It was a beautiful day in Sunflower Valley. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Bob the Builder was ahead of schedule on his day’s list of Things to be Fixed. His next stop, in fact, wasn’t even on his list. Farmer Pickles had stopped by Bob’s next to last job and asked if Bob could possibly spare a few minutes to look at a rusty rain gutter on Pickles’ house. The gutter was leaking, spilling orange-tinted water down the side of a window frame and consequently streaking the white paint with the same unpleasant color. Since this had been happening all around the house, mainly due to old birds’ nests blocking the flow of water and thus causing the rust to form, the farmer wanted Bob’s opinion on how they could keep birds from nesting there in the first place. Bob didn’t have to actually do anything about the problem today, he just needed to take a look and come up with some ideas. Farmer Pickles wasn’t going to be there himself, but he was leaving a ladder propped up under the offending gutter and had said he’d find Bob sometime later in the week to discuss the problem further.
That was just fine with Bob. He was in the area anyway, so he’d decided to swing by the farm to have a look at the gutter on his way to another job. He also wanted to put the ladder up before anyone – anyone being Pickles’ scarecrow, Spud – got someone hurt by playing around with it. In fact, Bob was surprised to see the ladder still standing where it was supposed to be standing when he arrived, given how Spud couldn’t seem to leave anything alone. That wasn’t Spud’s fault, of course; the scarecrow had been an experiment to try to extend the same AI used in the machines to a more manlike form, and unfortunately for everyone the logic network the AI relied upon for ‘normal’ development had failed to develop the way it was supposed to within the new matrix. Spud was self-aware like the machines, he could be useful in certain situations…but his behavior left a lot to be desired, and he didn’t seem to be capable of learning from his mistakes. Spud was never going to mature mentally much past the stage he was in, which meant that someone was always, always going to have to watch out for him.
Today, that person was Bob. He didn’t mind; he couldn’t actually say he liked Spud, because Spud tended to upset his machines, but when he wasn’t upsetting them Spud could be a playful friend for them as well so it usually balanced out. Usually. Today when Scoop, Bob’s backhoe, had pulled up to the farmhouse, Spud had leapt out and tried to frighten him. Unfortunately for Spud, Scoop hadn’t been all that frightened and one sharp blast of his horn had sent the scarecrow running for the fields as fast as he could go. Scoop and Bob had gotten a good laugh out of that. And the ladder was still where it belonged, right in front of a trickle of orange washing down the white window frame, which meant Bob could just have his look at the gutter and then be on his way to the next job on the list.
Bob sent Scoop to the other side of the farmhouse to keep an eye out for Spud and then started up the ladder. It wobbled dangerously when he stepped onto the second rung; he stopped moving, and it steadied. He started up again, more carefully this time, and the wobble decreased. “Uneven ground,” he said to himself. “Not a very good place to stand a ladder. Lucky thing this gutter isn’t up any higher, or I’d have to come back another time when someone is here to hold the ladder steady for me.” With that in mind, he stopped climbing three rungs up, just high enough to peer over the edge of the gutter.
A sizeable wad of muddy twigs was just visible, wedged into the joint where the gutter turned a corner and fed into the drainpipe, and Bob sighed. He couldn’t leave it like that, but when he mucked it out the muddy mess was going to get all over him – and he wouldn’t have time to go back to the yard to shower and change, he had too many other jobs to finish. Resigning himself to spending the rest of the day filthy, he grabbed a handful of twigs and pulled.
They didn’t budge. Great, just great. He went up another rung, grabbing hold of the gutter with his left hand to steady the resultant wobble – Bob knew the gutters were sturdy, he’d put them on himself. He took a better look at the twigs and frowned; it wasn’t all twigs. Something was knotted in and around it, maybe some kind of vine…or was that a rope? Whatever it was, it looked like part of it might be running down the drainpipe. He rubbed at it, scrubbing off mud with his fingers, and found white nylon with a colorful stripe; a piece of a jump rope, then.
Bob had to smile. Even the birds on the island, it seemed, knew the value of recycling. But then he supposed birds always had, since they routinely built their nests out of whatever was lying around. Pity it was so much more difficult for people to do that, although he did try his best to incorporate recycled materials into his work whenever he could. He worked his fingers under a loop of the rope and started loosening the knot, prying through the packed mud to shift trapped twigs. A few came out, and then his fingers got stuck; Bob considered for a moment, then adjusted his balance on the ladder so he could lean over the gutter and rest his elbow on the edge of the roof. Chicken wire, he thought to himself, getting his other hand dug into the mud and prying at the rope. Chicken wire across the tops of the house gutters should keep the birds out, if he used the right size mesh. He could make a sort of lid out of it, the way people did on aquariums to keep rodents and lizards, and fit the lid tightly over the top of the gutter. If he shaped it just right, the wind shouldn’t be able to blow the wire covers off but they would still be removable to allow the gutters to be cleaned. And if he coated the covers with metal paint, they wouldn’t rust…
The knot gave way, and Bob suddenly found himself with a double handful of twigs and mud while a trickle of stagnant water ran under his knuckles and followed the jump rope down the drainpipe. He decided to leave the rope alone for the moment, since it wasn’t impeding the flow of water…but that still left him with his hands full of muck that really couldn’t go down the pipe unless he wanted to be taking the whole thing down and cleaning it out. Which he didn’t. Bob pushed the mud mess against the inside of the gutter and held it out of the water with his left hand, then started tossing handfuls of it out with his right while trying to ignore the splatters of mud that were getting all over him. Luckily he didn’t have any in-house jobs today, or he would have had to go home, schedule or no schedule. Still, though, if he just pressed a little bit harder against the inside of the gutter, he might be able to keep more of the water out of his pile of mud.
