Monday, February 20, 2017

Love and Robots by Bill Hackenberger

Ronald feels resentful when Jeana, perfume expert at her local mall, wins a general purpose domestic robot; by Bill Hackenberger.

Petey, the robotic parrot, swaggered toward me, smudging my pencil sketch as his peg leg tap-tapped across my drawing board.

"Avast, Ronald, ya swab," he said. "You'll be needin' some maple syrup to sweeten that up."

"Dammit, Petey!" I said. "You're messing up my storyboard."

"Awwk," he screeched, as I brushed him aside. "Over easy there, matey," he said and flapped away onto the coffee table.

You could say Petey was my robo-pet. I found him behind the mall in a dumpster. Now normally I wouldn't be walking back there since its not the best neighborhood, but I'd just dropped lunch off for my fiancé during her shift at the Budget Barn. Strictly speaking, Jeana wasn't my fiancé since I hadn't proposed yet, but I was waiting for the moment when she might say yes. I was on my way back to catch the autobus when I heard a muffled voice coming from behind the building.

"Ahoy, me hearties. Come on in for the food, but stay for the fun."

Petey, with his eye-patch, plastic pirate hat, and a coating of pancake batter, was strutting around the bottom of the empty dumpster like it was the deck of a pirate frigate. The employees at Peg-Leg Petey's Pancake House must've had enough of his quips and tossed him out when the restaurant went bankrupt. During my one visit there I remembered him hobbling about the dining room keeping the kids entertained. While Petey's AI was good enough to recognize faces and pick up words, it yielded only breakfast-obsessed pirate-speak.

"If it's gold yer seekin', a treasure of golden-brown waffles awaits."

Petey sometimes got on my nerves, but Jeana liked him. She called him Sweetie Petey.

Regardless of Petey's interruption, I returned to my attempt at comic-book inspiration. After five years, I'd never gotten past the first few panels of my creations, but I was sure that Swiftman would be a breakthrough.

Comic concept 38Swiftman
Scene 1, Panel 1Establishing long shot.
TextHaving completed his late night janitorial duties, Jared locks the University's athletic center and wonders how he'll stay awake for tomorrow's physics midterm. Suddenly his super hearing picks up a woman's cry for help from the other side of campus.
Thought bubble"I know that voice! I've heard it leading cheers and a million times in my dreams. It's Hailey! This calls for Swiftman's super speed."

The holo rang and jolted me out of my musings. I'd gotten up early to work on my comics but ended up making breakfast for Jeana instead. I liked making breakfast for her, and had prepared her favorite: scrambled tofu with shiitake mushrooms, kombu, and mung bean sprouts. For me, it was my usual sunny-side eggs on wheat toast. I preferred them over easy, but the egg-flipping thing never seemed to work.

Jeana was excited because she was going to pick up the new household bot. She was looking forward to having it fold her laundry. I was too since I never seemed to fold it quite right.

When the holo rang again, I got up, swapped my reading specs for my regular glasses, and stepped in front of the holo display. I resemble a spiky-haired basset hound in the morning, so I gestured for the controls to use a background replacement template. It would display my face overlaid on an image of me in a pressed shirt, beige slacks, and standing in our little apartment living room, minus the piles of unfolded laundry. I pointed to the Accept icon floating in the air, and the holo image of Trish, Jeana's boss, appeared. Her mousey brown hair was parted far to the side, and her glasses sat at an angle that made her look like she was leaning to the left. Trish blanched when she saw me and looked down.

"Hi, Ronald. Um, is Jeana there?" she said in a tense voice. Trish was always a bit flustered. I figured it was the pressure of managing the Women's Accessories department at the Budget Barn.

"Hi, Trish," I said. "Sorry, Jeana's in the shower. Can I take a message?" Trish glanced up, blinked, then looked down again.

"Are you okay, Trish? Is anything wrong?"

"I, no. Well, I just... I didn't mean to disturb you. Obviously you're relaxing and -"

I waved at the icons to display my image back to me and gasped. I was projected wearing Jeana's thigh-length kimono with a plunging neckline and a pink jade necklace. It was the template she'd used to call and wish me a happy birthday.

"Oh!" I blurted, and stabbed the icon to disable the template. "Um, sorry, Trish. Jeana must have changed the holo templates. My mistake."

Trish looked up and straightened her glasses. "That's okay. I remember that outfit from a sale in Lingerie last month." Her lips pursed. "I suspect that Jeana looks very nice in it."

"She does. Better than I do, that's for sure." I ventured a smile.

"Can you have Jeana call me? I was hoping she could take the afternoon shift in Perfume. Marianne won't be coming in today, it's her birthday."

"No, don't say -" I blurted, but it was too late. It was like hearing the click of a landmine underfoot. She had said the b-word. I sighed and my chin dropped to my chest.

