There is more to see in the Mechanical Arts Building...
by Tonia Brown
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Rebecca stared at the exhibit as she sucked on the straw of her drink. All around her the hall throbbed with noises; the crowd oohing and ahhing at every little thing, the machines clanking and whistling, the calliope of music flushing across the bandstand. She strained, really, really, really hard, but still couldn’t make heads or tails of was under the glass display case. Her father said it was a Transcendent Omnipresent Chronometer Key, whatever that was supposed to be. The plaque said it had something to do with a clock or time or something, but most of the words were far too big for her seven year old brain to process. The display was circa 1870, which her dad said just meant it was made a really long time ago. Forty five years! That was ancient!
The thing was no bigger than her hand, and round, and made of metal, and looked very, very old. It had tons of buttons and switches, but nothing that told her what it did. There were some pictures in the display case too, but most of them were of an old steam train, just like the kind her grandfather used to drive. Before he left her alone so he could go to the toilet, she heard her daddy say the train was smart. Which didn’t surprise her at all. Of course it was smart. Otherwise pictures of it wouldn’t be on display in the exhibit hall at the World’s Fair.
She squinted at the old photographs, hoping to find some kind of clue to the thing in the case amongst the faded, black and white images. Most of them were of the smart train, but one had some people in it.
There was an older man, short and fat and funny looking. He wore glasses and a coat like her daddy wore when he was seeing his patients. He smiled wide, like he wanted the whole world to smile with him. Rebecca liked that. It made her want to smile too.
He had one arm around a very pretty lady, the kind of pretty Rebecca hoped to grow up and be just like one day. The smiling woman wore pants, which Rebecca thought was awful brave, and looked all kinds of in charge. Yeah, that was the kind of woman Rebecca wanted to be when she was old.
On the other side of the fat man slouched a really tall, really thin, really scary looking man. He smiled too, but his grin was weird, like he couldn’t help but smile. Like he couldn’t stop smiling. Rebecca didn’t like that.
Off a few steps, on the other side of the pretty lady there stood another man. He sure was handsome—what her aunt called a dangerous kind of gorgeous—but he also looked sad. He stood away from the others, like he was supposed to be there but at the same time didn’t belong. He wasn’t looking at the camera like the others were neither. He was looking at the lady, like he got caught sneaking a peek at her just when the picture was taken.
And he wasn’t smiling.
The photograph was nice, but it didn’t tell her what the round metal thing was on display. No one seemed to know, either. She had asked at least twenty different people what it was, including the man who was supposed to be in charge of the showing, but all they said was it was something that crazy professor invented. But Rebecca had a feeling there was something special about it. She just wished she knew what.
“You here alone honey?” a woman asked.
Rebecca turned around and nearly dropped her drink. Crouching to Rebecca’s level was the pretty woman from the photograph. But it couldn’t have been her because the photograph was ancient. And the pretty lady was anything but ancient.
“Are you here alone?” she repeated.
Rebecca shook her head, unable to speak.
“You here with your mother?” the woman asked.
Rebecca shook her head again. She didn’t have a mother, but the pretty woman couldn’t have known that.
“Your father?” the woman asked.
“And he just left you here?” the woman asked. “Alone?”
Rebecca nodded again.
“Foolish men,” the woman whispered. “Doesn’t matter where or when, they’re all the same.”
“Missh Lelanea!” someone shouted.
Rebecca’s eyes went saucer wide as she turned to see the tall, scary man from the photograph stalking across the exhibit hall toward them. He loped with long strides, stiff in his steps like a scarecrow that just jumped down from his pole and didn’t know how to walk yet. She grabbed the woman’s slacks and tugged, trying to warn her of the danger.
The woman laughed warmly as she stood and took Rebecca by the hand. “It’s all right, little one. Ched looks rough, but he’s a good man.”
He might have been a good man, but the closer he got, Rebecca thought he stank to high heaven. She pinched her nose and scooted behind the woman’s leg, trying to hide from the man and the stink. He stunk in a combination of her uncle Patrick and that one time Miss Kitty crawled under the house and never came back out. Which is to say he smelled like whisky and death.