It was the combination of pressing and scooping that did it; the gutter yawned away from the roof in apparent slow motion, but still too quickly for Bob to free his hands and grab something, anything, that would keep he and the ladder upright. Too late he saw the empty holes that had been obscured by the mud, daylight poking through instead of the screws that should have filled them. He was going to fall. Not too badly, though, it was straight back onto flat, grassy turf, he should be all right…and then the loose section of gutter twisted suddenly, caught by the sturdy screws and brackets that still connected the rest of its length to the roof, and Bob went from falling to flying with only enough time to hope he didn’t land in Farmer Pickles’ flower bed with its sharp support stakes rising a good two feet into the air.
Luck was with him, but only partially; he landed to one side of the small plot, missing the stakes but unfortunately finding the decorative brick edging instead. Bob heard the bone snap before he felt it, and he bit his tongue hard to keep from yelling out a word that Scoop wouldn’t understand and Spud would repeat as he rolled onto the grass. He wound up on his back, staring up into the sky. The sky was a very nice blue today, he noticed, about the same color as Wendy’s eyes…but he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about that. Wincing, he pushed himself up on his elbows and forced himself to look at the affected leg. No blood, good – not only because that meant it was a less severe break, but because the sight of blood would doubtless have sent Scoop into a panic. Panic was something they needed to avoid. Bob focused on his leg, trying to feel how bad it might be. Didn’t doctors always ask people to wiggle their toes? He shifted his focus a little lower and tried it, and had to suck in a deep breath and hold it to keep from screaming as the world flickered around him. Screaming would be even worse than swearing, the sound of him screaming would probably panic Scoop into a blind rampage right across Sunflower Valley.
No, panic must be avoided at all costs. He had to think this through, fast. Bob shifted his weight, panting through the pain, until he was sitting mostly upright. Farmer Pickles was at some livestock show on the mainland, he wouldn’t be back for at least another day. And Kenny, his nearest neighbor, wouldn’t be over to look after the stock until just before dark tonight. Bob knew he couldn’t – not to mention shouldn’t – wait that long to get help. He also knew there was no way he was going to be able to get inside Pickles’ house to use the phone, not when just trying to wiggle his toes had almost made him pass out. And Spud was prevented from going inside the house by a complicated electronic barrier system, so even if the scarecrow hadn’t run off he wouldn’t have been able to help.
Not that Bob wanted Spud there right now anyway, since he had a pretty good idea what had happened to the missing screws. But that wasn’t important right now, what was important was getting out of this and getting some help. Bob took a deep breath. “Scoop!” he called out, wincing when just using his voice made pain flare in his leg. “Scoop, I need you to come here!”
A motor rumbled to life, and the ground vibrated as heavy tires jerked into motion on hard-packed earth. Bob set his jaw and tried to look like nothing was wrong. The backhoe could read his facial expressions and to a certain extent his body language, but Scoop wouldn’t automatically assign the right meaning to signs that would tell another human Bob was hurt, like seeing him shaking or turning pale.
Scoop rounded the corner smiling, but when he saw Bob sitting on the ground a puzzled look appeared on his face; Bob could almost see the logic processes in the machine’s ‘brain’ trying to process the situation, trying to make sense out of it. “Bob, why are you sitting on the ground?”
Bob took another deep breath. “I hurt my leg,” he said. He saw the backhoe’s eyes flicker over to the house, saw them take in the fallen ladder and the connect that with what he’d just said. When those eyes swung back to him, comprehension showing in them, Bob nodded. “Yes, that was it,” he confirmed. “I was standing on it, it fell, and then I fell. And now I need your help.”
Scoop rolled closer, pleased and worried at the same time. “Should I go get Wendy?”
“No, that would…take too long.” Bob gestured up to Scoop’s front bucket, which the backhoe was holding up over his head so that he could see Bob on the ground. “What I need you to do is put your bucket down, right down on the ground, and get as close to me as you can with it.” More confusion, and Bob thought frantically for something to connect his idea with so the machine would understand. He grabbed at an incident from a few months before. “Remember that time we couldn’t find Pilchard, and then we found her asleep in your bucket?” He waited until the bucket bobbed a nod. “Pilchard was riding in your bucket, all the way back home to the yard. That’s what I’m going to do. You’re going to pick me up in your front bucket and we’re going to go home.”
Scoop processed that, and then the bucket bobbed again before lowering slowly to the ground. Bob both heard and felt the backhoe’s engine throttle down into low gear, and then the big tires began to inch forward to push the bucket toward him. This was the dangerous part, he knew; Scoop couldn’t see him, and the bucket was solid steel that was more than heavy enough to crush him. Bob needed the bucket to be moving, needed it to move under his leg since he couldn’t move his leg himself, and he needed to not scream when it did. Because if he screamed, a broken leg was going to be the least of his problems.
