Prologue

The boy ran up the stairs, down the hall and then finally burst into his bedroom, swinging the door shut behind him as he threw his backpack onto his bed. His heart felt as if it were beating a hundred miles an hour, though not because he’d ran all the way home from school. He went over to the television that was sitting on his desk, turned it on and started up his Nintendo Entertainment System video game console.

Come on. Come on. Come on! he thought.

Then it appeared on the monitor, that black starting screen. In the middle of the screen the word Drabardi flashed in white text, followed by the programmer’s name in the credits along with a list of special thanks to four individuals whose names he quickly dismissed. The boy never paid attention to who had programmed the game nor what these four individuals were thanked for. Today, he still didn’t care about these things either. There were more urgent and important matters in his mind to take care of….

After pressing start to skip past the title screen, a new word flashed on the screen against the black background:

“Name:”

The boy typed in his answer.

“CHARLIE”

The game continued asking questions and Charlie typed his answers to into a field using the gamepad to select individual characters from a virtual keypad displayed on the television screen.

Finally, it asked him for his gender and birthdate.

As Charlie filled in the answers to these questions, his muscles tensed as feelings of anger and irritation coursed up through his veins. He had answered these question dozens of times since he bought the damn game. Why did it keep asking him these things? Could it not tell that he was in a big hurry?

The final question faded and the screen brightened until it was a bright, blinding white.

Then it appeared, that pixelated wizard character that he’d came to recognize so well, seated in the lotus position, his hands clasped on his lap. It was the wizard, Drabardi, accompanied by white text implied to be his dialogue.

“What do you wish to know?”

“I…” Charlie almost choked on his words. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Is my mother going to die?”

“Yes.”

Charlie could feel the tears swelling in his eyes. “When?” he typed into the virtual notepad.

“Today.”

Charlie jumped to his feet and screamed at the television screen. “YOU’RE A LIAR!” he cried. “A LIAR!”

Charlie ran out of the room, tears rolling down his cheeks, but he didn’t wipe them away. This is not real, he thought to himself as he ran down the stairs. This is all just a game!

But he knew better. His friend, Paul, had also played the game and look where it had gotten him.

Charlie walked out of the front door not knowing exactly when he had made up his mind that he was going to make the five and a half mile walk to the grocery store in downtown Newberg. His mother had gone there. He knew because she had told him so when he left for school that morning.

But as soon as he stepped out onto the pathway that led to the sidewalk, Charlie stopped and sighed a deep breath of relief. His mother’s car was coming to a stop on the road with the car’s indicator lights blinking left.

There’s nothing wrong, thought Charlie. It’s just a stupid game. But how could he explain what happened to Paul and his family?

A white SUV slowed down and came to a stop parallel to his mother’s car. From a distance, Charlie could see it was Mrs. Davis, his fourth grade teacher. She had lowered her passenger side widow to talk to Charlie’s mother. They looked like they were chatting.

Charlie fidgeted, wishing that his mother would stop talking and hurry back to the house, where it would be safe.

Soon, he saw Mrs. Davis’ white SUV drive off. The conversation between her and his mother was over.

Feeling a breath of relief, Charlie watched as his mother steered the car into the driveway—

When a huge agricultural truck appeared seemingly out of nowhere and crashed straight into the side of his mother’s vehicle. The car flipped as it was pushed by the truck several yards down the road.

All Charlie could do was scream in horror.

He remembered running towards the crash but Mrs. Davis had grabbed him firmly from behind and kept him from getting near the wreckage. She had not driven away very far when the accident occurred and, after hearing the loud crash, she saw everything that happened through the rear-view mirror.

Mrs. Davis took Charlie inside his house, dragging him away from the wreckage of his mom’s car.

He couldn’t talk…

He couldn’t think…

He couldn’t hear…

All he could do was let himself be taken up to his room by Mrs. Davis where she placed him down on the bed and told him to sit down.

“Are you going to be ok?” she asked.

He nodded…and he was lying of course. His mother had just died – how could he ever be ok? But Charlie wanted to be alone. Mrs. Davis got up and left the room to call for help. When he heard her walk down stairs, he got up and closed the door. He heard the television on his desk click on behind him.

Charlie turned to see the pixelated wizard, Drabardi, on the screen. The wizard raised his hand to the deck of virtual cards stacked in front of him. The game screen then showed an animation of one of the cards from the deck and turned it around so that Charlie could see the pixelated picture.

On the card was a cartoon car getting struck by a truck.

