Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 13: Drop the Load

In which the world turns on the spinning of a ball!

 

Stephanie left her granddad’s house in a bit of a funk. Who wouldn’t be in one after having heard that story? Her worst fears had been confirmed. Well, perhaps not her worst, as the story really turned its wretched head against her uncle Gilly, who wasn’t a real relation, rather than against her granddad. But his silence—and her grandma’s silence!—felt like complicity.

Complicity in what? Gilly hadn’t meant to burn an old man alive. Gilly, for all his genius, had done something foolish. Not well thought-out. How very strange. That, too, cast a new and sulfuric glow over Gilly. Gilly was supposed to be the long-term planner. He never did anything unless he’d thought about it for years and years. That was why he’d required her granddad in order to be successful at a young age, as her granddad didn’t need to sit for years thinking about a project before embarking on it.

And it was also why Stephanie, who generally planned extensively before doing anything, albeit, not for years like Gilly, had already embarked on this biopic. It involved her granddad, and he wouldn’t sit around waiting for her. He’d lose interest if she didn’t do it immediately.

As the car drove itself toward the winking lights of Albuquerque, she shook off her reverie. She needed to type up the day’s shorthand once home, and then go to bed. That would be her Friday night, but then, they were rarely more exciting unless Mark was involved. Speaking of the man of her heart, he’d somehow managed to twist her arm into setting up a stupid little Saturday man-date with him and her granddad.

She and Mark were going to meet Oso at one of the city’s many community tracks that wrapped around a “worker-bee robotics farm,” as Tomi Corp’s robotic factories were known. Due to the lack of work for humans created by the new world of robotics, the AHA and DHS had mandated that running and/or walking tracks be laid to loop around factories, along with green spaces for the playing of pretend, ball-less sports.

Remembering that her granddad had paid her direct deposit through her ring bling, she veered toward the Drop the Load Store, averting the downtown strip near her apartment. The downtown area had been consumed by free-roaming Minäs who had no home and no owners. Occasionally, the cops would round them up with a bullhorn, which caused them to cover their ears and cringe due to the loud noise permeating their extra-large ears, and then put them in the Minä pounding station, where they would be disengaged if nobody claimed or adopted them.

The Salvation Station had funded a grass-roots movement to integrate the Minäs into bunkhouses, with regular nutritious meals specifically designed to meet Minä needs. Some people believed Minäs could grow their missing brain parts if given enough protein and EFAs, but when biologically created humans couldn’t afford enough protein and EFAs, even the Salvation Station had to back off from its most idealistic efforts. And despite their programs, the streets, especially on Friday nights, were clogged with all manner of “Devons” who would someday be picked up by the cops.

They were all so perfect looking, too. They were perfect, all except for their gigantic ears. And, of course, being incredibly stupid. It might be nice to be that stupid. They were happy, loved or abused. Their sadness brain part had apparently gone missing when they were given their lobotomies.

After directing her car to the Drop the Load store, she manually parked the wretched beast because she didn’t want it to miscalculate yet again and try to drive through the parking meridian and into another car, as it had done in times past. It had gotten a little beat up before she’d retaken control.

Outside the store waited the usual suspects. One person rang a bell for the Minä Education Fund—a useless waste of money said every scientist everywhere. Another asked her to sign a petition to classify TransMinä as a brain identity, which was in contrast to last week’s petition, which was to classify a recent hailstorm as a real emergency so that those who were pinged on the head by the hail could get a free supply of pain meds.

Not that TransMinä hadn’t already been deemed a unique identity by law thirty years previously. This was a different slant on TransMinä. In addition to being humans who identified as Minäs since birth, these were people who were wired to believe they were Minäs who believed they were humans. Essentially, they lived as humans, albeit they were Minäs, who were clearly human, who…

Stephanie shut her eyes. She tried to figure it out, but the man/Minä/man speaking to her had confused her at some point. “No, thanks,” she said to his request that she sign.

“The police are always hurting us,” the man said, “brutalizing us. We need laws in place to give us the same basic respect as all people get.”

“Everybody gets the same respect from cops.” Everybody who’s human, she wanted to add.

The cops were trained to beat up anybody who annoyed them. And, sure, some people annoyed them more than others. That was to be expected. Now, Minäs—they were a different story. They would disengage real Minäs. Humans couldn’t be disengaged, even TransMinäs who were humans who believed they were Minäs who believed they were humans. A Minä could be disengaged and re-engaged through the reconnection of their brainstem and the playing of infrasound. A human would be disengaged and never engaged again because they would be dead at that point. Some TransMinäs had gone through disengagement as martyrs for their cause to be taken seriously as a unique identity. They were hardcore, in other words.

The man blinked. “You don’t care about us? Here, take this stat sheet to see how often we’re brutalized by cops. Numbers don’t lie.”

She snatched the sheet from him and pasted on a smile. No, she supposed numbers themselves, as the concepts hiding behind tangibles, didn’t lie. But humans did. Minäs, true ones anyway, were too stupid to lie. Sometimes, she wished she were stupid like a Minä and not just clever enough to get by in life. Intelligence was a bewildering concept, especially if one was the granddaughter of one of the most brilliant men in history.

Of course, part of lacking this brilliancy was the lack of ambition to do anything brilliant. She really didn’t care to. At the same time, she had a lack of care for possessing a unique identity like a TransMinä. She wondered if she could get a petition going that would establish the ordinary people such as herself as a legal special interest group. Sure, she had special interests…in being able to keep her job as an independent journalist and still pay her rent and bills, maybe get committed someday and have babies.

Yes. Get committed. She had done exactly as her granddad had suggested and looked up the origins of both words. A marriage was a fusion of elements, a commitment an obligation. If words made any difference at all in the ability to move independently in the world, then marriage would greatly restrict freedom.

As she wandered the aisles, going through the usual sticker shock of seeing the prices on food she desperately wanted, she found herself imagining what her and Mark’s babies would look like. She jolted out of her daydream. Babies? With Mark? She couldn’t even afford the cheapest white bread before it expired and had to be sent to the bread thrift store.

Then she remembered the money her billionaire granddad had paid her for her work so far, and her heart felt light, while her head suddenly spun. She couldn’t spend this money on food. She couldn’t. She needed savings. For the down-payment on a house. She couldn’t spend it on delicacies such as fresh bread and…her stomach turned over in desire. She wanted meat. Before she knew what she was doing, she had placed a voice call to her Grandma Gonzales and asked her if she knew how to make New Mexico traditional green chile enchiladas.

Yes, of course her grandma knew, and soon Stephanie had punched in the order button for tortillas, chile, cheese, and meat so that her cart could be filled back-room and brought out to her by a Minä, who, although not smart enough to load the order—that was done by mechanical arms without biological brains—most of the time could wheel it out to the front, where the purchaser’s name was writ large on the side. It was not perfect, of course, because the Minäs usually forgot to collect the receipt and often gave the orders to people who had purchased nothing at all.

These non purchasers were known as Drop the Load Leeches. They were officially recognized as “needy” and “deficient” by Welfare Act 10,400 and could not be prosecuted. But they were just one of many groups the cops got annoyed with, as they were belligerent in their due diligence to fight for their rights. So, thankfully, they suffered the occasional beating. For everybody else, they had to be ready to grab their order and run with it. Shopping had become a sport.

Her cart was quite a bit fuller than usual. She could see the leeches salivating and moving forward en masse, until they noticed she had no health code junk food, no alcohol, no vitamin soda, and no wacky cigarettes. Another bout of dizziness caused her to see black spots when she filled the trunk of her car. This was the down payment on her house, and it would all be consumed within a few days. For unknown reasons, she had not stopped at the enchilada ingredients, but had gone on to purchase the type of coffee and cream that her grandfather’s assistant had served to her earlier that day.

It would be okay, she reassured herself. Her granddad would continue to pay her, and then she could get a book contract because she was writing the biography of a celebrity who normally didn’t give journalists the time of day. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The future would be okay, and she would eat well in the interim.

It was too bad she didn’t know what to do with some of the ingredients, such as dried pinto beans. Ah, well, she would have to call her grandma Gonzales once again and ask for advice. Her mouth felt dry, and so she unscrewed the top off the new bottle of orange juice. Orange juice?! Was she insane? Had she really punched in the button for this delicacy?

She sipped a very, very small portion and sat down to work.

Mark picked her up at precisely 2 P.M. Due to it being mid spring, her granddad insisted on meeting at the track in the afternoon—less chance of being hit with a biting cold wind. At first, he’d suggested 5 A.M., before the wind had picked up at all, but even Mark, who worshiped Oso Beñat, had balked at the idea. He was going out drinking with his buddies and didn’t want to show up still drunk.

Buddies. That was the archaic term Mark used for his friends. Nobody who cared about microaggressions used that word for anybody but Minäs in this day and age, as the original Tomi Corp ad name for their creations was buddy. The coinage pet was also considered derogatory; however, the names window-licker and retard were nearly terms of affection, as they had no context in the modern-day environment. Screen-licker, on the other hand, was a derogatory term for old-school geeks who preferred old-fashioned computers. Oh, and for grass-roots journalists and newspaper editors who couldn’t afford to do anything better than sift through silicon wastelands and scrap together old hard drives, screens, and computer boxes.

Mark was looking a little yellow in the face, as he always did when he spent all night drinking cheap beer. Stephanie had tried, using her investigative skills, to find out what was in the piss-bitter stuff, and had not yet been successful. The beer corporations, which had taken their names from last century’s microbrew craze—Bluebird Ale; Purple Mountain Stout; Green Orphan Amber; etc—were clinging tightly to their proprietary recipes and filtration systems.

“Did you have fun with your buddies?” she asked, after he laid his head back and told his car rather viciously to drive, you mother flipper.

He snarled at her. His bad mood combined with her good one inspired her to sing the Minä theme song from the old ads calling them buddies: You can hug ‘em, give ‘em lovin’, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven. And: You can bug ‘em, give ‘em shovin’s, just don’t force ‘em in the oven.

“For the love of God, stop,” he told her.

She couldn’t help it; she was in a good mood. Good food did make a difference. Her granddad had advised her well. “You’re just dehydrated, that’s all,” she said. “Do you want to know what I drank for breakfast? Orange juice.”

