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Children of Mammon

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CHAPTER SIX

Waking up hungover was not the worst way to start a working day. Waking up rum-hungover on the floor of Freddy’s the day after waking up Fireball-hungover in Erik Metzger’s basement in bed with Plushtrap was considerably worse, but still not as bad as it could be. That honor went to waking up rum-hungover on the floor of Freddy’s, etc, and having to do it all on a summer day in Mammon, with all the heat and the stink that went with it. A few hours later, she would know all too well there was still further to fall, but at the time, she thought that was as bad as it got.

Nevertheless, she rolled her aching head out of bed when the animatronics tromped in at six to assume their places on stage. After rinsing out her mouth with a pot of coffee, she got to work. There were a lot of little things she could manage even in her subpar condition, but as soon as her head was on speaking terms with her eyes, hands and stomach, the real work could begin. There were three things at the top of today’s list: First, get up on the roof and see just what taking it down was going to mean, because that had to start tomorrow, ready or not. Second, as soon as the government building opened, she needed to call and see if there was any way to get the dump trailer changed out before Thursday, because if not, she needed to clear out the garage at home to store debris. And third, she had to rent a commercial hauler and make a run to Lowe’s for lumber, roofing materials, and hardware so it was all here and ready to go.

The last task would be the most time-consuming and even it shouldn’t take her much further than noon. That left her a good eight to ten hours open for whatever she was up to doing. Hell, with a little luck all around, she might even be able to start pulling the roof down today.

And she was, as things turned out, although as Ana sat smoking on the loading dock that evening and watching the sun go down through the eye that would open, she found herself thinking that, while they may both get the job done, there are two kinds of luck.

But that was later. For now, the sun was just lifting off the horizon and Ana was full of headache and optimism.

By eleven o’clock, when the animatronics woke up and started singing, she’d done just about everything she could do without doing real work, so she dug her sunglasses out of her day pack, put her safety goggles over them, hauled the ladder out of the gym, and went outside to face the day.

Ah, Mammon. The sun was shining like it had to justify its budget before the Celestial Luminary Committee and the wind was blowing like it had just noticed all the people crawling around on the Earth’s skin and was trying to sweep them off before anyone noticed. The combination of wind, heat, quarry and desert made it feel like she was being sandblasted in an oven that had previously been used to cook garbage.

Ana dragged the ladder with her around to the front of the building, which was the most sheltered from the wind, and leaned it up just to one side of the iconic Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria sign, the one with the giant top hat over the first F on one side and cartoony versions of all four animatronics crowded together over the ‘Pizzeria’ part. The heads had all broken off after all these years, but Chica at least was still waving, and her wooden arm helped hold the ladder in place no matter how hard the wind blew. Up she went, hand over hand, until she was pulling herself over the façade.

She paused there briefly, one foot still on the ladder, painfully straddling the weathered trim, to look at what she had gotten herself into. Typical tar-and-gravel deal. Flashing was gone, no surprise. Gutters and scuppers were full of sand. Serious bubbling and cracking, to the extent that this entire half of the building looked like it had been finished off with a layer of alligator hide, a particularly apt metaphor considering the pockets of dried algae that marked the places pools formed whenever it rained. The worst of these was there over the dining room, in a visible depression that had to be at least fifty feet across. And of course there were holes, although not as many as she feared she’d find, and none of them appeared to have eaten all the way through the mats yet. So she had her work cut out for her, but it wasn’t any worse than she’d anticipated.

Ana touched down cautiously, keeping a firm hold on the rotting façade until she was sure the roof could take her weight. It did, but she didn’t kid herself. This roof was a mine field. Any step could be the one that opened up under her. As soon as she’d inspected the venting systems and knew what to add to the shopping list at Lowe’s…

…hang on, what in the hell was that?

Over on the south side of the building, lying not quite flat and partially buried in drifts of windblown sand, Ana could see something she couldn’t recognize, which made it something that most definitely did not belong on the roof. Whatever it was, it was huge, roughly the size of the table she slept under, if the legs were cut off. Another sign perhaps? But no, one glance at the sign beside her told her there’d be a row of bent or broken struts to show where such a sign had been, even if it had blown over. Maybe the builders had left their surplus materials up here, covered over in black plastic and then forgotten.

“How badly do I want to know?” Ana asked herself, eying the distance between her and it.

Stupid question. She was going to have to deal with it sooner or later, whatever it was. Might as well find out now. The only real question was whether it was safer to walk across the roof to get to it or climb down, move the ladder directly into the worst of the wind with no secondary means of structural support and climb up closer to it.

Tough call.

Ana started walking.

The wind pushed at her every step of the way, so much stronger up here than on the ground. It slapped her face, pulled at her hair and clothes, and scoured at her skin. She could only hunch over and wait it out, so that was what she did. When the wind failed to topple her over the edge, it threw a tantrum, shaking at the boards of the restaurant’s sign before sulking away.

So frustrating. The dark wedge or whatever it was stayed fixed, unmoving even in the worst wind. If it was indeed something wrapped in plastic, that plastic had melted and fused with the stuff beneath. Plausible, but looking at it, Ana really didn’t think so. More and more, she thought she was looking at a structural element, something deliberately constructed, deliberately placed. Not part of the venting system, though. A skylight? Hard to tell if there was glass under that crust of reddish-grey grime, but it could be. However, that only raised more questions. Whatever she was looking at, it was over Pirate Cove, but Pirate Cove had no skylight, no windows of any kind.

Ana ventured closer, but the wind saw her moving and came howling back stronger than ever. This time, she leaned into it and kept going. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but if she waited for the weather to calm down, she’d be waiting forever. Fucking Mammon.

The closer she got and the better she was able to see it, the more baffled Ana became. A flat panel, about eight by four feet, but much thicker, maybe six inches. It was definitely glass she was looking at, black glass beneath a solid crust of grey mountain soil and red desert sand. It rested in a raised bed with rubbery panels all around like the skirt on a Cenobite’s Christmas tree. When Ana finally reached it and found the catch that allowed her to push this heavy curtain aside, she found it protected a mass of cables, coils and springs and supports from Mammon’s abrasive elements.

Ana was at a bad angle to shine a light on the situation, but even without one, she could see enough to know the panel was meant to move. Not much. Its supporting arm was fixed in place, but there was some staining to suggest it could elevate up to six inches at need and obviously, it could tilt on its axis like a see-saw. And suddenly, she knew what she was looking at.

A solar panel.

Not the sort of thing she’d seen up close very often, not even in southern California, and those few she had seen were nothing like this one. If the standard commercial solar panel was a minivan—clunky, utilitarian and not terribly efficient—than this was the Batmobile. Nolan’s Batmobile at that, able not only to deliver a punch, but to take one as well. After all these years exposed to the elements, the glass wasn’t even cracked.

If she washed it off, it might actually still work. It couldn’t power much—it would take a fleet of Batmobiles and Wonder Woman’s invisible jet besides to generate enough juice to run a building the size of this one—but even if all it gave her was one electrical outlet, that was as good as a gift from God Himself on a job like this.

