By Manelle Oliphant
I should have expected Bill the Cat to be dead. That’s the kind of day, no, month… no, year I was having.
Today, they’d posted the soccer tryout results, and I didn’t make the team. I thought for sure this year I’d make it. Dad and a CoachBot™ had been drilling me in our backyard all summer, and I’d figured I’d been getting pretty good.
Bill the Cat usually watched us from his favorite patio chair. He was the best.
I wanted to name Bill the Cat, just Bill. But, Mom said we needed to have some way to distinguish him from Bill Turner, our super old next-door neighbor. He listened to the TV so loud you could hear it through the walls. When I complained about the noise, Mom said, “I think he’s lonely.” I didn’t understand what that had to do with the TV.
I didn’t think we’d mix up the cat and the man, even if they had the same name. After all, there was usually plenty of context to a conversation. Bill the Cat didn’t watch tv, and Bill, the neighbor, didn’t live in the garage, chase leaves, or even talk to us. But, Mom still insisted, and Bill became Bill the Cat.
Bill the Cat loved to watch me, Dad and the bot, practice soccer. He’d lay in that chair and watch the ball move back and forth like he could attack it at any time. With him and my dad there, it made me feel like I was part of the team already. I’d practiced so hard. I was sure my name would be on the list. I’d thought that I’d be able to go home and tell my parents the good news, that I’d made the team and I was going out with the guys to get soda or something. But, no matter how many times I scrolled through the tryout results, my name wasn’t there.
If that wasn’t bad enough, in my English class the guys who’d made the team (there were five of them!) made plans to go out for pizza after their first practice. They sat together and talked about who would drive and how great the team was going to be this year. None of them cared how I might feel. People who didn’t make the team weren’t worth inviting or remembering.
When I got on the bus after school, I could see them practicing out in the field. The newly chosen soccer stars were running the drills I’d run all summer with my dad and that useless bot I’d saved up for. Drills that apparently didn’t do me any good. I’d stood on the bus’s steps and watched until the faceless Drivebot™ told me to move along. “You’re blocking the door,” it said in its flat, stale voice. I sighed and took a seat. I knew bots were just machines, but it always made me feel odd to get told off by one, like it was judging me behind its glossy perfect exterior.
I watched the trees and houses as the bus moved toward home. Until today I’d thought at least there’s one good thing about Dad not having a job. All summer, he’d had time to help me practice for tryouts. It turns out it was all a waste. Why did everything have to suck so much right now? Dad kept saying things would turn around, and there were always jobs for machine techs like him. He’d been saying it since May.
The bus stopped in front of the robot graveyard. I don’t know why everyone called it that. Presumably there were dead robots there, but I’d never seen one. It was a gigantic empty field with hills, trails, and weeds. I stepped off the bus and walked past the house on the corner, then Mr. Turner’s house and up our driveway. I stared at our front door but couldn’t bring myself to go inside and tell my dad I didn’t make the team. Instead, I wandered into the backyard to talk to Bill the Cat.
“Bill the Cat,” I called. Sometimes he came, if he felt like coming, and sometimes he didn’t. He didn’t come, but I kept looking. I pulled a small package of cat treats from my backpack and shook it. “Bill, want a treat?” His fluffy gray head didn’t pop out of the weeds to find me, and I didn’t see him staring at me from behind any trees. I kept shaking the treats and looking. Then I found him.
He was behind the garage on the ground. Almost like he was asleep, but he didn’t move when I stepped close. I couldn’t believe it at first. I touched his white-mittened paw. He hated When I did that, but he didn’t pull away like usual.
How long had he been like this, lying on the ground all alone? I’d seen him last night and told him I’d find out about the tryout results today. He knew I was coming to tell him about it. What happened? Tears pooled in my eyes, and I couldn’t stop them. I dumped my backpack and the treats on the ground and cried. Judge me if you want to. I don’t care. I needed Bill right then, and he was gone.
Suck. Suck. Suck.
I don’t know how long I stayed back there behind the garage with Bill’s corpse. It might have been a while, or not. Eventually, I decided that Bill needed a proper burial.
I found a cardboard box in the garage. It was a good Bill the Cat sized box. I collected Bill’s body, and a shovel, then trudged back down the road toward the robot graveyard.
Bill the Cat liked the robot graveyard. He and I met there often. And, since he wasn’t allowed in the house because Mom was allergic, I suspect Bill spent a lot more time there than I did. I’d find a good spot where he’d have a good view and bury him there.
