“Are we almost there?” It seemed like I’d already asked fifty times, but we’d been driving all day and it was starting to feel like we were never going to get to Aunt Maureen’s. She lived in Arizona, a long drive from our house in Colorado. We’d been planning to fly, but gas prices had driven tickets up high or something. It doesn’t really concern me. I’m just a kid, fourteen. My name is Adam.
“No, Adam. We weren’t there ten minutes ago when you asked, and we’re not there now.” That was mom. She was driving while dad took a well-deserved snooze in the passenger seat. When dad was driving, we’d play games and sing songs, but when he went to sleep, the radio went off and silence reigned. Since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, I was bored out of my mind.
To be honest, I didn’t even know why we were going to Aunt Maureen’s. I hadn’t seen her since I was a little baby and I didn’t remember a thing about her except her tall, grey beehive hairdo, and that she smelled like avocado. I was sitting in my room reading 1984 when my parents told me we were leaving for Aunt Maureen’s the next day. When I asked them why, they said it was just a little vacation. Yeah, right! A vacation out of the blue to Aunt Maureen’s was about as likely as a snowstorm in Bangladesh. I had no idea why we were driving so long to see an obscure relative that no one really remembered, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t just going to be your average, everyday vacation.
“Why are going to visit Aunt Maureen, mom?” I asked quietly. I didn’t want to wake Dad, plus I had an idea that he was the one who really didn’t want me to know the reason for our trip. If there’s a secret to be kept, Mom is the one to try and weasel it out of.
“Oh, your Dad and I have just been working harder than usual lately, and we thought it might be nice to get away for a little while.”
“But what are we going to do? We’ll be there for a week, and I barely even remember Aunt Maureen. Isn’t she, you know, old?”
“Now Adam, Maureen is only a few years older than your Dad, and I don’t hear you calling him old.” I was going to say that it was only because she was never in earshot, but I decided not to. Sometimes Mom’s sense of humor sucks. “Besides, don’t you remember? Aunt Maureen lives on a ranch. I’m not sure what all is there, but there ought to be plenty for you to do. You can ride horses, milk cows, tease the chickens.” I knew Mom was trying to be funny, but aside from riding horses, which sounded mildly interesting, nothing could have seemed less dull to me than spending two weeks on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. I was more of a city kid, although Hancock wasn’t a very big city, I’d still never seen a single horse running around it, and I was pretty sure than Ben and Andrea would never let me forget it if word got back that I’d been “teasing chickens”. I slumped down in my seat and read some more.
An hour or two passed and Dad started waking up. I can always tell because his snores, which aren’t very loud to begin with, get even quieter and he starts twitching a lot. It almost looks like he has to sneeze. Anyway, he turned sideways as far as he could in the tiny little car seat, stopped snoring, and then his eyes were open and he was wide awake. It’s something I’ve never completely understood about Dad, how he can be deep in a dream one minute and wide awake the next. It takes me hours before I stop feeling like I’m dreaming.
“So, who’s ready to eat?” he asked. Like I said, he was already completely awake and the way he asked sounded like he thought we were the most ridiculous family on earth for not being stopped already. We were all pretty hungry, so we started looking out the window for exits with a lot of restaurants. We passed a couple that didn’t look too promising, but as we were passing the third uninteresting exit, Dad lit up.
“There’s a Biscuit Boy on this exit!” He was almost yelling. I had no idea what Biscuit Boy was, but Mom smiled at Dad and started slowing down.
“Biscuit Boy is where Dad took me on our first date.” she said. The way she said “date” made it sound like it had quotation marks around it.
We pulled off on the exit and into the parking lot at Biscuit Boy. Their mascot, a tall, bubbly-looking guy trying to stuff a giant biscuit into his gaping mouth, greeted us as Dad pulled into a parking space right in front of the door.
“Best spot on the lot if you aren’t handicapped!” Dad said. I gave an incredulous look to no one. I got out and started walking toward the door with Mom and Dad. We had just started pulling it open when there was a loud squeal. I spun around just in time to see a red car flying out into the road, and a green truck sitting in the street at a screwy angle, black tire marks behind it. The driver was yelling something out the window, but the red car was long gone. Just as I was about to turn to go inside, I heard a strange sound. I looked over at the curb, and couldn’t believe what I saw!
It was a girl, lying on the curb, whimpering like she was going to cry. I pulled away from Dad and ran over to her. When Mom and Dad saw her, they followed me. The truck driver pulled into the parking lot and got out, and we formed a little circle around the girl. She was about my age, and she looked ok except for a nasty little scrape on her arm and a tear in her skirt. She was wearing a shirt that said “Princess” in sparkly letters and a bright red bracelet with “Spoiled” pressed into it.
“What happened? Did he hit you?” the truck driver asked. When she answered, her voice was shaking a little bit.
“No,” she said. “I heard his engine revving up and jumped out of the way. I must have tripped over the curb. Now I’m all dirty…” her voice trailed off and she started crying softly.
“That crazy driver!” Mom said, disgusted. “I wish someone had gotten his license plate number! They shouldn’t allow people like him on the road.”
“Are your parents here?” Dad asked her.
“Yes.” she said. “They’re sitting in the back. I was just going out to the car to get some quarters for the gumball machine.” She started collecting herself and her voice was shaking less. I think she was starting to get a little mad. “That stupid man! He should have been paying attention!” And then, with no thanks or anything, she stood up and walked into Biscuit Boy.
“What a strange little girl.” said Dad.
“At least she’s ok.” said Mom. And we walked into the restaurant.
The meal was alright, and just as we were finishing it, a man and a woman came over to our table. The man was tall and wearing sunglasses and the woman looked a lot like the girl from the parking lot. It didn’t take long to put it together: these were her parents.
