by Glenn McCarty, illustrations by Joe Sutphin
The first time Martin Flurburger discovered his left shoe floating in the fish tank, he figured it was an accident. He didn’t even take the time to consider how a brown saddle shoe could rise five feet off the ground or dunk itself into a covered tank.
He simply fished it out, went to sleep, and dreamed of robots.
The next day, when both shoes bobbed gently in the tank, each one decorated with a small plastic palm tree tucked through the laces, Martin’s blood pressure rose slightly. He grumbled to himself as he plunged both arms into the tank to retrieve his shoes.
But the third day, after again fishing out both shoes, he stormed into the kitchen, a soggy saddle shoe in each hand. “Emily,” he said, pointing to his four-year old sister, who sat painting quietly at the kitchen table. “She threw my shoes into the fish tank. Again.”
Martin’s mother, who was used to these sorts of spats, knelt between Martin and his sister and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Martin, you’re nine years old. This seems like something that you need to work out with your sister, don’t you think?”
Emily looked up at Martin from her art project and beamed an angelic smile. As she did, Martin noticed that her canvas was not any ordinary piece of paper. It was his blueprint for the automatic tooth-brushing machine which he had been faithfully designing for the past two weeks. Now, thanks to Emily, it looked like a unicorn roller-skating with a polar bear on top of a rainbow.
Martin fumed. He sputtered. Words failed him. He turned as red as a habanero pepper. He made the sorts of noises his father’s fancy coffee maker made as it whipped foam into the top of his drink. Emily had gone too far. But, he noticed his mother staring at him, and he sighed. “Okay, Mom,” he said through gritted teeth. Oh, he was going to work it out alright.
So Martin returned to his room and began to tinker. And if there was one thing Martin was good at, it was tinkering. At the age of six, he had designed and built a method to convert the light waves from the morning sun into energy to power a contraption that raised the blinds in his room, pulled back his covers, switched on his lamp, and bathed the room in the ambient sounds of pan flute from his stereo. It was a labor-saving device of the highest order. Unfortunately, since Martin’s father’s lawnmower accidentally veered into the road one afternoon, and he discovered several key parts were strangely missing, Martin had been asked to take a small break from tinkering.
Martin slammed the door behind him, and pulled a large box out from under his bed. Mind spinning, he began categorizing and arranging all the spare bits and bobs, gears, and circuits in his stash, all the heaps of aluminum and scrap metal he usually kept on hand. It really was a shame the only laboratory Mom and Dad allowed him was his small closet. Of course, after the incident with the butane torch and Mom’s muffin tins, that was understandable.
This was Tuesday. On Thursday afternoon Grandpa Ed and Grandma Maizy would arrive at the house to pick up their darling granddaughter Emily for a three-day weekend. Three days of Emily-free life. They were the perfect opportunity. And, as Martin rummaged, a plan began to hatch itself. This situation called for something more than a simple labor-saving device. He aimed to make his entire life free of what he called S.S. – “Sister Stress.” He aimed – well, he hadn’t even named the project yet. He only had a code name. Which not only made it more secretive; it made it awesome.
He called it “Project EE1000.”
The next day after school, Martin barricaded himself in his room and began to tinker. Tongue clamped between his lips, a battered copy of “Welding for Beginners” propped up in front of him, and the heavenly sounds of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata drifting out of the speakers of his plastic Winnie the Pooh stereo, Martin set to work at a fevered pace.
Finally, Thursday afternoon arrived. Martin stood on the front porch waving goodbye, a wide smile pasted to his face. Grandpa Ed rolled the windows down, and Martin could see Emily’s shining face from her seat in the back.
“Goodbye, Martin,” she called.
“Goodbye, Emily,” he called back, his grin widening. As the car disappeared around the bend at the end of the road, he bolted for his room to put the finishing touches on Project EE1000. By the time he was called for dinner, she was almost complete.
