Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 56 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

Perry got his Disney-in-a-Box through a circuitous route, getting one of the hawkers’ brothers to order it to a PO box in Miami, to which Perry would drive down to pick it up and take it back.

Lester roused himself from the apartment when Perry told him it had arrived. Lester and Suzanne had been AWOL for days, sleeping in until Perry left, coming back after Perry came back, until it felt like they were just travelers staying in the same hotel.

He hadn’t heard a peep from Kettlewell or Tjan, either. He guessed that they were off figuring things out with their money people. The network of ride operators had taken the news with equanimity—Hilda had helped him write the message so that it kind of implied that everything was under control and moving along nicely.

But when Perry emailed Lester to say he was going to drive down to the PO box the next morning before opening the ride, Lester emailed back in minutes volunteering to come with him.

He had coffee ready by the time Perry got out of the shower. It was still o-dark-hundred outside, the sun not yet risen, and they hardly spoke as they got into the car, but soon they were on the open road.

“Kettlewell and Tjan aren’t going to sue you,” Lester said. There it was, all in a short sentence: I’ve been talking to them. I’ve been figuring out if I’m with you or with them. I’ve been saving your ass. I’ve been deciding to be on your side.

“Good news,” Perry said. “That would have really sucked.”

Perry waited for the rest of the drive for Lester to say something, but he didn’t. It was a long drive.

The whole way back, Lester talked about the Disney-in-a-Box. There’d been some alien autopsy videos of them posted online already, engineers taking them to bits, making guesses about and what they did and how. Lester had watched the videos avidly and he held his own opinions, and he was eager to get at the box and find answers for himself. It was the size of an ice-chest, too big to fit on his lap, but he kept looking over his shoulder at it.

The box-art, a glossy pic of two children staring goggle-eyed at a box from which Disneoid marvels were erupting, looked a little like the Make Your Own Monster toy Perry’d had as a boy. It actually made his heart skip a beat the way that that old toy had. Really, wasn’t that every kid’s dream? A machine that created wonders from dull feedstock?

They got back to the ride long before it was due to open and Perry asked Lester if he wanted to get a second breakfast in the tea-room in the shanty-town, but Lester begged off, heading for his workshop to get to grips with the Box.

So Perry alone waited for the ride to open, standing at his familiar spot behind the counter. The hawkers came and nodded hello to him. A customer showed up. Another. Perry took their money.

The ticket-counter smelled of sticky beverages spilled and left to bake in the heat, a sour-sweet smell like bile. His chair was an uncomfortable bar-stool he’d gotten from a kitchen-surplus place, happy for the bargain. He’d logged a lot of hours in that chair. It had wreaked havoc on his lower spine and tenderized his ass.

He and Lester had started this as a lark, but now it was a movement, and not one that was good for his mental health. He didn’t want to be sitting on that stool. He might as well be working in a liquor store—the skill-set was the same.

Hilda broke his reverie by calling his phone. “Hey, gorgeous,” she said. She bounded out of bed fully formed, without any intervening stages of pre-coffee, invertebrate, pre-shower, and Homo erectus. He could hear that she was ready to catch the world by the ankle and chew her way up its leg.

“Hey,” he said.

“Uh oh. Mr Badvibes is back. You and Lester fight in the car?”

“Naw,” he said. “That was fine. Just…” He told her about the smell and the stool and working at a liquor store.

“Get one of those home-slices running the market stalls to take over the counter, and take me to the beach, then. It’s been weeks and I still haven’t seen the ocean. I’m beginning to think it’s an urban legend.”

So that’s what he did. Hilda drove up in a bikini that made his jaw drop, and bought a pair of polarizing contacts from Jason, and Perry turned the till over to one of the more trustworthy vendors, and they hit the road.

Hilda nuzzled him and prodded him all the way to the beach, kissing him at the red lights. The sky was blue and clear as far as the eye could see in all directions, and they bought a bag of oranges, a newspaper, beach-blankets, sun-block, a picnic lunch, and a book of replica vintage luggage stickers from hawkers at various stop-points.

They unpacked the trunk in the parking garage and stepped out into the bright day, and that’s when they noticed the wind. It was blowing so hard it took Hilda’s sarong off as soon as she stepped out onto the street. Perry barely had time to snatch the cloth out of the air. The wind howled.

