Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
“No. No. You’re not getting another one.”
"Please?" begs a chubby middle school boy with short, spikey hair. He folds his hands in prayer and pouts, batting his eyes at me.
“Absolutely not. Next!” I call from the top of the jungle gym. The kid hangs his head and reluctantly takes the slide down. A subsequent twerp’s head emerges through the square hole in the floor of the upper deck I’m sitting in. This small fry’s got glasses, braces, and a bowl cut. His face is glowing red.
He trembles as he crawls toward me. I’m sitting on the second step up to a slide. We’re boxed in by Swiss cheese-looking metal walls and a pyramid-shaped plastic roof. It’s the perfect place for a secret kissing booth.
“Hi.” I smile warmly, trying to dispel the awkward. “What’s your name, little dude?”
“K-k-kevin,” he gulps, straightening up. His shirt is buttoned all the way up to his chin.
“Nice to meet you.” I smile again. “Now listen very carefully. I’m going to direct you on what to do. Okay?”
He nods. His shoulders are tensed up to his ears.
“Great. Go ahead and take a seat on the bottom step for me. Good. Now close your eyes and try to touch your left ear to your left shoulder.”
He follows the instructions rigidly. He’s got the kind of expression you’d see on the face of someone avoiding looking at their worst nightmare - a monster-size spider, perhaps, or an army of zombies. I suppress a chuckle and, leaning over, kiss him lightly on the cheek. His eyes pop open. He looks like he’s going to vomit.
He springs up, blasts past me, and dives head-first down the slide. I cover my mouth as I laugh. The next kid climbs up - a thin, medium height, good-looking youngster. He swaggers over to me, eyes smiling, and taps his cheek with one finger.
“Pour some sugar on me,” he says, smirking. He winks at me. Wow, what a lady-killer.
These squirts are outrageous.
I swallow all my sensibilities and grant him a quick peck.
“Thanks, babe,” he says, grinning like a fool before sliding away. I roll my eyes.
“How many more?” I yell down to my brothers, who are taking payments beneath the jungle gym from a line of twelve-year-old boys. One by one, the squirts hand over ten bucks to my brothers, climb the playscape ladder to the highest room in the tower, get a kiss on the cheek from me, and slide back down. The assembly line style makes it efficient.
I have to hand it to them; the twins are true businessmen.
“Just a few more,” Bowie calls up. I would groan or complain, but it’s a fair trade: the recording I got of Justin’s confession far outweighs the humiliation I’m temporarily enduring. So I put on a cheerful face - my work face, the one I use at Skinny’s - and carry on.
“All right, last one’s on his way up,” I hear Axel shout. Finally, I sigh. That was way more boys than I thought.
I’m staring off into space, thoughts racing, when a familiar voice breaks in.
“So if I paid extra, does that mean I get two kisses, or...how does this work?” Calvin’s smiling face pops up through the opening in the floor.
“Hey!” I beam. “Feels like I haven’t seen you in forever.” I place my feet on the step I’m sitting on and hug my knees to my chest. I lean on the plastic wall surrounding the slide entrance.
“Well, it is Saturday. Don’t you usually have work?” He reaches out his arms, plants his hands, and pushes himself up, arising from the hole. He walks, crouched, to me and seats himself on the step below mine, opposite me.
“Did. Now I’m babysitting for the rest of the day.” I shrug.
“Well, I invited your brothers to the arcade with me, Josh, and Tractor. But since you’re babysitting, I guess you have to come along.” He grins, and so do I. It’s his loophole around my grounding. I can’t do anything fun, but if the twins want to, and I’m in charge of them, I have to supervise.
“Oh, well...If I have to.” I heave an exaggerated sigh, smiling ear to ear. “When are we leaving?”
“Right now. Everyone’s in the truck.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. I nod.
“Race you down!” I spring up, whip down the slide, and sprint to the car.
“Hey! No fair! You got a head start!” he laughs after me. I reach the car, but just as I put my grip to the door handle, arms wrap around my waist and I’m lifted off the ground.
“Not so fast!” Cal cackles, swinging me out of the way. The sudden motion triggers a wave of dizziness and nausea.
“Hey! Cut it out!” I shriek, swatting at his arms. He immediately sets me on my feet, and I put a hand on the car, trying to steady myself. The concussion still effects me. I lean over, ready to throw up. The bile backs down. I’m okay.
“Hey,” he murmurs, “I’m sorry.” I wave him off.
“You’re...fine,” I breathe. “Let’s...just go.”
