by Josh Skinner
part 1 of 2
Two months after Billy Mayson turned eleven, his 5-10 PAL robot tutor developed a glitch. At first it seemed like a hiccup in his voice matrix: PAL stuttered during a history lesson. Although Billy didn’t know a lot about Christopher Columbus, he did know the explorer hadn’t searched for a passage to India in 1492-2-2. But instead of getting worried, Billy laughed, rubbed his knuckle into PAL’s black hair and called him a goof. PAL rotated his green eyes to look at Billy and smiled.
The first glitch was harmless.
The second caused bloodshed.
* * *
The study day was broken up by three fifteen-minute breaks. Third break was meant for physical exercise in the backyard. It was mid-July, and Billy could choose to play football, volleyball or baseball. Billy gripped the football and threw it across the yard. PAL tracked it with his eyes as it disappeared into the glare of the afternoon sunlight.
“Incoming,” he said in his metallic, pre-pubescent voice. PAL took two steps backward and paused. The football thumped into his hands.
“Good catch, PAL!” Billy said. He ran up to the robot and messed his hair. “I wish you could play on my football team.”
“That is against protocol,” PAL said.
“I know; you’re a robot.” Billy scooped the ball from PAL’s hands. “But you sure look like a kid, especially when you’re wearing my old summer clothes.”
PAL looked at his white t-shirt and red shorts. “Billy has grown.”
“That’s what mom says.”
“Beyond my parameters.”
PAL’s hand lunged forward and gripped the football, causing Billy to stumble and fall onto the grass.
“What did you do that for?” Billy asked.
“Seven minutes of recess remaining,” PAL said. “Seven minutes and pastel orange.”
PAL’s eyes trembled in their sockets. His nostrils flared and his upper lip twitched.
“We must play.”
Billy inched away, and said, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
PAL turned toward the house. Behind a glass patio door, Billy’s father, Ed, sat at the kitchen table reading a tablet novel.
“Pastels are seven and four short,” PAL said. He narrowed his eyes and focused on the door.
Billy said, “PAL, what are you doing?”
“Throw ball equals Billy minus two bushels of apples.”
PAL raised his arm.
But the equation had already been calculated. He pulled back his arm, and launched the football. It smashed through the glass door and struck Ed in the head. He cried out and fell to the floor as shards of glass showered around him.
“Emergency,” PAL said, and ran toward the kitchen, lifting his shirt. His chest split apart. He reached in and removed two bandages.
Billy jumped to his feet and chased after him.
“Emergency, laceration, boo-boo,” PAL said. He jumped through the broken door, knocking jagged pieces of glass out of the frame. Ed lay before him, holding his hand to the right side of his head. Blood leaked between his fingers.
“There, there,” PAL said, making electronic cooing sounds.
“What the hell happened?” Ed demanded.
PAL removed Ed’s hand. Blood poured from a gash in his temple. A shard of glass had sliced the skin. PAL placed a blue teddy bear shaped bandage on the wound, then leaned over and kissed Ed’s forehead.
“All better,” PAL said.
“All better!?” Ed shouted.
PAL buzzed, causing Ed to flinch and scramble back, as if the robot might explode.
“Recess has terminated,” PAL said. “Back to studies.”
Billy stood outside the shattered door, his mouth hanging open. He couldn’t believe what just happened.
PAL turned and looked at him, his lips smeared with blood.
“Back to studies,” he said cheerfully.
* * *
“He’s getting boxed tonight,” Ed said. He sat on the couch in the living room. Beside him, Billy’s mother Gail dabbed at his head wound with a cotton ball.
“It’s about time,” Gail said. “We should have ordered the new one a week before Billy’s birthday. But someone in this house is a miser.”
“I’m not cheap,” Ed said. “I just wanted to get my money’s worth. Is that a crime?”
“Yes, it is. You can’t keep a tutor bot past its recycle date.”
Ed thought for a moment. “I guess that means I can’t sue.”
“Of course not. The contract, which you didn’t read and hurriedly signed, specifically mentioned that AKI isn’t responsible for glitches beyond the recycle date.”
“They program those glitches in on purpose. I bet a PAL could work for years if it wasn’t for those glitches turning them into little murderers.”
“He didn’t do it on purpose,” Billy said. He sat on the opposite side of the room in a love seat. Beside him, PAL sat limp and lifeless. Ed had deactivated him by touching-in a six digit pass code on a number pad located at the base of the neck.
“The rates increase, you know,” Ed said, rubbing his fingers and thumb together. “The further along the series, the more money they cost.”
“What choice do we have?” Gail said. “You want to teach the boy?”
Ed opened his mouth.
