The shop was not much bigger than a cupboard. As a solution to this problem, the place had been filled with sturdy wooden shelves, leaving a little room for a counter and a workbench. People definitely didn’t come here for luxury, but The Fixer had never been about that anyway. Affordable repairs, that’s what it was for. Housewives from all over the neighborhood brought their broken vacuum cleaners, blenders, lamps and other household trinkets here. They didn’t care that the place was a dust pile, as long as they could exchange a couple of their green bills for their once again functioning devices.
Managing the shop today was Billy, the owner’s son. Now that his dad was growing older, he found himself working more and more shifts. Many people had already asked him if he had succeeded his old man, which was not far from the truth. Any day now, the deed to the place would be passed over to him, he could feel it in his guts. And hated it. Not because he disliked tinkering, he loved it! What he hated was the fact that his talent went to waste in a place like this. Billy had a gift, an ability so intrinsic that he wondered where it had come from. He just understood machines, had since the very first time he had encountered one. Every little gear, screw or chip made sense, and if it didn’t he saw how to make it make sense. As a child playing with the scrap his dad brought home from work, he had built functioning toy trains, kitchen devices and once even a robot. Mom and dad had watched with amazement, had seen with their own eyes the genius their son was, but held on to the family’s legacy of passing the store from father to son. That’s how it had been for generations and that’s how it would remain. No argument. Billy had tried, oh he had tried, had brought home letters from his teachers, had shown trophies he won in every science competition he entered, had even confronted his father with the full scholarship he had received. Still, the answer was always the same. No argument.
At the moment, Billy was fixing an Ultra-Vacu 2020, a top-of-the-line machine destined to keep your house dust-free forever. It would after Billy had had his way with it. These days, he didn’t fix stuff anymore. He improved it. It was the only way for him to maintain his sanity. For years his father had held him back, telling him to just repair, and do nothing else. After all, it was not what the customer expected and especially didn’t pay for. For Billy, improving basically meant repairing. In his view, all devices brought to him had been broken from the moment they had been assembled. Even the fanciest, most expensive trinkets had flaws that were so substantial that it was a wonder they had made it through the testing phase. It was incomprehensible for a young, ambitious man like Billy, so he had pledged to, if he was stuck in his little family shop for the rest of his life anyway, at least use his talent to make whatever he got his hands on excel.
He was about to put the vacuum cleaner back together when the door opened. In came a man so much reeking of business, that the smell filled the entire store. Not that there was much to be filled, but Billy had to wince anyway. Many of the housewives who came in reeked of expensive make-up and perfume, but he had never been confronted with anything like this. The man carried the scent of the brand new. Leather shoes, a hand-tailored suit, a professional haircut. Billy caught himself taking in the second whiff with pleasure. He felt guilty about it, but wasn’t this what he wanted for himself? Didn’t this man represent everything he could be, were he not burdened by his family’s heirloom? Bitterness filled his heart again.
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“Excuse me.” a kind voice asked. It carried a hint of expensive toothpaste.
Billy jumped. He had been so immersed in his own thoughts that he had completely forgotten the man on the other side of the counter was here for him.
“Oh, I’m sorry! Um…hello, s-sir! What…can I help you with today?” he blurted out, managing to steady himself in the last bit of the sentence.
The man reached into his pocket and procured his phone, one of the fancy types with touchscreen functions. Billy recognized it immediately. After all, he had ‘fixed’ it for the man’s wife last week.
“I believe you repaired this for me last week.” the voice now somehow sounding a bit stern.
Billy nodded slowly, then swallowed. He did not like this tone. The man activated the phone’s screen and showed it to him, pointing out the battery indicator. It showed all three bars.
“I was wondering if you could explain to me why, since my wife picked up this phone last week, it has not needed to be recharged a single time.”
Billy knew perfectly well how to explain it. The question was if the man would understand it. Plus, his improvements were supposed to be something he did undercover. Had the phone belonged to the man’s wife, she probably never would have even wondered about something like a long-lasting battery.
“I have no idea, sir. Sorry.” Billy replied.
The man was now playing with other functions on his phone.
“No? Curious, very curious. Somehow the performance has skyrocketed as well. Any explanation for that?”
Billy made his best stupid face and, to finish it, shrugged. At this, the man had to laugh.
“I see my research on you turned out to be correct, Billy.”
The stupid face and shrug were immediately gone.
“Yes, and I discovered you are quite the repairman. Quite…the repairman. Top marks in school, first place in science competitions, scholarship, yet here you are fixing a vacuum cleaner.”
Who did this guy think he was? Coming into his father’s shop and openly admitting he had spied out his entire background! It frightened him.
“Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?” he trembled, not sure if it was out of anger or fear.
Again that laugh. Was it a business tactic or simply mockery?
“I think so, Billy. I know of your situation and do not want to push you, but if you ever feel ready for something greater, something bigger than this little labyrinth of shelves, please give me a call. It would be an honor.”
He put down his business card on the counter, a spotless white one bearing the name John Smith. Such a generic name, generic enough to be fake, yet the offer felt so genuine. Then the man spoke again.
“My number is on the back. I hope to be in touch, Billy.”
And off he went, passing none other in the doorway than good old dad. Pa carried a brown bag in one hand, two whiskey glasses in the other and a huge grin on his face.
“Fancy guy, that! What’d he come for?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing special. Just complimenting me on some good work.” the lie came out easier than expected. Even easier was the swift movement of his hand that swiped the card off the counter.
“That’s my boy!”
Pa deposited the two glasses on the counter and took a bottle of the finer Jack Daniels out of the bag, opened it and poured royal servings in the glasses, never dropping his huge grin. Billy observed it all with a growing dread. His guts started to scream. A glass was pushed into his hands and when he looked back up from it, dad’s expression was serious, sincere. His eyes showed something Billy had never seen before. A fogginess. Was this emotion? Billy’s stomach lurched.
“Billy,…” dad’s heavy voice started, “…neither of us’re men o’ many words, so I’ll keep it short. I know it’s been a long time coming, but…”.
He raised his glass. The fogginess showing in his eyes had turned into actual wetness. Billy’s stomach made another of these lurches. His throat felt dry. This was the moment, his last chance to get out before the anchor would hook itself o