Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

I Was a Teenage Space Jockey

Two days after my brother turned seventeen, he was gone, just like he’d guaranteed my dad. No sad goodbyes, no notes, no taking a knee in the hall before dawn to give me any good advice for high school when I got there. My mom’s story when anybody asked was that he’d moved out, he was old enough, he needed room, it was completely natural. My dad, if asked, would just shrug, knock back the rest of his can of beer, and say he hoped Rance was in the military, where someone else could tell him to get up, face the day.

Just to piss my dad off, I secretly hoped Rance had gone military as well: Air Force, so that one morning bright and early he could buzz the house in his fighter jet, waggle his wings to announce it was really him, and then burst through the sound barrier, breaking every window on the block. If he did that, then I would know for sure there was some way out. That there was something else.

This was sixth grade for me, fall semester, ramping up to Halloween. Homeroom was all pumpkins and skeletons with brass rivets at their joints, so whoever was first to class could tack those white cardboard hands and feet up in lewder and lewder positions.

My best friend that year, and for the rest of the years we’d have together, was Marten French. Me and him were the only Indians for two grades in either direction, and, since he’d been held back one year, we were even in the same class, now. His dad made him keep his hair long, not buzzed short like in my house, but Marten hated all the attention his braids drew in the halls, in PE, in every bathroom we had no choice but to eventually brave. Yes, we knew it was the boys’ room, not the girls’. Thank you, ha ha. That one never gets old.

Just because he had to have his hair in twin braids when he left for school, though, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be down by the time he got to his locker before class—down and puffing out all crinkly and metal, which meant he was always glaring out of a frizzy shroud of black, just the way he liked it.

You’d think all the attention of being the only two red kids would turn us into scrappers, just out of necessity, out of survival, but neither of us had any size yet. We’d gloved up with his mom’s oven mitts and tried fighting each other for practice once, but we had to admit that, at best, we were just slapfighters, that our main and best defense would be to curl up like pill bugs, wait this next thrashing out.

To try to avoid that, we hid—surprise—and the main place we hid was the arcade down at the mall. It had started out as our place because, for the two years before he left, Rance had been the longtime Galaga champ. He would strut in every other week or so to leave his initials at the top of the high score reel. His quarters lasted forever, and, my mom said, so long as he was there, I could be too. Not that Rance watched me in the scratchy reflection of that plastic screen or even knew I was alive and breathing the same air as him, but I guess the idea was that if my big brother was around, nobody would try anything with me.

While Rance was doing his thing on Galaga, Marten and me—Coach was already calling him “Frenchie,” a name that would stick—would tag-team the games on the other side of the arcade: Zaxxon, Defender, Tempest. They were all too complicated, were pretty much just quarter donation machines, but they were ours, pretty much. And everybody would be crowded around Rance’s Galaga machine anyway, his eyes glassy, his right hand on that fire button an absolute blur, his forearms ridged with veins, his feet set one ahead and one back, the front knee bent like he was leaning against some great wind blasting out of the machine, and all he could hold onto was that joystick.

If he really was piloting a fighter jet somewhere out there now? He’d shoot faster than anybody, and he’d never say die, would just keep taking on wave after wave of alien.

Just—Marten and me talked about this—would he really cut his hair for the government? While Marten’s hair just put a bullseye on his back, Rance’s shaggy mane had always been hairsprayed what my dad, when he’d even acknowledge Rance, would call “six ways from Sunday and halfway to an ass kicking.”

I thought Rance’s hair was the most amazing thing ever. Put him in a pair of tights, give him a mic, and he’d own any stage, would have the whole arena in the palm of his hand. My hair was a sandy throwback to some trapper or Indian agent or fallen Jesuit nobody in my family even remembered. We don’t all come out looking full-blood. Either that, or the way to explain the difference between Rance and me had to do with whose eye my mom might have caught nine months before I cried my way into the world, which I guess would explain the way my dad always watched me, growing up, like he was looking for a trait he recognized, that could confirm his suspicions.

Anyway, with Rance gone, Marten and me figured it was my job to continue the family tradition. He stole all the quarters from his mom’s ceremony jar, the one she saved to get them back to South Dakota every year, or at least pay for half a tank of gas, and we shrugged our way down to the mall, to the Gold Mine Arcade.

