Leonia, New Jersey, USA
Dark Beast Ganon charged. I aimed the Bow of Light at the monster’s glowing core and jumped. I shot off one arrow, then another.
“Yes, yes!” Zelda encouraged me. “Ganon’s power is weakening!”
A few more direct hits with the Bow of Light, and I’d finish off the biggest, baddest boss of all and unlock the ending to the entire game. But I was down to half a heart. I needed food—fast!—before I ran out of lives to fight.
I searched my meal inventory. I’d eaten all my steaks and almost everything else.
“Matthew!” Mom shouted. She was standing right over me.
“Coming,” I said, without making a move from the couch, where I was curled in a ball around my Switch.
“Time to go outside.”
Wait! I still had a mushroom skewer.
“You’ve been playing Zelda for five hours,” Mom said.
I selected the skewer. “I know! I did my homework this morning.”
I wasn’t even lying. For an entire month now, since Covid had closed all the schools, I’d been doing “online learning” in my bedroom, but I usually polished off my homework while the teachers barked at kids to turn on their cameras or stop goofing off in the chat. Everyone else was stuck at home, too—school, sports, birthday parties were all canceled—but most of my friends could at least hang out in one another’s backyards and spend an hour feeling normal. I wasn’t even allowed to do that because a few weeks earlier, Mom had moved my great-grandmother out of her nursing home and in with us. Her name is Nadiya, but we call her GG (for great-grandma, obviously). She’s one hundred years old, which means we can’t take any risk when it comes to Covid, including inviting a friend to the backyard.
“It’s not about that,” Mom said. “You need to come back to Planet Earth.”
“No thanks,” I said.
Planet Earth was the last place I wanted to be. I was basically under house arrest with Mom and GG. Don’t get me wrong—I love GG. When Mom and I used to visit her in the nursing home, she’d always slip me 3 Musketeers bars. She’d never been a big talker even before her stroke, but I didn’t mind; we’d smile at each other while Mom asked the nursing home aides a million annoying questions to make sure they were treating GG right. Her moving in with us hadn’t made her any more chatty and she didn’t smile much anymore. She spent a lot of time in bed watching TV or staring off into space with a gloomy expression. When she had a work Zoom, Mom sometimes made me deliver GG’s meals, weird stuff like oatmeal with stewed prunes. It was always a relief to get back to the living room couch and Zelda. Link, my avatar, had woken up after one hundred years and was on a quest to regain his lost memories so he could free the kingdom of Hyrule from Dark Beast Ganon. He was constantly on the move, traveling around Hyrule collecting magical objects and fighting monsters, not living the same depressing pandemic day over and over.
I scarfed down the mushroom skewer, and Link’s energy level shot up. I was back in business. I’m coming, Zelda!
I raised the Bow of Light, aimed …
And that’s when Mom grabbed the Switch out of my hands.
I hollered and jumped to my feet. But since I’d been lying there for so long, my ankle gave out and I stumbled.
Mom sighed. “Your muscles have all atrophied.”
“No, no, no! You can’t do this! I’m almost done with the entire game!”
Her expression didn’t change. Why did I think this would mean anything to her? Dad was the one who used to play video games with me at his place—but that was before he left for his big, important job in Paris.
Mom pointed to the back door. “Out.”
As the feeling came back into my lower legs, I thought about trying to grab my Switch and making a run for it. But Mom looked even more ready to fight than Dark Beast Ganon.
“Just let me save my game,” I pleaded.
Mom wasn’t about to hand over the Switch. “Tell me what to press.”
There was nothing more nerve-wracking than watching Mom poke at my tech. I was terrified she was accidentally going to erase the whole game. I made her hold up the screen to make sure she’d done it right.
“How long do I have to go out for?” I asked.
I expected she’d start with a half hour, and I could negotiate her down to fifteen minutes. But she already had it all figured out.
“I need to do a quick grocery run before Jack calls to nitpick this story.” Mom was an editor at a weekly magazine run by some guy named Jack who she was always complaining about. “GG’s napping, so I want you out till I come back.”
