Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Skink on Mirror Finch in Popcorn Bat in Lights
He thought only geckos could stick to surfaces like that so successfully, but the skink was intent on proving Darren wrong. It scurried across the surface of the long bathroom mirror, avoiding his attempts to snatch it with a brown paper towel.
He leaned over the line of sinks, fumbling on their wet edges so he could lean further. The water spots from long gone theater patrons messily washing their hands immediately darkened his blue uniform. Darren looked down when he felt it and lost track of the lightning fast lizard and its nearly neon-blue tail. He swore, swatted at the dark spot with the towel, and then looked around to see if anybody saw him. No. They were near the end of their shift, it was dark out, and all the movies playing were either old or terrible.
There was no sign of it on the mirror or the floor now. It had to be somewhere, but the theater was so full of cracks there was no telling if it was in the same room anymore. Darren sighed, tossed the towel to the trashcan, missed, picked it up, thrust his entire forearm into the can to make sure it was gone, and then left the bathroom. He knew what awaited him. Peach never missed an opportunity like this.
Even though he was back in the empty lobby, his coworker didn’t spot him immediately. She was nestled in front of an arcade cabinet, part of a row along one wall, and trying to best her own high score on Zero G Dunk Squad. They were both in high school, but never would’ve been brought together if not for the job.
He was athletic but quiet. She was rotund, warm-cheeked, and always eager to slap somebody on the shoulder in jest or familiarity. She was supposed to be manning the snackbar while he handled the complaint of the woman, now long gone, who said there was a ‘dreadful pest’ in the bathroom. Things were empty enough that he wouldn’t scold her, as long as she didn’t…
“Oh man,” she gibed when she turned and saw the stains on his shirt, “did you piss everywhere or just nearly everywhere?” She snorted in laughter before the trilling of the game warned her she was about to run out of dribble energy. “Did you catch the anole?”
“It was a skink,” he answered, not bothering to defend the stains. He could hide them by standing behind the snack counter, where someone was supposed to be anyway. Better to let Peach have her fun. She was always more affable after a new high score. She currently had the highest one on five out of their eight cabinets.
Darren had a smirk of his own as he remembered her standing just behind a patron about to beat one of her scores, literally breathing on his back, noisily complaining about her bowel issues. Anything to throw the man off. She’d succeeded.
He cracked his knuckles and tried to channel that resolve when he spotted the skink once more, barely visible against the diamond pattern in their carpet. It was heading for the darkness of the theaters. He snagged a medium soda cup, thought twice, and snagged a large one. One of those was big enough to count as a terrarium anyway; the skink could live in it forever. He hopped over the counter and hit the ground, prompting Peach to turn and observe.
Romantic Comedy Gothic Horror Espionage Thriller
The creature was fast, and easy to lose in the shadows. Darren stalked down the row of theater doors, Peach shuffling behind him out of curiosity, with the cup poised to strike. He spotted it one moment too late, as it skittered under one of the doors.
The cup slammed down with a hollow sound, but when he lifted it he found only its wriggling blue tail. Peach walked over and picked it up. He knew what she was thinking; the old skink tail mixed into the gummy worms trick. She wouldn’t do it. She talked a big game, but she actually liked her job, especially on nights like this where there was nobody around.
After he saw her pocket the tail he looked up at the sign. What had the skink gone to see? The Dragon of Wheatgate. The film’s music crept under the door and asserted its identity. He heard organ and solemn bells. It sent a familiar chill down his spine. He thought back to a night on the couch six years ago, when things in black and white could still scare him.
The Dragon of Wheatgate had been denied consideration for special effects awards because it was called too frightening. They thought calling attention to it would sour the mood of any award ceremonies, like the waiters suddenly dropping dead, or each of the trophies melting into blood pudding.
A short screen after the commercial break had told him that factoid. When the movie came back he learned that it deserved the award and then some. The dragon on his screen was unlike anything he’d ever seen. The poor film quality blended its black hide with the shadows, yet its irises, small and sharp, were extremely visible.
It was a monster film, and by the time he’d started watching the dragon had already claimed two victims. Everything around looked like paintings, even the ditch the dragon puppet was kept in. He saw the characters that way as well: painted people without a care in the world, with all the safety of an art museum’s walls of pomp. Yet they still got eaten. That dark make-up, applied only after they were draped across the dragon’s lower jaw, dragged their faces, stretched their paint, into ghouls that populated his young nightmares.
“Well, are you going to get it?” Peach asked. She poked his hand. He looked down and saw it wrapped around the handle, knuckles tight. He stared at it, as if the only way to loosen his grip was via telekinesis.
“It’ll be too dark in there; we won’t see it,” he offered.
“They gave us flashlights,” Peach said, scurrying off to get them from under the counter. When she returned she handed one of the small cylindrical devices to him and clicked hers on. She shone it right in his eyes, but he didn’t flinch. He was still remembering the dragon, and its darkness stuck in the middle of his eyes, pushing the light back.
