Oliver sat in the classroom resting his head in his hands, wiggling the horn-rimmed glasses up and down his nose like Groucho Marx as he contemplated a solution to his problem. The Sandra J. Jackson Middle School Science Fair was on Monday and he had no clue what he was going to make. Expectations were high, not only because he was at the top of his class, nor because of the fact that he’d placed first in last year’s Science Fair with his amazing flashlight that ran solely on hand heat, it was because that girl in homeroom with the long golden hair and intelligent, crystal-blue eyes asked him if he was entering the science fair again this year.
Justine was different from the rest of the girls at school. Oh—she was beautiful in every aspect and the most popular amongst the populars. But where the popular girls were mostly stuck-up and mean, she was kind and caring. The din of high school drama hadn’t entrapped her personality with immaturity like most, waiting to be freed in midlife, maybe. No—she was real and true to heart, which was a rarity for kids. Girls always walked past him like he was invisible, but not Justine. She saw through his nerdy awkwardness and valued him for his potential, but more importantly, she valued him for who he was.
The last bell rang for the day and it was Friday. Oliver only had the weekend left to work on his project before the fair on Monday, which also happened to be Halloween. He remained seated as the students filed past his desk and out of the classroom. He was waiting for Justine to pack up her books so he could casually ask to walk her home, especially since it was on his way.
He wasn’t foolish.
Just because she was nice to him didn’t mean that she liked him, but he’d never find out walking home alone. If she said yes, the plan was to ask her to go Trick-or-Treating with him and his little brother, Billy, after the fair.
What girl could resist a cute little kid in costume?
“Whadda ya day dreamin’ ‘bout, four eyes?” Daren asked, swiping a vicious arm behind Oliver’s elbows causing his chin to hit the desk, sending his glasses to the floor. Daren was a typical popular bully, but his penchant for bullying Oliver was stoked by last year’s science fair. Daren came in second place.
“Ouch—hey! My glasses!” Oliver hollered, rubbing his chin. He may have been nerdy, but he wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself. Hopping from his chair, he stood tall—leg-spread stance—and puffed out his chest. Due to his lack of vision, he accidentally kicked his glasses across the half-empty classroom. He cringed as the plastic frames scratched across the floor until they clicked to a halt beneath a desk. “Knock it off, Daren! I can’t believe you can be a sore loser for a whole year! How pathetic!”
As a linebacker for the Pop Warner football team, Daren was no weakling, but he knew better than to tangle with Oliver. The nerd had almost bested him in a fight after last year’s science fair—almost. “Pathetic? I’ll tell you what’s pathetic, googly eyes! Just cuz a buncha pansies on the voting board liked your pathetic flashlight last year doesn’t mean it’ll happen again. You got lucky, coke bottles! What I got planned this year’ll blow you outta the competition,” he said, backing up towards the classroom door and flipping him the finger before disappearing in the student-slipstream in the hallway.
“What an asshole,” Oliver said, under his breath.
If the pressure of the science fair wasn’t weighing on his mind before, he was feeling it triple-fold now as he stooped, squinting at the floor for his glasses. They were probably scratched up at best, but at least he hadn’t heard any glass break. And the worst part was that Daren embarrassed him in front of Justine. He’d take broken glasses over that any day.
She probably already left the classroom and was halfway home by now. Tomorrow was Saturday. He’d never be able to ask her out now. Maybe if he hurried he could catch her on the way, he thought, just before a dark shape resembling a hand holding his glasses appeared before his face. Judging by how quickly Daren left the room it was probably the teacher, Miss Wannamaker.
He took the glasses and said, “Thank you, Miss Wannamaker.”
“I think I’m too young for wrinkles,” a young girl’s voice replied.
Oliver quickly placed the glasses on his face and his vision cleared. Justine stood before him with her backpack slung over her shoulder.
“Oh,” he said, blushing. “I’m sorry. I can’t see squat without these.” He tapped the rim of his glasses. “Which, by the way, don’t seem to be scratched.”
“I wiped them off. I think they’re scratch resistant like my Mom’s.” She noticed him wince at the word Mom’s and added, “Bullies are overrated, you know.”
“Oh, Daren? He’s just messing around,” he lied.
“Well, I thought your hand-powered flashlight was amazing last year! I can’t wait to see what you come up with this year. What I like most is that your invention was something useful to mankind. Not like his silly Smell-o-vision thing.”
