by Sage Tyrtle
My mom runs out the classroom door. Just runs, like it’s a normal thing to do. I get up and run to the doorway and I shout, ‘Mom! Hey! Come back!’ but she’s already at the far end of the hall, she’s already opening the big front doors. They don’t slam once she’s gone like they did at my old school. They slide back into place without a sound. I can’t believe she just left me like that.
Behind me all the whirring’s stopped and I wonder if everyone in the class is looking at me. But when I turn around they’re copying spelling words from the board. Tomorrow and Airport and Deceive. The teacher is sitting at the big desk grading papers with a red pen.
My hands are shaking so bad and I shove them into my pockets so no one can see. I feel this scream in my throat trying to get out and I shove the gate at the back of my mouth closed to keep the scream inside me. Mom said there would be other kids, she promised there would be other kids. But I’m the only real person in the classroom. Was she scared too? Is that why she ran? But if a mom is scared, doesn’t she make sure to protect her kids?
I look out in the hall again like maybe Mom was just talking to the principal or something and is coming back but the doors are still politely shut. At Our Lady the doors didn’t just slam, sometimes they fell right off their hinges. One time? Me and Sean were on the tire swings and Sean was doing that thing, you know, where you twist the rope until it’s as twisted as it goes and then you let go except the rope was so rotted that it spun for just a second and then me and the whole tire just fell on the ground and the principal was like, ‘Oh well, I guess we don’t have a swing anymore.’
But at this school the playground looks like it was finished about five minutes ago. There’s a giant pirate ship and a dinosaur with a slide at the top and a bear holding swings from its paws. If I go out there and play, will they all follow me and just…watch?
The oval-shaped teacher glides over to me and says in a voice like wasps buzzing, ‘HELLO HUMAN BOY. WE WERE NOT INTRODUCED BEFORE YOUR MOTHER—’ the teacher’s mouth is a line that lights up yellow when it says words. The mouth half-lights up and then goes dark again then lights up. ‘—WENT AWAY. I AM MRS. MAGNESIUM.’ Its one green eye blinks.
Do I nod? Do I shake its hand? If anyone ever told me I’d miss Mr. Keller from third grade I would have laughed till I fell down but boy do I wish he were standing in front of me right now. ‘Uh…I’m Jeremy.’ I keep my sweaty hands in my pockets.
‘HELLO.’ Mrs. Magnesium turns to the others. ‘STUDENTS, THIS HUMAN HAS JUST MOVED TO OUR TOWN. OH BOY. WHAT A NICE TIME WE WILL ALL HAVE.’
‘Isn’t…aren’t there other, you know, kids like me here?’ My stupid voice is this mouse squeak but all the loudness is behind the gate at the back of my mouth.
‘THE PARENTS WHO COULD NOT AFFORD PRIVATE SCHOOL GROUPED TOGETHER AND HIRED TUTORS RATHER THAN SEND THEIR CHILDREN HERE. YOU ARE THE ONLY HUMAN REGISTERED AT ASIMOV ELEMENTARY.’
In the whole school? Aw, geez. Aw geez. I knew moving here was a bad idea. Mom kept saying the pay would be better, but if the pay’s better, how come I’m not where—where all the real kids are? Also now I have to pee. ‘Isn’t there a charity school?’ I shift from foot to foot. ‘Like—back in Ohio I went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help?’
The teacher says, ‘IN A WAY THIS IS A CHARITY SCHOOL. IT IS FREE OF CHARGE. THE STUDENTS WILL LEARN FROM YOU JUST AS YOU WILL LEARN FROM THEM.’
I look at the room full of kid-sized robots, their arms whirring along as they write. At Our Lady the boys had to wear blue shorts and white button-down shirts and a tie every single day. A tie! When you’re trying to play football at recess! When Mom said they didn’t have uniforms at this school I thought maybe it was because robots don’t wear clothes and it would be weird if the humans matched and they didn’t. But every single robot-kid is wearing clothes. One even has the same Hypnotic Swan T-shirt I’m wearing. I wonder for a second if he—it—watches the Hypnotic Swan Superhero Hour after school like me and then realize how stupid I’m being.
But this whole place is so stupid! Those robots could be doing the kind of science that makes spaceships fly, why are they copying down fourth grade spelling words with pencils? ‘What do you mean, learn from me? I can’t even spell the words on the board yet!’ I finally say, and then wish I hadn’t. Mr. Keller hated it when I asked questions. He’d look down his nose and say that everyone else understood and he wasn’t going to repeat himself. It got so he wouldn’t even call on me if I raised my hand. So I just quit raising my hand.
Then one of the robot-kids looks up. It’s the one in the Hypnotic Swan T-shirt. It stops writing. It raises its hand. Whir-r-r-r. Mrs. Magnesium says, ‘PHILIP YOU MAY SPEAK.’
