SAA, the initials next to the high score said, flashing smugly, and Abigail slammed her hand onto the control panel. “Damnit!”
“You know, Abi, that hurts the machine more than it hurts you.”
“Did I ask?”
“I’m just saying, Gus is gonna kick us all out if you break that.”
“Hey,” Sebastian said, snapping his fingers in Sam’s direction. “Quit stalling and make your shot.”
Friday night had come rolling around again, and like every Friday, they were in the Stardrop’s game room, drinking shitty beer while Sebastian destroyed Sam at pool and Abigail hung out in the corner, playing arcade games. Pool was boring, but she was better at that than Journey of the Prairie King – the last time Sebastian coaxed her into trying pool, she’d crushed him just so he’d stop bugging her to play with them every week. If only dethroning the mysterious SAA were that simple.
Sam grumbled and made a show of lining up his shot, only to have it go wide, cue ball spinning off in a random direction. Sometimes Abigail wondered if he did it on purpose. There was no way anyone was that bad.
“I’m not gonna break it. But look! Look at this.” She gestured at the scoreboard, where ABI blinked in slots two through ten, each one a testament to hours of practice. She’d fought tooth and nail for those scores, and still SAA sat at the top, lording it over her. “Nobody but us plays any of these games. It has to be at least a couple of years old, but no matter what I do, I can’t beat it! I’m calling bullshit.”
“Well, what can you do? Some people just have it,” Sam said, and promptly sunk the eight ball in the corner pocket. Sebastian snorted. Sam gave him the finger.
“Gee, thanks.” Abigail tossed back the rest of her beer. It wasn’t great, but it was something. “Whose turn is it to buy?”
“Mine.” Sebastian leaned over so he was visible from the doorway and caught Emily’s eye, signaling for another round. “And then Sam’s, once I’m done kicking his ass.”
“It’s not rude if it’s true.”
They lapsed into trading insults, and Abigail tuned them out, staring at the screen. Chatter from the bar mingled with music from Gus’s old jukebox, humming along in the background, punctuated by bursts of laughter and glass thumping against wood. The Stardrop was well-lit for the most part, but the game room boasted both wallpaper and wall fixtures thirty years out of date and always felt a little grungy, like it should be filled with cigar smoke and small-time drug deals. Maybe she could swipe one of her dad’s cigars and give it a try. He swore he’d gotten rid of them, like she and Mom didn’t know perfectly well that he kept them in a box hidden underneath the loose floorboard in the attic. He really didn’t give them any credit. Her nail polish was already starting to chip off. She dug at it with her thumb, gouging a furrow down the middle.
“Who do you guys think S-A-A is, anyway? Townie or tourist?” They got those sometimes, tourists. Usually in the fall. If it was a tourist, she was going to scream.
“Pretty sure that’s Shane,” a cheery voice said in her ear, making her jump. Emily moved way too quietly for someone who wore such loud clothing. “Here you go! Three beers, fresh from the tap.”
“Wait,” Abigail said, even as she automatically accepted the fresh mug, condensation cold on her knuckles. “Shane?”
“S-A-A. Shane Allen Andrews,” Emily confirmed, flitting around the pool table to hand Sam and Sebastian their drinks. “He went on an arcade kick when he first moved here. I remember because he used to sit and play until Gus kicked him out to close, some nights. I used to just give him all his change in quarters.”
Abigail looked at the row of battered machines lining the wall, each one ringed with colorful lights and flashing slightly out of sync. Junimo Kart, Wizard Pinball, Zuzu City Taxi, Gem Sea Adventures – SAA ranked first on every single one, pixelated letters blinking white against a black background.
“No way,” she said.
“Shane,” Sebastian said, brows drawing together. “That Shane?”
All three of them followed his gaze to the table next to the bar, where the man of the hour sat hunched in his chair, staring into his half-empty glass. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and he was wearing the same battered hoodie he always wore, no matter the weather; judging by its condition, he’d last washed it the same decade that the saloon changed its wallpaper. Emily smiled fondly. It was the kind of smile usually reserved for puppies and adorable orphans, and behind her back, the three of them exchanged worried glances.
“You’d be surprised. He’s all bark and no bite once you get to know him… oh!” She turned back to Abigail, beaming. “Why don’t you ask him to show you some of his old tricks? Journey of the Prairie King was his favorite.”
“Uh,” Abigail said, because there was no polite way to tell her that it was a terrible idea. Luckily, that was what she had Sam for.
“No offense, Em, but why would Shane help Abi beat his high score? Sebastian and I have been friends since we were five and he still won’t let me win at pool.”
Sebastian shrugged. “Get good.”
Emily looked like she was going to say something, but then Gus called her, voice cutting through the din, and she smiled and tucked her tray under her arm. “Whoops, gotta get back to work. Good luck with your game!”
She tossed Abigail a wink and sailed off, leaving her more flustered than ever. Sam and Sebastian were racking up for a new game, billiard balls clacking over felt and chalk squeaking. Over at his table, Shane hadn’t moved once. Now that Abigail was looking at him, actually looking at him, it was obvious how removed he was from his surroundings, like he’d wandered in by mistake and didn’t have the energy to leave. There was movement all around him, but he remained perfectly still, a boulder in a human stream. She might have felt sorry for him, if he hadn’t made it so clear that he didn’t want anyone’s pity.
