I walk up the stairs at Milligans holding a stack of boxes. I don’t really know what the boxes contain.
It’s all just factory stuff. 
After the boy left for university I had to do something with myself. 
So I work in a factory, moving boxes of pistons, bolts and pipes up and down the stairs because the floor plan of this place doesn’t allow for one of those modern elevators. 
It's been two years.
“Hey, doll hurry up, I need those bolts!” The foreman hollers down the steps. 
It’s incredible how the man cuts through the din of thumping and drilling and sawing in metal. 
I pick up the pace.
Milligans used to make steam engines for the agricultural sector. But now they’ve fully jumped onto the automobile craze.   
I put the boxes on the table “Anything else sir?”
The man doesn’t turn to look at me, instead just waving in the general direction of the door “Those two boxes can be tossed out.” a
“Yes sir,” I say, then shout it again cause I’m sure he didn’t hear. I go to pick them up.
He turns to me “Hey doll.”
I look back.
“Try to move faster buddy, time is money.” He says rubbing his thumb and index finger together.
“Yes sir,” I say before picking up the boxes and heading down again.
Up and down and up and down.
That’s what I do all day.
I don’t mind. 
Dolls don’t get bored as quickly as humans and it’s easy work. 
Doing mindless work is a good way to get through the days if you’re not too keen on thinking. 
Which is what I prefer right now.
I don’t feel bad, at least I don’t think I do. 
I just feel a bit empty. 
It’ll go away with time. 
Always has, always will. 
I’m just in time-out for a bit.
Here I don’t have to worry about anything, just come in at six, leave at eight and be nice to the foreman.
I pick up the pace, thumping swiftly down the metal steps.
It’s in the city too, making it much easier to head straight for Bar-B the moment I clock out. 
But for now I dump the boxes at the sidewalk and head back inside.
The drone of ash faced workers pass me by as the clock strikes eight in the evening. 
Dozens upon dozens of wool caps and scarfs, chapped lips and dead eyes. I wonder if that’s what I’d look like right now too if I were human.
I don’t like to dwell on it though as I get herded out and the snow crackles under my boots.
The snow glitters in the few places it hasn’t been trampled yet. The electric lights they installed in this part of the city are a lot brighter than the usual gas flames and despite the stars overhead here on ground level it doesn’t feel like night.
As the workers branch off into different streets and alleyways the road empties almost as fast as it got filled.
I pull up my collar and head to Bar-B.
Inside there’s candlelight and mirrors, a soft comforting glow that feels cosy and nice. 
The soothing sound of music boxes made me feel safe and welcome. 
“Evening Stegarius, how was work?” Prishtoli asks as she walks up to me. She pulls the cap off my head and puts it on the rack.
“Same old, same old,” I tell her with a shrug.
“Sounds dreadful.” She scoffs “But as long as it makes you happy…”
I shrug “It’s all right. Be back in a bit, I’m getting us some music.”
“Sure, you know where to find me.”
Back at the bar, Jaxogeras is chatting with another doll sibling of mine called Tyalowa. I don’t know what they’re discussing and I don’t want to intrude. So I wait patiently for them to finish.
“Now of course there are some little things that we need to sort through but nothing neither of us can live with,” Tyalowa explains while Jaxogeras listens attentively.
“That sounds wonderful, congratulations.”
“Thanks, oh, Stegarius it’s been a while.”
I didn’t expect them to turn to me that soon “Uhm…indeed it has… I hear congratulations are in order?”
Jaxogeras nods “Tyalowa just got hitched.”
“Hitched?”
“Not ‘hitched’ Jaxogeras, married.”
“Same thing different ring.”
Tyalowa rolls her eyes at that.
I decide to just, take over the conversation for a bit. 
“Congratulations, who’s the lucky one?”
“Her name is Serenity, she’s a seamstress like me, we met at Mets and we just clicked you know.”
“You married a human?” I try my best to keep my surprise to myself.
“Yup, now, don’t worry I told her everything beforehand, I don’t age, don’t eat, don’t sleep the whole list.” The chuckles “She told me having a girlfriend who stays pretty until the end of time is definitely a bonus.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say and I’m happy for her, even if it isn’t for me.
