Requiem for a Toymaker


A small town, somewhere inconsequential

The sun's brighter than usual. Must be a heatwave or something. I never normally sweat too much, but right now it's pouring off me in buckets.

I turn a corner and almost walk straight into someone: a middle-aged and tired-looking woman with a baby in a pushchair and two bags of groceries slung on her arms. Looking down I see a second child, who clings to her legs when I make eye contact. I smile, and apologise for not looking where I was going — she just stares back silently, eyes glazed and glossy.

We go our separate ways. As I'm walking off I see the older of the two children staring at me as his mother urges him to 'come on, for God's sake hurry up'. I wink, turn on my heels, and without a moments hesitation am sprinting off down the road, sun beating down on my neck.

I've already gotten to the car park by the time anyone notices anything missing, and the door opens easily under my touch; a Fiat Panda, nicely inconspicuous. Plus, it had a dog panting in the back. The owner, whoever they were, hadn't even opened a window, and that always makes me angry. I like dogs.

I let the poor creature out, sling the bag of groceries onto the back seat, and squint at the dossier I pull from my jacket's left pocket. An easy comparison with the parchment in my right confirms it, and I start the car's engine with a flick of my wrist. I glance up at the rear-view mirror, and smile.

"Hello, you handsome devil."

I'm not handsome. Attractive, certainly, but disgustingly normal. Greenish-blueish-brownish eyes, hair that falls somewhere between blonde and black, a bone structure that could access any facial-recognition system in the world.

"I think, maybe… John, today? Maybe Tim?" I raise an eyebrow, and my reflection obliges. "No, both too common. I think I fancy somebody… extraordinary. It's a special occasion, after all! I want to be somebody wonderful. Or maybe… maybe somebody Wonderful. Oooh yes, Isiah sounds right. I wonder who he used to be? I'll find out, I suppose. What do you think?"

My reflection shrugs in sync with me.

"Oh, what the hell. Most people only live once."

I smile as my features begin to gravitate downwards, adopting a stoop and a hooked nose. Lines form on my cheeks and around my mouth, and my hair grows from mousy to grey to gone.

New hands grasping the steering wheel, I reverse out, and pull onto the road. The streets are emptied, with most normal people sheltering indoors, and through the rear-view mirror Nobody watches me leave.



Deep inside a saltwater reservoir

Rust clung to every inch of the wretched man's skin. It coated the inside of his lungs, filled his stomach. Oil trickled from the corner of his mouth as he dragged his way through the endless corridors. Occasionally he would pull himself to his feet, lurch forward a few metres and collapse against the wall. The oxide flaked away where he touched it, revealing silvered metal and concrete — and where the oxide touched him, it stuck. He coughed, and a sticky black gobbet rose from his throat, landing with a wet thud on the floor. With shaking hands, he picked it up and pocketed it. Nothing left behind.

He stumbled and dragged himself on, using pipes for support where possible and crawling where not. Somewhere at the end of all this was-

Ah, yes. He turned the corner and saw him. Tears welled up in his eyes and he began to weep, filling the place with hacking, gasping sobs. The oil that flowed from his ducts stung as it traced a path through what was left of his face, and it was all he could do to stay upright.

"D- Dad?"

Cornelius almost vomited. The thing at the other side of the room was twisted and bloody, mangled beyond any recognition, and yet still it turned to face him, and to speak.

"Is that-" A cough so pained and strong it seemed like it would bring down the roof. "That you?"

The Doctor didn't know what to say. "Sort of. I mean, yes, but- but not really. I- I'm here to… to make it better." He felt himself fall forwards, and used the momentum to cross the room, falling in a heap next to the pile of torn flesh. From the lining of his coat, he pulled out a pair of tweezers, and a bottle of iodine.

"It was hard for him to… to get it into you. But, um, it's me it should be in. Well, him, really, but I'm… him now. The name's the thing, really. The person behind the mask is just another mask, as far as the Factory's concerned."

He was rambling, and he knew it. He looked down at Smiles, who just stared blankly back.

