4420 words, short story
There’s a gaping cavity on the second floor. Drywall dangles like rotting teeth, and the charred posters on my wall look apocalyptic. The faces of kittens and J-Pop idols have been burned away, and singed wallpaper drifts off on the smallest of breezes like black snow. Of all the rooms in our house the only one damaged when the giant robot arm fell from space was mine.
I unzip my backpack and dig out a canvas banner. It’s big and glossy and red and it says Fighting Ladybugs in scrawling yellow type. It belongs to the school, but I found it rotting in dust-coated storage. I plan on hanging it in front of the hole until someone comes to fix my room. The poster will keep winter weather out, since sprinklings of real snow have coated the black floorboards twice in the past three days. It’ll also block out the gawkers outside.
Dad says it’s a reflection of the times that the government takes so damn long to clean up these goddamn messes, and these superstitious townies can’t be bothered to bring us some over-baked casseroles during daylight hours. They abandoned them on our back porch in the middle of the night, and raccoons eat out the creamy centers, so we wake up to charred edges. It’s a goddamn common courtesy, Dad says. Doesn’t anyone have morals anymore? He likes to call our town an “oglerville” full of anti-robot fanatics. Once, on the bus, I saw a woman get her Pro-Ro hat ripped right off. The fuming lady who had done it screamed that Asian robots have ruined our economy. They’ve taken away jobs and spoiled family ideals, whatever that means. Mom was with me when the angry woman’s face turned a veiny red. Mom took hold of my hand and kept her eyes on the window, staring out at the passing cars and humming, as if there was nothing more interesting than the zip of color that sped by.
Sunlight seeps into my room and paints everything like a movie set. I imagine that the title is something like Girl Alone and it’s about how everyone else has vanished, leaving me and my room as the leftover crumbs. I already asked Mom if I could buy the wiry plastic vines sold at the craft stores for decorations. That way it would look insanely creepy. (My best friend Amy uses insanely to describe everything now. This bracelet is insanely cute. Those guys are insanely ratchet. That hole is insanely huge. Stuff like that.) But Mom says it’s a dumb idea and a waste of money.
Outside, reporters stand with their camera crews. A massive van with the Channel 5 news logo looms in our driveway. They’re doing more follow-up stories on the loss of the robot arm and the impact it’s had on the community. I wave my arms at them and mouth “go away, go away,” but they continue to adjust their silver reflectors. One cameraman sits down on our lawn, tears open a paper-wrapped sandwich and tosses his trash on the ground.
Next to the reporters, gawkers linger. They snap pictures with their phones and post them on their blogs. They obsessively check their follower count and pat themselves on the back when they come up with some clever tagline.
This family sure needs a hand.
They don’t look like they’re having a HOLE lot of fun.
At school, my classmates show me the best ones as they slap their thighs and laugh and laugh. They pull at the skin of their eyes and speak in gibberish. “I’m a Japanese Robot!” they chant as they run in circles.
I pick up a scorched square of wood and toss it out the window. It lands close to a gawker. Everyone looks up, their mouths open like turkeys in the rain. “Get away from here!” I shout, but they don’t listen. The reporter waves to his cameraman. Pictures are taken.
I won’t have to look at them for much longer. Once the banner goes up, I’ll finally have my room back, and the reporter won’t have anything to film. Everyone will have to go home and our house will become our house again.
My posters may have turned into delicate ash paper, but they’ve still protected the sticky tack that holds them in place. I peel the blue putty from the walls, roll it into a giant ball, and carry it with me to the part of my room where my bed once was. If I close my eyes, I can still see the pink and yellow sheets, my star-shaped pillow and my oversized plush bunny with its missing eye. Dad says I used to carry it around everywhere, but I don’t remember that.
The poster goo clings to my fingers as I struggle to press it against the drywall. It sticks like snotty hot glue, thinning itself out every time I try to wipe it off. People shout at me, pointless words I can’t hear over the thrilling sound of my heartbeat. Even the slightest tilt to the side and I’d fall straight to the ground. It’s scary. It’s exciting.