He groaned.

She whistled. Or tried to. She had never really learned.

The car pulled up to the chosen track. This one formed a figure eight, with the bottom half circling around a factory, and the top half around a field, where a group of boys were practicing airfoot.

“Airfoot!” Mark said, as though it were a curse.

“They do look a little silly, but only marginally more than the sports you watch.”

“It’s all fake. All of it. I really wish this aspirin would kick in. I want to leave a good impression on your grandfather. This is not good, really not good. I think I’m going to throw up.” He promptly bailed from the car and vomited in the garbage bin.

“How much did you drink, anyway? I set up this date because you asked for it.”

“James is getting committed. He and Lola are engaged. Do you hear that, Stephanie? Some people in the world are still getting committed.”

She was silent a beat. James was his best friend from high school. “You drank yourself into oblivion because you were happy for James?”

“Yes, toasted him. Over and over and over. Wish it had been me we were toasting.”

She was about to say, You’d prefer to vomit over your own engagement?, but didn’t have a chance to, as her granddad’s classic electric Roadster rolled into the parking lot.

Mark’s head perked up. “Wow, what a car,” he moaned, as if the envy made him as sick as the bad beer. “I love those early electrics. So much style. If I were a billionaire, I’d drive one, too.”

“If I had a decent income, I’d just buy an economy car that could get me from one place to the next.”

“Some of us have style.”

She shrugged at that, as she didn’t know what to say. He’d chosen the least stylish of all the young females at the Albuquerque Daily—that is, herself. Perhaps “having style” was subjective. Oso’s style was objective, however, as he stepped from his shiny white vehicle and stood to his full height. He was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes. Even Devon, following behind his owner, was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes.

“If you have even a pinch of style now, you should stop hanging your head. And try to look less yellow,” she advised.

Her granddad immediately grasped Mark’s hand in a firm handshake. “Mark, my man. I’m happy to meet the writer who entertains me every morning of the week.”

Mark’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Thank you, sir. And you. It’s astounding to meet you.”

“You’re pastier than I expected,” Oso said. “What did I expect? You’re a writer, not a real sportsman. There aren’t any more of those.”

Mark groaned and put his hands to his temples.

“Hungover, are you?”

Mark just groaned again.

“It’s that poison you young ‘uns call alcohol these days. Stephanie, wait here. I’m taking young Mark with me for a trip around the block.”

“I, uh…” But her granddad had already whisked Mark away in his shiny car, leaving Devon in her care. “Hmm. I guess I’ll just watch the boys play airfoot,” she said.

“Me too,” said Devon

An hour later—after she had given up on understanding the game the boys were playing and had begun to walk the track with Devon—the Roadster reappeared, and soon the men were out of the car, running into the half field the boys weren’t using, with what appeared to be a ball. When Devon spotted Oso, he took off like a shot to catch up with him. Minäs could run, if nothing else.

But Mark, who was vomiting an hour ago, was now running. And how could an old man run like that—an old man who used a cane? Not to mention that he was now kicking the ball. Stephanie was confused.

She veered into the field and jogged over to them, where they were all three bunting the ball back and forth with their feet. Mark’s face had been re-spirited with its usual glow.

“Look at this, Steph! I’m kicking a ball! A real ball! The sports stars can’t even do this.”

She shook her head. “What happened to you in the last hour?”

“Mr. Beñat took me to this club. It was hidden in the basement of a shop in Nob Hill. I’m not allowed to say which one.”

“Why not?” she asked. “Wait, there are basements in Nob Hill stores? Since when?”

“It’s a secret men’s club. And you don’t even know. There’s a basement system linking together…oh, wait. I’m not supposed to tell.”

“Good, well, I’ll never tell you where my secret knitting circle is, then.”

His eyes bugged out in surprise. “You have a secret knitting circle?”

“No.”

“Ah, you were trying to be funny. It’s not funny. This club’s the real deal, legit. The bartender made me a hangover cure called the Silver Fizz. What was that recipe again, Sir, Mr. Beñat?”

“The first part is never drinking that trash you call beer. The rest is simple: egg white, dry gin, lemon juice, sugar, and club soda.”

Stephanie didn’t want to consider how much that beverage would cost at a club. “Yeah, because Mark is going to stock those ingredients on his salary. Good thing you gave him the recipe.”

“That’s why,” her granddad coldly replied, “the first part is never drinking that trash again. Now, would you, darlin’, like to learn how to play soccer with us?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Pass!” Mark shouted as he suddenly kicked the ball in her direction.

Being that she wasn’t prepared for it, it hit her in the shin. In return, she picked it up and hurled it at his head. Unfortunately, he dodged it.

“No, no, no!” her granddad shouted. “That’s not how to play the game. We’re going to go over the rules first.”

Stephanie giggled. She felt like a child. “All right, Granddad, Sir, Mr. Beñat!”

And for the first time in months—years, perhaps—she gave up her day and had fun. That wasn’t to say she didn’t trip over the ball multiple times. She did. She was clearly not meant to be a soccer player, but Mark picked it up rather well. Devon never really understood the rules, but he did manage to ape Mark’s every move. Her granddad, too—how could he kick the ball that way? It was incredible to watch him. How many octogenarians could do that? How many people of any age could? Nobody had balls any longer. As far as she knew, they weren’t sold in stores.

As they passed the ball to each other up and down the field, Stephanie realized the boys’ team was no longer playing airfoot. No, they were watching the strange phenomenon of ball-kicking, something they’d only seen on TV, and which some people, such as the local sports editor, insisted was faked.

Well, right before them, it was real. They stared, their jaws slack, their eyes wide in shock. To the side, somebody’s buddy Minä was jumping up and down, flapping his arms, and whoop-whooping. Stephanie couldn’t help it; she was so overjoyed by the moment that she collapsed in the grass and stared up at the sky.

“Stephanie, lying in the grass is not what a team player does,” her granddad shouted.

She didn’t care, though, at least not until her infamous grandfather invited all the boys to play with them, and she was in danger of being trampled to death by a bunch of little, obnoxious feet that were apparently aching to kick a real ball.

When Oso finally called it a game, as nobody was keeping score, the adults stood talking in the parking lot. Mark’s cheeks were flushed from exercise and excitement.

“Now this is real sport, something real to write about,” Mark said. “I wish the Daily would pay me to go to professional games rather than reporting what I see on screen. That might be some real sports reporting, too. I could find out if they use physical balls or not. I mean, only the elite can afford those games, so they’re the only ones who know what’s really going on. And then, the elites usually have shares in the players.”

Oso smiled. “I could get us into a game if you’d like. There’s one tomorrow.”

“Do you often go to games?”

“I’ve been to a handful. It’s a waste of money I try to avoid.”

“As if you have to worry about money,” Mark said.

“I’m not one of the richest men in the world because I spend money on frivolities. If I did spend money on entertainment, I’d expect it to be entertaining. Which the games aren’t.”

Mark leaned forward in eager anticipation. “Because they’re using holograph balls?”

“They make spectators sign a nondisclosure contract before buying tickets,” Oso said. “But if you wanted to do an expose, you could take one for the team. The journalism team, that is.”

Mark’s eyes were wild with anticipation. “I would seriously love, sir, to take one for the team. What do you think, Stephanie, you wanna come too?”

Stephanie thought about it. She was a cautious team player, but still, she didn’t see how Mark’s actions would affect her career. After all, there was no such thing as guilt by association. That was wishful thinking on her part, especially if she conceded to become committed to him. Guilt by association was more often than not assumed by the public. She knew this from interviewing people.

“Do they still serve hotdogs at games?” She’d always wanted to eat a hotdog, which was a food popular at games in the last century. Hotdogs looked tasty in pictures.

“Yes, they sell organic, ethnically sourced, two-inch micro dogs on crusted German-import mini-loaves with Hollandaise and Havarti. Does that sound good to you, m’dear?”

The exercise had made her even hungrier than usual. “Um, I’m not really sure I like the sound of micro dogs.”

Oso snorted. “Well, they also offer kale chips, seaweed strips, sushi, and caviar. Sometimes lobster, if it’s the right season.”

“All right, I’ll go with you guys,” she conceded, as if she wouldn’t jump at the opportunity. Not because of the food, though—the food sounded bizarre, like nothing she’d ever tasted. Or even the sport. As a Journalist of Integrity, she had a curiosity that was rarely sated, the same as Mark.


Share

Chapter 12: Playing With Fire

In which playing with fire will melt down their world!

 

Oso didn’t have a plan for how he was going to get his bicycle back from Agnes. All he knew was that he wanted it back because it spelled freedom to him. He wanted the freedom to be anywhere but his home. He could go to Gilly’s without needing transportation. But that wasn’t the point. It was also a matter of principle. His muscles tensed up from frustration.

The next morning, as he stirred a big pot of oatmeal for his siblings, he felt a now familiar tingle of memory that threatened to override his tense, frustrated muscles. The tingling sensation moved up his arms as though he’d been bitten by a spider, and the venom was spreading itself at a fast clip throughout his circulatory system. His arms grew warmer and warmer, until he howled and threw down the oatmeal spoon.

Then his mind perceived a place: it was burning—a dark, small, even space, and there was a woman howling in pain. Hearing the howls, his breath quickened, his mouth went dry, his heart beat with dangerous rapidity. His eyes dilated to take in the dim light. He had to gather the woman in his arms, he had to listen to her, gather her, rescue her; there was something important she was trying to tell him, and he couldn’t hear her. He had to move in closer…

The back door slammed. The youngest and fattest child, Barnaby, slammed into Oso, causing him to knock into a pan of boiling coffee grounds and eggshells, which sloshed all over his arm and down his pants. This burn was real, and his memory faded. There was no such thing as memory in a home filled with chaos.

