Puppet

“Someone threw away a perfectly good white boy.”

They were standing in a circle around the body, Max, Johnny, and Stan.  They stood with their arms crossed under the power lines that crisscrossed the alley between tall brownstones that blocked the sun and cast shadow into the narrow space.  At the mouth of the alley, pedestrians walked by, heads down or forward, but not looking in, and past that, cars rode by in twos and threes, their colors blurring under the bright light.  Stan looked around, and then made a sound of exasperation.

“Really?  Better off Dead?”  Blank looks.  “John Cusack?”  Still no reaction.  He threw his arms up and turned in a circle.

“I was born in 1805, Stan,”  Max said.

“So? You’ve never snuck into a movie theater?  Shit, you don’t even have to sneak – just walk in and sit down.”

Max shook his head, and Stan made a disgusted sound.

“Not once in the last 100 years?  Gah.”  He turned to Johnny, who he knew had been alive in the 50s.  “What about you, slick?”

Johnny shrugged.  “I was a James Dean fan.”  He looked down again and frowned.  “What do you think happened to him?”

Stan pointed to the puddle spilled around the body and the edges of the shirt that were soaking it up and turning a deep crimson.  “Probably stabbed.  Not likely he was shot, unless someone used a small caliber.”

“How do you know?”  Max asked.

“No exit wound.  Lots of blood.”

“Why don’t they look?”  Johnny asked, interrupting the conversation.

“What?  Who?”

Johnny gestured to the people passing by outside the alley.

“They don’t want to see,”  Max said.

“Why not?”

“You ever really want to see something ugly?  Do you seek it out, make yourself uncomfortable?  When you were still a person, when you cut yourself, did you take your time and look at the wound, or did you cover it up fast and pinch it off?”

Johnny fell quiet for a moment.  “You think he’s got family?”  He said after a minute.

“Probably,”  Max said.

“Doesn’t matter.  Lucky bastard got the A-train right away.”  Stan said.  He knelt and dug his hand into the man’s back, the translucent blue of his skin passing into the body.

“What the hell are you doing, boy?”  Max asked.

Stan looked up.  “Just making sure the lights are out.”  He pulled his arm out and stood.

“So?”  Johnny asked.

“Yeah, he’s a goner.  So, you guys gonna stick around for the cop show?”

They shook their heads.

“I’m going to the library.  There’s a guy comes in and reads The Windup Bird Chronicle, and if I don’t get there in time, I’ll miss a page or two.”  Max said.

“Yeah, the Strand is showing Rebel Without a Cause,”  Johnny chimed in.

They said their goodbyes.  Max walked through the alley wall, probably giving some poor housewife a chill, and Johnny wandered out to the street and through traffic, where several cars passed through him before he got to the other side.  Left alone, Stan looked around the alley and wondered what to do.

Eternity could be boring sometimes.  Sure, you got the chance to watch people all you wanted, and the cop show was always entertaining, but you could only watch hot women get into their shower so many times before it got to be old hat.  He did get free passes to all the movies – being dead would do that – and all the TV he could watch, but that tended to suck when you couldn’t turn the channel.  There were always books, but much like TV, you had to wait for someone else to start reading before you could.  There was other entertainment to watch – war, rape, murder, but you had to be a sick fuck in life to enjoy those.

He eyed the corpse in the alley and wondered what it would be like to be alive again.  To feel, to breathe, to eat a cheeseburger.  An idea popped into his head and fluttered around, like a moth getting too close to a candle flame.

That won’t work.  Will it?

He thought maybe he should wander off, find something else to do before he had any other ideas.  When you were dead, too many ideas were dangerous.  They gave you hope.  He thought of Max, dead for all those years, and wondered if the old man still had ideas, or if he brushed them off like houseflies.   He started to walk away and found himself at the corpse’s feet.  The idea fluttered again.

Stan knelt, placing his knees on the dead man’s.  He felt a tingle, like what he felt when he would walk through solid objects.  He knelt there for a moment, feeling the buzz, and then closed his eyes.  He fell forward, into the dead man, and his whole body took on the tingle like licking a 9-volt.  It was comforting, like one of those electric chairs at the mall.  He didn’t want to open his eyes, just wanted to feel that comforting tingle until the world faded into black.  He pushed himself up and found it took some effort.  He opened his eyes.

He looked down and was surprised to see hands, flesh and blood, pressed into the concrete.  He could feel stones pressing into them, and the weight of the body he was wearing pressing down.  His arms trembled a bit, and he pressed himself back until he sat on his borrowed heels.  Pain flashed through the body he had stolen, and he looked down at the soiled shirt.  He could just make out the tear in the fabric where the blade had gone in.  He pressed a hand to his side, and pain spiked from the wound, sending a flare into the brain he was using.

It faded, and like a light being switched on, euphoria flooded into his brain.  He was in a body.  He could breathe – he did just then, and took a deep breath, and ignored the pain in his side – air flooded into his lungs, and he felt light-headed for a moment, like the first time he’d had a cigarette.  Which reminded him of cigarettes – he missed the harsh burn of smoke and the frisson from that first drag.  He missed the taste of red meat, hot and juicy and savory, and the feel of a woman on his jock.

The sound of traffic outside the alley pulled him back into the real world, and he looked down.  The shirt was torn and bloody and ruined, and he didn’t think he wanted to stagger out of the alley in that shape.  He couldn’t afford attention from doctors or police.  He’d need a shirt to start.  He looked around and saw luck had continued to smile on him.  Hanging from one of the lines toward the back of the alley was someone’s laundry, and right in the middle of the line, a big flannel.