“Hello.” said the father. “The manager tells us you are the ones who helped our daughter after her mishap. Thank you very much.”
Mom smiled. “You’re welcome. We’re just happy she wasn’t hurt.”
Dad smiled too. “Name’s George Jenkem, and I’m glad we could help.” He extended his hand toward the girl’s father, who took it in his own.
“Albert Obot. Thank you.” And then, just as abruptly as the girl had left the parking lot, her family left the dining room. I couldn’t help but notice that they hadn’t smiled the entire time.
“What a strange family.” Mom repeated, shaking her head as we laid tip money on the table and headed back out to the car.
It was time for several more hours of driving, uninterrupted except by bathroom breaks, so I settled into my seat, put in my headphones, and started reading 1984 again. I’d only been reading for a few minutes when Mom decided we needed some family time and demanded that I take out my headphones and sing various traveling songs. We started off with “Country Roads, Take Me Home”, and everyone lost interest by the fifth verse of “American Pie”. A couple minutes after that, Mom took over driving for Dad, Dad went to sleep, and I went back to my book.
We’d been driving for about an hour Dad’s cellphone rang. He snapped awake and answered it in his remarkably awake-sounding way. At first, he sounded cheery, but after a few seconds, his face grew more serious and his voice took on a more somber tone. It went on this way for four or five minutes, at which point Dad put a slightly facile grin back on and hung up the phone.
“Who was that, Honey?” Mom asked.
“Oh, that was Maureen. Just calling to check out progress. I wish she’d tell us why this is so urgent.” Dad gave me a silly little grin, but a little forced frivolity couldn’t cover the awkward cadences of his last sentence. It had clearly been modified as it was coming out, and definitely for my benefit. I couldn’t help but notice the speedometer had ticked up from sixty to seventy five, and Mom wasn’t suggesting that we sing songs anymore.
Thirty minutes later, we passed a sign, Kenton: 19 miles. I was glad the car ride was almost over, but still feeling a little nervous. Why was Dad acting so weird? Why were at Aunt Maureen’s in the first place? Why were that girl’s parents so weird? I knew I’d probably never know the answers to any of these questions, but they raced through my mind anyway, and for some reason, they made the hair on my the back of my neck stick up. As I was trying to calm my mind, I saw a ranch house down the road, and seconds later, there we were, pulling into Aunt Maureen’s driveway.
Aunt Maureen’s house wasn’t exactly what I expected. Judging from the looks on my parents’ faces, it wasn’t quite what they’d expected either. In my mind, I’d imagined Aunt Maureen’s ranch house would look like… a ranch house. Instead, it was a squat little thing, about half the size of our house at home. The outside of it was shiny, almost like sheet metal, and it had no windows. On the front was a small door.
It reminded me a little bit of a spaceship. Did Aunt Maureen live in that little tiny tube? I tried to imagine me, Mom, and Dad all squeezed up in it, trying to sleep, and I just couldn’t. Finally the sun went behind a cloud, and without the glare, I could see a larger structure behind it. The door opened quickly, with a little “whoosh,” and out came a woman I assumed must be Aunt Maureen.
I hadn’t seen Aunt Maureen since I was five or six, and I didn’t remember her being so… round. She was shaped like a little egg with arms and legs, and her face was pink and beaming. She had little chipmunk-looking cheeks, deformed from her great, shining smile, and square black glasses. Not cool, rectangular ones: Her spectacles were perfectly square. To be so round, she moved very gracefully, almost gliding down the stairs to meet us. She looked thrilled to see us, and was already talking to us under her breath, so quietly we couldn’t hear her. When she got close enough, she gave Mom and Dad huge hugs and then began speaking in earnest, in a high-pitched, squeaky voice that fit perfectly with her appearance.
“Well, George and Katrina! As I live and breath! I thought you were never going to get here! And this can’t be little Adam! He was tiny last time I saw him! Come in, come in! We’ve got to get you something to eat! Oh, be careful and don’t touch the side of the porch! It’s metal and it’s hot! Haven’t worked all the kinks out of that yet!” And without missing an exclamation point, she led us inside the house.
Inside, the house looked even stranger. From the outside, the little spaceship-shaped entryway looked like it didn’t quite belong in the desert; Inside, the house looked like it barely belonged on earth. The walls were a dull steel, and, except for the worn out furniture and for a few homely cross-stitchings and very old family photos, the living room felt a little impersonal. Actually, I guess calling it the living room is kind of weird, since the entire house looked like a one room apartment. There was an overstuffed couch and chair set with a table set in the middle of them, I guess so we could sit in the Lay-Z-Boy and eat, and the oven was right next to the television. I had another quick vision of Mom, Dad, and I standing like sardines along the walls at bedtime, and shivered a little.
“What do you all like to eat?!” asked Aunt Maureen. Even her questions sounded like they had exclamation points. The question was hardly out of her mouth before she started scuttling around the kitchen, gliding from place to place and preparing the food faster than I would have imagined such a rotund woman could. “I remember George always liked his beets! I’m sure he’s the only one! Ho, ho, ho! Katrina, do you still enjoy raw carrots as a side?! I’m afraid I don’t know what Adam likes, but what boy can resist cake?!” None of us had much to say. Aunt Maureen was positively kinetic.
“Aunt Maureen,” I finally broke in, “Where is the bathroom? I… really need to go.”
“Oh, dear me, what a host I am! It’s right there!” She pointed to the only door in the room, partially hidden behind the refrigerator. “Just go in there and turn left! You can’t miss it! And if you sprinkle when you tinkle…” I was through the door before she got to the punchline.
It was dark behind the door, and I felt disoriented. There was a hallway in front of me, although I couldn’t tell how long it was, and doors on either side. There were no signs, and I’m not sure it was bright enough to read them even if there had been. I relieved myself, and I had just closed the bathroom door when there was a tiny glint of light from down the hallway. I looked down the hallway without even thinking, and suddenly, from the darkness, two glowing eyes emerged!
