Tinkering, Tinkering

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“Alright, how much’ll that be?”

The clerk at Spray and Pray, a local gun shop, replied, “Lemme see. Six hundred for the Glock 19, twenty for the grip extension, and three hundred for the thousand-round box. You said this was a birthday present? Eh, gimme nine-hundred flat. Throw ya the grip for free, no tax.”

“D**n, man. That’s real generous. Yeah, this’ll be a gift for me: my first gun.”

“First, huh? You look real young, makes sense. What’s your main aim?”

“Self defense,” spit out Crawford before the clerk could finish his question.

“Mmm, why not go for a boomstick? I cut the stock off this here Mossberg just yesterday. Son, you could hit a squirrel nibblin’ on a nut a hunnerd feet away, blindfolded. Plus, them shells are cheaper. Just sayin’ is all.”

“‘Preciate it, but I’ve been wanting a handgun for some time. ‘Sides, really can’t believe Sacramento legalized sawed-offs.”

“True,” concluded the clerk, “real head-scratcher, but…been good for business.”

That night, Crawford examined the handgun carefully and studied its every detail. No Country For Old Men played in the background for what had been the seventeenth time. Crawford loved that movie.

A fist rapped at the door. Crawford was startled as it was late. He rarely expected guests at this hour. The knock had a distinct pattern and after a few seconds, he recognized it as that of his grandmother.

“Yeah? Who’zit?” His grandmother replied, “It’s me, dear. I’m cold out here, can ya open up, please?” What’s she doin’ here so late? he thought. As he opened the door, she smiled and politely walked into the living room. She was wearing her new favorite sweater from JCPenney, a champagne-pink top that faded to white near the bottom with large hazel buttons on one side. Crawford gestured her to sit on the couch after quickly dusting some Cheez-It crumbs off of the cushions.

“What’s goin’ on? You ne’er come over this late.”

“Well, ya know me, was watching my show on Netflix but it got boring. I haven’t seen you in a while and I know you stay up late, so I figured ya wouldn’t mind,” his grandmother said with increasingly furrowed brows.

“Is somethin’ wrong, grandma? You seem…different.” Crawford cracked his fingers and studied her eyes.

“Oh, child. Always worrying about me! Actually, would you mind making me some tea? A hot cup sounds quite nice right now,” she said as she relaxed further into the couch.

“Oh, yeah yeah, sure. Sorry I didn’t offer anything when ya came in. What kind would ya like? Right now, I think I got green, raspberry, English Breakfast, and chamomile,” Crawford offered as he stood and began walking toward the kitchen.

“English Breakfast!” Her voice echoed off of the kitchen walls as Crawford approached the electric kettle. She never drinks English Breakfast, he noted while ripping the tea package open. His kettle could produce near-instant hot water and he was already beginning to steep it a moment later. Crawford handed her the cup before slumping onto the couch. His calves were sore, leg day.

“What time’zit, anyway? My phone’s in the other room,” he said. His grandmother responded, “Well, my phone’s in my car. No idea!”

“What do ya mean? Where’s yer watch? It hasn’t left yer wrist since grandpa’d gone to heaven.”

“Uh…that’s right. I took it to the shop to get it a new battery,” she blurted.

“Grandpa’s Invicta is automatic. It don’t got a battery.” Crawford’s face twisted in skepticism and confusion.

“I mean—I meant the crown broke and I took it in for repair,” his grandmother explained, visibly flustered.

“Okay… Which shop? Grandpa only trusted one man wit’ that watch, ya know that.” Crawford’s tone became interrogative.

She looked down for a moment, somberly, before craning her neck upward to reveal an awkward, tight-lipped smile. A sudden chill creeped out from the base of his neck and settled into his shoulders.

“I am not your grandmother,” she whispered. Crawford narrowed his eyes and tightened his lower lip. Her eyes bulged. Her body began to mechanically spasm. Her breathing switched to terrific grunts. The bags under her eyes started to sag deeper. Her face melted like a tallow candle before him.

“Holy crap!” Crawford yelled as he instinctively leaped from the couch and tripped over his coffee table. From the ground, he stared back and began gagging. All of her skin and muscle tissue was piling up on the carpet. The steaming mound of flesh was crackling and popping. A bare skeleton was now sitting before him and within its eye sockets shined bright red crystals. Crawford was scared stiff. This felt like one of those 80s movies he enjoyed so much with practical effects. In an instant, the skeleton cracked its jaw open and emitted an ear-piercing scream with enough decibels to make Crawford’s intestines vibrate. After an abrupt cessation, the skeleton put its arms up and leaped toward the ceiling. It disappeared like a flash. The sizzling accumulation of what was once possibly his grandmother did too. Crawford questioned whether he was awake and experiencing reality or stuck in one of his lucid dreams. Overcome with fright, he began sobbing into the carpet. His head was pounding, his stomach was turning, and his legs were aching.

