By Lorna D. Keach
One night at 3am, when she’s already been up for hours hunting through found footage videos, Dennie finds the birthday party: title 08/25/84, username nostalgiamachine. Three minutes of a handful of children singing along to a band of animatronic characters up on a stage lit with garish neon. The footage was blurry, but she can make out the jerking movements of the characters, their huge grins, their bulbous eyes blinking with plastic lashes, the twist of their heads as they swayed side to side. It’s obvious that no human actor stands in those animal suits. The lurching movements, sudden stops, occasional jolts are all gestures that read inherently robotic. Above the synthesizer-playing gorilla, a sign flashes with the words Funkafire Supernova.
That night, she leans forward until her nose almost brushes her laptop screen, trying to make out the distinguishing features of the characters between the pixel bleed. She identifies Billy Bob Blackberry in his post-crash overalls, but Minnie Munster still wears her ’81 cheerleader skirt that subsequent versions traded for the gymnast leotard. Rollo deWolf has a curly mustache and a high collared cape, like a silent movie villain. As she watches them sing, the screaming starts.
Shrill delight and terror sounds so similar in a crowd of six-year-olds, but after a moment she recognizes it as the latter. Adult voices join in and the camera jerks, falls to the table, its lens half-buried in a slice of pepperoni. Under the cacophony of screaming, the audio shorts out and buzzes. Under the static, Dennie hears the clank of metal, a grinding wheeze of bad pneumatics, a hiss like an air lock opening up. Right before the video times out, the screen goes black and stays there for fifteen seconds. Comments are disabled.
She replays it four, five times. Ten, twenty. Fifty? Her phone dings with an incoming text. She checks it: just Voke’s secretary, reminding her about some leftover onboarding paperwork. Then, she sits back down in bed and clicks play, only to see a red emoji, the caption underneath stating this video is unavailable.
She’d watched it countless times, back to back, even as her eyes became exhausted, watery. But she hadn’t saved it. Why hadn’t she downloaded it right away? Everything else, she saved—the pre-crash shows, the children laughing and barfing over that terrible pizza, the hours of footage recorded of the characters, singing woodenly, like life-sized Furbys. She saved all the videos she found of the band, Legrand’s creations, and never gave a thought to the legality of it. Why hadn’t she done it for 08/25/84?
In the weeks after, she thinks her memory of the video couldn’t be correct. The screams must have been laughter. The grinding must have been some normal malfunction, or some bad feedback on the tape-recorded songs Legrand used for every restaurant. Something fell over, which likely accounted for that metallic clank. Perfectly reasonable explanation. Without the video, she doubted the screams she’d heard. She doubted her own eyes and ears.
But her dreams fill in where her memory fails. In her dreams, for weeks, she sees the children in that restaurant, while the shape of Legrand’s last animatronic character peeks out of the staged shadows. Then the little kids’ mouths open wide in terror, the camera sails through the air, released from capable adult hands into that greasy red glob of pepperoni. The shape in the shadows lifts its crooked talon and steps off stage.
“You got a background in art history, I bet,” Voke’s secretary says.
Dennie nods. “Art history and psychology. Double masters.”
“Whoo.” The woman recoils like she’s caught a whiff of something unpleasant. “All that debt and now you’re here. My condolences.” She’s a broad woman, white, with graying black hair and a wide face that reminds Dennie of a New York mob grandmother.
The woman drinks from a coffee mug that reeks of liquor, although only once Dennie’s caught her tucking the bottle of Stoli back into her desk drawer. Apart from that, she hides the drinking well. Everyone calls her Ms. J. When Ms. J answers the phone, Dennie can hear her clear her throat for a solid three rings, the ritual of an ex chain smoker, before she grumbles, Voke Antiques, where the rare and arcane is commonplace. What can I do for ya?
Dennie gives Ms. J a laugh for the joke, even though she doesn’t feel the humor in it. Then, she turns to look at the showroom around them, back to the monstrosity spot-lighted by tasteful recessed fixtures on the far wall. “Is that it?”
“Your hideous new baby? Yep.” Ms. J sets her coffee mug down and swings her enormous hands in a welcoming gesture. “Let me introduce you.”
