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chapter twelve

     They arrived at the air hockey table, and Trevor inserted two tokens for ten minutes of playing time. The air hockey table was slightly smaller than a standard pool table, with a recessed hard plastic top that had a tight grid of holes in it. When the game was on, air was expelled through these holes, providing a 'cushion' of air for the plastic puck to float on. This allowed the puck to be propelled at high speeds by the two players.
     "Here," said Trevor, sliding the puck to Cindy's end of the table. "You start."
     Cindy picked up her 'paddle', which was a disc of hard plastic with a circular handle on top, and set the puck in front of it. There was a look of distinct uncertainty on her face as she hesitated, then hit the puck directly toward Trevor's 'goal', which was an opening in the end of the table about ten inches wide. Her shot was as tentative as her manner, and Trevor easily deflected it sideways, allowing him to keep the puck on his side of the table.
     "OK, you ready?" he asked as he moved his paddle back and forth behind the puck.
     "Would it matter if I said 'no'?" replied Cindy.
     "Uh-uh," said Trevor, and suddenly struck the puck forehanded. It ricocheted off the side wall of the playing surface and directly toward Cindy's goal. Cindy let out a cry of surprise and fear as, by pure chance, the puck struck her paddle and deflected into the corner of the table.
     "Nice save!" exclaimed Trevor.
     "Give me a break!" replied Cindy. "It hit my paddle by itself! I didn't do anything, except almost wet my pants!"
     Trevor broke into laughter, briefly taking his eyes off of Cindy as he leaned against the end of the table. Cindy suddenly grabbed the puck, set it in the middle of her end of the table and shot it. Before Trevor could react, it dropped into his goal.
     "Yes!" exclaimed Cindy, raising her hands over her head. "One to nothing!"
     "Hey!" laughed Trevor. "No fair!"
     "ME trying to play YOU isn't fair!" Cindy replied. "Besides, it was perfectly legal."
     "THAAAT'S the way you want to play, huh?" said Trevor with an evil smile. He put the puck back on the table. "OK, you asked for it!"
     "Now wait a minute," said Cindy, quickly assuming an expression of pathetic fear. "You wouldn't go hard on your devoted new girlfriend, who's crazy about you, would you?" Then she stuck her lower lip out a little.
     Trevor looked at her for a moment, then pinched his eyes together and slowly shook his head.
     "Aw, man," he chuckled. "You don't care HOW low you stoop, do you?"
     Cindy looked thoughtful for a couple of seconds, then gave her head a little shake.
     "No," she said, matter-of-factly. "All right, still one to nothing."
     Trevor chuckled again. "Y'know," he said, "I think I'm starting to understand why some men become monks."
     Now it was Cindy's turn to laugh out loud, and immediately Trevor fired off a forehand bank shot that hit the back of Cindy's goal with a loud thud.
     "YES!" shouted Trevor, raising his hands over his head. "One to one!"
     "All right," laughed Cindy. "I guess I had that coming." She put the puck back on her side of the table. "Now, can you give me any little tips before we play anymore?"
     "Just that the bank shots usually work better then the straight-on ones, because they're harder for the other player to judge," replied Trevor. "Other than that, it's mostly just figuring out your opponent's weaknesses and using them against him. Or her."
     "MY biggest weakness is that I don't know what I'm doing," said Cindy.
     "You'll figure it out," chuckled Trevor. "Actually, someone who can read batters so good should be able to read an air hockey opponent too."
     "Hmmm," said Cindy, this time with a genuinely thoughtful expression. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe that COULD make up for some of my physical disadvantages." She looked down at the puck for a moment, then back at Trevor. "Let's do it."
     She moved her paddle back and forth behind the puck, as Trevor had done earlier. She suddenly faked a forehand bank shot, faked another one, then shot one backhanded. Trevor stopped it, keeping it on his end.
     "That was a good beginner's sequence," remarked Trevor, "but you'll have to do better to score on ME."
     "That wasn't the point," replied Cindy. "Your turn to shoot."
     "Yes, ma'am!" said Trevor. He hesitated briefly. Then he pretended to strike the puck backhanded, passing the paddle quickly behind it, and then immediately fired the puck off forehanded. It banked and thudded into the goal. Cindy made no attempt to stop it: her eyes had remained fixed on Trevor.