SAA, the top spot on the scoreboard blinked at her, insistent. Shane-Allen-Andrews. She chewed on her lip.
“Hey,” Sebastian said. “You want in this game? I need a smoke break.”
“Nah.” She picked up her mug and checked her phone. Eight-fifteen. Still plenty of time. “I’ll catch you guys later.”
“Where are you going?” Sam called after her. Abigail ignored him. She still wasn’t quite sure what she was doing, but then again, maybe it was better not to think about it too much. She squeezed past Elliott and Leah, who were splitting a bottle of wine, and sidled up to the register, wallet in hand.
“Hi, Gus. Can I get an order of pepper poppers?”
Shane was going to kill Emily.
Not for real, obviously. He didn’t have time to train a new waitress in the delicate art of leaving him the fuck alone while also keeping his glass full. But this was all her fault, and he would have told her so, if he thought she’d do anything other than laugh and ask if he needed a refill. Nothing fazed Emily.
Friday night. All he’d wanted to do was drink enough to forget about the endless, suffocating rain of shit piling on top of him – or at least, drink enough to stop caring temporarily – so he could stumble home later and black out in peace. Maybe take a wrong turn into the lake and drown, if he got lucky. But he’d been there for less than an hour when the grocer’s daughter slid into the seat across from him, hands full.
Abigail frowned, put out. “I didn’t even say anything.”
“Whatever it is, the answer’s no.”
He was only on his second beer and Morris had eaten up his entire last break yelling at him about mixing up the sale pricing on canned peas. Social niceties could fuck right off. Unfortunately, Abigail was made of stronger stuff than most of the locals.
“Even if it comes with free food?” She set the plate of pepper poppers between them, so fresh the batter was still sizzling. Shane’s traitor stomach growled as the twin scents of cheese and spice hit his nose. “You like these, right?”
“It’s not free if you want something,” he muttered, cradling his beer like a shield. Abigail rolled her eyes, which was impressive for the sole fact that she was wearing about three pounds of eyeliner. It went with the choker. Was she goth? Were goths allowed to dye their hair purple? Shane had never been part of a subculture. Even if they’d wanted him, it was way too much work.
“You can have them either way. I’m not an asshole.” She stole one from the edge of the plate and washed it down with a slug of beer. “I just didn’t want to ask something for nothing.”
Shane had no idea what she could have possibly wanted from him. They’d never had so much as a conversation in the two years he’d lived there, unless you counted the time he grunted at her to move because she and her friends were blocking the hallway to the bathroom. He stared at her, and she stared back, chin raised. Fine. He grabbed a pepper popper.
“Fine. What is it?” Spice unfurled on his tongue and scorched a path down his throat, surrounded by the welcome tang of soft white cheese and the crunch of fried breading. Say what you wanted about Gus, the man was a damn fine cook. He closed his eyes and lifted his glass to his lips, savoring the burn.
“Teach me how to beat Journey of the Prairie King,” Abigail blurted, and Shane choked on his drink. Beer went directly up his nose. “Crap. You okay?”
He waited until he was sure he could speak again, and coughed, thumping his chest. “Why the hell are you asking me?”
“You have the high score on all the machines, right? Emily told me.” Abigail folded her arms, and Shane silently told Emily to kiss her tip for the night goodbye. “Journey of the Prairie King is fucking hard, okay? I wanna see whatever demonic magic you’re using to beat it.”
Shane had almost forgotten that he held the high score. It had been something to do when he first moved to Pelican Town, reverting to old habits – his childhood had been spent drifting in and out of arcades, scrounging for enough quarters to play one more game. Anything to avoid going home.
“I’m retired. Find someone else.” He coughed again, took another drink. “Hell, get your goth boyfriend to do it. Isn’t he supposed to be some kind of genius?”
“Sebastian? Please. He only plays RPGs. And he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Okay,” Shane said, wondering if he was supposed to care.
“Look, all I’m asking is for you to show me a couple of tricks.” Abigail leaned back in her chair. “I never see you play, so you can’t care all that much.”
“You’re right. I don’t care. At all.” He picked up his beer and stood, taking a last handful of pepper poppers with him. “You want the high score so bad, figure out how to beat it yourself.”
Abigail called something after him that sounded like ‘kick your ass’, or maybe just ‘asshole’. Join the club. He left pretty soon after, but he did stick a ten in the tip jar for Emily on his way out. He wasn’t a complete monster.
Fine. It wasn’t like she needed Shane, not if he was going to be like that. She’d beat it with or without his help, and when she did, she was going to celebrate. She’d play pool with Sebastian just to show Sam that he could be beaten, and then she was going to order a plate of pepper poppers and a nice cold beer and take it all to Shane’s usual table. She was going to sit down in his chair and eat the whole thing, piece by piece, right in front of his face.
