Bruised Steel (Short Story)

I could taste the steely wrench between my teeth as I went about spinning the tiny screws on the back of Mr. Jacobs’ neck into place. With every twist, he would belly laugh and comment about how it tickled. Pretty sure it didn’t, or at least I can’t imagine it did. He just knew his laugh was contagious and wanted to see if I’d drop the tool clenched in my jaw. I won. When I couldn’t tighten the screws any further I took the wrench out and waved it at him. “There you go, fresh wiring. I even tied the ends so try not to get them tangled.”

“Great time, Morgan!” Mr. Jacobs chuckled, pushing himself out of the metal chair and tapping the steel that covered his spine. It made a satisfying clank. “Getting good there. Pretty sure Donovan was never that fast, but don’t tell him I said that.”

I grinned so wide I could feel the braids tighten on my head. I propped myself on the back of the chair, twirling the wrench on my knuckles to feel it scratch the skin. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Jacobs. Want to set up your next appointment right now?”

“Oh sure. RA1L,” Mr. Jacobs turned the wall behind me and the screen there clicked on with a comforting blue light, “Put me down for about three weeks from now.”

The blue light blinked and buzzed while the request was processed. RA1L was Donovan’s shining glory, his greatest creation. The way he talked about her you’d think she was real, and sometimes I forgot she wasn’t. RA1L made a cheerful ding and then announced in her melodic voice, “Your appointment has been set Mr. Jacobs. Thank you for coming to Donovan’s Specialty Technical Clinic.”

Mr. Jacobs nodded politely to the panel, who winked one eye-light back at him and made his chest shake with laughter again. Any time he laughed I couldn’t help but imagine he hopped on a red hovercar destined for the North Pole whenever he left.  Even though his hair was only speckled gray and cleanly faded on his head and his chin, it wasn’t hard to picture him in a velvety suit and a stack of presents. Even with wires in his head and metal on his skull. He took my hand and gave it a firm shake. “And thank you, sweetheart. You got any more work today?”

I turned my head down, still smiling ear to ear but my face sizzled at the thought. “One more.”

“Ah, your special girl?” Mr. Jacobs clapped his hands together and I clicked my tongue against my teeth.

That special girl. Alejandra.

Sharing information about clients was against the rules, but Mr. Jacobs pieced together me and Alejandra early. I could never tell if the augments made him exceptionally sharp or if he had always been able to read people as if they were books. Maybe some chip that let him read minds. One day when she was leaving he came in to me, watching her. He had to yell my name just to get my attention. I still remember the coy smile and his signature chuckle he made when I snapped out of it and greeted him. Since then he asks every visit, knowing full well she comes in after him near every time. I gave him a tiny nod and he bore a white, dentured smile. “You tell her how you feel yet?”

RA1L blinked behind me and made a downward note as if to scold Mr. Jacobs for asking. The hotness in my cheeks spread to my neck and the back of my head, and I was thankful at least that the embarrassed smile was no longer pulling my hair. There are only two people who knew about my attraction – Mr. Jacobs, who figured it out on his own, and RA1L, who hears and knows everything whether she wants to or not. Neither did anything to reduce my stress on it. RA1L would beep and clang anytime she thought I was too distracted when Alejandra came to visit. And Mr. Jacobs, he would just pry. “No, Mr. Jacobs. You know I can’t.”

“Oh, don’t let that old codger tell you that!” He replied, dismissing another protest note from RA1L with a wave of his hand. I swallowed a laughing burst at the idea of him calling my boss an “old codger”. RA1L’s screen turned yellow and Mr. Jacobs continued, “Just because you’re the mechanic don’t mean your feelings mean nothing.”

“It’s not that, Mr. Jacobs.” I lied, and Mr. Jacobs turned up his head like he saw right through it. Of course, it mattered. I puckered my lips inward, thinking about how Donovan might react if he knew. Even while we had this conversation I shot my eyes at RA1L. I’d like to think she wouldn’t say anything. As well, just the thought of mentioning it made my stomach churn. Every mental rehearsal ended with me fired, fainting, or rejected.

