For me, collecting is more than a hobby - it is a way of life.
To me, there is no greater thrill than that moment when you complete a set or find the one rare piece that has eluded antiquarians for years. I love things - cards, figures, dolls, puppets, watches. And as my desire to surround myself with material possessions grew, I found that I did not care for the things so much - but the thrill of collecting them.
So after I'd collected several years worth of goods, it was only natural that the store grew up around me. Little Dreams Antiques. Say you know me from our little chat, and I'll give you a discount on two items of your choice - and we'll both share a good laugh.
Where to start, where to start. I'm fifty-something years old, set in my ways, and my recent passion has been collecting video games. Not to play - I'm a bit out of the loop when it comes to their stories or art. I've got a hunch that in the next twenty years, rarer video games will fill the niche that baseball cards seem set to create. And with rare mint games already going for a decent amount on the market, I've been looking at them as sort of a nest egg.
Now, my store has achieved something of a reputation for having rare stock on hand. As such, even though I'm located smack in the city center, I've got a pretty reliable core of customers. Old friends, if you will - the creme of the crop. I enjoy a good conversation with them almost as much as knowing that the collectibles I sell will find themselves in good hands.
I'd be lying if I said she'd made it into that inner-circle. She was too young - too young!.. - to be an old-timer, and bought electronics almost exclusively. At first I'd seen her loitering in the back of the store with her grey clothes and her down-cast face and assumed she was one of the gawkers that never bought nothing. Turned out 'Norma' and I shared a taste in classical music, and from there it was always a delight to hear the chime of the bell as she stepped inside.
... Of course Norma wasn't her name, you know that as well as I do - but if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not mention real names. It helps me to deal with this one step at a time. Anyway, we -
She would occasionally buy pricier items, you know? Things I wouldn't expect a young woman to have a taste in. Furniture, vinyl records. At first I thought she was doing it to impress on of those internet clique things I hear people talking about on the news - but she had an almost encyclopediac knowledge of most of the stuff she bought. That was the thing that caught my eye - she always paid in cash, always.
Now, that's not too unusual - even for expensive purchases. People who are into antiques tend to be a little... I don't want to use the word distrustful, but that's the word. So I'd watch her take a hundred-dollar bill from her pocket, then another, and another - and we'd exchange it silently. A little ritual, if you will.
Of course, it also meant that I didn't know much more about her other than what she chose to tell me. And that's where doubt started to scream at me, and I should've just listened to it.
You see, one day, Norma comes into the shop, and, as usual, she just sits there, digging through the pile of older games and electronic equipment I have in the 'overstock' bin - which means, doc, that I had more then one copy, and so the prices were slashed - and I ignore her besides a wave to show that I acknowledged her presence. We were both in our own worlds.
I actually forgot about her. It was a quiet day at the shop, and I'd been thinking of closing up early and grabbing something to eat.
Turning around to double-check the register, I saw her staring at me - no, not at me, but at the floor. Her eyes would never quite meet mine, meet anyones'. Her voice was all wavery, like it normally was - but firm, insistent. Don't think I'd ever heard it that unyielding.
"I want this one."
She shoved a cartridge onto the counter. It struck me as funny at the time - the label had rotted off, or gotten peeled off, or something - I still had the label, just hadn't gotten around to re-taping it. Some super something world. They all look alike to me. I'd figured she wanted it with some sort of label on, so reached behind the counter for some ticker-tape...
I remember her eyes widening in shock - then fury, as she knocked the tape from my fingers.
There was an incredibly awkward pause. Norma was - as usual - looking past me, not quite meeting my eyes.
"... I mean, no. Please, I want to purchase it as it is."
My gut twisted. This didn't seem right. Perhaps I should've just sold it to her without the damn label - perhaps that would've been enough. But I didn't. I didn't.
"Sorry, miss. Can't sell it without a label - you sure you don't want one of the other ones..?"
I tried to sound kindly as I swept the cartridge behind the counter and covertly shoved it into my coat pocket, but worried that my concern showed - Norma was ignoring my words and grinding her teeth together so loud I could hear the bones dusting each other. Snip, snap, snip, snap - like ice in a blender.
Finally, she smiled and said that she didn't need anything else today - thank you. And then she left.
After 30 minutes of shuffling around the store and looking for things to do, I managed to wipe the encounter from my mind, and close up shop. I had a good dinner that day - grilled cheese with fried greens, black coffee, after-dinner mint.
Sorry. It's weird the sort of things you remember on days like that... You sure it's fine? Okay. All right. I'll keep going.
The sky was dark and starless that night - it was beautiful, but lonely. A few people were out panhandling on the night. I didn't have any cash with me, but I gave one of them the rest of my dinner. Yeah, it was a pretty paltry gesture - but I guess my thoughts were elsewhere. For some reason - for some reason I decided to go check out the shop.
