Holden Geats makes his scratch snapping pictures of abandoned places, and he’s heard of a new one: a kid-centric educational play place about the human body. A quick bribe and he’s in, only the singing and dancing animatronics populating the place didn’t exactly get the ‘abandoned’ memo…
Cardiac Zack’s Healthy Human Shack
Sometimes it was difficult to get all the animals out of the way. Bugs were the worst of course, too small to shoo and too fast in flight to keep their trails out of the shafts of light coming through any fissures in the ceiling. They weren’t the only ones though: birds, rats, cats, and occasionally frogs tried to ruin it too.
An indoor miniature golf course where the artificial turf now had mountain ranges of artfully-fallen ceiling plaster. A former public park where vines with sunhat leaves had eaten a listing seesaw. The outdoor section of a dilapidated lawn goods store, a flock of plastic herons standing vigilant even though their feathers and eyes had peeled white.
Every shot was devoid of live animals, but there was a big one just behind the lens, and his name was Holden Geats. Snapping pictures was his livelihood, and what renown he had came from his very narrow purview, as he only sold pictures of a world abandoned, of a speculative future Earth where mankind had vanished months or years prior achieved by finding the quiet little places that found themselves for a time unprofitable, suitable for investment only to Mother Nature herself.
The states had more of these places lately, Holden noticed opportunistically. Malls died out in a wave like necrotized tissue, allowing him to wriggle through as a maggot and harvest them for food. He fed on the tranquility of his own kind’s inevitable extinction, something that gave him comfort for some reason, and he never questioned it either because his clients found the same comfort to the tune of a 600 dollar metal print of a rusted-out garbage truck stuck in the dump position.
This scavenger of natural lighting and mold cartography found himself standing outside a most unusual building one night in a light denim jacket, sneakers that would put their name to the test, black gloves, and a fog of chilled breath about his neck like a scarf. His camera bag was over his shoulder, loaded with equipment, most of which he never used because the world crumbled into a perfect aesthetic all on its own.
Never had he felt so much like a parasite thanks to the building’s absurd shape, that of a human from the waist up, its main doors positioned right where a belt buckle would go. Standing with their hands at their hips, this hollow giant had no discernible sex, and it was a godsend that none of its scurrying builders had the misplaced ambition to paint a face on it. It could’ve only turned out creepy, too creepy even for Holden’s photography.
Walking under its chin on approach, Holden looked up and saw birds nesting in some jaw lighting. Or bats roosting. Too high to tell. They could do whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t go inside and ruin the mood wherever he was aiming. While it didn’t have a face, there were eyes, or eye-shaped windows. One of them was busted, its broken glass crunching under his feet as he passed out of the giant’s line of sight. The massive artificial creature named itself, with a sign over the doors in colorful goofy lettering like scattered fridge magnets:
Cardiac Zack’s Healthy Human Shack
Five years past thirty, feeling more like it was ten, Holden didn’t have any kids. Wouldn’t. He had a hard enough time pushing alley cats out of his shots. This meant he hadn’t been familiar with the place, or known that it was only two hours’ drive away, until he spotted a minor news item regarding its closure online.
Edutainment. A five dollar word plus sales tax if he’d ever heard one. The Healthy Human Shack was a cushioned playground of multiple stories with all the main attractions clustered in the thoracic cavity; every slide, tunnel, and ball pit was anatomy themed, with plaques all over the arterial walls loaded with enlightening information the eight year old patrons most likely ignored completely.
If they learned anything it would be from the animatronics. The promotional videos he’d perused online showed a whole host of them: singing dancing organs and foreign bodies with mechanical lips shooting open and closed like malfunctioning garage doors without any care given to match the unnatural shudders to their dialogue or lyrics.
Zack, the heart, was the main attraction, his office close to the spine-spiral staircase that could take the kids all the way up to the brain where they could look out the eye windows, or fall out of the one that was now broken. Maybe that was why it was closed; the article didn’t really say.
Such a vibrant place laid barren was a goldmine for him, and while it was a shame he couldn’t let it ferment for a few months gathering dust and cobwebs, he suspected they were going to demolish it within the week, there was still bound to be a couple thousand bucks’ worth of images in there he would never be able to reproduce elsewhere.
One of the items of equipment he brought with him was a pair of bolt cutters, as sometimes people, in their infinitely unreasonable nature, didn’t want their vacated properties to be seen or exploited in fashions that left no trace. One might argue the cutters didn’t count as photography accessories, but Holden would’ve directed that person to the online shop where he’d purchased them, at the bottom of which an algorithm had arranged several items it deemed ‘of interest to others who have bought this’. It thought the cutters went perfectly well with his night vision lenses, though he’d decided against the also-suggested balaclava.
No excuse was needed for them; they didn’t even have to come out of the bag. The front doors were open, so Holden let himself inside. There was an outer hallway ringing the abdomen with windows looking out onto the empty parking lot, an occasional door marked for employees. Maybe he would bust into one of those, look for a good angle of a severed robot head on a custodian’s desk halfway through its last polish, but only if all the major systems and organs were a failure.
Motion-activated safety lighting followed him along as he crept through, flashlight at the ready in case it was needed. If he’d had it on he probably wouldn’t have been so startled by the bright spot that marched around the corner and caught him, froze him solid like a deer in headlights. The other person lowered their flashlight and flicked a switch on the wall, bringing everything into oppressively sterile detail.
“Wow, that’s like an instant hangover,” the creature of the darkroom hissed, covering his eyes for a moment, though he wished he could retract the statement when he blinked away the dots and saw the person was no more than a teenager, perhaps an adult, but not the kind that should know what a hangover felt like.
“They’re closed,” the young woman said. If his presence had startled her at all it had worn off quicker than a flash bulb.
“Don’t you mean we’re closed?” Holden asked, for she was wearing a staff uniform, but the blood red shirt wasn’t tucked in and she had no name tag, not even a loose thread where the pin of one had been repeatedly placed and removed.
“I mean…” she started, already taking a conciliatory tone, “I’m not really with them. They paid me for like a week, just to sweep this hallway and make sure nobody broke in. Speaking of which, you totally broke in.”
“No I didn’t; the door was open.”
“Because I need a way in and out and I’m not digging the keys out every time. My point is that they’re closed and you knew that, unless you’re stupid.” Holden unzipped his bag. She didn’t jump, but her shoulders did tense, so if it was a gun he was pulling out it was only her body that was instinctively afraid of it, and not the person inside.
“It’s just a camera,” he said to calm her, proving it with his very expensive main squeeze, twisting off her lens cap and letting her gorgeous fish eye do the talking. When he did a strange sensation moved through his feet and knees, like everything in his legs locked up tighter than the Healthy Human Shack. Whatever it was it started beneath him, like the building had its own instinctive tense at the sight of the camera.
The young woman looked around too, as if she suspected one of the squatting birds or bats had snuck in with him. She was a small person with little neck to speak of, and she was surely wearing contact lenses, as her face had taken on that slight slope that only people who wore glasses for more than a decade had. Altogether she looked like a timid creature, but it wasn’t anywhere in her body language, which primarily spoke the tongue of boredom, of fry oil doldrums.
“Don’t take my picture,” she requested. “I don’t like people knowing where I’ve been.” Holden lowered it to indicate he wouldn’t.
“I was just going to say that I’m a photographer, not a thief or a vandal or anything like that. I take pictures of abandoned places.” He brought out a business card, his name over a landscape print of his finest work: a pile of overturned hospital gurneys mixed in with an equal number of gold-handled hotel luggage trolleys. The card disappeared back into his wallet rather than her hand; nobody liked anybody knowing where they’d been these days. “Would it be alright if I just went in for a while and did my thing? I won’t touch anything I promise; I’d only ruin the shot if I did.”
“Not really dude.” Holden dipped into his wallet again, this time for a fifty dollar bill. It didn’t take her long. To her credit she knew exactly, down to the cent, how much she cared about the integrity of her brief position there. “Right this way sir.” She snatched the bill and turned around, walking him along the outer curve, past the reception desk where she’d clearly camped out with boxes of snacks and a few volumes of manga, and to the main entrance to the attraction, which was shaped like a navel.
“Can you tell me anything about this place? Like why it’s closed? Did Zack have a heart attack?”
“I don’t know if it’s closed permanently,” she said, navel-gazing through a plastic porthole as if looking for more birds and bats, but there weren’t any. “Some of the kids got sick. Nobody died and it’s not like cancer or anything, but they were passing out and hitting their heads and stuff. There’s like a small board of directors that owns the place, and I think they’re deciding if it’s worth the cost to investigate for like carbon monoxide and radon and stuff or if they should just call it quits and not resuscitate the big guy.”
“Am I in any danger if I go in there?”
“Probably not, it was mostly kids who’d been coming here a lot, like twice a month. I was in there for a few hours yesterday and I’m still an incredible vibrant specimen, so…” She shrugged her scrunchy little shoulders, like an accordion that knew how disappointing its sound was to its audience.
“I saw the broken window out front. Anything else busted in there that might be hazardous?”
“Nah, that window was because of a bird.” Not bats then, unless local rent rates had the creatures cohabiting. “Sucker really wanted out of the big guy’s head, flew straight through the glass and died. Maybe it saw one of their nightmares… Hey, speaking of nightmares, you want me to turn the power on? Then all the organs will dance and sing for you. It’ll scare the shit out of you.”
“Are you even old enough to curse?” Another shrug, her weapon of choice.
“Pretty sure you have to be an adult to take a bribe.”
“Fuck, you’re right. Thanks, but no. I’m not here for a person, I’m here for a cadaver. I assume there’s more safety lighting in there?” She nodded. “That’ll give me the best vibe I’m gonna get.” She pushed a button beside the navel, and rather than tickling the whole building it opened the doors. Holden moved to step inside, but she stopped him, giving him back his fifty.
