Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.
We hope you enjoy slush reader and community manager Dani Daly’s favorite story from 2015, Above Decks by Terry Ibele and narrated by Phil Lunt. The story originally aired August 23, 2015 as Cast of Wonders 175.
by Tery Ibele
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
It felt like I had been here forever. A punishment for a crime I didn’t commit. Still, it was necessary just to save a few coins to buy a measly meal. Every day was grueling and today was worse. The muscles in my arms felt like they were going to snap. My shovel dropped to the floor with a clang. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I dared a quick break. The other boys kept shovelling. The huge furnace bulged as it was fed. Hot red steam billowed out of its pipes and clouded the air. Pulling off my shoes, I sat in a lump of coal and rubbed my aching feet.
“What are you doing?” whispered the boy next to me. “You’ll get us-“ The door burst open with a violent bang that sent a shiver up my spine. A large figure filled the doorway, blurred by the steamy air. It was the Coal Master. He was a black silhouette against the light pouring in from the deck. The dirty wooden floorboards shook as he stomped in. My heart beat so fast it nearly flew out of my chest.
“We’re losing speed! I’ll be damned if we don’t make it over the lake!” his deep voice bellowed over the chug of the furnace. Hastily, I grabbed my shovel and scrambled to slip my shoes on, but a high pitched screech made my heart sink. I braved a glance at his portly face just as the gears of his twitching, spectacled eyes pointed in my direction, zooming in. The monkey continued screeching as it pulled at his collar and pointed at me, jumping up and down on his shoulder. I hated that onion-faced monkey, with his little top hat and black vest. Clutching my shovel tightly I tried to shrink, to blend into the soot that lay caked on the floor, the walls, on everything.
“You, boy!” the Coal Master cried, his triple chins quivering. “You wanted a break?” Spit projected from his mouth and formed dirty little cakes of soot on the floor. My trembling hands dropped the shovel. “Who do you think you are? Lord of Upper Canada? You’re not getting a damn penny’s worth if this blasted clock goes down!” My clothes nearly shook off in fright. He stared me down as I grabbed my shovel. The monkey jeered at me with tiny fangs. It laughed devilishly and swung its tail into the Coal Master’s pocket, retrieving a melted chocolate. I’d never tasted chocolate before. The huge man’s gruesome lips sucked in the nasty treat like a whirlpool. I shovelled as fast as I could. The crimson flames greedily licked my face as it was fed with heaps of the black rock. “Good, you worthless, rubbish rat. Keep that pace or I’ll toss you off deck!” He turned to the rest of the boys. “Faster, you imbeciles!” he cried, “or I’ll toss you all off deck!” The iron door slammed behind him as he exited the room.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
The furnace chugged and rattled as we stuffed it with coal. It was a dirty job with terrible pay, but there wasn’t much other work for a ten year old. The boys from back home in Rupert’s Land envied that I worked on an airship. They worked in the mines. For months at a time they’d trudge through mazes of black rock, never seeing the light of day. They asked me what the sky was like, above the ever-cover of smog that engulfed the cities. I told them how the ship swam above the clouds, how it was beautiful beyond words to describe. Truth be told I’d never actually seen it myself. It’s just as dark in the furnace room as it is in the mines and we were never allowed out. The only light that ever reached us came from the red and yellow flames.
I thought about the Coal Master walking about on deck and breathing the fresh open air, his monkey stuffing his face with chocolates. I had never been on deck before. A false board in the side of the hull served as a separate entrance for us. It was just big enough for small boys like me to crawl through. We weren’t supposed to be seen by the Upper Class, Metalheads, we called them. They thought flying ships worked by automated mechanisms, not poor boys. Not that they’d notice anyways, with their chins always in the air. I wondered how they kept their heads up with all the gear they had attached – ticking pieces of metal in their ears and eyes and foreheads. Supposedly it made them hear or see or think better. In my opinion, it just made them think they were better. I never saw them do anything but stand around and talk, or gallivant from one place to the next. I bet they wouldn’t even know what coal was, even though it ran every aspect of their lives. Damn Metalheads.
