A Short Story by Bill Ectric
Sometime in the future
The little boy shivered in his white hospital baby stroller, which was too small for his five-year-old frame. No one noticed him shiver. That was the first hint that something was wrong. Adopted by the Youth Solution Agency after his parents were convicted of treason for writing pamphlets critical of the government, the boy was now hedged into a world of loneliness, confusion and uneven discipline, for unnatural rules designed by whomever was in charge.
At least he had his plastic toy robot. It was an excellent eight-inch scale model of the robot from an old television show called Lost in Space. His robot was his friend. The little boy’s name was Josh.
Soon after arriving at the Agency, Josh got in trouble for having prayer beads. He only owned two things: the toy robot his father gave him and the Anglican prayer beads his mother gave him.
Josh’s father was a robotics worker in a factory. He gave the boy a toy robot with several little gadgets built in. For example, if you pushed a button on the robot’s chest, a mechanical voice said, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” just like on the TV show. The clear plastic bubble head, with radar gizmos inside, could be raised up and down. When you pushed a button on the robot’s shoulder, its arm popped forward and its little claw hand opened. You could put a pencil in its hand and the spring-loaded claw would click shut and hold the pencil. You could open a small plastic door on the robot’s leg that revealed pretend gears that ran the roller-track “feet.” Josh loved his robot and played with it all the time.
Josh’s mother had given him a set of Anglican prayer beads, consisting of a small crucifix on a loop of turquoise beads. It was against the law to give children religious artifacts, but the bureaucrats overlooked crosses because they had become common as ornaments of jewelry, which the officials usually stored with other things that kids were too young for, like adult-sized rings, watches, and pocketknives.
Josh’s mother had taught him a simple version of a prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi. A large woman in a white nurse’s uniform caught Josh reciting his prayer. The boy held the first bead on the string between his thumb and forefinger and said, “Lord, give us peace.” Sliding his small fingers to the next bead, he said, “change hatred to love,” and moving to the next bead, “change despair to hope,” and so on, each bead signaling the next phrase.
“What are you doing?” the big nurse asked. She had sneaked up behind Josh. “What is that?”
Josh was unsure how to answer because of the tone of her voice.
He said meekly, “Mom’s beads.”
“Let me see that,” demanded the nurse.
Josh held the beads tight.
“Okay, then,” she said. “We’ll see about this.”
At the next staff meeting, she told the Head Administrator about the rosary.
The Head Administrator said, “Well, we can’t have that. I mean, I don’t really care personally, but we’ll get a bad mark in quality control.”
The nurse said, “His mother gave him the artifact. It might traumatize him if we take it away.”
“Kids get upset,” said the head man. “He’ll get over it. Use some strategy. He seems to like that robot. That’s much more appropriate for a young boy. It’s scientific, practical. It’s a testament to man’s accomplishments.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” the nurse said.
Soon enough, Josh also got in trouble with the robot. One night after lights out, he pushed the button and the robot blurted out, “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” in the dark, and a younger child woke up crying in the room full of beds.
The big nurse came into the room.
“Give me that,” she said in a whispering voice that everyone could hear.
Josh held the robot tight. The nurse got an idea.
“Let me borrow the robot for one night and I’ll give it back tomorrow. If I have to take it from your hands, you won’t get it back ever.”
Josh reluctantly handed over the toy robot.
The next day, after breakfast, all the children were on their way to the library when the nurse pulled Josh aside.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” she told Josh. “I’ll trade you the robot for the beads.”
“Mom’s beads…” stammered the boy. He was clutching the small cross in his tight pants pocket.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of it,” the nurse assured him in a comforting tone. “You can have it when you get older.”
Still holding the crucifix in his pocket and trying to change the subject, the boy said, “Library. Library time.”
The nurse reached into a big pocket on her white smock and brought out the robot. The boy’s eyes opened wide. He held his hand out for the toy.
“Not until you give me the rosary,” insisted the nurse.
Josh grudgingly pulled the cross from his pocket, followed by the attached beaded string. Each turquoise bead made a little bump as the string slid over the rim of his pocket, until it hung free down the length of his upraised arm. When the nurse put the robot in his other hand, he let go of the beads and quickly hugged the robot in both hands.
A few days later, the Head Administrator was in a good mood. He told the nurse, “I’m very happy with the progress Josh has made. He shows a lot of potential with hands-on skills. I saw him taking that toy robot apart and putting it back together.”
Josh had disconnected the little speaker inside the mechanical man. That way he could push the button without upsetting anyone with the robot’s loud voice.
To his relief, Josh had discovered that no one could tell what he was thinking. He pretended to read the robot’s mind, pushing the button and then imagining he heard the voice. He could imagine the robot saying whatever he wanted.
The next day, the Head Administrator watched Josh from a distance. The boy was quietly engrossed in playing with the robot’s many gadgets. He seemed to have forgotten the prayer beads. The Head Administrator felt pride and a sense of accomplishment for leading the boy away from superstition and toward a practical, scientific pass-time. He smiled a satisfied smile.
What the Administrators didn’t know was that, as the boy played intently with the robot, his mind was busy with this:
When Josh clicked the button on the robot’s chest, he thought silently, “Lord, give us peace.” Then he extended the clear bubble-like head and thought, “change hatred to love.” The boy clicked the arm spring button and thought, “change doubt to faith.” He clicked open the small plastic door on the robot’ leg and thought, “change despair to hope” and so on. All this was going on in Josh’s head, with the click of each gadget representing a different prayer that nobody but God could hear.