Game Over (R)
The guys he worked with called it “the blip,” a side effect of being glued to the screens of an ATC system for twelve hours a day. After tracking half a day’s worth of incoming and outgoing flights – not planeloads of people with families waiting for them, but Rorschach pixels of radar bounceback on flat glass panels smeared with greasy fingerprints – they’d all experienced a moment here or there, driving back home, where the world outside the windshield seemed to flatten and break apart into colored shapes and patterns. The blip. You’d blink hard, jog your head, and everything would sort itself out again.
But the blip had been happening to him for over 74 hours now.
He didn’t notice. He didn’t care. Not since he’d seen them. Rutting on the bed. His bed. Too wrapped up in their grunting and writhing to hear his Beetle’s whistling engine in the drive or the closing of the door. And she looked happy – still wearing that goddamned bow in her hair but nothing else. She looked happy. She looked hungry.
At that moment all identity switched off inside him. In the aftermath of that sight he ceased to be; one blip and he’d never had a name, couldn’t tell you about his childhood or whether or not he’d ever had a friend in his life. Operator 80 of the Pacific Air Controllers Union got back into his ‘68 VW Bug, a bright yellow blob in the fading light of day, and started driving.
There was no direction, no goal he was driving towards, he just weaved through the maze of well-planned suburban streets that made up his neighborhood, gradually widening his orbit until he’d completed a rectangular circuit of the whole town. And then he repeated the course. He drove – not speeding, not erratically jumping the curbs – he just kept moving. He had a full tank of gas.
His mind had emptied though there was still some faint sense of wonder as the visible world before him was reduced to a grid of two-dimensional pathways. As people, cars, buildings had become flat geometric representations moving out of his way. He liked that.
A day had ended, a day had begun and night came on again. The world all black, dotted with white, rhythmically pulsing under his wheels. He had been up for 42 hours straight and he’d been popping bennies with a metered regularity like the movement of figures in a Swiss clock. Uppers were an unspoken accessory of the air traffic controller’s job, no more scandalized and no less necessary than breast implants in a porn star. He had enough to keep going.
And he was suddenly starving.
He was a big man, no denying, and he’d spent the last two months on some kind of “all fruit/no food” diet for his wife’s sake. Bananas, oranges, cherries, apples, grapes, watermelon. Gay little Tupperware containers full of rotting fruit he carted off to work, stacked in the break room fridge. Why had he done that? Why hadn’t he eaten when he was hungry? So now he ate and he never had to leave his car.
He hit every drive-thru window on his path. He made several trips a day. He kept driving and eating, driving and eating. When he ran low on gas, he pulled into the gas station and waved money at the kids who worked there. Fill ‘er up. He never left the car. Driving and eating and more pills. Left, up, right, left, up, right, down – taking different routes but all within the maze. And his mouth kept working. Opening, closing, chewing, opening, closing, chewing. He liked the pictures on the screen, he liked the movement and the food. He liked the blip. Or maybe he didn’t really “like” it, maybe he had no choice, maybe he was just part of it. He had no control, that’s for sure.
By day three, people had begun to notice. Not that he realized this. He saw but did not process the lines of people on the sidewalks gawking and hooting their support or derision. He saw but did not comprehend the homemade signs they’d made to egg him on. Just more shapes, more colors. News helicopters followed overhead. He never looked up. He was a local curiosity now, quick filler on the 11 o’clock news, but no one was trying to stop him. He hadn’t broken any laws.
Until he stopped stopping.
It wasn’t from any malicious intent, it wasn’t from any conscious thought at all, but he just wanted to keep moving – always moving, always eating. A need, an endless, bottomless craving drove him blankly through the grid and through every red light.
There were horns and yelling and, a couple of times, there were people shapes that fell under his wheels and made his travel bumpy for a moment. He hadn’t murdered anyone, he had just moved past/over more flat graphics representing … something. It was harder and harder to think. Everything was just lights, colors, sounds and more – more – always wanting more. So so hungry.
A different sound now – a funny rising and falling, pulsing. Loud. And more lights flashing.
The police siren made no sense to him nor did he understand the black-and-white car parked lengthwise across the road or the two men-shapes in front of it. They were blue. Except when the lights strobed – then they were red. Now blue. Now red. They pointed at him, shouting. Now blue. Now red. They were just ghosts on his screen. False bounces. Blue ghosts.
But they seemed surprised when he hit them.
After that his car didn’t work as well. It was crumpled in the front from the impact with the police car and smoke streamed from it making it harder for him to see what was on the screen. He couldn’t be sure but the smoke also seemed to be in his head – something else was burning, maybe. He took his last bennie and took another right.
His head was pounding and his heart was tripping at a surprising pace and the sirens were coming from everywhere. Without realizing it, he was no longer simply moving, he was running. A voice kept telling him to pull over and get out of the car. It wasn’t his voice but it was loud. And the lights again – blue and red – the lights – everything flashing across his monitor. Traffic. A lot of traffic tonight. Gonna be a snarl for sure.
Wait, what was he –?
All this trash. Fast food wrappers and paper cups and straws. That smell. That smell was him. He must’ve pissed and shit himself a couple of times. He’d never left his seat. There were smears of something dark across the crimped hood of his car and, for the briefest moment, he knew what it was. A kind of terror, but distant, whispered inside him.
And the car died with a resigned click.
He rolled onto the shoulder as the police cruisers circled. Angry. There were spotlights now and more voices and they were all angry. With some effort, his chest still hammering, he got his door open and swung his legs out. He tried to stand but his legs were useless. He tried to talk but his head was still fogged. He wanted to explain but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say. He was still hungry.
Hands reached in and hauled him out and his body heaved, sagged, completely unsupported by his bones or muscle. Yelling and questions and fists to his jaw and stomach and he fell, rolled really, down the slope of the car’s hood until he was on his hands and knees on the pavement and staring directly at the caved-in, blood-spattered vanity plate that had always embarrassed his wife. PAC MAN.
One of the angry blue ghosts made a kick to his head and whatever dawning clarity was struggling up out of the blip in his brain wilted away along with everything else