Winner of our Hallowe’en short story contest
By Dale Howard
Thomas’ hand trembles as he places it on the door frame to his apartment. He breathes out in ragged gasps tenses until the shaking ceases. Snow is beginning to fall, little flakes of iron reflecting the light from the single streetlamp, which is why he is cold.
It must be from the snow.
He takes another breath and slowly opens the door as quietly as possible. He slips in and goes to the kitchen to retrieve the bottle of whiskey he hides behind the canned vegetables. He takes a long swig, wipes his lips, and realizes the booze is shaking in his hand. Damnit, it’s just as cold in the apartment as outside. He stops his shaking and moves down the nonexistent hallway to the bedroom door. He goes to touch the handle, but stops before his fingers touch it. He hesitates. He turns instead to the office door behind him. He opens it and goes to the the lamp, clicking it on,and sitting in the antique chair that groans under his weight.
He stares at the dirty bulb illuminating the filth of his office. Maybe if he stares long enough, he’ll start to feel the warmth from the bulb.
It was stupid. Stupid, stupid. To be taken by surprise like that. An ex-Mechanic, ambushed by the very thing he once hunted and destroyed for a living. Where the hell did it come from anyway, they were supposed to be extinct. They are extinct. And yet it had been there, watching him stumble out of Lou’s, staggering like an idiot down the alley that smelled of alcohol and piss and something else. A smell of static, copper and earth, that tickled his memory but failed to bring anything into clarity.
He remembers his breath coming out in thin wisps like his soul escaping him. He wrapped his coat tighter around himself and stumbled on. He heard a faint screech behind him like metal on metal, but he had thought it was just himself running into the dumpster.
God damn Tin Men.
It finally pounced on him, driven into a frenzy by the promise of the warmth dripping off of Thomas like a brilliant light. But it had lept prematurely, the Tin Man just barely able to wrap its arthritic fingers around Thomas’ arm. But even though Thomas was drunk, years of buried instinct took over in an instant and he ducked and spun, freeing his wrist and diving into his jacket pocket with his other hand. Thank god he always carried his ice pick, perfect for stabbing that empty husk in the eyes. The last place to go alloy. The last part to keep its humanity.
Thomas backed away from his enemy slowly. It was old, so old the only real evidence that the junk heap was once a living, breathing human was its eyes hidden behind a film of aluminum, and its left hand. The five digits and a bit of forearm were no longer made up of human flesh, but still held their original shape. The hand extended out from the abstract mass of iron, steel, copper, bronze and mesh that was its center. A nightmare beast with skin made of large jagged metal plates, gears for joints, wires for ligaments. A hunched over knight with too much armor, it moved slowly. The plates of metal alloy were badly rusted and pitted and rubbed together with a sickening scream that got louder the faster it tried to move.
Thomas was so incapacitated that he let it get too close. But he wouldn’t make that mistake a second time now that he was aware.
Every inch of the creature was sharp enough to tear into flesh, every part acutely dangerous, but the square-shaped razorblades protruding from the pads of the Tin Man’s fingers were the most sinister. Sharp like a lover’s kiss, and evil enough to end Thomas if it could. And it almost did. It took a real risk trying to grab a full grown man, but it must have been on the brink of freezing, and desperate for some warmth. Tin Man bastard.
He stays in the chair for a minute breathing deeply, trying to get his tremors under control. He scowls at the tears in his jacket. The frown pulls down his face, deepening the myriad of creases already there and creating some new ones. It’s the only jacket he has and now it’s ruined.
It is chilly, but the whiskey should warm him up soon, and besides he has other things to worry about. He heaves another sigh, then sits up in his chair and rummages under his desk until he finds a narrow plastic case and pulls it out. He puts it on his lap and stares at it for a minute, only just caressing the edges with his fingertips. Finally, he taps the lid and flips the latches, revealing the metal-detecting wand buried in insulating foam. He sucks in a slow breath of air, and carefully, gingerly, takes the wand from its cradle like he’s unsheathing a sword. He takes the hilt of the wand in his right hand, clicks it on, and feels a small hum of life emanate from the device. He pauses again and grabs at the bottle of whiskey.
