The footsteps continued behind him, the stomp of boot soles and slap of worn sneakers. Neil knew they'd been following him for the last three blocks. He wondered if they were from his father.
He turned from Pen Avenue to 87th Street, looking back as he turned the corner. Two men, tall and thin, shaggy clothes, and covered faces. Not from his father then, he'd never allow his acolytes to wear such clothes.
He slowed, their footsteps followed around the corner and stumbled as they slowed to maintain their distance with his new pace. Definitely after him then.
He needed to get somewhere. He didn't doubt his abilities to fight off two initiate-gangbanger wannabes but a fight might expose him and his overseeing agent would relocate him if it ended in a murder. With Neil's track record of impulse control, it would end in murder.
He scanned the street desperately, glancing at his watch. Six o'clock. Shit. He had to be at Matt's in two hours for this stupid party.
Tonight was Danielle's 25th birthday and as her boyfriend, Matt couldn't just throw any party. It had to be perfect. He'd planned a pool party and invited only their closest friends. Then the storm rolled in. Neil glanced up, rolling black clouds crept closer. The distant flash of lightning sounded off a staccatto burst of thunder.
Thus, the pool party was cancelled and Matt desperately reached for new ideas.
"A game night," he'd announced to Neil. "Old-fashioned and sophicated but a helluva lot of fun. Especially drunk."
Neil had curled his nose. He could think of nothing worse than sitting surrounded by drunk people playing games he should already know how to play but doesn't. He wouldn't tell his friends that though, if they knew he'd never played Monoply or Life or Candyland they'd get those looks on their faces. Not pity, not exactly. Sadness, regret, anger on his behalf. He hated those looks.
Luckily for him, Matt decided they needed something new. Something fun, something no one had ever played.
Unluckily for him, that meant he was running around a bad part of town trying to locate this game store Matt found online. Neil was nearly certain it had closed down. Every building here was either a discrepit business doing shady work or abandoned.
The footsteps picked up behind him. Neil sighed. He didn't have time to get mugged tonight.
He turned another corner on to Montreal Avenue and saw boarded up door and windows.
He scanned the street again. A graffiti mural stretched across the buildings across the street. Abstract and colorful. Neil had no idea what it was supposed to be but he could admit it was pretty.
He started. A random door handle was painted in realistic shiny copper on the mural. Neil ran closer, his heart pounding.
For just once, Neil thought, let luck be on my side.
He grabbed for the knob. Real.
He didn't think, opening the door and sliding inside. He shut the door behind him, locking it.
He turned around to see where he was, praying to anything who would listen that it wasn't a mafia hideout or bingo hall.
It was dim, the only light coming from a small red lamp on a center table and a high window on the side wall.
It was crowded with tables, that were crowded with things. Neil walked slowly amongst them, filling the burning heat of adrenaline rush down his spine.
Dolls of porcelain and wood lined a long shelf to his right. They seemed innocent enough, except for their eyes. Their eyes were. . . Neil didn't know.
Dice scattered the tables. Twenty sided dice, triangle dice, normal cubes made of gems and rocks and wood.
A triangular chess board. A 3D game with four levels of playing boards connected by slides and ladders. A short square table the size of a small dining set covered in colored squares and rounded ivory tiles decorated with flowers. A lotus, Neil recognized on one.
And still more. Mah Jong tiles spilled across an emerald felt blanket. A stack of plastic cups, organized by color. Decks of cards of various number, with suits Neil had never seen. A large box, sitting closed with JUMUNJI written across it in orange letters. Neil thought he'd heard of that perhaps.
"Can I help you?"
Neil glanced up, only now noticing the black counter and the man behind it. He wondered how he'd missed him. The man was the only light in this place. White blond hair, slashed through with darker golds, eyes the color of melted down jewelry.
No, his brain said, hazel. No one has gold eyes, it's the light.
The man reached over slowly, all grace and laziness, and turned off a record player. The store went suddenly silent. Neil hadn't even realized there'd been music playing, let alone how loud it was. His ears rang with silence.
"Can I help you?" The man asked again. Neil flushed.
"Yes," he answered. His voice betrayed none of his unease. He'd had a lot of practice with that. He walked to the counter, and rested his elbows on it. "I need a game. A fun one."
The man raised a single golden eyebrow. "Well I would hope so, given this is a game store. And I don't think they make games intended to be boring. Got any other requirements? We could be here for a while otherwise."
Neil straightened at the condescending tone. "Weirdest game store I've ever seen. And you should probably be more polite. Can't get many customers with the camoflouge on the door."