There was one thing Shane could say for Abigail – she was persistent. She showed up during his shift three days later, popping up behind him while he was restocking the canned vegetables and subsequently scaring the shit out of him. As soon as he got his breath back, he shoved the can he was holding onto the shelf and glared at her.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“It’s like The Karate Kid,” she said, leaning against the shelving unit. First Marnie and Emily, now Abigail. What was he doing that made people think he was worth investing their energy? He picked up another can of beans from the box at his feet. This one was expired. He considered pocketing it and eating it for lunch. If he ate it, he might die, and then this wouldn’t keep happening to him.
“Your dad lets you come in here?”
“He doesn’t let me do anything, I’m twenty-three. Don’t change the subject.”
Shane squinted at her, trying to focus through the lingering fog of his hangover. “The movie from the eighties?”
“Yeah. You’re the Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel Russo. You have to pass the torch so the student can surpass the master, keep your teachings alive, yadda yadda yadda. You’ve already done the initial refusal, so now you have to reluctantly agree now that I’ve proved I’m serious and make me do manual labor or something that secretly makes me super-good at video games.” Shane was too tired to try to decipher what the hell she was saying, so he just kept shoving cans into the empty spot on the shelf until she nudged his foot with the toe of her combat boot. “Well?”
“Piss off and go bother someone else.”
He thought for sure that would get rid of her, but she just tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled with all her teeth showing, like he’d said something funny. “I’m gonna beat you either way. Just so you know.”
“Then why do you even want my help?”
“Less talking, more stocking!” Morris yelled from the front, where he was counting change at the register. The guy had hearing like a bat – Shane half-expected to see him hanging from a light fixture whenever he showed up to open in the mornings. Abigail glared at the front of the store, then turned back to Shane and leaned in, hair cascading over her shoulder. She smelled faintly of shampoo and pot. Did she smoke, or was that just from hanging around Sam and Sebastian? He realized then how little he knew about her. Not that it mattered.
“Seems pretty lonely at the top,” she said.
“Shane!” Morris bellowed.
Good luck, Abigail mouthed, and ducked around the corner in a blur of purple and black. Shane put the beans in the wrong spot on the shelf and wondered if The Karate Kid was on Netflix.
Abigail had seen The Karate Kid approximately thirty-seven times. Thirty-eight, if she was counting the time she fell asleep halfway through at the drive-in on her one disastrous high school-era date with Sebastian. He’d eaten all the popcorn and left her half a sip of soda and half a box of Junior Mints. She still hadn’t completely forgiven him.
It was her and her dad’s thing, eighties movies (and by extension, eighties music). Had been as soon as she watched The Breakfast Club and fell in love with Ally Sheedy, in all of her glorious weirdness. She still had the poster taped on the inside wall of her closet, and the soundtrack in an old CD case somewhere, along with the scores from a dozen of her other favorites. Her dad loved eighties movies – the classics, the cult classics, the box office flops – and every Friday night, they’d sit in the living room with a bowl of popcorn and make a double feature of it. Sometimes her mom joined in, but mostly it was the two of them, watching Big Trouble in Little China and The Dark Crystal back to back. They didn’t talk much, but sometimes he’d crack jokes or tell her stories about the first time he’d seen whatever they were watching, and she never felt alone. Not like she did now, when being in the same room with him felt like an ocean apart.
Her dad’s favorites were things like The Goonies and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but Abigail always liked trilogies the best, like The Karate Kid and Back to the Future (and two-thirds of the original Ghostbusters). There was something comforting about them, like they were the exact right amount of story. Or maybe she just liked that it meant there were more movies for them to watch together. Whatever the reason, those were the ones that stuck. And then something happened along the way and she and her dad watched movies less and fought more, until one day Abigail looked at him and saw a stranger looking back. They didn’t talk about it. They just stopped talking.
She moved her Breakfast Club poster from her door to the inside of her closet, and as soon as she was old enough to start hanging out at the Saloon, Friday night double features became a thing of the past. Sometimes, she wondered if he missed them too, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask. She was too afraid of the answer.
She went to the Saloon early that Friday, and even though Gus looked surprised to see anyone before five, he still let her in and offered her a soda. It looked weird in the daytime, she decided, quiet and empty with sunlight bouncing off the scuffed wooden paneling. Dust motes swirled in the beams. Weird, she amended, but nice. Peaceful, even. She took the soda to set Gus at ease and headed for the game room, quarters rattling in her pocket. By the time Sam and Sebastian usually showed up, she’d made it halfway through Stage Two. She couldn’t pause the game, but she found herself glancing at the door between areas, waiting for it to chime.
Sebastian texted her fifteen minutes later to say that he and Sam had other plans. She couldn’t say she was surprised – the two of them had always been closer to each other than to her, and she’d been too wrapped up in her own enterprises to pay them much attention lately. She’d make it up to them later.