That thought haunted me. Being denied or even disliked by Alejandra became my greatest fear. The first time she sat in my chair, a year ago, she seemed like the happiest person I’d ever met. She laughed more than Mr. Jacobs did, at any joke or compliment or smile. Every part of her glowed – copper skin, green eyes, sleek black hair. Had I not been a technician, I might have mistaken her for an android. She was so perfect. I wanted to do everything to make her visits pleasant and for a while I convinced myself I was just being professional. Mr. Jacobs called me out early on that one.

Every month I looked forward to her visits. And every month she would dance in and greet RA1L and point to the superhero pictures on my wall.

Then she started coming in more often.

At first, I enjoyed the extra time. I began switching out my posters more often just so we would have more things to talk about it. Her repairs became more extensive too, which meant her appointments were longer. I almost didn’t notice her laughing less, or at least, didn’t give it much thought. She would come in and show me her mechanical arm, a beautifully crafted cybernetic, and a new bizarre problem it was having. Her first visits I was only repairing the same scuffs or upgrading software. Then she began visiting with spare plates slapped over holes where the true metal should be, or with wires snapped around the joint. At one point the programs that made her arm work at all were shut off. And with each new strange problem, her smile was more strained. Her glow faded.

Per guidelines I always had RA1L examine her for a diagnosis, but most of the time she had no answer. In private she suggested it was man-made, and it felt like my blood turned to a burning oil. RA1L’s advice after that fell on deaf ears and I became obsessed with helping her. And with fighting out who would dare hurt her.

I tried asking her, but she dodged me every time. One time I pushed, and nearly demanded some answers, but I saw her eyes leak. RA1L warned me about it later, and even threatened to tell Donovan, but she didn’t need to. I cried myself to sleep that swearing I would never be so hard on her again.

I stared past Mr. Jacobs’ solemn brown eyes, remembering every fray and dent she would come in with, and all that fear made a sinkhole in my chest. Every new and terrifying repair she might require materialized in my brain and my blushing smile faded. All the while Mr. Jacobs stared right back. He crunched his brow across his eyes and the metal that formed the back of his eyed screeched from the ferocity of it. “What’s the matter Morgan?”

The question woke me up, but my chest still felt weighted. I tried to rest my wrench back on the table thinking it might make the world less heavy. It didn’t help. “Nothing.”

“Don’t tell me nothing. She have a partner or something?”

She did.

Alejandra had mentioned a girlfriend a few times. Hanna was her name. I asked her on the first visit. It was innocent enough, a question I ask every new client. Alejandra only grit her teeth and replied with a grim “yes”. Looking back, I feel a pang of guilt over how happy that reply made me. The idea that her relationship might be short lived left me overjoyed.

I fidgeted with the bobby pins and mini-tools that stuck out of my braids and springy curls, but didn’t give Jacobs any more information. The fidgeting didn’t make him leave any faster though.

“Well, I hope you-“

“I think someone is hurting her,” I blurted. The thought of seeing her hurt again kept burrowing into the more reasonable parts of my brain. Maybe some part of me thought Jacobs had the solution hidden somewhere in his genius mess of wires.

“Hurting her? What makes you say that?”

“Can’t give details. You know that.”

“Well, if that’s the case, you need to get the poor girl help.”

“I don’t know how. She won’t tell me anything. I have suspicions but it’s not like I can make her tell me anything.”

Jacobs scratched his chin. “Yes, you’re right.” He turned his head down and I could hear little mumbles as he talked to himself. I tried to eavesdrop on his self-conversation, but my head was spinning. I had to remind myself to breath. When he looked back up he still held his chin and gave me a once over look. “This is a serious problem then.”

I took a small implant out of my desk, setting it on the table between us. It was my only plan, from the last time she had visited. The metal protecting her fingers were so badly damaged that they were basically unusable. She couldn’t explain what happened, or offer an excuse. Any time she opened her mouth, her eyes would well and she would snap her lips shut. That night I decided I had to find out on my own. I held up the microchip, letting Mr. Jacobs examine it. “I had RA1L whip this up for me. A recording chip. I thought, maybe I could sneak it into her wrist on her next check in and figure out who’s hurting her.”

