Recently I had a recurring dream. Actually, a dream fragment, or dream dust. Once or twice each night, like clockwork, I heard a stranger's voice in my head. The stranger asked this question: "Have you seen my robot?"
Night after night (after night after night) the question arose. I reached a point where I would fold the pillow over my ears and say, "No. Scram."
Finally, I surrendered. I wrote "Have you seen my robot?" at the top of a page, and then wrote a short story based on a few scenes that I had dreamt. As a result, the disembodied voice is gone. I sleep better. Marginally better. I now hear another internal voice, which asks, "Have you seen the rent money?"
Anyway, here's the story, which contains some cursing. Nothing you haven't already heard while walking down the street or standing in line at the supermarket. Which reminds me. Years ago I was standing in the checkout line at the market. A boy in front of me, maybe 11 or 12 years old, glanced up at me, smiled, and said in a low, confidential tone, "Go fuck yourself."
My response? Did I massage his head with my can of soup? No. I laughed. Most of life boils down to two options: laugh or scream. I refuse to scream each time I witness bad behavior. I'm not a fan of bad behavior, but screaming is usually futile. More often than not, screaming encourages boors and bullies. I prefer to laugh. These folks are impervious to moral indignation. You really wanna get their attention? Laugh at 'em. Ridicule hits like a hand grenade.
Enough. Where was I? Oh, here's the story. It's got cussing, horrible behavior, bullies...and hit-back humor. Ideally, you should read this story while standing in the checkout line at the supermarket.
I'd like to dedicate this story to the little brat who told me to go eff myself. Who knows? Maybe my laughter nudged him in a new direction. Maybe he turned his life around and is now a grief counselor or runs a soup kitchen. Or maybe he's in county lock-up for a few months for indecent exposure. Which is no laughing matter.
* * *
Have You Seen My R.OB.O.T.?
When Rhonda spotted the poster on the telephone pole, she froze.
HAVE YOU SEEN MY ROBOT?
Beneath the streetlight were three posters. Two weather-beaten ads were taped on the wooden utility pole—flyers for lost dogs, showing their furry faces and offering rewards. Above them was a very fresh poster. The girl’s face on the black-and-white photocopy looked familiar—chubby cheeks, thin lips. A sense of recognition emerged, as if Rhonda Warwick were developing film in a darkroom, staring into a tray of chemicals. The pictured girl’s eyes were closed, but her long dark hair mysteriously defied gravity in a wild halo.
Because she’s lying down, not sitting or standing.
The pictured girl wore a light-colored top with tiny, dark butterflies.
Just like the top Rhonda was wearing beneath her blue jacket: a yellow top printed with blue butterflies. Leaning forward under the streetlamp, she felt dizzy. Thinking…it can’t be. Her extended fingertip touched the photo. Yes. It was her picture, hers. A headshot. Taken while Rhonda had been lying asleep…on a floor?
In large, black letters, the caption below read:
HAVE YOU SEEN MY ROBOT?
Rhonda’s heart trembled. Looking up, she saw the Hunter’s Moon had already trudged halfway across the sky. Time: the wee hours. The dark houses nearby didn’t appear decrepit, unlike the one she just exited. Five minutes ago she had woken on a dusty floor, inside the abandoned house across the street. The word amnesia came to mind. Somehow she had arrived there, after…after what?
She focused on the street. No distant headlights, no sound of approaching footsteps in the night. She was alone. A sudden gust rattled tree leaves along the empty lane, snapping her reverie. She concentrated on the impossible question.
HAVE YOU SEEN MY ROBOT?
Her eyes drifted up and down the poster—the picture, the question. This was English as a foreign language. She weaved on her feet. Recent events slowly coalesced in her memory, a jigsaw puzzle piecing itself together. She had been at a noisy house party with a crowd of kids from school. Someone had said, “Here, drink this.” Soon after, the night had gone out of focus. Then…lights out.
Time blurred, until she had woken alone in the strange house with virtually no recollection of her arrival, as if carried in by noiseless pallbearers. An image came to mind: teenage pallbearers, sneaky teenage girls. Now a rising sense of unease coursed through her, like a swollen river during a storm. She wondered if she’d been unconscious for over twenty-four hours…and this was the next night.
Down the street a pair of headlights snapped on, putting her in the spotlight. A parked car awoke at this late hour. The first sign of life in the vicinity.
Instinctively, she turned for the sidewalk and retreated into the safety of darkness, hustling up the street. Nothing in the neighborhood looked familiar, but it was hard to tell in the moonlight.
Where am I?
She heard a noise. Vooorrrmm…vooorrmmm. The car started. She peeked over her shoulder. Slowly, the headlights swerved onto the street and moved toward her at a parallel speed.
