This story available on Sep 12, 2020
The Brass Boy
Andrea L. Staum
The brass boy stood outside of Mr. Riker’s Tobacco Emporium. He stood three feet tall on a pedestal recently vacated by a wooden pelican. The pelican had sat outside the store for many years, its open mouth accepting the ash of the patrons’ cigars in its tin lined mouth until an errant spark set the dry wood ablaze. Now the brass boy offered more than an ash receptacle. His right hand was extended in friendly greeting, but if you pressed back his thumb a tiny flame would pop out allowing the patrons of Mr. Riker’s a source method of lighting their purchases that didn’t cause their fingers to smell of Sulphur or risk burning themselves. It its left hand the brass boy held a little cup that ash could be tapped into. A small tube would suck the ash away to a little compartment hidden in the brass boy’s stomach. There was a bucket hung on his left arm for any refuse to large for the cup. Mr. Riker had learned his lesson when the pelican caught on fire.
At first Mr. Riker was very happy with the brass boy. Its novelty brought more patrons to his shop than the others. The increase almost covered the brass boy’s initial cost. It was the maintenance that was starting to bother Mr. Riker. Each day after he came down from his apartment above the store he would check that the brass boy was primed for the day’s traffic. The first thing he would do was press twist the clips that mimicked buttons on the brass boy’s coat and open up the hidden ash compartment. Mr. Riker would then sweep the ash into the bucket from the brass boy’s arm and empty it in the garbage receptacle down the street. He occasionally remembered to pour water over it to ensure no errant spark would cause another fire.
Once the debris was gone, Mr. Riker took great care to polish all the metal to shine for the new day. After a week, he started to notice the bucket was coated in soot that was becoming more difficult to clean and was surprised by the amount of waste his patrons were throwing in it. He found pits of burnt advertisement posters and other papers were mixed in with the cigar and cigarette ends and loose tobacco.
After everything shined he would spin the brass boy’s ear and pull out the stick that told him how much fluid remained for the little lighter and then top it off with some more so that it wouldn’t go dry. It was usually only a little bit that was dribbled down the funnel to the reservoir, but as the weeks passed, he noticed he was using more and more until for three straight days he was filling it to complete capacity. The fluid was relatively inexpensive, but the brass boy’s creator, Ms. Mirriel, said one container should last at least a month and he had already gone through three in that time.
Ms. Mirriel came and looked over the brass boy. She did not see anything wrong and offered to take the brass boy back to her workshop to dismantle him and look for any leaks that might be hidden from her. Mr. Riker declined and continued to record the fluid consumption.
Mr. Riker set the stock boy, Lucas, on watch over the brass boy. Each day when he wasn’t replenishing inventory Lucas watched the brass boy. He would tally the number of times the thumb was flipped back and the flame used to light something. He also made sure patrons weren’t abusing the device as they marveled at its quick function. Lucas also took to measuring the depth and recording the contents of the refuse in the bucket at the end of his shift. Each day he brought the tally sheet to Mr. Riker and each day the numbers did not match to the amount of fluid that the brass boy was consuming. It also didn’t explain the thick soot that would appear in the morning.
One day after closing up the emporium Mr. Riker decided to stay up and watch the brass boy. He brought a chair down from his apartment and set it near the front window. He stacked supply barrels around him so he couldn’t be seen from outside. He finished his supper upstairs and came down to begin his vigil. Propping a pillow against the nearest barrel he rested his head and soon fell asleep. Nothing disturbed him other than a lullaby he hadn’t heard since his youth invading his dreams.
Sunlight found its way through the viewing slot Mr. Riker had made. The bright light forced him awake earlier than usual. He dragged himself from his chair to check to the brass boy and found it in the same condition as the previous, empty and dirty, but he noticed amid the shoeprints of the early morning workers the outline of two small footprints in front of the novelty machine. With heavy sighs he cleaned out the bucket and by the time he finished the prints had faded into the wood of the shop’s porch. Mr. Riker started his day but kept looking out the window for some indication of why the brass boy was running low of fuel so quickly or where the footprints had come from.
Ms. Mirriel visited that afternoon, bringing with her an attachment for the brass boy. It was a special glove for the boy’s right hand. It could be wrapped around it and locked. The thin metal would be enough to keep the thumb from flipping back and lighting. She theorized the night crowds from the taverns down the street were having a laugh at the brass boy and causing it to run empty each night.
Mr. Riker agreed and thanked her for the accessory. Absently setting the glove near the register until the end of the day. Ms. Mirriel’s theory made sense to him, but he didn’t want to bound the brass boy’s hand. The lighter was a feature to draw potential customers. Even if the tavern patrons were the cause of the depletion wouldn’t his having an ignition source be a draw? He was servicing his customers even when the doors were locked. He decided not to apply the glove that night and try once again to catch whoever was causing the brass boy to run dry.
He switched the chair behind his vantage point to one less comfortable in hopes of staying awake. The night was cold and he could feel a draft along the wooden frame of the window. Mr. Riker pulled his robe tighter around him, but it did little to block the cold. He left his post to get a blanket from his apartment.
