The End Games by T. Michael Martin is the story of two gamer half-brothers—seventeen-year-old Michael and five-year-old Patrick—attempting to survive in a zombie apocalypse.
The word “autism” is never used, but Patrick is clearly intended to be read as an autistic character. He’s an intelligent and conscientious child, with a strong need for orderly and intelligible surroundings, intense anxiety (for which he takes Atipax, a fictional anti-anxiety medicine), and various unusual sensory needs, such as a hatred for synthetic fabric. He speaks in a quirky gamer patois obviously copied from Michael’s own speech. Most notably, Patrick has a history of self-injurious meltdowns—what Michael, the narrator, refers to as “Freaking”—which Michael, as the book opens, has been trying to avoid at all costs.
Michael is Patrick’s primary caretaker for most of the book, since just before the apocalypse began, they had run away from home together to escape an abusive stepfather. (Readers be warned: there is a lot of frank talk about domestic abuse in this book.) Keeping Patrick safe is Michael’s primary motivation throughout the story, and his love for Patrick is palpable and clear:
But he hardly heard. Because Patrick—legs twisted, blond hair shagging his brow—looked so small, so sweet, that Michael thought, not for the first or final time, that he would shoot all the monsters in the world he had to, he would do anything to reach the Safe Zone in the capital city of Charleston, to win The Game for Patrick. And when breath came like cotton through Patrick’s tiny, chapped lips and he snorted, kind of hilariously, Michael felt he could decorate the floors of the world with Bellow brains. He felt it in his breath and blood. Yes, he could.
Some narrators would pay lip service to their autistic family members in passages like these, then go on to start talking in terms of burden and annoyance as soon as it was convenient. Yet, Michael’s devotion to Patrick shines out consistently both in actions and words.
The problem is that Michael is a seventeen-year-old runaway—clueless, overconfident, and attached to the survival strategies he learned in his abusive home. He makes some very big mistakes.
For starters, Michael lies to Patrick constantly about what is going on and where they are going. He tells Patrick that what they are doing is a game, and that as long as they follow the rules they cannot really be hurt. His intentions are noble—to turn the terrible zombie apocalypse into something Patrick can deal with and enjoy—but the results are more harmful to Patrick than any confrontation with the truth.
It’s clear even from early scenes that Patrick is more aware of the world around him than Michael wishes him to be, including other people’s emotions. (Point that many other authors miss: not all autistic people are emotionally unaware.) Yet Michael seems to believe he can make everything better for Patrick by pretending that things are okay—even when this means denying what Patrick directly perceives.
“Michael? Why’re you sad?” Patrick asked, leaning over Michael’s shoulder and peering at his expression with growing dread in his voice.
God, he sees everything. Control yourself.
“I’m not, pfff,” Michael said, and turned toward the guardrail.
I think most autistic people will readily say that being lied to and confused about one’s own perceptions in this manner is more damaging than any uncomfortable truth.
Michael’s need to keep Patrick safe from the truth is also influenced by Patrick’s interactions with doctors. In flashbacks, we learn that Patrick’s worst meltdown, followed by days of catatonia, was provoked by witnessing his father physically abuse his mother. Yet on their mother’s orders, the boys were not allowed to report this to medical workers.
Therefore, faced with a small child who had such drastic meltdowns for seemingly no reason, the doctors (portrayed as very ableist and honestly not very good at their job—for instance, they do not even seem to know the word “meltdown”) give a grim prognosis, saying that if Patrick has another meltdown of similar scale, he might never recover.
The threat of Patrick being institutionalized, either because of another terrible meltdown or because his father felt like it, is very real to Michael. As Michael sees it, lying to Patrick and manipulating him is vastly preferable to allowing this to happen.
