Iron Manimal

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Chapter 13

Leon and his zombies had lugged their junk seven miles to the terminus of a dirt road that led to an access road that led to a small highway on the edge of nowhere. They’d camped on the dirt road just past where they’d exited the forest proper. Technically, they were still in the forest, just about everything in this part of the country was in forest. Leon sent the Duggans off with plane fare to collect The Only Remaining Crying Ghost. They were back within 24 hours. The next afternoon, Leon had a little carnival going just outside the town of Coldwater, the only town anywhere near us. Within four days of the wreck, Leon was back in business. He had the grounds crew, the Duggans, Hector, and poor heartbroken Rob, who was still alive maybe indefinitely.

He was calling himself Electro Zorko and pitched his act as a phantasmagorium of spectral electrical delights. Hector was again caged. Rob was giving rides at $5 a pop.

Zorko was costumed as a sort of disco gypsy clown. He was pulling double duty as Zorko the fortuneteller and Zorko the Mighty Magician. He wore bright yellow and purple robes and a big red Ronald McDonald afro. He looked so utterly ridiculous that no one noticed his deathly pallor or lifeless gray eyes. He told the townspeople he’d decided to overwinter in Coldwater and figured he might as well try out a few new acts. Why would anyone overwinter this far north in some rundown hicktown? Why, because the finest people in the world live here, that’s why! Like a vampire, Leon went out at night to cavort with the locals in the town’s lone bar. He could pass for human at night, and he was virtually unrecognizable from the bozo Zorko. Ever the showman, he wore a casual but respectable suit and had himself primped to perfection. Just as the female attention was beginning to arouse the jealousy of the more unstable elements in the bar, in trotted the Sweeney sisters like trained seals. Why yes, of course they’re with the show, we’re just waiting for some equipment they need from back east. These girls are like family to me, like daughters. The local women would continue to swoon while the men exchanged glances knowingly. Acrobatics, that’s their specialty, isn’t it ladies? Come by tomorrow, the day after at the latest, as long as those boys back east can get their act together.

Garbageman Mike had run into the Duggans during one of his trips into town. They were playing poker in the bar with some of the locals when he spotted them. He was going to ignore them, let them run whatever scam they were pulling, but Dave gave him a look. He and Dan were up a couple hundred bucks. Time to leave.

“Dave, Dan, what the hell are you doing? You were supposed to be at work half an hour ago.”

“Well boys, time to earn some money.” said Dave as he took the cash from the table.

Dan was wearing large sunglasses and a goofy baseball cap. Most of his brains had been blown out during the train wreck. He was alive but empty. Somehow Dave was animating him. It didn’t make much of a difference according to Garbageman Mike.

Dave had given him the gist of it. Leon was definitely powerful, but he kept his powers hidden. He still had a lot of money left and was actually turning a profit. The train blowing up was the best thing that had ever happened to him, he should have sold the train and scaled down the show years ago. Sure he seemed shady but what else is new? Leon didn’t want to push anyone into anything, he was waiting for us to come to him whenever we felt ready. This experience has been traumatic for all of us, of course we were all free to do whatever we liked, to take as much time as we needed, or to even quit if so inclined to start anew. But at least stop in to say goodbye and collect your wages.

“So what do you think?” asked Garbageman Mike.

“We should stop in and say goodbye. Collect our wages.”

Getting into town was an ordeal. We could have just called the Duggans for a ride now that we were coming into town to see them anyway, but we were still wary of Leon and each other and curious about our powers. Garbageman Mike and I stripped down and packed our clothing into his backpack.

“Just like everything else, I had to learn the hard way. The first time, I didn’t even notice my clothes were gone until I was almost in town.” said Garbageman Mike.

“I had a similar experience.”

Garbageman Mike was a lot faster than me, even after I’d turned into a wolf, but like me, he had to stop to eat and refuel frequently.

“Can you turn into anything else aside from a wolf?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you give it a shot? See if you can change into a hawk, something more efficient for travel.”

It had never even occurred to me that I might be able to fly. I started running and flapping my arms, I felt my hands and arms expand and take hold of the air. I was flying, and it took a lot less effort than running. Garbageman Mike could barely keep up with me. I heard him yelling at me to land as we approached the access road. I couldn’t hide the joy I was feeling.

“That was beautiful Scotty, but maybe don’t try that around other people. A hawk the size of a hang glider is bound to make some folks suspicious.”

