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When Mr. Dungaree accidentally time travels into the past, from a future that has faced an apocalypse and now lives underground, he never gives up on his mission to save the honorable chicken, and his love for eggs, from extinction.
THE CHICKEN TIME MACHINE
by Valerie Brook
Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.
First Published in Pulphouse Fiction Magazine: Issue 4 © 2018
Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com
Cover and Layout Copyright © 2019 by Kickit Press
Cover Art: Miguel A. Padrinin/Pexels.com
This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.
LABCORP TECHNICIAN #34, old man Mr. Dungaree, pedaled the rickety bicycle along the rainy, miserable side of Highway 101, as fast as his short legs, and the even shorter allowance of the stitched inseam to his soaking wet cotton pants, would allow.
So all in all, this was terribly slow.
Plus, he had a near paralytic fear of bicycle contraptions.
And cars kept whizzing by, spitting foam and debris into his red, chapped face. Cold water stung his eyes and blurred his vision. The air smelled just like Pine Forest-scented sink cleaner. The black garbage bag jacket that he had so carefully duct taped together to make sleeves, suddenly ripped apart at the seams, cold water pouring down his neck as it fluttered behind him like a failed parachute.
Cardinal rule: Don’t Attract Attention.
Well, screw all the fools’ rules.
When his wobbly front tire hit potholes it made his teeth snap shut like a shark. For which he had already twice paid the price for mouth-breathing, and bit his tongue like a self-eating madman—and suffered the uncourteous swallow of his own sick, rusty blood.
Too much ferrous oxide in this most vital fluid.
The broken seat springs went chrricka-chrricka, threatening to crumple away and expose a potentially impaling metal post—and this made the unmistakable entrance to Mr. Dungaree’s internal organs cringe.
The autumn rain storm, along the northern coast of the Pacific landmass of what was still considered California, had gone utterly insane.
Or maybe real weather had always been like this—how would he know?
Mr. Dungaree wanted to holler into his lapel Tele, Turn the showers down, you dolt!, but LabCorp UB12 was now, oh—a mere two hundred years into the future, and telepathic technology didn’t even exist yet.
Mr. Dungaree was the dolt now.
And all for the love of eggs.
He could kick himself in the pants if his own pants and the broken seat of this stolen bicycle weren’t kicking him there enough already. How had he managed this time machine blunder? No self-respecting scientist would have made the mistake.
But then, of course, having time-machined backward into the strange year 2017—and appeared here naked (ahem), homeless, broke, and having to resort to thievery—he was fresh out of self-respect.
He was flush with stupidity, however.
Could build an empire with his stupidity. If empires could be built that way. Oh wait, that’s right, empires had been built on stupidity; and that’s why the whole Earth had an apocalypse and they’d all been underground for forty years, and would be for at least a hundred more.
Kinda like Noah’s ark but they didn’t all get happily along. And there weren’t two of each.
Because right now, if Mr. Dungaree had a double copy back in LabCorp UB12, he’d go ahead and steer this version of himself into traffic straight away.
The brake lights of a truck flashed red, steering off the highway and down the off-ramp to the little town of Trinidad. Mr. Dungaree followed, his arms beginning to shake in earnest with cold, griping the handlebars with white knuckles.
Chrricka-chrricka, the seat laughed.
Then Mr. Dungaree’s teeth started to chatter like chipmunks. And just about the time he had a swell of hope that he could coast this terrible, evil bicycle to a full stop, he lost his balance and toppled sideways into an oily mud puddle anyway.
Now he was not only homeless, broke, and starving—but dirty as a hog, too. Mr. Dungaree immediately patted his chest, seeking confirmation of the final coil of copper wire in his flannel shirt he’d just illegally cut out of a nearby substation, as well as the wire cutters used to commit this particular crime.
Rain pinged off the top of his head, irritating his sensitive bald crown, which had not received its customary comb-over for the entire month he’d been zapped into the god-forsaken past.
Mr. Dungaree then had the bright idea to salvage the garbage bag, with a makeshift umbrella in mind, but he got in a fight with the plastic as it gusted in the wind and suctioned over his face.
Diesel grit coated his lips and stung his eyes.
After a string of futuristic expletives, Mr. Dungaree left the trash bag and the bicycle laying together to die in treachery.
He had two of his own legs, and they still worked—thank you.
