Smile Please: a short story

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If you're ever moved to invent a soul-collector ... please be careful where you point it! Where would mankind be without invention? Probably still scrabbling about in caves, but that might have been preferable when an over-enthusiastic Eugene Budd came up with a soul-collector, much to the dismay of his long-suffering buddy, Mike.. Mind you, it did have its upside, as Shirley Fingelbinder found out - at least he does have only a semi-moronic mind now.

Humor / Scifi
Malcolm Twigg
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:

Smile Please

Smile Please

Eugene Budd’s world-view is strictly tunnel vision. The guy can’t help it, it’s the way he looks at things: straight down the line - nothing else matters to him. Some people might call it bloody-mindedness. I prefer to think of him as inspired ...sometimes. It’s hardly his fault that the world isn’t ready for his inventions. The reality is - without being too unkind - that his inventions aren’t quite ready for the world. Which is why I raised only half an eyebrow when he came up with the latest.

“Mike,” he said looking sort of pensive. “What would you say if I told you I could bottle souls?”

“Pint size, or quart size?” I said, grinning.

“Oh, they don’t need anything that big,” he said, looking earnest, as only Eugene can. “Something about as big as a perfume bottle is perfectly adequate.”

Now, Eugene and me go back a long way, right back to baby carriages and diapers, and there are some who say that if he’d had the co-ordination at the time, Eugene would have figured out a more labour-saving method for the process of birth itself. But not me, because I knew as sure as hell that if I so much as suggested it to him, then he’d go right off and do it, and bugger the consequences (which would probably involve an industrial-sized dilation machine and a suction pump that could drain the Atlantic). So I humoured him. “Oh,” I said. “Little-bitty bottles. The essence of a person’s being stored up in a handy palm-sized container? Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I grinned at him again. I should have known better. He took the irony for enthusiasm.

“Yeah. Too right, Mike. Just think of the implications.”

I thought. And then I thought some more and then, you know what? I stopped giving it any rational thought at all. I mean ... come on!

Once more Eugene misread my expression. It was something he was good at doing, which is why maybe he got led off down so many blind alleys. He slammed his specs back along the bridge of his nose with his forefinger, an unconscious gesture that he always does when he’s got the bit between his teeth. “It’s difficult to get hold of, isn’t it?” he said, bubbling, “I didn’t really believe it myself to start with.” And he dragged me off to his workshop.

We stumbled and pushed our way through the clutter of his previous experiments, some of which even worked and had patents out on them, although what use a left-handed onion peeler was, that also made artificial flowers from the skins and sorted envelopes at the same time - but was the size of a small car - is anybody’s guess. Eugene’s is an eclectic mind.

Arriving by some miracle of navigation at his work-bench, he swept away the clutter from a curious-looking object that looked something like a camera with a funnel front and back and binocular sights, mounted on a rudimentary rifle stock. It was also smaller than his usual paraphernalia.

“I’ve been working on miniaturisation” he explained, obviously noticing my surprise. “Apart from which it needs to be portable. You have to be quick and accurate. This is only the prototype yet.”

“Eugene, I don’t have to be anything at all,” I replied. “I’ve only just finished paying off the fine from last time. If the Judge sees me down at that Court Room again he’s going to throw the book at me, and I won’t be able to catch it because my hands are going to be full of some contraption that either won’t work or is as illegal as hell. What is it anyway?”

He ignored the salient point of my argument. “Like I said, it’s a soul saver. You use it just like a camera.”

“Eugene,” I sighed patiently “I don’t use it at all. Get that into your cogitative little head, will you? What does it do, anyway?”

“Ah,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “See, you are interested.” He nodded towards the window. “Come over here.”

He was right about one thing. I was interested, despite myself and past experience. There’s something about Eugene that is infectious. The same could probably be said of Eugene’s lawn, which is what he was pointing at proudly through the window. That is, it had probably caught something infectious because what it was, was a crisped, brown patch with not a blade of living grass anywhere. Then he led me back to the bench and, from a drawer, produced a small glass phial.

“Don’t take any notice of the grass,” he said “that’s only the physical manifestation. Here,” he said, tapping the phial proudly, “is what grass is.”

