Fraternal twin brothers Darryl and Kanga are just like any other teenagers trying to make it through high school. They have to deal with peer pressure, awkwardness, and family drama. But there’s one closely guarded secret that sets them apart: they are robots. So long as they keep their heads down, their robophobic neighbors won’t discover the truth about them and they just might make it through to graduation.
But when Kanga becomes the star of the basketball team, there’s more at stake than typical sibling rivalry. Darryl—the worrywart of the pair—now has to work a million times harder to keep them both out of the spotlight. Though they look, sound, and act perfectly human, if anyone in their small, depressed Michigan town were to find out what they truly are, they’d likely be disassembled by an angry mob in the middle of their school gym.
Heartwarming and thrilling, Simeon Mills’s charming debut novel is a funny, poignant look at brotherhood, xenophobia, and the limits of one’s programming.
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Our bus driver was a robot. Ask any kid on Bus 117. Not that any of them had for sure seen a real robot before Mrs. Stover. (That they knew about, anyway.) But that didn't stop them from whispering a mountain of evidence against her.
"She doesn't eat. Not even the day after Halloween when I gave her a Twix just to see if she'd eat it. She didn't."
"Mrs. Stover drinks too much coffee, just like a robot."
"And her hair. It's wires. It just sits up there."
"I heard robots eat cigarettes. Her breath smells like my grandma's house."
"Her glasses are too big for a human."
"Has anyone ever seen her out of her bus seat? Because it's like ... it's like she's connected to the bus, like they're two parts of the same big ...
"And Magic Johnson."
"I was about to say Magic Johnson."
It was true. Mrs. Stover had a computer-like obsession with Magic Johnson, sworn enemy of our favorite team, the Detroit Pistons. All of Mrs. Stover's clothes were Lakers purple. (One poor kid even saw a purple bra strap once.) She had pictures of Magic tucked into the leather sun visor above her seat. Lakers earrings. Lakers fingernail polish. A Lakers thermos. There was a price of admission for boarding Mrs. Stover's bus: tell her a fact about Magic Johnson. Some kids gave the same answer every day: "He wears purple." That was enough. Those kids could sit wherever they wanted. But if you were a new kid? If you stepped onto her bus and knew nothing about Magic Johnson? You had to sit directly behind Mrs. Stover for the duration of the ride. You had to listen — scratch that: the entire bus had to listen to Mrs. Stover's booming voice announcing highlights from the previous night's Lakers game or, if it was the offseason, endless trivia about Magic Johnson in frantic shouts: "GREW UP DOWN THE ROAD IN LANSING."
A short pause.
"LED MICHIGAN STATE TO ITS FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP."
Kids held their breath, wincing. "FINALS MVP HIS ROOKIE SEASON ..."
James Botty was the first to realize she was a robot. Surprisingly, the tell had nothing to do with Magic Johnson. Instead, James pointed out the writing on the back of Mrs. Stover's shoes. It was in a foreign language — an entirely foreign alphabet. We all snuck peeks at the front of the bus, where Mrs. Stover's shoes worked the pedals. There was the writing, easy to confirm yet impossible to explain: ????. "Robots are built with parts from other countries," James whispered. "Countries like China."
Everyone gasped: China.
That discovery had occurred in the first week of fourth grade. It was 1986. By the following spring, Mrs. Stover is a robot had yet to be replaced on our bus by anything even half as interesting to talk about. New theories and observations sprang up daily to be debated, scrutinized, and — if validated by James Botty, our official robot expert — formally recorded in Molly Seed's spiral notebook. Molly sat with James in the back of the bus.
She was his second-in-command, his vice president, and his secretary all in one. Molly's notebook contained every scrap of evidence against Mrs.
Stover, page after page written in superb handwriting, flawless even by girl standards. She guarded the notebook with her life; James was the only other person permitted to hold it.
