“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart! Don’t make me call you again!”
“I’ll be up in a minute, mom!”
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.”
“I know, mom – I said I’ll be up in a minute!”
“What are you doing down there, anyway? You’ve been in the basement all week.”
“It’s nothing, mom!”
“Your father and I are worried about you, Kevin….Kevin? That’s it, I’m coming down there.”
“What? Mom, no, you can’t – No! No no no no – awwww, mom!”
“What on earth have you been doing down here? My God!”
“Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess. Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.”
“It looks like my old colander. But what are all these wires sticking out of it?”
“Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like… Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
“Yes! Yes, mom, that’s exactly it. I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
“What’s in here?”
“Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Oh God, is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Yeah. That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!”
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…. Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just… clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus….”
“Mom, I know how this looks. Look at me, Mom. I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad. But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side? You have your beagle’s headin a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How – And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom! I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom – he got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
“Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find….”
“Okay, Look at this metronome, okay? Nice beat, four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching? BAM! Huh? Isn’t that cool? Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!”
“I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches. Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween? Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!”
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better! Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom. Don’t you see?”
“Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
“Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool? Mom?”
“Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this… This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.”
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!”
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!”
“Mom, no! Stop! NO!!“
“Oh, mom. You shouldn’t have made me do that.
“You’ll be fine like that. You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…. Huh. Two point three million years. Damn. I am good.
“All right, then. Dad first. Then dinner. Then the world.”
This was written from the writing prompt in the Writing Excuses Podcast, episode 5.38 with John Scalzi.
“Welcome to SmackyBurger, sorry we’re closed!”
Erik looked up at the giant, garish sign that loomed above the restaurant, Smacky the clown projecting his grin across the landscape like a beacon through the darkness to the hungry and the lazy. He leaned out the window. “You’re what?”
“Closed, sir, thank you for coming to SmackyBurger and have a nice night!”
“Look, kid – it’s nine o’clock. You’re a twenty-four hour restaurant. Quit screwing around. I want a double burger with extra pickles, and -”
“We’re out of pickles, sir, sorry. Can’t be helped, have a nice night!”
Erik rubbed his eyes. “Out of pickles?”
“Yessir. Very busy today. We’re getting killed here OH GOD, sorry! Sorry! Not killed, nobody’s killed, everything’s fine.” An audible whimper came through the speaker’s distortion, followed by a breathy, “Have a nice night!”
“Christ almighty. Look, I’m coming in there, and I want to talk to your manager.” He put the car in gear.
“I mean, no, sir, sorry, no. No, you don’t need to do that. Everything…. Everything’s fine. No manager. Fine. Everything.”
“All right, then.” Erik put the car back in park and started ticking off items on his fingers. “A double burger with as many pickles as you can scrounge up, a superfry chicken combo, and a large cola. Got that?”
“Right. Double burger with pi…” The kid took a shuddering breath. “With pickles. And a super fry chicken gun. COMBO! Chicken combo, sorry, sorry, oh god, I didn’t mean it!”
Erik blinked. Gun? He shook his head. The night shift was never the place for fast-food’s rising stars, but this kid was obviously on something. Maybe he’d come back and talk to the manager in the morning. He turned back to the microphone. “Large cola.”
“Large cola. Right. That’ll be… Um… Th-th-that…”
“$12.95, I’ve done this before. Jesus.” He put his car in gear and pulled forward, barely hearing the speaker tell him to come around.
He was muttering to himself by the time he got to the window, a habit his wife hated and which was the reason they never went driving together if they could help it. He put the car in park, leaned his arm out the window and tried to set his face in an expression of cool disdain.
There was no one at the window.
Erik waited for a count of ten and honked his horn. After another ten count he slapped the car door and yelled. “Hey! There’s a customer here!”
He was just about to get out of the car when the kid appeared at the window. Nineteen, maybe twenty, good looking except that he was sweating and pale and his eyes actually seemed to be shaking in their sockets. His nametag brightly proclaimed that his name was Phil, and that he was a proud member of the Smacky Family. The bag he held was trembling, a grease stain spreading across the bottom.
“It’s about time,” Erik said. He handed the kid a ten and a five. “I’m definitely coming back to talk to your manager tomorrow.”
“Yessir,” Phil said, in a voice that was almost too quiet to hear over the car’s idling engine. He handed the bag through the window, and as the order was passed over, Phil managed to lock his gaze with Erik’s. The kid’s jaw muscles were trembling. He looked meaningfully down at the bag and then back up at Erik. Then at the bag again.
“Gimme,” Erik said, tugging at the bag. Phil held on a moment longer, his eyes wider now and darting between Erik’s face and the bag. With another pull, Erik got the order in the car. “Jesus Christ, kid, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
Phil’s shoulders sagged. He took the money, and his head turned ever so slightly to look over his left shoulder. He hit the keys on the register with slow deliberation. When the drawer shot out, he winced. He gathered up the change and held it out for Erik.
“You know,” Erik said as he dropped the coins into a cupholder, “you might want to re-think your career choices. The high-stakes world of SmackyBurger isn’t working for you.” He smirked, proud of himself, and pulled away.
