FICTION: Pokemon Hunting in Umbria by Sean Gilbert

‘Sometimes’. Recently, everybody was using the word ‘sometimes’ all the time. It was like they were speaking in code, or they were trying to teach him to speak in code, or some new language completely. They even used a different voice, slow, patient, like you use with a baby or pet. It was actually sort of frustrating: why couldn’t they say what they meant? His mother never used to be like this, she is what you call frank. Even if you ask her questions that most adults get embarrassed by, she’ll usually answer honestly. Now, everything was strange. She kept calling things ‘brave’ when they basically had nothing to do with bravery at all. When she enters the room and sees him, it’s like she switches modes. Yes: there are secrets in the air.

“Did you feel the earthquake?” his mother asks at breakfast. He shrugs. He thinks, maybe, he had a dream about an earthquake, but he could be making that up. “It was only a tiny one” she says. “I slept through it it too”. Up and down the wall, there are new, spindly cracks in the plaster. They look delicate and fragile, like cobwebs, but they are solid and encased there forever; his dad will be mad when he sees them.

His mother says they are worried about the foundations and the structure of the villa. “Sometimes, little cracks add up” she says. He doesn’t say anything, because it feels like this last comment wasn’t for him. He runs his finger along a crack, plaster flakes and crumbles into his hand… The sensation is strange: sort of intriguing, but also sort of creepy at the same time. His English tutor would say that this is ‘ambivalence’. His English tutor is obsessed with that word.

“Don’t touch it” his mother snaps.

In the living room, Claire, (who was once his nanny but now is sort of the housekeeper), is drinking tea and muttering to herself. Claire is from Ireland where they don’t have earthquakes, just rain. Over the past few weeks, there have been plenty of tremors and she is not handling it so well. The first time, she screamed “Feck!” and then “It’s happening”, as if she’d been waiting for an earthquake all along. She threw her belongings out the window: nobody knows why. When it settled down again, she pretended to be brave, reassured him and said things like “It will be alright” and “don’t worry”. It’s funny, because actually, he was never really that bothered by them in the first place. He has always had absolute faith in this house: it would take an army to bring it down, he thinks.

Now, during the day, Claire says she can feel earthquakes all the time. His mom says that she’s superstitious, which means that they’re only in her head. In fairness, Claire has also claimed to have seen an Angel before and seems pretty convinced that something about the attic “is not right”, though she won’t say what. It seems like most of these earthquakes are, in fact, in Claire’s head. Sometimes — he’s actually seen her do this — she accidentally kicks the table, then jumps out of the chair because she thinks “it’s happening” again. “It was just your foot” he tells her.

“No” she says in this concerned, meaningful voice “that wasn’t any foot”. ***

“Well get your stuff ready then, I haven’t got all day”. Claire is driving him to the Old Town where there are more Pokemon. To catch the best Pokemon on Pokemon Go, you need to be around people, in cities or towns; he’s basically obsessed with going to the Old Town now.

His mom said he could spend the day hunting if he wanted to. Since the start of summer, Pokemon hunting is his favourite thing to do, so obviously he’s happy with this development. It’s weird though: usually his parents make him earn these type of treats. They say that Pokemon Go is a computer game and so computer game rules apply. This, of course, is an absurd stance; the app was developed because it has very significant health benefits as well as obvious social benefits so it’s more of a utility than a game. They refuse to accept this. His parents remain suspicious of anything that involves electricity or the internet, which, when you think about it, is actually sort of paranoid.

Even though he doesn’t want to jinx it, he asks his mom why he is being allowed to play on his phone. After all, he needs to make sure it isn’t a trick: sometimes, when he’s allowed to do something he wants, he’s punished by being forced to do something he doesn’t want, like tutoring or visiting his grandparents. His dad calls it ‘bate and switch’ and finds it tremendously funny to fool him in this way.

Today, his mom simply says: “Sometimes you simply have to treat yourself. There doesn’t always have to be a reason. Go have fun honey”. He’s getting what he wants, but the answer isn’t exactly satisfying. That ‘sometimes’; those secrets.

But of course, he accepts the treat and piles into the Jeep with Claire. If you drive slowly enough, the car thinks you are walking, which means it counts on Pokemon Go and you can hatch an egg.

“Can we go a bit slower?”

“Absolutely not”. He returns to his screen.

“I feel like I’ve bloody lost you to that game”.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I can’t remember the last time you spoke in a full sentence or said anything that wasn’t to do with bloody Pokemon”.

He shrugs “You should try playing it” he recommends. He continues to study the screen; he plans to hatch a 5K egg today; he is hoping against hope that within that little egg, an Abra nestles. He won’t know until it hatches.

“I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m simply too old… But explain this to me: how can those cyber creatures make you so happy? I mean they’re not real! They’re just little bits of animation”.

“But they are real. Look you can see them”. He waves his phone at her.

