The screaming was so loud that the sound pushed through the summer symphony of lawnmowers and barking dogs like a tyrant set on ruining the day. A few children squealed nearby as they burst through a sprinkler stream. But there was no mistaking it. Claire was screaming in pain. Claire was screaming because she was dying.
Summer was reaching a peak and would now plateau steadily with a consistent dole of eighty-degree temperatures. Pools were open, front yards were cut weekly, and the ice cream man was in full swing. Tyler was making his way down to the creek to get some fishing in before Mike woke up. Mike was Tyler's best friend, and they would spend every day together each summer. Only Mike slept in well beyond noon. This was something that Tyler could never do. So, he would fish. He always felt as if it made him more grown-up. To be known as an “early-riser” while still in the eighth grade. He knew that it really didn’t. Of course, it really did.
The sinker made a resonant PLOP as it hit the water. Tyler was using that new bait his grandfather had suggested, some weird neon-marshmallow-looking thing that smelled oddly like rubber and stale air. He liked that he could track the bait in the murky water and was sure that the fish could see it easily enough as well. The young boy wondered about bait, how something that ended us was so easy to see coming.
“How’s it going, Grandpa?” Mike slammed his ass down on the dusty embankment sending tiny flecks of dirt and pebbles into the water. The fish scattered. Tyler sighed and turned to his best friend.
“Nothing much. Just getting in my morning routine.” He spoke in his best attempt at a Grandpa voice, which sounded like a voice that would say “Sonny” or “Pal” regularly. Mike started mindlessly tossing stones into the water, deciding for the both of them that Tyler was finished with fishing.
“So, what are we getting into today?” Tyler asked with a certain amount of fervor that implied eagerness. Usually, his actual morning routine consisted of listening to Mike’s half-assed ideas that would surely get them grounded or, worse, dead. And then, calmly and expertly, Tyler would dissuade his friend of these plans, careful to avoid conflict, like a surgeon performing heart surgery.
“Funny, you should ask. I’ve already got an idea.” Mike grinned a grin that made it clear. Tyler was not going to like the idea. Mike seemed to know that he would need to convince him, and to make matters worse, he seemed to have prepared for this.
“I’m listening.” Tyler did his best to keep the apprehension from his voice.
“Billy Myers and his shit-heads were down by the tennis courts this morning. I saw them on my way over.” Mike stood, and Tyler took it as a signal to do the same. He packed up his small tackle box, and the two of them turned to climb up out of the creek bed.
Tyler was struggling to hold back his disapproval. Billy Myers was a complete asshole. Everyone in school knew it. It wasn’t that he sold drugs for his mom or that he beat his step-dad into a coma using a kitchen chair; it was that he always smiled at Tyler like he knew something the rest of them didn’t. He would talk to him, throw his arm over his shoulder, and call him buddy. Tyler never once gave any inclination that this was something he wanted. But Billy never really seemed to pay any mind to what people wanted.
“Billy’s scary, dude. Like bat-shit crazy scary.” Tyler said this casually. Something so a-matter-of-fact shouldn’t reveal too much fear.
“Sure he is. But last summer, he was the easiest way to get beer and cigarettes. Even you can’t deny that. Plus, he sold us that scratched-up porno DVD too. I don’t remember any complaints then.” Mike laughed to himself. Then he slapped Tyler on the back to shake him from his consternation.
It was true. Tyler had developed a slight nicotine habit since last summer. He never really thought about it too much. And having beer at a party was starting to be the cool thing to do. But he never considered it anything that would speak to Billy’s character. Why couldn’t he use the guy while still considering him an asshole?
“Well, what do you want with Billy anyway?” He knew it was a mistake the moment he said it. He had shown interest. Mike had his hooks in now.
“Apparently, he has this game.”
“Game?” He said it incredulously. Like there was no way Mike was about to tell him about some board game. But he was.
“Hush up, dude. Yeah, a game. Apparently, he got it from his cousin, and he got it from some fucked up old house upstate. It was locked in some chest or something. He found it after they demoed the place.” Mike signaled for them to turn up the street. It was the direction of the tennis courts. The same direction as Billy Myers’ house.
“Why’d they tear down the house?” Tyler was interested. He couldn’t deny it now.
“Old fucker croaked. They found him in the kitchen. He was stuffed into a small cupboard. All of his legs and arms were broken and bent so that he would fit.” Mike pulled out a pack of Sour Skittles and filled his mouth to the point of pain. His eyes clasped shut tightly, and he had to lean back to control the salivation. Tyler didn’t believe him about the old man. Mike always liked to scare him when they were little kids. It was no different now.
“Sounds like you spent more time than a pass-by.” Tyler said.
“So what. I stuck around for a bit. That’s beside the point. Apparently, this game is creepy. Some messed up shit. Like a modern Quija board or something.” Mike could hardly speak without drooling. So he leaned forward and opted to speak while drooling.
