Jay heard there were forgotten warehouses filled to the brim with arcade cabinets in varying states of functionality and outright disrepair. She thought they were something of an urban legend until back in March, seven cabinets from just such a warehouse were dropped off at her house.
This was, in the three years since Jay began repairing cabinets, her most involved project yet. Upright arcade cabinets littered her house for the last two months, sticky notes covering the marquees.
Needs new joysticks, buttons…everything basically, try to source a CRT
order dial, new side panel art, new RAM chips
PCB utterly fried; LCD conversion? can you even find a replacement bezel??????
general maintenance, LED marquee conversion
Only one had to be written off as a total loss given that the PCB was snapped in two. Deliberately, it seemed; Jay sometimes ran across a board with a chipped corner but never with such clear evidence of force having been applied to break a board. She salvaged a few chips and other parts from it to see if they could be used on some other cabinets.
The rest were now partially disassembled, parts spread out on small card tables next to each one, the bad chips tagged with stickers to be removed once replacements came in. That was, if she could ever get the money to order them.
She gathered up the hastily stapled together manuals and spec sheets that covered her desk chair and groaned as she lowered herself down into it. Perhaps the two hours of hunching over the side panels of a cabaret, removing the tattered vinyl wood grain with a heat gun, and sanding away the excess glue had been a bit much. Maybe her back would loosen up after a hot shower but there wouldn’t be time for that until later on.
Jay powered on the desktop and booted into the bare bones work partition that held only scans of manuals, invoices, and diagrams of cabinets and PCBs, and a dedicated email client. As it turned out, she didn’t even need to sign in. There were no new email notifications on the lock screen even after she waited a few moments to make sure the WI-fi connection was on. Of course. This was Aaron’s M.O.
Jay knew nothing about Aaron Walker, just that his bank transfers always cleared with no problems. Accepting the job was a week long process that involved cruising every repair forum she knew for news of any arcade cabinet theft, a search that had turned up nothing. The cabinets were his as far as Jay could verify.
What she couldn’t figure out was why he chose to go with a comparatively inexperienced solo cabinet repair-person when just on the other side of DTLA, there was a whole warehouse that did sales and repairs.
“They’re probably better equipped for this sort of thing than I am,” she’d said during her lone phone call with Aaron. “I’m just one person and this isn’t my day job.”
But he insisted, saying simply, “You’re closer and I’m in no hurry.”
“I can’t always fix a PCB,” she’d warned him.
“A PC…can you pay someone to do it if you can’t?”
“Then just get a quote and send it over. Actually, just do that with any parts you need. Problem solved.”
Since then, she hadn’t spoken directly to Aaron.
She always imagined working with one of those types who wasn’t a tightwad would be less of a pain (especially when it came time to deliver the bad news about how much side panel art cost) but it was slowing her down. On one hand, she didn’t have to take on any new projects for a solid six months. On the other, she had to keep dealing with Aaron.
What his problem was with responding to emails in a timely fashion, Jay could not figure out. A month ago, she emailed over her third tally of parts, one that should get a few cabinets more or less functional with only cosmetic fixes to take care of. But, she was still waiting for the money to be sent. She didn’t much mind the delay since she’d been paid up front for the labor but it did make troubleshooting a hassle. So much of a hassle, Jay took on a side job for P1 Arcade just to pass the time. She liked fixing things and Aaron got in the way of that.
P1’s owner, Nina, had a new restoration she wanted Jay to assess. “It’s interesting,” she’d promised. Only Jay had no idea what that meant nor did she ask as it didn’t matter. Jobs for P1 gave her a reason to get the hell out of the house and around people who weren’t old (like at her tech support job) or incompetent for longer than it took them to load up a machine on a pickup truck.
This early in the day, the 10 freeway’s traffic was smoother than usual and within half an hour, Jay was navigating into the alley behind P1. She sent a text and waited for the flickering of the light over the back door that let her know Nina was waiting on the other side.
“It’s barely noon,” Jay said. “Pretty sure I can wait by the door in broad daylight.”
“We’ve been through this,” Nina latched the back door. “There’s too many weirdos around here for you to jus’ be lurking in alleys.”
“I’ll be fine. How many people are still out on the floor?”
“Just that one old guy who hogs the cocktail,” Nina sighed. “Which brings me to what I called you here for,” she unlocked the storage room.
It wasn’t too different from what Jay’s living and dining room looked like, just with worse lighting, higher unfinished ceilings, and more machines and Jay groaned when she saw the newest addition.
