Fall had come late to Evans City, Pennsylvania, but with a chill vengeance. The air bit your ears and nose, while brown and red leaves skittered along cold asphalt roads. My hands red from the cool air, I stepped down the cement stairway leading to our basement apartment and slid in the key. The worn white door with the scuffed paint required, as usual, a rough blow with my shoulder to pop it open. What greeted me that cool Fall morning was one of the saddest sights I’d ever laid eyes on.
My two housemates stood in mournful silence around the crippled carcass of our Sinistar arcade machine, pulled a few feet from the wall of our game room. Parts were strewn across the brown-carpeted floor, along with a colorful assortment of grimy screwdrivers. Peering inside the chipped and banged up arcade cabinet stooped an older man with a mustache and a baseball cap. From halfway inside the machine, he shook his head.
“Nope, nope,” he explained. “This isn’t a standard wiring configuration.”
“Speak ENGLISH, man!” Ray cried.
“The ... ‘wiring’ ... ‘configuration’ ... isn’t ... ‘standard’” stammered the repair guy. He continued: “Whoever you got this machine from jury-rigged up a power supply from a different system. And this board here looks like it might have been a dupe some guy burned -- there’s no manufacturer stamp on these chips. And they ran it through these DIP switches, they aren’t standard at all, I have no idea what these are for or how to troubleshoot it. No, like I said, to fix this machine I’d have to take it off site and re-order all the original parts. It would cost more than you bought the machine for. I suggest you retire it.”
“RETIRE it!” Ray exclaimed. “What does that mean? Retire?”
“He wants to kill it, Ray,” Ian told him, trying to sound comforting. “He says we need to put it down, like a limpy horse. You know. BAM!” He made a little gun with his fingers and pointed it at the sun-faded decal of Sinistar on the side of the machine.
The Arcade repair guy slid away from the machine, gathered his screwdrivers, and stood back up. “Sorry, boys. Hard to see an old machine go like that. You should maybe talk to the people you bought it from.”
“Look here!” Ray boomed. “Evans City Indoor Skate Mayhem was an extremely reputable and reliable institution before that electrical fire burned the whole place to the ground.”
The repair guy shrugged, helplessly.
Ray pointed to the floor. “You can’t just leave it like that! It’s gutted! Put its ... bits back inside!”
Ian spoke in hushed tones. “You’d better do as he says. The man is grieving.”
With another shrug, the service guy got back down on his knees and returned all the boards to their sockets. He plugged in all the wires. The once ferocious video arcade let out a screeching sound effect, then fell silent, showing only a garbled boot-up screen.
As the guy left, it was all Ray could do to keep from sobbing. “You don’t understand!” he wailed. “I grew up with that machine. Back when I was little, and it used to be in the Dairy Queen? And then they moved it to that bowling alley on route 19? Remember we used to take our bikes out there even though my mom old us not to? And then remember how it was gone for a while and I was bummed, and then it showed up at the skate rink?”
“Ray, we were there,” I said.
“Remember how stoked I was when I bought it? And then played all weekend until I had my initials all over the high score thing? Member’at?” Ray ran his hand up and down the chipped and beaten surface of the machine. “What, we should just put it in the dump? Is that it? My old pal? Sinistar? One of the first ever talking video games? Who hungered for so long? Who encouraged me to run run run?”
“Sometimes an Arcade has to pass on, Ray,” I said. “They're like people. You know. Eventually, you just have to let it go.”
I thought I was getting through to him, but little did I know my softspoken words would backfire. Ian followed my lead: “Marcy here has a pickup truck, dude. You don’t even have to watch. We’ll just gently pick up the machine, put it in the back, and take it -- lovingly -- to the dump. ‘kay?”
Ray’s eyes glazed over as he stared at the illegible pattern of noise on the screen. He ran his hands along the joystick and well-worn start button. “You wouldn’t take a person to the dump,” he said. “Sinistar is people too!”
I lost my cool. “Come off it Ray, grow up! You’re not suggesting we bury your stupid Sinistar arcade!”
Ian plopped into a plaid recliner chair and laughed out loud. “Yah, funeral plots are expensive, man. Evans City Cemetery ran out of space.”
