“What’ve you got there, Danny?”
Rob reached for the light switch, and Danny grabbed his hand. The other boy pulled away and looked at his friend. Danny smiled, the look crooked on his face like a skewed picture.
“This is something special.”
Rob frowned, squinting in suspicion. “Special like what? A raptor? A mummy?”
Danny grinned at that and led him deeper into the dim room. “Not a mummy.”
Rob frowned. “So why can’t I turn on the light?”
“I don’t want anyone to see it by accident.” Danny turned and led Rob deeper into the room.
The window had been covered over with a blanket, leaving the few pieces of furniture little more than lumpy shadows in the dark. Another shadow, taller than the others, sat on what Rob assumed was the couch. There was a slight ticking and humming coming from it. Danny wandered over to a side table and touched a lamp. A dim glow sparked up and lit the room enough to see its contents.
A tall, gaunt man sat on the couch. His skin was gray and sallow, his eyes deep -sunk in their sockets, and a beard crawled its way from ear to ear. His hair was thin and black, and his lips were full. He had a strong nose and brow, and an air of intelligence about him. A framework of steel and brass spidered over the man’s bare chest and limbs and disappeared behind his shoulders. He turned his head to look at Danny, and Rob could see into his skull, as though it had been blown open. Gears and cogs of brass whirred and clicked inside his head.
Rob took an involuntary step back and swallowed hard. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to stand his ground.
“What is this? Did you make this?”
“What? No.” Danny blew a breath out, a pss sound. “I found him.”
“He was wandering old Route 2, up by Hansen.”
The man looked back at Rob, and a realization hit him. He felt like the air had been knocked out of his chest.
“Holy shit. This is Lincoln.”
Danny frowned. “Nah.”
“Yeah, look at his head, and his beard. This is Lincoln, man.”
Danny whistled, and Lincoln turned his head back toward him. He opened his mouth.
“INSERT PARAMETER CARD.” The voice was loud and harsh, making the boys flinch.
“What the hell’s a parameter card?” Danny asked.
Rob shrugged. “I dunno. Didn’t he say anything before now? How’d you get him home?”
Danny’s turn to shrug came next. “He just followed me. He’s been quiet this whole time.”
Rob tried to think. An idea worked its way into his brain like a worm, and he grabbed hold of it. He pursed his lips and whistled. Lincoln’s head swiveled toward him.
“INSERT PARAMETER CARD.”
“Huh,” Rob said. “Apparently, whistling’s some sort of signal.”
“Still don’t tell us what a parameter card is. Or where to put it.”
Rob pointed at the metal crisscrossing Lincoln’s body. “Where do those things go?”
Danny shrugged. “Box on his back.” He looked at Lincoln. “Stand up.”
Lincoln stood, and Danny grabbed hold of his arm and turned him slowly. When he was facing the wall, he stopped. Rob looked at the former President’s back, where a brass box had been implanted, screws sunk into the flesh from brackets on its sides. The armatures from the web work that covered Lincoln’s limbs and chest bundled into ports on the sides. The box itself was riveted at the seams, intricate scrollwork all around its edges. A small thin slot was centered on the back of the box. Rob pointed at it.
“That’s where the card goes.”
Danny looked at the slot and ran a finger over it. His face scrunched for a moment, and then lit up, as though someone had flicked a switch inside. He ran out of the room, leaving Rob with the President. Acutely aware that he was alone with some sort of undead clockwork monster in a dark room, Rob took a few steps back and tried not to look scared out of his wits. For Lincoln’s part, the man didn’t seem to mind staring at the wall and remained there until Danny returned, flush and triumphant.
Danny flashed a smile and held up a pad of paper, a pen, and a credit card. “I’ve got an idea!”
He took the credit card, and before Rob could protest, pushed it into the slot in Lincoln’s back. There was a clicking and whirring sound, and then nothing. Danny looked at Rob.
“Are we supposed to do something?”
Rob thought, racking his brains. He remembered what they’d done the last time Lincoln had spoken, and then whistled. The response was immediate.
