When Stacey Morgens turned six, her Uncle Earl had brought his Gamecube to her birthday party. After a trip to the local farm to ride ponies, they returned home. Two slices of cake with ice cream and a dozen presents later, the group of kids clustered around her family's television to play an impromptu Super Smash Brothers tournament until their parents arrived to drag them away from the festivities.
It was considered one of the best parties ever in first grade the next week.
For her eighth birthday, Stacey got glasses and a Barbie party like all of her friends were having that year. She was kind of excited about all the doll clothes, the horse and the convertible car but she had to wait until her eleventh party to fanangle video games into the mix again. This time she went to Litwak's Family Fun Centre and spent agonizing hours at the batting cages and go-karts until she ducked away from the group with the mindset that she was 'just going to at least use her four free arcade quarters'.
None of her friends had shared her love of video games. She tried her hardest to get her best friend Jessica into it, but Jessica associated the pasttime with the annoyance of her little brother who she constantly fought with to get him OFF of the video game console so she could watch TV or surf the internet.
She entertained the thought sometimes of finding a cool boyfriend one day to play with, but none of the guys in her highschool caught her interest. They were too absorbed in their own lives to notice her. Besides, in her expert opinion not a one of them was cute.
No matter how much she begged, her parents just never caught on to how interested she really was. Maybe they thought it was a passing craze or even the dreaded 'not for girls'. Nonetheless every year at any time she got presents, she told them that she didn't want anything but consoles and video games. Every year, she was disappointed. Finally, a Christmas came where, Uncle Earl sent her his old X-Box since he was upgrading to a 360, but she wanted more. A 360 of her own...a PS3, a Wii!
She started going to Litwak's on her own on the weekdays. She still hung out with her friends on the weekends, but for an hour between three and five o clock, Monday through Thursday she had her own private time fighting for a spot at one of the machines at the arcade. Her parents didn't mind as long as she got her homework done even if they still didn't quite understand why she didn't join girl's field hockey or girl scouts or try out for the cheerleaders instead.
It all came to a head over the course of 2012. A bunch of her friends were going up to Jane-somebody's cottage and her parents were going to her cousin Rita's wedding. There was a perk to having to stay home. It meant, save from some boring party, a whole weekend to herself at Litwak's. After all, no one could tell her to 'go hang out with her friends' when none of them were around to hang out with, right?
Stacey joined the throng of kids right at opening, a crisp ten dollar bill from her allowance ready to be changed into quarters. Of course, when one looks forward to something the whole week, it rarely goes as smoothly as planned.
She tried playing the new FPS 'Hero's Duty' first, but swiftly died. Feeling a little embarrassed at her obvious lack of knowledge of such game styles and groaning at the loss of a whole dollar's worth of quarters right in the first five minutes, she quickly walked away with a faint blush colouring her cheeks.
Then, two guys rudely kicked her off the racing game. She could have complained about them hogging it, but Stacey was there to have a good time this Saturday. She picked up her reservation quarter and looked around for the nearest free machine.
Of course it turned out that it wasn't working right. Of course.
"What is it, sweetie?"
"Game's busted." She pointed at the faulty box.
Mr. Litwak peered at it with her. "Heh, looks like the game's gone cuckoo! Like my Nana!" He gave her a little jostle in the side. Evidently she had been meant to laugh at that.
Stacey glanced over at the older man. He looked downright sad.
"Here's your quarter back, honey." He patted her on the back and gave her a gentle push in the direction of the newly free Street-Fighter console.
"But...Mr. Litwak, what about the game?" Stacey turned towards him.
He seemed somewhat startled by her insistence. "Well..." and he truly looked sad now. "I'll get someone to look at it in the morning, but I suppose, if the repairman can't fix it, it may be time to put ol' Ralph and Felix out to pasture for good...like my Nana."
She gave him a weak smile in return for his equally weak joke and trudged off to play what actually turned out to be a fun round of Street Fighter against some guy in the grade above her at school whose name was Kevin. He introduced her to his friends Cassie and Doug and even though she had to go shortly after, they promised to see her there the next day.
Sunday proved to be much more fun than Saturday. She'd finally found a group of gaming friends...had unlocked some strange new level no one had ever heard of before in Fix-It Felix Jr. (which had turned out not to be busted after all) and finally got to play Sugar Rush, a game she figured she'd be returning to quite a bit.
She forgot to feel left out at lunch on Monday when all her friends were reminiscing about the time they had at Jane's beach party. Stacey wasn't ever going to be one of the world's deep thinkers, but she had liked Mr. Litwak for his concern over his games. Like he cared that the characters were missing or the consoles could break.
When Stacey turned sixteen, video games actually made her the envy of her friends rather than the cause of forced confusion. Most of the kids in her class were getting summer jobs. Of course, like most sixteen year olds, the only ones available for kids their age were the menial, low paying ones at the local fast food chains and the mall.
Stacey tried her luck at Litwak's. After all, there was nowhere she'd rather work. She got lucky. Apart from her seven-fifty an hour wage, Mr. Litwak gave her one free game after closing and an employee discount at the snack bar. It was far and away the best summer job any of her friends had. Besides that, she got to see her arcade friends at work every day.
She resolved to do the best job she could so that no one could steal it from her next year.
"Yes, Mr. Litwak?"
