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Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods by Damien Walters Grintalis

When the one in red gives up and screams, no one makes a sound. We turn our faces away or rest our foreheads against the glass and wait. It won’t take long. Big is quick with the remaking. In between the screams, sharp snaps punctuate the air with exclamation points of splintered bone and leaking marrow.

We all try not to scream.

We all fail in the end.

The walls of our room gleam pale blue speckled with dark spots of dried gore. Little Big is messy. We hang—encased in wood frames with glass fronts and hinged backs—from metal posts embedded in the plaster. Pretty boxes arranged in rows like dolls on a display shelf.

I remember dolls and a small hand in mine.

Big finishes his task and puts the red one back in her box. Swollen lumps of purpled flesh live where her knees used to be, but there is no blood. Big is careful. He hangs her back on the wall and stops, all moonfaced and sweating, in front of my box. The gears on his forehead turn and turn. My heart speeds up four beats in the space of one. His fat mouth opens, revealing crooked tombstone teeth. “Almost perfect,” he says, tapping the glass twice before he walks away. My heart stays fast and busy; I know it won’t be long before he takes me back out again.

I’ve been here long enough to forget most of the things I tried so hard to keep. Names. Places. The remaking has taken most of my memories just as sure as it shaped my form into something else. My arms bend in four places now, my legs fold with knees back, my waist is spindle-thin, and my head is too heavy to hold upright. I can’t see the changes on the inside, but I hear little clicks and ticks.

Big gathers his tools, wipes down the stained wooden table, and turns out the light before he steps through the doorway, leaving us in shadows and grey. His footsteps thud heavy on the floor. Then they fade away to nothing. I don’t know what lies beyond the door, beyond this blue room. I think I did know, when my legs bent in the old way, but now I’ve forgotten.

I crawl into the corner of my box. The sound of muffled weeping from the metal cages hanging on the opposite wall fills the darkness. Those inside the cages used to yell and curse and bang on the bars of their cages, but Little Big took away their mouths, and now they sit, silent mounds of broken flesh, always weeping behind their flat not-mouths. Because they belong to Little Big, they will never have the chance to be perfect.

I want to be perfect. When I am perfect, I will be allowed to leave.

#

Big remakes the red one’s arms next. He puts her back but doesn’t take me out. Instead, he fashions three new boxes, tapping the glass into place with a rubber mallet. Then he hangs them, still empty, on the wall and leaves.

I wonder if they will come from the places I’ve forgotten or someplace else. Someplace I never knew.

#

Even though there are three empty boxes, Big only brings in two new ones, both dressed in black. One is female, like me; the other, male. They sit in their boxes and whisper words over and over again. The man has a white collar on his neck. I remember we wore collars once, but they had chains attached to them. I don’t remember where the chains went.

On the second night, they try to talk to the rest of us. They say, “The old god is dead, killed by the new gods.” We cover our ears with our hands to hide the sound, but they are relentless.

Big takes out their tongues first.

#

After he remakes the red one’s legs, Big takes me out of my box and puts me on the table. He runs his fingers along the crosshatch of scars on my pale skin. My hands shake, but he pulls out a shiny box instead of the sharp tools and opens the lid. I remember this box.

“Yes, my pretty one,” he says, his voice stretching out to every corner of the room. “You are strong enough now for these.”

One by one, he places eight silver rings around my neck, stands me up, and takes away his hands. All the weight inside my skull has turned to air. His ugly teeth open up and laughter spills out.

He hangs me back on the wall; I stand and move my head from side to side. Inside my neck, the cogs and gears whir a soft, metallic song.

The third box is still empty.

#

Little Big comes in and I close my eyes. I don’t like his long, narrow face and the skin on his chest pinned back to reveal the metalwork within. A cage door screeches open. I made the mistake of watching his remaking once. The sounds are bad enough—slippery, wet, and scraping. Whenever he finishes, new spots cover the blue wall.

Little Big isn’t allowed to touch me. For this, I am grateful.

