The Gears That Ground The Hearts of Children
by Konstantine Paradias
On his 12th birthday on November 20th, Timothy Burroughs found out that he wasn't a real boy. The revelation was swift and brutal, without fanfare, spiced with that special little cruelty that only a mundane, everyday life can provide.
There were no blocks of wood in the vicinity and no fairies were involved. There weren't even any magic wands waving. There was just a bouncing ball (tossed over a fence by a miscalculation), the screeching of tires on asphalt, the mournful cry of car brakes and a small pair of dents on the bumper, barely noticeable.
When Timothy Burroughs opened his eyes and discovered that he was trapped beneath a car, his nose mere inches away from its heaving insides, he din't even cry. But then he tried to get up and saw one of the rear wheels buried inside his belly. He saw something silver and gleaming that spilled black and noxious fluid on his brand new shirt rising from the hole. He began to scream.
"Did you hear about the Burroughs boy?"
"Oh, I wouldn't call it a boy, what with all that's happened lately..."
"Don't be so cruel, Gladys. No matter what, it's still just a child."
"You mean it looks like a child. Not that I mind, I'll have you know. Why, some of my best friends have gotten themselves a replicant! Only they have the decency to replace a pet with one of those, not an actual kid."
"Gladys, please don't be that way. Poor Tom and Jenny are already going through a lot, the truth about it coming out and all..."
"Then they shouldn't have done it! They shouldn't have gotten this monstrosity in the first place and they shouldn't have let it walk around without us knowing! For God's sake Maybelle, that thing was trick or treating with my grandchildren the other day!"
"It's harmless, Gladys and you know it. Timothy never hurt--"
"It's not Timothy. It's a bunch of wires and cogs and what not that they slapped a skin on and made it look like Timothy! I won't have you sullying the boy's name in front of me!"
"Oh sweet-pea I know, I know..."
"How could they do it? How could they do that to such a sweet child?"
"Grief makes you do all sorts of crazy things, Gladys. Now quit your crying, I'm going to make us another cup of tea, how about that?"
"How will I look them in the eye ever again, Maybelle? How can I do it?"
"You don't have to, sweet-pea. You don't have to. They said it had been badly damaged, probably wouldn't even take it out of the repair shop. Heard Myrtle say they were of a mind to scrap it."
"I hope they do...I hope they disassemble it and bury the pieces in the bottom of the ocean..."
Maybelle said nothing, but she hoped the same thing too.
It took Thomas Burroughs, the car's driver and the members of the ReVita Corporation's team of engineers thirty minutes to move the car so they could get Timothy out and inspect the damage. During that time, Timothy had screamed, then he'd cried, then he'd prayed to God with his dad holding his hand and then finally quieted down.
As the engineers picked him up in a stretcher, one of them holding the lines of cable and pieces of the hydraulic apparatus that made up Timothy's spine, the only thing that went through Timothy's mind was:
This is a dream, just a dream, just a dream...
Dad, wake me up, wake me up, wake me up! DAD!
And finally, as one of the engineers leaned over him and flicked a switch hidden behind a patch of skin under his left ear lobe:
SYSTEM FAILURE DUE TO EXTENSIVE HARDWARE DAMAGE. REBOOTING GNOSIS...wake me up, wake me up...RESTORING SYSTEM TO PREVIOUS STATE.
Thomas picked up the phone before it had even finished ringing. His food had gotten cold nearly an hour ago. There was ice-cream cake on the table, its frosting long since returned into the nectar-sweet confectionery ooze.
"Mr. Burroughs? Thomas Burroughs?"
"Yes" said Thomas and his every word was like sandpaper grating against the inside of his throat.
"I'm calling on behalf of ReVita's tech support department, regarding Replicant G3-4352?"
"How's Timothy?" Thomas corrected him.
"Well sir, the Replicant has had severe damage in its mechanical cortex and its hydraulics are ruined. We've done our best so far, but from our current assessment the damage is too extensive for us to fix."
"But he can be fixed, can't he? There must be something you can do for him."
"Sir, the Replicant has been damaged severely and to be honest, fixing it is going to cost more than a replacement. Now, your warranty still applies, which means that we can find you a replacement Replicant and have it delivered to your house within the week, with a courtesy Replicant pet of your choosing from our Winter Catalog."
