My eyes are blurry, and I can’t really tell where my phone screen ends and the darkness begins. The glow from the bed below me has stopped — my brother must have gone to bed. From my perch up on the top bunk, I glance over at the radio clock — a little past midnight — playing a pop song I’d rather forget. Abruptly, the singer’s voice gives way to silence as the sleep timer kicks in.
I really ought to go to sleep. When the sun rises, it’ll be my dad’s birthday, and my family is going to wake up early to make him breakfast. He’ll spend most of the day alone, separated by a wall and a closed door. In the afternoon, he’ll head to work at an overflowing hospital to fight a raging pandemic, and when he returns, he will head back to isolation, a Hail Mary by my family to protect a different brother, a vulnerable cancer survivor who checks his temperature three times a day and winces at every one of his siblings’ coughing fits.
But luckily for me, that’s not until tomorrow. So I click out of Twitter and its unending coronavirus-related hashtags and head for my home screen. For a moment or two, my thumb instinctually hovers over a small icon of a bird flying toward the sun. “Tiny Wings.”
I give in. With a tap, a swirl of lavender and teal light warmly hugs my pillow. A bird lies sleeping in its nest atop a two-dimensional hill, dreaming of flying through the clouds that drift gently overhead. In the background, stars twinkle and spin, forming constellations in the night sky. A soft wind rolls in from the west, carrying specks of light to some faraway location.
I click on the play button. For a second, a golden glow washes over the screen. Suddenly, I’m not in my bed anymore. A leather recliner, a well-worn rug and a rising sun through the windows — I’m at my grandparents’ home. Or, at least, their old one, the one with the pool and the big backyard, before they moved to a small townhouse on this side of town to be closer to the family.
My grandparents aren’t awake yet, so I climb a chair to grasp the iPod Touch charging way up on the wine cabinet. Man, am I small — I still fit curled up in that creased leather recliner, eyes shielded from the blinding light that so eagerly bathes the room. The glare makes it hard to see the screen, but I could find the app blindfolded at this point. My grubby little fingers are still getting the hang of it, but slowly, smoothly, the little bird rises and falls and rises a little higher this time, grazing the clouds and kissing the sky.
My hand slips, and with a thud, the bird plummets awkwardly down to Earth. Unable to outrun the setting sun, the inevitable night catches up to us, and my bird’s doomed flight comes to an end. No problem, I think to myself. I can just start another game.
Thousands of games later, I find myself in the passenger seat of a car going southbound on I-95 with my feet on the dashboard and my phone in my hands. The sky is a bleak gray, and the road in front of us isn’t much better — the highway is a complete standstill. The car, filled with all my possessions from my first year at Duke, is blaring the album “Melodrama” from its speakers, and from behind the wheel, my older brother is complaining about my music taste. I’m not really listening to him, though; my attention is entirely directed on the screen in front of me. My bird, now nicknamed “Isabella” after my little sister, is aiming to complete the final challenge of the game.
The challenge is a tough one: fly through the entire fourth island of the game without making a single mistake. The fourth island is relentless in its punishing hills, making a perfect flight through the stage nearly impossible. But, unbelievably, I almost have it! A few more seconds and I’ll — the car lurches forward. Jarred, I look up to see a highway finally moving. I look back down to see that my bird is doing the exact opposite, hardly making any progress as it struggles against a vicious uphill.
It would be awhile before I finally beat the challenge. Now, laying in the dark, guiding my bird through each up and down, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. Has the game really given me everything it has? If so, why do I keep coming back to the game, even now? I mindlessly press on the screen, my thoughts elsewhere, until finally night comes for my little bird. With a sigh, I turn off my phone. Time for me to go to sleep too.
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