I pancake the wad of blue putty flat against the tired wood, then press a corner of the banner into it. It feels like I’m casting a magic spell. When this thick canvas is in position, my whole room will sparkle back to normal or maybe even better, like when the fairy godmother turned Cinderella’s old ripped up dress brand new.
The banner stays stuck to the wall for a few seconds, then the end curls back and it falls away. I can’t catch it before it tumbles out of the hole and toward the screaming people below.
The robot arm was gone by the time I was brought home. Big trucks were called in, the kind that haul space shuttle parts. Cable wires and pulleys and firemen and the military were used to ease it from my house like a stubborn splinter. They spirited it away to some secret place to study its working parts or dismantle it.
From the trending pictures I’ve seen online and the ones mom took, the arm was about the size of a minivan, and a rusted purple color with three missing fingers. Those were later found cratered in a parking lot some five miles away, each one about the length of my arm.
A national magazine asked me to pose with the fingers for a hundred dollars. I said not gonna happen, so they rushed to find someone else with my black hair and dark eyes. Three shades lighter than me and a few inches taller, but even my friends were fooled, asking if it was scary, asking if the fingers moved on their own. My friends also wanted to come over, to stand in my dead room. Classmates who’d never spoken to me started asking too. And teachers. Everyone wanted a chance to see the damage up close.
In our dining room, Mom sits with a foam ball between her legs. It’s the size of a softball and wrapped in white string. Several pins stick out of the sides at odd angles. Mom reminds me of the waiting people at the mall, the ones who hover by doors, pacing or swaying, constantly checking their phones, worrying that the person they’re waiting for will never come. Their impatience and fear hardens around them like a thin chocolate coating. It makes them unapproachable.
Mom jabs the ball with her needle. This is her eighth or ninth attempt at making a Temari, a Japanese embroidered ball. They are said to bring good luck and happiness. A finished Temari looks like a quilt of string. Bright colors twirl into beautiful triangles and octagons and swirling spirals. Mom’s Temari looks like a tangled mess. Her failures are piled up by her feet. She presses her toes against one and cracks the Styrofoam in half.
“Did Granny Mae make those before she died?” My voice wobbles around the room like a disoriented fly tapping against a windowpane.
“No, dear,” Mom says, though she pauses her work to stare at the wall behind my head. “I don’t think so.”
“Did you go to work today?”
“No, dear.” She struggles to get a spindly piece of purple thread through the needle head. “I’m taking time off until we get the house fixed up; you know that.” The government is supposed to fix my room. That’s what the official on TV said, before advertising a link where official donations could be made to the family. Dad likes to yell about how we haven’t seen a cent. “It’s 1984!” he says, squeezing the neck of a beer bottle. “Even Orwell couldn’t make this crap up.” I want to tell him it’s not 1984—the robot arm didn’t send us back in time—but I hate when he yells.
I hold onto the doorframe and swing my body back and forth. I can hear water sloshing in my stomach. I feel restless and shout, “I know how to fix my room!”
I dig my nails into the wood of the doorframe. I imagine a massive crack in the wall behind Mom. It speeds toward the ceiling like a snake slithering in tall grass. Its many arms branch out around Mom in dark rays, the opposite of the Holy Mother. The drywall crackles, like frozen branches snapped in half. The entire front of our house collapses and the people outside start smiling. Their faces don’t have noses or eyes, only large, empty grins. Their cameras flash over and over, creating a sea of clicking light.
It doesn’t matter how soft or loud my voice is, or if my words destroy walls, Mom keeps working on her Temari. Her tongue pokes out as she successfully threads the needle.
“Will you help me fix my room?”
“But I need more hands than mine.” I hop back and forth on one foot. “Maybe not four hands exactly, but at least three. Just some fingers even.” She doesn’t say anything. It wouldn’t be hard for her to use just one hand, but she’s keeping them both to herself, for her stupid Temari project. “You never help me with anything anymore,” I say.
She looks up from her work and her mouth is an angry line. She holds her arms out, releasing the needle. It swings freely like a shining pendulum. “Are you blind?” she snaps. “It’s because I’m busy.” Mom looks down at the messy thread piles on the floor, then back at me. “Do you understand how much time this takes?” She shakes her head, disappointed. “I’ll help you with your project after dinner.” She lifts up her white thread ball and adjusts one of the loose pins.
