As anyone who is or has been the “nerdy kid” growing up can attest, you can’t help but assume the worst when the biggest bloke in class suddenly walks up to you. It took him calling me by name several times for me to stop pretending like I was reading the blank pages of my notebook. Instead of barraging me with all the usual insults about my glasses, my clothes or my bowl cut, however, he just grinned down at me and asked,
“Oi, newbie, ye play Caps?”
I shook my head. My folks and I had just moved to town barely a month ago, so I obviously wasn’t familiar with the local trends. Bottle Caps, or just Caps, was apparently an infamous kids game that had recently made its resurgence and was being played across the entire school. I say “infamous” because many parents saw it as a gateway into subsequent gambling habits, and actively encouraged teachers to be on the lookout for students participating in it. Ironically, that only added to the game’s sort of “underground” appeal. Their concerns weren’t unfounded, as kids would often be coaxed by their peers into wagering their allowances or other possessions.
The rules are deceptively simple. At the start of a game, each player grabs four random bottle caps from the set. Each cap would have a number written on the inside of it, showing the amount of points said cap is worth. The players then take turns guessing how many points the other has. Every time they are wrong, their opponent must tell them to guess either “higher” or “lower” during their next turn. If a player suspects that they are being misdirected, they can call their opponent out. A player wins by either guessing the exact number of points their opponent has, catching them lying or being called out for lying when they actually weren’t. Regardless of the outcome, both players flip their caps at the end of the game, revealing their score and proving that they haven’t cheated.
Needless to say, I lost my lunch money that day, but a few pounds was a small price for the thrill of taking part in something I wasn’t supposed to. That’s how it started. After a few weeks, my own parents could hardly recognize me. I had stopped studying, which my grades inevitably began to reflect. The only reason I went to school was to play Caps with the lads. Probably beginning to suspect what was going on, my mum started packing my lunch instead of giving me money. Unfortunately, that only resulted in me sneaking stuff out of the house that I could gamble with instead. I was much too young to grasp the concept of serious addiction, let alone realize that I was spiraling headfirst towards it.
The others convinced me to stop attending classes altogether. We’d spend our weekdays behind an abandoned gym, where we’d smoke, scribble pricks on the walls and, of course, play Caps. But there was also another reason we went there. Once in a while, this kooky old man from across the street would come down and pay us a visit. In hindsight, the guy was clearly unwell. He was grossly malnourished, somehow appearing skinnier and skinnier each time we saw him. His face was covered in scabs and lesions, and his eyes were perpetually bloodshot. He never gave us his name, so we just called him “Mr. Sag” on account of his propensity for wearing absurdly oversized jumpers.
According to him, he and his friends were the ones who originally came up with our favorite activity, back when they were around our age. Usually he’d just sit there and watch us play for a few hours before going back inside. On occasion, however, he’d challenge one of us to a game, always brandishing the same crumpled £50 note and promising it to whoever beats him. It was an obscene amount of money from the perspective of a twelve-year-old back in the early 90s. Not that we’d ever know. You would think that, for a game so reliant on chance, one of us was bound to get lucky eventually, but the shifty old nutter always managed to weasel out in the end. Every time it seemed like he was about to lose, he’d suddenly make a random guess which just so happened to be the correct one. We were convinced that he was cheating, but we couldn’t figure out how. The bottle caps we used were all from the same brand of coke; there shouldn’t have been any way of differentiating between them. He was either being helped by someone, or had one hell of an eye for detail.
Perhaps it was time that we tilted the odds in our favor a little bit as well. Cheating at Caps is considered a local taboo and a reliable way of getting your teeth kicked in if caught. Given the circumstances, however, we figured that turnabout is fair play.
The game begins with twenty caps, respective values, which are marked on the underside as being worth five, ten, fifteen, twenty and twenty-five points. There are only four caps with each of the five values, which gives us the total of twenty caps. A player’s draw could be worth anything from twenty (four fives) to one hundred (four twenty-fives) points.
