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by Marl Darrin
Morning comes, bringing back Renold’s internal void in full. He unplugs from his nighttime outlet and steps up to his bedroom window. His reflection clouds the image of palm trees and the ocean on the horizon.
“Good morning, stranger.” He blinks at himself and puts his hand up to the flesh covering which protects the metal plates and wires underneath his forehead, cheeks and chin. The black hole inside him murmurs: ‘hide away in that human suit’. …I need to turn off these crazy thoughts, he commands himself. He peels off his face skin and sets it on the windowsill.
Renold grabs his homework for the week, a study packet on Carlo Collodi’s works from the 1800s and a set of dissertations on inter-planetary relations, and throws it into his knapsack.
Hopping downstairs, Renold hopes to pass his parents and make it outside without a word. Hansel, in between bites of breakfast, catches him. “Hold it!” Hansel turns in his seat to face Renold, ready to scold him for returning home tardy last night. All his prepared anger quickly switches to shock. “What are you doing?”
Forgetting he’d taken off his face flesh, Renold shrugs. Jodie turns from the sink where she’s washing her plate from breakfast. Her eyebrows fly up.
“Go upstairs and put your face on.” Hansel barks.
“You’re looking at my face.” Renold doesn’t move.
“Renold Bird, you know what I’m talking about.”
Jodie clears her throat at Hansel. “Hansel, if that’s how he wants to go out, let him.”
Hansel throws Jodie a glare, then turns back to Renold. “Where were you last night?”
“I was with Suzanne. I need to get…to school.” Renold trips over his words, recognizing that the Fruit Loop speech-glitch lingers on.
“Call us next time, alright?”
Hansel sighs. “Have a good day at class, Ren.” He nods, setting Renold free, then turns back to his breakfast as Renold heads out for school.
Senior graduation is approaching fast, and everyone is passing their yearbooks around to secure signatures. Renold forgot his yearbook at home, but he doesn’t care. He daydreams of Fruit Loop until lunch comes, and when he finally enters the lunchroom he scans his classmates in search of Charles. Suzanne spots him from across the lunch tables and waves, but before Renold can wave back Nicole bombards him with outstretched arms. She’s holding her yearbook for him to sign.
“I simply love how you look today, Ren.” Nicole reaches up to touch Renold’s exposed metallic face, but he recoils, leaning back before she can reach it. “Oh, sorry.” Renold takes her yearbook and signs his signature with no note.
“Hey, Nick. Ren.” Suzanne says, walking up to where Renold and Nicole stand. She hides a giggle in her smile.
“Hey, stranger.” Renold feels lighter now that she’s here. He glances behind her, still subtly hunting down Charles.
“Hey, Suze, where’d y’all disappear to at that party?” Nicole hands her yearbook to Suzanne for her to sign.
“Went upstairs with Charles. Downstairs got too booted for me.” Suzanne takes a minute to think of something nice to write.
“Where is Charles?” Renold asks after a moment of watching Suzanne take time with her note to Nicole.
“He hangs out in the computer hall during lunch with the other robots at school—” Nicole catches herself, “sorry, artificial organisms—shit, AIs—or, I mean, designed intellects…I’m really sorry, what do you people like to be called?” Nicole blushes so much Renold thinks she might pop.
“It’s okay, you can call us robots.” Renold tries to hold down the black hole, that incessant void, stitching up the internal wiring inside his chest.
Suzanne squints at Renold in surprise, knowing how much of a slur the term ‘robots’ is to Renold. “What’s with the new look, stranger?” She raises an eyebrow, sensing the pain leaking out of Renold.
“Nicole likes it.” Renold brushes away the question, ignoring Nicole’s stare while meeting Suzanne’s concerned expression with practiced indifference.
“I bet she does.” Suzanne lightly goads. “Do you like it?” Suzanne asks Renold, handing Nicole back her yearbook.
