Jake met Darla when the pinball machine ate his quarter.
He stood there, staring at the game. Not angry -- not exactly -- simply perplexed. The deal was: one quarter, one game. Something was wrong with the universe that such a simple pact be broken.
"Here, stand back."
Darla shoved past him, a whiff of jasmine and lavender. Too startled to do anything else Jake did as he was told, watched the slight girl stand back from the machine, haul one booted foot back, and deliver a solid kick to the machine's black coin box.
Ching ching ching ding!
"One credit, there ya go," she smiled at Jake.
He shook his head. "You... just kicked it," he said helplessly.
"Oh, it's alright. I work here." She flashed him a brilliant smile before hustling back behind the bowling alley's counter to ring up a customer.
Jake watched her walk away, a grin blossoming. What an interesting girl!
He played pinball the rest of the night, racking up free games and paying for new ones when he didn't. Secretly, the whole time, he wished the machine would eat another quarter.
"We're closing," Darla called over to Jake at the pinball machine. He nodded, finished up his game and walked slowly past the counter, wondering how to engage the interesting girl again.
"Hey," she waved to him, "you live around here?"
Jake paused mid-step. "In the apartments over yonder."
"Well good. Maybe I'll see you again," she said with a genuine delight.
He smiled broadly, nodded. "Absolutely."
After that Jake made it a point to come by the bowling alley every night to play pinball until closing. He was getting pretty good at this particular machine.
He learned her name the second night, by the third he was spending about half his time nursing beers near the cash register. He loved watching her work. They'd talk between customers.
On the fourth night he'd worked up the courage to ask Darla out. Nothing fancy, he figured, just a chance to get to know each other away from the bowling alley. Her response startled him.
"Jake... I dunno."
She'd gone from happy/bouncy to deadpan-sad in an eyeblink. A myriad of scenarios flashed through Jake's mind at her reaction, most of them leading to...
"You have a boyfriend," he sighed theatrically, trying for resigned amusement.
"No, that's not it. Jake... you need to understand something about me."
She took a customer's money and handed over a pair of shoes, waited for them to leave before returning to Jake. They stared at each other over scratched formica.
"You were saying?" Jake prompted.
"Well. It's just that..." Big breath. "I'm not the age you think I am."
Oho. "What, you're 30?" He laughed. "I have no problem with older women."
She shot him a sickly grin and shook her head. "Nope, I'm not 30."
Uh oh. Sensing where this was going Jake held up a hand to hold it off. "Lemme guess: you're an immortal being, thousands of years old. Maybe a vampire? Or no! Like that Highlander movie! 'There can be only one.' Like that."
That earned a laugh, but she shook her head no. The game was afoot.
"Okay, then howsabout you're a Terminator robot, sent from the future. You were just uncrated and powered up three days ago." He paused awkwardly, thinking it through. "In the future. Three days before... ugh, you know."
Darla solemnly shook her head again. But clearly she was amused.
"Then," Jake thought aloud, "how about this? You're an alien, cloned from human DNA. You woke up in a vat three months ago and only just now broke free of Area 51. You're on the run and need--"
"Jake," she reached out and touched his hand. "None of that. I'm a human girl. A sixteen year old human girl."
The moment stretched out in silence. But eventually he sighed, pulled his fingers free from beneath hers. Stood there, hands in pockets, thinking.
"I'm 26, Darla. That's ten years difference. I mean, even if--"
"I know. But hey, we can still be friends, right?"
He tried to smile. Faked it well enough, anyway. Soon they went back to talking about Star Wars, and if they'd ever make another one with Yoda in it. Which segued into how cool it'd be if they ever turned Lord of The Rings into a movie. Maybe before the year 2000, who knew?
Jake stayed until closing, as ever. But when he said good night he really meant good bye. They both knew it.
Darla watched him disappear across the parking lot one final time, sighed, and finished closing the bowling alley down, chasing customers out. Once the glass doors were locked she retreated behind the cash register again. Its drawer was cocked open, empty.
She lifted her shirt, prised open a flap of skin to reveal an orifice. With minimal effort she popped out what people would eventually call a cell phone, swiped a finger across it and spoke a pass-phrase. The device bleeped in her hand: open channel.
"Mission abort," she spoke into it. "Say again, mission abort. He's made me. We'll have to figure out something else. Request extraction, these coordinates."
Darla replaced the phone and stood silently, immobile, for 17 minutes.
The air hummed, crackled, and a blue portal spun open before her neatly bisecting the counter. Without hesitation she stepped inside and the portal snapped shut behind her, leaving nothing but ozone.