Stan lurched to his feet, the feel of muscle working under him unfamiliar, and promptly fell forward.  He managed to get his hands out in time before he smashed his face into a pulp, but his palms ended up skinned, and his knees a wracked mess.  He took a breath, though he suspected he still didn’t need to and pushed himself up.  He crab-walked to the wall of the brownstone next to him and pressed his back into it.  Then, with careful deliberation, levered his new body up until he was standing.  He cheered to himself, an internal victory dance, and then took a hesitant step.  When he didn’t fall down, he had another celebration – go Stan, it’s your birthday – and took another.  Before long, he was at the clothesline.

The clothing presented a new challenge.  He found his hands weren’t ready to operate a clothespin or buttons, and he ended up ripping the shirt from the line, which came easily, and off his torso, which did not, and left lines of welts where the seams wouldn’t part.  After some cursing and no small amount of frustration, he managed to get the flannel on and buttoned just enough to not show his nipples when he walked down the street.  He looked down at himself, clean as he would be for some time, and felt satisfied enough to leave the alley.  He took a few more practice steps and screwed up his courage, and then joined the pedestrian traffic outside as though he belonged.

*

“What. Will. You. Have?”

The cashier couldn’t have been more than 16, and Stan was trying not to wring his neck.  He stared up at the menu, the high-def photos making his stomach rumble.  He thought he wanted the Uber-Stack, six patties alternated with cheese and bacon and sandwiched between  two glistening buns, but the Reichsburger sounded delicious as well.

“Sir?”

Stan forced his face to frown, and the kid behind the counter stepped back.  Shit. He was doing it wrong.  He tried to remember what a normal face looked like and smiled.  He was sure all of his teeth were showing, but damn if he wasn’t trying.

“Gimme the Uber-Stack.”

“Mezzerschmidt fries or Panzer Rings?”

“Rings, please.”

The kid pressed some buttons on his register, which beeped and booped at him.

“Eight o five.”

Panic stitched its way across Stan’s chest.  He thrust a hand into his pocket, and – holy shit ­– came out with a 50.  He passed it over to the kid and waited for his change, then stepped to the side.  When his order came up, he almost ran to a booth and sat down.

The first bite of meat was heaven.  Juicy and savory and cheesy and bacon-y and oh my God, this is what Heaven must taste like.  He popped an onion ring into his mouth and savored the fried goodness.  His soda was sweet and fizzy and the bubble tickled his borrowed nose.  He took another bite of burger and sighed.

A noise from the front of the store interrupted his third bite.  Someone was up front, shouting.  He turned in his seat and looked.  A young man in a big coat was waving his arms, and acting agitated.  Stan ducked his head, but not before the kid turned, and he saw the gun in his hand.

“Hey.  Hey you.  Motherfucker in the flannel.  Get up here.”

Stan sighed again and trudged up front.  The kid grabbed him and put one arm around his neck, the other hand, the one with the gun, pressing the weapon to his temple.

“Now.”  The kid said.  “Open the register, or I shoot this motherfucker.”

The cashier rolled his eyes and reached under the counter.

Don’t be a hero, you dipshit, Stan thought.  The would-be robber saw it too, though, and swept the gun toward the cashier.

“You going for an alarm?  Stupid motherfucker, what’d I tell you?”

He pressed the gun against Stan’s head.

Oh shi- was all Stan had time to think before the sound of the gun going off echoed in his head, blotting out all thought.  He felt his borrowed skull crack and explode outward, and his borrowed brains fly out like a bowl of thrown Jell-o.

The room echoed, and he saw the cashier piss himself and open the register.  He saw the cashier.  Somehow he still had control of the body.  An idea came to him, and being the master of impulse control he was, he acted on it immediately.

He groaned, long and loud, and rolled his eyes back.  He reached out and grabbed the robber’s arm and bit it, still groaning.  The kid pushed back from him, yowling in pain.  He clutched his arm and scuttled backward.  From the corner of his eye, the cashier had fainted.

“ZOMBIE!”

The robber emptied his gun into Stan’s body, screaming the whole time.  Stan just kept advancing.  He tried frowning and grinning at the same time, and it must have worked because the robber let out a squeal and threw the pistol at him.  It hit him in the chest and rebounded, dropping to the floor with a clatter.  The kid in the big coat, who would have robbed Fuhrer Burger, ran like a scared cat.

Stan stood there a moment longer, then raised a hand to his head.  It was ruined.  The bullet had left a gaping hole in his skull.  Maybe I can wear a hat.  He poked a finger into the hole and could feel brain.  A big one.  A liquid weight hit him in the middle of the thought, followed by the smells of fried fish and potatoes.  He looked down at the pool around his feet, then turned.

The cashier had come to his senses, and he stood to one side, an empty bucket in one hand, a match in the other.  He tossed it at the puddle of oil.

“You want fries with that?”  He asked.

Stan’s borrowed body went up like a candle wick.  He tried to hold out, for one minute, then two.  When the muscle around his bones melted, and the body collapsed, he vacated with an annoyed sigh and stepped away from the flames.  He stood to one side, watching the heap of flesh burn, and could only feel annoyance he hadn’t finished his burger.

A voice to his left spoke up.

“Glad I aint got a nose no more,”  Max said.

Johnny appeared through the wall to their right.  “And they call me a greaser.”

The stood around for a bit, watching as the body burned and the cops filed in.  After a while, they exited through the wall and met in the alley beyond.

“So whaddya guys wanna do?”  Stan asked.

Max shook his head, Johnny shrugged.

“We should see a movie.”

“Better off Dead’s pretty good?”  Max said.

Stan put his arm around Max’s shoulders.  “Truth’s in the title, pal.”

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