Monterey Bay, CA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Nancy Marx.

Monterey Bay, CA, U.S.

Fish & Wildlife Service, Nancy Marx.Thatll be 53.49.

The pimple faced teenager hands me sixty. I type it in the computer.

54, 55, 60. The crumpled money and change disappears into his front jeans pocket.

Out of a cubbyhole under the counter I pull out a small bag and place the video game Murderous Fight II inside.

Take care." I hand him the bag. Black dirt shows under his fingernails.

Thanks, man. He walks out into the mall, turns around and comes back to the counter. Running his hand through his brown greasy hair he asks, When will MF III be out?

Get a life kid. You havent played MF II yet!

We havent received a release date yet. I can put you down on a waiting list if youd like. And when it does come in -- if it comes in -- I can give you a call.

O.K. He is leaning over the counter.

Another cubbyhole. I open the notebook labeled Waiting List. Inside names and phone numbers run down the pages. Beside each name is the title of a computer or video game due out soon. Yellow marker cuts through names that have been called to come and pick up their game.

Whats your name?


Phone Number?


Behind the boy stands a man in a suit, waiting.

That was 5-4-5-7-6-8-9? I parrot back.

No, man. 5-4-5-6-7-8-9. The boy points at the phone number leaving an oily smudge on the page.

O.K. We'll give you a call when it comes in. The book closes with a snap, disappearing back into its hole.

The suited man steps up to the counter. His hair is graying and thinning and I can see the bald spot he tries to hide by combing what hair he has left over it. From behind his thick plastic framed glasses he greets me with a firm hand shake.

I ask, What can I do for you today, Mr. Phelps? He comes here once or twice a week on his lunch-break, but I can never remember his name. Luckily he wears his name badge on his lapel. On one of his first visits he took great care to show me all the circuits and stuff imbedded in the back of his badge which unlocks the security doors where he works. Its some corporation that builds things for the government. A-Systems or something like that.

Hi, Hal 9000, he jokes at the nickname on my badge. Anything new for computers today?

Well, actually today we did get in some new titles. I don't need to worry about whether or not he can play the newest games because he always buys the latest and greatest computer components. He's gone into great detail on that too.

I step down from behind the counter and walk back to the middle of our cramped store. Here is the newest title. I point to Infidel III. And Beneath a Murderous Star just came in yesterday. I held it out to him. There is also Black Ops and Battle Skills and Gentile: Blood Shed VIII. I point to three more games. Of course, all the new titles have a NEW tag velcroed to the shelf underneath them.

Thanks, Ill just look these over.

Sure thing. If you have any questions let me know. I turn and start back for the counter.

Oh! I almost forgot. Jim wanted to know if the help guide for Frozen Frontier is out yet.

I stop and swing back around on my heel. No, its not due out till the 15th of this month. Jim is one of his fellow workers. A nice guy that comes in and talks during his lunch hour about once a week. Tell him Ill hold a copy for him when it gets here.

Okay. He is studying the back of Infidel III.

The mall seems pretty empty so far today. Of course that doesnt keep the sales guys at the organ store from assaulting every old guy or gal that waltzes by on that side of the mall. Its kind of like watching a shark circling an injured seal in a National Geographic Special. The lady playing on the organ is pushing fifty-five herself. Spotting another victim her voice carries across to my store like gravel driveways under foot. Isnt this fun! She calls to the passer-by. Come on in and Ill show you how to play. She is playing Down by the - bloody - Sea Shore for the twentieth time today on a small starter organ I wish was at the bottom of the sea.

NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection.

NOAA National

Estuarine Research

Reserve Collection.My attention switches from watching the organ lady moving in place -- I am afraid to call it dancing -- to Crazy Sue. I dont know her actual name. Its hard to place an age on her. I think being homeless does that to a person. Her clothes have that washed one-thousand times-in-the-other-leading-detergent-look. Although I know they havent been, because I can smell them from here. Its been about two weeks since I last saw her, but every time she comes by she stands behind the column in the entrance way to my store and plays hide-n-seek with me. She shuffles into the open and looks in the store. I look into her eyes and she shuffles back. This goes on for about five minutes and then someone walks by the front of the store and she walks away slightly bent over, eyes locked on her moving feet. Some time ago on my lunch, I saw her doing the same thing at a jewelry store near the other end of the mall. Once, I even tried to talk with her, but she just shuffled off to her next stop.

Mr. Phelps walks up with Infidel III. I think Ill try this one today.

Good choice. I know youll enjoy it. Its a lot like Gloom.

He hands me his company credit card and I bag the game for him.

See you next time, Hal 9000.

You too, Mr. Phelps. Take care. I pull my badge off and put it in its rightful cubby hole.

Alone, finally. I could go back and talk with Dave. Hes unpacking the weekly shipment in the back room. I start back to the rear door but stop to straighten the shelves. Mr. Phelps obviously cant put things back in their proper places.

Hello, Hal.

I know that voice and Im afraid to turn around. It belongs to a benign old gentleman who comes by on an almost daily basis. Hes retired and working as a substitute for a VoTech school. He used to be an electrical engineer, but now he pretty much follows his wife around carrying her shopping bags. He comes here when he manages to steal away from her.

I finish putting Ace Pilot in place and turn around. Today he is wearing blue pastel pants, a yellow striped shirt, and white deck shoes. The shoe laces are black. Hey! Hows it gon today? He never gave me his name.

Good. And you? Hows school? Whenever he inquires about school, it means his wife is taking her time trying on a new outfit.

Down by the Sea Shore starts again. However, this time its being played by the young weasel with a southern drawl. Isnt this fuuun? he trumpets.