“Useless without an invertor,” Ana reminded herself, and she hadn’t seen one. Probably salvaged off the back end of the building before the first year was out. She doubted she’d be able to find a compatible replacement on the open market, and without that essential piece of equipment, this panel was about as useful as a computer without a monitor. Worse than that, really, because it was also in the way. And unless by some miracle the section of roof they were situated on was sound, she was going to have to move it. And since it weighed a metric fuckton, and she had neither the time nor the equipment to muscle it safely off the roof, she was probably going to end up breaking it down and pitching it over the side.

God, it was like smashing a Faberge egg because you didn’t have room for it on the mantel.

Oh well. Maybe she could—

The wind gusted unexpectedly, actually pushing Ana over right on her ass before she was braced against it. She picked herself up, swearing at the wind, and turned her back on the solar panel, which was interesting and mysterious and most of all distracting. She needed to do what she came up here to do and get the hell off this roof before the ladder blew over.

Step by careful step, Ana made her way to the nearest ventilator. No cheap whirlybirds here, someone had paid top dollar for these babies, and then installed them in a real shitshow of a roof, which made about as much sense as hanging a stained-glass window on a pre-fab shed…or putting tungsten carbide security doors in a pizza parlor.

Ana found the information she needed on the boot of the ventilator, took a picture with her phone and—in what she would later consider a genuinely paranormal episode of precognition—unthinkingly tucked her phone into her boot instead of her pocket. Later, this would be hilarious. Her psychic self apparently thought she could handle all the things who’d ever tried to kill her—countless beatings, the lake her mother had driven her into, scores of bad scenes she’d walked into while working for Rider, that whole mess with Mason Kellar, not to mention fucking Springtrap—but God forbid she lose her phone. She would keep the picture, that of the make and model information for a direct drive upblast roof ventilator, taken at 8:13 in the morning of June 29th, 2015, eventually printing it out and framing it. It hung on the wall for the rest of her life, in commemoration. For now, blissfully ignorant, she straightened up, took a swift count of the ventilators, then headed for the exhaust elements over by the kitchen, giving the dining room area as wide a berth as she could manage. She was almost done. The trick was not to get sloppy, not to rush, to be aware of the wind but not to fear it.

As if it could hear her, the wind came back with a vengeance, flattening her clothes and howling in her ears, but beneath its monstrous voice, Ana still somehow heard the crack. She knew instantly what it was. She looked anyway, just in time to see that iconic sign—FREDDY FAZBEAR’S PIZZERIA, where Fantasy and Fun come to life!—first shake, then splinter and finally explode. Fragments of letters spilled in all directions, insensible as a bowl of alphabet soup. The surviving painted figures of the mascots blew apart, giving her a glimpse of Chica’s bib, Foxy’s eyepatch and Bonnie’s guitar, but it was Freddy’s giant hat, because of course it was, that flipped over and slammed into her.

Her world went black so suddenly, she thought it had killed her. Just struck her dead right there on the roof, and whatever consciousness was left to have that thought at all was just the formless residue of her soul, waiting in the dark for a light to open up and show her where to go next.

Then she hit the roof—arm, back, knee, cheek—tumbling and scraping over its gravely surface as the hat perpetually slapped her along, until it decided it had had enough and wedged itself underneath her. The wind got behind it and suddenly she was one hundred percent airborne, riding Freddy’s fucking hat like a goddamn flying carpet for one heart-stopping second or two or three, before it flipped her over and slammed her down into a big bowl of roof pudding.

Not onto.

Into.

She fell through before she even knew she’d hit it and the hat covered the hole she’d made so she fell in the dark through that spongy, stinking mass into a blocky, unyielding something. She hit it like a hammer; it sounded like a gong. But she only hit it with the back of her head and one shoulder. The rest of her kept falling, dragging the rest of her with it, flipping her over in a blind cartwheel to bang facefirst into another hollow blocky something before she’d finished fully registering the first impact.

It was the last clear sense she had of her fall, although she remained conscious, because Ana’s thoughts divided then into three distinct memory-paths, none of them real.

In the first, she was again twelve years old, standing at the center of a ring of jeering faces as one of them told her she was so ugly, she must have fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. This was the first fight Ana had ever been in, and it had been the first because that was the most baffling and outrageous insult she could stand to take. If they’d made fun of her for being poor, for her ill-fitting clothes or the duct tape holding her split shoes together, that would have been fine. If they’d made fun of her for smelling, because she so often went to school directly from the closet, stinking of sweat and piss, even though she tried to only get it in the jar, that would have been fine too. But she knew she wasn’t ugly and it was the lie that finally broke her, the lie and the idea that she would never be beat up enough to satisfy these kids and the kids that would come after and the whole effing world, that they would also get to lie about her and laugh when they lied. No. Too much. So Ana punched. The kid, startled, punched back and all her friends piled on, but all of them together were no match for Ana’s mother, whose punches had been Ana’s teachers all these years. Ana took them without flinching and gave them back, beating at this screaming, crying tangle of children with her mother’s anger, her mother’s fists. She was the ugly tree, by God. She was every branch on the way down and when they had finished falling and lay all around her on the ground, they were the ugly ones, snotty and bloody and bruised and ugly.

That was the first memory-path. Beside it, no more real and no less vivid, she was nineteen and bogged down on some back road in a spring storm in Colorado, trying to push her car (the last car she would ever own; all the rest would be trucks) out of the mud and onto the pavement again while freezing water sluiced off the mountain around her ankles. Then came a surge of water, mud and rock, spinning the back end of the car around and shoving her right off the edge of the world and down the mountainside. It wasn’t very steep. She did not fall, but slid, now on her knees, now her belly, now her side. The water was all around, not deep, but frothy and foul, choking her as the mountain tumbled her away. She’d broken her leg and three ribs on that slide, but that was not the part she remembered now, only the tumbling, the suffocation, the stink.

In the third and last memory-path, Ana simply fell in the black and hit nothing. This was the Ana knocked dead on the roof by a flying top hat, the Ana who would fall forever because no light would ever come for her. She was in Mammon now, and all children of Mammon are forsaken.

These were Ana’s only thoughts and memories as she fell through the roof until she plopped down into the soft bed of what felt like cotton candy, if cotton candy was itchy instead of sticky and came with spiders and dead sparrows tangled up in it. She had a moment to think she’d landed, and then there was a tired ripping/cracking/crumbling sound and she was falling again, knocking her head one more time on a rafter before she broke through the rotted sheetrock and ceiling tiles, dropped all too briefly through blessedly empty space, and executed a flawless back-flop onto the padded stage in the dining room, narrowly missing Chica and startling the fuzzy hell out of Freddy.

Silence. Not in the dining room—Ana’s open eyes could see the hole in the ceiling opening wider, deeper, all the way up to the brilliant blue sky, and that didn’t happen quietly—but in her head. There was nothing wrong with her ears, she was sure of it, but all she could hear at the moment was her own breath and it was huge, the only thing there was to hear in a world starved of sound. Inhale. Exhale.