To Molly, the rumor about Mrs. Stover went beyond gossip. There was an inevitable conclusion, a purpose to her methodical data collection: on the last day of school, she and James would submit their findings to the principal. Mrs. Stover would be deemed "obsolete" for failing to hide her robotic identity, and, per the informal agreement between the robotics companies and the general public, Mrs. Stover's life would be forfeit. She would be destroyed. Immediately. The best part was that anyone could annihilate an obsolete robot. It was first come, first served, and the kids on Bus 117 had some original ideas. As the last day of school approached, killing our bus driver was all anyone talked about.
"We'll buy a bazooka and fill it with dynamite. Then we'll handcuff Mrs. Stover to the back of the bus. Then we'll —"
"This is serious, you guys," Molly whispered. She had no patience for methods that were silly or fun. She was ruthless. A professional. Her tiny glasses, tiny nose, and general overall smallness only added to the effect.
While James Botty was fascinated by robots, Molly Seed simply hated them. She was a robophobe to her core.
For whatever reason, my twin brother, Kanga, was in love with Molly Seed.
* * *
Fourth grade was a do-or-die year for Kanga and me. A couple of months earlier, our parents actually did turn obsolete and vanish. One morning they were here, moving about our apartment in routine fashion: watching TV, drinking coffee, wiping grease from their armpits, waving good-bye as we left for the bus stop.
When we got home that afternoon, they were gone.
Kanga and I stood in the living room, suddenly huge with neither Mom nor Dad in it. Their possessions remained throughout the apartment, but in place of their bodies was the faint odor of sawdust. My central processor was overloaded, and I made the error of offering my brother a logical explanation for our parents' sudden disappearance: "Mom and Dad must have realized they were obsolete. I mean, they were programmed to raise us, but now that's over. We don't need them anymore. So I bet they just stopped whatever they were doing, got into Dad's van, and drove to Detroit, to the address in the back of The Directions where obsolete robots are supposed to go. Maybe it's a laboratory. Maybe it's just a dump —"
"Don't say that!" Kanga plugged his ears with his thumbs. "Mom and Dad aren't in a dump. And they would never just leave us. Somebody —" He spun around and ran into the kitchenette, as if Mom might be hiding there. Then he darted into Mom and Dad's bedroom. "Somebody must've kidnapped them. Somebody's got them in their basement all chained up. We gotta save them, Darryl!"
It's important to note that Kanga and I were not identical twins. I was taller by an inch; he had a widow's peak. My wrists were a constellation of freckles; Kanga had twin birthmarks on each shoulder. And, not to put too fine a point on it: I was the good robot, and Kanga was ... let's say "unique." While I fully understood that our existence was the result of a grand social experiment that required us to covertly navigate our environment — to interact with our human peers just enough to appear human ourselves, to speak sentences to them (but only after having listened to one hundred sentences spoken by them), and, above all else, to avoid detection — Kanga simply believed he was human.
My brother's denial was Mom's fault. She never mentioned the word robot in his presence because Kanga's eyelids would malfunction at the acknowledgment of what we really were. So she just stopped doing it. Mom still got Kanga to do everything normal robots did: drink lots of fluids, insert a food receptacle before eating, plug his fingers into an outlet every night, etc. But she acted like every family in our apartment building was doing that, too. She probably convinced herself that Kanga's existential delusion was somehow an asset to his survival.
She loved him, after all.
But now Mom was gone, and Dad along with her. I was the new mom, and if I were going to persuade Kanga to accept that he was a robot, it wouldn't happen overnight.
"Look around," I said the day Mom and Dad disappeared. "Do you see any signs of struggle here? They weren't kidnapped, Kanga. They left on their own. Obsolescence ..." I had to choose my words carefully.
"Obsolescence happens to all parents. It's part of life. Mom and Dad did a fantastic job raising us, but that job is over. They're retired. Haven't they earned it? I'm sure they still love us, wherever they are."
Kanga crossed his arms. "I'm going to find them."