“Was that too much?” a voice echoed throughout his living room. Crawford rolled over and stood up to grab his new pistol. He forgot his large box of ammunition was across the room. He hadn’t wanted to load it just yet, so he separated himself from it. He shoved the Glock into his jeans pocket.

“What in Sam Hill is happenin’? Who or wha’n’a’hell’s in my house?!” Crawford managed to blurt out in the dark. He heard a shuffling in the family room and the French doors creaked. Show yerself, you god**mn coward. He turned on the living room’s lights. The room was just as messy as before she came in. It was as if that thing was never there.

Crawford gritted his teeth and ran across into the family room. No sign of life. He removed his Glock from his pocket and scratched his forehead with the barrel. Finally, he removed the magazine, tore open his ammo box, and began loading. He was overwrought and felt the pit in his stomach get another ten feet deeper. He continuously checked over his shoulder after each cartridge entered the mag. Upon looking back a fourth time, he saw a man sitting on his couch out of the corner of his eye.

“Jesus!” Crawford yelped. The man chuckled.

“No, not quite,” he said while he dusted his lapel. The man was maybe mid-forties, clean-shaven, with eyes tucked behind horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a black three-piece suit complemented by double monk-strap shoes. Just as Crawford was about to open his mouth to catechize him, the suited man interrupted. “I guess I overdid it a bit. See, when I visit my subjects I like to put on a little show. It’s the only fun I really have these days. Paperwork for these cases is so tedious.” The suited man reached into his jacket’s inner pocket and brought out a lens cloth with which he began cleaning his glasses.

“Subjects? Fun? Cases? What’re you goin’ on about? Are you with that thing that was just inside my house? It leaped through the ceiling! Half o’ it melted onto my dang floor but it all disappeared. You better start talkin’ and explain just what the hell is goin’ on tonight.” Crawford slowly sat onto the loveseat perpendicular to his couch where the suited man was seated, gun still in hand. He was exhausted from what he had just experienced and had little patience left.

“I’m not even supposed to be here,” the suited man sighed while pinching his dorsal bridge. “You are not supposed to know I exist. I am violating codes here. I could get reprimanded or even worse, defibbed.”

“De-fibbed?” asked Crawford, puzzled. “Who are you?” he added.

“Defibbed is another way of saying executed. Typically, they hook up decommissioned agents to a tampered defibrillator and shock us with about 400 Joules. I run the risk of getting that treatment because as an interlockuter agent I am not supposed to interfere this much with your path,” the suited man replied.

“Cripes. My path? Are you some kinda secretive agent sent here to kill me?” Crawford gulped. “I haven’t done nothin’, honest.” Crawford’s eyes narrowed trying to read the suited man’s body language. He remained statuesque, but worry filled his eyes.

“I guess you can call it that. Secret agent…” The suited man scoffed a little too loudly. “I oversee sector 143A to 179G. It is my job to prevent idiots from being idiots.” “You,” the suited man violently pointed his middle finger at Crawford’s face, “are an idiot. In fact, I’ve never had such an inconvenient subject in my entire career. Your file has terabytes of data. So much effort put into you, I don’t quite get it. Hy-drones, spybirds, keyloggers, rig-swypers, you name it!” The suited man wiped his nose dismissively. “You can call me Ryker for now.”

“Ryker, okay, there we go,” said Crawford. He adjusted in the loveseat to sit more forward, closer to Ryker. Crawford unindexed his finger onto the trigger. “I think you’re f**kin’ with me, see. I think yer some kind of elaborate burglar. Ya come in here with a replicator collar disguised as my grandma. Made some big mistakes with yer replication of her, no watch? Ya put on some holographic s**tshow with your stupid suitcase-grafter—yes, I saw it—to scare me outta my wits while you rob my house.” Crawford’s blood pressure was high now. The vein in his forehead was beginning to bulge. With breakneck speed, Crawford swung up his Glock 19 and unloaded his half-filled magazine into Ryker, squeezing the trigger well after he was out of ammo. Ryker’s body reacted to each round and fell into the couch. Crawford’s chest was rising and falling intensely as he could barely control his breath. He squinted his eyes before widening them, mouth gaping. Ryker slid back up to where he was sitting. No bullet holes. Ryker stared into Crawford’s eyes and slightly smiled while dusting off his trousers in a ridiculing fashion.

