“What you interested in?” the elderly owner of Lucky Lanes Bowling asked. “Mister…”
“Giddens. Call me Jeff.”
“Well, Jeff, I got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Donkey Kong Junior. Think I even got Defender back here. They just need a few repairs.”
He unlocked the door to a musty room crammed with broken bowling pins, chipped balls, and piles of tattered tacky shoes along with several dead arcade cabinets, pinball machines, and claw cranes draped in thick opaque plastic.
“I got all those too,” said Jeff. “Mind if I look around?”
“Knock yourself out. I’ll be right out there if you wanna make an offer. Not like you can stick one down your pants and take off, right?”
The old man left. Jeff peeked under the plastic at cabinets he already had back home: the aforementioned Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Donkey Kong Junior, and Defender as well as Galaga, Popeye, Galaxian, and Rampage.
Then he laid eyes on an all-black cabinet with no artwork whatsoever except for the name in gold on the front in an ancient Latin font: LVCRVM. He’d never heard of it, and Jeff knew of practically every game, arcade or otherwise, in existence. He hunted for a manufacturer name, Atari or Namco or Konami, but couldn’t locate one.
On his phone he Googled “LVCRVM arcade” and “LVCRVM video game.” No results. Well, Google always spat back search results, though none of value in this case. He remembered learning at some point that Romans used the letter V instead of U, so he tried “Lucrum arcade” and “Lucrum video game.” Zilch.
Out front at a cubby shelf of bowling shoes, the owner was spraying disinfectant into a pair when Jeff cleared his throat.
“Any luck?” the man asked.
“Yeah. The one called… I think it’s pronounced ‘Lucrum.’”
“Lucrum?” The man set down the spray can and scratched his gray-stubbled chin.
Jeff had to be careful. If this guy figured out he had a machine even the internet didn’t know about, something potentially worth thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, Jeff would walk away emptyhanded.
“Yep,” said Jeff. “I’ve seen tons of them all over eBay, but I can never seem to snag one. I’ll be glad to take it off your hands for… $700. My pickup’s right outside. I’ve got hand trucks and everything.”
Jeff waited for him to whip out a phone or laptop and check online for the going price of a nonworking Lucrum cabinet, only to discover what a rare find he had.
Instead, the man nodded. “Make it $900, and I’ll help you load it myself.”
Jeff didn’t think the bowling alley owner could offer $200 worth of help loading anything into a truck, yet he didn’t want to risk the offer.
“Deal,” Jeff said, and the two shook hands.
* * *
That evening after putting in a new power supply, replacing a couple fuses, repairing a few frayed wires, and giving the whole cabinet a good cleaning, Jeff plugged it in, and Lucrum hummed to life. He stood back as the monitor blinked on, displaying “LVCRVM” in all capital block letters that resembled stony pillars. Below the title, “Insert Coin” appeared.
Jeff pushed the machine against the wall beside Galaga in the extra bedroom he’d designated as his arcade room. He fished a quarter from one of the coin cups he kept around and slipped it into the slot, and the game prompted him to enter his initials. Usually, a game asked you to do this only after you lost all your lives, not at the beginning. He almost entered the three letters he always had as a kid, ASS, but instead put in JMG.
His initials were replaced by “Level 1… Ready?” Without Jeff hitting any buttons, the text disappeared and a small pixelated character with a faceless white head, red shirt, blue pants, and red shoes walked into view in the lower left corner surrounded by blackness. Soon the setting began to form around him. Jeff expected something like ancient Rome, that he’d have to battle through mythological creatures like minotaurs and harpies and centaurs or perhaps face off against gladiators in a coliseum. Instead, the character stood in a modern nighttime cityscape: a starry sky and full moon, skyscrapers with lit windows, storefronts with neon signs, parked cars, sewer grates. Jeff was mesmerized, not because the 80’s graphics were so astounding but because this was a game he’d never seen—had never known existed.
He snapped from his hypnosis when a gigantic green “GO!” flashed briefly on screen and sinister staccato synthesizer music began. Jeff grabbed the joystick and made the character run. Two round red buttons to the right of the joystick had nothing written above them to let the player know what they did. Having played video games for more than two decades, Jeff was certain that one button would make the character jump. He tapped the left button, and the character leapt over an open manhole.
He dashed forward and hurdled deadly obstacles, from more manholes to speeding cars, rabid dogs, and mutant rats. As the ominous 8-bit music’s tempo increased, a pixelated man with a gun popped out from a skyscraper window and fired an oversized round bullet. Jeff tried the other button, and his character ducked safely under the projectile. So, one button was jump, the other duck.
