This one was different somehow. It was a feeling he just couldn’t shake.
The man with the salt-and-pepper hair, the silver beard, the wire-rimmed glasses — he’d been tinkering with toys his entire life. When he was a boy, he rarely played with the gifts given to him by friends and family; his lot in life was to flip them upside down, take a screwdriver to their underbelly and pry open their electronic entrails. Were thirst for knowledge and understanding the inner machinations of his playthings an actual physiological condition, he’d long ago have succumbed to his unquenchable desire, despite every attempt to slake his fascination.
As he aged, that curiosity became his craft. Out of college, the tinkerer secured an internship with the Imagineers over at Disney. Every Animatronic in the Hall of Presidents had felt his deft touch and unique ability to create circuits in the tightest spaces, bringing to life what was otherwise a complex assemblance of gears and wires. Older rides that required a revamp of worn-down, out-of-date robotics demanded his steady hand and joie de vivre for bringing cold steel to life. If it was a machine that moved and spoke, one was safe to assume that he’d been involved in the process.
Passion rarely pays well, but his obsession was the exception. He’d made a pretty penny in his halcyon days working in Los Angeles, and now it enabled him to take on projects that he thought could make a difference. During his younger years, he’d developed a healthy appreciation for the Rock-afire Explosion and the Country Bear Jamboree and their ability to light up the faces of the children who couldn’t help but be enraptured by their singing and their movement. As the 80s bled into the 90s, though, many of those installations began to show signs of their age. They were desperately in need of repair, but few — if any — of the family-oriented pizzerias that housed the fur-covered monstrosities felt the need (or had the desire) to do the necessary maintenance. More and more, the children came to their establishments for the banks of arcade games; if the talking bear’s jaw was hinged shut, so be it. There was little profit to be made from ensuring lifelike movements choreographed to the tinny music playing over the loudspeaker.
Such a tradeoff was unacceptable to our modern-day Geppetto. So he bought a van that doubled as a mobile workshop and toured the country on his own dime, making new what had grown decrepit. He sought no quarter and asked for no payment, though he’d help himself to a slice of pizza here and again.
As his own body betrayed him and his movements became as ragged as those of the machines he aimed to preserve, though, his traveling dwindled. Yet he could never bring himself to stop working with his beloved machines, and he bought a nice little cottage in the backwoods of Louisiana whence he could continue to play and work. He was on his own time now, and he’d create that which pleased him.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
The all-too-familiar pattern of police lights cast a strange hue through the oddly opaque windows of his home. Inside, there was little sign of a struggle. His tools were strewn about the workbench, but most everything else was in its proper place. Still, the reality of the situation was undeniable. The famed toymaker had been missing for two weeks before police realized that something was amiss; upon their arrival to the cottage, they were baffled by what seemed to be a sudden disappearance.
“Maybe he just left. Man’s not been right for several years now. Shit, I’d see him at the general store and he’d ramble on about his greatest project. Knuckles were cut up all the time. Ask him about it, he’d say he’s fighting demons. Who even knows what that means, Sarge?”
“I’m sure that I don’t know, but I’m supposing that journal might have an answer or two, if you’d be so kind as to pass it to me.”
The deputy wasn’t particularly keen on being inside the tinkerer’s home any longer than was necessary; it creeped him out, from his toes to the tips of his eyelashes. Several unfinished animatronics hung from repurposed meat hooks on the walls, their lifeless eyes seemingly tracking his every move. He half-ran, half-skipped to the bench that gave birth to those monstrosities. Reaching down to grab the journal, he swore he heard voices screaming at him to leave that place. He shivered in the sweltering heat and passed the book over to his superior officer. His eyes traced his way back; to look to the walls was to welcome evil into his mind. Yet he couldn’t quite keep himself from looking at the same spot on the wall. Over and over, he steeled himself to train his gaze on the floor; time and time again, something — or someone — demanded that he stare at a gap between two mechanical bears. Dust outlined what once had filled that gap: a head, what looked to be wings, perhaps a beak.
“Hey Sarge, doesn’t it look like there’s something missing on that wall over there? Seems like maybe there should be another one of those damned machines. Where the hell is it?”
“…Sarge? You okay?”
This one would be different. This one would be for him.
