Half an hour before opening, Mr. Litwak made his daily sweep of the arcade, tidying up before he unlocked the doors at 10:00 AM. Armed with a spray bottle full of Windex and a roll of paper towels, he cleaned the smudges and fingerprints off each of the screens. His morning employee, Randy, went over the whole floor with a carpet sweeper, clutching a half-eaten Subway breakfast sandwich in his other hand.
As Mr. Litwak approached the Sugar Rush cabinet, he heaved a small sigh.
“Something wrong, sir?” asked Randy through a mouthful of ham and egg.
“Well, Sugar Rush hasn’t been bringing in a lot of quarters this week,” Mr. Litwak muttered, wiping down the screen as it played an endless loop of racing footage. “You know how the kids seem to love that little Vanellope character the most?”
“Oh yeah,” Randy mumbled, scratching his unshaven chin. “’Cause of the teleporting, right?”
Mr. Litwak nodded, applying another spritz of glass cleaner. “Yeah, and it’s a funny thing. I put this game in about fifteen years ago, and that Vanellope character only started appearing in the last month. She’s on the cabinet and everything, but it’s like nobody ever unlocked her before now. But all of a sudden, she’s gone again. I don’t know, must be some kind of glitch in the system. But she was everybody’s favorite character for a while there.”
Randy leaned on the back of one of the driver’s seats. “Huh, that’s weird. So what, nobody wants to play Sugar Rush anymore without her as a playable character?”
“Or they just quit after one or two races,” said Mr. Litwak, rubbing a particularly stubborn smudge off the screen with his thumb. “Usually, they’d stay here for four, five, sometimes even ten races in a row. It’s too early to say right now, but if business keeps dropping like this, I may have to unplug the ol’ girl. It’d be a real shame, too,” he added as he walked away. “I have to admit, I really like that theme song.”
“We’re getting unplugged?!”
Jubileena Bing-Bing started to hyperventilate as her fellow racers all burst into a frightened cacophony of shouts. Beneath the jumbo-sized screen that looked out into the arcade, the living candy spectators that lined the bleachers were muttering to one another and exchanging worried glances.
“Calm down, everybody!” Taffyta yelled, standing on the hood of her car. “Nobody is getting unplugged! He just said it’s a possibility, but that’s not going to happen!”
“How do you know?” Swizzle Malarkey yelped. “You heard what Litwak said! If Vanellope’s not a playable character, nobody cares about us anymore! And we just knocked her out of the roster for the fourth night in a row!”
“Yeah!” Crumbelina DiCaramello added. “And all because of you, Madam President!”
Taffyta gulped uneasily. “Me? Hey, it’s not my fault Von Schweetz is a cheater! I just opened your eyes to what you were all too blind to see! And you can’t deny that the races are a lot more fair and balanced now without her blinking ahead of all of us!”
“What races?” Jubileena squeaked. “We had maybe three races yesterday, tops!”
And indeed, it was true. Everyone had been so distracted by the hoopla surrounding the election, they hadn’t noticed that there had been fewer and fewer people playing the game every day that week.
“Heck, we never used to care about who won the stupid races!” Minty Zaki piped up. “It was you with all that smooth talk about cheating and unfair advantages that got us all caught up in a frenzy!”
“Yeah!” Adorabeezle Winterpop interjected. “All that stuff about how we all deserve a chance at our own personal victory! Since when has being a playable character ever been about personal victory? This is supposed to be about helping the player win, not about which one of us crosses the finish line first!”
“Vanellope was cool, man!” Snowanna Rainbeau shouted. “She made this game more popular than it ever was before! Everybody who played as her always won, thanks to that glitchy thing of hers, and they loved her for it! We loved her for it!”
“Aw, shucks, guys, I didn’t think you cared!”
The racers all turned around in unison. There, at the foot of the bleachers, stood Vanellope, surrounded by Ralph, Felix, Calhoun, and an especially angry-looking Sour Bill.
“Vanellope!” Rancis shouted. “You’re back!”
“You’re darn right I’m back!” Vanellope snapped, glaring at Taffyta with utter condescension in her eyes. “And I just dug up some pretty intriguing dirt about our new president!”
Taffyta leapt off the hood of her car, stalking towards her rival. “What do you want, glitch? A recount? I won this election fair and square!”
Vanellope laughed out loud. “Muttonfudge, I’m surprised you even know what those words mean. Calhoun, show ‘em the photo.”
Calhoun pulled out a small handheld gadget that looked like a fountain pen. She clicked a button on the end, and a hologram shot out of it, projected over the racetrack for all to see. It was a close-up of the tire tracks that Vanellope had seen on the floor of her old home.
“You all know about Diet Cola Mountain,” Vanellope said, pacing back and forth in front of the starting line. “But what you don’t know is that there’s a dummied out bonus level inside it. I only know about it because I lived there for fifteen years while Turbo had you all turned into toffee-nosed zombies. And yet, despite the fact that I’m the only one who knows how to get into that bonus level, take a looky-loo at whose tire tracks I found all over the inside!”
The tread marks bore an endless pattern of three dots in a row. Everyone gasped as they recognized them as Taffyta’s tire tracks.