“INCORRECT PARAMETER CARD. PLEASE REPLACE AND REISSUE SIGNAL.”
There was a whir, and the box spit the card out. It fluttered to the floor.
“Okay, we’re getting somewhere,” Danny said.
He picked up the pad and scribbled something, then showed it to Rob. Say something was written on it. Rob thought that was safe enough, so he nodded. Danny tore the sheet of paper off and slipped it into the slot. The box whirred again and then was quiet. Rob whistled.
“PROCESSING PARAMETERS…EXECUTING…FOURSCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO, OUR FOREFATHERS FOREFATHERS FOREFATHERS…” Lincoln’s voice trailed off. The box whirred and ejected the paper.
“Aww, he’s broken,” Danny said, dejected.
“Maybe he’s just rusty. Or maybe talking’s not what he does. Look at his brain. It’s all gears.”
Danny lit up. “Yeah. Yeah.” He scribbled something on the pad and shoved it into the box without showing Rob.
Lincoln turned, and swayed. His elbows swung, and the boys backed away, as his feet broke into a rhythmic shuffle. Before long, he was dancing – something old and embarrassing (at least to the boys). Rob thought he looked like a stork having a seizure. Lincoln continued to dance, though, and the more he watched, the funnier it became. Danny was the first to break, laughing until he cried, and Rob joined in. By the time Lincoln had stopped, both boys were gasping for breath.
“Okay. Okay.” Danny said between chuckles. “Sit down, Mr. President.”
They turned off the light and left the room, making sure to lock it behind them. In the hall, in the light of day, the thing in there seemed like something out of the old magazines Rob’s father kept in his den. They stood there for a moment, aimless. Rob finally broke the silence.
“What do we do with him?”
“Come back tomorrow. I have an idea.”
Rob left. Walking down the street in the late afternoon sunlight, he had visions – Lincoln doing his homework, Lincoln doing his chores, Lincoln roughing up Billy Elliott, Rob’s own personal 90 lb. nightmare. He whistled as he went down the street, dreams in his head.
Rob showed up early the next morning, his head still full of dreams, and his pounding on the door knocking Danny out of bed. Danny opened the door, bleary-eyed, his hair up in spikes here and there where he had slept on it. He rubbed a hand across his face.
“Man, you couldn’t wait like another hour?”
Rob smiled and shouldered his way past Danny. Danny shut the door and followed Rob down the hall. Halfway to the room, he grabbed Rob by his shoulders and steered him toward the kitchen.
“Reese’s Puffs. Then stuff.”
Rob sat and fidgeted with impatience while Danny ate his cereal. He rolled his eyes when Danny got a second bowl and stifled an irritated scream when he took his time putting it in the sink. Danny turned to him, a smirk on his face.
They went to the room, Danny unlocking it with a key. Danny flipped the lamp on, and they looked at Lincoln. He hadn’t moved since the day before, and it appeared he hadn’t slept. He still stared straight ahead, his eyes unfocused. Danny picked up the pad, and Rob laid a hand on it.
“Wait. We should warm him up first.” Rob said.
Danny nodded and scribbled something on the pad, then slipped it into the brass box.
Lincoln stood, and then dropped to his knees. He assumed the push-up position, and did ten, then sat back on the couch, the paper fluttering from his back.
“You think that’s good enough?” Danny asked.
Rob squinted with one eye, thinking. “Yeah.”
“What now? Should I make him mow the lawn?”
Rob shook his head. “Too small. This is the President, man. The President. He freed the slaves, you know?”
“Huh.” Danny had a look on his face that said he’d just thought of something. He picked up the pad and scribbled something. He slipped it into the box and waited.
“What did you tell him to do?” Rob asked.
“You’ll see,” Danny said.
Danny flashed a smile. “Come on. Yesterday was fun, right?”
Rob rubbed his chin. “Yeah, I guess so.” He pursed his lips and whistled.
Nothing happened for a moment. Rob was ready to whistle again when Lincoln stood, a fierce expression on his face.