Dennie’s new curation project is five feet wide and five feet tall, a cluster of plastic heads and eyes wired together, hallowed by a mad rise of multicolored hair like pipes in a cathedral, attached to what Dennie recognized as an original 16 Voice Moog One Polyphonic Synthesizer.
“The Furby Organ,” Ms. J introduces it with a flourish. “Four hundred original Furby toys hard-wired as a functional synthesizer; they can also sing twenty pre-recorded songs at the touch of a key. Jingle Bells, Stairway to Heaven, that kind of shit. Around here, we call it the Screamer.”
Dennie sets her finger down on a key and presses; her gaze darts back up to the crowd of Furby eyes, the little round globes with the eyelids peeled back, leaving an iris and pupil suspended in the white. Nothing happens.
“Holy shit, no, honey,” Ms. J pats Dennie’s hand and then removes it from the keyboard, “We keep this thing turned off.”
Dennie sighs, a failure to hide her disappointment.
Ms. J continues, “As a junior curator, your job is to keep this sucker clean, which is no easy task, I can tell you, the spiders love it in there, and keep the rest of our growing pop culture collection.”
The rest of Voke’s pop culture collection is on the shelves behind the Furby Organ, a stark contrast from the rest of the showroom. Mostly, the space is crowded with dark brass and dusty wood relics, a clutter of weirdness. Vintage medical equipment, Yoruban tribal masks, taxidermy animals, old books, even one tiny, battered sarcophagus. Uncomfortably colonial, Dennie thinks. But the small pop culture collection provides a splash of color for contrast.
That section spills over with bright, multi-hued plastic, shoved into a tiny corner of the massive warehouse space. She evaluates the collection as recognizable junk; Monchichi mugs, Star Wars toys in the box, several mint-condition Ataris. Nothing as rare and arcane as Ms. J might suggest over the phone.
She pushed her disappointment down into her gut. After leaving her internship at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in KC, where she was a glorified duster, Dennie realized she had now gained respectable part-time employment with a private firm working as a glorified duster. Living the dream, she thinks.
“I’m thrilled to get started,” she says.
“Yeah, ok,” Ms. J says, then lumbers back to her desk.
Of the many perks of working for Voke Antiques, Dennie discovers the breakroom has wi-fi. During her lunch she brings her tablet to check email, watch videos or transcribe her notes. She lays her notebook beside the tablet, the left side pressed down with the edge of her coffee mug. The words at the top of the page are jerky and barely legible: nostalgiamachine has yet to return my messages.
When she pulls up her email, she’s got a few interesting leads from her research and one communication from her academic editor. Her stomach knots up. She opens the editor’s email and sees the suggestions on her manuscript. Her title is already battered with little red comments: Eyes of the Uncanny: Psychoanalysis as Applied to the Animatronic Creations of Foster Legrand. How Dennie could have gotten so much wrong in a single title, she can’t guess.
She mutters under her breath, “Well, everything’s spelled right, for fuck’s sake.” She takes a deep breath, then another, before pushing away thoughts of hiring a different editor (how could she afford it?). Then she turns to read the new emails.
The first is from a junior archivist from PBS, Channel 6, Sacramento. Re: 1983 interview. It reads: Happy to help! Wow, did I have to dig deep for this. The tape’s gone, but at least I could find the transcript. She ignores the bulk of his response, skips to the line in which he signs off: I didn’t think there were any DoughBiz Pizza fans your age. He ends with asking her to let him know if she needs any more information, and Dennie resolves to send a polite reply to all his comments (god, all of them) so as to not burn what could be a useful bridge.
She downloads the document and searches it for any mention of “dad” or “father.” Her gaze floats down the highlighted words.
[Legrand: Yes, people thought my father was insane, and maybe he was… in how artists and prophets are insane. He was a special man. Do you know that he worked with the Jack Parsons’ Lab at NASA? Yes, the same Jack Parsons who took up with Crowley, that’s true, but my father had nothing to do with all that.]
