Friday, the 18th
I don’t usually look in mirrors because I don’t need to. I don’t style my hair; I don’t use makeup. Most days I couldn’t tell you what color clothes I have on. Kristin says that’s because I don’t have a mother to teach me about such things. Kristin is usually right.
I stood in the bathroom staring at my face, studying it, trying to decide if it looked older, when I heard Hawg’s booming voice. It was coming from the mall parking lot.
I opened the back door to watch Hawg and Ironman for a moment. What a pair they were. Hawg’s burly frame was packed into his red Arkansas T-shirt, the one with the charging pig on it. Ironman was wearing his usual black T-shirt. Either it was two sizes too large or he was two sizes too small. The shirt had a death’s-head, a snake, and the word IRONMAN on it.
Hawg was yelling about his one obsession, football. “Whompin’ on ’em, man! We was whompin’ on ’em. Upside their heads and down. No lie. They’d like to have quit at halftime, we whomped ’em up so good.”
I don’t know how much of this football talk Ironman understands. He usually just stands there grinning.
I quietly joined them. Hawg and Ironman seemed hard at work with cans of spray paint, red Glidden spray paint. They had our portable TV stand lying on the ground between them, like a patient on a table. Hawg was leaning backward and squirting at the stand awkwardly, like you’d squirt poison at a big bug. I finally said, “What are you guys doing?”
They both turned in surprise, then exhaled in relief that I wasn’t Uncle Frank. Hawg answered, “Your uncle told us to paint the Sony stand. He wants her to be red now.”
“Damn if I know.” Hawg picked up the stand and flopped it over. Then he held up his hands to show Ironman. They were now streaked bloodred from the paint. I went back inside as Hawg resumed his story, “Second half started, brother, and we dogged ’em good. Whomp! Whomp!”
I had no sooner gotten back to the bathroom mirror than I heard the shrill ringing of the bell. I opened the door again and saw the UPS guy standing there in his brown shirt, shorts, and socks. I see this guy at least once a week, but I honestly don’t know if he remembers me from one visit to the next. If he does, he doesn’t let on. He looked down at his clipboard and told me, “Two packages. Nine hundred ninety-nine dollars COD.”
I said, “I’m sorry. What does that mean?”
He looked up. “It means you have to give me a check for that amount, or you don’t get your boxes.”
“Really? Is this from Arcane?”
He checked his paperwork and confirmed, “Arcane—The Virtual Reality Arcade—Antioch, Illinois. Two packages. COD. Cash on delivery.”
I stood there dumbly. I finally said, “We’ve never had to do that before.”
“You would have to take that up with the sender. I either deliver it or I don’t deliver it.”
Just then the door to the arcade opened and Uncle Frank came in. Uncle Frank used to be an army officer. He still has the crew cut and the military bearing. The UPS guy practically snapped to attention. He even said, “How are you today, sir?”
I said, “He wants a check for nine hundred ninety-nine dollars.”
Uncle Frank sputtered, “What?”
The UPS guy repeated his COD story, but this time he told it like he was on our side.
Uncle Frank told him coldly, “They’ve been sending packages to me for three years now. Never COD. This is a mistake.”
The UPS guy suggested, “Why don’t you call this Arcane company in Illinois?”
Uncle Frank stared hard at the UPS guy, who got very uncomfortable. Suddenly we all swiveled at the sound of the register buzzer. My cousin Karl had pressed it from up front. Uncle Frank looked at me. “See what he wants, will you?”
I walked out onto the floor of our family arcade and stood for a moment surveying the hardware. We have twelve different Arcane “experiences” set up in our arcade. The less bloody experiences are placed up front; the more violent and weird ones are in back. Each experience costs $4.95 for two minutes of “nonstop virtual reality excitement.”
I spotted a Japanese family. They were wandering my way, right toward Mekong Massacre. This was why Karl had hit the buzzer. We don’t let any Asian customers have the Mekong Massacre experience. We don’t let Asians have the Halls of Montezuma experience or the Genghis Khan Rides! experience, either. Uncle Frank calls this our Asian Policy. Some Asians take these games so seriously that they get emotionally upset. Then they want their money back. We’re instructed to tell all Asians that those three games are “experiencing technical difficulties.”