“Do you still think we are sitting in your living room?” Ryker’s smile grew wider. Crawford’s mouth was still agape and began looking around the room. He looked at items on his coffee table and squinted. He picked up his TV remote. The buttons were all there but there were no labels. He threw it down. He picked up his copy of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and flipped through the pages, everything blank. Crawford stood up and looked around the room. It looked like his living room but every item he chose to focus on became nondescript, blurred. A second later, he witnessed the room before his eyes begin to flicker away revealing millisecond shots of a sterile, white-walled room filled with blue-hued light. Ryker ripped the cryoplug from the back of Crawford’s skull and threw it to the ground. The insertion tip bloodied. His living room disappeared in a flash and the blue light was blinding to his weak eyes. He studied his surroundings as best he could despite his head pounding like a drum. Ryker was in what looked like a baby-blue medical smock. Beside him was a tray of metallic instruments on a rubberized mat.

“Wh—,” Crawford began speaking but his throat was incredibly dry. He tried swallowing to move some saliva around. Still struggling, he managed to ask, “Where am I?” Ryker slowly took off black latex gloves and deposited them into a bin. Ryker sighed.

“You’re in my world now,” Ryker calmly said. He scratched the back of his head then grabbed Crawford’s left shoulder. “I’ve really had enough of you,” he said. Crawford, with his mouth closed, moved his tongue back and forth across the roof of his mouth to generate some wetness. He began to lick his lips.

“Explain…please,” Crawford croaked out.

“How many times do I have to do this?” Ryker asked toward the ceiling as if speaking directly to God. “Okay,” he said after a brief sigh. “Your cheese crackers were laced with Product LIMBR. You hallucinated that entire episode with what appeared to be your grandmother. Not my doing, but yours. From there, you passed out after experiencing such a horrendous vision. Really, man, your imagination is scary wild. Anyway, I slipped into your residence, administered another drug to stabilize you and keep you in slumber during transportation to this facility. I strapped you down and plugged you in,” Ryker said proudly. Crawford interrupted.

“Plug…plugged me into what?” His face was twisted. Ryker pointed at a machine mounted on the wall complete with a thirty-inch monitor and pulsating lights.

“It’s called The InterFace. It copies, stores, and analyzes all available neural data from your brain stem. Its algorithms detect dissident thought processes and red flags them for us. Once enough of these little flags accumulate past a certain point we have to take action. By now, you know what I mean by ‘take action.’ I track, interfere, extract, etcetera,” Ryker said straightforwardly.

“Dissident? How’d this thing flag me if I’ve never been here before?” Crawford asked. He tried adjusting in the medical bed but the straps were too tight.

“We have a big file on you. Facial-recognition recordings, audio, intra-spatial scans, heat mappers, REM trackers, and other things have been compiled and manually reviewed. You were tagged as a level-one threat by human touch. Impressive, really. In addition, we have…pre-ception abilities.” Ryker was visibly giddy.

“Pre-ception?” asked Crawford. “Wha’n’da’hell’s that mean?” His face twisted even further.

“Well, it’s really in beta. But we have sort of figured out that with data compilation, neural-network analysis, and surveillance tech we can almost predict the future. Almost to a T. We enter a query into our supercomputer and it plays through hundreds of billions of possibilities and narrows it down to four distinct potentials. We then go off instinct and try our best to nail the right one down. It’s really difficult. Had to make some tough calls and some ended…badly,” explained Ryker. Crawford examined his hands. Ryker rubbed his ring finger nervously. Crawford then began to zone out as if concentrating on something across the room before realizing what he was doing and stopped. He recomposed himself.

“Tell me. Why’m I here? What’d’ya want from me?” Crawford was bone-tired. He wanted to leave.

“My job is to prevent you from buying that gun, that Glock 19. The supercomputer indicates that in the Final Four scenarios you do something terrible with it that then triggers catastrophic chaos. I am here to preserve order. I am the yin to your yang,” Ryker replied.

“What do I do wit’ it? Do I shoot someone important?” asked Crawford. “Do you and yer superiors think you can just watch all o’ us through yer fancy cameras, microphones, and screens and play God with us? Do you just sit there in yer ivory tower tinkering, tinkering away with our lives?” He was becoming restless. Ryker’s tight, pursed lips developed into a toying smile.

“Well, yes. That’s exactly what we do. I love my job! As for shooting someone important? That’s for me to know, son. In case the memwype doesn’t take, I don’t want to screw with the future possibilities. I can’t and I won’t tell you,” said Ryker firmly. He walked behind Crawford and pushed a button on a device attached to an arm. It had a square, translucent screen. Ryker swung it toward Crawford and it hung above his face. He felt like he was at the dentist. He hated the dentist.

“Whoa, whoa, wha’? Does ‘memwype’ mean a memory wipe? Don’t turn me in’o’a vegetable! I jus’ wanna go home!” cried Crawford. Tears were streaming down his temples and all of his muscles were tense. The straps were not budging.

“Suit yourself,” Ryker replied. He flipped a switch and depressed the ignition trigger.

That night, Crawford examined the handgun carefully and studied its every detail. No Country For Old Men played in the background for what had been the eighteenth time. Crawford loved that movie.

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