Edition 10: Mr. Strawn and the Book by Morgen Knight
Mr. Strawn stepped off the sleek magnetic train and walked down the wooden boardwalk of the depot, boots clunking. He carried a canvas bag shaped around the thick book inside of it. It made him think of a snake that had misjudged its meal every time he picked it up. He tipped his large-brimmed hat at the ladies he passed, with a metal finger. His entire left hand was a replacement. The shine had worn off, but he didn’t mind. Shiny metal drew attention in the outposts. Attention invited questions. They weren’t questions he couldn’t answer, but he found that it was best to keep your own counsel.
He didn’t know if you called this place a town, but it was called Shiremire. Shiremire was the only place he could get to by train. All of the others were a costly two-day journey by airship. They would be more polished than Shiremire, but in Mr. Strawn’s experience, it was better to see the rough edges. And a place like this was bound to have a few. Only the most needy came this close to the factories.
Mr. Strawn entered the dim saloon from the main street. Horses were hitched to a post over a dirty, brown water trough out front. This small tank town wasn’t much more than the main street. The saloon was full of assembly-men and smelters of various position from the factories, an occasional sophisticate moving between cities that wants a glimpse of the raw life, and the special kind of people that places like this drew. Mr. Strawn carried a large pistol on his thigh. It was a tool of his job at the factories but he never took it off. The outposts could be even more dangerous than the factories or the camps. They were filled with hard men with money, anger, and boredom.
“How many working rooms do you got?” he asked the barkeep.
A fat man was playing a lively tune on the piano in the back corner. It took Mr. Strawn only a second to realize that the player was a ghost. Spots on his body were obscure, like tiny whirlpools of disturbed silt, and Mr. Strawn guessed that the man had passed with violence. You never could see the wounds that made them ghosts. Above the pianist was a framed picture of a man, probably a local mayor or alderman. They were the closest things to royalty out here. There were a few men with large glasses in their hands, and one table with three men playing cards. The man with his back to the wall, facing the open room, met Mr. Strawn’s eyes. They were not warm. The man held his cards close; he smirked at Mr. Strawn. “Do you like to gamble?”
Mr. Strawn faced the barkeep, setting his canvas bag on the bar.
“We got live entertainment on the weekend. Come all the way out from the inner colonies. Pretty dancing girls, too,” the barkeep said. It was a tired pitch. He had a large glass in his hand that he wiped down with a stained bar towel.
“A working room will be fine.”
“A man knows his pleasures. A working room is one for an hour, five for a night.”
Mr. Strawn laid five on the steel bar and was pointed to a room at the top of the steps. He felt the gambler watching him.
The room was small and bare. It had a single window that overlooked the main street. He could see the smoke stacks of the factories in the distance and could guess the location of the camps. Black smoke poured out of the stacks. Medium-sized airships floated around the camp, loading and unloading materials. A few were anchored in place. The smelts had to be built far from the colonies because of the pollution. Mr. Strawn believed that hard work and isolation called to a certain kind of man. Rarely the best kind.
Mr. Strawn took off his hat and set it on the single dresser in the room. Over the dresser was a mirror as wide as two big hands and as tall. A crack ran from the bottom to the center.
“Hello,” the young woman said. She was sitting on the plain bed at the center of the room, one leg crossed over another, bobbing slightly. She wore black skirts and a violet blouse. Her brown hair was held up by a series of pins.
“Hello.” Beginnings were always awkward. He introduced himself. He’d heard talk of her in the camp; she was the reason he’d come.
The young woman looked at herself and got an impression about the kind of man Mr. Strawn was. Since she had no body of her own, she would only inhabit the forms most prominent on a visitor’s mind. With some men it was a wife, but with most it was a pretty face they’d seen. “What would you like to call me?”
“Whatever you like best.”
“I’ve always liked Arora.” She stood up and glanced at herself in the mirror. It was better not to ask too many specifics about the role she was playing, but there were things that she needed to know. “What traits would you like me to exhibit? Any habits?”
“Be yourself,” he said. He removed his gun belt but he positioned it near the bed. “I guess you can read?”
“I guess I can.”
Mr. Strawn looked at the dubious bed before laying on it, his back propped against the wall. He held his book out to her. “I’ve read most of it, but you can start from the beginning.”
Arora was used to odd requests; some men held her and cried, some started arguments with her as though she were really their wife, some asked to dance and some wanted to hurt whoever she was asked to be. All loneliness needed an outlet; she knew this very well. Especially out here.
She took the book. It had weight. “I hope it likes me.” A book that did not accept its reader would only show a blank page.
“It will,” Mr. Strawn assured her.