“I thought you said it was interesting.”
How many Galaga cabinets had she put together? Cleaned surface grime off of? Picked caked on relish off of?
Jay tossed her jacket on one of the spare tables and took her time surveying the cabinet. It was an upright one, an original. The buttons were filthy and half of them stuck when pressed and she didn’t hear anything when she moved the joystick. This was going to be a messy job considering the side panels and bezel were covered in red stains that looked like they’d been there longer than Jay had been alive.
“Think it’s dried blood? Or ketchup?”
Nina tried to pick some of the caked on red substance off and Jay lightly poked her hand.
“And if it is blood?” she asked.
“Like we’ll ever know,” Nina shrugged. “That thing had like five owners before me. I just wanted it before one of those ‘collectors’ got to it and it sat rotting in somebody garage for another decade. Besides, I needed an actual Galaga. The multi-game cocktail is for people to play multiple games, not just Galaga.”
“Is it even safe to plug in?”
“Pretty sure it is,” Nina nodded. “The screen was on when I picked it up so that works at least but it wouldn’t boot.”
Jay waited for the self-boot test to run, all the while marveling at how a machine with chipped side panels, a cracked bezel, and a sticky film all over it still had a functional CRT. She snapped a picture of the failed tests to look at once the PCB was out.
She unplugged it while Nina got the tool bags to begin the tear-down process. A thick layer of dust and cobwebs covered everything in the cabinet, a sure sign it had never been opened.
“Go grab the vacuum from the maintenance room,” Nina tossed her a bundle of keys, each of them with a colorful rubber sleeve around the top. “It’s the–”
“Green key. I remember.”
P1’s maintenance room was near the front of the building, a long hallway that lightly echoed the beeping and explosions from the demo loops running in the main hall. It was calming, much different from the dead silence that engulfed her house when she was particularly engrossed in a project. She’d solved the problem with a radio on a timer, but it wasn’t remotely the same.
She brushed the dust off the vacuum and set about tugging it back down the hall, ignoring the lingering twinge in her back as she did so. Nina was on the phone when she got back so she sat, leaning against the vacuum handle.
“I’ll get back to you…by next week? That works. I’ll know for sure by then. Okay. Bye.”
Nina sat on one of the spare tables and stared at Jay. Her platinum blonde braids were tied back and she’d put on her glasses.
“You still haven’t gotten any brighter bulbs?” Jay pointed at the hanging lights, so yellow she was sure they hadn’t been changed since at least the 80s.
“It’s too dim back here still.” A poor attempt at changing the subject that Nina wouldn’t acknowledge, but she had to try before she had to decide whether or not to turn down some sort of outing her old therapist would have been thrilled to hear she’d gone on.
Silence. Jay went to set up the vacuum, an even clumsier attempt to not hear the offer but just as she plugged it in, Nina spoke.
“An old friend from GudeTime is running like, a history of gaming booth at E3 and wants to rent some cabinets.”
Nina was quiet for a moment before asking, “Would you help me keep ‘em up and running for the weekend? If it was just a few I wouldn’t ask but they want like twenty.”
Jay asked, “Are the passes free?”
“Yeah, we’ll be industry.”
This was, Jay supposed, progress. Two years ago she’d have simply said, “Hell no.” A year ago, she would have made sure to schedule a cabinet or two to be ready for pickup on the days of E3. This time, even though she’d still made futile attempts to avoid even being asked, she said, “Sure.”
Once all the dust was out of the cabinet and the PCB removed, Jay and Nina got a good look at the other innards. The power supply probably needed replacing, as did the speakers. No amount of scrubbing was going to get the red gunk off the panels which elicited a sigh from Nina.
“You’d think panel art would be cheaper given how many of these things are out there…”
“I’ll bring the heat gun next time,” Jay said. “And I might have a loose joystick around the house.”
A knock on the door drew the two away from the computer screen.
“Floor’s empty and the kitchen’s clean. You want me to empty the coin buckets?”
Since she’d been doing jobs for P1, Jay never managed to find out very much about Kishawn aside from the fact that he made the best chili fries east of Johnnie’s. In fact, he was more or less why P1 was known to the downtown lunch crowds as a restaurant and not an arcade.
“Yeah,” Nina said while Jay stifled a yawn. He got the burlap sack and cabinet keys and made his way back out to the floor.
“What’s his deal?”
“You should ask him. He’ll talk back if you talk to him but he’ll never talk first. I’ll be right back,” Nina took her phone and car keys. “I’ll take you home.”
