Martin had held the record high score in Space Invaders at the FunTimes Arcade for the past thirty years. He set the record with only fifteen quarters on his last day of eighth grade. Other kids stopped playing air hockey and Whack-a-Mole to cheer him on. Then they all left for the end-of-year dance with their temporary boyfriends and girlfriends, but Martin had stayed late into the pixelated night, setting a record that would stand for decades.
Then they all left town, but he had stayed, pinballing between his parents’ basement and stints at various fast-food restaurants. As he fried wontons at the Joyful Wok, he reminded himself that he was a champion, number one, the best pixel-alien destroyer in the region. Not many people were the best at something. The fryer spluttered, spitting hot oil into the air and peppering Martin’s forearms with tiny burns that bubbled and blistered.
“You’re sleeping Martin!” barked Xiu, whose name Martin couldn’t pronounce.
One Thursday, Martin wished eighty-three customers a joyful afternoon. Four came back to complain about hairs in their bento boxes, two mentioned the fact that the Joyful Wok’s fortune cookies did not contain fortunes but aphorisms, and nine informed him that he was not Asian. His second grade teacher came in and squinted at him through plastic glasses. She had given him all A’s and told his mother he had a bright future.
“You look familiar. From around here?” she asked.
“I just moved here with my wife and kids a few months ago.”
The manager, Daisuke, whose name Martin could not pronounce or spell, interrupted, “Stop gabbing and give the poor lady her boba tea.”
After work, Martin walked to the arcade. The neon “F” in “Fun” had burned out, so the sign said “unTimes Arcade,” which was more accurate, considering the games were forty years old. It didn’t matter. Martin’s initials would still be there in the number one position, reminding him and everyone that the Joyful Wok and YumBurger and the centipedes in his parents’ basement were incidental, unimportant. Even at their fastest, the space invaders were slower than the centipedes.
Martin imagined ranks of aliens marching across the winter sky. People screamed and fainted when they realized their plight. But he, Martin the champion, would save them, and they would look on him with awe. His face would be in the paper. Currently, the only place on earth Martin’s face was on display was the front of his head. His parents had replaced their photos of him with framed Bible quotations superimposed on images of rainbows, waterfalls, and beaches.
After losing a few games of “Centipede”, Martin headed to Space Invaders to check his ranking. He rarely played anymore. He couldn’t compete with his old score. Fortunately, no one else could either.
Martin watched the demo game and waited for his score to appear. Finally. There, in the number one position, sat three sleek letters: CGO. The new high score was nearly double Martin’s record score. Martin’s gawky, lumpy “MLP” stood in the number two position.
The proprietor leaned on the prize counter, shirt unbuttoned, tapping his phone. The counter was so smudged with greasy fingerprints that you couldn’t see the prizes on display below the glass.
“Excuse me,” Martin said, “do you know anything about the Space Invaders record?”
The proprietor slurped at a cup of liquid that was labeled “Coca Cola” but smelled like beer. “Some kid came in today. Played for a while. Pretty good at it. Beat your record, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you,” Martin said, and left.
He thought when he went, he’d go Supernova, all flash and fire that made people look up at the sky and go “wow.” But most people go with a gimmicky sound effect and a little puff of pixels, the way videogame villains do.
Martin walked home. The winter sky, the real, alien-free sky, was dark and dull, with a few white specks wandering in slow, pointless circles. Martin made imitation Ramen, pulled off his Joyful Wok shirt, and looked at his Space Invaders tattoo. It was one of the squid aliens, a thirty-pointer, a tricky one. He got a pair of scissors and tried to scrape it off, but it hurt, so he quit. He thought of collecting quarters, trying for the record again. But thirty years had passed, and he had to be at work at seven. The Joyful Wok was now serving breakfast.
C. Hall writes in Massachusetts, USA.