From a distance it seemed like a nice place. A small burg nestled deep in the Catskills, trees ablaze with autumn fire, crystal blue skies hanging high above them. From the highway Jason and Eric spied the tall white steeple of a Presbyterian Church, looking like some cottage industry attempt at a rocket launch quietly awaiting lift-off.
Boarded up businesses. Abandoned cars. Gas stations touting prices many years out of date. Jason pulls his Ford Fiesta up to the main stoplight and sits there, checking his twitter feed, oblivious to an absence of power running to the light itself. Eric only notices this inbetween Instagram uploads. He snaps a picture of the dead light and then another of black cables dangling from a telephone pole, curled up like dead snakes in the street.
“Jeeze, what a dump,” exclaims Jason, tapping on the accelerator and gingerly moving forward through the empty intersection. He checks the mirrors for cops. There is no telling just what kind of vultures the police are out here, but given the ramshackle look of everything else, handing out tickets might just be the only business left in town.
Another mile and some relief is found in a billboard whose rain-warped sign announces Sabloff’s Luxurious Mountain Resort - Skiing, Golfing, Dancing, Sailing! Turn Left! 1.5 miles!
And that is what they do, turning onto a frost broken road leading up into the hills. Once upon a time, back when Dirty Dancing was a hit, Sabloff’s had been all the sign promised and more. A premiere destination in the Borscht Belt for New Yorkers seeking some escape from the noise and pollution of the city.
Mmmmmm. Not so much.
The road winds past one gutted building after another, a space baring little resemblence to the brightly colored maps on their smartphones. In an empty lot they park and hike the rest of the way, following GPS coordinates to a Yōkaimon-Go hotspot situated near the edge of an olympic sized pool.
Or at least the remains of one.
The amount of graffitti covering the place is astounding. The marble patio. The hanger-high enclosure. The drained basin. Not an inch of it has gone uncovered by one tagger or another. Some names have been sprayed in crude block letters while others are more urban, strange illegible squiggles with crowded turns and arrows and angles. The place is a riot of initials in love and cartoon faces bulging with anger. Oriental characters that do not mean what somebody thinks they mean. Makeshift fire pits. Smashed glass. Empty pill bottles. Spent needles. Piles of crushed and rusting krylon cans. Three large diving platforms devoid of boards and ladders lean out over the deep end, looking as alien and inexplicable as Easter Island Moai, the lords of a party long since over.
Yōkaimon-Go has taken the pair to some pretty outlandish places in the past - dead shopping malls, abandoned bowling alleys, empty warehouses, closed schools - but this takes the cake.
“We should leave,” says Eric, ”this place feels like gangland.”
“Relax,” says Jason as he searches with his zenPhone, peering behind some broken bleachers, “This place is a ghost town. No one’s living within a hundred miles of here.”
“Feels more like a thousand.”
“Hang on. Wait a minute… I’ve got leaves!”
On the zenPhone’s screen three small bright digital leaves kick up off the floor. It’s a sign they are closing in on their prey. Eric scans the perimeter to catch a small golden blur of pixels leaping out of a kickboard bin and sprinting towards the shallow end of the pool. Jason turns to glimpse it, heart racing as the Yōkaimon vaults down the steps and into the empty basin. Jason’s hefty midsection rolls like an ocean as he struggles to keep up.
“I’ve got you now you little summabitch,” he cries, chugging down the steps.
On screen, Jason readies a blue capture ball, fingers it and pauses. His mind flits through what he knows of the creatures in the Yōkaidex, which is nearly everything. The Yōkai skittering before him is a super-rare Konaki-Jiji. It may not look like much, just a little old man with a molar shaped head and Fu-Manchu-stache, but according to the Yōkaidex the Konaki-Jiji has stats out the wazoo and a CP of over 1,000. Anywhere else it could easily have dodged him, but unlike previous incarnations of the game, the new Yōkaimon-Go paid close attention to its surroundings. It treated walls and doors and stairwells as if they were real. Without ladders leading up out of the pool, they effectively had the little devil trapped.
“Spread out,” barks Jason at Eric, “even space with the walls. Don’t let him run between us.”
“I don’t know Jase. I’m not really digging this.”
“Eyes on the phone bro! Do you want to be a champion? One more monster and we are 151-ers! No one has ever gotten this far before!”
“I thought…. I thought I just heard something. It sounded like-”
“Jase. It sounded like a baby crying.”
Jason stops, not taking his phone from his face but shooting a glance off at Eric. He hears nothing but the pounding of blood in his ears.
“Don’t you worry bro,” says Jason, “it’s just you me, and the Konaki-jiji. Everything else is the game messing with you.”
Reluctantly, Eric focuses his phone forward and fingers a capture ball. Ahead of them the Jiji trundles left and right, backing away, arms outspread to ward them off, wierdly shaped head peeking back over its shoulder for effect.
Jason and Eric close in. The capture ring grows tighter and stronger around the Yōkai as he comes to a halt, freezing against the back wall of the deep end.
