10 November 2010
Hiram Grady lived on our street in the house with no garden, just high grass that his grown-up son sometimes mowed on Sundays. Other times my parents would send me round.
‘You’ll do this for him, Aaron.’ They threatened to lock me outside if I didn’t get some sun voluntarily. ‘What could you do all day in that room of yours?’
I didn’t like going inside Mr Grady’s house. It was an old weatherboard that was white originally, but the front porch had split back to the cheap wood so you could hardly tell. Gravel for a driveway, a gravel yard out back with bits of grass sprouting along the fence, a puddle, a single tree. Inside wasn’t much better. Old furniture covered in dust, a lounge set that smelt like medicine. Carpet covered in food stains and something that looked like cat hair, but he didn’t have a cat. Mr Grady was in his nineties and when he walked it was slowly, like a blind man feeling the way with his hands. I’d never known anyone that old. None of my grandparents were still alive, aside from a grandfather I hadn’t met because he lived in England and dad said he wasn’t very nice.
Mr Grady kept his lawnmower in the garage, along with the car he never drove and the tools he never used. He would stand over me as I tried to start it, my stringy arms yanking and shoving. They’d always end up aching by the time it began chugging away. I’d drag it outside and push it back and forth along the patch of lawn, which was half dried and yellowed. Not grass really, but a lot of weeds. Mr Grady would stick around, watching in the cold as I struggled.
I didn’t like doing his lawn because he’d talk at me over the noise and I couldn’t hear clearly, but he didn’t seem to get that. He had a friend called Rodney who was giving him problems. That much I could figure out. When I’d finished the job I usually tried to escape quickly, citing homework as an excuse. Or sport practice. Or a friend I had to meet. I didn’t care what the lie was so long as I thought of it fast. But he would keep talking, following me inside. Sometimes I couldn’t find a polite way to break him off, had to back towards the door bit by bit and wait. Standing there awkwardly, my fingers were ready on the handle.
‘Rodney is like having a nosebleed all the time,’ he said. ‘That’s how it feels. Like a sinus infection.’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t be his friend,’ I replied. He looked at me as if I was incredibly stupid, but this gave me a chance to duck out the front door and mumble a quick goodbye.
His strangeness seemed to go right over my parents’ heads, or maybe it was just something they expected of old people. Something people would eventually expect of them. It’s a particular Saturday that bothers me the most. Mum and dad made me visit Mr Grady that day, even though his lawn was fine. I’d mown it the Sunday before. I remember I’d planned to stay inside the entire weekend and play this new game I’d borrowed from the video store, without having to take breaks for school or homework. Maybe just toilet breaks. Mum said that was rubbish, and wouldn’t let me back inside until I’d gone down the road. Mr Grady was drinking tea with great difficulty when I let myself in. He’d spilt it down his woolly jumper and was dribbling some from his chin.
‘Sorry,’ he said, as I cleaned him up with a tea towel. ‘Rodney hates tea.’
He looked down at his hands, seemingly disappointed in them. I wanted to ask where Rodney was but felt strange about it.
‘He used to be a laugh,’ he offered. ‘He’s just bored with me now.’
I nodded. I wanted to find a quick way out, but my parents would notice if I came back right away.
‘You’d like him, Aaron,’ he shrugged, putting a hand to his ear like he wanted to soothe something.
‘Mr Grady, do you need some Panadol?’
‘Hiram,’ he corrected. ‘No, no it’s fine. Rodney’s just a bit active today.’
‘Where is he?’ I asked, just to say it. Just because I knew I had to say it or I’d hear about him on end without even knowing what he looked like. For all I knew he was some old guy Hiram Grady had known in the war, someone who was long dead. Mr Grady grinned at my question though, and pointed to his ear. He pointed to his mouth. He pointed to his eyes. I looked away, smiling with some embarrassment.
‘You don’t get it.’ He muttered. ‘That’s alright, how could you get it?’
‘I have to get back home.’
‘No you don’t,’ he said. ‘You sit now, right there.’ He gestured to the old, beaten couch. I shook my head, crossing my arms like this could protect me.
‘I’ll let you meet him,’ Mr Grady offered, his voice rising with a tiny bit of relief at the idea. ‘That’d be nice. Rodney would like that.’
‘I’m right, thanks.’
‘Do you want to know how long I’ve known Rodney?’ he asked. He seemed able to remain enthusiastic even if his audience was frowning plainly back at him. ‘Come now, don’t be like that Aaron.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But I bet he doesn’t even exist.’
Mr Grady spluttered and coughed at that. It took me a moment to realise he was laughing at me, because it seemed to cause him a fair amount of pain to do it.
‘I’ve known Rodney for sixty years,’ he said. ‘Sixty! Can you imagine?’
‘No, you can’t possibly. Sixty years, it almost seems obscene!’
