Bubblegum Bounty Hunter
Written by: Matthew B. Morrell
Opening the rear window of the Land Cruiser felt the same as opening a portal to hell; all at once the comfortable air conditioned atmosphere was sucked out from the SUV and replaced by the sweltering Texas summer heat. Burning her hands on the side of the car and vaulting over the tailgate, Dylan’s secondhand black boots smacked hard upon the asphalt. With one hand combing through her long blonde mane of hair, her other hand reached up and slammed the rear window shut behind her. Hoping that would be enough to separate herself from her stepfamily, the young girl stormed off into the parking lot.
A gravelly voice boomed out from behind Dylan, “Hold up, Private Yates.”
Dylan paused, and turned back to face the platoon lagging behind her; two younger step siblings shoving each other over whose identical face belonged to whom first. An older step brother with his nose buried in a grey brick (see also the Nintendo Game Boy), and a Stepford wife mindlessly fidgeting with the humongous rock on her ring finger. Leading the pack was her father. Walking briskly up to Dylan, a bemused smile cracked across the retired officer’s stone face as he chided, “Not thinking about going AWOL are you soldier?”
“Sir, no sir,” Dylan replied straightening up. Her father raised an eyebrow and Dylan’s posture returned to that of a typical twelve year old as she added, “I’m just really hungry is all.”
Colonel Yates draped an arm around his daughter and steered her towards the StoneBriar Mall; an expansive monument to consumerism that had just opened last week and also happened to have a food court. Gritting her teeth, Dylan pretended walking at her father’s pace didn’t bother her. Fortunately, in only a few more paces, she’d pass through the sliding automatic doors back into cool, artificial air.
The interior of the mall looked like any other mall, but apparently the entire population of Dallas had to all attended at the same time just to make sure. Dylan continued tugging, and peeling the blue jean dress away from her body; her sweat an unavoidable, and uncomfortable adhesive side effect of the brutal humidity. Between the people, the dress, and Dylan’s ever growing rage toward her current situation, there seemed no escape from the heat both from without and within.
It had been a little over the course of three weeks that everything Dylan had loved in life had been taken from her and unnecessarily replaced with something worse. Gone was the beautiful Southern California Coast she’d grown up with, her independence, and her mom. All that good replaced by a new parental guardian, a handful of Neanderthals she was told were now step brothers, and this godforsaken state that felt like being jammed into Satan’s foot locker. She may not have been the best daughter, but she was a good soldier. Dylan wasn’t one to complain. That being said, something had to give and quick or all the heat within and around her would undoubtedly cause her twelve year old soul to melt down in epic fashion.
As the herd of people pushed and shoved Dylan’s new platoon deeper into the mall and towards the food court, the young girl’s eyes suddenly lit up; she had found her release. It was a shining orgy of sound and color the likes of which she’d never seen before. Bright pink neon letters in the marque drew her closer towards her destiny like an electric fly trap. Slowly drifting away from her family, pushing her own way through the mass of human cattle, Dylan stepped across the threshold of her destiny: McLaren Arcade.
Crammed within a space no bigger than a racquetball court were dozens of arcade cabinets; lining the walls, huddled together in rows, everywhere an adventure in a box that only cost a quarter or two. Pushing her way past people, Dylan couldn’t take in all the possibilities fast enough. In this place, no one could stop her from becoming a space fighter pilot. No one could stop her from carrying an infinite number of weapons in her pants to raid a mystery dungeon. No one could stop her from punching someone so hard that their torso would fly clean off their pelvis. Inside each cabinet was a world full of possibilities far away from the world she was presently trapped in.
This place would become her hallowed asylum.
This place: her new sanctuary.
Upon this video arcade, Dylan would train to become a rock that nothing could break ever again. However, despite the possibility to escape inside a screen nearly within her grasp, a tithe was still required. Reaching into her pocket, Dylan desperately searched for cash. Right pocket: empty. Left pocket: nothing but lint. A cold sweat slowly began to creep over Dylan. She was so close to releasing the tension that had been twisting inside her. Without even a single quarter, the possibility of release was nothing more than a cruel tease. It was a sick taunt wrapped in a hot mess of electric light and sound.
Then, suddenly, a squeaky adolescent voice interrupted Dylan’s moment of panic as it whined beside her, “Let’s go chic, you’re up.”
