The Key to the Kingdom

 Ken Staley

       They shoved the rod so far up his ass he gagged. Small vacuums, part of a fine mesh that wrapped his entire face, sucked Wardell's tears away.  Forgotten in that explosion of pain was the newness of a full beard and the face mesh that forced his eyes to blink slowly, doll-like, at ten second intervals.  For the first time, he became aware of voices that differed from a routine he'd come to know by heart.

       "That'll teach this miserable son of a bitch," a gruff hand jerked his pants up and tied the sash at his waist. 

       A strong exoskeleton surrounded his body, fenced him in, controlling and manipulating every movement.  The old flintlock pistol he found in his hand was merely an extension of that skeleton.  A heavy coat with a lace dickey draped around him and hid the skeleton.  Wardell caught a brief glimpse of an oversized tri-corner hat just before he was aware of wearing the article. 

       "Gimme a hand here, Jocko," another voice, more distant than the first, cut through his fog shrouded brain.  "We gotta get this sucker set before we attach the pipe."

       Tears rushed from his eyes again as one set of hands grabbed the rod and lifted him in the air.  He wanted to scream, but the mesh covering his face locked his mouth into a silly grin.  With a jarring thud, the pressure in his colon eased and left him with a feeling of full bowels.

       "Alright, test it and let's get moving, we still have three others to switch tonight," the first voice said.

       The tip of the pistol in his hand glowed redly, steam hissed from the end, and Wardell felt the skeleton rock him backwards. Wardell panicked, primal fear of tumbling over backward, out of control, gripped him, but the metal skeleton gripped him tighter and he couldn't resist its pull. The pain screaming in his bowels eased to that dull, full feeling as the skeleton rocked forward again.

       "Looks good, let's go across the pond," the voices were already fading as Wardell tried vainly to move every muscle in his body. Even his bladder and bowels failed to obey his mental orders.

       "Settle down up there," a grunting voice from beneath his calf called softly.  "You best not let them see you squirm."

       "Where the hell am I?"  Wardell screamed as loudly as the silly grin on his face allowed.  His voice came out as a slurred whisper.

       "Damned if I know, but thanks,"  the voice replied.

       "For what?"  Wardell managed to hiss after considerable effort.

       "I'll take a sore back and cramps in my legs any day over that rod up the ass," the voice replied.

       "How long?"  Wardell fought the words out.

       "How long what?  The rod?  Beats me.  Until they need to punish someone else, I guess," the voice replied.

       "Who the hell are you?  Where the hell am I?"  Wardell hissed through his full beard, finally learning what the mesh allowed him to do, which wasn't much.

       "Don' know where we are.  What do you remember last?  I mean, before this?"

       "Panhandling in this parking lot,"  Wardell concentrated, but those events were foggy and indistinct.  "This golf cart pulls up . . . that's it."

       "They call me Petey the Pirate," his new friend said.

       "They call you Petey?  Don't you know who you are?"

       "It's been so long . . . so long,"  Petey replied. 

       "Why am I here?  What have I done?"  Wardell asked himself.

       "Well, you woke up,"  Petey said.

       "What do you mean, 'I woke up.'"  Wardell demanded.

       "Today, this evening, you woke up.  That isn't allowed here. Then you dropped me.  Boy, you really screwed things up.  They had to shut the ride down for almost an hour. Must have been something wrong with your feeding tubes,"  Petey explained.

       "What feeding tubes?"  Wardell asked.

       "The one just under your belt,"  Petey explained.  "You probably can't feel it, with everything else.  Don't worry, the rod will settle in a few days."

       "In a few days?"  Wardell hissed.

       "Sure.  After awhile, you won't even notice it,"  Petey said.  "You'll be too busy worrying about other things."

       "Jesus!  What other things?  What can possibly be worse than having a half an inch of steel rammed up your ass?"  Wardell asked.

       "Well, you'll get sea sick,"  Petey replied, then the drugs kicked in and Wardell felt like he was drifting further and further away.  Petey's voice faded, not like a whisper, but far, far away. "You can always worry about whether I'll drop you.  Believe me, that rod in your ass ain't up as far as it can go."

