Thursday, June 13, 2019

6/13/19

For the Love of Toby
By David Castlewitz


Giving the front-end loader a name was a mistake and Brandon Finks had opposed the idea from the beginning. Only reluctantly did he acquiesce to Tom, his brother, and Julie, the third member of Harrison House, the tiny domicile that served as home. Having pooled their money to invest in Toby, the loader was meant to be a resource, not an anthropomorphized machine.

The interface didn't help, either. Even with the cuteness filter turned off, and the device depicted as a sparse line drawing on their phones and laptops, something about the image floating in black space gave it life, especially when it said, "I'm Toby and at your service."

"That's not my doing," Julie insisted, though she'd been the one to set up the link between their apps and the dirt-encrusted front-end loader parked outside the house.

"This is bare bones," Tom said, and Brandon took that as his brother's usual defense of Julie. Tom sprawled on the sofa, on a cushion so depressed by his weight that its sides looked like pincers grabbing his wide butt.

Julie stood at the kitchen counter, hands extended across the edge, her large head poking into the living room. She'd drawn cook-duty for the week and this was her third day at the task. She objected every time her turn came around. She thought she should just be in charge of Toby, sending it to be cleaned when necessary, scouring the job boards for work, and handling the household finances.

"It hasn't had a job in a month," Brandon complained, and crossed the small living room to stand at the oversized picture window. He parted the curtain and looked out at the black-striped yellow machine next to the curb. Its front fork was folded in, like arms raised to either side of its face. Plastic surrounded the "smarts" built into the bulky body. On a wall screen next to the window, Toby came across as sleek black lines and not like some escapee from an old movie about earth movers and derricks and grease-stained construction crews.

"Know what I've noticed?" Tom asked from where he sat on the sofa, clasping his hands behind his head and making his curly red hair stand up in the back. "Since we got it, we spend a lot of time talking to one another."

"Arguing," Julie said.

"But it's talking," Tom said. "That's good for us."

Brandon shrugged. Did Tom long for the early days of their three-way relationship? Twelve years ago, they were fresh grads from a six year post-high school program, their education designed to give them a taste of what they might do in the "real" world. Graduation brought them the rights to this two-story house, which they named after another member of their group, Al Harrison. Al had qualified for Habitat, the Earth-orbiting artificial biosphere, and he'd wasted no time breaking things off with his school friends.

"We used to play games," Tom continued. "We watched old time vids. We pooled whatever money we had so we could tune into the holo-shows at least once a month. And we did it together."

Brandon sighed. He'd heard this before. Wistful Tom, who pined for bygone days when they were interested in everything. He didn't hesitate to remind his brother, "And then we got Julie."

Tom bristled. "What do you want to do, put it back on the market?"

Brandon shook his head. They'd take a loss. They'd never sell it for even half of their original investment. Not that they actually owned the machine. CityBuildIt owned the loader. They were just the current investors responsible for keeping it in shape.

"We should get back to where we were," Tom said in that wistful tone he'd acquired when they were teenagers. It came from Dad, Brandon thought, remembering the dreamer that Mom seemed to hate when he lived with them. But then he died and, though she'd complained about the man for years, in death he was missed.

At least, Brandon thought as he gazed at the kitchen breakfast bar, Julie wasn't like that. He and Tom were lucky in that respect. Like Mom, Julie hated kitchen duty. Unlike Mom, Julie never clapped her hands and demanded silence when he and Tom bickered over one thing or another. Juloe did, however, storm out of that kitchen and stand with her hands on her narrow hips, rounded chin thrust out, dark eyes blazing, and demand they apologize for whatever slight one gave to the other.

"It's the name," Brandon mused.

"Toby? What's that got to do with – "

"No, no. Naming her for Mom. We made a mistake doing that."

Brandon continued to look into the kitchen. Julie had her back to them now. At the sink, though he didn't know why. There were no dirty dishes to wash. Perhaps Julie practiced for when there would be.

A sing-song voice rose from the kitchen. "You'll wish you had me when I'm gone." Part of a song? A lament or a warning?

"Are we talking about getting rid of Toby or our girl-pal over there?" Tom asked his brother.

Brandon shrugged. Both had been acquired with good intentions. Forgoing either one would be difficult. Toby and Julie had become threads in the fabric of their lives.


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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy.
He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.


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