“Or I could just stay inside with Zelda and be totally quiet?” I said.
“Nice try.” Mom held up my Switch. “Oh, and I’m taking this with me.”
“That’s child abuse!” I said.
I was only half joking. What was I supposed to do outside all by myself? I pulled out my phone to text my best friend Josh for moral support—SOS Mom took my Switch
“And no phones outside, either,” Mom said, holding out her hand to confiscate it. “I want a screen-free visit to the great outdoors.”
Mom suited up in mask, face shield, and gloves, and marched me deviceless out the door. At that moment, I really hated her. But it wasn’t like I could run off and live with Dad. He had taken this newspaper correspondent job in Paris, and because of stupid Covid, the borders had closed. I couldn’t visit him, and if he wanted to keep the job, he had to stay there—otherwise he might not be allowed back in.
We had a decent-sized backyard with a deck jutting out from the guest bedroom/GG’s room, a couple soccer nets, and a tree swing. But hello? I was thirteen, not seven. Plus, kicking around a soccer ball by myself got old fast. I wandered into the garage, hoping to find something to do. That’s when I spotted the box Dad had given me before he’d moved to Paris last fall. He’d said it was stuff I’d kept at his Brooklyn apartment with some other sports equipment he couldn’t take on the plane with him.
The first thing I saw was our baseball mitts. Mine was nestled inside Dad’s bigger one. Just looking at them made me think about this day last fall. Dad and I were in Prospect Park, and there were tons of people there—none of them wearing masks or face shields or jumping into the bushes to get out of each other’s way. Instead, everyone was having picnics and cheering for these little kids playing peewee soccer and stopping to say hello and let their dogs sniff each other. Dad and I were tossing around the ball, nice and easy, not even talking, just enjoying the thwack of the ball against our gloves, the sunshine, that fall smell of dried leaves. Afterward, we walked to Peppino’s, this pizza place we both like, watched the Yankees crush the Red Sox on their TV, and polished off an entire extra-large pepperoni.
Remembering that day made my chest tight and tingly. I picked up our gloves and pulled them apart. That’s when I noticed what was lying beneath them: the Bow of Light.
Okay, it wasn’t the actual Bow of Light, but it was a real bow, and there were some arrows scattered beneath it. The tips were blunt, but they could do more damage than your average suction-cup toy arrow, judging from the warning label on the bow in bright red print: ADULT SUPERVISION REQUIRED.
I dug through the recycling bin for some empty cans to build my own Dark Beast Ganon, or Dark Beast Canon, as I renamed him, because he was made of, well, you know … cans. But Mom had been hoarding beans and soup for the end of days like everyone else freaked out by Covid, so there weren’t a ton. I had to use empty Ensures—nothing as scary as a monster made of old-people nutrition shakes—and even then, he wasn’t exactly a fearsome size. To give Dark Beast Canon a little more height, I pulled the metal café table to the edge of the deck and arranged his can body on top. Then I crouched behind this big azalea bush in the back of the yard with the Bow of Light and pretended to be Link, cheered on by Zelda to fight.
“Go, Link; aim for the glowing points,” I said in a high, Zelda-like voice.
Goofy, I know, but it was fun, especially when I leapt out from behind the bush, strung an arrow into the bow, and let it fly. Dark Beast Canon collapsed with a loud, satisfying clatter as cans rolled across the deck.
Looking back, this was probably what roused GG. But at that moment I wasn’t thinking about her at all. I wasn’t thinking about anything—Dad, the pandemic, Mom taking away my Switch. I was free of all that, back to being a hero on a quest, the destiny of the kingdom in my hands. I rushed onto the deck, gathered up the cans, and remade the monster. Then I retreated behind the azalea bush and reenacted a long conversation between Zelda and Link. I got myself so fired up that when I finally jumped out from the bush, I shot off an arrow before really looking. At first, this didn’t seem like a big deal—maybe I’d dock myself half a heart for bad aim. But as I followed the arrow’s path, I realized it was headed past Dark Beast Canon and straight for GG, who stood in the open door.
