by Colin P. Davies
part 1 of 2
Clouds had gathered and darkened in the cleft between the distant mountains until, heavy and black, the storm burst out upon the yellow fields. The rain swept towards me, rattled through the trailer park, surged across the railway, and rushed headlong up the tidy avenues of our suburb. The view that could make me believe in people and the future was shrouded in a hopeless gray.
By the time the leaves above and around me began to whisper and hiss to the arrival of the raindrops, my cheeks were already wet.
From my perch in the tree, I could see water washing down the roof of my house, coursing along the gutter and spilling from the broken down-pipe. Dad should not have let things get this bad. He should have been on the landlord’s back, or fixed it himself. But now he didn’t care about the house.
I felt the bruises on my arms.
Now he didn’t care about anything.
The rain grew heavier and colder. I knew I had to get down.
I took a firm grip and felt for the lower branches with my foot. Rain streamed into my eyes and I was struggling to find my next foothold when the world lit up and thunder exploded overhead. My fingers slipped. Something struck my back, my shoulder, my head...
I fell into blackness.
* * *
The skeleton was one of those alloy jobs from Wal-Mart with the Interim Mark 4 brain and independent motor control in the fingers. I recognized it straight away — I’d been fascinated by animatronics since I was six and had an extensive knowledge of makes and models and systems. It had been a best seller some years back, until the recall. Official explanations cited a battery fault and gyroscope malfunction, but the rumor I heard was that a skeleton killed a kid and made a Halloween lantern out of his head. I didn’t believe it, but it was a fun tale to tell on a spooky All Hallows evening.
I watched it approach along the dimly-lit sidewalk, with the low crescent moon at its back, white picket fences to its right and, to its left, a grass verge punctuated regularly with mature beech trees. The rubber-soled feet slapped heavily on the concrete. I glanced around for the kid with the remote control and spotted three groups of boys and girls trick or treating with bright white plastic skeletons. Whoever was controlling this one was out of sight.
I felt a moment’s envy. Since my Mom had run off with that guy, Dad had lost his job and couldn’t afford much in the way of toys. Not that we’d ever been able to afford something like this. Besides, I was too old now. I’d promised myself that by today — my fifteenth birthday — I would have cleared my room of toys and comics... but my room was as cluttered as ever. I wasn’t good with promises.
The metal skeleton was coming towards me. I propped my bike against a tree. Someone was taking a risk; operation of recalled hardware was illegal, and claiming naivety cut little ice with the courts. I was wary. Maybe I’d be safer up high, but Dad said I wasn’t good with trees. He said I wasn’t good with anything.
Anyway, I was letting that stupid story get to me. I stood boldly and waited.
When the skeleton drew alongside me, it stopped. Servos whirred softly as it turned its head — and two bulging white eyes — to look down at me. Neat move! And intended to spook me. I smiled, raised my wristphone and snapped a photo. The flash lit the skeleton and laughter came from far up the street.
Something dropped from the tree onto my shoulder. I flinched and struck out at the fluttering remote-controlled bat. A group of children were running down the middle of the road, and in the lead, who else but Angela Smith. The bat rose away from me, swooped at the skeleton’s head, then circled above the road. Angela’s Labrador came bounding over, barking up at the flying toy.
Angela, a tall, twelve-year old snob with short black hair and ugly nostrils, didn’t like me, and that suited me fine. With her were the fat, balloon-faced Ameche brothers and Paula Thimble, a small thin girl who I could have liked if she hadn’t hung around with Angela.
The dog knocked my bike over.
“Benny!” Angela called. “Get back here. Don’t go near Dan’s rusty old wreck.” She rarely missed an opportunity to point out my bike was not shiny and expensive like her bike, like her toys, like her friends, like her parents’ big house on the corner. Even her dog wore a diamond-studded collar — at least, she said they were diamonds. “Today’s Halloween... Isn’t it your birthday, Dan? What did you get?”
“You didn’t get anything, did you!”
“Dad is getting me a present later.”
Her dog jumped up at me and smeared mucky paw prints on my white T shirt.
“Hey! Get off!” I pushed the dog away.
Angela laughed. “Too bad you don’t have a laundry service like we do.” With her wrist-control, she piloted the bat towards her and snatched it out of the air.
One of the brothers giggled.
I noticed the skeleton was still staring at me. I didn’t like that.
“I thought Daniel was controlling it,” said Paula. “But he isn’t.”
Angela sneered in my face. “Don’t be stupid. He couldn’t afford a toy like that.”
I bit on a cruel come-back that would have withered her.