He opens the door for me, his mouth in a thin line, and gives me a hand up. I squish in, next to my brothers. Cal goes around the front of the truck and gets in the driver’s seat. He turns the key, starts the car, and we pull out of the middle school playground parking lot. The sun is just about to set, and the blazing sky bleeds orange.
“Hey guys,” I address the whole car.
“Hey Stevie,” mumble Josh and Gunner.
“How was...last night’s game?” I ask. It hurts like a sock to the gut. But I need to know.
“Um...it was good...” Josh says from the front seat. He turns to look at me. “We lost.”
“Forty-six to seventeen. It weren’t even close,” Gunner says, also turning to me. I smother a smile with a nose-scratch.
“Huh. Too bad,” I say. The boys turn their heads back up front. I look out the window and smirk. I knew they couldn’t do it without me.
We pull into the arcade parking lot. The outside is lit up with neon lettering that resembles Star Wars. It hasn’t changed its outdated 80s aesthetic. The place has become a ghost town in recent years. When I was in middle school, it seemed like everyone hung out there on weekends. Birthday parties were always there. The first days of summer meant it would be jammed. Now, everyone stays home to play video games. Galaga, Gauntlet, Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat - all collecting dust. I’m surprised the joint is still open.
We file out and enter the blacklit, cheese pizza-scented, outer-space-patterned carpet room full of glowing, pinging, swooshing, flashing, talking games. We are the only kids there. An overweight thirty-year-old guy with long hair is sitting on a stool in front of Street Fighter II, the screen’s glow reflected on his pale face and watery eyes. A basket full of chilly cheese fries cools on the side-table next to him.
We shovel out cash at the counter to pay for all-access wristbands and the “super token bucket”, literally a five-pound sack full of arcade game coins.
Stuffing our pockets with tokens, we scatter to our favorite games. The twins, unsurprisingly, play the same game side by side and attempt to beat the other’s score. Josh and Gunner, who aren’t exactly video game people, challenge each other to air hockey, pinball, and speedround hoop shooting.
“Ooh! Got ’em!” Josh shouts, throwing his arms up as a hockey puck knocks into Gunner’s goal. An airhorn sound goes off.
“Watch yourself, boy,” Gunner says, hiking his jeans up. His tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth as he swats at the puck. His eyes are glued to it like a cat’s to a moving laser point. Josh’s big smile glows in the blacklight. He bursts into fits of laughter with each swipe at the puck.
I’m standing in front of Time Crisis, fake gun in hand, foot on the pedal, pulling the trigger and taking out animated bad guys. I’ve always been good at shooting games. I don’t have the patience nor hand-eye coordination for more complex games; but hand me a gun, and I’ll make shots on target every time. I don’t know whether that should alarm me or not.
I watch from first person view as bad guys in blue suits spring up from behind wooden crates and shoot at me. My avatar dodges gunfire while I fire back. Shells are dropping. RPGs are exploding. I run out of ammo and have to pause to reload.
“Mind if I join you?” Cal asks.
I glance at him, surprised. He’s always been more of a Dragon’s Lair kind of kid.
“Sure,” I say, raising an eyebrow. He picks up the other gun, inserts some coins, and it becomes a two-player scenario. I just hope he can keep up.
The game restarts, and I can see his avatar crouched behind some crates to my left. Bad guys are coming at us on all sides.
“To your left!” I shout. He snags a guy who almost took him out.
“Ten o’clock!” Cal says, and we both aim at a guy hiding behind some barrels. We advance through several levels, covering each other’s asses, until we turn a corner in the digital world and Calvin gets shot out of nowhere, taking his last life.
“NO!” I screech, shooting the attacker again and again and again and again, way more times than is necessary to kill. Each bullet fires off a reverberating boom. “Take that, mother - ”
“Stevie.” A hand closes on my forearm. My head snaps to the side. I look at Cal, right in the eyes. “It’s okay.”
I look back at the animated attacker’s bloody cadaver, riddled with bullet holes, lying on the stone floor. I’m breathing harder than I realized.
“Let’s go play some ski ball,” he suggests. I nod and put the gun down, following him over to the lanes. He drops some tokens into two machines and heavy, baseball-sized brown balls appear.
“You’re on,” he says, casually tossing up and catching a ball with his hand.
