By Mikel Andrews
Skimming just above the waves, I left Candelabra Island and headed toward shore. The sun setting on my six, I made for the baseball diamond instead of Zambda’s trailer that I’d taken off from. Callie kept her eyes shut, occasionally letting out a yelp when we were struck by a gust. I could tell she was secure, but maybe she didn’t feel that same confidence in my cold metal grip.
As I neared shore, I could see that the fleeing crowds had returned. My earpiece crackled to life as I roared across Pleasant Lake.
“Land at the playing field, Marc,” Zambda’s voice said seriously. “Stay in the suit.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just trust me,” Zambda replied, his voice ominous. “Please. Stay in the suit.”
Despite the heat of the suit, I shivered. Something was wrong. Even as a frequency, I could hear it in the professor’s voice.
I could make out Mayor Brechtold’s lanky frame surrounded by his aides. It looked like the press was there too. I saw flashes of a camera bulb and, as I came close enough to turn heads, I noticed the people around him carried yellow legal pads. A few of them had shoved recording devices nearly up his nose.
The jet roar of the suit seemed to startle the mayor. Wasn’t surprised. In fact, I felt a little guilty for sneaking up on him this way, considering what he’d been through earlier. But I had his prize. And mine.
A white lab coat flared near the mayor. Zambda. He was decked out in his Professor costume I’d seen in the flyer, taped glasses and pocket protector to boot. In his hands he carried what appeared to be an oversized remote control, complete with blinking lights and two long antennas. He fiddled with joysticks and made a show of sticking out his tongue as he aimed the antennae in my direction. He looked like a big white cockroach waving me in.
What was he doing?
Fingers were beginning to point my way. I suddenly wished I had more lessons landing now that I had an audience. My only landing so far had been on a seaplane–and I crushed it like a toddler stepping on a toy.
I managed to set the Clockwork Man suit down rigidly enough, though I cut the engines a little too early and touched down a little too hard. All the while, Zambda had his peculiar remote trained on me. I started to worry what he was doing to me. Was I being bombarded with invisible radiation or something? What was his game?
Callie looked into the goggles, squinting. Must not have been to much avail.
“Um,” she managed. “Thanks?”
She hopped out of my grip and backed away with her eyes on me for a few steps, then turn and ran into her father’s arms. She ran right past April who was looking around through the crowd in between staring at me. Or rather, the suit.
Out the goggles, I saw Mayor Brechtold take one arm from around his daughter and wreathe the shoulders of Zambda as the cameras flashed.
“Uh, Professor?” I said, hoping we still had radio contact. “What’s going on?”
His eyes flicked in my direction and then he discretely whispered into the lapel of his lab coat. The voice piped into my helmet. “I’ll explain back at the trailer. Wait a couple minutes then take’er back. Meet you there.”
“Can I get out of here at least?”
“No! No. Stay in the suit, Marc. Please.” His voice became a laugh as I saw him grin for another photo. “And don’t move.”
I watched, frozen, as the photo session continued. Someone wrapped a blanket around Callie. Eventually, the mayor, Callie, and Zambda took the photo shoot to my landing area. Zambda shot me a sheepish grin as he continued posing.
At first I thought he wanted me to stay in for fear of depressurization or—or something. Now I was beginning to worry. The suit was starting to feel like a prison. My heart thudded in my chest. Out in the crowd, April’s head remained on a swivel as she scanned the masses, no doubt looking for me. Occasionally, she stopped searching to stare at my face—or rather, the helmet’s face—and squinted queerly.
After several long minutes of my joints itching and aching to move, the crowds began to dissipate. Salty sweat flowed from my lip to my tongue bitterly. It stung my eyes, blurring my vision.
“Alright, Marc, now take the suit back the same way you took it out,” Zambda’s voice finally said in my ear. “I’ll be there shortly.”
“Alright,” I said hotly.
“And thank you,” he added. “You’ll have your answers soon enough.”