Arora lay beside him and opened the book carefully. They were rare and precious things. Seeing the words made her smile. She read to him until the sun went down. Then, she lit candles while he stepped out to eat. Arora didn’t eat or drink. Attention sustained her. She read to him until he fell asleep. She laid the book down and returned to the cracked mirror.
The second time that Mr. Strawn visited, the gambler, wearing shiny metal arms, tried to goad him into a game. He asked Mr. Strawn how good he was with that iron.
“He’s lookin’ for a fight,” the barkeep whispered, wiping up a spot with his bar towel. “He always does, especially with you factory men.”
Mr. Strawn grunted, dropped his five and headed to the room. Arora wore a pink dress, her hair down. A silver brooch was pinned to her collar. Mr. Strawn removed his gun belt, placed the book on the bed, and sat against the wall. Arora looked at her face and marveled that he hadn’t changed it. The gun was near his hand but on the floor.
“Do you mind if I look at this?” she asked.
“Be careful.” She picked it up. The handle was a smooth wood. She ran her finger over it, feeling it the way he did.
“Do you always have this on you?”
“Always. I don’t make it to the colonies much. Out here, that can be a comfort.”
Her attention made its way to the window, looking out. “That bad, still? I hear men duel enough to believe it.”
Mr. Strawn shrugged. Men proving their mettle was a part of life. “It’s calmed down in some ways since the farmer’s drought ended.”
“What do you do?”
“I ward the camps at the smelt, where they mold dreams sold at the inner colony.”
She read to him most of the night, finding something lonely and pleasing beneath this man’s vacant exterior. He had rough hands and a rougher voice. His were the muscles of a hard worker. He smelled like the dreams he protected. His skin was sun-dried and leathery. Creases ran out from the corners of his eyes like deep channels of a once-flowing river. She read long into the night but stopped before he fell asleep. She marked her place, closed the book, and looked at him. “I like reading, but we can do other things, if you’d like.”
Mr. Strawn smiled faintly, the only way he ever did, like it were a task. “I think I would.”
Arora removed her blouse; it faded from existence like dissipating smoke the moment she let it go. She felt self-conscious. It was a strange thing to feel. This was not her body; she had no true form. She looked down on her torso. A jagged line ran across her belly and up the curve of her left breast. It exactly matched the form and nature of the crack in the mirror. Any body she inhabited would show this mar.
Mr. Strawn gently touched her. “I have scars, too.”
The third time that Mr. Strawn came to her, she took him to the bed. After, Mr. Strawn rolled a cigarette and laid in the burnished sunlight. He closed his eyes, letting the smoke slip between his dry lips. The bed sheet was at his waist. Scars made lines across his chest.
“How did you lose your hand?” she asked, taking it up.
“In the Merchant War. I was second in command of Airship Semblance. We boarded a raiding vessel. I owe more now than I lost. The Council gave me a medal for it and a choice of commands. I took my pension and left the service.” He waited for more questions. A request for details of the battle. She did not ask, and he counted that to her credit.
“Do you like this one?”
“It works as good as the old one.”
She placed his hand on her chest. “Show me.” So Mr. Strawn did.
There was gunfire that night: the gambler and another man. Neither Mr. Strawn nor Arora cared to witness the aftermath on the street. Arora had the book open. The gunfire had halted her reading. “Who is she, the girl that I am?”
“Someone I knew, a long time ago.” He wasn’t going to say anymore. “How did you get trapped in the mirror?”
“My Friend tricked me.” She sighed. “She was a little girl when I came to her. I watched over her for years. She was like a sister to me. I loved her family as much as she did. But as all little girls do, she grew up and no longer needed me. And she tricked me, getting me to look in that mirror. Now, I am connected to it, stuck in one place the way ghosts are.”
The mirror looked dirty. When light hit it, the dust gave the reflection a grey quality. It was a fragile object. “How did you get here?”
Arora smiled wryly at that. “You mean, how did a little girl’s imaginary friend come to “work” at an outpost like this?” The smile faded. “She didn’t need me anymore, so she gave me to a family who did. I was a nanny for a while, raising a girl. I was never a Friend to her like I was Pamela. I was a parent. And soon she grew up, too.
“Everyone gets older but me. That is why I got cracked.
“Cedric’s wife walked in on us. I can only take the form that a mind imagines, and I am not free to refuse what that person imagines. I was in the form of that woman, but in her youth. She got angry and threw a small statue. The mirror was knocked over. And I cracked. After that, I was sold. I was moved around a few places. Some of them were bad. Others were nice. My most cherished experience was keeping house for a song farmer. At harvest, the day was filled with the most beautiful notes.”