Maybe it was nothing. But the word lucky wasn’t part of her world tonight.
She quickened her pace, advancing toward another streetlight. Another sheet of white paper was attached to the utility pole. Curiosity seized her. She stepped off the curb. She stiffened upon seeing her picture again, with a different message posted below it:
What’s that acronym mean?
Repulsive Oddball Obese Teen
She was chubby, sure, but not obese. However, repulsive? An oddball teenager? At her high school, robot was the slang word that bullies called kids who didn’t fit in—usually overweight and unpopular, or flat-out geeky. She hated that cruel word, robot.
Several doors away, the car braked in the middle of the street. Two headlights shone in the night, two bright eyes watching her. A cat and mouse came to mind.
She glanced again at the car as a gust of wind lifted her hair in the air, making it stand on end, a fright wig. She retreated to the sidewalk and broke into a jog. On the next block, she saw her same picture again under another streetlamp. Her shoes stopped.
16 years old
Worthless, Stupid, Pathetic
The car trailed her. Hunter, prey.
Sweat dampened her collar. The street was a dark tunnel with a single direction. She hurried along with no destination in mind, only escape. Behind her, the car increased its speed and narrowed the gap. Voices were now audible. Two or three voices.
She peered ahead. At the end of the street lay a wide black ribbon under the stars. The
Charles River. Beyond it, Boston’s jagged skyline pierced the horizon,
studded with electric lights. The iconic, bright red CITGO sign towered in the
distance near , which, at that
angle, suggested her own location. She was in Fenway
Park Cambridge, in an old neighborhood called
Cambridgeport. She headed toward the river, passing yet another utility pole
with a poster and her picture:
Her name is Rhonda Warwick.
She’s a 16 year old dog.
She’s totally stupid.
She went missing last night,
24 hours ago,
But she’s NOT missed.
If you see her…
Call the dog catcher.
A sudden realization: posters, car…it was all a setup. She’d been knocked out and transported. Her picture had been taken at the abandoned house, photocopied, posted. And now, like a cow in a herd, she was being driven in a specific direction.
At the bottom of the street she turned left; a minute later, right. She got onto the
Bridge that led to Boston. Soon her shadow appeared in front of
her on the narrow sidewalk alongside the railing, backlit from oncoming
headlights. The sound of the car’s engine buried the sound of water lapping the
riverbank. The car came closer. The cackles grew louder. A red Ford Focus leapt
up behind her.
“Rhonda Warwick!” a girl cried. “Hey, you look like a warlock! Hey, Rhonda Warlock!”
A different girl’s voice: “Yo, dog!”
Laughter exploded in the car. The girls pulled up beside Rhonda. She recognized her three classmates. They were all sixteen. Two hung through the open windows on the passengers’ side, arms extended, each giving her the finger with both hands. Madison, Brianna, and Kaylee were her gym-class torturers. They’d begin their daily taunting when everyone undressed for gym. Sometimes Rhonda’s clothes would disappear. The school’s torture chamber included a swimming pool, a climbing rope, and dodge ball.
Madison Fairchild, the driver, had pink hair and a pink scarf. She hunched like a sniper over the steering wheel, and said with a baby voice, “Hey, fatfuck! You look…LOST!”
Rhonda’s head swelled with heat. The bridge seemed unreal. Was she walking? Or floating in steamy air?
Brianna, riding shotgun, wore bright lipstick the color of blood. She formed an O with her pierced lips and whistled. “Here, Fido. Here, Bowser.” Whistle, whistle. “Come on. Here, girl. Roll over. Sit up. Beg.”
Kaylee poked her pretty head through the backseat window, a blond-hair-in-wind fashion model with puppy eyes. “Rhonda, honey? You wanna ride back to your doghouse?”
“You need to go to the big kennel in the sky,” Brianna said.
Madison shouted. “Boys
call you, ‘T and A.’ Know what that is? ‘Tourist Attraction.’ You’re a loser.
You need to get lost, you loo zah!”
Rhonda averted her eyes and hurried along the footpath, nearing the middle of the bridge. Her skin was afire.
The three voices became a crude chorus. Their words cut like steel spikes on throwing stars.
“Everyone hates you, you pathetic loo zah!”
“Gimme an L. Gimme a Z. Wuss that spell? Loo zah!”
“Everyone is sicka you.”
Rhonda stumbled on the pavement. The temperature soared, the air a furnace. She struggled to breathe. Everything in sight was melting: bridge, skyline, river. Life was a blast furnace. She stopped and gripped the railing, leant over, and swooned.
“Do us all a…fay…vah.”