       He felt sweat flow down his body and disappear in his shoes.  The endless circles his exoskeleton had been running finally came to a slow, grinding stop as light from the fires died.  The fire was fake, artificial.  The circles were not. Wardell gasped for breath, wanting to raise his arms enough to wipe his brow.  He learned.  With each new location, Wardell waited until he was certain that no one could hear him, or see him move, before he explored the limits of his confinement.

      "Who are you?"  Wardell managed to whisper through his new, grinning, lecherous leer.

       "The Redhead is all they call me.  It's all I know," a soft, feminine voice sobbed.

       "You're new?"  Wardell asked as he fought to move his feet.  He knew it was impossible to move at all, but he always tested the system's limitations in each new location, every time he woke up.  With considerable effort, he discovered he could just wiggle his toes in the too tight shoes.

       "I'm afraid of fire,"  Red sobbed.

       "It isn't real,"  Wardell assured her, although he couldn't remember how he knew. 

       "I'm still frightened,"  Red replied.  "And I can't move."

       "You get used to it,"  Wardell answered.  "It all just blurs together after awhile."

       "Blurs does it?"  A louder, harsher, much closer voice demanded.  "You don't know the meaning of the word, pal.  Jocko, we got another live one here.  They need to check the dosage.  This makes three awake just tonight."

       He was drowning.  His lungs ached and his mind screamed for oxygen.  Then he felt fresh air rush against his face.  This skeleton forced him to spit a mouthful of water in the air.  Without being able to change his facial expression at all, Wardell sucked at the clean air.  No sooner was his mouth empty of water than his stomach sank and he found himself immersed again.  And again.  And again. 

       "Fucked up royally, huh?"

       "Petey?"  Wardell whistled.  The electronic mesh forced his cheeks into puffy, balloon-like structures.  He could see Petey now, dressed as a tall pirate brandishing a saber in his direction.

       "You can't fight it,"  Petey admonished without moving his lips.  "You're better just resigning yourself."

       "Jesus,"  Wardell muttered.  He was cold in the gloomy darkness.

       "Quiet, here they come,"  Petey hissed and froze.

       "Wattya think, Jocko, has he had enough?"

       Wardell felt rough hands force his head from one side to the other.  He discovered that, in this tableau, he was lashed to a bench, his hands firmly locked behind him.

       "Don't look too bad.  Looks like he's still out.  Probably good for another week."

       "We may need the spot," the first voice said.  "The pig man looked at two boats today.  Could be he needs some time in the dunking stool."

       The voices faded through the series of tunnels.

       "The pig man?"  Wardell asked.

       "Yeah,"  Petey scoffed.  "You mess up and there's all sorts of places they can put you.  You could be set up like the pig man.  Sitting in mud all day, forced to drink time and again from a cup that never quite reaches your lips.  Have a pig licking your face.  There's worse, though."

       "Like this,"  Wardell tried to nod without success.

       "This ain't bad,"  Petey admonished.  "Look around.  You got company.  You're clean.  It ain't much, but it beats the hell out of some of the other alternatives."

       "And what are they?"  Wardell asked.  Flashes of his past came sharply to him.  Ventura Boulevard.  Sunset and Vine.

       "You keep fightin this, you gonna find out,"  Petey warned.  "Solitude is the first.  You stand in one place, or sit on a rocking chair.  Nobody cares about you anymore.  They don't even check on you to see if you're working or not.  Nothing to do, nothing to see.  Nothing to look at. That's bad enough."

       "What's the second . . .."

       "You don't want to know."  If a voice could shiver, Petey's voice shivered. 

       More memories flooded Wardell.  Churches, missions, hang-overs, parks, street corners.  Perhaps it was the continual dunking that triggered these memories, that sobered him.  Shelters. Detox, several times. Movements and moments of his former life rushed to greet him, its aimlessness, its homelessness.  Panhandling for change in Orange.

      "Who were you before?"  Wardell asked his only friend.  "Before you came here?"