As he ran his scalded arm under the tap water, his eyes smarted. He wanted to ride away from this place, maybe all the way to the river, where he and Gilly could swim in the muddy rivulets left from the drought, and cool off. He had to get his bike back, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Later that day, he consulted Gilly, which turned out to be a bad idea. Even at twelve-going-on-thirteen, Oso’s ideal for justice was storming the castle. Gilly, on the contrary, didn’t understand what storming a castle meant. Long about sunset, Gilly’s planning started bugging Oso, and he recklessly trespassed on Agnes’ property just as she had done to his. Gilly tried to stop him, but to no avail. The Oldsmobile wasn’t in the yard, which meant the man was gone. It was a good time for a heist.

Unfortunately, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t in the front or the backyard, not in the unlocked shed behind the trailer, which was a storage center for all manner of unused yard tools. The yard was a patch of dirt covered in weeds. The old man she lived with obviously wasn’t into doing yard work.

Oso walked up the porch steps and balanced on the rickety porch railing so he could peer through the blinds. The blinds were closed, and this was unsurprising, but as usually happened with plastic slats in New Mexico, these had warped in the sun and left a yawning gap big enough for him to spot his bicycle in the middle of the living room. A small TV flashed to a clean and tidy space sans visible inhabitants. How could her home be clean with the crazy people who lived inside it? It was cleaner than Oso’s home, though that was no great feat. Most people didn’t have as many toddlers running around their homes.

Out of nowhere, a girl’s voice demanded, “What are you doing?”

Oso about jumped out of his skin, but managed to immediately hide his fear. When he turned around, there stood Bernadette.

“We’re doing a B and E to get my bike back,” Oso whispered. “It’s right there in the living room.”

Gilly tugged on Oso’s sleeve to pull him back from the window. Oso didn’t oblige him.

Bernadette put her hands on her hips and cocked them out in that way girls did when they were mocking others. “You can’t just break in. She may be stupid, but she’s not stupid enough not to call the cops on us.”

“Oh, yeah, like I’d get caught. Or if I did, I’d make sure she didn’t tell. It’s not a crime to steal my own bike she stole from me. I’d get her put in jail. And for real, there is no ‘us’. You weren’t invited to this party, Bernadette.”

“Yeah, right. Who’d believe you?” she said. “And what is this, a real-men-do-crime party?”

Oso decided to ignore her until she went away. So far, that method had worked. “The only problem is I don’t know where she is. The TV’s on, but nobody’s watching it. What do you think that means?”

“That she’s making herself a frozen pizza?” Gilly said. “How should I know? Get down from there and we can plan this a little more. You’re going to walk in and get us in trouble like the dumbshit you are. Bernadette’s right.”

Oso reached back and smacked Gilly on the forehead. “Shut up. Your plans are always stupid. The best way is to just walk in there like we belong and take my bike back. What right does she have to keep my bike in her living room?”

He jumped down from the railing and grimaced as the porch boards creaked under his weight. There was one board split in half by the front door, he noted, and he wondered if it was a kind of trap door for mice or desert rats. The screen door hung slightly open, as the latch was broken. The screen itself fell forward in a lazy arc. Oso tried the door. It was locked, but locks like this were easy. At least traditional handle locks were. The deadbolt wouldn’t be as simple.

He jumped from the porch, not bothering to pretend this was a hush-hush mission. What did he care? In this case, he was in the right. Maybe he hadn’t been in the past. Maybe he’d shot BBs at her and thrown apples at her, but that was all teasing and/or redirection. Teasing didn’t make him a bad person. It was too easy to tease people weaker than he was. Now he knew she wasn’t as weak as he’d assumed. I mean, what kind of weak adult female marches directly in his yard in midday, steals his bicycle, and gets away with it?

“We should see if there’s a back door,” Oso said.

The three disappeared around to the back of the house. There was a back door, but it, too, was secured with a door lock. Oso could have jimmied this one, but he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of sneaking in through the back when the most direct route to his bicycle was entering through the front.

“I should just go and knock on the door and tell her I’m taking my bike back.”

“That’s your plan?” Gilly said.

“That’s a good plan,” said Bernadette. “I like it.”

“I told you, I don’t need to waste time on plans. I just need to walk in and get my bike.”

Gilly chewed on his fingernails, bit off an end, and spit it out. “I think we should wait until she goes to sleep. Then you can jimmy this back door and not scare the wits out of her. Then it’s just gone and she’ll think it was spirited away. Heck, she might not even remember she took it.”

Oso knew what he meant. The woman walked around the neighborhood as though she existed in a dream world. The weakness in Gilly’s plan was the old man. Surely, he would return soon, as it was now dusk. Not that Oso was afraid of him. Still, he might have weapons.

“She might not remember me if I walk in and wheel the bike out when she’s there watching.”

“Yeah, but she might remember your face. Her stepdad, husband, or whatever might come after you.”

“That’s exactly why we should take it now, before he comes back.”

“It’s her stepdad, not her husband,” Bernadette corrected, and then she grabbed at Oso’s arm. “Quick, duck, he’s coming.”

All three ducked down in the weeds at the end of the trailer.

“I don’t hear a car,” Oso whispered.

Bernadette pointed toward the alleyway. “Not her stepdad, my cousin,” she whispered back. “He’s been staying at my house. He’s gross. He’s like twenty-six and makes passes at all us girl cousins. That’s why I came over here when I saw you. I was tired of him rubbing my thighs at the dinner table.”

A curious rage settled in Oso’s stomach. “Do you want me to kill him for you?”

“Yeah, I don’t think that would be helpful.”

The shadowy figure of a tall thin man slowly walked their way and then stopped about five feet from them. They stooped down lower in the weeds. They could smell cigarette smoke. The man moved on, and then walked back. He was pacing up and down the alley, smoking. Then, finally, he tossed the cigarette their direction and wandered back to Bernadette’s house.

“What a dumbass. Do you want to stay at my place tonight?” Oso asked Bernadette. “Or maybe we could all sleep in Gilly’s robot shop. We have sleeping bags there.”

“We won’t rub your thighs, I promise,” Gilly said, and chortled.

Bernadette reached over and squeezed Oso’s hand. Maybe she wanted him to rub her thighs. Maybe not. Hand-holding was in a different class. “Thanks, but I’ll be all right. I think he’s harmless. He just likes to cop feels.”

“This whole situation makes me want a cigarette.” Gilly pulled a lighter from his pants pocket and fiddled with it. “You want one while we’re waiting? I stole a pack from my mom earlier.”

“Did you deeply plan that out, too, or did you just take it?”

“Who needs to plan when it comes to my mom? She buys them by the case. She’ll never know if one pack is gone.”

He lit a cigarette, breathed in, and coughed a little. “Ooh, tingles,” he said.

“Seriously? If you want tingles, go raid my dad’s shed. He has the real devil’s lettuce.”

“Later, dude. Here, try one. It’s not that bad. Berna?”

Bernadette shook her head. “No, the smell reminds me of my creepy cousin.”

Oso did try one, and wasn’t impressed. He puffed it a few times before crushing it with the old, scrappy tennis shoe he saved for dirty jobs.

“What a waste.”

Gilly, clearly bored by the cigarette and the conversation, turned his sights on plucking the dry weeds around the trailer and burning them.

“Mmm,” he said. “Smells weedy.”

Bernadette looked horrified. “Stop it, Gilly. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with fire?”

“Yeah, right. My mom plays with fire all the time. She smokes herself to sleep. She lights all these candles to saints and shit and burns them all night. She has one for winning the lottery.”

Oso snorted. “The only one winning that lottery is the candle maker.”

Gilly rolled his eyes. “God, Oso, that was the stupidest comeback ever. Just not as stupid as people who burn candles to saints.”

“You’d be surprised at what happens when you have faith,” Bernadette said. “I don’t think you two know anything about religious beliefs because you don’t go to church.”

“My mom watches televangelists. And Oso’s mom burns incense to the goddesses. Trust me. We know.”

“Your mom’s not Catholic,” Bernadette said. “She doesn’t even go to church, and she burns things to saints. If she truly believed, it would work.”

“Bullshit,” Oso said.

Bernadette sat with her legs outstretched, her toes pointed like a dancer’s. “How would you know?”

“Actually,” Gilly said, as he pushed up his glasses. “It’s up to you to prove it. You’re the one who says it’s true without any evidence.”

She smiled knowingly, smugly. “My family has been Catholic forever. One time, my cousin drove out to the Chimayo church and got some of the dirt and he left it in his car for like a year. Once, when he was on his way back from Chimayo the same time next year, he got in a car accident. His car rolled, Gilly, and he was fine because of the dirt.”

“Yeah, I doubt it was the dirt that saved him.”

Oso snorted again. “Maybe it padded his fall.”

Gilly picked up a piece of trash, lit it, and watched it burn into nothing, or at least what looked like little black birds floating away on the breeze. “How much dirt was this? Did it weigh down his car, too? Because dirt weighs a lot.”

“It was in a sandwich bag. You don’t know the whole story. His mom had a bad heart, that’s why he was getting her some dirt. It was Easter. If he hadn’t been delayed by the accident, he wouldn’t have gotten to the home at exactly the same time as his mom had a heart attack. And then his mom was fine.”

Oso unhooked his hand from hers and shoved her lightly on the shoulder. “You don’t believe that, do you? You aren’t that gullible?”

“Berna’s not gullible.” Gilly laughed. “Nope. Why shouldn’t she believe that someone’s mom survived a heart attack because her son got in a car accident?”

“No,” she said, her voice rising with indignation, “he had brought back a second bag of dirt for his mom, and he found her exactly at the right moment and gave it to her. I’m not making it up. That’s what happened. At least I’m open to something outside my small, stupid mind.”

Gilly glowered. Even in the dark, his glower was obvious.

“Some people need superstitions,” Oso said, as though his words were somehow soothing. “That’s okay. My dad doesn’t. I don’t either. Superstitions don’t make the vegetables grow.”

“Not having them doesn’t keep your mom home, either, does it?” Bernadette paused for effect. “Maybe if your dad had a few more, she wouldn’t run off all the time and leave you guys.”

“Shut the hell up, Bernadette. You don’t know anything. Don’t talk about my family like that.”

Bernadette smiled. “I’m telling you, these things work. I’ll light a candle for your mom to stop running off like a whore, and she’ll stay. I promise.”

