Ah, Valentine’s Day. How you hold a special place in my heart-shaped box. In celebration of the day that brings people closer together (if you know what I mean), I’m going to post a short story I wrote for the Austin Chronicle contest – accompanied with some classic arcade images. It didn’t go anywhere in the contest, so their loss is Nakatomi Inc.’s questionable gain. I mean come on, a girl humps a Galaga machine… that alone should have won me first place. Anyways, without further adieu…
No Bonus – A Pixel-Perfect Love Story
Flashing lights in every color, shrill beeps and heavily-distorted blips crashed his brain. A throng of pushing, desperate humans buzzed around in an electronic hive. It had been over twenty years since Gary “Gremlin” Garbos had set foot in an arcade, and he had forgotten how much he loved the chaos.
As he made his way through the pulsating mass, the old pros ignored their games to witness the return of their prodigal brother. He grinned in amusement at his own homecoming, a rebirth that no one could have anticipated. He was once the King of the Arcade, having earned the awe and respect of his peers around the nation. The Gremlin was once known for destroying every machine he touched. Satisfied with the reaction, he stepped to the admissions table where an old friend held court.
“Gremlin? Is that you?”
Gary grinned at Tony Tapper. “You know it. How’re you, Tone?”
“Me? I’m cool as Ice Climbers. But where the hell have you been?”
Gary’s grin turned sour. “Nowhere, Tone. I feel like a scumbag for not calling or visiting, but… you know. So I’ve been hiding.”
Tapper was there when it went down, and he understood. “It’s alright. All you missed is the bad times. Whatcha been playing?”
Gary grabbed a sign-up sheet from the table and started filling it out. “Same games. Ms. Pac-Man. Donkey Kong. Discs of Tron. All the classics.”
Tapper nodded in agreement as Gary shoved the paperwork to him. “What’s this?”
Gary looked at Tapper quizzically. “What do you think? I’m entering the tourney.”
An alarm went off in Tapper’s eyes. “You are? Why?”
“It’s the Lone Starcade Shootout. They haven’t done it since the last one, when I… when I let us all down. How could I miss a chance at a comeback?” The Gremlin flashed what was once his famously impish grin, but the thrill of overcoming his fear lost its charge when Tapper looked up to him with a grim face. Gary started to suspect something very bad was going to happen.
“It’s just… no one knew you were going to be here, Gary.” Tapper was choking on what he was trying to get out, but Gary already knew what was coming.
“She’s here, man. We invited her, and she flew in from Maryland. I’m sorry.”
Gary got the extra life kicked right out of him. He couldn’t breathe, and he held onto the table just to keep standing. It was in this state of panic that he saw her. Veronica Do. She was milling about in front of a Crystal Castles cabinet. She was older, but Gary recognized her as soon as he knew to look. She had strands of silver in her dirty blonde hair, but she was the same pretty girl that ruined his life. And she noticed him, too. Thankfully, she quickly turned away.
Tapper interrupted the chilling moment. “Hey man… are you really going to do this?”
Gary had to store up the nerve. “Yeah, I’m signing up. I’m not going to let her win again.”
The shaky confidence he walked in with had been burned away with her glance. Now he walked amongst the younger video drones like a confused old man. The kids must have thought he was someone’s dad. They had no clue that he was a second year inductee to the U.S. Video Game Team. He still had the stupid jumpsuit he wore to all official competitions, though he was unable to squeeze into it now. It’s for the best, they’d laugh me right back into submission.
His fellow arcade rats whispered to each other as he worked each round. Snide comments about former glory and choke artist turned into declarations that he was better then anyone they had ever seen… including his younger self. And through each round, he avoided her and she avoided him. Maybe it was guilt that kept her away. Why would she come back?
The Gremlin thought back to the last time he had been to the arcade. It was for the original Texas Showdown, and for her. He had heard the buzz about the hot little number in the Northeast that was being hailed as the Princess of Power Pellets. He read features about her in Blip Magazine. He was eager to see her play. When else was he going to meet a beautiful girl that was almost as good at video games as him? He watched her demolish every sweaty, nervous boy she faced, and he was smitten. They were finally introduced right before facing off for the championship round.