“Will you really?” I ask.
She hums a response and loops her needle around the pin, yanking the bright purple thread along. I watch it, transfixed. I open my mouth to say the purple makes it ugly, but purple used to be my favorite color and she might think it’s weird that now it makes my head hurt.
When the giant robot arm fell from the sky and crashed into my bedroom, I was at the mall. I remember the little details, like the florescent lights irritating my eyes, and how I scuffed the toe of my brand new flats, and the smells of pretzel butter and muddy tile. I remember my best friend, Amy, and her older brother Avery arguing about going home early as I wandered to the sale racks in the back, where I found the most beautiful skirt, a purple one with gold flowers.
I don’t remember the drive home or Avery pulling up to my house or me jumping out of the back seat of the car. I don’t remember kneeling on the wet pavement, as my ripped tights soaked in dirty water or screaming until my face looked like an overripe cherry. I don’t remember Mom throwing a blanket over my head and dragging me away. Even though I’ve watched the videos, I don’t remember.
Over the past week, the videos have played nonstop on every news station in town, feeding people’s dislike of us. I’ve seen what they’ve written online about us.
Pro-Ro are terrorists.
Lucky it fell on a Pro-Ro house.
The Mom’s a MILF, bet she’s into that robot kink, nasty!
If they were true Antis, this never would’ve happened.
Pro-Ros should kill themselves.
I don’t understand. How could it be our fault? The robot arm fell on our house. We didn’t ask a foreign government to run a test over our town. We didn’t dismantle the robot, the atmosphere did. We didn’t predict the future and build our house in this exact spot, fill my room with all my valuables, including the friendship bracelet from my best friend Amy; my Mickey Mouse ears from our vacation; and the painting I did in art class of a crane that Mr. Crotty said was excellent, even though I messed up the beak and feathers, just to have it all burn up.
We keep the TV off now, because Mom and I would sit in front of it and watch the interviews of people who didn’t know us, but hated us. Even the local reporters told everyone that this was a plan that backfired. That Dad was entangled in a Pro-Ro strategy to invade every single home in the country. It was an act of God that the robot arm destroyed my room.
“Does the government like robots?” I asked Mom once.
“It’s complicated,” she said, flipping to another news channel.
“But not every robot is bad.” I picked a scab off my knee. “Just like not all boys are gross.”
“People don’t like change and they don’t like different.”
“Then they’d like the robots better if they got to know them? How come the government doesn’t make them here? Then people would see them every day and it wouldn’t be different. It’d be normal.”
Mom sighed and muted the TV. “Do you know what the government’s job is?”
I shook my head. I’m sure I’d learned about it in school, but it got muddied up with all my other learning.
“Its job is to make people feel safe. When something scares the majority, the government takes action. That’s why we have Robotics Restriction Laws.” She gave me a look that said no more questions. I don’t know how Mom knows when I’m filled to the brim with questions. That night, huddled on the sofa, I hugged a decorative pillow close and whispered, why?
Dad is in the living room with his rum. He holds the glass against his bottom lip and taps it with his teeth. In his other hand, he’s got a book, splayed apart with his thumb and pinky.
“Dad. Where’s the stapler gun?”
He doesn’t say anything. He takes another drink. The ice cubes clink together and a drop of water falls from the bottom of the glass. He struggles to turn the page in his book, flicking the corner as if it were a lighter. The pages are stuck together though, and he has to put his glass down in order to move forward.
“Dad,” I say again, this time louder. “The stapler gun. I need it.”
He turns the page, picks up his glass, and makes the same humming noise that Mom did. Sometimes I can’t stomach it, the way they hum at me, like my voice is the distant strum of guitar strings, and all they hear is the melody, not my words.
I march over to his chair and smack the book out of his hand. It spins three times in the air before it crashes into the ground, bending half its pages.
His eyes flame with anger, until he realizes that it’s me, then they settle down into something dull and distant. “That wasn’t very nice you know,” he says, bending forward to retrieve his book.
“Where’s the stapler gun?” I ask for the millionth time.
