The Raven, The Bear, and the Sun

Nora nudged her drink, watching ripples play out on the surface. It was just a shot of whiskey, yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to down it.  So, she would nudge it every now and then, and watch the ripples and think of the way waves might lap at the shore on a summer day. Even without the whiskey, she could imagine sea salt and foam, coral and shells poking half-out of the sand, their surfaces shiny in the early afternoon sun. She could hear the gulls crying as they wheeled above the waves, and further out, see the bright triangle of a sloop or a small fishing boat. Then the burn in her guts would come back, and the ocean would fade – she’d remember she’d never actually seen the sea – and she’d take another shot of whiskey to take the edge off the pain.

She grimaced when it went down – she had never been one of those people like in the movies, where they toss back the shot, slam the glass down, and ask for another – she’d never gotten used to the taste. It went down hot, and she coughed a little, and then chased it with the beer beside it. Beer was better. Not much, but it wasn’t like fire, and though the whiskey made the acid in her belly that much hotter for a moment, the two blended together just enough to mellow the pain, and make her loose enough to think of anything that wasn’t the black cancer eating away her insides. She took another sip of beer and tried to think of anything else, like how if she managed to down about five more of those, she might finally be ready to finish the bottle of pills on her counter and deprive the pain of its one source of joy, her misery.

Her stomach protested with a wash of acid that made her want to vomit up the three shots, near-pint, and handful of peanuts she’d forced down over the night. She clenched her jaw and breathed through her nose, and thought nasty words at the nausea until it passed, her hand on her stomach. Her left hand was clenched in a fist, the thumb tucked inside. She’d read somewhere that it was supposed to put pressure on a nerve that helped control the vomit impulse. She wasn’t sure it was true, but with weeks of not keeping food down for more than twenty minutes, ten sometimes, she was willing to give anything a shot.

A man sat on the stool next to her, bumping her arm and sending it banging into her stomach. She winced and looked over. He looked back with old, kind eyes.

“Sorry about that.”

“No problem.”

“No, sorry about the cancer. I didn’t have anything to do with that.”

She had just turned away to contemplate the new shot the bartender had placed in front of her, and her head snapped back. If it had moved any faster, it would have made a sound like Indiana Jones’ whip in an open market. The man was still watching her with those eyes. They were odd, she thought. Especially in a man with dark skin. Gold, with flecks of green. She thought she might be mistaken – that they were just a light brown, or the light was caching them in a way that made them shine, but then he inclined his head just a little, and she saw her first thought was right. He smiled, and his wrinkles formed themselves into smile lines and dimples, a sort of seismic joy across the landscape of his face.

“Looking at my eyes?”

“No – yeah. I mean – sorry.”

“No need to apologize.” He laid a thin hand on hers, his skin dry, but warm, his palm calloused. “Got them from a tiger. Had to trade the moon for them, but I got it back.” He winked.

“What did he get?” She asked, the question surprised out of her by the oddity of the statement.

“His stripes. And a hangover.”

She laughed, a sound that came from her so unexpectedly that she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sorry.”

“You apologize a lot. Don’t. Never be sorry for a laugh that isn’t cruel.”

She looked at him closer. At the tweed suit. At the hat that lay beside his left hand, a battered fedora like you’d see a jazz singer wear in the 50s. At his slight build and the white stubble that clung to his head. At his eyes. Kind, but somehow laughing. Not at you, though. No, she didn’t think those eyes ever laughed at a person. Her first thought flittered back into her head, a reminder of the sudden surprise she’d felt.

“How did you know about the cancer?”

“It stands out. A person carries themselves a certain way. A little stiffer, their shoulders a little hunched. Like a whipped dog – no offense. It’s a mean thing – it takes and takes and leaves little. Sometimes not even your dignity.” Anger flashed in his eyes just once, so brief she thought for a second it might be the reflection of a reflection – the light from a watch catching the neon, but she didn’t think so. Then it passed, and his demeanor changed. He signaled for a drink, and watched the bartender bring it, then turned to Nora. “You like stories?”

“Depends. Is it long?”

He shrugged. “Not so long to tell as it was to live.”

She thought about it. The tub, the razor blade, the bottle of pills – they would wait. None were clamoring to be first, none were more important than the next. They simply were, an inevitability at the end of a long road. She nodded. “Sure, I’ll listen.”

“A long time ago – that’s how these things always start, anyways – there was the dark, and man, and man was afraid of the dark.”

She wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. Sermons hadn’t gotten her anywhere in the past two years, and praying had gotten her less. She held up a hand.

“Is this a Bible story? Because – no offense, thanks, but no thanks.”

He shook his head. “Nope. Probably wouldn’t show up in the Bible. Probably wouldn’t show up in the New York Times.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t make it less true.” He paused and looked at her. “Okay?”

She nodded and picked up her beer, taking a sip. “Okay.”

“Where was I? Oh – the dark. So many stories start in the dark. That’s because for a long time, man didn’t have light. They huddled together, in their caves and their secret places, away from the beasts, and they held sharpened sticks and fended off the night when it came for them. They weren’t always successful. Men died. Women died. Children died. Or worse.”

“Worse?” Despite herself, Nora felt herself already being drawn into the story. The man’s voice was mellifluous, and she could imagine shamans and grandparents and parents telling stories like this to their children, some still babes in swaddling clothes, as they huddled around campfires or fireplaces, in places where their parent’s parents had come up and made a life.

The man nodded. “Sometimes the dark didn’t kill them, but got inside. Some, it made sick.” He reached out and touched her stomach, with one finger. It was nonthreatening, tender – the touch of a physician. It burned for a moment, as if in response to his presence. He pulled away, and her stomach settled. He continued. “Others, it took. It brought them into the fold and changed them, made them crave the flesh of families, made them hunt their own children. Others, it made generals, great leaders of beasts that had never seen the light. They fought for so long, but the thing about fighting for so long in the dark, with no light at the end, is that you get tired. You just want to sleep. Some simply walked into the dark and didn’t look back.

So it went, generation after generation, until one day, all the people that ever were at that point huddled together in one cave. They were sore and weary, and began to argue. ‘We should fight until the end,’ some said. ‘We should walk out,’ others said, ‘let the dark take us’. ‘We should lie down and sleep until the end,’ said the third group. It was then that a voice, younger than the others, but still strong, spoke up. ‘We should fight with something they’ve never seen before.’

‘And what is that?’

‘Light.’

They shook their heads in bewilderment and scratched their pates and wondered if the young man had gone mad. He held up his hands for quiet, and then told them of a dream he’d had, of a glittering thing that shone in a way that couldn’t be stopped by the dark, of the way the things in the night were afraid of it, and the way the beasts feared it. When they asked where it came from, he told them it was a thing of the gods.”

Nora stopped him. “This is a fairy tale then.”

He raised a hand. “Hand to gods, it’s true.”

“Gods? Plural? You’re not one of those new age kooks, are you?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “I haven’t been accused of being a new anything in a long time. No, back then there were many gods. But they were busy with their own squabbling and couldn’t be bothered with man. That came after.”

He continued. “So, the young man told them his story. And they laughed at him. Until he went to the mouth of the cave and stared into the dark. Then, they no longer laughed. They begged and pleaded, and wheedled and cried and finally cursed, saying that if he was going to throw away the future of the clan, then he could rot in the dark with the rest of them.