Up to this point I’d been willing to go along with him. Like I said, me and Eugene go way back, but there comes a time when you think perhaps a little distance might not be a bad thing.

“Eugene,” I said, kindly. “Don’t you think you’re perhaps working too hard? When’s the last time you took a holiday?”

He brushed my hand from his shoulder impatiently. “Why does no-one ever believe in me?” he complained, bitterly. “You want proof? Watch this!” And with that he twisted a few gizmos on the camera-thing, swivelled it on its mounting, adjusted a dial or two, inserted the glass phial into a socket and pointed it through the window at the lawn. There was a brief, mauvish, flash from the business end as he pressed a button, and a sound like something disgusting being released under pressure ... and nothing happened, and went on happening for a long time. So long, in fact, that Eugene’s face took on the hang-dog look I knew so well.

“OK” he said, at last. “So perhaps I left it too long. Perhaps vegetation just doesn’t hold itself together long enough for reconstitution after a while. Perhaps ...”

“Perhaps,” I said, “you ought to give it a rest, unhh?”

He looked thoughtful. “Mmmm. Maybe.” He looked at me with a doleful expression. “I just killed a lawn, Mike. That’s a hell of a responsibility.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Eugene” I said, taking the instrument from his hands gently and stowing it away in a cupboard with a lot of other stuff that didn’t work. “Tell you what. You take yourself off for a long break and I’ll see you when you get back.” If, I thought, the men in white coats don’t get to you first.

“Perhaps I will,” he said, thoughtfully. “What worries me though, is there’s the essence of lawn out there somewhere looking for something to be.”

“To be or not to be, eh? Now that really is the question,” I tried, light-heartedly, but Eugene was in no mood for levity.

“Cut it out, Mike,” he said and looked so dejected that I took pity on him. He’s not a bad guy, just over-enthusiastic and too damn clever for his own good. I left him looking through the holiday pages in the newspaper.

That was the last I saw of him for some time. His place was locked and shuttered so I guessed he’d taken my advice and gone off for a break. The lawn was still a mess, though. It’s a funny thing. I kept thinking about that lawn, or at least what Eugene had said about it: ‘there’s the essence of lawn out there looking for something to be.’ I mean, what does the ghost of a lawn look like? Does it show up phosphorescent green and flutter “boo!” at you? Call me cynical if you like, but there was something about this latest project of his that I just couldn’t buy.

Then, three weeks ago, he showed up again. I just opened up the door and there he was, with a linen bag slung over his shoulder and clutching what looked like a game bag in the other hand. He was also grinning fit to bust.

“I fixed it!” he said, triumphantly, pushing past. “You were right. What I needed was a fresh start. Clear away some of the preconceptions.” He marched right into the kitchen, swept the breakfast pots to one side, and plonked his bags down. He stood eyeing the linen bag with something approaching reverence. “It was the connection between the collecting unit and the storer that was the problem,” he explained. “That and keeping the host unit fresh: once decay starts to set in you’ve got a problem – I mean, you wouldn’t like to come back to a body where bits kept falling off, would you?” He laughed, as though what he’d just said made perfect sense, and started unwrapping the object in the linen bag. “That was the problem with the grass you see – I left it too long before reconstituting and I removed the storing unit from the collector as well. Broke the link, you see?”

I didn’t, but I let him carry on. I couldn’t have stopped him anyway, once Eugene starts expounding on his theories there’s no force on this earth can stop him.

The instrument fell free from the bag at last. It was bigger than before. Why wasn’t I surprised? The funnels were the same, the rifle stock was the same, but it was longer and looked something like an old-fashioned tommy gun, complete with circular magazine – and it was connected by a cable to something that looked like a miniature radio control console.

