TRAVIS MCDONALD

All Boy

Freddy lay on the bed and imagined his body was a system of wires, linking data cables to processors, disk drives to memory, the power supply, the cooling fan, whatever else was in there, all leading to that great motherboard called his brain. He imagined his eyes as TV screens and his hands as clamps securely fastened to the ends of two robotic arms controlled by some unknown creature. Maybe his parents controlled him. Maybe his teachers at school. Could be they were just acting like his parents. Maybe his real parents were scientists in a laboratory somewhere creating duplicates of him by the dozens, boys with sparsely freckled skin and curly brown hair that could not be tamed by humanoid curl products. Maybe he was the prototype and his scientist-parents loved him best of all and would someday come to save him from the parents he had now, from the kids at school.

He imagined a whole army of Freddys. At night they would sleep behind his house in the hollowed-out trunks in the woods. By day they would rise from their dank beds and do his bidding. He saw them storming the playground, ten at a time, kicking over soccer cones and toppling the monkey bars with their bionic limbs. He watched them cram through the cafeteria door and decimate the line for Tuesday Taco Special, grinning as they reaped the spoils of their victory. He giggled as all the parents sat in the auditorium waiting for the Holiday play to begin. But what happened when the curtains were drawn? What did they see there? The army of Freddys decked-out in full holiday regalia. He could imagine it all so vividly. The girls in his gym class cowering in the hallway when thousands of Freddy-eyes were cast upon them. Mr. Mulvane, the principal, awarding the army of Freddys with the blue ribbon at the science fair. The next time Craig Douglas called him “wiener-hugger,” a million Freddys would surround his BMX and tell him to make tracks until he ran out of tracks to make.

He did the big villain laugh he copied from one of his favorite cartoons and rolled onto his knees.

Who would dare to defy an army of Freddys?

Only a fool, he answered.

He looked out the bedroom window. There was fake-mom in the garden, practicing her meditation on a bamboo mat. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was parted slightly, her bottom lip sucked in and quivering. Had fake-mom always meditated? Freddy thought about it and remembered that she started after fake-nana died. It confused Freddy at first, but fake-mom said it was normal; that it helped her heal. Fake-mom was sad for a while, but now she was better. Human emotions were so strange. How strange it was to be sad for a while and then act like nothing ever happened. His motherboard tried to evaluate these emotions but came up negative.

He saw fake-mom, but where was fake-dad? His processors told him that fake-dad was probably in the garage whittling another fake sword out of driftwood. Fake-dad was a medieval re-enactor, something Freddy used to think was pretty cool until Craig Douglas said that only fairies and grown-up virgins did that kind of stuff. He was pretty sure fake-dad wasn’t a virgin. He was pretty sure that if fake-dad was a virgin then there would be no Freddy. Freddy thought about this, then went to his closet to rummage around.

When he found what he was looking for, he took it off the shelf and sat cross-legged on the small carpet. It was an old shoebox with a piece of tape across the lid that said “Freddy’s Stuff” in big black letters. He flipped off the lid and took out a few items, scattering them across the room. What he was really looking for was at the bottom. He pulled it out of the box and flattened it across the floor. With his eye-sensors he scanned the paper, testing it for fingerprint analysis and document authenticity:

Fredrick Bowen

Born: December 6, 1999

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital: Brighton, MA

Parents: Richard and Elizabeth Bowen

 

There were other names his processors didn’t recognize. Then a sensor beeped and zoomed in on something. The seal on the corner was peeling. He scratched at it with his robotic finger. A forgery, his motherboard told him. But the seal held on pretty good. It was strange to think that he’d been born in another century. Maybe someday he would be the last living person to be born then. He could tell all the future children about the good old days, what it was like growing up without tele-transportation devices, cortex-computers, and solar-powered space crafts. He’d be a celebrity and wherever he went people would say: That’s the oldest guy in the world. Do you believe how strong he looks for his age? He’s really some kind of a miracle, isn’t he? We should congratulate him on a life well done. And when they did, Freddy would thank them using some outdated expression and they would all laugh, not at him, but with him. They would laugh because even though it sounded funny, it was still a part of their history. When times were tough, even in the future, humans needed to remember how far they’d come. And that’s what future-Freddy would be there for.