“And now I’ve got you,” says Jason, finger flicking a ball at the Jiji. With barely a hint of effort the Yōkai leaps over the ball while spinning in mid air. It lands with its back to them, moons them with a flick of its robes and jumps into the graffitti, disappearing into the wall.
Phones drop from their faces.
“What the fuck!?!”
“Did you see that!”
Jason and Eric splash through the sleech-filled deep-end to examine the wall. It had to be a glitch in the programming. Yōkai were specifically prohibitted from jumping through material objects, but on closer inspection, right in the center of the basin, right where countless tags have accumulated to form a vomit colored splotch of dinge they find a break in the cement, a hole with its edges painted black to hide it.
“Fuck. He’s in there,” trembles Eric.
“He’s trapped,” says Jason, turning sideways and sucking in his gut to fit through the crack.
“But, really, it’s dark in there-”
“Just come on, you wuss. Flip your phone around for light and I’ll capture the little fucker myself.”
But, thinks Eric, staring into the hole, not wanting to say it aloud yet unable to stop thinking it in his head - I don’t want to go in there. Jason, I’m scared.
Jason reaches back through the fissure, grabs Eric by the collar and drags him in.
Inside, their phones shed a cold light on dripping iron pipes criss-crossing the cieling, stacks of wet cardboard boxes busting at the seams. Eric’s foot tangles around a rotting streamer reading Happy New Year 1998! He kicks it free and rats go squeaking and skittering through the shadows. Eric’s nose catches a scent, something warm and out of place admist all the stank, something he hasn’t smelled since his college days, something itinerant hawkers used to sell to stoners in the college union on Saturdays.
Is that incense?
“I’VE GOT HIM!” shouts Jason, now farther off in the darkness. “I’VE GOT THE LITTLE FUCKER, I’M A 151-ER!”
Eric hurries after him, turns a corner and stumbles into a pumpkin orange glow.
There are lit candles.
“Who lit the candles?”
“Who? What? Who cares! I caught the little bastard! I’m a 151-er!”
Jason holds up his phone so Eric can witness him. Sure enough, on screen is the brightly colored sprite of the Konaki-Jiji, trapped in spinning capture rings, pulling on the ends of his mustache and bawling his eyes out.
Eric is impressed but not by the catch. Looming over them in the darkness is a larger than life statue of the Buddha. Not the fat happy Buddha of countless Chinese menus but the cold, emaciated Buddha-Rupa, spray-painted candy-flake gold and sparkling black, heaps of dead flowers piled up in the cross of his stick thin legs.
“We should leave. Now,” says Eric.
“Did you feel that?”
On the zenPhone’s screen the Konaki-Jiji jumps in a fit of rage. When it lands the phone itself bounces in Jason’s hands.
“Here feel this. This is so awesome! It’s like. It’s like the Konaki-Jiji is really in there!”
Eric takes the phone. The Konaki-Jiji jumps and he feels it. Not only does the zenPhone bounce but it also seems to gain weight on the rebound. The Konaki-Jiji jumps again and the phone is left as heavy as a brick in Eric’s hands.
Jason grabs it back from him.
“This is so fucking trippy! I think I read something about it somewhere online. The zenPhone uses a wierd Star Trek anti-grav device that makes it feather-light and the Konaki-Jiji unlocks it to mess with you. Is that awesome or what?”
“It’s bullshit,” says Eric just as the phone jumps again, visibly jerking Jason off balance.
Wailing, the Konaki-Jiji pounds its feet, this time knocking the phone through Jason’s fingers. It hits the floor with the whump of a dropped bowling ball.
“You call that bullshit?”
“I call it a good reason to get the fuck out of here! Shut that thing down and let’s go!”
On his knees, Jason swipes a finger over the screen. Nothing is responding. There is just the Konaki-Jiji, looking like a fat man-baby, pulling on his mustache and wailing until his eyes bleed. Jason manages to mute the sound but nothing else wants to work.
“It’s not shutting down! It’s not switching apps!”
“THEN LEAVE IT,” snaps Eric, surprised by the harshness of his own voice, as well as the stark silence that follows.
“But…. It’s my zenPhone, man,” says Jason, almost pleading, “It’s like - my - zenPhone.”
Eric drops to his knees. Together they grimace to push their fingers under the phone’s edge, now swearing at the ultra-thin design they once praised.
“This thing weighs like a fucking piano!”
The phone unsteadily pulls left and right with weight rolling around its surface like loose waves of water. On screen the Konaki-Jiji is hopping mad. He slams against the capture rings and the phone flips off Eric’s finger tips, rolling him backwards with the sudden release of pressure.
GAH-iIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEE, screams Jason, now flat on his back, arms splayed out, zenPhone in hand and hand smashed flat against the concrete.
“GET IT OFF ME! GET IT OFF ME!!!”
Eric jumps on the phone, this time it is quite easy to grab but impossible to budge, as heavy as a car tripped off a jack. A dark pool of blood spills out around Jason’s fingers as the Konaki-Jiji begins a little dance, grinding the phone and his knuckles against the cement.
