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Authors: Robert Barnard

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Phantasos (6 page)

BOOK: Phantasos
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Ten

 

A BIRTHDAY CAKE ON THE EMERSON’S kitchen table read: Happy Birthday, Alec! There was a crudely drawn outline of a DeLorean surrounding the letters—Alley was obsessed with the Back to the Future films—and his mom had cleverly placed candles where the rear thrusters of the vehicle would be. It looked pretty good, actually. A time machine, made out of frosting, ready to roar to life atop the cake.

Today wasn’t Alley’s birthday, no; his actual birthday was the following Saturday. Unfortunately, his doctor had ordered a battery of tests for that Saturday. And, though the good doc expressed limitless sympathy at the unfortunate timing of the exams, he insisted that there was no rescheduling them. Alley needed special care from special people, people whose services weren’t available on a whim.

So Alley insisted his birthday party take place on the first day of summer—what better day than that? And the Emerson family obliged.

Alley knelt on a kitchen chair over the cake, the candles illuminating his face as his friends and family finished singing happy birthday. His smile was ear to ear for many reasons: the good company, the good cheer, the stack of neatly wrapped presents across the room from him.

Mrs. Emerson said, “Go ahead, Alley. Blow out the candles. Make a wish.”

Alley looked to his left, where Lauren sat, then to his right, where Benji was. They each smiled and nodded to Alley.

The room went quiet while Alley thought for a second, then he closed his eyes and blew, and every candle on his cake went out at once.

The pile of presents had been mostly torn through, the kitchen floor beneath the family dining table littered with shredded wrapper. Alley had been spoiled with a barrage of gifts: a transforming robot, a slot-car set, a model airplane. Then there were the more dull gifts that always seem to worm their way into children’s birthday parties: a package of plain, white t-shirts; a bundle of socks. A pencil set from a distant Aunt, which Alley graciously said thank you for anyways, despite the fact that it was a
pencil set
and today was the
first day of summer vacation.

“Here, Al,” Mrs. Emerson said. She handed Alley a small, wrapped box. It was very heavy. “It’s from your Uncle Martin.” Uncle Martin smiled from the corner of the kitchen, held up a hand with a beverage in it as a salute to Alley.

Alley set the box down on the table and it rattled with a
clunk.
He unwrapped it, and inside was an ornate wooden box. But the box felt so heavy, so Alley flipped it open. It was filled to the brim with quarters. His eyes lit up.

“Thank you, Uncle Marty, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Alley dug his hand through the quarters. “There must be—”

“Twenty-dollars,” Uncle Martin said. “All in quarters. I didn’t know which game to get you for that contraption in the living room (he was referring to Alley’s Nintendo) so I figured this would be the next best thing. Of course, you don’t
have
to spend it all at the arcade. You can roll them up, buy yourself a game. Or, deposit it into a college savings account. Or buy a war bond. Hell if I know.”

Alley laughed. Uncle Martin was his funniest relative after a drink or two.

“I think I’ll just stick to spending them at the arcade.” He turned to Benji, then to Lauren. “I’m sorry, we would have never spent the day quarter fishing if I had known I would be getting this!”

“It’s okay,” Lauren said. “We had fun.”

“That’s right we did,” Benji added.

Alley sat for a moment. There were two gifts left on the table. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful—he was truly happy for every present he had received—but the one gift on the left, from Lauren, was clearly in the shape of a VHS box. So he knew it was a movie of some sort. The present on the right, from Benji, was impossibly big—Alley hadn’t figured out what it was quite yet.

Neither of the remaining gifts were in the shape of a box that Nintendo cartridges came in. And Alley didn’t want to sound like a brat, but
all
he had asked for his birthday was a copy of Super Mario Three. The first time he had seen it, it was featured in a movie he saw with Lauren and Benji the summer before: The Wizard. The game was only shown for a few minutes on screen, but Alley lusted over it ever since. Some video game magazines he subscribed to teased it with previews and images of the game. Alley
had
to have it. He had all the Mario games, and Super Mario Three was being touted as the best one yet.