Place was a mess - someone must've gone crazy trying to get in, but the one closed-circuit camera I had set up was completely smashed, a heavy rock fallen at it's side. Barring that? The windows were dented, cracked, but too heavily reinforced to get past. The security measures I had in place to keep the store safe had foiled my burglar...
But not for lack of trying. Someone had walked over the roof, walked back down, done a few laps around the store... A few officers were loitering, taking notes. I asked them about it, but the were terse. I mentioned that I owned the place, and they assured me they'd get on it, so I gave up - and, feeling exhausted, made my way home.
The apartment block I live at isn't particularly luxurious or anything. It's like a concrete slab with a garden and a pool hidden somewhere - but that's enough for me, usually. When I finished walking home, I noticed the super - building superintendent, that is - just milling around, a glum expression on her face.
I said respectfully, knowing she'd speak to me if it was something I'd done. Her face turned to mine - and in a split second, I knew my night wasn't over yet.
"You've got a package, Mr. Cesky. I left it by your room."
She looked as if she wanted to say more, but - she didn't. And hell, I wanted to ask her about it - but you don't live in a place like this and get by through talking to one another. We nodded our heads in that peculiar manner folks do, and hastily parted ways.
Three floors up. My room is three floors up - the fourth floor.
But you want to know about the package.
... I'm sorry, just a second.
All right. There was a letter from Norma on the front. Pink, cherry-pink writing. Chalk, maybe a crayon. It seemed out of character for her, not that I knew too much about her besides what she bought at my store. Lots of formal, elegant writing and talking about the weather, asking how I was doing... That sort of thing.
But the letter didn't end.
I know you think I'm exaggerating, but it literally did not end.
As I unfolded the letter, I realized the package wasn't a package - it was page upon page of writing, folded neatly into itself. There must have been enough paper there to be a small novel, but by the twenty-third page it started to fade into meaninglessness. Norma's once steady handwriting started to swivel, grow bizarre and rambling.
She repeated that I had to give her the game, that it was important, but not once in the whole hundreds of pages did she say why. I know - I read it twice.
At some point, the crayon or chalk or powdery substance she used must've given out and she switched to a different shade. Something rustier, kind of a deep brown. By then, she'd just taken to writing the word game, over and over. I felt nauseous.
Now, I'd taken the message inside to read it, of course - so I set it up on my bed, turned on my computer, checked my website and updated with information that I'd be closed for the next few days to deal with repairs - and then noticed something else. My inbox was completely full.
... I confess, I didn't read a single e-mail. I contacted my internet provider immediately, explained my problem - and maybe due to my age or my authoritative voice, managed to get the guy on the other side of the phone to give me an address.
At that point, I should've just phoned the police. I should have. I know. But I didn't, and it's on my head. I was concerned, and a little surprised to find out that Norma lived at a block I'd heard had been condemned some time back.
Worst of all - I was curious. The same curiosity that made me want to collect things whispered like a demon in the back of my mind - take a look. It won't hurt you. Take a look. What's going on here..? I had to look. I had to go and see for myself.
So I did.
The Yard - again, not the name of the complex, though I'm sure you know where I'm talking about - had long since been condemned, all right - but it appears I'd missed the place being refurbished a year and a half back. A few squatters and early buyers had moved in, and it looked like they'd gotten a good start on the place.
Yeah, I hear it isn't half-bad a place to live right now.
212 was off on it's own. It'd been joined to 211 at some time point, but 211 looked as if it'd been long since burnt to cinders by someone careless, carefree, and long gone.
I had to pull a cloth over my face as I got close. Even with the door closed - the scent was absolutely unbearable. If I had to describe it in one word - it was the scent of fresh fruit.
But I cannot describe it in one word. The scent of fresh fruit with flies crawling over it - and over the tiny bodies of other flies, no longer moving. Cups of instant noodles, half-opened and uneaten, stacked over one another in odd and almost geometric patterns.
Clothes - neatly arranged, folded, and washed, then thrown in towering piles that smelled of too much chemical disinfectant... And the faintest hint of something else, something under the two-hundred chemical names that my brain didn't quite register.
Her computer was on. There was an internet window, crammed open with tabs - one set aside for e-mailing, the others crammed with increasingly implausible stories and urban legends. The final tab was a map of our city, with certain stores and areas listed in the find-direction view; it looked as if she took the same route at least once every week.
Despite the clutter, the room was otherwise spartan. There were three - three! - television sets, two of the newer plasma screens and one older television set. All of them were turned on, not a single one had a console hooked into it, and they all were displaying the same thing - analog static.
