Project #3 – Here’s the final part of the first Chapter and the end of our time with Stephen as a 7 year old. Next up we’ll dive into another part of Stephen’s life, and hit up the teenage years. Dana is bound to crop up somewhere, probably uninvited.
To read the last entry, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/project-3-chapter-1-age-7-pt2/
To read from the beginning, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/project-3-chapter-1-age-7/
There was so much light. Bare bulbs of deep dark reds were interweaved with glowing warm yellows, each one dimming just slightly as if dancing to a silent tune. The walls were clad in thick silky wallpapers from times of old, stripy reds and whites here, entire feature wall-sized murals of play parks hand painted along an entire length of the room. The room itself was gargantuan, not separated by walls or cubicles, but sectioned into a million themes by machines and booths arranged in clumps of individual magic. For once, Stephen finally felt warm. He stood there stunned, even as Dana shot off down a haphazard aisle, weaving between machines and vacant chairs like some kind of jet pilot.
“It’s this way Stephen!” She shouted back at him, bringing him back to this bizarre reality.
But there’s so much here to do.
As if answering his thoughts Dana gave him the same old reason. “We don’t have time to do it all. You can come back later.” He couldn’t distinguish where her voice was echoing from.
Come back from where?
Within moments she bared down on him from the side, throwing an arm around his waist. She was fast, and she must have known the place like no other. She slid her arm from his waist, down his arm, this time holding his hand more gracefully, without any semblance of threat.
“Come on. We’ll get you a matching one of these” She held up her ball in the palm of her hand. Stephen hadn’t remembered giving it back, or where she might have stored it. He was too lost in wonderment to care.
“OK.” For the first time Stephen couldn’t help but offer her a genuine smile of excitement.
They meandered down the room through the aisle that Dana had steamed down earlier, this time at a pace that felt more calming. He didn’t spend a single second looking down the path they were travelling, instead allowing his gaze to wander and soak in everything around him. Booths stood tall and taut, their entrances beckoning them in with promise of fortune and fun. There were balls and theatrical hammers, makeshift futuristic guns of brass that probably fired dried peas, hoops and rods. It was truly a fair from a time long before he was born, but he didn’t mind. It was as though this place had sucked the entire colour and life from the entire town and offered it in a torrential downpour to any fortunate enough to breach its doors.
Dana pulled him around a corner made of tall brass machines demanding change for the chance to offer a price of some description – None explicitly mentioned what. In front of him laid a group of five booths, all identical in form. Each of them had cages and nets full of the same cloud filled balls that Dana had been slamming against the bedroom wall when he had arrived. There were more than just grey ones, there were stripes and dots, ones with swirls that were see-through, and even plain ones ingrained with sparkling glitter. None of them were manned by anyone, yet each one had been perfectly set up as if never touched for centuries. Stephen looked around; there was nobody here but the two of them. He wondered if Dana had simply taken hers by force somehow, but couldn’t see a way to unlock the cages or reach the nets. She tugged him closer to the tent-like structure, and it offered a small raised wooden platform for its shorter visitors. It was well worn unlike the others, as if it had been eroded away by an excessive amount of visitors. Dana pulled him up next to her, and he immediately saw the rules of the game.
There were nine coconuts of varying sizes, each with numbers painted on them. Across to one side read a sign:
Get Something Nifty!
The words made him cringe; it was something his mum would have used to describe a tool that made scrubbing dishes faster. He already knew the prizes, what concerned him more was the unlikelihood of winning. There was a single coconut on a large plunger, pinned into the ground upside down. It was tiny, and happened to be the one marked 50. Surrounding it were eight others of different sizes, the six largest marked 10 were already about to fall off their preposterously sized platforms. Between these were the two deceivingly average ones, each marked 25. Dad had always told him these games were made to make winning nearly impossible without tremendous luck. Stephen looked across at Dana’s hand, still clutching hers in a balled fist. If she had won one, surely he could.
But she’s weirdly strong.
As if by some unknown prompt Dana reached over and swatted at a button in the centre of the desk in front of them. There was a winding and grinding behind the scenes and then six soft balls rolled their way down a small set of rails to their right, rolling onto the desk and stopping precisely in front of where wear marks on the floor lay.