He pulled into a parking space and turned on the dome light. Kid probably forgot the damn pickles, he thought. A quick sniff and a check – the pickles were there. Everything else seemed fine. He popped the straw into the cola and took a big sip as he checked the receipt. Double burger, chicken combo, cola, help he has a gun….
Erik read that again, then shook his head and crumpled up the receipt. Definitely talking to the manager. He pulled out of the parking space, turned right on the parkway and headed home.
Behind him, the bright light of the Smacky sign went dark.
“I hope you’re happy,” Sigrid said, tugging at the ropes. “All we had to do was show up, hand over the money, and we’d be done.” She tugged again. “Out.” She made a little growling noise as she managed to get her left hand into her back pocket to reach the switchblade. “Finished.” There was a pause, and a quiet noise. “Hah!”
The knife clattered to the concrete floor.
The man chained to the floor in the corner shrugged, torn leather scraping against the concrete wall he was leaning against. The chains jingled slightly. “I told you to hire another guy.”
“We didn’t have the money for another guy, Ezra,” she said, trying to take one shoe off with the other. “We had money for the guns – DAMMIT – and the… What did you call them? ‘Foolproof disguises?’”
“I never said they were foolproof,” he said. “Just that they were good.”
She stopped moving and glared at the wall in front of her as if Ezra were there, instead of chained out of her sight behind the chair she was tied into. “Yes. Of course. Very good disguises. If by ‘very good’ you mean ‘Perfect for getting our asses handed to us and making sure we would never be seen by our loved ones again.’”
“You don’t have loved ones, Sigrid,” he said, and she could hear the smirk in his voice.
“You don’t know that,” she said. There was at least one more knife in the other boot. She started trying to wriggle her toes under the laces.
“You don’t. People with loved ones don’t try to scam the Mob.”
“Point. But that’s not helping us get out of here.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“If I can get this other boot off, I’ll be able to cut myself free and then – despite my better judgment – I can get you unlocked.”
“You’re definitely changing the subject.”
“Gimme a sec to….”
There was a minute of silence, broken only by the soft scuffle of her feet. Then a quiet metallic ‘snikt’ noise.
“Good,” she whispered.
“Did you just -”
“Shut up,” she said, and began sawing through the ropes. Her breathing became labored as she contorted her leg up to get to the rope that bound her arms to her sides. She cursed quietly but proficiently under her breath as she picked away until the rope came free with a soft tearing sound.
She grabbed the knife in her newly freed hand and made short work of the rest of her bindings. “All RIGHT,” she said, standing up. “Now, can you give me a really good reason why I should WHAT THE HELL?”
Sigrid turned around to see Ezra leaning against the wall. The chain was coiled up neatly at his feet.
He held up one hand, the other in his pocket. “I just wanted to see if you could manage it. Now let’s get out of here.”
“You could have helped me!”
“Yes, I could have,” he said, running his hand down the wall by the door. “But I didn’t. I wanted to see if you could get out like that.”
She spun the knife in her hand. There was a tiny spot on the back of his jacket, a little place where the seam had rubbed away a bit. It was slightly worn and discolored and it called to her, practically begging her to just jam a blade in there. She bit her lip and snapped the blade shut. “If you got out of those,” she said through her teeth, “you should be able to get us out of here.” She picked up her third knife and laid it carefully in his outstretched hand.
“Thanks,” he said. “And yes, I can. So long as I think about it the right way.” He tapped the concrete wall with the edge of the blade, causing her to wince.
“Do you know what matter is?” he asked after a minute.
“Do you know what matter is? Things.” He gestured aimlessly. “The stuff all around us.” He tapped the wall again.
She shrugged. “Concrete. Steel. Armed thugs.”
He smiled and looked back at her. “Nothing.”
“Well,” he said, waggling his fingers at her. “ Mostly nothing. There’s a little bit of something in there. But not a whole lot.”
“Well a whole lot of nothing is staring me right in the face, and even more of it is on its way to drop us in the East River, so if Yer Honorable Zen-ness wouldn’t mind holding off on the philosophy until we’re far, far away from here, I’d really appreciate it.”
He turned back to the door and tapped it again with the knife. “The neat thing is that there’s so much nothing there that, if you know how, you can just….” He slid the knife into the concrete quickly and quietly. His hand followed with it.
“Slip right through.” He turned and grinned and stepped through the wall.
She jumped at the door after him, and her hand slapped cold steel. “Ezra, you son of a bitch, what did you do? Don’t leave me here, you… you… FREAK!!”
The lock clicked, silencing her. She backed away from the door, palming the switchblade. The door swung open, revealing Ezra, hands in the pockets of his jacket and a smug grin on his face. “You comin’, Sig?” he asked.
She grabbed her other boot and pulled it on. “One of these days you’re going to tell me how you did that,” she said.
“I told you – it’s mostly nothing.”
“And when you do I’m going to beat you senseless.” She stood up and held out her hand for the knife. Ezra gave it to her. “But until then, we have a small legion of large men in bad suits to get away from, so let’s go.” Sigrid stepped gingerly out the door, looked to see that no one was around, and dashed off to the stairwell. Ezra followed, his pace slow and sure.