Non Metallic

E.C. Stever



The metal-man wore a thin coat, ignorant of the winter wind that tore the heat from the rest of us. When I saw him, I wanted to rush over, punch him on the arm, tell him to put on his winter clothes like everybody else. Only I didn’t do that. I just watched him walk.

It was snowing in circles that day. The cat had gotten out, brushing past my skirt and jumping over our fence before I could even yell her name. Mom said I had better go fetch her because of the snow. But I knew she was more worried about the few drivers left on the roads. People who still had running cars didn’t bother with traffic laws anymore; there was no one left to ticket them.

Mom promised to tell the other girls I would be late for cheerleading practice, so I had headed out to Main Street, rattling the cat-treats can as I walked. I was halfway through the alley when I saw him: the metal-man, the Metallic, whatever you want to call him. He’d been gone for over a year.

He still scuffed his feet the way I remembered, but his posture was better. And even through the wet snow I could see his skin had cleared up. Last year I used to wash my face twice a day because I thought maybe bad skin was in my genes too. I remember how red and awful he used to look, his face dry and greasy at the same time.

I followed him down the street for a while, walking past the Owl Club, where some of the old high school kids were hanging out. I could see them through the front window, a group of five or six lounging around a table. Their faces were red, and they were laughing, but I couldn’t tell what the joke was about.

These were the ones that who stayed, trapped either by love or gravity, like my Dad said. But the hand that held them wasn’t gentle. It pulled and stretched them; twisting their faces, bending their backs over stools in the old Owl Club, day after day. They lived life like their fathers had at the turn of the millennium, when men were still needed and computers were kept in boxes, separate from our thoughts. But that had all fallen away and nobody had to work at the mine anymore. Unless they wanted to.

The door of the club shoved open, and Chuck Carver stumbled out, almost knocking me over. He was still wearing his high school varsity jacket, from the last year they fielded a basketball team. The captain’s pin had tarnished to green, and the jacket had cracks around the elbows, like gray spiderwebs.

He fumbled around his coat pocket, and dropped his keys. “Oh heyyy kiddo,” he said to me. His voice was slow and sleepy.

“Hi Chuck,” I said. “I’m looking for Marna, she got out again.” I looked in the window of the Owl Club, as if she would have gotten in there somehow.

“No dice,” Chuck said. He reached down into the snow and grabbed his keys, flicking the snow onto the sidewalk. “Haven’t seen her all morning.”

He looked across the street, directly at the metal-man, and I waited for the curse, his disgusted chuckle. But he didn’t say a word, not even a joke at our homegrown Metallic’s expense.

I started to speak, but he cut me off.

“Careful now,” Chuck said. “You stay out here too long, you’ll freeze your butt.” He grinned at me. “Have to replace it with aluminum cans, like those freaks down at the Centers.”

Chuck walked toward the parking lot. I heard him drop his keys again and say a dirty word. A minute later his truck skidded out, jumped a curb, and was gone down 4th Street.

Off in the distance, I could hear the grinding gears of an old eighteen wheeler, as it trudged from the mine a few miles away. About once every hour the trucks would grumble down the main street of town, loaded almost full with leached copper. They drivers didn’t like downshifting to pass through our town, but they’d wave back and smile when we waved to them. Maybe, like us, they were just happy to be working again. Happy there were still roads for them to drive, things people needed.

The metal-man I was following had almost reached the corner, and was about to turn up the hill. I found myself running, not wanting to lose sight of him again.

“If you’re lost, I could draw you a map,” I yelled across the street, surprising myself. “Do you have a postage stamp?” That was our old joke, from when we were kids. The cold air hurt my throat a little as I said the words, but I couldn’t help it. I had to talk to him.

The metal-man turned. He grinned, with the same goofy smile he’d had in his yearbook pictures. I could see they’d fixed his teeth, and he had a better haircut, but his face was the same. I exhaled. He was still my brother Jaime.

