February 4th, 18–
Victor pushed open the door just in time to hear Doc say, “All right, we’ll be over right away. Over and out.” The scientist looked up from the telephonic radio as his two assistants came inside. “Good, you’re back. Get ready to go out again – we’ve got a on-site job.”
“Where?” Marty asked, setting down the bag containing new guitar strings and a pick. He and Victor had just gone out to purchase a few things they needed – Victor himself was carrying a bag with a new quill pen and some more inkwells.
“Dr. Finklestein. His generator is on the fritz again, to put it crudely.”
Marty grimaced. “Ugh. I hate going to his place.”
“Now, Marty, they’re all perfectly nice people over there,” Doc said. “You know that.”
“I know, but it seems every time we go over to his place, he ends up opening his skull and poking at his own brain. That’s nasty, Doc.”
“I’ll admit it’s not the most pleasant sight,” Doc allowed with a little shudder. “But it’s something we just have to put up with.”
“Who is Dr. Finklestein?” Victor asked, trying his best to suppress the mental images that the phrase “opening his skull and poking at his own brain” brought up. He didn’t succeed very well.
“One of the best Reanimators here,” Doc said, packing up his tool kit as they spoke. “He’s a Severely Touched specializing in difficult Reanimations and human biological Fabrications.”
“The kind that are basically a bunch of stitched-up corpses,” Marty elaborated. “He’s not really all that friendly, but a lot of his ‘family’ is. And he’s really good at what he does.”
“Er – could you d-define really good?”
“He’s succeeded in reanimating fully skeletal corpses,” Doc said. “Only two to date, but still. If you have a corpse that’s suffering from severe rot that you want brought back to life, he’s the man to bring it to.”
“Goodness,” Victor murmured.
“It’s just another part of Touched science,” Doc said, grabbing some spare parts off the shelves. “And he hasn’t created any explicitly evil creations to date. His Fabricated daughter Sally is a sweetheart, in fact. The nastiest among them would have to be Jack, his second skeletal reanimation, and even he is essentially good-hearted. He just takes great pleasure in scaring people.”
“Yeah, he absolutely loves Halloween,” Marty said with a grin. “Every October, he organizes a big festival with a bunch of his Reanimated and Fabricated friends. It’s a blast.”
“Indeed – people have started calling him ‘The Pumpkin King’ because of it,” Doc added with a smile of his own.
“I see,” Victor said. He shook his head. “Is it ever possible to get to the point where you are so used to Secundus that nothing about it or its residents amazes you anymore?”
“Probably not,” Marty said. “There’s always something new happening. Or exploding.” Victor chuckled. “So, what’s wrong with Dr. Finklestein’s stuff?”
“The electrical focuser he uses for his reanimation work isn’t functioning,” Doc said. “He surmises, probably correctly, that something’s gone wrong in the generator he uses.” Spotting Victor about to open his mouth, he added, “He really can’t fix it himself – his scientific focus is almost completely on biology. And I’m one of the most skilled electrical engineers in this city, and the only one with a repair business, so. . . .”
Victor swallowed back his question and blushed. “I’m sorry – I still think of Touched as jacks-of-all-trades.”
“Some are, but most of us have our specialized fields,” Doc said. “I’m a mechanist through and through. I was never much good with biological matters.” He gave Victor a half-smile, half-grimace. “I used to get queasy at the sight of blood. Annoyed my father to no end.”
“My sympathies.” Victor’s eyes flicked to the door. “Er, speaking of fathers. . . .”
“You’re safe, they haven’t come by,” Doc assured him. “I think they’re taking the day off. Either that or they’ve run out of psychiatrists to bother and are attempting to come up with a new plan to ‘reverse your brainwashing.’”
Victor sighed deeply. “I just wish they’d finally understand that I like it here,” he said, leaning on the counter. “I know people’s minds can be changed regarding this place – you saw what happened with Victoria. I don’t even care if they decide they hate Secundus and everything it stands for, and will for the rest of eternity, so long as they realize I don’t and I’d simply like to be left alone!”
“I think there’s some hope of your dad getting the message,” Marty said. “Your mom, though? Not in a million years.”
Victor made a face and nodded knowingly. “I know. But I have to have the hope, otherwise I’d go mad.”
“And we already have our quota of mad people in this establishment,” Doc said, lightening the mood a bit. “Now, go get your purchases stored and meet me on the roof. It’ll take too long to walk to Finklestein’s castle, so we might as well get some use out of the train.”
“Right, Doc. Come on, Victor.”
“We’ll see you momentarily,” Victor nodded as they headed for the upstairs flat.
The boys set their purchases in their rooms (well, Marty did – Victor set his in the little section of the sitting room they’d screened off to be his ‘room’) and then headed outside and up to the roof. The door of the train was open, with Doc at the controls, readying for takeoff. Marty and Victor promptly climbed inside and sat down on the benches. “All set?”
“Ready when you are,” Marty said, as he and Victor fastened their seatbelts.
