The first thing Kim plucked from the overcrowded cardboard box was an action figure of a petite girl with a sly grin forever playing across her lips. In each of the girl’s tiny plastic hands was a highly-detailed miniature firearm. Kim found herself drawn to the face, where she noticed that the eyes – which seemed to be hand-painted a dark chestnut with milk-white highlights around the irises – possessed a vaguely oriental form despite seeming round and baby-doll-like. They reminded her of painted china saucers. The more she contemplated the figure’s features, the more she thought she recognized herself in them. The girl’s skin, too, resembled her own – a predominantly eggshell color that her mother always said made her look like a porcelain doll. Closer examination showed her that great care must have been taken in the painting of the figure. Atop the ivory base coat was intermixed a host of pinkish hues and tones of tan that resulted in a blend that mimicked almost precisely the imperfect spectrum characteristic of human flesh. The most remarkable thing about the figure, however, was not the craftsmanship but how well it had withstood years of wear. If her father had owned these toys since his youth, he must have taken loving care of them for at least a couple of decades. Assuming that was the case, this action figure was exactly what Kim had been searching for.
That morning, Kim had crept into the attic while her mother was away running errands. She had slumped backward, the palms of her hands against her lower back, letting her weight push the attic door shut behind her with a prolonged screech and a metallic click. The sun struggled to shine through a single high window, stained a urine-gold tint by a film of grime. In the rays of light, she watched a billion dust motes dance a fugue across the room. The attic space was smaller than any other part of the house besides perhaps the closets or bathrooms.
It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for, though getting to it was sure to be a pain. Just a few feet in front of her, sitting atop a rickety wooden chair, was the container she needed. Of course, a plethora of other cardboard boxes labeled with Sharpie marker in a large hand were stacked haphazardly about the room, leaving hardly any of the grungy wooden floor visible.
The one she needed, however, wasn’t labeled; why would it be? Her mom was the one who put it there, and it’s not like this particular box was likely to be mistaken for any of the others containing Christmas ornaments, Halloween decorations, or the winter comforters. No, this one held a special seat on top of that stupid chair from the living room with the wonky leg and no cushion that left Kim’s ass aching if she sat in it too long. Now there was a plush recliner in its place along the wall downstairs. Not being labeled was the only distinction this box needed.
Kim leaned forward, balancing herself on a plastic tub marked “X-MAS LIGHTS,” and gingerly fished the cardboard container from its perch. With the object of her search in hand, she slunk out through the door, down the stairs, and across the hall to her room, where she sat the box on her bed and carefully opened its interlaced flaps. This one, unlike the others, had not been duct-taped shut, and for that reason she feared some monstrously sized spider might have found a home inside it during its stay in the attic. Kim had once read that brown recluses preferred to live among cardboard.
Still, there was a different sort of fear associated with the opening of this box. Kim had been told by her mother that it contained some of her dad’s old things, so there was no telling what it might hold. She imagined a knotted ball of ugly patterned ties, an album of yellowed family photographs, and an engraved pen that had long since been drained of its ink. What she found instead was a bunch of toys. She hadn’t realized that when her mother said the box was full of her father’s “old things” she meant relics from his childhood.
Kim set the figure of the girl with guns gently beside her on the bed. There were two more painted figures in the box, each mangled into whatever pose best allowed them to be crammed in among the remainder of its contents. With the careful resetting of a few ratchet joints, Kim laid flat a broad-shouldered behemoth of a man with a toothy grin, and a determined-looking boy with eyes like two robin’s eggs or perhaps the type of ocean water Kim had only seen in Caribbean cruise commercials. The former was carrying a bladed weapon of unrealistic proportions.
The next item in the box was some sort of stuffed monster with large eyes and puffy cheeks that sort of resembled a dragon crossed with a kitten. Whatever it was, Kim thought it was adorable, and it didn’t show any signs of wear. She was starting to understand that her father must have been a collector of these types of items who took care of his treasures. With a few sideways tilts of the head, a great deal of squinting, and some prodding, Kim tried her best to judge whether her new stuffed friend looked more like a Gerald or a Bartholomew but to no avail.
Below the plush toy was an ebony jacket, a replica of the one worn by the female figure, with silver dragon heads emblazoned on each shoulder and an intricate crest displayed on the back. Beneath that was a stack of plastic cases – DVDs perhaps. Kim inspected them one by one but mostly admired the artwork on the front and back of each case because the words were in kanji, and Kim’s knowledge of her father’s native tongue was very poor. The pictures showed a cast of diverse characters, some of which Kim recognized as the action figures scattered on her bed, travelling through fantastical lands and fighting massive beasts. These are video games, Kim thought, but the visuals look well defined. Surely enough, the copyrights on the backs of the cases were all from within the last decade. These things aren’t very old at all. My old man must have been a geek his entire life, even while he was with my mom.
