by Kelly Dwyer
“You know when you kick a guy in the nuts and he doesn’t cry, you say he’s got balls of steel? Well, I know a guy who has balls of steel. Real ones.”
Leo paused in his descent from the top of the batting cage, the rescued baseball digging uncomfortably between the rusted chain-link fencing and his hip. Below him, Holman rocked back and forth after his pronouncement, basking in the recaptured attention of the playground gang.
Everyone except Holman had watched Leo the entire way up, digging his toes into the footholds and scaling the structure with a boyish combination of showmanship and fearless agility. Holman had simply pouted and schemed. Leo should have known Holman would resent the usurpation of his leadership of the middle school playground hierarchy. He kicked out from the fence in frustration and dropped to the ground. “I don’t believe you,” Leo said.
Holman crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. The gang gravitated into a loose circle around the pair, watching how the duel would unfold.
“Oh yeah? Well what do you know?” Holman retorted, taking a step forward. Leo did his best to look intimidating in front of the gang. All cool, no fear. He spun the forgotten baseball from hand to hand.
“Um, I know it just ain’t possible for a guy to have steel balls. You gotta be lying,” Leo said. Leo didn’t like the look of confidence in Holman’s cocky grin. Other kids from the playground were drawn to the confrontation now, filling in the circle and whispering excitedly. Sarah was there, in her yellow dress and shining black shoes. She hugged her books to her chest and furrowed her brow in worry. Holman played to the audience, raising his voice and upping the ante.
“You think I’m lying? Well my Daddy says old Mr. Raymond has steel balls. You calling my Daddy a liar?” It was a low blow. Holman’s father was legendary for his brutality. Not that Holman didn’t usually deserve it, but nobody messed with Holman Murphy’s dad. Leo held his tongue and swallowed hard. Sarah bit her lip. Holman flashed a victorious smirk at him and closed the gap with one last step.
“You really think I’m lying?” He repeated. “Then why don’t you go ask Mr. Raymond yourself?” Leo tried to envision the old man. He vaguely remembered seeing him at last year’s civic expo, sitting alone in the war memorial booth. He couldn’t recall much else about him, other than his run-down rambler at the edge of town. Leo figured his options were either talk to Mr. Raymond, or loose his place as Holman’s number two in the playground chain of command. There wasn’t even a choice.
“Um, fine. I’ll go ask old Mr. Raymond all about his balls.” Leo figured his acceptance of the challenge would have been met by a slightly more enthusiastic reception. He took in the faces of the gang around him, ducking their heads or digging their feet in the dirt. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick in revelation of his impending doom. He didn’t have to turn around to know that Mrs. Lieber was standing behind him. Her voice was furious.
“Leonard, in my office. Now.” He watched Sarah walk away as the gang departed. She didn’t look back.
“Leonard Charles Appleton. I am incredibly disappointed in you. Mrs. Lieber indicated that you were using inappropriate language on the playground today and that you were being disrespectful of Mr. Raymond. Explain yourself, please.” His mother’s voice was scandalized. His father sat as still as a heron at the end of the table reading the letter the school had sent home.
“It wasn’t like that. Holman Murphy was saying those things,” Leo pleaded. His sister giggled into her mashed potatoes, sending peas scattering across the table. “That’s not what your teacher heard. She was very upset by your behavior and the topic of conversation. Jean Marie, do not play with your food.”
With practiced hands, his father creased the letter in thirds and peered down his nose through dark-rimmed glasses. “Son, regardless of your playmates and their poor behavior, you should be more respectful of Mr. Raymond. He is a war hero. He deserves far more than to be a topic of ridicule by you and your friends.”
His mother nodded thoughtfully and turned to Leo. “I will let Mrs. Lieber know that you will go over tomorrow afternoon to Mr. Raymond’s house to apologize for your misconceptions and poor behavior. You can take the cookies that your sister and I baked this afternoon. You know he’s not very well, nowadays. He certainly could use some company to help him at a time like this.”
