The Inventor’s Dilemma

A Short Story Excerpt

Bridget Welsh

Four beeps came from a few feet away as we continued to sift through the piles of old metal and rubber, occasionally coming across a piece of scrap that we would take a closer look at. Stella, who was pressing a few buttons on her invention; Andrian, who threw away an empty coffee cup into one of the piles and started picking apart the cover of an old tire; and I, who looked through a small pile of broken screws and bolts, had been in this junkyard early enough to see the sun peek over the horizon while we imagined the rest of the world snoring away. I looked up, seeing half of the moon still visible as it lingered in the sky for just a little bit longer. I heard the footsteps of two people on the other side of the street who always took their morning and afternoon walks at the same time and in the same place. They wore heavy clothes and big-brimmed hats to cover their faces, but I’d gotten used to seeing them pass by every day without fail. The taller of the two had a heavy limp and never let their face show, but I saw a big pair of sunglasses when they’d turn their head just a little bit. Meanwhile, Andrian and I had decided not to sweat ourselves out and dress in shorts and T-shirts.

We turned our heads to see the makeshift robot that Stella had spent the past several months fixing up with wires and lights as I glanced over to see its eyes lighting up, a small red, cone-shaped light bulb and a purple, rounder light bulb, flashed a few times as she shut a latch on the back of her robot.

“Don’t worry, we’ll finish up soon! I just have to find one more thing,” Stella said, putting her hand on the top of its head. “You’re almost ready for the convention! After a few more touch-ups, you’re going to see the rest of the world, and you won’t have to camp out here anymore.”

I kept sifting through the pile in front of me, searching for anything that looked like it could still have any kind of functionality. Most of what I saw consisted of piled cans, tires, broken toys, and glass bottles.

There were also many mechanical objects that had rusted over or had been crushed. Some of them were just bent out of shape, but others were beyond any point of use.

A circular piece of plastic, about half the size of my palm, sat in the pile a few inches away from my hand. It looked like it had once fit on the back of an old toy I’d used as an acting prop during the winter, with the work day’s events revolving around capturing the holiday spirit and hours upon hours of pretending my life depended on delivering this toy to someone I had never met before, with at least a foot or so of fake snow sprinkled throughout the journey. It didn’t have any cracks in it and its paint hadn’t started chipping, still shining a bright orange with green stripes on it.

“Stella, I think I found something! Maybe it would make a good battery cover? I know you’re waiting on that section until you’re done everything else, but what do you think?”

She looked up from turning a knob on the back of her robot and looked up at me, pointing a finger as she jogged over to me.

“Hey, Vera, Is that from an old Jetpack Racer? I can’t believe they still make those!”

Andrian threw the tire cover over his shoulder and stepped out of the pile he was standing in, kicking a few broken pipes out of the way. He made his way over to me and nudged my arm. I held it out for the two of them to take a good look.

“Whoa, that looks like somebody could’ve thrown that away yesterday! I used to have one of those, remember? I flew it up to the roof and dared my little brother to go up and get it.”

“I think that’s the last day you ever saw one. You should’ve known your brother wouldn’t have given up until he got it,” I told him, chuckling a bit.

“Maybe, but if I were his age I would’ve tried the trampoline as well. When you’re that young, you think you’re invincible until you break a leg and knock out a tooth.” Stella shrugged, “Anyway. I think it’ll make a fine cover if it’s big enough. If not, I’ll just attach it to another piece.”

Andrian took it in his hand and flipped it over, shaking his head.

“Looks more like something cosmetic to me. It’s kind of small, isn’t it?”

“It depends on the batteries you use. But that’s not a bad idea if it does end up being too small. Maybe I can use that tire cover too,” She said, reaching out to take it off his shoulder.

He lifted it up and held it out with both arms, looking at its surface before handing it to her. Holes were scattered on it, and dirt smudges lined its edges. She let out a “hmm,” and carried it off with her. As she held it up to the robot, letting it hit the floor, Andrian turned to whisper to me.

“I know she said she wanted to dress it up a little bit, but just imagine taking that thing to the diner down the street. I think the guests would pass out.”

I scoffed as I lightly hit his arm.

