file, the player had named Terra “BITCH.”
I chose to start a new game. I played until three in the morning. I’d met four main characters and learned of their troubles in the troubled world. An event transpired which split our heroes up onto three different paths toward the same objective.
Final Fantasy III graciously offered me the choice of which scenario to play first. I’d never played anything like it. I thought of Pulp Fiction.
By the time my mom told me it was time to sleep through church on Sunday, I’d played all three scenarios. Each of them had introduced new characters and new elements of the plot. I played Locke’s first, because I liked him the most. I played Terra’s second, because I was most curious about her story. Then I began Sabin’s scenario. Looking back on it now, I think Final Fantasy III wants you to choose Sabin’s scenario last. He’s the character least involved in the machinations of the plot. Everyone else—Terra, Locke, Edgar—has a horse in the race and skin in the game of the game world’s political climate. Sabin is just along for the ride. Yet in playing his increasingly complicated, wickedly long scenario, over the course of which he teams up with a full party of three characters, first-hand witnesses a war crime disaster, and meets actual ghosts on a train, we see Sabin earn his racehorse. We see him get involved.
When Sabin’s scenario ended I knew it: Final Fantasy III was as good, smart, and important as Pulp Fiction. My brother’s lunch friends would have a field day talking about it.
My brother stood in my bedroom doorway Sunday morning.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He looked at the television. He picked up the game case.
I was buttoning my flannel shirt up to my chin, over my Donkey Kong Country pre-order T-shirt.
“They made a Final Fantasy Three, huh? Didn’t you and what’s-his-name used to play that Final Fantasy Two? That game was gay, dude.”
My brother had played Final Fantasy II from start to finish with my friend Carl and I in Fort Meade, Maryland three times during sleepovers between 1991 and 1992.
“Hey, let’s play some Mortal Kombat II.”
We played some Mortal Kombat II on the Super Nintendo. My brother lost three matches in a row. I did the same fatality every time—the one where Kung Lao splits his opponent down the middle with his bladed hat.
“God, that fatality’s so gay, dude.”
Friday, October 28th, 1994, Final Fantasy III was unavailable for rental at Video Vault. The Blockbuster nearby had acquired a copy, which was also rented out.
At roughly four PM on Sunday, October 30th, 1994, I stood in Electronics Boutique in Castleton Square Mall, reading and re-reading the prose on the back of Final Fantasy III‘s box. It was $79.99.
“Dude, we do trade-ins,” the store employee said to me. “Just bring a buncha NES games, man, that’s what I’d do.”
Friday, November 4th, 1994, I started Final Fantasy III afresh on Video Vault’s copy after my brothers and parents left for my high school’s football game at a high school across town. I had to save over a one-hour-progressed file in which Locke was named “COCK.” I remember thinking, at the very least the guy coulda put an “E” on the end of it.
Sunday, November 6th, 1994, I put down my controller in the middle of Sabin’s scenario. I grabbed a shoebox full of NES games and did my seatbelt in the back of my dad’s van.
“What is that he has back there; is that a box of gametapes? What is that; why’s he got those gametapes on him?”
“Electronics Boutique does trade-ins,” my big brother said.
“Your father and I paid for those,” my mom said. “You’re just gonna throw ’em away?”
Actually, mom, I paid for them all myself, with my grandmother’s birthday and Christmas money.
She was right about the throwing them away part, though. The guy at Electronics Boutique told me—well, first he told me “You don’t have to bring the box up here, dude”—Battletoads, Solar Jetman, Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, Final Fantasy, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and Double Dragon II would net me $22 in store credit. I only had $36 in cash. If you factored in Indiana’s 5% sales tax, I was light by an Andrew Jackson and a half.
I stood in front of Sears in my black sweatpants and Payless Velcro strap sneakers for ninety minutes with my shoebox of game tapes. I had never wanted to leave a place so badly in my life. Everyone was loud. I wanted a slice of food court pizza though I needed to save my money if I was going to ever purchase Final Fantasy III. I was hot with weird fear about the extra-large Donkey Kong Country pre-order T-shirt clinging dearly to the bodyfat beneath my flannel shirt. I felt like the biggest trash monster in the city or the world, to have let my mom put ten dollars down on that game, and agree to buy it for me as an early Christmas present on its release day. Why did Donkey Kong Country even have a release day? Why couldn’t Final Fantasy III have had a release day? If I’d have known, I would have made it my Christmas present.
I was a fifteen-year-old five-foot-tall morbidly obese mute self-taught vegetarian who had never talked to a girl, though I’d seen Pulp Fiction and I had played the same ten hours of Final Fantasy III twice. Yet somehow, the prospect of having a job and earning an hourly wage felt sound years away.
I just wanted to go home and get farther into Final Fantasy III than I’d gotten the first time. My blood began to boil. Why did my dad always give everyone two hours in the mall? Why couldn’t it be one hour? Why couldn’t it be thirty minutes? What could you do in the mall for two hours? They never bought anything. None of us ever bought anything.
My brother arrived at the rendezvous first. He had a half-empty Orange Julius cup in his hand. He gave it to me. I drank it. My dad showed up. My mom showed up last. She’d bought my little brother a Power Rangers toy on clearance. Its cardboard box rested as though animal-mangled inside a plastic bag in my mother’s hand. My brother was coddling the ranger like a puppy. He’d shatter it within a week.
Black clouds swirled like barbecue smoke in the off-white sky over the cracked beige asphalt of the half-empty mall parking lot.
When we got home, I locked myself in my room. I didn’t sleep or eat until Sunday evening. I’d just gotten past the epic strategy battle in Narshe and gotten absolutely destroyed by enemies in the liar’s town of Zozo. I hadn’t tried grinding yet in the game. Zozo’s aggressive monsters were beating me senseless. The game was trying to move on to its next chapter, and I’d hit a wall. The rainy drear of Zozo perfectly suited my mood that overcast Sunday evening when my mom opened my bedroom door without knocking, called me a vampire, turned the light on, and said, “Give me your Nintendo game; I gotta take it back. Do you want Wendy’s?”