The lower edge of the bucket inched up to him, and he braced his good leg against the side of his bad one and then reached up to grab the upper edge of the bucket and hang on for dear life – he knew Scoop could see his hand, which would ease the backhoe’s mind. Bob was just glad Scoop couldn’t see the rest of him when the bucket started to slide under his leg, since he was pretty sure the expression he had on his face would have been a panic-inducing one. He could actually feel the broken ends of the bone grinding against each other…and then he was inside and pushing himself down into the bucket’s curve, away from the edge. He forced his voice to work, hoping the roughness of it would be masked by the distorting echo of the metal surrounding him. “Okay, Scoop, stop!” He panted for a moment while the engine throttled down to idling, then gathered his voice again. “Now raise your bucket until I tell you to stop.”
He let the bucket get up about halfway, low enough so he wasn’t afraid of falling out but high enough so that Scoop could see the road, and then told the backhoe to head for home. Bob braced his good leg against the opposite end of the bucket, adjusted his hold on the upper edge, and with his free hand fished a handkerchief out of his pocket which he twisted enough to bite down on. Screaming still wasn’t an option…and the empty country roads out Farmer Pickles’ way were bumpy and rutted all the way back to town.
Bob thought he might have passed out a few times on the way back to the yard, but he was awake when they reached it – or at least, he woke up when Scoop started yelling for Wendy. Bob pulled the handkerchief out of his mouth and stuck it down out of sight, and what seemed like seconds later Wendy was standing there looking down at him with an expression of absolute horror on her face. “Oh Bob…!”
He tried to reassure her, hoping she hadn’t seen the handkerchief. “I know, I’m a mess,” he quipped, but the strain even he could hear in his voice only made things worse. Bob pulled on the upper edge of the bucket again, trying to straighten up a little, but Wendy reached out and stopped him before he could move very much. He sighed. “I don’t suppose you could go call Dr. Johnson, could you? I can fix a lot of things, but a broken leg isn’t one of them.”
Wendy bit her lip, but she nodded. “Don’t move,” she told him. “Just…don’t move. Scoop, stay right where you are, and the rest of you keep back. I just have to go call…”
She ran back to the office, and Bob used the opportunity to pull up again. It was harder than he’d thought it would be, but once he’d gotten a little more upright some of the pressure left his leg and some of the pain left with it. He wasn’t sure when he’d slid down so far, and he really didn’t want to think too much about the long ride home anyway. Bob leaned his head against the cool steel and shut his eyes. “You did great, Scoop,” he told the backhoe, hoping the echo would carry his voice since he didn’t seem to be able to get it very loud this time. “Thanks for the ride.”
A worried little rumble came from the machine’s engine. “Do you want me to let you down now, Bob?”
Bob opened one eye and checked the position of the bucket; it was about three feet off the ground. Scoop must have lowered it for Wendy’s benefit, he decided, and hoped again that she hadn’t seen the handkerchief. “No,” he told the backhoe. “No, just leave it right here, please. I don’t want Wendy to have to get down on the ground to talk to me.”
Another rumble. “Don’t you want to get out?”
This time Bob opened both eyes, feeling a shiver passing through the metal that was supporting him. Scoop was getting agitated again, possibly having expected Bob to jump out of the bucket the minute they arrived back at the yard. “I’m…going to need some help to do that, Scoop,” Bob told him in the most natural tone he could manage. He pulled up a little more, biting his lip, in hopes that if he were sitting taller Scoop would be able to see enough of his yellow hard hat to differentiate it from the yellow-painted bucket. “If I get down now, I could hurt my leg even more.”
“He has to wait for the doctor, Scoop.” Wendy was back. She still looked wide-eyed with worry, but her voice was even – just like Bob, she knew they couldn’t afford to have the machines become too agitated. “Dr. Johnson said for you to stay right where you are, Bob, he’s on his way. Oh, and he asked if you could wiggle your toes.”
Bob couldn’t help it, even though it hurt; he laughed out loud.
The machines were still milling around worriedly in the yard when Wendy and Dr. Johnson brought Bob back home a few hours later, and they immediately clustered around to watch as he was helped out of the doctor’s truck. He smiled at them and gave a little wave. “Hi guys, I’m home!” he called out, sounding very happy about it. “See my cast?”
The cast looked like a big white boot that went from just below Bob’s knee to almost the end of his foot, and his coverall had been ripped on one side almost all the way up his leg to make room for it. The tips of his toes were sticking out the end of the cast, looking red and swollen. Dizzy got as close as she could, staring. “What’s it for, Bob?”
“It’s to keep his leg still so it will get better,” Dr. Johnson told them. He was a tall, thin man with a high forehead and silvering light brown hair, and his amber-colored eyes crinkled when he smiled. He was smiling now, although he hadn’t been when he’d come to get Bob earlier. “Now everyone get back, we need to get Bob into the house and into bed. You can all talk to him later.”
The machines obediently backed off, watching while Wendy and the doctor supported Bob between them into the house. Bob apparently thought something about that was very funny, because they could hear him giggling right up until the door closed.
Wendy came back out with Dr. Johnson about half an hour later, and after seeing the doctor off she walked over to the shed end of the yard where the five machines were still clustered. “I am very proud of you, Scoop,” she told the backhoe. “You really helped Bob when he needed you today.”
“What happened?” Muck wanted to know. “Scoop said that Bob said he hurt his leg, so he had to ride home in Scoop’s bucket. How did Bob hurt his leg?”
“When the ladder fell at Farmer Pickles’ house, Bob fell down on top of some bricks and two bones in his leg broke,” Wendy explained. “That’s how he hurt it, and that’s why he had to ride home in the bucket instead of standing on Scoop’s platform.”
