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The Game Shop by Marilyn A. Hudson

The bell of the shop sounded like a taunt as I opened the door and entered the dimly lit store. A stooped little man shuffled to the counter and peered over his half moon glasses at me. He moved his hands and large flakes of dead skin sloughed off like leaves in a brisk autumn wind.
He seemed to be older than time, more mummified creature than human being, until I looked into his eyes. A flash of something danced across the shadowy eyes and I told myself I was simply seeing things. Despite my rationale assurances, and the sweater I wore, I shivered.
“I didn’t mean to come in here.” I tried not to stammer but found I suddenly had little control. “This is a mistake. I must have come down the wrong street.”
“No, no, this is the place alright.” He stabbed a dry finger toward the front door. “The Game Shop. See, says so right there on the door.” He exhaled a dusty spore of breath and I realized he was laughing. “I’ve been expecting to see you come back one of these days”.
“I don’t want to play anymore games. I must have taken a wrong turn back there somewhere. I was following someone, and I must have lost sight of him in the crowd along Broadway.”
“So you say….”
“No, truly, I don’t want to play anymore.”
“Ha! I’ve heard that one before and told by some of the best.” He chuckled and the sound was obscene; as if a door to a particularly vile scene had been opened for a brief moment. “Here, take a look at these new arrivals. These little pets are used so much they are always being updated and reissued.”
He brandished his bony hand in a theatrical little gesture and pulled a box from beneath the counter. He shoved it across to me. “This game is called Pick a Little. Really livens things up, let me tell you!”
“’Discover the critic in you,’” I read. “’Tear friends apart just the bare tongue.’”
Halting as I realized what I was reading, I stepped back and shook my head. “I can’t… No, I am not interested in that.”
“Practice the art of creative invention,” he noted with a sly wink in my direction. “Yes, sir, that’s a goodun’.”
I knew this game and knew I had once played it like so many. It reminded me of a bunch of squawking chickens rooting around in the dirt from some sliver of food. Scratching, clawing, and digging in the muck for something morsel to devour. I began to feel weak, as if tiny biting beaks were already digging into my flesh. I shoved it hard across the counter. “Take it away!”
I turned then to find the exit, but the shop had grown dim, as if giant shadows huddled near, bending low to catch each whisper of sound. The aisles seemed to have grown together as well so that they seemed to obscure the faint square of light leading to the street. Clutching at my throat I realized that it suddenly seemed so hard to breathe.
“Ah, I know what you need. What you want. You like an action-packed game, don’t you?”
From the shelf behind he pulled another box. “Read that!”
“’Kill the Wounded’”. I read the name aloud and felt the words cleave to my tongue. I’d been on the receiving end of this vile game and the memory still had the power to make me ill.
“Yep, this one’s a real winner. This one is really popular among Christians. They are some kind of extreme players there, let me tell you. As I said, lots of players for this one, although not all my customers will admit to playing this game. For obvious reasons, they have to keep that part mum.”
The lurid cover of the box drew my yes. I saw a guerilla fighter holding an Uzi with bodies littering the background. I leaned in closed and saw a button on the soldier’s beret reading, “Smile Jesus Loves You.”
“With this little honey you can learn to kill people by telling them things “for their own good.” A sneer slashed across his face. Added bonus to this one, buy it and we through in how to kick ‘em when they are down. Now let me see, where did I put that other one?” With a giggle the old man found it. “Leaning closer he urged me to take a closer look. “This is for the intellectual,” he stated in a whisper.
He slid a book shaped like a human head across the counter. It was called the Two Faces of Steve. Suddenly I felt hot and breathless. I desperately needed air. “I don’t like your games. I won’t, I won’t, play them anymore.”
“Nonsense! Everybody plays my games.” He nodded to a far corner where a man browsed through a rack labeled “Golden Oldies”. I recognized him as a man I had seen in my church.
As I turned back I found another box on the counter. On its cover was a picture of a pile of human bones with a man standing on top with a flag.
“That’s a real best seller you’ve got there. Top of the Kill. Out sold even Two Faces, and that’s not easy to do. Here, take a look at what it says.”
As if he had strings tied to my eyes they followed his grimy finger to the text. “Climb to the top over their dead bodies. Be the best – be the most spiritual – the most holy – no matter what.”
I stumbled back in disgust at the box and the man and the airless little hole in the wall of a storefront. I felt such a keen revulsion that I was dizzy. Yet….yet….there was a drawing power to the games that tugged at me. It was like a magnet pulling me, inexorably, toward them and deeper into the little shop.
“It’s not right to use people. It’s not right to trick people. It’s – “
“Are you telling me,” he sneered. “Or trying to convince yourself?”
“It’s wrong….”
“Highly useful though. You have to admit, it saves a lot of time too. Don’t be such a spoilsport. Join all your friends”
“It’s a vile little place-”
“I’ll have you know,” he fumed, “that this little store does a brisk business! Oh my yes, this a mighty popular little place to shop,”
“Christians,” I leaned in across the counter and said through gritted teeth, “Real Christians, don’t do these things!”
He cackled again. “Everyone plays them. Nearly every one of my customers is a Christian.”
The bell clanged as another customer slipped in and, seeing the boxes on the counter, grabbed at them like a greedy child. The woman dragged a handful of bills from her bag and hurried out of the shop with a triumphant air. A heavy black tide of nausea surged through me as the bell and the old man’s laughter mingled.
There was anger also.
“No! I’m tired of these miserable little games. I’m sick of people destroyed by your kind….yes, and my kind. Our kind. I’m sick of people who can only destroy and harm other people. I’m fed up with you and this… garbage you peddle.’
“Garbage? This is a high quality establishment with only the finest stock. Tired are we, Miss Hoity-Toity? Give me a greenback for every time I heard some sad-sack says that! Take a look around. People keep me in good business.”
The bell clanged again as if to emphasize his claim and another shadowy figure slipped into the dank little shop.
“Yes. They keep me in a mighty good, even brisk, business at that! So go on get out here! Leave. See if I can even care. You may get tired but there are plenty more. I may not see you again, but they’ll keep me open. Just watch and see.”
As if my newfound determination had cleared the air, I could see clearly out the hazy windows into the street beyond. Like a drowning swimmer bobbing back into the fresh air and sunshine, I darted out the door to the street beyond. I breathed deeply in the bright sunshine feeling as if I needed a hot shower to cleanse me of an oily taint that could stain the soul.
At the head of the street, I caught sight of my companion. “How had I ever lost sight of him?” I hurried to catch up. He saw me and stopped. He motioned for me to catch up, and as I joined him on the street, I heard the shop’s tinny, off-key bell ring once more.
“A squeaky door opens as a new customer creeps in…
A jangling bell speaks in a shop with no locks…
The shopkeeper smiles a wide toothy grin….
As he turns to take down another shiny box….”
--Originally published in the IPHC Advocate. All rights returned to the author.

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