Ray backed away from the machine and raised a finger in the air. “No...” he said, slowly. “No they didn’t! Remember my Uncle Stevie?”
“Uncle Stevie died two years ago,” Ian pointed out. “I think he’s using his cemetery plot.”
“No he’s not!” Ray exclaimed. “After the tractor trailer rolled over on him there was almost nothing left. His remains fit in a shoe box. My Aunt had him cremated and spread the ashes, but she kept the plot and the headstone since it was next to hers!”
“If you’re seriously thinking about burying the Sinistar machine in a cemetery, you can so count me out” I huffed.
But Ian, heretofore my voice of reason, merely tilted the recliner chair back and looked wistfully at the ceiling. “Yah, Uncle Stevie woulda wanted it that way.”
“He SO woulda wanted it that way!” Ray exclaimed.
Ian lowered the recliner and stood up. “We’ll need shovels. And my dad’s dolly. And -- Marcy, we’ll need your pickup truck. We can’t do this thing without you!”
Ray frantically mashed the game’s buttons and the broken machine stammered out loud in a robotic voice:
I am ... Sinistar.
I’m not sure what finally put me over the edge. Maybe it was the machine’s pitiful digitized croak of defiance. Maybe it was the image of Ray’s Aunt Emma sleeping peacefully next to a buried videogame for all eternity. Or maybe it was the notion that passed briefly through my mind, a vision of a thousand years hence, when archaeologists plumbing the depths of the Evans City cemetery would unearth to their surprise a mysterious worm-eaten heap of plywood and electronics, grinning at them with a demonic robot face. Who knows. Whatever.
I volunteered my truck.
* * *
Flash forward to Midnight that very night. A full harvest moon shone above, but instead of illuminating the shadowy cemetery it merely lit up the traces of misty fog that drifted amidst the tilted and weathered headstones. The Evans City cemetery was built over a hundred years ago across acres and acres of hilly Pennsylvania ground surrounded by dense woods. We drove quietly up one of the dirt access roads that wrapped around the rear of the tract of land, our headlights off, the Sinistar machine looming quietly in the back like a dead monarch.
It was a path we’d taken all the time on our bicycles when we were teenagers as a shortcut back to town. We were familiar with the night routine, which was why we hid the truck amidst the trees and slinked forward to peer through the bushes.
Around midnight the night watchman -- a Hispanic guy with creases around his tired eyes -- drove by in his golf cart. He’d been doing this for years, mostly to chase away kids (you can imagine we’d discovered his routine the hard way.) His cart crunched along the path. His eyes surveyed the rows upon rows of crooked stones visible through the fog, and then his tiny vehicle rolled up the hill and disappeared to another part of the massive memorial ground. He’d head back to the maintenance building, then, and return to his late night television for a couple of hours. His next rounds would be around 2 AM. We had to move fast!
The three of us scurried out into the dew-drenched grass and eyed the stones one-by-one. “Wait, here! Here’s my grandpa!” Ray hissed, calling us over. “And Grandma.... and here’s where my parents will be ... and ... there! Uncle Stevie!”
We stood before Uncle Stevie’s completed gravestone, with the freshly carved date of death: 2000. There was an awkward moment of silence.
“Let’s start digging! We’ve got two hours!” Ian proclaimed after a respectful moment, tossing the shovels to the ground with a wet thud. Ray’s family had a plot of ground right next to the edge of the cemetery, bordering on the dirt road that the golf cart used, so we didn’t have much time.
Ray looked around and pointed out a metal pole beside the dirt road, topped with an electrical outlet. “Be careful,” he explained. “They’ve got power lines buried between the plots for electric trimmers and groundskeeping whatnots. So, uh, stay within the marker stones.”
With that, we began our dig. It wasn’t an organized dig by any stretch. It was more like the three of us with shovels and a pick desperately clawing a scar into the damp earth. Arcade machines, as you know, are quite large, and we had less than two hours to create a pit deep enough.
The moon descended into the trees as we dug, casting long eerie shadows through the mists. Our three bent, shadowy figures were the only movement in the night, and the only sounds save the crickets were the scrapes and clanks of our tools. Despite the cold air I began to sweat from both nerves and fear. The cemetery was a terrifying place in the wee hours of night. The stones themselves seem to shift and creep along the rolling hills... What an eerie job that poor night watchman must have.
