Image by Martin Roberts
(NOTE: The following is a continuation of my debut book from Eraserhead Press, Muscle Memory, picking up the storyline on the day after the first book ended. If you read the book, then I hope you enjoy more of this story, which I will post on this site for free over the next four weeks. If you haven’t read the book but want to get in on this fun, you can find it on Amazon.com: CLICK HERE. Thanks – Steve)
Previous installments: Part IV – Well, That Didn’t Work (READ IT HERE)
About three or four miles from the house is an old soft coal mine. Hasn’t been used for years and years, got the boards over it and the Keep Out and No Trespassing signs everywhere. Me and my brother practically grew up in there as kids. We played Indiana Jones in the old mine cars. A lot of them were rusted right to the rails. Always found something cool down there in those tunnels. Parts of somebody’s old whiskey still, ancient liquor bottles from the ‘20s when it doubled as a hideout for rum runners coming up from Florida to Chicago, sometimes an old birdcage from when the mine was still active.
I used to think about those canaries they put in there. They took them down in the mine as a warning signal. If the canary keeled over, they knew they hit deadly gasses that they couldn’t smell. My Grandpa Gillespie worked the mine when he was younger, before they shut it and moved on down the road. He said that the birds were always more accurate than any slick electronic device. It was the perfect system. Bird died, you got the hell out, simple as that. Grandpa Gillespie worked a steel forge into his fifties before he died and was the toughest sonuvabitch I ever knew, even though I never got to meet him in person. My old man worked the same forge until they shut that, too, and moved on down to another country. He was a tough dude, but never tougher than Grandpa was, according to him. The old man certainly didn’t lack for trying, though. The only time you’d catch a smile on his face was when he told a story about Grandpa Gillespie working the steel mill or the mine.
Which is where we’re fixing to head right now.
“If we can get to it without being seen, it’ll be perfect,” Tucker says. “Those shafts go down for miles, but there’s crossways passages they cut for ventilation and extra exits in case of cave-ins. We can enter through the main opening in the east side and come out about four miles away to the southwest and them agents won’t be none the wiser. Chances are they probably don’t even know it’s there.”
Julia says, “So then what, are we going to walk to Pittsburgh?”
“No, just to Charlie Cooper’s.”
“Who is Charlie Cooper?” Agent Joey says.
Julia shakes her head and says, “No way in hell, we’re not going to that bum’s place. He’ll probably shoot you on sight if he catches you out there.”
“No he won’t, Charlie’s not as bad as you think.”
“Who is Charlie Cooper?” Agent Joey says again.
“Not as bad as I think? What about that whole incident at McGillicuddy’s with the broken bottle? You forget about that already?”
“He was just playing around.”
I say, “Tuckew, he twied to swice your head off wiff a busted bottew.”
“Dude, don’t exaggerate. He couldn’t have actually sliced my head off with a bottle. You know how hard it is to decapitate somebody? There’s bone and cartilage and-”
Agent Joey shouts, “Who the hell is Charlie Cooper, and why the hell would we consider going to his place?” Everybody quiets down ‘cause he’s got one of them looks in Agent Tim’s eyes. Dude’s starting to slip a little, I think.
Julia fills him in. “Charlie Cooper fixed Tucker’s old hunk of junk Chevy a year ago, but Tucker hasn’t paid him yet. Charlie is the best mechanic around here, but he’s also the bat-shit-craziest loon in the county.”
Tucker says, “It was not a year ago, it was only ten months. And Charlie’s not bat-shit crazy. He just drinks a little too much sometimes.”
“Tucker, ten months is basically a year, and he would have killed you if he wouldn’t have been falling-on-his-ass drunk.”
“Whatever, it wasn’t like that. And all of this is beside the point, which is, we walk over to Charlie’s, get the car, haul ass to Pittsburgh, grab us some Terry Bradshaw, and get back in time for dinner so we can fix this stupid situation.”
Julia rubs her temples and closes her eyes. “Tucker, how are we going to drive the car if Charlie’s got the keys?”
Tucker thinks on that for a minute. “Guess I haven’t gotten that far yet. But I’m sure we’ll come up with something by the time we get there.” He points at Agent Joey and says, “Shit, it’s not like we don’t have federal agents on our side here. J here can just flash a badge and perform a little police brutality if it comes to that.”