Sleeping Patrons Warped Film Dozens of Skinks
They opened the door slowly and crept along the sides of the theater. They had their lights off because they wished to first assess the audience. If the beams would bother the patrons too much, Darren and Peach would just risk a complaint about a skink in someone’s shoe.
Both flashlights clicked on once they saw that the seats were completely empty. It wasn’t that unusual. There was one half-crumpled bag of popcorn, suggesting someone had left within the first half hour of the movie, perhaps someone hoping to make friends with equally creepy hobbies.
Darren kept his eyes off the screen. The sudden return of the memories was worrying enough; he didn’t need to refresh them. Instead he went row by row, sweeping his light across the floor, across the usual bog of stains and candy boulders. His sneakers made that lovely ripping sound of stepping in dried syrupy sugar water. He saw there were a lot more yellow choco-pips than any other color. Why did people hate the yellow ones so much?
The floor was practically a glue trap, but there was no sign of the little beastie. Why would it go in there and then not sample any of the bountiful sugars? What else could it draw it in? The darkness? Like the dragon to its painted ditch?
He’d done his half. If Peach was done they could call it a night and get back to the fake butter smell of their post: industrial salt, carpet fibers, penny patina, and melted cheese that would corrode iron faster than it would expire. Safety.
He lifted his head and scanned for her, but she wasn’t in the rows. She was down at the front, flashlight spread across the grays and blacks of the film. It was fine if he looked, as long as he didn’t focus. It would just be a blur then. It wouldn’t add clarity to those horrible memories. His beam followed hers.
She wasn’t shirking her duty; this was an actual legitimate distraction. The screen was covered in spots. Darren had no choice; he had to focus. These weren’t stains or rips. They were alive, crawling across the screen, across the eye of the dragon as it lunged at the camera. Darren stumbled backward and fell over one of the chairs.
His breath came in gasps; he inhaled the smell of a thousand shoes and their sock lint. His flashlight rolled away, illuminating a few more skinks as they scurried for cover. Peach called his name, but he was frozen solid. His mind was back on the couch watching the tinny-sounding version, before the remaster currently playing in front of him. It was dark. Something crawled between the cushions and grazed his hand.
Darren was in a seat; Peach had both hands on his shoulders. She shined the flashlight in one of his eyes like she was an optometrist. She was asking him something, but all he could hear was the growl of the dragon, put over the film later, an aftershock of fear, like the nightmares themselves.
“Why are there so many?” he asked, his voice breathy and weak. “Have you ever heard of a skink infestation?”
“NO,” she answered, still put off by the fear starting to sweat out of him like beading on one of their extra large cups. “Don’t freak out though; they’re harmless. It’s not like they’re scorpions.”
Screen Projection Room Next Theater
Darren had nothing to say in rebuttal, his throat was cotton, but the theater provided their next step. There was something else that needed investigating. A new sound rose over the dragon’s growl. At first they thought it was rain because it was hundreds of tiny sounds all at once, but they quickly realized that could not be it.
It didn’t roll like rain. It didn’t rise and fall. It was chatter. The peeping and shrieking of small birds. They’d occasionally gotten a rogue pigeon in the theaters, whenever some smoker opened the emergency door to grab a puff, but never anything like the cacophony they now heard.
Darren was happy to leave the dragon and all its tail-tossing offspring to their dark ditch; nothing could be worse than those memories.
“Bring on the birds,” he even muttered as they jogged back out into the hallway and over to the next theater. He was able to rip that door open without any trouble. He didn’t have his flashlight anymore, but that theater was much brighter for a vareity of unsettling reasons. Those reasons became distinct from each other as the employees again took up positions near the front row.
The walls were covered in whitish bird droppings. Every seat back and cup holder held a finch, robin, or sparrow, all peeping and chattering incessantly. The screen was full of color, full of birds flocking. What was this? A nature documentary? It couldn’t be a coincidence… skinks in the dragon film… birds in the bird film…
“Okay, this is really getting weird,” Peach said. She’d lost most of her characteristic orange-yellow color. “How did they even get in here? I don’t see any holes.” Her flashlight moved about the ceiling, disturbing any birds it crossed over. Many of them took to the wing and circled around the hapless teens. Peach squeaked and clicked her light off, but that didn’t dissuade them. Globs of their waste landed in her hair and on one of Darren’s shoulders.
They could last there even less than the last theater, so they rushed out before the animals started pecking at their flesh. Instinctively they went all the way back to the lobby, back to the smell that was supposed to be the worst thing about their jobs.
Peach pulled out her cell, but had no idea who to call. Police? Animal control? The boss? Darren suggested the last one and she promptly squished the phone against her ear. She took deep breaths while it rang.
