“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 slides out of the house and rolls down the street.”
“… With a little blue baseball cap on.”
“Poor guy. Something good will come of him. 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!
Planet Earth – 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. Freckles sit beneath dirt marks on his cheeks from baseball practice earlier. Similar marks of rough play are on his white t-shirt, folded atop the coffee table beside an organized stack of homework, left abandoned for the large screen suspended above the fireplace. On it, a still figure of a glossy black, disk-shaped robot vacuum sits on the sidewalk of a quaint suburban neighborhood. Bushy apple trees and 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 thinks to himself. He stared at the intriguing black box labeled: ADOPT? on the screen then nods his head, confirming the purchase.
Seconds later, the doorbell rings.
“Who is that? You didn’t order something off the TV again, did you?” the boy’s mother yelled from the kitchen. He ignored her and opened the front door to find his robot vacuum unpackaged, delivered via express drone, wearing a little blue baseball cap like the commercial.
Before his mother could see, he seized the heavy disk and ran upstairs.
Into the evening, in a bedroom that resembled a chop shop, the boy tinkers at his workbench.
A hammer covered with bot innards stuck to its claw lies 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 besieged him. Strange, black liquid from the robot occupied the oak-colored hardwood floor and coated the boy’s hands with an odd metallic essence. He worked through the smell. His sharp, emerald eyes move 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.
“Dinner!” his father boomed from downstairs like thunder at his ear.
“Come on!” Ethan yelled, banging his fist on the table. He snatched his goggles off, surprised to find the tip of his middle finger leaking crimson life. How did that happen? On instinct, he positioned his finger inside an exposed, smooth tube leading to his creation’s core. Instantly, he felt the blood being sucked from his finger.
“Ethan?” His father thumps on the door like a compliance officer. Startled, Ethan yanked his finger free. “What’s that smell in there?”
“Nothing! I’m coming!” he groaned, patience wearing thin. He squeezed his sore finger with a clean cloth to stop the bleeding. “Come on. Come on. Beat!”
The doorknob jiggles, but it’s locked. There was still time for a miracle.
“Get downstairs for dinner!”
The creation growls. Ethan freezes in place, gazing in its direction.
“ETHAN! I know you hear me!”
“He’s going to get our home in trouble, John. They’ll think we’re out of compliance if he’s not downstairs.” His mother sighed. Her worries were audible 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 neighborhood,” John said. “Stay here. I’ll go downstairs to get ready for them, just in case. Try to find something to pick that lock. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with that boy.”
Ethan watched the mechanical beast climb down the workbench, pacing towards him on four legs with its faded silver body, deadly fangs, and missing eyes. “I’m a genius,” he said, laughing, amazed at his handiwork.
“JOHN! They stopped here!” his mother screamed.
“Shit.” There was nothing scarier than the government. Ethan ran to his window, finding a black armored truck in their driveway.
Society had quickly learned the consequences of their actions if they failed to obey the government, and Ethan couldn’t afford to lose his parents.
He turns back to the beast.
“Can you understand me?”
It nods slow.
“Please, stay here. Okay?”
It stares at him.
The beast reminded Ethan of his old brown shaggy dog, Pepper. He died years ago, struck and killed by compliance officers in pursuit of a non-compliant neighbor on the run. The vehicle never stopped, and they gave no apologies for the loss. He never forgot how badly his heart hurt, placing Pepper inside the earth for good. All that remained were memories and his old dog bed.
He rushed to his chair for dinner. His mother with him, both taking in large mouthfuls of meat from an unknown source, mushy carrots, stiff potatoes, and unseasoned, boring broth.
Between rushed bites, Ethan glanced at his father standing near the door, preparing for the bell to ring and explain his family’s actions.
John looked more tired than normal, grown weary from years of compliance, being someone the government forced him to be. All for a life of suburban slavery and Government Stew every Thursday.
The bell rings. John opens the door.
Without a word, a compliance officer, clad in a black military uniform and a digital mask concealing his identity, leans in past John, snooping into the family’s home.
“Mr. Dust. You had a tardy at dinner,” the officer said in an authoritative tone. He reins in his gaze. “Dinner begins at seven each weekday, with the weekends free to dine at a time of your choosing. Was there something wrong with your assigned government dinner that led to your family’s irregular behavior this evening?”
“It was my fault.” Ethan wiped his mouth and put the napkin in his back jean pocket as he stood beside his father. He looked like a younger version of him.
They stare the officer down, and the other two behind him with confident, emerald eyes.
“I was listening to the musings of our fearless president on her Nation Today podcast. The one where she spoke about adherence to structure. It 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 irregular behavior. But I will ensure I’m on time to dinner during every nightly neighborhood scan going forward.”
The officer stared at Ethan, then turned to John.
“Keep your son in line.” He orders sternly. “We will classify this visit as an inquiry and the points on your family’s National Profile will remain unchanged, Mr. Dust.”
“Thank you,” John nods, grateful.
The officers head back to their armored truck.
Waiting beside the door, Ethan waved them goodbye as they drive off. The compliance officer he spoke with looks in his direction from the passenger side.
Hmm. Did I overdo it?
He closed the door, thinking about the compliance officer’s long gaze.
Did he know I was lying? Or is it…
“Ethan!” John yelled.
“Shit. The beast.” He broke into a sprint up the stairs.
Lies ran through his head at the ready, producing multiple excuses to dispel any anger his father would throw at him regarding the abomination in his room.
“Yeah dad?” Ethan’s pounding heart outraced his thoughts.
“Thank you,” John said. He hugged his son tight.
“Yeah. N-No problem. Love you, and all that.” His father’s affection surprised and comforted him.
“And all that,” John said back, smiling and ruffling Ethan’s hair. “Don’t forget to do your homework. I gotta go calm your mother down. That visit really upset her. Don’t be late to dinner again, alright?”
Back in his room, he found the beast asleep on Pepper’s old dog bed. Approaching with caution, Ethan sat beside it, stroking its hard metal body.
It’s cold and doesn’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 finished, 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.
Don’t give up, Ethan.
A voice called from behind. He leaped to his feet, looking around. No one else was there.
The beast will consume what they provide so you may free your mind.
“The beast?” He stared at a tall oak tree where he thought the voice was coming from.
Free your mind to escape.
The words became a whisper, lost in the sudden, cool breeze that swept against him.
He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. Down the block, compliance sirens screeched, 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. More fatal accidents.
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 afraid of everything, finding ease in conformity, like his mother, like the rest of the country.
Obey. He heard that all his life.
“Not me. Not anymore.”
He grabs the shovel and digs up the beast.
Government Stew first appeared on Ghost Human Bones on August 26, 2021 and most recently on Reedsy.