“On second thought… you keep that. I’ll give you my E-mail and when you’re done you can send me a big print of your best picture from tonight for my wall. That’s my bribe.”
“Really? Fifty bucks buys a lot of sandwiches.”
“Yeah but this way when I starve to death it’ll be in a really cool apartment.” With that she walked away, back to her desk without a backward glance, to her cheap books and her big headphones that absolutely let people sneak up on her.
Holden let out a little snort that didn’t take wing enough to become a laugh. Cool kid, he thought. Where would he be without a world full of younger people equally ready and sometimes eager to watch things transition from financial opportunity to a rearranged mosaic of non-biodegradable rubble.
If he got a particularly good shot that night he decided he would send her the biggest blowup of it he could, printed on metal to give it that striking gloss, even though the cost of doing so would be much more than the initial fifty.
Without hesitation, Holden stepped over the threshold from bowling alley carpet to bright gymnastics padding. The navel doors closed behind him automatically, and he tested the button on the inner side to make sure she hadn’t locked him in. He was free to come and go.
Even in the dim of the safety lighting he could see how the place would be overwhelming to a much younger and more innocent mind. Tubes for crawling and sliding, red and blue to represent veins and arteries, were woven throughout the entire central structure in a system of roads all, presumably, leading to the hub of the heart, where Zack was waiting to welcome them and tell them so many interesting facts about the human body, like how many times its intestines could stretch around the Earth, how many tears were cried in the average lifetime, and how a secret allergy could put an end to you at any random employee appreciation free donut brunch.
Most of the bones were some kind of transparent resin, and all as big as Holden or bigger. In full light they would have stretched his reflection to its ripping point. Two big skeletal hands and the attached arms marked a second gate so that parents had room to stand outside the body’s reach and look in on their children, though they could only see the playground of the body’s ‘lap’. Once little Timmy disappeared into the lungs or the guts he was gone until excreted from a different orifice.
Holden realized the hand-gates meant the shack technically had four arms, since the skeletal gesture didn’t match the hands on the hips on the exterior, but he supposed one could assume the body had just shifted in the brief time between entering and circling once to make it to the navel.
In addition to its anatomical interior design, the place had a secondary theme of film noir. Some of the body walls were brick, many of the cartoon characters on the posters had full suits or trench coats on. There was some police tape surrounding a giant bandage slapped on one of the arms. If he remembered correctly, the promotional materials said Cardiac Zack was a detective, and Holden didn’t much like the idea that the owners thought crimes were solved with the heart rather than the head, though he supposed it was better than the gut.
A tall bin near one of the wrists had a sign:
The body can be a dangerous place! We ask you put your phones and other fragile belongings here for safekeeping. Just ask our staff for an ID baggie so you know what’s yours.
Probably for liability reasons, Holden argued. Kids broke things, a frustrating trait when most of them these days were carrying pocket computers that cost a couple hundred bucks. It would be less of a headache for everyone involved if those devices didn’t disappear into the body and come out cracked, the responsible parties too timid to admit exactly what happened.
For the best shot he might have to squeeze himself into any number of tubes meant for smaller bodies, so it seemed prudent to take his own phone out and place it in the bin. It was already off, as even vibration could shatter the tranquility. Besides, the only people who called him would only do so during an emergency, and emergencies were better handled in daylight, even if they were already over, for better or worse, by then.
Then he proceeded to work his morbid magic, starting with a low-angle look at the transparent rib cage and its colorful cargo. From the ground floor the body was ominous, intimidating, and disinterested, like a monument to a god that only served a human-like species a few galaxies over. Low lighting made crystal of the bones, knotholes of the entrances and exits.
In less than an hour he had over a hundred shots to sift through once he was home, but he already knew which sort would be the big ticket items. Several of the animatronic organs were supported by metal rods that fed into tracks across the floor, allowing them to move back and forth, and as luck would have it the power had been cut off when a few of them were halfway in arterial entrances, obscuring half the form in shadow.
The effect was most off-putting, especially with one of the tonsils rising out of the jaw, like some kind of peeping Tom whack-a-mole. Its empty heavy-lidded eyes made his skin crawl, so much so that he was almost-involuntarily crawling backward away from it as soon as he snapped the photo.
Getting such a shadowy shot of Cardiac Zack would’ve been the jackpot, but the flatfoot thumper was missing from its post. The office between the lungs had everything you would expect from a period detective drama: its name in black letters on the foggy glass of the door, a desk lamp that wasn’t powerful enough to light up anything more than a stack of papers, blinds with one little crease stuck open from someone peering out without letting anyone peer in, and a coat rack in the corner with too many hats on it. Except no detective to put its feet up.
It must’ve been in for repairs, or, if they were closing permanently, on its way into the hands of some esoteric private collector. Oh Well. Whoever took the heart could have it; Holden was confident he got the soul, trapped in his camera right where he wanted it. Now all he had to was take it home and put it to rest, tuck it into metal sheets and photo paper so it could finally sleep in decorative peace.
Already his neck and knees were sore from crawling through such small passages, dragging his photo bag behind him by snagging the strap with the tip of his shoe. It was a relief to be squeezed out of the lower intestine, probably for the big guy as well, and the photographer expressed it by standing as straight and tall as he could and twisting, cracking his back like a drum flourish.
As if in response, the big guy woke up. Sterilizing lights suddenly blazed, so bright and powerful he heard them buzzing up from the rafters where the big guy dreamed. Music played: jazz trumpet whining about the hard times it had fallen on. Under it he heard machinery chugging to life. The animatronics half in the shadows retreated on their tracks, vanished completely.
“I told her…” Holden muttered. It was good he was finished already; if the power had come up moments before one of his good shots it might’ve compelled him to damage the property, a temptation he had avoided entirely throughout his career. Better never to disturb what had been disturbed and now recovered, that was his philosophy, but sometimes, when startled, you just had to kick a bucket regardless of what was in it.
The lights faded a significant amount after the initial blast, letting some of the shadows reemerge like spiders after a breeze. The buzz faded, the whirring of hidden mechanisms taking over. By the time the body had settled Holden was already at the hand-gates, reaching for his phone.
His hand found nothing but air. Lower. Air. Lower. Flat hard felt. The man leaned into the bin like he was starved and searching the trash for stray onion rings. Nothing. It looked factory fresh in there, a pristine artificial blackhead on the big guy’s arm that had never even touched a phone.
Probing its rounded side for a panel that might’ve opened up and swallowed his property turned up nothing. The girl must’ve come in while he was worming his way through the bowels and taken it, but why? He could just catch her at her post and demand it back. On his way to the navel a scenario played out in his head, one in which she refused to return it, and if he tried to take it back she would call the police and report his trespass.
How he would then respond quickly became irrelevant. He pressed the button and the doors didn’t open. A jab instead of a press. It didn’t even make a sound like it was trying to open. Holden banged on the door with the side of his fist.
“Hey, come on! Let me out of here!” There was no response as he stewed for a few minutes, pacing back and forth, periodically pounding. Now his hand was sore too. Then he remembered it was a human body, so there had to be other exits or the place would’ve perished long ago. He went for the back.
Around behind the base of the spine there was a set of double doors meant for staff. He had his bolt cutters, but there was no chain or padlock. Pushing the handles got nowhere, not even an inch. They were barricaded from the other side. Having checked the entire waistline on his way there, Holden realized the only other exit was the broken window up in the head, and it didn’t come with a fire escape.
She could’ve trapped him there just so he couldn’t escape before the authorities arrived. He was starting to regret not seeing their interaction differently. After all, he was a stranger nearly twice her age and size who had trespassed in the middle of the night. It would’ve been entirely reasonable for her to play friendly just to lure him into a snare so he didn’t react violently.
But even though he laid it out logically he didn’t believe it. She seemed like the sort of person who knew to keep herself intact by only caring about one thing at a time, and that thing definitely wasn’t this gig. It wasn’t the big guy. When she returned his fifty she told him his work was closer to being that one thing than anything in her professional life. They were kindred, at least in a ‘I respect you so I’ll stay out of your way’ sense.
The photographer still hadn’t puzzled it out when he was halfway through the lap, headed to try the navel again. Only in seething frustration did he notice the obnoxious labyrinth laid out in the lap, large padded blocks that would’ve been walls and lanes to the children but were just hurdles to him. He started crawling over them rather than winding through, the dirt on his shoes leaving streaks on their bright blue and red surfaces.
Halfway through a lackluster vault over one of them the lights dimmed and the music stopped. Holden froze, but couldn’t hold the outstretched leg without pulling a muscle, so he crept forward into a more stable position in one of the lanes. Something joined him from behind, with the sound of targets dragged across a rickety old shooting gallery carnival game. When he whirled around he saw a knob of ivory sticking out above the blocks, making its way to the corner.
When the two stood across from each other the newcomer turned, like a switch in a breaker box angrily flipping itself off. It was one of the animatronics, one that he hadn’t found on his cruise through the circulatory system. Sticking out of a track in the ground on a metal pole like an ice pop of bone, it had wide set eyes, one on each nodule, looking in two directions. Neither was pointed at Holden, but somehow it stared him down.
Peg teeth like the numbers on an antique cash register flicked in and out of its gums one by one, a mechanical ability Holden couldn’t even guess the purpose of. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the flapping of its lower lip hinge. The bone had a mustache filled with dust bunnies and stray candies that had been sucked just enough to become glue. Above that a hat sat between the nodules, a little brown one with a brim curled on one side like a sneer.
Holden couldn’t remember what those hats were called exactly, just that they too were a staple of film noir. Not a fedora, those had wider flatter brims. It was just… a crime hat, he decided. Once he’d made up his mind it spoke to him.
“You’re not the first copper to catch up to Funny Bone Malone!” it claimed in a crackling nasal voice. “But catching me is something else! You think you’re up for it?” Its distant eyes tried to center on him, but failed and snapped back, like divorcees that couldn’t bear to be in the same room.
