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Witty teen Zebulon Finch was murdered in 1896, at age 17. But 20 minutes after his death, he was resurrected, doomed to an eternity of suffering. During the next century (or two), Zebulon tries to figure out why he was brought back to life, and whether it’s a chance at redemption—or an endless sentence.
The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume 1: At the Edge of the Empire by Daniel Kraus
“They tell me,” said he with a simper, “that they fished you from the lake.”
The man had called me a gambler but it was he who knew when to turn his best card. The bottom of the lake—yes, that’s right, I had witnessed it! I had lain upon pebbles, blinked stupidly at the remains of a sunken boat, been kissed by a passing school of fish. Sand had shifted in such volume that the lower half of my body had been covered, then uncovered, then covered again. How long had I lain down there bereft of air? It had to have been hours. It was then that I remembered my murder.
Remembering it was worse than the act itself, I assure you.
The truth was, to say the least, difficult to accept. I was a corpse. I could feel the stagnant weight of internal organs no longer quickened by life force. A bullet had pierced my heart—warm spring air now passed through the wound!—and I had suffered a hundred drownings. I believe I would have lost my marbles right there in that tent had I not heard the Excelsior ticking away inside my pocket, unfaltering despite its recent dunking, my steadfast beating heart.
The Barker observed my reactions with a biologist’s dispassion. The cigar rolled from one end of his mouth to the other, a pendulum.
“My initial interest in you stemmed from a report we received from a satisfied customer of ours residing south of Chicago. It would seem that this gentleman, a Mr. Avery, hoping to catch breakfast, borrowed a hook and rod and obtained himself a rowboat. On this particular morning he hooked a big one. He hooked you.”
The Barker pointed.
“The webbing between your finger and thumb. Right hand. Take a look.”
It was my first willed movement. My eyeballs, devoid of moisture, skipped across tacky sockets, and my elbow scuttered like machinery desperate for lubricant. A hand that looked very much like my own rose shakily from its dangled position. Carefully I rotated it.
There was an ugly hole ripped clean through the flesh exactly where the Barker had said. I brought the hand closer. The visible meat was a dull gray-pink. Blood failed to pump, even when I clenched and unclenched the fist. For a moment there were no sounds but the popping of my finger bones.
“Twenty years now I’ve fielded cockeyed stories from desperate milksops,” said the Barker. “So when Mr. Avery returned to our grounds demanding an audience in regards to a man who breathed underwater, I motioned to have the sot escorted away. But then he mentioned the other thing and I knew I had to see it.”
My expression was fixed, yet must have conveyed puzzlement.
Up went the Barker’s eyebrows. “You don’t know? Oh, my. My, my. I don’t know how to say this.” He winced and pointed with the cigar. “There—right there. On your—yes, right there.”
I spider-walked my fingertips across the shirt slicked to my deadlocked chest, in and out of the collarbone hollows that no longer throbbed with pulse, and onto my cold neck, where I discovered something that was not flesh. Panic reared and I counted along to the Excelsior to calm myself. So this was the cause of my neck discomfort.
An iron fisherman’s hook the size of my forearm was implanted deep into my jugular. I swallowed and there was a metallic clink. I probed with my tongue and tasted rust. With great effort I fiddled around and found two inches of iron pushing from inside my throat like a goiter. I took the hook’s handle with fantasies of extraction but I was far too weak. Silly Sally, who continued to work my ankles, cocked her head in an inquisitive way. The weight of the hook pulled my head to the right, giving me, I imagined, a similar expression.
“I would be cross with Mr. Avery for gross mishandling had he not sold you to me for nothing more than what he’d lost at our Boardwalk the previous night. For this business, as you shall learn, is all about acquiring the New.”
The Barker tossed his cigar and approached, frowning at my impalement like a doctor, which might have been comforting if not for his playful, mincing steps. He wiggled his fingers as if to limber them and spoke in the barest of whispers.
“When a man of my talents meets a man of yours, there are few limits. Of course, this grappling hook will have to be removed. We can’t tip off the audience prematurely. Ah, that reminds me, I’ve already chosen for you a name, as you do not appear to own one yourself.” He made a theatrical gesture. “‘The Astonishing Mr. Stick.’ What do you think? Handbills are being printed as we speak.”
I felt him take hold of the hook’s handle. The pressure inside my neck thickened and I braced for decapitation. His touch, though, was gentle. He of all people did not wish to see me further mangled.
His right foot kicked. Silly Sally moaned and waddled away from my ankles.
“Filthy cat. Adores dead things,” said he. “But that does not stop me from loving her.”