PART I – DISCOVERY
Level 1 – 1
Consistent and pitiful barking woke Dylan up thirty minutes before the sun would even consider rising. She was awake and there was no going back, but she refused to leave her bed. With her eyes shut tight and right hand clutching her Sega controller, Dylan attempted to force herself to fall back to sleep chasing after dreams of oceans, mountains, and the California sun. Unfortunately, there was now pounding followed by the whine of an adolescent boy at her door.
It was either Matthew or Mark downstairs at Dylan’s door. Both sounded the same and were equally grating to her ears as it yelled, “Dylan, wake up and take care of your stupid dog!”
With an over exaggerated moan, Dylan released her controller and rolled out from under the sheets and onto the carpeted floor. The moan was partially warranted as there were no fewer than three able bodied step brothers a mere twenty-feet away from the second floor loft, fully capable of lifting a sixteen pound dog stuck behind a couch. For Dylan, she’d have to bother to put on a bra, a shirt, shorts, and descend a flight of narrow stairs before she even reached the pup. As she walked down the carpeted steps down to the second story, one of the twins cried out again, “Dylan, you hear me up there? You come down here and take care of your animal!”
With a tap of her foot at the base of the door, it swung out and into her brother’s face. He gave a yelp and another whine; “You tryin’ to break my nose or somethin’?”
Dylan continued shambling toward the loft, “It might even out your crooked face a bit.”
“When she wakes up, I’m telling my mom!”
“You tell your mom whatever you want. I’ll tell her you didn’t take care of the dog– again.”
As she stepped down onto the landing, and back up into the second floor loft, Dylan sighed and took in the contents of the room; big television, shelves of VHS tapes, and a wraparound blue suede couch. Behind the couch, like nearly every morning since she’d moved in, came the whimpering and barking of one short hair, three-year-old dachshund. He would never admit to it, but after her mom left, Dylan’s Dad bought the dog as a sort of grief counselor. He claims it was supposed to be the family dog. Dylan knew what it really was: a distraction.
Even within her newly adopted family, like all groups, there were cliques. Her dad had a new wife. Matthew and Mark had each other. Luke had his computer. Dylan got the dog. So from the moment Dylan showed that helpless little creature a smidgen of affection, everyone else relinquished any sense of shared responsibility. Never mind it needed to be fed, watered, walked or always got its head stuck in between the loft railing every other morning, Dylan would fix it. News flash: Dylan had her own business to attend to.
In only forty nine days Dylan would be competing in the Dallas Arcade Championship for one thousand dollars, a custom patch, and bragging rights for time immemorial. Nothing was going to stand in her way, especially not some speed bump of a dog. Cursing as she wedged herself in between the couch and the railing that overlooked the downstairs living room, Dylan made her way toward the dachshund. With both hands, she gently angled the pup’s head up and out from between the rails and gently set its front paws back on the carpet, “There ya go Banana. Do I get a thank you this time?”
With her big dumb eyes, Banana looked up at Dylan as if she were the one with the problem and let out an annoyed yelp. Dylan tried to hide her smile, “You know what pup, and you are my least favorite alarm clock.”
Banana just wagged her stump of a tail and yelped again. With a halfhearted sigh, Dylan offered, “As long as we’re both up, how about we get some practice in, yeah?”
Dylan powered up the television which crackled with static and changed the channel to 0-3. She unraveled the cord to the Super Nintendo controller, pushed the Battletoads Double Dragon cartridge into the top loader, and turned on the console power. The little red light on the grey box lit up. After a moment of silence, a barrage of synthesized guitars and drums welcomed Dylan into a truly insane adventure world as she selected her character.
Everything was going great as Dylan powered through the first, second, and third levels. Then, out of the corner of her eye, one of the twins tiptoed past her peripheral vision. As one the twins unraveled the controller, Dylan spoke with an edge, “Don’t even think about it.”
The twin piped up with a nervous tone, “It’s a two player game.”
Dylan kept her eyes on the screen, “I’m playing solo.”
Fifty-fifty chance that Matthew was the one persisting, “House rules; if it’s a two player game you have to let me-”
Rolling her eyes, Dylan flipped up the reset button, “Fine.”
Starting over from the beginning, Dylan felt the lag of the inexperienced twin holding her back. For every five guys Dylan clobbered, she’d wait for Matthew to finish one– if he finished at all. She bit her lower lip until it started to bleed. She kept hearing her father’s voice repeat, If you want someone to be better at something, you have to be willing to train them.
Through her teeth, Dylan asked, “You want to know how to beat those guys?”
Matthew just huffed, “I know how.”
