(not quite) a literary journal


Satan's Fingers, by Jake Buckholz

i. the arcade

“Look over here! Look over here!” an arcadegoer called out one day, standing before a newly delivered game. “If you just follow the rules on this machine, it spits out money!”

The announcement drew a large crowd immediately. Other machines were completely abandoned as everyone got into line to play the new game.

Tucked away in one corner of the large arcade, a labeless machine, tall and black, long used to its abandonment, observed the scene from its dead screen. The regulars knew this game to be a waste. Anyone who continued to dump the fruits of their labor into that machine was considered a fanatic.

“That’s impossible!” a skeptic in line at the new game pointed out. “It just gives you money?” But he watched the person at the input of the large machine follow the given directions. Some time later, it coughed out a wad of cash. Nothing huge, mind you, but enough to buy some food at the arcade snack shack and play another round.

Once management saw just how popular the money machine had become, they ordered dozens more to be shipped in.

One day, a young woman approached the manager of the arcade with a question. She wanted permission to open up the abandoned machine of the fanatics and poke around inside. Her father was an electrician and she knew a thing or two. The manager said no, however. Only a licensed electrician could do that.

Meanwhile, the new money machines arrived and an additional room had to be built to house them. Once upon a time, the arcade had been built by a married couple. The husband loved video games, but the wife loved plants, so, surrounding the arcade, they planted a beautiful garden with stone walking paths, fountains, benches, a bridge over a small pond, and thousands of plants. The new management decided to plow into this garden to make room for all the new games.

Few complained.

Months later, with the new room operational, business boomed. Everyone in town lined up to play the money games. By and large, the money given out by the games was then spent inside the arcade, much to the joy of the owners.

The girl returned with another approach to work on the old machine. She showed a license. It looked official.

“Did you get training just for this?” management asked skeptically.

“Yes, the girl answered.”

“Okay, have at it,” management shrugged. What did he care if she messed it up? No one played that old game anymore anyway. Besides, he knew exactly what she would find when she opened it up. It would be the same thing every other electrician found. There was absolutely nothing beneath the hood. The whole thing was a sad swindle. In fact, he had been meaning to get rid of the machine since the day he took over. He thought it a mean joke played by the previous proprietors.

ii. the girl meets a dragon inside the arcade game

The girl wore her father’s old belt, lined with his first tools. She liked the weight of it as she walked and let her hand hover over the drill at her waist, imagining herself as an old time cowboy waiting for a duel. As she passed through the arcade, the jingle of coins in the cargo shorts of the boys all around her became the sound of her own spurs as she walked down a dusty road, lined by the wood-porched storefronts of an old western town. She could smell the mud and the horeshit, see the drunkards sprawled out in alleys, hear yelling all around, even gunshots, and she wondered to herself how the hell she’d come to sheriff such a shit show.

There stood the brothel. Women draped themselves around the poles on the front stoop. Their breasts were pushed up high, nearly to their necks. They spoke seductively and moved like cats. One of the men called out to her, asking when she would be joining their ranks. The other loitering men laughed from their beer-logged guts.

She could fire six shots into the six skulls of the six laughing men and walk away with the world a marginally better place, but she had her duty.

Leaving the catcalling and the stink of the town to itself, she took the road towards the mountains. At the edge of town, she mounted her horse which her deputy had prepared. He handed her a rifle which she slung across her back and then he gave her a wordless look, cocksure this would be the last he saw of her. She patted his shoulder and they touched foreheads in a strange gesture. Then she rode out of town.

The low desert mountains shimmered in the heat. Javelinas crossed the trail, fleeing the beat of hooves. Towering stalks of sotol swayed in the hot breeze. Pockets of prickly pear lined the road and sick-looking cattle grazed on desert shrubs in the distance. She rode on, keeping her course true.

The path took her over the first gentle slope and there she tied her horse in the shade of a lonely oak and continued on foot, up the sandy switchbacks. Her boots crunched the gravel nicely and a lively sweat broke out across her body. At any sound, her hand lunged for the pistol at her waist and the very speed of her reflexes calmed her.

Once, she saw a small desert wolf down below and fired a warning shot to scare it away from her horse. It took off into the desert at a lope as the sound resonated in the mountains and out across the flatlands. She could see the town in the distance and wondered if they heard and if anyone knew of her journey besides the deputy who she’d forbidden from riding out with her. Someone had to take over as sheriff if she failed this quest.

“We are not knights!” he told her in an attempt to dissuade her. “You don’t have to do this!”

“If not knights then what?”

At the end of her climb, she reached a kind of valley. The fabled Satan’s Fingers rose before her, an eerie rock formation shaped like a hand reaching out of the earth. That was where she found the entrance to the cave, there in the palm of the demon.

The whole town had been built because of this cave. Early settlers spoke of great treasures inside. Hordes of gold, the likes of which had never before been seen. The building blocks to El Dorado. But because of the beast inside, the work of excavation never began, so the town grew stagnant and forgot why it had been built in the first place. It began to bloat there in the desert, living only off itself. A cancerous thing. Well, she would kill the beast and open the mines and save the soul of the town.