I saw a few Metalheads board the ship. Of course Coal Master was one with his spectacled eyes, but this wasn’t a leisurely cruise. Our purpose this journey was to deliver a clock – the biggest in British North America. I saw it as I crawled along the plank into the hull. Its hands must’ve been higher than three boys standing on each other’s shoulders. They were covering it with enormous tarps. It looked like it weighed as much as the ship itself. No wonder we worked so hard this time. It was loud too. Its resounding ticks could be heard even over the heaves of the furnace. They were going to affix it to the Canadian National Tower – said to be the tallest in all the known world. It stood far in the distance from the port we departed from, like a blurry needle atop a thick, smoky haystack.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
“Have you ever been on deck?” I whispered to the other boy next to me. I didn’t know his name.
“Keep shovelling!” he replied. “Do you want to get thrown off the ship?”
“I wonder what the sky looks like above the smoke,” I said, wiping my sweaty grey hair from my face, “what the wind would feel like in my hair.” It had been a while since a pair of scissors had crossed my path, or a good wash. The last time I had a bath the water became so dirty it could’ve been sold as ink. The boy staring back from my reflection in the tub had pale, freckled skin and blonde hair. Looking around, all the boys had grey hair and grey skin just like me. I spat on my shovel and rubbed it with my sleeve. That blond haired boy could’ve been pinned up on all the wanted posters in the city and never been found. “I’ve always dreamed of being on deck when we’re flying,” I said. “I bet you can see the entire world from up there, the whole sky.” The other boy pretended not to hear and kept shovelling.
I dreamed of sneaking on deck whenever the ship was docked, its giant bloated belly filled with helium and secured at bay by a hundred strong ropes. I knew my only hope of seeing the sky was to get thrown overboard. There were many stories of that happening. One boy was caught trying to sneak on deck and was tossed right into Lake Ontario. Giant salmon with five eyes and sharp teeth devoured him before he even hit the water – or at least that’s what Coal Master said when I first started here. Still, I wanted to see the deck, to be high up above the smog. I wanted to see the ship’s giant fanned wings flapping. I wanted to see all of Toronto from above – the tall smogscrapers, the winding streets, the Great Lake’s murky water, and the sky.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
“I was up deck once,” the boy beside me finally whispered, a hand to his mouth. “I was there for only a moment, a year ago now.” He glanced nervously towards the big iron door. “I fell asleep on shift. Coal Master dangled me by the neck over the side. I was terrified like nothing before, but I saw everything.”
My eyes grew wide. “Everything?” I muttered. “Tell me about the sky! Describe it to me!” I felt as giddy as my friends back in Rupert’s Land when they asked me that same question.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” he said. “The sky is blue up there, bluer like nothin’ I ever saw before.” He quickly shovelled another heap of coal into the furnace and the flames stretched out like eager hands. “I think ‘bout it often,” he continued. “It looks nothing at all like it does from the ground. All the smoke in the air makes it look so grey, but above-“
“Rarrrrrgh!” a yell came from above. “We’re losing speed!”
The boy shut his mouth with a nervous squeal and frantically heaved coal faster. The iron door burst open, catching me off guard leaning on my shovel.
“I told you once, boy!” the Coal Master yelled, zooming in on me with his eyepieces. The monkey swung up his shoulder, holding onto its top hat. “That blasted clock’s three tonnes large and if you’re not shovelling your weight in coal, you’re not staying on my ship!”
The other boy glanced at me with a look of terror as the Coal Master waddled forward. The floorboards creaked under his massive weight, his huge belly swaying from side to side. I looked to the open door. Sunlight spilled into the room from the stairwell, luring me to the deck. If my longing to see the sky wasn’t so great, I would’ve been completely petrified.