‘Only if you don’t like him.’
‘I’ll tell you something,’ he said, pointing at me with one finger. ‘But you have to swear, cross your fingers and toes. Can you do that?’
I shrugged, ‘Why would I want to?’
He shook his head, ‘you have to swear it.’
‘Fine, I do. I swear.’
He seemed satisfied at that, because he was looking away now, thinking for a moment about how to break this great thing to me. I became impatient and sat down finally. That was the moment Rodney appeared. He came out in tiny metal pieces, some from an ear, some from a nostril. Mr Grady opened his mouth and a few bits of Rodney crawled out through there. I didn’t speak, couldn’t as I watched him assemble into a tiny figure, barely the size of my hand. I took a few steps backwards.
‘Rodney, say hello,’ Mr Grady said. He gulped out his breaths, as if the air had suddenly turned hard like water. ‘This is Aaron, you say hello.’
Rodney blinked his robot eyes but did no such thing.
‘He’s just shy, it’s alright. You say hi first.’
‘Hi,’ I managed.
Rodney seemed to smile, but it’s hard to tell with robots, especially robots this small. His features were hard, grey. Lidded slits glowed in the place of eyes, a thin line of metal stood in for a mouth, he had no nose. His mouth seemed to move slightly, but I may have imagined that.
‘Look at that smile!’ Mr Grady said. ‘Go on now, why don’t the two of you find something to play at, and let me lie down for a moment?’
It didn’t seem like I had a choice, because Mr Grady started to slowly lie himself down on the couch I had been sitting on, forcing me off it. He closed his eyes and didn’t try to talk again. Rodney and I watched each other, both uncertain of what we were supposed to do. I thought of being polite and asking him what his hobbies were and what he liked to eat, but realised robots mightn’t be into anything. Especially robots that live inside people. I didn’t want to turn my back on him, worried about what he was capable of. But he seemed friendly enough, like someone else’s pet dog. Cautious, but willing to make new friends.
‘I live in number twenty,’ I said, pointing in my house’s direction. ‘It’s nice, we have a trampoline.’
Rodney didn’t respond. Just watched.
‘Is Mr Grady nice to you?’
I didn’t expect a reply, not really. I just wanted Mr Grady to hear me making an effort and then I could go home and play video games and forget all of this. I made a move towards Mr Grady then, tried to wake him, giving him a light shove. Rodney moved when I moved. He made a sharp beeping noise, one that became louder and louder like a smoke detector. Like a fire alarm. I backed off, putting my hands over my ears.
But he didn’t. Mr Grady hadn’t stirred. He didn’t even seem to be breathing. I leant over him and felt his face. He was still warm, but he was missing something. His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Rodney’s beeping had become so loud that my ears had begun to ring, to ache and pop like they do when you’re on a plane coming in for a landing.
‘Shut up shut up!’ I couldn’t even hear myself yell. Rodney seemed to. It took me a few moments to notice the silence because my ears continued to ring, to echo the loud noise.
‘It’s not my fault,’ I said. ‘He’s ok. He’s fine!’ Rodney didn’t seem to agree. I’d never seen a dead person, especially not a dead person I’d known. Once I saw a fox lying on its side, I passed it on my walk to school. It had blood and dirt crusted into its fur, a tongue poking out from its stiff mouth. Mr Grady just seemed to be sleeping and I decided that for all I knew he was. So I didn’t call the police. Or a hospital or whoever you were meant to call when someone really old died. Maybe if I left quickly I could pretend I hadn’t even visited, could go to the shopping centre and spend all day there and come home at the end believing that my day had been entirely different. Rodney was watching me closely, staying still like a little animal that would bolt if frightened off. When I moved towards the front door, he walked tiny steps in my direction.
‘Don’t you have any other friends?’ I asked. He didn’t seem to think so. ‘I’m not your friend, Rodney.’
I couldn’t just leave him there. I sat on the floor, unable to go home, unable to leave. I gave Rodney a look before I glanced back over at Mr Grady. He was perfectly quiet, like a doll. That’s when I picked up the phone and called my mum. She said I was making it up, but I said he really wasn’t moving, not at all.
‘But he could be ok,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘Stay there,’ she ordered, as if my leaving the house would make Mr Grady any more alive or dead. Rodney was still standing, watching me with suspicion. I took off my jumper.
‘You’re gonna have to hide.’ I hesitated, but he let me pick him up. He was cold, but light. He didn’t make a noise as I wrapped him inside the material, unsure of where he would hide after I smuggled him home. My ears tickled at the thought, but I pushed it aside when I heard my mother knocking loudly at the door.
“Candace Petrik is 27 and lives in Melbourne. She enjoys writing short stories and has a special place in her heart for Young Adult Fiction. She is currently writing a YA novel and wrote the above story on a dare. She likes robots quite a lot.”
Posted by SJX