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The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness

           It was raining outside, and it was raining in The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness’s boss arena in Forgotten Future IV. Sometimes Eugene mistook the rolling thunder in the video game for real thunder and vice versa. He was in his sister Susan’s attic, which she and her husband Russell had begun converting to a guest room before abandoning the project because they didn’t think most of their likely guests would want to stay in a room accessible only by ladder. They also realized it would be difficult to get furniture into the room. And it was a fire hazard because its sole window was painted shut. And it had a very low ceiling, which Russell thought felt oppressive.

Susan had invited Eugene to stay with her and Russell in their huge, old house in Multioak until he was able to reassemble his life in the aftermath of his rented house in Heavenburg burning down as a result of a feud between his roommates. Russell had helped Eugene wrestle a narrow mattress up the ladder into the attic room. The mattress, a desk lamp on the floor, a faded rug, a black, patched beanbag chair, and a 32-inch TV were the only pieces of furniture. There was also a MegaMagnifique Re-perfect video game console and a pile of clothes, all of which Susan had purchased for Eugene because he’d lost nearly all of his possessions in the fire. Most of the clothes still had tags on them.

Eugene and Susan’s parents were still alive and had plenty of room to accommodate Eugene at their house, but they did not like people who were in their 20s, not even their own children. From the time Eugene and Susan were kids, their parents had told them that they would have nothing to do with them from the day they turned 20 until the day they turned 30, at which point they would be welcomed back into the family with big parties. Since Eugene was 24 and Susan was 27, Susan felt as if all of the family responsibility for Eugene was hers to bear. Hers and Russell’s, who had never met Susan’s parents since he’d married her when she was 25.

In addition to losing his possessions in the fire, Eugene’s job at an Italian restaurant had been wrongfully terminated a few months prior when a fellow employee somehow stole an entire pallet of frozen breadsticks, then accused Eugene of the crime. Management believed the thief, although they had seemed more interested in how and why Eugene had pulled off the breadstick heist than punishing him, but when he couldn’t answer their questions because he hadn’t done it and insisted he couldn’t bring the breadsticks back because he’d never had them, they fired him. While looking for other jobs, Eugene’s savings had dwindled to exactly zero dollars and zero cents on the same day that his roommates’ feud culminated in the destruction of nearly everything he owned. He did not have renter’s insurance. Desperate and pathetic, Eugene had felt bad calling on his sister for help when they hadn’t spoken in months, but he hadn’t known where else to turn. Susan, and to a lesser extent, Russell, had responded with far more generosity than Eugene had hoped for. He’d thought he might be able to sleep on their couch for a week or two. He had not anticipated having his own room, had not anticipated his sister taking him shopping for new clothes, and had certainly not anticipated his sister replacing his burned-up MegaMagnifique with a brand new MegaMagnifique Re-perfect and a copy of the just-released, much-hyped Forgotten Future IV.

“Really, Sue, you don’t have to. The room and clothes are more than enough.”

“But you love video games,” Susan had said. “And you need something to take your mind off of everything that’s gone wrong for you recently. You can’t spend all your time looking for new jobs or you’ll go crazy. Actually, I think you should take, like, at least a week to relax. And I kind of think of video games as our thing, in a way. I don’t play anymore, but remember how I used to beat the hard parts for you when we were kids?”

“Not all of the hard parts,” Eugene had said. “I beat a lot of games on my own. A lot that you don’t know about.”

Perhaps because of her sympathy for his current plight, Susan had not challenged Eugene on this claim.

So, Eugene accepted the console, the game, and the encouragement to take a week, at least, to relax.

Susan and Russell’s house was two stories tall, plus the attic. They spent most of their time on the first floor, so not only did Eugene rarely see them, he rarely heard them either. He only descended from his room to use the second story bathroom or to gather food from the refrigerator, which he preferred to do while his sister and brother-in-law were out of the house or asleep. Sometimes Susan would pull the ladder down, climb up, and poke her head into the attic room to see how Eugene was doing, to see if he needed anything, to ask if he’d made sure all the clothes fit, to ask if he wanted to join her and Russell for dinner, to ask how Forgotten Future IV was going. Eugene answered these questions truthfully, but politely. He was not curt with Susan. He tried not to make it seem like he wanted her to go away. But her questions and Eugene’s answers were not the type to stimulate involved conversation, so Susan’s visits were short and forgettable. She would say, “Well, let me know if you need anything,” descend the ladder, fold it back into the ceiling, and Eugene would again be alone with Forgotten Future IV and his thoughts, which were almost entirely concerned with Forgotten Future IV.