Later down the page:
[Legrand: When my father spoke of receiving transmissions from space, it was a metaphor. He didn’t run around in a tin-foil helmet, nothing like that. It is just the mechanics of inspiration. I have experienced the same thing, and the process is mysterious even to me. My newest prototype would not have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for late-night public access TV. Laughs.]
Dennie’s throat tightens at the mention of the prototype.
She keeps reading.
[Interviewer: Why is that?
Legrand: Suffice it to say my best ideas come to me after I’ve stayed up late watching TV, cooking shows and talk shows, what have you, and then I have, I suppose what could be called dreams of these shows, not the actual broadcasts but what I think I watched, at least. All the best ideas come to me through the shows, but in my dreams. It is like secrets from the universe, in a way.]
Dennie checks her laptop clock; her break is up soon. She clicks on the next unread email.
There, the sender states: Yes, the storage unit owned by Billy Bob Blackberry will be auctioned due to nonpayment. Saturday the third at 9am.
Dennie’s heart flips. She starts calculating the remains of her bank account, the balance on her credit card. If she squeezes, she might have enough for a plane ticket to California…
“Who’s Foster Legrand?”
Dennie jumps at the voice; a quick look confirms its Ms. J. How Dennie didn’t hear the woman’s heels on the floor, she doesn’t know. It takes a minute for Dennie to catch her breath.
Ms. J sips her mug, which now smells of coffee and vodka. With one, unpainted finger, the woman gestures to the screen. “You’re writing something, huh?”
Dennie closes her notebook, giving a glance to her screen, which is no longer displaying the file of her edited paper. She wonders how long the secretary’s been standing there.
She nods, trying to be polite. “Yeah. A research project of mine. I did one of my theses on Funkafire Explosion as a form of naive art.”
“The animatronic band created for DoughBiz pizza, in the early 80s.”
Ms. J’s eyebrows jump up. “Oh yeah…I remember that joint from when I was a kid. It had arcade games, too, right? There was a big dining room with a stage, tons of neon. You ate pizza while that robot bear sang those rock songs.”
With a smile, Dennie represses her pang of jealousy. The people who saw it in person were so lucky. “That’s the one.”
“Didn’t it turn into Luck’E Cheeze? With that mouse mascot?”
“Luck’E Cheeze was a competitor to DoughBiz, a contemporary. It was started by an investor Legrand had a falling out with. After Legrand vanished, DoughBiz failed, went bankrupt.”
“Huh.” Ms. J nodded. After a moment of thought, she pointed to the screen again. “Y’know, if you’ve got a bead on any DoughBiz memorabilia, in good condition, I’ll bet Voke wouldn’t mind having you pick it up for the showroom. He pays bonuses for relic hunting.”
“That would be amazing, yes!” Dennie stands up, her hands shaking. “I-I have an auction that could have some unreleased work of Legrand’s. I was going to put my bids on my card but…”
“Write something up that details what you’re hunting, and I’ll put it in for review. I can get you on the company card. This Rook thing better be good, though.”
“Oh it is.” Dennie nodded. “I’ll get you that write-up this afternoon.”
“Awesome,” Ms. J turns to leave, then stops. “Oh, I wouldn’t use the showroom wifi for anything personal. Voke wants me to keep an eye on everything that goes on in here.”
Dennie faces another sleepless night, so tucked in bed, she reads through her transcripts and flips through uploaded videos to see if there’s anything new (or if there’s any hint of 08/25/84). All she’s found all night are videos of other found footage birthday parties, Organ Stop Pizza and adults drinking too much at Chi-Chi’s. There’s nothing. She lets the videos run in the background, on auto-load, one after the other, listening for any familiar Funkafire songs. Other work she keeps in separate browsers, a restless multitask.
In a new window, she opens the .pdf of scanned copies of Legrand’s journal, the few pages passed to her by a friend in the Berkeley Libraries, found tucked away in documents due for a collection of video game primary sources. Dennie would’ve never seen it if Legrand hadn’t worked for Atari. She scrolls through the file. The yellowed pages and blue ball point pen seemed like the text of an ancient, arcane tome, and it might as well have been; Legrand didn’t stray from dabbling in the same occult business as his father. I’ve built a partial something-something, Legrand wrote, at one point (although the handwriting’s so bad, jerky child-like letters of an engineer who never practiced penmanship, it could also read I’ve built a portal). There’s nothing in the journal she hasn’t read fifty times, so she minimizes that window and pulls up her edited article. One comment from her editor is still highlighted: Peer reviewers may not take kindly to these claims.