The problem was how to make it possible to tell how many points the other player has drawn. Giving every cap a distinguishing mark would’ve been too obvious, especially if ol’ Mr. Sag really was that perceptive. To mine and everyone else’s surprise, It was I who came up with the idea we eventually ended up going with. The plan was to make a new rigged set made up of sixteen caps worth the same amount of points, in this case ten, and only four of a different one—fifteen. Only those four would’ve been marked in some ideally inconspicuous way so that we could search them out from the rest. The idea was that you’d always know what your opponent has regardless of what they’d drawn. The player who was in on the trick would be careful not to draw too many of the caps with the more common value lest, when all the caps were flipped at the end, it be seen that there were more than four of that value and the trick be revealed.
The trap was set. All that was left now was for our guest of honor to make his appearance. Mr. Sag showed up late the following afternoon. He greeted us with a wave and assumed his usual sitting spot—an improvised bench made out of plywood and a few cinder blocks for support. Cooper, the oldest kid in our group, didn’t seem keen on waiting for a challenge to be extended. He strode up to the old man and demanded the rematch that he felt he was owed. Mr. Sag offered him a passive, neutral smile, then shrugged his shoulders and joined us at the table. The rest of us took a few steps back, having just replaced the real set with the trick one and trying not to look too obviously giddy about it.
The bottle caps were laid out between them. Even from a glance, I could already tell the four marked ones from the rest. Three of them were lightly scratched in different places while the fourth had parts of its logo smeared. We tried to make the imperfections look as benign and accidental as possible. As per the rules, both players took turns shuffling the order before selecting their caps. Cooper waited for his venerable opponent to pick first. I could tell that the old man had three tens and a fifteen. In response, Cooper quickly snatched the remaining fifteens and one ten. Both checked their caps, or pretended to in the case of one of them. The game was officially underway. Cooper was the first to guess:
“Twenty-five!” He smugly proclaimed, despite it being wrong. He had likely figured that winning on his first turn might’ve been a bit too suspicious.
The man rechecked his score and shook his head, all the while maintaining his calm smile.
“Higher” He replied.
His voice was so weak and raspy that it sounded like he was constantly struggling for air. It was his turn to guess,
“Hmm. How about… seventy?”
Cooper made a clicking noise with his tongue, leaned back and gave him the thumbs-down.
The whole game only lasted three rounds. Mr. Sag came dangerously close to hitting his mark on both his subsequent attempts, forcing Cooper to just pull the trigger and get it over with.
And just like that, it was over. I couldn’t believe it: the plan actually worked. Cooper shot me a sly glance, his grin wider than ever, which I couldn’t help but reciprocate. He extended his hand towards the dumbstruck man standing across from him, expecting his due reward. We were all taken aback as the man’s sullen grimace suddenly turned to laughter. He cackled, wheezed, and then cackled some more. I’m not sure what sort of reaction we expected, but it certainly wasn’t that. Before a now confused Cooper had the chance to retract his hand, Mr. Sag had grabbed it with both of his. He shook the boy’s entire arm and then triumphantly slapped the coveted £50 note down in front of him.
I had never seen the old man this lively before. He seemed genuinely overjoyed to have lost; as though a tremendous weight had been lifted off his shoulders. We looked on in stunned silence as he made his way over to the nearby intersection, laughing and cheering all the while. It was surreal watching him just stand there, tapping his feet against the pavement in celebratory fashion as the other pedestrians circled past him. He appeared to be waiting for something. Cars slowed down, thinking he intended on crossing, but the scraggly old geezer just waved them off with a smile.
“Think we broke ‘im, boys.” Cooper said in a self-satisfied tone, and then proceeded to wave his prize in each of our faces. I should’ve known better than to expect my contribution to be acknowledged.
All of a sudden, Mr. Sag spun around theatrically. Our eyes locked. He smirked, gave a bow, and—to our absolute horror—jumped backwards in front of an oncoming truck. The driver had no time to react. The initial collision sent the ragged man tumbling down beneath the wheels, where his body was effortlessly crushed under the massive vehicle’s weight. There was a crunch, followed by a wet squelching noise that caused me to look away. All around me, there were screams of panic and confusion.