But the time passed quicker than we’d have wished. The hole was deep enough, sure, but it was sloped and uneven. The Sinistar machine would be resting on a gentle incline, its head ... er, excuse me, top ... would be submerged only a foot or so beneath the surface. But it would have to do. The night watchman would be around any moment and we had to have that hole filled in before he spotted us.
Quietly I backed my truck up to the pit. We’d piled the dirt so that the Sinistar machine could slide down a dirt ramp into its final resting place, which was good planning, since the next phase of our operation went over remarkably well. Soon the machine glared up at us from the abyss, almost mournfully, its upturned screen hidden from the setting moon by the rough walls of its grave.
Ian drove a shovel into the loose dirt but Ray stopped him. “Wait wait wait!” he said, while Ian glanced around nervously. Ray kneeled over the pit and, choking back his tears, he placed one final quarter onto the backglass. “Til we meet again buddy,” he whispered.
“Oh for the love of God stand up, Ray!” Ian hissed. He threw the first shovel full onto the arcade, and I followed suit. Ray watched in silence as his lifelong pal was slowly covered with wormy mud, obscured from view until only a wet pile of dirt and grass marked its final rest. I jumped up into the driver’s seat of my truck, took off the e-brake, and coasted silently back down the access road until I was hidden once more from sight.
When I returned, dirty, sweaty, and waiting for the telltale put-put of the golf cart motor, Ray and Ian stood shoulder-to-shoulder looking down at the gravesite.
“I just want to say a few words,” Ray explained.
“Make it quick!” Ian whispered, looking anxiously down the road.
“Oh God, we commend to you our brother, Sinistar, and we commit its cabinet to the ground. Earth to earth; Sinisite crystals to sinisite crystals; Sinibomb to sinibomb. Please bless it and keep it, and be gracious onto it even in the fourth wave, the void, which hardly has any asteroids and is really really hard, amen.”
The eulogy was interrupted by the putting of the golf cart, meandering along the winding service road just beyond the hill. “Okay, c’mon!” Ian hissed, and as we turned to leave, we nearly tripped on a snakelike object on the ground. “Aw CRAP! The power cord! We didn’t bury it! Get the shovels--”
“No no,” Ray interrupted, grabbing Ian by his sweatshirt. He pointed to the pipe with the electrical outlet on top. “Plug it in! Plug it in!”
Look, there was no arguing with Ray at this point. The man was hysterical. Meanwhile, the headlights started to sweep around from behind the hillside. Ian reached down, grabbed the half-buried electrical cord, plugged the machine into the live power outlet, and the three of us RAN to the edge of the cemetery and JUMPED into the bushes, scattering leaves and cracking branches.
The golf cart rumbled around the corner, crunching dirt and gravel. Something caught the old man’s eyes and we held our breath as he suddenly lifted his foot from the gas pedal and allowed the cart to drift to a halt. He lifted his maglight from the seat pocket and clicked it on, his beam of light piercing the darkness and shining directly onto our patch of fresh dirt.
Suddenly his head darted over his shoulder, and the flashlight whipped around. It was hard to tell from our vantage point in the trees, but I think his forehead began to glisten with sweat. He slowly got out of his car and stepped toward the gravesite.
Here, to his eyes, was a grave -- a disturbed grave, where only two hours before it had been normal. The flashlight flicked across Uncle Stevie’s headstone: Died, 2000. Very slowly, the night watchman crossed himself, then stepped forward onto the disturbed ground to investigate.
From within the earth, a deep distorted voice boomed:
The maglight hit the ground even as a horrified scream choked itself within the poor man’s throat. He wheeled backwards, tripping over his own feet, slamming painfully into the golf cart.
BEWARE ... I LIVE! ...howled the voice from the grave.
In the darkness the guard fumbled desperately with the controls of the cart. I think he pushed the accelerator with his hands; it lurched forward, dragging his feet behind it.
RUN COWARD!! RUN! RUN! RUN!
According to the papers, Evans City police found him an hour later at the base of the hill, blocking an intersection and wailing uncontrollably.