01 Feb Goodbye, Arcade Boy
To the four of us, the arcade had always been a shelter from reality. Colored lights raining down amidst a maze of neon machinery as a deafening mesh of cheerful music barraged around us unrelentingly. Flashing cars and horses, balls rolling and jumping; the whirs of that stupid crane machine, and the dings of the hockey table.
There was something strange about the owner, a middle-aged man who always seemed to be on the pinball machine. He’d let us play for free, hours at a time as he watched over us from a distance, occasionally coming over to fix broken machines. It bothered me how silent he was, and whether he had motives in letting us frequent the place for free, but my friends and I weren’t going to say no to free stuff; after all, the arcade was the only one in town and we loved this place.
That was until the day of our graduation.
Somehow or another all of us made it to college, except for Conner. It wasn’t like he was stupid; quite the contrary, he was probably what you would call a genius. We’d try to top his high-scores but had given up in the end since he was levels beyond us; his reflexes were insane, and he could win any shooting game in their highest difficulties easily. Unfortunately, skipping so many exams was never going to end well, even in the shithole that was the school we attended.
Not wanting to say goodbye, we visited the arcade one last time, pretending like it was going to be okay. That we had people other than each other that would truly care for us once we parted ways. That life was going to be fun. That we’d meet back here again sometime in the future, once we’ve all settled with our families, laugh together as we reminisce about all we’ve been through, and play that damn spooky hellish haunted house shooting game together again. God, I did wish time would just stop then. But maybe I should have been careful of what I had wished for.
As the machines died down, one by one, their lights gradually dimming while their whirs diminished, the owner looked at us with pity. Conner started panicking, hyperventilating as he turned around and around, reaching for buttons he could still press, and for joysticks he could still move. Simon even started sobbing.
“Well,” The owner said, still on his pinball machine, “That’s it for tonight, kids. I gave y’all extra time today, I just hope your parents won’t be mad that you’re this late. Hurry on home, now.”
“Huh,” I scoffed, “Funny, that. Assuming our parents cared for us, yeah. Good one.”
“Let’s just go,” Lea whispered, choking up on her words, “Thank you, mister. For everything.”
We tried to pull Conner off the Tetris machine, but he wouldn’t budge. His entire body was shaking.
The owner sighed as his ball fell down the middle. A “Game Over!” chimed from his direction.
“I’m running out of time as well. Look, I’m not supposed to do this, but I’ll give all of you a choice. Listen well.”
He snapped his fingers as we looked around, our eyes wide open with shock and bewilderment.
The arcade came back to life, but there was something wrong. The lights had turned red, and the screens had become static; distorted familiar music accompanied by the now sinister robotic laughter boomed across the room. The hum of electricity hurt my head as the smell of metal filled my nose.
“What’s happening?” Simon said, shaking.
“You can stay,” He answered, “Or you can leave.”
The light from the exit compelled us to leave, sending shivers down our bones and telling us that we shouldn’t be here right now. “Extra Life!” The announcer said as he pulled the plunger, sending another ball on its way across bumpers and flippers.
“What do you mean, stay?”
“Stay here,” He said, “Forever.”
We were stunned. As if that statement wasn’t enough to shock us, the screens around us started projecting pixelated images straight out of our nightmares.
Simon’s abusive, alcoholic mother sitting on his couch, smiling directly at him and beckoning him to come home. Lea’s father fantasizing about her, rummaging in her closet for her undergarments. Conner’s screen brought up an image of the past, of his brother hanging from the ceiling, with what seemed to be a sprite of young Conner kneeling and crying on the floor.
As for me, it was a black screen that showed my face, and my face alone. He knew I was already living my nightmare; that I was in the process of leaving my friends, turning me into a prime prey to the loneliness that had been eating at my brain since forever.
A countdown started at our screens, as if challenging us to make our choices: “Continue” with our shitty lives, or let the “Game Over” screen come.
“All of you were running and hiding,” He said, “If you stay, you won’t have to deal with what’s waiting outside ever again.”
I could feel him smiling even when I could only see his back. It was an otherworldly smile, one that made me sure his invitation was not out of his generosity and good-will.
“I’m–I’m leaving.” I said, standing up as I pressed the button.
“So am I.” Lea, though she was still weak and shocked, pressed continue and managed to stand.
I extended my hand to Simon, and he took it rather firmly. He slammed his button.
“Let’s go, Conner.” Simon said, strangely resolute. Somehow making him face reality had made him braver, something the owner didn’t seem to like; the arcade building shook in rage in response.
“Conner?” Lea touched his back.
“Guys,” He turned his head, tears flowing down his cheeks, “I’m sorry.”
The number had hit zero.
His tears turned black.
His eyes caved inwards.
“No. No, no, no.” I said, grabbing his shoulders.
The lights flickered.
And when we saw him for the last time, he was smiling.
Even amidst all the noise, we could hear him whisper his last words.
Just like that, he was gone. We found ourselves outside the arcade, and went home sobbing as we leaned on each other’s shoulders, promising we’d have each other’s backs no matter what would happen in the future, and to come back looking for Conner.
What we found the next day when we came back to the arcade pulled the ground underneath us, and flipped our world upside down. The building was dilapidated, and the machines were all broken, their screens shattered as dust and cobwebs covered their once lively machinery.
We asked people who had passed by of what had happened to the arcade, and they simply shook their heads.
“I thought y’all were strange for hanging out every day here, but now I know y’all are screwed in the head. This place has been closed for nearly ten years now.”
Given no other choice, we pressed on with our lives.
Ten years later, here we are.
Simon mended his relationship with his mother, and is now a successful family man. Lea found the courage to report her father’s abuse to the authorities, and continues to give a voice to those who need it. I still need my medications, but my friends keep me from falling off the tightrope even at my worst nights.
However, no matter how much time has passed, we still haven’t moved on from that incident. After all, we lost our best friend there.
Every year, we’d gather back here in front of the old arcade.
Every year, we’d sit from the outside looking in.
And sometimes, just sometimes.
We can almost see Conner through the door, his back towards us, his figure hasn’t grown one bit.
Sitting there, pressing buttons at the Tetris machine.