“Yes, people thought my father was insane, and maybe he was… in how artists and prophets are insane, of course.”
She hears the voice, and it takes a moment before she realizes it’s a video murmuring from behind a buried tab, repeating in audio the exact transcript she’d read earlier. As the video continues, she recognizes the statements: “He was a special man. Do you know that he worked with the Jack Parsons’ Lab at NASA?”
Dennie’s hand quakes as she clicks the tab. On the screen flashes Legrand’s face in grainy footage, a cluttered shop behind him with workbenches crowded with electronics, arms and legs and dangling wires, even a head of Rollo deWolf propped up behind him. The wolf animatronic has drooping eyelids that look drunk and leering. Legrand gestures wildly as he speaks. He’s a lanky white guy with an intense suntan, stark untanned skin beneath his eyes, thinning hair, striped button down shirt. In the foreground is a table scattered with papers and diagrams.
He speaks with a slow California surfer drawl. “My best ideas come to me after I’ve stayed up late watching TV, cooking shows and talk shows, what have you, and then I have, I suppose what we could call dreams of these shows.”
Dennie glances down to the video title and username: 09/03/82. Uploaded by nostalgia machine.
She moves her fingers across the mouse pad to open her Clipgrab, but she realizes she must minimize the browser, so her finger hesitates. It’s difficult to pull her eyes away from the Rollo deWolf head in the background, staring and inhuman in a way that worms into her subconscious. She could almost think Rollo was real. Almost. Even as Legrand speaks words she knows, she can’t look away. Just once, she thinks. She’ll watch it through once and then save it right away.
“It’s like secrets from the universe,” Legrand says, smiling like a professor at a lectern pleased with his own ideas. “The universe inspired me to embark on a new journey, a new phase of Funkafire Explosion; and hence we have the amazing Rook LaDue, space bassist and dancer.”
In the background, the interviewer murmurs, “By dancer, you mean the character will move his lower body? It won’t be fixed to the stage, like the other characters?”
“Oh yes, yes. He will step off the stage. Do a little twirl for the children.”
“Step off the stage? How is that poss…ib…”
“I cannot im…paa..rt all my see..crets… bu..”
Digital bleed cuts through the video, sending Legrand’s face scattering into a thousand boxy pieces; he appears to melt for a second, and the video freezes. With a scowl, Dennie clicks play, pause, play in a stupid attempt to get the video to work. She feels like slapping the side of her laptop, to clear it of static, but of course all of that is impulse, useless. She sighs, shakes her head at herself, and then clicks refresh.
The video returns with the grey screen, the red frowny icon. Vanished already.
She whispers. “Who are you?” She can’t escape the feeling that notstalgiamachine has uploaded only for her. It’s a communication from a great distance from a benefactor from beyond. Secrets from the universe, she thinks. A crazy thought. Still, Dennie’s certain whoever’s sitting on the other side of the screen can hear her, feel her gaze.
The California sun is hotter than she expected, it seems closer, like the sky’s falling down. The sun feels larger than normal, oppressive. Dennie shields her eyes and wonders, if she stays until nighttime, if the stars will be bigger out here, hovering massive in the atmosphere. As she waits outside the storage unit, she sweats and fans herself with the auction brochure, wishing she’d worn a hat. Her hands still shake from the adrenaline surge she experienced from winning the bidding war.
Now the auctioneer is gone, and the other winners have vanished to their purchased units. The manager from the lot office unlocks the padlock on her new storage unit, number 8250, previously owned by a one “Billy Bob Blackberry.” Dennie’s heart hammers. She can see several crates stacked up in the cool shadows beyond the door.
