Teach Your Children Well
George Pollock, Jr.
They had parks in the desert, Jenny thought. But nothing like this. Nothing like where she was now. Nothing close.
The parks weren't in the desert itself, and, truth to tell, they weren't really parks. They were in small dusty villages, wedged between mud-brick houses – with their incongruous television antennas – and metal-and-glass storefronts with signs offering to sell soda pop in the middle of nowhere.
They were often just open courtyards where older men gathered in the shade of large trees to play dominoes and sip tea from glass cups with silver-filigree bases. In all her tour, the silverwork was the prettiest thing she saw. In two years.
The courtyards all seemed the same. The trees weren't always palms. One might have expected that, but often, they were some leafy deciduous that had somehow survived the hell of the desert. Maybe the owners of the courtyards nurtured them from a well. Maybe not. In any event, their green was the exception to the bright white-beige of the villages and the land.
And the old men with their age-lightened beards, white caftans and squat, circular white caps would invariably look up when she and the other desert-camouflaged battle 'bots and their human commander passed on patrol. The men would silently follow the group with their eyes, and the dominoes and the sipping would stop.
Jenny's AI was 87 out of 100, so she was assigned to cover the rear. The other 'bots averaged 62 – just enough to be trained and adapt to combat conditions, but not so high as to go off crazy. Whereas, at 87, she theoretically could. But her many patrols had suggested that she probably wouldn't. So the brass hoped.
So she took the rear. And the patrols would pass the courtyards in the villages, pored over in silence. With her heightened hearing and translation program – another reason she was given the rear – she heard the old men speak after the human and the 'bots had gone by.
"Metal monsters" was the most common. She could see that. Standard 'bots were generic humanoid models. The only things that hinted at more than machine were their optical sensors on the front of their heads. But those were only the lenses for the optical link. They couldn't blink. They could only see. And battle 'bots didn't think too much – or often – about what they saw.
Their voices were electronic and sounded like bad speakers at a drive-through. Jenny had tried conversing with them but soon found that 62s didn't say much an 87 would really care about. It consisted primarily of tactics and analyses. She ended up talking mostly with humans. It was more comfortable. It was more like home.
That was one of her differences. She was a draftee from high school – not permitted for humans but accepted for robots. Not that there were a lot of teenage robots running around. She was the only one she knew of. Well, the only one who wasn't part canine. That was a long story. She didn't care to remember it.
The draft filled the 'bot ranks before production picked up at the start of the war. All able-bodied robots above a certain AI – and configured appropriately – were called up, and their entire military training was downloaded at induction centers.
Her mother had seen her off, and Jenny noticed that of all the robots in line that morning, she was the only one being bidden goodbye. That saddened her. She wasn't sure why. She didn't know.
Her scientist mother clung onto her until the last moment. When Jenny was next in line, the woman gave her a final hug and whispered closely to her daughter's metal face: "Come back to me, XJ-9. Please. I love you. Please …"
A green light flashed, and Jenny had to enter the induction line. As she walked toward the conveyor, her mother's voice came a last time, unseen:
"I love you, Jenny!!"
The robot kept walking. Looking back would hurt beyond telling.
"I love you, too, Mom," she whispered, stepped on the conveyor and disappeared into the building.
She soon learned that battle 'bots were packed onto transport planes and flown a half-world away. In her case, she thought, that made no sense. She could fly, she explained to the staff as the air base – and even gave them a demonstration flight. She then suggested that another 'bot – one that couldn't fly – could take her place on the plane. Wouldn't that be more efficient, she asked. Isn't that a good idea, she smiled.
Get on the damned plane, they said. She did.
And so she covered the rear on patrol in desert villages. But her superiors had told her that a transfer was being discussed. Four months after the air base incident, the brass had somehow heard of it. A unit was being formed to fight enemy heavy armor, and a 'bot that could fly would be useful for reconnaissance and coordinating operations with human commanders.
Jenny had been in country those four months and hadn't seen combat. From what she had heard, she didn't think she wanted to. But she knew that ultimately, a transfer wouldn't be her decision. It would just happen.