       "I dunno,"  Petey said.  "I don't care.  I used to remember things.  Bad things.  This has been better.  I feel safer here, warmer.  Life is more consistent than before.  I can sleep in comfort and not worry about gettin' mugged.  I get fed.  The scenery changes now and then so it isn't always boring." 

       "Don't you want to leave?  Escape?"  Wardell asked.

       "Jesus, shut up!"  Petey's voice came as close to screaming as his electronic mesh allowed.  "You don' know.  There ain't no escape.  You don' know."

       "Don't know what?"  Wardell demanded.  Petey remained silent.

       His outstretched hand held a saber.  His frock coat, a beautiful scarlet, leaked white lace cuffs at the wrists.  This time he was aware of a voice . . . his voice.

       "Give 'em a broad side!  Pound 'em lads!  Pound 'em."

       The electronic mesh hidden in his full beard forced his mouth to move, forced the voice from his throat as it supplied the words.  Wardell wanted to scream different words, angry words.  He wanted to throw the saber strapped to his wrist at the boats, loaded with people, that passed beneath him at regular intervals.  When he shook his fist, part of his anger was real. This time, instead of dictating his action, the mesh restrained him from doing violence.  His eyes flashed with new fire each time a camera strobe blinded him momentarily.

       "I know where I am!  This is the Magic Kingdom!"  Wardell wanted to scream, but his voice barely leaked passed his full beard.  "I know who I was.  I know what I was.  You have no right!  No right!"

       "You'd better calm down, pal,"  Wardell had come to know Jocko's voice over the course of . . . how long . . . weeks?  Months?  Surely not years.

       "Piss off,"  Wardell managed through the wide grimace that the mesh had frozen on his face when the system shut down for the night.  Jocko was one of the maintenance crew, a mover of bodies.  He was strong, with massive shoulders and a Neanderthal face. A different member came through regularly and touched up Wardell's make-up.  There was a second member who came and brushed clean whatever costume he was wearing at the time.  A third came through and nightly checked the wire mesh that encased him. 

       "Tell you what, I'm a nice guy,"  Jocko chuckled.  "Don' make no never mind to me, see.  But my bosses, they're picky bastards.  Me?  Why I'd leave you here until you rotted in place.  See, I think you look just fine.  But the bosses rode through here today.  They think you look too real, get me?  You gotta look real, sure enough, but not too."

       "Not me,"  Wardell promised.  "Some day I'll be outta here.  Someday I'll dive off of this . . . this ship and catch the next boat that passes.  Then what'll you do?"

       "It's all the same to me, Blackbeard,"  Jocko shrugged.

       "Wardell!"  He demanded, interrupting Jocko before he could continue.

       "What?"  Shock crossed Jocko's stony face.

       "Wardell!  My name!"

       Wardell watched from the corner of his eye as Jocko stepped back and spoke quickly into a microphone hanging from his belt.  Jocko stepped forward, fist cocked, and Wardell was aware of nothing more.

       Riches.  A king's ransom dribbled from what was left of Wardell's hands.  He finally found his comfort; no more mesh; only a minimal metal frame.  The plush bed was dressed with sheets and comfortable blankets.  It was covered with more gold than Wardell had ever imagined. Real gold, purloined gold, the wealth of an industry giant flaunted in full view to an audience deeply immersed in its own imaginary stupor.  Boat after boat floated past the scene as Wardell's fleshless face grinned at the bounty before him. 

     "Oh, mommy!  Look at all that gold! Those jewels!"

       "Impressive, huh?"  Mommy replied with a smile. 

       "Ewww . . . Bones!"

       "Hush dear, they aren't really real.  Just like the gold isn't real."

       "But they look so real."

       "I know, dear, I know.  It's part of the magic of the Park."

       Lilting, horn-pipe music from a chamber further down stream echoed faintly around the bed:

       Yo ho! Yo ho!  A pirate's life for me!

       As the boats slipped past Wardell's final resting place, his chamber echoed with a Wells-ian voice, over and over again:  "Dead men tell no tales."

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