Everyone agreed, the dead robot was making them sad. It lay across the front steps of the Wang family’s house, bucket-shaped head tilted to the side, three arms and three legs sprawled in every direction. Mr. and Mrs. Wang had to step over it every morning when they went to work. Just one look at its dented metal skull made them tear up with worry for their two children. How would they find jobs in this economy, or afford the increasing cost of college tuition, or purchase a home with any confidence?
When the neighbors looked out their windows and saw the robot, it reminded them that the meat-packing plant in town was cutting jobs for the first time in its history. They thought of how their medication was getting more expensive, and how summer was starting and there were no holidays to look forward to for a long time, not good ones at least. The neighbors called and left messages on the Wang family’s answering machine, asking them to take the robot inside. “Please,” they begged. “It’s breaking our hearts.”
The robot had been built by their son, Henry Wang. But the girl Henry loved had been abducted by aliens. He’d watched her pulled up into a sphere of heat and light in the sky, throwing her arms wide to meet it, and then vanish into the stars. He was too broken up over losing her to take care of the things he should. So the robot sat out on the porch for weeks, until finally Henry’s sister, Music Girl, dragged it inside and lay it against the side of the stairs.
Henry walked past the robot every day without looking at it. The whole bottom floor of the house, converted into a workshop to support his genius, sat quiet and dust covered. He did his schoolwork mechanically—that had never taken any effort from him—and spent all his time watching his computer screen. Ever since the alien had taken Bethany away, he spent hours analyzing satellite data and scanning the night sky, searching for some sign of her.
Music Girl tried to help her brother the only way she knew how. From the open door of her room came a blast of love-sick rock music. Now she was playing Nancy Sinatra’s “My Baby Cried All Night Long.” She wandered into Henry’s room wearing a puffy set of headphones over her green beanie. Henry slumped over his computer, staring at lines of code. “You have to move on,” she told him. “You got dumped.”
“I did not get dumped.” Henry kept his eyes on the screen. “We just need to talk.”
“She’s in love with the alien,” Music Girl said. “You’ll never be able to compete with an inhuman entity of magnetism and light.” The robot was slumped pitifully against the stairs, its open hands making her think of all the times she’d been in a restaurant or department store and heard a new song she loved, but then was never able to find it again. “You need to fix your robot.”
They had a three day weekend for some reason—the Wang children didn’t question why—and since Henry was determined to spend it pining over Bethany, Music Girl decided to fix the robot herself. Her parents had company coming over that night, and they were worried that the sight of the dead machine would ruin the evening. Music Girl dragged it into her room where no one would have to see it and promised her parents that she’d get it fixed. A few weeks ago, the robot had wandered into the middle of town and gotten tangled up in a swing set. A roving band of children had found it stuck there and beat it with pieces of metal pipe, ramped off it with their skateboards and ran over it with their bikes, stoned it until they ran out of stones. Finally they grew bored, built a fire on top of it, and left. That was how Henry found it.
Music Girl went over the damage that evening, working on the robot and listening to strange science-themed classic rock: Thomas Dolby, The Buggles, David Bowie. She opened the robot’s front panel and scraped out mud, corrosion, and damaged pieces of circuit board. She turned the chest into one giant speaker, put a combo CD player and tape deck in the robot’s mouth, an audio-in jack in the side of its head where its ear would be. She ran speaker wires through its limbs and fitted an amp into its neck. Next, she wired it up with an accent lighting kit that would flash in time to the music. Song was the only way she knew to bring the dead back to life, and she had absolute faith in it.
Across the house, Henry had detected Bethany making slow orbits of the earth. Her body, athletic and muscular, careened through the upper atmosphere and left a tail of flame. Henry plotted her exact trajectory so that he could beam radio waves at the girl, trying to make contact. Hi, Bethany! he wrote. Just wondering what you were up to….
