Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger
Margaret King, Percy's daughter and de facto princess of Electricopolis, sat on a plush little chaise by a windowsill in their apartment. If the richest people in town lived up on top, then the richest of the rich lived in Top Tier's penthouse suite, staring down at the hustle and bustle of the city far below them.
It was something she could do for hours. Even from so high up she could pick out people skittering to and fro under the street lamps, and the endless march of little cars passing underneath her like shiny black beetles. Sometimes--on the rare occasions when it rained, and the not-so-rare occasions when her friend got caught in it--she could see Bob Sparker hopping and jumping across the plaza, trying desperately to find cover as he left a trail of little sparks in his wake.
"I'm not surprised you're best friends," her father once whispered, with a smile on his sleepy face. "You always did like fireworks, Margaret."
"I think it might rain tonight. I wonder where Bob is?" she murmured. "It's not like him to miss a thunderstorm."
"You didn't know?" one of the Kings's secretaries said. She had wide, sympathetic eyes, and she looked awfully concerned. "Mr. Sparker's in the hospital again."
"Again? Third time this year," snorted the other one, busily jotting down notes. She was staring down at her desk, and she didn't look surprised in the least. "Maybe even the fourth."
"When did that happen, Maria?" Margaret asked, blinking over at them. "I didn't hear about it at all."
"Oh, just now. The call went through to Mr. King," replied the sympathetic lady, Maria, as she covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, Miss King, I didn't want to make you worry."
"No, it's--it's fine," she responded, glancing out the window and all the way down towards St. Celestine's. It was the biggest hospital in town. She could pick out was the white of the building, and a small neon sign saying HOSPITAL. It was only a few blocks away. "What happened?"
"He overdid it again," chattered the other secretary. "Silly thing thinks he can run his heart ragged without a problem. He's probably in Flask's lab right now, getting strapped down like Frankenstein."
Margaret frowned and sat up. "Wait a second, what? I heard Flask was bad, but--"
"Oh, Daisy!" Maria snapped. "Don't let her get to you, Miss King, she's just exaggerating. Flask is a good man."
"And handsome too, right?" Daisy sniffed. She gave Margaret a cold, calculating look over the rim of her glasses. "Not that it's any of my business," she said, "but I'd go down to St. Celestine's myself, if I were you."
"I-I was just about to say," Margaret agreed, awkwardly pulling her gaze away. "Uh, if dad asks for me, tell him I'm out, all right?"
"Will do, sweetie."
"Whatever you say, Miss King."
It only took a few minutes to walk to the hospital, but by the time she made it, Margaret's heart was pounding. His heart, really? She knew Bob had his share of problems, but he was always so upbeat and full of...well...energy. It was hard for her to even imagine him in the hospital, let alone three or four times in a year.
"Excuse me," she asked, tapping on the receptionist's desk. "Is Bob Sparker in? I heard--"
"Oh yeah, and lookin' a mess, too," the clerk replied. He leaned out the window and gestured around the corner. "All the way down the hall, last door on your right. You can't miss it."
He was right. At the end of the hall she found a massive, heavy door made of solid wood, with a hazard sign chained across it and tilting to one side. DANGER! it said. KEEP OUT! EXTREMELY HIGH VOLTAGE! She had to stop and stare at it just to believe it was real. It looked like someone had plucked it from a horror film and stuck it into the hospital as a prank.
"Oh, for God's sake!" came a piercing, exasperated voice from behind the door. "I told you to hold still! Hold still before I do it for you!"
In response, a peal of high-pitched laughter rang out--not like a bell, but a siren, whining up and down. "I'd like to see you try!" Bob laughed, and it sent a spike of fear through Margaret as she recognized his voice. "You'll look real good lit up like a Christmas tree, doctor!"
She didn't wait to knock. She just grabbed the handle, pressed her shoulder against the door and shoved it hard. Hell of a thing to do in heels, but she was tough, and it creaked open far enough for her to slip inside.
A mad scientist's lab wasn't far off the mark. She'd been in the hospital before, but she had no idea this room even existed--there was had a flat steel table at one end, with what looked like an entire B-movie's worth of vague electronic equipment on the walls. On the other end was a regular hospital bed with a curtain, placed near the window, and in the middle was Bob Sparker, cackling, his muscles tense as wires, his hair standing on end. Near him, brandishing a chair and staring at the door in astonishment, was Dr. Eustace Flask.