“It’s all yours,” the man says. He’s not sweating half as much as she is, despite his girth and the long-sleeved black futbal shirt that reads Club León. “You take everything out yourself. It’s gotta be empty by 4-o-clock, or you gotta pay for a month.”
“No problem. I have people coming to clear it out. Thank you.” Saying I have people makes her feel strange. Dennie hasn’t gotten used to everything she can make happen with the Voke Antiques company card, so she doesn’t quite believe it when she says there are people coming, hired with money, to put her treasures on a truck and ship them back home. The manager nods, unimpressed, and leaves her alone with her find.
The darkness inside the unit is like a cool patch of night. The air reeks of dust and grease, with enough of a mildew scent to concern her. Machines this old wouldn’t hold up well to leaking moisture. It’s difficult to navigate between the heaps of books and boxes, cobweb-ridden soldering irons and heaps of colorful fake fur. Deep into the unit, four crates lean upright against the wall, each of them as tall and wide as a person.
Three of the crates have fallen open, while only one is closed and actually protecting the valuables inside. The characters flop out like murder victims. There’s Minnie, Rollo, and a half-rotted Billy Bob lying in his open crate, nestled in shredded paper. One side of his face is covered in brown fuzz, and the other side is naked metal skull.
Dennie thinks her archivist friend would be appalled. She’s appalled. Someone threw them all in there, haphazardly. These poor works of art, she thinks.
She scrambles forward to Billy Bob, where she takes his head gently and moves it to rest upright in the crate, tucking him in. The head is twice the size of hers, with the fake fur matted in places, sticky, likely from whatever moisture crept into the unit. That fuzzy, heavy head between her hands makes her arms shiver. I’m touching one, she realizes, and then pulls out a pair of latex gloves from her bag. This is art. It must be curated properly. A giddiness rises from her center, but a weight as well. It’s a mix of delight and something else stirring her stomach.
It takes her a moment to realize what it is: dread.
The happy-dread feeling grows as she stares into Billy Bob’s eyes, two round yellow orbs with blue irises. Legrand designed the character to be a bear, but she always thought he looked more like a fat uncle with a long, protruding black nose. A ventriloquist’s dummy without the ventriloquist. Or, rather, a robot that facilitated the ventriloquism, allowing Legrand’s recorded songs to be piped through the mouth. Freud would’ve had a field day with Billy Bob, Dennie thinks, and she smooths his hair back with her now-gloved fingers. She pushes the plastic cups of his eyelids down, and he appears to be sleeping. He looks a little less real with the eyes closed. She takes some time to right Minnie and Rollo, close their eyes, too, as if laying rest to the dead.
Then, near enough now to the intact crate, Dennie can see what’s written there. On its lid, a few words declare in black stenciled spray paint:
Prototype: Rook LaDue
Dennie gasps audibly. She reaches for the lid, but it’s nailed shut. Tightly. A silver stud is hammered every inch around the full length of the crate. Three two-by-fours are nailed across the front, too. Whoever put Minnie and Billy Bob in their crates cared little for how they were stored, but this one was tucked in aggressively. She doubts even moisture could get in. She tries to work her nails under the lid, but nothing budges. As she wrenches at it with her hands, her gloves tear. She figures she’ll need a crowbar to get in, but her fingers keep worming around the lid, trying to find a loose spot. Nothing. She must wait until the porters get here, but even then they shouldn’t open the crate before it was transported, for fear of damaging what’s inside—
The thought causes her elation to sink. Of course these works of art aren’t hers. She found the auction, but she would’ve never been able to afford to bid without Ms. J’s credit card. Voke will sell them, of course, to private bidders for some hidden collection. Or worse, as décor in some chain restaurant or theme hotel. Dennie wonders if there’s a museum she can shuffle the characters off to without Voke or Ms. J noticing, some pop art installation somewhere that—
Something thumps inside the crate. She jumps. For the next few breaths, she stands there, frozen, disbelieving what she just heard. A thump—from the prototype crate? It must have been settling. She’d disturbed the contents, startling whatever rats or roaches found a home inside. Time to get Billy Bob and everyone out of here, she thinks. Time to get out of here.
Please, she says to Ms. J over the phone, make them wait to open it until I’m back.
