Ronnie: Summer 1991 • The UPS: 1999
Soundtrack: “Babylon” by Faster Pussycat
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Ronnie: Summer 1991
Maybe he’ll be here tonight.
That was pretty much my only thought as I parked the Buick by the dumpsters and headed towards the back entrance of DownHome Kitchen.
The new owner, Ronald Gillespie, had made a generous offer to retain most of the wait staff that had worked at The Pot, but I’d been the only taker. Before long, DHK had a whole new crew, and over the past few months, I’d bonded with Markisha McFarland over our shared love of hard rock and partying. Marki had a short, sculpted Afro with a blond streak down the left side. She also had a tattoo of a devil on her left bicep, which Ronald made her cover up because it didn’t fit that wholesome, DownHome country gal image.
We weren’t crazy about having to wear pink flowered dresses, panty hose, and squeaky white shoes for hours on end. But these days? I’d’ve worn pumps with bells on them and hardly noticed, because DownHome Kitchen had a new evening manager. Who’d have guessed stuffy old Ronald Gillespie had a son whose dark hair fell into his eyes as he bent over the register like Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder? Not that Ronnie would ever notice a scruffy weather nerd like me, but it never hurts to dream, right?
My usually mousy hair was in a shiny French braid, and I’d dabbed just a little Bonnie Bell Skin Musk behind my ears. I deposited my backpack in my cubby hole, took a deep breath, and went out into the galley. “He’s not here tonight,” Marki whispered, whipping past with a tray of desserts. She spun around. “Party at my place.” And spun back again.
My heart plummeted. Grabbing a ticket pad and shoving a bottle of ketchup into my pocket, I made my way towards the prep area. It was going to be a long night, but at least there’d be alcohol at the end of it.
“Hey.” I stopped in the middle of pouring ice waters, a smile beginning to tug at the corners of my mouth. McFarland, you asshole. I turned, pitcher in hand, to look into a pair of eyes that were the green I imagined the ocean was. Ronnie was leaning against the milk dispenser, holding a clipboard.
“Hey yourself,” I said, all casual.
“Looks like you’re section eight tonight, at least ’til after the rush.”
“On it.” Out of nowhere, I said: “Want to come to a party after close?”
It was Marki, me, and two other waitresses, Rochelle and Jeanine. Sitting in Marki’s apartment around the kitchen table in our sweaty pink dresses, we were just starting a second game of chandeliers when there was a knock on the door. A minute ago, we’d been belting out “Babylon” by Faster Pussycat at the top of our lungs, and Marki shooshed us severely as she rose, smoothing her dress and putting on a sober face. “The neighbors might’ve called the cops,” she whispered, heading into the living room.
She returned seconds later, her brown eyes sharp on mine from across the room as Ronnie followed her in. I hadn’t thought he’d really show up. Rochelle and Jeanine whooped and cheered in welcome. “Hey,” Ronnie said, looking only at me.
Marki led him over to the chair next to mine, re-seated herself across from us, then solemnly raised her glass to Ronnie. “Welcome, guest, to the bi-monthly meeting of the esoteric order of the Waste-resses.”
“Chandeliers, eh?” Ronnie surveyed the red plastic cups arranged in a circle around the middle cup brimming with beer. “Where’s the ping pong ball?”
“Oh, no, we don’t need no steenking ball!” Rochelle corrected him, looking mischievous.
A quarter pinged off the table and landed noisily in Ronnie’s cup. “White boy, you gots ta drink!” Jeanine, who was also white, jabbed a finger at him.
“Oh no, don’t everyone gang up on me because I’m white.” Ronnie cringed in mock-fear. But slammed his beer like a pro. There was a little gleam in those green eyes.
Marki nodded at Ronnie. “Shoot that bitch.”
Ronnie didn’t even appear to take aim before the quarter sailed smoothly into my beer. I knocked it back and dried the quarter on the hem of my dress while refilling my glass and avoiding Marki’s twinkling gaze. “I’m warning you, Gillespie,” I growled. “The more I drink, the better I get.”
“At what?” Jeanine asked slyly, elbowing Rochelle, and they giggled like grade schoolers.
I took careful aim at Ronnie’s cup. Ping—ploop. Right into the center cup. Everybody cursed me as we grabbed our beers and raced to the finish. Ronnie drained his in one easy draught and slammed his cup face down on the table before anyone else was even half done. As he did so, his leg brushed mine. I inhaled beer and coughed, trying to keep going. Then everyone’s cup but mine was empty and face down, and beer was coming out of my nose. The Waste-resses were all shrieking with laughter as I got up and walked around coughing, my face burning.