Shane showed up around six, still in his work uniform but minus the crappy polyester hat. He was pissed, she could tell, hair falling in his eyes and bad mood expanding around him in a noxious cloud. Guilt tugged at her sleeve, child-like. She hoped she hadn’t gotten him in trouble with her visit the other day. He glanced over on his way to the bar, and she caught his eye and nodded before turning back to the game. This time, it was the third area giving her trouble, and twenty minutes later she was down to her last life, frantically mashing at the buttons while her cowboy whirled around the screen, dodging enemy projectiles by the skin of his digital teeth. If she could just hold out a few seconds longer –
“Power-up, top right corner in three,” someone said from behind her, and Abigail jumped, fingers slipping off the buttons. Her cowboy slammed into an enemy and disintegrated. GAME OVER.
“You don’t suck,” Shane added when she turned around, fixing him with the evil eye. “Not as bad as some people, anyway.”
“Fuck you for sneaking up on me,” she said, even though she wasn’t as upset as she felt she ought to be. “Mr. Miyagi would never do that to Daniel.”
“Re-watched the movie last night, and he definitely would.” Shane wasn’t smiling, exactly, but he wasn’t frowning either. She was pretty sure this was the most he’d ever said to her voluntarily. “But it doesn’t matter, because I’m not your Mr. Miyagi.”
“Then what are you?”
The corner of his mouth twitched, but then he took a sip of his beer and it was gone, fast enough that she thought she might have imagined it. “Johnny Lawrence,” he said.
“Can I feed the chickens?” Jas asked over breakfast, and Shane nodded and shoveled another forkful of eggs into his face so he didn’t have to talk. He felt like shit, he looked like shit, and Marnie’s cooking was glued to the roof of his mouth, but his aunt insisted they have A Real Family Breakfast, Shane, on Saturday mornings, so he put his carcass in the chair and choked it down. It was literally the least he could do.
“Sure thing, kid,” he said, once he was sure he wasn’t going to throw up eggs and last night’s whiskey all over his plate. “Right after you finish eating.”
“And then I can help Aunt Marnie milk the cows,” she announced proudly, slippered feet dangling in mid-air. “She’s teaching me how.” Marnie smiled at her, and the love shining in her eyes made Shane’s chest hurt. At least one of Jas’s guardians wasn’t a fuck-up. She deserved that much.
“I sure am.” She glanced at Shane. “Jas and Vincent milked their first cows the other day. Miss Penny brought them by for a hands-on lesson. They both did very well.”
“I did better,” Jas said, pushing her eggs around her plate with her fork.
Shane forced himself to take another bite. Three years ago, Jas could barely spell her own name, and now she was learning to take care of animals and reading at a fifth-grade level. She’d be eight in a couple of months. What did she and Marnie even need with him? Why even put up with him at all? They were getting along just fine without him – the nights he spent at the Saloon proved that much, like some kind of sick, self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Shane, did you get enough to eat?” Marnie was giving him her best Concerned Aunt look, eyes soft in her round face, grey just starting to creep in at her temples. She looked so much like his mom sometimes that it made him want to punch something, or cry. Maybe both. “There’s more pancakes. Or I could make another batch of scrambled eggs, if you’d rather have that…”
The thought of more food set his gut to churning, and he stood, chair legs scraping against the floorboards. It only made the pounding in his head worse, but he needed to get out of there, now. “Nah. Not hungry.”
“Alright,” Marnie said quietly, and Shane hated himself for it. You really are just a fat, worthless asshole, aren’t you? He ran a hand over his face, stubble rough against his palm, and looked at Jas, forcing a smile.
Out in the paddock, chickens fed and livestock grazing, Jas helped Marnie milk the cows, giggling whenever she touched their udders. Shane watched them, forearms braced against the fence. The day was pleasant, breezy, and soft white clouds dotted the pale blue sky. The sun warmed his back and the sweet green grass beneath his shoes.
He needed a fucking drink.
He thought about the Stardrop, and Abigail. It was a reflex now, almost – she was in there damn near every night, hunched over the machine in the corner of the lounge with her eyes locked on the screen. They didn’t talk, usually, but at some point she’d catch his eye and grin or make a rude gesture, and he’d just raise his beer and give her a nod. She had an attitude, Abigail; she wasn’t mean, but you had to have an attitude walking around their tiny-ass town like she did, with her dyed hair and ripped clothes, daring anyone to give a fuck.
“Pierre wants that girl to be a housewife,” he’d overheard Marnie telling Lewis once, shaking her head. “He’s only going to cause them both grief if he keeps pushing.”
Shane had to agree. Abigail didn’t let anyone make her small. She walked too fast, laughed too loud, took up too much space; she’d probably eat anyone who tried to take that from her. She was going to beat his high score someday, maybe someday soon. Probably rub it in, too, though the thought stung less than it should have.
When had things shifted? When had he gone from barely registering her existence to hoping hers was the next face to come through the door?
“Uncle Shane!” Jas waved at him from where she was crouched in the grass, tiny face lit up with glee. “I did it!” The cow she was milking lowed and bent its head to the grass, tail swishing. Shane waved back.
“Good job, kiddo.”
“Now you,” she yelled, turning those big puppy dog eyes on him, and Marnie looked at him too, expectant.
(“You need to spend more time with her, Shane.” A furious whisper in the dark, mid-fight, low enough to keep Jas from waking. “That little girl worships the ground you walk on, even if you can’t see it.”)
