I’ve been getting back into fiction writing as of late, and thought I would put this out into the world. It’s a little story that I think matches the fall season well.
Nestled away in the building with the chain pharmacy downtown was a tiny arcade. The building itself had been through several lives. It had been a hardware store named Terry’s and a grocery named Fairchild’s. Those family establishments had given way, however, to a larger chain from out of town that moved in and put up a newly printed sign above a changeable letter board. Initially, the board had said “Proud to serve the community” for a few months, before it began advertising weekly deals, announcing parade dates or congratulating local star athletes.
Today, the sun sent waves of rippling light across the plastic sign. Each time the light wind hit the sign it added a shean to the summer day. The arcade was no bigger than a large living room. It could easily be missed, a simple glass door that pushed into a dark room. There were two pinball machines (Jurassic Park and the Addams Family), and then eight consoles lining the walls. A single set back window gave a hint of the bright day outside.
Mira walked through the sliding doors with his mother into the corridor with shopping carts and 25-cent vending machines. Next to these was a coin dispenser and the glass door to the arcade. The arcade was unadvertised, but common knowledge among the children of the town. Some kids would stop by after school, or meet up there before embarking on bike adventures. It wasn’t exactly a hang-out. It was more of a landmark on the map of the town’s youth.
Mira’s mom gave him two dollars in quarters and walked into the brightly lit chain pharmacy. The sparkling store’s intercom played jingles that were cut short by the sliding doors, and Mira walked into the darkened arcade. There were two older boys in the arcade that Mira didn’t know playing Area 51. Plastic pistols clicking away as aliens splattered behind the thick glass. He felt a shiver of frustration, hoping that they wouldn’t knock him off of the leaderboard. He had been top three the last time he checked.
Mira made his way to the pinball machines, his hoodie pocket catching slightly on the Addam’s Family ball launch. His clothes always felt too big for him, but they felt especially baggy today. Two coins in, a quarter of the way through his two-dollar fun. The balls quickly floated down the middle. The boys stayed at Area 51. Mira got bored and walked out to the vending machines in the musty sunlit hall.
The usual were on display in the two rows of blender-shaped dispensers. Their metal mouths hungry for quarters. Plastic figures in little plastic UFO-like pods, instant tattoos, and giant spheres of bubblegum in different colors. He hoped the bubblegum was the sour kind. He put a quarter into the machine’s mouth, turned the knob, heard a ball roll and then thunk again the opening. Green, not bad. His teeth punctured the slightly stale shell of the gum and into the meatier center and his tongue lurched with the acidic sourness. Just what he wanted. He put it into his mouth with relish as the two older boys walked out of the arcade and into the day.
The gum began to change form as he chomped it around his palette. On a whim, he kept turning the handle. Surprisingly another thunk and more gum. He turned again. Another piece. The machine was clearly broken. He felt a shameful thrill, looked around to an empty hallway, and then kept turning. It was like a dream where he wanted to stop but couldn’t. Turn. Thunk. Gum. Turn. Thunk. Gum.
And then the sinking realization that his mother could be out any minute. And then stuffing piece after piece into his mouth so as not to waste it. Mira’s cheeks puffed and his jaw ached with effort to process the gum. This clearly wasn’t going to work. But he couldn’t stop chewing. The flavor oozed out of the gum, overtaking his tongue. He started to feel nauseous, and something that was like the kick of a horse’s hind feet hit him in the stomach. He keeled over. And then, with the faintest sound, a muted pop, he turned into a potted plant, indistinct with a few green leaves, sitting on the floor by the vending machines.
Mira’s mother, Carmine, walked out of the sliding doors. She glanced to her right to the arcade with the faint feeling of forgetting something. Shook it off and walked to the car. Minutes later, the clerk would find the plant, scratch his head, and then walk it outside where there were a row of similar plants. There was a sale this week, two for ten dollars.