“What?” Holden looked up and around, hoping to see some kind of observation window where someone watched, throwing levers and flicking switches to toy with him.
“So Flatfoot, which one of your bones is the funny one? Don’t know? I’ll find it! Ughugugugugugugugugugugug!” Its awful laughter, like a toy boat chugging through a bathtub full of engine grease, ceased. The shack was quiet. Holden threw open his hands, waiting for a prankster to emerge and tell him off for not being scared.
He was about to taunt them when the animatronic spoke again, though it wasn’t exactly speech. The mouth was definitely open, but the noise was now a horrific ear-splitting screech. It was just as likely to be coming from the mouth as from the base, as the metal forced its way through the track so rabidly that it threw sparks.
Funny Bone Malone shot forward like a cannonball and tackled Holden, shrieking the entire way. Struck, as if by a steel rhino, the man flew backward, limbs flailing, breath somewhere back by his attacker, until he collided with one of the padded blocks and flipped over it.
“The fuck!?” he wheezed, crumpled like a napkin that had been through not just a full meal, but a few nose blows as well. There wasn’t much time to right himself, as he heard the chugging of Funny Bone Malone taking corners, making its way as swiftly as it could to Holden’s new lane.
“You think it hurts when you hit your funny bone?” it asked when it stopped at the last corner and flicked his way again. “Now you know how bad it is when it hits back! Ughugugugugugugugug!” This time the laugh transitioned right into the screech. It was coming at him at speed, and that speed had to be at least thirty miles an hour. The photographer barely had time to peel himself off the ground and roll back over the divider.
When he landed Funny Bone Malone was gone, but he could still hear it cruising around the lap, or perhaps somewhere behind it. Somehow this single stick had him surrounded, and he only caught glimpses of its crime hat sneaking around corners and vanishing, like a shark’s fin gliding in and out of the surf.
Whatever the source of its demonic speed, it was still on a track, so Holden got up on one of the blocks, to safety and a higher vantage point. When he touched his shoulder he realized he’d dropped his camera bag, spotting it in the initial lane. Any number of sensitive items could lay broken inside it, but just then his prime concern was the pair of bolt cutters, which could be wielded as a weapon easily, could twist the google eyes right off the wicked bone’s face.
“You don’t play that rough with the kids do you?” he asked, trying to draw it out.
“Does baby want his bottle?” it answered back from out of sight, somewhere behind the left hip perhaps. It only had so many lines, he reasoned, and couldn’t respond directly. It was just playing a tape, and maybe all of this was the world’s nuttiest malfunction. Now confident that he could leap from block to block without it clipping his feet, making it past the hand-gates and thus out of its reach would be child’s play.
But he wanted something more adult, namely revenge. A quick peek into his shirt revealed a massive bruise, like a manned kayak had fallen on his chest. Never before had one of his worksites turned on him, merely pretending at inactivity. When a vulture showed up it was downright indecent of the carcass to find a shred of life and wiggle around; didn’t it know it could put the scavengers off their appetite?
His initial tour had given him some context clues, and he was able to fill in the rest by reading the instruction signs posted all around the lap. Funny Bone Malone wasn’t just for show; it was part of a game the kids could play. They had to chase it around the maze as it fled, corralling it into just the right lane: the one that became a ramp and led to its prison cell.
There was an open cylinder on the right arm, in the midst of the humerus, which was obviously where the implement of animatronic manslaughter belonged. If the kids could chase it then it must have had some sort of trigger that forced it to turn and flee from them, probably a motion sensor. In theory all he had to do was trigger it, making himself the hunter rather than the prey.
“Get out here… bonehead!” he ordered, wincing at his own terrible insult. The impact must’ve knocked all his good ones loose. It didn’t respond. Why would it if it had no chance of catching him? Holden dropped off the block, back onto a section of track. He spun, arms wide, welcoming it to take another shot.
The music swelled again, wail of the trumpet hiding its rapid approach. Holden only spotted it when it was up to full speed, ten feet away. Sidestepping just in time, he caught up to the bone as it slowed and turned. Repeatedly the man stomped around the thing’s post, snapped his fingers, tried to find some way to activate a motion sensor.
Malone screeched again as soon as it laid one derelict eye on him, which was a touch more noise than he was willing to put up with at the moment. Wrapping both arms around the bone and hunkering down, Holden tried to prevent its escape. Funny Bone fought back, shooting back and forth to shake him off.
“Is that all you got!?” Holden snarled, dragging his feet, wrenching back. The post shuddered, never meant to resist the force of a full grown man. Motion sensor or no, Malone was heading back to the slammer. The photographer channeled his inner plow horse by planting his shoulder into the divot under Malone’s lower jaw and pushing.
“Let go of me!” the animatronic ordered as its post squealed in the effort to move the other way. “You’re in for it if the Pain Gang catches wind of this!”
“Nobody’s even gonna know I was here asshole,” he spat back through gritted teeth. Foot by foot he forced Funny Bone backward, around grinding corners and to the ramp at the base of the arm. The last stretch was the most difficult; it didn’t care that he was practically out of energy already.
Malone fought him every inch until the last, when its post hit some kind of slot that twisted it right into its cylindrical jail cell above the elbow. A clear door with metal bars painted on it slammed shut, locking it away.
“You haven’t heard the last of me flatfoot!” it claimed, eyes finally focusing. Holden shifted on his shoulders, left and right, lacquered pupils following. Motion tracking. That was all. Had to be. Besides, he already knew how tough it was to get the animals out of the way for a nice dead shot. Should’ve expected at least something to get in his way. Not this, but something. Holden turned to leave, hoping he would be allowed once he reached the navel again.
“You know what’s a real funny bone?” the animatronic asked from over his shoulder. “Your mother! Ughugugugugugug!”
“What did you just say to me?” Holden asked, whipping back around and banging on the cell door. Funny Bone Malone’s eyes shot off in different directions again, life draining from the machine. Its jaw was stuck open as if the thing had died laughing.
Someone had to be messing with him. The operators would never record a line like that, to be thrown out on a Friday night in a hive full of kids with their parents hovering nearby. That was for Holden specifically. The girl then, as she was the only other person sharing the shack. She was at her desk, fiddling with controls, saying these things into the flexible neck of a microphone that filtered her words through Malone’s stupid lingo. Holden turned to go give her a piece of his mind.
“Holy shit!” he blurted, collapsing against the cell door. A lump of red sat at the top of the ramp. No, it stood, just with stumpy little legs like fire hydrants. It had eyes like Funny Bone Malone, but these floated in their sockets like they were oiled. A permanent snicker was molded into the shape of its mouth. Thankfully its teeth didn’t pop up and down individually like the gangster bone’s.
Shaped somewhere between an anatomically correct heart and the emoticon version, with a charcoal gray crime hat of its own sitting between the lobes, this had to be Cardiac Zack, come from some crack, free of any track.
“Get back,” Holden warned the organ. His heart was pounding in his chest, so loud he heard it clearly. “No, that’s you,” he realized. The animatronic heart was beating, calmly, rhythmically. It took a waddling step forward that might’ve prompted Holden to attack if the machine had had any arms to threaten him with. Its eyes flicked over his shoulder, saw what he’d done to its fellow entertainer.
“Say, you caught Funny Bone Malone. Good work kid.” Zack’s voice was snappy and salty, a little malted to boot. It sounded like a root beer float with a thick stirring pretzel rod sticking out. “Somebody’s been taking their vitamin moxie.”
“I don’t know who’s on the other side of you,” Holden said, registering the shudder in his own voice, “but I’ve had enough of these games. Let me out of here.” The heart waddled, not toward him, just teetering back and forth in its own version of pacing, appearing an inch from falling over in a new direction with each step.
“Nobody’s getting in or out while the commissioner has the whole body on lockdown,” the heart claimed. “The Pain Gang is too dangerous. We can’t let them flee just to cause trouble in somebody else’s joints, see?”
“The Pain Gang?”
“Four notorious criminals, all in cahoots. They descended on this helpless body to terrorize it with a campaign of agony, discomfort, and irritation. You just did me the favor of roping Funny Bone Malone, so that leaves the other three.”
“We’re still playing this game, huh?”
“No games kid. This is the big leagues,” the heart assured him with a sideways glance. That girl out front must’ve repeated entire scripts to herself to sound this authentic on the fly. Zack’s voice was Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one and smoked all the way down.
“Let me get this straight. If the Pain Gang is caught, the commissioner will lift the lockdown… and I can leave? Unhindered?
“If you’ve got places to be,” Zack said, as if there was no better place in the world than the big guy’s fair body.
“So by caught… do you mean in a cell like Malone or just,” Holden pushed out his lower lip and spun his wrist, humiliated to find himself reflexively playing along, “taken out of the picture.”
“We’ve got laws in this town,” Zack warned, walking the statement back immediately, “but sometimes those laws turn their back.” It waddled away from Holden and stared out at the lap. Then it leaned back, almost falling over again, to stare into the upper reaches at the transparent-skinned god that couldn’t or wouldn’t look down and acknowledge them. “As long as the Pain Gang is stopped in the end, it doesn’t really matter how it gets done.”
“Fine. Where can I find the other three?”
“First you’ll want to head for Kidney Stone Malone, seeing as you’ve just pinched his brother and he’ll be itching for some revenge. Three guesses where he puts up his feet.”
“The kidneys, got it.”
“The other two are Swallowed Penny and Gut Flora. They’re running an indigestion operation in Boweltown. That’s a rough neighborhood right now kid, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“What, we’re not partnering up on this one old-timer?” Holden spat sarcastically.