“GG!” I shouted.
But it was too late. There was a loud plink, and the next thing I knew her pants were covered in brown liquid. For a heart-stopping, panicked moment, I thought I’d shot my great-grandma before I remembered blood was red, not brown. That’s when I noticed the can at her feet. I hadn’t hit GG but the chocolate-flavored Ensure she’d been holding.
GG looked from me to her Ensure-drenched pants and gave a funny, little laugh. This startled me almost as much as having shot at her. She hardly ever laughed.
“I’m sorry, GG. I’m so sorry!” I yelled. “Hold on, I’ll get a towel.”
Just then, Mom’s car pulled into the driveway. The car door slammed. Footsteps hurried toward me. I tossed the Bow of Light into the bushes. Or at least that’s where I was aiming when I popped it up and it landed at Mom’s feet.
It took Mom about two seconds to figure out what had happened and immediately send me to my room. I could hear her helping GG into clean clothes and stomping down to the basement to throw her pants in the wash. Then she barged in for A Talk.
“Your great-grandmother’s here so we can keep her safe, not use her for target practice!” she said.
Truth be told, I was pretty shaken up by the whole incident myself, but Mom made it sound like I’d lined GG up for execution.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “But I wasn’t trying to hit her. I didn’t even know she was there!”
Mom gave me the stink eye. “Did you look, Matthew?”
My inner lawyer was telling me not to answer this, so I just said, “She appeared out of nowhere.”
“Right,” Mom said. “That great-grandmother of yours is a real ninja.”
“It was an accident, okay? I apologized to her right after it happened. She was fine. She even laughed.”
If Mom hadn’t been so hell-bent on making me feel like the world’s biggest jerk, I might have asked her why she thought GG had laughed—it was almost as if being shot at had lifted GG’s spirits. But Mom barely seemed to be listening to me.
“She’s a hundred years old, Matthew. You could have hit her in the eye or knocked her off-balance!”
“I said I was sorry,” I muttered.
Mom didn’t seem to hear this, either.
“You shouldn’t even have been playing with that bow and arrow,” she continued. “I’ve texted your father. Why he left it—”
“It’s not Dad’s fault.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s yours.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I really am. It was a stupid thing to do.” I waited a beat to show her I meant it. Then I said, “Can I get my Switch back now?”
“But I went outside! And I apologized!”
“I’m sorry, Matthew, but you need a break—a real one.”
WHAT?! I was this close to finishing Zelda! Stay calm, I told myself.
I swear she gave this evil-genius smile. “Two weeks.”
I doubled over as if an arrow had hit me in the gut.
“Dad would never do that!”
Mom shrugged. “His house, his rules. My house, my rules.”
“But I can’t even go to his house anymore!” I shouted. “He’s on another continent!”
“I’m sorry you’re stuck with us, Matthew,” Mom said. “But your screen time has been out of control. You need to detox. And since you seem to enjoy digging through other people’s boxes, I’d like you to spend some of your newfound time helping GG go through her boxes.”
“You mean those boxes in her room?”
Practically every morning, Mom declared that today was the day she was going to go through the boxes, which GG had kept in storage at the nursing home. But practically every evening, Mom collapsed on the couch at nine thirty, saying she was too exhausted to start.
“It would be a good activity for the two of you,” she added.
I tried to imagine what was in them. False teeth. Expired coupons. Ancient underwear. Boy, was I regretting live-action Zelda now. I didn’t want to sit in that dusty, sour-smelling room and ask GG about her stuff. I wanted to see my friends. I wanted to see my dad. I even wanted to go back to middle school (who’d ever thought I’d say that?). But there was nothing I could do.
My panic must have become visible, though, because her face suddenly softened. “Once you’ve finished helping GG go through her boxes, we can discuss getting your Switch back, okay?”
Copyright © 2023 by Katherine Marsh
Illustrations copyright © 2023 by Maria Skliarova