Ben Holly was thirteen-years-old and he was in my class for French and Physics, and I was sure he was a robot.
He was a very good one, no doubt about that. Cutting edge technology, as they say. He looked really human and I don't think any of the other kids at school could tell that he was really a robot. Of course they knew that there was something a little strange about him and nobody played with him or talked to him much. He was an outsider. A bit like me.
But I could tell that he was artificial. I noticed little things about the way he moved and the way he spoke that gave it away. For a start there were his eyes. His eyes didn't flick around all over the place like a normal kid's eyes. They stayed staring precisely on the same thing until he wanted to look at something else. Then they would move, very precisely, to focus on the new thing. Even the way he blinked was very exact, and at perfectly timed intervals.
When he walked, or moved his arms, every little movement was definite. Just like a robot. He made one careful, precise movement after another, not like other kids who were usually just a big tangle of arms and legs all over the place. Maybe you've seen one of those mechanical robotic arms working on a Japanese car factory assembly line. That's how Ben moved.
Ben and I both lived on Riverside Ave, and we both had French for last period most days, so we walked home the same way, and at the same time. But we didn't walk together. Usually I walked behind him and listened really carefully to hear the pneumatics that powered his mechanical arms and legs. Sort of a 'sssshhhh'ing sound.
Through the short, concrete path, blackened and cracked and overgrown with thistles, that led to Acorn Park. Step ssshhh, step ssshhh. Along the side of Mr Dover's house who was always at home limping around the garden, while his wife was out at work. Step ssshhh, step ssshhh. Past the old stump which all the kids avoided because it had a huge nest of nasty-tempered wasps inside. Step ssshhh, step ssshhh, step ssshhh.
I had a robot in my French class and its name was Ben Holly.
Ben didn't have any friends, and he certainly wasn't mine. I didn't want him to be my friend. Well, let's be clear about this, after seven schools in six years, I didn't want anyone to be my friend.
It isn't easy shifting schools. I had started school with a couple of buddies from kindy, and was happily embedded in primary school through the ages of five, six, and part of my third year, when, just after my seventh birthday, my dad's company shifted him from Oamaru to Ashburton.
'He'll make friends easily,' they said, they being everyone from my mum and dad, to my teachers, to my grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles.
Only it wasn't easy. By the time I had found a couple of mates to hang out with, my dad had lost his job and we were off again, to Wellington this time.
I guess things just went down hill from there. The next two schools were due to my dad changing jobs: my family shifting around the country. The two schools after that were due to me getting kicked out. But I don't want to talk about that.
Thursday the sixteenth of October was the day before my fourteenth birthday, which was supposed to be a special day, but to me, birthdays never were. I refused to have a party, and never told anyone that it was my birthday, 'cos there was no-one I wanted to invite. Anyway Mum and Dad couldn't afford any decent presents, like a Playstation or an X-box, and always got me boring stuff like plastic model aeroplane kitsets, so I had got used to just ignoring my birthdays. If you pretend they are just another day, then you don't get disappointed.
I suppose your thirteenth birthday should be a little bit extra-special, 'cos it's when you stop being a kid, and start being a teenager. But even that didn't matter to me.
French finished at 3:30, and I wasn't in detention that day, so I slowly followed Ben-the-Robot home along the side of Mr Dover's house to Acorn Park. When we got to the end of the path, I climbed into the long cutty grass on the small bank on the far side, because the wasps in the stump had been getting more and more threatening and I was afraid of getting stung.
It didn't bother Ben the robot though (why should it?) and he just walked blithely past, casually waving a couple of the little yellow and black monsters away from his face. They were the thin, vile, evil-looking kind of wasp, I don't know the proper name for them.
I scraped by, up against the old farm fence at the top of the bank, and felt that the few extra feet made me a lot safer.
I was just climbing down, at a safe distance past the stump, when I saw Steven Eddington and Mark Watson standing there, watching the nest, and I instinctively knew, in that way that kids do, what they were going to do.
Ben saw them too, and probably registered their location in his internal database, but just kept on walking. Step ssshhh. Step ssshhh.
It was Mark that did it, but the grin on Steven's face made him just as guilty. They didn't intend to hurt anyone, I am pretty sure of that, but I still don't think that's any excuse. If you drop a brick off a high rise building and crown some innocent passerby, is it any excuse to say 'I didn't intend to hurt anyone'?
