Sturtevant knew he was dreaming. He could no longer hear the crackle of the fire, the clank of wooden spoons against steel plates, the thrum of Joe Sam’s deep baritone as he told lurid stories and dirty jokes.
He was aware of the dream forming around him, for just a brief moment there on the wide-open sunlit plain in his mind, before the knowledge reburied itself.
In the dream he was atop of the rolling hills outside Buffalo Gap, but instead of lying down he was standing, and instead of it nighttime it was daytime, a low, bright sun in his eyes. The occasional gust worried the grass and once or twice a small animal scurried past, but none of it made a sound.
The silence was total, as if a thick wooden icehouse door had swung shut on the world. No matter where he tried to look, the sun was in his eyes: blinding him, forming little rings of white at the edge of his vision. He took a step and found that the ground was covered in frost. It crunched and gave way under his boots as he walked, and crickets leapt away from his feet in chaotic arcs as he moved forward, tiny bodies glinting in the low sun.
At the base of the slope the ground opened onto a vast plain, and he decided to sit and rest. He lowered himself onto the frozen earth, which crunched under his hands but was somehow not cold. Somewhere nearby, a large bird thumped at the ground with its beak, pulling something, worms or seeds, from the dirt. It spread its wings, flapping them a few times before retracting them.
He couldn’t see the bird, but he knew it was a seabird he’d seen once in a picture book when he was a child but made of a brilliant silver-white metal instead of flesh and bone and feathers. His dream-mind moved over its surface, which was etched with exquisitely detailed whorls and glyphs. Its wings were retracted, but he knew it had eight of them, each with a glowing blue-green eye at its center.
Then, a sound began to enter his consciousness, though it had always been there: the metallic clack of a gear rotating, snapping into place over and over again. It was the bird’s ticking clockwork heart. Then, with a sudden metallic scrape like hundreds of swords drawn at once, it threw its eight wings into a jagged metal wreath. An all-encompassing blast of hissing light scattered his last remaining thoughts into the sky, where they were borne away on the high plains wind.
He blinked and looked around. Had someone spoken? A tall man in a bellhop’s uniform, silhouetted, loomed over him, and he was suddenly sitting on the floor of the lobby of the New Bilton in Sioux Falls. He tried to look up at the tall bellhop, but the sunlight, though he was still indoors, was blinding.
In a voice of measured kindness tinged with annoyance, the bellhop said, what I said was, not tryin’ to pry, but what you need a fancy thing like that for? Women in billowing dresses and men in straw hats walked past as Sturtevant sat on the patterned carpet.
He knew then, in a sudden rush of panic, that he had somehow bought the bird, and that he could never, not in a thousand lifetimes, pay for it. From nearby he heard a loud bang and smelled burning metal, and he knew it was the bird rocketing skyward, gone forever into the depths of space. He pulled several bills from his pocket and attempted to hand them to the bellhop, but a sudden breeze took them, whipping them away like dried leaves.
He knew all that was left for him to do was to rise from the floor onto his knees, turn his empty pockets out, and let the well-dressed men and women roaming the lobby gather around him and reach, one by one, into his ribcage, squeezing his beating heart in their strong, dry hands.
He felt himself beginning to surface from the dream. Soon, he knew, it would fall away and the world would return. He would spend the useless predawn hours tossing and turning on the dusty ground, and in the morning he and Carter and Joe Sam would rise and pack their bedrolls and walk over the rolling hills until they reached the stockyard on the outskirts of town, where they would tell the owner, a man named Dellamore, that his cousin in Spokane had recommended them, hoping he was still in need of workers.
He saw the insides of his eyelids and the faint orange light of the campfire dancing against them. The dream-sounds began their crescendo, ringing in his head as he lay halfway between sleep and waking: the creak and clack of the metal knob on the kitchen door when he was a child, the yelp of an unseen fox cub in the spring dawn, the satisfying snap of a rusted gasket turning as it gave in to the wrench, the soft whimper Jenny Johnson made when he kissed her neck below her ear, the crunch of boots stamping out coals, the plonk of pumice hitting the broad metal side of an empty Missouri Pacific car, water flowing, dripping, gathering into rivulets that became torrents, catching him and pulling him into the depths of the earth.
And beneath it all the mightiest, deepest sound of all: Joe Sam’s deep baritone laugh, reverberating out into space, shaking the walls of the universe, coursing through oceans of stars like whalesong.
About our contributor
John K. Peck is a Berlin-based writer, musician, and letterpress printer. He is a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and has appeared in two McSweeney’s anthologies. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a diverse range of print and online journals including Interzone, Pyre, Cold Signal, Salon, The Toast, VOLT, Jubilat, SAND, and Slow Travel Berlin. He is also the editor of Degraded Orbit (degradedorbit.com), an online journal devoted to unusual architecture, abandoned places, and analog and digital games.