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.”

Falling Star

I’m hungry, and the land is brown and sere.  It’s the only thing I’ve seen for two hundred miles through the Midwest.  Trees blasted of their leaves, the few stragglers hanging on dead and brittle, rattling like bones on the hot wind.  The earth is dried and cracked, parched, the asphalt of the roads tarry from the heat.  Above, the sky is brown like the land.  It’s unnatural, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I come into town through Main Street, a green sign on a leaning post naming it Andersonville.  On the sign just under that is another, smaller sign that reads:

Home of the Badgers

Girl’s Class C Volleyball Champions

I take a moment to straighten the sign, though a part of me says let it go – the world’s moved on.

Andersonville looks like every other small town I’ve been to.  Windows blasted, weathered siding, torn shingles.  Dust covers every surface, and here and there at intersections, where the wind whips up, small dirt devils whirl into life and spin into vacant lots and front yards.  Papers roll across the street, and one fetches up against my leg.  I pick it up and read the headline.

Moloch Threatens, Dynamo Promises

I feel a deep pang of regret and tears threaten to come.  I swallow hard, and drop the paper, watching the wind pull it away and into a dirt devil.  It swirls like water in drain and disappears down a side street.  I take a moment and look around town.  Cars still sit in the intersection, skeletons in the driver’s seats.  I step under the long-dead traffic lights and take a breath.

“HELLO?  IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE?  I’M HERE TO HELP.”

I wait for the echoes of my voice to die away.  When there is no response, I brush the dust from the hood a car and take a seat.  My stomach rumbles.  Like every other town, I sit, and wait.

*

I’m lost in my thoughts when I hear the sound.  It’s a furtive scuffle, like an animal trapped in a corner.  I look to the side, toward the source, and catch sight of a flannel pattern disappearing back around the corner.  I stand, the car lifting when it’s relieved of my weight.  I step into full view of the house across the street, where I saw the movement.

“Hello?”  I say.  “I’m here to help.”

Silence.  Then more movement and a face peers out from around the corner of the house.  He is pale and slim, with a mousy head of brown hair and round-rimmed glasses over frightened-looking eyes.  An image flashes in my mind of the last survivor I’d found – Sam.  He didn’t make it.  I push the thought away, and try to smile at him.

“It’s okay,”  I say.  “I’ve been looking for survivors.”

He takes me in.  I can almost feel the uncertainty coming off him.  His eyes scan me, up and down, and then his posture relaxes.  He recognizes my uniform.

“Is that really you?”  He asks.  His voice is tremulous.

I smile wider.  “None other, citizen,”  I say.

He comes out from hiding.  In one hand, he clutches a pair of binoculars.  In the other, a small pistol, which he shoves in his waistband.  He comes over and adjusts his glasses, stopping a few feet away.  He looks me up and down again.

“Wow.  The Dynamo.  I thought Moloch got you.”

I shake my head.  “I’m tougher than you’d think.  What’s your name?”

“Dean.”

“Are there others, Dean?”

Dean shakes his head.  I point at the pistol.

“Why the hardware?”

He shrugs and looks sheepish.  “You never know.”

“Do you live around here?”

He nods, and jerks a thumb back at the house he’d been hiding behind.

“Just follow me.”  He looks at me again and shakes his head before he turns.  “Wow.  The actual Dynamo.”

I follow.

*

I’m sitting in a little living room decorated in brown flowers and cream fabric.  The plastic on the couch crinkles when I shift on it.  I try not to stare back at the gnomes on the shelves that flank the room.  It looks like Dean’s grandmother died and left the house to him.  I reach over and pick up a clock whose hands have stopped at the 1:00 mark.  1pm on a Tuesday.  That’s when the world ended.  I can hear him coming down the hall, and I put the clock back on the end table.

He comes around the couch and hands me a glass of water.  I haven’t seen water in weeks.  It’s cool and sweet and I drink it greedily while he watches me with curious eyes.  When I’m finished, I hand him the glass.

“Thanks.  It’s really good.”

“You want more?”  He asks.

I nod, and he disappears back into the house.  While I wait, I try to ignore the sound of my stomach.  The water has set it to growling, and I’m afraid he can hear it even from where he is.  After a moment, he returns and hands me the glass again.  I take my time with this one, sipping it.

“Where did you find this?”  I ask.

“My well is really deep.  My grandfather dug it back in the twenties.”

“You’re very fortunate.”

“I like to think so.”  He lets me have my way with the water for a bit, and we sit in silence.  After a few minutes, he screws up his courage.

“You’re amazing.”  He says.

I set the water down, and feel that pang of guilt.  “Was, I think you mean.”

He shakes his head.  “No.  I mean, even if you hadn’t saved all those people in the Seattle quake, or stopped the Halton meltdown, you’d still be amazing.  You survived Moloch’s bomb.  You’re out looking for survivors.  I’ll bet you haven’t had a decent meal in weeks.”

I shrug.  “There’s canned food.  Besides, I’m just doing what anyone would do.”

Dean shakes his head.  “You’re doing what you were born to do.  Anyone else would just hole up and wait.  Wait to die, or be rescued.  You – you can’t.  You have to save people.  You have to be the hero.  I mean, look at you.  You’re still wearing your uniform.”

I look down, at the dusty Lycra thing I’m wearing.  Red legs and body, white arms turned brown from the dust.  A dirt-stained D on the chest.  My stomach rumbles again, and I look at Dean, sure he’s heard it.

“Say, do you have a bathroom?”

