Illustration by Idiots’Books
Suzanne said, “Look, you can’t let crazy people set your agenda. If you want to visit this Death kid, you should. If you don’t, you shouldn’t. But don’t let Freddy psy-ops you into doing something you don’t want to do. Maybe he does have a rat in your building. Maybe he’s got a rat at the hospital. Maybe, though, he just scored some stills off a flickr stream, maybe he’s watching new photos with some face-recognition stuff.”
Perry looked up from his screen, still scowling. “People do that?”
“Sure—stalkerware! I use it myself, just to see what photos of me are showing up online. I scour every photo-feed published for anything that appears to be a photo of me. Most of it’s from blogjects, CCTV cameras and crap like that. You should see what it’s like on days I go to London—you can get photographed 800 times a day there without trying. So yeah, if I was Freddy and I wanted to screw with you, I’d be watching every image feed for your pic, and mine, and Lester’s. We just need to assume that that’s going on. But look at what he actually reported on: you went out and played catch and then hugged after your game. It’s not like he caught you cornholing gators while smoking spliffs rolled in C-notes.”
“What does that guy have against us, anyway?”
Suzanne sighed. “Well, at first I think it was that I liked you, and that you were trying to do something consistent with what he thought everyone should be doing. After all, if anyone were to follow his exhortations, they’d have to be dumb enough to be taking him seriously, and for that they deserve all possible disapprobation.
“These days, though, he hates you for two reasons. The first is that you failed, which means that you’ve got to have some kind of moral deficiency. The second is that we keep pulling his pants down in public, which makes him even angrier, since pulling down people’s pants is his job.
“I know it’s armchair psychology, but I think that Freddy just doesn’t like himself very much. At the end of the day, people who are secure and happy don’t act like this.”
Perry’s scowl deepened. “I’d like to kick him in the fucking balls,” he said. “Why can’t he just let us be? We’ve got enough frigging problems.”
“I just want to go and visit this kid,” Lester said, and they were back where they started.
“But we know that this Freddy guy has an informant in the hospital, he about as says as much in this article. If we go there, he wins,” Perry said.
Hilda and Lester just looked at him. Finally he smiled and relented. “OK, Freddy isn’t going to run my life. If it’s the right thing to visit this kid, it’s the right thing. Let’s do it.”
“We’ll go after the ride shuts tonight,” Lester said. “All of us. I’ll buy him a fruit basket and bring him a mini.” The minis were Lester’s latest mechanical computers, built inside of sardine cans, made of miniaturized, printed, high-impact alloys. They could add and subtract numbers up to ten, using a hand crank on the side, registering their output on a binary display of little windows that were covered and uncovered by tiny shutters. He’d built his first the day before, using designs supplied by some of his people in Brazil and tweaking them to his liking.
The day was as close to a normal day on the ride as Perry could imagine. The crowd was heavy from the moment he opened, and he had to go back into the depths and kick things back into shape a couple times, and one of the chairs shut down, and two of the merchants had a dispute that degenerated into a brawl. Just another day running a roadside attraction in Florida.
Lester spelled him off for the end of the day, then they counted the take and said good night to the merchants and all piled into one of Lester’s cars and headed for the hospital.
“You liking Florida?” Lester called over the seat as they inched forward in the commuter traffic on the way into Melbourne.
“It’s hot; I like that,” Hilda said.
“You didn’t mention the awesome aesthetics,” Lester said.
Suzanne rolled her eyes. “Ticky-tacky chic,” she said.
“I love it here,” Lester said. “That contrast between crass, overdeveloped, cheap, nasty strip-malls and unspoiled tropical beauty. It’s gorgeous and it tickles my funny bone.”
Hilda squinted out the window as though she were trying to see what Lester saw, like someone staring at a random-dot stereogram in a mall-store, trying to make the 3D image pop out.
“If you say so,” she said. “I don’t find much attractive about human settlement, though. If it needs to be there, it should just be as invisible as possible. We fundamentally live in ugly boxes, and efforts to make them pretty never do anything for me except call attention to how ugly they are. I kinda wish that everything was built to disappear as much as possible so we could concentrate on the loveliness of the world.”
“You get that in Madison?” Lester said.
“Nope,” she said. “I’ve never seen any place designed the way I’d design one. Maybe I’ll do that someday.”
Perry loved her just then, for that. The casual “oh, yeah, the world isn’t arranged to my satisfaction, maybe I’ll rearrange it someday.”
The duty-nurse was a bored Eastern European who gave them a half-hearted hard time about having too many people visit Death Waits all at once, but who melted when Suzanne gave her a little talk in Russian.
“What was that all about?” Perry whispered to her as they made their way along the sour-smelling ward.
