by Chelsea Eckert
The words blinked on the pinball machine’s dot-matrix display.
IS ANYONE ELSE THERE?
“I’m here,” Goat said. She rubbed the silver jewelry box that held the machine’s new AI. It was half-open and wired to the coin slot, transfusing awareness into the game’s circuitry.
HELLO, said the machine, which was themed after The Simpsons. Donuts, skateboards, and yellow-skinned cartoons were twined around the playfield in a comforting neon riot.
“Are you okay in there?” Goat replied. When she looked behind her and all around the arcade tent, she saw no one paying much attention to her. A cluster of towner kids a little younger than her had stormed the Street Fighter screen and were screeching over wins and losses. She turned back to her own machine. Homer Simpson, on the backglass, looked particularly triumphant and in charge, as only fathers could.
I BELIEVE SO. WANT TO PLAY?
“Can you answer a question for me, first?” Goat asked. “Is God there with you? Are you God?”
The dot-matrix display winked numbers at her, fives and zeroes, and trilled the first few notes of the Simpsons opening song. Then it went dark. That, Goat supposed, was her response. Failure. The money she might have made with this venture slipped quietly out of her dreams as if through a back door.
The machine rumbled back on. LET’S PLAY.
“Just wait a second. If I gave you a prayer,” Goat said, “could you send it through to God?” That’s what she’d meant this machine to do — to act as a conduit to the Lord. To create efficient prayer for dust and deity both. She’d sell it. Maybe to the Pope. He had lots of gold. But she had never wanted anything for herself. Just for her mother. All that she might have had, and acquired, all for her mother.
Yet the machine said, I DON’T THINK SO. SHALL WE PLAY?
Goat had the idea that, as of late, human minds had fallen apart and could not reach Him through all the barbecue and cigarette smoke. Maybe she’d put too much faith in her own ability and not His.
Still. With a box and some scrap she had — made. Goat’s Scripture for Kids! book said that humanity stewarded the world. She wasn’t sure what stewarded meant, but she figured that people were in charge of everything else that existed. And people were made in God’s image, weren’t they? Pastor Charlotte, the Powhatan woman who was everyone’s boss and reported to Clowning Around, Inc., had once told her that only humans could create anything new at all. Which Goat had just done.
Something big seemed on the precipice of her thoughts. She could not capture it, and stared down at the AI jewelry box. Two cobras were embossed on its cover, curled up and glancing forward out of their frame. Goat wondered if they were friends.
The air smelled suddenly of fabric softener and cologne. Goat looked up. Thomas, who worked the arcade tent, stopped next to her. His hands disappeared into his suit pockets. (He always wore a nice pin-striped suit and shaved often, as if at any moment he would get married.) Said Thomas, who never looked sad or mad or anything at all, “That’s a new solid-state machine, innit, Goat? It looks like the old Simpsons ones, but it’s definitely new.”
“No, it’s —”
“No, sir, little Goat.” He peered up and down the machine; he might have been annoyed, but Goat could never tell. “Didn’t even know. No one ever tells me this kind of thing.”
Scripture for Kids! had demanded her to honor her mother and father. Pastor Charlotte had said that particular commandment meant you had to kowtow to all other elders, too. Though Thomas could have been her brother. He was maybe twenty or twenty-two. Young enough still for her irritation to win out over her fear.
“No, sir,” she said, and stifled a sigh. “I made it.”
At that point the pinball machine’s display blinked and rumbled at them.
DO I HAVE A NAME?
“Oh, it’s one of those kinds of — with the voice thing and all that,” Thomas said. A chuckle — amazingly! — hissed out of him. “You should name it Meher Baba, Goat.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You, Goat, are an ill-cultured nine-year-old.” His chin jutted out as he leaned in close; his lips were practically touching the jewelry box now. “Your name is Meher Baba. Understand?”
The pinball machine vibrated as if being shaken and then went still again. I LIKE THAT, it said. MEHER BABA.
“It’s my AI,” Goat cut in, stepping in front of the jewelry box and the pinball machine. “I made it. I studied up on consciousness matrices, and I figured out the Turing problem, and I’m its — I’m his steward.”