“You’re going to spy on her?” Jacobs replied, looking at the chip. His face contorted to an expression I’d never seen him make before. It was dark and chiding. And fiercely disappointed. And it made it feel like my ribs had collapsed on themselves. “Don’t do it.”

“What?” I gripped the chip in my palm, half expecting him to steal it out from between my fingers. Even while my insides felt like they were jumbled and making me sick, my face still burned with anger. “You said I should do something!”

“Not spy, Morgan! Even if you found out, what then? You’d have to admit to her you violated her trust.” Jacob wagged his finger at me and the little blue piece of machinery in my hand, cutting me off before I could get a word in. “Listen. You care about her, yeah? But whatever is happening, she must be ready to tell you about it. Until then, I know exactly what you can do. Are you listening?”

I clutched the chip, mouthing a yes but no words came out. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had talked to me like this. I finally nodded, and waited for Jacobs’ instruction.

“Remind her you care about her.”

“I told you, I can’t tell her how I feel.”

“I didn’t say do that. Remind her you care. That’s all. You don’t have to say a single word to her to remind her of that. Just keep being a good mechanic and a good friend.” Mr. Jacobs stood upright again and dropped his doting hand to his side. “And none of this spying nonsense. Alright?”

My mouth was still hanging open from the sudden lecture. The more his words hung on me the more the sick feeling in my gut faded. He was right. I sat the chip down and nodded, “I got it, Jacobs.”

“You’re a good friend, Morgan,” Jacob reassured me. I’m guessing even he was surprised by his own passion, since he suddenly seemed out of breath. “I know you’ll figure this out. I hope your lady friend is alright.” He tipped his head in my direction before turning to walk out. Save for the clicking of RA1L’s hard drive, the room was silent. I eyed the clock, noticing how short my prep time had become. Yet, I didn’t move right away. I sat the recording chip on the table next to me and let myself hide in my hands until RA1L prodded me to get ready for my appointment. Alejandra’s appointment.

With such little time, I had to scramble, but when the hour came, Alejandra wasn’t at the door. I rearranged the tools at my station to try and distract myself, but my eyes never left the glass opening to the shop. For five minutes, I held my breath, the rest of my body melting like oil.

Was she not coming? Was it something I did? Was she in trouble? I didn’t exhale until I heard the beep of the door and RA1L’s cheerful greeting. “Welcome to Donovan’s Specialty Technical Clinic. Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes RA1L.” My attention had gone blurry from the lack of oxygen but as it returned I could make out a woman with a mechanical arm and long black hair. She gave her information to RA1L, fortunately ignoring me while I regained my composure. By the time she sat in the chair, I could see and smell the burnt metal on her augmented limb.

The damages she came in with were the worst I’d ever seen, and the look and smell haunted me. Her arm no longer had any function, and the rubber that let her bend her joints had almost completely melted. The edges of the metal were browned, and it was clear something – or more likely, someone – had taken something very hot to it. “Alejandra, what on earth happened?”

Alejandra used her other hand to lift her broken wrist and put it in front of me, but she didn’t answer. She just squirmed and turned her green eyes away, shoulders shrugged while she made herself as small as she could muster. No reason. No excuse. Not even a look.

It was fortunate the shock kept me subdued, because otherwise I may have just bombarded her with questions. When I found my tongue, I opened my mouth to repeat my question. But then I saw the tremors in her hands, and the glassy look as she stared past the wall, the posters, into nothing. I took a deep breath of hot rubber and played Jacobs’ advice on repeat in my head to force myself to leave it alone. “Just be a friend.” The question that came out of my mouth was, “You like my new decorations?”

I picked up a multi-tool and pointed to a poster on the wall of a man in a black cape, trying to coax Alejandra into conversation. I couldn’t stand the idea of seeing her cry, so I hoped the distraction would cheer her up. It worked and for a split second she seemed like her old self, even managing a smile. I wanted that exact moment to last, and for her to never leave or go back to the person hurting her.

Alejandra brightened her posture at my suggestions and stories, while I retold the latest editions of the digital comics in dramatic detail. “You are an actress, Morgan!”

“No way,” I laughed, still caught in a ridiculous post that mirrored the look of the vigilantes on my posts. “I’m more like a clown.”