The fluffy pink female slippers he wore squished with mud as he hobbled across the street toward the gas station lit up in bright signs. Actually, the slippers were no longer a shade of pink. Nor resembling slippers.
But he wore them because all the undergrounders had weak arches as sensitive as a baby’s butt. That’s what you get for walking up and down smooth, flat ramps your whole life.
He reached the shelter of the gas pump roof and pulled out a handful of brown paper towels from the self-service rack—gently daubed his face, and avoided a few sideways glances with the two paying customers barbarically wasting fossil fuels in their prehistoric machines.
However, they did seem just as equally unimpressed with him. So it was mutual.
Mr. Dungaree’s whole body then decided to convulse as if he were actually buried in snow instead of manageably rain soaked, and thusly he decided it was indeed an emergency, and he would need to risk entry into the establishment for a dry-off.
The fingerprint-smudged glass door opened with a cheery ding-dong!, warm air brushed his cheeks, and Mr. Dungaree slopped across the tiled floor in a rush for the bathroom, hoping the cashier would not notice.
The cashier noticed.
But it was that redheaded surfer fellow and he was more humanitarian, than, shall we say: It’s the strict policy of the establishment, Sir.
Then the waft of scrambled eggs from the hot plate buffet hit Mr. Dungaree. He went weak in the knees as he shuffled past.
The supplier was the restaurant Mama’s Pig ‘N Pancake. (Come in, we care). The kindly chef was the renowned Mama Jane Paganelli.
Buttery bliss, savory earth, and a mildly rich and creamy undertone. A moist, spongy texture, with an ever-so-light spring back—and the more Mama marvelously whisked the eggs, the fluffier they would become.
Cheesy, salt-and peppered, sensual heaven.
Light and delicate with a down-home, bless-the-morning, footie-pajama’s-type charm.
But the true secret was the addition of a splash of pancake batter. Yes! She did! Pancake batter in the egg bowl.
Oh indeed, that’s right, it was 10 a.m. on a weekday and my goodness there were egg remnants still left uneaten in the silver tray.
Mr. Dungaree’s eyes fluttered closed for a moment; and it was all he could do to control his numb fingers which twitched, and his diesel-tasting mouth, which madly salivated for revival.
He almost attacked the hot plate like a werewolf (or a nearly hairless werewolf, at least).
Who cared about the other two trays—the crisp bacon, the single slice left of sweet French toast—it was all about real eggs.
(Well, not that Mr. Dungaree wouldn’t have eaten sautéed cardboard right about now to quell his starvation. He was just making a culinary point.)
Mr. Dungaree nearly wept as the egg aroma faded.
He widened his nostrils and inhaled like a desperate man.
The nearing restrooms overpowered the delightful aroma with toilet stench. When Mr. Dungaree opened the men’s door, a waft of urine rose up like an olfactory tidal wave and consumed him with the misery of his homelessness, his timelessness—his utter scientific ineptitude.
But the final copper wires poked through the pocket in his dirty flannel shirt.
And all hope was not yet lost.
At least the hot water streaming from the public sink was indeed hot, if not entirely clean. Mr. Dungaree washed his hands, rinsed his face, his stringy strands of hair. He disrobed and paper-toweled as much of the mud off his clothing that he could; and even restored the female slippers to their former pink shade of ugliness with some manhandling and ringing.
He stood in front of the electric hand dryer until he was reduced from drenched to decently damp.
Indeed, all hope was not lost.
When he passed by the real eggs on his way out, a teeny-bopper teen was scooping up the last of them, dumping them unceremoniously into the mouth of a carton, and Mr. Dungaree didn’t even snarl, externally.
The looming gray clouds had stopped their voluminous uproar.
Now the air smelled salty and fresh, just like Ocean Air lab freshener.
Mr. Dungaree hobbled behind the gas station, found his little hidden trail behind the blue trash receptacles (oh, how hideous the waste of resources) and removed the secret branches that hid his makeshift wooden-pallet-constructed home-away-from-home. Otherwise known as: not a home at all.
And his life-saving, cobbled-together-with-junk, time machine.
If it worked.
Which it would because LabCorp Technician #34 was at the top of his old geezer’s game, yes he still was.
Mr. Dungaree plunked down in the wobbly, three-wheeled, heart-attack tipping-backward desk chair, and pulled out the final copper wire.
He got to work.
It took precisely two hours. Or would have—if Mr. Dungaree had a watch.