“You have to admit, it was pretty clever,” he said, nodding.
She stepped back and regarded him with a warm smile. She ran her fingers behind her left ear, tucking her golden locks and said, “I think that’s what I like most about you, Oliver. You’re genuine.”
Wait! Did she just say she liked him?
No—he was being foolish and she was just being nice. That’s what nice people do. She must’ve felt sorry for him after Daren’s little tantrum.
How could he possibly ask her out now?
“Would you like to go Trick-or-Treating after the science fair?” She asked.
Oliver stood there as time wrapped itself around his being and promptly stopped. She—asked him out! This went beyond feeling sorry for him. Picking up and dusting off his glasses was one thing. Asking him out on Halloween night was—all Treat! Then he remembered the Trick: Billy. Every year his little brother looked forward to Halloween more than Christmas and every year Oliver loved taking him all over the neighborhood and finding the scariest houses. It was sort of their thing. That and working on Billy’s costume together. Each year as Billy got older, Oliver was able to take him farther out into the neighborhood to find different, scarier houses. Then a pang of guilt hit him square in the head. Moments earlier he planned on using Billy as bate and now he was thinking of ways to ditch him. As much as it hurt, he was going to have to disappoint Billy. He had to impress Justine and a silly seven year old tagging along was not the way to do it.
“Oliver—you okay?“ Justine asked, shaking his elbow. “If you have plans already—“
Time unwrapped itself like a busted coil and Oliver sprang back into animation. “Oh—uh, yes. Um, no!”
She cocked her head and gave him a quizzical smile.
“What I mean is yes, I’m okay and no, I don’t have plans. Oh and yees, I’d lov—aah, I mean, I’d like to go Trick-or-Treating with you!”
Justine just smiled again and said, “Walk me home?”
The look on Oliver’s face was all the answer needed as he held his hand out towards her backpack and nodded, jokingly saying, “Might I carry your books, my Lady?”
She giggled and said, “Why certainly, my Lord.” As she dipped down to curtsey, the backpack accidentally slid from her shoulder and dropped to the floor spilling her books. Oliver quickly kneeled and started gathering them and slipping them back into the bag.
He picked up a peculiar book and looking up at her, he said, “The Book of the Dead?”
“Mrs. Hoffman’s World History class.” Justine rolled her eyes. “It was the first thing I really found interesting. We’re examining how similar it is to our own Bible.”
“Is that an honor’s class?” He asked, standing up and looking the book over.
“Yes. Outside of boring, it’s actually a pretty simple class. Just think. People, thousands of years ago, believed that stuff enough to record it for future. There are spells in it!”
“Spells?” He said, pushing up his glasses. “Spells to do what? Make people dead?”
She chuckled. “No, silly. Some actually say they considered it the book of life.”
“Life?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, mostly for the afterlife. The spells are supposed to help the deceased make it through the underworld, only they call it the Duat. I do think I saw a spell in there about the breath of life or something. We didn’t really get into that part. I was just skimming through it. The focus of the study is mainly on how our biblical stories are seen repeated in each culture in slightly different variations. I was going to ask Mrs. Hoffman how spells are related to our bible. I don’t remember learning any spells in Sunday school.”
“I mostly slept during Sunday school, but I do remember something about spells.”
She gave him another funny look and he said, “Okay—okay. When I was little I wanted to be a magician.” His cheeks blushed. “That’s why I remember. I think I woke up and paid attention, but since it wasn’t about pulling bunnies from hats I fell back asleep.”
“Well, I don’t need it if you want to borrow it over the weekend. I had World History last class after French and was just gonna drop it off at my locker.”
“French? Aaah—Oui! Oui! That’s all I know of that language, but the Breath of life—hmmm.” Oliver rubbed his chin and said, “That gives me an idea for the science fair. Thanks, Justine.”
“It does? Cool! You’re welcome! Now I really can’t wait to see what you create, especially since I helped give you the idea!” She said, beaming from ear to ear.
He was about to put the book back in her backpack because he really didn’t need the content. It’d only given him the idea but he wasn’t about to ruin that smile on her face so he shoved it in his backpack and slung both bags over his shoulder.
They left the classroom and started their short journey home.
Once they reached Justine’s house, she thanked him for carrying her books home and took the backpack from his shoulder. They stood for a few moments in awkward silence, each not knowing how to end their little walk, when she finally said, “Well, have a good weekend. I’m looking forward to the science fair and especially Trick-or-Treating afterwards!” She quickly leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek before she turned around and bolted inside.