As I lifted off the ground, I looked deep into Callie Brechtold’s eyes with my cold artificial gaze. She probably saw nothing but her reflection.
So much for saving the girl of my dreams.
* * *
Back in Zambda’s quarters, I was finally free of the suit. As I toweled off my forehead and tried in vain to dry the armpits of my shirt, the good professor struggled to throw the cloth tarp over the Clockwork Man. McCallister screeched from a nearby shelf, bobbing and clucking at the familiar phantom in the back of the trailer.
“Alright, Professor,” I finally said. “Why am I not out there looking like Luke Skywalker for the local newspaper?”
Out of his costume, Zambda was once again the aging carnival owner that had returned my wallet. He sighed, letting the proud edge of his shoulders fall into mush. He mustered a warm smile and looked at me with sad eyes.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t be the hero today, Marc.”
“Why couldn’t I get out of the suit, Zambda?”
He rubbed the stubble that had formed on his jaw like little crystals on a cave wall. “I wish I could say it was for your benefit, Marc. Unfortunately, it was for mine.”
A cold fury was brewing behind my eyes. “What?”
“You have the right to be upset, son,” he said, putting up his hands. “But just hear me out. There’s a story you need to hear.”
“There better be,” I said. “Talk.”
Zambda cleared his throat and began. “Back in the Fifties, I couldn’t build a robot. Nobody could. But they were all the rage—and I wanted to do something different. Something nobody had done before. So…I lied.”
“Plenty of people have done that before,” I said flatly.
“You know what I mean,” Zambda went on. “I lied about the suit. When I first built the Clockwork Man, I didn’t think anyone would believe it anyway. Thought it would be easy to come clean. But all the press, the public—they thought I was the real deal. That I’d invented a fully functional robot—”
“Let me guess,” I interrupted. “They found out the truth. Your empire crumbled. And now you’re the hero of my hometown. Congratulations.”
“Let. Me. Finish,” Zambda growled. “Please.”
I waved him on.
“As you know, the suit needed a pilot—and obviously it couldn’t have been me. So I took on a, uh, a business partner, see? Guy by the name of Raymond Kranz. An ex-pilot for the Air Force. A gambler. A drunk. Not my best choice. But I knew he could be bought.
“For years, Kranz and I worked the airshow circuit—me as the public face, Kranz behind the scenes, piloting the rig. A silent partner in the strictest definition.”
I nodded, though truthfully Zambda was losing me.
“Kranz was a ghost,” he continued. “Slept all day, save for the shows; out all night doing God knows what. Whatever it was, I didn’t ask. He kept quiet enough.
“One night, we had a stopover in Houston. I went out to grab a bite, have a drink. Kranz, well, he took the suit out for a joyride. I came back to an empty trailer—nothing but some newspaper clippings, floorplans, a half bottle of Jack Daniels, and his pet monkey.”
I glanced at McCallister. The chimp’s eyes were alive and bright, like he were reliving the memory. Maybe he was.
“No suit. No Kranz,” Zambda reminisced before getting back on track. “Seems the damned fool got it in his head that he was going to use the suit to knock over Houston First Federal.”
“A bank?” I asked, leaning in.
Zambda nodded. “The bank. I figured out what the little shit was doing. Tried to head him off at the pass. He, he—the maniac had punched right through the goddamned wall like Wile E. Coyote! Can you believe that?”
I thought back to hole I’d punched through the inn on Candelabra Island. “Yeah, that. That’s…nuts.”
“Yeah, well, I caught him in the act,” Zambda pressed on. “Sack of money in his ratty fingers. I pulled a pistol on him. The coward dropped the money and ran. I never saw Raymond Kranz again.
