Sunday, 14 July 2019
Two Robots and a Ragamuffin: Chapter Three - The New Neighbour
"That's it, Anna... come to Daddy. My, my, you're getting such a big girl!"
Two years had passed. It was a beautiful summer's day. As butterflies fluttered around the garden that Archie had transformed into a playground for his daughter, little Anna awkwardly stumbled towards her father: still getting used to this whole "walking" thing. As she lost balance and tumbled onto the lush green grass, Archie chuckled, reassuring her that she was doing great.
As he watched the pair through a window from inside the house, Jack chuckled too. He would never admit it to Archie, but he was beginning to really care for that little girl. More often that not, he was glad that his fellow robot had stood his ground and took her in. However, as Archie spotted him and offered a friendly wave, Jack scowled and walked away - pretending he had something better to do.
However, from the path to their front door, someone else was watching the father and daughter too.
"Hello? I'm... I'm not interrupting anything important, am I?"
Archie's head whirled around at the voice. Standing there was a young woman, smiling shyly. Cautiously, he set Anna down on the lawn with her favourite pony toy, and approached the stranger.
"Can I help you, Miss?" he asked politely.
"My name is Theodora Campbell," the woman explained. "My husband James and I have just moved in across the street. I saw you playing with the little one out here, so I thought I'd just pop by... say hello."
"Oh, I see!" replied Archie brightly - relieved that the woman hadn't rumbled their illusion of humanity, or come by for some sinister purpose. "Welcome to the neighbourhood. My name is Archie Crosswire."
"Pleasure to meet you."
As he idly stared at the TV screen, the sound of a strange voice coming from outside immediately put Jack on high alert. Jumping to his feet, he rushed to the front door, stepped out, and spotting this unexpected visitor, approached her with haste.
"Who are you?" he asked - or rather, demanded.
"It's OK," Archie told him calmly. "This is Theodora Campbell, our new neighbour. Mrs. Campbell - "
"Theodora, this is Jack Sparx."
Theodora paused for a moment, looking at the pair.
"Your partner?" she asked Archie cautiously.
"No!" Jack snapped back - a lot more harshly than the situation called for.
"Jack is just my lodger," Archie explained.
"Oh... I beg your pardon."
"Not at all," Archive replied dismissively. "It was an innocent question."
Jack, meanwhile, muttered under his non-existent breath in irritation.
As Theodora felt a tug on her tight-clad leg, she looked down and saw a toddler reaching up to her excitedly.
"And just who," she cooed, "is this little angel?"
"This is my daughter, Anna," Archie told her proudly.
"She's a beautiful little thing!" Theodora told him. "Cute as a button."
Archie was quickly deciding that he liked Theodora. Unlike Jack, she could appreciate how special Anna was.
"Would you care to stay for a drink?" he asked. "We could all sit out in the sun - get to know each other a little better, since we're going to be neighbours?"
"I'd love that - thank you," Theodora replied. "But, if I may... I'd like to use your bathroom first, if that's OK?"
"Go and use your own," Jack hissed.
"He's only joking," Archie said, laughing it off - fixing Jack with a pointed glare. "It's just inside, first door on your right."
As Theodora headed into the house, Jack turned on Archie angrily.
"Have you got a bug in your system, or something?" he growled. "Why did you let her go into the house? Why did you invite her to stay for a drink? We can't have people snooping around here - they might get suspicious!"
"And if I'd sent her away, she'd be even more suspicious," Archie stated bluntly. "Jack... we're going to have to interact with humans at some point. If we shut ourselves away forever, it'll just create questions, not prevent them."
Jack considered this.
"I'm... I'm still not totally OK with this."
"I know. But she's just a neighbour popping over for a friendly drink. It'll be over in no time. Just act normal, be polite, and everything will be fine."
He ventured towards the front door.
"You watch Anna," he told Jack. "I'll go and fetch some refreshments."
Jack carried Anna into the rear part of their garden, where, in a scenic area beside flowerbeds and a pond, a glass table and chairs had been sent up as part of Archie's decorating. Setting her down with her pony toy, leaving her to amuse herself, he took a seat.