Eugene noticed my look and shrugged. “It’s a two-handed job now, I’m afraid. I had the devil of a job field testing it on my own. Still, it worked.” And then, like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat he opened the game pouch and pulled out ... well, a rabbit: a frozen rabbit. It lay there on my kitchen table like something giving rigor mortis a bad name and stared at me with sightless, surprised, eyes. Eugene rubbed his hands in glee. “Keep the host fresh. That’s the secret,” he chortled then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, did some quick calculations on a scrap of paper and shoved the animal in the microwave and programmed it in. “Trouble is, you’ve got to get the organs capable of functioning again before you can reconstitute. Oh, it’s all right,” he said, noticing my agitation, “I know what I’m doing. Randy’s a veteran at this by now.” Randy, I took it, was the rabbit. The microwave pinged and Eugene prodded Randy’s side, which obviously gave satisfactorily because he nodded in approval. Then, before I realised what was happening he had thrust the soul-saver into my hands and looped the console around his neck and was fiddling with the dials.

“Now. When I say go, just thumb that switch on the stock, point it at the rabbit and fire.”

“Now, just hold on a minute ...” I started to complain.

“Look, don’t argue Mike, just do it. Decomposition sets in faster than you think. I know it’ll take something spectacular to make you believe in me, so just do it and you’ll see.”

Feeling like a crazy Igor attached by an artificial umbilical to a mad Doctor Frankenstein, I shrugged, pointed, and fired on the signal. There was the familiar mauve flash, the disgusting noise that seemed to go on for a lot longer than was decently necessary ... and the rabbit twitched like someone had probed it up the rear with an electrode. It jerked convulsively, and sat up looking a bit like I might after a heavy Saturday night on the town.

I yelped and hastily put the soul-saver down, putting a chair between me and the rabbit for good measure. “How the Hell did you do that?” I gasped.

Eugene smirked. “Easy, once you’ve set the parameters.” He groped inside a cupboard and slipped the rabbit a carrot, which it ate voraciously. “How I got on to it was auras,” he explained, slipping into tutorial mode. I sat down and prepared to listen, keeping a wary eye on the rabbit. “Every living thing has this electro-magnetic phenomenon called an aura. Some people claim to see it, like a halo around people’s heads – personally I doubt it, because the wave-lengths are so far outside the visible spectrum it makes calibration on this little gizmo ...” he tapped the soul-saver .”.. an absolute nightmare. So, I got to thinking. If a person’s aura is the outward manifestation of the inner being, and if it could be measured on the electro-magnetic spectrum, then it shouldn’t be beyond the whit of man and genius to record it – even to extract and store it! Voila!” He swept a hand expressively at the rabbit, which had now finished its carrot and was looking for something else to eat. I didn’t like the way it kept looking at me. “So, after that it was just a case of thinking laterally and coming up with the mechanism.”

He sat down, looking paternally at the rabbit which was now staring at a calculating way at the table top. He slipped it another carrot. “That’s one effect I hadn’t calculated on,” he said. “Soul evacuation and reconstitution takes up an incredible amount of energy from the host body – it gives it a ravenous appetite once it’s mobile again.”

He flipped open the chamber of the magazine. It was lined with little glass phials, some of them clear, some of them frosted. He indicated the frosted ones. “Every living thing has its own unique aura,” he said. “Most of them so close on the spectrum you’d have difficulty separating them in normal circumstances. That’s why we need this console now – it’s specially calibrated to take account of the minuscule variations: you need to plot them, record them, replicate them and ‘zap!’ – one instant rabbit. ” He clicked his fingers so loudly that the rabbit jumped. I didn’t blame it. “Look,” he pointed at the phials. “That’s a cornfield, or part of it at least, that one’s a field mouse, here’s an oak tree – a sapling, of course – a capuchin monkey, and this one here’s a moose. I had the devil of a job with that. Had to saw the antlers off before I could get it in the freezer. The rabbit you saw.”

“Oh, come on!” I said. “You want me to believe that? It was some neat conjuring trick with the rabbit, I grant you – but, saving souls?”

Eugene sighed. “Okay, you want more proof?” He thrust the gun back into my hands, fiddled with the console, thumbed the switch back on the stock and said “Right. Aim at the rabbit and fire.” I did as he said, more to humour him than anything else and there was no-one more surprised than me when, after the disgusting noise had finally slurped away, Randy rolled his eyes and promptly rolled over on his side. Eugene flipped the switch on the stock again, fiddled with his dials and ordered me to fire once more. Randy shuddered and sat up, and then shuddered and fell over once more as Eugene reversed the process and made me suck the soul out again. He flipped the switch again and I fired on command almost automatically this time. Randy shuddered again and sat up, and the expression on his face wasn’t the grateful one you would normally expect from something recently risen from the dead. But, at least, it was alive and promptly proved it by spitefully crapping all over my work surfaces ... and then going to work on another carrot.

