The Games
Author:Ted Kosmatka

The Games - By Ted Kosmatka


The boy lay motionless in the tube as the machine moved all around him. He held his breath and concentrated on the pinging, trying to clear his head like the white coats told him.

“Look into the screen, Evan,” a voice said from a speaker near his ear.

Evan blinked against the sudden burst of white static and turned his head away.

They’d said this was going to be the last test, but they’d said that once before. They had lots of ways to test you here.

“What are you looking for, exactly?” Evan’s mother asked from her spot near the door. She was backed against the wall, holding her purse tightly to her abdomen as if afraid to move farther into the room.

“Gross abnormalities,” the man at the computer said. He didn’t look up from his terminal as the machine continued its slow spin.

Evan glanced back at his mother. They think I’m gross.

There were four men in white coats in the room now, though only one was what his mother called a real doctor. The two younger men were testers from the special school, and the oldest man wore a dark tie under his white coat and probably wasn’t any kind of doctor at all. That one scared Evan most of all.

The machine made a new noise, a clicking sound that Evan felt along the sides of his head. “What’s it doing?” Evan asked, trying to sit up in the cramped tunnel.

The man with the tie stepped away from the computer and gently guided the boy onto his back again. “You must remain still. This is a big camera, and it’s taking pictures of the inside of your head.”

“I don’t see a flash,” Evan said.

“It uses magnets, not light.”

“Can it tell what I’m thinking?”

“No,” the man said.

But they’d said that before, too. Evan knew better; all these tests were to see what he was thinking. His mother told him so. Because of what he did to the game. Because of what happened to Mr. Jacobs.

Evan concentrated on being still. He didn’t trust the man, didn’t like the way his eyes tightened when he looked at the computer screen. What did he see? How gross am I? Evan closed his eyes.

“Mrs. Chandler—”

“Miss,” she interrupted.

“Oh, sorry,” the man at the computer said. He was the real doctor, and new to Evan’s case. “Were there any complications with your pregnancy when you were carrying Evan?”


“Any family history of birth defects or deformity?”

“Nothing like that, no.”

“Mental illness, learning disabilities?”

“Some of that, yeah.”


“My brother.”

“What was his diagnosis?”

“I don’t know; he died when I was young. Why are you asking me all this? Did you find something?”

The man’s eyes lifted from the terminal to her face, then dropped again. It was the man with the tie who spoke: “Sub-cranial morphology can vary widely between normal individuals. There’s nothing to worry about.”

The machine clicked again. “You need to calm down, Evan,” the man at the computer said into the microphone. “Your activity is all over the place, and we need a baseline. You have to relax.”

“I’m trying,” Evan said.

“Think of something enjoyable.”

So Evan thought of his mother. He thought of times between his mother’s boyfriends, when he didn’t have to share her. He thought of times before the problems at school, before the new teacher Mr. Jacobs found out that he couldn’t count numbers right. Before Mr. Jacobs found out he couldn’t read.

“Good. Now look into the screen, Evan,” the man said.

Evan opened his eyes, and the static was gone, replaced by a blank screen. Then, on that screen, a number flashed.

“What do you see?” the man asked.

“I see a four,” Evan said.

“Good. What color is the number?”

“It’s white.”


More numbers flashed on the screen. Five, three, six, nine. Then letters appeared.

“What do you see now?” the man asked.

“Numbers and letters.”

“What colors are they?”

“They’re all white.”

“All of them?”

“Yes,” Evan said.

The screen faded to black. “You did good, Evan,” the man said. “Now we’re going to try something different.”

The black screen flashed and was suddenly full of spinning gears. The gears were of various sizes and colors, and they spread across the screen in an unbroken chain, each one touching one or two others and all of them moving in unison. The smallest gears moved quickest; the larger ones seemed barely to move at all.

“What do you see?” the man asked.

“I see gears.”

“What are they doing?”

“They’re turning.”

“Good, Evan.”

The gears stopped.

“If the top gear was turning toward the left,” the man at the computer said, “which direction would the bottom gear be turning?”

“Up,” Evan said immediately.

“Which is that, clockwise or counterclockwise?”

“Up,” Evan repeated.

Evan’s mother spoke: “He doesn’t know about clocks, or left or right. I tried to teach him—I mean, we all tried to teach him.…” Her voice trailed off.