Shortly after, he was joined by Theodora, and then by Archie - carrying a bottle of luxury grape juice... and, much to Jack's dismay, only one glass, which he placed in front of their guest.
"Aren't you having some?" Theodora asked.
"Oh, we don't need to," Archie replied, without thinking.
Beneath the table, Jack kicked him sharply.
"I - I mean," Archie added hastily, "we don't need to right now. We had some earlier. We're not thirsty."
As he poured Theodora a glass, he decided now was a good time to change the subject.
"So," he asked, "what brings you and your husband here?"
"James is a business consultant," Theodora explained. "He works with different companies in all sorts of places. We relocate a lot due to his job - this is our third move this year. This latest project of his is a long-term one, though, so I'm hoping we'll be here for quite some time."
"All that moving must be difficult," Archie said. "I imagine it must affect your children quite a lot. School changes, and all that."
Theodora hung her head. Pausing to take another sip of juice, she sighed.
"James and I don't have children," she told her hosts, her voice wavering. "We... we decided it was best not to, because of all the travelling. It's hard to raise a family when everything is so uncertain and unsettled."
Archie was still getting used to human interaction, but he could tell from Theodora's tone that he had committed a major faux pas.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I... I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's all right," Theodora assured him. "You didn't know."
Gulping down her drink, she rose from the table.
"I should be getting back," she said. "Thanks for having me over."
"Our pleasure," Archie told her. "Any time."
"Perhaps you could come and visit James and I one day soon?"
"We'd like that."
Grinning, Theodora leaned down to address Anna.
"And I hope to see you again soon, too, sweet pea!" she cooed, tapping the child gently on the nose with her fingertip, sending her into giggles.
As Theodora crossed the road on her way back to her own house, Jack and Archie stood on the lawn and watched her go - Archie holding his daughter close and encouraging her to wave goodbye.
"She seems nice, doesn't she?" Archie whispered to Jack, once he was sure their new neighbour was out of earshot.
"Maybe," Jack replied, "but still - I hope she doesn't come around here too often."
As soon as Theodora walked through her own front door, the sound of rapid tapping on keys could be heard coming down from above. Clearly, James was still hard at work in his study. Theodora walked up the stairs to the small, secluded room, and went straight inside without knocking - James not even looking up from his e-mails as he heard his wife come in.
"Hi, honey," he said, rather flatly. "How were the neighbours?"
"All right," came the reply. "The blond is a lot more civil than the redhead, but maybe he just isn't good with strangers. Archie and Jack, their names are. And it turns out they're not a couple, after all. Jack's just a lodger."
"Really? But I thought they'd adopted a daughter together."
"I thought so too, but no. She's just Archie's child. Her name's Anna. She's adorable, James - really, she is. You should see her."
Sighing, James locked his computer, and turned towards his wife.
"Theodora... please," he said, choosing his words with care. "Try not to get too attached to her... to the whole "babies" thing. I don't want you to get your hopes up again."
"James, I was only - "
"I know what you were implying. I can't father children, Theodora. We both know that. The doctors ran all those tests on me and told us so. It's not my fault. Please stop making me feel guilty about it."
"I know, and I'm not trying to," Theodora replied. "But... maybe if you got a permanent job, we could stay in one place. Then we could go to the adoption agency, and - "
"I'm already committed to this new project. Now isn't the time, Theodora."
Wincing, Theodora blinked back tears. James, seeing her distress, calmed himself and approached her, taking hold of her hands tenderly.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," he told her in soft tones. "I know how badly you want a child. And I would love to adopt one with you. It's just that... permanent work is hard to come by. I have to take whatever I can get to keep things afloat. But, who knows? Once this project is over and done with, there might be a vacancy somewhere. Then we can settle down for good."
Raising his wife's hands to his lips, he graced them with a gentle, loving kiss.
"We will have a family of our own one day, Theodora," he said. "I promise."