#

The last perfect one was here a long time ago. He wore black rings on his neck, not silver. Big removed the skin on his torso (He didn’t scream. He covered his mouth with his hands and moaned against his palms. I hope I am strong enough to do the same.) and covered up the shiny gears with a clear panel.

After he healed, Big carried him out of the blue room forever.

#

The third box is no longer empty. I smell the new one, all salt-sweat-angry. In the dark, he whispers, “Hello?”

No one answers.

#

Big lets Little Big watch when he removes the skin from my back. I try to hold in the scream, but I can’t. Little Big’s eyes light up, and he claps his hands.

“Do you see what I’ve done?” Big says.

“Many improvements, many indeed,” Little Big says, in a thick, raspy voice. “The old design was piss-poor at best.”

The new one watches from his box; his eyes are blue, like the wall. Big holds up the panel for my back, shaped thin at the waist with a tiny hole in the center. I think my insides will leak out, but after Big puts in the panel, he attaches a tiny silver key.

It frightens me more than hurt and blood, and I don’t know why.

#

The new one holds in his screams for a long time.

#

I am healed, but Big hasn’t taken me out of the room. He remakes the red one’s waist as tiny as mine and gives the collared man to Little Big. That night, when everyone is quiet, I reach back and touch the key. The perfect man didn’t have a key. I don’t understand why I have one.

I turn the key to the left, but it won’t move. I turn it to the right, it clicks once, and I bite my lip before a shout can escape. I keep still for a long time, hoping no one else heard the sound.

I turn the key again. One tiny turn. One little click.

The blue-eyed man speaks. “My name is William. What is yours?”

I close my eyes.

“Please. What is your name?”

I have no name. I wait until the darkness swallows up his voice before I sleep.

#

The one in red dies.

Big finds her and his shouts and screams fill up the room, loud enough to send echoes through my head. He places her on the table and takes me out of my box. First he wraps a string around my waist. Then he holds it around hers. We are the same.

He leaves me on the table, next to her, while he opens up her skin. Her icicle fingers brush against mine. On the inside, she is purple and grey and slippery and bits of broken metal. He lifts up each piece. Little Big comes in and laughs; the scratchy sound hurts more than Big’s screams. Big pushes him out of the room.

Sharp metal presses against my side, my heart beats crazy-scary-heavy, and the pinch-sting comes. I cry out. Big smiles because I am pink and red and unbroken. He closes me back up with a new line of stitches, black against the white of my skin.

#

After my skin eats the stitches away, I turn my key again. A sound drifts into the air, a quick little chirp. I hold my breath and look through the gloom. No one moves. No one speaks. The sound lives in my head, not in the room. I turn the key. A shape takes form in my thoughts, a small shadow moving across a blue not-wall. I know this shape; I remember it. Footsteps thump outside the door, and I close my eyes. My head is heavy with chirps and moving shapes, and tucked far behind, a sound I don’t want to remember.

#

Little Big leaves but forgets to turn out the lights. The collared man folds his hands together, and his tongueless mouth moves without sound. The blue-eyed man is awake, too, with his remade arms folded across his chest. The new pieces inside him click and spin.

“His prayers won’t do any good. Not anymore,” he says.

I don’t know what a prayer is.

“They’re gone for the night,” he says. “It’s safe to talk.”

I shake my head.

“Can you talk?” he asks.

I turn my face away.

“Please,” he says. “Talk to me. Tell me your name.”

“No,” I whisper, cringing at the sound of my own voice, all hard at the edges and soft in the middle.

I turn my key and think of shapes and blue not-walls and a wide expanse of green.

#

Big remakes the legs of the woman in black but doesn’t smile when he finishes. He stops in front of my box and taps on the glass until I look up. He taps the glass again, harder, and then a third time, harder still. I hear a small sound, like a finger bone cracked in two. The gears on his forehead click to a stop. They tick backward, once, twice, and move forward again. With a shake of his head, he walks away.