A firm hand gripped my upper arm, and another gently patted me on the back. “Hey. You all right, Tor?” His breath tickled my ear as he handed me a paper towel to dry my face.
I was suddenly warm all over. Tor. Nobody’s ever called me that before. “Yeah.” I looked up at him and hiccupped. “Thanks.”
“Good. Because if I’m not mistaken…” He curled an arm around my waist and turned me back towards the kitchen table. “You gots some drinkin’ to do.” He lifted the middle glass and presented it with a flourish.
The Waste-resses howled, stomping on the floor and pounding the table: “Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!”
Ronnie turned out to be a crack shot, meaning he stayed sober and trounced the rest of us. By three in the morning, Rochelle and Jeanine were both passed out on the sofa. Around then, I suddenly straightened in my chair. Marki was watching me. “When’s the storm coming, Marshall?”
“’Bout a half hour,” I replied, getting out of my chair. “Be’r rollup yer windows.”
“Storm?” Ronnie frowned, looking out the kitchen window. “I didn’t hear any thunder.”
“Marshall here’s a meteorologist.” Marki smiled down at me with parental pride.
“Will be,” I corrected. “After I gwaduate. Graduate.” I groped for my backpack, and Marki’s expression became concerned.
“Wow.” Ronnie fished my backpack from under the table and slung it over his shoulder. “So, does that mean you’re going to do atmospheric science, like for the military or something?”
His lips looked so sensuous when he said atmospheric science. “Uh-huh,” I replied, still staring at those lips. I pulled myself together. “Three more years at UNL. Then grad school. Prob’ly Oklahoma.” Because she’ll be back by then, of course.
“Why Oklahoma?” Still holding my backpack, he steered me down the stairs and towards his El Camino. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Marki, silhouetted on her balcony, felt her keen gaze.
“It’s the National Weather Center… Hey, thanks, but I was gonna head out on West A and get a better look at the storm.” As if on cue, there came a soft rumble from the west.
“Best idea I’ve heard all night,” said Ronnie, helping me into the El Camino.
We cruised southwest down the tree-lined curves of Cotner for several minutes, then turned right on A, before either of us spoke again. “So, why meteorology?”
We were just topping the viaduct over the tracks. There were no other cars out, and for these few seconds it felt like we were floating on a bar of light in space. Far beyond the grain elevators on the southwest edge of town, a thunderhead was crowning, amber lightning blazing up through its core, silhouetting the massive, serpentine shape lazily unwinding where the night sky met the black edge of the world.
Why meteorology? I almost told him then. Almost.
Cold air whipped suddenly through the open windows, banishing the stale humidity that had hung about all week. The dark, wild scents of approaching rain and petrichor struck our nostrils, and thunder’s low vibration rolled eastward like soft ripples atop a black and bottomless sea. The angel rose through the cloud mass, encircled by purple arcs of lightning. “That’s why,” I exhaled, staring straight ahead.
We rode in silence for a minute. The lightning in the heart of the growing cell took on a greenish tint. “Uh, maybe we ought to park under a bridge,” Ronnie said. “It looks like hail, maybe.”
“There’ll be some, but only pea-size.”
“How do you know?”
“Not enough sustained updraft to produce anything bigger,” I said, peering sagely up into the blackness of the sky.
“Wow,” he said in an awed tone. “Guess I should’ve taken more science.”
“What did you take?”
“Studio Art. UNL. One of my roommates—Darrell—was this mechanical engineering genius. He had all these crazy ideas. He dreamed up this furniture shop we were going to manage together: a boutique outfit, with one-of-a-kind, avant-garde pieces. A lot of nights, we’d be up ’til four in the morning, working on designs and drawing up our business plan.”
Not just hot, but an artist, too. “Do you have any designs built yet? I’d love to see them sometime.”
He was quiet a minute, his face hidden in shadow. At last, he sighed. “We lived with a bunch of other guys. Everyone called it ‘Animal House.’ People just showed up to party, you know? Someone was always short on rent, and one time the electricity even got shut off. Great philosophical debates in the basement around the foosball table.” He shook his head fondly. “Fueled by alcohol and…whatever. Out of that came our most original designs, we had them all in this big binder. The cover had graph paper, and the letters all had those little engineering vectors on them, showing angles, length, circumference.”
“What did the letters say?”
