Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boardwalk Tales: The Tale of the Laser Tag Operator

January 13th, 2009 at 8:45 p.m. — Laser Tag Arena, Casino Arcade
Winter was upon us. With token madness, the stream of guests had continued through the autumn after the Boardwalk had mostly closed for the season. Rains had come and periodically thundered on the roof of the hundred-year-old edifice that was the 1907 Casino Arcade. As usual, I worked at Laser Tag that cold January evening, hoping for even a small group to arrive and want to play just to pass the time.

At around eight o'clock, such a group arrived. Three teenagers—two guys and a girl—and one of their little brothers. They were garbed in the usual style of the time: dark-colored clothing with bright colors flaring through intentional tears in the fabric. They paid their fares and I waited the prescribed time before we all entered for a ten-minute game.

As we entered, I took their tickets and directed them to the briefing room as I had done hundreds of times before. The video started and the guests talked over it, as they always tended to do. I walked into the vesting room and pulled out my cell phone, texting a friend that I would be off in a couple of hours. A creak upstairs forced me to turn my head toward the ceiling. I waited a moment but didn't hear anything more. The sound of the video ending returned me to my duties and I quickly went back to the briefing room, told the guests the rules, and brought them into the vesting room.

Things remained as usual. The four guests vested up and we all went upstairs to the Laser Tag arena to play a typical ten-minute off-season game. That is when things got weird.

It was said that in the 1906 fire, three people died in the Casino building: a woman trapped in the staircase, her son crushed by an onion dome in the upstairs dining room, and his father killed by falling debris in a downstairs bathroom. Laser Tag was, therefore, not unknown to possess ghosts, though in most cases they were benevolent beings wandering aimlessly. Tonight, they were something else.

I was acting as marshal, wearing a red vest more for effect than for authority. About a minute into the game, as I walked around a corner, I spotted a small boy running down the corridor near the stairs. I shouted after him and then grabbed the microphone and repeated the "no running in the arena" rule. A few seconds later, the same kid ran by me on the opposite side. It was at that moment that I realized he wasn't wearing a vest.

Great! I thought to myself. The kid dropped off his vest somewhere in here and now I've got to find it. I began retracing the steps of the little boy in the hope that he dropped off his vest near the Cocoanut Grove access door. I reached the end of the hallway and turned right to find a woman in a white floral dress staring up the old roof access stairway. Like the boy, she wasn't wearing a vest and hadn't joined the game.

I stopped dead in my tracks. A prickle of fear ran down my spine as I followed her gaze. Ahead up the stairs, the boy was hanging from his neck from the metal cage, a blinking green vest dangling from his feet. He rotated slowly in circles. I fell back into the wall, staring eyes fixed at the specter. I shot a glance left at the woman, but she was gone. Returning to the boy, he too was gone. A player jumped past me, the teenage girl following, shooting each other with their lasers like nothing strange hajust happened.

Two minutes had passed.

Catching my breath, I resumed my pacing of the arena. The air, which usually smelled of a musty sweat mixed with dry powdery talc from the fog machine, reeked of smoke. But it was an old smoke, like the smoke from embers lingering from a fire long extinguished. The smell permeated my sinuses and followed me as I walked. I entered the large arena room and bumped into a half-wall, not paying attention to where I was going. Turning left, I circled the sentry pod to stare directly into the eyes of a man. He was middle aged and wearing a business suit. He looked down at me with mustached grin. His sports coat was torn in various places and his hands dripped blood where there should have been fingers. The sight was terrifying.

The man broke our locked gaze and turned to walk away, disappearing into the wall behind him as he turned. I hesitated a minute, and then ran around the corner to confront the spirit, but no one was there. The ghost had vanished into the surroundings. The teenagers continued their game.

Three minutes had passed.

Cautiously continuing my walk, a cold chill passed through me and lingered around me. The building seemed to creak as I walked, which was normal for the arena but seemed suspicious now. The loud Goldeneye music gave way to a generic techno beat, and I continued, casting furtive looks at every shadow and corner.

As I entered the red-lit room of one of the old bases, I couldn't help remember the recent report of a man—a man in a suit—appearing in this very room a month before. But no visage appeared, only I, the frightened operator of a fearsomely haunted attraction. The other players knew nothing of this location's history; they only wanted to play the game. But I knew. I knew with every walking step that three people died here, and they were following me.

Four minutes had passed.

I stood upright and reasserted myself as I walked around the corner, and then my brain went on vacation. Instead of entering the open crossfire room that acted as the center of the Laser Tag arena, I was teleported back in time to the balcony of a different place—a different Casino—a different time entirely.