“I’ll check in on you,” the organ assured him, “but I’ve got my own leads to follow up on. Can’t let you have all the fun. Be seeing you kid.” Without another word Zack waddled off, but it didn’t make it very far, taking a bold step right over the ramp. The lump of plastic and metal pitched forward and tumbled all the way down like a giant frozen chicken nugget, landing on its face and lying still.
Holden cautiously descended the ramp, looked the heart over, but had absolutely no desire to touch the thing. Out of battery maybe. Never meant to be taken up and down ramps most likely. He hoped their agreement was still valid, and when he heard that Zack was still beating at the same pace he assumed it was.
All he needed was a weapon, so he went back to where his bag rested and gently placed it atop one of the padded blocks. Inside there were some dismaying loose pieces of plastic, and something had lost a knob, but all that was for later. Out came the cold metal of the bolt cutters, and they felt like an aluminum bat in his hand. He tested their weight by smacking the rounder end against his palm a few times.
“Yeah, this can cause organ failure,” he assured himself. There was a moment where he stopped, glued down by the absurdity of the situation, but it couldn’t be allowed to last. If it had come a few minutes earlier and kept him from reacting to Funny Bone Malone’s charge he might already be dead on the floor, waiting for Zack to come along with a piece of chalk clenched between its teeth to trace his corpse.
How they were doing this to him, and who they even were, was not the concern, not until he could get that navel to open up again. The Pain Gang was his only prospect on that. Rationalizing could take a backseat for a while. Besides, now he had an excuse to destroy all the property he wanted, starting with the brother of the bastard who had insulted his mother.
The kidneys were only worth one or two shots the first time he passed through them; Holden hadn’t even bothered to take more than one step over the threshold. That one step almost caught him a fall, as the floor was extremely flexible and bouncy. Each kidney was an inflated bounce chamber, made up of red balloon-bands that terminated around some sort of dark panel in the back.
The image was quite creepy in the dim, but there was no other angle but the one from the entrance that offered any kind of contrast in the shot, so he hadn’t investigated the panels at the end, merely used them for juxtaposition between comforting darkness and the cloying over-friendly red of the artificial flesh.
The kidneys were close to each other, on the same cramped hallway once he’d entered through a ventral tube and crawled into the right area. A sign between them told him to take his shoes off before entering.
“Police business,” he told the sign, not even reaching for his laces. A glance in the left kidney returned nothing unexpected, and so did an opposite one. No sign of Kidney Stone Malone, so he’d actually have to investigate a little. Mentally flipping a coin, Holden selected the right kidney and entered.
Bouncing his way to the back would’ve only made him feel all the dumber, so instead he took the distance awkward step by awkward step, like a toddler with water balloons tied to his feet. By the time he made it to the dark panel, and saw that it was actually larger than he was, he was mad enough to take a swing at it and pick through the resulting pieces, with luck finding one that belonged to the wanted Malone.
Rearing back for the swing, dismayed to find that the unsteady ground was going to rob him of a lot of force, Holden tried to compensate by twisting his waist even further. Glass or plastic, the panel would feel everything he could dish out. The bolt cutters were halfway there when a flash interrupted him, forced him to throw a forearm over his eyes as shield.
Holden stumbled back and fell over, the whole chamber wobbling in response. The flash had come from eight bulbs ringing the panel, positioned behind it, and now they revealed the walled-off chamber about the size of a portable toilet. Inside there was another flat disturbing face, this time carved onto a pus-colored oblong shape with two little legs even more worthless than Zack’s.
“Well if it isn’t Kidney Stone Malone,” Holden said, trying to sound assertive flat on his ass in the middle of the bounce house. “We can do this the easy way… or my way.” The diminutive Malone moved its eyes, locked onto Holden’s in a more predatory fashion than the other two had. Its plastic gums were on full display in a permanent snarl.
Jaunty music kicked in, and something projected glowing red words along the bottom of the panel. Music notes on either side of each line marked them as lyrics:
♫ This kidney stone can skip, so how about a game? ♫
♫ I’ll go along quiet, back the way you came ♫
♫ if you can jump on beat without falling down, ♫
♫ but if you do I’ll run you out of town. ♫
Malone was supposed to sing it to the kids, but the animatronic didn’t have any playfulness for Holden Geats. Instead it had vicious, mindless, animal snarls. Funny Bone was positively eloquent in comparison, for as Kidney Stone’s mechanical lips flapped the sounds out of them only grew more unhinged.
Snorting, barking, growling, the nasty lump began to jump up and down on its little piston legs. A counter appeared on the panel, tracking each time he was supposed to jump to the beat of the song. Holden sprang to his feet so he wouldn’t miss the first one. He thought he had the game worked out. They would both jump until a predetermined amount where Malone would fall over and the kids would be declared the winner.
Better than the bolt cutters, if it worked, so Holden played along, counting out the beats under his breath and jumping. The kidney shook. He wondered what the capacity of the organ was. Only with measured breathing did he catch a whiff and realize the kidney actually smelled a little like urine. One of the guests had an accident at some point, or just lost all bladder control at the sight of the ghastly calcification jumping up and down like a maniac in front of them.
♫ Don’t you know a kidney stone stings? ♫
♫ It also bounds, bounces, pounces, and flings. ♫
Malone still wasn’t singing. Each new lyric only made its chaotic feral gushing all the louder. Holden wanted to scream at it to shut up, but he was too busy whispering the beat to himself so he could jump at the right moments. Then the percussion set in, only the new accompaniment was a live performance.
Kidney Stone Malone bashed its head into the panel, somehow landing upright. Holden ceased jumping; the counter still went up. His performance didn’t actually matter. Thunk! There it went again, not even on the beat.
“Cut that out!” Thunk! “If you don’t-” Krick! A massive crack appeared in the panel, like a lightning strike, startling him enough to put him on his backside again. Not plastic. It was thick glass. Krick! Thick glass in a thin-skinned room. Krick! Retreating would be slow, too slow, but he still gave it a shot by crab-walking backward toward the entrance, wrists seeming to sink further into the floor with each motion.
Kssh! The panel shattered. Kidney Stone Malone tumbled out like a dropped microwave only to bounce with supernatural aptitude upon hitting the floor. He should’ve seen this coming, the ol’ Malone family technique of ramming their enemies at top speed. Throwing up his arms to catch Malone meant there was nothing supporting his upper body, so his head bounced as the two collided.
The other brother had inherited all the quips, so Kidney Stone still didn’t have a single word to offer as the animatronic snorted and snapped at the photographer’s face. No bigger than a piece of carry-on luggage, the thing felt far heavier, perhaps because of how far they sank into the inflated floor, though they were about to sink a lot further.
For behind Malone’s domed head-body Holden saw a glittering rain of glass shards from the panel, each holding a threatening red glint from the lights of the kidney stone’s little stage. Rather than keep fighting the creature off, he instead twisted Malone to make it a better umbrella against the tinkling shards.
It worked, but now the surrounding area was a jagged minefield. His assailant’s jaws were grinding, getting faster, giving him the distinct image of a finger being bitten clean off should one drift too close. Bolt cutters? Dropped, barely hidden between two red ridges, which effectively placed them on the moon in that moment.
All he had to work with was his arms and legs, all of which protested when he put everything he had into throwing Kidney Stone off, a tactic that only made the animatronic more dangerous. It bounced from wall, to ceiling, to opposite wall, into an arc that would smash right into Holden’s head if he didn’t get moving.
The crab walk was a miserable failure, so this time he tried rolling, only to get a temple full of flecks of glass, and wrists that suffered worse. Kidney Stone’s rabid tantrum was loud, but Holden still managed to hear drops of his own blood strike the bounce house like rain on a pool tarp. He wished the big guy would put some sort of stop to this; it was internal bleeding after all.
Malone bounced too close, sent all the glass back up into the air to fall again. Holden curled up into an armadillo ball to protect his ears and eyes, only to be forced flailing onto his back when the animatronic slammed his ribs.
There was a new sound: a high whine. Holden, after taking too long to recognize it wasn’t generated by fear for his life, recognized it, had a bitterly funny reminiscence of his hands pinching the lips of an untied balloon and slowly letting the air squeak out. The glass had ripped a hole in the kidney somewhere.
More than one, surely, as he was sinking far too fast. The door. He turned onto his stomach, taking more thin brittle daggers to his clavicle, and saw his fear realized. If the floor sank too much further he wouldn’t be able to reach the bottom of the door, would be stuck in a rubber death pit with Malone like two dogs set on each other.
He scrambled for the exit, only to get his spine bent by a falling Malone, knocking the wind out of him and the floor simultaneously. His escape got further away, even as he shook the animatronic off and scrambled on. Within reach, had to be. He went for it, stretched an arm. Missed by an inch. Two inches. Three. The deflation dragged his failure out, exaggerated it, angled him further and further up until he was practically standing against the folds of the floor. On hearing glass crunch under feet that weren’t his own he whirled around.
Malone no longer had anything to ricochet off, and had rolled into a run, headed straight for Holden’s ankles with a mouth that now sounded more closely related to a wood chipper than to Funny Bone. Strafing around its charge was easy enough, and had Holden praising himself for refusing to take off his shoes now that he was sidling across a hard wrinkled floor coated with broken glass.
His evasion took him all the way around to the spot under the stage, where he kicked his bolt cutters. Kidney Stone had rolled off the rubbery wall, landed turned around, and started at him again, so he went for his weapon. The blood he had left boiled, and he was happy to have an emotion on such solid footing. A clear shot. A clear plan. This kidney stone was pissing him off, and it was time to piss it out.
With a grunt and a golf swing he struck at the animatronic, landing the shot right in its open mouth. Malone bit down, but while the mechanism was strong enough for bone it couldn’t stand up to thick iron. Teeth broke and scattered amongst the glass as Holden anchored his legs and swept back and forth with all his might, dragging the thing along.