He looks a little scandalized, and then recovers.  “Sure.  Down the hall and to the right.”

I stand, and walk down the hall.  The carpet is deep-pile old school shag.  It feels good through the thin soles of the uniform’s shoes.  The door to my right is ajar, and I step in and close it behind me and flick the light switch.  It’s a small room, with a toilet and a shower stall and a sink to the left.  I use the toilet, squeezing out what I can, and flush.  The toilet actually flushes, and I am in awe of the fact that water here works.  I wash my hands, and dry them.

On the way out, I notice a shelf to the side of the door.  A jar of seashells sits on it, iridescent and white and sandy.  I lift it to get a better look, and there is a click.  From underneath the floor, there is a hum, and then it begins to move with a soft jolt.  I stand in the center as it descends past walls of titanium and glass, the bathroom above dwindling and darkening as a false floor slides into place above me.

The elevator travels down for what feels like five minutes.  Finally, it slides to a stop, in front of polished steel doors that open on silent tracks.  I step off into a room filled with blinking lights and electronics that look like they were fashioned in a Hollywood effects house.  Against one wall is a bank of monitors, labeled with major city names.  London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo.  They all show the same scene of a land burned dry and brown.  I see a camera trained on the city street I entered on.  I turn, and against another wall, see newspaper clippings.

DYNAMO SAVES CITY

DYNAMO SAVES BUS OF 20

DYNAMO AWARDED CITY KEY

MOLOCH STRIKES AGAIN

DYNAMO AT A LOSS

On the opposite wall is a simple panel, one button at the center, a stylized M in its center.  It’s already depressed.  I stare at the room while my mind makes the connections.  What are the odds?  What are the chances the man who I try to save, the one survivor, is Moloch?  I’d never seen him.  Maybe he moved in here, not knowing whose house this really was.  Maybe it was all just chance and randomness, and there was no connection.  Whatever it was, I had to find out.  I step back to the bathroom floor, and the doors close behind me.  The elevator takes me back to the room.  I replace the jar of shells, and walk back to the living room.

*

Dean is waiting, and looks up when I come in.  I sit on the couch, the plastic crinkling.

“Did you say your grandfather dug the well here?”

“Did I?  Oh well, maybe it was the workmen.  It’s an old house.”

I look at him closer.  He’s not showing signs of malnutrition.  I wonder if he also has greens and fruit somewhere.

“What are you eating these days?  Surviving okay?”

“Er, yeah.  You said you had canned food – that’s mostly what I live off of – the supermarket was never looted – there was never time for that.”

I decide to change tacks.  “What did they say – before the end?”

He looks surprised.  “You don’t know?”

I shake my head.  “Too busy fighting henchmen, trying to find that damned bomb.”

He nods as if that makes sense.  “They said you’d save us.  Right to the end.  They said there was no way you could fail.”

My turn to nod.  “And what do you think of them being wrong?”

“Well, you didn’t fail.  You just got outsmarted.”

That stings.  I’m not the brightest sun in the sky, but I’m not stupid.  He seems to notice my discomfort and pats me on the knee.  I resist the urge to snap my leg out and kick him through the wall.

“It happens.  We’re not perfect.  Even heroes.”

There it was.  The truth.  He was out to prove something.  He wanted the world to see me fail.  It was schadenfreude on a megalomaniacal scale.  I look at him and tense myself.  It has to be quick.

“I know,”  I say.

He blanches, and his hand snaps up from his side.  It’s fast, and for once, I’m not prepared for it.  I’m tired and hungry and slow, and he has the pistol out, and he pulls the trigger.  I feel the bullet hit me in the forehead and mushroom.  It makes a sound like a hammer hitting a melon, and then it falls into my lap.  He looks at me and pulls the trigger again, but the gun jams.  I stand and walk over to him, taking the pistol in my hand.  I bend it in two and snap all the small bones in his hand.  He cries out in pain and topples from the chair.  I stand over him, and think this is how it should be, justice and the American way.

I look down, and my stomach rumbles.  My vision blurs.  He’s clutching his hand and weeping, and I kneel next to him and place my palm on his head.

“Moloch.  Do you have any idea how much food it takes to power a body like mine?  To keep up with my metabolism?  To keep up my strength?  I would have to eat every can of food in your supermarket.  I need food high in protein.  High in creatine.  High in energy.  You should see what you’ve reduced me to.”

His eyes roll in their sockets, and he weeps louder.  I crush his skull – it snaps like an egg – and silence him.  After a moment, I rub my hand on the carpet to clean off the gore, the deep pile turning sticky and matted.  I stand and wander to his kitchen.  There is a nice big stove and several sharp knives.  I start the stove, pull a long boning knife from the block, and walk back to the living room.  My stomach rumbles again.

I’m so hungry.  I start with the legs.

*

The sign outside the town reads Barbertown, Pop 1200.  I step onto Main Street and walk to the nearest intersection.

“HELLO?  IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE?  I’M HERE TO HELP.”

I sit on a nearby car to wait.  My stomach rumbles.

 

 

Alice Query

Since I seem to have lost the original post, and I’ve seen others struggle with queries, here is the original query for what is now titled Alice: Into Nod. The book is due out in November of this year.

Dear Ms. Editor,

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.

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.

Fairy Tale, complete at 63,180 words, is a contemporary fantasy.

I was raised in Michigan and now live in North Dakota, working as a web developer for an advertising agency.  I’ve been published in several small online magazines, and my short story, Resurrection, took runner-up in the Fictuary short story contest.

Thank you for your consideration.

Clayton Snyder