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir,” Leo mumbled unintelligibly and sank further down in his chair. His sister flicked a pea towards him with expert aim, still giggling quietly. He smashed it under his thumb and ground the green paste into the slick synthetic red and white checkered tablecloth in defeat.
“What can I do for you, young man?” Leo gripped the plate of cookies tightly in both hands and shuffled his feet on the chipped concrete of Mr. Raymond’s stoop. The house looked smaller from the curb. Leo wished he was back on the other side of the dilapidated grey fence and the tangle of weeds along the crumbling front walkway. Mr. Raymond tilted his head and leaned a little closer from the murky dark of the doorway. His ears stuck out from the side of his head at an angle, as though pinned down by the earlobes and allowed to flap in the breeze. The bags under his eyes sagged deeply and met mid-cheek with etched smile lines indistinguishable from wrinkles. He was a solidly built man, with pants pulled a little too high above his waist and a plastic protector in his breast pocket. Leo lowered his eyes in nervousness and noticed black grease under clipped finger nails.
“Um…” Leo mumbled.
“You’re looking for Um? Well then, why don’t you come on in? I’ll see if I can find him.”
Mr. Raymond turned and pushed the door open to the house. He disappeared into the shadowed interior with an awkward gait closer to lumbering than limping, as though he walked in constant pain. Leo wondered if the steel balls hurt when he walked. Following Mr. Raymond inside, Leo closed the door and stood in the dusty haze of a shuttered living room. His eyes struggled to adjust, peering into the darker corners, beyond the sofa and low coffee table, past the television box and along the stone and brick wall above the fireplace. He thought he saw something moving, skittering across the mantle, and blinked to clear his vision.
Mr. Raymond returned and flicked on a lamp in the corner, bathing the small unused space in humming orange. There were two glasses of milk in his hands and a smile on his face.
“Well, I looked everywhere back there, but couldn’t find Um. We’ll just have to wait for him out here while we enjoy those nice-smelling cookies.”
After his fourth cookie, Leo had worked up enough courage to ask. He grabbed his glass and chugged several mouthfuls of milk, wiping his sleeve across his lips. The words blurted out of his mouth, like convicts breaking for freedom. “Um, Mr. Raymond? My name is Leo and a kid in my school says that you, um, have steel balls.”
He was breathing rather heavy after his speedy admission, wondering if the old man would throw him out. He certainly seemed to be slightly off in the head, or possibly hard of hearing. But Mr. Raymond only smiled with infinite tolerance and a hint of amusement.
“Well, first off, you can call me Ray. And secondly, Um doesn’t have steel balls. But I sure do.”
The milk in his hand forgotten, Leo was both relieved and curious.
Mr. Raymond whispered conspiratorially. “That’s where my batteries are, of course.”
Caught up in the possibilities of what the old man could possibly be doing with batteries in his balls, Leo reached forward and took the cookie that was being offered to him from the table.
From the table. Not from Mr. Raymond. From the claws of a tiny metal insectoid creature seated in front of him on the coffee table.
The orange light from the lamp reflected off of a highly polished thorax of silver, with six articulated limbs carefully balancing on the table. The remaining two arms ended in curious pincers, a cross between crab claws and needle-nosed pliers. Extended on long stalks above its body sat two spherical orbs, rimmed in silver. Vivid blue eyes peered up at Leo from their waving mounts. And blinked.
Leo blinked back. Mr. Raymond followed his gaze and smiled even wider.
“Well there you are, Um! I’m glad you found us. This young man has been asking about you.”
The creature’s antennae bobbed up and down, almost curiously, peering forward at Leo. It raised one claw from the table…and waved.
Leo pondered for a minute what the protocol was in this situation, and was unsure of what to do. So he raised his hand and waved back.
The creature skittered away from Leo and launched itself across the small gap from the table to the couch. It settled into a cushion beside Mr. Raymond and cocked its head to the side in a mirror image of the old man who was watching their interactions closely.