He stood there for a few seconds, dumbfounded. She—Justine—kissed him on the cheek. What ever doubts he held before about whether or not she liked him went flying to the heavens along with the hearts and stars that were streaming from the cheek she just kissed.
His biggest dream, along with his scariest nightmare, was all coming true in a single day. He never thought such a beautiful, popular girl like Justine could ever be interested in the likes of someone like him. And now, everything was riding on his science fair project. If he couldn’t come up with something that would not only take first place in this year’s fair and absolutely WOW Justine, she would lose total interest in him before he even got a chance to kiss her back.
He set foot to motion and hustled it all the way home. He needed to utilize every second he had before Monday rolled around with the science fair. This Book of the Dead might just save the day.
Oliver’s bedroom was just like any other nerdy twelve-year old boy’s room. Since he was older than his other, only sibling, last year he had the privilege of moving out of the room shared with Billy and into the attic. The lofty A-frame ceiling spaciously framed a large window near the front of the house. The curtains matched the planetary mobiles hanging about the room with a dark blue pattern resembling the depths of space dotted with familiar planets. Holding one side of the curtains open was his pride and joy—a Zhumell Commodore Brass Telescope. He’d saved his allowance for months to get that baby. Well, his father actually pitched in and gave him almost half the cost but it was well worth it.
He may have been a nerd, but nerdy wasn’t just a look. He was a tinkerer and the spacious room allowed him the area to work freely on his projects, which is where he was now, sitting at his workbench and tinkering with his science fair project. It was Sunday morning and he’d been working all day and night with hardly any sleep. He’d just dozed off when a sharp rap at the door at the bottom of the stairs startled him awake.
“Ollie! Ollie! Tomorrow’s Halloween and we haven’t even started my costume! Mom said I’m old enough to walk all the way up Ball Street Hill and knock on that old mansion’s door—it’s gonna be AMAZEBALLS! Ollie, are you awake? Can I come in?” Billy’s voice was muffled by the door but thanks to the volume, every word from plucky little Billy’s mouth was quite clear.
“Shit!” Oliver hissed. He’d been so caught up in his project that he’d forgot about his Halloween tradition with Billy.
“I heard that,” Billy shouted behind the door.
Oliver got up from his workbench and pushed the clever mechanism he’d designed to unlock and open the door from the top of the stairs. No sooner had the latch clicked before Billy came flying up the stairs and into the room. Oliver put a hand on Billy’s forehead and stopped him in time from ramming into the workbench. “Hey! No Hi-Ho Silver there Kemosabe! Easy! Slow down,” he said, rustling Billy’s hair before he let go of his head.
“Stop calling me that!” He squawked, patting down his hair. “The Lone Ranger is stupid and old,” Billy said with a laugh.
“Hey,” Oliver said, shrugging. “It’s a classic.”
For the first time since barging into the room, Billy looked at Oliver’s science project sitting on the workbench. “Whoa!” he exclaimed. “Is that Dad’s old toy?”
“Yes. Well, parts of it anyway. It’s my science project. I used the head of his vintage Buddy Lee doll and I had to cut apart the hands to articulate the fingers.”
Billy moved closer to the bench and looked at the doll’s hand. “Arr-tit-alate?”
“Articulate. See,” he said, reaching over and moving the individual fingers. “Articulate, in this case, means to make the joints movable like this.”
The doll was propped up on a short step-stool and sitting behind a snack tray that Oliver had fastened into a realistic-looking desk, perfect for its size, right along with pen and paper. Only the head, hands and legs belonged to the old Buddy Lee Doll. The rest resembled a cage-like body filled with a neural network of wiring. The torso and arms were crafted from chipped-black, flat aluminum bars salvaged from old, decorative garden fencing that had been twisted into shape to look like a small body. Hydraulic gears were attached to the arms, hands and head for mobility. Nestled into the center of its chest was Oliver’s old iPad with a cord running from it to a keyboard sitting on the workbench. As a backbone, the entire thing was attached to the unused skateboard Dad gave him for Christmas many moons ago, when he was still hopeful that his son would take a liking to sports.
Billy looked up at the face. “I don’t like the way it’s looking at me.”
Oliver laughed and rustled Billy’s hair again. “Don’t be silly, Kemosabe. It’s not alive.” But the chipped red lips and evil grin do make it pretty creepy, he thought.
