Daisy’s got her fingers stuck in the popcorn machine - 10-min story from "Of Other Times and Spaces"
Daisy’s got her fingers stuck in the popcorn machine
Whatever Daisy saw, she had to poke at.
The car radio packed up two days ago. Her enquiring touches with delicate fingers did something that took me ages to reverse and reset. ’Oh, Daisy, love, what you’ve done with the SatNav is anybody’s guess – even a hard reset isn’t persuading it that we’re actually driving to Terrex, California. It thinks we’re heading for Terrex, South Africa.’
‘I’ve no idea, Daddy. That was yesterday. It’s completely beyond me now.’
I glanced at Janey-Sue beside me, and caught Danny’s eye in the rear-view mirror. We all knew there was no point saying anything more to Daisy. She really didn’t know what she’d done after such unthinking, spontaneous meddlings.
Apart from that, the vacation was going great. It was four weeks fly-drive round the Western States – Arizona, New Mexico, California and three or four other states – Nevada, Colorado… That day, we drove into a railroad and cattle town and it was awesome: all the buildings displayed gigantic murals of cattle herding, vintage cars and pioneer scenes; vast trains, huge portraits of local historical characters. Some were incredibly lifelike. The town was magnificent. We wandered round with ice creams and cameras all afternoon, before finding a small motel for the night.
A mural filled one wall in the bar-restaurant we went to: a scene of the main street a hundred years ago. The large foreground figures were so real. Gerhard, the young bartender, saw our interest and told us about many others around town. ‘There’s a pile of maps on the bar. On Langtry Street there’s a studio where they have a projector that photographs people and projects their images onto a sensitive electronic board. It creates murals like the big ones, featuring you. For you to buy the poster, of course, with any background you fancy. Some of the ones around town were done by the studio, re-projected onto the walls and painted there. Yes, some are images of real people who passed through, as well as local folk.’ He was so enthusiastic about it.
‘You should try it if you like them so much.’
‘Dad?’ Danny came up while I was chatting with Gerhard, ‘Daisy’s got her fingers stuck in the popcorn machine. It’s pouring quarters out instead of popcorn.’
‘Thanks, Danny,’ I said. You have to laugh at what Daisy gets her fingers into. It’s that or cry. ‘Let’s have a look. At least it’s not another parking meter; that one in Sacramento nearly had us arrested.’
I’d only just sorted out the popcorn situation when Danny was back with news of Daisy’s latest encounter with technology. The auto-electric drinks-mixer in the bar had unaccountably conked out. ‘I swear she scarcely looked at it,’ I told Gerhard. ‘Just a couple of buttons to choose the blends that she and Danny wanted. It can’t have gone all that wrong. Can it?’
I had to promise not to let her near the TV in the room, or the coffee machine, or the microwave, or the key pad on the door. I thought I’d better not to mention the air-con when we checked out next morning, and loaded up the rental car.
‘Your car’s totally dead,’ The AAA mechanic said. ‘I need to do an electronic diagnosis. It’ll probably take a couple of hours.’
‘It’ll have been my daughter,’ I told him resignedly. ‘Sometimes Daisy plays with the car keys. It’s a game between her mind and her fingers. There’s a project called Aspero-Savant Research Inc.
They say she’s probably the world’s only female autistic-savant with extraordinary brain and manual dexterity function. They call her ASEEF, but we call her Daisy. They gave up studying her when she reversed their hidden camera system and started watching them.’
‘Hey, I’m on her side,’ the Triple-A guy laughed, holding up an electronic circuit and looking baffled. ‘I never came across a five-year-old, wide-eyed girl in a summer dress who did anything like this. Wow!’
‘Never mind being impressed,’ I told him. ‘See if you’re better than she is, and fix it, huh? We’ll take a walk round town, find some more murals, and the projector studio on Langtry.’
After an hour’s wandering around, gazing in wonder at building-sized portraits, paintings of stagecoaches, combine harvesters and wartime bombers, we found the Langtry Murals Studio with little effort, not far from the motel. And we could still move on before noon. And, yes, it was certainly interesting, looking round all their sepia photos and their vintage clothing to be dressed in. We could choose which of the murals we wanted as our background, and take up a similar pose. Then they would project our faces, or the whole person, onto a composite board, and fit in the chosen background. They could be printed off as a poster of any size up to A1.
Daisy, naturally, was totally fascinated. ‘Awesome,’ she said, before her mouth sagged even wider than her eyes as she studied the projector that would do the business, ‘How gorgeous.’
The old guy, Mr Freska, was amiable and informative about it. ‘For your poster, we can add different clothes, change the background to a wagon or a forest, or any local scenes. With your permission, we sometimes mount them on the walls around town. That way, the townsfolk get a change of scene from time to time.’
It was really weird, posing for a full minute each. Janey-Sue and Danny went first. They looked good, projected onto the screen board at the back, so lifelike up there. Of course, when it was our turn, Daisy wouldn’t sit still with me. She was all fidgety and excited, and wriggled away as the projector started to warm up. I stayed still. ‘It’s no bother,’ Mr Freska said. ‘The little girl can do it on her own when we’ve finished with you.’
It was strange. I felt as if I was being sucked out of myself. On the mounting board behind the projector my face was appearing stronger and stronger, alongside Janey-Sue and Danny.
Half-way through, I felt queasy. Janey-Sue and Danny hadn’t said anything about feeling sick, hadn’t said anything at all, actually. Then I went really queer…
I could see the room from the mounting board as well as the booth. The impression was growing stronger, like the projector was splitting me apart, or doubling me up, as if I was becoming detached from myself. The view from up there on the back wall was clearer than in the photo cubicle. It was sinking in with me: this is just wrong – this doesn’t happen.