"It should be- be easier than the first time. Really. And it will probably hurt, quite a lot. But, um." He looked around the room. Spread across the floor was a slurry of rust, oil, and blood, the former of which was slowly converging on him. "You're probably. Used to that. Um."

Smiles, true to his name, smiled. It was a vacant, meaningless comfort, a performance by somebody who knows that it's what people want to see and who has always been taught to oblige.

Doctor Cornelius Wondertainment raised his tweezers and, with no small sense of trepidation, peeled a fragment of metal from the Mister's cheek. For the first time in so, so many years, nothing else flooded back to replace it. Not skin, not rust, not oil. He dabbed a swab of iodine on the spot, and Smiles didn't even flinch. The process repeated for hours, until finally, in the harsh glare of the perpetual fluorescence, it was done. Cornelius lay back, every nerve-ending ablaze, the foul stuff coating him inside and out. Through forced-open eyes he watched as Smiles stood on shaking, bandaged legs, and hobbled through the doorway, stroking the newly-smooth metalwork as he did.

Not once in his journey did he look back, and Cornelius didn't blame him.

Finally alone with his demons, Doctor Wondertainment closed his eyes and fell through the floor.



nobody



Behind the scenes

So, little doctor, you've come to face us again?

"That's not how you sound."

Oh?

"You're too clear. You should be deeper, and sort of croaky. And metallic. And anyway, the Factory doesn't speak. The Factory is mindless, and cruel, and- and mean."

Hah! You presume to know?

"I should."

No, Dr. Wondertainment should. You, Cornelius Everett Baxter of 39 Green Street, know nothing.

"I still hold the name. You know that. You wouldn't be after me if I didn't."

That at least is true, little doctor. You hold the name, and you carry the burden, and you will fulfil your end of the deal.

"I never made a deal with you."

No, Cornelius Everett Baxter didn't make it. You, Dr. Wondertainment, owe us everything.

"Is that fair?"

Yes. A debt must be paid.

"Is it right, then?"

I do not see what part 'right' has to play in our affairs. Why should we care about the whims of an ape?

"You're intelligent, you must have some sense of ethics. We can strike a deal, make an arrangement of some k-"

The Factory is mindless, and cruel, and mean, little doctor. No more deals.

"And if I pass on the name?"

Then you pass on the debt.

"And if I don't abide by my predecessor's terms?"

They are your terms now. And if you break them, you are forfeit.

"And the name?"

Forfeit too.

"And Wonder World?"

Hah! That pile of decay inhabited only by vagrants and those too terrified to leave their crumbling homes? It will be left for the birds.

"…"

"…Well? Aren't you going to 'take' me, or whatever you propose to do?"

Hm.

Most perplexing. It seems you are hallucinating from a combination of blood loss, dehydration, and your own foul deeds.

"Not my deeds. And what do you mean, hallucinating"

I couldn't say. In retrospect, perhaps I should have noticed. The real Factory would never be so genial, especially to a foe such as yourself.

"So, I'll wake up?"

Probably. Maybe not.

"But, but wait, when I-"

Sorry. I no longer care. It's been a pleasure tormenting you, little doctor. Give my regards to the rest of your derangements.

By the time he regained consciousness, Cornelius was already scrambling for a pen.



Somewhere on an unnamed stretch of rural land in the Midwestern United States

"So, Mr…"

"Isiah."

The guard leans back in his red leather chair. "Forgive me if I don't buy that for a moment."

I shrug. "You can call me        if you like. I just thought it might be easier on your mind. We are such fickle things when it comes to mental pressures, after all. We humans. Some ideas come to us as easily as breathing, and some… hah, well. Who's to say?"

He shifts his weight forward, and stubs out his cigarette in the novelty 'Don't Blink!' ashtray that sits on top of a pile of tea-stained paperwork. Tut tut, I think. Behind on your work as usual, Jones.

