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.
He shakes himself into focus and waves the wand over his midsection and hears nothing. He waves it down his leg and over his foot. He shivers again, moves to his other foot and continues up the other leg.
He stops waving the wand over himself as if his magic trick failed. He rests the wand on his knee and takes another gulp of whiskey. So far, the wand has remained silent. But he’s not done. He’s avoided one part of his body, and he’s finding it hard to finish his self-scrutiny.
But eventually, he takes the wand into his other hand and lifts it to his right shoulder. No sound comes from the wand, as is expected, so he slowly moves down his arm to his bicep…his elbow…forearm…and stops at his wrist, where the wand begins to scream in alarm at the four thin slices where the bastard carved into him with its gentle caress.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
He turns off the wand and places it on the desk under the aged lamp. He scoots his chair towards the desk and rests his hands on the edge. He can start to feel it now that he knows to look for it. A tingling sensation slowly moves up his arm, reaching just short of his elbow. His nostrils flare and he is hit with an impression of static, copper and earth.
Well there’s only one thing to do.
Thomas takes another slug of whiskey, opens a drawer and rummages through it until he finds a soiled rag. He shakes it out a little before putting it on the desk. He swallows another gulp of liquor and feels around the side of the desk until he finds the handle of the hatchet resting against the desk.
He finishes his bottle and clears a small space on his desk so that he can place his forearm on it. Without taking his eyes from his arm, he stuffs the dirty rag into his mouth and sighs through his nose. He takes the hatchet, heavy and expectant, and lays the blade on the crook of his elbow. He lifts it, and lowers it three times. Measuring, calculating. It’s going to hurt.
But strangely, the hatchet doesn’t feel right. It feels awkward and unbalanced and it’s hard to get a good grip. Thomas brings the ax down to eye level, and sees that it’s not the hatchet that is disfigured, but his hand. He drops the hatchet onto his desk and studies his hand where the thin square-shaped razors are extending from the pads of his fingers.
My god, how…?
He continues to stare absently at his hand and wonders vaguely what he was so worked up about. His only wish is that the whiskey would start to work so that he could feel a little warmer.
He takes his index finger and glides it across his palm, opening up a thin slice from which there is no blood. He takes his other hand and digs his fingers into the line and pulls, tearing away the flesh to show the corrugated metal beneath.
He stares at his hand again until a large crack erupts from his neck, jarring his head violently to the left. He feels his back, at the base of his neck and finds that the skin is raised, as if something is trying to break through. He makes an unconcerned shrugging movement and continues to study his hand.
He stays in that chair, watching his own metamorphosis until he realizes that he has been getting colder with each passing moment and immediately craves warmth. The craving quickly becomes desperation and he begins to shiver a little, the vibration causing his new joints to grind disturbingly against each other.
Thomas stands up slowly. He shifts in his body, trying to find a comfortable stance in an uncomfortable frame. He turns and walks toward the door, his progress halted only briefly by another searing jolt from his lower back, slamming him a step backward as if hit by a sledgehammer. He regains his balance and moves his arm around, feeling the jagged metal protruding from his back.
He walks slowly, precisely, making as little noise as possible as he leaves his office and moves across the tiny hall, in no time at all, to the bedroom door. His fingers move up to grip the doorknob. He begins to turn the knob, the movement creating a small moan like a child’s fingernails on a tiny chalkboard and the Tin Man hesitates. But there is only silence on the other side. He opens the door and quietly enters the bedroom.
Where his wife sleeps warmly in their bed.
~ Dale Howard
Dale Howard lives in Connecticut with his wife, son, and two-faced animals. He teaches English as a second language as the first part of his plan for world domination. He only has two more parts to go.