It was awkward carrying Bill in the box and the shovel, but I managed. I saw Mr. Turner watching from his window as I passed by his house, but I ignored him. He didn’t need to know my business. I crossed the street and started down one of the dirt paths made by many wandering feet. The graveyard was full of hills, dirt trails, and the scrubby weeds that were common in Idaho.
I loved to wander there. There was always something new to discover. You could climb up one hill and run down into a small valley. Then follow the valley and find a slight depression. When I was smaller, they were caves. Now I know better, but it was still fun to explore them. Once I found an old bucket full of rusted screws. Another time, I found an old tire. I was so excited as Bill watched me dig it up. When I brought it home, it made my parents angry because, apparently, you can’t just throw old tires in the garbage can. We had to take it to a tire disposal place. It cost me a month’s savings.
Despite all the exploring, and digging, and imagining I’d done in the robot graveyard over the years, there was one thing I’d never found—dead robots. Who knew how it got its name?
Besides that, it didn’t make sense to have a robot graveyard. When bots malfunctioned, we recycled them into new bots. Nowadays, bots were so easy to get that people had stopped repairing the old ones, and the recycling centers were busy. That’s one reason why it had been hard for Dad to find a new job. Robot and machine technicians weren’t needed as much as they used to be.
I followed a trail toward the back of the graveyard by the freeway, further back where it was less likely someone would find Bill and dig him up like he was an old tire. At the top of one hills, I looked back. I could see the trails I’d followed up there and my street. It was a good view, the perfect place for Bill. I set him down and shook out my arms. Bill the Cat was heavy. I picked a spot under a bush so he wouldn’t feel too exposed and started digging.
September in Idaho meant the ground was hard. We didn’t get much rain during the summer. And at first, my progress was slow. I wasn’t sure how deep to bury him, but I didn’t want him to be too close to the surface. Even after I had a hole large enough to fit the cardboard box, I kept digging. The afternoon sun beat down on me and soon sweat started to drip down my face. I let it. With every shovel full, my thoughts rolled around in my head like it was an echo chamber of problems.
I shoved the shovel into the hole. “Stupid soccer team,” I thought, jabbing the ground. I flung the dirt into the pile. “Stupid money.” Jab, scoop dump. “Stupid dead Bill.” Jab, clang! “Stupid rocks!” Jab, clang! I jabbed with my shovel again in a spot a little to the left of where I’d hit something, which I admit didn’t feel much like a rock. My shovel clanged again. I kept moving left and jabbing until my shovel went in clean. I felt it catch the edge of the rock, and I tried to pry it up. The thing wasn’t budging. I kept at it, figuring once I got it out, the hole would be plenty large enough for Bill the Cat to rest in peace. I dug my shovel in, and if it clanged, I’d move until I found an edge. Clang, clang, thud, scrape. After fifteen or twenty minutes of that, I realized this thing was larger than I’d first imagined.
I kept digging and brushing until I’d uncovered what looked like a metal ball. It had two large dents in the top where I’d hit it with my shovel. My stomach flipped as I started to realize what I might have found. I kept digging and brushing and wishing I’d brought a broom and a small trowel. By the time I’d uncovered the head, my hands were dirty, but it didn’t matter.
I’d found a robot, for real, an old one by the looks of it. The bots we had today were sleek and faceless and did there jobs, and that was it. Most of them were cat sized. A few, like the DriveBot™, were large enough to complete their unique tasks, but, they looked more like machines than people.
This robot looked like one from the history books, military-issued, probably from WWII. He had eyes, a dopy looking face, and a mouth. I hadn’t seen a robot with a mouth in real life before. He looked like he was smiling. His body was a tarnished silvery color with spots of peeling paint, and from the look of things, he was man-sized.
I kept digging until I’d uncovered his chest panel. Could he still work? I brushed the dirt from his body along with cracked and peeling paint and found a small ring. I tugged on it, and the panel scraped open. I saw a row of buttons that looked surprisingly clean for buttons that had been buried for decades. The robot’s outer shell must have protected them. Which meant that maybe…
I took a deep breath and leaned forward. I lifted my hand and my fingers hovered over the buttons. Things were about to be amazing or disappointing, but there was only one way to find out. I pushed the green button. It was a safe bet that meant “on.” A whirring noise started up from somewhere in the robot’s chest, and seconds later, his eyes lit up.
Then a stream of curses and racial slurs came crackling out from a speaker inside his mouth. I cringed. Bots were always formal, polite, direct, and they never used any language that could be offensive. That’s probably why they all sounded like insipid pancakes. From what I could tell, this bot didn’t like the Germans, Russians, or Japanese. It must have learned it’s language skills from soldiers.