“My mother had a small garden where she raised notes,” Mr. Strawn commented. “Sometimes she would put little note petals in my pocket that would hum to me all day.”
Arora looked at him. “Somehow, things changed and I found myself here. I don’t like it, but I have no control.” She fingered the crack down her body. “The crack has slowly grown. One day it will be over, I think.”
The fourth time Mr. Strawn visited Arora, she read to him most of the night while he smoked. But not all of the night.
Before dawn on the fifth night, her head was on his solid chest. She liked his metal hand on her, the way the articulated fingers curled. “Does it bother you, what I’ve done?” she asked. “Who I am, that there are others?”
“No.” Mr. Strawn had his eyes closed. “I don’t feel much, not in the way of people’s natural feelings. I traded the bulk of my emotions off before the war. I kept what it took to be a good soldier and enough of the others to feel human. That’s what makes me good at my job.” He’d seen soldiers who had sold all of their emotions off, and they always went crazy. “That’s why I like stories read. I get to feel other’s emotions. Good books have more than one.” He saw that his answer troubled her. “Besides, you can’t be who you are without me. You need my imagination, my memories to form, right? So with others, you’re something different.”
“Do you feel for me?”
“I feel what I can.”
Arora became melancholy after that, because she knew that one day Mr. Strawn would no longer visit her. They finished the book before he left.
The sixth time Mr. Strawn walked into the saloon, he felt the shift in the atmosphere. “How’s about we wager somethin’?” the gambler asked him at once. Like every other time, Mr. Strawn ignored the man and went to the bar. The barkeep walked over with a concerned look. His hand scooped up the five and dropped it in his apron pocket, where it jingled. “Mister,” he said in a low voice, his eyes casting over Mr. Strawn’s shoulder, “there was an occurrence two days ago that may affect your patronage.”
“See, the room you frequent was occupied by another visitor and a mishap occurred. The mirror was broken, and my Friend dissolved into a pile of sand.” He motioned to a large glass on the shelf behind him; the glass was full of small, glittering particles. “I saved them. I may get them re-fired, see if it’s around. Shame, too. It ain’t easy to come by an imaginary friend.”
“How’d it happen?”
“Can’t rightly know.”
Mr. Strawn nodded once. “Who is responsible?”
The barkeep’s eyes shot to the back of the bar. He leaned in to keep his words confidential, but of course everyone was watching them.
“The gambling man, the one against the wall.”
“Can’t have you factory boys in here stinkin’ up the place an not layin’ money on my table,” the gambler yelled out. Mr. Strawn heard the anger and the challenge. The excitement of both.
The gambler was fast. He loved to gamble, but enjoyed gun fighting even more. Was it the ultimate gamble? He had been waiting for this moment for weeks. He stood as Mr. Strawn began to turn. His chair fell behind him. His hand went to his gun, drawing. He was fast.
But Mr. Strawn was much faster. He turned, drew his gun with his metal hand, and fired twice before the Gambler’s iron cleared his black leather holster. The gambler’s eyes expanded. His metal arm was unable to continue with its motion. Gun smoke filtered through the room like unsettled dust. The gambler dropped to his knees and fell forward.
The piano player looked at Mr. Strawn. “Thank you,” he said, and then vanished like a puff of mist. When the gambler’s ghost appeared, Mr. Strawn was going to tell him to go ahead and pass, wait for him with all of the others. He dropped ten on the bar. “And the sand.”
The barkeep handed Mr. Strawn the glass. He walked out to the main street. The mag-lev train was already leaving. An airship passed overhead. He could tell by the markings that it was a com ship. He considered the glass for a long time then put it to his lips and poured the particles into his mouth. They were dry. They stung his throat. But he felt Arora fill all of the empty places of his mind, spaces where emotions had once resided.
Abruptly she was standing on the wooden boardwalk in a black tunic, leather criss-crossed belts and guns. It was a soldier’s outfit, taken from his memory. Only he could see her, now, unless he tricked her into a mirror.
“Hello,” she said. She walked over and put her hands on his chest. “Am I real?”
“As can be,” he said. They waited an hour on a bench at the depot for the next train.
In their car, Mr. Strawn listened to her read. His head was on her lap. He felt what the characters did, and he wondered how the hero was going to overcome the past. The train headed east.
Morgen Knight is an award-winning horror/thriller writer whose short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She is a mother of two, in love with the macabre and enjoys vampire hunting. You can find her in Kansas City writing short stories and her first novel. Read some of her work at morgenknight.wordpress.com. Contact her at facebook.com/writermorgenknight.