The twenty dollars from his uncle would get him close to the forty-five he’d need to buy a copy himself. There were also some birthday cards strewn about with loose one and five dollar bills tucked inside. Alley did the math in his head—even if he pooled all his money together, he’d still be short.

He shrugged, a quick shrug that no one in the room seemed to notice, and Lauren picked up her gift and handed it to her brother.

“Here,” she said.

“Gee, I wonder what this could be,” Benji said.

“Don’t be a brat about it,” Lauren said.

Alley shook the VHS shaped box. “A baseball? A new pair of shoes?”

“Hey, I said don’t be a brat about it! I know that you know it’s a movie.”

Alley tore the wrapping paper back, and quickly saw Jack Nicholson looking back at him. Beside Jack Nicholson was a man in a black mask—

“Oh my God!” Alley shouted. “Oh my God, oh my God!” He leapt from his seat and wrapped his arms tightly around his sister. “You got me Batman!”

“I can’t breathe.”

Alley plopped back into his chair and read the front and back of the box over and over. Benji and him had seen the film twice while it was at theatres, and Alley had wanted to own the movie ever since.

“You’re the best sister ever,” Alley said.

Lauren said, “I know.”

Benji cleared his throat. “You know, Al. You still have one left.”

Alley sat his new movie down for the first time since he opened it. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t worry.”

Benji picked up his gift and handed it to Alley. Alley tore through the wrapping paper and found a big, plain cardboard box underneath.

“What’s this?” Alley said.

Benji said, “Go on. Open it.”

Alley opened the box, and inside were some packing peanuts. Alley dug through those until he found another, smaller, wrapped box.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Alley said.

The room had gone quiet. Uncle Martin had resumed duties as videographer, and continued to videotape Alley’s birthday party from the bulky camcorder on his shoulder, as he had been doing earlier in the night.

Alley plucked out the smaller box, unwrapped it, and opened it. Inside was an even smaller box.

“How long does this go on for, Ben?”

“Not too much longer.”

Alley tore through the wrapping paper on that box and right away saw a burst of bright yellow. He squealed. He tore a little further and saw a cartoony, mustachioed man in a red cap smiling back at him.

“You didn’t,” Alley said.

“I did,” Benji said.

Alley tore a little further, and he couldn’t believe the words in front of him: Super Mario Three.

The birthday party quieted down and one by one each family member left, until the kitchen was an empty wasteland full of tipped over paper cups, semi-deflated balloons, and stale, half-eaten slices of cake.

Alley’s parents had gone to bed for the night and Alley, Lauren, and Benji were allowed to have the downstairs living room for as long as they wanted, so long as they weren’t
too
loud.

Alley spent the night playing as player one (Mario) and Benji and Lauren took turns swapping as player two (Luigi), until Lauren called it quits and handed the controller over to Benji permanently.

“I’m no good at it,” Lauren said.

“That’s why you have to keep practicing,” Benji said.

Alley said, “Yeah, please, don’t give up now.”

“You two enjoy it,” she said, and she curled up on the couch with a magazine while Benji and Alley continued to play.

“You are the best friend a guy can ask for,” Alley said, dodging an enemy on screen. “And I’m not just saying that because you got me this game.”

“Don’t mention it,” Benji said.

“I mean, how? How did you even—?”

“Afford it?” Benji said.

Alley said, “Well, I didn’t want to put it like that.”

“I had some money saved up. A little bit left over here and there from helping my dad out at the shop. I’ve been saving for a while.”

“You didn’t have to,” Alley said.

“Whatever. Like you said, I’m your best friend. I figured it was a good investment—I’d be over here playing it just as much as you are.”

“Good point,” Alley said.

And they laughed, and they played video games until deep into the night. Past the time when Lauren fell asleep on the couch, a magazine splayed across her chest, and past the time when the Tonight Show would come on. They played, and laughed, and played some more. They practically conquered the first half of the game in their first sitting with it.

And Benji didn’t know it then, but he was glad for it, he was glad for every penny he scraped together to buy that game for his best friend, because it would be one of the happiest memories the two would ever have together.

