Steel Kelly by Bridget A. Natale

When I was a kid, I hated the desert. But then everywhere became the desert. Everywhere that didn’t freeze, that is. So I had a choice: I could keep hating the desert or I could learn to live with it.

I’m still learning.

It’s just the three of us: Sheldon, me, and that damned robot, Homer. It’s my turn to drive, which is why we’re actually making good time for once. We’re heading from Altamont going towards Washington D.C. At least, that’s what Sheldon says. But to me, we’re heading from Nowhere going towards Nowhere. Because now Everywhere is Nowhere. Sheldon doesn’t see it that way. To him, we’re on an adventure. He’s the intrepid hero, I’m the lovely sidekick, and delivering Homer to the Smithsonian is our path to glory.

“Outdoor adventurous activities are… are… are… typically undertaken for the purposes of… of… of… recreation or excitement. Examples include adventure racing and… and… and… adventure tourism…” Homer rattles in the backseat.

Sheldon fidgets, his bulky frame barely contained by the old Jeep’s bucket seat. I glance in the rearview mirror and the sun glints off Homer’s aluminum casing, stinging my eyes. I look back at the road ahead, stretching out ahead of us into the haze

I hate Homer. I hate Homer more than I hate the desert.

Homer pauses in its constant recitation of useless information, and then sputters and stops. Sheldon turns and looks at it.

“Pull over,” he says. “Homer broke down.”

“Why?” I smack my open hand on the steering wheel. “Why not just wait until we make camp?”

“Because the point of this is that all three of us are making this journey together, Kelly!” Sheldon grit his teeth. “You know this. Try to have a little vision, ok?”

It’s pointless. I’ve lost this argument every time Homer broke down since we left the compound three weeks ago. I slow to a stop and Sheldon drags Homer into the drainage ditch so he has more room to work. He cracks open its abdominal case and starts digging in the internal gears.

Of course Homer broke down. Homer always breaks down. Or at least it has ever since we found him, buried in an arroyo outside of the compound back in California where somebody must have dumped it when they realized how worthless it is. Sheldon likes to brag that Homer is a marvel of engineering, a fully functional A.I. with gyroscopes in every joint and other technical bullcrap that is meaningless any more. “Maybe if somebody actually took care of the stupid thing when it was worth a damn, it would be in better shape now,” I say to him.

He doesn’t answer. He just keeps fiddling around in the guts of the robot.

I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take him or the robot or the desert. I look at the GPS. We’re just east of South Bend, Indiana. When I was a kid, this wasn’t desert. There were huge lakes of fresh water not even a days’ drive away. Now it’s all gone. Maybe if somebody actually took care of all this when it was worth a damn, it would be in better shape now, I think. But I keep my mouth shut.

Sheldon keeps tinkering, the back of his shirt sticking to his skin, soaked with sweat. “I need spark plugs,” he says.

I wonder what the hell a robot needs spark plugs for, but I don’t ask. I don’t really care. I walk over and crouch next to him. “Where’s the nearest populated city, Chicago? I’ll bet if we make it there we can scrounge up some.”

Sheldon clenches his fists. “We can’t turn back. You can’t just turn back when something goes wrong. Come on, Kelly. You just need to have faith in us.”

I look at the grimy pile of bits and pieces he has dug out of Homer’s guts and sift through them a moment before returning to the Jeep. He gets up and starts to pace, little puffs of dust rising with each step.

I know the look. He’s thinking. He’s running through his catalogue of old books and movies and television shows and video games that he has memorized, and is figuring out which one is most applicable to the situation at hand, and then deciding what to do based on what actors or pixels or text on a page did once in an imaginary world.

I sit in the very real car in the very real desert and wonder what I’m doing with my life. He continues pacing, muttering, not asking my opinion on anything. Of course. He knows what I’ll say.

Get rid of the robot.

But he won’t get rid of the robot.

I don’t want to end up like the desert or the robot or him, bogged down with broken machinery and a refusal to acknowledge how things aren’t working like he wants them to. I’m still not sure of what I want, exactly, other than the fact that I am sure that what I am right now is not what I want to be. I start the ignition. He keeps pacing. I put the car in drive. He looks up, says something, but I can’t hear him. I don’t want to. I don’t want to give him the chance to talk me out of it. I peel out onto the highway without looking back, leaving him in the dusty drainage ditch with his broken-down robot and grandiose dreams.

Sheldon likes to say that I lack vision. Maybe he’s right. I never saw what he did in the world around us. He always seems to be seeing things that used to be there, but aren’t there anymore. I don’t understand it. I have to deal with what is or I’ll lose my mind.

You can’t live your life like that, you know. With your head turned backwards while the world moves forwards. You end up out of time, out of place, no direction.

I have a direction. I’m going to Chicago.


Bridget A. Natale is a playwright and novelist originally from Pittsburgh and now residing in Seattle. Her most recent play, Bread of an Everyday Life, was featured in Freehold Theater’s New Play Lab Showcase and her stories have appeared in publications such as the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and Daily Science Fiction. In her free time she enjoys dabbling in political activism, various entrepreneurial schemes, and teasing her cats. 

Visit her at bridgetanatale.tumblr.com

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