“They said—’THE FUTURE’.” I wanted to ask him where the binder was now, but didn’t. “Then this letter came. It was from the dean, saying I was on academic probation. I was terrified Dad would find out, so I took decisive action: spent the last of my cash on a bottle of Night Train.” I laughed uncertainly. Ronnie nodded humbly. “Yeah. Anyway, I woke up the next day and found Darrell passed out naked on the floor with some girl, and an eviction notice on the front door. I couldn’t find anything clean to wear in that whole shitty house.” He seemed to forget about me, one elbow out the window, one hand draped over the wheel. “So, I started going through a pile of laundry in the corner of my room. I picked up this pair of underwear, and then I yelled and threw them against the wall because—I swear—there was some kind of green worm chewing on them.”
Despite my best efforts, a snort of laughter escaped me. “Sorry.”
But Ronnie was laughing, too. “It’s okay, I know how it sounds. But, Tor, that was the day I knew I’d hit rock bottom. Also the day Dad said either switch to a business major and move onto campus, or he’d cut off tuition.”
“What’d you do?” I asked, already knowing.
He shrugged. “What could I do? Got my Bachelor’s in business and went to work at the first DHK, up in Omaha.”
“So that’s it? What about all your plans, and Darrell?”
“Well, we kind of fell out of touch. But I’m only doing this until I’ve saved up enough money to start the business. Then I’m going to look him up. See if we can pick up where we left off.” He sounded so certain, I could already see the little furniture shop in my mind. He laughed awkwardly. “I have no idea why I just told you all that. I guess I just feel like you’re someone who’d understand.”
“I’m honored. And I know you’ll make your dream come true someday. We both will.”
“Tell that to my dad.” Ronnie laughed again, shaking his head as if to fling something away. “But screw him, it’s my life!”
“Damn straight! Shit—turn here.”
We followed the old service road between the ball field and the woods, the elevators looming as we approached the pastureland north of Pioneers Park. And then we were at the gravel crossroads that ended in a T, marked by the ancient, wooden picket sign with its splintered, illegible arrows pointing left, right, skyward. Beyond, nothing but pasture between us and the storm, which was swelling as it advanced. “Roll ’em up,” I said, cranking my window shut as the first fat raindrops splatted on the dusty glass.
“This your favorite place?” Ronnie put the El Camino in park and switched on the radio. The dark piano intro of a decade-old song by Journey poured from the speakers, punctuated by static from the lightning.
“It’s the best place.”
“It’s where me and Doomsday always came.” The second her name escaped my lips, I clamped them shut.
“Doomsday?” I could hear him smiling in the dark. “As in—The Kids from C.A.P.E.R.?”
I turned sharply. “You watched that show?”
He seemed equally astonished. “I thought I was the only one!”
Feeling giddy, I forced myself to slow down. “She was—is—my best friend. Marissa Kelvin. She always called me Doc.”
Ronnie was animated, nodding. “The Cute One,” we said together, and laughed. Then he sobered. “So, wait, hold on. I’m from Freemont, but we all heard about this on the news last year. Marissa. That girl who went missing right before graduation—that’s your friend?”
“We were going to go to school in Oklahoma together. She was gonna be a big-time CFO…” I could say no more.
“Hey. She’s coming back, Tor.” His hand was firm on my shoulder, and as I looked at him in a strobe of lightning, his emerald gaze pierced that place of longing deep inside me, igniting the wild hope I’d kept bottled so long. “And she can’t wait to see you again. We just can’t stop believing.”
The UPS: 1999
A massive effort is underway to repair and replace the broken machinery, including the Jukebox—the design and construction of which earned Tyler the position as Kelley Robadu’s right-hand man and confidante.
“So, don’t be surprised if it takes him awhile to warm up to you,” Kelley says Monday morning as Marissa follows her out onto the catwalk above the expanse of the main manufacturing area.
Her breath catches at the sight of the massive production floor below her, its assembly lines crisscrossing, unraveling like twisted highways. It is the first time she has laid eyes on it since breaking free from the enchantment that enslaved her at these machines for the last nine years. Though the pounding of the Jukebox has been stilled, the place is hardly silent. From all across the expanse of machinery, carts of crystals, vats of potions, and cabinets of magical tools, comes the constant sound of labor. Not of the enslaved Organics, who are all slumbering in their storage units in the warehouse—but of DimCor’s paid workforce.
Here, a team is tearing apart the filter element machine, wands aglow as they float the charred and blasted pinions and spools over to a growing rubbish pile along a distant wall. There, a Supervisor is overseeing the restoration of the conveyor belt that was damaged by Marissa when she kicked over the shelves of parts that fell into its gearbox. In the wake of the malfunctioning bots in their frenzy, recovery and repairs extend across this entire floor, as well as above and below. Far underneath all this, where the eternal furnaces bellow, the bodies of the slaves who were fatally injured are fed into the flames.
