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Authors: Edward Bloor

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BOOK: Crusader
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"Oh? What kind of technical difficulties?"

"Software."

That seemed to satisfy him.

I changed the subject. "Sir, were you a veteran?"

"Pardon?"

"Were you in the Marines? Or the army or navy or anything?"

"No, I wasn't. Why do you ask?"

"Well, if you were, the Halls of Montezuma is pretty good."

"Yeah? Who do you fight in that one?"

"The Japanese."

He looked at me questioningly. "Is that right? Because, you know, the Halls of Montezuma, the real ones, are in Mexico."

"Uh, no, I didn't know that."

"And the shores of Tripoli, of course, are in Africa."

"The what?"

"It's the second line of the Marine Corps song:
From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.
"

"Uh, no, I didn't know that, either."

We stood in silence for a few seconds, watching the kid
hack against the black plastic ring. Then the dad said, "But if it's a Marine thing, you're probably right. You're probably fighting the Japanese in World War Two. Maybe on Iwo Jima. Or Guadalcanal."

I shook my head and pretended to check my ticket book. Finally the kid's two minutes were up. I opened the ring and helped him step down. The dad said, "How was it?"

The kid's eyes sparkled. "I killed six aliens."

"Cool."

"Can I do it again?"

"No." The dad turned to me and smiled. "Thank you, now."

They walked up toward the counter to pay. I stood there feeling stupid.

I took my break at three and walked around the corner into the food court. As usual, I checked out the first slot on the right, the Chili Dog. I eat there as often as I can, depending on who is at the counter. If it's Gene, the owner, I get something. If it's Betty the Goth, I keep on walking, either to the Taco Stop or to El sandwich cubano.

Betty the Goth is short and thin and as white as a zombie. She dyes her hair with a black dye like shoe polish. She paints her nails black; she uses black lipstick; she wears nothing but black. She makes it really hard to think about food.

Fortunately Gene was behind the counter, so I ordered a Coney Island dog. Gene likes to pump me for information about the mall. A lot of the owners do that. They figure I have the inside scoop because (1) I write for the newsletter, and (2) my dad is dating Suzie Quinn, the mall manager.

Gene asked, "So how's business, Roberta?"

I said, "A little slow." No one at the West End Mall ever admits they're doing well. "How about you, Gene?"

"It stinks." Gene speared a twelve-inch hot dog and put it
on a ten-inch bun. "Hey, I heard the Shoe Emporium is pullin' out. Is that true?"

"No. It's Outlet Shoes, the one in Slot Number Thirteen."

"Is that right? What're they gonna do?"

"They're trying to refinance their loan so they can move to the Gold Coast Mall."

"Ha! Fat chance. Hey, I just had a gig at the Gold Coast Mall. They had one of those celebrity look-alike days. Guess who I was."

"I don't know. The Cat in the Hat?"

"What? No. These were real people."

"I don't know, Gene."

"Okay. Okay. I was Oliver Hardy. There was supposed to be another guy there, and we were going to be Laurel and Hardy, but he never showed."

"I don't know who that is."

"No? The fat guy and the skinny guy? They were very funny comics, a long time ago?"

"Sorry."

"Well, I was the fat guy. Now I gotta find a new skinny guy to work with. I oughta do the act here. The old people would know who Laurel and Hardy were. It'd go over better here than at the Gold Coast Mall." Gene dipped into the chili pot and ladled some onto my Coney Island dog.

I said, "That's plenty. I'll see you later, Gene."

When I got back from break Kristin was behind the counter. She muttered, "Pinheads at ten o'clock." Pinheads is her name for skinheads.

I looked to the left and saw who she meant—two white guys with shaved heads. They were wearing green army fatigues and high boots. One was doing the Viking Raid experience; the other was watching him. They were both really into it. The guy
in the circle was grunting and screaming with each swat of the wand. The other guy was cracking up, laughing and carrying on with a big, green-toothed grin.

Uncle Frank stuck his head out of the back to see what was going on. He came out and stood by them, but he didn't say anything. When the time was up, Uncle Frank helped the first guy down. The green-teeth guy said to him, "Hey, did you ever hear of White Riot?"

Uncle Frank looked surprised, like he didn't think the guy could speak. He answered, "No. Is it an Arcane experience?"