“You are an excellent clown then.” I toyed with a wired on her arm as she spoke, delicately removing the rubber that was beyond repair. When I glanced up to reply, I caught her eyes. There are content, at least. Not gloomy or anxious. And I had to scold myself for staring at them for too long before I returned to my work.

I’m guessing Alejandra didn’t notice, because she only giggled. “Are there any clown superheros?”

I took the silvery new rubber from off my table and started to apply it. Alejandra didn’t even watch as I did. I think it made her nervous, like getting a vaccination or ripping off a band-aid might. Not something I could blame her for, because it would make me nervous too. “Can’t think of any heroes. Maybe you should make one?”

“Maybe I will!” Alejandra replied with a confident smile, “And I shall base her off of you. And she will have your curly hair, only it will be blue, and you will make tiny robots that make people laugh and fight crime.”

I was reeling at her story, to the point it was hard to keep my hand steady and finish my work. She turned her head, unafraid of the open machinery attaching to her shoulder, and I saw a bright smile. “What do you think?”

The smile caught me off guard. It might’ve been the most wonderful thing I had seen in my life. I’m sure even the one I made in that moment couldn’t have matched it. “She’ll need a name. And a sidekick!”

“RA1L should be your sidekick!”

RA1L made an affectionate beep in response. Alejandra kept sharing every new brainstorm about her amazing superhero, The Red Nose, who was an expert engineer capable of making any toy or machine. Her sidekick is an android named R0CK with a voice like an angel and together they protect the city from crime, and bring toys to all the children.

It took an hour to repair all the burnt parts of her arm, but I took extra care to make it as beautiful as I could, all while she wove a spectacular story. “Okay.” I snapped a piece into place and felt the smooth steel of the new covering, “Go take it over to docking station to make sure all the nerve wires are in place and then come back, okay?”

“Got it,” Alejandra nodded, a small smirk still brightening her face. I was not looking forward to when she left and the smile left with her. She crossed to another side room where our docking machine would make sure all her motor components were functions properly. When she was out of the room, I turned back to RA1L, struggling not to cry myself.

“Everything alright, Morgan?” RA1L asked, detecting my shift in mood.

“RA1L, make an audio chip with regular interval time settings.”

“Yes, Morgan,” RA1L replied and began to buzz as she produced what I asked for. I stared at the lights and let the whirring ring in my ears while she did. Finally, she displayed the chip. “What audio would you like it to play?”

“You are beautiful. You are cared for. You don’t have to be afraid.”

RA1L registered the recording and played it back to me. Hearing my own voice made me choke, but I held it in, and the tiny tape spat out into a dispenser under the RA1L panel. It was just in time as Alejandra returned and I hid my eyes and took a shaky breath.

“All clear!” She said cheerfully, sitting back in the chair, “Your work is flawless as always.”

I sniffed and chuckled, picking up my tools again, “Well that means the world coming from you. Just have a few more finishing touches alright?” Alejandra laid out her arm, pristine and functioning once again, and I took my tool to the wrist. She went back to the posters on my wall, regaling me with her idea for a superhero. I was glad she was distracted, since it let me slip in the chip without her noticing. With everything in place, I told her she was free to go. Like I suspected, the smile disappeared and my heart sank.

“I guess, see you in two weeks?”

“Can’t wait,” I replied. I tried to muster up some energy for the farewell but it didn’t come. Alejandra rushed out, hugging her newly repaired arm. I couldn’t have been more thankful that it was the end of the day and I could lock the door and sit alone for a while. I didn’t have any augments myself, but every part of me felt as weighted as solid steel. RA1L tried to distract me with some chores that had to be done, but eventually I told her to power down so she’d leave me alone. I couldn’t figure out if what I did was right. What if her girlfriend heard it? What if it scared her to hear it? What if I just looked like a creep for doing it?

For two weeks that drowning feeling haunted me. Even when I was with other clients I was distracted. RA1L constantly had to remind me of when my next appointment was or where I left my tools, and I think Donovan was convinced I was sick. Maybe I was, but not that kind of sick. The day of her appointment came. Alejandra strolled in on time with her arm as perfect as the rest of her, and a warm smile on her face.


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