The drumming cadence of Charlie’s Big Wheel resonated off rough concrete as he pedaled down the sidewalk towards Big City Arcade. Small clouds of dirt and dust blossomed behind the plastic tires. Quarters in a crumpled sack clinked together in a milk crate, which was secured with bungee cords, behind him. Gray streamers flailed about the handle bars as Charlie waved to the crossing guard on Century Drive. The crossing guard perked up and saluted the Knight Rider themed tricycle.
He sped through a crowd of early morning spenders holding large shopping bags from JC Penny and Lazarus. A few of the shoppers grabbed their ankles from the tiny gravel that spit out from underneath the Kit replica, causing tiny welts on their skin.
Normally, Charlie wouldn’t be riding along the sidewalk like a maniac, but today was an exception. Today was the release of a brand new arcade game called The Grave Digger and he was determined to beat it. Never had he been more excited to play a video game. The Grave Digger had a five star rating in Gamer’s Monthly. The only other game to ever have a five star rating was Super Mario Bros. Charlie conquered King Koopa the first week that game came out with only ten dollars’ worth of coin. Just beating a game wasn’t good enough to Charlie. The real score keeper was the almighty quarter; the less spent, the better the player.
Normally, Big City opened at eleven, but since Charlie was his best customer, Mr. Benson, the owner, decided to let him in a few hours early to avoid waiting in line.
Charlie reversed the pedals on his Big Wheel, causing the right rear tire to skid into a metal bike rack. He wrapped a chain around the neck of the bike, through the rungs of the rack, and secured it tight with a combination lock. After removing the crate, Charlie placed the bungee cords inside of it and carried the crate to the front door. As promised, Mr. Benson was waiting for him.
“Good morning Charlie!” Mr. Benson said. The sun reflected off his bushy white hair and mustache, making him look like Moses as Charlie stared up into his big, hairy nostrils.
“Hiya Mr. Benson.”
Mr. Benson removed a jumbo threaded key ring from his belt loop, searched for the key with the green bow, and unlocked the double glass doors.
Charlie put his right thumb in the air to show he was ready.
When they walked into the arcade, Charlie noticed the game right away. It stood in the middle on its own platform, away from the toy claw machines, whac-a-moles, and other kiddie games. This is where the pros played. This was the big leagues and Charlie was the prodigy, the kid who skipped college and went right into the majors.
“Go ahead and plug it in, I’ll be in the back working on the Skee-Ball machines. Somebody thought it would be cute to bring in tennis balls last night to cheat at winning tickets and jammed the darn things up!”
Charlie placed the milk crate upside down. It provided the boost he needed to reach the joystick. He caught his reflection in the monitor and fixed his bangs out of his eyes. Carefully, he rubbed the control panel and cabinet with his hands, admiring the quaint smell of fresh electronics.
He stepped back down and plugged the machine in. The marquee lit up, showing a wretched skeleton with a dirt shovel over its shoulder standing next to a tombstone. Engraved on the tombstone were the words:
THE GRAVE DIGGER
GATEKEEPER OF SOULS
Haunted laughter bellowed through the dark arcade as a prompt to “enter two quarters” flashed across the screen in front of a graveyard. Charlie blew on his sweaty palms and did as instructed. The premise was basic: the joystick controlled the grave digger whose mission was to resurrect as many souls as possible. The gray buttons next to the joystick controlled the grave digger’s actions: left button dug graves and fought off priests with pesky crosses and blessed holy water; right button made the grave digger jump over pitfalls and iron bar fences.
Charlie revived his way through ten levels of graveyard and cemetery, raising hell and releasing demons along the way, before he reached the final boss: a televangelist named Sal Simon. Sal was no push over, but Charlie still managed to splatter Sal’s brains all over his beautiful altar with the grave digger’s shovel.
Is this it? Charlie thought. I still have ten quarters left!
The marquee flickered several times before the monitor responded to Charlie’s victorious performance: STAY TUNED FOR AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE!
An important message? Oh man, I bet they’re going to give me a prize for being the first person to beat The Grave Digger! Charlie thought. A Power Wheel? Nintendo games for life? Ninja Turtle tapes?
The seal from the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations appeared on the screen. Fade in the all-important message: Winners Don’t Use Drugs.
Charlie hopped from the milk crate to the hard carpeted floor of the arcade and ran his hands through his hair.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me man! That’s it?”
