[This story comes from the first issue of The 826 Quarterly, a collection of writing by Bay Area students, ages 8–18. This piece was written during an advanced writing workshop at 826 Valencia, and was a result of prompts involving the work of George Saunders.]
Eliza and I are sleeping in U-Haul Hideout #2 when her steel-reinforced belly starts ringing the tune of “Marching to Pretoria.” Just like every morning, her eyelids flip up, her robot-lips get reconfigured, and her neck spins around seven times. Then, the LED light on the side of her forehead illuminates and I know she’s awake. She points to the monitor lodged into her middle-section and says, “Turn it on.” It’s early so I still hear the gears in her elbow clicking when she points. Give her a few hours. Give her a few hours and those elbows will be shifting like water. Give her a few hours and she’ll be perfect. That fox.
The van is small, a tight squeeze for the two of us, but I don’t mind. There are Styrofoam boxes of leftover Chinese food scattered around — near our reclining SleepSeats, near the plastic bookshelf filled with Agency Training Manuals, near our time sheet documenting all our previous missions. Those small boxes won’t be there for long, though. Eliza is an extremely neat and organized robot.
“New ring tone?” I ask, referring to the marching band music that is probably announcing some video-call from the Agency. It seems like they’re always waking us up early. Why must they always bother us? Why won’t they just leave us be to spend some quality time alone?
“Where does that fit in?” she says. “Where? I asked you to turn on the monitor. Did you complete that task? No. Soon enough I’ll be on overload and you know what happens then.”
“I know, but come — "
“Turn it on, Muskrat,” she says. That is what Eliza calls me when her Short Term Memory Controller gets overheated. Muskrat or GIB, for Grossly Inferior Being.
I flip on the monitor and while I’m perfecting the image I ask about her fascination with marching band music.
“Marching band music,” she says, “is the only thing you GIBs have ever gotten right.”
It’s Agent Robbins on the monitor. I don’t even need to look at his face to know it’s him. All I need to see is that stupid pin he always wears, the one that says, I’m the guy who saves your country. Everybody in the Anti-Terrorism Division got one on Homeland Defense Appreciation Day, but he’s the only guy who actually wears his.
“Morning,” he says. “Wow! Have you grown, Denton? Because you seem so much bigger.” Robbins always makes the same stupid joke, just to remind us that his screen is about a hundred times as big as the one lodged in Eliza’s belly.
“What do you want?”
“We have a job for you, a Purging Operation.”
“Inform us,” says Eliza. She can’t see Robbins because her neck doesn’t have that sort of range. But if she was able to look at him, I’d have enough reason to Purge him, too.
“A suspected CHT,” he says.
“A Crazed and Hiding Terrorist,” I say.
“Right. The worst kind.”
“The worst kind,” I say, just to mock him. I don’t actually agree. In my opinion, RATs (Rabid and Armed Terrorists) are worse. Known for their toned biceps and well-plucked eyebrows, RATs are usually bigger and much harder to capture. But I don’t know for sure. I mean, Eliza and I have had about twenty RATs and only two CHTs, which are known for their disproportionately large feet. The rest have been WETs (Wicked and Evil Terrorists) which are the most common and the easiest to track down because of their innate preference for fake gold. Give me two hours, a big enough butterfly net, and Eliza’s Fake Gold Sensor and I’ll bring you back a dozen WETs ready to be brought to justice.
“His name’s Dirk,” he says. “Works at the HamburgerHeaven in Lassen.”
“Dirk. Works at the HamburgerHeaven in Lassen,” I say.
“Shut up,” he says.
“Muskrats,” Eliza says.
“His size-fourteen footprints have been linked to twelve recent car bombings. Purge him.”
I shut the power on the monitor because I know he’s about to say something stupid. Eliza wastes no time and heads straight for the driver’s seat.
“Do you think we have time to get some Chinese food?” I ask her.
“He said now.”
“No he didn’t. He said soon.”
Eliza punches a button on her chest and I hear a digital tape rewinding. Now the tape plays Robbins’s voice. I hate when she does that.
I stare as Eliza inserts the key into the ignition. I can feel a little saliva forming around the corners of my mouth. With women it’s legs, breasts. With robots — I mean, Eliza, I’ve never met any other robots — it’s fingers. Those fingers, every movement planned by some computer inside her, calculating, calculating. It’s elegant.
Eliza drives straight down the middle of the lane. She never misses a stop sign. She hits every green light. She passes when it is necessary. And she knows when it is necessary. She goes exactly five miles over the speed limit, too, because they programmed her that way.
She doesn’t bother to ask me the name of the town again. She just rewinds her tape to Robbins saying, “Works at the HamburgerHeaven in Lassen.” The tape also plays me repeating him but she stops it halfway through. Would she rather hear Robbins say it? I wonder why she doesn’t just ask me now. Does she not love me? It was probably a matter of convenience. That’s how she’s programmed, right? To choose what’s most convenient?
I could’ve told her we were going to Lassen. I could’ve told her more than that. More than she’d want to know. I lived there. I owned a Disney-themed children’s furniture store in town called Mickey’s FurniturePalace. My wife found this ironic considering that I was, as she called me, an impotent, good-for-nothing sloth. I am impotent, but the rest is mainly false.
We tried for a year and a half to have kids. Any scrap of passion was lost with the words my wife used to open every session. “Fertilize me,” she’d say, as though I was nothing more than a gardening tool.
When the doctor told us the bad news, we decided to find a sperm donor. It was all done so quickly — a few papers signed, a drop-off at the Fertility Center. I waited for her in the lobby on Implantation Day.
“Well,” I said.
“Well,” she said.
“Did it work?”
“Of course it worked.”