“And you want to play it?” Tyler raised his eyebrows.
“No, Tyler. We want to play it.”
Billy Myers’ house did not smell like cigarettes. Tyler thought this because it smelled like something. It was rank and smoke-like, but it was not a cigarette smell. Tyler kind of wished that it was. Billy’s mom wasn’t home. He was in the basement, already huddled around a small box with his two buddies, the shit-heads, Craig and Ian. The walls were still paneled with dark-colored wood, and Tyler recognized the yellowing shag carpet as the original flooring for those homes. His grandpop’s floor was the same. Mike went first, and Tyler reluctantly followed him, descending into the darkened basement.
“About fucking time, pussies.” Billy wasted no time holding back his charm. He delivered a quick jab to each of their shoulders and then ushered Tyler and Mike to the coffee table.
“So this is it? Your infamous game?” Mike gazed down, and Tyler followed suit.
“Nuts and Bolts?” The way he said it was unmistakably condescending, and he could hardly believe he even spoke. But Tyler clearly had just called Billy an idiot, all simply with the tone of his voice.
“I didn’t name it, asshole.” Billy was quick to fire back. Tyler was surprised to hear what he thought to be pain in Billy’s voice.
“Sorry. I just meant that I thought it was supposed to be scary or some shit.” He felt that he had remedied the situation well enough.
“It is!” Billy settled back on the stained sofa against the back wall. “My cousin says it is, and he’s no fucking liar. He says that it was like it was made for him. That it scared the shit out of him.” Billy cracked a warm beer that he pulled up from between the cushions. After shifting his sight to the top of the stairs, he gestured to the boys, seemingly asking if they’d like a beer.
Tyler looked to Mike for any sort of cue. But it was pointless. You don’t tell Billy no when he offers you a beer. After a few minutes, the four were kneeling on the dampened shag carpet, huddled around the coffee table, drinking warm Miller Lites, watching Billy open the game.
The box was plain white with only the three black-lettered words at the center of the lid. NUTS AND BOLTS. There was no copyright or game description on the box anywhere.
“What did he mean, like it was made for him?” Tyler was feeling more at ease. He wasn’t sure if he cared about Billy Myers’ opinion, or maybe it was just the beer. But he was comfortable as he asked the question.
“He never said, right?” Ian finally spoke. He sipped his beer quickly after slipping the words out. Billy offered a slight nod in reply. Tyler was pretty sure Billy never explained himself.
The gameboard slid out neatly and fell on the coffee table with a slight blow of air, like a feather, almost weightless. Four small figures fell out onto the table after it. Billy turned the box over, but nothing else came out.
“That’s it?” Mike said incredulously.
Tyler didn’t hear what Billy said back. He was distracted by the small lead-like figure that had landed in front of him on the table. Standing upright, facing him, seemingly gazing up into his face, was a small figure of a boy wearing what appeared to be a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap. Tyler picked up the figure. He had to grasp it tightly, his hands shaking as he held it. He turned the figure over in his hands to get a better look. The figure was wearing a t-shirt with the Social Distortion logo pressed into the metal. The drunken skeleton was unmistakable. It was the same t-shirt Tyler had on. He held the figure at eye level. He was sure the other four boys had noticed the same thing about their figures. He took off his Phillies hat, and Billy looked up.
There were no dice and no rules. Four paths started in each corner of the board and swirled and spiraled to the center of the board. In bold black lettering, it read YOU WIN. NOW YOU KNOW.
The paths consisted of small blacked-out sections. Presumably, these were the spaces.
“I guess we just go one at a time.” Mike did his best to sound confident.
“I’ll go first.” Billy spoke quickly and then moved his figure one space forward in a flourish.
None of them were sure what they expected to happen. If any of the boys had been asked, they would have looked like complete idiots, unable to concoct even the most ridiculous attempt to feign knowledge.
The game decided for them. Beneath Billy’s figure, something they were sure wasn’t there a moment ago, though none of them would admit it, was a small piece of thick paper slid into a slot along the edge of the space. Billy reached down and pulled it from the game.
LET THE DOG OUT
He read it once in his head and furrowed his brow. Next, he read it aloud. A loud BARK registered from somewhere upstairs. The four of them looked from face to face, needing confirmation.
“Big deal.” Craig said.
“Pretty fucking creepy.” Billy said. His original look of confusion and perhaps fear gave way to a gleeful smile.
“Ian, you’re up.” Billy slammed his beer down and then plunged his arm into the couch, his shoulder pressed against the cushion, searching for another hidden can.
Ian leaned his shoulders forward and cautiously gripped his piece. He slid it forward, sure to keep it tight to the board, like it was held there magnetically. Ian pulled the slip from the board. Smiling, he read it aloud.