Their warnings and curses went unheeded though, and he walked out, into the dark.”

The man stopped and took a sip of his drink. He paused for a moment, looking around the bar.

“What happened next?” Nora prompted him.

“He found the light.”

“How?”

He heaved a sigh. “Tests, trials, labors. There are always three – did you know that?”

She shook her head, and he nodded in return.

“Three is sacred to one deity or another – the Goddess, God, Shiva – it’s all very mathematical and proper, as things are with their sort.”

“So, what happened?”

“Well, he walked. For a long time. And it was dull. There was very little on the Earth at that time, due to the darkness. Not many things could live in it, though somehow man did. I suspect resourcefulness was a gift from the gods, because man could find food in the dark – mushrooms and lichen from the caves, water from the grottos, meat from the occasional lizard that wandered through – though, let me tell you, raw lizard tastes awful. They also found wood from trees that grew in the caves where a lizard had carried a seed, though it grew hard and leafless and completely inflammable. A joke of the dark, I think.

Anyways, he walked for three days, somehow avoiding the eyes of the dark, and on the third day, came to a stream. A bird – ravens were common even then – had landed on a rock in the stream after some beast or other had wounded his wing, and was trapped. While it wasn’t very deep for a man, it was deadly to a bird that wasn’t made for swimming, so the boy decided he would wade in and rescue the raven. When he reached the edge of the stream, the bird spoke.

“Look out!” It called. “The water is thick with the teeth of the dead!”

The boy looked down and saw it was true. Beneath the surface of the water, bone-white teeth glinted in the moonlight.”

Nora interrupted him. “I thought you said there wasn’t any light.”

“Moonlight is not the same as light. You know that. Could you grow a tree by moonlight? Frighten a predator?”

She shook her head. “Sorry.”

He shook his. “Again. No apologies.” He continued.

“The boy paused at the edge of the water, and looked. He had his spear with him, and thought ‘maybe…,’ so he laid it across the stream, and it reached the rock. The raven hopped across, holding its broken wing out. Just before the end, it dipped its beak into the water and grabbed a tooth, holding it up as it hopped onto the shore. The boy held his hand out and the raven spat it into his hand. It was long and sharp, and he could feel it ready to bite.

‘Thank you,’ said the raven. Fasten this to your spear, and you will be able to pierce even the sky.’

‘Will you be okay?’ The boy asked.

The raven bobbed his head. ‘I will be fine. Now go.’

The boy strapped the tooth to the point of his spear and went on his way, leaving the raven behind. He walked another three days, until he came to a great forest, one older than even the darkness, and began to work his way through.”

Nora interrupted again. “Wait. I thought you just said trees couldn’t grow in moonlight.”

“You’re right – they can’t. I did say this place was older than the dark. Such things did – still do – exist.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “May I go on?”

She nodded.

“The boy came to the center of the forest, and there he saw a bear, his leg trapped in one of the night’s traps. He went to the bear and knelt beside him, inspecting his leg.

‘I think I can get it off,’ the boy said.

The bear shook his head. ‘Do not. It is a strong tar. Even touching it would stick you hopelessly.’

The boy thought for a moment, then using his spear, pried the jaws of the trap apart. The mechanism snapped open, and the bear pulled his leg free. The tar clung to the tip of the spear.

‘Thank you, boy,’ the bear said. ‘With that tar, you can catch the most cunning of prey.’ He wandered into the woods, leaving the boy alone. After a time, the boy continued on.

He walked for three more days, leaving the forest behind. By now, his stomach was growling, and his step was unsure. He had come so far, and been lucky in that the dark seemed to not see him. Finally, he came to an arch set in a plain countryside. It had no house, nor any frame, but you could not see the other side through it. He stepped though, and screamed in horror.

The light was more than he’d expected, more than he’d dreamt. It seared his skin, made his eyes burn. He cowered before it, and flung his hands over his eyes. He lay that way for some time, his hands over his eyes. He cursed the gods and their tricks, and cursed the dark and its cruelty. He trembled, part in fear, part in rage. He could not die here! He could not let the gods have their joke! Slowly, he stood, and through squinting eyes, he picked up his spear. He aimed with a trembling hand. Sweat covered his skin, and his grip was unsure. Still, he pulled back, and let fly. The spear flew like an arrow, like a hawk at its prey. It struck the sun, and with a thunk, sliced off a piece that stuck to the tar. The spear fell away and landed to earth, the tip still burning.

The boy picked up the torch, and marveling at its light weight and heat, began to walk the way he’d come. He had decided if he couldn’t destroy the thing in the sky, he would steal a piece for his people. Let the gods have their joke – he would use it to his advantage. He walked, back through the arch and through the forest, beside the stream, and finally, back to his cave. Where he went, the light spread, driving back the dark things, making greenery bloom around him. He called out to his people.

‘Come and see what I have brought!’

They came, tempted by the light, and though they shielded their eyes, they rejoiced at the new sights, at the fleeing darkness.

‘What do we do with it?” They asked the boy.

In answer, he flung the spear into the sky, and there it stuck. And that’s how we got the sun.”

“What happened to the boy?” Nora was enraptured.

The man shrugged. “Some say he is still around, bringing light wherever he goes.”

“Is that why the dark left him alone?”

The man shrugged and finished his drink. “Maybe. Maybe he was just small enough to pass under its sight. Maybe it saw the strength in him and knew he was unbreakable.”

She thought about it and downed her shot. The alcohol made her head swim pleasantly. “It’s nice, but it’s just a story. Thank you for it, but I don’t see how it applies to me.”

A small look of sadness passed the man’s face. “You don’t? It’s simple, Nora. There is always light to drive back the dark.”

He tapped her stomach once more, and the pain came, but it was distant. The alcohol must be working. He stood and laid a fifty on the counter, then nodded at the barman.

“For me, and her.”

She started to protest, and then laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you.”

He smiled. “Go home, Nora. Sleep. That thing you’re thinking of can wait another day. And the day after that, maybe you can steal the sun.”

He walked away, and she sat on her stool, rubbing her stomach. After a while, she stood as well, and left. The cab ride home was quiet, as was her apartment. She looked at the bottle of pain pills on her kitchen counter, and mentally counted them. 32 – that should be enough. She thought of the old man, and took a breath, then went to sleep.

The next day, she woke, and the pain in her stomach was less. And the day after that, and the day after that. And after that, she drove to the beach. It was a three day drive, and at its end, she stood on the shore and raised her hand to the sky. From where she stood, the sun seemed to fit neatly in the palm of her hand.

Jimmy Hoffa is Alive and Well

High summer on the plains and all Craig wanted to do was get out of the sun.  He’d been driving for four hours, and the AC in his rental was just barely wheezing along.  To the left and right, fields and fields of corn waved in the wind, keeping time with his tires as they crunched along the pavement.  He wiped a bead of sweat from his eyes and blinked back the haze.

Ahead, a green sign appeared in the midst of the yellow, white lettering blazing in the afternoon sun.  It read BOTTINEAU 1.  He passed the sign, and the corn parted, the road opening into a small town.  Craig could see several older homes set back from the road, and just up ahead, a small main street.  The car rolled into town, past a dog sniffing something in the ditch, and a pair of dirty children chasing a ball in what passed for a park.