“Ha! I’ll tell my mom to do it, too,” Gilly said. “She’s always very concerned when she’s sees your mom’s pregnant again. Not that it will work, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts.”

Oso felt the heat rise to his cheeks and his fists clench. He didn’t need to fight. Fighting was the way of cowards. But he sorely wanted to pound Gilly’s head into the dirt and smash in his nose. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do to Bernadette. She was pretty. And she had a mean side. He’d known that for a long time. He really just wanted her to go away, but not back to a place where a twenty-six-year-old would feel her up.

“Any of those candles keep your dad from abandoning you, Gilly?” he said instead.

“No because my dad is a scientist and doesn’t believe in that garbage.”

“Hmm. That’s good to know.” He looked pointedly at Bernadette.

Bernadette looked pointedly back. “Yeah, it’s good to know that a lack of faith has prevented miracles from happening.”

“Are you saying that your God is forced to do things if you have faith?”

“No, it’s not like that, it’s…”

Oso snorted one last time, as her protestation trailed off. She clearly didn’t know how to conclude.

Gilly lay back in the dirt and stared up at the summer night sky. “Smells like cat shit down here. I’ll bet there’s cats living under the trailer.”

“Or it could just be you.”

“You don’t get the way these candles work. That’s your problem,” she finally said. “It’s how much faith you have in them. God wants to see people be faithful, so he gives rewards for faith. My uncle abandoned my aunt, just like Gilly’s dad did. But now that my aunt has more faith and has been lighting candles, he’s been paying child support.”

“That’s nice,” Gilly said, with a sneer. “It hasn’t helped my mom get child support. Maybe it’s the state that went after your uncle and made him pay. My dad left New Mexico, and nobody knows where he’s at. The candles are meaningless.”

“You know—you’re right. The candles are meaningless. I already said that. It’s faith.” She pointed up at the night sky. “See? Oso’s constellation is shining tonight. That means it’s his night.”

“My constellation?”

“The big dipper. That’s the big bear. Unless you consider yourself the little bear. Does your mom call you that, Osito?”

“She wouldn’t dare.”

“You know what this is?” Gilly asked as he plucked a handful of weeds and began braiding them together into the shape of a Teddy bear. “This is going to be your lucky effigy.”

The weeds were obviously not dry enough and the flame kept snuffing out. Gilly added a few pieces of dried circulars that had blown and caught in the weeds at the base of the trailer. He wound them around, crafting them into what appeared to be a strange doll. Then he lit it on fire. It caught fire so quickly it whooshed up to his hand, and he dropped it in the weeds with a yelp. The dry weeds went up in flames faster than any of them could respond. They jumped up and backed away.

But Oso stopped. He knew he couldn’t back away. This was what he’d remembered, and his mouth went dry at the thought. What if Agnes was in that back bedroom? What if she was the woman who was trying to speak to him? He had to help her. He tried to stomp the fire out, but it had grown too big.

He shoved Bernadette. “Go to your house and call 911. Gilly, you’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you did this.”

“What’re you going to do?” Bernadette asked, her voice shaking. “Keep stomping on it?”

“No, get Agnes out,” he shouted as he ran around to the front of the house. “Gilly, go find a hose!”

Oso smashed out the window near the front porch and crawled in with the help of the rickety railing.

“Agnes!” he shouted.

Then he saw her, asleep in an armchair that faced the TV. It had not been visible from the vantage point of the window, and Oso experienced a sudden rage. He could have broken in the back door, after all, and walked out with his bike. It was clear not even smashing the window could wake this woman.

He shook her, and her eyes rolled open and shut again.

“We have to get out of here,” he shouted at her. “Your trailer is going to be toast in like ten minutes.”

She murmured like a young child, but didn’t respond as he expected a normal human being might. So he dragged her upright, and pulled her to a standing position with one of her arms around his shoulder. She didn’t have her leg on—he didn’t know where it was. But he didn’t have time to look for it. He dragged her toward the front door while she jumped along with one leg, trying to keep up.

“Where, where are we going?” she whimpered.

“Your trailer’s going to be toast. It’s on fire.”

“The c-c-candle Papa lit so he could see?”

“Or whatever.” He’d had enough of candle talk for one day.

He snapped the deadbolt free and dragged her outside, though she resisted and gestured with her hand to the back of the house. Gilly was waiting on the porch, his face blanched.

“I couldn’t find a hose,” he choked out, his voice hoarse.

“Papa,” she whimpered.

“He’s not here.” And then Oso stopped cold. The man could be home. What if the car was in the shop? What if she’d bought a secondhand bicycle because the car was a piece of crap?

She whimpered like an animal and tried to tear herself from Oso’s grip. He held on tighter and dragged her to the dirt. She clawed at his neck, and he yelped and let her go.

Without bothering to think it through, he ran back inside the trailer to check for “Papa.”

“Oso,” Gilly screamed. “What are you doing, you stupid idiot?”

The heat was so intense he thought he would die. And then his foot fell through the floor. He’d seen the videos at school, what to do and what not to do in case of fire. He’d done exactly what he shouldn’t have. The smoke would kill him if the fire didn’t first.

Then he saw Gilly crawling on his hands and knees toward him. He pulled Oso out, and both boys crawled back out and collapsed in the dirt near Agnes, who was convulsing and sobbing. Their parents were there, as they’d seen the flames. Gilly swatted away his mom as she tried to hug him; he was convulsing and sobbing just like Agnes.

“Son?” Oso’s dad said, stooping down in the dirt by his side. “What happened here?”

Oso’s mother didn’t bother questioning or attempting hugs. She put her hand on his shoulder and then quickly removed it. For once, Oso was grateful for her lack of nurturing spirit. He didn’t bother responding to his dad. Instead, he stared mutely at the trailer until a fire truck showed up, its sirens blaring.

Agnes had stopped convulsing by that time, but she wouldn’t stop whimpering and pointing back at the engulfed back end of the trailer, with her litany of Papa, Papa, which developed into an unnatural ghostly keening, punctuated by an incoherent rant about starting the fire and killing him.

“I didn’t mean to kill him!” she wailed. “I just wanted him to leave the little girl alone!”

What little girl was she talking about? He’d never seen any kids living there. But of greater significance, Agnes thought it was her fault. That was what she was screeching about. Oso knew he couldn’t let her believe that, but he also knew nobody could know about Gilly starting the fire. What would happen to Gilly? Would he end up in juvenile detention? Would Oso be partly responsible?

The local firemen entered the as-yet non-engulfed area of the trailer to try to rescue this “Papa.” But it was too late. That part of the trailer was toast, and they couldn’t rescue him. He was dead, burnt alive in his bed. Gilly vomited; Bernadette burst into tears in her mother’s arms. Oso stared straight ahead, his mouth open, his body trembling from head to toe. His breath came out in pants, as though he were asthmatic.

A while later, another fire engine, a cop car, and an ambulance showed up. A fireman put Oso on oxygen, and his breathing slowed. Agnes’ keening silenced as she, too, was put on oxygen. When it was clear there were no serious injuries, the police separated the kids to take their statements individually.

Oso’s heart hammered. He wasn’t a bad person. He hadn’t bullied her. He’d teased her. And he hadn’t burnt anything. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault. And they hadn’t worked out a story. What could Oso say? He told the cop they were looking for his bike and smelled smoke.

“How do you lose a bike?” the cop asked him.

Oso swallowed and spoke the truth. He told the cop the entire story of distracting Agnes so that she crashed on her bike and how the woman had stolen his. He thought he could take it back from her, but couldn’t find it in the yard.

The cop didn’t give him an idea of what might happen. He talked to Oso’s parents, instead, informing him that Oso might be wanted for further questioning after the fire martial’s investigation. Oso’s stomach churned. He didn’t know much about how fires were investigated. Surely, they would see that the fire had started outside, not inside the trailer.

His dad didn’t grill him that night. Gilly didn’t have a dad, and his mom would believe anything her genius son told her. By comparison, Oso’s passive, peace-loving dad was a drill sergeant. Oso wasn’t sure about Bernadette and her happy, intact family. She might spill the truth to all of them, or to the cops. She might.

“You look like you’ve been through hell. Is it true you rescued the lady from her trailer?” his dad asked him.

It didn’t make much difference at that point, did it? Oso had let another person die, and he would never be okay with himself again. Therefore, he couldn’t bring himself to answer in the affirmative or the negative.

His dad handed him a watered down half shot of his homemade peach brandy. “Go to bed. We’ll speak more about it in the morning.”

But in the morning, the local paper, as well as the big-city paper from Albuquerque, had declared all three of them heroes. And Bernadette didn’t tell, or at least she hadn’t yet. She came to him in tears the next day and told him she didn’t want to be a hero. All she’d done was call 911.

“We killed a man,” she kept saying, over and over. “We have to tell.”

“You didn’t,” he said. “Gilly and I were responsible. Stop it. Just stop crying. There’s no point.”

“I can’t stop. I’m the one who made you hide there. It’s my fault. We should have followed your plan from the beginning.”

“So what? Just shut up about it, okay?”

“I won’t ever speak of it ever,” she solemnly said. “It will be our secret. I swear.”

He’d only meant for her to stop blubbering and blaming herself, but if she didn’t tell anyone Gilly had started the fire, so much the better.

When it came time for the fire martial to investigate, the job was shoddily done and the fire declared an accident. Well, of course it was an accident. An accident caused by stupidity. Somewhere inside Oso, he desperately wanted to be put away forever for what had happened. And it didn’t help that girls now looked at him adoringly. Older girls. High school girls. He turned thirteen and was as tall as a full-grown adult, but he felt small inside, like a kid hidden in a man, like a scared kid who didn’t know himself any more.

Yes, he felt very small, indeed. And because he so thoroughly blocked the image of a charred man from his mind, all he could think about—have nightmares about—was Bernadette’s missing leg that had melted down with the house. Maybe she would be without a leg forever.


Share

Chapter 11: The One-Legged Nemesis

In which one-legged Agnes rides bicycles and two wheels ride little men!

 

The summer between seventh and eighth grade came on like a bang. That is, there was little snow in the winter, and no early signs of rain. March and April had been utterly dry, but served up dust carried on scorching winds. The hot, dry weather simply made it easier for Gilly and Oso to remain inside his mom’s outbuilding or at Gilly’s computer, working on the robot. Sometimes, they slept in the outbuilding.

