Friday, January 28, 2011

FICTION: Herbie is Twelve Today By George Wilhite

Herbie was twelve.

Elated he lived so long this time, unscathed by glitches or imperfections, his parents spared no expense for his birthday bash.

“Hoorah!” All the guests yelled as he blew out the candles. Nobody noticed as his Mom and Dad exhaled a deep sigh of relief. His lungs, the first organs to fail last time, seemed strong.

Cake and ice cream followed, and then more fun and games. It was a hot August afternoon so they all drank lots of lemonade and soda. Lots of sugar highs would soon plague the neighborhood, but all the parents indulged their children that day, for everyone loved Herbie and his twelfth birthday was momentous. No other child had made it so far.

He was the oldest child anywhere in the state.

Well, more or less.

The previous Herbies were long forgotten. Just like the multiple Rick Hendersons and the many Greg Porters. Nobody consciously remembers them, for speaking of them in the presence of children is a crime. These other versions are part of their collective shame and denial, sequestered far away living out their imperfect pathetic lives.

Herbie was twelve, and they will all fixate on that. The process really was improving. Janice Andrews was so glad Herbie made it that far because her little James is only a few weeks younger. Unlike Herbie’s parents, Cliff and Norma Pfeiffer, she has tried only three times. There are many more Herbies to forget than she has Jameses.

Other countries boasted adult children, but so far America had not resorted to using the tactics employed to produce those more durable offspring. America’s youth still maintain pure human DNA; it was unlawful to use that of any other species even though that is apparently the secret to the longevity of the foreigners.

Twelve year old Herbie opened his mountain of gifts. So wasteful, since the other Herbies had plenty of the same toys and books. But the same bedroom in the Pfeiffer household was emptied out after each failed attempt, as the law required. Merchants specializing in children’s items were doing quite well for the time being due to this crazed recycling of barely used merchandise.

Then, it happened. While the entire town watched Herbie open the last of his presents, the Pfeiffers were publicly humiliated once more.

Herbie malfunctioned.

Only Cliff or Norma noticed the initial tic, ever so subtle, but modern parents detect every tiny shortcoming because perfection is the only desired outcome. But then the slight quiver in his lower lip escalated to a full-fledged twitch and soon spasms ripped through his entire body.

“M—m-m-mom. D-dad. I-I—sor-rr-ry.” Herbie blubbered as all his guests looked on in horror.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Mom said, in a comforting tone, although these are the last words she will ever say to him. “We will take you somewhere. They’ll fix you up and all will be well again.”

Herbie tried desperately to believe his mother, but the crooked edges of her forced smile betrayed the truth. He would never see anyone in this room again.

A few moments before sunset, the recycling team fetched Herbie and it was time for the Pfeiffers to start again. Frustration and heartbreak long ago diminished their desire to continue trying to raise the first perfect child. But the government insisted on a contract that binds them to this fate for life.

“Where do you suppose they take them?” Norma asked.

“Now, now, dear,” Cliff answered in his sing-song voice of forced cheerfulness. “You know it’s best to not think about that.”

Norma watched the truck disappear as an enormous blood red sun touched down on the horizon. Her heart in her throat, she felt like a monster. Herbie was in the back seat, pounding on the window and screaming.

“Remember what they said, Norma,” Cliff prattled on. She barely heard him now through her fog of depression. “They aren’t real people until they’re eighteen.”

Norma knew all the rules and regulations. The callous scientists in charge of repopulating the world before it was too late were so brilliant and smug. Since the Herbies are not our flesh and blood, they think Cliff and I can just watch him drive away and think of him as recycled trash.

They were wrong, but it was too late now. The Pfeiffers signed the contract and the government took good care of them, at the small price of their souls.

It was dark now. Norma took Cliff’s hand and they walked inside to prepare the way for another Herbie.

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