Button Mashing

In a back corner of the arcade is a curtained-off private alcove, just big enough for two people to squeeze in side-by-side at the scrolling, blinking altar of the video game cabinet. So close their hips rub against through their jeans, the lump of quarters press-printed in the fabric of their pockets. Digging two fingers into clothes so tight it takes a popped button and unzipping to get at what they want until finally, they feed the machine. A turning on. Fingerpads rest gently on the open coin slot. Feeling the receipt of it shudder the cabinet’s frame, the rattle getting lower and lower until it ends somewhere below their groins.

The light changes to etch the features of their faces, to highlight the high planar polygons of their cheekbones and noses. Ready, player one? He stands feet planted wide, legs apart, hands on the controls, fingers firm. The display screen of the game is false sunlight—it gives off a pale yellow that’s emitted by the electrical excitation of a type of helium-3 element only found locked in the minerals of the moon. The artificial sky seen through the tiny window onto this digital world is blue as clouds from Neptune. Beneath it are electrically painted bands of white, orange, brown, and red. Dirt colors swirling like Jupiter’s storms. Earth shading. Flesh tones. Player two has joined the game.

Her elbow digs into his rib as they work their way into position. She cradles the joystick in one hand, thumb and forefinger gently touching the knob at the top. His palm covers all the buttons, feeling their slight give. She gives it a quick twirl. He taps out a Morse message. First it’s gentle and inquisitive, probing, finding the right combinations. Digital pleasuring. But this is a physical sport, immortal combat, immoral contact. And soon the arcade cabinet moves with them. The furniture rocks under their impacts. Their breathing is loud, their mouths fog the glass of the screen.

The video game characters move towards each other, touch, move apart again. Grapple to see who will come out on top. These little representations they have chosen of themselves from the limited palette—his with muscles that tear through pant seams and t-shirts with every flex, hers wearing little but underwear and losing more with every contact, scraps of fabric floating through the air around them like lazy well-fed moths. Cartoonishly optimized virility: maximum man, femme fatale. Their characters grunt and gasp but the sweat is on the players’ faces, hands too busy to reach and wipe it away. Arms and legs moving too fast to render, too quickly to be seen.

The bottled neon of the game illuminates who they truly are on the inside, like how stellar spectroscopes slice the spectrum into frequency bandwidths to reveal the chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance, velocity, luminosity, and motion of not just stars but planets, nebulae, galaxies, pulsars, gas giants, supernovae, comets, and the uncategorizable radiating blackbodies beyond the range of telescope and human comprehension. Weighing all the bodies of the universe by their rainbows.

Backlit by the video screen, absorbed in its graphics, these two impressionistic youth are rendered down to x-ray skeletons limned by pixel-atom cosmic dust and other radiations that make the interstellar dust devil that is you a uniquely identifiable object in the universe.

She’s got both hands on the stick now, jamming it up and down until his vision explodes into static and he can hardly see. Desperate to finish her, he’s just button mashing down there, fingers sliding off the slick surface again and again, fingers walking, running, sprinting, dancing. Someone on screen screams. In the cheap synthesizer voice, it’s hard to tell who. The music is the energetic 8-bit soundtrack of ill-spent youth.

He finds the sweet spot, presses her button in just the right way, and suddenly the screen is awash in gouts of energy emitting from somewhere down by his avatar’s waist, life-forces draining, the screams clearly hers this time. Both dazzled by polychromatic fireworks, seizure-inducing strobes, a cheering crowd. When it clears, one of them lying limp and spent on the ground, the other standing over, panting. Fade to black. Their faces reflected in the blank screen, open-mouthed, stunned, pillowed so close to each other.

The screen takes their reflections and uses their rainbows to paint new characters into its world. Not just two-dimensional. Not just skin-deep. Solid, and ecstatic in the knowledge of their bodies and in the other’s proximity. A finger-twitch distance apart, a breath away. She bites her lower lip. He touches his tongue to his upper lip.

All their short lives, they’ve been avatars of cold and distant influences, but when they meet in this place for mutual assured obsession, common passion, and shared delights, she and he take the controls into their own hands. Pull the levers themselves, push the buttons they want to, move their bodies in a way that feels right, twirl their dust devils together. Asteroids, planets, and galaxies turn with them, their universe revolves around where they stand.

She finally wipes her hands down the front of her jeans and says, “Best two of three.”


FFO: How did the idea for this story germinate?

JP: Twitter used to have a pretty robust weird fiction community, and one of the writers I most enjoy from there is Uel Aramchek. He wrote several stories about occult video game arcades, including this one about an “Ouijatari.” Classic-style arcades are transportive (I love the sequence in Tron: Legacy where someone finds a hidden door behind a game cabinet), so I wanted to write about that environment. When I was a teenager, my two main interests were games and girls, and they fit together nicely here.

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