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Authors: Robert Barnard

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Mystery, #Nightmares, #Paranormal, #Supernatural, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Virtual Reality

Phantasos (3 page)

BOOK: Phantasos
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Four

 

NONE OF THE OTHER STUDENTS STOPPED or seemed to notice the confrontation that was unfolding. On any typical Wednesday afternoon a fight in the parking lot would transform Grand Ridge High from high school to coliseum, the students circling around and cheering for blood.

But it was no typical Wednesday; class had just let out for the summer. The students running free could care less about some petty squabble between Rodney Frye and Benjamin Bauer; which was probably for the best, Benji thought, because if the parking lot were a coliseum then Rodney was the lion and Benji was undoubtedly the peasant thrown to the slaughter.

“Get on the bike,” Benji whispered, and Alley did as he was told; he hopped onto the rear wheel pegs, where he always stood when he rode with Benji.

“Planning on going somewhere, Bauer?” Rodney asked. “Because the way I see it, you owe me a Walkman, and I want partial payment upfront—now.”

“Leave me alone, Rodney,” Benji said, and he saddled the bike.

“You two really look adorable, you know, a couple of regular queers taking an afternoon bike ride together.”

Benji felt the blood run to his face. Rodney was well aware of why Alley didn’t ride his own bike; hell, the whole school knew. Alley’s health had been compromised since birth by a debilitating condition—a long word with too many syllables that Benji always had trouble pronouncing. Alley couldn’t run, he never participated in P.E. class, and he could never ride his own bike.

For Rodney to make light of it was insensitive. It was cruel.

“You’re such an asshole, Rodney,” Benji said, and before Rodney could get close enough he leaned down and stabbed a pen through the front tire of Rodney’s bike.

“Now you’ve gone and done it, you miserable twerp.”

“Catch me now, chubs,” Benji yelled, and he peeled off towards the parking lot, towards the street home.

Rodney stomped in place beside the bike rack, waving his fist in the air. “You’ll pay for this, Bauer. You can’t afford it, but you’ll pay for this.”

Benji wheezed and panted, lungs burning, rocketing his Huffy down Shady Reach. Alley held on for dear life, his hands clutched to Benji’s shoulders, white knuckled.

“Why…are you going…so fast,” Alley murmured. All of the excitement had worked him up, made it hard for him to talk. “You shredded…his tire…no one can run this fast…least of all…Rodney Frye…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Benji asked, recognizing the long gaps in Alley’s speech.

Alley thought: thought about the anger on Rodney’s face that made his heart speed up and his lips turn white; thought about the speed at which he was barreling down Shady Reach; thought about his illness and how he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and if he fell off, how his head would hit the cement and bleed and bleed and bleed…

“I’m okay,” Alley lied, just wanting to feel like a normal teenage boy, not wanting Benji to know how close he was to fainting.

Benji looked behind them, saw that they were alone on Shady Reach, and slowed his pedaling. Gently, the bike cruised along the sidewalk.

Alley caught his breath, felt better, loosened his grip on Benji’s shoulders. “I still don’t understand what happened to that baboon’s Walkman,” Alley said, “but he’s going to kick your ass for puncturing his bike tire like that.”

“I’m not worried about it. Rodney spends every summer in Florida with his dad, comes back every fall to rub it in our faces about the time he spent at Disney World and the beach. By the time he gets back, he’ll have cooled off.”

“That’s your plan, then?” Alley said. “That he’ll just forget about it?”

“Yeah.”

“Even for you, Benji, that’s a stupid plan.”

Benji pedaled up to the front porch of the Emerson household. Alley hopped off, stumbled to the front door, and opened it. Benji followed close behind.

“What
happened
?” Lauren yelled.

“What?” Alley asked.

Lauren ignored Alley, looked right at Benji and said, “How fast did you two come down that damn hill?”

“Not too fast, mom,” Benji said mockingly.

“I’m serious,” Lauren said, hands on hips and eyebrows raised. “He’s ghost-white. You know how he gets when he’s excited. You’re his best friend, you should know better.”

“We had to outrun Rodney Frye,” Alley said. “It was gnarly.”

“What is he talking about?” Lauren asked.