Petey's unpatched eye dilated, and he lifted off of the coffee table and flew toward Trish.

Whenever he heard the word "birthday," Petey would fly in a circle above his target and sing the birthday song from Peg-Leg Petey's Pancake House. Once he started, there was no stopping him.

A green flash of feathers in the air, he circled Trish's holo image.
Arr, me bucko, it's your birthday, let's celebrate Peg-Leg Petey's way.
Trish ducked her head instinctively.
Blueberry, buckwheat, buttermilk, too, with a candle on top, they're just for you.
Petey made a loop and prepared to land for his big finish.
Then we raise a toast to Yo', of white, or wheat, or sourdough.
He swooped down, landed on the couch directly in front of Trish, and with the little grip beneath the end of his wing, he grasped his plastic cutlass and held it high for the last verse.
So on this very special daaaaaay... We celebrate Peg-Leg Petey's waaaaaay.
Trish stared, frozen, looking as if she had just been given a fruitcake for Christmas.

"I'm sorry, Trish. Whenever someone says, uh, the 'b-word,' then -"

Just then Jeana came out of the bathroom. Wisps of her long, red-hair peeked out from the huge bath towel that swaddled her head like giant whipped topping. Her body was wrapped in not much more than a hand towel that scarcely covered her cleavage, curves, and bare legs.

Jeana was daubing herself with a little glass rod coated with one of her essential oils. The strong smell of vanilla broke over me like a tsunami of soft-serve ice cream. She was passionate about aromatherapy and felt it was her calling. She'd even taken an online class and had a framed diploma that read Jeana Janicki, Fragrance Consultant.

"Trish?" Jeana said. "What's happening? It's my day off."

"I know," Trish said. "Marianne can't make it in today, and I was hoping you could take her shift in Perfume."

"Today? I'm picking up the robot today. I told you, remember? I already put in twenty hours at Perfume this week. I've got to be careful around all those floral scents; they over activate my crown chakra. Too much mental stimulus throws me out of balance."

"Um, gosh," Trish said, her dark eyebrows rising. "I'm sorry. I, um, maybe I could get Sheila to switch with you so you could take Lingerie?"

Jeana sighed. "No," she said, her chin dropping. "Sheila doesn't understand perfume. Ah... Ronnie, you could be a lifesaver and pick up the robot while I help Trish out?"

"But sweetie," I said, "it's my day off. I, um... was planning to work on my comic book."

"Oh," Trish said, "I'd hate to take you away from your -"

Jeana gave me her doe-eyed stare. "Please, baby?"

"Okay," I said, sighing. "I... guess I can pick it up."

"It's a him not an it, silly," Jeana said, her pout now vanished. "You'll see. That settles it then. You'll pick up the robot while I work Perfume. I think you'll be surprised when you see him."

"Um... thanks, Ronald," Trish said, her eye's wide. After a pause, Trish leaned forward and cut the holo.

Petey hopped to his perch and bobbed his head as if chuckling. "Take heed, Ronald," he squawked, "This mornin' ye be fated to get a bellyful."



Comic concept 39LaserBolt
Scene 1, Panel 1Medium distance shot; view angled down from above.
TextPolice Commissioner Branson grabs the special holo-decoder kept in the top drawer of his desk.
Thought bubble"I've a feeling that anonymous tip about rampaging mechanoids isn't a hoax. Better call LaserBolt now."

I frowned at the meter as the autocar stopped outside an undistinguished gray building in Glendale. The drive from Long Beach to the HouseMate Robotics warehouse had cost a lot more than an autobus, but I thought I'd need a car to haul back the robot.

Fortunately for Jeana and me, retail customers prefer to complain to real people, so our low-wage service jobs hadn't been taken over by robots yet. Sure, lots of people had vacuum bots and dog-walking bots, but only the wealthy had general-purpose bots - not us.

Jeana won the robot in a drawing. HouseMate Robotics had sponsored a promotion in the food court at the mall. The first one hundred patrons at CoffeeKlatch who found a gold star at the bottom of their cups were entered into the drawing. Trish said Jeana screamed right in the middle of Handbags when she spotted the star at the bottom of her peppermint chai soy latte. Two weeks later, Jeana was notified that she'd won.

At the warehouse reception counter, a strikingly beautiful women in a form-fitting black skirt and suit jacket smiled at me. My throat tightened.

"Hi. I'm Ronald. Um, I'm here to pick up a robot for Jeana Janicki. She won it and -"

"Welcome, Ronald. We've been expecting you." She opened the door behind the counter. "Please follow me."

She led me into a cavernous room crammed with rows of ceiling-high metal shelves. I followed her swaying skirt until she stopped in front of an open door near the back of the warehouse. She turned and left.