I almost screamed. I probably would have, but I couldn’t get my breath. I grabbed desperately behind me for the doorknob, scared that if I turned my back on this creature, I’d feel his hand, paw, or claw on my shoulder for a split second, and later, when someone else had to use the bathroom, they’d discover my shredded remains guarding the toilet. I reached left, reached right, and then I felt the metal knob under my fingers. I twisted it frantically and threw myself against the door, sure I was moving too slow, positive the next thing I felt would be sharp teeth digging into my arm… and then I fell backward into the main room, hitting my head on the corner of the refrigerator as I did so. Aunt Maureen heard the commotion and was the first to navigate through the furniture to where I was laying.
“Oh, Adam! Are you alright?! What happened?! Did you see some bugs in there?! It’s so hard to keep them out in this hot weather! I’m sure you all know what it’s like!” she said, giving Mom and Dad a look that said, “Of course, we adults know these things.”
“N-n-no!” I said, my voice shaking. “It wasn’t bugs! It was, I don’t know. Look in there maybe you can still see them! There were these huge, glowing eyes!”
But Aunt Maureen didn’t look. The expression on her face didn’t change at all. I’m not sure it even changed when she first saw me falling. She still had the same huge grin, and was still speaking in the exact same tone of voice, full of excitement and exclamation points. Instead, she shut the door.
“Aren’t you going to see what it was?” I asked.
“Now dear,” Aunt Maureen said, sounding even cheerier than usual, “I’m sure it was only a trick of the light.” I couldn’t help but notice the lack of exclamation. She helped me stand up and move to a chair. I could feel a pretty good goose egg rising on the back of my head. Mom came over to look at it and Dad cracked a joke: “Well, maybe someday he’ll learn to stand on his own two feet!” Aunt Maureen and Mom laughed, but I didn’t see what was so funny. Why didn’t Aunt Maureen even look down the hallway? And what was down the hall anyway? It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be getting any answers just yet, and, even though part of me was just glad to be out of there, another part couldn’t help but be curious.
Aunt Maureen brought out the food, all of which smelled and looked delicious, and we all sat around the table, me on a stainless-steel folding chair since there wasn’t room on the soft furniture.
“So Maureen,” asked Dad, “what are you doing these days?”
“Oh, nothing much!” she answered. “Tinkering around with my inventions like always. You know me, George. I’ve never been much of a social butterfly! Always preferred my lab!” She giggled and Dad laughed too. Mom smiled obligatorily,and I didn’t get it at all.
“Well,” said Dad, “we were sure glad to hear from you. It’s been years. We thought maybe something was wrong. You sounded so urgent on the phone.”
“Oh, George!” laughed Aunt Maureen, “When you get to be my age, everything is urgent.”
Dad laughed at this too, but a strange look crossed his face,and I knew why. Maureen was, as Mom had said, only a couple years past forty. She was hardly old enough for everything to be urgent. Still, even with the little I’d known about Aunt Maureen, I’d always know she was a little strange. Dad had told me she spent most of her childhood tinkering with things and making them blow up, sometimes even intentionally.
The rest of the dinner was pretty boring, with Dad and Aunt Maureen sharing stories of when they were growing up and Mom tossing in the occasional anecdote from when she and Dad were dating. Mostly the stories were dull little things. Aunt Maureen’s were especially dull though. They would always begin with a situation, say, “We were playing in the snow” and then she would add vague details as Dad tried to clarify them for her. Whenever she felt something had snapped into place, she’d agree with him and move on to the next story. Also, she laughed at everything, including one not-very-funny story about Grandpa being very sick.
We sat in the room talking for a while, then it was time for bed.
“Tomorrow,” said Aunt Maureen, “we’ll get you fixed up with individual bedrooms and give you a tour of the place! I suppose you’re probably wondering why I call it a ranch! For tonight, George, you and Katrina can sleep in the guest bedroom!”
“Sounds good,” said Dad, and he and Mom disappeared into door behind the refrigerator. As it was closing, I could see them opening the door to the right.
“As for you, dear,” said Aunt Maureen, “you can sleep here on the couch! There are some covers underneath it!”
I pulled out the covers, laid down on the couch, and Aunt Maureen switched off the lights. I had just covered myself up when I heard Aunt Maureen’s voice coming from the darkness. This time, there were no exclamation points.
“Don’t worry about the door. You are perfectly safe here. Curiosity killed the cat.” There was a cold little laugh, and then I was alone.
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get to sleep after that, but the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes to the sunshine streaming in the window. I was still working my way out of sleep when Aunt Maureen came into the room with Mom. They were laughing and talking about something, and I tried to cover my head and go back to sleep.
“Oh no!” said Aunt Maureen. “I know young boys love to sleep, but today is the big day! You’ll get the ranch grand tour, and for that, you need an early start and a good breakfast!”
“You heard Aunt Maureen, sleepyhead. It’s time to get up.” Mom said. I reluctantly pulled myself from the warm cocoon of my blanket and walked toward the hall door.
During the daytime, the hallway didn’t look so menacing. There were windows set every few feet, and the sun shining in revealed everything, not that there was much to reveal. The hallway was completely empty except for a couple more photos from the Outdated Family collection. It didn’t seem creepy at all, but I shuddered as I remembered again the red eyes from the night before. I’d been sure that… thing was coming after me, and Aunt Maureen wouldn’t even make sure there was nothing there. I didn’t know what to think of Aunt Maureen. She smiled all the time and was as helpful as could be, but something about it her just didn’t seem right. I wasn’t sure I liked her much.