"You mean you'd rather I replaced Timothy? That I'd just chuck my own son in the trash for a new toy and a wind-up cat?" There was powdered glass in Thomas' throat, cigarette ash behind his eyes.
"With all due respect sir, the Replicant's repair cost is going to far outweigh your warranty coverage. Even with it, we're looking at a sizeable sum and even then we cannot guarantee full identity restoration due to the system crash. Even if we did fix it--"
"He's not an it! His name is Timothy and he's my son and if you do not fix him I swear to God there will be Hell to pay!" Thomas screamed. "Now, what are we looking at cost-wise? How much are you going to soak us?"
The employee told him a number and Thomas ran a quick calculation in his mind. Even with the warranty coverage, it still amounted to their entire savings account and then some.
"Very well, sir. However, I should tell you that ReVita also provides a psychological support line and I am obligated by contract to patch you through to them so you can discuss your opinions with a trained professional. If you could please hold while I--"
Thomas slammed the receiver on the hook and ran up to Jenny to tell her the good news. By the time he was done, Jenny was crying for a wholly different reason.
So all ReVita's experts and all of Revita's men put out the order for replacement parts for the year-old G3-4352 model. They took out its crushed parts and re-soldered all its circuitry. They set it up with brand new hydraulics, while the software engineers removed the black box from its chest and tried their damnedest to restore its previous function and remove any reports from the systemic crash and expunge the trauma data.
But for all of ReVita's experts and all of Revita's men, they couldn't put Timothy's brain in one piece again.
So after an entire month of trying, long after the maintenance men had fixed the G3-4352's shell and patched its skin, they simply re-installed the salvaged black box and crossed their fingers and prayed to God that no one would notice.
Thomas and Jenny Burroughs, now without a penny to their name, drove all the way to ReVita headquarters and picked up Timothy. They removed him from his box and they unraveled his bubble wrap, they checked and rechecked every inch of him to make sure he was in top shape.
Afterwards, they drove Timothy back to the house, carried him into his room and tucked him under the blankets in his favorite Batman pyjamas, where they switched him on.
Timothy woke up screaming, bawling his eyes out. But Thomas and Jenny were there, to run their fingers through his hair and sing him his favorite song until Timothy calmed down and closed his eyes and pretended to go to sleep.
They both stood over him, watching him for well over an hour. Timothy didn't forget to breathe for their sake, not while they were in the room.
Timothy was busy acting like he was having fun on the swing for Jenny's sake, when the little girl broke from the cluster of her friends, her face flushed, her gait that of a teenage empress.
"My mom says you're not really Timothy. I think she's right." she said.
"That's true." said Timothy, feeling nothing but a very tiny hurt somewhere in the back of his mind.
"My mom says Timothy got real sick and he died. She says you're just a robot that looks like Timothy." came the second volley of condemnation.
"That's also true." said Timothy, stealing a glance back at Jenny, her eyes fixed on the circle of mothers who nodded their heads and exchanged venom for small talk.
"My mom thinks your mom and dad are crazy." The little girl said, her condemnations now faded and broken, having struck Timothy's exterior and failing to make even the slightest dent.
"Do you think so too?" asked Timothy, skidding to a halt, his eyes transfixing her.
"No" said the little girl "I think they're just sad. I was sad too. I liked Timothy."
"I bet Timothy liked you very much too." There was a momentary silence between them, enough to convey whatever needed to be said. The girl smiled at Timothy and Timothy gave her the warmest, most sincere smile he could muster. "Want to get on the swing? I can push you if you like" he offered.
By the time the sun had set and Jenny took Timothy back home, he'd made friends in the playground, like the boy before him had done. He knew that what he felt wasn't truly happiness, but he still savored it.
Thomas was halfway through reading the dead boy's favorite story, when Timothy decided that he couldn't keep up his little charade:
"Dad?" he said and immediately felt the closest thing he could feel to regret.
"Yes, Timothy?" said Thomas, looking at him with his big brown eyes. He seemed wearier than Prometheus himself.
"I didn't make it when that car hit me, did I?"
