Rafaela and the Ambulatory Screen
by Michelle Hanley
Michelle Hanley writes about people who do the best they can with what they are given. She writes modern westerns, fairy tales, and stuff inspired by those odd blurbs on news sites that can’t possibly be true. When she isn’t writing, you can find her on a paddleboard, fly fishing, gardening, or reading. She was awarded Honorable Mentions in YeahWrite Super Challenge #13 and the Writers Weekly Fall 2020 Short Story Contest. Look for her other work in Dread Naught but Time, MOJO, Gingerbread House, Pure in Heart, and eucalyptus & rose.
Michelle Hanley writes about people who do the best they can with what they are given. She writes modern westerns, fairy tales, and stuff inspired by those odd blurbs on news sites that can’t possibly be true. When she isn’t writing, you can find her on a paddleboard, fly fishing, gardening, or reading. She was awarded Honorable Mentions in YeahWrite Super Challenge #13 and the Writers Weekly Fall 2020 Short Story Contest. Look for her other work in Dread Naught but Time, MOJO, Gingerbread House, Pure in Heart, and eucalyptus & rose.The headline explained why the streets swarmed with people.
A passel of cowboys reined in at over at the saloon. Even through the settling fog, I could see the thick layer of grime that coated their dusters. These fellers were unlikely to be up to trap with the latest development in the sensational story that had rocked my town for nigh on a year.
I made tracks for them.
One by one, the cowboys withdrew their spurs from the initiators on the sides of their ponies. The critters went dormant with pops and hisses of steam.
“Shocking butchery!” I called. “Respectable ladies murdered in the dark!”
Coppers were thrust into my hand in exchange for papers. My stash of coins grew even as I simpered, “Much obliged” and “Have yourself a good day, sir.”
Steel glinted at the hip of the oldermost cowboy. My fingers darted towards the six-shooter. The cowboy swiped at me and growled, “You’ve got some sand, girl. Best git now, y’hear?”
I high-tailed it towards the milliner’s shop. A boodle of ladies swarmed in front of its gaslit picture window, comforted by the nearness of other living souls. I must admit it delighted me to hawk my papers with descriptions of blood and butchery. More than one toffer activated her fainting fan in response.
A mother-of-pearl button dangled from a cuff. I plucked it easily; it would have been a real shame if its beauty had been lost between the gaps in the boardwalk.
The ladies shrank from me, twitching their hems away from my grubby boots or forcing me to dodge ruffled and beribboned canary cages when they showed me their backs. Here and there, a reticule gaped. Coins tinkled nicely into my pocket alongside the other fripperies I collected.
It was nearly time for the auto-stage from Dallas. If I hurried, I could beat the other newsies to the station. I filched one last copper before leaving the ammoniac cloud of smelling salts behind.
Footsteps thudded on the packed earth behind me, and I glanced back.
White teeth flashed from a dark face. “Where’re ya headin’, Rafaela?”
I forced myself to saunter. “Just wandering. Lots of folks out buying papers today.”
Moses caught up. “You’re headed to the station, ain’tcha, Rafaela? Bet I beat you there.”
“Won’t matter if you do,” I shot. “I’ll still sell more.”
“Girls shouldn’t be newsies.” His usual refrain.
An air cycle passed. Its frame shuddered every time its rider pushed down on the bellows. I took a shortcut down the alley behind the Metz house, but I didn’t shake Moses. He continued, “Why don’t you get yourself a nice job as a maid somewhere, huh? You might find someone to hire you if you put on a dress and did your hair real nice.”
It was even colder in the shelter of the alley, but that wasn’t what made me shiver. “And be cooped up and bossed around all day? No thank you.”
Something shiny caught my eye. I had to drop to my belly to reach under the fence rail and grab the shiny object that lay beneath a sprawling prickly pear.
“You’re like a mockingbird, you know?” Moses complained when I stood to examine my find.
“Did all your book learnin’ turn you into a bird expert or something?” I turned the dented metal sphere in my hands. A hole showed a bent twirl of copper inside.
Moses leaned close. “What is that?”
“Hopefully something that will fetch a penny or two. A girl’s gotta eat.” I shoved the orb into my satchel and resumed my journey.
A few new buildings had been erected since I’d last taken this shortcut. They shadowed the narrow and already gloomy space. For all that I acted bricky, I was glad of some company. At least, I thought I was until Moses started yapping again.
“You know we’re called newsboys, right? Not newsgirls.”
“Aw, shut your face, Moses. You’re just mad ‘cause I outsell you on the regular.”
“It’s your dimples,” he groused.
“It’s my winning personality,” I countered and showed him those dimples.
Over his shoulder, I saw another flash of copper and shoved past Moses to investigate. His protest meant nothing to me. We were rivals, after all, not allies. I ducked under a rail fence and pushed through scrubby brush until I stood behind the blacksmith’s shop, peering into the open doorway of a room I never knew existed.
Moses crashed to a halt behind me. “What’s that?”
“You couldn’t be quiet for all the money in the world,” I sighed.
The crack of a branch made Moses jump. I gave him another shove and turned towards the noise.
The dark didn’t scare me, no way. But here, in the shelter of clapboard walls, with fog elbowing close and the smith wiping his hands on a rag, the hair on my arms threatened to rise. I couldn’t savey how he’d gotten so close without my noticing.
“What are you children doing back here?”
Moses blanched and started to tremble. “Well, sir. Sorry, sir. We…”
Focusing was hard. The smith’s leather apron bristled with knives and files and gadgets. The goggles that sat atop his head were likely to be studded with bronze. And then there was the matter of the contraption that had first drawn me to this spot.