"Look." My patience was gone. "Obsolescence is forever, Kanga. We don't need Mom and Dad anymore. They don't need us. Besides, obsolete people are a danger to themselves and everybody around them. It's spelled out very clearly in The Directions, on page 593. Do I need to read that section to you?"
"Because I can. Our copy of The Directions is right over —"
I was playing dirty. The Directions was a how-to guide for being a robot — specifically, for being us, a pair of Detroit 600s (and our parents, but they were mere 400-series models). I read it to understand my strengths and weaknesses, my capabilities and functions. Kanga avoided it for the same reasons. Reading it to us, Mom had always substituted the word person for robot, a practice I shamefully continued after she'd left. If nothing else, The Directions was a tool to get Kanga in line. A threat. And maybe somewhere deep in his processor he was listening, putting together the pieces of just how different we were from everybody else.
But even Kanga had to realize that Mom and Dad were dreadfully obsolete. Don't get me wrong — I "loved" them, as I was programmed to do. But our parents were designed for a single purpose: to see Kanga and myself safely through our early years. They did an admirable job. We survived. Dad didn't run us over with his van (though he once squished the toe of Kanga's sneaker). Mom did the best she could with a battery that seemed to be perpetually drained. That was their main problem. Fully charged with electricity, Mom and Dad were thoughtful, caring parents. But this optimization lasted only about forty-five minutes. After that, their efficacy declined steeply. It was sad. Mom's vocabulary would shrink to a tiny list of dialogue options, restricting her to only certain public interactions. The gas station, the liquor store, the library — and even those exchanges were embarrassing to witness. When her battery was low, Mom used to go to the pond at the park with a loaf of bread and leave us in the car while she fed the ducks.
Sometimes I would find her slumped next to a power outlet at home, cross-eyed, her fingers twitching against the floor, as if she'd forgotten how to plug them in and recharge. I would have to lift Mom's fingers to the outlet and jam them in until the juice started flowing. Still, she made a point to read us bedtime stories every night. But should a one-year-old have to correct his mother on the pronunciation of the word caboose?
I was ready for them to hit the road by second grade. I had learned everything I could from them (which was not much), and by then they were just getting in the way. Their outdated, porous bodies left streaks of grease on everything they touched. When we sat at the kitchenette counter for "dinner," Mom had only one question she could think to ask: "How was school, honeys?"
"Well," I would respond, "it was an interesting day, Mom. Last night the school got infested with giant flesh-eating moles. They killed our custodian. The principal told every kid to bring a hammer to school tomorrow for protection. Or a butcher knife, if we have one."
Mom would just smile and nod. "That's nice, honey."
I would turn to Dad. "Do we have a butcher knife, Dad? For school?
A really sharp one?"
Dad would take a long sip from the keg of beer he carried with him around the apartment. "Ask your mother."
Kanga would give me a kick to the shin.
If you asked my brother what was so great about our parents, he would probably say watching TV with them on the couch, making a place for himself in the tangled bird's nest of their legs. I'd be sitting on the floor, trying to watch TV, too, until I'd get so annoyed by his giggling that I would hide behind the orange chair and practice holding my basketball in the triple-threat position. I was already a master of this two-handed grip on the ball, from which I could, theoretically, shoot, pass, or dribble. Not that I had obtained any of those skills yet. But I would eventually.
I was the basketball kid. That's what Mrs. Stover called me, because I boarded her bus every morning holding my basketball in the triple-threat position. "HEY, BASKETBALL KID," she would say. "THEY SAY MAGIC JOHNSON DRIBBLED HIS BASKETBALL TO AND FROM SCHOOL EVERY DAY LIKE IT WAS HIS RELIGION." Dribbling. I would get there. At least Mrs. Stover seemed to think I could. That said, I still saw myself as the Piston's own Isiah Thomas instead of Magic. Isiah was just six one, a much more attainable height, practically speaking. Not that I would complain if I got those extra eight inches. Becoming Magic Johnson was a decent backup plan.