Right, my apologies - a few years back, some analog stations had empty channels. You'd turn 'em on, and get test patterns, white noise, and strange flickering static that danced across the screen. Same with televisions not hooked up to much of anything - and I guess that was what was happening here.
... Or at least I did at first. One of the televisions went dead, suddenly. My heart nearly beat out of my chest as a 'pop' echoed throughout the room - and the older television set popped out a VHS tape. After catching my breath, I slid the tape back in - and rewinded it for a moment. Then a few more moments...
Hours of analog static, painstakingly recorded. And when I checked the plasma screen disks - the same damn footage, recorded on higher-definition formatting. Some part of me wanted to turn it off - but I didn't. The stench was getting to me and I still hadn't found Norma. I wanted to give her the game, ask if she needed help.
Really, it was like being a deer in the headlights - I couldn't turn back, I was too frightened. And there was still one room left - I could only imagine it to be the bedroom, if she slept on the couch in front of those constantly-wailing television screens.
... I'm sorry.
Just a few more minutes.
The room was hallowed out, inside.
If you've ever been in the middle of one of those public park restrooms, the ones that just have gigantic pits dug into the earth - that's what it reminded me of. Unlike the living room - this room smelled like nothing, save for plastic and something faint. Perfume, perhaps. Plastic and perfume.
The reason for the former was the tower. I don't know how far down the hole must have gone - but rising out of it's cavernous depths was a tower of cartridges, discs, and systems. I don't know how they were interlocked but - it was...
It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
... Thanks. I can continue now.
Most of the games were recognizable - I could recognize a few that I'd had in my shop before. Common titles, the kind you'd get by buying a system with a game. Flagship things. And then there were others. Bootlegs, untitled games, games that looked as if they'd been made by one person alone in a computer science class - to prove they could.
All of them stacked on top of each other and reaching towards the roof as if the roof were heaven, and the grey spire might pierce into the sky and let itself go free. But it didn't of course. It couldn't - it was just a stack of plastic cartridges, and nothing more.
... There was a ladder, down into the pit. It was one of those iron flood-ladders; the kind you ratchet to a surface. I climbed down trepidatiously - it took me about ten minutes to finally reach the end of the ladder and descend into the pit.
Norma was there - she must have jumped from the top of the hole. Had she dug it herself? Had she found it..? Her neck was bent, her eyes permanently locked up at the sky - for once we actually locked eyes. I noticed for the first time how bloodshot they were, and quickly looked away.
I know I shouldn't have, but her hand was outstretched. When she fell - I could only imagine that she'd fallen at such an angle that her hand... Was outstretched. Dammit, what was I supposed to do?! I still had the game in my coat pocket - I took the cartridge out, and placed it in her fingertips - and then I - then I closed the fingertips around the game.
Her hand was still warm. There was no darkness in the light besides the pale static of the television sets filtering in from far above - then the door blew shut, and there was no light at all. But in that darkness, with only the pale red-rusty-pink writing I saw flicker across the walls...
I swore I saw her smile.
This time it only took minutes to clamber back up the ladder - my blood racing as I felt I might have a heart attack and fall backwards, backwards into the pit and Norma's outstretched hand and the plastic pillar of flesh - but I made it out, opened the door, and slammed it shut behind me.
One of the tenants must have called the police or something, because there was a whole squadron of them waiting outside in the pale dawn light. I hadn't known how long I'd been there - but they stared at me expressionlessly. I knew a few of the officers involved - but they were all pale. As if there was something they knew, that I didn't.
I tried to ask for help, to explain what I'd seen - but they brushed past me. And there were others. Dressed all in drab blacks, withered greys - a few of the ones that looked more important had badges, and all I could remember was that they were green, painfully green - and in that pale light, it hurt too long to look at them.
For a minute, I thought they'd assume I'd done something, been responsible. But I was assured that there was nothing I could've done. There's no telling when seemingly ordinary people are crazy, after all - it was too bad, tragic even - but I'd get help, which is why I'm here talking to you, doctor.
... The one thing that stays with me, and it's such a stupid thing, is that I remember a few of the out-of-town officials pulling me aside before ushering me out of the crime scene - and asking me, again and again, what I'd done with the game. I told them - I told them, but they didn't seem to believe me.
Yeah, it isn't important. I just wish I could've done something to help her, doctor. Fluoxetine..? Sure, thank you. I'll turn in the prescription tomorrow.
Like I said - she has it now, last I saw. If you're willing to dive into that wretched pile and pry it loose, you could take it too, if it hasn't been seized already. I don't understand why you're asking though - I already told the truth to those fellows before -
Thanks. Of course, I won't worry about it. The whole thing is too much for me, doctor. Thanks for listening. I guess I'll see you around, then.