A boy sneaks off to an amusement arcade.
|Nik slunk along the narrow street which barely squeezed its way through the tunnel of crooked houses. He tried not to think about getting in trouble with his parents. Surely they would never find out. Surely his brother wouldn't rat on him. He was mean, but not that mean. The only problem was finding him among the bustling crowds. Whirring and squealing had already reached his ears, carried on the evening breeze from the amusement arcade.
Tourists sauntered lazily in khaki shorts or garish flowery shirts that hung half out of loose jeans. Children jammed ice-cream into gaping mouths with white lips. A stroller wailed for attention, the owner too busy buying cotton candy from an opening in a wall.
As Nik passed though the arcade entrance, shouting kids and whizzing, swirling sounds buffeted his senses like a ball being rattled around a pinball machine. The acne-encrusted teenager that stepped backward onto Nik's foot didn't so much apologize as grunt. Nik feared he might get bounced back to the street if he wasn't careful.
He was determined not to let his older brother be the only one to have fun, however huge the six-year difference had always seemed. He felt more grown-up than what eight years of life told him he should be. Engaging with older kids often gave him a sense of superiority over his school-friends; he felt tougher, more sophisticated, worthy of respect, whom the school bullies would think twice before hassling.
A recollection came tumbling back, infused with fascination, of the first time he'd seen the amusement arcade. He and his parents had passed by, heading for the beach and the pier. The colorful flashing lights, the dizzying cacophony of music and sound effects had been both startling and exciting. He needed to know what it was all about. What did the changing colors and repetitive tunes mean?
That same excitement washed over him now, despite nerves tainting the rush. Colors spun and jumped out from a row of slot machines. Shiny coins cascaded into plastic, then got scooped up by wide hands attached to grinning faces. A racing car's engine revved fiercely while another's tyres screamed their way into a crash. A more sinister game seemed to be moaning, the screen filled with something dead, yet getting closer to its player.
Nik felt out of his depth and self-conscious of being seen alone, but still managed to push through a bunch of hooded youngsters shooting handguns at digital targets. They were too busy winning to notice him squeezing past the skulls and tigers embossed on their backs. The smell of tobacco and sweat and the flashing lights made the arcade start to swim.
He was beginning to wonder whether he could ever find his way out, when he heard a familiar laugh and saw the leather jacket. "Tek!... Tek!" he called, then worried about attracting the wrong kind of attention. But his voice was drowned out by gunshots and over-excitement. Tek leaned against a tall black box, which housed a chair and its occupant. The boy sat rattling the controls, guiding a spaceship, firing lasers. Another boy stood on the other side, his ripped jeans exposing the white flesh of half a buttock.
When Tek saw Nik approach, his dead face raised a studded eyebrow. "Mom know you're here?"
Nik shrugged and pushed up his top lip in a 'who cares' attitude. "Whotcha playin?"
Tek turned back to the game, a stick of chalk hanging from his fingers. At first Nik wondered what purpose it might serve, until he noticed smoky wisps floating against the black wood. As soon as an explosion signalled the end of the game, the sitting boy got shoved out and replaced. It was Tek's turn to kill aliens. Nik thought if he waited two more games he might get a go. He pulled a bunch of coins from his pocket and enjoyed the feeling of empowerment. All those games he could play. But why should he wait?
He stepped over to a big glass box where a metal claw dangled above a jumble of toys. The golden strap of a watch caught his eye. Feeding the slot, he hesitated, grabbed the joystick and sent the claw juddering about, swinging pathetically. His first attempt failed miserably, the prongs dropping and grabbing at nothing. His second try just made him more frustrated. He gazed dreamily as if upon a hoard of treasure, at all the things he wasn't going to take home.
One of Tek's friends swore and punched his seat as he jumped out, growling his scrunched face. Nik thought he might have his chance. "Can I have a go?" he burst. No-one batted a drooping eyelid. A new game had begun. "Tek. Tek. Can I get a go?"
"Wait for us," said Tek, his stare fixed on the screen. Cigarette smoke tickled Nik's eyes then stung like he'd peeled onions. No-one noticed his insistent blinking or the coins that rattled around his cupped hands.
"How long? After him?"
Nik didn't feel confident of getting much say in the matter. It was always the same. But pushing his luck would only risk trouble. He tried to ignore the image of his father shouting, but even that made his face stiffen and his insides quiver. Then he thought something else might be responsible; he needed the boys room.
"Hey, Tek. Where's the John?"
Tek shrugged, whooping at an exploding mothership which made hidden speakers boom and vibrate. Nik scanned the area, around the crowds that were starting to evaporate. He followed a path, worn into the pattern of the carpet, between horses that looked more like misshapen dogs, past a sealed cubicle that should have housed a cashier. Perhaps someone was having a break from changing bills into coins.