Agent Joey shakes his head and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I don’t think roughing up citizens is a good idea. There has to be a better way of doing this.”
Nobody pipes up with a better way of doing this.
“OK, fine,” Tucker says as he crosses his arms like a little kid. “What’s your plan, then?”
Agent Joey thinks for a second then says, “I have a better idea, just give me a minute. You guys get the machine and gear up.”
He stalks off toward the house without another word. Julia throws her hands up, kind of looks like a puppet on a string, and says, “Well, that’s a great idea. Thanks for sharing.”
Joey either doesn’t hear her or decides to ignore her. Either way, he goes inside without so much as a look back over her shoulder.
Tucker says, “Are we sure it’s a good idea to put a government worker in charge?”
“Whatevew, guys. Wets dust stop boo-sitting and get weady to head out.”
We hurry over to Edgar’s barn. He’s pulling straw away from the machine, which looks a little like an old fashioned telegraph but with a couple metal disks on each side that look suspiciously like retractable metal colanders.
I stab a chubby baby finger at it and say, “Dis is awien technowogy?”
“What?” Edgar bobs his head. I think he’s trying to shrug his sheep shoulders, but it looks to be harder than he anticipated. “It’s from the fifties. What do you think it would look like?”
“Not wike sumfing Tuckew could make in his powe bawn.”
Tucker says, “In my poor bon?”
Julia says, “Pretty sure he said pole barn.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Whatever,” Edgar says. “The thing works. How it looks is beside the frickin’ point. Somebody with fingers and thumbs just grab the damn thing already.”
Tucker would probably be scratching his head right now if he wasn’t holding me in his arms. “Are we bringing that thing with us?”
“Well, yeah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. We can’t just leave it here for the Feds to take. What the hell would be the point of everything we’re doing?”
“Well, is it heavy?”
Tucker lifts the machine, about the overall size of a typewriter, up off the hay bale. The thing looks like a boat anchor, but Tuck plucks it up without straining. “Wow. It weighs next to nothing. That’s amazing. It must be some new metal alloy, like that stuff in Terminators.”
“Dude, dat was wiquid metew. Dis fing wooks wike it was made from a Sawad Shootew.”
“Sawad Shoot- nevewmind.”
Tucker turns it over and examines it real close, but Edgar nudges him with his head. “Yeah, great. Amazing discovery. Now can we please go before the men with the guns get here?”
Tucker says, “Looks like some kind of nameplate on the bottom. Maybe it’s like a brand name or something.”
“Yeah, a brand name,” Julia says. “Because aliens need to maintain brand identity between their different body switcher machinery.”
“Well, there’s something written on here. Like a name or something. Looks like a doctor’s signature. ‘K. Cumberbund,’ maybe?”
Agent Joey walks into the barn and says, “We’re all set.” He stops short when he sees the machine. “Is this it?”
Tucker hands the machine to him and Joey hefts it in his hands. “Wow. That’s amazing. It weighs almost nothing.”
Julia shoulders past them and heads for the door. “Well, what are we doing standing here playing with ourselves for? Those other assholes in sunglasses are going be here any second and I really don’t want to be around when it happens. What about you ladies?”
Joey pulls his sunglasses from his breast pocket and throws them on with one hand. “She’s right, let’s get this show on the road.”
I say, “Hey, Joey, how come you hewping us aww of a sudden? Just yestewday, you were Mistew Supew G-Man.”
He settles his sunglasses just so on the bridge of Tim’s nose. Can’t tell who he’s lookin’ at on account of them reflective lenses. “I don’t know. Call it a change of heart.” And he places Tim’s hand over Tim’s chest to show what he means. Then he spins on his heels and hurries off toward the road.
Tucker says, “Walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes tends to do that, huh?”
Fuck an A, bubba.
* * *
OK, problem number one: Little Rico.
He’s got a fully developed adult body and no idea how to use it. So walking’s out for him.
Tucker hands me to Julia and runs and grabs his wheel barrow from his barn. After some wrestling and a little protesting, he gets Rico into it. Tucker tries real hard not to touch any of Tina’s mommy parts and blushes when he accidentally grabs a boob. Rico squeals when he does it and creeps me the hell out all over again. Does he like having his boob touched? Jesus, that’s my infant son in that body. Why would he like it? Does it make him hungry?