Charlie’s felt his heart plummet to the pit of his stomach. The screen then flashed in white and red colors before displaying a new pixelated portrait that of the horrified face of a terrified woman with her hands pressed against shattering glass, and a car steering wheel clearly sitting in front of her.

Charlie screamed.

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Are we there yet?” Zelda Miller asked her father for the hundredth time.

“Not yet, sweetheart,” her father responded with the same calm demeanor he used when he’d first said so fifteen minutes ago.

Dante rolled his eyes, annoyed at his five-year old sister. Why couldn’t she understand that, when they arrived, their father would just tell them?

Zelda bounced up and down, animatedly clapping her hands.

“Zelda, stop it!” Dante nudged her with his hand.

“Don’t push me!” Zelda cried out, her red face flushed with anger. “Dad, Dante pushed me.”

“Dante, don’t push your sister,” his father said. Dante could see his father’s eyes looking at him through the rear-view mirror.

“I didn’t push her, I nudged her.” He turned to his little sister. “I nudged you.”

“You seem in a bad mood, Dante,” his father pointed out. “I thought that you’d be extremely enthusiastic about going to the estate sale.”

“I am!”

Dante was telling the truth. He was very enthusiastic about going to the estate sale. He always enjoyed it when his father— who collected retro things like old He-Man and Thundercats action figures and old videogames—drove around to these sales because then Dante could convince his father to buy amazing toys for himself.

At first, Dante was bothered about his father’s choice of hobby. But that was mostly because other kids at school would tease him endlessly about what a freak his dad was to hoard children’s toys. Dante had lost count of how many fist fights he had at school and how many suspensions, especially after his mother passed away. After that, his father’s collection habits had exacerbated to an alarming rate.

But when he was suspended last year, Dante’s father had sat down and had given him a lecture about how he would never achieve anything meaningful in life if he allowed the opinions of everyone around him to dictate his behavior.

“People won’t always understand everything you do,” his father had told him when he had to pick him up at the principal’s office. “And if you follow the crowd, you’ll end up in a position you might be miserable in.”

“Then what should I do?” Dante had asked.

“Just follow your heart, son. Just follow your heart.”

From that moment on, Dante had decided to see things from his father’s perspective. When he accompanied his dad to his first estate sale, he never looked back with regret. He found so many cool things. Toys from the past were much cooler than the ones sold in stores today, and having these items made Dante feel unique…exclusive…cool. Half of the time, when he was talking to his friends about what he just bought, his friends would look at him confused, not knowing what he was talking about. That gave him the opportunity to introduce his friends to new shows and franchises they’d never heard of before.

So, usually Dante enjoyed the trips. But today he was feeling irritated because this road trip was not a father and son event any longer. Now, his little sister was included. In the past, his father would leave her with Maria, the lady who lived next door. This time, his father thought Zelda was old enough to accompany them on these garage sale adventures.

“Are we there yet?” Zelda asked.

“Yes, we are,” their father said as he turned into a driveway where several other cars parked.

Dante looked around outside the passenger window of the car. The house was a Victorian style with two floors. White paint had peeled off the wooden panels on the side of the house.  It looked old and ill cared for.

The sale was also crowded. There were people walking in and out, getting into their cars and driving away – most of them holding or carrying something.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Dante pointed out.

The house was indeed in the middle of nowhere. The closest house they had passed around ten minutes ago on their way to the sale.

“This area is mostly farms and woodlands,” his father said as he killed the engine and they all got out.

“So,” Dante continued asking as the three of them made their way up to the porch then to the front door. “Why are these people selling their stuff?”

His father shrugged.

“Don’t know really,” said his father. “Some tragedy that happened. I think that one of their kids passed away from some sort of illness.”

“Where do dead people go, daddy?” Zelda asked, tugging at his hand.

“I’ll explain it to you later,” said Dante’s father. “But right now is not the time, sweetheart.”

For a couple of minutes, Dante stuck to his father’s side, going from room to room, checking every item that was up for sale spread out on tables and held in cardboard boxes, until he began to get annoyed at his sister’s constant questions. She seemed to have one for every item there was in the house.

“Dad,” he said. “Can I look around?”

“Sure,” said his father while looking through a box of old paperback books. “Just don’t touch anything.”

“I won’t,” Dante promised, and then left the room quickly before his father had a chance to ask him to take Zelda along.

Dante walked around the house, looking around to see if anything would catch his attention. The place was not as crowded as other estate sales he’d been too. This one had about a dozen people walking about looking at stuff. As with most sales, people left when they found something they liked and paid for, and then more people would arrive to replace the ones who left.