As it turned out – and as Eugene should have known from having played and beaten the previous three games in the series – Forgotten Future IV was not conducive to relaxation. But if Forgotten Future IV wasn’t relaxing – and it wasn’t – it was diverting. As Eugene’s isolation increased, the game blotted concerns about his recent personal defeats from his mind. It gave him something to focus his efforts on. Eugene half-immersed himself in the beanbag chair in front of the TV in the attic room for days on end, fighting his way through the early portions of Forgotten Future IV’s bleak, crumbling world. He absorbed the game’s gloomy atmosphere, struggled with the obtuseness of the game’s systems, and gritted his teeth at the rising difficulty of each new region, each new boss. He lost track of time, pausing every so often to rest his hands, snack, take ibuprofen, sleep. Rain drummed on the roof and pattered at the window.

Playing Forgotten Future IV was a relief, yes, but it was not relaxing, not in the way Eugene thought of the word. It was too dark and too hard to be relaxing. And it was diverting, yes, but it wasn’t just diverting. It was satisfying. The game presented Eugene with a series of varied, intense challenges in an openly hostile setting, and he overcame them. Some of the challenges were invigorating, some were frustrating, some were wearying, some were mentally, emotionally, and even physically taxing, but each time he overcame them, Eugene felt a fresh wave of relief, a lightness bordering on euphoria that propelled him onward into the waiting jaws of the game’s next test. Through perseverance more than skill, Eugene forged ahead.

He traversed Somnolent Meadow, defeated Cadaverous Orator Amos, scaled The Emptiest Tower, defeated The Dissonant Whistler, escaped Woodless Forest, defeated The Nakedly Contemptuous Bearer of False Tidings, ascended Mount Puncture, defeated all three pieces of Complex Shrine Machinery, defeated The Complex Machinist’s Apprentice, defeated The Complex Machinist, defeated Scrap Hound Soren, descended Soren’s Unfinished Ladder, waded through Hunchéd Back’s Swamp, emerged in Unsafe Wagon Hollow, followed The Path of Dampened Evening, struggled for hours against and finally defeated The Corpulent Oxen-driver’s Corpulent Widow, crossed The Bridge of Eventual Collapse, and came at last to The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness.

This was where Eugene got stuck. Not stuck like he had been on Scrap Hound Soren, not even stuck like he had been on The Corpulent Oxen-driver’s Corpulent Widow, but really stuck. He was used to Forgotten Future bosses taking time, concentration, and patience, but with past bosses, he had always felt as if he were making progress toward their defeat, however slow that progress might be. With The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness, Eugene felt just as lost on his 30th attempt as he had on his fifth attempt. It was infuriating. Eugene kept at it, running back to The Wheelwright’s boss arena again and again, hoping that this time he would notice something, he would figure something out, he would begin to discern a pattern in The Wheelwright’s movements, he would find some means of mitigating the effects of even one of The Wheelwright’s multiple area-of-effect attacks. But each fight ended the same way: Eugene’s quick, undignified death. And most of these deaths were one-hit kills. The few hits that Eugene was able to survive gave him no solace because The Wheelwright was so relentless, striking in such rapid succession, that Eugene had no time to heal and the follow-up attacks usually got him.

Eugene stopped counting his attempts to take down The Wheelwright. The number’s steady growth only made him feel worse. It was enough to know that he was already well beyond his previous record for the most attempts it had ever taken him to beat any boss in the whole Forgotten Future franchise. As the failures piled up, Eugene’s hands became sweaty and cramped, his head began to ache as pressure built behind his eyes, and he could feel his chest tightening, his jaw clenching, his inner voice turning whiny and self-pitying as he muttered a string of obscenities at The Wheelwright’s cheapness. After a certain point, Eugene recognized that his play was worsening. He was regressing, lasting less time in combat with The Wheelwright than he had been an hour before. He was approaching the Wheelwright robotically, dying and dying and dying while thinking mostly about how little fun he was having. He needed to stop. He needed to put the controller down, turn off the console, and take a break. He would return to The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness after he had cleared his head and readied himself to really concentrate, to really dig in and make some headway.

Eugene rose from the beanbag chair. The rain outside made him feel as if he had not fully escaped The Wheelwright’s arena. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the dark puddles in the mud, steady rain striking them with impressive graphical fidelity, The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness hunched over a half-completed wheel in the distance, awaiting Eugene’s approach. Beyond rose the remains of a ruined mansion, winged dogs huddled together on its broken chimneys.