“You get six throws.” Dana flashed a suspicious grin, as if she were in on the whole thing.
Stephen glanced back from her to the balls that lay in front of him. They looked like American baseballs, only without the red stitching or writing. He picked one up, weighed it in his palm and passed it between his hands. It felt dense, but there was a certain hollow nature to them. He looked back over to the smallest target. Can’t be that hard… He brimmed with over confidence for just a moment, before becoming a little nervous in his stomach as he prepared a throw. He suddenly considered that he might miss; he didn’t want to look stupid in front of Dana. She already spoke down to him and he wanted to prove her wrong.
Then I’ll show her that stupid grin.
He gripped the ball more tightly, wound back his arm, and then arched the ball over his head as if he were a bowler playing cricket. He hoped the high angle trajectory would be severe enough to knock his target straight off. It careened through the air a lot faster than he imagined, and in the brief moments it flew he rubbed his arm that now yelled at him for overexertion. He could see it was a perfect throw, and like a ballistic missile it pounded on the winning coconut with a heavy bonk.
The ball however simply bounced off like the hail pinged off the family car windshield. The coconut rolled around in its throne as if shifting in its sleep. Feeling immediate defeat, Stephen looked down towards Dana expecting some lengthy diatribe about how she was better. She merely curled her lips inward in hidden amusement before straightening her face.
“Try the easier ones. You can still do it with five.” This time she sounded a little more genuine.
His pride battered, he picked up another ball and simply tossed it half-heartedly at the ten-pointer on the far left. With a gentle knock it fell over, and he felt like a cloud of hope had washed over him again. He quickly composed himself, not wanting to jinx his chances on the next throw. One after another the next three large coconuts dropped like flies, and after the third one crashed to the floor he let out a gritted “Yiss!” through his teeth, punching his aching arm through the air. Throughout his performance Dana simply stood there looking onwards in careful consideration. He kept looking to her for some kind of response, whether it was admiration or jealousy, he didn’t care at this point. He wished she’d show something. The thought of her unnerved him despite his success. He just didn’t understand her, and within those brief moments the charade of fun this place had swarmed him with melted away. He was still lost, still alone.
He tossed the final ball in the air back into his hand in a cocky fashion, and tossed it as hard as he could. He winced in pain as a sharpness prodded its way through his shoulder at the last moment, sending his final ball off into the back of the canvas booth. Stephen stood there, eyes ablaze, body confused that he’d just failed after his amazing performance. He darted his eyes across to see how Dana would respond. Her face was already waiting for him, a dark maniacal grin as though it had been her plan all along. Stephen was about to burst, accuse her of setting up the whole thing, streaming a thousand excuses of why it was her fault that all this had gone the way it had.
He would have, at least, if she hadn’t held out her hand, grey swirling sphere outstretched towards him.
“Try the fifty now.” Her eyes bled through his skull.
She has such deep eyes.
As if possessed, he agreed to her curious offer, plucking the small bouncy ball out of her hand and lining himself up for the most troublesome target of all.
“Isn’t this cheating…” he wandered off as he pelted the tiny coconut with what was left with his might.
It hit its mark, shattering a piece of the outer shell off and sending the elastic projectile on a lightning speed trajectory headed straight for Dana. Before he could move an inch towards her or shout a warning, she pulled up both hands and caught it in both her cupped hands, without even the slightest flinch in her stature. He was about to ask her if she was OK before another set of mechanical gears began winding and clinking together. One of the upper cages opened by some imaginary force, releasing just a single identical ball to the one Dana had handed him. It bounced and weaved across the floor inside the small tent, hitting corners and scooting here and there before tumbling out past them and into the main floor of the Arcade. As if in a trance Dana immediately dived after it, scooting off to try and catch his prize.
Stephen turned back to the booth for a final look before going in search of his curious female friend, only to find the booth reset. The coconuts all lay back in their original positions, the smallest one he had decimated now in perfect condition. The numbers simply stared back at him in earnest disbelief that they had ever been knocked down. A wooden sign slammed down from above with a sharp clack!
“Stupid thing… I-“
Another sign slammed down from above it.
His heart stopped.
Give it back little boy.