"What--who are you?" Flask gaped. Margaret had seen him before on TV once, maybe twice, but he looked nothing like a star. His glasses were lopsided on his gaunt face, his long hair was messy and stuck to his forehead with sweat, and he scowled. "Well, never mind about that," he said. "Get out of the way before--"
"Margie! It's you!" Bob squealed. She turned just in time for her friend to practically tackle her, giving her sharp, stinging kisses all across her cheeks. "Am I ever glad to see you!" he exclaimed. "This quack's tryin' to tie me down, and he hasn't even bought me dinner first! The nerve!"
"Get off her!" Flask grabbed his shoulders and tried to wrestle him away, and Margaret took a moment to catch her breath. The doctor hauled Bob over to the metal operating table and shackled him down--no, she wasn't seeing things, literally shackling him down in loops of solid steel around his wrists and ankles.
"Stop it!" she yelled. She ran over and yanked Flask away from the table, throwing him to the ground. "What the hell are you doing to him? Let him go!"
"Attagirl, Margie!" Bob cackled. "Give him a taste of his own medicine, why don't you?"
"You shut up!" Flask spat. Bob snapped shut, falling into a series of restrained, raspy giggles. "And as for you," the doctor snarled, turning to Margaret, "I don't know what you're doing here--"
"I'm Margaret King, daughter of Percy King, executive management of Top Tier Networks and Zap! Entertainment," she recited breathlessly, "and I'm a kickboxing champ and if you don't let my friend go right now, I'll--I'll--" She trailed off into sputtering. "Bob! Line, please!"
"You'll send him to his own operating room!" he offered cheerfully.
"Yeah! Better hope you can operate on yourself, doc." She grabbed the leg of a nearby chair with her heel and kicked it towards Dr. Flask. "Have a seat!"
Flask pulled himself up into the chair, gasping. "I know who you are," he huffed. "I didn't think you would be such a thug."
"The feeling's mutual," Margaret replied flatly. Bob let out yet another knifelike laugh behind her, and she winced. "Bob, it wasn't that funny. Calm down, okay?"
"He can't!" Flask yelled, throwing up his hands. "That's the entire reason he's here! He pumped himself too full of electricity and now he's bouncing off the walls. And it's not just that," he added. "Take a look at him, Ms. King. Really look at him."
She turned. Bob was still giggling and snorting, but his hands were clenched so tight his knuckles were turning white. He was breathing so quickly, sucking in gulps of air and laughing them out, that his stomach and chest almost seemed to flutter. And his heart...
"Like a jackrabbit," Flask said. "No human has a pulse like that."
Margaret couldn't tear her eyes away, but she tried not to shudder as she watched Bob Sparker tense and squirm on the operating table. "What are you going to do?" she asked.
"Well, what I normally do is just let him laugh it all off here, where he can't hurt anyone," the doctor explained. "The metal table directs the shock to ground and the shackles monitor his pulse, so--"
"What?" Margaret said, gaping. "That's all you do? Strap him down and leave him alone?"
"What else is there to do?" Flask replied, exasperated. "I can't get close enough to sedate him, and even if I did, that ghoul's got enough voltage in him to stun an elephant. I'm lucky if I only come out with a light burn. And you, my dear," he said testily, "are lucky you're still standing."
"Hey!" Bob snapped, trying to turn himself onto his side so he could shoot the doctor a nasty look. "Watch your mouth, doc! I'd never lay a finger on her!"
"Yeah," Margie said, rubbing her cheek where he'd kissed her. "I mean, it stings a little, but--c'mon, Bob's not a bad guy. He just gets outta hand sometimes, he isn't dangerous or anything--"
"Dangerous?" Flask repeated, his jaw practically dropping to the ground. "Ms. King, with all due respect, are we looking at the same person here?" He jabbed a finger towards the table. "Look at that! That's not healthy! That's nowhere near normal!"
"Don't you call him that! You're a monster!" Margaret shouted. She turned away from both of them as she felt the heat of frustration rise along her neck and face. "Don't you get what you're doing? You're strapping him down like an animal, when--"
"I don't have a choice!" Flask shot back.
"Yes you do!" Margaret screamed. "If his mom could see what you're doing, she'd--"
Flask narrowed his eyes at her, and his voice became a low and venomous hiss. "Don't you dare pull that trick with me," he said, jabbing a finger towards her. She stared back at him defiantly. "Don't you dare."
That was Bob's voice, but it was different now, a cracked and raspy whine. Both Margaret and the doctor turned towards him,. He was still all tensed up on the table, half-sitting up as best he could, but now he looked like he was about to cry. "Please," he begged, "y-you're not gonna..."
All of a sudden, he burst into tears. "Please don't tell her! Please don't tell my mom I'm in the hospital!" It was hard to make out the words between his sobs, and there was a crackling in his voice like static.