Roley peered at her. “Did Dr. Johnson fix it?” From the top of his cab, Bird tooted. “Bird wants to know too.”
“Is that why Bob thought it was funny, because Dr. Johnson fixed it?” Dizzy asked before Wendy could answer Roley. “He was laughing so much when you took him to bed!”
Wendy didn’t quite wince. “Yes, Dr. Johnson fixed Bob’s leg, and he put the cast on it to keep it fixed,” she answered Roley. “But he wasn’t laughing because it was funny, he was laughing because the medicine Dr. Johnson gave him made him feel…silly.” It had actually made him more than silly, and Wendy sincerely hoped he didn’t remember half of what he’d said after it had kicked in or he’d probably be blushing for the rest of his life. “The medicine makes it so his leg doesn’t hurt.”
Scoop tilted his cab to the side, frowning. “But if his leg doesn’t hurt any more, why did he have to go to bed? He has medicine and a cast, and we need to go fix things!”
Wendy had known she was going to have to explain further, even though she’d wished she wouldn’t. “That kind of medicine also makes people sleepy,” she told them. “Bob is going to have to take it for a few days until his leg starts to get better and doesn’t hurt so much, so he’ll be sleeping a lot.”
Dizzy was immediately alarmed. “But if he’s sleeping, he won’t be able to fix things for people!”
“No, he won’t,” Wendy told her. “If something has to be fixed and can’t wait, I’ll go fix it. But only if it can’t wait.” She answered the next question she knew was coming while the little cement mixer was still spinning in agitation at the idea that something would have to wait to be fixed, and before Roley could stammer it out. “If we have to go fix something, someone else will stay here to take care of Bob. We won’t leave him alone.”
She meant they didn’t dare leave him alone, but couldn’t say so; the machines wouldn’t understand that after a few days Bob, left on his own in the house with only Pilchard and the TV, would drag himself out to his workshop at his first unsupervised opportunity and start doing things he wasn’t supposed to. Wendy didn’t plan to give him that opportunity for at least a week if she could help it.
Scoop was looking unhappy, and she closed in on him. “Scoop, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Bob is going to be okay, and we’ll make sure everything that needs to get done is taken care of.”
The yellow backhoe looked up at her, and Wendy saw a shiver run over his frame. “His face was white, and his voice was funny like he’d been running, but he hadn’t been. Was that because his leg hurt?” She nodded, and Scoop shivered again. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“He didn’t want to frighten you, Scoop,” she told him, rubbing her hand over the spot on his cab where Bob usually held on when they were going somewhere together. She chose her words carefully. “It does hurt when a person breaks a bone, it hurts a lot. But Bob knew you’d be scared if you saw how much it was hurting him, he thought you might even be too scared to let him get into your bucket so you could bring him home. So he couldn’t yell or cry or do anything people usually do when they’re hurt. He waited to do that until you were home and he was with the doctor.”
Lofty’s eyes widened with shock. “Bob cried?”
Wendy nodded, not trusting her voice for a moment; she’d stayed with Bob, holding his hand, while the doctor set the broken bones and put on the cast. Bob had done his best to distract her, had tried to make her laugh…but when he’d finally lost control, she had too. “Everybody cries, Lofty.”
She suddenly found herself being closely scrutinized by all five machines; Dizzy even rolled closer and stood up on her back wheels to see better. “You cried!” the little cement mixer exclaimed, somewhere between dismayed and shocked. “I can see!”
“Red, around your eyes. And they got shiny when I asked if Bob cried.” Scoop would have been nodding if he could, but instead his bucket bobbed up and down. “You wanted to cry. But you’re not hurt...”
Roley was peering at her again, squinting a little, and Wendy wondered for a moment if he was just a bit nearsighted. “Bob was hurt; Wendy cried because Bob cried, because he was hurt,” he observed. “I can see it too. Red around eyes, and shiny.” He peered around Wendy at Scoop. “I don’t want Wendy to have red eyes.”
Scoop bobbed his bucket again. “I don’t want Bob to have to take sleepy-medicine and not be able to fix things. Bob won’t be happy if he can’t fix things.”
Dizzy had dropped back down to all four wheels and done a short run around Scoop’s bucket, ending up leaning against Muck’s shovel. “I don’t want Bob to be hurt.” She didn’t quite sniff. “I want Bob to be not hurt again.”
Wendy decided she’d better take control of the conversation back before the machines got any more agitated. “Bob won’t be hurt any more once his leg heals, in about eight weeks it will be just as good as new,” she told them. That garnered her a set of confused looks, and she didn’t quite sigh. She hadn’t been sure if the machines had ever been told about people being hurt, and if they hadn’t they’d have no frame of reference for understanding it; the machines were self-aware, but not self-repairing. “In a person, or even in an animal like Bird or Pilchard or Scrufty, broken bones grow back together after the doctor fixes them,” she explained. “That’s what a cast is for, to keep the broken parts together so they heal just like new. And that’s part of what the sleepy medicine is for too, because the bones grow faster and better if a person rests and doesn’t feel the hurt.” That gave her an idea. “Come here, all of you, and I’ll show you.”
She led the five of them around the side of Bob’s house, to the window that looked out of his small spare room – getting him up the stairs to his bedroom hadn’t been an option. The shade was up, and Wendy gestured for the machines to come closer so they could see inside. “Look, see? Pilchard is in there looking after him.”