Immediately after her flight lands, Dennie rushes straight to work. Dennie’s not allowed overtime, but Ms. J said as long as someone else’s in the building she could stay. It’s volunteer though. By the time Dennie arrives, the windows of the showroom have already darkened and the track lighting now seems softer, more golden. It almost looks like a library, Dennie thinks, and she takes a moment to enjoy it. She feels like a monk in a hidden archive, a researcher in a museum.
Voke’s porters have propped up the animatronics in the pop culture section. Minnie grins next to the Furby Organ, Rollo de Wolfe sits under a shelf of Teddi Ruxpins. Surrounded by their descendants, Dennie thinks. Like grandparents watching over grandchildren. Even Billy Bob gets a seat among them. A special place, although he’s beheaded. His head floats on a shelf with a naked robot eye. Voke had instructed the prototype crate be propped up in the showroom next to its brethren, a bit of pre-advertising although it was still nailed shut. Earlier that day, the movers had a hell of a time getting it open. They at least got the extra two by fours removed, and some of the nails. You’ll get a look at the Rook tomorrow, Ms. J said. We can’t clean them all at once, anyway.
After all the other staff but Ms. J has checked out for the evening, Dennie sits cross-legged on the floor, filling out the accession log. Date acquired, addition name. Provenance. Cost of acquisition. She wishes Voke kept spreadsheets; the physical book is such an antiquated practice. Her wrist aches. Her handwriting is stark black print from a ball point pen topped by a green-haired Troll doll. Reproduction, of course.
The Minnie and Rollo were easy to date. Their crates came with provenance crumpled inside: original invoices from the last DoughBiz Pizza Place restaurant, slated for construction in 1984. The place never made it to groundbreaking because of Legrand’s disappearance that same year, the subsequent investor pull-out. The Billy Bob likely was due for the same destination, but he lacked invoices. Dennie makes a note in the book about the absent fur covering on puppet’s face area, robotics exposed. Why half his face torn off? Vermin she guesses, or disgruntled movers, or general rot from being stashed in the storage unit for so many years. Maybe, she wants to write, he and the new prototype got in a spat, some lashing out of professional jealousy. She imagined the Rook’s claws could do some damage. The abandoned storage unit was another mystery. Why pre-pay the bill under Billy Bob’s name and then vanish? She doesn’t record the fact that she feels like she’s stumbled across a tomb. The point maybe was to bury them so they’d never be discovered. She still can’t resist using the word discovered in the documentation. Artifact discovered in storage unit, auctioned because of non-payment of account. Account name: Rollo de Wolf. purchased 1984. Storage company name: …
The name doesn’t come to her. Ti-D Stor or Tidy Storage? She leans over to her laptop and wakes it up. The browser with her favorited videos is still open on the screen. In a new tab, she pulls up her email, hunts for the company. Ted D’s Storage. She wonders if Ted was the name of the Club León guy who opened the unit for her. She records the name in the log, leaving her laptop open and glowing against the increasing dark.
“This is Prototype teleoperation test 2. Date: 5 August, 1984.”
She jumps at the sudden voice. A video’s started playing on one of her open tabs. She recognizes it as Legrand’s voice speaking, crackling and tinny. She blinks, listening for a moment before she realizes what he said.
She drops the log and tugs her laptop into her lap, hunching over like a vulture to get a closer look at the screen.
In the video, she sees a dimly-lit space, tables scattered with electronics components, and Legrand’s long face looking ashen. He grins into the light cast by a desk lamp near the camera. the closeness of it drowns out much of the background. “Test 1 drew my attention to some unfortunate glitches that I’ve now resolved, so I have high hopes. Dad would be proud, I’m sure.”
He steps back, letting some of the lamp light diffuse over the room. The dark space behind him brightens and Dennie’s not sure if she’s seeing the workroom from Legrand’s public access interview or the storage unit. It might have been one and the same. Legrand steps to the left to allow more of the background to be seen, and Dennie gasps as her eyes fall on the character standing behind him: a life-sized animatronic raven puppet in mint condition.