Trick was, though, we were the only ones who knew this was my night to carry on Rance’s Galaga ritual. The place was packed, I mean. It was Friday night, right? We should have known. Except . . . at first I thought this wasn’t the usual crowd, but maybe it was—everybody was already wearing their Halloween masks. The sign at the door said you’d get two free plays if you were in costume.

Marten pinched my sleeve, pulled me deeper into the mall.

What we needed were masks, or at least make-up, and we knew that the velvet ropes at the movies theater had metal balls at the top of their heavy little poles that screwed on and off. But we didn’t need the balls, or the ratty ropes. What we needed was the grease rubbed onto the threads.

Marten covered while I rubbed as much into the crook of my index finger as I could, then I covered for him, and in the long bathroom hall by the Orange Julius we applied our make-up: Marten got shiny warpaint over the top of his face, including his eyelids, which was a pretty cool look, but then we ran out of grease partway through my Star Trek-“half a black face”-plan, so I ended up having to smudge it around, try to pull off a black eye. Because that wasn’t any kind of costume, just meant I hadn’t mowed the lawn or something, we scrounged some lipstick from under the payphone, drew blood coming down from my nose and my mouth and my other eye, and, in a flash of inspiration, Marten traced a drippy line of red across the top of my forehead.

Fifty cents is fifty cents.

Jess, the Gold Mine’s attendant, looked back and forth from Marten to me. My belt was looped around my neck, its long tongue in Marten’s hand because I, the sandy-haired buzzcut of the two of us, was this Indian’s prisoner.

“He nearly scalped me,” I explained, tilting my head back to show off my bloody hairline.

“Good job,” Jess said, extending one spindly hand to tug Marten’s left braid, though he knew it was real.

How,” Marten said in his deepest voice, like this was a movie.

Jess thumbed a dollar in quarters from the dispenser at his hip, passed them over.

“Where’s your brother?” he said to me then. “He needs to defend his title.”

“He’s shooting commies,” Marten said for me about Rance, and mimed like he was Rambo with a Gatling gun, Arnold against the Predator.

“What game is that?” Jess asked, looking over his shoulder like a new one had been delivered without his knowing.

I’m getting the new high score,” I said, and shouldered past, leading Marten by the leash he was still holding.

Our idea had been to get me better and better at Galaga, until I could fire as fast as Rance, until I knew all the patterns, could wipe out whole armadas of aliens. As it turned out, Janet Reilly, a senior from the smoking circle, was already at the Galaga machine, and drawing a crowd.

Since she and Rance has been trading top slot on the high score list for the past year, I’d always kind of known they were going to have to start going out, like that was the rule. Unlike Rance’s Silent Indian routine, though, she was vocal, always chirping and screeching in retreat, snarling and growling when caught in a corner, then screaming when she shot her way out again, as if the aliens could hear her, be intimidated by her. Rance was more reserved, had a steadier game, knew the dive patterns, the levels, and he never made any real sound, would just thin his lips about this next challenge, but he’d had to respect Janet’s game, I knew, especially the way her reflexes seemed to come alive best when the game was tilting against her.

We tried watching for a couple of minutes but the crowd was too thick, and a short skeleton right beside Janey kept inserting its index finger into its mask to pick its nose, so we took our quarters elsewhere.

Centipede was open, but that was a panic attack waiting to happen.

Joust would have been fun, but it was taken by the stoners, as usual.

Track and Field?” Marten said, trying to make it sound better than it was.

We patted our back pockets for the Ace combs we’d need to pump that runner’s legs fast enough. No luck.

Counting the dollar Jess had given us for playing Cowboy and Indian at the door, we had eight dollars, total. We were in the Gold Mine and we had a gold mine, yeah.

“So?” I said.

“Hyperspace?” Marten said with a shrug.

It was what he called Defender, because when it got you back on your heels, you could push that hyperspace button, go to whatever random spacescape the game kicked up. Usually it meant instant death, just death in a different place, but you were dying anyway, right? Might as well blip across the galaxy.

We ended up dropping three dollars on Asteroids, even though Marten had it on Atari at his house. His brother always hid the controllers, though, or else he’d reach his hand down the front of his pants for a long scratch-session, then rub that hand all over the joystick, hand it across.

