Bubblegum Bounty Hunter
Written Br: Matthew B. Morrell
Opening the rear window of the Land Cruiser was like opening a portal to hell. All at once the comfortable air conditioned atmosphere of the SUV was replaced by the sweltering Texas summer heat. Burning her hands on the side of the car and vaulting herself 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 slammed the rear window shut behind her. Hoping that would be enough to separate herself from her step-family, the young girl stormed off into the parking lot.
A gravely 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 who first, an older step sibling with his nose buried in a grey brick known as a 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 asked, “Not thinking about going AWOL are you soldier?”
“Sir, no sir,” Dylan spoke while straightening up. Her father raised an eyebrow and Dylan’s posture returned to that of a typical twelve year old, “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 opened just last week that 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 and 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 to tug, and peel the blue jean dress away from her body; her sweat was an unavoidable, and uncomfortable adhesive side effect of the brutal humidity. Between the people, the dress, and Dylan’s ever growing rage, there was no getting over the heat both from without and within her.
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 in satan’s foot locker. She was a good daughter, a good soldier, and as such Dylan wasn’t one to complain. That being said, something had to give and quick or she was certain all the heat within and around her would cause an epic meltdown.
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 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: Tilt 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 the possibilities fast enough. In this place, no one could stop her from becoming a 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 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 no force could break ever again. Although, even though the possibility to escape inside a screen was within her grasp, a tithe was 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; a sick taunt wrapped in 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 a line no less, of a fighting game. Behind her, Dylan could feel the irritation of the crowd of teens grow. A low impatient murmur stirred underneath the high pitched chip tune that resonated within the arcade.
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 twat. 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. Unphased, the ginger boy slid Dylan a quarter across the cabinet and scoffed, “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 a digital gong sound, and a menacing digital digital voice command her to, “Choose your character.” Looking onto the screen, headshots of various warriors glared back at Dylan; a Bruce Lee clone, 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 lady 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.”
“Not tonight,” laughed the boy.
Deep from the bowels of the game cabinet, the same demonic digital voice from before commanded the Ginger and Dylan to, “Fight!” Ginger Boy’s character immediately threw a pair of knives he brought with him to their fist fight. Dylan’s lady ninja is hit; an obscene amount of cartoon blood spewing from her. A violent attack followed from the Ginger’s character; something akin to a Sloth from The Goonies but with knives for hands; punches, kicks, jabs, a constant barrage of violence ensued.
Within moments, Dylan was down in round one. 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 deep voice roared, “Round two; FIGHT!”
Instinctively, Dylan jumped over the Ginger’s opening attack and landed a boot into her opponent’s face. With two quick punches and a roundhouse kick, Dylan continued a relentless assault. She was mashing buttons, but the results proved rewarding. A quick victory for Dylan. The final round lie ahead.
Her palms were sweating now, and Dylan’s heart was beat like a Tyco drum. Everything from the coarse navy carpeting 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; this was her pride, her catharsis for the shit hand life had dealt her. She was determined to take control one game at a time, starting now.
“Round three, FIGHT!”
Dylan’s attempt to jump over the opening knife throw was countered by the Ginger’s character waving his sword-hands in the air like a blender. Fortunately, Dylan’s ninja just kept flying overhead. Before the Ginger’s avatar could react, Dylan beat punches and kicks into his backside. It was horribly one sided, but Dylan continued to pound away at the buttons like her life depended on it.
Her pride would be satisfied tonight, she’d work on her honor later.
Then, all of a sudden, the screen went dark. Dylan stopped her attack as the voice gave on last satisfying command, “Finish him.” Channeling the remnants of her anger, and blind luck, she mashed a few more buttons Dylan watched as her ninja withdrew a fan from her belt and sliced it clean through her opponent’s head. Appeased by the ultraviolence, the voice from the game laughed its approval, “Fatality!”
A spattering of applause arose from the crowd gathered behind Dylan. With a headful of over inflated confidence Dylan turned to her opponent with a rye smile, “You ready for a rematch?”
The Ginger scoffed and stepped back from the player one position as he pointed behind Dylan, “You see those cabinets behind you? You know who’s initials are in the top ten spots?”
Dylan raised an eyebrow, “Anyone worth knowing?”
From behind Dylan, the familiar voice of her father bellowed, “Dylan. Ashley. Yates.”
Mortified, Dylan slowly turned, along with the crowd. Standing in the entry way like a stone colossus, her father stood staring a hole into his daughter’s head. Like voluntarily pulling herself free from an intravenous drip, or an iron lung, Dylan heeded her father’s call.