“You sheen Dodger?” the man asked as he joined them at the exhibit. He slurred when he spoke, just like Uncle Pat.
“Not yet,” the woman said. “He should have been back by now. We only have a few minutes left.”
“He’ll make it in time. He alwaysh doesh.” The thin man proceeded to smile wider, and Rebecca thought the sight of it would make her sick.
“Do you think Rex came to this era?” the woman asked.
“Naw,” the man said. “I think he went backwardsh. He’ll make himshelf the king of shome ancient shivilizashion or shomething like that. The little shit.”
“Ched! Watch your language.” The woman patted Rebecca on the head.
The thin man nodded down at Rebecca, tipping his striped cap. “Shorry little misshy. Didn’t shee ya down there.”
Rebecca recognized his hat. It was an engineer’s cap.
“There he is,” the woman said. She waved and whistled across the crowded exhibition hall. “Dodger! Over here!”
Rebecca watched as the third man from the photograph walked toward them. He was just as handsome as he was in the picture, and just as sad. People stepped away from him as he approached, parting as if they knew to get out of his way.
“You two ready?” he asked once he was with them.
“Almost,” the woman said. “We have a few minutes yet, and this young lady has lost her father.” The woman guided Rebecca to middle of them, where she stood wide eyed staring at the others.
The handsome man lowered to a crouch. “Lost your dad, huh? I reckon we can take a moment to help out a pretty lady.”
Rebecca wanted to explode. There was no way he was talking about her.
“Where did you see him last?” the woman asked.
Rebecca pointed at the line for the water closet.
The handsome man chuckled, a strange sound from such a sad man. “You know what they say, don’t you?”
Rebecca shook her head.
“When you gotta go, you gotta go.” He touched her nose and winked.
“Dodger,” the woman said. “This isn’t funny. He abandoned her here.”
“He didn’t abandon her. He’ll be back. Won’t he?”
Rebecca nodded. Of course dad would be back for her. Wouldn’t he?
“Another myshtery sholved,” the thin man said.
The handsome man stood again, and took something from a pocket inside his jacket. “I guess that means we should get a move on. Rex isn’t here. I think Ched was right after all. He must’ve gone back instead of forward.” A steady ticking sounded from his hands.
“Is the T.O.C.K. primed?” the woman asked.
He held a metal device out between the three of them. It was round and made of metal and was covered in buttons and switches and—save for the single fact that it looked brand spanking new—it was an exact duplicate of the thing in the display case.
Rebecca gasped and covered her mouth. If they had one, then they must know what it was! She had so many questions, but still couldn’t find the voice to speak.
“You two set?” the handsome man asked. The ticking quickened.
The woman nodded and grabbed one edge of the thing.
The thin man looked down at Rebecca as he also grabbed the thing. “Ya besht shtep back a bit, hun. I don’t want ya to get yashelf hurt.”
Rebecca did as told. Maybe she was wrong about him. He seemed like a nice man. Smelly, but nice.
“Look away or close your eyes,” the handsome man said. “The light might make you nauseas.”
And she was going to follow his command when the handsome man did something that made her keep right on staring at him. He smiled at her, and for a moment he didn’t seem quite so sad.
The device ticked faster and faster until it gave a single loud click. Everything around her went quite; the crowd, the music, the sound of her thumping heart. A bright light swelled and flared from the device, much like a photographer’s flash, until it swallowed the three. Rebecca finally had to cover her eyes; the man was right, the light was so bright it made her want to be sick.
When she looked again, the three people were gone.
Her drink hit the exhibit hall floor with a soft slush.
Rebecca finally found her voice.
“Wow,” was all she could say.
Tick T.O.C.K. post created for SteamPink event by Tonia Brown author of Railroad!
© 2011. All rights reserved.
by Tonia Brown
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* image source: Mechanical Arts Building and Concourse - Collection of Christopher Charles.