I’ve always liked science. I never thought I’d make it this far, being only 12 years old. I’d like to thank my-
“Goodnight, honey!” my mom said as she peeked into my room.
“Goodnight, mom.” My comforter made a soft crackling noise as I rolled onto my right side.
“I love you,” my mom said as she returned the door to its original state. Closed, but not quite latched, the metal spring-loaded wedge simply resting on the tacky old paint.
I continued thinking out my part of the speech. It usually took me about an hour to fall asleep anyway. If we won, the speech would be a string of lies.
I’ve always thought science was okay, but also pretty boring. I’m only even trying to win the science fair because of my friend, Crubble. He adores science, and seems to have an impossibly immense amount of knowledge about animals, especially reptiles. Oh wait, I didn’t say that right. What’s the Latin name again? One second, I’m going to go ask Crubble. And no, his name isn’t actually Crubble. It’s Gavin. Anyway, we’re doing a science fair project together. And that means he’s doing a project, and I’m along for the ride. Maybe the rides. Plural. I know for certain I’ll be along for one, the school science fair. There is another ride, that I might hypothetically be along for as well. That’s the plane ride to Marquette, Michigan. That’s where the national competition, for the winners from each qualifying school district, is held. Why is it held there, you might ask? Because it’s only a 10-minute drive from James William Laboratories, where the winner gets an internship and $10,000. So yeah, this whole science fair thing is a big deal to me. And Crubble.
I woke up from a weird dream at 7:37 in the morning, my alarm impatiently screaming at me to get up. In the dream Crubble and I were working at J.W. Labs, and we were building a robot. The dream was quite vague. Neither of us seemed to know what the robot would do. In my brain-dead, just-woke-up state, I thought the robot was stupid. What’s the point in a robot that just hangs around all day and looks at people?
I got up and cautiously planted my feet in my dark gray EIKA shag carpet. My nostrils burned from the midwinter air. It felt like my nostrils were so dry, the next time I exhaled they would turn to a powder, like chalk dust.
“Hey Glogle, read me the latest news.” My throat was so dry, my speech was distorted to the point that the thing didn’t respond. Christmas was three weeks ago, and my parents got me a Glogle Dome. It was a dream come true. I cleared my throat and tried again. The attempt to hear the news was successful, but I realized my throat was so dry that it kind of stuck closed for a few moments when I swallowed. Normal people would have a glass of water or juice. I’m not a normal 12-year-old. I like coffee. The floors got progressively colder throughout my trek to the coffee machine. I gritted my teeth as I took the first step off of my warm, welcoming shag carpet. To the cold, creaky, pinchy, hardwood we go! I don’t get why my family even says we have hardwood. At my house, the floorboards are so loose that in some places you get a little bit of springback, like a trampoline. Anyway, it’s not as bad as the kitchen floor. I tried to keep a straight face as I crudely scooted across the floor of our tiny kitchen. I jumped to the safety of the slightly cool throw rug, leaning far to my right to access the coffee machine. My bony elbow smarted against the firm countertop as I pressed the loose rubber button to start the machine.
My mom watched my stunt in amusement. “Why don’t you just wear slippers?”
I hate slippers. They’re too easy. The whirring of the coffee machine brought the robot dream back to mind. I forget most of my dreams, leaving them to my annoyingly inaccurate and forgetful long-term memory. Anyway, the robot. My mostly-awake state of mind disagreed with my just-woke-up one. I liked the idea of making a robot. Even an AI! How amazing would that be?! My excitement accompanied by a warm kick of my first sip of coffee, I texted Crubble about the idea. As I said earlier, Crubble is definitely a nature person, but after a cold car ride to school’s worth of texting, I was able to convince him that it would be a good idea. The remainder of January was spent building the robot. We found an affordable and seemingly easy robotics system called HEX. The HEX kit was expensive, but even if we didn’t win we’d obviously still be able to build more robots in the future. We thought it would be cool if the robot hung from the ceiling, instead of the classic walk-and-talk cheesy “AI assistant.” The next part was figuring out how the heck we would make this robot an AI. Yeah. That was the hard part. We almost didn’t finish in time for entry. We probably should’ve asked my dad for help, but quite honestly I think he’d just slow us down. He’d probably try to teach us every corner of the software we were using, instead of helping us get the thing in by March 4th. Sodium wasn’t the prettiest robot out there, but it worked. We named it Sodium because… actually, I haven’t got the foggiest idea of why we named it Sodium. We did, however, think of its personality. It had to be a crowd pleaser. It couldn’t be a “boy” named Spike, and it couldn’t be a “girl” named Barbara. So actually, I think Sodium wasn’t a bad choice.
Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the school science fair. And it’s 2:34 in the morning. I just spent half an hour thinking out and recalling the last 2 months of my life. I’m tired. Goodnight. Or morning. Technically.
Why was I so scared? I don’t know. It was totally lax. I arrived an hour late and who cared? Nobody! I didn’t want to look at other people’s projects anyway. Who cares about Mia’s potato battery anyway? Well, evidently a lot of people. It was the talk of the town- um, science fair. About half an hour after I arrived the time had come. The judges were going to announce who would go to the national fair. My forehead was sweaty and hotter than my car in summertime. I took off my coat and tied it at my waist. That’s when I noticed how vigorously I was shaking. I didn’t know I was that anxious. A crowd had already formed around the cafetorium stage, the students anticipating the announcement of the winner. Parents hung back and took pictures of their kids’ projects. Crubble ran up to me, his face as pale as my parents’ beloved white wine.
“Sal.” He was obviously dead serious. “What did you put on the robot?”
I took an involuntary step backwards, bumping into Mia. She gave me a sarcastically nice glare. “Whoa. Sheez. What do you mean?” I demanded from Crubble.
“Come.” Crubble pulled me out of the crowd.
A large grey box was plugged in to the back of Sodium’s head. Sodium was saying “HA. HA. IDIOTS,” repeatedly, not in its usual cheerful voice.
I swiveled to Crubble, who was standing behind me. I could see he was on the verge of tears. “How long has it been like this?” I asked.
“Well, the last time I che-” He gulped. “The last time I checked was about 30 minutes ago. That was right before the judges came.”
“Okay…” I wanted more.
“So I have absolutely no idea if the judges saw it like this or not.” His voice sped up as he said it. He held his breath and released it.
“One sec.” I turned and ran to the door into our tiny “backstage” area, my boots hitting the floor more loudly with each step. Clop clop clop clop clop clop clop clop… almost like a crescendo in orchestra class. I was running at exactly 200 bmp. Don’t ask me why or how I know that.
“Can I help you?” said an old female judge as she opened the door to the backstage.
“Um, yeah,” I said, startled. My vision went blurry from exhaustion.
“Okay, honey.” The woman was clearly stressed. “We need to make the speech soon, so spill it.”
“Yeah ok,” I said, my toes fidgeting inside my hot sweaty boots. I didn’t realize how rude it sounded until I had already said it. “Did you see the robot project?”
“Yes, honey. We saw them all.” She was losing her patience.
“Ok, well, what was it saying?” I tried to hide my worry. I can never control my face enough to hide emotions.
“Something we couldn’t understand and then IDIOTS,” She inched her foot closer to the door. I noticed we were wearing similar boots.
My vision went blurrier. Was this really happening? Who did this?
“You okay, honey?” She opened the door wider, about to go inside.
“Yeah.” I took a step backwards.
“Okay, goodbye-” She started to go backstage.
“Wait!” I said a little too loudly.
“What do you want, honey?!” She looked like she could kill me on the spot.
“Neve-nevermind,” I said quietly. I turned and ran, cool tears forming at my eyes while my cheeks turned hot and red. Like getting out of a hot tub and jumping in the snow. My cousins and I used to do that at their house in Minnesota. They moved to Alabama 2 years ago.
I didn’t realize I was running again until I nearly plowed over Crubble. “What was that?” he asked, frustration taking the melody of his tone.
“Nothing.” Anger played the leading role in mine.
“Well, ya did something!” Crubble was actually mad.