I had somehow known that I couldn’t shrink or grow, that I had to conserve mass, but it’s easy to forget about the details in a situation like this. What person hasn’t dreamed of flying, of really flying like a bird? What did I need the world or other people for? I was finally free. I could happily spend the rest of my life exploring jungles and forests. I could hide away with Lulu forever.

“I know that look. I’d be thinking the same thing if I could turn into a bird and just flap the hell out of here. You could go to the ocean, turn into a dolphin, maybe even learn to speak dolphin, especially with Phil helping.”

But if it wasn’t for Garbageman Mike, maybe I never would’ve tried to fly at all.

“You seem to have a lot better ideas than I do.” Honestly, I’d had no ideas in regard to my abilities. Turning into a wolf had been automatic, instinctive.

“I’ve known you awhile. Long enough to know that having better ideas than you isn’t much of a stretch. You have a good mind, but you like to keep it tucked up your ass most of the time. And it’s usually easier for an outside observer, to see the forest through the trees or whatnot.”

Garbageman Mike looked a bit disappointed or envious.

“All I can do is run in circles faster than I used to, it’s made it easier to shoplift and commute, but not much else.”

I laughed at him.

“You could join the NFL or play baseball, return punts or be a pinch runner.”

“At 43 that’d be a bit suspicious.”

“The Braves had a 40 some odd year old pinch runner back in the mid 90s. Shit, what do they care how old you are? They’ll pay you the league minimum, peanuts to them, if you can do the job.”

“What’s the league minimum nowadays?”

“I’m not sure. For MLB I think it’s around 300 grand a year.”

“You’re shitting me. Goddamn, that’s actually not a bad idea.”

We walked in silence for awhile. It was good to talk with Garbageman Mike again, to someone who couldn’t read my mind, but something about the undercurrent of our small talk was getting to us.

“I wonder what bright ideas Leon has.” said Garbageman Mike.

I was thinking the same.

Dusk was closing in so we decided to wait on the access road until dark. Town was still a good 30 miles away and neither of us wanted to walk it like regular people. For two large middle aged men, one wearing a tunic, hitchhiking didn’t seem like a good bet either.

We got to town an hour or so after dark. Garbageman Mike had me wait on the outskirts while he found me more acceptable clothes. I recognized most of them as belonging to Hector. I looked like a goddamn clown, and the shoes were the worst part of the deal. I couldn’t get three steps without stumbling or losing one. Thankfully, it was a short walk to Zorko’s and we managed to slip in without attracting too much attention from the locals.

Leon had his Tesla coils blazing as he brought the grounds crew back from the dead. Of course the locals knew that the grounds crew had never really been dead, but the claw hands and the wooden legs were creepy and clever, and the lightning leaping out of those coils sure looked dangerous. Still, good old Zorko appeared to be completely in control. It was all just an act, everyone knew that, and look at that Zorko go! The crowd broke into laughter as “Everybody Dance Now!” blared from the loudspeakers and Zorko and his zombies began to dance. Garbageman Mike hadn’t been exaggerating. Zorko looked like Ronald McDonald’s sleazy, colorblind, maybe epileptic uncle. Zorko hopped and grooved himself into position between the two largest Tesla coils. He continued to shake and shimmy as electricity danced across his body. He raised his hands to the roof. Something was coming, but before it could, the coils and the disco lights faded as the music slowed into silence. The crowd began to murmur in confusion.

“I apologize ladies and gentlemen. It appears I overtaxed the circuits. But I believe I have a solution.”

Zorko drew in a deep breath and brought his hands together. A bright ball of lightning began to grow within them and push them apart. He closed his eyes and lightning leapt from his fingers to the coils, lights, and speakers, bringing them roaring back to electrical life. The music was louder than ever, the coils looked on the verge of explosion, and gyrating in the middle of it all was Electro Zorko the Mighty Magician, the man with lightning in his hands. The crowd screamed with glee and danced along with him. If anything like this had happened outside of a phantasmagorium they would have been terrified. Garbageman Mike and I were terrified.

The song ended and the houselights came on as the coils settled into stasis.

“I hope you all enjoyed the show, and to see you all at the bar later this evening.”