“You should come to visit some time we got a house in Tailor street.”
“Yes definitely. But before that Jaxogeras can I have something chipper?” Prishtoli must be waiting for me
“Of course, I got just what you need.” They turn to the shelves and pick out a small oval box, one of the oldies, judging from the design “One of the first ones I made, but it’s still excellent.” They confirm. 
“Thank you Jaxogeras, I’ll see you around Tyalowa.”
“Don’t forget to visit.”
I walk back to Prishtoli and hand her the box “Did you know Tyalowa got married to a human?”
“She’s been talking about it all day so yes.” She winds the box and sets it on the table. She sounds irritable but then a cheerful march drums forth from the box and it’s time to enjoy the music. 
We talk about a whole lot of things that evening, we talk music and art, she talks about her job. 
“I promise you, wax cylinders may be a novelty now but give it five, maybe ten years and every household will have a gramophone in their parlour. They’re just too cool not to take off.”
“But aren’t you scared that if they can just replay your songs as often as they want they won’t want you to sing live anymore?”
She waves the thought away “It’s a different experience, it’ll be fine, besides less singing in-house will give me more time to expand my repertoire. It’s win/win. You know if you want I can ask Phillis if he can use for a pair of extra hands, they’re expanding business so…there may be room for you?”
“Thanks for the offer but I’m fine where I am.”
“All right, just let me know when you need a change of pace. Moving boxes around can’t keep its charm forever.”
I nod “You want another song?” I ask getting up, she grabs my sleeve.
“Sit down, it’s my turn to get and you know it. See you in a bit.”
As she walks off I wonder why I didn’t take her offer? 
I don’t like my job, I don’t dislike it either. 
It’s just…work, why wouldn’t I switch jobs? 
Try to look for something a bit more fun? But it’s nice not to have to think for a while, just exist without greater meaning, no goals no expectations just…I don’t know.
I wonder how the young master is doing…
I mean, I expect him to forget me of course. University is busy and fun and he doesn’t need silly old Stegarius. He’s busy forging his path, becoming his own person and- 
A sweet soothing melody trickles into my brain petering out my train of thought.
“You okay dear?” Prishtoli asks as she sits down next to me.
I shrug.
“You miss him don’t you?”
I shrug again, two long arms wrap around me and strangle me lovingly “Sweetie, you sank over a decade into that kid you’re allowed to miss him.”
“I miss him then.”
She strokes my back “He’ll come back for you, you know that once he’s done studying. I know you left an impression. I could see it in his eyes.”
“Four years is a long time for a human. Plenty impressions can happen in the meantime.”
“Don’t be silly you were like a father to him.”
I shrug.
“You know he’ll never forget you right?”
“I guess.”
“Hey, Stegarius there’s someone here for you!” Janine hollers through the bar and my shoulders jump. A doll would just walk in, find me at my table so that must mean…
“Ha, I told you so,” Prishtoli says smugly as she lets go of me. 
I smile, jump up and rush to the door.
“Hello Stegarius, it’s been a while.” 
I look at the man in front of me, red uniform, grey cap, Winton insignia on his lapel, but it’s not the young master. “Mister Mason jr? What are you doing here?”
“I’d like to have a word, outside if that’s all the same to you.”
I nod and follow him back to the street.
He looks worried. 
I don’t like it. 
We sit down together on a bench overlooking the small square. 
He hasn’t spoken a word since asking to go out with me.
“May I ask what this is about?”
The man sighs deeply “Yes, of course. Have you seen the young master?”
“What? No, he’s at university. I haven’t seen him since his birthday.”
“Are you sure?” he asks and I can feel his eyes scanning my face as if trying to detect a lie.
“How would I not be sure? What’s going on? He’s at the university right?”
The man grunts “Not anymore. He ran off and no one knows where he went.”
It feels like the pit of my stomach falls away in an instant “He left!? Why? How? Don’t they keep an eye on those kids-?”
“He wrote himself out faking Lord Winton’s autograph. The university had no idea he was gone until we contacted them because he hadn’t come home on holiday. It has been four months since he left.”
