The team is made up of volunteers from out-of-town. They meet in a conference room at the airport hotel. This is where people stay when they want to avoid local flavor. Where people have affairs when they want to feel classy. This is where regional companies hold meetings to announce they have been bought out and all except the highest-level jobs will be lost to automation.
The robots will contain two computer chips that act as backups to one another. The chips sit behind their eye light bulbs. The engineers were uncomfortable putting them anywhere else. Each chip will hold a cause and effect algorithm and an index of canned phrases. The robots will have entire conversations with each other in the dark, empty factory.
The team watches a training video on exotic animal handling over a continental breakfast of toast, cereal, and omelets. They learn how to catch lions, tigers, giraffes, and rhinos by creating traps out of available natural resources. There is nothing about lizards but they cannot be certified without seeing the video. Everyone complains about the food but no one stops eating. No one mentions that there are no lizards.
They suit up in protective gear and leave in unmarked white vans. At the house, there is a man with sunglasses and a clipboard waiting in the driveway. He thanks them for coming, for their time. He explains that based on the original complaint and subsequent neighborhood interviews, they know that most of the lizards came here on their own. There is one, however, that the homeowner stole. He thought it would replace everything he had ever lost. He called it The Ghost Lizard.
The man pulls a picture out of his wallet, holds it up for the team members to see. It’s a snapshot of the lizard. It does not look like a normal lizard. It has stripes like a tiger or zebra, only they are black and green. “The whole place needs to be cleaned out, but it is critical that you catch The Ghost Lizard. No one can live here until he’s gone.”
He gave the picture a quick peck before sliding it back in his wallet. He climbed into an older model car parked on the curb and drove off.
They are certain he is the homeowner.
The team unrolls blueprints of the house across the hood of a van. They draw arrows and stars. They come up with a plan. They let themselves in and act like they’ve seen it all before. But they have never seen anything like this before.
The lizards are in every room. They’re on the furniture, in the cabinets, and on the counters. They are hanging from the light fixtures. They are climbing on the walls. If the lizards were wearing little party hats this would make more sense.
The team breaks into pairs with each going to a different room and shutting the door behind them. They lie on the floor and say it feels like there are lizards crawling over their whole body. Under their clothes. Under their skin. They can barely stand it. It makes them want to scream. They tell each other to hold it in. They are stronger than they think they are.
The process takes longer than expected. They promised to clean this up in a day. They cannot show their faces until this is done. They sleep at the house and catch lizards until they can’t find any more. They know they didn’t get all of them, and they know for certain they did not get The Ghost Lizard but if they stay here any longer they’ll start collections of their own.
They make a pact to never tell anyone they failed. No matter what changes. No matter what anyone sees.
The Ghost Lizard watches from a shrub as the others are brought out in hard plastic cages and loaded one-by-one into vans that disappear down the road. When they are gone, The Ghost Lizard will wish he was in a cage. He will wish he could feel the same thing as everyone else. And he’ll wish there was somewhere else he could go now, that wasn’t his first home.
The volunteers drive all day to get home. They release the lizards into their yards. From now on, at night, they will clutch homemade traps to their chest, listening for sounds in the walls and waiting for the day when they wake up feeling claws all over their body. Under their clothes. Under their skin. It’s only a matter of time.
Home is not where it used to be. The place is different and the building is different. But The Ghost Lizard knows that this is it. He finds a corner of steel sheeting pulled back from the ground and crawls inside. He makes his way up a metal staircase to a landing, where he climbs someone’s leg and curls up to rest on their shoulder.
The robot’s eye light bulbs turn on, warming from orange to white. The algorithm runs. The robot says, “Thank you for coming back. This has not been easy. None of us are as strong as we thought we were.”
The eyes of the other robots in the factory light up. They search the index for what to say next.
Nathan Willis is a writer from Ohio. His stories have appeared in Booth, Hobart, Outlook Springs, Hypertrophic Literary, Atticus Review and elsewhere. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter at @Nathan1280.
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