I ate my fries in the dark. I fell asleep at seven PM and I woke up at four AM.
The next Friday, Video Vault’s copy of Final Fantasy III was gone. I rented Blockbuster’s copy. Someone had played the game for thirteen hours. The character Setzer was in the lead. I saved over the third file, in which Gau was leading a party with Sabin and Cyan. On Saturday, my brother went to see Pulp Fiction again.
The Friday after that, I went to Video Vault, then Blockbuster, then back to Video Vault. I rented Video Vault’s copy of Final Fantasy II. I played the game in its entirety over the weekend. One of the files had contained a level-99 Cecil named “Marduk.” That was cool.
The next Wednesay, the 23rd, was a half day. My mom took me to the mall to pick up my copy of Donkey Kong Country.
“This is your Christmas present,” she said.
We went to Wendy’s on the way home. I stopped at Video Vault. Final Fantasy III was in. I didn’t rent it. It felt awfully sad not to rent it.
Outside, dark clouds swirled like barbecue smoke in the gray sky over the parking lot.
I played through half of Donkey Kong Country that night. The next day was Thanksgiving. I sat at the table half asleep. Everyone was eating turkey. My family consists entirely of people who would need Doctor Oz to fit it into a soundbite that you can close your mouth when you chew. I ate Kraft macaroni and cheese, a grilled cheese sandwich, pickles, and a lot of cranberry sauce. My nose was all blocked up. I kept sniffing real loud. It must have sounded like I was snorting baseballs.
“It’s all that dairy!” my dad said.
“It ain’t no dairy,” my mom said. “He’s just bein’ an ass hole.”
They were each half right.
I finished Donkey Kong Country minutes before church on Sunday. The next Friday, I rented Final Fantasy III from Video Vault again. All three save files featured a Locke named “Fuck.” The timestamps indicated they’d all been saved within one minute of each other. I distinctly remember thinking, “He shoulda at least put an ‘E’ on the end.” Even back then, even as a friendless mute, I couldn’t resist a good joke callback, even if only a ghost existed to witness it.
I battled my way to Zozo again.
Sunday morning my mom told me it was time for church. My dad was drinking coffee in the kitchen. This was a couple years before he started wearing suits to church. He was only a couple years older than I am now. He was looking at the Indianapolis Star, asking nobody if they could believe the sports. I performed my weekly ritual of flipping open every full-color advertisement for a glimpse of video games amid mainstream products such as sweaters and electric razors. On a whim I visited the weekly circular for Kohl’s, a store whose Indianapolis locations sold ugly clothes that my mom bought for me, though no video games.
Between a golf bag and a set of flatware, as inexplicable as an alien invasion, sat the box of one solitary video game.
Final Fantasy III.
Next to it was the most curious price tag I have ever seen in my life: the game was on sale for $52.94.
To this day, I do not understand why or how that price happened.
So it was that on Sunday, December 4th, 1994, I traded in a box full of NES games for $22, added $34 of my own money, and purchased Final Fantasy III from the Electronics Boutique in Castleton Square Mall in Indianapolis, Indiana while a rented copy of the same game sat inside the Super Nintendo in my bedroom at home. I remember this date perfectly because I remember everything because of a neurological condition I have suffered my entire life. Also, I remember this date because four days later, an arsonist who would never be caught burned down my high school’s brand-new six-million-dollar gymnasium.
I put the rented Final Fantasy III back into its plastic case. I lovingly returned its tattered manual, now smoothed to toilet-paper softness by the hands of countless profane phantom renters. I closed the case. I put it on the dinner table in the kitchen so that my mom could return it.
I sat on the edge of my bed holding my very own copy of Final Fantasy III for many minutes. I measured its heft. I squeezed its bulk. I could feel that French-toast-thick instruction manual inside. The package felt so important compared to that of Donkey Kong Country. This was a video game my brother would like. This is a video game my dad would like. He likes John Travolta dancing in Pulp Fiction! Why wouldn’t he like this?
I removed the plastic hang tab from the box. I used it to slit open the shrink wrap. I peeled the shrink wrap open just enough to open the box.
My big brother came in.
“You got it, huh?”
He sat down on the bed next to me.
I put the cartridge into the Nintendo on the floor. I booted it up. The ominous title music played. My brother sat on the bed, his arms crossed. He’d walked in and out on the game before. The presence of a purchased copy must have inspired him to deeper attention. His arms folded, his brow furrowed. He’d even put his glasses on. He almost never wore them, back then.
His glasses were so much cooler than my glasses. I had a huge brown pair of American Optical Z-87 safety goggles. My brother had a fancy pair of wire rims. My parents had let him pick his glasses. He’d been in little league before he wore glasses.
I pressed the “A” button on the title screen.
“Dude, what the heck?”
There was already a save file in the game.
“Oh, shoot! Hey, mom, look at this!”
My mom came into the room with her hands on her hips.
“What am I lookin’ at?”
“There’s already a save file in the game! Somebody already played it! And look, they named the character ‘RETARD’!”
In hindsight, I can tell that the boy at Electronics Boutique to whom my mom gave a piece of her mind had, in fact, been the one to name Terra “RETARD.” Years later, I’d work in a Software, Etc at College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana. We checked games out all the time. We had a shrink-wrapper in the back room. We could make anything look like nobody’d played it before.
Castleton Mall closed at 5pm on Sundays. We left the mall just as someone started yelling over the loudspeaker for us to get out. Black clouds swirled like barbecue smoke in the charcoal sky. Indiana, back then, didn’t do Daylight Savings Time.
