I sleep in on Saturday because I’ve got no plans beyond gaming with Seth later tonight after he finishes his shift at the sock store. I shuffle downstairs in my joggers and an old T-shirt, and after what I’ll generously call brunch, sink into the living room couch, and fire up my PS4 to make some progress in this one-player game where you battle massive robot dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic Earth.
I don’t know how many hours into this session I am when my dad’s suddenly standing behind me like he’s learned to apparate.
“Jason, can you pause your game for a second?” he asks.
“I’m almost at a checkpoint,” I say.
“Jason . . .” he starts and then falters. He tries again. “Jason, I have something important to tell you.”
“Hold on.” I know I’m being an ass, but I’m pretty sure this is probably going to be about college or something and I don’t really want to talk about that anymore. Plus, I’m in the zone fighting this mech-T-rex that’s already killed me, like, a million times.
“Jay,” he says.
I slide down a hill and draw my bow and arrow, triggering the slow-motion mode. I release two arrows in quick succession. Both hit the beast’s energy core, drawing heavy damage and narrowing its HP counter to a sliver.
“YES!” I say.
“Your Tito Maning called.” He pauses. “Jun is dead.”
My fingers slow, but I keep playing. I’m not sure I heard him right. “Wait—what?”
Dad clears his throat. “Your cousin Jun. He’s dead.”
I freeze, gripping the controller like a ledge. I suddenly feel like I’m going to be sick. On the screen, the mechanical creature mauls my avatar. My life drains to zero. The camera pans upward, mimicking the soul’s skyward path.
The words finally land, but they don’t feel real. I was just thinking about my cousin last night. . . .
“That’s impossible,” I say.
I sit up and shift so I’m facing Dad. He’s still wearing his nurse’s scrubs, and his salt-and-pepper hair is disheveled like he’s been running his fingers through it. Behind his glasses, his eyes are bloodshot. I glance at the time again. Mom’s at the hospital, and he should be, too.
“I thought you’d want to know,” he adds.
“When?” I ask, my chest tightening.
I’m quiet for a long time. “What happened? I mean, how did he . . .”
I can’t say the word.
He sighs. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What?” I ask. “Why not?”
“He’s gone. That’s it.”
“He was seventeen,” I say. “Seventeen-year-olds don’t randomly . . .”
He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Sometimes they do.”
“So it was random? Like a car accident or something?”
Dad puts his glasses back on but avoids looking at me. He says nothing for a few beats, and then quietly, “What would it change if you knew?”
I don’t answer because I can’t. Doesn’t the truth itself matter?
I should be crying or throwing my controller down in anguish—but I don’t do any of this. Instead, there’s only a mild confusion, a muddy feeling of unreality that thickens when I consider the distance that had developed between Jun and me. How do you mourn someone you already let slip away? Are you even allowed to?
Since I don’t know, I mirror the disturbing calm of my father, as I always do. We share the space, the silence. But on the inside, I’m a plane with failing engines.
“He’s gone,” Dad repeats after some time. “That’s it.” And then a nervous laugh escapes his lips.
I try to process the information. Jun is dead—his life has ended. And here I am, sitting in my living room on the other side of the world, a can of Coke on the coffee table, playing a video game on an enormous, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, college on the docket.
Dad wanders away.
“Wait,” I call after him, “can we get there in time for the funeral?”
He stops. Over his shoulder: “There won’t be one.”
Confusion hits me like a wall. “Why not?”
“Your Tito Maning doesn’t want to have one. The way he died . . . it wasn’t . . . it’s not our concern.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
But he’s already gone, probably retreating upstairs.
Left alone, my confusion turns to anger, which starts to grow with nowhere to go like the roots of a plant in too small a pot. I finally drop the controller and bury my face in my hands. I take a few shaky, deep breaths. But my heart continues to race. My jaw stays clenched. My stomach remains knotted.
I think of all the letters we wrote each other over the years. What did his last one say? I don’t even remember.
But this I’ll never forget: I left it unanswered.