"Look, mate, the only person with your face and name on our records is long-gone, most likely long-dead. I don't want no philosophy discussion, but since you walked over an active minefield to get here I'm guessing you're no normal guy. No offence, obviously, but no normal guy shows up to the most well-defended site this side of the continent with a shabby piece of paper and someone else's face. So why don't you-" He gestures at me lazily. "-just sit tight here until the containment team arrives, and I'll go back to trying not to think about whatever the world-ending demon of the week is this fucking time, alright?"

I just stare at him. Silently, with one hand, I reach below my desk, and tap the alert button — several hundred metres behind me, a klaxon is silenced and a squadron are standing around very confused. I haul myself out of my seat.

"Well, it's been lovely Mr…"

The intruder blinks. "What?"

"Oh, I was just saying we haven't been properly introduced. Your name is…?"

"I- Isiah? But, hold on, you-"

"I wouldn't worry about it. It was lovely meeting you. Reception hall's just back here, go to the end and turn left, right?"

"Th- that's right, yes. But wait a moment, you were-"

"Honestly, don't think about it. Oh, and if anybody asks…" I tap my new nose, while he stares at my old hands. "Nobody was-"

He looks back up at me, and back down at himself. Without warning he starts to sprint away from me, off into the dark. After a little while of silence, I hear a small explosion. I did warn him about the minefield. Or rather, he warned me. Or rather… ah, hell, what does it matter. Nobody cares, at the end of the day.

I sigh.

Honestly, how inconsiderate of him. He could have at least let me finish my sentence. Ruined a perfectly good pun. Some people have no manners.

I swing myself around in my chair, slip the security guard's ID through the scanner, and sidle into the facility proper.



Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Birds sing softly in the trees. Soft evening light filters down through the broad, leafy trees, spotlighting rows of moss-covered, crumbling stones. Some have names, some have dates, and some are little more than piles of gravel, long since defeated by the elements. The peal of church bells disturbs the silence briefly, but soon falls prey to the same sense of stifling, silent reverence. Wind brushes softly against the grass, tracing paths through the greenery. A little way away a car engine starts, and quickly disappears off into the distance.

The service is over. The funeral guests have left. The graveyard is now, for all intents and purposes empty.

Except…

Except it's not.

What seems like mere moments after the invited guests depart others flood in. From all directions, people teem — strange people, warped people, people with a metal body or animal head or even no head at all. They walk slowly, avoiding each other's gazes, trying to maintain as much distance between them while still gravitating towards the grave.

One by one, they approach, bend down, and place something on the coffin's lid. A shining gold coin, a battered top hat, a shimmering bubble that rests gently on the unpolished wood. One empties a bag of liquorice allsorts, and another tosses in a novelty red nose. A vaguely human multicoloured shape stands above the coffin momentarily, casting its light down before disappearing. A fellow in a sharp suit flicks in a business card before pausing, taking a list from their pocket, tearing off the corner and placing it far more carefully on the pile.

And so it goes on. A plastic pumpkin-shaped bucket. A white, powdery rock. Nothing to tie them together but the location and the time. The eighteen stand in a rough circle, nod, and disperse. Their respective carers would be placing the Site on lockdown until they returned, and it wouldn't do to upset them unduly. Only three remain — arms on each others shoulders — and focus not on the coffin but on the headstone.

Here lies Dr. Cornelius Wondertainment

##/##/#### - ##/##/####

Master craftsman and purveyor of wonder and whimsy

A small part of the world turns inside out, and one of the three takes their leave.

Nowhere lies Dr. Cornelius Wondertainment

##/##/#### - ##/##/####

Master craftsman and purveyor of wonder and whimsy

nobody will believe he was here

A small part of the world flickers off at the socket, and the second of the three takes their leave.

Nowhere lies the man named Wondertainment

##/##/#### - ##/##/####

Master craftsman and purveyor of wonder and whimsy

nobody will believe he was here

and nobody will remember

A small part of the world becomes even smaller, and the graveyard is empty.

███here lies the man named ██████████████

██/██/████ - ██/██/████

██████ █████████ ███ ████████ ██ wonder ███ ██████

nobody will believe he was here

and nobody will remember

and this is our parting gift



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