Jay had the opportunity to put it to the test quicker than she anticipated when Kishawn came in with the bag of quarters to be rolled.
“Where’s Nina?” he asked, pouring the bag into the coin roller.
“Putting her car in the lot.”
“Mm.” Kishawn seemed content to just wait for the roller to finish, the clinking echoing against the stone walls of the storage room. Jay didn’t take it personally; she’d have done the same thing. But, there were going to be times at E3 when she wouldn’t be able to stick entirely to a script about classic games and she wouldn’t have the year it had taken her to warm up to Nina before she started sounding like a normal person again.
At the moment, her phone was already up to her face as it usually was when she got nervous, a bad habit she was going to have to break. She forced herself to put it in her pocket and glanced around the room, trying to subtly survey Kishawn. There had to be something to strike up some menial chatter about and-
“Where’d you get your tattoos done?” she asked. “I wanted some with some color but you know how people are. You darker than a paper bag and they act like they can’t do color. All Nina’s are just black so…” Jay let herself trail off, hoping she hadn’t blown this entire interaction. She’d done it before.
“Ah…place in Baldwin Hills. Ink Majors.” At least he didn’t seem totally put off. Even more surprising was when he held his arm out.
“I can…?” He nodded.
“It’s been a few years but I don’t think it’s fading too bad,” he said as Jay took a closer look.
Thick, swirling red lines wrapped around his right forearm, stopping near his elbow with the name “Mary-Ann” inside a heart with “1970” in smaller lettering underneath. It was far more delicate than most “Mom” tattoos she’d run across.
“This is so pretty. Did the artist come up with this design?”
“No. I did,” Nina said. She sounded slightly out of breath and Jay was going to ask if she was okay until Kishawn gently pulled his arm out of her hands.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s alright. I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”
Nina gave him a thumbs up before continuing to gather up her laptop and various chargers. She seemed to have calmed down as they locked up, to the point where Jay thought maybe nothing was wrong. Even still, before they pulled out of the alley, she lay a hand on Nina’s arm.
“You alright? You looked kinda shaken up when you came back.”
“I’m good.” Nina started the car and backed out before continuing, “I just felt like someone was watching me. But we both know I’m paranoid so it was prolly just a cat. Anyway, are you getting ready for E3 already?”
“Not very well,” Jay sighed. “If Kishawn quits tomorrow, I know how to use a deep fryer. Just get me some brick chili and I’ll do my best.”
“Shawn I’ll be back. He got this new shrimp thing he wants to add to the menu.”
Nina didn’t bother with the losing battle that would be attempting to convince Jay she hadn’t said anything strange and Jay didn’t blame her. Instead she turned the radio on to the trap channel where songs with the sorts of lyrics Jay’s mom would classify only as “bullshit” began to play. Jay found herself listening to it more often recently, one of the few ways she still understood how to cut loose.
She spent most of her time alone these days, all her high school friends having moved across the country, her college ones even further, and the ones from the industry even further still. If she could just get to Osaka or Berlin…until then, she was content with being able to nod off in the passenger’s seat of a car for the first time in years.
“What’s all this?”
Jay looked up from the sink, rinsing the dishes Nina had already washed. Nina had poked her head into the living room and Jay groaned.
“That’s all from that rich guy who never answers my damn emails.”
“…and he just had Pac-Land laying around? Who even bought Pac-Land?”
“I’m telling you, this dude weird as hell. He don’t know what some of these cabinets are worth,” she turned the water off and went near the Street Fighter II cabinet.
“Check out what was in some of the coin buckets,” Jay held up a handful of arcade tokens.
Nina nearly brushed them off as the sort of thing you’d get at a Chuck-E-Cheese (Jay had done the same thing at first, too) but frowned when she took a closer look at the name stamped on them.
“The Malibu Castle? That old arcade off the green line?”
“The very same.”
“They ever say what happened to that place?”
Jay shrugged. All she remembered about the place was that it was always hot with warm sodas and sticky buttons that made her lose a few rounds of Soul Calibur to eight year-olds. Next thing she knew, the mini-golf course was overgrown and the sign was gone, the building left to rot in the salty air and sun.
“He says what he’s gonna do with these when you’re done?”
“Nope. He just wanted them to look new.”
“Gimme his number later…I might want to buy some of these…” Nina circled the cabinets, the only person Jay would let around her half-finished projects.
“You got enough games already.”