“Excellent. We have liftoff!” Doc pulled the lever, and the train sprang to life with a groan. Victor shivered with anticipation for the moment when he could get up and look out the window again. Doc must have noticed, as he added, “Just give me a moment to get us to the right altitude, kid. Then you can stare out the window all you want.”
Victor blushed just a little. “I can’t help myself. Knowing that I’m up in the air, actually flying. . .it’s the most fantastic feeling in the world.”
“If you really wanted the full experience, maybe we should have Doc open the door and you could look out there,” Marty said.
“Admittedly a bit tempting, but I think I’d rather not,” Victor said. “I’d be much too nervous about falling out. Having to cling onto the ladder was enough of that sort of experience for me.” Marty admitted the point with a couple of nods.
The trip to Dr. Finklestein’s castle took about a quarter of a hour – Doc didn’t like taking the train up to any great speed above the city, and the castle itself was located near the outskirts. Victor didn’t mind a bit – he spent most of the trip glued to the window, watching the town pass below them. Here and there he saw landmarks he recognized – the Narbonic Labs building, the open-air restaurant with the funny machine floating over it that he’d seen when he’d first arrived (Doc and Marty had informed him it was called The Roofless), and of course, Cuckoo Ben. It was one of the best ways to view the world, in his opinion. And to think I might have missed out on all of this. If I ever see those three boys again, I may have to thank them for chasing me toward that clearing.
As they continued onward, Victor saw a large, rather derelict-looking castle with many crumbling turrets looming up before them. “Is that where we’re going?” he asked.
“Yup – that’s Finklestein’s,” Marty confirmed. “The guy likes to keep to the classics.”
“I should say,” Victor said. “It looks like something straight out of a cheap horror novel.”
“Which I’m sure a good middle-class rich boy like yourself never read any of,” Marty teased.
“Actually, no, I didn’t,” Victor said, causing Marty to blink in surprise. “I was far too busy with the penny dreadfuls.”
The teen snorted. “Oh. Well, that’s different. Those publications were only for the best, you know.”
“Indeed,” Victor agreed, trying his best to sound stuck up. “You wouldn’t expect mere commoners to read those.”
“Of course not,” Marty said, before ruining his impression of an upperclassman with a laugh. “Seriously, I still have no idea how your society-obsessed parents ever had you.”
“Well, admittedly, Mother hired a number of nannies to look after me when I was young,” Victor said. “I didn’t have much interaction with my parents at all. Perhaps that’s how I turned out so different.”
“Sounds right – but a number?”
“Ah – they kept quitting.”
“Ooooh,” Marty said understandingly. “Still, that kinda sucks for you.”
“I survived,” Victor said philosophically. “My childhood was quite privileged when compared to my peers. Of course, I’m sure that’s why they all hated me.” He held up his hands, as if comparing invisible weights. “It all balances out, one way or another.”
“Yeah, you can only hope,” Marty replied with a slight sigh.
“Might want to continue your conversation seated, boys,” Doc said, pulling something in the controls. “We’re just about ready to bring her in.”
Marty and Victor obediently sat down and buckled up again. Doc carefully brought the train down to rest in front of the castle’s massive front doors. He pulled the cord for the whistle once, grinning as he did. “Just letting them know we’re here,” he said as the boys got back up.
“Bullshit, you just love playing with it,” Marty said with a smirk.
“Oh hush.” Doc opened the door, and they disembarked.
The doors creaked open as they approached, and a young woman stepped halfway outside. It was immediately obvious she was a Fabricated – her skin was pale, with a bluish tint, and crisscrossed with stitching and scars, and her long red hair had a yarn-like quality to it. She gave one the impression she was a rag doll brought to life – even her dress was made from stitched-together patches. She seemed friendly enough, though, waving and smiling as the men approached. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “The doctor is in a terrible mood.”
“He’s never not in a terrible mood,” Marty mumbled, earning himself a bit of a look from Doc.
“We’re happy to stop by,” Doc said. He waved his free hand at Victor. “This is my new assistant, Master Victor Van Dort. Victor, this is Sally Finklestein.”
“Very nice to meet you,” Victor said, extending a hand.
“A pleasure,” Sally said, shaking. Her skin was soft (except for where the stitching crossed one palm) and cool. “Well, come right this way. Dr. Finklestein’s waiting for you by the generator.”
“Lead on, Sally,” Doc said, adjusting his grip on his bag.
The inside of the castle was appropriately gloomy and spooky. The only light came from an iron chandelier on the ceiling, and what late-afternoon sunlight that could filter in through the chinks in the stonework. Cobwebs stretched across the ceiling and claimed each corner. A large curving staircase made its way up the left wall. The rest of the entrance room appeared to be empty, though Victor thought he saw a shape in the gloom to the right –
Victor nearly jumped out of his skin as a very tall, very thin skeleton leapt down from nowhere right in front of him, its mouth twisted into a terrifying snarl. As it was, he lost his balance and hit the ground hard on his backside. He crabwalked backward for a moment, breathing heavily, eyes fixed on the horrible sight before him.
