soft corruptor

when i was in the 3rd grade
i convinced my friend's older sister to loan me her gameboy color
with pokemon blue
on the one condition
that i never save over her file.
this was contraband; my parents couldn't know
i smuggled that gameboy home and kept it inside my pillowcase, turning it on
at an almost imperceptible volume
after i’d been put to bed for the night.
i would play until the batteries died or i fell asleep or it was time for school whatever came first.

because of my promise to never save, i had, generally, somewhere between 6 and 10 hours to beat the game
that year, the margins of my schoolwork filled with (what i would later learn were) 'speedrun strats'
i wrote down what patch of grass would come up with a pikachu
traced my routes through the caves
memorized the dialog,
then the buttons to skip through it
learned i could invert the screen and navigate dark caverns without teaching my pokemon "flash"
eventually, i didn't need to invert anything i just knew where to walk, in the dark.

i was angling for the elite four, the ostensible win condition of pokemon
but i often stopped at cinnabar island
this is because if you surfed up and down the coastline off cinnabar
you might meet MissingNo.
missingno is a data buffer glitch, and a famous one at that
it appears when the game mistakenly substitutes the player's name as a pokemon id
forming a scrambled, glitchy block described as a "bird/normal" pokemon
(although occasionally appearing as a ghost or a fossil unseen elsewhere in the game)

summoning a ghost was reason enough to try for missingno, but it also came with side-effects
(including a useful error that would copy an item 128 times over)
but rumor was, catching missingno was dangerous-
it could softlock the game.
destroy your save file. delete pokemon out of your party.

none of this was true, but we traded these stories around the playground, whispered about our angry ghosts
and there were other phantoms;
invisible computers
a teleporting man stuck on roof
swapped overworld tiles
a trick to catch the most elusive pokemon of all, mew
a way to visit glitch city

glitch city was a place made of scrambled sprites
where menu items and objects and sections of buildings melted into one another
forming an ornate, broken map
you could stand in glitch city, but you couldn't move
i tried everything, every button press order and screen inversion and quit-restart scenario
stuck on a single tile, the character walked morosely as if into a wall
but it was still, materially there
i could see it
just beyond my reach

although i eventually had to give back the gameboy
i did have one friend with a playstation and spyro the dragon
unlike pokemon, which uses memory manipulation to step out of bounds
spyro is 3d, with simulated physics and barriers
this means that you can see outside
it is right there
over an invisible wall that rings the world
see me: 9 years old,
inviting myself for a playdate,
insisting we play spyro,
and then,
over and over again,
trying to bump my way out into the blue.
recently, i found a video of someone doing exactly this;
making a sort of hopskip into the atmosphere
one-sided, the geometry of the world turns transparent
as the dragon spirals down, gliding under the level
you can see the architecture unstitch itself at the seams
one purple dragon
soaring through glitch city
the house we lived in was old
the driveway was long
it was sandwiched between a few family graveyards; my friends loved to come over, but wouldn't spend the night
sometimes we'd get out the ouija board and try to contact the beyond
generally unsuccessfully
once, a friend told me ghosts walk through walls because they remember the house different
like, after a remodel or renovation
they run a logic of memories and can't see that the door got moved and this is why they respect the rules of floors but not of walls

around this time, we learned in school about the structure of atoms
how 99.9999999999996% of an atom is empty air
i took this to mean that surely two atoms could be slotted together, if you tried hard enough
if you angled them right, probably you could put your hand right through the table
if you believed hard enough
if you weren't watching if your eyes were closed

my teacher tried to explain that air wasn't the right way to think about it
it wasn't air in atoms, because air was made of atoms
it was just nothing
forces, void like in space

atoms never even touch each other, our teacher said
they have a layer of repulsion
our bodies are like a house made of unmortared stones
no matter how well they fit together
no mater how they are locked in place
it isn't forever the wind still gets in

i had a schoolyard crush on a kid who sat three desks ahead of me
i remember thinking, how romantic
if maybe
if we held hands
if we closed our eyes
if we really focused
we would phase a little closer
then stop
surely with all that empty space, we could get our fingers aligned in just the right way
and actually touch one another.
some years later, i learned there is a name for just that
for when atoms touch
and it is called radiation poisoning.

same year as the atoms, i was gifted a history of the world-type book
one of those aspirational encyclopedias given to children at birthdays
i can't remember reading more than a page or two
but on the cover was a print of the flammarion engraving
i faced to it me so i could see it from my bed
i still remember the caption;
"A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament"

the traveller had found a way through
i puzzled at this in the margins of my schoolwork
dreamed about it nights
tried to apply it to glitch city
sometimes the games and the dreams bled into one another
a pushing and floating space where the walls yielded
where my character passed through the barrier
where i saw what was just beyond the edge of the surface
or the firmament or both

eventually we got the internet at home
and i discovered other kinds of games
the resplendent wealth of roleplaying forums
flash games neopets

as well as another kind of invisible wall, the view source
for all that i'd been grasping at the internal structure of the games i played
attempting to get under or around their surface
and access what was caught inside
i had been stuck moving a body to do so-
the memory manipulation in pokemon
the determination to scale the world wall in spyro
even the summoning of ghosts with the ouija board
had been done by navigating a world with a character and asking it to break like putting your hand against the wall and willing the atoms to let you in

but view source-
it was all there
like picking up the shell and seeing the hermit crab
i could read it
i could see how it was put together
and most importantly
i could break it into pieces and let myself in