by Peter Ngumbah
It cometh like an ice-cream truck cometh, but the song from its mounted speakers is low and sad and drawn out in the more melancholy places. Their vibrations permeate the walls of a hundred sleeping houses, fall into the ears of a thousand adults, stirring them from their slumber. The same song lulls the children into a deeper sleep, induces sweeter dreams than any they could hope to have unassisted.
Through his open window, Matt watches it coming down the street. Its sad bass and falsetto incantations have drowned out the sound of the early bird’s song, even the rustle of leaves, but he hears his neighbours’ door click open and then slam shut. People are emerging from their houses to stare at the boxy vehicle rumbling down the street.
“It’s here,” Matt tells his wife. She sits up in bed and clings nervously to her pillow.
In the house across the street, the curtain flutters and a wrinkled lady’s face appears on the other side of the glass, rollers and pins still in her hair. She sees Matt before she sees the truck; their eyes meet, a fleeting moment of understanding passing between them. She gives him a sympathetic nod and then retreats back behind her beige drapes.
Matt leaves the room and hurries down the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the landing he halts and peeks into Denver’s room. The little boy sleeps, as he should, his little head resting on a pillow, the rest of his body slumped limply against the wall on the other side of the room, sparks occasionally flitting from his neck.
Matt rushes back up the stairs to put on some outside pants.
* * *
As the truck rolls past, a hundred pairs of slippers whisper over their lawns to get to the produce it carries. It pauses in the middle of the street, an odd visitor to the uniform rows of gentrified houses. From his high driver’s perch, Monty observes the approaching horde and nods satisfactorily. This will be a fine place for today’s business; probably home to hundreds of children, and if only a quarter of them got injured this past month—
He checks that his cash till has ample room.
When the truck’s steel shutter goes up a cold mist goes forth from it, enveloping the feet of the nearest man, the very first customer of the day. The man is disheveled, wide eyed and sleepless. Monty takes in all the pertinent details, each observation telling a little more of the man’s story.
“What can I do for you today, sir?” Monty asks.
The man tiptoes, his nose an inch from the counter-top.
“My little girl—” the man pauses and looks around nervously. Everyone else patiently awaits their turn, each keeping a respectful distance from their neighbour. No eyes meet. No words are exchanged; the only sound is the sad song from the speakers, and it goes on and on, never-ending.
The man hands Monty a card.
“I see,” Monty says, examining the card. “Car accident. Broken ribs and femur, bipedal locomotion currently impossible. This is a relatively recent unit. I have the parts in store.”
The refrigerated unit in the back hisses when Monty muscles it open, and beeps when he puts the card into a receiving slot. A whirring follows, gears grind, and the required parts flow out of the cold mist, held and drawn forward by gentle gripping arms on conveying machinery. A single pudgy leg, detached at the hip, and a series of slender rib pieces shine dimly in the light of the morning sun.
Monty packs them in a bag, accepts payment, and the queue moves forward.
Matt hands Monty a card.
“My son had an accident in the tool shed. Axe fell off a high shelf. Grisly business.”
Monty examines the card, his brow furrowing deeply at what he is seeing.
“This is no good,” he says, shaking his head. “With the physical logic bus damaged to this extent, it will have to go back to the factory. Looks like you’ll also need a new power relay to relink the head. It’ll cost you.”
“Too much,” Monty opines. “It might be cheaper to get another child in the long run. Perhaps one of the newer models.”
“We’ve had this one for over ten years now! We’ve sunk thousands into new parts every other year. We can’t just start over.”
Monty shrugs. This kind of this had been happening with increasing frequency, particularly with the older models as they approached their teens. They just weren’t as many safeguards build into them.
“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” Monty says. After a moment of thought, he reaches below the counter and produces out a pamphlet. “Here’s a company offering some top of the range models. It might give you some idea of what to look for when you shop.”
Matt takes the pamphlet and looks blankly at its colourful pages. Children smiling, running around, playing amongst themselves. They looked exactly like human children. Only better, cleaner, more cooperative. Just like the company motto inscribed on the top of the page: Better than the real thing.
“Alright,” Matt says evenly, turning back to his house. “I—I’ll inform the wife.”
His neighbours part to let him through, some tapping him consolingly on the shoulder.
“Perhaps,” Monty calls after him, “you can try a girl this time.”
After all, Monty thinks as his next customer steps forward, if you don’t like it, you can just change out the parts.
◊ ◊ ◊
Peter Ngumbah, is 26 years old, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, where he spends most of his time working on his first young-adult novel and more comic and TV scripts than is probably acceptable. He tends to lean into the dark and macabre side of fiction, and now, voyaging into the world of flash and short fiction, that appears to stay true.