Renold hesitates, trying to gauge Suzanne’s opinion of his fleshless pate before responding. “Yes, I do…like it.” There’s that glitch again.
Suzanne smiles. “Then I like it.” Renold senses a kiss, but doesn’t want to kiss Suzanne in front of Nicole. Renold squeezes down the personal black hole inside of him as it threatens to internally terminate his functions.
“I have to go see Charles, I’ll be back.” He smiles at the two girls, letting his smile linger on Suzanne, then heads for the door of the lunchroom. Nicole rushes off to another corner of the lunchroom to peek at her new yearbook messages.
Suzanne chases after Renold, stopping him before he leaves.
“What’s up, Ren? What’s wrong?”
Renold cops a quizzical expression. “I’m fine, I’ll be right back.”
“Ren, stop. Tell me what’s going on.”
Renold shrugs. “I have to fix something.”
Suzanne bars him from exiting so easily by grabbing his arm. “Fix what?”
“Are you broken?”
Choosing his words so as not to hurt Suzanne, Renold whispers, “You make me feel like a real, living person, Suzi…but I’m so alone. With you it’s just muted. The loneliness, it’s always quietly there. Something is wrong with me, I’m trying to fix it.”
“Ren, everyone feels like that. I feel lonely all the time.”
Renold shakes his head, “You’re made of chemicals, Suzi, something very different from me.” Suzanne opens her mouth to disagree, but Renold charges on before she can speak. “You take your anti-depressants every day, and you helped me find mine last night.”
“Ren—” Suzanne leaves her mouth open, searching for words to match her sentiment. Her eyebrows furrow as she grows increasingly frustrated in her inability to convey her own emotions. “Are you doing that loop thing again? It’s the middle of a school day, Ren.”
“Don’t you want me to be happy?”
Suzanne holds eye contact, feeling betrayed by his trap of a question. “Of course.”
Renold squeezes Suzanne’s hand, then gently guides it off of his arm. He nods. “I’ll be right back.”
Renold opens the door to the computer hall to find Charles, Craig from his English class and someone else Renold hasn’t met yet all sitting behind a single terminal. At the sight of Renold’s fleshless face, Charles jumps back with a yelp.
“You scared me half to death. Where’s your face, dude?” Charles gasps, catching his breath from the sudden shock of seeing metal plates and wires where skin should be.
“I want some more Fruit Loop.”
Charles cocks his head to the side. “Are you that kid from last night with Suze? Didn’t recognize you with your innards on display, my man.” Charles chuckles. “Back for more, huh? Yeah, sure, but it’s gonna cost two bits a loop.” Charles rubs his fingers together, indicating payment.
Renold pulls out his mobile terminal and prepares 40 bits for transfer to Charles. Renold glances at the other two in the room, Craig and the stranger, and notices contentment oozing off of their expressions.
“You sure?” Charles doesn’t accept the transfer until he gets Renold’s confirmation. Renold nods, and the other two nod with him as if reinforcing his decision. Charles looks down at his terminal, then goes into his backpack and pulls out a long cord. “Come sit over here.”
Renold obeys and lets Charles open up the flesh on the back of his neck. The pressure of the cord popping into his port already triggers a lightheaded response. Charles brings up a program on his terminal containing loop code. He hits the enter button, initializing the loop. The whole room pixelates and fades to black.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 5
The emptiness screams up at Renold through his throat. His hands tingle, and when he brings them into his view they look exactly as they did after his fifteenth activation-anniversary. They’ve got red and blue stripes on the flesh of his pointer finger and thumb, a style phase that only lasted about a year for Renold. These are the replacements Hansel had screwed in when Renold asked to be conscious for as much of the upgrade as possible. These are the first fingers Renold had been allowed to pick out personally.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 5
Suddenly, pixels scramble Renold’s sight and a girl comes into view. She’s withdrawing from a kiss. It’s Elizabeth Reed. Renold tries to speak, but the confines of the memory mute him.