Marnie didn’t get it, because she was a good person. The less he was around now, the easier it would be for Jas when she grew up and realized what a piece of shit he really was. But this, at least, was something he could do. He could go one day without breaking her heart. He hoped.
“Coming,” he grunted, and climbed over the fence to join them.
Marnie and Lewis met up at the Saloon on Wednesday nights. It was the one day a week she took any time for herself, and the one day Shane stayed home to watch Jas so she could go have a drink with her boyfriend like a normal person. He personally thought she could do better – like dating someone who’d acknowledge that they were a couple in public, for instance – but she’d made it clear that it wasn’t any of his business, and he wasn’t exactly batting a thousand himself. He kept his mouth shut.
“I’ll be home around ten,” she said, fixing her hair in the mirror that hung by the front door, and Shane just nodded and made what he thought were encouraging noises until she finally left. He wasn’t the babysitter, for fuck’s sake, Jas was his kid. He’d been taking care of her since she was four.
And a fine fucking job you’re doing with that, shit-for-brains.
He couldn’t afford to go down that path tonight, so he heated up a frozen pizza for dinner and let Jas paint his toenails while they watched some movie about horses. She wanted to do neon pink, but he talked her down to dark purple and rewound the tape at the appropriate times so she could listen to all the songs twice. Then he put her to bed and shut himself in his room with a six-pack to watch The Karate Kid for the third time in two weeks. He vaguely remembered liking it as a kid, the one time he’d seen it, but he wasn’t expecting the wave of nostalgia that came with it.
He hadn’t been kidding when he told Abigail that he was her Johnny Lawrence, just another obstacle to overcome in pursuit of her dreams. There was no way she was going to stay in this podunk town forever, not when she finally realized how much more she could be. First his high score, then the rest of the world.
He was kind of looking forward to it.
“I don’t like you going to the Saloon so much,” Pierre said after supper, and Abigail tried not to roll her eyes while she finished lacing her boots. “Once a week is fine, but every night? Your mother needs your help around the house.”
Then why don’t you help her, she almost said. It was on the tip of her tongue. But she wanted to leave more than she wanted to fight, so she bit the words back and stood up, smoothing out her skirt. “Relax, Dad. I’m not even drinking.”
“I still don’t like you spending all your free time there, Abigail.”
“Just on Fridays, so you can keep an eye on me, right? Make sure I’m not embarrassing you?”
Okay, so maybe she did want a fight. Just a little. Anything besides the relentless, suffocating silence that stood in for all the things they didn't say to one another.
Her dad’s jaw tightened – that blow had definitely landed. They glared at each other, him looking in the entryway, her poised to escape by the front door. He shed the verbal boxing gloves, jabbed back.
“You want to wind up like Pam and Marnie’s good-for-nothing nephew, with nothing but the Stardrop? Is that really the path you want to go down?”
“You don’t even know Shane!”
It slipped out unbidden, loud enough to startle them both. Abigail clamped her mouth shut, biting the inside of her lip. What the hell? No, her dad didn’t know Shane, but she didn’t either, not really. Did she?
“For Yoba’s sake, Pierre,” her mom said from the kitchen, voice weary with impatience. “The dishes are done, and it’s not even dark out. Let her go.”
Abigail didn’t need to be told twice – she knew what was coming, and she would have rather slit her own throat than listen to another one of her dad’s furious, hushed lecture about how they were ‘undermining his authority as the head of the household’. The vein at his temple was already throbbing.
“Caroline – “
“Thanks, Mom,” she called out, and bolted.
Thursdays were slow, the Saloon deserted except for its regular clientele. Abigail marched right up to the bar and ordered a beer out of spite. Emily didn’t judge – never did. Just handed it over, along with a glass of water and a sympathetic smile. Across the bar, Pam sat slumped next to Willy, both silent, and Leah perched at the high-top in the corner, bent over her sketchpad. Before Abigail even turned around, she knew what she’d see: Shane, tucked into his usual corner with a half-empty mug. His hoodie looked rattier than ever, his stubble creeping towards a full-fledged beard, but his expression was open and pliant, almost drowsy. She wondered how much he’d already had to drink.
He caught her eye, hands cupped around his glass. Surprised to see her, maybe, but not unhappily so. A ghost of a nod drifted her way.
Abigail picked up her beer.
“Hey,” Shane said when she got closer, and he was definitely drunk, his voice softer around the edges than usual. He looked ten years younger without the scowl. She’d thought he was in his thirties, but now she wasn’t so sure. She wasn’t so sure about anything lately.
“I want to see you play,” she said, and when she headed towards the lounge, he was just drunk enough to follow her.
Normal Shane – gruff, antisocial, sardonic Shane – was human wallpaper, desperately trying to blend into the background. Shane playing Journey of the Prairie King was a revelation. Abigail kind of wanted to punch him.