Fully aware he didn’t have the energy to keep this up, Holden sought to end it before Malone could find its first words, which would undoubtedly be something about the promiscuity of his mother. On the next left sweep he kept going, sidestepping along until he bashed the machine against a wall that was now concrete hard despite its colorful wallpaper. There was another crack, but this time it was in his favor as a fissure opened in the plastic above and below one of the thing’s bulging polished eyes.
Like a snapping turtle it refused to release his bolt cutters, so, rather than fix what wasn’t broken, he simply broke Malone some more. Over and again he dragged the animatronic away and swung it against the wall, cracks proliferating and widening each time. His foe never let up with the snorting and snarling, not until the seam dividing it in half finally popped open completely.
Malone’s mouth opened and stalled, releasing the bolt cutters as its face, really the entire front half of its body, fell away and rocked on the floor like a football. Lifeless, the thing creaked and fell onto its back, pupils disappearing as its eyes rolled back to the inner workings. Holden nearly collapsed, his vision blurring as he caught his breath, but he settled for putting his hands on his knees. Getting anywhere near the glass again was the last thing he wanted to do.
He had to though, if he wanted to bend over and examine Kidney Stone’s innards, which he hoped would grant some clue as to how these things were acting so strange and hostile. Unfortunately, as he tried to follow the path of colorful wires like he was drawing on a place mat maze with a crayon, he recognized that he had no idea what he was looking at.
Everything just looked like machinery: boxes, wires, glass tubes, lights, soldered silvery blobs… except… Behind another little panel of glass there was another little kidney stone. This wasn’t the animatronic in miniature, more like a vial containing a medical specimen, and Holden couldn’t for the life of him imagine what it was doing inside the nut he’d just cracked.
Hesitant as he was to touch the heap without the blunt intermediary of the bolt cutters, he still managed to get his shaking bloody fingers to descend and pluck the object out of its fixture. He held it close to his eyes, shook it to see if it would rouse. Nothing. But he could tell what it was. A genuine kidney stone. The real deal. The big guy’s first true body part.
“This is so fucked up,” Holden sighed, pocketing the thing because he didn’t know what else to do with it. Was there a real funny bone hidden inside the other Malone? Did Zack have a desiccated heart behind his oiled-up eyes? Was it doing the beating he heard?
The questions took a backseat for the moment, as he felt a desperate need to get himself out of the kidney pit before something else vicious came along and threw itself into the ring as the next challenger. With a few deep breaths and a reassessment he guessed that, with a running start, he would be able to leap and latch onto the bottom of the exit, then pull himself into the passage.
The bolt cutters had to go first, so he tossed them up and through. Then, starting with one heel on the wall directly beneath Kidney Stone’s stage, he bolted, practically powdering the glass all the way. Relieved to latch on with his first try, Holden yanked himself up forcefully and rolled away, landing opposite the kidney entrance flat on his bottom, legs splayed out in front of him, back resting on the curved plastic of the passage.
It should’ve been more painful. He should’ve rolled right into the bolt cutters and gotten a bruise from them, but he didn’t. Glancing over in what panic he could muster, he saw them a few feet away. That wasn’t where they’d landed; the angle was impossible. Further down the passage a shadow was quickly absorbed into the corner.
Zack said the rest of the Pain Gang was holed up in the bowels, so what was that? Another organ looking to turn to a life of crime? The photographer couldn’t figure it out, overtaken as he was by a sudden wave of fatigue. Something sapped the energy from muscle and mind alike, his eyes closing on their own like the safety doors of a nuclear bunker.
How long he was unconscious was another mystery, but he was roused when he heard a heartbeat that couldn’t have been his own. All his body reacted at once, recoiling, tensing, snorting, and throwing its eyes open just to get a sight of the flat face of Cardiac Zack, come so close that he could see the oily fingerprints of a hundred different children all over its red veneer.
“Back off!” he warned the heart, with the animatronic obliging, but never taking its eyes off him, looking almost concerned.
“Looks like you’re still among the living; that’s a relief,” the heart of the big guy’s police force claimed. “Kidney Stone Malone?”
“He’s not gonna be a pain in the big guy’s side no more,” Holden chuckled, feeling a slow sore ripple through the bruises on his ribs and back. “I was just catching a few winks to reward myself.”
“Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard,” Zack warned, “you might cough up something unpleasant. That’s still only half the Pain Gang.”
“Hey, when do I get a hat?” Holden asked, striking out with a joke just to see if he could pierce the ridiculous pudding skin that seemed to encapsulate his entire world now. The question was ignored.
“The commissioner’s breathing down my aorta for faster results. We need to wrap this up tonight, before the big guy punches his alarm clock in the morning. You still got it in you kid? Or do you need your mother to come and pick you up?”
“What is it with you freaks and my mother?”
“Did she raise the kind of man who can handle a little bellyaching?” the heart asked as it started waddling away, kicking aside the bolt cutters. It was going somewhere, with or without its recruit.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” Holden huffed, dragging himself to his feet, almost collapsing from wooziness. That wasn’t right. The toll of blood taken by the glass wasn’t enough to bleed him dry, and his bruising was extensive, but not of a color that made him feel like a hospital was imminently needed. Not exactly a Schwarzenegger, the photographer still thought of himself as reasonably fit. One had to be spry to squeeze into certain abandoned places when they only presented crevices to the outside world, strong to push aside obstructing bookcases and oil drums. He put himself through a bowl of granola and berries every morning to make sure his camera ran out of battery before he nodded off on each venture.
The big guy’s innards shouldn’t have been this taxing. Again he considered that he’d been drugged, that all these talking organs were just a hallucination, but when the world stopped spinning he felt nothing but sober… and Zack was already rounding a corner, throwing itself down a spiraling slide and into Boweltown.
When Holden caught up he stared down the putrid yellow-green spiral, seeing nothing else. There were other ways down and into the guts, he hadn’t used the slide on his initial shoot, but with fatigue gnawing on him he wasn’t sure how far he could detour and still get this done. Who were the others again? Swallowed Penny and Gut Flora. If they were each half as tough as Kidney Stone he was in danger of being digested down there and forgotten.
“I have to do this because you didn’t watch what you ate?” he moaned up at the ceiling, but every word was just more energy that might be needed to pry the face off another mechanical monstrosity. With his bolt cutters firmly in hand, blood on them dry enough to keep his grip from slipping, he dropped onto the slide and let it take him into the depths.
Dizzying after a single bend, he lost count of how many twists it actually had, begging it to end before he threw up the cheap Tandoori chicken wrap that definitely didn’t complement the granola preceding it. He kept pressing his toes against his shoes, reaching out with them, ready to grab the floor as soon as it was visible.
Too bad there was no floor. The slide dumped him into a fall, then a splash of colorful plastic. It was a ball pit, taking up the entire bottom half of a large oblong chamber, a veritable swimming pool that could probably hold twenty kids without them slapping each other in the face when they attempted the backstroke.
Holden’s toes kept reaching through all of it, but when he plunged so far that his head was barely above the surface his feet still weren’t touching bottom. Instinctively he sputtered, but it wasn’t water. Even if he drowned in it there would be plenty of air; he’d just be an embarrassed idiot sitting on the bottom, assuming there was one.
Such places usually had a rainbow of balls all jumbled together, but this pit, the big guy’s stomach, only had two varieties: predominant green and rare purple. It was probably fifty green for every purple, so when the uncommon color settled in front of his face he grabbed it to examine it more closely. Turning it over he found a face printed on it, malicious and multi-fanged.
Concentric circles around its tiny pupils exaggerated its asymmetrical eyes into a caricature of homicidal insanity. With Holden’s luck, he was prepared for it to start screaming at him, but it was merely printed on.
“There’s plenty more where that came from!” a wicked voice cackled. The lights dimmed, with a hidden spotlight drawing his attention to the stomach’s curved wall and a track on it, not unlike the one in the lap’s floor that laid out Funny Bone Malone’s routes of attack. This one was just a straight line however, ringing the whole chamber, and the light settled on a spinning disc that circled Holden at a distance.
He only noticed the door, which had accessible steps under it if he could manage to swim that far, when the disc reached it and stopped, its spin slowing with loud artificial squeals and clanks, like a valve closing. It was telling him that he was locked in.
“You’ve got some nerve showing up in Swallowed Penny’s stomach!” the disc babbled out of the flattest face yet, its cartoonish feminine eyebrows absurdly long but only painted on. A tipsy smile was made all the more garish by metallic blue lipstick that complemented its copper coating. It was nothing more than a face on a coin, except for the fact that it had him trapped in there. “Get your grubby mitts off the goods.”
Holden had forgotten there was something in his hand, mostly because he was surrounded by much of the same. The purple ball was the goods? If the faceless green ones represented stomach acid, then the darker balls must have been invading bacteria. At least this time, when the narrative meant for the kids coalesced in his mind, it wasn’t accompanied by obnoxious sing-along tunes.
Swallowed Penny was the smuggler, bringing in a thousand pathogenic hitchers when she made her way into the big guy. Obviously the deputized children were supposed to round up the purple invaders and dispose of them. Holden’s theory was confirmed when he looked around and saw five different receptacles like trash bins sticking out of the wall at an angle. Whenever the stomach was cleared they would get a reward, a song, some animatronic praise, whatever, and a hidden chute would feed the infection back in for the next set of kids.
Without a word he tossed the bacterial ball into the nearest chute, scored. A digital bell rang. The photographer opted for the breaststroke when he spied the next nearest pock of purple, managing to feel buoyant even with stamina sapped and limbs burning. There was something satisfying about this. His goal was stupid, but clear and achievable. How long had it been since someone presented him with something like that? No memory bobbed up. If there were enough in the well he never would’ve devoted himself to the study of the dead parts of the world, the ones that would never burden him with bureaucratic obligations or with a small task obfuscating a performance review.