Which suddenly laughed and smiled, looking five times friendlier than before. “Gotcha! Oh, it’s good to know I haven’t lost my touch,” it proclaimed, examining its bony hands.
Sally looked simultaneously annoyed and amused. “Very nice, Jack, but I think you scared him a bit too much,” she said, looking at Victor still cowering on the floor.
“Life’s no fun without a good scare,” the skeleton – Jack – proclaimed. He extended a thin hand to Victor. “You have a very nice scream.”
Victor stared at the hand, then back up at Jack, not moving any muscles he absolutely didn’t have to. Jack’s smile faded slightly. “I really don’t bite.”
“Yeah, I think you’re gonna have a bit of a hard time convincing him of that now,” Marty said, reaching down and sliding his arms under Victor’s. The young gentleman let his friend haul him back to his feet, wincing as his backside twinged. “Victor, meet Jack Skellington.”
Victor took another look at Jack. The skeleton was one of the few people (well, Reanimated in this case) that was taller than him. Like Victor, he had a thin build – though, really, it wasn’t like he could have anything else – with long-fingered hands and small feet. His skull was quite unusual, however – it seemed more like a round ball of bone-colored clay stuck onto the neck. There were two dark eye sockets carved into it, a little bump with small holes for a nose, and a wide mouth with cracks that almost looked like stitching all around it, and filled with rather sharp teeth for a human. He was wearing a black suit with white stripes, with a white shirt and an oversized bowtie that matched his suit – with a little closer inspection, Victor realized it was supposed to resemble a bat. “H-hello,” he stammered, resisting poorly the urge to twist his own tie.
Jack grinned at him. “Hello! I overheard your conversation at the door – so you work for Dr. Brown? How long now?”
“Think it’s coming up close to a month,” Marty answered for Victor. “Same amount of time he’s been here, incidentally. He only heard about you today.”
“Oh! Well, that explains that magnificent display of fright,” Jack said, patting Victor on the head. “Come here for adventure in the big city, I take it?”
“It’s far more complicated than that, Jack,” Doc said.
“Why does your mouth move?” Victor blurted.
Jack gave him a funny look. “Er – because I’m talking?”
“No, I m-meant – move like a – l-like someone with l-lips and muscles would,” Victor clarified. “Your s-skull seems a bit – f-flexible?”
“Oh, that,” Jack said. “Improvements by Dr. Finklestein.” He briefly pulled his mouth down into a scary frown. “They’re very useful.” He released his mouth back to its natural position, then reached under where his chin would be if his head was shaped more normally. “I can even pop it off, if I like!” He proceeded to do just that, then held his head in his hand closer to Victor. “See? I can do my own Shakespeare! ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio,’” the head started.
“We’d love to stay and watch, but we have a generator to fix for your creator,” Doc cut him off.
“Ah, yes, best not to keep the good doctor waiting,” Jack said, replacing his head. “I think I’ll come with you – I’m curious about this young man’s history.” He nodded at Victor.
“Well, there’s not much to tell until early January,” Victor said. “That’s when I came here.”
“And your life was turned upside-down forever,” Doc added with a small smile. “All right, off to lab. Unless there’s something in this room that needs fixing as well,” he added as a joke, looking at the ancient stonework.
“Oh, there’s nothing here except a table and the piano,” Sally said dismissively.
Victor froze in his tracks. “The piano?” he repeated in a near whisper.
Sally gave him a funny look. “Er, yes. Right over there – oh, perhaps you can’t see it.” She moved toward the shape Victor had spotted earlier, drew a pack of matches from somewhere in her dress, and lit a candle. The glow illuminated what looked like an open coffin set up on four curved legs. As Sally lit a second candle, however, Victor saw that part of the pink padding had been removed and replaced with yellowing piano keys. His heart leapt at the sight. “Lovely, isn’t it?” Sally said cheerfully.
“It’s beautiful,” Victor said. He meant it, too – no matter how macabre it was, it was still a piano, and that’s all that mattered. “Oh, I – Doc, can I stay here for a bit? Please?” he asked, turning to his employer and clasping his hands in front of him. “I know we have a job here, but – but I haven’t played in so long. . . .”
The sheer desperation in his voice must have had an effect on Doc. He smiled and shook his head slightly. “All right. Go ahead, kid. I’ll holler if I need you.”
“Thank you!” Victor promptly sat himself down on the bench as the others departed. He ran his fingers over the keys, then performed a few basic finger exercises to warm up. Then, slowly, he started to play – nothing fancy, just a nameless composition he’d had in his head for a while. The music flowed out of his fingers as naturally as it had before he’d come to Secundus. He sighed happily, closing his eyes. It really had been too long since he’d done this.
He continued to play, letting the melody go where it would, letting his mind lose itself in the sweet tune. For a few beautiful, precious minutes, it was just him and his music, with nothing else in the world.
Then, out of nowhere, a second tune joined his.