I hoped he was a fast learner. If I took him home talking like this, we’d both have to sit through Mom’s lecture about appropriate language. I wouldn’t put it past her to go through my music library and make me delete any songs she didn’t think were appropriate. Then she’d make the robot live in the garage like she had Bill the Cat.
The robot’s tirade paused long enough for me to say, “Hey bot, you’ve been buried for almost 80 years. We aren’t at war.”
The bot’s voice stopped. The fan inside its chest sped up as it processed what I’d said. “What in #$ %#’s name are you talking about, kid?” Said the bot. “Those %!*& were almost on top of us.”
“Look around. Nobody’s here now.”
The bot paused again, and I watched his blinking eyes as he took in our surroundings. All I could hear was his fan, and some birds chirping somewhere nearby.
The “lights in the bot’s eyes blinked on an off. “What year is it?”
“2021? But what about Joe and Bill T, and Grunt? I was $%*& with them only minutes ago.”
I shrugged. “If they survived, it’s likely they died of old age by now.”
Blink, blink went the lights in the bot’s eyes, and his head drooped. “I hope they got a %$*# proper burial.”
Why did he care about their burials? Weird. “Look bot, what’s your name?”
The robot’s fans spun faster as he leaned toward me and stood up. I stumbled backward as clumps of dirt, sand, and small plants showered the ground. It saluted me and said. “BR206 117 infantry regiment, at your service, sir.” He must have been strong. I’d only uncovered his head and chest, but he climbed out of the dirt with the ease of someone wading into a lake.
“Um, nice to meet you, 206. Here’s the thing. You have to watch your language. My mom will deactivate you if you talk like that around her.”
His head tilted towards me making a horrid wrenching sound. His joints needed oiled up for certain. “No cussing?”
I nodded. “No cussing. And you can’t call the Germans or Japanese names either.”
You mean I can’t call those dirty $#@!* dirty $#@!*”
I grimaced. “No, you can’t.”
“What about the **#%^. What do I call them?”
I sighed, “Call them Japanese.”
The bot sighed and struck a pose bringing his hand to his forehead like a black and white film star in distress. The noise was deafening as his disused joints protested at the movement. “My fallen brothers would be so ashamed.”
“You are so weird,” I told the bot, and he was. This bot felt almost like talking to a person, a really odd person.
“It was my job to dig their lonely graves, their last repose, their final resting place,” the bot said. Still in his dramatic breathy voice.
I looked up at him, and even with the paint flaking from his body, I could read his name, “BR206.” He must have been a burial unit. Many war regiments used them to make burying dead soldiers more efficient. It sounded like a good idea, even though it was sad.
That’s when I remembered, “Bill!” I ran around 206, who was still posing, and picked up the box where I’d left my cat. I’d forgotten about him for a minute. Guilt and grief and everything I’d been feeling earlier gushed back up to the surface. “I can’t believe I forgot about him. Poor Bill.”
The robot was watching me. I tipped the box so it could see inside. It nodded. “I too had a fallen comrade named Bill. We called him Bill S. so we didn’t mix him up with Bill T. I prepared a beautiful grave for him. A good man lost in a senseless fight.” The bot sighed again, and it made me wonder if he watched a lot of old movies. Did soldiers do that? I wasn’t sure. After the sigh, he looked down at me. “Would you like me to help you bury your fallen friend?” He pointed to his chest. “It is what I do best.”
I looked down at Bill the Cat again. He had been with me through a lot. I remembered the day my dad lost his job. My parents said things would be ok, but it didn’t feel like it. There was tension in the house after that. I could tell they felt stressed and didn’t know how things would turn out. I’d gone outside, and Bill came to see me. He’d jumped on my lap and nudged his head into my hand while I told him about how worried my parents seemed. It had made me feel better.
I nodded at the robot. “Yes, thank you.”
The hole I’d dug earlier had turned into a ginormous robot sized cave. We’d need to dig a new one. I picked a new spot I thought Bill would like, and the robot got to work. A small laser light shone from 206’s eyes and swept over Bill and the box. “Three feet, by two feet, by three feet,” he said.
Then his hand began to transform. First, a pointer finger turned into a hefty drill bit, and he created a rectangle of holes in the ground. Then one hand became a shovel, and the other a saw blade. Minutes later, a perfect rectangular Bill-sized hole was ready for the Bill-sized box. 206 nodded at me and held out his hands. They were now back to regular robot hands. I handed him the box and watched as his arms stretched to lower Bill down into the hole. Once Bill the Cat was inside, 206 said. “Would you like to say a few words?”
I nodded, but couldn’t speak for a moment. The robot didn’t seem to mind. He waited without rushing me. I listened to the whirr of his internal fan while I gathered my thoughts.