“What is it? Does it do anything?”
“It’s called an automaton—“
“I thought it looked familiar! It’s like that thing we saw in the Franklin Institute on last year’s school trip! What’s it do?”
Oliver scratched his head. “Well, that’s the problem. Automatons are supposed to be the first type of Artificially Intelligent machines that can talk and write—but I can’t get mine to work. I’ve triple-checked everything from the programming code right down to the hydraulic connections. I’ve even replaced the wiring.”
“It got a name?” Billy asked.
“No. I actually haven’t even thought about it.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. How’s it gonna work if it don’t got a name yet?”
Oliver smiled at his brother’s cute innocence, then the smile quickly faded. “Umm, buddy. Aah—I’ve got some bad news. I have a date with Justine on Halloween night. I won’t be able to take you Trick-or-Treating. But Mom said Dad was able to switch shifts so he can take you. I’m really sorry, Billy.”
Billy turned away from the automaton and faced Oliver. At first, his upper lip started to ripple slightly as if he were going to cry. Then his brow dropped and he shouted, “You promised! You promised never to break our tradition!”
“I know, buddy. But you’re too young to understand—“
“Understand what,” he spat, “that girls are gross? What about my costume? Are you still gonna help me?”
“What? No way, Ollie! You promised!” He blurted, tears forming in his eyes. “I had the best idea! But I don’t know how to make it! I was gonna be Uh-Oh! from Dungeon Room Only!”
Dungeon Room Only was a very popular little kids cartoon. Little girls had Monster High where as little boys had Dungeon Room Only. Dungeon Room Only, or DRO for short, revolved around two main characters: Slashy and Uh-Oh! Slashy was a character reminiscent of the old Spy vs Spy character that sported a black fedora and cloak. Uh-Oh! was his little human sidekick. They’re named appropriately because every time Uh-Oh! does or says something stupid he says, “Uh-oh!” right before Slashy slashes a butcher knife across his throat causing blood to squirt out. The cartoon may sound too violent for seven-year-old children, but in all reality, it was done with unrealistic comedic taste. Oliver could see the appeal and challenge of an Uh-Oh! costume. All the kids would opt to be Slashy because it was easy to pull off, but Uh-Oh! would be a different story. Billy would be a hit—no wonder why he wanted Oliver’s help.
“Billy, I’m sorry. Let me explain. The science fair is Monday. I have to get my automaton working. I only got today to do that and I don’t even have a clue what’s wrong. If I can’t fix it I won’t be able to enter and Justine will think I’m a total loser.”
“Well she’d be right! You are a total loser, Ollie!” His face bloomed to a nice shade of red. A tantrum seemed imminent.
“Hey—hey!” He said, grabbing his little brother and pulling him close before he blew. “None of that, buddy. As you get older you’ll understand what it’s like to have obligations.”
Billy pulled his head back from Oliver’s stomach and said, “Wasn’t helpin’ me an obwaagayshun?” He may not have been sporting the nerdy glasses like his brother, but Billy was no dummy.
Oliver adjusted the glasses on his face and said, “Well, yes.” He smiled. “But I guess what I meant to say was that as you get older, sometimes you’ll find yourself in situation where you need to break promises. It’s not like you aren’t going out for Trick-or-Treating and you have all of today to make your costume. Tell ya what. If I can get my automaton working and there’s time left, I’ll help you finish what’s left of your costume. Okay?”
Billy gently pushed away from Oliver and turned back toward the workbench. He walked around the bench, outlining the edge of the table with his hand as he looked over the automaton. Once he was back to his original spot he turned around to Oliver and said, “Mal.”
“It’s name. It should be Mal .”
“You mean Mel? Like the babysitter we used to have?”
“No, Mal. M—A—L,” he said, spelling it out.
“Mal?” Oliver laughed. “Where did that come from?”
Billy shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know it just came to me. I guess I thought it up.” The tears in the corners of his eyes had dried and his face was no longer red-turning-explosion, just the regular rosy cheeks.
“Soooo—does that mean we cool ma-man?” he asked, making a fist and holding it knuckles first toward Billy.
“We cool,” he replied, bumping his knuckles on Oliver’s.
“Okay Kemosabe,” he said, rustling Billy’s hair. “Now get outta here. Go work on your costume so I can fix whatever’s wrong with—Mal.”
