Robo snagged a corner of the quilt in his claws and began the arduous climb to the top of the bed. Timmy heard the plastic clanking of tiny limbs but paid him little mind, gaze fixed through the misty window glass. A low fog hung over the backyard, moving like ghost hands through the maze of toys and swings and trees.
“It’s gonna rain again,” Timmy said, drumming his fingers on the glass.
“I’m sure it will let up soon,” Robo said, his silver head peeking over the corner of the bed. “Then we can go outside and play.”
“No, it won’t,” Timmy sighed. “It never lets up. It rains all the time.”
“It can’t rain forever.” Robo had no working mouth, but when he spoke, a red LED in the center of his face flashed with each word. Timmy saw the flashing out of the corner of his eye and turned. Robo raised a hand over his head in his best approximation of a wave.
“I can’t even remember the last time we went outside to play,” Timmy said.
Robo waddled over to the window, moving awkwardly on the soft bedding. He set his claw-hands on the windowsill and stretched up on his tiptoes to get the window to eye level. “We could play in the hallway. We could get that bit of carpet, and you could pull me around.”
Timmy considered this. He didn’t like the hallway, big and cold and empty. In fact, he really didn’t like any part of the house except for his bedroom. It was the only room with a light switch, the only room with any warmth. He lay back on his bed, tucked his hands behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling. A cobweb swayed back and forth like a strange pendulum in some unfelt wind.
Robo walked over to the pillow and sat down, resting his back against Timmy’s arm. “Or we can just stay in here and talk.”
Timmy grunted. “You know where I really want to go.”
Robo shook his head. “Oh, let’s not talk about that again, Timmy, please. We don’t have to talk about that every day. It’s boring.”
“Well, it’s not boring to me,” Timmy said. “It’s about the only thing that’s not boring.”
“Want to play checkers?”
Timmy sat up and cast his gaze across the room, over the bed, the discarded toys on the floor, and a mountain of dirty clothes, to the wood-paneled wall beside the bookcase. That was where the little door sat. Half-high, chipped white paint and brass hinges, the little door seemed to lead nowhere. It was set into an exterior wall, yet the crack at the bottom revealed only inky blackness. Many times, Timmy had intended to open the door, to at least grab the glass knob and see if it turned, only to be talked out of it by Robo. It was the only door in the house that he’d never opened
“No, I don’t want to play checkers,” Timmy said. “Checkers is boring. You always let me win.”
Robo reached up with his plastic claw-hands and seized a fold of Timmy’s shirt, tugging it gently until Timmy looked down at him. His rudimentary face gazed up, earless, hairless, a mere hint of eyes and nose, yet he conveyed such an earnestness that Timmy felt bad for disappointing him. Robo raised both of his hands, opening and closing them, then turned and pointed toward the bedroom door. Timmy sighed.
“Very well, Robo,” he said. “But just for a little bit.”
He bent over the edge of the bed, grabbed a pair of socks and slipped them on. Then he slid down onto the floor and reached under the bed, fishing around a collection of toys, books, clothes and trash until he felt the edge of the carpet. He grabbed it and pulled it out from under the bed, scattering debris all over the bedroom floor in the process.
“Oh, thanks, Timmy,” Robo said. “We’ll have so much fun today.”
“Sure,” Timmy replied. He batted a stray shoe off the carpet and rose. “Come on.”
“Help me down, please,” Robo said, reaching for him.
Timmy dutifully grabbed Robo around the waist and lowered him to the floor.
“Thanks,” Robo said, climbing onto the end of the piece of carpet.
It was a long strip of crimson carpet, a scrap that Timmy had found in a downstairs closet. It matched no other carpet in the house, and it had an odd shape, six inches across and four feet long, the edge frayed as if it had been ripped loose rather than cut.
“Wait until we get into the hallway,” Timmy said.