So it was that I returned a rented copy of Final Fantasy III to the dropbox slot of Video Vault in Indianapolis, Indiana while a brand-new, all-for-me copy sat in a bag in my mom’s 1984 Plymouth Horizon.
We went home. I went to bed. I woke up after midnight. With some microwaved Wendy’s french fries spilled on a paper plate in my lap, I played Final Fantasy III for two hours before turning it off and doing my homework.
At about two-forty PM on Thursday, December 8th, 1994, as the final bell loomed twenty too-long minutes in the distance past Mr. Gulde’s “Global Awareness” class, the fire alarm went off.
Mr. Gulde looked at his watch. “Everyone just take your bags with you.”
We all went outside. We stood on the lawn in front of the school. I looked at my big Casio watch. It was almost two-fifty. I thought about crossing the street and going home. Our house wasn’t even a block away. I wasn’t used to being outside at this time of day. Under those dark clouds and that dead sky I felt more tired than I did at church. I could barely keep my eyes open.
“Pranksters all, prankin’ and shit,” one of the students in Mr. Gulde’s tenth-period Global Awareness class said, milliseconds before the explosion. Everyone shut up. We looked toward the sound. Sheets of siding fell off the brand-new, six-million-dollar gymnasium—the best in the city; home of the North Central Panthers basketball team. Red and yellow flames burst out.
We stood in silence for several minutes.
A black pillar of smoke rose high, high up into the clouds.
I turned around and walked home.
My mom came into my room without knocking. I was putting my hiking boot socks on.
“You’re home early.”
Roy came in.
“Mom, turn on the news! Someone blew up the gym.”
The reporters said school was canceled the next day. My mom and brother sat and listened to the news in silence. Helicopter cameras showed the black pillar stomping down on the school like a finger from heaven.
I went outside. I stood in our lawn. The column of smoke would still be faintly visible on Sunday.
I played Final Fantasy III until 6am on Monday. I got through the Opera House. It was the greatest game I had ever played.
On Monday, the Indianapolis Police had set up checkpoints at every entrance of the school. Students were only allowed to use one entrance, which was equipped with a single metal detector. All three thousand students filed through that one metal detector.
At a special assembly that morning, the principal told us things had changed, effective immediately. Indianapolis Police offices would remain in the school indefinitely. We’d have more metal detectors in the coming days, to speed up student entry. Any students attempting to enter the school later than the pre-homeroom warning bell would be expelled.
Any students showing up late to class would be expelled.
Tuesday, there were cops in the lunchroom. Like, real cops, with guns. Roy and his friends weren’t as loud as usual. Nobody even said “nipple,” much less any of the worse stuff they usually talked about.
“I bet you it was the same kid from last year.”
In 1993, there had been a fire in the same area of the brand-new, six-million-dollar gymnasium, which had at that time just been unveiled. The fire barely covered a few square feet of floor. Investigators ruled it an arson.
The police arrested a student. They never revealed the student’s name. All anyone ever knew was that the student was allowed to return to the school.
“It wasn’t the kid they arrested last year because he didn’t even do it last year; that’s why they let him go!”
“We don’t even fuckin’ . . . know who he was.”
“It was Mr. Quandt’s son, you retard,” someone said. “He graduated.”
“It was not Mr. Quandt’s son,” Jared said.
“How do you know, Jared? Because it was you?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Then how do you know it wasn’t him?”
“Mr. Quandt’s son graduated and they said this kid they arrested last year is back in school.”
“That’s what I’m saying; I’m saying it wasn’t Mr. Quandt’s son who got arrested last year, it was Mr. Quandt’s son who actually did it.”
“Well even if it was Mr. Quandt’s son last year it wasn’t Mr. Quandt’s son this year,” Roy said. “He graduated.”
“Unless he came back,” someone said.
“That’s retarded; you sayin’ he’d sneak in to the school just to start another fire?”
“He’s got unfinished business!”
“You fuckin’ moron.”
“The news said the kid who did it last year wasn’t even in the gym when the fire started this year.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t do it last year!”
“I think it was Jared last year, and it was Jared this year.”
“Why’d it be me?”
“Yeah, tell me how it’s gonna be Jared,” my brother said, “when they’re talkin’ about how you get expelled if you’re late to class. You know Round Boy here ain’t exactly on the cross-country team!”
They all laughed. None of them knew that Jared would later lose over 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches, become a millionaire, and then be arrested for child sex trafficking charges.
“Maybe it was your brother,” one of the guys said. “Didn’t he have Coach Mitchell for gym last year? That bastard’d make anybody wanna torch the gym.”
My brother looked at me.
“Nah, he’s alright.”
“You always gotta watch out for the quiet ones,” one of the guys said. I believe he owned a skateboard.
“It coulda been anybody,” my brother said. He was half right.
“Fuckin’ punk, burning down the gym.”
“They said it’s like a million dollars of damage.”
“They said it in the paper.”
“You read the paper?”
“What kinda bitch move, burnin’ down the gym. You don’t go around hatin’ basketball here in Hoosier country, that’s for damn sure.”
“It probably didn’t have nothin’ to do with basketball.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I don’t know. It just probably didn’t.”
“God damn . . . bitch move either way.”
1993: ONE YEAR EARLIER
“Classic loser move,” My Only Friend had said, a year prior, of the first North Central High School gymnasium arson. “Shoulda torched the fuckin’ lunch room, am I right? Shoulda done it like a month earlier, too, am I right?”
The arsonist had waited until the end of the school year to attempt to burn down the gym.
“Should just fuckin’ . . . put a fuckin’ pipe bomb in the mother . . . fuckin’ . . . . . . lunch room while all those fuckin’ . . . chodes were eatin’ their fuckin’ lunches, dude. Just fuckin’ blow ’em all to shit! There’d’a been hair on them walls!”