Before Billy left, he turned around in the doorway and said, “Sorry I called you a loser, Ollie. I didn’t mean it.”
Oliver felt his heart drop. This would be the first year he hadn’t taken Billy out Trick-or-Treating. He was going to tell him again how sorry he was, but Billy had already gone down the steps and shut the door.
Oliver worked on the automaton all day but it still wouldn’t work. He took the whole thing apart three times, changed the wiring once more and he would have done it again but there wasn’t a single wire left. He ran down the incredibly long computer code he wrote and not a string of characters was out of place. The software program ran fine during the simulated testing but the damned thing wouldn’t move its arms or head, nor would it speak. He even changed out the old iPad with the brand new one he got last month and still nothing.
It was as if something was missing, but he didn’t know what.
He was certain that his software programming was rock-solid.
He glanced at the clock on his nightstand. There wasn’t enough time left to start a new project. How foolish was he, he thought, trying to accomplish what brilliant scientists all over the world were already trying to do: create real Artificial Intelligence.
He was positive that he’d ironed out the major problems of reasoning, deduction and planning or more accurately: freedom of choice. Everything else—the articulated movements, speech, memory—were all simple. It was just those three little things that no scientist seemed able to recreate without coded lines of instructions that included yes/no choices firing responses. In a human being, freedom of choice was built upon millions and millions of life-gathering experiences that shaped the lightening-fast responses the brain would use in order to determine a favorable outcome to a given situation. If the brain hadn’t experienced a similar situation before, it then would use that speed to search its history, or memory, to string together millions of sets of actions, and chose which ones to proceed with to work towards making the best decision on how to respond. Then came the tricky part. The part that no scientist had been able to recreate: choice. What is the spark that chooses which set of actions for the brain to fire into play?
He’d programmed the iPad to wirelessly tap into the supercomputer at his mother’s job, so computational speed wasn’t the problem. And if his mother ever found out he knew her password he’d be toast. All things aside, his toasted buns would be for naught if he couldn’t figure out the problem of the spark—which he was positive he’d had a stroke of genius about and accomplished.
Choice was just based on negatives and positives from all those stored experiences, so that part had been easy. He simply designed a program that tagged every life instance with a rating system of positives and negatives and with the computational speed of the supercomputer, the process had only taken an hour. For example, holding a hand over fire would be rated the most negative, while holding a purring kitten would be the most positive. This made the choice making easier.
As far as the spark was concerned, Oliver figured that since a positive outcome is preferable to a negative one, it was just a matter of timing in order to choose the positive response. So, he built a timer into the code, leaving it only nanoseconds in which to choose and again, with the lightening-speed of the supercomputer, that shouldn’t have been the problem.
Then it dawned on him. He purposely hadn’t written into the code for it to always choose the most positive response because then it wouldn’t be artificially intelligent. It would just be using its resources to pick the positive answer, like a calculator. Two plus two, always equaled four, unless you were using common core, but that was a different ballpark in which he wasn’t even venturing.
He removed timing portion of the code and ran a computer simulation and as before, it worked perfectly, but when he switched to live mode nothing would happen. Not a peep from the built-in speaker on the iPad, nor one movement of its hands, arms or head.
He could easily get it to perform like any other automaton, but that’d been done a billion times and would never even place in the fair. Why did he think the lack of decision time would cause the spark to happen? He’d allowed his heart to cloud his logical mind. He’d wanted it to work so badly—just to impress Justine—that he’d overlooked the obvious problem every scientist has faced: consciousness. He knew deep down that was the problem. No matter how many codes were written or experiences saved to memory, that spark or consciousness was the one defining thing that separated humans from automatons.
So, it appeared he was going to prove to Justine that he was a loser, after all. There wasn’t enough time to hobble together something else that would even place in the top ten, let alone place in the top ten. Oh—the humiliation. He wasn’t worried about facing Daren, who would probably take first place this year without Oliver’s entrance. It was disappointing Justine that he couldn’t swallow. She liked him. She believed in him. She was gorgeous and even excited to see what he was going to create. It’s the very reason he took on such an impossible task.
Then he remembered her book that he’d borrowed: The Book of the Dead. The inspiration for his project.