Galaga was his best game. He had no doubt he would make her look bad if he played to the best of his ability, so he held back. He allowed his first ship to be stolen by the Boss Galaga so that he could retrieve it for double firepower. He aced every Challenge Round and scored high for an early lead.
Veronica looked amazing behind the controls. She patiently allowed the diving ships to approach for a higher score. She was good, and Gary was glad he didn’t have to hold back on his next turn. She conquered multiple waves before dying, then flashed him a smile that was a smirk as much as it was sexy. He had no response, because no girl had ever grinned at him like that before. Gary started to get nervous.
They traded turns back and forth. The Gremlin was giving his all. No matter how far he got, Veronica kept up. Then she surpassed his score. He risked his last ship for double firepower again, and was playing catch up when she hit him with an atomic bomb.
Gary was firing at the swooping attack formations when Veronica whispered to him with a hint of growl. The words were sweet and sinister and like nothing he had heard before.
“After this, do ya wanna fuck?”
He looked to her in shock. “What?!?” Then he heard the static screech and boom of his world exploding behind him. He turned back around to see the dissipating pixels that used to be his last ship. He hadn’t caught up to her score. It was over. It was all over.
Gary was standing in front of the Galaga machine, reliving the awful affair when he realized lots of people were looking at him. He had made it to the final round. The contest was almost over, and he was one match from reclaiming his glory.
Tapper looked at Gary nervously. “You okay, bud?”
The Gremlin shook off past traumas, unaware of the new one. “Yeah, I’m fine. Who am I playing?”
“Me.” She stepped from behind Defender. She stared at him this time, looking as furious as he felt. “Hello, Gary.”
Gary Garbos felt dizzy. The sweat on his skin did little to cool off his rage at the cosmic injustice of it all. What had he done to deserve this besides be good at Xevious?
Gary never expected to have a chance to recite the response to Veronica he had over-practiced for two decades. And he never would, because Tony was quick to interrupt the reunion.
“Thank you everyone for joining us tonight! There’s been a lot of amazing matches and thrilling rounds, but now we have our two finalists. Re-introducing… long-lost video game all-star Gary “The Gremlin” Garbos! And joining him for a round of Galaga is returning Shootout champion Veronica “The Princess” Do! Give it up for two of the all-time greats!”
The applause that used to give Gary the energy boost he needed to bring home gold made him numb instead. Everything was in afterimages, as if the world had screen burn. Unable to see the crowd through the haze, he turned to face the machine. It was probably the same damn one.
Tapper turned to Gary and murmured. “Hey, champion gets first player. Sorry, man.”
And that was it. The Gremlin was ready. He was going to kick that thieving bitch’s ass all over outer space.
The match had begun, and the hushed crowd struggled over each others’ shoulders to see Veronica destroy wave after wave of evil bug aliens. She fired perfect shots, moving back and forth between kamikaze Butterflies. Veronica moved her whole body into kill shots, bucking her hips to the base of the cabinet. Gary wondered if the change inside jingled with each thrust. He didn’t have to see the screen. Instead, he watched her motions. The way she held the stick, the way her fingertips danced over the FIRE button. He watched her force her will onto the machine. She didn’t play Galaga so much as she fucked it into submission. When a stray shot finally blasted her ship apart, she slapped at the stick and spun around to look away. Then she looked to him, exhausted.
“Your turn, sport. I warmed it up for you.”
Things were getting much clearer now, and Gary knew what he was going to do. He smiled back to Veronica. “Thanks.” He gave the crowd a nod, and turned to the machine.
“You and me, baby. Let’s do this.”