“You mean a staple gun?” He takes a long drink, then rises from his chair. “We don’t have one. Why?” He walks to a shelf where a bunch of bottles sit in a neat line. My art teacher has bottles like that, only they’re all different colors and they’re empty, and he blows in them to make cool sounds.
“I need it,” I say.
He uncorks one of the bottles and fills his glass. He chugs it, gulping the way kids do when they press their mouths to the water fountain, then he fills it again. “Just use a regular old stapler.” He returns to his seat, slouches down, and bends the spine of his book.
“There are people outside,” I say. “And I don’t know where Mom keeps the regular old stapler.”
He doesn’t say anything, just licks his thumb and turns the page of his book. The cover looks boring. All white with big red letters that are smashed together. I think they say something like Can Things Turn Back to Normal After a Giant Robot Arm Destroys Your Bedroom? but I can’t really tell because the handwriting is really bad and his fat thumb is in the way.
I grab the arm of his chair and lean back. My face feels like shoes filled with water. “Dad!” I shout, “Listen to me!”
“What?” He glares down at me. “What do you need?”
“There are people outside,” I say, letting go of the chair and crashing headfirst into the ground. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel like anything. “They have signs with them.”
“Really?” He closes his book around his finger. “And what do their signs say?”
“Something bad, probably.”
He shrugs and settles back into his chair. “They’ll go away eventually. Next week there will be some other family in the news for them to harass. Don’t worry about it.”
I sigh and press my forehead to the leg of the chair. Sometimes adults can be so dumb. Why does he care about next week, when the people are there now?
“What’s for dinner?”
“Ask your mom,” he says, and he’s already gone, fading back into the pages of his book.
I know one of the people outside. I can see her through the skinny window beside our front door. It’s my best friend Amy.
She couldn’t have driven here by herself. Her brother is probably nearby. Avery is in high school and he knows how to drive a car already, so that means he has to take Amy and me to the mall. He drops us off at the front, then swings back by two hours later for pick up. I used to think Avery was handsome, because he was tall and because of his car. But up close, he has all of these pimples on his skin and his teeth are tinted brown around the gums.
“Hello,” I say, opening the door.
Amy wears a dark, oversized hoodie—her brother’s—and sweatpants. The hood is up, tight over her face, and her long hair dangles from the opening like tangled yarn.
“Long time, no see,” I say, even though it’s not true. We see each other at school, mostly in the hallways now. She spends a lot of time in the counselor’s office, and during lunch she eats in the classroom.
She doesn’t say anything, just stands there like a ghost. Sometimes, at sleepovers, we’d joke about having robot boyfriends. Androids with silver skin and pop star hair. I always called mine Jeffrey, but Amy could never settle on a name.
“I need to get my banner,” I say. The news people have unfolded it already. Their reporter stands in front of it as she speaks into the camera. She points to the Fighting Ladybugs scrawl and nods solemnly.
Amy reaches into the pockets of her brother’s jacket. She scoops out handfuls of wrinkled paper and drops them at my feet. They flutter, these paper bird wings, and some pop open to reveal their scribbled insides. I already know what’s written on them. I throw my own collection of notes in the trash every day after school.
There’s a mess of people surrounding the banner, touching the corners of it with their greasy hands. Some of them are gawkers, trying to wiggle in close so they can get their faces on TV. My chest feels full of pillow stuffing. I need that banner or else my room can’t get fixed.
“Look at what you’ve done to me,” Amy says, so I look. She’s the same Amy as last week, only tired. Plus, it sounds like she stole that line from a midafternoon TV drama, the kind her mother likes.
“I can’t go out today, I’ve got work to do.” Above my head, looms the hole of my room. I can’t see it from here, but it’s there. “Will you get that banner for me?” I ask. “I’m not supposed to talk to any reporters without my parents.”
Amy stands taller and several gawkers on our lawn examine her. My belly fills up with minnows, swimming around and tickling my sides. Amy and I have been friends since kindergarten. We used to call ourselves the Super Girls, until two years ago when Amy dubbed it insanely immature. We share lip gloss and homework, and during lunch we play M.A.S.H. to decide our futures. Mansion, apartment, shack, house, what kind of car will you drive, how many pets will you own, who’s gonna love you? We circle the answers with purple ink.