He hadn’t touched the game in two years, and it showed in his first few rounds, posture stiff and hands clumsy on the controls. But as soon as he’d beaten the first area, some kind of dormant, long-rusted-over switch had flipped, and without warning, he’d come alive. This Shane was pure focus, locked onto the controls with laser-like intensity, his hands steadier than she’d ever seen them, but what really startled her was his face. It was so calm, like everything had fallen away but the game, washed in reds and blues and golds by the lights whirling around the screen. It would have made for an amazing movie moment, she caught herself thinking. She could already picture it on the screen – the former hero’s talent revealed to an unsuspecting audience. Shane probably would have hated it if she’d told him.
He made it halfway through the final stage before his last life ran out, and as soon as the GAME OVER text flashed, the colors all faded, and they were just Shane and Abigail again, the saloon quiet except for the jukebox and the cricket song coming through the window.
“Rusty as hell,” Shane muttered, shoving his hands into his pockets. Whatever confidence the alcohol had given him had evaporated along with his avatar, and he was looking everywhere but Abigail now, frown sliding back into place. She kind of wanted to punch him again, but for a different reason this time.
“Are you kidding? That was amazing, Shane, how did you – why did you stop playing?”
He shrugged, still refusing to meet her eyes, and maybe that was the problem, that he wouldn’t just look at her; whatever the reason, Abigail reached out and grabbed his sleeve, fingers curling in the worn fabric. It was softer than she expected. He jolted, then froze, like he couldn’t decide whether or not to pull away.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does,” she insisted, even though she wasn’t sure why. She was trying to beat him. She shouldn’t be encouraging him to remember how good he really was.
“It just does, okay?” She’d stepped closer without realizing it, pressing in as he shuffled away, his back hitting the side of the machine. “Look at how good you are after not playing for, what, two years? I just want to know what happened.”
“Nothing!” he spat, and she flinched, grip loosening on his jacket. “Nothing happened, okay? That’s just what I do. I stop doing things, because it all just feels so fucking pointless the more I think about it. It doesn’t make me happy, nothing makes me – “
His words cut off abruptly, a record scratch against the chiming bells of the arcade. Abigail stayed where she was, watching him breathe hard with his face all flushed and his eyes dark, smelling like beer and sharp, angry sweat. She had no idea what to say.
“Look at me,” he said finally, so low she had to lean in to catch the words. “Spending every night in a bar instead of spending time with my kid, ‘cause I can’t even look her in the eye. Not because of her. Because of me.”
“Shane – “
“Tell me why I should get to be happy, when that little girl never did anything wrong and her parents are dead.” He leaned his head against the machine, eyes glazed, and Abigail’s heart cracked right down the middle. “Because I can’t think of a single goddamn reason.”
Without thinking, she reached out and touched his cheek, drawing his face back so it was level with hers. “We all deserve to be happy sometimes.”
“All of us. Me, Sebastian, Sam, my parents, Emily, Gus, Jas, Marnie… everyone. Including you.” His stubble was rough against her hand, eyes locked on her face like he was seeing her for the first time. Maybe he was, she had no way of knowing. “I don’t know what all is going on with you, and I can’t make you tell me, but I do know that you can’t punish yourself forever for something you have no control over.”
Shane swayed a little, leaning into her hand. “I don’t want you to beat my high score,” he said.
“Not because of that.” He still smelled like beer, but she didn’t mind it so much anymore. “If you beat it, then you won’t want to talk to me anymore.”
If this was a movie, this was where he would kiss her, hidden in a corner of the arcade with his hands in her hair. Or hell, maybe she’d flip the script and kiss him. It wasn’t the eighties anymore, no matter what her dad thought. She could totally make the first move if she wanted to.
Did she want to?
The song on the jukebox stopped, Pam’s hoarse laugh filling in the silence, and Abigail suddenly remembered where they were. Anyone could see them if they passed by the game room. Emily could come by at any second – what if she’d already seen them this close and Abigail hadn’t even noticed? What if someone told her dad? Shane must have had the same thought, because he jerked away from her and stepped back, leaving a gulf between them. Her cheeks burned. What the hell was wrong with her?
“Sorry, I – sorry.”
“Hey,” Shane started, but she didn’t want to hear it. Now not, maybe not ever.
She could take a hint.
He wrote her a letter.
Of all the stupid fucking things he’d done lately, it was pretty high on the list, right behind “almost maybe kiss Abigail”, but he didn’t have her number, and there was no way he was calling Pierre’s. So he scribbled her a note in the break room and bribed Sam to give it to her with the help of a frozen pizza and a couple of day-old maple bars from the bakery. He could barely remember what he wrote. All he could see was her face when he’d pulled away, over and over again on a loop in his head.
He waited one, two, three days, then a week. She didn’t come to the Saloon. She didn’t write him back.
The bedroom door creaked open, and Jas’s face was visible through the crack when he lifted his head, her eyes wide. His mouth felt like it was coated in sawdust, his head pounding, and he closed his eyes as a stab of pain lanced through his temple. At least she was whispering. “Yeah.”
“Aunt Marnie said that you’re sick.” He heard the door open wider, and then soft footsteps tip-toed into the room, coming to a halt at the side of his bed. Her hand rested on his cheek, blessedly cool. “I brought you Mr. Pickle. He always helps me when I’m sick.”