     "Well, c'mon, at least TRY!" said Trevor. "It's no fun scoring on someone who's just standing there!"
     "Don't worry about it," replied Cindy as she retrieved the puck. "I know what I'm doing. Now, I'm going to do the same thing I did last time."
     "Don't tell me that!" scolded Trevor, who was starting to become irritated. "If I know what's coming, I'll stop it for sure!"
     "Just trust me, all right?" said Cindy. She did two forehand fakes and a backhand shot, exactly like the first time. Trevor stopped it easily.
     "If you want to play a different game, just say so!" stated Trevor. "This is silly."
     "No, it isn't," replied Cindy. "I want to play this. Your shot again."
     Trevor simultaneously shrugged and shook his head in exasperation. Then he did another backhand fake, but this time followed it with an actual backhand shot. The shot missed to the right, but again Cindy had eyes only for Trevor, and made no attempt to deflect it.
     Trevor exhaled loudly. "If I didn't care about you so much, I'd just walk away," he said. "But you asked me to trust you, so I will. But this is REALLY no fun!"
     Cindy smiled. "If it makes you feel better, I'm having a great time," she said.
     "Actually, it does," Trevor replied, although he was more confused than ever. "Thanks! Your shot."
     "All right, this time I'm going to shoot the other way," said Cindy.
     "Geez!" exclaimed Trevor. "I don't get it, but go ahead."
     This time she did one backhand fake, then shot the puck forehanded. Again Trevor stopped the shot without difficulty. Then in rapid succession, he did forehand and backhand fakes and a forehand shot. The puck thudded home, again without an attempt by Cindy to stop it.
     "Now, this time I'm not going to tell you how I'm going to shoot," said Cindy.
     "That's more like it!" said Trevor.
     Cindy then tried the forehand-fake-forehand-shot combination. Trevor stopped it.
     "OK, let's see how you handle this one," he said, and did several fakes followed by a backhand shot. This time Cindy, although still watching Trevor carefully, tried to block the shot. She missed it, but the puck bounced off the very edge of the goal opening.
     For the remaining five minutes or so of their time, the basic pattern continued: Cindy attempting different shots, with Trevor stopping most of them; and Trevor scoring or narrowly missing on different combinations, with Cindy having limited success in her defensive efforts. Finally, the time expired, and the flow of air through the holes ceased.
     "I win!" declared Trevor. "Although you seemed to improve a bit as we played. So, you wanna go again, or you had enough?"
     "Let's go again," Cindy answered definitively. "I have a feeling I might do better this time."
     "It's your funeral," said Trevor with a smile. He fed two more tokens into the side of the air hockey table and resumed his position at the end. Then he slid the puck over to Cindy.
     "Gimme your best shot," he challenged.
     Cindy looked over at Trevor for a second, then suddenly faked a forehand shot and struck the puck backhanded. It wasn't any harder a shot than her previous attempts, and didn't have nearly the velocity of Trevor's shots; but Trevor was unable to react fast enough to intercept it with his paddle. The puck thumped into the goal.
     "Well, that was lucky!" said Trevor.
     Cindy smiled. "Maybe," she said. "One to nothing. Your shot." Her face became the picture of concentration as she stared across at Trevor. She held her paddle perfectly still in front of her goal.
     Trevor wasn't sure what to think. Had the goal been lucky, or was something else going on here? He decided not to go easy on her on the first point. He did the double-fake-backhand-forehand-shot combination, fully expecting an easy goal.
     But Cindy not only stopped it, she seemed to stop it fairly easily. She was also able to keep the puck at her end, and she got ready for her shot. This time she did a halfhearted backhand fake, a more convincing forehand fake and then a quick backhand shot. For the second consecutive time Trevor found himself too slow to block the shot, and it again thumped against the back of his goal. This time he realized that he had been caught leaning the wrong way, and that the same thing had happened on the first point.
     Was it still just luck? Maybe, but not likely. So how was she doing it?
     "Well, you're making this interesting, aren't you?" said Trevor, trying not to appear rattled, as he retrieved the puck and set it on the table. "But that's all right: I love these come-from-behind victories!" With that, he made a quick forehand fake, then fired his hardest backhand shot. Cindy reacted too slowly, but the shot missed right, and Cindy was able to keep it on her end.