Mom and Dad were a different story. Mom's default response to seeing me in the triple-threat position was limited to "Share it with your brother," even though my basketball had been a birthday gift for me alone.
But passing was a skill I would need to master, so I'd toss it to Kanga, and he'd shoot it at something. Anything. There were ball marks all over the walls and ceiling. The ball would smash against the microwave, the coffee maker, a light fixture. Kanga would raise his arms triumphantly and holler Yes! no matter what happened. Mom would say, "Outside! Both of you!" Dad would cock an eyebrow at her: "You see the arm on that kid?" Thanks to Mrs. Stover's encouragement, I mostly practiced my dribbling.
By the end of fourth grade I could dribble for 8.1 seconds without losing control of the ball. Not that Mom or Dad ever noticed, except to say, "No dribbling in the living room!"
The problem with our parents becoming obsolete and vanishing like they did was that Mom had convinced Kanga we were all some kind of "family"; but The Directions included just one chapter on upkeep for Mom and Dad, while the other 1,200-plus pages were about maintenance for us.
Mechanically speaking, Kanga and I were from a different planet than Mom and Dad. Our newer bodies had been designed to evolve over time, to grow and mature. Inside Kanga and me was a factory's worth of high-test plastic components, onto which molecularly precise amounts of chemicals were timer-released, causing our synthetic bones, muscles, and skin to expand at the exact growth rate of a typical human boy. Mom and Dad were made of stock fiberglass. Nothing about them ever changed.
The day they disappeared was the best day of my life.
But it was also when Kanga fell into odd behavior. It's endlessly repeated in The Directions to never put food in your mouth, much less swallow any. I'd mastered that rule as an infant. But two days after Mom and Dad's disappearance, as we climbed aboard Mrs. Stover's bus, she held out a basket of candy and said, "TRIPLE-DOUBLE LAST NIGHT." It was nearly spring break, and by then we knew a triple-double meant Magic Johnson had tallied at least ten points, ten rebounds, and ten assists. We politely accepted our candy and stuffed it into our pockets for "later." That's what I did. Kanga unwrapped his and placed it in his mouth. "T'ank 'ou," he rasped as the watermelon cube plugged his fluids valve. I escorted him to our seat — Kanga by the window, me on the aisle. I was so disgusted I could hardly look at him: my brother trying to stick his whole hand down his throat to retrieve the candy. He couldn't. It was still there at recess. That's when I pulled him behind a dumpster and jimmied the candy out with a ruler. The thing was eight and a half inches down there. Idiot.
Not that my own behavior was beyond criticism. For instance, there was our first birthday on our own. Every year we were mailed birthday gifts from Gravy Robotics, whose address is in the back of The Directions. That year we got an authentic Magic Johnson uniform: "For Darryl and Kanga Livery." Clearly, we were supposed to share the uniform, but I claimed it for myself, even though I would have preferred Isiah Thomas's red and blue number eleven. I wore it to school for the rest of fourth grade, never allowing Kanga to even try it on. Besides, he had wanted something else entirely for our birthday. Well, two things. But our birthday came and went, and neither of them arrived to give him a hug.
I had to be both mom and dad to him. Thankfully, The Directions included a full page of parenting tips like, "Smile at your child units, even when you don't want to," "Treat yourself to a date night no less than once a year," and "Be calm, yet firm." I had to practically sit on Kanga's lap in Mrs. Walter's room (we had the same teacher) just to make sure he didn't swallow his art project or mention the fact that our real parents had abandoned us.
During spring break he refused to charge his battery, a daily requirement for robots. On the sixth day I found him collapsed on the living room floor, the TV blaring above him. "Darryl," he rasped, "I need a sip of milk."
"First we charge up."
"Do I have to?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Obsoletes"
Copyright © 2019 Simeon Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc..
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