Carmine pulled into her driveway, slipped the car into park, and looked up the walkway to her two-story eggshell yellow home. She noticed some black rot where the siding met the concrete foundation and breathed a sigh of resigned frustration. A small wave of acid turned in her stomach. “Add it to the list of ‘do eventually’,” she muttered as she walked into her home. This would mean a visit to the giant corporate hardware store that had moved in a few miles from downtown.
She got to unpacking the groceries, taking out the disposable goods first. She grabbed a half gallon plastic jug of milk and went to open the fridge but was stopped by the pictures on the refrigerator door. Among a random assortment of postcards and magnets were littered pictures of her and a little boy who she did not recognize. She looked a bit more closely. There were three photos of the same boy who she didn’t remember in the slightest. “I’m losing it,” Carmine said to herself, closing her eyes with the expectation that the pictures would be gone upon reopening.
The pictures were still there. Next to a smiling Carmine in what looked like Liberty Park was a boy with blond hair wearing a bright red windbreaker. He stared at the camera with friendly curiosity, both of his arms wrapped around Carmine. She felt a shiver, and tasted acid again. The boy had her eyes.
Chief Maple had had a slow day. He had driven around for a few hours scoping out back roads. He would catch the occasional high school duo parked out during a free period with a joint. It was always fun to give them a scare. No such luck this day. Then he responded to a house call for a man who was complaining about his neighbor’s encroaching shrubs. The plants had crossed an inch across the property line into his territory. The man was retired and kept falling back on the line, “You gotta draw a line somewhere, right?” The neighbor agreed to do some trimming. “Plants must have gotten away from me,” he bemusedly mumbled.
Now Maple was sitting in his office half-heartedly putting together a report for the incident. It didn’t require much, just one form, but he was taking his time with it. The task had grown to feel gargantuan.
“Chief Maple, call for you on line one!” Bess chirped from the other room. “Where the hell does she get all of the energy?” he thought as he picked up the phone and summoned his professional voice. “Chief Maple speaking,” he said into the receiver.
“Chief Maple, this is Carmine Dunlop…I’d like to report a missing person,” a concerned voice hurriedly said. Maple knew Miss Dunlop a bit from town gatherings. She would show up at town gatherings, volunteering to sell hot dogs for a few hours for the Lion’s Club at the summer fair or collecting admission at the winter carnival. She was hard to miss with her streaky blond highlights and fake bright pink nails.
“And who is missing Miss Dunlop?”
“I don’t really know. A boy…I’m not sure his name. I think he was living with me, but I’ve forgotten. I’ve forgotten something important. His room is here, there are toys all strewn around the floor like he was just playing with them this morning. I must be losing my mind.”
“Carmine, you live alone,” he said with some concern.
“I’m telling you, there ares pictures. Something is harpening, I nerd some…” Carmine trailed off. Maple heard a faint pop and then he heard the phone hit the ground.
Maple knew exactly where Carmine lived, just a three minute drive down main street. He grabbed his hat from his desk and hurried out the door.
“Bess, give a call on the radio if you need anything, something urgent came up,” he declared as he brushed past her desk.
“You betcha!” Bess chirped, not even asking where he was heading.
As Chief Maple got into his car to drive down main street, the sun was setting. The golden hour felt like a giant hand massaging his head and back. He relaxed a bit. Maple didn’t bother to put on his siren and just meandered with the flow of traffic. The sun splintered on the tree line and threw cascades of gold upon the main street facades. His memory melted in the golden hour as he braked for a parallel parker.
To his right was a gap tooth between a coffee shop and an antiques store. The building had been leveled a few weeks ago and was now an exposed pit that was waiting for the construction crew to come and build its replacement. In the pit a few opportunistic shrubs had started to grow already. One of them seemed to shake a bit in the still evening. Maple looked closely, but didn’t see anything else.
