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The line between playing the game and living the game.

illustration Lisa Lipton

Wet white bombs fell from the trees, making craters in the soft snow below. The sun heated up the icy wires, sending glassy chunks to the pavement, fragmenting with sharp reports. Linda and Bill Borkus sat silent in their minivan idling on the street.

A very large shard hit the ground with a stiff slap. Linda flinched. Bill absently pulled another crimson cord of licorice, a recent cigarette substitute, from a bag on the armrest.

The couple watched their 12-year-old twins running straight for each other with shovels plowing watery snow. Through brown bangs Vic frowned at Tim, who smiled from under a toque.

“Get in the Jesus van!” Bill yelled, barely unrolling the window. A red bit flew from his mouth and stuck to the glass.

“Settle down, Bill,” Linda said and honked the horn at the boys. They tossed their shovels and got in with a slam of the sliding door.

Jaw clenched, Linda joined North Street traffic to Oxford, steering south toward the row of Halifax’s hospitals. Bill drummed his fingers on the box in his lap.

Arriving on Summer Street, Vic complained, “I’m sick of the piano building.” Indeed, the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre’s windows looked like black keys on the white facade.

Tim added, “They don’t even have games, like the last hospital Rod was in.”

Sixteen-year-old Rodney was coming home on Christmas Eve Day, after missing the last two months of school. Wheelchair-bound and unsure if he’d walk again after a tackle finished awkwardly, horribly, during a game between St. Pat’s and QEH in October.

Vic and Tim continued their lament, while Linda looked for a parking metre. “Shut it the two of ya,” Bill said, pointing a drooping licorice strand in the rearview mirror at Vic and Tim. “Or I’m not giving ya this present. Drive me back to the smokes, or worse, little buggers.”

He pulled violently at the soft red rope. Bitten off, the licorice looked like an exposed artery, raw and glistening. What if I just cut his jugular, or pierced his carotid, Linda wondered, reversing in to a perfect parallel-park. An emergency nurse, Linda knew where to locate the fatal flick of a blade, as much as she knew how a woman perfected explanations and efforts to hide bruises, small fractures, fear and anger.

Vic and Tim scrambled out of the van as soon as the engine cut. Linda inhaled deeply. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. The point of no return for leaving passed. She wouldn’t torch Christmas for the boys.

“I just want to get through these meetings and get Rod home, OK?”

Bill winced. “Woman, Christ, I didn’t say nothing. You think I wanna make this any more a big deal? Don’t push me, that’s all I’m sayin’.”

Linda got out of the car glaring at Bill, his flashing blue eyes and graying hair, the plum stain that spread over his throat, the stress-thin frame and big calloused hands. I could induce heart attack while he slept, she mulled.

Linda walked ahead of Bill and the twins into the Rehab Centre’s lobby. Rod sat in his chair with one of his therapists. A spinal cord injury, the emerg docs said. Thank god she was on nights that week.

When he saw his son, Bill called out playfully, interrupting Linda’s conversation with Rod’s therapist, who quickly excused herself: “Rod, buddy, I got an early present for us boys.” Bill approached holding the double-bagged box like a cake.

Linda banned Bill from the meetings with the docs after he showed up drunk one evening after work. He threatened the staff with his hand on one of the hammers in his tool-belt. On the way out in his truck, he sideswiped a family on their way to visit an ailing grandmother. The cops charged him with DUI. Now, Linda did all the driving.

“Is it the new PlayStation Dad? We could set it up on the TV they got in there,” Tim chimed, vaulting up on the handles of Rod’s wheelchair. “Forget that, the Wii’s way better, dumbass,” Vic dismissed him.

“It’s better than both those put together. Let’s go,” Bill commanded, charging into the empty cafeteria off the lobby. The twins flanked Rod, passing a Christmas tree with blinking lights at the entrance into the quiet room.

“Roddy, I’ll come get you after I’ve talked to the doctors, OK?” Linda called after them. “Fine,” her eldest, black-haired boy mumbled back.

Bill moved a couple empty coffee cups and crumpled newspapers off a cheaply veneered table and set the package down carefully. “Roddy, you sit here beside me,” Bill said, sliding a chair out of the way. Rodney reluctantly rolled up to the table. Bill gripped the top of the next chair, set to speak. Vic and Tim dropped into chairs, watching the package expectantly.