Like every time in Asteroid’s field of space rocks, and in spite of our standing-in-place gymnastics—it was like we were really in the cockpit of that fragile little ship—we shattered into glowing lines that had just enough inertia to spin insultingly, like going down some cosmic drain.

When we turned around, thoroughly beaten and breathing hard from it, three of the stoners were shaking their heads at our theatrics, at our wimpiness, at our make-do costumes.

“Jess,” I said, my head on a swivel for the arcade’s lifeguard.

“He’s talking to that redhead at the hot dog stand again,” the lead stoner said, his eyes still gliding on ostriches from platform to platform of Joust. He wasn’t smoking, but he still smelled like a train.

“It’s Rance’s tagalong,” the second stoner said, stepping in to get this started.

“Baby Red,” the third of them said.

Rance’s initials should have been RATB, for Rance Allen Two Bulls, but videogame high score reels aren’t made for Indians. So, on Galaga, and in spite of his black hair, he’d always been RED, like claiming that top spot for all Indians everywhere.

Since I was his little brother, I was “Baby Red,” I guess. This wasn’t the first time they’d cornered us in their wall of grimy denim to claim all our quarters, but, because it wasn’t, I juked left, went right, shouting “Run!” to Marten while already doing it, picturing myself vaulting over 1942, diving through the cockpit of one of the racing games, tearing out into the food court.

It all went pretty great in my head, I mean.

They were older, though we were slower, Jess was AWOL, Rance was gone, and—and it was Friday night, it was nearly Halloween, which isn’t when sixth graders have their best luck.

We made it maybe three steps.

What they took from me was my pocketful of quarters, which one of them hefted while watching me, as if judging this weight against my soul, or trying to gauge how many eggs this would be worth on Joust.

What they took from Marten, with a yellow pocketknife sawed back and forth, was his right braid.

“Shit, that was real!” the second of them said, holding Marten’s hair up, covering his own mouth with his other hand, which just made his laugh louder, somehow.

Marten’s chest was heaving, his eyes welling up. Not because he’d ever wanted that braid, but because his dad and brother were going to kick his ass when he came home lopsided, and then they were going to pile into the family car and find whoever had done this.

It had happened before. Marten’s dad had had to serve three months of weekends in county because someone had left a red handprint on the flank of their light blue Buick, so it could be a real war pony, ha ha. This time it wouldn’t just be weekends, though, we knew. And there was no way Marten could hide what had happened.

Because there was always the chance of Jess stepping back in, the hot dog girl in tow, the stoners crowded us into the back corner by the kiddie games and then pushed us behind them, into that dusty space of cables and cigarette butts and sticky bottles and gum and the one rubber everybody knew about.

They were locking us up, making sure we wouldn’t run tell, get them busted, maybe banned from the Gold Mine. To be sure the walls of our little prison cell held, they took our pants. To guarantee we wouldn’t forget this anytime soon, they forced our faces down into the grossest stickiest spaces they could find behind the machines, then told us to count to one hundred before we lifted our heads. If we didn’t, they’d do it all over, and take our underwear this time, how would we like that?

We laid there crying.

Okay, Marten was maybe crying harder, I guess—he had reason. Me, I was staring ahead, under the broken Ms. Pac-Man machine, waiting for this to be over. When I got up into the eighties with my count, I saw it: there in the dust-bunny coated sludge under Ms. Pac-Man was a glint of silver.

We didn’t go all the way to one hundred, wouldn’t give the stoners that. We just listened to our heartbeats drum down slower and slower. Listened to each other’s sobs become normal breathing. Normal enough. Our bare thighs were touching. Our faces were hardening into the floor.

“Yet?” I finally said.

“Yet,” Marten agreed, and I could hear his cheek peeling up.

I wasn’t stuck as hard, I didn’t think, and still had one thing to do anyway: reach forward, pinch into that sludge for that glint of silver.

What I came back with was one quarter.

“What year?” Marten said, because his luck system was that if the quarter was the same age as him, it was lucky, he could win with it.

“Rance’s age,” I said, trying to clean the gunk off it.

“Mail it to him,” Rance said in defeat, and we sat there like that, making useless quiet jokes and detailing grand, never-to-be-enacted revenge plans until Jess turned the lights off, ran his vacuum cleaner over the more obvious parts of the arcade.