"Don't be silly, Timothy, of course you did." Thomas replied but already his face was parchment-white.
"Please don't lie to me. I saw what happened and I saw the wheels as they rolled over me and I saw that the tire was in my belly."
"You were just very scared, son, that's all. You just thought that because you'd almost been run over. But we took you to the hospital and the doctors patched you up." Thomas said, reaching out to touch Timothy.
"No you didn't. You took me to a workshop and they put me back together. They did their best to make me forget about it, though. How I wasn't really real. But they couldn't because I didn't want to forget."
"Oh son, you‘re just scared, that's all. You just saw a nightmare, when you were at the hospital and you were so scared you thought it was real." Thomas's fingers were running through Timothy's hair frantically now, tugging at them, the smile of a failed suicide on his lips.
"How did Timothy die, dad? The boy before me, the one I look like?"
"You're not dead, you're right here, talking to me! Please stop talking all this nonsense, son..." there was something in Thomas' voice that disturbed Timothy, the way tears streamed down his cheeks, the way he was tugging at his hair now, his voice at the decibel range bordering hysteria.
"I'm not your son, Thomas. Timothy was your son, but he died. How did he die, Thomas?" Timothy asked and realized how good it felt, to give up his made-up little boy's voice.
"That's enough, Timothy! That's enough!" Thomas said, slamming the book shut and placing it on the nightstand. "You go to sleep now, you hear? You go to sleep and tomorrow we're going to meet the counselor and we're going to make sure you stop all this lying!"
Halfway through stomping out of the room, Thomas turned and said: "You're grounded for a week!"
After the door slammed and Thomas rushed downstairs, Timothy stood in silence and felt the way the dead boy would have felt, if he had made his father sad and gotten grounded at the same time. He stood in the darkness until Thomas and Jenny began arguing downstairs, screaming at each other, then he took the book off the nightstand and began to read, in his best boy impression:
"And all the fishes were hollow, my dear; and they all swam at me."
"Ma'am, if I may, your husband had been warned of possible Gnostic error caused due to massive--"
"My child is up there saying it's not alive! You call this doing your job, you bastards?"
"Ma'am, please. You need to understand that we had warned your husband about this exact possibility: the Replicant is experiencing severe dissassociative trauma that could not be fixed. If I may speak to your husband, I recall that we had proposed--"
"It's not a Replicant! It's my son!"
"Ma'am, under your contract clause, I am now obligated to forward you to a specialist. Please hold."
"Don't you dare put me on hold, you son of a bitch! Don't you dare put me on--"
Thank you for calling ReVita Incorporated's customer support line. You call is being redirected...
"What did they say?" Thomas asked, his head in his hands.
"Put me on hold. Said they were forwarding me to a specialist."
"Ask the son of a bitch if that's their idea of a joke, when he picks up."
"If he picks up." Jenny groaned, just as the voice responded from the other end.
"Hello, Mrs. Burroughs? My name is Doctor Donovan Miller. Now, how can I help you?"
"Well, Doctor, my son is upstairs, telling me that he died and that he's a machine and I was wondering what the hell your company is planning to do about it."
"Mrs Burroughs, according to your contract clause that you signed upon purchasing the Replicant--"
"Timothy...I am obligated to record this conversation. Do you concede to this?"
"If it will help us make any progress with you people."
"Very well then, Mrs. Burroughs. Please, tell me what the problem is."
"So you see, Doctor, it's our son he's...he's convinced he's not a real boy. He wants to know how Timothy..."
"Don't be stupid. he's Timothy!" Thomas butted in. "He's Timothy and he's our son and that's all there is to it!"
"He's not...I mean, oh Doctor, we wanted everything to be perfect for the boy. We wanted him to have a birthday party and we wanted him to be happy and we wanted to hear his voice again, to hold him just a little bit longer. He wasted away, Doctor. For months, he just...wasted away. Was that too much to ask?"
"Hell no, it wasn't" Thomas said. "It wasn't. It wasn't fair then and it isn't fair now and we want to know what your company's planning to do about our son!"
"Yes. We want to know...we have to know how we can fix this. All we wanted was to see him grow up, Doctor. But now we can't, can we? All I wanted was to see my baby grow up..." Jenny's voice shattered into a million fragments and trickled down the receiver. Thomas took it from her hands.