Robo clambered off the end of the carpet, and Timmy dragged it to the bedroom door. At the door, he paused, took a deep breath, then grabbed the ice-cold knob. He glanced back at the little door beside the bookcase one more time, thought to himself, I’m opening the wrong one, and turned the knob. When he pulled open the bedroom door, cold air, like a frigid breath, entered the room and swept over him. The great dim hallway with its gray tiles, pale walls, and high ceiling stretched out before him, windowless, drab, and empty. Halfway down, a railing on the left side gave a view of the foyer and living room below, more cold, gray expanses.
Timmy stepped into the hallway, dragging the carpet behind him, and felt Robo climb back onto the edge.
“Hold on tight,” Timmy said.
“I’m ready,” Robo replied.
Timmy took off running, his socks slipping on the smooth tiles. Robo gave a mechanical squeal, his limbs clinking and clanking as he struggled to maintain his grip. As Timmy neared the halfway point, he slowed. Robo gave a little beep of protest, but Timmy couldn’t help it. He always slowed just before he reached the railing, anticipating the sudden yawning vastness, the low, almost inaudible hum that filled the large spaces in the house, and the deepening chill. He stumbled, one foot sliding, but caught himself on the wooden rail. It gave a loud creak, and Timmy quickly pushed himself away.
“Faster,” Robo pleaded. “Faster, all the way to the end.”
Timmy kept his eyes fixed firmly on the plain wall at the end of the hallway, deliberately avoiding the sight of the gray expanse on his left, though he was all too aware of it. He regained his balance and took off at a sprint. Robo squealed, and the carpet made a high whisking sound on the tiles.
Timmy heard something then, just a hint of something, a sound that seemed to come from high up near the ceiling, breaking through the endless low hum. A voice. It sounded like a voice but muffled by static, like someone speaking on a phone with a bad connection. It was brief, maybe a word or two, though he didn’t catch what was said, but it startled him so badly that he let go of the carpet. Robo’s squeal of excitement became a click of surprise as he tumbled forward. Timmy’s feet went out from under him and he fell on his rump, sliding forward, trying in vain to slow himself by pressing his hands against the floor, until he crashed into the wall at the end of the hallway. His feet slammed into the baseboard, but he kept coming, legs folding so that his knees hit the wall and punched holes in the plaster. His forehead lurched forward and smacked into his knees, and then something smashed into the back of his head with a loud crack.
“Timmy, Timmy,” Robo cried, picking himself up. “Are you okay?”
Timmy felt pain in his feet and knees, and his head throbbed, his vision filled with stars, but the pain seemed to abate with surprising speed. He lifted his head and felt something slide off and hit the floor behind him, heard a sound like glass breaking. He picked himself up, dusted off his knees, and turned. A wooden picture frame lay on the floor facedown. Robo stood beside it, kicking at it with one of his blocky feet.
“Are you okay?” he asked again.
Timmy inspected his forehead with his fingers, ran his hands through his hair. No blood. He nodded at Robo, then stooped to pick up the wooden frame.
“It must’ve fallen off the wall,” Robo said. “Looks broken. We might as well throw it away.”
“I’ve never seen any pictures hanging on the walls,” Timmy said.
It had a cardboard backing and a bit of wire stretched between two tacks. Timmy turned it over and saw a pane of glass covered in a spider web of cracks. Dust and grime coated the glass so that he couldn’t make out what lay beneath it. He ran a thumb over the glass, felt the rough edges of the cracks, and managed to rub off some of the dust. Now he caught a hint, the barest hint, of an image, brown and gray.
“You shouldn’t play with that,” Robo said. “Broken glass can cut you. Come on, Timmy, let’s go back to the room now.”
Timmy ignored him and kept rubbing at the glass.
“I heard something,” Timmy said.
“Yes,” Robo replied. “Me, too. I think it was your knees knocking holes in the wall.”
“No, I heard a voice.”
“It was me,” Robo said. “I got scared and made a sound.”
“No, a different voice,” Timmy said. “I heard a different voice.”