As though hearing her name – which it was possible she had – the gray-striped tabby raised her head and blinked at them, then lay back down and closed her eyes again. She was curled up on top of the colorful quilt that was covering Bob, who was sound asleep with his leg in its new white cast propped up on several pillows. Bob looked warm and comfortable, and even seemed to be smiling slightly in his sleep. Wendy smiled herself when the machines all relaxed with audible sighs of relief. They’d just needed to see that Bob was really all right for themselves. And now that they had, they would be all right – and she’d keep an eye on them to make sure they stayed that way.
A slight frown crossed Wendy’s face as an unpleasant thought struck her. How were they going to make sure Bob stayed that way? Not because of the broken leg and the coming boredom, although she and Dr. Johnson were already trying to think of ways to get him around that, but because this time they’d been lucky. Lucky because Bob hadn’t been hurt that badly, lucky because Scoop had been able to bring him home to get help…but so terribly unlucky in ways Wendy had never worried about until now. She’d never worried about Bob heading off with one of the machines to fix something that was broken or build something for someone that needed it, never worried that something might go wrong and the people he was building and fixing for might not be around to help him. She’d never worried about Bob just not making it home at the end of the day and no one having the faintest idea of where to find him.
Because Bob, used to working alone, wasn’t always the greatest about checking in, and if he wasn’t near a phone…
But what if they could make sure he was always near a phone? Wendy smiled, knowing she’d just come up with the answer. She shooed the machines back to their shed for the night, then went in the house and got comfortable in Bob’s chair to wait for Mr. Dixon, the postmaster, to show up. He was going to stay the night with Bob, and once he was there Wendy was going to go home and get online. She had some shopping to do.
Just over a week later, Bob was quietly driving himself crazy. He had crutches for moving around inside the house and he’d managed to get himself out to his workshop on them once already, but because his hands were holding the crutches he couldn’t hold anything else and therefore couldn’t actually do anything in the workshop except stand in the middle of it and look around. Daytime television had nothing he wanted to watch, he was already sick of reading, and Wendy kept getting called out to fix things. Today she was out with Scoop and Lofty moving some sort of obstruction that had backed up a creek.
That was the real problem Bob was having with his situation. Wendy, out fixing something, by herself. He thought maybe his accident had made him paranoid. He’d never really worried about Wendy getting hurt on the job before, no more than he’d worried about it happening to himself; safety was a priority for both of them, they were always careful. Now, though, every time Wendy left the yard Bob couldn’t seem to stop thinking about what could happen to her. He fell asleep in his chair thinking about it. He lay awake in bed thinking about it. He thought about it every time the phone rang.
Bob had never paid attention to how often his phone actually did ring….until it stopped. Dr. Johnson, Mr. Dixon and Wendy had made sure everyone in town knew he’d broken his leg, so nobody called unless they knew Wendy was there. Or unless they just wanted to check on him because they knew Wendy wasn’t there. Mrs. Lykins had called during his frustrating trip out to the workshop, and by the time Bob had started back to the house she’d been dashing into the yard with three other women in tow and they’d scolded and fussed over him and refused to leave until Wendy had come back.
Wendy had laughed at him all through supper. Bob had laughed right along with her…but he’d still worried, even then. And he was worrying now, because Wendy was late getting home.
He tried to reason with himself. The job might have taken longer than expected. It wasn’t easy to work in water, or in the muck the water made out of the dark, heavy soil that covered so much of the valley. Wendy might have gone back to her house first to wash off the mud – she couldn’t shower at Bob’s because of the decency clause. Or someone might have stopped her on her way back, to talk or to ask her to do something for them. Wendy might be standing by the road right now, leaning on Scoop and talking to some well-meaning person who wanted to know how Bob was doing.
Or Wendy might have slipped off the bank into the water. She might be hurt and laying in the creek right now with the machines panicking all over the slippery bank, or even worse with them out in a field somewhere sleeping or playing because they didn’t know she was in trouble. Wendy might need help, and Bob was sitting here in his chair with his leg in a cast, not able to do anything.
He got up when the frustration started to overwhelm him, balanced himself on his crutches and hobbled to the door…and opened it to see Wendy just coming into the yard. She looked happy, but her smile faded when she got close enough to see his face. She hurried over to the house. “Bob, what’s wrong?”
“You were late,” he blurted out, and then winced; that had even sounded pathetic to him. He shifted his weight on the crutches, and blushed his way through a small, self-conscious smile. “I was…I got worried. Isn’t that silly?”
Wendy shook her head. “I’ve been worried too.” Her smile came back. “But I came up with a way to fix it – a way to fix a few things, as a matter of fact. Do you want to come the rest of the way out, or do you want us to come inside with you?”
“Us?” Bob looked past her and was surprised to see not just the machines but also Dr. Johnson, Mr. Dixon, and Farmer Pickles. He started to take a step forward, forgetting the porch step, and might have fallen right off his crutches if Wendy hadn’t been quick to steady him. Blushing again, he rebalanced and lifted one hand in a wave. “Hi, guys. What’s going on?”