“Ambulance!… Somebody call an ambulance!” A woman yelled. It was clearly much too late for that though.
The rest of the kids were quick to scatter. I felt Cooper grab me by the elbow and try to pull me back, but my body wouldn’t move. It was like my soles were nailed to the ground. After a few attempts, he gave up and sprinted off as well. To this day, I’m not sure what compelled me to stay. Maybe it was shock, or perhaps it was a feeling of guilt. Whatever the case, step by timid step, I inched forth towards the scene of the crash. Childishly, a part of me still held out hope that it was all going to turn out okay in the end. Such hopes were promptly dashed as soon as I squeezed through the crowd of concerned and morbidly curious adults that had gathered around the victim.
Splattered against the black tarmac was an unrecognizable pile of meat. The limbs that were still attached were bent in angles too painful to describe. There were bones protruding through the man’s oversized sweater; I didn’t even want to imagine what his body looked like underneath. His waist and stomach region were completely flattened, separating him in two. All that was left behind was a smear of entrails stretching up the road. His head was the only part of him that had somehow remained relatively intact. His face was turned towards the sky—expression eerie and hauntingly void of emotion. Suddenly, his lips began to move,
“Please, let me go…Please, let me go…” He repeated, chanting it over and over like a mantra.
The fact that he was still alive at all was a miracle, although from the miserable sod’s perspective it was clearly anything but.
My stomach turned as the man’s bulging, bloodshot eyes singled me out from the other bystanders. A warm trail of urine ran down my leg. His grimace twisted with anger.
“You!” He hissed through broken teeth “You cheating little shit! What have you done!? She won’t let me go…She’ll never let me go…because of you!”
The horrified crowd turned to look down at me. It was too much. I let out a scream and shoved past them, running away as fast as my short legs could carry me.
I never told anybody about what happened that day, not even my parents. It sort of remained this unspoken secret that everybody involved knew not to talk about. Ironically, the whole experience might have done the majority of us good since we quit playing Caps and started attending classes again. Or, at least, that might’ve been the case if my story ended there.
Years went by. I was a few days removed from my seventeenth birthday. It was Sunday and I had the apartment to myself for once, which didn’t happen very often. I was planning on spending the evening eating crisps and watching the most raunchy, rubbish TV show I could find when, suddenly, the phone rang. With nobody else around, I begrudgingly rolled off the sofa and sauntered over to pick it up. It was Cooper. It took me a minute to recognize his voice. We hadn’t spoken in over three years—not for any particular reason, we just grew apart. Although he tried to maintain a friendly tone at first, it was clear that there was more brimming beneath the surface.
It didn’t take long for the desperation to leak through. His voice cracked, and I could practically hear him holding back tears. He started telling me how sorry he was and that he had no other choice. I did my best to encourage him to be less vague, but it made no difference; he just kept on apologizing. I decided to just wait for him to calm down before trying to make sense of his babbling.
“Listen.” He finally said. “You’re at your place right? Go check if your door and windows are locked and call the cops. Tell them that somebody’s trying to break in or something. Just trust me, please.”
I made an effort to extract more information, but my concerns remained unacknowledged. He kept insisting that I wouldn’t believe him and that telling me would only make me think that he was playing a prank on me. He asked if my folks were around. I said no.
“Shit. Fuck. Okay…Okay…”
Panic was starting to set in again.
“Okay, I’ll call the cops for you. Just make sure everything’s locked tight and find a place to hide. Or—you know what—better yet, go over to your neighbors, but do it fast. You don’t wanna be trapped outside when he gets there. Go! Now!”
And just like that, he hung up. I slowly placed the handset down, shut off all the lights and walked up to the nearest window. It was pitch black outside. Droplets of rain trickled down the glass. Perhaps Cooper’s insistence on remaining vague had been the right call, since it made me take the threat way more seriously than I likely would’ve otherwise. I paced back and forth, considering my options. I lived on the first floor so, while unlikely, it was definitely possible for somebody to break a window and climb in if they wanted to. I glanced down the cramped entrance hall. Our upstairs neighbors were a kindly older couple that would’ve invited me in without question, especially after explaining the situation to them.