Leo tried to think what to say. A robot had waved at him. Not one of those battle-bots that he saw on the TV or the space robots from his comics. An actual robot. He looked at the old man with confusion, bringing up the first topic on his mind. “What are your batteries for?”
The old man and tiny creature exchanged a glance, before returning their gazes to Leo.
“Are you sure you want to see?”
Leo wasn’t sure at all. He was terrified, but he had experience hiding these things. The playground could be much scarier than an old man and a robot who gave him cookies and milk. He nodded firmly.
The warm smile was back again, with a hint of friendly conspiracy.
“Why, they’re for my knee, of course.”
Mr. Raymond knocked his knuckles against his knee and Leo swore he heard a faint clanking of muffled metal.
The robot skittered up the old man’s arm, plucking the fabric of the shirt delicately before settling into the hollow of the man’s collar bone. One eye closed and retracted down into the tangle of servos and limbs. The other eye remained on Leo.
Leo realized his mouth was open, cookie poised. He devoured it with no further hesitation and stood quickly.
“Um. Um, sir. Um. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Leo. The cookies were delicious. I would be delighted to have you back again, if you’d like.” And then Leo was out the door and down the long wobbling brick path to the gate, heart racing faster than his feet.
“Philips head, please son.”
Leo dug around momentarily in the red tin box and produced the requested tool.
“Philips head, sir.”
“Did you have a nice visit with Mr. Raymond?”
“Um, yes sir.”
“Did you apologize for your assumptions and behavior?”
“Um, yes sir?”
His father turned slightly and glanced at him, raising an eyebrow at his tentative tone.
“Well, um. He didn’t look really sick. He seemed just fine.”
“Ah, well he is in treatment, of course. It’s probably where that awful rumor got started. He has prostate cancer.”
This, of course, did not answer any of the questions on Leo’s mind about the old man and his robot. He thought about them all week, replaying the conversation in his head every moment that he could spare. He took to sketching pictures of Um in the margins of his school books and remembering the sound of the servos whirring and the pincers clipping their way up the old man’s arm.
He thought so hard about it that he nearly tripped over Sarah, crouched on the ground outside of her homeroom, books sprawled around her. She flashed him a shy smile, brushing the long blonde bangs from her eyes as he gathered her books and book bag. The yellow dress again. He smiled back.
The playground was abuzz for the first part of the week, waiting for confirmation of Leo’s triumph or defeat. He treated them to neither. Holman strutted around the muddy confines of the yard and perched above the half-buried tires, issuing orders and nominating a new second in command. Leo was out of favor, and it suited him just fine. There were more important things to think about now.
He sat with Sarah below the shade of the courtyard’s overhang, out of sight from Holman’s tyranny, and thought about the old man. And Sarah. And the robot.
The following week, he baked extra cookies with his Mother and set the plate by the door in the evening. His father nodded approvingly at what a good Samaritan Leo was to keep an old man company.
Ray lowered himself onto a stool beside a long workbench with great effort. Leo stayed at the top of the steps, gazing about the space in wonderment. The ceiling had been replaced with rippling glass panes, giving the impression of staring up at the sun from the bottom of a swimming pool. Beams of golden light crept through every gap in the tall stacks of shelves and boxes that perched high above a ring of scarred and scratched worktops. It was paradise. Tools of all shapes and kinds, projects mid-repair, electronics and gears overflowing from each tub and drawer. Leo said the only thing he could think of.
Ray smiled. “Oh, this isn’t all for Um. This is my workshop. And I expect from the look on your face that you’re rather fond of this sort of thing. Am I right?”
Leo nodded enthusiastically, continuing down the steps and desperate to put the plate of cookies down somewhere so that he could explore the room.
“Well then, isn’t that convenient? My elbow’s been bothering me all week. Would you mind helping me tune it up?”
Leo glanced back at Ray, perplexed.
“Your elbow? I thought you said the batteries were for your knee.”
“Oh, my elbow doesn’t need batteries. The knees, however, need that extra power boost for the hydraulics. Here, have a seat.”