"And yet here you stand." The man moved around the counter and Neil was shocked. He rarely looked down on anyone. But this man was shorter than even Neil.
"What are you smiling at?" The man scowled.
"So are you."
"Hence the smile. I'm still taller."
The man's blank expression didn't change. He motioned to a wall of boxes, then leaned against the shelf and stared at Neil, waiting.
Neil looked at the boxes, clearly games. Monopoly, Sorry, Life, Trouble, ones he'd never heard of. Card games too - Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens among them. He'd been explicitly told not to get those. Too cliché, according to Matt.
Neil scannes over them all, to the higher shelves. Boxes of brown with no lables. A red box as long as he was tall. A green box that seemed to glow in the dark. At the very top was a neon orange box, stripped with black. He looked to the man to ask for that one when he notced a box by the man's black boots.
It was tucked in to the very bottom corner, as though to keep it hidden. Pearly white and the size of a shoe box.
"What's that?" He asked.
The man's golden eyes followed his. His brow furrowed. "Not that one."
Neil frowned. "Why not?"
"Because I said so."
Neil felt stubborness meld into his bones. "I want it. Can you play with seven people?"
The man hesitated, as though he wanted to say lie and say no. "Yes," he admitted slowly. "But you don't want that one."
Neil stood up taller, he still felt small compared to the other. "Either tell me a real reason or sell me the game." Neil spared half a thought that he didn't even know what the game was, but the strange man didn't want him to have it. He had to have it.
The man sighed and pushed away from the shelf. "Okay. Twenty."
Neil grinned, victorious. He handed over the money and the man walked back to the counter. He flipped the record player back on while Neil fought the shelf to get the white box without knocking over anything.
He stood and turned back to the man. His golden eyes were fire-bright and intense. Neil felt a fire light in his stomach, danger his mind screamed. He blinked and the golden eyes were bland once more. He shook it off. His own nerves were causing him trouble.
He backed to the door. "See ya later," he called as he closed the door. A habit, nothing else. As the door clicked closed he could've sworn he heard a reply. But no. Of course not, that wouldn't make sense.
"At nine," echoed behind him.
Neil closed the door behind him, scanning the street for his stalkers. No one. Not even the distant sound of footsteps. He glanced at his watch and felt his heart drop. There was no he'd been in there so long. He only half an hour to get to Matt's.
Neil took off at a run.
Matt's mother was a professional boxer, his father a prestigious plastic surgeon. While his parents were no longer together (his mother's clean-eating life style wasn't conducive to his father's pension for drugs), the trust fund from both he'd inherited at twenty one and the savings account his mother had put all his child support money in since his thirteenth birthday had afforded him a massive safety net.
The house was a modest single story made of white brick and gray slate. The ceilings were twelve feet tall and the rooms enormous. It had been built in a style reminiscent of the 1920s but with all the modern updates needed by a twenty three year old and his long term girlfriend.
Music blasted Neil the moment he opened the door. Heavy drums and screaming guitar told him Seth was here and playing DJ. The melodious voice that boomed from the speakers in song told him Allison was here too. Seth was keeping to the less screamo side of his metal music tastes.
Neil followed the music out of the massive entryway. Seth sat in front of the stereo, scrolling through his playlist. Renee sat on the couch, a book open in her lap. Neil didn't understand how she could do that, read with so much noise around her. She smiled when she saw him. He sat down next to her, dropping the plain game box on the table. She glaced at it but couldn't ask over the music. He saw Allison and Dan in the kitchen, cooking. How much food did they need? The ten person dining table was covered in shit food. Kevin stood next to it, scowling. Nothing healthy and meal-plan approved here. Neil grinned and closed his eyes, white blonde hair and golden eyes flashed behind his eyelids.
They couldn't have been gold.
The music changed, slower and deeper than the last. A whispering voice sang
"My fate growing up, was with the family blood
One night...my father left
I asked him if I could go where he went."
Neil's eyes flew open. His heart stopping.
"I don't understand...why's that gun in your hand?
Daddy, why's he on his knees
Please don't make him bleed!"
He glared at Seth, the blood draining from his face.
"Why's he breathing so hard
I remember what he said with that look in his eyes..."
He couldn't know. Seth didn't know. It was just a coincidence. One hell of a coincidence after this night. The stalkers, the game store, the man in black.
"Fall on your knees and plead my name
Beg me, scream, and take the pain."
He stood violently and left for the kitchen before Seth noticed him. He wasn't in the mood for a fight over a song when no one would understand why he couldn't listen to it.
Matt came in from the backyard, burgers on a plate in his hand. More food?
