The sluggish countdown of the clock to home time ticked slower and slower the more I stared, as my eyes began to sting, I swear the second hand moved backwards. Class had dragged more than usual today, perhaps because I finally had something to look forward to after school. My birthday had been a success and we had the SNES. No more long bike rides to the arcade on the weekend now, no… it was video games every night from now on.
“Ryu… you get the game? We on for tonight?” Li asks, leaning over from her desk beside me, her eyes facing towards the front of the class, while her hand made fake writing gestures across her notebook to feign attention.
“We’re on, Mom picked it up last night after school,” I whisper back.
“Dude, yes. Think it’ll be different from the arcade?” she asks, her interest now fully on me with no intent on faking attention.
“Well… we'll have more quarters.”
“Nice, lame of your Mom to get you the SNES with no games though, talk about party buzzkill,” says Ken, whose desk was in front of mine.
“Relax, least I have one,” I reply sarcastically.
“Asshole!” Turning around to flick my arm.
“Kenneth! Lisa, Ryan... eyes up front guys. Or no… video game party tonight,” Mom yells across the class to us, worst thing about having your own parent as the teacher is they actually have something more than detention to hold over you.
“Sorry,” I apologise.
“Sorry, Mrs. Carter,” Ken and Li say in unison. Li trying her best to hide a smirk.
* * *
With six wins under my belt, Ken struggled behind with only two, his whining drowned out by Li, boasting her seventh win. As the TV illuminates my room in wonderful colours, Ken tries desperately to beat Li, failing, and bringing her up to her eighth win. Opening my bedside draw I pull out my secret weapon, tying the red band tight around my head I crack my knuckles, ready to take the trophy.
“Uh-oh, someone means business,” teases Li.
“First to ten?”
“Don’t bother, Ryu. The girl’s got cheat codes or something,” says Ken, lying flat on the floor to stare up at the glowing stars shining on my ceiling.
“Sore loser,” Li mocks, a gentle kick to Ken’s leg.
“I’m used to arcade controls that’s all, once I’m used to this, you’re both going to be bowing to me, the 'Street King.'”
“And how’d you explain always losing at the arcade?” I ask.
“Ah, it’s just so loud there, messes up my concentration.” Both me and Li laugh at his response as we sit down and ready ourselves for the next match.
“First to ten,” says Li, the controller tight in her hand, so much so that her knuckles started to turn white with a ring of purple.
“Here we go,” I say, leaning forward.
And darkness, the TV turns pitch black, and so does the blue lava lamp on my bedside table, leaving the melted wax floating in just a small spot of moonlight creeping through the gap in my curtains.
“Cheater!” Shouts Li.
“Ha, like I could trigger a power cut,” I reply, flicking the light switch on my wall on and off, but nothing.
Opening the draw under the TV I pull out a wind-up torch, with ten rapid cranks the torch turns on, illuminating the room bright. With me up front, Li to my side and Ken lagging behind we leave my room to explore the dark house. Creeping through the dim hallway, all keeping as close to the wall as we can. All of us suddenly startled by my Mom, yelling from behind the bathroom door.
“No, the power’s out!” I yell through the door.
“Oh, Ryan. Go get your sister and tell her to find some candles, I’d rather not get out the bath in the dark and slip.”
“Okay, will do!”
“And go check the neighbours houses, please. See if It’s just us that’s out.”
“Shall do, Mrs. Carter,” shouts Li.
“You kids better head off home after, It’s a school night!”
“Okay…” we all mumble in sync.
“Best to ten tomorrow night then?” Says Li, leading the way to my sisters room.
“Hell yeah, you guys can sleep over and we’ll play into the weekend,” I reply, excited to earn my place as the ‘Street King’.
Knocking on my sister’s door three times, Li waits patiently before ducking behind me as the handle turns, Eri standing a foot above us with a head lamp strapped on blinding all three of us.
“What?” She asks, her tone already annoyed at me.
“Mom wants you to get her some candles.” I ask, shielding my eyes as they adjust.
“Under the sink, you know this.”
“She wants us to check if the whole streets out, we’ve both got our quests.” My eyes finally able to make out my sister underneath the bright white.
“Ugh, fine I will in a minute,” she replies, noticing Li moving behind me attempting to be invisible. “Oh, Lisa, when you gonna stop hanging out with the dork and let me do your makeup?”
“Ah, ha ha. No, I’m, I’m good. Maybe some other time…” She replies nervously, a gentle laugh to cover it up.
“Aw, shame.” An evil smile, Eri always loves messing with Li.
“Hey, Eri,” Ken speaks up from the back.
“Beat it, creep.”
“It was one time, and I was seven…” Eri slamming her door in response. “I didn’t even understand what I was looking at!”
“Well, I think you’re making progress.” I say, cranking the torch a few more times as the light had grown weak.
“Yeah, she didn’t even slap me this time!”