“Please…my grandpa told me I could use that building so long as I can keep the lights on. I’m gon’ fill it to the brim. If I can’t make games anymore, I still wanna get them out there somehow.”
Jay nodded, glad for once someone understood why she spent all her spare time cleaning dirt out of machines that were older than she was.
Jay felt like she was drowning.
Maybe drowning was the wrong word because she liked the feeling of being swept away in the sea, the origin of which she didn’t care to identify and whose flow she didn’t want to stop.
She couldn’t call it her favorite dream because of what came after. First, her alarm. Then, the vomiting.
Jay felt around for the bucket she’d taken to keeping next to her bed and instead hit the leg of the coffee table. Why was she on the couch…? But the bucket was right next to it so she focused on that.
All that came up was bile. Again. She only had enough time to catch her breath and wipe the tears from her eyes before her stomach told her she’d have to finish off the job on the toilet. She picked up the bucket and shuffled over to the bathroom. She didn’t remember much about the previous night, just that she’d drank too much damn soda after weeks of not having any and that was guaranteed to upset her stomach. And yet, she’d done it anyway.
Jay stared down at her damp boxers and sweatpants when she was done, trying to remember why she’d slept in clothes at all. She kicked the pants away and peeled off her tank top, running the balled up fabric underneath her breasts before tossing it in the hamper.
She had the drowning dream and ones like it at least once a week until she quit working at DS Entertainment.
That was how she ended up in the repair business. It was games just…fixing them, not making them. Instead of professionally pressed Blu-ray discs and dual-layer DVDs and game cards, she delivered 800 pound upright arcade cabinets with less RAM than some watches. A happy medium. Or, at least it was.
She caught sight of a bra hanging across the shower curtain rod, only it wasn’t one of hers. For one, it wasn’t black.
Before she could even begin to figure out who left it there (Christine? But that was months ago and she wouldn’t even pee at Jay’s house.), there were a couple of light raps on the door.
Ideally, it was the owner of the bra but considering she couldn’t remember when or how she’d gotten home last night, she wasn’t too hopeful. What was the point of not drinking when stone cold sober she couldn’t remember anything after a nightmare?
Jay cleared her throat a few times before she could answer.
“Would you mind passing me my bra?”
Nina? Well, at least there was one question answered while a dozen more popped up. She quickly washed her hands and pulled on her bathrobe before grabbing the bra.
“Thank you.” Nina laid it across her shoulder, in no hurry to get dressed. “Um…are you okay?”
Jay swallowed. How was she supposed to respond to that?
“Why do you ask?” is what she settled on but Nina’s frown told her all she needed to know.
“Well I heard you stumbling in here and throwing up before I came in but…are you okay? Like, are you really okay?”
“I will be.” A lie Jay would have to deal with later, most likely alone.
“You don’t have to do the booth with me. I can manage it.”
Or maybe not alone. Maybe.
“I want to,” Jay said. “And I will. It’s just…I haven’t been to any kind of con since I quit.”
“How bad was the crunch?” Nina asked softly.
“Same as it was for you.”
“So sobbing in the bathroom at work?”
“A few times. I held on just to get the last game done but once it went gold…I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“Well, it’s my first E3 since I quit too. We’ll figure something out.”
The last person that had told Jay that was lying through their teeth and she’d known it. But with Nina, she believed there was a chance she could walk out of the convention center in one piece.
Another week passed with no word from Aaron and Jay was beginning to grow impatient. It wasn’t like she needed the space back; few people came over and there were other rooms in the house she could stretch out in. At this point, she just wanted Aaron out of her hair but he was determined to stay there, like unsoaked build-up after a few weeks of individuals.
Rather than stay in the house, Jay sat behind what would have been a prize counter in a shadier arcade. At P1 it was a small gift shop and cash booth off the side of the kitchen. On a Wednesday, they were leaning more into the restaurant side of things, with Jay rarely needing to sell a shirt or give change.
Every so often, she popped her head in the kitchen to see if Kishawn needed any help but somehow, he kept the whole thing running alone. She wanted to watch longer, just to marvel at how he could manage so many open flames at once when Jay sometimes got overwhelmed with just three skillets on the stove.
But With Nina out on a run for spare parts, there was no one around to convince Jay that asking to hang out in the kitchen wouldn’t have been weird. So she kept her quiet station at the counter, wishing more people remembered this was an arcade, not just a restaurant.
“Sorry, do you have change for a fifty?” She wasn’t the type they usually saw this time of day. No suit, no city badge, nor was her hair tucked into a bun of some sort.