Dammit, I gotta stop thinking about this. Focus… Focus.
Tucker takes him for a spin around the yard to test the wheelbarrow out and Rico shrieks and giggles. Actually, it looks fun as hell.
“Wets get a move on.”
Agent Joey pulls out his sidearm and he’ll lead the way as our point man. Julia’s got me and a diaper bag filled with all my necessities, and Tucker’s got Rico, but now we have nobody to carry the machine.
Problem number two.
Julia says, “Can we toss it in a back pack and strap it to Captain Wooly there?”
She shoves me into Tucker’s hands and, after about five minutes and a turrets-like stream of cussing, comes up from my basement with the pink Strawberry Shortcake backpack Tina’s mom got for us when Tina was pregnant and they both still held out hope that it was going to be a girl.
Tucker says, “Your mother-in-law bought your unborn child a backpack?”
“You should have seen aww da cwap we got. We wan out of space to put it aww. Wunch boxes, bicycews, toddwer cwothes.”
Julia says to Edgar, “OK, lamb chop, front and center.”
“Aw, come on,” Edgar says. “When will the humiliation end?”
Julia slips the machine into the backpack and zips it up. “Just shut up and wear it. You’re already a farm animal for Christ’s sake, what difference does it make what kind of backpack you’re wearing? Now, hop up here so I can get the straps around your shoulders, or whatever the hell you sheeps have.”
Edgar snorts and does as he’s told. Julia fights to get the backpack onto him and gags a couple times in the process. “Good God, you reek.”
“Well, I’m a farm animal, remember?”
“Can we pwease get the fuck outta hewe?”
“Little dude’s right,” Tucker says. “We’re burnin’ daylight.” He shoves me back in Julia’s arms then snatches up the handles of the wheelbarrow and looks at everyone. “All set then?”
Everybody looks at each other and there’s a pause. We’re quite a sight to take in here, with a grown woman squealing and jabbering in a wheelbarrow and a sheep wearing a pink backpack.
Wait ‘til Terry Bradshaw gets a load of us.
* * *
Finally, some luck. We make it to the mine entrance without seeing a soul. Couple hairy minutes there when a helicopter flew over, but other than that, nobody.
Tucker says, “Damn, that was easy.”
Julia looks around and shakes her head. “That’s what worries me the most. Nothing is ever this easy when you three are involved. There’s got to be a disaster just waiting around the next corner.”
Tucker blows her off. “No way. We’re golden now.”
We trudge through the mine in silence. Agent Joey pulls a tiny flashlight off his belt and lights the way. The thing throws off an amazing beam of light from something so small.
“That’s a pretty nifty light you got there,” Tucker says.
“One of the perks of working for the government. We get all the cool stuff.”
“You awen’t wiff da FBI, aw you Joey?”
He looks at me with the hint of a devious grin on Agent Tim’s extremely white face. I can see it even in the dark. “No comment.”
Tucker stops and sets the wheelbarrow handles down. “OK, guys. Timeout here. We need a better plan. There’s too many rocks and shit in the way. It’s gonna take me two days to push this damn thing through here.”
We stop and look at him, dripping with sweat in the beam of Joey’s flashlight. Edgar says, “You’re a big, tough guy, Tuck. Why not just give Rico a piggyback ride the rest of the way? It can’t be too much farther.”
Tucker huffs for a second with his hands on his hips before shrugging his shoulders and reaching for Little Rico. He’s kicking his Tina legs and clapping his Tina hands and just having the time of his life.
“Alright, big man. Or baby woman. Whatever.” Tucker gets Rico to Tina’s feet, fairly wobbly and unsure of himself. It takes a couple tries, but Rico gets the idea soon enough and we’re back on track shuffling along in the dark of the mine, Rico babbling away on Tucker’s back. Tucker gags a couple times as Rico wraps Tina’s arms around Tuck’s throat pretty tight.
We trudge on for what seems like a long time. I know where we’re going, but it still seems to take forever. And I have to shit again. Another thing about a baby’s biological makeup I discover is that the sphincter muscle is just as underdeveloped as the vocal chords. Jostling along in the dark, Julia stumbling along, shaking me up like a two-liter of Coke. I feel like I’m about to burst all of a sudden.