I brushed my teeth and hair with the bathroom and hallway doors open, and when I was finished, I went out to eat breakfast. Aunt Maureen had, of course, prepared a feast, with bacon, eggs, cereal, pancakes, and even fresh fruit. I wasn’t much of a breakfast person but I ate a little bit of everything anyway. It looked too good to pass up.
“After we’re finished eating,” Aunt Maureen said, “we can go on the big tour! I know that’s what you’ve all been waiting for anyway!”
“Maureen,” Dad asked, “why do you call this a ranch? I know we haven’t had the tour yet, but when we got here yesterday, I didn’t see a single animal, and I haven’t heard or smelled any either.”
Aunt Maureen laughed. “Oh, George, it isn’t that kind of a ranch! You’ll see soon enough! Now, eat your eggs and pancakes, and don’t forget to try the strawberries! They’re in season!” So Dad finished his strawberries and pancakes. When we were finished, Aunt Maureen gave all three of us green baseball caps.
“These are the caps we give all of our visitors!” she said. “That way, everyone will know you’re authorized, and no one will try to shoot at you!” Mom and Dad laughed, but Aunt Maureen’s joke made me feel a little uncomfortable, just like her smile.
“I’m not sure what you were expecting, but the ranch is right though here!” Aunt Maureen opened the door to the hallway and started down it, past the bathroom and guestroom. It seemed a lot longer when I was actually walking it. At the far end, there was another doorway, this one with a little keypad beside of it. Aunt Maureen punched in a few numbers and there was metallic click as the door slid open.
“Here it is, George! The ranch!” said Aunt Maureen, in her most excited voice yet.
I could tell Mom and Dad wanted to be thrilled and share in Aunt Maureen’s ecstasy, but they were confused. The door had opened into what look like a huge warehouse. The walls, instead of being metallic like the rest of Aunt Maureen’s house, were cinderblock until they reached the ceiling, which was semi-transparent. There was large stacks of boxes, and a lot of tables with machinery in various stages of disassembly. Some nearly abandoned test tube racks stood to one side of the warehouse, and the other side was lined from wall-to-wall with what looked like lockers.
“Well, Maureen,” said Dad, “this is quite the building. What is it you do here?”
Aunt Maureen looked at Dad. For a split second, the cheery, welcoming look left her face and was replaced by a look of condescension. She quickly brought her grin back up to full force, but she couldn’t quite make her voice match her grin.
“George, this is it. This is where it all began.”
For some reason, the way she said it gave me chills.
We started the tour by walking around the huge stacks of boxes.
“These boxes are parts and fuel!” said Aunt Maureen. “Out here, we’re completely cut off from Hancock’s power grid! Everything runs on a generator out behind the warehouse; it’s very self-sufficient, but it takes a lot of energy to power everything! And of course, the kind of work I do requires a lot of raw material!”
“What kind of work is that, Maureen?” Dad asked.
“Just a lot of tinkering around with electronics, George! Nothing too exciting, but I enjoy it!” The warehouse seemed awfully big and well-equipped to be a middle-aged woman’s sandbox, but I didn’t say anything. Aunt Maureen was making me more and more uncomfortable. I didn’t like the way her squeaky voice echoed in this big warehouse, and I didn’t like the vagueness of her answers. There was something else strange about the whole thing: As big as the room we were standing in was, I didn’t see a single other person.
“Does anyone else work here, Aunt Maureen?” I asked.
“Not in the way you mean, Adam! I have some co-workers, but they’re all… sleeping right now! You’ll meet them soon enough!” Chalk up another vague and confusing answer from Aunt Maureen. There were workbenches here and there throughout the warehouse, most of them strewn with unidentifiable bits of metal. I did see a couple servos and a lot of soldering wire, and there was a welder and a welder’s mask in the corner. Of course, there was a lot of the room I couldn’t see because the boxes were stacked so high. I wondered again what could be in such huge boxes. We walked past on the was open, and it appeared to be filled with thousands of little steel balls, but Aunt Maureen didn’t volunteer information about their function and I didn’t ask.
She took us around and showed us the facilities, including the toilets and the industrial-sized sinks, and I’m pretty sure that even Mom and Dad were starting to feel a little weirded out by the whole situation.
“What do you think of the ranch so far, Katrina?” she asked, addressing my mother.
“It’s… really something, Maureen.” said Mom. “It’s not what I expected and, well, I’m afraid I still don’t really understand what it is you actually do here.”
I half expected Aunt Maureen to take offense at this, but instead, she just cranked her smile up to twelve and glided past Mom.
“I guess we have been looking at the dull bits! Of course, I’ve been saving the best thing–the only REAL thing—for last! Follow me!”
We followed Aunt Maureen back across the warehouse, back toward the door that led back into the hallway and the relative safety of Aunt Maureen’s house. I didn’t like the warehouse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere in here, hiding behind an especially large box, the creatures possessing those red eyes was staring at me, waiting for me to wander of on my own so that he could devour me. I could see him again in the hallway, inching closer and closer, his red eyes gleaming brighter and brighter, unseen hands reaching out for my throat… and then Aunt Maureen’s voice broke me out of my daydream. We were standing in front of the row of lockers, although, up close, they didn’t look as much like lockers as I’d thought. They were more streamlined and high-tech, although I couldn’t put my finger on just why. I also realized that what I’d thought were the air slots on the doors were actually tiny windows, although the glare of the fluorescent lights on the ceiling make me unable to see into the tiny slot.
“This is the last stop on the tour! “ said Aunt Maureen. “These are electrostatically-charged containment chambers!” She paused. “This is where everyone else lives!”