I shifted down to a mellow piano, sadness playing the loudest in the symphony. “It’s nothing! We’re not going to win the science fair, okay?! I said louder than seemed necessary. I quieted down when I saw heads turn our way.“Let’s just both go home.” Disappointment’s harmony came out a little too loud in my voice.
“No!” said Crubble, but it was too late. I was already on my way out.
I was walking down the concrete ramp out of my school, checking the city bus times on my phone, when the stranger ran out in front of me. At first, I was flat-out confused, but I totally flipped when he said my name.
“Sal!” he said, his whole body in shadow.
A string of PG-13 language that I’ve heard my dad say erupted from my throat.
“Yeah, I know what you’re gonna say. Who are you? How do you know my name? Leave me alone!” said the stranger, pointlessly gesturing with his hands in the dark.
“That’s not what I was going to say. At all. Now what do you want?” I asked, trying to be the one in charge, just in case this dude tried to get me into his van or something.
I could see that I was too harsh. “Um, yeah, so, we saw what happened to your robot.”
“Okay,” I was getting creeped out. “Are you like a parent here, or something? ‘Cause they don’t let people like you into school events.”
“Well.” The stranger sounded exactly like Chris Traeger. “I am hurt.”
“Yeah yeah, sorry,” I said sarcastically. To this day I’m still pretty sure he thought I was serious.
“Thank you.” I think he was trying to sound like Chris Traeger. Anyway, enough about Chris Traeger.
“So what’s your point?” I said, folding my arms.
“Okay, this is going to take some explaining.” He dropped his impression.
“Spit it out or I’m going to kick your tail down whatever manhole cover you scurried out from.”
He stepped back. “We saw who did it,” he said, his voice now serious. “Still feel like being mean to me now?”
A lump of guilt ballooned into me like that feeling when you’re about to fart but it goes back up. Ok, that’s not relatable. Sorry. “No,” I said. I don’t know how I was staying calm. I looked around, as if someone was watching us.
“Yes, people are watching us,” he said as I was facing the other direction. I stopped mid-spin. It was like he read my mind, but instantaneously. I turned back around, slower this time. I felt like I was wearing only socks and someone just told me there was broken glass on the floor.
“What?” I said, way too loudly. A family walked towards the parking lot across the playground below.
“Come on out, guys.” Three more people jumped out of bushes to my right.
I fell down, swearing some more as I did so.
“We’re from James William Laboratories,” said one of them as I got up. I couldn’t see, but it sounded like a woman.
“Woah, really?” I said in wonder, not realizing how stupid I sounded.
“Yeah,” she replied flatly.
A different man spoke up. “We caught the whippersnappers who messed up Sodium.”
“Um, awesome!” I replied, confused. “Do you mean caught in the act, or, like, caught caught.
“They’re in the back of our truck!” said the first man, a little too cheerfully.
“Oh...” now I was freaked. “Um, why?”
“So we can turn them in and the footage to the principal.” One of them chuckled.
“Wait, you guys got footage?” I asked, getting excited.
“Of course!” said the woman. We heard about your robot on eMessage and we came to check it out.
“Woah,” I said, confused again. “How did you guys not get caught?”
“Drop ceiling,” the woman replied flatly.
“Wow, okay, but also what do you mean you heard about it on eMessage.”
“Oh!” She giggled too light-heartedly for the situation. “Our team was sent to supervise this school, Bellevue K-8. We hacked into everyone’s texts here. Oh, by the way, Mia bought her potato battery on Amazon. We’re gonna tell ‘em that too.”
“Thanks…?” I said. “I’m- uh, gonna go home now.”
“Good with us,” said the original man.
That’s the whole story of how we won the school science fair. And got guaranteed internships as a child test subjects “for our cooperation.” That’s where we are now. Literally. I’m in my long-term relaxation vault, ready to go back to sleep for a couple of days after a day’s worth of testing the portal gun at James William Labs. It’s nice here. The food is great, there’s school so we don’t fall behind, and our parents can come visit any time. Oh, and they’re building a larger version of Sodium called Sodium Wisp. I’m tired again. Goodnight.