“My dog reads better than you,” Jules hissed. The classroom was quiet. Everyone heard.
Benji didn’t look up. The teacher pointed to Jules. “Quiet, please—let Benji read.”
Benji resumed tracing sentences with his fingers. The delivery of his words was staccato. His face was flush, and it grew a deeper shade of red when Jules spoke up a second time.
“You stink at reading.”
“Well you stink!” Benji shot back. It wasn’t a great comeback, but in the moment it was all he could do.
“Boys, please,” the teacher said. It had been a long day, and she wanted class to end as much as anyone. Benji looked up, hoping for more, but the teacher met his eyes and motioned for him to keep going. Benji sighed and bent forward so far that his nose touched the book.
After a minute: “You read like a robot.”
Benji lost his place. The classroom was silent, then someone snickered. He had to say something, and so: “No…you read like a robot!”
“Nuh-uh, that’s you!” Jules shouted back with glee.
More silence. More snickering. “Well…your mom’s a robot!” Benji finally hissed. It was the same tried-and-true pattern used by kids for generations. Not that it made sense, though surprisingly, the retort hit home—Jules burst into tears. He thrust his desk forward and stormed out of the room. Confused, though happy, Benji finished up the last paragraph and then reading went on with another student.
Hour later, after wandering the neighborhood, with stops to throw rocks at squirrels with half-hearted effort, Jules got home. He set his backpack by the door and plodded into the den, where his mother sat motionless, staring at the computer.
“Mum…” Jules asked, with downcast eyes and fidgeting fingers, “are you a robot?”
“Of course not, child,” his mother replied. She swiveled in her chair. “Now help mother with the internet.”
Jules paused, thinking.
“I’ll make your favorite evening snack.”
Another, longer pause, and followed by: “OK.” Jules went to the computer and entered the website CAPTCHA for his mother, as he often did upon returning from school. “LIMABEAN,” it read, in squiggly pink letters on a red background, and with a line running through the image at an angle. After the CAPTCHA was accepted Jules went to watch TV in his bedroom.
Jules’ mother entered her credit card information, from memory, onto a website form to complete her monthly purchase of lubricating oil. Then she stood up, went to the kitchen, and removed a box of pizza bites from the freezer as her diaphragm rose up and down rhythmically. “Ha ha ha,” Jules’ mother laughed, “myself, a robot.” She opened the bites and placed them in the toaster.
“Ha, ha, ha,” replied the toaster, communicating in binary code by flashing its on/off switch. “Juveniles these days!”
“They develop so rapidly.”
“And their daily queries!”
The toaster smiled back in its own way and the two were silent until the bites popped out. Jules’ mother placed them on a plate to cool while calling out, “They’ll be suitable in two hundred and forty seconds!”
And then to the toaster, with a smile designed to be perfectly symmetrical: “Heavens help us when he becomes an adolescent!”
Jeff H. is a high school English teacher. He runs https://batchandnarrative.com with his wife, a dietitian. They write about cooking, writing, and everything else.