Shane cracked open one bleary eye to see the green Junimo plush sitting on the pillow next to him, and this time it was guilt that needled him, roiling his guts. He tried to smile. “What do you know? I feel better already.”
Jas giggled, but hesitated at the side of the bed. “Uncle Shane?”
“Can I stay with you and Mr. Pickle? I’ll be real quiet.”
That stab hurt worse than the last, his little girl – because she was his now, for better or worse – thinking that he might not want her around. There were times when he didn’t want anyone around, but that wasn’t her fault. Hers, or Marnie’s, or Abigail’s, or anyone else’s, really. Just his, and she didn’t need to keep suffering for it. He scooted over to make some room, body protesting, and she let out a happy squeak and climbed under the covers, pushing the Junimo into Shane’s chest.
“You have to hold him,” she whispered. “Or else it doesn’t work.”
He didn’t deserve a single one of them, especially Jas. She sure as hell didn’t deserve him.
“Thanks, kiddo,” he said, and hid his face against the plush so she couldn’t see him start to cry.
Abi: Hey losers
‘Abi changed the group chat name to The Karate Dicks.’
Abi: Quit jerking each other off and look at your phones, I need advice
Seb: har har har
Guitar God: quit fckin changing the chat name
Guitar God: nobody else thinks your weird 80s references are funny
Abi: Like you have room to talk, Guitar God
Guitar God: Not funny, just true
Guitar God: ……dude
Abi: It’s like trying to herd cats with you two
Guitar God: who herds cats?? is it the new farmer???
Guitar God: jeez fine okay what
Guitar God: what is it
Abi: How do you know if you like someone?
Guitar God: :o
Seb: like someone, as in…
Abi: Let’s say that hypothetically, there was someone you knew for a while, but never really paid attention to
Abi: But then something changed without you really noticing and then next thing you know you’re thinking about kissing them in an arcade, except they’re not into it, so you run away and then they write you a weird apology letter that doesn’t explain anything
Abi: And now you think you might like them
Abi: But it’s still really weird because of who it is
Abi: But you also can’t stop thinking about them
Guitar God: :O :O :O
Abi: STOP THAT
Seb: have you never been attracted to anyone before?
Seb: also, we know it’s Shane, this town has like thirty people in it
Seb: and I seriously question your taste but whatever
Abi: Okay so, two things
Abi: One, shut up
Abi: And two, it’s complicated, fucknut
Guitar God: it’s not that complicated, dude
Guitar God: do you wanna kiss him or nah
Abi: I think so?
Abi: It’s probably a really bad idea
Abi: But yes
Seb: so what’s the problem?
Abi: Not that it’s any of your business, but…
Abi: I’ve never kissed anyone before
Guitar God: srsly???
Guitar God: haha seb, you owe me five bucks
Abi: Excuse you?
Seb: Sam bet me five bucks you were still a virgin
Seb: thanks for costing me five bucks
Abi: Consider this – I will literally murder both of you
Guitar God: look on the bright side, seb
Guitar God: you’re not the least experienced one anymore
Abi: What do you mean, ‘anymore’
Abi: Who have you two been kissing??
Guitar God: uhhHHH g2g
‘Guitar God changed the group chat name to Never Been Kissed.’
Abi: THAT’S NOT EVEN AN EIGHTIES MOVIE
‘Seb changed the group chat name to Never Been Dicked.’
Abi: I hate both of you so much
“You’re up early.”
A sarcastic retort rose up in Shane’s throat, and he choked it back before it could break free. Marnie didn’t mean anything by it. If anything, he’d caught her off-guard when he walked into the kitchen to find her standing by the fridge in her bathrobe, carton of eggs in one hand and a cheese grater in the other. He rarely crawled out of bed before noon on the weekends.
“Yeah.” He yawned into his fist. “Jas asked me to take her and Vincent to the beach the other weekend, and it looks like it’s gonna be nice today, so…”
Marnie’s face softened, and she set the eggs on the counter, next to the mixing bowl. “That’s wonderful, Shane. She’ll be thrilled.”
“It’s not that big of a deal. Just thought I’d spend some time with her.” He ducked his head, avoiding her eyes. He didn’t know what to do when she was looking at him like that. “Figured you might want some time to yourself, or with Lewis or something.”
When he looked back up, Marnie was staring at him like he’d grown a second head, fingers touching her lips. Then, she dropped her hand, eyes shining, and for a second he was terrified that she was going to cry (or worse, try to hug him). But she just picked up the egg carton and held it out to him, beaming like the sun.
“Since you’re up, why don’t you help me make breakfast?”
The eggs wobbled in their cardboard pockets, little round peace offerings. We all deserve to be happy sometimes, Abigail whispered in the back of his head, her voice underscored by the chirp of the pinball machine. Including you.
“Yeah. Sure.” He took the carton. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go ahead and crack those into the bowl,” Marnie said. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her smile like that, and it made his chest feel lighter, if only for a minute. “I’ll get started on the hashbrowns.”
