Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Photo Credit: Christopher/BlackBirdCD
Kentucky hadn’t seen an ice storm this bad in over a decade. The governor had activated the entire National Guard twelve years ago to do door-to-door checks, clear debris, and transport supplies. Cell towers had gone down, old folks froze to death in their homes, and school was out for two weeks in some places. This was worse though. Sheets of freezing rain had fallen every other night for three weeks, melting to a slush during the day and freezing again into a thick layer of solid ice. Even in Louisville, the metro police had issued a notice that anyone caught driving on its icy streets until they were safer would get a ticket.
It was the perfect time, Katie thought, for urban exploring. No one was at work, the streets were ghost-town empty, and the continual fall of freezing rain meant their footprints would be erased just minutes after they passed.
Katie and Roger had talked about exploring the abandoned Fiddler’s Green Bourbon distillery since they were in middle school. It had that haunted look at night, with its wrought iron gates and the way the pointed roof of the water tower made the skyline seem just a bit more like a castle when the moon was out. Roger’s friend Tyler from the track team had come too, since he and Roger were playing video games when Katie called.
“I can’t even see the top of the water tower from all the ice coming down,” Roger said as they came to the wall.
“That means we’re harder to see too,” Katie said. “Give me a boost?”
The owners of Fiddler’s Green had apparently thought an inviting, aesthetic appeal was more important than security. As a result, the distillery grounds were surrounded not by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, but by an eight-foot brick wall. Roger leaned his back against the wall and cupped his hands on his knee. Katie stepped into his hands, lost her balance for a moment, and stuffed her crotch in Roger’s face.
“Sorry,” she said, glancing down.
“Don’t apologize,” Tyler said. “You just made his night.”
They were all over the wall in a few moments and in the urban explorers’ paradise—an abandoned complex of buildings that hadn’t been touched in over a decade.
“There’ll be an aging warehouse somewhere here where they would’ve kept the oak barrels to age the bourbon,” Roger said. “My vote is we try to find that first.”
“I second that motion,” Tyler said with a smile.
“Let’s see if they locked the doors first,” Katie said, trying a doorknob. Then, after rattling it to make sure it wasn’t just frozen, Katie pulled a double-ended lock pick and tension wrench from her coat pocket.
“Where did you get those?” Tyler asked.
“I made them, stupid,” Katie answered. “I do have Internet access, and better things to do with my time than play video games.”
“She’s been doing this since we were in seventh grade,” Roger whispered.
Katie raked the pins in the lock with one end of the pick, applying slight pressure to the lock core with the tension wrench. After several moments she used the diamond-shaped end of the pick on the back pin, and the lock slowly turned.
“Holy crap,” Tyler said, “I need to hang out with you guys more often. I’ve been missing out.”
“Real knowledge is never spoon-fed,” Katie replied. “That’s what Mr. Gyerson says, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Tyler said. “I sleep in his class.”
A skittering sound echoed in the shadows.
“Do you hear that?” Roger asked. “It sounds like they have rats.”
“I’m not surprised,” Katie said. “I just figured they’d be somewhere warmer right now.”
“Well, there’s nothing in here but empty rows of shelves anyway,” Roger said. “Let’s look for something more interesting, like the warehouse.”
“You know it’s probably empty, right?” Katie said. “Nobody in their right mind would leave gallons of high-end bourbon in a warehouse when they left.”
“Then what are those barrels in the window of that building?” Tyler asked, pointing.
“It’s worth a look,” Roger said, smiling.
Katie started to pull out her picks when she came to the warehouse door. Then, on a whim, she tried the knob.
“It’s open,” she said, pushing the door open. “Of all the buildings to leave unlocked…”
Tyler walked inside and tapped on a barrel. “There’s something in them. Now we just need to find a way to get them open,” he said.
Tiny feet skittered behind the shelves.
“There are rats in here too,” Roger said. “Watch your feet.”
“Something bit me!” Katie said, looking down.
A stabbing pain shot through Roger’s neck, and he instantly started to feel numb.
“Tyler, look—” Roger began, but his tongue stopped working before he could say “out.”
Over Tyler’s shoulder he’d seen something. He was sure it wasn’t a rat. Instead, it looked like a tiny man about the size of his hand, with what looked like a tiny spear.
As Roger crumbled to the floor, he did his best not to land on Katie, but he felt more like a sack of potatoes than someone who could control his own body.
Roger felt a terrible ache behind his right shoulder blade that ran all the way up to his right ear. It was the kind of ache he’d only gotten from sleeping on the couch for too long. “What the hell?” he said, looking around him. Katie and he lay in a cage about four feet high with what looked like steel bars. Someone had chained their hands to the bars on opposite sides of the cage. Katie remained motionless. Roger nudged her with his foot.
“Katie,” he whispered. “Katie, wake up.”
Her leg moved, and then she jerked as she tried to bring her chained hands to her face.
Roger looked outside the cage and saw a man working at a table, over what appeared to be Tyler’s restrained body. The man turned to look at Roger.