“What I mean is, they’re not real in the same way as a toy, let’s say. You can’t pick it up, keep it, do what you want with it…”

“You can’t always pick up money, you know, if it’s in a bank or on your card. That’s real though… People spend and make money without ever touching it”.

“But you could if you wanted to… I mean… What I mean to say is. Oh bloody hell, money is a real thing! Stop being a smart arse. It exists in a vault somewhere”.

He hasn’t looked up from the Pokemon gym, but he can tell from her voice that she’s flustered and maybe, slightly out of her depths. Recently, as he’s gotten older, he’s had this effect on her more and more. He can feel himself pushing up against the edge of her knowledge. It’s like they’re both becoming new people and meeting each other all over again.

She has ended many conversations by calling him a ‘smart arse’. He doesn’t do it on purpose and, actually, it sort of depresses him. When Claire doesn’t know something, it’s like the whole world gets a bit smaller.

They don’t speak for a while, then Claire sort of blurts out: “Are you enjoying your summer?”

“Yes.”

“Good! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. You see… What I mean to say is, summers can be full of highs and lows. The key is, to make the most of what you’ve got. And one thing about you Ralph, is you’re a resourceful boy — I tell this to all my friends — you always make the most of what you’ve got”.

He has literally no idea what she is talking about. It’s like she’s trying to have one of those ‘moments’ that adults sometimes have, but she’s sort of messed it up, so they’re left with all of the awkwardness but none of the meaning. The air in the car is thick and they’re both uncomfortable in it. Suddenly, something glitches and the windscreen wipers flick on and smear dirt across the windscreen. “Oh Jesus! Feck! This bloody car is a deathtrap”. He laughs. Claire makes everything sound more dramatic than it is. It’s one of the things he likes best about her. This moment will become one of her stories and it will get bigger with each retelling.

***

“You look like a little worker ant” Claire says when they get out of the car. She’s referring to his bag, which runs the entire length of his torso. “Right, little man, are you alright?” Her voice is gruff, but there’s a look in her eyes, like she’s studying him, like she’s making sure he doesn’t have a fever. “Obviously” he says; he doesn’t like it when she looks at him like that. “Now listen to me: I will be right here at three o’clock. Do you understand? If I have to go into the Old Town to find you, I’ll be throwing that phone in the river. Real or not real, I don’t think your little Pokemen-monsters can swim”. He laughs, because it’s sort of a funny thought, then he says his goodbyes.

In the Old Town, a miracle happens. Within ten minutes of his hunt, he find a Hitmonchan. If you don’t know, these are really very rare and he doesn’t know a single person who has caught one yet. His heart is racing so fast and he wants it so bad, that it’s actually an unpleasant experience. It’s too intense. His hand are trembling. He’s already thinking about telling Michael about the catch, how Michael is going to be completely jealous but also in awe (they try not to get too competitive about things as that ruins the fun). He is thinking about posting it on Facebook and all the resultant likes. And all these things, these wonderful triumphs, are so close he can touch them, yet they could vanish just as quick if he messes up. The thought terrifies him.

He throws the ball. He is successful.

His nerves tingle and thrill. Something releases, it starts in his head then gushes all through his body like a sugar high. Still on this rush, he performs a victory dance on the steps of the empty church, then remembers himself and abruptly stops.

He checks his stats again. It feels as if he has been walking all morning, but apparently he must take another three thousand steps before hatching his 5K egg. Again, he lets himself fantasise about what might be in that egg (still praying for an Abra; it’s been known to happen). After the Hitmonchan triumph, anything feels possible and he loses himself in these dizzying possibilities for a moment. He imagines his friends asking him for a blow by blow retelling, probing him on strategies, deferring to his expertise. He imagines becoming a Youtube vlogger, a veteran hunter with a million views. A cloud of intoxicating possibilities.

He is walking uphill and his Vans slide over broken cobbles. The street is narrow, shadowed. Medieval flags hang limp from the sides of the buildings as if this small town has been waiting centuries for the return of their king and will remain like this forlorn and noble forever more. Everything is closed, because everything in Italy is always closed.

Something Claire said is slightly bothering him. He plays it over in his head: how he could get so much pleasure from something that isn’t ‘real’. He proved that Pokemon are real, but the question is still unsettling him. A bunch of feelings are rising up in him like a soup and he can’t lay hold of any one of them. His special-ed counsellor has given him strategies for dealing with this sensation. He traps the negative feelings into a list:

1) His life outside of the app is made of real things (toys, books, food, people). Usually, people only think things are real when you can touch them.

2) If the app disappeared, it would take everything with it. It would be as if the Pokemon had never existed: he would be a hunter of something that doesn’t exist.

3) Can all that vanish without a trace? Isn’t there some way to keep Pokemon, to hold onto it. Surely something this important can’t ever really disappear?