The girl, now a woman, looked up from across the desk where she had been dutifully counting bills from the change machines and changing them into what would restock its quarter supply.
"I think you could have called me Glen a long time ago sweetheart. You're graduating from college next year, right? Any ideas what you want to do? Apart from getting married?"
Startled by the direct nature question and the familiarity, Stacey blinked her eyes wide. "Thank-you sir. Glen. Well, Doug and I haven't set a date but i guess...look for a job? I mean, I haven't really thought about it, but..." she trailed off embarrassed Maybe she should have been thinking harder about her future.
The old man chuckled. "Have you ever thought about owning a family fun center?"
"I...SIR! Are you suggesting..." With a tinkle a pile of meticulously stacked quarters crashed to the tabletop.
"You've been helping in here for..." Litwak counted on his fingers. "Six years. I'm an old man and I never had children. You were my children, you know. You kids and my games here. I couldn't let Litwak's arcade go to just anyone."
Stacey wasn't stupid. While it was quite literally blowing her mind to think that all this time Litwak had been grooming her as a replacement, taking the place meant job security if she could run it half as well as he did. She'd learned from him, she knew what worked. She actually had confidence she realized, that she could do a proper job of running this place herself.
Slowly, she nodded. "I'll...I'd have to graduate first." She said slowly. There was no question of talking to Doug. She knew what he would think.
"Of course." Mr. Litwak said, a smile crossing his wrinkled face. "I think it's long past the time I put myself out to pasture."
"Like your Nana?"
He smiled and helped her pick up the quarters.
"I'll help you out for the first week, until you're on your feet Stacey."
"Thanks Glen. I hope you enjoy Florida. What do you plan on doing?"
Mr. Litwak smiled. "Well...I think I'm a little old for Space Mountain now, but I might look in on the Magic Kingdom before I move my things into my new summer condo."
All in all, her first day at the helm went off without a hitch. She could feel Glen's eyes on her the whole time. She kept trying to remind herself that it was just Mr. Litwak but she couldn't help feeling like she was being scrutinized especially hard. Not that she could blame the man. This was his life's work! He'd offered to let her put 'Morgens' on the sign once the deed was in her name but she couldn't bring herself to do it. At least not straight away.
The day wound down, the kids filed out. Stacey counted her money, refilled the quarter machine and put the bills in the safe, wiped the machines hoovered the floor and restocked the chips and snacks at the counter. All the while, Mr. Litwak stood by, still watching her with that unusual intensity.
"Stacey, stop please."
She put down the sponge she was scrubbing the snack counter with. Even with the soft noises of the game machines in the other room, the place seemed absolutely dead silent to her. She thought she had done a good job. What if she hadn't?
For a moment, Stacey thought that Doug and all of her friends and family were going to pop out and yell 'Surprise!' or 'Congratulations!'.
When a minute and then two ticked by and nothing happened, she moved finally from behind the counter to follow Mr. Litwak who was hobbling his way into the middle of the adjacent room where the games were.
"Everyone, this is Stacey Morgens."
The woman's heart went out to the old man. Of course he was addressing his beloved machines that had been his life over the years. It must be painful to have to give them up, even if he obviously felt she deserved to have the torch passed to her.
"I think you all know her."
Stacey indulged him by waving around at the beeping consoles. If she was honest, they were like friends to her too. Ever since she learned what a video game was.
"Now I'm not going to be around any more, so I want you to treat her with the same respect with which you treated me! That means: no going Turbo."
"Glen?" The new owner looked toward Mr. Litwak, concern written on her face. Surely the man was okay, wasn't he?
Mr. Litwak wasn't done yet. "And no game jumping during opening hours. This means YOU, Ralph."
The other human occupant of the Arcade's expression went from one of real concern for the man's mental condition to one of concern for her own. Suddenly, the thrum and beeps of the machines sounded like...human laughter?
To put the cherry on the proverbial cake, a voice bubbled up from the Fix-It Felix Jr. Game, and while the voice was familiar, the words it spoke were not.
"I know, I know."
Stacey wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't heard Vanellope - another voice she knew well, her favourite racer from the days in which she'd played Sugar Rush daily, shout back, hands on hips and tongue waggling in the Fix-It Felix Jr. Box's general direction. "Yeah, Stinkbrain!"
Mr. Litwak was evidently enjoying Stacey's befuddlement, laughing quietly as he did a half turn to stare at the Street Fighter box.
"Now you, Zangief, I hope you realize you're working for a lady now. I don't want to visit and hear you lost your underwear in Tapper again!"
"No one wants to see that!"
"You never going to let me live zhat down, are you?" boomed a thick Russian accent out of the Street Fighter console.
Mr. Litwak patted the gobsmacked woman's shoulder gently, even as he was wiping tears away from his eyes from laughter.
"We had quite a discussion about the best way to tell you."
Stacey could think of nothing to say, turning slowly as instead of the usual start up screens, characters were waving and grinning at her from their consoles or for the ones without limbs, following her movement around their screens.
"I'll leave you to get acquainted then, shall I? Bye kids. It's been fun. Stacey, I know you'll make me proud."
A chorus of farewells drifted around her as Stacey did the only thing that made sense to her right now. She pulled out her iPhone and dialed Doug.
"Honey...I'm going to be a little bit late coming home tonight."