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 . . . machine.”
“And Magic Johnson.”
“I was about to say Magic Johnson.”
It was true. Mrs. Stover had a computerlike 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 off-season, 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 vice president and 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. That spring, 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, which was 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 “uniquely programmed.” 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 was 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. “I HEARD 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 Pistons’ own Isiah Thomas instead of Magic. Isiah was just six one, a much more attainable height, practically speaking, than Magic’s six nine. 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, when they were around, 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 time-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 was 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?”
I lifted my twin brother by the armpits and dragged him into his bedroom. Mom had positioned his bed near an outlet so Kanga could charge up while pretending to sleep at night. Now he was too weak to even lift his fingers to the holes, so I had to do it for him.
Plugging in was a vulnerable—dare I say spiritual—procedure. To begin, a robot pressed his thumb and pointer finger together, as though pinching the handle of a very small teacup. The tips of these two digits were then inserted, with considerable force, into the vertical slots of a power outlet, the fingernails penetrating as far as possible, until the “bite” occurred—which was both thrilling and terrifying. The electricity stunned you, then sucked your fingers farther into the outlet as you surrendered all control of your body and mind. It was like you suddenly switched places with the wall you were attached to, peacefully entombed in a benign, sturdy flatness. That was how charging up felt to me, anyway. The disorientation lasted for only the first hour or so. After that it felt like having your fingertips glued to a wall. I usually just read The Directions for the remaining seven hours.
I had never seen Kanga charge up before; he always did it in his bedroom with the door closed. After I jammed his fingers into the outlet, after the bite, I stood back and watched him: the yellow light trying to escape from under his skin, someone else’s angry twitch on his lips. But eight hours later, Kanga yanked himself loose from the wall, good as new. Well—as good as a grieving ten-year-old robot with an identity complex could get.
We just needed to make it to summer.
At school, we were lucky that Mrs. Walter was neck-deep in a divorce and had been too distracted to send Kanga to the school counselor. Not that I could ever be truly calm when we were in public. Not even on the bus. Kanga’s obsession with Molly Seed had worsened. He stared at her constantly, and the other kids had begun to notice.
• • •
On the morning of the last day of school, Kanga was uncharacteristically silent as we waited for the bus. Seeing his furrowed brow and pinched lips, I knew he was probably dwelling on Mom and Dad, and that asking him for his thoughts would only heighten the odds of his crying on the bus. I decided to ignore him. But as the seconds ticked away, my brother’s face grew darker and darker. Mrs. Stover pulled onto our street, and I heard Kanga’s throat constrict. Hold it together, brother. The bus doors swung open, and that’s when Kanga grabbed me by the shoulders. He leaned toward me, cheeks bulging. With a violent BLAAAH! Kanga stuck out his tongue, and a praying mantis crawled from the darkness of his throat. The insect clicked its wings, shedding my brother’s throat grease. I tried to pull away, but Kanga held me close, blowing the mantis—its giant green pinchers—directly onto my face.
He howled with laughter.
“MOVE YOUR KEISTERS,” ordered Mrs. Stover.
My brother and I boarded her bus for our last day of fourth grade.
A few streets later, we stopped in front of Molly Seed’s filthy gray
house. Kanga pressed his nose against the window, eager for a glimpse of her. Nobody had mown Molly’s lawn since the snow melted. There was a truck parked sideways in her driveway. But where was Molly? Mrs. Stover honked. She honked again, and finally started to pull away when Molly sleepily emerged, leaving her front door open, so Kanga got a peek into her living room: a bare white wall. Molly hugged her notebook to her chest as she walked down the aisle. By now it was filled with so much evidence that an extra forty pages had been stapled to the back cover.
Today was the big day. If they didn’t chicken out, Molly and James would be submitting the notebook to the authorities by first bell. I imagined Principal Vanderlaan’s glasses popping off his face as he read the hundreds of damning facts proving our bus driver was a robot. None of the bus riders seemed to care that Molly’s actions would result in Mrs. Stover being dismantled for parts. Me neither. I was all too familiar with the dangers posed by robots running past their expiration. The Directions detailed case studies of obsolete robots who had made no effort to hide their mechanical identities, causing spectacular scenes of human vs. robot carnage. Because these were “stories,” Mom was free to use the word robot to describe the villains who were justifiably destroyed at the end. But they never frightened me. I wasn’t obsolete. I knew how to act in public (unlike some robots who liked to keep bugs in their throats). The robots in these case studies were so grossly negligent that I felt relieved to see them annihilated. Kanga enjoyed the stories too, in his own way; he identified with the humans. “Mom,” he’d say, “read the one where the little boy catches that robot thing in his tree house!”