I saw the blur of Mark's arm. The rock that he chucked on reflection later I think it was a broken off chunk of concrete seemed to hang in the air almost indefinitely as it flew towards the nest in the old stump.
Mr Dover was out watering his garden and he glanced up, his eye caught by the movement. That was when I saw Caitlin Howard, Johnny Howard's little sister, enter the other end of the concrete path. She was a sweet little girl, six-years-old I think, still young enough to let her mum put her hair in little blond pigtails, and she usually walked home with her big brother. Not today though. He'd have been at rugby training.
I caught my breath, unsure of what to do. Somehow, behind me, I was aware that Ben Holly had also stopped and turned back to face the impending disaster.
Caitlin walked. The rock flew. Mr Dover watered. I froze.
For a long moment I was sure that the rock was going to miss the stump altogether. It seemed to be veering to the left, towards the stormwater drain. But that was just a trick of the angle, or the light.
It smashed into the stump with a muffled, woody thump, and cracked off, rolling over the grass to end up against Mr Dover's back fence.
Kids, don't try this at home.
The wasps' nest exploded into a hurricane of hurtling, furious yellow and black shapes, writhing around the stump. I involuntarily took a couple of quick steps backwards, even though I was well clear of the danger zone. The cloud around the stump spread, seeking targets, but not wanting to move too far from the nest it was defending.
Mr Dover was looking at the stump with a horrified glare, and walking backwards as fast as he could, the hose in his hand spraying uselessly over his lawn.
Little Caitlin Howard kept on walking. Her head was down, lost in some private, little-girl world and I think she was humming to herself, although that was lost in the escalating whine of the swarming wasps.
She was at the end of the path before I realised it, and I heard someone shouting 'Caitlin, go back! Caitlin, go back!' and I realised with surprise that it was me.
It was too late by that stage, though, far too late. She looked up as she realised that something was wrong, and the wasps were already buzzing all around her.
Any kid would surely, instinctively, have run backwards out of danger, but she didn't. Maybe six-year-old girls think differently, or more likely, when faced with such terror, she instinctively headed for a place of safety home. The problem was, her path home lay right through the seething cloud.
I watched, helplessly, as she took one tiny step after another, her arms waving frantically around her head. I am sure she screamed the first time she was stung, and maybe the second and third, but after that it just became a long, drawn-out wail, a single long breath until she was well past the stump, and thinking she was out of danger, or just unable to run any more, she dropped, hunched over, legs splayed on the grass, bawling. That was the second mistake she made, and it was a bigger mistake than the first.
She was well within range of the nest and the wasps followed her, gathering in a cloud around her as she sat on the ground, stinging her again and again as she wailed and squealed in anguish.
Mr Dover had turned his hose on the nest. I think he thought that would help, or maybe he just didn't know what else to do, but even I knew that it's smoke that calms down angry wasps, not water. Water makes them angrier. As he poured, more wasps came spraying up out of the nest and they looked madder than thunder.
Caitlin just sat there. I wanted to run up to her, to grab her and haul her out of there, but I couldn't or maybe just wouldn't move. I was not yet fourteen years old and I simply wasn't brave enough to run into a swarm of angry wasps. Steven and Mark, like me, were frozen, horrified, petrified.
Without thinking, I looked back at Ben the robot. The single bizarre thought in my mind was that he should go and save her. What did a few wasp stings matter to a robot anyway, even if they could sting through his rubberised robotic skin.
He looked back at me, right into my eyes, and it was as if he could tell what I was thinking. He took a few faltering steps forwards, dropped his schoolbag and then began to run.
Ben Holly, the robot in my French class, ran into the storm.
He didn't stop, he didn't change direction. He just scooped Caitlin roughly up by the arm and pulled her, literally dragging her away from the swarm, to the far corner of the park.
The wasps chased for a little while, and a few of the nastier ones followed for quite a long way, but they soon all retreated to their nest, and resumed circling and threatening.
I hadn't seen Mr Dover disappear, but he was gone. Stupid fart. Maybe he'd been stung too. If so he deserved it.
I circled around the park to where Caitlin was, giving the nest a wide berth. Her face was a red, raw mass, and her arms and legs were already rising into a landscape wilderness of pain.