 

 

Eleven

 

IT WAS NEARLY 11 PM; CLOSING time at Planet X. Danny hadn’t seen his boss all evening, not since he dropped off the mysterious envelope at his desk. Which was very aggravating, since the first night of summer break was always a busy night at the arcade. On top of having to empty quarter trays by himself, and man the prize cabinet by himself, and dispense snacks and beverages by himself, he had to deal with the unusual number of machines which were malfunctioning. He would have to unplug and reboot each machine as they failed and hope that they would restart without a problem. There were many refunds given, and Danny started to wonder if maybe there was a problem with the electrical wiring in the building. At the very least he’d have to call out some servicemen the next day; there were too many problems for Danny and Todd to fix on their own. Assuming Todd ever left his office.

Danny locked up the arcade, then knocked on the door of the arcade’s office.

“Come on in,” a voice wheezed from behind the door.

Danny opened the door slowly; Todd didn’t sound at all like himself. When the door was opened fully, he found Todd reclined in his chair, shirt un-tucked, reading a Playboy.

“What can I you do for…what can I…what can I do you for?” Todd slurred.

Danny wrinkled his nose. The office smelled disgusting. “Have you been drinking?”

“Hey,” Todd said, setting down the magazine. “Have you read this?”

“Read what?”

“This guy, Clinton. Some governor from Arkansas. They say he’s gonna run for president in ’92, and that he’s got a good shot at winning.” Todd slapped the table. “A real good shot!”

“Is that so?” Danny said, leaning in the doorway.

“Could you imagine, Dan? A democrat! After all these years of Reagan and Bush and their little cronies…and that Bush, if he don’t win re-election, he’s got a bunch’a kids. A bunch’a ‘em!” Todd sounded angry; he was drunk. “Mark my words, if that bastard loses to this Clinton guy, he’ll have one of his kids up on the throne one day. Mark my words.”

“I never knew you were so interested in government. You glean a lot of political insight from this month’s Playboy, Todd?”

“Sure did, buddy,” Todd said. “Suuuuure did. Also, you’ll be happy to know, Miss July has fantastic tits.”

“Okay,” Danny said, placing a hand firmly on the doorframe. “How much have you had to drink tonight?”

Todd pulled out an empty bottle of Jim Beam from beneath his desk and set it on a filing cabinet beside him. A
big
empty bottle. He hiccupped and in an angry tone said, “None of your damn business how much.” Then immediately after, this time sounding saddened, he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t save you any.”

Danny sat down at the desk across from Todd. “I’ve manned this entire place tonight, on my own, while you’ve sat in here drowning in bourbon and examining the measurements of Miss July. What’s wrong with you? You’re a grown man. Why are you wallowing?”

Todd furled his eyebrows and said, “I know where I’ve been tonight and I know where you’ve been, pal. I’ve already figured payroll for the week, and I dropped an extra fifty bucks in your check. We square?”

“Todd!” Danny yelled. “I don’t want an extra fifty bucks. I don’t care about picking up slack in the arcade, I’m happy to run it! I just want to know what’s going on with you! What’s gotten into you today? You’ve been acting strange ever since last night. Is it debt collectors? Is the arcade in trouble? Why won’t you let me in?”

“You’d never believe me if I told you—”

The phone rang, cutting Todd off mid-sentence.

“Do me a favor, buddy,” Todd said. “Go ahead and answer that for me.”

Danny stood up from the desk and picked up the phone.

“Hello?” he asked.

Silence...then a hissing pop of static.

“Hello?” Danny asked again.

More silence, more static, and Danny couldn’t be certain, but he thought he heard breathing.

“Who is this?” Danny asked, and he heard a click on the other end, followed by the rapid
beep beep beep beep
of a dial tone. “They hung up,” he said, and he shrugged and hung up the phone. “Prank caller again—?”

The phone rang.

Todd pointed at the ringing phone and frowned. “One more time, please,” Todd said. “Answer that for me.”

Hesitantly, Danny picked up the phone. Something didn’t feel right, like there was electricity in the air. Before he even touched the phone, he felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.


