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November 20, 2021

Bullet Hell

Tom Kelly

Ever since the abandoned tobacco factory caught on fire, the whole town’s tail-spinned into a world of bad luck, so that the summer has distended into a reel of short-circuiting appliances, freak car accidents, record-breaking heatwaves, and pets found dead from mysterious causes.

Last month, my roommate, Dez, quit her job to stay home and play Super Nintendo. She claims winning fortune back in our favor depends on beating the right videogame.


The chosen game’s cartridge label depicts a Pepsi blue spaceship firing laser beams at a fleet of mechanized hornets, their dogfight suspended above a futuristic city skyline.

Outside, in our alleyway, I smoke cigarettes, kick rocks, and watch a half-eaten Hershey bar melt on the concrete. Lately, our upstairs neighbor has taken to clubbing golf balls off the roof of her Prius. I wait for her ’till noon, but she never shows.


Dez calls the chosen game a bullet hell shoot ’em up. She says one learns to play by dying, by piloting a pixelated spaceship through a maze of swirling projectiles and watching it explode into a million pieces.

Hunched on a beach chair, in front of our eight-inch tube TV, she keeps a log of her losses: the locations where she meets her demise and the errant maneuvers she hopes to avoid repeating.


At Fifth Street Diner, I practice the art of stacking flapjacks. Mostly, business stays slow. On Tuesday, a snaggle-toothed girl punches some buttons on the jukebox and Wagon Wheel plays on loop for three hours. 

Later, a man stumbles in bleeding from his bald head. “A cat fell out of a tree,” he declares.


To account for lost income, Dez has me sell her prescription Xanax to a pair of high schoolers named Kyle and Kyle. This morning, I meet them in the parking lot of a laundromat that folded last winter. During our transaction, they reveal Dez invited one-hundred people to our two-bedroom apartment in the spirit of watching her beat a rare videogame.

“How?” I ask.

“Social media,” they reply.

When they add she scheduled the event for tonight, I hike the price of the pills by five dollars and blame it on a struggling economy.


“You don’t value my contributions to this town at all,” Dez says.

“I told you I’d cover the difference on rent,” I retort, “but will you at least give me back my damn bucket hat?”

This goes on ’till well past dark, and no guests arrive.


On my morning walk, I find a golf ball with the name Billy scrawled along the curvature. I slip it in my pocket and wander up the street in the direction of the alleyway, searching for my neighbor’s Prius to no avail. A star-shaped helium balloon bobs above my rooftop. I discover another Billy golf ball, and another, and another.


“There are two kinds of Billys,” Dez remarks, cupping one of the white spheres to the window light, “One group consists of male goats”

“The other?”

“Fuck boys.”


My next afternoon off, while I chew cheddar cubes and Slim-Jims, Dez guides her flying vessel to new levels. During the last stretch of a stage-ending boss fight, the chiptune soundtrack spasms and the screen freezes. “Ever feel like your reality’s one big glitch?” she asks.


Sometimes, in the thick of battle, she implicates me as co-pilot by changing the “I” to “We.” As in, “We’re all out of rockets,” or “We’re running out of time.”


“How many lives do we have left?” I wonder.


I catalogue the days by affixing them to the TV’s racing backgrounds, so Monday becomes a naval base lathered in daylight; Tuesday’s a desert strewn with apocalyptic ruins; Wednesday through Saturday, a floating mothership looms in the clouded purple sky.


At work, my manager burns the bacon and names himself Employee of the Month. All three of our customers applaud. Unsupervised at home, Dez tracks her Game Overs by using a magic marker to draw 0s on our living room wall.


“Did we remember to pay the power bill?” she wants to know.


In keeping with my resolution to spend more time outdoors, I bike to the park where Kyle shoves Kyle into a trash bin with an Out-of-Order sign taped to the rim. I award free drugs to the superior Kyle. Near the fountain, I get chased by a Doberman getting chased by a Corgi getting chased by a duck.


“Who did this?” I ask, pointing to the broken pinball machine.

My manager shrugs.

In the corner, an elderly woman shoos off the fly buzzing above her water pitcher.

“Billy,” she mumbles, coughing into her napkin.


When I walk inside, Dez fires a roman candle out the living room window. She’s raving about the game’s final skirmish and the complicated set of patterns which govern the main villain’s onslaught. Her firework’s smoking wick points to missile torrents paused on the TV screen while she explains how order at its ultimate stage might create a perfect illusion of anarchy.

“Victory means arriving at a fixed destination,” she concludes, “On a subconscious level, the game grounds us.”

“Have we decided what we want for dinner?” I yawn.

“We agreed to meatballs,” she says, “Or was it cheesecake?”  


My neighbor’s Prius peels onto the road at dawn and doesn’t return home that evening. Four days later, Dez beats the game but, when I look outside, the alley remains vacant. Over coffee, I ask whether our bad luck will turn around and she smiles.

“Maybe,” she says. “I don’t know. Maybe it already has.”

“When golf girl gets home, I’m going to ask about Billy.”   

“I like having you as co-pilot, even though you never do anything.”

“I do the most important thing” I reply, “I study the passing clouds, and dream of what they mean.”