As she walked from her digital refuge, Dylan heard the mocking cry of the Ginger, “You don’t want to 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, glaring at her violin. The piece of wood and string 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 instruments are smart, and sophisticated.”
Dylan’s standard reply; “People who play the guitar have friends.”
Still, Dylan was a good daughter and practiced twice a day. She practiced until her fingers burned; 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.
Then she found Mortal Kombat.
Everything changed when she assumed the identity of her lady ninja. All of a sudden, Dylan didn’t feel powerless against the world and everything it took from her and replaced with total garbage. When she took ahold of that machine, Dylan became someone bigger, someone different, someone with the power to fight back.
She wasn’t going to give that feeling 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 walked across the shingles to 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 across 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 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 the frame for safety.
She 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 vacant air as Dylan finally approached her oasis of light and sound.
Panting for breath, Dylan approached the back counter with reverence. A portly gentleman with a beard and purple aviator shades looked up from his copy of Nintendo Power Magazine. Scratching his beard with indifference the man looked down at Dylan; “we’re closing up here, can I help you?”
Taking in a deep breath, Dylan slapped a crumpled Hamilton on the counter; “Quarters, I need forty quarters.”
With a hand full of change in pocket, Dylan was going to squeeze as much practice in 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 demonic voice, “Choose your character.”
Again, Dylan choose her lady ninja.
She didn’t know how much time had passed. She lost track of how many other ninjas she slaughtered. All Dylan knew is that she had to get to the top. After beating a four armed creature to death, Dylan had finally reached the final boss. This boss could teleport, shapeshift, and shoot fireballs from his hands; none of which could prevent Dylan from sending him straight to video game hell.
At last, Dylan had beat the game. A blinking cursor asked for Dylan to enter her initials to which she complied.
Dylan stood back from the cabinet to admire her work; eight place. She knew she could 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. Dylan wasn’t just mastering a game, she was expanding her own self awareness and capabilities as a warrior.
Again, time had slipt her grasp. No matter; D.A.Y. now occupied the top ten slots of Mortal Kombat including the number one spot. Dylan quickly turned at the sound of clapping behind her. There standing behind a lanky black man wearing a similar Tilt Arcade uniform, the man from behind the counter scratched his beard, pleased of the sight before him.
Adjusting his name tag, Tom removed his hand from his beard; “That’s pretty damn impressive girl.”
The black man, Nathan, gave a low whistle, “This chick’s like a regular wizard, or a real life Captain N or something.”
Tom laughed, “Nay, Captain Day.”
Nathan clicked his heels and gave a salute, “Captain Day.”
Dylan was twelve, and although she’d just mastered Mortal Kombat, sarcasm was still a freshly learned skill as well. She tested the waters; “Yeah, you guys have anything with more of a challenge in this place?” Dylan withdrew the eight dollars and fifty cents that remained in her pocket.
Tom whistled and gestured his hand towards a cabinet to his right, “Well Captain, might I interest you in Killer Instinct?”
Two hours later, Dylan had carved her initials all over the Tilt Arcade. Not a single top score earned by the Ginger Boy remained… or so she was told by the employees who let her stay after hours. Dylan’s metamorphosis into a new self had begun, and she left her new sanctuary cleansed. The fire that once burned within her had been quelled to a slow smoulder… for now.
Dylan was able to gain the strength she needed to let go of her anger, and sorrow. As the metal partition was lowered, and Dylan said her goodbyes, she walked victoriously toward the exit. The elevator music was no more. The only sound in the mall was the sound of Dylan’s triumphant march. She was nearly certain nothing could ruin this high. Unfortunately, life is not without its cyclical nature.
With a heavy sigh, Dylan looked down at where her bike should be. Stuck in the metal rack was nothing more than a chain and a tire. Sticking her hands in her pockets, Dylan felt around for 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.
Maybe she’d walk instead?
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 look at 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.
Dylan waited for not but ten minutes after she 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 never turned his head towards the door. The door was heavier 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 changes even if there’s no one coming in either direction. Silence flooded the car like carbon monoxide being pumped in from through the tailpipe and into the window while idling in a closed garage. It was worth it, Dylan thought to herself; she had gained transcendance.
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… 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.”
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 didn’t grow, and she certainly didn’t look any more like a lady ninja even after the hours she had spent playing. Nevertheless, a new Dylan had been sween into the fabric of her being. It wasn’t the game that was real to her, but the seed that was growing within Dylan’s mind, heart, and soul certainly felt real.
It was all real.