Jay counted out three tens and a twenty and handed it to the woman.
She passed up the Ms. Pacman cabinet entirely, cementing that she wasn’t just here for a quick trip to her youth.
Jay watched the woman go up and down a couple of rows, playing only one round of each game, her hand lingering on the control panel before moving on to the next one. Jay did the same thing when she was finally able to stomach touching a video game made after the year 2000.
She stopped at the Galaga cabinet, where she spent the longest.
Thanks to Aaron, this was the first time she got to admire her own work in action in quite some time. The light presses of the joystick and gentle button presses made Jay smile; this woman appreciated a well maintained cabinet. Nina would be glad to hear it when she got back since there was nothing she hated more than “dirty ass control panels messing with people’s high scores”.
Soon though, she got a game over and made her way towards the front of P1 and Jay wondered if she’d end up a regular. So she described the woman to Nina when she finally made it back to P1. Nina always knew.
“Mm…fifty-fifty,” Nina said as she moved down the row, Jay trailing behind her with the burlap sack as she emptied the coin buckets. She didn’t need the help but preferred to have another set of eyes to give things a once-over.
“You sure you’re good for this weekend? You really don’t have to.”
Jay stopped to take a picture of a scratched control panel cover, mulling over Nina’s offer.
How much more was she going to pass up? How long would she keep avoiding one of the things she’d once loved so much she planned to spend her life doing it?
“I’ll be fine. We both will.”
GudeTime’s booth was done up to look like an old arcade, complete with the black light rugs and grimy coin exchange machines with the red “Out of Order” lights lit up.
“They really outdid themselves,” Nina said and Jay could see her excitement bubbling up. This part of cons was always fun, before the world finally got to see what the industry spent ages prepping.
“Only thing missing is the inexplicable sticky spots,” Jay mused, thinking of all the times she’d gone to clear a coin drop and found the mat she knelt on stuck to the floor.
She finished taping down the last of the power cords and rolled back the carpet before standing up to stretch. Her back would probably hold up through the day at least, provided she didn’t need to take anything apart. And she probably wouldn’t have to do that; almost all of P1’s cabinets managed to stay operational after the short drive to the convention center.
The PCB of a Millipede had slipped just a bit, an easy enough fix. It was back in place, secured, and the game was now up and running on the floor, though she placed the cabinet close to the info desk just so she could keep an eye on it.
The industry-only hours went smoothly, with not much traffic. She knew all the real deals and previews were happening in the private booths, the ones you couldn’t even get a glimpse inside of when you walked by. Before Jay quit DS, she’d just gotten to the point where on occasion, she was needed in some of those closed-door meetings but she’d long since forgotten what for. Maybe that was for the best.
Manning the GudeTime booth required enough of Jay’s attention that her mind didn’t wander which was welcome when it was Nina’s lunch break and Jay had to manage alone. People didn’t stay too long, most of them breezing through when the lines at the marquee booths got capped.
Most of her time was spent at the desk, refilling the stack of fliers for P1 and the full-color game timeline that went from Pong all the way up to the AAA titles with the garish displays and presentations. Occasionally someone would chat her up, but it rarely got more complex than explaining that changing out joysticks wasn’t as hard as it looked to horrified individuals who’d probably never even taken a can of compressed air to a desktop tower.
“Excuse me, I think there’s a problem over here,” a man pointed to the Millipede cabinet.
His face was familiar though the name on his badge, Hal Jameson, wasn’t in the slightest.
Jay followed him over to the Millipede cabinet and it only took a few minutes to pull the control panel down and get the trackball out. Salt crystals from one of those giant pretzels were trapped in the trackball’s housing. Nothing a shop towel and a bit of lube on the bearings couldn’t solve.
She was used to being watched while doing repairs, her trips to that arcade expo in the Bay Area typically resulting in impromptu repair sessions at least one of the two days. But this wasn’t like the teenagers trying to see what actually repairing a cabinet was like, or when she and Nina were setting up a new machine at P1 for the regulars.
Hal knew her; of that much Jay was certain. She just had no idea from where since of what happened after her first year at DS Ent was a blur. The press events and the office getting filmed and the times she got assigned to talk to the press, sports against other devs in the area…she could have seen him anywhere, really. And honestly? She didn’t want to figure out where. Coming to a con at all was enough for the moment.
“Should be up and running,” Jay said as quietly as the show floor would allow her to speak.