     Trevor was just able to get his paddle on Cindy's next shot, deflecting it slightly at the last possible instant, just enough to cause it to miss. He kept control of it, then did a quick backhand fake and shot it forehanded. It was a hard and accurate shot, but Cindy was again able to stop it with little difficulty.
     What is going on here? Trevor thought. I would almost swear that she started to move BEFORE I shot!
     Suddenly he realized that that was, in fact, exactly what had happened.
     "You're READING me, aren't you?" Trevor demanded. "That's what that first game was about - you were studying me, finding little things I do that you could use against me!"
     Cindy smiled. "I'm surprised it took you so long to figure that out," she said. "Especially since you gave me the basic idea yourself. I'm also a little surprised at HOW good it seems to be working!"
     "Maybe you shouldn't be," replied Trevor. "Maybe your ability to read batters isn't just from experience. Maybe it's partly a special talent you didn't even know you had."
     Cindy looked thoughtful for a few seconds. "Could be," she said. "I never thought of it that way, but you may be right."
     "So, how are you doing it?" asked Trevor. "What am I doing that's tipping you off?"
     "No way!" declared Cindy. "Not till I beat you!"
     "It might not be so easy," replied Trevor, "now that I know what you're up to!"
     Trevor did start to do a bit better as they continued, and eventually he scored the last two goals before their time expired; but it wasn't enough. The game ended with Cindy ahead by one.
     "I did it again!" she exclaimed joyfully. "You were right, Trevor! I CAN play these games!"
     Trevor tossed his paddle down on the table. He was a bit annoyed that he had been beaten by a girl, but he was also glad that Cindy was happy. Most of all, though, he was curious.
     "OK, NOW will you tell me how you did it?" he requested.
     "Why not?" Cindy replied with a smile and a little shrug. "There were several basic things. First, I noticed that your forehand shots are more accurate than your backhands, so I concentrated on stopping those. I also noticed that you tend to lean a little to your left just before you shoot a forehand, regardless of the fakes. So a lot of the time I knew which one was coming just before you shot it, and when I didn't, I just protected against the forehand. So that was my secret on defense. You did better as the game went on because you were trying harder to sell your fakes, and that made you harder to read.
     "On offense, I saw that you react slower on my backhand shots, when you have to block forehanded. You might not even know it, but you try to compensate sometimes by leaning that way before I shoot. So, when you didn't lean, I shot to your backhand. When you did, I shot the other way. I also used that first game to practice shooting accurately, so that when you couldn't react in time, the puck would usually go in. You're not super quick, but you're quick enough that you could stop some of my shots anyway, so it didn't always work. But it worked enough." There was a twinkle in her eye as she finished her explanation.
     Trevor looked at Cindy with something approaching awe.
     "When I suggested trying to find an opponent's weaknesses," he said slowly as he walked around the table toward her, "I was thinking of things like, 'He's a sucker for a backhand fake'." He reached Cindy, and put his hands on the outsides of her shoulders, touching her gently, almost reverently. "It's like I said before: the more time I spend with you, the more amazing I find out you are."
     "Thank you," said Cindy as she smiled and blushed. "I still know it's not true, but it's nice to know you think it. So what do you want to play next?"
     "All right, we'll change the subject for now," replied Trevor. "But I'm not giving up. I don't care how long it takes, I'm going to convince you how special you are."
     "How 'bout that Skee-ball game you were talking about?" said Cindy, ignoring Trevor's comments and strolling in that direction.
     They shared the first game of Skee-ball: as a warm-up for Trevor, and a crash course for Cindy, who had never played before. Then they each played two full games, taking turns. Cindy's two scores were higher than either of Trevor's.
     "Sorry I beat you again," said Cindy.
     "Yeah, I'll bet you are," replied Trevor sarcastically. "I should have known better than to play an ace pitcher in a game like this. OK, my turn to pick. Video basketball!"
     "Oh, sure," complained Cindy. "Pick a game you know I can't play just 'cause you're tired of losing."
     "There may be some truth to that," Trevor admitted, "but we're playing it anyway. And I'll believe you can't handle it when I see it."
     The action did prove to be a bit fast for Cindy, but she did better than she had expected. Trevor won twice, but the second game was closer than the first.
     "That's it!" declared Trevor. "We're quitting while I'm ahead. Your turn to pick."