Ray pushed out a stool, red vinyl peeking through swaths of duct tape across the cushion. Leo hopped up, deposited the cookies on the table and watched Um struggle to push a long steel tray of tools across the work surface to him. He reached forward and Um hopped up into the tool box as Leo pulled it into his lap.
The old man undid the buttons on his crisp white shirt and stripped down to his tank top. Furrows of puckered scars crisscrossed his torso and neck, down his arms and under his shirt. Leo felt embarrassed, staring at the old man’s body, and lowered his eyes to where Ray was fiddling with a barely noticeable flap of skin in the crease of his left elbow. He dug with his nails momentarily before a soft, audible click was heard. The skin on his elbow opened like a flower unfolding in the morning light. The pale petals spun out, exposing slightly rusted metal rods and wires, joined together around a greasy ball joint.
Um gave a quick tug on Leo’s sleeve and pointed insistently at a small set of pliers. Leo handed them to Ray, transfixed with the mechanics and process of tuning up the joint. They exchanged tools back and forth for some time, polishing the rust off of the rods, wiping out the buildup of oil and gunk inside the arm. “Ray? Why is Um called Um?”
“Well, don’t ask me. Why don’t you ask him?”
“He can talk?” Leo looked down at the small creature, camouflaged within the piles of gaskets, pliers and bolts in his lap.
“You can talk?”
Um rolled his eyes in an extraordinarily cartoonish gesture and hopped out of the box and onto the workspace. He disappeared into a small hole in a shelf.
“Did I hurt his feelings?”
Ray chuckled. “Naw. He’s just answering your question.”
Um returned shortly, squeezing out of another hole further down the table and tugging a small rolled up booklet behind it. It was a manual for repair, titled “Your Universal Machinery robot.”
“Universal Machinery? UM?”
“Well, he seemed to like it a mite better than UniMax. Although I put my foot down about George. Silly robot.”
The little robot huffed up and down, chagrined, and scampered up Leo’s sweater. Um kneaded into his shoulder with tiny legs and claws, digging out a hollow into the scratchy material. Leo was certain that Um started snoring softly, eyes closed and retracted peacefully.
Ray sighed with relief, stretching and rotating the elbow around and about. He thumbed the crook of his arm carefully and Leo watched the petals spiral closed. He couldn’t even see the seams.
“Ah, that’s much better. Thank you so much, Leo. Now, did I see a large plate of cookies somewhere around here?”
The rain had started in the time that they were finishing Ray’s tune up. The drops pattered against the solarium roof panes as Leo and Ray shared a pint of milk and finished the cookies. Leo took in the photos tacked to the wall. Ray in uniform, with other men in what looked like a military canteen, and standing next to an armored car. It seemed like Ray had always looked as he did now, even back in the war. The worn, sagging face below fuzzed receding hair. Rotund form with no waist, forearms thick with veins. Or what Leo thought were veins.
Two plates, empty, and Um’s repair booklet accompanied Leo to the door.
“Would you like to come over next week? Maybe we could take a crack at my neck?” Ray asked.
Leo had just about stepped out of the front door when he felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder. He’d forgotten the tiny robot, hibernating in the folds of his sweater. Ray reached out with careful fingers and extracted the creature. Um flexed its pincers and stuck one eye up, taking in the world around it like a sleepy child disturbed from a nap. It was deposited into Ray’s shirt pocket with a gentle pat.
Leo waved a goodbye from the stoop, blinking away the drips of rain that landed on his eyelashes and cheeks. “I’ll bring more cookies.”
Leo’s mother was pleased to see him spending time with the old man. She gave Leo warm, but sympathetic hugs when he came home, as though her son was making a great sacrifice visiting so frequently. She baked extra cookies for them each week.
It was a bright day outside. Leo skirted the playground by several streets, Holman’s voice carrying brashly in the still afternoon air. He knocked on Ray’s door, balancing a large basket of cookies under his arm awkwardly. It was several minutes before he heard Ray’s shuffling steps. The door opened slowly.