That evening after dinner, Kim reported to her mom about the contents of the box. Her mother wasn’t concerned with the details but asked if everything was in good condition and whether Kim thought it would fetch enough at an online auction to pay for at least some portion of the car her mother had been urging her to buy. Kim simply replied that she would have to do some research first and see what the items were worth. The conversation turned toward Kim’s search for a decently paying job, and Kim spent the rest of the night venting her concerns that nobody wanted to employ her despite her solid background in both mathematics and engineering. Then, Kim went to bed embracing the stuffed toy she found that day among her father’s things. Lying quietly before sleep gave her ample time to consider the perfect name for the creature, and at last she settled on Midori. That was one of the few Japanese words she knew; it was the word for green, and it sounded like a fine name to her. Certainly, it wasn’t as distinguished-sounding as Bartholomew, but at least it would honor her father’s East Asian ancestry. At length, Kim’s lingering thoughts about her father and his odd collection of toys gave way to restful sleep.
That week, Kim searched, with some difficulty due to her scant Japanese, for some idea of what her father’s old hobby items might be worth and found that the series of video games was a franchise much-beloved by fans of the genre and that collectors’ items could be worth hundreds of dollars. Moreover, it seemed as if everything the box contained might be first or limited edition based on various message boards Kim perused about how to tell the items’ value. She decided that the jacket looked good on her and began wearing it when she went out with friends.
When asked if her online searching had produced any results, Kim told her mother that she was still working on it. She wasn’t proud of her dishonesty, but she needed more time with these things, and how could her mother be so quick to sell off the only remnants of her father that Kim had had in years? The discussion turned sour, and before long the topic of her dad’s things became a volatile subject for Kim and her mother. This was worsened when Kim was caught taking money from her savings account to purchase a gaming console with which to play her father’s old video games. She couldn’t help it; she felt like if she knew what her father liked then she would know the man himself, and it was clear to her that he liked these games a great deal.
A few months went by as Kim struggled to acclimate her thumbs to using a controller and her eyes to balance viewing cinematics with reading English subtitles. As the weeks rolled past, she still hadn’t found a job or purchased a car, but she had developed a deep connection with the characters she’d pulled out of that cardboard box. The man with the large blade was her favorite; he had a threatening exterior but a kind heart. Kim couldn’t stop herself from crying when he, having come to care for the female character as something of a daughter, died protecting her midway through the second installment. Each figure was placed in an action stance and designated a place for display on Kim’s dresser. Midori, it turned out, was a kindly monster that could be befriended, and Kim could name him whatever she wanted. She decided to stick with Midori in the game as in real life.
Kim grew distant from her mother. She found that they no longer liked to talk about the same things as much. Some weeks her mom would refrain from asking about Kim’s employment and Kim would avoid mentioning her father’s belongings entirely. These were the good weeks.
Now that she had grown close to them, Kim knew she would never be able to part with these things. To her, the games represented a connection to her father as a person, one that Kim was never given the chance to form directly. Once, when she absent-mindedly left her new jacket at a movie theater, the ensuing night became an absolute emotional hell. She didn’t sleep, instead lying awake in a disheveled heap as she castigated herself for being so damned stupid – so careless – as to leave it behind. The following morning, she skipped her morning classes to drive to the theater before it opened, all the while dreading the thought that someone had taken the jacket. When she arrived, she was overjoyed to discover it in the theater’s lost-and-found, but the thought that she could have so easily misplaced such a precious possession left her without an appetite for the remainder of the day.
Deep down, though, she could tell that her attachment to these objects was unfounded. She was nearly finished with the final game in the trilogy, and still she didn’t feel like she knew anything about her dad. She promised herself that as soon as she finished the last one she would sell it all and buy a car. All except maybe the jacket, which really did look badass on her, especially during those days when her hair would part just the right way and she thought the resemblance between her and the girl with guns became undeniable.
When, with great effort, Kim finally overcame the game’s final boss, however, and had wiped the tears from her eyes after the last scene, she simply couldn’t bring herself to put the controller down. She wanted every second of her connection with her father to last, so she watched through teary eyes as the credits began to roll, something she hadn’t bothered to do with either of the preceding titles. To her surprise, the first name to appear was her father’s. Lead director.
She couldn’t believe it, but there it was right in front of her. A quick internet search confirmed it: her father was the man responsible for the creation of these games. She saw pictures of him at grand conventions posing alongside people in costume. She saw him answering interviewers with a pearly grin, eyes wrinkled shut and head nodding profusely, as he talked about the characters of the games as if they were his children. How had she not known? To the virtual gaming world, her father was practically Steven Spielberg, but to anyone else Kim supposed he was little more than a man who made toys. Still, it all made sense now. Kim had finally found her father. The games weren’t just his hobby; they were his creations, his passion, his dreams. Then, as the credits came to a close, just before the logos and after the “Special Thanks,” Kim read the words, “Dedicated to my darling daughter, Kim.”
Why didn’t she tell me? With rosy, puffy eyes that Kim supposed made her look indistinguishable from Midori, she confronted her mother once more and told her that no car was worth selling her dad’s life’s work. Kim’s mother responded with the accusation that she sounded just like her father, putting his games and his make-believe before the important things in life. Then, to Kim’s surprise, her mother displayed a relenting smile full of parental affection, placed a hand on Kim’s cheek, and told her that everything was alright. After all, her father was always so content with his priorities in life, so fulfilled, as if he knew everything would work out in the end. Despite all her careful planning, Kim’s mother had never achieved that sense of security except when she was with him. If he had made ends meet, why couldn’t Kim?
Greggory Sullivan won Best Short Story for this issue. He is an English major and an honors student. This is the first story he’s ever finished, and it’s his first publication.