Margaret stared, her jaw slack, and then looked towards the doctor. His eyes were locked onto the monitor. It had a heart-rate display that was shuddering up and down so quickly Margaret could barely make it out, and one of the voltage gauges suddenly shot up into the red. If it was pulling Bob's charge out, then...
A horrible grin spread over Flask's face and he darted to the side of the table. "Yes!" he said gleefully. "Yes, that's an excellent idea! I have her address right in your file, and--"
"No! N-no please, she'll h-h-have a heart attack!" Bob cried. "She'll have to c-come and see me and--"
"See you? Like this?" Flask laughed, and Bob let out a wail so loud Margaret nearly felt the room rattle under her feet.
She lunged forward and shoved Flask out of the way. "Stop it, for God's sake!" she shouted. "You're nothing but a sadist!"
"Sadist? A sadist?" Flask laughed, and with his hair flung all over the place and his eyes wide, he bore more than a passing resemblance to his patient. "He's the one who hurts people as a game and I'm the one who's a sadist?"
"Shut up," Margaret yelled. "Just shut up! He doesn't need your help!"
"Not anymore!" Flask said, throwing an arm up toward the gauges. "Take a look, Miss King! It's working!"
Margaret turned. Bob let out a long cry, then another. The gauges on the machine pulsed, then ebbed, sinking lower and lower towards the green. "I'm so sorry," Bob sputtered. Margaret hadn't even noticed, but he'd managed to slip his wrists free of the cuffs, and he was sobbing heavily into his hands. "Margie..."
"Shh." She wound closer to him and he latched on tight, sending sparks along her arms. "It's okay," she whispered. "It's okay." His arms were thin and cold and it made her afraid--not of him but of everything around him, of the mad scientist's lab and the hospital and how he had to be here at all.
She closed her eyes tight. The shock pulsed along her arms and down to her ankles with every labored breath Bob took. Distantly Flask was yelling at her to get away, but she didn't pay attention. She could barely hear Bob himself over the sound of her beating heart.
"I'm so sorry, Margie," he said hoarsely. "For makin' a m-mess like this and z-zapping you and everything..."
"It's okay. It's fine," she whispered. "I can hardly even feel it."
"Please don't tell her."
"I won't. I won't. I'll make sure," she said, glaring pointedly at the doctor. "Don't worry, okay?"
"Th-thanks," Bob wheezed, slowly relaxing against her. "Margie, you're the best..."
With that he slid off of her like an egg out of a frying pan, flopping bonelessly back onto the table. "And he's out," Flask observed, leaning over to look at him. "And you?"
"I'm fine," she lied, wrapping her short coat around herself tighter. "It didn't hurt. He got it all out okay, right?"
"Right. Discharged quickly and--relatively safely." Flask reached down to unhook him from the shackles around his ankles, and then he pulled a blanket up over him. "I'm sorry you had to be here for all this," he said. "Barging in like this is the worst thing could have done...but I suppose I should thank you for your help anyway."
"You're horrible," Margaret said. "Don't think I'm suddenly going to forget how you treated him."
"I'm sure you won't," Flask sighed. He straightened his glasses and smoothed down his hair. "I wouldn't have to do this if he stopped screwing around with that electric chair. It's sickening," he said, and his voice shook with disgust. "And I don't see why you and your network let him do that to himself."
Margaret looked down at Bob's pale, sleeping form on the table. "I didn't know it was this bad," she whispered. "He always looked so happy."
She expected Flask to make some snappy comeback, but he didn't. He only gave her a look she couldn't read.
"What happens now?" she asked.
"I'll keep him here for a few days, monitor him until he's fit to go back to work." Flask sat back down in a nearby chair. It creaked under his weight. "Get him some decent food, make sure his heart stabilizes..."
"Can I come see him again?"
"I think that would be fine," Flask said. He glanced towards his patient. "I think it would be good for him."
The day after, Margaret looked up to see Bob stroll into the Kings' penthouse like it was nothing. He had some faint bags under his eyes and generally looked a little tired, but that was about it.
"Bob?" Margaret said, blinking. "Didn't you go to the hospital?"
"Aw, I was hopin' you didn't know," he laughed. "Yeah, I guess I did. Not much of a big deal, though. Mr. King popped into my room this morning, says everything's A-OK and I can head home. Great, right?"
She stared. "Dad said you could leave? Are you sure?"
"Yeah! He said it wasn't anything I couldn't handle, and--" He stopped as Margaret pulled him close, hugging him so tight that her arms started to ache. "Huh? What's the matter, Margie?" he asked, swaying a little, and she blinked back tears as she heard the confusion in his voice. "Margie, what's wrong?"