“Ray? You okay?”
“Come on in, Leo. I’m just feeling a little run down today, that’s all.”
Leo had never seen Ray deviate from his uniform of precisely creased slacks, crisp button-up shirts rolled to the elbows and two-tone boat shoes. Today though, Ray was wrapped in a threadbare orange robe that might have once passed for soft and warm. Thin lounge pants and slippers looked even older than the robe. With every motion, Ray moved only one part of his body at a time, as though the combination of movements that made up ambulatory motion were too much for him to bear. Even his voice sounded tired, rough with phlegm. Or maybe silicone.
They made their way to the solarium slowly. Leo was unsure if he should offer the old man his arm, or go find Um. It was a torturous procession for them both.
In the light of the afternoon sun, Leo could make out a grey, matte quality to Ray’s skin. He looked ill. The old man managed to heft his frame up onto the stool and sat, breathing heavily and quietly for a moment.
Leo’s voice was soft, filled with uncertainty.
“Don’t worry Leo. I’m okay. Just need to recharge a bit. You up for helping me? I can’t quite reach the chargers on my back.”
Leo nodded vigorously, determined to share some of his energy today with Ray, however he could help. Ray shrugged out of the old robe and down to his bare torso with agonizing slowness.
“I never understood why they were manufactured to require someone else to help us recharge. Terrible design flaw, always told them. Thank goodness for me you’re here, Leo. Are you ready?”
Ray swung his stool around so that his back was to Leo.
“Now, in between my shoulder blades, you’ll find two small metal buttons. You see them? Good. Now give them a push at the same time. Just until you feel the latch click under the skin.”
Leo found them, smaller than his pinky nail. He aligned his fingers carefully. The click was easy to feel, as though Leo had unbuckled his seat belt. Two long seams appeared along Ray’s spine, extending up to his neck.
“Follow those lines up and find the levers just below my hair line. You’ll need something to help to wiggle them out. Do it carefully now. Don’t want to damage anything underneath.”
Where the muscles extended up into Ray’s hairline, Leo noticed two finger-like protrusions at the top of the seams in the skin flaps. He grabbed a small screwdriver and tucked it under the left seam carefully. Ray shook slightly at the contact and made a soft choking noise. Leo stopped immediately.
“Ray? Did I hurt you?”
Leo darted around to the front of the stool, peering up at him, terrified of harming the old man. Ray had a big grin on his face.
“Nope. Just tickles like a can-can girl’s feather boa. Keep going and let me know when they’re both loose.”
The levers popped up with little effort.
“Give them a good tug and fold ’em open.”
Leo looked at the height of the levers and the length of the seams in Ray’s back and pushed a wooden crate over for a boost. He grasped the handles at the base of Ray’s neck firmly and pulled.
The wings unfurled with a mechanical sigh. Thin spindles alongside Ray’s shoulders stretched the glittering fabric into taut semi-circles that extended down his back. The golden metal was etched with circuitry and multicolored lines that caught the light from the solarium and pulsed softly in flowing forms.
Leo circled Ray twice, examining the wings from every angle, before returning to his stool in front of the old man. Ray’s eyes were closed and his breathing slow but deep. Leo delved into the cookie basket and watched the color seep back into Ray’s skin. The old man breathed a sigh and opened one eye, quirking his eyebrow up at Leo.
“You going to share those?”
Leo pushed the basket over before heading to the kitchen for their customary glasses of milk. Upon his return, he paused at the top of the stairs in realization.
“Ray? Where’s Um today?”
Ray’s eyes were still closed, but his mouth twitched in a smile. He pointed upwards to the top of a large stack of books above one of the shelves. There, nearly touching the translucent ceiling panes, was Um. Leo climbed onto his stool and peered up at the creature. Its wings were spun out in elongated ovals of copper and gold. Um’s entire body glowed and throbbed with energy and heat, red and orange lines traced over the surface of its thorax and limbs. Leo could hear a contented hum emanating from the happy robot.