“We’re helping Wendy fix things,” Dr. Johnson answered him. He was carrying something bulky and strange over one arm. Setting it down, he flipped two catches and pushed, and the thing expanded into a wheelchair. “I’m fixing it so one of my patients can stay off his broken leg and not go crazy from boredom. You can use this chair when you want to do something in the yard or your workshop, and when you’re not using it you can fold it up and stick it in a corner.” He looked Bob up and down and raised an eyebrow. “You know, Bob, that isn’t a walking cast – I only gave you the crutches so you could get around inside your house. Why don’t we try out the chair now, get you off that leg?”
Bob looked where the doctor had been looking and saw the scuff marks on his cast – scuff marks that obviously hadn’t come from the carpeted path between his bedroom and his favorite chair. And his toes sticking out the end of the cast looked a little swollen, doubtless because he’d been up and down to the door several times and hadn’t been keeping his leg propped up like he was supposed to. He was still looking a little ashamed of himself when Wendy and the doctor got him settled in the wheelchair, but he couldn’t keep from closing his eyes and sighing with relief once he was sitting down and the footrest had been adjusted to elevate his leg. “Oh, this is wonderful. Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson.”
The doctor chuckled. “You’re welcome – and I think you’re the only patient I have who thanks me for scolding him. Wendy, it’s your turn now.”
Bob opened his eyes…and jumped, startled, when he found himself looking at Dizzy from a distance of not more than a few inches away. The little mixer was studying him very intently, but the jump jarred his leg and made him wince again and she immediately backed off. “Sorry Bob,” she said, swinging her bucket from side to side in agitation. “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I’m okay, you just startled me,” he reassured her. He smiled, patting the wheels of his chair. “See, now I have wheels just like all of you.”
“Saw them.” Dizzy examined the wheels again, though, before spinning her way around the chair and ending up between Scoop and Muck. “No red, Scoop!”
“No red,” Scoop echoed, obviously agreeing with her. He sounded relieved. “It doesn’t hurt now, right Bob?”
Bob was confused, but he shook his head. “It hurts a little,” he said. “But not so much now that I’m not standing up.” He looked up at Wendy. “Red?”
“I’ll explain later,” she told him. “But right now, we have more to show you.” She waved Mr. Dixon over, and Bob saw that he was carrying a box. “This is how we’re going to fix that worrying problem.”
“You aren’t the only one who’s been having that one,” the postmaster told him with a grin and a wink, putting the box down in his lap. “Go ahead, have a look.”
Bob opened up the box, not sure what to expect, and his jaw dropped when he saw the contents. He pulled the cell phone out and stared at it. “But this is…we aren’t…”
“We are now,” Wendy told him. “I talked to Charlie, and so did Dr. Johnson and Farmer Pickles. Once we all explained to him about what had happened, he decided to make an exception to the ‘no cell phones on the island’ rule.”
“Used to be that emergency workers and such had their own radio frequency to use. They got special equipment no one else had, because they needed it,” Farmer Pickles said. He pulled out a cell phone identical to the one Bob had and held it up. “Some of us need it too, he just hadn’t realized it.”
Mr. Dixon patted his breast pocket, where a short antenna could be seen sticking out. “These are waterproof, dust proof and vibration proof; they can take all the abuse you can dish out,” he explained. “And the signal is bouncing off a ground station, not a satellite, so you’ll be able to reach anyone anyplace on the island no matter what. Even if bad weather takes the regular phone lines down, we’ll be able to communicate if we need to.”
“Everyone who goes out and about around the island is getting one,” Dr. Johnson added. He, too, had an antenna showing. “Those of us who can’t always be sure of being in town or near a phone have to have some way to call for help if we need it.” He winked at Bob. “Charlie felt pretty bad when we told him what happened. He sends his apologies for not thinking of this sooner.”
Bob looked up at Wendy…and saw an antenna. He clutched his own phone tightly, his vision blurring as relief crashed down on him. If she needed help, she could call for it. If she was late, he could call her. No more wondering, no more worrying. “When you fix something, you go all the way,” he choked out. “This is…this is really wonderful, the best idea ever.”
Wendy looked a little misty-eyed herself, and the three older men exchanged amused, knowing glances. The machines were looking on in some confusion, and then Dizzy shrieked. “Red! Red and shiny!”
Scoop rumbled closer, looking frightened. “Bob’s leg hurts again! Somebody fix it!”
Bob made the connection before Wendy could say anything; one of the reasons he was so good with the machines was that he could think like them when he needed to. “Scoop! Dizzy! It’s okay!” he called over the noise they were making. He locked eyes with the yellow backhoe, then very deliberately lifted his free hand and wiped his eyes. “People don’t always cry because they’re sad or in pain, Scoop. Sometimes people cry because they’re very, very happy.” He dropped the phone back in its box and rolled his chair over as close as he could get to the agitated machine. Leaning forward and reaching up as high as he could, he rubbed the yellow frame soothingly. “It’s okay, Scoop. It’s okay.”
The backhoe’s engine gradually ratcheted down to its usual muted rumble. “You’re happy?”
“I’m happy,” Bob assured him. “Dizzy?”
She wheeled up to him, peering into his face. “Okay…but now your face is white.”
“Because he’s leaning forward and hurting his leg,” Dr. Johnson told her. He walked up behind the chair and pulled Bob back in it again. “Very good, Dizzy. If you see his face turn white like that, it means he’s doing something that hurts – and Bob isn’t supposed to be doing things that hurt if he wants his leg to get better.”