At opposite ends of the stage, occupying the periphery of her oddly reduced frame of vision, she could see blobs of pale purple and sunshine yellow—Bonnie and Chica still performing—and although she was still not consciously hearing sounds, she somehow knew the song. Froggy Went a’Courting. It was one of the few songs they all sang together, and she’d always thought it sounded pretty good for a kid’s song, although Freddy’s voice had a tendency to drown out the others.

And here was Freddy now, bending over her, but looking up. His mouth was moving. On some level, she knew she could hear him, but beyond the hoarse rhythm of her breath and a distant ringing tone in the far back of her skull, she could not bring his words into focus. Probably telling her to get off the stage. Rule number whatever. What a jerk.

“Okay, okay,” she mumbled, sitting up. Wet heat poured over her face at once, stinging at her eyes and itching at her cheeks like tears. She wiped it away, frowning at the red streaks left on her hand. Pizza sauce? Impossible. The kitchen had been closed for years.

Somewhere beyond her focus, Bonnie was glitching out. Freddy let go of her shoulder—when had he grabbed it?—and went to him, pivoting to point at Chica, bellowing orders like a drill sergeant. Not panicking. Never panicking. Taking command. A bear in his element. Inspiring.

“I’m okay,” she said reassuringly, since at least some of his shouting seemed to be directed at her. She got up. It took several attempts, but she managed a little bit better with each successive try until she was all the way up on her feet. “I’m fine,” she said and walked off the edge of the stage.

Funny. She’d seen it. She’d even recognized the floor was an easy two feet further down, and still she’d stepped right out into thin air like she thought it was going to hold her up. It didn’t.

Ana pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, frowning at the floor, where chunks of debris skittered and slid over the tiles. “Do you see that?” she started to ask, but only got the first two words out before the other two were squeezed into a single bark by a huge brown arm cinching tight around her waist. She was spun. Her head kept on spinning after the rest of her was thrown down on the stage. Freddy started to climb up beside her, looked back, then grabbed her and yanked her to him, bending low over her, head down, eyes shut, standing still as the rest of the world shook and howled.

Pressed to his chest, Ana could only breathe and stare, disconnected…until the ceiling around the air conditioning system disintegrated and dropped an industrial fan unit directly onto Freddy. He didn’t budge, but his back plate shattered, shards of brown plastic half-flocked in fibracene spinning out into the room. The fan didn’t come through entirely intact either, but the bulk of it slid away and crashed to the floor and suddenly, there was sound again.

A little more than a year ago, when Ana was working at a machine shop in Oklahoma, a standard Midwestern storm had rather rapidly developed some green and grainy overtones and before Ana had known what was happening, her co-workers were running for the supervisor’s office. Ana, as the newest hire, had not yet made it onto anyone’s radar, so she initially went unnoticed and while she waited for the herd to thin, she happened to look out the foreroom window and see a churning cloud of air moving down the street. She didn’t see a funnel; if anything, it was wider where it touched the ground, grazing. It was a picky eater, sampling everything it came across, but spitting most of it out. Only when she saw that did she realize the noise she’d been hearing for some time now was not a train after all.

That sound was this sound: not a train and not a tornado, but the endless roar and crash of pure destruction. She wanted to scream and couldn’t, wanted to struggle and didn’t. The best she could manage was to twitch now and then, shivering in Freddy’s arms and breathing too loud inside her head, when she could breathe at all.

It ended, as all things end. A few more tiles fell, then some clumps of insulation, then one of the light fixtures, getting caught up on its own wiring and swinging into the wall instead of hitting the floor, then one more ceiling tile, and then it was over. The room was full of rancid grey dust, but the wind was still blowing strong through the brand new hole in the roof, and it would clear up pretty quick.

Freddy lifted his head slowly and looked around, the sound of his servos dwarfed by the greater whistling roar of the wind. He muttered to himself in that way he had, without words, patting at Ana’s back in distracted comfort as his gaze leapt from the ceiling to Chica to the floor to Bonnie to the ceiling again.

Ana looked too, and when Freddy finally released her to pick his way out into the middle of the devastation, she followed him, still staring. Not at the sky; she’d seen sky, even if this was a new place to find it. Not in disbelief at the fact that she was still alive; that would come later (and never to the degree it should). She stared, open-mouthed in the toxic dust, and if she thought anything at all in those first minutes, it was that she’d always thought of the basement whenever she heard the phrase ‘bowels of the building,’ but this building wore its bowels on its head.

The mysteriously oversized air ducts she had noted in the past were just the tip of the iceberg, and like all icebergs, the biggest part was the part you couldn’t see. The space between the relatively low ceiling of the dining room and the high roof wasn’t empty after all. Filling it were air ducts, entirely separate from those of the HVAC system, most of which presently lay around her on the floor. No, this was something else and had always been something else. It was a maze, considerably more convoluted than the one down in Foxy’s Treasure Cave; a multi-story nightmare of twisting metal ducts, coiling over and under and around on itself, and as ominous as that was on its own merit, it was the senselessness that Ana found most overwhelming.

What was it? What was it supposed to do? Even if it was a part of…of Mike Schmidt’s Trap-nonsense, what was it? The vents in the Toybox had similar features, but she had understood their purpose, nauseating as it was. They had been made to spy on the unsuspecting guests. These…? There were only four vents Ana could think of, and of those, only the one in the gym had been anything like accessible, having been situated at the very top of the rock-climbing wall before Ana took it down. If these vents were meant for the animatronics to move around in, how the hell were they supposed to get in? The idea of Freddy chinning up to the vent in the party room or Kiddie Cove was ludicrous, and there was a desk in front of the one in the security room that would probably collapse if Freddy sneezed on it much less climbed on it.

It made no sense, so Ana stared, determined to keep taking it apart in her mind, piece by piece, until she found the thing that made it make sense. She stared, oblivious to the blood trickling down her cheeks to drip from her chin, unaware that she was very slightly trembling, as if in the cold. She was aware of nothing, in fact, nothing but the bowels of the building looming between her and the sky, right up until Freddy reached out his paw and touched her.

She jumped, spun and punched him, folding over almost immediately with a hissing inhale to cradle her now-throbbing hand.

“ARE. YOU. ALL. RIGHT,” Freddy asked, adjusting his muzzle, which she’d knocked askew, but not off.

She nodded, still bent, still hissing.

“YOU. WEREN’T. ANSWERING. ME.”

She squinted at him as she flexed her fingers. Nothing appeared to be broken. She was fine. “Were you talking?”

He nodded and said something else that Ana couldn’t quite home in on. The dust was settling, frosting his fur.

“That’s a good look for you,” said Ana seriously. “I like the grey around the muzzle. It’s distinguished.”

He nodded again, frowning, then put his hand on her shoulder, and even though she was looking right at him when he did it, she still startled and punched him again.

“I. THINK. YOU. NEED. TO. SIT. DOWN,” said Freddy as Ana stumbled back, shaking and cradling her hand.

“Yeah. Yeah, I will. In a minute. I need to clean this up first.”

“AN-N-A. SIT. DOWN.”

“Uh huh. Yeah. In a minute. I have to…I can’t…” She bent, picked up a chunk of curved brown plastic and held it, looking up at the air ducts twisting overhead. She laughed, high and broken as tears. “How much of this is real?”

