Trebla has a swollen head and his body is naked and weak with thin shoulders and a potbelly. His eyes are glass dots in a putty face with another dot for the mouth.
I made Trebla, I made him with Granpa. Granpa is a genius and my best friend. He made my favourite underwater fighting game, Sealanders, just for me. In the game Trebla is slowly drowning and my job is to kill all the baddies and rescue him before he dies.
So, Trebla belongs in the undersea world, on the computer. Not in our hallway.
When the phone rings — Saturday morning — I run down the stairs shouting, “Granpa! Granpa!” He always wants to come and play at the weekend and this weekend I want to show him I’m on level nine. This is Sealanders final and most difficult level.
Dad answers, says nothing, and then sits down. Right on the floor. Then he says, “Dead?”
Mum runs over, says with no sound, “Your Dad?” and Dad nods. Mum hugs him tight and screws up her eyes but Dad shrugs her off. All my air puffs out.
I’m smart, I work out what’s happened. That’s when Trebla pops up. Pinpricking stars, like atoms rearranging. And there he is, kneeling next to my Dad. He takes my hand, his skin is like a soggy flannel.
I bite hard watching tears leak out under Dad’s hand. I feel sick, I make fists and I want to punch him with all my might. I want to punch myself.
I run to the living room and close all the curtains. Then I power up the console and get to work. Level nine won’t complete itself. Trebla follows me, and watches from the doorway. He points to the hall, to Dad and Mum, but I ignore him.
They don’t think I know and they still don’t tell me about Granpa. They just fill our hollow flat with gloom until we are all underwater with it. Dad touches me, once, but Mum says, “He’s only eight, it will break his heart!” I turn the sound way up loud so I can’t hear anything else. Mum and Dad watch me. They look like boiled owls.
I concentrate on my job, on the fighting. Trebla is drowning and I must save him, I must save him and win the war. How could I leave him to die, all alone?
Granpa has made a brilliant game. He was a physicist, like Newton and Einstein and as good as them, they say, but with computers.
He showed me how to make Trebla by digging into all the instructions for the game. It’s called a program. He cried with laughter when he saw what we’d made. “It's just so wretched!” he kept saying, welling up and slapping his thighs.
He was a very cheery man. People smiled when he arrived, and when he left, it was always with a “Cheerio!” My Granpa even turned goodbyes happy.
In the spring, Granpa and I were gardening. I was complaining about Dad, who was cross all the time. He blamed Mum and me for him losing his job.
“We all have our wars, son,” Granpa said. “We don’t grow up until we suffer some hardship. My Dad fought the Nazis. Your Dad is fighting the bloody recession by the look of it.”
He handed me the shovel and bent over with a groan.
“What was your war Granpa?”
“This damned garden… No. My Nobel Prize.” He pushed his thumb in the dirt to make a hole. “I wonder what yours will be eh?”
Plop, in with another seed, I asked him what his prize was for.
“For my work with sub-atomic particles.”
“Bravo. Good boy.” He ruffled my hair. “I designed an experiment to prove that electrons, quarks, bosons are all made from information. Not stuff.”
“Information? Like a program? Like Sealanders?”
“So… could I re-program the world? Like we did with Trebla? Could I fix Dad?”
Granpa laughed. “Maybe tangentially… “
“Tangentially. Indirectly, sideways.” He winked at me and the sun shone behind him, straight into my eyes. “Tell you what. The day I discover how, you will be the first to-“
Then he stopped, sometimes he just stopped. Processing he called it. That evening he started re-programming Sealanders. Making level nine. He didn’t go home, I heard him coughing all night and when we woke up he was still there at the computer, grinning. Mum and Dad were cross with him that day. They hated it when he worked hard.
Squelch. Game over. That’s my day.
I cannot beat this game, I’ve stopped eating, I’ve stopped talking, It’s just me and level nine, that’s all that matters. So in a blur it’s night time and Trebla, Dad and I sit in it with all the lights off. Trebla is sitting next to Dad, with his arm round him. Every time I turn round he beckons me over so I stop turning round.
Mum must have gone to bed, she doesn’t even argue with Dad about it today. He always sleeps on the sofa and every night for weeks they have argued about it, so the last thing we all hear at night is slamming doors and crying.
I crash through a mini level and can’t help checking if Dad saw me or not. When I catch his watery eyes, staring but not looking, my stomach flips.
Trebla sighs and kneels beside me, he picks up the spare game controller and offers it to me, nodding at Dad. A mad idea. Dad is hopeless. But I pause the game and chuck the controller onto Dad’s lap.
“You sure?” he says and I think he might blub again. I shrug, what harm can it do? I’m already useless, maybe his uselessness can rub mine out.
And you know what? The old man is good.
“You been practising?” I say, Dodge, swipe, stab.
“Yep, bugger all else to do when you’re unemployed.” Pummel, jump. Pummel, jump.
I swallow something hard in my throat.
Together, we charge through the level, it is… awesome. I am so excited I can’t even laugh. One last battle and splat. Bad guys squished, Trebla free.
Dad and I gawp at the screen as the little grey figure surfaces, takes a deep breath and flies into the shiny sky, into the sun. I drop the remote, stare. I start to cry.
And then I cry, and cry and cry and Dad picks me up and holds me to him and I feel heavier than I ever have; tears and snot all over my face, all over Dad’s shoulder and I can’t even lift my head.
He carries me up to their bedroom and Mum gasps when we lie beside her. They hug me between them. I blub like a baby.
I almost don’t notice Trebla standing at the end of the bed, watching us. When I do see him, he fizzes into stars again. Atoms rearranging, back to thin air.
“Cheerio!” I say, and it must have come out loud because Mum and Dad’s shoulders start shaking. But whether they are laughing, or crying, I can’t tell.