Rook has silver eyes, the same shape and composition as Minnie’s and Bob’s but without pupils, as though he’s got a touch of alien in him. Rook’s head is wide and bulbous with a yellow scythe beak and black feathers tufting out at odd angles. Legrand has stuffed the bird and his feathers into an astronaut suit that looks made out of tin foil, with Saturn-style planets emblazoned on its chest. In his finger-shaped wings, Rook holds a large, Papier Mache bass guitar painted with stars. The character perches on a stack of cedar crates that have been laid on their backs like coffins. Dennie stares at Rook’s legs and feet, the orange Big Bird style trunks that end in chrome talons.
She doesn’t move the cursor. She holds her breath. The username attached to the video is nostalgiamachine, so she already knows this moment is ephemeral. She’ll lose the secret if she doesn’t pay attention. This is how people feel, she thinks, when hearing prophecy.
“I am now transmitting. Are you receiving me, universe?” Legrand asks it to the ceiling.
When Legrand glances back at the video recorder, his eyes light up like stars. He extends a boxy remote controller so the camera can see.
He presses the button.
Something jerks within the character, and the feathers flail back and forth, the beak flops open. The audio fills with a screeching sound, something like gears grinding, and one bird leg bends, lifts up. With that movement, the whole character quakes, some mechanism gone off the rails within it, so it seizures for a solid thirty seconds before Legrand cries out and punches buttons on the remote.
Rook’s thrashing stops. The prototype’s frozen, standing with its leg half in the air. Legrand swears and takes a moment to fuss with the mechanics, peeling back a flap of feathers and space suit to reach the prototype’s innards. Rook’s flesh hangs free for a moment, his guts a mix of pneumatics and wires. It seems maybe like those wires are tangled up in a way so as to form a sigil, something occult, Crowley-esque, but Dennie decides that’s only her eyes seeing patterns in the soft, pixelated scene.
Legrand disappears behind his creation. There’s an uneven thumping noise from the video; maybe Legrand pulling out the pneumatics or dropping a series of transistors. The thumping sounds more distinct suddenly. Dennie realizes it’s coming not from the video but the showroom. She glances up to see if Ms. J is the source of the noise, but the woman is behind her desk, sipping her coffee mug cocktail. Dennie glances back at the unopened crate.
“Alright, let’s do this again,” Legrand says. He returns to the camera, now with his sweaty beach blond hair falling into his eyes. He sets the remote down on the table as he scribbles in a notebook. “If I haven’t burnt out the actuators, that is!” His laugh is loud, sharp with strain.
He continues to scribble, the remote untouched beside him, when Dennie sees the Rook twitch.
“I was correct about the chassis; that still needs more articulation. It’s too stiff. But the portal hasn’t worked so far. The dreams have been useful, but I’m beginning to doubt their accuracy.” He chuckles, sadly. “Those vast cosmic beings who spoke to my father perhaps want nothing to do with me. They won’t come through. Perhaps they d00zzzn cazzzzzzzft my portshhhhhal.”
Something buzzes loudly and the scene vanishes in static. For a moment, there’s only white snow on the screen.
The buzzing doesn’t stop, though. At first she thinks it might come from her laptop speakers, maybe they’ve finally crapped out, but when she tilts her ear to the computer, the speakers are silent.
Then the static vanishes, and Legrand’s face returns to the screen. The prototype looms closer behind him, now with both legs straight on the ground.
“Come on,” Dennie whispers. “Work.”
“Work, damn you,” Legrand mutters.
He slumps over the workspace, a pair of actuators cradled between his palms with red wires like veins streaming out onto the table surface. After plugging them both into a diagnostic, he fusses over the results. There’s a buzz and a soft grinding drone. She searches the background for something that could cause such a sound, like a generator or a fridge. Then she catches movement in the prototype’s eyes. It’s eyes wobble, the plastic eyelids flop as though caught in a lazy half-blink.
Just the mechanics settling, Dennie thinks.
