Welcome to the Game
February 15, 2012
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The Hawks had beaten the Bluejays 38-3.
Although the table seated four, Stephen sat alone, head in his hands. Blond hair spilled over his fingers like a waterfall, further hiding his face from the two other people in the tiny restaurant.
His kids had played their hearts out that evening, but it hadn’t been good enough. The Hawks were known for their defense—solid as iron, it was said. Their offense was like a team of horses. Clydesdales. The Bluejays hadn’t stood a chance. Four interceptions and three turnovers. Only Matt Davis had managed to score with a 32 yard field goal.
Stephen looked up at the wall facing him, studying it carefully. From the ground to about a quarter of the way up it was plain red. A mini-arcade of games was backed against this part, but what was above the consoles was what really caught his attention.
A mural, taking up the entire wall from the solid red to the ceiling. From adjacent wall to the other. It was as if sports fans of all types had joined together for the athletic event of a lifetime. Men and women in baseball uniforms, football jerseys, hockey masks, and one odd man with a black crow or raven resting on his right shoulder. Poo dribbled down his blue suit and on his yellow tie. Spiderman sat in the front row, his arms around two girls. Bart Simpson a row up and to the right.
Of course, most of the spectators were famous, though Stephen recognized only a handful. George W. Bush, Drew Carrey, maybe even Kelly Clarkson. It was entrancing, shifting your eyes from face to face, observing each man and woman trapped in their depicted action for eternity. Take the man dead center, holding his beer cup up in a toast. Never would he be able to bring the drink to his lips and sip, enjoying the liquid sliding down his throat. He wouldn’t even be able to rest his arm. It must burn so badly.
Briefly Stephen wondered what year the painting had been done. How long had the man been toasting against an invisible glass, a wide smile on his face?
“Can I get you something to drink, sir?”
Stephen turned his head and raised an eyebrow. A woman, her name tag said Holly, stood at the end of his table, looking down at him with wide, bright eyes. She was young, couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, and the shiny ring on the third finger of her left hand seemed to suggest this as well.
“A drink,” she repeated.
“Oh, yes.” Stephen hesitated only momentarily before ordering a water with a lemon.
Holly flashed a smile and turned toward the kitchen to fill a plastic cup full of no doubt rusty tap water. Stephen held up a hand and called her back. She looked at him expectantly.
“Is the buffet still open?”
Holly glanced at the short buffet bar, then back at Stephen and nodded a little too enthusiastically. “For another hour, yes. Until the restaurant closes. Is that what you’d like?”
“I sure would, Holly,” Stephen said.
The woman blushed briefly. “Help yourself when you’re ready.”
Holly retired to the kitchen and Stephen stood, glancing once more at the mural, then turned to face the other side of the room and walked to the buffet.
Pizza buffets are odd things, Stephen mused to himself as he grabbed a plate off the stack, took the one underneath it, and replaced the first. You could never be too careful; you never knew who’d touched the top one.
The first section contained the makings of salad—lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, dressing. Stephen skipped over this and moved on straight to the cheesy bread. He put four pieces on his plate and sidestepped down the line once more.
The best part about this particular pizza joint was it wasn’t your typical pizza joint. Unlike Cici’s or Pizza Ranch, the pizzas weren’t always the same. It all depended on what the teenagers in the back decided to cook that day. Sometimes ham and pineapple, sometimes sausage, sometimes onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Always cheese, always pepperoni.
He’d been here a number of times, mostly with the Bluejays when they’d won. But after their loss, he’d decided to come alone. Today they had a disappointing spread. Mostly seafood. Stephen looked past the pizzas with anchovies, shrimp, or clams, and landed his eyes on the pepperoni. Not his favorite, but it would have to do. It would at least be better than allowing those sea-bred nasties get anywhere near his mouth.
He took three slices of pepperoni, left the dessert pizza for his second trip, and returned to his table. In his absence, Holly had brought his water, sans lemon. But everyone always forgot. It wasn’t anything new. He decided then that he liked Holly, whatever the reason, and wouldn’t mention her slip. How bad could plain water taste?
With straw wrapper peeled apart and discarded in front of the empty chair to his left, Stephen thrust the straw through the layer of ice and drank. Then he nearly spit it out, only barely managing to swallow. So that was how bad plain water could taste. If the man with the beer had this, he’d be thankful he could never—
Stephen did a double take of the mural.
Men and women in baseball uniforms, football jerseys, hockey masks, and one odd man with a black bird—Stephen decided it was most likely Poe, and therefore a raven—sitting on his shoulder and poo dripping down his suit. Spiderman in the front row, Bart Simpson above and to the right.
And in the dead center, a man in a red football jersey, sitting next to a woman in an orange sweater, calmly sipping his cup of beer.