“So what’s been keeping you occupied so intently the past few days, Marty?” his father asked from across the table.
Martin swallowed his bite of chicken pot pie, set down his fork, folded his napkin, cracked his knuckles, and swallowed once or twice more, making sure he had his parents’ full attention before beginning.
“Mother, Father, I have an announcement,” he began. “I have made a significant and long-lasting upgrade to the make-up of this family. Beginning tomorrow, I will be introducing you to my new, improved sister. I will be calling her Emily-1000. She is a robot.”
Mom gasped. Dad dropped his fork. “You built a robot … sister?” Dad asked.
Martin nodded proudly. “I have put Harvard and Stanford Universities on speed dial, should you be interested in making college plans for me,” he said.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, son,” Dad said.
“But why?” Mom asked.
“It’s very simple,” Martin explained. “Have you noticed that Emily is … a terror?”
“No,” Martin’s dad said.
“Not really,” Martin’s mom replied.
Martin blinked in surprise. “Really? She’s messy, always in the way, and never, ever shares any of her toys with anyone. In fact, she usually just takes things without asking, and sometimes, your shoes end up in the fish tank!”
“Yes, well, we understand you can get a little frustrated by Emily sometimes,” Martin’s father said. “But she’s four. She’s learning. Don’t you think you should offer her a bit of patience and understanding while she learns?”
Martin shook his head. “Maybe you should wait until you meet Emily-1000 tomorrow,” he said. “You’ll be singing a different tune.”
Martin’s father smiled warmly. “Well, I suppose we’ll see.”
Martin beamed. That was the answer he had been looking for.
Martin awoke early on Friday; in truth, he hadn’t slept a wink all night. After the necessary last-minute fine-tuning to Emily, he had stared at the ceiling, memorizing the plastic star constellations above. Finally, he fell asleep and dreamed of robots.
He was seated quietly at the breakfast table when his parents appeared in the doorway. Their eyes immediately drifted to the corner, where Emily, three-feet, six inches of solid aluminum, stood in the corner. Her square head, formerly a stainless steel toaster, was topped by the stringy head of a mop, and two eyes had been helpfully drawn on with magic marker. She wore a gingham checked apron over her squat, square body.
“Break-fast to Martin, my be-loved brother,” Emily-1000 repeated in a kind, robotic voice. With a whirring and humming of gears, she glided across the linoleum floor and stopped next to Martin. Then she smoothly set a plate of eggs, toast, and bacon, a glass of grapefruit juice, and a cut lily in a vase on the table in front of him. Then, she turned to Martin’s mother.
“Mo-ther, dearest, would you care for some break-fast?” she asked in that same, sing-song voice.
Martin’s mother blinked, then clutched her father’s arm. “Charles, he did it,” she said in a hushed voice.
“I believe he did,” Martin’s father said.
“Mo-ther, dearest, would you care for some break fast?” Emily-1000 repeated. Martin’s mother snapped to attention. “Yes, I’ll … I’ll have what Martin had.”
“My plea-sure,” Emily-1000 said, and whirred into gear.
Martin leaned back in his chair and munched his toast proudly.
The rest of the first day passed in a splendid oasis of peace and quiet. When Martin wanted all the plastic dinosaurs to construct an epic carnivore vs. herbivore battle in the living room, Emily complied. All Martin had to say was a simple, “Emily, share,” and she backed away smoothly.
When Martin sat in the squashy chair in the corner, a simple, “Book, please, Emily,” was all it took to have his copy of Tom Swift placed into his hands. (He had programmed his latest reading selection into her controls that morning). Then, a simple “Hot cocoa, Emily” would do the trick for a quiet 30 minutes, or 45 if he preferred, of reading time. And, at bed time, Emily-1000 stood in the corner while she played herself a lullaby, read herself books, then switched off into “sleep” mode for the evening.
That evening, Martin again lay in bed memorizing constellations and congratulating himself on his success. Every boy should be so lucky as to have a little sister who did everything she was told. The first time.