It did. But what stayed deeply with her from all the patrols were the old men's comments about her. She cut a feminine figure because her mother had always wanted a daughter. So the woman had built a robot "teenage girl." In later days, the irony became that she wondered why. Jenny knew that her mother loved her, but Mom sometimes facetiously said an adult-form robot would have spared her all the teenage angst.
She finally asked the woman whether she truly meant that. "You mean," her mother replied, "would I have been glad not to see you grow? Not to see you learn who you are? Not to let you cry in my lap when you hurt?"
She paused. "No, dear. I wouldn't have missed that for anything. You're my daughter. I love you."
Jenny wanted to go home to that. And to Brad. There had been hints and signals with her best friend that things could be more than friends. She hoped she hadn't misread them. She wanted to know his dreams – and whether she could be more than a dream with him. She decided she would know. She would go home, and she would know.
The old men in the courtyards hated her. She knew it. She had heard it. They had spoken in whispers that she nevertheless could hear, in a tongue she nevertheless could understand. Whispers about the soul-less machine that presumed to be a woman. Blasphemy, they declared. An abomination. Unspeakable and unforgivable.
A slap in the face of God.
Which made her wonder: If she didn't have a soul, why did all that hurt? She conceded that her mother was her creator, but where did her mom get her brilliance, her humor, her love? Was it just brain chemistry, after all?
She didn't know. All she knew was that for whatever reason, it hurt – unspeakably deeply – for her existence to be called an insult. To God or creation or whatever, she didn't know. It just hurt.
And it was all so different now. So much different now, back in Tremorton. Back home.
Here, the park was the polar opposite of the desert courtyards. Here, almost everything was green. Here, only the details were beige and white – the dirt of the freshly raked softball field in the distance and the brilliance of the sidewalks.
Here, she was with a friend.
She was sitting with her legs stretched out and turned to the young boy on the grass next to her. They were in the shadows at the edge of a respectably wooded area on the fringe of the park.
"How's the ice cream?" she asked.
The 11-year-old boy with the thick black hair had just finished a lick on a double-scoop cone. He looked up with big, expressive eyes at the aqua-and-white robot. "It's great, Jenny! Thanks!"
She smiled. "My treat, Tuck. My pleasure."
She studied the scoops: bubble gum on the top, pistachio on the bottom. Not a combination she would have come up with, she realized – and she didn't even eat food. Bubble gum and pistachio ice cream together made her grateful for that.
Tuck was still, in many ways, a child, so had eagerly ordered the bubble gum. Then he surprised Jenny with the pistachio. The boy told her that Brad, his older brother, liked it and suggested he try it.
But, Brad warned him, it was something he'd have to grow into. He might not like it at first. It was a big change from what a child was used to.
"Glad you like it enough to wear it," Jenny chuckled and pointed to the stains on Tuck's red-and-black pullover shirt.
"You sound like my mom, Jen," he answered with irritation.
"Good. Might save you from a life of ice cream stains." She smirked.
The boy rolled his eyes; his tone was facetious. "Ha-ha … Save it for the wash cycle."
She grinned. The child had wit beyond his years, she thought. Often, it was dry and wry and pointed out the silliness – even ridiculousness – of the ways and worries of Brad and Jenny. But it was never mean. Always, it was gentle nudging because he knew – and loved – them well.
And she might have to get used to it. If she and Brad became closer. She still wasn't clear how that would go. But she would know. Her time away hadn't changed that. She would know.
The children in the desert loved their siblings. Jenny didn't doubt that.
But they lived where foreign robots had patrolled their streets, searched their homes, for reasons well beyond the children's understanding. She had seen the youngest ones clinging to their mothers, wearing tired-looking Western-style clothes that had seen better days and really didn't fit them. Usually sandals, too. A few had ratty sneakers that might have been trash at one time. They seemed to be considered the lucky ones.
The boys would gather in doorways a lot and, from there, would watch the patrols pass. The younger ones would giggle and laugh at the parade of metal people. The older ones would just watch quietly.
It was a quiet group that attacked her with a rock. The patrol had passed the group – older preteens, younger teens – and about a house length past them, she heard it. The "whiff" coming up from behind her. Something was approaching fast, but even for a robot, there was no time.
Two things happened at once: the impact and the "clang" of stone on metal on the back of her head. Her optics snapped to snowy screens. They returned instantly, and she turned fiercely.
