Dad always loved the beach. He said the salt air tasted good.
One of the first things I can remember is the two of us standing next to each other, wriggling our toes in the wet sand. Then the tide would come rushing up, and we'd run backward to the dry part, kicking up sand all over the place. I never stopped to think that the salt water could be bad for him, that it might cause him to short circuit or something. I guess the engineers thought all that through.
Once the tide started to go out, we'd usually toss a frisbee around. Dad was never very good at sports, so mostly we'd end up chasing rolling frisbees across the sand. Must've been how he was wired; he just couldn't learn certain things, no matter how much he tried. Guess I'm sort of the same way, with dancing and playing the piano. But Dad never got frustrated. He'd keep trying, and every once in a while he'd get lucky and spin a perfect throw.
"Bang," he'd say, in a funny cowboy accent. Then his next throw would be awful again, and I'd have to run to keep it from rolling into the surf. Eventually we always ended up knees-to-the-sky, gasping for breath, laughing our guts out.
"Taylor, get under the umbrella," Mom said one hot summer day. She was so afraid I'd get skin cancer, every time we came to the beach.
I rolled my eyes and crawled into the shade. Dad plopped down between us and stared out at the horizon. Mom glanced over her shoulder. When she was sure nobody was looking, she hooked her fingers between Dad's, like gears locking together. The two of them looked so natural, sitting like that. Like they'd been doing it their whole lives.
Mom was always honest with me. About the cancer that killed her husband, and how they'd saved his sperm to inseminate her once she was ready to have me. She never talked about her husband, though, never even told me his name. But she must've loved him a whole lot. Instead of finding another husband, she decided to have me on her own. Androids were just hitting the markets around then, and her doctor in France told her it was a good idea, so that I could have a father. Mom could've hid it from me for a long time if she wanted to. But she never did. To her, he was always my dad, even if he had wires and circuits inside instead of blood and brains.
Some older kids ran by, splashing water all over. Mom unlocked her fingers from Dad's and moved away enough so that you could fit a frisbee between them. It was something she always did when other people were around. I used to think it was because she's from France, and people in France must be afraid of touching other people in public.
I didn't understand the truth until much later.
When I was eleven, we moved from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach. Mom said the schools were better, although I had no idea how one school could be better than another. The new one had teachers and bad cafeteria food, just like the old one. Dad loved it, though, being so close to the beach. He'd walk down to the pier every day, even after I stopped going with him.
A few days after we arrived, while the house was still full of boxes and bubble wrap, the twins down the street invited us to their birthday party. All the houses on our block were enormous, and Lucy and Davis even had a swimming pool. I couldn't figure out why they were called twins; they didn't look anything alike. One was a boy, and one was a girl.
But we went anyway. We ate some really fancy cake and splashed around in their big peanut-shaped pool all afternoon. Dad was a pretty bad swimmer, and after a while he scraped his arm against the tiles. A little piece of his skin tore, and the slick plastic sheath underneath poked through the crack.
Before he had time to hide it, the other kids were there. They stood at the edge of the pool, crowded around him. At first they just stared, but then they started touching him. Plucking at his skin, and poking him in the sides. The parents yelled at them to stop, but that only made them do it more. I looked around for Mom, but she must've gone to the bathroom.
"He's a robot!" Lucy said, her nose all scrunched up. I didn't understand what the big deal was. We weren't the only family to have an android, although I'd never met another kid that had one as a Dad. Mostly people used them to help with their gardening and dishes, and to fix broken stuff around the house.
Dad just stood there in the shallow end of the pool, looking down. His forehead was all wrinkled, like he was watching a sad movie. He'd get like that any time there was a conflict. I guess it's how he was programmed. Maybe the engineers wanted to make sure he didn't get into any fights, or say anything offensive.
Davis reached down from outside the pool and jabbed his thumb into Dad's eye. Dad let out a yelp, and I lunged at Davis. I tried to punch him, but it ended up as just a shove. He went flying into the pool in a whirl of arms and legs, and the next thing I knew he was thrashing around in the water like a little kid.
"Davis!" his mother said. "Oh my god! He can't swim! Someone save him!"
I thought she was joking. Davis could've touched the bottom where he was in the pool. And besides, it was his pool; he should've known how to swim. But after Davis's dad hauled him out of the water, everybody had scowls on. The party was pretty much over after that.
On the way home, Mom was angry with me.
"You have to be nice. You could've hurt that boy." She didn't get angry much, but when she did her voice got higher pitched and her accent got thicker. Even I had trouble understanding her sometimes.