I peeked in and then entered to find a portly man with a tangled fringe of gray hair. His back to me, he was hunched over a parts-strewn workbench, jabbing at the lead wires of a robotic foot with a little probe that made each toe twitch like a Mexican jumping bean.

He looked up, and I flinched. Over his half-lidded eyes were perhaps twenty metal rings that pierced his eyebrows.

He half-grinned. "What can I do for ya?"

"Um, hi. I'm Ronald. I'm supposed to pick up a robot. It was a prize in a contest and -"

"Oh yeah, I saw your order. Male house bot, custom face. Good timing. I just printed the head this morning. I'll have to check if hair and eyebrows are done."

He rummaged through some paperwork, paused, then grinned as one glinting metal eyebrow rose. "Oh... your order says you have to pick from one of our old body styles."

He walked me over to a row of large, banged-up metal cabinets. "You've got three choices." He shoved open the sliding door. There stood three headless male robot bodies - burly, naked, and anatomically correct. I recoiled.

"Medium, large, or extra large," he said. "What's your poison?"

I took another step back. "Um, how about small?"

He snorted. "We don't have small."

"Um, medium, I guess."

He gave me a disappointed look.

I cleared my throat. "Why does a household robot have a, um, you know?"

"Johnson?" he said, smirking. "Well, Ronald, before we started shipping these house bots, we were PlayMate Robotics, a sex-bot company. The most lifelike sex bots you could buy. Real artistry."

"Then," he said, scowling, "when VR helmets got big in adult entertainment, the sex-bot biz dried up, and we were acquired by HouseMate. They added household programming to our bot and launched a new product line, the most realistic humanoid robot on the market. We don't make the fully equipped bodies any more. But since you're getting this bot for free, the body they're giving you is from our old inventory."

He paused, seeing my look of horror. "Hey," he said smiling, "look at it this way, it's the best of both worlds. First you can get your house cleaned and then get your pipes cleaned."

I shook my head. "No, no, I don't want any... pipe cleaning. I'm not... this robot is for my girlfriend."

"For your girlfriend?" he said, chortling. "Well, she'll be in for a pleasant surprise." He shook his head then slid the cabinet door closed.

"Don't worry," he said. "The AI software is really first rate. Cleaning, cooking, conversation, chess - you name it. These robots have instant access to everything on the net. They're smarter than most people I know."

While that didn't surprise me, the idea of having a robotic stud walking around our apartment did.

"I'll be right back," he said. "I'm gonna put the head on your bot, and you'll be all set." He waddled away.

He returned after only a few minutes, but now with Jeana's robot striding along just behind.

My stomach wrenched. It had sleek blond hair, was taller than I'd expected, and walked like a gymnast. Only a small pair of black briefs covered its muscled body.

I choked when I saw the robot's face. It was me. Well, it was almost me, except younger, better. They both smiled.

I stammered, "Huh? How did you get that face?"

The man's grin faded. "From the picture that came with your order. A custom face." He pawed through the paperwork and handed it to me. "See?"

It was Jeana's favorite picture of me. I was in my early twenties, thirty pounds lighter, smiling, and holding a copy of X-Men #1. At the bottom was a note scrawled in her handwriting:
Please make the following changes: blond hair, strong chin, no eyeglasses, clear complexion. Thanks.
I was speechless. It was like looking at my younger, more handsome brother who had never been born. The me that might have existed if I hadn't inherited my father's frizzy brown hair and my mother's weakness for Cheezy BakinBits.

The robot spoke with a deep, resonant tone. "Good day, sir. I'm looking forward to being of service to you."

"Uh... thanks," I said, struggling to pitch my voice lower.

The man told the robot to dress while I signed some paperwork. A few minutes later, it sauntered out wearing a meticulously pressed black shirt and slacks with a tailored black suit coat.

"Outfit's made of omniphobic carbon nanofiber," the man said. "Won't stain, wrinkle, or fade. It'll look that good ten years from now."

"Terrific," I said, and walked toward the door with the robot just behind me.

"Good luck, Ronald," he called after me. "Hope the girlfriend likes her new playmate." His laugh echoed through the maze of shelves.



Comic concept 40Doctor Gravitron
Scene 1, Panel 1Full page, over-the-shoulder view, looking down on the city from a skyscraper rooftop.
TextHoards of robotic soldiers emerge from the subway tunnels, all with the single goal of destroying Doctor Gravitron.
Thought bubble"Uh oh, they're trying to outnumber me. Superstrength won't be enough. I need a strategy."

We walked into the apartment and Petey whistled approvingly at the robot. "A hearty man's helping for the likes of ye."