It occurred to me several years later that My Only Friend had gotten the phrase “hair on them walls” from the novel In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, about which he’d once proudly given me an impromptu book report, once: “Some fag wrote it, though it’s got some good shit about shotguns in it.”
It was July 1993. The fire had been a month ago. This was not the first time My Only Friend had discussed what he perceived as a wasted opportunity to wallpaper the lunchroom with hair while his mother purchased lottery tickets at a gas station.
“I think we’re gonna fuckin’ go to Taco Bell. Fuckin’ . . . psyched? I am gonna fill my go kart up with diarrhea dude.”
My Only Friend’s mom, who was someone my mom knew, which is how I found myself turned in to a little friendship with My Only Friend, emerged from inside the gas station with a couple of lottery tickets, a bottle of Barq’s root beer for My Only Friend, and a bottle of Sprite for me. I drank Sprite because I didn’t drink caffeine. My Only Friend drank Barq’s root beer because A&W root beer was “for queers.”
As she approached the car, My Only Friend said, “Don’t snitch to mom about any of this shit, [his little brother’s first name].”
“I won’t!” his little brother said, invisibly, from inside the passenger’s seat.
“You boys ready to go?” My Only Friend’s Mom was from Texas by way of Minnesota.
On the way to the Taco Bell nearest the Putt-Putt on the south side Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” came on the radio. My Only Friend’s Mom was listening to 97.1. That was the Best of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and Today. (Today was the first two and a half years of the 1990s.)
“Hey, mom, turn it up.”
“You got it, kid,” she said.
My Only Friend bobbed his head along to the song. I had been fourteen for just one month, though I had considered the song inane since I was eleven. At age thirty-two people would call me a poser for saying that I don’t like songs that have lyrics I can understand as much as I like songs with lyrics I don’t understand. I swear, at age forty I’ve got playlists of, like, traditional Inuit throat singing and I don’t share any of it with anyone. At age fourteen I never shared my music opinions with anyone, so I never had to argue with anyone about them. My Only Friend looked over at me and said, “This song is awesome. There’s this part. Ah, heck. Where is it?” I, mutely, possessed neither the wherewithal nor the means to tell my friend the song was hacky and inane and that I would not stoop to define cleverness as stringing together rhyming words that evoked memories of pop culture or historical tragedies to anybody who’d ever looked at the cover of any given book. It wasn’t a song: it was a list of stuff. I hated about that song everything a cynic today might hate about remakes and reboots and sequels to movies.
“Yeah, yeah, here it is!”
In tandem with Billy Joel, My Only Friend shouted, “J! F! K! Blown Away! What Else Do! I! Have! To! Say!”
He clapped his hands once.
“Just, awesome, man. JFK got so blown away, dude.”
He headbanged a bit as the song stepped into its final chorus.
“We didn’t start the fire! We didn’t start the, start the fire!” He tonelessly talk-sang.
He didn’t realize that, actually, it had always been burning since the world had been turning–an ancient machine deep dark in an inscrutable jungle switched on by hands divine in a time before time which we may never find though if any among us does and if we can reckon its power switch from all that mess of whatever meat composes it it is our human duty to smash it
At Putt-Putt, before go karts, we spectated Mortal Kombat II. Taller teenagers than ourselves crowded the machine.
My Only Friend had social skills. He talked up these kids who might as well have been an alien species to me.
“He says there’s a couple new fatalities,” My Only Friend told me. “Maybe we’ll get to see some. Ah, hell, Kung Lao’s gonna win this one. Oh, sh, look at that—cut him from crotch to cranium, dude!” Yes, he did speak like he was always writing MAD Magazine blurbs.
I wanted to play some Street Fighter II, so I did. I played as Ken against the CPU. I lost at Vega. I rejoined My Only Friend.
“I heard some jackass saying there’s ‘Friendships’ in Mortal Kombat II, like Johnny Cage can sign an autograph and hand it to a dude instead of finishing them. Fuckin’ liar. Let’s go ride those go karts.”
In addiiton to $5 for arcade games (NBA Jam), my mom had given me money specifically to ride the go karts. I was not allowed to use it on anything else. My mom didn’t want me not riding the go karts because My Only Friend was going to be riding the go karts, and My Only Friend’s parents were richer than my parents. We rode the go karts. It was too hot for a kid as fat as me. I filled my little go kart with my own gravy. My Only Friend crashed into other drivers so many times and too obviously on purpose that he got yelled at twice by a big teenager who had a whistle and knew how to blow it.
“I’ll shove that whistle so far up his ass he . . . pisses it out his DICK!” My Only Friend was saying as we walked back toward Mortal Kombat II. I had a dollar left over from the go karts and Street Fighter.
“Come on, play Mortal Kombat II against me. I wanna try a fatality.”
Inside, a teenager from earlier told My Only Friend, “Dude, you missed it, dude, that dude did Johnny Cage’s friendship.”
“You’re a fuckin’ liar.”
“Ah, fuck you I’m not.”
“Fuckin’ fuck you.”
We watched Mortal Kombat II for a half an hour. Neither of us got to play. My Only Friend’s mom and little brother came around with some tickets they’d won at skee ball.
“Maybe you boys wanna play minigolf next time?”
“Minigolf is for homos, mom.”
“Son! Watch your language.”
We went home. It was hot in the backseat of that car.
Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” came on the radio.
“Hey mom! Turn it up!”
“There’s this part in this song where this guy says people are puttin’ bread in a jar.”
One month later, it was My Only Friend’s birthday. He wanted to go to the Lone Star Steakhouse and then to the Block Party Arcade.
“This place rules,” he told me, of Lone Star Steakhouse. “They bring you a bucket of peanuts, and you just throw the shells on the floor!”
