Chapter 8: In Between
The memory soaked through him like rain. The day itself had been mundane, it was another typical evening. Tobio sat up to the dining room table, his feet just shy of touching the floor. He was finishing the last of his homework, close enough to keep a conversation with Nora in the kitchen.
"What if you asked your father about it?"
Tobio flipped the finished page over. "I could, but who knows when that will be?"
It had been three days since he last saw him. He knew his father's job gave him long and strange hours. Eventually he would come home, finally done with whatever project he had been working on. With Tobio so happy to see him, but like always it would never last. When things felt like they were getting better, he'd pull away. Another project. Another reason. Another excuse.
"I can talk to him for you if you want?" she offered.
"No, it's fine."
But it wasn't fine. Even that weekend, he could count on another call to take his father back to work again. Still, who knew when they would get another whole Sunday like this? It couldn't hurt to try. Tobio leaned against his arm. He knew he'd respond better that way. 'But you just got back. Do you have to?'
'You have to understand Tobio, the robots, they need me.'
'That's what you always say... ' Underneath he was completely serious, but he didn't want to ruin the mood. So he tried to play it off as a joke. 'Who do you like better, robots or me?'
'Well, Tobio that's-'
Their times together were becoming fewer and farther apart. Tobio was starting to wonder if the good times were even worth dealing with the spaces in between. The control, the arguments, and the silences that followed. Even if there was a apology, he doubted it would be sincere. He would find a way to flip it back on him, and Tobio would be the one left apologizing. He frowned at the unfairness of it all. Tobio blinked the bad thoughts away and turned back to his homework. "I get he's busy but-How many hours has he been home this week?"
Nora ran a quick total in her head. "Master Tenma has been here thirty six hours since Sunday." She held back from commenting on it, but even she knew that number was getting smaller and smaller.
"And there's one hundred sixty eight hours in a week." he mumbled into his homework. It was a little more than last week, but not much. It almost made him feel like he was being avoided. Or worse, only tolerated. He wished he knew what he did wrong. His father's expectations of him were high. He knew he wasn't perfect, but tried to meet them as much as possible. As much as humanly possible, there was the problem.
The only things he likes are robots. He didn't mind being human, but he sometimes wondered. What if I was a robot?
It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed his mind. He knew he shouldn't think like that, but he could understand the appeal. Robots don't cry, they don't get tired, they don't get into trouble. You can make them as perfect as you want, He twirled his pencil between his fingers. If I was as perfect as he wants, he wouldn't be gone all the time. We wouldn't argue, he wouldn't yell, everything would be normal…
Normal. Tobio shook his head. Like that was ever going to happen.
"Dinner will be ready in ten minutes." Nora's warm metallic voice called from the kitchen. "Should I set a timer?"
"Oh, uh no! I'm almost done." He only had a few problems left. Putting his things away wouldn't take long either.
Nora returned with a stack of plates and gently set them down on the table. "Don't worry, he is scheduled to arrive home at eight tonight."
He tried not to roll his eyes, he knew Nora was only trying to reassure him. Instead, he crossed his arms and glanced at the floor. "Yeah he's scheduled to, but he doesn't."
"I know sweetheart," She had also noticed the pattern. "I know."
Nora watched him for a moment, thinking of a way to cheer him up. Then she remembered the toys she'd put away in the hall closet. After dinner would be a perfect time. "How about we play another game tonight?"
It was a short term solution, but that was enough to coax a small smile out of him. She always had time for him no matter what. She was one of few who put an effort in, and that couldn't be measured in hours. "You think I'll break your winning streak?"
"You might beat me this time." she teased, ruffling his hair.
His memory could give him a hundred more examples if there were time. The moment seemed so fragile looking back on it. Like at the slightest touch it would all be lost, like the surface of a soap bubble.
And then he let go. He had grabbed him, hadn't he? Tobio knew he felt the brush of skin under his fingers. And then for a brief flash, there was nothing. Can't even do that right. No, shut up! He blinked and relaxed his fists, finally himself again. Was that me, or is this me?