"I want you to fix my son. I want you to make him better and I want him to be happy and sane by the time you're done. I am not losing him again, y'hear? Not again!"
And on and on it went, the cycle of pleading and prayer. All in all, Dr. Miller was very patient. He hummed and agreed as Thomas and Jenny told him their problem. He asked them all the right questions and got all the answers he wanted and then, when they were done, Dr. Miller told them in the softest, calmest tone he could muster:
"Mr. And Mrs Burroughs, according to the terms of your contract and your recorded testimony, the Replicant G3-4352 referred as Timothy has suffered a cognitive error. However, due to warranty violation of article 43-B of your Replicant Purchase Contract--that is, signs of acute associative disorder from you and your husband--the warranty is now rendered null and void; the ReVita Corproration is therefore excluded from any responsibility toward your purchased Replicant."
"You can't be serious. You can't do this. Please don't do this, please!"
Thank you for calling ReVita Incorporated's customer support line. Your call is now being terminated.
Thomas and Jenny did their absolute best to cope with Timothy. They did not speak of the matter again and Timothy never pushed it. It was the look in their eyes that said it all, that day when he came down the steps from his room and saw them both leaning over the kitchen counter, stirring their coffee, as if seeking some hopeful omen.
It was the way Jenny looked at Timothy, her eyes great holes that seemed to go on forever.
He decided to be a boy, then. To play the part of little Timothy, the child that had come before him and he did it with the utmost grace. He stirred the contents of his lunch to make it look like he was eating and he kissed them both on the cheek. He asked them to read him bedtime stories and he wrote letters to Santa.
But when he would go outside, to the playground or at school, the illusion of Timothy would shatter under the scrutiny of the neighbor's eyes and the cruel honesty of children. Jenny would drink heavily and Thomas would argue with her over nothing and then they'd fight and Timothy would wait in his room, pretending to be asleep.
But Timothy knew, when he looked at them. He knew that the charade did not stand, would not stand. He saw the way Thomas looked at him from the bathroom mirror, as he pretended to brush his teeth and he could read Jenny's face behind her thick sunglasses.
It was on the Eve of Christmas that Timothy decided that he couldn't go on. So he sat with Jenny and Thomas around the fire and he helped them decorate the tree and he opened his presents and he gave them both a kiss.
And then Timothy went up to his room, opened the compartment inside his chest and ripped out the black box that was his brain with his bare hands.
There was no ceremony for Timothy, not this time. There was no crowd or a beautiful mahogany coffin. There were no flowers, no priest to read the words of the Good Book, no hole in the ground for him to lay in and be buried.
There was only rain, skies the color of old men's skin on their deathbed and a great big pit, where Timothy tumbled. Jenny cried for awhile, but was silenced. Thomas drove without saying a word.
When they got home, neither of them spoke of divorce, or grew apart, nor did they engage in fierce lovemaking. They simply stood there, looking at each other, the grandfather clock ticking away the seconds.
Neither said "Thank God it's over," for hope that the other might say it first.
There was no uproar in the neighbourhood and no mention of Timothy Burroughs among the adults. In ReVita Corporation's files, G3-4352's product file became mysteriously corrupted and was subsequently deleted. No official reports were filed.
Only the children remembered, in that way only children can: by telling the stories with each side painted black and the other white. By turning Timothy Burroughs into an ogre and then a savior in each telling, until those attributes ran together and he became something greater, a myth of a clockwork boy.
The black box remained on the nightstand on Timothy's room, imperishable and inalterable. And in the dark hours before morning, when the cries of the new baby turned to gentle snoring and the Grandfather clock held his breath between the seconds, it almost seemed at peace.
© 2012 Konstantine Paradias
Bio: Konstantine Paradias is a Greek science fiction and fantasy writer. His short stories in English have been published on OHP's Petulant Parables Anthology, Breathless Press's Shifters anthology, EveryDayFiction.com, Schlock! Magazine, and in Static Movement's Behind Closed Doors and Long Pig anthologies. His first fantasy ebook, Stone Cold Countenance, has been published by bibliocracy.com.
E-mail: Konstantine Paradias
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.