A Glitch in the Game


Thirteen-year-old Jayden Smith turned the lock on the doorknob, dropped his backpack full of schoolbooks, and stood in the middle of his bedroom munching an apple.

“Jayden! You better not be playing video games!” his mother called through the locked door, banging and jiggling the door. “Homework first.”

He jumped and nearly flung his apple across the small room. “In a minute, Ma!” he yelled at the door through a mouthful of tangy pulp. He tossed the core on the night-stand, flipped on his Xbox and dove, stomach first, onto the bed. He retrieved the game controller from under the bed and pushed the mop of thick, black hair out of his eyes.

His mother jiggled the doorknob and banged on the wooden frame. “Jayden!”

“Five minutes, Ma!” he shouted.

He turned on the television screen and inserted a game into the Xbox. He had invested every penny of his money in the Xbox, a Homicide game, and the TV that hung on his wall. Never mind that he wasn’t old enough to have purchased the mature game. His summer employer, Mr. Kepler, owner of a retail store, was too ancient or greedy to bother checking.

His mother muttered on the other side of the door, and the slight scrape of her shoe on the floor as she limped down the hall signified Jayden was off the hook for now.

Smiling triumphantly, he waited while the machine began with a click and a whir. The slight guilt he felt in taking advantage of his overworked single-mother was quickly replaced by the familiar racing of his heart and the butterflies in his stomach when the game’s logo blossomed on the screen. “Let’s do this!” he said. “Homicide is the best game ever, and I’m gonna beat level three this time!” Jayden was never surer of anything in his life.


Two hours later, he sat on his knees in the middle of his bed, the sheets knotted and twisted around him. His eyes darted back and forth, surveying the urban battle terrain on the television while his thumbs deftly worked the controls. “Oh yeah, I’m a bad mofo!” he said when his character stole a woman’s purse, shot a policeman, and escaped by jumping off an overpass.

The click of the lock releasing, followed by his bedroom door bursting open, finally drug his eyes from the screen. His mother stood in her Ben’s Diner uniform, hands on her hips. “I have to go to work, Jay. I need you to watch Charlie.”

His pain-in-the-ass little brother peeked out from behind her legs.

“Only if he promises to stop pickin’ boogers,” Jayden said with a scowl while Charlie licked the finger that had been buried in his nose seconds before, then stuck his tongue out. “And eatin’ ‘em!”

She rolled her eyes, pulled the five-year-old from behind her skirt, and gave him a gentle push toward Jayden. “Make sure you stop playing that stupid game long enough to feed him some supper and put him to bed,” she said. “I’ll be home by ten.” She limped out of the room. The many hours on her feet as a waitress resulted in a Baker’s cyst in her knee, but she couldn’t afford to take time off or even to go see a doctor.

“Okay.” Jayden paused his game and patted the mattress next to him. “Come here, Booger-Eater. You can watch me play.”

Charlie sat quietly on the edge of the bed for about thirty seconds. Then he swung his legs back and forth, the heels of his bright-red tennis shoes smacking the bedframe.

“Stop it!” Jayden’s eyes were glued to the screen.

Charlie whipped his feet back and forth faster and harder.

“Damn-it, Charlie! Sit still.” He pinned his little brother with a fierce glare.

“I’m tellin’ you sweared.” Charlie looked away, tears threatening to spill from his eyes. “I don’t wanna sit here, Jay. Mama said you have to play with me, not your dumb game.”

“She did not.” Jay’s thumbs moved fiercely over the controls and he twisted his body in an attempt to aid his onscreen avatar in a bank heist.

“Did too!” Charlie jumped up and down on the bed. “Did too, did too.”

“Swear to God, Charlie, if you were in my game, I’d kill you for screwing with me! And I’d get away with it.”

A sharp intake of breath and Charlie stopped jumping.

“Take that back!”


“Don’t you say that to me, Jay.” Charlie’s voice had a sternness to it that was foreign to Jayden. “I mean it.”

“What’re you gonna do? You were an accident anyway. Sometimes I really hate you, Charlie.”

“I wish your stupid ole’ game killed you!”

“Whatever.” He had probably gone too far but Charlie really made his life difficult. Jayden paused his game and snuck a side-glance at his brother. “Wait here. I’ll go make you some mac-n-cheese.” He turned at the doorway. “Don’t touch my game controller. I just levelled up!”


Jayden stood in his bedroom doorway holding a bowl of cheesy noodles in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. “Charlie? Hey, Booger, where’d ya go?” He did a one-eighty and now stood in front of his little brother’s closed bedroom door. He kicked the door. “Charlie, I’ve got your dinner. Open up.” He held one ear against the door for a moment. Finally, he shrugged and placed the meal on the floor in front of the door. “Chow’s out here when you’re ready,” he said, before muttering to himself, “Prolly fulla boogers.”

He flew through the air, scooped up the controller and landed on his butt on the bed. The bedside clock read 6 p.m. Four hours ‘til ma gets home. That meant four hours of uninterrupted play!

Over time, Jayden had created his avatar to mirror him with uncanny authenticity and vibrancy. He wiped a hand over his burning eyes. He’d been staring at the screen for hours but he couldn’t quit now.

“Up against the wall!” Jayden’s avatar stuck his gun in the face of the apartment’s elderly female occupant who cowered and whimpered.

The life-like avatar on the screen moved with stealth and deadly accuracy. He was preparing to commit a home invasion where he would score a million dollars and level up!

“Hahahahaha.” A giggle sounded from the shadows of the virtual habitat.