An oil lantern waited for her in the mouth of the cave and she lit it. A warm glow surrounded her as she stepped into the greater darkness. The initial passage was rather tight and declined steeply, but she squeezed through and eventually the way opened up.

The girl could see no further than the illuminated orb around her, but she had the feeling of standing inside something grand. The town had no building to compare it to, but she’d heard stories of cathedrals and castles from the old countries and thought it similar to something like that.

Moving slowly in her near blindness, one hand holding the lantern and the other on her wornsmooth pistol, time lost its meaning in the endless night. She inched forward, feeling her way through the rocks, and watching for pitfalls or other dangers.

The stories from the cave, passed down by those few who escaped, had blossomed through the years into legend. It was no longer possible to know what might be fact and what might be myth. It even occurred to her that the beast had been greatly exaggerated, if not completely made up.

However, as she dropped to a plateau overlooking the cave’s main chamber, she saw that the beast had not been fabricated at all. In fact, even in the stories told by the drunkest and most animated orators, its horrible beastliness had only been hinted at. What rested beneath her could not be killed by rifleshot. This had been a mistake, she quickly realized and her mind screamed at her to turn and run, back out of the cave, and not to stop in the town but to ride out of the west where humans did not belong, but her body would not respond. This thing illuminated the entire chamber with its fiery breath even in its sleep. She pressed herself against the rocks and blew out the light from her lantern, so as not to draw attention.

Its breath caused the walls to glitter and she saw those stories hadn’t been exaggerated either. There was more gold than rock!

The girl managed to line up her shot and held her rifle there. The dragon, for surely now the label of beast could not apply sufficiently, did not move. She was free to fire directly at its skull, but she knew the diamond scales would cause the tiny bullet to clink off harmlessly, like a fly bothering a horse.

What a mistake this had proven! she turned to flee.

iii. having fled the dragon inside the arcade game, the electrician reports back that the machine is doomed and the arcade sells it to an antique collector

Janis Yarvey was unable to load or unload the machine herself. She instructed a team of grandsons in her stead. They lifted it into the back of her truck and then carried it into her home on the other side of the drive.

For several hours that afternoon, Janis sat in her warm office and poked away at the keyboard of her Dell. She asked Yahoo about the machine, but failed to turn up much information. What she did find was an expert on these old games who happened to live in the area and she gave him a call. He had some free time that same afternoon and sounded very interested in what she had to say. A few hours later, he appeared on her doorstep. A great big fat man of about forty-five, she guessed as she peered through the peephole.

“Hello,” she said as she pulled open the door.

“Hi,” he answered, extending a clammy hand. She gripped the fingers as he introduced himself as Jim. Then she waved him in and took him to the machine. She explained that the arcade told her it was broken and that she had failed to find any information about it online.

“I reckon not,” he said in response as they entered the back room where the machine sat heavily. Jim approached it reverently and brushed his hand across the backside of it.

“I’m afraid there’s no power cord even. I have a guy who does soldering work for me on occasion,” she trailed off as it became evident he wasn’t listening. Too enraptured was he by the machine.

“No use. It’s not electronic.”

“Not electronic?” Janis asked, suddenly feeling she’d been duped by the arcade. “Then what the heck is it?”

“It predates electricity by quite a bit,” the man laughed. “Where did you say you got this?”

“That video arcade over on Miller. You said it predates electricity,” she reminded him, trying to bring him around to an explanation.

“Oh, easily. Why Edison and Tesla’s great-great-great grandparents might’ve been playing with this thing, and for generations and generations before.”

“What does it do?”

“That depends on who you ask. It’s in pretty good shape, too. Mind if I open her up?”

“Be careful.”

He looked at her with a bit of hurt, as if offended by the notion he would be anything but careful with such a thing.

“What would you say it’s worth?”

“That would depend on the buyer. Personally, I’d give you everything I own for her, but that would be ripping you off.”

Janis eyed the thing without understanding. It looked more-or-less like any of the machines in the arcade. However, as she looked at closer, she realized what she had taken for a screen was not a screen at all. She had thought it simply black with the lack of power, but now knowing it was non-electronic, she realized the screen was simply painted glass. Standing in front of it, she could see herself in a distorted reflection.

“I simply don’t understand,” she sighed as Jim bent down. The top of his asscrack caused her to leave the room in disgust and bewilderment.

iv. in which Jim fulfills a lifelong dream

Stepping into the soul of the machine, Jim’s psyche, reflected in the monomyth common to all mankind, morphed itself into a great quest which Jim instantly understood in the logic of dreams. He took the first step forward into his own personal labyrinth. Many more steps waited before him. Somewhere, a minotaur of his own devising stood hunched in the dark, breathing slow in the murky depths of hibernation. It would awaken only at his approach.

Jim could feel the presence of the game’s past users. They pressed into him and he struggled for breath. Their residual bitterness, immense frustration, and cool resolve flooded his mind. He felt something like hunger gnawing at him and he felt, equally, the peace at satisfying that hunger. Ghosts had left their impressions here, of both rage and love.

As Jim moved deeper into the machine, he realized that even if he somehow managed to draw blood, he would eventually have to leave the machine and return to Ms. Yarvey’s house, and he would have nothing to show for his journey. Still, he did the only thing he could; he took another step.

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art by Stephen R. Spencer II