He felt slightly left out, but decided to make the most of the almost unbearable heat from the sun. Ray chuckled knowingly as Leo stripped off his sweater and undershirt and lay down on the floor. He pulled Ray’s oversized welding goggles from a basket under a table and sunbathed in the warmth of the morning with his friends.
Leo heard a few clicks and hops before tiny feet prodded his side curiously. Scooping Um up onto his stomach, he couldn’t help but laugh at the ticklish sensation of six pointy limbs crawling around on his chest. Um tried to keep its balance as Leo’s stomach heaved up and down with laughter. Um tumbled off in a huff and flopped down on the floor.
“I’m sorry Um. Your feet tickled too much.”
Leo stood and redressed, flushed from the residual warmth of the sun and laughter.
“How long do you need to charge Ray?”
“Not long. Maybe another hour or so. Why don’t you and Um go find something to do?”
Um wasted no time in tugging on Leo’s shoelace and hopping up the stairs and down the long hallway. Leo lost it as he turned the corner into the dark living room.
“Um? Are you in here?”
The room was still. Leo called out again. “Um? I don’t know where you are.”
He caught the glint of metal out of the corner of his eye, behind a couch cushion. Um leapt out and brandished its claws with a broad “Ta da” movement. Leo giggled, and then Um was on the floor and gone.
Leo got it. He called out in his deepest voice.
“Come out come out wherever you are!”
He searched high and low, behind the credenza, under the television bench, in every corner and closet. He was just about to flounce down onto the chair by the door in defeat when he heard a tiny whirring sound. So soft he almost missed it. Just over there, underneath the pile of mail. Leo knelt and swept aside the mail in a broad gesture of triumph. Um jumped up and down excitedly.
The little robot sat down on its haunches like a dog waiting for a treat, and tipped its eyes to one side. Leo settled back on his knees and waited as well, wondering where Um would hide next. But the creature waved its claws at Leo, shoeing him away before sitting back down and covering its eye stalks with its claws.
Leo was grateful that Ray hadn’t commented on the awful clothes his mother forced him to wear during his visits to Aunt Nancy in the city.
“I can’t come by tomorrow. I’m helping out with my sister’s birthday party. And I can’t stay long today. My Mom’s coming to get me in an hour.”
“Well come on in. Um’s been missing you this week already. I’m sure we can find something to do for an hour. Milk?”
Leo nodded, grateful for the chance to see his friends. He’d thrown a terrible fit when his mother had asked him to miss his weekly visit with Ray. His father had harrumphed in agitation, but his mother had simply wrapped him up in a big hug and promised to make time this week for him to go over, and what a nice young man he was turning into.
“I know just the thing we can do today.”
Ray snapped his fingers as Um hopped up from the sofa and into Leo’s outstretched hand. Its claw pinched softly over Leo’s thumb, and its closed eyes rubbed into his palm, a gentle hello. Ray continued, ushering the two down the hallway to the workshop.
“Um was so frustrated with me last night when I wasn’t able to tell the difference between its pieces and my pieces while playing a rousing game of checkers. Perhaps we should check the color matrix in my optics today?”
Leo took off his itchy, stiff jacket and rolled his sleeves up right away. He and Um arranged a padded bed for Ray’s eyes to sit in while they worked, and dug up a dusty bound packet of instructions for adjusting tonality and luminosity matrixes within the retinal arrays. Ray found an old pirate’s eye patch and chased Um around the room shouting “Arrr, me hearties!” while Leo flipped through the pages and assembled the tools they needed.
It was messier work than Leo had expected. The articulation of the gears at the back of the eye needed constant lubrication while Ray worked quickly to remove the buildup of dust and dirt. Leo was covered to the elbows in silicone grease and blackened polish residue by the time Ray popped his second eye back into its socket and twisted it into place. He took the eye patch from his forehead and bestowed it upon Leo.
