Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Only a fool fights in a..."

Been playing Left 4 Dead 2 recently.

It's a first person shooter. You run around attempting to find supplies, guns and ammo while zombies try to murder you. It's been called an "interactive zombie movie" but I don't know if I'd take it that far. There's not a lot of plot or character development, although there is a rudimentary story and some funny dialogue.

The game itself, however, is fairly simple. You begin in one place. You equip yourself and fight a running battle to the end of the chapter, at which you reach a "safe room" where you barricade yourselves in and let the next chapter load. You "win" each section by making it to the "safe room" alive.

The first chapter of Left 4 Dead 2 opens on top of a hotel. The building is on fire. You've just missed the evac helicopter, and your only hope of survival is to escape the burning building and make it to a CEDA evacuation center at a nearby mall.

You can perhaps see where the problem here is. The "safe room" is in the lobby of the hotel. In short, you "win" the first chapter ... by barricading yourself into a room... in the lobby of a burning building.

Yeah, okay, perhaps "zombie movie" isn't bad. Better that than "interactive disaster trainer..."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Phantom Shuffler

It was a dark and stormy Halloween night...

Well, no. It was actually a week to Christmas, and clear as a bell. It was night, though.

It woulda been around 1982. I was home from college. It was kind of comforting -- I hadn't been home since the previous May, and I'd never been away that long before. Anyway, it was a week to Christmas, and I was back in my little tiny hometown out in the middle of nowhere without a thing to do. My sister was out catting around somewhere with her boyfriend, my parents had gone to a Christmas party at his job... and I was alone in the house. Bored. I dug around in my bedroom until I came up with something to do... a copy of The Shining, by Stephen King. I'd read it before, but I was bored...

So I sat down in the back sitting room and began to read. I skipped a lot of stuff, got to the good parts in the middle where Jack Torrance meets the bartender and little Danny is almost killed by the bathtub monster...

...and I heard a noise outside.



I heard a noise outside. Specifically, I heard someone walking up to the back door.

My first thought was "What's Dad doing home so early, and what's he coming in through the back door for?"

He did not come in.

I waited.

He did not come in.

I shrugged and went back to my book. The dead fat lady crawled out of the tub and moved toward little Danny...

I heard a couple more footsteps.

I stopped reading. I waited.

I got up and walked to the back door and looked out the little window. "Dad?"

There didn't seem to be anyone there. I went and sat back down.

I'd barely gotten my butt on the cushion before I heard the footsteps again. This time, they were walking away from the back door... towards the laundry room. Following my movement on the other side of the wall, almost.

I stood up again in a hurry. The footsteps stopped.

I looked at my own feet. I was barefoot, like I usually am indoors. The footsteps were not mine, or echoes of mine; they sounded like my father's, or some big man wearing leather-soled shoes, shuffling his feet a bit, like he didn't want to pick up his feet when he walked... a sort of shhht, shhht, shhht sound.

I walked over to the back door again, and this time, I flicked on the porch light. I glanced around out the window without opening the door. I especially looked hard to my right... toward the laundry room. There didn't seem to be anyone there... but couldn't he have run behind the laundry room? Maybe. Wouldn't I have heard him, running across the grass? Maybe...

A digression: the wall wasn't much of a wall. The wall of the back sitting room had originally been a screened-in porch. When my old man bought the place, we'd converted it into an extra room, just by putting up wood siding on the outside, and cheap paneling on the inside. This had the side effect of making the wall acoustically transparent... you could clearly hear what was happening in the back yard...

I sat down again to read my book. The dead fat lady's hands closed around Danny's throat...

shht, shht, shht... shht, shht, shht, shht...

I jumped upright, threw the book down, and ran to my room. I got my old baseball bat, ran to the back door, and threw it open. Flicked on the porch light. Looked around.

There was no one in sight.

Yeah, well, peachy. I stormed out the back door, and strolled around behind the laundry room. No one there. No sign that anyone had been.

On the way back, I glanced at the laundry room door. Could he be in there? Not likely -- the sliding door tended to stick, required some muscle to open properly, and was noisy. Surely I'd have heard the racket if my phantom stranger were trying to hide in there.

I walked back in, and closed the door. Turned out the porch light... and this time, I locked the door.

...shhht, shhht, shht....shht-shht-sht-sht-sht-sht......

