“Sometimes I think, when the scheduled clean comes on, the little vacuum wakes up and says ‘Aw, do I have to work today?’ because his job is to vacuum, and it sucks.”
“Yeah. Maybe he wants to roll away to a better life.”
“Yeah. He just leaves the house and rolls down the street.”
“… With a little blue baseball cap on.”
“Poor guy. Something good will come of him, though. I can feel it.”
Announcer: Give a vacuum a good life. Adopt and convert a robot vacuum of the past, to take into the future, today!
United States – In Another Time
A boy, fourteen years old, lays across a chocolate-colored leather sectional in his living room. His hair is scruffy, dark auburn in color. Freckles sit beneath dirt marks on his cheeks from baseball practice. Similar marks of rough play were on his white t-shirt, neatly folded atop the coffee table beside his organized stack of homework, left abandoned for the large screen suspended above the fireplace. On it, a fixed figure of the glossy black, disk-shaped robot vacuum sits on the sidewalk of a quaint suburban neighborhood. Bushy apple trees line the paths, while the image of kids at play on manicured lawns captivated the boy. It all looked familiar. It could’ve been his neighborhood, if people still went outside…
That’s awesome, he thought to himself. He stared hard at the intriguing question ‘ADOPT?’ on the screen. He nods. Selection confirmed.
The doorbell rings.
“Who is that? You didn’t order something off the TV again, did you?” the boy’s mom yelled from the kitchen. He ignored her and opened the red front door to find his robot vacuum unpackaged, delivered via express drone, wearing a little blue baseball cap just like the ad. He seized the heavy disk and ran back inside before his mother could see.
Into the evening, in a bedroom that seemed more like a suspicious chop shop, the boy twists at his workbench. As the creator, there were no rules. A hammer covered with bot innards stuck to its claw is discarded on the floor. An organized mess of gadgets and metal parts, deadly tools, and open notebooks full of scratchy designs, measurements, and random thoughts besieges him. Strange, black liquid from the robot occupied the ruined wood floor, coating the boy’s hands with an odd metallic essence. He worked through the smell. His sharp, emerald eyes moved fast behind safety goggles, while his sore, ungloved hands worked hard changing, building, binding. He concentrates. Fails. Builds and rebuilds.
“Okay Mom! One sec!” he yelled back.
He attaches one last artery.
“Ethan! Dinner!” his dad boomed from downstairs like thunder at his ear.
“Come on!” Ethan yelled, banging his fist on the table. He whipped off his goggles and saw the tip of his middle finger leak crimson life. On instinct, he squeezed his finger inside an exposed tube leading to his creation’s core. Ethan felt the blood drain from his finger and felt dizzy.
“ETHAN!” his dad thumped the door like a compliance officer. Startled, Ethan yanked his finger free.
“I’m coming!” he groans, patience wearing thin. He squeezed his sore finger with a clean cloth, watching the knob jiggle, but it’s locked. There was still time. “Come on. Come on. Beat!”
“ETHAN DUST! Get downstairs for dinner!”
Ethan opened his mouth to respond —
Then, it growled…
“ETHAN!” he bangs on the door again. “I know you heard me!”
“He’s going to get our home in trouble, John. They’ll think we’re out of compliance if he’s not downstairs.” Mother whispered. Ethan heard her worries outside his door. “Honey? Come on now, time to eat. The government gave us stew tonight, it’s your favorite, remember?”
“He needs to get his ass out before they scan the block. Stay here. I’ll go downstairs to get ready for them, just in case. Try to find something to pick that damn lock. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with that boy,” John said.
Ethan watched the mechanical beast crawl down from the workbench, pacing towards him on four legs. It had a faded silver body, deadly fangs and no eyes. Ethan blinked, wishing he had his glasses on for a better look. Regardless, he knew what stood before him.
“I’m a fucking genius,” he said, laughing, amazed at his handiwork.
“JOHN! They stopped here!” his mother screamed.
Ethan heard her through his door again. “Shit.” He ran past the beast to his window. The government was scarier than his current creation. Society accepted their dark actions under the guise of national security, but everyone knew the consequences if they didn’t obey. Ethan recognized his wild streak, but didn’t want to risk losing his parents or being separated from them for his mistakes.
When officers pulled into the driveway, Ethan turned back to the beast.
“Can you understand me?”
It nods slow.
“Please, stay here. Okay?” Ethan said.