The group of boys. Silent. Unmoving. Nothing to suggest who had thrown the rock, and she realized she could never tell.
And what she noticed most were the boys' eyes. They all had the suspicious, quiet eyes of the old men.
She turned back slowly – her watching them, them watching her – and walked off to rejoin the patrol.
"Monster!!" she heard them yell in a language she wished she didn't understand.
Jenny looked away from Tuck toward the green view before them. "They didn't have parks like this where I was in the Army," she said, more to herself than to the boy. "It was so different …"
The child had decided to try the pistachio again. He had been undecided the first time he tasted it. "Bet it was," he said. "How long were you in the Army, Jen?"
"Is the war over?" He licked the pistachio.
She sighed. The question stressed her systems, and sighing relieved the strain. "I don't know, Tuck. They stopped shooting, but it's like nothing has changed."
"I think you're right. But I knew some guys in the Army who thought they were doing some good for the people over there. And those guys were good people."
"Are they home now, like you?"
She closed her eyes. "No … not all of them …"
He thought. "Are they still over where you were?"
She bowed her head. "They're … in heaven, Tuck. That's … what some people believe. I hope they are ..."
A silence from the child. Then: "Like … they're dead?"
She whipped her head sharply, and her eyes flashed. "Know any other way to get to heaven, kid?!"
She regretted it instantly. The boy was trying to understand, and her emotion chip had surged. She turned away immediately. "I'm … sorry …," she whispered. "I'm not angry at you …"
Melted ice cream was running onto the waffle cone Tuck was holding. He noticed it slowly and licked it clean. His eyes lowered. "Jenny …," he said, "did you see … dead people … in the Army …?"
The robot drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. Tightly. "Yes …"
"Did you … hurt … anyone …?"
"Yes, Tuck, I did."
Another taste. Pistachio now. "But robots aren't supposed to hurt people, Jen."
"I know that," she replied softly.
She rested her chin on her knees and studied the grass on the softball field. "A lot of rules aren't followed in a war, Tuck," she explained. "Robots were allowed to disarm people. Even if we had to break their arms or legs."
The boy winced. "Ouch."
"But that was the most we could do. We weren't supposed to kill people. Ever."
He felt bubble gum crawl over his fingers and cleaned it off. "But how could you hurt someone? Aren't you a hero? People say you're a hero. You saved a guy. You got a medal …"
Hero. She had come to hate the word.
Yes, she had saved a man. Yes, she had won a medal. And in the very small world of Tremorton, one soldier winning a medal for combat valor was a very big thing.
She had gone home on leave after winning it – a reward for her action, along with a promotion from corporal to sergeant. Before Jenny left the combat theater, her mother – bubbly with excitement – had called by satellite to say the town planned a parade for her and a ceremony on the steps of City Hall. It made her so very proud, the woman said.
Jenny was horrified.
There followed a very long, very emotional satellite exchange (and very expensive, her mother still reminded her). By the end, the woman promised her daughter she'd tried to stop the parade. "Mom," Jenny had pleaded, "no parade! Tell them I just did my duty! Tell them that! Please, Mom, no parade! PLEASE!!"
There was a parade. A place like Tremorton wanted heroes, and heroes got parades. And so, the robot girl sat on the rear deck of an open convertible and waved at the people of her hometown – and managed to smile amid the flags and music and applause. The appearance of a smile, anyway.
And she stood on the steps of City Hall in her dress-uniform colors with her mother and the mayor and other officials. And there were the Tremorton High marching band and speeches and a framed resolution and cheers.
And it was, Jenny felt in the soul she might or might not have, a charade.
Still, she kept smiling and said a few words of thanks and how honored she was to be recognized by her home. And even as she spoke the words, she felt they were lies.
Still, she greeted her friends after the ceremony. And there were hugs and laughs – theirs, mostly – and too many mock salutes and too much playfully being called "Sarge."
Even the Krust cousins offered grudging congratulations. Jenny thanked them civilly, but she could see in their dark, spiteful eyes the frustration of hunters who had lost their favorite prey forever. That they knew being cruel to a decorated combat veteran would mark them as vicious – and vulgar. And the Krust cousins would never suffer being considered vulgar. Other than after the ceremony, she hadn't seen them again. Not even after her discharge. She doubted she'd ever see them again.