“Don’t get too comfy,” he warned Swallowed Penny, “I’ll be out of here in no time.” His hand opened into a claw, a confident crane game strike, idea of the prize growing in his soul as the ball got closer and bigger. Holden Geats was the photographer who took the very picture of health!
His fingers closed, but bounced off of what had suddenly become a purple wall. A geyser of balls accompanied it, the plastic eruption producing a shapeless but stiff mass of purple like a half-melted candle. Atop it sat a wailing face with a wide hinged mouth, big enough to swallow Holden whole.
If Penny was the smuggler here was the supplier, the mitotic mound of infectious bacteria that had to be named Gut Flora, final member of the Pain Gang quartet. Its personality clearly leaned monstrous, as its garbled vocalizations were somewhere between buzzard and the bubble stream of a cursing lobster, and nowhere near words. Flora was an enforcer, and the animatronic got right to work.
It sank as swiftly as it rose, creating a depression in the balls that dragged Holden closer. When his arm flailed out over Flora’s open mouth it bit down. Like a car door slammed on his elbow, Holden cried out, and that was just from the initial bout of pain, not even the one that came a moment later when the sinking machine nearly wrenched his arm from the socket in the process of dragging him down with it.
Flora probably didn’t play this rough with the kids. Maybe there was a third ball, one bisected into two colors to resemble a medicinal pill, that they were supposed to throw into the animatronic’s volcanic crater mouth to neutralize it, but none had been provided for their late night caller; he got the shark treatment instead.
A lot of its power came from its size, he tried to remind himself through the crushing pain that was already numbing his right arm, not from its material. These things were built for show, for singing and dancing and doing stupid little twirls, so Flora wasn’t as tough as the bite force suggested.
But the outer shell was still a thick lacquered plastic, and while his bolt cutters were still in hand, both were swallowed up by Flora and had no range of motion. Holden was slapping the animatronic lip uselessly with his free hand when they both disappeared beneath the surface. It took all of three seconds for him to remember that he was an idiot who definitely did not need to hold his breath, so he released it.
Flora’s face had disappeared, a wall of balls filling the space between them, but he still felt the vice. In his panic he couldn’t help but envision a sudden stop to the tug, pulling his arm back through the green orbs just to find a gushing stump. The dark part of him that lived peacefully in reconstructions of his best photos wondered exactly how many days it would take for the smell of a dead body to waft up through the balls.
A corpse wasn’t too far removed from the actual detritus on the bottom, he learned once Gut Flora had fully retracted on its piston. His feet found the floor a full seven feet beneath the surface of the gastric pond, and he was again thankful there were still shoes on his feet. Even through them he could feel a debris of dropped items, of hard candies adhered like mussels.
The gross sensation of wadded used tissues tickled and licked across the bare skin of his ankle. Something crumpled underfoot and he was hit with a blast of fecal smell: likely a discarded diaper. When that subsided he finally recognized an overall odor of urine, forcing him to speculate that the pit was a churning gumbo of health code violations and had never actually been drained and cleaned. Years of piss dribbling out of pant legs came and went with the busy season like spring showers.
That was where he was going to die if Gut Flora got its way. What little sensation remained in his right arm got lighter; he’d dropped the bolt cutters somewhere inside the animatronic. Fully aware of how much he needed them, Holden switched gears with his left, his slaps on Flora’s upper lip becoming a push to force it open like a stuck coffin lid.
It gibbered louder in what had to be protest, but he couldn’t begin to care what the automaton that lived on the bottom of a shit-crusted birdcage felt about its current predicament. With all his strength, with more than that, pulled from the aether in a way that surely damaged his spirit in the long run, Holden began to pry open the creature’s mouth.
Once it was wide enough he forced his torso inside, letting Flora bite down on it just to take the pressure off his arm, which he could now see had gone purple as it dangled inside the cloth-lined hollow. It hurt even more as blood flooded back in, like an arm wrestling match with a cactus in need of a haircut, but all his focus had to be on getting his weapon back.
Flora’s interior was a large sack cutting off the pointless oral cavity from its inner workings; he caught flashes of the cutters’ colorful handle at the very bottom as the two intertwined bodies jostled. The animatronic’s shrieks were ear-splitting as they echoed within, but they didn’t stop him from just barely stringing a plan together.
The cutters were too low to grasp without letting himself get swallowed, so Holden grabbed at the side of the cavity, bunching it up in his hand. He could pull the item to him, as long as he kept adding to the bundle of cloth around his chest. Ten pulls later, only a few of them undone by Flora’s thrashing, his still-prickling hand wrapped around the cutters. Now having eaten him was a serious liability, for he had the perfect angle to attack the hinge where the two halves of Flora’s jaw met.
His own set of metal jaws squeezed and bent, popping out a screw that disturbed the balls around them. In the process it ripped the throat lining. Holden saw his best chance and dove into the tear, widening it, grabbing at every wire he saw. With no regard for minor burns he ripped them out and ignored their paltry sparking.
Gut Flora shuddered in its death throes, driving back and forth pointlessly on its track. When the last of its life was gone it had inadvertently taken him very close to the steps and the door guarded by Swallowed Penny, which he learned when he broke the surface, gasping as he had once again forgotten he was not underwater.
“What did you do to my meal ticket you lout?” Penny interrogated him. “When I hire some new hands and get them on you I’m going to- Hey! If your mother could see y-” Holden had lurched up the steps and smashed the open bolt cutters onto Penny’s top ridge. It could’ve gotten away by gliding around its track to an area where the stairs didn’t provide access, but apparently keeping the photographer locked inside was more important.
Quips were for far off people that still had some vitality left in them, not Holden. After his scalding bath in the stomach acid he now felt raw as well as leeched, like something left out in the sun and dried into a ration despite its total lack of nutritional content. So instead he let the cutters do the talking.
With one laborious motion he squeezed and peeled, ripping open the same sort of scalp seam that had held Kidney Stone’s shell together. Penny screamed bloody murder as he ripped off its face and tossed it to the devouring balls. Finally the animatronic abandoned the door, flying down the track at a newly-discovered top speed, spinning even faster and throwing off a wheel of sparks brighter and thicker than those from an industrial saw.
The pyrotechnics weren’t louder than its screeching lament, which turned into a furious roar as the animatronic came circling back toward Holden. He was ready for it, cutters poised and swaying like a baseball bat. As soon as it was in range he swung and collapsed its facial infrastructure in on itself, eyes now aimed at each other so Penny could watch itself die.
The impact was so destructive that Penny rebounded off the wall, partly out of the track, hanging by a few wire threads as if an executioner had taken their blunt ax to a car’s steering wheel shaft.
The ensuing silence brought with it another front of fatigue, but he forced his eyes to stay open, at least until he could confirm something. Digging with trembling hands, Holden picked his way through what he’d just wrecked in search of spare change. There it was, stuck in an edge, but quickly forced out with a press and a drag from his thumb.
Coin in hand, Holden turned and collapsed, foot slipping off the stairs. His whole body hit the balls once more and he let himself sink up to his neck as he leaned against the side of the stomach to rest a head that now felt like a bowling ball concealing a mass of meaty terrine. Worse than before, the woolly scratch of sleep tried to overtake him, but this time he sensed its approach, did fierce battle with it by raising the coin in defiance and insisting upon its immediate examination.
Kidney Stone Malone contained a true organic kidney stone, so the idea was that Swallowed Penny would have a single American cent somewhere inside. He was half-right. It was a coin, but much too large and thick to be an honest Abe. It was gold as well, though the color was corroded far beyond any luster. There was a face on it, and numbers, but all too obscured by weathering to make out.
Devoid of even a passing interest in money as long as his checking account had something other than zeroes in it, Holden couldn’t tell when or where the token had originated, but it had a feel. An old feel. A distant feel. If someone had truly swallowed it at one point it could’ve been a superstition to ward off witches, or a desperate shot at food during a potato famine.
Losing consciousness was not an option. Whatever was going on had more than something to do with the feeling overtaking him, and he intuitively knew this was something like a concussion, where letting the void take him meant letting the void keep whatever chunks it could bite off.
He told his body that instead of sleeping it could perform the equally satisfying act of investigation. Utilizing strength he didn’t have, Holden slipped beneath the surface and wriggled deeper until he found the sunken wreck of Gut Flora. He scavenged around its innards as well, until his probing hands found something that didn’t feel like it belonged.
Upon surfacing he turned the thing over in his hands a few times, tested its elasticity. A brown leathery strip, carrying an unpleasant musty smell. Absolutely from a living thing at some point. His best guess was that it was a stripe of tripe, some stomach lining that had been preserved, the sort of thing that might have been afflicted with some hazardous gut flora at one point or another.
A ball moved next to him. It didn’t have a face, but he engaged it in a staring contest anyway, slowly pocketing the tripe where it joined the gold coin and the kidney stone. Beneath the surface his grip tightened on the bolt cutters. Another ball shifted. Ten more. Something was welling up from the depths. Holden readied himself for another strike against a new henchman of the Pain Gang.
A flat face appeared, its eyes darting his way. A familiar rosy one. Cardiac Zack bobbed up like a bath toy, apparently content to lay on its back.
“Where the hell were you!?” Holden asked, as if his coworker had disappeared for a forty-five minute smoke break.
“We did it kid. The Pain Gang is kaput. Wouldn’t exactly call your methods doctor recommended…”
“So the lockdown is lifted now, and I can leave?” the man asked, already sensing the answer since the woolly sack smothering his soul hadn’t receded.
“We need to inform Commissioner Elaine the brain that our fair city is now crime free. All we have to do is take a trip upstairs.” Its eyes slid to the door, then slowly back to Holden. “I might need a hand kid.”
“No shit Sherlock,” he groaned. “Why did you even throw yourself down here?” The monumental task of getting out of the stomach wasn’t going to get any easier, so Holden forced himself to move, which felt like breaking out of an icy shell he hadn’t realized had set in. The three steps up felt like climbing a ladder to the roof, but at least the door didn’t resist when he pulled it open. The slightly fresher scent of rubber and shoelaces poured in.