Stephen locked eyes with the man—with the painting of the man—and stared at him. The world around blurred as he gazed, as if looking into the man’s soul and seeing his innermost thoughts. But of course, there was no man at all. It was paint slapped onto a wall, just a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world.
But he’d been toasting to an invisible person, regardless, and paintings didn’t just change like that. It would have taken hours for an artist to scrub away the paint and redraw the arm. But perhaps…perhaps he hadn’t been toasting after all?
Impossible. He’d seen it with his own two eyes! He’d debated in his mind how the man could never enjoy the drink. His eyes were playing tricks on him. He’d been staring so long his vision was spotting, but the eyes captivated him.
Now that he looked, they weren’t like any other eyes he’d ever seen painted. They weren’t just white ovals with a ring of color and a black dot in the center. Well, they were, but there was something more. They weren’t just blindly looking out at whatever sports field was assumed to be before them in their world. No, they were looking out into the restaurant. They were looking at Stephen.
And then Holly once more appeared, breaking the spell. “How is everything, sir?”
Stephen glanced at her, dazed. “No, I don’t need anything.”
She looked confused at first, but it passed. Stephen wasn’t sure what she’d originally asked, but he assumed his answer hadn’t been the appropriate response. She probably figured he had misheard her. Which, in a way, he had.
“Excellent. Just let me know if there’s anything I can get you.”
Stephen didn’t answer. He trained his eyes back on the painting, expecting to see the man toasting his beer, but he had it against his lips still. He must have already drunken half of it. Had he even begun drinking before? Stephen couldn’t remember, but he didn’t think so.
Holly followed his gaze and looked at the mural herself. “Lovely, isn’t it?” she asked, breaking Stephen away from the beer man once again. He nodded at her. “A man came in one day about a year ago and asked if we’d be willing to let him paint a mural on that wall. Said it looked so sad and lonely standing there empty. Marco, the manager, agreed, but when he asked the man what he charged, he said it was gratis.”
“Why would he do it for free?” Stephen asked.
Holly shrugged. “Marco couldn’t figure it out either. But hey, when someone offers to decorate for free, you let them. He said he needed to work on it at night, and so Marco gave him the keys and said—“
“Hang on. Some random man offers to paint a mural for free, and so the manager just gives him the keys and lets him stay all night?” It sounded shady at best.
Again Holly shrugged. “I didn’t think it was too smart either. I guess Marco figured there wasn’t much worth stealing. We only had about half the tables we do now, and Marco took all the cash home every night. But hey—“
“When someone offers to decorate for free, you let them,” Stephen finished.
Holly grinned. “Exactly. We came in the next morning expecting it to be partially done, but there it was, finished. The man was nowhere to be found—we never even learned his name. He left a note. Hang on just one second.” In a hurry, Holly scurried to the register by the front door, opened the drawer, dug around in the back for a moment, and returned to the table in less than forty-five seconds. In her hand she clutched a crumpled piece of paper, which she layed down in front of Stephen.
“Marco threw it out after he read it, but I thought I should keep it. I don’t know why, I just felt like…well, like it was worth keeping.”
Stephen looked down at the note and scanned it. The writing was intricate and detailed, like it had been done using a computer font rather than a pen. From the look of it, he might have guessed it had been written with one of those old feather-like pens and a bottle of ink.
Mural finished. No charge. Enjoy. Guarantee it will bring more customers. Athletic fans of all sorts. Might want to get some more tables to accommodate them.
By now the couple that had been sitting in the corner had left, leaving Stephen the only customer. “More customers?”
“It’s not so busy now, I’ll give you that. But just you wait and see, in a couple minutes there will be a big rush of sports fans. There’s a rush in the morning too. It lulls in the early evening. It’s strange, really. We even get hockey fans who look like they just came from a game, but there’s not a team for miles around here.”
“Yeah,” Holly said. “Well, I’ll let you eat. Just holler if you need anything.” She gave another small smile and practically skipped to the kitchen.
Stephen looked back at the mural, prepared to see just about anything—the beer gone and its owner looking forlorn. Perhaps he would be getting ready to drink another. What he didn’t expect was the man to be gone.
The rest of the people were sitting shoulder to shoulder, but when it came to the place the man had been—the dead center of the painting—there was only an empty bleacher. Now Stephen knew something was wrong. It was one thing to imagine a man toasting and then drinking. Imagining him there and then not was in a completely different league.
He was about to call for Holly to ask if she noticed the missing man, but as he was taking a deep breath so as to call loud enough for her to hear, there was a small chime and the front door opened.
Stephen glanced over and nearly passed out. He held the breath he’d taken and forgot he was holding it as he stared at the newcomer. When he started to feel woozy and tip out of his chair, he realized what he wasn’t doing and started to breathe again.
The man from the painting had walked in.