The cabinet faded to black, marquee and all, like it had never been played. Charlie tried to beat a proper ending out of the machine with his fist. He pounded on the cabinet with frustration until his hand turned red. Careful, Charlie, you need that hand to play! He kicked the quarter slots with his L.A. Gear’s, sending a rattle loud enough to grab Mr. Benson’s attention.
Mr. Benson climbed out from behind a Skee-Ball machine, dropped a socket wrench into a toolbox, and followed the noise. Charlie got back up on his milk crate and started pounding on the console.
Just as Mr. Benson approached Charlie’s tantrum, The Grave Digger roared back to life. The flicker that the marquee once displayed was now pulsing flashes of red light. Charlie snorted and spat a loogie on the screen. The guck slid like a limp slug, leaving a trail of yellow slime on the monitor.
“Charlie, what’s wrong…”
Charlie grabbed the joystick and started jamming it around in a clock-wise, then counter clock-wise motion. He smacked the buttons down with an open hand, over and over.
“The game cheated me Mr. Benson, it cheated me!”
The monitor flickered. A blurry graveyard came into focus, but there was only one thing that stood out to Charlie — it was the tombstone with his name above the date 1980-????. Charlie’s knees gave out from under him. Mr. Benson grabbed the young boy around his slim waist. Charlie’s eyes blinked with rapid ferocity while his body began to convulse.
“Charlie, Charlie, snap out of it, son!”
Mr. Benson held Charlie’s head, combed his hair back with a large, wrinkled hand and set him down. Charlie curled up into a ball and came to a moment later, as if just from a nap. He looked around and saw the crowd of people outside of the arcade.
“Yeah, yeah. Can I have a drink?”
Charlie kicked his milk crate away from the arcade game and carefully crawled to it, keeping his eyes on the machine. Mr. Benson returned with an orange soda. He popped the top. Charlie stood up and brushed himself off. He drank the soda in two large gulps and let out a huge belch, making Mr. Benson smile.
“Thatta boy! All better?”
Charlie hung his head. “I’m sorry I got so mad and broke the game.”
“It was probably a short in the circuits. I’m going to call the manufacturer and return it. As far as your words, well, we’ll just keep that between us.”
Mr. Benson put a comforting hand on Charlie’s shoulder.
“You should never let a game get the best of you, Charlie. After all, it’s just a game.”
Charlie was back on the busy sidewalk, this time weaving through businessmen and women hustling to get back to the office from their lunch hour. He waved at the crossing guard, but this time, he didn’t salute or wave back. The guard scrunched his eyebrows at the boy like he didn’t recognize him. Charlie shrugged his shoulders and kept pedaling.
He turned on to Century Drive, feeling shameful about the way he conducted himself in the arcade in front of Mr. Benson. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever let Charlie come in early again. Charlie didn’t care though. He’d rather wait in line than relive that moment. I mean, who passes out from video games anyway?
Charlie’s knees continued pumping up and down, front to back, down the sidewalk. He was making great time and thought about hot dogs and macaroni and cheese when Black Death, at least that’s what Charlie called the beast that The Lander’s called a dog, slammed his fierce jaws through the chain link fence that kept him prisoner. He leapt on his hind legs, exposing a large ‘package’, and snarled and slobbered and barked at Charlie. Black Death looked hungry, hungry for children. Normally, Charlie would’ve rode on the other side of the street but he was too distracted by what happened at the arcade to realize he was this close to The Lander’s residence.
The Big Wheel skidded on a patch of dirt, sending Charlie into the fence that separated him from Black Death. Slobber from the animals mouth dripped on Charlie’s head. He kicked his legs up and down, trying to get the stuck pedals back into motion. Black Death jammed his head under the chain that kept the gate secure and snapped his jaws. Charlie could feel a dampness on his arm. The dog was really close now.
Charlie continued forcing his feet down on the pedals, pushing until his thighs cramped.
“Cocoa! Dry it up! Get back here!”
Cocoa’s owner, a scroungy man, rang a bell and the beast ran to the porch and jumped in his owner’s arms. Charlie smiled. Cocoa, you’ll always be Black Death to me.
Charlie tried the pedals once more and they cycled over like new. He shook the puzzled look off of his face and kept riding towards his house. The handlebars became warm on the Big Wheel as it accelerated toward the street. Charlie managed to remove his feet from the pedals, but they were still moving, around and around. That cold panic sweat returned to his hands. This time, it wasn’t out of excitement, it was out of an unexplained fear that gripped his throat and stomach.