Mrs. Stover would be just another cautionary tale. I was grateful to her for comparing me to Magic Johnson and for seeing potential in me where Mom and Dad hadn’t, but she was clearly obsolete, and excitement over her impending demise had diverted attention away from Kanga’s bizarreness. We needed to survive one more day of school.
Molly wasn’t making it easy for Kanga. Appearing exhausted just moments before, Molly became euphoric when she sat next to James. She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t lower her voice. The notebook was open
as she read passages aloud, giggling and breathing heavily. When Mrs. Stover halted the bus at the railroad tracks, Molly stood on her seat and hollered, “Yo! Toaster!”
Mrs. Stover turned and faced us. “I’LL BE HAPPY TO TAKE MY FOOT OFF THE BRAKE, YOUNG LADY, WHEN YOUR BUTT IS WHERE I WANT IT.”
Molly plopped down, but not without hooting, “Okay, toaster!”
The word toaster wasn’t anywhere in The Directions, but everybody knew it meant “robot”—and not in a good way. For me, hearing the word at all, even in reference to bagel preparation, caused the exhaust fan in my head to click on.
James seemed anxious too. He touched Molly’s shoulder to calm her, but she just flapped her arms, notebook and all, sending pages scattering throughout the back of the bus. I didn’t remember moving my hand, but it was now resting on Kanga’s shoulder. I could feel his body humming with jealousy as James rubbed Molly’s back. Whatever James was doing appeared to be working. She looked sleepy again. She tipped toward James, sniffing his shirt collar.
“Kanga,” I said, “how about after school we go catch some frogs in Culver’s Creek? You can make a swimming pool for them in the bathroom sink.” Kanga had been asking me if we could do this, and I’d always said no, because that’s what Mom had always said. But it was liberating, now, to simply suggest Kanga do exactly what he wanted. Because why not? Because maybe that was part of being a good mom too: giving your kid that stupid, special thing that only he wanted. “And maybe we’ll chop down that little pine tree behind the building. You know, the one you think looks like a crocodile standing on his—”
“She’s whispering to him.”
It was true. Molly’s lips were practically inside James’s ear. It made my neck itch just watching her. She was passionate, whatever she was whispering. James leaned away from her, confused. Then he stared at her eyes. His look—he loved her. There was no mistaking it. But there was also terror on his face. What had Molly confessed to him?
“Ignore her,” I said to Kanga. “You have to. Because it’s obvious she likes James, and he likes her, but they’ll probably break up over the summer. Just wait your turn. Next year, you know? Next year we’ll sit closer to Molly on the bus, and—”
“But what’s she saying to him? She doesn’t look right. I’m going to—”
Kanga was crawling over the seatback (I had a grip on his arm) when James shrieked. After that, nobody moved. The bus just watched in horror.
Some memories aren’t stored in a robot’s central processor. They get stuck somewhere more immediate. The hair on the back of your neck, for instance. The tip of your chin. The surface of your eyeballs. Molly Seed going berserk on James Botty was one such memory.
It started with her coughing. But not a normal cough. Molly’s cough was like a vacuum cleaner sucking dirt off the bus floor. James tried to push her away, but Molly only fell against him harder. Her eyes bulged—they had become purple. James shrieked again, and that’s when Molly stuck a finger in her mouth, the way someone might try to find a hair they accidentally ate. What Molly located instead was a gray electrical wire hiding on the back of her tongue. She began yanking it out. The electrical wire fell on James’s lap, foot after foot, until Molly at last regurgitated a small silver battery. The writing on the battery was in Mandarin, the most popular language in China. I recognized its shape and style from a parts catalog Dad had hidden in the apartment. It was the power source for Molly’s central processor.
How long did this episode take? Nineteen point four seconds. But even with her battery now outside of her body, Molly remained alive. We watched as she used her chewed-up fingernails to claw the wires apart. This took much longer. There was no explosion or mechanical squeal to mark her death. She just slumped against James, and pink lubricating oil drooled from her mouth onto his clean white shirt. By then it was clear to the entire bus exactly what Molly Seed was. Or, more precisely, what she had been.
Once, when we were tiny, Dad had taken Kanga and me on a walk
around the block. Out of the blue, he knuckled my head and pointed toward the mailman, who was making his rounds. Dad never said a word—just shoved his hand back into his pocket—but I knew it meant the mailman was a robot too. Then Dad laughed, and I wasn’t sure what to think anymore. Our mailman was a robot. Maybe. Besides my family, he was the only robot I’d ever seen.