Dylan quickly looked up at the scene that had gathered around her. Somehow she had ended up in a line, the front of the line no less, of a fighting game. Behind her, Dylan could feel the irritation of the crowd of teens growing; a low impatient murmur stirred underneath the high pitched chiptune music that resonated within the arcade.
Beside her the Ginger Boy, a knock off of Johnny Rotten, spoke again more to the crowd than to Dylan, “Apparently they let anyone compete in here. Let’s go little girl, there are real players waiting behind you.” If this was to be Dylan’s new refuge, she’d have to do some house cleaning first; starting with this asshole. Gripping the joystick and staring straight ahead at the screen, Dylan held her ground. The boy spoke again, “Fine, let’s get this over with.”
It took all Dylan’s strength to keep her voice from shaking, “First round is on you. If you can beat me, I’ll double your money.”
Murmuring from the crowd began to swell. Unfazed, the Ginger Boy slid Dylan a quarter across the cabinet and scoffed, “Sure thing. Your first round of humiliation is on me.”
Dylan snapped back, “Your first round of humility is on me.”
Sliding her quarter into the slot, Dylan heard the digital gong sound, and a menacing digital voice command, “Choose your character.” She studied the screen of headshots; various warriors all staring back at Dylan; a Bruce Lee clone, a Jean Claude Van Damme knock off, blue ninja, yellow ninja, green ninja. No one really spoke to Dylan. Then, without her consent, the game choose for her. Just as this new family was stuck with Dylan, she was stuck with a blue female ninja… with fans for weapons.
Another sneer from the Ginger Boy, “Typical.”
Dylan’s voice nearly betrayed her bluff, as she squeaked, “It’s typical for me to win too.”
Deep from the bowels of the game cabinet, the same demonic digital voice from before growled at the Ginger and Dylan; “Fight!” Ginger Boy’s character immediately threw a pair of knives he brought with him to their fist fight. Dylan’s lady ninja stumbled backwards; an obscene amount of cartoon blood spewed across the screen. The Ginger followed up with another barrage of violent attacks with his character: something akin to Sloth from The Goonies but with swords for hands.
Within moments, round one was done, and Dylan was down. Pleased with himself and spreading a cringe worthy smirk the Ginger laughed, “You can quit now if you need to.”
Dylan did not. She held firm her controls as the game voice roared, “Round two, FIGHT!”
Instinctively, Dylan jumped over the Ginger’s opening attack and landed a boot into her opponent’s face. Starting with two quick punches and a roundhouse kick, Dylan continued her relentless assault. She was mashing buttons at this point, but the results proved rewarding. The quick victory was hers. The final round was ahead.
Her palms were sweating now, and Dylan’s heart beat like a Tyco drum. Everything from the coarse navy blue carpet beneath her feet, to the dim fluorescent lights buzzing above her head seemed to fade away into nothingness. There was no crowd, no stepfamily, and no Ginger Boy; there was only Dylan and this grotesque opponent standing between her and victory. This was more than a game now. This was her catharsis for the shit hand life had just dealt her. From now on, she’d be the dealer. She was at the controls.
“Final Round… FIGHT!”
Dylan’s attempt to jump over the opening knife throw was nearly thwarted by the Ginger’s character waving his sword-hands in the air like a blender. Surprisingly, Dylan’s ninja just kept flying overhead. Before the Ginger’s onscreen avatar could react, Dylan’s ninja was throwing punches and kicks into his backside. It was horribly one sided as she continued to pound away at the buttons like her life depended on it.
Her pride would be satisfied tonight, she’d work on honor later.
Then, all of a sudden, the screen went dark. Dylan stopped her attack as the voice returned, “Finish him.” Channeling the remnants of her anger, (and blind luck) Dylan pressed a few buttons and watched as her ninja withdrew a fan from her belt and sliced it clean through her opponent’s head. Rewarded by the ultra-violence, the voice from the game laughed, “Fatality!”
A spattering of applause flowed out from the crowd that had gathered behind Dylan. With a headful of over inflated confidence Dylan turned to her opponent with a wry smile, “You ready for a rematch?”
The Ginger scoffed and stepped back from the player one position. Gesturing with a wave of his hand, “You see those cabinets behind you? You know whose initials are in the top ten spots?”
Dylan raises an eyebrow, “Anyone worth knowing?”
From behind Dylan, the familiar voice of her father bellowed, “Dylan. Ashley. Yates.”