Eugene wondered what time it was. There was no clock in the attic room and his phone had run out of battery two days ago. His phone charger was among the things he’d lost in the fire. He figured when Susan found out, she’d buy him a new one, but he wasn’t in a hurry for that to happen. He didn’t mind people being unable to reach him and he didn’t mind not knowing what time it was. Eugene could see through the window that it was dark outside, but he didn’t know if that meant it was 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. He hoped it was closer to 3 a.m. so he could visit the refrigerator in the kitchen without having to worry about crossing paths with Susan or Russell. Not that there was anything wrong with them, but his shame over his poor showing against The Wheelwright made him want to keep out of sight. Since he hadn’t recently done anything except play Forgotten Future IV, it seemed inevitable that even a brief conversation would touch on the source of his sullen mood.

After lowering the ladder, using the second floor bathroom, and heading downstairs, Eugene paused in the hall outside the kitchen doorway when he heard water running in the sink and Susan humming to herself. Was he really considering going all the way back to the attic room so he didn’t have to talk to his sister? Had The Wheelwright gotten to him that much? No, that would be too pathetic. He couldn’t let The Wheelwright have that kind of power over him.

Eugene strode into the kitchen. “Hey, Sue.” He opened the refrigerator and surveyed his options. Since moving in with Susan and Russell, Eugene had subsisted mostly on bland sandwiches and baby carrots dipped in ranch dressing.

“Hey,” said Susan. She turned off the sink for a moment. Eugene could feel her eyes on his back. Then she turned the sink on again. “How’s it going? Russell and I went out for dinner, but there’s still some of last night’s leftovers if you want any.”

“I’ll just make a sandwich and eat some carrots,” said Eugene. “Are you out of ranch?”

“Possibly,” said Susan. “Probably.”

“Maybe just a sandwich then,” said Eugene.

“How’s the game going?” asked Susan. “Did you beat it yet?”

“No,” said Eugene. He took a package of deli turkey out of the fridge and set it on the counter. He took a nearly depleted bag of sliced bread out of the bread box and went to work on the knot he’d tied in its open end.

“We have twist-ties,” said Susan.

“This works,” said Eugene. He unknotted the bag, extracted two stiff slices of bread, re-knotted the bag, and returned it to its box. He put a few pieces of turkey between the bread slices.

“No condiments?” asked Susan. The way she said it sounded sad. “Just turkey and bread?”

Eugene shrugged and returned the package of turkey to the fridge.

“Are you relaxing enough?” asked Susan. “You’re so quiet up there. Is the game helping?”

“Yes,” said Eugene.

“Because you seem tense,” said Susan. “Which is totally understandable. I mean, considering…everything. But you seem more tense than when you first got here. Is it just that, like, everything is finally setting in for you? Or do you feel uncomfortable here, like you’re imposing? Because you’re not, I promise. We barely know you’re here, except for the ranch dressing level going down in the bottle.”

“No, it isn’t any of that,” said Eugene. “It’s nothing important. I’ll be fine soon.”

“So it is something,” said Susan.

“It’s just a hard game,” said Eugene, mustering a smile. “I’m stuck on a hard part.”

“Do you need me to get past it for you?” asked Susan. She laughed.

“No,” said Eugene, his smile rotting and falling from his face. “I’ll get it.”

“I was just teasing,” said Susan. “I’m sure I’m no good at video games anymore anyway.”

“Yeah, well, this is the second time you’ve brought it up,” said Eugene. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He left the kitchen fully intending to time the following day’s forays to the kitchen so as not to see his sister.


After finishing his sandwich, Eugene sprawled on his mattress and tried to sleep. He figured he’d have a better chance the next time he faced The Wheelwright if he was as well-rested as he could get these days, but he couldn’t quiet his mind enough to drift off. The sound of the rain, which he usually found soothing, served only to keep him fixated on The Wheelwright. He kept running through potential strategies, searching for outside-the-box ideas that might help him change his whole perspective on the fight. Did he need different equipment? Was there a specific item he could use that might turn the tide? A spell he could learn? Maybe he could buy something from Prawm, The Harried Merchant that would help. If so, he’d have to farm for inklings, the Forgotten Future series’ in-game currency. He didn’t relish using his time that way, but if that’s what it was going to take, he supposed he’d have to.

Realizing sleep was not going to come, Eugene got up from the mattress and reestablished himself in the beanbag chair. He took a deep breath, shook his fingers to loosen them up, and paused, willing himself to become both calm and focused. Then he leaned forward, turned on the MegaMagnifique Re-perfect, and plunged himself into a nightmare.

An hour later, holding his head in his hands and panting like a wounded animal, Eugene heard someone pull the ladder down. A few moments later, his sister rose up to her waist from the opening in the floor. “Euegene,” she said. “What is going on? Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” said Eugene, not meeting her eyes.

“What’s going on?” asked Susan. “Russell and I could hear you screaming from our bedroom. You woke us both up from a dead sleep!”

“Sorry,” said Eugene. “I just got upset.”