Until Mrs. Stover, who kept driving us toward school, ignoring the situation at the back of her bus.
Until Molly Seed.
Kanga tried to break free of my grasp, to rescue Molly’s inanimate body from what would happen next, but in the history of the world, no kid has ever broken free from his mother’s grip to chase a bouncing ball into traffic. My hand was stuck to my brother’s arm as if glued, and that kept Kanga in our seat. I fused my other hand over his mouth, just to be extra safe.
It was the day before summer vacation. Outside, blue skies. A warm breeze. Our bus windows were open. I heard the din of the road beneath us, but also something new: the sound of brown lunch sacks, full of air, getting crumpled by human fists. Over and over, louder and louder, sacks getting smashed. This crackle was coming from inside our classmates’ heads. Their brains were crackling. It had to do with Molly. And fear. The crackle was connecting them, everyone leaning their heads in unison toward James, urging him to do something about the robot in their midst, about Molly, crackling at him: Get rid of her, James!
James grabbed Molly’s thin shoulders and lifted her up. Her head swung around, giving us riders an uncanny farewell stare before James thrust her headfirst through the open window. Molly’s legs got caught near the ceiling, keeping her half-inside. But James just grabbed her sneakers and forced her completely through.
The crackle disappeared. We didn’t hear Molly strike the asphalt, just the rattle of the bus continuing down the road. Nobody said a word, but a moment later the brakes hissed.
We heard the steady beep . . . beep . . . beep of the bus backing up.
After parking the bus on the side of the road, Mrs. Stover painfully got out of her seat. She didn’t even look at us, just walked down her steps and around the bus to inspect the wreckage of our robotic classmate. Molly lay across the white line on the edge of the road. Mrs. Stover lit a cigarette. She took two puffs, chuckling to herself, and bit the cigarette between her teeth. Then she bent down, grabbed Molly’s ankle, and dragged her into the weeds, where her corpse would be hidden from passing motorists. Mrs. Stover opened the rear door of the bus and took out an orange cone. She tossed it toward Molly. She threw her cigarette in the dirt, stomped it, and reboarded the bus.
On the way to school (we weren’t even late) we listened as Mrs. Stover used the CB radio: “GOT A CODE EIGHTEEN. CORNER OF ROWELY AND DIETZ.” She paused for a garbled response. “TEN-FOUR.”
I must have still had glue on my fingers, because after having grabbed Kanga’s hand as we got off the bus, I couldn’t let it go. Whether Kanga liked it or not, we were conjoined for the remainder of fourth grade. All in all, my brother impressed me that day. He didn’t cry. He didn’t act up. His processor just went on autopilot, and he let me drag him wherever we needed to go. Mrs. Walter looked at us and inquired why we were holding hands.
“Buddy system,” I answered.
“Whatever,” she said, and resumed her futile attempt to control the volume of her classroom, which couldn’t stop talking—no, shrieking—about the Molly Seed incident. Anyone on Bus 117 was an instant celebrity. Luckily, there were several other bus riders in our class who relished the chance to tell the story, so Kanga and I didn’t have to. When the local news vans stopped in front of the school, we all rushed to the window to see Principal Vanderlaan gesturing dynamically before the cameras, then grabbing James Botty’s shoulders and squeezing them with pride. We couldn’t hear what he said, but he ended the interview by giving James a personal round of applause.
That afternoon, Bus 117 arrived right on schedule to take us home for the summer. As she dropped Kanga and me off in front of our apartment
building, Mrs. Stover aimed her thick glasses at me. “BASKETBALL KID,” she said, “SAY HI TO YOUR MOM FOR ME.”
“You bet.” I smiled. “Have a great summer, Mrs. Stover. Go Lakers!”
Kanga and I watched Mrs. Stover drive off.
“Let go of me now,” he whispered.
The glue had finally worn off. I released him, but before Kanga could run away, I gave my twin brother a huge hug.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said, squirming away from me.
“Nothing.” I hugged harder. “I love you, Kanga.” My skin was tingling with a strange feeling, a motherly feeling—horror mixed with relief—of having witnessed someone else’s kid make an irreparable mistake. Right now I didn’t care if Kanga thought he was human. He was safe with me, and that was enough. “I’ll never let anybody hurt you. Got that?”
“Okay,” he said. “But what if the Incredible Hulk jumps down from that tree and tries to kill me?”
“I’ll rip him apart with my bare hands.”
Kanga laughed, but I cracked my knuckles, and I knew my mom-strength could kill the Incredible Hulk if it had to.