|ROBOT PLAGUE by Jeff H|
Ma served dinner on a chilly Monday night. She poured the milk and gave Billy some peas to go with his fried steak and cornbread. Billy glared up at his mom, and then slammed his small fists into the table.
“Darn it Ma, you know I don’t like peas!” Billy yelled. “I can’t stand ‘em! I never want to see ‘em! The day you see me eating peas is the day a robot’s replaced me!”
“Sorry dear,” Ma apologized as she scraped Billy’s plate. “I didn’t know.” She put the peas back into the serving bowl and quickly walked into the living room. On the couch Pa was reading his newspaper. Outside, the wind began to howl.
“Your son’s yelling about his food again,” Pa muttered without looking up.
“Billy used to eat peas before the baby was born,” Ma replied, “and he used to love them. I’ve heard of children learning to like food, but they can learn to hate food, too? Where does he get these ideas?” She fell into the couch next to her husband.
“Beats me, but I know where he got that robot idea—looky here.” Pa turned his paper toward Ma and showed her the story on the front page. The headline, in big, bold letters, read “ROBOT PLAGUE CONFIRMED.”
“So the outbreak’s real and it’s got twenty people so far,” Pa explained. “They went to bed one night as humans, woke up the next day as robots! And it can spread just be being near one for long enough! Truly, have you heard of a scarier thing?”
“Oh my,” Ma replied. She shook her head as she turned to the crib and picked up the baby. “That is disturbing.”
On Tuesday Ma gave Billy some cauliflower to go with his casserole and mashed potatoes. It was colder than the day before but the air was calm, and so was the house—until Billy saw his vegetable.
“Dang it Ma, you know I feel about cauliflower! Jeepers, really, it’s worse than peas! It’s AWFUL! It’s DEEE-SCUUU-STING! The day you see me eating cauliflower is the day a robot’s replaced me!”
Ma had made it halfway across the kitchen before Billy’s tirade began. She rushed back to the table, knocking over his water in the process, and took the cauliflower away. “I’m very sorry, Billy, really I am. Of course you don’t like cauliflower! And I’m sorry about the water. I’ll clean it up—”
For all Ma’s efforts Billy spat in her face.
Back in the living room Pa was at the paper again. “You really should get that boy in line,” he advised as Ma sat down. “That’s no way to talk to a parent.”
“I just wanted him to be healthy,” Ma whispered, her face speckled by saliva and blank with shock. “Like how I made sure the baby got her prenatals. The Journal said that cauliflower is rich in fibre and vitamin C. And cauliflower has chemicals that prevent cancer.”
“Well cancer’s bad,” Pa agreed, “but it’s certainly not the worst thing.” He showed Ma the newspaper again.
“ROBOT PLAGUE SPREADS, HUNDREDS INFECTED.”
“Could there be anything more awful? Just poof—they turned into machines, and in less than a day!”
“I don’t know,” Ma murmured. Once more she picked up the baby and began to pat its back. “I just don’t know.”
On Wednesday Ma gave Billy some stuffing to go with his turkey. Wisely, or so Ma thought, Billy hadn’t even been offered the creamed corn; it sat in a dish on the end of the table furthest from the boy.
“Maaaaa!” Billy seethed as mom put the serving spoon back. “You nut! You maniac! I hate, hate, hate stuffing! Are you trying to poison me, because THAT’S WHAT IT FEELS LIKE! Holy cow, the day you see me with stuffing in my mouth is the day a robot’s replaced me!”
Billy threw his plate onto the floor. Then, for good measure, he shattered his glass of juice against the wall. As everything fell to the floor Ma wailed and darted away.
“Jeez Ma, are you parenting that child or not?” Pa asked as his wife ran to the coach. “You’ve been letting him get away with everything since the baby was born.”
“Well… I’ve been busy,” Ma replied. “And I could use a little help around—”
SNAP! Pa turned to a new page in newspaper. He read it for a minute, then SNAP! He turned the pages again. A few moments passed until Pa lowered his reading: “So… what happened?”
“I knew he didn’t like vegetables,” Ma cried, “but now it’s stuffing? We always eat stuffing on Wednesdays—what’s gotten into him? Oh Lordy Lord, what am I going to do? He’s a monster!” She buried her face in her hands.
“Well, that is peculiar… and maybe it is more than just your fault, but…” Pa thrust the paper forward. “AS LONG AS HE’S NOT A ROBOT! Look at this!”
The front page was a mix of frightening pictures, apocalyptic text, and boxes with survival advice. “AS MONTH ENDS NUMBER OF ROBOTS SKYROCKET!” read the bolded headline, and under it: “Will someone you know be next??? Plague replaces humans over three times faster than previous thought!!!”
“To think, robots in our county, or even our town!” Pa shouted. “Why, there could be robots in our neighbourhood. There could even be robots next door! Does that scare you Ma, because it sure as heck scares me!”
Ma did not answer. Instead, she went over to the crib and put a bottle of milk in the baby’s mouth.
The little girl’s face began to scrunch. “There-there,” Ma cooed, “there-there. Don’t let all the noise bother you.”
Ma rocked the cradle back and forth. The baby relaxed. She finished the milk, then gurgled.
Across the living room, Pa had a request: “Ma, my feet are getting cold—have you seen my slippers?”
In the kitchen, Billy called out that he was leaving the house to play with friends. As for when he’d return: “When I feel like it!”
And in reply to both, Ma wiped tears off her cheeks as she whispered over and over again, “As long as he’s not a robot….”
The sun rose on Thursday to reveal frost climbing up spider webs and across windows panes. Outside birds remained huddled in their nests, and inside Pa snored beneath a quilt. That was until Ma leaned forward and shook him awake. The baby was in her arms.
“Huh? Wha—what’s wrong?” Pa asked. He blinked several times as he looked at the baby. “Is it her? Is she sick?”
“No,” Ma replied with a hiss. “But go to the living room quick. And take your gun.”
Pa slid out of bed and ran to the closet. “What’s in the living room?” he asked as he pulled out his gun. And then: “Hey, Billy’s down there—he usually wakes early to watch cartoons!”
“Well, it was Billy watching cartoons an hour ago, but now…” Ma trailed off.
Pa sucked in his breathe. “A robot?” He mimed stiff robot movement with his arms and legs and jerked his head about.
In reply Ma only nodded.
Another, briefer moment, and then Pa made the sign of the cross. “God save us all,” he cried. He shoved cartridges into the rifle and cocked its hammer back. Then he charged out of the room.
“Don’t be surprised if there’s more blood than circuits and servos,” Ma called out after Pa. “I don’t think he’s changed all the way yet!”
“I understand!” came the reply from halfway down the stairs.
There was thudding, and then Billy’s voice rang out: “Hey Pa, I want some food, I’m STARVVVVVING! Tell Ma to get in here right now and get me some toast and jam and—”
But Pa’s voice cut him off: “Domo arigato you impersonating, contagious automaton! YOUR PLAGUE WON’T GET THE REST OF US—EAT LEAD AND DIE!”
Ma covered the baby’s ears as gunshots echoed throughout the house. The bedroom windows shook. The bed’s box spring vibrated like a cello and the dresser mirror fell to the floor.
“You’ll grow up to be a nice girl, won’t you?” Ma asked as the house grew quiet. She stroked her girl’s hair, then gave her a kiss.
Ma turned toward the stairs. “Is it dead?” she yelled down.
“Terminated!” Pa yelled up.
And for the first time since the baby was born, Ma smiled.
Jeff H blogs at https://batchandnarrative.com