She retreated behind the desk, wishing more of those scrapbook types who wanted to document the entire weekend were coming by, that they’d chat her up about anything she could confidently talk about. Instead, the booth experienced a lull, only a few of the twenty cabinets actually being played.
“How’s it been going?”
Jay was startled by the sound of Nina’s voice, even if she ultimately was glad for it. At least now she was finally able to tear her eyes away from Hal’s back.
“Ah…fine. Had to fix a trackball but everything else been good so far.”
“Go,” Nina passed her a GudeTime branded badge with a QR code on it. “They’ll let you in the private lounge; there’s no meetings until after hours today.”
“Flights got delayed and we’re on the guest list. Just go, girl, you look awful.”
Jay only just had the wherewithal to navigate the bustling isle ways. One minute she was in the background of some cosplayer’s photo shoot, the next she had to duck out of a vlog but eventually, she made it to the lounge. While not soundproof, all the loudspeakers, interviewing, and vloggers were cut down significantly. She could think, which is what she ended up doing instead of just sleeping. And, for the first time, she started to think maybe it was still too soon.
She kicked her shoes off and set them next to the couch, wishing the Wi-fi wasn’t so awful. Data was too slow to do anything except send text messages.
I’ll come back if u need help, to which she only got a peace sign in response, something Nina only did if she was too busy to talk.
How are things?
That went to Kishawn, who was apparently handling a whole party at P1 by himself. He said it wasn’t big, but there were just enough children to warrant keeping a few machines running. A light gun cabinet here, an air hockey cabinet there, a multi-game cabinet for the older folks to go, “This was IT! This was high tech!” while playing Elevator Action. It was the sort of thing Jay would have probably had fun doing, now that she thought about it.
And yet, here she was, sprawled in a company lounge at E3 for the fourth time. She took her glasses off, the weak prescription only serving to make things a bit sharper in the dim light of the exhibit halls, and rubbed at her eyes.
Unsure how the rest of the day might go, she closed her eyes. Maybe a nap would help.
Except, it didn’t. Not five minutes later, Jay forced herself awake, glad that this was one of the times where she was aware she was dreaming. Today still had the potential to turn back around but not if she was dreaming of crying in the DS Ent bathroom.
A GudeTime branded water bottle came into her line of sight and rather than question it, she took it. After making sure the seal actually cracked, she had a few sips. She went to say “Thank you” until she saw who she would be thanking.
“You’re not in here by accident,” she told Hal.
“Here? No,” he held up an invite to a meeting set for later in the afternoon. “But here at the same time as you? That was luck.”
“Why was it luck?” she asked, now wholly focused on putting her shoes back on and getting the hell out. Some break. A perfect place to get a nap at a con and she had to give it up.
“You really don’t remember?”
“No, I really don’t and whatever you think you should remind me of, don’t.”
Jay glanced at her watch; still forty minutes until she needed to be back at the booth. Enough time to force down the memories she could feel trying to come back into focus.
“Then I won’t,” he shrugged. “But take this,” he gave Jay a business card.
“‘Hiring manager’…what is this?”
“A job offer.”
“Look, I don’t know where you know me from, but you can probably find someone else. Better yet, find someone who’s looking.”
“I’ve seen your highlight reel; I want you on this project.”
“…did I not delete them all…?” she asked herself, running through a list of all the cloud accounts she used to host work on. They should have all been private or otherwise totally deleted.
“Just think it over,” Hal said.
“I already have.”
She slipped her glasses back on and slipped her phone and the business card into her pocket before leaving.
A few booths down, there was a gameplay exhibition with some empty spaces left so she followed the line inside. Unlike Hal’s idea of luck, managing to slip into an RSVP-only showing of anything was always lucky. As she went to turn her phone off before entering, she saw a response from Kishawn-a picture of a cake he’d iced. Why on earth had she come here instead of looking after the arcade…?
She sat in the last row, idly rolling and unrolling the souvenir tote bag that had been laid on each seat of the makeshift theater. It gave her hands something to do that wasn’t holding Hal’s business card up so she could try to decipher his handwriting.
The play test was the standard fare; a quick cutscene, a bit of exploring, and then the characters were in an obvious arena. Less obvious than the ones she had grown accustomed to seeing, but still easily spotted by a trained eye.
Interns manned most of the stations in the theater, their shirts glowing under the black lights. It reminded her of when she’d been one, still bright-eyed and able to pull all-nighters without even downing much coffee. Somehow she lost that particular ability after only a year in the industry proper and everything had gone downhill from there.