For the record, it was called an outbuilding because it had been given no specific purpose. It was shed, garage, workshop, and barn all at once. It held chicken feed; that was why it was a barn. It smelled of dust, wood, and the vitamin-y corn of the feed. To Oso, it was a relief to sleep there rather than in a house full of siblings. His mom had just popped out a new one. She would squat, and then there would be another crying baby in the house.

When the spring winds finally calmed into the easy heat of summer, the robot took its act out of doors. They had finally gotten it programmed so that it could balance on the bicycle. But they didn’t know how to stop the damn thing. It had no brakes.

“We should have programmed it to ride instead of just balance,” Gilly said. “If it were a more complex robot, it would put its feet down and not fall over.”

“I like it,” Oso said.

Gilly glared at him. Gilly had an awful glare at times. He was so…judgmental. Not that Oso wasn’t judgmental. He rarely let people off the hook. No, it was more that Oso could see an achievement for what it was. He could see that if they could design a robot to remain upright on a bike, they could design a robot to do anything, anything at all. In fact, he had some future premonitions of the sort, much like the one occurring in the middle school library, but he could no longer separate what was planning and what was memory. Most of his future memories were as attractive as his plans—emphasis on most.

Along the dusty road, Oso let the robot move with the bicycle. It was, as Alex had said earlier before she’d disappeared back behind her book, adorable. She was still mad about her Barbie bike, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t admire the robot. Eventually, Bernadette meandered out of her house and across her backyard to see what they were doing, and her sentiments were much friendlier than they’d been regarding the life-sized bot that had shot at her and Oso.

The robot could speak a few phrases, too, including, “Nice day for a ride”; “Hey, there, babe, wanna ride with me?”; and “I’ll race you!” When Bernadette walked over, it whizzed by her feet and shouted the last phrase at her. Soon she was off running, while it chased her up the alleyway running by Agnes’ house, and then back again.

Oso’s heart popped as he watched her. She was so pretty—warm with clean skin and big dark eyes, long swinging brown hair. She had nice legs, too, just a slightly too large derrière and no boobs. Ah, well, no girl was perfect.

In an odd incongruity, as Oso used the remote to keep the girl running in circles as much to keep the bicycle moving, Agnes appeared from the back of her trailer wheeling her own bicycle. Full-sized, of course. Nobody had seen Agnes ride a bicycle, but a secondhand bicycle shop had opened up on the plaza, right next to the coffee shop. And as nobody had ever seen Agnes driving the beat-up Oldsmobile, either—it was assumed she was too crazy to drive—perhaps she had found freedom with two wheels.

The surprise caused Oso to stop propelling the bicycle forward, and it toppled over. Bernadette halted in her run and stood there, panting, as Agnes wobbled down the road on the two-wheeled vehicle. She wobbled and stopped and started again, the handlebars veering dangerously into the middle of the road.

“Where do you think she got a bike from?” Gilly asked.

“Some idiot who doesn’t know she can’t drive a wheelchair or walk a straight line.”

“Who wouldn’t know that, asshead?”

“Maybe it was an anonymous donation.”

“From the local retard club,” Gilly finished, but for some reason, Oso was compelled to smack him on the back of the head for it.

“Our robot rides better than she does,” Oso said.

“Correction. Our robot doesn’t ride. It’s not much better than Barbie,” Gilly said. “At least when she wobbles, she’s using her legs. And one of her leg’s fake, too. She has what our robot doesn’t. A brain.”

“You’re such a downer. You’re like a little girl. Watch this, you little beyotch.” He shouted at Bernadette to set the robot aright on the bicycle again. Then he put it back in motion, while its small tinny voice said on repeat, I’ll race you.

And race it did, though it couldn’t achieve great speeds. Oso ran behind the robot with the remote in his hands, as though that would make it ride faster. He hollered like a madman with a deadly toy. Agnes, who’d finally managed to balance on the bicycle, directed herself right into the mess of dust Oso had kicked up. Disconcerted, she ran her bike straight over the friendly robot on its bike, and then slammed into a parked car in order to avoid hitting a moving one.

She jumped right up and tried to ride off again, clicking her tongue and mumbling all the while, but the bicycle’s wheel was bent, causing it to scrape the rim. She picked it up and proceeded to accomplish a very uncanny task, given her usual stupor. Oso watched open-mouthed as the woman wheeled her bicycle, which now limped about as much as she did with her prosthetic leg, into Oso’s yard, through the pecking fowls, and leaned it against the fence.

That wasn’t the uncanny part; given her odd behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have surprised him if she confused the Beñat family house for hers, despite that it was a shotgun adobe and frame structure, while she lived in a trailer. They were shaped virtually the same. The Beñat house was simply a lot bigger.

But, no, she wasn’t finished with her task. She then examined a row of dinged-up and scraped-up bicycles, found the biggest and nicest of the bunch, and wheeled it from the yard.

“Dude, she’s stealing your bicycle!” Gilly shouted.

“What the…hey!” Oso shouted at her, but she either didn’t hear him or pretended she hadn’t. “I worked my ass off for that bike! You think we get anything nice at my house? We don’t!”

Her vague eyes looked in their direction, but they appeared to see right through the boys, as if they weren’t part of her universe. She wheeled the bicycle into her own small yard, foul free, and bumped it up the rickety trailer steps and in through the front door.

“Just go get it from her,” Gilly said. “She can’t be that strong.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she’s not strong, but I don’t want to mess with crazy.”

Gilly looked disgusted. Oso didn’t care. He felt…he wasn’t sure what he felt. Guilty? No—confusion, maybe. Guilt wasn’t his forte. He wasn’t guilty. For anything.

“What’re you going to do now? I thought we were riding into town today. I’m not walking. It’s too far,” Gilly said.

“I have to babysit my mom’s brats, anyway.”

“Wow, you’re the one turning into a little girl, now, aren’t you?”

The look Oso gave him was meant to melt steel. “I’ll get my bike back.”

“When?”

“When I’m ready.”

Oso examined the downed robot, now lying in the dust along with its bicycle. The damage was minimal, but for some reason, he wasn’t so proud of it any longer. He kicked it once and walked off, just like that.


Share

Chapter 10: Degrees of Freedom

In which All Hail Robot is code for Barbie Terminator!

 

It was one of those days that was bound and determined to deflate Stephanie’s confidence in herself. For a start, she’d risen at the crack of dawn in order to dash off a query letter and send it to dozens of licensed literary agents, before she went to work creating bylines and writing yawn-inducing local news stories.

But when she sat down, she couldn’t think of a single clever hook. Hours later, she had written and erased a single paragraph fifty times. All she had going for her, really, was her career as an unacceptable journalist and her connection to Oso Beñat. He was her hook. She had to accept that. And so she sent the query off, hesitantly, to five of the most likely candidates. After that, she had one hour to produce her assigned work for the Albuquerque Daily. All the while, as she produced barely-acceptable work, she kept reiterating in whispered undertones that her granddad was her hook. Everything would work out because of him.

But once she’d driven out to his house, the one and only Oso Beñat wouldn’t take Stephanie’s phone call. She’d been barred from entering his premises, even though she had set up an appointment with him. So she tried again to call him from the comfort of her car, and again she failed at the most basic task of getting him on the phone. His assistant, who hadn’t existed before Grandma Berna’s death, wouldn’t put him on. The woman boldly claimed that Mr. Beñat was old and convalescent and couldn’t take visitors. She had a distinct chill to her voice when she said it.

“I’m his granddaughter. I have an appointment with him,” she patiently explained to Dame Assistant through the call box on the gate.

“Sure you are,” she said. “You all are.”

“Everybody is my granddad’s grandchild?”

“He either had a lot of children, or there are a lot of liars in the world.”

Well. It was true; the world wasn’t the beautiful land of Nod it used to be. Scamming for cash was the way of people in a crap economy. Nevertheless, she couldn’t understand how pretending to be Oso Beñat’s grandchild would benefit anyone. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford a DNA test.

She sighed. She wasn’t making headway with the gatekeeper, and she suspected her granddad wouldn’t be happy with her for being late to their mutually agreed upon appointment. Desperation mounting, she determined to break in. She would just…climb the gate. It wasn’t exactly the climbable kind, what with its iron bars and sharp end points piercing the sky high above her head. Then there was the problem of her hip-hugging skirt, not to mention the treadless dress flats.

And didn’t billionaires with locked gates generally have rabid guard dogs that would tear intruders limb from limb? He’d owned a pair of rottweilers once upon a time, but she hadn’t been up here much in the past few years. The air was, fortunately, curiously silent of barks. She heard the call of a vulture, not that she was an expert on bird sounds. It sounded predatory, though, and she could see its black bird body wheeling in the deep blue sky.

She could do this. She began walking the circuit of the fence. Anybody who was looking out a window would see her, as the grounds were a meticulous xeriscape. The house itself was low to the ground, solid, and plain—like a fortress with large modern windows. Its only elegant touch was the handful of arches that led into a central courtyard.

The act of sneaking around gave rise to fear. Her granddad, despite her familiarity with him, was fearsome. Indeed, she had a niggling doubt about these interviews: What if she learned something about her granddad that would change her vision of who he was, who she was, who her grandmother and mother were? Would she want to publish the truth and nothing but the truth?

No, nothing could change her perspective of him. He was a good man. A generous man. He’d helped her parents out of numerous scrapes. With her thoughts back in a reassurance loop, she took a deep breath of the fresh pine air that was to be found in the Sandias, high above Albuquerque.

Soon, she heard water splashing from the fountain off the rear porch. She continued, following the sound of the water and an undetermined scratching noise, until she abruptly halted at the sight of someone reclining in a deck chair and staring out at the view, which she had suddenly become part of. It wasn’t just any someone, but Granddad himself. The scratching noise came from Devon, who had apparently been told to rake the stones around the fountain into a Zen stone garden. Or something. When Devon saw her, he guffawed and jumped up and down.

“Hey!” her granddad shouted. “What are you doing?”