Benji was standing by the fridge, popping open a can of Pepsi he helped himself to. “Rodney Frye wants me dead, what else is new?”

“Why?”

“I busted his Walkman. Or, so he thinks. I didn’t really. Also, I flattened his bike tire. That I really did do.”

“God, Benji,” Lauren said as she plopped onto the living room couch. “I don’t want you scrapping with Rodney Frye with my little brother around. He could get hurt.”

“Hey, I’m fine,” Alley interjected

“You should have taken the bus home with me,” Lauren said.

“I like to ride with Benji,” Alley said. “I like to feel the wind on my face. He goes fast.”

Lauren shook her head.

“Will you take a chill pill?” Benji said, and he fell down next to Lauren. “I got him home safe and sound. It’s summer! We should be celebrating.” Benji reached up, gave Alley a high-five, and Alley took a seat in the recliner beside them.

Lauren turned her head, shot Benji a look through her glasses. She looked cute, Benji thought, her hair falling to her shoulders in big waves. “Are we still on for the bonfire tonight?” she asked.

“It’s a summer vacation tradition,” Benji said.

“It’s not a tradition if we’ve only done it one other time,” Lauren clarified.

“Whatever, noid,” Benji said. “My house, 8 PM. You got that?” he asked Alley, who was already lost in a rerun of Full House.

“Got it,” Alley said with a nod, not bothering to take his eyes off the screen.

“Great,” Benji said. “Be there or be square.”

Just across the street from the Emerson household, in Benji’s backyard, the friends assembled late into the night. Alley stretched out on a hammock; Benji and Lauren sat on a couple of cheap lawn chairs. The three were circled around a small fire pit in the Bauer’s backyard, twenty feet or so from Benji’s aboveground pool.

“To a year of U.S. Government,” Lauren said, and she saluted with her fingers. She said, “God bless President Bush, God bless the Electoral College, and…I don’t know, God bless at least one hundred other useless things I learned about this year.” She smiled, picked up her U.S. Government notebook, and tossed it into the fire pit before her. The papers hit the small blaze with a
whoosh
and quickly turned from white, to yellow, to black, and then to ash.

“Hear, hear,” Benji and Alley said in unison.

“All right,” Lauren said. “It’s your turn.”

Benji reached forward, picked up a composition notebook and said, “God bless Mr. Crandall and his crappy classroom policies. God bless spelling and grammar and The Scarlett Letter. God bless Mr. Crandall’s awful cigarette breath, and God bless Rodney Frye’s Walkman.” Benji sneered and heaved his composition notebook into the flames, where it was swallowed quickly and without mercy.

Simultaneously, Lauren and Alley said: “Hear, hear.”

“Okay,” Benji said. “It’s your turn, Al.”

Alley was sprawled out on the hammock, fingers laced behind his head, his palms a pillow. He was staring up at the twilight sky, and maybe his eyes had finally adjusted or it had finally gotten dark enough, but to him it seemed that every star was shining. He smiled at the big dipper, watched the moon climb on the horizon, and for a second he thought he saw a shooting star pass by.

“Uh, little brother. Earth to space cadet,” Lauren said, and she snapped her fingers. “It’s your turn.”

Alley smiled, turned his head and said, “I didn’t bring anything.”

“What do you mean?” Benji said. “It’s how we send off the school year.”

“I had a good year. No, I had a
great
year,” Alley said, and he sighed. “I want to keep my notes I took on The Great Gatsby, because I really liked the book. I suppose I could have brought some pre-algebra problems to burn, but even math class was okay this year. It’s like—this is the best it’s ever been.”

Benji and Lauren smiled; they both understood. Lauren fought back some tears, not wanting to cry in front of her little brother. If she had cried, they’d have been tears of joy: happiness that sweet little Alley had a
great
year. Not an
okay
year, not a
miserable
year crowded with hospital visits and weeks of missing school like so many other years before.

He had a
great
year, and heaven knows that after all he’d been through, he deserved one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five

 

 

IT WAS 11 PM, CLOSING TIME at Planet X. Most of the gamers had all ready filed out to the street and started their walk home for the night.