The main street was mostly old wood buildings, painted in faded whites and grays.  There was a small hardware store, a five and dime, a diner (Maude’s – Best Pie in Town), and a drugstore.  At the end of the strip, before the town ended and the road passed grain silos and more damn corn was the holy grail of weary travelers.  A sign on the square facade read Marv’s, and below that, in script: ‘Cold Beer, Hot Food’.

Craig pulled the car over, into an open diagonal spot out front, between two big Fords.  He cut the engine and looked at the front of the building.  The entrance was recessed, the main door a house door someone had fit into the frame.  A sign proclaimed it a smoke-free establishment.  He looked to the side, at the big Fords, and wondered how welcoming the locals were of strangers.  Probably not very.  Still, it was probably dark and cool inside, and there would be Cold Beer.  He screwed up his courage and got out of the car.  After a minute of waffling, still staring at those big trucks, he went inside.

The door creaked when he opened it, and a blast of cool air hit him in the face.  A part of him sighed, and he stepped into the dim interior.  The inside was simple – booths backed against the walls, and small tables in the center of the room.  A long bar took up one wall, with small pull-tab machines at one corner, and bottles of liquor and coolers of beer and pop lined up behind it.  A jukebox stood against one wall, wailing out something by Willie.  In an opposite corner stood a tall glass and wood display case, the interior dark from where he stood.

Craig let the door close behind him and paused as heads swiveled to see who had entered.  There were a few farmers, hats on tight, skin wind and sun burned, and a woman who looked as though she had once been homecoming queen twenty years ago sitting at the bar.  A chubby waitress stood behind the bar wiping out glasses.  They looked at him, weighed him, and disregarded him.  That done, Craig bellied up to the bar.

The waitress put down her glass.

“What can I get ya?”

“Bud’s fine. Uh, bottle.”

After a moment, it was sitting in front of him, and the first drink was like Heaven in his throat.  Cool and crisp, with just a bitter bite.  He took another sip, and another, and let the beer relax his road sore muscles.  A few minutes later, he found his gaze drawn to the case in the corner, and stood to take a look at it.

The case was old, like the ones he’d seen pictures of in old traveling shows.  It reminded him of a curio cabinet, just plainer.  Scattered around the base of the box were rose petals and half-melted candles.  He could just make a plaque.  It read J. Hoffa.

He frowned and leaned in.

Inside, he could see a wizened figure, in an old suit.  It looked like a mummy, and though it was thin and spindly, there was a squareness to the jaw and a width to the shoulders.  Its hands were crossed over its chest, and its eyes were closed, as though the man inside had fallen asleep and decided to stay that way.  A hand-printed sheet of paper was taped at waist high.  It read

Make a Wish, $1

Oh, so this was a charity thing.  He looked over at the waitress behind the bar.

“Is this thing real?”

She popped her gum and nodded.  “Yeah.  Jimmy Hoffa. Make a wish.”

“Like for the kids?”

She shook her head.  “Nah, like birthday candles.”

Huh.  He pulled his wallet out and grabbed a dollar, then turned back to the waitress.

“Where do I put this?”

“Basket.”  She nodded her head at a small table he hadn’t noticed.  A basket sat on top, empty.

Not a lot of takers.  Ah, what the hell, he thought.  He dropped the dollar in and tried to think of what to wish for.  He looked around the room, and his gaze fell on the former beauty queen.  Lines had eroded some of her looks, and beer had made her a little soft in the middle, but in all, he could see what had made her once a gem in a field.

Wish I could get laid.

He waited a minute, then two, for something to happen.  He even closed his eyes.  After another minute, when nothing had, he chuckled to himself and made his way back to the bar.  He picked up his beer and looked down.  Next to his coast was a napkin, neat block writing on it.  He read it.

Meet me in the bathroom

Craig looked around and noticed the beauty queen was gone.  He shrugged, got up, and made his way to the short hall in the back of the building.  It smelled of urinal cakes and Lysol there.  He couldn’t think of a less romantic place on the planet, except maybe in an actual puddle of urine.  He shouldered open the door to a bathroom the size of a closet and stepped inside.  The woman on the other side met him with a kiss and a hand in his pocket.  After his initial shock, he returned the kiss.

The sex was quick and awkward, and afterward, they separated, and she left first.  He took his time cleaning up, and then went back to his beer.  It was warm, so he ordered another, and looked at his watch.  He still had time before he had to be on the road.  The beauty queen was gone.  He found himself looking at the case in the corner, where J. Hoffa was ensconced.  Wheels in his head started to turn.

What did he wish for?  Money?  Fame?  Power?  He thought back to the bathroom sex and thought that while easy, it all seemed a bit trite.  Still…he thought of his mortgage, and his kid going off to school soon.  He thought of the new car he’d like – something fun, like an Audi, or a Jag.  He thought of his tiny ranch home, and his cramped rooms.  That last thought made up his mind.  He was tired of too little space, of rooms that smelled vaguely of mold in the fall and sweat in the summer.  He stood and made his way over to the basket by J. Hoffa, fished a dollar out of his wallet, and tossed it in.

Wish I had some money.  A lot of money.  Enough for a new house, maybe.

His stomach twitched and gurgled suddenly, and he knew he didn’t have time to wait around to see if it worked.  He shuffle-ran to the bathroom and slammed open the stall, barely getting his pants down in time.  He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, and while his body evacuated, his foot kicked out and hit something.

When he was finished, he flushed and looked down, trying to find the thing he’d bumped.  Part of him was mortified to think it had been one of those farmer’s feet.  He breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw that hadn’t been the case.  In the stall next to him, furthest from the door and closest to the wall, someone had left a leather duffel bag.  Craig leaned down and snagged it, pulling it to his side.  He looked around, though the bathroom remained empty, and then unzipped it.  The zipper was loud in the tiled room, and he thought for sure someone would hear.  He waited a minute, counting between heartbeats.  When no one came, he opened the bag and looked inside.

Bundles of hundreds, with those bands like the bank used, were stacked neatly in the bag.  Though he wasn’t sure how much money it was exactly, he was sure it had to be at least a half million, maybe more.  He hurriedly zipped up the bag and cleaned up, then left the stall.  After he washed his hands, he stood by the door, trying to figure out how to play it.  He had after all, not come in with a bag.  They might not notice, he thought.  Just a couple left in the bar, and I’ve already paid my tab.

He squared his shoulders and made his mind up.  He pushed through the bathroom door, bag in hand, and walked out.  No one looked up.  He had made it to the door when he had another thought.  What about another wish?  He looked down at the bag in his hand and figured he should put it in the car first.  He could always come back inside.  He made his way out, the door squealing behind him.

Light, bright and fresh blinded him for a moment, and he stood on the sidewalk, the heat baking his face, and tried to blink away the spots in his eyes.  When he could see again, a big man, over six foot, was blocking his path, his shoulders like the eaves on a house.  The beauty queen stood behind him.

The big guy gestured at him.  “This the guy, Darlene?”

She nodded, mascara streaked on her cheeks.  The big man looked down at the bag in Craig’s hand.  His face grew dark.

“Looks like you got two things of mine today, pal.” He raised a meaty fist, a tire iron in it.