The lump on Jaime’s neck wasn’t too noticeable; the metal beneath pushed up the skin about a quarter of an inch but there wasn’t any scar. I was glad he didn’t have an “open adaptation” with the metal on the outside, but it was still weird seeing him as a Metallic.

“What are the odds that I should run into you, in this burgeoning metropolis, population 1,008?” Jaime asked. Another old joke. Another pang in my heart.

“It’s 1,007 now,” I said with a laugh. The metropolis, that’s what Jaime always called Ruby Hill, with its one grocery store, and half of not much else. Except now when he said the words they sounded a little different. Like maybe he was sad to have to use them.

I took one step toward him, then stopped. “You never called.”

Jaime nodded. “I did call… and write, and even sent a paper letter a few times. It’d be easier to reach you if you had nodes,” he said, touching his neck. Jaime looked down at the ground, scuffing his foot in a patch of ice. “I didn’t think they’d tell you about it.”

“The cat got out,” I said. I didn’t know what to tell him. Mom and Dad were still mad at him, Dad more than Mom, I thought. So that’s the stupid thing my human brain came up with. I talked about the cat.

“Marna never would keep in,” Jaime said, as if the cat was all we had to talk about after a year. “I could find her if you want.” He stared at me from across the street, and just beneath his smile I glimpsed someone else, another Jaime. But this one wasn’t laughing. He was itching to show me what he could do.

I thought about it, wanting to see if the stories were true about the Metallics and their magic, but I shook my head. That lump on his neck scared me.

“Dad’ll find out,” I said. “Besides, Marna will come back home when she gets hungry.”

Jaime shrugged, the stranger in him disappearing. Poof. Magic.

I walked down the street towards the end, where the old pizza place was. Jaime walked along with me on the other side of the street.

“The pizza place is gone too,” he said. Then he looked up as if remembering. “What do you guys do on pizza Thursdays?”

I nodded toward the grocery. “Franklin’s has some frozen ones that aren’t too bad.”

“Not too good either,” Jaime said. Another one of Dad’s jokes.

I stood at the corner and looked at the old newspaper box, the kind that still took payment cards. My back was to Jaime. The paper inside was five years old and wrinkled, from back when people still had to read about things that happened instead of just knowing them all at once; back when they were still keeping track. “New Adaptation Installations On Upswing In 2028” a large caption blurted, and below it was the familiar picture of the first adaptee back in ’25, the before and after surgery pictures when man first became machine.

Next to that story, and much smaller, was another: “U.E. Gov’t Confirms First Non-Metallic Reservation”. The top paragraphs gushed about the religious riots, the establishment of Tech-Free Zones, but I couldn’t make out the rest of the story. Not that it mattered much anymore. I lived in those words now.

I heard Jaime scuffling across the street, and I turned around to watch him come towards me. One of the trucks from the mine was grumbling and grunting down the street, but he didn’t seem to notice it. The truck should have started slowing down, but it didn’t, even though Jaime was in the crosswalk and had right-of-way.

I gave a sort of half yell, because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t get hit, but that only made Jaime stop in the street and turn to look behind him, like I was joking.

The truck kept coming, and I yelled again, this time a real one. Jaime must have seen in my face that I wasn’t kidding because he sort of squinted his eyes, like he was trying to figure something out. He used to do that when I would beat him in Monopoly, or Battleship, or Checkers. Like he couldn’t believe it had happened.

His head snapped to the right, and the smile of the old Jaime faded away, leaving only the cold smooth face of a stranger. With a jerk, his body shot across the street, but not before the grill of the truck slammed into his right leg. He spun around, falling to the ground with a cry.

I screamed and yelled at the driver, and he smiled and waved at me, like nothing had happened. The truck moved down the street, toward the grocery where my neighbor, Mrs. Garnet, was trying to cross, and it came to a squealing stop. The driver waved impatiently at her, and she scurried across the street, bags in hand.

I ran over to Jaime. He was hunched over his leg, his back all twisted, bent in the wrong places. He rocked back and forth, humming to himself, talking in some strange language.

I put my arms around him, but there was nothing I could do. Jaime lifted up the leg of his pants, and I could see ...