Fine. I see shes got you playing pack mule again. I glance at the clothing store bags he is carrying.

Yep. He has one of the largest smiles I have ever seen. Kind of like the Grinch from that Christmas special. Hes telling me about the new project his granddaughter is developing with her computer. I hope the phone rings or a customer comes in and wants help.

Hes a good guy, really. Its just that I can only look at the picture of his granddaughter so many times. And I now know enough about the Great Depression to fill volumes.

-R-I-N-G- Hold that thought.

Thank You! I snatch the phone before it rings a second time. Americas number one software store. How can I help you? Im going to play this one as long as I can.

Yes. I do stock that..... No. That is not out yet.....

-Click- Well my information says thats not due for release until sometime in March, maybe even April..... No, I havent heard that yet. I shrug my shoulders at the retired engineer. Well when it comes out I could call you.... Sure I could put you down for that also.... The old guy spots his wife and waves good-bye to me. As he rounds the corner out of sight I hang up the phone.

I go to the rear door and look into the back room and see the floor covered in popcorn from the shipment. Dave is at the shrink wrap table with his back to me using the heat gun to seal up the thermoplastic wrapped game boxes for display.

Excuse me.

I nearly jump into the back room. I turn and there stands a small round woman in her late forties. Auburn hair, short and curly, crowns her head. Her small eyes dart around the store like a frightened doe.

Can you help me? she squeaks.

Yes Maam. What can I do for you?

Im looking for a program that you can control people with.

I search my memory for titles in that line.

Well, I have a game over here. I walk her to a section on the left. It allows you to be a mayor of a city. You can determine where industrial, residential, and commercial buildings get built. Its a very addictive game.

She reaches toward the box and stops. No, thats not it.

O.K. How about this one where you direct soldiers and launch weapons to conquer the world?

No. I dont think thats it either. She firmly shakes her head. What about that one? She points at the top shelf. Can you control people with that one?

I pull down Planet Constructor. Well, not exactly. You construct a world and ecosystem with this one.

Does it have a manual?

Yes. All the games do.

Ill take it. I think thats the right one. How do I work it?

Its an older game and will run on any 486 or better.

Whats a 486?

Great! Another one that doesnt know what type of computer she has. Its an average computer.

I dont have a computer.

I blink. You need a computer to play it.

I dont want to play it. She grabs it from my hand.

Blink. Then why do you want it?

Because, somebodys controlling me. Im sure its with a computer program. So Im gonna read the manual to find out how its done and stop them. She is not smiling. She moves to the front of the store and places the game on the counter and pulls a one hundred dollar bill from her purse.

But Maam, no one can control you with a game. Im behind the register.

A friend told me computers could do anything now-a-days. And I know somebodys doing it with me.

I ring up the sale and bag it. She waddles out into the mall and slips between two boys who jump out of her way.

Dave, I need a break! I call into the back room. He comes out and I hurry down to the malls food court, loosening my tie and rolling up my sleeves. My mind is on avoiding the afternoon rush of people making their way to two hundred plus stores.

Minnows, NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection.

Minnows, NOAA National Estuarine

Research Reserve Collection.In the food court the press of people is greater. Everyone is staring up at the restaurant signs as they walk along. What is it going to be today? Deli, hamburger, pizza, Chinese... From behind me there is the sudden impact of flesh and stone. I look back and see a large girl on the floor bucking around on all fours with a small man in red shorts and T-shirt pressed against her back struggling to ride her.

A pocket has opened up around them as people continue to look for a place to eat. Some stop to watch.

Im pregnant! she yells.

Quit struggling, he hisses through clinched teeth.

I could do the chicken sandwich.

I look forward and spot a security guard moving inattentively through the crowd. Waving him over I point to the two wrestlers on the floor.

Hold on a minute, son! He pries the guy off the girl.

The girl struggles up and bolts for the mall exit.

Im security! Get her! The guy in red shorts pulls out a badge. He is leaning against the wall. One hand is cupped over a bleeding eye. The security guard chases after the girl who is now out the door.

Fish.... Steak hoagies.

Im standing at the end of the hallway looking up at the flashing red exit sign. Outside the sky is crystal blue, seeming to go peacefully on forever.

I see the girl running out of the parking lot. Finally she disappears. The guard is standing beside me. He grunts and turns away, melding into the press of people.

I look back at the meandering shoppers... and then back at the sky.

I guess itll be the same today. Chicken sandwich done my way.

The girl behind the counter is as happy as I am to be here. Usual? she asks.

I guess. I hand her five dollars and thirty six cents in change.

Turning around with my nuked bird and sweating Coke, I see the nut to whom I just sold Planet Constructor. She is two registers down staring intently into the eyes of the poor guy trying to take her order. He wipes at his brow catching at sweat.

Maam. what would you like? he asks.

She continues to stare him in the face.

Maam. if you dont know what you want please step out of the line to decide, so I can ring up someone else.

From inside her shopping bag she pulls a black obelisk shaped book and holds it to her forehead. Embossed on the glossy front is the word Manual.

You will do what I want! she proclaims. She hasnt blinked once. All faces in the joint are now focusing on her.

I cant help myself. I begin snickering. Now the girl that just rang me up is giggling. I laugh out loud. Others join me. Most everyone laughing wears a name badge.

The lady turns to me. Now she turns and looks at everyone in the restaurant. The manual held firmly to her head.

A curse upon you all!

She scurries out into the mall disappearing into the milling crowd.

Nothing better than nuked bird.

Story 2004 Harold M. Paxton, III (, All Rights Reserved.