“Hello, Roger,” the man said. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
“Can you get us out of here? What’s going on?”
“I’ll let you out in a moment, Roger,” he said, “after I’m done with your friend Tyler. I have to make sure my equipment is still calibrated. I haven’t made a transfer in months.”
“What?” Roger asked. “What are you talking about?”
“The homunculi that captured the three of you were my first experiments with this process. I filled them with the souls of homeless vagrants many months ago to do menial tasks for me. I haven’t made one recently so I’m going to animate one with your friend Tyler before I put you and Katie in the device.”
“What’s a homunculi?” Tyler asked. “I don’t think I want to be one of those.”
“A homunculus, Tyler,” Mr. Gyerson said, “is a small artificial person, and one of the many pet projects of alchemists. Many of them tried silly methods like using hippomene under the full moon, but I find the easiest method is to make a miniature human frame with mostly artificial organs, insert a mouse’s heart, and then transfer a living soul. That is what I’m going to do with you.”
“Why me?” Tyler asked.
“Because you sleep in my class,” Mr. Gyerson answered. “You’re rude. You should respect your elders, and you don’t. So I’m giving you a fitting station in the world, with the homeless men that wandered into my bourbon barrel trap before you.”
“Whatever dude,” Tyler said.
“Exactly my point,” Gyerson said. “‘Dude’ isn’t the way you should address your elders. If you tried ‘sir’ once in a while, you might not be spending the rest of your life in a seven-inch body.”
Roger caught the sound of snickering from another table, where he saw the tiny men gathered around a homunculus-sized table. Their black eyes gazed at Tyler, knowing he was about to join their ranks. A single beer can with a tiny tap in its side sat at the edge of the table.
“Miniature men are so much easier to satisfy,” Gyerson said. “All they wanted in life was free-flowing sedation and no responsibility. I give them all the beer they can drink and they ambush interlopers for me. I don’t even need food for them, since their new bodies run on nothing but beer. I think all of them are happier for the change.”
Katie pulled herself upright against the bars.
“What about Roger and me?” she asked. “Are we going to be homunculi as well?”
“Yes, of course, precious Katie. I wouldn’t leave your souls without a place to go once we vacate your bodies. That would be murder, and I’m just not that sort of man.”
“Vacate our bodies?” Katie said. “What do you mean?”
“Youth is wasted on the young, darling Katie,” Gyerson said, “and you more than deserve this. The three of you are common criminals with, I must say, bodies and youth you don’t deserve.”
“So… wait,” Roger interrupted. “You’re planning to take over my body and put my soul in a homunculus?”
“That’s pretty much the idea, yes,” Gyerson said. “You’ve maintained that physique quite well with all that running you do. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. I’m old, as you can see, and my wife no longer finds me attractive. I can’t blame her, of course, since she’s wrinkled and sagging as well and I’m repulsed by the thought of making love to her. Katie’s filled out so nicely in the last couple of years that my wife and I will be quite happy with her. I’ll be able to turn an old man’s lust into a healthy love for my wife again. I’d never even thought of taking a younger mistress, you know. I’m just not that sort of man.”
Katie made a sound that was a mix between choking and throwing up.
“Anyway, we’ve dithered long enough, haven’t we, Tyler?” Gyerson asked.
Roger could just make out the tiny, stitched-together man lying motionless on the table adjacent to Tyler. Gyerson pressed a few buttons on a keypad and opened the valve on an intravenous drip that ran to Tyler’s forearm. Tyler twisted against the restraints.
“No!” he yelled. “Wait! I—”
Then his body went still. A few moments passed, and the homunculus body on the table began to twist in the same fashion. A high-pitched scream escaped its tiny lips. Gyerson poked Tyler’s tiny new body with a dissecting probe to test its reflexes. Homunculus-Tyler squirmed.
“Ha!” Gyerson said. “Another successful transfer! Another tiny minion for my tiny army! Looks like we’re good to go for you two. Margaret will be so happy.”
“What are you going to do as two high school kids anyway?” Katie asked, trying to think of a way to stall Gyerson’s plan. “People will wonder why you’re not in school. Our parents will come looking for us.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, dear Katie. We won’t even be in the United States much longer. My first bit of alchemical experimentation was transmuting metals. I’ve made more than enough gold to buy the island we’ll be flying to tomorrow morning. The two of you are just the last step in our retirement plan. Most folks retire when they’re too old to enjoy it. Margaret and I shall have a second life. I’ve even fashioned Philosopher’s Stones for us so we’ll never have to do this again.”
“You can’t… that’s horrible,” Katie said. “You’re a teacher. You should be helping people.”
“I’m a chemistry teacher teaching a lie,” Gyerson said. “Real knowledge is never spoon-fed but I’ve been forced to teach the state-sanctioned ‘curriculum’ for the last thirty years and I’m tired of it.”
“What do you mean ‘state-sanctioned’?” Roger asked.