Legrand murmurs to himself as static cuts in again. The drone noise increases until it’s so loud it makes Dennie queasy. She refuses to remove her eyes from the screen. She knows in her bones this window will close soon. There’s a creak, a metallic clunk behind the static. When the static clears again, Legrand’s face is there, awash in the light of the desk lamp, his mouth working like a child’s struggling with a block puzzle. The Rook is closer. Legrand must have moved it closer when the video cut out, but the momentary static was hardly a few seconds long. A trick of editing, Dennie thinks. Whoever uploaded the video must have done so from decaying tapes, some recorded relic that retained the droning, grinding screech of a dying VCR. It is not, Dennie tells herself, that the Rook is creeping up on Legrand.
Static swallows the screen again. Through the white noise, she hears clunking, a grinding wheeze, a hiss. A scream. Legrand’s? The scream rises in volume until it shatters into a stretched out digital distortion, a noise so terrible Dennie covers her ears.
The video dies. Her laptop screen flickers.
Reeling from the scream still in her ears, Dennie shakes herself. The video is gone, replaced by a red frowny face icon.
But she can hear it still: the grinding.
The creak of wood, like the slow opening of a coffin.
Dennie, heart hammering, turns to look behind her—
“Lockin’ up for the night!” Ms. J materializes behind Dennie, a broad muscled tower. The woman’s face is red with exertion. Or is it alarm? “Time to go.” she says. “Now.”
Dennie scrambles to her feet, clutching her computer. She struggles to find the words, but her thoughts are a jumble.
Particularly when Ms. J grabs her by the arm and drags her towards the showroom door.
Dennie wants to argue, but Ms. J drags her with such force she’s shocked out of any words of protest. She looks over her shoulder at the dimly-lit storeroom, the prototype crate. The grinding drone has quieted, but it’s still there, like the drone of a distant space transmission.
The moment before Ms. J kicks her out Dennie sees what she thinks is a slight crack, a shifting movement of the prototype crate’s lid.
The next day, when Dennie goes to work, a sign on the door declares the place closed for cleaning. When Dennie calls, Ms. J doesn’t answer. She calls the next day, and the next, wondering if she’s been fired. On day four she gets an email: bonus checks are ready. An invitation back in.
Dennie bee-lines for the Funkafire relics, and when she reaches them, her eyes confirm what she already knows is true: the prototype and its crate are gone. Not even a splinter remains.
Ms. J comes up behind her, like a gargoyle. The smell of vodka on the woman is vibrant, and as she sips from her cup, Dennie notices Ms. J’s knuckles are covered in bruises and bandages, as if she’d spent the last three days punching a wall.
Dennie asks, “Where’s the Rook?”
“It got moved.” Ms. J shrugs. “We needed to haul it to a different showroom, the one designed for Voke’s…special relics.”
“I want to see it.”
“I think you fuckin’ did, already,” Ms. J snorts. “Besides, we don’t want to lose you too soon.”
The woman hands over a check. Dennie glances at it. It contains more zeros than Dennie’s seen in a while.
When she sees the check, Dennie knows that’s it. She feels heavy, suddenly, like her bones are made of steel. It’s difficult to make herself move. So close, Dennie thinks. Her eyes threaten tears. It would’ve been better for her to mortgage her life away, max out every credit card and go into debt for the rest of her life, just so she could’ve seen it for real. She would have stayed in that storage unit and spent as long as she wanted, looking at the thing, memorizing its every feather and twitch until she doubted nothing anymore. When it moved, maybe she’d let it take her like it took Legrand, off to wherever transmissions from the universe lived. Imagine those distant cosmic shores! Her screams would’ve been worth it. They would’ve been real.
Now, eyes watering, Dennie can already hear the whispers of her dreams, haunting her with half-truths, guesses, estimations. None of this will ever be real.
Gritting her teeth, Dennie wipes her eyes and takes the check.
Ms. J nods solemnly. “Welcome to the team, kid.”
About the Author: Lorna D. Keach is not herself haunted, but she does write about haunted things. Her work has appeared in Helen: A Literary Magazine with forthcoming works in Lovecraftiana and Green Inferno. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which has proven more useful than one might think. At the moment, she lives in Omaha, Nebraska. More of her work can be found at lornakeach.com, and she tweets at @LornaDKeach.
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