And deep into that later night, back at home, on her knees, she sobbed and wailed into her mother's lap. The woman stroked the back of Jenny's metal head tenderly. She shushed her wailing daughter and whispered, "I know, dear … I know …"
"BUT THEY DON'T KNOW!!" the robot screamed into her mother's lap. "THEY DON'T KNOW!! I'M NOT A HERO!! I'M A FRAUD!!" And there followed the sobbing that was gasping for air to cool her workings from the overload.
Her mother spoke gently. "No, you're not, XJ-9. You saved a man's life. Another man lost his. That's war."
Jenny stayed in her mother's lap until distress wore the robot out. Finally, she slumped onto the living room floor and curled up. The woman left her there. Her daughter had found some peace for now, so she left Jenny with it. Soon, the robot's eyes were closed, and the subtle puffs of ventilation that marked her sleep mode started.
Her mother got a blanket and covered her daughter. Then she turned out the light and left Jenny to her dreams. She prayed deeply that they be happy. Jenny deserved that right now, she thought.
Jenny's friend Sheldon learned her truth before she returned to duty. The robot respected he was a friend and had always cared for her. So she told him how she had won her medal. Every moment. Every detail. Everything.
He accepted. Like he always had accepted her. And not with his usual slavish infatuation. He was quiet for the longest time after she finished. Finally, he acknowledged that she had dealt with horror the only way she could in the moment. It was the first time she had ever seen Sheldon interact with her as something even approaching an adult.
"You can always talk with me, Jenny," he said, then chuckled. "Even if it's the last thing you want to do."
She answered with a long hug. And, strangely – startlingly, surprisingly – it felt good. "I won't wait that long …," she whispered into his shoulder.
He had been good practice for Brad.
The night before she left, by Tremorton Lake in Brad's arms, she told again the story she hated telling. Sobbed it to him, rather. Fear of him rejecting her unsettled her. The story came out in bits and pieces and tears. But the story was told.
He, too, had been silent afterward. Finally, a simple answer:
"That's war, Jenny. I accept that."
"Do you hate me?" she asked.
He thought. "Well … that would be like hating my grandfather because he fought in Iraq. Or my great-uncle in Afghanistan," the boy said. "But I don't. They did what they had to do, Jenny. Just like you. There's no difference."
It started, in a way, to make her feel better. It later ended with a kiss as unique as they were different. And Brad's whisper in a final hug:
"Come back to us, Jenny. We love you …"
It strengthened her. It wasn't as specific about his desires as she might have wished, but it was strength. And it had let her return to service with the desire – every moment during the rest of her tour – to live. To return home. To him.
Because she would know his dreams.
"Some people say I'm a hero, Tuck," Jenny said in the park. "I guess I did one thing that was heroic …"
The boy eagerly licked the slowly melting bubble gum ice cream. "Well, yeah! I tell everyone at school I know Jenny the hero."
And that is why we're here, Tuck. That's why we're here …
She straightened her legs back out, leaned backward and propped herself up with her arms. "You know," she began, looking back at him, "Brad told me you said that. That you're bragging like that."
"I'd like you to stop it, Tuck. Please."
It blindsided him, and his eyes widened. "Huh?"
"Please don't keep saying I'm a hero. I just did what I had to do to save someone. And bragging that you know someone who's well known makes you look conceited." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Tuck, but it's true. And I don't want you to look bad to people."
He looked confused. "But … Jenny … aren't you proud to be a hero?"
"I'm proud I saved a man's life."
Pistachio again. "So what's the problem?"
She closed her eyes. "I'm not proud … of how I did it."
"How'd you do it?"
That's why we're here, Tuck. That's why we're here …
"Well, she said, facing him again, "you know I have to obey the same laws you do, right?"
"Did you know I have to follow other laws as a robot?"
A slurp of bubble gum. "Really? Like what?"
"The first one says I can never harm a human."
"Oh, yeah. I know that one." Then his eyes darted as he recalled something. "But … you … have … hurt people, Jenny …"
"I know, Tuck."
"Like Himcules when he was robbing people."
"But he was a bad guy, so I guess it was OK, huh?"
"Some people … might say that," she said. "I don't know."