Smiling bigger than ever, she reached over and pulled a switch on the wall beside her, and the entire row of chambers came to life! Lights on the doors, barely noticeable before, lit up and began chasing each other up and down. There were whooshing sounds, like hydraulics, and then all of the lights stopped flashing at once. There was a loud KER-CHUNK and suddenly all of the containers snapped open. I could almost see traces of electricity dancing through the empty spaces, making little wavy spots in the air right in front of my face.
“This is why we call it the ranch! This is where we breed them!” Maureen said, shouting to be heard over the hissing of the hydraulics. There, in every one of the lockers, was a robot!
They looked just like robots out of some science fiction movie. Each one was about six and a half feet tall and made of a shiny metallic material. The arms and legs looked like grey vacuum cleaner tubes, segmented and flexible, and their heads resembled shiny gray microwaves. Their eyes were round holes, and out of each of them, the tip of a what looked like a lightbulb extended They had no visible mouths or ears. There was a short antenna extending from the center of each head, and they were all completely still. It was a little creepy, seeing the mass of them standing in a row against the wall, their darkened glass eyes staring out over the mostly empty warehouse.
“Wow, Maureen,” Dad said, obviously sincerely impressed for the first time since we’d arrived. “Did you build all these yourself? There must be twenty-five robots here!”
Maureen was beaming. “Of course I did, George! Oh, I know, everyone has a little joke now and then about silly old Maureen, living in the desert, tinkering with her toys, but these robots, they’re a labor of love! They almost feel like family to me!”
Mom and Dad’s face didn’t change a bit, but I felt a slight change in the air of the room. It was a little weird how attached Aunt Maureen was to these robots. I looked at them again. They really did look like something from an old serial, intelligent machines that should have names like XRJ-17 and should be making zany mistakes because of their overly-literal robot logic. The only thing was, these particular robots didn’t really look amusing at all. With their empty eyes and expressionless faces, they felt more like sentries, security measures who’d be more likely to say “STOP OR YOU WILL BE VAPORIZED!” than “SORRY MASTER. I WILL CLEAN UP THE PASTA.” I was a little relieved when Aunt Maureen reached into her little black bag and pulled out a remote control.
“This is where the magic happens!” she said. “Would you like a demonstration?!” She didn’t wait for an answer. She ran her stubby fingers over the metal box she was holding and flipped a switch. When she did, a deep humming sound began coming from the robot directly in front of me.
The concave circles on its face lit up and lights raced up and down its shiny body on LEDs, invisible to me until he was activated. The humming grew louder and the robot’s body seemed to vibrate. All at once, the humming and vibrating stopped and a tiny red point appeared inside the glass tipped eye. There was a faint grinding from inside its chest, and then a robotic voice, every bit as 50’s-sounding as the robot looked.
“HELLO MAUREEN.” it said loudly. “HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” Its voice was loud and artificial, and conveyed no emotion at all. It was a little scary, like it would have sounded no more or less involved saying “HELLO” than saying “I HAVE KILLED YOUR KITTEN. YOU CAN FIND ITS SKIN IN THE CLOSET.” As it spoke, its eyes flashed different colors, but they always ended up red. Suddenly it hit me! It was a robot I saw last night! I was getting ready to ask Aunt Maureen if that was possible, but she asked the robot in front of me another question before I had a chance,
“I’m fine, Robert! How are you doing this morning?!”
“ALL SYSTEMS ARE FUNCTIONAL. BATTERIES ARE FULLY CHARGED.” A pause, “I FEEL LIKE I COULD TAKE ON THE WORLD.” There was a gut-clenching sound like a cat on a chalkboard, and I realized after a few seconds that it was laughter. Mom and Dad were looking at Robert, faint smiles on their faces, but the laughter seemed unnatural to me. Robots couldn’t find anything funny unless they were programmed to, right?
“Robert, I’d like for you to move that box from that corner to this!” she said, gesturing toward a large wooden container. It looked like it probably weighed a few hundred pounds at least, and I doubted Robert could pick it up. I heard some more quiet gear-grinding and Robert began moving toward it. When he reached it, his garden hose arms extended until they reached all the way around it. There was a sound like a winch being tightened and the box lifted slightly off the floor. It wasn’t until Robert began making his way toward us with the box that I noticed that he didn’t lift his feet when he walked. The contracted slightly when he hit a bump, acting like shocks, but most of his movement was accomplished by tiny wheels that extended from the bottoms of his feet. He reached the far corner, put the box down, and then glided back over to us.
“THE BOX IS MOVED, MAUREEN.”
“Thank you, Robert! Said Aunt Maureen. “You may return to your tube!”
Robert glided slowly backwards back into the locker, and there was a hissing hydraulic sound as the doors, all of them, closed and sealed themselves again. When the last one was sealed, Aunt Maureen turned back to us.
“Well, what do you think?!”
“Maureen, that’s very impressive! Did you do this yourself? Surely you had help.”
Aunt Maureen turned and began walking back toward the hallway door as she explained to Dad exactly how these robots had come to be. I lingered behind a few steps, and when everyone else was in the hallway, I turned around to get one more look out across the warehouse. As I was looking, I thought I heard a faint grinding of gears, and something skittered out of my peripheral vision. I shivered and walked into the hall. Something about these robots wasn’t right. And how had one gotten to the hallway last night? Aunt Maureen might have the answers, but she didn’t seem very interested in sharing them.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting in Aunt Maureen’s living room, talking about what had been going on in our lives. It seemed like we’d already talked about it a million times since we’d gotten there, but Aunt Maureen didn’t seem interested in anything but us. When we asked her a question about herself, it was normally met with a couple words followed by an exclamation point and a question for us. Ask her what her favorite food was, and she’d answer “Squash!” and follow up with, “And how about you?!” Ask about her friends, and she’d say, “Oh, there are a few of us old maids who get together sometimes! I’m sure you must have loads of friends!” And if you weren’t careful, she’d draw into Twenty Questions about every friend you’d ever had, except she didn’t usually stop at twenty. “What’s Ben’s favorite cereal?” “What sort of trainers does Andrea wear?” “Does Ricky like to build model airplanes?” She did the same thing with mom and dad. I don’t know if they were being polite or if it just didn’t seem weird to them, but they answered and smiled, and asked, and answered.