I pointed into the shed. “We was just out for a stroll, mister, and this contraption caught my eye.”
Copper. It had to be made of actual copper. Nothing else would glow like that. I itched to touch the delicate strands that curved over and around one another. I hearkened to a picture I’d seen of a man wearing an underwater suit. The mesh hung from the ceiling, but even drooping like it was, the thingamajig looked human-shaped. The front hung open, like a ditto suit that hadn’t been buttoned.
“Sure is peculiar looking,” Moses observed, uttering poppycock as usual.
“I never seen something so beautiful in my life,” I breathed. “What is it?”
The smith smiled a toothy grin. “Why, that’s my ambulatory screen.”
“What’s an amatory screen?” Moses asked.
“Amb-u-la-tory,” the smith corrected.
“Yeah, that. What’s it do?” Moses asked.
I cast my eyes back towards the smith. He stood even closer now. The rag he’d been using showed rusty streaks.
“It screens a person from view,” the man explained. “It fits like a suit. You climb inside through that opening there. When you buckle it shut the steam engine fires up and, well, it’s far too complicated to explain to children. But once you’re inside, it forms a shell that makes you invisible.”
“What if someone bumps into you?” I asked.
“You just have to stay away from people.”
I wasn’t buying it. “Show me.”
“I lost a piece last night.” Brown edged the man’s nails and lined his knuckles. “Until I find the lunkenheimer, it won’t work.”
“What’s a lucky hammer?” Moses asked.
“Lunk-en-heim-er,” the smith corrected.
“Like lunkhead,” I muttered. Then, louder, “You build this yourself?”
My response was a slow nod.
“Then why not build a new lunkenheimer?”
“As I said, the concept is too difficult to explain to children.” The smith’s eyes narrowed, just a tad. “But you aren’t like most children, are you?”
The smith reached past me and placed his hand on the door. His sleeve rode up a bit to reveal a rusty smear at his wrist. With a flick of that wrist the door sailed shut. The hairs on my arms stood up all the way.
That was enough. “Come on, Moses. We got papers to sell.” I didn’t look back as we made ourselves scarce.
“Think that thing really hides a person?” Moses whispered as soon as we stepped onto the packed earth of the alley.
“’Course not,” I answered. “He was stretchin’ the blanket. ‘Sides, even if it did, what good would such a thing do a person?”
“A person could do lots of things if no one saw him,” Moses mused.
I fetched up, forgetting myself as I grabbed Moses’ shirt to make him stop too. “Hey, Moses,” I said. “Just what sorts of things would you do if no one could see you?”
A shrug was all the answer I got.
I thought about the ambulatory screen, how the front hung open. How there’d been a round hole just where a button would be on a ditto suit. I reached inside my bag to reassure myself that the orb was still there.
I tried again. “Didja see the man’s hands?”
This time, Moses shook his head. He looked like a live horse did when it tried to shake off a horsefly.
“I think he was wiping blood off his hands when we first saw him.”
Moses gave me a blank stare. The boy had no imagination, but he wasn’t a bad sort. It was the other sort that had the city in a dither.
“What if that contraption really did work, Moses? Just think for a minute.” I held up a paper. “What if that man got into his contraption and went out murdering all these women?”
“That’s awful far-fetched, even for you.”
“That were blood on the smith’s hands. I just know it.”
“You ought ter read a paper sometime instead of all those penny dreadfuls, Rafaela.” Moses took a backward step. “We best get moving. The auto-stage will be here soon.”
We were awful close to where the alley let onto Trinity Avenue. There would be fewer shadows there. I’d welcome the familiar hiss and sputter of steam ponies and air cycles. I wanted to be bumped by men stumbling through the swinging doors of saloons. It was only a few steps away.
I glanced over my shoulder. Why, I couldn’t say. Nothing stirred, least as far as I could see, but those hairs on my arm were staying raised. I shoved my remaining papers into Moses’ hands and told him to go on without me.
“What are you up to, Rafaela?”
I pressed my satchel close. “Remember that orb I found by the cactus? I think it might be the lunkenheimer the smith lost.”
“Aw, give over.”
“Say it is. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
I looked down at the screaming headlines I held. Murder might’ve made it easy to sell papers, but I could find other ways to get along.
“I’ma keep watch on that shed. If he made this, he can make another.”
A pair of men strolled past the entrance to the alley. Their overcoats had seen better days, and I marveled that folks could think men like that could keep them safe. They sure hadn’t so far. I edged back towards the smith’s shed.
“What if he catches you, Rafaela?”
“He won’t.” But the orb seemed to drag at my satchel. If he caught me, the smith would for sure look inside it. I pulled it over my head and shoved it at Moses too. “Soon’s you can, git down ter the river and throw the lunkenheimer in.”
“It’s an awful nice bag to throw away.”
Why a merciful god had forced me into so much contact with such a saphead, I’d never know. “Not the bag, you softy. Just the orb that’s inside. The bag might float.”
Moses nodded. Then nodded again and again in the way he did when an idea finally settled on in. “But what will you do if he just makes a new one?”
“I’m not sure he can.” I remembered the wolfish look the smith gave me when I’d asked the same question. “But I’ll hook other bits directly. If he spends enough time fixing the ambulatory screen, he won’t have time for mischief.”
Moses flashed those white teeth again. “Wait for me, Rafaela. You’ll need a lookout.”
Before I could respond, he’d darted away. I didn’t turn away until after I saw him get nearly mowed down by a teetering unicycle. He’d be no help, what with his constant chatter and general nervousness. But sometimes it weren’t so bad to have a friend to keep company with.