Julia says, “So, Joe, are you going to let us in on the rest of the plan here, or are we on a need-to-know-basis?” She shifts me from her right arm to her left, flips me over to a front cradle so her arm presses right into my baby belly. The pressure in my baby intestines lets go. Oops.
“The plan,” Joey says patiently, “is that when we get to the other side, we’re meeting up with Tim. He’s to commandeer a vehicle and arrive at the other side of the mine in…” He looks at his watch, illuminated in ghostly green. “About fifteen minutes. If we’re not there yet, he’ll circle around and come back in another fifteen minutes.”
“And this is gonna work? What about you? Won’t the other agents wonder where you are?”
“No, they know where I am.”
Julia stops suddenly and shifts me to her other arm. I can feel warm nastiness squeeze out from the edges of my diaper. I’m just about to mention this to Julia, but she’s not gonna hear me.
“How do they know where you are, Agent Joey?” She does not sound happy. I think I’ll just wait a bit before I drop my little bomb on her.
Agent Joey turns and shines the light at his face so we can see him. “Because, that’s what I told Agent Tim to say.”
Tucker chimes in now, sounding pretty agitated, not to mention short on breath from lugging Rico-Tina on his back. “I think you need to tell us what the fuck is going on, and no more of this Agent Spookman government bullshit.”
Way to tell him, Edgar.
“As I mentioned earlier, we were ordered to return to the command center just outside of town. We were to do this after we secured our sectors. A few minutes after we set out, Agent Tim, on my instruction, reported to command that the four of you were not in your homes and that I, against standing orders, decided to pursue.”
Julia shifts me again, throws me up onto her shoulder with a push against my butt, and I feel the mush squish down my thigh. “Umm, Juwia?”
She doesn’t hear me, though. “You told them that we’re on the run? Are you shitting me?”
I know I certainly am.
“Calm down, ma’am. The containment crews will continue to search while also looking for us. But by the time they get to the mine and figure out where you all have gone, we’ll be on the other side, hopefully driving down the road toward Pittsburgh.”
“I can’t believe this,” she says. “You’ve just made us fugitives from who knows what secret bullshit government agency you work for. And all so you could cover your ass?”
“With me in pursuit, it can work to our advantage. The focus will be on my location, and once Tim reports back, he’ll be able to slip away unnoticed and come back for us, outside the containment area. And I can advise of my position and direct the search teams wherever I want them to go.”
Tucker snaps his fingers and says, “Yeah, I get it now. Send them on a wild goose chase on the other side of the county while we go the opposite direction. That’s pretty damn brilliant if you ask me.”
“A wild goose chase? You mean like maybe going to kidnap a football player because a guy in a baby’s body had a dream about him?”
Joey ignores her comment and says, “And it’s not like you aren’t fugitives. Right?”
Julia huffs and opens her mouth to respond, but she doesn’t. She tries again, but apparently she’s run out of things to argue about, which could be a first for her. Instead she sniffs and says, “What the hell is that smell?”
I wondered when she would finally notice.
* * *
Back to walking, everyone silent. They got a nice little rest while Julia cleaned me up. I felt bad that she had to do that.
Well, actually no. Not really.
Up ahead, I can see light begin to brighten our tunnel. The other end is just ahead. Edgar breaks the silence at that moment with a song.
“I was bo-o-o-o-rn a coal miner’s daughter!”
I’m struck again by how well he can talk, and then remember a question I never got an answer to. “Hey, fuzz baww. You nevew expwained why you can talk so good.”
He stops in mid-lyric and, with what sounds like annoyance in his sheep voice, says, “What’s to explain? I just woke up yesterday and started talking.”
Tucker says, “Just like that? You wake up and there’s no weird transition to get used to bein’ a sheep or nothin’?”
“Didn’t know I was a sheep at first. Tell the truth, I didn’t figure it out for almost a half hour. And by then, I’d already been talking for awhile.”
Julia snorts. “Talking to who? The chickens?”
“Yeah. And the other sheep. Muriel my goat. I tell them good morning every morning.”
“So you just stawted talking? Just wike dat?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m sure you could to.”
“Bewieve me, I’ve twied.”