Breakfast the next day went exactly the same: eggs, toast, and bacon a cut lily, and two helpings of grapefruit juice. Until the final moments, when Martin’s command of “Emily, clear my dishes,” led to a glass of juice spilled in Martin’s lap. Then, Emily turned and promptly ran into the wall next to the refrigerator. CRASH!
“A simple glitch,” Martin promised, as his mother fetched a rag to wipe off the black smudge on her flowered wallpaper. “Have it fixed in a jiffy.”
Unfortunately, this was not the only glitch of Day Two. After Martin instructed Emily to set up the chess game, he returned to the room to find Emily stuffing the pieces into her mouth. Horrified, Martin could only stare as her metal jaws crunch, crunch, crunched down on a mouthful of kings and pawns.
No matter, Martin thought, sweeping the remains of the pieces into the garbage. She just needs a bit of rest. And, so do I, he thought with a yawn. He led Emily back into her charging station in the laundry room, plugged her in, and powered her down for an afternoon nap. Then, he wandered upstairs to his room and fell asleep to the soothing strains of Mozart.
Martin awoke to a pounding on his door. Before he could roll over, his mother burst in.
“She’s … her head fell off,” she spluttered.
“What?” Martin asked, sitting upright.
“It’s just lying there on the laundry room floor.”
“Well, that’s unexpected,” Martin said calmly. “No worries, mother. Probably a bolt come loose. I’ll be right down.” And with a sip of ginger ale, Martin grabbed his toolbox, stuffed a crescent wrench into his pocket, and headed downstairs. A few clockwise turns later, Emily-1000 again had a head, and she beamed her beautiful, robotic smile at Martin and his mother.
“See,” Martin said to his mother. “Good as new.”
“Good as new,” Emily-1000 repeated, and she ran into the wall again.
“Oops,” Martin said. “I’m not sure why she keeps doing that.” He opened up Emily’s control panel and began to tinker.
“Martin,” his mother began, “Have you given any thought to how your sister – the real Emily – will take this when she comes back?”
Martin paused. To be honest, he hadn’t. He had been so fixated on solving the problem in front of him, he hadn’t considered what having two Emily’s in his life would involve. “Well,” he began. “No, I guess I haven’t. Do you think Emily will mind?”
“Mind?” Martin’s mother said. “How would you feel if you came back from a weekend at your grandparents to find you had been replaced by a robot?”
“Yes, another good question, mother,” Martin mused.
“People can’t be programmed,” Martin’s mother said. “You have to take the bad with the good. And, you have to admit, with Emily – our Emily, I mean – there’s a lot of good.”
“Like what?” Martin asked.
“Remember how she likes you to play doctor with Beary the Bear and stick band-aids all over him?”
“Oh,” Martin said.
“And how she loves it when you play Bach for her on the piano?”
“Yes,” Martin said.
“And what about when you team up on projects? Like the saloon?”
Martin smiled, remembering the time he and Emily had turned the living room into an old west-style saloon and asked their mother and father to wear red striped aprons and serve them root beer in bottles with straws.
“Hmm …” Martin said. “I guess I had forgotten about all that.”
His mother squeezed his shoulder. “See what I mean?”
Martin’s head began to swim. He was a little confused. He lay awake for much of the night staring at the plastic stars above him and thinking about Emily – the real one.
Sunday dawned clear and bright. Martin yawned and stretched to the sound of a woodpecker thumping the oak tree outside his window. He rolled over and gasped. “Emily! What are you doing up here?” he asked.
“Serving break-fast to Martin,” she said in her robotic, sing-song voice. She raised a plate of toast with jam, eggs, and two slices of bacon toward him.
“Wait, what?” he asked. “No, I’m going to eat downstairs. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll take breakfast in my seat, okay?”
“On your seat,” she repeated. “O-kay.”