The assortment of stolen tools eyed their new master with respect as he lovingly aligned them on the mechanics red towel, rolled them into a bundle, and gently packaged them into a plastic grocery sack.
Never go anywhere without your tools.
Unless you’ve accidentally zapped yourself naked back into the historical past.
The time machine—mostly constructed from a Taser gun, laptop motherboard, the guts of a microwave oven, and a can of genetically modified and experimentally fermented tuna fish as the battery pack (ingenious!), plus other uninvented-yet sciences and molecular odds and ends—fit snugly into a second plastic grocery sack.
Mr. Dungaree did not say goodbye to his home, nor look back when he left.
Well, he looked back for a second, but only because he heard a scary branch snap. But no one was there.
The quaint, coastal town of Trinidad hummed and hawed about its normal weekday under cloudy skies; locals walking needlessly, beachgoers and fishermen driving impatiently down the wet residential hill to the wooden dock. Poop-dispensing seagulls swooped the sky and singsongingly called out: there’s a balding target over here.
Mr. Dungaree had long ago been dismissed as a transient; his time in the town impermanent.
These were the people of the past. The ancestors of the people who had led to his future. And honestly, they could suck it all.
Except the real eggs. They didn’t deserve to suck real eggs.
Somehow, in the future apocalypse, all the chickens had been killed.
It was the oddest worldwide phenomena—culturally unspecific. The chicken itself seemed to have an inherent genetic vulnerability, a protracted constitution for extinction.
It was more shocking than the actual end of the world, which everyone clearly expected: the disappearance of the global chicken had been a foul crime.
And all of humanity was guilty.
Mr. Dungaree sighed a deep sigh.
His hungry exhale steamed the air, and then a ray of sun broke through the clouds and scattered rainbows on the glassy surface of the sea, stealing the rest of his breath away.
He stood empty and transfixed.
He should be more respectful of the beautiful topside of the historical world.
Being the first person from the future to ever see it again (without holograms)—gorgeous stormy seawater, bespeckled with white caps all marching like soldiers of war toward the black jagged peaks of a rocky shore.
But—The Chicken Time Machine Project.
Mr. Dungaree had been named the lead scientist by the UB12 Chancellor; a great honor, indeed.
And he could not shuck the weight of a mandated responsibility off his shoulders.
Not even to enjoy a godly view.
Mr. Dungaree continued his trek with the grocery sacks, the perfect homeless person’s accoutrement; they swung with their own awkward weight and painfully banged his shins.
Toward Mama’s Pig ‘N Pancake restaurant, on the busy corner of the main street in town, with the chicken pen in the backyard; because Mr. Dungaree would not fail. He would bring chickens back to the future.
And himself, as well.
Now all he needed was to wait for the cloak of darkness.
Mr. Dungaree found the perfect big scratchy bush to hide behind, catty-corner to the parking lot of his target location. His knees cracked with arthritis as he groaned and sat on a curb. Two dollops of biting cold slowly soaked up into his sit bones from the damp perch.
The bush smelled just like rosemary. Oh indeed, it was a rosemary bush.
He looked up to the sky and prayed it would not torture him with rain.
But the clouds had already pulled apart like cotton candy, and the cold blue heavens softly faded into watercolor; orange and red pastels.
Then the black shadows grew.
And the last patrons left. And Mama, who looked to be about Mr. Dungaree’s age, finally came out from the backdoor under a sunflower porch light. Mr. Dungaree could see her from his angle above her fence. She wiped her knuckles against a food-stained apron, her curly shock of old-lady hair fringed yellow and crazily aglow with the porch light.
Glancing secretively left and then right, she reached into her apron and pulled out a half-smoked brown cigar—lit it with a quick red flame.
She cocked her hip like a gunslinger and rolled the large offense between her fingers.
Took four puffs and the smoke sailed high up into the blue-black night. She snubbed the butt, wrapped it carefully in a napkin, and back into her apron the evidence was stowed.
Then Mama gently clucked and cooed and lovingly rallied all the magnificent chickens home to roost, shutting their coop door. She disappeared back from whence she came. The restaurant’s screen door closed on a hydraulic delay, then smacked the doorframe with the last word.
The nightly ritual had drawn to a close.
All was quiet.
Nighttime had commenced in the sleepy town of Trinidad, and a time-machinist and chicken thief was about to implement his plan.