When he arrived to his new cottage, the tinkerer was greeted by a feathered friend on his stoop. A mighty pelican — the largest bird he’d ever seen, at least that close and in the flesh — had made a home for himself on the awning of his front porch. It was an impressive animal, and the tinkerer had neither the heart nor the energy to insist that the pelican move elsewhere. Over time, the bird became his outlet to the world outside his own mind, one of the few living beings with which he’d regularly interact. He watched it hunt, swooping up fish in its bill and swallowing them whole.
And slowly at first, but with increasing fervor as the days flew by, he became obsessed with the creature. He wanted it as his own, yet the wild animal refused to be anything close to a pet. When the tinkerer drew too near, the bird snarled — he could swear that it was speaking to him, expressing its displeasure with his presence. He tried to leave his newfound friend offerings of peace, but the pelican simply knocked them from his perch and watched them shatter on the hard-packed dirt below. He swore the bird smiled as it saw his heart break, and that smile rendered him a squalid shell of his former self.
He must have the bird.
So he set about making one of his own. The skeleton was quickly rendered in what scrap metal he could find; he even destroyed his hoverboat and repurposed the steel ribbing to reinforce the joints of his new creation. The beak was a vicious maw of sharpened aluminum, capable of severing any and all organic matter foolish enough to find its way into its gaping chasm. Eyes carved from obsidian reflected every source of light, dancing with the spark of a million fireflies, yet dead as the darkest night.
The feathers were the hardest part. His pelican “friend” refused to give up any of its own, and any smaller birds from which he might think to gather loose feathers were swallowed up by the unending abyss of his avian inspiration. There would be no competition for resources so long as the pelican called that cottage home. Days became weeks, and still the tinkerer was without the final touches to his greatest machine. Desperation took over his very being; completion became his only goal. He tried securing loose foliage to the cold metal of the robotic bird, but it sloughed off the assorted leaves and vines almost as if by will, voicing its displeasure with his failings.
Finally, in a harried attempt to please that which he’d created, he gathered loose bits of fur and hair that he found strewn about the woods which surrounded his home. He knew better than to ask where it all had come from; if he needed to know, the pelican would tell him. Frantically, he pasted the fur to the skeleton. And this time, the covering he’d chosen stayed in place. His friend was complete.
“…Pierre. I will call you Pierre. Does that please you, Pierre?”
Pierre turned his head and smiled. His beak opened wide, and the tinkerer thought he could see all of the truths of the universe.
Pierre’s power source was turned off, yet he moved. He lived.
“This…none of this makes any sense.”
“Seriously, Sarge, you’re scaring the shit out of me. What’s going on?”
“Look at this entry. Two weeks ago, the crazy old man finished work on what he called, ‘the only One that ever mattered.’ That was two weeks ago; hell, he’s been gone at least that long.”
“And every day since his disappearance, a new drawing of that machine pops up on the pages. And each one is more grotesque than the last. And now it’s gone.”
The deputy couldn’t bear to look at the illustrations on the page; he could feel his soul tearing loose from his corporeal being just from standing in the house. He tried to clear his mind by looking out the window, only for a slip of paper caught beneath the windowsill to catch his eye.
He walked to the window and slowly, carefully pulled the paper from its secured place. He glanced over it. Once. Twice. A third time. His hands began to tremble; wordlessly, he handed it to the sergeant.
“What is it, son? What’s got your ghost?” The sergeant read the paper in front of him. “…this…this is a packing slip for a shipping company. Says they took one of his machines three days ago. …and the appointment to pick it up was made just the day before. But…but this nutjob’s been missing for two weeks. How in the bloody f-”
“THE THING’S SHIPPING ITSELF. IT’S GOING TO NEW ORLEANS. Call the governor. Get the National Guard. Hell, call the president. We’ve got some seriously strange shit going on.”
“Yes, sir.” The deputy was plenty ready to get out of that house. He turned to the door.
The knob wouldn’t budge. He put his shoulder against the solid oak slab. No dice. He looked to the window, hoping for a way out.
In the middle of the afternoon, a pitch black pall covered the home. When he closed his eyes, the deputy swore he could see light; with them wide open, all was darkness. All was the void.
From the ceiling, a form slowly descended. At first glance, it seemed a man. But man does not have a beak.
“SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” came forth the cry from beyond the grave.
“Run, son! Run!”
“Sarge, there’s no way out. We fucked up. We fucked up.”
“SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. PIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRE. SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”