Ye Gods! That was it: I was being transmitted to the wall board, some sort of futuristic, alien electronic storage board. I made a huge effort to force my mind back into my proper body in the stall down there, where I’m looking up my this myself here on the wall. The old guy was capturing our spirit, or something like that. If he transferred the electronic image of a person to one of the outside murals, I’d be forever on a wall, endlessly looking out over the main street or a car park. Janey-Sue would be the same. She was somewhere next to me on the wall board; I could feel her presence. Danny, too, as worried as me, was on the verge of crying as he was realising what was happening.
Losing the struggle to stay in the booth, it seemed that I was thinning out in my head, and was looking into the room entirely from the wall now. I was like in a frenzy, could see the operator guy adjusting the settings. Gerhard, the bartender, had arrived, too, looking round, talking to the me in the cubicle. I was answering, looking dazed as I stood up and went to join Danny and Janey-Sue, while Gerhard and the old man looked round for Daisy.
‘Daisy! God no! Noooo. We’ll all be up on the walls forever. All of us.’ I wanted to scream at the other me, ‘You’re going to leave and never know. Gerhard… Mr Freska… Don’t you two know what’s happening to us? Or don’t you care?’
They found Daisy and sat her in the booth. Janey-Sue and the other me tried to calm her down, but she wasn’t liking it. The projector warmed up again, focusing on her. Up on the wall screen, I was screaming at her to run, tell my other self not to let them do it, warn them what they were doing.
Daisy began to appear next to me. I could feel her warmth, her lively mind. She’d hate it up here with nothing to fiddle with for ever. Despairing, I tried to scream and warn them, but I was fading, couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t breathe, or move.
Frantic, I tried to scream, helplessly attempting to claw my way off the wall, but couldn’t move. Just me and my silent battle on the wall screen, ‘No no no Nooooo…’
Then… Is my struggling working? Maybe – I’m not getting worse, anyway. I don’t pray very often, but…
It wasn’t Daisy I could feel next to me any longer; the essence of the form was changing… It was a man. A male persona. Bewildered, same as me. His aura was strengthening. It was Gerhard, bouncy and smiling and friendly last night, even just half an hour ago, but not so happy now. He was rantingly angry, afraid, as well as disoriented.
He was asking, demanding something of a second mind that was forming, swimming around me. Enraged and shrieking inside, the two new persona linked together, Gerhard and Mr Freska. ‘Reversed,’ one said, ‘The field’s inverted. It’s inside-out.’
‘How the hell?’
‘We gotta to get out. We have to stop it.’ They sounded more than fraught.
I was fading again. It was frightening. My world was going black, and their voices getting stronger. They were panicking. So was I. We were all echoing across each other, fading… fading… fading even beyond whispers.
Janey-Sue was crying somewhere. Danny, too. God! I was out my mind, trying to find them, to reach them. Everything was swirling and black and echoing. I could see the projector again, and the screen wall. Two half-formed images were there, not Janey-Sue. Not Danny. They’d disappeared from the display. Where were they? Where? Where?
Desperate, I was sinking to the floor in the projector room. Janey-Sue and Danny were crying and frightened and hugging Daisy. And Daisy was stroking her mum’s hair and smiling and saying how glad she was. She gave me a huge hug as I tried to sit up. ‘I do love you so much, Daddy.’
The projector was still running, and smoking. Gerhard and Mr Freska were nowhere to be seen. We searched the back room and a side store, behind all the stage sets and the booth. Nowhere. But their figures on the wall panel were so clear, so detailed and lifelike, as the smoke from the overheating projector spread more and more densely. With flames flickering, and no sign of extinguishers anywhere, the four of us fled.
We told the police exactly what had happened – that the projector was ablaze when we arrived, and the barman and the old studio guy were determinedly trying to stifle the flames with the dressing-up clothes, and courageously yelling at us to get out.
The police hadn’t found any trace of Mr Freska or Gerhard.
It took longer to fix the car than the AAA guy expected, but that was fine – we were shaken up, so we checked back into the motel for at least one more night, and denied all knowledge of the air-con’s failings.
The police took statements. We went for a much-needed coffee at the Cap O’Chino Irish Bar. A winding-down walk along the river-bank didn’t make my legs feel any less wobbly. The sight of Gerhard and the old man sitting on the buckboard of a covered wagon on the side wall of Mustang Wendy’s Tex-Mex Diner didn’t help our nerves, especially after Danny swore that Mr Freska bared his teeth for a moment.
‘Well, I don’t know, Daddy,’ Daisy told me in the bar, after the cover barman foolishly allowed her to choose some music on the juke box. ‘That projector machine was working the wrong way round so I…’ Her fingers twirled and inter-wriggled for a few seconds. She shrugged, big blue eyes so angelic. Ye Gods! That little face wrapped me round her little finger every time.
‘Oh, yes, Daddy.’ In fresh-faced innocence she gazed up at me. ‘I just remembered what I did at that museum on Saturday afternoon; that super museum with all those great big trains…’
‘Oh, Lord,’ Janey-Sue looked at me. ‘Should we warn them?’
‘Maybe,’ Danny piped up, ‘we shouldn’t go to the Air and Space Museum tomorrow, Dad?’
‘Mmm, I suppose we might be safer in Death Valley.’
‘Daddy! That’s not fair! It’s only an hour since you said I can fiddle with anything I like in future.’