The central set for the game show looked like Mission Control with joysticks and rumble seats, banks of monitors displaying demo screens for just about every video game you can think of. Fog machines gave ambiance, console lights flickered and flashed, big speakers filled the air with explosions, whooping alien spacecraft noises and laser blasts, crystals and vaguely alien machinery props lighting up to punctuate the noise. I recognized the boom of an exploding Galaga fighter, the gobble of Pac-Man eating dots.
The place smelled of sawdust, disinfectant and paint. The sets looked great on TV, but the hollow sounds beneath my sneakers told me it was all a facade. Behind me lay the studio audience, the cameras, and the hot stage lights.
Even if I didn't have those heat lamps going, I'd be sweating. I'd lied to get on the show, and I was wearing a pink party dress with princess sleeves on national TV.
Ashley, my kinky haired bespectacled next door neighbor from the apartment complex squeezed my hand.
It was her idea, pretending to to be a non-traditional boyfriend and girlfriend. The show's casting director always went for the craziest, most diverse couples, and we figured there wasn't anything quite as diverse as a white transgender dude with a black woman.
I would have loved to be her boyfriend for real. I even liked the strange warble she sometimes got in her voice. A shame she only wanted the fame and the prize money. Just looking at her costume raised a crease in the front of my skirt. Tight sports halter, exposed belly, leatherette pants that fit like a second skin...she looked ready for the action parts of the show. I, on the other hand, looked ready to make tea.
"You think we could go on a date for real sometime?" I whispered.
The light show sparked off her glasses. "This is a real date."*
Everyone was watching, which made it difficult to tell if this counted romantically, or she were just saying that to stay in character. "Do you really mean-"
"Welcome to Red Shift!" a voice boomed through the studio, thwarting my efforts.
The host, Philip Cheese, had made an appearance. Plump, spiky haired, clad in a red jumpsuit with the program's Saturn-like logo. "...The show that has it all! Trivia, video games, paintball and fights with plastic swords!...Say hello to today's contestants..."
I and Ashley weren't quite as diverse as we originally thought. Team Abdullah featured a woman in a hijab and a bearded brown faced man in a banana costume, The Purple Nurples happened to be two gay guys, one in a plush candy colored lemur mascot suit, and there were lesbian midgets in children's inflatable unicorn costumes. I saw a Kabuki painted Sumo wrestler, slightly underweight, a couple Hasidic Jews with dark braids and hats, Samoans, some eighty year olds that appeared too fragile to be doing this kind of show...More introductions were given than could possibly fit into a thirty minute program, but you know that loser footage generally ends up on the cutting room floor.
When it got to be our turn, Ashley drew me close and told Phil a made up story about us both being joggers and she suddenly discovered I liked wearing women's clothing on our second date.
The truth: I saw her walking her dog in front of my apartment, and she saw my Red Shift t-shirt. We started talking about it, how we thought we could do better than the actual contestants, and I'd bemoaned the fact that only weird couples and small families got to be on the program.
"I got an idea," she had said. "Can you wear a size 16?"
I slipped a hand around her waist as she continued to talk to the host, smirking when I noticed her tense up at my touch. If we were going to pretend, I figured I'd at least enjoy it.
Ordinarily I'm nervous around girls, scared to death of rejection, but Ashley wanted me to play a convincing boyfriend. So hey, she asked for it. Plus, as far as rejection went, I figured I didn't have that much to lose - for her this was mostly an act.
I knew, after the introductions, every show began with trivia, but didn't realize they edited out several questions for time. It took a lot longer than expected, my general shame and the stage lamps causing me to break into sweats.
We took turns at the podiums, buzzed in answers. Although I still breezed through many of them, a few tripped me up, like what you called the avatars on the Nintendo Wii, the location of that company's headquarters in Japan, the name of the guy who invented Mario, and what game Toru Iwani produced. Then came the music trivia, a lot of it the new popular stuff, and sports questions, like details on Madden NFL. I had to let Ashley take the helm on those.
I don't know how we did it, I felt so embarrassed to be wearing that outfit that I stumbled over all my words, but we somehow avoided elimination, earning a spot at one of the twelve gaming stations.
In the rumble chair, I straightened my skirt, popping my knuckles as I stared at the monitor. Galaga. They used X-Box style controllers, but a little monitor displayed the button configuration.
"I hope you're as good as you say," Ashley muttered as she settled in next to me.
"If it's Pac-Man or Call of Duty I'll give it over to you...Are you sure this is considered a real date?"
Her facial expression said no, but her mouth said, "Positive." She looked down at my stockings. "You should have shaved your legs."