Zorko saw us in the crowd and waved us over. He brought us back to his personal chambers. A few smashed chairs, posters, and pieces of old photographs had been salvaged from the wreck. Old pictures of Roger, Lulu, and Leon had been added to his gallery of the dead. Just off to the side, hovering between life and death, was a recent picture of Dan Duggan in his sunglasses and oversized baseball cap, smiling dully back from oblivion. Zorko brought us drinks and cigars and tapped at an old picture close to the center.

“Giles the Fish Man.”

The poor bastard really was half fish and half man. He looked aghast at having his picture taken. He was small and misshapen, his arms were short and stubby, his head of hair looked like an old beaver pelt, and he had enormous dark buck teeth. His eyes were oversized, you could see the sad self awareness in those eyes beseeching to you from back across the gulf of mortality to please, for the love of god, at least take down the fucking picture. I didn’t like the pictures of Lulu, Roger, Leon, or Dan either. Maybe all nostalgia is bizarrely mean spirited and cruel. Zorko’s eyes moved to the picture of Lulu.

“Poor Lulu. She was aloof, but never really crazy. At least not until now.”

“I wish I could say the same about you.”

Zorko looked into my eyes and chuckled.

“Leon, if you’re about to make an argument for your sanity, it’d help if you at least took off the fucking wig.” said Garbageman Mike. He slugged down his drink. Zorko took off the wig and moved to refill our glasses. He returned to his snuff collage and tapped on Giles’ picture again.

“Do you want to know what my father said to get him back on his fins? He told Giles to start swimming again or he’d beat him to death.

“Giles was already an old fish by the time I was around. I loved him dearly, but once my father found out about our friendship, he bludgeoned Giles with the back of his bullwhip and told me never to go near him again. He told me about Giles’ dream, that part of the story was true, but my father’s interpretation of it was just the opposite. According to him, Giles was weeping because he would never know the vengeance of poisoning his own children. This is what all parents do to their children, it can’t be helped. Parents and people in general transmit through infliction all of their crippling doubts and fears. Giles embraced this truth, at least on an unconscious level. He was too isolated from humanity to avoid seeing it or to know to withhold it. And it is a perverted irony, being stuck in the water and never getting your dick wet.”

Leon took a large sip from his charred prop goblet and tapped at the picture of his father.

“Our children came to us poisoned and now, they have become powerful. Still, I’m not worried about them or us or you. We belong with the show more than ever now, and most of us have the sense or instinct to know it.”

“You think you can just go on, back to business as usual?”

“Maybe a bit better than usual. You were right about the old act, Scotty. Everyplace we showed up, people were surprised to see that something like that could still exist, and that was about the extent of their interest. But this new act, it’s really something to see.”

“What about the train, Zorko? What about the barrels?”

Leon refilled my glass.

“You look like a hungover werewolf. And stop trying to drag everyone down to your version of reality for once. Trains, barrels, all that balderdash. Haven’t you learned that nobody wants to hear it? No one will miss that 100 year old jalopy. That jalopy tried to murder all of us, and the way I see it that lets us off the hook. You want your barrels, you’re upset we didn’t deliver? Well I’m sorry, our fucking train exploded. If they want the barrels or the government wants the barrels or whoever wants the barrels I’ll tell them where they can look, and this is assuming they even think we’re still alive. Regardless, we’re out of the loop. We’re a bunch of ignorant, worthless afterthoughts, just like you’re always trying to tell us. So appreciate that fact for once.”

I had the feeling I was being duped, but was too stupid and tired to try to fight it or stop it. It’s difficult to fight when someone is showing you step by step how to convince yourself of what you want to believe, that basically, you won’t have to face the consequences of your actions. I looked at Garbageman Mike. He nodded at me to go on. For all their twists and turns, conversations with Zorko were predictable in their way.

“Zorko, what the hell do you want?”

“Call me Leon, Scotty. And there is one thing.”

Leon gestured toward a flat screen television and it flashed into life. He chose the internet option and navigated to YouTube.

“As you’ve probably already gathered, I have been granted certain abilities which allow me to manipulate electricity or electromagnetism or what have you.”

“You’re like a living, breathing remote control.”

Leon had his videos cued up but paused.

“My power, as impressive as it is, is quite lacking in some ways. It would be nothing compared to the ability to read or control minds, for example, without the entire infrastructure of the modern world to bolster it.”

He looked into my eyes.

“Lulu feels responsible for Roger, she thinks we all are, but that maybe you and I maybe have a shot.”

He looked at Garbageman Mike.