“OKAY,” said Freddy, taking her arm. After she punched him, he turned to the stage. “BONNIE. WAKE UP. TAKE. CARE. OF. HER,” he ordered as Bonnie shuddered and lurched to life, stumbling forward to sweep Ana into his arms before he’d even stopped twitching. “I. HAVE. TO. SEE. FOXY.”

“Bye,” said Ana since he was walking away and it seemed like the right thing to say. After a while, she noticed Bonnie was still hugging her. “Will you help me clean up? I wouldn’t ask, but some of it is heavy and I’ve still got to go to the store.”

“SURE,” said Bonnie. He sat down on the edge of the stage and pulled her onto his lap. “BUT FIRST, LET’S SING A SONG!”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay.”

So he sang, holding her, rocking her a little, like she was just a kid. Ana listened, although she would never be able to recall for certain just what song it had been. She was fine and she still had a lot to do, but she was just going to take a minute to get her head together before she got back at it. Three minutes. Five, tops. In the meantime, there was Bonnie. It’s a bad, bad world, he told her and it was. It’s a bad, bad world, but he was right there with her. He held her and he sang.

* * *

But as the old joke went, apart from that, it was a pretty quiet day.

She lost a good portion of the morning to the not-thought of shock, but she didn’t think she passed out at any point. She could not recall just when it was that Bonnie set her aside and returned to his routine onstage, or even how many times he might have done it, but there was never a time when she wasn’t aware of him, so she must have been conscious all the while. Eventually, she was even able to understand that she might have a concussion and once she’d done that, she felt more or less obligated to take care of herself.

The next time Bonnie had to start a new show, she got up, took a bottle of water and went out to her truck. She took the first aid kit out from under the seat and angled the side-view mirror so she could see the face she was washing.

Well, she wouldn’t be winning any beauty pageants, but it could have been a lot worse. Good thing she’d hit her head first. It had made her go limp, which was the best way to get through a bad fall. Oh, she was colorful, all right. The bruises were still in that early pinkish purple stage, but by tomorrow, they’d fill in nicely. Already, she had a lump on her head so big that even her hair couldn’t hide it, as well as numerous ugly scrapes, a split lip and a puffy eye that would swell all the way shut by the end of the day, but her pupils were the same size and her scalp wasn’t hanging off anywhere, so she was fine.

Ana unbraided her hair, rinsed the blood out and finger-combed it forward to hide the worst of the damage, and called it good enough for now.

When she went back inside, she collected another bottle of water from her dwindling supply and grimly drank it over the sink, taking small steady sips until she was sure it wasn’t going to come spewing back out of her. Since she was on her feet, she also figured she might as well start cleaning up while she waited to feel either better or worse.

On her return to the dining room, she noticed Freddy sitting on the edge of the stage while Bonnie and Chica did the backup vocals for the song he wasn’t singing. He wasn’t glitching out or frozen, just sitting there, slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at the ceiling where it lay in pieces on the floor. In that position and from this angle, the dark knobs of his metal spine were visible within the cavity of his broken back. Seeing that, Ana tried to remember if she’d seen Freddy walk since ‘catching’ the overhead fan and couldn’t. Of course, she couldn’t remember much of anything. For all she knew, Freddy had been sitting next to her for two hours or turning cartwheels right in front of her.

“You okay?” she asked.

He grunted, which probably meant he was fine, but it was hard to get a bead on him.

Ana cast around for a likely excuse to see him up and on his feet, and finally pointed at the fan. “Can you give me a…help me move that?”

Freddy glanced it, then looked at her through heavily-lidded eyes. “WHY?”

“What do you mean, why?” Ana indicated the debris with a vague wave. “I’ve got work to do, don’t I? And hey, silver lining! I got a great head-start on pulling down the roof.”

“THAT’S. NOT. FUNNY.”

“It is a little. Look, someone could get hurt tripping on this mess. You need Chica to sing the Safety First song or what?”

Freddy stared at her for a moment, but heaved himself up with no more trouble than usual. “WHERE?” he asked, picking it up, also without effort.

Ana started to point at the wall, then changed her mind. She didn’t have anywhere to put this junk yet, but that was the easiest of all the day’s troubles to overcome and when she got around to it, she really didn’t want to have to move that heavy bastard any further than she had to. “Loading dock too far for you?” she asked.

Freddy didn’t answer, but he did carry the thing outside for her. While he was up, he must have decided to go on one of his wanders through the building, because he was gone a long time. When Ana went looking for him, she found the fan in the bed of her truck and the loading dock door shut and jammed with the table leg again.

Well, he was around somewhere and clearly, he was walking just fine, so Ana got to work. It didn’t take long to clear the dining room, although she wasn’t cleaning as much as pushing the mess to one side. And it really wasn’t that bad. The roof had not completely collapsed after all, it was just here in the dining room, and it wasn’t even the whole dining room. Her table was a bit dusty, but otherwise unscathed. Even Swampy had come through without a scratch, or at least, without any new scratches. And of course, she made sure to collect the pieces of Freddy’s back as she found them in the rubble, since fixing him up made a nice apology for all the punching she’d done, as well as a thank-you for not punching back. Maybe that would put him in a better mood.

At some point while Ana worked, Freddy reappeared. She never heard him come in, she just carried some light fixtures out to the truck, came back and found him sitting on the stage once more. “Everything okay?” she asked, wading back onto the battlefield for more casualties.

Grunt.

“It didn’t fall in anywhere else, did it?”

He shook his head.

“Good.” Ana picked up a few clumps of insulation, then a few more, and then went ahead and said it: “I’m sensing some hostility, big bear.”

“STOP. CALLING. ME. THAT.”

“Sorry. Freddy. Look, if you’re waiting for an apology, then I’m sorry you got banged up and that I interrupted the show or whatever.”

“OR. WHATEVER,” he echoed, his eyes narrowing as he stared at the floor.

“I can appreciate that you saved my life and all that. And if you’re upset because I got hurt, well, you know, shit happens, but the world does not stop turning just because I get some bumps and bruises. The Fourth is right around the corner and I have got to stay on schedule. This may not have been how I intended to get started, but this was essentially the plan all along.”

“WAS. IT.”

“I can’t put the new roof up until the old one’s gone, right?”

“THEN. I’M. GLAD. EVERY. THING. IS. GOING. SO. WELL. FOR. YOU.”

She looked at him.

He stared straight ahead.

“Okay,” she said, beginning to get a little annoyed herself. “You want to be pissed, be pissed. I don’t care.”

“THANK. YOU. FOR. YOUR. KIND. PERMISSION.”

“You want to let me fix your back or would you rather sit there and sulk?”

“I. CAN. DO. BOTH. CAN’T. I.”

Ana went to the quiet room for the materials she had left over after reconstructing Bonnie’s face. When she returned with her toolbox, Freddy got up with a sigh of resignation.

“I’m not ready for you yet,” she said.

He sat back down and resumed staring at nothing.