I raised an eyebrow. "Would you...um, like it better if I did?" I wasn't bold enough to go right out and ask if she found it sexy.
"I wouldn't have made the suggestion if I didn't." Her answer could have meant anything. I might as well have asked if I should have worn a tie on the show.
I reddened, dropping my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Hypothetically speaking, if we weren't on TV, would you, personally like me better if I did shave?"
The look on her face told me I was still in the Friend Zone. "You should do what's right for you."
That's as far as I got before Phil set the clock on our marathon gaming session, again longer than a TV episode allows. Galaga. Tetris. Donkey Kong. Tiger Heli. Castlevania...Ashley took over when I had to do Solstice, Ms. Pac-Man, NBA Jams and the multiplayer race and shooter games. We both did great - I tend to block out my surroundings (and my clothes...or Ashley's enticingly creaking pants) when I'm concentrating.
Even when Ashley played, I kept my eyes on the screen...mostly, and kept quiet. I didn't want to mess up her score.
The lights turned red, the clock ran out.
To my absolute astonishment, our console erupted in a multicolored light show and cheerful bleeping, the screen flashing the word `Congratulations!' Ashley squealed, hugged me tight, looked me in the eyes like we were having a moment, but then she pulled away like she'd made a mistake.
The game wasn't over yet. Ashley had worn that provocative outfit for a reason. After the elimination round came the world of Red Shift, room after room of water traps, tests of strength, and assaults with foam rubber objects. I was glad that she let me wear sneakers.
Six teams survived elimination. The Mendozas, Team Abdullah, Sumo guy, Purple Nurple, and the unicorn midgets. With great dramatic flair, Phil opened a giant `steel' gate (painted plywood), handed us paintball guns and sent us through steam clouds into a hexagonal tunnel modeled after the movie Aliens. So many steam jets.
Right off the bat, a guy in a rubber monster suit took the midgets out of the game. We pelted the suit with colored paint, and the actor hammed it up, pretending to die all slow.
Ashley and I crossed a huge padded roller, climbed monkey bars above a ball pit, dodging spider monster puppets that threatened to dislodge our fingers.
I blushed when people started shouting "Princess Peach" to cheer me on. Only one person on the set matched the description.
We came to a bridge over the first water trap. It smelled of chlorine, and, of course, rubber. A cool misty spray blew through the air. Ashley wiped her glasses on her top.
The ship was `exploding', so these huge pieces of foam kept flying back and forth on ropes. The Mendozas made a big splash.
Ashley almost got it too, but at the last second, I pulled her against my body, and the object sailed past.
My partner stared, wide eyed. Although still unsure about her interest in me, she at least didn't bristle at my touch. "Thanks," she gasped.
Ashley's glasses, unfortunately, were gone. "Can you still see?"
She shrugged. "I'm not blind. Just don't expect me to read street signs."
To my surprise, she placed a hand on my flat bodice.
I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything, the giant foam thing came back a second time. We rushed to the end of the bridge, dodging a dozen similar objects, fired at another ham fisted actor in an alien suit.
Sumo Guy, despite having made it miraculously across the bridge intact, got waylaid by a rubber alien hiding in an alcove beside a fake airlock. He belly bounced the actor into a pool, but got disqualified.
Through the open airlock, I could see the next challenge course: A fake forest and castle, our host dressed as a wizard before a bubbling cauldron.
The leaves were shiny fabric painted in autumn colors. I detected the faint odor of cigarettes. We walked on Astroturf and springy artificial ground.
Only three teams survived the last challenge, the banana man and his girl, candy colored mascot guy, and us. We traded our "Pulse Rifles" for plastic broadswords, and Phil commenced a showy speech in bad medievalese, describing how we'd have to collect gold rings and "Vanquish" a tribe of goblins in a sports competition, "But beware those awful Orks!"
At this point, without things jumping out at me all the time, I felt a little more self conscious about my outfit. Especially when I heard people calling me Princess Peach. I mentioned this to Ashley.
"You're worried about that now? After the quiz, the games, and the aliens? C'mon, man up! Even that guy on Legend of Zelda wears a skirt."
"That's a tunic."
She smirked. "Pretend it's a tunic, then. It's only fabric. Anyways, they don't have a damsel role for you. You're stuck being Princess Peach with a sword."
"Okay." I hefted my plastic weapon, hurrying through a maze-like castle dungeon, dodging machines that fired foam arrows.
When we paused for a beat, I chortled. "You just told me to man up."
Ashley rolled her eyes. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were enjoying this."