The boy brightened. "And you beat aliens – and robots from the Cluster! That was cool, Jenny!"
"Some people would say they aren't human, Tuck."
He went back to pistachio. "So it was OK to beat them up?"
She shrugged. "Like I said, Tuck, I don't know. I don't know about a lot of stuff anymore."
A whisper to herself: "Not since I went over …"
The boy hadn't heard. "What?"
Another sigh. "Nothing … Anyway, you know how I have something like a … temper … right?"
He squinted coolly. "Like when I kept calling you that one time?"
She blinked and recalled from a fog. "Oh, yeah …"
"Just because I wanted to show my friends I knew a super robot who'd answer my call?"
"And you chased me down the street after that, firing your laser eyes at me?"
She grinned. "Uh-huh …"
Another sample of bubble gum. "Yes, Jennifer," he said dryly, "I'd say I'm aware you have a temper."
She nodded in playful understanding. "Well, good. OK … my temper comes from something called an emotion chip. If I didn't have it, I wouldn't react emotionally to anything. Like I wouldn't laugh at a joke."
"But you don't laugh at my jokes now, Jenny."
"That's because they're not funny, Tuck."
Another smirk. "Sorry. I couldn't resist."
The boy slurped more pistachio. "The next time, Jennifer …," he said, even more dryly than before, "you might want to try."
She smiled. "Deal."
"OK, you have a temper and an emotion chip. So why don't you think you're a hero?"
A sigh. "Um … you know how something can happen so fast, you don't have time to think?"
"Like a pop quiz? I'm like that with pop quizzes."
"Kinda true for me, too … No – I mean like …" She recalled a winter's day once. "Like you and Brad and I had a snowball fight the winter before I went into the Army. Remember that?"
Why that did that image come to mind so fast, she wondered ...
"When you beat up that Cluster robot?"
"I had one wicked snow fort."
"You did. I remember. OK ... Before I showed up, did Brad ever suddenly pop up and surprise you with a snowball? When you were right there?"
"What did you do?"
"I ducked and threw a snowball at him while I was ducking."
She imagined that: Someone attacking suddenly, and the target just … reacting.
And she knew why the winter scene had come to her. She felt now the cold of that day. And the cold she felt on one hot day in the desert.
She felt the cold of horror.
From the mouths of babes, Jenny thought. She had heard that somewhere once, and now she knew what it meant. And that it was true.
She collected herself. "So … you didn't think about hitting Brad? You just did it?"
The pistachio was growing on Tuck, but he kept with the bubble gum for now. "Well, yeah!" he said. "Brad would've clobbered me if I didn't!"
"Were you … afraid …?" the robot asked quietly.
"Your emotions took over?"
"My emotions sometimes overtake me, Tuck."
He rolled his eyes again. "Tell me about it, Miss Laser Eyes …"
"Tuck …," she started softly, "sometimes … in a war … in a battle … soldiers don't have time to think. They just do what they have to do … to stay alive … or save their fellow soldiers …"
Finally back to the pistachio. "Like when you saved that guy?"
She bowed her head. "Yeah … And sometimes, the things you have to do aren't … nice … Sometimes … they're ugly, Tuck … very ugly …"
When the boy spoke again, she could hear his caution growing. "Jenny … did you ever do … something like that …?"
That's why we're here, Tuck. That's why we're here …
She sighed deeply, and it hurt.Time to grow up, little friend …
Jenny stood up and held out a hand. "Tuck, come with me," she said.
He studied the hand for a moment. " 'Kay …," he said, then took it.
She pulled him up and noticed that the bubble gum ice cream was almost gone. It had a precarious perch at this point. Almost ready to fall away in a traumatic moment and be lost forever.
She jerked a thumb toward the trees. "Let's go in there."
Tuck just nodded. He wasn't sure what else to do.
She led the boy delicately through the growth beneath the green shade of the leaves. Occasionally, she would stop and look around. Then she would sigh, and they would head off again.
"Wha'cha lookin' for, Jen?" Tuck asked. He made another lick at the vanishing bubble gum.
"A tree," she replied, not looking at him.
"Jenny, we're in the woods. There are, like, trees everywhere."
She kept scanning. "I'm looking for a specific tree."
