Vic grabbed the whammy bar with a shaking hand for the last sustains. Fingers aching from ten minutes of full-out play in expert mode, he clicked madly through the bonus and nailed the concluding chord. The adrenaline in his body squeezed his throat so tight that he had to force the air in. He concentrated on that, letting the guitar fall and dangle from the strap around his neck. His score came up on screen. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered.
He pressed his sweaty palms against the Alice in Chains T-shirt his half-brother Kurt had given him. Kurt. Vic tore the plastic Rock Band guitar off his neck and hunted in the closet. In the pile of papers and clothes on the top shelf, he found his fifth-grade math notebook, which had some blank pages in the back. Vic ran out to the hall to get the pen from by the phone.
“Don’t slam doors!” his dad yelled from the kitchen.
Vic was back on his bed, taking deep breaths and trying to hold his hands steady. “Hey Kurt,” he wrote. “I got 100% on expert on ‘Green Grass and High Tides’. You said you’d buy me a real electric if I did! Hope you’re all right. Your brother, Vic.” He ripped the paper out, folded it, and shoved it in his pocket.
He went back out to the hall, careful not to slam the door this time. His mom was making his dad a cup of coffee. Vic could see her purse on the nightstand in their bedroom. He went in quietly and rummaged through it. She had to have stamps in there.
“Ashley,” his dad said in a dangerous voice, “go see what he’s doing in the bedroom.”
Vic jumped and backed away from the purse, knocking it over. Cursing, he tried to scoop its contents back in, but, of course, there was no time. His mother appeared in the doorway, looking tired as always. She tucked a limp strand of graying blonde hair behind her ear and gave him her disappointed look.
“What does he want, Ashley?” his dad roared.
“Please, Mom,” Vic said. “I need a stamp now. And an envelope.”
She closed her eyes and put her hand to her face. “He wants a stamp, Ryan. I’ll get him a stamp and then come right back.”
Vic wanted to tell her what had happened. He couldn’t remember ever having been this happy. But she didn’t understand games. He stepped out of the way and waited. Her hand closed on a book of Love stamps. Just then, his dad’s chair scraped over the kitchen tile. Vic and his mom exchanged nervous glances as his dad’s heavy step headed their way.
“What do you need to send a letter for? Let me see the letter.”
“I haven’t written it yet,” Vic said.
The floor seemed to move when his dad slapped him. “I see it sticking out of your pocket. Don’t lie to me.”
“Ryan, don’t hit him,” Vic’s mom said.
“Shut up,” Vic’s dad said, shoving her out of the way and onto the floor. He snatched the letter out of Vic’s pocket and read it.
His mom had started sobbing on the floor, but even she stopped when she saw his dad’s face. “Kurt?” Vic’s dad seemed to grow a foot wider. He crumpled the letter into a ball and beamed Vic in the chest with it. “You’re writing to Kurt?” He strode toward Vic’s room.
“No!” Vic said, not even sure what was going to happen. “Dad! Wait!”
“You want a guitar?” Vic’s dad said. “I’ll give you a guitar.” He grabbed the plastic guitar and brought it down over Vic’s Play Station once, hard. The TV screen went dark.
Vic watched as his dad snapped the guitar in half over his knee and threw the pieces on the floor at Vic’s feet. “There’s your guitar,” he said. “There’s a guitar for you.”
Vic’s mom ran into the room. Vic avoided her. It would make him cry if she touched him.
His dad curled his lip at her. “You can go stay with Kurt, if you love him so much. You take your sons. I don’t have any sons.”
“Vic is your son!” she shouted.
His dad’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what you’ve always said. But you said you weren’t even in touch with Kurt. You said Vic didn’t even know about him.”
“I’m supposed to just forget about my other son because he’s not yours?”
He took one menacing step toward her. “No. You just get out. Take your son with you.”
Vic kept his eyes on the floor, on the pieces of the guitar. Maybe, he thought, Kurt could fix it if they went to stay with him. He picked them up.
She was sobbing bitterly now. She took Vic’s hand. Were they going to live with Kurt in St. Pete? Wild elation rose from deep in his gut. His dad wouldn’t let them pack, and so the two walked out to her old Toronado. His mom clutched her purse numbly. Vic still had the broken guitar.
They got in the car. They left the driveway. Vic saw the house get smaller behind him. He saw it disappear behind a tangle of thick, green trees. “Call Kurt, Mom,” he said. “Call Kurt.” But she pulled the car over and pressed her forehead against the steering wheel. She took out her cell phone and dialed.
“Ryan,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. Please let us come home. I won’t let Vic see Kurt again.” The whammy bar came off the broken guitar and into Vic’s hand. He tried to remember how that song had felt, when he was bringing that ending home to perfect.
Erica Naone is an assistant editor at Technology Review, where she covers topics related to the Internet and computer software. Her fiction has appeared in Coyote Wild, Storyglossia, and On The Premises. She lives with her husband in Allston, MA, and spends much of her free time playing Dungeons and Dragons.