The arcade smelled of comfort. The sweet aroma of candy mixed with the smell of warm electronics and even warmer plastic. The din of the hundreds of fans in the room collided with the arcade games’ dings, bells, and sounds as day one of the National Arcade Championships wound down.
Jayden stepped back from his machine as his high score tallied, the numbers ticking up until they came to a stop in second place, right below FirePan. He gritted his teeth in frustration. Five of nine games in the first round went to FirePan; the other four were his. If he wanted to win the $15,000 and title of National Arcade Champion, he would have to find some way to beat FirePan, but who was he? He headed towards the lounge at the rear of the arcade, hoping to run into Avery again. They met this morning as he was grabbing an energy drink, and she was struggling with a prescription bottle. Her arthritis made it difficult to open the childproof cap on the painkillers, and they began chatting as he helped her.
He found out that she had been playing arcade games for years. Her condition prevented her from working, so ‘noodling around with games’ was her escape from the world. She was beautiful and brave for coming to help at the Championships during a pain flare and instantly caught his attention. They laughed and chatted until he had to practice for his first round. He left her to rest with a promise to meet up again at the end of the day. He scanned the audience for her all day and didn’t see her. Hopefully, she didn’t have to leave early. Footsteps ran up behind him, and he turned, butterflies in his stomach, and saw Gary with his big mop of red hair bouncing as he ran over to him.
“Great job today, man. Not as good as FirePan, but you’ll get him tomorrow.”
“Thanks. You know, for a best friend, you do a great job at keeping my spirits up.”
“Keeping your spirits up? Come on, the top-ranked player in our city doesn’t need help with that. Besides, isn’t that Avery’s job now?”
“We just met this morning, don’t be a dunce. Besides, you’re just jealous because the only thing you could pull with that clown wig of yours is a Big Mac.”
As they spoke, a commotion began with people shouting, “FirePan, can I have your autograph?”
The urge to look for Avery faded as he finally had an opportunity to see FirePan. They had been on opposite sides of the arcade all day, always missing each other. He pushed through the crowds and saw a jacket with the image of a Panda, paws aflame on the back. He paused, not believing his eyes until FirePan turned around, and it was Avery. She lit up when she saw him but quickly grew confused as he abruptly turned to walk away. Realization set in when some of the fans turned to him, asking, “BubbleSlayer, can you sign my program?” Her heart sank.
The following morning Avery and Jayden spent some time chatting before the day started, but there was a noticeable chill between them. “Morning, how are your hands?” Jayden asked, opening his energy drink.
“Sore. I lost my meds yesterday, so I’m in rough shape. Did you do anything interesting last night?”
Gary walked over during the conversation and held his drink in between them while they spoke.
“Not really, just sat in my hotel room and practiced on a few simulators. I’m sorry to hear about your meds. I hope it doesn’t interfere too much.”
Gary laughed, “Seriously? Man, at least now you may have a fighting chance.”
Jayden scowled at him, “That’s not funny, and what are you doing with your drink?”
Looking at the can, Gary simply said, “They were out of ice, so I was hoping the chill between you two would cool it down for me.” He deftly dodged Jayden’s swipe at him just as they announced the day’s beginning. Jayden and Avery wished each other luck and went their own ways.
The final day of the competition flew by in a blur. In the end, BubbleSlayer won five of nine games, and FirePan took four, bringing the top two contenders to a tiebreaker. There would be a one-hour break and then a head-to-head competition of Q-Bert. Security kept the audience at bay as the competitors made their way to the lounge to rest. Avery had already entered the lounge as Jayden began making his way down the hall. He paused beside Bubble Bobble as he noticed something sticking out behind the rear of the machine. It was Avery’s medications.
Jayden paused, then continued to walk to the lounge, feeling sure he would win. He made it fifteen feet before jogging back to grab the pills. The walk back to the lounge was full of emotion. He really wanted to win, but he also really liked Avery. Besides, would he seriously want to win that way? He found Avery sitting by herself, massaging her hands and grimacing in pain. “You’re grimacing. Are your hands that sore, or did you just chat with Gary again?”
Avery laughed and smiled up at him.
“I found your painkillers. They had fallen behind one of the games. Will they work in time?”
Avery’s eyes welled with tears, “Thank you, Jayden! You have no idea how much pain I’m in. Yes, they will work in time. I’ll still be sore, but it’ll be much better. Why did you do this? You would have beat me for sure.”
“That’s not how I want to win. Besides, I like you. I’m sorry, I let my competitive nature get the better of me. I should not have been so cold to you. Do you want to grab dinner afterwards? Winner pays.”
“Yes, I do. But you know, I’m not going easy on you.”