The guy paused for a second, and straightened up. He answered, "Yes, sir. They got it up in Atlanta. It's awesome."

The first guy added, "Awesome, man. Ultraviolent."

Uncle Frank said, "Well, they have a lot of things in Atlanta that we don't have down here. We're a much smaller operation."

The green-teeth guy said, "You oughta get it." Then he added, "Sir."

Uncle Frank examined the helmet carefully for lice. "I oughta do a lot of things." He regarded the guy warily. "What's this White Riot about? Who do you fight in it?"

"The Mud People, sir. You eliminate as many Mud People as possible in ten minutes."

Uncle Frank thought about this. Then he asked, "Ten minutes? You mean two minutes?"

"No, sir. Ten minutes."

"For how much?"

"Sir?"

"How much do you pay? Is it twenty-five dollars for ten minutes?"

The first guy answered, "You pay for the party, man, then you're in. You do whatever you want." He turned to Green Teeth. "It's, like, forty bucks a head, right?"

"Right. Sometimes, if they got a really primo experience, a real hardcore one, it's fifty bucks. But once you pay, that's it. You can rock all night."

Uncle Frank seemed genuinely disturbed by this, the way he gets if Karl doesn't follow the opening or closing checklists. He asked, "How can they do that? They're in a mall like we are?"

"Yes, sir. They are. But the mall closes at nine, and the party doesn't start until nine-thirty."

"And what are these hardcore experiences you're talking about?"

"It's like the ones you got here, but the violence is much more primo. And let's just say, sir, it's a lot clearer who the enemy is."

Uncle Frank looked appalled. "Is that what this White Riot thing is about?"

The first guy practically shouted, "No, man! White Riot's not even hardcore. It's PG compared to some of them. Ever hear of Lynch Mob? Or Stormtrooper?"

Apparently Uncle Frank decided right then that guy's helmet needed delousing. He marched into the back with it without another word. The pinheads watched him go, then they walked up to the register. The guy who had done the experience handed his ticket to me. The other one asked Kristin, "Did you ever hear of Stormtrooper?"

Kristin regarded him coldly. "Did you ever hear of toothpaste?"

It turned into a busy Saturday night. Some goth kids came in and hung around Vampire's Feast. More pinheads came in; they stood in a noisy circle around King Kong. And, of course, the Head Louse arrived.

The Head Louse is a stocky guy, like Hawg. And he has a crew cut, like Hawg. But he also has long blond hairs hanging from the sides of his head down over his neck. Kristin named him the Head Louse because, she suspects, he doesn't wash that long hair very often.

Like a lot of the guys in the arcade, he's always looking at Kristin. And when he wants a ticket, he always seeks her out.

Thanks to Crusader, we had our first big day in months. Our shiny new knight attracted fifty customers all by himself, for a total of $250.

Dad dropped me off at home at ten, saying, "I'm going to Suzie's, honey, but I'll be back early."

I did some homework, and then I tuned in to
The Last Judgment.
Stephen Cross, as he often does, got right up to the camera lens and spoke directly to me. His head was so close, and the backlighting was so intense, that he looked like a talking skull. It made me feel very creepy, and very alone.

I clicked off the TV and went into my room. I went to sleep with the light on, hoping it would keep me from dreaming. It didn't work.

In this dream, I was sitting on a plastic chair against a wall in a hospital emergency room. I was watching a group of doctors and nurses in blue masks and blue scrubs. They were gathered around a bloody patient on a high stretcher, working furiously.

A policewoman walked over to me and said, "What are you doing here? You're too young to be in here by yourself."

I pointed to the patient on the stretcher. I answered, "My mom. She had a heart attack." The policewoman started to write that down in a notebook. But she stopped when a doctor turned away from his work, looked at us, and said, "No she didn't. You're lying again."

Then I woke up.

SUNDAY, THE 20TH

Dad still wasn't in when I walked out to get the Sunday paper. I read it over breakfast, a Pop-Tart, before taking a quick shower and getting dressed. Then I put a folder on top of the Blockbuster Video bag. It contained a permission form for a field trip I'm very excited about. My journalism class is going to visit a TV newsroom. I hope to see the kind of job that I'll be doing one day.

