[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.]
And that was it. Robbins led me out of prison and into a white vehicle he called U-Haul Hideout #1. In the van, he explained the situation. He wanted me to be a Special Agent, working mainly Purging Operations. Me? I protested. I just own a furniture store. I’ve attended a half a semester of junior college. He said that doesn’t matter.
“We’ve got a robot that’ll lead you around and do all the work. The only thing you need to do is kill. The robot can’t do that. It’s smart, it’s organized, but it can’t kill. You’ve gotta do that.”
“I can’t kill — I was just — "
“You’ll learn.” He slapped a manual on my lap. CHTs, WETs, and RATs: How To Identify, Categorize, and Efficiently Torture Suspected Terrorists. “Do everything it tells you, in this order. The robot will test you.”
“I’m not going to do this.”
“This is your chance for a new life,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll just kill you.”
I told him yes then, but I still didn’t think I’d do it. Not until I met Eliza did I actually think I’d do it. Robbins said they made her out of a human and then perfected her brain. They rewired her and covered her with steel and now she’s the most advanced robot in the world. Well, they say the Japanese might have a better one, but that’s all speculation. When I saw her I had a purpose once again. I had lost it for a moment. But now I had one. Eliza, the robot, was going to love me. It was possible, I was sure, because she wasn’t all robot. She was a hybrid. You can’t just strip someone of all her humanness, can you?
I remember our first Purging Operation together — a couple months after my training ended. We were over in San Antonio, scanning the area for high levels of fake gold. It’s a search technique we use. Like the Manual says, WETs chronically wear and operate with fake gold. Eliza’s Fake Gold Sensor started beeping rapidly as we passed a small nail salon called Lola’s Red Madness. We dialed up Robbins on the videophone and he confirmed it: Lola’s Red Madness Nail Salon has been known to harbor terrorists. Find whoever is wearing large amounts of fake gold and Purge them, he told us.
Back then, I didn’t consider a nail salon to be a Terrorist-Harboring Danger Zone. But I did a quick fact check in The Manual and it turned out that sixteen of the last thirty bombings in Texas were linked to terrorists harbored by nail salons. This could be big, I said to myself.
Lola’s Red Madness reeked of perfume and nail polish remover. Even Eliza, who lacks adequate Aroma Sensors, commented that the Smell Levels were reaching a Dangerous Potency. Eliza was in her newly designed human suit (for secrecy purposes) and it was at that moment, when I saw her in a blond wig and a rubber body suit for the first time, that I truly fell for her. Before then, it was hard to picture how she’d look as a human, but now I could see clearly and it made sense! It was how I would have pictured her.
Eliza circled the room and performed a Local Fake Gold Scan. I went over to the payphone and made some calls to my wife’s old friends, to see if they knew where she was. Mainly I was trying to catch Eliza’s attention, but I also missed my wife. I wanted her back. I wanted her to see me now, as part of an elite, two-person anti-terrorist division.
Just as my wife’s old friend from college started asking questions like why aren’t you in jail you sick, sick man, Eliza gave me a page on my orange belt (which, according to the Manual, I must wear at all times, standard policy). I looked up and Eliza signaled toward one of the workers.
Her name was Nikki — it said so on her name tag. She had a tan, thin face and eyes like small plums, but it was true: Nikki had on a significant amount of fake gold. Eliza and I followed as she carried a tray of assorted nail polish colors into the back room. When no one was nearby (according to Eliza’s Short-Distance Motion Sensor), we each grabbed one of her arms, pushed her into a small service closet, and locked the door.
Eliza stripped out of the body suit and returned to robot form. It was strangely appealing the way she carefully unzipped the suit and slid it into a storage compartment where her appendix should have been. Eliza approached Nikki and, after I pressed the Interrogate Button #1 (WETs) on her shoulder, started talking in the voice of some Gulf War hero. I don’t remember his name, but the voice is standard when dealing with WETs.
“Come clean, soldier!”
“Me?” Nikki said.
“Yes you, soldier! We know everything you’ve done. But we want to hear it from you.”
Nikki looked at Eliza in a dumbfounded manner.
“Now is not the time to play stupid, soldier! Own up!”
“I’ve — I’ve done nothing. What is this?” Nikki said.
This was going nowhere. I switched off the Interrogate Button #1 on Eliza’s shoulder. Eliza returned to her sweet self and said to me, Step One, Muskrat. Step One!
I had been reading up on WETs for months, but at this moment I failed to remember something as simple as Step One. I knew what it was — it was on the tip of my tongue — but I couldn’t get it out. I reached into the storage compartment on my orange utility belt and flipped through the pocket version of the Manual.
Um, um —
“Oh God, Muskrat.”