“Eugene,” I said. “This thing actually works.” The look that he gave me spoke encyclopaedias. Then he gave me a whole library of enthusiasm.

“This is only the beginning Mike. Just think where this could go. Better than cryogenics – no expensive maintenance, just dump the remains in the deep freeze until you want them again. No more death, except from irretrievable accident and old age: you could even delay the ageing process. No more operation trauma: just zap the soul out before an operation, do the cutting in stasis and zap it back in when the body’s healed – no need to do a freeze job there at all, just keep the oxygen circulating as normal after any major operation and let nature take its course. Just think of the sensation this will cause in the scientific world. Just think of the ...”

.”.. Money!” I yelled, as the implications of what Eugene was saying sunk in. “Have you got this thing patented yet?”

Eugene managed to look hurt. “Not until I’ve sorted the wrinkles out. This is still very much a prototype. I need to do a lot more field-testing yet.”

“Well, get testing,” I said. “What do you need? I’ll get the neighbour’s dog. Have you done a cat yet? There’s a lousy Tom two blocks away I’d love to wring the metaphoric neck of. What about a ...?”

“Hold on, hold on, hold on. One step at a time. These phials in the magazine are only experimental yet. Randy’s only an experiment yet. I need to work on him some more before it’s ready to go any further.”

I grabbed the rabbit, forgetting myself. “Here’s the rabbit. Get working. I’ll make the coffee.”

Thirty-six sleepless hours later Eugene wearily announced himself satisfied with the results. Randy had been in and out of his corporeal self so many times that he looked as if he didn’t know whether he was on his ass or my elbow, Eugene looked as if he’d just been dug out of the grave, and I felt like the wrappings from the inside of a sarcophagus ... with the smell to match. But at least, we were ready to roll.

“Not yet,” Eugene said heavily. “I need to do a test on a primate before I dare make any claims. The capuchin’s no good and, besides, the body’s still in the freezer back home.”

By this time I was ready to do almost anything and was just thumbing my way through the telephone directory for ‘chimps’ when there was this loud hammering at the door. Whether it was providence or whether I was just too punch drunk to realise what I was doing I don’t know but, like an idiot, I answered it.

Shirley Fingelbinder is the only guy I know who can wear a name like Shirley without flinching. Largely because his mother tells him it’s a nice name, but mostly because he’s six feet four round the shoulders and eats bricks for breakfast. He also has an I.Q. only slightly higher than the average moron, a mental age of about thirteen and three-quarters and the emotional development of a sex-maniac in a monastery. And he was on my doorstep. Every so often he goes round the neighbourhood raising hell for no apparent reason and it seemed to be my turn on the rota.

Now, on a good day I can handle Shirley. Shirley and me go back almost as far as me and Eugene although, it has to be said, with infinitely less pleasurable connotations. Today was not a good day. Before I knew what was happening Shirley had pushed his way in, accused me of hiding his football, for Chrissake, and said he wasn’t leaving without it. To prove the point he grabbed a saucepan and bent the handle into a ‘U’ shape. As an attention seeker it was a pretty good opener. “Okay, Shirley,” I said, “take a look around, but don’t break the furniture.” To Eugene’s back I said. “Forget the chimp Eugene.” To this day I don’t know why I said that – I put it down to lack of sleep and euphoria at the thought of all that money just waiting over the horizon.

Eugene was fiddling with the soul-saver at the time, with his back to the door, and oblivious to anything else going on around him. He turned around, spotted Shirley, and brought it to the ready like John Wayne covering a room-full of bad guys: faced with someone like Shirley bearing down on you like a mob on two legs it was a natural enough reaction. Just then the rabbit, spaced-out with so many soul exchanges, hopped out from behind Eugene and fell off the table. Shirley’s eyes lit up. “Aww! A wabbit!” he said, and lunged for it, grabbing it to his chest like a long-lost cousin.