* * *
Now outside we could see each and every house was pitch black, not even a flicker of orange from the streetlights. Making our way to the edge of the road, both Li and Ken holding the handlebars of their bikes, ready for the dark ride home. The three of us suddenly blanketed in a blinding light as the car across from us pulls out the driveway, speeding off down the pitch-black road.
“Since when does Ms. Rubin drive?” asks Li, dropping her bike on the sidewalk and walking into the middle of the road to watch the light of the car disappear down the street.
“I swear she can’t see over the wheel; think she has a booster seat?” Jokes Ken, who himself is just as tall as Ms. Rubin.
“No, she moved out. Mom said she didn’t even say bye. That’s some new man that moved in a couple days ago.” I answer, tucking the torch into my back pocket.
“A new neighbour… does he live with anyone?” Asks Li as she dashes across the road and up to the side gate of his house, tiptoeing to look over into the backyard.
“Li!” I bark, running up towards her. “I don’t think he does, no. What are you doing?”
“Aren’t you curious what kinda dude he is? Might have some cool shit,” she says as she lifts the hatch of the gate, a slow creak of the hinge as it opens up.
“Cool crap to steal? Come on let’s head back,” whimpers Ken, who had now made his way towards us, his bike still beside him.
“Don’t be a pussy, Kenneth, we’re just gonna check it… oh,” say’s Li abruptly, suddenly distracted as she makes her way around the side of the house, jumping through an open window.
“Oh God,” I sigh, tightening the red band around my head. “Come on, let's go get her.” Making my way through the open window, I could hear Li just ahead, while Ken props his bike against the side of the house, I could see the worry across his face.
“What if he has a dog? A big, angry, child hungry dog?” he asks, poking his head through the open window.
“Then you blind him with this, and run,” I comfort, handing him the torch from my back pocket.
“Ugh, fine.” Taking the torch and hoisting himself through the window, tumbling through and bumping into me, the light turning on to illuminate Li’s face.
“Shh,” she warns, holding her finger to her lip.
“This looks like your kitchen, Ryu,” says Ken, scanning the room with the torch, a gentle tremble in his voice.
“Yeah, all the houses here are just copies of each other.”
“Place your bets, vegetarian or not?” Quizzes Li, holding onto the fridge door handle.
“If he’s like my Dad, I’m gonna say two full shelves of beer… and expired bacon,” answers Ken, holding the torch with both hands as steady as possible on the fridge like a spotlight.
“I’ll take the veggie option then.” Tapping my feet against the tile floor like a drum roll.
“And the winner is-“ Li opening the fridge with a tug, the putrid smell hitting us one by one. Inside wasn’t beer, nor veg, but several large white bags. “The hell, It’s warm.”
“Well the power is out,” replies Ken as he flicks the kitchen light switch.
“Yeah, but not long enough for the fridge to turn warm,” I say as I reach my hand inside and pick up one of the bags, a thick liquid inside packed so tight I worry it’ll pop.
“Ryu!” Shouts Li from the hallway, who I now realise is no longer standing beside me.”
“Keep your voice down!” I whisper back sharply, making my way into the hallway to find her staring blankly at a large metal door.
“Isn’t that where your room would be?” asks Ken, shining the torch on the door, revealing scuff marks and soil in an arch on the plain wooden floor.
“What the fuck?” Reaching for the handle I hear the sound of tires slowing on gravel.
“Shit!” Panics Ken as he runs down the hallway into the living room. “He’s back!”
Just then the kitchen light turns on, and headlights shine through into the entire house. Running as fast as we can, both me and Li dive out of the open kitchen window and clamber over the fence into the other neighbours yard, to then run with our knees bent across the road back to my house.
“Shit, that was close…” I gasp, collapsing onto the ground, seeing the new neighbour close his front door, the kitchen light switching off soon after. One by one the streetlights switch back on to light up the entire neighbourhood in dull orange.
“Yo… where’s Ken?” Asks Li, with short pauses in between as she catches her breath.
“Crap, we didn’t leave him in there… did we?” I ask, a sense of dread twisting my stomach.
“He did bring his bike, so he couldn’t hop the fence like us, he probably got spooked and rode home?”
“Yeah, yeah he must have, we’ll see him in class tomorrow,” I assure myself, the twist in my gut now a tight knot.
“Well, that was creepy, but I’ll catch you tomorrow, later.” Pushing off the ground on her bike to ride home, faster than I’d ever seen her ride her bike before.
I didn’t sleep for even a moment the whole night, my eyes fixed on my door until morning, imagining it was steel, and that I was
* * *
Dragging my feet through into the kitchen, I notice a key attached to a long yellow piece of string on the table, along with a note.
Had to head in early today so take the bus. DON’T MISS IT! Will be staying late also so bring your key, Erica’s at a party so don’t lose it. And don’t forget to make yourself dinner!