“Thank you for being so understanding.” Elizabeth sighs. She’s leaving, Renold remembers. We were in her classroom. As Renold remembers this detail, the blackness surrounding them melts into Mrs. Reed’s classroom.
“Of course we can still be friends, stranger.” Mrs. Reed whispers, using the word ‘stranger’, Renold’s personal term of endearment, with a hollow sentiment as she puts her left hand on Renold’s cheek. Her engagement ring feels hot against his flesh-receptors.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 5
Renold gets overloaded with the sensation of hot honey running down his throat and a breeze caressing his skin.
Mrs. Reed and the room dissolve. Now Renold is outside of an airport. He waits, looking inside the glass doors of the entrance, watching Mr. and Mrs. Clarke, formerly Mrs. Reed, checking their bags at the front desk. Mr. Clarke recognizes him and points. Renold backs away from the door, trying to hide, but it’s too late. Mrs. Clarke trots outside.
“Ren, what are you doing here?” Mrs. Clarke spits.
“Hey, stranger.” Renold tries to soften her mood, but she’s not having it.
“You promised not to bother me anymore.”
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 5
“I just wanted to say goodbye.” The emptiness stirs inside Renold, but subdued this time by the sensation of warm oil coursing over his circuits. The buzzing hive of the Fruit Loop jumps upon the black hole before it can take root. Renold glances at Mrs. Clarke’s husband standing patiently inside.
“Goodbye, Renold.” Mrs. Clarke visibly resists the urge to hug him. As she turns to go back to her favorite human, Mr. Clarke, Renold can’t help but smile as warmth splashes deep inside his chest and quells the void.
The airport dissolves back into the computer room where principal Franz is shaking him. He blinks, unsure if he’s still in a memory or not.
“Thank the holies, he’s awake.” Principal Franz sighs in relief. Suzanne is next to him with the school technician, Genevieve.
“Are you okay?” Suzanne asks. Renold glances around, surprised to find Charles and the two others missing from the computer hall. He reaches to the back of his neck and finds the cord which had supplied the Fruit Loop absent. The terminal he had been plugged into is now turned off. The warm honey still swims inside his body.
“I…am great.” Renold struggles to say. Checking his internal clock, he notices that an hour and a half has passed.
“I’m sending you home for the day, Renold.” Genevieve chimes in. “I’ve phoned ahead to your parents.”
In a daze, Renold nods and shakily stands. A grin glues itself to his face as his limbs surge with gentle fire. “I am…great.” Renold repeats, letting the warmth circulate through his internal wiring. If he had natural flesh, it would be blushing in pleasure. Seeing him struggle to stand, Suzanne grabs his arm and helps him out of the computer hall.
She gets Renold outside to the car park where Principal Franz and Genevieve leave them alone.
“I…rewrote…Mrs. Reed, Suz.” Renold whispers triumphantly.
“Take it slowly, Ren. How do feel?” Suzanne sits him down on a bench next to the asphalt drop-off zone.
“I feel…great.” Renold repeats again.
“You look horrible.”
“That’s…because I…took the skin off…my face.”
“No, I mean you look glitchy. You sound off, too.” Suzanne rubs the back of his neck slowly.
Almost like she wants to connect to me through my ports. Renold looks into her eyes and repeats, “I feel great.”
Suzanne continues rubbing the back of his neck until Hansel arrives. With less difficulty than before, Renold stands on his own. He leans into Suzanne and kisses her on the cheek, then gets into the car.
Hansel watches Suzanne head back into the school building. He starts the car, eyeing Renold. Renold simply stares ahead through the windshield with the same grin from before glued on his face.
“How do you feel, buddy?” Hansel asks after a few minutes.
“Who was that girl you kissed?”
“That was Suzanne.” Hansel notes out loud, repeating Renold’s words back to him in an attempt to bring up last night. Renold ignores him, and continues staring out the windshield. He cozies up to the warm honey bubbling inside of his chest.
THE STORY CONTINUES IN