"They started it."
"It doesn't matter."
Dad was on the other side of me, plodding along with a blue towel slung over his neck. He still hadn't said a word.
"Why don't those kids like Dad?"
Mom looked down at me and pressed her lips together, but didn't answer.
Word about Dad got around quick at my new school. By lunchtime of my first day, some of the older kids had pinned a sign to my back that said "Robo Dick" in big black letters. I got sent home that afternoon, after I pushed a kid into a wall for calling Mom a cyber whore. I didn't know what it meant, but the sneer on the kid's face gave me a pretty good idea.
By the second week, I didn't like Manhattan Beach very much. I stopped going to the beach with Dad, and started sneaking out of the house early so he wouldn't come out onto the lawn to wave goodbye, like he always did. But the kids still ran into him around town. He was a walking reminder of my weird family. As long as they kept seeing him, I'd never have a normal life.
"It's not fair," I said one night during dinner. "They treat me like I'm the robot."
Mom looked over at me, a big piece of eggplant dangling from her fork. "Is that so bad?"
"It's awful! I just want to be a normal kid."
"You're better than normal," Dad said with a wink.
I rolled my eyes. Parents could be so stupid sometimes. "Can't I just change schools? Go somewhere that the kids don't know the truth?"
Mom winced at the word "truth". She chewed her food slowly, and I could tell she was thinking about how to say something in English.
"You have a good father," she said. "You shouldn't be ashamed. Many children don't have fathers at all."
I looked over at Dad, and wondered what that must be like. It couldn't have been as hard as this.
"The kids say it isn't right," I said with a scowl. "Treating a robot like a person."
Mom sighed. "They're just kids. They'll understand some day."
I slammed my glass down, and milk sloshed out onto the table.
"You don't know these kids like I do."
The next week was even worse. I did my best to keep to myself, but trouble kept finding me. Some days I swear the whole school had ganged up against me. Even the other unpopular kids cracked jokes about me when they thought I wasn't listening.
On Friday, I was trying to act invisible along the back fence during recess when I heard a shout.
"Taylor! Hey, Taylor!"
I cringed. It was Dad. He was walking along the sidewalk behind the fence, probably on his way to the beach. I don't know how he spotted me through the ivy, but there he was, waving and smiling like an idiot.
I shook my head and tried to slink off before anyone else noticed. But it was too late. I rounded the corner into the locker bay and slammed headfirst into Davis and his buddies.
"Shouldn't let your robot out of the house by itself," he said with a sneer. "It might start getting ideas."
I tried to stand up straighter, but still only came to his pudgy shoulders. "That's my dad."
The kids looked at each other and laughed.
"That's a robot," Davis said. "Stupid kid. Your mom's been tricking you this whole time. Acting like it's a real person. Disgusting! My dad says those robots are a menace. Says they're gonna try and take over the world and kill everyone. Or start brainwashing us kids. Is that what yours is doing to you? Are you brainwashed, Taylor?"
I started to back away, but some of the kids had come around behind me and I bumped right into them. They grabbed me by the arms and legs and pinned me down. I squirmed on the concrete, but they were too strong.
"Let's see if we can rewire him," Davis said. He pulled a fistful of wires from his pocket and grinned.
The other kids laughed. One of them held my head against the concrete while Davis stuffed wires into my nose and ears. It felt like they were going to scratch all the way to my brain, and I yelled. But that only made them push harder.
The boys' hands were getting sweaty, and one of my arms slipped free. I flailed, and although I didn't hit any of them, it was enough to get the others to let go. I scrambled to my feet and ran straight home.
I slammed the door and threw my backpack onto the couch. Mom and Dad were standing in the kitchen. Dad had his arms wrapped around her like he did sometimes, and Mom was resting her head on his chest. I scrunched up my nose.
"Stop acting like you're married!" I said.
Mom's eyes got wide. Dad let his arms drop to his sides. He looked at his shoes, like he always did instead of facing his problems.
I stormed into the kitchen. I couldn't believe Mom was doing this to me. Was she trying to ruin my childhood?
"You're a robot! You're not her husband."
Mom was shaking, and her eyes were watery. "Taylor!"
"The kids at school are right," I said. "It's disgusting."
Mom didn't answer. I could hear my own breathing, like a steam engine.
Dad looked up, and tried to smile. "I think what we need is a road trip."
I gnashed my teeth. I swear he thought road trips were going to solve every problem in the world.