The play test ended with a “Coming this holiday season” followed by applause from the audience, Jay joining in half-heartedly, knowing what happened to meet holiday deadlines, knowing nothing would ever be done to change it.
If there was one thing she hadn’t expected to find in her driveway the morning after E3, it was Aaron sleeping in his car.
She knocked on the window several times before he finally roused. He’d been there for a while judging by the empty coffee cup next to his phone, where the screen was flashing 100% charged.
“I gotta ask…what the hell are you doing at my house?”
His hands shook as he lifted the coffee mug and Jay knew she’d made the right call in inviting him in.
“Person who paid me to clear out that warehouse is looking for a specific cabinet.”
“Do they know what game?”
“No. All they know is it has some blood stains on it. Problem is you weren’t the only person I sold to.”
It was the Galaga cabinet for certain. If Aaron had the wherewithal to hunt down a proper repair-person, he probably found some people looking for cabinets to strip for conversions and parts too, hence how it wound up in Nina’s hands.
“It wasn’t in the lot you dropped off here but it sounds like one my friend got in a scrap sale a while back. But we already finished restoring it. Like, it’s out on the floor. No blood. Looks brand new.”
Aaron groaned and put his forehead on the table.
“Would you think it was strange if I said they wanted it with the stains on it?”
“Considering it’s you telling me this…no.”
“Feel like I should be slightly offended,” he said, his voice muffled by his jacket sleeve. “I’m not though,” he looked up at Jay and she almost winced when she saw how red his eyes were.
“Look, you wanna take a nap? Feels wrong to send you out driving looking like that.”
“Like you’ll fall asleep and cause an eight-car pile up somewhere.”
While Aaron dozed on the couch, Jay booted up her computer, this time into her old work partition. Had the password been anything aside from her birthday, she wouldn’t have been able to get in.
She took deep breaths while it finished booting up, the solid state drives outfitting the machine cutting the boot time down to nothing. In less than a minute, she was staring at her last desktop before quitting DS.
Messy, messy, messy…folders every which way, not even aligned on a grid in some areas, and it got worse when she started sifting through documents. Half finished design documents, tech projects, quick sketches she did when she had time to make it home…
But that wasn’t what she was here for. Maybe one day she might find a small project she could finish, maybe even publish, but most important was figuring out how one earth anyone in the industry even still knew of her. She opened the web browser and went through the start page’s bookmarks, each time looking for what remnants of her portfolios might have been left online.
YouTube was what got her into trouble. She left the videos unlisted, not private. One question answered. Who would have passed the links along to Hal…? No one from DS…and it wasn’t like she announced it on social media or anything like that…
She wasn’t going to get any answers from this partition. The smart thing to do would be to make the reels private before shutting the computer down.
Yet, she left them.
Jay fished the GudeTime business card out of her phone case and flipped it over, Hal’s barely legible scrawl listing out what to do when she called.
Leave your full name, say Hal sent you, ask about the ‘interview attire’; I’ll handle it from there
Simple. She always heard the best jobs came from meetings like that, those ones that seemed almost like a joke.
All she had to do was call.
While she was in the midst of lamenting why the hell phone apps on cellular phones had so many options aside from dialing, she heard the toilet flush. Great. Now she needed to send Aaron on his way.
“Tell them to come by P1 if they want to see it, even without the blood,” she said as they walked down the hall. He looked less like he would “And if you send me my next round for parts…”
“Tonight!” he said as he walked back out to his car. “I’ll have it to you tonight.”
And he did. Before he’d even left her driveway, she could start ordering the T molding and a few LED ballasts.
Instead, she called Nina; her parts list would be there post-crisis.
“I shouldn’t have kept that business card.”
“Probably not,” Nina agreed, “but you did.”
“Would you have?”
“I have kept them. A few times. Then I reread one of them articles that show ain’t shit changed since I quit.”
“Don’t sound like that’s enough to keep you away.”
“Course it ain’t. You see all the game shows and trailers and wanna jump back in. Then you remember what it took to make those demos and ask, ‘Do I wanna do that to myself again?’ And if you not stupid the answer is, ‘Hell no.’ But what you have to ask yourself is, ‘Am I stupid enough to act on the urge’?”
Nina’s question haunted Jay for a few weeks. Once she came close to throwing out the business card. Another time she checked the GudeTime website just to see if they were still hiring for the programming position Hal offered her. (They were.)
