The Kontest

“This is my machine.”

George’s Arcade was a converted BP station situated in the parking lot between two restaurants, Big Beaver Breakfast and La Frontera.

Diane stood with her arms crossed, defiant. Of course it was her machine. Not only had she mastered the moves of every character in Mortal Kombat, but her family owned the arcade. She faced a growing crowd of elementary and middle school kids fresh out of last period.

Small, bespectacled Bernard was next to her, visibly quaking. The kids called him Nards, a nickname that began as an insult and had eventually lost its power out of repetition. Now it was a strange term of endearment. “Get her, Nards,” someone said, low.

“It’s not fair,” Nards said. “You don’t even have to pay. We’d all be that good if we had the key and we could just keep sticking in the same quarter.”

“Key or not,” Diane replied, “I’m this good because I work at it and I beat all of your asses. I should hit you for real.” She raised her fist and the crowd backed up a step, forming a half circle around them.

“I’ve been practicing as well,” said Nards. “I have a setup at home. Me and the guys chipped in, didn’t we guys?” He looked around for support, his arms raised. “We’ve been playing all weekend and I’m obviously the best.”

“Everybody knows that Nintendo isn’t the same,” said Diane. “It doesn’t even have a joystick. You’ll get wrecked in the tournament.”

“I’d wreck you,” he said, practically panting, “if you’d just give me the chance!”

“You don’t have any money,” she said. “You and your dirty friends spent it all on shitty Nintendo games and this is the real deal. I can play all I want but you need quarters and I don’t see any.”

Nards looked down, his eyes welling. Dozens of sneaker-clad feet shuffled around him. “He can win. I’m telling you he can win,” said a girl, softly, behind him.

“Shut the fuck up, Liz,” said Diane. “You’re not coming to my tournament party if you don’t keep your goddamned mouth shut.”

“Holy shit,” drifted up from the back of the crowd. The kids were accustomed to regular playground banter but now they were┬áin the wild frontier of verbal conflict.

No one had noticed the bell jingling atop the swinging glass door behind the kids. The crowd began to part as someone made their way through. Their heads tilted down towards a boy hefting a backpack that looked as if it might weigh as much as he did. He struggled, each step thudding, until he reached the players’ territory in front of the machine and let the pack drop to the floor with a jangle.

“Donnie,” said Diane, as if stating a fact.

Donnie looked up, grinning through a smear of chocolate. “I’m here to pway,” he said. He couldn’t have been five years old. He wasn’t even in school yet but here he was, unsupervised, with a bag full of his daddy’s money.

“Fuck off Donnie,” Diane said. “You don’t know shit about Mortal Kombat and you’re going to get machine all sticky.”

“I can pway,” he said, grinning impossibly. Was he unhinging his jaw? “I can pway. I can pway aww day.”

Donnie unzipped the bag and revealed what must have been upwards of $500 in quarters. The still-growing audience collectively gasped.

“He can play,” voices arose from behind him. It was a chant. “He can play. He can play!”

“Okay, okay,” Diane said. “Fuck. Fine. Someone get him a stool. And wipe your goddamned hands, Donnie.”

The children were used to following orders from Diane. She practically ran the place. They were vaguely aware of a wiry fellow smoking a cigar behind the glass display case full of wacky wall walkers and parachute men, but no one paid him any mind anymore. It was rumored he’d beat every level of Pac Man back in ’83, but there was a dwindling number of kids who even knew what that was.

Step stool fetched and hands wiped, Donnie took his place to Diane’s right. “This will be a piece of cake,” she said aloud for the benefit of the crowd.

She smiled.

Donnie selected a character, seemingly at random, and they began.

Diane’s hands flew in a flurry of special moves. She landed hit after hit and, within seconds, Donnie was down.

She laughed, a cackle that sent chills down spines. “Hope you have another huge sack of cash, Donnie Dumpo!”

Round Two began. Donnie flailed, wildly. Beads of sweat dotted his brow.

He was hitting her.

“Shit,” she said, breathing heavily. “Stop playing wrong YOU’RE PLAYING WRONG.”

She tried combo after combo and produced nothing. Donnie landed a hit. Hit. Hit. Hit.

Then she was down.

“Fuck you, Donnie. Fuck you,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’m done fucking around.”

Round Three. Fight.

Diane was tense, livid. Heavy breaths shot out through her nostrils.

“You can’t. You won’t,” she said, punctuating each jerk of her joystick and button mash with a declaration. “You can’t!”

Donnie flopped, jumping up and down on the stool in time with his character on screen. He was mad. Whirling. Winning.

“NO. FUCK,” Diane cried as her power bar lowered. For every hit she landed he returned another, and then another. She couldn’t discern a pattern. He was pure chaos, a random number generator made flesh.

Then she was down, both Diane and her character. Somehow Donnie had fumbled into a Fatality sequence, which had just begun, and Diane was on the floor doing something when the screen went dark.

She stood up and brandished a thick, black electrical cable.

Moans of disappointment filtered through the room.

“Fuck you guys,” she said. “That’s right,” she yelled after them as the crowd began to break up. “Fuck you. I earned this. This is my arcade! I’m going to the tournament. Me! Me!”

Donnie had already dragged his bag over to plug quarters into Street Fighter II. Liz hung back, hands clasped, and Nards, inexplicably, was still standing beside the Mortal Kombat machine.

“Uh, Diane,” he said, his chin down. “Uh, can I go to the tournament party with you? I can carry your bag.”

“Eat shit, Nards.” she said. “I’m taking Liz.”

Liz smiled.

Part two of The Kontest is here.