Dizzy spun her bucket and frowned. “Bad Bob. We’ll watch him, Dr. Johnson. And we’ll tell someone if he does something he’s not supposed to.”
“I’m glad you’re going to help me, but he’s not being bad,” the doctor said, smiling. He squeezed Bob’s shoulder. “Think about how you would feel if something went wrong with one of your wheels, so you couldn’t move around; that’s how Bob is feeling now. And that’s why I brought him a wheelchair to use, because none of us want him to feel that way any more than he has to.”
“No, we don’t,” Wendy seconded. “And we don’t want him to worry because he can’t come fix things with us, either.” She pulled out her cell phone and held it up so the machines could see it. “This is a cell phone, it’s a special telephone that a person can carry around with them, so they can call someone no matter where they are. Bob and I each have one, and so do Dr. Johnson, Mr. Dixon, Constable Rickey and Farmer Pickles.”
Scoop’s eyes widened. “So if something happens…you can call for help?”
Bob twitched in a way that said he wanted to reach for the backhoe’s frame again, but Dr. Johnson was still holding him back in the chair. “Yes, exactly,” the doctor answered – and reached up to pat the frame himself. “We were all scared when Bob got hurt,” he said. “This way, we don’t ever have to be that scared again.”
“I don’t want to be that scared again,” the backhoe agreed. “Don’t get hurt again, Bob.”
“I wish I could promise you that I wouldn’t,” Bob told him carefully. “But accidents happen, and sometimes there isn’t anything we can do about that.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wendy frown, and she immediately had his full attention. “Wendy?”
The frown disappeared, but she shook her head and didn’t say anything. Dr. Johnson had been trading a strange, frowning look of his own with Farmer Pickles and Mr. Dixon, and then he shook his head too and removed his hand from Scoop’s frame with one final pat. “We’d better get Bob back inside now, everyone. He needs to rest.”
“All of you should probably get some rest too,” Wendy added, speaking to the machines. “We had a long, busy day, and we’ll probably have to go out again tomorrow. I’ll come out in a little while to say goodnight to you, all right?”
There was a chorus of agreement, and then Dr. Johnson turned Bob’s chair around and pushed it back toward the house. The chair was too wide to go through the door, so Wendy and Farmer Pickles helped Bob back up onto his crutches while Mr. Dixon folded the chair up and looked for a corner to stash it in. He ended up putting it in the office because there just wasn’t any other place it could go; Bob’s living room was comfortable but on the small side, holding only his worn overstuffed chair, a footstool, and a compact two-person sofa. Farmer Pickles and Mr. Dixon took the sofa while Wendy brought out two kitchen chairs for herself and Dr. Johnson, who was making sure Bob was settled comfortably and getting his leg propped back up. Bob looked from one serious face to another with mounting confusion. “What’s going on?” he wanted to know. “Is something else wrong?”
Fred Pickles cleared his throat, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees. “Bob, we need to talk about…what happened.”
Confusion segued into wariness. “I don’t…”
“Oh yes you do,” the farmer interrupted him implacably. “And so does everyone else in this room, because I told them. Did you think I wouldn’t notice those missing screws?”
“Or that John and I wouldn’t realize you couldn’t have broken your leg if you’d fallen the way you said you did?” Dr. Johnson put in, plopping down on his chair with a frown. “We know that farmyard almost as well as you do, Bob. You missed those support stakes by what, eight inches? Less?”
“They’re gone now,” Pickles said, still frowning. “The next day when I got home and saw where the scuff marks from Scoop’s bucket were, I ripped out all the stakes and threw them in the scrap heap. And then I found Spud and explained to him what he’d almost done, and then I locked him in the shed for a while so he could think it over.” Bob was looking upset now, and the farmer shook his head. “He could’ve gotten you killed, he had to be punished – and I had to make it good or he wouldn’t have remembered it at all. And since I know that you know that, why don’t you explain to all of us why you failed to say anything about the real cause of your ‘accident’.”
Bob had turned pale. “You didn’t report it, did you? You didn’t…”
“They won’t turn him off,” Pickles told him. “He didn’t directly harm you, and it wasn’t premeditated – he wanted the gutter off because he was going to use it to make a sled or something.”
“No, I know they won’t turn him off.” Bob brushed that idea away with a gesture, looking even more worried. “We can’t let the machines find out what happened. Travis doesn’t know, does he?”
The farmer stared at him, not understanding – and from the looks he could see on everyone else’s face, they didn’t understand either. “He was there,” Pickles said slowly. “I didn’t discuss what happened with him, but he might have figured it out. Why?”
“Yes, why?” Dr. Johnson wanted to know. “Bob, why does it matter if the machines find out or not? Spud is always doing something, they’re used to it…”
“Yes, they are, but those ‘somethings’ have never gotten anyone hurt before that they knew of – and until a week ago they didn’t have a real understanding of what getting hurt meant anyway.” Bob saw that they still didn’t understand and slumped back in his chair with a frustrated sigh. “I spend more time with the machines than any of you do, I can see the way they’re developing much better than you can. In the eight months that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen them go from accepting Spud’s pranks to anticipating them and trying to avoid them…to trying to stop him in the last two months since Lofty’s been here.” He looked from one face to another, practically begging them to get it. “Don’t you understand? This time he hurt someone, more to the point he hurt me, and now they know what that means. It scared them. What do you think is going to happen if they find out that it was Spud’s fault?”