Craig briefly wondered where they’d find his body and wished he were anywhere else.

He found not all wishes come true.

Welcome, New Employee

Welcome, new employee #4352!

Congratulations, you were deemed the most adequate of our candidates!

First off, let us welcome you on behalf of the staff and infallible executives of DWI. By now, the hypnagogic gas we exposed you to during your orientation should be wearing off. You will notice a dull ache in your head. This is simply a side effect of the small neural detonator we’ve installed in your hippocampus and will subside within the next 2-4 hours. Should you experience any other side effects, including but not limited to:

  • Rage
  • False memories
  • Thoughts of consuming human flesh
  • Uncontrolled muscle spasms

Please report to the corporate med-bay, located on floor 7. The nurse there will help you transition. Also note, any incidents as a result of a loss of self-control will be noted in your employee file.

In front of you, you will note a small silver box. This is your employee welcome package. Inside are a cup printed with the DWI logo, a ‘Hang in There’ poster, and a pen holder. Be sure to display each item properly on your desk. Points will be deducted for improper levels of enthusiasm. Please retrieve these items within 5 minutes of completion of this letter. Be aware, the box is hermetically sealed, and will only open once the correct amount of DNA is imprinted on the surface. We have provided a small package of DWI razor blades to get you started. Failure to open the box within 5 minutes will send a signal to both management and the detonator in your brain. You will then have two minutes to open the box. Should you succeed, your tardiness in completing a task will be noted on your employee record. Should you fail, we understand. DWI is not for everyone, and those whose brains have detonated will be given a proper burial per corporate standards.

We want employees to feel comfortable working at DWI, and that’s why we’ve included the following rules for a safe and fun work environment:

  • Any treats brought in by employees must first be inspected by DWI Quality Control. Should they meet corporate standards (i.e. no more than 3″ on each side for brownies), they will be distributed in an orderly manner.
  • Should Beth approach you, do not engage her talk about Mary’s clothes. Beth is being Shunned. Her shunning will end when we feel appropriate.
  • Personal calls shall be limited to exactly 45 seconds. Any longer will activate your neural detonator.
  • Do not attempt to remove your neural detonator in the bathroom. Our custodial engineers work hard, and shouldn’t have to remove your viscera.
  • Anyone not wearing casual clothing on Friday will be subject to re-education and Shunned.
  • Anyone caught utilizing the word ‘use’ instead of ‘utilize’ will be Shunned.
  • Report all non-conforming activity to your supervisor at once. A break in the chain means a break in corporate culture. We want this to be a fun place for everyone to work!
  • Employee entanglements will be documented extensively. Please ask HR for the appropriate wooing and mating forms.
  • Every third Saturday of the month is a DWI mandatory fun day. Absences will be noted and investigated.
  • Do not attempt to access the 9th floor. Our executives are hard-working, and any disruption to their nutrient bath and rejuvination process will go on your employee record.
  • On Mondays, at least one employee MUST utilize the phrase ‘Looks like someone’s got a case of the Mondays’. Failure to do so will result in neural detonation of your entire department.

For a more comprehensive list of employee rules and regulations, please refer to your employee handbook, Section 37, pp. 100-275.

Again, welcome to DWI, employee #4352! We look forward to your enthusiastic output and controlled wit!

Signed,

Employee #4295

They Got a Hell of a Burger

“What you think it is?”

Mickey was staring at the thing hanging out of the top of the grinder’s hopper.  The stainless steel was red around the rim, the gears of the machine still grinding, making a clicking sound as they tried to get through a particularly thick chunk of something – probably bone.

Legs, pale and muscled, stuck out from the top of the grinder, and wings – 4 of ’em – poked out from a well-muscled back.  Feathers were sprayed around the room here and there – some on the tile, some on the spice rack, and some still shooting out of the top of the hopper when the grinder caught a stray.  It was like a seagull had exploded.

Sunlight filtered in through a hole in the ceiling, and Mickey could see clouds floating by in the blue sky, unworried as ever.  He wiped his hands with his apron, and turned to Jerry.

“Fuckin’ angel is what I think that was.”

“Was?”

Mickey pointed to the meat-making end of the grinder, where a pink ground had been extruded.

“Yuh. He’s ground chuck now.”

“I wonder if his name was Chuck.” Jerry grabbed a paddle and stepped up the little stool next to the grinder.  He shoved the paddle in and grunted, prying at the teeth of the machine.  There was a wet burp from the gears, and the body lurched forward, disappearing deeper into the grinder.

“What the fuck are you doin’?”  Mickey hollered.

Jerry shrugged and climbed off the stool, then hung up the paddle.  He wiped his hands.

“He ‘us stuck.”

The grinder continued to work, occasionally spitting out a feather or a fine mist of blood.  The body was almost gone already, ankles the only thing sticking out.  Mickey looked at the tub by the spout and saw it was almost full of a fine pink ground.

He looked up at the hole in the ceiling again, then the feet disappearing into the machine.  He wondered two things: how long you had to spend in Purgatory for grinding up one of God’s own, and what the hell he was going to do if the health inspector walked in right now.

He rushed to the front of the shop and grabbed the sign that read ‘Open’ on one side, and ‘Closed’ on the other, with the intention of flipping it over.  A shadow darkened the door, and Mickey’s heart sped up.  He dropped the sign and backed away from the door.  For a moment, his brain would only show him things from his youth in church – angels with flaming swords and men turned to pillars of salt.  Then, the door opened and Arnold walked in.  Mickey’s heart returned to its regularly scheduled programming.

He worked up a smile.  “Hey Arnie.”

“Hey Mick.”

“How’s the restaurant?”  Mickey asked.  He was nervous, and reached for small talk as his shield.  He made his way behind the butcher counter, wiping his hands on his apron out of habit.

“Good.”  Arnie said.  He peeked in the glass case.  “Gimme a dozen of those t-bones, five strips, and…”  He frowned as he searched the case.  “Where’s the burger?”

Ah shit, thought Mickey.  He glanced toward the back room.

“One sec.”  He went through the curtain as fast as he could, and walked in on Jerry packaging the angel meat.

“You…what are you doing?”

Jerry shrugged.  “We gots meat, we pack the meat.”  He looked up, at Mickey’s frown.  “What?”

Mickey shook his head.  “We got any burger in the walk-in?”

Jerry shook his head.  “I was gonna grind it up this morning.  Then ol’ Gabriel fell in the grinder.”

“Shit.”

He thought about his next move.  Arnold was a good customer.  Couldn’t have him going somewhere else for his meat.  That might start a whole slew of shit that never ended.  He grabbed four packages from the pile Jerry had started and left the room.  He came into the salesroom smiling, holding the burger up like a trophy, and set it down on the counter.  He grabbed the other cuts Arnold had picked out, and slipped them all into a bag, then rang the man up.

Arnold took the meat and paid.

“There ya go, Arnie.  Have a good ‘un.”  Mickey said, the friendly smile stuck on his face like prosciutto to a slicer.

Arnold smiled in return and shot off a mock salute, then left the way he had come in.  When he was gone, Mickey let the smile slip from his face, breathed a sigh of relief, and flipped the sign and locked the door.

