30 Days: "Mucho and the Robot Baby" by Alicia VanNoy Call
Mucho and the Robot Baby One day, as a young man was leaving school, his child development teacher clasped an unbreakable ID bracelet around his wrist and handed him a robot baby. The young man was a mere fifteen years old, and an only child, so he didn't have much experience with babies. He toted the ten pound assignment home in the provided carrier. It made not a sound the entire afternoon. At dinnertime, the robot baby began to cry. The young man, whose name was Mucho, got up from the table with a grumble. Remembering that the robot baby was programmed to record his presence, Mucho scanned the bracelet across the robot baby's back and changed its diaper. The crying stopped. The rest of the evening, every time the robot baby cried, Mucho would scan the bracelet and record his attentive parental behavior in a small blue journal. He changed, fed, burped, and rocked the robot baby for five hours until it finally seemed to sleep. Exhausted, Mucho crawled into bed and fell into a deep slumber. That night, the world ended. Mucho awoke to the electronic whimper of the robot baby. He looked at the clock, confused by the disparity between the hour and the relative darkness outside. He scanned, fed, and changed the robot baby. He put away his pajamas, attempted to check his email – the internet was out – and opened his bedroom door. His parents were sitting at the kitchen table, eating canned peaches. “Good morning, dear,” said his mother. Mucho looked around at the fortified windows, the furniture pushed against the door, the emergency candles burned down to stubs. “What's going on?” he said “Armageddon,” said his mother. “But you were up half the night with the baby, so I didn't want to wake you.” Mucho peered through two boards out into the ash-drifted street. He could see distant fires, the sun blotted out by smoke, and an overturned police car. “I can't believe Armageddon snuck in under my nose.” “You've always been a deep sleeper,” said his father. “Does this mean playoffs are canceled?” Mucho wondered. He was a big basketball fan. “Hard to say,” said his mother. From the other room, the robot baby started to wail. + Later that week, Mucho's parents became ill. His father said it was airborne contagion. (Mucho felt fine.) His mother said it was that flu that had been going around. They laid themselves down in bed and after that, declined rather quickly. Mucho paced the room with the robot baby while his parents bestowed their parting advice. “You take care of that baby,” said his mother. “You don't know when all this silliness will end. If school starts back up tomorrow, you'll want a good grade.” “Don't forget to brush your teeth,” said his father. Mucho half expected his parents to rise from their death bed and attempt to eat his brain. He had watched a lot of cable television after all. But they moldered away peacefully, and in the course of time Mucho forgot about them. But he did not forget about the robot baby. Day after day, he cared for the robot baby. He became familiar with its cries. The short, clipped cries for a diaper change. The lingering, lusty howls for a bottle. The hiccuping whine for a burping. The fussy complaining sound of the robot baby when it wanted to be held – that was Mucho's favorite. He held the robot baby to his shoulder, sang to it, and rubbed its back. After while, the robot baby would signal its contentment with a gurgling laugh. Mucho learned to love that sound. He learned that that robot baby didn't like being left face down. It didn't like being dangled by one foot. And it didn't like being left alone. He grew very fond of the robot baby, and carried it around the house in a sling made from an old bed sheet. At first, Mucho would look out between the boards every few days, but after a couple of months, he gave up the practice. He found it depressing to see no variation in the view -- the same deserted street and the same burned out houses. Mucho lived for a year on canned food and bottled water. He grew very thin and very grateful for his mother's couponing hoard and his father's camping gear. And every night, after walking the floor for hours, after feeding, changing, and burping it, he faithfully recorded his treatment of the robot baby. + One morning, Mucho awoke to an eerie stillness. In the first few moments, he couldn't identify the reason for his apprehension. Then he realized that he hadn't been roused by crying. He peered at the robot baby. He listened at its chest. The robot baby was silent. He dangled it by one foot. Nothing. In the same moment that panic began to swell in his chest, Mucho heard a distant voice. Holding the robot baby close, he tiptoed into the living room. He squinted out between the boards, shocked to see two men walking down the middle of the street. They were dressed in puffy suits of yellow plastic. They carried instruments with antennas and wires. One spoke again, raising his voice in order to be heard by the other. The voice sounded faraway and muffled, but Mucho heard it distinctly. The voice said, “Did you catch that bit on SNL last night?” Mucho jumped to move the sofa out of his way. He fumbled with the stiff locks and threw open the door. He stepped out onto the porch and yelled at the backs of the passing men. “Hello!” His voice was hoarse from disuse. The two men turned. They stared. Mucho waved. The men came toward him, holding their instruments out at arm's length. “I thought you said it was clear,” said one of them to the other. “They told me it was,” said the other. Mucho stood, a grin plastered on his face. “Hello,” he said again. The men looked at Mucho. They looked at the dials on their instruments. “I'm sorry,” said Mucho. “I am just a little surprised. We haven't seen anyone for such a long time.” “Who else is with you?” said one of the men. “Just the baby,” said Mucho. “You have a baby in there?” said the other man. “He's right here,” said Mucho. He held out the robot baby. “But to be honest, I'm a little worried about him. He hasn't cried in nearly –,” Mucho pulled the small, blue journal out of his pocket. “ – six hours.” The two men looked at the robot baby. Then they looked at him. “What's your name?” one of them said. “Mucho,” said Mucho. One of them reached for his arm. “C'mon, Mucho. Let's get you cleaned up. Are you hungry?” Mucho wouldn't leave until he had gathered the robot baby's belongings. “We'll need them,” he told the men. They led Mucho down the desolate street to their vehicle, gave him a bottle of water and two chocolate bars, and helped him climb into the back seat. As they drove away from Mucho's neighborhood, he stretched out on the soft fabric upholstery. He closed his eyes, the robot baby cradled in his arms, and dreamt of high school. Wide, well-lit hallways. Pretty girls with long, straight hair. And good grades of which his parents would be proud.