Breath of Life…
Sitting down on the bed he pulled his book bag out from the cubbyhole in the nightstand. He fished out the huge book and tossed the bag back underneath. In the index he found the spell for Breath of Life. The whole book was rather confusing. He skimmed through something called a rubric about the Breath of Life spell. It described how the spell released four winds through openings in the sky to give the dead person life. It also referenced using it in combination with another spell, which because of the strange layout and massive size of the book, he couldn’t find. He was sure it was there, but it wasn’t in the index, so he flipped back to the Breath of Life spell.
As a junior scientist himself, Oliver didn’t believe in magic, spells or potions. But his youth didn’t incline him to be so foolish as to rule anything out. People may have been much less learned in the days of bibles and Books of the Dead, but many truths have been uncovered through scientific means to understand many unlikely things written in all those books. After all—wasn’t his automaton just like a dead body without a soul or consciousness?
So, as a scientist conducting an experiment—but mainly for shits-n-giggles—he faced Mal, the Automaton, and read the Breath of Life spell aloud. Instantly, a swift breeze blew in from the large window he’d cracked open earlier and rustled the back of his hair causing him to swing around on the bed. Then a small click sounded out in the room as if something had fallen to the floor.
He spun back around and the automaton was sitting behind its little desk on the workbench, just how it had been before, but Oliver noticed a wire draped over the bench and hanging down to the floor. It was the iPad connector/power cord.
He hopped off the bed and picked it up. Scratching his head, he tried to remember if he’d checked it before when he checked and replaced the rest of the wiring. He had checked to make sure it was connected, but he hadn’t replaced it. He assumed the old cord from the old iPad was fine and hadn’t changed it.
He dropped the cord and scrambled over to his desk. The box for his new iPad was sitting on the top shelving. With a quick snatch, he yanked the box open and snaked out the cord. In under two minutes he had replaced the automaton’s old iPad cord for the new one.
He almost couldn’t contain his excitement. He was about to abandon the project and reside himself to work on what he was going to tell Justine, when a stroke of luck happened through his silliness. “Well, Mal—here goes nothing,” he said, turning on the iPad.
The automaton jerked slightly as it ran through the diagnostic program Oliver had built into its programing. The head rotated left to right while both arms raised and lowered, simultaneously wiggling its fingers, like the Lost in Space robot—Danger! Danger! Then it straightened its head and lowered its arms, waiting for instruction, just like it was supposed to! He quickly snapped the body-face he’d constructed to conceal the inner-workings onto Mal’s front and back.
Oliver was thrilled! This was the first time it did this. When he was running diagnostics on Mal before, he was using a computer keyboard, so naturally it wouldn’t have picked up the faulty iPad cord. It was plugged directly into it.
Now for the real test.
He tapped the command button he’d built into Mal’s desk and asked, “How are you today, Mal?”
But of course! It wouldn’t recognize the name Billy gave it. As far as it knew, its name was Automaton One per the coding. He was going to change the coding and name it Mal when he decided to give it a true test. “Automaton one, change your name to Mal.”
Nothing again, but that was expected. The change would happen internally in the program coding. There wasn’t a need for verbal or physical confirmation.
He pushed the button again. “How are you today, Mal?”
Oliver’s hopes were starting to fall. Again, he pressed the button. “Draw me a stick figure.”
Maybe he was right, earlier, about the decision timer. He pulled the body-face back slightly, leaving it half-off, and quickly unplugged the iPad connector and plugged in the keyboard. Thankfully, he’d cut and pasted the lines of coding into a note document in case he needed them, so it was just a matter of another quick cut and paste. Switching the cords once more and snapping the body-face back in place, it was time for the last trial before he gave up.
He kept the command basic in case his prior requests were too complicated. “Raise your right arm.”
“Mal, raise your right arm.”
“Automaton One, raise your right arm.”
That was it—he was thoroughly disgusted, not only with the fact the last request produced nothing, but he was more disgusted with himself. Instead of confidently working on a project that had viable possibilities, he let his ego and heart get the best of him.
He walked away from the failed project and down the stairs, so disgusted, that he even forgot to close the door to his room. He was in absolutely no mood to help his pesky little brother with his stupid costume. Billy would just have to settle on being Slashy, like he, himself, would have to settle on being a loser. It was time for him to think about what he could say to lessen his admission of being a loser to Justine, so he was off to his favorite quiet thinking place: the library.