His tone was hostile enough that she guessed he hadn’t recognized her. She smiled and waved.

He took off the glasses he was wearing, put aside whatever he’d been reading, and grabbed for the cane leaning against his chair. He was up faster than she could yell out a greeting. On his way to ostensibly shoo her off, he stopped cold a couple of feet from the fence.

“Stephanie?” He shook his head and wiped his eyes, fished in his pocket for a different pair of glasses, and then put them on. “There you go again, looking like your grandma’s ghost. You shouldn’t scare an old man like that.”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“What are you doing? You’re late. I thought you chickened out.” His gaze was disconcerting—cold, steady. No wonder people were afraid of him.

She pinched her lips together, trying desperately to maintain her smile. “Granddad, I’d really like to do this. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“First piece of advice. If you want to make it in this world—” He reached out with his cane and banged an iron rung. “Show up on time. And don’t go nosing around trying to sneak in my yard like a thief. Act legitimate. Always keep your business in the open and above board. Got it?”

“Yes, Granddad, it’s just that…”

“You may call me sir, Mr. Beñat, or don’t address me at all. As clearly, being my granddaughter has made you lose sight of your professionalism.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Beñat. It’s just that your assistant wouldn’t allow me to talk to you. She reminded me that you were old and convalescing.”

“So you thought you would sneak in and climb through the window and take advantage of a convalescent old man?”

It was springtime, and consequently not that hot, but her body temperature was getting hotter by the minute. She could feel sweat stains collecting on the sleeves of her shirt.

“Something like that. Except you clearly aren’t convalescent.”

He laughed out loud. “That must have put a crimp in your plans.”

“What about the interview, the bio? You agreed to it.” She smiled and went for a sincere, maybe even slightly naïve, tone. To be honest, she was slightly naïve about the world, as she’d never left her home state. And she was as sincere as she knew how to be. “I’d much rather not climb over gates or into windows. Could I please come in through the front? Above board and all that?”

His penetrating gaze, direct to the eyes, weakened and drifted to her shoes. He hunched forward and leaned heavily on his cane, as though his age had just fallen over him, draped him like a blanket. It would seem he couldn’t keep up the domineering facade too long. He took a deep, shaky breath. And then he chuckled under his breath. He was playing with her. The jerk.

“Stephanie, didn’t I advise you to get yourself a decent pair of heels? You got legs like Berna, but you don’t know what to do with them.”

“Granddad, I mean, sir, Mr. Beñat. Why would I do anything with them? These are my work clothes. I really am trying to be professional.”

“It has nothing to do with me. It should be your life method as a journalist to show off your legs. Because the average man likes to admire nice legs. That’s why I hired a woman who dresses well as my assistant, whose jealousy forces her to field my phone calls. That’s also why I have a private phone she’s not allowed to answer.” He pulled a remote control from his pocket and fiddled with it. “The front gate’s open. Go to the front door and knock like you’re an actual relation of mine and not an upstart. Beñats do not sneak around.”

“Yes, I know. But why didn’t you give me your private number to begin with?”

“I didn’t know my assistant would be so stupid as to turn away my own granddaughter. I told her you were coming. She added the appointment to my schedule.”

“I’m sorry.” She lowered her head in humility, though she didn’t know what she was sorry for.

He banged a rung with his cane again, this time so hard, Stephanie jumped at the noise. “Opportunity knocks. Run, before I change my mind.”

“Yes, Grand…sir!” She called out and hurried off as fast as she could go in the tight skirt. It was a good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. She was a klutz and would have fallen on her ass if she’d been wearing anything higher than an inch.

By the time she made it around to the front gate, she was slightly out of breath. The gate was, indeed, open. She walked in, confident this time, and marched up to the door, where she lifted the knocker and gave the door several loud bangs. No answer. Maybe he hadn’t hobbled that far yet. She banged again. This time, the door opened to a tall, skinny blonde wearing a headscarf that fit on her head like a cloche. Stephanie knew nothing about fashion, but even to her, the scarf seemed an odd choice.

The blonde looked down on the shorter, darker woman, her lips pursed in distaste. “May I help you?”

She handed the woman her press pass, complete with name and credentials—something she’d failed to do before, as she’d not thought it necessary. As a child, she’d practically lived her summers in this house. She’d played in the indoor pool and run around the hallways as though they didn’t belong to a wealthy tycoon. “I’m here to see Mr. Beñat. I have an appointment.”

“There are no appointments on his calendar for today.”

“You might want to double-check that.”

She was about to shut the door in Stephanie’s face—Stephanie could detect the glint in the steely blue eyes—when Mr. Beñat, followed by his buddy Devon, finally strode up with his cane.

“That’s my granddaughter. You will treat her with respect,” he snapped.

“Stephanie!” Devon shouted with glee.

The assistant opened the door and stepped aside, as though graciousness was her general method. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

He picked up his cane and gently smacked the woman’s scrawny ass with it, to which, the woman barely responded. Devon, of course, copied, smacking her ass with his hand because he didn’t have a cane. That time, the assistant couldn’t hide her annoyance.

“Go make us some coffee,” her granddad commanded. “And Devon, go play. I’ve told you never to touch my assistant.”

Devon’s face fell. “I want to see Stephanie,” he said.

“You were created to obey. Now do as you’re told.”

“Isn’t it too late in the day for coffee?” the assistant said, her voice oozing with the condescension of a care nurse. “You never sleep if you drink it past ten.”

“I didn’t hire you to tell me what I can and can’t serve my guests. Go make the coffee.”

The woman’s eyes darted in Stephanie’s direction. “Would you like any other refreshments, or just the coffee?” she demurred.

“Bring a sampling of fruit and cheese. This working girl clearly needs a little more meat on her bones.”

First she had a fat ass, then she was too thin, and now she needed more meat on her bones yet again. Huh. Some men just couldn’t be pleased. At the sound of fruit, though, her mouth watered. And her stomach growled—loudly.

He motioned for her to follow him. “You live off crumbs, m’dear, and I don’t mean food. I mean your articles. I meant to talk to you about them the other day. You write tawdry stories about pop stars and actors. You write the whole gossip page. Granted, under a few pseudonyms.”

Well, she couldn’t deny it, even if the truth made her wince. “And bylines. And occasionally something more serious, like the retro bot release by Tomi Corp. That’s why I’m here, remember? I’m going to change the face of journalism.”

“You should be careful trying to change the world. You may have the power to do so. I did. And then it came back to bite me.”

“Some things are worth changing, don’t you think?”

“I thought so, yes. I made one central mistake.”

“What was that?”

“If I answered your question now, it would be telling the story from the end.” He shook his head and fixed his penetrating gaze on her. “I decided to go along with this because I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve been contemplating hiring somebody to write my book for some time.” He waved his hand at her dismissively. “I don’t know if you’re good enough, yet. I’ll determine that as we make progress.”

She opened her eyes wide in alarm. Hadn’t he already said…?

“Stop!” he said in his forceful manner. “You have those great big eyes, just like Berna. Bambi eyes. Don’t play the large-eyed doe game with me, batting your lashes in wondrous surprise.”

“I wasn’t. I…”

“Don’t pretend to be Miss Innocent with me.”

Stephanie tried to keep her gaze level, her eyes at normal width, no lash-batting. “I’m just here to get original contacts. I’m not playing games, I promise. I can’t conduct searches. Since you know everything already, you should know that, too.”

By searches, she meant on the various offshoots of the original net, including on the investigation channels. They were time-consuming, costly, and heavily regulated by the government. In other words, any search activity coming from a newspaper was subject to censorship, unless one went on the shadow net. The shadow net contained all info for all time, both true and false. But if one went on the shadow net, one might lose one’s job in journalism and/or go to jail.

Without a lot of resources, the story range went from local interest to tawdry gossip, just as Granddad had said. And farcical news stories. The farcical news section was tucked in between the gardening and the business section. Most people didn’t realize it was actually a farcical news section, as the disclaimer was in small print at the very end. Despite that, it was supposed to be humorous, and for that reason, Stephanie didn’t bother trying her talents there. She had no talent for humor.

“Money can buy you private access to just about anything. Not that I have the need for it any longer. I used to have friends who stayed one step ahead of the government. I didn’t care to keep those contacts, or I’d pass them along.”

She didn’t know what to say. “Granddad, I mean, sir, thank you. Since you’re familiar with my stories, then you know I write short and catchy summaries. Please give me a chance on your biography and allow me to become good enough as we go along. I’m not a real writer…yet.”

He snorted. “A real writer, huh? I prefer short and catchy. No need for any of that profound literary nonsense a ‘real writer’ would use.”

She was about to protest, but the blonde assistant drifted smoothly in on her three-inch heels, gracefully balancing a wooden tray. She set it down on the coffee table in between Stephanie and her granddad, and hastened to pour out a cup of coffee for him, as well as fix him a plate of sliced peaches, halved apricots, blueberries, and all manner of cheeses Stephanie didn’t recognize. Gorgeous cheeses—from the Hague Marketplace, no doubt, which was a pan Afro-Asian-Euro deli for the rich. Occasionally, Stephanie splurged and bought a small package of American cheese from the regular supermarket chain everybody else shopped at, the Drop the Load store.

“Cream or sugar?” The assistant managed to maintain a delicate balance between iciness and politeness.

“Both. Neither.” Stephanie couldn’t decide. “Both.”

She poured Stephanie a cup of coffee from the urn, placed it ceremoniously on the end table, and then delicately splashed cream in the top. With a pair of tongs, she dropped in one, then two lumps of brown sugar.

“Could I have one more?” Stephanie asked.

The icy blonde pursed her already thin lips and dropped in another lump.

“Thank you.”

To that, the ice queen gave no response. After fixing a plate of fruits and cheeses, the assistant withdrew, her heels echoing down the hall. Granddad held up his finger. When the footfalls faded, he put his finger down.

“I’ll have my assistant put together a box of fruits and cheeses for you. Remind me.” He let out a sigh. “I could use the excuse that my memory’s going, but it isn’t. I still manage to remember what’s important.”

“That’s good. Otherwise you might have to make up your memoirs, and I want the real deal.” She took a big slurp of coffee. “Like this coffee.”