"Screw you, I'm not going anywhere with you!"
Mom stepped between us, and for a second I thought she was going to hit me. But I didn't flinch.
"Don't talk to your father like that."
I glowered. "That's not my father. You can't plug a father into the wall."
"He's never done anything wrong to you!" She put her hands on her hips. "What happened today?"
My face got hot. "You've been brainwashing me."
She squinted at me, and I could tell she didn't understand the word.
"You're a liar!" I said. "You're both liars. Kids without dads are lucky."
"Arrete!" she said. Stop it. She only spoke French when she was really upset, but I didn't care. She had betrayed me, tricked me into thinking this life was normal.
"I don't want anyone to see him." I turned to Dad and stood up straighter. "You're a servant, and you have to do what I say. Don't ever leave this house again!"
I stomped upstairs. Through the vent in my bedroom wall, I could hear Mom sobbing. She didn't stop until long after the sun had gone down.
Over the next couple of weeks, things started to calm down at school. I got into fewer fights, and Davis and his gang left me alone for the most part. Within a few months, the kids forgot all about Dad. Life got a lot better. I started to make some friends, and even got a girlfriend. Manhattan Beach was pretty cool, after all--I just had to learn how to fit in. I joined the basketball team in eighth grade, and made junior varsity my first year in high school. By the time I was a junior, I was the starting point-guard on the varsity team. I took a girl named Jenny to the Winter Formal, and I even wore a tuxedo.
Dad--or the robot I used to call "Dad"--stayed inside and never went to the beach anymore. He still tried to spark up conversations when I'd see him around the house, but he always said the stupidest things.
"Hot date tonight?" he'd ask, seeing me put on cologne in the bathroom upstairs. I'd roll my eyes. Like he knew the first thing about women. Luckily with school and basketball and Jenny, I didn't spend much time at home, and when I did I stuck to video games. When I hung out with my friends, we'd always go to their houses.
The sun was shining in early February when I spotted that new kid, Bobby Lind, in the school parking lot. Bobby had just moved in down the street from us, and we had English class together with Mr. Franklin. I started over to say hi, but stopped myself. An older woman was standing next to him outside the car, hugging him. His forehead was all wrinkled, and his eyes were puffy like he'd been crying. But that's not why I stopped. I'd seen that woman before. It was Bobby's android maid.
A soda can sailed through the air and struck Bobby on the back of the head. Cola sprayed down his back.
"Well, well. If it isn't Bobby the Borg and his little robot slut." It was Davis. He'd gotten huge after puberty, and spent most of his time with the football team nowadays. "Can't afford a real mom, Bobby?"
One of Davis's friends poked the maid right in the boob and laughed. "Hey, are these things real?"
Bobby went red in the face and started whirling his arms. He connected with a couple of punches before Davis laid him out with a haymaker. Bobby squirmed and coughed on the asphalt.
His maid looked down at him, with that same expression Dad used to get whenever there was a conflict. She didn't even bend down to help him. Not like she could've done much, with the other boys pinning him down. What was Bobby thinking, bringing her out in public? And letting her hug him right in front of the school, like she was a real person? Disgusting.
Bobby tried to get up, but Davis pushed him down again.
"My dad was right, these robots are taking over," Davis said. "Stealing our jobs and brainwashing our neighbors."
Through the open window of the admin building, Mr. Franklin was watching the whole ordeal. He just stood there, sipping his coffee, a twisted half-smile on his face.
Davis spat at Bobby. "Get her out of here. Before we put her to some real use."
I turned away. I'd seen enough. Bobby would learn, just like I had.
Coach canceled practice that day because his daughter was sick, so I got home early. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, talking quietly by the window. They must not have noticed me come in. He said something that made her smile.
I got myself a soda. "You shouldn't stand so close to the window with him. Someone might see."
Mom looked at me, and her eyes welled up. Even standing up straight, she barely came to my chin. "Why do you do this? The other kids have them too, no?"
She must've meant androids, because she couldn't have meant dads. I shook my head. She didn't get it.
"Yeah, they do. And they use them for normal robot stuff. Like cleaning the house, and taking out the garbage. They're servants, Mom."
She flinched. "Taylor, that's enough. Don't talk about your--about him like that."
"It's not my fault you're still living in a fantasyland." I turned to Dad. He was staring at his feet. "What are you still doing here?"
Mom took a step forward and opened her mouth to talk, but she was shaking too much.
I headed for the stairs. "I wish you'd just turn him off, already. He's a waste of electricity."
