We were eight and Charlie suggested that we play a game on the new Apple Mac. My dad had brought the beige box home about a year ago, and Charlie was obsessed with it. There was only one desk chair, but we were both small enough to fit, and we tried to spin ourselves round as many times as we could while the internet dial-tone played.
Charlie lived across the road and had been in my class at school. Before we knew what a computer was, Charlie and I would dig for worms and force them to live in the orange plastic tubs of Jaffa Cake Minis. Charlie’s house had a never-ending supply of Jaffa Cake Minis, but my dad’s house had the Apple Mac. Before my mum and I had moved out—quietly, while my dad was probably-getting-the-leg-over-some-poor-critter-sure-wasn’t-that-what-he-was-good-at— and before I had started my new school, Charlie would sometimes come over for cornflakes and afterwards my mum would drop us both off at school. In the car we’d played a game where I drew something on Charlie’s knee with my finger and he would have to guess what it was. Once we’d played the game while my dad was driving and he told us to stop that nonsense right now. ‘For god’s sake they’re only children’, my mum had said, but we didn’t play it again. After we moved out I only saw Charlie every few months. He would knock loudly at my dad’s door and come upstairs to play. My dad had never liked when Charlie came over for breakfast and he didn’t like when he came over now.
When the dial-tone had moved from a distorted buzz to a final crescendo of bings, we stopped spinning and tried to walk across the bedroom. Charlie’s cheeks were flushed and he walked straight into the door, catching his elbow on the handle and hitting his head on the side of the desk. There was a crack and a thud, but he still got up. Charlie always managed to hurt himself but he never cried. Instead he looked me in the eye and started to laugh. I started to laugh too. It might have been the funniest thing in the world. I stumbled off in the opposite direction and grappled onto the window ledge for balance. Outside I saw a woman get out of a silver car and quickly pull a brush through her long hair. I thought I’d seen her before at the Chinese take-out round the corner. My mum and I used to get Chinese take-out when my dad was away. He was away a lot.
Charlie climbed back onto the desk chair and stared at the bright white screen. There was a large red circle on his forehead and I thought I could see it pulsing.
‘I think your head is made from diamonds, Charlie,’ I said. ‘It never breaks.’ He turned red but I knew he was happy.
‘Alright,’ he said. His fingers were poised over the keyboard. ‘PetPals?’
‘Yeah’, I said.
I wasn’t dizzy any more. He moved over to let me sit down and I spelled the letters out as he slowly typed them.
My dad opened the door downstairs and I heard him put on a different voice.
There was an alarm clock on the bedside table that was always ticking.
‘Ciara,’ said Charlie, his voice serious. ‘I think our PetPals are dead again.’
‘How?’ I asked, even though they always died the same way.
‘Cause you didn’t feed them.’
I cocked my head. It had probably been six weeks since I’d been to see my dad.
‘See those crosses?’ Charlie pressed his finger onto the screen and it created a little smudge of colour. He clicked one of the crosses and a skull appeared on the screen.
‘Sorry, Charlie,’ I said. ‘Sorry, PetPals’
Mumble Mumble Mumble.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘What’ll we do now?’
A small yellow button appeared on the bottom right hand side of the screen with the words: download complete.
We stared for a minute. Charlie hovered the mouse over the bubble.
‘s-lut cr-eam pie dot e-x-e,’ Charlie said.
‘Slut Cream Pie dot e-x-e,’ I said.
He clicked. It took a minute for the video to load but then it did.
‘Is that —?’
‘Turn it off Charlie! I don’t like it! Turn it off!’
He clicked the X.
‘It isn’t working!’
He clicked the X a hundred times and nothing happened. The cursor changed to a small rainbow-coloured spinning wheel. The screen froze but the audio continued to play. The stairs were creaky so we heard the footsteps as soon as they started.
‘I don’t know how to turn it off!’
I squirmed in the chair and covered my ears. He was still clicking, furiously, his eyes wide and his bottom lip curled, and finally there was silence and the whole thing disappeared. We were left staring at the graves of our PetPals.
‘I see you’re still here then, Charlie,’ my dad said, coming through the door. I thought he was about to tell him to go home but he didn’t, instead he said, ‘my new friend stopped round and wants to say hello.’