Chickenshit. It must be done. God damnit.
He begins with his left hand, waving the wand over it like he’s about to perform a magic trick. He moves up his arm, waiting for a cat call that never comes. Good, nothing dangerous there. He continues up to his shoulder and around his face, listening intently
As he checks himself, he ponders over the thing he fought tonight. It wasn’t supposed to exist. He and the other Mechanics had wiped them out, annihilated their species. That was the only reason he was as drunk as he was. It had been over five years since he had seen another Tin Man. But there it had been. A solitary hunk of metal, desperate and lonely.
It had not always been that way. All it took was one little scratch, one gentle caress from those godforsaken razors to change you. There was a time when the malformed hulks had outnumbered breathing humans, the epidemic spreading every time a Tin Man touched a human soul for warmth. Usually the Tin Men would massacre anyone they could catch in their need for a little heat. Those were the lucky ones. The others who survived changed.
For a long time no one knew what the Tin Men wanted. They didn’t feed or show any evidence of fear or hatred. It wasn’t until much later that they realized the Metal was cold and searching for warmth. The kind of warmth you can’t find in a machine.
They say that when you start to turn, your flesh peels off in thin chunks like the husk of a rattlesnake, showing the coarse metal beneath. Jagged pieces erupt from your body like tectonic plates grinding against each other and all humanity is lost in the need for warmth. You become so cold.
Thomas finishes with his head and goes down his chest. It makes him think of the ice pick, and he notes it on the desk, laying on top of his pile of clothes. It’s pockmarked and jagged— just like the Tin Men he has destroyed— and broken in half.
You don’t need to know the details to destroy them. That was his favorite saying when there were still rust jobs to kill. The easiest way was to blow them up and be far enough away not to get torn up by the shrapnel. Thomas rarely used that tactic. He liked getting in close and using a hatchet or chainsaw, aiming at what he thought was the head and taking chunks out of them until they stopped moving.
He never thought that once upon a time the Tin Men were somebody’s wife, or father, or even a child. Even now, looking at the ice pick, checking himself with the wand, the thought doesn’t cross his mind. He is really only thinking about that last one. The one that didn’t exist.
It stalked him slowly, its joints grinding together with each movement in a deep-throated growl. Thomas sidestepped and the Tin Man turned with him, keeping him trapped at the wrong side of the dead end ally. Thomas would have to make a move or soon he would have nowhere to go once the Tin Man attacked.
Suddenly, the Tin Man jumped so fast Thomas tripped over his own legs and crashed to the floor. The accident saved his life. The Tin Man jumped too far, the jagged tips of its legs coming within centimeters of Thomas’ face. Thomas scrambled to his feet and spun around, ready to fend off the creature.
But the Tin Man seemed to have used all its energy in its last jump for it moved as if it were fighting against its own joints which whined in protest as it feebly tried to reach out for Thomas. He easily avoided its outstretched hand and sauntered around until he found its eyes. He stared into the last hint of real humanity and deep pools of clear blue sadness looked back.
He showed the Tin Man the ice pick in his hand. He smiled wickedly at his foe and slowly brought the point to rest on the lens of its left eye.
Usually when you stab them in the eye, the blade goes in smooth, like stabbing water. But the Tin Man tonight had progressed so much that even the eyes were fusing into metal alloy. Thomas had felt resistance when he plunged in the blade, saw the blue iris crack like shattered glass, and when it jerked back, the blade broke in two, leaving the point embedded in its eye. The Tin Man didn’t utter a sound as it was destroyed. Only its un-oiled joints cried as it jerked. It couldn’t even bring its hand up to try and remove the blade. All it could do was stubble backward until it toppled to the ground and was finally still.
It was then, as he was admiring his work that he noticed the rip in his coat.