Beyond a corner in the wall of machines, someone hammered buttons that flashed manically. Nearby, the top half of a man with a milk-white face and red hair shifted its position and grinned at Nik from within its glass case. "Pay the clown so I don't frown," came the annoying whine from its lower half, a black box with coin-slots. The clown froze and waited, grimacing like an escapee from a lunatic asylum.
Near what Nik guessed to be the back of the arcade, a dull black-painted recess led to unmarked doors. Nik couldn't think why one of the games had been put along the short passage. Another zombie shoot-'em-up, judging by the heavy breathing and grunting sounds. He quickly squeezed past, as if something incomplete might reach out. Did they really make such horrible sounding games?
The restroom that revealed itself behind one of the doors was even worse. As he waded through the miasma, Nik imagined something might have died. Of course it was just in dire need of maintenance. That was probably why the locks were missing on every cubicle but one, and even that required forcing into place. At least there hadn't been a queue. In fact the room was empty, though it only made him more disconcerted, as if he were somewhere he shouldn't be.
Even before he'd finished, the lights begun to flicker. Disorientation reminded him of when he'd managed to get inside an adult-only nightclub by climbing through a barely-open back window; one of the advantages of being small and thin. A few minutes of deafening music passing through him had made him feel as insubstantial as a ghost. When his stomach had begun to revolt, he decided it was enough. What was wrong with these grown-ups who needed to be pounded half-dead?
Somehow the stuttering lights reinforced the decaying smell of human ejecta, making that memory and the nausea flood back. Every time the light cut-out, he imagined himself being trapped in the blackness. He struggled to forget the image, but as he reached to pull the chain, was plunged into the very thought he was trying to avoid. It was as if the chain had switched off the lights. That mental connection was so strange and yet so insistent, that he felt compelled to pull again to bring back the light. It didn't work. More water ran down into the toilet.
Nik stumbled backward, cracking an elbow on the cubicle door. A wave of pain shrilled from his funny bone, up his arm and out his mouth in the form of a high-pitched yelp. He winced, trying to rub away the sharp tingle. The darkness somehow intensified the pain, as if the absence of one sense were focusing the others. The film of water that sheathed his eyes did nothing to wipe away the covering of blackness.
Pins and needles threaded the fingertips that fumbled around the lock. At first it seemed just very stiff. Then he considered that it was entirely broken. The thought of missing out on all the fun of the arcade was nearly as overwhelming as being trapped there. A knot of frustration twisted inside. He grappled with the knob, hands and biceps straining to slide the bolt, grazing a palm on something sharp. The lock resisted.
He closed the toilet lid and climbed on top. Vague illumination from small frosted windows gave a spectral outline to the restroom. The gap under the ceiling looked just enough for him to climb over the cubicle. It was perhaps the only option. Grabbing the upper edge, the surface was cold and smooth, apart from the patch that stuck to his bare arm. Slimy gum dangled from the skin. The tiny hairs smarted as he pulled it off. Darkness concealed the gap in his teeth as he grimaced in disgust. He wondered what his mom would say about the bits that had melded into the fabric of his sleeve.
Once Nik's eyes had adjusted to the dim light, the process of clambering over became trivial. He hung down and dropped to the restroom floor. The thought of being like Spiderman outweighed any anxiety that plucked his nerve-strings. If only his friends could see him now. Perhaps it was this mental showing off that made him careless. He landed off-balance, banging his head on the cubicle wall.
He couldn't remember lying down, but felt sure he hadn't been unconscious for long. It might have been nothing at all. He might simply have become dazed and confused. More important was whether or not the arcade was about close, which seemed likely given the eerie silence.
He swung open the door and staggered half-blind into the short passage. The place was dead; a graveyard of machinery. The light was barely enough to distinguish the hulks of machine-tombs from the walkway. All except for where he stood; because the zombie game that lay in the passage was lit up and making stealthy noise. Every now and again the sound jarred Nik with its painful, undead complaint. It somehow made the arcade more menacing, as if providing its sound-effect.
Nik traced a path between looming displays and structures which were no longer recognizable as the games he had passed earlier. Something with long arms towered above him; the housing for a game that had a gun-rack and moving targets. An animal-shape crouched silently in a shadow; perhaps the lifeless form of a mechanical bull that had made younger kids so happy to ride. A row of gravestones that had been slot-machines led the way toward the arcade entrance.
But the windows were too dim for Nik's liking. Then he knew why. Roller-shutters covered the glass, blocking the outside light. The door was closed and padlocked from the other side. He watched his faint reflection touch the blackened window. A chill had crept into the air, despite the earlier warmth of the daytime. He shivered. A tightness squeezed his stomach like a vice. There seemed to be no way out. The restroom windows had been un-openable. He balked at the thought of spending the night there.