While the children worked in their rooms, the Wang parents showed the other couple around their home. They talked about jobs being cut at the pork-processing plant. The manager was having the pigs do the work themselves. Much cheaper that way. The Wangs worked there as accountants, and they laughed it off. “Pigs are notoriously bad at accounting,” they said. “We don’t have anything to worry about.” The Wangs showed their guests the armored bunker where they took shelter when their children quarreled, the PA system Music Girl used to create a daily soundtrack for their lives, the phone-lines that existed just for Henry’s industrial contacts, long silent since he’d begun mourning the loss of Bethany. They went downstairs to tour the remnants of Henry’s workshop. Music Girl met them at the foot of the stairwell with the robot. “I fixed it,” she said.
Still dirty and dented, it leaned against one wall and sizzled with lights. It played classical music, the strings echoing eerie from inside its metal body. Looking at them with its dead camera-eyes, the robot’s tape deck malfunctioned and it frothed at the mouth with brown ribbons of ruined cassette.
The Wang’s guests looked at the Frankenstein DJ machine and remembered Christmas toys that didn’t come with batteries, IKEA furniture accidentally assembled backwards, TVs without the right ports, a whole lifetime of things missing pieces or not fitting together the way they should. “We should go,” the couple said.
After their company left, Mr. and Mrs. Wang looked at the robot and tried to find something to feel happy about. They couldn’t hold hands with it right there in front of them, didn’t want to look at each other, felt like they were standing too close together. Her mother kissed Music Girl on the forehead and asked her to take the robot back to her room.
She found her brother typing fast on his keyboard. He’d made contact with Bethany as she streaked through the night sky. He was arranging a meeting with her. He would try to talk her into giving up the alien and staying on earth with him.
“You have to fix your robot,” Music Girl told him. “I made it play music, but it sounds wrong. I feel bad about everything. Not even surf rock helps.”
Henry’s hair was greasy and hung in his face. He hadn’t showered in days, had barely slept. To make sure enough satellites were trained on the girl, he was committing crimes international and domestic, illicitly borrowing resources from space programs. “Bethany says she’s not the same person she was,” Henry said. “She’s getting ready for war. What does that mean?”
Music Girl gave up on her brother and went back to her room. She loaded the wreckage of the robot into a wagon and pushed it up the hill, toward the meat-packing plant rising over the trees in the distance. In the top of the plant’s highest tower, a blue light glowed. It felt dangerous to her, like everything about the plant, all clots of bloody ice and the jagged teeth of saws, the grinding of machines and flutter of paperwork. She knew that the plant had maintenance people who took care of machines. She left the robot on their doorstep and hoped that someone would have pity on it.
When the next shift of workers came, they found the robot lying against the wall, as sad and broken as any of them. Mistaking it for one of their own, the workers lifted the robot and carried it into the depths of the factory. It spent the day being carried from one part of the plant to the other, each department doing what it could before sending the machine down the line. When the robot would emerge three days later, its body would be completely transformed, its loneliness left intact.
Music Girl didn’t mention to anyone that she’d taken the robot away. Satisfied that she’d done all she could, she returned to her work creating a score for the high school, organizing a daily soundtrack to lead her family into spring and happiness, finding songs that would dissolve like vitamins into her brother’s troubled heart.
The Wang family was relieved to have the robot gone, but a feeling of sadness lingered in the house. In their memory, it was dented and wrecked still, and they could not forget. Worried that someone had thrown it away, that the robot would lie pitifully in a dumpster or find its way into the dump, Mr. and Mrs. Wang got into their car and drove all over town, trying to find what had become of it.
Though the house vibrated with music, Henry wasn’t there to hear it. He was meeting Bethany in a field at the edge of town. He ran down the sidewalk, knowing that somewhere above, she was falling towards him.
Mr. and Mrs. Wang were driving past the factory in the afternoon when they saw the robot walk out with the workers leaving after first shift. It was smaller now, and its third arm and leg had been removed so that it looked more like a person. It wore jeans and a coarse blue work shirt. The Wangs watched it stop on the sidewalk and stare up at the sky for a long time. They took deep breaths, held each other’s hands, and felt that their lives could begin again.
The robot, linked up with Henry Wang’s computers, was tracking the girl falling through the stratosphere. Her skin white hot and hair streaming behind her, she plummeted down without heat shield or parachute. The robot calculated the location of impact and started walking.