Philip’s face is way different from Mrs. Magnesium’s. Two eyes, for one thing, with real eyeballs—or, you know, they look real—and a mouth with grey metal lips and white teeth that moves. I guess ’cause he’s—it’s, I mean it’s—newer, you know, than Mrs. Magnesium.
Philip looks at me and says, ‘You’re scared of us,’ and if I had my eyes closed I’d almost think it was a real kid’s voice. ‘So the Human-Robot Alliance thought maybe if humans saw us grow up it would be different.’
If I let that scream at the back of my throat out right now it would say, ‘Of course people are scared! I’m scared of you right now! I’m the only human in this whole school and I’m eight! Mom says I have to keep it a secret that I’m a latchkey kid because Family Services says eight year olds can’t be home by themselves, but isn’t this the same thing, leaving me at a school where there’s no grownups? Except you could all have robot arms that shoot, like, fire or acid or whatever? And I have to pee! And I don’t even know if there are real bathrooms here!’
I fold my arms over my chest to keep the scream in and I say in my stupid mouse voice, ‘Well—I mean, are you just pretending to not know stuff because of me?’
Philip leans over and hands me his paper. His handwriting isn’t even as good as mine. He spelled tomorrow with two Ms and crossed it out and wrote it again. He says, ‘I got made with a blank brain just like you.’
The bell rings on the PA system. A human voice—a human voice!—says, ‘It’s time for recess, hooray!’ and I am thinking that I’m not the only human here, but then the voice says, ‘It’s time for recess, hooray!’ in the exact same way and I realize it’s a recording. My shoulders go all slumping.
I thought everyone would stand up at the same time and march out in a line like the soldiers in the movie Robot Rampage IX (me and Sean saw it right before the Robot-Human Alliance got it banned) but they don’t. They get up pretty much like any kids. Some of them even talk to each other on their way out the door like me and Sean used to do at Our Lady. They all go out the door to the fancy fenced-in playground.
Philip stops for a second and I think that he’s gonna ask me to come out with him but he doesn’t and I don’t even know if I would have said yes. After all of them are gone Mrs. Magnesium glides over to me and says, ‘IT IS TIME FOR RECESS, YOU MAY GO.’
Wait. Wait. I could just go out the other door to the hallway! I could just run home! Who could stop me? It’s not like Our Lady at all because I’m the only real person here. I know me and my mom passed a park on the way here. I could just sit at the park for the rest of the day and then meet my mom in front of the school, and on the way home in the bus I could explain really slow and clear that we need to move back to Ohio. I’ll tell her I don’t even care about how she makes more money here. I could help out with making dinner and stuff. And then she wouldn’t be so tired all the time.
I start running. Or I try to start running. But I don’t even get two steps. Mr. Keller used to grab my arm really hard. I mean, sometimes I got bruises. But Mrs. Magnesium just makes her arms so long they wrap around me. Like a lasso made of metal. It doesn’t hurt. But it scares me so bad I pee my pants.
‘YOU MUST STAY AT THE SCHOOL,’ buzzes Mrs. Magnesium.
I can’t believe I peed my pants. I didn’t mean to! I just didn’t think any of them would touch me! And my whole body starts to shake because at my old school Mr. Keller got so mad when I peed my pants he wouldn’t even let me go to the school nurse where all the kids have dry clothes ’cause sometimes even big kids pee, you know, and he made me sit in my chair in wet pants till the last bell rang. Everyone except Sean called me Pee-Pee for a month.
Is Mrs. Magnesium gonna do that? Is it gonna tell everyone that I peed myself like a baby even though I’m eight?
Mrs. Magnesium makes its legs go short so it’s as short as me. It makes its arms go back to normal and takes a step back. ‘I DID NOT MEAN TO SCARE YOU,’ it says, and even though I know it can’t sound sad it still sounds sad.
I turn around so I can see Mrs. Magnesium’s face. Its green eye blinks.
‘Please please please don’t tell anybody,’ I whisper.
‘I WILL NOT TELL ANYBODY. I WILL DO MY BEST TO NOT SCARE YOU AGAIN, JEREMY.’
And I know she is just made of metal and lights but I am scared and my pants are wet and cold and I hug her because it’s better than hugging myself. After a second Mrs. Magnesium hugs me back, very gentle. She shows me where the dry pants are, and I change. Then I run outside to play with the other kids.
Sage Tyrtle is a storyteller whose stories have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She is a Moth GrandSLAM winner. When she was five she wanted to be a princess until her dad explained that princesses live in a dystopian patriarchy, so she switched to being a writer instead. Twitter @sagetyrtle.