He looked around, too, and didn't understand. "Well … good luck with that …"
Then they were there. She saw it. Not a clearing, really – just a sunnier area in the arbor. Scattered thin shafts of sunlight made their way among the green air to the sparse grass that the slight light had afforded. Tiny bugs flitted through the brightness near the leaf canopy – grateful, the robot suspected, for the warmth. A bird, unseen, screeched a rhythmic call as they entered its territory but soon stopped.
"OK," Jenny said. "This is good."
She had found the tree. It had a Y-shaped split off its trunk into its two main branches and was about the right distance away. And the trunk was about the width of a man's head.
About the width of his head. She knew it. She felt it.
She felt cold.
Tuck tasted the bubble gum and was unimpressed. "OK. Now what?"
She faced him. "Tuck … you know that war isn't a game, right?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"People shoot at each other. With guns and things."
Her seriousness began creeping into him. "I know …"
"They're trying to kill each other. Kill each other," she repeated. "Do you understand that?"
"My parents told me that, Jenny. But they've never really been able to tell me why."
The robot was silent. Then: "I don't know, either, Tuck. I really don't. And I saw people do it."
"Was that … scary?"
"Yes. More than scary. And sad." She sighed. "Tuck … you know I love you, don't you?"
He shrugged. "I guess."
"And that I love my mom and Brad and Sheldon and a lot of other people, right?"
"Even the Krust cousins?"
"Didn't think so …"
"The point is," she continued, "I love and respect you all enough that I won't lie to you. Or sugarcoat what I did in the war. That's why I'm going to show you what I'm going to show you now. All right?"
Another taste of bubble gum. It was beginning to merge into the pistachio, but the top scoop – what little was left – hung on tenaciously. "All right …," Tuck answered.
Jenny swept an arm toward the tree she found. "See that tree over there? The one that looks like a Y?"
He turned and squinted. "Yeah."
"Pretend that's an enemy soldier. And its trunk is about as wide as his head. Got that?"
"Tuck, do you know what I did in the war?"
"I fought with other robots, and we tried to destroy enemy tanks and stuff like that."
His big eyes flared. "Cool!"
Jenny regarded him coolly in return. She suddenly felt angry, offended at his naivete. But she stayed silent for a moment. She held the tongue she didn't have. "Nooo … it was … tough, Tuck …," she finally said. "Anyway, I can fly, so I did reconnaissance. Do you know what that means?"
The boy felt ice cream on the back of his hand. He licked it off and shook his head.
"It means that I'd fly around to find the enemy. Then I'd tell my human commander where they were. He'd decide where we should go to fight – and how to attack. That would change a lot in a battle."
"But he'd be on the ground," the robot explained, "so he was always in danger of being shot."
"Yes." It hurt to say it.
"Well … he was near a wrecked house, and an enemy soldier was hiding behind part of a wall. He shot my commander in the leg."
The child winced again.
"My commander was a major," she noted. "That's just above a captain but a bit below a general. When the major was shot, he fell down."
"OK … Imagine the major is on the ground where we are." She indicated the tree again. "And imagine the enemy soldier is where that tree is, like I said. And he's behind a low part of that wrecked wall, just like at the snow fort."
"I was flying just above the major when he was shot, and I saw him fall. And the enemy was aiming at the major again."
She leaned over to the boy's face with an intensely sober gaze. "To kill him, Tuck," she said quietly. "To … make … him … die …"
He swallowed hard. Not from the ice cream; there was little bubble gum left anymore.
Jenny straightened up. Her right hand suddenly vanished into her arm with a whirr. Then there was a click. Then another click. Then another whirr.
From out of her arm came a slim metal shaft with a single – vicious – barb on the end.
Tuck froze. "Is that … a harpoon …?"
"Yes," she replied, studying the barb.
"Like … for a whale?"
"Among other things …," she said, as if her mind were somewhere else at the moment. The horrible memory, like the weapon, was locked in now.
"I didn't know you had a harpoon, Jenny …," the child said.
This is where we start, little friend …
"I flew down to cover the major with my body," she continued. "It's made of metal, so it can usually stop bullets."
He glanced back at her. "You're a robot …," he observed.
For some reason, it hurt Jenny to hear it. "I know …"
Another taste of bubble gum. It was beginning to lose its flavor. "So … you saved him, right?"
