Robot Boy would have sighed if he could. But as a sigh necessitates breath he was unable. Instead he opened what passed for a mouth and emitted a high-pitched sound, audible only to bats and the like. Robot Boy had been sighing in this fashion for months. He was unsatisfied with life. There must be something more than programming. These were dangerous thoughts. He had to hide them deep inside.
Every evening The Overseer checked his memory functions. She was a hard taskmaster and if she were to find even a hint that he was utilising unused space to dream, she would render him obsolete. To throw off suspicion he worked harder than ever before.
Robot Boy’s job was to make boxes: small boxes, tiny boxes, medium boxes, big boxes, large boxes and boxes the size of a house. He could make any box out of anything: cardboard, steel, glass, fabric, wood, anything. He worked all alone in a factory high up a mountain and at the end of every day Robot Boy filled a huge warehouse with every kind of box. He only ever saw The Overseer. She locked him away every night and as the sun yawned below the horizon he dreamt of a boxless world and the space beyond the factory walls. Each morning The Overseer would wake him to begin again, all the previous day’s boxes mysteriously vanished. Robot Boy wondered where they went at night.
The Overseer had won her robot in a game of chance, his Maker having foolishly bet more than he could afford. Now The Overseer was the only box-maker left in the land; no one could compete with the quality and low, low prices that she offered. The Overseer was a canny businesswoman when it came to boxes, but she had no idea what to invest her hard-earned cash in. So she simply piled it up until she had a whole warehouse full of gold and jewels. At night, after locking Robot Boy away, she would visit her storehouse and count every coin. It gave her great pleasure to know that no one else was as rich as her, but despite that something was missing. Robot Boy carried on making boxes and The Overseer carried on making a profit (especially since she did not pay him) but it was lonely on the mountain.
One evening the Van Man arrived to collect the day’s boxes. As always Robot Boy had been locked in his cupboard. As always The Overseer greeted the Van Man. As always they shared a glass of ale before he began to load the boxes, and toasted their mutual success. But this time was not the same as every other time. While the Van Man and The Overseer congratulated one another, a Strange Girl climbed out of the vehicle, unnoticed by either. She glanced up and down and all around and when she was quite sure that no one would see, she skipped through the factory doors and passed the piles upon piles of boxes. She ran up the stairs, round the corner, down the corridor and in the farthest, darkest part of the building she found a very big, very strong door and knocked.
Robot Boy was surprised to hear the knock. The Overseer never knocked. Then it happened a second time and he said, “Who is there?”
Strange Girl smiled strangely to herself and answered, “Oh good. You’re there. I’ve come to get you out of here, could you let me in please?”
“The door is locked,” said Robot Boy, “The Overseer always locks me in.”
Strange Girl wondered what to do and then she had a bright idea. She stood on tiptoes and ran her fingertips along the top of the door and sure enough she found the key.
When Strange Girl opened the door Robot Boy stared at her. She was the first person he had seen for such a long time that he did not know he was being rude until she told him so. Strange Girl took his hand and led him from the room. They ran away from the door, down the corridor, round the corner and down the stairs. Then they passed piles upon piles of boxes and it was at that precise moment that Robot Boy finally realised he was not dreaming. He thought that he ought to know how the Strange Girl had come to save him. When he asked she seemed surprised.
“You’ve been calling me every day for months,” she said, “it was driving me crazy.”
“I don’t understand,” Robot Boy sighed and just then Strange Girl covered her ears.
“There you go again, I’m here now you can stop that.”
“That noise you make.”
“I’m not making any noise,” said Robot Boy.
“Oh yes you are,” said Strange Girl, “all of the bats can hear it and all of the dogs go wild when you sigh, and every time you do you’re asking me to save you.”
“You can hear that?”
When The Overseer and Van Man finished their ale, Strange Girl and Robot Boy jumped into one of the boxes and Van Man loaded them away. The Van Man drove all the way down the mountain and through the town and the next and finally he stopped for something to eat and did not notice as Robot Boy and Strange Girl climbed out and away.
They ran through a field and into the wood and only then did they dare to stop to make sure they weren’t being followed.
A voice came from the darkness, “Is this the one?” it said.
Robot Boy was surprised by the voice and turned to see a Wolf. This surprised him even more and just as he was about to yell, Strange Girl put her hand across his mouth.
“Please don’t,” she said, “you’ll hurt his ears.”
The Wolf grinned a lopsided grin, “I am here to help you return to your Maker,” he said. “He has been miserable all these years without you.”