     "I don't know," said Cindy, looking around. "You pick again."
     "You know what I'm going to pick, don't you?" said Trevor.
     "No, I..." Cindy began, then stopped for a moment. "Oh, no!" she finally continued. "Not the airplane game!"
     "Absolutely!" replied Trevor. "We can each play once. I'll go first again, like with the driving game, so you can watch. Trust me, you'll do better than you think."
     They each played, and Trevor's score was considerably higher; but with Trevor's coaching, Cindy did, indeed, do better than she had expected.
     "I hope you learned something today," said Trevor to Cindy as he helped her out of the airplane's cockpit. "Like my Dad says, 'If you want to be the best you can be at anything, play by the rules, but play to win, and always believe that you can.' You gotta admit, you did a LOT better at these games than you thought you would."
     "Thanks to you," said Cindy. "You wouldn't let me give up on myself. I guess I do tend to do that more than I should. I really will try to learn from this, I promise. Well, that's it for the tokens, right?"
     "Actually, there's one left. I suppose you want to play Skee-ball again."
     "I wouldn't mind," Cindy admitted, "but are there any other games that take only one token?"
     "Just the little kid games," answered Trevor, "and the two pinball machines. Oh, and those two old games over in the corner."
     "Why don't you play one of those?" suggested Cindy. "Do you know how?"
     "Yeah, I've played them a couple of times," Trevor replied. "I did pretty decent the last time I played the gorilla game."
     "The gorilla game?" chuckled Cindy.
     "Well, actually it's the original 'Donkey Kong'," said Trevor. "One of the attendants once told me it was a popular game like twenty five years ago. There have been other more hi-tech versions for both arcade games and home video games since then, but that arcade game first introduced Donkey Kong, and also the Mario character of 'Super Mario Brothers' fame."
     "I want to see you play it," said Cindy, moving in the direction of the game. "It must be neat to control a gorilla!"
     "Actually, you don't," said Trevor, walking with her. "You control a little man - Mario - who tries to rescue a girl the gorilla kidnapped. There's a repeating series of three screens where you guide the guy through different obstacles, and at the end of the third screen the gorilla falls off a high platform and gets wiped out, and the guy and the girl are united with hearts over their heads."
     "Ooh, I've got to see that!" said Cindy, as they arrived at the game. "You'd better get that far!"
     "No problem!" said Trevor confidently.
     Perhaps overconfidently, as it turned out. He lost two of his three lives on the first screen.
     C'mon, Trev, this is for Cindy! he told himself, as his last attempt was about to begin.
     Then he looked at the animated girl at the top of the screen, being held captive by the gorilla; and he got an idea.
     As he began his last chance, there was a noticeable increase in his concentration and intensity: this time he was truly playing to win. He got through the first screen easily, paused at the beginning of the second screen so he could remember the correct technique for conquering it, then proceeded to breeze through that screen as well. On the third screen he had one near miss, but succeeded in removing all of the supports for the gorilla's platform, sending him crashing to the ground. Then the hearts appeared over the little man and the girl.
     "You did it!" said Cindy excitedly. "That was so cool! I love happy endings!"
     But the game wasn't over. Trevor barely heard Cindy's comments as he started the second series of screens: he was focused on what he was doing.
     He got through the second series. Then the third.
     Finally, on the second screen of the fourth series, he made a timing error, and a moving obstacle struck down the little man.
     "Oh, too bad," said Cindy. "But that was really great! You got so much out of that last life! How did you do it?"
     Trevor turned to look at Cindy, with a big smile on his face. He felt certain that there was a humongous 'Ohhhh!' on the way.
     "Easy," he said. "There was no way I could fail. On the last life, I pretended I really was the little man, and that the girl I was trying to rescue was you."
     Cindy looked at him with her most loving smile yet.
     "OHHHHHH!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe how sweet you are! You say such wonderful things to me! It makes me feel like...like..."
     "Like the most special person in the whole world?" Trevor suggested. Cindy nodded. "Well, as far as I'm concerned," Trevor continued, "you probably are. How 'bout a soda?"
     Cindy nodded again, and as they turned toward the exit, Trevor put his arm around her. Cindy responded by putting her arm around Trevor's waist, and snuggling her head into his shoulder.
     As they strolled back out into the mall, Trevor felt like they were walking at least a foot off the ground.

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