“You don’t have to try. That’s your problem. Just don’t think about it and do-o-o-o-o-o-o it.”
Tucker says, “Yeah Michael Jordan, just do it.” He gets a big laugh out that, but no one else joins him. And of course, he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s the only one laughing at his own joke.
“Dat’s some gweat advice. Don’t fink about it? How am I not supposed to fink about it?”
“I don’t know, I’m just telling you that’s how I did it. Matter over mind. Don’t think, just do.”
“OK, fanks. Dat’s bwilliant advice.”
“You know what,” Edgar says. “I think you just need to shut up now. Your baby babble is starting to get really annoying and I think you’re just doing it for the attention.”
“You hear-r-r-r-r-r-rd me. You’ve been freaking out for two days now about what a bad break you got here, having your little emotional meltdowns, making it all about you, even though I’m the one who’s stuck in a farm animal, and my real body is off in some government lab with an electrode shoved up my ass – and Tucker, if you make a joke about that, I’m biting you in the dick!”
Tucker’s grinning mouth, hanging open with a wise crack lodged in his throat, slowly closes.
I can’t talk for a minute. My little baby muscles start to shake and I can feel the volcano rise in me. Feels like every frustration from the past day and a half, hell, everything for the past two years, comes rising to the top until I can’t hold it back no more.
“Fuck you, you flea-bitten prick! In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a body anymore! Mine is fucking dead! My wife fucking killed me! If this ever gets switched back the right way, I’m a fucking goner! So stick that up your ass with your electrodes and get out of my fucking face! I’ll be a whiny prick if I want to, because I’m IN A FUCKING BABY’S BODY NOW!”
I’m panting and trembling. And in the intensifying light of the end of the mineshaft, it looks like Edgar is grinning. He nods his sheep head and says, “See, matter over mind. Just like that.”
Son of a bitch. He’s right. I didn’t think about how to talk, I just did it.
Rico breaks the momentary silence and the lingering tension for us by saying, “Fuck!”
And now I’ve taught my baby how to properly cuss like a sailor.
* * *
Joey peers out of the shadows of the mine’s eastern mouth. The coast appears to be clear, but we’re all hanging back, waiting for him to signal us out toward the road. There’s a gravel path that leads from this entrance out to some old county road that only got a number and never a proper name. Somewhere in the distance there’s a helicopter thumping away from us, the Doppler whump slowly fading off. From the mine, you can just make out the road, up the hill and through the trees. Just off to the side, obscured by trees and midday shadows, is a black van.
“There’s our ride, but I don’t see Agent Tim,” says Joey.
Julia says, “Maybe he wised up and decided to remove himself from this cockamamie scheme.”
Joey nods. “I think you’re right.” He looks back at the rest of us and motions with his head to follow. “Let’s get going before another chopper comes around.”
We hustle up the gravel road. For the first time, real fear creeps up my gut like acid reflux. They used rubber bullets on Danny Boy, but at what point does that change to real ones? When you leave the containment area? How big of a priority was this for the government? I mean, you could see how this would be an embarrassment for them, no doubt. Unable to crack some alien technology that looks like it was made out of my mom’s old cooking pots, unable to keep a bunch of body-switched hicks like us contained in their homes. And just imagine if we actually do what we’re planning. What if we successfully kidnap Terry Bradshaw and smuggle him back in?
And just what the hell was he going to do once we get him there?
I shake the thought from my tiny head. No time for that right now. Matter over mind, like Edgar said. Stick with the plan. We’ll figure it out later.
“You feelin’ OK, dude?” Tucker’s watching me from the corner of his eye while Rico pats him on the head. Rico’s babbling, saying, “Fu-fu-fu-fu-fu-fu.” He looks at me with a big, happy grin. “Fuck!”
“Rico, no. Don’t say that. Bad word, buddy, no-no.” I look at Tucker. “I’m alright. Just thinking about what we’re going to do.”
Rico says, “No-no.”
Tucker hitches the Rico/Tina bulk on his back a little higher. “Same here. Kind of wondering what’s supposed to happen as soon as we get Terry Bradshaw back here. He’s a Hall of Famer and all, greatest Steeler to ever live, but he’s not a miracle worker. I mean, aside from the Immaculate Reception.”
I suppose we’re about to find out.
TO BE CONTINUED…