The man stepped from his computer and bent to look into the tube at the boy. “If this gear was moving like this,” he said, pointing and turning a circle with his finger, “then which direction would this gear way over here move?”

“Up,” Evan said, pointing along the gear’s outside edge, indicating a clockwise rotation.

The man smiled. “So it would.”

The next series of images were more complex, but Evan’s answers were just as immediate and just as correct. He didn’t have to think about it.

“Let’s try something different now,” the man finally said.

It started easy enough. Strange new shapes appeared on the screen. They weren’t gears, exactly, but they had spikes and grooves and jutting angles that let them fit together the way gears do. The man bent near the tube again and showed him how by manipulating a control ball near his hand, Evan could change the images on the screen. He could move them.

“These are three-dimensional puzzles, Evan,” the man said. “Your teachers tell us that you are very good at puzzles. Is that true?”

“I’m pretty good,” Evan said, but he’d never seen puzzles like this before.

He experimented, moving one image toward another, turning it so their grooves lined up. The images merged, and a chime sounded.

“Good job, Evan,” the man said, and walked back to his computer. “Now we’ll try some harder ones.”

New, complex shapes appeared on the screen. Evan had to rotate each one completely to get a good look, because all the sides were different. He moved them together. He found where they fit. The machine chimed.

“Good, Evan.”

The solutions came easily. The complexity of the spatial configurations pulled him in, focused him to a fine point of concentration. Something was happening in his head; he felt it, as if some hidden green part of him was warming in the sunshine. The world around him retreated, became remote, irrelevant.

He no longer noticed the tube, or the computer, or the room with its four white walls and four white coats. There were only the puzzles, one after another, in a blur of shapes he manipulated with the controls at his fingertips.

He worked puzzle after puzzle, listening for the chime when he got them right.

Then the screen was empty, jarringly empty, all at once. It took him a moment to come back to himself enough to speak.

“More,” he said.

“There are no more, Evan,” the man said. “You’ve solved them all.”

Evan glanced out of the tube, but the white coats weren’t looking at him. They stared at their computer terminal.

The man with a tie was the first to look up from the glowing screen. He wore an expression Evan had never seen pointed at him before. Evan’s stomach turned to ice.

HOSPITALS ALWAYS stank. There was something strange and sickly about the air in the building, and the breeze coming through the screen window hardly improved it. Evan could smell the garbage that lay heaped in the alley several floors below. Still, he moved closer to the window, pretending interest in the view because looking out the window was easier than looking at his mother. She sat at the big, glossy table. She was crying, though she did it silently—one of the tricks she’d picked up during her time with her last boyfriend.

They’d been in this room for a while now, waiting.

When the door finally opened, Evan flinched. Three men walked in. He’d never seen any of them before, but their coats were dark, and all of them wore ties. It was bad. Men with ties always meant something bad. Evan’s mother sat up quickly and wiped the corners of her eyes with a napkin she kept in her purse.

The men smiled at Evan and shook his mother’s hand in turns, introducing themselves. The one who called himself Walden got right to the point. “Evan’s tests were abnormal,” he said.

He was a big man with a face like a square block, and he wore little wire glasses perched across his nose. Evan hadn’t seen anyone with glasses like that in a long time; he tried not to stare.

“Where’s the doctor?” Evan’s mother asked.

“Evan’s case has been transferred to me.”

“But they told me Dr. Martin was going to be Evan’s doctor. I thought that’s why they brought him in.”

“Dr. Martin himself felt that Evan’s case required special attention that he could not provide.”

“But I thought he was supposed to be a specialist.”

“Oh, I assure you that he is. But we all feel Evan’s case requires … a more systematized process of inquiry.”

Evan’s mother stared at the man. “The teacher died, didn’t he?”

“Tim Jacobs? No, he’ll survive.”

“Then I want to leave.”

“Miss Chandler, we feel—”

“Right now, with my son, I want to leave.”

“It’s not as simple as that anymore.” He pulled out a chair but didn’t sit. Instead, he stepped his foot on the seat and leaned an arm casually across his extended knee. He towered over the sitting woman. “The man didn’t die, but he’s still having some motor coordination problems. We’re not sure how your son managed to access the game’s protocols the way he did. Those VR tutorials are hardwired and aren’t meant to be altered from the inside.”