“Bring it, MacIntyre,” I reply. I grab a ball, too, and in seconds we are swinging our arms back and underhanding the balls up the lane, into the caged-over targets. I continue to throw high, but the balls roll down into the low-point holes. Calvin nails the top-corner and high-middle rings. He’s racking up points like I earn yards in a game. There’s a satisfying thunk every time a ball hits a target. When it goes into a hole, a buzzer sounds. Eventually, though, we run out of balls.
I sigh while Calvin throws his arms up and cheers.
“BOO-YAH!” He beams. “Read it and weep, Rogers!” I look at his score, then mine, on the screens above the machines. I’m pathetic. He dances around like a nerd, waving his arms up and down like he’s doing The Monkey. This transitions into The Sprinkler, which morphs into The Running Man. I can’t help it; I crack up.
“Okay, okay, you can’t stop that,” I giggle, taking hold of his arms and trying to still them. He’s laughing too hard for it to be effective. I move in front of him, get up close, and pin his arms at his sides. “Quit it!” I look up into his hazel eyes, tinted with the purple glare of the room. He’s smiling down at me.
“Make me,” he says, and suddenly neither of us is laughing. There’s an electric tension like static pulling me to him. I’m hit with the overwhelming compulsion to kiss him - but I back away.
“We should...go play laser tag,” I suggest, excusing my behavior. “Three on three. Let’s grab the guys.”
Cal nods, still looking intensely down at me.
“Okay,” he says.
We round up the boys and head over to the laser tag arena entrance. I pull on a heavy, blue light-up vest, and Cal pulls on a red one. We’re the team captains, obviously. We stand in front of the others and pick our teams like it’s seventh-grade gym class.
“Ladies first,” Cal says.
“I want...Josh,” I say, my hand to my chin in thinking position. Josh steps to my side.
“I’ll take Axel,” Cal says, and the two fist-bump when Axel crosses to his side. Axel is the little brother Cal never had, and Axel idolizes him.
“Mm...I’ll take Bowie,” I say.
“Oh, COME ON!” Tractor laughs.
“Sorry, Big Fella,” Cal says. “Looks like you’re with me.”
We get the arcade attendant to start up the game for us, and we enter the blacklit, maze-like arena through a black velvet curtain. Cal and his team head to the red base, and me and my team head to the blue. We’re playing capture the flag.
Once we get to our base - a dark room with neon-painted particleboard walls whose glow offer the only light - I designate roles.
“Bowie, you’re here on flag duty. You’ll be here by yourself. Protect it at all costs.”
“Aye aye, captain,” he says seriously, saluting.
“Josh, you’re with me on offense. We stick together unless I say otherwise. Our goal is to find the blue base and get their flag before they get ours.”
He nods solemnly in response.
“Your game begins in three...” a techno-female voice announces throughout the arena. It has a spooky effect, like we’re on the space ship in the movie Alien, and Cal’s team is the predator. I guess that makes me Sigourney Weaver. “Two...one...”
A futuristic siren sounds. The game is on.
Josh and I venture into the black.
The arena is hot and humid. It smells sweaty, like armpits and dirty gym socks. A light flashes on intervals from the ceiling, like a revolving spotlight at a prison. The sound of gas escaping precedes clouds of dense, glowing white smoke. An eerie siren chirps low and slow every few seconds. The walls are too tall to see over, but the ceiling is taller, and towers and bridges made of plywood and painted purple loom like shadows in the distance. I follow Josh’s glowing blue vest around corners and through ripped-curtain doorways, into small rooms that look like the Chernobyl nuclear fallout. The passageways are so narrow that my shoulders barely touch the walls. I wonder how broad-shouldered Tractor is faring.
We walk swiftly and silently, winding through the maze without a clue where to go except forward. I can hear my heart beating in my ears, feel my chest rising and falling with every deep breath. The simulated sense of danger feels both real and exhilarating. I’ve always been a horror movie/thrill ride fanatic. I’m addicted to this junk.
I have my gun cocked in front of me, ready to fire lasers the second I see red. Josh peeks his head through a doorway before waving us onward, checking to make sure the coast is clear. He nods and we shuffle through, entering a room that looks like a mad scientist’s laboratory.
At that second, a red laser beam shoots across the open room and zips past Josh’s torso, and then another, and another.
“Get down!” I shout, and Josh and I dive behind an overturned lab table. We can’t see the enemy; we can only hear the pew-pew of their bullets flying. I pop my head over the table and shoot like a maniac, aiming at the sound. Just then, two red-vested figures jump into the room through the opposite entrance, guns blazing. Josh and I stand, firing at Cal and Axel as we retreat to the doorway we came through. Laser beams are jetting across the room in both directions, bouncing off of walls, broken lab equipment, the ceiling, the floor.