“If you thought I’d miss this you’re out of your skull,” Zack insisted, paddling with its stump feet until it was turned around and bumping against the stairs like an idle canoe.
“Out of mine and into somebody else’s,” Holden muttered, probing for purchase on Zack’s smooth exterior. Only the legs protruded enough to grab, but Zack didn’t protest as the photographer painstakingly dragged it up and out, bonking the back of its head on each step. Almost collapsing once they were free, Holden briefly supported himself on the heart’s mass before pushing the thing to its feet. Without another word Zack started on the way like a wind-up toy. While Holden was catching his breath he wondered if Zack’s heartbeat sounded a little faster.
In a couple minutes they reached the spine, and it would have been even faster if Holden hadn’t faltered when he had to get on all fours to crawl through an artery. His head bobbed and he felt like an ox about to topple from the uneven distribution of goods on its back. Those goods asserted themselves with a slight shift in his pocket.
Kidney stone, coin, tripe. The other Malone must’ve had a funny bone as well. And Zack had a heart, Holden was sure. Perhaps, given its more just disposition, it could be appealed to. If it had a heart then it could have a heart.
They were there, and the photographer saw that there was an additional challenge beyond the Pain Gang. The first time he’d climbed the spine it was just a spiral staircase wrapped around giant plastic vertebrae. The stairs themselves were transparent, perhaps representing cartilage or some coating he wasn’t familiar with, despite the high likelihood he had it within his own body. This time it was a vertical gauntlet, as imposing as free climbing the side of a launching rocket.
With a flash, not the kind from his work, he saw his own insides gone dead, saw them invaded by a microscopic Holden Geats of another world, excited to see vaulted bones turn into ceiling beams as the warmth rapidly abandoned them.
That flash told him what the spine staircase was this time, but the idea wasn’t proven until the seventeenth step up. This was the part of the body that would best him. He didn’t have the energy left to make it all the way up, not with so many unknowns dragging him down. He needed newer and better confidence to make it, and he would have to generate that himself, since the big guy couldn’t be trusted.
“Zack, be straight with me, why are there things inside all of you?” he asked halfway to the commissioner’s office, just below the shoulders.
“That’s a strange question kid,” Cardiac Zack answered without turning around. He still took the stairs slowly, one stump and then the other, forcing Holden to go even slower, waste even more strength. “The same reason you’re full of whatever you’re full of. I think you’re just like me… what you’re full of is heart.”
“You’re going to make me cry detective, but that’s not what I mean. Kidney Stone Malone had a real kidney stone inside. The others had real guts too. You’re pretty connected around here. You know why, and you’re not telling me.” Above the shoulders now. The slow spiral was enough to make him dizzy.
“You’re seeing spooks around every corner kid. That’ll get you killed faster than anything else, whether or not those spooks are real.”
“I’ve got this idea,” Holden said with a mouth drier than pencil shavings. “You didn’t want me to have this idea, so you fed me all this stuff about the Pain Gang, about a way out of here that isn’t real.” He took another step that fell like an anchor and hit like ten. “See this idea of mine is like canopic jars. Do you know what a canopic jar is?” Zack kept climbing without answering.
“A canopic jar is this thing Egyptians used to do with their mummies. They’d take out the organs and put them in containers, and put little faces on the containers. They did all sorts of stuff like that to keep the mummy’s spirit intact in the afterlife.
Now, say this place is the same sort of thing, only the jars are a lot bigger. But they serve the same purpose, keeping some spirit in one piece. They were all in their corresponding places too: kidney, stomach… you in the chest. So that spirit has itself a body. This whole place.”
“That’s a stretch kid. I think you need a nice long vacation once we get this infection cleared up. How about you and me hit the sinuses after this? Plenty of fresh air in there.” They passed the chin.
“Only this body doesn’t move,” Holden continued undeterred. “The spirit’s here, but it’s not alive. And you know what, since we started I’ve been feeling less and less alive myself. Then I remembered that this place is closed because kids kept getting sick. Now I’m starting to think that was this place working as intended.
These kids tucker themselves out playing your little games, hiding the fact that the spirit is actually draining them. Taking something from them and giving it to this new body. Trying to build up enough new life to really get this place up and running.”
Cardiac Zack stopped on the top step, stood silently, Holden half a turn below, only able to see one half of the animatronic. A nasty feeling kept him from getting closer. His partner turned around, expression blank as ever, but the one clear eye moved to him in an organic fashion. He was being seen, genuinely, not registered. Understood as a person and not a cog.
“You might not have hit the nail right on the head, but you bent it,” the heart acknowledged. Its beat slowed. Holden looked at the deconstructed half of its face, through multiple transparent parts of the spiral stairs. Shattered shards of beefsteak red. The abstract yet purposeful side. Sharp and exacting, but still only half.
“Who is this guy?”
“Their name won’t make you feel any better kid. They’re old news to you, but there was a time when a lot of people were interested in what they had to say. So much so that they were pretty heartbroken up about it when they bought the farm. There were ways of keeping in touch, passing notes through the ferryman if you catch the drift.
Their disciples figured out they could come back, and stronger than ever too, all depending on how strong of a body they provided.” Zack’s eyes rolled, encompassing all of the big guy. “A certain kind of body was their dream, and it took a few generations for modern times to make it possible. Ain’t technology grand?”
“They want to be a giant? I guess that is what some old cult leader would want,” Holden processed aloud. “That’s what a god was to them, something that could stomp out dissent and provide the rains with cupped hands.”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“So you’re them? A piece of them?”
“An aspect. The heart, which doesn’t have to see eye to eye with the brain.”
“But you’re still doing their dirty work. You’ve had me running around this whole time, distracting me by getting me to police somebody else’s body while you were robbing mine. You’re sick, and the Pain Gang wasn’t the cause.”
“The heart wants what the heart wants, but it also does what it does,” the animatronic said, perhaps a lament, but if it was it was too clouded by the campy smack of its cinematic accent.
“So you’re saying you have no choice? Bullshit. Even if the only other option is dying you still have a choice. And you should die rather than betray me Zack. Besides, I’ve got these.” He brought out the pieces of the big guy’s original form, clenched them in his hand threateningly. “If they’re what’s keeping the spirit tied to its new body, then I can just destroy them and end all this.”
“I’m a couple steps ahead of you kid, and above you. That might’ve worked if you had all of them… or if you didn’t give us the last taste of life we needed.” The big guy creaked. All of the rigid structures within would’ve cracked if they were ordinary, but everything on the spine stayed solid. They were coming back to life, and they were doing it now, hand perhaps forced by Holden confronting them with the evidence.
“So that’s it Zack? You’re stabbing me in the back!?” he shouted.
“No kid, I’m stabbing you in the neck.” Cardiac Zack, weighed down by guilt and gallows-walk determination alike, unleashed its ultimate weapon: gravity. Suddenly its stump legs were pistons, its body a tipped wardrobe, Holden’s terrified mind providing the threatening creak. The animatronic jumped and pitched forward, tumbling down the stairs.
Holden couldn’t retreat faster than Zack could fall, and the passage meant for children was too narrow for him to step aside. If he even tried to raise his bolt cutters the wind-up would have his back foot slip off and send him to the bottom. So he took it. Zack hit a lot harder than the smaller Kidney Stone Malone. It hit like a truck with a grudge, like a wrecking ball serving divorce papers, like a sledge hammer punchline to the funny bone.
Man and heart rolled down the spiral stairs as one, Holden losing the little treasures from the animatronics between three different slats, Zack only losing its crime hat. One wrong tap on the photographer’s skull could be the death blow, and it was largely fate whether or not it came.
It was a long way down, getting more painful all the time, but it was still an opportunity for Holden to get his metaphorical feet under him before his real ones kicked back in. The big guy was stirring, their long process of gathering life from hyperactive children now complete, which meant they were no longer siphoning the same from Holden.
What they’d taken couldn’t be returned, but he was free to make more if he had the moxie. The photographer nudging frogs out of the way of civilization’s death portraits, carrying snail jewels to less visible nooks, didn’t have it, but the investigator who took down the Pain Gang did. Maybe the big guy shouldn’t have done such a good job of making him feel like he could achieve something.
His back hit the bottom, knocking the wind out, and Zack was now one second behind, ready to take the rest. Holden broke the losing streak that had lasted eighteen vertebrae by rolling out of the way. Wordlessly, as Zack had already abandoned their bond and resigned itself to being an observer in its own shell, the heart hit the floor and split in two along the same seam as the other animatronics.
Two items popped out and sat beside the exposed integument of Cardiac Zack’s face and its final hollow expression. No words left, but the eye spheres, full halves of them now plain like cue balls, drifted to Holden one final time. Holden watched in turn as he crawled closer and picked up what the heart had disgorged.
One was what he had expected, a withered leather lump, what used to beat in the big guy’s original body. It wasn’t going now, but the animatronic still was, thumping regularly now that the excitement had ended. Holden squeezed to see if he could at least cause some chest pain, but it didn’t interrupt the creaking of the structure around him. It still roused from its slumber uninhibited.
The other item was his phone. Instinctively he tapped at the screen and it came to life, with full signal no less. He was free to call the police, or an ambulance, or Jack the giant slayer, but none of them would respond in time, let alone understand the things he would try to tell them. Whatever his fate was to be exactly, he didn’t want to be trapped inside the big guy when they went strolling into town, knocking over buildings to assert their new godly authority.
The full scenario played out in his head as he stared into Zack’s vacant eyes and black metal cheekbones jutting off the floor like caltrops. Other calls would soon flood all those lines, and only the first few reporting a rampaging giant would be treated as jokes. In minutes footage of the destruction would be all over the internet. The authorities would see, scramble some jets for the sort of easy magical victory such vehicles were always designed for, and launch one loaded down with missiles.