“Well maybe you’d like to know a better way?”
“Nah. I got ‘em.”
Dylan held her tongue, but took the initiative and beat up the goon that Matthew was struggling with. The young boy responded in kind; “That was my bad guy!”
“Well I couldn’t wait forever for you to kill that ONE guy,” Dylan blurted out, “Besides, it only takes half an hour for me to beat this whole game, so–”
Matthew laughed, “Nuh-uh, nobody can beat this whole thing that quick.”
“I can.” Dylan insisted in a low, and cold tone.
“Whatever. Just let me play. Maybe if you didn’t have it on hard all the time I’d be better.”
Then as Dylan decided to cut her losses, the other one walked in. Wearing the exact same pajamas as his brother, (only blue instead of green), Mark sat down behind Matthew and cried out, “How soon till you’re dead?”
Dylan tried with all her might to keep her focus on the screen, “I don’t die in this game.”
Mark snapped back, “I know you don’t. How long till Fat Matt is dead?”
Matthew pressed pause, and whipped around to his brother, “I don’t die either, and we both weigh the same!”
Mark laughed, “I’m two pounds lighter, and you die so much it’s not even funny.”
Matthew turned back and un-paused the game throwing off Dylan’s whole rhythm, but she was still far from death. Matthew’s character however, almost immediately after unpausing took a laser blast to the chest and croaked.
Mark laughed and snorted, “Right on cue. My turn. Hand it over FAT Matt.”
Matthew protested yanking the controller away, “No, that was your fault, you made me die!”
Dylan’s nerves snapped. Furious, she found herself standing up as she spoke like Gandalf scolding a pair of Bilbos, “Shut up the both of you! Matthew, you died. Hand the controller to Mark and if y’all keep fightin’ I’m gonna tie it into a noose and hang y’all with it.”
Matthew complied and Mark snatched the controller out of his hands. Dylan sat down slapping her palm to her face as Mark crawled over towards the console. She knew what he was doing. In fact, this whole scenario was what it must have been like for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: an infinite time-loop of harassment from Needle Nose Ned. For Dylan, it was multiplied by two. So she waited and took a deep breath as Mark loaded Street Fighter II Turbo.
Dylan figured that most things could be divided evenly into two camps: Republican or Democrat, Nintendo or Sega, and the most basic of all rivalries Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. When it came to the latter category, you were either a kid who had a mom cool enough to let you fight to the death with blood and gore, or you were these kids’ mom. Playing Street Fighter almost felt like a step backwards for Dylan. Still, she needed the practice.
Mark cracked his knuckles, like it helped or something, and cocked his head; “This time, you’re going down, Orphan.”
If this were a year ago Dylan would have punched Mark in the face, but she considered herself more mature now (and one hospital visit was probably enough already). She’d let her virtual fighting do the talking. Dylan moved the cursor over her main character and waited. Mark, as always, selected M. Bison. He’d spam the one move he knew over and over and afterwards blame Dylan for dying just like always. When the round started, Dylan kept flipping her fighter over Mark’s feeble attempts to land a hit. He was only delaying the inevitable.
With a snarl Mark insisted, “You have to let me hit you at least once.”
Again, Dylan said nothing. She kept jumping. Kept waiting for Mark’s fingers to slip. When they did, Dylan hit him with an endless supply of lightning fast combos. Mark’s life meter plummeted down to nearly nothing. With a smile Dylan released a final satisfying blow. Her character screamed, “Sonic boom!” as a wave of energy sent Mark’s character flying.
Mark followed his predictable routine as he threw the controller across the room and shouted, “You cheated! House rules says you can’t play like that!”
Matthew chirped, “Ain’t no house rule against Dylan kicking your ass.”
“Oh yeah?” Mark said punching Matthew in the knee, “What’s the house rule against beating the stuffing out of you, straw for brains?”
Dylan replaced Street Fighter with her new game, Earthbound, while responding to the boys’ escalating fight; “House rules says if you’re going to beat each other, do it outside.”
Mark had Matthew in a headlock as he turned his attention back to Dylan; “Hey, I want my rematch!”
“Well then you should’ve held onto the controller,” Dylan spat with her focus back on the screen ahead of her, “I beat both y’all fair n’ square. Now go cuddle with each other in your room, outside, or in the middle of the road. Be anywhere ‘cept her.”
The boys continued to wrestle and squirm while Dylan tried to focus. She didn’t expect anyone to actually understand how important it was to master every game that came her way. Whether they thought she couldn’t, or wouldn’t win the Dallas Arcade Championship wasn’t any concern of Dylan’s. What she did care about was being taken seriously by those that took gaming seriously. Only the respect of her own kind mattered: real gamers like Tom and Nathan.