“Do the…right thing.”
“Jump, you cow!”
How quickly the world could flip. No reason for hanging on. All of it…
Rhonda suddenly heard music, earthly music. Then she saw stars under her shoes as she dropped headfirst through the chilly air. The river rushed up to greet her.
Up on the bridge—thump thump thump—a drum machine and a bass guitar pounded out dance music on the radio. Tires screeched as the Ford took off.
Rhonda hit the cold, brittle water. The collision felt as if she’d been thrown through a car’s windshield. The sound of breaking glass exploded in her ears.
She sank at least thirty feet and landed on the icky bottom, holding her breath. Blinded by the dark water, she reached out. Her left hand touched slimy metal. Some angry asshole, way back when, had thrown a bicycle over the bridge. She could feel a slimy, wire basket attached to the handlebars, and a rusty bicycle bell.
“This is it,” she thought. “This is where I die.”
She tasted dirty water and waited for the end to come. Her thumb touched the rotary-action lever. She imagined herself pressing it, zing zing. She imagined the lunacy of a bike bell underwater, while peddling across the bottom of the river. “Hurry, get out of my way, I can’t hit the brakes in time.”
The next minute or two were surreal. Of all the ways to have her life end, and here she was, feet stuck in mud, utterly alone, unable to see her hand in front of her face.
By the third minute, she suspected something was amiss. She didn’t swallow water and gag. She didn’t struggle, throttle back, feel drowsy and lose consciousness. By the fourth minute nothing made sense. Zero. She should have drowned and joined the angels by now. Instead, she felt the same as when she first fell in.
Confusion led to paralysis. She stood underwater.
Dim sunlight pierced the water.
Later, a yellow kayak passed directly overhead, twenty-five feet above. A
paddle sliced water. A beer can, thrown overboard, headed to the muddy bottom.
A Budweiser depth charge. The paddle resumed slicing the water. The kayak
Head upturned, she spent the day watching the white circle of sun crawl like a water bug across the river’s surface. Staring at the sky for so long put her in mind of celestial matters.
She considered these eternal questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Whatever the answers, she was clearly different from the other kids. And evidently being different put her in deep trouble. She recalled the expression, being in deep water, which meant being in a difficult situation.
Such as this.
As the sun inched across the sky, she sensed that a task lay ahead of her. This inner drive propelled her into action.
Sunset oozed into dusk. God dialed down the nightly dimmer switch.
She began walking underwater in the direction of the
riverbank. The light brown water suggested diluted coffee. She could only see a
few yards in front of her, which was enough. After all, even life above ground
was nearly imperceptible.
Slogging across the muddy bottom, she sidestepped cans, bottles, and Styrofoam containers. Plus a shopping cart, wagon wheels, fishing rods, a gun belt, a plastic ninja sword. It was a junkyard down here, a jigsaw jumble of junk, beneath the public’s view. Along the way, once or twice, she felt a tiny fish comb through her wiggly hair.
Soon the water’s surface drew closer. Ambient sounds became audible: traffic, car horns. She plodded into shallow water, her feet feeling the steady incline of the ground, nature’s muddy ramp paved with rocks and stones. Finally her forehead broke the surface, free. Then her eyes, ears, face felt the cool wind off the Charles. Step by step she emerged from the river. She was not alone.
On land, a human scarecrow pushed a shopping cart full of beer and soda cans. He noticed her rising miraculously out of the water. Enough. He circled his cart on the grass and headed the other way.
Rhonda Warwick, back from the dead, headed home in her wet clothes.
* * *
He sifted through his email at his home office in
One arrived with a question he was often asked: “Dr. Warwick, how did you become a robotics engineer?”
He began typing in his answer: “It began when, as a teenager, I tried to build a robotic hand in my parent's basement. I was a very, very nerdy teenager…LOL.”
LOL? What bullshit. His teen years were anything but LOL. Those years were nonstop misery. He’d been a goofy-looking science nerd with acne and a brush cut—a human target. Now his name was Doctor Derek Warwick. Back then, kids at school had nicknamed him…Derek Pin-Dick. Body parts had been an inexhaustible area of interest at his high school. As a teen, Derek once dreamt that the school issued report cards that included body parts. If, say, your nose was too big, dick too small, or you were fat and farted a lot, you got an F.
His wife entered the room, holding a custom cell phone. “She’s coming up the street,” Louise Warwick said, checking the screen. “She’s had quite an eventful two days.”
Both were engineers. Last year, they built Rhonda and put a tiny camera in her eye, a tiny microphone in her ear. Rhonda’s visual and auditory fields were linked to the phone, allowing her to be monitored. If needed, sounds and images could also be downloaded for later use.