Four months, he’s been missing for four months and no one even noticed. How does that even happen? He’s a crafty little bugger all right “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”
The man shakes his head solemnly “That’s why I came to you, I had hoped he contacted you somewhere down the line.”
“But there must be something, a letter, a clue, something.”
“The only clue we have is his disengagement form, as the reason for quitting he wrote he enrolled in the wrong study. But that’s all we know.”
I don’t understand “The wrong study? But he loves mechanics.”
The man shrugs “Your guess is as good as ours. But please, should you run into him, let us know.”
“Of course.”
He gets up, wishes me a good evening, and disappears down the alleyway.
Leaving me feeling worried.
I return to the bar where Prishtoli is ready to bombard me with questions but before she has the chance to speak, I put up my hand and tell her. “The visitor was a servant at the Winton household, the young master is missing.”
The cloak of cheer she shrouds herself in slides off as she takes in the news, takes a breath and invites me back down onto the sofa.
“Tell me everything.”
“What do you mean you quit!” the foreman yells at me back at Milligans.
“I need to do something, I have no time to work here.”
“You can’t quit now, I need someone to carry these boxes. I got orders to complete, cars to build, you want me to go broke!?”
“I’m sure you’ll survive sir”
“Look if you quit now you can say goodbye to the last three days of salary I owe you.”
“That’s okay.”
“Seriously!?”
I shrug “Sorry sir, I have another duty that’s far more pressing. I walk to the door remembering a small tip that might help him out next time. ”I do think I’d be less likely to leave like this if you bothered to learn my name.”
“Like you know mine!” he bites back.
I grin “Goodbye mister Wily”
I close the door.
And get to work.
“He’s a redhead, dresses well, goofy grin,” I explain to the grocer, a wolfkin called Jet.
He shakes his head, “Sorry son, can’t help you there.”
“Thank you for your time Jet.”
The man shakes his head in confusion, then looks down at the embroidery on his shirt “No problem, have a nice day.”
“You too.”
The door chimes pleasantly as I walk out the door. 
I walk to the university, sit down and think back to the last time I was here. 
Back then things seemed hopeless as well.
I watch the faces of the children running past. Hoping to spot that red shock of hair among them.
Just why did he leave? I wonder.
He seemed so keen to learn, this place is a paradise for clever kids like him!
I don’t understand, he should be happy here!
Just what made him leave?
The snow that used to sparkle brightly is now simply there to remind me that he’s out there in the cold. Scared, alone, if he’s even out there at all…
He could be dead.
Where would we be then! 
No, it’s too early to go thinking like that!
I get up, dust the snow off my coat. 
And head back to the search.
He will be somewhere.
And I will find him!
Yet two months later I still spend every waking hour walking the streets. 
And every day my hope gets smaller, and every day I blame myself. 
And my sorrow grows. 
I visited all the places I could think of. 
Perhaps he left the city? 
If so how will I find him then? 
At least the weather’s letting up again.
If he made it this far it’ll only get warmer with time.
I wish I could just give up.
Maybe he just doesn’t wanna be found?
Can I live with that?
Assume he’s out there, happy.
But I’ll never get to know.
I’ll always be wondering.
I grunt, he could at least have visited Bar-B, explain himself.
Where are you?
Why did you leave school?
Why did you leave me?
So much for father figures and surefire returns.
He left without so much as a message for me.
And now I don’t know where he is.
If he’s happy.
I don’t even know if he’s alive.
“I’m sorry sir but these grounds are closing for the night.” A tall, old woman with a grey pompadour warns me, she’s holding a book tightly to her chest. I can only assume she’s faculty.
I get up “I’ll take my leave then, have a good night.”
“Good night.” 
She follows me, a respectful distance away to close the gate behind me. 
As I leave I notice her walking to the greenhouses instead of campus.
But that’s hardly my concern 
After yet another night of failure, I just head to Bar-B, walk to the sofa and crash on down. 
I pull a pillow from under my back and put it over my eyes instead.
And I just lay there for a bit.
Unmoved by the world.
Moping.
A cheerful ditty plays next to my head.
Mocking my pain.
I swat at it. There’s a soft crash that breaks the music in half.
Oh dear, I pull the pillow off my face and find Prishtoli looking down at me with judgment.