“Maybe…” Robo hesitated, took a step back. “Maybe it was someone playing outside. Maybe we can go outside now.”
“It wasn’t outside,” Timmy said.
He moved his thumb off the glass and felt his heart leap in his chest. A face, still vague, like someone peering through fog, curls of brown and gray hair framing narrow features, shiny eyeglasses, and white teeth. Timmy didn’t think he recognized the face, yet his heart began to pound in his chest. His hands shook, and the picture fell from his grasp, hitting the floor on one corner so hard that the wooden frame broke.
“Timmy, what’s wrong?” Robo asked.
But Timmy didn’t answer. He hopped over Robo and ran back to his room. His feet slipped again, but he threw himself against the wall to keep from falling and kept right on going, down the hall and through the bedroom door. Then he stumbled over the scatterings from beneath the bed and collapsed on top of the heavy quilt, burying his face in his pillow. It felt like his heart might crash right through his rib cage and fall out of his chest, and his whole body shook. He took great gulps of air, but it didn’t seem to help. What was he feeling? He didn’t know what to call it, something akin to fear but worse. Suddenly the whole gray expanse of the house seemed to be closing in around him.
“Timmy,” that tiny voice at the bedroom door, little plastic limbs moving as Robo approached the bed.
The sound of Robo’s voice helped, and his heart settled, leaving a hollow ache in its place. Timmy sat up, took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then slowly, very slowly, let it out. Robo stepped up to the bed and began to climb, but Timmy stooped down and lifted him the rest of the way.
“Are you better now?” Robo asked, taking a seat on the pillow. “You are worrying me.”
“I think I’m okay,” Timmy replied, noting the slight tremor in his voice. “I’m not sure what happened. That picture…”
“Don’t worry about that picture,” Robo said, raising his hands. “I’ll clean up the mess for you, Timmy. Don’t even think about it.”
“Thanks,” Timmy said with a sigh. He turned to the window and leaned his arm against the sill. Condensation covered the glass, so he wiped it away with his sleeve and gazed into the backyard. Rain was falling, a light but persistent rain, but, curiously, the fog hadn’t dissipated. If anything, it had grown, great billows of it filling the yard, and beyond the fence, a sea of white flowed to the horizon as far as the eye could see. Fog and rain in all directions forever.
“We can go outside when it stops raining,” Robo said.
“No, it looks too cold out there.”
“Oh, no, no, it’s not cold out there,” Robo insisted, shaking his head. “It’s never cold ever again out there. As soon as the rain lets up, we can go.”
“Maybe,” Timmy said. He rested his hand on the window and felt the chill and wondered why Robo was lying. Of course it was cold outside, just like it was cold in the hallway, just like it was cold in every room of the house except the bedroom. But he didn’t feel like arguing about it. What he really wanted to do was go back out into the hallway and retrieve the broken picture, but even thinking about that face, the curls of brown and gray hair, the glint of eyeglasses, made his heart race again.
He felt Robo’s claw-hand grasping at his sleeve and lurched off the bed, pulling Robo with him. With a squeak, Robo fell to the floor.
“I’m sorry, Robo,” Timmy said, bending down to pick him up. “I didn’t mean it.”
“I know,” Robo replied, as Timmy set him back on the bed. “You’re not yourself right now. I am very concerned. Please, let’s go outside now. I think the rain is letting up. We can go outside and never worry about anything ever again.”
“I don’t want to go outside,” Timmy said. “It looks awful out there.”
“But it’s not,” Robo said. “I promise.”
“Oh, how do you know?” Timmy waved him off and strode to the center of the room. His attention was sharply divided, his gaze drawn to both the open bedroom door, the hallway beyond, and to the little door. The little door. He turned that way. The square doorframe reminded him somewhat, if only vaguely, of the picture frame, a perfect square. He took a step toward it.
“Timmy, it stopped raining,” Robo said. “Look, look, it stopped raining.” Timmy heard the little arms moving--click, click, click--but didn’t bother to turn around and look.