Somehow Nik couldn't quite shake off the panic that had insinuated itself under his skin. He felt on edge, near a precipice, in danger of something unseen and indescribable. At the same time, an urge was drawing him to the game that murmured in the shadowy solitude. Perhaps it could take his mind off the situation. At least there was more light around the machine than anywhere else in the arcade. He had more than enough money to play, and even more time. Why should he waste the opportunity to play to his heart's content?
He half persuaded himself that there was nothing to fear, that it was all in his mind. Just as no-one could get out of the arcade, equally no-one could get in. He imagined himself boasting about his ordeal. It gave him some degree of comfort, even courage. He craved being the centre of attention, the most daring among his clique of friends. He retraced his steps silently.
The groaning box had an opening in one side. Flickering light bounced off the shiny black seat and the corners of the interior. Speakers were fixed within both sides of the seat and under the screen. The space was wide enough for two players, though the hard plastic gave his bony behind a shock. He pulled off a sweater to provide cushioning, then fumbled with a handful of coins. A crowd of corpses shifted aimlessly like people in a home for the elderly who could find nothing to do.
The moment enough money had clattered inside, instructions filled the screen. A quick skim through was sufficient; he had an idea of how these things work. The joystick was for moving a target around the display, the red button for shooting. Nik felt electrified with anticipation, as if he were physically plugged in.
As his character moved forward between abandoned crumbling buildings, he glimpsed undead faces moving behind broken windows. His eyes grew wide and restless, his legs braced against the floor. A shambling figure separated from the shadows, ruminating noisily. Nik spun the viewer to face it, but it passed behind some rubble. The joystick clicked and several bullets thumped into bricks.
Nik felt disconcerted by the realistic 3-D sound effect. One moment a snort came from the left, then footsteps scraped the ground behind him and to the right. The tension became unnerving. A broken face lurched out from a darkened recess, its fingers reaching clumsily. It seemed as though the nearer they came, the more frantic their movements. The rotting body swiped toward the screen, toward Nik's face. His pulse quickened.
Bullets plunged into the corpse. It curled up, clutching itself, growling. But even as the viewer turned back, more collapsed figures with semi-detached arms drew nearer, moaning morbidly. Nik edged forward in the seat, his sweater dangling to the floor. He twisted the joystick, frantic to shoot the zombie that almost grabbed at the screen.
Perhaps the excitement was too much. Too many things were happening all at once and Nik wasn't accustomed to such intensity. Something about one of the undead assailants was starting to annoy him. It kept appearing and disappearing behind a broken wall. Then when he caught a glimpse of its face, he couldn't understand why they would allow such gory images in a game that had no age-restriction. There seemed to be too much blood and hanging flesh, and bone protruded from one severed arm.
Nik tried to ignore the shock that the vision had caused, to focus on the corpse that was attacking and apparently making the screen shake. His life-points were suddenly flashing red. He wrenched the joystick, frustrated by the slow response of his viewer. Then the screen went black.
At first he thought he might have done something wrong, causing something to break. It wasn't only the screen that was dead, but the buttons and lights on the whole game had disappeared into darkness. For a moment, his mind felt trapped in the game, unable to separate from the fantasy. He waited, eager to finish off the remaining opponents. The darkness and silence was oppressive. He strained his ears. Was the sound still going or was it something else that was producing the effect of moaning?
Perhaps it was only the lighting that had failed after all. A faulty connection. Nik leaned over and banged the buttons near the coin-slot. His sweater slipped to the floor with a soft flopping noise. He reached down to rescue it from the dirty floor. The plastic below the seat felt chilly and rough. He scooped up the sweater and leaned back in the seat. Cool air touched his neck and a whiff of smell must have travelled from the restroom.
He wondered whether the game needed more money to continue. He pulled coins from his jeans, but struggled to identify them in the faint light. When he'd selected the right ones and reached toward the slot, something was in the way. It reminded him of a paper bag full of cheese, soft and pudgy, slightly cool. The bag must have been ripped, because his fingers pressed into some of the contents that were starting to squeeze out. Certainly, if it had been cheese, it must have gone off, judging by the odor.
Nik quickly withdrew his hand and pushed back into the seat. The bag fell onto the seat next to him. But it sounded far too heavy for a bag of cheese. It thudded into the plastic, like a sack of potatoes. He could feel his chest rise and fall and was startled by his own labored breathing. His jaw slackened and released a whimper. He didn't want to play games anymore. He begged to be back at home with his mother and father. He promised he'd never go anywhere without permission, ever again.
The thing lying next to him gave a hollow moan; it was full of pain or despair or frustration or hunger. Nik felt his pants grow warm. Despite his limbs hanging more like dead meat, he managed to force up a hand to shield himself. Something clamped his fingers. It was wet, pasty, sticky, and felt lined with rotten teeth.