“I dub you Captain Leonard, scourge of the high seas.”
Um scrambled up to a perch on his shoulder and put its claws out menacingly while Leo strutted around the house brandishing a screwdriver and ordering imaginary crewmen about.
When the doorbell rang, Ray greeted Leo’s mother like an old friend and ushered her inside graciously. She gave Leo a withering stare, horrified at the condition of his clothing, the grease on his hands. Ray took him into the kitchen and went to work briskly with solvent and soap, while his mother waited outside in the car.
Ray knelt in front of Leo, his knee ringing against the linoleum floor.
“Leo, I’ll miss you.”
“Yeah, me too. I’m sorry I can’t come back tomorrow.”
Ray’s smile was warm and genuine with affection.
“It’s been so nice to have you around. I feel like my old self again. Good as new almost!”
He clicked his fingers in the articulated digit operation test pattern that they’d run last week. Leo laughed at the formatted spasms and hopped down to give Ray a big hug.
“I’ve had a lot of fun too, Ray. See you next week?”
Ray handed Leo his jacket and accompanied him to the front door.
“Good bye, Leonard. And thank you.”
She nodded, sniffling.
“S’okay. Go to sleep.”
She burrowed her nose into his pillow and curled on her side. She was snoring before Leo realized that he too had awoken from a nightmare. Something in his dreams was bothering him. But he couldn’t pick it out of the fleeting images of robotic arms and dimming light.
The next day was his promised return to Ray and Um, and Leo had made the cookies himself this week. He whistled cheerfully, dragging a stick along the slats of the fences, clacking all the way there. He peered in the dark front window after several knocks, wondering if Ray needed charging again. He never did get to ask how often Ray’s batteries needed charging. Perhaps he was already in the back, although Leo wondered how he would have gotten his panels opened. He left the cookies on the stoop and scaled the side fence deftly. The solarium around back was just as dark. No sign of Um or Ray.
Leo sat out front for several minutes contemplating whether Ray might have gone out and forgotten their visit. Did Ray ever go out? Leo wasn’t sure he ever saw Ray about town, or at the grocery store. Surely he went out occasionally, like the civic expo last year.
As he sat and strained his ears for the sound of metal on metal or the whirring of gears, that nagging feeling from the previous night’s dream returned. Ray wouldn’t stand him up for their visits. Ray wouldn’t forget him. Something must have happened to Ray. Something wasn’t right.
The revelation spurred him to action and he dashed home to his father, seated at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and the weekend paper.
Their trip over to Ray’s house was anything but carefree, the two hurrying against an unknown clock of urgency and concern. “Stay outside on the stoop, son. Yell if you see Mr. Raymond returning. I believe it’s likely he just has stepped out for a moment.”
Leo sat down beside the forgotten basket of cookies, unconvinced. His eyes followed a long trail of ant invaders having discovered a plentiful source of nutrition upon the stoop. They wound their way from the basket all the way down the steps and into a deep crevice in the concrete below. He wondered whether Um had gone out with Ray. Leo didn’t turn around as his father closed the door slowly and joined him on the concrete step. They sat together in quiet contemplation until the ambulance came, his father’s arm around his shoulders helping to calm the shuddering, heaving breaths that came out of Leo’s body.
He frowned at every pie and casserole that came through the door, at every pat on the head or cluck of the tongue. He didn’t want them here. He just wanted to be left alone so that he could look for Um.
No one had taken it upon themselves to move anything in the house yet. The TV was still coated in layers of dust, the cushions on the couch crooked with extended use, the mail piled high in the basket.
Everyone was in his way as Leo searched the house, checking all of Um’s hiding places. The laundry basket, the kitchen sink, the vase over the mantle. Leo couldn’t find the robot anywhere. Surely it hadn’t been taken away with Ray? Surely Um was still here, somewhere, hiding until everyone left.
He returned to the couch and stepped up on the cushions, making himself as tall and commanding as possible. “Everyone has to leave now. You don’t belong here. You need to leave right now!”