“See, this is why we need to talk more,” said Susan. She leaned forward so her elbows rested on the floor. “I knew you were struggling with everything, but you’re just bottling it up.”

“No, no,” said Eugene. “I was upset at this boss. In the video game.” He gestured at the TV screen, which Susan could not see from her position on the ladder.

“You were screaming and cussing and stomping on the floor in the middle of the night because of your video game?” Susan sounded skeptical.

“Yeah, sorry,” said Eugene. “I got really frustrated and I forgot you guys were sleeping. Sorry.”

“Like, I’m not trying to be a mom about this,” said Susan, “but I don’t think this is really about the video game.”

“It is,” said Eugene. “It’s just The Wheelwright, this one boss, I swear it is. But I’m going to bed now.” He stood, stretched, rubbed his right temple with two fingers, looked for the ibuprofen which he’d taken to swallowing without water. He turned the TV off, but not the console.

“Did you rip your shirt?” asked Susan.

Eugene looked down and saw that the front of his shirt was indeed torn almost to his stomach. “Uh, I guess so. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have.”

“I’m not mad,” said Susan. “Even though I’m the one who bought you that shirt. But I’m not mad, I’m just concerned. If you’re having dark thoughts or…or whatever, please talk to me. Or let me know so we can find you someone else to talk to.”

“I’m fine,” said Eugene. “It’s just The Wheelwright. As soon as I beat him, I’ll be fine.” He leaned down and switched off the desk lamp on the floor.

“Good night,” said Susan. Eugene heard the creak of each rung as she descended the ladder, then the clack and thump of her folding it back into the ceiling. Rain hammered on the roof, rattled the window, and concealed by the TV’s darkened screen, The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness hunched over his half-finished wheel in the shadow of the ruined mansion, winged dogs perched on its broken chimneys.


For her second visit of the night, Susan came all the way into the attic room. She was barefoot in flannel shorts and an old Multioak High School Marching Marionettes t-shirt.

Eugene looked up from the mattress where he had thrown himself in consternation. He was still wearing the torn shirt. The only light in the room came from the TV. “What time is it?” he asked.

“It’s 4 in the morning,” said Susan.

“Sorry,” said Eugene. “I slept for a little bit, so I didn’t know.”

“It’s still dark out,” said Susan. There was less sympathy in her voice this time.

“Did I wake you?” asked Eugene. “Or were you already awake and you just heard me because you were already awake?”

“You woke us,” said Susan.

“Sorry,” said Eugene. “But this boss is so cheap. I’m serious, Sue. I’m not the kind of person to say games are unfair, and this game is supposed to be hard, I get that, I’ve played the whole series. But this guy is ridiculous, I swear. It’s not even fun. It’s stupid! Like, I’ve made almost no progress on him, and I don’t even know how many times attempts I’m at now. I don’t even have an idea of what I’m supposed to do against him. I’ve learned nothing. Almost nothing.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t play the game for a while,” said Susan. “I don’t think you’re in the right headspace for this.”

“This has nothing to do with that other stuff,” said Eugene.

“Really?” said Susan. “You screaming obscenities and stomping on the floor and tearing your clothes has nothing to do with being unfairly fired from your job, having no money, and losing everything you own in a fire? It has nothing to do with having parents who haven’t spoken to you in over four years and won’t speak to you again until you’re 30?”

                “No, I’m just mad at The Wheelwright,” said Eugene.

                “What’s The Wheelwright?”

                “This boss that I can’t beat,” said Eugene. “I told you before. The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness. He’s the reason I’m so mad. The only reason.”

                “You’re just telling yourself that,” said Susan. “I think this anger you’re expressing at this difficult boss is coming from somewhere else. I think you’re channeling that anger toward the video game because you don’t want to confront your real problems. And I don’t think that’s healthy.”

                Eugene sighed and covered his eyes with his hand. “I know my life sucks right now, Sue. I’m fine with that. Lots of people have bad things happen to them. I hated that job anyway. I didn’t like my roommates and no one died. I didn’t even get hurt. I hardly owned anything. I really don’t even miss Mom and Dad that much. I mean, I’m fine with waiting until I’m 30 to see them again. The Wheelwright is just getting to me. He’s really getting to me.”

                “Well, we can talk about this more when it isn’t 4 in the morning,” said Susan. “And I’m not gonna threaten to take your game away, even though I bought it for you, but I am going to ask that you not play it anymore tonight, OK? Because it doesn’t seem like you can play it without losing your mind.”

                “I won’t play anymore, I’m done for the night,” said Eugene.

                30 minutes later, he was screaming into his hands, both of them clamped over his mouth, his eyes rolled back in his head, his legs kicking the air between him and the TV screen, on which The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness trudged back to his stool, his partially-completed wheel dripping gore into the mud as the words “Death Has Again Found You” materialized over the nameless protagonist’s fallen, mutilated body, rain pinging off of his dented armor with impressive graphical fidelity.


                Eugene couldn’t sleep. He paced around the attic room, fell onto and rose from the mattress, turned the desk light on, turned it off. The window changed from black to gray as morning did its best to assert itself, then stayed gray as the rain kept falling. Eugene would wait until Susan and Russell left for work, then he would again throw himself at The Wheelwright. With the house to himself, he would be free to express the full range of his rage. Maybe that would help. Maybe giving himself over to his rage would expend it, burn it all up, and he would come out the other side purified, in some way, made worthy of success. Eugene lowered the ladder, crept down, and sat with his back against the wall at the top of the stairs, listening as Susan and Russell got ready for work. He would waste no time, he would spring into action the moment they left. As they ate breakfast, their conversation was occasionally loud enough for Eugene to discern that he was one of the topics, if not the only topic. What he heard was not flattering. Finally, Susan left. Because his commute was shorter, Russell left ten minutes after that.

                Eugene scrambled up the ladder, pulled it up behind him, and threw himself down in the beanbag chair. He turned the TV on, picked up the MegaMagnifique Re-perfect controller, and hovered his thumb over the power button. He could feel The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness crouched inside the console, a dormant consciousness waiting for Eugene to turn it all back on, to restore him to his arena, to his stool, to his half-finished wheel. Eugene realized he need never do that. He could keep The Wheelwright trapped in blankness forever. He could play different games, or no games at all. Would that mean The Wheelwright had won? Maybe, but The Wheelwright would never have the satisfaction of knowing that. It would be as if he had died in his sleep. Undefeated, yes, but with no moment of glory, no time to gloat. It was the most peaceful solution. Eugene would never experience the feeling of felling The Wheelwright in battle, but why should he play by The Wheelwright’s rules? Why not establish his own win condition, why not derive satisfaction from mastering The Wheelwright in a different way, by condemning him to Limbo?

                Eugene turned on the console and spent the rest of the day agony.


                “We need to talk,” said Susan. She was still in her work clothes.

                Eugene sat panting in the beanbag chair, which had burst one of its patches and was now leaking little white beads on the rug. His knuckles on both hands were raw and bloody. He was bare-chested, and another torn shirt lay in the corner of the room where it had apparently been hurled.

                “The controller broke,” said Eugene. His voice was croaky. He held up the mangled piece of plastic. Electronic components hung out of it like entrails.

                “Russell’s been home for half an hour and he says you’ve been shrieking absolute filth the entire time,” said Susan. “I heard you from the garage. Before I even got out of the car. Russell said you were punching something, and now I see blood stains on the ceiling.”

                “I can’t beat The Wheelwright without a controller,” said Eugene. “I’ll pay you back once I get some money, I promise. I’ll pay you back double if you get me a new controller.”

                “You need to get out of the house,” said Susan. “Come to dinner with Russell and me and I might get you a new controller.”

                “So your willingness to help me is conditional,” said Eugene. “That’s what you’re saying.”

                “Get dressed,” said Susan. “If none of your shirts are still intact, you can borrow one of Russell’s.”


                They ate at Grand Beede Chicken. Though he wouldn’t have minded another day of sandwiches and carrots – as long as Susan bought more ranch dressing – Eugene had to admit that the spicy chicken was a welcome change. Getting out of the house was welcome too, even though the rain continued unabated.

                “Make your case,” said Susan around bites of butter-soaked biscuit. “Why should I buy you another controller considering how you’ve disrupted our sleep, destroyed clothes I bought you, physically hurt yourself, and just overall become more tense when the whole reason I got you the console is because I wanted you to relax?”

                “Because I can’t beat The Wheelwright without a controller,” said Eugene.

                Russell, seated next to Susan across the table from Eugene, did not look at either of them. He ate his mild chicken with one hand and looked at his phone with the other. He seemed to think it was best to leave the discussion to the siblings.

                “You didn’t used to be like this,” said Susan. “When we were kids, you’d get mad at video games, but not like this. I don’t remember you exploding like this. When did you get like this?”

“I’m not like this,” said Eugene. “I’ve never gotten this mad about anything before. It’s all because of The Wheelwright. He does this to me. And I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, and I don’t know which would be worse.”

Russell frowned, but said nothing. His thumb bounced around on the screen of his phone.

“Intentional?” asked Susan. “Who do you think may or may not be intentionally upsetting you?”

“The Wheelwright,” said Eugene. “Like, today I used your computer downstairs to look up tips on how to beat him. I never do that. It feels like cheating. But I decided to make an exception for The Wheelwright since he’s clearly cheating. I watched videos of other people beating him. It was like I was reading about and watching a completely different fight. None of it matched my experience. He’s harder for me. Much harder.”