A boy walked hand-in-hand with his mother and father. He wore a sailor's outfit with a small blue and white tie. His father was dressed in a business suit while his mother wore a white floral dress. They slowly walked along the promenade overlooking the ocean, which was much nearer than it is now. The boy talked but I could not hear what he said. The arena's music still dominated my hearing. The boy suddenly darted away toward a bridge that crossed over to another outdoor patio. A soft breeze wafted across my face, but I couldn't smell the lovely salty air—all I could smell was ash. The boy turned around and circled his parents and myself. I followed at a distance, observing, confused.

The scene faded away into flames. Fire surrounded me and ate away at the building, though I felt no pain. The floor beneath me collapsed and I fell with it, falling into a heap on the arena's black light floor. One of the players, a teenage boy, stopped and knelt down beside me. He looked at me and I at him. Something about his expression told me that my recent horrors were transparent. The teen asked if I was alright, to which I answered with a simple "yes." I took his hand and he ran off, leaving me in my delirium.

Five minutes had passed.

My wanderings continued, as I was no longer even paying attention to the players or the game. All my thoughts were to exiting the arena as quickly as possible. I walked over to the phone and called downstairs to the cashier, but no one picked up. I let the phone ring for nearly a minute, but with no one answering, I gave up my quest. They must have been sent home early. I decided I needed some fresh air and crossed the arena to the small hatch window, unlocking it in one quick flick of my wrist.

The cool night air flowed in, and for the first time since I saw the boy, I could smell clearly. I opened my eyes to look through the narrow slats of the window, only to see the woman in white falling off the edge of the building into the sands below.

Six minutes had passed.

I leaned against the barrel beside me, and again the walls fell away in my mind, being replaced with a long balcony. The father and son looked over the edge at the woman, and then each followed her in turn. I shouted to them and ran to the ledge, thrusting my arm out, but they lay in heaps on the sands, no longer bodies but burned corpses. I screamed in terror, and awakened from my reverie.

Above me, the teenage girl stared terrified. I had a large bump growing on my forehead from hitting the wall. She stared for a moment longer, then turned to shoot a friend with her laser rifle.

Seven minutes had passed.

The music faded to the idle song of astronauts taking off in their Saturn V rocket, recorded back in the 1970s. I forced myself upwards and leaned against the wall. Surely, I was hallucinating. None of this was real. But with my waking eyes, I saw the boy run by again, more alive than any person I had ever seen before. He even wore a laser tag vest. I chased after him, no longer thinking about rules. I wanted to catch him to prove I wasn't crazy. As I rounded a corner, I found the boy. I grabbed his vest and got down to his level, looking him squarely in the eyes. He stared back at me fearfully. A teen ran around the corner and stopped.

"What the hell is going on here?" he shouted at me.

"He…wait…um…" I mumbled in reply.

"Let go of my brother!" he demanded. I obligingly released the boy. He turned then ran down the corridor beside the roof access stairs. The teen shoved me against the wall as he followed his brother, muttering an expletive as he left. Above him, the boy in the sailor outfit swayed softly from the ceiling with a noose around his neck.

Eight minutes had passed.

Terror took me and I ripped open the roof access gate and turned the light on. The light in the upstairs room turned on, illuminating blood stains across the painted window. They formed a message directed at me: "We can never leave."

I sprinted up the stairs, past the phantom of the hanging boy, and shoved open the door. It was stuck on something. I shouldered it open anyway, and it finally gave. Large tubes of plastic fell on me, as well as something squishy and cold. I fell backwards and hit my head on the wall, sliding to the ground. A pair of empty eyes gazed up at me, and I screamed.

Nine minutes had passed.

I kicked all the debris off of me, and the body thumped hard on the ground. I stepped back outside toward the stairs and slipped, riding my butt every step of the way to the bottom. My rear was sore but my drive to get out of the arena was more pressing. The boy no longer hanged from the ceiling, but his father was standing in the corner as I sprinted down the corridor to the top of the stairwell. I checked the spare vest and there were only 20 seconds left in the game. I stood by the stairs for the rest of the game until the vest told me that the game was over.

The sounds of four vests deactivating across the arena was the most wonderful sound I had heard in the past ten minutes. I called everyone to the stairwell over the PA system with a panicked tone to my voice. The four players came quickly, assessing me with questioning expressions.

I took them downstairs and was happy to see them exit the vesting room quickly. I walked over to the computer and reset all the vests, just for good measure. Upstairs, I could hear footsteps again in the arena, as well as a pair walking down the stairs above me. Shivering, I began to turn toward the door, when all of the vests activated without provocation. I twirled as they lit up, every one of them red…except one. I hesitantly looked back at the Laser Tag computer's monitor to see what had happened. A new game had been started using a rarely-used mode:


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