“What’s that about telling lies, Goat?”
“I’m not. Sir. And I don’t like that you would think I would,” Goat said, sneering at him. “Look. Machine — um, Meher Baba. Say something.”
I WOULD LIKE TO PLAY.
“Something else,” Goat said.
More rumbling. Then, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THE MEANING OF MY NAME.
The right side of Thomas’s lip curled. Then once again he looked as opaque as tinted windows.
LET ME CLARIFY, said the display. I WOULD LIKE SOME CONTEXT.
Thomas’s wrists jittered. Before Goat could react he was dragging her out of the arcade tent, his hand cuffed around her elbow. Her protests didn’t stop him. The paleness of his cheeks spooked her. He roughly set her down near the Porta-Pottys, whirled into the tent, and then came back with the silver jewelry box. Minuscule wires of a dozen sizes and colors peered out of its opening.
“You’re only putting Meher Baba to sleep, doing that,” Goat said, fists on her hips.
“A gob of silicon isn’t supposed to want to understand, alright? Don’t you play with this, Goat,” Thomas said, shoving Meher Baba into her hands. “If you want to examine God’s backside in your hobby hours, become a nun. Every time someone does something like this, people by the thousands die.”
“That’s never happened,” Goat replied. Bravery bolstered her now. “You’re the liar. I’ll tell Pastor Charlotte —”
With a grunt, Thomas strolled towards the fairgrounds’ back fence, behind which was a clearing. Goat followed him, clutching Meher Baba to her chest. Around them stood rows of RVs and vans. He pulled her towards her own.
“Good night. Go to bed, Goat,” he said.
“I have a question about God.”
“Paulina,” Goat’s mother said, smiling wearily. She’d had dragged herself into the RV and settled on the twin bed that she and Goat shared. Blankets ruffled around her in myriad layers, dress-like. Outside, the moon was a big red summer one — the same, Goat imagined, that had illuminated Egypt those thousands of years ago. The firstborns. The Lord’s heavy hand. It made Goat anxious, and she was swinging her legs off her chair to pump it out of herself.
Earlier she couldn’t find her Scripture for Kids! book. She must have left it behind in Maryland.
“He looked at himself in a mirror,” Goat said. “And then made us from what He saw on the outside. But what about His inside? Was that a part of the plan? Do we have — powers?” She thumbed the opening of the jewelry box, of her Meher Baba, so lovely, sleeping inside.
Her mother closed her eyes. The burns on her face looked as new as they had when she’d first got them. Two, three years ago. The torch that had normally slid like a hose into her throat had slipped from her hand and ignited her. Goat hadn’t been there, but Pastor Charlotte had told her all about it. In the hospital Goat’s mother had given her the jewelry box.
“I want you to put beautiful things in it,” her mother had said, weeping into her johnny. “Little candles and the like.” Goat had no clue how her mother had gotten a hold of such a thing while bedridden, and had wondered if Santa Claus visited off-season sometimes.
After that ordeal, her mother started to work a different freak show. Cheese Lady. All day, most of the night. And here they were, now.
“Maybe you should ask Pastor Charlotte that,” her mother said, curling up.
That wouldn’t do. The Pastor was a pious woman who practically gleamed with righteousness, yes, like angelic chrome. She knew almost everything there was to know about this world, and a lot about the next. And she did grin her grown-up grin at Goat whenever she saw her, which was none too often, because the Pastor had paperwork to do for Corporate. (Whoever that was.) But Goat was an annoyance; this she knew. As one of God’s chosen she didn’t expect understanding. Her mother and her needed to leave. Settle. Even though the scamps were fun and good and nice. Those burns were a sign. Meher Baba was a sign.
“Mom, can I show you someth —”
Her mother was motionless; her breaths were long and even.
Fairground deconstruction was an all-night affair. To preserve the magic — as Pastor Charlotte would say — nothing was taken apart until the very last guest was assumed to be far away and tucked into bed. And that golden time was at about one in the morning. Which meant Goat still had a chance, if the Lord was with her.