It stared at Ethan. The beast reminded him of his old brown shaggy dog, Pepper. He died years ago, ran over and killed by compliance officers in pursuit of a non-compliant neighbor on the run. There were no apologies given for their loss, the vehicle didn’t even stop. Ethan never forgot how bad his heart hurt placing Pepper into the earth for good. But that was long ago. No sense to dwell on the past.
Ethan darted from his room and flew into his chair for dinner. His mother joined him, both taking in large mouthfuls of stew. Between rushed bites, Ethan looked up at his father, who stood near the door, waiting for the bell to ring and explain their actions. John looked more tired than normal, grown weary from years of compliance, being someone they forced him to be. And for what? A life of suburban slavery? Government Stew every Thursday?
The bell rings. John opened the door.
Without a word, the compliance officer leaned inward past John, peering into the home.
“Mr. Dust. You had a tardy at dinner,” the officer said, reining in his gaze. “Dinner begins at seven each weekday, with the weekends free to do as you please. Was there something wrong with your assigned government dinner?”
“It was my fault.”
Ethan wiped his mouth and put the napkin in his back jean pocket, never breaking eye contact. He looked like a younger version of his father when he stood beside him. Handsome, muscular build, and equal in height. They both stared the officer down with confident, emerald eyes.
“I was listening to the musings of our fearless president on her America Today podcast. The one where she spoke about adherence to structure that captivated me so much, I didn’t even hear my poor mother calling me for dinner. My deepest apologies, sir. I’ll keep the volume of my devices at a more suitable level as to not incur another tardy. If it’s any consolation, my mother and I ate half of our stew just now, as did my father during my tardiness. Again, I will ensure I’m on time to the table for dinner during every nightly neighborhood scan going forward.”
The officer, identified by his proud pin on the right lapel of his slender, navy blue suit, stared long in Ethan’s direction, his identity concealed behind a digital mask. He turned to John.
“We will classify this visit as an inquiry. We will deduct no points from you or your family’s National Profile, Mr. Dust.”
“Thank you,” John nods, grateful.
“Keep your son in line,” the officer said. He fell in with the other two officers back in their armored truck. John went back inside. Ethan waited by the door, waving them goodbye as the compliance officer he spoke with stared back at him.
Hmm. Did I overdo it? Ethan thought to himself.
He closed the door; his thoughts linger on the compliance officer’s prolonged gaze. Did he know I was lying? Or is it…
“ETHAN!” John yelled.
“Shit. The beast!” Ethan broke into a sprint up the stairs. Lies ran through his head at the ready, producing multiple excuses to dispel any anger his dad would throw at him regarding the abomination in his room.
“Yeah dad?” Ethan’s beating heart outraced his thoughts.
“Thank you,” John said. He hugged his son tight. “You’re a great actor.”
“Yeah. N-No problem. Love you, and all that,” Ethan said. Smiling, chuckling. His father’s affection surprised and comforted him.
“And all that,” John said back, smiling. “Don’t forget to do your homework. I gotta go calm your mother down. That visit really upset her. You better not do that again.”
He ruffled Ethan’s hair and went off.
Ethan went back into his room. He found the beast asleep inside Pepper’s old dog bed. He obeyed my command… Ethan thought, approaching with caution, stroking its hard metal body softly.
It was cold, and didn’t move.
Ethan gathered the metal beast in his arms and went into his backyard. Under the cover of darkness, he buried the beast alongside his other failed creations, already deep inside the earth. When done, he sat in the grass beside the fresh dirt patch, staring into the twinkling night sky, wondering if this was all there was: Order. Fear. Disappointment.
Open your mind. Don’t consume what they provide.
A voice called from behind. Ethan jumped up, looking around. No one else was there.
“What?” Ethan said, staring at a tall oak tree where he thought the voice was coming from. But there were no other words. He sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. Down the block, the sound of compliance sirens screeched through the air, piercing his ears, heart, and soul. Someone else was out of compliance. Someone else would go missing again. Another empty seat in his class perhaps, or another funeral to attend. There seemed to be a lot of fatal accidents lately.
Ethan thought of stew, the mandatory dinners to come, and the rules meant to be followed. Just to grow up tired and angry, like his father. Or scared of everything, finding ease in conformity, like his mother, like the rest of the country.
Just obey. He heard those two words all his life.
“Not me,” Ethan gritted his teeth.
He grabbed the shovel and dug the beast back up.