Startled, Victor’s eyes snapped open, his hands stopping in a confused jumble of notes. Now that his mind wasn’t completely focused on his playing, he realized there was someone sitting next to him on the bench. He turned to see a lady on his left, hands resting on the keys, looking slightly embarrassed but also quite hopeful. “Pardon my enthusiasm,” she said. “You were just playing such a lovely tune.”
Victor didn’t reply for a moment, too busy taking the sight of the woman in. The young lady sitting next to him was a rather rotted Reanimated – she still had most of her flesh, but one arm and one leg had rotted away to the bone. She also had prominent holes in her cheek and her ribcage. The flesh she still possessed was dark blue, as was her long hair. She had wide blue eyes (the color of which almost matched her skin), a tiny nose (or, at least, what was left of one), and a surprisingly pink mouth. It was obvious she had once been very beautiful – in her own, somewhat creepy way, she still was. Her clothes were unusual – a sleeveless white dress, with the top and bottom of the bodice lined with pearls that had seen better days. The skirt was long and trailed out behind her in a train. Her hands had tattered white gloves with no fingers on them, and her head was topped with a tiara of long-dead flowers and an extremely long veil protruding from the back. Her appearance put him in mind of a bride. How strange. . . . “T-thank you,” he finally said, realizing that to make no response at all would be extremely impolite.
The Reanimated woman smiled at him and scooted just a bit closer. “You’re quite handsome,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“V-Victor,” Victor replied, blinking. “Master Victor Van D-Dort. Er, m-may I ask your n-name?”
“It’s Emily,” the Reanimated woman provided. “Emily Cartwell.” She glanced at his hands, still on the piano. “You play beautifully.”
“Thank you,” Victor said, his head starting to spin. Was it just him, or was Emily flirting with him? “You – ah – p-play?”
Miss Cartwell nodded, picking out a quick scale with her skeletal hand. “Jack built this piano for me. He’s such a dear.”
Victor wanted to protest that, having been nearly scared to death by the skeleton not ten minutes earlier, but decided to keep his mouth shut. Instead he looked at the piano keys, trying to figure out what to say. What did one talk about with one of the Reanimated? How did you carry on a conversation without causing offense? “I – er – um--”
Miss Cartwell giggled. “You’re shy, aren’t you?”
“V-very,” Victor nodded. “Do forgive me f-for not m-making conversation.”
“It’s all right.” Miss Cartwell leaned forward a bit. “What brings you to the castle?”
“Ah – j-job – I work for D-Dr. Brown.”
“Oh! He’s taken on a new assistant?” Miss Cartwell looked him up and down, then smiled in what could only be a flirtatious way. “He has wonderful taste.”
Miss Cartwell brushed a few strands of hair back. “Handsome, artistic – and I’m sure you’re intelligent too. Victor,” she added in a breathier voice.
All right, he had to put a stop to this, if only for the sake of his rattled nerves. “I-I’m sorry but, y-you really shouldn’t be f-f-flirting with me,” he stammered.
Miss Cartwell looked surprised for a moment, then narrowed her eyes. “And why not?”
Victor thought for a moment how to let her down gently, then decided the unvarnished truth might be better in this instance. It certainly would explain things more clearly – he hoped. “B-because my parents are t-trying to arrange a f-f-fiancee for me, and I r-recently realized I’m falling in l-l-love with a friend of mine.”
Miss Cartwell’s expression changed to one of deep sadness. “Oh,” she murmured, looking back at the keyboard.
Victor felt guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s n-nothing to do with you. You just s-surprised me.”
“Is it?” Miss Cartwell asked, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “You can say you’d never waste your heart on a Reanimated. I can take it.”
“No, it really has nothing to do with that, I – I--” He sighed and directed his own gaze to the keys. “Do f-forgive me if I caused offense. I’ve n-never met a Reanimated before.”
That made Miss Cartwell look up again. “No? But you said you worked for Dr. Brown.”
“Only for about a month,” Victor said. “And that’s also how long I’ve been in Secundus. I got stuck beneath their flying train when they landed in my village for the test flight. I ended up choosing to stay r-rather than go back.”
“Oh, I see.” Miss Cartwell looked down again. “I’m sorry if I came on rather strong,” she said after a moment.
“It’s all right,” Victor said, wanting to make her feel better. “It’s – it’s rather flattering, to be honest. I d-don’t think I’ve ever had a g-girl flirt with me before.” Trying to make a joke, he added, “You don’t do that with every man w-who walks in, do you?”
Miss Cartwell looked like she would blush if she were able. “Not every man,” she mumbled. “Just the ones who – catch my attention.”
Victor blinked. “What – why?” he blurted, unable to help himself.
Miss Cartwell looked up at him, an expression of deep pain on her face. “If you must know, I’m trying to find a husband.”
“A husband?” Victor repeated. He looked at her dress again. “I – perhaps this is too f-forward, but – d-did you die a bride?”
Miss Cartwell sighed and lowered her eyes. “I didn’t get quite that far,” she said softly.
