He was a legend spoken of in hushed tones in dark, sweaty halls. A champion boxer, a Grand Prix winner, an expert marksman and an eater of ghosts. But he was known only by his moniker in the 3-character high score screens. ASS.
His dominance in arcades across the nation for decades led many to question whether he really existed, but he lived in rumours. Everyone knew a guy who knew another guy who’d been reduced to nothing by him.
His beaten up old ‘83 Chevy spluttered into the mall parking lot. ASS’s knees clicked as he got out. He was very much a real human being, and feeling it these days. He fiddled incessantly with his car keys in his fingerless-gloved hands. They were brand new. At his level of competition even the smallest gains were precious. He blew on his exposed digits, and played with the wisps of his visible breath. If they were to lock up from the cold, it would be game over.
ASS pulled up the hood on his old high school letter jacket to cover his ever-growing bald spot (the same as his dad’s) and strode into the grand front entrance of the mall. The site of the last Bubble Boy machine.
There were just a few old-timers and the odd stoned teen shuffling around half awake. It reminded him of the mall stage of Zombie Survivor; the trick to that game was to blend in. His gaze dropped to his feet as he passed through them confidently.
His legs gave way on contact with a walking stick, deliberately stuck out. ASS got back to his feet and dusted himself down. A horribly wasted ghoul of a man spat at him with bleeding gums.
“Watch where you’re going!”
ASS pulled down his hood.
“Sorry about that, I just need—”
“Why are you dressed like that? You look fifteen going on fifty!” the man interrupted.
Having achieved the maximum charisma level in Super Hostage Negotiator, ASS knew how to defuse conflict.
He ran away.
Round the corner he found the arcade. The dark carpet, sticky for unspeakable reasons, and migraine-inducing artificial lights beckoned him in. A static-ridden popping noise stood out amongst the regular jingles of the common-and-garden games long since conquered. This was Bubble Boy calling to him.
ASS knew from his research that Bubble Boy wasn’t much. A simple Pac-Man clone that replaced the titular Pac with a boy in a bubble (ASS assumed he had a poor immune system) and swapped the ghosts with evil scientists.
Filtering out the sounds of his old quarry he traced his new prey to the back of the room.
There was a scrawny boy already playing on the machine. His face was covered in blotchy pale makeup and his gameplay was similarly terrible.
“Piece of shit!” He kicked the machine and sloped off.
ASS moved to the light blue control panel. The laziness of the game was shameless; it even had the same layout as the Pac Man unit.
With his right hand he retrieved a quarter from the roll in his right pocket and danced it across his knuckles in his pre-game ritual. His left hand went to his left pocket and plucked a candy cigarette from the box, placing it in gritted teeth. He inserted the coin to a chiptune celebration of another quarter successfully scammed from a child.
Within minutes ASS had cleared the first level, ridding the screen of bubbles. This would be routine.
From somewhere in the epileptic’s nightmare behind him ASS heard more groaning and banging, presumably from the kid. He dismissed it and carried on, clearing level two with ease.
“What’s the point!” — The kid again.
Again ASS ignored it. He had nearly finished the third level.
When the sobbing started ASS knew he was going to die. Perhaps if he was quick enough, he would still have at least one life left to play with.
He pinpointed the location of the sobs and found the boy slumped on the floor, his back resting on the machine.
“I can’t do anything.” He heaved through tears, his pale face stained by make up running from his eyes.
ASS sat next to him in silence. He wouldn’t have any lives for sure. The boy sobbed into his shoulder.
ASS wiped the boy’s face on his sleeve, staining his jacket, and beckoned the boy to follow him back to Bubble Boy.
He was indeed dead.
ASS hadn’t had to use a second quarter since he was 12, the last time his father beat him at Street Fighter. He had taught him everything, especially how to lose.
He sat the boy on a plastic motorbike from the Super Hang On! terminal next to Bubble Boy, and with great self-disgust he started the game again.
He cleared the first level even quicker than last time. While the next screen loaded, he turned to face the boy. He was watching the screen intently.
Second level down. ASS cracked his knuckles, noticing the boy was now leaning in so close he could almost lick the pixels off the screen.
ASS took a step back and offered the controls to him. He didn’t last more than ten seconds. The boy looked apologetic and went to go back to his seat. ASS shook his head and reluctantly the boy went back to the controls. He died even quicker, but didn’t react, just poked his tongue out the side of his mouth. ASS knew this look as one of complete concentration.
He died once more, down to his final life. The game started again.
ASS hunched over the boy’s frame and joined his hand on the joystick. Much like his father had for him. He guided the boy’s hand lightly. Then let go completely.
The high score table emerged, begging for three letters to immortalise the hero at the top of the leaderboard.
The boy entered ‘ASS’.
Andrew Sansom hails from Essex in England. Currently a creative writing student, he hopes one day to get into screen writing.