WFR is proud to serialize The Lost Machine in support of its author and illustrator, Richard A. Kirk. We will be reprinting the entire novel with its illustrations over the course of five weeks with a new chapter every Monday and Wednesday. Wherever possible, formatting has been made to match that available in the e-book. This part of the serialization covers Chapter Five. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors
Chapter Five: Horrific Buttons
The next day, as they approached the great City of Steps, Moss, who was now in the landscape of his childhood, told Irridis that he had to make a detour.
“There is someone that I must see,” he said.
Irridis nodded. “Soon our paths will take us in different directions, for for now it makes sense to watch out for each other. Besides, 37 would miss you.”
Moss smiled for the first time in days. “Yes, I think she would.” He slapped the donkey’s thick neck, releasing a cloud of trail dust. “Then we need to head that way, toward that forest.”
“Who are we going to see?” asked Irridis.
“My sister, Jenny Sugar. We call her Horrific Buttons.”
“You have an odd family. Do I dare to ask why you call her that.”
“You’ll see,” said Moss. “It’s the reason we are going to see her.”
Moss and Irridis followed a muddy riverbed into a forest. After half an hour of walking they came to a sign, nailed to an ancient, collapsing oak, which read, Windy Woods, No Trespassing. At the top of the embankment behind the tree was an untidy house. A child stood on a wide stone porch, sweeping.
“You should know something before you meet her,” whispered Moss. “She has a disease. Although she is over forty, she looks like a child of twelve. It can be unsettling if you are not used to it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve seen a lot of unsettling things. Is that why she lives in the forest and not in the city, so she doesn’t attract attention?” said Irridis.
“No, she grows plants and collects seeds. She does not like to be disturbed.”
Miss Buttons was arranging seeds and organizing them into little boxes when Moss came up the steps.
“Buttons,” he said. The small figure jumped like a startled cat.
“Lumsden.” She came forward and pressed her face into his stomach, wrapping her arms around his waist. She stepped back and squinted her eyes in suspicion.
“What’s up? What are you doing here? I though you were in Brickscold Prison.”
Her hair was black and her cheeks and chin reddened by the wind. Her fingers were the only clue to her true age. They were unusually long for a child. They were, as Horrific had once told a hapless traveler, useful for certain things, like picking apart seedpods or playing with spiders. Horrific Buttons had tea-colored eyes which would have been beautiful if they hadn’t seemed too contrary. This was the thought in Moss’s mind when he suddenly remembered Irridis, who had been standing patiently behind a porch column. Horrific Buttons had already seen him, though, and she burst out, “Who the hell is that?”
Moss made the introductions. In spite of Irridis’s gracious greeting, Buttons remained cagey, but only for a moment.
Horrific Buttons had lived alone since their parent were swept away in a spring flood when she was still a teenager. She didn’t go to school, being far too clever for that. Rather, she taught herself all of the essentials, like how to kill a wasp without getting stung, how to store seeds without them drying out, and where to hide things so that nosey people couldn’t find them. She was too good at hiding things, in fact — too often she couldn’t find them later. This, and the fact that the flooding river ran right through the house twice a year, had led to the untidy state of things.
Buttons imparted this information in a stream of chatter that made Moss and Irridis exchange glances more than once. Moss shrugged his shoulders.
“Please, do go on,” said Irridis. They sat in the kitchen at an enormous, round table with elephantine legs. The surface of the table was heaped with papers and books. But that was not all. Boxes of seeds lay at every level of the stratified mountain, along with mounted botanical samples, pinned insects, old scones and unraveling wool socks.
“I live at this table,” she said without apology. So crowded was the table that Moss had to eat the meal she had made — of bread, cheese and soup — from a large bowl resting on his knees.
When Moss’s stomach and ears were full, Buttons led them to their rooms at the top of the house. In her own attic bedroom Buttons kept most of her little boxes of seeds. They were carefully labeled: Milkweed, Datura, Poison Ivy and many, many others. No, thought Moss, they were obsessively labeled. Each bore a yellow square, marked in her careful style of printing, that was tied to the box with red string. As they stood in the raftered room staring at the sagging shelves, Buttons related how each night she would wake up in the dark — sometimes with a headache, sometimes not — and listen.
“For you see,” she whispered, “my greatest fear is that someone will come and steal my collection of seeds.”
With this confession in the air, Irridis bid sister and brother good night and retired to the tiny bedroom that had been assigned to him.
When his door was closed, Buttons made a face and said, “Odd fellow.”
“I am sure he thinks just as highly of you,” said Moss, “chattering like a lunatic.”
“Never mind that now, Lumsden. I know you didn’t come all this way to see me, as much as I wish that were the case. What do you need?”
“I am going to see the sisters,” he said.
Buttons face went dark and she pursed her lips
“Why would you want to do that?”
Moss looked down. “They are the only ones who can help me find the A.I.-Link. I want to find and destroy it. It murdered the children. I was supposed to protect them, but instead I went to prison for what it did.” He lifted his hands, realizing suddenly that he had been shaking her shoulders. “The sisters brought the A.I.-Link into the school. If anyone knows where it is, they do.”
“But Lumsden, no one has seen it since the days of the murders. A long time has passed. Even if the sisters do know, why on earth do you think they will tell you? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Because, dear sister, you are going to give me some incentive. You know what I am talking about.”
Buttons went silent for a time. Finally, she rose and began clearing her bed. “Sleep here tonight,” she said, through pursed lips. “I suppose there is no dissuading you.”
The next morning, Moss and Irridis sat on the stone porch, staring off into the woods. The skies had opened in the night, and the rain poured with unremitting force ever since. The air was filled with the hiss of water hitting the trees. It was hypnotic. Moss jumped when Buttons appeared beside him. There were shadows beneath her eyes. She set a wooden pencil box on the porch ledge.
“I’ve made three,” she said. Irridis walked to the ledge. “I haven’t slept all night and this was all there was time for.”
“What have you made?” Irridis asked.
It was Moss that answered. “Buttons.”
His sister slid the box lid back, revealing three objects. They were indeed button-shaped, but comprised of a spiral arrangement of seeds. Moss was immediately reminded of Mr. Box and his eggshells. In the centre of each was a dehydrated spider with its legs folded inward. The spiders were stitched to the buttons with the same red thread she used for her labels. The buttons sat on a soft layer of sheep’s wool to prevent their movement. She slid the lid back on the box and handed it to Moss.
“Don’t go to the city,” she said. “You can stay here with me. You can’t fix the past. This journey you insist on isn’t going to end happily.”
“I’m not looking for happiness,” said Moss. “I have to go, for the children. Where is their happiness?”
“I know,” Buttons said. She turned to Irridis. “Take care of my brother.”
The glass objects encircling him clinked against the hiss of the rain.
When the rain had let up, they left Buttons and began their journey to the City of Steps. Irridis had given 37 to Buttons, saying that the city was no place for a sweet-natured donkey. Moss shouldered a new pack that Buttons had given to him, and kissed his sister on the head. By evening, Windy Woods was far behind.