Friday night Shauna watches her sister Jen, long-legs in high-heeled clogs, strut down the tiled hallway. Jen does this commute, from her bedroom on one end to the full-length mirror in the foyer at the other, two dozen times before any date. Shauna watches from the living room and swears she can feel the vibration of each thunderous step, far more resonant than you’d expect from a hundred-and-thirty-pound teen with size seven feet, through the floor.
“You going somewhere?” Shauna calls after the sound of the clogs clomping down the hallway. “Jen? Jen. Jenny. Jenster. Where you going?”
Jen doesn’t answer but Shauna recognizes the restlessness for what it is: Jen is growing up and leaving Shauna behind. All dressed to go out with friends, new friends, cool friends, friends her age, opening other sorts of presents—mini-skirts and grunge CDs, cigarettes and cans of cheap beer—and preparing to fight the looming, real-life monsters of early adulthood.
Aged seventeen, Jen is growing out of videogames, out of wanting to play with her little sister, despite their shared love for the Sega game ToeJam and Earl and shared irritation at never having beaten it. Shauna is eleven and has been playing the game, in obsessive fits and frustrating starts, for two formative years. She is always stuck as Earl, the lumbering, goofier character. Jen is ToeJam, every time. Still plenty goofy: a three-legged, red alien that looks like an embodied uvula. A baseball cap on backwards. A large gold chain with a pendant that reads: TJ. White gloves, white sneakers—three of them—and dopey, sleepy eyes. Still goofy but quick and agile compared to Earl, a peach-colored, slug-like biped in polka-dot shorts.
Now, at ten, with no car picking her up, Jen caves to Shauna’s nagging, kicks off her clogs and sits cross-legged beside Shauna. She picks up the controller. Though she still refuses to play as Earl.
“Your date didn’t show, huh?” Shauna pops out the wrestling game, puts in ToeJam and Earl.
“Who was it this time? That Tommy kid with the big nostrils? He’s uglier than Earl. It’s like his schnoz has two exhaust pipes.”
“Want me to play or not?” Jen says.
“Fine, let’s play. Only, if you don’t care, I mean if you don’t really want to play, why can’t I play as ToeJam? You don’t even really like ToeJam or care about getting the ship together so we can go back to Funkatron,” Shauna says.
“Fuck Funkatron,” Jen says. “If it weren’t for Earl, we wouldn’t be in this mess, isn’t that right, Earl?”
“I’m gonna tell mom.”
“What? That I didn’t let you play as ToeJam. She doesn’t care.”
“That you swore.”
Jen mouths the words fuck you silently in response as ToeJam deftly fends off, by hurling tomatoes, a mad woman with a shopping cart raging across the screen. Though the villain is only a few inches large and two-dimensional, they can feel her ferocity emanating off the screen.
In retaliation, Shauna decides to sabotage the game from the get-go and starts opening presents willy-nilly. You collect the presents throughout the game. They contain weapons and treats and should be saved up and opened judiciously, Shauna knows. But she also knows how to piss of her sister.
“Is that how it is Earl? You going to be a baby about it?”
Shauna ignores her and continues cycling through the presents. She uses the rocket shoes, which are as described: shoes with rockets that propel you across the world in seconds, speedy but hard to steer. Earl, fast for once, but no less graceless, flies across the screen and falls off world, plummeting to the previous level.
“See?” Jen says.
“That’s why you can’t play as ToeJam. You need smarts. You need a strategy. Want me to jump down to your world so we can play together?” The game, in two-player mode, when ToeJam and Earl are separated, becomes a split screen. Jen knows Shauna doesn’t like it. The isolation makes her anxious. It makes even upbeat Earl look lonely. But Shauna won’t give in and, rocket shoes still firing, intentionally runs Earl off that level too.
“Come on,” Jen pleads, watching helplessly as Shauna sabotages the game. A bee swarm appears on Jen’s screen and she maneuvers her ToeJam towards a lake. He’ll be safe underwater.
Shauna forces Earl to leap off another level, falling farther back into the game.
“Fuck this,” Jen says, throwing the controller down.
“What? Don’t you like my strategy?” Shauna says. Jen stands and walks towards the door. “Where are you going?”
“Somewhere else. Tell mom I went for a drive. I can’t deal with you anymore.”
Shauna shouts after her, “wait.”
“Want me to pause it?”
Jen takes one last look at herself in the mirror in the foyer and calls back, “sorry, Earl. You’re on your own.”
Shauna watches Jen’s ToeJam, still hidden underwater, drown. His ghost floats up towards the top of the screen. But if she pauses it now, they can pick up where they left off when Jen returns. ToeJam has plenty of lives stored up. After all, Jen is a strong player. Shauna hits pause.
Later, after the accident and the funeral, after the lilies, roses, and condolences, this is what Shauna will remember. Hitting pause. ToeJam hiding underwater until his ghost ascended. The split screen. Earl motionless, enemies closing in, rocket shoes spent, lost and alone on a previous level. The console the next morning, humming with electricity, warm to the touch like it is alive. The sound of Jen’s shoes receding down the hallway. The mirror in the foyer holding her last reflection. Life, now, a one-player game. And Shauna, afraid to hit continue.
Kent Kosack is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Sonora Review, Tin House (Flash Fidelity), The Normal School, Hobart, and elsewhere. See more: www.kentkosack.com.