He grinned at Neil, "You're here! Great. What did you get?"
Allison laughed, "You sent him to get a game? We're going to end up playing Uno."
"One what?" Neil asked.
Allison laughed harder. Matt ruffled his hair. Neil looked at Kevin.
"There's literally nothing green on this table," Kevin lamented.
Dan threw a package of green laffy taffy onto the table.
Kevin left and barked at Seth to turn his "godawful anger music off."
"Yeah," Allison agreed from next to Renee. "We all know your emotionally stunted. Doesn't mean we need to suffer with you."
Neil sat next to Dan who was on the floor by the coffee table. "What kind of box is this?" She reached for it, then yelped and pulled her hand away.
Neil jumped. Everyone turned to Dan.
She grinned sheepishly, "Static. It shocked me."
Neil sighed. He didn't know why he was so jumpy. It was a game box. Not a bomb. He reached for it to prove to himself. He opened the box and stared.
"The fuck is this?" Seth demanded.
The box was full of laminated paper of various sizes and colors. A deck of cards sat off to the corner.
Renee moved over, pulling a sheaf of paper out. "I think it's a doll house. One of the ones you build."
Kevin looked at Neil. "You bought a doll house?"
"I didn't know what it was. The guy at the game store just said-" Neil stopped. When he friends kept looking, waiting, he continued. "He said I couldn't have that one. That I didn't want it anyway. So... I bought it."
Matt cackled, "I don't ever want to hear you say you're not difficult and stubborn ever again."
Allison was grinning viciously. "Let's put it together. We come up with our own X rated game once we finish the house." She held up human-shaped cut outs.
They got to work. Renee, Kevin, Allison and Dan got to work on the house. Matt and Neil built the furniture. Seth sat on the couch. Supervising, he claimed.
The house was three stories with a turrett at the top. There were a dozen rooms and labyrinthine hallways. Balconies and hidden alcoves. Surprisingly complex, given it's a children's toy. The turrett had a door to the outside that led to a four story drop. It was... strange. Neil thought it was the kind of place the strange man from the store might live. He quickly threw that thought aside.
Allison decorated the house with the furniture Neil and Matt built. Oriental screens, ornate cabinets and tables, curtains, rugs, couches filled the mansion.
Dan read through the directions. "You know, I don't think this is a kid's toy. The directions explain a game."
"How do you play a game with a dollhouse?" Seth sneered. Allison rolled her eyes.
Dan grinned, "These paper dolls." She held up human shaped cut outs. "We draw ourselves on them and they're our playing piece. The starting point is the parlor. We have to move through the house to get to the turrett at the top." She passed around the dolls. Neil was beginning to think this game was too much work. Everyone was having fun though, so he played along. Even Seth, his curiosity piqued, colored in his playing piece without complaining. Much.
"This sounds boring. Like a fancier version of Shoots and Ladders," Kevin said. Neil thought of the four teired game in the store, connected by slides and ladders.
Ah, that makes sense. He should've bought that, he thought.
Dan grabbed a handful of blank white cards and passed them around. "There's more. The house is haunted. You encounter a different nightmare in every roomwhile you try to get to the top. And you have to watch out for the Shadow Man, the demon of fear itself who lives in the house." She grinned maniacally. "Cool, right?"
She held up the blank cards in her hand.
"You're supposed to draw your greatest fear on these. It says to be honest, 'The Game will know if you lie.'"
Allison read off the title card, "Secrets Reveiled, Fears Unveiled. I think I'm going to like this game."
Neil swallowed hard. Renee reluctantly took a card. Matt chewed on his lip as he drew. Seth stared at his card, then looked around. Everyone was drawing but them. Neil caught his eyes. Seth's gaze hardened and he grabbed a purple crayon from the box. Conveniently provided by the box. It was odd, how much this box held. It had hardly weighed anything.
When they were all done, Renee took the cards and shuffled them, laying them face down in the house at random.
Neil had successfully chosen a game. They were all excited and having fun, or at least curious enough to keep playing. Yet he felt hot inside - like a lobster in a pot, water gradually growing warmer, slowing boiling him alive with him none the wiser.
Allison looked at Seth's green and purple crayons, used up to stubs. "What did you draw?"
"No!" Matt shouted. "It's a secret. We're not supposed to know."
Seth stuck his tongue out at Allison. She glared back, suspicious.
"Now we need the Shadow Man," Dan grinned. She held up another paper doll, this one already drawn. Neil's head filled with the roaring of a forest fire. The Shadow Man had vibrant golden eyes.