“When the police showed up, well, you can imagine what it looked like. Forget that I’d stopped a bank robbery; nobody believes the guy with the gun in his hand.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, it was either explain to the police that my remote-controlled robot tried to rob the bank or reveal that I was just a big fraud. In the end, I went with the first story. Told them the Incredible Clockwork Man had gotten loose. Bad wiring. No money was missing, and my prints weren’t on anything but the gun. They couldn’t hold me very long on a charge like that,” Zambda sighed. His head was in his hands. He tried to start talking a few more times, but his voice seemed to catch in his throat. He sniffed a couple times and cleared his throat loudly.
I just took it all in, letting the story swirl around my brain like fish in a bowl. It was quite the tale; didn’t know if I believed it. Then again, I’d just flown a robot suit to an island to rescue the mayor’s daughter from air pirates. If we were going to nitpick realistic stories, I was in no place to judge.
“So,” I said. “You had to give up the air shows.”
“I had to give up everything,” Zambda wailed. He raised his arms and they trembled like branches in a breeze. “My credibility. My career. All of it. I had nothing left. I couldn’t even get a research grant after the tabloids had their way with me.”
Zambda shoved a finger in my direction. “The only story better than an Incredible Clockwork Man is ‘The Incredible Clockwork Man Goes Berserk,’ right?”
“I’m sorry,” I offered quietly, eyes on the floor. And I genuinely was.
The professor forced a chuckle and it was painful to hear. “I don’t know why I even kept the thing. I’ve tried to modify it; retrofit it for military use—but at the end of the day, it’s just not practical.”
“It was pretty practical today,” I admitted.
Zambda’s eyes lit up. “Yes! Exactly! It’s not the money, Marc—sure, it would’ve been nice—but I’d trade it all for someone to remember my name. And not as the guy who tried to rob a bank with a robot.”
I could only nod. Zambda was right. Compared to him, my intentions were about as noble as a guy who borrows his uncle’s Camaro for prom night.
As I thought about the decades Zambda had spent alone and struggling, my eyes fixated on the covered monolith that was the Clockwork Man. The tarp wasn’t billowing dramatically in slow motion, but it might as well have been. Might as well have been draped in the American flag while we’re at it.
“So,” Zambda said, looking me in the eyes. His were bloodshot, shiny with licks of tears. “Will you let me have this, Marc? Keep my secret?”
Even McCallister seemed to be waiting with bated breath. I sighed; a gush of air that was admittedly juvenile. When Callie was taken by the pilot, a fire lit inside my gut. It was like nothing I’d felt before—like nothing I thought I was capable of feeling. An honest-to-God drive to help someone in trouble. Someone that I cared about. Someone that I’d do anything to snare a glance from, just for a second. And for that second, I’d even fly a rusty war machine into battle. Get shot at just to bring her home.
But at the end of the day, I was just a kid who wanted to get the girl. Callie Brechtold would have to wait.
“You built a hell of a robot, Professor Zambda,” I said warmly, offering the man my hand. “Thanks for the ride.”
I thought those tears might spill down his face as he took my hand in a fierce grip. He gave my my arm a quick pump and bit back a sob. “Thank you, kid–Marcus.”
I cleared my throat and gave him a nod. With nothing more than that, I left his trailer, wandering back into the carnival to find April.
* * *
A week later, April and I were sitting at a worn-out kitchen table at In Hot Water; Cookhurst’s first and last coffee shop. Between us was a half-eaten scone. April had picked out the blueberries and I’d done the same with the white chocolate chunks.
I had decided to stick around town a little longer, which shouldn’t have surprised anybody. April stuck around too, hoping that last week’s wild events would turn the town upside-down. Not in the good Garrison Keillor-Lake Wobegon way, but in the way a shovel does to dirt.
The story definitely gave the town a tiny spotlight. On the coffee table across the shop, a copy of the Cookhurst Chronicle gave Zambda’s Clockwork Man the front page treatment. But, let’s face it, it wasn’t exactly CNN Breaking News.
“This is the best fucking Chai I’ve ever tasted,” April moaned.
I laughed. “Maybe Cookhurst isn’t so bad, huh?”
“No, it’s still terrible,” she said dryly. “But their Chai is good.”
