Clayton turned away from the morning sun and stepped into the Time Zone spacey parlour, entering an artificial night. The odours of boys who had spent many hours toiling at the joystick – a musky blend of stale breath, unwashed hair and sweaty palms – hung like a fetid cloak. The machines themselves whiffed of warm electronics and plastic. They stood in rows, sentinels guarding the gates to other worlds, beckoning young punters with hypnotic sound effects and eye-candy colours. Clayton stepped towards their radiance.
The tug of his sister at his pant leg shattered his reverie. His bloody mother had forced him to bring her. Sammy was hanging off his flash new pants; grey baggies with zips at the bottom of each leg. His haircut was new too. When he walked through town that day, he checked himself out in the darkened windows of the closed shops. He looked good. Except for the little dweeb tagging along, cramping his style. She looked at him with her big chocky eyes.
‘Clayton, can I have some money?’
‘Didn’t mum give you any, Sammy?’
‘Nup, she said you have to share yours.’
He sighed and pulled a two-dollar note from his pocket, and walked over to the change booth. The guy behind the counter was in his twenties, pasty-faced with shadows circling bug eyes. He dragged on a cigarette as he counted the coins, then as he handed them over, his limp hand brushed against Clayton’s and hung there. It was cold. A sneer curled around his cigarette, making the glowing tip rise up towards his nose. Clayton backed away.
‘Make it last Sammy,’ Clayton said, dropping three coins into her hand.
‘Okey doke Claytsy.’
He looked around to see if anyone had heard her reveal his pet name. Luckily, the jingle jangle of the machines had drowned her out. She skipped towards Pac Man and dropped a twenty-cent piece into the slot. It was a game for little snot rags, one he hadn’t played in a couple of years. The games he chose these days were more suited to his superior reflexes, Bomb Jack being his favourite. Twenty cents and he could become a superhero, defusing bombs and saving citizens for over an hour. He looked down at his watch; they had three hours before they had to head home. Today a little Defender would be a good warm up, so he made his way towards it, his eyes adjusting to the gloom.
Time Zone was a universe divided into the bystanders and the players. Those who couldn’t get past the first level without plugging in five coins, and those who could last the distance. Then there were the real broken arses – those who longed to play but were just too poor. Like Chewy for instance, a tank of a boy whose woolly hair required an afro comb to tame it. He kept one in his back pocket. All year round he wore the same pair of tan stubbies, socks with roman sandals and a t-shirt advertising Smith’s Dog Chews that stretched across his girth. He had been given his nickname because of the threadbare t-shirt, but he always thought it was a reference to his favourite movie character.
Chewy smelt as if he had been stewing in his own juices for days, and his farts were the silent yet violent variety. His funk could be smelt five games away and got so eye-watering the fumes caused a loss of game concentration. Besides having these extraordinary anal powers, Chewy was a caravan park kid.
Clayton watched him shamble around the games, flicking a finger in the reject coin slots searching for forgotten loot. Then he made the fatal error of making eye contact. Aross the room the big boy bleated, ‘Gizza twenty, Cuz?’ Chewy had no shame. Clayton put his head down and walked on. They had been mates and played marbles together at primary school; Chewy was a good sort really, letting him win the few rusted steelies he had. But these days, Clayton couldn’t risk giving him even the slightest nod.
He greeted the other guys he knew with a casual raise of the eyebrows and a quick flick of the head. The parlour was filled with the usual suspects. Lenny was there – the resident Time Zone junky. He was a tall malnourished guy who would bunk school every second day to get his fix. Clayton had bunked school to play spacies only once.
On that day a couple of months before, he had a whole morning machine hopping, contending for games with only Lenny and the dole guys. He had almost made it to round five on Bomb Jack when he saw the disembodied head of his dad reflected in the machine. When he turned around, his father was there, a vein popping in his forehead as he reached for the scruff of Clayton’s shirt.
He never knew how his dad found out, but he was banned from going to Time Zone for a month, during which time his spacey hand atrophied. It took him ages to build up his skills again. He still felt stonked out by the way his dad dragged him home and Lenny still gave him heaps about it.
He envied Lenny, who was two years older, a fifth former, and whose parents didn’t care what he got up to during the day. He was known for his legendary skills on 1942 and he had clocked at least five others, his name on the high score list of most of the games. He even had his own fan base; there was always a crowd hanging off the edges of the machine he was playing on, bathing in his glory as if his dexterity could somehow transfer to their mortal selves.
Lenny was hogging Defender, so Clayton made his way back towards Bomb Jack. It was then he spotted a machine he hadn’t seen before. The graphics on the game’s cabinet said it was Dragon’s Lair. A crowd had formed already, so he stood on the periphery watching one of Lenny’s friends play it. What he witnessed was the holy grail of video games. A game that made all the other games he had played up until that point seem like child’s play.