At the very center of the factory floor stands the Jukebox, its great carousel dark, the vast array of horns soaring from the depths of the mines to the winding turrets above, dead silent. Wands aloft, teams of workers are clearing the debris of Marissa’s assault, replacing the smashed and broken parts, performing diagnostic and reparative spells. Overseeing this most crucial task is Tyler, the original designer of the Jukebox itself. As if sensing Marissa’s eyes upon him, Tyler turns, his pale face tilting up, his lips becoming a thin red line.
One by one, more faces turn to stare up at the place where she stands upon the catwalk, clad in the pristine white of the Factory. Next to her, Kelley, in her trademark jeans and a pink Husker tee-shirt, leans an elbow upon the railing, deliberately placing one jaunty fist on her hip, returning their stares. One by one, the faces bow to their work again. Twirling a finger in a follow-me motion, Kelley skips down the stairs, and Marissa obeys.
Walking amongst the whitecoats, Marissa can feel the suspicion in the averted eyes, the tension in the set expressions as they pass. They walk straight up to the towering canopy of the darkened Jukebox. “Brought you an extra pair of hands,” Kelley says to Tyler. “She hasn’t been trained on a wand yet, but she’s plenty strong.”
“Wait, where’re you going?” Tyler is clearly flustered as Kelley turns to go, leaving Marissa standing there in front of him.
“Lincoln, Nebraska.” Kelley keeps walking. “Have to convince the board at the NFMA not to make any deals with the competition while we’re getting our shit back together.” At last, she stops and turns. “Case you haven’t figured it out, this Organic’s not like all the others. That doesn’t make her a threat. It makes her a valuable asset. Treat her accordingly.” She leaves Tyler and Marissa standing there in the midst of the wreckage, staring at each other.
Marissa shrugs. “You heard the boss. So, what can I do for you, dickweed?”
A few yards away, a tall man in white overalls is overseeing a team unloading a cart stacked high with transparent purple panels and handing them off to another team that is busy installing the panels in slots at the base of the console. Each panel is etched with a glimmering, intricate circuitry of whorls and zigzags. At the perimeter of their workspace lie shards and fragments of the panels that were destroyed. Tyler strides into this area, leaving Marissa to follow, coming to a stop in front of the man in overalls. “She can help replace these pitch regulators,” he tells him. To Marissa: “They’re made from Illiastor, which is very rare. It’s too delicate for wand work; it all has to be done by hand.” He lifts a clear panel and places it in Marissa’s hands. “Just one regulator costs over a grand. Out of fifty, thirty-five were destroyed.” He gives her a withering look before walking away.
Marissa joins the team of installers and begins to insert her panel into a slot. “Are you blind, or just stupid?” Marissa turns to see a young woman glaring at her, a purple panel clutched in her hands.
“’Scuse me?” Marissa returns the woman’s glare.
“They don’t go in that way,” the woman says, elbowing Marissa aside and beginning to install her panel in the slot Marissa had been aiming for.
“Here, miss.” The Supervisor in white overalls takes the panel from Marissa, carefully turning it around, and she notices the two front corners of the panel are square, while the two rear ones are rounded.
“Yes, uh, sir.” Marissa takes back the panel and installs it correctly in the next slot over.
The man hesitates. “Meredith,” he says at last.
“Nice to meetcha, Meredith. I’m—”
“We all know who you are.” Meredith has already turned his attention to other matters. The work continues like this, Marissa’s coworkers laboring in silence, their fear and hostility hanging in the air like an unpleasant smell.
She installs each regulator panel with lightning precision, going back for the next one at roughly twice the speed of anyone else. Soon, everyone is watching her out of the corners of their eyes. Returning to the cart for the next panel, she glances up to see many people staring openly at the unerring speed of her movements. She shrugs, returning their stares. “Comes from nine years of being your slave, I guess.” They drop their eyes and go back to work, which is interrupted only once by a half-hour lunch break.
Walking back to the production area, Marissa pauses near the end of the corridor. From around the corner come hushed voices.
“I heard she’s some kind of sorcerer, that’s why the potion quit working on her.” The voice is that of the woman with the panels.
“Maybe so, Satchell,” says another. “Hell, I don’t care what she is, she’s gonna cost us our jobs! With production stopped, and all the repairs—”
“And now she’s making us all look bad!” Satchell whispers fiercely.