With years of honed gaming reflexes, Jeff zipped through the rest of the level. Two minutes later, his character approached a large bag with a dollar sign. The character held it overhead, like Link acquiring the Master Sword in The Legend of Zelda, and “$100,000!!!” flickered in bright green above him. A victorious synth fanfare replaced the menacing music.
Then everything cut to black, and “Play Level 2 Tomorrow…” appeared.
“Tomorrow?” Jeff scoffed. He’d never seen a game that didn’t immediately start the next level. The point of arcade cabinets was to pilfer quarters from teenagers’ pockets. He inserted another quarter and hit both buttons. Nothing. He plunked in five more quarters. Still nothing. Jeff pulled the machine’s cord from the wall, waited thirty seconds, and then plugged it back in.
Instead of the game restarting, the display still read “Play Level 2 Tomorrow…”
“Okay, Lucrum,” Jeff said. “Tomorrow.”
* * *
The next morning as Jeff left for work, he tripped on something outside his front door. On his welcome mat sat a large canvas bag tied with black string. Printed on it was a dollar sign, like something from a cartoon—or a video game. He reached down apprehensively as though it might contain a rattlesnake, picked it up, and squeezed it. Whatever was inside felt like paper. Thick paper.
Jeff didn’t open the bag outside. He went in, locked his front door, untied the string, and dumped the sack’s contents onto his den floor. Ten stacks of crisp $100 bills tumbled out, each wrapped in a yellow and white paper band with “$10,000” printed on it. There at his feet was $100,000.
It had to be counterfeit. He flicked through the bills of one bundle with his thumb. They seemed real enough, but what did he know? He’d never seen counterfeit money. It was supposed to look real. That was the whole point. He’d seen enough movies and TV shows where conmen would hand over a briefcase full of cash, and in it was a bunch of fake bills or even blank paper with a few real bills on top, so he flipped through each bundle. No blanks. All real-looking.
Jeff thought of the Quick Stop, the convenience store on the way to work. He stopped there sometimes for coffee and a donut, and he’d occasionally seen the cashier swipe a marker—one of those counterfeit detector pens—on customers’ money. He tugged a random bill from the middle of one stack to test.
* * *
As Jeff pulled up to the Quick Stop, he crumpled the bill a little before leaving his truck. He went in and lurked the aisles until the two customers paid and left before approaching the counter and producing the wrinkled bill.
“I found this on the street outside my house,” he said. “If you’ve got a counterfeit pen thing, would you mind checking it for me before I try spending it?”
The cashier, a short woman with curly salt-and-pepper hair, narrowed her eyes. “Take it to a bank, mister.”
“Ma’am, if it’s real, I’ll buy something and you keep fifty. If it’s fake, I’ll give you twenty for your trouble. Please.” Jeff showed the cashier the corner of a $20 bill in his wallet. “I know this one’s real.”
She continued to eye him suspiciously as she poked a button on her register and took out the pen. She swiped the $100 bill, then held the bill up to the light.
“Your lucky day, honey,” she said. “It’s real.”
“I been working here ten years. I’ve seen fake money. This ain’t. Now what you gonna buy?”
“American Spirits,” Jeff said. “The bright green pack.”
The cashier stuck the hundred in the register and slid the cigarettes across the counter along with Jeff’s change, minus the $50 he promised her.
Jeff took the cigarettes, leaving the money. “It’s your lucky day. Keep all the change. I feel like my day’s gonna get even luckier.”
“Well, bless you,” said the cashier, scooping the change off the counter before this weirdo decided he wanted it back.
Jeff left the store in a daze and sat in his truck staring through the windshield. Five minutes later, he cranked the engine and exited the parking lot in the direction of his house.
At home, he called his supervisor in the IT department of DeKalb County Technical College and said he was too sick to come in. Jeff hung up before his supervisor could protest. He’d made $100,000 overnight. Well, $99,900 now. Almost twice his yearly salary. And he planned to make even more.
He put on jeans and a T-shirt, then went to Lucrum. Its display had changed: “Play Level 2 Today… Insert Coin.” Jeff inserted a quarter. After “Level 2… Ready?” left the monitor, the character strolled into view. A storm now ravaged the city. Rain pelted the street, lightning cracked and temporarily turned everything white, and synthetic thunder rumbled from the speakers.
“GO!” flashed, and the ominous music began.
Jeff guided his character from left to right, hopping over potholes and cars and rabid dogs and giant rats. Level 2 had more of everything, all moving faster, yet Jeff’s reflexes kept him alive despite the frequent blinding lightning strikes. More gunmen shot from windows, two quick bullets in succession now instead of one. Still, Jeff ducked, jumped, and dodged his way down the tempestuous street without dying.