“Although it shouldn’t be too long,” she told him, laying everything out. “I might need some more shellac, but I can pick it at the hardware store when I go to town later. Your fur is really going to fuck up the glue, though, so I’d like to take it off. What do you say?”

“YOU’RE. NOT. GOING. ANY. WHERE. TONIGHT.”

Ana looked up from the jigsaw puzzle that was his back, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth and a frown pinching at her eyebrows. “Um, what else do you say? Because I was going for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ thing.”

He just looked at her.

“Yeah, I am. I’m going to the store. There’s stuff I need. Water. Gas for the generator. Maybe some dinner. What is the big deal?”

“YOU’RE. HURT.” His eyelids took on that old familiar slant. “ISN’T. THAT. DEAL. BIG. ENOUGH.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, I’m fine.”

“YOU’RE. FINE,” echoed Freddy. He was not agreeing. “HAVE. YOU. SEEN. YOURSELF. YOU. CAN’T. EVEN. OPEN. BOTH. EYES.”

“It looks worse than it is, I swear,” said Ana, putting on her thick rubber gloves and opening the solvent. “Head wounds just bleed a lot. If I was seriously hurt, I’d know it by all the death I’d be experiencing.”

He didn’t answer, although his eyelids took on a steeper angle.

“Don’t get me wrong, I fully realize how bad that could have gone, but it didn’t and I’m not going to get hung up on a bunch of could-haves. So…about your back?”

Grunt.

“Look, I’m sorry to keep pestering you, but I really need an answer. Once I do this,” she said, pointing at the solvent, “I can’t undo it. It’s going to look silly and I know how you feel about that, so I need to hear you say you understand what I’m saying and it’s okay.”

Freddy rubbed a hand over his muzzle, muttering unintelligibly into his palm. He took off his hat, picked off a few specks of grit and put it back on. “I. UNDERSTAND. WHAT. YOU’RE. SAYING.”

She waited and finally said, “It’s not okay, is it?”

Freddy shook his head, but said, “THERE. ARE. WORSE. THINGS. THAN. LOOKING. SILLY.” He gestured toward her without looking at her. “DO. WHAT. YOU. HAVE. TO. DO.”

Ana dipped her gloved fingers in the solvent and rubbed it on the largest piece of plastic, trying to pretend the moment was not awkward. “If you want, I could strip the flocking off all of you.”

“NO.”

“It wouldn’t take that long, and frankly, you’d probably look better even without fur as long as it was all over. No offense, but you look kind of scruffy.”

His eyes shifted to her, hard. “LOOK. WHO. IS. TALKING.”

“Hey, this is not a story about me. Besides,” she added lightly, tossing a grin at the stage, “Bonnie still loves me, no matter how banged up I get.”

“WELL. THAT’S. ALL. THAT. MATTERS. ISN’T. IT.”

Ana started the de-flocking process. It went fast, as it had with Bonnie’s face, the fibracene melting away as soon as the solvent touched it. Even the thickest patches of fur were reduced to gummy clumps of brown glop in seconds. It was tedious work, but not difficult. The worst part was Freddy’s silence.

While the pieces of his back dried, she got the push-broom and made good use of her time. Freddy lifted his feet for her when she swept in front of him; otherwise, he did not move. When she was done, she returned to Freddy’s broken back and started piecing it together, using aluminum tape for added support. This was the only real tricky part of the job, but she didn’t have moving parts to worry about this time and her attention had a way of wandering.

“Can I ask you something?” she said at last.

Freddy grunted.

“What is that?”

Freddy did not immediately answer, but he must have realized that silence was more damning than anything he could say, so he said, “THE. SKY.”

“I mean that,” she said, pointing at the knotted maze of air ducts.

He didn’t look up, just said, “I DON’T KNOW.”

“It’s not part of the HVAC system. It’s not part of anything. I’ve been putting buildings up and taking them down over half my life and I’ve never seen anything remotely like that, so what is it?”

“I DON’T KNOW.

“Why is it so big?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

“What’s it made out of?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

“It looks like the same stuff the support columns are made of. What is that? Is that tungsten carbide?”

“I DON’T KNOW,” said Freddy, but he squinted up at the ducts. “MAYBE.”

“What could you possibly be moving that needs tungsten carbide ducts to carry it? And why would you be moving it through that…that crazy-straw maze?”

“I’M. NOT. MOVING. ANYTHING.”

“I didn’t mean you personally. I meant…” She wasn’t sure what she meant, though, so she switched tracks. “I want to take it down.”

Freddy just looked at her, his expression unchanged.

“Can I take it down?”

“WHY. ARE. YOU. ASKING. ME.”

“It’s your name on the building, isn’t it?”

Freddy grunted and glanced toward the lobby. “NOT. ANY. MORE.”

“Oh, stop pouting. So your stupid sign fell apart. So what? How many hundreds of times have I had to listen to you tell some kid it’s not what’s on the outside, but the inside that matters?”

“THE. INSIDE.” He looked at her as the tinkling notes of the Toreador March began to play somewhere inside him, then suddenly got up, went to the side of the stage and punched the wall. He grabbed a handful of wall-guts and pulled them out, flinging them across the floor between them—moldy insulation, sheetrock and tiles, dead mice and shriveled spiders. “THIS. INSIDE,” he asked, pivoting around to glare at her. “OR. THIS. ONE.” He yanked his arm casing open, dug his fingers into his magic act compartment and hurled wads of padding, stained scarves, playing cards and arcade tokens down around his feet. “HOW. IS. THIS. BETTER.” he demanded, all happy tone and furious eyes. “DON’T. TELL. ME. WHAT. MATTERS. AN-N-A. YOU. HAVE. NO. IDEA. WHAT. IS. ON. THE. INSIDE. HERE.”

Slapping his arm shut, Freddy returned to his place in the middle of the stage and sat again. The music he played began to slow and lower in volume until he finally shut it off. Behind him, Bonnie and Chica concluded the knock-knock portion of their act and launched into a medley of songs; Bonnie was off-rhythm, stuttering.

“Go on,” said Ana.

Freddy grunted a wordless warning.

“No, I mean it,” she said. “Get it all out. Tell me this is my fault.”

He glanced at her with a perfect lack of expression, but looked away and grumbled, “IT’S. NOT. YOUR. FALL.”

“Sure it is. The roof was fine before I showed up, right? I made this whole mess happen. Say it. I know you’re thinking it. Just say it. You’ll feel better. Come on. You think I fell through the fucking roof on purpose?”

“THAT. WOULD. BE. GIVING. YOU. FAR. TOO. MUCH. CREDIT CARDS NOT ACCEPTED-D-D—” He shut his speaker up with a slap to the throat. “I. DON’T. THINK. YOU. WERE. THINKING. AT. ALL.”

“It was a gust of wind and a rotted roof! I was not being stupid up there!”