- Mom xxx
With a rushed breakfast in my stomach, I manage to flag the bus down as it pulls away from my street, sitting at the very back I watch as my neighbour’s house shrinks over the horizon, the knot in my stomach still tight and heavy. As the bus eventually pulls up to school, and I'm the last to step off, my hands meet the hard concrete as I’m tripped up. Standing above me, proud and arrogant are Marcus and Mia Bison, twin bullies who I’d manage to avoid for a few months now.
“We’ve missed you we have, ain’t we Marcus?”
“Sure have, Mia, where’s Mommy?”
“Too busy to give you a ride to school?” Teases Mia.
“Something like that, just leave me alone, will you?” I ask, prodding at my scraped hands.
“But we missed you!” Marcus says as he lifts me up by the key around my neck. “What’s this?” Tugging hard to snap the string.
“Dude, give it back!” Shouts Li, making her way over, her face red and fists clenched.
“For ten bucks, we’ll think about it,” says Marcus as he tucks the key into his pocket.
“Hey…” Mia interrupts as she stares down Li.
“Fine, ten each. Let’s just make it a round twenty, yeah?”
“What… what else would it be?” I smirk, a swift kick to the chest in response, knocking the air from my lungs.
“Twenty, here after school,” he threatens as he walks off. Mia pushes Li aside easily to join him.
“Where the hell am I meant to- “
“Ask Mommy!” Mia orders, interrupting me.
“Assholes.” I mewl as Li helps me up.
“You alright?” She asks, brushing the dust from my back,
“Fine, I’m fine. You seen Ken?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Ugh, he better be in class.” I hope.
* * *
But he wasn’t, as the rest of the school flooded outside around me to head home, to their buses, cars, and bikes, Li and I walked slowly. Playing last night over and over again in our heads.
“Vampire,” mutters Li, barely noticeable under the roars of kids around us.
“What?” I ask, my vision blurring as I walk into a solid object, Marcus staring me down with my key dangling from his thick neck, almost as if it were choking him.
“Take my bike,” Whispers Li, right before she barges herself into Marcus.
Running past him as he rebalances himself, I narrowly miss Mia as she tries to grab me, Li tugging her by the hair and holding onto her legs tightly. With Marcus’s thunderous steps behind me I make it to Li’s bike, the bike lock heavy in my hand, a combination… fuck.
“Zero, seven, one, five!” I hear her yell.
As fast as I can I enter the numbers, the dial slipping between my fingers from the sweat. That wonderful click. With the bike lock off, I throw it as hard as I can at Marcus, cracking his nose into a fountain of red spilling onto the floor. If I wasn’t dead before, I am now.
* * *
Barrelling down the street I ride Li’s bike as fast as I can, the tires wobbling beneath me, Marcus on his bike behind me, yelling curses and threats. I realise in that moment I’m rushing home, but I don’t have my key and Eri’s car isn’t in the driveway. Then I see the neighbours car isn’t there either, and pray that window is still open, my only hope. Ditching the bike in the middle of the road I charge towards the gate and leap over, my shirt getting caught and my stomach splintered. Thankfully, the windows open and I dive through, hope lost as Marcus charges in after me. The steel door now slightly ajar rather than locked, I weigh my odds, the fear of the unknown, or the known beating I’m seconds away from, I’ll take the unknown. Inside the room was a tunnel, heading deep down into darkness, with wooden support beams and lights strung up around those beams. Grabbing onto the handle I pull as hard as I can to seal myself in, but I’m met with a much stronger resistance. Marcus throws the door open and punches me hard in the jaw, everything turning black for a moment, followed by a rush of dizziness. As everything becomes clear again and the giant bully approaches, I feel a rush of adrenaline, scurrying between his legs, to quickly find myself on the other side of the door. With a hard pull on the handle I shut Marcus inside, his muffled yells and bangs on the door falling more silent the further away I get from the house.
“Thanks for leaving my bike in the middle of the road, man,” shouts Li, sitting outside my house, a purple-black eye and bust lip across her face. “Manage to ditch him?”
“Yeah, something like that… how’d you get here?”
“Your sister, she saw me walking along the road on her way to some party, so she gave me a lift, left us her key.”
“I’m sure she’ll give me grief for that tomorrow. Wanna head in? Get some ice for your face?” I ask.
“That bad, huh? But sure, after that, we need to do something about Ken.”
“We’ll tell my mum when she’s back, until then… fancy a game? Best to get in all the playtime we can, after all I feel it’s gonna be taken away for some time after this.”
“Sure, first to ten?”
* * *
Later that night with ten wins to my eight, Li slept soundly beside me on the floor. Hearing the front door unlock, I make my way out of my room, with a speech in mind I prepare myself for a grounding. But no mom exhausted from a day of grading papers, placing her keys on the table. Just the front door left wide open, with a key in the lock… my key, the string attached to it now frayed and dyed from golden yellow to a wet glistening red.