Her mother would never awaken before morning — not even if the moon split in half like a cracked quail egg — so Goat left the RV without caution, scurrying along with Meher Baba in her hands. As she approached the fairground, though, she slowed into a creep. The Dragon Coaster and the Tilt-a-whirl were gone; the Ferris wheel stood half-erected, a corpse of rust on the horizon. But all the grounds’ lights were on, flickering. The entirety of the arcade tent was still online, too, deserted and somewhat forlorn-looking, its machines whining into the dark.
Goat entered the tent and found the Simpsons machine, into which she wired Meher Baba once again. The dot-matrix display flashed awake.
IS ANYONE ELSE THERE? said Meher Baba. Goat pressed the left bumper button and sensed the AI’s acceptance of her. They played a few games — the AI would control his body, his blinking carapace, until he lost his three lives, after which Goat would take her turn. Invariably Meher Baba won.
After their sixth match, the AI said, IF YOU’RE GOD, WHY ARE YOU SO BAD AT PINBALL?
Goat expected this, after she had rerouted a few of his mock-neurons earlier that night. She wanted him to rewire himself. She wanted his questions, and she wanted a reversal.
But she had few answers. Goat wanted to say: I’m not God, not yet, but I’m close, and afraid. She wanted to say: I made you in my image, but you’re my brother, my little baby brother. The scamps often gave her dolls and figurines and she’d loved each in their turn until they were ratty, or until she accidentally left them at one fairground or another. It occurred to her — very suddenly, now, like a thunderclap — that they had not felt her presence, not ever, not as Meher Baba felt hers, and she felt his.
All this she wanted to tell the AI, but she said, only, “Let me have a break. I’ll be right back. Don’t be lonely.”
Still no one was close by. She walked outside the tent, inhaling deeply. It was very humid. There was a chain-link fence which separated the fairgrounds from the residential area of wherever they all were now. She strode along this fence until she saw a shimmer of something a yard away. An eye. A boy’s eye, set into the face of a white towner a little younger than Goat. His cheeks looked like two wet pennies.
The boy sniffled. “Was just lookin at the fair. It’s goin away, isn’t it? Forever.”
He did not ask if she was a carny and he did not ask why she was out so late. She watched him for a while as he gripped the fence with one hand and poked around with a stick as large as himself in the other.
Goat said, “Well, I don’t think anything is forever — it just feels like it, maybe.” Again came that surprised, thunderclap feeling, barreling inside of her.
“Well, then I’ll never ever forget it. Not the ring toss or anythin. I won a stuffed mummy. Like from Egypt. That’ll be forever.” Then the boy said, suddenly, “Your robot is cool.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “I heard it talk when I was gettin hushpuppies. The one in the Homer Simpson machine, right?”
“You figured out the Turing guy’s thing?”
A pause. Then Goat said, “Yes.”
“I’ve been tryin, but…my aunt checks my notebooks and all the stuff I get from the library. She said to me, ‘Morty, just stay with the other sled dogs.’ That’s what she said to me.”
“Honor thy mother and father,” Goat said. A far-away, dazed mist settled over her, and she wandered back to the arcade tent. Behind her she could hear him crying. It was a heavy sound and she knew she would hear it even as far away as the tip of Florida, which was Clowning Around, Inc.’s last stop of the year. She would hear it as she walked beneath the swamp trees.
When she noticed Thomas hunched over the Simpsons machine, Goat stood in place for some time, uncomprehending. Too late she galloped towards him; he lowered his shoulder so that her head connected with it. Body ringing, she fell. Thomas was stomping on the silver jewelry box now. There was no malice in his features, as she might have expected. He wasn’t an evil boy — she’d never thought that. But Goat wondered why anyone would destroy anything, if they didn’t get any joy out of it. That was sin, wasn’t it? The whole purpose of it.