(I should note here that much of the medical information in this book, both about autism and otherwise, feels very questionable to me—though it’s also vague enough that it’s difficult to pick at specific facts. Generally, for most autistic people, meltdowns tend to be both more frequent and less severely devastating than what is described in this book. However, there is individual variation. The threat of institutionalization, as well as the use of slurs by other people against Patrick, seems slightly odd to me given such an articulate, intelligent, and emotionally aware child, though such things are a daily reality for many “low-functioning” children. But of course, with a sufficiently abusive parent making the decisions, all bets are off.)
Interestingly, Michael seems to begin the book not really believing that Patrick is disabled: or rather, believing that Patrick’s disability is caused by the abusive environment, and is not really part of him.
The thing is, this little boy does not know how to stay quiet inside. He does not understand why their “big happy home” is getting filled more and more with screams. So yeah, Patrick is scared; yeah, he starts hitting himself. And so Ron puts him in this psychiatric place, sometimes for weeks, and Patrick doesn’t get to go to preschool or kindergarten, doesn’t really ever get the chance to realize much of what outside life is like. And nobody seems to realize that the only reason Patrick has this terrifying emotional pit inside of him is because Ron has put it there. Nobody understands that once Patrick is in a home that makes sense, he will be fine forever.
This is a point that is tricky to talk about. Obviously, an autistic child from an abusive home will do better when moved to a non-abusive environment, because anyone will do better when moved to a non-abusive environment. When Michael talks about hoping that things will change for Patrick, it’s often not at all clear if he is thinking of this kind of change, or if he hopes that Patrick will be “cured” —or if this distinction even makes sense to someone in Michael’s position.
What is clear is that Michael honestly wants Patrick to be in a safe and healthy place, and that he never thinks of Patrick as inherently lesser or broken. It’s also clear that he doesn’t understand a lot about autism or autism advocacy; but then, with his background, who could have taught him?
I cannot quite bring myself to call Michael’s behaviour ableist, even though it is motivated partly by Patrick’s disability. This is because we quickly find that Michael lies to everyone else, too: telling the other survivors that there are soldiers coming for them, for example, when they are not. His motivation is to save and protect the people around him and to make them feel better, but his lies quickly spiral out of control, putting all the others in danger.
Another unintended effect of Michael’s lying is that it makes Patrick vulnerable to manipulation by others. Captain Jopek, an abusive and overbearing character who leads a group of survivors, is able to turn Patrick against Michael—by learning about Michael’s lies and then adding his own. Lies that fit with the rules Patrick already believes are suddenly more plausible to him than Michael’s attempts to confess the truth.
Michael lies to himself, too, psyching himself up to see situations in terms of games and victory the same way he describes them to Patrick, and telling himself that it’s okay to do whatever is necessary to control the situation, survive, and win.
Indeed, the most effective horror in the middle part of the book comes, not from the zombies, but from Michael’s inability to see how closely his own behaviour – up to and including pulling a gun on a friend—parallels Jopek’s.
Mercifully, by the end of the book, Michael has learned his lesson—that he should not have lied, and that Patrick in particular is stronger than he thinks, and that it is possible to fight for oneself and one’s loved ones and to have hope for the future without the kind of control and certainty that he has been so desperate for.
What has really separated him from Jopek and other abusive people throughout the story is his genuine feeling of care for the people he is trying to protect, which never goes away no matter how awful his actions. His love and protectiveness towards Patrick, a genuinely warm though deeply flawed connection, is obvious throughout the book.
Many characters in Patrick’s position are not treated with such warmth—even by narrators who are depicted as much more virtuous and well-behaved than Michael, who are older than seventeen and have an actual support network, who have not learned toxic habits in the context of an abusive upbringing, and who do not have an entire zombie apocalypse to worry about on top of that.
So I cannot really judge Michael too harshly, and yet, there is much here that is very uncomfortable and difficult to read.
The book overall is interesting, and deals in a thought-provoking way with many issues of human interaction, including one’s treatment of the people who depend on one for care and protection, both disabled and otherwise. Whether or not a reader will enjoy it depends on their tolerance for abuse themes and for protagonists who are driven to terrible behavior without fully understanding how terrible it is.