“You’re unlike your Grandma. Berna liked to spend money. She had a real gift for it. A sort of wild, passionate look in her eyes when she bought gourmet foods and liqueur and plied me with them. And I accepted them. To be successful, you must not only be healthy, but you must look the part.”

“Let me write that down,” Stephanie said, and wiped her now blue fingertips on a napkin. She quickly typed out the phrase. “I’ll put together a list of aphorisms as spoken by one of the most successful businessmen of this century. I could publish it as a companion edition to your biography. This is going to sell. I’ll revive your image, Granddad. Mr. Beñat. I’m really good at this sort of thing.”

“The grandkid’s a businesswoman, and she has a real gift for humility, too.”

“I just know what I’m good at, that’s all. That’s about all I know.”

He sipped his coffee, but appeared disinterested in the food. He’d always had a reputation for being a bit of the bulldog—big and tall and barging in with the force of his personality, even though his musculature would have been enough. Now, he was lean, almost gaunt. Yes, gaunt. He was almost ninety for heaven’s sake. He probably didn’t go to the gym, despite the bravado with his cane earlier. And that was the weird thing: his gauntness highlighted his eyes to such a degree that his gaze was perhaps just as intimidating as his physique was when he was younger.

Stephanie decided she wouldn’t allow him to intimidate her. That was all.

“Well, I do,” she feebly added.

“You youngsters don’t know much about anything these days. You haven’t known anything for over a hundred years. Your predecessors were paragons of knowledge and wisdom compared to you.”

“Well, true, I didn’t finish the mandatory seventeen years of school, but I did well while I was there.”

“And what did you learn before you dropped out?”

“I learned to memorize information for tests so I could go on to core college. I didn’t want my parents to pay the opt-out fine.”

“How’d that work out for you? I don’t seem to recall you going to core college. Or your parents sniveling around for the tuition money.”

Stephanie shrugged. She didn’t want to talk about this subject, as it had brought her to nearly being disowned by her parents. Aside from that, his gaze wouldn’t let up, and it made her squirm. “You already know I didn’t go. I was good at being clever, and now I’m one of the highest paid journalists at the Albuquerque Daily.”

“Good for you.” Was that a look of approval on his face? “And what are your future plans?”

Up to that moment, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t have her granddad’s skill for business. She was happy to stay at the paper as long as they would have her, not to mention continue paying her enough that she could keep her apartment.

What did she want? Mark? A better career? What was a career worth these days? With the improving, but still quite low employment rate for any jobs outside the fields of robotics maintenance, pharmacy, education, or war, she thought of herself as lucky to be a JOI member of the Free Press League.

But at that moment, she suddenly knew the answer. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a legacy. She wanted a connection. “To learn my history,” she said. “Of my connection to New Mexico. To this earth. And I’m going to start with you.”

Granddad cast her a small, sad smile. “That’s a more reasonable answer than I expected, Ms. Gonzalez.”

“Stephanie Mirabel Gonzales-Beñat, you mean. Did you really mean that was a reasonable answer, or were you being sarcastic?”

“Life is too short for sarcasm. It’s too short for endless irony.” He paused and furrowed his brows as he watched her type his words in her teletyper. “When it comes down to it, the legacy we leave is vitally important. We don’t have to be important people—that’s not what I mean. But we all leave legacies. Even the smallest act sends a message to future generations.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, Granddad,” she said. “Oops, I mean Mr. Beñat.”

“That’s all right. You may call me Granddad again. I was a little harsh earlier. You’re also allowed to criticize me. I can take it.”

“All I was going to say was, aren’t you starting at the end?”

He picked up his cane and banged it against the floor, which naturally didn’t startle her this time. “I’ll start wherever I want to,” he shouted. “And as it happens, I want to start where we left off.”

“Okay, then.”

She drained the coffee, which tasted a bit like candy, and set aside her food plate. Food could wait if Granddad was ready to talk—or dominate the conversation. It was all the same to him.

The boys, Oso and Gilly, had tired of remote shooting with Gilly’s robot. Oso insisted they begin a new bot, and Gilly was ready, as well. Together, they figured they could create a robot that had various working joints.

“He should be able to ride a bicycle,” Oso said.

“That’s the stupidest idea you’ve had yet. Why a bicycle? He should be able to drive a car.”

“No, stupid. The bicycle demonstrates the use of ankle, knee, hip, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The joints just need enough flexibility for that. If we can do that, then all we have to deal with is momentum.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s all. Because every full-body robot I’ve ever seen can freaking run like in ‘Hail Robot’.”

“Who cares about ‘Hail Robot’? Sci fi writers are window-lickers.”

Gilly narrowed his eyes. “Shut up about things you know nothing about.

“I suggested he ride a bike, not run. It’ll be easy.”

“Yeah, because creating joints with that kind of DOF is so easy.”

“DOF?” Oso asked.

“Now who’s the window-licker? You know nothing. DOF stands for degrees of freedom. The joint has to have just enough freedom, but not be able to rotate past that. There are robots on the market that can already do that, anyway. What would be more difficult would be programming it to ride. It takes more than just momentum, stupid. It doesn’t have a human brain.”

“But we could program it, though, right?”

“I don’t know. Could you? It sounds complicated to me. I mean, do you honestly know how to program a robot to ride a bike?”

“You have an uncle who could help us, right?”

“Sure, I have lots of uncles who are off the Res.”

For Gilly, that was more than slang. His mother was from Alamo, and as she had graduated from high school with honors, she had made the effort to leave her home behind by, oh, moving an hour away to Socorro and attending New Mexico Tech. There, she met Gilly’s father, a man Oso had never seen, but whose name Gilly was cursed with forever. It was even worse when combined with his mother’s last name: Gillilander Herrera. It was not a name one accorded with success.

So with the help of several uncles and Oso’s dad, who knew how to both build and wire things, they created a bicycle-riding robot. It was not life-sized like Gilly’s silent but loyal sharpshooter. In fact, it was barely bigger than Alex’s Barbie bicycle, which the boys stole ostensibly for research purposes. Through Alex’s protests, they learned that the bike was designed to move Barbie’s articulated legs.

It seemed an obvious concept once they’d observed it. Barbie didn’t, after all, possess a brain or working muscles. But sometimes what seems complex—how does one program a robot to ride a bike?—becomes obvious through observation. The robot didn’t have to be programmed to ride. The remote control-operated bicycle would move the robot’s articulated legs. No, what became fairly obvious was that the robot would have to be programmed to do something far more complex: calculate for tilt and adjust for tilt by using the bicycle handles.

After a number of months—the entire rest of the school year, to be exact—they were ready to debut their bicycle-riding robot. Meanwhile, both their grades had fallen into the toilet, and Alex was given the assignment of tutoring them. This was a losing proposition, as they had broken her Barbie bicycle, a treasured toy from her younger years, after slamming it over and over again into the walls of the Herrera outbuilding for their research. The Beñat kids, being impoverished, didn’t have many nice toys. Alex had stored the Barbie and bicycle on her closet shelf so that the younger kids couldn’t access either. Oso was technically her younger brother, but he was bigger and taller and had stolen the set by force.

Therefore, Bernadette was enlisted to be the tutor, as she was a straight-A student who always, always seemed so willing to help. With a sweet smile on her face, which fooled even Oso, she fed them both true and false information from the books they hadn’t read, and they finished the year with Cs and Ds for all the classes she was able to tutor them in, which excluded math. Regarding math, she was not at their level.

Gilly earned an A in math because he always did, and Oso squeaked by with a B-.

“Grandma fed you the wrong answers? That is so awesome!” Stephanie clapped in glee.

“Yes, because we ignored her all year, and she had a crush on me.”

“How do you know she had a crush on you?”

He snorted. “It was obvious. And here you are as proof, our grandchild.”

“I wish you had passed your trait of self-assurance onto me. How did you just know things like that when you were twelve? I mean, aside from these supposed future memories you had.”

His face fell, although he managed a small wan smile. “I knew a lot, but not enough. I drove your grandma away for years. She married another man and was a widow before she finally relented to marry me. I’m tired, Stephanie. I’m done for the day.”

“Okay.”

“We’ll have another session tomorrow, after I’ve rested.”

A little disconcerted by the change in her grandfather’s demeanor, Stephanie packed her things up. She wasn’t too happy about having to drive up there on consecutive days. She did have a regular job. A good journalist had to make sacrifices, though. That became her new chant as she drove back into the valley.

And true to his promise, Oso had rested enough by the following day to conduct a new session. After ordering his flawless assistant to bring coffee and other delicacies, he dove in, no jesting, no small talk. He was all business, which disappointed Stephanie a little. She barely had time to pop a blueberry in her mouth.


Share

Chapter 8: Robot Times

In which Oso is menaced by a gun-wielding robot!
 

“Wait,” Stephanie protested. “You beat up Granddad? Because that’s not what he says. He only told the part where he used you as a ball and ended up in jail for terrorism.”

“Let me correct that deceptive notion Oso has conjured. We both ended up in jail, but not for very long. They held us until our parents could pick us up. In my case, I only had a mom. Oso’s dad picked him up.”

“So you weren’t held on charges of child terrorism until your parents could pay the fine?”

“Yes, we were. My mom paid the fines for both of us. She had a good job at Tech and a credit card. Oso’s dad had neither. His family rarely dabbled in money.”

“How did they pay their rent?”

“They grew most of their own food and took handouts for the rest. They did a lot of trading of goods, but his dad would sell a piece of furniture if they needed the cash. He was an amazing artisan.”

“I know. My mom still has some of his pieces. A chest, a bookcase, and a rocking chair. Someday, maybe she’ll give me the rocking chair. That’s what I have dibs on.” She shifted on the couch and sipped her tea, feeling dreamy.

“Yeah, so you can be like all your kind, playing the game.”

“How is inheriting a rocking chair playing a game?”

“What do you plan to do with this rocking chair? Knit? Rock babies? Do women even have babies these days?”

“Civilization hasn’t completely died out yet, so I’m assuming they do.”

“You aren’t women. You merely play at being women.”