At the Block Party arcade, he wanted to play Dactyl Nightmare. I stood maybe thirty feet back and watched him flail as though underwater beneath the weight of ancient virtual reality paraphernalia.
“Dude, that was so awesome.”
We stopped at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on the way out of the Clearwater Crossing mall.
“Let me show you something,” he was saying. He slid up a little stepladder. He grabbed an imported British video game magazine off the top shelf of the magazine rack. “See how big this fucker is?” he whispered. He shook it. It was inside a huge crinkly plastic bag, and maybe three inches taller than other magazines.
He looked left. He looked right. “Spot me.” He pulled on the plastic bag, yanking it open along the seam. “Seriously, spot me, dude.”
He slid the stepladder over to the left one rack. He stepped up, and then gingerly stepped down a moment later.
He led me around the corner. He indicated the plastic bag. I peered in. He fanned open the pages of the big, tall, British video game magazine.
Inside, he had deposited an issue of Hustler. I’d never seen pornography before. I mean, technically, it was just the cover, though I was in the AP classes, so trust me: I pretty easily intuited it was pornography.
“We got fuckin’ both feet in the jackpot, now.”
He purchased the magazine, deploying two timid, theatrical utterances of the word “sir.”
His mom’s car rolled up in front of the Barnes & Noble.
“You find what you want?”
“You boys wanna go anywhere else?”
“Let’s go home and play some Sega CD.”
His house was bigger than mine. It was wider and darker. The kitchen had one of those countertops you could see over into a dining room and living room. Outside of that they had what I figured was a second, smaller living room, with windows behind a sofa, and no television. Down the hall from that was his room, with a 25-inch television and every game console.
“Dude, let’s play some Sega CD.”
He’d owned a Sega CD and all the games released so far, so somebody had to watch him play it. He put on Sewer Shark.
“Sewer Shark is so awesome, dude.”
The loading times were longer than anything I think the game was trying to do.
“I’m gonna take a piss,” he said. “Don’t fuckin’ touch anything, okay?”
I sat on the edge of one of the two large chairs in the middle of his bedroom floor. In the dark, I watched the Sega CD try to load Sewer Shark. It was like watching a turtle try to stand on its hind legs. It was still more entertaining than watching him actually play Sewer Shark.
My Only Friend reemerged into his dark bedroom.
“The fu is going on with this stupid bastard?”
The Sega CD still had not loaded the disc.
“Fuck. You didn’t fuckin’ touch it, did you?”
“I fuckin’ swear if you fuckin’ touched this thing and it’s fuckin’ broken my fuckin’ mom is gonna fuckin’ kill you.”
He reset the machine.
“I swear Sewer Shark is so awesome, dude. Do you wanna play Streets of Rage 2?”
I watched him play Streets of Rage 2. He hadn’t offered me the other controller.
The last weekend of the summer, we went to the Putt Putt again.
“Why don’t you boys play the miniature golf?”
“I wanna ride the go karts, mom.”
After the go karts, we spectated Mortal Kombat II. Some big kid in a Thrasher shirt pulled off Johnny Cage’s Friendship: Johnny Cage signed an autograph and threw it at Scorpion.
The crowd hooted, hollered, and bellowed.
My Only Friend’s face twisted.
“Dude, that’s so fucking gay.”
He never looked at Mortal Kombat II again.
He did, however, look at Mortal Kombat One, when it released for the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo on September 13th, 1993. He cornered me at school and told me he was going to tell his mom to call my mom and invite me over to his house on Saturday. I complied. He handed me a controller. He told me to pick Sonya, the only female character in the game. We chose the stage “The Courtyard,” where, in front of a large audience of background dwellers, he practiced every character’s Fatalities on Sonya. If I won, he’d snatch the controller out of my hand and practice Sonya’s Fatalities. Maybe sixteen times during this funereally joyless multi-hour exercise he sat back at the conclusion of one fatality or another and proudly said, “Dude, the Super Nintendo version is so gay.” The Super Nintendo version had replaced blood with sweat and censored the Fatalities. Instead of ripping out an opponent’s heart, the character Kano reached forward and removed something gray from behind their silhouette. A scrap of clothing? What is this gray pseudosphere? I’m looking at it on YouTube. The boggledness of my mind yet today suffices for an equal shock to my age-fourteen eye-witnessing the heart-rip. Most nightmares in my experience, outside those by-Halloween-cartoon-educated children think of when they hear the word “nightmare,” concern more often amorphous gray masses produced from fourth-dimensional elsewhere than they star horror movie monsters.
The week after Christmas, 1993, he and his mom came to my house. Our school was on winter break. My little brother was sitting at the kitchen table, playing with Silly Putty. Silly Putty was my little brother’s favorite toy. He was six. He liked to put the Silly Putty onto the table and dagger-pound it with his fist-bottom. He also treated non-Silly-Putty toys like he treated Silly Putty.
My Only Friend sat at the dinner table while my mom talked to My Only Friend’s mom about something on the news.
“FU—I mean, heck,” he whispered. “Is that heckin’ . . . . . . red Silly Putty?” He got up. He hunched forward, hands on his thighs, and spoke to my little brother like my little brother was a cat or a baby. “Hey, buddy, can I see this here?”
My Only Friend picked up a Wolverine action figure. He laid Wolverine flat on his back on my family dinner table. He broke off tiny pieces of red Silly Putty. Between his fingers, he smeared them into little thin shrapnel-scraps.
“Do you have any toothpicks?”
I got him a toothpick from the kitchen.
In ten minutes, he’d made two dozen little skinny tendrils of red Silly Putty, and shaped them so they geysered up out of supine Wolverine’s abdomen. He took an egg of original-color Silly Putty and crafted fat, caucasian-flesh-colored snakey ropes. He balled them into a bundle. He gingerly set the bundle atop Wolverine’s abdomen.
“Hell yes. Bad ass. He’s disemboweled.”