Wading through the morass of sleep deprivation, Eugene placed the only connotation possible on Shirley’s sudden lunge, and pressed the trigger in a reflex action and the big dummy went down like someone took the bones out of his legs, clutching a suddenly floppy bunny like a well-loved toy with a curiously resigned expression on its face.

Eugene gasped. “Look what you made me do!” he exclaimed, breaking open the magazine in panic and examining the contents. I peered over his shoulder, after gawping at the aftermath sprawled on the floor. The substance swirling around in the frosted phial looked as though it was trying to get out. “There are two souls in there fighting it out! I’ve never done two in one before.”

I broke open the chest freezer. “Well, don’t just stand there! Stick the stiffs in here. We’ll figure out what to do later.”

Eugene looked horror-struck. “Can’t take that risk, Mike. Two into one won’t go. One soul is going to come out the loser in there, and I don’t want that responsibility. We’re going to have to reconstitute now. Put them back how they were.”

The guy was genuinely concerned, and I got to admit the implications were beginning to rub off on me too. I must have been so damn tired I hadn’t been thinking straight. I stuffed the rabbit back into Shirley’s arms, hauled him up by the armpits and presented them both to Eugene in much the same position as they had been when the soul-saver went off. I certainly wasn’t thinking straight, because that put me right in the line of fire too, and it was only when I saw the mauvish flash and heard the disgusting noise that I realised what was happening. The whole of my misspent life (at least the more interesting bits) hurriedly tripped over its feet to explain itself before my eyes. It needn’t have bothered, as Eugene frenziedly tried to explain to me after I had finished screaming and he had stopped slapping me around the face. ‘I was putting in, not taking out!’ he yelled, wild-eyed. Things were beginning to get out of hand.

He broke open the chamber and inspected the phial. It was clear once again. Shirley lay slumped on the floor clutching the rabbit, where I had dropped them both.

“Look after Shirley,” Eugene gasped, as he began to reset the dials. Just then Shirley gave a moan, stirred, and sat up clutching his head. The rabbit didn’t.

“Uh, oh!,” I said. “Look’s like Shirley won.”

Eugene looked. “Oh, Shit!,” he said, uncharacteristically for him. But it just about summed it up.

“Well, look at it this way,” I said, gingerly picking the rabbit up and trying to look on the bright side, “at least it wasn’t homicide.” It didn’t seem to cheer him up any.

There was a sudden rumble from the corner that made us both start. Inconceivably, we had forgotten about Shirley for the moment.

“Awwww! The wabbit,” he said. “You killed the wabbit!”

I thought about trying to explain to Shirley just who had killed the wabb ... rabbit, but then I looked at his face and promptly decided to put Eugene and the table between me and Shirley. My mistake was in taking the rabbit with me: it obviously played a large part in Shirley’s life at that moment. Strange to say I was also attached to it, because the damn thing’s claws had somehow hooked themselves to my sweater and, try as I might, I couldn’t dislodge them.

Things happened very quickly then. Eugene still had the soul-saver in his hands. “If he makes a move towards either of us, zap him,” I warned. Eugene gulped and nodded ... but his finger never got anywhere near the trigger because Shirley vaulted the table like it wasn’t there, snatched the machine out of Eugene’s hands and hit the deck, rolling in a commando dive. Eugene squawked and dived under the table: I squealed and jumped over Shirley, heading for the door, but misjudged his bulk and caught my toe on his shoulder, sending me sprawling on the floor and jouncing the rabbit loose, which spread-eagled itself across his face like it was about to eat it whole – which, of course, it wasn’t because Randy had gone to that great rabbit harem in the sky. I slid through the door on my chin, ending up in the hallway half-dazed.

Behind me Shirley had erupted in a roar of terror as he tried the claw the rabbit away from his eyes, then there was the mauve flash and a disgusting noise, an “Oh, Shit!” from Eugene under the table, and another scream of terror from Shirley.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen one of those Venus Fly-Trap plants that suddenly thinks it’s an oak tree and immediately shoots up to the ceiling from its habitual place on my kitchen sink to prove it. It’s an inspiring sight. But not as inspiring as a half-concussed fly caught up in its maw that suddenly thinks it’s a moose with an airy feeling where its antlers used to be and starts dive-bombing its sudden two pound body around trying to find the wise-guy who did it. Shirley must somehow have knocked the soul-saver on to ‘send’ when he grabbed it from Eugene and was busy spraying saved souls all over the kitchen - and through the window - in his panic. Souls were happily sharing bodies they were never really meant to.