Jeana looked up from painting her toenails and squealed, "He's so handsome." She giggled and bounced from one foot to another, cotton balls between her toes. "Remind you of anyone?" she said, grinning as she inspected the robot.

"Jeana! You put my face on the robot. Really?"

She cocked her head to one side. "Oh, sweetie." She came over and kissed me. "I wanted my robot to be handsome, so naturally I picked your face. I thought you'd like it. But just think, you won't have to get up early to make me breakfast anymore."

I took a deep breath to shake off my agitation and headed for the kitchen. "I could use a beer."

The robot strode past me to the refrigerator. "Allow me, sir," he said, popping open a bottle of my Maximum Lite and grabbing a glass from the shelf.

When he began wiping the water spots from the glass, I interrupted. "I like it in the bottle."

"Certainly, sir," he said, and handed it to me.

Jeana stepped between us and looked up at the robot. "You don't need to call him sir. You can call me Jeana, and call him Ronnie."

"I prefer Ronald."

"Fine," she said, frowning. "Call him Ronald. And I think I'll call you, um... Bobbie."

Jeana put her hand on Bobbie's chest. "Whoa," she tittered, "he's a solid one isn't he."

I snorted. "I think I'll go to bed early."

"Don't you want to stay up and learn more about our new friend?"

"No thanks," I said, turning toward the bedroom. "It's been a long day."

"Okay, you go ahead. I'm gonna chat with Bobbie for a while."

I clomped off to the bedroom.



I woke up early. Jeana was sprawled fast asleep next to me. I turned to watch her snore softly and noticed she smelled like a field of lavender.

Without thinking, I got up to make breakfast but discovered the kitchen had been transformed. It was cleaner than when I'd moved in and Bobbie stood at the stove frying eggs. Petey was sitting on Bobbie's shoulder.

"Good morning, Ronald," Bobbie said. "Jeana mentioned you prefer your eggs fried. Are you partial to tea or coffee?"

"Coffee as black as me heart," Petey squawked.

I glowered at Petey. "Coffee," I said, "but today I'd like my eggs scrambled."

"Very well," Bobbie said, and slid the fried eggs onto a plate and set it aside. "Would you prefer your eggs scrambled hard or soft?"

"Actually, I'd like to make my own breakfast, if you don't mind."

Bobbie stepped back from the stove and set a bowl of some aromatic concoction at Jeana's place at the table. "I'll wake Jeana so you two can enjoy breakfast together." Petey seemed content to ride along, and the two robots left the kitchen.

I cracked some eggs into the hot pan, but ended up fishing out bits of shell with a fork.

Stupid robots, I thought. Do we really need them doing everything for us?

Bobbie had rearranged the kitchen, and I was bent over searching for the toaster when Jeana shuffled into the kitchen still in her red-striped teddy-bear nightie.

"Ronnie, what are you doing?"

"What's it look like I'm doing? I'm making breakfast, like I do every morning."

"You don't have to do that, silly. Bobbie can make us breakfast."

"I like making breakfast," I said. "You may recall, I'm pretty good at it too. I've always -"

I was drowned out by the piercing squeal of the smoke alarm. My eggs had become a smoking cinder.

Bobbie and Petey burst into the kitchen.

"Dammit," I yelled.

"Bacon extra crispy," Petey screeched and wagged his head vigorously from side to side.

Bobbie grabbed the pan, dropped a lid on it, and placed it under running water. It hissed like a deflating tire, and I slumped into my chair at the table.

Jeana frowned and dropped into the chair opposite me. "Now you've upset Petey. Bobbie made us a nice breakfast. Can't you just show some appreciation?"

I sighed. "He's a robot."

"That's no excuse for being such a grouch."

Bobbie sidled up next to me. "Ronald, would you still like eggs this morning?" he asked.

I mumbled, "Okay, why not."

As he reached over to place the perfectly fried eggs in front of me, I noticed he smelled of lavender. The eggs were over easy, just the way I liked them, but I'd lost my appetite.



In that first long week with Bobbie, he accomplished more than I could've in a year. Jeana even had him repaint the bedroom.

She began taking him to her daily Yogic PopHop dojo. She said he could assume the left-facing dog posture with perfect symmetry and was an inspiration to her YPH troop. I decided I'd put in a few extra hours at the bookstore.

I was taking inventory of our warrior-monk cookbook manga when the bell jingled at the front of the store. I squinted through the dust hanging in the sunlight by the entrance. I was always interested in who would venture so far from their daily diet of digital comforts. Most customers saw books only as curiosities for the coffee table. But occasionally, rumpled hunters visited in search of first printings of pre-holo classics. I enjoyed helping those customers most of all, and the disheveled woman crossing the creaking floorboards, looked promising. Only when she got closer did I realize who it was.