Rather, a man who looked exactly like the man from the painting had walked in. The hostess who’d seated Stephen, freshly upset his Bluejays had lost their game, now led the man to a table next to the one Stephen sat at. It was a spitting image, and he glanced up at the empty bleacher on the wall again, picturing the newcomer there.
It was an exact match. Same jersey, same brown hair, same nose. He even had a half-drunken cup of beer in his hand. Even this, though, Stephen might have discounted as coincidence. He wasn’t superstitious, and the idea the man from the painting was now sitting beside him was absurd.
It was the eyes that convinced him.
For a brief moment as the man sat, he’d looked up at Stephen’s half-curious, half-horrified expression with the same eyes from the mural. They had a life of their own, those eyes. They pulled you in, forced you to explore deeper and deeper into them until you knew nothing except them. There was no world around you, it was only you and those eyes, and Stephen was quite sure he would never be able to break the stare.
Then the man had looked away and Stephen found himself once again in the small pizza joint, a little dizzy as the room spun back into focus. A moment later Holly appeared and stood to take the man’s order, her back to Stephen.
There was another chime. Stephen spun to look at the door, reminding himself to keep breathing, no matter who it was. Turned out it was a man with black hair and a mustache. His suit was a terrible blue and he had a bright yellow tie. There was a black bird on his shoulder, and poo dribbling down the front of his jacket and onto his tie. The hostess seemed not to mind the bird and happily led him to a table near the window.
A thought struck him and Stephen spun back to look at the mural. The place where Beer Man had been was still empty, but now the spot the Bird Man had been sitting was also empty. And why wouldn’t it be? Clearly the man had just entered the restaurant and was now giving Holly his drink order.
Stephen felt woozy, like he might pass out any moment and awake in his bed, safe and sound and away from this restaurant. This wasn’t reality. It was a dream, of course. The strangest dream he’d ever had, there was no doubt about it, but still a dream.
Yet it wasn’t a dream at all. He was right about one thing, though: This couldn’t be reality.
Five minutes and the same number of chimes later, a man in a Brown’s sweatshirt and a woman with popcorn, a couple and their child holding a basketball, a balding man with a volleyball, George W. Bush, and Spiderman and Bart Simpson were scattered at tables throughout the restaurant.
Stephen watched them wearily, as if any moment they were going to morph into something much more sinister and attack him. He’d eaten none of his cheesy bread or pizza, and the idea of the dessert pizza still at the buffet made his stomach feel queer.
There were many more empty seats in the mural now, all in the places the new customers had previously been sitting. Holly was hopping from table to table, but she hadn’t come close enough for Stephen to call in quite some time, and he thanked his lucky stars for this. He was afraid of even her now, because she was one of them. She didn’t come from the painting, but she served Spiderman his Coke without batting an eyelid. Either she didn’t notice or she was so used to it it didn’t phase her. Either way, he didn’t like her anymore, and he wanted his lemons.
Still the flood of people came, and one time when Stephen glanced up at the mural, he found it completely void of people. Then the strangest of questions overtook him and he froze, pondering it.
Why was he still here? Surely any sane human would have fled the moment Bart Simpson came for dinner. Any sane person wouldn’t have even seen Bart Simpson come for dinner.
Stephen looked up at the mural. Only this time, it wasn’t the mural. It was a mural, but it wasn’t the mural. It wasn’t even the empty mural. It was a picture of a restaurant, one that looked much like the one he was now sitting in, except he was looking at it from the other angle and from higher up. It wasn’t so crowded with celebrities and people who have been dead for years and cartoon characters either. There was just one figure in the restaurant. A woman. Holly. She was wiping away the condensation from his old cup of water.
It was then he noticed the change in his surroundings. Holly was in the restaurant, but Stephen no longer was. He was sitting on a cold metal bleacher, looking out at a wall with the painting. Except this painting wasn’t like the painting of the sports fans. This painting was moving. Holly was methodically wiping the table, and Stephen knew he could hear her faint humming coming from the television-like mural.
Next to him, their shoulders touching, was the old man with the bird on his shoulder. Some of the poo had dripped from Poe’s sleeve and onto his own. To his right, a man holding a cup of beer, toasting an invisible friend.
Stephen was sitting, smiling at the painting of the restaurant, but he didn’t quite know why. He couldn’t change his expression or move anything. Panic flooded through his veins, but he couldn’t show it at all. Something nudged his right shoulder—Beer Man.
“Don’t worry, you’ll learn how to communicate soon. It was hard for me at first too.”
Stephen couldn’t acknowledge him, but out of the corner of his eye he hadn’t seen the man’s lips move.
“Tomorrow we can go to the restaurant for breakfast. You can introduce yourself then,” Poe added.
Stephen tried to speak, tried to move, tried to scream in terror and horror, but he could do none of that.
“Oh, and hey,” Beer Man said, “welcome to the Game.”