It was a constant flow.

Dante noticed a man standing in front of a box. He picked up something from it, looked at it and then quickly dropped it back inside the box. Then the man walked away. Dante watched the man leaving the room for a moment and then turned his attention to the box.

Something was drawing him there – a gut feeling.

He slowly walked to the box and looked inside.

“Wow!” he said as he picked up the heavy, hard plastic toy and studied it. It was really old, ancient really.

Dante continued to rummage around the box. There were a bunch of old grey cartridge video games but he was mostly attracted to a large box with wire cords wrapped around it. The box was rectangular and flat. It was painted gray and black with two controllers, the same colors except that the buttons were colored red.

“What do you got there, champ?” said Dante’s father as he approached from behind.

“I don’t know,” Dante answered, still looking down at the console and game. “Just found this.”

“Let me see,” said his father.

Dante handed the items to his father who looked at them closely.

“This is so cool!” his father said with delight. “This is a NES.”

“What’s that?” Dante asked, frowning.

“NES is an abbreviation for Nintendo Entertainment System,” explained his father. “It’s an eight-bit home video game console that was manufactured by Nintendo. I had one when I was a kid.” His father turned his gaze away from the items and to his son.  “These are pretty cool. One of my favorite games was Super Mario Brothers.” He shrugged then added a bit shyly. “Well, I also enjoyed Duck Hunt and Mega Man. Maybe we can play together. I could teach you all the cool tricks.”

Watching his father’s enthusiasm and childish excitement over these toys was the reason he enjoyed these trips…these moments. “Can we buy it?” Dante asked.

“Of course we can,” his father said. “And you’re in luck because I see that it comes fully equipped with two controllers. It is getting harder to find these old model NES controllers that are still functional.”

“Cool!” said Dante.

“Just make sure you don’t go overboard with the number of games you’re taking. Remember—”

Dante rolled his eyes and then finished his father’s sentence. “Always look at the prices and ask if they come in bundles.”

“Atta boy,” said his father, smiling. His father then picked up Zelda who was already tugging at his jacket. That usually meant she was tired and wanted to be held.

Always the complainer, thought Dante. Dante knelt down and started looking through the library of games held inside the box. He grabbed one of the games and looked at it frowning, because there was no label to indicate which game it was or that would hint what the game was about. The official artwork had been peeled off. The only thing the game had was a word written in black marker over the ripped label remnants: Drabardi.

The mystery was too much for Dante to handle. He wanted to know what the game was about. Was it any good? Was it an action game? What could it be about? He simply needed to know.

So he grabbed the game and put it together with the console, to the side of the box where he gathered the items he wanted his dad to purchase. Dante also grabbed the games that his father had mentioned in the past that he liked. He guessed that his father had not been exaggerating when he said these were the most popular of their time.

After half an hour, Dante joined his father and sister at the front of the house where the man handling the cash register was standing. His father was in the process of purchasing some weird, small toys made out of different colored plastics that seemed to represent wrestlers. His dad also had found a miniature wrestling ring that went with the toys. Meanwhile, his sister held onto two Barbie dolls in her hands.

“Will that be all you’re buying?” The man working the register asked as he punched some numbers into it.

“No,” his father said. “We’ll also be buying these.”

The cashier looked at Dante and then at the games and the console.

“Ah, those,” said the man. “I don’t recall those being part of what we were selling but…”

“There’s a box full of these upstairs,” said Dante.

The cashier shrugged. “It must have belonged to the boy who lived here,” said the man.

“Who did live here?” Dante’s father asked the man.

“A family of four,” The cashier said. “It’s a sad and tragic story, really. I shouldn’t even be talking about it—especially not with customers.”

His father nodded as if he understood, but Dante had no idea about what was going on.

“Perhaps it’s better if we don’t know the history behind this stuff,” said Dante’s father.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“What the hell is that?” Dante’s friend, Bradley Smith, said pointing at the game console that sat on the table under the flat screen television in his living room.

“That’s an NES from the mid-eighties,” explained Dante, his chest pushed out, proud to have something as unique and special to show off to his friends.

“What’s an NES?” asked Bradley.

Dante explained it to him, trying to recite word-by-word what his father had told him in the past. In the end he just made up his own version of what it was.

“So this thing was the best-selling gaming console back then?”