He put the papers back in the box and the box up on the shelf. He was tired. What a shame to be tired, he thought. There was still so much light left in the day. Outside, the sun was a big yellow rim above the neighborhood. Birds squatted on the power lines, pecking their beaks mechanically. Wind shook a tree beside his window and jangled nuts across the gutters. He watched the clouds move through the sky like great big gobs of television snow. Freddy brought his fist to his mouth and yawned.

What does a robot-boy do when he’s tired?

He lay on the carpet and stared up at the ceiling. If his scientist-parents were there all they’d have to do was give him a little boost to recharge his batteries. They’d look at him and say, Prototype #1, looks like your juices are a little low. How about some pep in your step? Freddy would accept and they’d plug the wire into his hidden portal and in seconds he’d be better. All his fake-parents ever did was give him fruit when he was tired. He wasn’t allowed to have sugar in the house or drinks with caffeine. That’s why when Steve Deminico came over after school last month he didn’t stay very long. That’s why whenever any of the kids from school came over they didn’t stay very long. That and Freddy wasn’t allowed to have video games or sports equipment either. It could be real boring without anyone his age to hang out with and nothing to do around the house.

Freddy’s processors clicked through a series of programs, making whirring sounds from inside his chest. The wires sent his motherboard information from the memory banks and flashed the images across his eye-screens. How interesting, he thought. Had he forgotten about this scenario completely? The pixels blurred, then came together. Freddy scanned the memory for signs of corruption. It seemed reliable.

2012-01-16. Freddy, Steve Deminico, and Arthur Kline are standing in a snow-covered field. It’s a park beside school where the boys often play. The basketball court is rendered obsolete by snow and ice, same for the baseball field and tennis court. The boys shape handfuls of snow into hard balls and throw them at one another. They hide behind trees, under snow banks, between the dugouts and the fence. This is a war. None of the boys seem to be winning. There do not seem to be any particular rules. Freddy climbs on top of the dugout and waits for Arthur to walk directly underneath. He has a pile of ice-hard snowballs beside him. A winter branch bobs, dumping a branch full of snow onto the ground. Freddy watches the snow descend. Then he sees Arthur stumble into his line of fire. He walks directly into Freddy’s crosshairs. Freddy unloads. Snowballs crush Arthur from every angle. He tries to run but slips on the snow. Freddy continues until his armaments are gone, until he sees a blossoming of dark red blood. He hops down from the dugout. Arthur is crying. Arthur is not a robot-boy.

The scenario fades from the screen and Freddy is shown a different image. It’s fake-mom and fake-dad hauling the computer out of his room. They’re dumping his video game system in the trash. His DVDs are placed in a box and tucked away in the attic. He hears a lecture about how disappointed they are in him, how they can’t believe he could be so reckless. Then he sees himself sitting at the breakfast table eating oat bran and reading an old copy of The Robots of Dawn.

How can a robot-boy survive on oat bran and old books alone?

Fake-mom was downstairs now. He could hear her footsteps across the linoleum floor, the strange sucking sound of the refrigerator opening, the tinkling of the pressure-regulated faucet turned to on. He wasn’t hungry, robot-boys didn’t get hungry, but he knew dinner would be soon. Then fake-mom and fake-dad would ask him all about his week and what homework he had to do and if he was getting along better with the kids at school. There was no way he could sit through that without a little battery recharge. His motherboard clicked through a series of possible solutions. The wires sent the information from the motherboard to the sensors and projected each scenario onto the screen. His processors flipped through a series of possible outcomes. He observed each one, weighed the options, and filed them away into his memory bank. Then he got up from the floor and opened the closet.