“Hang on,” says Eric, standing up, “AND STOP SCREAMING! YOU SCREAM LIKE A GIRL!!! Just! GOD! STOP! PLEASE! Let me think. Lemme just…”
Eric kicks through the rubbish surrounding them and sees things he doesn’t want to see. Dozens if not hundreds of abandoned smartphones with shattered screens, hundreds if not thousands of small white bones, most of them broken, splintered, some with joints and tendons still attached.
Leaning beside the hole leading back to the pool he finds a sledgehammer. Its head is covered in rust, its handle slick with mildew.
“Oh no,” he says to himself, one idea knocking into another, “no no no no no no no. I can’t go for that. I’m not going to-”
Then he hears it.
Cold and distant, followed by the clatter of claws scraping across porcelain tiles, pant heavy breathing, the echoing jingle of chain collars. Eric peers out through the cavity. The sky above the pool has turned as purple as a bruise and all along the rim stand thin canine silouhettes with sharp muzzles, pointed ears and stilt-like legs. Some are snarling. All are staring down at him.
“GOD GET ME OUT OF HERE,” he hears Jason scream from back in the basement.
Eric grabs the sledgehammer.
“WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG,” Jason shouts at him.
“There are dogs out there.”
“Dogs? What dogs?”
“Big dogs. Angry dogs. I think I heard them before. I think. I think they’ve been trailing us the whole time. Ever since we left the car.”
Eric lifts up the sledgehammer. It’s not nearly as heavy as the zenPhone, but he feels it carrying a whole separate weight all of its own, one that weighs on him like an anvil.
“Eric. Where’d you get the hammer?”
Eric looks up at the skeletal Buddha-Rupa, the Buddha who could feel the bones of his spine through his stomach, who survived a thousand days in the wilderness eating nothing but a single grain of rice a day. Beyond the statue lies a shadowy passageway leading deeper into the basement, possibly up and out and back onto the land. He is going to go there, but not if it means leaving his only real friend behind.
“I’m so sorry,” says Eric, weakly hoisting the hammer onto his shoulder.
“What are you doing, man. What are You FuCKING CRAZY?”
“I’m so so sorry,” says Eric.
In a flash of thought the zenPhone’s ad campaign shoots through his mind. Featherlight and bulletproof! Waterproof up to 10 meters! Absolutely unbreakable! The new zenPhone 10!
For the commercial they paid Taylor Swift quite handsomely to shoot a .44 Magnum at one. The razor thin side of the phone cut the bullet in half. Everyone online agreed that the shot had to be a fake, but right now Eric isn’t interested busting any myths. He’s never swung a hammer in his life, but he has played enough World of Warcraft to understand how one works. He doesn’t need to break the phone, just the weakest link in the chain.
Taking aim on the pale flesh of Jason’s wrist Eric stretches back and swings. As the iron head careens through the air, feeling like a locomotive leaving its rails, another thought squeaks through his mind.
Who did light all these candles, anyways?
Outside, around the edge of the pool, the dogs gather to stare down into it.
Food is on the way.
Pant. Pant. Pant.
They don’t know why people come here to spill blood and scream and squeal, but as time slips by and their hunger only grows the dogs care less and less about man.
Which is not to call them Bad Dogs.
They will always be Good Dogs at heart. There will always be something in them wanting to fetch the stick or chase the ball or sit when asked. But they did not bring the screens into the world. Humans did. Evil slates of plastic filled with bright lights, loud noises and flashing colors. Man’s new best friend. The screens stole time from the dogs, caused water bowls to run dry and kibble to grow stale. Walk time became an exercise in dragging a dead weight around at the end of leash, one constantly transfixed to a screen. The dogs hate the screens, worse than vacuum cleaners. Not even cats are as evil as the screens, but there was nothing they could do to stop them.
One after another the screens told the humans to pack up their belongings and leave. The humans obeyed. As much as they sometimes hated the screens and shouted at them the humans did not leave their screens behind, unlike their dogs. They shouted at their dogs to go away, to sit and stay, to stop running behind the damn car as they drove out towards the highway.
And that was when mankind left their world.
Packs formed in the desolate streets. Battles raged across weed choked lawns. The dogs discovered just how rare meat was and devoured those too weak to hold onto their own. From their ranks a leader emerged, a German Sheppard named Maximillian. Max had belonged to the groundskeeper before the groundskeeper left and been the first to catch the scent of fresh blood wafting up from the hole. Max had been the first to dare eat it. Man meat. Forbidden meat. A taste of the hand which once fed them.
Maximillian strides up to the side of the pool. Lesser dogs scurry aside to make room for him. Stray humans have come again, driven by their evil screens. Fresh blood has been spilt, rich and coppery in the hole. Maximillian gazes down into the empty pool, hears the cries and the screaming, the thump thump thump of someone swinging a hammer with no sense of control. And he waits. He waits until he hears it.
Max has no idea why they keep coming here or who lights the candles in the pit, but he has learned the value of letting his prey wear themselves out before charging in for the kill.
Unable to stay the pack any longer, Maximillian leaps forward, fangs barred, saliva frothing. Without question the rest of the pack joins him, cascading over the edge of the pool, charging towards the hole like a tidal wave of mange.
It’s feeding time.