“I still don’t want to go outside,” Timmy said. He stepped on a toy car, gasped as a metal edge jabbed him in the tender flesh at the arch of his foot, and kicked it away. “Outside looks awful.”
“It’s not awful,” Robo said. “All your best toys are in the backyard.”
Timmy moved toward the little door, stomping through a mound of dirty shirts and pants, nudging a baseball cap aside. Everything that Robo said was grating on him. Robo was always suggesting games they could play, places they could go, always and always, so much so that Timmy was used to it. Most of the time, he didn’t mind, but right now that voice was like fingernails scratching glass.
“The swing set,” Robo said. “The swing set looks fun, don’t you think? Haven’t you always wanted to swing on the swing set?”
“No,” Timmy replied. He was standing now before the little door. The top of the frame came up to the center of his chest. He reached for the knob, and his heart leaped again, as it had when he’d first laid eyes on the picture. Timmy drew his hand back.
“You know you can’t open that door,” Robo said, sounding as frantic as his thin voice could manage.
Timmy heard a thump and, glancing over his shoulder, saw that Robo had fallen, or thrown himself, from the bed. He lay there on the floor, as if waiting to be picked up, then stood and stumbled toward Timmy, waving his arms over his head.
“Come away from there,” Robo said. “We’ll do anything you want to do, go anywhere you want to go, outside or downstairs, or just stay right here and play a game, anything you want, if you come away from that door.”
But Timmy’s heart was racing and his hands were shaking, and he found that he didn’t want to listen to Robo, not this time. He wanted to know. He knelt in front of the little door, but Robo came up beside him and grabbed his hand, trying to pinch him, though he had little strength.
“I just want to see what’s in there,” Timmy said. “Stop being silly, Robo. I’ll just open it a little bit.”
“No, you mustn’t,” Robo replied, jabbing at Timmy’s hands. “You have to listen to me this time, Timmy. You have to.”
Timmy batted Robo away a little more strongly than he meant to, sending the plastic body tumbling into the side of the bookcase. Robo squawked, kicking his legs like a turtle unable to right itself. Timmy reached out to help him, then shook his head and reached for the glass knob instead. He was shaking so badly, he was afraid that if he didn’t open the door right now, if he waited even a few seconds, he might not be able to.
To his great surprise, the glass knob felt warm against his palm, very warm, and the touch of it quelled his trembling. He turned the knob and it gave a soft but satisfying click. Robo ceased his kicking and rose to his feet. He raised his arms, then dropped them suddenly to his sides.
“This is it, then,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Timmy replied.
“All I want right now Timmy, all I want in the whole world, with my whole heart, is for you and me to go outside.” Robo’s little LED mouth flashed with extra intensity. “To run around out there, to play, to swing and laugh, and never come back inside ever again. That’s all I want.”
Timmy looked at his friend--friend?--and grunted. “Robo, that’s not what I want.”
“Then, like I said, this is it.” Robo’s voice dropped an octave, became low and thick, slow and slurring. “This is it.”
“I’m just gonna look,” Timmy said.
Robo shook his head and turned away.
Timmy opened the door. He expected something, though he didn’t know what, some sudden sight or sound, perhaps. But he pulled the door open, the hinges squealing ever so slightly and saw only darkness, utter darkness beyond the doorway like a curtain of starless night. He rested a hand on the floor beside the threshold and slowly slid his fingers into the darkness, feeling the bedroom carpet, the smooth wood of the threshold, and then his fingertips sank into something soft, something dry and crumbly. He grabbed a handful of it and drew his hand back.
“Dirt,” he said, rubbing it between his fingers. He looked at Robo, but Robo was turned away from him and didn’t respond. Sulking. “Okay, be that way,” Timmy said. He scattered the dirt on the carpet and crawled through the open doorway. Warm air enveloped him, and he felt the soft cushion of dirt beneath his hands and knees. He glanced back once more, saw Robo beside the bookcase and felt a moment of...maybe regret, maybe concern, something. “You’re not coming?”