“And do as good a job as a PAL robot tutor?” she added.
He closed his mouth.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because expense or no, I’ve already ordered an 11-15 model.”
“But I don’t want a new tutor,” Billy said. “I want PAL.”
“Didn’t you see what happened today?” Ed said, jabbing a finger at his head.
“Fix him,” Billy said.
“We can’t, honey,” Gail said.
“Because it doesn’t work that way. The Recyclers will collect PAL tomorrow morning.”
“But PAL’s my friend.”
“I know he is, but an 11-15 BUD is even better. It will teach you things a 5-10 can’t, and that’s important for your transition from a boy into a man. It’s part of growing up. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to the things we love.”
Billy reached over and took PAL’s cold fingers in his. He sniffed and his lower lip trembled.
“Oh, you’re not going to cry, are you?” Ed said. “I’m the one damaged — if anyone should cry, it’s me.”
Gail pressed the cotton ball into Ed’s cut, causing him to hiss with pain. She stood and moved over to Billy, sitting beside him and placing her arm around his shoulders.
“Listen Billy, there comes a time when you have to let your child things go. When I was a girl, I had to let my 5-10 go. It’s part of life.”
“This is a waste of time,” Ed said, tossing the bloody cotton ball on the coffee table. He stood, swayed for a moment, and then moved toward PAL. “Its crate is already by the door. Let’s lock it in and be done with it.”
“No,” Billy said, and wrapped his arms around PAL’s waist.
“Gail, take him upstairs.”
She wrapped her arms around Billy and pulled, but Billy shut his eyes and tightened his grip. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Pull!” Ed said.
“I am pulling!”
“Oh, really now, he didn’t act like this when the dog died.”
Ed grabbed Billy’s white fingers.
“Leave me alone!” Billy cried.
“Take them off, or I’ll break them off.”
Ed sighed and pried Billy’s fingers off PAL. Gail scooped Billy into her arms and held him against her chest. She stood, letting his fists pound her shoulder.
“You’re eleven,” Ed said. “Two ones, not one one.”
“Oh, come on, Edward,” Gail snapped. “They’re always together, like best friends. To be honest, I feel sorry for PAL. He’s had to fill some large shoes in Billy’s life.”
Ed folded his arms, and said, “What does that mean?”
“When was the last time you did anything with your son?”
“What are you talking about? Did I, or did I not take him to see Chimps On Ice last year?”
“One monkey show does not make up for eleven years of neglect.”
“You know where he gets this attachment for robots?” Ed said, glaring at Gail. “Your brother Steve. Billy is always going to his robotics store, and Steve is always telling him how much better robots are than humans. The way he talks about robots, I’m surprised he doesn’t have one of those lover models.”
“I hope he does,” Gail said. “Then maybe he’ll know where to order one for me!”
She stormed out of the living room and hefted Billy upstairs.
* * *
Billy lay in bed, looking at the hallway light under his door. Occasionally, he saw the shadow of his mother’s feet as she listened. But he wasn’t crying anymore.
After the hallway light shut off, he sat up and thought about PAL and his father.
Since age five, PAL had been in Billy’s life. They learned together, played together. PAL had taught him mathematics and baseball, while his father sat reading tablet novels or watching holo-movies in his office. While his father had shown him nothing but neglect, PAL had watched over him. One time, when he wet his bed, PAL had cleaned the sheets for him and never said a word to his mother. At age ten, he confided to PAL about his first crush on Suzie Pengrow, instigating a rather embarrassing lecture about sex that Billy still didn’t understand.
He loved PAL.
He hated dad.
One little cut on the face, and PAL was scrap. Thinking back to the accident, Billy hadn’t felt frightened for his dad. He was frightened for PAL, because he knew his father’s temper. He knew he would overreact.
It’s a part of growing up. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to the things we love.
And what did that mean? He hadn’t outgrown PAL in the slightest. They were better friends than ever.
Billy rolled out of bed and dropped to the rug. He bent down and groped for his pee wee football jacket. He slipped it on, tip-toed to the door, turned the knob, and peeked into the hallway. All the lights were off — even in his parents’ room. Billy crossed the hallway and crept down the stairs.
He reached the bottom and looked at the front door. Beside it, a tall pane of frosted glass allowed the outside porch light to shine through, illuminating a black rectangular box propped against the wall. Billy could barely read the letters printed on the side:
aki robotics manufacturers
He padded softly toward the box.
“Okay, PAL,” he whispered. “We’re getting out of here.”
He slipped his bare feet into his shoes.
The plan was simple: get PAL out of his box, switch him on (somehow) and leave the house.