Okay, I remember now, I said to myself. I did — all I needed was that first Step and the rest flooded toward the front of my brain. Strike her with a cleaning mop — how could I forget?
The good thing about WETs is they don’t necessarily require torturing equipment from the van. CHTs, on the other hand, require a lot of heavy-duty torturing equipment, but WETs are pretty much do-it-yourself jobs. Even so, it’s important to follow The Manual.
Eliza held Nikki tightly as I struck her one, two, three times with a cleaning mop from the janitor’s closet. Your victims feel this pain everyday! Finally, justice! I yelled, just like The Manual told me to.
Nikki did not scream; instead, she looked at me as though I had done nothing at all. In fact, she hadn’t said a word or made a sound since Eliza’s interrogation had ended. Robbins warned me about this. He said it’s because we’ve perfected the order of torture to submerge the terrorist into silent, stone-faced pain that simulates what it’s like to be terrorized. Still, it bothered me. It was as though she didn’t recognize my existence.
In Step Two I forced Nikki to drink cleaning fluid and I said, Now you are cleansed! In Step Three I took off her shoes and stomped on her feet while yelling, I Shall Stomp on Your Feet Just As You Have Stomped on the Feet of Others! In Step Four I ripped out her hair and said, The Root of our Problem Has Been Removed! In Step Five, Eliza and I drowned Nikki — with little resistance — in a small bucket. Eliza handed me a small explosive chip from her storage compartment, which we detonated to clear all evidence of the Purging once we left out the backdoor of Lola’s Red Madness. From our van, we heard the small explosion and Eliza said to me, Well done, Comrade. I let that play in my head all afternoon — Well done, Comrade. I had never felt such affirmation in all my life.
That night Robbins faxed us a note that said Congratulations! attached to several reports of terrorists attacks — all, allegedly, linked to Nikki. In total, Robbins estimated, she was responsible for the deaths of thirty-six Americans, eight Canadians and one African who had been residing in Nicaragua.
Still, something hurt. I kept seeing that blank face, and later on, after Eliza said Goodnight Comrade, and after I’d brushed my teeth with a toothbrush from an Anti-Terrorist Division Care-Package, I dreamt of Nikki. I saw her, thin little girl in a white coat with fake gold earrings, and she came to me and shook her head. No, no, no, Sir, she said to me, those won’t do (pointing to my fingernails). Those are dirty. No, no, no. I can’t put this polish on those dirty fingernails. No, no, no. They’re too dirty. Wash them first, wash them. I did. I scrubbed hard, trying to scrub it all away, but it never quite came off. I returned to her. No, no, no, she said. They’re still dirty. Keep scrubbing. Keep scrubbing. I did, and I kept coming back, and she kept rejecting me. No, no, no — not this nail polish, this is for clean nails, yours are dirty.
Eliza woke me up in the middle of the night. Shut up, Muskrat, she said. Stop sleeptalking. I apologized to her because I know how rest is important to a robot like Eliza. But Nikki kept coming back, night after night, telling me stories. Stories about how she came from Vietnam, about how her mother died in the war, about how her father might be a soldier, and also about the different nail polish colors — I learned them. I preferred rose to chartreuse but realized the beauty of a lighter spring color like pastel pink or egg.
Slowly, though, Nikki left me. After every terrorist purged, she went away a little more until she was gone completely. None of the others haunted me either. I was relieved because now I would not bother Eliza as much. Sure, I feel it every once in a while, a little tug at my stomach, but then I look at the numbers, the thousands of lives avenged, and I rest easily.
I figure it’s not all bad, if someone as perfect as Eliza goes along with it. I guess I’m kind of serving my country. They need me. These men, we suspect, are evil. They’ve probably done the same things I do to someone else. My country needs me to torture and dig out secrets. It’s what I do. It’s what we do. And after a hundred or so terrorists purged, sweet Eliza and I have become a team, I think.
Now Eliza’s pulling into a space right in front of HamburgerHeaven. It’s a compact space, but because she’s such a perfect parker, the van just fits. She lowers herself down from the van like no human could. You can feel the electricity, the voltage just by standing next to her.
Eliza waits outside when I step into the HamburgerHeaven and order a PowerFrosty and a few flavor tablets. I ask for Dirk and it turns out he’s busy making my PowerFrosty. It’s urgent, I tell Felipe, a portly man with a prosthetic arm, who, like all the employees, is wearing a white robe and a halo. He says I’ll have to choose, the PowerFrosty or Dirk. I say I’ll have Dirk instead, then.
Dirk comes out from the kitchen. Man, he has large feet — probably a rebel commander of some type. He’s got PowerFrosty all over his white robe. With a thick moustache and a birthmark, Dirk already looks suspicious. Even with the Jesus-sandals.
“Dirk?” I say.