In my room, I put my headphones on and played video games until late. When I came downstairs for some water, Mom was curled up on the couch, asleep.
Dad was gone.
The house was silent after that. I don't know what Mom did with Dad, but I didn't see him, so I didn't care. She mostly kept to herself, and so did I. We ate breakfast at different times, and I took my dinner in my room, when I was home. Just like a normal family.
At first it was nice. I really didn't want to talk to Mom anyway. I had more important things to deal with. My basketball team made the playoffs, and I was dating a new girl, Margaret. She was beautiful, and real popular around campus.
But after a while, the house started to feel strange. I kept wondering when I was going to run into Dad in the hallway, or catch him looking out the window toward the beach.
One day I came home with a tough math assignment. Mom was never any good at math, but Dad always loved it. Back in Pasadena, he used to make up these funny number games to help me learn my multiplication and division.
I almost called out to him from my room for help, before I caught myself. The words stuck in my throat like I'd swallowed a bunch of bugs. I got up and grabbed my math book from the shelf. I'd just have to figure it out myself.
On my way back to my desk, I tripped over the drawstrings of my ball bag. All my old sports gear tumbled out onto the floor. I cursed my big, clumsy feet, then started to stuff footballs and kneepads back into the bag. The last thing I picked up was my old frisbee, from when I was a kid. It had nicks all around the edges, and the top was rough from all that scraping against the sand.
I turned it over in my hands. Why hadn't Dad ever been any good at frisbee? Couldn't they program him to be good at everything? If he'd been a real dad, he'd have been able to learn. Maybe even teach me.
But Dad never got frustrated, like other dads would get. He always loved throwing the damn thing around. He loved doing just about everything.
"Bang," I said, trying to mimic that silly cowboy accent he used. My chest tightened up.
I stuffed the frisbee deep into the bag.
The next day I ran into Bobby in the school bathroom. He was wiping blood from a cut above his eye. When he saw me, he turned away and acted like he was blowing his nose.
I crouched down to make sure there wasn't anyone in the stalls, then walked up to the sink next to his.
"You know," I said in a hushed tone, "they'll stop harassing you if you leave your robot at home."
Bobby raised an eyebrow at me. A drop of blood from his forehead fell into the sink.
"Trust me," I said.
"She's like a mother to me," he said.
I shook my head. Didn't he realize I was doing him a favor?
"She doesn't belong here," I said.
Bobby's hands were shaking as they clenched the bloody paper towel. "What am I supposed to do, tell her to stay home all the time?"
I started to respond, but his words caught up to me and my mouth went dry.
"I love her," he said.
I regained my composure. "She's a robot. You can't love her."
Bobby glowered at me. It was the same look I saw him give Davis, in the parking lot. My whole body shivered.
"You don't know her like I do," he said.
The door swung open and a couple of boys walked in. Both of us quickly turned to our respective sinks. I made a big show of washing my hands. On my way out, I glanced over my shoulder. Bobby was watching me in the mirror, a look of disgust on his face.
The riots started when I was in English class.
I saw the news that morning, on the TV in the cafeteria. An android had killed two kids. Some said he drowned them, others said he crushed them with his bare arms. A few people on the news called it a terrible accident, but most of them thought the android did it on purpose. It made me think about Dad, and the way he'd always freeze up and look down whenever there was any sort of conflict. There was no way he could've hurt anyone. It had to have been an accident.
Within an hour, word had spread across campus. Everyone was talking about it, in every classroom. Even the teachers were angry. Mr. Franklin said he was going to join the protests after school. He said we needed to protect our children from these monsters. Robot monsters, he called them.
My English class was at the back of campus. Halfway through the period, a crowd of kids--mostly seniors--stormed down the hall. Their angry voices carried into our classroom.
"My dad's in charge." It was Davis. "Screw class, I'm gonna help him get those bastards."
Cheers echoed through the halls.
"Let's start with Bobby's place! I know he's got one."
More cheers. Bobby looked up with eyes as wide as frisbees.
"Taylor, too!" Davis said.
Bobby and I exchanged glances. He stood up and bolted out the door. While Mr. Franklin was busy yelling at him to get back inside, I slipped out the back and ran for home.
I hit Prospect Avenue, and protesters had blocked off the whole road. I had to go all the way down to Aviation Boulevard before I could make it through. By then, even the side streets were spilling over with crowds. It took me almost twenty minutes to get to my street.