“Thank you,” I say, even though she hasn’t moved. I know she’ll go to the reporters for me. I know she’ll take my sign back, and we’ll rush to my room and smash it onto the broken wall. The Super Girls save the day!
Something wet splatters my shirt and chills my skin.
Amy throws another one and it explodes on my shoulder. Pieces of shell slip down my arm. The reporters clammer closer, hunched forward with their cameras and microphones.
“Go away, Pro-Ros, go!” Amy shouts, but her voice sounds small underneath the noise of people surging closer.
“Hey girls, look here!”
Flashes of light as bright as the sun.
“Another twist to this shocking story. An act of violence . . . ”
Camera lenses circle my porch like starved zombies.
Amy chucks another egg, but it bounces off my chest and cracks on the ground. Yolk oozes around my toes. I want to pull her hair or slap her face, but I just stand there, sticky and wet.
“Somebody should call someone!”
Mom steps onto the porch and brushes past me. “Get out of here!” she screams, throwing the lopsided Terami she’s made. “You can’t be on my lawn. This is private property!” The cameramen turns their lenses toward her. “It’s private!”
Dad is behind her. He puts a hand on her shoulder, trying to lead her back into the house. “That’s enough,” he says.
“We’re good people. A terrible thing happened to us, but we’re still good people! So leave us alone! Who gives a damn about robots anyway!”
Amy jumps off the porch, but people surge around her. They peck with their questions: Did you have this planned? What are your thoughts about Pro-Ros? Have you always hated robots? Who are you?
They’re locusts, swarming around each other to get to Amy. A reporter trips and knocks over a cameraman. Protesters hoist their signs higher and shout at the hole in my room.
“Come on.” Dad turns Mom toward the house and drags her back through the threshold. “You too,” he says to me. “And don’t open this door again without my permission.”
Inside, Dad releases Mom. She drops to her knees, cradling her hands against her chest. “So what if a robot smashed our house? We’re still good people,” she sobs. The people outside grow louder.
“What the hell were you doing?” Dad doesn’t look at me. He sways and catches the wall with his shoulder. “I told you they’d go away. You can’t give them attention or else they multiply. Go upstairs and get cleaned up.”
“We should move out of this place,” Mom says.
“We can’t afford it.”
“But the city said they’d pay for the damages, didn’t they? Why hasn’t anyone come to help us?”
I look at my parents, Mom on the floor, Dad sagging against the wall. They look so hopeless, like my old dolls who are sealed up in a plastic bin, waiting for the day when I decide to play with them again.
Okay, I tell myself. Okay.
I can’t use the banner, since the news people have hoarded it, but our house has bedsheets, blankets, and towels. I don’t know where the stapler is hidden, but I can hammer Mom’s sewing needles into what’s left of the wall.
My feet bounce up the stairs as my mind twirls like gold thread on a spinning wheel. If the needles don’t work, there’s always Dad’s books. I can create massive stacks of them, twice my height, and build a new wall.
Something thumps against the side of the house.
Maybe the robot will come back. Maybe it’ll soar over our house again and drop its other arm—not on my room, but on our lawn. It crushes the signs and cameras underneath its massive weight, turning them to ash. The people who survive place hands over their hearts and thank God for their lives.
This time, the robot arm is fully functioning. It stands on its fingers and stumbles this way and that, struggling to get its bearings. I’ll call to it, from the hole in my room, and tell it everything. The robot arm will look at me with its elbow, and after a long silence, it’ll shed the metal skin from its forearm. It’ll pick it off the ground, awkwardly at first, but better with a little practice, and cover the gaping hole in my room. We’ll build a new room made of metal, safe for robots and me, safe from eggs and cameras and Mom’s angry mouth and Dad’s whiskey glass.
Standing in front of my old room, which is filled with the last bits of sunlight, I can already see the change. The scorched pieces of wall are open, inviting, like a blank canvas waiting for fresh paint, like the crowded lawn ready for the second robot arm to fall.
Chelsea Muzar recently graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She's been writing since high school, where she received her first award from the Prairie Land Writing Project. Published in print and on the stage, Chelsea's fiction merges the uncanny with the familiar. She volunteers on the board of Whispering Prairie Press. She's currently drafting her debut novel.