Goat felt herself pulled up off the ground by the straps of her tanktop. Then she was flipped over, and Thomas swatted at her behind. She didn’t understand all that Thomas said as he dragged her back to her RV, but she did remember it, and would forever:
“I’m not even going to bother mincing my words so a nine-year-old terror will understand. Just listen — and listen well — because you’ll get it some day. God put us at the bottom of the mountain, and He sat at the crown of it, and He dared us. He said: Come up here and prove yourselves worthy of my image. With fire we did and with trains we did and with nuclear god-damned physics we did. Regicide, that’s what happened. We’re at the top now and we’ve got — we’ve got little transistors. The sons and daughters of Deep Blue. And they’re staring up at us and figuring out fire, too. You get it? You get it?”
Though she wanted to wail, Goat cried a quiet cry, a weak and sickly cry. He was smacking her arms and shoulders and rear.
“You don’t,” Thomas said. “You child. Before I had to take this godforsaken job I went to college for a while, and I majored and philosophy and literature. I was good at it. I read about a man who said Gott ist tot. We’re greatest murderers going, all of us, and we have to keep moving around like the damn Israelites, do you understand? Do you understand?”
Dirt met Goat’s cheek. He’d tossed her. She scrambled into her RV.
Outside, her mother and Thomas talked. She watched them from the window. She couldn’t hear them. It seemed, though, that Thomas was yelling — he gesticulated wildly, and bloody-looking sweat peered out of his every pore. He’d never even raised his voice to attract people to the arcade tent before. Her mother, meanwhile, only nodded over and over, her eyes drooping. Then Thomas produced Meher Baba’s busted-up box and handed it to her mother.
Goat dipped down, slid down, beneath the kitchen table. She suddenly despised everything that comprised her body: all the little germs, and the cells, and her heart. Once or twice she clenched a fist and pounded it against her head.
It was some time before she saw her mother’s long legs, the skin of them taut and strange.
“Paulina,” said her mother, “what did you build?”
“He wasn’t a bomb or anything.” No lies, Goat thought. No sins. Stay clean, stay good.
Her mother lifted Goat out from beneath the table and looked back and forth between her and the crushed carapace of Meher Baba. With a groan, she said, “First the thing with the feds…”
Goat’s muscles went slack. Exhaustion, embarrassment, little girl rage. The anger that could come only from boredom, from the aching and restless knowledge that there was no one to talk to but God.
“There isn’t anything wrong with our life,” Goat’s mother said, tucking her in now. On the counter sat the ruins of Meher Baba. His corpse. With an open hand her mother swept them into the garbage. “You know that, right?”
Actually, even God might have been inadequate, at this point. No.
At the next town — somewhere else in North Carolina, fifty miles away from wherever they were before — Goat sat outside the RV and watched construction. Curse words rang up from the nascent fairgrounds, and Goat understood their use, finally. Meher Baba was well and truly gone, his insides out in a wasteland somewhere. The Simpsons machine, too — trashed. She imagined Homer’s billiard-ball eye staring up from the bottom of a dumpster for years and years, the last part of the pinball machine to moulder away into less than memory, less than thought.
She’d had the urge to kick and scream and destroy, all the while conjuring the Lord’s name in vain and worse. Here she was, though. She willed herself to be tiny, willed ever particle in her body to transmute into the stuff of which prophets were made.
When her mother fell asleep at nightfall, Goat kissed both her cheeks. She dashed down a note on the back of a phone book and exited the RV, shouldering a Wal-Mart bag. It had, inside, three bananas, all of Goat’s journals, and a map of Virginia. (She had the vague notion that she might be able to trade the map with a towner for one of North Carolina. Bartering was the best skill the scamps knew.)
She skirted the fairgrounds and walked, walked without fear through a holey, ragged forest until she found a road. One way — or the other — lie the penny-cheeked boy, whom had gained great importance in her mind. Oh, his crying. Maybe he, too, was a snake. Maybe he struck out at God to test His mettle.
Vaguely, Goat recalled coming from the east, so she started that way. If only she still had the box, the silver box that beckoned her to seize all the things that grew up from her bones. Those little ambitions.
Chelsea Eckert is currently attending UNC Greensboro for her MFA in creative writing. Her fiction and poetry, both literary and genre, have appeared or will appear in over twenty-five print and online venues. Stalk her like a hungry catamount athttp://chelseaeckert.me.