Jayden’s trance-like concentration was abruptly broken.

“Hahahahahah.” The child-like laugh again.

“Who else is here?” His avatar demanded of the old couple.

“Yes, the safe is in the living room behind the painting,” the old man said.

“Is there someone else in the house?” Jayden’s gruff avatar demanded.

“You can have anything you want, just don’t hurt us,” the old woman replied in a scripted manner.

Jayden’s brow furrowed. Must be a glitch in the game. They’re supposed to answer every question. He maneuvered his avatar into the dark recesses of the onscreen habitat, the view on the screen showing his character’s viewpoint. Using the control button, he turned his head right to find nothing but a stove and refrigerator, then left to find cupboards and a pantry, no wait, the pantry door was ajar. He slowly pulled open the door.

A shadow shuffled back into the dark interior.

He squinted at the screen.

His avatar threw open the door, all the way, until the light from the kitchen illuminated more of the small closet. Jayden’s eyes widened and he sat forward on the edge of his bed, his heart hammering in his ears.

A small pair of red tennis shoes stuck out from under a shelf in the back. Then were quickly drawn back into the shadows.

Jayden moved the lever on the controller and his avatar took a step inside, giving him a better view of the simulated terrain. He made his likeness bend over and peer under the bottom shelf. His brows knitted and he leaned forward toward the television screen. How could it be? Charlie’s red shoes, blue jeans and Superman t-shirt? Jayden’s hold on reality slipped precariously when the small boy hiding under the shelf stuck a finger into his nose.

“Ah!” Jayden fell back on the bed and frantically thumbed the toggle on the controller, resulting in his avatar pointing his gun and emptying the clip.

The ‘Charlie’ avatar hesitated, then its eyes opened wide and it held up both hands in an attempt to shield itself an instant before it took the barrage of bullets. He twisted and jerked under the onslaught. Body parts and hunks of computer-generated flesh sprayed into the air, and when the smoke cleared, the small avatar lay on the floor in a bloody, broken heap. Realistic clouds of blood splashed and dripped down the television screen.

Jayden didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until he exhaled in a rush and slumped back on the bed. What the­­— He stole a glance at his little brother’s closed door. The bowl of noodles and glass of milk that he had left outside Charlie’s bedroom door, were gone. Maybe I’ve been playing this game too much. He shook his head and chuckled.


Jayden bolted up. A tremor fluttered through his belly when the raspy voice whispered in his head set. He couldn’t believe his eyes and ears.

The real game scenario continued, the sound muffled in the background as the characters acted out the programmed scenario.

While in the fore front, a ripped and bleeding ‘Charlie’ peeked out from the virtual pantry and waved as if it could see Jayden sitting on his bed in the real world. The body appeared to have reassembled itself in a savage and haphazard manner. An arm was missing and one eyeball protruded from the socket.

 This is new, and how does he know my name? Jayden attempted to swallow around the large lump in his throat. He flicked the buttons on his controller and once more riddled the thing with bullets until it twitched, shuddered, and then lay in a smoking heap. He stood in front of the television and wiped sweat from his face with his forearm. He stood, eyes glued to the screen, and groaned when ‘Charlie’ raised his bloody head and grinned.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” ‘Charlie’ began to drag himself along the simulated kitchen floor, leaving a bright-red smear of blood in his wake.

 Why won’t he die? His eyes opened wide and he smiled. If I take his head off, he can’t come back to life. Everyone knows that’s how you kill the un-killable! Hope gave him courage.

Jayden frantically flipped the toggle back and forth, commanding his avatar to survey the kitchen. His mouth was so dry that his tongue stuck to his palate. He tried, in vain, to work up some saliva. His heart thumped so hard that his vison blurred with each beat. Finally, he stopped and commanded the avatar to walk toward the block of knives on the counter. Selecting the largest knife, he turned. The sharp blade arced through the air.

‘Charlie’s’ severed head rolled across the floor and came to rest face up.

A shrill, agonizing scream echoed in his headset, vibrating his eardrums painfully. There it’s finally dead!  He tasted bitter bile in the back of his throat and hot sweat stung his eyes while he quickly powered off the Xbox and television before what he ‘knew to be true’ could be challenged.

Like most kids, Jayden was resilient and readily adaptive to unordinary circumstances. Young minds bend and reprogram as if possessed with artificial intelligence. Think I’ll find a different game to play for a while. Exhausted, he snuggled down into his blankets and immediately fell asleep, a satisfied smile on his face.


While he slept, he dreamt a soft glow filled his bedroom. ‘You Lose!’ Flashed and filled up the entire television screen on the wall. A tiny dot appeared in the background and quickly grew.

He gasped and moaned in his sleep when the dot became a, bloody and macabre, reformed version of ‘Charlie.’

A large black zigzag encircled ‘Charlie’s’ neck where the head had been reattached. Blood oozed from multiple bullet holes and brain matter leaked from a large hole in his skull. A bloody stump gleamed with jagged white bone where a foot had once been, causing him to move with an uneven lurch.

As ‘Charlie’ drew closer and closer, Jayden thrashed, face slick with sweat, winding the sheets around his body. “No, Charlie.”

Now ‘Charlie’ filled the entire screen, his only arm raised high, clutching the knife Jayden’s avatar used to sever his head earlier. “Jay,” he whispered.

Jayden bolted upright in his bed, a strangled scream caught in his throat, just as ‘Charlie’ crawled out of the television and scuttled across the floor with lightning speed, the blade of the knife gleaming in the glow from the screen.