Little Big breaks the collared man in two pieces and fills in the empty spaces with metal and tangled wire.

#

I turn my key. A word rushes in. Naomi. Is this the dark shape? I say the word aloud, feel it slip and slide on my tongue.

“Is that your name?” the blue-eyed man asks.

Naomi.

Is it?

#

Big doesn’t come back.

No one will be perfect. No one will leave.

#

Big tapped the glass too hard, and now there is a crack, a line with shattered edges, all the way at the top. I stay crouched down, away from the crack. I turn my key and remember. The dark shapes were birds. They fluttered and circled and sang. A little hand tugged mine, and we ran across the green and under the birds, under the blue not-wall. A pain tugs deep inside where metal and flesh stick together. I try to turn the key back, to take it away.

I am afraid of what I’ve forgotten.

I try to pull out the key, but it won’t move. I try to bend it, break it, but it is harder than bone.

I am afraid I will never remember.

#

“Where were you before this place?” His blue eyes are bright under the lights.

“I have always been here.”

“Even when you were a child?”

I turn my key. Wide, dark eyes. Chubby fingers. A soft voice whispering.

“I had a daughter with hair the same color as yours. Her name was Lucy. They took her away,” he says, his voice breaking in little pieces.

They took me away and made me almost perfect. Maybe they made Lucy perfect and let her go.

“When did you forget?” he asks.

The pain reaches out and my eyes burn.

“Naomi, when did you forget you were human?”

The pain digs in knife-sharp. I slap the glass with my hands. Big changed most of me, but he left my hands the same. I strike the glass again, and a small star blooms at the edge of the crack.

I forgot everything the day I couldn’t remember her name. The one with the little hand. I turn the key, but it won’t give me her name.

#

Little Big smashes the collared one with a hammer. Shards of metal fly up and bounce off my glass. Specks of red spatter the walls. He laughs and shakes the hammer in front of our boxes but doesn’t break the glass.

#

“Naomi, you’re still human.”

Inside, the gears move.

Am I?

#

“They call themselves gods, you know. Maybe they are, I don’t know. They say they killed the old god.”

The collared man said the same thing. The key has not shown me god yet.

“They’re remaking, changing, everything. The oceans are black now.” He laughs, but the edges are hard. “I didn’t even believe in god.”

I turn my key until I find the ocean. The kiss of water drops on my skin. The salt taste on my lips. She ran into the blue-green water, splashing, and I said, “Be careful, be careful.”

“Naomi, please, why won’t you talk to me?”

Because I can’t remember her name.

#

Little Big takes the woman in black out of her box and cuts off her arms. He puts her in the cage where the collared one used to live, and she sits in the corner, motionless. She doesn’t weep like the others.

I never see Little Big again.

I hit the glass. Another star appears.

#

“Naomi?”

#

I think about gods and birds and the key in my back. I think about the crack in the glass, how it stretches almost to the bottom now. Every day, slap-crack. I think about scars and stitches holding me in place.

Tearing me apart.

I’d like to leave the blue room and see the ocean. I’d like to remember the little one’s name. I turn my key and the gears click.

I’d like to be human again.

#

Slap.

Crack.

Until the glass falls down like rain. I remember the taste and the way it turned my hair into wet tangles. Before they took me away. Before the remaking and the pain. There are still holes in my memory, spaces for forgotten things, but I remember enough. If Big finds me, I won’t let him put me back in the box.

I step to the edge. Thick dust covers the wooden table and the floor and shimmers like a grey veil. I think we are the forgotten things now. Broken, remade into almost perfect, yet left behind.

“Naomi, be careful,” the one with the blue eyes says.

William. His name is William.

“I will,” I say.

I will break his glass, too, and find a way to unlock the others. I won’t leave them behind. I hope my legs are strong enough to break my fall, but I am not afraid.

I remember her name.


Damien Walters Grintalis’ short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, and others. Her debut novel, Ink, was released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. You can visit her website, damienwaltersgrintalis.com, or follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.

 

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