Victor felt guilty again. “If it pains you too much to speak of it,” he began, “I w-won’t--”
“No, I should explain,” Miss Cartwell said. “Just to make sure you understand.” She took a deep breath. “I used to live in a small town far away from here. You’ve probably never heard of it. I lived comfortably with my father – not precisely rich, but far enough from poor. My mother died shortly after having me, so it was just the two of us. I was happy enough, but – well, I was like a lot of young girls,” she said wistfully, a small smile on her face. “Dreaming of my wedding day. That was my biggest ambition – to be a bride. I was courted a bit by the boys in town when I came of age, but I never met anyone who made me feel like I was truly in love. Until--” her face darkened “–he came along.”
“Barkis. If that was his real name. I’ve never been sure. He wandered into town, a handsome and poor stranger. We met by accident in the square one day, and he acted such a gentleman that. . . .” She shook her head. “It was easy for me to think I was in love with him. He courted me quietly for a while, telling me what a treasure I was, how lucky we were to have found each other, and I just grew more and more enamored with him. When I introduced him to my father, though, they didn’t get along at all. I think Daddy realized he wasn’t what he seemed. He said it would be best if we stopped courting so I could find a husband worthy of me. I was so angry that when Barkis suggested we elope, I agreed to it immediately.”
Victor had a nasty premonition about how this story ended and why Miss Cartwell was talking to him as a Reanimated rather than a living girl. “I take it things didn’t go a-according to plan,” he said gently.
Miss Cartwell laughed bitterly. “That’s an understatement. Barkis told me to gather up the family jewelry and a satchel of gold to finance our expedition, then to meet him under the old oak tree by the old cemetery in the early morning so we could steal away under cover of darkness. I did as he asked, gathering as much money and jewelry as I could find in the house. I was so excited that I decided to wear my mother’s wedding dress as well.” She ran her fleshed hand along the folds in the fabric of her skirt. “I was thinking, that way we could go directly to the church and be wed.” A deep sigh escaped her. “I waited until Daddy was asleep, stole out of the house, and made my way to the oak tree. Barkis wasn’t there when I arrived, but I’d gotten there early, so I wasn’t worried. I waited, watching the shadows, trying to see where he was through the fog – and then he was in front of me, holding what looked like a cudgel--”
She stopped there, eyes closed against the memory. Victor didn’t think he’d ever felt so much sympathy for a person. “And – t-that was--” he started, trying to figure out the gentlest, least rude way to say it.
“Yes,” Miss Cartwell whispered. “After that, everything went black. I naturally don’t remember a thing until I woke up on Dr. Finklestein’s slab. I spent the first hour alternating between screaming and crying. To close your eyes as a living girl, waiting for her dreams to come true, and to wake up like this. . . .” She looked resentfully at her skeletal hand. “Sally was very kind to me, telling me that it did no good to dwell on the past, that I had a second chance. But it’s very hard not to dwell on the past when you’re certain the man you loved killed you so he could steal your money.”
Victor nodded understandingly. “I’m so sorry for you,” he said, wondering if it would be appropriate to reach out and touch her hand. “That is an absolutely awful way to die. I – I’m surprised you s-still want a husband.”
Miss Cartwell straightened up a bit, a determined glint in her eye. “Well, once I’d recovered from the shock and come to grips with my new life, I decided I wasn’t going to let Barkis take my dream away from me. I vowed that I would wait for my real true love to come and propose. Since then, I’ve been here, watching the visitors to the castle. If I like what I see, I approach them and try to strike up a conversation.”
“Or sometimes join them on the piano,” Victor said, nodding at the instrument in front of them.
Miss Cartwell gave him a smile for that. “No, you’re the first to get that honor.” Her face fell again into depression. “It hasn’t worked yet, though. Most men, upon seeing me, scream. Some have thrown epithets at me, asking me how dare I ask any Regular man to be my husband. Only a few have let me down gently.”
“I hope I’m a-among the latter group,” Victor said, pulling at his tie.
“Yes, you are,” Miss Cartwell assured him. “Again, I’m sorry for coming on so strong. You just seemed – so nice. And I haven’t yet met a man who played my instrument. And so well, too.”
Victor blushed at the compliment. “Thank you. And it’s all right. I’m sorry I’m n-not – not capable of offering you my h-heart, I suppose. I would like to help you somehow.”
“Well, yes. Who wouldn’t, after hearing such a story?”
Miss Cartwell eyed him for a moment. “You’re sure you’ve been here just a month?”
Victor laughed. “Yes, but popular opinion among my friends is that I was born in completely the wrong place and should have been here all my life. I seem to take very well to madness and science.”
Miss Cartwell laughed too. “Well, good. And thank you very much for offering, though I’m not sure how you could help.” She tilted her head and frowned at him. “I’m – not entirely sure I understand the situation you’re in when it comes to girlfriends.”
“My parents want me to m-m-marry the daughter of a lord,” Victor explained. “I’ve only recently met her, and while she’s very nice, I didn’t – f-feel anything. In fact, it was meeting her that l-led me to realize I was d-developing feelings for my friend.” He paused, then added, “And then you decide I l-look like h-h-husband material. Before I came here, no young l-lady wanted to be seen twice with me.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Miss Cartwell said. “You do seem sweet.”