I leaped to my feet, grabbed the bat, ran to the door, unlocked it, yanked it open, hit the porch light, and ran into the back yard. I was sick of this. If one of my old buddies was screwing around, he was going to get hurt. I hoped he thought the lumps were funny.

There was no one in the back yard.

I checked behind the laundry room, behind and inside the hot tub. No one.

I faced the laundry room.
"If anyone's in there, show yourself," I said. "I'm coming in there in a minute, and if you surprise me, I'm gonna bash your fucking head in."

No one answered. I kept the bat in my right hand... approached the door... and, lefthanded, yanked it open. It made a hell of a racket, but opened. I leaped into the laundry room, ready to kill anything that moved.

The washing machine looked stupidly at me. The dryer agreed with it. Nobody in here but us appliances, boss...

I didn't get it. I KNEW I was hearing footsteps. Where the hell were they coming from? The roof? Why would anyone be on the friggin' roof?

...about then, it occurred to me I'd left the back door standing wide open.

I rushed back out of the laundry room, leaving the door open, and back into the house. No one was there. I closed the door, locked it... and left the porch light on, this time. I searched the entire house, top to bottom, closets, under beds, cabinets... everything. Nobody here but us college students, boss.

I went into the kitchen and made a cuba libre and drank it. After a minute, I made another one, but this time I left out the lemon and Coke, and I drank it, too.

...and then I went and sat down in my chair, ball bat at my side. I did not pick up the book. I waited. After a moment, I got up and got Dad's 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun off the rack, and loaded it, and put it near the chair. Yes, I know, alcohol and shotguns aren't a good combination, but I was eighteen, okay? Teeners aren't known for their judgement.

...and I waited.

Was I scared? Yeah. I was more angry than scared, though. I figured I knew exactly what was happening: someone was playing games with me. When I caught 'em, I would hurt them.

I even figured I knew who it was: my old high school buddy, Lightning (so named for an experiment he had performed at a Sonic Drive In; he became angry with the waitress and had demonstrated his contempt by peeing in the speaker/microphone doohickey. We hadn't known they had an open circuit in there, but all of us found out, him in particular. He'd been "Lightning" ever since...) ...and this was just his kind of stunt. Scare the hell out of someone, then roll on the ground laughing about it.

I grinned. I'd give him something to laugh about. He could giggle all the way to Intensive Care.

...I sat, and I waited. It occurred to me I hadn't checked in the washing machine or dryer. Lightning was a skinny little guy; he could well have hidden in either of the two, with a little effort. I listened to hear if he came out again.

Ten minutes later: nothing. Could be he'd been hiding in the trees, I thought... and got scared when he saw me tearing around with that ball bat. He could be a dick on occasion, but he wasn't stupid. Well, okay, not very stupid.

Ten minutes after that, it seemed clear: Lightning had jumped the fence and gone home, having no interest in paying for his joke with a concussion and/or gunshot wound. I was alone again. I put down the bat and picked up the book.

I read for a long time. I'd gotten as far as the part where Jack goes back to the bar and has the long talk with the bartender, and then goes to get the roque mallet... when I heard it again.

shhhhhhht......shhhhhhhhht....... shhhhhhht...... very slowly. Downright Frankensteinian, in fact. I grabbed the bat and yanked the door open.

The door wouldn't cooperate. It was locked. I struggled with it a minute, got it open, and ran out, then ran back in, turned on the porch light, and ran out.


...but the laundry room door was only partly open.

Had I done that? Or had someone been screwing with it? It occurred to me if you were strong enough, you could lift it off its rollers... and open and close it totally silently that way.

I stormed over and yanked the entire laundry room door off its sliding rollers, and tossed it into the back yard. No way he could fix that without making some noise. I walked into the laundry room, checked inside the washing machine and dryer. Nothing. I walked out and into the fruit trees, looking for signs someone had been there. I poked my ball bat into the foliage. Nothing.

There was no one in the yard.

No one but me.

I walked back toward the back door. I glanced behind the hot tub, and in it, in the interests of thoroughness. Nothing. I walked back towards the laundry room---

---and right behind me: shht-shht-shht-shht-shht....

I screamed, and spun around with the ball bat, putting everything I had into that swing—
---there was a bright flash of light---

---a sound like a gunshot---

---I felt the bat hit something solid --- and then go THROUGH it---
...and I spun around twice and fell on my ass.