Gary’s ship welcomed each attacker with shots placed directly at their center. The crowd buzzed with every perfect round. His was a game of finesse and near-perfect hit percentages, even on the hardest Challenging Stages. He destroyed all the Scorpions for extra bonuses. Veronica had waged a hellstorm engagement of the enemy, but Gary was a more subtle assassin. He grinned as he cleared each stage, until he misjudged a dive and ate exploding bug death. After comparing scores, he looked to Veronica serenely.
“I did better than you.”
Anyone in the crowd that didn’t know about the bad blood was now being told by the old pros. As the finalists traded turns, the room got hotter with anticipation. Veronica was visibly shaken when a buzzbombing Bee smacked into her last ship, but she finished with a strong lead. The Princess looked to the Gremlin. “Think you can beat that?”
Gary looked at her with the first excitement he had felt in years. “I do. And you do, too.”
Gremlin grabbed the stick and steadied his fingers over the button. He went in shooting, and bugs turned into numbers as he zapped them out of existence. He was a dying planet’s only hope against an unending horde of aliens. He knew he would die in the cold, black emptiness of space. But he was determined to destroy as many of the bugs as he could before they finally overwhelmed him. Gary was approaching redemption when she did it again.
“You ruined my life, you know.” Again, a low whisper. But unlike the sultry proposal she had distracted him with before, this interruption came with a choked sob.
“WHAT!?!” This time, Gary kept his eyes on the screen.
Veronica continued. “ At the last one. I wanted to see you after the tourney, but you just left me there. I felt like an idiot. Do you know how hard it was to say anything to you? I was nervous, and I blurted out the wrong thing.”
Gary’s hands shook. His shots were erratic, and didn’t hit with the same pinpoint accuracy. Why the hell does this have to happen now? Gary realized she had a new game. He focused harder on the screen, and tried not to hear anything but distorted beeps.
“You didn’t have to be a dick about it. I cried about you for a week. Why do you think I even came to the Texas championship? I had a crush on you! I read all about you and saw your picture. If I’d have known you were going to be such an asshole…”
Not now. Please not now. I’m so close. Gary glanced to the score. Just a little bit longer.
“…I’d have never come here. Do you know what that kind of rejection does to a girl? You didn’t even look at me.”
Gary felt like he was going to blow up into millions of pixelated bits. He tapped out some shots, hitting some and missing others. He was going to lose it right there in front of everyone. Again.
“I hate you, Gary Garbos.”
He whipped around to face her. “Why couldn’t you have waited until after I was done playing? You cheated! Admit it!”
It was the end of Gary’s game. Veronica betrayed her ruse by looking past him to the score. Everyone crowded to see how it ended.
Tapper called out to the crowd. “Alright, we have a winner!”
Gary knew he won. He turned around to see his score had just barely topped Veronica’s when his own captured ship crashed into his, scoring a thousand vital points.
The screen was waiting for Veronica to put in her initials for the 2nd place score. She brushed indignantly past the victor to tap the joystick to the right repeatedly, entering “VID.” When it was his turn, Gary “Gremlin” Garbos tapped in his “GGG,” punctuating each letter selection with a commanding slap at the fire button.
“Gremlin is the new Texas Showdown champion!” Tapper celebrated and the crowd erupted. It was a glorious comeback, but Gary knew what would make it even better.
“Veronica…” He grabbed her arm as she was trying to shove past him. “I’m sorry I thought you were cheating.” He tried to look at her with sorrow, but he couldn’t stop grinning at his win. “Do you want to go out for a drink after this?”
She stopped in her tracks, and spun back around to face him. Veronica Do had fire in her eyes, but unwaveringly cool demeanor. “I asked you while you were playing because I didn’t care about the tournament. If I’d have known it meant more to you than a shot at me, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. Do you know why I came back?”
Gary stammered. The crowd around them grew quiet to hear what they were saying.
Veronica Do leaned in close. “I came here to kick your ass, jerk. For making me feel like a loser. So take your drink, fill your little prize cup, and shove it.” With that, she stormed through the crowd and out of his life forever.
The stunned crowd stared at Gremlin, waiting for him to say something. So he did.
“Anyone up for a match?”