One year earlier, the first time I ever went to his house, he asked me sweetly if I’d ever played Mario Paint.
“It’s got this mouse—don’t touch it. It’s got this mouse. Check this out.”
He loaded up his custom animation. He had painstakingly inserted a Sonic the Hedgehog sprite art into the game. He played a crude animation in which Sonic rolled into a ball and spin-dashed at a provided, authentic Mario sprite, which then exploded into an air-brushed puff of primary red.
“That’s how it would be. That’s what would happen if Mario and Sonic were in a fight, dude.”
Then he asked me if I’d ever seen the movie Akira. I shook my head. He put on a VHS tape and fast-forwarded it to the part where you can see a girl’s boobs if you pause it fast enough. Some punks were assaulting the girl in an alley. They ripped her shirt off.
“Dudes are fuckin’ like, ‘Show me those chesticles, bitch!'” I hear the phrase again today. Where did he learn to talk like this? Had someone snuck him in to witness an alcoholic divorced stand-up New England comedian’s final pre-suicide set?
The week after Christmas, 1993, we went to his house. I hoped he would show me Doom. He showed me Sonic CD.
“It’s got music by Tommy Tallarico, dude. It’s so good. Listen to it. Listen.”
He continued to exhibit the aftermath of his richboy Christmas. He loaded up Hook, based on the Steven Spielberg film in which Robin Williams plays Old Sad Peter Pan.
“Listen to this, dude.”
Maybe ten months later, the game had loaded. He ham-fisted and sausage-fingered his way around the first level, which I had already cleared a couple boredly times on the Super Nintendo version.
“The music sounds exactly like the movie.”
I wanted to tell him, “No, it doesn’t sound exactly like the movie. It sorta does, though it also sorta doesn’t. At any rate, I don’t want to be listening to this at all, much less right now.” I didn’t tell him this because I was mute, which didn’t matter to him, because he probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.
“Nintendo is pissin’ their pants listening to this.”
He then plugged in the 3DO he’d gotten for Christmas. He played Gex. While he played Gex, he told me three things: firstly, that Dana Gould could suck a shotgun barrel for all he cared, secondly, that they should have totally gotten Dennis Leary to voice Gex, and third, that—and I quote, “Doom is so gay, dude.” He’d also gotten DOOM, before Christmas, for the PC he also had in his bedroom alongside his 3DO, his Sega Genesis with Sega CD, and his Super Nintendo.
I hated him. I think his brother hated him.
1993 became 1994. Cold months happened. I missed Fort Meade, Maryland. I missed marathoning Final Fantasy II with Carl. I missed playing in the woods and talking about what kind of Zelda game Nintendo should make. I cruised through ninth grade. Teachers go easy on you when you’re a little bit weirder than the other kids. I started staying up later and later at night so I could watch David Letterman. He was from Indianapolis, Indiana. His mom lived right down the street from us. My dad reminded me of that every night. Eventually I was watching Conan O’Brien after David Letterman. I started writing essays and short stories on the electric typewriter my dad had found for me two years back. I listened to X103 on my old Walkman with headphones late at night. I listened to Nirvana. I laid on the blue shag carpet in my bedroom, staring at the flower wallpaper lit by that amber-colored nightlight that never went out, waiting for “All Apologies” to come on. I had received a cheap stereo with a CD player for Christmas 1993. I had In Utero and Nevermind and Bleach. I think that’s pretty good taste for a thirteen-year-old, okay? I looked over Electronic Gaming Monthly and my Chinese dictionary while listening to Nirvana with one headphone and David Letterman on the television. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. Ever since My Only Friend’s birthday at Lone Star Steakhouse, I’d become a fan of Tabasco sauce. I kept a bottle in my bedroom. I was the only member of my family who enjoyed anything spicy. Lots of the other things they say about white people are this true as well. My mom found the bottle one day, and was worried about me for years. Well, once you start keeping food in your bedroom, normalcy doesn’t like you so much anymore. I slowly became more nocturnal than not. I was a fourteen-year-old mute, obese, self-taught vegetarian, and I had never talked to a girl, though one day I was going to touch a guitar, if I’d let myself give myself a chance. Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at age twenty-seven, which seemed old to me, on a day when I ate one more peanut butter and jelly sandwich than usual.
Saturday, April 9th, 1994, My Only Friend’s mom picked me up and took me to their house. She and her husband went to the movies. She left us alone in the house. Me, My Only Friend, and his little brother sat atop stools at the minibar-countertop thing in the house’s secondary living room. Video game magazines were splashed about the countertop. My Only Friend set down a third empty Barq’s root beer can. All outside that very grown-up furniture fixture was an ocean of blackness.
Copying from an image of Super Metroid‘s box art in an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, My Only Friend and his brother were drawing pictures of Samus Aran in their respective sketchpads. My Only Friend was fourteen years old; his twelve-year-old brother’s drawing was better. I had my hands on my knees. I stared at the wood paneled wall. I wasn’t in a mood to draw.
“Hey, [his little brother’s name], did you tell Tim about Cam’s Masturbation?”
He said it like his little brother was in charge of telling me things, and like Cam’s Masturbation was a thing everyone desperately needed to know about.
He gave the pair of words “Cam’s Masturbation” so much gravity I presumed for a moment it alluded to a philosophical corollary.
His brother shrugged and rolled his eyes.
“Fine, I’ll tell him. So.”
“There’s this speddo who was in [my little brother]’s kindergarten class. They put him in special ed later. His name was Cameron. They called him Cam. He was a real sped! Tell him about what Cam did, [brother]?”
My Only Friend’s Brother shrugged. My Only Friend rolled his eyes. He continued.
“The teacher was asking all the kids, hey, what do you like to do when you’re at home? And kids were like I like painting or I like playing with blocks and they got to Cam. The teacher was like, Cam, what do you like doing when you’re at home? And Cam just reached right for his junk and started beating it, like this.”
