UPS Game Ends: Summer 1984 • Torgus the Angel • The Caregivers
Soundtrack: “Back 2 Good” by Matchbox 20
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
UPS Game Ends: Summer 1984
The hood of the Rambler was still warm from the sun, which was now sinking into the milo field beyond the ridge. I lay with my back against the windshield, the skeleton of one wiper blade poking my butt. Next week was the start of middle school, and my nerves had been about to burst all week, but there had been no one to commiserate with because Marissa was sick at home, unable to even come to the phone. Today when I’d called her house, Rusty said, “Look. I already told you she can’t talk right now. She’ll call you when she gets better.” Then he hung up.
I fidgeted with the rusty wiper for a while, then pulled the old tape recorder out of my backpack and sat up crosslegged. Switching on the mic, I said: “Doc’s Log, forty-minus-ninety-six, zero-zero-zero-four Zulu. Preparing for the state-sanctioned brainwashing known as middle school.” I paused, remembering when we were little and Marissa sometimes disappeared for long stretches. Like the Night of the Tornadoes. My mouth felt dry. I clicked off the mic, looking down at a bug crawling across the car hood. “Fuck,” I whispered after a minute. I turned on the mic again. “There’s been no sign of Doomsday for five full days. The FH still insists she has the flu”—FH stood for Fun Hater— “but if she doesn’t call me back by tomorrow, a reconnaissance mission will commence—”
“Turn that stupid thing off.”
I nearly tumbled off the car hood. Marissa was paler and skinnier than I’d ever seen her, and her eyes had that strange, black look. I wondered how she’d managed to come up so silently in the dry, curling grass. “Dude!” I wanted to hug her, but there was something about her that said keep away. “You’re—you’re over the flu!”
Her mouth was a thin line. “Yeah.”
I’d forgotten I was still holding the live mic. I held it out to her. “Doomsday, any sign of—”
“Stop calling me that!” She smacked my hand away, and the microphone went flying.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” I demanded, suddenly furious at her for leaving me all alone all week and then coming back an asshole.
She looked at me without saying anything for a long time, and I stared right back. Gradually, her eyes went from black to midnight-blue. Then stormcloud-blue. At last, she blinked, and her mouth softened into a small smile. “Sorry, Doc. I’m still tired from the fever and all.” She hopped up on the hood beside me and we lay back against the fading warmth of the windshield’s old glass. “We can’t play the game anymore,” she said after a while.
“Why?” I asked unhappily.
“We’re twelve years old. We have to live in the real world now.” She turned her head to look at me, and it seemed like I was looking into the face of an old woman, though I couldn’t say why. “But you and me, we’ll always be Doc and Doomsday. Always.”
By now, Marissa and I had three plastic seed sacks filled with our detective logs and recordings. Tonight on our bikes, we reverently transported the seed sacks from Dad’s garden shed and enshrined them for posterity in the trunk of the Rambler.
The Rambler was a cornerstone in our landscape. The idea that it, or anything else in our lives, might one day disappear never entered our heads.
Torgus the Angel
We are unable to interfere in the affairs of mortals unless directly ordered by You, Little Speaker. Otherwise, Eric Kelvin would have been out of the picture long before the day the two of You abandoned Your game. Long before the night You deposited three large, woven poly bags in the trunk of an old, blown-out car, three bags heavy with critical magical data You weren’t even aware You’d been collecting, and which will not enter Your story again for a good long time.
In the halls of the Factory, from the fiery depths of its bowels to the gigantic columns that soar to the Ceiling of this world, news is spreading of the Organic who miraculously survived years of enslavement, who singlehandedly brought all of production to a grinding halt. Who, as employees scramble to restore the system before more money is lost, is standing on a balcony one thousand feet above the street, freshly showered, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Who, gazing into a mirror an hour ago, ran a hand over a hardened face no longer that of the girl she last saw in the glass.
Marissa is staring up, searching the blackness above for even a single star, finding none. With a species of paralyzed despair, she understands there is no sky; wherever this is, it is far, far underground. Hidden from view behind the Factory, something emits a wide, warm glow, almost like sunlight…but not quite. The vastness of the DimCor stronghold throws up a shapeless umbra against it, a glowering guardian of whatever secrets lie on the other side.
Facing front, she gazes out over the dizzying expanse far below: towering structures twisting up out of the gloom, vast trenches etched with skeins of light winding away through a city that might be the size of Nebraska, Texas, a continent, an ocean, radiating out past every horizon, buildings and streets limned with a celestial luminescence. Streams of tiny lights race from the depths of the canyons, looking from this height like lines of speeding fireflies. They dart over rooftops, circle the towers, plunge under the streets, crisscross the blackness thousands of feet overhead. One zooms up the side of this tower, and as she glimpses the passage of something resembling a silver, segmented worm, there is a faint hum of machinery. Little monorails—this dark land is riddled with them: spiraling, vertical, upside-down. High above it all, gigantic glitterballs rotate like planets, catching the lights and scattering them across the city like many-colored jewels.
Finally, her gaze returns to the person next to her.
“Where is this place?” she asks Kelley Robadu.
