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 Four. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors
Chapter Four: Applewood Smoke
The path took them away from the ocean, and the terrain became hilly and filled with dried milkweeds. The air was stagnant and warm. By late afternoon dark clouds filled with lightning appeared in the west. Moss led the donkey — which did not have a name, but did have the number 37 branded on her side. 37 was content to be led. She looked neither left nor right but instead walked in whatever direction Moss indicated. He was sure that if he directed her, she would have walked off a cliff.
The scene in the clearing played again and again in Moss’s head. It reminded him of another day, when he had run through the woods calling out the names of the children in his care. All five of them had gone off among the trees with jars and nets to collect what small creatures they could. The A.I-Link had gone with them, of course. That was the point of the exercise, to prove that it could function as an ordinary human child — do all of the things a human child could do, like catch butterflies or trap toads. But the five children — three boys and two girls — and the A.I.-Link had not returned. It had taken Moss an hour of racing up and down trails to find the children. In the still of the mid-day, they were scattered among the skunk cabbages and the widow-makers. All of the human children were dead. The jars and nets were strewn as if by a mighty gust of wind, their incongruous colours peeking out from the vegetation. The police found Moss in shock late that night, sitting on a stump, oblivious to the ants that raced over him and the millipedes crawling more slowly through is hair. For him, time had slowed to a treacle-like consistency. It was a defensive slowing, as though his mind could only allow tiny wisps of reality through the door of his awareness at one time. He had been teacher and a surrogate parent to these children — and now they lay dead at his feet like discarded manikins. The A.I.-Link was never found. Moss had been convicted of the murders and sent to Brickscold Prison with only the children’s notebooks to remind him of what he had supposedly done.
Moss emerged from his memories and looked toward the storm clouds, startled to see a house that he had not noticed earlier. On impulse, he released 37’s reins and struck off toward the dark structure, which sat alone in a pasture.
Halfway to the house, Irridis caught up to him.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to see if there is any shelter to be had in that building. The sky looks ugly.” Moss stared at his companions blank lenses, then snorted inconclusively and turned his attention toward the building.
It was a narrow three story house. The brickwork had been painted black. Despite the shabby condition of the rest of the building, most of the windows remained intact. There was no way to approach unseen, so Moss walked directly up to the front door. Numbers had been drawn all around the jamb in a white waxy substance. The door itself was covered in deep scratches, as though a bear or some other large animal had attempted to force entry.
“I’d advise against this,” said Irridis.
“Maybe you don’t mind standing in the rain, but I could use a dry place to sleep.”
Irridis shrugged. Moss walked up the weathered steps, tried the handle and found it unlocked. Inside the house the air was dry and still. There was a small fireplace in the large main room filled with old ash and half consumed sticks. It reminded him immediately of the building in the woods. A cool draft came down the narrow stairs from the second floor.
Moss mounted the steps. At the top he found another room, slightly smaller than the first, with a collection of wooden chairs and a table with a jumble of interlocked deer antlers sitting on its pitted surface. A layer of thick dust covered the floor, disturbed by curved lines of mouse tracks.
A narrower stairway continued to the third floor. At the top, Moss came to a closed door with more waxy symbols scribbled on the wood. It opened with a squeal. The top room was a nursery. Dolls in ragged dresses, building blocks that were worn yet still colourful, children’s books and mouldering board games littered the floor. Moss picked up a tin toy fire engine with a dog sitting behind the steering wheel. He turned the key and let it race across the floor. It struck the wall beneath the window and spun on its side until he walked over to pick it up. Looking down, he could see Irridis standing in the waving, colourless grass, looking toward the storm.
Back on the main floor, Moss set the satchel on the hearth and spread his coat on the floor to create a makeshift bed. Irridis remained outside, though he had moved to the lee of the house to avoid the rain, which was now falling in fat drops. 37 chewed grass some way off, apparently unconcerned with the storm. Moss lay down on his coat expecting only to rest his sore muscles, but within seconds he was asleep.
They came out of doorways he had not noticed before: children with eyes that caught the lightning like firefly sparks. Their skin was talcum white and their clothing smelled of apple-wood smoke. A small girl with deadly nightshade flowers sprouting from tendrils in her hair reached down to touch his forehead. She reached into his head as though it were no more substantial than smoke. When she pulled her hands back, a dark gauze-like shape trailed from her fingers. She stepped away from him and turned her body, twisting the shape with her fingers. He realized it was an anamorphism. As his perspective changed, the elongated shape turned into a mask-like face. It looked like a child’s face but lacked the micro-movements that give the human face its soul. It was the face of the A.I.-Link. Suddenly there was warmth in the air against his skin. It felt like someone’s breath. He turned away from the girl to look at the source of the draft, and through the window he could see Irridis, a black form with lights flickering around his neck. He realized that it had been this light, not lightning from the storm, that had illuminated the children’s eyes. When Moss turned back to the girl, she and the other children had vanished leaving only drifting smoke on the air.
Moss woke at dawn to Irridis poking him with the toe of his boot. He sat up, surprised to find himself lying amid the toys on the third floor.
“It’s light and the weather has cleared,” said Irridis. “We should go now.”
Moss went down the stairs ahead of Irridis and gathered his coat and satchel from the main floor. They left the house without speaking another word, closing the door behind them. The turgid air of the previous day had cleared out and the sky was a bright, cloudless blue.
When they had crossed back over the field and found the path, Moss turned to look back at the house. It was gone.
“What’s the matter?” said Irridis.
“I must have gotten turned around,” said Moss. “Where’s the house?”
“It’s gone. It vanished once you stopped thinking about it.”
“Is it? I think it happens all the time. Things disappear.”
“Don’t be funny. What do you know about that place?” asked Moss. “Why didn’t you want me to hole up there?”
“I suspect that it was a Witch House.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing good,” said Irridis. “Some women of my order do not leave their houses after a certain time of life. The houses move, appearing and disappearing in different remote places. Some say these women’s spirits inhabit the houses after they die. Certainly the older buildings are often found with signs of a presence — kettles boiling, warm bread on the table, things of that nature — but with no visible inhabitants. Some people believe that the houses are inherently evil, meant to ensnare, while others find them comforting. Some people cannot see them at all, even when they are standing directly in front of them.”
Moss stood for a few more moments, staring at the spot where the house should have been. The face of the little girl lingered in his memory, along with that of the A.I-Link. He turned to follow Irridis, who was already far ahead. He decided to keep his dream to himself.