"Trish? What brings you to my dusty corner of the universe? Are you looking for a particular title?"

"No," she said, glancing down. "I wasn't coming in for a book. I... came to see you actually. Um, to give you this." She handed me a cup of coffee from CoffeeKlatch. "You were so nice to let Jeana fill in last week and even gave up your day off. I... just wanted to thank you." By that point, she was staring at the floor.

"Oh, uh, thanks. Well, you know, Jeana really wanted to get the robot."

"I know," she said, looking up earnestly. "Jeana brought Bobbie to work to show him off. All the girls thought he was quite handsome. Caused quite a stir. I had to put a stop to their fun when I found them in Men's Active-Wear dressing him up in those little bike shorts."

"Yeah, she's been taking him everywhere."

"How's that working out?" Trish asked. "I mean... I hope he helps you find time to work on your comic books."

"You'd think," I said. "But somehow, not yet."

"I like comic books too," she said, her ears turning bright red. "When I was a little girl, my mom had an old comic, and I still remember the cover. It was a picture of Supergirl, in the air, her hair blowing in the wind with flames all around her. But she looked so calm. I loved that. I so wished I could be like her."

"Oh, I know that one! It's ... come with me." I grabbed her hand and pulled her down the aisle to a glass case. I unlocked it, carefully lifted out a plastic-wrapped comic book, and held it out to her. "This is Supergirl #1 from the old 2011 reboot. It's a real collector's prize."

"Ooh," she said, reluctant to take it from me.

"Go ahead. It's okay."

She took it gingerly. Its faded cover had an ethereal image of Supergirl, clad in her red and blue tights and cape, hovering in the air, serene, even as flaming meteors streaked by her. We both stared at it for a while.

"It's beautiful," I said.

Trish looked up. "Yes, beautiful," she said, and slowly handed it back to me.

I put it back in its case. "I hope Jeana and Bobbie haven't caused too much commotion at the Budget Barn."

"Oh, that's all right. I can handle Jeana and Bobbie."

"That's more than I can say."

She blinked. "You know, you work so hard trying to make Jeana happy. Maybe the robot is just what you need."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you can help Bobbie know what makes her happy, and then you won't have to struggle so much. I'm sure Jeana will appreciate it. Bobbie's a robot. He'll do whatever you tell him."

"Hmm, maybe you're right," I said.

She looked down and her shoulders slumped. "Glad I could help," she said in a whisper. She shuffled toward the door, but then turned back. "Thanks again, Ronald, for showing me the comic book. Um, I really liked it." She rushed out.

Trish was right. Bobbie had to do as I asked, and I could make sure Jeana didn't forget that she needed me, too.



Comic concept 41Captain Invisible
Scene 1, Panel 1Half page, close view, over the shoulder of a tearful Suzie Parker as henchmen play cards in the background.
TextCaptain Invisible quietly unties Suzie before her hapless captors realize he has infiltrated their lair.
Speech bubble"Oh, Captain Invisible, I almost lost hope, but I knew you would save me."

Jeana left home early to work the Valentine's Day sale at Budget Barn, so Bobbie began preparing her lunch and would deliver it to her, still warm, for her break.

Petey eyed me from his kitchen perch. "Well, snap me eye patch, Ronald. Are you ready to place your order?"

"Bobbie," I said, "I'd like to make Jeana her lunch today."

He smiled. "How can I assist?"

"I'll steam some tofu while you chop up a few vegetables, then I'll make a sauce."

"Certainly, Ronald," he said. "What ingredients would you like me to prepare?"

"Oh, half an onion, a bell pepper, eight cloves of garlic, and six hot chiles."

Bobbie turned his head. "Jeana instructed me to eliminate garlic and hot chiles from anything I cook for her. She contends they interfere with her aromatherapy stratagem."

"I appreciate you bringing that to my attention," I said, "but please continue." Bobbie didn't question me further. I finished the pungent dish, placed it in the Japanese lacquerware bowl Jeana preferred, covered it, and handed it to him. "Bobbie, I'll go with you to deliver Jeana's lunch."

"I welcome your company," he said.

"There's only one thing. I want your assurance you won't tell Jeana I was the one who made her lunch."

He turned toward me. "Ronald, I cannot tell her I made it. That would be untrue."

"I understand," I said. "You don't need to say anything about who prepared it. I just don't want her to think I went to too much trouble."

"Flapjacks," Petey squawked, and wagged his head up and down.

Just as we were walking out, Petey jumped up on Bobbie's shoulder and the three of us left to catch the autobus.

At Budget Barn, Bobbie carried the lunch bowl as we approached the perfume counter. When Jeana saw us, she grinned. "Sweetie Petey," she said giggling, "you brought my personal chef, and Ronnie, too. How nice."