Derek had first met the former Louise Hinkle in their high school’s science class. A few nasty kids had nicknamed the skinny little girl with glasses, La Wheeze the Sleeze. The name had made no sense, but bullying never did.
“Well,” Derek said with a smile, “the fun part begins.”
The proud parents went to the front door and opened it.
Rhonda, head bowed and hair muddy, trudged up the porch steps. “Sorry for being so late. Am I grounded?”
“Of course not, sweetheart.” Derek wrapped an arm across his daughter’s wet shoulders, steering her into the house. “Everything is copacetic.”
“Goodness,” Louise said, “let’s get you out of those nasty clothes. Take a nice hot shower, have supper, and get to bed. We have an interesting day planned for tomorrow.”
“But I have school,” Rhonda said.
Louise’s eyes lit up. A thin smile creased her mouth. “We know.”
* * *
The next morning, Madison Fairchild followed her weekday routine. She backed out of her parent’s three-car garage, and picked up Brianna and Kaylee for school. Just before eight o’clock, they walked three abreast across the parking lot. Someone whistled.
Brianna said, “Sometimes I get tired of the wolf whistles. Like that’s gonna give a guy access to my Gucci jeans.”
“My silk floral pants deserve to be flown from the flagpole in front of the school,” Kaylee said. “The boys can look up and salute my pants when they arrive in the morning.”
“I’m gonna donate my wicker print silk pants to the school. They can put my
pants in the trophy case by the principal’s office. Charge tickets to touch it.”
All three laughed, until they stopped at the side entrance door.
Madison, her mouth agape,
faced the poster taped to the door. She saw a photocopied picture of three
girls inside a Ford Focus at night. The car was on a bridge, a dark river in
the background. Beneath the picture, Madison
Have you seen these R.OB.O.T.s?
What’s that acronym mean?
Rude Obnoxious Ordinary Trash
Was she hallucinating? This was a picture of their girls’ night out, which was all it was, really. Innocent fun. What, people can’t take a joke? Who could’ve known that Rhonda Warwick would go off the deep end?
“This is truly, totally, absolutely fucked up,” Brianna said. “What sort of sicko…?”
“So who would’ve put this up?” Kaylee said.
“Oh my God,” Brianna said. “What if she’s still alive?”
At eleven o’clock, all three were together again for gym class. They monitored the door while sitting on a long bench by the lockers, undressing with trembling hands. The room was filled with the voices of eighteen other girls; plain girls with freckled faces and plain lives.
Madison’s worst nightmare
materialized. Rhonda Warwick was the last to arrive. She had a blank
expression, and sat nearby in silence, reaching for her unfashionable bathing
suit inside her locker.
“Into the pool,” said their teacher, Miss Asimov, clapping her hands.
Minutes later, she dove into the pool and opened her eyes underwater. Above her, twenty girls were swimming, forty feet kicking. Directly ahead, she saw Rhonda Warwick standing at the bottom of twelve feet of water, a virtual statue, facing her. Just the two of them. Rhonda slowly reached out, curling the fingers of an upturned hand, as if beckoning
to come hither. Then Rhonda swam
toward her like a shark.
Madison Fairchild made the mistake of screaming underwater.
At the end of the school day, the three girls barely spoke as they staggered back to
“What happened today?” Brianna asked. “I don’t understand it.”
Kaylee shrugged. “Me neither. It’s wicked weird.”
go to bridge for breathtaking view
“This has gotta end.”
behind the wheel, turned to her friends. “She’s gonna put posters up all over
the school. She’s gonna terrorize us in gym class. It’s one against three. She’s
just a robot, for fucksake, a fat chick with an attitude.”
“This is so humiliating.” Brianna rubbed her face with her hands. “How dare she unleash the nasty on us.”
“Either we stop it now, or it’s gonna get worse.”
keyed the ignition. “I say we go to the bridge. We deal with it—today.”
Kaylee nodded. “What nerve. Calling us rude, obnoxious, ordinary, trash. Robots!”
They sped across
Cambridge and turned onto
“I wonder where the slut is?”
Madison drove below the speed limit, her eyes
sweeping both sides of the bridge. Midday traffic was light. “I don’t see
Brianna said, “Let’s stop…at the…you know, spot.”
They got out and stepped to the side of the bridge, looking down at the rippling water of the Charles.
Two cars drove by.
“I’ll give her one minute,”
said. “Then we’re outa here.”
For ten or twelve seconds nothing happened as they stood in the wind.
“Look,” Kaylee said, pointing straight down. “What’s…?”
All three gasped on the bridge as if spotting a mermaid.