Maybe her Dad too.
Dylan was happy for the little progress her father made to accept her new identity as a gamer. The first hurdle of course was convincing him that it was more than a hobby. Gaming was like any other sport; you train, you compete, and you get paid if you’re good enough.
Although her father would never take games as seriously as Dylan, he recognized that her dedication, discipline, and determination was genuine. Of course, she had to meet several conditions for her dad to contribute to her ‘sport’. Condition one, if she could do it in a game she’d have to do it in real life.
No, her father never made Dylan rip someone’s spinal cord out of their back, or fly into space to blow up a Death Star. Colonel Yates was nevertheless dedicated to keeping his daughter grounded in reality. If she was going to play Mortal Kombat, she’d take self-defense courses. If she was going to play Virtual Cop, she’d go to the range and learn to handle a real gun. If she was going to shoot monkeys in outer space in an Arwing, she’d join the United States Air Force like her old man.
That last condition was actually just as exciting to Dylan as it was for her father, only the motivations differed. As soon as she got behind the yolk of an F-14, she’d fly away as far as humanly possible from Texas and never look back. Bad daughter. Better soldier.
Nearly finished with another virtual battle, Dylan was once again distracted as Mark shouted, “Hey, why you look like death?” Mark wasn’t shouting at Dylan this time, but the comment still took her off guard. Looking away from the television and over towards the stairs, Dylan almost gasped at the sight before her. With blond hair matted, drenched in sweat and dirt was her eldest stepbrother, Luke.
Climbing each step like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, Luke ploded up towards his room. Dylan cried out, “What the hell happened to you?”
Mark yelped, “House rules: you swear, you lose the controller!”
Dylan dropped the controller and headed towards Luke. She was nearly on him but as soon as Luke entered his room, the door slammed shut behind him. Dylan approached the door and knocked gently, “Luke, are you alright?”
Dylan waited a moment more, but there was no movement within the room. Before she knocked again, Dylan heard the call from downstairs, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, downstairs for breakfast!” Her stepmother’s voice echoed up to the loft, and a stampede of footsteps followed shortly after as the twins raced downstairs. She waited for Luke, but then she heard an almost apologetic, but still irritated cry of, “You too, Dylan.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, Dylan had to look away as the twins inhaled their Fruit Loops. Just the sight of them would have made it difficult for any normal human to eat, but there was the sound too: broken vacuums sucking up sewage. Taking another bite of her granola, Dylan diverted her attention to Luke’s plate of eggs and bacon quickly losing heat. Stealing a slice of bacon off the plate, she noticed her father was absent as well.
Between bites, Dylan indirectly asked her stepmom, “My Dad sleeping in today?”
Jill, the stepmom, indirectly answered Dylan, “Isaac is teaching a summer session.”
Mark spoke up, spraying pieces of cereal as he added, “Yeah, we’re going to the Y today.”
Dylan almost choked on stolen bacon, “The what?”
“Not ‘the what’. We’re going to the Y.”
Rolling her eyes, “Is this like a retarded version of Who’s on First?”
Mark shockingly swallowed, then spoke, “We’re going to the Y-M-C-A, Orphan.”
Jill glared at Mark as she elaborated for Dylan, “We’ve talked about this for weeks.”
Dylan took another bite of granola, “First I’ve heard about it.”
Shifting through bills on the table beside her, Jill replied, “Maybe if you didn’t spend so much time with those headphones on, you’re listening skills would improve.”
With her head down in her cereal bowl, Dylan muttered, “What? Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Jill stood up and brought the Twin’s empty bowls with her to the sink, “Alright everyone, grab your lunches and get to the Land Cruiser. Now.”
“What about Luke?” Dylan asked taking her own bowl to the sink.
Over the last year, Jill and Dylan had a nearly fine-tuned dance where they communicated with each other without directly acknowledging the other’s physical presence. It was impractical sure, but much more desirable than the alternative. Jill rushed from the sink and out of the kitchen, shouting over her shoulder, “I’ll get Luke. I need everyone else in the Cruiser, ASAP!”
The twins both sprang from their seats and grabbed their lunch coolers that had been neatly lined up on the kitchen counter. Dylan too ambled over toward the kitchen counter. With her name printed along the side of a bright pink cooler, was her ready-made lunch. Reluctantly, she grabbed the cooler, a black sharpie, and a hand full or double AA batteries from one of the drawers. As she marched towards the garage, Dylan was certain that if the day was gonna suck (and it probably would), she was going to be well prepared.