It wasn’t words, it wasn’t a name, he just yelled out in a high pitch terror. As if in answer, the Arcade switched off all its lights, all but the red ones. The entire contents of the massive building took on a dark red glow. It no longer had colour, it no longer held the promise of fun. Instead every machine, every booth, every word stared at him in a scarlet anger. He turned to run but the brass machines he and Dana walked past to get here were laid out in a line in front of him. They weren’t here to take his money for a prize. They were here to take him for not playing by the rules.
She made me do it.
He couldn’t reason with the machines, reason with the building. It wouldn’t understand. Dana was nowhere to be found. Had she tricked him into this? Had she tricked everyone in this town into giving themselves up to the maw of the Arcade? He didn’t understand any of it. I just want to go home. I need to hide under the quilt. I need to shut my eyes.
The moment he shut his eyes, blacking out the looming, angry machines, a voice commanded him from the side.
“We need to get out of here now. You have to go back.” It was Dana, no fear or worry in her voice, just this strong commanding presence.
He turned his head in her general direction, and opened his eyes, revealing her stern brow and piercing eyes in the red hue. She stood between a number of kiosks to one side and he bolted over to her no daring to look back at what might bare down on him. He was the one who reached out for her hand this time, begging her to drag him away from here as she did before. With their hands clasped together she led him on a path much like a maze, weaving in and out of the blur. It was hard to make anything out in this light. It singed away all the finer details of everything that surrounded him, making it either reflect that murderous glow, or absorb all the colours into blackness.
Within moments they were at the entrance, and with no sign of stopping or slowing Dana burst open the doors with a kick. In that moment time stopped. In that moment there was nothing. Just Stephen, Dana, and black.
“You’re going back now.” For the first time she smiled at him softly, in earnest.
“I’ll see you again. I think you’ll be back. I’ll always be here to protect you.” She opened her palm and handed him his prize.
“You caught it…”
“Caught what Stephen?”
It was a voice. An older voice, from an adult, but it didn’t belong to Mum or Dad.
The light here is bright; I can feel it behind my eyelids. There’s a mask on my face. I’m in bed. It’s not my bed. At least it’s not there.
“Can you tell me if you remember what happened Stephen?” The older voice continued to quiz him, this time placing a finger on his eyelids, pulling one open.
It’s a doctor. There’s somebody else next to the bed. I can see her hands. It’s mum!
“Hey little man, are you feeling OK?” She was hiding a lump in her throat, she had been stood there as he stirred and was trying her hardest to contain the deluge of emotion.
“Now Stephen…” The doctor again. “…Can you tell me the last thing you remember in the playground?”
I was at school. It was break time. I remember now but I didn’t before… Laura Allen was playing kiss-chase with me… she always ran after me…
“A girl in my class was chasing me…”
“Did she hit you? Where did she hit you Stephen? I’ll call the school-“ His mother was growing frantic in an instant, failing to hold back the tide.
“She didn’t hurt me.” His voice felt a little coarse, but he felt so much safer already. “She just kissed me… it was a game…” He felt embarrassed. He looked at his mother, her cheeks were already flush and he could tell she was stifling a smirk, all panic stripped from her face.
“Well I think uh… that’s all we’ll need from your for now Stephen.” The doctor turned to his mother and started talking in a lower tone. “We’ll need to get these tests back to the lab for testing… could be a fit…” Stephen stopped paying attention when he noticed something clenched in one of his mum’s hands.
“…sounded like convulsions…”
He could barely make it out, but it was grey.
“…especially concerning for him to be comatose for several days…”
There was a pattern to it, with white running through it.
“…erratic brain function…”
It was a small ball, almost identical to the one from the Arcade.
His mother caught his staring eyes. “Oh, I got you this from a bric-a-brac shop. It’s a bouncy ball. I used to have some when I was younger and it always sent my mother in a state…”
He had stopped listening when she fully opened her hand, his eyes simply glared. It wasn’t the one that belonged to Dana, it had a different pattern, but it was the same colour. No, this was the one the Arcade claimed he stole from it, in a game stacked against him. He had won that ball unfairly, in a game built to be unfair, and Dana had helped him do it.
And now it was here. Not in his head, but in his safe place, his world.