She was helping a customer, a blue-haired older woman, and began telling her how she had won Bobbie in a contest and how wonderful he was. We waited for ten minutes, but finally I waved to her, indicating we were leaving and had Bobbie set her lunch bowl on the counter.

We walked up the main aisle toward the exit and had just passed Fine Jewelry when we heard the scream. I spun around, and that's when I saw the gun. Jeana's coworker Sheila stood behind the jewelry counter, her mouth wide open, screaming at the decibel level of a fighter-jet takeoff. A scrawny man wearing baggy brown sweats grimaced, then raised his pistol, pointed it at the ceiling, and fired. Bang!

Mercifully, Sheila fell silent, her eyes wide, her mouth agape. The bullet hit a bracket overhead which secured a huge pink plastic cutout shaped like cupid firing his arrow that read "Show her you love her - for less". It gently fluttered down, its suspension wires wrapping around Sheila as it fell. There was a moment of silence, then her air-raid siren shriek, now an octave higher, started anew. She bolted for the exit, cupid in tow, chasing her in amorous pursuit.

A cacophony of shouts, screams, and baby squeals filled the air. Everyone had ducked and was scrambling toward the exits.

I hid behind Plus Size Outerwear, but had to roll underneath a rack of floral-print ponchos to avoid being mowed down by a hefty woman moving at freight-train speed with her screeching child as caboose. I peeked out and saw the store security guard on all fours, crawling toward the exit.

That's when an alarm sounded, and bright lights flashed near each exit.

Bobbie still stood in the aisle with Petey planted on his shoulder. They watched the gunman sprint in the opposite direction.

"Oatmeal," Petey squawked.

Bobbie glanced down at me and spoke in his normal calm tone, "He is heading in the direction of the perfume counter." That's when I stood and ran.

We traced a serpentine path through Women's Casuals and edged closer to Perfume by hiding in Lingerie, where I crept up behind a display of Valentine-Me baby-doll camisoles. I peered through the red chiffon negligees and had a view of the robber. He stood behind the perfume counter with Jeana, her hands behind her back, as he wrapped cellophane tape around her mouth. Her wrists were tied with white gift-wrap ribbon, and she whimpered softly when he ordered her to sit on the stool behind the counter. He tied her ankles and began frantically pacing, gun in hand, muttering to himself.

I had to do something, but I needed a plan. I pulled Bobbie behind a rack of lace-trimmed thongs, but they offered little cover, so we moved back farther, and I slipped between the heavy curtains across the entrance to the women's dressing room.

Suddenly, I was knocked off my feet by the wet slap of a janitor's mop, swung with home-run ferocity. Trish had been hiding in the dressing room and now stood over me, bucket in hand, ready to bring it down on my head. Bobbie grabbed the bucket, and Trish fell to her knees when she saw it was me.

"Sorry, sorry," she said, and wiped the soapy water from my face. "I was scared. I thought you were... him."

I slowly sat up as my head started to clear. "It's okay," I whispered. "The gunman has Jeana. He's tied her up behind the perfume counter. We need to do something."

"I've called the police," Trish said. "They'll be here soon. We should sit tight."

I stood up, shaking my head. "We can't wait. She's in danger."

"It's too risky," she said.

"Trish, Jeana needs me. I've got a powerful robot. Look at him. Bobbie and I can -"

She grabbed my arm. "Ronald, I know you're brave, but I took you out with a mop. That guy has a gun."

"Well, you surprised me. Bobbie and I... we'll surprise him."

She stepped back, a pained look crossed her face. "No. You might get hurt."

I sighed. "I can't just wait." I pulled Bobbie back through the curtains before she could protest further.

We crawled across the carpeted floor to Men's Wear, where I whispered my plan into Bobbie's ear. We would approach the perfume counter from opposite ends. I took Petey with me and circled back to Lingerie and waited as blue flashing lights bounced off the storefront windows. The police had arrived.

The robber was yelling into Jeana's pink mobile phone. "That's not good enough," he shouted, and slammed it down on the counter. His negotiations with the police were not going well.

I eyed the oversized display bottle that sat at the end of the perfume counter. It was cut glass, shaped like a giant heart, and filled with honey-colored liquid. Etched on its side was the word Probably. It had to weigh at least six pounds. I slid across the floor on my stomach and waited behind a display of fuzzy slippers. From there, not thirty feet from Perfume, I peered up the main aisle and saw Bobbie make his first move.

He stepped to the edge of Men's Sportswear and froze as still as a mannequin. Tennis racket in hand, sporting a sun visor, white slacks, and a polo shirt, Bobbie looked like a trust-fund preppie waiting for the clubhouse waiter to bring him his next gin rickey. He was a hundred feet up the main aisle from Perfume.