I rolled my eyes and took a sip of my mocha. Extra shot of espresso. Hardcore, I know.
“So that was really you flying that thing, huh?”
I choked on my drink, coughing at the bitter bite in my throat. April just stared at me from behind her glasses, burning through me.
I know I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody, but come on—she was my best friend.
“Keep it down, will you?”
“I’ll never believe it,” she said, thankfully lower-pitched. “No way you’d do something like that.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.
April thought it over for a minute, looking down at the table somberly. “How come you didn’t tell Callie?”
I shrugged. “I’m not one to gloat.”
“Oh bullshit!” April hissed. “She’s the girl of your dreams and this was your ultimate Poker hand.”
“You don’t know how to play Poker.”
I sighed and shook my head. It was bad enough I’d told her Zambda’s secret, I wasn’t going to paint her the portrait he’d shown me in his trailer. Zambda deserved his dignity as much as his good name.
“She’s just a girl, April,” I told her, though I was talking to myself more than anyone.
“Yeah right,” she sneered. “I don’t know why I even believed you about all this. You didn’t fly shit.”
I thumbed a small, stiff square of paper from my pocket. “Yeah, well, believe what you want. Zambda gave me his card. Wants me to join him for another airshow circuit.”
Her eyes flicked to the business card between my fingers. She watched it like it was glowing.
“If that were true,” she said slyly, “would you do it?”
I gave another shrug as I pocketed the card, breaking the spell it had over April. “I don’t know. I have school.”
“Speaking of school,” I said, changing gears. “Maybe when you get back to NYU, you could send me some literature. Applications.”
Now it was April’s turn to choke. “Are you serious? You’d transfer?”
“Maybe,” I replied. “There’s a lot more world out there.”
“Wow that’s cliché.”
“Shut up,” I laughed.
“Well,” April said, standing as she slung a knit bag over her tiny frame. “This last week’s been a real picnic, Marcus, but I got a plane to catch.”
“Wow that’s cliché,” I mocked. She gave me the finger. “It’s been fun, Ape. Thanks for coming back.”
“Welcome,” she said with a grin. “Now—stop being a dick and walk me to my car.”
I stood and followed her towards the exit. Warm whiffs of freshly pressed grounds and spiced teas filled my nose, soothing me. No matter how things had turned out, it was an incredible week. So incredible that April Bennet had stayed an extra seven days. Now that was breaking news.
April was already outside when Callie Brechtold pushed through the oak door, clinking the little bells that hung from the ceiling.
My blood turned to ice and my cheeks turned to lava. Funny how that happens.
“Callie,” I said. “Hey.”
“Hey, Marc,” she replied. The cuts on her face were now tiny pink nicks. She looked tired and a little unnerved, but those milky chocolate eyes were blazing brighter than ever.
“Are you okay?” I asked. I shook my head. “I mean, you know, how are you feeling?”
She gave a small smile. “Pretty good, I guess. Things are finally getting back to normal.”
“Yeah, I bet,” I managed. “That was a pretty insane rescue.”
Her smile failed a little and she tried to hide her quick breath. I saw April’s head poke back in through the door, watching with thirsty eyes.
“Yeah,” Callie said from somewhere else. “Insane.”
Stupid. What a stupid thing for me to say. I bit at my lip nervously. With a forced nod, I began to edge past her. “Sorry that was, um–I’m sorry.”
“Right, well, I’m, um, glad to hear you’re doing better, Callie. Take care.”
I made for the door, reveling in a long, drawn-out blink. I opened my eyes to April shaking her head.
“Marc?” came Callie’s voice.
I froze for the tiniest moment. Every gear in my body caught and ground to a halt before I could turn and face her. When I did, Callie cleared a curtain of hair from her face, parting it like a molasses waterfall and tucking it behind one ear.
“Are you sticking around town for awhile?” she said, looking at me from the tops of her eyes. “We never got to see those fireworks.”