OF. COURSE. YOU. WERE,” he bellowed, suddenly blasting the Toreador March at a volume hard enough that it made his speaker, her ears and the whole world hum. “YOU. DON’T. CARE. IF. YOU. GET. HURT. YOU. DON’T. CARE. IF. YOU. GET. K-K-KILLED. AND. IF. YOU. DON’T. EVEN. CARE. ABOUT. YOU. WHY. THE. HELLO! SHOULD. YOU. CARE. ABOUT. US.” He leapt up again, stomping toward her and slamming one fist on his chest hard enough to crack it, roaring, “THIS. IS. MY. HOME. BEAVER DAM. YOU. THIS. IS. MY. FAMILY. I. AM. TRUSTING. YOU. WITH. OUR. LIVES. AND. YOU. ACT. LIKE. IT’S. ONE. BIG. JOKE.”

Heat fanned up her cheeks. Ana yanked off her gloves and slapped them down. “A month ago, you didn’t even want to believe there was a problem here, so let’s talk about who’s playing with people’s lives.”

He backed up a step, staring at her, his entire body heaving with the force of the air in his cooling system.

“You want to get mad at me, get mad at me, but don’t expect me to run screaming into the goddamn desert just because I took a fall. I don’t get scared, bear. I get up and get back to work.”

Freddy huffed out a ‘breath’ through his joints, but after another long minute staring into space, he looked back at her. “I’M. NOT. MAD. AT. YOU.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“MY. HOUSE. OF. CARDS. FELL. DOWN,” he said. “YES. I. KNEW. IT. WAS. GOING. TO.” Click click click. “HAPPY. AND. NO. IT’S. NOT. YOUR.” Click click. “FALL. BUT. THIS. IS. STILL. MY. HOME. IT’S. ALL. I. HAVE. NOW. AND. I. CANT. DO. ANYTHING. BUT. WATCH. IT. FALL. DOWN.”

“And watch me shrug it off?” she guessed. “I’m taking this seriously, Freddy. I just don’t see the point in freaking out over something that’s already over. It is what it is. I can’t panic the roof back into place.”

“I. KNOW,” he said and sighed, returning to the stage. He sat, elbows on knees and ears low on their pins, looking hopelessly at nothing.

“I’ll fix it,” she said. “You know I will.”

He shook his head, letting his gaze wander up and around and finally down at the floor. “I. KNOW,” he said, followed by a long pause without clicking before he finished, “AND. THAT. SCARES. ME. TOO.”

Ana nodded, thinking first of Mike Schmidt, who’d wanted her to believe this was the monster around whom she would never be safe, and then of the unseen programmer who may or may not have been Viktor Metzger, another monster, whose groundbreaking adaptive program had become so corrupted by neglect over the years that his animatronic could not only adopt the feeling of fear but also be embarrassed to admit it. But as these thoughts washed out, she was left with the picture of Freddy slumped on the edge of the stage in the ruins of the only home he had ever known, and right or wrong, she felt for him.

“It’ll be okay, Freddy,” she told him. “Sometimes the worst endings really are the best beginnings.”

He rubbed his muzzle, grumbling into his palm, then said, “AN-N-A. IT’S. BAD. ENOUGH. THAT. I. HAVE. TO. SAY. THAT. STUFF. I. DON’T. NEED. TO. LISTEN. TO. IT. TOO.”

“No, I actually mean that. True story…and I was just thinking about this…but last year, I was in a tornado. Well, not in it,” she amended as Freddy looked at her, “but across the street from it, and believe me, that was plenty close enough. Anyway, the tornado started pretty much at one end of town and went all the way through to the other, but it was a small town, so that’s still not saying much. A couple people got hurt, but no one got killed, and while there was a lot of damage, only a few places got absolutely wrecked. One of them was the trailer park where I was staying. Naturally, right? And even that was weird, because at least half the trailers were just fine and most of the others just got pushed over, but mine was one of those that just…disintegrated. No other word for it. I think I saw one of my blankets stuck on a tree a few miles out of town, but everything else was gone. And of all the businesses in town, the machine shop where I was working was one of only, like, six that closed up for good. The tornado didn’t hit it,” she added since Freddy had frowned. “But the thing is, the parking lot at the shop was super small, so just the boss and his buds used it. The rest of us had to park in the empty lot across the street and when the tornado strolled on by, it picked up a truck and hurled it into the second floor, which was kind of run down and unsafe, so no one used it, but which was also not structurally prepared to have a truck plow through it, so the second floor kind of fell onto the first floor. He was insured, but not enough to clean everything up, rebuild and reopen, so he took the money and retired. Whatever, the funny part of this story is that of the six vehicles parked in that empty lot, five of them went flying. I was there. I watched it happen. One car went into a tree, one went scraping off down the street another quarter mile, two went into the empty building behind the lot and the truck went, like I say, into the floor above me, but not my truck. My truck, parked smack-damn in the middle of the other five vehicles, my truck was just fine.”

Freddy’s head cocked. “YOU. WERE. IN. THE. BUILDING. WHEN. IT. FELL. DOWN.”

“Yeah, but that’s not the point. The point is, if any one of those three things were different, my whole life would be changed. If I still had a place to live, I could have just found another job. God knows there would have been plenty of clean-up work to go around. If I still had the job, I could have camped in my truck long enough to find another place to live. And if I’d lost my truck on top of everything else, I couldn’t have gone anywhere. But I lost my trailer, I lost my job and I had my truck, so I climbed in and went back to Rider. And he put me to work and helped me on the rental that started the paper trail that allowed the debt guys in Salt Lake to finally track me down, so here I am. See how it works? It’s not like dominos, falling down one by one by one. I could deal with that. Anyone could. It had to be the house of cards, falling down all together, all at once. That’s life and it sucks, but we can’t build it back up until it all comes down.”

Freddy had stared at her without expression throughout this speech and he continued to do so for a little while, but then, slowly, he nodded.

“If you can stand one more drop of happy horseshit out of me, someone said something once…I don’t remember who, but…I’ve always remembered the words and that’s saying something for me, because my memory is for shit, but sometimes, when you’ve got nothing else, the right words make all the difference, you know?”

Freddy studied her as the wind scattered elements of his magic act to the four corners of the ruined room. “LET’S HEAR IT,” he said at last.

“Everything will be okay in the end.”

One of Freddy’s eyebrows scraped upwards. “THAT’S IT?”

“And if it’s not okay,” said Ana softly, “it’s not the end.”

“YOU. BELIEVE. THAT,” Freddy said, his choppy way of speaking making it unclear whether that was a statement or a question.

“That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen and perseverance or prayer or whatever you believe in, that doesn’t always get you through it. People die every day in horrible, horrible ways, but after that…” Ana shrugged. “Regardless of what you believe about, you know, heaven and hell or whatever, I still think the dying is the worst part and it doesn’t last. So yeah, I have to believe everyone’s okay in the end.”

He looked at her for a while longer, then shook his head. “I’LL. HAVE. TO. THINK. ABOUT. THAT,” he said, heaving himself onto his feet. “IN. THE. MEAN. TIME. ARE YOU READY FOR FREDDY?”

“Yeah, I’m good to go,” said Ana, taking out her precision drill and a handful of mounting brackets. “Come on over, big bear.”

“I. KEEP. TELLING. YOU. NOT. TO. CALL. ME. THAT.”

“Sorry, I get flippant when I’m nervous.”