I was blind; all I could see was that flashbulb burst, glowing on my retinas. I couldn't hear anything because I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I didn't dare get up; in the time that took, whatever I'd hit might recover and go for my throat... I HAD hit it, but what the hell was it? It'd felt like my bat hit something solid, and then gone through it... I settled for scooching around in a little circle on my butt, in the grass, howling frantically, and waving my bat around trying to hit something.

Suddenly, I saw something right ahead of me move. I promptly whacked the hell out of it with the bat.

I screamed. It had been my foot.

I staggered to my feet, hopped onefooted into the big pale thing that I hoped was the doorway (it was) and slammed the door. I stood there hopping up and down cursing myself for an idiot, and waiting for my vision to clear.

When I could see something that wasn't a big purple blob, I looked out the window. It was pitch dark. I flicked the light switch off and on. The light did not go on.

I ran and got a flashlight, and the shotgun. Flicking the light on, I carefully opened the door and looked out.

There was no body. There was shattered glass everywhere, and a horribly twisted wrought-iron thing on the pavement. Bare wires hung from the wall near the door.

I'd panicked and bludgeoned the porch light to death.

I stood there in the doorway, looking down at the mangled wrought-iron coach-lamp-style porch light fixture. Mom had bought that thing in Mexico. It would be all kinds of fun explaining this one.

I felt like a prize fool.

I felt like the Great Chump Of Western Civilization.

I heard a few stupid noises in the yard, I destroyed the friggin' porch light, and now I stood there with a belly full of booze and a loaded shotgun. Yup, that's problem-solving at its best...

I locked the door, turned the switch off to prevent a short or something, unloaded the shotgun, and sat down. I had checked the entire back yard. There was no one there. There could not have been anyone there, unless they could jump over a nine-foot fence, or the house, or they were invisible.

Disgusted with myself, I put the shotgun back on the rack, put the shells away, and sat down to check my foot. I'd hit myself on the ankle, but not broken anything. No doubt I'd be limping in the morning.

I picked up my book, determined to ignore any more phantom noises.

It was a good forty-five minutes before I heard the next ones.

These were different footsteps, though...


The shuffling footsteps were back... and this time... I could hear the tiny tinkle of broken glass, gently kicked aside by the feet making them...

I stood up, as carefully and quietly as I could.

shht...shht**...shht*.. I could hear it plainly. It wasn't my imagination.

I picked up the flashlight. I tiptoed to the back door and glanced out the window. I couldn't see anything without the porch light.

shht...shht...shht****... I could hear it clearly. It was about three feet away from me, through the door and to my right, a little closer to the laundry room than I was.

I shone the flashlight out the door.

The shuffling stopped immediately... but I didn't hear anything else.

There was no one there.

I shone the light beam around. I could see a little pushed-aside pile of broken safety glass, where a foot had shuffled, and pushed them.

...and the shuffling started again, this time while I was looking directly at the spot where the person should be.

I jumped, in spite of myself, and flashed the light around. The shuffling stopped.

I can't describe how I felt. Well, sure I can -- I wasn't angry any more. I was pretty sure Lightning couldn't turn invisible, or he wouldn't have had to bug the older guys to buy him his beer.

This wasn't some chum playing a prank.

This was something else entirely.

My heart felt like someone had dropped it in ice-cold sulfuric acid.

I think this was where I really discovered the border line between scared and terrified. Scared is when you've got the football team mad at you, but you understand why you're scared -- as in, they're going to pound you to a pulp.

Terrified is something else entirely. Terrified is when you see something that should not be, and your mind finally gives up and says, I don't know WHAT the fuck is going on, because this is impossible... but it's still happenin', man.

I discovered that hair really could stand on end, if you were terrified. I suddenly really had to pee, despite the fact that my genitals had suddenly withdrawn into my pelvis.

I turned the light off. I picked up the phone. I dialed the sheriff's office, and when they answered, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to tell them. I had a ghost in my back yard? Yeah, right. I told them I thought I had an intruder in the back yard... and then it hit me. I asked him to send someone to do a drive by, and the dispatcher agreed, and when I hung up, I ran into the kitchen and hit the master flood switch.

Dad loved to barbecue and he liked to hold parties in the back yard. He'd installed floodlights, big ol' 200 watt monsters that lit up the whole back yard. Furthermore, the kitchen had a bay window; I'd be able to see most of the back yard without having to open the back door.