“Not everyone has the same skill level,” said Susan. “Or the same strengths. A boss that’s hard for you might be easy for someone else, and then a boss that’s easy for you might be hard for that person.”

Eugene drummed his fingers on his tray. “I know all that, Sue. I know! This isn’t that. This is something else.”

“You feel helpless,” said Susan. “You feel like you can’t handle the challenges that life throws at you. You don’t like feeling like you have to rely on me for food and shelter, especially since we’re close to the same age. That’s why you liked the video game at first, right? Because it presented you with difficult challenges that you were able to overcome on your own, with your own skill and persistence and ingenuity. But now you’ve run into a challenge that reminds you of your real life, of the challenges you can’t overcome on your own, and that – ”

“No, wrong,” said Eugene. “That’s wrong. You don’t understand this at all, Sue. Let’s say a violent criminal broke into your house and shot Russell in the head while you were sleeping, then poured acid all over your body, and you survived, but you were horribly disfigured and in constant pain. Would you be mad at that guy because he represents the cashier at the Diamond Foods who wouldn’t accept your coupon because it had a typo on it, even though that typo was Diamond Foods’ own fault?”

“That’s an awful analogy,” said Susan. “That makes no sense.”

Russell cleared his throat. “Actually, so this is interesting,” he said, pointing at his phone with a chicken bone. “So I’m just looking up how video games are made, and it says that games are all programmed by these ‘developers’ and everything that happens in them is basically just math, like probabilities, right? So it really doesn’t make sense to be angry at The Wheelman. If anything, you should be angry at the people who programmed The Wheelman. If I’m understanding this correctly, getting mad at The Wheelman is like seeing a drawing of yourself with buck teeth and a speech bubble saying ‘I’m an idiot’ and getting mad at the drawing instead of the person who drew it. It makes a lot more sense to be mad at the person who drew it.”

Eugene scoffed. “I know how it’s supposed to work, Russell.”

Supposed to work?” said Susan. “You think this game is an exception?”

“You haven’t confronted The Wheelwright as many times as I have,” said Eugene. “You haven’t confronted him at all. You have no idea what he’s like.”

“Wheelwright?” asked Russell. “Have you been saying that the whole time? I thought it was Wheelman. What’s a wheelright?”

“Someone who makes wheels,” said Susan.

“That doesn’t sound very intimidating,” said Russell. He dripped gravy from his spoon onto his phone, froze in horror, then scrambled to the bathroom.

“Eugene,” said Susan. She paused for the last biscuit bite. “Are you losing touch with reality?”

“Why?” asked Eugene. “Because I believe The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness is trying to ruin my life?”

“Yes,” said Susan. “That’s why I’m asking. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Trauma can do that to people, even very strong, self-sufficient people. I think so, anyway.”

“I’m not losing touch with reality,” said Eugene. “It’s just that reality is turning out to be different than I thought it was.”

“Well, you’re kind of scaring me,” said Susan.

“I just need more time,” said Eugene. “With more time, I can get us all out of The Sodden Dimness. With more time and a controller.”

“I’ll buy a controller,” said Susan.

Thank you,” said Eugene.

“But you can’t break this one,” said Susan. “It’s mine. I’m just letting you use it.”

“Fine, OK,” said Eugene. “I won’t throw it, I won’t stomp it.”

“But there’s one more condition,” said Susan. “You have to let me try to beat The Wheelwright. One try.”

“No,” said Eugene. “You won’t be able to beat him in one attempt. It’s pointless.”

“Then what’s the harm in letting me try?” asked Susan.

“Because that’s one more round of practice that I won’t be getting,” said Eugene. “What if that could have been the round that I figured him out?”

“Those are my conditions,” said Susan. “If you don’t like them, you can find some other way to get your hands on 60 bucks.”

“That could take days,” said Eugene. “Or more. We could be stuck in The Sodden Dimness for weeks.”

“Then accept my conditions,” said Susan.

“You won’t beat him on the first try,” said Eugene. “You won’t even get close. You’ll die in seconds. It took me over a sixty attempts to even hit him more than once.”

Susan shrugged. “That’s fine. I just want to try it for myself.”

“Seconds,” said Eugene. “You’ll be dead in seconds.”

Russell emerged from the bathroom. “Look at this,” he said. “I took a picture of the sink.” He showed his phone screen to Susan.

She said, “Yep.”

Then he turned the screen toward Eugene. There was nothing remarkable about the sink in the picture.

Eugene said “yep” in the exact same tone as Susan.