When I rounded the corner, a mob of men were dragging Bobby's maid out of his house. Davis and some of the other high school boys had pinned Bobby to the grass on his own front lawn. His face was bloodied. He let out a shrill scream as the men hauled his maid out into the street and tore her limbs from her body. Wires sparked, and black liquid shot across the asphalt.
I started to rush over, but pulled up short when Davis's dad ripped the maid's head clear off her body. My vision went blurry, and my stomach leapt into my throat. I'll never forget how her head looked, lying on the pavement, her eyes blinking and staring down the street. I turned and ran home.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, tears streaming down her face. The TV was on in the background, showing more riots all over the country. Mutilated android bodies, piled on the sidewalk. Other robots, staked to the gates of android factories with crowbars.
"Where is he?" My voice came out scratchy, like I was going through puberty all over again.
Mom looked up at me and shook her head. Her lip quivered, and her eyes widened with fear. I shivered. She wasn't afraid of the mobs. She was afraid of her own son. The thought made me want to vomit. I remembered the look of disgust Bobby gave me in the bathroom after our conversation, and his maid's head lying on the pavement. I had to fix this.
I ran through the house, tearing doors open and rummaging through closets. Where was she keeping him? Mom was rambling in French from the kitchen. I scrambled upstairs and ransacked her room. Outside, the shouts of the mob grew louder. Still no sign of Dad. I ran downstairs, and nearly plowed straight into Mom.
She put a hand on my chest. "Arrete! Stop, please. He was good to you."
I blinked back tears. My hands found hers, and I squeezed.
"We need to get him out of here. They're coming."
She looked up at me, and her face looked so old. I didn't realize until then how distant we'd become. I couldn't remember the last time we'd had a real conversation.
"Okay," she said. "Come."
She led me down into the garage, and her fingers fumbled with the giant padlock on the metal toolshed. I hadn't opened the thing up since the last time Dad and I worked on the car together. We never used to keep it locked.
Through the garage door, the shouts reached a fever pitch. The mob had arrived.
"The door's locked!" It was Davis's dad, and it sounded like he was right outside.
"Kick it down!"
I clenched my teeth. "Hurry, Mom."
Her fingers were shaking so bad she couldn't get the digits to line up. I pulled it out of her hands as gently as I could. She seemed to understand.
"Zero-five-zero-seven," she said. "Your birthday."
My stomach clenched into a knot. I wanted to say sorry--say anything--but I couldn't get a single word out.
I swallowed hard and focused on my fingers. Once I got the numbers lined up, I popped the lock. The doors swung open. Dad stood propped against the wall, eyes closed, like a discarded toy. I tried not to cry. We hauled him into the backseat of the car. I slid in next to him, while Mom started the engine.
The garage door churned open, and at least fifty people swarmed toward us. Mom hit the gas. Men and women leapt out of the way as the car barreled onto the street, tires squealing.
A baseball bat slammed into the window on Dad's side. The glass spiderwebbed and punched in. I tried to pull him away from the window, but the bat was too quick. The second swing crunched through the glass and connected with Dad's head. He slumped over onto my lap. His face was nearly caved in, and the plastic skin was torn all around the dent.
Mom gunned it, and the car peeled out. Something hard struck the back window, cracking it down the middle. Mom cranked the wheel, and the car screamed around the corner, leaving the mob behind.
Classical music crackled over the radio. Mom was panting and sobbing in the front seat. I looked down at Dad, all mangled and beaten in my lap. I reached a shaking hand up to the back of his neck, and pushed my finger through the flap of skin. It was soft inside, like thick foam. I felt around for a minute before my finger found the power switch. My tears were dropping all over his face. I pressed my eyes shut, and flipped the switch.
I let my head fall against the window. My hand sought out his hand, and I hooked my fingers between his, like gears locking together. His fingers didn't move.
"I'm sorry," I tried to say, but my voice cracked. All I could think about were those days at the beach, wriggling our toes in the wet sand. Chasing frisbees. Lying next to each other, knees up, laughing our guts out.
My eyes flew open. Dad was looking up with his one good eye. The way he was watching me, his face lined with worry, it was like I was the one that had been hit.
Mom made a squealing noise, halfway between a laugh and a sob. I couldn't make any sound at all. I just sat there, looking down at him, cradling his ruined head in my lap.
When my voice finally came back, all I could say was: "I missed you, Dad."
"I missed you, too."
Dad tried to look around. "Where are we going?"
Out the window, the beach whizzed by.
"I think what we need is a road trip," I said.