But his parents’ actual reaction to his Christmas list was far worse than anything for which he could have ever prepared himself.
“Mostly video games, huh?” Huey’s dad was in the living room sitting on the couch in the exact middle of the middle cushion, which was flatter and more worn than the rest of the couch since he always sat there. Huey’s mom was sitting in a gray stuffed chair that didn’t make sense in the room. Its placement was fine (perpendicular to the couch), but the chair itself didn’t make sense in the room. It was too tall, all out of scale with the rest of the furniture.
“It’s all video games,” said Huey. “Everything on my list is a video game. That’s all I want.”
“I find that troubling,” said Huey’s dad. “Doesn’t that trouble you, Huey?”
“No,” said Huey. “It’s what I like.”
“It’s just this,” said Huey’s dad. “Your mom and I are going to take your MegaMagnifique away from you at least until you’re fifteen. We don’t like how important it is to you, and this list only confirms our fears.”
The tantrum that Huey threw next did nothing to un-confirm his parents’ recently-confirmed fears. If anything, it hyper-confirmed their fears.
“Now that you’ve worn yourself out,” said Huey’s dad, looking down at Huey twisted and panting on the floor, “I want to tell you about something I saw on the news. There was a man right here in Multioak who kidnapped a boy and kept him locked in his house for years. But you know what else he did? He bought the boy all the latest video games to keep him occupied and passive. He did not have the boy’s best interest at heart. If he had, he wouldn’t have bought him all those video games.”
“Kidnapped?” asked Huey from the floor.
“Yes,” said Huey’s dad. “Right here in Multioak.”
“What did the boy say?” asked Huey, sitting up.
“He said all the video games in the world could never compare to the care and concern of parents who want what’s best for you and know what’s best for you and only ever do what’s best for you.”
“Is that what his parents were like?” asked Huey.
“No,” said Huey’s dad. “But yours are.”
The park was almost deserted. The grass was brown and muddy. There were long slivers of crusty snow here and there and layers of bumpy ice on the slides. A young man walked three dogs at once. One of the dogs tugged impatiently forward, one of the dogs lagged way behind, and the third dog kept looking up at his master like can’t we just leave these other two at home?
Huey, stocking-capped, gloved, and scarfed, pitched pinecones to invisible little league nemeses, brushing them back, brushing them back again, plunking them, meeting them halfway with uppercut combinations as they charged the mound. The important thing was that his lack of supervision be clear to passing observers, preferably those with plenty of expendable income and few scruples.
Huey had been at the park for twenty minutes. He wondered what was taking so long. He started drop-kicking the pinecones with no accompanying fantasy. A wide, brownish car pulled into the nearby parking lot and a lone man in a large t-shirt got out. His skin was sort of purple from the cold. As he leaned against his car’s open door, the man held a can of lemonade so casually in his left hand that it looked as if he might drop it without noticing at any moment.
Huey stopped messing around with the pinecones. He stood still and looked at the man, inviting an interaction.
“You like candy bars?” called the man.
“Yes,” said Huey, and he jogged over to the man.
The man didn’t change his expression as Huey approached. He acted like he was going to take a sip from his can, but then he seemed to just give up when the can was almost to his lips and he resumed his previous pose.
Huey stood waiting for the man to spring his trap.
“You got any friends like candy bars?” asked the man.
“Not here,” said Huey. “But I love candy bars. And video games.”
The can finally slipped out of the man’s hand and Huey could tell from the sound it made when it hit the ground that it was about half empty. The man lurched around to the back of the car and fished a key ring out of the pocket of his jeans.
“I’ll just ride in the back seat,” said Huey. “I’m cooperative.”
“Candy’s in the trunk,” said the man. The trunk made a tiny metallic shriek as he opened it. “C’mere.”
Huey hoped the trunk wasn’t too crowded. He wasn’t claustrophobic that he knew of, but who wants to ride anywhere in the crowded trunk of a stranger’s dirty car, even with a steady supply of pacifying “M”-for-“mature”-rated video games waiting on the other end? Huey joined the man at the open trunk.
“That’s them,” said the man, pointing into the trunk. “Buck a piece.”
The trunk was filled to the brim with candy bars of all varieties. Most were misshapen, probably from riding around for weeks or months in fluctuating temperatures in the trunk of a car. Huey did not want to know what the bottom of the trunk looked like.
A rustling sound came from the mass of candy bars and Huey thought he saw a few of them twitch. “Nothing moved in there,” said the man. “Nothing in there but candy bars. How many you want? Ten? I can’t make no change.”
“You’re really selling these?” asked Huey.
“You try gettin’ a job with no work ethic in this economy, buster.”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” said Huey.
Before the man in the brownish car was even out of the parking lot, a man in a tiny, well-maintained blue car pulled up to where Huey stood on the curb. The man’s window was down and he had either the rough beginning or the bitter ending of a black beard clinging to his face. His eyebrows were a lighter shade of black than his beard. The hair on his head was covered by a stocking cap that looked as if a female acquaintance had made it for the man and given it to him as a surprise gift. Huey had never seen a hat like that actually worn by anyone before.