“You guys are a lot alike,” said Russell, sliding his phone into his pocket. “Like the way you said ‘yep’ at the sink picture. Even if I didn’t know you, I’d guess you were siblings based on those ‘yeps’ alone.”


Susan didn’t want to sit in the beanbag chair. “It’s losing its insides,” she said. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”

So Eugene sat in the beanbag chair and Susan sat cross-legged next to him on the floor.

“Which buttons do what?” asked Susan.

“You said you just wanted one try,” said Eugene. “You didn’t say I’d have to teach you how.”

“You’re being a bad sport,” said Susan. She brought up the menu, navigated through the options, and found the screen detailing the controls, muttering them aloud under her breath as she committed them to memory. “OK,” she said. “I think I’ve got it.” She unpaused the game. “Which way to The Wheelwright?”

“Straight ahead,” said Eugene. He watched the screen as Susan guided Forgotten Future IV’s nameless protagonist through the desolate, rain-soaked scenery toward The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness’s boss arena. “Through that gate,” said Eugene. He watched the sickeningly familiar animation of the protagonist driving his shoulder against the gate to force it open. “Just skip this cut scene,” said Eugene.

“I want to see it,” said Susan. “I want to see what he looks like.”

Eugene had only watched the cut scene the first time he encountered The Wheelwright. The one time he’d seen it, he’d had no concept of the misery in store for him, no concept of the malice that The Wheelwright felt toward him.

On screen, The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness sat hunched on his three-legged stool, which was far too small for him. A torch with a little roof over it to protect the flame from the rain was planted in the mud next to him. Its feeble light revealed the purple of his robes, made darker and heavier by the rain soaking into the fabric. The wagon wheel in his hands was partially finished, recognizable as a wheel, but not yet suitable for a wagon. He held the wheel with his right hand. With his left hand, he worked on the wheel using a tool that Eugene couldn’t name. Whatever its purpose in the wheel-making profession, Eugene had mostly seen it used for killing. The Wheelwright had long, stringy, white hair, and the remnants of a nose that looked to have been pretty substantial before something happened to its front half. His eyes were circular and a sickly pink around the edges. His mouth hung open, revealing gums devoid of teeth and a tongue that never stopped searching for them. His legs were bare and hairless from his shins to his ankles, and he wore shoes that would have been unremarkable had they not been padlocked to his feet. He hummed a sinister tune as he worked on the wheel, pausing to shake his head and sniff the tool in his left hand. Then he looked toward the protagonist with what was almost a smile. The rain fell on The Wheelwright, his wheel, and the mud around his feet with remarkable graphical fidelity.

“Did you see that?” asked Eugene. “Did you see the expression on his face?”

“Yes,” said Susan. “The graphics are amazing.”

“I’m not joking,” said Eugene.

“Are you trembling?” asked Susan.

“Yes!” said Eugene. “He did not look like that the first time I saw him! He did not make that face!”

“You’re misremembering,” said Susan. “I guarantee it.” The cut scene ended and the camera returned to the protagonist. The Wheelwright was a silhouette in the distance, working on a wheel. Beyond him loomed the ruined mansion, winged dogs perched on its broken chimneys. “He doesn’t notice me yet,” said Susan. “Do I just run toward him?”

“Yes,” said Eugene. “But do whatever you want. This is your one shot.”

Susan practiced a few light attacks, practiced a few heavy attacks, and practiced one dodge-roll. “Here I go!” She sent the protagonist in The Wheelwright’s direction at a dead sprint.

 And then she tore into The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness like a ferocious animal, slashing and hacking, great founts of lovingly-rendered boss blood spraying in all directions, soaking his robes, running down the protagonist’s armor, reddening the mud.

Eugene felt his guts contort like a snake mating ball. “This is not right,” he said. “This is not right.”

“You just have to dodge those big overhead swings,” said Susan. “Like this.” She easily rolled aside as The Wheelwright chopped at her with his partially-finished wheel, missed, and got it stuck in the mud. “Then while he’s trying to unstick it, look,” said Susan. “Three or four hits.”

“He has never done that attack for me,” said Eugene. “Not once.”

“Then for the spin attack, you just roll under it,” said Susan. “Then, look, he gets dizzy and throws up, and that’s, like, three more hits. And if you time it right, he chokes on the vomit, and that’s another two free hits.”

“He has never done that for me!” said Eugene.

“Well, you have to roll under it,” said Susan.

“He hasn’t done a single area-of-effect attack for you,” said Eugene. “Not one!”

“Is that what he’s doing now?” asked Susan. “Is he charging up?”

“I’ve never seen this before,” said Eugene.