GET INTO THE COUCH
His smile faded. They were confused. At least all of them except Billy.
“Holy shit, man.” Billy leaped up in excitement.
“What? What’s wrong.” Tyler did his best to remain calm.
“This shit does know. That’s crazy.” Billy then explained that the couch was a pull-out couch. A thin mattress and frame folded up neatly beneath the cushions. Only Billy’s held no mattress. His older brother had puked on it Senior year, and after Billy’s mom threw it out, they never replaced it. The couch was a hollow shell. At one time, it was the location of the hide-and-seek champion of the house. Now, it just held warm beer.
Billy flung the cushions in the air. Tyler watched them tumble to the shagged floor; they seemed to fall in slow motion. How were they this calm? The game, it knew things. There was no point in protest. By the time he gathered himself, Ian was already stepping into the couch, a monstrous smile on his face. They sat there for a few moments. Three idiots staring at one idiot crouched down inside a hollowed-out sofa. Then, Mike saw it. Ian’s slip of paper. The instruction he had carelessly thrown onto the floor now read something else. Mike drew their attention and then read it.
PUT THE CUSHIONS BACK
They all laughed, all of them except Tyler. He was glad that he never laughed that day. He just stood there, motionless, like a statue, his small game-piece figure. He never moved. He remained still when they put the cushions back on. He remained still when they all heard the single choked-out scream from within the cushions. He stood still when Billy tore the cushions away and discovered Ian to be gone, the couch empty again, save for a few warm beers.
The police picked Ian up a few hours later on the side of the road outside town. He was naked and covered in blood. Clutched in his right hand, tearing through his skin, was the disfigured remnants of a beer can.
Mike and Tyler avoided each other for the next few weeks. As summer drew close, Tyler figured he should reach out. He didn’t want things to be awkward when school started. So, he called Mike up and told him to come over one Saturday afternoon. His parents were going to the movies. Amityville Horror had a new remake out with some pretty-boy actor his mom liked. Tyler was fine with an evening to himself, but after thinking about it, he decided to use it as an opportunity to patch up his friendship.
Within an hour, Mike had arrived. And, strolling behind him, with that same shit-eating grin plastered across his face, was Billy Myers.
“What the hell, man?” Tyler wasted no time hiding his anger. He stood resolute in the foyer. He didn’t want Billy there and wanted to make that as clear as possible.
“Calm down, T. What’s the big deal?” Mike held his hands up in defense.
Then, Tyler’s heart dropped into his stomach like a heavy stone tossed into the creek. There, tucked under Billy’s arm, was the white box. He could see the black lettering now along the side.
NUTS AND BOLTS
“No way, man. Get out of here with him. And get that fucking thing out of my house.” Tyler turned to walk away, but Mike grabbed his shoulder. Tyler tore himself free and stomped into the kitchen. He heard Mike tell Billy to wait there. Then he heard Mike follow him.
“What’s the big deal, man? Look, I’m sorry if you’re pissed, but I already had plans to hang with Billy. We were heading over to Claire Beaty’s house. We wanted to show her the game.” Mike drug out Claire’s name, knowing Tyler still had a crush on her. He had liked Claire since the fifth grade.
“I don’t give a fuck about Billy.” Tyler lied. “I can’t believe you’re even thinking about playing that game again.” Tyler was shaking. He was trying to remain calm but felt like he might cry at any moment. This was serious. They had decided they would never try to explain the game to their parents or the police, and if they ever tried, the four of them would all be locked away in Pennhurst Asylum for even suggesting anything like what they all knew happened. And now, his best friend wanted to show it to his crush for a good time.
“Look. We are just going to show it to her. Who said anything about playing it?” Mike turned on the charm. It didn’t matter. Tyler could see that he had lost him. Years later, Tyler would consider the fact that maybe he knew then. Maybe at that moment, he knew he would never speak to his best friend again.
“Just go, man. I’ll talk to you later.” He never gave Mike a chance to say anything. He just turned and walked away. He went upstairs and sat down on his Goosebumps sheets that he was sure no one except Mike knew he still had.
First, he heard the door slam when Mike and Billy left. Then, his mind drifted to the sounds of lawnmowers and kids laughing as they ran to the ice cream man or leaped through the chilling water of front yard sprinklers. Then, he heard the screams.
They had played the game. This time, they had gotten five steps in before the screaming. Claire had gone first. Her sister followed, and then Mike and Billy. On the fifth turn, the game instructed Claire to go into the closet. They say that she screamed for almost an hour straight. No one could get the closet door open. Her dad tried first. Then the police. Then, finally, a fire crew used axes to hack the thing down. Claire was gone. The clothes, shoes, and old middle school yearbooks that had been there before, were now covered in blood. Later, kids would say it looked like she popped—a balloon filled with red paint.