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 Ten. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors
Chapter Ten: Rain
It was late in the afternoon or early evening when he woke. A light rain fell, and the air had the sharp odour of wood smoke. Moss sat up on the steps and ran his hands through his hair. His eyes smarted from the smoke. He remembered the events in the library and rested his head on his knees.
He sat like that for some time with the rain running over him, until a familiar sound roused him. Looking up, he saw the glass disks floating in the air above the gravestones, glowing like fairies in the half-light.
Without taking his eyes off the disks, he stood. Where there had been five disks, there were now six. They seemed aware of his presence. It was as though they were waiting to be acknowledged. Moss cleared his throat, which was raw and hoarse from the smoke, but before he could say anything the disks began to grow brighter.
Suddenly, each disk began to project the image of one of the dead children, including Starling. They materialized between the headstones and looked like real children, except that Moss could see through them. He cleared his throat, but the children were already talking, oblivious to his presence. Standard Justner picked a bottle out of the grass, and made a face at his reflection. A mop of red hair fell over his eyes, and he pushed out his freckled lower lip.
“Look at this,” he said. He turned and looked at Starling, who stood nearby in a weathered coat and high rubber boots. “It looks like your head, Star. Empty.” The boy guffawed and threw the bottle. It narrowly missed Starling’s head. Moss’s heart pounded as he realized that he was seeing the morning of the murders.
“Leave him alone.” It was Annabelle Fish, a pretty girl with chestnut pigtails and clear blue eyes. “He doesn’t get your stupid joke, asshole.”
Watching, Moss put his knuckles to his nose as his eyes teared.
Fat Jennifer Cooke, arms laden with butterfly nets, shouted over her shoulder. “I’m telling Sir that you said asshole.”
“Shut up, asshole,” said Standard. Jennifer dropped the nets.
David, who had been filling a bag with small bottles and a sketchbook, stood up. He was small and skinny. He wore his shirt out and never wore socks. “We better go. We were supposed to be finding bugs, not fooling around.” Stokes Hutchison, who had severely-cut blond hair, shoved David. The bottles fell out of the bag. “Stokes, look what you did.”
Stokes punched David’s shoulder. “Butterfingers,” he said. “You better pick that shit up.”
David got down on his knees and collected the bottles. Starling moved closer to help, but David waved him off. “Leave me alone.”
The group of children began to troop out of the cemetery. Justner led the way with Stokes in tow. Jennifer ran behind them carrying most of the gear, while David and Annabelle followed at a distance, talking in their conspiratorial way. Starling walked at the rear of the line and seemed more interested in the trees than in the other children. Moss walked behind them, listening to their combined chatter as he often had in the past. They made their way onto the road and began walking towards the woods. Starling crouched suddenly in the road, then stood with a damaged katydid twitching between his fingers.
“Hurry up,” said Standard. “I swear I’ll kick your ass.”
Starling put the insect in a bottle and slipped it into his satchel. When he raised his head from this task, Standard was standing in front of him with his hands on his hips. “Are you deaf as well as stupid?”
“I found the first insect,” said Starling, pleased. “A katydid.”
“No you didn’t,” said Standard. Starling pulled the bottle out of the bag. Standard snatched it out of his hand and tossed it to Stokes. Starling grabbed for it but was not quick enough.
“Standard, give it back to him,” said Annabelle.
“Standard, give it back to him,” mimicked Jennifer.
“Shut up you fat cow,” said Annabelle. David pulled on her sweater. Annabelle rolled her eyes and set off down the road. Laughing, Standard, Stokes and Jennifer followed her.
David turned to Starling and said, “Why do you always make Annabelle stand up for you?” When Starling did not answer, David ran off after the others, leaving him in the road.
As Moss watched, the woods around him were dim and dripping in the rain, but the children were dry. For them it was a spring morning. Jennifer dropped her load of bottles and nets on the ground near a gully carved by a rushing stream. David did the same a moment later. The children fanned out into the woods.
Standard and Stokes vanished behind a large fallen tree where they lit a cigarette. Standard smoked with practiced ease but Stokes inhaled with quick, shallow breaths and coughed frequently. Jennifer wandered some ways away until she was partially hidden. She pulled down her shorts and squatted. David and Annabelle walked in the other direction, flipping over logs and peeling back bark. Occasionally they found a grub or beetle and deposited it into a small jar.
Starling walked in yet another direction. He found an open glade, where he walked in circles staring into the treetops. After a few minutes he approached a tree and gently pulled a beautiful luna moth from the bark.
Excited, he carried the moth on his flat palm to the nearest child, which was Jennifer. She had finished peeing and was now sitting idly on a log, blowing spit bubbles. “Look what I found,” he said, putting his palm under her nose.
She screamed and jumped up. “Get that away from me, you idiot.”
“I am sorry. I thought you would like it,” said Starling.
“Well I don’t, I hate it. Go away,” Jennifer shrieked at him. The luna moth fluttered from Starling’s hand. He seemed startled by Jennifer’s screams, and he moved toward her and tried to put his hand over her mouth. “Don’t touch me!” She twisted away and fell over the log backwards.
“What are you doing?” said Standard. They had all come running when the commotion started.
“He attacked me,” said Jennifer, sobbing.
Standard shoved Starling and began slapping his head. “I told you I’d kick your ass,” he said.
Suddenly Annabelle Fish hit Standard in the stomach. “I saw it. He didn’t do anything. He just tried to show her a moth.”
“Liar!” screamed Jennifer.
Standard reached around Annabelle and grabbed Starling’s arm. He swung another punch. This time Starling was knocked off his feet and fell heavily onto the muddy slope of the creek. Stokes and David were on top of him instantly, raining blows down on his head and chest. Annabelle followed, trying to get the boys off Starling, who lay on the ground with his arms over his head. Jennifer, her face flushed, ran into the gully and pulled a large round stone from the stream bed. She climbed back up the bank, tripping on roots until she was above the swarm of bodies. Taking aim at Starling, she threw the stone with all her might. At that instant, Annabelle stood, panting and crying. The stone caught her in the side of the head with a crack that made everyone freeze. Without a sound the girl crumpled to the ground. The boys scrambled backwards away from Starling as if jolted by electricity. Jennifer stood paralyzed by what she had just done. Only Starling moved. He rose from the forest floor, covered in leaves and mud. Five glass disks had appeared in the air from his pockets and flew erratically around his head. He looked at Annabelle who lay still and pale, lips slightly parted.
“No.” At first Starling’s voice was a whisper. Then it came a second time, a deep-throated roar of anguish.
Moss watched as the children faded away and left him alone in the woods. The rain intensified. The floating disks had also vanished. Behind the silhouettes of the trees, the sky was indigo. He went to the spot where Annabelle had died and placed his palm on the wet ground. It was cold, as it had been for many years.