“No, you’re misunderstanding me. I need you to go back into town and get cigarettes.”

“Oh fuck.” said Garbageman Mike.

If we ever wanted to plot against Leon or keep anything private we’d have to communicate by carrier pigeon.

“You’re looking at me that way because you feel violated. You want revenge. I’m not your enemy Scotty, and I don’t want to be. I don’t think you’d like it if I tried to help you in that way.”

“Like you’re helping me now?”

I knew I was overmatched but I was angry. I could feel my left hand turning into a mace.

“Now come on boys, this isn’t helping anyone.” said Garbageman Mike. “I don’t give a shit about the eavesdropping. If you think my gibberish is interesting, go ahead and listen. Just enough with the theatrics.”

Leon played us some conspiracy clips on YouTube. Mysterious orbs of light leave circles of death, demented hinterland shut-in claims bomb shelter blasted by giant mechanical cat, mass moose and bear migration baffles local hunting authorities, mellifluous metallic wailing reported throughout region.

“To use the parlance of the conspiracy minded, Roger is the lynchpin of it all. Once Roger decides to pull his antics in a more heavily populated area, which he eventually will, there will be investigations that will undoubtedly lead to all of us and uncover the entire sordid mess. The train, the barrels, all of your prior interactions with the legal justice system, everything will come to light. There will be no hiding for any of us, not for long. I want my circus, you want whatever it is you want, we have to contain Roger.”

If I helped, Leon would know it was for Lulu, and I didn’t want him knowing anything about me or who I cared about or even if I cared about anyone. But if I ran off to hide in some jungle, I would lose Lulu. She would see that Leon had appeared to want to do the right thing, for whatever vile reason I couldn’t even bring myself to think about, and that I had basically said fuck you, fuck the world and fuck everything. If the definition of love is going out and fighting a tiger for someone, maybe I’ve never really loved anyone.

“What are you planning, Leon? And when?” asked Garbageman Mike.

“Three days from now, after dusk. Where the sink factory used to be. Come around noon tomorrow and I’ll walk you through it.”

“We’ll be there.” said Garbageman Mike.

Leon looked at me.

“I’ll be there.”

We went to the bar to drink but we were too paranoid. Cell phones and cameras are literally everywhere. We ended up hiding Garbageman Mike’s phone in a birdhouse and heading out to his stash on the edge of the forest.

“If it was any closer to the cabin, Phil would have one of his animal friends find it and drink himself to death.”

Garbageman Mike uncapped a bottle of whiskey and took a long pull, then passed it to me.

“Are we really going to do this?” I asked.

“Leon is slippery, but he’s got a point. We just might be in the clear, but if Roger acts up, starts killing innocent people, someone’s gonna come calling for us.”

Garbageman Mike looked off into the forest.

“There’s something you should know about Lulu if you don’t already. Pass it here.”

He took a long pull from the bottle. I had a pretty good idea of what he was going to say, but nodded at him to continue.

“Lulu came back after Leon and I and most of the others. When she did, it was different. We sensed her, but we were also forced to sense each other, all the pain, anger, confusion. Lulu started blocking us out, as is par for the course, but as she did, well, she wasn’t exactly blocking as much as she was killing. What happened to Dan Duggan, the same thing happened to half the grounds crew. Their brains were blown out before they knew what hit them. Lulu must’ve figured it out quickly enough, she cut it out and took off, her and her bees, deep into the woods. I’m not blaming her, she just did what we all did naturally, there’s no way she could’ve known. At least, not until it was already too late.”

He took another long pull and passed the bottle to me. Lulu had told me a similar story. It was the reason she had wanted me to leave. Her mind could only take so much before it defended itself and she didn’t trust her ability to control it. She had taken my post traumatic stress and my awareness of it. It was locked within her, partitioned somewhere in her brain, just waiting to either rupture or be dispelled into another mind or minds. I explained all of this to Garbageman Mike.

“So you understand, why Lulu can’t help us.”

“That’s where you’ve got it backwards.” said Garbageman Mike. “I have a pretty good idea of what Leon’s up to. But the way I see it, we can’t really help them. All they really need is Leon, Phil and Lulu.”

“I don’t like it, and I know Leon’s not going to like it.”

“Like it, hell. What is there to like?”

“So what does Lulu do afterward, if she can even take it?”

“That’s something we’re going to have to leave up to her.”

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