Rhonda bobbed in the water, facing them with a Mona Lisa smile.
“She’s…swimming…in the…” Brianna clenched her fists in the air. “She’s…”
A second Rhonda Warwick. Twice the nightmare.
The two look-alikes stared up at the bridge, each making the come hither sign with curled fingers.
The first Rhonda called out, “Oh, girls—jump in!”
“Surf’s up!” beckoned the second Rhonda.
Kaylee and Brianna shrieked in unison.
hoo…oh …” Madison
A third Rhonda appeared on the bridge in wet clothes, racing toward them at inhuman speed.
She and her two friends rushed into her car. Windows up, doors locked, nick of time.
Madison started the car
with a shaky key, chanting:
Rhonda flew by the driver’s window and stopped in front of the hood. She faced the windshield and waved.
The girls squealed inside the car: “We ranner over!” They froze when they heard the noise.
Knock, knock, knock.
Rhonda, lying under the car, knuckled the steel floorboard. “Hey, girls. It’s me. Rhonda. Rhonda Warwick. So, like, ya wanna go swimming?”
Kaylee and Brianna said, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!”
* * *
Within fifteen minutes, the Cambridge Police found an abandoned, red Ford on the bridge. Leading up to the car were wet footprints. On the driver’s side, under the windshield wiper, was a peculiar note.
What’s that acronym mean?
Revenge of the Obstreperous Ominous Teen
* * *
“Well, that was entertaining.” Louise, sitting beside her husband in their home office, watched the computer’s screen.
“Sick fun!” Derek agreed.
“Those three girls can’t take a joke. Ha, ha. Bullies are so insecure. They rip others with impunity, but pee their pants when they get goofed on. Bullies should wear special underwear, especially to gym class.”
Derek’s eyes brightened in anticipation. “And the design?”
“Hmm,” Louise said. “Perhaps rubber underwear with a small battery attached to the crotch. Whenever a bully gets ridiculed, he’ll wet his pants in anger, which will activate the battery, and set off an electrical shock right to his little yum-yum.”
“That’s amazing,” Derek said. “You’ve designed shock therapy for underwear.”
“Honey, I’m an engineer. MIT. Top of the class.”
“Well, let’s hope the Ford girls contact the authorities and report two Rhondas in the chilly Charles on an October afternoon, and a third Rhonda attempting auto theft through the floorboard.”
Louise clapped her hands. “Perhaps they’ll get a field sobriety test.”
“Our Rhonda robots got quite a workout today.” He checked the clock on the wall: 4:10 p.m. “Well, they can hide underwater until nightfall, then walk home in the dark.”
Later that night, the phone rang and Louise answered. “Hello?”
“Louise? It’s Bob McSweeney in
Louise switched to speaker-phone. “Hey, Bob! Did you get the package?”
“I’m calling to thank you and Derek. FedEx dropped off the crate. I’ll have my Rhonda enrolled in school in no time. What fun! This is truly ‘revenge of the nerds.’ When I was growing up, I had a stuttering problem. Kids would make me eat my plastic pocket protector. They called me ‘jizzmouth.’”
Derek said, “I remember the J-word. It’s on page ten of the Bully Handbook. Right after the chapter on ‘How to dunk a classmate’s head into a toilet bowl at school.”
“Well,” Bob said. “Jizzmouth is about to pummel ass.”
Louise posted two thumbs in the air. “Go get ‘em, Bob. Nerd Nation is behind you.”
“I live by the
Mississippi River,” Bob said. “Wait’ll bullies chase Rhonda
in there. And then she shows up the next day at school…on a comical rampage!”
Derek pumped his fist. “We’ve got nerdy customers lining up all over the country. Last week alone, Rhondas made their debut by marching out of the Missouri River, the
the Potomac, and the Rio Grande.”
“Next month,” Louise said, “a plan is underway to get Rhonda chased into the Niagara River near
They’ll think she drowned. But she’ll reappear, going right over Niagara Falls, waving her
hat and flipping the finger. Picture…the ‘Maid of the Mist’ telling ‘em to put
it up their ass!”
Bob shrieked through the speakers. “I’m having…a nerdgasm.”
Louise danced barefoot on the carpet, low-kneed, jerky nerd moves. Then she heard a door squeak open at the side kitchen entrance off the driveway.
“I’ll get it,” Derek told her.
Louise watched her husband leave the room. A moment later, she heard voices.
“Well,” Derek said in the kitchen, “look who’s here. It’s Rhonda, Rhonda and Rhonda.”
“Sorry for being late, dad. Are we grounded?”
“Of course not, girls.” Derek clapped his hands. “Everything is…copacetic.”