I don’t personally believe in the Asian Policy. I don’t see any harm in letting a Japanese customer pretend to kill a Viet Cong guerrilla, or a Korean customer pretend to slice up an invading Chinese Mongol. Then again, I can distinguish between Japanese and Vietnamese, and Korean and Chinese, and so on. Uncle Frank can’t. That’s why we have an Asian Policy.
The family wandered all the way around the arcade in a circle, then left, so I returned to the UPS guy COD scene. Hawg and Ironman were back inside now, listening to Uncle Frank angrily growl, “Forget it,” and slam down the phone.
I asked him, “It wasn’t a mistake?”
Uncle Frank answered, “Apparently not,” and wrote out a check.
The UPS guy tore off a receipt. It looked like he was about to say something else, but Uncle Frank shooed him out the door. Then we all turned and looked, with great interest, at the two cartons that had cost us a thousand bucks. Uncle Frank shook his head in utter disbelief. He turned to Hawg and Ironman, finally acknowledging their presence, and ordered, “Wash that paint off your hands before you touch this. It’s worth more than you are.” Then he asked me, “What did Karl want?”
I said, “Japanese. Looking at Mekong Massacre.”
“Did you head them off?”
Uncle Frank thought for a moment. “Mekong Massacre’s been marginal for a long time. What kind of numbers does it have?”
“About twenty-five customers a week.”
“Is that all? Maybe we should get rid of it. I hate to, though.” Uncle Frank pointed at the two new boxes. “But we have to make room for this one. He’ll be right up front. And he comes with a promo display.”
“Oh, good. What’s he called?”
“Crusader.” I walked over to the boxes. Hawg and Ironman, now with clean hands, followed me and began to extract the pieces of the promotional display. Hawg pulled out a jewel-handled metal sword and held it up to admire. Then he unwrapped a gorgeous metal shield with a coat of arms that bore a lion, a snake, and a chalice. Even Uncle Frank was impressed by that and came over to check it out, too. He reached in and unfurled a white linen tunic with a big red cross sewn on the front. He nodded admiringly. Then he said, “Come out front, Roberta. I need to talk to you.”
I followed Uncle Frank up to the front register. Uncle Frank and his two children—my cousins, Karl and Kristin—all work at Arcane. Karl is eighteen, tall, and scary looking. Kristin is seventeen, tall, and gorgeous looking. Uncle Frank asked Karl, “Where’s Kristin?”
Karl answered, “I think she’s out with Nina.”
“Oh? That’s good. That Nina’s a good girl.”
Karl looked over at me, sneakily, and rolled his eyes. I rolled mine back. Nina is not a good girl.
Uncle Frank went behind the counter and pulled a green bank deposit bag from the floor safe. He told me, “Roberta, you’re in charge of assembling this new display. I don’t want any mistakes.”
“Okay, Uncle Frank.”
“It could be the last one we get for a while.”
I returned to the back room and pushed open the door, expecting to see a mess, but the guys seemed to be handling the assembly okay. The Crusader had no real body. He had an open wire frame shaped like an upside-down cone, so large that a person could fit inside it. And that’s where Ironman currently was. He said to Hawg, “There’s gotta be a metal bar for the shoulders.”
“There ain’t no metal bar, Ironman. I told you that already.”
“There’s gotta be.”
“There ain’t. Now, don’t make me hurt you, boy.”
I said, “It’s probably in this other box.” I opened the second box and saw the CD-ROM to run Crusader, and the legend card that explained the experience. The card said:
God’s champion against medieval evil!
He battles the bloodthirsty infidel
across the scorching sands of Asia Minor,
to reclaim the Holy Land for God.
Copyright © 1999 by Edward Bloor
Reader’s guide copyright © 2007 by Harcourt, Inc.
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