Inside, he took a flannel shirt off its hanger, twirled it around his finger, and tossed it to the floor. He took the hanger off the rack, and did the same with another that held a pair of jeans. He laid both hangers on the bed, turned his setting to stealth mode, and crept downstairs.

When he got to the bottom, he leaned into the kitchen. Fake-mom’s back was to him and he could hear her humming a song while she cleaned the dishes. Freddy’s sensors scanned her image reflected in the window above the sink. She looked so tired. Fake-mom was not a robot-woman, he could tell. The lines in her face were so deep and indelible. She looked like she’d aged ten years since breakfast. Her lips were dry around the edges, revealing small cracks underneath. Did fake-mom always look this old? Freddy checked his memory banks for confirmation. Nothing popped up. He felt his motor slow to a painful whir. Fake-mom was getting older while he was staying the same age. His robot limbs felt heavy. His processors flipped through a series of scenarios, showing him what it would be like when fake-mom was old and Freddy was still a robot-boy. He saw her old human body lying in bed like fake-nana, grasping for a glass of water. He saw himself beside her, his motors humming, his emoto-processors producing replicated tears that rolled down his cheeks. There was an awful kick in his system. Then fake-mom turned around and Freddy hid behind the doorway.

When she turned back, he went outside and made a big loop around the garage. On the far end, next to the fence, there was a small bush covered in shadow. Freddy crouched beneath it and peered into the garage. Fake-dad sat on a stool, his face hovering over a giant magnifying glass that was held up by a swivel arm. He held a dowel and a large piece of wood in his hands. With his tongue stuck into his lip, he dug into the piece of wood, shedding little brown curls everywhere. Freddy’s sensors watched him go at the wood, concentrating completely on the task. There was something different about fake-dad too. His sensors did a full diagnostic evaluation. The results were puzzling: Fake-dad’s face looked more like Freddy’s than usual. Freddy’s memory banks flashed several images onto his screen. He saw fake-dad’s narrow chin and soft green eyes next to his own.  He heard his voice, deep and warm, singing to Freddy in the kitchen on a rainy morning. He heard human adults saying he would grow up to look just like fake-dad someday. His motherboard confirmed these memories and sent the information across his wires.

Then his sensors found what they were looking for.

The pliers. They were right next to fake-dad on the stool. But how could he get them without fake-dad yelling at him for being outside when he was supposed to be doing homework? Freddy thought he could use his telekinetic robot powers to make him drop his tools. He closed his eyes and engaged his psy-board. His internal fan began whirring, signals shuttled through the wires. His processors began firing various programs. He felt the information coursing through his system.

Then he opened his eyes. Fake-dad was still at work, the tools gripped firmly in his hands. Freddy’s voice modulator almost screeched. His processors felt hot and overworked. His bionic foot was about to kick the fencepost, when he saw fake-dad dig into the wood a little too deep. His palm brushed against the grain and the dowel went flying. Freddy’s wires sent shocks of excitement to his motherboard. Fake-dad got up from his stool, shook his head, and walked to the other side of the garage.

While he was crouching, Freddy crept out from behind the bush and grabbed the pliers. He slipped them into his pants pocket and made another loop around the garage. Then he went back to his room and sat on the carpet.

With the pliers, he undid the hook of one hanger and curled the middle around his hand so it was in a U shape. Then he took the two ends and wrapped them around each other, twisting the ends with the pliers until they held tight. He did the same to the other hanger and slipped his hand through the middles of each where the wire made a loop. He gripped the handles and swung them around. They were pretty strong. He put the hangers down and went to his desk. In the bottom drawer, underneath a stack of comic books, there was a roll of aluminum foil. He’d left it there a couple of months ago after he’d used it for a science project. His motherboard told him that it might come in handy. He was surprised fake-mom and fake-dad hadn’t noticed it was gone.