The list hasn’t really helped. Maybe he didn’t do it right. He is in a philosophical quandary. He wished Claire had never led him down this path, because when you think like this, it’s like pulling at a stray thread in your jumper, one that snakes on and on and on and unravels everything it’s connected to. Getting older is hard. The world is so complex: life is so bitter sweet. For a moment, he misses being eleven.

Suddenly it hits him! Millions of people play Pokemon go. People simply wouldn’t let it disappear. He is comforted by this thought, and to think that other people share his problems. Yet he still feels a nagging doubt. He realises he hasn’t quite resolved what Claire was getting at. Maybe it’s a draw.

“Ragazzino! Ragazzino!”

An old man has appeared out of nowhere. His smile is missing teeth and his skin is as creased as the t-shirts from the bottom of the hamper. The old man ruffles his hair (In Italy, old people are allowed to touch you; back home, nobody is allowed to touch you but your friends and family).

“Ah! Perché si guarda così triste”

Why do you look so sad?

He is shocked by the question. He should look happy, all things considered; after all, he’s doing his favourite thing and this has been a glorious morning.

“I don’t speak Italian” he replies, even though he does.

“Ah! No Italian? Nessun problema! You wait. You wait”. The old man disappears into the house behind him. After a few minutes, Ralph gets up to leave, but the old man pop his head out of a window and commands again: “No, no! You wait”. Ralph sits back down.

Eventually, the old man returns wielding a dusty red gumball, the sort you get from the machines outside Carrefour. He bequeaths it to Ralph with a look of intense pride, and self-congratulation; it’s as if he wasn’t giving Ralph a twenty cent sweet, but an iphone, or something equally important. Ralph takes the gumball. The old man looks so excited for Ralph, sitting there with a new gumball, that Ralph starts to feel bad for him.

“Grazzi” he mumbles and forces a smile.

“Perfecto! Che dovrebbe rallegrare! HaHa!”

The old man is so proud, it’s like he’s solved all the world’s problems in a single gift. Ralph slips the gumball into his pocket and makes a mental note to ditch it in the street later: even in Italy, you don’t take sweets from strangers.

He winds his way up towards the cistern where his GPS map says a Pokemon is waiting. The streets in Italy sort of have a life of their own; they loop and swerve and always take you in some new, unexpected direction. He likes this. Even in the old town, the streets are cool and there is space to move; in Rome, everything is small and pressed up against you, like the whole city was shrunk in the wash.

Ralph blow a bubble and realises he is eating the strangers sweet. He wasn’t supposed to do that. Sometimes, when he scolds himself, his mental voice sounds Irish, like Claire. He considers spitting out the gum, but its still sweet and he decides that if it were actually poisonous, he’d probably know by now.

The Cistern is the highest point in old town. There are no Pokemon. He catches a Krabby but he’s already got three of these so he’s not exactly thrilled by the win.

Still, when the app updates, you’ll be able to swap pokemon, so maybe it will come in handy later.

He wonders what to do for a moment. Inside the cistern, there is a mumified nun which is actually quite famous; his parents took him to see it when they first bought the villa. Ralph wonders if he is brave enough to visit it on his own. Sometimes he surprises himself… old fears simply drop away from him like milk teeth and he discovers himself courageous. He decides to test himself. He pushes into the darkness of the cistern.

It is totally empty within and the light is gloomy and the air is cool and musty. The sound of his feet against hard marble are very small and get swallowed up by the darkness. Nobody is inside. He moves closer towards the mummy. Abruptly, he stops in his track, turns on his heel and bolts out the way he came. As he runs, his fear swells, as if the mummy has started chasing him, so he squeezes his eyes shut and runs blind, his legs flapping wildly. He scrambles into daylight and laughs and cackles. So much for being old and brave! He feels no shame though: anyone would be scared of a mummy in a creepy cistern.

He ambles forward to the fence, beneath him, several thousand acres of lush Italian country side; he glances at it distractedly and returns to his phone. He needs another two hundred steps to hatch his egg, so he starts walking in circles.

***

“Are you tuckered out?”

“Yes”.

“Well, I hoped you worked up an appetite”.

He shrugs.

“I’m making your favourite tonight: Bolognese”.

“Cool”.

As before, Claire is being strange during the drive home. There’s something overfriendly about her. Then it hits him: she seems nervous. Anyway, he tries not to overthink it, the moods of adults are like the weather: mysterious and impossible to alter.

“Listen my love, when you get home your parents need to have a word with you. Okay? They have something important to discuss”.

She means his mom: his father is away on business. It’s not like her to make mistakes like that.

“Okay?”

“Okay”.

She is chewing the bottom of her lip, like she’s about to say something else. They drive in silence for a bit.

“After your chat we’ll have a big bowl of Bolognese, okay? Maybe we can watch some TV or something later. Or a movie. I picked up some DVDs from the shop”.