The familiar tune of the town’s ice cream truck jingled in the distance and grew louder as the Big Wheel drove itself towards it. Charlie looked around. Recalling an episode of MacGyver, where he leaps out of a moving car, Charlie rolled himself off the seat of his Big Wheel and onto the cracked pavement of the street. He rolled until he felt his shoulder hit the curb.
A blare from a horn was followed by a hallow pop as the ice cream trunk ran over Charlie’s Big Wheel. A chubby man stopped the truck and asked Charlie if he was okay and if he wanted to call the police. Charlie replied ‘no’, it wasn’t like anyone would believe him anyway, and asked the ice cream guy if he would throw away what was left of his version of Christine (Charlie saw the movie on VHS when his brother visited on college break). Seeming to be hiding something himself, the ice cream guy obliged and the two went their separate ways.
“Your Big Wheel was what?” asked Charlie’s mom.
“Stolen. The chain was snapped in half when I left the arcade.”
“Well, that’ll be the last time you ever go anywhere by yourself. I bought you that lock and everything and you couldn’t even keep it safe. Do you know how hard I have to work to buy you nice things…all the things you WANT?”
“But Mom, it’s not my fault.”
“Go to your room. Just go.”
Charlie threw his arms in the air and sulked his way into his bedroom. He jumped onto his bed and landed a belly flop on top of Han Solo holding a lightsaber. Squeezing his pillow, Charlie uttered “son of a bitch” while he chewed on his comforter. Salty tears from anger, frustration, and disappointment dampened his face as he drifted to sleep.
Dinner time came and Charlie couldn’t eat. He was still pissed about the rip-off, the tantrum, the ‘spell’, and the Big Wheel. He was also scared because he knew that Big Wheels didn’t ride by themselves. Power Wheels? Maybe. But not a bike that required pedaling. And the tombstone, how did the game know Charlie’s name and birthdate?
After an hour of doodling in his coloring book, Charlie’s mother drew him a bath with bubbles. It was the perfect temperature, not too hot, not too cold, but just right, like the Baby Bear’s mattress in the story about Goldilocks. He sunk in low, underneath the bubbles and relaxed, trying to put the day’s events behind him when he heard a squishing noise coming from the medicine cabinet. It’s just your imagination Charlie, scrub up and go to bed, tomorrow’s a new day. He tried to listen to his conscious but the curiosity of a nine year olds mind is hard to ignore.
Charlie slowly raised his head from beneath the bubbles that floated atop the bathwater. He wiped his eyes clean and looked over at the sink. Nothing. Then, plop, plop, plop. Something suctioned to his leg, his stomach, and his armpit. Charlie stood up in a frantic hurry and removed what had been sticking to his armpit, a neon green wacky wall walker.
Its tentacles slithered over one another. He squeezed the head, expecting it to pop, but it just jelled back to its original round shape. The walker on his stomach had crawled up to his chest, he slapped it down onto the tile floor. It scurried across the bath mat and left a purple encompassed wound above his belly button. The last of the walkers, a lively fluorescent pink, was making its way up his thigh. Charlie had to twist that one until it gave, drawing blood in the process.
“Son of a…”
Charlie’s mother opened the bathroom door. It was a good thing the bubbles covered his private parts since he was standing up stark naked. Oh God, the potential embarrassment!
“What’s all the racket?”
She scanned the bathroom, noticing the pools of water and wall walkers that bedraggled her precious floor. Charlie pleaded insanity, but she didn’t buy it. From now on, he thought, I’ll plead the fifth.
The emotional fatigue Charlie felt didn’t compare to the absolute fright that was in store for him when he went to bed. Charlie put on his favorite footie pajamas, the red ones with E.T. over the chest, and hopped under the covers. He pulled them taunt over his shoulders, to keep any other monsters away that might be hiding in his closet or under his bed. That’s where they usually hid, wasn’t it?
Falling asleep was tougher than Charlie thought it would be. He kept concentrating on the conversation his mother was having with his father over the phone:
Blah, blah, blah. She wanted him out and back on his father’s farm where she wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. That was fine by Charlie. Get me as far away from this place as possible!
Charlie snuggled up to his Popple. It was still in a ball from earlier that morning. He popped its fuzzy head out and noticed something peculiar about its face. The eyes had turned black and the smile it once had was a frown shape. He studied the look for quite some time and heard a rumble from his closet. Charlie sat up in time to witness a blue mass of fur crawling on the ground towards his bed. His comforter jerked down, stopped, and then jerked down again. He watched as the Han Solo graphic on his comforter sank further below his view.