“Little boy,” said the man, his voice inflected in unexpected, unpleasant places. “I lost my cute, new, little puppy dog. He ran away. Will you help me find him?”
“Yes,” said Huey. “Should I just get in?”
The man nodded. Huey trotted around the car to the passenger’s door and climbed in. The interior of the car smelled like stagnant water.
“Keep your eyes open,” said the man. “I’m going to be shouting for my puppy dog and you’re going to be looking for him.” He accelerated the car out of the parking lot and onto the street, clipping the curb with a back tire.
Huey looked out the window, watching the familiar houses and storefronts go past. He wondered if he would miss them at all or if the constant stream of video games would wipe all traces of nostalgia from his mind.
“This is where I last saw him,” said the man. “I’m going to begin shouting now. Do not close your eyes. My puppy dog is the same color as many of these buildings, trees, and lawns, so it will be easy to miss him even with your eyes open.” The car was traveling at maybe 20 miles per hour, probably less.
“Dogs are fun,” said Huey. “I think video games are more fun, though. One good, mature video game can keep me content and quiet for days on end.”
The man said nothing. Huey hoped the man was mulling the possibility of abandoning his lost-dog ruse and coming clean with his true kidnapping intentions so he and Huey could get down to kidnap victim appeasement negotiations. Then the man stuck his head out his window and began to shout. “Come out, Hipsy! Stop hiding! Come to the sound of my voice, Hipsy, wherever you are! I know you can hear me! Please, show yourself! Make yourself known! Even a bark of recognition, Hipsy, even a whine of acknowledgment! I’ll be silent for a moment to listen for your response!”
The man fell silent for a moment. Huey wondered if this would be a good time to ask if he could get out now.
“I didn’t hear you, Hipsy! You’ll have to be a little louder! Just a little! I know I’ll hear you this time! I’m going to be quiet now! Right…now!”
The man fell silent again. The car crept along through a half-miserable, half-cozy neighborhood of two-story houses with narrow, hilly lawns.
“Have you seen anything?” asked the man.
“No,” said Huey.
“Maybe you should shout,” said the man. “Hipsy likes strangers. Shout for him. Make sure you’re articulate, though, and be clear about what we want from him.”
“I can’t shout,” said Huey. “It’s a medical condition.”
The man stopped the car in the middle of the empty street and glared over at Huey. “What are your real motives for ‘helping’ me find my puppy dog? Don’t think I didn’t notice the sly mention of your love of video games. Are you after some kind of reward?”
“I thought you were lying about the dog so you could kidnap me,” said Huey. “But I can tell that’s not going to happen.”
“It most certainly is not,” said the man. “This is exactly why I have a puppy dog instead of a child. Had a puppy dog.” He began to cry.
“I’ll just walk home,” said Huey.
When Huey was two thirds of the way home, walking with his gloved hands stuffed into the pockets of his coat and his scarf pulled up under his nose, a thin man in a long coat with gigantic square buttons stepped out of an alley between two flower shops that had driven each other out of business. The man looked down at Huey, looked around, and then grabbed Huey by the shoulder. Huey’s first instinct was to get his hands free in order to protect himself, but it was hard to get the bulky gloves out of his coat pockets. Then he realized that perhaps this man was kidnapping him and he stopped struggling.
“Little boy,” said the man. “How would you like to be in a television commercial for my pizza restaurant?”
“I want to,” said Huey.
“I’ll not be paying you,” said the man. “But you will be on TV. Perhaps as early as tomorrow. Do you consent?”
“I consent,” said Huey. “Let’s go.” After the last two misunderstandings, he wanted to come right out and tell the man to drop the pretense and just kidnap him already, but he feared that such a direct approach would make the man suspicious of a trap.
“Step into this alley,” said the man.
Huey followed the man into the alley. There, mounted on a tilting tripod, was an old camcorder pointed at one of the gray alley walls from ten feet away. “You’re just going to film me,” said Huey. “Aren’t you.”
“Just stand in front of that wall, face the camera, and say, ‘Eat at Italianicoli’s Pizzarizza where you’ll find daily good pizzas for sale on sale,’” said the man.
“Yes, now, the tape is already running.”
Huey saw that the little red light on the front of the camera was indeed feebly glowing. He stood in front of the wall and faced the camera. “What am I supposed to say?”
“Tape is burning, young man!”
“Eat at, uh, Ital-uh…Italianali’s Pizzaar-uh-Pizza…for pizza sales.”
The man shook his head. “That was not well done.”
“You want another take?”
“No. I’m out of tape.” The man took the camera off of the tripod and set it on its side on the wet pavement. He knelt and began to fold the tripod.
“Bye,” said Huey. The man did not attempt to keep him from getting away. The man did not even say goodbye.
As soon as Huey set foot inside his house, his dad poked his head around the corner from the kitchen and asked, “Where have you been?”
“The park,” said Huey.
“Did you have permission to go to the park?”
“Not explicitly, no.”
“No you did not. Now your MegaMagnifique console will not be returned to you until you are at least seventeen.”