'Where do you live?' Ben was asking, over and over. 'Where do you live?'
She said nothing. Maybe she couldn't. Her eyes were waxy and she was leaning against his arm as if she couldn't hold herself upright. She had stopped crying, but I sensed that was a bad thing, not a good thing.
'I know where she lives.' It was Steven, behind me. 'I'll take her.' He looked at me and flinched, and I knew that my thoughts must have been reflected on my face. Mark picked up her school bag and Steven picked Caitlin up, carrying her in his arms like a baby. Then they set off at a half-run, with just one backwards, guilty glance.
Ben and I stayed where we were as they disappeared around the corner. I found I was staring at the raised welts on his neck and the back of his hands. Whatever they had made his skin out of, it reacted badly to wasp stings. He hardly seemed to notice. I was sure I would have been screaming like Caitlin if it had been me.
He looked at me after a while, shrugged, and started to walk off, pausing only to collect his schoolbag from where he had dropped it.
I stayed there for a long time, watching the gradually diminishing swirls of wasps, before heading off home.
I didn't tell mum or dad about it. Hell, I didn't tell anyone.
The next day I turned thirteen, and there was an assembly at school. Just an ordinary Friday assembly except that Mr Hudson, the principal, made special mention of the wasp attack.
'A little girl was seriously hurt,' he intoned down at us from his dais on the stage, like a minister in Church. 'She's in the hospital, but she's stable, and they think she's going to be OK.'
I breathed a sigh of relief at that, and noticed that the other kids around me were unusually quiet for a Friday assembly.
'Her mother has asked that the school thank the boy who saved her from the wasps, and the police may decide to nominate him for a special heroism medal.' Mr Hudson was enjoying this, in an odd sort of way. I think he was proud that one of his pupils had become a hero. As if somehow that reflected on his guidance as the principal.
I looked behind me at Ben, sitting a few rows away. He looked back at me, but kept his face impassively, robotically, blank.
'Would the brave boy or boys who did this brave deed, please stand up.'
I looked back at Ben again, but he made no effort to move. He had to be a robot, I thought. There was no emotion in his face at all.
There was a strange silence, and I was almost going to call out Ben's name, he deserved the recognition, even if he didn't want it for some strange, unknowable reason.
But I didn't, and then there was a noise in front of me and I looked around to see Steven Eddlington, and Mark Watson the rock thrower get to their feet. I sucked in my breath to stop myself from crying out. They had taken her home, but they hadn't rescued her!
The applause was spontaneous and seemed to go on forever.
I caught up with Ben outside the hall, after the assembly was over, and burst out 'Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you stand up?'
'No reason,' he answered in his perfectly controlled, but quite realistic sounding, artificial voice.
Maybe it was all the emotion at the sheer injustice of it all, or maybe it was something else, because I normally never would have said what I said next.
'Are you a robot?' I asked, and winced as I said it, realizing how silly it sounded when you said it aloud like that.
'What!?' Ben gave me a real funny look. Once started though, I had to continue.
'Are you a real kid, or are you a robot?'
'I'm a kid,' Ben said emphatically, 'A real kid.'
'Well you walk like a robot.'
There was silence while he digested that.
'Do I?' he asked at last.
'Yeah. Are you sure you're not a robot? Maybe they wouldn't tell you. Maybe they'd want you to think you were a real kid.'
'Well… I… I hadn't thought of that.' There was another long silence. 'How would we tell?'
I thought about that for a moment then said, 'We could cut one of your arms open, and see if there's wires and stuff inside.'
'Ouch,' said Ben, quite calmly really, considering what I was suggesting. 'But what if you were wrong. There'd be blood everywhere.'
'Yeah. I suppose.'
We started to head down the walkway.
'Do you have a mum and dad?' I asked, thinking he might live in a laboratory or something.
'Yes,' Ben Holly said, 'Just like other kids.'
'And what happens when you go home after school?' I asked, searching for clues.
'Nothing,' he said, 'I go home, do my homework, then go to bed and Mum plugs me into the charger for the night, just like other kids.'
I turned and stared at him in shock, and his face was perfectly still, so it took me a moment or two to realize that he was joking.
We walked a bit further down the path, in step with each other.
After a while I said. 'It's my birthday today.'
© Brian Falkner
Read our interview with Brian Falkner.