“The beginning, man. Start of it all.”
“I don’t understand.”
Kelley leans an elbow on the baluster. “My turn. So: we found you on the road in the middle of bumfuck Kansas, but your driver’s license says you’re from Lincoln. What were you running away from?”
“My dad.” Marissa keeps her gaze steady as she tries desperately to remember if her wallet had still contained the faded photo of her and Tori, age six, the one Uncle Deek took of them. In the foreground, she is defiantly flipping the bird while behind her, Tori’s mouth hangs open in a caw of laughter. On the back he’d written the girls’ first and last names.
“Does your dad know you have antimagic?”
“No. I didn’t even know.” No, the photo wasn’t there. Rusty went through her wallet last December—nine years ago, she has to remind herself—and had left the old photo in pieces on the rug. “People there don’t believe in magic.”
Kelley is silent, contemplating her. Slowly her smile returns. “Oh, well. If there’s one thing I’ve always had lots of, it’s time. And we have so much more to talk about—like you being part of the team at DimCor. Oh yes, I think you’re going to be a great asset to my company. Now, how ’bout that burger?” The thought of real food banishes all else from Marissa’s mind for the moment. “C’mon.” Kelley bounds straight for the high ledge. Far below, another row of small lights is steadily growing brighter, racing up the side of the factory tower. Feather-light, it whispers to a stop beside the ledge.
Kelley hops from the balcony to a tiny platform on the outer wall. She turns, grinning at Marissa and pulling an elaborate, sequined clown mask out of nowhere. “Ready for some fun?” She slips the mask on. Marissa steps across a thousand-foot drop, and together they enter the first of the lighted cars. Once inside, they can walk around as if in an ordinary passenger train, even though they are standing perpendicular to the outer wall of the factory. The inside of the train car is dashed with dizzying black and yellow stripes. Embedded in the ceiling are crystal globes awash with colorful, abstract patterns that twirl and pulse in time to the industrial music filling the air. There are no visible speakers; the music seems to come from everywhere.
There are only four other passengers in this car, and they are so intent on stuffing their faces from a bag of garish, glowing cupcakes they take no notice of Kelley and Marissa. Their faces are sticky with magenta frosting. The air is thick with perfumed smoke.
The machine has no pilot. The doors close, and with a soft burst, the little train races straight up to the top of the tower before switching onto a horizontal rail. As the stronghold of the Factory falls behind them, its sheer size and complexity are staggering. Its galleries and substructures soar into the gloom, appearing to connect at some points with the distant dome of this massive cavern like giant columns formed over a period far longer than the existence of Earth. Equal in scale to the heights of its towers are the plunging depths of its roots, twisting down the face of the jagged cliffs and canyons dissecting the city and disappearing into unimaginable substratum below. As she watches, a straggling line of people descends a narrow stairway winding along the face of the cliff. They stare straight ahead, feet marching to a beat inaudible from up here. One stumbles, plunging over the side, arms and legs askew—a ragdoll from this distance—and disappears from sight. The others continue marching, oblivious.
Then the factory is too far away to make out any more detail. The train has been gathering speed. Now it switches into high gear, streaking across the vast ceiling at the rate of a Boeing 747, traveling several hundred miles in the time it would take to change a tire. All the while, its passengers sit, stand, or walk around, unswayed by velocity, angle, or gravity.
Here, transportation is a giant carnival ride at warp speed. There is no denying the rush of exhilaration as they tear along upside-down, high above the endless city. Marissa feels Kelley’s arm snake around her, feels hot breath in her ear. “Geronimo.” As the vessel abruptly switches rails, spiraling downward in a heart-stopping plunge, Marissa is unable to contain the childlike shriek of terrified laughter.
The menu presents an array of selections. A picture of a pizza. A picture of a taco. A picture of a hamburger, the works. For some reason, a picture of a live pig. A bottle with a big X on the side. A red, white, and blue can bearing the unmistakable Budweiser seal—minus the word Budweiser. Nowhere to be seen, in fact, is a single line of text.
At the bottom are what look like fluorescent jelly beans: orange, pink, lime green, and electric blue. Dessert, perhaps? Next to each jelly bean, instead of dollar signs, smiley faces: one, five, ten, twenty.
From the many floors below this balcony, music pounds and colors flash. As Marissa had followed Kelley on the staircase twisting up and around the cavern’s top floor, a huge, lavender cake had materialized out of the dome of the ceiling, spiraling slowly, trailing sparkles in its wake. Taller than a grown man, the cake is now floating down, past the booth where they sit, its frosting catching the dazzle of the lights in its sculpted swoops and whorls.
The cake descends into the midst of the brightly costumed partiers below, and a drunken cheer echoes up the walls.
If the journey from the train platform down the long, winding tunnel that brought them here is any indication, then there is, in fact, cake everywhere. Lovely, exquisite cakes, of every imaginable design and hue. The revelers simply tear into them, it seems, whenever they get hungry. Here, several people had been scarfing a pink leopard-print cake with little flowers all over it; in a doorway, someone was gobbling a bright blue and green cake shaped like a peacock; down an alley, some guys were fighting over a white, glittering, multi-tiered cake shaped like a castle in a fairy tale. In Nebraska, such works of art would cost hundreds of dollars. Here, they are evidently free. Beneath the pretty frosting, the cakes are garish: orange, pink, green, blue.
