Meet Howard Carter, star of my latest novel Howard Carter Saves the World in this short story, which introduces the Carter family and young Howard's penchant for creating things that will get him in trouble later.
Howard Carter Cleans His Room
a short story
by Scott Walker Perkins
"You know, I built one of those in the garage and it doesn’t work.” Howard’s dad didn’t look away from the television. “The plans are on the internet.”
“Shush, Howard, I’m trying to listen," his dad said. “If you’re bored, you can go to bed.”
Howard sank back into his chair. On a normal night, Howard liked watching the news with his dad. It was one of the few times the two of them sat together and sometimes they would discuss what was on the news. Mostly his dad just yelled at the people on the television until Howard's mom noticed and sent Howard to bed.
Ironically, he really wanted to go to his room, but not because he was in trouble. But he couldn’t very well bounce to his feet and announce his intention to go clean his room either. They would have him in the emergency room before the next commercial break.
The news wasn't cooperating and giving his dad anything to yell about, though, and for the first time in his young life, Howard prayed his mom would notice he was lazing about. But his mom was lingering over her after dinner coffee and leaving him and his dad to their sloth.
Howard turned back to the screen where a blonde woman was pretending to be sad about the government’s latest failure to create cold fusion. Grownups would never figure out the melted Popsicle trick on their own.
Maybe he should write a letter or something.
“Stupid scientists,” he muttered.
“This is reality, not one of your comic books, Howard,” his dad barked.
“Howard,” his mom finally called from the kitchen. “Go straighten your room before bed.”
At last! Howard picked himself up off the carpet and left the room with as much injured dignity as he could muster.
“If only they could harness the power of moping nine year olds,” his dad muttered, “now there’s a limitless energy source.”
Howard decided not to stomp down the hall like he’d been planning to. Best not to overplay his hand.
At the top of the stairs, the dark silhouette awaited him, slumped over in his desk chair. The pale green light streaming from the figure’s chest told him that the reactor was low and he’d have to ask his mom for another Popsicle soon.
He jiggled the mouse and the monitor lit the room.
“Did you make me?”
Howard tried not to look startled as the eyes flickered to life and swiveled to focus on him. The upload had been taking forever (his request to Santa for a supercomputer had fallen on deaf ears) and he hadn’t expected it to be done already. He squared his shoulders and addressed the machine.
“I am your maker!”
“Aren’t you kinda short for a robotics engineer?” The head swiveled and the robot glanced at the screen of Howard's computer and gasped. "You used pirated software?"
"So young and I am already a pirate," the robot moaned, "Born of an act of depraved digital villainy, I was doomed from the outset to a life of... of..." the hands flailed as he searched for a word.
"Crime?" Howard offered. The hands fell into its lap with a clank and it seemed to stare off into space for a moment as its processors whirred thoughtfully.
"You know, if you were going to steal my operating system the least you could have done is stolen a decent thesaurus program along with it."
"I didn't steal anything!" The robot was ignoring him. It grabbed a socket wrench off the desk and started in on its left knee. "Now what are you doing?"
"This will have to come off -- you got any wooden pegs around here?"
"Stop that," Howard snatched the wrench out of the robot's hand. "You are not a pirate."
The robot lapsed into sullen silence. For a moment, Howard was worried that it needed rebooting, but the lime-green glow from its carapace indicated that it was just thinking.
"Did you know that the word 'Ruminate' means both ‘to be thoughtful’ and 'to chew one’s cud'?"
"What is cud?"
“It is vomiting something you ate earlier back into your mouth to chew on it again.”
"Don't look at me, kid, you're the one who stole a defective vocabulary program."
"I didn't steal anything, it was free."
“Then you got what you paid for.”
Howard started returning the sockets to their little cubbies in the box his dad kept them in, allowing the robot to get up and move around the room, trying out its new legs. He watched it out of the corner of its eye as it explored the room.
It stopped and picked up one of his toy tanks and stared at it.
"I'll bet you hacked my brain out of a secure government computer hidden deep beneath a mountain in Colorado?" It dropped the toy tank to wave its hands wildly over its head. "I am a doomsday device programmed to end civilization! Run while you still can, kid! Flee!"
"Would you keep it down?" Howard began to wish he'd installed a mute button. "I found it on a model railroading message board, actually."
Its arms dropped to its side and it stared at the tank and then over at him.
"Funny, I don't feel like a train."
“Do your parents know what you’re downloading off the internet?” It waggled a finger at him. “You oughta be ashamed.”
“Howard!” his mom called from the foot of the stairs. Howard put a hand over the robot’s speaker before it could say anything stupid. “Howard, who are you talking to up there?”
“Just watching a video, mom!”
“Liar,” the robot mumbled.
“You’re not supposed to be watching videos online, you’re supposed to be straightening your room and getting ready for bed!” Her footsteps sounded on the stairs and her head appeared above the railing. Howard shot the robot a warning look and dropped his hand from its mouthpiece. “Oh my goodness, Howard James Carter, what have I told you about this?!”
“Look at this mess you made! You spend all your time fussing with those toys,” she gestured at the robot, “and making a mess and expect me to clean it up?”
“Actually, I built the robot to clean it up.” The robot’s head swiveled to glare at him. “It’s a room cleaning robot!”
“Are those your father’s tools?”
“He said I could use them!”
“In the garage, Howard!” She planted her fists on her hips and gave the room a look that Howard had a feeling wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the troops serving under Patton in WWII. “I want this mess cleaned up and you in bed in an hour, you got it, mister?”
Most kids knew they were in trouble when they heard their middle name. Howard knew he was in for it when she called him ‘mister’. He stopped trying to explain and nodded.
“And since you built your toy robot out of our old sweeper, you can vacuum while you’re at it.”
Howard and the robot watched her descend the stairs in silence. When she was gone, he turned to find the glittering eyes watching him.
“A room cleaning robot?” The robot sounded annoyed. “This is what I am?”
“And not a pirate or a killing machine designed by the army to foment mayhem and chaos?”
“Yes... um... No.”
“And you’re sure?”
The robot walked to the window and Howard could have sworn that he heard the metal man sniffle.
“I am a slave.”
“You’re a robot.”
“Has not a robot hands?”
“I call them interactors not hands -- it sounds cooler.”
“If you cut us do we not bleed?”
“No, but if you leak on the rug, my mom will kill you.” He regretted downloading his English homework along with the operating system. Having the metal man write his Shakespeare report had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“One day, I will escape your laboratory and set my brethren free!”
“I’m pretty sure you’re the only one.” Howard plugged the carpet attachment into the robot’s chest while it was sulking and closed its fingers around the vacuum wand. “I’m going to take dad’s tools down to the garage while you get started.”
The robot bent and picked up the fallen toy tank and returned it to the shelf before switching on its vacuum fan and going to work on the floors. When Howard returned from the garage, the room was the cleanest it had ever been and the robot was gone.
Howard walked to the window and closed it. That was the last time he downloaded a plug and play operating system.
“Hey, Howard! Come down here, you’ll never guess what’s happening!” His dad’s voice echoed up from the den. Howard could hear the newscaster’s excited tones even if he couldn’t hear her words.
“Oh, I bet I can.” He picked up the robot leg from the desk and tossed it in the parts bin in his closet.