He thought about the old convenience store that had been there for decades. How he had used to buy penny candy as a kid. How he had used to hang out in the booths with friends snacking or taking turns on the old Pac Man machine. That’s where he had met…
Traffic began moving again and he snapped out of it. He drove with a little more purpose to Carmine’s house, remembering his mission. As he pulled up on the curb he noticed some deterioration in the yellow paint. “Should really get that fixed before it gets worse,” he thought to himself before realizing that Carmine might have bigger issues to worry about.
The front door was unlocked and Maple entered with heavy footsteps. He quickly found the kitchen where a phone was hanging off the wall. It was only then that he stopped and was silent for a few moments, realizing that there might be an intruder ready to leap out and strike. But the house was hermetically silent. There was no breeze, and no sound aside from the faint clicking of some electronics. Maple looked down to his feet and was surprised to see a little potted plant with a collection of streaked leaves that reminded him of highlights in badly styled hair.
When he looked back up the house was dark. The sun had set and the interior had melted into shadows. But whose house was this? Where was he? A little spooked, Chief Maple turned on his flashlight and pointed it at the refrigerator. It revealed a blond woman and her son in a red windbreaker. Both contentedly looked at the photographer.
Maple hurried to his cruiser. He looked at his dashboard clock. “10PM? What the hell? Maybe it’s time to lay off the xanax,” he thought to himself. This was the first time he had ever experienced memory loss of this magnitude. He had been slipping a bit recently, forgetting dates or names but nothing like this. He decided to take the long way back to the station, looping to the outskirts of downtown. This would give him time to compose an excuse for Bess if she was even still there. Her shift ended at 9:30.
As Maple cruised past the dark storefronts he thought about the town’s changes over his lifetime spent here. The buildings that had traded businesses like kids with playing cards. The slow onset of urbanization. There were rumors that a boutique hotel was moving in soon to the old mill. He had a sense of familiarity with main street, but couldn’t conjure any specific memories. The town felt familiar but anticipatory in the still evening.
Chief Maple came up on the massive chain pharmacy that had moved in a few years back. He had been sad to see another local business make way for the tycoons of industry, but the pharmacy did have some great deals. It was the cheapest place in town to get an 18 pack. He noticed some vines that had begun creeping up the building’s brick carapice.
Out of the depth of the building’s slumbering facade something sparked like muted lightning. Maple slowed his cruiser and looked closely. Another spark, and then another. One ocean blue, one emerald green. He pulled into the parking lot, glancing up at the pharmacy’s sign, “Feeling the heat? Our deals will cool you down!”
Maple walked up to the store’s entrance and gave a steadfast gaze into the window. More sparks, as if someone were intermittently welding. He rarely encountered the unexpected and felt his stomach give a turn of acidic indigestion. And then the automatic door sprang open.
Maple jumped a bit, biting back the obscenity that wanted to spring from his mouth. He listened to the crack of the sparks. It wasn’t coming from the pharmacy, it was coming from the arcade. His feet led him inside, turning him left so that he faced the arcade down the small hallway. Was that a voice that he heard? A kid’s voice?
His stomach lurched again, as he took a step and then another. The arcade’s entrance grew closer and closer. From the entranceway he saw a lone machine that was lit. It shot formless light from its monitor, flashing color. And there was still that voice, almost a low humming, on the verge of words. Maple’s eyes looked deep into the monitor, trying to detect any sort of discernible form. A violet flash and then a green wavelength and then. Was that a face? The lips were mouthing something just out of his grasp. Maple took a step forward and gave his gaze to the machine’s depths.
Maple felt a kick in the stomach and groaned. The last noise that the arcade heard that night was a muted pop.
The morning shift clerk was flummoxed to find a small spider plant laying in the center of the arcade. He carefully picked it up, brought it into the hallway and put it on the shelf with the others. Now what had he come out here for in the first place? He shook it off, and popped an antacid from his pocket. His heartburn was getting worse lately. The clerk gave a quick glance into the musty arcade and then walked back into the pharmacy to restock the shelves with the town’s summer needs.
© 2021 Timothy Cushing