“Thank you. You’re very nice yourself.” He frowned. “I find it odd anyone living around here would find talking to a Reanimated worthy of a scream.”
“Maybe it was my trying to flirt with them,” Miss Cartwell said sadly. She began picking out a few sad notes on the piano. “You’d be surprised at how many Regulars even in Secundus don’t think Reanimateds can feel love. Just because we’re – not conventionally alive.” She sighed again.
Victor didn’t like seeing her upset. From what she’d told him, Miss Cartwell had had her fair share of pain. He wanted to cheer her up somehow. He thought for a moment, then looked at the piano. Slowly, he added his own contribution to her sad tune.
Miss Cartwell stopped, looking at him in surprise. Victor stopped too, glancing at her half-apologetically, half-hopefully. Then he started in on a variation of his previous composition, one that was a bit more light-hearted in tone. Miss Cartwell watched him for a moment, then dove in with her own tune. She gave him a daring smirk as she did, as if in challenge. Victor returned it and set to work proving himself.
They played their duet for a couple of minutes – Victor leading, Miss Cartwell following, then Miss Cartwell leading and Victor following. The Reanimated bride was a very talented player and had little trouble weaving a melody that complimented his own. They might have gone on longer had a shout not come down the stairs: “Victor!”
Victor stopped, leaving Miss Cartwell to quickly wrap up the music. “Yes, Marty?”
“We need those long fingers of yours. Come on up.”
“Right away!” Victor turned to Miss Cartwell. “I’m sorry, my job calls.”
“That’s fine,” Miss Cartwell said with a smile. “Thank you for playing with me.”
“Thank you – you’re quite talented yourself,” Victor told her, getting up. He started for the stairs, then hesitated. “Miss Cartwell – I can’t be quite what you want me to be,” he said slowly. “But – would you consider me for a friend? It sounds like you need more of those.”
Miss Cartwell smiled brighter. “That would be wonderful. And you can call me Emily, I don’t mind.”
“And you can call me Victor,” Victor nodded, smiling back. Goodness, it was funny how the world worked sometimes. Two women expecting him to be their husband, he (however gently) rejects them both, and somehow he still comes out of it with new friends. Now if only I could summon up the courage to tell Alice how I feel about her. . . . “You’ll have to excuse me for now – unless you want to come see us work.”
“Actually, I would,” Emily admitted, getting to her feet. “Dr. Finklestein’s been ranting about the generator for almost a day now. I’d like to see what all the fuss is about.” Victor chuckled and offered her a hand, and they walked up the stairs together.
It didn’t take long to find the generator, and thus Doc, Marty, and the other residents of the castle. Much of the upstairs was taken up with a huge room open to the sky. The room was filled with various bits of equipment, most of which Victor didn’t know the purpose of. The central piece was a huge cone-shaped device on a mechanical arm, set up above a thick metal slab with restraints. There were a couple of other slabs set up near the far wall. Also over there was the requisite chemistry set, along with a small Tesla coil and a Jacob’s ladder sparking away. “You need to get one of those, Doc,” Victor pointed out as he approached his friend and employer.
“What? Oh, a Jacob’s ladder? I have a broken one somewhere in the shop that I just never got around to fixing,” Doc said. He and Marty were kneeling down in front of a large boxy thing filled with wires, gears, and glass tubes. Crowded around them were Jack and Sally, another skeleton – this one a bit more normally proportioned, with a large lower jaw and wearing nothing but a bowler hat – and a rather odd-looking man in a wheelchair. Victor couldn’t help staring at him for a moment – the man appeared to have some sort of snout instead of a normal face, like a werewolf without hair. And the top of his skull was a metal cap. As the young man watched, he suddenly pulled it up away from his forehead, exposing a pinkish brain, which he proceeded to scratch. Victor felt bile rising in his throat and hurriedly tamped it down.
The bowler hat-wearing skeleton gave him a contemplative look. “This Victor?” he asked Marty, who was closest to him.
“That’s him,” Marty confirmed, then looked up. “Oh, hi Emily. Didn’t expect to see you around.”
“Victor and I just had a nice talk,” Emily said. Noticing Victor’s curious look, she said, “We met the first time they came to repair something for Dr. Finklestein.”
“Yeah, too bad he has a girlfriend,” the bowler hat-wearing skeleton commented.
“Bonejangles,” Emily said, frowning at him.
“What? It’s an innocent observation.”
Emily shook her head. “Victor, this is my friend Bonejangles,” she introduced him. “Bonejangles, Victor Van Dort.”
“Pleasure to meet you, kid,” Bonejangles said, tipping his hand and offering a hand. “Dr. Brown and Marty have been telling us all about you while they’ve been fussing around with this thing.”
“Good things, I hope,” Victor said, shaking. The feel of the bone was a little odd, but after spending so much time around the mostly mechanical Richard, Victor didn’t notice it like he might have before.
“Well, they say you fit in very well around Touched – you can tell us whether that’s good or not,” Bonejangles said, winking his single eye somehow.