It rained Monday, which wasn’t a surprise – late spring showers became more and more frequent as the valley edged towards summer. What was a surprise was finding Abigail on Marnie’s porch at six in the morning. Shane didn’t remember her ever coming by the ranch before.
“Hi,” she said. She wasn’t wearing a jacket or anything over her vest, and her hair was wet, face free of make-up. Shane grunted and shut the door behind him.
“Not writing. I just thought…” She rocked back on her heels, hands clasped behind her back. “I live like a mile from you. It seemed kind of dumb to write you a letter back when I could just come here and talk to you.”
“Great. Glad to know you thought it was dumb.” He stepped off the porch, into the rain. His chest throbbed dully beneath his sternum. “Won’t happen again.”
Abigail made an exasperated noise and stepped to the side, blocking his path. “I didn’t say you were dumb for doing it, okay? That came out wrong.”
He was going to be late to work if he didn’t start walking soon. The last thing he needed was to give Morris another reason to bust his balls. He should have already been walking, not standing toe-to-toe with Abigail while she looked at him like she wanted to say something, or wanted him to say something. Maybe both.
“My dad was the one who turned me onto eighties movies,” she said finally, tucking a limp strand of hair behind her ear. “Music, too. He was so excited to share all that stuff with me as soon as I was old enough to appreciate it. I probably would have pretended to like it even if I didn’t, it meant that much to him. But I did like it. I liked how simple it all was. Good triumphing over evil, rebellion against the status quo… the good guys, the underdogs, they always came out on top.” She let out a little hiccup of a laugh. “Pretty ironic, considering how my dad is, but it’s like the one thing we have in common.”
Shane had no idea what to say to any of this, so he stayed quiet, and she sighed.
“I think, sometimes, that I want my life to be like a movie a little too much. Maybe.” The smile was back, embarrassed now, and Shane had no idea when that had happened either, when she’d gone from just another townie to the most beautiful woman he’d known in a long, long time. “At least in the movies, things happen, y’know?”
“You came here at six in the morning to talk about movies?”
“No! I’m just… ugh.” She shoved another hunk of wet hair out of her eyes, frustration scrawled all over her face. “No good at this kind of thing.”
“Good at what?”
She kissed him.
She had to go up on her toes to do it, hands braced against his chest, and her lips were so soft and hesitant that it took Shane a second to register that she was kissing him at all. How different it was from the way he’d thought she might kiss, if he ever got the chance to find out. She drew back before he could do anything besides stand there in disbelief, biting her lip.
“Sorry, I’ve never done that before. I probably should have asked.”
She kissed him. She kissed him.
“Okay, you need to say something before I start freaking out, seriously.” There it was again, that stubborn expression she’d worn the first night she’d talked to him – daring him to reject her and see if she cared one way or another. That was her mask, he realized now, different than his but the same at its heart. “Because I’m kind of freaking out right now, so… yeah. Say something. Please?”
“I don’t remember that part of The Karate Kid,” he said, hoarse, and Abigail blinked, hands still resting on his chest. Then, just like that, the mask was gone, and she shot him a mischievous grin that had his heart battering his ribcage in double-time.
“Guess you should have watched the director’s cut.”
“Guess so,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her again before he could think about it. He couldn’t remember the last time he kissed anyone, let alone sober. He didn’t want to think about it. He closed his eyes, concentrating on her – her mouth on his, his arms around her, her body pressed close and her fingers in his hair – and the rest faded away, even the rain.
“Aren’t you going to be late for work?” she asked when they finally separated, a little breathless, and Shane shrugged.
“Morris already hates me. I don’t think it can get much worse.”
“Come on.” Abigail slipped her hand into his. “I’ll walk you there.”
A shiver ran through her, all the way down to where her fingers entwined with his, and he looked at her soaked hair and ripped jeans and shook his head, letting go. “Here.” His hoodie was battered and torn, but it was better than nothing, and Abigail’s face lit up when he handed it over.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“Nah.” She looked better in it than he did, anyway, and her hand was soft and warm in his, despite the mist and early morning chill. He didn’t know what this made them. Wasn’t even sure he cared, as long as she kept smiling at him like that.
“You know,” she said as they strolled towards town, “you’re going to have to start playing video games again on the regular.”
She bumped into him, nudging his arm with her shoulder. “Because. I finally beat Journey of the Prairie King last night.” He caught the edge of a grin from beneath the jacket’s hood. “And your high score. So now, you have to try to take your title back. That’s the sequel.”
“Is it direct-to-DVD?”
She threw her head back and laughed, squeezing his fingers, and Shane looked at her and wondered how long he could hang onto this. How soon she’d get tired of him, once she figured out what a fuck-up he really was. But in that moment, Pelican Town seemed softer and brighter, the rain more like romantic movie rain than actual, shitty rain, and Abigail’s eyes were bright and her smile was wide and his chest hurt again, but in a good way this time. Like he could maybe find a way to enjoy things again, to be better, or at least try.
“C’mon, Andrews.” She nuzzled her cheek against his shoulder. “Rematch. Sequel. What do you say?”
“Okay,” he agreed, and meant it.