The big guy might be downed within the hour, with Holden inside to take the fall with them. His brain stopped, almost skidding to a halt.
“Wait a minute,” he said as if it would have the power to end all this. “Your plan sucks!” he shouted up the spine, to no response. Zack and the Pain Gang could hear him, but maybe not the big guy in total. He’d have to be near the ears for that.
But he was right. A giant made out of a building was a conqueror, a god, but only to the people of the distant past who had never seen a monster truck land a front flip or a cargo ship reach shore with a struck whale hanging dead off its side, no crew having noticed until then. This was the defeated, morose, resigned world that Holden Geats took autopsy photos of. A giant was nothing to the forces that made it that way.
Did the big guy have something else up their sleeve? A magical force field that would repel modern weaponry? A spell to hypnotize anyone that came within a mile? No, he reasoned. The spirit’s plan to siphon youth and resurrect itself was old school witchcraft. Antique devilry. The dead couldn’t be reasoned out of thinking their ways were best, even though they never kept them from dying in the first place.
“If you won’t listen I’ll fucking show you,” Holden resolved. Tossing the heart aside like it was nothing, he instead clutched his phone close to his chest and began the climb up the spine all over again. On his way he scooped up Zack’s crime hat and screwed it onto his own head: a perfect fit. The building around him wouldn’t wait, and it was already making the journey more arduous. The stairway was twisting back and forth, bending and pinching sections in a fashion that could’ve crushed Holden if they had any way of targeting him.
The big guy was limbering up, preparing to lift what had to be two long basement shafts out of the earth as legs. The belt hallway where the girl sat at her desk would likely be demolished in the process, so he hoped the terrible noises had already convinced her to escape. Forced to multitask, Holden’s thumb tried to keep up with his feet, darting nimbly about his phone’s screen, pulling up pictures and videos from across the web, arranging them in a sort of list he could scroll through easily. Proof would be needed once he reached the highest authority in the city.
Which was not Commissioner Elaine the brain. It was the parts that could actually absorb the evidence he was readying. The eyes, which were windows to the outside world. Holden remembered that one was shattered, providing him his only avenue for victory. Parts of him recently acquainted with broken glass reopened and wept as he climbed, but they would have to deal with it, as that jagged portal was the only way to get in front of the intact eye and within shot of the ears.
Holden made it into the skull just as the top of the staircase compressed behind him, transparent railings meeting, almost tangling each other. There were windows in the jaw, and through them he spied a giant hand rising into the night sky. It tested its fingers one by one, twisted into a fist that shook out curtains of dust and grit.
“Shit,” Holden hissed through his teeth. The arms were off the building’s hips. If it followed the rules of smaller bodies it would next plant its palms on the ground and push to free its legs. If the big guy bent forward when Holden was close to the window he would be tossed out and splatter on the pavement.
The only way to avoid that was to hurry, so he didn’t even give the office door of the commissioner a second look. Instead he turned left, and bolted for the observation deck and its two open windows, their shutters having never blinked. It was imperative they didn’t start now, or only half of Holden would splatter on the pavement. The photographer leapt up the final stairs that curved up to each eye, put himself in front of the busted one.
It wasn’t as large as he’d hoped. He’d have to squeeze out, and with no apparent handholds his free groping arm would have to improvise one out of raw desperation. Sticking his head outside to test didn’t go very well, with only a split second to feel the whipping night air tear the sweat from his forehead.
The big guy leaned. Most of the rest of Holden slid out the window. In the process he spun onto his back, latched onto the top eyelid. A hanging stalactite of glass pressed into his palm, making it clear it wouldn’t move for anything, so the photographer now had most of his weight supported by a tent of four fingers.
Other fingers showed up, but it wasn’t for moral support. The wind died as a giant hand blocked it, closed around Holden as a cage. His shirt was caught; the big guy was pulling him out like an eyelash.
“Wait!” he screamed. “Wait you idiot! Look! Look!” He thrust his phone out as far as he could, over the bridge of the nose and into the path of the intact eye-window. Sensing a mistake, Holden glanced at his outstretched arm. “Son of a bitch.” He quickly flipped the device so its screen was facing the window. Without collective months of experience idly manipulating it with one hand he would’ve dropped it, and then the big guy would’ve dropped him.
Unlike the animatronics, the window was nothing more than a facade. The pupil-like part of its frame couldn’t shift, and if there had been any emotion warping the big guy’s face Holden would’ve felt it moving under him. There was no expression for him to gauge, but he guessed the big guy was watching, because the hand had stalled. The photographer’s heels still clung to the window ledge.
“You see this!?” He carefully scrolled down with his thumb, slow enough that the big guy could absorb each picture and clip: satellite footage of a guided missile strike taking out an enemy encampment, fighter jets streaking through the sky, the trundling of a gargantuan saw-mouthed construction machine as the road in front of it was disassembled to make way, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers stinging a hollowed concrete hulk of a building to death, an accidental industrial explosion knocking down several city streets…
“That is the world you’re about to step into. I’m guessing you didn’t do your research, since you think just being a hundred feet tall is going to let you take over the world.” Holden’s back screamed louder than he did, begging to fold up like a deck chair and let his legs dangle, but the man tensed his midsection and soldiered on.
“And you can’t intimidate the rest of us just by squishing a few cockroaches, okay? There’s close to eight billion of us now, and we know we each matter less and less every time one of us comes screaming into a world that’s wearing its headphones and looking away.
We expect to be killed, not to die. Whether it’s you or something denied or something out of reach, unnecessary death is just where we live guy. People will take pictures of you before they flee from you. They’ll want to get a shot of what’s about to be the biggest corpse they’ve ever seen, but far from the first.
So why don’t you abort this new life of yours and settle back down? If you don’t move nobody has any reason to send any of these things after you, because you’re just some shitty extruded edutainment eyesore.
You can live like the rest of us as long as you keep in your box and pipe the fuck down. Me, maybe I’d pick death, but your body your choice guy.” The hand was still frozen. “Yeah, you could chew me up like a piece of gum so there are no witnesses, but in our time bodies invite investigation. You’ll just wind up with lots of people staring at the blood dripping from your pipes and walls, all grimly curious where it came from.
Or you just let me go and I never come to this parking lot centerpiece ever again. I won’t tell anyone about you, because who the hell would believe me!? As long as you’re not killing those kids I really don’t give a shit. There’s lead paint around these parts that’ll do worse to them. What do you say? Hopefully nothing.”
They had to understand, had to know that if Holden was right every moment the arms were out of their normal position was a moment where something else could come along and record them. Then it truly would be all over. Holden had to pull his arm back, as it felt like it was about to fall off.
So too did the rest of him, but that was corrected when the big guy carelessly pushed him back through the window and he rolled to the edge of the observation deck. Hyperventilation hit him all at once, excoriating and slapping him for taking such a foolish risk and cursing all the while when being polite to the licensed air conditioned giant could’ve easily been the difference between life and death.
As soon as he could Zack moved, racing down the spine, through the organs, and across the lap where he snagged his scattered equipment. The navel door was open, so he blew through it, by it, sped along the curved belt-hall like an arcing yo-yo. Seconds after that he was out the front door, looking at the girl who had all her belongings bundled up in one arm as she tapped at her phone with the other.
“Oh my god, good. I thought maybe you were trapped in there or something,” she said with obvious relief when she glanced up and saw him. Her posture relaxed so much that a few wires escaped her clustered belongings and drooped down to her knees. “You felt all that shaking right?”
“Shaking… yeah,” Holden said, catching his breath, eventually turning to match her orientation, seeing that Cardiac Zack’s Healthy Human Shack was back to the way it started, hands on its hips like it was in charge of the world. “You just felt shaking?”
“Yeah… why? Was it doing something else?”
“There…” Holden looked up into the big guy’s busted eye, through a thorny hole and into an evil mind, restraining itself out of self-preservation alone. “…must be a burst pipe or something too. Saw some steam. But we’re not hurt though. That’s what matters.”
“Zack must’ve been so scared,” she joked, following it up with a juvenile snort.
“Trust me, he wouldn’t shut up about it.”
“Is that… are you wearing Zack’s hat?”
“No. This is my hat. I earned it. Hey… you’re not going back in there are you?”
“You kidding? That place is a deathtrap. They can mail me my check, and then a bunch of others when I sue them for sending me into an OSHA cluster migraine. Just got to find a lawyer.”
“There’s danger, and then there’s a lawyer saying there’s danger,” Holden agreed, running his hand through his hair. He’d have to decide what to do with all the pictures of the shack and its unblinking residents. They had faces, but were they actually too alive for his gallery? He hadn’t felt the need to shove them out of the way like all the moths and skinks of his sunbeam-through-a-crack world.
“Hey man, I’m starving,” the girl said. “Why don’t you use some of that teenager-bribing money to get us something to eat. Waffle Gutter’s just down there and it’s open 24/7/365.”
“What, no leap day?” He shivered, suddenly feeling the cold that was so much more intense now that he was out of the big guy’s body heat.
“They’ve got waffles with gutters baked all the way around that hold all the syrup so you can dip the waffle in the waffle. It’s probably mankind’s greatest invention.” Holden pictured it, but then his imagination scrolled down into everything he’d shown the big guy. As the snippets of institutionalized death rolled by he realized he did feel like putting something awfully sticky and awfully good and really terrible for him into his body. He wanted a choice like that to seep into every pore.
“You’re right, that is our greatest invention. Let’s go.”
The thump-thump-thump never stopped. Zack couldn’t make it stop, so the animatronic righted itself, went to work pushing its face plate until it could get it to snap back into place. Each thump had something like a flashing picture in it. A good memory that belonged rightly with Zack, that the whole couldn’t keep.
“Stay out of trouble kid,” the heart said before returning to its beat.
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