‘Screw it’ I thought; I had watched enough horror movies to know what happens to that one sceptic guy who insists on ignoring all the warning signs until it’s too late. I grabbed the keys off the table and headed for the door. Unfortunately, that was about as far as I got.
Smarter men than me have debated just how far you can pervert the human form until it is no longer considered “human”. I’m not exactly qualified to determine where the line needs to be drawn, but there is one thing that I do know for certain: The thing standing on the other side of that threshold, bathed in the harsh light of the staircase corridor, was definitely not human. At least, not anymore…
Its calcified hand shot forth and slapped against the inside of the door before I had the chance to slam it shut. I jolted back. Blocking my only conventional means of escape was this misshapen husk of a figure. It was naked apart from the grimy overcoat draped over its frame, the front of which hung open to reveal shriveled, almost mummified-looking flesh. Its body was held together by copper wire, and there were pieces of rebar connecting its upper torso to its pelvis. I have no idea how it still had use of its legs, considering that the metal bars were the only thing linking them to the rest of its skeleton.
But as undeniably grotesque as the fusion of bone, grey flesh and rusted metal was, it was its face that caused my chest to tighten. It wore a face that I instantly recognized despite its atrophied state.
“…Mr. Sag? Is that you?”
The old man, or at least what was left of him, didn’t say anything. Not at first. He only smiled, dry lips cracking as he did so. Just then did I notice that he was dragging some sort of tool behind. As his feet shuffled past the welcome mat, I saw it more clearly: he was wielding a crowbar.
“Your little friend told me where to find you. He told me everything…”
His voice was even weaker than I remembered, now barely above a whisper.
“He told me how the whole thing was your idea from the start.”
When I tried to protest, he struck the wall with his improvised weapon, chipping it and causing me to cower in fear. I considered screaming for help, but I had a feeling that he would have taken even less kindly to that.
“Sit” He demanded.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, lowering myself onto the living room carpet. Mr. Sag nodded and gently closed the front door behind himself. We were drenched in darkness. The sole source of light was the TV which still droned on in the background. As terrifying as the man’s appearance was, only being able to make out his crooked outline was arguably even worse. The walking cadaver stood by the entrance hall for a good while before finally shambling towards me. Each labored step sent chills running down my spine. My mind cycled through different and progressively bleaker scenarios.
His joints made a disgusting pop as he knelt down directly in front of me. My nose burned, assaulted by the stench of mold and decay. One half of his ghastly face became illuminated by the bluish light emanating from the TV, whereas the rest of him remained shrouded. He then reached into his pockets, producing bottle cap after bottle cap and placing them down between us.
“Is…is that what all this is about? Look, I’m sorry w-we… We were just kids! We didn’t know any better…”
The gaunt man shook his head. He cared little for my excuses. After having arranged all twenty caps, he pulled back and waited for me to shuffle them. It’s not like I had much of a choice. The ultimatum was clear:
Win and presumably get to live; lose or refuse to play and get your brains bashed in by an undead, crowbar-wielding maniac.
The rancid abomination sitting across from me and I both selected our four caps and then discreetly confirmed our scores. My ears pulsated in tandem with the thumping in my chest. I had pulled a ten, a twenty and two twenty-fives, meaning that my total score was eighty. Round numbers are generally not considered ideal since they are easiest to guess. I was already off to a bad start.
Mr. Sag took the liberty of going first,
A predictable choice—not too close, but not as far off as I would’ve liked. Now it was up to me to decide whether it was worth steering him away from the mark.
“Higher.” I confessed after a few agonizing seconds of deliberation.
He nodded. It was my turn. I didn’t know where to start, so I just went with “fifty” as well.
“Lower” he murmured.
To my knowledge, nobody had ever beaten him fair and square. I very much doubted that I was going to be the first. The goal was to survive long enough to come up with some sort of escape plan.