“The drivel we feed kids in schools these days,” Gyerson said. “If the masses knew it was possible to turn lead into gold, would gold have any value? Of course not. Everyone would try to do it. Only by teaching impossibility in schools do the select few retain power. Have you ever picked up a chemistry textbook from the late 1800s? No, of course you wouldn’t. You’re too busy playing video games to care about lost knowledge and censorship. Our great-grandfathers’ chemistry textbooks had recipes for nitroglycerine, poisons, and the like. Those are things the state deems too dangerous for the masses now, and so they are no longer published. That knowledge is hoarded by those who ‘need’ it to serve the state and make its arsenal of death. If you go back further, you’ll notice a radical shift in thought and print when the secret masters of the world realized what alchemy would do to the Gold Standard. Did you know that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year those secret masters formed a new hegemonic dynasty with their alchemical secrets? That was when they started teaching this heavily-censored version of science.”
“Sounds like a great conspiracy theory,” Roger said. “It’s heavy on motive and light on facts.”
“Suit yourself,” Gyerson said. “You won’t believe the truth despite the evidence I’ve given you. I guess the homunculus really is a fitting station for you.”
Gyerson snatched up Tyler in one hand and dropped him in a small wire cage, which he placed on the table with the other homunculi.
“We’ll just let Tyler introduce himself to the others while I introduce you to your new body, Roger,” he said, and grabbed a pole with a cable loop at one end.
Roger had been twisting against his restraints throughout this conversation, but they were far too secure. Gyerson unlocked the cage with a small key and tightened the cable at the end of the pole around Roger’s throat.
“This is a bit like an animal control collar,” Gyerson explained, “with the addition of this button that will let me shock you if you try to fight me.”
Gyerson pressed the button and Roger’s jaw tensed with the current as fire shot through his brain.
“See,” Gyerson said, smiling. “Evidence.”
After some struggling and several more jolts, Gyerson managed to strap Roger to the table where Tyler’s lifeless former body had been.
“Now, I haven’t exactly done a transfusion before,” Gyerson said, as he tapped several keys on the keypad. “I’ll just set your apparatus to transfer to the homunculus and set mine to a split-second delay so our souls don’t cause a traffic jam of sorts. We wouldn’t want that. I should be able to jump into your body between beats and the heart will never know the difference. If you separate a heart from a soul for more than just a few minutes death is irreversible, you know. I found that out the hard way.”
Roger spit at Gyerson, but the old man ducked to one side.
“Very rude. Horrible manners,” he muttered as he started Roger’s intravenous drip. Then, still muttering to himself, Gyerson tapped several buttons on a separate keypad and inserted a needle into his own left arm.
“Now then…” he said, and lay down on the table. He waited a moment, and felt a strange pull at the core of his being. He smiled.
Gyerson opened his eyes and found that he was strapped to the other table.
It was the wrong other table. He moved his hands and found that they were much smaller than he’d expected. The mouse’s heart thumped faster than his human one had.
“There are three bits of real knowledge I was never spoon-fed,” Katie said, as she untied Roger. “Three things I’ve very much enjoyed learning on my own. The first, obviously, is picking locks. Even if you’d been smart enough to search me and take my picks, I could’ve had that lock open in five seconds with one of my hairpins. Seriously, if you have all this gold, why didn’t you invest in a decent lock for your prisoners?”
Gyerson looked around. Surely the other homunculi would help him. He kept them stocked in beer and facilitated their miniature lives of ease. What he saw on the table was one homunculus out of the wire cage and six homunculi inside it.
“The second thing,” Katie said, “was how to move silently, quickly. Don’t you think an urban explorer might have developed that skill set by now? Your little homeless-munculus army never saw me coming, and neither did you. You really could’ve invested in some better help too.”
“Put me back,” Gyerson said. “I’ll share my gold with you. I’m sorry. I do apologize for any misunderstanding. Just put me back in my original body before it dies and you’ll be filthy rich, I promise.”
“I know I’ll be rich,” Katie said with a smile, “but you’re interrupting me. That’s very rude. You should learn some manners, and I intend to teach them to you. The third thing I learned, through much study, was effective torture. I can’t be sure, of course, what methods would work on your makeshift homunculus body, but I’m pretty sure waterboarding and moderate voltage will get it done. You’re going to tell me where the gold is, where the island is, and most importantly, where your notebooks are. You don’t have to spoon-feed me, teacher. I’ll rip it out of you.”
“Such cruelty…” Gyerson said.
“You’ve taken advantage of virtue for too long,” she said. “Old folks like you demand respect of a younger generation while you rip our dreams apart for your pleasure. These homeless you enslaved exploited the compassion of better people to further their vices, and you’re no better for playing on my virtue to say I should respect you. You say we’re cruel, but you’ve abused our virtue to the point that we cannot practice it and survive at the same time.”
“Monster,” Gyerson whispered.
“Well, Dr. Frankenstein,” Katie said, “you made me.”
Stephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. Email: slawson80[at]gmail.com