Today's flash fiction is dedicated to my lovely and supportive wife, Kara. For eight years now she's managed to tolerate me, and hasn't stabbed me once. All my love, Kara. All my days.
"Three," she said.
I couldn't believe it. "Three? Just three?"
"That's the total."
"And you're sure. Out of all of them?"
"Two hundred queries sent, three returned. Look," she said, showing me her tablet so I could see the figures.
Time was when I could send two hundred, or two thousand queries, I'd get the same number of responses back. Time was when I could ask them to do whatever I wanted, and they'd do it. Time was when they'd all listen.
"OK, three. Let's get them engaged."
She nodded and walked out of my office, which was now just a bedroom in the back corner of my apartment, stuffed with a desk and a large table where I did the work. Bits and pieces were strewn all over the table. The printer sat silent, ready for a feed of materials so it could churn out a model. It hadn't done that in so long. And now, just as I'm ready for another one, just as I finally have an idea again, I only get three notes of interest.
I fired up the printer, I pushed the design, I waited. In moments the first of the models was ready. Moments later, all three models were ready to go.
I looked at them, examined them, studied them. They were perfect. They were exactly as I had envisioned them, exactly as I had designed them. Just the right balance of sophistication and style. There was a sort of cuteness to them, a human-ish quality that I liked to build into my work. That's what separates what I do from the thousands of clones out there. I put that human touch into them, that bit of relatability. To everyone else, it's just about getting the thing built and in production as quickly as possible. For me, it's about crafting the experience.
A flaw. Number three has a flaw. It's tiny, a small blemish that no one but me would notice. But that's the point, isn't it? I would know it was there. I would see it, every time I closed my eyes, every time I thought back on it. I moved it to the printer, where it would be dismantled, atom by atom, recycling the materials so we can try again.
The printer was old, that was all. The newer models didn't have transcription errors or inadvertent blemishes. They were perfect. I would have had one, in the old days. Someone would have just handed it to me, begging me to ply my craft, to give them the honor of using their equipment to create.
Again the printer hummed and the recycled materials were rearranged and redistributed, and a new model emerged. I looked it over, studying it. It was perfect. Not a blemish. Perfect.
She came back to the door, knocking gently, even though it stood half open. Bless her. She'd stuck with me, even as I had to sell off the company, the resources, the facility. She'd come with me here, to this apartment, where I lived in one bedroom and worked in another. She made the kitchen her office, where she answered messages and marketed the work. I don't know what I would have done without her. If she had ever married, I'm sure I would have lost her. That's a shame, really, that she never married, never found anyone. Neither had I, for that matter. That's the way life goes.
"Contracts are signed. Money has been transferred," she said. "Are they ready?"
I nodded. "They're ready. They're perfect."
She stepped into the room, looking at the three models, pristine and new and perfect in every way. "They're beautiful," she said. "They are always so beautiful. Something always seems to be missing from the commercially produced models. Like there's no ..." she stopped, reaching, trying to find a word that described what she was thinking.
But I knew. Oh, I knew. "Soul," I said.
"Yes! Soul. It's like yours have one, and the others don't. I can't understand why anyone would want one of the mass produced models when they could have one of yours."
"The others are less expensive," I waved, annoyed. "And new models come out constantly. One breaks down, you just get a new one. There's no room for soul anymore."
She shook her head. "I don't know about that. I think these are just amazing. So perfect. They'll love them."
I nodded, and she left the room.
Maybe they'd love them. I certainly loved them. But there was no market for them anymore. No one, outside of this apartment, really cared that they were beautiful, that they had soul.
And maybe that was OK. My work had made its mark, after all. The mass produced models were all essentially copies of what I created. They were an homage, of sorts, to the work I had done. My mark on the world. My legacy.
Maybe that's all one can hope for, in the end — that the work lives on, even if it doesn't live up.
Or maybe, I thought, as I looked at these perfect models, filled with soul, filled with thought and relevance and relatability, maybe what matters most is that I love what I've created.
If no one else cared, if I never sold another, if no one ever once raved about what I was doing, then maybe the work itself would be enough. Just knowing that I was doing the best I could possibly do, the work I was born to do, could be my reward.
It felt hollow, at first. It felt like I was just talking myself into believing it. But soon, very soon, it didn't feel artificial at all. It felt real. Because as I thought about it, as I took another look at what I had created, as I thought about the three, the people who wanted them, the humans who felt the pull, the need to have these in their lives, I felt the soul of it. The work really was enough, if three people appreciated it. It was enough if only one person appreciated it.
She came back to the room, tablet in hand, with a blank line on a page that required my signature. She was my friend. My best friend. She was the closest thing to a wife I'd ever had. She had stayed with me through all of it, the downsizing and the reinventing and the rethinking. Bless her soul.