Mr. Dungaree tried to stand up but his arthritic knees hollered treason and stayed put. He manually straightened each leg, gave them a cheap, worthless massage, and then grabbed an arm of the thick rosemary bush and pulled himself onto his feet.
Both bags in hand, he hurriedly flopped in his pink female slippers across the street to the restaurant’s fence. Pulling his first tool out of the grocery sack, he manhandled the lock, slinking into the shadows of Mama’s backyard.
Indeed, the composting smell of chicken manure in the run—it was a huge comfort, a reminder of the proximity of the prize. He inhaled deeply. The mocha and clove puff of cigar smoke lingered in the air.
Mr. Dungaree smiled.
The second tool from the grocery sack was a small, previously trashed, penlight. Just enough illumination to slink to the coop door without tripping, and flip the latch.
He’d been in the sacred chicken house before. He knew the layout.
The chickens were quiet on the roost. A hen cooed, worried. But they seemed to ignore him, which was good.
By the blinking malfunction of the tiny light, Mr. Dungaree managed to set up his time machine on the coop floor. If his calculations were correct, he’d tuck a hen under an arm, and then fire the Taser at his own chest, catapulting them all back to the underground lab in the future.
Where The Time Machine Chicken Project had been stalled. Indeed, since Mr. Dungaree had accidentally left his scientific team without notice.
Originally, he’d only meant to locate a chicken in time, and pull it into the future. But in a giant catastrophe, he’d sent himself back to the chicken.
If Mama had ever told anyone of the day she’d seen Mr. Dungaree streak butt-naked in broad daylight from her chicken coop—well, Mr. Dungaree would be even more red-faced then he had been that day.
Surely she hadn’t properly seen his face. Perhaps her eyes had been waylaid by his other parts.
The final copper wires clicked into place. The roost felt heavy, expectant. Chicken shadows seemed to move around the wooden room even though the chickens weren’t even moving.
Their eyes were just blinking.
Her gripped the electric Taser in his hand like a gun.
Then the screen door to the restaurant banged the doorframe like a scream. Oh no! Someone was coming!
Mr. Dungaree lurched forward to snatch a hen. They all squawked like murder. His fingers clenched a chicken’s foot and he desperately yanked her into his armpit. “So sorry girl,” he said. Then a blinding flash struck his eyes, brighter than an oncoming speed train.
“What in the dickens are you—” Mama said.
But Mr. Dungaree had squeezed the Taser’s trigger.
And accidentally zapped Mama into the future.
Oh dear. It had happened again. He’d goofed.
The hen clucked and everything got really silent in the dark. Mama’s big police flashlight rolled a little toward the corner and stalled, creating a very bright circle on the wall.
In the very far distance a lonesome dog barked.
Mr. Dungaree swallowed a lump in his throat.
He hadn’t even figured out what to do yet when Mama burst back into the chicken coop, stark naked, and white as a ghost. Her hair was much longer and styled differently.
“Oh wow, that’s still just as unnerving,” she confessed. “And go on, close your damn peepers. I’ve been through this twice.”
Mr. Dungaree squeezed his eyes.
He started to open his mouth to explain—
“And shut your trap, too.”
* * *
Maybe there is something to be said of negotiation while chewing. Less talking, more agreeing.
That night, Mr. Dungaree spent a lot of time in Mama’s back room, in her most upright chair, beside the fireplace which crackled and popped with warmth. She fed him scrambled eggs and pancakes.
Oh, the gloriousness.
Mr. Dungaree melted like a stick of butter.
After time traveling herself, Mama had no problem believing Mr. Dungaree and everything he knew about The Chicken Time Machine Project.
“So you did this all for the love of eggs?”
He nodded happily.
“The future was so wrong without the chicken?”
He nodded again. “Terribly wrong.” He mumbled with a mouthful of eggs. “Breakfast would never be the same.”
Well, Mama might have been gone for six months in the future, but she’d been zapped back to her departure time in the past. She’d been through a lot there, though. It was clear a lot weighed on her mind.
“They’re worried about a grandfather paradox,” she said.
“I know.” It was logical. If you change too much of the past, you can wink yourself right out of existence in the future.
“We’re on standby here, except for morning egg delivery.”
“Rightly so,” he said. “Standby it is.”
“Can you be satisfied with washing dishes to start?”
Mr. Dungaree nodded.
Being trapped in the past with chickens and a brilliant chef was a bright future indeed.
Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.