Victor chuckled. “In my opinion, it is. Speaking of which, what exactly do you need me to do, Doc?”
“There’s a wire neither Marty nor myself can reach way in the back,” Doc said. “And the back panel is welded shut so firmly it’ll take more time than we’d like to open it up. You might be able to get it.”
“I’ll certainly try.” Victor knelt down in between his friends. “What does it look like?”
“It’s orange and rather corroded,” Doc said, indicating a gap in the machinery Victor could peer through. “See it?”
Victor looked, squinting. “Oh yes, just back there. . .and you need me to pull it out?”
“If you can – it rather desperately needs to be replaced.” Doc glanced up at Dr. Finklestein, who had fortunately replaced his brain cap. “How hard have you been working this lately?”
“No harder than usual,” Dr. Finklestein said grumpily. “It should be working. I have a very important project I’d like to complete.”
“Well, as soon as we get that wire replaced, you should be back in business,” Doc said. “Victor?”
“Let me see. . . .” Victor got down on his side and stretched out his arm as far as he could reach. His fingers reached toward the wire, but couldn’t quite make contact. Victor scooted forward slightly and tried again.
Then blinked. “There seems to be a bit of water back here,” he reported.
“Water?” Dr. Finklestein said, sounding confused.
“Yes – I seemed to have just touched a little puddle.”
“Hmm.” Doc got up and went around to the back of the generator. “Aha! Here’s your problem, Doctor – there’s a gap in the welding here. It rained a couple of nights ago, and since your lab is open to the sky. . . .”
“Oh, drat,” Dr. Finklestein said, looking quite put out. “I was certain I’d sealed that blasted thing all the way around.”
“Not to worry,” Doc said reassuringly. “I’ll fix it as soon as we get the that wire replaced.”
The job proceeded fairly smoothly from then on – Doc gave Victor a towel to wipe up the water inside the generator, then Victor pulled the corroded wire out for Doc to replace. After a quarter of a hour and a successful test, they were done. Dr. Finklestein paid them, and Jack, Sally, Emily, and Bonejangles walked with them back to the front door. “You will come and see me again, right?” Emily asked Victor hopefully.
“Well, of course,” Victor said. “You can come and see us too whenever you like.”
Emily frowned and fiddled with the folds of her skirt. “Well. . .I don’t really like going outside,” she admitted. “I’m afraid that people will – well, run away in terror.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” Jack asked, sounding honestly confused.
“She’s not going to be scaring them intentionally,” Bonejangles said, in a very “Jack you dope” voice. “I think you should get out, though,” he added to Emily. “I go out, and people don’t bother me.”
“Yes, but the only place you really go is the Ball & Socket Pub,” Emily pointed out. “That’s all Reanimated. I’d be mingling with Regulars.”
“Not all of them are close-minded,” Victor said encouragingly. “Look at me – one month here, and already I feel completely at home. And just the other day, we managed to convince my would-be fiancee to take a ride with us on the train.”
“And we have experience in telling the annoying Regulars to get lost,” Marty added. “Plenty of it.”
Emily smiled, amused. “I see. Well – maybe. It would be nice to go somewhere outside the castle and its cemetery.”
“Yeah – get out and live a little! Er, as much as we can,” Bonejangles amended.
“I’ve had nothing but good experiences in the outside world,” Jack agreed.
“What about that time the police shot you down with a cannon?” Emily pointed out.
“I fully admit that was due to me being a little – overenthusiastic,” Jack said, scratching his skull in an embarrassed way.
“Jack got tired of doing Halloween each year and decided to try and do a Christmas celebration instead,” Sally said, in the tones of the long-suffering girlfriend. “It – didn’t go well.”
“I’ve apologized fifteen times for that debacle,” Jack said, looking a bit sulky. “I really did mean well.”
“I know you did, Jack,” Sally said, patting his arm.
“Never a dull moment in this town, eh?” Marty murmured to Victor, who tried to disguise his giggles. “I’m actually kind of sorry I missed that. It sounds like one hell of a Christmas.”
“I should say.” Victor got himself under control and smiled at Emily. “If you like, I can take you to the shop of a friend of mine. I’m certain he and his colleagues would have no problem with your being reanimated.”
“Oh yes. Given that he’s mostly mechanical parts himself at this point. . . .”
Emily considered it for a moment. “All right,” she said. “It would be nice to get out.”
“That’s our girl,” Bonejangles said, giving her a friendly clap on the shoulder.
“Doc, I don’t suppose I could prevail on you for a ride to and from the castle?” Victor asked.
“Not a problem, kid – this is way too far to let you walk on your own. How about we come around 11:30, and then you all can have lunch at Richard’s shop?”
“Sounds good – though, um, do you eat?” Victor asked Emily, feeling slightly embarrassed.
“I don’t have to, but I can if I want to,” Emily replied. “Though my sense of taste is rather decayed.”
“Well, the March Hare’s cooking is always intensely flavorful, so I think you’ll be all right,” Victor grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow,” Emily agreed. “Goodbye, Victor.”