At about seven o’clock, Dad stood up.
“Well, Maureen, the family and I have a surprise for you. Since you’ve been so kind to let us stay in your house, we insist you let us take you to dinner this evening. What’s good around here?”
For the first time since we’d arrived, Aunt Maureen’s face showed a moment’s confusion, like the idea of visiting a restaurant was so far out of her sphere of experience that it was terrifying. It flashed across her face so quickly that I’m pretty sure I was the only one to notice.
“Why George,” she said, “I can’t allow you to do that! It’s my pleasure to have you and charming little Adam here! You don’t have to do anything for me!”
“Oh, but we insist!” Dad said, matching her exclamation for exclamation. Mom echoed her agreement with dad, and after a brief but amiable skirmish, it was decided: we were taking Aunt Maureen to eat whether she wanted us to or not.
“Just let me go change my shirt!” she said, and was off before we could say anything. As she turned, though, the expression on her face changed. Her cheery grin dropped away, and her lips parted into what almost looked like a snarl. Again, it passed so quickly that I was barely sure I’d seen it at all, but it had been there. She threw a glance at me, but it was another one of her Aunt-ly smiles, and I just smiled back. I just hoped mine seemed more sincere than hers.
She opened up the door to the hallway and stepped in. Mom went into the guest room to fix her hair and Dad sat down on the chair.
“So, what do you think of Aunt Maureen?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to tell him the truth, that something wasn’t right with her and her robots, and I didn’t like her living out here all by herself, and she gave me the creeps and snarled when things didn’t go her way.
“Oh, I like her fine, Dad.” I lied. “She seems really nice.”
“That she is, son.” he replied, and then stared off into space for a second. I almost took the opportunity to ask if Aunt Maureen was acting stranger than normal, but I decided to go to the bathroom instead. As I opened the door, I heard another door clank shut. I thought I must be Aunt Maureen coming out of her bedroom until I realized that the bedroom doors were made of wood. Wood didn’t clank. I slipped into the bathroom without turning on the light, and left the door open just a crack so I could see down the hallway. Sure enough, Aunt Maureen floated into sight, her round belly and extended arms poking through the darkness first, followed by the rest of her. The strange thing was, she was well-past her bedroom door and coming toward me. Something didn’t seem right to me, and then I realized it was actually two things: One, she was still wearing the same shirt, and two, she was nearly at the end of the hallway when I first saw, much further down than her bedroom door. She must have been in the lab! A chill ran down my spine, but I didn’t know why. It was her lab, she could go there whenever she wanted.
She reached the bathroom door and paused. I held my breath. Suddenly there was a creak and the bathroom door swung open, and I was standing in the dark before Aunt Maureen. Her cheery smile was gone, replaced by something in between anger and disgust. She spoke in a menacing monotone.
“Adam. It is time to go to dinner. Please, do not try to spy on me again. I am watching your every move.”
And then her eyes flashed red.
Aunt Maureen was a robot! I was too shocked to scream or run, and by the time I regained my senses, she was gone. The door was closing behind her as I collected myself and forced my knees to stop shaking as best I could. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just tell mom and dad—no matter how strange they thought she was, they would never believe she was a robot. And what had I seen, really? Just Aunt Maureen, a scientist, coming out of her lab. And the red eyes? Could have been anything. A trick of the light, something in my eye, a complete fabrication of my overactive imagination. And of course, my imagination had been running away with me this whole trip. Now I was prepared to make an idiot out of myself and probably offend Aunt Maureen so badly that she’d never speak to our family again, all because I thought I’d seen something… crazy.
But crazy or not, I knew what I’d seen. Aunt Maureen’s eyes had flashed as red as Santa’s hat, and no trick of the light (and there wasn’t really much light around to play tricks anyway) was going to talk me out of it. I didn’t know how to prove it yet, but now I knew: Aunt Maureen was one of them.
I walked into the living room to find Mom, Dad, and Aunt Maureen standing by the door.
“We thought maybe you’d fallen in!” said Dad. All earlier traces of discomfort were gone from his face, and I could tell he was only thinking about supper. Mom looked a little uncomfortable, but no more than she had the entire trip. She’d hardly said a word, but I was pretty sure her silence didn’t make her anymore likely to believe my wild story.
“Are you feeling alright, Adam?” Mom asked. For a split second, I thought about saying no, about playing the sick card and avoiding this night out with Aunt Maureen, but it didn’t take long to dismiss that idea. As unpleasant as the idea of going out with her was, the idea of staying at her creepy house with all her creepy robots was even worse.
“I’m fine. I just had to go to the bathroom.” I mumbled.
“He was standing in there in the dark!” said Aunt Maureen, as if it were the funniest thing she’d ever heard of in her life. I searched her face for a glimpse of the different creature I’d seen, but there was nothing there. Only her slightly-too-large smile and her dull grey eyes that didn’t quite match it.
“I couldn’t find the light switch.” I said lamely, and everyone laughed except me.
We drove into town. The car was mostly quiet except for some static-y music coming over the radio, and the drive seemed to last forever. I stared out the window into the darkness. There were no streetlights whizzing by, no cars passing us, no animals standing in the wide open plains. Just empty spaces spotted here and there with some scraggly trees. A pickup passed us going the other way, and that was all there was in the way of scenery. Finally, there were pinpricks of light in the distance. They grew larger and gradually a downtown began to take shape. We slowed down as we entered the city limits “The police around here love tourists!” Aunt Maureen cackled. I believed it. A tourist sighting here would be almost as rare as seeing the Loch Ness monster. I didn’t say anything though. I was still imaging those red eyes.