But he hadn't gone through with it. Tobio watched his father catch his breath and rub the back of his neck. Where the skin was raw, but not broken enough to bleed. Everything seemed slowed down. Tobio held his hands to his chest. He glanced down at them, finally able to recognize them again. …what am I doing?!
His heart would have been pounding if he still had one. "I used to want to be just like you," he whispered as he backed away.
The shadows slid away in ribbons. Even though the threads between them were ripped and frayed, they were still attached. The ones he tried so hard to hold onto, but now he couldn't get rid of them fast enough. They broke and reformed, sticking to him like black spider webs. It was hopeless.
Nora, this won't fix you. It might be satisfying in the moment, or even feel justified. But in the end, it wouldn't solve anything. It wouldn't fix anything between them either. Or for the boy with his face in the next room. (The eye he had placed in his room saw that he was asleep. Unaware of what had almost happened.)
Tobio looked down at him, from where he stood and around the walls. At the parent he thought he could have if he tried hard enough. Right there out of reach. But seeing him like this he realized, he wasn't that big. He wasn't that intimidating.
"They always said no one loved robots as much as you…" The anger still burned, and his mouth formed a hard line. But it softened with pity and disgust taking it's place. "Now look at you."
The last of the shadows fell away as the invisible walls snapped back into place. One by one the eyes slipped away, down to the floor. At the bottom they pooled with what little was left before disappearing back into the walls. There were more important things to worry about. It wasn't worth it anymore.
"I'll never be like you."
And then he ran, again. The cracks may have been gone, but threads still held tight and started to pull pieces of him away. He kept running but didn't fight it. By the time he reached the end of the hallway, he had disappeared. The marks on his father's neck were the only sign he had been there.
You still won't look at me, but... It was close, too close. But I wouldn't look at me either...
Tobio decided he wasn't going to mention any of that. Especially not to someone he just met. He doubted Uran would see an incident like this as part of a larger whole. At best, he figured she would get mad. At worst, ask about it and end up running screaming. Worst of all, he wouldn't blame her. If he were in her place, he would too.
Uran's gaze was still on the living room. She picked up something coming off of him that made her energy levels glow but then dip. She decided to focus on the feeling that was the strongest. It all fit together in her mind. His Nora must have been important to him if he found a way show her to Astro. "You really love her, huh?"
"She's my friend. Father just saw her as a machine. He never really approved of it. But…I guess he never really approved of anyone…"
"Do you think he would have approved of me?"
If Astro was her brother, wouldn't she know? It took Tobio a moment to process her question. Unless, he thought, that meant she was built by someone else. That was a relief. "…It's a good thing you never have to meet him."
Tobio's words seemed more confident, his slight shrug could even mean he was joking. But she heard something else in his tone. She wasn't sure what it was, but she knew she didn't like it. Uran headed past him back down the stairs, and then paused. "He wouldn't fix her. Then what?"
Even during the arguing, he'd seen the way his father's robot could wear his face so comfortably. It should have bothered him more in the big picture. But he wasn't afraid of him, he was afraid for him. "They argued some more. After that, Father took him with him," he glanced away. "And I never saw them again..."
The two were quiet as they continued to stare down into the living room. At Nora, at the dust and spider webs. Where the floorboards still met neatly under the decay. The wood still heavy with moisture, as if the walls and floors could breathe. The air felt heavy, held up and held back by invisible walls. But the furniture felt hollow and insignificant. Withholding their weight, or breath, out of sympathy.
"I looked everywhere…I mean-I thought…" He didn't understand. "Why would he come back? Why here?"
All this time, he was trying to figure out the same thing she was. Uran turned back and gave him a long look. She finally asked the question that had been bothering her since she found him. "Why do you?"
As if he hadn't played that back in his head hundreds of times. If he hadn't shown him, they never would have left. But if he hadn't- He didn't want to think of what could have happened. Something saved him, even if I couldn't. There was a small comfort there. At least there weren't two robots in the basement.