Then came a manhole larger than the others, and as Jeff attempted to clear it, a purple alligator head sprang up and gobbled his character in one chomp.
“Dammit!” Jeff said.
In the monitor’s top right corner, “LIFE 3” became “LIFE 2.”
The game restarted him at a point a few seconds earlier. When his character neared the large manhole, Jeff was ready. With the joystick held to the right, he tapped the jump button, and as the character began to leap, Jeff flicked the joystick left. He switched directions midair and landed to the left of the manhole as the purple gator snapped its jaws on empty air. The alligator slowly lowered its head, and Jeff seized the opportunity to lunge across.
Just beyond this were two money bags. The character lifted them both, one in each hand, as the victorious music erupted and “$200,000!!!” sparkled on screen. Jeff pumped his fist in the air.
The victory song finished, and “Play Level 3 Tomorrow…” appeared. Jeff stepped back, his normally steady hands quivering like his aunt’s Chihuahuas. In four minutes, he’d made the equivalent of four years’ salary. At least, he hoped so. What if the whole ordeal had been a huge coincidence? Someone, maybe accidentally by a drug cartel or intentionally by an eccentric generous millionaire, had randomly dropped that money on his doorstep. Lucrum was just another ordinary arcade cabinet, albeit a rare one. He wouldn’t know for sure until the morning.
In his bedroom, Jeff took several bills from one of the $10,000 bundles and returned the rest to the bag, which he stored under his mattress. At some point, he’d have to figure out what to do with this money as well as the cash he should receive in the morning. He didn’t want IRS agents to come knocking. For now, though, he was going to celebrate.
He donned a coat and tie and drove to Bushnell’s, the most upscale steakhouse in town, and ordered a glass of their priciest bourbon and their largest T-bone plus a lobster tail. After dessert and a second bourbon, Jeff paid his bill and left the server a 300% tip. On the drive home, he smoked an American Spirit and blared Rush’s “The Big Money” while singing along at the top of his lungs.
At home, Jeff had another smoke outside. He couldn’t stop staring at his welcome mat. How had the money gotten there, and how was more, hopefully, going to arrive in the morning? Would it materialize from thin air? Was a black sedan going to swerve into his driveway, lower a tinted window, and its driver fling another bag at his door?
As Jeff considered sitting by the front window all night, he recalled what his mom once told him when he still believed in Santa Claus and wanted to wait up on Christmas Eve by the fireplace so he could see jolly old Saint Nicholas with his own eyes. She’d said, “Santa skips the houses of kids who try to stay up to catch him coming down the chimney. You don’t want that, do you?” Jeff had vigorously shaken his head and retreated to his bedroom, wondering if his mom was telling the truth and if he should sneak into the dark den to catch a glimpse of Santa anyway. He couldn’t muster the courage. He didn’t dare risk Santa skipping his house.
What if staying up all night to sneak a peek of Lucrum Claus, or whoever it was, would make him or her or it skip his house?
Jeff tossed the cigarette butt into the yard and went to bed.
* * *
Eight a.m. That was the time Jeff had decided on. He woke throughout the night, yet each time he somehow managed to go back to sleep. Around six, though, he lay awake watching the light through the slats in the blinds brighten from dark purple to pale blue to radiant yellow. Eyeing the digital clock on his nightstand, he gripped his sheets so he wouldn’t get up until the numbers read 8:00. The moment they did, Jeff skittered out of bed.
At his door, he froze. When he opened it, there wouldn’t be anything except his welcome mat. He knew this with a sinking certainty in his gut. Jeff almost went back to bed, but he had to look. So, he opened his door.
There sat two canvas bags with dollar signs.
Jeff poked them with his foot. They were real. He grabbed the sides of his head and bit his lower lip to keep from cackling like a madman. He had over a quarter of a million dollars. Inside the house, he glanced in them to be sure each bag held $100,000 and hid them under his mattress with the other. Then he called his supervisor and quit.
That day, he breezed through Level 3 without losing a single life. The street was swiss-cheesed with manholes and bombarded by a frenzy of cars, dogs, and rats. Gunmen, firing barrages of bullets, filled the building windows. Every ten seconds, lightning whited out the screen. Jeff utilized his jump-back strategy from the day before at the level’s end where there were not one, not two, but three huge manholes back-to-back-to-back hiding ravenous purple alligators.
The next morning, Jeff gathered the three canvas bags from his doorstep. He didn’t even open them. He added them to the collection, now totaling over half a million dollars.