“Told her we would keep it down—and complimented her on her manicure.”
Lester shook his head. “I haven’t been in a place like this in so long. The fatkins places are nothing like it.”
Hilda snorted. “More upscale, I take it?” Lester and Hilda hadn’t really talked about the fatkins thing, but Perry suddenly remembered the vehemence with which Hilda had denounced the kids who were talked into fatkins treatments in their teens and wondered if she and Lester should be clearing the air.
“Not really—but more functional. More about, I don’t know, pursuing your hobby. Less about showing up in an emergency.”
Hilda snorted again and they were at Death’s room. They walked past his roommates, an old lady with her teeth out, sleeping with her jaw sagging down, and a man in a body-cast hammering on a video-game controller and staring fixedly at the screen at the foot of his bed.
Then they came upon Death Waits. Perry had only seen him briefly, and in bad shape even then, but now he was a wreck, something from a horror movie or an atrocity photo. Perry swallowed hard as he took in the boy’s wracked, skinny body, the casts, the sunken eyes, the shaved head, the caved-in face and torn ears.
He was fixedly watching TV, which seemed to be showing a golf show. His thumb was poised over a rocker-switch connected to the IV in his arm.
Death looked at them with dull eyes at first, not recognizing them for a moment. Then he did, and his eyes welled up with tears. They streamed down his face and his chin and lip quivered, and then he opened his mouth and started to bawl like a baby.
Perry was paralyzed—transfixed by this crying wreck. Lester, too, and Suzanne. They all took a minute step backward, but Hilda pushed past them and took his hand and stroked his hair and went shhh, shhh. His bawling become more uncontrolled, louder, and his two roommates complained, calling to him to shut up, and Suzanne moved back and drew the curtains around each of their beds. Strangely, this silenced them.
Gradually, Death’s cries became softer, and then he snuffled and snorted and Hilda gave him a kleenex from her purse. He wiped his face and blew his nose and squeezed the kleenex tight in his hand. He opened his mouth, shut it, opened and shut it.
Then, in a whisper, he told them his story. The man in the parking-lot and his erection. The hospital. Posting on the message boards.
“What?” Perry said, loud enough that they all jumped and Death Waits flinched pathetically in his hospital bed. Hilda squeezed his arm hard. “Sorry, sorry,” Perry muttered. “But this lawyer, what did he say to you?”
Perry listened for a time. Death Waits spoke in a low monotone, pausing frequently to draw in shuddering breaths that were almost sobs.
“Fucking bastards,” Perry said. “Evil, corporate, immoral, sleazy—”
Hilda squeezed his arm again. “Shh,” she said. “Take it easy. You’re upsetting him.”
Perry was so angry he could barely see, barely think. He was trembling, and they were all staring at him, but he couldn’t stop. Death had shrunk back into himself, squeezed his eyes shut.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Perry said. He felt like he was suffocating. He walked out of the room so fast it was practically a jog, then pounded on the elevator buttons, waited ten seconds and gave up and ran down ten flights of stairs. He got outside into the coolness of the hazy night and sucked in huge lungsful of wet air, his heart hammering in his chest.
He had his phone in his hand and he had scrolled to Kettlewell’s number, but he kept himself from dialing it. He was in no shape to discuss this with Kettlewell. He wanted witnesses there when he did it, to keep him from doing something stupid.
He went back inside. The security guards watched him closely, but he forced himself to smile and act calm and they didn’t stop him from boarding the elevator.
“I’m sorry,” he said to all of them. “I’m sorry,” he said to Death Waits. “Let me make something very, very clear: you are free to use the Internet as much as you want. You are free to tell your story to anyone you want to tell it to. Even if it screws up my case, you’re free to do that. You’ve given up enough for me already.”
Death looked at him with watery eyes. “Really?” he said. It came out in a hoarse whisper.
Perry moved the breakfast tray that covered Death’s laptop, then opened the laptop and positioned it where Death could reach it. “It’s all yours, buddy. Whatever you want to say, say it. Let your freak flag fly.”
Death cried again then, silent tears slipping down his hollow cheeks. Perry got him some kleenex from the bathroom and he blew his nose and wiped his face and grinned at them all, a toothless, wet, ruined smile that made Perry’s heart lurch. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. What the hell was he doing? This kid—he would never get the life he’d had back.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Death said.
“Please don’t be grateful to me,” Perry said. “We owe you the thanks around here. Remember that. We haven’t done you any favors. All the favors around here have come from you.
“Any lawyer shows up here again representing me, I want you to email me.”
In the car back, no one said anything until they were within sight of the shantytown. “Kettlewell isn’t going to like this,” Suzanne said.
“Yeah, I expect not,” Perry said. “He can go fuck himself.”
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As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.