Hours had gone by since his big brother started out that Sunday morning, working on his science fair project, right up until he left for the library. Billy had been working just as hard at his Uh-Oh! costume, but without Ollie’s help it was useless. The clothes were easy enough; it was the blood-squirting thing he couldn’t figure out how to do without it looking obvious. His best attempt was using the pump cord from his old Playskool dump truck. The cord had a hollow rubber ball on the end where it was pulled from, just like the bulbous part of a turkey baster. When truck’s ball was squeezed, air would shoot through the hollow cord and force the dumb bucket on the toy to lift up.
The problem was it wasn’t very realistic looking because it just shot out of his shirt in one big squirt. The worst part—it was too hard to reload the fake blood for the next house. He knew Ollie had the smarts to come up with something better.
It was getting late. He decided to check on Ollie’s progress.
He stepped from his room, out into the hallway, and saw the attic door open—his jaw dropped to the floor.
“Hey, Ollie? You done fixin’ Mal?” he shouted up the stairs. “Ollie you up there?”
Ollie never left his door open, let alone unlocked. Billy felt like he was five-years-old again, as he bounded up the forbidden stairs.
“Ollie—?” he tentatively whispered.
The room was empty except for Billy—and Mal. He wondered if his brother ever got that thing running. He must have, judging by the look of it—Billy couldn’t see the wiring anymore. Mal was wearing a tidy little black suit. Ollie must’ve fixed it and put the clothes on.
But if it was done—why didn’t Ollie come and get him to work on his costume. Then he remembered their conversation about obwaagayshuns and his shoulder’s fell along with his hopes. Ollie was probably off seeing that gross girl, Justine.
Billy hated her and he’d never even met her!
Thanks to her, Billy’s costume was going to be stupid!
“Thanks for not helping me with my costume, Ollllllllie!” Billy said out loud, storming towards the staircase.
“I can help you, William,” said a soft, calming voice in the room.
Billy stopped so fast his sneakers screeched on the hardwood floor. He thrust his hands out and caught each side of the door’s frame just in time before he went sailing down the stairs.
“Who said that?!” he shouted, turning around.
A quiet mechanical sound was heard, followed by the head of the automaton, slowly jerking its direction towards the door. “I did, William. It was I, Mal, that said that.”
At first, Billy nearly soiled his pants. Then he realized it was Halloween time and Ollie must’ve been playing a trick on him. Dropping to the floor alongside the bed, Billy yelled, “Ollie—zat you tryin’ to trick me!”
The sight of no one under the bed sent pin-pricks down his back.
Then he heard the mechanical jiggle of the automaton’s head again, followed by, “William, it is I, Mal. I can help you with your costume.”
Billy got up from the floor and the look of fright on his face was slowly replaced with a big grin. There was only one more place to hide in Ollie’s room: the closet. He ran across the room and yanked open the closet door and yelled, “Nice trick, Ollie! Now can we work on—“
The closet was empty.
Billy slowly turned around—his eyes open as wide as his mouth—as Mal gestured a come here motion with one little articulated finger, while drawing schematics with the other and said, “Now, shall we get started, William?”
The Sandra J. Jackson Middle School Science Fair came and went and it was the first year Oliver hadn’t entered a science fair since the school districts have been sponsoring them. Daren took first place with his Chemical-Sniffing Lego Robot that could sniff out hazardous chemicals while keeping humans at a safe distance. It may have been a step-further variant on his theme last year with the invention of his Smell-o-vision but at least it had real-life saving applications.
Justine hadn’t seemed that impressed with Daren’s victory, or at least she put on a good act for Oliver’s sake, he thought. Even after spending the rest of Sunday at the library, thinking about what he was going to tell her, the truth was the only thing he’d seen fit. As they walked home from the fair, he simply gave her a recount of the weekend’s events—minus his silly, failed-spell attempt.
“I’m sure, had you enough time,” Justine said, flipping her hair all over to one side, “you would’ve got that automaton working.”
Oliver glanced sideways, stealing a peek. With all her hair pulled to one side, Justine’s head tilted slightly forward, allowing the waning sun to shine through like it was spun-gold, giving her an angelic look.
He felt like he was in a dream.
She judged him not one iota, for not finishing his project, and she didn’t treat him like a loser. She liked him—really liked him—for who he was and nothing else. And he most certainly liked her! His only regret was wasting all that time trying to impress her with the automaton instead of his tradition of helping Billy with his costume. He wished he could do it all over again.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “I think if it was possible it’d been done by now. I don’t think anyone can recreate that spark or consciousness—well, anyone human, anyway. But I haven’t scrapped it just yet, it’s on the back-burner. The whole thing is complete and I could always just turn it into just a regular automaton. My little brother, Billy, even named it.”