Billy wrapped his fingers around the lip of the crate and pulled.
To his surprise, the lid opened! Ed had forgotten to lock the crate. Mentally, Billy thanked his father’s laziness.
He swung open the lid, resting it against the door. In the pale yellow light, PAL lay on a sheet of packing foam, staring at nothing. Billy pulled PAL’s head down and groped for the numerical key pad at the base of his neck.
He didn’t know the numerical sequence, but his dad did, and he’d never use an easily forgotten number.
Billy punched in the number of their house: 4753.
Then he tried the address of his dad’s work: 7890.
He tried his father’s birth date, his mother’s, his own.
Frustration squeezed a few tears out his eyes, but Billy wiped them with the cuff of his jacket.
“What am I going to do?” he whispered to PAL.
Suddenly, a snirk and snort erupted from the living room. Feet struck the floor. Craning his neck toward the living room, Billy saw the vague outline of his father sitting on the couch in his pajamas, scratching his head.
Ed pushed himself up and started walking toward the hallway.
Billy stifled a scream. He looked around. Seeing no place to hide, he threw himself in against PAL and closed the crate lid as far as it would go. He held his breath as his dad ambled into the hallway and turned toward the kitchen. Billy looked through the space between the lid and crate. A white light washed over Ed as he opened the fridge door. He scratched his rear and yawned.
Mom must have kicked him out of the bedroom again, Billy thought.
“No beer,” Ed grumbled. He reached in and pulled out a juice box. He opened the box and gulped the juice, then crushed it in his hand.
He turned toward the front door. As the fridge closed, its light stretched across his face like slivers of a mask.
Then the fridge shut and he vanished.
Billy heard his father approaching. He closed his eyes and nestled his head into PAL’s neck. The rubbery skin felt cold on his chin.
Please don’t see me, please, he thought, holding his breath.
The footfalls stopped. Ed sighed.
“I wanted a beer,” he said. He turned, walked into the living room, and flopped back on the couch. Bridgett, their orange tabby, hissed as she was kicked off.
Ed snored like a rusty lawnmower.
Slowly, he stepped out of the crate. Bridgett, more observant than Ed, sat in the hallway, cocking her head and staring at Billy.
“Go away,” Billy whispered.
The cat yawned and swished her tail.
He thought about the time PAL had lifted Bridgett onto his back and carried her in a piggyback across the backyard. She howled and pulled and scratched the synthetic skin of his neck until she finally broke free. And she had a good memory — never daring to cross the robot’s path again. If he were activated, he could scare her away with his glowing eyes, and...
“Piggyback,” Billy said, snapping his fingers. Then he cursed himself out loud for snapping his fingers and then cursed himself for cursing himself.
PAL wasn’t heavy like robots once were — like they’d been before he was born. Uncle Steve once said that robots used to be made of metal and wires and were heavy as a safe. But since the invention of Duraplastic, a robot boy looking about age ten weighed like an average ten-year old boy.
“I can do it,” Billy said to PAL. “I can carry you.”
He grabbed PAL’s wrists and yanked. Duraplastic or no, PAL was still heavy. Billy cringed and pulled. Slowly, PAL leaned forward --
“Yes, yes,” Billy said.
— and kept going.
Together, they toppled and struck the opposite wall. Billy squealed and jammed his jacket sleeve into his mouth as pain shot up his spine. He lay for a moment, listening for any movement from the living room.
Nothing. Ed kept sputtering and snoring.
Carefully, Billy rolled PAL off of him and propped him against the wall. Then he stood and rubbed his back.
“Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” he whispered. “I’m going to lay on you, grab your arms, and lift you like you did with Bridgett.”
He turned around and leaned into PAL’s chest. He lifted the robot’s cold rubbery fingers, pulled its arms over his shoulders and folded them over his chest. Then, taking a deep breath, he leaned forward. At first, PAL didn’t move. Billy bit his lower lip and puffed his cheeks. Slowly, PAL’s sneakers lifted off the floor. Billy felt an ache in his shoulders, and his spine throbbed, but he was doing it! Nothing was going to stop him; not mom or dad or the Recyclers.
“Let’s go,” he panted. Turning, he gripped PAL’s wrists with one hand and quickly touched the front door keypad with the other. The door slid aside, allowing the cool summer night to waft in. His legs shivered. It was too cold for pajama bottoms, but he didn’t have time to turn back.
Billy stepped out, and the door slid behind him. He struggled down the front steps and lumbered across the lawn to the sidewalk. Looking back at the house, he said, “I’m free,” and grinned.
Then he looked around the empty street, at all the other darkened homes, and his grin disappeared.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Josh Skinner