Mortified, Dylan slowly turned as did the crowd of her peers. Standing in the entry way like a stone sentry, she could feel her father’s eyes burn a hole into her brain. Letting go of the controls felt like pulling herself free from an intravenous drip, or an iron lung. With her head low, Dylan heeded her father’s call.
Over her shoulder, Dylan heard the mocking cry of the Ginger, “You don’t want to stay and put your initials on the leaderboard? I bet they’d only be up there for a day anyway… Dylan.”
At a quarter to ten, Dylan was in her new room in her father’s new house, staring down at her weathered violin. That piece of wood and strings was the last thing her mother left her. In truth, Dylan never wanted to play the violin; she’d wanted a guitar. Her mother once informed Dylan that, “People say women who play classical are smart, and sophisticated.”
Dylan would reply, “People who play the guitar have friends.”
Still, Dylan was a good daughter and practiced twice a day. She practiced until her fingers hurt; until she mastered every piece of stupid sheet music she was given. Sure, people may have thought she was smart and sophisticated; but what was it to Dylan? It wasn’t a challenge. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t part of who she was. It didn’t compare to what she felt earlier.
Then she found Mortal Kombat.
Everything changed when she assumed the identity of a lady ninja. All of a sudden, Dylan didn’t feel powerless against the world and everything it took from her and replaced with garbage. When she took hold of that machine, Dylan could be someone different, someone stronger, and someone with the power to fight back.
She wasn’t going to give that up.
She had to practice.
Within moments, and without hesitation, Dylan had gathered up her pink poncho she’d gotten from her last trip to Ensenada and climbed out of the third story window. On the roof, Dylan carefully shimmed over the edge onto the second story. The angle of the roof was pitched almost straight down. One slip and she’d land face first into concrete. Gripping the ledge of the third story roof, Dylan climbed hand over hand toward the front of the house.
Once at the edge of the second story, Dylan carefully released one hand from the ledge of the roof and reached out for the branches of the oak tree. If she could climb out onto the limbs, she could use the tree to get back down to the ground. But what if she couldn’t?
What if the sweat building up around her fingers loosened her grip?
Dylan could feel her strength waning. She slipped. She looked down; the ground was miles beneath her and she was losing her balance. She was going to fall to her death, but at the last minute instinct kicked in and she pushed off from the house and jumped for the tree. With arms outstretched, Dylan wrapped her limbs around the closest branch.
After her heart rate slowed down from firing like a machine gun, Dylan climbed down the side of the oak to the front yard. Lucky for her, the garage had been left open; she’d be able to take her bike off the rack and out to the street without any noise.
She was free.
Little more than half an hour later, Dylan had returned to the mall. She pedaled with the last of her strength through the nearly empty parking lot. The night air was cool and crisp as it twisted through her flowing mane. Finally at the front of the mall, Dylan jammed her bike into the metal rack and wrapped her chain lock around it for safety.
Dylan was exhausted, but ran through the mall all the same. Her hand-me-down-boots beat against the linoleum floor and echoed off the walls. Elevator music eerily floated through the cool, processed air as she finally approached her electronic oasis.
Panting for breath, Dylan walked up to the back counter with reverence, like one would approach the Lincoln Memorial if the memorial was built in an outhouse. A portly gentleman with a well kempt beard and purple aviator shades looked up from his copy of Nintendo Power Magazine. Scratching his beard with indifference the man looked down over his shades at Dylan; “We’re closing up here, what you need?”
Taking in a deep breath, Dylan slapped a crumpled Hamilton on the counter; “Quarters, I need forty quarters.”
Clutching her fist full of change, Dylan was going to squeeze as much practice into her brain as possible. She thought it appropriate to start with what she knew. Sliding a quarter into the slot, the familiar digital oriental music played followed by that oh so friendly demonic roar; “Choose your character.”
Again, Dylan choose the familiar: her blue lady ninja.
She didn’t know how much time had passed. She lost track of how many other ninjas she had slaughtered. All Dylan knew was that she had to get to the top of the scoreboard. After beating a four armed creature to death, Dylan had finally reached the boss. This boss could teleport, shape shift, and shoot fireballs from his hands; none of which prevented Dylan from sending him straight to video game hell in an explosion of blood and gore.
At last, she had beat the game. A blinking cursor asked for Dylan to enter her initials: she joyfully complied. After a moment’s thought, Dylan made her mark.