The woman from the Chinese take-out looked at me and then she looked at Charlie. My heart was thumping and I wondered if his was too.
‘Hello there,’ she said. ‘Hello Ciara love, I’m your dad’s friend, Abbie.’
‘What’re you up to?’
‘Just PetPals’, said Charlie. He secretly pinched my leg and I looked at the carpet.
‘Is that a computer game?’
‘Yes. But actually now our PetPals are dead. All of them.’
‘Oh. That’s not good.’ The woman looked at my dad. He was making that face.
‘Don’t even start,’ my dad said. His voice was back to normal now.
‘They starved,’ said Charlie.
‘I’ll feed your bloody pets if you pay my internet bill, Charlie. Why don’t you run on home? Go on.’
Charlie had been swinging his legs but now he stopped. The red circle on his forehead was starting to turn purple. I pressed my leg closer to his so he’d know I was sorry.
‘Oh dear,’ the woman said. ‘Maybe I should come back another time.’
My dad glared at Charlie, at me, and then at the woman from the Chinese take-out. I didn’t want Charlie to leave or my dad to be angry, so I said ‘don’t go, Abbie’, and my dad nodded and I knew he was pleased.
‘You know, Ciara’, the woman said. ‘I have a wee girl about your age. Maybe you’d like me to bring her over the next time and the two of you can play.’
The last wee girl about my age who came over to play had helped me build an obstacle course in the garden. The next time I asked about that girl my dad told me that she wouldn’t be back again.
‘Maybe the four of us could go out for the day,’ the woman said. ‘I saw an ad in the paper for the new swan boats over in Bangor. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? The four of us.’
I nodded and said that would be nice, but then my dad said ‘Sure Ciara doesn’t care about all that crap. Waste of money, isn’t it Ciara?’ so I shook my head and said ‘Waste of money.’
The woman laughed. My dad winked at me and I knew I’d done a good job. There were few things I enjoyed more than doing a good job.
‘Anyway. That’s Ciara. Good girl so she is. Make sure you go home for dinner, Charlie, do you hear me?’
Charlie smiled with his teeth. When they had gone we both let out a sigh of relief, then Charlie asked ‘Do you think your dad is going to kiss that woman?’
‘No,’ I said. I didn’t want Charlie to think my dad was gross.
Charlie clicked the mouse a few times and opened up a new page on Internet Explorer. We only knew about three websites, so we sat for a moment trying to decide what to type. Then Charlie said: ‘I’d like to go on a swan boat too.’ Now that Charlie’s mum was in the hospital he never got to do fun things. That’s why he liked to play on the Apple Mac.
‘Should we make another PetPal?’ I asked.
‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘Will you be here next week to feed it?’
He sighed. I swung my legs sideways in an attempt to spin the chair again but Charlie reached out and held the desk, keeping both of us still.
‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll go home.’
‘Don’t go. Maybe my dad has food,’ I said. ‘I’m hungry too.’
We turned the computer off and quietly opened the door. In the room down the hall we heard the woman laughing. Mumble Mumble Mumble. Ha Ha Ha.
‘It’s okay,’ I whispered, but Charlie didn’t look afraid.
In the kitchen there were a few dirty dishes in the sink, a box of cereal that looked like cornflakes but wasn’t cornflakes, and a stack of menus on the table. I wondered if that’s how he got the number for the woman from the Chinese take-out. I opened the bread bin but inside there was only an empty plastic bag that was covered in crumbs. Charlie opened the fridge and we leaned inside. Two beers. A jar of mayonnaise. A packet of ham. The ham was already open so we each took a slice. Charlie folded his in half and took three very small, concentrated bites. Then he unfolded it and put it on his face, his eyes and lips visible through the holes.
‘Hi Ciara,’ he said. He extended his arms like a zombie, which caused the ham to fall onto the floor. He tossed it in the bin and went to take another, but I gave him mine instead.
Next Charlie tried to open the cupboard above the fridge but he couldn’t reach. That’s where my mum used to keep biscuits and sweets, but my dad didn’t buy that stuff. Waste of money, all that crap.
‘How long’s your mum going to be in hospital?’ I asked.