“Don’t be thinking about making a run for it, boy!” the Coal Master laughed. The gears in his spectacled eyes twitched and turned. “There’s no escape, and when I catch ya– ”
Taking a deep breath, I clenched my fists and mustered all the courage a ten year old could muster. This was my only chance. All I could think about was the sky – bluer than anything I’d ever seen before. I had to see it, whatever the cost. “Here, catch this!” I yelled. Taking a step back, I threw my shovel at the Coal Master with all my strength. His spectacled eyes burst in surprise as the shovel hurdled towards him. It hit him square in the belly, but merely bounced off without leaving a scratch.
“BOY!” he screamed. I leaped forward and threw myself to the ground, sliding on the grimy floorboards right between his legs. He lunged at me and caught the tail ends of my coat, but they slipped from his grubby hands.
I jumped up and was nearly at the open door. The fresh air pouring in tickled my lungs. The other boys stared in disbelief like statues. The moment hung in time. Not even a tick resounded from the giant clock and even the furnace stopped chugging. All was silent as my hands reached forward in slow motion, grasping at the light coming from above. Too silent. A low moan reverberated throughout the ship and a sudden jerk threw me off balance. The whole ship began to teeter to one side, no longer fed with coal. Grasping at anything within reach, I slid on the floor and hit the wall with a thud.
“RARRRRGH!” The Coal Master screamed, his uvula swinging like a punching bag. He grabbed the shovel from the floor and snapped it like a twig. The veins in his forehead grew three sizes and the glass in one of his spectacled eyes shattered.
“I’ll toss the whole lot of ya!” he yelled. Fear spread across the other boys’ faces and they immediately got back to work. The clock ticked again, the furnace chugged, steam jettisoned from the pipes. Gradually the ship levelled. The monkey screeched and pulled something from its vest, but I leapt for the door and bounded the steps, two at a time. Not a moment later brilliant light, brighter than even the lightorbs that lined the city streets, blinded my eyes. Shielding my gaze, I realized I was outside. I was on deck.
My skin nearly left my skeleton as a deafening sound came from behind and something whizzed by my ear. The Coal Master stood at the bottom of the stairs, the damned monkey dancing on his shoulder and wielding a pistol in its tail. It reloaded for another shot. I dove onto the first thing in sight – a wooden pole and shimmied up as fast as I could.
A bullet shot by my leg, ripping a hole in my baggy slacks. The monkey jumped off his master’s shoulder and began climbing up after me, reloading for another shot. Where the hell did he get such an animal? I’d seen other Coal Masters with beavers on leashes. They’d smack their brass riveted tails when boys weren’t working hard enough. One kept a goose with a wing of silver mechanisms. It circled overhead and honked at us as we boarded. I’d never seen one with a monkey. It must’ve been brought over from the Old World, perhaps through a newspaper clipping. I imagined a crate box arriving and that damned furry fury of legs and arms and top hat jumping out.
Another shot, another miss. Frantically I climbed, one hand atop the other. My fingers grasped a pole and I clambered up, pressing myself against the opposite side of the mast. My heart pounded against my chest. I could hear the Coal Master screaming from below, but the wind muffled his words. It tossed my hair in my face and felt cool. I looked down and saw him flailing as others came to his aid. He was but a spec on the deck – still, he was a fat spec. The clock was there at the front of the ship covered in tarps. It looked just as big as it had from the dock. The ship hovered atop a blanket of smog and I thought of the giant smokestacks that lined the coast, forever pumping thick streams into the air. I could see the lake below through breaks in the grey clouds. The water appeared just as dull as it did from the shoreline. We must be really high up in the sky, I thought. The sky? The sky! I was surrounded by sails and couldn’t see it. Looking up, my eyes were met by nothing but the beige encasing of the giant helium blimp. It swayed back and forth peacefully keeping the ship aloft, as if without a care.
Another shot! It exploded through the wood right between my feet and I plunged forward, catching the yellow sheet of sail in front of me.
“There he is!” yelled the Coal Master, as I dangled by a hand. The monkey continued shooting. Bang! Bang! Bang! He went ballistic. Splinters flew all around me as he tore the mast apart. I heard more cries from below and without warning everything gave way. Bits of wood and sheet crashed down all around. The damn monkey blew the whole mast up! My body was thrown like a ragdoll and tumbled through the air in a chaos of sail and wood. I landed with a thud, covered in sheets. People scrambled about and shouted all around me.