“Yeah,” said Dante. “According to the internet, it helped revitalize the video game industry after the market crash in 1983. So, because of it, we now have game systems like the Wii and XBox.”

“Cool,” said Bradley. He looked impressed.

Dante always researched what he bought because, not only did he want to know its history, but also because he wanted to add yet another level to his bragging when his friends came over. Sounding like an expert just made him feel cool.

“Yes, it is,” continued Dante. “It also introduced the standard business model which the game industry now uses for licensing third-party developers, authorizing them to produce and distribute titles for Nintendo’s platform.”

“Well, can we now play with it?” asked Bradley.

“Yeah. That’s why I invited you over.” Dante turned the game console on. The cartoon that had been playing on the television was now replaced by a black screen before a simple logo appeared. It was a crystal ball and, in front of it, was the name of the game printed in white lettering: Drabardi.

“The pixels look so old!” Bradley said.

The programmer’s name in the credits appeared and Dante read it: Adrian Dee. This was followed by a list of special thanks to several individuals that Dante paid little heed to. He hit the start key on the controller to skip past the rest of the titles.

Then a word appeared on the next screen:

“Name:”

This was accompanied by a virtual keypad on the screen, which he could control using the gamepad. Dante filled the field in with his name and another field came up for him to fill in.

“Gender:”

“This is boring,” said Bradley.

“It’s just beginning, said Dante “Let’s give it a fair chance.”

Bradley shrugged. “Ok.”

Dante selected the option that said male and pressed the gamepad button. The screen went dark and then yet another field appeared.

“Birthdate:”

He typed in the answer to that one, too. His own birthday.

After hitting the button on the gamepad to confirm his entry, the white lettering faded and the screen brightened until it was a blinding white. Then, it faded back to black. A pixelated character appeared on the screen with his legs crossed and his hands clasped on his lap. The character was wearing a turban hat like the ones worn by the evil magician in the animated film Aladdin and what seemed like a shirt with long sleeves. The man looked old with wrinkled skin, brown eyes and a long white beard. On his forehead, he had a painted red dot.

White lettering appeared below the character on the screen.

“My name is Drabardi. What is it that you would like to know?”

As the lettering appeared, Dante and Bradley heard a modulated voice accompany it, playing through the speakers of the television, repeating the words on the screen. The character’s voice sounded robotic, emphasizing each and every syllable.

“It sounds kind of creepy,” said Bradley.

“Yes, it does,” Dante agreed. “But I guess that’s what old game technology was like thirty years ago.”

“What are you guys doing?”

Dante whipped his head around to see his sister, Zelda, walk into the living room.

“We’re just playing with the game dad bought me,” Dante told her. “Don’t interrupt.”

“I want to play, too,” she said, reaching for his controller.

“Go away, Zelda,” said Dante. “We’re playing right now.”

Dante pushed his sister away from him gently.

Zelda stood there with her arms crossed tightly in front of her chest with a pouty face. “I want to play!” she said.

“Well,” Dante said. “Too bad because you can’t!”

“I’m going to tell on you!”

“Go ahead and see if I care!”

Zelda stormed her way over to the game console and pushed the button that shut the game console off. The television screen flickered and the game output disappeared, becoming replaced by the cartoon he was watching earlier.

“Zelda!” Dante shouted, but before he could reprimand his sister for her actions, Zelda ran out of the room giggling. Dante groaned as he stood up and walked over to turn the console back on. “Sisters are so annoying!”

“I’m lucky I’m an only child,” Bradley said.

“Sometimes I wish that I was an only child.”

With the game console back on, Dante waited for the game to ask him the same information he had filled in before his sister entered and ruined everything. But this time he had an idea…instead of entering his own information he would enter his sister’s.

“What are you doing?” asked Bradley as he noticed what Dante was doing.

“I just want to see something,” he replied.

When he was done filling in the last question he clicked the gamepad button to confirm. This time the pixelated game character Drabardi had what looked like a deck of cards in front of him. With a raised palm, the fortune teller caused the deck to shuffle.

The game, via Drabardi, then asked Dante the same question as before with the same creepy modulated voice over the TV speakers.

“My name is Drabardi. What is it that you would like to know?”

Bradley frowned.

“That’s strange,” he said.

“What is?” asked Dante.

“I think he changed his wording slightly,” said Bradley.

“That’s impossible since it’s a pre-recording,” Dante told his friend before turning his attention back to the wizard and typed his question into the game:

“When will my sister die?”

As he pressed the enter button on the gamepad, Bradley looked at Dante with wide and horrified eyes.