“There must have been a glitch.”

“There was no glitch. Your son did something. He changed something. A man almost died because of that.”

“It was an accident.”

“Was it?”

“Yes.” His mother’s voice was soft.

“I hear that teacher was hard on Evan. I hear he mocked him in front of other students.”

His mother was silent.

“Miss Chandler, we’re very concerned about Evan.” The man who called himself Walden finally sank into the chair he’d been using as a footrest, and now his two silent companions pulled out chairs and sat. Walden laced his hands together in front of him on the table. “He’s a special child with special needs.”

He waited for Evan’s mother to respond, and when she didn’t, he continued. “We’ve tested many children here at these facilities in the last seven years. Many children. And we’ve never come across anyone with your son’s particular mixture of gifts and disabilities.”

“Gifts?” His mother’s voice was harsh. “You call what happened a gift?”

“It could be. We need time to do more tests. Your son appears to have a very unusual form of synesthesia in addition to several other neurological abnormalities.”


“An abnormal cross-activation between brain regions. Often caused by structural malformations in the fusiform gyrus, but to be honest, in Evan’s case, we’re not sure. Some individuals conflate colors with shapes, or experience smells with certain sounds. But Evan’s situation is more complex than that. His perception of numbers is somehow involved.”

“But he doesn’t understand numbers.”

“He tested off the scale for numbers utility.”

“He knows what numbers look like, and he can tell you the name of a number if you write it, but numbers don’t mean anything to him.”

“On some level, they do.”

“He can’t even tell you when one number is bigger than another. They’re just words to him.”

“Those spatial puzzles he solved were more than just puzzles. Some of them were also tricks. Some of them would have required complex calculus to solve correctly.”

“Calculus? He can’t count to twenty.”

“Something in him can. Individuals with one form of synesthesia are often found to have another. We’re not sure how Evan does what he does. And in that VR game, we’re not even sure what it is that he did, let alone how. Evan needs special attention. He’s going to need a special school.”

“He’s already in a special school,” she said, but her voice was resigned.

“Yes, I’ve looked over his records. Miss Chandler, I have the authority to alter his public tracking. There is no reason why your boy should end up mopping floors somewhere.”

“You can change his track? You can do that?”

The man nodded. “I have the authority.”

“But why, after what happened?”

“Because we’ve never seen another boy like him. We’re going to have to make up a new track. The Evan Chandler track. And to be honest, we’re not really sure where it leads just yet.”

EVAN’S MOTHER was hysterical the day they came for him. The sedatives quieted her as soft-voiced men lowered her to the seedy couch. The boy’s things were packed into a crate, and her drug-fuzzied mind found preoccupation in that for a moment.

Ten years old, and everything he owned fit into a single white box. It didn’t seem possible, but there it was, and two men in dark suits carried the box away between them.

She saw the faces of her neighbors in the open doorway, and she knew they assumed this was an arrest, or just another eviction. It was common. Their feral eyes shuffled through her possessions—the worn couch, her two plastic chairs, the small wooden coffee table with its wobbly leg—scouting for something to grab once the authorities were gone and her things were pushed out into the street.

“I don’t see why he has to leave,” she said. It was a plea.

“It is better for the boy this way,” one of them, a blond woman, said. “We can better nurture his talents if we control the environment. You’ll be able to visit as often as you’d like.”

Evan’s mother wiped the tears from her eyes and struggled unsteadily to her feet. There was no fighting it. A part of her had known that for a while now, since before what happened to Mr. Jacobs, even. Evan was different. It was always going to come to this; the world would take him, one way or the other.

“Can I see it?” she asked.

It was an hour’s drive across the city. In the van, Evan’s mother rocked him until the vehicle finally pulled to rest before a building surrounded by playgrounds. The group filed out. Children shouted and played in the distance while one boy stood gazing up at a flagpole. Evan’s mother stared. That will be Evan, she knew. Strange even here. Odd among the odd.

She bent and kissed her son. “My special boy,” she said, and squeezed him until a female agent tugged at the child’s hand. Evan looked back and waved goodbye.

“I’ll visit you soon, Evan,” his mother called.

She watched her son disappear into the building and then broke down in sobs. She never saw him again.