I look down at the music box “I’m sorry I didn’t mean-”
“You know what? I’m officially sick of this.” She says kneeling to picking up the pieces.
“I’m sorry I-”
She shushes me, picks up the final pieces in silence and then tells me “I’m bringing this to Jaxogeras, you go grab your coat.”
I want to ask why but I think it’s probably best if I don’t.
She walks off, I grab my coat and when she’s done she says “With me.”
We walk down the barren street as the sun rises behind us. 
It’s silent, I wonder what she’s thinking. Where she’s leading me.
It takes a full ten minutes before she finally opens her mouth.
“I’m not angry at you Stegarius.” She pushes her hands deep into the pockets of her coat “I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel so I don’t feel justified to. But I will tell you I am tired, I try my best to keep you cheerful and it’s just not working and that makes me sad and frustrated.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Enough with the apologies, you don’t have to apologize for your feelings. But we could both use a break. So we’re going to Tailor street.
“Tailor street?”
“Tyalowa went to live there remember? They invited you over but then everything went to hell so you never actually did.”
She’s right, I’ve been so caught up in my own problems I didn’t regard anyone around me “Did you?” I ask cautiously.
“Of course I have, but I doubt they’d mind another visit from me. I’m delightful after all.”
I chuckle “You sure are.”
“That better not have been sarcasm.”
“It wasn’t…thank you Prishtoli.”
“Don’t worry about it. But do try to smile while we’re there.”
“Sure.”
“Prishtoli, Stegarius what are you doing here so early in the morning?” Tyalowa asks as she opens the door.
“Emergency cheer-up, also Stegarius still hasn’t seen the new place.”
“I see… well be welcome, Serenity is washing up and will be down shortly.”
“Thank you, dear,” Prishtoli says dragging me along into the house.
It’s very fashionable with its floral wallpaper and brocade curtains, it feels homely but modern. 
We sit down and talk and it turns out I really missed a lot since the last time we spoke.
Tyalowa's wife is a feisty lady who’s quick on her feet and infectiously chipper. 
We talk politics and art and music and the hours fly on by until the ladies have to excuse themselves.
“If we knew you were coming we wouldn’t have made other plans but-”
“Don’t worry about it, thank you so much for your hospitality,” Prishtoly says and I wholeheartedly agree. 
“How do you feel now?” Prishtoli asks.
“Better, I hope it lasts.”
She hugs me “I hope so too.”
A couple of days pass and I make my usual rounds, the inner centre, outer districts, followed by the woods that line the edge of the city.
For hours I walk, looking in windows, ears piqued for his voice.
Out in the forest, I look for the remains of a fire, a hut or traps that could be laid out for rabbits and badgers.
But like the days and nights before there is nothing
Forlorn I sit down on a stump and looking up at the thin sliver of a moon I wonder if it would help if I assumed he’s dead instead?
Assume he went to sleep one cold winter night and simply didn’t wake up, snow piling around him, obscuring him from sight.
Can I assume he didn’t suffer?
Or if he did, it doesn’t matter anymore…
My heart feels tight and heavy.
Like it’s suddenly made of lead and the mechanisms inside are rubbing together in nasty ways that make it ache and squeeze.
I want to cry.
If crying makes you feel better I want to cry right now and feel that peace.
I’ve been without it too long.
I sigh.
I should go back. 
I don’t want to go back.
Somewhere far off there’s a rustling noise.
Some animal I take it.
But then it sounds like it’s approaching.
I get up, look for the source of the sound. “Hello!?” 
The sound ramps up until the branches are slammed away by a bulk of lace.
Followed by Prishtoli.
“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you.” She pulls a couple of twigs from her wig and tosses them to the floor.
“Why?”
“You have to come back to Bar-B.”
I shrug “What’s the point?”
“You’ll see, just come with me.” And there’s something in her eyes, something sneaky, something knowing.
And my heart lightens up as I jump up and tell her “What are we waiting for?”
We rush back through woods and outer districts to the inner centre where I slam open the door to Bar-B.  
Run inside.
And find a boy sat by the bar, face almost as red as his fiery hair.
I’m flabbergasted.
He opens his mouth
“Hey.” 
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