The game had a narrator who spoke directly to the player:
Dragon’s Lair: The fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight, on a quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an evil dragon. You control the actions of a daring adventurer, finding his way through the castle of a dark wizard, who has enchanted it with treacherous monsters and obstacles. Lead on, adventurer. Your quest awaits!
But what really impressed him were the three-dimensional graphics that made the other games seem flat and boring. This was like a movie, a kingdom more real than he could have imagined. His fingers ached to get on and try it himself.
There was just one hitch – Dragon’s Lair cost a buck to play. A hefty price to pay, especially as it would take him a few games to get the hang of it. His Nana had sent him five bucks for his birthday that he’d been keeping in his wallet for something special. He reckoned the day had come to cash that puppy. Even needing to deal with the reptilian booth attendant didn’t bother him. He was desperate to get into the zone.
After waiting fifteen excruciating minutes, he was able to get on the machine. Most people who had tried the game so far had failed to get into any kind of groove. Even Lenny only got through the first two rounds, and he lost all his money just getting there. Clayton breathed deeply through his nose, and dropped the coins into the slot.
Suddenly he was Dirk the Daring, seeking to rescue Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe. Dirk grasped the joystick, slick and greasy from the other brave but unsuccessful players. He joggled the joystick left and right, and tapped the sword button. The hero made reflexive, jerky movements with his head as he swung across a fiery chasm and avoided Giddy Goons emerging from the shadows. Each brave move was timed perfectly, and if he made a fatal error he plugged in another coin to continue. Before he knew it, Dirk the Daring was on to the Boulder Trench sequence with two lives left.
A crowd began to gather around the machine. Guys were saying ‘Choice one bro,’ and ‘Take it to the max.’ The hero had never felt so good.
Then he felt a tugging at his pants again.
‘Bugger off Sammy, I’m in the middle of something…(joggle tap)…very…(jerk of the head)…important…(tap joggle tap).’
‘Claytsy, I need to go to the dunny.’
‘Just hold it. Count to ten or something to take your mind off…’
‘Pleeease, I gotta do number twos.’
He could see her wriggling about in his peripheral vision. This loss of concentration killed his second to last Dirk. On screen he was shrieking as he died.
‘Look what you made me do, penis breath!’
‘Claaaytsy… I’m telling on you when we get home.’
He had only one life remaining and he was out of money. He didn’t care about Sammy or the deep trouble he was going to be in when he got home. The game was a matter of life or death.
He launched back into the game with a thumping heart. Sweaty drips began to run down his back into his crack. He was face to face with the Lizard King when he heard sniggering behind him. Lenny appeared at his side, guffawing in his ear. He was brimming with so much glee that he could barely get the words out.
‘Hey your kid sister… she… she just crapped herself over there in the corner. Shame man!’
Dirk the Daring was finally struck down. Game over.
Clayton pushed through the mob and found Sammy wailing beside the out-of-order machines. She had shit dribbling down her legs. The smell was appalling.
He began to panic; he would be a dead man when his dad found out. He’d be an old dude in his thirties before he would be allowed to come back to the parlour. And he didn’t even know where to begin in cleaning up the mess. Luckily the owner hadn’t noticed what was up.
Then Chewy was suddenly beside him.
‘Houston, we have a problem.’
‘Not funny Chew.’
‘Yeah, sorry bro. Lemme give ya a hand.’
Chewy bent over and removed a sandal and then took off his sock. He walked over to Sammy and began to wipe down her legs with it. She stopped crying a little. When he had mopped up the worst of the liquid turds, he proceeded to take off his t-shirt. His fat guts and boy boobs were exposed, but he didn’t seem to care. He looked serene as he pulled the shirt down over Sammy’s head. She put her arms through and stood there with the shirt looking like a nightie on her scrawny frame. Clayton looked on feeling useless.
‘You wanna take off your grubby undies and skirt?’ Chewy asked.
She nodded, her crying reduced to a few sniffles. He took the putrid articles from her hand and carried them outside to dump them in the rubbish. A few gawkers hung around including Lenny who was leaning against a machine smirking. Clayton turned his back on them and held his hand out to Sammy. She toddled beside him in the giant tshirt. Together they stepped out into the bright Sunday afternoon.
Clayton had meant to say thanks, but Chewy had already wandered up the street. His bare flabbiness was gaining some attention. Someone in a car tooted his horn, while another on the footpath let out a sharp wolf whistle. A passenger in a black Ford Anglia rolled down his window and barked, ‘Fat homo!’
Chewy pulled the comb from his back pocket. He picked casually at his fro as he hulked onwards.