Chapter 203

               By the time breakfast was finished Shane, Angela, and Camille had all arrived at Melbrook. After some quick mental math regarding how many cars were available, they all piled in to their various automobiles and headed off toward the coast.

                Despite their decline in the late 80’s, arcades had been seeing a resurgence among adults in the last decade or so. These places were often bundled together with more acceptable social activities, such as bars or restaurants, but the draw of having old-school games and machines managed to draw in a wealth of adults with ample disposable income they were happy to spend on nostalgia.

                Pits & Pixels was one such establishments, specializing in succulent barbecue, a well-stocked bar, and more arcade games than any other restaurant in a fifty mile radius. Nick was already waiting in his car as the others pulled up, and once they disembarked from it took a very short while for everyone to get inside and exchange their money for game tokens.

                Chad decided to try his hand in the mid-way section of the arcade first, dumping a single token into a skeeball machine. His first few throws went awry as he got the feel for the task, but by the end of his balls he was dunking it in the fifty point hole with relative ease, and occasionally scoring a hundred as well. Collecting his tickets from the ground, Chad, Angela, and Shane went off to try more skill games, while the rest of the group scattered about, trying to find something that would amuse them.

                Vince found himself staring at a pinball machine near the back of the arcade. It wasn’t hard to see why it had grabbed his attention, in a place so alien he’d naturally gravitated toward the one thing that was quasi-familiar. Blazoned atop the front of the machine were the words “Hero Pinball Battle Quest” which spoke more to the loquaciousness of titles in decades past than it did to the actual content of the game. Images of various Heroes were splattered across the machine, some Vince recognized from history books and lectures in the HCP, but far more that were complete strangers to him. Vince found himself wondering if they were all real, of if some had just been dreamed up to fill out the needed artwork. He dearly hoped it was the latter; the idea of these men and women doing so much for the world only to fade out of memory was more depressing than he wanted to dwell on.

                A token being slipped onto the glass in front of him broke Vince form his reverie. He glanced about, only to find Nick standing a few feet away.

                “I’ve got next game.” Nick nodded to the token, trying to clue Vince into its meaning. “Assuming you ever stop staring at the machine and play it, that is.”

                “I was… sorry, just got lost in thought for a minute there.” Vince slipped his own token into the machine, which let out a loud electronic whistle and began flashing so many lights that Vince was briefly afraid that he’d set off some kind of alarm.

                “Trust me know, I know waaaaaaay too much about getting lost in your own head,” Nick said. “Personally, I recommend against it. Nothing to be had up there. Just stick to doing what you do best: acting without bothering to think things through in the slightest.”

                “I think things through.” Vince pulled the plunger back and let the small metal marble fly up its predetermined course, bouncing off bumpers and careening through lights and switches as he desperately tried to track it.

                “Vince, I’ve put more thought into what to put on my sandwiches than you’ve put into jumping headfirst into deadly situations. I’m not trying to say you’re dumb, just… impetuous.”

                “Still sort of feels like you’re saying dumb in a clever way,” Vince pointed out, slapping the metal sphere away his right bumper, sending into the “Hero Base” which gathered extra points.

                “I assure you, it’s not my intent. I’m merely saying that for you, action precedes planning, and after three years as your friend I’m starting to think that might not be such a bad thing,” Nick said. “Look, I’m a thinker, I have to plan everything out and look at every angle before I know the best way to go forward. But you, you just barrel through god damned everything yet somewhere seem to come out the other side relatively unscathed. You’ve got good instincts; don’t weaken them by getting too much in your head about stuff.”

                “This seems like a pretty well-rehearsed speech for just having caught me staring at a pinball machine,” Vince said. He swept his bumper upward at the returning ball, but it slipped past and fell into the abyss. Moments later a new ball appeared on top of the plunger, ready to resume its partner’s journey.

                “See, what did I say? Good instincts.” Nick leaned against a fighting game console whose art suggested that it seemed to pit werewolves against mecha-dolphins. “Maybe I’ve been a little worried about you since I got back. Between your history with Eliza, dealing with fallout from last year’s exam, and the general shittery of Globe’s stuff, I get the feeling you’ve started carrying more mental weight than you should. Especially without me around to constantly remind you that the world does not rest on your damn shoulders.”

                “I seem to recall you going off on all of us about how we didn’t think or plan things out enough last year,” Vince said. His second ball was staying aloft so far, though he’d accidentally tripped some switch that create constant flashes, making the sphere hard to track.

                “That was about fighting,” Nick said. “And to be fair, you’ve very rarely needed any help there in the first place. I’m talking about life in general, and all I’m really saying is not to take it too seriously. Relax a little, let yourself be the Vince we all know and mock behind his back.”

                Vince snorted out a laugh, mistiming his bumper’s swing and losing his second ball. The third was ready to go in moments, and Vince sent it shooting up into the game.

                “I appreciate what you’re saying. But at the end of the day, I do have to start carrying more of this weight. Sooner or later I’ll graduate, and if it’s as a Hero then I have to able to take care of myself. I can’t keep relying on everyone else.”

                Nick’s smack in the back of Vince’s head was more distracting than painful, which was why the ball tumbled into the abyss unstopped by either of the unmoving bumpers.

                “See, this is why you shouldn’t get all up in your head: you start thinking idiotic shit like that,” Nick said. “What do you think Hero teams are for? Hell, what do you think your friends are for? I was as out of this world as out could be, and you jackasses still broke into my mind and saved me, even though you believed it would cost you just as much as I’d lost. Do you think those people wouldn’t do the same for you? That I wouldn’t? Shit Vince, I know we tease, but there’s no way you’re actually so stupid that you really think a thing like graduation will mean we stop looking after one another.”

                “I… um. I guess…” Vince bit his lip, unsure of what to say. When Nick laid it out like that, his fears seemed flat-out ridiculous.

                “Everyone gets scared of being left alone,” Nick told him. “But of all of us, you’re the one who should fear it the least. You’ve got a knack for bringing us together. Though whether that makes you or us the bigger weirdos I have no idea.”

                “Thanks, Nick.”

                “Thank me by scooting over.” Nick tapped the coin still resting on the glass. “In case you forgot, it is now officially my turn.”