Danny was sweeping up the front of the arcade, waiting for the last few stragglers to leave so he could lock up. Todd had turned off the stereo and turned on the bright fluorescent lights fixed to the ceiling, a subtle hint that:
It’s closing time, finish up your last game of Golden Axe, then get the hell out of my arcade.

The last groups of friends shuffled out of the arcade, realizing they weren’t welcome anymore. Danny locked the door, leaned on his broom, and hollered to Todd, “Well, how’d we do?”

Todd was counting out the arcade’s single register. “We did all right. Not bad at all. We might just stay afloat.”

“I had to empty the trays on the air-hockey table twice,” Danny said. “They were bursting with quarters.”

“The Ninja Turtles machine did better than it ever has.”

Danny said, “That’s weird,” and he went back to sweeping. “That cabinet hasn’t had much play in a while.”

“Well, the Ninja Turtles movie releases on VHS next week, so I think that helped generate some excitement.”

“What about the new one? Fan…Fan-tass…Fan-tass-us…” Danny struggled to pronounce the name.

Todd raised an eyebrow, a warning, a
Don’t say ‘I told you so’ after this.
“It made a buck.”

Danny laughed. “A buck?”

“Yeah, a single buck.
My
buck.”

Danny stopped sweeping again. “Get out. You’re pulling my leg.”

Todd said, “No, amigo, no leg pulling here.” He glanced up from the register to catch Danny fighting back a smirk. “Go ahead, rub it in.”

Danny couldn’t help but laugh. “Rub what in? I’ve got nothing to say.”

“It’ll generate money eventually.” Todd sighed and went back to counting greasy, crumpled dollar bills. Why couldn’t children learn to use wallets? They kept their money stuffed deep in jean pockets, only to be fished out by grubby fingers coated in a candy glaze or popcorn oil. Disgusting.

Danny said, “Look, don’t spaz. On a good month the Centaur pulled in what—twenty,
maybe
fifty bucks? And the people at Vidtronix are paying you five hundred big ones just to let Phantasos sit on our floor. So, who cares if no one ever plays it? For as long as they display it in our humble establishment, we’re off the government cheese.”

Todd sighed. His friend had made a good point. “Have you played it yet?”

“Nope,” Danny said.

“You should try it out, the visuals are really fantastic. Fantastic, Phantasos? Maybe that’s where the name comes from…anyway, you should check it out.”

“I’m not a sucker,” Danny said. “You just want me to feed a buck into that machine so you can say it made two instead of one.”

“It’s not that at all,” Todd said, and he laughed. “Try it out.”

Danny stopped sweeping and looked at the machine. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but the machine
bothered
him. It kept him on edge. Whenever he was near it, he felt a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach. He thought he was imagining it at first, but as the night went on he watched his customers. No one showed interest in the machine or wanted to be around it. Despite its state-of-the-art graphics and claims of virtual reality, Phantasos seemed to repel anyone who neared it. Maybe it was the high cost per play, but deep down, Danny suspected there was more to it than that.

Danny hadn’t mentioned any of this to Todd, of course; the man was running himself ragged throughout the night, working himself to the bone to make his profits. Phantasos was Todd’s great white hope, something to believe in, and Danny didn’t want to shatter that with a
Listen, pal, no one is playing this dumb machine.

“What’s it even about?” Danny asked.

Todd stopped counting, looked as if he’d been asked a question in a foreign language that he didn’t speak. “How do you mean?”

“Is it a shoot-em-up? A fighter? A side-scroller? Puzzles? What’s the objective of Phantasos?”

Todd said, “Well, it’s more like—” and the phone in the back office rang. Todd mumbled something, fanned the dollar bills in his hand, and scribbled a number into a ledger beside the register. He slammed the till shut, pivoted on one foot, and raced to grab the phone.

During the short jog to the back office, Todd wondered who could possibly be calling at such an hour. Probably not (hopefully not) bill collectors, but just to be safe he didn’t ask Danny to get the phone. He didn’t want his junior partner to know just how massive the debts had grown. It was probably a parent phoning the arcade; it wasn’t entirely uncommon for a mom to call late at night looking for her kid, or to check on something her kid lost, hoping to hear it that it was safely in the lost and found.