“Sixty.” was his subsequent guess.
“Higher.” I replied with even less confidence than before. I should’ve lied, but for some reason I once again found myself unable to.
It was my turn again.
There wasn’t a single feature of his that I could reliably read. It was like playing against a statue.
If he was being truthful, then my only remaining choices were twenty, which is the lowest possible score one can have, and twenty-five—assuming, of course, that he hadn’t been leading me astray from the start.
I was pushed against a corner. How was I expected to keep a straight face with the pale mask of death staring literally right at me? His next turn would’ve almost certainly been my last if I didn’t think of a way to stall him. I could’ve pretended like he was wrong, but there was this lingering feeling in my gut that he would’ve known regardless if I was willing to admit it right away or not. Suddenly, I recalled something—a detail that I’ve been clinging onto ever since what happened at that intersection. I doubted that bringing it up was going to make a difference, but it was worth a shot, especially if it bought me some time:
“Who is… ‘she’?”
I saw him tense up despite the timidness of my inquiry. Noticing his reaction, I pressed the matter further, this time with a marginally more emphatic pitch to my tone,
“Back then, you said that ‘she’ won’t let you go. What does that mean?”
Mr. Sag looked down at the unfortunate state of his body. He ran a finger along the wires that bound its shriveled tissue together. There was a deep sense of regret and melancholy reflected in his sunken eyes.
“I was a boy; about the same age as you were when we first met. I was… tired of always losing.”
He paused after every sentence, as if expecting some malevolent force to strike him down. When nothing happened, he carried on:
“Always the loser; never the winner.” He chuckled dryly. “But then, ‘she’ came to me…”
He leaned in, cupping one side of his mouth while his clouded pupils darted warily about. His breath caused bile to rise to the back of my throat. I felt compelled to also check my surroundings, but saw nothing in the darkness that encompassed us. Then my eyes fell upon the crowbar that lay across his lap unattended. My palm began to itch.
“Lady Luck.” he whispered. “She offered me a deal and I took it. Now she won’t let me go until—”
Knowing that I was unlikely to get another opening, I reached forth, snatched the steel bar and dug its bent claw into the side of the corpse’s neck. It was enough to knock him over. I crawled back until my shoulders hit a wall, and then slowly rose to my feet. There was no blood. It was like his skin was made of paper. Once the initial shock had subsided and I noticed him reaching for the tool embedded in his neck, I grabbed one of mum’s decorative pots from the counter and smashed it against his skull before running for the door.
I stumbled down the single flight of stairs and, to my surprise and great relief, found two officers waiting for me at the bottom. All three of us heard the sound of glass shattering. When the cops went up to investigate, they only found a broken window.
They searched the alleyways and then the whole block, but, predictably, discovered nobody matching my intruder’s description. Of course, I spared them the more unbelievable parts of my account. They would’ve probably assumed that I was high if I told them that some Frankenstein’s monster-looking bastard had broken into my home and forced me to play Caps with him.
I never heard from Cooper again. He was the one who rang the cops so I can only presume that they had some questions for him as well. If they did, I was never informed of the outcome. He had moved several times since we lost contact, so I had no idea where to find him. For all I know, Mr. Sag could’ve gone back and finished the job, though I doubt that. If he wanted to just straight up kill either of us he would’ve done it. In fact, I don’t think he was ever the real villain to begin with. He was but a symptom of something far more malevolent that’s still out there, preying on the unsuspecting and gullible among us.
It’s been over two decades. I’ve been through a divorce, married again and had two kids that are currently in their pre-teens. This is the first time I’m telling my story exactly how it happened. Why am I bringing it up now, you ask?
It was my turn to drive the kids to school this morning. My daughter forgot her backpack, so I went up to her room to fetch it. When I picked it off the floor, however, I felt something jiggle in one of the side pockets. The sound was all too familiar. I looked inside.
What I found were exactly twenty bottle caps, each with a number written on the inside of it.
I think we’ll need to have a talk…