They looked up and saw the palm-trees bending like drawn bows, the hot-dog vendors and shave-ice carts and the jewelry hawkers hurriedly piling everything into their cars.

“Guess the beach is cancelled,” Hilda said, pointing out over the ocean. There, on the horizon, was a wall of black cloud, scudding rapidly toward them in the raging wind. “Shoulda checked the weather.”

The wind whipped up stinging clouds of sand and debris. It gusted hard and actually blew Hilda into Perry. He caught her and they both laughed nervously.

“Is this a hurricane?” she asked, joking, not joking, tension in her voice.

“Probably not.” He was thinking of Hurricane Wilma, though, the year he’d moved to Florida. No one had predicted Wilma, which had been a tropical storm miles off the coast until it wasn’t, until it was smashing a 50km-wide path of destruction from Key West to Kissimmee. He’d been working a straight job as a structural engineer for a condo developer, and he’d seen what a good blow could do to the condos of Florida, which were built mostly from dreams, promises, spit, and kleenex.

Wilma had left cars stuck in trees, trees stuck in houses, and it had blown just like this when it hit. There was a crackle in the air, and the sighing of the wind turned to groans, seeming to come from everywhere at once—the buildings were moaning in their bones as the winds buffeted them.

“We have to get out of here,” Perry said. “Now.”

They got up to the second storey of the parking garage when the whole building moaned and shuddered beneath them, like a tremor. They froze on the stairwell. Somewhere in the garage, something crashed into something else with a sound like thunder, and then it was echoed with an actual thunder-crack, a sound like a hundred rifles fired in unison.

Hilda looked at him. “No way. Not further up. Not in this building.”

He agreed. They pelted down the street and into the first sleeting showers coming out of a sky that was now dirty grey and low. A sandwich board advertising energy beverages spun through the air like a razor-edged frisbee, trailing a length of clothesline that had tethered it to the front of some beach-side cafe. On the beach across the road, beachcomber robots burrowed into the sand, trying to get safe from the wind, but were foiled again and again, rolled around like potato bugs into the street, into the sea, into the buildings. They seizured like dying things. Perry felt an irrational urge to rescue them.

“High ground,” Hilda said, pointing away from the beach. “High ground and find a basement. Just like a twister.”

A sheet of water lifted off the surface of the sea and swept across the road at them, soaking them to the skin, followed by a sheet of sand that coated them from head to toe. It was all the encouragement they needed. They ran.

They ran, but the streets were running with rain now and more debris was rolling past them. They got up one block and sloshed across the road. They made it halfway up the next block, past a coffee shop and a surf-shop in low-slung buildings, and the wind literally lifted them off their feet and slammed them to the ground. Perry grabbed Hilda and dragged her into an alley behind the surf-shop. There were dumpsters there, and a recessed doorway, and they squeezed past the dumpster and into the doorway.

Now in the lee, they realized how loud the storm had been. Their ears rang with it, and rang again with another thunderclap. Their chests heaved and they shivered, grabbing each other. The doorway stank of piss and the crackling ozone around them.

“This place, holy fuck, it’s about to lift off and fly away,” Hilda said, panting. Perry’s unbroken arm throbbed and he looked down to see a ragged cut running the length of his forearm. From the Dumpster?

“It’s a big storm,” Perry said. “They come through now and again. Sometimes they blow away.”

“What do they blow away? Trailers? Apartment buildings?” They were both spitting sand and Perry’s arm oozed blood.

“Sometimes!” Perry said. They huddled together and listened to the wind lashing at the buildings around them. The Dumpster blocking their doorway groaned, and then it actually slid a few inches. Water coursed down the alley before them, with debris caught in it: branches, trash, then an electric motorcycle, scratching against the road as it rattled through the river.

They watched it pass without speaking, then both of them screamed and scrambled back as a hissing, soaked house-cat scrambled over the dumpster, landing practically in their laps, clawing at them with hysterical viciousness.

“Fuck!” Hilda said as it caught hold of her thumb with its teeth. She pushed at its face ineffectually, hissing with pain, and Perry finally worked a thumb into the hinge of its jaw and forced it open. The cat sprang away, clawing up his face, leaping back onto the Dumpster.

Hilda’s thumb was punctured many times, already running free with blood. “I’m going to need rabies shots,” she said. “But I’ll live.”