Todd glanced into a cardboard box on the floor of the office, the designated lost and found, saw that it was empty and answered the phone. “Planet X Arcade, what can I do you for?”

“Hello, is this Mr. Todd Prower?”

“Sure is. But lady, we’re closed. What can I help you with?”

“Oh, Mr. Prower, I am so sorry to have called past business hours. My name is Amy Armstrong, and I’m calling on behalf of the Vidtronix Games Corporation. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the Phantasos machine we installed at your arcade earlier today?”

Todd flicked his wrist and looked at his watch. 11:11 PM. Danny always got cranky when they stayed too long past closing. “Sure, but uh, time is a factor, all right?”

“Of course, Mr. Prower.” The woman’s voice on the other end was saccharine sweet, absolutely sickening.
How can anyone be this pleasant at 11 PM?
Todd wondered.

The woman said, “On a scale of one through ten, how would you rate your satisfaction with this morning’s delivery service?”

“Hm,” Todd said. He didn’t want to sound like a jerk. “Seven outta ten.”

“And we sent someone out to service your machine for calibration, before it was installed, yes?”

“Sure,” Todd said. “His name, I think, was Mr. Varghese?”

“Of course, Mr. Varghese. And once more, on a scale of one through ten, how would you rate your satisfaction with Mr. Varghese’s visit?”

“Nine outta ten.”

“Oh, we’re so pleased to hear that, Mr. Prower. Really pleased. Now, if you don’t mind me asking, you mentioned that your shop has closed for the evening. Do you have the income totals for the Phantasos machine present?”

“No, but I don’t need them. The machine made a lousy dollar all night. My dollar, mind you. That was it.”

“We’re so sorry to hear that, Mr. Prower. Of course, per our agreement with you, we will pay for the use of your floor space no matter how well or how poorly Phantasos earns revenue in your arcade.”

“Sure, of course,” Todd said. “Sounds great. Anything else?”

“Just one last question, Mr. Prower, if you’d be so kind. Have you ever thought of jumping in front of a speeding train?”

Todd shuddered, felt a ringing in his ears, felt his hands go limp. He nearly dropped the phone. “What the fuck did you just say?”

“I’m sorry, is it a bad connection?” A pop of static hissed on the line. “What I said, was,
have you ever thought of jumping in front of a speeding train?

“The hell is this, some kind of sick joke? Who is this? Who are you?”

“Do you ever think of Shelly Mr. Prower do you ever think of jumping in front of a speeding train have you ever found yourself thinking of what you might look like jumping in front of a speeding train or have you ever thought of how it would feel standing on the tracks and down the line comes a speeding train—”

“Who is this you sick, son of a bitch? You’re a terrible human being! I’ll trace this call, you sick fu—”

“Do you ever wonder how you’ve failed Shelly and do you ever wonder how you’d feel lying on the tracks as a speeding train—”

“I’ll kill you, do you hear me?” Todd screamed. His face was hot with anger. Sweat was forming on his forehead, underneath his bangs. “I’ll find out who you are, and I’ll kill you where you stand. I’ll tear your throat out, do you understand me?”

“And do you ever think of how you’d look just lying on the tracks and—”

Todd screamed, an agonizing howl, he screamed and he hollered before the tears could hit the corners of his eyes, and he tore the phone off of the wall—he tore it, plaster falling, wires snapping—he tore it from the wall and with an impossible strength he threw it into the floor of the office, and it shattered into a million pieces.

At the speed of light Danny came running into the office. He found his business partner kneeling on the floor in a pile of splintered plastic and said, “Holy shit! What’s going on in here? Are you all right?”

Todd was sobbing in big, wheezy sobs. Tears the size of marbles streamed down his cheeks and he said, “It’s just someone with a sick sense of humor. Just an awful person. An awful, awful person.”

Danny didn’t know what to do, so he knelt beside his friend, his partner, his boss—he knelt beside him and he wrapped an arm around his neck. He had never seen him so upset.

“Let’s get out of here. We’ll lock up now, I need a drink.”

“I haven’t finished sweeping out the front,” Danny said.

“To hell with the front,” Todd said. “We’re leaving now.”

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Phantasos
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