“Double the coal! Twice the power to the wings! Get that mast unmessed and toss it from the ship, it’s just sitting weight now!” the Coal Master yelled with such ferocious temper. “This ship isn’t going down on my watch!” Turning my head a giant black hand swung towards me. Tock, it resounded as a second passed. I had fallen right into the clock’s tarp.
“Where’d that blasted coal boy go?” I heard. “Throw him in the furnace when you catch him!” There was an opening in the clock’s back, just big enough for a small boy to fit through. As quick as a firefly I scrambled in, just as the sail and tarp were pulled away.
“He’s not here!” someone cried.
“Keep looking!” the Coal Master yelled. The monkey screeched furiously and fired more shots.
I found myself between two giant gears, their teeth about to interlock. Tick. I managed to roll out of the way just in time and landed on a turning wheel. Gears twitched all around me, but where I sat appeared to be safe. I could hear more commotion going on outside, muffled by the deafening ticks and tocks within the clock.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
This was the first time I’d sat all day and realized I was worn to a thread with exhaustion. There was nothing on my mind but rest now and though I was terrified, my eyelids grew heavy. I was out like a coal-starved flame and sleep became my new master.
A sudden jolt awoke me. How long had I slept? The whole clock tilted forwards and I held fast to the wheel where I lay. Cries about a crane and pulleys and ropes from outside broke the silence. They had to be installing it on the tower now!
Hours seemed to pass as the clock was jerked about. Hungry interlocking teeth gnashed all around me as I scrambled desperately back and forth on the wheel. Finally the clock settled and the sounds of hammers and drills echoed through the gears. I had no way to tell the time, even though I was inside a giant clock. Counting the ticks proved futile as they droned on in my head, breaking my concentration. I wished I was on deck again, standing on the mast with the wind in my hair. Nothing but grimy gears and springs kept me company here and my heart sunk to my heels. How was I ever going to get out safely? Surely they’d find me and feed me to the furnace.
I stayed hidden until the voices died down, until nothing was heard but the deafening clunks of the giant gears. Cautiously I crawled among them, stepping over springs and under cogs. I followed the little light that poured in and eventually came to the clock’s face. I stood up and pressed my hands against the glass. Another figure joined my side – the big black number six. Leaning forward, my nose rubbed its polished surface and my breath fogged it. I spit on my sleeve to wipe it away, but only left a black smear. The smog below was dense, but still all of Toronto could be seen through it. Metalheads appeared as ants travelling about its winding streets. It was a whole city of clockwork. I was so high up, high above any of the smogscrapers, higher than the smog itself. High up in the sky. The sky. I was nearly afraid to look up, there was no blimp to shield my vision this time. My heart started pounding.
I looked up and there it was. It stretched on forever and ever and ever, but it was so much more than blue. It was deep shades of red and purple and orange and yellow and every other colour I knew and still others I didn’t. Never in my life had I seen anything like this. The world below was nothing but grey and I’d known no better to long for more. My eyes felt their first use and soaked it in greedily. How many times had I been locked in the furnace room, separated from this by nothing more than creaky wooden boards? I’d been so close for so long, no wonder the boys back in Rupert’s Land were so envious. Now, the sky was all mine. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. I could stay here forever.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
About the Author
Terry Ibele is from Ontario, Canada where he lives off a steady diet of frolicking in the woods, being stuck in transit, and pizza. He loves writing brisk, quirky stories and is currently working on a fantasy novel.
About the Narrator
Hailing from the rain-sodden, North Western wastelands of England, Phil Lunt has dabbled in many an arcane vocation. From rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, milkman to world’s worst waiter. He’s currently a freelance designer, actor and sometime writer/editor and impending father. For his sins he’s Chair of the British Fantasy Society, a role that can be more complicated than herding cats, at times. He’s still considering becoming an astronaut when he grows up, and you can follow him on Twitter.