She said nothing more. Then, on the way home, as she pushed the automatic window button up and down, she said, “Isn’t it funny that a man I’ve never even met can do what you can’t.”
The next thing I knew she wanted to join a pregnancy group, alone. It wasn’t one listed on the pamphlet in the doctor’s office. It was called Women With Wings. She never told me how she found out about it. She never told me anything. I followed her once to a meeting. It was at the home of Candy, the group leader. Candy’s husband had knocked her up four times, my wife said. You could grow rain forests with his semen, she said. I peeped in through the window corner. Inside were twenty pregnant women, naked, chanting and dancing. Candy’s husband was the only male. He wore bullhorns and the women circled him like wolves. As my wife turned a corner she saw me and shot me a look too lazy to be angry. Just empty.
I waited outside on the sidewalk for her. I had practiced my speech, tried different inflections. I was going to make her cry. I was going to make her break.
In an hour she came out in a loincloth, covered in finger paint. “What was that?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“You can’t come here. I said that, didn’t I?”
“But you were naked!”
“It’s winter solstice,” she said, as though that was an appropriate answer.
“What does that mean?”
She didn’t even respond. She just turned around and walked back inside. I tried to stop her. I did. Wait, I said. But she pushed me away. I banged on the door for a while, until finally I gave up, went home, and threw away our wedding portrait to get back at her. But, as it turned out, she hated our wedding portrait and was glad I’d thrown it out.
The week the baby was due she was gone. I checked all the local hospitals. I filed a police report. No sign of her. Then I went over to Candy’s. Candy was one of those naturally hairy women. But it wasn’t like she did anything to contain it. Instead, she flaunted it. I bet she dyed her body hair to make it blacker, curled it to make it curlier.
She knew where my wife was. She had gone off to find her MCC, Candy said. Her what? I asked her. Her Male Child Creator, she said, you know, her sperm donor. She had gone off to find him so he could be there when the baby was born. Where? I asked. I can’t tell you, she said.
“It’s good for her,” she called, as I was walking away. “I encourage it for all women in her, well, position.”
My wife had selected the sperm donor herself. She said it was a personal decision. They gave her a list of different possibilities and she chose one and I knew nothing about it. I knew nothing.
I looked back at Candy. She stood on her porch and the wind blew her crazy hair in every direction. Her lips were fat too, big, fat, sloppy lips that said, It’s good for her. I knew right then I hated Candy and I blamed her for everything. She encouraged it.
Candy closed the door, but I still stood in front of her house. The lawn was perfect, probably fertilized with her bullhorn-wearing husband’s super-semen. I could still see my wife dancing in there, with him. And then I pictured her in there a week ago, talking over the decision with Candy. It’s good for you.
I reached into my pocket, not knowing what I would find, but hoping something would be there, something I could brandish atop a Trojan horse. All I found was a packet of matches. I’d been eating alone lately at this diner downtown, a place called the Aging Fisherman. They had a little stream running through the middle of the dining area, and they’d pretend to fish out your halibut or your salmon or your catfish. Anyway, the matches were from there, with a little icon of an old man sticking his hand into a river, reaching for, of all fish, a tuna. These will do, I thought.
In one fluid motion I lit all the matches. I threw them onto the perfect lawn. Then I dumped a can of gasoline from the trunk of my car onto the fire. I jumped back as everything went into flames.
I didn’t scream when I did this. I didn’t run away. I just watched the place burn, like I was five again, like I was camping with my father and two brothers, like we were sitting there waiting for marshmallows to brown.
The Fire Department came, but not in time to save anyone. The cops came, too. I told them I burned down the house. They arrested me right then and still felt the need to shove me against their vehicle, even though they knew and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
The whole ordeal made the papers and turned into the kind of thing people forwarded in emails. Barry Phillips made a pamphlet, which he distributed around the neighborhood, about what happens when you can’t contain your anger. There’s a number on the back for his yoga classes, which he says lower your chances of becoming A Crazed Maniac.
My attorney made me see a psychiatrist to see whether or not I was chronically A Crazed Maniac. I didn’t mind. It was nice to get out of the cell for a little while. In fact, I kind of liked talking to Doctor Phelps. She seemed like an excellent listener. I told her that: You’re an excellent listener. She just nodded and then continued to ask me what I felt about my crime, my childhood, my relationships, and my demons.
Once, at the very end of our session, when she had started to flip through papers and scribble on a legal pad, I asked her a question that had always bothered me: When do you think we’ll get rid of gravity? This question seemed to disturb her; she did not answer, but scribbled more on her legal pad. I continued: Once we can do it, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna jump up, just keep going up, up, up until I can get a good view of the earth, and I’m gonna wait for someone to wonder where I am, why I’m not around, and only then will I come back down — you know, flip the gravity switch back on — but before then, I’ll just wait. Doctor Phelps only shook her head, flipping through a psychiatry textbook.
As it turned out, I was not A Crazed Maniac. Instead, according to Doctor Phelps, I was just Lonely. So, my lawyer told me, that means you can’t plead insanity. I told him I hadn’t planned on that anyway — justice was on my side.
Just before the sentencing, though, something happened. I was sitting in the corner of my jail cell when one of the guards opened the cell door. I was sure he was there for my cellmate Percy, a Samoan man who made lanyards to pass the time. But the guard wanted me. He led me down the hall, into a small room, where a man I’d later know as Robbins was waiting. He had on a black jumpsuit and running shoes.
He looked at a document in his hands, then at me, then back at the document. “We want you,” he said.
“You quietly set a house on fire and watched it burn. You show little remorse. You’re like a machine.”
“My wife, she — "
“That doesn’t matter! The point is, you can do the job.”
“I’ll explain later.”