I still had some time to spare, so I switched on the local news. I switched it right off, though, when the weather came on. I can't understand why there are more than ten seconds of airtime devoted to weather. Today they said, "There's a thirty-percent chance of rain," which was ridiculous. They must announce that every day to fool the tourists.

The fact is, there is a two-hundred-percent chance of rain every day during the rainy season, which is now. It will definitely rain twice—around eleven
A.M.
and around four
P.M.
Twice a day, every day, a storm like the end of the world hits. Huge black thunderheads, as tall as skyscrapers, rumble in from the west, from the Everglades. They pelt us with rain, like from huge fire hoses. It happens like that every day, twice a day.

Because of that, I always time my walk to reach the mall before eleven o'clock. Today I was hoping Dad would stop by and give me a ride. It is a short walk to the mall—two blocks down to Everglades Boulevard and then about a quarter mile west to Route 27—but there aren't any sidewalks.

By ten o'clock, though, I had to figure he wasn't coming. I locked up and set off.

I was sweating by the time I got to Everglades Boulevard. Before I turned right, I noticed two familiar bodies coming up from 110th Street. Hawg seemed to be demonstrating some
kind of football move to Ironman. All I could hear was "Whomp! Whomp!" I stood on the corner and waited.

Hawg called out to me, "Roberta, your daddy ain't bailin' on us today, is he? 'Cause I count on him bein' there on Sunday. Sunday's our day of rest. Right, Ironman?"

Ironman grinned nervously. I could see that both these guys still had on yesterday's T-shirts. In the harsh morning sun, the black made Ironman's face look even more shriveled and pasty; the dark red made Hawg's look rounder, and made his pimples look more erupted.

Hawg continued, "What if your daddy didn't show up? Would we have to call your uncle?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Somebody'd have to open the safe."

"Damn!" Hawg pointed at Ironman. "If that happens, we head up to Crescent and watch football. I need a day of rest."

Ironman said, "They won't let us into Crescent."

"I know. That damn A-rab'll kick us out. He hates my guts. No lie. But we don't need to go in. We can watch through the window." He suddenly turned to me. "Roberta, did you see the Hawgs last night? On ESPN? They whomped up on Ole Miss real good."

"No. I never watch sports. Or weather."

"You missed it last night. They ran that power-I right down their throats. Them Mississippi boys was roadkill." Hawg turned back to Ironman, assuming I wasn't interested. He told him, "That's what I love to play, the power-I. They don't do that down here. They run that damn pro-set all the time. But in the power-I, the center is the main man."

I asked, "What does all that mean? What's a power-eye? Is it like a telescope?"

Hawg stopped still. He looked at me like I had just asked what planet we were on. But then he seemed pleased to be able
to explain, "A power-I, my darlin', is a football formation. The center—which is me—the quarterback, the fullback, and the tailback all line up in a straight line, like a letter
I
. It's smash-mouth Southern football at its finest."

We reached the intersection of Everglades Boulevard and Route 27. Route 27 is a four-lane highway with a thin grass median. It was once the western end of Atlantic County, and of civilization, until the Lyons Group built the West End Mall and Century Towers.

I stopped and checked the traffic to the south. Suddenly, Hawg spun around and yelled, "Here's how she works, Roberta!" He looked around him at some imaginary teammates. "The center hears the play and the count. Then he breaks the huddle." Hawg clapped his hands together once and spun around, like he was doing a comical dance step. "He leads 'em all up to the line." He strode forward three paces, to the edge of the highway, and crouched down with his rear end facing us. "He snaps the ball, and he fires out!" With this, Hawg exploded out of his crouch like he had been shot from a cannon. He sprinted blindly, faster than I ever thought he could, running recklessly across all four lanes, and into the mall parking lot, where he slowed and stopped.

A white station wagon in the northbound lane, and a U-Haul truck in the southbound lane, whizzed by right after Hawg's sprint. The truck leaned on its horn. I waited with Ironman while a stream of other vehicles raced by. I asked, "Does he do that a lot?"

Ironman grinned nervously. "I've seen him do it before. When he's showing off for somebody."

"Why would he show off for me?"

"I don't know. People don't usually ask him to explain football stuff like you did."

We waited until the light changed, and crossed to the parking lot. Hawg yelled out to Ironman, "Hey! What took you girls so long?"

BOOK: Crusader
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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