Then the cage door came down. We were officially in jail.

“I’m going to cut the other one off,” Marten said, holding his left braid out. “I’m going to tell my dad I did it on my own.”

“He’ll kick your ass for it,” I told him.

“Cops don’t care about that,” Marten said.

He was right. It was a solid plan.

We stood, no pants, and crept out among the machines, all of them still cycling through their holding screens—Jess hadn’t pulled the plug, had probably been making a horny beeline for that hot dog girl. Marten was still in his black warpaint. I was still some white dude who’d almost got himself justly scalped. Still, walking through the arcade all alone, half-naked, bathed in what felt like neon, it was kind of magic.

Marten was the first to smile, but I caught it soon enough.

We pushed our faces against the cage, looked out at the darkened mall.

“We can erase them from Joust anyway, right?” Marten said at last.

Like that we were behind the machines again, hungrily tracing out cables.

“This one,” I said, and pulled it.

We ran around, but Joust was still blinking.

This one,” Marten said, pulling another, and we ran around again, had only killed Galaxian.

“Close,” I said, and then touched my brother’s initials on the Galaga screen, balled my hand fast around that, promised to never let it go.

“What are you doing?” Marten asked.

“This one,” I said, sure this time, but when I pulled it, the whole junction-thing it was plugged into yanked from the wall. The whole bank of machines behind us went dark.

“Think you got it,” Marten said with a thrilled chuckle, and we crept around. I had definitely gotten it, yeah.

But then I realized what else I had got: Galaga.

“Shit,” I said, my face going cold.

I’d erased Rance’s last game, the high score he’d left behind for all of us to wonder at. Janet hadn’t beaten him earlier, nobody had beaten him, but now nobody would ever know.

Marten’s dad was going to kick his ass, yeah, but I was going to be kicking my own ass for twice as long.

“I’ll get it back for him,” I said, holding that magic quarter up.

Dutifully, we plugged Galaga back in, and, after holding the quarter up between us, honoring its power, its promise, its birth year, I kissed it, thumbed it into the slot.

It fell through to the change return.

“What the hell?” Marten said.

I inserted it again, and again it rattled down to that metal flap.

Marten tried, same thing. We tried shooting it through harder, we tried rubbing all the quarter’s edge-grooves clean on the carpet, we breathed on it to make it hot—nothing.

“Cursed quarter,” Marten said, shrugging.

“Jess should give us a new one,” I said, and looked around as if the ghost-version of Jess might be skulking around, talking up the eighth-graders.

Because we knew we could make it last, we dropped the quarter in Pac-Man, just to prove it was a real and actual quarter, but it hit the change return again.

Every machine we tried, even the kiddie ones.

“Hyperspace,” Marten said, lifting his chin to Defender.

“Like it’ll—” I said, thumbing the quarter in, but the machine took it before I could finish.

I pushed back from the controls, giving them to Marten, but he stepped back as well, said, “It was Rance’s year, he’d want you to.”

I dove in, grabbed the joystick right as the game went live, and did my usual thing I did with Defender: held on, shot at complete random, stars streaking past at ridiculous speeds.

“Hyperspace! Hyperspace!” Marten yelled when I was about to die, but I shook my head no, was in what felt like a Rance-trance, was one with this game for once.

I pulled up at every last moment, shot past, lived through. Maybe my problem all along at the arcade had been that I’d been trying to play like Rance, when I was really a Janet-player: I only came alive in a corner.

Marten was breathing hard beside me, his hand on my shoulder, the grease sweating down his face like he was crying black.

Maybe this was my game, I thought. Rance had Galaga, but me, I was Defender, right?

I sure wasn’t anything else.

I fired, fired faster, felt one foot creeping forward into my version of a power stance. It felt weird enough that I looked down, even, and what I saw on the way was light bleeding out from the quarter slot.

What?” I said, and then Marten was lunging forward to jerk the joystick to the side, save my life.

“Thanks!” I yelled to him, taking control again.

The light from the quarter slot was a hot spot on my bare thigh.

I shifted away from it, felt the heat smear across to my other leg.

“What was that quarter made of?” I said, and Marten nodded hard with this, because this was my best game ever, was the best we’d ever seen.