We drove past a couple small shops, closed up for the night, and some darkened houses. “Hard to believe, but there just isn’t much nightlife here!” Mom and Dad laughed. I wondered if I’d laugh at things like that whenever I got old.
We finally pulled up in front of the only well-lit building on the whole block, a freestanding little place with a glowing sign in front reading “Sammy’s.”
“This is Sammy’s Bar and Grill,” said Aunt Maureen. “It’s the finest dining around here!”
We parked the car, got out, and began walking toward Sammy’s. I lagged a little behind everyone else, fining the conversation dull and the company downright scary. The door almost hit me as I slipped in behind them without touching it. There was a skinny blonde woman standing behind the counter.
“How many in your party, sir?” she asked Dad.
“Five, no smoking.” he said, and the blonde lady led us into the dining room. She seated us at a table beside a window, and, like in the car, it was a strange feeling to look outside and see absolutely nothing except a few vague silhouettes.
“I need to go to the bathroom.” I said, and stood up.
“You went right before we left, Adam.” said Mom. “Can’t you at least make some conversation first?” and then to Maureen, “He’s been surely all night. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“Mom,” I pleaded, “I really have to go.” And of course, she allowed it. The truth is, I didn’t have to go to the bathroom at all, but I needed some time alone to think about everything that had happened. I was thinking and walking at the same time when I nearly collided with someone walking the other direction. I turned around to apologize, but before I could say anything, a hand grabbed my wrist, and pulled me into the Girl’s Bathroom!
I tried to pull away, but I was off-balance, so I fell down instead. Me and my attacker were just a pile of limbs for a second, rolling around on the floor. I was trying to yell as my abductor tried to put their hand over my mouth. I braced my feet against the wall and pushed as hard as I could. That was enough to break me free. I turned to run, and voice behind me said, “Wait!”
I knew I should keep going, but that voice sounded familiar. I turned around and couldn’t believe it. It was the girl from Biscuit Boy!
“What are you doing here?” I asked, hardly believing my eyes. “Are you following us? Why did you pull me in here?” That was the moment that it hit me where I was. “Why did you pull me in here?”
“Look,” she said, “I’m sorry I had to do it like this. I didn’t know how else to talk to you without your Aunt overhearing us.”
“But why do you need to talk to me at all?” I asked. “I’d never even seen you three days ago, we haven’t talked since then, and I don’t know why you’re following my family around. Help me out here!”
“I will, I will. You don’t think I pulled you in for kicks, do you?” She looked me up and down and giggled, and I felt a little offended. “This is going to be hard for you to believe, but I guess you’re just going to have to trust me.”
“Wait, don’t tell me.” I said. “My Aunt is actually a robot.”
I could tell she was surprised. She was fumbling for words.
“Um… yeah. How did you know?”
“I thought I was about to be roasted with her laser eyes or whatever before we came over here!” And I told her about my adventure in the bathroom.
“You mean she revealed herself to you? She acted like a robot right in front of you without even trying to hide it?” I told her I guessed so. A look of alarm settled on her face.
“Well, that’s… bad. Really bad, actually.”
“Why?” I asked, but just as she was about to answer, the doorknob started to turn. The girl pulled me into an open stall and slammed the door, sliding the bolt to make sure it stayed that way.
“Be very quiet.” the girl said. If they find us in here, they’ll tell your aunt.” she didn’t have to tell me twice. I stood as still as I could, hardly daring to breathe. I closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself, and I almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation I was in. Adam Walker, stuffed in a stall in the girl’s bathroom with a girl he doesn’t know, trying to keep quiet because his aunt is actually a robot who’ll do God knows what if they’re discovered. It was too ridiculous to make up, so I knew it must be true.
We heard a woman enter the bathroom and go into the stall next to us. She unrolled some toilet paper and blew her nose loudly before leaving. I was thankful she hadn’t needed a substantial cleansing. As soon as we heard the door close again, I started talking.
“So tell me what’s going on here.”
“I can’t.” she said. “I don’t know enough. Here’s what I do know: Your aunt is a robot. Whether she’s always been a robot or she was taken over or if it was against her will, I don’t know any of that stuff. I just know that my parents decided that we needed to visit this town on the spur of the moment, and next thing I knew, we were on our way.
“I thought they were acting kind of strange, but I didn’t realize how weird they were being until I was almost hit by that car. You know my Dad barely even batted an eye? The only time he said a single word about it was when he thanked your family for helping me. Mom didn’t cry or even act nervous. That’s when I knew something was up. Then, we went to the hotel one night and…”
In mid-sentence, we heard the door to the bathroom fly open. It banged against the wall and then hard footsteps moved across the tile floor toward our stall. We tried to pull back in the corner to make ourselves look smaller, but it was no good. The door to the stall began shaking and suddenly, the steel bolt slid from its slot and the door swung open!
We were surprised and confused, but not as surprised as the woman who had opened the door. She was short and round like Aunt Maureen, but her face was fatter and wore a more surprised expression than I imagined Aunt Maureen was capable of.
“Uh…” I was about to try explaining, but the girl thought faster than I did, and she grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the stall as quickly as she’d pulled me in. The woman who’d opened the stall still looked surprised, but as the bathroom door closed behind us, we could hear her muttering something about kids and waning morality.
“Holy crap! That scared me to death!” I said, but the girl wasn’t listening.
“Ok, look,” she said, “we can’t be seen together out here. I’ve got to get back to my parents before they start looking for me, and you should do the same thing. Just be very careful. Maureen can’t be trusted!”
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know your name!”
“I think you know perfectly well what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, you will soon.”