“PARAMETERS ACCEPTED. COMMENCE EMANCIPATION.”
He turned toward the wall and advanced, heedless of the obstruction. He drew back an arm, and made a fist, then punched a hole in the drywall. It crumbled like paper, and before the boys could do anything to stop him, Lincoln was advancing, arms digging at the wall like pistons, his brass exoskeleton allowing him to walk through the wall like it was a paper banner at a football game. They shouted and yelled after him, a cloud of plaster, wood splinters, and debris in his wake.
They might as well have been shouting at a tin can for all the good it did. Lincoln was on his way; toward whatever he had decided was his mission. They stood looking out of the hole, dumbstruck. They could see the President advancing across the lawn from the hole in the wall. After a moment, they ran after him.
Lincoln was fast. They were halfway down Main, and still a ways behind him. They watched as he passed the Five and Dime, Connor’s Pharmacy, and Misty’s Flowers, and then suddenly veered toward the Mayflower building. They cut corners to catch up, but knew they were too late when they heard the sound of breaking glass.
“Shit!” Rob stopped, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Danny panted beside him.
“What the hell did you tell him to do?”
Danny shook his head. “Something I didn’t think he could. I wanted to see what he’d do.”
“What the hell was it, Danny?”
“I told him to free the slaves.”
Just then, there was a scream, and a woman in a pencil skirt and a cream blouse came running from the building that housed the Mayflower Corporation. She ran toward the boys.
“Call 911! Call 911! Someone’s gone crazy; he’s busting the place up!”
The boys ignored her and ran toward the building.
Inside, past a pair of smashed glass doors and a splintered reception desk, they could hear the dismayed cries and shouts of the frightened. The boys ran into the main office area, past another set of smashed glass doors. Broken computers were strewn about the floor, and people huddled in the far corners or were hiding under their desks. No one seemed too concerned with two boys who seemed to be running toward the danger.
“EMBRACE EMANCIPATION. SEND OUT YOUR TASKMASTERS.” Lincoln’s voice rang through the office.
The boys ran to the President, who was standing in front of a closed door. The placard on the wall read Mr. Arnold, VP. He looked down.
“IS THIS THE HOME OF THE TASKMASTER? ADVISE.”
Danny didn’t answer. Instead, he grabbed Lincoln’s arm. “Come on, Mr. President. You can come home and have some cereal.”
Lincoln shook off Danny, sending him flying into a cube wall and dazing him. Rob ran to his side. While he was checking on his friend, there was a loud CRUNCH, and the wall to Arnold’s office crumbled. Rob looked up in time to see the VP thrown into the main office, a cry of dismay escaping him. Lincoln smashed through the wall again.
“ANTICIPATE EMANCIPATION AND REJOICE.”
He raised a fist to smash Arnold, and the man covered his head with his arms, whimpering. Before it could descend, there was a loud bang, and Lincoln rocked back. He looked up, and Rob followed his gaze. Two policemen, pistols out, were standing at the far end of the room.
“DO NOT INTERFERE, CONSTABLES.”
The cop fired off another shot, this time catching Lincoln in the shoulder. Black fluid that smelled vaguely mechanical oozed out, and his arm made a peculiar whine. He tried to bring his fist down onto the hapless VP, but his limb seemed to be stuck. A third shot rang out, and Lincoln’s eye disappeared in a black hole. There was the sudden sound of grinding gears, and the former President twitched violently.
“OH MARY. MARY. MARY. MARY…”
His voice trailed off, and smoke poured from his head. He froze, and then fell forward, toppling to the ground with a crash. A cheer went up from the crowd. Their short nightmare was over.
In the hospital, Rob told Danny what he’d missed. No one was sure the boys were involved, and they both agreed that Lincoln had simply appeared and gone berserk, attacking Danny’s house first, for no good reason.
Danny was discharged later that day, and the boys walked home under a setting sun. Halfway there, Danny turned to Rob.
“Wanna go out to Route 2 tomorrow?”
“Two words. Robot Roosevelt.”