“Awww, he did? You’re so lucky, having a younger sibling, especially during Halloween. I’d love nothing more than dressing him up and taking him out for tricks and treats,” she said, casually slipping her arm through his as they continued walking.
Oliver cringed. Not over her affectionate gesture, but over her comment. He still felt so guilty, blowing Billy off like that. Although there was still time, at least he could remedy that and it would be extra-special to share with Justine.
“What did he name it?” she asked.
She cocked her head like she’d misheard him. “Mel? Like Mel Gibson?”
“No, M-A-L. Mal.”
She stopped short, bringing him to a halt by their locked arms. “That’s an odd name. Did you know it means evil, in French?”
He gave her a funny look and pulled her along with a gentle tug of his arm. Her house was just a few doors down. “Well, he’s seven. I doubt he knows French,” he said with a laugh. That gave him an idea. “Hey, would you mind if he—“
“Isn’t that where your house is?” she interrupted, pulling him to a stop again, this time pointing.
A few blocks down, the dreaded flashers of an ambulance were flickering in the diminishing daylight. Oliver untangled his arm from Justine’s and said, “I—I think that’s my house,” before he sprinted towards the sight.
Two EMTs were wheeling out a gurney as Oliver ran up and stopped in shock. The white sheet covering the mound was dotted with blossoms of red. A police car pulled up alongside the curb and Oliver’s mom and dad burst out the front door. His dad had a bunch of papers clutched in his had.
“Is—is that—what happened,” Oliver said, barely able to speak. Justine ran up behind him and stopped, her golden hair billowing around his right shoulder. She reached up and cupped her mouth.
He’d never seen his mom look as she did. Her face was red and puffy, makeup had ran from her eyes down to her chin. She had a vacant, hollow stare—the emptiness inside them frightened Oliver. She just silently looked at him as if she wasn’t seeing him at all.
His dad was frightened far worse than his mom. His dad had always been a pillar of rock-hard strength. But now the man that stood before him resembled the frantic mess of a heroin addict in the thralls of heavy withdrawal.
“I didn’t know! I didn’t know!” He screamed, clutching the papers harder and shaking them into the air. “I was just trying—just trying to save him.” He dropped to his knees and let the papers fly loose from his hand. He violently sobbed into the grass.
Oliver bent and caught a few that flew in his directions. It was one of the papers from the automaton’s desk covered with schematics. Oliver realized the papers were plans for constructing the fake blood pumping mechanism Billy had wanted him to help build into his costume.
“Billly!” Oliver shouted, tears forming in his eyes as he watched the broken man on the ground he called Dad crumble apart. He looked at his mother and said through tears, “I don’t understand. Did he cut himself?”
The vacant stare that had taken residence inside his mother’s eyes shifted from his father’s broken form up to her remaining son’s face. A frigid prickling sensation ran down his back when his mother slowly shook her head back and forth.
“The automaton—”, Oliver said, unable to finish the unbelievable question. A gasp from behind reminded him Justine was still there.
Confusion momentarily replaced his mother’s blank stare as she said, “Huh?”
The EMTs finished loading the dead boy’s body into the ambulance and stood alongside the scene, respectfully waiting for an appropriate moment to address the situation. Two officers filed out of their cruiser and headed up the driveway.
“I was trying to stop the bleeding! I was just—” His father’s voice trailed off for a moment as he turned his head in the grass and looked up at Oliver, his face stained green. “He called me into his room to see what your robot helped him make. He had a knife in his hands!” He started beating the grass with clenched fists. “He pulled it across his neck—I was just trying to stop the bleeding, I didn’t know he used the back of the knife and it was only fake blood. I didn’t know! I didn’t know!”
Justine spoke for the first time. Her arms were around Oliver, holding him tight. “If that isn’t his blood, then how did he die?”
When no one answered, one of the EMTs stepped forward and gently said, “He was strangled to death.”
A strange howling sound rose from the ground like an eerie banshee was being tortured. “I thought he was bleeding to death—” his father cried. “I was trying to stop the bleeding—my God—I was just trying to stop the bleeding. I didn’t know it was fake. Oh my God, Billllly. The awful look on his face, oh my God he thought I was trying to kill him! Oh, what have I done?”