***

That night, Mickey dreamt of flaming swords and burning bushes, of cities turned to ash, and burgers floating on a bed of lettuce and ketchup.  He woke up hungry, and padded to the fridge.  Inside, lit by the light of the single bulb, was a package of meat, wrapped in white butcher paper.  He couldn’t say why he’d brought it home.  He thought maybe the French or the Germans had a word for it – they had words for everything.  What it came down to though, was simple curiosity.  Call of the taboo.

Mickey stood and looked at it, his stomach sending out low deep pangs.  There was always leftover pizza.  But no, a snatch of song came to him – two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese – and he knew what he was having.  He reached for the package – he could have sworn it glowed in the light from the soft 40 watt, lit from within by some sort of divine blessing.  He took it from the fridge with trembling hands.

Angel meat smells like Heaven.  At least, that’s what Mickey thought.  It browned up nice, pink running from it in thin rivulets.  He seasoned it, salt and pepper, flipped it, and pulled it from the fire.  Ketchup and mustard, a slice of cheese, and a bed of lettuce.  His hands shook as he sat down, the angel burger patient on his plate.

The smell was maddening.  Savory and meaty and wholesome.  He couldn’t resist, and when he took the first bite, he found the smell didn’t lie.  It was Heaven.

***

Arnold strolled in at nine am as usual.  He was grinning ear to ear.

“Gimme the usual steaks, Mick, and make it at least ten pounds of that burger!”

Mickey whistled.  “No shit?”  In the back of his mind, he knew he shouldn’t be surprised.  The meat was amazing.

Still smiling, Arnold nodded his head.  “They loved it.  Don’t know where you got that meat, but it’s like a miracle.  Heard ’em say ‘That Arnold’s, they got a hell of a burger’.”

That’s where you’re going, Mickey old pal.  Mickey shrugged off the thought.

“Damn fine words.  All right.  Ten pounds it is.”

He went in the back and grabbed ten pounds of the meat and brought it back up front, then packaged it all up.  Arnold left, still smiling, and whistling as he went out the door.  Mickey went to the back.  Jerry was standing by, polishing the grinder.  Mickey passed him, and heard the other man singing.

“Them bones, them bones, them dry bones…”

Mickey shook his head and walked to the cooler.  He checked the tub holding the angel meat, and frowned.

“Jerry!”

“Yeah, boss?”

“Where’s all the meat from yesterday?”

“Ate it.”

“You- you uh – you fucking ate it?  Jerry, there’s like five pounds missing.”

“Yuh.  Was hungry.”

Mickey sighed and left the cooler.  “So, you mean to tell me you ate five pounds of meat last night? Your colon must look like a damn traffic jam.”

Jerry didn’t reply.  Mickey looked up, and didn’t see the man anywhere in the room.  There was a sound, and he turned, catching a glimpse of something in the grinder’s polished surface.  Another sound, and he turned again, and saw it, face to chest.

It was an angel, all of seven feet tall, holding a flaming sword.  It scowled down at Mickey, its vast wings half-open in the room, making it look like a giant bird of prey.  Stern features – a patrician nose above thin lips and below hard eyes – held him in its gaze.

“YOU.  MORTAL.  YOUR TIME HAS COME.”

Mickey’s mind and heart raced.  He tried to think of a way out.  He opted for playing dumb, and hoped at the best, the angel would become annoyed and leave, and at the worst, would kill him quickly.

“Can I help you?”  He asked.

“YOUR DAY IS NIGH.”

Sorry?”

“YOUR END IS NEAR.”

“Have I done something wrong?”

“THOU DID EAT MY BRETHREN, AND SOLD HIM FOR DINNER.”

“Oh, that.  You know, he did fall in my grinder, so it’s not like I pushed him in.”

“STILL, THOU SHOULD NOT HAVE EATEN HIM.”

“Sorry?  Can I repent?”

“THE TIME FOR REPENTANCE IS PAST.”

The angel raised his sword, the flames crackling in the cool air.  Its light sent harsh orange shadows around the room.

“PREPARE TO MEET THY MAKER, MORTAL.”

Mickey cringed reflexively, his eyes shutting of their own accord.  There was a clang, and Mickey looked up in surprise to see the angel’s eyes rolled up into its head.  He sagged, and then swayed, then tipped to one side, over the lip of the grinder.  His sword clattered to the ground, and extinguished itself with a whoosh.  There was silence for a moment, and then the machine lurched to life, and the angel’s body was sucked into the teeth of the grinder.  A cloud of feathers was burped across the room in the wake of the sudden, violent motion.  Jerry emerged from the cloud, waving a hand, a bent paddle in his other.

Mickey watched the machine grind the angel, and sighed.

“More meat, eh?”  Jerry said.

“More meat.”  Mickey said.  “Makes a hell of a burger.”

Pretty Pretty Pretty Good News

By this point, some of you are aware, and maybe others aren’t, that I signed my book, Into Nod, AKA Child of Nod, with Curiosity Quills Press. I still can’t shut up about it, to be honest, and it’ll probably only get more annoying as time goes on, so brace yourselves. Anyway, the book is due out in November, but you can follow its progress here, on Twitter, or on the CQ book page, which I’ll link momentarily.

I do want to take a minute to once again thank everyone who helped me with the book – my editor, Lisa Gus, my wife, my moms (plural), and the entire staff at CQ for their support. Here’s the blurb:

Alice wakes one day to find herself on the other side of death, in the corrupted fairy tale land of Nod. Unable to remember much of the events leading to her demise, she sets out on a journey to discover her memory and the reason for her presence in Nod. Unknown to her, the man responsible for her death, Jack, is on a mission to find her spirit and end her second life.

Alice takes flight, only to find herself drawn into the lives of those around her and the mystery permeating that place. From the humble streets of Elysium to the mirrored spires of Memoria, her journey takes her on a path that leads to a decision that will affect the fate of Nod.

Along the way, she meets a cast of characters that include a madman with a dark secret, her faithful companion, Dog, and woman made of memory. Together, they help her on her journey as she uncovers the truth of Nod and the woman behind it all, the Red Queen.

You can read about the book, and see my ugly mug here: Child of Nod. In addition, as art is available, I’ll be sharing that here and around social media.

Thanks for reading so far!

Clayton

A Hanging

Anders listened to the creak of the boards on the wagon, and the stamp of the horses’ hooves as they tramped through ruts made hard from an early frost.  He watched his own horse blowing steamy breath through its nose, and felt its flanks shift under the saddle blanket, heat rising up into his thighs.  He looked at the trees, bare from a hard autumn, and sighed.  He was just putting off the inevitable.

He steered his horse over until he was riding beside the sheriff.  He tilted his head.

“Bill.”

Bill nodded back.  “Pastor.  How can I help you?”

Anders swallowed.  He didn’t feel up to his task – it had been a hard cold ride, and these were hard cold men.  Still, the good Lord helped those who helped themselves, and hated a coward.  He cleared his throat.

“I’d like to talk to the prisoner.”

Bill grunted.  “He lies.”

“Everyone lies,” Anders said.  “He still deserves a chance to come clean before he stands at the feet of his God.”

Bill blew a breath out, white and misty in the morning air.  “Be my guest, Pastor.   I’m just here to arrange the meeting.”