...but from the kitchen, I couldn't hear anything. I had a fine view of the walkway and laundry room, but it was too far to hear if my visitor was still doing the Undead Tim Conway Shuffle.

I was scared green. I didn't like it. I wasn't used to it. I was fairly sure I could handle any local yo-yo who wanted to play games... but this was nothing I had ever seen before.

I called the neighbors whose back yard butted against ours, and told them the intruder story. I asked them to turn their floods on, too. They did.

I called the party where my parents were, and told them the intruder story, too. They agreed to come home.

They arrived at the same time as the cops. The cops did a sweep of the neighborhood. Nobody out and around. My folks asked what I'd seen and heard, and what happened to the back porch light?

Against my better judgment, I told them.

They didn't believe me at first, but eventually, they came to conclude that their only son had in fact heard SOMETHING... he didn't normally attack wrought iron light fixtures with enough wrath to make them unrepairable. But, come on, a ghost in the back yard?

I went to bed, feeling rotten.

Over breakfast, Dad had an odd look on his face. He mentioned he'd heard something outside the back door, right before he went to bed. He'd checked it... it was nothing... but he'd locked the door and loaded the shotgun.

It had sounded to him like some guy shuffling around in leather-soled shoes...

Christmas came and went, and we heard no more of the Phantom Shuffler. I went back to school for the spring semester. I eventually forgot about it.

Until my mother called one afternoon. She wanted to tell me that she'd finally heard the Shuffler, too. She'd been out doing laundry, and heard someone shuffling around on the back walkway... in broad daylight.

As she walked back and forth, transferring loads of laundry around, she heard him twice more. She was beginning to get freaky...

Finally, she shut herself up in the laundry room, but left the crack of the door open a little. She sat down on the floor and stared at that segment of cement walkway... and waited.

About ten minutes later, a horned toad scuttled out of one of the oleander bushes. A moment after that, another one came out, too.

...shht-shht... shht...shht...shht... went their rough, leathery bellies on the cement as they did their courtship dance thing.

...shht-shht-shht-shht-shht, went the pavement, as the male hopped onto the female and began boinking away...

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Trudge

When I was in high school, I had a job. I worked for the local paper.

This was back in the infancy of electronic typesetting -- the computer typesetter was archaic by today's standards, actually printing a measured column onto photosensitive paper you had to develop in a photo lab. Then you cut it out, ran it through the hot wax machine, and pasted it up by hand onto a "board," a sheet of graph paper the exact size of a newspaper page. Each page of the paper had to be done individually.

When I was done with this, I would then go back to the computer, re-rig it by hand to do larger print in a different font (Souvenir, as I recall) in 48 point, 72 point... whatever a given title required. I would then type in the TITLES of all the news stories, develop them, wax them, cut and paste them, and move on to the next board.

It was a small town, and it was a weekly paper, and we came out on Wednesday. This meant we worked however long it took to put the paper to bed on Monday night. And, of course, since I was in high school, I had to be at school by eight on Tuesday morning. We usually didn't finish until after midnight, which meant Tuesday was generally not a real good day for me.

But I digress. The last thing I generally did was to make the titles for the stories, right? I'd type 'em, develop 'em, cut and paste 'em, and stick 'em up there. Naturally, there'd be a typo or two in there somewhere, so I'd have to go back and do one or two titles over again (this machine had no screen, so I was typing blind, you see).

Type, develop, wax, cut, paste, stick. Board finished. Take it down, put it with the "done" boards, and get to work on the next board. The rest of the crew would bring boards in and put them behind the board I was working on on the Compugraphic, so when I pulled a board down, there would be another board behind it. When I ran out of boards, I could leave for the night.

I soon learned it was not a good idea to go to bed as soon as I got home.

You see... when you've been feverishly working at a task half the night, and then you IMMEDIATELY go to bed... you dream about that same task.

In my dreams, I would type, develop, wax, cut, paste, correct typos, type, develop, wax, cut, paste, and finally finish the last board, and take it down...

...and there'd be another board behind it. I'd get to work. I'd type, develop, wax, cut, paste, correct, type, develop, wax, cut, paste, and finish the last board, and take it down...

...and there'd be another board behind it. I would do this all night in my dreams and wake up exhausted. I'd been at work literally all night.

To this day, Tuesday is not my favorite day of the week...