“That’s right,” Vanellope continued. “When I sideswiped our fair president in Monday night’s qualifying race, she skidded off the track and accidentally warped through the hidden entrance to the interior of Diet Cola Mountain! Surely, she had no idea where she was, so she decided to just follow the path in front of her – which eventually took her out the other side of the mountain and spit her back out onto the main track! Right when I, in first place at the time, was passing her! And then I had that horrible crash that never would have happened if she hadn’t taken the shortcut!”
Taffyta began to sweat as eight pairs of eyes turned to look at her. She could feel the heat rising in her face.
“Hey,” she stammered, “I didn’t mean to do it! It just sort of, y’know, happened…and then I, uh, didn’t bother to tell anyone…”
“You cheated!” Candlehead spit incredulously. “And after all that tripe you fed me and Rancis about fair play! How could you sink so low, you stinkin’ hypocrite?”
A low roar of dissent began to drift in from the stands. The other racers all looked furious.
Taffyta wiped the sweat off her brow. “Well…well, what about Tuesday’s race, huh? She said she wouldn’t glitch and she still tried to!”
“Yeah, because a certain somebody cut my brakes, if you’ll recall!” Vanellope shot back. Behind her, Ralph flexed his fists menacingly.
“What, you’re still blaming me for that?” Taffyta spluttered. “I already told you, I was doing test runs with Minty and Crumbelina! And besides, Rancis already confessed, didn’t you, Rancis? Go ahead, tell her again how you wanted a little bit of glory to yourself! Go on, tell her!”
Rancis didn’t reply.
“I said tell her, you little peanut butter puke!” Taffyta screeched.
“No,” Rancis said softly.
The blotchy red color drained from Taffyta’s face as quickly as it had risen there.
“I’m done taking orders from you,” Rancis said, his voice rising unevenly as if even he couldn’t believe what he was saying. “You told me that you were doing what was best for Sugar Rush and everyone in it, but you lied, Taffyta. You lied to Vanellope, you lied to all the other racers, and you lied to me. And you had me lie to everybody too, because you said it was for a greater good, but it was all just to satisfy your stupid ego, wasn’t it? Well, I’m through playing your stooge, you hear me? I was an idiot to ever let you push me around! I’ve sacrificed my dignity and hurt the people I care about just to impress you, but darn it, you’re just not worth it!”
With tears brimming in his eyes, he turned to look at Vanellope. “I didn’t want to cut your brake line! I could never, ever dream of doing anything like that! But Taffyta made me do it, and told me I’d have to take the rap alone if I ever got found out! She said she…” He gulped, blinking back more tears. “She said she’d break into the game’s code and dummy you out again if I didn’t!”
“I wasn’t really gonna do it!” Taffyta screamed desperately, as another wave of horrified gasps rippled through the crowd. “I don’t even know how! I was just trying to scare him a little!”
“Turbo!” Jubileena cried, pointing at Taffyta in horror. “You’re worse than Turbo!”
“No, worse would be if she was actually smart enough to pull any of this off,” Vanellope said with a smirk. “She’s just a selfish little brat who talks a load of bull-honkey and thinks this whole game deserves to revolve around her.”
“What?” Taffyta stammered, laughing nervously. “C’mon, guys, it was all just a joke! Really, that’s all it was! I mean, I… uh, y’know, ‘cause I… um, that is, uh… it was a joke!”
“Funny, I don’t hear anyone laughing,” Vanellope said smoothly.
Taffyta turned around, brushing her disheveled hair out of her eyes, to see the other racers staring at her with a mix of stunned disbelief and scandalized contempt. A loud chorus of boos went up from the crowd, as the candy spectators from Taffyta’s box began hurling their banners and pennants at her in disgust.
“So, let’s recap here,” Vanellope said to the crowd. “We’re currently living under the administration of a president who accidentally cheated in a qualifier race and ‘conveniently’ forgot to tell anybody, deliberately cheated in the next race and even exploited one of her friends to do it, and basically lied right to everybody’s face about all of it, all so she could get a little bit of spotlight to herself. I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like pretty stinky behavior for a politician!”
Wynchell and Duncan stepped out from behind the bleachers, brandishing a set of licorice handcuffs. Taffyta’s stomach seemed to drop out when she saw them.
“Officers,” Vanellope said, suppressing a small giggle, “do your duty.”
As the cops advanced on her, Taffyta leaped back into her hard candy kart. But before she could start it, Ralph dodged in front of the vehicle and picked it up by the front wheels.
“Sorry, kid, but your license to drive just expired!”
And with barely any effort, Ralph squeezed the wheels so hard that they crumbled into dust.
Taffyta’s eyes darted around the track. Wynchell and Duncan were closing in. In a flash, she dove out of her crippled vehicle and landed on the hood of Rancis’ peanut butter cup kart, knocking him out of the driver’s seat with her elbow.
“Outta my way, traitor!” she bellowed as she leapt into the seat. Before Ralph or the cops could grab her, she had revved up and blasted over the starting line.
Without missing a step, Vanellope jumped into her own car and started the engine. “Pedals to the floor, guys!” she called to her fellow racers. “Who’s ready to go strawberry picking?”