“What are you doing?” asked Bradley.

“I’m just playing around,” said Dante. “It’s just a dumb game anyway.”

The fortune teller on the screen stopped shuffling the cards and spread them out on the ground in front of him. Then he picked one up and looked at it.

“Soon.”

Drabardi’s modulated voice accompanied the text.

“Soon?!” The two boys chorused as they exchanged quick glances at each other, then they returned their eyes back to the television.

The card Drabardi held now faced toward them so they could see what it showed on the screen. On the card was a crude pixelated drawing of a little girl with her hair in pig-tails and a pink dress. The artwork was crude, but it was eerily similar to how Zelda was dressed this morning.

The artwork depicted the little girl falling headfirst down a stairwell, pushed by a black hand that was only painted as a shadow

“Very soon your sister will die.”

Drabardi said in that creepy modular voice of his and, as soon as the voice stopped, the game started playing music that raised all the hairs on Dante’s skin. The music was creepy and odd, and sounded kind of like something he might hear in a horror movie intro.

“Okay,” Bradley said. “I’m officially done playing with this game.”

“Me too,” said Dante. “I’m completely freaked out.”

“Why are you freaked out?” the voice of Drabardi asked the boys over the television speakers. “Why don’t you play another round of the game?”

The screen then changed, with the face of Drabardi filling up the entire television. The pixelated face grinned devilishly and his eyes looked directly at Dante.

The two boys immediately jumped to their feet and ran out of the living room and up the stairs, screaming at the top of their lungs. They ran into Dante’s father’s bedroom, where they found him father laying on his bed, watching television.

“What’s going on, Dante?” his father asked sitting up as the boys ran into the room.

“The game,” Dante was so freaked out he stuttered his word “The character of the game is alive!”

“What?” his father said now getting up to his feet. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s true, Mr. Miller,” said Bradley.

The boys explained everything that happened upstairs. His father looked at Dante and scowled.

“If you were planning on being funny that wasn’t it, Dante,” his father said. “That’s not very nice for you to do, ask the game when your sister will die.”

“I know and I’m sorry.”

“But the character…” Bradley reminded Mr. Miller.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll go check things out.”

Dante’s father went downstairs to the living room followed by the two boys.

“Everything looks fine to me,” said his father.

“Ask him something!” Dante urged, pointing to the television screen.

His father walked over to the controller that lay on the ground, stooped down and picked it up.

 

“Do you want to ask another question?” was written on the screen, and the pixelated image of Drabardi was now sitting normally with a deck of cards shuffling in his hands.

Dante’s father punched in his question into the game, using the virtual keypad to spell out:

 

“When will I die?”

 

Drabardi shuffled the cards again then spread them out in front of him in a neat row. He then picked one of them up.

 

“That is still to be decided”, the white lettering spelled out the response, but this time Drabardi’s modulated voice did not play out of the television speakers.

Drabardi then showed the other side of the card. The card showed pixelated artwork of five hearts, one on each corner of the card, and one in the middle.

“See,” Dante’s father said looking over his shoulder at the children. “There’s nothing to be scared of here.”

“But he talked!” Dante said. “He answered our questions. Ask him something using your voice!”

His father sighed but he did it anyway. “Will I get a promotion at work?” his father asked.

Drabardi remained unresponsive and very still.

“Will I get a promotion this week at work?” he asked again.

The game gave him the exact same response….

Nothing.

Dante’s father looked at the boys.

“These games are too old to use such advanced tricks as interactive pre-programmed recordings.”

“But he did speak!”

“Enough, Dante!” His father put down the controller and straightened. “I think you two have played for too long with these games. I guess it’s time for you to let your sister have her turn playing with them for a while.”

Dante’s father then left the room, refusing to hear the boys’ protest and concerns any further about the game.

Dante walked over to the game console and turned it off. As he did so, a chill ran down his spine making him shudder uncontrollably.

“That was very creepy,” he said to Bradley.

“Yes, it was.” Bradley fell quiet for a moment before asking, “Why would you ask such a question?”

“I don’t know!” said Dante. “My sister has been bugging me lately. She can make me so angry sometimes!”

Dante paused. He felt guilty now that his anger at her had faded away. He didn’t know why he had asked the game that question.

“Well,” Bradley said. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a stupid game. Your father is right – the game must be just recycling pre-recorded answers to give to the players.”

“Yeah, guess you’re right.”

“You’ll see there’s nothing to worry about.”

END OF PREVIEW.

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