‘Dunno’, he said. He was looking in the fridge again, but everything was the same.
Once, back when we were only five, Charlie had a birthday party in his house. I held the wrapping paper as my mum neatly packaged a pair of Space Jam pajamas that we’d bought that morning. Charlie loved Space Jam—this was even before he loved Jaffa Cake Minis. My dad had said that the pajamas were too expensive but my mum said it didn’t matter. Charlie deserved them. My dad made that face. The three of us went across the road to Charlie’s house and there were other people from our street there too. We all sang Happy Birthday To Charlie, Happy Birthday To You and then suddenly Charlie’s mum was screaming in the kitchen. People started to run around. Charlie’s mum was holding her arms up in the air and they were bright red and radiating steam. Charlie’s dad said it was probably time for everybody to go, that she’d probably have to go to the hospital. I think that must have been the first of those times.
My mum said that Charlie could come over to ours, spend the night even, no it’s not a problem, absolutely not a problem at all, but Charlie’s dad was shaking his head. Probably shouldn’t, he was saying, not a good idea. His mum wouldn’t like that. My dad made that face again.
After that Charlie didn’t have any more birthday parties. When my mum and I moved out she told me to let Charlie come over as much as he liked, regardless of what my dad said. Those days my dad was busy a lot, so I didn’t see much of either of them.
‘I’m still hungry,’ Charlie said, closing the fridge. ‘Think I’ll go home now.’ There was nothing left for me to offer, so I walked him to the door and waved at his back as he crossed the road. It would be the last time I’d see him.
Alone, I stood at the bottom of the stairs and listened. Nothing. Maybe they were taking a nap. I went into the living room and started rummaging around, looking for something to read that wasn’t Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. It was the only book my Dad owned, even though I’d never seen him read it. ‘That book belonged to your uncle Sean,’ he’d told me once, ‘he’s gone now, your uncle; died when he was only a wee boy, only slightly older than you.’
Another time I’d heard my mum on the phone telling somebody that my dad was being haunted by uncle Sean. That he really needed to get some help otherwise we’d have to leave. After that I was always looking for ghosts. That’s probably why my dad never read Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That’s why I didn’t want to read it either.
A few weeks later my dad and I did end up on the swan boats out in Bangor, though we were with Lorraine, not Abbie, and it was my ninth birthday. My mum had given me a new encyclopedia set. Dad’s treat was a day out. Lorraine was from England and her TV voice made me feel stupid and small. ‘You’re dreadfully quiet,’ she told me, so I tried to think of something to say. ‘Do you have swan boats over in England?’ Her nose made a trumpet sound. ‘We have a lot of things over in England,’ she said. I wasn’t sure if that meant yes. The boat moved very slowly, even when we pedalled as fast as we could. I had left my jacket in the car and goosebumps dotted my arms like miniature volcanoes. ‘Do you have a wee girl my age?’ I asked. Lorraine shook her head. ‘Is the woman from the Chinese take-out coming to meet us as well?’ I was on a roll. My dad said he didn’t know what I was blathering about. Lorraine asked what woman from the Chinese take-out, and dad said I was always talking shite, just like my mother. Lorraine thought that was really funny. I stopped pedalling the boat but nobody seemed to notice. I wasn’t powerful enough to make a difference anyway. Lorraine was much better than me. The marina was cold and gray and I wanted to go home. Home home. The wink from my dad didn’t make me feel any better, and I stopped trying to think of things to say, even if I was dreadfully quiet. ‘She mustn’t have liked the swan boat,’ Lorraine said, after we were done. ‘Well I hope you liked it,’ my dad said. I pretended to sleep in the car home.
That evening I learned that Charlie had moved to Magherafelt to live with his grandmother. I curled up on my mother’s lap and blew snot bubbles from my nose when she told me. ‘Please don’t cry,’ she said, but I couldn’t stop. Magherafelt may as well have been on the moon. ‘We’ll visit him,’ she told me, ‘and he’ll visit us.’ But of course none of us ever did. A few weeks later my dad took the Apple Mac and moved to England, so there was no use in Charlie visiting anyway.
About The Author
Katie is an Irish writer living in Brooklyn, NY.
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