Miles away, Henry Wang stood in a field and looked up at the same sky. Bethany was nothing but fire and light, an orange ribbon spiraling down. When she hit the ground, a wave of flame charred the fields. Henry fell and covered his mouth with his shirt, his clothes hot and smelling of smoke. The fire coalesced back into the shape of a teenage girl. She looked no less beautiful than he remembered. Her skin was covered in alien script, her eyes flickering with electricity, and she floated over the ground completely free from the burden of gravity. She and the alien had become one thing. She looked happier than he’d ever seen her.
Her eyes settled on the boy cringing in the dirt, and she spoke. “I’m leaving soon, Henry.”
He looked up at her with naked want. “You shouldn’t go. Everyone will miss you.”
“There’s nothing left for me here. I beat all the school track records, I beat the alien, and now I’ve beaten my own humanity.”
She reached out her hand, and when Henry touched it, the supple-looking skin was searing hot and had the texture of steel.
“I have to keep pushing myself,” she said. “In a few days, my body will be ready to make the trip through space. We’re going to the alien’s home world to meet his people and conquer them.” She gave a track star’s confident smile. “I’ll have to put in a lot of work in the light years between here and there, but I think I’ll be ready for it.”
Henry tried to remember her hands before the alien had taken her, but he couldn’t. It hurt him to know that he’d lost something so precious. “I’ve been telling everyone that you were my girlfriend. But you never were.”
“No.” Bethany shrugged. “I never was.”
“I wish you had been. I wish there was something I could do.”
“You’re my friend. And when I’m done conquering the galaxy, I’ll come back to visit.”
“I’ll send you messages,” Henry said. “My laser transmission system is getting better. I’ll stay in touch.”
Bethany shook her head. “I’ll be out of your reach. We’re going far and fast. But we can hang out when I come back.”
Henry nodded, knowing that what she said was true. “I’ll send messages anyway. I don’t care if you don’t get them.”
She had already started rising away from him, and before Henry could catch her hand in his, she was gone. Bethany dissolved into a sphere of light and heat, rising back into the sky. As Henry watched her go, he realized that he wasn’t alone. His robot, small and oddly repaired, still bearing some of the music equipment installed by his sister, stood watching with him.
“Somebody fixed you up. Sorry I didn’t get around to it.” He didn’t know what to make of the robot wearing clothes. It had never occurred to him to dress it. “You’re different now. So is Bethany. Everything is different.”
“Yeah,” the robot said, its voice crackling through old speakers and set against a backdrop of symphonic music. “Everything is different these days.”
“Are you coming home with me?” he asked.
“Later tonight,” the robot said. “I want to take a walk in the sun.”
“Well, maybe I can tune you up every once in a while. Maybe we can be friends again.”
Henry walked back alone, thinking of the robot breathing music and looking at the sky, of Bethany careening through the stars. Everything he’d been obsessed with for weeks, his every thought and dream, was done now. Bethany wasn’t his, and she never would be. School would start back tomorrow. There were projects in his workshop that still needed a lot of work. When Henry got home, he entered music, the sound coming from speakers all through the house, and he started picking over old tools and machines. Bethany had already cleared the reach of his satellites, flying out of his thoughts. He threw himself into something new.
Downtown, the robot walked past a local bar where Christmas lights hung from the eaves. Intrigued by their rhythmic flashing, the robot went inside. He wandered into a speed-dating event, and someone pushed him into a seat. They gave him a stick-on name tag which he covered in manufacturer names and serial numbers. The daters were entranced by the robot, its sturdy and well-formed head, the strength in its mechanical arms. Someone asked the robot what it most wanted to be, and it thought of the flashing bulbs outside, Bethany rising in a ball of fire, the electrical signals flashing deep within the dark of its chest. “I want to be moving light,” the robot said. Everyone nodded, happy to find that the robot’s dreams were as unattainable as their own.
Micah Dean Hicks’s work is published or forthcoming in New Letters, Indiana Review, and Cream City Review. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, will be published by New American Press in summer 2013. He attends the creative writing PhD program in fiction at Florida State University.