Hello?
” Danny asked, impatiently.

Static. Crackle. White noise.

“Who is this? I demand you tell me right now who this is.”

A voice—a thick, raspy, guttural voice, an otherworldly voice— plainly croaked: “Not the one I want.”

“Excuse me?” Danny yelled.

“Not the one I want.”

Click. Dial tone.

Danny hung up the phone, turned to Todd and said, “You have to tell me what’s going on right now. You have to tell me why someone is messing with you.”

Todd clasped his hands together. “I have no idea who is messing with me, or why.”

“Then we have to go to the police.”

Todd laughed. “And tell them what?”

Danny said, “You didn’t hear that guy just now. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Is someone trying to hurt you?”

Again, Todd laughed.

“Why do you keep laugh—God, I almost forgot, you’re plastered.”

“Buddy,” Todd said, “calm down. We’ll lock up, then we’ll go out for a drink. Everything will be all—”

The phone rang.

Danny put his hands on his hips, protesting. “I’m not getting it this time. You answer it.”

“How about neither of us answer it, and we let that bastard tire himself out?”

Danny nodded. He didn’t want to agree, but what better plan was there?

The phone rang, and rang, and rang. A full minute passed by and finally Todd said, “Enough. It’s giving me a headache.” He stood up, almost tripping over himself. He stumbled over to the phone and picked it up.

“Who the hell do you think you are—?”

“Todd?” a soft, sweet voice asked. “Baby, is that you?”

“Who…” Todd coughed, nodded, and waved Danny out of the office. Danny shook his head and slunk away.

“Baby,” the beautiful voice continued. It was kind and delicate and feminine. “Baby, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.”

“I know,” Todd stammered.

“Did you get my note?”

“Yeah, babe,” Todd said. “I got it.”

The voice on the other end paused for the cutest little giggle. “Well then. You’re not trying to give me the cold shoulder, are you big guy?”

“No,” Todd said, regaining composure. “I would never do that to you, baby.”

“Good,” the voice said.

“God, baby, it’s so good to hear your voice again,” Todd said, and he fought back the urge to cry.

“Yours too,” the female said. “Yours too.”

“Where are you?” Todd asked. “Where are you calling from?”

“I’m in Grand Ridge. I’m staying in town.”

“Huh…huh…” Todd had to force the word out. “How?”

“How?” the girl laughed. “Well, first I got on a plane…and then I flew here. It was a long flight from New York, baby. Before I left, I drove a little ways upstate to that town of ours. You remember the one, right? East Violet. That’s what it was called. You called it a boring little yuppie town in the boonies. I had to beg you to drive through and go adventuring with me. Remember, they were having that adorable little apple harvest when we visited? Remember how hard you fought me on exploring that quaint little town, and how much fun we ended up having? You must have apologized a million times! Remember when we kissed on the Ferris wheel and you told me how much you loved me?”

“I remember, baby. I remember all of it.”

“Then you certainly remember that humble confectionary on the edge of town, where we stopped for fudge, and you said it was the best fudge you’ve ever had in your entire life? And you gave me that sweet, sugary chocolate kiss after?”

“Of course, baby.”

“I drove up there, before my flight, and I picked you up a pound of it. I brought you homemade, New York fudge from clear across the country. Now how can you get luckier than that? Me
and
fudge?” the female said, and she snickered.

“I love you so, so, much, Shelly,” Todd said, and he said her name quietly in case Danny might hear, because God knows how Danny would react if he heard him.

“I love you too, baby. Now when are you planning on visiting me? You gotta get out of that dusty arcade of yours someday.”

“Not tonight,” Todd said. “I’m a mess. I’m sorry if that’s not the answer you wanted, but how about tomorrow afternoon? Where are you?”

“I’m at the Sunway Hotel, on the north end of Grand Ridge. You know the one?”

“I do,” Todd said.

“Great. Then I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“You will.”

“Don’t keep me waiting too long,” she said, “and I’ll try not to eat too much of your fudge,” and she hung up the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Phantasos
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