He rolled out two big sheets of the foil and began wrapping them around each end of the hangers. When they were covered, Freddy placed them side-by-side on the floor and stared. They didn’t look like anything futuristic. They were crude and ugly looking. The light in his room reflected off the crumpled foil with a dim glow. Freddy’s sensors scanned over the work and confirmed that they were useful but not particularly well designed. His robot-limbs felt heavy again. The information sent across his wires slowed to a steady pulse. His motors clipped through their rotations. If he could create something so imperfect, then maybe he was somehow flawed. And if he was flawed, then he was a real boy and not a robot-boy. It was scary to feel like a real boy. Real boys could get hurt and their systems weren’t perfect at all. The feeling sent strange signals across his wires, shaking his robotic hands, and causing his emoto-processors to engage. He felt the replicated tears in his eyes.

Then his motherboard reminded him about the beautiful machinations inside his system. The way every wire carried along a particular signal to a particular region. It showed him the unbelievable intricacy of it all. There was nothing out of place, nothing that wasn’t designed to fulfill its ultimate purpose and to work forever.

Inside, robot-Freddy was perfection, though nobody else knew it.

The sun was sinking behind the neighborhood, filling the sky with vivid reds and oranges. The hangers sat on the floor, next to the outlets, like two crummy swords.

“Freddy,” fake-mom called.

Freddy sat in front of the outlets staring at the empty eyeholes.

“Time for dinner.”

A message relayed through his system, telling him that fake-mom was calling. It confirmed fake-mom’s voice but said he still had to complete his recharge. He slipped his hands through the loops in the hangers and gripped them tight. Another message from his motherboard said to clench his teeth like the cartoon cat that was always getting zapped by electrical lines. He followed the instructions, shaking his head to loosen up the wires in his neck that felt sluggish.

“Freddy,” fake-dad called. “Dinner. Come down here.”

Freddy didn’t say a thing. The wires in his system wouldn’t let him speak. Whoever controlled Freddy really wanted him to recharge. His system felt like it was losing power. Then his sensors heard fake-dad’s steps on the stairs and his processors estimated that he had only a few seconds to complete his recharge. He knew it wouldn’t even take half that long.

Freddy jammed the wires in.

 

So what does a robot-boy feel when a thousand watts of electricity course through his system? Freddy, of course, was not a robot-boy, but a boy who liked to play robot. So when he jammed the hangers into the outlet, he felt what any nine-year-old boy would feel with that much power charging through him: pain, indescribable pain, and an instinct to bear down. This was what he felt most immediately, but along with the pain came another, even more devastating, feeling that flickered somewhere deep in his system. Freddy wouldn’t be able to describe it until years later, and even then the words would often escape him, but just before the electricity entered his fingers, as he saw the sparks spitting from the outlet, and sensed that first terrible tremble of power, he felt, maybe for the first time, like his body was his own. It was strange how quickly it happened, but everything he saw that day assured him. The images of fake-mom and fake-dad flashed across his eye-screens. His fake-parents were humans, and this meant that someday they would grow old and die. Fake-mom looked so much older than she used to and fake-dad really did look a lot like Freddy. Someday Freddy would have to take care of them just like fake-mom took care of fake-nana when she was sick. So who would control robot-Freddy then?

Only I can control robot-Freddy, he thought.

Then the electricity flowed through his system and he felt his wires untangle, the information pulsing across them disappearing. He knew the processors and emoto-processors, the motors, the psy-board, the motherboard, and all the wires had short-circuited and died away. He watched the current pass through his human skin, his veins, his muscles. It was incredible. There was perfection there too. The electricity lit up his body and illuminated all the intricacies of his human structure. He was scared. There was so much danger out there, so much meanness, there were so many possibilities that his mind felt flooded with the desperation of it all. It was true that someday his body would die away too, but not then, not for many years to come. Because as soon as Freddy felt his life about to escape, fake-dad had his arms wrapped around him, and was wrenching him from the floor and from the outlets, his voice, deep and warm, reminding him, “Freddy, Freddy. All boy, Freddy. Remember? All boy.”

 

BIO: Travis is a writer from Massachusetts, currently living in the great state of Texas.

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