When it comes to these cheap arcade pizzeria places, two things always remain the same- the carpet is always sticky, and the pizza is always an abomination.
I tried not to shudder as the bland sauce touched my tongue and slid down my throat. The cheese had been taken clean off in a single, greasy first bite, and I’d been chewing on it for about three minutes before I could finally swallow it.
However, pizza is pizza to the kids, and most of them had already taken off to play in the plastic tunnels or the germ fest that was the ball pit after stuffing as many slices as they could down their throats. I had no idea how they did it. I could barely finish my piece without feeling queasy.
I should’ve just said I was going vegan like the birthday kid’s mom. Not like it stopped said birthday kid from almost eating half a pizza on her own.
I looked over to see Jake with his pleading eyes, holding out his nearly empty token cup. I sighed. “Lemme guess, you need more tokens?” I asked.
“I’m soooo close to getting the hat!” He pointed to the prize counter, when an obnoxiously neon bright green top hat was leaning off one of the top shelves. “Dad, please? I promise I won’t ask for anything ever, ever again!”
Damn it. I couldn’t say no, could I? I got up and opened up my wallet, walking up to the token machines. “All right, this is the last of them you’re getting so make it count, kiddo.”
“Yeeesss!” Jake pumped both fists in the air and I shook my head. There was a chance I smiled a little as I weaved between the greasy tables and the wild kids. I nearly tripped over one of the smaller girls, she was so tiny the only reason I knew she was there was because she was screaming and waving her arms around.
Someone had one too many slices of birthday cake.
I slid the ten dollar bill into the token machine, the clatter of metallic gold tokens making me wince as I felt a sharp pain dig through my head. Great, now I’d have to look forward to a migraine while surrounded by screaming little banshees. Maybe I could call Lisa, have her switch in. Course that would mean tearing her away from her desk while she’s on a hotstreak. Do not interrupt a woman while she’s writing.
“Thanks dad!” Jake gave me a quick hug before dashing off to play the whack-a-mole knock off while I grimaced and leaned against the wall, rubbing my temples.
Perhaps it would be worth the chewing out to just get the hell out of this place.
I opened my eyes and looked to see a man wearing the purple and orange apron of one of the chefs here. The colors were, again, obnoxiously bright and clashed disgustingly against each other. I managed a short laugh and nodded. “Yeah, mine’s gonna make me go for broke today. You a dad too?”
The man snorted. “Wanted to be before I got this job. Working here’s changed my view on kids.” Both of us had to quickly dodge out of the way of two kids running past us, screaming at each other about something, who knew what. “Hey, kiddos, take care about running at Sammy’s Pizza and ‘cade!” He shouted before he looked back at me, I caught sight of his nametag pinned haphazardly to his chest: HI THERE, I’M JIM THE CHEF! “See what I mean? I betcha any second now one of them brats is gonna run into a wall and get a bloody nose, and clean up duty wil get shoved into my lap. Like I’m not busy enough, you know?”
Jim’s unprofessional attitude rubbed me all kinds of the wrong way, but I was getting to the point of understanding. I’d only been at this shithole an hour and I was already nearing my breaking point. Working here, I’d probably go completely insane. “I get it. Listen, I have a bit of a headache, so-”
“Slip off to the bathrooms for a bit, I get it, I get it.” Jim nodded sympathetically. “You have any pizza yet?”
I nodded. “Just a slice.”
“Eh, don’t blame you.” Jim ambled back off to the kitchens. I picked out the birthday kid’s mom, Pam I think her name was, and gestured to the bathroom. She gave me two thumbs up before she went back to cleaning the sauce off her toddler’s face.
I nearly tripped over the gross ass carpet twice more before I got into the bathroom, which was just as sticky if not more than the main pizzeria. I stumbled to the sink and splashed water on my face in an attempt to shake me out of it. It never worked, it definitely wouldn’t work now, but I had to try.
When I looked up, I realized my right eye had gone completely bloodshot. I swore under my breath and leaned in to get a better look when it felt like my stomach dropped through my shoes.
Shit. I barely managed to make it into the stall before I collapsed to my knees and vomited. Chunks of that disgusting pizza and stomach pile splattered against the porcelain and I dimly thought this probably wasn’t the first time this had happened to this toilet before I hurled again.
My vision grew blurry for a few minutes before I managed to focus again. My stomach was still churning and this bathroom smelled fucking terrible, like shit and sickly sweet soda pop. That’s not a great combo. I stumbled to my feet and reached for my phone when I realized the screaming I was hearing wasn’t just kids having a great ole time and felt the need to express this by sounding like they were being murdered.
It was Pam. Just Pam screaming like she was being murdered.
I felt a cold chill go down my spine as I stumbled out of the bathroom, holding my stomach as I careened out of the hallway and into the arcade.
It was fucking Jonestown in here. Kids. Kids everywhere. Collapsed on the ground and not moving. Not even twitching.
Pam was leaning over her toddler, screaming and crying as the kid’s head limply flopped to the side. The birthday girl was laying in the ball pit, bleeding eyes staring blankly at the ceiling with the front of her bright pink and green dress covered in yellow, chunky vomit.
Oh god, where was Jake?
Weaving through the bodies, I could make out quiet moans from a few of them, but I couldn’t see Jake’s blue jeans and green t-shirt. He really loved the color green. I nearly tripped over another body as I looked around the arcade. “Jake? Jake! Where are you?” I shouted, or tried to, my voice was still hoarse from puking my guts out.
It was selfish, and stupid, not to be looking at these kids and seeing if I could save one, but all I could think about was my son.
He’d had a fondness for one of those stomp games, where you stomp the lights as they pop on. He was pretty good at those. I made my way over there to find him slumped on the floor, leaning against the machine. I collapsed before I made it there, having to crawl up to his limp body before I pulled him into my arms.
There was still a handful of tickets clutched in his hand. Enough to buy that goddamn hat he wanted so much. His eyes were filled with blood, dripping down his cheeks and onto his neck and then onto my arms. I shook him once, twice. “Jake?” I whispered.
The world began to grow blurred as I leaned back against the machine. I blinked to attempt to clear my vision and felt what I thought was tears going down my cheeks.
I looked down in time to see red splatter on the tickets clutched in my son’s hand. Red like pizza sauce.