 

Anders turned his horse, its hooves scuffling on the hard trail, and headed to the back of the procession.  He nodded to Withers, the man driving the wagon, and passed by the clapboard sides.  He wheeled his mount around again and pulled into a steady walk beside the creaking wheels.

The man in the back of the wagon was thin and ragged, a wiry beard sprouting from a weak chin.  He was pale, blue veins peeking through here and there just below the surface of his white flesh.  He lifted sunken eyes from behind wire-rim round glasses and gave Anders a mournful look.  Anders shivered and thought it the look of a haunted man.

He opened his mouth, intending to address the man, and the wind picked up.  It rattled the bare branches around them and sent leaves skittering across the trail, the sound like claws on wood.  The prisoner cringed and raised his hands as if to ward off a blow, the chains that shackled him jingling as he did so.  After a moment, when it was clear there was no blow or attack coming, the man lowered his hands and hung his head again.

“You fear the wind, Mister-?”  Anders asked.

“Hart.  And yes.”

He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens / And by His power He directed the south wind.”  Anders quoted.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Hart asked.

Anders shrugged.  “It’s a reminder.  God controls the wind.  It’s His hand that stirs the laves on the bough, the face of the water.  And where there is God, there is nothing to fear.”

Hart lifted his head and looked around him.  He stared into the woods for a moment and then turned to Anders.  “I’m not sure He’s made it out this way yet, pastor.”

“Why is that, Mr. Hart?  You know of course, God is in all things.”

“Whose god?”

Anders pursed his lips.  “You seem to have struggled with this Mr. Hart.”  He looked ahead, at the path that wound into the woods and toward their inevitable destination, the gallows.  “You have limited time now, sir.  Would you like to confess?”

“Confess?”  Hart looked at Anders, contempt in his features.  “No.  But I’ll tell you a story.”

Anders shrugged the look off.  “You’re welcome to unburden yourself however makes you comfortable.”

“Aye, maybe.  What makes one man comfortable might be mighty uncomfortable for another, though.”

He paused and took a breath, maybe tasting the air for the right moment.  When Anders had begun to wonder if he was going to speak, Hart’s voice broke the silence.

“My pappy came here 30 years ago, looking to stake a claim.  He was from French stock, though I wouldn’t hold that against him.   He built a house about ten miles back – but you know that.”

“What happened to your father?”  Anders asked.

Hart shrugged.  “Consumption.  Got him in the winter of ’56.  What the sawbones said, anyway.”

“You didn’t believe him?”

Anders shook his head.  “Maybe at first.  Maybe a little.”  He shrugged.  “Maybe it was the sickness that got into him.  A sickness, anyway.”

“How do you mean?”

“Doesn’t matter.”  He craned his neck over his shoulder, at the path they rode down.  “I’m not long for this world.”

“Does that make you afraid?”

Anders looked at him, hard, and seemed to consider.  “Maybe once.  Now, I don’t know.  Part of me is going to be glad to quit this Earth.”

“Because of what you’ve done?”

“Wasn’t me, Pastor.  I told the sheriff and his men, and the judge, and I’ll tell you – wasn’t me.”

“Who then?”

“You mean what.”

“Pardon?”

What is the word you’re looking for.”

“Tell me about it, then.”

Anders took in a breath and let it out in a long plume.  He hung his head, his hair falling in lank locks over his eyes.  He seemed to shrink in on himself.  After a minute, he began to speak.

“It was cold that night.  You know the house is on a hill, in a clearing.  Pappy set it there so he could see what was coming, Indian or beast, or both.  The drawback there is that the wind can whip mighty mean ’round the eaves when it’s got its back up.

Maria – my wife – she’s German.  Least she was, before.  Superstitious as hell.  That wind would blow up, and she’d fork her fingers and spit through them.  I used to laugh at her for that.

‘Just gettin’ spit on the floor,’ I’d tell her.

The kids though, they’d take their momma serious.  You know how it is, little ‘uns and their mothers.  They’d follow suit, and fork their fingers and spit too, though being kids, they’d just spit on their hands and end up wiping it on their jumpers.

That night though, she didn’t do it.  Can’t say why – maybe she was settling in finally, maybe she was just feeling comfortable.  Anyway, that wind blew on, and she was too busy cookin’ up dumplings, or a piece of venison, or summat, and the Devil’s fork never occurred to her. ”

He shook himself and went on.

“I was sitting by the fire.  Had an old book my pappy had left – something by one of those pilgrims – you know, God-fearing men, men like you – and my pipe.  Never lit it in the house though.  Made things stink awful.  Anyway, that wind was blowin’, and I hear something coming through the trees, so I put my book down and get up, over to the door.  I open it and the wind damn near blows it out of my hands, but I kept a good grip, and I looked out toward the treeline.  Sure enough, something’s moving down there – probably a deer or an elk – I can see the antlers, but we got enough meat for now, so I close the door and sit down.

‘What was that?’  Maria asked me.

‘Just the wind,’ I said.

Didn’t think nothin’ else about it until after dinner.  Stomach was troubling me, you see.  Felt like I was still hungry, but I couldn’t account for it, so I thought Hell, I’ll go get that deer.  We could always use the extra after all, and the air will do me good.  So, I got my rifle and walked down to the trees, but I couldn’t see a thing.

The wind kicked up, and was howling something fierce, but I thought I’d go a little further.  Not a track.  Then I heard the door banging in the wind, and thought I’d latched it.  I headed back.”

He looked up at Anders, and his face was pale.  Tears stood in his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, like a rabbit caught in a snare.  For a moment, Anders thought the man was having a fit.  Finally, Hart got a hold of himself and managed to swallow.  He heaved a deep sigh.

“Do I gotta go on, sir?”

Anders shook his head, but said gently, “No, son.  But it might do your soul some good.”

Hart sniffed and rubbed at his eyes for a moment, then cleared his throat.  He went on.

“The house was open when I got back, and there was tracks from the threshold, but they seemed to trail off after a few yards.  Smelled – smelled something fierce, too.  But goddamn was I hungry by the time I got back.

They was a mess – opened from groin to gullet, but by then, all I could feel was the pain in my stomach, and the sound – my God, it was a roar in my belly.  I went from pantry to cupboard to stove, but there weren’t a bite to eat.”

He broke down in sobs suddenly.  Anders waited for him, gently administering It’s all right, son.  When Hart recovered, he went on in a rush, as though he was ready to be out and done with it.

“I buh-buh-bit her.  I bit off a big chunk of her thigh, and my God, it tasted so good.  And by God, that wind died right down.  I don’t know how long I ate on her leg, but when I looked up the first time, some thing was peering in the window, a deer skull atop a wasted body watching and its eyes were pits of fire.  The next time, the sheriff and his boys were there.”

His eyes were wide and his pupils pinpoints.  One of the horses stepped on a branch, snapping it neatly in two, and Anders started.  Hart seemed to snap.

“OH JESUS AND MARY, IT’S HERE IT’S HERE IT’S HERE OH GOD-”

He was cut off as suddenly as he’d begun, the sheriff appearing beside him and fetching him a blow to the side of his head.  Hart’s skull rocked to one side, and his eyes went sleepy.  He went quiet.  Bill looked at Anders.

“Pastor.  I think you’re done here.”

Anders nodded, and with one last glance at the prisoner, they rode to the front of the line.  They rode in silence for some time, the only sounds those of the horses and the wagon.