Time for Level 4. Jeff dropped in a quarter, cracked his knuckles, and waited for Lucrum to give him the “GO!” command. The ensuing onslaught was nearly seizure-inducing. Lightning, dogs, thunder, bullets, rats, gunmen in the skyscrapers, gunmen in the cars, manholes aplenty with purple gators in all of them. Only a minute in and Jeff’s heart was pounding as furiously as the music’s frantic beats.
The moment after he vaulted over a careening car while simultaneously ducking in the air to avoid bullets fired by a man in the back seat, a lightning bolt struck him. His character collapsed on the street with pixelated smoke rising from his charred remains.
Jeff pounded the cabinet. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
A lifetime of playing arcade games had taught him they all eventually became unfair, some unbeatable, at a certain point. The aim, of course, was to keep you pumping in quarters. Why would Lucrum be any different?
The number next to “LIFE” changed to 1. The game restarted. Jeff grasped the joystick and poised his right forefinger and middle finger over the two buttons.
It was real. He’d gotten real money for each level. Now he was down to one life. What would happen if he died again?
Jeff yanked the cabinet’s plug from the wall. He had plenty of money to last him the next several years. Why test his luck? He should quit while he was ahead, right?
He ventured back to Bushnell’s where his server from before, eyes lighting up, shoved the hostess aside and dragged Jeff by the hand to a table in his section. This time Jeff ordered the filet mignon with a side of three bourbons. He left an even more generous tip and drove home so tipsy he nearly ran over someone in his driveway. Jeff spotted the person at the last second and cursed as he stomped his brakes. His pickup jerked to a stop inches from whoever it was.
With three bourbons in him, Jeff couldn’t seem to focus his eyes on the tall figure in the headlights. Jeff cut the engine and got out. His truck’s automatic lights stayed on.
“Hey, buddy,” he said. “You shouldn’t go standing in people’s driveways at night.”
“JMG?” the silhouette said in a buzzing, monotone voice that didn’t sound quite human.
The closest thing Jeff had ever heard to it was an uncle of his he met only once at a wedding when Jeff was eight. This uncle had lost his larynx to throat cancer and used a device like an electric razor, which he held up to his throat, to speak. When the uncle had tried talking to him, the robotic voice sent Jeff running away crying.
“Arrre yyyou JMG?” the silhouette asked.
“I’m calling the cops, so you better get outta here, all right?”
“Yyyou ssstoppped ppplayyying.”
“Yyyou cannnot ssstop ppplayyying.”
Jeff took out his cell and dropped it. He found it and was about to dial 911, but the man was gone. The vehicle headlights had gone dark, so Jeff shined his phone’s flashlight around the driveway. He circled his pickup as well as the entire yard, even peering behind the bushes.
His front door was unlocked. Jeff couldn’t remember if he’d locked it when he left. He removed the coat and tie he’d put on for the steakhouse and crept from room to room, but the stranger wasn’t hiding anywhere. In the arcade room, Lucrum was plugged in. Not only that, the power cord itself had been replaced. Now, instead of a regular rubber-covered cord, there was a shiny metal one. The new plug had also been soldered to the wall socket. Whoever had done this—the silhouette man, he supposed—wanted to ensure Jeff couldn’t unplug Lucrum again.
He didn’t want to look, yet he knew he had to. On the monitor was “JMG, you CANNOT stop playing until you have 0 lives. Ready to continue?”
“Screw this,” Jeff said.
His toolbox was still nearby from when he’d repaired the cabinet. He grabbed the hammer, dropped to his knees, and started hacking the claw end into the drywall around the socket. He got in five good whacks before a long-fingered hand fell on his shoulder and his entire right arm went limp. The hammer thumped to the floor.
Jeff knew it was the same person from the driveway even before he spoke in that dreadful voice. In the room’s light, Jeff could see him more clearly. At well over seven feet tall, he wore a crimson trench coat that stretched to the floor, and his arms were much longer than a normal person’s, his gloved hands hanging well past where his knees would be. The coat’s collar was flipped up and he wore a wide-brimmed crimson fedora, so most of his face was hidden. What Jeff could see was black and featureless, the face still a silhouette even in the light—like a blank arcade screen.
“Yyyou mmmusttt ppplayyy, JMG,” said Silhouette Man.
“And if I don’t?”
“Thennn yyyou wwwill fffeel painnn withouttt dyinggg. Pppain beyyyond cccomprehensssion.”