Satisfied, Dylan stood back from the cabinet to admire her work; eighth place. She knew she could do better. Sliding in another quarter, Dylan began another climb up the ladder. With each opponent conquered, the young girl’s skill increased. With every kick and punch thrown, her confidence grew exponentially. Dylan wasn’t just mastering a game, she was expanding her own self-awareness and capabilities as a new breed of warrior.
Again, time had slipped her grasp. D.A.Y. now occupied the top ten slots of Mortal Kombat including the coveted number one spot. Dylan quickly turned around at the sound of clapping hands behind her. There, standing before Dylan was a lanky black man wearing a similar McLaren Arcade uniform. Beside him was the man from the counter stroking his beard like a proud Kung Fu Master watching over a new disciple.
Adjusting his name tag, Tom removed his hand from his beard; “That’s pretty damn impressive there.”
The black man, Nathan, gave a low whistle, “This chick’s like a regular wizard, or a real life Captain N or somethin’.”
Tom laughed, “Nay, Captain Day.”
Nathan clicked his heels and gave a salute, “Captain Day.”
Dylan was still twelve, and although she’d just mastered Mortal Kombat, sarcasm was still a freshly learned skill. She tested the waters; “Yeah, thanks, but you guys got anything with more of a challenge in this place?” Dylan withdrew the seven dollars and fifty cents that remained in her pocket.
Tom whistled and gestured his hand towards a cabinet to his right like Vanna White, “Well Captain, might I interest you in Killer Instinct?”
Two hours later, Dylan had carved her initials all over the Arcade. Not a single high score earned by the Ginger Boy remained (or so she was told by the employees who let her stay after hours). Dylan had begun her metamorphosis into someone new. She’d marked her new sanctuary. She had gained the strength needed to, if not entirely let go, at least push aside her anger and sorrow. The fire that burned within her for the last three weeks had been quelled to a slow smolder… for now.
As the metal partition was lowered, Dylan said her goodbyes to her new sansei and bounded victoriously toward the exit. The elevator music was gone, and only the emergency lights were on. The only sound in the mall was Dylan’s triumphant march through the vacant hall. The only light was the glow radiating from her soul. She was nearly certain nothing could ruin her high. Unfortunately, life retained its cyclical nature.
As she pushed through the exit, a heavy sigh escaped Dylan. She looked down at where her bike should’ve been. Stuck in the metal rack was nothing more than a chain and the front tire. Sticking her hands in her pockets, Dylan felt the three remaining quarters in her pocket: enough for a phone call. And sure, the phone call would get her home, but it would also get her into a whole new world of trouble. What were the alternatives for a lone preteen girl in the Midtown suburbs of Dallas after hours?
Maybe she’d walk?
Maybe she’d fly?
Maybe the jerk that stole her bike would bring it back and tell her it was all just a joke? She took one last look out into the dark, and empty parking lot and the many miles she’d need to hike to get home. Biting her lower lip, Dylan’s hazel eyes turned back towards the payphone. The high had left her. Shame and guilt were on their way.
Dylan waited for not but nine minutes after she’d made the call until her dad’s black Lincoln Continental pulled up to the curb. She heard the pop of the passenger door unlock. Her father kept his gaze ahead. The door was heavier than usual when Dylan pulled it open and sank into the vinyl seat. As soon as she closed the door, her father sped forward out of the parking lot.
They reached that light on Preston Street, the one that never changed even if there weren’t any cars coming from either direction. Silence flooded the car like carbon monoxide being pumped in from the tailpipe through the windows while idling in a closed garage. It was worth it, Dylan kept repeating in her mind; she had gained transcendence.
Then, her dad spoke low and slow, “What in the hell were you thinking?”
She should have waited to construct an answer her dad wanted to hear, but instead; “I had to. I couldn’t let him win. I couldn’t let them see that I was–”
“Win? Win what? If you’re going to spend time, money, and energy to fight for something, that something has to be real, Dylan.”
She didn’t have anything to say to that. Was she supposed to call her dad a liar? Of course the game was fake. Her muscle mass hadn’t grown, and she certainly didn’t look any more like a ninja even after the hours she had spent fighting as one. Nevertheless, a new Dylan had been planted into the fabric of her being. It wasn’t the game that was real, but what Dylan believed would grow within her mind, heart, and soul.
It was all real.