Four gray fingers with turquoise nails reached over the top of Charlie’s comforter, followed by another. Orange handcuffs dangled from the wrists of his My Pet Monster as it stood at the foot of Charlie’s bed, exposing six yellowed tusks.
Charlie grabbed his Popple by the head to tuck it back into a ball. It opened its mouth, revealing tiny sharp teeth. Charlie threw the deranged stuffed novelty at the monster, ball form or not, and missed, so he slid down his bed, kicking the blue critter onto the floor.
“Charles David Woodard!” his mother said, whipping his bedroom door open. “What has gotten into you?”
Charlie cried. He didn’t know what else to do. He was scared and it wasn’t like his mother was going to believe him anyway. Yeah mom, you see, my toys are coming to life ever since I beat this new game at the arcade and they’re trying to get me! Sure, she’d believe that. Then instead of going to spend the rest of the summer with his dad, he’d be in a nut house with all the other crazies of the world. No thanks.
“You’re going to your dad’s tomorrow. I’m driving you there after breakfast. You can pack in the morning. Now go to bed.”
The stern tone in his mother’s voice made Charlie resent her even more. It was going to be a long night for Charlie, he would have to sleep with one eye open and hope that he could make it to morning.
Charlie was able to ward off bad dreams that night. He woke up the next morning thinking it all was just one big nightmare. He placed himself on a little wooden stool and brushed his teeth, covering all surfaces, even his tongue. He placed his head under the faucet and rinsed the bubblegum toothpaste out of his mouth. A wacky wall climber dangled next to a bar of soap in the shower, the stupid fluorescent pink one that drew blood on his leg. Charlie unzipped his pajamas and checked his body for the wounds. He didn’t find any.
With his bags packed and toys locked securely in his closet, Charlie hopped onto a chair at the kitchen table. His mother was making coffee and watching a woman in red framed glasses on a small television that sat next to the toaster. She was talking to a panel of doctors about the risks secondhand smoke had on children.
Charlie’s mother looked over her shoulder at him and put her cigarette out.
“I’m sorry I was so upset with you last night. It’s just my new job, and getting used to your father not being around…Look, this change will be good for everybody, you’ll see.”
She kissed Charlie on the head and opened the cupboard.
“Want some cereal?”
The show broke to commercial. A digital head wearing yellow glasses, which matched his slicked-back yellow hair, appeared on the TV screen. He was stuttering about a taste test between two brands of cola while Charlie read Calvin and Hobbes from the funny pages.
“Tell, tell, tell me Charlie. Did you have fun, fun, fun, yesterday?”
Charlie drew his attention towards the TV. The panel of doctors were back on.
“Hey, mom, did you…hear that?”
“What? That cigarette smoking is bad for you AND your children? Yes I did sweetie and I will never smoke in front of you again.” She placed her hand over her chest. “Promise.”
“Um, yeah, that. Thanks.”
“I was at the store and thought you might like this.”
She placed a box of ‘Grave Digger Cereal’ in front of Charlie. His mouth dropped.
Charlie slowly opened the box and peeked inside with one eye closed. Well, it appeared to be cereal and it did smell like cereal…
“I admit, it’s a little too scary for my taste but it’s not like it’s gonna come to life or anything! Pour yourself a bowl.”
Charlie poured the crunchy corn cereal into his bowl and splashed some milk over it. He stared at it for a second, waiting to see what it would do.
“Did you get the prize? There’s a decoder ring with a special prize in select boxes!”
Charlie dug his hand into the box and removed a plastic baggie. Inside was a certificate.
“Well, open it up, what does it say?”
Charlie opened it. He read it.
“I wasn’t the winner this time mom.”
“Well, maybe next time buddy. Hurry up and eat your cereal before it gets soggy.”
Charlie scooped the cereal into his mouth. It wasn’t half bad really. He chomped away at the first bowl and, not realizing how hungry he actually was, poured himself another. His mother put the dishes in the sink, grabbed her purse, and told Charlie she’d be waiting for him in the car. Before Charlie left, he read the cereal prize one last time before ripping it in half and tossing it in the garbage can:
PLEASE PRESENT THIS VOUCHER AT YOUR LOCAL ARCADE FOR ONE FREE PLAY OF THE GRAVE DIGGER