When the robber shifted his attention back to Jeana's phone, Bobbie disappeared. Changing clothes at robotic speed, he reappeared in less than a minute, this time in basketball shorts, purple high-tops, and a Los Angeles Lakers cap turned backward. He was now seventy feet from where Jeana was tied up.

The gunman glanced up the main aisle, then continued his agitated pacing. I slithered closer and held Petey with my hand clamped over his beak, hoping I could keep him quiet. Bobbie had advanced to Men's Sleepwear holding a teacup and modeling burgundy pajamas and a charcoal robe.

The robber stared quizzically up the aisle where Bobbie had been a moment earlier. I got to my feet and scampered to within a dozen feet of the counter.

Jeana faced in my direction and, seeing me scuttle closer, started to whimper. As her assailant turned to frown at her, Bobbie struck a statue-like pose at the edge of Men's Underwear dressed only in navy-and-white-checked boxers. He was a mere twenty feet away. Now was the moment.

I positioned Petey so he was focused on the robber, and whispered, "It's his birthday." Petey's eye dilated, and he launched into the air.
"Arr, me bucko, it's your birthday, let's celebrate Peg-Leg Petey's way."
The gunman spun around, trying to get a fix on the source of the noise.

I ran to the counter and advanced toward him while his back was turned. Jeana went bug-eyed as I reached for the huge heart-shaped display bottle.
"Blueberry, buckwheat, buttermilk, too, with a candle on top, they're just for you."
The gunman took a shot at Petey, but missed.

My hands were sweating, and I hadn't anticipated how heavy the massive bottle would be. I bobbled it and knocked a bottle of Cheeky Love to the floor where it shattered just in front of me. Realizing someone was behind him, the gunman began to turn.
"Then we raise a toast to yo'"
I raised the heavy bottle over my head and stepped closer, but then hit the slick pool of Cheeky Love and my feet went out from under me. I fell backward. The big bottle held high smashed into the metal edge of the counter. A deluge of cold liquid doused my head and chest. I gasped as a torrent of nauseating sweetness assaulted my nostrils.
"of white, or wheat, or sourdough."
Just then, Bobbie vaulted over the counter, knocking over boxes in his wake. He landed between Jeana and her assailant, who turned to point the gun at him. Bobbie wheeled around and wrapped his arms around Jeana to shield her. The gunman fired, and I saw Bobbie shudder as the bullet punched a hole in his back. Bobbie crashed to the floor with Jeana still in his arms.

I was still sputtering under the effects of my perfume bath when the gunman turned back, his expression wild.
"So on this very special daaaaaay..."
Petey was on a glide path for his big finish. He swooped down to land on the glass counter, but slid like a greased pig on ice. Crashing through racks of lipstick, he finally came to a halt, knocking over the bowl containing Jeana's lunch. It splashed across my chest, coating me with warm, spicy garlic sauce. Petey raised his little cutlass, as the gunman raised his pistol.
"we celebrate Peg-Leg Petey's way."
My assailant, with eyes bulging and nostrils flared, leveled his aim at my chest. I scrambled backward, crab-like, but my palms slid in the slick perfume. Expecting the crack of a gunshot next, instead I saw Trish pop up from the other side of the counter. She rose directly across from him with both arms outstretched, clutching a bottle of perfume like a weapon. Clenching her teeth, she pumped the bottle again and again, spraying him in the eyes with heavy bursts of Provocatrix Eau de Toilette. He clamped his hand over his face, screamed, and waved his gun toward her.

"No!" I shouted and kicked his legs out from under him. He crashed to the ground. I grabbed his hand holding the gun. He grunted as we wrestled, trying to point it at me again. My grip, wet with perfume and chili sauce, was slipping.

Suddenly the wrist of his gun arm was seized. Bobbie rose, lifting him straight up in the air, off of his feet, his pistol now pointing at the ceiling. The gunman squirmed and swore, but within seconds the gun fell from his grasp.

Meanwhile, Trish ran around the other side of the counter, pulled the tape from Jeana's mouth and cut the ribbons that bound her. Jeana stood, began crying, and dove forward with a hug, wrapping her arms around Bobbie from behind, even as our assailant dangled from his grasp.

Jeana glanced down at me, then back at Bobbie. "Oh, Bobbie," she said, with tears running down her face, "even the lunch you made me is ruined." She sobbed a moment longer. Finally, she turned toward me, "Ronnie, can you stand?" she asked. I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing.

Trish rushed over and bent down to me. "Ronald, are you okay?" With her help, I finally stood, covered in floral stench and spicy garlic sauce. She was trembling. "I was so scared. You could've -"

She flung her arms around me, pressing her cheek against my chest. Then she looked up, her face wet with perfume and red sauce. "You could've been killed," she said, her voice breaking. Don't you know you're not allowed to do that in my department?"