As he was coming back down the stairs he heard the faint sound of the lullaby that had haunted his dreams the night before and saw an orange glow beneath the front door. Mr. Riker skipped the last three steps, landing hard enough to draw an unwanted grunt from him before limping to the door. The singing stopped and he cursed himself for locking the door as rushed footsteps resounded on the wooden walkway outside.
He flung open the door, the bell above it ringing loudly in the empty night. There was no one there, but the bucket that usually hung from the brass boys left arm was sitting on the ground and a small fire blazed in it. There was a small pile of sticks with cloth and paper wrapped around beside it. There was also a set of small footprints like those from the morning before except this set was scuffed and showed the owner had been the one to rush away when he had stumbled on the stairs.
Mr. Riker followed the steps to the edge of the walkway, but they were indistinguishable in the dust of the alleyway. He called out for whoever it had been to come out, that he wouldn’t harm them, but they didn’t come out.
He returned to the store and extinguished the small fire and kicked the sticks into the street. Hanging the bucket back in its proper place he went back inside and retrieved the lockable glove. He slipped it onto the brass boy’s right hand, but did not lock it. His fingers were numb from the night’s chill air and he did not have the dexterity to maneuver the locking pin into place. Once he was done he headed back in and up to his bed assured that the culprit wouldn’t return.
When he awoke the next day he smiled as he made his way to check on the brass boy, assured that he had prevented the fluid from being drained and scared the person responsible away. However, when he went outside, he found the glove had been removed and placed on the pedestal by the boy’s feet. The bucket again full of more soot than it had been when he extinguished the fire and the little sticks had been picked up from the street. His measurements of the fluid once again showed the fluid was empty.
Even Lucas noticed Mr. Riker was distracted throughout the day as orders were mislabeled and measurements were off. Once the stock boy learned of the night’s events he volunteered to stay and watch the brass boy, but Mr. Riker declined and opted to fully engage the locking pins of the glove at the end of the day. Two nights of uneasy sleep were enough for him and he did not wish to worry Lucas’s mother with him being away overnight.
As he was settling into bed that night, Mr. Riker was startled by a loud crash outside the store. He looked out the upstairs windows, but the store awning blocked his view of whatever caused it. He quickly put on his slippers and dressing robe and went downstairs. As he neared the front door he heard soft sobs coming from the other side. He had kept the door unlocked so that he could be quicker should he need to go out and the only alert to his exit was the shop bell ringing out.
Before the last peal of the clapper, Mr. Riker realized the brass boy had fallen from his pedestal. The little statue had toppled over and decapitated itself, but pinned beneath the torso was a waif of a girl. Tears cleared streaks of dirt from her cheeks as she hugged the brass boy, not trying to remove herself from under him. She didn’t even look at Mr. Riker as he came over to help her. As he lifted the brass boy to his feet, the girl came with him. She clung onto him apologizing for hurting him while trying to get warm.
Mr. Riker began prying her arms from around the brass boy’s torso, but her skin was damp from the lighter fluid that had spilled when the container in the boy’s head was knocked off. Her skin was almost as cold as the statue’s brass and he removed his robe, wrapping it around her. Prying her hands apart he managed to finally disengage her from the brass boy, but the statue had been the only thing keeping her standing and she collapsed at his feet.
The girl tried to get up, but her legs didn’t appear to respond. Her wheezing breaths hung in the air and her words were indiscernible as blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
He wiped away the blood, thinking she had bit her cheek or tongue in the fall before cradling her and going inside. She still clutched the wrapped sticks her hand as she shivered in his arms and he began to understand why the brass boy had been drained of fluid each night.
He placed her near the small stove in the store front and raked the coals to start it warming again. Retrieving a pitcher and basin he began to rinse the lighter fluid from her hair and clean away the grime from her face. Her crying cut short as her breathing strained.
Once she appeared asleep, Mr. Riker went back outside and picked up the brass boy’s head. There was a sizeable dent above his left eye and fluid still pooled over the walkway. He would need to send for Ms. Mirriel in the morning to repair it. He should also send for the constable but knew that meant she would be sent to an orphanage if there were room or worse, because she had damaged the brass boy, a workhouse. No, he would talk with Lucas’s mother in the morning perhaps she could take the girl in and train her as a milliner. Settling this plan in his mind, Mr. Riker returned to his bed without checking on the girl.
He heard Lucas begin to prepare the store in the morning as he was preparing breakfast for himself and the girl. He was surprised there hadn’t been any additional alarm from the stock boy for finding the broken brass boy or the girl in front of the stove. He made his way downstairs to a frantic Lucas speaking with an officer and a woman he recognized as the matron of a nearby orphanage. The boy was gesturing wildly to the broken brass boy and the still figure lying before the stove. Her small frame even smaller in the light and Mr. Riker could see just how disfigured she was from being pinned beneath the brass boy. He had planned so many alternatives to improve her life but he never thought to call for a doctor.
Andrea L. Staum is the author of the Dragonchild Lore series, The Attic's Secret novella, Scattered Dreams story collection, and contributions in several best-selling anthologies. She's a trained motorcycle technician, an amateur home renovator, and somehow manages to find time to write. She lives in south central Wisconsin with her husband and overlords...err...cats
Interview available on Sep 17, 2020