On screen, The Wheelwright picked up his torch, set his partially-finished wheel ablaze, and tossed it at the protagonist in a slow arc. Susan swatted at the firey wheel with her sword, launching it right back at The Wheelwright. It hit him in the chest, knocking him off his feet and sending him sliding in the mud. He ended up trapped beneath the flaming wheel in a puddle, flailing his limbs and hollering as the last of his health bar ticked away.

“Now what?” asked Susan. “Did I beat him?”

“Not yet,” said Eugene. “You have to deliver the killing blow.”

“Oh, OK,” said Susan. She guided the protagonist over to The Wheelwright, who continued to struggle beneath the flaming wheel, which had somehow not been extinguished by the downpour. The puddle in which The Wheelwright lay had turned crimson from the many wounds Susan had inflicted upon him. “Here,” said Susan, handing Eugene the controller. “You do it.”

Eugene took the controller, looked at it in his hands. Then he looked at the face of the fallen Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness. It was gashed, split, spent, stringy hair plastered to the cheeks by both rain and blood. The tongue hung from the corner of The Wheelwright’s mouth, too exhausted to continue its futile tooth-search. But there was something else in that face. Eugene had no faith that Susan could see it. She wanted to believe that she’d won, that she’d been right. But Eugene knew the truth, and so did The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness.

Eugene set the controller on the floor in front of him, leaned forward, grabbed hold of the MegaMagnique Re-perfect’s power cord, and yanked the plug from the wall outlet. The TV screen turned black but for a small text box reading “no signal.”

“Why did you do that?” asked Susan. Her voice was sorrowful.

“It doesn’t matter what I say,” said Eugene. “You’ll interpret it the same. You think you know what’s going on because the puzzle fits together. You’ll convince yourself I turned it off without finishing The Wheelwright because you did most of the work for me, like I don’t want to feel like I needed your help with The Wheelwright just like I needed your help after I lost my job and my house burned down. You think it’s a pride thing and you’ll always think that. Even after I say this, you’ll just think I’m wrong, that I don’t see how much sense your whole theory makes. You’ll think that me not admitting you’re right is just another symptom of my problem: that I don’t want to need you to rescue me. But you’ve only fought The Wheelwright once. You don’t know him like I do. You don’t understand him, so you’ll never be able to understand what’s going on with me. You think your interpretation accounts for everything, but as long as you fail to properly account for The Wheelwright, you’ll never be anywhere close to the truth.”

Susan looked miserable, helpless. Eugene let her hug him. “Don’t break the controller,” she said. “I won’t buy another one.” She stood and walked over to the ladder. As she turned to climb down from the attic room, she said, “You need to start looking for jobs tomorrow.”

After she had folded the ladder back into the ceiling behind her, Eugene plugged the MegaMagnifique Re-perfect back in, picked up the controller, and turned the console back on. He settled back in the beanbag chair, expelling more of its mysterious filling from its blown-out patches. He selected “continue” from Forgotten Future IV’s start menu and waited through the loading screen, his body already reacting. The shape of his thoughts began to warp, a pre-ache pressure built behind his eyes, a twitchiness not conducive to precision button-pushing slithered into his extremities, a glowing coal dropped hissing into his stomach acid, hot fumes radiating outward, acidic sweat beading on the bridge of his nose, which itched.

Rain, rain, always rain in The Sodden Dimness, outside the attic room window and inside Forgotten Future IV and everywhere.

Through the gate. In the distance, The Degenerate Wheelwright of The Sodden Dimness crouched on his stool and labored over his wheel, which was not yet finished. Beyond him loomed the black bulk of a ruined mansion, winged dogs perched on the broken chimneys.

As Eugene guided the protagonist forward, The Wheelwright rose from his stool and turned to wait. This was new. The Wheelwright had never done this before. Eugene approached warily, suspecting a trick, a trap. As the protagonist drew closer and The Wheelwright’s face became visible, Eugene saw that those round, sickly eyes were not aimed down at the nameless warrior creeping toward him clad in armor and sword in hand. The Wheelwright instead looked outward, beyond the confines of the TV screen, peering through The Sodden Dimness for a glimpse of the one he truly hated, the one whose demise he truly sought.

“You can’t kill me,” said Eugene. He almost screamed it to underscore his defiance, but did not want to provoke another scolding from his sister. He said it again in a forceful whisper. “You can’t kill me.” But he could already feel himself losing control. 

Discussion Questions

  • Which decade of your life would your parents have been most pleased to miss out on entirely?

  • List five elements of your average temper tantrum.

  • What sort of voluntary challenges do you present yourself with to make up for the fact that you have succumbed, and will continue to succumb, to most of life’s real challenges?

  • Have you had twist-ties in your kitchen since you moved out of your parents’ house? Lord knows I haven’t.

  • How much would your life theoretically improve if you were to discover the True Source of your anger?

  • Why are video games SUCH inveterate cheaters?