“DO. I. STILL. MAKE. YOU. NERVOUS,” he asked, lurching to a stop in front of her.

“Oh please. Like you’re not trying. I want you to stand right here.” She spread her thighs and pointed at the floor between them. “Face the stage and find your happy place. And suspend Rule Number Six for a bit,” she warned. “I’ll try not to touch you any more than I absolutely have to if you’ll try not to backhand me into orbit when I do, deal?”

He grunted in the affirmative and turned around, exposing the dark metal knobs of his spine, the curved cage of his ribs, the dull blade of one scapula. Shreds of padding hung like zombie meat from his sides and shoulders, flapping with each wheeze from his cooling fan. There was a surprising amount of empty space in there, much more than Bonnie had, although nothing appeared to be missing. In the shadowed cavity of his chest, she could just make out the dimmest suggestion of movement as all his mechanical organs worked together…and something else. Something that shouldn’t be there.

Ana reached in through his bones, under his battery case and pushed the rubbery sack that was his empty stomach aside to let the light shine on a small trove of odd treasures he had buried inside him. There, the hollow of his pelvis and a little loose padding made a lopsided bowl and either he or the world’s cleanest packrat had filled it with a motley assortment of small toys and cheap plastic jewelry. Tucked away with it, folded into a flat square and secured with a rainbow barrette, was a familiar sheet of paper.

She took it out, but it made a crackling sound as she unclipped and unfolded it, and Freddy heard. His head swiveled around like an owl’s, then he pivoted at the waist and snatched the paper out of her hand before she caught more than a glimpse of the picture colored in crayons on the protected side.

“THAT’S. MINE,” he said, opening his abdomen and putting it away again. “DON’T. TOUCH. IT.”

“Sorry. I just…thought it looked like something I left here.”

“IT’S. MINE,” Freddy said again.

“Okay, okay. It’s yours,” said Ana, because even if it was the same poster she’d taken off the wall down in her aunt’s secret basement playroom, she really didn’t want it back. “Turn around.”

He turned his torso, but left his head backwards on his body, glaring at her.

Pretending not to notice, Ana found a good anchoring place on what was left of his back casing and mounted the first rod. From there, she built outward, bridging the gap and anchoring the resulting framework on his other side. It was a bigger hole than Bonnie’s broken face, but it was just one piece, fairly flat and without moving parts to contend with, and it all came together smoothly.

Since the build wasn’t requiring much of her, Ana figured she might as well kill two tedious birds with one chunk of her time. As soon as she was done with the solder and had the temporary use of both hands, she brought out her phone, found the sanitation services number in her contact list, and put a call through.

“Please hold,” said the man’s voice immediately upon picking up, and then Ana was listening to a tinny flute and distorted guitar fumbling together like two drunks in an alley trying to decide whether to fight or fuck.

“Typical,” said Ana with a sigh, putting the phone on speaker and setting it beside her. She picked up the reassembled chunk of plastic that was Freddy’s back and fit it into the jagged hole where it belonged. “Can you hold this for a sec?”

Freddy, his head still on backwards, now brought his arms around to an angle that made Ana’s own shoulders ache in sympathy and held the piece in place.

“Okay, now turn around and brace yourself, because we’re about to get snuggly.”

Freddy’s body turned while his head remained still, coming back into natural alignment in the most unnatural way possible. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” he asked, eyes narrowed with suspicion.

Ana scooted right up close and wrapped her legs around his hips. She couldn’t cross her ankles behind him, but she got as close to it as she could, thumping her heels down close to his hands and cinching her muscles taut. In this position, she could not help but feel his suppressed shivers, and it was only going to get worse.

“THIS. IS. NOT. FUNNY,” said Freddy, glaring.

“I’m not trying to be funny,” she replied. “That’s my man over there, looking right at us. You think I’d be doing this to another guy in front of him if it wasn’t absolutely necessary? Let alone to you, of all people, because let’s face it, you are the last guy on the entire planet I’d want to have in a leglock and that includes giant mutant hissing cockroaches. No offense.”

“NONE. TAKEN.”

“But you need a screw…okay, bad choice of words, but you know what I mean. I need to anchor the broken part of you to the stable part of you from the inside, and I’m going to need both hands to do it, so I’m just trying to hold you together, because in a second, you won’t be able to help me do that.”

“YOU. WANT. TO. OPEN. ME.”

“I need to anchor this on the inside,” she said again, lining up screws, mounting brackets, dremel and drill beside her on the table. “So yeah, I need to get in there to do it and going through your chest is the only way to get the angle I need. You going to let me?”

He thought about it, shivering now and then.

“YES.”

“Yes?”

“YES,” he said again, staring straight ahead at the wall behind her. “BUT. BE. CAREFUL. I. CAN. BE. DANGEROUS. WHEN. I’M. REBOOTING. CLOSE. MY. CHEST. AND. GET. AWAY. FROM. ME. UNTIL. MY. EYES. ARE. FULLY. OPEN.”

“Got it,” said Ana. She found her penlight, switched it on and stuck it between her sore lips like a cigar, talking around it like a gangster. “Ready?”

He nodded once, stiffly.

She leaned back and opened his chest, interrupting one more violent shiver that ended when he sagged forward, dead weight hanging off his mechanical bones. His fan kept turning and his battery kept…doing whatever it was doing in there, but the lights of his eyes went out and the lids clicked shut. His arms did not drop, but they relaxed and the piece he was holding would have fallen through his slack fingers if Ana hadn’t also been holding it. Freddy was gone and in his place was just an animatronic bear.

She worked quickly, wedging herself into him wherever there was room and trying not to disturb his little cache of treasures. So naturally, she had only just mounted the first bracket when the tinny music cut off and she heard an even tinnier voice say, “Hello? Mammon Government Services, how can I direct your call?”

“Oh goddamn it, not now!” Ana snarled around her penlight.

“What? Hello? Is anyone there?”

Ana shrugged out of Freddy’s chest, spat out her penlight and snarled, “Garbage department! I’ve got a—”

“Please hold.”

Music.

“Great,” muttered Ana, although she was in fact relieved not to be dealing with the phone quite yet. She finished securing Freddy’s back piece, relaxed her now-aching thighs and climbed down off the table, standing to one side and tensed to run as she shut his chest.

Freddy’s systems surged to life with a whine and a wheeze. He heaved in place, arms coming forward and head tipping back. One hand struck the toolbox; he did not seem to notice, even as he jerked and slapped it away, sending it spinning across the table and all the way into the wall next to the tray return window, fifteen easy feet away. “CLOCK DISCREPENCY DETECTED,” he said as tools, loose screws and spare steel rods jangled noisily over the floor. “CORRECTING. CORRECTED.”

His eyes opened. They were black, empty but for tiny pinpoints of silver light reflected off the backs of his cameras, deep inside his skull.

Ana did not move.

Freddy blinked, and now his eyes were just his eyes, as brilliantly blue as her own. He looked at her, then twisted around to look at his back. “IS. IT. OVER.”

“Almost,” said Ana, still not moving. “You’ve got some cracks I wanted to patch up, if you’re okay with that.”