The guests turned in surprise, faces a mix of pity and concern. His mother appeared at his side, winding her way through the stillness that had descended the room.
“Leonard, honey. Everyone is here to say goodbye to Mr. Raymond. We all miss him too.”
“No Mom. You don’t understand. They need to get out of his house. They shouldn’t be here.”
His mother coaxed him down with a gentle tug on the arm and sat with him on the sofa, his sister on her other side. She pulled both of them into an embrace of such love and protection as only a mother could give.
Leo felt his nose burn, tears pool, unshed. He wondered if Ray had been able to cry.
Leo descended cautiously and lingered back a distance from the procession. These were not people from town. These were strangers, some dressed in military uniforms, others in dark suits and dresses. It was with a chilling revelation that Leo noticed they all walked with the same halting lope, the same aches and twitches in their lumbering steps. He followed quietly to the illuminated archway that delineated the cemetery with twisted and rusted wrought iron. The men and women gathered around Ray’s new grave in silence, the pale glow from the lantern barely illuminating their mournful faces.
A tug on his leg brought his attention downward to a small pair of glittering claws and deep blue eyes peering up at him out of the gloom.
“Um! It’s you! I missed you so much!”
Leo’s cheerful shout echoed across the graveyard. He scooped up his friend and gathered it close under his chin. The robot let out a relieved sigh and wrapped its claws around Leo’s cheeks.
Leo opened his eyes at a slight tapping from Um. A tall man approached him from the gathered group of strangers. His dark suit was immaculately pressed and fitted over a broad frame. His eyes reflected the silvered lights of the cemetery archway, patterned across a face neither intimidating or kind.
He extended his hand to Leo. Leo took the man’s hand firmly and proudly.
Leo started as Um hopped down and onto the stranger’s hand clasped in his own. The little creature lifted the man’s suit jacket sleeve and peered down into the opening between cuff and shirt. There, on the top of the man’s wrist, another set of glittering pale green eyes blinked up.
The second robot emerged atop the clasped hands, tiny bronze body quivering with excitement. Leo was transfixed watching the robots’ reunion. The two creatures clicked claws and emitted chirping buzzes, fluctuating in tone across a multitude of cheerful notes and chords.
Leo looked up in surprise when the stranger’s other hand came up to touch his shoulder.
“I’m very happy to finally meet you. Um’s told us all so much about you. We would be honored if you would join us to say goodbye to Ray. I know he would have been pleased to have you here, Leonard.”
They ringed the moist earthen mound shoulder-to-shoulder, glittering claws and mandibles extended in harmony. Music warbled from the voice boxes of the people and robots gathered to pay tribute to Ray, haunting and beautiful. Um snuggled close, making soothing clicks and chirps as Leo finally grieved for the friend he’d lost.
She sat beside him under the overhang in the courtyard and spread her skirts wide on the ground. “Is he coming out today?”
Leo smiled at her and shrugged his shoulders slightly. He watched the way the wind blew her hair across her eyes, and the delicate flick of her fingers returning it to her ponytail.
“I don’t know. It’s up to him.”
He set his backpack beside hers on the ground and lifted the flap carefully.
“What do you think, Um? Care to say hi?”
Her laughter filled the courtyard as the little robot ducked out into the bright light and skipped up Sarah’s dress, tickling her legs. It snuggled down into the flowered fabric and unfolded its panels up and into the sunlight, basking in the warmth of the day. Leo held her hand as they watched the tiny golden wings flutter in the breeze. Recharging, renewing, radiating life.
Kelly Dwyer is an instructional designer and learning technologist with a passion for all things cyberpunk, science fiction and fantasy. When not writing, reading or researching, Kelly spends her days rescuing the flocks of mechanical spiderbots that roam the house from the tinkering of her three-year old son and boffin husband. She can be found online at www.digilutionary.net. Editor’s note: Kelly tells us that this is not only her first sale; it’s the first story she ever submitted or wrote! (We expect great things from her.)
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish