by John Petelle
Issue 2: Game | 1,382 words
The soles of my battered sandals whispered against the cracks in the sidewalk as I strolled down Wymore Avenue. The return of warm weather had encouraged me to venture outside, and I adjusted my route out of my neighborhood more or less at random—following a black squirrel down this block, avoiding heavier traffic down that way, turning this corner to look closer at a gold and purple canvas awning that extended out past the front of massive brick house built like a square fortress.
Wrought-iron fencing, enameled a brilliant white, enclosed the tidy yard. Each fence post was topped by a rounded knob and connected to the next post with meter-wide disks bearing the outlines of fantastic animals. I recognized a half-dozen of them: dragon, unicorn, sphinx, hydra, griffon, and pegasus. I was pretty sure another was a chimera, but the rest were completely unknown to me.
The lot that the house sat on was as impressive as the house itself; it took up nearly the entire length of the block, with only a narrow vacant section left on either end. I glanced towards the intersections to see what cross street of Wymore I was on, surprised that I had never seen this particular edifice before. Oddly, the street signs were missing on both ends.
I approached the gate in the middle of the expanse of fencing, admiring the archery motif on the brightly colored canopy, which featured an alternating sequence of longbows and arrows. Directly above the open gate, an oak plank dangled from the archway, bearing an image of a stylized set of doors and the words, “The Cavern of Kairos – Arcade Extraordinaire.”
I didn’t realize my city had any arcades left, much less one within a mile of my apartment. I hadn’t been to a game room in more than a decade, not since Dragon’s Lair closed down, but the attraction was as strong as ever. As I considered whether a token machine would take a debit card, my feet turned, and I entered the shade of the covered archway between the sidewalk and the house.
Approaching the entrance, brick walls flanking either side, I descended a set of rough-cut stone stairs to a lower level; a pair of brass lanterns set on both sides of the wall pushed back the darkness. No door barred the way, but as I stepped across the threshold, the atmosphere around me altered. The air, cooler against my skin now, carried a musty smell, as well as a faint siren’s call of the electronic noises I associated with the best times of my youth.
My feet sank slightly into the deep red carpet that led down a short hallway. I entered an immense room, the edges lost in shadows despite the pools of brightness from ceiling lanterns hanging at irregular intervals.
With delight, I looked around at the reincarnation of my dreams—all of the greatest games I could remember: Tempest, Space Invaders, Elevator Action, Shinobi, Space Ace… not a weak console in sight. Whoever set this arcade up was a genius! I recklessly calculated how much I could spend if I ate ramen noodles for the next couple of weeks and peered around for a token dispenser.
A faint doubt occurred to me. The coin machine wasn’t the only thing missing. “Where are the people?” I wondered. Not another person in sight, yet all of the games were in full swing. Some were in demo mode, sure, but I would swear some of them were actually being played. For that matter, although I’d spent a fortune of paper-route earnings mastering Elevator Action, the floor that ‘Agent 17’ was navigating wasn’t one of the 30 levels of the building I remembered. “What is going on here?” I mumbled out loud.
Then, at the far end of the room, nearly fifty meters away, I saw it. Despite the treasures available to play in this main room, I knew where the real fans were.
Beyond the electronic blips and bleeps of dying Pac-Man and Space Invaders was a room. Not just any room, but a room containing the neon confection of electronic games—pinball machines, the perfect fusion of skill, luck, and reflexes. The silver balls were questing under the glass for electronic glory, accompanied by flashing lights, ringing bells, and mechanical voices.
Swiftly, I crossed the room and prepared to pass through the beaded curtain that separated my destination from the main area. The sudden presence of the attendant halted me in my tracks. I groped for words, taken aback by a masculine face that looked perfect enough to have been photoshopped into life: a square jaw, gleaming teeth framed in welcoming smile, and sapphire-blue eyes that were matched by a single lock of cobalt-colored hair atop his otherwise smooth-shaven head. My suddenly fuzzy brain stammered at me. This guy should be modeling for a living, not making change at a game parlor.
I stood motionless for at least a few seconds, distracted by his looks, as I tried to process the rest of his uniform. His left hand held a strung longbow of some ivory-colored wood, pale as bone. The fingers of his right hand were wrapped around a pearl-handled straight razor that reflected the lantern light strangely; one moment the gleaming blade was a few inches long, the next it extended like a guillotine of eternity, needing only a flick of his wrist to sever the world.
“Slowly, young man, slowly. It is not fitting to enter the Cavern of Kairos with haste. There are perils within…” his baritone voice trailed off, and then, almost seductively, he winked one blue orb at me. “And of course, there is the matter of payment. There is always a price for admission, is there not?”
I fumbled for my wallet, beads of sweat appearing on my forehead. “Of course, of course. I was looking for the token machine. Do you take debit cards?”
He shook his head slowly, lips curling back to an even wider grin than what he had displayed before. A few musical notes of laughter escaped his mouth as he replied, “No. No debit cards here. Not needed at all. The price of admission here… is simply your time.” His eyes fastened upon me, and his words were all that I could hear, as if they drowned out the digitized sounds behind me. His voice caressed my ears, and I strained to hear each syllable pour from his lips. “Do you wish to trade your time, for permission to enter, for membership to this arcade?”
“My time?” A brief image of a smirking genie offering wishes appeared in my head. I banished the thought. “Of course I want to trade my time to enter. What better way is there to spend time than playing pinball?”
“What better way indeed? Pass through then. Pass through the curtain to what lies beyond.”
I barely noticed as his right hand stroked its way up my arm, with not even the briefest tug on my skin to note its passage. Yet again, I felt cooler than I had outside the room. Much cooler.
I looked around at the dozen or so players in the room, most of them with outfits that seemed out of date: motorcycle jackets, sweater-girl styles, and hairstyles that I knew from movies like Grease. All of them were intent on their games. Other than the speech of the games, I didn’t hear a single scrap of conversation. I felt myself pulled to the FunHouse machine. I had always admired its gameplay, yet struggled to play it well.
“Leave your sandals at the door,” the attendant’s deep voice whispered over my shoulder. “You won’t be needing them anymore.” Again, his right hand traced a path upon me. Only the slightest of breezes alerted me that the fabric of my shirt had suddenly parted in the back, my clothing no barrier at all to the grazing touch of his alluring blade.
Cooler again, yet comfortable, I placed my footwear by the door and turned back to the glass surface of FunHouse. Time to play, at last. I had no doubt I would master this and all the other wonderful attractions in the Cavern of Kairos. After all, I had time.
John Petelle is a Desert Storm veteran of the Marine Corps. His varied career includes years spent as the editor of the Nebraska American Legion’s state newspaper, computer instructor for an elementary school, and employee at numerous technology startup companies.
An experienced cook and avid gamer, John lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.