Delhi Township is, and always has been, the kind of place where people only choose to live because it’s where they were born and raised. Jake was born here. He was raised here, too. And he can’t name a single person who wasn’t. The very apartment he lives in is next to an elementary school that his friends went to, and his very neighbors are people who went to that same school. At work, he sees familiar bodies, hears familiar voices, and tastes familiar cigarettes. At home, he feels a familiar girlfriend, smells familiar food deliveries, and tastes familiar blood.
It’s worst in the evenings. By the end of the day, his throat is sore, and by the end of the night, he’s coughed up blood. The taste of salt and iron is – what else? – familiar. He knows the risks, he’s tried to quit, but so far hasn’t had any luck. He tells himself that he’s fine with dying early, even if it’ll be as painful as his friends say. They’re good company, at least two in particular. One with curly, black hair going down his neck, and the other with longer dark-brown hair. If it’s a Saturday, and if he’s lucky, they’ll be among the familiar bodies at work.
It’s a Saturday.
The air cools itself to make room for thick humidity, both working to suppress any vibrance on the gas station’s Speedway logo. Jake stands behind the convenience store’s counter, leaning against a wall and studying the stands lined up across from him. Litters of Grizzlies sit at the edge of the shelves, clawing at their mouths to pick strands of tobacco from their rotten gums. Herds of Camels stand beside them, all hacking and heaving while they struggle to get anything but smoke into their lungs. Jake fumbles at his lanyard as his eyes flit to the Marlboros. The boxes all bleed out from the top, each blot seeping into a triangle and leaving red streaks across the carton’s sides.
Like a switch, Jake’s face snaps towards the glass door as it opens. The one with curly, black hair enters first, and the one with longer, dark-brown hair follows right behind. The black-haired one grins while the brown-haired one gives a casual salute.
“Yo, Tobias! Geno! What is up?” Jake goes straight to the counter, handing out a couple high-fives for each friend.
“What’s up?” The black-haired one laughs like Beavis as his hand collides with Jake’s.
“How’ve you been, man?” The brown-haired one gives a warm smile and tops off the high-five with a handshake.
“I’m good, I’m good,” Jake looks back at the rows of tobacco as he nods.
“That’s good to hear, man,” Geno pushes some strands of dark-brown hair away from his face. He knows the answer to his next question, but asks anyway: “Hey, is it all right if I get some coffee?”
“For sure, for sure,” Jake nods expectantly, “Go ahead.”
Tobias scratches at his black stubble while Geno heads to the coffee stand.
“So what’s up?” Tobias asks.
“Not much, really, I just wanna get out of here,” Jake says. He pulls out his phone, reads the time, and finally breaks his line of automatic replies once he continues, “Got about 2 more hours of work left.”
“Ah shit,” Tobias shakes his head. Geno chimes in with an “eesh” as he inspects a jug of Coffee Mate.
“Well, ya know…” Jake shrugs, and it’s more than enough for the other two to know his stress.
“Saturday, man!” Geno returns from the stand holding a cup of black coffee, “And guess which motherfuckers you get to be with for the rest of the day?”
Jake cracks a smile and nods as Tobias makes a sudden beeline for the beer cave. Naturally, the other two follow him as the talk continues. Drinks, weather, bad habits… the conversation doesn’t go anywhere in particular, but the three friends can’t help but smile and laugh at every inane word. Jake takes a smoke break behind the store, apologizing for each puff he takes and for each failed attempt at quitting.
“Have you tried that Nicorette gum?” Geno suggests.
“Nah, it didn't work for me,” Jake’s eyes glaze over and wander a distance away. Tobias holds his tongue, apparently knowing something that his brown-haired friend doesn’t. The talk of quitting hangs on the awkward silence, and falls as soon as one member of the trio brings the talk back to inanity. Eventually, the conversation comes to something of substance.
“You wanna go back to that arcade?” Tobias turns to Jake.
“Oh, absolutely!” Jake’s response is automatic.
So that’s what they decide to do.
Jake finishes his break, says goodbye to his friends, and silently waits out his work shift as the others kill some time in town. In just under 2 hours, he’ll be kicking ass in Mortal Kombat and taking names on the leaderboards. He turns his head to the shelves, eyeing the rows of nondescript cigarette packs. Another body walks in, and as familiar as it seems, he doesn’t think it’s anyone he knows. As expected, the body grabs a snack, pays for it, and leaves without much conversation. Lather, rinse, repeat. The hours slither past as the Grizzlies go back to picking at their gums, the Camels go back to wheezing, and the Marlboros go back to bleeding. His replacement comes in for the next shift, her face frozen into stone and her eyes locked forward.
Jake is already outside before the next minute rolls over. The air cools his lungs and the humidity scrubs them clean. He steps into his junker – some silver car from the early 2000s – and starts the engine. He takes the short drive home and feels each crack in the pavement as the car barrels onward. Water steadily drips from the glove compartment, spilling out completely every time he makes a turn. Heavy metal shoots forward from the backseat to make up for the muteness of the front speakers. He turns right, then right, then goes straight, then turns left, then goes straight, then turns right. Tobias and Geno are waiting for him in the parking lot. Tobias talks about taking his own car, but that scrap-on-wheels isn’t going to make the trip. Jake insists on driving.
The three pile in, the one in the backseat plugs his phone to the aux, and the silver junker rolls back onto the cracked asphalt. The only difference now is the distance and the music. Jake is stone-faced, fixated on the look and feel of the highway’s road stripes rolling under his scrap chariot. When it comes to the trip to the arcade, he tends to be the reserved one while Tobias and Geno make song requests and talk about music. Jake’s fingers stay close to the turn signal while he glances into the mirrors for any car that might creep up on him. His eyes sometimes dart back and forth between the road, his phone’s GPS, and the mirrors. He closely watches the shoulder of the highway for the upcoming exit, and takes it. Further down lies a mall called Cincinnati Mills. The mall is dead. Jake circles the car around it, past Kohl’s and the Bass Pro Shops’ Outdoor World, and towards a desolate area of the concrete lot surrounding the mall.
The trio step out of the car and look towards the mall’s time-stained outer walls. Jake pulls away from the other two, takes out a cigarette, and puts it between his lips. He fumbles with his lighter for a brief moment before torching the far end of the cig. He sits down on a concrete bollard at the edge of the parking lot, and sucks in the stick’s medicine. He looks to his two friends, who talk to each other just a few feet away from him, and then to the three sets of glass doors marking the mall’s entrance.
A woman looks down from the poster above those doors. Her forlorn eyes peer to the vacant concrete, occupied only by three long-haired boys who’ve come for a visit. She buries her chin into the turtleneck of her wool sweater and puts her arms up to feel the soft sleeves against her face. Her lips stay a half-inch apart, and her eyes are just dark enough to show the grief that Time has forced onto her by sucking the colour from her image.
“ENTRY 8 to the Fashion District,” her words hang below herself and above the glass doors, although they aren’t being said in her voice.
Jake, Tobias, and Geno smile at each other as they walk to the entrance. They compliment each others’ hair as they walk into the corpse of Cincinnati Mills. The carpet by the entrance is worn and tearing. The tiles beyond it are cracked, yet somehow still shining. Every storefront they pass is shielded by metal guards. One in particular has a distant, soft beeping coming from the shadows behind the bars. One of the others will often stop to listen to it, but Jake always just wants to keep walking by.
They pass more stains, more cracks, and more metal grates until finally coming to the sacred jewel: Arcade Legacy. With a fee of $10 for full access to any game in the arcade… Well, it’s the best deal that any one of the three has ever gotten. They look at each other, nodding and smirking as they each pull out a ten and give it to the front-desk clerk. The friends walk in, not as a trio, but as a unit.
Jake already knows the destination: Mortal Kombat. He’s all too familiar with the recent games, and the hours upon hours that he sank into it just as a reprieve from life. Getting acquainted with the older games should be a fun yet familiar challenge. He tells Tobias to follow him to the machine, where Jake immediately picks Reptile. Tobias makes his choice, and the duel begins. It’s less a game of violence than it is a game of skill and tactics. The thrill of a daring move, the triumph of a counter-attack, the satisfaction of a combo, and the pride that comes with successfully reading his opponent. Jake wins some, but then he loses some. The rush hits its high at the end of each match, with the wins feeling just as good as the losses. He goes to the next game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where the trio plays side-by-side-by-side to put down legions of foot soldiers. Next is Dungeons and Dragons, then Akatsuki Blitzkampf, then Guitar Hero, then a small taste of each one-player game. Throughout the thrill and the fun, Jake almost forgets about the complete lack of air conditioning.
The arcade is hot. The mall is decrepit. The sky is dark. The air outside is cool.
And Jake wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is my most recent story so far, as well as one of the most personal.
It started as an assignment that my professor gave out as a part of the "fiction from nonfiction" class that I'm currently taking, and quickly became a tribute to the two people I spent time with throughout summer vacation. Jake, in particular, is the main character of this story, and it was a little hard to pull off his perspective because... Well, first of all, I'm not him, and second of all, he's not the kind of person to tell you exactly what's wrong. He'll let you know how he's feeling, and he'll let you know whenever he's in a bad mood, but it's hard to get to the bottom of why. So, the best thing I could do was show off his mannerisms (Keeping an eye on the road ahead and behind him, wanting to pass by the beeping in the dark store, etc.) to hint at something that's keeping him down, but not actually reveal what it is. I'm not exactly sure if I pulled it off, but if/when I revise the story, I'll try to emphasize the "something is wrong, but we don't know what."
Seeing that this story was made for a college class, I'll probably be revising it and making some corrections. It's obviously far from perfect, especially considering I had to grind it all out in 2 writing sessions so that I could meet the deadline. The next assignment requires us to take these characters and put them into a fictional setting, and that one will have to be almost twice as long as this story. And it's due in 5 days, so uh... yeah.
Good news is, I already have a general idea of what to write, and fictional pieces tend to be a breeze compared to any other writing assignment. With that said, I'll hopefully be able to get a good piece within a relatively short timespan, and hopefully I'll finish it soon enough to make some refinements before turning it in.
And yes, I'll also post that story onto this website after I've finished and turned it in. See you then, fellas!