Here my friend stood up and beat the dull side of his fist into the top of his jeans’ pubic region.
“Except he went under the pants, like, he actually grabbed onto his wiener. Can you believe that!”
I could believe anything.
An hour passed there, in the dark, a grandfather clock ticking in the other living room, somewhere around the bend of a hallway.
“Check this out.”
My Only Friend’s little brother looked up from coloring his Metroid drawing. He’s a professional comic book artist now, by the way. He scoffed at his brother’s drawing.
Crudely, in the style like a comic pamphlet about Jesus you’d find on a city bus and your mom would warn you about germs if you touched it, My Only Friend had drawn Kurt Cobain, a shotgun in his mouth, gore exploding outward in a shockwave halo around his head. On the wall behind him My Only Friend had scrawled “I HATE MYSELF AND I WANT TO DIE.”
“You’re so sick,” his brother said.
“No! I’m not fuckin’ sick, you’re just a fuckin’retard!”
He spun the drawing around, though I’d already absorbed it upside down.
“What do you think? Faggot took the easy way out, huh? Went down like a shitbitch. fuckin’ trashcan pissdiaper”
I snatched the drawing up off the table, balled it up, and shoved it in my mouth.
“You fuckin’ mongoloid sped!”
I chewed it four times; I spit it onto the floor.
“Fuckin’ . . . . . . pick that up and flush it down the toilet before my mom gets home, you reebo.”
I picked it up and flushed it down the toilet before his mom got home.
“Do you guys wanna fuckin’ . . . play Doom?”
I watched him play Doom on his homework computer.
“Doom is so gay,” he said, a near-silent hour later.
His family moved. I never saw him again.
1995: EIGHT MONTHS LATER
We were reading The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy in our English literature class, like that was a normal, relatable work of written material for fifteen-year-olds to care about while the OJ Simpson trial was on television all day every day and I was still two years away from having my first long conversation with a black person my age (and her mom) about who The Cops actually are.
Simon raised his hand, because that’s what he did. I bet he’s on Facebook. I’m going to look him up on Facebook immediately after I finish typing this. I hope he’s a lawyer. I mean that in the nicest possible way.
“You said we could talk about some real issues.”
“This isn’t about OJ again, is it?”
“What is it?”
“I feel that some of the students—and myself—still have questions about the fire.”
Our teacher, who was, objectively remembering, not a good teacher, sat on the edge of her desk.
“Of course you do.”
“I just think a lot of us feel violated. We feel scared.” He stood up. He rotated in place. “We feel like there’s something they’re not telling us.”
“Well, I don’t know who’s not telling who what,” our teacher said.
A silence fell off the ceiling and evaporated on the floor.
“I just think we could use some answers.”
“Do you have questions?”
“How long are we going to keep having cops in the halls? Am I gonna have to go through a metal detector every day until I graduate? And who’s the student who got arrested last year? At least can’t we know if he did it or not?”
Our teacher stepped forward off the edge of her desk. She threw her hands up.
“I don’t know. You know what? I’d tell you if I could.”
When I say that she was not, objectively remembering, a good teacher, I mean, for example, that I feel like a good teacher would have left it at “I don’t know.”
After class Simon was talking in the halls with the girl who sat next to me in every class because our last names were adjacent in alphabetical order, and the new disciplinary rules required teachers to seat students in alphabetical order.
“We should organize a group to investigate,” he was saying. “I think if enough of us put our heads together, we can find out who did it.” The boy who would be the captain of the swim team next year stood nearby, nodding.
I lingered and listened. The eventual swim team captain looked at me. He made eye contact. He looked away. I walked away.
At home, late that night, by the light of a string of Christmas bulbs in the dining room, I scrounged through the basket of newspapers under the piano my dad never let any of us play. I clipped every article pertaining to the fire at my school. I put them all in a medium-sized Ziploc baggie. I put the baggie in my shoebox of video games. I sat on the edge of my bed and looked at the box on the floor between my feet.
Over the next week I composed a letter to Jeff “Lucky” Lundrigan at Game Players, for his game tips column. The letter went through five drafts. I told him I was a big fan. I said that I had a hole inside me, too, though I was only fifteen years old so I could only legally fill it with macaroni and cheese and Sprite. I thought it was a good joke. It might have been. I told him I loved Final Fantasy III. I told him if you cast “Vanish” on an enemy it works 100% of the time, and then if you cast “X-Zone,” that enemy will die 100% of the time. I told him a couple other tips that weren’t in Nintendo Power‘s strategy guide. I closed the letter out by saying, “Hey, do you think Kefka is actually Shadow’s friend—the one you see in Shadow’s flashback dream scenes? His friend was captured by the Empire, and Kefka is the result of experiments, right? Shadow seems to have some personal business with Kefka.”
I never heard a response. They never printed my letter. I didn’t expect them to.
The Wednesday after I sent the letter, a kid spilled his own chocolate milk into my hair as he walked past my table.
I took my time in the bathroom. I wet my hands and ran them through the wig-like hair pile atop my huge head. For not the first and not the last time, I beheld the mess of myself in that window.
The halls were empty when I exited the bathroom. Students were afraid of being expelled for tardiness.
The future swim team captain was walking down the hall in my direction. His girlfriend was with him.
“Watch this,” he said.
He sprinted toward me.
“Bon appetit, faggot!” he yelled. He kicked me so hard in the testicles I threw up all over my sweatpants. His facial expression melted away.
“Oh my god honey what did you do that for?” his girlfriend asked him. The exact emphasis of her “what” still reverberates in my ears today when I think on it.
He didn’t answer. I feel like a decent person would have at least said “I don’t know.”