Still, Defender being what it was, I finally had to scream and panic, slap the hyperspace button, because any point in space was better than where I was now.

Like always, everything jumbled on the screen, and—and when I leaned over for a different angle, like I could get a bead on whatever forces I was about to blip down in front of, what I saw kind of in the reflection wasn’t the game at all. I was—I was behind the windshield of an eighteen-wheeler at night? I could tell it was a big rig from the height, and from the monster of a steering wheel in my lap. And then I was nudging that wheel to the right just enough to edge my truck over into the ditch, to tag the Indian walking on the shoulder, just turning around to hike his thumb up.

That hitchhiker was Rance.

I slapped hyperspace again, to get away from this, keep it from having to happen.

Now I was watching from behind a chainlink fence in Denver, watching Rance and three white dudes brush past each other on the sidewalk, Rance not giving room, their shoulders hitting, tempers flaring, brake lights stopping in the street to help these three guys with this Indian, who I knew could have taken on two of them, maybe even three. But not a whole carload.

I hit that button deeper to stop this from happening either and I held it down this time, cycling through Rance dying this way, that way, all the ways an Indian can die in America—shot on a porch, sleeping under a bridge, caught in a car rolling through a fence, throwing up in his sleep—and when I finally, timidly, let the button come back up, I was in the arcade again.

My ship was blasting across the alien landscape, each orange mountain peak the leading edge of a massive lurking asteroid, the ship so fragile, and Marten was yelling my name, telling me up, up!

“No,” I said, using my whole body to move the joystick just the littlest bit. Marten moved with me, and then—he told me later, so I know it’s true—he saw what I was seeing: my little ship in Defender was a dull grey fighter plane now, blasting faster and faster, its background a blur.

“Rance,” I said, almost smiling.

I’d blipped to a good version at last, a good outcome.

“This isn’t—what game is this?” Marten said, checking the side of the machine, like that could tell him anything.

But it wasn’t broke.

“I can do it, I can do it,” I said, zoning in, the skin of my face going cold, my eyes speeding up to see everything at once, my hands hardly even connected to me anymore they were so fast, so right, so true, and no one but Marten was there to see my game that night, the night I beat Defender, the unbeatable game, but I wasn’t playing for them.

All those lives I’d hyperspaced through, they were ways Rance could be out there dying—would be out there dying.

Unless I kept him alive.

The stars blurred, my fingertip on that hyperspace button was both numb and more alive than it had ever been, and I fired, and I fired, and I fired deeper into the heart of whatever this was, clearing a path for him, one farther than our dad could ever reach, one that would get him away and safe and let him live the life he should have, that he deserved.

“What the hell, what the hell, man!” Marten said beside me, his left hand worrying his left braid, his whole body bouncing on the balls of his feet, and if anybody would have looked through the cage they would have seen two twelve-year-olds not yet ready for life, so unready that they didn’t even have pants, their faces streaked black from tears, their eyes blasted wide for every alien, every way to die.

In the morning when Jess opened up we were sitting on the counter, still breathing hard, telling ourselves the story of this, and we were different now, we knew. We’d won.

“Real funny, losers,” Jess said, stepping to the side so we could leave. “You didn’t break anything did you?”

“Just the high score!” Marten yelled on the way past him, and then we ran without pants through the morning, without pants and with sandy hair, with one braid, one black eye, and in the alley behind Marten’s house I cut his braid off to keep his dad out of jail, and we shook hands in the gangster way we’d seen in a music video, pointed at each other to end it, and I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t on purpose, but I took a mental snapshot of Marten anyway, leaned against his back fence, his hair so stupid, his eyes so nervous, his chest raised so he could fake like he was tough enough to walk inside, and I want to lie and say that when I was walking home that bright Halloween morning, a fighter plane cracked thunder over my street, punched through the sound barrier like it was nothing, but, though I closed my eyes to wait for just that, it didn’t come, and didn’t come. There was just me rushing from bush to bush, car to car, and, somewhere far behind me, and also in my heart, a video game blinking RED, RED, RED.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the NYT bestselling author of nearly thirty novels and collections, and there’s some novellas and comic books in there as well. Most recent are My Heart is a Chainsaw and Memorial Ride. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.