“I don’t care,” shouted Huey. “My MegaMagnifique will be totally obsolete by then!”
“Then you won’t be getting a new one until you’re at least seventeen either!”
Huey stood in the hall, half out of his winter clothes, his mouth opening and closing. His life was falling apart. “I’m going to bed,” he said. His only hope was that someone would sneak into his room during the night, chloroform him, throw him in a sack, steal him away, and he would wake up in a locked room with nothing to do all day but play video games rated “M” for “mature.”
The next evening during supper, while Huey, his dad, and his mom were all in the living room eating green bean casserole and watching a ‘Round Here With Hal Brigolek rerun on Channel 2, Huey’s Italianicoli’s Pizzarizza commercial aired. It looked and sounded very unprofessional. The one good thing about the awful sound quality was that it made it difficult to hear how badly Huey had botched his line. After Huey’s line, the remainder of the thirty second spot was just a still image of Huey making a weird face and the words “Italianicoli’s Pizzarizza” flashing on the screen in orange letters that should have been bigger and should have been better centered.
Huey was mortified. He turned and saw his father staring at him, his facial expression too composed to mean anything good. “Did you,” said Huey’s dad, “have permission to be in a pizza restaurant commercial?”
“No,” said Huey. “I didn’t know I needed to. I didn’t even think it was real.”
“Oh, it was real,” said his dad. “Very, very real. All too real. Far too real for my taste. And you know what else is real? The following punishment: you will never play another video game console again so long as you are under my roof.”
Huey couldn’t take it anymore. “That’s it!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “I’m running away!”
“You don’t have permission to run away,” shouted Huey’s dad, but Huey was already out the front door and running across the lawn, his coat, hat, gloves, and scarf still piled in the hallway, which was not a place he had been given permission to pile them.
“We should have brought the car,” said Huey’s mom.
“He can’t have gotten far,” said Huey’s dad. “He only left a few minutes ahead of us and he’s not fast. You know he isn’t fast.”
Huey’s parents walked briskly down the sidewalk, arm in arm. They both wore earmuffs and scarves that matched their respective earmuffs.
“Huey!” shouted Huey’s mom.
“Not so loud,” said Huey’s dad. “Do you want the whole neighborhood to know that we have a son named Huey?”
“What are you going to do when we find him?” asked Huey’s mom. “Punish him further?”
“That’s a good idea,” said Huey’s dad.
A black car pulled up to the curb next to Huey’s parents and they stopped walking. The driver’s side window slid down with an electric hum. All Huey’s parents could see inside of the car were two dark silhouettes in the front seat. The back windows of the car were tinted.
“Your son’s been in a terrible accident,” said the driver. “The police told me to come get you and rush you to the hospital so you can be with him.”
“Oh no,” said Huey’s mom. “How is he?”
“I don’t know,” said the driver. “The cops wouldn’t tell me. They just said to come get you as quickly as possible.”
Huey’s dad yanked open the back door of the car and slid inside. “That little brat,” he said. “I don’t know many times I have expressly forbidden him from being the victim of accidents or going to the hospital for any reason.”
Huey’s mom followed her husband into the car and closed the door behind her. The car sped away.
The cold drove Huey home. A life without video games was terrible to consider, but at this exact moment, the fact the he was probably freezing to death was a slightly more immediate concern. The front door was locked so Huey pounded on the door for several minutes. When his parents didn’t answer, Huey dug around in the dead potted plant on the front porch until he found the secret key and let himself in. “Mom? Dad?” There was no reply. Lying on the floor just inside the front door was a piece of white paper folded in half. Huey picked it up, opened it, and saw that it was a short, typed message from an anonymous source. It read:
Huey we kidnapped your parents. If you ever want to see them again leave 10,000 dollars in a black or dark-colored garbage bag under that one tree in your backyard tomorrow night. We know you have the money because we saw you on TV so don’t try to tell us you don’t have the money. We saw you on TV. People on TV have money you were on TV therefore you have money. Do not tell the police anything or anyone else for that matter because they might tell the police and we don’t want the police to know ANYTHING.
Huey read the note three times, shivered, and realized the door was still open behind him. He closed the door, refolded the note, and dropped it back on the floor where he’d found it. Then he went straight to the family computer, logged on to www.retailretailretail.com, and started trying to guess the password to his dad’s account so he could have “M”-for-“mature”-rated video games winging their way to his door as soon as possible. He didn’t have permission to use his dad’s credit card to buy video games, of course, but how would he get that permission now?
After correctly guessing his dad’s password on the third try – it was the word “adulthood” - and purchasing a conservative nine video games, all of them rated “M” for “mature,” Huey went to bed happy.
Two hours later, Huey awoke with a start, his heart pounding. He’d forgotten to lock the front door. Sweat beading on his temples, frantic, Huey ran down to the front hall in the dark, almost falling down the stairs, skidding around corners in his one sock. When he got to the front door, he found that it was locked after all.
It was locked.
Oh, thank God, it was locked.
No one could get in. No one could take him away.