“Get back!” I find myself yelling at Josh. “Get back!” I hustle him through the door, still shooting at Calvin. My vest lights up bright red and starts vibrating. I’ve been hit! Cal’s vest does the same, and I know I got him, too. When you get hit, your vest and gun shut down for a whole minute, and you lose a life.
“C’mon,” Axel says and tugs Cal out of the room, back through the door the entered. I wonder where they’re going, and wrack my brain for ways to outmaneuver them. Josh and I run down the hall and come to a fork.
“This way,” I say, turning to the right and finding a black painted staircase. We pound up the wooden steps and emerge on a balcony that looks out on the whole arena. I spot two red lights snaking through the northeast corner of the maze. They’re sitting ducks from our position.
“There!” I loud-whisper, pointing to the enemy combatants. Josh takes aim over the balcony wall and shoots at them. It’s a direct hit to Axel’s vest. Cal turns and fires up at us, but we duck. I look back over the edge and shoot down at them. They run into another room and disappear from sight. I swivel my head from left to right, scanning the floor for a third red light -
“Look!” I elbow Josh and point to the northwest corner. There’s a red vest, standing tall in a courtyard. “Bingo.”
We take the stairs to our left down and make our way towards Gunner and the flag.
A shout rips through the arena.
“Help!” It’s Bowie. “Stevie! Josh! Help!” My heart speeds up. My mouth goes dry. I look at Josh. He looks at me.
“I’ll go,” he says. He takes off, running in the direction of our home base.
I continue onward, slinking down jagged corridors and crawling through obstacle-laden rooms. Being alone has my hair standing on end. Goosebumps run up my arms, and a chill tingles down my spine. Each step feels encumbered with lead. I have to push myself to keep going.
I peek around a corner and see Tractor, gun in ready position, aiming at another doorway. There are four that lead into this room.
Heart pounding and chest heaving with every breath, I stick a hand in the room and fire blindly.
“What the - !” he squaws. I glance in, and a pew sounds as a red beam zings right into my eyes.
“Ah!” A cry escapes my lips. Mustering up courage, I throw myself into the room and rapid-fire at Gunner, circling the room so he can’t hit me. I dash out another doorway and creep around the outside, looking in. Gunner, tensed, holds his gun out and aims at each doorway, looking from his left to his right, aiming to his front and just as quickly turning to cover his back. I need a diversion.
Male screaming and an explosion of pews fill the arena. It startles Gunner, who looks in the direction of the noise.
Without thinking, I yank off my combat boot and chuck it at the wooden wall just opposite the easterly entrance. It hits with a frightful wham. Gunner jumps and shoots at it. I slide in like a baseball player through the opening behind him and shoot his back. His vest lights up, vibrates, and goes black.
“What in the sam hell?!” he bellows. He looks around, looks down, and sees me on my back, smiling up at him with one shoe off. I spring up, grab the red flag on the table he’s been guarding, and sprint off, shouting,
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” My feet pound up the steps to the balcony, and I wave the red flag over the arena in victory. Josh, Cal, Axel, and Bowie emerge from a room in the southeast corner and look up. I let out a hearty laugh, joy swelling in my chest.
“Woo-hoo! Yeah!” Josh and Bowie cheer.
Josh pelvic-thrusts and shakes his butt at the red vesters.
“In your face, MacIntyre!” he whoops, jumping like a little kid. He and Bowie high-five. Cal just looks at me, shaking his head but smiling.
“Uh, you forgot your shoe,” Gunner booms. I look over. He’s holding up my boot. The other boys are laughing.
“Toss it over!” I call.
“Okay!” He reels his arm back, thrusts it forward, and launches the shoe like it’s a football. I catch it with ease. I put it back on, leaning on the balcony wall for support, and jog down the steps to meet my friends. We head out of the arena and take our vests off. On the screen in the arena vestibule, our scores pop up: our vest number next to the number of points we have based on how many people we’ve shot and how many times we’ve been shot.
“Who’s Red 2?” I ask, arms crossed and hip cocked. I’m not in the number one spot? What the hell. I came in second.
Calvin steps up next to me, grinning.
“That would be me,” he says smugly. “Looks like you’re not the best at everything.”
“Ugh!” My jaw drops and I gape at him, half-offended, half-laughing.
“Ugh!” He drops his jaw, eyes wide, mocking both my expression and tone. I shove him playfully.
“Jerk,” I snap. But I can’t hide my smile.