“Yeah, Jamie! It’s Peach. Listen. We got problems; you need to get down here. We’ve got some kind of… infestation. Well, at least two infestations: birds and lizards. No, it’s not a joke. Darren never jokes; here’s Darren.” She thrust the phone in his direction and he took it.
“Jamie… It’s horrible. Legs and wings and tails everywhere… and the dragon.”
“Don’t say dragon you dunce!” Peach hissed. She took the phone back.
Disbelief Fired Cavalry on the way
“Jamie listen we… No we’re not playing a prank. Yes I know; I play pranks, but this isn’t one of those. We’ve got two theaters full of critters! One is skinks and one is finches and other littler shitty birds! Jamie don’t… Jamie!” She slowly slid the phone back into her pocket.
“What? What did he say?” Darren asked.
“He said one of two things was true,” she informed, “either we were lying, in which case we’re fired… or we told the truth and let birds shit all over one of the theaters… in which case, we’re also fired.”
“So, we’re fired?”
“Yes. Now what to do we do?” she asked. They could still hear the clamor of the birds. Darren could still hear the growl of the dragon, but it was only in his ears.
“We could just go home,” he offered. “Whatever’s going on in there isn’t our problem anymore. It’s just animals come to see movies about themselves. It’s a good thing we’re not showing any westerns, or we’d have horses stampeding through here right now.” In the back of his mind he knew it was more than that. The animals weren’t there to enjoy themselves. They were there to grow some grit, to stoke their anger, to see what they could be capable of if they actually battled the people who made such films.
“I wonder if anything like this has ever happened before,” Peach wondered aloud without answering him. She pulled her phone again and started searching the internet. “How should I phrase it? Birds see a movie? Skinks have a night on the town?” Darren made his way back behind the snack counter. What he wanted was a stiff drink, but he would have to settle for root beer and minty chocolate.
Part of him wanted to squish the mints in his fingers, let the green goo inside spill out, and then rub that artificial peppermint flavoring right into his eyes. That could scrub out the shadow the dragon had left. He stuck his head under the soda machine and guzzled some root beer, before flicking the wad of bird waste off his shoulder.
Something still didn’t sit right in his mind, and it wasn’t just the fear. He hadn’t remembered everything about the dragon. He never saw the end of the movie because he fell asleep. His mind had to end it for him, inserting his little boy self into the ditch, feeding him to that beast of puppetry and Gothic atmosphere.
He knew the nightmares were going to come back. That left him with a choice. He could go back in and see the finale, or leave and accept the sleepless nights. The skinks would invariably be added to his horrors. His friends and family would mock him whenever he jumped at the sight of one. Peach stared. She already had her bag over her shoulder. She might not join him. He might have to sit alone in a theater full of vermin, full of creatures with tiny black eyes, judging him, assessing whether or not he feared them or the exaggeration.
Leave Watch the Finale Shut off the Film
“You can go Peach,” he told her as he wiped the root beer from his mouth with a forearm. “I’m going to catch the end of that dragon movie. Then I’m out as well.”
“You’re going back in there?” she asked, wide-eyed. “Why?”
“I’ve never seen the end of that one,” was the only answer he gave. She shrugged. None of her business. Her business was a frozen burrito waiting for her back home, along with her boyfriend and her two cats. Those animals she could stand. She turned and left. Her legacy was already in place; nobody would beat her high score on Life of a Bug Thug.
Before she left she offered Darren her flashlight, but he didn’t take it. Having a light with you during a horror movie was cheating. Something terrible would happen if he cheated the dragon out of the scares it earned.
A minute later he settled into a seat in the front row. Him and the dragon. Eye to canvas. Its growl spread out through the theater. All the lizards on the screen shook their tails and close their eyes. This was an image of reptilian power long lost. People always underestimated the raw emotion of actual art, the fact that animals felt it too.
Rarely did people stumble into one of their viewings; Darren and Peach were just that fortunate. Skinks remembering the days of ancient reptiles like dimetrodon. Birds remembering their days as dinosaurs whenever they saw some prey skewered by a bill on screen. It was worth pecking their way through the walls over months and months.
Darren watched quietly. The dragon ate its fill of innocents. Nobody slayed it. Nobody even tried. The story was… unorthodox. The dragon was simply there, like real nature, like an actual random death. A dog mauling its owner. A snake cannibalizing its young. These were images man had to see at some point in his life. They had to see the nonsense of it, they had to feel the terror of nature’s quirks.
A skink rested on his hand. Was it his imagination, or did it nod when the credits started to roll? There was no person credited as being the puppeteer for the dragon of Wheatgate. Maybe there never was anybody inside.
The skinks vanished back into the folds of the curtains. He had shown proper respect by watching. He’d corrected his younger self’s error. There was no telling what the scaly little things might have done if he dared leave without filling in the gaps in the story. They were everywhere, as were the birds. They saw just as much of our art, and they would know if we weren’t sufficiently afraid.