[Excerpted from a novel-in-progress]
Atari 2600 Video Game Systems were the hot item of Christmas 1977, as everyone in Randy’s third grade class would affirm under oath. But they were way too expensive and a waste of money and no one in the Copperstone household other than Randy seemed to care or appreciate the severe gravity of the situation that everyone, absolutely friggin’ everyone, in his entire school was going to get one and that Randy would be left out and be a total complete loser if he didn’t return to school in the New Year having gotten one.
“Maybe next year, when the prices come down,” his dad said philosophically, being all Father Knows Best during one of Randy’s numerous attempts to reason with him. “And you can stop making that gasping noise, as, believe it or not, you are not going to die if you don’t get one. Now go finish bringing the rest of the groceries in.”
His mom was no better.
“Oh, quit exaggerating. I doubt everyone in your school is going to get a Safari for Christmas.”
“Atari, then. Whatever. I’m frankly sick to death of hearing about it. Now get up off the floor like a big boy and go set the table.”
So cold-heartedly deaf were the ears of the wardens of Copperstone Prison that Randy eventually stopped bringing it up, though it would be a lie to say he’d forgotten all about it. Nevertheless, by the time dawn broke and paper shrapnel littered the living room, he had resigned himself to returning to Mr. Fenway’s class disappointed and empty-handed.
Well, maybe not quite empty-handed, as he did get some nifty other gifts like the little trash can of something called Slime, which was exactly – and wonderfully – what it claimed to be. The green stuff oozed through his fingers in the way that, well, slime tends to do, feeling so utterly gross he just had to share it with as many of his classmates as possible.
“You know you can’t take that to school, don’t you?” Mrs. Copperstone reminded Randy as his eyes got a certain gleam in them.
“I know, I know,” he said, even though he also knew from the moment he opened the can that that was exactly what he’d do. It was slime, for crying out loud. He had a kid duty to share it.
All in all it would have still been a decent enough Christmas, especially since Andy – provided Andy’s mom didn’t inexplicably change her mind as she sometimes did – would be spending the night.
But, out of the post-present-unwrapping, barely-past-dawn blue…
“I think you still have one more present left,” Mrs. Copperstone said, causing Randy’s heart to skip a beat. His mind leaped to the obvious and he just as quickly tried to squash that mind-leaping before his hopes could get too far up. His dad smiled. His mom smiled. Everyone full of smiles around a tree obviously now barren of unwrapped gifts.
Randy peered into the void that currently underwhelmed the tree as if he expected some new thing to fall down from the pine branches. He walked slowly around its base, his hand stretched out like searching for a secret door or portal or something.
“Though as I recall, I don’t think Santa put it under the tree,” his dad said.
“You know, now that I think about, I think you’re right. But I can’t quite remember where he put it, though…” His mom paused as did Randy, every fiber of his body listening to her in a way he usually didn’t. She put her hand up to her chin as if she were giving the matter serious thought. Abruptly she pulled her hand away and shrugged. “Oh, well, I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. It’ll turn up.”
Randy swallowed, his heart doing that weird skipping thing again. He started tearing through the house, wildly opening hall closets, kitchen cabinets, and drawers so small that they couldn’t possibly hold anything of interest but needed checked anyway. Similarly with the crowded medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
Under the bathroom sink turned up nothing as well as did behind the living room curtains. He turned up the couch cushions but the only things he discovered there besides general lived-in grime was a couple of stray quarters, a petrified Cheetos, and a cap to a pen long gone.
Randy pocketed the quarters but that was hardly worth a one more present left.
After he had searched almost the entire house and seized nothing of Christmas interest, he stood in the middle of the now disheveled living room glaring at the barren tree as if it were holding out.
Think, think, think he commanded himself.
And he thought, thought, thought.
There was his parents’ room, of course, that he hadn’t searched. But he wasn’t allowed in there. The only other room left in the house was his room, where, despite the clutter, he knew every inch of space and would certainly know if a present were lurking about.
Randy tapped his fingers against his side. Then he stopped tapping as he realized his room technically wasn’t the only room left after all.
Of course, he thought, smiling as he tore back into the kitchen and out the side door to the attached garage. Again with the rummaging through crap, more crap, and yet more crap and still coming up with squat for all his efforts. At length, he huffed back into the house proper, feeling agitated, tired, and his adrenaline spent.
The present remained hidden; remained out of sight.
Out of sight? He scrunched his face up.
Around here somewhere wouldn’t have to mean inside the house.
“Whoa, whoa. Where are you going, now?” Mr. Fargo asked.
“Outsidetochecktheyard,” Randy said in a blast of run-on words and already standing with the front door open.
“In your pajamas?”
“Oh,” Randy said, newly conscious of being covered in little toy boats and anchors that were fine for sleepwear but hardly fit for the public square. “Oh, yeah.”
He headed towards his room to change when his mom called out to him.
“While you’re in there, could you check and see if there’s a stray sock lying around someplace? One came up missing when I did the wash.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Randy said, letting the words flow behind him. Socks. Of all the stupid…
“Of course I don’t know how he can find anything in that pigsty,” he half-heard his mom as she continued to speak, thinking here we go again and starting to tune her out. “I mean, just the other day I was cleaning under his bed, and-“
Randy didn’t hear what she said after the and as under his bed dimly registered. Then not so dimly. He flew to his bedroom on wings of new found adrenaline and dove under the bed.
There it was in plain sight, not even wrapped, the holy grail of Christmas: an Atari 2600 Video Game System.
Despite the prolonged effort of searching that could render many an event anticlimactic, Randy still nearly wet his pants at seeing the gift as an actuality. He was sure Andy nearly did, too, as he excitedly told him – gushed — over the phone about getting the present from the coolest parents ever.
“So when can I come over?” Andy said, his voice vibrating like he was bouncing up and down on the other end of the line, which he most likely was. “When can I? Huh? Huh? When can I?”
“As soon as you quit jabbering on the phone,” Randy said, “We’ll come get you.”
All of Randy’s words may not have been heard as the other line had already hung up.