They cuddled, in the blood and the mud, and watched the river swell and run with more odd debris: clothes and coolers, beer bottles and a laptop, cartons of milk and someone’s purse. A small palm-tree. A mailbox. Finally, the river began to wane, the rain to falter.

“Was that it?” Hilda said.

“Maybe,” Perry said. He breathed in the moist air. His arms throbbed—one broken, the other torn open. The rain was petering out fast now, and looking up, he could see blue sky peeking through the dirty, heavy clouds, which were scudding away as fast as they’d rolled in.

“Next time, we check the weather before we go to the beach,” he said.

She laughed and leaned against him and he yelped as she came into contact with his hurt arm. “We got to get you to a hospital,” she said. “Get that looked at.”

“You too,” he said, pointing at her thumb. It was all so weird and remote now, as they walked through the Miami streets, back toward the garage. Other shocked people wandered the streets, weirdly friendly, smiling at them like they all shared a secret.

The beach-front was in shambles, covered in blown trash and mud, uprooted trees and fallen leaves, broken glass and rolled cars. Perry hit the car radio before they pulled out of the garage. An announcer reported that Tropical Storm Henry had gone about three miles inland before petering out to a mere sun-shower, along with news about the freeways and hospitals being equally jammed.

“Huh,” Perry said. “Well, what do we do now?”

“Let’s find a hotel room,” Hilda said. “Have showers, get something to eat.”

It was a weird and funny idea, and Perry liked it. He’d never played tourist in Florida, but what better place to do so? They gathered their snacks from the back of the car and used the first aid kit in the trunk to tape themselves up.

They tried to reach Lester but no one answered. “He’s probably at the ride,” Perry said. “Or balls-deep in reverse-engineering the Disney Box thing. OK, let’s find a hotel room.”

Everything on the beach was fully booked, but as they continued inland for a couple blocks, they came upon coffin hotels stacked four or five capsules high, painted gay Miami deco pastels, installed in rows in old storefronts or stuck in street-parking spots, their silvered windows looking out over the deserted boulevards.

“Should we?” Perry said, gesturing at them.

“If we can get an empty one? Damn right—these things are going to be in serious demand in pretty short order.”

Stepping into the coffin hotel transported Perry back to his days on the road, his days staying at coffin hotel after coffin hotel, to his first night with Hilda, in Madison. One look at Hilda told him she felt the same. They washed each other slowly, as though they were underwater, cleaning out one-another’s wounds, sluicing away the caked on mud and grime blown deep into their ears and the creases of their skin, nestled against their scalps.

They lay down in bed, naked, together, spooned against one another. “You’re a good man, Perry Gibbons,” Hilda said, snuggling against him, hand moving in slow circles on his tummy.

They slept that way and got back on the road long past dark, driving the blasted freeway slowly, moving around the broken glass and blown out tires that remained.

The path of the hurricane followed the coast straight to Hollywood, a line of smashed trees and car wrecks and blown-off roofs that made the nighttime drive even more disorienting.

They went straight back to the condo, but Lester wasn’t there. Worry nagged at Perry. “Take me to the ride?” he said, after he’d paced the apartment a few times.

Hilda looked up from the sofa, where she had collapsed the instant they came through the door, arm flung over her face. “You’re shitting me,” she said. “It’s nearly midnight, and we’ve been in a hurricane.”

Perry squirmed. “I’ve got a bad feeling, OK? And I can’t drive myself.” He flapped his busted arm at her.

Hilda looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “Look, don’t be a jerk, OK? Lester’s a big boy. He’s probably just out with Suzanne. He’d have called you if there’d been a problem.”

He looked at her, bewildered by the ferocity of her response. “OK, I’ll call a cab,” he said, trying for a middle ground.

She jumped up from the couch. “Whatever. Fine. Let me get my keys. Jesus.”

He had no idea how he’d angered her, but it was clear that he had, and the last thing he wanted was to get into a car with her, but he couldn’t think of a way of saying that without escalating things.

So they drove in white-lipped silence to the ride, Hilda tense with anger, Perry tense with worry, both of them touchy as cats, neither saying a word.

But when they pulled up to the ride, they both let out a gasp. It was lit with rigged floodlights and car headlights, and it was swarming with people. As they drew closer, they saw that the market stalls were strewn across the parking lot, in smashed pieces. As they drew closer still, they saw that the ride itself was staring eyeless at them, window-glass smashed.