The crowd below swells, falling upon the giant cake like a horde of ants, scooping up handfuls and stuffing it into their mouths. Inside, the cake is acid-blue. In minutes, the view from above is one of lavender-frosted carnage, the lovely dessert lying in ruin.
Across the table, Kelley still wears the clown mask that concealed her identity on the trip here. Unaware their lord walked among them, the people in the alleyways, on the outer decks and landings, up and down the corridors bored into the jagged cliffs, were a writhing mosaic of inebriated humanity. Young and old, fat and thin, black and white, male and female; their painted, scantily-clad bodies were bedecked in strands of beads, filmy veils, spiked collars, towering heels. Heads were festooned with feathered masks or tall headdresses, glittering tiaras, devil horns, glowing wigs.
People hoisted tall glasses brimming with luminous liquids—also, anonymously familiar containers of beer. An endless storm of confetti and balloons twinkled down, much of it burning up in the torches lining the wide promenades zigzagging up and down the cliff faces, flaming out in red, green, blue, purple. Imbedded in the walls, beaming down from lampposts, even hanging over bathroom mirrors, were flashing globes of varying size, emitting the ubiquitous, hypnotic patterns and techno music that propel the endless party.
Stepping nimbly among the revelers were small, black boxes on long stilt legs. The boxes—Transducers, Kelley calls them—rotated this way and that, a metal flap opening from time to time, revealing goggle-like windows. Wherever fights or orgies broke out, they came flocking, flaps open to capture every angle. It soon became apparent the pulsing patterns broadcast across the crystal balls were collages of drug-enhanced violence and sex, broken into lurid flashes timed to the music.
Above all this, Marissa is staring at a picture of a hamburger. She is hoping it will be more than just a cake made to look like a hamburger.
A waiter in a glittering, black magician’s vest, top hat, silver bow tie, and g-string appears by Marissa’s shoulder. Pulsing above his heart is a name, in glowing script: Lenno. “Got real money? No money, no food.” Kelley slips the mask off. His eyes widen, and he nearly drops the slender, black wand he has been twirling. “Oh! Miss Robadu. I—I didn’t know, your face was—”
“Well, the honor’s all mine, Lenno. Believe me!” Kelley’s infectious smile seems to calm him slightly. “Vodka. Tall.”
Lenno nods mutely, then gives the wand a slight twitch. A glass of straight vodka—very tall, indeed—appears in front of Kelley. He turns to Marissa. “And you, ma’am?”
Her shrunken stomach gives an urgent pang. “A hamburger. With fries. Coffee.”
“No coffee!” He looks very upset. “No coffee!”
“Okay, no coffee, okay.”
“Coffee weakens the immune system,” Kelley says. “Plenty of other stuff to drink, though.”
Marissa wonders about this statement, but only for a second because something else has occurred to her. “A beer!” Goddammit, the last time she had any of these things, she was a kid. A kid.
A burger appears out of nowhere, still sizzling, alongside a frosty mug of beer. Marissa takes a greedy bite. The bun has sesame seeds. The pickles are tart and crunchy. The mustard sharp and jolting on her tongue. The fries crinkly, golden, and salty. All those years without real food, and now…the carbs, the protein. The grease. The rush of calories is more powerful than the line of coke she once tried at seventeen. “Not cake.”
Kelley’s laugh descends into a grating chuckle of black mirth as Marissa’s mouth closes on nothing, the intoxicatingly real food suddenly gone like vapor, her tongue slavering for more grease, more salt, more meat. After a moment, Kelley speaks, her girlish voice returning. “Because of me, everyone here has everything they need. In return, all I ask for is loyalty.” The juicy scent of burger is still in the air, on Marissa’s empty hands. “Do I have yours? Would you like to eat like this every single day? Snort your very own tank of ol’ Forty-Five every night?”
Marissa shrugs, allowing her face to fall blank, save for the small smile. “I’m all yours.”
Kelley holds up her vodka. “The past is gone, Marissa Kelvin. Here’s to now, and to your future.”
Marissa lifts her own mug. The clink of glass rings out, and she drinks deeply. The good cold beer brings back a flood of memories. After-game bonfire parties in the fall. Hiding from the cops in a cane field to keep from getting MIP’ed. Kicking back in the old tan Rambler, cracking dirty jokes with Doc. Watching thunderstorms roll in from the west.
She will hold these golden Nebraska memories close in the dark times to come. She will become Kelley Robadu’s friend and colleague. She will learn everything there is to know about DimCor, and the dark kingdom in which it resides. She will do things that will transform her forever. And when she has gained Kelley’s absolute trust, she will find the way to take it all down. Even if it means dying in the process. Marissa begins to smile—a real smile this time, one that warms her eyes.
“Rock ‘n Roll!” Kelley raises her palm, and they slap a hearty high-five. Marissa’s burger reappears in her hands, every bit as hot and juicy as before.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.