Robot Boy scanned all of his memory files and could not find a single reference to a ‘Maker’. The Wolf and Strange Girl told him how the Maker had lost him to The Overseer when he was newly made and how every time the Maker saw a box he wept.
The Wolf scratched behind his ear and said, “Between his weeping and your sighing there has been no rest for the likes of me over the past months.” He sat up straight and let them climb onto his back; first Strange Girl and then Robot Boy, “now perhaps I’ll get some peace.” The Wolf bounded forward, carrying them to the Maker.
As always when day broke The Overseer went to wake Robot Boy. But this was different to every other day; he was gone. She looked all over for him: down every corridor, through every door, on the roof and in the cellar, in the garden and in the warehouse full of gold. Finally she stood at the high gate and stared at the winding road and she knew that he had gone. The Overseer brought out an old, old car and for the first time in a very long time she left the factory.
She drove all the way down the mountain and into the town and asked everyone there if they had seen Robot Boy. But no one had. She carried on to the next town, and while she was in-between towns her old, old car spluttered and coughed and wheezed and stopped. The Overseer got out and kicked the car; she stormed up and down, and shook her fist and cried and screamed and shouted and hollered until someone interrupted her.
“Do you mind?” said a voice.
The Overseer looked up to see a woman sitting in a field with an easel and canvas and paints. The Artist even had a floppy hat. But it was not The Artist that had spoken, but the thing that she was painting: a creature the top half of which was human and the bottom half of which was a horse. The Overseer had heard of Horse People in fairy tales, but she had never seen one.
The Horsewoman spoke again, “Why are you carrying on like that?” At this point the Artist turned to hear the answer too.
The Overseer shrugged, “My Robot has escaped, I won’t be able to make high quality boxes at low, low prices anymore and now my car has broken down.” The artist shared a glance with the Horsewoman and they conferred. Finally, they turned to the Overseer and agreed to help her. The artist packed up her gear and climbed onto the Horsewoman’s back; The Overseer climbed up as well and, sitting rather uncomfortably, they began.
As they trotted down the road together the Artist and Horsewoman asked The Overseer all about herself. She had never really spoken with anyone much before and so she started by telling them what a good businesswoman she was and how marvellous her boxes were, and how reasonably priced and how she had beaten back any competition, and how she had so much gold and jewels it filled an entire warehouse and… it was then that the Artist and Horsewoman stopped. They both looked at The Overseer and asked at once, “Why do you need to find your robot?”
The Overseer blinked, “So that I can keep making boxes of course.”
The Artist carried on, “And keep making money?”
Horsewoman continued, “With which you do nothing?”
The Overseer paused and considered and finally she said, “I count it every night.” The Artist and Horsewoman laughed. The Overseer did not understand but she had the distinct impression that they were laughing at her, “If I do not find my robot and no longer make boxes, I’ll be ruined.”
“That’s not entirely true is it?” said the Artist, “it sounds to me that you have more than enough – you probably don’t need anymore. You could live happily and well on the gold and jewels you already have for the rest of your life.” The Overseer had never thought about stopping until now. She fell very quiet and Horsewoman carried on.
As they reached the last town The Overseer thought there was something awfully familiar about the place. A little swinging sign caught her attention. She climbed down from Horsewoman’s back and approached the old shop. The Overseer looked through the window into the dusty, old building and there she saw the Maker who had lost Robot Boy to her so many years before.
The robot was there, and if robots could smile that’s what he seemed to be doing. With them was a Strange Girl and a Wolf. They all seemed so happy together that The Overseer stopped with her hand just above the door handle. She stood there for a long time and the Artist and Horsewoman began to wonder if she had frozen. When at last she moved it was away from the door. She stepped back once, then twice and a third time. The Overseer turned away and forced herself to walk one step at a time back to Horsewoman and the Artist.
When she reached them she said, “I don’t know what to do with my money except count it and watch it grow.” Horsewoman and the Artist glanced at one another again and assured The Overseer that they would help her. And they left the little town having never confronted the Maker or Robot Boy or Strange Girl or the Wolf. They returned together to the factory and turned it into a wonderful gallery and a sanctuary for horses, and The Overseer had never been happier.
The Maker was delighted to have Robot Boy back and even more pleased that The Overseer had never tried to find him. Robot Boy never sighed again, which pleased the Strange Girl and the Wolf very much. And none of them ever so much as thought of boxes ever again.