The smoke from her cigarette drifted through the falling snow, floating up toward the streetlamp. Across the way, the buildings’ windows were dark, making the flat, gray stones shine like ghosts in the orange fluorescent light. In the distance the young woman could hear a temple bell ringing, breaking the silence of the winter’s night.
It would be no surprise to her mother if Charlene stayed another night at the shop. Bernice was sure she couldn’t carry the workload her husband left behind while he was out of town.
"We could ask one of the neighbor boys to give you a hand," she would say.
"I’ve got it under control, Mother."
"It’s not safe for a young lady to be out that late... and it might give people the wrong idea."
"I’m not out. I’m at the shop, and the locks there are a whole lot safer than the ones at home."
It was the same conversation they’d had dozens of times, and it inevitably ended the same way. "Fine, Charlene," her mother would say in that special bitter tone she had cultivated, "I hope I never get to say I told you so."
"Fine," and that would be the end of it, until the next time.
Truthfully, though, Charlene wasn’t behind in her father’s work. She finished on time, every day, and never had any iron come back for the same problem twice. It wasn’t the cars or the customers that kept her away from home—it was her project.
The idea had come to her one night, after she’d finished rebuilding an ancient auto. The thing was a heap when it came into the shop, rusted out and broken down, but now it shone out all black and chrome, and purred like a sleeping lion. As she stood there, admiring her handy work, it struck her how closely the round, aluminum headlamps resembled eyes. As a matter of fact, the polished, chrome grill looked like a jagged set of teeth, and the lumpy wheels like ears that stuck out a bit too far.
It was an odd and fleeting thought, easily brushed away with a laugh and hidden behind the hours of cleaning that followed. Charlene’s subconscious mind, however, was not so quick to let it go. She tossed and turned, her dreams filled at first by the faces of different autos, and then by a mechanical man from one of the bedtime stories her father had told to her when she was a child. She always loved the stories he made up, and all of the characters young Charlie met in her adventures—but the loyal robot had been her favorite.
She awoke the next day with a picture in her head of a mechanical man to help her at the shop and immediately began to collect the things she would need. For weeks she gathered gears and sprockets, scrap metal, and copper wiring. It started as a personal joke, a lark she wouldn’t let herself take seriously, and she never wrote any plans or drew a single diagram.
Those first dreams had been evolving for months, and anticipation had her shaking so badly she could barely keep the cigarette between her fingers. This was the night she would test her experiment—the night that she would start her first real adventure. But when she was honest with herself, she had to admit that she was afraid.
Failure could mean a lot more than just wasted time. Though the robot from her father’s stories had been powered like a harmless clock, wound tight and left to be, Charlene’s creation was not so simple. It was a new age, and she knew she was living at the outset of the future. Machines didn’t run like clocks anymore; they ran on diesel fuel and heat, fire and electricity. One simple mistake, and Charlene’s whimsical project could end catastrophically.
She turned away from the street and the ghostly buildings and the falling snow, let her gaze fall to the rigid form lying on her makeshift table. The pale, yellow light hanging there was unflattering and almost useless. The machine wasn’t a pretty sight, with uncut rivets sticking out in every direction and wires hanging loose where there was no metal plating. It was in the shape of a human, but Charlene hadn’t bothered to finish covering the body. She figured there was no reason to make it look nice until she knew whether or not it would work.
She took the last drag before tossing the pill into the street. It was time to get to work. Time to find out if Charlene’s "magic" could stand next to the magic of the young, adventurous Charlie from her father’s stories.