Silhouette Man reached out a spindly arm and touched Jeff’s forehead with a seven-inch gloved forefinger. Immediate and immense pain shot through Jeff’s entire body, as though his every muscle, organ, bone, nerve, blood cell, and molecule were doused in kerosene and roasted with a blowtorch. Jeff crumpled into a fetal position.
The anguish was gone as quickly as it had been inflicted on him, yet Jeff lay on the floor for a minute, his eyes clamped shut and his mouth open in a silent scream.
“Nnnow are yyyou rrreadyyy to cccontinnnue, JMG?”
To make sure Silhouette Man didn’t give him another agonizing jolt, he croaked, “Yeah… Okay… I’ll play.” Jeff clung to the cabinet and pulled himself to his feet.
“Rrreadddy?” said Silhouette Man.
“Ready,” Jeff said, inserting a coin. His hand trembled slightly, but between Silhouette Man’s nightmarish voice and presence, not to mention the excruciation he’d just endured, Jeff was sober. He was ready to play his character’s last life, to play for his own life.
The game started his character at the exact spot in the stormy cityscape where Jeff had left him. Instead of Lucrum telling him to go, Silhouette Man said, “Gggo.”
Jeff leapt over the speeding car, dodging the gunman’s bullets and the lightning bolt. Level 4 threw everything at him: cars, bullets, manholes, rats, lightning, alligators. He evaded it all, even as Silhouette Man loomed behind him making a low churring that grew louder, as though he were feeding on Jeff’s adrenaline, until it sounded like a nest of irate hornets.
The last thing he faced was a version of Silhouette Man himself, complete with a black face and crimson fedora and trench coat. The pixelated Silhouette Man swiped at Jeff’s character with long arms that ended in neon green claws. After a few feigned attempts, Jeff pounced past him, where his character hoisted a briefcase with a gold dollar sign on it as the fanfare chimed and “$400,000!!!” shimmered on screen.
Sweating profusely, Jeff steadied himself by clutching the cabinet.
“Vvverrry gooddd,” said Silhouette Man. “I tttrussst I wwwill nnnot havvve to vvvisittt yyyou againnn, JMG. Yyyou mmmust kkkeep ppplayyying.”
“Until I have zero lives,” Jeff said.
Jeff stared at “Play Level 5 Tomorrow…” for a full minute waiting for Silhouette Man to say something else, but the room was silent. Silhouette Man was gone. In his place was a briefcase with a gold dollar sign. In it was $400,000. Jeff had a million dollars now, minus his two trips to the steakhouse. He emptied the briefcase into a duffel bag, then threw in the cash from under his mattress. He didn’t pack clothes. He could buy a new wardrobe wherever he ended up. He was driving straight to Atlanta and taking a redeye flight to… Well, he’d decide where when he got to the airport. The most important thing now was to leave his house.
He shouldered the duffel, grabbed his truck keys, opened the front door, and came face to black, blank face with Silhouette Man. He considered lying—he was simply going for a late-night fast food run or something, but who made a late-night fast food run carrying a fortune in a duffel bag? Plus, even if he wasn’t holding the duffel, he was sure Silhouette Man would know he was lying.
“Yyyou wwwill ppplayyy Levvvelll 5 tommorrowww, JMG. Yyyou wwwill ppplayyy untilll yyyou hhhavvve zerrro livvvesss.”
“How many levels are there?” Jeff asked. “Is there an end, or is it one of those games that’s impossible to beat?”
“Ittt is nnnottt impppossibllle,” said Silhouette Man. “Therrre are fffifty levvvellls.”
“Fifty,” Jeff whimpered. “How far… How far has anyone ever gotten?”
“A mmman onnnce maddde it ttto Levvvelll 13. Tommorrowww yyyou wwwill ppplayyy Levvvelll 5. Gggoodddnighttt, JMG.”
Jeff closed the door and dropped the duffel. So, he would play Level 5 tomorrow. He had no choice. The question was, would he play to win or to lose? If Silhouette Man was telling the truth, Jeff needed to beat forty-six more levels, each exponentially harder than the last, and he had to do it with only one remaining life. Or he could start Level 5 tomorrow and dive into the first alligator’s jaws or in front of the first car or in the path of the first bullet. Get to zero. See the words gamers normally dreaded: Game Over.
Scott Hughes’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, One Sentence Poems, Entropy, Deep Magic, Carbon Culture Review, Redivider, Redheaded Stepchild, PopMatters, Strange Horizons, Chantwood Magazine, Odd Tales of Wonder, The Haunted Traveler, Exquisite Corpse, Pure Slush, Word Riot, and Compaso: Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. His short story collection, The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, is forthcoming from Weasel Press in early 2019. For more information, visit writescott.com.