Not possible. No. It can't be. Neil chewed his lip. Maybe the guy at the store designed the game. Made it himself, and gave himself a central role in it. People have weird hobbies. Neil used to sharpen knives to relax. It's possible. That's got to be it, not anything else.
"You okay?" Matt asked, nudging him in the ribs.
"Fine." Neil said. He forced a smile for authenticity. Matt stared for a moment, doubting. But Neil was a skilled liar and his friend turned away again.
"Next is the oath," Kevin proclaimed. He'd taken the instructions from Dan. "We have to swear that we're playing this game of our own free will and we understand that the game is real." He read directly from the card, "There is a Shadow World, like our own but different. World Adjacent it is called by some. Land of Dreams by others, though it is as real as anything else. You play at your own risk, as the Shadow World is dangerous and can be hazardous to your life."
"I don't know about this," Renee said. "Something doesn't feel right."
"What is it, Godly Girl?" Seth huffed. "Afraid of a game? Or the idea of another world that isn't run by your oh so benevolent god?"
Renee was unmoved, "My god is hardly benevolent. If you'd ever read the bible, you'd know that. This game just seems off, is all."
Neil was silently pleased someone else had said it.
Allison tossed her hair. "C'mon. Live dangerously. It'll be fun."
Dan shrugged, "What else do we have to do anyway?" She held up her hand, palm out. "I swear that I'm playing of my own free will and I understand the game is dangrous."
Allison echoed her, then Matt.
"I swear," Kevin agreed, hesitant.
"Me too," Seth nodded.
Renee and Neil swore last.
Seth handed forward the cards he'd been shuffling.
"Who wants to go first?" Dan looked around.
If he was going to do this, he was going to committ to it, Neil thought. He reached for a card.
"You have gathered in this room, among friends to play The Game."
Matt snorted. "Well, that was antclimatic."
He drew next. "Each of you has a secret you'd rather die than reveal."
Neil met Renee's eyes across the table. The cards had been shuffled for several minutes in Seth's fidgeting hands. How were they lined up like that? It was impossible.
Neil was starting to hate that word. And this game.
Dan drew next. "You hear footsteps from above." She frowned. "This is a one story house. They didn't plan this game well, some people don't live in multi-stories."
Kevin leaned forward, "Your in this house, remember?" He motioned to the paper masion and their figures in the first floor parlor.
"Right. My bad." Dan reached to put the card back when they heard it. Footsteps, from above.
Neil felt his stomach burn like acid. Seth stared at the ceiling. Dan stood. Renee had gone completely still. Matt reached for Dan's hand.
Allison laughed. "Squirrels. They run along the roof all the time."
She was right, and every giggled nervously as the returned to the game. Neil didn't say that squirrels didn't sound like that.
Seth drew his card. "You go to the door to let in a breeze. The door is stuck."
Everyone looked at the sliding door to the backyard.
"Oh, whatever, guys. Really?" Seth went to the door.
"Seth, maybe you shouldn't -" Renee started.
Seth yanked on the door. It didn't move. Neil stood, followed by Renee.
"The lock, dumbass." Allison said. "Unlock it."
Seth flipped the locks and pulled again. The door didn't budge.
Dan moved to the front door, yanking and pulling. Nothing.
"Oh my god," Matt whispered. Kevin groaned, pulling his knees to his chest.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Allison snapped. She pulled another card and read silently. Dan and Seth moved to the windows. Neil could see the strain on their faces reflected in the glass. Nothing would open.
Neil turned to Allison, his voice hoarse. "What did your card say?"
She was staring at Dan and Seth. She didn't answer. Kevin snatched the card from her hand.
"None of the doors or windows will open. You're trapped inside."
The room fell silent. No one moved.
Renee reached for a card, her hand steady despite the paleness of her face.
"No!" Matt yelled. "Stop drawing cards!"
"We have to play," Neil said, his breath hot with fear in his throat. "We swore we'd play."
"No. We don't." Seth said, vehemently. "It's a stupid game. That's all. It's not real."
Allison raised an eyebrow and quoted, "It is as real as anything else."
No one had anything to say to that. Renee drew her card. "A clock strikes nine."
Kevin looked at Matt, "Do you have any clocks that strike? Do you?" he demanded.
Matt rapidly shoot his head. "No. No, I d-"
Chimes rang through the room. Dan sank to her knees. Renee clutched her cross necklace, eyes closed. Allison's breathing was loud.
The clock struck the hour. One. Two. Three.
"Oh my god," Allison whispered.
Four. Five. Six.
Neil remembered. See you later, he'd said. At nine, the man in black replied. At nine.
"No," Neil whispered.
The room went dark.