"Maybe I am," I blurted. Then, to really get at what I was driving at, "And not just that. I...enjoy your company."
"I..." she stammered, making me think she would either imply that she loved me or shut me down. "I think we ought to get our company moving."
I guess that was shutting me down.
We dodged a fake fire, a slamming portcullis and rolling spiked foam boulders. A tower guardian dumped a cauldron of cold water and feathers on us, practically turning our outfits into wet washcloth-like chicken costumes.
A rubber Ork popped out from behind a faux Doric column, waving a plastic battleaxe. The thing looked like a green mutant boar with horns. Being used to such games, I did some mock fencing and `felled him.'
"Go Princess Peach!" Ashley laughed. "That's right, you did say you did some LARPing, didn't you?"
I thought I'd confused the look on her face with admiration until she likewise demonstrated her prowess with the wiffle sword. "My brother always took me to those things."
I snorted. "At least the first couple times!"
Now Ashley looked embarrassed. "I go by Raven Brunhilde at the conventions."
Witnessing her drop her defenses like that really made me smile. "Tarin Fang. I guess I must have missed you the last couple times."
Ashley rushed up a ladder to the top of a small tower, using a hand bicycle to cross a tightrope wire and grab a gold ring. I gawked as she came down a fire pole on a nearby tree. "I didn't know you had that much upper body strength."
"Thanks. I was in the Peace Corps."
Now I really liked her.
She caught her breath. "I hope you've got some too, because you're getting the next one."
We entered another fake forest. Someone had sprayed around pine scented air freshener, for veracity, I suppose, but it still mostly smelled of sweat and the padded bumpers in children's fitness centers.
I `slew' another Ork, coming to my challenge. We had to set up a catapult to knock an archer off the top before we could even get started. And then Ashley found herself busy battling more rubber monsters.
After climbing a rope, I found myself facing what is commonly referred to as a salmon ladder.
I thought I was going to die. I had foam pads below me, but wow. Despite it being shorter than the ones on other shows, my arms nearly gave out by the time I got on the zip-line. The moment I had the ring in hand, I let myself fall on the pads. Ashley had to help me to my feet.
"That was great! I knew you could do it!"
An Ork turned Mr. Abdullah into a pretend banana split, leaving only Lemur Man and his Team Nurple boyfriend to compete against us. Despite his costume's limited visibility, he passed the challenges and nabbed two of the four rings we were supposed to collect.
Our next challenge, basketball, would yield us a red ruby, the last treasure. We went toe to toe versus a couple guys in monster suits and tank tops that looked like rejects from the cartoon movie Space Jam.
They'd set it up smaller than regulation, the outer boundary lines had been marked with little rubber mushrooms instead of paint, and the goals looked like elf crowns with fake stone backboards decorated in runes. The springy floor made it easier to dunk.
The guys were no amateurs, despite the clunky costumes. We had to work hard to get around them, and I had to rely on Ashley to shoot the baskets. At least we only had to score two, and the goblins focused on defense. They ended up shaking our hands and handing us a chunk of red plastic quartz.
"Did your brother teach you those moves?" I asked my partner.
"Naw, I taught him!"
"Then you're awesome."
"No, you're awesome, Princess Peach!"
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I kinda warmed to having that as my new pet name.
Somehow, Team Nurple survived the basketball goblins, and now we faced off in one final challenge course, set up to look like a treacherous mountain pass, along a "Bottomless pit" full of black foam pads. The place smelled of gunpowder, and a faint burning tire smell, probably due to the lighting setup on their fake lava falls.
We were tired, but also excited at the prospect of winning, so we `Joust-ed' a troll on a tandem bicycle built to look like an ostrich, then, once we'd knocked him into the black foam, leapt from one wobbly rubber platform to another until we reached a narrow ramp, rushing toward a buzzer, Team Nurple hot on our heels.
After some very unsportsmanlike shoving, the guy in the furry costume got a foot lead ahead of us. I threw my body forward, palm slamming down on the large candy-like button.
An airhorn blared loudly in my ears. Cannons blew out confetti, bursts of colored light, and great clouds of dry ice.
"We won!" Ashley screamed. "We actually won!"
Carried away with the excitement of victory, she wrapped her arms around me, kissed me full on the mouth.
Okay, well, she started it, so I used my lips and tongue to let her know I enjoyed it.
Looking embarrassed, she pulled away. "We'll split the prize fifty fifty. Just like we agreed...What are you going to do with it?"
I grinned. "Share more of it with you, if you keep kissing me like that!"
Ashley shrugged, made a little noise like she didn't mind, and kissed me again.