But Claire hates watching kids films. He looks at her and she avoids his look. He has a very sudden, very strong urge to contact Michael. Yet he’s already told Michael about the day’s hunt (he offered running updates during the expedition) so there isn’t a lot left to say. He thinks about this for a moment, then composes and sends a text. It reads, simply:

“Hey”.

***

The sight of his father in the dining room is wrong. It’s the same feeling you get when you see a teacher in town, wearing shorts or some stupid t-shirt, or the first time you see a friend outside of school… Like all the pieces of the world have been oddly rearranged and everything has been moved to the wrong place.

“I thought you were in New York on business”

It is a strange situation. The first explanation that comes to his head is therefore strange: maybe his father was playing a week long game of hide-and-seek. His father is squirming slightly in his chair. Why is he acting so uncomfortable? It’s his dining room after all, he paid for it, for crying out loud. Why is he squirming like that?

His mother steps forward. She starts speaking and she is speaking the way teachers speak, like she has practised every word.

“Now honey, we need to have a little talk. Your father was not in New York but actually staying in a hotel in Rome for a little while —”

“What? Why Rome?”

“Well this is what we’re going to talk about. You see, your father and I needed to spend a few days apart, so we could think about things. Sometimes —“

“So you tricked me?”

“Well, it wasn’t a ‘trick’ exactly… We would never try to fool you”.

“But you did fool me”.

“But that wasn’t our intention. As in, what I mean is, that isn’t why we did it”.

“So…?” he shakes his head baffled. Why are they talking like this? It’s completely incomprehensible.

This room seems different. It looks different to how it’s ever looked before. He can’t tell why, there’s just something intense about it. He stares at the fruit bowl on the dining room table; a big fat fly is doing lazy circles. He realises his mother has been speaking while he was staring. “…

And obviously we both love you, so, so much”

“Funny way of showing it!” he practically barks. He’s surprised how angry his voice is. “I mean, I don’t normally lie to people to show them I love them so much”. And he starts to think about what Claire was saying… And actually, maybe this hasn’t been such a hot summer after all. Actually, it’s been sort of a weird summer, so far. Everyone has been strange or absent and there are moments when he doesn’t feel like he’s at home, but on some long, lonely sleepover at a stranger’s house.

He looks at his mother. She looks like she is in physical pain. Something about this, his mothers eyes, shining, seems totally exotic and strange, a stolen sight, for she never cries in front of him. And yet it’s familiar, like he’s seen it before, seen it recently, perhaps in a dream, somewhere half-remembered. He is horrified and then furious. He walks over to the fruit bowl and smashes the resting fly. His mother gasps, shocked as if his fist had landed on her body.

“What your mother is trying to say” His father begins, stammering.

“I can speak for myself”.

“Well, you don’t seem to be saying anything. Your confusing him. We agreed—”.

“I’m being very generous to you, right now. Do you understand? Would you rather me give him the straight up, uncensored version. The real reason daddy has gone to Rome?”

“Not now, we’re not doing this now. We agreed…”

And it’s all so ugly, this new sound of his new family. This feeling he has is the feeling of walking along a pool when the bottom suddenly slips away, and you realise it is possible to drown.

His older brother pops into his head.

“Does Finn know?” and silence sweeps in, because Ralph’s voice sounds disturbingly old, there is a cold steadiness to it. Like milk teeth, young voices drop away and old voices take their place.

“Yes. Finn knows.”

He temporarily hates Finn, who somehow, along with his parents, shares responsibility for this mess. A mess he doesn’t understand yet and doesn’t want to. More complications keep appearing.

“What about Colorado?”

“Well listen buddy, you’re still going. The holiday’s on, nothing’s changing on that front. But I might hang back for this one. When you come home, we can plan another trip. I’ll take you somewhere”.

Then the adults start speaking at him. They speak as if they believe that if they can cram him full of words, they can cram out all the other thoughts and feeling that are swirling around inside his body. He lets the words wash over him. The feelings and thoughts inside him will not touch outside words; they simply don’t mix, it’s like oil and water.

Nothing to do with you… Sometimes… Sometimes… Sometimes.

He knows more than he thought he knew. And what he wants to do is take out his phone and delete his Pokemon. Delete them all, so that they are all irreparably gone, smash a summer’s work with an iron fist. He takes out his phone: his parents don’t seem to notice.

The smell of chopped tomatoes and garlic and minced beef waft into the room. The thought of Claire, who hates cooking, making Bolognese in the kitchen, swearing and probably burning the ingredients.

He observes his parents and is ready to delete, yet who would that punish? He realises with the force of a car slamming its breaks: sometimes there is nobody to punish.

Sean Gilbert

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Sean Gilbert 

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If you enjoyed Pokemon Hunting In Umbria, leave a comment and let Sean know.

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