“Hey, maybe all it needs is a little touching up and the bot will be dressed to the nines.”

Stella glanced up for a second and I shut my mouth before I saw her mouth drop and a smile take over as she began folding the edges of the cover.

“We’ll see what she comes up with. I’m sure whatever it is will look amazing,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth.

Andrian raised an eyebrow at me.

“I didn’t say it had to look like that to you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

She began pulling the cover into parts and draping it over her bot again, this time with two pieces over the shoulders and one wrapped around the torso. She began whispering to herself, or maybe to her robot as her hands maneuvered the cover to fit in just the right places.

I could barely keep up with her, watching as she twisted and turned the cover pieces into new shapes and moving to new angles just to match the picture in her mind. I couldn’t tell you what it would be of, but it must’ve been grander than anything I’d come up with when looking at that old gray cover. Her eyes flitted to each section of the tire cover as she bent down to tie up the two pieces behind her bot’s neck and the bigger one, now asymmetrically covering its legs.

“Sure, sure. And if I stretch my imagination far enough, it’ll look like the spit and image of a statue at the art museum,” he said, putting up two hands as if to mold invisible clay. “Speaking off, the day after tomorrow I’ll probably head over there and see their new exhibit since it’s my Saturday off this month. I’ll get to sleep in too since I’m not leaving until about ten A.M.”

“Maybe you should tell her that. If she can make this, she could probably make a sculpture.”

“Let’s just be thankful she’s still going to fix it up a little bit for the convention. Besides, how many people are actually going to be there? And are they all bringing robots, or just her? A science convention isn’t all going to be just that, is it?”

“Well, almost all of them probably will. She said people are focusing less on building robots and more on enhancing the ones they’ve already built. Adding things like a ton of propellers that’ll take them a mile high or practical features like a toaster on the side, depending on how much room they’ve got.”

Andrian shook his head again at Stella’s robot and then looked back at me.

“I still can’t believe she’s going to be showing that thing off in three days. Do you think she’ll have enough time to finish it by then? Just to make it a little more, uh…”

I didn’t let him finish, waving off whatever he was going to say.

“You know her, she’ll get it done, and like I said, it’s going to look great. She’s gonna make their jaws drop when they see it.”

“She’d probably get the same reaction no matter where she took it. She could even take it to the art museum and they’d probably have a million questions for her.”

The art museum, with all of its mismatched artwork on display for a whole audience to see, was fun to see if you could afford a whole tour. Once I’d spent enough time here, I’d tried to put more effort into seeing it as a museum of its own. Although I still couldn’t see any of this flotsam and jetsam in an official museum, the eclectic bunch of things piled up had started to grow on me. On my own I would have figured the most purpose they could’ve served would be to provide somewhere for the sunlight to reflect off of as people passed by on the sidewalk, occasionally glancing in their direction to see it slipping out of sight.

But after about five months of coming here during the mornings and afternoons, I’d seen Stella take old metal bars and boxes, broken wires, buttons and pins, bottle caps, wind-up toys and plastic dolls, little gadgets and gizmos that had long past seen their glory days and remold them, pull them apart and twist them, tweaking them to the point that I couldn’t even tell what they were supposed to be anymore to construct little by little the figure standing right in front of us.

I’d never thought it possible back when the idea had come up to try and make something like this, but by now, a closer resemblance to any normal person almost felt possible after having seen it during the past two weeks. It nearly as tall as Stella herself with a face like a mosaic of different pieces of scrap, some of it retaining its original dull, golden color, some just left as its natural copper color and a body made of disfigured metal, complete with discarded rubber, nuts, bolts, and lots of wire.

With the arms of an old clothing mannequin and the legs made from several painted pipes and elbows and knees covered with paper mache, it did look a little bit like something that came out of one of the old science fiction movies I’d watched, but stepping back and looking at it from a distance, I didn’t find it as hard to see why Stella would want to hold a conversation with it as I used to, albeit one-sided. Chipping paint had covered the shoulders and forearms, although Stella said that you could imagine that it looks more like tattoos if one really looked at it. They zigged and zagged, curled around its elbows, and branched out at the shoulders as if planting roots where the paint had given way.