“I don’t have to play at anything. I’m a woman by birth. How did we get on this subject? Uncle Gilly, we need to refocus.”

“Do you knit?”

“No, not much. I don’t have time for hobbies.”

“You’re admitting you do occasionally knit, then? You know how to?”

Stephanie closed her eyes for a moment, her fingers to her forehead, and thought things through. Like a teacher with a student, an interviewer had to keep the interviewee focused, allow them some leeway, but direct and redirect the conversation. This had not happened with her granddad, as he was always direct and tended not to go down rabbit trails. There was nothing of the “rabbit” about her granddad. Gilly, as he sat there, a satirical smile turning up half his mouth, was a different kind of person. He might have endless warrens in his brain which she didn’t want to get lost in.

“I have an idea. Why don’t we do these interviews with Granddad? It might be useful to write one book with two perspectives, rather than two books. Also, I’m not sure how this is going to work, with the two of you telling me different stories. I think we should do this as a threesome.”

The chill that entered the room could have frozen the summer sun. True, she had thought of the idea because it fit in with her general efficiency model, but having her granddad control the rabbit trails instead of having to do it herself…it was tempting, to say the least.

The risk was that Gilly would cease having any voice at all, even when her granddad wasn’t present. “We can talk about this later, if you want. We should get this session done first.” When Gilly continued to glare at her, his mouth clamped shut, she reassured him, “No Granddad here right now.”

“No, just his little minion,” Gilly spat.

“You lived near Granddad, right? You became friends?”

“Yes, I guess we did.”

Gilly’s mom had scrimped and pinched until she had enough to buy a parcel of land, a decent singlewide, and a manufactured outbuilding. It was, as already stated, right next door to the Beñat place. There were several empty lots’ worth of space before arriving at the crazy amputee’s place, which abutted the large empty lot belonging to Bernadette’s family. The street went around in a circle and eventually ended up back at Gilly’s house. They all lived on the same street, in other words, even though Bernadette’s house was at the back of theirs.

In recent days, there was a rumor circulating that Oso and Bernadette were an item. Oso had a special charm for girls, especially pretty ones like Bernadette. Gilly couldn’t decide whether he admired Oso or hated him. Oso was…at ease. That was all that could be said.

Perhaps the hatred was never entirely eradicated from Gilly’s perspective, but Gilly and Oso reconciled with each other the day Gilly threatened Oso with a very big robot. Standing at just over six feet tall, it was the largest robot Gilly had ever built. He had to stand on a stool to work on it. But it was clunky and had wires sticking out here and there. Essentially, it was the tin man wired up like a computer, except that it wasn’t made with tin at all, but polycarbonate, which was nearly transparent. But it looked about as dopey as the tin man. Still, it could do things, if he controlled it from the luxury of his PC inside his bedroom in the trailer.

A couple months into the school year, Gilly decided to stop riding the bus to school. The bus held too many memories of bullying. Instead, he took to riding his bike, which got him home precisely ten and a half minutes before the bus. In a strange reversal, Oso had started riding the bus to school. The rumor mill told Gilly this was because Oso and Bernadette made out in the back of the bus. Gilly doubted the veracity, as Bernadette was the type of girl no boy could touch.

For a start, she was the prettiest girl in the seventh grade. Aside from that, when the two disembarked, they were never physically attached in any way. From his dining room window, Gilly could watch them disembark from the bus, and then if he darted to the opposite dining room window, he could watch Oso walk with her down the dirt alley by the side of Agnes’ trailer and across the yard to her back porch, where her mom was usually watering her hundreds of flowerpots.

However, Gilly couldn’t see them disembarking or walking from his bedroom window, where his computer was. That’s why he had a camera mounted behind the robot eyes, which he had arranged to be standing in the middle of the drive. It had taken a lot of engineering to get the robot to the point where it could balance and walk at the height of six feet. But Gilly had managed it with the help of his uncle, who was a materials engineer. No matter that it took roughly forty-five seconds for the robot to take a step. It was essentially a grandiose suit of armor. With a camera. And airguns, created with co2 cartridges, mounted on its arms.

From behind his computer screen, Gilly watched and waited. When Oso and Bernadette wandered into view, he shouted via the mic system, “Stop or die!”

It was perhaps the only time he’d ever seen Oso look startled. So did Bernadette, though she didn’t scream as Gilly had hoped. Oso, recovering quickly, walked up to the robot and knocked on it, as though there might be a gremlin hiding inside operating it. Gilly had played out numerous scenarios in his head, but not one in which the fear and wonderment would be lost so quickly. He had to act fast in order to recoup.

With his sights set, he raised one of the air rifles and shot at the intended target, a garbage can across the road. Bernadette, her eyes wide, reached out as though to take hold of Oso’s arm, who appeared to shove her roughly away from him; Gilly couldn’t see, as Oso was so close to the robot he was out of camera range. That was a pity because in a matter of seconds, the camera range was the wide blue desert sky. It was a picturesque shot, with a V of geese flying overhead, so peaceful, so…. Oso had knocked the robot over! Gilly’s life work, not respected, not feared, bowled over by a stupid fascist pig.

Gilly leaped from his chair and hurtled himself through the trailer and out the door. “What have you done?”

Oso shoved him in the same way he’d done to the robot, but Gilly stood his ground. “What have you done? Were you shooting at us?”

“No, I was shooting at Mrs. Brennan’s garbage can! It’s just an air rifle. It shoots BBs.”

“You’re such a dumbass! You still could have killed someone. Bernadette was terrified, weren’t you, Bernadette?”

The mock pretense of care in Oso’s voice made Gilly sneer. “She was not. She didn’t even look terrified. That was you who looked like you were going to wet your pants. I’ll bet you did wet your pants. Maybe your babysitter Bernadette will change your diaper for you.”

At that, Bernadette let out an indignant sounding gasp. Clearly, she wasn’t into being a babysitter. Now wanting to ignore Oso’s presence in his driveway, Gilly dropped to his knees and checked his robot for damage. Oso leaned over him.

“Did you make that thing?”

“Yes. Well, my uncle helped me. But, yeah.”

“That is awesome. What’s it made out of?”

“Polycarbonate.”

“Where did you get the money?”

“We started it when I was seven. Five years ago.” Gilly shrugged as though it were no big deal. No big deal at all—something every fatherless child did with his uncle. “Polycarbonate’s not that expensive.”

“How did you shoot it from over there? How do you operate it?”

“From my computer. Dumbass.” The last part he mumbled.

“Can I see?”

The eager desperation in Oso’s eyes gave Gilly some satisfaction—quite a bit more, in fact, than the fantasies of causing Oso to wet his pants. Oso, a non pants-wetting boy, suddenly admired Gilly. Gilly felt no little smugness at the realization. Sarcastic retorts flashed across his mind; so did thoughts of extorting money form Oso. Finally, he decided an alliance with the fascist pig might be of greater value.

“Sure, why not? Wanna Coke? I mean, you can’t have a Coke anywhere near my computer, but….” Suddenly, Gilly remembered Bernadette, who still stood there, her arms crossed, mild interest lighting her eyes. “And your girlfriend’s not allowed.”

“I am not his girlfriend.”

“You only wish you could be,” Oso retorted. “Now go on home, we have computer stuff to do. Stuff you wouldn’t be interested in.”

“I’m surprised you’re interested,” Gilly told him, “since you’re just a dumb jock.”

“Yeah, whatever, hurry up.” And Oso shoved him toward the trailer.

Oso was such a barbarian, but perhaps a trainable one. “Help me stand him up again, if you want to see anything with the camera.”

“Oh, sure.”

They set the robot upright, and then headed for the house. With just the tiniest bit of remorse, Gilly glanced back at Bernadette. Why hadn’t he invited her inside? It might have been the first and only chance he had to bring a pretty girl in his room. She stood there, her arms still crossed, staring at them forlornly. Finally, she walked away with her shoulders hunched.

The glimmer of remorse disappeared, however, as he and Oso disappeared inside his room. Bernadette would have been a distraction, nothing more.

“Wow, you have a whole room and desk to yourself,” Oso said.

Again, Gilly could see an eager desperation on Oso’s face. Oso was jealous of what Gilly had: a nice computer in an uncluttered space all to himself. Smug came closer to what Gilly felt, knowing that.

“Okay, so camera’s on, and there’s no activity. Wait, wait, here comes Agnes. She goes for walks around this time.” Gilly giggled wickedly. “Stop and pay the toll!” he shouted at Agnes with the mic.

She halted and looked around for the source of the voice. When she spied the robot, she backed away.

“How do you shoot?” Oso asked. “Oh, I see.” And he reached out to play the controls as though it were a video game.

“You can’t shoot a crazy old lady!” Gilly shouted.

But it was too late; Oso had already pulled the trigger, as it were. “I don’t know what your problem is. I was only shooting at the garbage can,” he said mildly as the BB hit its target.

Agnes gave a muffled shriek, and she ran away as fast as she could hobble. Gilly swung the camera view in the direction she ran. After a few feet, she lost her footing and crumpled to the dirt. Then Bernadette came into view and knelt by Agnes’ side. Apparently, she was always willing to help someone in distress. Or show Oso and Gilly how bad they were by being dishonestly good.

“Not her again,” Oso said. “She interferes with everything.”

The boys looked at each other and understood, or at least, Gilly believed they did. They were on the same wave length for the first time. They got up and ran outside, past the robot, and to Agnes’ side, where they shoved Bernadette out of the way. More indignant noises.

“You have serious problems, Oso,” Bernadette said. “I think you need to get help. You’re like a sociopath or something.”

Bernadette was always focused on Oso. Wasn’t the robot Gilly’s? He was the one who should have been labeled a sociopath. Oh, my God, what was he thinking? He was jealous that Bernadette had called Oso a sociopath. Why was she still hanging around, anyway? Couldn’t she accept rejection for what it was?

Ignoring her as best he could, Gilly offered Agnes his hand. At first, the crazy lady shied away from him, but she finally relented and allowed him to help her up, using his shoulder as a crutch all the way to her trailer. But she didn’t look happy at all, and she didn’t appear to trust either of them in the least. Without any more ado, she went inside her trailer and slammed the door shut in their faces.


Share