“Boys, you know your grandpa was a hard man. He worked hard but he didn’t teach me and my brothers nothin’ about bein’ a man. We knew the back of his hand more than the rest of him. OK?”

The father looked at the confused faces of his three sons. He pulled the plastic bags off the game and spoke solemnly, “I know what your mother’s thinkin’. I know I’m lucky to be with you boys this Christmas.” His voice softened. “But a man should leave his house on his own and not wait to get his ass thrown out. So on Boxing Day, I’m moving in with Uncle Jimmy.”

Bill wiped a tear from his cheek on his sleeve, then threw the balled-up plastic bags aside. Unmoved, Vic and Tim eyed the game. “What’s this?” demanded Vic.

“It’s Battling Tops, my favourite game when I was a kid. I found it at the flea market— mint condition,” Bill answered reverentially.

Rod turned away and exhaled. “I thought you’d be smart enough to get ’em one of the new consoles—you know, do one thing right before we don’t have to see you anymore.”

Bill stared hard at his firstborn for a few seconds. Vic and Tim braced for violence, but their father just smiled. “Listen you little prick,” he said tilting at Rod, “I know what I gotta do. This game’s gonna teach you three what you gotta do to become better men than me.”

Bill straightened back up. “The object of the game is obvious even to idiots: you want your top to be the last one standing. Just like life: you wanna be the last one standing.”

He unpacked the game ceremoniously, placing the concave plastic arena in the centre of the table and lining the threaded tops alongside. Bill said, stepping back, “Choose your top.” No one moved.

“This is like BeyBlades, but only lame. At least with that you spin the stupid tops but they’re battles in this story on a DVD and you get points and go through these worlds,” Vic whined.

“Yeah, that’s fine, Vic, but games like that don’t teach you shit about life in this goddamned world. Now pick a top.” Grinning, Tim grabbed Twirling Tim, the blue player. Frowning, Vic reached for Hurricane Hank, the orange piece.

Bill announced, “I’ll take Tricky Nicky. I like green.”

They looked to Rod. He took the white one, Super Sam. Bill nodded approval then showed them how to wind the strings, clip the pulling tabs on the tops and place them in their slots. On Bill’s count they pulled the strings. The tops careened around the circular board, flew off the surface or stood rapidly revolving, awaiting any and all comers.

Linda, came towards the room to tell them the doctors were delayed, but stopped before speaking. She stepped backwards behind the Christmas tree to listen as the battles continued: Bill’s count, the hard snap of the launching tops and the scratching sound as they circled.

“OK, OK, now this is what I mean,” Bill said, arms spread out. “See what happened to Vic’s player. He just up and fucked off the board. Now son, Victor, you can’t run from real life. You gotta stay in the game.”

A pause to watch, then Bill’s commentary began again. “Tim, don’t touch, fer chrissakes! Look at Tim’s top, boys, flying around like a wild man. He’ll lose momentum pretty soon. You gotta have control, discipline.”

Another silence, the pitch of one top’s spin changed, circling wider. “Now see, see,” Bill enthused, “Roddy’s top is getting all gimpy there. OK, c’mon Roddy, you know what I mean…watch what happens.”

Linda peeked from behind the tree. Bill’s finger traced the sure and true orbit of his top as it closed in on Rod’s wobbling piece. The tops connected. Rod’s top tripped Bill’s, sending the father’s player into trembles until it toppled, rolling back and forth on its side. Bill was out. Rod’s top then convulsed and fell, leaving Tim’s top, Twirling Tim, to languidly lap the board in victory. He snatched the piece, cheered and taunted his brothers.

Feeling tiny points of heat and light, Linda froze behind the tree. She just glimpsed a ghost of Christmases past, the man Bill once was, before the rage and battles, with her, with Rod, his boss, the world. She would make sure the boys kept Battling Tops, the very home version of the game show called Life with Bill. She would keep it to remind herself she was the last one standing.

Sean Flinn is a journalist, aspiring author and old hand—with the scars to prove it—at Battling Tops (no, not like in the story).

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