That's why we're here, Tuck. That's why we're here …
She answered in the most mechanical voice the boy had ever heard her use. As if she were a teacher about to impart a lesson to a student who might not fully realize its importance at his age. But a harsh, necessary lesson that had to be taught. And grasped at all costs.
"Watch me, Tucker ..."
To his surprise, she knelt, leaned forward and propped herself up – almost flat on the ground – with her left arm. She raised her right arm – the harpoon projecting – and aimed at the Y-shaped tree.
"I covered the major like this," she explained. It was flat, as if she were merely reciting some mundane instructions. "All I wanted to do was protect him. The harpoon just came out.
"I didn't think, Tuck. I just … reacted. Like you at the snow fort." She paused. "My emotion chip kicked in.
"I was scared, Tuck. Just like you that day. I was scared."
The boy listened.
"The enemy soldier shot at us at the exact same moment I covered the major. The exact same moment.
"And he shot me, Tuck. He shot me.
"And in the exact same moment I was hit, I did this."
The child didn't see what happened next. He heard it:
The "thumph" of Jenny firing the weapon. The tiny "saavisk" of its flight. The heavy "pumf" of it hitting the tree. The quickly dying "wingwingwing" of the harpoon's vibration, the shaft attached to the robot's arm by a cable. The bird screeched, and more followed, and the canopy exploded with the rustling of escaping wings and the leaves they struck.
Only then did his vision register. He vaguely sensed a white-yellow shower of splinters exploding from behind the tree. The guts of the tree being blasted out.
She looked back at the boy over her right shoulder.
"That was the man's head, Tuck," she whispered.
No reaction. No response. Just him staring at the tree. In the silence, the bubble gum ice cream finally fell away and was lost forever.
"The man's head," Jenny repeated intensely. "Like your head. My head. Brad's head. Your parents' heads. Sheldon's head."
Her words stayed coldly even. "I put a harpoon through a man's head, Tuck. And … I had to pull it back …"
She looked toward the tree again. From her right arm came a grinding whirr. The cable tightened, and from the tree came a steely squeal as the harpoon was pulled back through the trunk.
Jenny grunted loudly and jerked her right arm viciously toward herself. Splinters exploded again from the tree, this time from the near side. As fast as it had shot out, the harpoon snapped back into the robot's arm with a loud clang. It sank back into the limb with the previous whirr. After the clicks and final whirr, her hand reappeared in locked in place.
Tuck still stared at the tree. It now had a crater on the near side, a scar of white-yellow wet-looking wood, ripped and maybe fatal.
The robot got on her feet again. She was slow – seemingly drained – and assessed the stunned boy before her.
"Tuck …," she said.
Frozen, he transfixed on the tree.
He stared at the tree.
"Tucker," she said firmly.
He turned his head slowly to her, as if it were the only movement his body was capable of at that moment. His eyes locked on hers.
"I killed a man, Tuck," she said.
He stared at her.
"I saved the major by killing the enemy soldier."
His breathing got visibly deeper.
"I got a medal for saving the major. They didn't care how."
"I saved a man's life. Another man lost his."
He lowered his gaze to the ice cream cone.
"That's war, Tuck."
The pistachio ice cream had started to coat his hand like a second skin, a living thing that was becoming a part of him now. Out of nowhere, the thought occurred that the taste had been very difficult to accept. Maybe he'd grow into it, like Brad said.
He didn't know. All he knew now was that he wasn't ready to accept it.
He snapped the cone away, and drops of melted pistachio flung from his hand. But a light coating remained with him.
And he looked at Jenny.
His eyes were those of the quiet boys a half-world away. The boys with the eyes of old men. The ones who called her names behind her back.
Monster, Tuck's eyes said.
"I'm not hungry anymore, Jenny …," he said. He sounded lost.
"You needed to know," she replied firmly. "I won't lie to you, Tuck. Or Brad. It's a part of me now. Forever."
"Yes. And he accepts what happened."
There was quiet between them for a moment. Finally, the robot spoke softly: "You think I'm a monster. I can see it in your eyes, Tuck."
"Did you have to kill the guy, Jenny?" He sounded as if he were at the very outskirts of desperation, hoping that what he had learned wasn't real.