None of it made any sense to Shirley at all, of course - he just carried on blasting away, much to the surprise of next door’s dog exercising in the yard which suddenly found itself moved to jump into a monkey-puzzle tree and swing there, looking worried and chattering. Two into one don’t go! Hah!

“Do something!” I hissed to Eugene, peering round the door. There was another mauve flash and something unmentionable impacted against something inert, gave a low whisper of despair and sort of dissipated.

“That’s it,” Eugene gasped. “Magazine’s empty. God knows what that last one was but it’s out in the ether now.” Shirley was still firing wildly, but nothing was happening. Which was just fine by me - I didn’t go much on suddenly thinking I was a frog or whatever the hell else Eugene had stored in that contraption of his.

“Okay. Rush him!” I said, picking up a baseball bat from the hall. We arrived at about the same time, Eugene screaming a war whoop that even frightened me. The mistake we both made was in misjudging Shirley’s intelligence. Too late we saw he was fiddling with the levers on the soul-saver: I blame the movies myself, where else does a congenital idiot learn how to handle guns?

Once again there was the mauve flash and Eugene stopped dead in his tracks and dropped. I was moving too fast to stop myself and collided with Shirley. He brought the soul-saver to bear on me, but I knocked it away with the baseball bat and closed my eyes. I opened them again just in time to see Shirley fold at the knees with a surprised expression on his face as the mauve flash faded away. I caught the machine just before it hit the deck. Then I sat down and gibbered quietly for a while.

When the world had finished suspending itself from the ceiling and flubbing its lips, I broke open the chamber of the soul-saver. I don’t know quite what I expected to see: maybe two phials neatly labelled ‘Eugene’ and ‘Shirley’, shock does strange things to the mind. I don’t know what Shirley had done to the soul-saver, but there certainly weren’t two phials: there was only one newly filled. One phial with swirling, smoky contents that looked like they were going to pop the cork at any moment. I think I yelped then.

Why I did what I did next I’ve never been able to fully explain. Perhaps it was intuition rubbed off from hanging out with Eugene too long. Perhaps it was outright panic. But what I did is this: I laid the two bodies out head to head, switched the soul-saver to ‘send’ and pressed the trigger with a hope and a prayer. On reflection I remember Eugene saying something about auras surrounding subjects’ heads: it seemed logical at the time anyway.

I heaved a sigh of relief as both bodies twitched and sat up, groaning. I also hefted the baseball bat ready for Shirley’s charge. It didn’t come. Instead he looked around at the mess in a sort of dazed way and said, “Gee, sorry, Mike. Did I do that? I’ll clean it up for you.” And he did.

Eugene looked on with an almost paternal gaze and then set to himself. “Hey, Shirley. Fancy a beer?” he asked, when they were through, and they both went off without a backward glance like long-lost brothers.

Ever since then, he and Shirley have been inseparable. Eugene has got himself a girl, and so has Shirley …and a job …and all that business with the soul-saver might never have happened.

What I think is this: they both got shares of each other and each balanced the other out. Shirley is less anthropoid and Eugene less Einsteinian. In fact he seems to have forgotten about the soul-saver and inventing altogether: too busy painting the town red with his new buddy-buddy Shirley, I guess. I dismantled it and stored it away with all his other contraptions. And I can’t say I’m sorry. As it happens, no-one came out of that little incident any the worse off, apart from the neighbour’s dog which still has a personality defect, and maybe the moose and the oak tree ... and whatever it was that smacked into the wall.

Oh, and the rabbit, of course ... and I wonder about that sometimes because I’ve developed this chronic twitch of the nose just lately, and an embarrassing penchant for lettuce and carrots. But that I can handle. It’s this sudden reputation as a stud I’m finding hard to live up to.

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