Perry was out of the car even before it stopped rolling, Hilda shouting something after him. Lester was just on the other side of the ride-entrance, wearing a paper mask and rubber boots, wading in three-inch deep, scummy water.

Perry splashed to a halt. “Holy shit,” he breathed. The ride was lit with glow-sticks, waterproof lamps, and LED torches, and the lights reflected crazily from the still water that filled it as far as the eye could see, way out into the gloom.

Lester looked up at him. His face was lined and exhausted, and it gleamed with sweat. “Storm broke out all the windows and trashed the roof, then flooded us out. It did a real number on the market, too.” His voice was dead.

Perry was wordless. Bits of the ride-exhibits floated in the water, along with the corpses of the robots.

“No drainage,” Lester said. “The code says drainage, but there’s none here. I never noticed it before. I’m going to rig a pump, but my workshop’s pretty much toast.” Lester’s workshop had been in the old garden-center at the side of the ride. It was all glass. “We had some pretty amazing winds.”

Perry felt like he should be showing off his wound to prove that he hadn’t been fucking off while the disaster was underway, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. “We got caught in it in Miami,” he said.

“Wondered where you were. The kid who was minding the shop just cut and run when the storm rolled in.”

“He did? Christ, what an irresponsible asshole. I’ll break his neck.”

A slimy raft of kitchen gnomes—their second business venture—floated past silently in the harsh watery light. The smell was almost unbearable.

“It wasn’t his job—” Lester’s voice cracked on job, and he breathed deeply. “It wasn’t his job, Perry. It was your job. You’re running around, having a good time with your girlfriend, firing lawyers—” He stopped and breathed again. “You know that they’re going to sue us, right? They’re going to turn us into a smoking ruin because you fired them, and what the fuck are you going to do about that? Whose job is that?”

“I thought you said they weren’t going to sue,” Perry said. It came out in an embarrassed mumble. Lester had never talked to him like this. Never.

“Kettlewell and Tjan aren’t going to sue,” Lester said. “The lawyers you fired, the venture capitalists who backed them? They’re going to turn us into paste.”

“What would you have preferred?” Hilda said. She’d was standing in the doorway, away from the flood, watching them intently. Her eyes were raccoon-bagged, but she was rigid with anger. Perry could hardly look at her. “Would you have preferred to have those fuckers go around destroying the lives of your supporters in order to enrich a few pig assholes?”

Lester just looked at her.


“Shut up, Yoko,” he said. “We’re having a private conversation here.”

Perry’s jaw dropped, and Hilda was already in motion, sloshing into the water in her sandals. She smacked Lester across the cheek, a crack that echoed back over the water and walls.

Lester brought his hand up to his reddening face. “Are you done?” he said, his voice hard.

Hilda looked at Perry. Lester looked at Perry. Perry looked at the water.

“I’ll meet you by the car,” Perry said. It came out in a mumble. They held for a moment, the three of them, then Hilda walked out again, leaving Lester and Perry looking at one another.

“I’m sorry,” Perry said.

“About Hilda? About the lawsuits? About skipping out?”

“About everything,” he said. “Let’s fix this up, OK?”

“The ride? I don’t even know if I want to. Why bother? It’ll cost a fortune to get it online, and they’ll only shut it down again with the lawsuit. Why bother.”

“So we won’t fix the ride. Let’s fix us.”

“Why bother,” Lester said, and it came out in the same mumble.

The watery sounds of the room and the smell and the harsh reflected rippling light made Perry want to leave. “Lester—” he began.

Lester shook his head. “There’s nothing more we can do tonight, anyway. I’ll rent a pump in the morning.”

“I’ll do it,” Perry said. “You work on the Disney-in-a-Box thing.”

Lester laughed, a bitter sound. “Yeah, OK, buddy. Sure.”

Out in the parking-lot, the hawkers were putting their stalls back together as best they could. The shantytown was lit up and Perry wondered how it had held together. Pretty good, is what he guessed—they met and exceeded county code on all of those plans.

Hilda honked the horn at him. She was fuming behind the wheel and they drove in silence. He felt numb and wrung out and he didn’t know what to say to her. He lay awake in bed that night waiting to hear Lester come home, but he didn’t.

<<< Back to Part 55

Continue to Part 57>>>

As part of the ongoing project of crafting’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.

Doctorow’s Makers is now available in print from Tor Books. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.


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