“I. SUPPOSE. SO.” Freddy touched one of the wider cracks, then turned his head the right way around and noticed her toolbox, freshly dented, and the brand-new hole it had left in the wall on impact. He frowned.

“Missed me by a mile,” Ana assured him, but gave him a wide berth as she picked up the tub of polymer paste and donned her gloves.

The hold-music cut off again as she was dipping her fingers into the paste. Another man’s voice spoke up, annoyingly cheerful, “Hello? Mammon Sanitation and Public Works Department! Hello-hello?”

“Yeah, hi,” said Ana, filling the first of many cracks and smoothing it down. “My name is Ana Stark and I live up on Old Quarry Road at…you know what? There’s only one house on that road and you probably know who I am.”

“Small town,” the voice agreed.

“Okay, well I’ve got one of your dump trailers that needs to be exchanged—”

“Again? Well, all right,” he said in a voice that suggested he was doing her one hell of a favor, possibly for the last time, and not the job he was paid to do. “I’ll put the order in today and you’ll get your empty next Thursday after pick-up service runs.”

“I was hoping I could…wait a minute, next Thursday?” Ana echoed. “What, like, next week?”

“Fraid so. Why? What’s your hurry?”

“I’ve got a lot of construction going on. It’s a messy job. Why, what’s your problem?”

“We’ve only got the two trailers in the size you’re wanting and the other one’s going to be down at the fairgrounds this weekend for the Fourth.”

“Okay, well I guess that’s a thing. Can I get a couple of smaller ones then?”

“Nope. Smaller ones will be out at Jewel Lake and Primrose Park—”

“—for the Fourth,” Ana said along with him, shoving polymer paste into Freddy’s cracks with a touch more force than was strictly necessary. “Okay, well can you come get the one I’ve got, empty it now and bring it back today or tomorrow?”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean, nope? Why not?”

“I can’t process a work order like that in that kind of time.”

“What process?” Ana asked impatiently. “You poke a couple keys, email it to your person in charge of approval, I get billed, it’s over in less than a minute. Hell, you could physically walk down the hall and get someone to physically sign a piece of paper in less than a minute. What is the hold-up here?”

“Ma’am,” said the voice, no longer quite as cheerful, “it takes at least two business days to process an order like that, and that’s not taking the holidays into consideration. This is a small town, like I say, and every single resource we got has to be accounted for at all times. And I’ll tell you something else, since you didn’t ask, if anyone here had thought you’d still have that trailer out at your place after all this time, it wouldn’t have been rented to you in the first place. Sorry for your inconvenience and all that with your little construction mess, but we are down one of only two full-size trailers during the third-biggest public festival in this town and you ought to consider yourself darned lucky, pardon my French, that we aren’t revoking your rental agreement and driving up there right now to collect it.”

“Okay, I am done with this shit,” Ana interrupted, peeling off her gloves and slapping them down on the table.

“Ma’am, I will end this call right now if you don’t calm down.”

“I’m totally calm. Hang on. Don’t move,” she added to Freddy as she wriggled out from behind him and ducked under the table. “I’ll be right back with you in two shakes. I just need to get my wallet. You still there?”

“YES,” said Freddy.

“Yes,” said the voice on the phone at nearly the same moment, followed at once by a sharp laugh and a, “Whoa, we got some major interference there. Hello? Hello-hello?”

“Yeah, sorry. I’m back.” Ana emerged from beneath the table and thumped her shoebox down, flipping off the lid to expose her liquid assets. She counted out ten twenty-dollar bills and five hundred-dollar bills and tapped them into alignment. “Okay! So here’s what’s going to happen. You can process that order whenever you want and bill me in the usual manner, but as soon as you hang up this phone, you are going to call the guy who delivers the dump trailers and tell him—wait, there’s two of them, isn’t there?” she muttered, and counted out another ten twenties. “Okay, so, tell them to come get my trailer, empty it out and bring it back to me, tonight.”

“Ma’am,” the voice began, sighing.

“I expect to see those men hauling my trailer away within the hour. When they come back with it empty, I will give them two hundred dollars each, cash in hand. Then I will drive to your house and hand you five hundred dollars for your trouble in arranging it. How does that sound?”

“Are you serious?” the voice asked after a short silence.

Ana put the stack of bills next to the phone and ran her thumb along the edge to make that fuck-you-I’m-money sound. “Have we got a deal?”

“Um…I don’t know. Is this legal?”

“People tip their garbagemen on Christmas, right? How is this different?”

“I…yeah,” the voice said with hushed conviction. “Deal. But don’t come to my house. And don’t come here.”

“Fine,” said Ana through gritted teeth. She started to rake a hand through her hair, but hit the knot on her temple. Pain was clarifying. She thought and said, “You work tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but don’t come here, I said!”

“I heard you the first time. You eat at Gallifrey’s, right?”

“Sure. Everyone does.”

“Yep and so do I. So tomorrow morning, I’ll go to Gallifrey’s and buy a newspaper. I’ll put the money in the paper and you come by the table after a bit and ask if I’m done with it. I hand it to you, you take it with you and nobody sees anything but a public servant who didn’t have exact change for the box, right?”

“Right,” said the voice, impressed and a little intimidated. “You, uh…You do this a lot?”

“Bribe garbagemen to get my dump trailer emptied? No,” said Ana drily. “But I pride myself on my moral flexibility. I saw that,” she added as Freddy rolled his eyes.

“Excuse me?” said the voice, sounding alarmed.

“Nothing. Talking to someone else. What time do you usually eat?”

After a little more hemming and hawing and gosh-I-don’t-know-if-I-shoulding, the arrangements were made.

“Thank God all my years of making drop-offs with drug dealers has not been wasted,” Ana snapped, shoving her phone in her pocket. “Okay, listen up. Are you listening?”

“YES,” said Freddy with a sidelong glance that told her he’d been listening the whole time.

“You’re going to need some time to dry and I’m afraid I can’t just sit here and watch it happen. I got to go home and wait for the garbage guys and then I’ve got to go pick up that hauler and load up at Lowe’s. Christ, the day’s half over and I’ve got a million things to do…but you. I want you to sit down and don’t move until I get back. Can you do that?”

Freddy went to the stage and sat, watching her collect her day pack and reacquaint herself with its contents. It wasn’t until she was walking through the plastic sheets out of the room that he suddenly said, “AN-N-A.”

She untangled herself from the plastic and poked her head back in. “Yeah?”

Half in shadow, half in sunlight, he glared at her without moving or speaking for several seconds, making her think whatever was coming was a big deal, but when he finally spoke, all he said was, “COME BACK SOON,” the same as he’d say to any guest on her way out the door.

“Sure,” said Ana, trying not to fidget. “Anything else?”

There was, clearly, but he wasn’t in any hurry to say it, so Ana turned around again.

“YOU’RE. NOT. A. BAD. PERSON. YOU. KNOW,” he said unexpectedly and frowned when she was startled into laughter.

“Not all the time,” she agreed, grinning. “But hey, who is? See you in a bit.”

“DRIVE. SAFELY,” Freddy grumbled and let her go.