Pickles got it first, and his mouth dropped open. “Bob, you don’t mean to tell me you think the machines might try to get Spud back for this, do you? They can’t…”
“They can’t hurt a person,” John Dixon said, obviously not liking where this was going. “But Spud isn’t…Bob, do you really think they’d try?”
“I’m afraid they might,” Bob told him. “They’re getting to the point where they want to pay him back in-kind for the pranks; how much of a jump do you really think it is from there to wanting revenge?”
There was a moment of silence. Everyone but Bob was thinking about the machines, most of which still weighed half a ton or more each in spite of being scaled-down versions of standard non-sentient heavy equipment. And they were thinking about what Bob meant to the machines, even to the ones who didn’t work with him on a daily basis.
Bob wasn’t thinking about that; Bob was trying to figure out if this was a situation he could fix. And since he wasn’t sure he could, he was very obviously and visibly miserable.
That was what decided Wendy. She cleared her throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Fred, can you find out from Travis how much he knows?” she asked in a no-nonsense tone. “Because if he doesn’t know anything, this isn’t a problem we have to worry about.”
Pickles nodded. “We’ll still have to worry about Spud telling someone,” Dr. Johnson reminded her.
“No, we won’t,” Wendy and Bob both spoke at the same time; they both blushed at the same time, too. “Spud won’t remember a week from now, unless someone reminds him,” Bob continued. “That’s the root of all his behavior problems, remember?”
“His AI is faulty when it comes to cause and effect relationships,” Pickles explained to the mystified doctor. “He just can’t process them. And even if he does, it won’t stick; the longest his ‘brain’ can hold the pattern intact is about a week.”
“I didn’t know that,” Johnson mused, looking thoughtful. “But it explains a lot. So putting him in the shed…?”
“You weren’t just trying to imprint the punishment, you were making sure he stayed put, weren’t you?” Dixon said, catching on. “He hasn’t been in town since then, either. Did you tell him he had to stay on the farm?”
“Yep.” Pickles shrugged. “I didn’t want him to come down here and try to ‘help’ Bob.” He laughed, without much humor. “I could just imagine how that would have gone – and now I’m imagining it would have gone even worse.”
“It would have.” But Bob looked relieved – no doubt because they’d listened to him, Wendy thought. “But if we can verify that Travis doesn’t know, then problem solved.”
“Yes, problem solved,” Johnson agreed firmly, giving the other two older men a warning look accompanied by an almost unnoticeable shake of his head when it looked like they were ready to argue with that; it was time to stop upsetting his patient for the day. He lounged back in his chair and turned a smile on Bob. “Oh, and Fred brought something to fix a problem for you too, just like John and I did. You see, I told him there was no way I was going to let you ride over that potholed road of his just to play poker.”
Pickles grinned, reached into the shirt pocket that didn’t have a cell phone in it and pulled out a deck of cards. “Hope you’ve got some candy, Bob. Oh, and we’ll get Lucas to deliver some dinner in lieu of snacks.”
“Because I told everyone that if you’d done any baking I was going to tie you to your bed – your upstairs bed – for the next two weeks,” Johnson tacked on. “There had better not be cookies in that kitchen, I mean it.”
“There are cookies,” Bob admitted. “But I didn’t bake them. Mrs. Potts brought them over earlier today, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with them.”
“Edge a walkway?” Dixon suggested.
“Or shore up a dam,” came from Johnson. “Doesn’t the Hoover have a crack in it?”
“Mrs. Potts is a lovely woman,” Pickles scolded them. He winked at Wendy, who looked like she wasn’t sure what to think about the direction the conversation had veered off in. “Unfortunately, her baking is, well, pretty much on the inedible side.”
“Even Spud won’t eat Mrs. Potts’ cooking,” Bob elaborated. “But she means well. We just have trouble disposing of what she gives us, no one wants to hurt her feelings.”
“So far composting has worked,” the farmer said, nodding. “But it’s slow. I’d really like to give that wood-chipper idea a try someday.”
“You’d blunt the blades,” Dixon advised him. “They don’t run hardwoods through a non-commercial chipper.”
“He’s right, they don’t,” Bob agreed. “But we could get custom blades…”
“You all are just silly,” Wendy scolded them, but she was smiling. She stood up. “All right, I’ll go get the candy, and I guess we could drag the kitchen table in here for the night. If that’s all right with you, Bob?”
Bob’s eyes rounded. “You…you’re playing with us?” He immediately looked to the other men, tensing up again. “We don’t have the shuffler…”
“Oh, we explained to her all about what a shark you are,” Pickles said, winking at him. “And I think we’ll be okay with two decks instead of our usual three. I can shuffle that if I’m careful.”
The younger man wasn’t convinced. He looked back up at his business partner, blushing when he saw her knowing smile. “Um, they told you about…well, and you’re okay with it?”
“I’m okay with it; I know you don’t do it on purpose,” Wendy reassured him, patting his hand before she went off to the kitchen to find the candy and see about the inedible cookies. She was trying very hard not to laugh. All of their teasing aside, what the three older men had actually told her was that Bob was embarrassed by his inadvertent ‘ability’ to count cards; they’d been warning her, protecting him. Wendy was oh so very glad that Bob had such good friends.
She stuck her hand in her pocket, touching the handkerchief she’d taken out of Scoop’s bucket that day just over a week ago, the one Bob had been trying to hide from her. She was even more glad that she and the machines had Bob.