I drenched my sweatpants in bathroom sink water. I showed up at my next class stinking like evil orange juice. Teachers don’t give you a hard time when you’re slightly weirder than everyone else. I went home and threw my pants in the washer. I sat on the edge of my bed and didn’t cry.
Time flowed without speed or mercy. In June of 1995 I turned 16. That very day I got a job at Target. By August of 1995 I’d grown two inches taller and lost 40 pounds. On Friday, August 11th, 1995, ten months to the day after the release of Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger came out in North America. I had my own money. I bought it full-price on day one. I sat on the edge of my bed in my cargo shorts and hiking boots after my shift mutely pushing carts, measuring the heft of Chrono Trigger‘s turgid box. I’d bought it on faith alone. I tried to guess at how many pages its manual had. A confusion found me. It didn’t leave for a while. I think now that at last, with nonchalance, my hole had finally found me.
Six years later, I’d have all the ingredients of a normal adult life, which I continue to have in some form today. Though for a period of dark vampiring months in my fifteenth year of life normalcy felt colder than impossible. Deep within the jungle of the unknown unknown my normal life slept, coiled and exhausted. The possibility of being a person never occurred to me once. These days, surrounded by information and noise as I am and we are, occasionally that possibility blinks into invisibility for a moment or an hour, and for god’s sake I am terrified, and for all your sakes I am humiliated. For a while in my youth outside of calculating the trade-in value of a couple Nintendo games, I lost my concept of considering the future.
“I know an invisible machine,” Rosa Peel, also known as The Tennis Monster, says, in my novel Chronicle of a Tennis Monster.
“This ancient machine of garbage and meat, active before we ever breathe, yelling after my bones are gone.”
In other words, we didn’t start the fire.
“Cut me up and sell my bones to the trashcan factory when I die,” Rosa Peel also says, earlier in the story, though I’m not sure what that means.
“Promise me you’ll make sure I’m dead before you sell my bones to the trashcan factory,” Rosa says, later. Now I’m thinking of trashcan factories. I’m sorry that I don’t know why I person I built is trying to say whatever they’re trying to say. I tried to build someone worse than myself and I tried to dig for humanity there. Instead she just wants to keep talking about trashcan factories. Eventually she says something beautiful about rotten fruit which almost always still almost makes me cry even for example in airports, though much of the time I hate myself for hating her.
I will die possessing many frivolous yet beautiful memories of people and weather. For as long as I remember to remember, my mind makes no difference between darkness, medicine, and entertainment. Our lives are the longest trivia games in the world.
Two years after Chrono Trigger came out in North America, a game called Moon: Remix RPG Adventure released in Japan. One summer night in 2003 I played this game at the house of a friend who’d purchased it because a noise cellist she liked, Hiromichi Sakamoto, had contributed a song to its soundtrack. I played the game with my friend all night in the wooden darkness of a Tokyo living room. We played it again the next week, and the next week, until finally we’d finished it. We’d lost a mutual friend to suicide earlier that year. I haven’t ever cried with another person like that.
I sought out the director of the game, Yoshiro Kimura, in 2004. We became acquaintances, and then friends. For fourteen years I asked him to let me translate his game into English. He always gave the same reply: the game is too hard, and it’s not very good, so nobody would like it.
In 2018, he decided to release it again. He said he’d let me translate it.
A couple weeks ago, unspeakable treadmill lightyears removed from the macaroni silence of my adolescence, I went to Tokyo to see Yoshiro Kimura. We talked for many hours. We videotaped the conversation, so that I can edit it into a documentary at some point in the future. The documentary provided me a perfect excuse to ask him broader questions about Moon than casual circumstances had ever encouraged me to ask. He told me about his time working at Squaresoft, on Romancing SaGa 3 and Super Mario RPG. We talked about Final Fantasy III, IV, V, and VI. I told him I was very antisocial when I played Final Fantasy VI. He nodded.
I went on.
I told him, one day, halfway between sixteen and seventeen, I looked at myself in a mirror. I hated myself more than I felt anything about anything else. And I’ll never know why, though that day I realized it was terrible and useless to hate myself. I’d keep doing it, and I still do it every day of my adult life, though at least I know I’m doing it. I told him, I knew that day that I had wasted days. I had wasted thousands of opportunities to pay the world acts of goodness. Until maybe 2008 I went on living wastefully and terribly. Since then I’ve done good things whenever I can, even when it hurts me and ruins me. I keep them to myself. And one day—just the other day, in fact—I looked at myself in a mirror in Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan, and I knew that I know something no one else knows; I knew that I knew something beautiful and wordless, and if I ever figure out how to say it, I’ll say it immediately. I promise I won’t keep it. If I die having never said it, that’s all right, because it wasn’t worth saying if I didn’t say it right. And if I figure out how to say it right, I’ll say it without hesitation, and someone will hear it, and they’ll someday fix a part of the world I don’t know how to see, and so on, until I’m far away and sorry.
I told him about the kid who made Sonic kill Mario in Mario Paint. I told him about my gymnasium fire. I told him that last Christmas, my mother had told me that that kid, now grown up and married with children, called my parents’ house in the middle of a November evening the week before Thanksgiving 2018 and asked if he could take them out to dinner. My mom said she told him she was already cooking dinner; he could come over, if he wanted. He said he’d come over. She said he was a perfect gentleman and didn’t ask about me once. I told my friend I stood in the bathroom and stared at my face and my eyebrows for five minutes after hearing that. I remember everything because I can’t forget anything, though every fresher cell of me differs many times over from those of those gone days. For several minutes I looked for someone else at myself.
He nodded. “I think I understand.”
“Sure,” he said.
“I don’t know how I got here,” I said.
I got here the only way anyone gets anywhere.
I finished translating Moon immediately before beginning to write this. It was released on the Nintendo Switch eShop on 27 August 2020. If you play it, please try not to think of me.