“But what if I don’t? If it’s that important, why don’t you just tell me?”
“If you can’t figure it out yourself, you’re not going to live long enough for it to matter anyway.”
She turned and walked quickly away from me, but just before she disappeared into the closed-off seating area in the back, she turned back to me.
“My name is Meg. We never met.” And she disappeared.
I walked slowly back to my family, not particularly eager to actually arrive back at the table where the food was probably already waiting, along with maybe-maybe-not Aunt Maureen.
I was right about the food. I reached out table just as the waiter was setting my plate down. The chicken fingers looked and smelled delicious, but I just couldn’t work up an appetite. I half-heartedly gnawed on one, and while Mom and Dad tried to extract more information from the mysteriously reluctant Aunt Maureen, I kept scanning the restaurant for any trace of Meg. I never did see her.
By the time we got back to Aunt Maureen’s, it was time to go to bed. I laid down on the couch and tried to go to sleep, but it was difficult. All kinds of thoughts were going through my head, and I didn’t know what was true. Was Aunt Maureen really a robot? If she was, how had she gotten that way? And could I trust Meg? I’d only met her the once, and, even though she didn’t seem to have any reason to lie to me, she didn’t really have any reason to warn me either, at least, none that I knew of. Of course, that was the crux of the whole thing: I didn’t know what she knew or why she’d approached me at all, thanks to the woman who’d interrupted our little meeting. I could be in mortal danger right now! Or not in any danger at all, a little section at the back of my head reminded me, but I didn’t buy it. It was too dark and too creepy in Aunt Maureen’s living room, and I didn’t even want to think of what was happening in the lab. I finally fell into a restless sleep, dreaming of an army of robots putting my head on a vacuum cleaner, running me back and forth across the floor and complaining when I failed to pick up a bent Kirby Puckett Baseball card. They were running me over it for the sixth time when a sharp noise woke me up.
I looked into the darkness but couldn’t see anything except the greenish LCD on Aunt Maureen’s stove clock. I knew I’d heard something, but now everything was quiet. I lay as still as I could, and, just as I was beginning to drift back to sleep, I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. The door opened, and there was Aunt Maureen, wearing a white lab coat. Beside her, staring blankly into the darkness, were Mom and Dad!
“Adam. Are you awake?” Dad asked. I tried not to move. I didn’t know if anything had happened to Mom and Dad, but I needed a minute to process things. Maybe if they thought I was asleep, they would leave me alone, or at least be off their guard so I could tell if anything was actually different about them.
“I think he’s still asleep, George.” Mom said. Was her voice a little flatter than usual? I tried to convince myself I was just scaring myself for no reason, but every hair on my body was standing straight up, and I was thinking about the Gobi Desert to keep myself from shivering.
“Good.” said Aunt Maureen. “I was hoping we wouldn’t wake him.”
And that’s when I knew something had happened to Mom and Dad. Aunt Maureen wasn’t using her usual ecstatic one. I’d never heard her drop it in front of anyone except me.
“Thank you for showing us the lab, Maureen. It was very informative. There’s a lot more to it than we saw the other night.” Dad said. It was a normal enough statement, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was rehearsed, just in case I was listening. It was a little too pat, a little too, “What are we doing up so late? Let me tell you!” No one responded to Dad’s little summation, and, after standing quietly for a couple minutes, they all headed back to their bedrooms. I laid on the couch for a few minutes until I was sure they were snug in their covers, and I got up. I was still shaking, and I had goosebumps all over my arms, but I tried to be as quiet as possible. I slipped softly off the couch, trying to avoid squeaking any springs or stepping on anything likely to cause a loud “BOOM”, unlikely since Aunt Maureen kept her house pretty much spotless. I was padding barefoot across the floor when I felt something brush my leg! I nearly screamed before looking down and seeing the shaggy, brown Ottoman viscously attacking my shin. I would have laughed, but I was still scared half out of my skin, and I was pretty sure there were worse things than Ottomans after me on this trip.
I made it over to the door without causing any major sonic disruptions. I walked into the hallway, which was pitch black, and tried to step even lighter than before. I thought my chest was going to collapse as I tiptoed past Aunt Maureen’s room, then my parents’, but I made it, trying not to breathe heavily. Now I was standing in front of the laboratory door, but I didn’t know how to open it quietly. It was a big steel thing, heavy and squeaky, and it was set in the wall no more than ten feet from my parents’ slightly ajar bedroom door. Finally, I decided to risk it anyway. I’d come this far, and what would they do to me even if they caught me? Stick my head on a vacuum cleaner? I tried to chuckle, but I couldn’t quite convince myself it was a joke. I grasped the handle and gave the door a shove, and, just as I expected, there was a loud scraping sound as it slid across the tile floor. I paused for a few seconds after moving it a couple inches, but I heard nothing. Actually, even more nothing than usual. I couldn’t hear a snore, a toss, or a turn. It all seemed very foreboding, but at least it sounded like everyone was still asleep. I pushed the door a couple more inches, paused again, then shoved it the rest of the way open. Still, no sound came from either of the bedroom doors. I moved quietly through the gaping black rectangle. I couldn’t see a thing, but I couldn’t risk turning on the light, because that would have involved closing the door. I hadn’t awoken anyone while opening it, but I didn’t think I could count on such luck again. I moved slowly down the steps, not sure exactly what I expected to find in the dark, and not entirely sure why I was walking down here in the dark alone at 2 am in the first place. I stopped right where I was standing and looked back at the door. A faint light was coming through it, the pale glow of the moon through the window in the hallway, but something was wrong. The light seemed to be moving. It hit me all at once, and I started running, but I was too late. There was a loud clang, too loud for even my family to sleep through, and the thin outline of the doorway was gone. I started shaking, and reached out my hands to confirm what I already knew: the door was shut tight!