“I can’t go with you,” Robo said. “Not in there. I have to stay. I wish you’d gone outside forever, like I wanted, instead of in there. Goodbye, Timmy.”
But Robo said no more. Timmy sighed and turned away and never saw Robo again. He resumed crawling through the door into the darkness and left the bedroom behind. The next time he looked back, to his surprise but not, oddly, to his shock, he noted that the little door had vanished. It was only darkness now on all sides. He reached out and felt walls on either side of him and a ceiling overhead, smooth rock. A cave of some kind? A tunnel?
He resumed crawling, and as he went, moments turning into minutes, he began to perceive some kind of light ahead of him, faint at first and distant, like the moon through a veil of clouds. Then it took on a distinct shape, a rectangle of milky white light with two bright stripes running through the center. Not a moon at all, but something that, it seemed, should be familiar to him.
“Robo?” Timmy called, feeling a sudden pang of loneliness. “Can you hear me? Robo?” He got no response.
Timmy reached out to the walls again but found that the tunnel had opened up. He had to stretch his arms all the way out and even then could only graze the walls with his fingertips. The ceiling overhead was high enough now that he could rise to a crouch. He began duck-walking toward the strange light. It grew and approached at an alarming pace, and the walls drew back even further. Timmy stood and found that the top of his head brushed the ceiling.
“What is it?” he asked, pointing at the light. Robo didn’t answer, but Timmy thought, for a second, that he heard another voice, a faint word or two, a response? The same voice that he’d heard in the hallway? He thought so, yes, but his heart didn’t race this time. He felt quite calm.
He moved toward the light, reaching for it, and, as he did, he perceived some kind of a wall surrounding the light, a pattern of dingy white tiles. He opened his mouth to speak again, to call out to the strange voice, but a sudden metallic taste filled his mouth and made him gag, breaking through the calm. He reached into his mouth to extract whatever had fallen into it, but his fingers came away empty.
He took another step, a last step, and felt the ground crumble beneath his feet.
Yet he didn’t fall, and when he opened his mouth to scream, no sound came out. Instead, the light surged outward and upward and around him, like an ocean wave it crashed over him, and his body tumbled. For a long, terrifying moment, he lost all sense of direction.
Then everything stilled, and he found himself lying on his back, the rectangle of light overhead, Robo’s mouth flashing off to one side. Flashing and flashing, as if he were speaking, but when Timmy turned to look at him, Robo wasn't there. Only a strange gray box with screens and dials and wires, and the flashing red mouth of Robo right in the center. No, not Robo. Robo was gone.
But his gaze shifted, and he saw curtains and walls, a door, chairs, and a white blanket draped over a body. His body. He still had the metallic taste in his mouth, as if he had tucked a penny under his tongue, but when he tried to reach up to remove it, his arms scarcely moved.
“He’s coming back.”
A voice, a different voice than the one he had heard before. Deep, coarse, but thick with emotion. Was it anger? Grief? He wasn’t sure. Timmy lifted his head but only managed an inch or two and couldn’t find the source of the voice.
And that was it, the one he had heard in the hallway and again in the tunnel, a high voice, soft, breathy. A face moved into view, blocking out the flashing red light, blocking out everything, and he saw curls of brown and gray hair spilling down, framing a narrow face with red-rimmed eyes and lips turned down. He tried to speak but managed only a kind of rasp. He felt a hand against his cheek, gently patting him.
“Tim,” she said again, tears running down her cheeks. “You’re going to be alright.”
He tried to speak again and managed a single word this time.
And he remembered many things. The taste of asphalt and blood on his tongue. The glint of sunlight on chrome as bright as Robo’s plastic skin. And sirens wailing in the distance like terrified spirits. And sinking, sinking, sinking through the floor of the world into the gray place. And Robo. Robo who was no more.
Learn more about the author:
Jeffrey Aaron Miller, Author of Science Fiction and Fantasy