“I’ve got a problem with my van out front. Can you take a look?”
“I don’t know anything about cars, man.”
“Oh, it’s nothing technical. I’ve just got something caught under the van.” I hand Dirk fifty dollars, which seems like plenty for someone like him.
Reluctantly, Dirk follows me outside. He walks with a limp, I’ve noticed, probably from doing so much terrorizing.
“What is it?” he says.
“Something caught under there.”
I point; he bends down. Eliza, now hiding inside the van, swings open the door and lifts Dirk inside. Her mechanical hands then lock around Dirk’s wrists like cuffs, putting him in idle position — Step One in the Manual, for CHTs that is. Like I’ve said before, they’re more complicated than WETs, but a far cry from RATs.
Before Dirk can say anything I press the Interrogate Button #2 on Eliza’s shoulder and her soundboard plays a list of questions, one after another, in the voice of Detective Banks, that cop on TV.
“What — what’s going on?” Dirk says.
“What do you know? Who do you work for?”
“Huh?” he says.
“Tell me everything. Now or never!”
“I don’t know anything!”
“I’ll give you one last chance. Tell me what you know.”
“Help!” Dirk screams.
And that’s my cue. I press the Interrogate Button again and Eliza returns to normal. “Hurry up, Muskrat,” she says to me. “Purge him.”
I admit I’m starting to enjoy Eliza’s tough love. I admit that even at this moment I imagine Eliza breaking out of her robotic shell to cater to my fantasies. “Come hither, Muskrat,” she’d say, as though Muskrat is just another word for My Sex God.
I wonder what she’ll do, what she’ll do to me, if just this once I don’t follow the Manual. I wonder what she’ll say, what she’ll call me. Maybe that’s the Code, I think, maybe that’s the way to bring her back to human form, but not human-human form, I mean perfected-human form.
Step Two is cut off his foot and yell, This is for the hundreds of our citizens you’ve manipulated and terrorized! I do that. And I get the same reaction as always, a blank face, like I’m not doing anything.
I know Step Three is suck off his finger with a high-powered vacuum. I know that. But I look at Eliza, passively calculating, and I want to awaken her. This could be The Code, I think again. This could be it.
So instead I skip to Step Five, which is sever his hand and say, Now you will kill nevermore! Dirk screams loudly. This has never happened before. He breaks from the handcuff grip of Eliza and two of her fingers fall off, exposing all the inner wiring. Dirk is bouncing around on one leg, banging his head against the walls of the van. His halo has been beaten to a pulp, no longer a circle, now more of a screwed-up octagon. What have I done, I think.
“Did you follow the Manual? No! How could you not follow the Manual, GIB? That’s your one task. Go in order, that’s it. But did you do that? No. You skipped Steps Three and Four,” Eliza says. The yellow in her glass eyes becomes almost blinding. “We’ll fire you for this, you know.”
“Eliza,” I say, as I try to contain Dirk. "I’m sorry. It’s just, I love you — "
Eliza’s head spins around, six, seven, eight, nine times. It doesn’t stop. Steam rises. Sparks shoot out from where her fingers used to be. Her LED light goes out. “Eliza,” I say. “Eliza.” She lies there without moving and I want to kiss her, awaken her just like in the movies, but sparks are shooting out of her lips and I fear electrocution.
I play with the dial on her monitor. Come on, come on. I scroll through files of video and audio. All the Purging footage, all the conversations with Robbins, and then, one last file, the earliest one, entitled “Denton.”
In a flash, there’s my mom crying when I am born; there’s my father punching a glass window when I have run away from home; there’s my brother wailing when I have broken his InspectoCommando doll; there’s my best friend bleeding after our fight over Penny; there’s my wife hesitating to awaken me in the middle of the night; there’s Candy burning; there’s Nikki and every suspected terrorist dying and now, now I can see pain. I couldn’t before but now I can see pain.
The screen flickers, then “Marching to Pretoria” plays, and Robbins comes on. “Denton, what have you done? What happened to the robot?”
“I think she’s on overload.”
“She’s destroyed, that’s what. What the hell did you do to her?”
“You must’ve done something. And Dirk?”
“He’s banging his head against the wall.”
“He’s not dead?”
“I skipped two steps.”
“You what? Denton, is he screaming?”
“Are there people outside the van?”
“Well, kill him, asshole.”
“I can’t. No more.”
“Then I’m sorry, Denton. We’re gonna have to Detonate.”
I reach for the Manual and search for “Detonate” in the index. I’m about to flip to page 237 when I stop and look to the van’s sunroof. It’s a clear day and it looks as though the blue goes on forever. I leap up toward it and try to break through the glass. I leap higher and higher, up, up, up, just as everything turns bright and loud and hot and I keep going and I know I will never come down.