She shrugged. "I don't know. I never will. But it happened. I can't undo it. No one can. And remember," she stressed, "he shot me."
"You're still alive," he growled quietly.
"Let me show you something, Tuck." She pointed at her right shoulder. "See that?"
He squinted where she indicated. There was a small imperfection on the right shoulder, as if someone had plugged a small hole with filler and sanded it down. What remained was a ragged circle of patch – a blemish under the high-gloss aqua of Jenny's upper body.
"That's where he shot me," she explained.
He faced her again.
"They patched me up after the battle. Just enough to get the job done. And the man's bullet is still inside me, Tuck. It hit a component and lodged in my frame. It didn't seem to interfere with my operation, so they left it in. They left it in."
He went back to the patch. His expression was steadier now but still not settled.
"When I got home," Jenny said, "my mom said she could remove the bullet, fix my frame and give me a new upper body. It would be like the man never shot me.
"I told her no, Tuck."
His eyes back to hers again.
"I don't know if the guy I killed was good or bad. I'll never know. But the last thing he ever did – before I killed him – is a part of me now. And I want it to be.
"I asked my mom to sand the patch down more, just enough so you could still see it. She wanted a new coat of paint over it, and I said OK because it seemed to make her feel better."
Jenny saw that though Tuck's eyes were steadier, they were still hard.
"I'm not a monster, Tuck," she whispered. "Monsters don't cry for their victims …
"And I have cried for him … almost every time I look in a mirror …"
Silence in the woods. At last, the robot crossed her arms. "That's how I got my medal, Tuck. You'll have to make up your own mind about it. All I'm asking is that you stop telling everybody I'm a 'hero' for it. You can say I saved a man during a battle. But I won't be called a 'hero' for killing a man. Do you understand that?"
He nodded, mostly as a reflex. He was merely registering her words in that moment.
Her tone turned softer. "I'd … still like to be your friend, Tucker Carbunkle."
His face was blank, his eyes unfocused. "Can I … go home now … Jenny …?"
She thought sadly. "Yeah. I'll walk home with you."
He had already turned from her. "I knowwhere I live," he said, not looking back, and walked away.
She watched him vanish among the trees in the direction they came from. He barged through the underbrush as if he were struggling past a barrier, a hurdle, that he was barely able to handle. But he had to move forward. He had no choice. It was the only direction open to him. Soon, the woods took him completely into its green shade.
Jenny stood for a while afterward, watching where he had gone. She sighed very deeply. She hadn't realized how much stress had been building on her systems. Finally, she sat in the cool grass, surrounded by the scattered beams of light.
A bird screeched, and it startled the robot. She looked up and saw it flapping down to a branch. The tiny bugs still flitted in the light among the leaves. Things were settling again.
But in the time she and Tuck had been there, the angle of the light had changed. The place was already no longer where they had started. It was different forever. The robot glanced at the scarred tree. It would never be the same, either.
Just like Tuck. She wondered whether she had had the right to share her pain with him.
Yes, she concluded. Brad had given her that right. He wanted his younger brother to understand one painful truth of the world. And it was best, Brad decided, that Tuck learn it from one who had lived it.
She shook her head. Maybe now – probably, she supposed – he was less of a child than he was when he awoke this day. Older, in a way.
His eyes were already older.
Please, she thought, don't ever let Tuck glare at me from a courtyard, from a doorway. Ever. Please save me this friend.
And it struck her in that instant – in the soul she might or might not have – that she had absolutely no idea whom she was talking to.
She wondered …
She sat a long time with the birds and the bugs and the trees. Finally, she stood and stretched to regain the flexibility in her joints. She took in a final view.
Was her painful honesty worth what happened with Tuck?
Yes. Because honesty was respect, she answered herself, and she respected Tuck, as she respected Brad. And sometimes, respect came from … love. Perhaps being with Brad was becoming love. She would tell him that she'd spoken with Tuck, told him her truth – and that retelling would be painful. Probably.
But Brad would be there. That would be strength for her. She knew he was strength.
And she would know more.
Jenny started off at last in the direction Tuck had taken. She disappeared among the trees, and soon, like him, she would come out from under the shade.
"My Life as a Teenage Robot," its characters and situations are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2008 by George Pollock, Jr.