“Goodbye Emily. It was good to meet you – good to meet all of you,” he added, shaking hands with the others. “Have a good day.”
“You as well,” Sally said.
Doc and Marty made their goodbyes, then the three men made their way back to the train. Marty looked at Victor with a curious expression. “So, ah, did she try to put the moves on you?” he asked as they reentered the cab.
“Put the – oh, er, yes,” Victor said, feeling his face go hot. “She joined me on the piano and then started f-flirting. Once I told her about my situation, she stopped.” He fiddled with his tie for a moment. “Did she do the same with you? Bonejangles’s comment from before seemed to indicate she had.”
“Yeah, first time we came up,” Marty said. “I told her I was flattered, but I had a girl waiting for me back home.” He rolled his eyes. “Bonejangles said that that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a girl over here too – Emily told him off before I could, though. Said that she wasn’t going to deprive anyone else of their wedding day just because she’d missed hers.”
Victor felt another wave of sympathy wash over him. “It’s truly terrible, what happened to her,” he said softly. “When she told me about it. . . .”
“I know,” Marty agreed. “And the worst part is, we’ll probably never know if the bastard was caught or not. Emily has no idea how to track him down.”
Doc shook his head as he went to the controls. “It’s amazing what some people will do in pursuit of money,” he said. “I really hope he was caught – though I don’t know if I’d prefer it to be by the police or an angry father.”
“I’m totally okay with an angry father beating the shit out of him,” Marty said.
“I can’t say I’m opposed to the idea either,” Victor muttered, feeling uncharacteristically angry for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and let the feeling pass. “Well, I hope she likes visiting Richard’s shop tomorrow. I can’t think of a more accepting group of people.”
“She should be okay as long as she can keep up with the way they think,” Marty said with a little laugh. Then he gave Victor a smarmy grin. “So this makes three, right?”
Victor glared at him. “Emily and Victoria are just my friends!”
“I know, I know, but they both started out in the ‘want something more’ category, right? You said Victoria had no objections to marrying you, and Emily obviously thought you were good enough to flirt with. . . . You’re gonna have to start beating the girls off with a stick soon.”
Oh, for – he’d just stopped blushing. Victor shook his head. “I don’t understand it. At home, I was n-never well liked among the f-fairer sex. Most of them didn’t c-care to be seen with me.”
“It’s probably the goggles,” Marty said, gently nudging his side. “The gals really love a good set of eye protection.”
“More realistically, it’s probably because you’re mingling with different classes of people here,” Doc said as he brought the train up. “You’ve said most of your hometown was quite class conscious, and that your family was disliked for being nouveau riche. Now you’re away from the worst of your family’s reputation, and interacting with girls who don’t seem to care about it anyway.”
“That’s true enough,” Victor admitted. “Though you think Victoria would care. Her parents must have impressed upon her that she has a noble lineage. I know they were never too happy about marrying her off to me.”
“Just be happy she doesn’t,” was Marty’s advice. “In fact, be happy that she’s nothing like her parents at all.”
“Oh, trust me, I am – as horrible as that sounds,” he added, feeling a brief stab of guilt. “It still amazes me that I’ve gone from having no women interested in me to two approaching me in situations related to matrimony.” He paused, then looked at his hands. “Not to mention how I feel about Alice. . . .”
“When are you gonna tell her?” Marty asked, tone surprisingly gentle.
“I – I don’t know. I suppose I’ll s-see her tomorrow, and then I – but I don’t know. . . .” Victor reached up and started twisting his tie. “What if she doesn’t feel the same? What if she rejects me? What if--”
“Victor, you’re gonna make yourself sick if you keep worrying about it like that,” Marty said, putting a hand over his. “So she might say no. That’s life, bud. It sucks, and it’ll hurt, and you’ll probably mope around for a while, but you’ll get over it. I’ve had girls reject me, and I’ve survived.”
“The only two real girlfriends I’ve had both dumped me in the cruellest manner possible, and I survived as well,” Doc added.
“. . .I’m sorry, this is not p-particularly encouraging.”
“We’re just letting you know it’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t love you back,” Marty said. “It’ll feel bad for a while, but you’ll live. And it’ll be worth it for the chance she does love you back.” He grinned, looking a bit smarmy again. “Didn’t Cheshire already mention ‘staring contests?’”
“That doesn’t mean anything for sure,” Victor said.
“Seems like a pretty good sign to me, though.” Marty patted Victor on the shoulder. “Just ask her, bud. Better than worrying about it for ages, right?”
“But worrying’s one thing I’m very good at,” Victor replied, only half-joking.
“Well, make asking girls how they feel about you another,” Marty said, now poking him in the shoulder. “Trust me, no matter how it ends, it’ll all work out.”
“I certainly hope you’re right,” Victor murmured, pulling at his tie again. Times like this I wish Doc had finished his time machine already. Oh please, let tomorrow go well, no matter the answer.
And – if it’s not too much trouble – please make the answer yes.