"Don't worry," I said. "I won't do it again."



I stared at the stack of pages on my drawing table. It had taken me weeks to shake off my funk after the robbery.

For Jeana, however, the whole thing had been energizing. The local news grabbed the story of the plucky aromatherapist taken hostage by a gunman and saved by her household robot. When HouseMate Robotics heard the story, they made sure it was picked up on the national holos. They flew Jeana and Bobbie to their San Francisco headquarters, replaced Bobbie's punctured body with their best new model, and had them both interviewed alongside their CEO. Mercifully, they left me out of the story.

Jeana then flew to L.A. to calm her mother, upset by her daughter's ordeal. She took Bobbie with her. While there, she got a call from L'Âme du Parfum, a fancy perfume store in Beverly Hills. The owner had seen her on the news and offered her a job. By her third week away, she sent a message that said this was her big break, she wouldn't be coming back, and she'd send Bobbie to pick up her things.

Bobbie and I had a nice time. Petey perched on his shoulder while he made me eggs over easy, then we sat and talked about the history of comic books. I have to admit I miss having him around.

For several months after that I found myself waking up early, grabbing a cup of coffee for breakfast, and walking to work the long way. I didn't ride the autobus because it stopped at the mall along its route. I started bringing Petey with me to work. While I knew he would power down when no one was in the apartment, I didn't like the idea of him being alone. We spent the whole day at the bookstore, even well past closing. I would sit in the comic book aisle reading, and Petey would occasionally remind me that a balanced breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

We arrived home around midnight one evening to find a message on the holo. It was from Trish.

"Ronald," she said, "I was downtown last night and walked past the bookstore. It was closed, but the lights were still on. I thought of you and hope you're doing well."

I didn't call her back, but I did send a text message. Hi Trish, got your call. I'm okay. Just been busy at the bookstore. Thanks for your message.

About a week later, Trish started leaving me a holo message every night. I'd arrive home, and it would be there.

"Hi, Ronald. Just checking in. We had a big sale today in Ladies' Shoes. At one point, two customers almost got in a fistfight over a pair of pumps. Sheila got so upset she started crying. I calmed them all down, but now I'm exhausted. Going to bed early. Talk to you tomorrow."

"Hello, again. Well, let's see. Work was okay, but today, I had a surprise. Soup-er-Salad, my favorite counter in the food court, just closed. Maybe I'll need to start packing my lunch. Later."

I'd send a short text reply but always struggled with what to say. Each night I found myself looking forward to seeing her holo image. I wasn't sure but thought she had changed her hairstyle. While telling me about the latest crisis at the budget barn, she would laugh. She really had a pretty smile.

One night, I returned to find a package leaning up against my apartment door. It was a copy of Supergirl #1 in pristine condition, better than the one we had at the bookstore. I stared at it for a long time. its cover art was simple, but I was mesmerized: she was magnificent.

Inspired, I called the bookstore and told them I'd be taking some time off. After that, I threw myself into working on my comic book for ten days straight.



The alarm on my mobile buzzes. Petey hears it too and flaps down from his perch, landing on my drawing board.

"Look lively, bucko," he says. "Yer table for two awaits."

I grab the chicken salad sandwiches I'd made earlier and gather up my stack of drawings. I'd have to hurry to catch the autobus to bring Trish her lunch. Petey hops onto my shoulder, and we leave.

I'm nervous but excited at the idea of surprising her and showing off my first comic book. I hope she'll like it.

Comic concept 42Stormgirl
Scene 28, Final PanelFull page, medium shot angled upward. Stormgirl floats serenely in the air as flaming meteors pass all around her.
TextSlowed to subsonic speed by Stormgirl's super cyclonic powers, the meteors plunge harmlessly into the ocean below.
Thought bubble"Whew, that was close. But now the city is safe, just in time, too. I've only got ten minutes before I'm supposed to be at work at the mall."

6 comments:

  1. Skilful writing, well observed, funny and thought provoking. Many thanks
    Ceinwen

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  2. Likable main character and an imaginative story. Lots of action and fun. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

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  3. I thought that the robot would get the girl, but it's not completely obvious. Two quibbles - I LIKE fruit cake, and I think that a lot more will change before there are good robot humans. Good characterizations. I Like Trish.

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  4. I loved this story. Very clever and entertaining. Interesting characters.
    Monica

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  5. This is my favourite story I've read on this site! I loved how you were able to introduce us to a futuristic world without a ton of description and world-building - masterfully done. I enjoyed the parrot and the comic book element and the happy ending. Excellent job.

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  6. Really fine story! I like the way you helped us see the future, and the action, without excess description. And the parrot was extra fun: wish I had one!

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