“Whose skeleton is it,” Paula asked me. “Who’s controlling it?”
“It looks different, somehow, from the ones I’ve seen.”
“It is,” I told her with authority. “I know about these things.”
Paula rubbed her small nose. “Go on, then. Tell me about it.”
“It’s an old model, recalled.” I glanced at her to gauge if she was really interested. “It was withdrawn for safety reasons. It shouldn’t be on the street. Anyway... why do you care?”
“Just interested... I think you’re very clever.”
“It could be dangerous. Maybe we should call the police.”
The skeleton was still staring at me. Its eyes hung in the dimness against a backdrop of black sky and sharp stars, like two luminous threatening alien worlds.
“It’s a bit creepy the way it does that,” said Paula.
“I’m not scared,” Angela announced.
The skeleton started towards us and Angela yelped and jumped away. But it didn’t follow her — it was heading directly for me.
The Labrador bounded in, barking at the skeleton and ducking and snarling in that way dogs weigh up the odds before deciding whether to attack or run. The skeleton rotated its eyes towards the animal.
The dog howled and threw itself at the skeleton. There was a whoosh as metal fingers slashed the air... the dog’s head tumbled away from its body, bounced on the sidewalk and rolled into the gutter. The jeweled collar landed at my feet.
Time froze as fragile perceptions struggled.
Then Angela began to scream and didn’t stop until the police arrived.
By then the skeleton had gone. As people had rushed out of their houses to see what all the fuss was about, it strode away up the avenue and turned onto the high street. None of us followed it.
The cop who questioned me was calm, matter-of-fact: Time? Dog? Skeleton? Any distinguishing features? Angela’s parents arrived. A white van pulled up and took Benny away. The gabble of rumor and radio, the flashing blue lights upon the faces of the houses, the three white skeletons standing shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk... it was unreal. I felt dizzy, had to get away.
I collected my bike and headed home.
* * *
“We use the word coma... which makes it sound like we completely understand the condition. But we don’t.” A strange male voice.
“When are you doing the scan?” My Dad’s voice.
“Can he hear me?”
A sigh. “Perhaps. We can’t be sure.”
“Dan?” My Dad, right beside me. “I don’t know if you can hear me. You had quite a fall. But don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t feel my head, so I don’t know if it moved.
“I’ll be right here,” he said.
* * *
Our house had a back garden cut short by the steep drop down the railway embankment. The rent was cheap owing to the trains that rumbled past night and day. I’d learned to sleep through the noise.
I put my bike in the garage and went into the back garden. The dining room curtains were open and the light was illuminating the overgrown lawn and the laurel hedge that closed off the embankment. I’d been promising to mow the grass for days, and if I didn’t get to it soon I’d be inviting another thrashing from Dad’s belt. A shift in the light made me look at the window. Dad was in the dining room, talking to someone hidden by the wall. For an instant I let myself believe he’d organized a surprise, that he hadn’t really forgotten my birthday...
Idiot! I bit my bottom lip till pain was the reason for the water in my eyes. Whatever he was up to, it wouldn’t be for me.
The back door was locked.
I hurried to the front of the house, dug out the key, and unlocked the door. It wouldn’t open. Someone had closed the bolt at the top.
I hammered on the door, but no-one came. I knocked again.
I raced around to the back of the house, rattled the door and peered in the window. The curtains were drawn and the light off. What was going on? I could feel panic rising in my stomach. I forced myself to calm down, walked around to the front again, and tried the door. This time it opened and I went in.
I found the dining room empty. I opened the door to the front lounge. Dad was sitting in his armchair watching MTV. I glanced around for a visitor.
“Didn’t you hear me at the door?”
“Huh?” He didn’t look at me.
“I was knocking.”
“Is someone else here? A visitor? I thought I saw you in the dining room.”
“Get me a beer.”
“Something big happened tonight.”
“Right...” He tossed an empty beer bottle onto the settee.
“No, really. There was this crazy skeleton and it killed Angela’s dog and then the Police came...”
“Tell me later.” He ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. “Get me a cold beer.”
I hesitated at the door. “You were in the dining room?”
“I haven’t moved for the last hour.”
* * *
I collected a beer from the fridge and searched for the bottle-opener in the drawer. My thoughts were swimming in doubts. I tried the back door. It was locked. That much, at least, was not my imagination. I crept into the dining room. Using a chair, I reached up and carefully touched the light bulb. No doubt about it — a residue of warmth.
When I took the opened bottle to Dad, he stared at me. His eyes were odd, as though he was looking right through me.
They were the eyes of a stranger.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Colin P. Davies