“Shut up,” says a male voice, nearer than the other two. “She’s got a soft spot for her. Best not raise a stink over the fact that she’s got the speed of a—a—”
At that moment, Marissa rounds the corner, falling into step right behind them. The three face front, quickening their pace and walking on in taut silence.
Now, a group of workers is installing covers of blue-black metal over the base of the console, and Marissa is following behind with a screwdriver, fastening them down. The screwdriver looks like an ordinary Philips; however, she has only to aim it at the screws and they obediently jump into the threaded holes and tighten themselves. As she waits for the men to get another cover in place, one of them scowls at her. “You don’t have to set a speed record, you know,” he grumbles.
The end of the regular workday is approaching, but overtime will be mandatory until repairs are complete. As the crews are clearing away the last of the debris, Tyler climbs the steps to the catwalk to survey the rebuilt Jukebox, holding something up to his lips. “We expect to be back up to eighty percent output by middle of next week.” His voice echoes across the production floor. “That means we have to test it and make sure it’s working properly. Supervisors, to your stations.” A number of whitecoats head for the warehouse.
All is still for several minutes. Then, there is a great wrenching groan as the giant cogs within the Jukebox catch and begin winding up to speed, the deep and penetrating rhythm slowly gaining its original tempo, the carousel above beginning to flicker its familiar kaleidoscope of colors.
Marissa stands transfixed, muscle memory tempting her to lift her feet high, to twist and reach, to assemble impossible circuits and motors and magical devices, to lose her mind to the music. But this old impulse is only temporary, slipping away like a forgotten dream. In the wide corridors leading up from the warehouse below appear the diminished armies of slaves, risen from their slumber. As the Jukebox begins its somber beat, they step forward: left, right, left, right. Silvery eyes staring at nothing, they file past Marissa: a boy no older than fifteen at most, his skin somewhere between its original brown and a nondescript gray; a wrinkled woman in a faded Madonna T-shirt, her eyes still full of a bewildered youth; a rail-thin woman in a house dress five times her current size, a single pearl clinging to one ear like a teardrop; and here—here is the girl in the striped overalls, the ginger draining from her hair. They are close enough for Marissa to touch. Her hands are clenched into fists.
The music swells, and the bots turn to their workstations, coming to stand at attention, waiting for the next song to command them into action. A cheer rises from the tired employees on the floor. At last, a smile begins to touch Tyler’s lips.
Suddenly, the walls and floor are jarred by what feels like a large explosion somewhere far below. A terrible, metallic shriek rips through the sound system, from the dungeons below to the towers above. Marissa clamps her hands over her ears, as do the rest of the Factory personnel. The Jukebox shudders to a stop, its colored lights going dark, random explosions raining debris upon people’s heads. One of the giant megahorns winding about the nearest column shudders, a crack bursting open down its entire length.
Then, with a great blast of sound, the Jukebox grinds to life again. The colors of the carousel flicker and flash in dizzying patterns that have no logic, as it spins uncontrollably this way and that, sending pieces of itself smashing into other machines, through windows, into people. The deafening noises belching from the horns above have no rhythm or pattern whatsoever. Then: “What?” “What?” “Where am I?” “Who am I?” The work floor begins to fill with tragic voices, as the bots begin to move again, not as a synchronized machine with many moving parts, but as a crowd of frightened dreamwalkers whose medication has run out.
“Meredith!” Tyler bawls from the catwalk above as a mind-blown slave attempts to totter up the stairs and falls backward, scattering several others, who run blindly into one another. “Meredith! What’s going on!” The Supervisors are now rushing back down to the production floor, shielding their heads, attempting to herd the bots into areas where they will cause the least damage.
Meredith is standing stock-still in the shadow of the carousel. His face has lost all color. “The Skudder,” he says softly, and Marissa wonders if she heard him right. Suddenly, he leaps down from the console, whipping out two halves of a wand and screwing them together as he sets off at a run toward the wide corridor leading down into the warehouse. As utter chaos descends, Meredith’s crew scrambles to follow him, shoving bots and other employees out of the way and pulling out their own wands. The slaves blunder here and there, asking their plaintive questions, knocking over shelves, walking into machinery. The filter element machine has caught fire again.
At the word Skudder, Tyler has frozen, gripping the metal railing of the catwalk, which is still vibrating from the blast. As Marissa follows Meredith and his crew, Tyler takes off as if pursued by hell itself, sprinting up the catwalk and disappearing into the chambers beyond.
(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.