All that kept her from calling was that now, Aaron seemed to be responding to her part request emails with some degree of regularity. She finished off four of the cabinets since E3, and was just waiting for a PCB repair and monitor for the last two.
The repairs in conjunction with her day job meant today was the first time she had time to visit P1 in quite some time. She kept up with Nina and Kishawn in a small group chat in the meantime, but there was nothing like trying to figure out how ketchup got underneath a control panel’s plastic after hours.
Nina was at the shirt counter, frowning at her laptop.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when Nina almost banged her head against the counter.
“It’s the third time I saw somebody selling X-Men but they’re never in California…not even Nevada or Arizona…like…I’m never gon’ get that game…”
“Well, I know it’s not what you’re looking for but I did bring the extra buttons and joysticks.” Nina stuck her arm out for the bag, not looking up.
“You’ll find it one day. Let me see…” she pressed the bag handles into Nina’s hand before pulling up another bar stool.
She was about to start looking for another of Nina’s white rabbits to help ease the sting when–
“Excuse me. I heard you recently restored a cabinet…?”
Huh. So Aaron did pass on the message. He never lied to her but the whole way he did business left her a bit skeptical about his follow-through.
To Jay’s surprise, it was the woman she’d seen all those months ago, the one who didn’t end up a regular.
“Yeah,” Nina sat up, pointing towards Galaga, “that one there. Why?”
“It may sound weird but…was it covered in blood when you got it?”
“It was…” Jay knew at this point, she had to step in.
“Aaron told me someone might stop by. You know I think he full of shit on a good day so I didn’t tell you.”
“Well, she’s here now so let’s talk,” Nina shrugged.
“Did you still want to buy it?” Jay asked. “But Aaron said you wanted it…you know…with the blood on it.”
“Only way I could be sure it was the right one, you know?”
Nina showed her a ‘before’ photo and Deana zoomed in to the bloody handprint on the bezel and trail that went down the control panel.
“That was definitely the one. But no…I don’t want it. Not anymore.”
“How’d it end up like that?”
“My uncle owned an arcade. You know how it goes; booms and busts. He was doing well for a while after Phoenix ROMs hit the scene, but that only did so much. He ran the place almost by himself for a long time. Long past when he should have, really.
“He fell while changing out some of the lights one day. Gashed his head open on that cabinet. I was mostly upset ‘cause me and my brother were supposed to go help him that weekend…don’t worry; he lived,” she quickly added, and Jay was able to straighten out her face and Nina let out a sigh of relief.
“But he couldn’t run it anymore. So my dad closed up shop since no one else knew how to turn an arcade around nor would they help get the money to renovate. There was enough liquid cash at the end to keep a few dozen cabinets in storage, until my dad got tired of paying for ‘a room full of cobwebs and dirt’. I asked him to keep that one so I could fix it but…somehow it ended up here.”
“I mean, Galaga isn’t hard to find. We could-”
But Deana shook her head again.
“No. It’s better off here. All it would do is sit in my living room and collect dust.”
The way Deana’s hand lingered on the control panel reminded Jay of the way she had run her hands across her workstation on her last day at DS.
She hadn’t wanted to leave, but what would staying have gotten her? More ruined relationships? More trips to cry in the bathroom, trying to convince herself that this was the way she wanted to spend her life? More nights being stuck at the studio because she had to wait for another person that looked just as awful as she did to finish a piece of code before she could finish her work? But the time a small part of her, even as she turned in her badge, even as her hands shook from not having slept in four days, was convinced she was giving up too easily. And when Hal gave her the job offer, a chance to prove herself wrong once and for all fell into her lap.
But as she watched Deana let go of something irreplaceable because it had been changed from the inside out, she knew the same thing had happened to her.
She knew the part of her that could take the long hours and constant overhauling and poor direction was gone. And it wasn’t ever coming back. Maybe GudeTime was different but she’d just be chasing the feeling she got the first time she saw her name in the ending credits. It wouldn’t ever be the same though. She’d seen her name in enough credits afterwards to know it wasn’t.
Nina and Deana were engrossed in a conversation about the best way to avoid spills and Jay took the opportunity to slip into the kitchen. Kishawn had a lull in orders and was sitting on the counter, flipping through a recipe book.
“Can I use the stove? The one with the open flame,” she said. While he turned the flame on, she pulled the GudeTime card out of her phone case. She’d scoured their website; the number wasn’t on there anywhere. This was a direct line to someone who mattered.
“It’s ready. Are you?”
Jay ripped the card in two and dropped it on the open eye, watching it burn until there was only ash.