“Dear Bill the Cat,” I said. “You were a good cat, and kept the mice from overtaking our garage. But more than that, you were my friend. You’ve been there with me through every hard thing until today. I first remember you begging on our front porch to come into the house. Mom wouldn’t let you, of course, but you seemed happy in the garage. I liked knowing you were out there whenever I needed you. Now, who am I going to talk to about the hard things, like not making the soccer team, or Dad’s job, or not having real friends? I’ll miss you.”
I finished my speech. It felt a little empty and repetitive like it wasn’t possible to put everything I felt and thought about Bill into words. I sighed.
A screeching sound made me wince as 206 moved his arm and rested it on my shoulder. He must not have put his whole weight on it because his tarnished metal hand felt no heavier than my backpack. I looked up at him as he began to speak.
“I never knew you, Bill the Cat, but I want you to know that I’ll take good care of,” 206 paused, and his head swiveled to look at me. “What’s your name?” he asked in a quieter voice. Was he whispering? Who knew bots could whisper?
I shrugged and whispered back, “Jason.”
206’s head turned back to look at the small grave where Bill’s body lay. “I’ll take good care of Jason, exactly as I and other #$%$@ BR units have done before me. I know I can’t fill the hole that you have left, but I’ll do my best.” He paused and leaned toward me and whispered again. “Sorry for the cuss.” Then he straightened up and patted my shoulder. I stumbled forward but caught myself before falling into Bill’s hole.
After that, we stood in silence for a while, and I realized 206 was waiting for me. I nodded, then watched as he covered Bill’s box with dirt.
“Is there anything you would like the headstone to say?”
Headstone? Cool. “Um, how about, ‘Bill, the Cat was a good friend.” It was lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
206 picked up a rock that was at least as big as Bill had been and made a shooing motion with his hands. “Please step back.”
Then 206 set the rock down on top of the newly dug dirt and used his laser to cut words into the rock. The smoky scent of something burning wafted by me. Then 206 stepped back. The rock said what I’d asked for with an added, “Died 2021.” The letters looked neat and uniform. It was more than I could have ever done on my own.
I took a breath. “Thank you.”
The robot nodded at me. It was still strange to see human movements coming from him.
“Why don’t you come home with me? My dad can fix you up. He’s good with machines.”
206 stood up straiter and put a hand on his chest. “I’d be honored.”
We got back to my street, and I saw Dad by the fence, talking to Mr. Turner. We heard their whole conversation from down the road because Mr. Turner was so deaf they both had to yell.
“I saw him walking toward the graveyard with a cardboard box,” yelled Mr. Turner.
Dad nodded. “How long ago was that?”
“Oh, let’s see, a few hours ago, I suppose.” Mr. Turner’s voice carried to us despite his casual words.
Dad looked up then. Maybe he’d heard us coming. 206’s joints had loosened a bit, but he was still making quite a racket.
“Never mind, Bill,” Dad yelled. “Here he is.”
We caught up to them as Mr. Turner was turning around. My dad was glaring at me, and I felt a little guilty. I hadn’t told him where I’d be. I was about to explain when 206 stopped walking, and his mouth dropped open. The noise it made sounded like the tailgate of a pickup truck falling open. “Bill T, is that you? You old #$%@**!”
Mr. Turner grinned. “206! I haven’t seen you in ages!” He spoke louder than usual, then he stepped forward and gave 206 a hug. A hug! He hugged a robot.
Dad and I watched with wide eyes. It was the strangest thing we’d ever seen. Afterward, I introduced 206 to Dad. They shook hands, which was almost as weird as a hug, but not quite. Then Dad offered to oil up 206’s joints. 206 accepted, and we began to say goodbye to Mr. Turner.
Mr. Turner was still smiling at 206, and that’s when I realized something about Mr. Turner. He’d had a long life and probably buried more friends than I’d even had. If I got to see Bill the Cat again in eighty years, I’d want to spend some time with him. “Mr. Turner,” I said. “Do you want to come have dinner with us?” I glanced at my Dad, and he nodded, so I knew it was okay.
Mr. Turner smiled at me. “Kid, you can call me Bill T, and I sure would love to come to dinner with you folks and 206.”
206 put one arm around me and one arm around Bill T and said, “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I knew it. This bot had watched way too many old movies.
We followed Dad up the driveway with 206’s arms around us, and I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Okay. I still hadn’t made the soccer team. Dad still didn’t have a job. And, Bill the Cat was still dead. But, there was something about 206 and Bill T that made me feel a little better about all that. For the first time in months I felt hopeful, like there was something to look forward to.
Who knew you could find hope buried in a graveyard?