The Son They Always Wanted
Tommy looked up as the front door opened and his parents strode in, faces full of smiles as they carried a large cardboard box between them.
“RoboNanny, deactivate and recharge,” Mommy said. Tommy’s artificial guardian acknowledged the order and retreated to its recharger, tucked away in the closet.
“Mommy, is that a present for me?” Tommy asked as he toddled over to his parents.
Mommy’s smile deepened, and Papa picked Tommy up, holding him at table-height so he could see the box there. A picture adorned the box; a boy, like Tommy, was sitting at a table whilst a family beamed smiles at him.
“That’s right, precious,” Mommy said. “Since Papa and I can’t give you the real brother or sister you’ve always wanted, we thought we’d give you a Robo-Sibling. This one’s a boy model, but if you want a sister, we could always take it back and get it exchanged.”
Tommy grinned at the thought of his own brother. For so long he’d wanted somebody to play with, and talk to, and share stories with. Now he had a brother, and he would be the envy of all his only-child friends.
“C’mon son, help us unpack your new brother!” Papa said.
They tore into the box and hauled out a robot the size of a four-year-old. Papa placed the robot on the table, and Tommy wrinkled his nose in frank appraisal. It didn’t look much like a brother; not like David’s brother Sam. Sam was pink, and he had real skin and pooped real poop. This brother… it was more like RoboNanny.
Momma flipped the switch on the back of the robot’s back, and its eyes lit up. In a synthesized voice, it said, “Hello, new family unit. I am pleased to meet you. Please press my input button and speak my name.”
“What do you want to call your new brother, Tommy?” Papa asked.
Tommy thought long and hard. For as long as he’d been alive—all five years of it—he’d wanted only two things; a brother, and a dog. He’d already picked out the dog’s name, but hadn’t even thought to pick a name for a brother. Maybe… yes, why not?
“Buster,” he said solemnly. He would just have to find another name for the dog.
Momma and Papa shared a silently amused look, but Momma said, “Alright, Buster it is.”
The pressed the input button. Spoke the name. The Robo’s body whirred as it tilted its head. “My name is Buster, and I am your new son! I look forward to learning from your input. Please refer to my user manual if you should require any further instruction about how to care for me.”
Momma and Papa took a heavy tome from the box and began thumbing through it as Buster sat on the table watching Tommy watching Buster.
“It doesn’t do very much, does it?” Tommy asked.
“That’s because it’s young—I mean, new. It needs time to learn how to properly talk and behave,” Papa explained. “You were the same, when you were just born.”
“Oh, look at this, Sid,” Momma said, pointing at something in the book. “It says he’ll need regular oiling to prevent his joints seizing up if he gets wet.”
Papa nodded. “I’ll head down to the hardware store first thing in the morning.”
“Momma, I’m thirsty. Can I have a glass of juice?”
“Of course, honey,” Momma smiled at him. “Just give me a moment to get to the end of this page.” A frown tugged her dark eyebrows down. “I don’t want to lose my place; it looks very technical.”
“But I’m thirsty now!”
Momma sighed. “RoboNanny, activate. Fetch a glass of juice for Tommy.”
The RoboNanny rolled off into the kitchen, and Tommy followed it. He just hoped it wouldn’t take too long to read the manual; he was getting bored, and it was long past his playtime.
* * * * *
The sky was perfect, blue and cloudless, and the sun shone brightly down on the family strolling between the animal enclosures of the Brooklyn zoo.
Tommy let go of his Papa’s hand and skipped ahead to where the camels lived. He loved the zoo, and this was the first time they’d been this year. His parents said Buster was too new to visit the zoo at first, but now they’d input lots of new words and lots and lots of animals into him.
As they stood watching the camels, a second family approached; a young couple, their daughter’s hands clasped in theirs. When the little girl saw Tommy smiling at her, she hid her face against her Momma’s skirt.
“Oh, how darling!” the girl’s momma cooed. She bent down in front of Buster and smiled at him. “This is the newest model of Robo-Sibling, isn’t it?”
“Yes, this is Buster,” Tommy’s momma beamed proudly. She gave the Robo a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Say hello, Buster.”
“Hello, unidentified female,” Buster intoned. “I am Buster. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. May I engage my facial scanning system to allow me to recognise you in the future?”
“That would be lovely, if your parents don’t mind!”
“Go right ahead,” Papa grinned. “We’ve been wanting to test out his facial recognition system with someone outside the family.”
“How are you getting on with his learning algorithms?” the girl’s papa asked. He gestured down to his daughter, who was hiding her face again. “We’ve been thinking of getting a Robo-Sibling for Claire, but we were worried about how much of an initial investment is required in terms of learning and identity.”
“Oh, no problems at all!” Papa said. “He’s very easy to teach, and only needs to be told something once in order to learn it with perfect recall.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And you can even turn off the life-simulation functions if you don’t want to deal with the mess caused by ‘eating’ and ‘digesting.’ It’s a godsend—if only the real ones had that benefit!” he chuckled.
“What’s your favourite animal so far, Buster?” the girl’s momma asked.
“So far I like the penguins, but what I really wish to see is a lion,” Buster replied. “They are the king of the jungle, you know.”
“Momma, can we go see the kangaroos?” Tommy asked. He loved how they hopped around and carried their tiny babies in their pouches.
“Maybe if we have time later,” Momma told him. “Buster wants to see the lions. Right, Buster?”
“Oh, he’s so clever!” the girl’s momma gasped. “What else do you know about lions, Buster?”
“Lions, of the genus Panthera, are large carnivores which inhabit…“
Tommy stopped listening as Buster recited every fact he’d been taught about lions. Maybe he’d just go find those kangaroos by himself.
* * * * *
“RoboNanny, deactivate and recharge,” Mom commanded, and she and Pop bustled through the door with a large box between them.
The RoboNanny performed as instructed. Tom didn’t like the RoboNanny so much anymore. It complained that Tom was more difficult to take care of than Buster. Luckily, he wouldn’t need a nanny much longer. He was nine; almost old enough to be left on his own! He couldn’t wait.
“Guess what we’ve got for you, sons,” said Pop.
“A cardboard box,” Buster dutifully responded.
“No, this is something in the box.” Pop aimed a wink at Tom. “Something Tommy’s always wanted!”
Tom’s heart skipped several beats as he flew to his feet. “You got me a dog?”
“It’s a family dog,” Mom corrected. “For everybody. For us to share.”
Tom raced over to the table as Pop put the box down. What would it be? A spaniel puppy? A lab? A pedigree, or a mutt? Something small enough to be carried around, or large enough to be ridden?
Mom pulled the paper off the box, and Tom saw the words emblazoned on the side.
RoboDog. K-9 version 3.
“Oh boy, a dog!” Buster said. “I have always wanted a dog.”
No, thought Tom, I’ve always wanted a dog.
“What should we call our new pup, boys?”
Tom shrugged, his heart deflating. “I dunno. Let Buster decide.”
“I want to call our dog ‘Patches,'” Buster said.
“Alright, Patches it is!”
Tom watched as they opened the box together and activated the RoboDog. It didn’t seem to like Tom; it growled when he came too near. But around Buster, its tail wagged constantly.
It just wasn’t fair.
Today’s dysfunctional family story is inspired in part by Inkbiotic’s tale, A Hole Where Her Heart Should Be. I heartily recommend you check it out. Today’s daily WordPress prompt is Replacement, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my contribution.
If the story feels unfinished, that’s because it is. I could write thousands more words about this, and one day, I do want to do that. So, this is just a rough draft.