“Told you he lies.  Bastard et his whole family.”

“Did you ever see the tracks he talked about?”

Bill nodded.  “Hoofprints.  Probably their pony got loose.  We found it a day later, by the stream, half-eaten.  Probably wolves.”

“You don’t believe in evil, sheriff?”

Bill looked at him.  “I do.  Just not the kind of mumbo-jumbo you’re talking about.  There’s enough evil in a man’s heart.  He doesn’t need a boogeyman as an accomplice.”

The rounded a curve on a hill, and the forest opened up.  Trees fell away to expose a crossroads.  Beside the center of it, a gallows had been erected, tall and skeletal against the gray sky.  From behind them, Hart had begun to whimper.  They rode until they were beside the killing tree, and dismounted, Bill and Withers pulling Hart from the back of the wagon.

Bill pulled a small black hood from his pocket and pulled it over Hart’s head.  Anders got his Bible from his saddlebag and walked the steps of the gallows, to stand by the lever.  They led the prisoner up the stairs, his legs watery as he walked.  More than once they had to brace his arms to keep him falling down.  Soft weeping came from inside the hood.

On the platform, the sheriff looped the noose around Hart’s neck and tightened it, then stood to the side.  Anders began to read from the Bible.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…  His voice blended into the background as the wind began to kick up.

The horses whinnied, and from somewhere in the forest, a branch broke.  A dark stain spread across Hart’s trousers, and from inside the hood, he began to wail.

“PULL THE LEVER PULL THE LEVER PULL THE-”

There was a creak and then a thump, and the clear snap of Hart’s neck breaking as the trapdoor beneath him opened., the sound mirroring the sound of the branch in the woods.  The wind died down, and Anders’ voice carried on the clear air.

…deliver us from evil.

Hart’s body swung.  Anders closed the book and looked out at the woods.  From somewhere in the gloom, light caught a set of bone-white antlers, and he had to remind himself that God was here.

Fourscore

“What’ve you got there, Danny?”

Rob reached for the light switch, and Danny grabbed his hand.  The other boy pulled away and looked at his friend.  Danny smiled, the look crooked on his face like a skewed picture.

“This is something special.”

Rob frowned, squinting in suspicion.  “Special like what?  A raptor?  A mummy?”

Danny grinned at that and led him deeper into the dim room.  “Not a mummy.”

Rob frowned.  “So why can’t I turn on the light?”

“I don’t want anyone to see it by accident.”  Danny turned and led Rob deeper into the room.

The window had been covered over with a blanket, leaving the few pieces of furniture little more than lumpy shadows in the dark.  Another shadow, taller than the others, sat on what Rob assumed was the couch.  There was a slight ticking and humming coming from it.  Danny wandered over to a side table and touched a lamp.  A dim glow sparked up and lit the room enough to see its contents.

A tall, gaunt man sat on the couch.  His skin was gray and sallow, his eyes deep -sunk in their sockets, and a beard crawled its way from ear to ear.  His hair was thin and black, and his lips were full.  He had a strong nose and brow, and an air of intelligence about him.  A framework of steel and brass spidered over the man’s bare chest and limbs and disappeared behind his shoulders.  He turned his head to look at Danny, and Rob could see into his skull, as though it had been blown open.  Gears and cogs of brass whirred and clicked inside his head.

Rob took an involuntary step back and swallowed hard.  He clenched his jaw and forced himself to stand his ground.

“What is this?  Did you make this?”

“What?  No.”  Danny blew a breath out, a pss sound.  “I found him.”

“Where?”

“He was wandering old Route 2, up by Hansen.”

The man looked back at Rob, and a realization hit him.  He felt like the air had been knocked out of his chest.

“Holy shit.  This is Lincoln.”

Danny frowned.  “Nah.”

“Yeah, look at his head, and his beard.  This is Lincoln, man.”

Danny whistled, and Lincoln turned his head back toward him.  He opened his mouth.

“INSERT PARAMETER CARD.”  The voice was loud and harsh, making the boys flinch.

“What the hell’s a parameter card?”  Danny asked.

Rob shrugged.  “I dunno.  Didn’t he say anything before now?  How’d you get him home?”

Danny’s turn to shrug came next.  “He just followed me.  He’s been quiet this whole time.”

Rob tried to think.  An idea worked its way into his brain like a worm, and he grabbed hold of it.  He pursed his lips and whistled.  Lincoln’s head swiveled toward him.

“INSERT PARAMETER CARD.”

“Huh,”  Rob said.  “Apparently, whistling’s some sort of signal.”

“Still don’t tell us what a parameter card is.  Or where to put it.”

Rob pointed at the metal crisscrossing Lincoln’s body.  “Where do those things go?”

Danny shrugged.  “Box on his back.”  He looked at Lincoln.  “Stand up.”

Lincoln stood, and Danny grabbed hold of his arm and turned him slowly.  When he was facing the wall, he stopped.  Rob looked at the former President’s back, where a brass box had been implanted, screws sunk into the flesh from brackets on its sides.  The armatures from the web work that covered Lincoln’s limbs and chest bundled into ports on the sides.  The box itself was riveted at the seams, intricate scrollwork all around its edges.  A small thin slot was centered on the back of the box.  Rob pointed at it.

“That’s where the card goes.”

Danny looked at the slot and ran a finger over it.  His face scrunched for a moment, and then lit up, as though someone had flicked a switch inside.  He ran out of the room, leaving Rob with the President.  Acutely aware that he was alone with some sort of undead clockwork monster in a dark room, Rob took a few steps back and tried not to look scared out of his wits.  For Lincoln’s part, the man didn’t seem to mind staring at the wall and remained there until Danny returned, flush and triumphant.

Danny flashed a smile and held up a pad of paper, a pen, and a credit card.  “I’ve got an idea!”

He took the credit card, and before Rob could protest, pushed it into the slot in Lincoln’s back.  There was a clicking and whirring sound, and then nothing.  Danny looked at Rob.

“Are we supposed to do something?”

Rob thought, racking his brains.  He remembered what they’d done the last time Lincoln had spoken, and then whistled.  The response was immediate.

“INCORRECT PARAMETER CARD.  PLEASE REPLACE AND REISSUE SIGNAL.”

There was a whir, and the box spit the card out.  It fluttered to the floor.

“Okay, we’re getting somewhere,”  Danny said.

He picked up the pad and scribbled something, then showed it to Rob.  Say something was written on it.  Rob thought that was safe enough, so he nodded.  Danny tore the sheet of paper off and slipped it into the slot.  The box whirred again and then was quiet.  Rob whistled.

“PROCESSING PARAMETERS…EXECUTING…FOURSCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO, OUR FOREFATHERS FOREFATHERS FOREFATHERS…”  Lincoln’s voice trailed off.  The box whirred and ejected the paper.

“Aww, he’s broken,”  Danny said, dejected.

“Maybe he’s just rusty.  Or maybe talking’s not what he does.  Look at his brain.  It’s all gears.”

Danny lit up.  “Yeah.  Yeah.”  He scribbled something on the pad and shoved it into the box without showing Rob.

Whir.  Whistle.