“No,” he said. “In my … oh well, close enough.” Martin watched her leave, slipped into his robe and slippers and headed for the bathroom to wash his face. Emily was not in her usual spot in the corner when he reached the kitchen. Martin sat.
He leaped to his feet and examined his chair. A plate, with two smeared pieces of toast with jam, squashed eggs, and one strip of bacon. Where was the other? Martin swiped a hand underneath him and discovered a handful of cold eggs, blackberry jam, and one limp piece of bacon stuck to his bottom. He grabbed a napkin and began wiping.
“I put Martin’s break-fast on his seat,” Emily said proudly, rolling toward him.
“Oh, man,” Martin said. “Ah, Emily. I would like to sit down and have some breakfast. Do you think you could go find something in the cupboards for me?”
“Find some-thing in the cup-boards,” Emily repeated.
“Wait, no, don’t – ”
But it was too late. Emily opened his mother’s utensil drawer and one by one began to fling items across the kitchen at Martin.
“Emily, no!” he shouted, diving from his chair. He ducked as a ladle sailed toward him, followed by a cheese grater. They crashed onto the floor, just past where Martin sat huddled, arms over his head.
Martin’s father appeared at the kitchen door. “What’s going on in here?” he asked.
Emily turned in his direction. “In the cup-boards,” she repeated, then tossed a potato masher and meat grinder at him.
“Oh my,” Martin’s father said, disappearing from the doorway. He popped his head back in. “Martin, do you have this under control?”
“Not exactly, Dad,” Martin said.
“Stand back,” Martin’s dad proclaimed. “I’ll take care of this.” He paused. “Emily, clean this kitchen up right now!”
“Um, Dad,” Martin said.
Emily paused, mid-throw, and turned toward Martin. “Clean up,” she said. “Right now. Top speed. High speed. High top. Right speed.”
“Uh oh,” Martin said. He had read enough science fiction stories to know that when the robots start talking gibberish, things really go wonky. “You’re going to want to lay low for awhile, Dad,” Martin said. He crawled under the kitchen table, draping the table cloth over him as he went. From under the table, he could hear the sound of running water, several loud bangs, more robot gibberish, and a cry of “Hey – those are my pants!” from his father. Then there were sounds of a struggle and one final, explosive bang. Then, silence.
Martin waited under his tablecloth for several long moments. Finally, he peered out. Thick, black smoke billowed through the air. His father’s face appeared in front of him under the table.
“Is it safe?” Martin asked.
His father nodded. “Well, I’m going to need a new pair of pants. But I think Emily-1000 has followed her last order from her older brother, ever.”
Martin shook his head. “That didn’t go how I wanted it to,” he said. “I thought it would be so simple.”
“It never is, Marty,” his father said, tugging Martin out from under the table.
Martin nodded. “I get it.”
Martin’s father turned to face the smoky, wet kitchen, with the slightly dented Emily-1000 steaming in the corner. “Maybe we can get this mess cleaned up before your mother gets back with – ” A car door slammed outside. He froze. “Uh oh.”
The back door opened, and Martin’s mother took one step inside the kitchen.
“Charles?” she asked, sniffing the air.
“Don’t worry,” Martin’s father said, tossing the tablecloth over Emily-1000. “Just a little fire.”
“A little fire?”
Emily burst past her mother and straight at Martin. She hugged him tightly and kissed him on the cheek.
Martin smiled. She smelled like cheerios and crayons. Like a little sister should. Suddenly, a new idea flashed into his head. “Hey, Emily,” he said. “Come here.” He took his sister’s hand and led her through the smoke into the living room, where they sat cross-legged facing each other on the large rug.
“How would you feel about a pet rabbit, Emily?” he asked, feeling in his pocket for a handful of nuts and bolts. He suddenly felt the urge to tinker.
“A rabbit?” she asked.
He pulled out a socket wrench and fiddled with the handle. “Well, it’s not just any ordinary rabbit, you understand. It’s … special.”