Lincoln turned, and swayed.  His elbows swung, and the boys backed away, as his feet broke into a rhythmic shuffle.  Before long, he was dancing – something old and embarrassing (at least to the boys).  Rob thought he looked like a stork having a seizure.  Lincoln continued to dance, though, and the more he watched, the funnier it became.  Danny was the first to break, laughing until he cried, and Rob joined in.  By the time Lincoln had stopped, both boys were gasping for breath.

“Okay.  Okay.”  Danny said between chuckles.  “Sit down, Mr. President.”

Lincoln sat.

They turned off the light and left the room, making sure to lock it behind them.  In the hall, in the light of day, the thing in there seemed like something out of the old magazines Rob’s father kept in his den.  They stood there for a moment, aimless.  Rob finally broke the silence.

“What do we do with him?”

“Come back tomorrow.  I have an idea.”

Rob left.  Walking down the street in the late afternoon sunlight, he had visions – Lincoln doing his homework, Lincoln doing his chores, Lincoln roughing up Billy Elliott, Rob’s own personal 90 lb. nightmare.  He whistled as he went down the street, dreams in his head.

***

Rob showed up early the next morning, his head still full of dreams, and his pounding on the door knocking Danny out of bed.  Danny opened the door, bleary-eyed, his hair up in spikes here and there where he had slept on it.  He rubbed a hand across his face.

“Man, you couldn’t wait like another hour?”

Rob smiled and shouldered his way past Danny.  Danny shut the door and followed Rob down the hall.  Halfway to the room, he grabbed Rob by his shoulders and steered him toward the kitchen.

“Reese’s Puffs.  Then stuff.”

Rob sat and fidgeted with impatience while Danny ate his cereal.  He rolled his eyes when Danny got a second bowl and stifled an irritated scream when he took his time putting it in the sink.  Danny turned to him, a smirk on his face.

“You ready?”

“Been ready.”

They went to the room, Danny unlocking it with a key.  Danny flipped the lamp on, and they looked at Lincoln.  He hadn’t moved since the day before, and it appeared he hadn’t slept.  He still stared straight ahead, his eyes unfocused.  Danny picked up the pad, and Rob laid a hand on it.

“Wait.  We should warm him up first.”  Rob said.

Danny nodded and scribbled something on the pad, then slipped it into the brass box.

Whir.  Whistle.

Lincoln stood, and then dropped to his knees.  He assumed the push-up position, and did ten, then sat back on the couch, the paper fluttering from his back.

“You think that’s good enough?”  Danny asked.

Rob squinted with one eye, thinking.  “Yeah.”

“What now?  Should I make him mow the lawn?”

Rob shook his head.  “Too small.  This is the President, man.  The  President.  He freed the slaves, you know?”

“Huh.”  Danny had a look on his face that said he’d just thought of something.  He picked up the pad and scribbled something.  He slipped it into the box and waited.

Whir.

“What did you tell him to do?” Rob asked.

“You’ll see,”  Danny said.

“Really.”

Danny flashed a smile.  “Come on.  Yesterday was fun, right?”

Rob rubbed his chin.  “Yeah, I guess so.”  He pursed his lips and whistled.

Nothing happened for a moment.  Rob was ready to whistle again when Lincoln stood, a fierce expression on his face.

“PARAMETERS ACCEPTED.  COMMENCE EMANCIPATION.”

He turned toward the wall and advanced, heedless of the obstruction.  He drew back an arm, and made a fist, then punched a hole in the drywall.  It crumbled like paper, and before the boys could do anything to stop him, Lincoln was advancing, arms digging at the wall like pistons, his brass exoskeleton allowing him to walk through the wall like it was a paper banner at a football game.  They shouted and yelled after him, a cloud of plaster, wood splinters, and debris in his wake.

They might as well have been shouting at a tin can for all the good it did.  Lincoln was on his way; toward whatever he had decided was his mission.  They stood looking out of the hole, dumbstruck.  They could see the President advancing across the lawn from the hole in the wall.  After a moment, they ran after him.

***

Lincoln was fast.  They were halfway down Main, and still a ways behind him.  They watched as he passed the Five and Dime, Connor’s Pharmacy, and Misty’s Flowers, and then suddenly veered toward the Mayflower building.  They cut corners to catch up, but knew they were too late when they heard the sound of breaking glass.

“Shit!”  Rob stopped, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.  Danny panted beside him.

“What the hell did you tell him to do?”

Danny shook his head.  “Something I didn’t think he could.  I wanted to see what he’d do.”

“What the hell was it, Danny?”

“I told him to free the slaves.”

Just then, there was a scream, and a woman in a pencil skirt and a cream blouse came running from the building that housed the Mayflower Corporation.  She ran toward the boys.

“Call 911!  Call 911!  Someone’s gone crazy; he’s busting the place up!”

The boys ignored her and ran toward the building.

***

Inside, past a pair of smashed glass doors and a splintered reception desk, they could hear the dismayed cries and shouts of the frightened.  The boys ran into the main office area, past another set of smashed glass doors.  Broken computers were strewn about the floor, and people huddled in the far corners or were hiding under their desks.  No one seemed too concerned with two boys who seemed to be running toward the danger.

“EMBRACE EMANCIPATION. SEND OUT YOUR TASKMASTERS.”  Lincoln’s voice rang through the office.

The boys ran to the President, who was standing in front of a closed door.  The placard on the wall read Mr. Arnold, VP.  He looked down.

“IS THIS THE HOME OF THE TASKMASTER?  ADVISE.”

Danny didn’t answer.  Instead, he grabbed Lincoln’s arm.  “Come on, Mr. President.  You can come home and have some cereal.”

Lincoln shook off Danny, sending him flying into a cube wall and dazing him.  Rob ran to his side.  While he was checking on his friend, there was a loud CRUNCH, and the wall to Arnold’s office crumbled.  Rob looked up in time to see the VP thrown into the main office, a cry of dismay escaping him.  Lincoln smashed through the wall again.

“ANTICIPATE EMANCIPATION AND REJOICE.”

He raised a fist to smash Arnold, and the man covered his head with his arms, whimpering.  Before it could descend, there was a loud bang, and Lincoln rocked back.  He looked up, and Rob followed his gaze.  Two policemen, pistols out, were standing at the far end of the room.

“DO NOT INTERFERE, CONSTABLES.”

The cop fired off another shot, this time catching Lincoln in the shoulder.  Black fluid that smelled vaguely mechanical oozed out, and his arm made a peculiar whine.  He tried to bring his fist down onto the hapless VP, but his limb seemed to be stuck.  A third shot rang out, and Lincoln’s eye disappeared in a black hole.  There was the sudden sound of grinding gears, and the former President twitched violently.

“OH MARY. MARY. MARY. MARY…”

His voice trailed off, and smoke poured from his head.  He froze, and then fell forward, toppling to the ground with a crash.  A cheer went up from the crowd. Their short nightmare was over.

***

In the hospital, Rob told Danny what he’d missed.  No one was sure the boys were involved, and they both agreed that Lincoln had simply appeared and gone berserk, attacking Danny’s house first, for no good reason.

Danny was discharged later that day, and the boys walked home under a setting sun.   Halfway there, Danny turned to Rob.

“Wanna go out to Route 2 tomorrow?”

Rob shrugged.

“Sure.  Why?”

“Two words.  Robot Roosevelt.”